As the rain began to pound on the canopy of the trees above, Ling Qi spun on her heel, giving her a look at the fear, anger, and despair blooming on the faces of the people she was leading.
“Keep moving!” she snapped, pushing her own fear down. “We cannot stop now. Grieve later!”
Her command startled those nearest out of their shock, but there was still hesitation and milling about from the group as a whole. Ling Qi grit her teeth and turned her eyes to one of the three second realms she had with her, the older man in the plumed helmet she had met in the first shelter.
“Help me get them moving again. We can’t afford to be spotted now. Get the guards and your peers to start organizing people. Every second we stand here is one wasted.”
The officer hastily bowed his head to her and muttered an acknowledgement, and Ling Qi cringed. She would have to hope he could get through to everyone because she did not have the skills for this scenario. Organizing people, calming down panicked civilians... The Elder of this trial might as well have asked her to fly unaided.
She set off through the intensifying rain to spread her commands to the others who might actually be able to accomplish soothing the group and to make it known that she needed volunteers to play scout and potential distraction. A fearful glance back showed the barbarian army pouring into the city like the rain, the lines on the walls breaking as the men atop them were trampled by lightning-shod hooves.
Luckily for her, some among those she had gathered had the knack for doing what she could not, and soon, everyone was moving, if painfully slow for her liking. The pounding rain turning the ground to muck certainly didn’t help matters. On the other hand, the reduced visibility could favor them… if the barbarians were also hindered by it.
She didn’t really want to think much at all. She had seen brutality on the streets of Tonghou - seen grown men beat a child half to death, seen the marks on girls less fleet of foot than her, and ran across corpses in the alleys and gutters - but the scale of what was going on behind her shook her. She fell into the breathing exercises of her Argent Mirror art to keep herself calm and focused. She could think about things like that later.
She leapt from the ground, landing in a crouch on a tree branch that wavered under her weight, and then blurred to the next branch, the edges of her limbs growing misty as she took advantage of the waning light. Ling Qi needed to make sure the perimeter stayed clear and that everyone kept moving in the right direction. She would take an outrider role, alongside a handful of others that had an art or two suitable for the role. If it seemed discovery was inevitable, the scout would make themselves known and draw attention away from the main group.
Ling Qi thought she was likely the only one who would survive doing so; none of the others could throw off pursuers well enough by her measure. But it was the best they could do, given the situation.
So they moved, leaving the rapidly falling city behind them with all the haste that could be instilled in the terrified people, even as the rain grew more intense, falling in heavy sheets.
It was a hard thing, keeping the group heading in the right direction while also preventing them from making too much of commotion. Only rapid reaction on her part and discipline among the guards allowed it. They proceeded as quickly as could be expected, which was still all too slow for Ling Qi’s taste, but all things considered, they ate up the ground covering the first kilometer with relative alacrity.
Behind them, the situation of the city continued to devolve. When Ling Qi took an opportunity to peer back from a shaded perch, she found the walls empty of defenders and the gates open. Even at this distance, she could see the movement of people fleeing from the city in the flat, cleared land around it. The barbarians ran rampant over the rooftops and through the streets, and clumps of horsemen and smaller, wing-mounted figures were splitting off to chase down those fleeing and ranging further afield.
Several times, there were close calls with the roving bands, and she got a proper look at the barbarians as they rode overhead on their stocky steeds. Their blue-grey horses were thick of limb and somewhat short compared to the horses she was used to seeing with long, untrimmed black manes.
The barbarians themselves wore thick furs over plate-slatted armor of bone or wood. It was odd how little metal she saw on them. The helms they wore were pointed but slanted backward, and thick tassels of fur and beads hung down over their ears and necks. Their faces were obscured by odd mask of bone and crystal over their faces, with painted and carved patterns in different color and shema for each warrior.
She also got a look at the figures on the gliders. Some were young men, boys really, by their builds and the bits of their faces she could see They lacked the older warriors’ masks, and instead, they had their mouths wrapped under cloth. They were uniformly in the first realm from what she could tell.
