Soon enough, she stood a few dozen meters from the entrance to the dragon’s vale, fingering a small stone talisman. It was little more than a smooth river rock, but when she had visited Gu Tai as he had asked, he had pressed it into her hand.
“Consider it a gift for good luck. When river dragons strike, their movements are followed by a shadow of water, sharp as a well-forged sword,” he had said with a smile. “Just crush the stone before the battle, and it will disperse the force of a blow or two from that shadow.”
“Is this really okay?” she had asked, looking down at the talisman.
“I am courting you,” he had said with a dismissive gesture, making her glance away uncomfortably. “The Sect will not be angry over a few little tokens.”
“I didn’t mean that,” Ling Qi had replied, though it was interesting to know that the Sect apparently frowned on too much outside interference. She wondered if there was some hard limit to the aid disciples could receive or if it was one of those unspoken agreements. “I mean, can I really use an item like this and not taint the outcome in the dragon’s mind?”
“The only fair fight is one that you win,” Gu Tai had replied, giving her an amused look. “Honor is a human concept. A dragon might be enraged by being defeated solely by a sneak attack or ambush, but they are hardly the sort to object to the use of treasures. The earliest formations come from the tongue of dragons.”
Ling Qi took a deep breath, letting the memory drift away as she palmed the stone talisman and crushed it in her grip. It crumbled like wet sand, and she could suddenly feel the moisture in the air being drawn to her skin. The talisman was usually meant for journeys in the wastes, and if acting to draw in water from the air to keep a traveler hydrated, it would last all day.
In battle, its power would be used up quickly, but it would give her time to get her defensive arts set up.
Ling Qi shook off those thoughts as she reached the entrance of the vale. She could see the fruit trees in the distance, their leaves made red by the light of sundown. She stopped a few meters from the river’s edge and squared her shoulders as she prepared to speak.
“Honored Dragon, this disciple of the Argent Peak would speak with you!” she called loudly, letting her voice echo over the vale. She watched the water carefully as she waited for him to surface, prepared to draw her flute at any moment.
She wasn’t left to wait long. The water of the river began to churn and froth, and from it emerged the reptilian head of the azure scaled dragon. He seemed much bigger awake than he had when he was asleep. His long, snake-like neck brought his head far above hers, and his green, reptilian eyes stared down at her with disdain as his short claws came to rest on the riverbank, his claws sinking into the mud.
“For what reason do you interrupt my repose, human?’” The dragon's voice was that of an arrogant boy around her own age, and it emerged from his open jaws without any movement of his teeth or tongue. “Do you have a message from my Venerable Mother?” He sounded expectant.
The dragon was only a single step above her in the third realm. She could do this.
“I am afraid not,” she replied, inclining her head only slightly, as one would in a polite conversation with a peer. The dragon’s eyes immediately narrowed. “I am here of my own volition. I intend to negotiate for the use of your vale in cultivation.”
“You overstep yourself, disciple,” the dragon said coldly. “I see no gifts, no tribute, to cause me to consider such a thing. You have not even bowed properly to your superior. Get you gone before my ire is aroused further.”
“Tribute may be negotiated once certain matters are established,” Ling Qi said evenly, locking her eyes with the huge reptile’s. Her heart was pounding, but if she never truly challenged herself, how would she know where she stood? “I have given to you all the respect that you have earned. If you think me rude, please present your arguments.”
A low furious hiss was her only warning before the river surged up, frothing and white-capped, to descend on her in a meters high wave. In that frozen instant, she could see the muddy river bottom, the stones gleaming in the evening sun.
Then she was a shadow, dancing away from the crashing waters with nary a drop touching even the hem of her gown. As cool, dark qi pulsed in her limbs, Ling Qi took off toward the stand of fruit trees, her slippered feet pattering soundlessly across the ground, bending not a single blade of grass.
Her opponent was not so quiet. A roar that shook her to the very bone erupted from behind her, anda slight glance showed the serpentine beast charging forth from the river, cloaked by coiling currents of water that wrapped around his form and clung to his fangs and limbs. Yet she was the best friend of Bai Meizhen. Such a paltry sound could not rouse the instinctive animal fear that it was meant to.
She might have gotten a little arrogant, somewhere along the line, Ling Qi thought idly. Pushing the thought away, Ling Qi re-focused on the battle. Her flute appeared in her hand with a flicker, and the notes of her first melody rolled out across the vale, bringing with it the rolling mist. The dragon charged in without a single concern, and she felt the effects of the mist take hold as it clung thickly to the beast, clouding his senses.
Yet she was not hidden, and so the wall of scale and muscle descending upon her found little trouble in homing in on her position at the edge of the trees. As she thought, if she remained close to the fruit trees, he would not risk wide area attacks.
The dragon was fast, so much faster than anything his size should be. She found any potential avenues of retreat cut off by his sinuous tail as his body wound through the trees, surrounding her where she played, and his claws flashed out, tearing through the air where she had stood just moments before. As Gu Tai had warned, currents of water followed in the wake of the dragon’s claws, and it was only Gu Tai’s gift that stopped that razor lash from scoring a hit on the initial blow.
