After their argument, Ling Qi followed Bai Meizhen silently up the steep path that lead to the top of the ridge, stewing on her thoughts. She had a feeling that she had poked something raw with her words, something that had been dredged up by the ambush the other girl had suffered and whatever words her mimic had spoken.
“Mountainroot Bats are known for their resilience and their habit of nesting in large broods.” Bai Meizhen’s calm and even voice reached her as they climbed the ridge. “They lack many of the more esoteric abilities that many species of bat spirits possess, but instead, they have very high physical power and durability for grade one beasts in addition to the agility and perceptive capability. The more powerful second grade specimens are capable of shattering stone with directed bursts of thunder qi.”
Ling Qi allowed her worries over the other girl’s state of mind to fade for now to focus on the upcoming fight.
“That sounds dangerous,” Ling Qi said. “Do you know how many are ahead?”
“At least a dozen lesser beasts,” Bai Meizhen replied as they reached the top of the waterfall. A wide gallery lay ahead, stretching hundreds of meters into the distance. “I am uncertain, however, if we are meant to simply bypass the creatures and find an exit or slay them all. I do not know the minds of the elders in this, but I imagine some hidden prize lies in the cavern ahead given the previous tests.”
Ling Qi eyed the cavern thoughtfully. There were many pillars and stalactites in the gallery ahead, and she could see a few fluttering shapes among them. There was also an eye-watering scent arising from the thick layer of whitish gray gunk splattered in patches on the floor. She could not see the far wall or any exits from where they stood.
“Let’s just head in then. It shouldn’t be any trouble for the two of us, right?” Ling Qi said with confidence she didn’t fully feel. Her flute was still in her hand, and she found herself toying with it as she observed the fluttering shapes in the distance. “Do we even know if they’ll attack us?”
“It is likely. Look at the droppings on the ground,” Meizhen replied with some distaste. “This is their lair, and they are territorial beasts.” She flicked her wrist and her weapon, that odd collection of metal ribbons attached to a hilt, appeared in her hand. She still sounded stiff to Ling Qi, but the other girl was focused on the task ahead now.
‘Disgusting things,’ Cui grumbled. ‘Leaving stinking messes everywhere. Sister Meizhen had better repay Cui for this.’ Despite the serpent’s irritable words, Cui didn't hesitate to follow Bai Meizhen into the cave alongside Ling Qi.
“I’ll catch you a rabbit or something myself if we get through this alright,” Ling Qi muttered, drawing an approving hiss from the serpent. “Should I start playing? No reason to make it easy for them to target us.”
Bai Meizhen paused then nodded sharply. “You can include me in the effect if I recall so please do so - unless your mist dissipates with time?”
“Not unless I stop playing,” Ling Qi replied before raising her flute to her lips. “Do we have a plan?”
“We comb the chamber for exits and potential points of interest,” Bai Meizhen said simply. “I will counter attacks upon us while you conceal our exact location. Grade one beasts are not particularly intelligent. Be wary if you spy the approach of a larger bat with lighter markings.”
Bai Meizhen wasn’t one for complicated plans, it seemed. It was interesting that for all of her friend’s apparently high rank… Meizhen was a pretty blunt girl. Ling Qi began to play as they walked, the haunting melody rolling out along with the mist and echoing from the distant walls.
Beside her, streamers of moisture began to condense out of her mist, shaping the beginnings of Meizhen’s mantle of dark water. Above and ahead, Ling Qi heard high, angry screeches that made her ears ring uncomfortably. She tensed, readying her qi to activate her defensive shadow technique at a moment’s notice.
They began with a simple crisscross search of the cavern, and at first, they found themselves unmolested as they investigated. The peace was broken when a shadow dived toward them from the ceiling, encased in a faint glow of gray qi.
Ling Qi quickly stepped aside, dancing away from Meizhen’s side. The other girl did the same, seemingly flowing to the side on a carpet of shadow. The bat completely missed her, and Meizhen’s coiling weapon rose, carving through the creature’s shell of qi and drawing a spray of blood. The diving bat let out a pained shriek as it beat its wings, trying to regain altitude, but the sound was cut off near instantly as Cui struck, fangs digging deeply into its side.
The flying beast spasmed violently and dropped to the ground with a meaty thump, no longer able to stay airborne with the serpent’s venom pumped into its veins. Ling Qi shared a brief look with her companion before turning her eyes skyward where dark shapes were gathering. There were more than the dozen Meizhen had predicted, although how many more, Ling Qi could not say.
