Ling Qi glanced at the door set in the far wall and then to the silvery pool. While the pool might be a trap, she thought it more likely that the worm had simply been trying to get her close enough to strike by surprise. Leaving behind the increasingly smelly corpse of her foe, she walked back toward the pool to examine it, trying to ignore the warm, sticky chunks of bug viscera stuck to her right hand.
The pool was perfectly still again like the surface of a mirror. Her reflection stared back at her from the pool, expression wary and hair frizzy and wild. The faintly ridiculous thought that she really needed to figure out what she was going to do with it crossed her mind. She slowly paced around the pool, examining the shore because whatever liquid filled it was opaque, preventing her from seeing the bottom. As she studied it, she idly popped a qi restoring pill into her mouth, enjoying the feeling of relief as she bit down and her reduced qi pool began to refill.
Reaching down, she scooped up a pebble from the ground and tossed it in, watching as the liquid rippled once before stilling again. There was no other reaction. Ling Qi was still wary of touching the liquid herself though. She had a feeling that there was something more to this pool so she continued circling, looking for anything of interest.
After a few more rotations of the pool, something caught her eye. What she had first taken to be simply indentations in the stone where the edge of the pool lapped seemed a little too uniform. She crouched down, keeping a wary eye on the water, to examine the indentations more closely. Sure enough, she found that the marks were actually characters scratched shallowly into the rock. This one meant something like… “Obscure,” or perhaps “Blind,” depending on how it was interpreted in context. There were characters ninety degrees to the left and right, as well as one directly across from the first character and linking characters in between the cardinal characters. The others were “Sleep,” “Human,” and “Stillness” from what she could tell.
Well, she definitely didn’t want to touch the pool now - at least not until she figured out how to disable the formation. Ling Qi wracked her memory for Elder Su’s lessons. There had been something in there about removing formations without activating them.
If she recalled correctly, there were certain parts of the connecting characters she could safely break. She bit her lip and hesitantly scratched out one of the characters with her knife. There was a spark of qi and the water rippled, but no other sign appeared. Feeling a little more confident, she moved on to the next character that should be safe to remove and then the next. The air gradually filled with an odd static that put her hair on end.
She had to finish at this point, the energy in the broken array was started to go wild. However, it seemed she still had more to learn about disabling formation traps. When she moved to the section between the third and fourth characters and began to hurriedly scratch out another linking character, the whole section lit up fiercely. A painful buzzing filled her ears and it flashed blindingly bright.
Ling Qi fell back with a pained yelp, shielding her face with her hands as she was shoved along the stone nearly a meter by the force of the qi shockwave. Luckily, she had enough presence of mind to let her own qi absorb the explosive pummeling. There was something else to the blast though; she felt oddly lethargic, as if she had weights strapped to her limbs, dragging her down. It only lasted for a moment however.
Ling Qi grimaced and sat back up, rubbing the back of her head and giving the pool a wary look. The knife she had been using was little more than a hilt with a jagged bit of metal sticking out of it now. Explosion aside, it looked like she had accomplished her goal. The pool was now no more than an unusually uniform pool of water rippling naturally with the aftereffects of the wave that had struck her. She could see something shining at the bottom.
Grumbling, Ling Qi peered around the room to see if the concussive sound had drawn anything to her, but the cavern was quiet. She returned to the edge of the pool and peered in once she was confident that she was still alone. At the bottom was a small silver box, the size of a lady’s jewelry case, its sides and lid plain and unadorned. She glanced at the formation circle, but the characters were gone, vanished with the outburst of energy.
A tentative finger poke revealed cool water and nothing more. After a moment of indecision, Ling Qi waded into the hip-deep water to get her prize, pausing only to clean her hands. The attempt at breaking the formation hadn’t been ideal, but hopefully, this prize would be worth it. Examining the box revealed no further formations so she carefully picked it up and returned to the shore, scowling a bit as the fabric of her dress clung wetly to her legs. Her eyes lit up when she opened the case, revealing a single jade slip lying in the somehow perfectly dry velvet lining of the box. She hastily plucked it out and pushed a spark of qi into the jade to read the contents.
