She couldn’t - wouldn’t - act like that anymore. It would mean abandoning one of her few friends, and it wouldn’t even solve the problem. This wasn’t like before where she could count on her own obscurity to make the aggressors forget about her if she escaped the initial conflict. She had made herself stand out, and now, all she could do was deal with the consequences.
... She was tired of running anyway, and these people pissed her off. Maybe becoming a cultivator had worsened her control on her temper, but she really just wanted to beat these people down. Bai Meizhen was worth ten of these hypocritical assholes. She would just have to trust that the girl’s reputation was true to life.
Her flute appeared in her hand, drawn directly from her new ring, and she blew the first note of her Melody, calling on the mists once again. She would see just how brave this bunch was.
“Xu Lian, help the others pin the peasant down,” the apparent leader snapped as the mist engulfed them. “Du Xi, activate your formation now!”
Ling Qi felt a bit of dread in her gut as the blue glow on the rearmost girl’s hands expanded outwards in a bubble, washing over their enemies. It set their eyes ablaze, causing the fearful trembling in their hands to cease.
At the same time, the murmuring boy with the pike rapped the butt of his weapon on the ground, and a circle of golden characters flared into existence around him. In response, ephemeral chains burst from the ground around Cui, whipping around blindingly fast to coil around and slam the rearing serpent to the ground.
Even as Ling Qi quietly crept away from her original position to get a better vantage, she felt the fear in her gut intensifying again. Had she made a mistake? What was she thinking, fighting this many people at once? She was already down an ally…
“Arrogance,” Bai Meizhen’s voice cut through her music and the other sounds like a frozen whip. “To think such a paltry spell could hold a daughter of Bai. Is this truly your best?” There was no fear, nor even concern, in her friend’s voice, just furious contempt.
Even as the terrifying pressure the other girl exuded redoubled, Ling Qi felt her own fear lessen. Bai Meizhen’s eyes glowed like golden fire even in the darkness induced by her mist, and a weapon had appeared in her hand. It had a handle like a sword, but rather than a blade, there were four long shining strips of paper-thin metal hanging from it. Her shadow had grown into a dark pool at her feet, and Ling Qi could feel Bai Meizhen’s qi pulling hungrily at her mist, drawing moisture from the air. A mantle of dark waters cascaded down her shoulders and rose up, casting her face in shadow as it formed a flared hood.
At the same time, Cui let out an enraged hiss, and Ling Qi felt a pulsing ripple of qi in her bones as a loud sizzling reached her ears. The shining chains holding the serpent corroded rapidly along with the dirt and grass around her until the serpent’s flexing coils shattered what remained in a hail of rapidly dissolving fragments.
However, Cui’s escape took time, precious seconds that gave the four armed for melee time to close the distance with Bai Meizhen and the archers to draw back their bows. Ling Qi could tell that her attempt to hide herself had failed when she saw the arrowheads train on her position.
Dark qi flooded her limbs as Ling Qi smoothly dodged the first arrow, which crackled with fiery qi, and the second, which felt oddly heavy as it passed over her shoulder when she ducked. If her mouth wasn’t occupied with playing her Melody, she would have grinned savagely when she heard one of the archers curse her in the mist.
The other four had converged on Bai Meizhen. They seemed relatively confident despite the failure of their companion’s spell on Cui. Had it only been meant as a momentary distraction to keep Cui occupied while they ganged up on Bai Meizhen? Worry still churned in her gut. Ling Qi hoped Bai Meizhen would be fine for a few seconds until she could start the next part of the song and distract them.
The leader let out an encouraging war cry that seemed to steady his companions’ hands even as two of them split apart to flank Bai Meizhen The flankers’ bodies blurred under the effects of their movement arts. The last of them dashed forward, the spear in his hands outstretched in a thrust.
It passed by Bai Meizhen without touching her as she swayed to the side, a contemptuous expression on her face. A twitch of her weapon hand brought out a nerve-wracking scream of metal on metal as the strands of her weapon snapped out, guided unnaturally by the unseen force of her qi. The boy hurried to pull back his spear, spinning the haft up to deflect the snapping metal strands, and though he knocked three aside, the fourth twisted through his guard with a metallic hiss. He cried out in pain as the whip-like blade slashed across his chest. Bai Meizhen’s strange weapon shredded straight through his robe and the armor beneath even as the spearman’s dark earthy qi flared, preventing the wound from being more than skin deep.
