Meizhen’s ring struck the bottom of the drawer with a faint clink, and the false bottom of the drawer slid over the hidden compartment.
Ling Qi knew, from a strategic perspective, she had made an error. With the rush of having easy access to so much wealth fading, she could see that. She should have just gathered information and struck at Yan Renshu’s main hideout without alerting the boy. But there had been just so much free for the taking.
She had wanted for most of her life. Though she didn’t have to worry about base survival anymore, it seemed that even without that excuse, she was still a greedy girl and a thief at heart. Some things didn’t fade easily.
Ling Qi ghosted out of her room and the house, pausing only to scribble a note for Meizhen. She might have made a tactical error, but that didn’t mean she had to give her enemy time to capitalize on the knowledge that he was in her sights. It had been less than an hour since she had torn out of the stone farming base, and it would take only another half hour or so to reach the location of the meeting point that Yan Renshu used if she hurried. She could definitely still do this.
But first, she had some shoes to buy. Wouldn’t Xiulan be proud?
A short time later, her new presence-muffling slippers fitting snugly around her feet and a note detailing the location of the stone farming base left for Cai Renxiang, Ling Qi bounded up the side of the mountain, a dark shadow flitting up the rough trails that criss-crossed the steeper part of the slope, toward where Yan Renshu had hidden the heart of his operations.
The plateau was a nondescript ledge populated only by a few scraggly trees and an overabundance of dry brush. According to what she had read in his subordinate’s notes, the entrance was a trapdoor, but she saw nothing of the sort. Nor did she see the telltale distortions of qi that would indicate the presence of an illusion.
As time ticked by with no success, Ling Qi began to wonder if the information she had found was a simple red herring. No, she didn’t think security would go that far. Even if the note was wrong about this being the main base, there should be something here because this was where the other base leaders made tribute to Yan Renshu.
She almost missed it. It was chance, really, that her eye caught on an unusual angle of stone. Her interest and instincts pricked, she stopped to examine the the large, half-buried stone that had caught her attention. It seemed too uniform.
A closer look revealed seams in the dirt around it, recently disturbed, and a miniscule string of characters carved and inked around the base of the stone. She wasn’t sure what all the characters and combinations did at a glance, but she was sure they were a dangerous array that would make an interloper deeply regret attempting to open the passage.
It was slow going, made worse by the fact that she couldn’t be sure her tampering wouldn’t be sensed. Scratching out portions of the tiny characters with a tool as imprecise as a knife was enough to make her fingers cramp.
She managed. Slowly, laboriously, she disabled the triggering characters one by one, only narrowly avoiding setting off a cascade of activations with her disruption of the array. But by the end, the security was quiescent. She could sense the arrays’ imbued qi trying to reassert itself. It would repair itself, but that would be a matter of several hours. She had time.
The ovoid trap door was heavy, being attached to a small boulder, but such things hardly troubled her anymore. Soon, the opening into the base yawned, a circular tunnel in the earth that transitioned from dirt to perfectly smooth stone about a quarter of a meter down. There was no ladder, no handholds, and no method of descent that she could detect at all. Thanks to her ability to see in the dark, she could see the bottom some twenty five meters down, but it looked like she would have no choice but to take a plunge.
It cost her qi to activate her gown’s flight, but it prevented Ling Qi from finding out if such a drop would leave her with a pair of broken ankles or not. Luckily, there was a latch on the bottom of the trapdoor for her to use in closing it after her. She didn’t want to make her presence too obvious. The tunnel she landed in was formed from smooth stone and perfectly circular, just like the shaft she had just descended. Annoyingly, the low ceiling forced her to crouch.
The tunnel was also positively ringed with alarms and traps. She slipped through them one and all, feeling as if her feet were barely touching the ground. Several times, she allowed darkness to flood through her meridians, rendering her spirit and body smoky and indistinct. She found it easier to avoid the many traps and alarms by visualizing them as a web of taut wires which she had to weave through, and she did so flawlessly, never setting off even a single trigger.
The tunnel continued downwards on a sharp slope, straining the limits of her balance to descend it without sliding and running into a trap, but eventually, she began to come upon rooms. Pausing briefly only to take a wellspring pill and restore her expended qi, she began to explore.
This time, she didn’t allow herself to get distracted by treasures. The book and the slip were her only priority at the moment; everything else could come later. She passed through a meditation room and a strange chamber full of mirrors, but nothing useful could be found in either. There was a storeroom full of beast cores and other reagents, but she forced herself to turn away from it.
