She met Su Ling’s eyes, and a moment of silent communication passed between them. Ling Qi pulled her bow from within her storage ring with a tiny pop of displaced air, the firm grip wrapped around the slightly warm horn settling comfortably in her hand. Su Ling began to circle around the edge of the chamber, clearly meaning to flank the man and separate him from his ritual site and the child.
Ling Qi drew an arrow from the quiver on her back and nocked it in one smooth motion, drawing the string back past her ear as she fixed her gaze on the silvery talisman dangling from the leather wraps on the shaman’s wrist. If that was the thing making him untraceable, then it had to go. Wind kicked up and electricity crackled along the length of the missile. The shaman’s eyes flicked toward her, but it was too late. She had already loosed her attack.
At this range, her arrow needed less than a fraction of a second to cross the distance between them, and it struck the talisman with a booming gong, sounding more like she had shot a huge temple bell than a tiny piece of jewelry. For a brief moment, it seemed like her arrow was going to be deflected, the qi in the talisman pushing back against her own offensive qi, but then with a sharp report, it cracked and shattered to pieces, the shaman’s own qi flaring as the arrow tore through the leather wrap on his wrist.
He spun toward her with a grimace of pain on his face and a flicker of alarm and anger in his cold eyes. He raised the implements in his hands, but she already had another arrow set and ready to fly, this time aimed at his chest. Her arrow met with resistance when the hazy smoke in the air condensed around him, forming shadowy pinions of air and dust that absorbed the qi of her attack as they wrapped protectively around him.
Even as she began to move, circling for better position, her sense for qi returned, and she nearly stumbled, gagging as her gorge rose, eyes watering from the terrible feeling that assailed her. The closest comparison she could make was when she was very young, young enough that she had still been with her mother, plague had swept through one of the neighboring districts of the city. The district had been barricaded off and quarantined of course, but she could still remember the smells and the sounds of disease and suffering.
Ling Qi quickly regained her concentration thankfully. As the shaman beat his baton against the drum of stretched hide in his other hand, the panic and anger in his gaze faded into absolute, unwavering determination. She felt the winds shift around her, and the moisture in the air gathering, the dark chamber growing even more cold and damp. Clouds began to form across the ceiling overhead, dark and crackling with electricity.
It was almost enough to mask the dark and gangly shape that emerged from the muddy ceiling above, dropping down with its chipped and rusted spear extended.
Even with her movements sped by the dark qi rushing through her channels, Ling Qi was not fast enough to fully dodge as the skeletal figure struck, spear cratering the ground where she had stood, and immediately lashed out with a mud-caked claw. Her qi prevented the raking skeletal fingers from finding purchase on her flesh.
She felt Su Ling’s qi flare from across the room and saw the shaman’s expression twitch minutely as he shook his head like a bull being bothered by flies. It did not stop him from continuing to beat a steady and ominous rhythm on his drum. The shaman moved from his starting position, seeming to be looking to circle out from between the two of them. is unseen feet struck the ground in time with the steadily louder beats of his drum.
Then, of course, things got worse. As the muddy skeleton, clad in the remains of a guardsman’s armor save for the crude birdlike mask on its head and the cloak of black feathers over its shoulders, rose from his crouch before her, the bone totem pulsed. A rippling ring of visible sickly green qi washed over them all.
Ling Qi nearly wretched, stumbling as her stomach roiled and sweat broke out on her forehead. She blinked away the spots that had appeared in her vision and tried to steady suddenly shaking limbs. She felt ill and weak.
“Incomplete though it might be, our vengeance will be felt, lowlanders.” Ling Qi stiffened as she heard words spoken in heavily accented imperial by the shaman. His hate-filled voice rang out loud over the steady, thunderous beats of his drum.
Ling Qi wanted to throw up her mist, but storing her bow and drawing her flute from the ring would take precious seconds she didn’t have. Besides, between her and Su Ling, was she not the one more suited to dealing out damage? Such were her thoughts as she breathed out, channeling cleansing qi at the same time that she prepared a shot to disrupt the shaman’s defenses.
She loosed her arrow, and it struck home. Her enemy was slow, almost ridiculously so to her eyes, but she supposed he relied on his defense. Unfortunately for him, her arrow cut through his shield of wind and dust, sending snakes of electricity crackling over his limbs. The arrow dug into his side, punching through his heavy robe, and his face twisted into a rictus of pain.
Her concentration on the shaman cost her. The filthy skeleton proved unnervingly fast, crossing the distance she had put between them in only a few instants and thrusting its spear out, blindingly fast, to score a wound across Ling Qi’s thigh. Although the worst was absorbed by her qi, she could still feel blood beginning to flow down her leg.
