Ling Qi and Gu Xiulan parted ways at the entrance to the female residences, and Ling Qi hurried along toward the center where her home lay.

Things had changed since this morning. There were signs of battle in the streets from scorched or cracked stonework to deep gouges and craters in the earth. Ling Qi wondered who would be repairing the damage or if they would at all. Maybe the Elders only repaired infrastructure when a new class was incoming, and the disciples would just have to deal with the damage they had inflicted on the residential area themselves. That seemed like the sort of thing the Elders might do for several reasons.

Such thoughts fled her mind as she approached the house she had been living in for the last few months. Her stomach dropped when it came into sight. Maybe it was because it had been the first real home she had had since she left Mother, but seeing it in ruins was disheartening.

Much of the front wall had collapsed, and it had taken a chunk of the roof with it. Pieces of the wall were scattered across the street, which, along with other nearby buildings, was scarred by deep pits. It almost seemed like great chunks of earth and stone had simply melted.

Amid the wreckage, Bai Meizhen sat silently in a meditative pose, pristine and pale, atop a flat slab of rock that looked to have previously been a part of the their roof. The image was somewhat ruined by the blood staining both the bottom of her silver robes and her shredded sleeves. It left much of her snow white arms bare, but Bai Meizhen seemed unbothered by the nearly indecent exposure.

The other thing that broke the image of serenity was the great, poisonous green serpent coiled around the meditating girl. From the pattern on the serpent’s scales, Ling Qi could tell it was Cui, but Cui was far from the tiny, finger-thick snake she usually was. Bai Meizhen’s cousin was now currently as thick as one of her thighs and several times longer than Ling Qi was tall if her estimation was correct.

Cui twitched at her approach, raising her head and letting out a threatening hiss as her eyes locked onto Ling Qi. Ling Qi stopped immediately, raising her hands in a carefully non-threatening manner. The serpent regarded her silently, tongue flicking in and out as she tasted the air.

Cousin Meizhen, your little mouse has returned.

Ling Qi blinked in surprise; Cui had avoided talking to her since that first time when Ling Qi had asked about repaying Bai Meizhen. Cui’s voice was no longer garbled and sounded like the voice of an arrogant girl a few years younger than her. Ling Qi frowned almost immediately when the words processed. What was with spirit beasts and not using her name?

Bai Meizhen opened her eyes then, her expression weary and somber. “Ling Qi, I am glad you are doing well,” she greeted, studying Ling Qi as she turned her head to look at her. “I see your day has been profitable.”

“Yeah,” Ling Qi replied, picking through the rubble field around her friend as she approached and studied the other girl in return. That was… a lot of blood on her gown. Ling Qi felt guilty at the contrast between the two of them.

“I got in a fight when I went to pick up my stone allowance. I didn’t get too badly hurt so I went to the market to offload my spoils.” She paused, and the awkward silence stretched between them. “Are you alright? If you’re hurt, I picked up some healing salves while I was there.”

“Thank you, but I am afraid it would do little good,” Bai Meizhen replied, looking up from her study of Ling Qi’s gown. “Wounds dealt by that wretched girl’s blood do not heal easily. Common medicines will have little effect.”

“... Oh,” Ling Qi said, feeling even worse. She fidgeted with her gown as she came to a stop a short distance from the barrier that Cui formed around Bai Meizhen. “Did you beat her? And what do you mean by her blood? I saw she had that spear, but-” Ling Qi immediately shut her mouth, horrified that she had just let slip that she had seen the fight and done nothing. What would the other girl think of her?

Bai Meizhen furrowed her brows, and Ling Qi saw her hands clench atop her knees. The temperature around the girl dropped, and Ling Qi felt a stirring of fear in her gut.

“It was a draw,” the serpentine girl said grudgingly, her normally even and controlled voice simmering with a hint of worrying anger. It didn’t seem directed at Ling Qi, which stung a little if she was honest. She almost wished the other girl was angry. As it was, her friend simply had no expectation that Ling Qi could have meaningfully helped her in the fight against Sun Liling.

“The Scarlet Devil’s Raiment is a foreign technique, twisting and manipulating the user’s blood into superlative armaments. It works particularly well with that wretched girl’s potent lineage. Her family has truly gone native,” Bai Meizhen added with disgust.

