The trail of destruction was thankfully easy enough to follow; Xiulan was hardly subtle. The still smoldering trees and torn up turf told the tale of a running battle, but she didn’t have the time to decipher the details.
Ling Qi quickly became aware that danger still remained with loose groups of qi signatures hunting through the woods. She was able to avoid them with a bit of effort, but she had to wonder why they hadn’t simply followed the obvious trail she was using to guide her. It stunk of a trap of some kind, but she could feel Xiulan’s qi in the fires that still burned along the path, so she couldn't turn away.
The route eventually lead her to a cleft in a high cliff stained with soot and ash within which she could feel Xiulan’s qi. None of the other qi sources were nearby, but something still seemed not quite right.
After a moment, she figured out what was wrong. Amid the battle damage to the trees surrounding the clearing, there were inconsistencies, and after squinting at the closest, she saw what it was. Simple, well hidden formation characters were carved roughly into tree bark.
They were the simplest of things, no more than an alarm set to alert the caster if a significant amount of qi left the encircled area. They were hastily set up, but that very sloppiness was a defense, leaving it on a hair trigger. She was unsure if she could disable them without setting it off because any damage at all would trigger them.
She was confident in her ability to slip past the ring unnoticed, but Gu Xiulan would have more trouble. And if Fan Yu was with her, the chances became near zero unless he had been secretly training his ability to sneak around.
First and foremost though, she needed to confirm if they were alright. Ling Qi quietly approached the cleft and allowed her control of her own qi to slip as she called out to her friend. “Gu Xiulan? Are you here? It’s me, Ling Qi. I followed your trail.”
The clearing was silent for a long moment as Ling Qi stood in the open so she could be easily seen. Eventually, she heard Gu Xiulan call out from inside the crevice. “And how am I to know if you are not some figment of the cowardly trash that has been hounding me, hmm?” Xiulan asked haughtily, despite the fatigue in her voice. Her voice was strained and tense. As Ling Qi couldn’t see her, she must have been hiding behind a twist further in.
Ling Qi pondered her answer. “Gu Xiulan, just a few weeks ago, you confided in me that you were worried that our outings to the sweet shops between duels had added to your…”
“Do not just say things like that aloud!” Her friend’s voice cut her off, sounding exasperated. She could now see the girl scowling at her, having poked her head out from around the corner she had been hiding behind.
“Would you rather I say something actually private?” Ling Qi said dryly. “Gu Xiulan, are you alright?”
The girl peered at her suspiciously before stepping out, looking rather ragged. Her hair was askew, and her hands were stained with soot. She also walked with a slight limp and had an ugly bruise beneath her right eye.
“Well enough, considering,” Xiulan replied, crossing her arms as she peered warily into the woods. “How did you know where to look for me?”
“Su Ling gave me a place to start. She’s working on a new art,” Ling Qi answered easily. “From there, I just had to follow the fires.”
“Hah,” Xiulan said dryly to her jibe, even as her expression twisted in distaste. “I suppose that m…” She paused, glancing at Ling Qi. “I will owe her thanks then. I do not suppose you have anyone else with you?”
“No.” Ling Qi shook her head. “Sun Liling is raising the hells again, so only I could come,” she added, not letting bitterness reach her voice. “Is Fan Yu with you? Or one of the others? The one I interrogated mentioned you were with a boy.”
“That idiot fiance of mine took one too many blows to the head throwing himself in front of attacks for me,” Xiulan sneered, but her heart didn’t seem to be in the insult. “As if I could not dodge myself,” she grumbled. “He was knocked out for a time, but he is conscious now, if weak from some effect from one of the blows he took.”
Ling Qi grimaced. Fan Yu was an ass, but she wasn't going to just leave him behind. He was still Xiulan’s fiance and Han Jian’s friend. “Do you know what the people attacking you are doing?”
“No. It is as if they are merely trying to cage me here,” Xiulan said angrily, smoke curling from her hair. “... As if I am meant to be bait,” she added darkly, glaring at the woods. “Worse, I have fought off two cowardly little probing attacks. I cannot even meditate and recover.”
Ling Qi plucked nervously at the trailing edge of her mantle, glancing at the treeline herself. Had Sun Liling created a secondary distraction for her, or was this meant to divert Han Jian and Han Fang if they returned?
“We need to get out of here. If we can link up with more of Cai’s people, we can get back to everyone else and face this together.” Ling Qi was dubious of her own words. It would be dangerous and she didn’t even know if more than a handful of Cai’s minions would still be standing on their return. There were at least eight or nine people in the woods around them, none below late second realm.
“Going deeper into enemy-controlled territory may be rash,” Xiulan pointed out, proving just how tired she was in her advocation for caution. “... I had intended to meet my sister in town today to discuss some things,” Xiulan offered reluctantly. “If we can reach the base of the mountain, I can signal her.”
“I thought Inner Disciples couldn’t interfere in the affairs of Outer Disciples?” Ling Qi asked. It would mean covering less distance if they could depend on Xiulan’s sister, but it would take them out of the fight between Cai Renxiang and Sun Liling’s faction.
“They are not allowed on the Outer Sect mountain without permission, but if a foolish Outer Disciple attempts to accost one while they have guests…” Xiulan explained, still looking sour. It seemed like she didn’t like the idea of relying on her elder sister.
“There is no need to trouble your sister,” Ling Qi answered firmly after a few moment’s thought. “I have a plan. Is Fan Yu able to move?” she asked. “It’s only a matter of time before someone notices my presence.”
“He is, but his qi is depleted,” Gu Xiulan replied, eyeing her curiously. “Nor is it safe for either of us to take further restoratives,” she added regretfully.
“That shouldn’t matter for my plan,” Ling Qi said, drawing a pair of metal cards from her ring. I t was time to finally put the spoils taken back in Elder Zhou's test to use again. “I can store copies of my movement technique in these for you to use, and I can cloak our movements. Once we are out, we can join with the rest of Cai’s people.”