It was probably telling that the first guy to ever compliment her looks was both a complete creep and also physically blind, Ling Qi thought irritably. It was an irrelevant thought but one that crossed her mind nonetheless as she thought furiously on how to resolve this situation in her - their - favor.
If she kept him talking, it would give her more time to think. She was wary of being the first one to attack; he could be bluffing about the laxness in the Elders’ enforcement of the rules, trying to trick them into breaking truce first..
“So… I’m thinking that I see a few flaws with your plan,” Ling Qi pointed out politely, if dryly.
Huang Da cocked his head to the side. Ling Qi’s instincts, honed from years in the street and perhaps a little from observing her mother and her clients, told her this guy was bad news. He was the kind of guy who wouldn’t just hurt someone because he had something to gain but because he enjoyed it.
“Is that so? I suppose I could explain some of my reasoning if it would gain your favor,” he mused, not seeming perturbed by Ling Qi’s observation.
It was difficult to keep a straight face, particularly with Su Ling shooting her a suspicious look.
“How do you figure that you’re going to keep this to yourself? Whatever you say, I doubt the Elders are going to just ignore two or three people disappearing before the truce is even over. Especially since two of us are in the advanced courses.” Ling Qi suppressed a wince at the fox girl’s scowl but pressed on. “But if we don’t… disappear, we can just share the location, you know. This is assuming I don’t just give it to Bai Meizhen.”
Huang Da hummed thoughtfully to himself, the sickle in his hand twitching with the tightening and loosening of his grip.
“That is a pretty good point,” he admitted. “For all that you lack my lovely scholar’s refinement, you have a bit of wit to go with your resplendent qi and grace. I think you may overestimate the Elder’s interest in such things. But I may be wrong. Some may cleave closely to the supposed spirit of the rules. Suffice to say, I am confident that whoever leaves this place will not speak of it, even without such permanent solutions,” Huang Da finished pleasantly.
Ling Qi swallowed. That wasn’t ominous at all. Su Ling certainly thought so given the way the tension in her stance ratcheted up.
“Well, call me convinced,” Ling Qi said flatly. “But there’s no way that I’m going to willingly stay with you alone or let you take advantage of Li Suyin. You’d probably just slit our throats afterward anyway.”
“That kind of accusation is just uncalled for. I’m hardly some barbarian brute,” Huang Da replied, sounding affronted.
“U-um, can we please… please not fight? I-I understand that you want to win the competition. I-I don’t know why you want access to the archives so badly, but it can’t be worth hurting your fellow disciples like this. Couldn’t we come to an agreement instead?” Li Suyin asked plaintively. “I would… I would really appreciate that, and…”
Li Suyin trailed off as Huang Da shook his head.
“Your naivety is sweet. A lovely trait for a lovely girl. But no, that is a request I cannot fulfill. I will not be the loser in this competition,” he said regretfully. “Now, I think that is enough chatter. Sadly, it seems neither of you seem interested in joining me. I imagine you will be pliable enough once we have some time alone, Li Suyin.”
Su Ling began to snarl something, no longer able to keep a leash on her temper, but Ling Qi didn’t have time to listen. Her time in Elder Zhou’s lessons had not been for nothing; she saw the minute twitch in his shoulders and the change in his stance so she was ready when he moved, rushing her in a shadowy blur.
Even with dark qi flooding her legs and blurring her shape, she was unable to completely avoid what came next. She ducked the initial swing of the straight edged sickle but was unprepared when his other hand clenched and moved. She felt something heavy and spiked smash against her ribs. Although she managed to move with the impact, it left a heavy bruise.
Ling Qi could see a glittering black chain extending from the bottom of the sickle now, and the malevolent-looking spiked weight at its end was now a spinning blur as Huang Da adjusted his footing to face her. Her ribs felt cold and numb where he had struck her, but she didn’t have time to think about that or the excited and admiring look she saw on his face. He hadn’t been expecting her to dodge even that well.
