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“Good of you to join us, Miss Ling!” Gan Guangli boomed cheerfully. He stood flanked by two other male disciples wearing the bands of enforcers and standing at a stiff attention. “With your skills, the raiding scum has no chance of escape!”

Ling Qi eyed their surroundings carefully. They were perched on a narrow ledge halfway up a steep rock face. With the Ma Sisters and her, there was barely any room to move about up here.

“Thank you for the invitation,” she replied politely, a little unsure of the proper response in this scenario. “I’m sure you could have managed without me,” she added. It seemed right. “Were you really only going to do this with three people if I didn’t come?”

“I had intended a larger cohort, but with you and your escorts joining us, I deemed it wasteful to pull more from their duties,” Gan explained. “The bandit Ji Rong travels with but a handful on his raids, and too many would risk detection besides.”

“That’s who we’re hitting, huh?” Ling Qi mused, peering down the cliffside. They would probably ambush them when they passed below then. “That makes sense. But how are we going to get the drop on them? Ji Rong has pretty sharp senses, and…” She gestured vaguely at the tall, muscular, and singularly unstealthy boy.

She studiously ignored the stifled sound of amusement from Ma Lei. Gan Guangli simply grinned and plucked a small gourd that had been dangling from his belt, raising it for her inspection. “Sir Xuan has seen fit to solve that problem for us. The villains will never see the first blows coming!”

Ling Qi blinked and accepted the gourd, peering inside. There were a series of carved wooden stakes. Removing one, her eyes widened. She could just make out its function. As Gan had implied, the four stakes would create a field between them which utterly concealed any living things within. Its inner workings were hidden from her though, the character arrangements seeming like indecipherable gibberish to her eyes. “That guy really doesn’t do half measures. Is that the whole plan then? We just wait for them to pass by and jump down?”

“Yes,” Gan Guangli replied, still grinning. “There is no need for complex planning in this case. I would have you support us close range fighters from above and prevent any attempts at escape. With any luck, Ji Rong can be greatly weakened or even put down in our opening move. Of course, I welcome discussion of the particulars.”

Hashing out the details of their exact plan of action took a bit of time, but soon enough, Gan Guangli received a message from Fu Xiang indicating that they needed to activate the formation. The array Xuan Shi had crafted traded a short duration for potency so their timing needed to be exact. The Ma Sisters and Gan’s helpers took care of the activation while she and Gan Guangli kept watch on the trees below, waiting for their prey to arrive

Ji Rong was the first one that she spotted. He walked cockily out in front of the three other boys with him. Despite that, he looked alert and ready for trouble, his aura charged like the air before a thunderstorm. His companions were less disciplined, joking and bragging among themselves. None of the other three, two Mid Yellows and a Low without any special equipment or exotic quirks to their qi, caught Ling Qi’s eye. One of the two Mid Yellows was a wind element user though; she’d keep an eye on him to ensure that he didn’t do something to help the others escape.

Ling Qi was well aware of just how fast the wind could carry after all.

She stilled as Ji Rong’s eyes passed over the ledge they were crouched on, but there was no recognition, not even a twitch in his qi indicating that he had noticed them. Around her, she felt her allies start to activate combat arts. The faint chiming of bells filled the air, and clay armor flowed across Ma Lei’s arms and chest. Gan Guangli’s armor took on a brilliant shine even as he began to grow, crowding the already narrow ledge further, as his guards charged their weapons, a spear and a bow, with fire and wind respectively.

Ling Qi simply breathed out as she expressed her bow, the edges of her gown gleaming a vibrant emerald, which spread, forming a shell of bark textured light over her. The glow spread to Gan Guangli and Ma Lei as well. It was a high cost to her qi, but it would bolster the two’s already impressive defenses for when they jumped down.

She drew back her bow as the armor finished forming, and the wind kicked up around her feet, rising to circle around her arrow as she drew it back, aimed right at Ji Rong’s shoulder. She glanced at Gan Guangli as he loomed beside her, crouched at the edge of the cliff, his face concealed by his gleaming helm. Ji Rong’s group passed below, and he nodded.

Ling Qi let loose, the wind howling around her companions, urging them to strike in unison. Ji Rong jerked in surprise the moment the arrow shattered their concealment, and although brilliant lightning immediately burst from his channels shrouding him in light, it wasn’t enough. The arrow struck home, causing him to grunt as his defenses failed to absorb the full power of the shot.