Ling Qi honestly had no idea how to respond to that. The weapon and armor she had seen Sun Liling summon were made of her blood? How in the world had she not simply bled herself dry? Why would someone from such a wealthy family not simply have talisman armor and weapons?

“Are your legs going to be fine?” Ling Qi asked. Now that she was closer, she could see that Bai Meizhen’s legs were swathed in bloody bandages under her tattered gown.

Bai Meizhen pursed her lips, her intense yellow gaze drifting to the side awkwardly as she tugged at the tattered portion of her gown to better cover herself. “I will heal in time. We chose to stop before either of us could harm one another permanently,” she said. “I am afraid we will require a new residence though.”

“Nevermind that. We can look for another house later. Let me help you to the Medicine Hall,” Ling Qi said firmly. She felt a twinge of fear as she stepped over Cui’s emerald coils andoffered Bai Meizhen her hand. Ling Qi hadn’t been there for her in the fight. Maybe she couldn’t have affected it, but she could do this.

Bai Meizhen blinked at her, nonplussed.

“That will not be necessary. My constitution is hardly so fragile. A few wounds like these are not worth bothering the healers over. Grandfather has inflicted far worse in the course of training,” she replied coolly. Ling Qi caught the tiny bit of discomfort in her voice. “Besides, I do not wish to sully your new gown. I am aware that you cannot afford many like it.”

It was Ling Qi’s turn to frown. “Are you really going to worry about something dumb like that?” she asked incredulously. She couldn’t say anything about what had just been revealed about her housemate’s family situation and couldn’t rightfully comment on it besides, but she was honestly thrown by the last comment.

“It’s just a dress. I can wash it,” she said flatly. “And I’m not going to let you sit there wounded because you want to be tough. There’s no reason not to visit the Medicine Hall. Or are you really going to tell me that you can’t afford it?”

Ling Qi was uncomfortably aware of Cui’s head hovering behind her back within easy striking distance as she finished speaking. That… might have been presumptuous and rude now that she thought about it, but it was too late to take the words back. So instead of apologizing and backing away, she simply firmed her expression and continued to hold out her hand.

Her housemate stared at her silently, making Ling Qi begin to sweat. Finally, she reached up and took Ling Qi’s hand. Her skin was oddly cool and felt very soft against the rough calluses that persisted on Ling Qi’s hands despite her cultivation. Bai Meizhen let out a soft and prolonged hiss of pain as she moved to stand with Ling Qi’s help and stumbled as her legs buckled beneath her.

Ling Qi managed to catch her, slipping an arm under the other girl’s shoulders to help support her. The pale girl leaning against her chest straightened up almost immediately, her snow white cheeks pinked from the exertion. There was a faint look of embarrassment on the stoic girl’s features though so Ling Qi kept her eyes straight ahead as she supported the other girl. Bai Meizhen was obviously not used to accepting help.

“C’mon, just take it one step at a time. Once we take care of you, we can see about picking out a nicer house,” Ling Qi said brightly, trying to break the awkward silence.

‘Hmph. Cousin Meizhen will listen to the mouse over I, Cui. How insulting,’ the huge serpent sulked as she uncoiled to get out of their way and follow. Her voice still made Ling Qi twitch.

Bai Meizhen was silent as she limped along, leaning heavily against Ling Qi’s side, expression wooden. Ling Qi worriedly snuck a glance at her now and then. She figured the other girl was concentrating on simply moving given the trembling she could detect in her steps. It was during one of those glances as they made their way down the street that Bai Meizhen looked up to meet her gaze.

“Thank you,” she said quietly before looking back down.

“It’s nothing. I can’t do much more than this anyway,” Ling Qi said bitterly. She still wasn’t strong enough. Not to help Meizhen, not to take care of herself.

She needed to break through. That was the first step toward real strength.

The trip was difficult. Despite her obvious effort, Bai Meizhen was unable to move faster than a slow walk. Ling Qi grew more tense as they moved through the residences; out of the corner of her eyes, she saw the other girls murmuring to each other and shooting unfriendly glances their way. It looked like between her stunt in the plaza earlier and Bai Meizhen’s current weakness, they were attracting even more hostility than usual.

Ling Qi simply set her shoulders and kept walking, refusing to let herself be slowed down. Besides, Cui was still slithering at their side, and she thought the serpent made for a potent deterrent.

