Standing under the bright morning sun was far more difficult when facing a sea of cultivators, their many and varied auras mixing in her vision like a smear of nonsensical color.
She stood alongside Cai Renxiang in the front row of the disciples lined up on the paved path leading to the four arenas. On her other side was Kang Zihao, clad in his sleek silver armor. The proud boy hadn’t even looked at her as they had lined up, standing straight with his eyes forward and his plumed helmet under his arm. All of the other participants were here as well, many of them she only knew from passing sight.
It was difficult to pay the other disciples any mind with the veritable wall of power which faced them in the stands. In the center of the horseshoe-shaped tournament stands, the glowing star that was Duchess Cai was present in the highest box, shining down like a second sun. A handful of others stood out as well, even in the morass of potent auras, and at this distance, even Ling Qi’s keen eyes could hardly make them out.
There was a tall man with a great shock of white hair and a long white beard framing his face like a lion’s mane at one end of the horseshoe. At the other end of the horseshoe was a woman with hair the color of steel in a tight bun and burning golden eyes that were all too familiar. A pair of individuals in wide turtle patterned hats and heavy robes were seated beneath the Duchess’ box. Beside them stood a towering red haired man clad in black furs, with biceps as wide as her waist.
She felt a bead of sweat make its way down her temple. As if the guests’ presence wasn’t enough, above them in midair and floating over the exact center point between the four arenas was Yuan He, Head of the Argent Sect, Hero of the Emerald Seas, Fist of the Heavens, and Slayer of the Great Khan Ogodei. He looked the part. Yuan He was a tall man unbent by age despite deep wrinkles that marked his face and the long white beard which hung past his waist which was bound by ribbons of silk. His hair was short cropped but naturally spiked, and she could scent lightning on him.
He raised the polished wooden cane which he held in one hand and brought its steelshod point down as if rapping it on the floor. Thunder rang out along with a burst of wind that sent his white over-cloak fluttering, silencing the cacophony of the crowd.
“Welcome, honored guests, to the Argent Peak Sect,” the old man’s voice rang out, deep and commanding. “I welcome you all to witness the fruits of another year of Imperial prosperity. This year’s disciples are among the finest I have seen in this century,” Sect Head Yuan said, a touch of pride entering his ancient voice.
Ling Qi could practically feel the sullen shifting of disciples in the furthest back rows. Although there were other factors, such as Sun Liling and Bai Meizhen being placed at opposite ends of the front line, the disciples were organized mostly by strength of cultivation.
“I have no doubt that many of them will go on to fulfill momentous roles in our great Empire. I am certain that they are eager to impress you themselves however, so this old man shall not hold your attention for much longer,” the Head continued, running his fingers through his beard. “Disciples! The first round is beginning. When your name is called, advance to your assigned stage!”
Ling Qi took a deep breath as her fellow disciples began to be called up one by one, gradually filling the four stages. Sun Liling and Kang Zihao were called to the first arena, along with a bevy of older disciples, Gu Xiulan, Fan Yu, Chu Song, and Huang Da to the second, and finally, Gan Guangli, Ji Rong, Sun Liling’s second, as well as Han Fang, to the fourth. In the end, her name was not called. She would be fighting in the second round of preliminaries.
Ling Qi’s eyes flicked over to where Gu Xiulan stood in the second arena, immaculate in appearance. The only sign of her recent troubles was a few dark, spidery scars half-hidden by cosmetics, the thread of gold veil she wore these days, and the tight cloth wrap on her arm.
Ling Qi turned her eyes to the fourth arena containing Gan Guangli, Sun Liling’s vassal, Ji Rong, and Han Fang. This was the more dangerous fight, containing at least three actual competitors even if only two would advance from it. She stood to gain the most from watching this one. While Chu Song was a third realm second stage, one stage above Xiulan’s third realm first stage, Ling Qi was confident that Xiulan would advance from her preliminary.
