Ling Qi and Su Ling slipped deeper into the ruins, following patches of remaining pavement between the crumbled walls of old buildings. Behind them, they left the dead, still pressed up against the barrier of the ward. It was still only late afternoon, but one would never be able to tell going by the overcast sky.
“Sorry for getting you into this,” Ling Qi said quietly, peering carefully into the shadows as the other girl focused on the ground, her eyes following something Ling Qi could not sense. “I suppose we should have taken this a little slower, huh?”
“I knew this was gonna be dangerous,” Su Ling replied bluntly, pausing at a crossroads before leading Ling Qi to the right toward the more heavily clustered buildings lying like scattered bones in the mist. “I’ve never seen that many ghosts in one place though,” she grumbled, glancing furtively over her shoulder.
“I’ve never seen a ghost before at all,” Ling Qi said uncomfortably. There was always a priest or two around to perform an appeasement and funeral rights when someone died. It was the one service that even the poorest people could expect. In the slums of the city, some even joked that only the dead could expect any care from the city’s officials.
“They’re more common than you’d think,” Su Ling commented, expression sour as she sniffed the air. “Still, something about that didn’t feel right. I dunno how well you can feel this kinda thing, but the river’s qi - It feels wrong. Stiff, maybe?” Su Ling seemed to have trouble articulating precisely what she was feeling.
Ling Qi narrowed her eyes, concentrating on the feeling of the qi around her. She couldn’t really feel anything odd… Well, beyond the obvious cloying weight of death in the air. “If there’s something wrong, it’s probably connected to whoever is out here,” she said with not entirely feigned confidence. After all, someone out in a place like this would obviously either be captured by spirits or up to no good.
“Maybe,” Su Ling said dubiously. “Doesn’t feel like a cultivator though.”
Ling Qi could only shrug in reply as they made their way further into the ruins. The air was full of tension, but as they ventured further from the ward boundary, the feelings staining the air seemed to grow almost sullen. They soon began to pick up more physical tells of the trail they were following. There were drag marks in the dirt, a bloodstain less than a day old, and even a child’s tooth, far too fresh to belong in these ruins. They crouched near the place where they had found the tooth as Su Ling tried to determine where the trail lead next because despite the apparent freshness of the signs, the trail grew faint here.
It made Ling Qi think of the way her Sable Crescent Step art obfuscated her trail wherever she went. Perhaps that was why she was distracted when Su Ling suddenly jerked, her pointed ears twitching wildly, and shouted, “Get down!”
Ling Qi threw herself down and felt the brush of the wind as something small and feathery shot through where her head had been. She caught a glimpse of it as it flew past her, a pale white crow’s skull shrouded in shadows in the vague shape of a body with feathery wings. Ling Qi only had a moment to observe before Su Ling’s sword smashed through it, fire licking at the blade, and clove the skull in half.
It dropped to the stones with a clatter, trailing a few sad and scraggly feathers.
“What the hell was that?” Ling Qi said as she pushed herself back up from the ground, head swiveling from side to side as she searched their surroundings for more foes.
“Some kind of puppet. I think it wasn’t alive,” Su Ling said warily, eyeing the sky along with Ling Qi. “Suyin was looking into stuff like that; she can only do the needles though.” Su Ling paused then, peering into the distance. “...Hells. Fine, I have no more objections. No way is that not shady as shit.”
Ling Qi followed her gaze, stilling when she saw what had drawn the fox girl’s reaction. She could see the crumbling wall surrounding the broken remains of what had probably been the village headman’s house going by the size and the space left around it by the other buildings. It sat at the edge of the river that curved lazily through the ruined town. Dozens of little white skulls and their shadowy bodies perched atop those walls and on the collapsing ceiling of the home, facing the pair in eerie stillness.
Worryingly, Ling Qi could not feel a single bit of qi from any of them. As far as her still new senses from Argent Mirror were concerned, the bird puppet things were not there. She ducked down behind the cover of a crumbling wall alongside Su Ling.
“Not disagreeing, but does the trail go that way?” Ling Qi asked quietly.
Su Ling nodded slightly. “Afraid so,” she said in a soft voice. Su Ling paused in consideration. “So I’m sure you want to go in, but hear me out, alright? I think I can get us past those things without a big, drawn-out fight.”
“I wasn’t going to suggest barging in the front,” Ling Qi grumbled. She wasn’t so reckless as that, not when she could see what lay ahead of her. “They’ve noticed us already though.”
“Which is why we are going in the front,” Su Ling replied. “Well, it’s gonna look like we are,” she amended at Ling Qi’s raised eyebrow. “It’s kinda costly and I can’t use any other arts while I’m doing it, but I can cloak us and make a decoy illusion. Then we can sneak around the side.”