However, the two enemies who had moved to flank Bai Meizhen were still there, and as they brought their swords to bear, one cutting high and one cutting low, Bai Meizhen’s knee buckled slightly, disrupting her graceful swaying dodge enough that one sword scoured across her shoulder. It sheared off a few more tattered shreds of her sleeve and sent up a splash of cold water as it scoured her mantle, but it failed to so much as draw a drop of blood. It was, however, enough to make the lingering feeling of fear from her friend’s initial technique fade, and Ling Qi saw Bai Meizhen’s expression of disdainful fury grow darker.
Ling Qi hesitated on what to do next. Should she continue her song or shackle their enemies with the wind? The mist would fade in a short time if she stopped, but something told her that this battle would be decided one way or the other before the Melody fully faded. Ling Qi flicked her wrist and threw, a streak of white flying from her sleeve toward the back of the girl that had almost struck Bai Meizhen..
The girl jerked and arched her back, gasping in pain as the knife cut a bloody line across her side. Ling Qi took hold of her qi, and the wind kicked up around the four, growing fierce and blowing back against their movements. It was almost enough to distract them from the scream that erupted ahead of her as the boy with the pike fell to the ground, frantically tearing at his burning and sizzling robe with his qi flaring wildly and quickly beginning to fade. Going by the sizzling dirt and grass around him, Ling Qi blamed Cui, who had reared up angrily and was slithering closer to the ranged foes.
... Cui was still over ten meters away from the boy with the pike. Could the serpent spit her venom that far? That was terrifying.
She did not have any more time to consider it as she wove out of the path of incoming projectiles, relishing the looks of increasing panic on the archers’ faces as the arrows thudded into the dirt behind her. A shudder went up her spine as one of the arrows exploded into a violent fireball when it passed through where she had been a moment ago. That would have hurt.
A glance behind her showed that Bai Meizhen was going on the offensive. She swayed through their attacks, her liquid mantle springing to life to deflect what blows could not be fully avoided, and then struck out. Her weapon’s strands snapped out with a metallic hiss and coiled around the sword of one her attackers to rip it from her hands even as her free hand struck the girl across the cheek with a simple open-handed slap. Ling Qi didn’t have time to be bemused by her friend’s choice of attack as the force of the blow sent the girl tumbling to the ground. Then, she screamed and thrashed in pain. Ling Qi could see the inflamed red of the handprint on her cheek and the way tendrils of red spread further under her skin.
Ling Qi hoped Bai Meizhen remembered not to go too far. The girl who had been hit by her dagger fell next as the watery mantle over Bai Meizhen’s shoulders exploded outward in a rain of icy needles. The needles peppered the area around her, making the two remaining enemies flinch. Their counterattack gained them little except another painful repudiative slash from Bai Meizhen’s blades that sent one of the two boys stumbling back with much reduced qi.
Ling Qi smiled to see the archers and the girl with the gloves falling back, looking ready to run. She would have to see if she could put a stop to that; they didn’t deserve to run after this stunt. Going by Cui’s path, the serpent agreed with her. Still, her instincts whispered to her that this had been too easy.
Then the area around Bai Meizhen exploded in a plume of dust and grit, blasting her mist away from the girl’s position. Ling Qi’s eyes widened in alarm when she saw Bai Meizhen flung backward to sprawl on the ground. In the midst of the rising plume of dust, Ling Qi spied a tall figure and the gleam of metal. When the dust cleared, she saw a boy that she recognized from Elder Zhou’s lessons. Kang Zihao, the only boy to be given advanced elixirs. He stood in the center of a small crater, tall and serene of expression. In one hand, he held a shining steel shield embossed with the imperial dragon crest in gold, and in the other, he held a tall, straight spear with a red tassel just below the blade.
Her dread returned at the sight of of one of the top ranked cultivators in Elder Zhou’s lessons. Ling Qi suddenly had a feeling she knew why these eight had the courage to insult Bai Meizhen so.
