“Fan Yu, sound the place out,” Han Jian ordered, examining the wide cave mouth they all stood before. Han Fang stood at his back, expression placid, while the shorter Fan Yu stepped ahead, boots crunching on the smaller bones half buried in the dirt.
Ling Qi watched them from beside Gu Xiulan, the two of them hanging a few steps back from the boys. She had helped with the grunt work of the investigation, but what remained was over her head. Fu Xiang would handle putting the information they had gathered together, and she would meet Cai Renxiang as soon as the investigation was done. With the Ma sisters guarding Zhengui, there was no reason to snub her friends.
As Fan Yu crouched and dug his fingers into the dirt, Gu Xiulan cleared her throat, drawing her attention back to the scarred girl’s veiled face. Ling Qi even managed to hide her wince this time. Gu Xiulan’s qi was a raging, devouring bonfire and fireworks display all in one, a primal scream for attention and adoration.
“So, I have heard quite a bit of how busy you have been,” her friend said quietly, giving her a sidelong look. “But there is a matter I require your attention to.” Han Jian glanced back at them as Xiulan spoke. He was fully late second realm now so she was sure he could listen in if he really wanted to, but he faced forward again, appearing to deliberately ignore their conversation.
“I’ll make some time. What’s the problem?” Ling Qi asked curiously
Xiulan gave her a considering look from behind her veil, then sighed, sending the cloth hanging over her face fluttering. “I would appreciate it. It is a familial matter. We have discussed this issue a few times before.”
Ling Qi furrowed her brows. What was Xiulan talking about? Before she could reply, Fan Yu spoke up.
“There is only one main path,” he said gruffly, brushing the dirt off of his hands. “The rest are dead ends, nothing wider than a meter or two. Nothing moving either,” he reported. “Main path goes beyond my range.”
She would give Fan Yu that. His earth scouting art was pretty useful when it came to not wasting time, and his range had only gotten better since he finally clawed his way up to Mid Yellow. She glanced at Xiulan, who merely raised an eyebrow at her. ... She would worry about that later.
Han Fang and Fan Yu took point as they entered the cave while Han Jian and Heijin took up the center. She and Xiulan made up the rear rank, and Xiulan’s spirit provided light from overhead. Ling Qi briefly considered offering to scout ahead herself… but she felt bad for Fan Yu at this point. She didn’t want to take his role, not when remaining unseen wouldn’t even really help given their goals.
They encountered no trouble as they went deeper. The only sounds heard were the crunching of gravel and bone under their feet as the group remained in semi-professional silence. As they proceeded, they paused every few minutes for Fan Yu to check ahead, passing narrow branching tunnels. Ling Qi took a quick peek down the larger ones, but so far, there appeared to be little of value. A few patches of rare moss or fungal growths useful for medicine found its way into their pouches and rings, and they continued on.
Of course, that didn’t last.
“There is something blocking me,” Fan Yu said, scowling as he rested his hands on the stone. “Another hundred meters on beyond the curve in the tunnel, everything grows hazy.”
Han Jian frowned, cupping his chin thoughtfully. “What does it feel like?”
“Like a sheet has been thrown over everything,” Fan Yu grumbled, standing. “I can feel the outlines, but none of the details.”
“Mm, well, it is not as if you could be expected to push through even the passive resistance of a strong beast,” Xiulan said idly, twirling a strand of hair on her unburned finger. “Han Jian, perhaps more active scouting might be effective?”
Fan Yu lowered his head, and Ling Qi saw one of his fists clench. Han Jian simply gave Xiulan a reproachful look, but Xiulan stared back, unabashed. Her friend was growing more defiant and openly rude. Han Jian didn’t tell her off though, letting out a calming breath instead. “Ling Qi, please take Heijin and check ahead. Don’t go too far. There’s no sense in taking unnecessary risks.”
Ling Qi glanced at her friend then nodded, stepping forward. “Sure, I’ll just be a moment.” She didn’t look at Fan Yu; he wouldn’t appreciate sympathy.
“Hmph. As if there is any risk at all with I, Heijin, along,” the young tiger grumbled as he fell in beside her, his side brushing her leg. Ling Qi rolled her eyes and lowered her hand to his head, scratching the tiger behind the ears.
They moved out past Han Fang, who gave them an encouraging nod and adjusted his grip on his hammer, and past the curve of the tunnel, skulking silently along. More stone greeted them, but as they followed the increasingly twisty path, the tunnel grew more verdant. Hard stone was replaced by squishy growths of green-white fungus, patches of the stuff growing wider and more prevalent until the two of them were stalking through a disturbingly organic tunnel.
