The remaining three days passed quickly in training and cultivation. Hunting with Zhengui, as well as helping him get used to his new size and power, ate into much of her time. The puzzle continued to frustrate her, snapping back into its starting configuration long before she could solve it. In the end she decided to set it aside to work on the other project that she had wanted to work on this week.

Researching dragons, as it turned out, was quite easy. The only trouble was sifting through the subject matter for something useful instead of collected folktales or treatises on the uses of powdered dragon scales.

As she put the last of the books away at sunset on the third day, she headed out to meet with Meizhen to plan their approach. Some part of Ling Qi wanted to call in Xiulan and the others, or even Cai and her enforcers, and come down on Yan Renshu with impossible force, but... Meizhen did have a point. Ultimately, this was personal between her and Yan Renshu. From his initial attempt to frame her to her retaliation leading to his faction’s downfall, the enmity had only escalated. And Ling Qi did not want to go running to Cai at every threat.

So the two of them would take care of this. Fu Xiang would keep an eye on Sun Liling's movements to make sure they didn't get pincered if Yan Renshu called for help, but actually dealing with him would come down to her and Meizhen.

Ling Qi dropped soundlessly from the branches to land beside Meizhen. “We’re clear. No one is following,” she said as she straightened up, smoothing her gown. “How long do we have before the charms wear off?”

“Six hours,” Bai Meizhen said softly, opening her eyes to glance at Ling Qi. “The false images will last for two. Are you certain this is where you wish to strike first?”

Bai Meizhen did not often remind her so explicitly of the kind of resources the pale girl could call on, but she had not held back tonight. Their home in the residential area lay under an illusion, giving the appearance that they were at home performing their normal evening routines. Meizhen had also provided Ling Qi with a bracelet of silk cord that sparkled like diamond in the moonlight, far superior to the little charms she had purchased at the market. Bai Meizhen wore one herself as well. They were well and truly invisible to remote viewing and detection arts from a cultivator at their level.

“Yes,” Ling Qi said confidently. “Yan Renshu’s threat is from his resources. Cut those off, and even if he gets away, his threat is much reduced.” She felt a stirring of excitement from Zhengui, dematerialized in her dantian. He thought of this as an adventure.

Meizhen let out a sigh. Ling Qi could tell that she disagreed still. “Very well. Let us proceed then. The tunnel lies further ahead.”

Ling Qi followed as her friend began to walk, moving with the same ephemeral grace as always despite the rough terrain and scrubby underbrush in the lightly wooded region that lay past the outskirts of the market. Ling Qi had not expected one of Yan Renshu’s remaining bases to be so close to a public area. She glanced at her friend’s impassive expression as they walked.

“I did not mean any insult when last we met,” she said. “I just lost my temper when you mentioned Li Suyin.” She didn’t want Meizhen to think that she thought poorly of her.

Meizhen did not reply at first, and they continued to move in silence. Eventually, her friend responded, “I did not take it as one. You are soft, and that worries me. But I suppose I would not value you as I do if you were as cruel as I.”

“I’m not soft.” Ling Qi frowned. “I’ve told you how I grew up. It’s not like I don’t know how things are. And I don’t think you are cruel either.”

“Then you have a false impression of me, Qi,” Meizhen said candidly. “The Bai are cruel. I am cruel. You are my friend and uncomfortable with that, so I have made an effort to spare you from witnessing it.” She closed her eyes for a moment. “Perhaps that was a mistake.”

Ling Qi shifted uncomfortably. “I don’t think you are,” she replied. “I’ve seen cruelty before. You’re not… You’re ruthless, maybe, but I do not believe you are cruel.”

Meizhen sighed. “This is not the time for such a talk.” She shook her head as she came to a stop between two thin trees. “The tunnel is here beneath our feet. Your spirit can breach it?”

“He can,” Ling Qi confirmed, Zhengui sending her twinned feelings of enthusiastic confirmation. “There are no worms nearby?”

Meizhen stood still, and Ling Qi felt a tingle as the girl’s qi passed over her. “No. There are no deliveries at this hour. Those that remain are inside. Break the token I gave you once you have entered the main chamber. Then signal Zhengui.”

Ling Qi nodded, recalling the image of the polished blue stone slip Meizhen had given her in preparation. Breaking it would release a small lake’s worth of water, flooding the room and tunnels. More importantly, it would let Cui have the complete freedom of movement to catch any worms that her mist failed to trap. According to Meizhen’s investigation, the smaller worms weren’t actually bound to him, so killing them wouldn’t notify Yan Renshu via changes in his bound qi amount.

Ling Qi nudged Zhengui with her thoughts, pushing him to dematerialize in front of her, his bulk quickly taking shape. With her silent urging, her energetic spirit attempted to quietly dig his stubby claws into the dirt and burrow down.

Meizhen gestured, and a shimmering plane of water formed in the air before her. Cui slithered down from her perch on the girl’s shoulders, eyes fixed on the water. By the time the floating pool had finished expanding, turf and dirt had piled up behind Zhengui, and Ling Qi felt the sudden rush of air as he breached the tunnel.

Ling Qi’s form blurred into darkness. Then, she was inside, gritting her teeth at the disorienting sensation of being squeezed into a space too small for her normal body. It remained deeply uncomfortable, but she could deal with it.

She did only have so much time if she did not wish to waste qi though, so she rushed forward, little more than a streak of darkness. She flowed through the narrow, partially collapsed tunnel as fast as she could. When Ling Qi emerged into a cavern, she took in her surroundings.

Crates, baskets, and other containers were stacked haphazardly around the enclosed space. The floor was simple packed dirt, and the walls and ceiling were held up by wooden supports. On the far wall, she could see a wide array that looked like the entrance mechanism.

