After a timeless instant, Ling Qi’s eyes fluttered open once more, and she found herself staring up at an unfamiliar ceiling of natural stone. She quickly scrambled to her feet, looking around. She was relieved to find Xiulan a scant couple of meters away, unsteadily climbing to her feet herself. They were in a shallow cave, featureless and non-descript.
Thunder rumbled outside, and Ling Qi felt herself tensing instinctively as her qi senses came back into focus. There was a heavy and oppressive weight in the air, like nothing she had felt before. It made her uneasy.
“Not the most auspicious starting line,” Gu Xiulan said quietly as she peered around, seemingly unaffected by the atmosphere. “There is a battle occurring nearby,” she added. “What is our objective though?”
“Maybe we’re to support Imperial forces in the area?” Ling Qi guessed. A battle. Was that what this feeling was?
“Perhaps,” Xiulan said warily. “Let us see what lies outside.”
That seemed reasonable enough to Ling Qi so she nodded, joining her friend in carefully moving toward the entrance of the cave. What she saw when she neared the entrance stole her breath away. The cave they had appeared in was located on a steep cliff overlooking a shallow depression, its high elevation giving her clear sight for kilometers under the storm-darkened sky. Before her lay a city, perhaps a bit larger than her Tonghou, laid out in the same sort of layered set of rings, walls separating one section of the city from the next.
The difference, of course, lay in the fact that it was on fire. Thick, cloying black smoke rose from smoldering buildings, and entire fields were burning, framing the city wall in lurid light and soot. That was not what drew her eye though. A rippling dome of translucent cyan qi rose from the city walls, the stonework below burning with the light of thousands of complex characters.
Then there was the noise. A terrible, reverberating scream arose as a black hail fell upon the city. The dome over the city flared violently where the arrows struck, visibly straining under the assault before the arrows shattered.
Her eyes tracked upward, following the path the projectiles had taken, and for a moment, she thought she was looking at a river of thunderclouds, moving as if it were alive. Her mistake became clear a moment later as her enhanced vision allowed her to make out the individual figures among the churning clouds that roiled beneath the hooves of the blue and grey furred horses the barbarians rode. Thick, form-concealing furs and occasional armor glittered in the light of the lightning, and shadows of smaller, slighter figures darted at the edge of the horde, hanging from odd constructions like the wings of a bat strapped to their backs.
They were circling away from the city even as it answered in kind, massive bolts and glimmering nets that unraveled into the sky catching horsemen that had not wheeled quickly enough. The titanic river of clouds split in the wake of the counterattack, columns of riders making to encircle the city. Arrows continued to fall like a screaming rain, drowning out the sounds of the fires.
“They are going to lose,” Gu Xiulan assessed, drawing Ling Qi’s attention away from the spectacle. “If they merely cower behind the walls, it is only a matter of time. Were the rest of the Imperial forces routed?”
Ling Qi turned her attention back to the city, her face pale. How was her friend so calm? Even knowing it wasn’t real, she felt like she could hear the screams of the dying from here. As if to punctuate her point, the sound of shrieking wind that accompanied the cloud tribe’s volleys roared to a crescendo, and thunder rumbled as the sky lit up, blazing lines of lightning stretching toward a figure at the head of one of the columns of riders.
A bolt fell, and one of the ballistae towers crumbled, stone and men falling as the barrier above the city gave a tortured shriek. The hole blown in the shield began to seal shut, ever so slowly.
“What are we supposed to do about something like that?” Ling Qi asked in a furious whisper, gesturing at the scene before them. She was confident in her abilities, but this was something else.
Xiulan began to speak, only to cut herself off, as fire bloomed in the air before them. Instead of an attack, the fire formed into flickering characters.
Behold the price of sloth and unreadiness.
Only death awaits those who shirk their duty.
Yet all lives must not be forfeit. The Empire protects its own.
Seek those hidden, and lead them from death.
Authority has been granted. Squander it not.
“I suppose that answers your question.” Xiulan huffed.
Ling Qi frowned at the fading words. “So, we’re supposed to find people in the countryside who haven’t been killed and lead them away?”