Ling Qi stopped as she saw the tunnel drop down and open up into a wide chamber. This was far enough. The fungus around them gave off a strong feeling of wood qi, so that was likely the source of Fan Yu’s troubles. Ling Qi could barely feel the earth qi that had drawn them here in the first place.
Heijin moved past her, and Ling Qi frowned, reaching down to grasp the collar talisman around his neck. She shook her head, mouthing ‘stop’.
He ignored her and tried to pull away from her, his greater strength almost making her stumble. That was when Ling Qi noticed it. There was something slightly sparkling in the air and an odd taste as well. Ling Qi flared her qi, activating the first technique of her Thousand Ring Fortress art, and flooded Heijin with a surge of wood qi.
The tiger cub immediately stopped, shaking himself violently. His eyes widened, and he let out a low bone-rattling snarl of affronted pride. Ling Qi caught his eye before the wind around him could kick up any further and shook her head violently.
Heijin was reluctant, glaring down the tunnel, but acquiesced after a few more ear scratches. Luckily, it seemed that they had still gone unnoticed, her own art use lost in the ambient qi of the cavern. Ling Qi only allowed herself to relax when she was back among her companions though. She quickly explained what she had seen, along with Heijin, who more reluctantly described the odd allure he had fallen under, a desire to reach the warm, safe cavern ahead.
Han Jian glanced down the tunnel thoughtfully as they finished explaining, glancing to Fan Yu and Gu Xiulan. “It sounds a bit like an Ash Maw, don’t you think?”
Fan Yu grunted an agreement, squinting down the hall. “It would make sense. The haze had the rotten feel of yin wood.”
“I suppose,” Xiulan replied, flicking a stray strand of hair behind her ear. “Weaker, obviously, or we would already be in the creature’s stomach.”
“Someone mind filling me in?” Ling Qi spoke up.
“Indeed. Tell us of the beast that we may slay it for this insult,” Heijin added haughtily, irritably brushing at his nose with his paw.
Han Jian blinked, turning to her, and shot a wry look to Heijin. “Ling Qi, I can understand, but… were you not paying attention, Heijin?” The tiger cub looked away, maintaining his haughty air. “It’s a carnivorous plant native to Golden Fields,” Han Jian let it go, turning to explain things to Ling Qi. “They disguise themselves as small oases and lure reluctant prey with a spiritual scent.”
“They are grade four beasts, and their digestive fluids are worth a hundred yellow stones per milliliter,” Gu Xiulan added, reciting the fact in a disinterested manner, “due to its properties as a fertilizer.”
“This is not the same though,” Fan Yu said. He looked pleased to be contributing. “You said there was some manner of powder in the air.”
“Yeah, and the stuff on the walls was fungus,” Ling Qi agreed. “A plant would need sun, right?” She had read that somewhere.
Han Jian nodded. “Right. It’s probably something local that uses the same tactics. I believe we can handle this. Does anyone disagree?” he asked, looking them over.
Ling Qi simply crossed her arms and looked back. She had ignored its scent easily enough; it couldn’t be that strong. Fan Yu looked concerned, but one glance at Xiulan silenced whatever objection he might have had. No one else seemed too worried.
Han Jian nodded again, drawing himself up as he unsheathed his sword. “Alright then. Take a moment and enhance yourselves. There’s no point in going in unprepared. Ling Qi, can you use your mist? The qi drain effect you have should be useful against this kind of opponent.”
Ling Qi considered, toying with her flute. “I can. I’ll need something to target for that technique though, and I couldn’t feel it in the tunnel.”
“That should not be a problem in the cavern,” Xiulan scoffed. “Once I have started burning it, whatever concealment it is using will fall.”
There was no need for further words after that. Wind sprang up around Han Fang, and his biceps bulged as he charged himself with thunder and wind qi. Fan Yu’s skin darkened, turning the color of stone, and the temperature in the tunnel flared as strands of flame blazed up around Xiulan.
Ling Qi’s mist rolled out as well, engulfing them all in its confines, even as she flooded her limbs with dark qi in preparation for moving quickly. Heijin’s eyes glowed in the dark as he swelled in size, his head now reaching Ling Qi’s waist.
Han Jian was last. A golden banner unfurled over his shoulders, shining even in her mist. “Steel your minds and advance.” His words rang with unusual weight, and Ling Qi felt his qi whispering along her channels, enhancing her spiritual defenses.
