“May I ask what your original plan for this was?” Ling Qi asked, glancing over at her friend from her perch among the tree branches. They were at the edge of the lake which Yan Renshu’s central base was in. They had hurried here, knowing that even if their opponent couldn’t see exactly what had happened, he was likely aware that something had happened.

“I had intended to collapse the structure,” Meizhen answered. She stood on a thin branch, which somehow held her weight without bending. “Then trace the trail of his escape method if he had one.”

Ling Qi grimaced. “Wouldn’t that have good odds of, well, killing him?”

“A terrible tragedy indeed,” her friend said dryly without looking away from the lake. “I, of course, had intelligence indicating that he was elsewhere at the time. But even if he weren’t, a cultivator of the earth element would be hardier than that." Her tone told Ling Qi she found the question ridiculous.

Even if death was an unlikely outcome, Ling Qi found the flippancy with which Bai Meizhen referred to another disciple’s death to be disheartening. She didn’t doubt that her friend could get away with an excuse like that should it come to that. The Bai were on the outs with the Imperial court, but in the end, the Sect wouldn’t risk giving insult to a founding house over someone like Yan Renshu. The more she learned about Imperial politics, the less she liked them.

“So… will I be sneaking in via a tunnel again?”

Bai Meizhen shook her head slightly, white hair swaying in the wind. “I will approach the front gate and use a Siegebreaker Rod. While polished, his formation arts lack sufficient safeguards against being overloaded.”

“... What is a Seigebreaker Rod?” Ling Qi asked, morbidly curious. Within her dantian, Zhen seemed to be curious, perking up at her thoughts of explosions.

“It is a somewhat antiquated tool of warfare but suitable for our purposes. It breaks low ranking arrays within a certain radius in a manner which leads to their invested qi exploding.” She glanced at Ling Qi. “There are safeguards against such things, but they are beyond the resources of a common Sect Disciple.”

Ling Qi grimaced as they dropped down to the ground. “How much are you spending on this?”

“It does not matter. A few baubles are no concern to me,” Meizhen evaded. “He will either flee or prepare to confront me. In the latter case, remain hidden until we are engaged.”

“Sure, I have your back,” Ling Qi replied without hesitation, putting aside her concerns for the moment as she faded back into the undergrowth. “Be safe, Meizhen.”

“Of course,” her friend said, stepping smoothly out of the shadows and onto the surface of the lake. The dim light of the moon overhead shone on her hair and white gown. Meizhen made no effort to hide herself, standing out like a candle on the dark surface of the lake. She strode forward across the water, seeming to flow across the rippling surface as she approached the rocky island in the center. There was no response from Yan Renshu that Ling Qi could see, but she remained tense all the same. Ling Qi could make it across the span of water in a single dash if she tried, and she readied herself to do just that if necessary.

Soon, Meizhen approached a recess in the sheer cliff, and Ling Qi’s sharp eyes caught the appearance of the black rod in her hand as she strode imperiously toward what Ling Qi assumed to be the entrance. Leaning forward, she watched as her friend reached the cliffside and stretched out her hand.

She felt it then, a flare of jagged, sharp-edged qi as the rod touched stone. A sharp crack followed like a sledgehammer striking a boulder, then a blinding flash and the sound of shattering rock. When Ling Qi blinked away the spots, she saw a yawning crack running straight up the cliff face and the crumbled remains of a hidden door. With the smoke and dust rising from the passage beyond, she could just barely see fires flickering inside.

For Meizhen’s part, she stood where she had been before, a thick, glittering sphere of water slowly retracting into her hooded mantle of black water. She stepped into the shadow of the ruined door without further pause, and Ling Qi took that as her cue to cross the lake. Meizhen certainly had Yan Renshu’s attention now.

Ling Qi blurred, becoming little more than a flitting shadow as she crossed the distance in a single fluttering bound and landed on the cracked cliff face.

“- tire of your cowardice, Yan Renshu.” Ling Qi heard her friend say as she ducked inside, using the cracks left in the walls and ceiling to creep along above and behind Meizhen. “Emerge and surrender, or suffer further ruin.” Meizhen, she had to admit, had “imperious disdain" down to an art form.

Meizhen walked ahead of her, her steps not disturbing the water steadily flooding in from the shattered doorway. The narrow hall was lit by unnatural firelight, and the remains of formation arrays burned and sparked on all sides, carefully shaped characters melting the stone they were painted on or chiseled into. Meizhen passed the side halls that branched off with nary a glance, and Ling Qi followed, keeping a careful eye out for any intact formations or hidden puppets.

