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This made for the second time that she had crash-landed in the garden, Ling Qi mused. She wasn’t particularly fond of it. Her infiltration attempt had been a bit of a wash. It was a bit galling to have only gotten a bundle of trick arrows out for her efforts, and the scout left on the orb was a loss as well, albeit a minor one. But she had gotten a name for one of Sun Liling’s suppliers, uncovered some of their strikers’ routes, and at least, Cai’s faction would now be aware that Sun’s faction was stockpiling said trick arrows.

Ling Qi wondered if she could figure out where Liling had the arrows commissioned from, but it was no great heist like her last one against Yan Renshu’s faction. Feeling rather dissatisfied as well as mildly sore after applying a salve to her burn, Ling Qi took the time to write down her observations and deliver them to Cai’s home before heading down the mountain to meet with Han Jian.

She snuck her way down, of course. No reason to make herself a target on the trip. Spending time with Han Jian and the others continued to be awkward due to the tensions between them, but they pressed on regardless, continuing to comb the surroundings for useful sites and resources between training sessions.

Over the course of the next few days, Ling Qi finally mastered the next technique of the Thousand Ring Fortress art, One Hundred Ring Armament, allowing her to layer powerful defensive qi over herself and her allies. It was costly, short in duration, and at her current level, could not be used reactively, but while the technique was active, she could outright ignore anything less than a technique used by a peer. Even then, most anything that her friends could throw at it, excluding a few of Xiulan’s attacks and a single one of Han Jian’s sword arts, were greatly reduced in effect.

She also got a demonstration of Argent Storm from Han Jian. Argent Storm was a wind and thunder elemental art forming the basis of the Sect’s physical enhancement and movement arts. Inspired by the great seasonal squalls which beat down upon the Wall every year, its Rumbling Squall technique wrapped the body in a layer of obscuring wind and its Thunderous Retort technique produced loud thunderclaps to deflect enemy blows and enhance your own.

In turn, Ling Qi demonstrated the less visually impressive Argent Mirror, using it to defend herself from the effects of Han Jian’s aura of command when he summoned his banner as he had done at the intra-council battle.

They showed each other the beginning exercises of each art, enough to practice the first few levels. They would need to show each other later exercises to push beyond because the jade slips were protected from being copied.

Luck was still against them when it came to finding useful sites though. There was profit to be had in the beast cores and herbs to be turned in, but nothing of true note otherwise.

With a night of calming meditation under her belt, Ling Qi recovered from her effort in the fortress, and she met Suyin early in the morning to help the girl with her request. Cool mist still hung over the forest at the base of the mountain as the two of them walked, Li Suyin in the lead.

“You have to wonder why there are so many nests like this out here,” Ling Qi said idly as she stepped over a jutting tree root. It had been confirmed, thankfully, that their destination was not the nest she had stolen silk from.

“Once the Ahui clan conquered the Forest of Murk and their leader bound its guardian spirit, spiders became a popular spirit companion in the Emerald Seas,” Li Suyin explained . “Since they were an offshoot and pillar of the ducal Hui clan, it only makes sense for others to have copied them.”

“What happened to them then?” Clearly, the Ahui clan weren’t keeping the spiders under control anymore.

Li Suyin didn’t respond at first, peering into the mist ahead as she fidgeted with her sleeves. She was on edge about the coming binding it seemed. “They were destroyed during the invasion of the Cloud Tribes, along with many others. The Hui clan never properly recovered from the loss of so many loyal vassals, and combined with the Imperial condemnation of their failure to properly coordinate their armies...”

Ling Qi nodded absently. Sometimes, she felt like she could ask just about anything and Suyin would have some kind of answer.

“We’re here,” she said, interrupting her friend. “Or is that some other giant spider nest?” She had thought the looming shadow was a hill at first, but no, it was a massive pile of webbing that rose in a low, sloping cone until it met the crumbled remains of a squat stone tower. The tower was sheared off at the height of the taller trees and served as an anchor for the nest.

Li Suyin swallowed nervously as she squinted into the mist to make out the details. “No. That is… That is it,” she said.

“Do you need some time?” Ling Qi asked. The man-sized tunnel halfway up the ‘hill’ probably looked even less inviting if you couldn’t see into the dark. Knobbly, wriggling sacks studded the inner walls and ceiling. She didn’t know if they were eggs or prey.

“No. I can do this.” Suyin took a deep breath and drew herself up as she continued to walk forward. Ling Qi followed her, eyeing the nest warily as she expressed her flute. Now that they were close, the atmosphere grew more oppressive with every step, and the mist seemed to thicken, swirling around their ankles as they began to ascend toward the tunnel.

“You do have a plan, right?” Ling Qi asked as the sounds of chitinous legs skittering in the distance filled her ears. It was galling to walk right into a situation like this. They were surrounded, above and below. She could just barely make out the moving shapes on the trees which poked out of the nest.

