Ling Qi scowled. That guy… He was just causing her one problem after another.
Bad enough that he was a creep who switched ‘targets’ at the drop of a hat. That people thought badly of her for his interest. And now, that someone was actually going to attack her over it.
“The creep? Do me a favor and leash him.”
The other girl’s eyes were just beginning to narrow in outrage when Ling Qi’s right hand blurred, and a white streak shot out. She flung one of her new knives at the Zhu girl. Even as she was doing so, she darted backwards, the wind stirring around her frame and making her gown billow around her feet.
Throwing without looking at her target had cost her some accuracy, and the Zhu girl nearly escaped her attack, spinning her staff to deflect the knife. A slight tug on the projectile with a current of wind was enough to alter its trajectory, scoring a shallow cut across the back of the girl’s hand. It was enough for her qi to take hold.
“Ha ha. Is there anything more pathetic than a woman who cannot even keep her man’s eyes upon her?” Gu Xiulan laughed as she paced away to the right to reduce their vulnerability to a group attack.
An arc of flame burned through the air, a wide crescent with a core of flickering blue that forced the sword wielding boy to sidestep in front of his sister and disperse it with a twinned cut of his blades. Ling Qi felt her control of the wind contested in that moment the fire was blown away, but she could also see a grimace on the boy’s face as qi flickered around his body where the flames had licked at him.
Ling Qi didn’t have time to pay the twins attention though because a furiously scowling Hong Lin had appeared in front of her with a muffled boom. The bar of Hong Lin’s guai was coated in a solid shell of grey qi as it swung upward to strike her across the ribs. Ling Qi’s eyes widened as she tried to call up a heavy burst of wind to push the other girl back and out of range. She remembered this attack. It was the one which had laid her out in a single strike in her first spar against Hong Lin.
Her Gale Shield wasn’t enough as Hong Lin simply bulled through the rushing wind currents with a snarl on her lips. The air flew from Ling Qi’s lungs even as her qi drained precipitously to cushion the worst of the blow, and she knew she would be sore after this.
“You don’t know anything, you wretched little strumpet!” Hong Lin shouted as Ling Qi desperately ducked under a follow-up strike from the girl’s second guai that would have cracked her across the temple.
“Do you think I enjoy watching that boy flit about from one girl to another?” Hong Lin muttered, low enough that Ling Qi doubted anyone else had heard it.
Ling Qi couldn’t spare a glance for Gu Xiulan, but she could hear the girl laughing even as a green glow lit up in the corner of her vision and the flagstones were carved open by sharpened wind currents. With Gu Xiulan’s greater cultivation and speed and the hobbling that Ling Qi had inflicted, Gu Xiulan seemed to be doing well.
“That sounds like your problem. I don’t want the asshole,” Ling Qi snapped as she managed to open the distance. She felt so slow under the bright light of dawn, and it irked her that her Sable Crescent Step was so limited without low light. She would have to fix that.
Her flute appeared in her hand. Even as Hong Lin narrowed her eyes and tried to close the distance again, Ling Qi raised the instrument to her lips and began to play the first haunting notes of her Melody. There was a susurrus of surprised and disappointed noises from those watching as thick, cloying mist spilled forth from her flute. The battlefield was quickly consumed by a thick bank of fog.
Ling Qi suppressed a wince at the off tone of her first few notes; she was still short of breath and the aching bruise throbbing on her lower ribs didn’t make things any easier. Despite the distraction, she remembered to include Gu Xiulan in the mist’s protection. Ling Qi could feel her friend like a cheerfully blazing hearthfire off to her right.
“Of course you would use this cowardly thing,” Hong Lin said darkly as she peered through the mist, eyes darting about as she tried to locate Ling Qi. Ling Qi, who had started moving the moment the fog rolled out, was nowhere near the place where the girl’s weapons struck. She winced as she felt the furious wind of their passage.
The breathing room she had gained did afford her the opportunity to give the other battle going on a look, and she was pleased to see her earlier assessment was correct. The boy’s robes were tattered, revealing that his skin had taken on a bark-like texture that seemed to be protecting him from Gu Xiulan’s flames. The girl’s eyes were verdant green lanterns in the mist though, and she was surrounded by a circle of viridian light. The Zhu girl’s shoulders were trembling from exhaustion, but she was preparing something. However Ling Qi had to focus back on her enemy because Hong Lin wasn’t taking her inability to find Ling Qi well.
“If he will not respect me and if I cannot strike him, I can at least break his toys. I cannot be reproached for that.”
Ling Qi didn’t like the way Hong Lin had paused, fists clenched. Hong Ling’s muttering was weird and nonsensical, which worried her. Ling Qi’s fears were confirmed when Hong Lin’s skin flushed red, qi streaming up visibly around her as her hair and gown fluttered in a phantom wind.
