Ling Qi was silent as they rested, listening to the background noise of the jungle as she considered their options. This entire jungle seemed like one giant deathtrap, and she was already growing weary of trudging through it. The idea of simply taking a stand and hunkering down to let their enemies come and die on the teeth of their defense was tempting.
“I think…” Ling Qi began carefully, “that we shouldn’t waste qi attacking something we can’t even be sure is really there or something that might be too cowardly to actually attack us outright if we keep moving and leave its territory.”
“You think it better to leave an enemy dogging our steps?” Gu Xiulan asked incredulously. “Ready to strike the moment we find ourselves occupied?”
“I think we don’t have any good choices,” Ling Qi replied a bit snappishly. “We need to conserve our energy, and taking blind shots into the jungle will do that. Worse, I think sitting in one place is just asking to get overwhelmed. Maybe I’m taking it too literally, but the instructions did say to keep walking, didn’t they?”
“Fighting conservatively is all well and good,” Gu Xiulan said irritably, “but it is foolish to ignore an obvious foe. I cannot believe you do not see that.”
“If you actually see it, feel free to take a shot,” Ling Qi answered hotly. “I know I will, but as long as it wants to screw around trying to scare us, I say let it since it means we aren’t fighting. We still have half a day or more left here, Xiulan, and I know the fight with that giant took a lot out of you.”
The girl at her back fell silent. “Fine,” Xiulan eventually said, irritation obvious in her tone. “The moment I catch sight of the thing, I will set it alight.”
“You won’t hear any argument from me,” Ling Qi responded lightly, trying to reduce the tension. She had a niggling feeling that the jungle’s oppressive atmosphere might be getting to her friend a bit. And herself as well. “We’ll get moving once we’ve caught our breath.
The two of them lapsed into silence after that, quietly keeping watch on the jungle and meditating. Between the salve she had applied earlier and the rest, she found herself reinvigorated, the scratches and bruises quickly fading.
The presence tested them again and again while they rested, lingering at the edge of her senses. She could feel Xiulan tense up behind her while it stalked around them, but the girl held her peace. Unfortunately, it did not approach close enough for either of them to catch sight of it. Once they were rested, a light jump carried them across the water, and they resumed their slog through the jungle.
As the sun reached its zenith and passed over it, the hazards the jungle threw their way seemed to only grow worse. The vines and trees grew more vicious and aggressive, and the insects swarmed all the harder. At one point, Ling Qi found herself waist deep in a sucking pit of mud with crawling, biting, bulbous black worms as thick as her arm. Gu Xiulan was nearly snared by the drifting, mind-fogging pollen from some gigantic, horrible flower that smelled of rotten meat.
All the while, the thing stalking them kept pace, keeping its peace even when they were forced to stop and fight off further predators. Ling Qi found herself losing track of the direction they were traveling in, as one thing after another kept them distracted while the stalking presence constantly keeping them on edge. Only once did Ling Qi catch sight of the stalker’s midnight black fur through a gap in the trees before Xiulan had reduced the vegetation and tree bark in the vicinity to ash with a flung ray of fire and an angry snarl.
Caked in mud, her legs covered in painful welts and the odd circular wounds left when she tore the worms away, Ling Qi was not in a great mood by the time they found another clearing to rest in. Considering her friend was literally smoldering, Xiulan was probably not in a better mood than her. Ling Qi’s instincts whispered that they were being herded.
The jungle was not done with them. Both girls could feel the presence, prowling at the edge of their perception… but this time, it was not alone. There was another, circling on the opposite side, slowly closing in on them in a spiral pattern. Gu Xiulan caught her eye, and Ling Qi nodded, dismissing her bow and pulling her flute out of storage. She wasn’t going to argue for anything but fighting at this point.
The clearing was silent as the two presences circled out of sight, the only sound the crackling of the flames dancing over Xiulan’s hands. Ling Qi refused to stand here and wait. If the pursuers wanted to give her time to set up, she would take it and gladly. Raising her flute to her lips, she began to play, and cool clinging mist washed away the humid mist of the jungle as it poured from the gaps in her instrument, already flush with the dark shadows of her constructs.
Her timing proved prescient. The underbrush churned with life all around them, and the air vibrated with the buzzing of countless wings. Behind the aggressive opening, a different melody played entirely upon unknown strings. The black cloud of insects that erupted from around them clashed with her mist, and Ling Qi winced as she felt the weight of another being’s qi pressing down on her own. She could recognize the technique as something similar to her own. As real as the swarming, finger length bees pouring from the treeline looked, they were actually qi constructs like the shadows in her mist.
