Trying to convince a bunch of nobles to use what she was sure they would think of as dishonorable tactics… Ling Qi wasn’t confident of her chances. Nor was she sure Instructor Zhou would find such a course of action acceptable.
At the same time, hadn’t Han Jian said it himself? Holding a location like this with only five people was next to impossible. They didn’t have to hold out against an army or anything, but it still felt like a bad idea, especially with another stage of testing after this.
Ling Qi was stronger now, but all the same… it went against her instincts to stand out in the open and fight. And Han Jian had said a leader should listen to his subordinates...
“I’m not sure trying to hold the walls directly is the best idea,” Ling Qi began before she could lose her nerve.
“Not that I do not think we could,” she hurried to add. “It’s just that we would probably get worn down and there’s still another test after this.”
Han Jian frowned at her words. “We have to hold this place if we want to fulfill the objective. It’s true that we have too few people to be effective, but the other students won’t have the numbers to fully take advantage either.” He grimaced then. “Unless they team up temporarily.”
“The objective only said that we had to be the ones in control at the end of two hours,” Ling Qi pointed out with a bit more confidence. Han Jian hadn’t gotten angry at her for criticizing, even if Fan Yu was scowling at her and Gu Xiulan was giving her a strange look. Han Fang seemed unconcerned, keeping an eye on the gates.
“Why don’t we leave the gates open and just hide ourselves in the barracks? We can let the other two groups fight things out until we’re near the time limit then attack whoever is still standing. If they send someone down to scout the barracks, it should still be easy to take them out. And that’s one or two less people we need to fight.”
“Do you really think Elder Zhou would be impressed by such a cowardly approach?” Fan Yu responded angrily. “Han Jian, now do you see why bringing a peasant into this was foolish?”
“I think that Instructor Zhou cares more about results than methods,” Ling Qi answered stubbornly. “I mean, didn’t Gu Xiulan say that just a little bit ago? If we fail at holding back the barbarians, it means settlements burn. Why shouldn’t we do whatever we need to? Instructor Zhou would have made the instructions more specific if he wanted us to limit our tactics. When has he ever failed to tell us exactly what he wants us to do?” Ling Qi found her words spilling out in a rush as she glared at the stout boy across from her.
Fan Yu looked furious at being talked back to, when Han Jian held up a hand, looking both thoughtful and irritated. She could only hope he wasn’t irritated at her.
“... Was it cowardly when Father lured that Ash Walker vanguard into the walls of the Falling Sun temple so they could be burned with minimal casualties?” Han Jian asked Fan Yu.
“It’s hardly the same thing, Jian!” Fan Yu blustered. “You cannot seriously be thinking of taking some inexperienced girl’s battle plan over your own, Where is your pride?!”
“Pride has no place on a battlefield,” Han Jian responded glibly with the air of one repeating someone else’s words. “And she’s right. I got caught up planning for a battle that doesn’t even need to happen. I’m lucky Father isn’t here to cuff me for it.”
He looked back to Fan Yu, who was still staring at him angrily. “Yu, don’t think of this as a duel or a contest between peers, you know? The purpose of the sects is to combat barbarians. Since we’re training, doesn’t it make sense to treat our enemies the same way?”
Ling Qi shifted uncomfortably while Han Jian tried to calm the other boy. Instead of trying to butt in and possibly ruin the more diplomatic boy’s efforts, she found herself meeting Gu Xiulan’s deliberately neutral gaze. Ling Qi raised her chin, refusing to look down or away from the other girl. A few tense seconds passed with the boys arguing back and forth in the background before the other shrugged her shoulders slightly and glanced over at Fan Yu, a smile playing on her lips.
Ling Qi didn’t think it was a very nice smile. Nonetheless, the other girl soon joined the effort to convince her fiancee, and Ling Qi couldn’t help but mentally compare the process to an ornery bull being guided to its pen. She was still a bit bewildered that her plan had been accepted so easily. Did that mean Han Jian had been thinking something similar and just didn’t want to suggest it himself?
