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“Very well. I hope you know what you are doing, Ling Qi.” Gu Xiulan turned on her heel, heading back into the crevice. Ling Qi, for her part, turned to keep an eye on her surroundings, even as she pulled her new talisman from her ring into her hand, rolling up her sleeve to put the thing on. Thankfully, Chu Song’s armband shrunk to fit her much thinner arm. Her ribbon soon took its place in the ring. Now that she had the time to consider it, her ribbon was no longer very useful. Between her flute and her gown, her dark-aspected arts were already mostly reduced to requiring a mere trickle of qi.

When her friend emerged once again, this time with her fiance, Ling Qi studied the shorter boy. He looked pale, and his forehead was bandaged and stained with blood, and he had a few other marks of battle on his body. Much like Xiulan, he walked with a slight limp. Had their opponents been deliberately aiming for the legs? She supposed it was a possibility.

“Fan Yu,” she greeted curtly, tossing him one of the cards. “We don’t have much time to waste. Can you run?”

“Of course I can,” Fan Yu replied with a scowl, snatching the card out of the air. He glanced to the woods and his expression soured further. “Are you certain of this? They may be cowardly scum, but there are many of them.” He stopped himself from saying more at a look from Xiulan. She didn’t miss the way his face tightened when he looked at her.

Not that it surprised her. Their mutual dislike had never faded, but the boy’s loathing had become more self-directed in the past months of minor interaction. Fan Yu wasn’t delusional enough to continue acting as if Ling Qi was nothing.

“It’s our best chance, unless you want to sit here and get worn down one attack at a time,” she said simply, then tossed another of her qi cards to Xiulan. “Gu Xiulan, I need you to be my voice since I won’t be able to stop playing once I start. When we come up on any of Lady Cai’s people, make sure they know to join us. It’ll be a little while until we have enough people to deter attack.”

Xiulan flicked her partially undone hair out of her eyes. “Look at you. I never thought I would see the day when you took charge,” she sniffed, eyeing the card in her hands. “But very well. I am eager for vengeance. Let us be on our way.”

Ling Qi nodded and summoned her flute to hand, raising the sleek instrument to her lips as her companions tensed. One of the groups was swinging toward them, so they needed to move now. Ling Qi sent thoughts of comfort to her still confused and fearful spirit then began to play quietly, calling on her mist to surround and dampen their qi. It might allow them to be followed, but it should make more distant tracking and precise attacks more difficult.

As soon as the mist shrouded them, she felt Gu Xiulan and Fan Yu activating their qi cards, and they began to run. Ling Qi felt the ‘line’ formed by the alarm with her qi sense, and brushed past it nigh effortlessly, her long practice at reducing her presence and the dampening properties of her gown allowing her to practically ignore the shoddy formation. Her companions’ passage was less easy. Gu Xiulan passed by it well enough, but Fan Yu’s passage, even with the assistance of the qi card’s Formless Shade technique, made the alarm line thrum and strain like a rotten beam taking too much weight. To his credit, she felt him clamp down on his qi, if only for a moment, allowing him to pass without setting it off.

Then they were off with her holding back her speed just enough to not leave the two of them behind. She felt a slight ripple in her companions’ qi and glanced back to see Fan Yu with medicinal vapor drifting from his palm as if he had just crushed something. Whatever it was, it smoothed out his gait and made his legs pump faster, preventing him from falling behind Xiulan.

Ling Qi ran, the landscape little more than a blur around her, swerving around the trees and leading her companions away from the disciples manning the perimeter around the crevice. For all their efforts though, it seemed that their escape would not go unnoticed for long. By the time the effects of her qi cards were guttering out on her companions, she heard a crackling burst of thunder and glanced back to see a bright light in the sky. Some kind of flare perhaps?

