The mouth of the cavern yawned before her, and the twisting maze of bent space extended behind. It was finally time to plumb the depths of the cavern she found on her moon given map.
“Are you ready, Zhengui?” she asked.
“Yes!” Zhengui agreed, his two heads speaking in unison.
“Gui has become good at being small,” Gui chirped proudly.
“Lady Cui is a good teacher,” Zhen agreed.
Lady Cui, huh? Ling Qi thought wryly. That was a new one. She supposed it wasn’t incorrect since Cui was Meizhen’s cousin.
“Why don’t you show me?” she prompted. Zhengui mastering the common beast technique of compressing his size was integral not just for exploring this particular cave but also for her plans to introduce him to the rest of her mortal family.
Two sets of eyes closed, and Zhengui seemed to vibrate in place with the intensity of his concentration. After a moment, his outline shimmered, and he shrank, more than halving his size. His shell was only a little over a meter long, making him much more portable.
“Ugh. Gui does not like how this feels.”
“Hmph. Do not complain to Big Sister,” Zhen hissed. “We are doing well!”
“You are,” Ling Qi agreed, crouching down to pat him on the heads. “Can you stay like that in a fight?”
“Of course,” Zhen said haughtily.
“Maybe?” Gui said at the same time with much less certainty.
Ling Qi raised a hand to stop them before they could start bickering. “It’s okay. Just stay close and support me, okay?” In the worst case scenario, she would just dematerialize him if he got stuck.
With his enthusiastic agreement, Ling Qi turned her eyes back to the cave entrance. The mountain stone was dark grey, nearly black, and the entrance was a jagged crack like the maw of a beast. Stepping inside, she stilled as the ambient noise of the wilderness outside vanished. She glanced down at Zhengui, who looked up at her eagerly. Taking a deep breath, she turned her attention back to the cave and continued.
The tunnels boring into the earth were narrow and twisted, and with each step she took, the scent of rot and decay grew. Pale, slimy fungus sprouted on the walls, and hanging sheets of fleshy moss hung from the ceiling. At the edge of her hearing, she could hear a faint buzzing, a susurrus of noise like a million tiny voices whispering unintelligibly. As they descended, it only grew louder and louder, causing her to clutch her flute more tightly and peer into every nook and branching tunnel with suspicious eyes.
Soon, the buzzing began to grow more omnipresent, and black dots began to drift through her vision. Little gnats and flies circled and dove at her as if attempting to bite. A minor fluctuation of the wind was enough to keep them away.
But their numbers grew.
Ling Qi’s irritation began to turn into concern as individual dots began to turn into swirling blots and clouds of black insects, crawling, buzzing, and flying from every crevice in the earthy passage. She raised her flute in consideration. Should she summon her mist and her dissonance constructs? Could the phantoms even effectively attack targets so small? These weren’t just mundane bugs that could be ignored; there was a gathering pattern of qi, drawn by the erratic movements of the swarming insects.
“Gross bugs should go away and leave Big Sister and Zhen alone!” She blinked as her little brother spoke up followed by a wave of heat. Hot grey ash blew out on the hot breeze, and swarming insects fell from their air, slain by heat or clumped together by sticky ash. Not a single flake clung to Ling Qi despite the continuous flow of ash rising from Zhengui’s faintly glowing shell.
Well, it looked like she had forgotten to take someone important into account. Ling Qi shot Zhengui a smile over her shoulder. “Good job. Do you think you can keep this up whenever too many of them start swarming?”
“Yes,” Gui chirped. “Gui will not get tired for a long time.”
“It was I, Zhen, who did it,” his other half complained.
“Nuh uh, Zhen cannot make ash without Gui!” the tortoise shot back.
“Keep it down,” Ling Qi chided lightly. “Let’s continue.”
With the problem of the swarming insects solved, they were able to proceed more quickly, only pausing now and then to let Zhengui produce another cloud of burning ash. It was a good thing that Zhengui was able to free up her attention from such distractions too because the spatial distortions which hid the cave only grew worse the further they descended. Narrow tunnels gave way to low ceiling caverns overgrown with luminescent fungus, and in the narrow paths that lay between columns of moisture slick limestone, the world bent. She would take a single step and find herself facing in the opposite direction in an area she had previously passed or looking out into an entirely unfamiliar cavern. It had greatly alarmed Zhengui the first time she had disappeared.
The path was not the only problem either. The cavern system seemed unpleasantly alive, and fungus, earth, and stone alike rose to bar her passage. Beneath her feet, the ground would split open into maws studded with teeth of glittering quartz, and fronds and slimy fungal tendrils snatched at her dress and hair, spreading clouds of choking spores.
Together, she and Zhengui persevered. The Hoarfrost Caress of the Frozen Soul Serenade echoed through the caverns, and plants and fungi alike froze solid, leaving sculptures of pale blue ice in her wake. The tough fibrous roots that Zhengui was able to call into existence at will bound shut mouths of stone and created platforms they could walk across when the solid floor gave way to black chasms.
As they ventured deeper, Ling Qi began to find signs of human work. She saw shattered gateways which had once blocked up passages now worn to mere bumps in the walls and the faint outlines of weathered carvings on scattered stones. With Zhengui watching her back, she studied them carefully, avoiding the hazy web of semi-functional defensive formations that still clung to the broken stones, to understand where to head to next.
It was hours and many unpleasant encounters later that they finally reached an intact gate. Ling Qi’s hair was sticky with sap and stranger fungal emissions, though her dress was incongruously clean. Any stain that touched it had melted or boiled away in seconds, and no thorn or sharp stone had been able to tear the fabric. Even a brief dip inside of some kind of underground pitcher plant had not been enough to put a single thread out of place. Clearly, the upgrade from Cai Renxiang’s dress had greatly increased her dress’ capabilities.