With a better understanding of the dragon’s speed, Ling Qi danced among the snapping fangs and razor claws as she continued to play, her skin taking on a faint green glow as wood was layered over darkness, hardening her defenses further. She felt qi flowing back into her from the roots beneath her feet, replenishing what little she had spent as she entered the next stage of her melody. The mist wrapped around the dragon much more tightly, heavy and draining, but the beast merely snarled, the jewel on his throat pulsing with light as he blew her mist away in a powerful surge of qi, leaving her briefly exposed.
She flitted through the storm of attacks that followed, retreating deeper into the trees. The dragon followed eagerly, winding his way among the smooth trunks, and the currents of water around his form boiled with fury.
Ling Qi simply continued to play, calling on the mist once again, letting it pour from her flute and turn the stand of trees into a ghostly maze. She had felt it. It cost the dragon more qi to dispel her mist than it did for her to call it again, and he had not blown her technique away easily. She needed only to hold out.
The next exchange of blows used up the charm Gu Tai had given her, but by then, it had performed its purpose. With no thought for striking back, Ling Qi layered defense upon defense, his attacks biting at the the edges of her qi, scratching at armor of impenetrable wood or passing through her like smoke
In the darkening vale, her mist was blown away again and again, yet it always crept back, called by her flute. Ling Qi wondered if this was what Meizhen felt like fighting her, but no, that wasn’t right. Even with all of her techniques up, there was an edge of desperation to her movements that had not appeared in even the hardest of spars with Meizhen, the knowledge that if she slipped up even once, the dragon would score a telling blow. The dragon continued to ramp up his attacks to meet her defense, the raging current of his attacks only letting up when he had to pause to blow away her mist.
By the time the dragon’s qi guttered out, night had fallen, and Ling Qi was all the stronger for it.
“Are you satisfied now?” Ling Qi asked, finally lowering her flute. She had almost half of her own qi left, so she let the haunting tune continue to play.
“I am not defeated!” the dragon snapped, visible through her mist by his glowing eyes as she stalked a circle around him.
“You are,” Ling Qi said confidently, not letting anything but that emotion show. “You have spent yourself, and I am unmarked.”
A low, rumbling growl escaped from the dragon, and she could see the whiplike tip of his tail flicking agitatedly through the air. “You have not struck back even once. You will tire yourself eventually, human, and then you will see what a dragon’s might can do.”
Ling Qi narrowed her eyes and raised her flute back to her lips, causing the dragon to tense. She blew a single sharp note, and the ground in front of the dragon’s feet exploded, showering the clearing with dirt.
“I refrained from striking back out of respect for your Venerable Mother, and nothing more. Will you hide behind her… scales?” She had wanted to say gowns but ended up reaching for something more appropriate for a dragon. This was harder than she thought.
The river dragon had taken a step back at her rebuke. “... No. I would not. Your words are no lie,” he said, frustrated.
Given the number of perception and detection techniques he had used to keep up with her, she had no doubt that he could read the truth in her words.
“Will you speak with me then?” she asked calmly. “I am Outer Disciple Ling Qi. I apologize for failing to introduce myself earlier.” Despite her words, she kept her head high, staring down the looming beast in the dark.
“I bear the name Heizu, until the day I might earn my own,” the dragon said proudly, but at the same time, she could see the slight lowering of his head, his neck curving to bring him down to a more even height with her. “What do you offer in return for use of my vale?”
“I believe I have shown you my skill as a musician,” Ling Qi noted, her lips curving into a grin as the dragon twitched at that. “I had thought to offer you more pleasant songs to pass the hours with while I am present.”
“And you request only to cultivate here yourself?” Heizui asked suspiciously, albeit without the condescension and scorn that had colored their initial interaction. “I will not give my fruit, nor my fish, to anyone.”
“I would bring my spirit beast as well,” Ling Qi said evenly as the notes of her song began to fade. “He is a young Xuan Wu,” she added, which seemed to somewhat mollify the dragon. “But no, I ask only to cultivate. Should I desire to bring anyone else, we can negotiate further tribute for their passage.”
“Acceptable,” Heizui said after a moment. “Do not grow arrogant though, human. With this, I have seen where I am weak. Do not expect to find me so easy a foe again.”
“Of course not,” Ling Qi replied. “But I will not stand still either.”
The dragon let out an irritable snort, sounding remarkably like a large horse. “You will leave now. You may cultivate during the day when I might be awake to watch you.”
“Thank you for your time,” Ling Qi said. “But remember where we stand.” It wasn’t in her nature to be so aggressive, but Gu Tai’s had reminded her to make sure that she didn’t let the dragon’s respect slip away.
Heizui stared at her then reluctantly lowered his head more. “My apologies. I am tired, and so spoke shortly.”
Ling Qi nodded in satisfaction and turned away, leaving the vale behind. Only when she reached the mountain, well out of range of the dragon’s perception, did she allow herself to sway and lean against a tree, the fatigue in her limbs making her tremble despite the qi still coursing through her channels. That had been the longest fight she had ever been in, and with her mist blown away again and again, she could not grow comfortable as she had with the mimic worm.
All the same, she couldn’t help but grin. She had triumphed over a dragon!