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She had succeeded. As she crawled out of the pond and collapsed in the garden, breathing hard, Ling Qi could feel something changing within her, the circulation she had practiced with the Eight Phase Ceremony intensifying. Already, a greater understanding of her movement art lurked at the edge of her understanding.

Ling Qi put it aside for the moment; she could discuss her art with Elder Jiao later tonight. Right now, she had loot to inspect.

Despite the smaller number of items, the value could not be underestimated. Two of the Sable Light pills that had boosted the cultivation of her qi so greatly at the start of the year were effectively priceless to her, and the high grade cores were valuable as well.

The Abyssal Exhalation art in the jade slip was nothing to scoff at either. Similar to Forgotten Vale Melody, the art had been designed by a wanderer, although this one had wandered the deep paths under the earth where things best not seen gnawed at the foundations of the world. In that darkness, the wanderer found truth, that earth and dark were as one, devouring all things in the end. In line with that lesson, the art allowed its users to consume the energy of their foes and call upon the things that slumbered in the dark. Along with the jade slip was an Abyssal Earth pill that would help her cultivate earth and dark arts. She was glad that she had fled with all her speed.

This left only the book. Once she had made it back inside the house, she removed it from her ring to examine. At first, the characters within seemed unreadable, swimming in her vision, but a bit of effort undid the array causing that. What she found within disturbed her.

The pages appeared to be filled with extensive contracts written in dense legal language that went quite far over her head. But at the end of these contracts, the signers were required to not speak of the contract or the contractor, Yan Renshu. Breaking any provision in the contract would cost the signer a significant portion of their cultivation, or even their health.

Surely, this couldn’t be legal, right? Such thoughts rarely occurred to her, but why would the Elders allow something like this? She strongly doubted the Sect would be unaware of such contracts. There were dozens of them in the book, each one with dense formation arrays lining their borders.

No wonder Yan Renshu had wanted Cai undermined. He was clearly trying for the same goal, albeit through vastly different means. There was a weakness to this method though. The effect was tied directly to the pages of the book, and they were only marginally reinforced. She could find no negative effects to simply destroying the contracts, which probably explained why the place had been defended so well.

She could probably figure out how to subvert them too. They were complex certainly, but not incomprehensible. She could even get help with it, she imagined.

She needed to bring this book to an Elder. She just didn’t have enough information to make a good decision, and she didn’t want to involve Meizhen in this just yet. She had her own pride and didn’t want to go running to her powerful friend for every problem she faced.

And it was a problem. Yan Renshu wouldn’t take this theft lying down. Ling Qi was burnt and tired, and Yan Renshu had quite a lot of followers, willing or otherwise. Elder Jiao wouldn’t be at their meeting point until evening, and she didn’t want to chance the fickle man deciding to take offense if she came early. Even Xin, who seemed to like her more, wasn’t guaranteed to show up, and the last thing she wanted right now was to be in an isolated place alone.

Ling Qi flipped the red cover of the book open again, ignoring the dense text as her eyes scanned to the bottom, memorizing the name next to Yan Renshu’s. She flipped the page and memorized the next one too. She might not be able to commit everything in the contracts to memory, but a couple dozen names wasn’t too hard. She kept her ears open as she paged through the book, straining to hear any sound of pursuit, pausing only to take her second and last qi-restoring pill for the day.

The moment she finished memorizing names, the book went back into storage. She retrieved Meizhen’s spare ring, coaxed Zhengui into dematerializing, and set out from the house.

Ling Qi made a beeline for the closest pair of girls wearing one of Cai’s armbands. It felt weird to bark orders, but she wanted backup in case Yan Renshu’s agents tried to jump her. She confirmed first that their names weren’t in Yan Renshu’s book of contracts of course.

Her next priority was her friends. Li Suyin was safe. At this time, she would be ensconced in an Inner Disciple’s workshop, untouchable even to someone like Yan Renshu. Suyin would be there until late afternoon at least. Likewise, Meizhen was strong enough to handle herself against all but truly overwhelming force.

