Ling Qi and Su Ling ran with all the considerable speed their qi-enhanced physiques could provide, although Ling Qi was pacing herself a bit to not leave Su Ling - and the boy she carried - behind. Although the buildings were blurring from their speed, clawing hands and glowing eyes were beginning to appear in the mist, growing in number by the second. They reached the edge of the village in moments and were met with a veritable wall of hungry, shrieking ghosts. There were even more behind them though, along with more than one of the watery armored figures, so all they could do was push forward.
Ling Qi felt Su Ling’s qi plummet, almost vanishing from her senses entirely, but she also saw a corridor opening as many of the ghosts turned to claw and swarm over mere figments. She shot the girl a grateful look that was probably missed going by the strain on Su Ling’s expression.
Their mad dash continued. Although they were still harried by clawing hands, Ling Qi managed to avoid them, her own shadowy constructs ripping at and further distracting the ghosts. Su Ling stumbled and let out a growl of pain several times, but Ling Qi managed to help the girl keep up despite the dead weight of the child under Su Ling’s arm.
Then Ling Qi herself stumbled, a sudden weakness taking her limbs. She tasted blood on her tongue, and her stomach roiled. Here, in the forest surrounded by maddened ghosts, she could not afford any weakness at all, but the sickly, diseased qi she had thought purged by her use of Argent Mirror had reemerged, clogging her channels and sapping her strength.
She heard Su Ling curse beside her, the fox-eared girl’s face growing pale as well, and knew she wasn’t the only one suffering from the effects of the sickly qi. Ling Qi continued to play determinedly, not willing to allow their last line of defense to fade. She altered the tune, channeling an even greater amount of qi into the mist, and began the Elegy.
It helped. Ghosts recoiled, their very essence drained away by the mist. But the forest and the ghosts seemed to stretch on forever in Ling Qi’s eyes. Her legs had started burning with unnatural fatigue, and spots began appearing in her vision as her muscles cramped.
Suddenly, the ground roiled under their feet, bucking like an enraged animal and throwing them to the ground. Ling Qi despaired as her concentration and her melody broke. She pushed herself up on trembling limbs as the earth shook beneath her, roots being ripped from the soil and entire trees pitched over and away from them. Ling Qi blinked in befuddlement as she realized that she was now at eye level with the canopy of the forest. She looked back and found a terrifying sight.
The village they had fled from and its surrounding forest were sinking downward, crumbling into a yawning void of a sinkhole a thousand meters and more across. The qi in the air was thickening, spirits wailing as they disintegrated under the weight of the heavy mountain qi spreading in a rippling grey curtain around the edges of the hole.
“What now?” Su Ling groaned, pushing herself up as well. The boy lay on the grass beside her, still unconscious; Ling Qi thought distantly that he must be under some kind of sleeping curse to have slept right through all of this. They continued to rise on a pillar of earth and stone snaking upward until it was dozens of meters above the tops of the trees.
“Now, young lady, I am taking care of this troubling matter.” The two of them jerked at the sound of an aged female voice coming from behind them. Ling Qi turned her head to catch sight of a short figure in a plain brown and green gown, dust and earth still tumbling down to indicate where she had risen from the earth.
It was almost disconcerting, the dissonance between her senses. Her eyes showed her a short old woman with graying hair in a simple bun and a lined face that seemed suited to cheer and smiles, even if her lips were currently drawn down in a frown as she surveyed the devastation where the ruined village had been. She was, if anything, a little on the plump side, the perfect image of a cheerful old grandmother.
To her spiritual senses, the old woman may as well have been a mountain, vast and insurmountable. She was in the violet soul realm and on the edge of something more. There was really only one thing she could be.
“Sect Elder.” Ling Qi shakily clasped her hands together and dipped her head. “Thank you very much for your aid.”
“Y-yeah, we really needed the save.” Su Ling looked nervous, almost ready to bolt, but she hastily copied Ling Qi’s actions.
“It was no trouble,” the elderly woman said kindly, gesturing for them to raise their heads. “The two of you have worked hard tonight and suffered for it, I think.” Ling Qi twitched in alarm as she felt the woman’s fingers on her forehead. She hadn’t even seen the Elder move. She met the short woman’s considering gaze. “My, even incomplete, that is a potent curse. It is fortunate that you were able to bring this to my attention, or things could have been far worse.”
Ling Qi had a strong feeling she wasn’t just referring to their personal ailments. If destroying a kilometer of forest was needed to contain things, how much worse would it have been if things had gone off without a hitch?
“Are we gonna be alright?” She glanced over to Su Ling, who was watching the Elder warily. “This… It isn’t permanent, right?”
