There was a brief, strange floating sensation, and then, Ling Qi found herself swaying on her feet and standing on uneven stone. She blinked blearily, catching her balance on the nearby wall. She felt a surge of panic as she realized that Meizhen was no longer beside her and a further one when she peered down at the floor below from the ledge she stood on.
The floor writhed.
Ling Qi was on a narrow ledge halfway up the wall of a narrow cavern, although the cavern was more like a small chasm given its length and width. Below her, there was a veritable swarm of squirming life. Centipedes and other vermin crawled over one another, a susurrus of creeping legs. Some were as small as the ones she had seen as a mortal while others were as wide as her wrist and as long as her arm with wickedly sharp mandibles. The creeping things swarmed over the remains of some massive beast that lay at the bottom. She could see four limbs and a long body, including a sinuous tail, but little else under the carpet of insects. At the far end of the chasm, beyond what she thought to be the creature's head, was a wide cave mouth leading out and down.
Her eyes were drawn upward then to the loud sizzling that had caught her ear over the sound of the vermin below. There was another opening on the ceiling, rough and circular but wide enough for her to climb through. It dripped wetly with some kind of viscous substance.
Ling Qi fought to keep her breathing and nerves under control and consider what she should do. This… The elders were aware of most things on the mountain. Even if this were real, it was likely another test. She should try to find Meizhen obviously, but she had no leads on how to do that. What now?
Meizhen had a real sensory art after all. If she stayed in one place, the other girl would probably find her. But Ling Qi wasn’t sure she was comfortable passively waiting for Meizhen to discover her. She had come to help, not to be rescued.
There were two exits, one going up and the other going down. On the one hand, despite her revulsion at the sheer number of insects below, the corpse they were swarming over was very large. A spirit beast that huge… Wouldn’t its core be incredibly valuable if it still existed? On the other hand, wading through tens of thousands of hungry biting insects didn’t appeal. Ling Qi might not be afraid of such things precisely, but well, who wanted to do that?
Ling Qi took a deep breath and stepped to the side, making sure she was well out of the way of anything dripping from above. It would be foolish to ignore good fortune like this. Even if the core was gone, other parts of a spirit beast were valuable too, and with her storage ring, she didn’t have to worry about the weight as much as she otherwise might. To that end, she did a little rearranging of her storage ring to free up space. She tucked her qi cards under her sash and put a handful of spirit stones into her pockets.
Finally, she drew her flute and prepared to play. Hopefully, she only had to handle the vermin she could see down there and not anything larger. Ling Qi began to play, and the mist rolled out, spilling down over the edge of the ledge in a cloudy waterfall, expanding to fill the chasm around her. At first, the insects did not even react as they were engulfed, paying little mind to the noise and increase in moisture, so focused were they on their feast. That was fine. Ling Qi was glad that she could get right on to the second part.
She played the first high haunting notes of Dissonance, and her lungs burned with qi as the mist below became a veritable sea of black. The sheer number of targets left her feeling strained, but it didn’t stop her. Taking the shape of a plague of insubstantial rats, the teeth and claws of her mist constructs tore into the swarm. Thousands of the insects died instantly, and the sound of crunching chitin almost overwhelmed the high-pitched shrieks of the larger insects, the biggest of which lashed out mindlessly, biting and clawing at the mist even as her qi-fueled attacks sparked uselessly off of their thick chitin.
That, however, wasn’t a problem. There were only a handful that could withstand her mist constructs like that. The other larger insects thrashed around with cracked shells and chittering hisses. Time would take care of most of them. Ling Qi felt no real worry as she bounded down from the ledge. The corpses of insects crunched under her feet, she would have grimaced if her flute wasn’t in the way. She was confident she could stay hidden in the mist and away from the attention of the still-living creatures.
Sure enough, her footsteps grew silent, even as she rushed over the carpet of dead bugs. More died every moment as she brought them within range of her mist. With many of the vermin covering the reptilian corpse dying, she was finally able to get a better look at the creature the vermin had been devouring.
It wasn't a pretty sight. The scent of rot nearly made her gag up close, and she could see great piles of sloughed off gray scales. The corpse was perhaps twenty meters long, not including the tail curled up well outside of her mist, with stretches of rotting muscle and exposed bone. It had four clawed limbs and a thick, squat body. Ahead of her in the mist, she could see its almost skinless skull, an unsettling reptilian thing with a boxy snout and fangs half as long as her forearm.
Most unsettling though was the way the creature’s corpse pulsed with scabrous life. Even as she watched, more of the biting, snapping insects emerged from its rotting flesh, only to turn and begin devouring that same muscle and sinew in the moments before her mist constructs tore them apart. After the initial surprise, even the bigger ones had returned to feasting, ignoring the shadows nipping at their shells.
Ling Qi needed to figure out where its core would be. A core was essentially a spirit beast’s dantian, so it should be… somewhere in the abdomen? She was going to have to stop playing to grab the core so she really hoped rotting spirit gunk was washable too. There was little to do but store her flute away, find a patch of exposed rib, and start digging. It was difficult to hold down her dinner as she drew a knife and began cutting her way in, releasing some kind of smelly gas as she punctured something or another. It was made worse by the way the carcass continued to birth more vermin. She tried very hard not to look too closely at what she was digging through. The flesh seemed to writhe under her hands, fighting back at her efforts to dig through it, almost as if the rotting meat was regenerating somehow.
Luckily, or perhaps unluckily, whatever had killed the beast had torn its belly open, thus making her job easier. Otherwise, she would never have been able to finish her search before the mist fully faded. Unfortunately, this also meant that her aspirations of a full beast core were unfulfilled. Whatever had slain the spirit had broken the crystalline sphere in its gut into pieces; she had to settle for fragments of warm, dull gray tissue. It felt like soft clay, but she could still feel fairly strong qi even from the fragments.
Hastily stowing away the bloody and viscera-coated chunks of material in her ring, Ling Qi rushed toward the exit and away from the much reduced swarm of vermin. She slowed briefly when she passed the creature’s skull, reaching down to scoop a handful of fallen fangs and scales into her ring as she ran out of the dissipating mist.
It seemed her caution was unnecessary. The screeching swarm did not follow her or even seem to notice her passing as it turned back to its feast. She had an unsettling feeling that the corpse had been there for a very long time given the way the rot-slick guts and muscle had seemed to slowly recover in the wake of her digging.
Ling Qi slowed from a dash to a quick walk, sticking close to the wall in the downsloping tunnel. Slowly, the pounding of her heart returned to more normal levels. That had gone as well as she had any right to expect.
She passed several minutes steadily walking down the round tunnel; it seemed strangely symmetrical to her eye, more like a tube than a tunnel. The rock on all sides was smooth and rippled as if it had melted and then been left to harden again. At least it wasn’t cramped. She kept alert as she walked, wishing that there was some form of cover for her to sneak behind.
Eventually, the tunnel flattened out and opened up into a much larger space. Here, the ceiling was dozens of meters above her head, and the walls extended a good fifty or sixty meters across. Ahead of her lay a great pit as wide as the tunnel she was in now. She couldn’t see the bottom from where she stood.
Gingerly working her way around the lip of the pit, she peered further into the room. It was shaped vaguely like a huge bowl with a pool of what looked like liquid silver in the center. Its perfectly still surface gleamed in her vision. The walls of the pit were riddled with small tunnels, some a few meters across and others barely wide enough for Ling Qi to fit an arm into, and thick veins of what she thought were some kind of metallic ore. The floor was uneven, seemingly carved through by a thousand channels like irrigation ditches in the stone.
Most importantly though, Ling Qi saw Bai Meizhen sitting beside the odd pool.