Forge of Destiny

Threads 380-Roil 3

Threads 380-Roil 3

The direct messaging formation was useful. It projected her words directly to the target along with the signature of her qi. Jaromila had gotten her message, and the woman's response had been swift. The White Sky would delay and put off all meetings for the day, ending them entirely if need be, and they would set their own security even higher.

So that was that.

Outside the ministry’s offices, Ling Qi walked with Meng Dan. He looked very unwell, and she could not blame him.

"We will resolve this," Ling Qi reassured him. She couldn’t speak of details outside, but she wanted to say something.

"I certainly hope so." He brushed a hand nervously through his hair. "Do you know when—"

They passed under the shadow of a pair of leaning trees framing the road, and the colors and sounds of the world muted out. Meng Dan stiffened. Ling Qi bowed.

The tall shadow of Shu Yue stood there, bent half over looking more inhuman than usual with their pale face out on the end of a too long neck poking out from their robes. "Ling Qi."

"Shu Yue,” Ling Qi acknowledged. “The ministry—or Cao Chun at least—has agreed to coordinate with you."

"Is that so?" Shu Yue’s head twisted to a ninety degree angle, a wide crescent black smile blooming. "Fortuitous. I will have to better arrange myself. As you can see, I have been too busy to keep up my appearance well."

Meng Dan let out a brief, strangled sound before his expression smoothed over. "Your entrance could have been less alarming."

"No. It could not. Child of the Labyrinth, you were aware then."

"I became aware," he corrected. "I assume this space is safe to speak in?"

"If it is not, we are already undone."

Ling Qi stepped forward. "Then let me explain the situation."

It did not take long to fill Shu Yue in on the situation.

Their fingers tapped together slowly, a dry clacking rhythm that sounded like the tips were nothing but bone. "I see. I have been hunting, harrying. It seems my efforts may be best combined with the honorable inspector’s."

"What have you seen of the forces being gathered? I assume signs are focused around my family," Meng Dan said.

"They are infested, yes. There was an explosion of activity earlier this morn. Where before it was the slow spread of a disease, it has become a spider casting its webs in fury. I expect this is why you detected the attempt," Shu Yue rasped. "There are others, too, where power gathers. Locations. I will give them to the inspector."

"Are they acting of their own will?"

"I do not know. How could I tell, not knowing this clan technique of yours? It would need close inspection. Perhaps I may have further leads. But I think you should go to the general now. You will want her to be informed clearly and readily. An uninformed reaction to chaos from her could bring ruin."

"I did not wish to ask Cao Chun this, but do you think her action will truly be necessary?"

"Possible. The hunt is disrupted; the prey has its back up. I am certain he is hiding in the shadows, but I may not be able to take their throat and drag them into the deep dream where the harm would be minimized. This was my intent. If it comes to open blows, the sword which rends history will be much better suited to end the conflict decisively."

Meng Dan's pallor didn't improve.

Ling Qi hesitated, looking at him. So much was at stake for him here.

"I will ask that you be the general's guide onto the battlefield," Shu Yue requested, interrupting her thoughts. "It is dangerous, but there are no others aside from myself who can do this here. She will require assistance to keep the battle in the deep dream as her nature is inimical to the liminal."

Shu Yue wanted her to dreamwalk the general if a fight broke out. She felt lightheaded. Could she do that? Could she really set a toe on that battlefield and survive?

She couldn’t ask Shu Yue to do it. If they she could, Shu Yue would have offered to do so already. Them doing so would dDistracting them when they were already enmeshed in the hunt and , when they were already going to be at least working in tandem with the Ministry. What if something was missed from the split attention.

"I will carry the general where she needs to go," Ling Qi said.

She was not a coward. She, Renxiang, and all of them had been building this , Renxiang had been building to this, all of them had been building this painstakingly, dragging all of these recalcitrant people together and soothing bruised egos, smoothing over fears and paranoia. They were finally, finally succeeding. Even with the disruption the talks the day before had been positively cordial.

They were succeeding at this ridiculous task they had set themselves. She was not going to back down from this path she had chosen now, and let all of their work go to ruin. No worse than that if a genuine attack succeeded, they would be in a worse place.

"Miss Ling, are you quite…" Meng Dan began, only to cut himself off. "How do you imagine you will manage this? If it were only transporting the General and then fleeing, perhaps, but…"

"I am told that I am very difficult to kill," Ling Qi said. "I'll simply have to be even more so. How will I know where to go, Shu Yue?"

Shu Yue regarded her silently for a long moment. Their pallid face twisted into a small grimace as their fingers tapped against one another with a twitching energy. It stopped when they reached up to the dark hair that flowed down their shoulders, and wound a single strand around their pinky.

A jerk of their wrist yanked the strand free and it writhed like a serpent, knotting tight around their finger. The other end of strand writhed toward her as Shu Yue extended their hand. Ling Qi didn't need words to understand. She extended her own hand into Shu Yue's palm, and too long fingers closed around her wrist. She let out a small hiss as the hair knotted around her finger and punched through her skin, anchoring in the tissue below.

