The next few days passed in relative peace as Ling Qi continued her cultivation and visits to friends and mentors alike while doing some research on the two tasks she had set for herself.
The mountain indicated to her in her moon quest was known for being haunted by spirits of darker nature, creatures of poison and ambush who beguiled the senses and preyed on the unwary. This wasn’t terribly surprising because if there was something that would be useful to her there, it should match her style.
Still, it wouldn’t hurt to be mentally prepared. To that end, she tentatively set the date for her expedition at the end of the week. She would rather resolve her other obligations in case her delve took longer than she expected.
The Sect job she picked up was looking like it wouldn’t be terribly difficult. She had been tasked to deal with a potentially hostile spirit that had settled in at a thick grove of fir trees a ways north of the Sect village. Going by spotty guard reports, it remained mostly static. Luckily, it had not yet harmed any humans, but one hunter reported seeing the muddy hulk bodily lift a great Emerald Boar with one arm and break the beast’s spine over its knee. Given that those boars were high second grade and two meters tall at the shoulder at their smallest, Ling Qi resolved not to let the muddy spirit catch her.
She brought Zhengui along for her hunt but kept him dematerialized in her dantian after impressing on him the seriousness of the situation. It was late evening when she descended the mountain and headed out the north gate of the village, following the road only a short way before splitting off to head toward the grove where the spirit had been spotted.
Ling Qi slipped easily into stealth, a light jump carrying her up into the branches of the trees where she could ghost along without a sound. A year ago, the branches would have bent or broken under her weight, and even if they hadn’t, she would have had a hard time balancing on the thin wooden limbs. Now, it was as easy as walking across flat ground, and not a single leaf rustled in her wake as she darted through the forest canopy.
Animals and spirits alike took no notice of her passage as she moved through the woods toward the grove, and soon enough, she began to see signs of the muddy spirit. She saw places where the brush had been trampled down or where masses of damp clay and loam clung to tree trunks and lower hanging branches. Even now, a wisp of mixed earth and water qi remained in the material.
The grove itself was rather pretty. It was a regular circle of tall fir trees in which wispy, barely material first grade wind spirits danced, causing the branches to rustle and sway even in the absence of external wind.If she did not already have access to the snowfield Zeqing had shown her, she might have found some good use for it as a site to cultivate wind arts in. As it was though, she merely made sure to remember the location. Someone else might make better use of it.
There was a small hill of river clay in the center of the grove with a vaguely bowl shaped depression in its top, and mud was smeared across the trunks. The spirit she was hunting wasn’t present at the moment, but the information didn’t appear wrong. With that in mind, Ling Qi found a good hiding place and settled in to wait.
She spent a little under an hour crouched in the tree. Because she was in such a heavily wood-aligned area, she meditated on the meanings of the qi flows within the Thousand Ring Fortress art. Meanwhile, Zhengui dozed off. She wanted to scold him, but she couldn’t quite bring herself to.
Her patience was rewarded when her ears caught the distant sound of lumbering footsteps. They were loud and unsubtle like boots caked in wet mud. Soon, she saw the creature. At four meters tall and nearly as broad at the shoulder, the target spirit was a veritable mountain of river mud and black loam. Rushes, weeds, and moss sprouted from its half-liquid surface, swaying as it walked.
A lump was at the top of its shoulders, but she would be hard pressed to call it a head. Its other features were similarly crude with thick three fingered hands large enough to wrap entirely around her waist and stumpy legs lacking any definition. Still, its qi felt natural enough. It had the earthy feel of a mud slick riverbank, placid and unthreatening. She could see how it might frighten the villagers who had less sharp senses.
She was about to lower the bow she held in her hands and climb down to try and communicate with it when she saw something that sent a chill down her spine. There was a human head embedded in its chest, halfway down the bulk of its torso. It had young male features that might have been handsome without the corpsely pallor. She couldn’t sense a single drop of qi or life from the person either.
Her lips setting into a thin line, Ling Qi’s bow came back up, and she nocked an arrow, aiming at the space directly between the creature’s shoulders. She could feel a concentration of qi there, and it was her best guess at a vital point.
She must have made some sort of mistake in drawing on so much qi. Just before she released the sparking missile from her bow, the creature jerked, and as her arrow howled toward it in a blinding bolt, the mud that comprised it flowed apart. A perfect circle the size of a small tree trunk opened and allowed her arrow to sail through harmlessly, and it exploded when it embedded in the creature’s nest of mud, showering the clearing with dirt.
