Ling Qi thanked the moon above for Sable Crescent Step. It was only by drawing on the speed granted by the art that made keeping up with the laughing child remotely possible. Hanyi was little more than a blue blur between snowflakes at times, and it didn’t help that she clearly knew this area like the back of her hand, leading Ling Qi on a merry chase through the often vertical terrain. Ling Qi’s irritation grew when it became clear the girl could run straight up a cliff as easily as Ling Qi could down a flat path.
The task was made worse by the way Hanyi seemed to be able to vanish in a flurry of snowflakes when Ling Qi got close or the way Hanyi would trip her up with ice. Ling Qi took more than one nasty tumble that might have been fatal if she were a mortal. Once, the girl had even given her a shove after Ling Qi had barely steadied herself at the top of a ridge.
The little spirit either had no concept of the idea that Ling Qi might be hurt by falling or simply didn’t care. Ling Qi wasn’t sure which she hoped it was. She was not an amateur when it came to chases though; although she hadn’t taken the role of the chaser before, she knew well the various tricks one could use to escape and good tricks for countering them.
She could also tell after a good half hour of ‘tag’ that the little snow spirit needed a moment’s concentration to do her vanishing trick. So after she chased Hanyi into a ravine, she broke off and changed direction, silently dashing up the angled slope while activating Crescent’s Grace.
Ling Qi blurred into the dark of the snowstorm, barely a black streak as she rushed suddenly unimpeded along the difficult slope. This time, Hanyi didn’t even have a chance to notice her before she dove down from above and tackled the spirit into the snow, snaking her arms around the little girl’s waist.
“That’s one!” Ling Qi couldn’t help but crow as she felt Hanyi squirming and trying to escape her grip.
The girl was as cold as a block of ice, and her hands and arms burned where she touched the girl. But Ling Qi had caught her; the child in her grip was solid. She sat up from the bank the two of them had landed in, shaking off the snow, and grinned victoriously at the obnoxious child pouting up at her. After that annoying chase, she didn’t care if gloating was childish.
“Ah, no fair! Big Sister is way too fast,” Hanyi grumbled, squirming free of Ling Qi’s grip and dancing away, her bare feet not even leaving a mark in the snow. “It must be because she’s so tall, just like a mountain ogre! Hanyi will have to play more seriously now!”
What followed was probably the most miserable hour in Ling Qi’s recent memory. If chasing Hanyi down had been irritating before, it was infuriating now. She found herself buffeted by heavy winds, tripped by ice, and scrabbling up high rock faces; all the while, she had to deal with the little brat laughing at her every time she made a misstep.
Several times, she went for a tag only to end up with nothing but snow in her hands, and she found her nerves beginning to fray. She didn’t want to spend all of her qi chasing Hanyi down, which meant she didn’t want to simply chain together Crescent’s Grace, but the girl was too canny to be caught out the same way twice.
Ling Qi had other options though. She allowed her pace to flag and deliberately began breathing harder, playing at being tired. Sure enough, the snow spirit picked up on this, and after a time, Hanyi began to play around instead of keeping as much distance as she could. Ling Qi had to wait a little, but soon, the girl got close enough in the process of pelting Ling Qi with snowballs that she could strike.
Her flute, palmed in the time that she had spent waiting for Hanyi to lower her guard, was whipped up as she began to play, interlacing the first two melodies she had learned. Mist rolled out rapidly, mingling with the snowstorm to white out all vision.
“Eh… Mama!?” Hanyi’s head jerked back and forth as she was engulfed in mist on her snowbank perch, an expression of childish panic on her face. Ling Qi, being able to see through the mist, saw Hanyi’s expression of panic morph into a pout. “Hey! What do you think you’re doing, Big Sister? Trying to trick me won’t work!”
Ling Qi would have smiled if she wasn’t busy playing. A few graceful steps had carried her behind a boulder and out of the girl’s immediate sight. She could hear the snow child whining in frustration as Hanyi found herself getting turned around in the mist.
With her movement so limited and Ling Qi’s ability to hide, it was almost too simple to find a higher place and leap down in ambush, landing feet first on the annoying girl’s back and leaving her facedown in the snow. Normally, Ling Qi would feel terrible about sitting on the back of a child, but the chase had not inclined her fondly toward the spirit.
“Got you,” Ling Qi said a trifle smugly as she lowered her flute. “That makes two.”
She clamped a hand on the little girl’s shoulder even as she moved to let her up. Unsurprisingly, Hanyi didn’t look very happy. A dark blue, nearly purple flush of exertion and anger colored her childish face.
