That evening, after Elder Su’s lesson, she met up with Li Suyin to begin their mountain expedition. To avoid being followed, they had agreed to meet on a small plateau that was well off the beaten path but also on the way to their destination.
Ling Qi was surprised when it wasn’t just Li Suyin who arrived on the windy cliffside. On reflection, she shouldn’t have been. The two of them only knew about the icy woods because of Su Ling. Why would Li Suyin leave her roommate out of things?
“Why the fuck do you smell like that?” the surly fox girl said by way of greeting as she reached the top, Li Suyin arrived behind her, red-faced but not breathing as heavily as she had in the previous expedition.
“Do you really think it’s a great idea to be wearing perfume for something like this?”
Ling Qi blinked. The oils Gu Xiulan had applied to her hair had a faint floral scent. Was it really that strong? She couldn’t even smell it anymore herself.
“I’ll wash up in that stream we have to cross on the way. Excuse me for being busy,” she replied defensively.
“Don’t know why you’re using that crap in the first place. Thought you were one of the halfway sensible ones,” Su Ling grumbled.
“You need a breather, Li Suyin?” Su Ling asked over her shoulder as the blue-haired girl straightened up with a determined look.
“I-I’m fine,” Li Suyin insisted as she caught her breath.
“A-and, I don’t think it’s a problem that you look… nice? I don’t think perfume will be much more noticeable than a natural scent to spirit beasts. Don’t most of them have qi enhanced senses?” Li Suyin’s voice shrank until she was barely audible by the end under Su Ling’s glare.
Su Ling’s tail twitched in agitation.
“Whatever. None of my business if you want to smear crap on yourself. It’s not like we’re hunting,” Su Ling huffed. “And Li Suyin’s right that the dangerous stuff is gonna be able to scent us anyway. You sure you want to do this?”
“Yes,” Ling Qi responded tightly. “We all need whatever advantages we can get, right?”
“I agree,” Li Suyin added seriously. “I have things I need to accomplish.”
“Fine. Not gonna argue about it. Let’s get climbing,” Su Ling replied brusquely, eyeing the steep path leading further up the mountain.
Ling Qi found herself climbing the steep path with ease, and even on occasion, outpacing Su Ling. She could already feel the soothing rush of being immersed in darkness, and it made it easier to move quickly. Su Ling gave her a few suspicious looks, sniffing uncertainly at the air when Ling Qi passed her.
Li Suyin still proved to be the limit on their pace. Even with her improved physical cultivation, the scholarly girl simply couldn’t keep up with them. However, she was not nearly as slow as she had been before.
Still, Ling Qi didn’t begrudge slowing down. It was only with Li Suyin’s help that they’d have any real hope of finding a better qi locus.
Night had fallen by the time they reached the woods. As the weather was clear and the nearly full moon was bright, the others didn’t seem to have too much trouble.
For Ling Qi, the night vision was still strange. Without light, color was washed out, but she had no trouble seeing just as well as she could during the day. Glancing up at the moon, she dipped her head briefly. Even if it wasn’t the right phase, she could say a silent thanks.
The three of them fell silent once they reached the part of the woods that they had refrained from entering before. The only sound came from Li Suyin’s painfully loud footsteps and the rustling cloth of their gowns. Ling Qi couldn’t do anything but keep a sharp eye out for beasts attracted by the noise.
Being able to see perfectly well at night was useful but also disquieting. It let her clearly see the shapes of the crows perched high in the trees and the dark shapes of predators lurking at the edges of her vision. It wasn’t perfect; several times Su Ling had to stop them with a hissed warning, pointing out patches of creeper vines that were carnivorous or leading them away from places marked by the scent of a mountain bear or other predator.
For Ling Qi’s part, she stopped the fox girl from putting her foot into the burrow of something hidden in the underbrush, as well as helping the group as a whole avoid a few other blunders.
All the while, Li Suyin squinted into the dark. Ling Qi could tell that Li Suyin wasn’t searching with her eyes. This went on for the better part of two hours as they searched the woods. Several times, Ling Qi saw a predator in the dark - a mountain lion, an owl big enough to have claws the size and length of her fingers, and once, something that looked like a scrawny wolf - but none of them attacked, perhaps deciding that their group was not easy prey.
