That night, Ling Qi continued to cultivate Eight Phase Ceremony, attempting to decipher the missing section. It remained beyond her, but she could feel the strands of starlight beginning to accumulate faster in her dantian, forming glittering veins through her more terrestrial qi.
All too soon, morning came, and with it, the time for the meeting dawned. She still had things she wanted to do this week, but hunting the condor for the sect mission she had picked up and going out with Gu Xiulan to challenge older disciples would have to wait until after the council meeting.
Ling Qi left the house with Bai Meizhen and ended up linking up with Gu Xiulan as well since she was also on her way there. Her other friend had obviously broken through to Silver given the length of the hair loosely gathered into a tail that hung down to her hips and the clear smoothness in her skin. Sparks seemed to leap in Gu Xiulan’s brown eyes, marking her ascent to greater heights of cultivation.
Ling Qi congratulated her and even Meizhen politely acknowledged Xiulan as they walked, listening with distant interest as the two of them discussed their plans to find a proper challenge. As they approached the pavilion, conversation drifted off as raised voices reached them. Ling Qi shared a worried look with a frowning Xiulan but continued forward.
When they rounded the corner, the sight they saw was more alarming still. The council stood divided. On one side stood Cai Renxiang, Gan Guangli, Xuan Shi, and Huang Da. On the other side stood Sun Liling, Lu Feng, and Kang Zihao and the two boys who had been with him at the last meeting. They were all at least in the second realm, except for one of Kang’s minions, a miserable looking boy who looked as if he dearly wished to be elsewhere.
There were two things that surprised her. One was Ji Rong, who flanked Sun Liling with crossed arms and a furious scowl. Thin red lines like tattoos burned on his neck and hands, peeking out from under his robes. The second was that Sun Liling was fully in the third realm if her senses weren’t wrong.
“Looks like the snake showed up. Thought you were gonna skip this one,” Sun Liling drawled as she caught sight of the three of them. “At least someone on this mountain is making a go of keeping up with me. Figures it’d be you.”
“Bai Meizhen, Ling Qi, Gu Xiulan,” Cai Renxiang greeted in a tight voice, not taking her eyes off Sun Liling. She wasn’t the only one to do so. Gan Guangli’s expression was thunderous, and he was already swelling in height. Huang Da wasn’t much better. “It appears that I have been far too trusting and merciful. Already, rebellion forms in our ranks.”
Sun Liling snorted. “Oh, come off it. I agreed to play your game because I figured it’d lead to some good scraps. Turns out everyone’s too spineless to even try and stand up to you. How boring is that?”
“Spoken like the rabid dog you are, daughter of Sun,” Bai Meizhen said, eyeing the scene before them with distaste. Ling Qi spotted Han Jian and Han Fang in the distance, approaching from a different path.
“Nah, I’m just keeping to the natural order of things,” Sun Liling replied with a shrug. “The strong rise to the top. And I’m thinking you’re less qualified than I thought, Cai Renxiang, if you haven’t even broken through to green or bronze yet.”
“Raw cultivation is hardly the only measure of strength,” Cai Renxiang said, the light behind her steadily growing. Ling Qi had a feeling the only reason Gan Guangli wasn’t deafening them all with angry declarations was a refusal to interrupt his lady. “I will remember this betrayal after I have defeated you, Princess.” Her hard gaze swept over the rest of Sun Liling’s group, including them all in her statement.
“I am of the West. My life belongs to the Sun family and the princess,” Lu Feng said. “My resolve won’t be shaken so easily. Besides, another chance to humiliate the buffoon beside you is welcome.”
“My apologies, Lady Cai,” Kang Zihao said, seemingly sincere for once. “I cannot ignore the obligations of my clan. That you would invite the serpent into your council is but the tipping point.”
“Man, are we done bullshitting yet? You said I’d get my shot at making that jackass eat his ugly hat,” Ji Rong grumbled at Sun Liling. “Besides, that elixir you gave me has my blood boiling. I’m gonna need to scrap soon.”
