The lessons with Elder Ying proved a stark contrast to the rest of her day. She was not sure when she had become acclimated to having friends and acquaintances around or perhaps it was the echo of Elder Ying’s story, but she did not like being alone again. Meizhen was nowhere to be found, Li Suyin was busy with work, and even Su Ling appeared to be hiding out in seclusion still, going by the sealed entrance to her cave. Gu Xiulan was busy with that business Han Jian had talked about last week as well, which left her with little to do except care for Zhengui and play with him to take her mind off things. She supposed the very loneliness that dogged her helped in a way; she had not felt quite so in sync with the melody of the vale for quite some time.
There were no great insights this time nor new sections of the song when she mastered the fourth measure of the Forgotten Vale Melody art, just refinement of what she already knew. Peeking ahead at the notes of the fifth measure though, she could tell she was nearing the end of the melody as recorded in the jade slip. The sixth and final measure would require her to break through to the third realm to fully understand and cultivate. Even the fifth would require her to step into late yellow, but she was close enough to that precipice that it didn’t concern her too much.
By the time she had ended her practice, night had fallen, and Zhengui had fallen asleep for the night. Once she tucked him into the modified kiln shelf and set a low blaze burning, she set off.
As she left the mountain and traversed into the forest, flitting through the trees, she let her worries and concerns about her friends go for the moment and simply focused on the task ahead. While she couldn’t say she’d ever stolen from spider spirits before, the covert acquisition of items - or harvesting the Dreamspinner webs as the Sect job described it - wasn’t anything new to Ling Qi. It felt liberating to stop worrying about all the complicated problems that had arisen in the past months and get back to something simple.
The lethargic weight of the curse on her limbs was an irritant, but it was just another minor obstacle. She wouldn’t need to fight after all, and although she could temporarily purge it with Argent Mirror if necessary, she wouldn’t fail like that.
Even with her speed and stamina, it took awhile to reach the spider nest, but it was obvious when she did. Ahead of her, she could see dozens of towering trees joined together by vast shrouds of glistening white webbing that seemed to sparkle with a multitude of colors, hypnotic in the way they shifted with even the slightest breeze. In fact, she was momentarily entranced by the patterns in the webs before she mastered herself, ejecting the minor influence. She would need to be careful inside; the webbing she was to collect was the finer silk from deeper in the nest, but the effect would be stronger there.
Ling Qi began by circling the perimeter of the nest, figuring out the best approach. As she skulked through the underbrush near the web-draped branches of the nest, she caught her first sight of the spiders themselves. The smallest were the size of a big man’s hand while the larger ones were the size of dogs, their jittering movements eerie to her eyes at that size. Some clung to the webs, completely still, while others skittered through the branches, spinning and repairing webs or tending to wriggling cocoons of worrying size. Birds and beasts of all kinds lay trapped in the webs. Although she had been provided simple leather gloves stitched with formations to counteract the web’s adhesive to collect the webbing, that wouldn’t help the rest of her.
After thoroughly scouting the perimeter, Ling Qi began her approach, intending to slip in through a pair of less heavily webbed trees that saw little traffic from the nests inhabitants. She was a little rusty, she thought. Her lack of practice had made her movements a little less sure, but the grace and calm granted by the dark qi in her channels and the moon shining dimly overhead was enough to steady her nerves and keep her from making any mistakes. She slipped between the trees like a shadow, avoiding attention from the spiders skittering and whispering overhead as she ducked and wove her way through the maze-like interior of the nest.
It was tense, and her heart beat loudly in her ears when she glimpsed a truly massive arachnid, easily the size of a full grown horse, pass above her. Its spearlike legs and wriggling fangs were an unnerving sight, even to someone not particularly afraid of their kind. The fact that its cultivation matched hers didn’t help. Despite the dangers, Ling Qi couldn’t help but grin, feeling a thread of excitement that she had not managed in some time. Her fellow disciples had been far less guarded than this.
Surrounded by dozens of spirit beasts, she slipped deeper into the nest, focusing hard on avoiding being entranced by the psychedelic colors of the shifting patterns in the webs, ignoring the faces and scenes shifting in the tunnels of webbing around her. Dreamspinner spiders trapped prey in illusions woven of the final, drugged thoughts and dreams of their previous prey; the effect grew stronger with more contact with the web.
Soon, she reached the inner nest where the webbing grew thicker still, hanging in solid sheets between the branches, each strand as thick as a finger. Ling Qi hardly dared to breathe. The strongest of the dreamspinner spiders would be here so she would need to be quick in filling the bags once she got started.
Ling Qi’s hands trembled as she began to collect the webbing. It was thick and viscous, resisting the cut of her knife as she gripped it tightly, qi circulating through her fingers to force them into absolute stillness. Minimum size for pieces should be no less than two handspans, she recalled, so she cut quickly but carefully, slipping fluttering sheets into the enchanted bag at her waist before moving on.
Despite her best efforts, her actions did not go unnoticed. As she hurried to fill the seemingly bottomless bag, she could hear chittering begin to arise around her, the sounds of spiders growing agitated. They had begun to take action against her intrusion. Ling Qi forcibly focused on her task, but she became bolder in her collection of the webbing. The spiders were already aware of her anyway so she might as well harvest greater sheets of silk. She darted away from skittering shadows and began to cut down entire sections of webbing.
And still, the bag was not full. Just how much was she supposed to collect?!
She could hear the spiders now, a growing vibration traveling through every web and branch as scores of legs trod the paths of the nest and shadows grew thick. She couldn’t stay hidden forever like this. When a cat-sized spider leapt at her face from a branch above, fangs waving, she had enough. She lashed out with her fist, punching the leaping spider hard enough to reverse its momentum and send it tumbling back into the undergrowth. She seized the web she had been working on and ripped, putting her full strength into the motion and tearing down the entire sheet, a piece of webbing large enough to make a man’s cloak.
Then she ran, her skin prickling and sparks of color forming in the corners of her eyes from the slow build up of contact with the webbing. She did her best to avoid the aggressive spiders as she hurried to stuff the huge piece of web into the mouth of the bag. Of course, she found that now it was full and half of the sticky white material flapped from the top of the bag. She summoned her flute to her hand, no longer worried if the web fell out as the ground trembled with the angry sounds of the spider nest. Even as dark qi flooded her limbs, obscuring her passage and allowing her to blink through spaces too small for her to consider before, she prepared to play if necessary.
The next few minutes were harrowing as she sprinted as fast as she could, the world reduced to a blur around her as she fended off the spiders in her path, quick strikes sending the smaller ones flying even as she tumbled under, leapt over, or otherwise avoided the larger ones. More than once, she used the skittering beasts as stepping stones, her boots coming down on carapace and beady eyes to launch herself through gaps in the webs, black qi trailing behind her limbs.
By the time she had left the nest behind, her heartbeat thundered in her ears and she was short of breath and qi, heavily drained from constant activation of Sable Crescent Step… but she had left her pursuers behind.
Her laughter rang out through the dark forest as she caught her breath. That… had been a lot of fun despite more than a few close calls. She would have to look into more jobs of this kind.
Ling Qi returned to the Outer Sect mountain after that, turning in her full bag of Dreamspinner web in trade for a credit of Sect Points to her account for the completed job. By the time she had settled everything and cleaned up from the jaunt, the sun was already rising, and it was time for her next lesson with Elder Ying.