The path up the mountain was winding and steep. She could reach Zeqing’s frozen territory much faster with flight, but the trip was more pleasant if she slowed down to think and take in the crisp air and beauty of the cliffs.
With her newest letter to her Mother sent from the Ministry office in town, her thoughts had turned back to the trouble with Zeqing. She was still angry at the snow spirit, but it was tempered. But the fact was, Zeqing was much stronger than her, so much so that Ling Qi had no way to defend herself if Zeqing decided to turn on her. It was difficult to forget that, knowing that the spirit might throw her into a lethal situation again without even feeling remorse.
At the same time, Zeqing wasn’t malicious, at least not toward Ling Qi. Xin had said that spirits thought differently, but surely if she spoke her concerns clearly, Zeqing would understand. She just…
As she reached the top of the path and arrived at the small, snow-dusted clearing at its top, she stopped dead. At the far end of the stony clearing, perched atop a boulder, was Sun Liling. The red-haired princess wore a plain scarlet silk shirt that stretched tightly over her chest and baggy black pants of similar material worked with silver embroidery. Her spear, a demonic-looking thing that seemed like it was forged from twisted vines of red metal, rested easily on her shoulder.
“Yo.” The girl raised her free hand in greeting, even as she rose to her feet with predatory liquid grace. “You really pissed off Yan Renshu. The money grubber didn’t even charge me for trackin’ your movements.”
Ling Qi regarded the princess silently, the fingers of her right hand twitching as she restrained the urge to draw her flute right away. This was bad. How was the girl hiding her qi? If Sun Liling wasn’t standing in front of her, Ling Qi would hardly know she was there. Even now, she could just barely feel a faint pulse, but no more.
“You aren’t the only one who can sneak,” Sun Liling replied dryly to her unspoken question, idly twirling her spear. “Dad ‘n Gramps used to take me hunting all the time. You can’t spook the game, ya know?” Sun Liling spoke as if this were no more than a friendly conversation.
“What do you want?” Ling Qi asked flatly.
“I figured I’d come have a chat,” the red-haired girl said casually, tapping the butt of her spear against the stone. “I gotta admit, I really screwed up that first day, didn’t I?”
Ling Qi narrowed her eyes. “If you know that, then you know that there isn’t much point to chatting,” she replied, even as she reviewed her options. The path further up the mountain was behind Sun Liling, but she could easily bound up the cliffs and cut around her. She was a long way from the black pool though. Similarly, she could simply take a dive off the cliff and head back toward her allies, but she doubted that the Sun Princess had not put together something to slow her down, and flight still drained her terribly.
“True,” Sun Liling admitted, not sounding particularly regretful. “You’re the loyal type. Man, it woulda been so easy to be more friendly than the snake.” She laughed, shaking her head. “Ah well, no use cryin’ over might-have-beens.” Her expression grew serious as she leveled the barbed tip of her spear at Ling Qi. “Draw your weapon, flute girl. We’re gonna have us a little duel.”
Ling Qi scowled. “Isn’t it supposed to be shameful to punch down like this?” Sun Liling had a realm advantage on her, as well as a battle-ready spirit. “Then again, I’ve learned just how much stock most people on this mountain put by all those kinds of rules.” She expressed her flute, clutching it tightly.
“You’re gettin’ it,” Sun Liling said lightly. “Honor isn’t built to favor the weak - but you got one thing wrong.”
“What’s that?” Ling Qi asked, tensing as her thoughts raced on what best to do.
“Even the most hidebound noble in Celestial Peaks wouldn’t frown at this,” the Crimson Princess drawled. “You’re too good for that, and you might as well have spat in my face with that lil' stunt at my fort. You're a pain in the ass, but with that pretty dress o’ yours, you’re a menace. So take your first shot, run, or whatever. I want to get this started.”
“You know, one thing’s always bothered me,” Ling Qi said slowly.
“What’s that?” the arrogant girl responded indulgently, apparently willing to let her talk a little before the duel.
“You keep going on about the Bai being traitors… but no matter how I look at it, doesn’t that match your family better?” Ling Qi asked blithely. Even if it cost her initially, riling Sun Liling up was better than letting the girl keep a cool head. “Though I guess it doesn’t count since you got rewarded for it.”
Sun Liling’s easy-going expression darkened, her lips drawing up into a sneer. “We won the greatest victory the Empire has seen since the first dynasty. We did the job that cowardly trash shoulda done ten thousand years or more ago. Ain’t nothing traitorous about that, or are you second guessing the Emperor?” she asked coldly before shaking her head. “I don’t even care. Take your attack, or I’m putting you down now.”
