“ORA!” A keg-sized fist crashed against stone, and the stone lost. The cliff face lit up like a festival lantern, the carved characters of a hideously complex array of formations characters appearing under the evening sun.
“ORRAA!!” A second fist crashed down, and the rock face cratered under the steel spikes which adorned its knuckles. Thunder boomed, flames erupted, and lightning sparked up the hulking figure’s powerful arms. Emerald qi textured like bark barely held up under the formation’s assault.
“OOOOORRRRRAAAAA!!” Gan Guangli roared, and this time, stone shattered beneath his punch and through into the chamber beyond. Strings of chiseled characters cracked and sputtered, and the air seemed to shudder. A vile miasma of toxic violet qi seeped out from the broken rock.
Beside her, Cai Renxiang gestured sharply, and the heiress’ eyes flared with colorless radiance. Light pulsed out from her. On the seams of Gan Guangli’s armor, the light lingered, the radiant tracery of Cai Renxiang’s Empyreal Warrior technique layering itself over the bark-like qi of Ling Qi’s Hundred Ring Armament and Deepwood Vitality techniques.
Ling Qi straightened up as Cai’s potent light qi washed over her as well. The light gleamed in the folds of her gown like liquid starlight, and the toxic qi that had been eating away at her mist vanished like morning dew before it. Ling Qi began the next bar of her Forgotten Vale Melody, calling on her phantoms to fill the mist seeping through the broken doorway and rubble at Gan Guangli’s feet.
Ling Qi had to admit, there was something satisfying about a direct assault. She was glad that Cai Renxiang had convinced her, earlier this day.
“You’ve really tracked him down?” Ling Qi asked dubiously, giving the heiress a surprised look.
“Fu Xiang tracked him,” Cai Renxiang corrected. “The damage inflicted upon his infrastructure by your actions certainly contributed as well.”
“I suppose so,” Ling Qi said slowly. Still, it was hard to believe. Somehow, she had expected this to take much longer.
It was Cai Renxiang’s turn to regard her dubiously. “Ling Qi, are you unaware of the sheer damage you inflicted upon Sect Brother Yan? The majority of his boltholes and workshops have been destroyed, and the release of those false contracts resulted in a considerable number of his victims destroying or sabotaging projects. My own efforts to clean matters up and Princess Sun’s poaching would have exacerbated the damage to Yan Renshu. There are limits to the resources of an Outer Sect disciple.”
“Limits to the resources of one without backing at least,” Ling Qi mused.
The other girl frowned. “Even then, most families will not be willing to lose face by involving serious assets in the squabbles of children. The calculus may change somewhat in the tournament, as it is a public event, but even then, there are limits. Do you imagine that my own budget is unlimited?”
Ling Qi’s silence was her answer.
The heiress closed her eyes briefly. “... It is not.”
Unlimited was a relative thing, Ling Qi thought, but she kept her mouth shut. “So, what did you find?”
“We were able to find the one who had delivered the toxin and from there, Fu Xiang traced it to its origin.” Ling Qi’s hands tightened in her lap at the mention of the attempt to poison Zhengui, but she didn’t care about patsies. She wanted to punish the one ultimately responsible. “The infrastructure required to make such a thing indicates a concentration of resources that I doubt one in his position would be willing to surrender or be able to move unnoticed.”
“So he won’t just drop it and run. Where is it? I’ll sneak in again and…” Ling Qi began.
Cai Renxiang held up a hand. “I do not believe a solitary operation is in your best interests. He will be expecting such a tactic given your… proclivities.”
Ling Qi grimaced, remembering her mistake at Sun Liling’s fort. She had succeeded against Yan Renshu the first time, but that had been close as well. “What do you intend then?”
“We will assault the location and utterly crush any resistance,” the heiress said calmly, sipping from her cup. “Your assistance in this matter would be greatly appreciated.”
Ling Qi’s assistance took the form of moving ahead of the group to sniff out and disable the various alarm formations and talismans planted around the cleft valley where the workshop was located and placing the totems that would make the use of escape talismans more difficult. With Fu Xiang acting as the eyes and the hands, their approach was screened quite effectively.
