“It’s alive!” Li Suyin said excitedly, clapping her hands as the figure laid out on the workbench in front of them shifted, its bony limbs moving mechanically
“... It’s not actually alive, right?” Ling Qi asked warily as the empty sockets of the bear skull they had used turned to face them. Its toothy jaws clacked as they worked open and closed.
“Well, no,” Li Suyin admitted, flushing. “But it sounds more exciting that way, doesn’t it?”
“You’re a little weird sometimes.” Ling Qi backed up a step as the thing climbed clumsily from the table, the heavy cloak of bearskin around its hunched shoulders rustling and revealing the silk-bound bones underneath. Li Suyin had invited her over to show off her progress, but she hadn’t expected this. She eyed the thing now looming over her, its low-slung skull nearly scraping the ceiling as it stood in a hunched, bipedal stance. “Please tell me you didn’t go graverobbing. We talked about that, didn’t we?”
Li Suyin looked horrified. “Of course not! I just used grandfather’s arts to reshape the bones.” The thing raised one bony claw and flexed its digits as she inspected it, the thick spider silk shrouding the bones stretching with the motion. “Do you really think so little of me?”
“No, I was just surprised,” Ling Qi assured her friend. “I didn’t know your art could do stuff like this.”
“Dead tissue does not resist the way living tissue does, so something like this is definitely possible,” her friend explained. Li Suyin stepped away and gestured at the bone puppet, causing it to begin going through a handful of stretching motions, testing its range of movement. It was eerie in its near silence.
“And the spider silk?” Ling Qi asked. “The original formation just used qi to hold everything together. Doesn’t this make the construct more expensive?”
“It does,” Li Suyin agreed. “Zhenli is too small to produce so much silk herself, although she tried.” Her friend glanced up to the thick web in the corner of the workshop where a ball of pink fuzz slumbered. “The poor girl tired herself out. Senior Sister Bao was kind enough to provide the rest.”
“I suppose I can just buy it if need be,” Ling Qi considered quietly. She didn’t want to rain on her friend’s parade. “What are the benefits of using spider silk then?”
“With an actual physical medium taking the place of ligaments and muscles, the construct can move more smoothly. Overall, it is more sturdy as well because less energy is needed just to hold everything together,” Li Suyin rattled off as her construct smoothly moved back into a standing position. “It is… a bit flammable though,” she trailed off.
“I’m sure we can work on that. What about power?” Ling Qi asked curiously. Lifting the concealing cloak, she examined the glowing stones embedded in a thick bundle of webbing where the construct’s heart should have been.
“Each construct only needs ten red stones to create,” Li Suyin answered eagerly. “But - You know the control formation is the main power source, right?”
“Right,” Ling Qi replied. That was the array’s main limitation. The constructs were keyed to a stationary array and couldn’t last long away from it, hence, the “vault” part of the “vault warrior” formation. “Then you finished deciphering that?”
“I did.” Li Suyin sighed. “It requires a yellow stone a month to keep the array running, in addition to the initial cost. And it can only support three warriors.”
“That’s not great efficiency,” Ling Qi commented. She remembered when such costs would have been far beyond her means. “So, are you willing to prepare the materials for me? As it is, I can’t exactly do this on my own with these changes.”
Li Suyin flushed and covered her face with her hands. “I didn’t even think of that…” she said despondently.
Ling Qi couldn’t hold in a snort of laughter. Suyin really outdid herself with this. Of course, she still had to learn the array.
It was another layer on her efforts to defend herself. While the invasion of Yan Renshu’s workshop had shown that unsupported constructs could not stand against focused third realm assault, they could deter less powerful enemies, so Ling Qi considered the time spent learning Li Suyin’s Silk Warriors formation to be well spent.
She wouldn’t install it at their residence yet though. It would be rude to do so without asking Meizhen. In addition, she had spent quite a bit on ordering talismans and charms from Fatty Hao so her funds were back to being really limited. It would be worth it though to have proper escape talismans and anti-scrying charms. Her desire for a proper formation breaking tool set had been more impulsive, but she couldn’t bring herself to regret it.
