Zou Chen scowled at his “companions” as they quarrelled like children. This frustration… It seemed that this year was not ready to let up on him just yet. Joining the prestigious Argent Peak Sect should have been a great opportunity for advancement, and joining his fortunes to Sir Kang’s should have only secured his opportunity further. He stood at the peak of the second realm at a mere fifteen years of age and would likely break into the third realm within the next year. In any other place, in any other time, that would have been enough.
Yet here he stood, having to team up with this rabble of commoners and scions of insignificant baronial houses just to hold even a chance at moving on to the actual tournament. He could only curse his fortunes that so many mighty houses had chosen to stack their own scions against each other here of all places. That they would be joined by so many common-born cultivators of freakish talent added insult to injury.
“Cease your squabbling,” he snapped, rapping the butt of his spear against the snow-covered ground. “The plan is simple, is it not?”
“Easy for you to say,” one of the impertinent commoners grumbled. He glared at the boy, who scowled back, crossing his arms. “You’re not the one who has to hold the line.”
“It is only thanks to me that you will have a chance to strike at that wretched girl at all,” Zou Chen snarled. “The talisman that will blow away the sneak’s mist was provided by my house.” It had cost him too. His Father had been displeased at the expense of equipping him with such a potent thing, but when he had learned that he would be matched against that girl, he had no choice but to swallow his pride and plead for the use of it.
He still remembered the gawky, plain little rat stumbling around the mountain in ignorance at the beginning of the year. He remembered her trickery during Elder Zhou’s test, shoving him into that wretched well and taking the position that should have been his. He remembered the humiliation he had suffered in the ambush arranged by Kang Zihao on the Bai scion and of falling in with that worm Yan Renshu after Sir Kang had abandoned him for their failure. If he had been given a tenth of the good fortune that a rat like her had enjoyed…
Stewing in his rage, Zou Chen endured the others bickering as they finally decided on the battle lines and moved out, fanning out to begin their search for the target. It would likely be difficult. The rat was good at hiding after all.
It was, of course, at that moment that he heard the faint notes of that damnable song, echoing across the snowy field that they had gathered in. His gaze snapped upward to the black cliffs that loomed above, he saw it. A titanic wave of mist flowed down the slopes.
He heard the others cry out in alarm, reorienting their formation toward the enemy. He felt his mouth grow dry as it sped toward them, flowing with the speed and fury of a spring flooding. Since when had she been able to summon so much mist? When had she been so fast?!
Gritting his teeth, Zou Chen raised his right arm, wrapped in the lengthy chain of beads that formed the Rippling Resplendence Rosary, and shouted the signal to the others to prepare their strike. They couldn’t afford a mistake now!
As the forward edge of the mist engulfed the two boys at the front, he channeled his qi into the rosary until the beads began to shine and then to crack as he overloaded the talisman, preparing its emergency function. As the first tendrils of mist curled around his ankles, he thrust his hand forward with a triumphant shout. The beads on his arm exploded violently, a rippling wave of visible lake qi erupting outward through the mist, leaving his arm numb.
The mist did not vanish.
It lightened and grew thinner, but it wasn’t gone. The girl to his right, her bow and arrows imbued with enough supporting techniques and talismans to glow like a miniature sun, loosed her shot with a howl of wind and thunder, but the barely visible shadow at the center of the mist merely flickered to the side, avoiding the projectile with contemptuous ease. Or perhaps it had never been the technique’s caster in the first place.
Zou Chen backed up, alarm building as he batted away the shadowy claws of some twisted thing that had sought his throat. The mist grew thicker once more, chilling him to the bone as it dragged at his limbs and seeped into his channels, leeching away at his vigor. He heard the others crying out and fighting and turned to find them, but they were no longer visible. He fought his way toward the sounds regardless, the darting blade of his spear batting away phantoms and churning the mist around him.
All the while, that horrible song played unceasing.
Zou Chen cursed, his spearpoint slashing through the twisted phantom of a wolf and darted toward where he last remembered seeing his allies. This shouldn’t have happened. His talisman should have destroyed any qi construct not at the fourth or fifth step of the third realm. That damned commoner rat! It wasn’t fair!
