Bai Meizhen looked somewhat scuffed, her snow white gown dirtied at the hem, but otherwise, none the worse for the wear. She looked up as Ling Qi began to pick her way across the room.
“Ling Qi,” she greeted, rising to her feet in a single graceful movement. “I am glad to see you well. I did not expect to be separated.”
Ling Qi felt relief as she approached her friend. She had been hoping that they hadn’t been sent to entirely separate places. She glanced at her hands, which were still covered in filth, and grimaced.
“Yeah, I didn’t end up in the best situation.” She came to a stop a short distance away from her friend and the shore. “Where is Cui? Is she alright?”
Meizhen paused before responding. “She was wounded in my initial encounter; I am letting her rest in my dantian. It is of no concern,” she replied dismissively, turning her eyes away to peer around the cavern. “There is a door on the other side, but I believe this pool holds something of use. I suggest we investigate it first.” Meizhen gestured for Ling Qi to come examine it.
Ling Qi took a few steps forward then stopped. “Do you need some healing salve for her?” she asked, eyeing Bai Meizhen in confusion. “I would have thought you had some, but…”
“Perhaps later,” the pale girl replied. “For now, it is more important that we puzzle this pool out so that we may leave this place. I fear the creatures that dug these tunnels may return.”
The idea made sense, but something wasn’t right. If it were anyone else, even Ling Qi or herself, she could imagine Bai Meizhen dismissing a bit of hurt in favor of pursuing a goal… but not for Cui and not so easily. Bai Meizhen was not very expressive, but she couldn’t imagine the girl would truly look so unconcerned about her cousin being hurt.
A knife slipped surreptitiously into her hand. “I think it’s more important that we help Cui first. Why don’t you bring her out?”
Bai Meizhen scowled at her, studying her face as if deliberating on something. Then she lunged.
Ling Qi’s eyes widened and she backpedaled. Her face paled as Bai Meizhen’s face tore in half like it was made of wet paper with a terrible ripping sound. It exposed a maw filled with sharp twitching mandibles, overshadowed by the much larger ones that erupted from where Meizhen’s cheeks had been. Ling Qi ducked under the snapping sword-length mandibles and leapt back, gaining distance from the Meizhen thing.
The lake rippled as thrashing, chitinous coils emerged carried on dozens of clattering legs. The thing’s mask - and she hoped to every great spirit she could name that a mask was all it was - now hung in two limp halves from either side of its wide upper body. The ‘hood’ of chitin formed something that looked like a half-melted human face above its chittering mouth, and dark eye sockets burned with emerald fire.
‘The little ape just had to have its questions,’ the thing’s voice hissed in her mind, making her feel as if bugs were crawling over her skin. “Can’t it see how hungry we are? Hold still, little ape, and it will be over quickly as it was for the other.’ The thing’s statement was punctuated by half of ‘Meizhen’ falling to the shore with a meaty thud and slowly dissolving into black sludge.
“Like I’d buy that,” Ling Qi snapped. “Meizhen would destroy you.” Ling Qi was confident in her assessment despite the thing’s horrifying appearance. The thing’s body was thicker than her torso and several times longer, and she had a feeling it was very fast for its size. Even as she backed up, a wicked spike of a stinger at the end of its body was emerging from the pool.
“How about this? You leave me alone and I won’t kill you like I did the rest of the bugs down here!” Ling Qi bluffed.
The thing hissed, and Ling Qi shuddered at the fury in its mental voice. ‘So that is the scent…’ It raised its body higher, towering over her. “You will replace them soon enough. We will offer your bones and skin to the Father-Mother!’ Some kind of disgusting, sticky black fluid dripped from its maw to sizzle on the stone.
Well, she didn’t really think that would work. Ling Qi needed to figure out what her plan was though. She had fifteen meters of starting distance from the thing, which left her a good twenty five meters from any of the walls.
Ling Qi’s flute appeared in her hand, and she began to play as she kicked off the ground, jumping backwards and away from the monster as the mists began to roll forth. Ling Qi mingled the melodies and strengthened the outflow of her qi, thickening the mist around the grotesque spirit to confuse its senses.
‘We will not let the little ape run!’ The thing’s chittering voice scratched at her mind as it surged forward, dozens of legs clattering on the stone, her qi sliding off it like water from a duck’s feathers. Rather than charge into melee though, it reared its head back, that awful maw gaping wide and spraying a gush of inky black gunk that stunk of rot at her.
Time seemed to slow as she traced the arc of the spray and determined that she wouldn’t be able to move in time, even with her darkness-enhanced speed. Her qi surged, cool sable energy flooding her limbs, and she flickered, the gunk passing through where she had been standing, then dodged to the right to avoid the slick. It was still close. Her foot caught the edge of the gooey liquid, and she nearly tripped as she felt the thong of her sandal tear under the pressure of her continued movement, leaving her footwear behind, glued to the floor.