The next room centered around a low writing desk surrounded by bookshelves carved right into the stone walls. She searched through the books for one that matched the image in her vision. Most were mundane treatises on varied topics while others were ledgers containing dense lines of records about various transactions and inventories of Yan Renshu’s assets. None of the books felt right so she turned to searching the desk.
At first, that proved fruitless as well, revealing nothing beyond mundane items and a particularly nice brush that seemed to generate its own ink when the handle was squeezed. She pocketed that, figuring Suyin might like it, but otherwise left everything in place. Careful inspection revealed something quite interesting indeed. There was nothing so simple as a hidden compartment, but a storage array was painted on the wood behind the drawer in the center. The array was surrounded by four separate circles of writhing inky characters that seemed to practically snarl with the violence inherent to the qi they contained.
Without her perfect night vision, she doubted that she would have seen it, hidden as it was. As things were, breaking that set of security arrays with the awkward positioning afforded to her was going to be rough.
Three times, she felt her heart nearly stop as the traps wavered on the edge of triggering. She grimly held back the cry of pain that wanted to leave her lips as the traps’ caustic qi seared her fingers, eating into the protective qi that cloaked them.
She had a feeling she would lose a hand if the trap activated. Eventually though, using everything she had learned from Elder Jiao in the past two weeks and every ounce of skill she had, the final array cracked, and she was able to activate the storage array, expressing its contents. There was a pill case, a gleaming silver beast core that hummed with power, a dark green core that burned to the touch… and a tiny slip of jade.
Her breathing hitched, and a grin broke out on Ling Qi’s face. It wasn’t the objective she expected, but she could handle that. She swept all four items into her own ring and darted out of the room, ready to hurry on. There was only one more thing to worry about.
The silence of the place was starting to unnerve her. She hadn’t been sure what to expect, but the place being so deserted wasn’t one of them. Perhaps Yan Renshu had gone out to deal with the fallout at his other base? She had left Cai a message about it after all.
It didn’t matter. She needed to remain cautious regardless, but questioning good fortune wouldn’t help anything. The path soon went down steeply, and below she could see a faint green glow. She ghosted down, quite literally given the number of times she activated her darkness arts, and reached the bottom where a familiar unsettling sight awaited.
As in the Grinning Moon dream, there was a wide chamber lit by pale green flames contained within heavy, iron lanterns that hung from the low-slung ceiling. The smooth, flat ground was pierced at regular intervals with two meter wide pits, six in all, covered by iron grates. Squat columns stood between the pits, supporting the ceiling. Set against the walls were worktables and tools, as well as a small, personal pill furnace. Most disturbing were the figures jerkily moving through the room performing mundane tasks.
They were wooden mannequins, like something one would see in a dress maker’s shop but with articulated limbs. They lurched around the chamber, some rendering down raw materials, others dumping buckets of raw, bloody meat into the pits, and still others simply patrolling. Pulling her eyes away from that disquieting sight, Ling Qi found her last target. The book, at more than half a meter a side, was rather larger than she had imagined in her visions. It rested on a raised podium at the far end of the room, attached to it by a sturdy iron chain.
That would be trouble. But first, she had to reach it.
Ling Qi moved out from the entrance area carefully, a wary eye kept on the patrolling constructs. She couldn’t be sure of their senses so she moved as conservatively as possible, barely breathing and a tight grasp on her qi. There were no traps here, but there were certainly alarms, and she danced on the edge of tripping them in the process of crossing the room.
Yet she managed. The columns provided momentary cover even as they brought her close to the pits from which the eye-watering stench of rot and blood issued. The sight she glimpsed in their depths turned her stomach. No sound emerged from the pits, but she could see churning pools of blood and flesh within which writhed pale white worms with slavering, circular maws lined with far too many teeth. The largest were as thick as one of her legs. They thrashed and snapped, splashing through the filth. The inhabitants of each pit were clearly doing their level best to devour each other. The pits were void of qi to her senses.
Ling Qi passed them by, creeping closer to the pedestal with the book. Weaving through the eerie room, she eventually reached her goal. She used the shadow of the pedestal itself to remain out of sight and examine the book.
What she found was not terribly encouraging. The chain itself was heavily reinforced, its links practically glowing with earth qi and layered with protective formations. The bindings and covers of the book itself were similarly reinforced. Oddly enough, this close, she could feel what felt like dozens of qi signatures from the pages.
