She wasn’t going to give up. She couldn’t afford to be weak, and she couldn’t afford to doubt herself. Not in the middle of a dangerous test. Even if what the reflections said was true.
“It’s true that I have lied. People have probably died because of things I did… and Mom…” Her voice, despite being little louder than a whisper, resounded in the utter darkness she was in.
“You should stop,” the childish voice responded with resignation. “More excuses won’t help.”
“Shut up!” Ling Qi snapped, straightening her sagging shoulders. “Do you really think you’ve said anything I haven’t thought of before?” More than anything, Ling Qi felt angry: angry at these stupid spirits playing with her mind; angry at herself for stopping to listen to them; and angry at their reminder of things she had so deliberately forgotten. The spirit wasn’t wrong.
She knew she had hurt people with her actions. It wasn’t possible to live at the bottom without doing that.
She knew she was selfish.
She knew she wasn’t a virtuous person.
... She knew that mother hadn’t really wanted the same life for her. Her education was proof of that, even if it hurt to admit it.
Ling Qi barely noticed the flickering of the lights overhead, allowing her to see the dim outline of her hand as she pointed accusingly at the thing wearing her face.
“You’re wrong. I’ve stolen things, left people behind, and made plenty of other shitty decisions I can’t even remember, but… I know that. I know I’m not a good person. I never said I was. Just because I’m not a saint doesn’t mean I’m a monster,” Ling Qi snapped angrily.
“I’d make those decisions again if the situation was the same,” she admitted in a more subdued voice. “That doesn’t mean I’d do the same if I had more choices.”
As the light grew, she could once again see the child, now staring at her skeptically. “Words like that won’t do you any good, you know. Saying that you didn’t have any good choices is just an excuse.”
Ling Qi’s vision swam, and she found herself wobbling on her feet as the creeping fatigue sapped the energy her anger had given her. the little girl’s voice and tone had changed somehow.
“... That’s bullshit, and it pisses me off to see someone wearing my face say it.” Ling Qi frowned, forcing herself to continue speaking. “There’s a reason I stopped thinking that way.” She shook her head, trying to shake off the fuzziness of her thoughts. “Because - I’ve thought about it - what it means to be free. I… I left mom just for that after all, even if it started because I was scared. It doesn’t matter if it wasn’t what she wanted… If I’d stayed, then...” Her words were a bit slurred, but she managed to keep her focus on thing’s face.
“… As long as you’re poor… as long as you’re weak… you aren’t really free. I’ve seen that. There aren’t any real choices there. You’re bound by all kinds of things.” It was getting hard to concentrate.
“Point is - I… Things can be different once I change that.”
“Does that really make it better though? You’re still the same person in the end.” The not-child sighed.
“Won’t you make the same excuse when Li Suyin needs your help? Or when your fellow disciples finally manage to find their spines and gang up on Bai Meizhen?” The voice was different now, lower and more mature. In the corner of her vision, something shimmered.
That shimmer seemed to break through the clouds filling her head, and for a moment, she found clarity.
“...Maybe,” Ling Qi admitted quietly. “But that’s something to work out for myself in the future, not something to discuss with a damn parasite messing with my head.”
“What…?” the illusion began, its childish features drawing down in a pout.
Ling Qi’s hand snapped out in a blur, launching a sliver of metal upward toward the sight that had flickered in her vision. A shrill squeal shattered the silence, and with it, the world. Everything around her wavered: the reflections, the darkness, even the sense of fatigue that had been creeping up on her again.
A glittering web, beautiful in its intricacy, hung across the ceiling of the tunnel in front of her. Its occupant, a spider the size of a small cat with glittering silver chitin, fell from it, spasming around the knife buried dead center in its abdomen. It kicked up a splash as it hit the ankle-deep water. Ling Qi moved forward without hesitation, renewed anger burning in her veins, and brought her foot down as hard as she could manage, again and again, until the damned thing finally stopped twitching.
“Stay out of my head,” she hissed under her breath. She reached down and jerked her knife out of the corpse.
She was left staring at the milky-white, oblong shape stuck on the end of her knife. She could feel qi in it. She recalled Li Suyin’s roommate had mentioned something called a “beast core.” Maybe this was it?
She gingerly prodded the thing. It felt like warm stone, not fleshy at all, so after a moment’s hesitation, she tucked it into her belt pouch.
As her anger and adrenaline faded, Ling Qi found her thoughts turning back to her recent ordeal. She knew now that it hadn’t been real, just another illusion twisting her own thoughts and blaring the distorted results back in her face. The last thing she wanted was to think about her old life, but that stupid spider had pulled it all back to the forefront. Now, she couldn’t stop thinking about it.