Her mist held in responses to the onslaught, phantasmal claws and beaks ripping apart the invading insects. But Ling Qi could feel the other’s qi slipping between the gaps in her own, struggling to overwrite her mist. Tendrils of the swarm penetrated the shadowy gauntlet, forcing the two of them to dodge apart to avoid the stinging vermin.
Gu Xiulan’s flames seared away a chunk of the canopy, exposing a flash of yellow and black as the hidden figure dodged. When it halted atop the branches of another tree, Ling Qi got her first clear look of the attacker. It was shaped like a human woman, mostly, but the yellow and black chitin that grew from and encased her limbs, disturbingly insectile eyes, and waving antenna on her bald head put the lie to that. Glittering wings fluttered on her back. The insect woman was also naked, save for a roughly spun skirt of red cloth that hung past her knees. Ling Qi focused on the odd, stringed instrument in the woman’s hands. Foreign qi was flowing outward as glistening chitin claws plucked the strings. She did her best to ignore the way the woman’s cheeks split open as she sneered down at them, her mandibles working in the air.
Ling Qi dodged to the side as a heavy weight slammed into the ground where she had just been standing. The beast that turned to face her, bright green eyes gleaming in the mist, was a massive black cat of some kind, a collar of intricate metal and cloth over its neck and shoulders. Ling Qi distanced herself quickly, pulling away to the center of the clearing the jungle along with Xiulan, who had dodged her own attacker, going by the meter long bronze spear sticking in the dirt where she had stood.
Said spear vanished like smoke, reappearing in the hands of a tall, muscular, and dark skinned man. He regarded them with a hungry expression shadowed by the unkempt black hair that hung over his face. Unlike the woman, he wore thick white leather breeches and a cloak of the same material. Something about the material made her skin crawl, and she found herself hesitant to look at the heavy hide cloak for long.
The man said something in his guttural foreign tongue in a slightly mocking tone that made the insect woman bristle and hiss something angry back. Meanwhile, the great cat circled away from them, eyes locked on Ling Qi, clearly looking for another opportunity to pounce. All of them were in the late second realm, although the cloaked man’s qi was strange and muted.
It looked like their hunters were out of patience. The only thing to do was decide how to fight and who to target first. Ling Qi caught Xiulan’s eye as her fingers danced over the length of her flute. She only had time for a slight gesture, flicking her gaze in the direction of the enemy musician before returning her focus fully to her foes. Her melody changed, growing mournful as the mist darkened with her qi, and she launched herself towards the insect woman, feet blurring over the muddy ground as she dragged her mist with her to engulf the enemy.
The woman’s wings glittered as she leaped from the tree branch, retreating only slightly slower than Ling Qi’s advance. The opening notes of a new melody flowed forth from the insect woman’s stringed instrument, ominous and rising in intensity as Ling Qi’s own melody failed to take hold, flowing off the woman like water from a duck’s feathers.
The claws of her dissonance constructs proved more difficult to avoid, and she felt a surge of satisfaction as misty talons scraped across carapace, leaving deep grooves in the black chitin. She had little time to celebrate though, and she twisted her body to the side, dark mist trailing after her limbs to avoid the dark shape of the massive black cat brushing past her in the mist.
As it passed her by, the cat warped, bone and flesh twisting noisily and painfully as the beast’s body became that of a man and its paw lashed out, glittering bronze talons catching her across the stomach and ripping through her gown to scrape lines of blood across her skin.
She leaped back, feeling the burning of poison in the wound and grimaced as the creature turned back to face her, fangs bared in a twisted grin. Its head was still that of a great cat, though subtly warped and black fur still covered rippling muscles, but it now stood on two legs.
More disgustingly, thousands of fuzzy gold and black bodies swarmed across his flesh, a living armor made of the swarm that had failed to penetrate her mist. Similarly, the cloaked man had gained his own living armor as well. A glance toward her other foe showed the insect woman emerging from a burst of blue white flame, trailing charred insects.
That glance almost proved her undoing. The white cloaked barbarian swept his garment from his shoulders and brandished it in his free hand like a shield. Lingt Qi shuddered, not quite knowing why the cloak unsettled her, until it writhed with life and a multitude of red slits opened across its surface.
Faces. The thing was made up of human faces, impossibly stretched and stitched together. Her gorge rose at the sight, even as the tortured things gabbled and screamed, releasing a bloody mist from the grotesquely stretched mouths. It was an abomination, and she needed to destroy it. She didn’t want to imagine what that thing had done to create such a talisman, but she would…
Ling Qi shook off the anger clouding her thoughts and refocused. No, disgusting as the talisman was, she needed to stay on target. The insect woman was keeping enough of a distance that she would have to choose one or the other to keep within her mist, and as someone with support arts herself, Ling Qi was well aware of the snowball effect of a support free to act as she pleased.