If she remembered Su Ling’s schedule correct ,that girl was probably off mountain somewhere, maybe even in town. Su Ling had taken to working with the mortals in the mornings, whether of her own accord or for Sect Points. Starting trouble in town was frowned on, but all the same, Ling Qi sent another of Cai’s enforcers off with a hastily scribbled message, warning Su Ling to go to ground.

That left just one stop before she swung by the mansion in the center of the residential district, which Cai had made her base of operations. She had heard that Xiulan had returned to her home a short time before her heists had started. Yan Renshu had already made it clear he didn’t mind having Gu Xiulan attacked with the successive duel challenges and encirclement during the last flare-up of Outer Sect chaos. The two of them could even find Han Jian and the others after Ling Qi talked to Cai. Ling Qi would feel much more confident about her chances of making it to the evening with the book still in her possession if she were surrounded by the Golden Fields group.

“Xiulan! Open up! It’s Ling Qi, and we really need to talk!” Ling Qi called loudly as she knocked, injecting a note of urgency into her voice. Her ‘bodyguards’ stood behind her to either side, nervous expressions on their faces as they kept watch for a possible enemy attack. Ling Qi had spread word through the other Cai enforcers ad they passed them; it wouldn’t be too long before everyone in Cai’s faction was on alert.

There was no noise, so Ling Qi rapped her knuckles against the door harder. It was a little rude, but she was in a hurry. She didn’t know what Xiulan had been up to, but she really didn’t have time for her emotional friend to seclude herself further right now.

“Xiulan!” She raised her voice further, ignoring the looks she drew from the other disciples outside. They scurried away when Cai’s girl goons glared at them.

She heard a thump and shuffling from inside this time. A further hissing sound like boiling water came, but no response. She frowned and drew her hand back to knock again, but then the door jerked open a few centimeters. She found herself meeting Xiulan’s narrowed eyes.

At least she thought so. It was a little hard to tell.

“... Xiulan?” Ling Qi asked, squinting at her friend. Her qi felt right, but… “Why are you wearing a veil and a scarf?” she asked incredulously. The lower half of Xiulan’s face was entirely concealed behind crimson fabric, and the rest was covered by a semi-translucent veil. She could just barely make out her friend’s eyes and the bare contours of her face.

“I can wear whatever I like,” Xiulan replied, sounding ill-tempered and haughty. Ling Qi had not heard her friend speak to her like that in quite some time. “What in the world are you doing out here, pounding at my door like a peasant?”

Ling Qi studied the girl. Xiulan’s qi felt a little muted and off, now that she focused on it.

“You can,” she agreed slowly. “But I didn’t think you liked to hide yourself like that.” Ling Qi watched carefully as Xiulan’s eyes narrowed and seemed to momentarily flare, glowing behind the veil. “Look, I don’t know what you’ve been up to, but we have some real trouble on the way. I just hit the main base of one of our enemies pretty hard, and I’m afraid he might retaliate. I’m going to Lady Cai after th…”

Ling Qi leaped to the side as an arrow shrieked through the air where her body had just been, burying itself in the cobblestone with a crack. Turning around, she caught sight of three figures blurring across the rooftops. The first was blown backwards, flung from the roof across the street by a gesture from one of the girls she had commanded to follow her, who now held a wide, feathered fan in her hand.

The second figure leapt toward her, curved knives in hand, and was met by the second Cai enforcer. Sparks sprayed out as knives made contact with the long straight blade wielded by her ally.

The third blurred past their intercepted comrade, a spear trailing a stream of churning water heading toward her. Ling Qi dodged the side, dark qi trailing from her limbs, and ducked the sweep of the spear’s butt before moving backward to gain some space. She hesitated as she reached for her flute. Was supporting her allies the best choice or going on the offensive herself?

“Miserable, skulking wretches.”

Ling Qi heard Gu Xiulan’s voice in the instant before a blinding flash came from above and a crack of thunder drowned out all other sounds. Looking up, she saw a half dozen forks of lightning sprouting from the form of a second archer she hadn’t seen. The archer was flung from the roof, limp and trailing smoke, limbs spasming with residual electricity.