With her preparations complete for the moment, Ling Qi finally felt confident enough to take on another Sect mission. It would be a more involved mission with a greater chance of sabotage. The mission to go and propriate the forest spirits stirred up by Elder Ying’s “remodeling” had been sitting untaken on the board for some time now, and while the reward was relatively low, it would be a good opportunity to practice her skulking. Walking in the shadows always left her feeling more in tune with the Grinning Moon, and lunar qi flowed more easily in her cultivation afterward.
Once again, she set off without actually accepting the mission. It would mean having to spend a few spirit stones on the proper incense and offerings herself, but all the protection she had bought would be useless if she made it that obvious where she was going. Her first stop was in the temple quarter at the south end of the town at the base of the mountain.
It was her first time entering such a place. In Tonghou, the temples were all in the inner districts. The sprawling outer ring and the slums packed up against the walls made do with small shrines. Temples were open to the public on certain festival days, but Ling Qi had never been one to attend. Mother did not have festival days off, and after, Ling Qi hardly had reason to go. Stealing from a temple was the height of stupidity.
So it was with some curiosity that Ling Qi examined the sprawling gardens that filled the grounds inside the temple’s sturdy walls as she passed through the tall wooden gates of the town. The quarter seemed like it could serve as a fortress in its own right going by the ballistae mounted on the corners. Inside that militaristic shell, it was beautiful though. Well-ordered rows of flowers grew in geometric perfection separated by low hedge rows and artificial channels carrying bubbling streams of clear water.
The temple itself was a tall building with a slanted, green tiled roof. Its wooden walls were almost completely overgrown with brightly colored ivy and flowers, making it seem like the building itself was alive and filling the air with a sweet scent. People moved about the gardens quietly, a mixture of mortals and early first realms clad in the pure white garb of shrine attendants. She passed through the gardens unhindered and quickly entered the temple proper, heading for the central room. If she was going to find a proper priest anywhere, it would be there.
Ling Qi found the open, airy central chamber quickly enough. The hundreds of candles burning smokeless in their sconces lit the main shrine brightly. Glancing around, she saw several individual shrines lining the walls. The planter of rich black loam representing the Bountiful Earth was centrally placed, but there were plenty of others. She recognized the coils of the Celestial Dragon rendered harshly in bronze, the spear-lined shrine of the Eternal Watchman, patron of guards and others of their ilk. There were others as well, dedicated to spirits of all kinds. She didn’t pay it much mind for now, instead focusing on the elderly man who had been kneeling at the shrine of the Bountiful Earth.
He stood up and turned to face her now, a curious expression on his wrinkled, sun-browned face. He was bald, though whether that was purposeful or merely the result of age, Ling Qi didn’t know. He was also peak first realm, which made him the strongest cultivator that she had seen so far in the temple. Nothing on his plain white garb indicated any kind of rank.
“Greetings, Honorable Disciple.” The man’s voice shook her from her study as the man clapped his hands together and bowed formally to her. “Does the Sect require something of us this day or are you merely here to make an offering?”
It still felt awkward and uncomfortable for someone decades her elder to speak to her in such deferential tones. “Something of both,” she said, doing her best to sound formal. She would burn a stick to the Grinning Moon while she was here. “I am here to solve the problem with the forest shrines.”
The old man looked surprised. “My apologies. I had not heard word from the Sect that our request had been accepted.”
Ling Qi glanced away sheepishly. “... It hasn’t. Yet. But I am here all the same.”
He frowned at her briefly before understanding lit in his gaze. “Ah, trouble with a rival?”
“I guess you would be familiar, living here for so long.” Ling Qi sighed. “Is that fine? I can pay for any materials I need.”
“Of course, Honorable Disciple. Preparing the necessary materials will be no trouble if this terrible business can be sorted out,” the old man said with gratitude. “It will, however, take some time. Would you like to be shown to a guest room?”