“I name you fool and savage,” Xuan Shi intoned, staring evenly at Ji Rong and Sun Liling while clutching his staff tightly in his hands. “Another taste of silence awaits you.”
“VILLAINS AND TRAITORS, ALL OF YOU!” It seemed Gan Guangli could no longer restrain himself. “To spit on Lady Cai’s generosity and disrupt her order so. Do not think you will be forgiven!”
Huang Da remained silent, his normally easy-going expression set in a scowl as he sized up Ji Rong.
Ling Qi’s fingers twitched, wishing for a weapon, and she shared a look with Bai Meizhen. Her friend looked as if she dearly wished to step in, out of sheer dislike for Sun Liling. However, it seemed that Ling Qi’s presence made her hesitate.
A bizarre thought occurred to her then. Ling Qi could probably tip things in Cai’s favor pretty heavily. Aside from Bai Meizhen, Gu Xiulan had been spoiling for a fight for weeks and would likely follow her in, which meant Han Jian and Han Fang would join battle on Cai’s side. Was joining in the best idea though? She could still easily stay out of this. That thought lasted barely a moment. Even if she had little investment in the Cai heiress’ government, her foes were Meizhen’s enemies, and wasn’t that enough?
Kang Zihao opened his mouth as if to speak again, but before a word could escape, a white streak of light flashed across the field toward the nervous boy standing at Kang Zihao’s side. The son of the imperial guard captain moved almost instantly, bringing up his gleaming silver shield to deflect the projectile. But he was a hair too slow, and rather than deflecting it entirely, the wind-guided blade sliced across his subordinate’s shoulder, drawing a thin burst of misty-blue qi.
Kang Zihao scowled at Ling Qi, who had thrown the knife, but before he could speak, Ling Qi said flatly, “Whatever you’re going to say, stow it.” Ling Qi, who had triggered her Against the Wind technique off of the first realm, felt her qi take hold of both of Kang’s minions and surprisingly, Lu Feng, wind grasping at their limbs with currents of wind. “I know where I stand,” she continued, nodding to Bai Meizhen, who gave her an unreadable look as the twisting metal ribbons of her weapon appeared in her hand. “Let’s just get to the part where we beat you down over with.”
Ling Qi thought she sounded pretty cool despite the pounding of her heart in her ears and the screaming from the more cautious part of her mind at her impulsiveness.
“Ha! It really is too bad you’re with the snake,” Sun Liling said, her features lighting with a feral grin. The princess slashed her fingers across her right forearm, drawing a spray of blood.
Then everything went mad.
Gan Guangli charged forward with a bellow of righteous fury, light blazing from his forearms as a pair of heavy iron gauntlets appeared, studded with spikes longer than Ling Qi’s knives. The gauntlets looked more like something that would be used to batter down gates than something to be worn, and the impression was only reinforced by the explosion of dust as he slammed a ham-sized fist into the ground where Lu Feng had just been standing.
Sun Liling became little more than a red blur, dark armor spreading across her limbs and torso in the time it took her to cross the distance to Cai Renxiang, her grinning face vanishing behind the toothy maw of the demonic visage that formed her helmet. Cai Renxiang’s oversized saber was torn from the ground in a spray of dirt, its sheath unraveling before Ling Qi’s eyes into a cloud of dark blue thread and exposing a similarly colored blade. It swung up to meet the thorny spear forming in Sun Liling’s hands. Ling Qi was forced back a step, throwing up her arm to shield her eyes from the shockwave that erupted from the meeting of their weapons.
“Awaken, Liming.” Cai Renxiang’s harsh voice cut through the growing cacophony, and the wings emblazoned across her chest burned with sudden light and intelligence, the patterns warping into something like bestial eyes. The sleeves of Cai Renxiang’s gown shredded apart, exposing her pale, sleekly muscled arms. Ling Qi could see the unraveled thread glittering in the air around Cai Renxiang before it gathered at her back, mingling with the blazing light she emitted, to form wings of radiance.
