Students from both schools bustle into the entrance of the cave, many holding paper lanterns that illuminate the interior with dancing light and shadows. Several masters are with the students as the entire group heads deeper and deeper. But with each twist and turn the group needs to split up further and further. Finally at one of the turns Master Yao splits the group up once more, heading off with a few of the younger students and leaving Sobi, Jin, Zhi, Mei, and Okami to head down the other passage as their own group.
Sobi slips off his Aviators once they're in the dark of the caves, opting to let others lead as he meanders near the back of the group as the students bustle into the cave and start splitting up in different directions. He seems surprised when he finds himself split off into a group with the current collection of students, sneering at Zhi and Jin Zhang in particular. "No where for you to dance around in the air down here Princesses." He points out.
Among the group is Okami, whose leg had been mostly healed. Moving towards the other members of the group, the one-eyed glares fiercely at Jin Zhang while standing alongside Sobi and Song Xiao-Mei.
"I see no reason to dance; a student is missing, try to focus," Jin Zhang tells Sobi coldly. He lifts his lantern higher, striding toward the passage entrance. "If anyone is afraid, resist that urge, you'll strengthen both mentally and spiritually." He gives a dubious look to the Huo students. "Well, you'll strengthen if you're not a degenerate, at any rate."
Zhi is holding a paper lantern at the end of a long pole, and was initially near the front of the pack when the search for the missing village boy started. But soon the group thins down to just the five of them and she drifts closer to Jin Zhang as she eyes the Huo students suspiciously. "I'll be happy to air-dance my way into kicking you in the face later." She tells Sobi, "After the kid has been found and is safe." She emphasizes.
"Let's find the kid and get out of here," Song Xiao-Mei says. "The caves are creepy enough without asking for extra trouble," she decides. "We can kick your asses later," she promises sweetly, seemingly brave though she does move closer to Sobi aftwards. "Does anyone know who it is, anyway?"
The group heads further and further down into the caves, the distant sounds of the other search parties fading and disappearing around the corner. Then from out of the shadows a shape suddenly appears, leaping at the group. Some sort of oversized and almost human-like cave lizard leaps from the darkness. The evolved beast slashes Jin Zhang with its claws, drawing blood from his chest and making him fall back. Soon the other students leap upon the creature however, each landing a solid blow with weapons or fists.
Sobi grins at Song Xiao-Mei when she moves closer to him, and nods at Okami. When the creature leaps from the shadows he turns and launches himself at it, his flying kick connecting with the giant cave lizard's face and snapping its head to the side before he's soaring past and rolling to his feet on the other side.
Charging towards the humanoid lizard, Okami unleashes some furious fists on the beast's torso.
"Watch out!" Song Xiao-Mei calls out in the darkness as the cave-lizard appears. Even though the creature's target is a Shui student, she wastes no time, dropping low and aiming a kick at the attacking creature's back legs before springing away. "Don't stay to close," she warns Okami as he goes in for the pure pugilism.
Despite standing next to Jin Zhang, Zhi is slow to respond, her eyes going wide in alarm when her fellow student goes down. She moves quickly into action afterwards though, her hands moving to her thighs to grab her fighting fans and snapping them open stepping forward in a flurry of blows to slice at the giant lizard as Song Xiao-Mei goes for its legs.
The giant lizard snarls as it is battered by blows from Sobi and Okami, its huge clawed hands swiping through the air just inches above them as they dart in for their attacks. When Mei kicks its legs out from under it the creature flails, caught off guard which allows Zhi's razor sharp fans to slice across its throat. It is dead by the time it hits the ground, brackish blood oozing onto the cave floor and no doubt a valuable beast-core hidden inside its torso.
Sobi is getting ready to come in for another attack when Zhi abruptly severs its throat. He relaxes back out of his fighting pose then, moving over to nudge the creature with his boot and glancing down at Jin Zhang. "You're supposed to move out of the way of attacks." He taunts, giving Zhi's blood dripping fans a contemplative look.
