Despite having to rest in the ruins of her home, searching for a new one was not Ling Qi, nor Bai Meizhen’s top priority. Instead, the next day, with her energy restored, Ling Qi immediately went to look into what, if anything, had happened to her friend, Li Suyin and her roommate, Su Ling. It began rather poorly with Ling Qi’s arrival at their house finding the door broken in and what little inside ransacked. The shattered inkwells and torn pages scattered on the floor painted a grim picture, one that lit worry and anger in Ling Qi’s heart.
It wasn’t as if it was an uncommon sight either. Now that she had time to look, the entire residential area looked worse for the wear. Walls and roofs were damaged, windows were broken, and craters pocked the streets. Fighting was still ongoing with Ling Qi passing several open duels in the streets on her way to Li Suyin’s house. The only place completely free of damage was the storehouse where everyone got their food and household supplies; she supposed the storehouse counted as ‘Sect Property’ in a way the rest didn’t.
The atmosphere was tense and the air clouded by smoke from the occasional uncontrolled fire. To Ling Qi, the sight resembled the half-remembered spirit tales she had heard of when she was very young. After all, naughty and disobedient children brought misfortune or were snatched by spirits or monsters.
Linq Qi didn’t bother to hide as she exited her friend’s ruined house. Perhaps she was feeling overconfident from the day before, but she just couldn’t muster the desire to slink away into the shadows as she usually did. She met the stares from a pair of girls across the street who were watching her with difficult expressions and scowled, her fingers itching for her knives. If someone here wanted to start something, they were welcome to try.
To her surprise, there was no snide comment or disdainful whispers from them or the other scattered passersby. The girls she scowled at simply lowered their heads and scurried on, hurrying away from her with a flapping of soot-stained gowns.
Ling Qi huffed irritably. Thankfully, her clothing seemed to take care of its own cleanliness, and for all that she still felt awkward and out of place in the shimmering, smooth fabric, she couldn’t help but be grateful to Gu Xiulan for it.
The ensuing investigation into her friend’s whereabouts quickly became frustrating. She couldn’t track them given her lack of expertise in that area, and for all that the open hostility directed her way had toned down, no one was interested in talking to her or answering questions. Her search took her from the residential area out to the main plaza where she continued trying to get more than terse non-answers out of her fellow disciples. This attempt proved fruitless, and after a few hours, she was feeling frustrated and irritable on top of increasingly worried.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, she reacted poorly when she saw an all-too-familiar head of gray hair approaching her with his hand waving in greeting. She had been standing in one of the plaza’s miniature gardens, trying to calm herself.
“Go away, Huang Da,” Ling Qi snapped, one of her knives appearing in her hand as she turned to face the approaching boy. “I don’t have time to deal with your obnoxious, unwanted advances today. I had enough trouble with the damn fiancée you apparently have yesterday.” Her voice was harsh, and her more vulgar words slipped through without notice.
He came to a stop a few meters away, that irritating, creepy little half-smile still firmly in place.
“I apologize for the trouble that ogress gave you, my lovely night lily,” Huang Da replied smoothly, making Ling Qi’s eyebrows twitch in irritation. “Let me first assure you that I have no feelings for that brutish girl. It is merely a business arrangement. I wish I could have seen you dancing circles around her that day.”
Ling Qi continued to scowl at him, fingering the blade of her knife, as he leaned against the cherry tree he had stopped next to.
“Because that’s so much better,” she said peevishly. “Seriously. I don’t have time for you today. And stop making up weird nicknames. I’m not your anything.” She deliberately turned and began to march away, hoping he wouldn’t follow.
“Are you not interested in the well-being of your followers?” Huang Da asked to her back. “I had heard you were looking into Li Suyin’s whereabouts.”
Ling Qi stopped, her qi churning in time with her anger as she turned around.
“If you hurt her, I won’t forgive it, you creep,” Ling Qi said coldly. “If you think you can use her as some kind of hostage…” She didn’t know what she would do exactly, but he wouldn’t like it.
Huang Da frowned, looking hurt.
“Of course not,” he said dismissively. “Truly, if it were not for the fact that it is what allowed me to see your beauty in the first place, I would regret my first impression if that is what you think of me. No, I simply helped them escape their pursuers as they fled. A bit of misdirection allowed me to guide the pursuers away from the cave that the beast girl led them to hide in.” He cocked his head to the side slightly at Ling Qi’s dubious expression. “Come now. Why would I lie about something so easily disproved? I can tell you where they hid away, and you may ask them.”