Ling Qi switched tunes as more bats began to dive, drawing on the darker song of Dissonance to cause the mist to roil with dark constructs. She was loath to hide and allow Meizhen to suffer all of the attacks so she would focus on evading and continuing to play her song.
The next few seconds were chaotic. High-pitched squeaks that made her ears ring blasted away any other sound, and her mist was full of black furred bodies and flapping wings. She twisted her body, spinning out of the way of one clawing, biting creature after another, the wind of their passage ruffling her gown. She barely managed to avoid all the attacks and even felt several strands of her hair violently yanked out when her trailing locks were caught by the claws of one of the beasts.
Ling Qi didn’t falter though, keeping up her tune as her constructs manifested as misty twins to her attackers, clawing and biting at the bats as they worked their wings to ascend back up for another dive. Some ten meters away, Bai Meizhen made her dodges look clumsy, seeming to barely move to avoid the enraged spirit beasts’ attacks and punishing their failure to hit her with counterattacks from the coiling metal ribbons of her weapon. Another bat fell, screaming as Cui’s caustic venom burned through the webbing of its wing.
Ling Qi felt the vibrations in the air and immediately leapt backward, trailing streamers of mist and shadow as she felt her body vanish between one place and the next. The stone she had been standing on exploded, shards of stone blasting outward as the stone spiderwebbed under the force of the attack; she felt pebbles pelt her and a few sharper ones ripped the sleeves of her gown, but she had escaped unharmed.
“There is a second elder enhancing the other beasts!” Meizhen’s words cut through the noise and music like the crack of a whip, and Ling Qi found that there were indeed two, much larger shadows circling the ceiling, well above her mist. She looked back down in time to see Meizhen’s mantle of water drop away, and for a moment, she wondered if the girl had been hit, disrupting her technique.
That proved wrong, of course, as the water seemed to merge with Meizhen’s shadow and flow up her legs and gown, turning her lower body inky black. She saw her friend’s legs flex, bending as if preparing for a leap… and then the gathered inky liquid exploded, launching Meizhen upward and trailing the suddenly ascending girl like the tail of a serpent.
Lesser bats scattered in her wake. Bai Meizhen’s glittering silver weapon snapped out, glowing with sickly green qi to rake across the face of one of the Elder Bats. Ling Qi had no time to further focus on that fight because an agitated swarm of bats were still flying through her mist, their tough hides ignoring the claws of her shadowy constructs. Still, the mist seemed to be making them slower, and she managed to avoid their claws and teeth for the most part, suffering only a single bloody scratch along her arm that she felt loath to expend the qi to deflect.
Honestly, Ling Qi was reluctant to expend any further qi at all. She caught the second of the elder bats chasing Meizhen down into her mist as the girl fell back to earth though so she used the opportunity to strike, binding its senses with confusion to prevent it from flying out of range again.
One bat after another was falling to Cui, whether from suffering a fatal bite or from their flesh running like wax from her caustic spit. Ling Qi began to lose track of individual actions after that, acting on instinct to continue her song and dodge attacks. She could recall flashes of the battle - Meizhen’s hair flying out in a fan behind her as an elder bat’s screech erupted point blank in her face and the way blood had erupted from the beast’s mouth moments later as Cui’s jaw clamped on its throat. She remembered suffering a half-dozen close calls from snapping teeth and grasping claws and crushing the skull of a wounded bat under her heel when the bat had snapped at her foot in passing.
Eventually, the scrum ended; the bats which still lived scattered to the far reaches of the cavern. Around Ling Qi, over a dozen dead spirit bats lay on the ground, bleeding sluggishly from many wounds. They had won, and it hadn’t even been that hard.
Bai Meizhen looked regal and untouched, save for the blood staining her sleeves, as she peered into the air for further targets.
‘They flee us. Sister, shall we feast in victory?’ Cui crowed, wound into a tight coil to the Meizhen’s left, her mental voice smug and arrogant.
Meizhen glanced at Ling Qi, relaxing from her combat stance, and then back to Cui. “You may snack later, Cui. We are not done yet,” she said evenly, even as she gestured with her free hand. A handful of the corpses vanished, dissolving into mist and draining into a narrow platinum band that adorned the pale girl’s finger. “Ling Qi, are you prepared to continue?”
Ling Qi looked around. Reasonably satisfied that the bats would not return, she allowed her melody to cease and lowered her flute.