While she backpedaled, Ling Qi caught sight of Su Ling crouched low near the altar the boy was bound to, her tail waving freely behind her as a second ghostly flame appeared above her head. The shaman’s eyes grew unfocused, nearly causing him to stumble. Unfortunately, Su Ling’s technique didn’t stop the completion of his own technique. The clouds gathering across the ceiling grew dark and crackled with lightning, and actinic white bolts shot down from the ceiling. Although Ling Qi managed to throw herself out of the way, she saw Su Ling get struck with several bolts, protected only by the rapidly dimming flare of her qi, as she snatched the boy away from the altar and the strike zone.
To make matters worse, Ling Qi could hear the sound of splintering wood and eerie cawing from the stairwell. It seemed that the shaman’s crow puppets would soon be arriving to aid their master, and the clouds overhead were only growing larger and darker with every beat of the shaman’s drum. She caught Su Ling’s eye. They needed to put down their enemy fast. She could see two glowing flames over Su Ling’s head. Ling Qi recognized those as the technique Su Ling had used to blow up the cliff side when they fought the sediment guardian at the vent. If Ling Qicould land another shot as well, she was sure the shaman would go down, either from lack of qi or from his wounds.
For the third time today, her arrow flew true, striking the taller man dead center in the chest. His qi flared, but the arrow punched through. The shaman was flung back by the force of the hit, and he slammed into the totem with a pained grunt. Then, Ling Qi had to desperately roll to the side to avoid the skeletal guardian's spear again and was forced to expend qi as the butt of the weapon smashed into her jaw, snapping her head to the side despite the qi cushioning.
A chain of explosions boomed through the cellar as the faint sparks that had lingered around the shaman from Su Ling’s techniques exploded, setting the shaman’s robes aflame and leaving swathes of burned flesh.
Despite the flames, the barbarian pushed himself up, leaving an ashen, bloody handprint on the eerily glowing bone of the totem. “Tch. Still this weak…” He bared his teeth in a bloody smile. “This one’s life will not complete things, but it will have to be enough. Let the black spirits and the Gnawing Ones curse your very bones.”
“Will you just shut up and die already?” Su Ling snapped, weighed down by the unconscious child in her arms, but her complaint was shortly drowned out as Ling Qi felt the totem’s qi flare. The shaman’s eyes rolled back in his head, flesh visibly withering. The arrow she had just let fly struck nothing more than a corpse, and the disgusting qi in the totem surged upward, mingling with the river’s own energy. The man’s puppets clattered to the ground, lifeless.
It was suddenly very cold, and Ling Qi shuddered as she heard a madness tinged wail that seemed to echo through the muddy walls from every direction at once.
“Pretty sure the wards just broke,” Su Ling said dully as she staggered to her feet, palming and consuming her second wellspring pill. “We need to start running now.” The child under her arm still did not stir, although he was obviously breathing.
Ling Qi followed her lead, taking a second wellspring pill as well to restore her qi, but she wasn’t sure she agreed. Wouldn’t fleeing only make them more vulnerable? This room was defensible, and she could fill it entirely with mist.
On the other hand, her qi was low, and she could not restore it any further for some time and neither could Su Ling. Taking additional restoratives would just be like taking poison. Then again… Surely whatever the barbarian shaman had done had been noticed by this point, right? An Elder had to have noticed something so large-scale. They might not need to hold out for long.
Ling Qi chewed her lip in thought for a moment but then nodded, quickly striding over to where the shaman’s body lay. “Alright, we run. Nothing to gain by staying here,” she said, even as she crouched down, quickly scanning over the corpse for anything useful. Her stomach squirmed at the sight of his mummified face, but it was only a barbarian, no matter how much it looked like a person.
Su Ling stared at her briefly and then started toward the door. “Please don’t get too distracted trying to loot the bastard,” she said, sounding exasperated. “We don’t have a lot of time here.” Su Ling began mounting the stairs at a hurried pace.
“Not going to,” Ling Qi replied hurriedly. She had no idea what was valuable so she simply tore off his belt with all of the pouches wholesale, slinging it over her shoulder. Her ring wouldn’t store the belt so there was probably several things of value in the pouches.
That done, Ling Qi rose to her feet and dashed after her companion, storing away her bow and drawing her flute. As she played the first haunting notes of her melody, she was careful to extend the protection over both Su Ling and the unconscious boy. Her feet crunched on the fallen crow skulls even as mist spilled from her flute and filled the stairway, shadows in the mist coalescing into dangerous constructs.
She quickly caught up with Su Ling as they burst out of the shattered cellar doors. Ling Qi followed the other girl’s lead when Su Ling dashed off away from the river where ominous fog was rising, spilling through the streets like the pale fingers of a giant. Another terrible wail of pain, hunger and rage, echoed through the ruined village, the eerie sound chilling her to the bone.
The spirits were rising.