Thankfully, searching for the vulpine girl was not nearly as onerous as searching out Gu Xiulan. Ling Qi simply had to head out to Su Ling’s cave home and wait until Su Ling returned to make her offer.
“So, what makes you think I’m a good pick for this?” Su Ling asked dubiously after hearing out Ling Qi as she leaned casually against the wall next to the entrance to the cave home. She didn’t sound entirely happy with Ling Qi.
Ling Qi suspected she knew why. The mission description echoed what the other girl had said about her own ‘mother’. “You’re the best person I know for looking into clues and trails in the forest. I’m a city girl, you know? Plus, if this spirit is tricking and trapping people with illusions or something, you’re pretty good at avoiding that.” It was refreshing to be able to speak plainly.
Su Ling frowned, her pointed, furry ears twitching. “Yeah, alright. I guess that makes sense. How much did you say this thing was supposed to pay?”
“Twenty five points each, assuming we get rid of whatever is spiriting people away, That's more than halfway to a tutor, or enough for you to use the production hall for a couple weeks,” Ling Qi answered.
The other girl grimaced, glancing away. “That’s probably gonna be pretty damn deadly then. Still, I could use the points,” she grumbled.
“I’m pretty strong these days, you know?” Ling Qi said with a slightly cheeky grin. “I think we can handle it.”
Su Ling gave her an unamused look but eventually sighed, pushing herself up from the rock face. “Fine, gimme a bit to collect some things. Then we can head down the mountain."
Ling nodded easily and settled in to wait. When the other girl had emerged, she had several heavy pouches dangling from her belt and had a thick leather vest covered in steel studs thrown on over her top. As they descended the mountain together, Ling Qi decided to make some conversation; she still didn’t know the other girl very well after all.
“So, what are you up to when you’re not at the vent?” Ling Qi asked. “Just gathering materials?”
“Mostly,” Su Ling replied gruffly, scanning the path ahead. “Suyin’s been teaching me some stuff, and I’ve been doing some jobs so I have the points to look up recipes and methods in the archive. Been working towards some better tools too.”
Ling Qi hummed in acknowledgement of the answer, arms held behind her head as she walked. “So you’re definitely going for a production spot then?”
The fox-eared girl snorted. “You’re pretty ridiculous, you know?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Ling Qi asked, annoyed.
“I don’t have my eye on the whole Inner Disciple thing. I’m not like you. I don’t pick things up in a couple of days an’ master arts in a week. I’m not arrogant enough to think I can start from nothin’ and snag a spot when I’m not some kinda prodigy,” Su Ling said bluntly .
“Well, you’re definitely not going to with that kind of attitude,” Ling Qi reproached. “It’s not like I don’t work hard.”
“I never said you didn’t,” Su Ling shot back. “Simple fact is - you’re something else. I figured that out a while ago. You’ve got this - thing.” She made a vague gesture in the air in illustration. “Like, you’re flighty and oblivious as shit sometimes, ignoring stuff that’s not right in your view, but you’re scary intense when you’ve got your focus on something. You don’t take breaks or get discouraged. Ya don’t fail.” Su Ling sounded a bit frustrated, although Ling Qi thought it was more due to Su Ling’s dissatisfaction with how she had articulated her statements.
“I’m not that oblivious,” Ling Qi protested. “And the rest of that isn’t true either. Don’t you think you’re making a lot of judgements when we barely know each other personally?” She took breaks. Didn’t she go out with Xiulan on occasion?
Su Ling shrugged. “Probably, but that’s how I see it. You got the things you focus on, and you just kinda ignore everything else. I don’t have that kinda drive and focus.”
“So if you’re not gonna go for an Inner Disciple position, what do you want then?” Ling Qi asked, still feeling irritable about the other girl’s assessment. “Are you just going to sit in the Outer Sect?”
“Maybe. I don’t really give a damn about all this Sect stuff,” Su Ling said dismissively. “All the stupid lil’ power games and verbal knife fights. I’ll survive my service then set up out in the mountains or woods huntin’ monsters. Or maybe I’ll just leave and go wandering.”
That didn’t sound bad, Ling Qi supposed, but Ling Qi didn’t think it was a path that she herself could pursue. She needed strength if she really wanted to be free to do as she wished so she wouldn’t be able to ignore the drive to snatch opportunities like Su Ling apparently could.
“Well, if that’s what you want,” Ling Qi said dubiously before changing the subject. “Anyway, what do you think of the information we have on this mission?”
“Last disappearance was earlier this week. There’s ten people missing so far, including the guard.” Su Ling seemed happy enough to drop the previous subject. “No blood or signs of struggle either,” she continued, ticking off points on her sharp-nailed fingers. “Sounds like pretty standard spiriting away. Something is kidnapping folks alive, most like. There’s dozens of spirits that do that kinda shit though.”
“Yeah, I suppose so,” Ling Qi said. “Still, all the disappearances were during the day. That’s different than normal, right?”