They didn’t need any encouragement to speed up, and shortly thereafter, they ran across the first of Cai’s enforcers, a boy leaning against a tree and breathing hard over an unconscious foe. His eyes widened when he saw the mist barreling down on him, but Xiulan’s shouted command to follow was enough to get him moving. Ling Qi’s control of the mist wavered as she tried to include the boy while the mist was up, something she hadn’t done before. In the heat of the moment, a spark of inspiration struck her, and the adjustment of a few notes in the next chord was enough to successfully insulate him from the mist’s effects.

The next enforcer they came upon took a bit more effort because the girl’s foe was still standing. A jump and adjustment of her trajectory brought Ling Qi’s boots down on the back of the rebel’s head, slamming his face into the ground and ending the fight.

She left actual command of the two early second realms to Xiulan, focusing on their path ahead. Ling Qi did not forget that she had seen apparent enforcers fighting each other, but she decided to avoid those types of fights. Ling Qi had no way of determining loyalty at this point, nor the time to try.

They had just managed to free up a third enforcer when Ling Qi felt the rapid approach of a pair of pursuers behind them. Despite that, she kept moving, focusing on her own task as she kept an ear out for Xiulan’s snapped commands to the others. The first person to approach her mist was met with fire and cutting wind, and the twin arrow shots that came back in reply failed to strike anything in her obscuring mist.

The enemies were deflected, and they ran on. Ling Qi knew they didn’t have long to gather others, but they were heading toward the main road leading to the central plaza. She would have to hope there would be sufficient numbers there, but at the same time, she would have to exercise her discretion about who to include in her mist. It cost qi to include new allies, and Ling Qi still needed to keep up a decent qi reserve for when they were forced to fight.

They clashed twice more with their pursuers, even as they gathered another pair of allies. One enemy fell, an ugly burn seared across his torso by Xiulan, while one of theirs fell to an arrow and had to be carried. Each time, the pursuers came with greater numbers but the clashes seemed more like an effort to harry and divert them rather than an actual attempt to engage them. But the senior Outer Disciples chasing them were coordinated and with nothing but winded and worn down allies, Ling Qi herself did not want a standing battle.

This was why Ling Qimade the decision to bull through rather than pause when they approached the plaza. Even as she kept the mist going, she channeled qi outward, reinforcing her allies with Deepwood Vitality and brought them crashing through the four enemies in their path. Ling Qi filled her mist with clawing, hungry constructs and lead her ragged band through, focusing on passing the enemies by and confusing their senses.

Thankfully, Xiulan seemed to know her mind well enough to give the actual instruction, and they made it through, closing in on the plaza. Ling Qi had intended to join up with Cai’s main forces, but with their steps being dogged as they were by their pursuers and how worn out her allies were, she wasn’t sure that they would be able to reach Cai’s forces.

It was only reinforced when Xiulan spoke up in a wary voice from beside her. “They will not be able to keep this up.” The girl’s voice was harsh, tinged with weariness. Xiulan was obviously using some strange technique; her hair was aflame, and smaller embers licked along her limbs. Her face was pale too, and Ling Qi noticed a slight gauntness to her cheeks that had not been there when they began this run.

Worse, she could feel that their enemies had finally grouped back up, minus the one Xiulan had injured earlier. They would either need to try for the safety of the lecture hall, as it was Sect property where violence was forbidden, or take their chances with a fight. Ling Qi kept running even as she deliberated, all too aware of the enemies rapidly catching up with them.

An odd whistling combined with a wordless roar came from above. Her gaze snapped skyward as powerful qi entered the range of her senses. Then a terrible impact hit the ground behind them, knocking aside trees and shaking the earth under their feet.

From the cloud of dust kicked up by the impact, a single massive hand lashed out. The hand was large enough to close entirely around the head of the closest of their enemies, a whip thin boy with a sword. The boy barely had time to let out a muffled cry of alarm before the hand gripping his head tore him from the ground and slammed him bodily into a still standing tree with a splintering crack.