Ma Lei and the spear wielding guard immediately leaped down to engage Ji Rong. Ji Rong juked away from their weapons, ducking Ma Lei’s mace and twisting away from the boy’s spear, its fire-wreathed head grazing along his side. In the wake of the alarm and noise from below, the first notes of a sleepy, relaxing tune began to play beside her, and Ling Qi felt Ma Jun’s soporific qi latch onto the enemies below, draining away qi and making limbs and eyelids heavy. Even Ji Rong’s corruscating aura briefly dimmed, opening him to another wind-wreathed arrow from the second of Gan’s subordinates.

Of course, all those attacks were swiftly overshadowed as a great shadow fell over Ji Rong and his raiders. Ji Rong barely had a moment to straighten up and brace himself before Gan Guangli’s armored boots slammed down onto his shoulders, driving the glowing boy straight into the ground with a thunderous crack that rocked and split the earth. Unnatural shockwaves tore up the soil and flung Ji Rong’s allies away to impact against rocks and trees.

That was Ling Qi’s signal to begin the next phase. She dropped her bow and expressed her flute, leaping nimbly down the cliffside as she began to play, mist blossoming rapidly outward to consume the battlefield. Ma Jun’s chiming bells amplified her power further, and she felt the sense-altering effect of her mist settle over Ji Rong’s three allies. The raiders wouldn’t be running away easily.

She found her attention pulled back to the main fight as the ground exploded with light, muted by her mist. Gan Guangli was shoved backward by a shockwave of qi as Ji Rong thrust himself out of the impact crater with a furious roar. His hair stood on end, bleached and white in the light of crackling electricity pouring off of him in sheets.

He launched himself at Guangli, fist outstretched, and the giant boy met him head on. The sound of his fist striking Gan Guangli’s breastplate was like a temple gong, the crack of thunder nearly deafening her, but Gan Guangli did not move an inch, the flickering green of the armor she had given him holding.

“Not enough, Bandit!” Gan shouted, laughing as he brought his huge, spike-covered fists down in a two handed hammerstrike. Ji Rong juked backwards, his sparking sandals somehow finding purchase on the rippling earth.

“How about-” the scarred boy began, batting aside the spear of Gan’s aid with a glowing fist. Thunder boomed as the boy’s legs curled, and he darted forward into a punch that struck the spear-wielding boy’s breastplate. Ling Qi winced as she felt the shell of her Deepwood Vitality crack and then shatter under the visible stream of voltage that erupted from Ji Rong’s fist, launching Gan’s fellow enforcer backwards through the air until he hit the ground and bounced, his chest smoldering. “- you shut up for once, lardo!”

“Fiend!” Gan Guangli bellowed, literally swelling with rage as he thundered back into melee, his footfalls sending visible ripples through the earth. The other raiders converged, but Ma Lei interposed herself, catching a boy’s handaxe on her clay-covered shield and bringing the other up short with a rising wall of mud that forced him to backpedal or slam face first into it. The wind-natured boy was more troublesome, a bolstering wind sweeping across the battlefield to speed his allies’ movements; Ling Qicould feel his qi coiling around their legs, preparing to launch them at Gan’s back.

Ling Qi had a solution to that. A sad, mournful elegy began to play, and the boy suddenly let out a shout of alarm as in his eyes, the mist thickened and converged upon him, blanketing him in a misty world where he was all alone without an ally in sight.

Under the effect of her technique, the bolstering qi the wind-natured boy had spread fizzled out without his guidance.

Thunder boomed, and the sound of impacts on metal resounded. Ji Rong drove Gan Guangli back a step, then two, his fists a sparking blur as he rained dozens of blows on the bigger boy’s armored stomach, shattering Gan’s Deepwood Vitality protection, then laying into Gan himself. But in his flurry, he overextended, and when Gan brought up a massive knee and slammed it into the scarred boy’s chest, Ji Rong was launched back, coughing violently as he landed in a crouch.

Floating on the breeze, Ling Qi adjusted her melody, and emerald sparks danced in her eyes. Vital wood qi rippled out, and the fading bark textured energy clinging to Gan Guangli and Ma Lei’s armor rekindled, renewing their protection. Gan laughed, and Ji Rong cursed.

It ended quickly after that. Gan Guangli kept up the offense while Ling Qi isolated and drained the other raiders of qi one at a time. Ji Rong thrashed and fought like a wild beast, but four on one was too much.

The raiders were soon facedown in the dirt, unconscious and quickly bound, and their belongings seized. Ling Qi was pleased to be the proud owner of a higher quality storage ring with nearly twice the space of her old one.

Sun Liling wouldn’t recover easily from this. Aside from her vassal Lu Feng, Ji Rong and Kang Zihao were really her only major supporters, and with Kang Zihao still in seclusion, Ji Rong had been the one carrying Sun Liling’s offensive efforts against Cai Renxiang. Going forward, Cai Renxiang’s faction would have an advantage against Sun Liling’s.

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