Ling Qi closed her eyes and tilted her head back, resting it against the cool stone behind her. The mud and grime she had collected during the dream was gone, and she was no longer drenched to the bone, but she still felt drained. The task of keeping so many people moving while avoiding the attention of the cloud tribe outriders had been exhausting. She had largely been winging it the entire time, and despite the fact that she had gotten half a hundred people to relative safety, the achievement felt empty.
The sight of a city falling to a massive funnel of wind was burned into her mind. It made her feel small and weak in a way that she hadn’t since before she had come to the Sect. It brought to mind memories of crouching in a water barrel, praying that a merchant’s guards wouldn’t find her,of running for her life from a street gang that had taken offense to her being in their territory. When she thought of all the people left in that city to die, it left her feeling cold and empty.
“You can pick the next one, Xiulan. Just give me a few minutes,” Ling Qi said without opening her eyes. In the end, everything she had seen had happened long before she was born; it may as well have been a play. She wasn’t foolish enough to think she could have done anything to prevent the tornado, or even that she owed an effort to try, but it was unsettling that something as permanent and enduring as a city could be torn down so easily by the power of a higher realm cultivator. She should have realized the gap when she had seen the giant sinkhole Elder Ying had created, but Ogodei’s attack had been more visceral somehow.
“Well, if you are offering...” She cracked her eyes open as Xiulan spoke, watching her friend peer at the three remaining trials. She caught the girl giving her a furtive look of slight concern though.
Ling Qi couldn’t bring herself to comment on it. She knew she was being foolish. There would be plenty of time for meditation and reflection later, after the trial. Still, she remained seated, focusing on quieting and centering herself while Gu Xiulan considered the remaining options. Glancing toward the exit, Ling Qi noted that the intensity of the light hadn’t changed much; here, in the outside world, it seemed that only an hour or two had passed.
“This one,” Xiulan announced, drawing her attention once more. “I have little desire to see the frozen seas in the north, nor to skulk about. Facing the beasts in the west is the best option for us together.”
“Oh?” Ling Qi had been leaning toward the white owl herself, but she supposed Xiulan wouldn’t be interested in something like that. “What makes you think that one will be a straight fight?” She didn’t object, but she was curious as to her friend’s reasoning. “The last one wasn’t after all.”
Xiulan frowned at the reminder. “I cannot guarantee it, of course, but it seems the most likely option for a fight compared to the other two.”
“Fair enough,” Ling Qi said, pushing herself up to stand and moving beside her friend in front of the image of the malformed beast man on the wall. “Anything I should know about the destination?”
Xiulan cupped her chin thoughtfully, taking the question seriously. “Trust nothing in the environment. The trees and plants are as dangerous as the beasts,” she responded. “Were this real, we would want lotions and medicines. The insects, air, and water contain many foul illnesses that may lay even a cultivator low. Unless the trial is to last days or weeks though, that should not be an issue… but if need be, my arts allow for a degree of purification.”
“Sounds like a lovely place,” Ling Qi said dryly, toying with the clasp at the end of her braid. “Anything else?”
“We should stay together if possible this time,” Xiulan said. “I know little more beyond tales, but every person who has spoken of those jungles in my presence has called them dangerous.”
Ling Qi raised an eyebrow but didn’t question that. Xiulan looked determined again; she seemed to be taking this trial as a personal challenge. Ling Qi was alright with that. She shared a look with the other girl and nodded, reaching out her right hand in time with her friend
Once again, everything vanished into darkness
The first sensation Ling Qi noticed was the heat, an overbearing, humid weight pressing down on her from all sides. As her vision cleared, she found herself in a clearing surrounded by a riot of color. Tall trees, stretching many meters overhead, yet lacking the rough, gnarled bark of the trees from home. Instead, their trunks were smooth expanses of green and brown, overgrown with bright red vines with flowering blossoms of yellow strewn about. The ground was uneven with the thick growth of roots and nearly invisible under the dense carpet of fronds and other flowering plants.
More unsettlingly, the tree branches and the vines that hung from the trees swayed subtly despite unmoving air around them, any breeze long since choked out by the unbroken canopy above.. The ferns at her feet reached above her ankles and their pinnae were edged with red, uncomfortably reminiscent of a murderer’s knife She was glad she had not worn sandals or low shoes for this trial. At the side of the clearing was a stream, a little over two meters across. It did not look deep, but the muddy brown water was too opaque to tell for sure, the rippling surface only broken by the occasional flash of color. Fish, perhaps?