Ling Qi blinked as information regarding an Argent Mirror art flowed into her mind. A Sect technique. She supposed that confirmed her thoughts that this was a deliberate trial. The jade slip had definitely been worth braving the trap, even if it had been a little rough at the end.
As the sound of stone grinding against stone and draining water reached her ears and vibrations rumbled through her feet, she tensed and looked up from the jade slip. The pool was draining down a steadily opening gap in the bottom and rushing down a slowly revealed stone stairwell. Another glance showed the stone on either side of the basalt door pushing outward to cover it.
She cursed under her breath and rushed toward the door, but by the time she reached it, there was only a smooth expanse of stone. It seemed that she could only take one path. She hadn’t even considered that the pool would be a path of its own. It was too late to regret things now. Best to keep moving forward.
She put the jade slip into her storage ring, drawing out her remaining restorative pills to put in a pocket for easier use. Ling Qi shook her head. Just a few weeks ago, she had been so excited by the idea of a storage ring and what could be done with it, and already, she was wishing for one with more space.
She could be a pretty greedy girl, Ling Qi thought ruefully as she turned back to the newly opened stairwell. As she reached the edge of the damp bowl where the pool had been, she glanced down at her feet and with an irritated sigh, kicked her remaining sandal off. She would just have to get some actual shoes when she got out of here, but for now, her partial footwear would mess with her balance. Besides, it wasn’t like a pair of flimsy mundane sandals protected her feet from anything at this point.
The stairwell was damp and unpleasant, water dripping on her head from above and cold air making her breath come out in puffs of frost, but Ling Qi continued on, keeping a hand on the wall for balance as she traversed the water-slicked stairs. She wasn’t sure how long she spent traveling downward, but eventually, the narrow path opened up into another huge chamber.
Ling Qi winced as the light from the new cavern stung her eyes. The ceiling was lower here, a mere twenty meters overhead, and the chamber was filled with pillars of stone, making it difficult to see how large the place was. It was, however, well-lit with glowing veins that pulsed like the beating of a heart. The veins wound through the pillars and ceiling, coming together in nodes of crystalline growth where three or more of them intersected.
The cavern was also inhabited. Overhead, she saw scores of grey-winged moths fluttering about, each one with wings as wide as a pair of spread hands. Glitter floated in the air in the wake of their wings. They had odd, faintly luminescent dark blue markings on their wings, as well as prominent feathery antennae and seemed to be congregating on the crystal growth.
They weren’t the only creatures here. Even as she examined her surroundings, she caught sight of a dark shape the size of a large dog swooping out of the darkness to snatch a moth that had strayed too far out of the light. It was a rather massive bat with jet black fur and prominent bony ridges growing along its spine and ribs.
Ling Qi considered her best path while keeping an eye out warily and eventually decided to head toward the sound of falling water she heard from further ahead. The denizens of this cavern didn’t seem hostile; the moths paid her no mind, and although she caught the sounds of bats fluttering overhead, they didn’t seem interested in her either. She continued to walk under the faint light of the glowing veins, and the sound of running water grew louder and louder until she finally emerged from the forest of pillars. She found herself looking up at a ten meter high cliff from which a wide waterfall poured into a churning pool below, which, in turn, flowed into a narrow stream that curved off into the distance to her right.
There was a figure in white crouched in front of the waterfall, partially concealed by the rising mist. She appeared to be in the process of washing some rather familiar-looking black gunk from her hair. Ling Qi came up short, stopping at the side of a pillar to examine the scene critically. She hadn’t forgotten the mimic worm and its abilities. Her eyes caught on the gleam of emerald scales though as Cui slithered out of the water to coil up at the figure’s side.
That made it more likely it was the real Meizhen, but Ling Qi still hesitated. It didn’t do her much good though as Meizhen turned around, white hair clinging to her neck and shoulders. Ling Qi shivered at the girl’s cold and expressionless face, feeling the telltale wave of unease that her friend’s attention brought.
