‘Are you sad, Big Sister?’ Gui asked, craning his neck to look back at her. Despite his lack of attention to the path ahead, his trundling gait didn’t falter, likely because Zhen’s glowing eyes remained fixed on their path despite resting his head on her shoulder.
Ling Qi just smiled, reaching down from her perch between his shell spikes to pat her little brother on the head. “I’m just thinking about some things. Don’t worry about me.”
‘Big Sister should spend some time with the Abyssal Pool,’ Zhen hissed softly, his flicking tongue tickling her ear. ‘Or Dying Sun Embers. She would be happier then.’
“Meizhen or Xiulan?” Ling Qi asked, bemused. “Maybe. I haven’t seen much of Meizhen in a little while.” Recently, she only saw Xiulan at the White Room, but it was difficult to recall what happened there.
‘Oh! I know!’ Gui chirped. ‘Bai Cui said that her sister was going out to bind another spirit!’
“Really?” Ling Qi was surprised. “When did that happen?”
‘When Big Sister locked herself in the little room,’ Zhen replied, looking pleased with himself. ‘A little paper bird came carrying a box for Abyssal Pool.’
‘I didn’t like it,’ Gui huffed, finally turning his eyes back to the front. ‘It felt cold and mean.’
‘Hmph. Cowardly Gui is frightened too easily,’ Zhen said, turning up his snout.
‘I wasn’t scared!’ Zhengui shot back with childish irritation. ‘Stupid Zhen, you were just trying to impress-’
Ling Qi closed her eyes as the two halves of her little brother bickered, leaning back against the stony surface of his shell. She would ask Meizhen about it later. Since her talk with Cai, she had been reflecting on her future. Once, she had thought growing strong would make matters less complicated and difficult, but that foolish notion was long gone from her head.
Cai made things difficult for her. Ling Qi thought that she wanted to be a better person, but did she really? Did she want to be the kind of person who could follow Cai Renxiang and uphold her ideals, her justice, in truth?
She wanted a home and a family. She wanted to surround herself with friends… but how much did she really care about those that fell outside her circles, that gray mass of ‘other’ for which she found it difficult to remember faces, much less names?
Thinking back on her time in the city, for every face she remembered, every person she left behind, weren’t there two or three more that she had hurt without thought? Did she really regret her actions or did she simply resent the situation which had led her to those acts? Did she really regret ruining two, almost three, people over a favor or did she merely feel guilty because she knew some of her friends wouldn’t approve?
She didn’t know.
‘Big Sister, I see it.’ Zhen’s voice pulled her from her thoughts, and she opened her eyes.
Ahead of them, outlined in the dim light of the half moon in the sky above, was the shape of a graceful tower rising into the sky. This was the site of the glowing dot she had seen on the map from the puzzle box.
The structure seemed oddly organic in profile like the trunk of an ancient tree. Mysterious silver and blue motes of light danced gently around the tower, casting light on its smooth sides that were unmarked by any mortal tool. Despite the unmarred walls though, it was obvious that what she looked upon was a ruin. Some twenty meters up, the tower simply ended at a sharp angle, as if something had slashed through it. Beyond, she could see the tumbled rubble of what she assumed to be the rest of the structure.
‘The music is so pretty. Can we go in, Big Sister?’ Gui asked, a dazed sluggishness in his voice.
Ling Qi glanced sharply at Zhengui and found Zhen’s head swaying back and forth, mesmerized. If she concentrated, she could hear it too, the quiet sounds of a merry song drifting from the broken tower. She felt the music as much as heard it, carried as it was on moonbeams and starlight more than any physical sound.
Pulling on her connection to him, she dematerialized Zhengui, unfolding her legs to land on her feet as he let out a startled yelp.
‘Sorry, little brother,’ she thought to him, along with a feeling of apology. ‘But I need you to stay safe for now.’
He was a good boy, she thought with a small smile as he grumbled in her head. She slipped into the shadow of a tree which stood at the edge of the clearing as she refocused on the tower. It was time to scout things out.
Ling Qi stole across the remaining distance to the base of the tower as little more than a blur of liquid shadow, flitting from the shade of one tree to the next until she crouched within the shadow of the tower's entryway. Whatever door had once barred the way was long since gone, and inside, there was only cold, dusty stone. Even in her more spiritual senses, there was naught but the faint strains of music from above.
A careful search turned up no active formations nor any more mundane snares. She crept inside, peering carefully around the empty chamber within. Old leaves rotted in the corners, and here and there were the marks of vermin that inhabited the place, a few low grade one rats and their mundane cousins, nothing more. As she crept through the rest of the base level, she found the same, cold, empty rooms, long since looted.
It made her feel unreasonably nervous as she approached the stair that wound up to the second level. The collapsed ceiling barring her way halfway up only raised her uneasy feeling further. Still, with a bit of effort, she was able to shift a few broken chunks of stone, making enough space for her to slip through in shadow form.
The moment she passed through, she felt it. There was a frisson in the air as if she had just pushed through a hanging sheet of gauze.