The other detail that drew her eye was a path hacked out of the thick surrounding vegetation. Several stumps lined the path, their surfaces stained with deep red sap that seemed to quiver with life, sprouting little blossoms of green that visibly strained upward towards the gaps in the treeline overhead. The path extended well out of sight, curving around a dense copse of particularly massive trees.
Before she could examine the surroundings further, the air in front of them distorted, and characters formed, seemingly drawn from the moisture in the air.
To walk the myriad paths is to seek immortality.
A futility for most, yet in striving against the shadow, we find strength.
Here lies foes without end. Death without end.
Let not fear dog your steps. Follow your path to the rising of the sun.
“A survival test then,” Xiulan said, frowning as she crossed her arms. “I suppose a simple battle was too much to hope for.”
Ling Qi glanced up at the sky, visible due to the gap the stream carved through the canopy. It was fairly early in the morning.
“It looks like we’ll be here for a while too, if the last line is any indication,” she said, glad that her cultivation made her resistant to extreme temperatures. She had a feeling she would be drenched in sweat if she were still a mortal.
“Quite,” Xiulan sighed, visibly dismissing her irritation as she focused on the task ahead. “I suspect we will want to keep moving. Staying still will likely draw more and more enemies.”
“Or we might just tire ourselves out,” Ling Qi pointed out, listening closely. She could hear the sound of water falling from upstream. “If we can find a good defensive position, we might give ourselves an advantage.”
“I suppose,” Xiulan said reluctantly, peering down the path. “Of course, there may be potential allies here as well. The natives do not damage the jungle so crudely to my knowledge.”
“Well... “ Ling Qi said, considering the options before them and the frustratingly vague instructions they had received. “I don’t believe that staying in one place is the best way to survive this,” she decided. It seemed like it would send the wrong message. And it’s not like they had a reason to expect rescue. If this were a real situation, what would hunkering down achieve?
“I am glad to see you being less passive,” the other girl said agreeably, brushing her bangs out of her eyes. “I agree, of course. Shall we take the path then?”
LIng Qi nodded, peering down the torn-up path. The dirt was churned up as if the lesser plantlife had been torn up by the roots. “It might be dangerous, but yes, the path feels like the right way to start,” she said, glancing toward the treeline warily. “... And I don’t really like the way those vines are moving. I’d rather avoid them.”
Xiulan followed her gaze and frowned. “I agree. They unsettle me,” she admitted, eyeing the subtly wriggling vines. “Sadly, I do not have enough qi to afford to burn them all.”
“I would prefer that we not set the whole jungle on fire anyway,” Ling Qi said dryly, heading toward the path. “I might not mind the heat much, but unlike some people, I can’t breath in the middle of a cloud of smoke.”
“As if you could not simply blow it away easily enough,” Xiulan retorted with a sniff, falling in beside her. “Shall we keep a moderate pace?”
Ling Qi nodded. There was no reason to run or rush; they didn’t have a destination or a time limit after all. They could afford to be cautious.
Picking their way through the stump-lined path without stepping into the gooey crimson sap that bled from the shattered wood was a trial, and maintaining footing on the churned dirt that writhed under their feet with new growth was hardly easier. Several times, Ling Qi nearly tripped when a fibrous feeler grasped feebly at her feet. It was even worse when they strayed too close to the edge of the path.
The first time Ling Qi had allowed her attention to wander a little, she had to throw herself to the ground, losing several strands of hair as grasping, wriggling vines passed through where her neck had just been a moment ago. When they had come across a fallen tree lying across the path, several branches had whipped to life as they climbed over it, and jagged, claw-like twigs had drawn a line of blood on Xiulan’s cheek.
Even more than such dangers though, it was the insects that truly made the trip hellish. Ling Qi was constantly feeling the pinch of some buzzing pest on her neck or hands, and even after swatting them by the dozen, there was always more. It was enough to make her consider deploying her mist and its hungry phantoms just to ward them off. She only restrained herself because she was certain that it would draw greater threats, and she was still wary of spending qi frivolously.
