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The next day, Ling Qi set out to get a better idea of how to approach Sun Liling’s fortress and discover the disposition of its occupants. The fortress itself was a pretty grand sight for something constructed in secret over a matter of weeks. It occupied one of the mountain’s many cliffs, a bit too low to fall within Zeqing’s snow-shrouded territory but high enough that there was very little plant growth. If she were to approach on foot, she’d lack any cover taller than a tree stump or a mid-sized rock.

Ten meter walls of stone rose in a curtain around a trio of squat square roofed buildings of dark red stone. As Fu Xiang had reported, at each corner and halfway down the length of each of the four walls, a globe of brilliant, blinding light stood atop a bronze stand or hanging from a similar sconce. Shadows were reduced to ragged scraps in its vicinity, not nearly large enough to take advantage of. It had to be a special property of the lights to do so since otherwise, the overlap should have left some spots where the shadows were long.

She felt oddly tingly when she approached; channelling dark qi was more difficult the closer she got to the fortress. It felt like trying to lift a limb held down by a great weight. She could do it, but it would tire her out faster.

For now, she was satisfied with letting her scouts check around the perimeter while she discreetly followed those who left the fortress to learn their patterns. Her shadowing was fairly fruitful; she found a couple equipment stashes for the ones on ambush duty. She would either raid them herself or report their locations to Cai later. She wasn’t sure yet.

Checking back on her scouts revealed that the disciples on duty on the walls were unpleasantly disciplined in the regularity of their patrols and attention to their surroundings. Her scouts had seen several birds get shot down just for flying within a few hundred meters of the walls.

Although she herself could not approach, her scouts proved useful in this as well, allowing her to observe the interactions at the gate closely enough to pick up the system of pass questions they were using with returning disciples. She might be able to disguise herself well enough to get in, but her skills at subterfuge hadn’t advanced the way her stealth had.

Ling Qi considered the fortress for some time, warring with herself over what she should do. Some part of her thought risking herself was pointless. She could lose a lot and would probably gain little. She had already picked up a few useful tidbits of information from the outgoing groups, so why risk herself in a place that seemed prepared as a deliberate trap for her? Even the gaps in guard coverage, the handful of seconds where there would be no eyes on certain parts of the walls, was probably a trap. Sun Liling had probably planned it that way. Better to use her scouts; she would only be out a few red stones if they got destroyed.

It didn’t sit well with her though. She had never had a problem with acting “cowardly”; she would never have survived long if she had. But the thought of turning away and leaving this place with so little twinged the tiny shred of pride Ling Qi had begun to cultivate in her heart. She had broken through everything Yan Renshu could throw at her and come out victorious. Surely she could at least scout around the courtyard.

While she didn’t doubt that these outer countermeasures were aimed at keeping her out, she had improved greatly in the last couple weeks, and once past the outer, she doubted the inner would be as well guarded against her specifically. Wasn’t she being a little conceited to think Sun Liling would spend so much effort to target her?

Besides, no matter who her great-grandfather was, Sun Liling was still a girl her age, not some all-knowing sage. Keeping a watch on every inch of the wall all day was impossible. Ling Qi didn’t know the exact number of her supporters, but she was pretty sure Sun didn’t have more than a few dozen people, and they, too, were disciples. Even if they had better senses than her usual targets, they weren’t career guards or soldiers. Even if they had been drilled, there was a limit to how effective that could be in such a short time.

She could do this, as long as she prepared well.

Ling Qi did not rush in immediately. This wasn’t like Yan Renshu’s bases, where she had to fool only formations and could hide in the dark corners of a cave. A stop by the market got her a soft gray and green cloak that would cover the more colorful parts of her gown and break up her profile. Once she returned, she carefully checked herself over for anything that might make noise and stored it away.

With all that done, she stole across the open field like a shadow, zigzagging from one piece of minimal cover to the next during the brief windows where movement was safe. When guards passed by, she lay flat on her belly behind stones or stumps as utterly still as she could manage. It was nerve-wracking… and exciting.

Ling Qi soon made it to the base of the wall, and she squinted at the bright light of the orb hanging overhead. Though it cast no shadow, it did provide concealment by blocking line of sight from the guards. She studied it, eyeing the formations worked into the bronze sconce. The orb itself, a ball of thin glass, seemed fragile. She considered simply breaking it, but she restrained herself. It would probably alert the guards.

After a moment, she carefully climbed up and set one of her scouts atop the sconce with the command to look closely at every part it could reach. She could study the formations later to figure out if there were any tricks.