“I’m fine. Nothing more than a scratch,” she answered. Ling Qi grimaced at the feeling of something warm and sticky coating her bare foot and the sweat matting her hair to her neck. “Well, I’ll need a bath, but that can come later. Do you have room to store all of these? My ring is full, and I don’t think we want to stand here and harvest cores.” Particularly since she wasn’t much good at it. She was lucky the worm’s core had been obvious.
“The mouse presumes too much, thinking to steal the best bites of Cui’s feast,” the serpent grumbled at her, giving her a reproachful flick of the tongue. Meizhen, on the other hand, regarded her with pursed lips but nodded.
“Do not be greedy, cousin. If I let you eat all of this, you would grow fat and sluggish for months,” she teased. The serpent whipped around to stare at her relative with affronted outrage. Meizhen extended her hand, and soon, the ground was clear of all but streaks of blood and cracked stone. “Come. We may count our spoils later. I tire of this place.”
Ling Qi sighed and hurried to follow her. Meizhen seemed less tense now, but her tone was still cold and distant. She kept her thoughts to herself, ignoring the slight stinging of the cut on her arm as they resumed searching the cavern. Frustratingly, they found nothing but bat droppings and other refuse despite scouring the cavern from end to end. No formations, no doors, not even a stray red stone.
They had only one portion of the cave remaining to explore. At the far end, it narrowed considerably, the ceiling rapidly sloping down until it was barely fifteen meters above the ground. The path ahead split around a massive outcropping of black stone, blocking sight of whatever lay beyond. Ling Qi glanced from one path to the other, but neither appeared to have any prize. It looked like both paths lead to the same place, but…
“Stop,” Bai Meizhen said from beside her, halting as she narrowed her eyes at the path ahead. “It seems I was in error. The bats were merely a distraction. Show yourself.”
Ling Qi spared a look at the serious expression on her friend’s face before she turned her full attention to the path ahead, clutching her flute tightly. What did Meizhen mean? Ling Qi squinted, trying to see what had alerted Meizhen… and then, she saw. The great mass of rock in the middle of the path was not completely still, and its edges not perfectly lined up with the floor. The movement was almost imperceptible, but it rose and fell slightly as she watched.
‘The meals will not deliver themselves this year.’ Ling Qi startled as a deep rumbling voice that reminded her of fires churning deep under the earth sounded in her thoughts. The entire rock formation, some fifteen meters across, shifted, rising upward to scrape the low ceiling. A blunt, reptilian head emerged from the darkness, pushing out of a recess in the stone. Veins of dull red pulsed between black scales, and eyes that were little more than balls of white hot fire peered out from deeply recessed sockets. On each of its four trunk-like legs, Ling Qi could see gleaming shackles of red hot steel, rooted into the stone below by metal spikes covered from end to end in fiercely glowing formation characters.
It was a massive tortoise with a shell of volcanic stone. Steam puffed steadily from its beaked mouth with each breath. Ling Qi only grew more worried when saw a flicker of hesitation on Meizhen’s features.
As the silence stretched on, the massive beast let out a rumbling snort that sent their gowns and hair fluttering out behind them. ‘This damned binding…’ it growled. ‘You have a choice, children. One may pass, and the other may return to the entrance. Choose.’
Bai Meizhen’s expression tightened, but it was Ling Qi who spoke up first. “How do we know this isn’t just another test? Or a trick to split us up?”
The massive tortoise exhaled, and Ling Qi’s hair billowed backward, her eyes watering as she was engulfed in a cloud of steam. ‘If I could kill you, you would be dead, child. The child of deep waters understands.’
“That is a fifth grade beast,” Meizhen said quietly. “A Volcanic Tyrant Tortoise. I am surprised that such a thing would be left in this place. Yet its Qi feels far too weak.” Meizhen directed her next words at the tortoise, “You are the source of energy for the mountain’s formations, are you not?”
‘If you think me weak, you may both try to pass.’ The tortoise’s veins of fire flared brightly. ‘I have no patience to prattle. Make your choice.’
Ling Qi eyed the monstrous beast warily. This didn’t seem right. “I don’t trust it. Why would the elders set up a test that requires two people working together just to turn them against each other at the end?”
‘I know not why you apes do what you do. Know that I will eat you both should you both attempt to pass or attack. I am bound to return the remaining disciple safely otherwise.’
“...I do not believe he is lying,” Meizhen said slowly. "You see, those arrays? They bind against treachery?"
