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“I don’t get it,” Ling Qi said bluntly, relaxing her stance fractionally. She wouldn’t bolt immediately because something was off here. She wanted to check up on her friends, particularly Meizhen and Xiulan, but she wouldn’t help anyone by being reckless. “This whole scenario makes no sense. If you didn’t want me to interfere, why approach close enough to be sensed at all? If you’ve been keeping an eye on me, you must know that I would have been cultivating for at least another hour.”

“Really?” the taller girl asked in a not particularly convincing tone. “Well, I screwed up then, didn’t I?” She idly toyed with the bone clasp at the bottom of one of her braids. “I guess I should have been more thorough in my scouting.”

Ling Qi frowned at her. “If you’re going to treat me like I’m an idiot, we don’t have anything to talk about. How did you know about this place anyway? If you did something to Su Ling or Li Suyin…” She trailed off, staring the other girl down. She wasn’t sure what she would do, but she would make the other girl regret it.

“That’s a pretty good expression you have there,” Chu Song said lightly. “But nah, it’s not that hard to figure out, if you already know where the vents are. Not much other reason to come to this part of the mountain.”

Right. Older disciples lost access to trial sites and other things meant for first years.

“So, why then? Why alert me when I would have missed all this on my own?”

“Who says it’s started already? Or that it isn’t already over?” Chu Song asked absently, leaning back against the trunk of a tree. Apparently, she was satisfied that Ling Qi wouldn’t be running off immediately. “That would be awful convenient, wouldn’t it? If you detected me right as things were kicking off?”

Ling Qi crossed her arms, slipping her knife back into storage. Her flute remained in hand though. She hadn’t managed to detect anyone else yet, and the other two were maintaining position.

“So what’s the point then?” She may be jumping to a conclusion, but she had no doubt that things would be kicking off soon, if they hadn’t already started.

“I guess it'd be rude to keep deflecting you, huh?” Chu Song laughed. “Fine. I want you to stop supporting that Cai. It’d be pretty great if you could persuade MIss Bai or your other friends to do the same,” she continued, spreading her arms. “That blunt enough for you?”

“I kind of doubt Bai Meizhen would be interested in siding with Sun Liling,” Ling Qi said dryly. “That’s kind of a non starter, isn’t it?" She maintained her stance, even as she picked up another presence. A passing spirit beast in the woods? No, the movement was too regular.

“Nah, you’re not getting it.” Chu Song waved her hand irritably. “Don’t be so conceited, Junior Sister. Those two might be strong, but the rest of us aren’t exactly useless, even if you and your friend have been knocking around the pinheads of my year. There are a couple others worth noting that are still interested in advancing - or at least not rolling over for Cai.”

“Still not hearing much in the way of benefit there honestly,” Ling Qi said dubiously. The ridge on her right was the best route for escape in her opinion. If she activated her gown’s flight and her movement art, she could rush to the top and run from there, using flight to glide down when she had a chance. “You might say that, but abandoning Cai Renxiang might as well be supporting Sun Liling. The rest of you never interfered before.”

“I couldn’t convince the others to care when it was just the first years squabbling,” Chu Song replied, furrowing her brows. “Now Cai’s messing with them too. I don’t believe it’s a coincidence that right after that slimy little sneak Fu Xiang joined up with her, Hei Boqin and Wen Ai started acting like we should just let her do what she wants.”

Ling Qi didn’t so much as twitch at the mention of Wen Ai. It looked like her little escapade was already having effects.

“Fine. So what are you trying to say - that you’ll offer protection instead of Cai Renxiang then? I don’t even know you. All I hear is a way to let Sun Liling rampage as she likes.”

“I don’t exactly like the princess either,” Chu Song said sourly. “It may be the little dumbass’s own fault for listening, but the fact remains that she’s stringing my lil’ bro Rong along. Cai’s the bigger threat though. What she’s trying to build… It’s against the spirit of the Sect. I just want you and the rest of your friends to distance your ties. Stop working for the damn demon like she’s your liege lord. Be allied if you want, but don’t obey her and let her grow out of control.”

Ling Qi studied the taller girl’s expression carefully. It seemed that she was at least a little short-tempered. Ling Qi would have to be a little cautious in her responses.