Overhead, a star blazed in the afternoon sky, casting a shadow over the steel-clad giant emerging from the dust. Cai Renxiang, clad in a scandalously short gown, floated above on wings of light. To Ling Qi’s eye, the heiress was not as immaculate as she first appeared. Small cuts and scrapes marked her bare arms.

“To think so many would defy my lady’s order,” Gan Guangli rumbled, his voice echoing oddly through the grill in the horned, full face helm he now wore. “I have crushed so many rebels today, and yet more of you still stand! Fools and scum! I will break each and every one of you!” His voice rose to its normal high volume, amplified by his three meter height as he stood and faced the seven enemies that had been chasing them.

“There is no need for rashness, Guangli. Fools they may be, but it is our duty to see them civilized,” Cai Renxiang called down, floating lower, her dark saber standing out amidst her glow. “You have harassed my allies, and wounded my soldiers, and brought chaos to the Sect! Yet your rebellion is crushed. The Sun Princess was driven away, and still we stand!” she barked as Ling Qi continued to put distance between her own group of exhausted allies and the increasingly cohesive group of foes.

The run had been a blur, but she knew the enemies had at least one person like her; she had felt her effects dispelled once or twice and their enemies bolstered.

“I am not unmerciful. Sheath your blades and leave this place now, and this foolishness will be forgiven,” Cai Renxiang announced. Ling Qi shot the heiress a wary look. Was she bluffing or genuinely being merciful? “Stay and continue to defy me, and not only will you be crushed, but you will be given no courtesy in defeat.”

“How scary.” A voice rang out from amidst the trees. “I came down to see why my boys were having trouble with a few little birds, and it turns out we’ve caught a hawk in the net.”

Ling Qi blinked as she felt a change in her qi senses, a new oily and unclean signature among the seven enemies that still stood. She eyed the trees, but no one emerged. Glancing back at her own group, she nodded to Xiulan, and the girl hurriedly sent their more exhausted allies on, running out of the mist with their wounded. It left just her, Xiulan, Fan Yu, and one other boy, who held a thin metal staff in his hands. He had shown himself to be pretty proficient in deflecting enemy attacks in their run.

“Yan Renshu,” Cai said cooly, her hair fluttering on the phantom wind that surrounded her. “Do you expect me to believe you truly crawled out of your hole for this? Do not be foolish. Stand your men down. This is over.”

“Hmph. Cocky, as expected,” the voice grumbled. “I wonder if you and that lummox could really stand up to us though. Do you expect me to believe you came out of your other fights unscathed?”

“I alone am a match for a creeping worm like you!” Gan Guangli shouted, the sound of his gauntlet-clad fist clashing on his breastplate echoing through the woods.

“And even then, do you expect that we are alone? The remainder of my allies will return shortly,” Cai Renxiang called back. “Do not think so highly of your rabble.” Ling Qi caught her glancing down at the mist and did not miss the way the heiress subtly gestured for her to continue their retreat.

“That’s a bluff,” the voice scoffed. “I know your type. You’ll have the rest putting out the other fires while you come and deal with this one. Noble of you, maybe, but pretty foolish all the same.”

Ling Qi scowled at the woods; she hadn’t gotten a good read on their opponents in the rush. There were at least two archers and the supporter she had sensed, as well as a couple of melee types, but they all seemed speed focused. Sensible for raiders. She also knew next to nothing about this Renshu fellow, except that he was certainly getting put on her list.

She genuinely didn’t know if Cai Renxiang and Gan Guangli could handle all of them; the heiress showed signs of being wounded already, and she had a feeling Gan Guangli would loudly bluster even an inch from death.

She did not have much attachment to the girl’s government really, but she couldn’t help but remember Bai Meizhen’s words earlier and the familiar way she spoke of the other girl. Ling Qi was growing aware that her support could be a powerful way to tilt fights, but her friend was badly worn out, and there was no way Gu Xiulan would retreat if she didn't...

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