Ling Qi squinted at the white hot characters her friend was pointing too... she couldn't decipher them. Though she didn’t trust it, if Meizhen believed its words, then the decision was easy. She had come to this place for Meizhen after all.
“If you think this isn’t a trap, I’ll go back then, Bai Meizhen,” Ling Qi said easily, turning slightly to face her friend while keeping a wary eye on the shackled spirit.
Bai Meizhen blinked, shaken from her thoughts. “As quickly and simply as that?” Meizhen asked, a little bemused. “You give up advantage far too easily, Ling Qi.” The pale girl gave Ling Qi a look tinged with frustration.
Ling Qi rolled her eyes. “Don’t start with that. I came here for you. You’re the only reason I’m here, and you’ve helped me out since day one. What sort of worthless friend would I be if I didn’t help you now that I can?” The kind of ‘friend’ she was when she lived in the gutter, scrabbling for scraps. She didn’t want to be that kind of person anymore. There was no real freedom in that, just mindless survival.
“I am sorry for upsetting you earlier,” Ling Qi added in a quieter voice. “But I don’t want that to change anything between us.”
Meizhen stared silently at her before pulling her eyes away. “...Your gratitude is noted,” she said with a hint of awkwardness. “I should not have reacted in such a vulgar fashion either. Thank you, Ling Qi.”
‘How wonderful,’ the massive tortoise rumbled dryly. “How touching. Get on with it, will you? I have no desire to watch you apes act out a drama before my eyes.’
Ling Qi shot the beast a dirty look but huffed in agreement. “He’s got a point. We can talk over tea later if you would like. I picked up an art earlier in the cave that I can show you.” The jade slip hadn't had the fragile, temporary feel that the archive ones had.
Meizhen made a quiet sound that might have been mistaken for a laugh if she hadn’t covered her mouth with her sleeve. “Of course. I retrieved some rather potent medicines. We can work out the details of exchange after the task is finished.” She turned to face the tortoise. “I will proceed then, Spirit, with your permission. What need I do?”
The glowing reptile let out another burst of steam from its maw and made a gesture remarkably like a shrug with its limited mobility. “Walk past me, child. I will send the other one back when you have passed the formation line at the back of the cave.”
Bai Meizhen nodded sharply and stepped forward, Cui slithering along in her wake. Ling Qi only now noticed the silent awe the serpent was regarding the larger beast with. Ling Qi tensed as she watched her friend walk closer to the spirit, ready to fling a knife and at least distract the thing if she needed to, but her worry was for naught. Meizhen disappeared around the thing’s shell, pausing only to give her one final look.
Some time later, Ling Qi was shifting awkwardly from foot to foot, waiting for the tortoise to stop staring at her. She was beginning to feel unnerved under its unblinking, fiery gaze. “So… when do I go back?” she finally asked, screwing up her courage to speak.
‘When I feel like it,’ the tortoise grumbled. ‘Ape, what reason did you really have for coming here? I have been chained in this pit for a hundred years, since you lot trapped us. I’ve seen plenty of you Empire apes pass me by. You’re not that serpent child’s lackey.’
Ling Qi blinked, surprised at the thing’s questioning. She crossed her arms, frowning at it. “You heard me. She’s my friend; I’m repaying her earlier kindness.” She hunched her shoulders at the pressure of the thing’s attention, its clear dissatisfaction with her response forcing her next words past her lips. “... I’m not lying. I came here for her. I’m glad I benefited as well, but I want to be a little less selfish. What’s wrong with that?”
‘Naive,’ the tortoise scoffed. ‘The Empire will crush that out of you if it doesn’t crush you. You’ll die forgotten with that kind of attitude.’
“Everyone dies, and I'm not sure if I care about being forgotten,” Ling Qi responded quietly. “I’d rather not die for a long time… but I won’t let fear chain me down anymore either.” She knew what it was like to be on the edge of death; she had spent half of her admittedly short life making decisions solely based on survival. She didn’t want to do that anymore.
‘Fool,’ the tortoise repeated. ‘Ape, show me the fragments of Kohatu’s core.’
“Who?” Ling Qi asked carefully. She didn’t recognize the word it had impressed on her mind, but it had the feel of a name. She didn’t want to admit to anything, although she could guess what the beast was referring to. “Please send me back now.”
The tortoise blasted her with uncomfortably hot steam. ‘Do not try my patience. You know what I speak of. Show them to me!’