They stared at each other from across the expanse of the cavern, and Ling Qi shifted from foot to foot nervously. Bai Meizhen, if it really was her, did not look friendly.
“I’m guessing you ran into a mimic worm too? Mine was pretty bad at pretending to be you,” Ling Qi said, breaking the silence. Her voice trailed off weakly by the end.
Looking more closely, Bai Meizhen’s eyes seemed slightly red. Had her mimic worm have some kind of blinding attack? Ling Qi felt uneasy at the continued silence.
“How am I to know if you are truly Ling Qi?” Bai Meizhen’s cold voice asked, her tone clipped and unfriendly. “I have no time for further petty deceptions.”
Ling Qi paused. She was almost certain this was the real Meizhen, but how to prove her own identity? Remembering that the worm had lacked Meizhen’s particular aura gave her an idea of how to prove her identity.
“I could play for you,” Ling Qi proposed carefully. “If I call my mist, will that set you at ease?” Apparently, the worm's mimicry was able to fool even her friend’s superior senses. If the worm’s abilities were so focused on deception, that might explain why it was relatively weak in direct combat.
Bai Meizhen considered this even as Cui slithered into a loose coil around her feet, head raised to stare down Ling Qi.
“Very well. Do so,” Meizhen commanded, staring at her with hard eyes.
Ling Qi nodded and let out a quiet breath she hadn’t noticed she was holding. She raised her flute to her lips, keeping her eyes on Meizhen as she began to play the melody of the vale. As her qi flowed into the music and the mist billowed outward, she tentatively included Meizhen in it as well. Despite the additional cost to include someone in the mist as an ally, Ling Qi didn’t want to alarm Meizhen into thinking it was an attack given how on edge the pale girl was.
As the mist engulfed them, dulling the sound of the outside world, she thought she saw Meizhen relax fractionally, some tension leaving her expression although the girl remained mostly closed off.
“... I see,” Meizhen said quietly, finally shifting her gaze from Ling Qi to glance at the mist around them. “It seems that you are real this time. That is a relief. Putting down more vermin would have been tiresome.”
Ling Qi lowered her flute, letting the mist began to dissipate. “I wouldn’t want to expend the qi to kill another one,” Ling Qi agreed. “Are you alright? It didn’t hurt you, did it?”
Meizhen’s lips twitched, but her expression remained unreadable.
“No, I suffered no significant wounds,” Meizhen answered evenly, crossing her arms as she examined Ling Qi before looking away toward the waterfall. “I see you did not either. We should proceed. The passage above leads to the lair of an Elder Mountainroot Bat and its brood. It is the only way forward, assuming you came from the tunnel that I imagine you did.”
Ling Qi frowned. Bai Meizhen was still not acting quite right. She didn’t suspect Meizhen to be a mimic, especially since she could hear Cui’s mumbled hissing about flying rats in her head, but she strongly suspected the other girl was agitated about something even with Meizhen’s usually muted emotional cues. Normally, she wouldn’t consider prying, but something in her friend’s studied non-expression and the redness in the girl’s eyes worried her. Her first thought was that her friend had gotten an irritant in her eyes, but… as bizarre as it was to contemplate, had the other girl been crying?
Ling Qi was uncomfortable at trying to push the other girl into talking about it. She didn’t exactly enjoy social confrontation, even if she had found herself slowly growing more perceptive about such things as she cultivated, picking up cues she would not have noticed a few months prior.
“Are you certain you are well?” Meizhen asked impatiently, turning back to her. Ling Qi realized she had been staring for some time.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” Ling Qi said slowly, mind racing as she tried to think of a feasible-sounding excuse to spin out. “It’s just - I was thinking that maybe we should talk about what we encountered before in case we get separated and it comes up again.”
Bai Meizhen’s expression soured, and Ling Qi caught Cui sneaking a glance up at Meizhen.
“I doubt it will be an issue,” Meizhen said tightly. “It seems unlikely that these trials will use the same trick twice.”