“We already do that,” Ling Qi began. “It’s not like we swore or-”

Ling Qi tensed, her flute nearly rising to her lips as a thunderous splintering interrupted her words. She watched warily as the tree to the muscular girl’s right fell backwards, crashing into branches and underbrush, the portion of the trunk that Chu Song had struck pulverized to splinters.

“You are, whether you admit it or not,” Chu Song said lowly. “You’re wearing that gown and that band, backing up her thugs with your presence. You go along with her goon squad to suppress others and take sites. You were ready to rush off and help her fight Sun Liling. Don’t tell me you weren’t - before your good sense kicked in,” she accused. “At least talk to that Bai friend of yours. Someone like her shouldn’t be subordinate to someone else. The same for that Han guy. Any other year and they’d both be the heads of their own groups. The last thing the Sect needs is to go the way of the province.”

“... This isn’t about Cai Renxiang, is it?” Ling Qi guessed shrewdly as she backed up a step, carefully avoiding any indication that she was going to flee. “Not really.”

Chu Song blew out a calming breath before meeting Ling Qi’s eyes once again. “A demon spawn is still a demon,” she said bluntly. “It’s pretty damn clear that she’s following the same path as her mother, even if she doesn’t have the power to do as she wants yet. No other dukes of Emerald Seas have ruled the way the Cai do. It’s not right.” Chu Song’s words were full of absolute conviction.

Ling Qi was silent as she mulled over Chu Song’s words. “Say I believe you. I still don’t want Sun Liling running rampant. Bai Meizhen is my friend, and in the end, that makes that girl my enemy. Why should I just let her plan go off without a hitch?”

Chu Song held her gaze before shrugging her broad shoulders. “The girl isn’t stupid. Maybe impulsive - but not stupid. She’s not gonna rampage. What do you do when your allies are routed and scattered?”

Ling Qi blinked at the question. “You regroup and recover.”

“Right. And if you know that, do you think a girl raised on the Butcher’s knee doesn’t?” Chu Song laughed. “She’s busting out Kang Zihao and rallying people. At this point, it’s all about bloodying the demon’s nose and proving that she’s not invincible. I might not like the princess, but she’s just staking out her independence, not trying to conquer the Sect. So for now, we’re allies,” she said with satisfaction. “And that’s how it should be. No disciple has the right to try and play Elder, just like no lord has the right to play Emperor.”

Ling Qi could see the other girl’s point, but she wasn’t certain she agreed with it. Even if she did, she wasn’t sure she would care to oppose Cai Renxiang regardless, not when she was the one benefiting from the girl’s ‘misdeeds’. In the end, did she really care to allow a threat to herself and her friends build itself back up in the name of some nebulous power balance? Was allowing Cai her absolute authority a bad thing if Ling Qi and her friends were positioned to be advantaged by it?

“I’ve heard you, but I hope you aren’t expecting a decision right now. I won’t just go off on my own. What happens now?”

“Well, now we wait…” Chu Song began, only to twitch as an odd ripple passed through the air, followed by a sensation like a net being torn. Ling Qi’s eyes widened as she felt three familiar sensations. Bai Meizhen, Li Suyin, and Su Ling’s qi all blazed at the edge of her senses, approaching rapidly from the forest side of the vent.

“Never mind then,” Chu Song said sourly. “Let me turn the question back around on you. What now?” she asked while spreading her hands wide. “I gave my word. So are we going to fight or will you ask your friends to stand down?”

"I don't like being threatened," Ling Qi said quietly. "And whatever you say, that is what you were doing."

"That's fair," the tall girl agreed, her irritation seeming to fade, replaced by excitement. "I guess I won't blame you if you want to sock me in the jaw a couple times."

Ling Qi frowned. Her position had just gotten more advantageous, but it was hardly weighted entirely in her favor either. Chu Song’s allies were approaching in a hurry. Cui was still out of commission while Chu Song presumably had a spirit beast, and the two below probably had at least one between them too, if the presence she had felt earlier in the woods was any indication. However, now that they were getting closer, she could tell that Chu Song’s allies were only second realms. But Su Ling and Li Suyin also were not exactly the most combat-capable friends she had either.

