Ling Qi stared at the now innocuous well that the boy had disappeared into. She wasn’t certain what she had expected to happen, but it wasn’t that. Was that boy dead? Did the Elders retrieve him? She didn’t know. Despite having lived in the streets, she had never killed anyone before, not like this.
Her thoughts flashed back to a memory of a disheveled Gu Xiulan’s expression of satisfaction as the ice-flinging girl was consumed by fire. Would she become like that? Someone who could smile while trying to kill another person? She had known that she would have to fight and kill from the moment she was recruited, but she had thought it would only be barbarians. That was different than having to fight and kill a person - even if that person had been an unrepentant ass.
Ling Qi shook herself and straightened her shoulders. She didn’t have time to stand here doing nothing. Her plan to rob the other boy after he completed the trial was useless now. If she wanted the star token, she was going to have to do it herself. And if the boy was still alive and present down there, she could at least make sure he didn't drown in a puddle or bleed out. She couldn't afford to regret her chosen course of action, but neither did she have to be completely callous.
Ling Qi let out the breath she had been holding and stepped forward, eyeing the well warily as she secured the rope. She soon had it looped over the high bar that would have once held the well’s actual rope and bucket, with an additional length pulled out several feet away from the well. Sadly, she lacked any proper tools so she broke off one of the ‘legs’ allowing the barricades to stand upright. The wood had splintered with a bit of effort and some leverage on her part. Using one of her knives to scrape the broken end down to a point had taken a little longer, but eventually, she had something with which she could stake the end of the rope to the ground.
It was surprising how little it hurt when she had used her hand as a makeshift hammer. The force necessary to drive the stake firmly into the hard packed dirt of the street had only made her hand sting but not bruise. Once she had given the rope a few experimental tugs to ensure it was actually secure, she returned to the side of the well and looked down the dark shaft, steeling her nerves.
The climb down was nerve wracking. Bracing herself against the damp stone wall, Ling Qi half-expected to find it pulling away or for a gust of wind or some other strange magic to drag her down.
The descent went on longer than she expected. She was certain that the rope hadn’t been long enough for her to be climbing down the well for nearly ten minutes. The tiny circle of light from the surface seemed terribly far away.
As she descended, some illumination appeared below, looking like dim candles burning in the dark. The wide dark chamber that greeted her was just barely high enough in places for her to stand upright. Its walls were dotted with odd crystalline growths that glowed with the faint illumination of a moonlit night and its floor was a field of mud with the occasional standing pool of water.
Reaching the end of her rope, Ling Qi dropped the remaining meter to the floor, grimacing at the feeling of mud squishing up under her sandals. Spotting the still figure of her fellow disciple lying in the mud, she felt her stomach drop. The boy really was still down here. His right arm and leg were unpleasantly twisted and the nearby mud and water were stained by red. Despite his injuries, his chest still rose and fell shallowly.
Maybe he hadn’t been removed because the fall hadn’t killed him? Elder Su had mentioned in a lesson that a cultivator would instinctively use qi to blunt harm, even if it was only minimally useful without a proper defensive art and training.
... Maybe this was why Gu Xiulan had seemed so blasé about throwing lethal attacks during the first test?
She considered the boy as she peered down at him in the dark. She was glad that he hadn’t been faking, but as much as he had been an ass, she also hadn’t really intended to seriously injure him outside the heat of the moment.
Ling Qi dragged the other disciple out of the slowly filling muddy crater his impact had dug. Although the movement made the boy twitch and groan in pain, thankfully, he didn’t wake up. Ling Qi looked him over, tearing off a bit of his sleeve to rebind the stab wound she had inflicted. He… should be fine, and with his limbs like that, he shouldn’t be a threat even if he woke up. The Elders would still retrieve him at the end of the test, right?
She hoped so, but having bandaged him, she paused. She - perhaps not fairly - had beaten him. She had even taken some time to make sure he wouldn’t die at the bottom of the well. … She had earned her spoils, right? Besides, this would all be pointless if she failed to get the tokens she needed.
Nodding at her own reasoning, Ling Qi quickly searched the other boy. She checked his belt pouch first, the strings securing it deftly sliced by one of her knives. Ling Qi found herself grinning with relief when the first item she pulled out was a golden disk with the character for sun carved into it.
Lucky. She was very lucky.
Thinking of the strange pills resting in her own pouch, she couldn’t help but wonder. Maybe it had nothing to do with the spirit that was apparently interested in her, but she could afford to take some incense from the storehouse and make up an offering. It certainly couldn’t hurt.