Her friend snorted. “A few panicked farmers are not worth our time. No, I know the markings for shelters and escape routes. In a situation like this, some of the noble families should have gotten their non-combatants away from the walls and hidden. It will be troublesome to move with such a group though. If we move quickly in the shadow of the forest, we may have a chance.”
Ling Qi shot the girl a sour look at her easy dismissal of the common folk… but was her friend really wrong? If there were already shelters where people were gathered in hiding, wouldn’t they save more by focusing on them? Were they really supposed to abandon the city to its fate?
“The question, I think, is whether we should split up to gather as many as we can or stay together,” Gu Xiulan mused. “I could show you the signs easily enough. We will need to move soon though. I imagine that once the walls fall, the barbarians will scatter to pillage the surroundings.”
No, the text was right. The city was lost; there was nothing she could do about that. The only thing to be done was to try and get as many people out as possible. She did wonder what the test’s measure of ‘escaped’ was.
"How will we get them to listen to us though?" Ling Qi asked.
"I assume we will be seen as officials of some rank," Xiulan replied, the fires below reflecting in her considering gaze. "The last line seemed to indicate so, and this is but a dream."
“Show me the symbols on the way down,” Ling Qi decided as she looked up, tracking the curving path of the army overhead. Even as she watched, one of the halves swerved back in, raining further projectiles down on the city below. “We’ll need to figure out where we’re going to meet up though.”
“The bold approach then?” Xiulan asked lightly, a sharp grin forming on her lips. “Well, I will not object. We will need to find a landmark… Something northward, I think.”
Ling Qi nodded. Given the terrain, this was a city on the border, like the town at the base of the Sect’s mountain. North was the only direction that really made sense for a withdrawal since they didn’t know if cities to the east and west were also being attacked. She scanned the horizon while keeping a wary eye on the sky overhead.
“Perhaps that outpost?” Xiulan asked, pointing out a plume of smoke rising from a rectangle of damaged stone that stood in a cleared section of the trees, some distance away from the road that curved north, following the flow of a small waterway. “It looks to have fallen already, and I see no enemies about.”
“They would have to be pretty foolish to not leave something at a hardpoint like that,” Ling Qi said dubiously. She had only the simplest understanding of tactics and war, mostly picked up by osmosis from being near Han Jian when he was thinking aloud, but that seemed obvious.
“Only if they had any intention of holding territory or any need for mundane lines of supply,” Xiulan shot back, giving her a long-suffering look. “Are you so unaware of your histories? It is one of the many reasons why the cloud tribes are so troublesome to deal with.”
Ling Qi huffed and crossed her arms. “I haven’t had time to study that kind of thing. Tonghou hasn’t been raided in more than a hundred years,” she replied, the factoid rising from some forgotten corner of her memory.
“Is that where you are from? I would have expected a town closer to the border given your complexion,” Xiulan mused, eyeing her speculatively. Ling Qi scowled at her, but the other girl shook her head. “Well, no matter. Let us get moving. Every moment spent here is one lost.”
“Fair enough,” Ling Qi said grudgingly, still a little irked at the other girl’s casual mention of her deficiency. “So, what are the signs I should be looking out for?”
They set off, running down from the mouth of the cave they had begun the trial in, leaping easily from one crumbling ledge to the next until they had gained the cover of the scrub trees in the hills below. All the while, Ling Qi listened intently as Xiulan described the various waystones and subtle signs that marked places of escape for Imperial citizens in times of trouble.
It was irritating that she had never known of such a thing, but apparently, people like her weren’t worth such precautions. If a spirit got loose in the city, it was best to just find a shrine. But apparently, part of guard duty included the checking of spirit shelters around cities that served as fallback points for young cultivators and their servants who found themselves in trouble. These shelters also allowed them safe passage back into the city, or out in this case. She pushed the thought aside for the moment; it wasn’t as if it was really surprising that nobles and cultivators had their own routes.
She had a job to do here, and she would do it, even if she found herself glancing with worry at the struggling city. There would be thousands of people just like she had been there, and they were just going to leave them to suffer at the hands of barbarians. Intellectually, she knew that this was simply an illusion, but it still sat poorly with her. But there was nothing that she or Xiulan could do in the face of the living storm that was the cloud tribe army though. Even with her every technique active, she had no doubt that the tribe had enough arrows to fill every inch of her mist with many to spare. It would be suicide.