Ling Qi shuddered under the weight of its ire. Hastily, she pulled the core fragments from her ring even as the shackles around the tortoise’s legs flared with icy light, sending frost crawling over its scales. It hurt to think of losing some of her gains, but her life was more valuable.
“H-here!” Ling Qi held out the faintly pulsing lumps of organic crystal, still wet with the fluids of the corpse she had wrenched it from.
The crushing weight on her shoulders lessened, and the tortoise eyed her with irritation. ‘Impudent child,’ it grumbled. “This is as much for your benefit as mine.’
The tortoise’s fiery gaze turned to the fragments in her hand. Its eyes dimmed, the light from between its scales almost fading entirely. The creature pushed its head further out of its shell, closing the distance even as Ling Qi found herself unable to move, legs locked in place. She distantly heard a sound like stone shattering and saw ice begin to crawl up over the tortoise's shell and cracks appear in its frozen legs, seeping sluggish black blood. Unfathomable heat from its breath bathed her face before the point of its beak touched the fragments in her hands. A bright flash burned away her sight.
When her vision returned, watery and full of spots, she saw the tortoise settling back into its pit, the frost on its body slowly retreating. In her hands lay a stretched oval shape, pitch black like a lump of obsidian shot through with veins of dark green. Its surface felt like tough old leather, and its size equal to both of her fists held together. She looked back up from the egg to the now wounded spirit beast, still blinking the spots from her vision.
‘Something of us will leave this damned place,’ the tortoise rumbled tiredly. ‘Begone, child.’
Ling Qi had no time to respond before characters flared brightly into existence around her, and the cave vanished.
When her senses returned, Ling Qi found herself standing before the great bronze doors in the cavern, holding an uncomfortably hot egg in her hands. She stared blankly down at it. Why had it…? She didn’t really understand everything that had just transpired, but she thought that this was probably a good thing. She had been thinking about binding a spirit for some time now.
Well. Assuming that whatever came out of this egg was within her ability to bind anyway or that the egg hatched in any kind of reasonable time frame. For all she knew, it would stay an egg for the next decade.
Given that the doors were still firmly shut though and there was no sign of Meizhen, it seemed that she was going to be waiting here for awhile. Ling Qi carefully held the egg against her chest. She didn’t want to risk dropping it after all. Cradling the egg, Ling Qi found a dry place to sit down and meditate while she waited.
She spent the better part of an hour in quiet contemplation of her experiences down in the bowels of the mountain until the sound of the doors behind her slowly opening roused her from her reverie. She turned her head to see Meizhen walking out, a thoughtful expression on her face. Cui was back in her smaller form, coiled around the girl’s neck like an emerald choker.
“How did it go?” Ling Qi asked, drawing her friend’s attention. “No trouble I hope?”
“It was… thought provoking,” Bai Meizhen responded quietly, sounding a little drained and looking it too with the way her gaze rested on the floor. “It would seem that I have acquired one month of personal lessons from Elder Ying.”
Ling Qi furrowed her brows. “Who?”
Bai Meizhen’s expression grew faintly exasperated as she continued to contemplate the floor. “... Of course. How foolish of me.” Meizhen sighed, shaking her head, but she didn’t seem particularly put out. “There are other elders beyond the three who have interacted with us this year, Ling Qi. Elder Ying is charged with overseeing the defenses of the Outer Sect and the mortal region below. She is an… interesting woman,” Meizhen explained, sounding a little unsure at the end.
Ling Qi hummed thoughtfully. Lessons with an Elder were a real prize. She supposed it also made sense that there were more than three elders in a sect. “Well, remind me to ask about the rest of them later. Ready to go home then?” she asked cheerfully, standing up carefully with the egg cradled under one arm.
“Yes, I think-” Bai Meizhen finally turned to actually look at her. “... Ling Qi, is that what I think it is?” she asked, her eyebrows rising, a note of bewilderment in her voice.
Ling Qi rubbed the back of her neck awkwardly. “Look. I don’t understand why the turtle got chatty and gave me an egg,” she said defensively.
“The…” Bai Meizhen rubbed her forehead, a pained expression crossing her face. “I am glad you did not call it that to its face,” she said faintly. “But still, only you, Ling Qi. Your fortune is inexplicable.”
“I’ll take that as a compliment,” Ling Qi murmured uncomfortably.
“Let us… simply go home.” Meizhen sighed, shaking her head again. Ling Qi was glad to see the coldness the girl had been showing earlier had faded - at least for the moment. She followed her friend out of the cave, ready to face a new day.