“We each get something for our victory,” Ling Qi decided, casting a glance at Meizhen and Chu Song as she and Su Ling helped Li Suyin stand. Her friend’s arm was still twisted badly, and Ling Qi could see a massive bruise forming across her side through the rips in her gown. Su Ling was less badly off, being in a similar condition to Ling Qi save that she lacked the benefit of clothing that repaired itself.
Ling Qi could feel the deep ache that she had come to learn meant that she probably had at least a slight crack in her ribs, but it felt distant compared to how such a wound had felt as a mortal. “Are you alright, Li Suyin?” she asked, looking at her most wounded friend.
“I will be fine,” the one-eyed girl responded with a wince as her broken arm shifted. She leaned more heavily onto Su Ling’s shoulder. “C-can we finish this please?”
“Right.” Ling Qi shared a look with Su Ling as she stepped away. “Why don’t I grab your tokens for you? Do you have a preference?”
Chu Song let out a snort of laughter, even as the boy clenched his fists where he kneeled by the unconscious girl. Ling Qi eyed him carefully, but while she still wasn’t the best at reading people, he mostly just seemed frustrated and irritated. It didn’t look like any of their enemies was showing genuine resentment.
“I’ll take a storage talisman if they have one,” Su Ling replied, eyeing the massive bear sitting on its haunches to their right.
“Anything is fine,” Li Suyin said, biting her lip as she ran her free hand over her broken limb, fingers aglow with quickly guttering qi. Ling Qi did her best to ignore the grinding noise of bones being pulled back into alignment. It looked like her friend had picked up some real pain tolerance.
She looked to Meizhen, but the pale girl simply looked back impassively before glancing at Chu Song. “I have little need for such things, but the clasp in your hair will do. That is what allowed you to resist my poison, did it not?”
Ling Qi tuned out Chu Song’s response as she approached the boy and the downed girl, who breathed erratically, expression twisted with pain even in unconsciousness. The red lines crawling out from her shoulder wound were fading at least.
“I request that you take your spoils from me and not from Luli.” The boy spoke up as she approached, looking her in the eyes unwaveringly.
“... Sure,” Ling Qi agreed, glancing over the girl. Besides, none of the girl’s talismans she could see looked to be something she would intend to keep. The guandao lying off to the girl’s side was tempting, but a quick look revealed it to be an earth-aligned talisman. She was probably going to take something from Chu Song then. “Do you have a storage ring?” she asked brusquely.
“Yes,” the boy replied shortly.
Ling Qi watched him carefully, ready to respond should he try something as he slowly raised his hand and tapped his finger against the dull grey ring there. A small number of spirit stones, beast cores, and other miscellaneous goods poured out. He placed the newly emptied ring in her hand with only a slight grimace.
Ling Qi’s eye caught on something in the pile of goods then, a gleaming dagger with a slightly wavy blade. It was a wood talisman that would be good for Li Suyin; the girl could use a holdout weapon for when she got forced into melee, and if she didn’t want the talisman, it looked like it would at least sell well in the Sect market. She crouched down and took that too, giving the boy a simple nod before walking toward Bai Meizhen and Chu Song.
“Looking to get a piece of me yourself, huh?” the muscular girl asked as she approached.
“No more than I deserve for the trouble,” Ling Qi said mildly, nodding to Bai Meizhen, who was studying the jade braid clasp in her hand curiously. She gave the girl’s ragged outward appearance a look over, studying the possible talismans. “I’ll take the armband,” she decided. The armband might be useful, and like Suyin’s token, it did at least look valuable.
“If you return to this vent, Chu Song, you will not be let off so lightly,” Meizhen said quietly. “Do not invade our space again.”
“Gotcha.” The taller girl sighed irritably, brushing her now partially loose hair out of her eyes. “Bei, help Luli up. Yan, back to me,” she commanded as she stood. The spirit beasts on the field dissolved, returning to their binders, and the boy finished gathering his things then picked up Luli in his arms. Chu Song slowly stood up as well and took a step back, careful not to appear threatening. Ling Qi caught recognition in Chu Song’s eyes as they flicked briefly toward Li Suyin and the spider silk on the ground, then away. “Any objections to me being on my way?”