“And what are you going to want for that?” she asked suspiciously, even as her heart pounded. Were they really alright?
“Well, a kiss for the heroic one wouldn’t be amiss,” Huang Da said hopefully with a slight widening of his smile.
“Go drown,” Ling Qi responded instantly. She knew they were out in the wilderness now; she would track them down herself.
“I thought not,” he said in disappointment. “But no, I require nothing of you, lovely Ling Qi. Nothing but a word of gratitude from your lips.”
Ling Qi scowled at him, but she couldn’t sense any duplicity. As he said, his story would be easy to confirm, and if he lied about where they were hiding… Well, she might not be able to hit him now, but she could certainly do it later.
“... Thank you, Huang Da.” The words left a bad taste in her mouth, but it was too small a thing to refuse.
Huang Da closed his blind eyes, seeming pleased with himself. “Ah, how wonderful,” he mused.
“You’re still a creep,” Ling Qi said darkly.
Huang Da’s expression fell, but he didn’t stop smiling.
“As you say,” he said. “Now, I took the liberty of writing down the location. Wouldn’t want anyone overhearing us after all, and I suspect that you would not appreciate me leading you there.” He pulled a crumpled scrap of paper from the pocket of his robe and held it out to her. Ling Qi took a few short steps closer, eyeing him warily as she took the note and glanced over it. It did indeed contain directions to a location deeper in the mountains.
It could be a trap, but she was too worried about her friend to not check up on the location. Ling Qi still despised him, but she thought that the obnoxious boy was probably sincere in his creepy, flirtatious way. She knew better than to let her guard down though; she had seen enough of guys like that to know that playing nice after the violence ended was just an attempt at manipulation. She scoffed under her breath. Like she would let herself fall for the simplest trick in the book.
Ling Qi found the place about an hour later after winding her way to a particularly maze-like ravine at the top of a rock slide that ended in a narrow crack in the mountainside. She had scouted it out, climbing the cliffs to get a better look and make sure it wasn’t a trap, so she was reasonably confident when she approached the crevice and called out. Hopefully, the two girls hadn’t left yet.
“Li Suyin?” Ling Qi called, coming to a stop a few meters from the cave entrance. “Su Ling? It’s me, Ling Qi. Can I come in?”
Her voice echoed in the ravine. There was no response save for her own words calling back to her. Should she just go in anyway?
Then, she caught a sound from inside, the scuff of a shoe on stone, and she saw a shadow in the entrance. It soon resolved itself into Su Ling, peering warily out of the cave.
Su Ling didn’t look great. Her gown and her skin were filthy and bloodstained, and her right hand was badly swollen, fingers wrapped with makeshift splints and bandages. Ling Qi was fairly certain the girl’s fingers were broken. The only other obvious damage was a chunk of hair missing from the right side of Su Ling’s head, making the vulpine girl’s profile uneven.
Su Ling regarded Ling Qi tiredly, dark circles obvious under her eyes.
“Huh. It is you. Guess jackass decided to tell you where we were,” Su Ling said without energy. She narrowed her eyes, studying Ling Qi, who was suddenly all too aware of her new garments; the new dress felt more out of place than ever. “You managed to come out on top if you can afford stuff like that.”
“It’s a pretty powerful talisman,” Ling Qi murmured, feeling guilty and awkward. “After yesterday, I figured I’d need every advantage I can get.” It sounded like a rationalization to her own ears.
“Tch. You won’t hear me argue that,” Su Ling replied gruffly, stiffly straightening up and spitting on the ground. “I guess you want to see Suyin, right? She’s further inside.”
Ling Qi nodded and stepped after the girl into the narrow ‘room’ beyond the entrance to the cave. “What happened?” she asked quietly.
“A bunch of girls decided they could use our stuff more than we could, and that we’d been too uppity,” Su Ling growled. “Not much more to it. They busted down the door barely an hour after that stupid announcement. I had told Suyin that we should just camp out that night.”
Ling Qi clenched her fists and looked down. She had been so worried about getting her stones and getting out and then later, cashing in her winnings. Some friend she had been.
“You were right.” Ling Qi heard Li Suyin’s voice before they rounded the corner into a larger chamber. “Trusting in civility was a mistake.”
Her friend’s voice sounded dull and tired, and when Ling Qi saw her, she understood why. Li Suyin was seated on a flat stone platform, her shoulders sagging. The whole right side of her face was still streaked with blood, and more was crusted in her unkempt blue hair. The shoulder of her gown was torn and hanging loose, exposing a new scar on her upper arm. What really drew her eye was the makeshift patch tied over her friend’s right eye and the four jagged scars emerging from beneath it to cross her cheek and neck.