In addition to Gan Guangli and Cai Renxiang, Xuan Shi had volunteered to help as well, acting as a reserve along with a handpicked group of Gan’s enforcers. Bai Meizhen was back on the mountain in the residential area, ‘waving the flag’, so to speak, to make sure Sun Liling and her band didn’t get any ideas.
“Ho, villain! Your schemes have come to naught! Present yourself and surrender!” Gan Guangli bellowed as he stepped through the broken doorway. His oversized frame had to shrink back to something approximating human height to manage it.
“Shall we?” Cai Renxiang asked calmly, taking a step to follow. Her unsheathed saber rested against her shoulder as she strode down the tunnel, and the glow of light around her cast strange shadows in Ling Qi’s mist.
Ling stared at the smoking ruin where Yan Renshu’s elaborate, likely expensive security formations and door lay in sparking pebbles strewn across the ground. All the work Yan Renshu had put into it, all the preparation in the world... and all of it amounted to nothing in the face of a ducal scion on the warpath.
Ling Qi followed and sank into the shadow of the tunnel, trailing along behind the other two and bringing the cloying Mist of the Vale and its hungry phantoms with her.
The noise in the tunnel nearly drowned out her melody. Every step Gan Guangli took was rocked by traps. Gouts of flame, hissing streams of acid, crackling lightning, and other, more esoteric effects went off one after another, battering the bulwark of his oversized armored form. Between his own armor and formidable defense, the benefits of Ling Qi’s Thousand Ring’s Fortress art, and the techniques being layered over him by steady pulses of light from the Cai heiress, he weathered it all unharmed.
But it wasn’t only traps that met their advance. Secret panels and carved chutes opened, disgorging one faceless mannequin and puppet after another, some wood, some clay, and some metal. Some had the birdlike masks of the one she had seen in the woods. They all swarmed out to halt their party’s progress.
Her phantoms swarmed them in turn, yowling black shapes, the formless predators of a child's nightmare, slashed at silent puppets with blood red claws. The eerie bars of her Melody rose, thickening the mist into a cloying blanket that settled over one foe after the next, draining the qi from the glowing stones that powered their motion and bolstering Ling Qi’s own reserves.
The puppets’ claws skittered at Gan’s armor, and his armored fists smashed limbs and bodies into broken fragments. Gan Guangli shouted one challenge after another as he stomped forward, crushing puppet limbs and bludgeoning new foes with the broken remnants of others.
Behind him, Cai Renxiang walked unhindered, and on those rare occasions where a puppet lunged for her, her saber flashed, an arc of silver in the dark, and it would fall to the floor in pieces.
As they turned down a wide hall, they saw metal gate after metal gate slam down from the ceiling, a dozen in all. At the far end, a veritable regiment of Yan Renshu’s puppet constructs was gathering.
“Coward!” Gan Guangli roared, reaching for the bars of the first. “No more tricks!”
“Enough,” Cai Renxiang cut him off with a word and a sharp gesture. “Step aside, Guangli. We are picking up the pace.”
She leveled the end of her saber as Gan stepped hastily to the side, and a bead of light bloomed at the tip. It was tiny, barely the size of a marble. It gleamed and pulsated for a fraction of a second. Merged with the shadows as she was, Ling Qi shuddered at the sheer quantity of qi gathering there.
Then the silk of Cai’s gown rippled, the wings of the butterfly sewn across her chest moved, and that tremendous qi doubled in density. The tiny marble bloomed into a star before erupting forward, a solid bar of light as wide and tall as a man. Metal shrieked and stone sizzled, and when the light faded, the gates were gone, the puppets were gone, everything was gone. Only dripping molten stubs hanging from the ceiling and ashen outlines on the far wall remained.
“Gan Guangli, full charge. Ling Qi, offensive support,” the heiress commanded crisply, and Ling Qi found herself obeying almost without thinking. The steaming qi of Argent Current rose in her channels and the forearms of Gan’s gauntlets began to glow red hot as he took off down the ruined hall, the ground trembling under his footfalls.