Ling Qi flicked a knife into her free hand and plucked at the threads of the wind around her before flinging the knife at center mass. She didn’t need a perfect hit; even a nick would be enough to trigger the Zephyr’s Breath technique and slow him down. She would be essentially tapped out on qi, but she couldn’t afford to hold back at this point.
Her first throw was merely a feint, but it did its job of drawing the spinning chain and weight up and out of position as she dropped her flute and flicked a second knife into her other hand. This one flew true, and she had the pleasure of seeing the boy’s blank eyes widen as the knife passed under the sickle blade he’d tried to use to bat the knife out of the way. It struck true on his side but bounced away in a flare of black qi rather than dig into his flesh.
This didn’t matter to her though. She felt the currents of air take hold around him just in time for Su Ling to charge into the fray, ghostly fire glittering on her fingers and knife in her hand.
Huang Da dodged to the side to avoid Su Ling’s knife, but his movements, hindered by Ling Qi’s technique, were a hair too slow to avoid the wispy burst of fire from her other hand. He came out of it with only a few embers burning on his robes and hair and a burn on the hand holding the swinging chain, which seemed to have blocked the brunt of the fire. He looked thoroughly displeased.
“Get out of my way,” he snapped, a twitch of his hand sending the glittering black chain darting out. Su Ling avoided it, but she was unprepared as it changed direction mid-air to coil around her arm, leaving her unable to dodge as he brought the sickle blade down, The blade slashed down from her shoulder to her waist with a spray of blood.
Ling Qi went pale at the sight, but instinct drilled into her during training with Instructor Zhou prevented her from freezing at the sight. She stumbled as she felt the bruise on her ribs throb painfully, and the numbness spread from it, making her right arm tremble violently.
Some kind of poison?
This just made it all the more urgent to finish this fight quickly. Huang Da’s weapon was still tangled up with Su Ling, and she took the opportunity to fish out the Qi card imbued with Bai Meizhen’s technique from where it was tucked under the collar of her gown. She pushed her qi into it, focusing fully on the dangerous boy as she did so.
The brush of Bai Meizhen’s qi against her own was like ice in her veins, the numbing, deadly cold of impossibly deep waters. It was a heady rush. For a moment, she felt as if she were a giant staring down at a pathetic insect from on high, his fate entirely hers to decide. It passed quickly enough, but it was clear that it had struck the boy successfully. He was pale-faced and trembling, not even looking at Su Ling as she slumped to her knees in front of him.
Despite his seeming paralysis, his chain seemed to have a will of its own, uncoiling without a single motion from him. There was still an unsettling intensity in his blind gaze, an undercurrent of excitement and want beneath the supernatural fear she had inflicted on him.
The disturbing moment passed when Su Ling let out a snarl and raised her head.
“D’n’t you fuckin’ ign’re me,” she slurred, clearly in a great deal of pain. “Burn.”
Her final word was very clear, and Huang Da barely had a moment to tear his eyes away from Ling Qi before the tiny embers still smoldering on his robes erupted into blazing blue-grey fires.
Huang Da cried out in pain, stumbling back as Su Ling collapsed to the ground, having expended herself with that last move. The Huang Da that emerged from the flames was decidedly worse for the wear, his robe burnt away to expose his thin physique and angry red burns covering his skin.
“I really did not imagine you were this beautiful. To reduce me enough that a beast could do this. To make me feel this way...” His voice was manic as he stared at Ling Qi. “But it’s time to end this.”
Ling Qi blinked in surprise as she heard Li Suyin speak. She had lost track of the other girl entirely during the fight, so focused she had been on her opponent. So it was shocking to see her standing behind Huang Da, having just laid a hand on his back. The boy arched his back and retched, coughing up blood and bits of flesh, losing his grip on the sickle half of his weapon as he did so.
The boy spun instinctively, backhanding Li Suyin across the face, causing the girl to crumple to the ground with a cry of pain. Whatever poison Huang Da had inflicted on Ling Qi seemed to be fading thankfully as the numbness in her side seemed to subside after another painful pulse that left most of her right side and arm numb and useless.