“Not as much as you’d think,” Su Ling said. “Stories always like ta paint this kinda thing as happening at night, but fact is, there ain’t many people dumb enough to be out at the edge of the wards at night when they aren’t even working.”
“You would know better than me,” Ling Qi conceded. She had rarely ventured out into the farmlands around Tonghou, small and cramped as they were. It was far easier to be recognized where there were fewer people after all. Besides, the outskirts were where the cultivator guards primarily patrolled, and she hadn’t survived on the streets by crossing their paths.
The two of them fell into mostly companionable silence as they continued their trip, arriving at the location near the town’s border where the disappearances had been reported. This section of wards covered one of the town’s lumber yards, which processed and prepared a great bounty of wood for use in infrastructure projects by the Sect. There were several such yards around the town. Most of those who had disappeared had not been workers at the yard though, but rather, young women and boys from the town outskirts. The only exception was the guard, who went missing after being sent out to look for the women and boys.
Ling Qi honestly felt useless as she traipsed along through the woods with Su Ling, peering about for clues. She really had little idea what to look for, only able to point out the signs of human passage due to the enhanced senses that came with being a cultivator. Her companion took it in stride, patiently examining possible trails and poking around for signs of spirit activity.
Conversation was terse and simple since Su Ling was focused on tracking and Ling Qi chose to keep an eye out for potential enemies. Their search gradually took them deeper into the woods as they followed the trails of human activity that Su Ling discovered with her nose and keener sense for traces of residual qi.
“Hold up.” Su Ling’s gruff voice shook Ling Qi out of her thoughts as she came to a stop, peering ahead toward the sound of running water. “Do you feel that?”
Ling Qi paused herself, concentrating her senses.
“Yeah, I think so,” Ling Qi whispered. It was quiet and still, unnaturally so. There was a faint, unseasonable chill in the air that she had previously missed due to how little such things meant to her anymore. The natural earth and wood qi in the area felt subtly off too.
“It smells like a graveyard,” Su Ling hissed, her furry ears standing straight with alarm and discomfort.
Ling Qi felt the first stirrings of alarm herself as she picked up a steady dimming of light at the edge of her vision. Fog was rolling in from the direction of the running water she could hear.
She was fairly confident in handling whatever came upon them… but was it a good idea? They didn’t even know if whatever was causing the fog had anything to do with their investigation.
“We should keep moving forward,” Ling Qi said decisively, striding forward toward the mist. “The trail goes through here, right?”
“Wh-” Su Ling gave her an incredulous look. “Why? We can at least find a way around or something.”
“You don’t really believe that,” Ling Qi shot back. “No way is this fog just a coincidence given what we’re looking into. C’mon, we knew we were going to have to deal with something dangerous.”
“You’re crazy,” Su Ling grumbled, but she hurried to catch up with Ling Qi.
Ling Qi slipped her plain and unadorned flute into her hand, feeling a stab of irritation at the unfamiliar tool before brushing it aside. The two of them proceeded forward into the mist in silence.
Ling Qi stiffened as she began to hear accusatory whispers on the wind, mixing and mingling with each other until the individual words could no longer be made out. Up ahead, she could see a break in the treeline where a wide, shallow river flowed. The air grew cold and wet around them, and Ling Qi felt the creeping sensation of being stared at intensifying.
The eerie atmosphere culminated with a low, angry wail as they reached the riverbank, and the mist came alive. Ghostly hands erupted from the muddy banks, grasping and snatching at the hems of Ling Qi’s gown followed by burnt, half-skeletal faces, twisted into unnatural expressions of fury and hate.
She caught an “Oh, fuck no,” mutter from Su Ling as the animalistic girl’s ears flattened against her head and her amber eyes widened in alarm. “Trail goes downstream,” Su Ling shouted as she drew her saber. “Do we have a plan or what?”
Ling Qi danced back from the riverbank, easily escaping the apparitions’ grasping hands and eyed their increasing numbers. “I’ll start playing. If you can screw up their senses too, we should be fine,” she called out then began to play, filling the space around them with her own mist.
The spirits rising from the riverbanks, broken and rotted spirits of men, women, and children alike, wailed as the shadowy claws of her mist constructs tore wounds in ghostly flesh. Ling Qi shuddered at the terrible sound, all too similar to actual people crying out in pain. She comforted herself with the knowledge that they weren’t really people, just echoes and images.
“Pretty sure we just put our foot in something a hell of a lot bigger than a couple of disappearances,” Su Ling said as blue-white fires formed over her head. “Dammit, this had better work on ghosts!” Foxfire burned between her clasped hands, stretching out in a long chain as she threw her hands out wide.
The flickering flame exploded outward. For a moment, Ling Qi saw bright lights, heard the sound of soothing music, and smelled the scent of delicious food, but then, it was gone, the technique passing over her. Some of the spirits stiffened and froze, faintly luminescent tears leaking from the black pits where their eyes should have been, but others only wailed louder in despair or spun about, flailing at the misty talons that still clawed at them.