Ling Qi ghosted behind his vanguard, and her qi flexed as she replaced her flute with her bow. The mist remained, carried on echoes as she had learned from Zeqing. In moments, they had reached the end of the hallway and burst through the charred and molten frame where a door had once stood. The workshop beyond was in disarray, a straight line of obliteration cutting worktables and other furniture in half. A figure spun to face them, tall and whip-thin with poisonous green eyes.
“Have at you!” Gan bellowed as he charged, his fists raised. The figure’s handsome face twisted into a furious snarl as rotten, black and violet mist sprang forth from every fold of his robes, eating away at stone and hissing on Gan Guangli’s armor. Ling Qi felt her Deepwood Vitality technique shatter almost immediately as a worm as thick as an arm shot from the figure’s sleeve, maw agape, and struck Gan Guangli head on in the helm. It let out a hideous screech before detonating violently.
Gan Guangli’s fists came down in a hammerstrike, and there was an echoing crack as they halted in midair, stopped by the figure’s raised arms. The stone beneath the figure’s feet cracked, but his arms did not waver.
“You…” he hissed.
But whatever else the figure was going to say was lost as Ling Qi melted out of his shadow, sheets of lightning crackling from the tip of her arrow, and fired point blank into the small of his back. The workshop rocked with the detonation. But she felt no satisfaction.
“Gan, this isn’t the real Yan Renshu!” she yelled as she flew back on her gown’s shadowy wings. She had seen the real one, crippled, scarred, and short. “It’s another-”
Ling Qi gagged on the sudden, concentrated burst of horrid purple qi. So dense as to be liquid rather than mist, it struck her like a river current and only her and Cai’s defensive techniques protected her from the flesh-eating, hungry qi as she smashed into the wall.
Yan Renshu’s false self stood in the clearing smoke, his robe bearing a ragged hole where her arrow had struck and the gleam of metal showing through the scorch mark on his skin. A staff of dark red wood capped with silver spun in his hands, fending off Gan Guangli’s loud assault. The end of his staff lashed out, striking the taller boy in the stomach, and Gan folded in half, skidding back a meter. “Just walking right into my sanctum, wrecking everything without a care in the world. You dare-!”
“I do.” The curved upward slash of Cai Renxiang’s saber struck the Yan puppet’s raised staff with the force of a falling mountain. The puppet struck the ceiling and skipped, the sheer momentum of the blow dragging it along the ceiling before gravity once again took hold. “It seems that this is not even your final hole. I must compliment you. That is a masterful construct.”
Ling Qi pried herself from the wall and Gan Guangli straightened up as the puppet landed in a crouch, clutching the two broken ends of its staff in its hands. Its robes had been torn ragged, and its flesh was not much better. A portion of the puppet’s face was gone, revealing a complex mass of moving gears and panels.
“I do not need compliments from the likes of you,” the thing’s damaged, distorted voice spat out. The thing shot Ling Qi a look of utter loathing as well. “A jumped up brat succeeding on her Mother’s…”
Cai Renxiang’s saber caught him in midword, shattering one of the remaining halves of his staff and launching him back toward Guangli. “I did not give you permission to monologue. Surrender, and I will not destroy your creation.”
Like that, the spell was broken. Gan slammed his fists together with a ringing cry of metal, and Ling Qi pulled back another arrow. The puppet let out a furious, wordless cry, its flesh splitting and limbs bending oddly as it landed in a crouch more akin to a skittering insect than a man.Wet, oily worms fell from it’d damaged robes, amassing in a growing pool on the floor.
It jolted to the right, dodging her first shot, more of its skin tearing off in the spray of fragmented stone, and leapt up and over Gan’s charge, the worms swarmed up the larger boy’s legs writhing and biting, armor sizzling under their acrid exrections and Ling Qi spun out of the way of a jet of acidic liquid that hissed and curdled the air where she had just been.
Then Cai Renxiang’s blade hammered it down, the heiress crossing the room with what seemed like a single elegant step. The puppet landed in a shower of sparks and broken gears among the worms, trying to rise on twitching limbs.
Three arrows struck it in the face in a shower of lightning. A massive boot stamped down, pinning it to the floor.
And above, colorless light bloomed on the end of a saber.