“I do,” Li Suyin said, stopping at the tunnel entrance. She straightened her back and then bowed, hands pressed together in front of her. “Great Matriarch, this humble one brings offerings! This one brings delights wrought by the hands of man for your pleasure and amusement. Please grant an audience that this petitioner might offer them to your august personage.”

Ling Qi glanced around warily, even as she made the proper bows as well. It was a little hard to tell with the way her eyes worked now, but this area was unnaturally dark. The sun should be high in the sky and shining down, but it was still misty and dark.

As Li Suyin’s words echoed down the tunnel, Li Suyin’s expression began to grow nervous at the lack of response, but then a thick cable of thread, woven in along the ceiling of the tunnel, slowly lit up with a pale blue glow. It made no difference to Ling Qi for purposes of vision, but it was apparently the sign Li Suyin was hoping for. She shared a brief look with the other girl as they straightened up and headed in.

Li Suyin motioned for her to keep silent as they did, so the trip down the winding, narrow tunnel was made without any further chatter. The glowing cable lead them through multiple splits in the tunnels, always heading toward the center of the nest at the base of the ruined tower. Eventually, they found their feet once more on solid stone, only lightly covered in debris. The ceiling rose sharply overhead, creating a large entryway, and ahead lay a crumbling arch, over which a curtain of diaphanous white silk hung.

Two massive spiders with thick, almost rocky carapaces stood guard, one lurking above the arch and the other on the floor. Each of their legs looked as large and sharp as a sword, and sixteen black eyes regarded her and Suyin with cold intelligence. They were both third realm, and Ling Qi could feel a greater presence still beyond the curtain, comparable to Zeqing.

She remained silent, allowing Li Suyin to continue taking the lead. “Honored guardians,” Suyin greeted, making a shallower bow than she had at the entrance. “May I pass?”

“You alone, petitioner,” the spider on the floor hissed, its voice sounding like a raspy old man as its fangs twitched. Its blade-like limbs made a sound like metal being dragged over stone as it moved.

Ling Qi glanced at her friend in alarm, but Li Suyin merely nodded in acceptance. “It is fine,” she reassured. “Please be patient, Ling Qi. I will be out soon.”

“... Right. See you soon,” Ling Qi replied. She didn’t like it, but there was little she could do to help her friend in a confrontation with a fourth grade beast. She would have to trust that Li Suyin knew what she was doing.

Nonetheless, watching Suyin’s back as she passed beyond the curtain was difficult. Her friend looked so small compared to the nearly horse-sized spiders. She glowered at the massive guardians, her fingers itching for a knife.

Those thoughts did not make the wait after her friend passed through the curtain any less interminable. There was no way to properly track time in the nest, and the spiders showed no interest in conversing with her. She considered meditating, but she knew her nerves would make such an exercise fruitless.

It felt like hours before the curtains shifted and a figure emerged from the milky layers of hanging silk. Li Suyin looked terrible as she staggered out, a sickly pallor on her face. Her steps were unsteady, and she nearly fell as she emerged, only catching herself on the doorway at the last moment. A small patch of blood stained the chest of her soft grey gown, although it didn’t seem to be spreading.

Ling Qi crossed the entryway in the blink of an eye, ignoring the threatening hiss of the guards as she caught Li Suyin before she could trip on the uneven flagstones in front of the door

“I... did it,” Li Suyin muttered, her voice muffled by Ling Qi’s shoulder. Her voice was slurred, and her friend’s weak attempts to push away from her and stand on her own proved fruitless and clumsy.

Ling Qi opened her mouth to reply, only to blink as she felt an odd pinch on her hand on Li Suyin’s back. Glancing over her friend’s shoulder, her eyebrows rose as she saw a ball of pink fuzz and chitin the size of a child’s fist. The relatively tiny spider was trying and failing to bite her hand, its fangs unable to penetrate her skin. It let out an affronted chitter and waved its furry little pedipalps threateningly at her anyway.

“I’m guessing the one on your back is yours?” Ling Qi asked, continuing to ignore the agitation of the larger spider beside her.

“Oh…. Oh, um…” Li Suyin blinked and let out an uncharacteristic giggle. “Yes, she is. All mine… Zhenli, be good. This is my friend.”

The little spider still regarded her suspiciously, but at least it stopped trying to chew her finger off. Ling Qi sighed, moving away briefly to watch her friend sway on her feet. Li Suyin looked and acted incredibly drunk, if she were being honest.

“Well, ask her to climb up on your front. I’m going to carry you, alright?”

“Tha… Thank you, Ling Qi,” Li Suyin said, stumbling on her words. “Zhenli…” She made a face of almost comical concentration, and a moment later, the spider clambered onto her shoulder.

Ling Qi sighed and scooped the smaller girl up into a bridal carry. It was a little awkward, but Li Suyin was short enough that she could manage it. The girl fell asleep with her head resting on Ling Qi’s shoulder before they had gone a dozen meters. This close, Ling Qi could smell the pungent scent of strong liquor on Suyin’s breath. Just what had the girl been doing in there?

She supposed she would have to ask another time.

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