Ling Qi shook her head. “Could you show me where you keep your shrines to the Great Moon spirits? I want to offer some gratitude before I set out.”
That seemed to please the old man, who cheerfully gestured for her to follow him down one of the corridors that extended off the main hall.
He left her at the shrine of the Moon, an elaborate eight part construction of silver and mirrors lit only by a single, dim, paper lantern, the light of which sparkled dazzlingly from the reflective surfaces of the shrine. She stayed there for a time, head bowed as a stick of expensive incense burned in the censer that lay at its center. She did not speak aloud but simply conveyed her gratitude in silence for the arts which had given her the chance to flourish and for earlier favors.
There was no obvious response, but Ling Qi liked to think that the intensity of the sparkling light and the faint musical chime on the wind were not her imagination. The old attendant returned soon enough, bearing with him a pack containing sacred incense and oils, as well as more mundane tools for repairing and cleaning a damaged shrine.
Ling Qi thanked the man and set out after that, channeling qi into her Misty Lake charm as she did. She was not going to make it easy for Yan Renshu to interfere with her mission.
Ling Qi had not been back to this part of the forest since the day that Elder Ying had carried her and Su Ling out after the disastrous mission to investigate disappearances. At its edge, the forest seemed much the same, but as she ventured further inwards, it was clear that something was amiss. The trees were crooked and the ground humped and cracked, roots poking up from the soil like grasping fingers. The canopy overhead was dark, a solid clump of green that seemed to devour the light of the bright gibbous moon and the stars alike.
Things crept in the corner of her vision, tiny twisted things that, despite her perfect night vision, vanished the moment she tried to properly look at them. They whispered and crawled among the underbrush and in the branches, wormlike and vaguely unsettling. The qi of the forest thrummed with ill feeling and deep anger, and the trees themselves seemed to twist and writhe on occasion, stirred to rage by desecration. Yet she managed to slip through the woods unmolested, no more than a shadow herself.
The first and closest of the shrines was a half circle of carven stones the height of a man in the center of an overgrown graveyard, all covered in a soft coating of moss that obscured the carvings. In the center of the half circle was a small stone plinth upon which rested an overturned clay bowl. The sacred liquor which it had once held was long spilled and dried. Ling Qi carefully picked her way through the clearing, her qi held tightly in her dantian. She could feel the restless spirits under the earth, furious at their neglect.
Fixing this one was a simple matter. She knew the right prayers to offer restless spirits, and the shrine was not badly damaged. It was soon cleaned and the bowl replaced, filled with clear wine that glittered in the moonlight. She burned purifying incense and whispered the prayers of rest over the restored shrine, finishing her first task.
The unclean feeling in the air faded a little, and Ling Qi continued, skulking deeper into the forest, avoiding the restless spirits that clawed through the air. It became harder as the forest’s spirits grew more numerous and present. Things of dirt and wood with staring knothole eyes and thorny limbs stalked the game trails. Ling Qi slipped past them all though, silent as a soft breeze.
The second shrine stood in the middle of a grove of fir trees at the top of a hill with a wide flat space cleared in its center. Bronze censers lay scattered across the ground, their chains torn from the branches, and aromatic ash spilled all over the dirt. Each censer depicted symbols of plants and trees representing different, relatively minor forest spirits. The creeping things in the corners of her vision infested this place, wriggling through the dirt and leaves as their hissing clawed at her ears.
Gritting her teeth, Ling Qi lit the protective incense she had been given and set about hanging the censers properly from their respective perches. Each of the six largest trees still held a dangling chain, left in place so long that bark had grown to encase the metal rings from which the chains hung. Cleaning out the censers, polishing them until they shone, and filling them with the proper incense was dirty and tedious work, but she set to it with determination.
It took a great deal of effort to work through the skittering, crawling feeling of the unhealthy spirits that swirled around her while she worked, held back only by her incense and the rhythmically chanted prayers that she spoke under her breath, not daring to pause. She was no frail mortal any longer, and she was confident that she could face any number of minor spirits. She was far less confident that she could deal with the greater things that would come, drawn by her qi if she did fight the minor spirits.