The combat seemed to freeze as Xiulan stepped out, the smoking and tattered scarf and veil drifting away from her face. Xiulan’s face was covered in hair-thin lines of black with burns in the faint pattern of scales marring her pale skin. Her hand, which was raised toward the archer who had just been struck, was shriveled and black like a charred corpse but alive with blue-white flames and crackling lighting. A tattered sleeve revealed that the damage went as high as her elbow.

“You would assault my friend on my very doorstep? Come and die then!” Xiulan said, her voice magnified enough to vibrate the air. Xiulan had reached late yellow, Ling Qi noted.

Ling Qi used her own opponent’s distraction to slip past and put herself back to back with her friend, scanning the rooftops for any other hidden attackers.

“Don’t actually kill them,” she warned as the girl with the spear reoriented on her new position. “I see you’ve been busy. Any reason you aren’t at the Medicine Hall?”

“I do not need it, nor would it help,” Xiulan said haughtily. “And I will remember the rules. A few scars will do this scum good though, don’t you think?”

Ling Qi didn’t have time to respond as her opponent re-engaged. A knife flashed out of her sleeve, scoring a superficial wound across the girl’s shoulder, and she grasped the wind, forcing the spear wielder to fight against her for mere movement.

Her two guards were handling their opponents well too, and for a moment, Ling Qi felt confident that this would be over shortly.

Then the ground beneath them erupted. Stone and earth writhed, thick tendrils of black muddy earth grasping at their limbs, almost concealing the forms of two mannequins of black iron with dirt-caked talons the length of a short sword. They both lunged at her, almost distracting her from her opponent’s spear thrust, but one was blasted back, slammed into the house across the street by a sustained stream of azure flames erupting from Xiulan’s burnt hand.

The second mannequin reached her, and the next moments became a blur as she frantically drew out her her flute and thrust the wind outward. Her gown flapped as a short-lived gale erupted, slicing through grasping tendrils and reducing them to crumbling dirt. The instant she had solid footing again, she leapt upward to land on the roof of Xiulan’s home in a crouch, shortly followed by Xiulan herself, her own leap powered by a sweeping jet of flame that left the puppets below smoking and cherry red and drove back the spear wielder, who spun her weapon frantically to call up a barrier of water that exploded into steam on contact with the flames.

It did not stop either of the mannequins from launching themselves after the two of them, despite the damage and burns on their frames. Ling Qi threw herself backward, twisting out of the way of another arrow from the first archer that crackled through the air while deflecting the claw of one of the attacking puppets with a hastily drawn knife.

Already, if she strained her ears, she could hear the sounds of other battles kicking up. Fire and smoke rose from among the streets, but she could also see help approaching. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the remaining enemy archer duck low to avoid a projectile from below. She felt uneasy though, and not just because of the third puppet which had clawed its way onto the roof or the others rising from the dirt below.

Because this wasn’t enough for Yan Renshu to win - and he was too intelligent not to know that. Another pair of enforcers had joined the two girls below, and the gray hooded enemies were being pushed back handily. The mannequins rising from the dirt had the power of a weak second realm and obviously felt no pain, but it simply wouldn’t be enough.

Ling Qi drew her bow from storage as she distanced herself from the puppets on the roof. Her arrow tore through a puppet’s shoulder, disabling its arm just as a sweep of blue-white flames engulfed both mannequins. The one she had shot crumpled to the ground, the qi animating it fading. Something was wrong...

Cold steel digits grasped her wrist and twisted, forcing her arm behind her even as something sharp slammed into her back, a gasp of pain pulled from her lips as she felt it puncture her gown and drive into her side.

“Suffer as a thief deserves.” The voice was harsh and metallic but recognizable. Craning her neck, she could see the blank face of another mannequin, differentiated only by the glowing green flames where its eyes should be and the feeling of Yan Renshu’s potent qi. She felt the puppet’s cold fingers clamp down around her ring finger and the storage ring on it.

He didn’t need to win the fight.

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