... That was perhaps a touch too paranoid.
The interior of the central building was little more than an empty stone box though the door had a sturdy iron bar that could be laid across the inside. The stairwell itself was only wide enough for two people to walk shoulder to shoulder and was lit by faint blue crystals embedded in the wall. Each crystal was only as bright as a weak candle, but combined, it provided as much light as a moonlit night.
The actual barracks was bare and mostly unfurnished. It consisted of a handful of roughly carved rooms filled with empty weapon racks and various storage containers. Whoever had created this place had not bothered to fill the fort with the necessities an actual military fortification would have.
Ling Qi hung back as Han Jian directed the others around, only speaking up to point out better locations for them to hide while maintaining sight on the stairway. Han Fang took a spot inside the first door on the right, ready to step out and block potential escape. The rest would conceal themselves in the next set of rooms: Fan Yu and Gu Xiulan on the right and Han Jian and Ling Qi on the left.
“We wait one hour,” Han Jian explained quietly. “If no one comes in that time, we’ll consider moving out to hunt down the other groups. In that case, Ling Qi, you and Han Fang will be the first up the stairs,” he continued, meeting her eyes. “It looks like you have some experience with scouting duties.”
“...Yeah,” Ling Qi agreed uncomfortably. She supposed she had made it obvious that sneaking was one of her skills. “Han Fang is my backup then?”
“He’s your partner,” Han Jian replied with a smile. “He’s quieter than he looks.”
“Hmph. She should have said that she was a scout to begin with,” Fan Yu grumbled. “Are we going to… hide or not?”
Han Jian nodded, and they moved into position.
The wait was nerve wracking. Ling Qi had been in similar situations before, but somehow, hiding in a barrel alone was less stress inducing than standing ready for an ambush with four other people. No sound from above reached them as the remainder of the first hour ticked by with agonizing slowness.
The next hour began without fanfare, the first quarter passing at a crawl. As Ling Qi began to wonder if they would have to move to the back-up plan, the sound of the gate mechanism activating echoed down the stairs.
Ling Qi tensed, meeting Han Jian’s eyes where he crouched in the shadow of an empty crate. Footsteps on the stairs preceded the emergence of two people from the stairwell.
The first was a boy of middling height with short dark hair and sharp features. There were tears in his robe and a wound on his right arm that darkened the silvery cloth with blood. He was armed with a paired set of silver sabers held at the ready.
Behind him was a slight girl with long, unbound brown hair and soft features that made her look younger than she was. She held a short bo staff close to her chest and peered around with far less confidence than the boy in front of her.
The enemies’ stances were wary but not alarmed, their eyes darting from one vague shadow to the next. One step and then another carried them further inside, away from their only escape route. Ling Qi held her breath as she waited for her moment. She met Han Jian’s eyes again. He shook his head, signalling her to hold.
The duo took another step, carrying them past Han Fang’s position. As the girl squinted into the shadows where they hid, the armor rack that Han Fang had been behind flew across the hall and smashed into the boy with a thunderous bang, exploding into splinters from the power of the qi forced into it.
The boy skidded back, hitting the opposite wall with a grunt as he shielded his eyes from the debris. The girl who had been behind him whimpered and clapped a hand over her now bleeding ears. In their moment of distraction, Han Fang darted out, placing himself between them and the exit.
“Put them down quickly! Do not allow them to escape!” Han Jian’s voice echoed unnaturally as he smoothly rose to his feet, sword pointed like a commander’s fan. It sounded strange to hear the normally laid-back boy speak in such a domineering voice, but she knew it was part of his art. She felt her doubts and fears washed away in an instant, replaced with a swelling confidence.
Ling Qi circulated her qi, feeling the stagnant flows of the dry air in the basement barracks. She twisted them to guide and protect herself and her companions. She didn’t know which one Gu Xiulan would target, but for Ling Qi, it was the reeling girl. She focused her will on the knife in her hand and felt the wind converge on it draining qi from her dantian with the effort.