Ling Qi followed Su Ling’s pointed finger toward a hole in the crumbling wall around the house. “That sounds good. Will you still be able to fight afterward?”
“I have a couple of pills I can use,” Su Ling said. “Don’t worry about it.”
Ling Qi thought that she probably could deal with the flock of birds, but it would certainly take time for dissonance to wear them down, even if they were fairly fragile. At this point, she didn’t want to dally around using a strategy that slow. She signalled Su Ling to start, and the fox girl closed her eyes, an expression of intense concentration on her face as her tail stiffened.
Ling Qi felt the girl’s wispy qi wash over her, clinging like a sheet of gauze and rendering everything slightly fuzzy. She could see through the other girl now, and faint shadowy silhouettes moved out to approach the large house.
Ling Qi and Su Ling began to circle around, roughly paralleling the wall, as a great cloud of bones and black feathers descended on the illusions. Other crows hung back, clustering together and blurring, their forms shifting to combine into a single, much larger puppet that loomed over the apparent battlefield.
While the crows screamed and circled, fighting an enemy that was not there, she saw the strain on Su Ling’s face increasing. Luckily, the distance they had to cross was not a great distance for cultivators like them, even when having to slow down to avoid being spotted.
They soon slipped in through the gap in the wall and made it under the crumbling eaves of the home, finding themselves in what was once a kitchen. Su Ling let out a soft gasp and twitched slightly a moment later.
“That’s it for that,” she said with a grimace, popping what Ling Qi recognized as a wellspring pill into her mouth. “C’mon, it’s faint, but the trail goes toward the cellar. Let me send the decoys down first.”
Ling Qi considered then took one of her own qi pills. She could afford to waste a couple of red stones now, and it was better to go into a probable fight at full capacity than to be stingy.
Given the increasing clamor outside, the two of them hurriedly yanked open the ancient cellar doors and headed down the stairs, following the trail of already disturbed dust, a few steps behind the illusionary doubles made by Su Ling. Ling Qi kept a careful eye out for anything that might be a trap, but there was only hard packed dirt and the musty stink of rotten air.
That changed as they reached the bottom and crept to the right while the figments proceeded forward. The cellar had obviously been enlarged, the hard packed dirt giving way to hastily dug expansion on the far wall, wet and muddy from the water trickling down from the ceiling. Was it under the river outside? Ling Qi thought it might be.
A grotesque totem of bone was built into the far wall, a pillar of pale ivory that nearly reached the ceiling three meters above. The main pillar seemed to be formed by the lashed together ribs of some large beast, but the smaller affectations were far more human, cleaned skulls and rib cages nailed to the main pillar with stone spikes, painted with strange characters that glowed a sickly green.
Pungent smoke hung in the air down here, rendering everything blurry, but Ling Qi could see a tall figure moving to stand, revealing a stone slab at the base of the pillar. Upon the slab lay an unconscious young boy, perhaps ten or eleven years old at her guess. He was stripped to the waist and painted with strange whorling symbols.
The figure standing over him was tall, tall enough to look down on Ling Qi, and seeming taller still due to the black feathered plumes sticking up from the bloody crimson headband he wore. Several heavy necklaces of beads clacked and clattered against the beast talons woven into the thick, form concealing robe of beast hide he wore. Really, but for his dark skinned face and sharp green eyes, he looked almost like nothing more than a shadow himself. His features were smooth, seemingly not much older than the two of them.
Like the shadow birds outside, she couldn’t sense any qi at all from him or from the pillar or anything else in this cellar. Even the qi of the earth, which should have been all encompassing down here, was muted.
He scowled at their illusions from across the twenty odd meters of distance separating them and gestured once, saying something in a low and guttural sounding tongue. A wide circle of stretched hide appeared in his right hand, painted with strange geometric symbols, while a strange baton of knobby bone appeared in his left hand. Was that… some kind of drum? Or maybe a primitive shield?
“That thing,” Su Ling hissed. “That bone charm on his wrist, the silver painted circle. It’s what’s screwing with our senses.” Ling Qi glanced at her with alarm, but the man didn’t notice Su Ling’s words.
Ling Qi… was honestly hesitant. This was entirely outside her expectations. How was a Cloud Tribe shaman - for what else could he be in that get up - have made it here, under the nose of the Sect? Hadn’t Bai Meizhen mentioned that Elder Ying watched over this whole region? She couldn’t sense his qi. What if he was completely above them?
On the other hand, if he was, why was he fooled by Su Ling’s illusion? She felt a bit better at that thought. She had to believe that they could still handle this. She couldn’t expect that he would be fooled for long so she needed to make her first shot count.
So what was the most important target?