His fist slammed into the wall, and just like the last dozen times, there wasn’t a single mark or crack in the smooth, featureless stone.
Letting out a frustrated snarl, Ji Rong spun on his heel and returned to pacing the tiny cell he had been stuffed in. Barely a dozen paces across in any direction, the hollow cube was driving him nuts. At least when that scaly freak had sealed him the first time, he hadn’t been aware of the time passing. This was worse.
He couldn’t recover his qi and try to blast his way out of here. Any time he tried to draw in qi, the damn bone collar around his neck would heat up and drain it away before he could do anything. He couldn’t even cultivate!
That damned Cai!
He slammed his fist into the wall again, breathing heavily as he leaned against the flat surface, the stone cool against his forehead. He wanted nothing more than to beat that smug expression off her damn face.
When he’d still been playing along with her stupid rules, Xuan had come up to him, warbling some cryptic bullshit about breaking trust and corruption, and he knew he’d been had. Inviting him had just been a trap. Something to give her an excuse to put down the uppity commoner.
They were always like that, mortal or immortal. Nobles that sneered down at the people below them like so much trash. He was so damned sick of it, but it seemed that it was impossible to escape.
In the end, he still wasn’t strong enough. He was sure that he could beat that Gan guy in a straight fight. Getting stomped on by four goons and that tricky girl as well? No shit he couldn’t beat that. That Ling Qi girl alone was trouble, but backing up a guy like Gan? No, he'd need more than some Sun faction fodder to match that.
Ji Rong grunted as he dropped to the floor, seating himself against the wall. That wasn’t right either. If he hadn’t gotten jumped unaware, he coulda gotten out of that. Chu had given him a talisman just for that.
He shifted uncomfortably at the thought of the older girl. She made him feel weird. From the day she’d saved his ass from those spirits on the upper mountain, she’d treated him like a dumb kid. It would have pissed him off normally, getting pitied like that. Being looked down on.
Maybe it was just the way she did it. She treated him like a stupid little brother, tripping into trouble.
Pale and still, lying on the straw mats in their ruined home, blood dried on her lips. Just one more victim that no one gave a shit about.
The collar around his neck burned painfully hot, and for an instant, sparks crackled around his bare fists. Fucking Huangs. The fact that Cai had invited that scumbag shoulda been enough to tell him she wasn’t any different. He’d bought it though.
Justice was bullshit, as always. At least Sun Liling didn’t pretend to be anything but what she was: a bigger thug.
He could remember the predatory smirk on her face as she broke him out of the time lock formation and made her offer. It had been music to his ears, furious as he was. Even now, he didn’t regret accepting. They had almost beaten that damned Cai in the first big fight against Cai’s council.
Chu Song had tried to warn him away after that, but he couldn’t bring himself to listen. She thought that Liling was leading him around by the dick, but that wasn’t true.
Well. Not entirely true. He could admit that Sun Liling was easily the most attractive girl he had ever seen. He wasn’t made of stone.
But he followed her because he knew she was right. She only bothered with all the bullshit about face and niceties when she had to. She was just as cruel as any other noble, but it was an honest, direct cruelty. He’d be lying if he said he didn’t find it exciting.
He couldn’t picture the bloody princess skulking around preying on mortals. Tigers didn’t hunt mice.
She would get him out of here. He was confident in that. He was still strong, stronger than anyone else following her. Kang, the stuck-up ass, had been failing to break through for weeks now, and he hated following her besides. It was obvious to anyone who spent five minutes in that jackass’ presence. He resented all of them.
So she’d come for him, one way or another, and then…
He jerked as the wall across from him rumbled, shooting to his feet as his hands rose into a solid guard stance. The stone rippled like water, flowing apart, and the fresh qi from outside struck him like a wave. He breathed it in, feeling the collar heat. Was this his chance…?
“Yo. You look like shit.”
He came up short as he caught sight of bright red hair and heard a familiar voice. Sun Liling stood before him at the entrance to his cell, her arms crossed under her chest. She was flanked by two of Cai’s enforcers, who stood stiffly and warily behind her.
“You look like you just came from a tea party,” he responded dryly. She was wearing a dress. He’d never seen her wear any dress before. It was a fancy-looking thing covered in floral embroidery without the wide sleeves and trailing hem that other girls on the mountain seemed to prefer. He preferred those clingy silk pants she usually wore, if he were being honest.
“Don’t remind me,” Sun Liling said sourly, her face scrunching up in distaste. “Get outta there. We need to go.”
“They on the take?” he asked, gesturing to the enforcers, even as he hurried to step out of the cell lest it close with him in it.
“As if I’d stoop so low,” she retorted, stepping aside smoothly to give him room, smirking at the glowering enforcers. “Nah. This is all nice and legitimate.”
He scowled. Had he misjudged her that badly? There was only one way this kind of thing got settled “legitimately.” Combined with the dress, that only pointed to one thing. His expression made his conclusion obvious.
“Do not say a word.” The statement was as cold as her eyes, lacking any of the drawl that she usually affected. “Get the collar off of him,” she added, her gaze flicking back to an enforcer who shivered under her gaze. Wimp.
He stood stiffly as the boy did something with his collar. It clicked open, freeing him from its weight. He managed to keep his silence until they were well away from the isolated building he had been kept under. It was quite a feat given the anger boiling in his stomach.
“I can’t believe you just gave up!” The words exploded out of him. “I thought you were better than that! What happened to all that big ta-”
Stars exploded in his vision as the back of her knuckles met his lips, and he flew backward, slamming painfully into one of the trees that lined the path and sliding down.
“The guy who got stuffed in a box doesn’t get to talk like that.” He groaned as she spoke, blinking away the spots in his vision to find her looming over him. He grunted as her foot impacted his chest, pinning him to the tree.
He shuddered at the bloodlust he could feel thrumming in her qi as she stared down at him like a beast ready to tear him apart. She hadn’t gone soft then, he thought through the ringing in his skull.
“... Why then?” he asked defiantly at the beautiful red-haired monster.
“I’m done playin’ her game, that’s what,” Sun Liling replied, her eyes narrowed. “I’m done wasting resources on something pointless.”
“So you gave up,” Ji Rong pointed out flatly.
“Man, d’you like getting your ass kicked?” Liling asked. “We’re pulling back till we have the advantage.”
“And what’s that supposed to mean?” He spit blood from his split lip to the side.
“It means we’re focusing on the tournament,” she replied, lifting her foot away. Some part of him felt vaguely disappointed. “Let Cai play house for a few months. We’ll break them in the ring where they can’t run,” Liling said darkly as she turned away, “in front of the eyes of all the Empire.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” he asked as he stood unsteadily.
“There’s gonna be a lot of important folks watching this year’s tourney,” Liling said lightly. “Even Gramps is gonna send a simulacrum. I’ll be needing your help to make sure Cai and all of her little minions are humiliated. I can’t be in every bracket myself after all.”
“I still don’t like it,” he said mulishly. “We’re still letting them win now.”
“And that’s why you’d be a shitty commander,” Liling said flatly. “If you can’t even accept making a feint to win the overall fight, I don’t have any use for you.” She turned back to face him, staring him down.
It burned, but… she wasn’t wrong. As things were, he was just hurting himself. He was close to breakthrough, but if he kept letting himself get set back…
“Fine,” he ground out. “What do we do then?”
“You? You're gonna get a little ‘training from hell.’” Liling’s smile sent a chill down his spine. “And when you get your chance in the tournament … don’t disappoint me.”