She had an odd itching feeling on the back of her neck though, as if she were being watched.
Eventually, Li Suyin’s senses lead them to an open cliff on the far side of the woods that looked out over the southern mountain side and the peaks beyond. The landscape visible was beautiful even at night with seemingly endless peaks extending as far as the eye could see. The cliff was surrounded by high ridges on either side with the thick woods they had traveled through blocking off its rear.
None of that was what drew Ling Qi’s eye. Rather, what drew it was the broad crack in the stone cliff from which a faint silver mist wafted. The edges of the cleft were lined with glittering red and yellow crystal that were all too familiar. They were obviously spirit stones, if more than she had seen in one place before and not carved into uniformity.
“A natural spirit stone deposit,” Li Suyin breathed out softly, looking at it in wonder. “And… ah, that mist! Can you feel it resonating with your Argent Foundation?”
Ling Qi could feel an odd quivering in the ‘skin’ that had formed around her dantian when she advanced to the third stage of Argent Soul. Was that what Li Suyin was talking about?
While she was thinking, Su Ling had reached out to grab the blue-haired girl’s shoulder, her body language tense.
“Stop. There’s something here,” she said harshly. “I can’t smell anything, but… we aren’t alone.”
Ling Qi nodded. She could feel it now that she was looking, a strange stillness in the air. A moment later, her instincts screamed at her to move, and she did so, qi surging as she felt the edges of herself blurring into the darkness around her. She landed from her sideways dive in a controlled roll as a thunderous crash broke the silence of the night.
The ridge beside her seemed to have come to life. What she had taken for a large rock formation now rose on two trunk-like limbs, even as it withdrew the ‘arm’ that it had just tried to crush her with. It was vaguely humanoid and stood nearly four meters tall. Its ‘head’ was little more than a vague lump with two glittering crystal growths where eyes would normally be.
“What the fuck is that?” Su Ling hissed, backing away with wide eyes.
“It’s a Sediment Guardian! T-they often appear around such deposits, seemingly spontaneously generated from the natural qi expelled by the stones. They come in several…” Li Suyin was backing up as well, panic in her eyes. She appeared to be reciting a book passage from memory.
“Can we kill it?” Ling Qi cut her off in a tight voice as she rose back to her feet, backing up as well.
This wasn’t a great arena to fight in. The area was barely eight meters from the start of the woods to the edge of the cliff and only twenty across from ridge to ridge. There wouldn’t be a lot of room to dodge. At least the spirit didn’t seem to be a hurry as it rose to its full height and took a single lumbering step forward.
“I don’t have anything that can hurt a damn rock,” Su Ling said as she eyed the slowly approaching thing warily. “I might be able to confuse it though, but hell if I know how that thing senses stuff.”
“Vibration and sound,” Li Suyin replied immediately. It seemed when Li Suyin panicked, she became an encyclopedia. “Ah… Supposedly, the crystal ‘eyes’ are a weakness, as well as the nodes on its back, but…”
Ling Qi fought down her own fear as she continued to back away to stay out of the range of the thing’s limbs. She was the closest, and Su Ling and Li Suyin were about four meters behind her near the woods. They could probably escape, but then, this expedition would have been all for nothing.
Ling Qi doubted her ability to hurt the thing, ‘eyes’ or no, but… She glanced toward the cliff. Would it survive falling off? Could she manage to lure it over the edge with Forgotten Vale Melody? Su Ling said she could confuse it too. Maybe if the two of them worked together…
Unlike the bo staff, which Ling Qi had taken to leaving tucked under her bed, wrapped in cloth, Ling Qi had begun carrying her flute with her at all times since she mastered the first measure of Forgotten Vale Melody. She had even taken some effort to design a holder for the instrument in her sleeve so it was as simple as flicking her wrist to get the flute in her hand.
... Well, it was simple now. Practicing and adjusting the holder until she could do it without fail had taken more time than she would care to admit.
“Do it, Su Ling!” she snapped, her nerves vanishing the hesitation she would normally have felt at giving someone else an order. “Buy me a few seconds at least. Li Suyin, stay back, alright?”