Even as Cai Renxiang rose into the air, the clearing shook with a thunderous gong like the great bell in a temple being struck by a battering ram. Ji Rong had reached Xuan Shi, his fists blazing like miniature suns and crackling rings of electricity forming around his ankles. His charge was stopped by a wall of stone raised with a stamp of the other boy’s foot, but it was blown apart by the power of the scarred boy’s fists. Huang Da blurred, vanishing from sight in the wave of dust and shrapnel that Ji Rong created.
“Cui.” Meizhen’s voice reached her ears, but whatever instructions given must have been silent because it was followed only by Cui springing from her perch on Meizhen’s throat and swelling rapidly in size before landing on the ground with a crash. Venom glistened on Cui’s exposed fangs. For her part, Meizhen had begun to draw on her mantle, streamers of water forming a dark hood that shadowed her face, lending her the terrible presence that Ling Qi had started to grow so used to in previous spars. Her friend’s golden eyes snapped open, burning with internal light, and Ling Qi shuddered as the very air seemed to warp and ripple with the force of her presence.
Even without having it aimed at her, Ling Qi could feel the terror that Bai Meizhen exuded, and she saw a shudder pass through Lu Feng. For Kang Zihao’s unnamed minions, it was worse. The first realm went pale as milk, a strangled scream escaping his throat as he began to rapidly back away; the other held on better, but Ling Qi could see his teeth chattering.
“Stand steady,” Kang Zihao barked, handsome face set in a severe expression. His words were backed by qi, and the air seemed to briefly shimmer in the space around him, pushing back against the growing pall of Meizhen’s presence.
Meizhen simply began to advance with steady steps, uncaring of his efforts to resist. Their impending duel was interrupted by a searing beam of flame that Kang Zihao caught on his shield, and Ling Qi looked beside her to see Gu Xiulan grinning like a madwoman, the air around her rippling with heat while sparks danced around her fingers.
Individual actions became harder to track after that as Ling Qi focused on playing the Melody of the Vale, mist rolling out in a cloying wave from her flute and deadening slightly the sounds of battle. The cost of including so many allies was sharp, but she thought it worth it, particularly as she felt her qi latch onto Lu Feng, muddling his senses.
Everything felt slightly unreal to Ling Qi. Her previous battles had never seemed quite so… beyond human in scope. Sun Liling, now fully encased in demonic red armor with a triumvirate of fanged faces on her helm, wielded her spear with impossible skill. Another pair of skeletal arms formed on her shoulders, already wielding vicious, jagged-edged blades that clashed with what seemed like a living star. Cai Renxiang was barely even visible within her corona of light save as a vague, winged figure unleashing scorching arcs of burning light with every sweep of the dark blade in her hands. She flitted through the sky, shockwaves erupting each time she fell upon Sun Liling like a meteor.
Sun Liling’s voice snapped out something garbled in a language Ling Qi didn’t understand, and bloody mist streamed from her back, solidifying into the tall and willowy form of a beautiful bronze-skinned woman in scant, red silk scarves and nothing else. Ling Qi felt qi begin to exude from the captivating form of the spirit and her mist shimmered, growing warm around the woman as flowers began to bloom at her feet.
It was an oddly captivating scene, and for a moment, Ling Qi found herself with the urge to step forward and lie among the flowers… until Cui struck, sinking venomous fangs into the creature’s thigh. Then spirit’s eyes burned red, and its beautiful face twisted in a rictus of bloodthirsty fury, cheeks and lips coming apart and exposing sinewy muscle and inch long glistening fangs. It roared and hurled Cui away, uncaring for the spray of blood as it tore the serpent’s fangs free.
Ling Qi no longer had the luxury to observe when Kang Zihao charged toward the three of them, earth cracking beneath him as metallic coloring flowed across his skin. Behind him was a great white hound with an iron collar. Kang Zihao engaged Meizhen with a shout even as the hound dashed past, blazing fast, to leap at Ling Qi, seemingly unimpeded by the mist.