“How pitiful for one of such status to abuse their lessers.” The handsome boy’s calm voice echoed out over the sound of falling grit. “Have you no shame, serpent of the lakes?”
“Do not speak to me of shame,” Bai Meizhen spat in response, struggling to her feet. Ling Qi felt a spark of fury when she saw how badly her friend’s legs were bleeding again. “Do you think me a fool? I had wondered why these curs had elected to bare their teeth so.”
“It is my duty to protect the people of the Empire from traitorous vermin,” Kang Zihao responded smoothly. “Much as it is father’s duty to protect Our Holy Empress. I can no more ignore their plight than he would an assassin’s knife, and is that not what your entire clan truly is, serpent?”
Bai Meizhen drew herself up, imperiously staring down at Kang Zihao despite the difference in their height. “Do not speak as if your family holds a position of pride, fool. The Empress will tire of your father in time, just as she has her other playthings. Do you truly think you are something special, Kang Zihao?”
Ling wondered why her friend was wasting time talking, but she saw then a creeping shadow in the grass behind the boy and felt a thrill of hope.
Kang Zihao narrowed his eyes and spun, deflecting Cui’s fangs with his shield and throwing the furious serpent back. “I will bandy no further words with you, serpent. Let us see how well you do without your servant blinding the opposition.”
Bai Meizhen’s eyes widened in alarm at the same time that Ling Qi’s did. Ling Qi pushed off the ground, willing the mist to darken further and hide her as she leaped back, but it wasn’t enough. She felt the pulse of qi as the spear-wielding boy appeared in front of her, weapon drawn back to strike. His spear blurred through the air, and although Ling Qi did her best to track it and dodge, she wasn’t going to be fast enough.
Her vision exploded into whiteness as a muffled boom sounded, but there was no pain. Instead, there was a familiar and very loud voice, tinged with strain.
“VILLAIN! SUFFER THE WRATH OF LADY CAI!” Ling Qi opened her eyes in time to see Gan Guangli, towering over her attacker with Kang Zihao’s spear clutched in a fist the size of a small keg. Blood trickled from between his fingers, and blazing white light shone from his skin. More importantly, she opened her eyes in time to see Gan Guangli’s other gigantic fist slam directly into Kang Zihao’s face.
Kang Zihao skidded backward a full five meters, heels digging furrows in the dirt. Blood trickled down from a split lip twisted into a furious scowl. “What is the meaning of-”
“What is the meaning indeed,” a cold and measured voice rang out, cutting him off. Ling Qi craned her neck to see the source. There she saw one of the other stars of Elder Zhou’s lessons. She found herself looking up at Cai Renxiang, standing atop the ridge on the far side of the path, arms crossed over her chest.
The Cai heiress was illuminated from behind by a blazing corona of white light, casting a long shadow across the path. The girl had discarded her disciple’s robe as well in favor of a shining white gown with gold hems and embroidery. The image of a red and gold butterfly’s wings splayed across the bosom of the garment, the top of its wings stretching up to her shoulders. “Is this the honor of the capital, Kang Zihao? The use of a flimsy pretense to strike at a wounded peer?” she asked in a voice filled with scorn.
Ling Qi fought down the panic she felt at being around so many who were out of her league. Her feeling looked to be one shared by the two young men who had engaged Bai Meizhen but were left standing; they looked distinctly regretful as they slowly tried to creep away. The ranged attackers had fled long ago at this point.
Bai Meizhen’s venomous gaze was fixed on Kang Zihao’s back, and Ling Qi felt a stab of concern at how coldly murderous her friend’s expression was. She had seen looks like that before; usually, there would be a body for the guards to clean up the next day.
“It is good to see that there is at least some civility in this place,” Bai Meizhen said softly, glancing up at Cai Renxiang and studying the other girl’s angular features briefly before returning her gaze to Kang Zihao’s back. “I had begun to think all the Empire outside of the Thousand Lakes had degenerated into barbarism.”