So she did not unleash her mist and drive away the whispering sprites, no matter how irritating they were. Soon, a clean and healthy scent wafted from the repaired censers, and the hostile spirits fled, fading into the night and leaving her at peace.
Sadly, that feeling did not last long as she continued on to the last of the shrines. The terrain grew rough and the path twisted unnaturally. Trees stood tilted at mad angles by upturned earth, and many others lay rotting on the ground. The air reeked of death and blood. Distance and heading grew difficult to discern.
She pressed on though, determined to finish. She had already spent a fair portion of her night on this. As the trees grew sparse, a bare handful of sturdy trunks still standing, Ling Qi, for the first time, got a good look at the devastation Elder Ying had wrought.
The ground dropped abruptly as if a giant had come along and simply tore a great chunk of the earth away, and the remaining sinkhole stretched far into the night, more than a kilometer wide and at least half that deep by her reckoning. Within it, nothing lived. All that lay at the bottom was a fine grey dust, inert and dead to every sense she possessed. Here and there, a sparkling green totem stood in the wreckage of stone and dust at the bottom. Around the totems was fresh soil and a few, precarious shoots of greenery and life like oases in a desert.
She turned her eyes away from the uncomfortable sight. Something about the dead, lifeless dust made her skin crawl. She moved along the edge of the sinkhole until she reached her target.
The final shrine was a vast redwood tree stretching over a hundred meters tall. It clung tenaciously to the edge of the sinkhole, roots as thick as a human torso curling out into empty air while others anchored it to the remaining earth. By all logic, it looked like it should have tipped into the hole, and yet, it stood steady. The actual shrine took the form of a hollow carved into the trunk a few handspans wide and perhaps a meter high with a small shelf for offerings.
The skull of a stag, seemingly cast from liquid silver that gleamed in the moonlight, was affixed to the wood just above of the hollow. Unlike the others, it was not damaged, merely neglected. The blank eye sockets stared down at her as she busied herself arranging the prepared offerings, dried and treated fruits, a portion of cured meat, and other such knicknacks meant to appease the spirit which presided over the place.
With everything set, she carefully kneeled among the roots and lowered her head, offering the correct words of propitiation. It took time for the last of the hostile air to fade, but when she opened her eyes, the offerings were gone, save for a few scraps.
She carefully swept those back into the bag, letting out a breath of satisfaction now that the job was done. As she turned around though, she froze.
Behind her, barely three meters away, loomed a massive shadow with many pointed horns curved into the air, gleaming with the light of the moon. Ling Qi did not normally think of a deer as a frightening animal, but the black furred mountain of muscle, more than three times her height at the shoulder, certainly put the lie to that. The potent mass of its qi, a match for what she felt in Zeqing’s storms, put to rest any other doubts.
She stared into the creature’s silver eyes for a few horrifying seconds as it bent its neck to peer at her, nostrils flaring as it scented her. Slowly, almost mechanically, she clapped her hands together and bowed her head in silent respect. What else could she do at this point?
Moments ticked by while Ling Qi tried to calm her nerves. She had not made any mistakes in the ritual appeasement. This was fine. She would be fine. Everything would be fine.
It was difficult not to flinch when she felt the spirit beast’s breath on her face. Her hair fluttered in the breeze that it kicked up as it snorted, but then, it was gone. The weight of its presence vanished, and she heard a soft thump as something landed at her feet.
She opened her eyes, seeing nothing but the ragged landscape of fallen trees and four deep depressions in the earth in the shape of hooves. She glanced down and found a small wooden cube covered in complex silver patterns. Carefully picking it up, she found that the silver lines picked out dozens of tiny wood slats, some of which moved when pushed.
She had seen puzzle boxes before but never one so complex. On its side, covering the largest solid piece, was a black circle chased in white. The sign of the New Moon. Ling Qi peered around, but she was still alone. Perhaps Xin was still looking out for her.