Ling Qi twisted out of the beast’s path, dancing away into the mists and leaving the hound behind. Kang’s slightly recovered minions threw out their hands, having finished a chant of some kind, and scattered what looked like small clay tiles with glowing characters carved upon them.
Ling Qi flinched as the pulse of qi washed over her but threw it off before it could take hold, only stumbling for a brief second as the weight of her limbs seemed to quadruple. Xiulan grimaced and stumbled as well, throwing off her aim as she attempted to burn the hound that had just attacked Ling Qi. Out of the corner of her eyes, Ling Qi saw Huang Da go flying like a ragdoll as one of Ji Rong’s fists slammed home on his chest.
Then, both of Kang’s minions went flying as well when thunder boomed across the battlefield, a crater appearing where they had stood. Han Fang’s muscular frame was emerging from the dust before the dust was whipped up into a spinning cone and slammed into the stronger of the two minions at the direction of Han Jian’s sword. Kang’s minion screamed as the scouring wind shredded his robes and tore at his skin.
Ling Qi drew her bow to help put down Kang Zihao’s spirit beast. It seemed to her that Kang Zihao’s intent was simply to prevent Meizhen from engaging anyone else with the defensive manner he fought, hunkered down behind his shield and focused entirely on avoiding Meizhen’s furiously hissing metal ribbons. All around him, the air seemed to warp weirdly, and Bai Meizhen grimaced as she found herself drawn back toward Kang by an invisible force whenever she tried to disengage. Kang's face grew paler each time Meizhen made the attempt though.
“Red Thorn Death Flight.”
Ling Qi looked up at the sound of Sun Liling’s distorted voice to see the girl floating in midair, well above her mist. The extra limbs she had grown had solidified fully, with muscle and armor appearing over the initial bone. Sun Liling flung her spear downward, and it exploded into a hundred blazing streaks of bloody light. Then, Ling Qi could only dodge and desperately flare her qi to initiate her Gale Shield technique, blasting out a circle of wind to deflect the deadly rain.
Ling Qi screamed as several of the jagged blood shards tore right through her spinning winds, slicing across her limbs and in one case, embedding itself in her shoulder. The wounds burned painfully, and she could see smoke rising from her cuts as the skin around them blackened and burned.
The technique had rained down on the entire battlefield and blown away her mist, revealing the battlefield in its entirety. Bai Meizhen still battled furiously with an increasingly battered Kang Zihao, although she now bled from several wounds. Gu Xiulan’s right arm hung limply from her shoulder and she bled freely as well, now desperately retreating from Kang’s advancing hound.
Further back, neither of Kang’s minions still stood, and Han Jian was unharmed but at cost. Han Fang slumped down in from of him, arms which had been held out collapsing to his sides as he fell to his knees, bleeding from a dozen wounds. Han Jian’s normally relaxed expression was set in fury as he scowled up at the figures in the sky.
The brawl between Ji Rong and the other two boys was in its late stages as well. Huang Da struggled to his feet, his chin stained with blood as he clutched his ribs. Ji Rong was hardly in better shape, letting out panting breaths like a winded bull even as steam began to rise from the tattoos on his flesh. His left arm was frozen stiff and unmoving. Xuan Shi looked unscathed as the dome of rock around him crumbled, but Ling Qi thought his qi seemed to be quite depleted.
Gan Guangli stood bloodied but unbowed, nearing four meters in height. Lu Feng lay at the bottom of a meter deep crater at his feet.
Meanwhile, the struggle between Cui and Liling’s spirit continued unabated. Cui hissed and thrashed furiously as the thing tore at her scales with claws of jagged wood, and bloody flowers bloomed around them. Liling’s spirit had only grown more hideous, bone and sinew exposed as flesh sloughed off under the assault of Cui’s venom.
Ling Qi’s eyes were torn from the battlefield when a blazing ray of light slammed down on the descending figure of Sun Liling, blasting her into the ground. A molten crater was burned into the pavilion floor as the armored girl was driven into the foundation by the force of the beam. Cai Renxiang’s light had faded since the start of the fight, enough to see the girl. She was pale and winded, strain showing in the set of her jaw and unnatural exhaustion in the trembling of her limbs.