Nearer to her and of more immediate interest was a sight that made her wrinkle her nose. She had emerged from a bowl-like depression in the floor a bit more than a meter deep filled with offal and the half-devoured carcasses of several goats. Worms burrowed in and out of the half-rotten and partially dissolved goat corpses and sloughed off meat. 

A quick glance showed a half dozen of the things, smaller specimens that were only as thick as her arm and perhaps a bit longer. They were a far cry from the huge specimen she had seen in his other lair or even the ones in the pits. Were these what he had left?

Having emerged right in their midst, Ling Qi knew she didn’t have much time to consider the matter. As her form expanded to its proper dimensions, she expressed the tablet Meizhen had given her and snapped it between her thumb and forefinger.

Despite expecting it, her eyes widened at the deluge that poured out, roaring like a waterfall from her hand. The worms screeched in alarm as the water flooded over them, rapidly filling the depression and washing away their noxious food. She winced as the resulting waves knocked over the nearest crates with a crash, but they weren’t the main concern. Sending a feeling of readiness to Zhengui, she drew her flute and began to play, drowning out the sound of water being forced from a rapidly collapsing storage space.

Mist flooded from her flute, and by the time she had alighted on an overturned crate, the first screeches of distress and pain were rising from the worms as shadowy fangs and claws tore at their rubbery hides. She felt her qi settle into all but one of their numbers, and her eyes fastened on the single worm that wasn’t thrashing about in confusion.

She needn’t have worried. In her element, Cui was little more than a blur, and Ling Qi caught only a flash of green scales between the young serpent’s emergence from a ripple in the water and her darting forward to sink her fangs into the side of the unaffected worm. The thing shrieked, almost sounding human in its agony despite the warbling distortion of the water.

Ling Qi tore her eyes away from the shriveling creature even as Cui pulled back, the bite wounds in its side rapidly blackening and flesh visibly rotting away. She had felt the tug of one of the remaining worms breaking through her mist, slithering rapidly toward one of the flooding tunnels, the rush of the water speeding its movements.

Because her mist would persist and trap the others for long enough, she let her flute drop from her hands and expressed her bow, smoothly nocking a sparking arrow and firing it into the center of the fleeing worm’s mass. The arrow punched all the way through the squirming creature and left it spasming as lightning wracked its nerves. A single bite from Cui finished it.

What remained was essentially spearing fish in a barrel. None of the others were successful in breaking through the mist to escape, and their panicked attacks accomplished little as she and Cui finished them.

It was a little piteous if she were being honest, but Ling Qi pushed those thoughts aside as she hopped down from her perch on the crate. She grimaced as her slippers squished on the muddy floor and scooped her flute out of the water. Resolving to polish it later, she dismissed it along with her bow as Cui pulled her fangs from the twitching corpse of the last worm.

“Good job. That went as quickly as we could have hoped,” she said, glancing at her green-scaled companion.

Do not speak to me,’ Cui replied coldly. Her voice still sounded like that of a younger girl but one close in age to her. ‘Open the door for Sister Meizhen.

Ling Qi paused in the process of stepping over a rotting chunk of goat ribs. “Ah… excuse me?” She asked. “I know we haven’t spoken much but… did I do something wrong?”

Cui turned her head to face her, tongue flicking out to taste the air disdainfully. ‘You hurt my Sister. She still wastes her time upon your affairs, and yet, you do not even appreciate it. I, Cui, do not like you. Open the door.

Ling Qi grimaced. She had been aware that Cui had stopped speaking to her, but she supposed she had never quite connected the dots. She opened her mouth to speak then thought better of it. Meizhen was right. This wasn’t the time for conversations like this. She moved toward the entrance array, and after a bit of examination, she activated it.

There was a deep grinding that sent vibrations up her spine as seams formed in the shape of a door around the array and the newly made portal ground open. Meizhen and Zhengui awaited her on the other side. Zhengui bulled forward immediately.

Big Sister!’ he greeted her excitedly. Ling Qi couldn’t help but smile and reach down to pat him on the head.

Meizhen sidled past him gracefully, wrinkling her nose as she took in the mess that the storeroom had become. “You were successful then?”

“Yes. None escaped. You’re sure he won’t be able to detect this?” Ling Qi asked, giving Zhengui a stern look as he trundled in and looked about to take a bite out of a stack of plants she didn’t immediately recognize.

Meizhen gave her a long-suffering look. “The charms we are using occlude our immediate area as well, and you should have been able to tell that these beasts were unbonded.” She crouched as she spoke, allowing Cui to slither back up her arm. Not a drop of the water on the serpent seemed to touch her.

Ling Qi nodded. “I know. We should still hurry though. I imagine he’s gotta check in on what he has left fairly often.” It would hurt to leave so much loot behind. Actually, they should probably just burn most of this…

She blinked as Meizhen flicked her sleeve, and an entire stack of crates and a bushel of faintly glowing bamboo vanished. Her friend caught her expression and raised an eyebrow. “Is there a problem?”

“I didn’t expect you to bother with that kind of thing,” Ling Qi said sheepishly, even as she hurried to follow her friend and pick up some choice bits in her own ring. “It’s…”

“Beneath me, yes,” Bai Meizhen acknowledged, continuing to consume entire piles of goods with a gesture. “That is the purpose of this endeavor though, is it not?”

“Yeah,” Ling Qi agreed quietly. “Thank you again, Meizhen.”

“... Whatever our disagreements on the method, this is for you,” Meizhen replied just as quietly. “Let us not dally any further.”

Ling Qi nodded fiercely and set about looting Yan Renshu to the bone, leaving the warehouse empty of all but corpses.

A note from Yrsillar

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To any old readers re-reading this a few paragraphs have been moved to a later chapter, closer to when the lore introduced becomes relevant.

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