It happened almost too fast to process. She stood and threw, and the blade seemed to directly sprout from the other girl’s stomach, embedded to the hilt. The already reeling girl let out a scream of pain as she finally dropped her staff, blood already staining her gown.
The sight caused Ling Qi to freeze. She had just attacked someone with intent to kill, and the only reason she hadn’t aimed for the throat was because she didn’t have confidence that she could hit it. Instructor Zhou had said there was a chance of death, but they couldn’t seriously be intending to have the disciples slaughter each other, right? There should be… should be some kind of magic removing the defeated and the chance of death was just from it not activating in time, or…
A bright orange lance of flame seared a line in her vision as it slammed into the girl Ling Qi had just wounded. It hit the girl and speared through her… and then the girl vanished in a burst of twinkling starlight, leaving only a scorch mark on the wall behind.
... At least she was right in her suppositions, Ling Qi thought numbly as the boy cried out something that was lost in the din of his engagement with the charging Fan Yu. Moments later, a second burst of thunder followed as the opposing disciple took a heavy blow to the back from Han Fang’s hammer. He too vanished even as the sound of cracking bone reached her ears.
“Hey. Don’t freeze up.” Ling Qi was startled out of her thoughts as Han Jian gently nudged her with his elbow, his voice too low to carry. The heat haze from his art was already fading. “Everyone coming in was aware of the danger.”
“Are battles always that fast?” Ling Qi asked quietly as she watched a grinning Fan Yu clap Han Fang on the back. Fan Yu’s previous foul mood had been displaced by the cheer of victory. It had only been a matter of seconds from start to finish; not even a minute had passed.
Han Jian shook his head. “Not always, but an ambush with low ranked cultivators like us? It’ll be fast. Things change past a certain level,” he said before placing a hand on the crates in front of the two of them and vaulting over it.
“Alright. Good work everyone, but we need to form up. Someone probably heard that. Fan Yu, we need you up front with your defensive art active...”
Ling Qi stared at Han Jian’s back and took a deep breath before following him over, only to be surprised when she was forced to snap a hand up and catch something blurring toward her. It turned out to be the bo staff of the girl she had attacked. Now that she got a better look at it, it was clearly valuable, a perfectly round and smooth length of dark brown wood with a dark green jade cap on either end and odd characters painted along its length.
The one who had thrown it was Gu Xiulan. The other girl met her questioning gaze with a smile.
“Spoils of battle, you know? I am not suited to wood-natured qi so you may as well have it. She took your knife with her after all.”
As the two girls fell in behind Han Jian, Ling Qi gave the other girl a suspicious look. “Even so, why give it to me? I’m sure you could find something to do with it.”
Gu Xiulan simply smiled mysteriously. “Perhaps I think you might be worth a little generosity?” she quipped, not bothering to look back as she regrouped with the rest. “We should focus on the rest of the test. There will be time enough to talk later.”
Ling Qi wanted to press her further, but Gu Xiulan had a point. With an annoyed huff, she glanced at the thing. She would have to carry it for the moment since she had no way of storing it. It wasn’t as if she needed her off hand to throw knives. Maybe she could block an attack with the staff.
“This will be the more difficult part. I doubt simply staying down here will count as fulfilling the objective. Yu was right in that.” Han Jian had started to speak again as they began to mount the stairs.
“Even if no one heard that, it’s only a matter of time before they notice these two missing. There should only be three of their teammates left so we’re going to come out hard and fast. Focus your attacks on one target at a time when possible. Don’t hesitate to take a shot if you have it. No one walks the path of cultivation without making enemies.”
Han Jian didn’t look at her when he said that, but Ling Qi still shifted uncomfortably. Were those two dead? Neither had been in good condition before they vanished.
Han Jian didn’t pause in speaking, and his next words carried the weight of command even as the temperature around him began to rise again. “Yu, can you feel anyone nearby?”