Sun Liling’s laughter preceded her leap from the glowing crater, and she landed on the pavilion’s crumbling roof. “Ha! I guess your mother knows what she’s doing after all.” Sun Liling’s armor was charred and cracked. One of her extra limbs had broken off, and a chunk of the helmet was missing, exposing the feral grin still on her face. “That thing you’re wearing is ridiculous.”
“You have little room to speak, Princess Sun,” the heiress replied stiffly, the wings of light on her back flaring as she stilled the trembling in her limbs. The lower part of the gown had begun to unravel, revealing knee-high boots. “Yield. Your side of this conflict is crumbling around you.”
Ling Qi thought that might be an optimistic assessment, but on second thought, even with the destruction Sun Liling had rained down, her side was losing. Kang could only hold against Meizhen for so long, and she was fairly confident Xuan Shi and Huang Da could handle the increasingly unsteady Ji Rong.
“As if I’d end such a good fight before it’s even over,” the redhead rejected. “This is doing just fine at settling my foundations, Cai. Come at me!”
Ling Qi grimaced. It might not be the wisest course of action, but Ling Qi did not care. Gu Xiulan was hurt badly, and she would be damned before she let Kang’s mutt maul her. Ignoring the renewed sounds of battle and Gan Guangli’s roar, she spun toward Xiulan, nocking an arrow. The wind around her spiraled inward, howling as it condensed around her arrow, and a crackling electrical current sparked on the iron arrowhead.
Ling Qi felt a rush of dark satisfaction as the arrow screamed from her bow and plunged into the dog’s side, puncturing through its shielding qi and its metallic white fur. She bared her teeth in a vicious expression at the dog’s yelp of pain.
“Do not falter! CRUSH THESE REBELS!” A voice she barely recognized as Han Jian’s echoed across the battlefield, cutting through the noise along with a sudden blaze of golden light. Han Jian stood over his unconscious cousin, black stripes tracing themselves on his face and hands while a golden banner of light formed behind him. This wasn’t a technique she had ever seen him use before. Ling Qi felt the pain of her wounds fading, and a rush of confidence and drive burned in her veins and set her heart pounding.
She wasn’t the only one to feel so either. Gu Xiulan straightened, regaining her agility just in time to dodge the hound’s attack. Fires bloomed on her fingertips, and a trio of curving white hot lances burst out, two twisting to cut off the hound’s avenues of escape and the third carving a blackened line of burned flesh across its shoulder.
Another shockwave struck then. She glimpsed Gan Guangli falling back, his footsteps shaking the earth, when Sun Liling’s spike-heeled boots crashed into his cheek, snapping his head to the side violently. The laughing redhead used the massive boy’s face as a springboard to launch herself up at Cai Renxiang.
In the other battle, Ji Rong was screaming, his tattoos blazing brightly as whatever effect had bound his arm shattered. He was immediately wreathed in a halo of lightning, his hair spiked and on end. Ji Rong launched himself fist first at Xuan Shi, whose ringed staff rang like a struck bell when Ji Rong punched the black barrier of pure qi it raised.
She could not spare much attention to Meizhen, but she could tell the girl was growing ever more infuriated with her opponent. It occurred to her that many of Bai Meizhen’s techniques seemed to function best in response to an attack, something that Kang had not given Meizhen the opportunity to exploit. Ling Qi supposed it likely that Meizhen was also trying not to expend too much qi in taking down Kang given that she’d likely be moving on to fight Sun Liling next.
Ling Qi drew back her bowstring, circling Meizhen’s fight so that when the dog went down, she would have a clear shot at Kang Zihao. This time though, she had nothing to show for it. Her arrow glanced off the hound’s metallic fur, doing little but ripping a patch of hair free.
The dog lunged at Gu Xiulan, and Xiulan screamed as its jaws closed on her lower leg with a painful crunch. Even as the hound knocked her from her feet with a vicious twist of its head though, fire bloomed in Xiulan’s hands, and a half dozen lashes of blue-white fire scoured the spirit beast’s hide, finally causing the thing to whimper and collapse, its grip on her leg loosening.