As they neared a large circular room filled with mirrors, Ling Qi saw the damage from Meizhen’s first use of the rod had tapered off. Her friend came to a halt, golden eyes glowing faintly in the darkness. Cui coiled around her shoulders, hissing softly as her mantle rippled.

“Do not think that I cannot sense you further within, worm. Do you imagine that your burrow can still hide you?”

For a moment, as Meizhen’s voice echoed down the hall, Ling Qi thought that Yan Renshu would continue to ignore her. But when Bai Meizhen raised the hand holding the Siegebreaker Rod again, she was proven wrong. The walls and ceiling rippled like water, and pillars of stone erupted to crash down on Meizhen’s position.

Strands of metal sang, and two pillars were shredded to gravel as Meizhen expressed her weapon and flicked her wrist. A third exploded violently, showering the hall with pebbles when a thick heavy blade appeared over Meizhen’s shoulder and smashed it apart with thunderous force. The rest, Meizhen simply avoided, twisting out of the way with impossible grace.

From within the mirror room, hidden alcoves opened, a half dozen black iron puppets emerging with a variety of weapons forged onto their limbs. Formations flared to life on the walls, and characters burned on the surface of the puppets, blazing with empowering qi. Yet, compared to the last time, their numbers were meagre.

Then the tip of the black rod in Meizhen’s hand touched the frame of the doorway, that terrible jagged qi erupted again, and the room exploded. Ling Qi winced, pulling back back as a cacophony of shattering glass and shrieking metal reached her ears. When she opened her eyes, she saw the room ahead reduced to shambles, dust and dirt drifting down from the cracked ceiling as the entire structure shuddered. The puppets lay in shattered fragments on the floor.

Meizhen’s talisman was crumbling, drifting like ash from her fingers, its power spent. The sight made something clench in her gut. What had to be months of work by Yan Renshu had been ruined in an instant by Bai Meizhen, just like what had happened when Cai Renxiang had made her move. This was what it looked like for someone of mortal background to face a scion of the old nobility bent on their destruction. Yan Renshu’s final defense, his last respite, broken by some trinket from Meizhen’s clan vaults.

... It made her glad that she had made the friends she did.

“I have had enough of your toys and your minions.” Meizhen’s cold voice rang out, distorted by the water shroud still rippling around her. “Fight, flee, or kowtow. My mercy is coming to its end.”

Ling Qi felt Yan Renshu’s presence, a deep earth-tinged and sickly qi like a sucknig mudpit, before she saw or heard him.

“I have seen the mercy of your type.” His distorted voice echoed from the far hall. “It is not worth much.” The boy’s voice was full of hate as he stepped out of the smoking hall across from Meizhen. “You will break what you will, take what you will, and call yourself kind for leaving behind a few scraps.”

Ling Qi frowned as she peered at the figure wrapped in thick violet mist, barely visible at its center. Within her dantian, Zhengui was almost vibrating with excitement; he wanted to help her beat the bad guy. She quelled him with a quiet thought as she crept closer.

“Your estimation is incorrect, but only as a matter of degrees,” Meizhen admitted as she casually stepped forward into the ruined mirror chamber. “You have joined our game. The fault for being under-equipped lies with you.” The sword hovering over Meizhen’s shoulder shot forward then, the air screaming in its wake.

In response, the violet mist erupted, boiling outward to consume the room. A disc of dull metal emerged to block the strike from Meizhen’s flying sword with a sharp crack. Sparks erupted where they met, and the flying weapon spun away while the disc fell to the ground in shards. There was a rumble from the entrance as water swept in, pulled by a flaring of her friend’s qi, and the lakewater that flooded into the room on a wave failed to touch her.

Ling Qi kept her eyes peeled, flattening herself against the ceiling in a literal sense as she became a shadow, flitting from one patch to the next as she waited for her moment to strike. Water and acidic mist clashed, and she saw worms erupt from the ground, much bigger than the sentries they had slain before. Cui lashed out, coiling around and biting one. Another shrieked as Meizhen’s whipping ribbon blades tore it apart.

As she waded into the mist, Ling Qi finally caught a glimpse of her opponent. She dived, slipping through the shadows of the many worms boiling from the earth. Even in her distorted senses, the oily feeling of his qi was unpleasant.