"Simply follow the thread," Shu Yue said.

"...I am familiar with that," Ling Qi said quietly. She wondered just how much Shu Yue knew? "I hope you are not depending on my being able to use a mask like that."

"No. That would be unwise. Although, today may be a day for unwise things," Shu Yue said, consideringly. "I trust that you will find your way… and you will be vital to the General's combat efficiency on this battlefield. That will afford you more protection than most."

"Ling Qi," Meng Dan said. He looked pained. "...Damn it all. I will not be able to assist in this."

"You won't," Ling Qi agreed, turning to him and lowering her head. She wouldn;t be able to take anyone but Sixiang, she wasn;t even fully certain of her ability to hold a single much higher realm in with herself, but she had to do that. "But… When the Inspector activates his formation there will be a great deal of confusion. I won't be here. Hopefully your clan will listen to you once they are freed."

He grimaced. "I see. Not the role I might have liked, but the one I am suited for. Hmph. I see now why so many pursue martial heroism."

She laughed quietly. "I think that would be much less helpful here."

"No, but more satisfying to the spirit," Meng Dan huffed. He glanced at Shu Yue. "You have some deeper plot here."

"I do."

This tale has been unlawfully lifted from Royal Road. If you spot it on Amazon, please report it.

They admitted it baldly, without hesitation.

"Yet she trusts you."

"I do not sacrifice my juniors, though I do not command all things. No one does," Shu Yue replied, in a whispered baritone that seemed to echo from the body of a grave. "You understand this, historian."

"I do," he replied. "Miss Ling, shall we go… I will likely need to speak with the General for escorts, given the state of my household."

"I am sure. Shu Yue needs to speak with the Inspector as well, don't you?" Ling Qi asked.

"I do," they replied. "Fare well Ling Qi."

And then they were gone. The air moved again, the color came back to the world. Sound and light resumed.

It was as if they had never been there at all. At least if she ignored their hair wound tight around the base of her finger, its end trailing off into nothing.


The Generals camp, or rather the White Plume and summit securities command post, lay at the northern end of the valley, near its entrance. It did not take them long to arrive there, hurrying as they were. In that time a flurry of messages were reaching her, paper messenger birds all but bombarding her. Only the one requesting information from Cai Renxiang did she give much time too, sending back a message to inquire at the command post and in person. The others, requesting information from the counts and other parties involved, she put off with soothing, stalling messages, only stating that there was an ongoing situation, and that she was cooperating with the Ministry of Integrity to solve it.

There was one more surprise for them on the path though, as they were on the final leg, the deliberately winding road that rose up the hill toward the command post where the imperial military took direction.

Sixiang, she had expected to meet her, but the muse was not alone. On the side of the road, Xuan Shi stood as well, his hat tugged low. His robe was bulkier than usual, the lines indicating armored plates fitted under the fabric. He gave off a grim sort of aura, a grumbling mountain on the side of the road.

"Hey Ling Qi! Heard you were gonna need me from the squirt. I was talking to Shi here, and he seemed to think you'd be coming here," Sixiang said, waving as they approached.

"Quite perceptive of him. I did not think you were a practitioner of the Divination arts of your clan, Sir Xuan," Meng Dan said.

"This one's focus lies elsewhere, and yet, a fell wind is blowing, even untrained hands may feel its touch," Xuan Shi replied.

"Thank you for guiding Sixiang. I'd hoped our next meeting could be a good one, discussing what you've found in your own meetings," Ling Qi said, frowning. "I have to apologize though. As you've surmised, something urgent is afoot."

"The way will not be blocked to you. Knowing not what you do, this one cannot tread the path, however… Ill feeling remains. I would offer what aid I can," Xuan Shi said.

She blinked as he raised his hands, a solid clunk sounded, along with a hiss, his bulky gauntlets sliding off of his hands. They were the control mechanisms and generators, for his masterpiece defensive talismans the reactive shielding plates.

"Sir Xuan, I am honored, but I do not know that I can make any use of such a complex talisman," Ling Qi said.

"...I can," Sixiang said, looking worried. "Hey is this really…"

"There is no time for commissions, perhaps in the future," Xuan Shi said shortly. He pressed the gauntlets into her hands and she took them, for lack of anything better to do. They weighed heavy in her hands. "Merely keep them on thy person, this one has automated most functions, and thy muse might do the rest if need be."

She frowned, and thought caused the sash of her gown to shift, loops for the gauntlets to hang on weaving themselves out of thread and cloth. "...I am sorry I can't say more. I will return these to you soon."

He merely tipped his hat low. "Good winds, This one will prepare for the storm."

Beside her, Meng Dan hummed. "It is appreciated. I may seek you out, when my own task comes, another formation expert will be useful."

"The call shall be awaited," Xuan She acknowledged, passing them by, his staff manifesting in his now bare hands, the rings jangling. "...I hope I can share the good tidings I have on a later day, Miss Ling."