She was no longer crouched in a decrepit stairwell, but rather in the entryway of shimmering hall filled with mist. The floor was polished to a mirror sheen, and fanciful fluted silver columns rose to hold up a ceiling of glass, baring the misty hall to the light of the stars and moon above. But the architecture didn’t hold her attention.
The inhabitants did. Everywhere she looked, she saw spirits. Clouds of fairies, their bodies little more than vaguely human shapes woven from silver wire, floating on wings of moonlight drifted about near the ceiling and fluttered over tables laden with succulent food and drink where pale blue lilies and other flowers bloomed between dishes.
Across the mirror floor reveled a throng of other spirits, beautiful women and handsome men with gossamer wings and catlike eyes that burned with silver fire. Yet from one eyeblink to the next, spirits changed. A bipedal wolf in a gentleman’s robe danced with a pillar of liquid silver in the outline of a woman. A mass of fluttering moths descended from a window and become an androgynous figure, its face veiled behind feathery antennae, while a towering humanoid of rough crystal took its hand to lead it onto the floor. These dizzying sights, along with a thousand other sights which blurred before her eyes, were made worse by the perfect reflection of the floor and the many mirrors hanging from the narrow columns.
She found herself reeling, a headache building behind her stinging eyes as she tried to make sense of the constantly shifting input. With the music building in her ears and the overwhelming intensity of the moon qi, her spiritual senses were rendered all but blind.
She squeezed her eyes shut to cut out the worst and quickly cycled qi through her eyes and ears, channeling the effects of her Argent Mirror art. As the calming and stolid qi spread over her thoughts, the headache lessened, but the scents and sounds around her didn’t fade.
“Cousin! We had wondered when you might come!”
Ling Qi’s eyes snapped open in alarm, and she became aware that she had staggered onto the floor while overwhelmed by sensation. Before her stood a woman with eyes like deep black pools, marked only by churning sparks of unnameable color. She was dressed in delicate silver finery that floated around her slender form like a cloud of lace and silk. Her hair drifted behind her in a cloud of rainbow mist, chaotic and wild, somehow solid and not at the same time. She smiled welcomingly at Ling Qi, apparently unperturbed by her presence.
Luckily, instinct took over for Ling Qi’s still somewhat dazed thoughts, and she recalled the fundamental axiom of being found in a place you didn’t belong.
“Of course. I wouldn’t have missed it,” she said, keeping her voice light.
“I was a bit surprised honestly.” Ling Qi felt a prickle of alarm as the woman took her hand, insistently leading her further into the room. It didn’t feel right, but for the life of her, she couldn’t see anything wrong with the woman’s perfectly manicured digits, save perhaps the length of her nails. It didn’t matter for the moment. She was surrounded after all. “That Xin so rarely attends these kinds of revels after all,” the woman chattered, glancing back at her with a vulpine grin.
That at least relieved her a little. Xin had given her the map and knew this place, so perhaps it really was just that she was expected.
“I suppose she isn’t here then?” Ling Qi asked politely. “Ah… might I ask where we are going?” The woman was leading her through the crowd toward the far end of the hall where music pulsed more loudly in her blood. She could feel herself stepping more lightly, filled with a frenetic energy.
“Why, to the stage of course,” the woman said, giving a delighted laugh as she wove through the ever-changing spirits. “You are going to be performing tonight after all!”
“What,” Ling Qi said flatly, her eyes widening in alarm. “I don’t have anything prepared for something like this!” she exclaimed, forgetting her more serious worries. “I can’t just-” The woman's grip was implacable, and she found her feet sliding across the floor without resistance even as she stopped walking.
“Hush, little cousin, and quiet your fear.” The woman glanced back, still smiling. “An artist must always be able to improvise.”
Ling Qi’s eyes widened in alarm as the spirit, who must be an avatar of the Dreaming Moon, pulled her closer and then spun her twice, laughing as the world blurred around them. Ling Qi let out an inelegant yelp as she was flung bodily onto the stage, landing in a crouch only due to practiced reflex.
A tremble went up her spine as she found the eyes of the hall on her, and a rumble of words and cheers began to rise. She still felt disoriented, and her blood still pounded in her ears, lunar qi overflowing her meridians and dantian, soaking into her and filling her with a frantic energy. What… what in the world was she supposed to play?
It was already so hard to think, to focus. But Ling Qi stilled herself, forcing down her fear. If playing for a concert hall worth of moon spirits was the trial… then fine. She could do this. She would just have to improvise. She raised her flute to her lips, not certain when she had taken it out, and began to play. The world seemed to tilt as the notes rang out and the revel roared.
Ling Qi’s memories of that night would never really grow clear. There was only the blur of faces, human-like and inhuman, sounds of dancing and song, noise and merriment and chaos, the taste of sweet shimmering wines and exotic treats, and the scent of sweat, incense, and flowers. She remembered standing on Zhengui’s back as he balanced on his hind legs and ‘danced,’ laughing while she sang and spirits clapped. She remembered dancing with dozens of spirits and of being whirled around the ballroom floor by the Dreaming Moon herself. She remembered the cool feeling of a jade slip being pressed into her palm before the avatar disappeared back into the crowd.
The last thing she remembered though, was stumbling home, leaning on the shoulder of a laughing girl with hair that shimmered in the colors of a rainbow.