The pouch didn’t have much aside from the token, but she was glad for what it did contain: three red spirit stones and a clay bottle with two dark blue pills of some kind. She was going to have to find someone who could identify medicines.
The rest of her search turned up frustratingly little. The boy didn’t even have a weapon or any talismans. Ling Qi was beginning to think that maybe he hadn’t been quite as much of a wealthy young lord as his behavior had suggested. However, she did find something tucked under the collar of his robe, between the underlayer and the upper one. The three odd bronze cards shined with a mirror finish on one side and stylized swirls on the other. Turning them over in her hands, she couldn’t begin to guess at their purpose.
Tucking the items into her bag, Ling Qi stood up. Now that she had a sun token, there was only one other that she needed to acquire to pass. She began to search along the walls, squinting in the dim light. At first, it seemed that this small muddy chamber was all that lay down here, but eventually she found a point of egress: a low, muddy tunnel set near the floor of the chamber.
After a moment’s hesitation, Ling Qi sighed and kneeled in the mud to peer through the exit. Thankfully, the tunnel retained the dim lighting from the strange crystals, but the crawl was still going to be uncomfortable. She scowled as she leaned forward, hands sinking into the mud with a wet splorch as she began to shuffle forward on her hands an knees. She hated tight spaces like this. Absolutely hated them.
Ling Qi kept moving as quickly as she could manage, alternating her gaze between the tunnel ahead and the ground below. Several times, she nearly slipped, but she managed to avoid face planting into the deepening muck. The cheap clothing she had bought was less lucky. By the time she could see the end of the tunnel, her sleeves and top were sporting several rips where they had caught on the crystals.
For all that she felt relief as she poked her head out of the narrow tunnel and into the open space beyond, she was still brought up short by the sight that met her eyes. Not only did the tunnel drop off into clear, knee-deep water, but the temperature had suddenly dropped as well, enough that her breath was coming out in puffs of steam.
Warily climbing to her feet, Ling Qi peered around, confirming what she had hoped was a trick of the light. The chamber had three other passages leading out from it, and every wall was coated in a solid layer of ice from which her reflection stared back at her in the dim light.
It made her skin crawl to have her gaze reflected from multiple directions like that. She looked positively filthy: her hair was askew, her arms coated in mud up to the elbows, and her clothing tattered from the passage. Grimacing, she took care of at least one of those things, washing the silt and mud on her hands away in the icy water.
Ling Qi shivered and not just from the chill. She didn’t like this place. Glancing between the three identical-seeming passages, she chose the leftmost one and flipped a knife out of her sleeve to mark the ice that made up the wall. It failed, the knife’s edge only grinding uselessly against the reflective plane.
Gritting her teeth Ling Qi instead crouched down, shivering as the water further soaked into her clothes. She picked up a handful of mud and smeared it over the mirror. She was going to mark her path one way or the other.
Navigating the icy passages proved difficult. At first, when the tunnel was straight, it was easy enough, but the tunnel quickly began to curve, twist, and split. The reflective walls only made it worse. Gradually, they began to distort, showing off twisted reflections that made her head spin as she tried to make her way through the labyrinthine passages. It didn’t help that all the while, even with her efforts to mark the walls, she was feeling less and less sure of whether she could find her way back out. She couldn’t afford to turn back...
“Why were you so concerned about killing him?” Ling Qi whipped around, a knife already in hand as an echoing voice sounded just behind her. However, instead of a person, she found her own distorted reflection looking back at her from the curved mirror of the wall behind her. As she stared into her own shadowed eyes, she thought she may have simply imagined it.
Then, the image cocked its head to the side and crossed its mud-stained arms over its chest.
Ling Qi hadn’t moved at all.
“Why?” her reflection asked, its eyes narrowed and pitiless. “He was a threat. You heard the Elder. If he died, it would have been his own fault.”
“That doesn’t mean I should be trying to kill people.” The words slipped out even as she inched backwards, away from the unsettling doppelganger. “I don’t need to make more enemies.” She didn’t quite know why she was explaining herself to the thing wearing her face, but if it wanted to talk that gave her time to find an exit. There was another split behind her, but she was pretty sure the left path wasn’t real, just another twisted reflection.
Unfortunately, inching backwards did not prevent the mirror thing from stepping forward through the plane of the mirror as if it were merely water.
“Ah. So you were just being a coward again. That’s not really surprising,” it said condescendingly.
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?” Ling Qi snapped. The thing’s attitude irked her as condescension usually did, but it seemed worse to hear it in her own voice. “There’s nothing cowardly about showing restraint.”