For a time, she was right. They made it out of the residential area and were well on their way toward the market when they found themselves approaching a crowd in the middle of the road. Nearly a dozen people, boys and girls, blocked the path. Ling Qi recognized a handful of them from Elder Zhou’s lessons, although not enough to remember their names. She was fairly certain they were all people she had beaten after she revealed her techniques though.

“Stop,” the boy at the front of the group called to them as they came within earshot some twenty meters away. “I apologize, Miss Bai, but my associates and I require words with your maid.” He sounded arrogant to Ling Qi, but she could detect nervousness in his tone.

“What is the meaning of this?” Bai Meizhen asked coldly, standing up straighter as Cui let out a threatening hiss from beside Ling Qi.

“She has insulted all of us deeply with her conduct,” the boy replied stiffly. “Elevating herself above her station, being rude to her betters, and now beating and robbing Hong Lin and the Zhu siblings? If you cannot discipline your servants, it falls to us, your peers, to do it for you.”

“They attacked me,” Ling Qi replied flatly. “I only returned the favor. Aren’t you being a little too arrogant?” She tried to project confidence, but she really was worried. There were too many people here. Eight to be exact, five girls and three boys.

“He is. You all are. What do you intend to do exactly, should I not stand aside and allow this farce?” Bai Meizhen said with a scowl.

The boy scowled back. “It is the two of you who are being too arrogant. If you will not stand aside, Bai Meizhen, then you will find yourself our enemy as well. Many of us have older siblings and relatives in the Sect. Do you think you can simply bully everyone and get away with it? You are hardly in the sort of shape to contest us all.”

Ling Qi almost wanted to cry at the sheer unfairness of that statement. In contrast, Bai Meizhen’s expression only grew darker. “Cowardly trash. Do you think I fear your petty retribution? That your pathetic families, scrabbling in the dirt, having existed for only a bare few millennia, concern me? Truly, things have fallen far that so many would forget their place so. It shows only the rot that has been allowed to set in.”

“I don’t disagree,” Ling Qi replied quietly out of the corner of her mouth, looking for good escape routes. She saw several, but she wasn’t sure Bai Meizhen could make it up those cliffs as she was. This felt more and more like she and her 'indiscretions' were just an excuse to take a shot at a wounded Bai Meizhen. “But should we really be antagonizing them this much? We should retreat.”

“The Bai clan has always been too proud.” The boy drew the straight sword that had been sheathed on his belt. “Its history is indeed mighty, but the rot you speak of lies within your own house. While the Empire grows strong, you turn on yourselves and devour your own. The days in which your clan could do whatever it wished have passed. Or has your family forgotten the execution of Bai Meilien so quickly?”

Ling Qi could hear the tremble of fear in his voice despite his brash words.

“Real pretty words from a guy who needs eight people to face two. You all are just oh so brave,” Ling Qi snapped, preparing herself to run. She could probably pick up Bai Meizhen and dash for it if it came down to it. It would probably be better to take the upward…

Her thoughts cut off as she felt her skin crawl and a wave of paralyzing terror rippled out, nearly making her scream despite the fact that she could feel that it wasn’t directed at her. She looked down and found Bai Meizhen’s expression to be absolutely livid. The pale girl stood, no longer leaning on her.

“It seems you wish for pain.” Bai Meizhen hissed. Ling Qi had never heard the girl sound so cold. Even Cui had reared up, baring fangs coated with clear venom that melted smoking pits in the dirt where it dripped.

Ling Qi’s face fell. She wasn’t the best at reading people… but she really didn’t think Bai Meizhen was going to run now - if she ever would have in the first place. Ling Qi could probably still scoop the other girl up and dash for it - she was good at hiding, and Sable Crescent Step only made her better - but she didn’t know if the furious girl would allow herself to be carried away.

All of her instincts told her this was a terrible idea. Fighting against four times their number was suicidal, even if almost half of them were trembling and white-faced from the feeling of Bai Meizhen’s qi.

A quick glance showed that four, including the asshole doing the talking, held swords. The melee fighters moved forward in a staggered line. The remaining four were more eclectic in their weapon choices. There were a couple of archers, a girl who was unarmed save for a pair of faintly glowing blue gloves, and a boy with a heavy pike who was murmuring something under his breath.

Bai Meizhen was still badly injured and nearly immobile. Even if Bai Meizhen were stronger, could she and Cui really stand up to them all? Ling Qi felt a chill of her old fear, urging her to flee and leave this all behind. 

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