The Elder nodded, lowering her hand from Ling Qi’s forehead and returning her gaze to crumbling sinkhole beyond. “No, nothing like that, dear,” she answered. “It may take a month or two of treatment, but you will both be good as new in time. I will write the writs to the medicine hall myself for the two of you.” The Elder seemed somewhat distracted as if she wasn’t just talking to them.
Ling Qi grimaced at the idea of suffering weakness for a whole month or two. She could purge it for a short time with Argent Mirror, but it was still going to be a pain. “This… What was all this?” She couldn’t help but ask. “And… I mean, what was that Cloud Tribe barbarian trying to do?”
“Forbidden arts, performed out of desperation and desire for vengeance, most likely,” the Elder replied with a hint of sadness. “Such things usually are - when they are not mere plays for power. I suppose I shall have to get the details from you girls to determine which it was. Come. Let us get you back to the mountain.”
It was a little bizarre riding back, first to the village to drop off the boy with his tearful and thankful parents. Ling Qi felt distinctly uncomfortable to have the boy’s father, a man grown and the owner of the lumber yard, kowtowing at her feet. Going by Su Ling’s expression, it was a feeling shared. Elder Ying had been no help either, leaving the two of them to handle the thankful mortals while she spoke with the city’s governor.
After that, it was back to the mountain and the Medicine Hall where they had to relay every last detail of their adventure. In the end, the Elder’s expression was grave, and she had left them to rest and circulate the medicinal energies of their treatment to wear away the lingering curse.
They had also been left with a choice. They had received the sect points they were owed of course, but Elder Ying had been very firm in insisting that they not speak of the events to anyone else. In return, Elder Ying offered them a choice of an additional reward for their hard work and service.
“Well, that was a… thing, wasn’t it?” Ling Qi said tiredly, staring up at the ceiling of the recovery room she was sharing with Su Ling. The Elder had departed, giving them time to think on their potential rewards.
“That’s one way to put it,” the other girl responded grumpily from her own bed. “Shoulda figured going along with you would be trouble.”
“Hey, what’s that supposed to mean?” Ling Qi turned her head to shoot a glare at the other girl.
Su Ling gave her an unimpressed look in return. “That things fuckin’ escalate around you,” she said dryly. “Not like it’s your fault or anything. Just seems like trouble likes following you is all.”
Ling Qi continued to frown at her but eventually huffed, turning her gaze back to the ceiling. “...That’s fair, I guess. Still, not like we didn’t profit from it, right?” Between the bonus from Elder Ying and the Sect Points, she thought a month of feeling a little weak was worth it, particularly since she could temporarily throw off the curse with Argent Mirror if need be.
“Yeah, I guess so,” Su Ling said distantly like she was thinking of something else. “I wonder how the kid is doing. If we were hit bad, he’s gotta be pretty sick too.”
Ling Qi frowned. “Well, Elder Ying wouldn’t have let us take him back to the village if he were really sick, right?” The Elder hadn’t directly told them what the shaman had intended, but going by the impression she had of the curse qi and the other details, it seemed fairly obvious he had intended some kind of plague, perhaps spread by the river and its spirits.
Su Ling shot her a sidelong look. “...Yeah. Well, if it was catching anyway,” she said, sounding a little unsure. “Maybe I can check back. I recognized most of the herbs that went into the tea they gave us.”
Ling Qi shrugged. It didn’t really have anything to do with her. She had enough worries without adding unrelated people to the mix, but if it made Su Ling happy, that was fine. “So, what are you going to do with your Sect Points and your bonus?” she asked, turning the conversation back toward more pleasant matters.
Su Ling frowned at her before shaking her head. “Thinking I might cash in the bonus to get my own pill furnace so I don’t have to keep spending points on the Production Hall ones.”
Ling Qi sat up in surprise. “Isn’t that kind of a waste? Spending a unique reward on a talisman?”
“None of the Outer Sect disciples can make ‘em, far as I know,” Su Ling replied, throwing her arm over her eyes instead of sitting up. “Besides, I told ya I didn’t want to get tangled up in the Sect and political stuff more than I had to.”
Ling Qi shot the other girl a consternated look. Su Ling was really stubborn about some things it seemed. “Well, if you say so,” she said dubiously. “Still, thank you for coming along. I couldn’t have done it without you.”
Su Ling was silent for a few seconds. “... You're welcome. Not sure I want to do something like this again though, at least not till I get stronger.” There was something else besides weariness in her voice, but in her tired state, Ling Qi couldn’t tell what it was.
Ling Qi thought that was a pretty fair assessment. Things had come pretty close to going badly for them. Ling Qi fell silent after that, allowing the medicinal energy to circulate while she rested.