Well, that didn’t last as long as she would have liked. Still, Ling Qi had a line of retreat planned now. Ling Qi raised her flute to her lips and began her melody, mist pouring from her flute in a rapidly expanding circle. It engulfed Sun Liling and the entire clearing they stood in within moments, but Ling Qi couldn’t help but grimace as the qi washed over Sun Liling without taking hold, a slight hazy aura around her head and a flare of bright yellow in the depths of her pupils showing her resistance.
Then Ling Qi had other things to worry about. The ugly spear screamed through the air toward her, and it took everything she had to avoid being impaled. It carved through the winds protecting her body, barely offset, but the fraction of a second it took to tear through them allowed her to activate her most used defensive art and twist away, liquid darkness trailing from her limbs.
It still wasn’t enough. Despite being half-shadow, red hot pain lanced up her spine as the spear tore a bloody gauge out of her side. She felt it scrape against her ribs, and despite herself, a sob of pain interrupted her song. Thankfully, the important part was the cover the mist initially granted her. She wasn’t going to continue playing when she could hide.
Her senses warped as she merged with the shadow of the cliff ahead, color washing out and proportions subtly changing in her vision as she fled as fast as she could, the burning, bleeding wound in her side urging her on. She heard Sun Liling shout something behind her, but she was too focused on running to care, slipping from one shadow to the next as she escaped through a cleft in the cliff side. She flowed over the rocky ground as fast as she could manage, activating her Formless Shadow technique to slip through paths too narrow for her human body to take. She did everything she could to throw the girl behind her off the trail.
She knew this area well enough. If she could just gain some distance, she could lose the princess in the maze of ravines ahead. Or perhaps, she could even lead the Sun Princess through the territories of some beasts to slow her down long enough for Ling Qi to flee into Zeqing’s territory.
And as the world blurred around her, it almost seemed like it would work.
A muffled boom from above was her only warning before a scarlet bolt struck down in front of her. Ling Qi had a moment to take in her opponent, now clothed in glistening scarlet armor. Sun Liling’s narrowed eyes glared at her from inside the snarling demonic maw of her helmet, and two additional armored limbs clutched cruel, jagged blades. Bloody mist leaked from vents in the elbows and calves of the armor, making a trail to the sky above.
Then the monster moved, and all thought vanished. Ling Qi drew vital qi outward, desperately layering herself in the Hundred Rings Armament even as she dodged frantically through the three-pronged storm of blades that drove her back against the wall. She pushed herself further than she had thought possible, weaving through dozens of strikes, but she simply wasn’t fast enough.
Cuts appeared on her arms and face, rips formed in her gown, and the shell of qi she had enveloped herself in flared, drawing deeply from her dantian as it turned fight-ending blows into scratches. So sharp and fast was the drop in her qi that it felt like she was being punched in the gut, but even so, it was better than the alternative.
Ling Qi could see the surprise and frustration in her opponent's eyes, and that was what gave her the strength to keep going. When the attacks slowed, she kicked a spray of dirt and snow into the girl’s face and fled into a crack in the wall of the ravine Sun Liling had cornered her in.
It was a gamble. She had no idea where the hole led, but it was her only chance. Her heartbeat thundered in her ears, and she bled freely from dozens of small wounds and one large one, droplets of blood dissolving into black smoke as she rushed through the narrow tunnel, straining to maintain her near incorporeality..
She emerged into a snowy field, and the moment she had the freedom of space to assume her normal body, she expressed a Wellspring Pill and crushed it between her teeth, hungrily drinking in the restorative qi. Then she bounded forward into the small copse of pine trees that marked the entrance to the ravine maze that would take her toward the black pool.
She could feel the Crimson Princess behind her. Whatever technique the girl had used to conceal her qi was not holding up under the pressure of the girl’s effort. Sun Liling’s qi was a bloodthirsty miasma of wood, water, and wind, mingled with a thread of something else which she couldn’t identify but reminded her unsettlingly of the run through the jungle in Elder Jiao’s test.
Ling Qi grit her teeth and flared her qi, pulling on the passive net of wind she constantly wove around herself, guiding it to speed her movements rather than deflect and guide. She bounced from the shadow of one tree to the next and rushed into the ravine to her right, but she could feel Sun Liling gaining on her.
“Having some trouble, Miss Ling?” Ling Qi flinched violently as a male voice sounded in her thoughts, glancing around wildly as she ran. Recognition dawned on her. It was Fu Xiang, or someone who felt and sounded like him.