“Maybe, but it can’t hurt, right?” Ling Qi pointed out, nervously forging on despite Meizhen’s unhappy expression. “The worm mimicking you tried to get me to approach by asking me to examine a pool it was standing beside and hiding in. It didn’t have Cui with it though, and it dismissed my questions about her by saying she was hurt. I knew it wasn’t you because you wouldn’t be so dismissive about your cousin being wounded.”
Meizhen’s lips were pressed together in a thin line, and her arms were crossed in front of her, concealing her hands in her sleeves.
“I see. The worm had, like yours, elected to set its trap near a body of water.” Meizhen spoke in a clipped and clinical tone. “It chose to appear as your corpse and attacked when I approached to examine the scene.”
Ling Qi winced. It seemed like Bai Meizhen’s mimic had been smarter in its deception.
“I… don’t suppose it talked about having killed me?” Ling Qi asked, piecing together the events in her head. “Mine said it had killed you, but that was too ridiculous to believe,” she added wryly. It would be much more believable that someone weak like her had fallen.
“Stupid bug had too many words,” Cui grumbled, “until Sister Meizhen made it scream.” The snake exuded smugness.
Bai Meizhen turned a frown to Cui, but Ling Qi thought there had been a flicker of something else in her expression before she had looked away from Ling Qi.
“The creature was quite talkative, yes,” Meizhen agreed sourly. “And eager to gloat. Shall we move on?”
Ling Qi nodded absently, stalling for time as she tried to work out how to approach the next part carefully.
“Is that why you are so upset? Because you thought I was dead?” The words tumbled out before she could think too hard on them. Bai Meizhen usually appreciated her relative forthrightness so it seemed like the best path to getting her to talk.
Her friend stiffened in the process of turning away.
“No. A Bai does not lose composure over something as minor as the death of an ally. Do not inflate your own importance so,” Meizhen said coldly without turning back around. “Now, are you coming or need I complete this challenge on my own?”
The air felt heavier, stained by the girl’s abyssal qi. Ling Qi felt uncertain at how to proceed. It hurt to hear someone she regarded as her closest friend say something so cold. At the same time… the words felt false to her.
“I don't buy that. Don't just push me away and avoid the question,” Ling Qi said bluntly to the girl’s back. “I don’t really get what the problem is. There’s nothing wrong with being a little distraught when-”
She flinched as Bai Meizhen whirled back to glare at her.
“I am not so weak as that! Do not imply such a thing again.”
Ling Qi very nearly took a step back, but at the last moment, she set her shoulders and refused to back away from her friend despite the weight of qi pressing down on her and the thrill of fear that went down her spine. Instead, she glared right back, pushing back the oppressive feeling of the other girl’s qi with her own lighter energy, sending the hem of her gown fluttering in a phantom breeze.
“And I’d appreciate it if you didn’t imply I was blind,” Ling Qi snapped. “Do you really have so little respect for me, Bai Meizhen? I am your friend, not your servant. You’ve said that yourself. I’m not just going to stand here meekly and ignore it when I can tell that you’re upset!”
The pale girl’s golden eyes flashed, anger entering her blank expression. Before Meizhen could respond further though, the emerald coils at her feet shifted, and Cui let out a low, irritated hiss.
"Sister Meizhen is being ridiculous. This is not the time for the mouse to bare her fangs either. Do they both forget where we are?"
Ling Qi saw Meizhen flinch slightly at Cui’s words, a flicker of something like self-loathing passing through her eyes so fast Ling Qi couldn’t be sure she hadn’t imagined it.
“Cui is right. This is not the time for this,” Meizhen said stiffly, the oppressive feeling of her qi fading.
Ling Qi let out the breath she had been holding and nodded unhappily.
“...Yeah. I was being too pushy,” Ling Qi replied quietly. “But I won’t apologize for worrying about you.”
Bai Meizhen was silent, expression unreadable, before turning back around, damp hair fluttering with the motion. “Let us move on,” was her only reply, a clear shutdown of the topic.