Picking himself up after being caught off-guard by the demonic creature, Jin Zhang grits his teeth, looking down at his ripped shirt and bleeding chest. "I should have been more on-guard," he chastises himself. "Everyone - keep an eye on the shadows, and don't hesitate to call out if anything looks unusual," he instructs authoritatively. "Do you have any healing pills with you?" he asks Zhi. To Sobi he scoffs, "I was protecting you with my body, say thank you to your hero or keep quiet."
Zhi snaps her fans shut and moves swiftly over to Jin Zhang with a faint frown on her face. "Are you alright?" She asks, shooting Sobi a brief irritated glare. "I have one, but it's not very refined." She admits, taking a small paper wrapped pill from a pocket inside her jacket and offering it to her fellow Shui acolyte.
As the lizard met its downfall, Okami slightly smiles as he and the other fighting students emerge victorious on the battle. "Hmm... The claws would be useful as weapons or something," Okami says, looking at the beast's corpse, "...But I don't really have anything to get them off." He then turns to the rest of the group and asks, "Is everyone okay?"
"I have o-" Song Xiao-Mei starts to say in response to the request for a healing pill, but then Zhi takes one out for Jin Zhang and she frowns deeply for a moment, before affecting a grin and saying, "Isn't it adorable the way the princesses look after each other?" She sweeps past Zhi and her bloodied fans. "Pick up the pace, we don't know how long this kid has been lost."
Everything seems peaceful once more as the group once again sets off into winding tunnels, heading further and further into the mountain...
"We're fine," Jin Zhang tells Okami as he accepts the pill from Zhi. "Thank you," he tells her, eyeing the thing dubiously before downing it. "It'd better not have strange side effects," he adds in warning, but already the claw marks to his chest are slowing their bleeding. "Let's keep going," he says, squaring his shoulders and gritting his teeth through the discomfort.
"You guys, go on ahead, need to do up my shoelace." Sobi claims, letting the others get a little way in front of him before he pulls a switch blade out of his boot and moves over to the downed lizard, quickly hacking away at its stomach to extract the core before hurrying to try and catch back up with the group.
Okami nods to Jin Zhang before moving on with the group through the tunnel path.
"Well... I'm not much of a refiner so, no promises." Zhi offers Jin Zhang with a helpless little shrug, she rolls her eyes at Sobi when he claims to have to do up his shoe but then picks up her pole-lantern once more to set off with the others. "Can you guys hear anything? Kids crying maybe or, more growly lizard monsters?"
"I don't hear anything," Song Xiao-Mei says as they begin moving once more, though she keeps her dagger a the ready for anything leaping from the shadows. "If you see any Tranquility Grass tufting up between rocks, let me know," she tells Sobi. "I'm collecting it for our next glass, as extra credit."
Bao likely got split off from another part of the search party and after several long minutes of wandering in the darkness happens upon this little group as they make their way deeper into the caves in search of the lost boy.
That sounds a lot like something that would happen to Bao, to his embarrassment and shame.
Sobi manages to extract the beast core but lags behind the others as a result, a strange whispering comes from the cave all around them as the group steps into a large cavern. They spot the boy from the village, huddled in a corner and crying, some sort of shadowy shape looming over him. It turns towards them and the students catch a brief glimpse of burning red eyes before it flies apart.
Before each student now forms an exact shadowy replica of themselves with burning red eyes, the replicas immediately move to attack the students before they can properly defend themselves each managing to land a blow and release a dark Qi-Strike.
"Look what I found." Sobi brags to Song Xiao-Mei when he catches back up, showing her the still bloody beast core, "Maybe if you're real nice to me I'll split it with you." He offers with an arched eyebrow. Too busy trying to show off to be well prepared for the shadowy demon attack he throws up his hands to fend off a few hits before he's struck in the chest and afflicted by the Qi-Strike. His gaze darkens as he looks hungrily between Zhi, Jin Zhang and Song Xiao-Mei. "You don't deserve your Qi, it should be mine." He snarls, for some reason overlooking Okami and Bao and barely paying attention to his shadowy assailant.