“We’re done here, yeah,” Ling Qi replied bluntly. Meizhen gestured for Chu Song to go and so they did. It irked Ling Qi a little to let potential enemies just walk away with their heads mostly held high, but that was the way things were, she supposed.
“How did you know I was in trouble anyway?” Ling Qi asked Meizhen as she moved to hand over Su Ling and Li Suyin’s prizes.
“I was informed by your companions that you were under attack,” Bai Meizhen replied, vanishing her own prize with a flick of her wrist. Ling Qi noticed a brief pause in her friend’s statement before the word ‘companions’ left her lips; she had a feeling that Meizhen had been about to call them ‘subordinates’. Still, she followed Bai Meizhen’s gaze and gave her other two friends a questioning look.
“I was… experimenting,” Su Ling grunted in response, not quite meeting Ling Qi’s eye as she took the dimensional ring from her. “I picked up a new trick, but it’s hard to work. I can sorta get a feel for things that are happening in the near future. It’s spotty and hard to control though.”
“Divination is not an uncommon skill among more potent fox spirits,” Meizhen mused, giving the ragged girl an assessing look. “Interesting.”
Su Ling bared her sharp teeth in response, but she crossed her arms and remained silent. The motion drew Ling Qi’s eyes to Su Ling’s hands, which she now noticed were covered in small burns and cuts. There was a moment of awkward silence before Li Suyin coughed into her good hand, having tucked the dagger under the sash of her gown.
“Ah… I am glad this turned out well and that you are safe, Ling Qi, but perhaps we should go? I suspect I will be needed at the Medicine Hall soon, and it seems like there are many other troubles brewing.”
“Right, we should get going,” she agreed distractedly, drawing a pair of qi-restoring pills from her ring with a flick and popping the restoratives in her mouth.
As the pills dissolved on her tongue, an alarming thought crossed her mind. Han Jian and Han Fang were both absent from the mountain as far as she knew or at least in closed cultivation of some kind. Which meant…
“Shit,” she cursed, drawing a surprised look from her friends as they approached the cliff. “I need to check on Gu Xiulan. If there’s widespread trouble, there’s no way the people we’ve beaten are going to leave her be.”
Meizhen frowned. “Have you and that girl truly sown so many grudges?” she asked, pausing at the cliff edge. “If this is part of that barbaric girl’s plot, I think it wiser to coordinate our efforts with Cai Renxiang to limit the damage.”
Ling Qi looked away, glancing to her other friends. The two of them looked pretty drained, even with Li Suyin having reduced the worst of her wounds to a manageable level.
“Maybe. But I don’t want to leave a friend at the mercy of enemies,” she replied, not quite meeting Li Suyin’s eye. “Gu Xiulan’s own allies are absent. I can’t help but think that that isn’t a coincidence.”
Meizhen pursed her lips but nodded after a moment. “A fair point. If this is meant to damage and fragment resistance, then it is well-timed. It is likely that the barbarian has been free for at least a few days, laying low and plotting. It seems she no longer regards simple and open assaults as viable.” Ling Qi saw a brief flicker of discomfort on Meizhen’s expression as the girl looked away. “... Yet I would still prefer that we go to Cai Renxiang’s aid.”
“We can split up to cover more ground,” Ling Qi proposed lightly. “I can be pretty hard to catch when I try.” Ling Qi ignored the unpleasant spike of irrational temper at her friend choosing to aid someone else over her. It was a terribly selfish thing to think, and Meizhen had already helped her a lot today. She still didn’t like it.
“How about we all get to the market first?” Su Ling spoke up carefully. “It’s best to stay together until we get our wounds tended at least, right? Then Suyin and I can lay low, and you can both do your thing.”
“We shouldn’t delay too much regardless, especially if trouble is happening as we speak,” Li Suyin added quietly, glancing between Ling Qi and Bai Meizhen with a worried look.
