Lu Feng’s dry voice had echoed from the mist. His unwitting puppet slumped, limbs still jerking spasmodically as his spear dropped from nerveless fingers.
“Do you think anyone finds your nonsense endearing?” Ling Qi heard the scorn in his voice as she focused on him, finding the boy clinging to a tree branch high in the canopy, a wispy veil of leaves that was likely much more convincing without the formation’s viewing function hiding him. She noted that the qi coils around his arms had vanished, presumably due to being used up in the sneak attack.
Before anyone could react, half of a splintered tree slammed into the shocked shield wielders, sending their booted feet grinding backward through the dirt toward their wounded captain. “Tch, took you long enough, pretty boy,” Ji Rong spat out, along with a mouthful of blood, as he stalked back into the clearing.
“You speak as if I am not the reason that you were only fighting six on one,” Lu Feng griped, his voice echoing from everywhere.
“Such villainous tactics,” Gan Guangli growled, standing straight even as his right arm hung useless at his side, blooms of crimson and lilac flowers appearing through the gaps in his armor. “I would ask if you had pride Lu Feng, but I already know the answer!”
“Keep your bullshit to yourself,” Ji Rong said darkly, cracking his knuckles. “That creep has one thing right. I don’t want to hear it.”
“My lady’s regret is wasted upon a thug like you,” Gan Guangli scowled as his remaining subordinates gathered around him, eyeing each other warily. “I shall smite you…”
Ling Qi almost missed Gan’s good hand twitching, his fingers forming a symbol, and the archer and the fan-wielding girl both spun toward Lu Feng’s position. The wind howled as a miniature tornado sprung up around the tree Lu Feng was hidden in, ripping dirt and grass from the ground as it spun up, entrapping the wire-wielding boy. A sizzling arrow spun from raw black tar-like qi shot through it unhindered, piercing directly through both the bracer that was raised to block it and the forearm wearing it. To his credit, Lu Feng only snarled as the toxic qi sizzled in his wound, a corona of light like a thousand petalled lotus springing up behind his head to blast away the tornado and free him from its buffeting winds.
The other combatants were not idle. Ji Rong sprang forward with a loud warcry, repeating his earlier charge, though he changed his tactics. Whereas before, he had crashed directly against the shield wielders’ defense, this time he twisted in midair to use their shields as a springboard and launched himself over Gan Guangli’s head, escaping the now four-meter tall boy’s grasp by the smallest of hairs.
Despite the warning shout from Gan Guangli, the fan-wielding girl was not fast enough to avoid the descending bolt that Ji Rong transformed into, screaming as his feet crashed into her back and sent lightning coursing through her limbs. Ling Qi winced as the boy raised his foot and stamped down a second time, hearing ribs break as he put the girl out of the fight for good. One of the shield wielders was the next to fall. Ji Rong caught his blade in one hand, earning a bloody gash in his palm before slamming a lightning-charged knee twice into the boy’s groin.
There was no more talking now, no more time for it as the remaining combatants clashed amidst booming thunder and flashing light, reducing the terrain to little more than scorched wasteland. Yet despite the flashiness of the display, Ling Qi was quickly coming to an unpleasant realization.
Gan’s remaining arm was tangled in Lu Feng’s wires. His useless right arm was growing worse, twitching spasmodically as flowers continued to push out from the gaps in his armor, their petals dripping with fresh blood. Gan Guangli bellowed furiously, his armor flaring gold and golden hands formed in the air behind him, attached to arms that were more like sinuous whips. Three lashed out, two battering Ji Rong’s defenses and driving him back while the third struck out at Lu Feng, swelling to titanic size and smashing him into the ground with its palm.
It wasn’t enough. Even with her senses muted, Ling Qi knew that Gan Guangli’s technique was highly draining from the way his aura dimmed and his chest heaved with exertion.
Gan Guangli hurled himself at Ji Rong while the boy contemptuously dodged a brace of arrows fired by Gan’s remaining allies. He moved with impossible grace for someone as big and bulky as he was. But with only one arm and his continuing wound, it wasn’t enough. Ji Rong was an actinic blur, and he seemed more confident with each successful dodge.
A sizzling wire of crimson qi snaked out from the palm-shaped crater and coiled around Gan Guangli’s ankle; giving him a single, sharp tug. He stumbled, falling to one knee, and Ji Rong flashed there, both of his palms pressed against the scuffed expanse of Gan Guangli’s chestplate. A blast of lightning erupted from her peer’s back, his cry of pain drowned out by the thunder that happened a moment later.
Gan Guangli fell.
His remaining allies didn’t last long after that.
Ji Rong spat to the side as the last shield-wielding boy slumped to the ground. “You look like shit, pretty boy,” he commented, glancing at Lu Feng.
“Savor this moment,” his companion replied. Lu Feng looked terrible. One eye was swollen shut, and his clothing was badly shredded, his whole torso looked like one giant bruise. “It is the only time in which you will be able to say that you are more handsome than I.”
She scowled as she saw Ji Rong roll his eyes and turn away from the crater where Gan Guangli had fallen before his body had faded away. “Like I care,” he retorted irreverently. “So, are we done then or…?”
Lu Feng opened his mouth to respond but he never got a chance. The once handsome boy was consumed by a massive plume of dust as something slammed into him with terrible, thunderous force, ripping yet another crater in the pockmarked field. It only took a moment for her to make the connection as to what had just happened.
As the dust cleared, she saw Han Fang standing there, one foot on Lu Feng’s back as he raised his hammer, its head speckled with blood and hair. Ji Rong had already fallen back into a fighting stance, his expression suddenly wary. The mute boy simply rolled his shoulders and cocked an eyebrow, slapping the haft of his hammer into his palm in response.