They moved quickly, no longer maintaining a careful pace. Ling Qi felt her friends activating other techniques as they advanced toward the beast’s lair, and she herself enhanced her own defenses further, calling on the serenity of Argent Mirror and filling the mist with hunting shadows.
It was a good thing that she did. As they crashed through into the more heavily organic tunnel, she felt a sudden wrenching feeling in her gut as the dull, decaying qi around her spasmed in response to their intrusion. Stringy white growths tore from the walls, and tendrils of spongy fungal growth the size of thick tree limbs attempted to bar their way and push them back.
Fan Yu and Han Fang were not deterred though, the taller boy’s hammer ripping one in twain with a thunderous burst while Fan Yu at least held up under their battering. Ling Qi’s shadow constructs tore at rootlets and tendrils, keeping them from creeping up around her feet. Her eyes watered as Gu Xiulan’s blinding blue flames lanced down the tunnel, reducing many of the obstructing growths to ash. Heijin darted forward through the gaps she made like a golden blur, shredding tendrils as they struggled to grow and regenerate.
Ling Qi, judging that the rest of the group had the damage in hand, simply called on the wind to guide everyone’s movements as she maintained her melody. Han Jian evidently felt the same, and his banner unfurled further as tracers of light like a tiger’s stripes began to form on his skin and armor. Ling Qi felt a rush of heat as his own qi, wind and earth together, bolstered her own.
All around them, the tunnel came alive. Early Silver, Mid Silver, then Late Silver, the fungal growths’ qi grew more resilient the closer they pushed toward the cavern at the end of the tunnel, fighting back fiercely and desperately. It slowed them, but it could not stop them. Gu Xiulan’s intense flames scorched it down to the earth and cut off any hope of regrowth.
They reached the entrance of the cavern.
A once serene pool of water lay beyond with a great towering white growth in its center, a bulbous, cancerous thing that trembled and writhed. Thousands of rootlets writhed up from the water even as the organic coating on the walls rippled violently with the creature’s pain and fury. Ling Qi felt a hint of worry as she was unable to read the beast’s cultivation failed. Third realm then, probably early but perhaps more. The air shimmered, and she felt as if a hammer had smashed directly into her thoughts.
It would be nice if she could simply lie down to rest. A little sip from the cool, clear water would be even better…
It didn’t last. Silver light flared from her eyes, and she rejected the influence, drawing a horrible squeal from the pillar of fungal flesh in the center of the room as she retaliated by drowning it in a cold, cloying elegy. The others fared less well. Fan Yu stumbled, looking lost, and there was confusion in Xiulan’s eyes, her flames briefly guttering.
“Do not be enraptured!” Han Jian shouted, his voice rising above her melody. Her friends shuddered, their eyes clearing, and Xiulan’s hair whipped violently around her head as she stared down the beast in fury.
Han Fang and Heijin had not even been slowed by the fungal pillar’s attempt. The two of them struck like thunderbolts, rootlets failing to grasp at their wind-shrouded forms. Han Fang’s hammer tore a great gobbet of flesh free from the pillar, and the ensuing thunderclap cratered the pillar while Heijin’s claws slashed jagged rents in a rising spiral around the pillar as the wind carried him briefly into the air.
The fungal pillar retaliated as rootlets as thick as tree limbs emerged from the ground to lash out with blows fit to sunder stone. They met resistance as Ling Qi activated Deepwood Vitality, shimmering shrouds of verdant green absorbing the impact and leaving her allies free to continue attacking without missing a beat.
It may have been their superior in cultivation, but this beast was clearly not meant for direct combat. It was messy and unpleasant, but it was no match for the five of them. The creature eventually died, torn apart by their combined fury.
Sadly, that seemed to be the end of the cave, but it was not in vain. They were able to dig out a fairly large cache of beast cores out of the fungus, the yet undigested remains of its victims. It included several low ranking grade three cores and the beast’s own, of which there were multiple. With her share of this windfall, Ling Qi would be able to maintain her current expenditures.
Between the continuing investigation into Yan Renshu and her training with the Golden Fields group, time passed quickly after that. The rest of their explorations were less exciting, but in training, Ling Qi found herself rapidly mastering the portion of Argent Storm that Han Jian had shared with her. It was not an art that really fit her style well since it primarily relied on defending against melee attacks with Rumbling Squall and punishing failed melee attacks with Thunderous Retort technique, but it was a useful tool to have if someone were to close to melee range with her.
With three Argent arts active, Ling Qi felt slightly strange like she was on the verge of something.