“No fair! You cheated! How could I run away like that? You’re just being mean cause you don’t want to play anymore!”
“You said there weren’t any rules,” Ling Qi replied unsympathetically, not releasing the girl’s shoulder despite the way her fingers were starting to feel numb. “I played with you. Now you have to do what you promised and let me through.”
“I don’t wanna!” Hanyi said, stamping her foot. “I want Big Sister to stay and keep playing. It was fun until you cheated!”
If she hadn’t just spent an hour and a half chasing down the little hellion, Ling Qi might have been affected by the little spirit’s quivering lower lip and wide eyes. As the snow child opened her mouth to speak again though, a frigid burst of wind screamed over them, blasting away Ling Qi’s mist and leaving the air briefly free of snow.
Ling Qi looked up and paled as she caught sight of the figure standing atop a half-buried boulder. She had heard the term “fatal beauty” bandied about in stories and poems, but this was the first time she had seen it. The spirit stood more than two meters tall and yet retained the sort of graceful, feminine look that Ling Qi often envied. Long, unbound silver hair fluttered in the wind like a cloak of silk, partially obscuring deathly pale and sharp features. Unlike Hanyi, the older spirit’s eyes seemed lit from within by a frigid light, and her full lips were the color of fresh blood.
Hanyi’s mother wore a gown of stark black, fully concealing her below her neck. Ling Qi wasn’t even certain that there was a full body under the gown given the unnatural way the lower part rippled as the spirit moved. Most importantly, Ling Qi could perceive the weight and power of her qi. The spirit was fourth grade.
“Cease troubling this disciple,” the older spirit chastised, making the little girl lower her head, pout still present. Then Hanyi’s mother turned her frigid gaze to Ling Qi. “Disciple of Argent Sect, release my daughter.” Her voice was as harsh as a winter gale.
Ling Qi released the younger spirit as if burned and hastily stood up to offer a respectful bow, scrabbling for memory of talks with Bai Meizhen.
“Of course, honored guardian of the peak.” She nearly tripped over the words. “I apologize for the trespass and meant no offense.”
The older spirit made a sharp gesture, briefly revealing the formless void of cold darkness beneath her sleeve, and Hanyi scurried to her side looking… Well - she looked like she was trying to look contrite.
“These passes are free for your kind. My home does not lie here. My daughter was simply playing mischief while out of bounds.” The older spirit turned her stern expression on her daughter, causing the young spirit to wilt under her judgement.
“Sorry, mama. The yard was boring,” Hanyi mumbled, scuffing her bare foot through the snow.
“Thank you for your patience, Disciple,” the mother said, and Ling Qi noticed now that her lips weren’t even really moving when she spoke. “I will clear the storm in your path. I assume your destination is the glade of the moon lily?”
“Yes, honored spirit,” Ling Qi replied, clasping her hands in front of her, relief coloring her thoughts as she offered another bow. “It was… no trouble at all.” She wasn’t sure how sincere that had sounded. Going by the slight twitch of the older spirit’s lips, the answer was not very.
“Is that so?” the spirit said, managing to sound dubious without changing her tone at all. “Regardless, you have my thanks for entertaining my daughter. Be on your way, and perhaps we will speak again when your melody has matured.”
Ling Qi blinked, throwing up her hands to shield her eyes as the snowstorm intensified. When she lowered them, the spirits were gone, and the snowfall had begun to slow. As she looked down, she saw at her feet something bright and glittering. Picking it up, she found a fine silver hairpin, the attached ornament in the shape of a snowflake. If she squinted, she could make out the tiny characters etched into the metal.
Ling Qi called out a few times, offering to return the pin in case it had been left behind by mistake but received no response. Eventually, she stored it away and moved on, taking a few moments to get her bearings. The way was now largely clear of snow, swept clean as if by a giant’s brush.
With that help, it only took another half hour to reach the glade, especially since the other denizens of the mountain seemed to be avoiding her. Every beast she spotted scampered away as soon as she spotted it.
The glade itself was almost anticlimactic. It was a simple hollow behind a narrow crack in the rock, unnaturally warm compared to the outside. A clear pond filled most of the space, but it was surrounded by out of place greenery. The moon Iily was a faintly glowing white flower that grew from the center of the pond. Silver nectar pooled in the cup formed by its petals.
Ling Qi followed the instruction provided in the mission packet carefully so as not to tear the delicate petals, draining the nectar into the provided container before sealing it.