“What restraint?” the thing asked, its expression warping into an ugly sneer. “You don’t give a damn about that idiot. You tipped him into the well with barely a thought. So why feel guilty afterward? Or do you really believe that you’ve never killed anyone before? How delusional are you?”
“I haven’t,” Ling Qi responded, her uneasiness increasing. Should she just run? This was obviously some kind of spirit trick. “I - I’m a just a thief, not a murderer.” She was babbling. Was this part of the trick - something making her want to keep talking?
“Liar, liar, Ling Qi’s such a liar.”
Ling Qi stiffened as a second voice, high pitched and childish, sounded from behind her. A careful look over her shoulder made her silently curse. The path behind her had gone dark, all of the crystals beyond a half dozen meters extinguished. Sitting in front of the inky cloud, seemingly in mid-air, was another reflection of sorts. It was her as she had been right after running away from home. Ling Qi felt a stab of regret as her eyes caught on the flower shaped ornament keeping the little girl’s unruly hair in check. That had been her last birthday gift, and it had broken a few months after she had run away.
The child reflection grinned, seemingly noticing where her eyes had gone. “Did you already forget Wei? He really thought you were gonna pull him up after you, you know? How about old man Shen? Even after he gave you bread, you still stole his blankets when winter came.”
The thing leaned forward on its invisible seat and added in a conspiratorial whisper, “But you don’t even remember, do you? I guess there were so many...”
Ling Qi felt colder than before even as she tried to keep both spirits in sight. This… What was… Were these spirits plucking things from her mind? While she didn’t have more than a vague inkling of recognition at the names it spoke, she could not say that she didn’t recall events that were at least… similar.
“Kids - People who join a heist know what they’re getting into,” she said defensively, memories of the first person she had ever partnered up with bubbling up.“I didn’t pull him up because I would have gotten caught too. I didn’t kill him. I mean - the guards caught him, but…”
The older reflection let out a derisive snort. “Idiot! Do you think that scrawny little dumbass survived long after the beating you’d get for theft?” It rolled its eyes as she fell silent from the interruption. “And he said he’d protect us. As if anyone could do that.”
“You didn’t even try to say anything about the old man,” the child added with a giggle. “I could bring up some more, but we both know you’d just make more excuses!”
“Cut the crap,” Ling Qi responded roughly, her hand tightening on the grip of the knife. “What do you want? This… this is some kind of test, right? Get to the point.”
She had to hope it was part of the test, because the lights were winking out one by one around her, steadily shrinking the circle of light she had to see by. If she needed to, she could break through in the child thing’s direction, but...
“If it is, then you’ve already failed,” the older reflection sneered. “Do you really think the Sect wants a disloyal coward like us anywhere in their upper ranks? Especially if we can’t even bring ourselves to dirty our hands? We’re meant to be a warm body on the front line at best.”
“Stop calling me that!” Ling Qi snapped. “If you’re really me, then you know damn well that I just… I just did what I needed to do!” The justification sounded lame even to her. “Besides, I can be better now, right? I’m a cultivator. Improving myself is what it’s all about!” Ling Qi straightened her shoulders and glared at them defiantly. Was it just her, or had a few of the crystals flickered back on?
“If you weren’t a coward, you would have talked to Mama when you saw her in the market last year,” the child reflection’s voice cut in, sounding subdued instead of gleeful like it had before. The phantom idly kicked her feet, sending the painstakingly stitched hem of her dress flapping. “We saw how thin she was.”
“If you weren’t disloyal, you wouldn’t have left mom to rot just because you were scared,” the older one growled.
Ling Qi flinched.
“Oh, it looks like you remember Mama at least,” the child taunted.
Ling Qi’s free hand balled into a fist even as the circle of light shrank. “I wasn’t going to let her make me like her,” she snapped. “I couldn’t be what she wanted. So why not run away! It saved us both pain.”
“That wasn’t what you were thinking when you ran,” the older reflection said, her voice dripping with contempt.
“You were scared of that gross man,” the child added with a shiver. “And you didn’t trust Mama to protect you anymore.”
“You just kept telling yourself that stupid lie until you believed it,” the older one sneered
“Ling Qi runs, Ling Qi hides, and Ling Qi only loves herself. This is who we are,” they both continued with eerie synchronicity. There was something wrong with their voices; they were distorted as if speaking through water. The last of the lights were flickering out. She could barely see either of them, save for their eerily glowing eyes, staring at her with derision and pity.
She didn’t… She wasn’t really like that, was she? Was that the kind of person she was?
Why was she so tired? Why were these words affecting her so much? She had been called worse things before. Suffered worse things before. So why did she feel so hopeless?
Why was it so cold?