Ling Qi’s grasp on her flute tightened as she met Chu Song’s gaze.

“It isn’t my choice alone, is it?” she responded, even as she prepared herself for the fight to come in contradiction to her words. “It wouldn’t be fair for me to drag Bai Meizhen into a fight without her knowledge.” She strongly doubted that Meizhen would respond to this in any other way, but every second she bought talking was one more that she wouldn’t spend fighting alone.

Given the brief frown that crossed the taller girl’s face, Chu Song also knew that, but she couldn’t really attack without losing face given her previous words. For some, that might not matter with the lack of witnesses, but Chu Song seemed to actually care about that kind of thing to an extent. It didn’t stop a weapon, a great slab of iron and inlaid jade longer than she was tall, from appearing in her hand.

“I guess we’ll see then,” the girl said lightly as she heaved the weapon onto her shoulder and leapt away from the treeline, putting her back to the ridge.

Ling Qi kept a wary eye on Chu Song and backed up herself, putting the distance between them at thirty or so meters as the qi signatures of both her friends and Chu Song’s allies rapidly approached.

For whatever reason, the two groups arrived at nearly the same moment. A dark blur from the treeline resolved itself into the form of Meizhen, who wore a severe expression and an already churning mantle of black water around her shoulders. She seemed to slightly relax at the sight of Ling Qi standing unharmed, but her golden eyes narrowed when they fell on Chu Song.

Su Ling and Li Suyin arrived next, lingering at the treeline. Li Suyin was a bit paler than she remembered and still wore the clothing of a Medicine Hall assistant, including a thick leather apron stained with strange colors and what looked to be blood. She glanced between Ling Qi and Chu Song, looking alarmed but determined.

Su Ling, on the other hand, looked outright disheveled, her clothing out of place and her hair tangled and messy. She had dark circles under her eyes, but the most noticeable change in her friend was the second black furred tail swishing through the air behind her. Strangely, it looked pretty ragged, missing chunks of fur and matted with dried blood. Had Su Ling gotten into a fight before this?

Now that they were close enough, she could feel that Su Ling had broken through to the second realm. Li Suyin remained at the peak of the first realm in physique, but surprisingly, she had risen to the middle of the second in spirit.

Chu Song’s companions arrived a moment later, blurring to her side and resolving into a girl and a boy of similar age and visage, lightly armored but armed with large weapons. The boy held a heavy war axe in his hands as he glanced to Chu Song for instruction, and the girl interposed herself between the two groups, a guandao clutched in both hands and held in a guard position. The two of them were in the late stages of the second realm in physique, but the girl was only at the middle stage in spirit.

“What is the meaning of this?” Meizhen asked, a dangerous edge to her voice, made more threatening by the metallic hiss of the rustling metal ribbons of the blade in her hand. Her gaze shifted briefly to Ling Qi, an obvious question in her eyes.

“I am fine,” she reassured her friend, gladdened by the girl’s concern. Even if things were rough between them right now, it seemed that Meizhen still had her back when it counted. “But,” she continued, giving the group opposite them a scowl, “while she was pleasant about it, the fact remains that Miss Chu decided she was going to keep me temporarily confined here. It seems Sun is making trouble again, and she wants Lady Cai weakened.”

“I see,” Bai Meizhen replied icily as the grass at her feet withered and died. Her other friends gave each other a worried glance even as they circled closer. Li Suyin was grasping something tightly in her hand, an off white jade orb five or six centimeters across. "That would explain the violence occurring below," she added clinically.

“Don’t make it sound worse than it is,” Chu Song said, even as the girl standing in front of her visibly swallowed, sweat beading her brow under the force of Meizhen’s aura and gaze. “We just had a little chat about the state of the Sect,” she continued, not quailing at all under the pale girl’s gaze. “I admit, I did give my word that I would do everything I reasonably could to stop her from leaving for the next two hours though.”

“And do you wish to stay here that long, Ling Qi?” Bai Meizhen asked, not taking her eyes off of Chu Song’s.