She turned the stumble into a graceful spin away from the spirit as she continued to play, making another attempt at entrapping the thing in her mist. This time, she felt her qi take hold, and the worm let out a chittering screech of frustration as the mist thickened around it, muffling its senses and causing the music to seem to echo from seemingly everywhere at once.
‘Wretched, darting creature,’ it hissed, coiling in place and peering into the mist. Emerald eyes flared with fell light. ‘No escape from us!’
The entire, monstrous thing crouched and then leapt toward her, mandibles extended. Ling Qi wove out of the way as the creature crashed down against the floor with stone-cracking force, her melody never faltering. Despite being close enough for the wind of its passage to send her dress and hair fluttering, she remained calm thanks to the weekly combat practice with Han Jian’s group. She knew that interrupting her song would likely spell the end for her. She could not afford that so she ran, darting away to hide in the mist.
The skittering horror righted itself as she vanished into the mist, its mandibles snapping together in frustration. It raised its head, scenting the air as it scuttled in a circle, searching for her while its chittering took on a higher pitch. Ling Qi was hidden for the moment though, which meant she was free to change her song, adding the threatening notes of Dissonance to the melody.
The creature shrieked in surprise and fury as shapes formed in the mist around it and struck, phantom claws scoring lines across its chitin. The worm’s retaliation struck only air and mist, dispersing the construct, but it was useless as other phantoms continued to form and attack. Ling Qi felt a savage satisfaction as she watched the thing thrash and suffer. It curled in on itself as she circled it at a distance, protecting its more vulnerable parts from attack, but it seemed that the creature wasn’t out of tricks yet.
‘We can feel you, ape,’ the thing hissed. ‘Its steps on stone, the beats of its heart, the rush of its blood. No more HIDING!’ Ling Qi winced as the voice in her head rose to an ear-splitting screech. The worm’s eyes burned, giving off a haze of qi as it swung its upper body around and fixated on her, charging headlong toward her.
Still, she had given herself space, enough for one more melody to add to her song. Her fingers danced over the holes in her flute, and she began to play its elegy. Ling Qi had been hoping to conserve qi, but she would rather ensure that this thing bled out with as little chance of harming her as was possible. Ling Qi avoided the shower of disgusting fluid that sprayed from its maw with near contemptuous ease even as Crescent’s Grace faded entirely. She circled away, still playing as her constructs continued their assault, cracking and scoring chitin where they struck.
The fight entered a death spiral from there, the increasingly incoherent worm spasming under the constant assaults as she continued to play keep away with it. Its limbs began to grow sluggish in their movements, and its attacks slowed while greenish-yellow ichor began to leak from cracks in its joints and shell. It cursed and railed against her, but even when she began to hear fear in its mental voice, she didn’t let up and she didn’t let it escape. This thing had worn her friend’s face and threatened to eat her; she had no mercy for it.
As it finally collapsed to the ground with a crash, she kept playing, allowing her constructs to continue striking it as it twitched and spasmed on the ground, letting out gurgling cries as its ichor pooled beneath it. Even when it stopped moving entirely, she didn’t stop for nearly a minute. Eventually, she lowered her flute, allowing the melody to fade as she flicked a knife into her hand and cautiously approached.
She wasn’t a fool. The knife flew before she closed within ten meters, burying itself in one of the creature’s now dull eye sockets. It didn’t so much as twitch. Ling Qi finally allowed herself to relax, approaching and ripping her knife free. She studied the thing’s corpse, and soon saw what she was looking for, a wide crack on its lower body, torn wide by a dozen attacks, glittered with light.
She grimaced as she used her knife to pry its exoskeleton open further and rolled up her sleeve before plunging her hand into its foul innards. Her hand came back clutching a core the size of a child’s fist but also covered in truly foul-smelling goo.
Disgusted, she slipped the core into storage, keeping her flute in her hand for the moment. She glanced at the still, silver pool in the dissipating mist. Ling Qi wanted to wash her hand clean, but she was leery of touching the silver liquid. She was also miffed to find that her sandal was irrecoverable, leaving her with one foot bare.
On the one hand, the pool might have something useful within it or was useful in and of itself. On the other hand, the worm had been trying to get her to examine it so it could be a trap. On further investigation, the face-stealing creature’s claim of a door did turn out to be true. It was a blocky, ominous-looking thing of black stone with sharp, seemingly dangerous characters carved on it that she didn’t recognize.
Ling Qi let out a weary breath. She’d have to choose which one to investigate first.