Sister Meizhen gave far too much thought to that girl, Cui thought sulkily as she threaded her way through the tall grass that grew between the gnarled roots of the forest. She moved without disturbing a single blade. As silent as death. Just like Papa had taught her.
Cui had been wrong about that girl. She was not a mouse or a rat or scurrying prey for all that she cloaked herself as if she were one. Cui could grudgingly respect the bite of that oversized viper, Ling Qi.
It didn’t change the fact that the girl had hurt her sister. Had sent her to huddle in her room and silently clutch Cui to her bosom for comfort, shoulders shaking. If she were not a Bai, her sister may have cried. Cui had been furious; she would have sought out the girl and ended her then and there if Meizhen had not held her so tightly and had not so clearly needed her.
Her cousin was strange, as all humans were. Cui knew this. The human members of the Bai were less strange than most, but they were strange all the same. Nothing illustrated that more than the fact that Sister Meizhen had forgiven the other girl for hurting her. Cui could not quite understand the idea. One did not forgive slights or insults, but Sister Meizhen had insisted that everything had been the fault of her own misunderstanding.
Cui did not understand.
The brush she slithered through rustled, and she flicked her tongue in irritation, tasting the scent of her prey on the air as she righted her heading. She was becoming distracted. It was unbecoming of a Bai. Sister Meizhen had requested her help, and she would not ruin things, even if she did not understand her sister’s investment.
Ling Qi was stupid. She had rejected her Sister, who, while being hairy and lumpy like all humans, was surely as beautiful as their sort could be. And the girl’s spirit, that whiny glutton Zhengui, was annoying, always toddling after her when his own sister was absent, stealing or scaring away her food.
At least he was sleeping now. Perhaps he would be less grating when he emerged more matured. The dirt wall around his pyre made a good napping spot at least. It would be sad if that nasty fuel had poisoned the aromatic smoke. It was not as if it was his fault that his human was so dumb. Cui knew she was sulking again. Sister Meizhen would scold her. It was so hard to stay focused with such easy prey though.
The humans she was following came to a stop ahead, crouching to root in the dirt like pigs to collect herbs. Cui peered at them from the tall grass, idly tasting the air. The five humans were alone, the strongest of them only just touching the end of the second realm. Weaklings. Years older than her sister and yet still so impotent.
This was so boring.
Cui did not allow herself to be distracted by the tasty snacks she could feel in the grass around her and the trees above. She did not allow herself to be diverted by thoughts of bringing down the fat crow in the tree across the clearing with a well-aimed jet of toxin, or how tasty it would be as its hollow bones crunched in her throat and the vaguely tickly feeling of its feathers on her snout. No, Cui had been asked to watch, and so she would watch.
Ah, the tasty crow flew away.
Two hours later, Cui was growing ever more tempted by the morsels around her, but still, the humans had only shuffled on a short distance, filling their bags and baskets with leaves and berries and bark. Finally though, Cui’s vigilance was rewarded. She felt the approach of the oily muddy qi that marked her real target and felt a thrill of pleasure. This time, her waiting had not been in vain.
The ugly, slimy white worm that emerged from the dirt caused a thrill of disgust in Cui. It smelled like rotting meat and hardly looked better. The leader of the humans clasped his hands and bowed to it, and one by one, his subordinates offered it bags which were quickly swallowed down its drooling maw. Whatever conversation passed between the leader and the swaying worm after that was silent beyond Cui’s ability to listen, but that did not matter. As the worm disappeared, she sent a feeling of confirmation to her sister.
The humans moved and Cui followed, utterly silent. Despite her distraction, she had pinpointed the weaknesses in their false scales long ago. She would not insult Papa by doing otherwise. He had taught her the vulnerabilities of humankind in nursery rhymes while she was still in her shell. There would be no need for Sister Meizhen to dirty her hands with trash.
Cui would strike long before the humans reached the road that would lead them back to the Sect. Qi rippled across her scales as she slithered closer to the chatting group of humans, quiet and unassuming. They did not see her, and they did not feel her. Pathetic. She was not nearly as good as Papa or even that viper Ling Qi, but these humans were worthless.
She was practically under their feet by the time she struck. The world blurred as her head whipped forward and up with her strike, and the leftmost human let out a cry of pain as her fangs sunk deep into the artery in the girl’s ankle. Her venom sacks pumped, filling the girl’s blood with toxin, albeit a mere paralytic rather than one that would melt the flesh from the human’s bones.
The girl fell, and with her fall, Cui felt the humans slow as the girl’s arts faded. The nearest boy was just turning to look at his crumpling companion when Cui struck again, and he too fell. A blade struck her scales and rebounded, chipped. It was shortly followed by a jet of pressurized water that carved through the dirt and tree roots, but that hardly gave her pause.
The other humans fell in moments.
Cui took a moment to enjoy the fear and whimpering from the humans crumpled in the dirt around her, smugly looking down on them from above her coils as she waited for her sister.
Sister Meizhen was prompt, although she did not do anything so undignified as hurry. Instead, her sister’s steps were slow, graceful, and measured as she emerged from the shadows of late evening. The human Bai’s face was cast in shadow by her regal hood of black water, which rippled soundlessly in the wind. Only Sister Meizhen’s eyes were visible, glowing beacons of cold golden light.
Cui heard the girl on her right sob as Sister Meizhen’s aura fell over her as crushing as the depths of Grandmother’s lake. She flicked her tongue, amused. Sister Meizhen did like her little bits of fun now and then. Even Cui’s serious and humorless Mother agreed that such theatrics had a certain value.
“S-sect Sister, whatever we have done to offend you, please let me apologize!” The leader of the weak humans babbled as Meizhen strolled closer, pausing to brush her hand affectionately over Cui’s eye ridges. Cui hissed happily, nuzzling her hand, and took the invitation to slither up her sister’s arm and come to rest around her shoulders, enjoying the cool feeling of her mantle.
“How fortunate that you are cooperative,” Meizhen spoke mildly, coming to a stop. “I would have you deliver your master Yan Renshu unto me.”
The boy’s face went white, and one of the others shuddered, a quiet whimper escaping his lips. “W-we… Sect Sister, I do not know…”
Her Sister’s hand twitched, and metal ribbons lashed out, drawing forth a scream. The scream only grew more raw and animal as the toxin took its course.
Cui closed her eyes. Silly humans. A Bai always got her answers in the end.