He choked as he heard a high, clear voice sing out. His spear fell from nerveless fingers as a horrible cold washed through him, freezing his flesh and freezing his qi. In his weakness, phantoms tore at him, shadowy claws tearing his robes and skin alike. As he fell to his knees, he glimpsed her in the mist, standing atop a boulder. In the mist and darkness, the only thing he could make out were her eyes, glinting like chips of glacial ice.
There was nothing in that gaze. No pity. No recognition. No care at all.
Was he really so small?
Ling Qi looked away from her enemy as his body dissolved into glittering lights. That had been alarming, she admitted privately. The talisman he had used had stripped the protection of Traveler’s End from her mist in an instant, but thankfully, her technique had done its job and absorbed the dispel, leaving her mist still active. The other disciple’s frantic follow-up attempts to dispel her mist had been useless, too weak by far.
Still, it was probably for the best that she took that one out permanently. He might have had other tricks up his sleeve.
<One of them just ran off the cliff,> Sixiang laughed.
Ling Qi cursed under her breath. If the disciples were knocked out of the arena, she couldn’t drain their qi to restore her own. She had been able to recover almost back to full capacity so far by sweeping through the narrow ravines and over cliffs, dancing around various disciples and letting her Elegy do their work.
It was time to stop messing around. She could sense Shen Hu from here. The other boy was making no effort to hide his aura, and without the “noise” of the crowd, he stood out like a mountain among pebbles.
With a small flex of her legs, Ling Qi bounded from the boulder back to the cliffside, using the surface to spring out to the other side of the snowfield, her limbs trailing off into shadows as the wind howled in her ears. Leaping and running through the familiar cliffs, disciples fled before her mist, and she followed, changing course just enough to tangle them in the mist for a few moments to recover the qi spent keeping her Grinning Crescent Dancer technique active. It didn’t take long to find the plateau that Shen Hu was camped on.
It was a worrying sight. What had been an open rocky field was now a bubbling expanse of wet mud. Snow fell upon the sticky field and immediately melted, leaving pools of stagnant water and soft clay exposed to the open air. At the center on a crumbling platform of still dry stone stood Shen Hu, his eyes closed and his arms crossed over his bare chest. His forearms and hands were clad in leather bracers and gloves with faintly glowing stitching. His eyes snapped open as she approached, and he turned toward her, a smile blooming across his pale features.
“It looks like this isn’t going to be boring after all,” he said brightly, peering into the roiling cloud of her oncoming mist. “Come on then!”
Ling Qi didn’t respond as she leapt from the last cliff, carrying her mist with her, and expressed her flying sword, its singing joining her own. She arced upward, activating the powers of her gown to remain airborne even after the impressive force of her leap ran out. She kept her eyes fixed on Shen Hu as she let the vital warmth of wood mingle with the cool absence of darkness, thick barklike armor formed of raw qi spreading over her body in an instant.
Shen Hu wasn’t idle either. Glittering growths of black diamond were spreading across his hands and forearms as he raised them into a ready stance. Then the mist was upon him. The dark haired boy jerked back with a frown as multiple techniques simultaneously assailed him, his still, reflective qi rippling under the assault. Phantoms clawed uselessly at his increasingly armored hide, but she found his spirit less well guarded. The cloying, draining notes of her Elegy found purchase, but the mist had failed to cloud his senses.
His eyes followed her silhouette as she soared overhead. A rumble echoing through the air was the only warning of his counterattack. A geyser of mud exploded upward violently, and she flew out of the way. A second and a third followed, forcing her to spin and twist crazily in the air to avoid them.
By the time she emerged from the gauntlet, Shen Hu was gone from her sight. She could still sense his qi, but he was beneath the mud now, his aura hidden beneath the qi that saturated the whole of the field. Worse, she found that her mist could not penetrate the wet soil, infused by his own qi. Ling Qi landed, clinging to the side of one of the cliffs overseeing the field with a frown. This was going to be difficult.
For a moment, she stared down at the artificial mud flat below, letting the power of the Argent Mirror flow through her eyes to try to determine her enemy’s position in the muck, but it proved fruitless. His qi was blended so well, it was almost as if…
<It’s a bit of a reversal, isn’t it?> Sixiang mused.
<Oh! The bad guy is pretending to be a beast!> Zhengui exclaimed a moment later, seemingly not wanting to be upstaged by Sixiang.