Ling Qi was distracted from her thoughts then as the air around the arenas began to grow hazy and distorted. Her eyes widened as she looked to the now glowing gemstones set in the pillars at the corners of each arena. Right, there had been formations on those…
As if reading her thoughts, Sect Head Yuan spoke then. “Honored guests, what you see before you now is the craftsmanship of our esteemed Master of Formations and Head of the Talisman Department, Elder Sima Jiao,” he announced. “It will provide our disciples with a more varied and realistic battlefield on which to display their talents. Of course, it will not impede your enjoyment of the event. Simply focus your attention upon the disciples you would like to watch, and the formation will ensure you a splendid view.”
Ling Qi frowned at the implication and tried to focus her thoughts on both Xiulan and Gan Guangli, only to wince as her vision exploded into conflicting smears of color. Focusing on more than one disciple was beyond her. Grimacing, she focused on Gan Guangli, and the steadily darkening air around the fourth arena cleared before her eyes, revealing her peer in Cai’s service.
Within the formation, Gan Guangli now stood in a misty scrubland at the top of a hill, fog curling around his knees. The tall boy peered around into the dark gaps between the scraggly trees which served to obscure his view. He stood alone, which meant that along with the addition of terrain, space within the arenas was being expanded as well.
She supposed that meant that her idle plan of flooding the entire arena with mist was probably out. She watched Gan Guangli crouch down and press his hand against the ground for a moment. While she could hear the crunch of dirt under his armored boots, her ability to sense qi within the arena was stunted. Perhaps that was a good thing though. If she had to fight with the press of powerful auras in the crowd looming over her, it would be like trying to fight with a blinding light shining in her eyes.
A moment of focus shifted her view to Ji Rong, who was even now speeding through the undergrowth, legs blurring as he ran beneath the trees. Sparks crackled around eyes that darted around with a wary alertness that she hadn’t noticed before in the scarred boy. Han Fang was moving through the woods as well, his movements were silent despite his bulk. Ling Qi had to continually focus on him for her eyes to not slide away, guided by threads of wind that wrapped around him like a cloak.
Sun Liling’s vassal, Lu whatever-his-name-was - oh, Lu Feng - proved to be the most active as she turned her attention to him. Lu Feng was dropping down from the trees, his long silken black hair fluttering like a flag as a male disciple she didn’t recognize let out a choked scream, scrabbling at his throat before the stronger boy’s knees struck his back and drove him into the ground. Ling Qi grimaced as the unknown boy’s struggles ceased, the wire coiled around his throat glowing crimson in the mist, and jagging lines of qi erupted from the pinned boy to coil around the Sun second’s arms. A moment later, the unknown boy faded like a ghost from beneath Lu Feng, and she heard the Sect Head call out a name. She felt a flash of pity for the poor boy, the very first one out of the tournament.
She focused her attention back on Gan Guangli then and found him standing atop the hill he had started on. He stood ramrod straight, his spike gauntleted hands clasped together and his head bowed, as if in prayer. His height and bulk were only beginning to grow, inching upwards at a snail’s pace, but she knew that would change once the fighting properly began.
Then, first one disciple, then another, began to emerge from the trees below, dashing up the low slope of the hill. It took a moment for Ling Qi to recognize them vaguely from the time she had helped Gan Guangli train his followers. The disciples gave hasty bows before forming up around him, raising their shields and straight swords. As they fell into position around Gan Guangli, she saw their stances firm up almost imperceptibly at the same time that the taller boy’s armor began to take on a greater gleam.
For the next several minutes, the scene remained much the same. She took the occasional crash or flash of light from the forest as her cues to look in on the other boys. Lu Feng’s tactics were brutal and unfair, but Ling Qi had trouble not noticing some resemblance there. No eerie music followed him, but he appeared and disappeared from the mist like a phantom. His foes often didn’t even glimpse him before their limbs were tangled in his wires, and the bands of qi coiling around his arms grew more solid with each defeated opponent.
Han Fang, on the other hand, was much louder when he did strike, and most of the true disturbances in the arena came when his hammer splintered a tree or cratered the ground with a thunderous boom. He was prowling the edges though, hanging back, only striking ruthlessly to put down lone foes. Ji Rong surprised her though. He had not, in her sight, stopped for a fight even once, unless she counted the time he used a second realm disciple’s head as a springboard when the boy got in his way. His expression of focused determination worried her.