A grin began to break out on Ji Rong’s face, but then a loud, piercing gong sounded. Ling Qi’s vision of the fight faded, leaving her once more looking at the arena normally.
It was over.
Ling Qi looked at the other arenas and found each one clear, leaving only two disciples standing. Her eyes immediately focused on the second arena. In it, Chu Song stood, nursing a dozen ugly-looking burns, and Xiulan was standing as well. Xiulan looked somewhat worse for the wear, her hair badly askew and a scowl on her face. Her back was wet with blood where someone had driven a blade into her. She was cradling her bad arm gingerly, and her wrist was bent at a bad angle.
As for the remaining arenas, unsurprisingly, Sun Liling and Kang Zihao stood victorious in the first, and in the third, she saw Wen Ai and a handsome boy she vaguely recognized from the girl’s party.
Her gaze moved to Cai Renxiang, whose expression might as well have been carved from stone. She didn’t need words to understand. As the sole remaining Cai retainer in the New Year’s Tournament, Ling Qi could not afford to lose her preliminary or even give a bad show in winning.
She listened with half an ear as Sect Head Yuan spoke, congratulating the victors on their prowess and praising their ability. He also indicated that any injured victors should promptly go to the infirmary where the rest of the defeated disciples had been sent.
As he spoke, she stole another glance at Cai Renxiang. The girl’s day had been pretty poor so far. Between her mother’s “good news” and now this. It might have been impulsive, but Ling Qi couldn’t just do nothing. With her long sleeves hiding the motion, she let her fingers brush the back of her liege’s hand, drawing her attention. Meeting her gaze without turning her head, Ling Qi did her best to project confidence into her expression. Without words, there was only so much she could do, but…
She caught something in the other girl’s gaze and received the smallest, shallow nod. Although Cai’s expression didn’t change, Ling Qi thought she saw the other girl’s shoulders straighten almost imperceptibly.
There wasn’t time for much else as they were called to their respective stages. Bai Meizhen and Cai Renxiang each had their own arena, along with a large number of very unfortunate second realms. Han Jian and most of the remaining older disciples went to the third. Ling Qi went to the fourth. With her came Shen Hu and a miscellany of other disciples, the vast majority of which she was pretty sure had been Sun supporters.
Except for Shen Hu, who glanced at her with an expression of vague interest, none of them looked very happy to see her, but neither did they look surprised. Shen Hu had cleaned up. He was wearing a pair of baggy black pants held up by a grey sash, but he hadn't bothered with anything else. Did he idolize Elder Zhou or something? She looked away from him with a huff.
Of course she would be the only one in the second round to get peer competition. After seeing the composition of Gan Guangli’s preliminary, with three first year third realms stuffed into one arena and two of them allied against her fellow retainer, Ling Qi suspected manipulation. There was no use complaining though.
Ling Qi prepared herself as the formations began to light up and the arena blurred and faded away, only to laugh as she found herself standing ankle-deep in the snow atop a stony cliff, a slow rain of snowflakes veiling the sky from her sight. It seemed Xin - and Elder Jiao - were looking out for her because she recognized these cliffs. How could she not when she had trekked up and down these for months to meet her mentor, Zeqing?
Now, she needed to decide how to handle her competitors.
Ling Qi flicked her wrist, expressing her flute from within her ring as the echoes of her laughter faded into the snowy sky. There were so many things she needed to consider. How her performance would reflect on Cai Renxiang in the wake of Gan Guangli’s failure. The likelihood of defeat if she decided to face down Shen Hu. The effects it could have on her friends’ elimination matches if she allowed another third realm to pass. What tactics would meet the most approval from the audience. That and more passed through her thoughts, but…
<It’s fine to have a little flair, you know,> Sixiang tempted, the spirit reading her mood perfectly. <And no glory comes without risk. Why not let yourself have a little fun for once?>
<Big Sister? What are we going to do?> Zhengui asked a moment later, sensing her indecision. <Do you want Zhengui to beat them all up?>
Ling Qi let out a breath, looking out over the cliffside. She could sense other disciples, distant candles in the storm. “Not just yet, little brother,” she murmured, raising her flute to her lips. “You'll get your chance soon.”
Ling Qi knew objectively that she was powerful for an Outer disciple. In under a year, she had risen to the point where she could escape the clutches of Sun Liling and force Bai Meizhen to take her seriously. There were only a handful of others who could realistically be called her peer. She still didn’t feel that way. She could hunt beasts and treat with spirits, but when it came to fighting people, she still felt like a thief. Hiding and running were her go-to tactics, and she was conservative with her techniques and rarely showed off.
It was time to break that pattern. A soft melancholy song began to play. Mist poured from her flute, a roiling waterfall of clinging, cloying clouds that swiftly veiled her and flowed out. It consumed the cliffside and rolled further and further out as Ling Qi pushed more and more qi into her construct. Flickering black shadows took shape, red of eye and black of claw, as the mist grew thicker still, taking on a heavy weight from the protection she layered upon it.
Sixiang’s laughter chimed softly in her ears as Ling Qi lowered her flute and swallowed a pill, restoring most of the qi she had just spent. “What’s so funny?” she asked idly as she began to walk toward the cliff, her melody still playing all around her.
<Oh, I was just thinking it’s such a lovely night for a stroll,> the spirit replied playfully.
Ling Qi glanced up at the silver sliver grinning down from the snowy sky. “I guess it is,” she agreed, reaching the cliff’s edge. “Nothing like a nice, moonlit walk,” she said before her body dissolved into darkness and flowed over the stony edge like dark water, taking the roiling bank of cloying mist with her.