“I thought it would be prudent to check on our council members given the ruckus down here, and it seems I was right to. Do you have a plan, or are you merely fleeing into the wilderness at random?”
Yeah, he was still pretty slimy-sounding, but she would take what help she could get. “I have a destination in mind. Can you actually do anything to help?” she thought at him. The boy had basically dropped off the face of the mountain for a while and hadn’t seemed to be accomplishing much. “Do you know how she’s tracking me?” Her qi was suppressed, and she left no sign of her passage, but the Sun Princess was still unerringly following her.
“Your heartbeat and the flow of your blood, I imagine,” Fu Xiang responded dryly in her thoughts. “While I may not be capable of your flavor of direct intervention, I am not entirely without resources.” His ‘voice’ trailed off, and Ling Qi felt an odd twinge in the air and qi around her. A harsh buzzing filled her ears and the qi she could feel was scrambled weirdly. “Ugh, the drain at this distance… I do hope you appreciate this.”
“I’ll owe you a favor,” Ling Qi said tersely. She could feel the Crimson Princess hesitating behind her, as if suddenly unsure of the trail. That was enough for her. She took a sharp right at the next split and bounded up the cliff face at the dead end, her partially corporeal feet running up the side of the cliff as easily as she would a field.
“Well, how could I refuse that?” he asked, sounding slightly sarcastic. “Will you be safe at your destination for an hour or so?”
“I should be,” Ling Qi replied, mulling over what to tell him. In the end, she elected to keep quiet about Zeqing. “Why? And why didn’t you do this kind of contact the last time she attacked?”
“I hadn’t broken through then,” the boy said irritably. “It is not as if real time, two-way communication is simple.”
Ling Qi felt sheepish. Of course. If something like that was easy, everyone would do it. The Ministry of Communications probably wouldn’t exist if it was that easy and cheap. “Sorry.”
“Hmph. I suppose I’ll forgive you.” And now she didn’t feel sorry anymore. “We will be coordinating an attack since I have confirmation that the Princess is off chasing shadows.”
That brought a grin to her lips. “I’ll be safe for an hour if I can make it.” She reached the top of the cliff and flew over a long gap in the crumbling path that wound around the peak. Sun Liling had resumed chasing her, and there was another presence with her now, a thing that felt like blood-soaked earth shot through with a multitude of hungry roots. That must be Sun Liling’s spirit she had seen at the intra-council fight. They were gaining on her again.
“... I have a bolthole in that region.” Fu Xiang’s voice was contemplative. “It has a single use transportation formation no more than half a kilometer in range, but that should serve your purposes.”
Ling Qi narrowed her eyes suspiciously. “Why the sudden generosity?”
“Someone set the bar rather high for usefulness,” he said archly. “Use it or don’t. I will need to end this call if I am to have any qi left for other things today.”
Ling Qi was reluctant to trust the boy - his demeanor pushed all sorts of alarms in her mind - but she didn’t really have a choice. She didn’t have enough distance on her pursuers to be sure of her escape.
“Thanks.” She did her best to ignore the smug edge to the boy’s tone as he gave her hasty directions to his apparent ‘bolthole’. It wasn’t a bad idea to set up retreat points scattered around the mountain. Maybe she should consider spending some of her pill furnace income doing the same.
In any case, she needed to hurry. She was burning qi quickly to keep all of her techniques active, to remain hidden and half material in the shadow. She didn’t dare take flight for fear of giving away her position. It made her more appreciative of what monstrous reserves an Elder like Jiao must have to keep such things going on a near permanent basis.
Putting idle thoughts aside, Ling Qi swooped down from the ledge, diving back into the shadowed ravine below to continue her escape, speeding her movements with every patch of shadow. The snowfall helped, dimming the daylight even further.
Once or twice, she felt a surge of dread when she glimpsed a flash of red in the snow far behind her, but she poured on further speed, sprinting until her lungs burned with exertion as they hadn’t done in months. Ling Qi only slowed down when she reached her goal, an innocuous snow-covered boulder sitting at the bottom of a steep drop-off. A quick inspection revealed nothing that resembled a trap, but to her Mirror-enhanced senses, the boulder was illusory. She passed through it, ghosting down the narrow tunnel into the rock wall behind it.
There were no traps within, though there were bones and other detritus scattered around, probably to make it look like a beast’s lair. The transport formation was at the rear of the tunnel, scratched subtly into the stone. All too aware of Sun Liling’s approaching presence, she quickly smeared blood over the activation symbols in the appropriate order as she had been instructed, holding in her mind the image of a high windblown cliff near the black pool. The formation crackled to life, and Ling Qi was swept away.