“You cannot mean to side with this snake,” Kang Zihao said, looking a bit nervous. “Lady Cai, please understand the statement you are making. I struck only for the good of the Sect, and of course, the province of Duchess Cai. The presence of one of the Bai…”
“I care not for your petty excuses, and her presence is one of imperial mandate,” Cai Renxiang cut him off flatly. “I am in no mood for this. I have witnessed so much cowardice and dishonor this day that my stomach was turned, and now, upon seeking out one of the few who I expected to be worthwhile for a duel of honor, I find you engaging in a pathetic display of banditry? Attempting to strike down a citizen of my Emerald Seas without mercy? Begone from this place, and reflect on the shame of your actions.”
Ling Qi blinked. Was the shining girl referring to her? Gan Guangli still stood in front of her like a gigantic shield, glowering at Kang Zihao. This situation worried her; she felt like she was intruding into something she had no business being involved in. Something was happening here, and it irked her that it was going over her head.
Kang Zihao squared his shoulders defiantly, but she could see his eyes tracking from Bai Meizhen to Cai Renxiang and then over Guangli and herself and his own quivering ‘allies’.
“I see,” he said finally. “You make an error, Lady Cai. I will, however, respect your will in this. If I may collect my followers…”
“You may take those who still stand,” Cai Renxiang’s domineering voice cut him off again. “The others will pay the price of loss for their shameful ambush.”
Kang Zihao’s expression darkened, and Ling Qi saw the grip on his spear grow white-knuckled. In the end, he nodded once curtly and gestured for the two boys who still stood to follow him. Ling Qi disliked the idea of them getting away, but if Bai Meizhen wasn’t going to speak up in this situation, then neither would she.
“I thank you for your assistance, Lady Cai,” Bai Meizhen replied somewhat stiffly, her eyes still fixed on the rapidly retreating back of Kang Zihao.
“It is no more than my duty,” the other girl said dismissively, turning her gaze to the two of them. Ling Qi dipped her head respectfully as Cai Renxiang’s intense gaze passed over her.
“Guangli, help them gather the belongings of this trash and move it from the road. Bai Meizhen recover well. I will challenge you when you have healed.”
“It will be my honor, Lady Cai,” Bai Meizhen said politely, with more respect than Ling Qi had seen her give another person before.
“Are you well, Ling Qi?” Bai Meizhen asked in a quieter tone, scanning Ling Qi for injuries. Ling Qi fidgeted awkwardly as she found herself studied by both her friend and the steadily shrinking young man in front of her. It didn’t help that Cai Renxiang’s gaze was burning a hole in her back either.
“I’m fine. They weren’t able to land a hit on me,” Ling Qi replied with a touch of pride. “Gan Guangli… Lady Cai, thank you very much,” she added, remembering Bai Meizhen’s lessons and giving each an appropriate bow.
Cai Renxiang simply nodded seriously in her direction while Gan Guangli’s stern expression turned cheerful. Ling Qi glanced away, flushing slightly at the sight of Gan Guangli’s smile. Why did Gu Xiulan have to put such thoughts in her head?!
They turned to practical matters after that. Between her efficiency and Gan Guangli’s ability to carry everything, stripping the losers of their valuables took only a short time. Bai Meizhen sat down and caught her breath while they did so. Meanwhile, Cai Renxiang exited in a flare of light to do whatever it was intimidating glowing people did.
The ambushers didn’t have anything near as interesting as her previous opponents. It seemed that because of the planned ambush, they had chosen not to carry most of their valuables so it was really only their talismans that could be looted. She would likely sell off the talismans for red stones because none of the talismans were of particular interest to her. Bai Meizhen didn’t appear to have any preference on the matter.
Gan Guangli seemed to have taken his lady’s command to mean to follow them to the market, carrying the goods as they went. This allowed Ling Qi to feel a little bit safer as she helped her friend limp along.
Once she and Bai Meizhen had gotten to the medicine hall, Ling Qi found herself in an awkward position. Bai Meizhen insisted on paying for Ling Qi’s wounds to be healed despite the fact that the girl's own healing was going to cost over a hundred spirit stones. Apparently, Sun Liling’s techniques were incredibly difficult to heal from. Ling Qi could do little but accept, even as she promised herself to pay the other girl back for the twenty odd stones spent healing her completely from her earlier duel.
By the time they were released, it was getting late. The sale of the talismans afterward did not take long though. With her newfound wealth tucked firmly into her storage ring, Ling Qi thought she had quite enough of this day and only hoped those following would be a little less stressful.