A rather smaller number of them were women, or at least she was pretty sure they were. They wore thick and heavy robes just like the men, but their hair was braided long and the shape seemed to match. They wore thick bands of bead and cloth around their heads, and their faces were shrouded by visors of the same clear substance as the warriors’ masks with cloth attached to the bottom that hung heavy with embroidery and beads of painted bone and stone.
There weren’t very many Cloud tribe women, and they were never alone or in small groups like the younger men on their strange wood and cloth wings. Instead, when she saw one, they were always with a group of five or more second realm warriors. Unlike the men, who were armed with heavy recurve bows and swords or spears with curved blades, they had no apparent armaments at all.
Her closest calls were with those larger groups for the pairs and trios of warriors young and old were enthusiastic with victory and not as observant as they could be. Twice though, Ling Qi found herself holding her breath and qi alike as a group of five or six horsemen thundered overhead with a sharp-eyed glider in the center of their formation.
Once even, she found herself having to distract them, a fired arrow drawing eyes away from her escaping charges. Luckily, it had been one of the smaller bands so she had lead them on a merry chase before escaping and circling back to her charges, once she was sure she had them chasing sightings of her in the wrong direction. It cost her a bit of qi though, both to speed her movements and render her trail trackless.
Others were not so lucky. By the time the group reached the ruined outpost, five of the guardsmen were dead or missing, selling their lives to draw the attention of the barbarian outriders.
The sun was setting behind the storm clouds when they arrived, and many of the refugees she had lead here collapsed from exhaustion when she finally called a halt, allowing them to rest for the moment. She left the two remaining second realms in charge while she went east to scout for the approach of Gu Xiulan and whoever she had managed to save. The rain had let up somewhat, now falling in a steady patter rather than drenching sheets, but Ling Qi was already soaked to the bone so it hardly mattered.
She was pleased to see the sun setting. Not only would it empower one of her best arts in Sable Crescent Step, but also the Cloud Tribe probably didn’t have universal night vision so it would be easier to avoid their attention. The great moving storm cloud over the city had either dispersed or been grounded by this point, and the roaming outriders seemed thinner in the air. They were likely settling in for the night.
Her worry grew as time passed and she saw no sign of Gu Xiulan. She scanned the horizon and found far greater numbers of still active barbarians in the east. Ling Qi ranged further east cautiously. She did not want to go too far, but it would be some time before her group was ready to move again. The pace had been punishing for the many civilians, particularly as more and more of the children had run out of stamina, requiring adults to carry or help them.
She first saw sign of Xiulan in the form of an occasional sparking light within the trees. That something resolved itself quickly enough. In the shadow of the trees, she saw a small group of people, a bit less than a score, moving rapidly through the woods in the wake of a flickering, light-shrouded figure in Xiulan.
The girl looked distinctly unhappy and just as soaked as she was, steam rising from her soaked skin and clothing even as sparks danced at her heels with each step. A quick glance at the rest showed only a handful of guards among the civilians she lead. There were few adults, and every one of them was weighed down by a young child or two. Ling Qi was glad the girl was alright, but going by the feel of her qi, her friend had spent a significantly larger chunk of her energy than Ling Qi.
Ling Qi raised her fingers to her lips and gave a sharp whistle, the signal they had agreed upon beforehand, and Xiulan quickly looked toward her general direction, slowing her run as those with her tensed.
“I suppose I should not be surprised that you made it here first,” her friend said, glancing up at the trees as she continued moving toward the outpost. The other girl’s eyes snapped to Ling Qi the moment she stepped out of the shadows, and some of the tension bled from her shoulders.
“You know me, I guess,” Ling Qi said lightly. “Anything I can do to help?” she asked as she kept pace with them in the tree branches.
“Keep us informed of any obstacles in the path,” Xiulan replied tersely. “We should have time, but we will need to rest before heading north. We cannot afford to get diverted.”
Ling Qi replied in the affirmative, already casting her thoughts back to the path she had taken to this point. For the next half hour, she directed Xiulan’s group, avoiding the less passable bits of the forest and occasionally correcting their course.
Once they had arrived at the outpost and linked up, she got the actual story out of Xiulan. They had ended up in a couple skirmishes with the barbarians, and her group, initially forty or so people, had had to split in half in the end, many of the guards and adults taking the responsibility of leading the pursuit away. Xiulan seemed fairly unbothered by the deaths, but she was angry at herself for the perceived failing.
