Distantly, she noticed that she had stopped playing, a scream escaping her lips as the monster stuffed the entire upper half of her body into its impossibly wide maw and bit down. The potent qi woven into her gown strained against the tremendous force, and she felt a fang pass through her upper arm like smoke without harm, but more fangs punctured through, driving sharp knives of pain through her back and stomach.
Panicking, she drew deeper than ever on the dark qi within her dantian. For just an instant, she felt as if she was everywhere within her mist at once and flowed from the giant’s grasp, resolving back into physical form a half dozen meters away with wide eyes.
She was just in time. A blazing column of white flames slammed into the beast from above. Several of the spikes on its head shattered, and flesh sloughed from its shoulders and back, exposing muscle. Ling Qi could see Gu Xiulan with her hand extended, breathing heavily as flames flickered on her skin and smoke rose from her hair.
To her shock, the giant just shook its head violently, burnt skin flaking away. It let out a loud, plaintive sob, clutching at its wounds then turned on its heel and fled. Ling Qi felt a terrible pressure on her mist, a dark, unintelligible whisper in her thoughts, and her diapason technique shattered, allowing the giant to exit her mist, running toward the sunflowers.
She was covered in spit. Her hair was in disarray, and her gown clung to her, soaked through by the giant’s saliva. The punctures on her back and chest burned painfully. She had just escaped being eaten alive.
Her eyes narrowed, and she met Xiulan’s gaze. Her intent was communicated, and her friend’s expression sharpened into a bloodthirsty grin. Ling Qi banished her flute back into her storage ring and summoned her bow, precious seconds ticking away as the giant's feet pounded against the stone-tiled path.
Lightning flared in a crackling corona as she drew back the string of her bow and sighted down the arrow, a blazing star forming at its head. The giant’s head slung too low. Arms irrelevant. Legs pumping too quickly. Center mass. Xiulan’s lance had burned away armor and flesh, exposing weakness. Her gaze sharpened, and everything aside from her target ceased to exist.
Her arrow tore through the air with a crackling howl and slammed into the giant’s back just under its shoulder blade. It punched through the remaining flesh and muscle, and the spirit let out a wet, gurgling howl as a hole the size of a fist was punched straight through its chest. It stumbled. She had hit a lung. Good.
The sky burned as another radiant bolt slammed down from above, forcing the already unsteady giant to its knees. Crying out, it shaded its head with its hands, smoke and the stink of burning meat rising from its melting flesh. Ling Qi felt its guttering qi flare up, and its flesh darkened to black, taking on the consistency of stone.
It wasn’t enough. The giant wasn’t moving any more, and she had a clear shot. A second arrow was drawn, nocked, and fired in one smooth motion, punching another hole straight through the giant’s temple. The arrow erupting from the other side of its head in a spray of green-black gore. A rush of satisfaction filled her as the thing that had stuffed her into its mouth fell to the ground with a crash.
She pulled her eyes away from the corpse to peer out at the jungle through her steadily dissipating mist. Her ears strained to hear any sound of others drawn to the fight, but it seemed they were clear for the moment.
“Disgusting creature,” Xiulan said haughtily even as she took a small, bone white pill, restoring some of her flagging qi. “Shall we collect our spoils then?”
“Do you think it’s a good idea to hang around here?” Ling Qi asked dubiously.
“Of course not,” Xiulan dismissed. “That does not mean that I am willing to abandon the spoils from such a formidable spirit.”
Gu Xiulan did have a point. It wouldn’t sit right with her to pass up hard earned loot. Ling Qi fell in beside Xiulan while keeping a wary eye on the jungle. “You know… as strong as that thing was,” Ling Qi said, voicing the niggling worry, “didn’t that seem a little too easy to you?”
“Speak for yourself,” Xiulan huffed, giving her a cross look as they stepped up to the corpse. “Burning through that thing’s defenses was quite a drain.”
“Not what I meant,” Ling Qi clarified. “I mean, the way it acted, if it had stood and fought or used that technique at the end right away…”
Gu Xiulan scowled down at the thing but nodded. “I suppose you are not wrong in that,” she admitted. “It did seem quite dim.”
Ling Qi focused her senses as she got to work with one of her knives. Thankfully, some qi remained in the dead giant’s core, making the harvesting easier. She still ended up having her arm coated in sizzling, dark green blood up to the elbow as she dragged the gleaming red sphere out of its belly.