She inclined her head, and glanced over to Sixiang. "I will be happy to receive them. Sixiang, please rejoin. I need your full assistance."

"...Gotcha," they replied and the figure standing by the road shimmered and disappeared. "Alright what exactly is going o…."

Ling Qi closed her eyes for a moment, her anxiety was distant right now. It was comfortable having Sixiang back where they belonged.

"Oh no. No no no. Qi, you're really gonna.."

Please help me, she thought.

"That ain't fair at all," Sixiang complained. "Of course I'm gonna help."

"Miss Ling has many good friends it seems," Meng Dan said.

"I do," she agreed. "Now let us go see the General."

They were not held up long by formalities, thankfully. The soldiers were expecting her, a missive from Inspector Cao had gone ahead of her. The General awaited them not in an office, but in a sparring room, whose floorboards were polished to a mirror shine, and whose walls seemed to be burned black, though the structure was none the weaker for it. There were no aides or adjutants, only the General herself standing in the center of the room, turning to face them, the blank faceplate of her helm smoldering.


It was not a question, that single word, spoken in the tone of a furnace's roar.

So she had, she had spilled everything they had discussed with the inspector, Meng Dan cutting in to his own part, not quailing either when the General's gaze had turned to him.

And it did turn upon him.

"So the subversive elements of the Meng have moved. Incredibly foolish. Exposing themselves over this small matter, a mere test for her grace's heir," The General said plainly. She had not moved, save to loosely cross her arms, standing ramrod straight, her reflection gleaming beneath her.

"The Meng clan is loyal," Meng Dan insisted. "These rogues are even now being hunted down for arrest and censure."

"Your kin have always been the least loyal. The Bao are bought, well and certain, the Diao are united to the Cai, the Luo know their place and move apace, for all that their progress diverges. Only your loyalties are divided, among the old counts," The General said implacably. "Looking still toward foolish and wasteful faith and the dream of a lost past.."

"General, please, Meng Dan is aligned with us, he and his grandmother have already promised to take this matter in hand and deliver any culprits to this conspiracy which remain in their home."

"Indeed, a coup. It remains foolish… but those clinging to meaningless tradition often behave irrationally. I will provide escorts, that the young sir may move safely to gather those who are truly victims and I will cooperate with this operation, given that the first apprentice and the Inspector alike request it. You believe you may support my presence in the spiritual realm?"

"I believe I must, trying as it might be," Ling Qi said, bowing her head.

"...You have been learning from that shadow, so perhaps you can. I expect they will be subtly bolstering your energy to allow it. However it will be impossible for you to support additional units. Troublesome."

Ling Qi did not like how small she felt under that eyeless gaze, nor the sweat beading on her neck and forehead from the phantom heat exuded by the General in her senses. Though there was no sign of agitation or reaction in the general's physical appearance, to Ling Qi's enhanced senses, the pressure was incredible.

It dug down into her brain a beat that was not war drums but rather the trampling synchronized tread of ten thousand boots, and the acrid eye watering scent of the smoke left behind where armies clashed and lives were lost in countless numbers.

The furnace burns, the fuel is shoveled, molten metal stirs crimson and white, the rising steam is a million screams of terror.

"Do you have some experience with liminal combat, General Xia? The Hui must have used such arts. DO you believe I will be sufficient?" Ling Qi.

"The Hui could not hide where her Grace's light fell, her eyes drag them from the muck they linger in. Nor were they so subtle, in the end, for all their pretensions. They tore the veil asunder and nightmares poured out like water. Through these open sores my blade struck easily. However the collateral of such a strategy is unacceptable in this location. You will have to be sufficient. I trust the first apprentice's tactical judgment."

Ling Qi shuddered, trying not to see the things those words tried to show her, the horrors they tried to beat into her mind.

There were downsides to the eyes she was cultivating. Like the Duchess herself the General was not restrained at all. Being able to see and feel so clearly in her presence was a double edged sword.

Meng Dan looked at her with a tight expression, and then turned back to the general, bowing his head. "I will begin my own preparations then, and take my leave… Lady Ling, be safe."

"I will, as much as I can," Ling Qi said, straightening up herself.

He looked like he wanted to say something else, but took his leave after.

The General spoke as the door closed behind him. "Wrong. There is no safety in this."

"There is no lie in saying I will try," Ling Qi said.

"There is value in feints and deception," the General allowed. "Sometimes morale is improved through optimistic estimation. I will endeavor to maintain you. It is not my specialization."

Ling Qi understood the implication. "I will stay out from underfoot as much as possible, given my duty."

"You may be targeted to disrupt me," Xia Ren said.


"As long as you understand," the General replied. "I am prepared. Begin at the first apprentice's signal."

Ling Qi nodded. There was nothing else to say in this dark room, trying not to wilt under the heat of the monster who shared it with her.

"I'll keep you safe," Sixiang whispered.

Sometimes lies were comforting even when you knew what they were.

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