“No. I don’t like being threatened and letting Sun Liling run around unchecked seems like a good way to get our house wrecked again, doesn’t it?” Ling Qi said flippantly. She was still nervous though, and Zhengui’s confusion and alarm scratching at the back of her thoughts didn’t help matters. She glanced to Su Ling and Li Suyin for approval as well.

“I didn’t come here expecting a tea party,” Su Ling said flatly, answering the unasked question as she fell in behind and to the right of Ling Qi.

“Neither did I,” Li Suyin added quietly, taking up the opposite position to the left. “I owe you too much for that.”

“Song…” The dark haired boy beside Chu Song glanced at the taller girl questioningly.

Chu Song just laughed though. “Well, I guess that’s that. Let’s exchange some pointers then.”

Chaos came next, a flurry of motion from both sides that could hardly be tracked by the mortal eye. Ling Qi was growing acclimated to such speed, and the fast pace of cultivator combat was no longer quite so overwhelming. Yet for the first time, she found herself outsped as Chu Song let out a roar of a battlecry and swung the massive greatsword on her shoulder in a wide arc, the huge slab of metal passing inches over the head of her own ally.

A wall of wind slammed into them, and Ling Qi nearly stumbled, the gale yanking violently at her clothes but the sharper gusts only slashed uselessly at the reinforced silk of her Cai-gifted robe. Meizhen stood strong and unmoved, her long white hair fanning out in a curtain behind her. Ling Qi heard Su Ling grunt in pain and Li Suyin cry out as she was pushed back, but she had no time to look to them as her watering eyes caught a silver flash in the dust kicked up by the wind. Meizhen suddenly dodged to the side as a thin, narrow blade clove through the air, only to go spinning off with an odd clang as the mantle of black water about her shoulders slapped it aside with a whitecapped lash.

Chu had a flying sword as well it seemed, Ling Qi thought as she raised her flute to her lips, options running through her head. With the cultivation disadvantage most of her group faced, she would be best suited to support others in this fight so she needed to raise her mist, quickly followed by triggering her new defensive arts. She began to play the first haunting notes of the Forgotten Vale, and mist billowed from every hole and seam in her flute, already darkening with the claws and fangs of hungry phantoms.

Yet that did not deter their enemies. The boy’s qi flared as he leaped forward, launching himself at Ling Qi, war axe shrouded in crackling lighting. She rolled to the side, avoiding him, only for her eyes to widen in alarm as a deep, bellowing roar shook the battlefield and what could only be Chu’s spirit appeared, already barreling toward her.

It was a huge, third grade bear with fur the color of burnished steel, nearly twice her height at the shoulder, and it was only her quick reaction that allowed her to become as shadow and flit over its charge, forced into an awkward flip that used the beast’s own back as a springboard. Her fingers came away bloody from the bear’s metallic fur.

Another glance as she landed took in the battlefield. The girl with the guando had locked herself into combat with Meizhen. Sweat and shivering showing the effect of Meizhen’s aura on her, and the ground around them had depressed, dead grass crushed and ground cratered inward. Through her awareness of the mist, Ling Qi could feel the unnatural sense of ‘weight’ in a meters wide dome around them.

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Su Ling’s lips draw back in a sharp-toothed snarl as she drew her blade across the palm of her other hand and felt the expanding qi as Su Ling flicked her wounded hand, scattering droplets of blood in an unnaturally wide arc. Bright colors, music, and a feeling of lethargy brushed the edge of her senses like the memory of a dream while brightly burning foxfire flared to life over the girl’s shoulder.

In the midst of her clash with Meizhen’s whipping blades, the guandao-wielding girl stumbled, and that was all Meizhen needed. Ribbons of metal lashed out, whipping through the girl’s lowered guard to rip bloody lines across her shoulder and chest, shredding her gown and leaving cruel gashes that wept blood. Even as the girl tried to recover, a much larger arc of silver flashed out, escaping the weighted dome and forcing Chu Song to dodge the arc of Meizhen’s own flying sword.

Ling Qi heard a sound like breaking glass and an enraged roar erupted from Chu’s spirit beast. Li Suyin had flung the sphere in her hand at the ground in front of the charging behemoth, and it had exploded violently, leaving the beast shrouded and bogged down with something Ling Qi recognized all too well, a truly massive amount of sticky spider silk made all the worse by the dozens of hand sized black furred spiders swarming out of it to harass and bite the beast, seemingly uncaring of its sharp-edged fur. The bear reared up, shaking itself violently as it swatted and snapped at the growing carpet of arachnid aggressors assaulting it.