As hateful red sparks danced in the eyes of the spirits rising from the ground and the whole screaming, sobbing mass surged forward like a tidal wave of mist and river water, one thing was certain. It wasn’t enough to stop them all.
The two of them bolted, Ling Qi continuing to desperately play and Su Ling ducking and dodging the grasping, clawing hands of the mass of spirits. Su Ling slashed away ghostly limbs, only to have new ones replacing them right away.
Well behind them, Ling Qi caught a glimpse of a gleaming aquamarine figure clad in ancient armor, seemingly formed entirely of river water. The figure’s face was visible only by the glowing green sparks in the eye sockets under its helmet.
Ling Qi could feel the intense concentration of deathly water qi cross the threshold of her technique, and her fingers danced over the flute in the hopes of clouding the figure’s senses. Streamers of shadow trailed in the wake of her run as she flickered from one position to the next under the influence of Crescent’s Grace. At her side, Su Ling’s qi flared as she activated some technique, and Su Ling’s legs sped up and blurred with motion.
Ling Qi’s qi failed to take hold on the more powerful spirit, but thankfully, Su Ling had more success. Su Ling ducked low, spinning around to slash outward with her saber at waist level. A burning, half ring of blue-white fire blazed into existence two meters tall behind them. Spirits shrieked and sobbed as they drove through it, seemingly unheeding of the pain, but some dispersed in their attempted passage. It was enough to keep the mob from growing even larger.
Nonetheless, the mob was still dangerous at its current size. Tiny hands scraped through her ankle with unnatural, biting cold, forcing Ling Qi to kick away a ghostly child with two arrows protruding from its back, its other features obscured by terrible burns covering its body. Su Ling cried out in pain as well, but the girl didn’t fall behind so Ling Qi kept running.
Ling Qi was beginning to think that going straight through the fog hadn’t been the best idea.
The thought was reinforced when she felt a powerful surge of qi from behind her, her qi crushed from the mist. As control of the mist was snatched from her, her constructs dispersed. Su Ling cursed loudly, shouting something unintelligible, and a noise that sounded like firecrackers going off in rapid succession popped through the mob behind them, briefly sending it into disarray.
The mob of ghosts quickly recovered though, and dread pooled in Ling Qi’s stomach. Then, her eyes caught something ahead, and hope gave her a burst of energy. “Su Ling! Up ahead! I can see a warding totem. Make a run for it!”
“Got it! I dunno what you’re doing, but you damn well better be right behind me!” Su Ling redoubled her speed.
Ling Qi spun around and flickered above to a sturdy tree branch, her new bow appearing in her hands as she did so. She lined up a shot at the armored water spirit at the center of the mob chasing them. She let her fears fade and her concerns disappear as the wind kicked up around her, blowing away mist, and sheets of crackling static erupted from her hands and bow. Her own blue eyes met the glowing green ones of the spirit. Then, her arrow sliced through the air like a luminescent star with a crackling boom before striking the spirit dead in the helm.
The spirit’s head snapped back, and the spirits around it let out an ear-splitting shriek, seeming to collapse into confusion at the injury to their leader. Ling Qi briefly glimpsed the thing’s mummified face and pulsing veins of sickly green and red qi throbbing through its desiccated flesh before she turned tail and dashed for the warding stone before her Crescent’s Grace technique expired.
Ling Qi passed the faintly glowing moss-covered stone just moments before the mist splashed against the invisible edge of the ward and flowed outward, following the ward’s boundary. Ling Qi did her best to ignore the distorted faces and clawing hands pressed up against the ward and instead looked around.
Su Ling leaned against a tree nearby, peering warily out into the haunted mist. The trees were more sparse here, and Ling Qi could see a few crumbling walls and patches of paved stone among the tree roots. Higher structures loomed further in the distance, and the river they had followed flowed sluggishly off to her right, burbling over the crumbled stones of a long broken bridge.
“What is something like this doing so close to the Sect?” Ling Qi asked, clutching her bow tightly. She eyed the churning faces in the mist and the worrying way the invisible barrier bulged inward in places.
“Little villages die all the time no matter where you are,” Su Ling replied, sounding slightly out of breath as she straightened up and peered deeper into the ruins. Ling Qi thought she caught a hint of bitterness in the other girl’s tone. “It’s not really surprising. I’m thinking the trail we followed might have just been folks making offerings now. Then again, this place seems kinda old for that."
Ling Qi rubbed the back of her neck sheepishly. Had she been too reckless in pushing ahead?
“Might be,” she admitted. “I hadn’t thought of that. Still, now that we’re here, it can’t hurt to check it out, right?” Her instincts still told her that they were on the right track.
“Yeah, might as well,” Su Ling replied with a shrug, edging away from the barrier. “I can still sense some human qi around here so we might even be on track. Maybe we can find this place’s temple; it might have something to placate the spirits.”
Ling Qi nodded, carefully following the girl into the ruined village and away from the plaintive cries of the spirits outside. Hopefully, they would find something here.