Ling Qi had not lived her life until this point taking risks like that. She had grown bolder as she grew stronger, but she wasn’t a fool. So Ling Qi ignored the occasional scream she caught on the wind and the sound of burning homes and farms, focusing on the path ahead. She and Gu Xiulan split when they reached more level ground with Ling Qi heading west and her friend east. They would circle the city and gather everyone they could on the way to the outpost. Then they would head north, moving away from the road to avoid detection but not straying so far as to risk riling up the spirits of the deeper wilderness.
Ling Qi just hoped the distance needed to count for the purposes of the test wasn’t too long. It would be troublesome if she wore herself out entirely during this first test. She would try to stick to her less expensive techniques, the ones whose efficiency were refined by the talismans she wore and used.
With thoughts of such efficiency in mind, Ling Qi did her best to stay under the cover of the trees without use of the active techniques of Sable Crescent Step. Combined with the storm clouds overhead, it was enough to let the cooling chill of the meridians in her legs and spine speed her movements further. That it hid her better from the sight of the barbarians far overhead was a bonus as well.
Every step she took felt tenser than the last, her full focus split between looking for the stones placed to point the way to her targets and remaining as silent and unobtrusive as possible. She kept a tight grip on her qi, not allowing so much as a wisp to escape into the environment. The world blurred around her as she ran, a testament to her speed, even while remaining unseen.
The first waystone, she caught out of the corner of her eye. A single mossy white stone nestled among the roots of a tree, only a bit larger than her fist, and the markings upon it were little more than scratches. Pausing to push a whisper of qi into the stone revealed where to head.
Another stone and another followed until at last, she was led to a small ridge with a single tree clinging tenaciously to the weathered edge, its roots trailing down in a way that vaguely resembled an arch. Ling Qi could see a certain haziness to it, her senses made supernaturally sharp by the Discerning Gaze technique of the Argent Mirror Art.
Her hand passed through dirt and loose rock as if it were not there, and she found herself before a stone door inset into the ridge. Recalling her friend’s words, she studied the pattern on the door and quickly traced her fingers over the appropriate marks, injecting them with a tiny wisp of qi to activate and release the ‘lock’ upon it. She was a little dubious about the passes being the same despite this being an event from hundreds of years ago, but they were apparently standardized in each province to prevent confusion and only reacted to human qi.
In any case, it worked, and the door ground open, revealing a cramped, square chamber, dimly lit by glowing stones set in the ceiling. A tunnel was at the rear of the chamber, its direction leading toward the city. What brought Ling Qi pause were its occupants. More than a dozen people, who had been engaged in speaking to each other. had turned to face the opening door.
Three of them wore the uniform and armor of guards and had cultivations in the late first realm. One wore polished armor, a plumed helm and the colors of some noble house or another. He looked a few years her elder and was in the early second realm. The rest though were children and servants. Some of the children were as old as eleven or twelve with the first hints of cultivation; others were much younger, down to a boy who couldn’t have been older than a year held in the arms of a trembling woman in servant’s livery only a bare step up from mortality.
Briefly, she froze at the eyes falling upon her, unsure of what to do. She relied upon her experience with Meizhen, Xiulan, Cai Renxiang and other ladies of rank and drew herself up, not allowing a hint of her own lack of confidence to show.
“I am glad I did not waste my time coming here,” she said cooly. “We must leave this place quickly. All shelters are being evacuated to the north.”
That statement drew wide eyes and whispers from the servants and guards, and the older man in the polished armor stepped forward to speak, an expression of worry on his features.
“Lady Chu,” he began hesitantly, almost throwing her off with the title. “Though I thank you for your effort, is the situation truly so bad that it is worth risking travel through the forest with children?” he asked, a hint of incredulity in his tone. “It is only a barbarian raid, if a large one. Surely-”
She couldn’t let them start to doubt her, or they would never come out of this hole. She knew people well enough for that. Since he recognized her as someone of rank, she would simply lean on that.