“Shit, Li Suyin.” The girl’s name escaped from her lips unbidden as Ling Qi stepped past Su Ling and into the small chamber, which contained a scattering of things: Li Suyin’s writing case, looking cracked and battered but intact; a small stack of texts wrapped in beast hide; and some of Su Ling’s hunting gear. Ling Qi fell to her knees in front of the seated girl, checking her over for further wounds.
“What the hell! No one is supposed to be crippling people,” Ling Qi snarled angrily.
“It was my own fault. Or I’m sure that’s what that girl would tell anyone,” Li Suyin said bitterly. “I should have just held still while my friend was being kicked in the dirt.”
“I coulda handled it. Wouldn’t have been the first time I’ve been stomped on a bit,” Su Ling said sullenly. “But you made the witch pay for it, didn’t you,” Su Ling added with a bit more cheer. “I even managed to light up the other two bitches’ hairs before they ran off for their friends.”
“Yes, I did,” Li Suyin acknowledged absently, looking off into nothing. “I wonder how long it will take to fix that many burst veins…”
Ling Qi clenched her hands so hard that she could feel her nails biting into her palms.
“I’m sorry.” The words escaped her lips before she could think about it. “I… I should have checked in on you guys. I’ll talk to Bai Meizhen. I’ll owe her, but I can ask her to pay for you to get your eye fixed and Su Ling’s hand…” Ling Qi was babbling as sadness and fury warred for dominance in her heart.
“No,” Li Suyin said sharply. “I will fix it myself. I broke through in my understanding of my technique so it’s not impossible in the future. And it’s not your fault. I am not a child you need to care for - and neither is Su Ling.”
“Yeah, I got this covered,” Su Ling grunted, waving her wrapped hand. “Suyin fixed up the rest and did a good job on this. I can sell some cores and get the healing finished up.”
Ling Qi lowered her head, anger slowly winning out over her other emotions.
“Fine,” she ground out. “I won’t involve Bai Meizhen. But I still want to help you. You’re my friend, Li Suyin. At least let me…” She suddenly recalled the talismans she had kept from the fight with Hong Lin and the twins. She had been intending to give them to Li Suyin and Su Ling. A thought brought the hairpin and the anklet talismans into her hands.
“I was going to give you these anyway. They’re from my fights yesterday. I thought you two could use some talismans of your own. I wanted to thank you for helping me as much as you have so far.”
The gifts felt kind of lame now, but as Ling Qi began to calm herself with a well-ingrained breathing exercise, she could admit that Li Suyin was right. While she might have been able to help, she wasn’t responsible for the other girl. She still wanted to stick a knife in the gut of whoever had hurt Li Suyin so much.
For her part, Li Suyin looked conflicted as Ling Qi pressed the gift into her hands. “I - I don’t really deserve this. It… Wouldn’t it be better if you…”
“Just take it,” Su Ling said gruffly from over Ling Qi’s shoulders as she plucked the offered anklets, looking them over with a critical eye. “I’m done playing nice, and I can use whatever advantage I can get. ...Unless we’re gonna all tie ourselves together and never go out alone, shit like this is gonna happen. I don’t blame ya for not bein’ around.” She shrugged. “Still, thanks. You need help with something, let me know.”
“I’ll accept it then. Thank you, Ling Qi. It’s lovely,” Li Suyin relented as she toyed with the hairpin in her hands, staring at it intently with her uncovered eye. “Thank you very much for being my friend,” she added, her voice trembling. “I don’t think I could have stayed here after this if you hadn’t…”
As her voice choked off, Ling Qi spotted Su Ling retreating from the cave looking intensely uncomfortable. She understood why when she felt Li Suyin’s arms close around her shoulders and the girl’s tears soak into her gown. Ling Qi stiffened awkwardly as her friend hugged her and cried, not really knowing what to do beyond patting Li Suyin comfortingly on the back.
Several awkward minutes passed that way until finally, Li Suyin’s shoulders stopped shaking and her tears stopped flowing. Voice muffled by her face pressing against Ling Qi’s chest, Li Suyin vowed, “I - I won’t be weak anymore. I’m going to destroy that girl, Xu Jia, and her friends. I won’t let them get away with this.”
“I’ll help as much as you want me to,” Ling Qi replied quietly, rubbing a circle on the girl’s back. She added the name to the list of people who were going to regret crossing her, but she would let Li Suyin have this if she wanted it; in the end, this was her grudge far more than Ling Qi’s.