It was at that point that she noticed the dozens of eyes peering at her from the darkness of the cranny-ridden walls of the glade. She didn’t know how she had missed them coming in, but she was certainly aware now of the many, many white furred, red-eyed rabbits watching her from their rocky burrows, noses twitching and eyes glowing. Thankfully, they seemed content to just watch as she backed out of the glade, sweating under their regard. She was pretty sure at least one of those rabbits had been grade three too.
Ling Qi wasn’t sure of the reason behind their behavior, but she was glad the rabbits hadn’t been hostile. She had the nectar, and now, it was time to head back. The snowstorm was already beginning to fill in her cleared path though. Should she return the same way, brave the tunnel, or pick a new path down?
Well, she didn’t really feel like dealing with a possible ambush from her fellow disciples tonight. So after sending the nectar into her ring, Ling Qi began to pick her way down the cliffs in the opposite direction of her original path. She had to assume any potential attackers weren’t incompetent; it was likely that they would at least find the start of her trail. The tunnel was out for obvious reasons as well. Besides, the new path would allow her to poke around the mountain for interesting things.
Ling Qi began her meandering descent, her sense of urgency having faded with the acquisition of the nectar. As long as she delivered it by noon, she would be fine. The walk was actually rather relaxing now that the snow was no longer coming down so hard and the wind no longer so driven. That wasn’t to say she found her path completely unimpeded, but there was nothing that troubled her too much. She managed to shoot down a few more minor buzzards and once found herself standing off with a silvery white mountain lion, who eventually seemed to decide that she was too tough a bone to chew.
She noted a few interesting things like a herd of shaggy, grade one mountain goats that might make for good hunting with Han Jian and the others and a few places where plants she vaguely remembered hearing Su Ling talk about grew. She didn’t bother collecting them. Even if she managed to harvest them correctly, she would probably just forget about them before she could make use of them.
She really was a greedy girl, feeling put out that she hadn’t managed to find anything of real interest when she had already had a fortuitous encounter tonight. Ling Qi shook her head in bemusement at her thoughts as she carefully hopped across another ravine, her dress fluttering in the mountain winds.
It was beginning to warm up a little as she worked her way back down toward the treeline, and Ling Qi was glad for it. Even if she wasn’t harmed by the temperature, she was still soaked and cold and was looking forward to a nice warm bath when she got home. However, as she descended back into the frosted conifers that grew in this part of the mountain, she found that she still had some luck after all.
Working her way through the trees, she found a wide clearing atop a raised plateau where soft grass and hardy wildflowers grew. The light of the moon and stars seemed especially bright here. It might make for a good place to cultivate her Eight Phase Ceremony.
Unfortunately, it also seemed she wasn’t the only one here. While she was exploring the meadow, her instincts and senses picked up the approach of heavy and numerous footfalls, allowing her to slip away and hide in time. What she saw chilled her joy at the find.
It seemed the meadow was home to a rather large pack of Rimefur wolves. She counted at least fifteen of them, all grade two, in the group that entered the clearing. There was also a rather large pair, closer to the size of a horse than a wolf, among them. One was a heavily scarred and thickly muscled beast with blue white fur, and the other was a slightly smaller and sleeker wolf with black fur flecked with white. Her art could not read the exact stage of their cultivation, but she got the impression that they were not far from grade three.
She didn’t think she could take this group - not alone - and that was only confirmed when she found herself locking eyes with the smaller of the alpha pair. She fled at top speed, blending with the darkness as the incensed howls of the wolfpack followed her down the mountain. Thankfully, Ling Qi was as fleet as a mountain wind, and she was able to escape successfully with the aid of her Sable Crescent Step art, even if it was rather taxing on her qi.
It was the better part of an hour before they finally stopped chasing her, and her legs burned from the exertion. She had definitely been put through her paces when it came to speed tonight.
She was glad to return to the more civilized part of the mountain and head home for that bath. She exchanged greetings with Bai Meizhen, who was seated at their table staring at a block of clay as if it had personally offended her somehow, and then settled in for what remained of the night.
In the morning, she took the time to cash in the common cores she had picked up. They were fairly low quality, and she still wasn't great at harvesting so she only managed to get five stones for each. Better than nothing.
Strangely, there seemed to be a rumor going around that a dozen odd disciples had come limping into the Medicine Hall in the early morning with nasty, badly bleeding wounds. What was up with that, she wondered with a slight smirk.
Well, it had nothing to do with her anymore. It was time to start preparing for the next week.