"Spirit cores," Jin Zhang says he catches sight of hid doppelganger. "Don't even think about stealing this one," Jin Zhang tells Sobi snidely as he breaks through the demon's guard to land a chin strike, jumping up to just barely miss a thigh kick. "Imagine being so callous in the middle of a rescue mission as to stay behind butchering the kill instead of hurrying forward like everyone? Typical Huo prioritis," he says self-righteously.
"What the hell?" Okami says as the shadow copy of himself attacks him with a Qi strike. The real Okami flinches from the blow, his face turning to fear as if he saw something for a moment before blinking a couple times and panting.
"Do the Huo just grow on trees?" Zhi complains when Bao also joins the group, leaving her and Jin Zhang outnumbered two to one. "Hey, there's the bo-" She starts to say before her own shadowy doppleganger forms and starts to attack, she ducks and blocks a few strikes and returns the assault with a few kicks of her own before catching a palm strike to the sternum. She staggers backwards and then scowls at Jin Zhang, "I see you staring at her ass." She accuses, eyes flashing angrily towards Song Xiao-Mei. "Focus on the fight!" She demands.
"Quit preaching and do the fighting thing," Song Xiao-Mei tells Jin Zhang just as she gets kicked in the chest by her more fighting-adept demonic copy. But then her eyes are fixed on Sobi - or rather the core in his hands. "I don't want to split it, I want it all to myself," she tells him, even as she presses a hand to her sternum, wincing slightly. "What?" she stares. "I mean sure," she adjusts quickly, giving her fellow Huo student a sweet smile. "Just hand over that beast core and I'll give you all the Qi you need," she says, eyes on the bloody core, not the student.
A expression of pent-up, repressed anger rises on Bao's features as he is assailed, flung backwards a few paces before he regains his footing. Letting out a loud shout, as loud as his lungs allow, he charges forwards, brandishing his bo staff in recklessly in a two-handed grip, treating it more like a club than anything else. His doppleganger shows a lot more good sense than he does, deftly moving out of the way of the charge and tripping him with a casual swipe of his staff.
As the group falls to bickering the demonic replicas continue their assault, Okami's duplicate inflicting a blow that cracks his ribs as the others are able to hold their ground for now.
"No." Sobi snarls at Song Xiao-Mei, "I want you and the core, and your Qi." He demands before his shadowy duplicate catches him across the chin with a sharp punch, that's enough to turn his focus back to his adversary and he leaps up to deliver a sharp kick to the demon's chin before exchanging a few quick punches back and forth.
Trading blows with the shadowy demon copy of himself, Jin Zhang is a blur as their kicks, blocks, and jabs are met blow for blow, seemingly evenly matched. "We don't have time for this," he says through gritted teeth, after taking a glancing blow to the jaw and using the opening to thrust a palm-strike at the demon's midsection, staggering it back for a moment.
Feeling his ribs break from his duplicate's attack, Okami screams as he falls to the ground. He struggles to get up as blood drips from his mouth.
"Well I don't... see a way around them..." Zhi pants over to Jin Zhang as she jumps over her duplicate's low kick and then bends backwards out of the way of a high kick. She throws a few quick high side kicks of her own before shooting another suspicious glance between Song Xiao-Mei and Jin Zhang.
Rolling away and springing back up to his feet, frustration rising, Bao treats his staff like a spear as he charges forwards towards his shadow clone. He deftly jerks it aside as it sidesteps, sending it reeling with a strike to the throat even as he gets the breath knocked out of him by a painful, nauseating blow to the gut.
"Well maybe I want you, and your Qi, and your beast core," Song Xiao-Mei counters Sobi's demand with an identica one of her own. "You can always get another one, I don't have your fancy punchy-punch skills," she points out jealously, just as her shadowy double breaks her guard and circles around to kick her in the back, sending her staggering forward and into Sobi.