Zhengui was a little worse for the wear. He was walking more slowly, tired from using his abilities so much, and a few scratches glowing with white hot blood marked Zhen’s scales. But the wounds were mere scrapes and already in the process of scabbing over. Ling Qi had checked thoroughly before allowing Zhengui to continue to accompany her.
“Is this the bottom, Big Sister?” Gui asked plaintively.
“Let’s hope so,” Ling Qi said tiredly. Although she still had plenty of qi, mentally, she was feeling fatigued. “Let’s do it like last time, okay? Stay ready, and let Big Sister study the gate.”
This gate, made of black wicker vines all woven together with a frame of formation-marked stone carved into the tunnel, was obviously a much more recent placement. It made it much more likely that this location was in fact a curated Sect site. She was still wary as she stepped forward to examine it though, expecting some kind of final trial.
However, to her surprise, as she stepped forward, the gate swung inward.
Before her lay a wide cavern which sloped swiftly downward, stone transforming into powdery white sand at the shore of a lake of viscous black fluid. It wasn’t water; Ling Qi was sure enough of that. The liquid was utterly opaque and glimmered strangely under the faint light of glowing lichen that coated the ceiling.
At the center of the lake lay an island of stone rising from the black muck. The island was littered with yellowed human bones, which carpeted the ground in such numbers that there was nothing visible beneath them. Some of the skulls seemed strangely shaped, making her wonder if human was the right term. They didn’t hold her attention though.
In the center of the island was a single corpse lashed to a twisted pillar of rotting wood. Roots and branches speared their way between bones and intertwined with mummified flesh, and black flowers bloomed from empty eye sockets. Vines wound around the figure, holding it so that it would not fall, even in death. The corpse was taller than a normal man, and a pair of pronged, branching horns growing backwards sprouted from its temples. A spear of gleaming jade taller than Ling Qi was planted in the rock and bones to its right.
Most importantly, she could see the source of the black liquid. It seeped slowly from beneath the tattered, open-chested robe the corpse wore, running sluggishly downhill into the pool. More than anything she saw with her physical sight though, what Ling Qi could feel through her spiritual senses brought her up short. The fluid was liquid darkness, purer than the qi that flowed through her legs and spine. It was a sucking, hungry void drinking in even the simple qi of air and rock.
Something like this had to be known by the Sect, and for all that Ling Qi’s eyes were drawn to that spear of master-crafted jade, alight with the power that slept within it, she was not stupid. For something like that to have laid here untouched for so long, it must be defended, and the fractal web of twisted energies surrounding the island supported her feeling.
“Zhengui, can you give me a root?” she asked absently.
Zhengui trundled up beside her, staring out over the lake with a disquiet. “Yes, Big Sister,” he agreed, his eyes never leaving the corpse, and from the muddy stone rose a single green shoot of new grown wood.
Ling Qi murmured a thanks and snapped off the end of the root. With a single light toss, she threw it out over the lake. Less than halfway to the island, the green root seemed to fly through a distortion in the air. Green faded to brown, and then to black, and then wrinkled black wood crumbled to dust.
It all happened in less than the blink of an eye.
Ling Qi’s gaze jerked away from the sight as a faint glow drew her eye then, and in the air above her head, she observed ghostly characters spelling out a message in smoke and light.
In solitude, even the mightiest Foundation crumbles.
Before you lies a memorial to this unshakeable fact.
Let not avarice blind you, and leave old graves undisturbed.
In Darkness, find your reward. Take no more than three treasures.
Ling Qi couldn’t help but smile. The Sect probably exploited this location for treasure materials themselves, and by discovering it, she had earned the right to take a few.
“What does it say, Big Sister?” Gui asked guilelessly.
Ling Qi blinked and looked down at him. Of course, Zhengui couldn’t read. She filed that away as something to look into in the future when her time was less constrained. “It says to stay away from the island and to only take three treasures from the lake.”
“Gui thinks that is a good idea. Nightmare of Burning Glade is spooky,” Gui said gravely.
“Nightmare of Burning Glade?” Ling Qi asked.
“That is the bony thing’s Name. It is much bigger than Zhen,” the serpent answered, his normal haughtiness subdued. “So big that Zhen cannot see it all.”
Ling Qi turned her eyes back to the skeleton and to the blooming black flowers that grew from its eye sockets. For the first time since she had begun cultivating Zeqing’s art, Ling Qi felt a chill.
“Let me just collect my treasures then,” Ling Qi said, tearing her eyes away. Carefully, she moved down to the shore and peered into the liquid darkness.
She dearly wished that she had Meizhen here with her to appraise the shapes she could feel within the oily liquid, but in the end, she could only trust her own instincts as she waded into the shallows of the lake.
In the end, she fished out a shard of frozen darkness that seemed like a miniature hole in the world, a hard, leathery pod that she had snatched from something growing in the dark liquid, and a pane of reflective material from the muddy bottom of the lake. Ling Qi would have to research her findings and perhaps ask Meizhen for confirmation, but she suspected that she had found a material that could serve as the base for her domain weapon.
Returning to the exit of the cave, Ling Qi cast a glance up at the moonless night sky. The calm and contemplative lunar qi of the new moon was a different thing than the wild chaos of the Dreaming Moon or the slippery insubstantiality of the Grinning. But with her storage ring full of high grade treasure, Ling Qi had to admit that there was a certain appeal to it. The Hidden Moon, who oversaw secret knowledge and investigation, was not the most obvious of patrons, but she thought she had made a good choice all the same.
After all, weren’t the most valuable things in the world often secrets?