Ling Qi had only a moment to curse her failure before she saw the eyes of the corpse face snap open. Then she was hurling herself backward as a tall, lanky boy burst from the spirit’s chest as if propelled by a rocket, trailing mud and dark earth. He wore the tattered remains of an Outer Disciple’s grey robe. They were little more than the scraps of the sleeves and a ragged stretch of cloth across his back, and… yes, he had supplemented that with a bear skin tied around his waist and nothing else.
She focused as she saw the gleaming black claws of crystal that had consumed his hands, each talon half the length of her forearm. She could already trace the path they would take, slashing across her chest. Deep green qi surged from her channels, shrouding her in an aura of vitality even as she darted away from the strike, but she still felt a stinging pain as two of those talons cut through her gown and qi to score the flesh of her shoulder.
“Don’t hurt Big Sister!” The dual voiced cry erupted from just beside her, and she glanced to the side to see Zhengui briefly suspended in midair as ash gushed out to engulf her opponent followed by a hissing glob of molten venom. The boy nimbly dodged the latter and fell back before the former, but she could already see in his eyes that he wouldn’t back off for long. Zhengui was already falling to the forest floor a few meters below. She should drop down from the tree to better support him, but…
Feeling outward with her qi senses, Ling Qi had a feeling that she had made a mistake in haste. “Sect Brother,” she called as she dropped down, keeping a careful eye on both the boy and the spirit beast now lumbering forward to join him. “Are you in your right mind?”
Her voice caused the boy in the middle of plunging back to the earth himself to blink, his expression of absolute concentration faltering. “...Eh?”
“I apologize for attacking your spirit beast,” she said as she landed lightly next to Zhengui, resting a hand on his shell and shooting him a calming look. Zhen continued to glare at the boy, burning venom dripping from his fangs, but Gui merely blinked up at her, surprised. “I had thought that you had been consumed.”
The boy frowned at her as he landed. He was as tall as Gan Guangli at his baseline but much lankier and pale as if he hadn’t seen the sun in ages. He was also really ragged looking. His hair, which was tied into a messy tail, was long enough to reach the middle of his back, and there was his state of dress to consider. The only talisman Ling Qi could see on the disciple was a pair of crude wooden bangles around his wrists.
This only made the power and speed of his strikes all the more alarming. Moreover, he was at appraisal, a step above her in the third realm too.
“You are not here for a duel?” He cocked his head to the side, and Ling Qi couldn’t help but picture a curious dog in his place. He sounded disappointed.
“I was sent out to investigate. Your bound spirit has been frightening villagers,” she answered. “May I ask what you were doing?”
“Cultivating, of course,” he replied as if stating the obvious, the glimmering claws crumbling away from his hands as he crossed his arms over his bare chest. “Lanhua, what have you been doing?” He turned his head to look at the lumbering golem striding up behind him. It made an odd burbling sound, which he seemed to understand. “She has been minding her own business,” he said, turning back to Ling Qi with a frown.
“Yet frighten people she has. You are quite close to the village,” Ling Qi replied dryly, stroking Zhen soothingly.
“Ah… We are,” he acknowledged. He glanced around, scratching his head. “Did I misjudge the distances again?” he murmured to himself. “Well, no harm. I will just move on a ways.”
“Do you mind if I ask you something?” Ling Qi asked, causing him to pause in the middle of turning away. “While I only arrived this year, I do not think I would miss someone of your strength, Sect Brother…”
“Shen Hu,” he introduced himself after a moment’s thought. “I have not been on the mountain since last year. Too many distractions,” he explained, seeming to already be losing interest in her. “I can’t go too far though, or I’ll miss the tournament again. Maybe that little lake to the west…”
Ling Qi grimaced as the somewhat spacey boy took his leave. It looked like there was another formidable obstacle in the New Year’s Tournament. She could still feel the stinging pain of those claw wounds, even though her gown had already repaired itself.
As if there wasn’t already enough competition for those spots.
She’d have to let Cai Renxiang know what she had found here. Cai might already know due to Fu Xiang, but if this guy had wandered off into the woods for most of a year, the information dealer might have assumed him out of the running.
“Are you alright, Big Sister?” Gui asked while Zhen continued to stare daggers at the boy’s back.
“I’m fine, Zhengui. Just a little scratch,” Ling Qi reassured him. “Why don’t we get a few cores before we go home?” she added to distract Zhen from his temper. This job hadn’t taken as long as she thought.
She did wonder what the elders were playing at though. Elder Ying surely had to know that the “monster” was just a weird disciple. Was the mission just to remind Shen Hu not to miss the tournament?
After some hunting, she headed back to the mountain under the cover of night, letting her minor wounds heal while she meditated and recovered her qi. In the morning, she left a message with her new liege lord about Shen Hu and headed to the Sect office to collect her reward.