Her next step required patience. There would soon be a gap in the patrol on the wall. It would only last a handful of seconds, but that would be enough for her to get up and over. It wasn’t like ten meters straight up was very tall for her any more.

Up close, the wall was rough and crude, more like a cliff face than cut stone. It was easy to get a grip on, and she hung below the orb sconce while she waited.

Her moment came. Ling Qi grit her teeth as she forced her suppressed dark qi to flow and flung herself upward, rapidly scaling toward the top of the wall. Vaulting over the rough battlements, she immediately crouched low, taking in the interior in a glance before leaping off the edge into the shadow of a stack of heavy wooden crates that sat beside the interior of the wall.

Her cloak and gown fluttered, but an application of qi slowed her fall, preventing any noisy flapping. As she settled on the ground, Ling Qi breathed out a quiet sigh of relief. She had felt several layers of alarms as she fell, but she had been able to suppress her qi well enough to slip by them. The first step was over. Even now, she could hear the sound of the next patrol making the turn that would have put her infiltration point in plain sight.

Now relatively safe behind the crates, Ling Qi studied her surroundings more closely. The interior of the fortress was a field of packed dirt around the three small blocky buildings, two of which faced each other with the last squatting at the rear end of the fort. There was a small area full of targets and practice gear roped off but little else of note. Pairs of disciples stood at the entrance to each building while a handful of others went about their business, chatting or practicing. A rather harried-looking boy with a stack of papers and a quill was inspecting stacks of crates, so she probably shouldn’t linger long at her current location.

Carefully, she lifted the lid of the crate next to her, peering inside. It was full of wrapped bundles of arrows with what seemed like color-coded fletching in orange, white, and blue. Some kind of special ammunition, maybe? Ling Qi glanced around furtively, then slipped her hand inside, pulling one bundle into her ring. For intelligence gathering purposes, of course. One missing bundle could be attributed to an error.

Sadly, the omnipresent lighting extended into the courtyard as well, so she could not yet slip into the shadows entirely, forcing her to rely on her more mundane stealth ability to slip from her hiding place to the next. This time, she found herself behind a stack of training equipment sitting near the roped off yard. The stack was nothing worth investigating, just training weapons and gear and straw targets for archery. The gray tarp thrown over the targets presented an opportunity, and Ling Qi squeezed under it with hardly a rustle.

Now, she just had to figure out how to get into the buildings. There were no windows on any of them, and each building had only a single door, which was actively guarded. She would have to somehow get the guards to leave their position…

Ling Qi paused in her considerations as one of the doors opened, and a person she recognized emerged. It had been quite some time since she had last seen Ji Rong, but his scar was still hard to miss. Unlike some of the other boys, he hadn’t taken to wearing any kind of armor, instead sticking to a simple combination of baggy pants and a loose hanging, sleeveless shirt. Her eyes lingered longer on the bandages wrapped around his forearms and hands; there were formation scripts on them.

He was also fully late second realm, which was irritating. He was keeping up with her cultivation progress, despite the setbacks he had suffered. The boy had a certain cocky swagger to his step these days too.

When he turned his head to look behind him, Ling Qi followed his gaze to find another figure she hadn’t seen in a long time. Sun Liling’s second, Lu something or another, hadn’t changed much in appearance. He was still a tall, fine-featured boy with obnoxiously pretty hair that reached the middle of his back. He, too, forgoed any armor, although he wore metal-studded armored boots, tighter trousers, and a long red sash around his waist that glittered ominously. Ling Qi thought the sash was likely some kind of weapon.

Ling Qi held her breath and suppressed her qi as much as possible. They were heading her way, and she needed to remain undetected. Luckily, it seemed to work, since the two boys continued conversing without pause.

“... does she want us to squat here?” Ji Rong’s words reached her as the guard closed the door behind them.

“As long as we need to,” Liling’s pretty boy responded. “I don’t see what the hurry is. It’s not as if we lack anything here.”

“You’re too easy-going,” the scarred boy said irritably. “We’re bottled up in here like rats! I still haven’t gotten a chance to deck that stuck-up bitch, and I can’t get Sect Points like this either, Lu Feng. Some of us can’t send home to Daddy for treats.”

“And you are, as always, taking this far too seriously.” Lu Fengrolled his eyes, a long-suffering expression on his face. “Wenji and the others will finish establishing supplies soon. You can get your points then. Until then, just enjoy the wargame.”

“It’s not a game,” Ji Rong growled as the two entered the roped off area. “You think I’m gonna be satisfied with what we’ve done so far? Do you think Sun Liling will be? Neither of us is gonna be satisfied with getting looked down on.”