She finally saw Yan Renshu clearly then. He was a stocky young man with a shaved head wearing a dark green and black robe, but his back was bent and his right shoulder twisted by some damage. In his hands, he wielded a staff of dark wood. He glared hatefully at Meizhen, a snarl on his scarred face.

Yan Renshu did not stride on the ground but slithered, moving via a carpet of writhing, slimy black worms that poured from the hem of his robe. The violet mist clung to him like a cloak, compressing to near solidity here and there like plates of writhing armor. Before him floated a slab of black rock curved like a shield. Power radiated from it, and she recognized the stony shield as a domain weapon.

So, it was only when Meizhen’s flying sword screamed through the air and the shield blinked upward to block it that she made the final jump, diving into Yan Renshu’s shadow. Immersed in it, out of touch with the physical world, the verbal barbs the combatants traded were blurred as if she were listening from underwater.

Immaterial still, Ling Qi drew back the string of her bow and let wind and lightning flow through her arms. Ling Qi felt the twitch of awareness pass through her opponent’s qi, but it was too late.

Ling Qi emerged from his shadow, the sparking head of her arrow barely an arm’s length from Yan Renshu’s back, and loosed.

The explosion of lightning rocked the cave. Ling Qi was already dodging backward, skipping meters back to regain her distance and avoid the spinning staff strike that whistled through the clinging acidic mist. She was less prepared when a massive shape rose from the writhing worms, a rounded head and a circular maw lined with teeth, ringed by beady black eyes and wet with slime. She had just a moment to remember the lightning that had chased her from Yan Renshu’s first lair as sparks danced in the beast’s maw.

Lightning erupted, and Ling Qi raised her arm to defend, flaring with emerald qi.

Bad man!’ Twin voices roared as a shape materialized in front of her, a high spiky shell and a sinuous serpent, rearing back to strike. Her eyes flew open in alarm as the lightning struck her little brother, and he cried out in pain.

There was a thunderous crack as Meizhen’s domain blade impacted Yan Renshu’s shield again, its supernaturally sharp edge gouging the stone and leaving a fissure across its surface. Meizhen advanced behind it with ominous steps, fully cloaked in her Abyssal mantle. Her golden eyes gleamed from the shadows as metal ribbons and lake water alike carved a bloody path through the tide of worms. Water trailed from the hem of her gown like a serpent’s tail.

A smoking wound scored Yan Renshu’s side where her arrow had drawn blood, and his face was drawn in a grimace of pain and growing desperation as the hungry tendrils of violet mist that sought to engulf Meizhen were carved to drifting shreds by the flash of metal ribbons.

Ling Qi didn’t care. Wind surged through her spine and lightning sparked from her bow as she fired three arrows in rapid succession. Yan Renshu’s worm beast roared in irritation and pain as arrows sprouted from its stony hide.

To her relief, Zhengui shook himself, rising back off of the floor with sparks still dancing across his shell. His blunt claws dug into stone, and she could feel his qi spreading roots that drew vitality from the earth to repair his wounds. Zhen reared back, spitting again and again, charring and burning swathes of the smaller worms that tried to swarm them.

“Enough dregs.” Meizhen’s voice was an icy hiss, and it was only her many sessions training with Meizhen that allowed her to not freeze up as a wave of primal terror rippled out from the girl’s golden eyes. Its icy claws dragged at her mind, washed the colors from the world, and vibrated the very air.

All around her, worms spasmed and died, their hearts, or what passed for hearts, failing under an inundation of supernatural fear. Yan Renshu’s brow was marked by sweat, but he stood where his summons and minions died.

Ling Qi had to concern herself with his spirit beast. The worm lunged for Zhengui, meters of oily flesh emerging from the rock as her little brother withdrew into his shell. He fell to the floor with a stony thump as the beast coiled around him, hammering and gnawing at his shell with its toothy, acid-dripping maw. Zhen struck and bit at the beast, but his fangs failed to find purchase on the rubbery hide.

Breathe. Draw. Release. An arrow loosed, a crackling bolt that hissed and spat as it ricocheted, leaving only a glancing wound. Again. The arrowhead bit a shallow gouge into black flesh.

Again. Again.

Arrow after arrow she fired into the putrid thing, that tempestuous rhythm of a released bowstring playing out as fast as the materialisation from her ring would allow. A frustrated stamp of her foot against the stone floor sent a pulse of wood qi towards her little brother, Hundred Ring’s Armament blooming over his shell.