She glared darkly at the tunnel ahead, carefully studying it for more webs or any other sign of a trap. She even strained the vague sense for qi she had managed to cultivate as she advanced. But despite her best efforts, she remained distracted.
Ling Qi hadn’t lied. She didn’t like hurting people or abandoning them… but she had to put herself first, and in her previous position, that hadn’t left much room at all to care for others. She still believed leaving Mother had been for the best - for both of them. Even now, knowing that she had misread the situation due to her fears, she still held on to that belief.
... Still, maybe she could send out a letter along with some of the coin she had recently acquired once the Sect restrictions on communication ended. She hadn’t wanted to chance getting entangled in things again back in the city, but she was beyond that now.
Mother had done her best for her daughter, even if Ling Qi had rejected it at the end. Ling Qi could afford to give… something back. It wasn’t as if she had much use for silver anymore after all. Assuming the silver was real anyway, she thought irritably. After this day, she wished that she had some ability to sense that kind of thing.
The path ahead was still a maze, although she wasn’t knee-deep in water anymore. Perhaps that was the trick? She needed to follow the decreasing water level?
The last trap had left her feeling tense, but perhaps that was a good thing because it allowed her to maintain focus and keep her sense of direction in the maze. Ling Qi kept working toward a single direction even when the twisting paths didn’t allow her to proceed directly. Several times, she found herself stopping and backtracking to avoid more glittering webs or places where the darkness grew unnatural.
Gradually, the water grew shallower, first to lap around her toes then to simply leave the ground wet and muddy. The number of turns, twists, and splits in the path began to taper off as well until finally, the tunnel opened up into a small chamber dimly lit by a single crystal growth on the ceiling.
Ling Qi peered inside warily, easily spotting the stone plinth that lay directly under the light with a glittering black jade token shot through with veins of white laying atop it. If that wasn’t the star token, she would eat her sandals.
Unfortunately, the plinth rose from a pool of crystal clear water. Stepping into the chamber, Ling Qi could not help but stare suspiciously at the pool. She strongly doubted that it was so simple as simply walking up and taking the token. If the rest of this spirit-infested city was any indication, the token would be guarded by some kind of water spirit.
Perhaps she didn’t need to confront it? Spirits could be placated, and Ling Qi recalled a few things about water spirits that had slipped in among her etiquette lessons with Bai Meizhen when conversation turned to the girl’s home province. Ling Qi didn’t have incense or offerings, but… maybe she could talk the spirit into just handing the token over or at least explaining what it wanted before she went and stuck her foot in the thing’s pool?
After deliberating, she decided that it couldn’t hurt. Ling Qi stepped into the chamber, straightened her posture as best she could, and then bowed, pulling on dim memories of priestly ceremony and hearthside conversation. She then clapped her hands together, once and then twice before holding them apart.
“Scion of waters, child of the the Eternal Ocean from which all life rises, this one would treat with you. Will you appear?” Ugh. Ling Qi had nearly stumbled over the odd and formal words, but she thought she had gotten it right. Ling Qi almost grimaced, feeling increasingly ridiculous as she held her pose in the silence that followed.
Then, she heard the sloshing of water and witnessed the calm surface of the pool growing frothy with motion, lapping at the shore. The water bubbled and rose, an indistinct face forming from the waters. Its eyes were two unsettling dark holes, and its other features were little more than outlines, like an amateur sculpture of a person’s head. She could feel a weight in the air which had been absent as those pits focused on her.
Rootbound Fledgling, what words/meanings/communication do you have for [Earthwater/Bringer of Health/Shadowsea/*****]?
Its words, if the sudden barrage of meaning that struck her mind could be called that, made her body tremble in discomfort. Ling Qi did her best to ignore the pressure that she felt weighing down on her. For all that this was no great spirit, she had a feeling that the New Moon had been distinctly taking it easy on her, body and mind, if something like this could make her feel so pressured.
“This one requests the knowledge of what must be done to acquire the token at the center of your pool,” she pressed on, knowing that it was too late to back out now. “This one has no wish to unnecessarily defile your waters.”
The face in the water regarded her silently, and she found herself dearly wishing that it was more expressive, less flat and alien.
Blood and flesh has been offered, yet the life was denied. Were we true/real/original, we would take of yours. Here, we are but a shadow/reflection/memory so there is no purpose/meaning/nourishment.
A thread was cut. Return it and begone with our burden, disciple of the Blood-Drenched Moon.
Ling Qi concentrated on keeping her limbs from trembling. The spirit’s words were difficult to parse, but she thought she understood what it wanted. Loathe as she was to give up her prize for having killed that damn spider, it was probably a… part of this spirit? She knew vaguely that spirits were often interconnected in weird ways.
