They stood atop a snowy cliff, the falling snow separating them like a gauzy veil.

Ling Qi held her flute, loose and ready, while the wind tugged at the trailing hem of her silken gown and the free strands of her hair. At Ling Qi’s side, her little brother rippled with heat, the fires burning within melted away snow and left the young snake-tortoise standing on bare rock while falling flakes turned to drizzling rain above his head. Determination radiated from the young spirit almost as obviously as his heat. Over her shoulder, a twisted blade of dark metal hummed softly, mist spilling from the gaps in its odd spiralling blade.

Across, Meizhen stood, a pale shadow in the falling snow, with a pool of writhing shadow at her feet spilling across the snow like ink. In her right hand was the handle of the strange ribbon sword that her friend wielded, its many sharp-edged blades slithering over one another like live serpents.

“Ready?” Ling Qi asked, examining her friend’s stance. It was perfect as always, the seeming lack of guard a lethal trap for those who did not understand how the ribbon blades could move.

“I am,” Meizhen replied with the slightest dip of her head.

Meizhen wasn’t taking this spar seriously. There were a thousand indicators of this, recognizable only due to her familiarity with the girl. It was not any different than Meizhen’s normal attitude, but today, she felt irked by it. She had grown stronger in the past few months; surely she could at least push the other girl.

Ling Qi inhaled, and sang, the full weight of her spirit making the wordless song reverberate in the air. Her voice cut through wind and snow, freezing the rain falling over Zhengui’s head, and sent the falling flakes spinning dizzily outward. She caught a momentary widening in her friend’s eyes as the song washed over her, and she was gratified to see the pale girl take a single step back, even as snow swirled violently around Meizhen, dissolving into a cloak of dark waters that cast her face into shadow, leaving only the glow of her golden eyes visible.

Layers of ice formed across the liquid mantle as it absorbed the incredible cold, drawing it hungrily in before it could touch pale flesh, and Ling Qi felt the dip in her friend’s qi reserves from defending against the assault. Her eyes met Meizhen’s, and her wish was conveyed.

Her friend’s golden gaze hardened, taking the challenge and request in stride. Before the ice could even begin to properly slough off, it crumbled into slush at the serpentine girl’s feet. Meizhen’s wrist twitched, and a half dozen blades snapped toward her with a metallic hiss. Dark green qi pulsed, enshrouding her in a layer of barklike armor, even as Ling Qi leaped back in a puff of snow, making distance.

It wasn’t enough to escape those reaching blades though. Silvery metal slashed through vital qi and living silk alike, tracing a line of blood across her hip. Ling Qi twisted to avoid the rest of the blades, leaving them to scythe through the cliff face behind her with a sibilant hiss, leaving deep, smooth grooves in stone. Her new flying weapon, the Singing Mist Blade, shot forward, zig-zagging through the snowy sky, its faint hum rising into a whistling screech, blowing away snow and sending ripples across Meizhen’s watery mantle. A scowl found its way onto Ling Qi’s face as it failed to do anything else; the blade’s flight was still jerky, and the projection of her power limited and weak.

She flinched when the mass of Bai Meizhen’s own domain blade smashed into her own with the weight of a landslide. The impact was as jarring as if she had blocked the blade with her own limb. She felt cracks forming in the material as the newly forged weapon spun away, whistling miserably, but she could not spare it any more attention. Meizhen was advancing.

The pool of darkness at Meizhen’s feet rippled, and Ling Qi had barely an instant to prepare herself before a wave of terror washed over her. Ling Qi’s vision wavered, and she beheld a terrible army arrayed under a cloudy sky, twisted beastmen baying for blood, and felt the spear in her hands tremble with the pounding of ten thousand boots on the earth.

Worst were the screams of the barbarian’s banners…

The vision disappeared as Ling Qi exhaled, expelling the foreign qi with a quick cycling of her own. Zhengui seemed to have thrown it off as well. The young snake-tortoise let out a stubborn cry and filled the air with ash while his serpentine half spat in defiance, a burning glob of superheated venom splashing across the writhing shadow and drawing a cry like a gutted man’s death rattle from the terror spirit.

Unfortunately for her rattled nerves, Meizhen was advancing, seeming to glide across the surface of the snow at a measured pace, and with her approach came her blood-chilling presence. Ling Qi had long since grown acclimated to her friend’s natural fear aura, but Meizhen’s directed, focused attention was like a mountain weighing on Ling Qi’s shoulders, and Meizhen appeared to now loom over her, far larger than life.

Lacking her experience with Meizhen, Zhengui was hit all the harder by it. The normally proud Zhen made a low, plaintive hiss as the feeling of a superior predator washed over him.

Her flute rose to her lips, and Ling Qi allowed her singing to fade, replaced by the mournful melody of the Forgotten Vale. Mist spilled, blanketing the cliff in a cloying mist with red-eyed shadows stalking through it.

Even through ash and mist, Ling Qi could see the glow of Meizhen’s eyes. The hems and sleeves of Meizhen’s gown fluttered with the passing wind of phantasmal claws as the pale girl deftly avoided one attack after another, her gaze never leaving Ling Qi. She felt her pulse quicken as she increased the tempo of her melody, and she was rewarded as the sheer press of numbers allowed her hungry phantoms to find purchase, claw and fang bringing up sprays of black water as they tore at her friend’s mantle.