Ling Qi did her best to encourage her, but she wasn’t sure how successful she was. Her friend was prickly at the best of times, and several hours spent under the pouring rain hadn’t improved her temper. So rather than trying something futile, Ling Qi quickly turned her attention to what would hopefully be the last leg of the test, the travel north to safer territory. They both agreed that going while it was still night was best. Pursuit was muted by this point, but the roving bands would be on the hunt when the sun arose.
But it was obvious that their charges were exhausted and demoralized. It would be hard to get everyone going again before dawn. In the end, Ling Qi left the matter to Xiulan, once she had recovered her poise and dried off a bit. Her friend was much better at speaking and giving commands. For her part, she just moved among the civilians, offering quiet words and encouragement. She was hardly a physician, but she recalled enough to help people bandage wounds and provide minor aid.
Still, even with Xiulan’s efforts, it was a couple of hours before it was reasonable to move again, and even that was pushing what could be expected from civilians. It was only the confidence that her own group had in her to lead them well regardless of visibility that allowed them to move in the middle of the night once the rain had tapered off.
Ling Qi set as fast a pace as she thought would be reasonable, marching everyone north and away from the ruined city behind them. Already, it looked like a ruin. To her eye, it seemed that the barbarians were actively destroying the walls. She didn’t understand the purpose, but at least it was occupying them from searching the outlying areas more diligently.Ling Qi could not help but feel nervous. This escape had seemed almost too easy.
It didn’t help that her own thoughts churned unhappily as she had time to think about what she had witnessed. How many people had been killed today? How many had been run down and murdered? It seemed worse somehow than the individual cruelties she had seen. What was even the point? By the looks of things, the damned tribesmen didn’t even intend to keep the city. Did they just enjoy destroying things?
Some part of her knew that there had to be more to it than that, but she couldn’t bring herself to care. Not when she observed the downcast and broken expressions on the newly orphaned children in her train and the helpless anger of the men and women whose home had been obliterated.
In the end, there was no great climax or battle to cap off the trial, only a sullen, weary, and grueling march through mud and darkness, punctuated by sudden violence from spiritual predators picking at the edges of their train. The sun was beginning to crest the horizon by the time it ended in a sudden fade into gray mist as they reached the waystone marking the road to the next city.
As Ling Qi blinked and opened her eyes back in the starting cavern, she wondered if that had been the lesson in and of itself. Was the trial meant to show what defeat was like? A clattering sound drew her attention to the jade tile that had hit the ground in front of her, along with two wax-stoppered clay containers.
“What a miserable mess that was,” Xiulan grumbled from beside her, sitting up from the slumped position she had been in. “I do not think I have ever truly appreciated how vile the weather is in this province.”
“Is that really all that bothered you?” Ling Qi asked as she examined one of the containers.
Xiulan pursed her lips as she picked up the other container, giving Ling Qi a curious look. “The world is deadly, the borders more so. It is our duty to prevent such things… but losses happen,” she said matter-of-factly. “Spirits, barbarians, even the world itself fights us at times. All that can be done is to attain the strength to overcome such trials.”
Ling Qi grunted, not really happy with the answer, and popped out the stopper on the container, revealing a couple of glittering pills within, along with a wafting cloud of medicinal vapor. Ling Qi recognized these from her studies. Eightfold Path pills were an Argent Sect specialty. The Argent arts supposedly focused on the balance between Imperial Eight elements, and these pills assisted in the cultivation of arts that used those.
“Well… regardless, we are not done.” Her friend’s voice drew her attention again, pulling her eyes away from the potent rainbow-colored pills. Ling Qi hastily re-stoppered the bottle as she looked up to find Gu Xiulan weighing the jade tile in her hand, the girl’s own pill case having disappeared already.
Gu Xiulan was right, Ling Qi mused as she looked at the remaining potential trials. There were two missing tiles in the pool so there was probably one more trial to go to finish at least this portion of the trial, if not the entire trial. Ling Qi hadn’t expended much qi, but she still felt exhausted, fatigued mentally and physically. It wasn’t enough to slow her down yet though. She could handle one more trial.