Ling Qi cast a glance up at Cai Renxiang, who despite her minor injuries showed not the slightest hint of lacking confidence. No, in this case, the heiress had indicated that she should continue retreating, and that meant Cai Renxiang had something in mind. She did not want to interfere with it out of some misplaced and pointless courage.
She caught Gu Xiulan’s eye and jerked her head in the direction of the plaza and the lecture hall, playing all the while. They needed to get moving. Her friend hesitated only a moment before nodding.
“Keep moving!” she said harshly, causing the two remaining boys to jerk slightly as she caught their attention, drawing it away from the confrontation. “There is no reason to intercede here. It will only trouble the Lady.” Ling Qi didn’t miss the way Xiulan’s gloved fist clenched when she said that, but it was an issue they could discuss when they were safe.
Ling Qi cast one more glance at the floating heiress before turning on her heel and dashing away, heading for the hall. In that last glance, she had glimpsed a tiny blade held discreetly in Cai Renxiang’s left hand. Despite the oddity, she did not look back again. It didn’t concern her.
They ran across the flagstones of the plaza, now scorched and broken in several places but mostly clear of disciples. None of the remaining disciples tried to stop the speeding cloud of roiling mist. Ahead, Ling Qi could see four battered looking disciples wearing Cai’s mark standing guard over the main path, and the last of the wounded she had brought in were being helped into the lecture hall.
Then the sky bloomed with radiance behind them. She would have called it a second sun, but even on the hottest day she could remember, the sun’s light had never been so harsh. It was no color and every color all at once, somehow utterly heatless even as it washed out all color from her sight and screaming winds ripped across the plaza, tearing at her mist and bowling over more than one surprised disciple too close to the far side where they had come from. Leaves and peach blossoms rained down on the plaza, torn from the decorative gardens.
Glancing back, she saw that every tree in the copse of trees they had emerged from was stripped of its leaves and half of its branches, the bark bleached a stark white. Gan Guangli was still standing in the epicenter of the blast, seemingly unharmed. Though his armor itself gleamed with colorless light, Cai still outshone him, a blazing spotlight overseeing the broken trees where their pursuers had stood.
Yet their enemies were not beaten. A noxious looking purple mist exploded violently from the broken and bleached trees, writhing like a thing alive as it consumed Gan Guangli, and at least three shadows blurred out to assault him.
They were nearly to the lecture hall, Ling Qi found herself noting. No further foes lay ahead, and allies were close by. She was not entirely without tricks even at this distance. Her music cut out as her flute dematerialized, replaced with a sleek horn bow. As her friend and remaining allies sped out of her now stationary mist, she drew back the string, time seeming to slow as heaven qi surged through her channels, sparks crackling along her hands and arms.
Her new armband burned hot as her qi reached it, flooding her tired limbs with energy, and Ling Qi fired. The first shot struck one of the darting shadows around Gan Guangli dead on in a blinding flash, but the second sailed through out of her sight in the mist, dodged by the target. The third and the fourth exploded in displays of brilliance, and she thought she caught the distant sound of a cry of pain. Ling Qi didn’t stick around and dashed through the gates of the lecture hall.
Gu Xiulan stood just inside, flanked by Fan Yu and the other boy. “You just couldn’t help yourself,” she drawled, casting a wary eye at the battle in the distance.
“I did have a clear shot,” Ling Qi pointed out. “It would have been a waste not to.”
Gu Xiulan let out an irritable sound but didn’t question her further. “Well, is there a plan as to what we do now?” she asked, turning to question the heavy-set boy who stood at the doorway wearing one of Cai’s bands.
“Lady Cai has rented the use of a lecture room as a place of recovery,” the boy said with a slightly stiff bow. Ling Qi could see that he was injured himself. “The others you sent have already gone ahead.”
Ling Qi frowned. She didn’t like the idea of just sitting out the rest of the fights, but she was on the verge of qi depletion and she really needed to let Zhengui out and comfort him. His alarm was sharp in her mind.
“Ah, Miss Ling?” She blinked and glanced at their fourth, the early second realm who had stayed behind with them while the injured had been sent ahead. She felt like she had seen him before. Maybe he had been in Elder Zhou’s lessons? “Thank you for your efforts,” he continued at her questioning look, hastily bowing his head and clasping his hands together in front of him. “But may I go ahead? My… There is someone among the wounded I would like to check on.”
Ling Qi blinked again. Why was he even asking … She scratched her cheek. She supposed she had kind of taken charge. “That’s fine. You can go ahead ...” She didn’t know his name.
“Wei Hai,” he said easily, seemingly unperturbed. “If you require anything in the future, please feel free to ask.” He bowed again and then turned away, hurrying down the hall.
Ling Qi shook her head and turned back to Xiulan, who was annoyedly having a murmured conversation with a browbeaten Fan Yu. She left them to it. Instead, she turned to ask the boy guarding the door. “Do you know where Bai Meizhen is? How she is doing?”