Ling Qi cycled her internal energy as she turned her eyes back to the insect woman, drawing on the exercises of Thousand Ring Fortress to erase the toxins she could feel in her veins. She began her elegy once more, putting the full force of her will into the melody. This time, the woman shuddered as dark qi invaded her meridians, sapping stamina and the will to fight. Despite the trembling in the woman’s limbs though, her song continued, clashing with the Melody of the Vale and picking up tempo, eliciting the feeling of the approach of a terrible foe.
The notes washed over Ling Qi like a wave of needles pricking at her skin, but she threw off the spiritual assault with some effort. Gu Xiulan seemed unaffected as well and was now clad in pulsing strands of near liquid fire that twined about her like armor.
The half cat thing rushed her, appearing more and more like the grotesque image of the skinchanger that symbolized the start of this dream. The thing’s eyes were narrowed and frustrated, but that did not stop it from overtaking her, its clawed fingers punching through her gown to dig into her side and twist. Ling Qi tore herself away from the beast, and blood trailed from his fingers in unnatural ribbons even as she felt foreign qi sapping her stamina and weakening her muscles. Despite the assault, she maintained the presence of mind to leap aside and avoid a black cloud of bees that descended to engulf her.
To her side, brilliant white hot flames erupted, punching into the shroud of shrieking souls that had risen to encase the enemy clad in human skin. The disgusting barbarian threw back his head and bellowed in pain as the lance pierced through his defenses, destroying the armor of bees and searing his flesh. Xiulan flinched as burns seared across her own flesh, mirroring the damage the barbarian had taken. The distraction cost her as the man’s flung spear tore a gash across her thigh and slammed into the dirt behind her.
Xiulan froze, trembling and wide eyed. Ling Qi reacted instantly, activating Deepwood Vitality to pulse cleansing wood qi that purged the curse from Xiulan while fortifying herself at the same time. That was all the attention she could spare as the next measure of the enemy’s song washed over her, clawing at the weave of her own technique.
For the moment, it proved ineffectual, but the bloodthirsty song pounded in her ears and incessantly wore at her qi. Despite that, she was able to dodge when cat man lunged at her, bronze claws glistening with poison. Although he was faster than her, she was beginning to get the measure of his movements.
Gu Xiulan let out a furious scream, and dozens of beads of flames flickered into existence in the clearing. They bloomed, exploding in showers of blue and orange sparks that seared and engulfed all three of their enemies.
Ling Qi could tell that Xiulan’s energies were guttering as she desperately dodged and avoided the clawing hands of the cloaked barbarian still shrouded by shrieking and gibbering spirits. His cloak fluttered and struck like a third limb as he drove her friend back, blood and qi torn from her wounds every time he so much as grazed her.
Xiulan wasn’t the only one struggling though. The fires had hurt the insect woman badly, and she now slumped atop a tree branch, her music faltering. A knife flew from Ling Qi’s hand, striking the woman dead center in the chest and dropping her remaining qi precipitously. It cost Ling Qi to retain her song for an attack, but she wanted the woman down before she could finish her melody
The woman shot her a venomous look, mandibles snapping angrily. Ceasing her sonata, she called back her swarm, armoring herself and her allies once more then slumped, qi entirely depleted. The echoes of the woman’s song remained though, and Ling Qi nearly screamed as what felt like thousands of hungry insects pricked and stabbed at her skin. Blood rose from scores of tiny cuts and pinpricks across her body, even as she dodged another increasingly frustrated attack from the cat man.
Flowers of flame bloomed again, bursting across their enemies. The woman was flung limply from her perch, but the others merely flinched , protected by the woman’s last act and their own tough hides.
That was the last thing Xiulan did. Ling Qi saw her friend stumble, her wounded leg buckling underneath her. It was all the opening her opponent needed. Rippling white leather covered in distorted eyes and mouths coiled around Xiulan’s throat, and the barbarian’s hands, twisted into bloody talons of bone, plunged into her stomach, only for him to to tear in opposite directions, blood and other things spraying from the wound.
Ling Qi screamed as she watched her friend slump in the barbarian’s grasp, her fires finally guttering out.
Then she knew no more.
The moment she regained consciousness, Ling Qi shot to her feet, every muscle tense. Her vision was blurry with tears, and the sound of her own heartbeat and ragged breathing filled her ears. She heard a sob and the sound of someone retching. Swiping at her eyes to clear them, Ling Qi turned her head toward the source. Gu Xiulan was hunched over, hands on the floor, shuddering in the aftermath of a dry heave.