As she pulled it clear of the gristle and meat though, the core warped and shimmered before her eyes. She nearly dropped the thing before the effect faded, revealing a slip of white jade. Her alarm quickly faded, and she brightened as a brush of her qi revealed that it was active.
The slip was for Argent Current, the basic form of Argent Sect’s melee combat art. It combined the devouring nature of fire with the persistence of water to break through enemy defenses and bolster allied assault into an unstoppable flow. With mountain and lake for Argent Mirror and now fire wand water for Argent Current, it appeared likely that the other basic Argent arts must also use opposite elements in the Imperial Eight - thunder and wind for one and heaven and earth for the other.
“Xiulan, look! This must have been a bonus objective. We-”
“Ling Qi,” Xiulan interrupted her, tone thick with dread. She looked up to see the other girl pointing at the sunflower field. “Look there, and tell me if you see what I think I see.”
She followed the direction of the girl’s hand, squinting a little to make out the details of the still distant field. She didn’t sense any qi other than the pervasive aura of the jungle itself nor did she see anything moving or alive. “What are you…”
Then she saw it. A dark green lump was on the ground among the sunflowers. At first she had taken it for a rock or some kind of gourd, but on a closer look, it was covered in bony spikes and had a certain familiar shape. A second lay a few meters to the right and was more exposed. She could see the outward curve of hairless brows and the pointed tips of ears. Her eyes flickered from one lump to the next. There were easily half a dozen, and those were just the ones she could see.
“... Why don’t we get on our way then?” she said, voice pitched high. “We can examine the prize later after all!”
“Yes, I believe so,” Xiulan agreed fervently, backing up several steps. “Shall we get off the road as well? I cannot imagine that imperial construction would lead to such a place.” It seemed there was a limit to her friend’s usual bravado.
Ling Qi nodded quickly, backing away from the corpse and sending the prize into her ring. She was suddenly very glad that her first shot had been such a good one. What would have happened if the giant had reached the field?!
Although the two of them did not throw caution to the wind, they picked up the pace sharply, using the broken path in the trees to quickly retreat from the sunflower field and the white road. Unfortunately, the path did not last much longer. It ended only a few dozen meters away where the messy remains of some beast or another lay scattered over the ground. Ling Qi quickly scanned through the mess for anything of value, but all that remained were chunks of bone and meat, nothing she could immediately detect as useful.
There was a silent agreement between the two girls to push on further before pausing to patch up, though Ling Qi did quickly pop one of her restorative pills into her mouth to top off her own qi.
She wanted to be prepared for pushing into the jungle proper because she was sure it wasn’t going to be pleasant. Sure enough, within a minute of stepping into the shadow of the trees, the two of them had to avoid assault from twitching vines and grasping roots, and the teeming insects were seemingly only growing all the more vicious and determined. It was hard going, and they had to slow down considerably to avoid being caught out.
Ling Qi very quickly found her dislike for this place growing, particularly after receiving a spurt of gelatinous red sap when she sliced through a particularly persistent vine with one of her knives. It stung and itched, and no amount of scraping seemed to get it off entirely. She hoped it would fade with the end of the dream. Otherwise, she might have to cut off her hair just to get the mess out.
Still, despite growing frustration and a worsening headache, they pushed on. Even when the birdsong picked back up and they began to notice the presence of beasts again, they avoided the worst of the trouble. They found themselves under attack several times during their trek, this time by lesser beasts and predators. The attackers ranged from black-red versions of the little biting bloodsuckers that had hounded them from the beginning to many meters long snakes that blended in with the hanging vines and plants.
Once, they had even come under assault from a troop of screaming, bright green monkeys with jutting, tusk-like fangs wielding crude rock and stick weapons caked in… excrement. It was bizarre. The monkeys were easily driven off as their strongest was barely second realm, but the constant harassment left them more and more drained. As conservative as she was being with her qi, Ling Qi’s hand-to-hand and knife skills were certainly getting a workout.
As they traveled through the jungle, Ling Qi began to notice a presence periodically nearing the edge of her awareness before backing away. There was little she could do about it, but she found her thoughts and focus turning toward the stalker more and more. Eventually, they were able to stop and rest upon finding a pond large enough to contain a rocky islet for them to rest upon, allowing them to apply some healing salves and recover their stamina and qi.