“Tch.” The fox-eared girl didn’t otherwise protest although she gave the flute in Ling Qi’s hand a curious glance as Li Suyin retreated further. Su Ling’s long fluffy tail uncoiled from around her waist to wave behind her as she glared at the Guardian. She extended her hand, a single finger pointing at the towering mountain of rock. A single wavering ball of ghostly blue-grey fire flickered into view behind her head as she did.
“Get lost!” she growled at the spirit.
Ling Qi wasn’t sure at first what the girl meant to accomplish, but then, fire the same color as the orb behind her flared up around the creature’s crystal eyes and the Guardian jerked in place as if struck. It let out a furious rumble like an avalanche in the making and swiped its arm at the empty air to its left, smashing into the cliff with enough force that Ling Qi felt the vibration under her feet. It stamped one trunk-like leg to much the same effect.
“What did you do?!” Li Suyin asked in panic from somewhere behind as Ling Qi raised her flute to her lips, trying not to let her hands shake. The thing’s furious bellows were intimidating as it flailed its limbs, particularly since it was still moving slowly in their direction even if it paused every few steps to swing at nothing.
“You said it used sound!” Su Ling snapped, her hand shaking as she kept a finger pointed steadily at the thing’s head. Her fire cast her face in pallid light.
“I figured the sound of a few dozen miners pounding on it would keep it distracted!”
“Just try to help me lead it off the cliff! Can you adjust the direction?” Ling Qi called out, ignoring the byplay. It was the last chance she was going to get to talk for a bit because she finally began to play.
As the first soft and almost whimsical notes of the Melody rang out over the cliff, Ling Qi began to circle, moving closer to the cliffside as the mist began to pour from every hole in her flute. The mist rapidly spread in a shadowy cloud to consume much of the cliffside. It took concentration to expand the musician’s protection over to Su Ling. She would just have to hope that Li Suyin would hold still. Thankfully, the creature turned towards her almost immediately as she played.
Perhaps it was the qi-charged sound of the song, or perhaps it had to do with the second ball of fire appearing behind Su Ling’s head, but Ling Qi definitely had the thing’s attention. Now, she just had to hope she could affect the thing with the second technique of her Forgotten Vale Melody. She doubted she could get it to walk off the cliff on its own if its senses weren’t further clouded still.
By now, Ling Qi was feeling more confident. The shaking in her hands had subsided, lending the music a clearer pitch as she began playing the next portion of the song. She continued steadily backing toward the edge of the cliff as the Guardian stomped toward her, no longer doing so at a leisurely pace. Although there were no visible effects, she felt her qi sink in through the thing’s hide and soak in through its rigid, inflexible channels to mingle with the wild qi of Su Ling’s technique.
This seemed to infuriate the spirit even more. Its rumbling voice rose in a roar like a stone being split in twain by a hammer. It suddenly lunged at her with frightening speed, its arms raised to crush the apparent source of its irritation.
Ling Qi jumped backwards on instinct, nearly fumbling the melody as the thing’s massive fists smashed into the ground where she had just been. She stood at the very edge of the cliff now.
The rock spirit let out another furious rumble and shook its head like a bull being pestered by flies. Its limbs hammered the ground, apparently uselessly, although the crack of stone worried her. If she could just get it to lunge again, she could do this.
Ling Qi considered fully activating her movement technique, but in the end, she decided against it. The creature wasn’t too difficult to dodge, and she wasn’t yet at the point where she could afford to spend qi so freely.
Driven to fury by whatever Su Ling was inflicting on its senses along with her song, it wasn’t long before the creature lunged again, swinging wildly with its huge club fists. Ling Qi dodged desperately to the side as its rage seemed to have lent it further speed. She winced as she felt the wind of its attack’s passage. The close call made her fumble her flute, the song fading away.
The Sediment Guardian teetered on the edge of the cliff, having managed to stop itself just in time. Ling Qi felt dread pooling in her stomach as it began to turn toward her.
“Will you just fall already?!” Su Ling’s voice snapped from deeper inside the dissipating mist. Ling Qi glanced at her in time to see the twin balls of pale fire behind Su Ling’s head shoot forward like tiny falling stars.
Instincts screaming at her to move, she dove away as far as she could from the guardian. The fires struck the ground and exploded.
The fires failed to do more than scorch the guardian, but the ground was not so sturdy. Dirt and rock crumbled, and the spirit fell as the weakened cliffside collapsed under its weight. Ling Qi held her breath before the creature’s landing resolved with a mighty crash some fifty or sixty meters below.