Ling Qi didn’t take the time to reply as she sprang back out, blurring into a black streak as the power of her gown took hold. The moment that her mist touched the rippling qi of the mud field, she sang out the first sharp notes of the Frozen Soul Serenade, and beneath her, water and mud froze solid in a meters long streak. There was a deep rumbling groan from the mud below, and a fluctuation in the qi that confirmed her theory. The mud field was Shen Hu’s spirit beast.
Shen Hu didn’t take her invasion without retaliation. Weighty qi slammed down upon her meridians, dragging her earthward despite her efforts to rebuke the spiritual attack. Ling Qi felt lethargy flood her body, the urge to simply lie down for a long nap under the humid summer sun surging in her thoughts.
<None of that now,> Sixiang chided, the spirit’s own chaotic qi surging out, expelling the invading muddy qi.
Ling Qi twisted herself violently to the side the moment her energy returned, avoiding the pillar of sharpened black gemstone that had erupted from the mud below. Its gleaming surface exploded outward as she did, dozens of zigzagging spires of sharp rock springing out to catch her out of place, but they scraped harmlessly off of the wood qi which infused her gown and flesh, draining only her qi.
Ling Qi grimaced as she flew straight up, speeding off toward the cliffs to get out of range of Shen Hu’s attacks. This wasn’t going to be easy, but she did have a plan now. Since the field was his bound spirit, then she could target it with her mist, even if she couldn’t get at him directly.
For now though, she needed to regain the qi she had just spent fighting.
The other disciples were growing wise to her strategy. As she made a pass again, weaving through the mountains to strike, drain qi, and leave them behind, many tried to run or hide rather than face her. Cai’s former subordinates, what few of them were here in this arena, looked to be taking advantage too if the reduction in the number of targets were an indication.
Ling Qi frowned. She was on a time limit.
Her second assault on Shen Hu was much less direct than the first. She descended on him from the cliffs above like a sudden storm, circling his spirit beast at the edge of her mist’s range, so that only a few meters overlapped the mud at a time. She felt the beast’s discontent in the rumbling earth as its qi was sapped away, one bit at a time. Several times, she felt an attempt to dispel her mist ripple outward, but it simply splashed against her own qi uselessly. The most troublesome thing was that technique that inspired lethargy that he kept casting over her, but thankfully, Sixiang took care of that.
She glimpsed Shen Hu once or twice, noting the growing frustration on his face. After the first few passes, she had a good feel for the range of his diamond spears, and even when he launched the twisting things at her, they weren’t too hard to avoid at this distance. She nipped at the edges of his spirit with mist, frost, and song, slowly wearing it down. It was perhaps not the most glorious tactic, but Ling Qi thought that there was a certain beauty in the inevitability of his end.
Unfortunately, the need to stay in flight, away from the muddy ground that was his domain, drained her reserves quickly, forcing her to peel off for recovery. With the number of disciples hiding on the mountain dwindling, finding easy prey grew harder.
This was the point where her plan met its first major problem. As she was tracking down a fleeing second realm, she felt Shen Hu and his spirit’s qi, that towering aura which had allowed her to find him, shrink inward and fade from her “sight.” Ling Qi considered the problem while she swooped down on the fleeing girl she was chasing, letting the mist overtake her and drain her qi.
Losing his mud field was a disadvantage since it was preventing her from striking at him more strongly and more directly, but it also kept him immobile. If he was now going to move around stealthily, she would have to keep her eyes open for any ambushes. She would assume that he could move through the earth the way she could move through shadows and watch her footing.
With that in mind, Ling Qi left the disciple she had been hunting behind, shivering in the snow and drained of energy. Keeping to the highest surfaces she could find, Ling Qi began to hunt for Shen Hu. It proved far more difficult than she had hoped. When she returned to the rapidly drying and freezing mud field, she found little to go on. There was certainly nothing so obvious as physical tracks, which made what she had learned about tracking from Su Ling mostly useless. She could feel the traces of his qi, or rather, that of his spirit beast, but only up until it reached the cliff face which she had been using as a springboard when attacking him. There, it entered the rock and faded beyond her senses.