The battle with Sun Liling appeared to be going slightly better. Gan Guangli, joined by Han Jian, harried her movements. Sun Liling was forced to dodge the falling boulders that Gan Guangli’s fists had become. Han Jian circled her, the flicker of afterimages in his wake, and he prodded her defenses with careful strikes while Cai Renxiang rained down destructive beams.
It was not to last though. As Sun Liling ducked under an arc of destructive light, the butt of her spear swung around in a red blur, slamming once then twice across Han Jian’s face. The first blow staggered the boy, and the second sent him flying to slam into the stone foundations of the pavilion with a crack.
“Enough screwing around!” The redhead launched herself away from her foes, landing a dozen meters away.Ling Qi felt a surge of unease as Sun Liling gabbled something unintelligible and was answered by tinkling peals of laughter from her spirit, which seemed little more than a bloody, spike-studded skeleton of wood at this point.
The feeling of dread grew when she saw the thing, Cui’s fang’s buried in its throat, explode into a blizzard of yellow flower petals. Ling Qi winced as she heard Cui’s voice scream in her thoughts, but even that was overshadowed by the riot of color that erupted. Flowers twisted and erupted from the ground, rising and blooming into bright yellow flowers atop stalks nearly a meter tall. The qi on the battlefield began to drain into the flowers, visible as motes of light.
Her attention was drawn back to her side of the battlefield though as another scream rang out. Kang Zihao’s shield had been torn from his hand, and Bai Meizhen’s pale hand was wrapped around his throat. He thrashed in her grip, weapon forgotten and dropping from nerveless fingers, and his veins stood out as red lines on his skin. Meizhen flung the screaming boy aside.
“Destroy those things now!” Meizhen’s icy voice cracked across the battlefield.
Sun Liling slammed into Cai Renxiang like a red comet and smashed the glowing heiress to the earth. Ling Qi could see Sun Liling’s armor repairing itself and what wounds she had closing visibly before her eyes. Gan Guangli barreled into her from behind like a runaway cart, forcing Sun Liling away from his lady.
Ling Qi wavered briefly, unsure of what to do, but then rushed forward, dropping her bow to draw her flute. She summoned her mist and constructs of dissonance, engulfing the sunflowers in mist. In the distance, Sun Liling let out a cry of irritation.
Fire bloomed, and she saw Gu Xiulan rising to one knee and raising her hands above her head, gathering a churning orb of flames wider than her shoulders. Bai Meizhen’s mantle of dark water exploded outward, cutting a swathe through the flowers like a pressurized hose and sending up a spray of mud as it dug them out by the roots.
She spotted Cai rising to her feet unsteadily from the trench her body had dug into the ground, a grimace on her face as the wings on her back flickered and stuttered in and out of existence, sending strobes of light across the battlefield, even as she reengaged Sun Liling, driving her away from the flowers.
As Ling Qi’s fingers danced over her flute, a thought occurred to her. If the flowers were absorbing qi… She shifted her tune to Starlight Elegy, the song growing mournful and dirge-like. She felt satisfaction as the flowers’ qi gathering slowed to a trickle, even as Gu Xiulan’s fireball carved a wide circle of destruction in the flowers that remained outside of her mist.
Then a crimson blur tore through her mist, scattering it, and Ling Qi desperately ducked beneath a blur of blood-red metal she could barely see. Her eyes widened as she realized that Sun Liling had come straight after her. Ling Qi could only fall back, frantically dodging attacks that seemingly came from impossible angles. The twin swords in the girl’s extra arms hemmed her in and reduced her options. She ducked and weaved in an attempt to avoid the thorny point of the demonic figure’s spear, but it was in vain. She had an instant to feel regret when she dodged in the wrong direction and saw the incoming red blur.
Pain lanced through her stomach as the barbed spear slammed into and through her abdomen. Burning agony from the Crimson Princess’ corrosive blood overwhelmed her. Darkness.