Huang Da’s breathing came out ragged and wet, trickles of blood running down his chin. Though he was still standing Ling Qi could read body language well enough. He was going to run. Whatever Li Suyin had done had pushed him over the line from thinking he could win.
The question was if she wanted to allow that or not. He had stalked them, tried to intimidate them, and hurt them. She wasn’t feeling very merciful, but she wasn’t feeling very strong either. She was out of qi, wounded, and surrounded by potential hostages if she couldn’t put him down right away.
The decision was taken from her Her moment of indecision gave Huang Da time to stumble backwards a few steps and rip something off of his wrist with his free hand, vanishing in a burst of starlight.
“...Damn it,” Ling Qi cursed under her breath, hands clenching into fists as she stared at the spot he had been.
Ling Qi hurried over to Li Suyin and Su Ling. Li Suyin was already sitting up, moaning weakly. She had tears in her her eyes as she cradled her cheek, which was already swelling and bruising purple. Her lips were bloody where her teeth had cut them.
“M fine,” Li Suyin murmured at at Ling Qi’s concerned look. “Check Su Ling.”
Ling Qi nodded distractedly, turning the fox girl over so that she was lying on her back.
“What did you do to him?” Ling Qi asked. “And how did you get so close?”
Su Ling was breathing shallowly, blood flowing sluggishly from the wound that extended from her shoulder to her hip. Fortunately, she had been wearing something like a vest of cured leather under her robe, and although the piece of equipment was ruined, it had prevented the cut from being fatal. Ling Qi guessed that Su Ling had been knocked out by the same spreading numbness that had been inflicted on her.
“I-I studied a movement technique… after… things got hard for you. It lets me avoid others when I… when I need to,” Li Suyin explained haltingly. “And...it’s easier to break things.” Li Suyin’s shoulders were shaking and further tears welling in her eyes even as she pulled herself over to help with Su Ling. “I can’t heal. I don’t have the control… but if I just reach in and twist…”
Ling Qi wasn’t sure what to say. She wished that the girl could have just made the bastard’s heart explode, but she doubted Li Suyin would want to hear that. Whatever Li Suyin had done seemed to have really bothered her. Ling Qi had a feeling that her friend was only holding it together out of a need to make sure Su Ling was okay.
Instead, she just patted Li Suyin’s shoulder silently and helped her get Su Ling bandaged up. Su Ling soon stirred to wakefulness.
“Shit,” Su Ling cursed as she cracked her eyes open, taking a moment to focus on their faces. “...I get him?”
“No, but we drove him off in the end,” Ling Qi said.
Su Ling glanced from Ling Qi’s somber face over to Li Suyin, who had her head down with tears still running down her cheeks, and let out a huff.
“Sucks he got away,” Su Ling murmured uncertainty. “Guess we’re gonna have to come up here together from now on.”
“Yeah, probably,” Ling Qi muttered. “We should probably head down by way of the cliff once we figure this place out. It’ll be shorter, less beasts. We’re not in any shape for another fight.”
“Yeah, sounds good. I have some rope in my pack,” Su Ling responded with a bit more confidence before glancing at Li Suyin and losing it. “...You still gonna be okay to identify stuff?”
“O-of course,” Li Suyin responded, wiping away her tears with the back of her hand. “I’m sorry for that. I-I’ll just be a moment.”
The site really was amazing. Just sitting around it for an hour or so while everyone caught their breath was enough for Ling Qi to feel her dantian beginning to refill. She could feel the ‘skin’ she had created with Argent Soul pulsing in time with the mist rising from the vent, growing infinitesimally thicker with each passing moment. It was worth making enemies over, she thought.
Once they could manage to move, they headed down the cliffside and took a look through the remains of the guardian as well. The shiny crystals she had seen turned out to be spirit stones, which a still-distressed Li Suyin had murmured was normal for such things. They divided the jagged natural spirit stones as evenly as they could by weight.
The expedition could only be called a success, but it was only the beginning. The truce, dubious as she now felt it was, would be over soon, and Ling Qi had a feeling that Huang Da wouldn’t be content with just licking his wounds and backing down.