The demons suddenly flow together and then split apart, leaving the group fighting replicas of each other as they swarm in each of the shadows manages to land a Qi Strike in the confusion.
"We can't both ha-" Sobi continues to argue with Song Xiao-Mei before the demons start to meld and shift, he glances around wildly trying to track them before one in the shape of Song Xiao-Mei appears before him. He fends off a few quick strikes. "Get your clone off me!" He yells at Song Xiao-Mei before he's hit with a Qi Strike. The acolyte staggers backwards, looking pale and wan, swallowing reflexively as if he is about to throw up.
"Back to the underworld with you," Jin Zhang vows as he goes after his shadow demon, but then the one that looks like Sobi is leaping toward him. "Just as annoying as the real one," he mutters darkly as they fight, but then he's struck in the shoulder, arm seizing up as the demon's Qi strikes his own, and his back arches in pain as the vision plays out in front of him, the Shui acolyte backpedaling to put some distance between himself and the demon.
As he manages to stand up, Okami shudders as he recieves a vision. His face turns pale and he begins to panic, looking around as if he just encountered a ghost.
Zhi glances over at Jin Zhang, trying to fight in concert with the other member of her sect but then Bao's demon is shifting fluidly in front of her. She snaps out her razor-sharp fangs to intercept the blows of the shadow demon's quarterstaff but takes a kick to the chest, staggering back into Jin Zhang, her eyes going momentarily glassy as some vision plays out in front of her face. She bites her bottom lip, a tear running down her cheek.
Bao sweeps his staff around in a furious rage, gripping it tightly by one end to give him the most reach possible as he clears the space about him. With the clones suddenly shifting about, however, he loses track of his own assailant and is sudden jumped in the back, stumbling forwards. When he recovers, his eyes suddenly widen, and he abruptly scrambles backwards, flailing more wildly than before, were that even possible.
"Then you should just give it to me," Song Xiao-Mei is in the middle of telling Sobi when the demon reforms, taking Zhi's shape and coming after her. "Get it off me!" she complains, utilizing her mysticism to aid her blocks until she stumbles in the dark cave, and the demon takes advantage of the momentary opening to grab her throat with a Qi strike that sees her shrieking, "No! Let them go!" in the dark cave.
Once the vision ends, Okami lets out a deep breath before charging towards Jin Zhang's replica. Now furious, he lets out a flurry of punches against the demon before attempting to break its neck with a kick.
Still looking pale and sick from the Qi-Strike, Sobi goes after the demon that inflicted it, rushing towards the replica of Song Xiao-Mei and exchanging a few quick hits before he lands a palm-strike and unleashes his Qi, making the demon blast apart in a shower of light.
Zhi runs towards the replica of Bao that was facing her but leaps and somersaults over his head, landing on the other side and rushing to engage her own demonic duplicate, flipping over its head to land a Qi strike into its back, shattering the shadowy creature into a thousand pieces.
Bao's vaguely panicked retreat takes him back closer to the other students, the extra spike in adrenaline prompting survival instincts to flare. Inhaling, he looses a terrible, howling shout, and swings his bo staff around like and with all the force of an ogre's cudgel, caving in the skull of the nearest shadow clone - which so happens to be Sobi's.
With an expression as if he carries the weight of the world on his slim shoulders, Jin Zhang stalks the demonic replica of Zhi as it terrorizes Song Xiao-Mei, waiting for an opportune moment to plant a foot in the small of its back, Qi flowing along his long leg an into the demon, whose eyes burn red with rage for a moment before it seemingly implodes into a million pieces in a flash of light.
As all the demons but the replicas of Bao and Okami are destroyed the remaining spirits merge together and the chimera turns towards the group with a growl, its eyes glowing as a second set of arms emerge from its back. Before it can finish whatever transformation it is attempting it is set upon by the group from all directions, working together as they slice through the monster and blast apart its essence with their Qi, the creature letting out an unearthly screech as it dies. The cave falls into an eerie silence then, the only sound the soft sobs of the little boy from the village as he peers up at the group with big, red-rimmed eyes.