Her focus was quickly forced to return to her own opponent though as the axe-wielding boy came back around for another attack. Ling Qi barely had time to stamp her foot and let her qi pulse outward, granting her friends the strength of her Deepwood Vitality technique. It was a good thing she did because the ground where Meizhen stood exploded violently as Chu Song’s blade came down, splitting the earth in twain and buffeting Meizhen with sharp wind, the veil of emerald qi Ling Qi had thrown up over her allies flared, absorbing the force of the blow.

It proved a good choice for herself as well. When she skipped backwards out of the reach of the axe, she was buffeted by a deafening blast of sound that left her ears ringing and hit her in the chest like a giant’s fist. The temporary vitality she had created for herself took the worst of it, but she could still feel a massive bruise forming.

The boy failed to follow up though as his eyes grew unfocused, and the red eyed phantoms that stalked her mist punished him, clawing and biting at his limbs. He quickly shook himself like a dog throwing off water, but it gave her time to gain distance. More importantly, it distracted him long enough for Li Suyin’s exploding needles to pepper him like a chain of firecrackers, further obscuring his vision and throwing him off-balance.

A quick glance back showed that both Su Ling and Li Suyin had distanced themselves from the enraged bear. Surprisingly, Li Suyin had scrambled straight up the sheer ridge behind them, seemingly without trouble as a faint glow of qi on her hands and feet apparently let her cling easily to the rock face without handholds. She must have climbed pretty quickly too given that she was eight or nine meters up the cliff face already.

As Ling Qi regained her poise however, Su Ling let out a cry of surprise and pain as she threw herself out of the way of a new combatant, trailing blood from the claws that had scored across her back. The beast, a second grade mountain lion with fur that shimmered and shifted, blurring with the terrain around it, landed where Su Ling had just stood, already turning and preparing to lunge again.

Ling Qi found herself with a difficult choice, made worse by the fact that Chu Song’s spirit beast was breaking free of the webbing and spiders that clung to it. In the end, she chose to target the beast attacking her friend, renewing the dark qi flowing in her channels as she wove through and avoided the increasingly frustrated bullets of sound and air launched by the axe-wielding boy trying desperately to keep up with her circuitous movements and not lose track of her in the mist.

Her melody took on the slower cadence of her Elegy, and the mountain lion shuddered, qi bleeding from channels and dissipating into the mist. Her technique soaked into its channels, locking the beast’s limbs in place, and it froze long enough for Su Ling to scramble away.

A wail echoed from the center of the area as Meizhen broke through the unsteady guandao-wielding girl’s defenses entirely to grasp her bloodied and wounded shoulder. The girl spasmed as tendrils of toxin darkened her flesh, but for all that she collapsed like a puppet with its strings cut, the distraction cost Meizhen.

Chu Song’s wordless roar was underscored by a thunderous boom as her massive blade shattered Meizhen’s mantle into scattered droplets and sent her skidding several meters toward the cliff. A spreading bloodstain on her side indicated where the greatsword had struck her.

Chu Song was hardly unscathed either. She was marked by several smaller cuts from Meizhen’s flying sword, and Chu’s flying sword lay broken in the grass near the treeline.

A blast and a cry of pain distracted her from that matchup. The flicking foxfire that had been building on the axe-wielding boy had exploded violently, leaving him smoking and unsteady but still standing.

Ling Qi’s attention was pulled away as the sound of a violent rockslide reached her, along with a scream that she recognized as Li Suyin’s. Chu Song’s spirit had finally broken free, crushing most of the spiders that had swarmed it and responded to the provocation by slamming its front paws into the side of the ridge, shattering rock and bringing the cliff face tumbling down along with Li Suyin. Ling Qi’s heart thundered in her ears as she saw the girl swatted out of the air by a paw half the size of her body, smashing her to the ground to roll bonelessly to a stop several meters away. Suyin did not rise.