“Is it dead?” Li Suyin asked nervously as the mist finished clearing, daring to move up beside Su Ling once more. She was wringing her hands, looking decidedly pale.
“I fucking hope so,” Su Ling muttered. “I can’t do too many more blasts like that.”
Su Ling had the same irritable expression as usual, but she seemed tired. The glance she shot Ling Qi held some respect now though.
For her part, Ling Qi was the closest to the edge of the cliff and thus, the one who peered over it… carefully. Sure enough, the remains of the guardian were scattered across the base of the cliff.
Ling Qi kind of wanted to climb down and look through its remains. She could see something glittering in its shattered corpse. It was shiny, and she wanted it.
“It looks like we’re clear,” she called back as she straightened. She could climb down later after they had figured out what the deal with this deposit was. “So, Li Suyin, do you think…”
“What a beautiful melody that was.”
Ling Qi stiffened as she heard a soft, masculine voice speak up from behind her. She whipped around and saw Su Ling doing the same. It took a moment for her to spot the source of the voice because he was seated in the upper branches of a tree. It was the odd boy from spiritual cultivation who had commented on Li Suyin’s hands. Huang Da, if she remembered correctly.
The thin, lanky boy dropped down gracefully to the ground as she spotted him. He seemed different, more energetic than he was in class. The unsettling lopsided grin on his normally expressionless face didn’t help, nor did the sickle clasped loosely in his right hand.
“What do you want?” Ling Qi asked flatly, already falling back into a defensive stance. She could see Su Ling doing the same, one of her curved knives having found its way into her hand. Li Suyin was pale-faced and had slipped behind the fox girl.
“That is a bit of a difficult question,” Huang Da responded thoughtfully, lingering at the treeline as he cast his sightless gaze over them. “Had you asked me when I set out tonight, I would have said that I merely wished to observe my lovely scholar for the evening.”
Li Suyin made a strangled sound that Ling Qi found entirely appropriate for the situation, even as Su Ling shifted in front of the blue-haired girl, baring her sharp teeth in an unfriendly fashion.
“But then, I saw you,” Huang Da continued, gesturing toward Ling Qi with his sickle. “The way you bloomed in the Dark. I had not paid you much mind before. To think there was another such vision of loveliness right under my nose…”
Ling Qi felt the hairs on the back of her neck prickling. She preferred this guy better when he didn’t talk and seemed half-asleep. She also didn’t miss his emphasis on the word Dark; he must be able to sense the element she was using somehow.
“Thank you. I think,” Ling Qi managed, mostly masking her real feelings. She held back from saying what she actually wanted to say due to her interest in not starting a fight.
“Just spit it out already, ya creep.” Su Ling was apparently unable to do the same. “If you just wanted to do your shitty flirting, you wouldn’t have popped up here.”
“Mongrels like you should know better than to bark at your betters. You should control your pet better, Li Suyin,” Huang Da responded irritably. “But yes, I’m afraid I can’t let this chance pass by. There are only three spots at the top, and that Ji Rong is all but certain to get one. To have to choose between two such beauties… How unfortunate.”
Ling QI bristled. She hated this guy’s attitude and the implication that he would just… choose which one of them was allowed to use it. Her emotions were tempered by the fact that he was apparently confident enough to appear before all three of them like this. There was also the fact that he had managed to follow them without being noticed.
“You know you can’t attack us, right? The truce is still in effect. You can’t make any of us stay away from this place.”
“Rules and laws are relative,” Huang Da replied with a shrug of his shoulders. “And all things are not as they seem. You should know that well enough, Ling Qi. Did not Bai Meizhen harm someone on your behalf only a few weeks ago? The truce is not nearly so ironclad out here in the wild. So I really am afraid that I can only let one of you stay here with me, how sad…”
Li Suyin was trembling behind Su Ling, who looked ready to outright assault the boy physically if her body language was any indication. This was a problem. Ling Qi needed every advantage she could get, but she couldn’t bring herself to play along with this asshole to get it. That didn’t even take into consideration that she would have to betray Li Suyin and Su Ling to do so.
He had to be confident to confront them all like this, but if they all attacked together...