They were back in the starting cave.
Ling Qi couldn’t bring herself to care about the trial. She hurried to her friend’s side and dropped to her knees beside the other girl, examining her for wounds. Xiulan was covered in bruises and burns still, but the terrible gash in her belly was nowhere to be seen. The girl jerked violently as Ling Qi touched her shoulder, eyes flying up to her face, wild and panicked.
“I...What… Ling Qi?” Xiulan croaked.
“It’s fine,” Ling Qi reassured her, her own grief and panic fading to relief. “It was just a test. It’s over.” Ling Qi had half feared that the wounds would carry over from the dream; Gu Xiulan had crippled someone in Elder Zhou’s test before. It was alright though… even… even if they had failed.
Xiulan grimaced, shakily sitting up. “I was too slow. I could not keep up with that damned barbarian.” Ling Qi could hear her friend’s anger at her own failure in her voice.
“It’s fine,” Ling Qi repeated. “I… don’t think I could have lasted much longer myself. Even if we had beaten them, the next fight would have finished us. There was no way we could have made it until morning.” Ling Qi’s own energy was precipitously low, and she could feel the ache of her wounds. The test seemed impossible. Unless they were supposed to find a way to avoid all conflict, the enemies in the jungle were simply too strong and too many.
“Well, at least you have that much sense.” Both of their heads shot up at the sound of a third voice. Ling Qi recognized that lax tone.
Sure enough, across the pool in the center of the room stood a figure in bright magenta robes and a scholar’s cap sitting crookedly on his bald head. Elder Jiao looked down at them with a vaguely amused expression. “So, how does defeat taste, children? Rather sour, I imagine.”
Xiulan schooled her expression and ducked her head, but Ling Qi could still feel the frustration practically radiating from the girl. “Honored Elder, the failure is mine. I apologize for wasting your valuable time.”
Ling Qi bowed respectfully as well, a cold feeling in her stomach. An irreplaceable chance was gone now. She couldn’t blame Xiulan. It had been Ling Qi’s choice to press on through the jungle. “I apologize as well, Honored Elder.”
“Enough of that,” Elder Jiao said dismissively, flicking his outrageously colored sleeve. “You were entertaining enough, and your performance in the first task was even quite good. Tell me, what mistakes do you two imagine you made?”
Xiulan spoke up first. “I expended my energy too recklessly. I grew panicked when a more conservative approach would have fit our strategy better.”
“Fighting through the jungle at all, I think,” Ling Qi added. “I do not think we could have finished the second task regardless, unless we somehow stayed undetected the entire time.” Ling Qi felt the Elder’s gaze rest on her, even as she kept her eyes on the floor.
“You are both right, although Disciple Ling has the truth of the matter. That battle could have been won, but the war was lost before you began,” the Elder said with a chuckle. “Regardless of choice, the first task was a test of your ability to fulfill an objective. The second… was to see how far you push in the face of truly insurmountable odds. That it gives many arrogant whelps a taste of true defeat to spur them forward is merely a bonus.”
“Then we… passed?” Ling Qi asked hopefully.
“Not entirely,” the Elder responded, dashing her hopes. “Nightfall would have been sufficient, but you fell too soon. No top prize for you,” he said lightly. She snuck a glance up to find him glancing to the side and pursing his lips, as if listening to someone else speak. “Still, your performance in the first task was admirable, Disciple Ling,” he added grudgingly. “I suppose I have the free time for a little tutoring over the next month. I shall not be providing you with any materials however. You will have to make do with what you have.”
Ling Qi felt a swell of relief, but it twisted as she glanced at her pale-faced friend. “Thank you, Honored Elder,” she replied carefully. “Might I ask if this is for the both of us?”
“No,” he said blandly. “Dealing with one child is the limit of my patience, particularly when Disciple Gu’s performance was… merely above average. The pills and the technique slip you two acquired are sufficient for her.”
“I understand,” Gu Xiulan replied, sounding wrung out and defeated. “Thank you, Honored Elder.”
The Elder glanced at her and simply nodded. “Be here at midnight tomorrow, Disciple Ling,” he said carelessly before turning away and fading into shadow.
“Gu Xiulan…” Ling Qi began.
“Please do not say anything,” her friend requested, not raising her head. “He is right. I do not deserve anything else. Thank you for inviting me. The experience was invaluable.”
Ling Qi fell silent. She could read the atmosphere well enough. Xiulan didn’t want to talk. All they could do was keep moving forward.