The two were not without resources though. Ling Qi was adaptable, and so was Gu Xiulan. For Xiulan, it was as simple as letting her irritation surface, frying the little pests in snapping displays of smoke and sparks. Ling Qi found it easier to cycle the wind around her, little gusts of air blowing her own tormentors away.
All the while, the sun beat down on them overhead, and despite the resilience that allowed her to traverse snowstorms without trouble or hold her hand in an open flame, Ling Qi found her head pounding painfully in the almost red sun’s light. She was able to keep going despite the headache, but it left her in increasingly poor temper when combined with all the other irritations. The two conversed little as they traveled, saving their breath for hiking, pointing out dangers, or conferring on bypassing obstacles.
Ling Qi was tentatively optimistic about their choice of a trial. Despite the many, many irritants, they had yet to run across anything truly dangerous, and they remained mostly out of reach of the environment’s basic hazards. On the other hand, it was far too silent. There was the constant buzzing of insects, of course, but no birdsong or other signs of life as they followed the winding path north. Going by Xiulan’s uneasy expression, the girl had noticed as well.
Their caution only grew as the two of them caught a horrible, cracking sound in the distance that Ling Qi was able to recognize as wood splintering and the yowls of some injured beast. She had a feeling they were coming up on the maker of the path. However, before they did, they found themselves at a crossroads. The torn-up path crossed with an actual road of sorts formed of flat white stones, caulked together with something glistening and red. The road was strangely undamaged despite the destructive path that continued unabated on either side.
To the east, a good sixty meters down the road, the jungle opened up, revealing a vast field of bright yellow flowers taller than Ling Qi was. The jungle stopped abruptly at its edge, as if held back by some invisible wall. She recognized them as the flowers Sun Liling had summoned after after all. She felt a tinge of unease just looking at them, and the pounding in her head seemed to intensify.
“It seems east is out,” Gu Xiulan replied tightly, her stance guarded as she glanced warily toward the continuing path where the animal sounds had ceased.
“Yeah, I can agree with that,” Ling Qi said quietly, eyeing the flowers warily. “What is up with those anyway? Sun Liling summoned them in the council fight.”
“The barbarians worship them,” Xiulan explained tersely. “They water them with blood and flesh. We need to move-”
A loud crash and a bloodthirsty howl interrupted her. A massive figure slammed down across the road from them, cratering the torn-up earth as it landed. It was shaped like a human but huge and distorted, skin the color of tarnished bronze stretched tight over powerful muscle. Its belly was fat and distended, wobbling as it stood to its full height, and its face wholly inhuman with a mouth far too wide filled with twisting, curling fangs that dripped gore. Its eyes were solid black without iris or pupil, and sharpened spikes of black bone rose from its scalp like hair. Knobby ridges of bone protruded like armor from its flesh, protecting its vitals.
There was no time to confer as the beast bellowed again and charged at them. Ling Qi felt a thrill of fear at the speed, and she belatedly realized that its physique breached the third realm. She summoned her flute and began to play, hurriedly backpedaling from the charging giant. Mist rolled out, and their surroundings cooled as her qi shrouded the monster, clouding its sight and senses. However powerful its body, its spirit was weaker, if still on a level with her own.
As her mist rolled forth, Xiulan darted away in another direction, and blue-white flowers of flame bloomed in the path of the giant’s charge. They burst as it ran through them, and the bronze-skinned beast let out a furious scream that sent a shiver through Ling Qi’s bones as the flames scoured its flesh and left its bony growths blackened and crumbling.
Its black eyes rolled angrily in its head, and its charge stumbled to a halt. The beast threw its head back and forth like a bull stung by insects, and for a moment, Ling Qi thought she had managed to make the creature lose them. Then its gaze snapped to her. She was still more than fifteen meters away, but something told her she wasn’t safe. She let her dark qi flow through her meridians, blending with the mist.
The giant’s hand snapped out, open as if to grab her, and her eyes widened as the limb rocketed toward her, covering the distance in an instant, too fast to fully avoid. She felt its thick fingers close around her waist, and the world blurred around her as she was yanked back toward the beast. Ling Qi tried to flit away as a shadow but failed, something more than brute strength keeping her in the creature’s grasp.
She heard Xiulan cry out, and lashes of dark red flame curled and pulled at the creature’s limb, burning deep black lines into flesh and muscle. But the giant simply snarled, ignoring the other girl in favor of dragging Ling Qi closer to its gaping, fang-filled maw.