She felt it then, a ripple of angry qi rising from Chu Song that attempted to blast away her mist and its effects, but with an effort of will, she resisted it. She cast a vicious look toward the muscular girl and responded with her Diapason of the Lost technique. Her qi shackled Chu Song’s senses, leaving the girl too disoriented to dodge as Meizhen’s bladed ribbons coiled around her leg and tore, shredding the leg of her pants and leaving her thigh dripping blood.

Ling Qi paid for her split focus though. Even with a reactivation of her Crescent’s Grace, she was too slow to avoid the lightning that struck her from out of the blue, throwing her to the side. Her gown, tough as it was, absorbed the worst of the electrical punishment, but she could still smell burnt hair and her own scorched flesh as she rolled to her feet. Her only consolation was that the boy was flagging, his qi guttering low. That attack had cost him, even if it had also left her muscles and nerves twitching and slow. Was this how the targets of her Falling Stars Art felt?

Despite that, she still turned away, and she did not fail to notice the way his expression twisted even further into a scowl as she did. Su Ling had the steadily weakening mountain lion in hand for the moment. The bear was the real threat. Ling Qi ignored him in favor of darting away into the mist to distract the bear throwing its head back and forth in the mist, searching for a new target. She resolutely refused to allow the sight of Li Suyin lying still in the grass, her arm twisted unnaturally, to distract her. She had to stop the monster before she could help her friend. It was as simple as that.

The next few moments passed in a blur as she dodged the weakening bursts of thunder from the boy she ignored and drew the bear away from her other friends and activated Ten Ring Defense technique, draining her qi, but strengthening her flesh with the vitality an ancient tree. She needled the bear with targeted songs and danced in and out of view to incite it to charge at her. She paid for the distraction, but once again, her new Cai-commissioned gown and Thousand Ring Fortress art proved invaluable, absorbing force from every blow that grazed her as she layered further weakness on the beast with her Forgotten Vale Melody techniques. Blinded by mist, harassed by dozens of shadowy phantoms, and with its channels flood with chilly, draining qi, the beast quickly began to struggle.

Finally, the fight came to an end. Chu Song fell to one knee, her breastplate broken, exposing the padded jacket beneath. Tendrils of toxin darkened the veins in her arms and nearly black blood leaked sluggishly from the cuts left by Meizhen’s ribbon blades. The mountain lion slumped to the ground marked by cuts from Su Ling’s blade as the girl clutched her right arm and gasped for breath. The boy who had chased her around glared into the mist, searching but unable to find Ling Qi again, his qi spent. Only the bear was still somewhat combat-capable, bleeding from a few minor wounds, but it was also wrapped in mist and slowly losing qi.

“Yan, stand down.” Chu Song’s voice rang out over the battlefield, and the bear paused, letting out a rumbled growl. "Guess I shoulda brought a couple more people," she said with a self-deprecating chuckle.

“You surrender then?” Meizhen asked coldly. If she felt any pain from the blossoms of red that stained her white gown, she showed no sign of it.

“I do,” the larger girl said grudgingly from her position on her knee. “This just proves my point though. Someone like you shouldn’t be subordinate to that Cai.”

Ling Qi shot Chu Song a dirty look, but she was less interested in what the girl had to say than in checking on Li Suyin. She didn’t stop playin, but as she approached Li Suyin, the girl stirred weakly on the ground, opening her eye to give Ling Qi a strained but reassuring smile. Suyin was healing herself, subtly and slowly, and Ling Qi could see that she was making good progress despite the blood that stained her lips. Suyin was already breathing easily again.

“I am free to offer my assistance as I wish,” Bai Meizhen said imperiously. “Cai Renxiang has been an honest and upstanding ally.” Ling Qi glanced up as she crouched down next to Li Suyin and Su Ling limped over to join them. That was weird. Why was Meizhen referring to the heiress by name instead of title like everyone else?

Chu Song merely grimaced and spat blood on the ground. “Tch. As the loser, I have no right to gainsay you.” It was clear she was unhappy with Bai Meizhen’s words though.

Her serpentine friend turned her gaze away, although her flying sword hovered ominously at Chu’s back. “Ling Qi, this was your fight. What do you wish to do?”

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