The boy shifted nervously under her stare. “... Miss Bai was overseeing the organization of the forces in the residential areas alongside Sir Xuan,” he explained. “She was in good health.”
Ling Qi let out a breath at that. She nodded her thanks to the boy and turned to head inside. Gu Xiulan caught her eye and fell in beside her with Fan Yu trailing behind, his head down.
They rested for a time after that and soon, it seemed that the battle had come to an end.
“Victory is ours!” Gan Guangli’s booming voice echoed through the classroom as the young man entered, his shoulders stooped to avoid having his head scrape the ceiling. He was still shrinking down toward his normal height.
“It was hard fought and well earned.” Cai Renxiang’s voice was certainly lower in volume yet still managed to carry just as well. The girl stepped in after Gan Guangli. Her gown had returned to its normal decent state, and the marks where Ling Qi had seen blood staining the white fabric were nowhere to be seen. Only the rippling shimmer of the crimson fabric splayed across her chest belied the gown’s true nature.
Ling Qi reluctantly joined the ragged cheer that came from the gathered crowd. She was still concerned for Meizhen and her other friends, but she wasn’t going to interrupt Cai in the middle of her victory speech.
“Between your own efforts, our battles, and the support of our allies, Miss Bai, Sir Xuan, Sir Han, and Sir Huang, the malcontents have been driven back into their holes. The peace of White Cloud Mountain and the order of the Outer Sect which you all have fought hard to support will not fall this day,” the heiress continued with a touch of pride in her voice. It was hard not to be infected by it. Still, the girl had been wounded; it bothered her that Cai Renxiang showed no sign of it.
“In addition,” Cai Renxiang continued, and Ling Qi was surprised to find herself the direct recipient of her gaze. “Allow me to finally dispel the rumors regarding Miss Ling in relation to the attacks on female disciples. I had hesitated to make accusations without more solid proof, but today has made it clear that the matter was an early plot by the villain Yan Renshu to undermine us and sow distrust. I will be most displeased if such rumors continue to be spread about an upstanding member of my council.”
Ling Qi boggled. She hadn’t even really known rumors were still flying around. She really needed to pay more attention to her peers, didn’t she? Awkwardly, she bowed, hoping she was getting the posture correct. “Thank you very much, Lady Cai,” she hurried out.
The girl gave her a sharp nod then turned her attention back to the group as a whole. “The spoils of our victory, taken from the defeated, are still being counted. I ask that you be patient, and by the morrow, you will have your rewards for this your battle. For now, return to your homes and rest.”
Ling Qi had to wonder just how complete their victory really was, whatever Cai Renxiang might say. The mountain was huge, and there were many disciples. Cai’s forces might control the main areas, but...
The others began to file out after another ragged cheer, but Ling Qi hung back, drifting through the crowd over to where Gan Guangli stood. “Thank you for your help back there,” Ling Qi said.
He let out a booming laugh, drawing a few glances but little more. It was funny how much being loud and boisterous could lead to people ignoring him. “Think nothing of it, Miss Ling. Your own efforts were very valiant as well!”
“I would hardly say that,” Ling Qi demurred. “I did want to ask though, is there anything I should watch out for on my way home? And do you know where Bai Meizhen is?”
“Miss Bai is very well to my knowledge,” he replied more quietly. “Your home is safe, but I believe Miss Bai may have a few matters to speak with you about.” She got his meaning, as he had gotten hers. Cultivators had sharp ears; it was best to discuss such things in privacy.
The residential area was a mess, if one that was being rapidly cleaned up. The mansion Sun Liling had claimed during the first half of the year seemed to have borne the worst damage, being little more than a smoldering, broken wreck. The rest of the damage was more superficial. Her home had a few broken windows and some holes in the roof and outer wall, but it wasn’t anything that couldn’t be repaired.
Once she had a chance to finally speak with Meizhen that night, events became more clear. Sun Ling had been driven out of the main part of the Outer Sect, but it might be better to say that she had simply retreated. Xuan Shi, who had been overseeing Kang Zihao’s confinement, had been overwhelmed by the combination of Sun Liling and Ji Rong, and Kang Zihao was broken out. Things had spiralled from there.
Sun’s subordinate, Lu Feng, had apparently been slinking about gathering dissenters, and they had all risen at once, some from within Cai’s ranks. It had been Cai’s intention to use Fu Xiang to ferret out such turncoats, but there had simply not been enough time to get everything done before this second uprising. The attack had been made worse by the fact that Sun Liling had convinced a healthy fraction of the older disciples to time their own bids at vengeance to coincide with hers.
Ultimately, Cai still controlled the first year residences and several other key areas, but the balance was tenuous. Sun Liling and her allies were holed up on the mountain somewhere, plotting away, and the confidence of the older disciples had been bolstered by the minor victories they had won across the mountain.
The battle lines had been drawn.