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Ling Qi had fun shopping about with Xiulan, and by the time they arrived at the meeting point, she was actually considering wearing her hair loose for awhile, perhaps just gathered in a tail with braids on either side of her face. She had seen a few ornaments she liked, and there were oils for keeping even her rebellious locks relatively straight. It hardly occurred to her to wonder just how badly Xiulan had corrupted her. 

They arrived at the meeting point together to find Gan Guangli, Han Jian, and four others she did not recognize already present. It seemed Cai Renxiang wasn’t taking any chances of failure.

“Greetings, Miss Ling and Miss Gu!” Gan Guangli said boisterously as the two of them entered the camp, cheerfully waving an armored fist.

“Ling Qi, Gu Xiulan,” Han Jian greeted more quietly. “I see Lady Cai made good on her promise.” He wore a new outfit as well with a breastplate, vambraces, and greaves of pale, nearly white, metal over darker gold cloth, marked by tiger-like stripes. The lightly armored outfit was fit for an officer’s formal wear. 

“Of course,” Gan boomed. “You look resplendent, Miss Ling. Armed as we are, we cannot fail to punish the villain.”

Xiulan shot her a smirk, and Ling Qi coughed into her hand. “Yes, well, what is our plan exactly? I know the intent is to catch him on his way back from the wolves’ territory, but…”

“We’ve discovered the cave where Kang Zihao has holed up,” Han Jian interceded smoothly. “Step one is to have these four fan out with their talismans to set up the field preventing the use of transportation techniques.” He gestured to the four first realm cultivators.

“A vital task,” Gan Guangli said grimly, “else the villain might simply use an escape talisman to flee. However, it shall be up to the five of us to ensure he is captured swiftly.”

“Five?” Ling Qi asked, glancing around. “Is Han Fang here too?”

“He’s around,” Han Jian said with a smile. “In any case, we would like you and Xiulan to hang back while Gan and I go to confront him and give him a chance to surrender.”

“Should we really be doing that at all?” Ling Qi asked with a frown. “Why not just rush in while he’s unready?”

“It would reflect poorly on us.” Surprisingly, Gan Guangli was the one to answer in an unusually level and serious tone. “Those who would keep order cannot appear as villains, or there will only be further chaos.”

“In that case, are we not using too much force? Even if he has achieved a partial breakthrough since we have seen him last, it does seem a tad dishonorable,” Gu Xiulan mused.

“Ah, but because we are being honorable, we must make sure our force is sufficient to his potential threat. Of us, only Sir Han has a spirit beast fit for battle. We must assume that Kang Zihao has acquired the aid of least one additional spirit, if not more.” Gan Guangli broke into a wide grin then and resumed his usual booming tone. “And we cannot allow the miscreant to defeat Lady Cai’s justice!”

“True enough,” Gu Xiulan replied with a dismissive wave. “I shall enjoy teaching that cur of his a lesson.”

“I’m sure,” Han Jian said dryly. “In any case, while Gan and I take the front line, Ling Qi, we’d like you to focus on hindering his movements with your mist. The talismans won’t stop him from running, and he is faster than us. Xiulan is our fire support obviously. Han Fang will be supporting us as needed.”

“Not going to lay out some complex strategy?” Ling Qi teased.

“A simple plan is one not easily disrupted by the flow of battle,” Han Jian said wryly.

“Indeed. If one weaves too many plots, they will only tangle their own feet,” Gan Guangli agreed, clapping Han Jian on the back. The shorter boy hid his wince well.

They planned a bit longer, working out the details of their positioning and synergies, but soon, the strategizing was done and they set off. The cave Kang Zihao had taken as his hideout was a short distance from the mountain proper, nestled amongst the rolling foothills that extended to the south.

Hiding among the leaves of a nearby tree brought back memories of lurking in alleys and under awnings, waiting for a favorable mark. The inky black silk of her new dress seemed to bleed into the shadows at the edges, breaking up her profile further. But it still felt awkward to be wearing such an expensive dress out in the woods, no matter how useful it was.

Thankfully, Ling Qi did not have to spend too long in contemplation of the fact that she was wearing something worth more than a house. She kept her eyes fixed on the cave entrance, a wide crack in the hillside large enough for two men to pass through shoulder to shoulder. As Han Jian and Gan Guangli approached, making no effort to conceal themselves, she carefully raised her flute to her lips, preparing to play the Melody of the Forgotten Vale.

“KANG ZIHAO!” Gan Guangli bellowed as they came to a halt at the entrance of the cave. “Show yourself and face justice for your betrayal!” 

Ling Qi grimaced as a veritable storm of birds took flight at the noise. Gan Guangli really did have quite a set of lungs. Still, she remained tense. The darkness of the cave did not block her vision so she would see Kang ZIhao before the others if he came out swinging. 

However, after a tense moment while the echoes of Gan Guangli’s shouting faded, she spied a white clothed figure coming around the turn at the back of the tunnel. Kang Zihao emerged, not with weapons drawn, but with his head held high and his hands raised for peace. 

“It has come to this then?” the handsome boy asked sorrowfully as he halted just inside the entrance. “Are we to continue this charade about a childish squabble being a matter of betrayal?”

“It is no such thing,” Gan Guangli rumbled, looming ominously.

“Yeah, one way or another, I get what the Sect is doing,” Han Jian said. “We’re learning the lesson of what chaos gets us. And your bunch broke their word for what? The laughs?”

“You are the ones seeking lessons where there are none. Is the Sect not a place to work out youthful enthusiasm? To test one’s limits? We have fought. Now we have lost and paid our dues. It is you who are acting the bully, seeking me out in numbers when I have sought only peace for cultivation.”

Ling Qi frowned. He wasn’t wrong, but did it matter? It wasn’t like Sun Liling’s forces weren’t going to strike back, right?

“Do not play the fool,” Gan Guangli retorted angrily. “You are gathering forces for your counterattack. Are we to believe that you will ignore the plight of your allies and the shame of defeat?”

“Come now. Cease with your inflation of my threat. So a few people have lost their goods to your… canny operations. That is hardly reason for grudge; it is just the Sect working as intended. As to your other accusation? I am building my strength, as is my right,” Kang Zihao scoffed. “Lady Cai is taking her game too far.”

“... It’s not just a game. The chaos and uncertainty is hurting everyone,” Han Jian stated evenly. “And the fact that you so easily dismiss the losses of those you supposedly lead says it all. So much for pride and honor.”

Kang Zihao’s noble mien cracked as he shot a venomous look at Han Jian. “I will not be lectured on pride by a dustdigger of the Golden Fields! What right do you have to demand my surrender, to punish me?”

“The right of justice,” Gan Guangli answered, his booming voice echoing down the tunnel. “Our cause is just, and our order will benefit the disciples of the Outer Sect. Need there be another reason?”

Ling Qi saw the moment when Kang gave up on words. His eyes narrowed, his muscles clenched, and a blur of silver appeared, resolving into a gleaming shield as he rushed forward, seeking to break out of the encirclement through Han Jian. Ling Qi smiled and called her mist and its hungry phantoms. Bluebell flames bloomed in the woods to her right, and she caught the silhouette of a tall, bald figure leaping down from the hill above.

It wasn’t a very long fight.

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