“On the contrary, a game is exactly what this is,” Lu Feng said smoothly as the boys took up positions across from each other in the training field. Were they going to spar? “But I will not bother arguing this again.”

... Wait. Why was Ji Rong taking his shirt off? That was unnecessary. Didn’t they have self-repairing clothing? Why wouldn't that be the first thing any serious cultivator got?!

“... why she keeps you around. It’s like you don’t have any pride.” Ji Rong’s words penetrated her distraction as he tossed his shirt onto a fence post and took up a fighting stance.

Glittering lines drifted from Lu Feng’s gloved hands as he took up a loose stance as well. His physical cultivation lagged Ji Rong’s somewhat, but he didn’t appear worried. “And that is why a dumb brute like you will never catch the Princess’ eye. Although why you would want such a-”

He vanished, blurring to the side as Ji Rong’s sparking fist passed through the space where his head had been. That first attack flowed into a flurry of exchanged blows between the two boys, which Ling Qi watched intently. It would be useful to gather intelligence on notable enemies’ fighting styles.

“You shut your damn mouth about that.” Ji Rong grunted, eyes narrow as he slapped aside curling coils of wire. “I ain’t stupid, and I’m not some puppy dog following her around.”

“Is that so. Well, you are far too ugly to be a good puppy, so I suppose that’s a good thing. Your base lust is as obvious as it is amusing however,” he mocked, even as he twisted and dodged to avoid Ji Rong’s increasing tempo of attacks.

“There’s nothing,” Ji Rong replied, leaping backward to avoid glittering wire that shot up from the ground, “wrong with looking!” He rushed back in, refusing to give the other boy space. “Least I’m not a limp dandy like you!”

“Hmph. As expected of a brute,” Lu Feng said as he caught a punch on his forearm, only to grin viciously as wire coiled up the other boy’s arm, allowing him to fling Ji Rong bodily into one of the fence posts. “You truly have a one track mind.”

Ling Qi shifted uncomfortably. She had learned that Sun still had people on the outside doing work to supply her people with Sect points, but as interesting as this was to watch, the two weren’t really using new techniques. She needed to get into the buildings. Forcing some of her attention away from the spar, she studied them for a weakness which she could use to approach.

Ling Qi was not certain what gave her away, but her instincts, sharpened by years spent fearing the consequences of being caught, twinged. Ling Qi was suddenly glad that she had not fully taken her eyes off the roughhousing boys because she caught the slight shift in Ji Rong’s stance the instant before he rocketed toward the tarp she was hiding under in a spray of lightning.

Dark qi flowed, pushing through the suppression, and she vanished just as the boy’s booted foot came down, cratering the ground. She caught Ji Rong’s narrowed eyes as she rose into the air, buoyed by the power of her gown. There was no surprise in his expression, only a sort of grim determination tinged with wary respect.

As she floated in midair, her cheap cloak billowing and her hood thrown off, Lu Feng started to say something, but Ling Qi had no interest in banter. She knew she was in a bad situation, and before the first words could fully leave his lips, she rocketed upward.

In the wake of her escapades in Yan Renshu’s lair, Ling Qi had been bothered by how easy it was to escape the boy despite being at a cultivation disadvantage and on enemy ground. In discussing the matter with Meizhen, she had learned the true worth of her Cai-gifted gown.

Flight, true flight without some unwieldy transportation talisman or mount, was largely unheard of below the Cyan realm among Imperial cultivators. As such, few made preparations for it in the Outer Sect. Ling Qi had no doubt that the Sun supporters had though. She sliced an incoming arrow out of mid-air and spun, cloak flapping wildly as she avoided two others.

Her suspicion was born out as the next arrow exploded in a blue-white flash, replaced suddenly by a wide net with weighted stones tied in strategic places. She yelped as it entangled her, and the weight on her grew immense as if each stone weighed a hundred kilograms or more. She grit her teeth and forced more qi through her channels. She dissolved, becoming, for a brief moment, little more than a black mist that seeped through the gaps in the net and continued up.

Her troubles didn’t end there. A bright light from below, brighter than the omnipresent glow, caught her eye. She looked down to see Ji Rong, crouched in the middle of the training field, his cupped hands extended upward toward her.

A rippling ball of bright yellow plasma the size of her torso screamed through the air faster than an arrow from his hands. Ling Qi jerked to the side, dodging desperately, and held back a scream as it grazed across her side, scalding her flesh right through the gown.

As painful as it was, it didn’t stop her. She discarded her cloak, now on fire, and she flew away from the fortress with every ounce of speed she could manage.

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