She was right, so they got underway, going as quickly as could be managed without splitting up. Between her salve and Li Suyin’s help, Ling Qi felt much better by the time she split from her friends with a grateful thanks to seek out Xiulan.
However, despite Su Ling giving her a vague directive to search around the base of the mountain, her search did not go smoothly with all the chaos. More than once she passed ongoing duels and other less fair fights, often between members of Cai’s enforcers and other disciples but also between white armband wearing disciples. Ling Qi couldn't quite bring herself to ignore the fights. While she refused to become embroiled in combat, there was no reason she couldn't sink an arrow into the lower back or leg of those ganging up on singular enforcers.
Despite her speed though, the base of the mountain was a large area, and it took some time before she received a hint of her friend’s location on the word of a girl she had helped. Apparently, Xiulan had been challenged to a series of duels before the chaos had broken out.
Ling Qi soon found further evidence in the form of a rather damaged battlefield and a groaning boy who was likely to be spending the next few months regrowing his hair and eyebrows. He needed a few rough shakes to regain consciousness, but given his depleted qi and the fact that he had apparently already been thoroughly looted, she was rather confident that he wouldn’t try anything, particularly with her knee on his chest and a knife hovering just above his eye. It would be a shame if he struggled too much and made her slip after all. That excuse had worked fine for the one who assaulted Suyin.
“Don’t move,” she said harshly as the boy stirred, becoming alert. Looking closer, she vaguely recognized him as one of the older disciples she and Xiulan had beaten, furthering her suspicion. “I know you were fighting Gu Xiulan,” she bluffed. “So tell me what you and your friends were up to and where they are.”
To his credit, the boy didn’t fold immediately. “I do not need to tell you anything. You cannot do a thing to me under Sect rules,” he responded scornfully, glaring at her past the knife in his face.
“I wouldn’t be too sure about that,” Ling Qi said coldly. The enforcer’s recitation on what had happened with Xiulan with first one challenger, followed by another after another, wearing her down until the enforcers had been drawn away, dampened any sense of fair play she might have had. “At the very least, I can strip you down to your small clothes and make sure the rest of your year is miserable. Lady Cai supports her allies, you know? And she doesn’t approve of rebels.” Ling Qi didn’t hesitate to make use of the girl’s name as a threat, whatever she might think of her. “Of course, I can make you pretty miserable myself now. Talk, or my hand might slip. I’m just a clumsy peasant after all.”
“You wouldn’t dare,” he hissed, seeming slightly less sure. “My family would…”
“They won’t do a thing,” she bluffed again. He was only just into the late second stage of his physique with his spirit lagging, and he was at least a year or two older. “Not for a crap talent like you,” she said bluntly. “Are you an idiot? Gu Xiulan has a sister nearly in the Core Sect, and I’m friends with the heir to the province and a scion of the Bai. That’s not even mentioning the Han family. Look me in the eye and tell me you think I wouldn’t get away with it.”
She was playing by ear, but it sounded good to her, and going by the sweat on the boy’s brow, he was beginning to believe it himself. If she were a better person, she supposed she might feel bad, but right now, her friend was in danger.
“It was Brother Renshu’s idea!” the boy exclaimed as her knife traced the skin just under his eye. “He-he said that… that there was a plan to get back at the first years and that we could take care of the Gu girl and he would make sure no one interfered! It was only meant to be a humiliation,” he responded defensively. “But after she defeated three of us in a row, Brother Renshu’s associates attacked everyone, Lady Cai’s subordinates, us, and her as well. I don’t know any more than that! Her and that boy with her ran off to the east.” He carefully pointed out one of the several trails where it looked like a fight had exited the clearing.
Ling Qi scowled at him but didn’t detect any duplicity. “If I find out you lied, I will do everything I can to make your life miserable,” she warned, pricking his skin with the tip of her knife. She didn’t bother waiting for a reply before rushing off in a blur of shadow, vanishing into the shade cast by the trees overhead.