“Would I have wasted the time to come here if not?” she cut him off. “That I would risk myself alone outside the walls trivially? This is no simple raid. It is more dire than that.” She felt a stab of guilt at the growing fear among the servants and children and the whispers her sharp ears caught.
“Elder Sister will…”
“What is happening…”
“Follow me or don’t. My duty is to help as many escape as possible. I won’t fail in that, and there is no time to waste.” Ling Qi couldn’t break character, and distant and cold was the best method to avoid being questioned.
The man who had spoken to her had grown pale, and he gripped the hilt of the sword at his hip with a white-knuckled grip. He quickly bowed, his back stiff. “My apologies for questioning you, Lady Chu! Please give us a moment to prepare. We did not expect such a journey.”
She nodded once sharply and turned away, pacing back to the edge of the illusion to keep an eye on the stormy sky. She was closer to the city now, close enough to hear the distant beat of thousands of hooves thundering through the sky like a low rumble in her bones. Thankfully, they were still distant enough that she could only see the roiling edges of their unnatural storm clouds amidst the more normal ones that were gathering.
Shortly thereafter, she was on the move again, albeit slower given those she was traveling with. This was going to get dangerous quickly, she knew. With the exception of the armored men, the adults were occupied with carrying the smaller children, and her group would grow more and more difficult to hide as she picked up more people from the shelters.
On the upside, the spokesman had a much better idea of the locations of the shelters remaining on her path, which allowed them to travel a more efficient path. It remained, however, a trial to keep the train of people moving as quietly and unobtrusively as possible.
Somehow, she managed. Channeling her best impression of Meizhen, her harshly whispered commands kept everyone in line and moving with utmost care. Even the children failed to make a ruckus, accidental or otherwise.
It was mentally exhausting, keeping track of everyone, especially as time passed and they reached shelter after shelter, picking up more civilians. Twenty, then thirty, the group swiftly grew until she had more than half a hundred people under her care, the vast majority of which were children and other non-combatants. She had perhaps a dozen guardsmen and two additional early second realm officers by the time the group turned to begin heading north.
It was painfully slow to move such a group carefully. Unseen was out of the question, but she could manage to keep them to the more covered parts of the forest. The invasion seemed to have put most of the spirits to flight at least so they went mostly unmolested in that regard.
There was trouble when their circling brought them close enough that the group could see the wavering, weakened barrier of the city and the broken towers on the walls. She did her best to keep them moving, despite the grief and fear that rippled through the group at the sight.
By her measure, nearly two hours had passed and the sky was beginning to grow dark above the clouds. She wondered how the city was still standing. Either the barrier and walls were much stronger than she imagined or the barbarians were merely harassing the defenders, refusing to engage and suffer casualties when their target could be worn down with simple time.
... It was what she would do after all. Why engage an enemy who could be defeated with patience? The cloud tribe’s chosen tactic worked in her favor for the moment though. The group was still a couple kilometers from the arranged meeting point. Hopefully, she could reach the damaged outpost before the city fell.
As that thought passed her mind, she felt a change in the rumbling from behind and above. There was another sound now that rose above the thunderous beat of hooves.
The clouds twisted overhead, lightning flashing in their dark bellies, as a light rain began to fall. Was it her imagination or were the clouds beginning to swirl over the city?
As the rain began to fall in earnest, the circling columns of horsemen fell back from the churning clouds overhead, and she saw, through the rain, the mounted barbarians raising their fists to the sky. As the wind began to scream, she finally understood what she was hearing.
Ten thousand voices exulted in unison as the wind picked up and the clouds began to stretch down. A thousand crackling strands of lighting traced the edges of the distorting cloud as the swirling winds reached a peak, drowning out their cries.
A massive funnel crackling with heavenly wrath stretched down like the finger of a great spirit, and the barrier over the city shattered. The governor’s manse, standing high and proud at the center of the city, vanished, torn apart by screaming winds, the central district of the city obliterated in an instant.
Ling Qi’s face could hardly pale further, and from her charges, she could hear the rising sounds of terror as well. It looked like their time was up.