The stout boy grunted and crouched down at the top of the stairs, fingers brushing the stone. “You know I’m not good at this, Jian,” he grumbled quietly. “One, in the courtyard ahead, at the edge of what I can feel, ten… perhaps fifteen meters.”
Han Jian nodded once sharply. “Then we hit him. The others are likely on the walls. We’ll suffer attacks, but it’s better than allowing them to group up. If we’re lucky, they’ll be sensible and surrender once their third member is down. Otherwise, we’ll have to chase them down. Stick to the basic formation. Fang and Yu are the vanguard; you two stay with me.” He explained, gesturing to Ling Qi and Gu Xiulan.
There were no objections to that, so the second part of their plan began. Fan Yu led the charge, skin darkening to the color of granite, closely followed by Han Fang. The three of them followed the two boys out of the building.
There was barely a moment to catch sight of another tall, noble-featured boy in the center of the courtyard before a lance of fire snapped out from Gu Xiulan’s porcelain pale hand, cutting between her allies to strike him in the back. The boy was surprisingly unharmed by that, but he was knocked off balance and sent stumbling forward with a scorched hole in his robe. Then the two boys reached him.
The haft of the spear he raised to defend himself was driven into his chest by a thundering blow from Han Fang’s warhammer followed by Fan Yu’s spear slipping under his broken guard.
Of course, to keep those two in range of Ling Qi and Han Jian’s arts, the three of them had to leave the safety of the central building. Ling Qi caught a glimpse of of one of the other two enemies up on the wall above the gate raising a bow and releasing an arrow that transformed into a streak of reddish purple light. It struck Fan Yu in the shoulder and punched through his stony flesh.
Ling Qi had her own problems to deal with: the girl further down the wall whose gesture in their direction had drawn a hasty “Scatter!” from Han Jian.
She was too slow to dodge completely as razor sharp shards of ice pelted the area they had been standing in. One cut a painful gash across her upper thigh and a second buried itself in her shoulder, making her choke off a scream.
“Xiulan, take Ling Qi and return fire!” Han Jian shouted as he dodged in the opposite direction from them and moved toward the other boys.
Caught up in dodging the assault by the ice wielding girl, Ling Qi had no attention to give to the boys’ battle. The sound of thunder and breaking stone reached her ears, but it was a distant thing compared to her heartbeat pounding in her ears and the pain in her shoulder.
Gu Xiulan roughly seized her by the arm and took off, looking furious as blood ran down her face from a cut on her cheek. “Focus on dodging and guiding my attacks,” the other girl snapped, all pretense of playfulness gone.
Ling Qi gritted her teeth and nodded, breaking from her pained daze to run alongside her teammate. Throwing herself aside, she avoided the next shard of ice, and a wild flail of the staff in her hand managed to deflect another, the characters along its length flaring to life.
She hated that she had no way of responding to the other cultivator’s attacks directly, but feeling the buildup of heat around Gu Xiulan’s hands, she pulled deep from her well of qi and twisted the wind into guiding channels for the bolts of searing flames.
The conflicting temperatures threw the wind flows into chaos, and the girls traded fire for what felt like an eternity. Sizzling flame and shards of ice filled the space between them. Suddenly the girl attacking them yelped in pain, the sleeve of her gown catching fire and disrupting the pattern of her own attacks. The next instant she stumbled, an arrow sprouting from her side.
It was her undoing.
Ling Qi glimpsed her teammate out of the corner of her eye as Gu Xiulan raised her hands overhead. Her beautiful features were twisted in fury, and her carefully combed hair was wild. Flames bloomed between her hands, quickly expanding into a ball of fire larger than her head with a core of brilliant blue. The orb flew and struck the staggering girl with a deafening blast like a firework going off at close range.
As the smoke cleared from the charred ramparts, Ling Qi shuddered. If she had been uncertain about the others... the stench of burning flesh on the breeze filled her with even more doubt. She met Gu Xiulan’s eyes, noting the triumph burning there as she turned to look at Ling Qi, opening her mouth to speak…
But Ling Qi never heard what Gu Xiulan was going to say, because the world went black.