Instincts screaming at her to move, Ling Qi leaped backward with all of her strength, flickering through the mist as soothing dark qi rushed through her veins. She just barely avoided the other girl’s paired guai slamming downward in an overhand strike at where Ling Qi had just been standing. The plaza flagstones shattered, chips of stone flying outward from the impact.
Ling Qi only grew more concerned a moment later. The circle of green around the staff girl had pulsed and expanded outward, washing over everyone. As it did, she felt her grip on the twin’s qi through her Against the Wind technique disrupted. That girl had to go.
She didn’t want to stop playing the Melody, but her qi was rapidly draining away through the rapid-fire use of her techniques. Her only comfort was that if she was draining her qi quickly, the others must be nearly running on fumes too. This gave her one good solution. If the twins were suffering so much fighting Gu Xiulan alone, she would just have to give them more foes.
Avoiding another thunderous strike from her own opponent. Ling Qi played first dissonant note of the new verse, the shadows grew darker and hungry eyes appeared in the mist. All three of her enemies stiffened, moving to dodge the shadowy claws and fangs now nipping at their heels. Hong Lin shrugged off her attacker with a snarl, the mist failing to do more than scratch uselessly at her flushed skin, but the other two were not so lucky.
A trio of bloody cuts slashed across Zhu Mei’s forehead, causing her to stumble and cry out in pain as blood began to pour down into her eyes. Zhu Fong was similarly unlucky, except his misfortune was the jagged cut across his knee that caused him to stumble when a burning, many tongued whip blazed into existence in Gu Xiulan’s gloved hand and coiled around his limbs with a flick of the laughing girl’s wrist. He screamed as it burned through his clothing and slammed him bodily into his sister, sending them both to the ground in a tumble.
Ling Qi winced as she heard the crack of breaking bone, but she had no time to worry about that. The qi aura around Hong Lin was beginning to fade, and she could see the girl breathing heavily. Whatever Hong Lin had done clearly strained her. However, it didn’t stop her from raising her hands and weapons, her hands and forearms darkening to the color of steel as qi infused them.
This time, when Ling Qi flew backward, it wasn’t entirely of her own will. When Hong Lin struck the ground, the earth rocked, and a rippling burst of dark, iron-colored qi erupted from around her like a shimmering wall. It struck Ling Qi like a speeding carriage, and Ling Qi could feel bruises forming all across her body even as she did her best to move with the motion of the blow as Elder Zhou had taught her. It was her movement art, Sable Crescent Step, that saved her the worst of it. Ling Qi could feel some of the force of Hong Lin’s attack passing through her harmlessly in places as she melded with the mist.
The blast still disrupted her song and blew the mist away with a thunderous crash, leaving her standing exposed in the middle of the damaged plaza. Hong Lin was hardly in the best shape either; the flush was fading from her skin as she panted for breath, shoulders slumping tiredly as she stared incredulously at Ling Qi.
“How! How are you still standing after…”
Whatever else Hong Lin was going to say was cut off as she screamed in pain. The lance of white hot fire seared across her lower legs and sent her tumbling to the ground, her badly burned legs apparent among the burning tatters of her gown.
“Because she is simply better than you, you whining child,” Gu Xiulan said coldly as she strode over. Gu Xiulan looked somewhat battered. A thin stream of blood flowed from the corner of her lip, and she looked furious.
Ling Qi surreptitiously popped one of her qi restoring pills while Gu Xiulan spoke, choosing not to comment on just how close the fight had been. She was all too aware that they still had an audience with nearly a dozen other disciples watching them. She absolutely could not afford to appear tired right now so she did her best to stand straight and keep her expression confident despite the pounding in her ears. Thankfully, Gu Xiulan was fully willing to take the attention for herself.
“Let that be a lesson to you,” Gu Xiulan said haughtily, voice cracking through the air like the whip she had been wielding as sparks danced in the air around her. “Do you truly think that I, a daughter of the Gu family, last descendants of the Purifying Sun, would extend my friendship to a weakling? That Elder Guan Zhou, the great Bulwark of the South, would accept an unworthy student? Check your pride and delusions. We will happily break them for you should you find yourself unable to do so.”
The murmuring around them grew briefly louder and angrier, and Ling Qi tensed as she scowled at her fellow disciples. Then, the tension broke, and the first of their audience turned away, a pair of boys who inclined their heads slightly to Gu Xiulan before leaving. The other disciples drifted away as well, some with more reluctance and unfriendliness in their expressions than others. Gu Xiulan continued to glare before hmphing and reaching into her pouch for a restoration pill herself.
“Shall we take our spoils then?” Gu Xiulan asked brightly after swallowing the pill, turning to Ling Qi with an expectant look. “I believe an even split is fair in this case.”
Ling Qi nodded slowly, looking at their opponents. Hong Lin was struggling to sit up, a grimace on her face, and Zhu Mei was slumped at her brother’s side, tears crawling down her face as she frantically worked to heal her brother’s burns. As for the boy himself, he was unconscious, bleeding from a shallow cut on his head where it had struck the flagstones.
She had… won?