Bai Meizhen’s qi surged, and Ling Qi’s eyes widened as she felt Meizhen’s aura explode outward in a thousand twisting tendrils, tracing the paths which her own qi flowed to create the mist to strike back with toxic qi.

Ling Qi flooded darkness into her limbs, leaping away from her position to try and avoid the hungry tendrils of spirit, but they struck. Burning pain in her lungs and spine followed from the poison working its way into her channels. Her control of her blade, crude as it was, faltered, and she felt a pain like a bone being snapped. Her Singing Mist Blade’s wail rose over the battlefield in a single sharp cry as the two halves of the weapon tumbled down to land broken in the snow.

Ling Qi rallied herself, spinning on one foot as she landed to face Meizhen once more, dancing through the lashing ribbons around her. The gleaming edges, glittering in the evening light, drew her eyes, hypnotic in the beauty of their motion. They were guided by only the smallest movements of Meizhen’s hand and wrist. It was almost enough to distract from the pain that erupted as the now green-tinted metal slashed across her cheek, her shoulder, and her chest.

She could no longer spare direct attention to Zhengui, and she felt him rally, a seed of pride she had sensed only in his conflict with Heizui stilling the trembling in his limbs. Ling Qi called on the rings of her wooden armor and sang out, icy wind lashing across the shell of increasingly emerald-tinted water that now dripped and flowed across the whole of Meizhen like a fine outer gown. But with the poison burning in her veins and the loss of her flying blade, it was not enough. Ribbons of metal passed over her armor, draining her qi precipitously, and the venom intensified the burning in her veins and meridians, making spots of black dance across her vision.

Ling Qi was driven further back, pushed out of Zhengui’s ash cloud by Meizhen’s domain blade, which flashed past her guard to slam into her ribs. She was sent tumbling through the snow with a bloody cut across her abdomen where the blade had carved through armor and qi alike as if it were paper. She righted herself, defiant, but she knew how the rest of the spar was going to go.

Her qi thrummed, and her skin took on the shade of bark, her wooden armor weaving itself back together as she strengthened her defenses even further. She forgoed striking back as she cleansed herself of the dragging weight of Meizhen’s glare.

Ling Qi held out against the other girl as long as she could, and Zhengui fought valiantly, drawing the full attention of Meizhen’s own spirit, but in the end, she simply couldn’t keep her defenses up in the face of the other girl’s venomous blades and qi.

“Yield!” Ling Qi called, raising her hands in a gesture of submission. Her knees were shaking beneath her, the exhaustion from resisting the pain of the poisons coursing through her making it difficult to stand upright.

Meizhen’s gliding advance stopped, and the girl’s water-hooded visage tilted to the side. “Did you discover the insight you were searching for in this?”

As Meizhen spoke, Zhengui ripped his front legs out of the clutches of the writhing shadow that had been trying to engulf him and scrambled back, both sets of his eyes glaring at the thing as it began to shrink back into a normal shadow.

“Who said I was searching for an insight?” Ling Qi asked, panting. “Zhengui, come help me please.” She needed her little brother to begin purging the venom from her body and spirit.

Zhengui shot one last glare at the terror spirit and trotted over, the heat of his body banked. “Yes, Big Sister! I did good, right?” For once, his twin voices blended together as one; Zhengui had focused heavily during the fight.

“You did great,” Ling Qi replied with a smile, crouching to rest a hand on his head. Ling Qi sighed in relief as Zhengui drew in rejuvenating qi and began to release it through Ling Qi.

“His performance was admirable,” Meizhen commented, calling Ling Qi’s attention back to her. “As for searching for an insight, I can think of no other reason why you would ask that I fight at full capacity when we were to be practicing your domain control.”

“Yeah, didn’t get to do much of that, did I? Ling Qi sighed, glancing toward the place where she could feel the remains of her splintered flying weapon. She would have to meditate for a time to repair it. “I just couldn’t move it fast enough.”

“It is a matter of practice,” Meizhen said, her mantle slowly dissipated into the air. “Your weapon is a potent one. With its amplification of your musical techniques, your first strike held admirable weight.”

“Only the first strike though. Even with the amplification, the other strikes didn’t bother you,” Ling Qi said wryly, looking down and rubbing Zhen’s head. Zhengui’s eyes were screwed shut in concentration as he expended his remaining qi to cleanse the venom. “I still can’t match you, despite how much stronger I’ve gotten.”

At the silence that resulted, Ling Qi looked up and found Meizhen frowning at her. “That is surprisingly arrogant of you, Qi,” she said, a hint of hurt flashing in her eyes. “Do you truly think so little of me?”

Ling Qi quickly shook her head. “No, I didn’t mean any kind of insult to you. I just…” She trailed off, her lips twisting into a grimace.

Meizhen let out a soft sound of frustration and shook her head. “I know you did not mean it that way, but do you imagine that I do not cultivate and train just as intently as you?”

Ling Qi briefly closed her eyes; that really had been an arrogant thought. Of course her friend was working just as hard as she. It only made sense that Meizhen would be growing stronger all the time, just like she herself was. “Sorry. Just some frustration slipping out.”

“It is nothing,” Meizhen said, flicking her sleeve and dismissing her weapon back into storage. “Friends are allowed to speak foolishly around one another, or so I understand.”

“I guess so,” Ling Qi laughed as Zhengui opened his eyes, gazing tiredly up at her. “Why don’t you lay down for a nap, little brother, while Big Sister fixes her sword?”

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