The arrays were not nearly so complex as the traps she had avoided and disabled in the study, but they were densely packed on top of each other. They should have disrupted each other, but they didn’t. It reminded her of the work on her flute. Slowly, she peeled back layers of protection, weakening the point where the metal was joined to the spine of the book. Worst case, she might be able to just tear the plate off and lose a chunk of the binding if she couldn’t fully disable the arrays.
Then her knife slipped. It was only by a hair, a slight jerk due to a tremble in her fingers, but the result was the blade scratching across a brushstroke she had not meant to break yet. Qi immediately thrummed down the length of the chain and into the floor, setting off all the other alarms. There was no audible sound, but the constructs stopped dead in their tracks, their faceless heads turning toward her in unison.
Nope. She wanted no part of any of that.
It took all of her strength, but her knife dug into the leather spine of the book. She gritted her teeth as she carved a jagged wound in the binding before using the knife as a lever to yank out the metal bolts.
There was a snap, and she hissed in pain as a shard of metal cut one of her fingers. The knife had broken, but the book was loose. She seized the heavy thing from the pedestal and tore it free with a loud rip.
Ling Qi winced as the powerful presence a third realm cultivator washed over her, although it felt oddly distant. Her heart hammering in her chest, she turned back to the room at large and saw the source.
The feeling of presence poured from one of the constructs. A ghostly image of a boy a couple years her elder enveloped the construct. Short and broad-shouldered with a shaved head, he had a crooked nose and and numerous ugly scars on his rough blocky features. The rest of his figure was hazy and difficult to make out in the ghostly overlay, but there was something wrong with his right arm. It seemed malformed somehow.
“I should have known you would be the real danger.” Yan Renshu, for that is who he must be despite the differences from her image of him in the visions, glared hatefully at her.
She didn’t stop to listen to him. Ling Qi ran, darkness billowing from her limbs as she vanished the book into her ring, dashing around the perimeter to the room, unwilling to pass close to the pits. Her decision was vindicated when the hatches on the pits popped open and worms boiled out. Ling Qi sprinted up the tunnel away from the chamber.
“Shenyuan, do not let her leave!”
Yan Renshu’s words sounded through the cavern, loud enough to rattle her bones. Alarmed, she felt his qi flare, and the ground vibrated. Violet mist stung her heels as it billowed outward from the puppet, and she sped up still further, her gown flapping in a phantom breeze as she rushed for the entrance.
Her haste almost doomed her. Stone erupted, pelting her with shrapnel as a massive white worm as thick as her waist emerged, clear sizzling liquid dripping from its grasping jaws. It was grade three, she noted distantly. Ling Qi forced still more dark qi into her limbs, rendering her partly immaterial as she dodged through the shower of acid that erupted from the thing’s gullet.
With mist at her heels, the worm in front of her, and the stone itself churning below and above, narrowing the exit with every passing moment and grasping at her feet like hungry mud, there was only one response.
Ling Qi drew sharply on her energy, imbuing her gown with power. The cloak flapped around her shoulders, spreading like dark wings, and her feet left the grasping stone. She rushed past the worm, biting back a scream as she flew through the cloud of acidic droplets left by its spit.
There was a moment of disorientation as she passed through the closing gap. Ling Qi felt both compressed and stretched as she squeezed through. In the tunnel, the cold air rushed around her even as traps and alarms tripped and exploded in her wake. She had seen the many, many formations on her way down, but to stop was to lose. She ran harder than she ever had since coming to the Sect. There were no allies she needed to keep pace with, nothing to slow her down.
Ling Qi blurred, and although she felt her energy ebbing with each trap she set off and was not quite fast enough to avoid, she threw off effect after effect, even as Yan Renshu’s angry voice echoed up from below. When she could see the bottom of the shaft reaching upward, she expressed her bow. Lightning sparked as the roar of the worm reached her and she jerked and juked through the air, avoiding the tendrils of stone that grasped at her, tearing at the hem of her gown and her hair.
A bolt of roaring black lightning charred across her side, almost sending her into the wall, but she did not turn back. As Ling Qi skidded into the shaft, she drew on her qi, nocked an arrow, and loosed one arrow, then a second, even as she rocketed upward nearly fast enough to catch up with the arrows.
The trapdoor above exploded violently as the two arrows struck it, and she soared out, dismissing her bow as she did. Still, Ling Qi did not stop. She flew straight up, and wind shrieked in her ears as she made a sharp turn and burned qi to keep herself airborne. A powerful restorative fueled her flight from Yan Renshu’s base.
Ling Qi did not stop until she had reached the home she shared with Bai Meizhen far below and crashed into the garden pond, qi expended.