In any case, with this amount of time, Ling Qi had figured out the layout of the terrain. Gan’s hill stood near the center with the scrubby forest radiating out in every direction for at least a kilometer or two. Walls of impassable fog formed the boundaries of the arena. By now, three more disciples, an archer, a spearman, and a girl with an odd fan-like weapon, had joined up with Gan Guangli, and the group had begun to march on an unerring path toward Lu Feng’s current position.
She wondered how Gan Guangli knew where the other boy was, but Ji Rong was going to intersect them before they reached Lu Feng. She could see the moment when Gan Guangli realized it too, his gaze snapping over in the direction of the unsubtle qi of her fellow commoner.
“Steel Rampart, now!” Gan Guangli’s voice boomed as the six of them moved as one to face the threat. Two shields crashed together, forming a wall in front of their looming leader as Ji Rong erupted from the mist like a luminous bolt, scattering the mist in his wake. Lightning crackled in his shaggy hair, and the stormcloud embroidery on his loose robe roiled and rumbled like the real thing.
A pale arrow, its barbed head aglow with toxic purple light, was snatched out of the air before it could hit him, the scarred boy’s aura sparking and hissing where it met poisonous qi in the instant before the arrow was reduced to charred ash. Then he was upon them. A sound like a temple gong rang out as Ji Rong’s fist struck gleaming metallic qi spread in a wave from the two locked shields below him, but it only took an instant for cracks to spiderweb out from the point of impact.
But then, a spear lashed out from behind the shield wall like a striking serpent, piercing the metal qi with nary a ripple to bite at Ji Rong’s flank, forcing the boy to twist away only to be buffeted by a gale that stripped the leaf from every tree for a dozen meters around, driving him back to the ground in a crouch. Despite that, when the fist of a giant came down like a gleaming hammer from above, he rose to meet it in a single twisting motion. He drove his own lightning-wreathed fist into Gan’s gauntlet-clad hand with a cracking boom of thunder, halting it as the ground beneath him cratered downward.
The snaking spear came again, this time for his throat, but it was batted aside by his free hand even as he trembled under the crushing force of Gan’s fist. Blades of wind descended on him from every direction, visible only as distortions in the air, but they lost cohesion the moment they reached his flaring actinic aura.
“You can’t hold me down this time!” she heard him snarl, and in that moment, she was almost blinded by the flash as Ji Rong dissolved into lightning.
She saw Gan’s balance shift as the force pushing back against his fist vanished, staggering him, and she struggled to follow the movement of the crackling bolt of raw qi that had been Ji Rong as it zigged and zagged, first to the left, and then to the right, and then straight up, all in less time than it took to blink, only to resolve back into Ji Rong’s form right as his sandaled heel crashed into the top of Gan Guangli’s head like a bolt descending from the heavens. The blow slammed the now three-meter tall boy into the ground with the force of a falling tree. To their credit, Gan’s subordinates scattered, avoiding being crushed by his bulk. Ji Rong brought his hands together in midair and began to discharge a bolt of roiling plasma right into the fallen giant’s back with a victorious snarl.
The blast fizzled in Ji Rong’s hands as a booming warcry blasted the fog from the vicinity. A golden hand seized him by the throat and swung the scarred boy away, smashing him bodily through one of the trees still standing with a splintering crack. As she watched, Gan Guangli climbed to his feet, gleaming armor scuffed and dirtied, the fading phantom of a serene many-armed figure fading like morning mist from the air behind him.
“You are still too arrogant Ji Rong!” Gan Guangli shouted, even as his subordinates began to regroup around him. “Do you-”
Whatever he was going to say was lost as the boy with the spear, having just taken up his position next to Gan Guangli, suddenly thrust his spear upward, its tip still aglow with metallic light, right into the pit of the giant’s arm. Gan Guangli let out a howl of pain as crimson qi surged up through the boy’s arm and through the spear, and Ling Qi glimpsed the nigh invisible wires corded around the boy’s arms and throat before they dissolved under the power being poured through them.
“No one wants to hear you posture, Guangli.”