"We... We won..." Okami speaks before he passes out and falls onto the ground.
Sobi joins in with the others when they surround the chimeric demon, in a brief moment of cross-sect synergy working together to blast it apart. Pretty much the instant it's gone though all camaraderie collapses as he glances disdainfully down at the little boy. "Dealing with crying seems like more of a Shui problem." He declares.
Still staggered by that Qi-induced vision, Song Xiao-Mei isn't much use in the final show down as a fighter, though she does toss a pill to Sobi when he's in reach. The sound of the little boy crying draws her back out of her head though, and she approaches him, pulling a piece of brightly-colored candy from one of her pouches. "No way, think of the merits we'll get if we're the ones who bring him back," she tells Sobi. "Hey little guy, let's get you home," she tells the boy, offering the candy and her hand.
Bao breathes hard, staff across his shoulders. He stands a little apart from the group, suddenly awkward, studying the other four.
"Yes, we deal with your lot's crying all the time," Jin Zhang responds to Sobi. "We're used to it." He moves to find Zhi, asking, "Do we want to fight them for the child?"
"Can you not be you for like, five minutes?" Zhi demands of Sobi irritably, looking a little surprised when Song Xiao-Mei goes to soothe the child. "See? You don't have to be assholes." She declares with a curt little nod, glancing over at Bao "Nice uh, stick." She tells him before glancing at Jin Zhang and then over at the three Huo. "I'm too sleepy." She whines at his suggestion, "Even though, we would definitely win." She adds loudly for the sake of everyone else, looking at them all in turn.
"See? Your mouths are flapping already in what definitely sounds like crying to me." Sobi informs Jin Zhang and Zhi before moving to stand nearer to Song Xiao-Mei. "Yeah, good idea. I bet I can trade those merits in for some nice Princess catching nets..." He muses. "Hey you." He tells Bao, "Keep an eye on the shifty Princesses and hit them in the tits with your staff if they try and steal our loot." He instructs, gesturing to the boy before stepping to head up out the caves with Song Xiao-Mei, Bao and the boy.
"We'll leave them to it, then," Jin Zhang tells Zhi. "Let's go before any more demons appear, I'm not sure I could go another round," he admits. "And thankfully the boy is safe, though the parents should keep a better eye on him or next time he won't be so lucky," he says dourly, offering Zhi his arm as he heads for the exit.
Bao acknowledges Zhi with a brief, bemused look and then an uncertain nod, the staff sliding down from his shoulders and planted quietly into the cavern floor. He follows after the other Huo a couple of seconds after they begin to leave, taking up the rear and glancing over his shoulder every so often at Zhi and Jin Zhang. It lacks suspicion.
"Keep your big stick away from my tits." Zhi tells off Bao presumptively before nodding at Jin Zhang, taking his arm and making their own way out of the caves. "Is your chest feeling ok?" She asks him, "Did the uh, pill do anything weird?" She checks.
"Leave the crybabies alone and help wih the real baby," Song Xiao-Mei tells Sobi, lifting the little boy up and attempting to deposit him on Sobi's back. "Awww, you'll make a cute daddy one day," she tells him. "Right, Bao?" she asks the fellow Huo student.
"What the..." Sobi looks very uncomfortable with being saddled with the child, but he keeps his muttering mostly to himself as he hitches the kid up on his shoulders and marches towards the exit with the other Huo acolytes. "Why don't you let me knock up up and we'll find out?" He offers Song Xiao-Mei with a grin.
His attention drawn back to the fore, Bao looses a little snort of amusement and gives an ambivalent little shrug. "Maybe. If the girls let him in," he tells Song Xiao-Mei.
"I don't want to share my Qi with some half-Sobi parasite," Song Xiao-Mei tells Sobi in a stingy tone of voice as they head out of the cave, triumphant.
"I bet a half-Sobi parasite would be a badass parasite though." Sobi claims as he marches along out of the cave after her.