Hoping she was right, she slipped a hand into her pouch and brought out the core she had torn from the dead spider and held it out. Sure enough, the thing vibrated in her hand and shot from it the moment she opened her fingers, hitting the surface of the pool with barely a ripple and dissolving.
Ling Qi stumbled back as the star token hit her chest, having been flung with significant force. She managed to catch it before it hit the ground though despite the throbbing where it had struck her. She would probably have a nasty bruise on her chest later.
“Thank you,” Ling Qi said, bowing her head a fraction lower. “I apologize for disturbing your rest.”
Wings too stunted to fly, and roots too damaged by frost to flourish. It is not for your sake that we grant our burden. Begone.
Ling Qi stiffened as the world seemed to twist and distort around her, squeezing down on all sides. She was just beginning to panic as she found herself unable to move, but before she could even get going, she found herself blinking as the light of sunset stung her eyes.
Carefully peering around, Ling Qi found herself standing at the edge of the square which contained the well, hidden in shadow behind several haphazardly stacked crates. She frowned as she saw another disciple, a girl she didn’t recognize, watching the well intently with a fine saber in hand. Ling Qi’s rope was still there, and from the way the girl stood, her intentions were clear. Ling Qi supposed she owed the water spirit thanks, even if it had been irritatingly cryptic and condescending.
Ling Qi crept away with the girl none the wiser, eyeing the sky. She still had some time, but the sooner she got to the temple, the better. At this point, every moment she spent in the city was a risk with no reward.
Luckily, she doubted any of her fellow disciples would identify her at a glance; she was wet, muddy, and wearing cheap, torn clothing. Unless they could sense her qi or they recognized her personally, she could pass for a commoner, unless the wrapped staff on her back drew attention.
... At least until she got to the wealthier part of the city. There, her appearance would start to stand out.
However, that concern could wait for the moment. Ling Qi focused on making her way further into the city at the quickest pace she could manage while sticking to back streets and alleys. As she traveled, it became more and more clear that the city had quite a few disciples in it now. Smoke rose in the distance, and people were hurrying away from that location with frightened looks on their faces. These signs and other little things caused Ling Qi to pick up her pace even more.
Once she moved out of the poorer, outer districts, Ling Qi made a small detour to clean up and dry off. A stop at a pawn shop afterward bought her a cloak to throw over her tattered clothes. Leaving the shop, she worked to blend in with the street traffic as she approached the inner walls around the wealthy districts. She could see a huge tower, carved to appear as a tightly coiled dragon rising over those walls. Going by the guard’s words, that was her destination.
That just meant she needed to be even more cautious.
She saw some of her peers on the way. Some loitered on street corners, scanning the crowd. A tiny number had even gotten the same idea as she had and dressed down, making themselves less obvious. Ling Qi focused on remaining in the background and kept a tight leash on her qi.
As she neared the inner districts, Ling Qi slowed her pace even more. She no longer weaved through the street traffic for maximum speed without compromising her anonymity. Instead, she walked normally. She even stopped periodically at street stalls or entered shops, making sure she didn’t appear to be in a hurry to reach a particular destination.
It seemed to work. Her fellow disciples took no notice of her as she worked her way closer. There were at least a dozen guards in plain sight at the intricate bronze gates that separated the outer city from the inner, including two who wore marks of rank. Here, there were no disciples that she could see. Perhaps they assumed that the guards would intervene in violence that occured right in front of them.
A handful of bloody footprints that had yet to be smeared away by passing foot traffic seemed to give credence to that, as did the fact that several of the guards had blades drawn. As much as it went against every instinct she had to openly approach such a group, Ling Qi finally broke her casual pace as she reached the open square in front of the gate. As she expected, the two men flanking the gate raised their halberds to block her way, staring at her with cold disinterest. She glanced at one of the two officers in their ranks, digging into her pouch to reveal her tokens. She hoped that what she had really was a star token. The guard officer stepped forward to examine the offered tokens. Ling Qi held her breath until he silently gestured for the two men to lower their weapons. This was it! She had managed to pass! She felt almost giddy at the realization.
She murmured a breathless thanks to the guard officer and darted through the gates, hurrying through the opulent buildings of the inner city. Even the confused disdain on the wealthy citizens she passed couldn’t bring her mood down. Soon, she stood before the wide open gates of the temple with fires burning merrily in the braziers that flanked it.
Ling Qi forced herself to pause and examine the temple’s grand interior for potential traps, but there were none. Smiling triumphantly, Ling Qi stepped through the doorway.