Across the room, Meizhen and Yan Renshu dueled, and even at this distance, she could feel the wind and pressure from their weapons. Of their duel, she could only see a blur of violet mist, whitecapped water, steel and wood. This… This was the difference between the second realm and the third.

As Zhengui let out a yelp of pain, Ling Qi’s lips drew back in a snarl, and she dropped her bow with a clatter. By instinct, her flute found its way to her hands. She had no musical techniques or arts that did harm directly. She didn’t have time to wear the beast down with her mists.

But she had spent the last few months learning song from Zeqing, a spirit of ice and death. She had learned that there was more to music than mere physical sound, that emotion could scar the world as easily as a sword. Ling Qi raised her flute to her lips and played a single stanza of hate.

Over the clash between Meizhen and Yan Renshu, over her spirit’s cries, her music rang out, and the beast attacking him recoiled. Ling Qi stepped forward, wood qi armoring her body and limbs, and played another stanza. She felt it this time in the senses she had only recently begun to properly develop and saw the gash appear in the beast’s aura. It screamed, uncoiling from Zhengui to spit lightning, and Ling Qi snarled back in defiance, layering Deepwood Vitality atop Hundred Ring’s Armament.

It shattered, forcing her a step back, but she was unharmed. She played again. This time, the creature’s spirit tore, and in the physical world, its flesh burst open, toxic green blood oozing down its side.

Zhen’s fang’s dug into the worm’s open wound, pumping liquid flame into exposed and vulnerable flesh. The worm screamed, and its powerful coils flexed, hurling Zhengui at her and tearing the fangs from its flesh. Ling Qi dodged aside on a flow of shadow, and wove again the armor of Deepwood Vitality around Zhengui. She was burning quickly through her qi reserves. It was only made worse as she played another bar, the sharp notes cutting deeply into the beast’s aura. She knew she was wasting qi with this unrefined, untrained attack, but nothing else had been working.

There was a crack then. Yan Renshu’s shield had cracked into two broken pieces. The boy screamed as Meizhen’s poison-edged ribbons carved through armor and robe to scour his chest. He kicked out to knock away Cui, who had sunk her fangs into his calf, and leapt back.

“Choke on your victory then,” he snarled. His beast dissolved into oily black smoke. There was a faint shimmer as something materialized in his hand, a ceramic sphere that glowed with a complex web of formations.

Before she could do more than begin to prepare herself to defend, Bai Meizhen moved. She blurred in Ling Qi’s vision, and a pale white hand snapped out to grasp Yan Renshu’s wrist. Violet mist erupted, sizzling as it engulfed them both, dissolving stone and rock. Ling Qi cried out, forcing her depleted qi to ripple out and armor Meizhen too. Her friend’s eyes burned in the darkness.

“No escape. No tricks.” The words echoed as if from underwater. There was an ugly, painful crack, and Yan Renshu howled in pain as his mist dispersed. The talisman he had drawn fell from his hand, and there was a flash of green as Cui lunged from the water underfoot to snatch it from the air and swallow it down.

Yan Renshu had fallen to his knees before Meizhen, and his hand hung limp. His wrist was bent and twisted in her grip, purple and bleeding flesh bulging between her dainty fingers. Even then, he struggled to rise before potent, venomous qi pulsed from Meizhen’s hand. Then he stilled.

It was only Ling Qi’s enhanced senses that let her see that he was still breathing. His expression, still twisted in pain and fury, twitched violently. He was paralyzed.

Did… did we beat the bad man?’ Ling Qi was distracted as Zhengui limped up beside her, gravel from the crater he had made in the wall still falling from his shell.

“Yeah, we did,” Ling Qi said quietly, reaching down to pat his head. “Good job.”

...That’s good. Gui is tired,’ he mumbled.

“You can both rest then,” Ling Qi said, and with a tug on their bond, he dematerialized, returning to her dantian.

“You are carrying this,” Meizhen said bluntly, releasing Yan Renshu’s broken wrist. She gave her bloodied fingers a disgusted look. Here and there, Bai Meizhen’s skin was reddened with mild burns, and her lower lip was split, but that was the only sign of the fight.

Ling Qi grimaced, looking at Yan Renshu. “I guess we need to get him to Cai Renxiang.”

“Unless you wish this venture to have been a waste,” Meizhen replied with a sniff, turning away to exit.

Ling Qi eyed the paralyed boy’s expression and the boiling hate she could feel behind his eyes.

She wondered if she was making a mistake.

A note from Yrsillar

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