Her head jerked up a moment later as she felt a burst of his qi to the east. Pouring on speed, she flew toward the location, only to find disturbed snow, a splotch of runny mud, and the fading light of a disciple who had been defeated.
The next quarter of an hour was spent in a game of cat and mouse. As she chased the fading trail of his qi around the mountain, one disciple after another fell, drowned in mud, their backs slashed open by diamond claws, or simply hurled from the cliffs. That was not to say that she didn’t catch up to him at times, coming down with the fury of a winter storm and battering the spirit he wore like a suit with song and ice.
Every time she found him and struck, he would just sink back into the earth, an infuriating grin on his face as her mist washed over him. She could feel the mud beast growing weaker with every engagement until at least it crumbled, fading back into this dantian, but even the loss of his spirit beast came too late. The boy proved absurdly resilient, and a slate grey slab of polished stone as large as a grown man that seemed to be his domain weapon would flash out to absorb her attacks before vanishing back into his dantian.
As the mountain peaks and her mist faded, Ling Qi scowled at the boy who now stood across from her in the arena.
“It’s not fair to get mad when you’re the one who played dirty first,” Shen Hu pointed out lazily.
“I know that,” Ling Qi huffed. “How did you keep escaping my mist even after you left the mud field? I felt it catch you.”
He cocked his head to the side as the arena began to lighten up. “How did you keep throwing off my Languid Summer art without even slowing down?”
“Fair point,” Ling Qi replied grudgingly but didn’t answer otherwise. She wasn’t just going to reveal Sixiang if she didn’t have to. Did he have a second spirit as well? That would certainly be a change. Few disciples had any spirits, and of those with more than one, she only knew of herself and Bai Meizhen.
Ling Qi looked around as the sky came back into view and noted, somewhat sheepishly, that the other three arenas were already clear. Cai Renxiang and a former enforcer stood in one while Meizhen and a rather ill-looking boy shared the second. Han Jian stood in the third, looking heavily battered as he leaned on Heijin for support, along with one remaining older year.
“With our final match being settled at last -” a voice announced as Ling Qi looked up and met the storm grey eyes of Sect Head Yuan, looking down at their arena with a faintly amused expression, “- I call this first day to a close. Congratulations to all of our fine disciples who have passed through this initial crucible…”
Ling Qi listened as the Sect Head went through the formalities of ending the preliminaries, joining the other winners in a line as they stood before the audience. While she would have to speak with Cai Renxiang and Gan Guangli first, she would have some free time between now and the Golden Fields party in the evening.
Ling Qi folded her hands in her lap, keeping her expression neutral. Across from her in the windowless meeting room on the second floor of the tournament building, Cai Renxiang sat with her eyes closed, breathing deeply. The only overt sign of the other girl’s stress was the rapid tapping of one of her fingers on the wooden armrest of the chair.
Sect Head Yuan had ended his speech just minutes ago, giving the gathered winners leave to make their exit. Cai Renxiang gestured for her to follow, and so she had, pausing only to give a small nod of acknowledgement to Han Jian and Bai Meizhen. Since then, Cai Renxiang had not spoken yet, and Ling Qi wasn’t inclined to be the one to break the silence.
“You did well.” Ling Qi looked up as her liege did just that. “Although you made a tactical error at the end, the outcome was still favorable.”
“Thank you,” Ling Qi replied, frowning at the assessment. “How could I have done better?” she asked. She couldn't really see where she could have improved unless she had gotten a lucky shot in on Shen Hu.
“Your overall strategy was well thought out,” Cai Renxiang elaborated, finally opening her eyes and meeting Ling Qi’s gaze. “Once it became clear that you could not outpace him, it would have been better to find at least one of the lesser disciples to protect.”
She hadn’t thought of that, but it probably would have forced her opponent to come to her or made him look like a coward if he had refused to engage. “I will remember that for the future,” Ling Qi acknowledged before changing the subject. “Did your own match go well, Lady Cai?” She knew the other girl wouldn’t have had trouble, so the real question she was asking…
The corners of the faintly shining girl’s lips quirked downward. “I achieved what was necessary. I do not much care for the method I was forced to use,” she said, drumming her fingers against the armest. “That may have been the point,” she finally added in a tone that was suspiciously close to a grumble.
Ling Qi let the silence extend before asking, “What was your match like?”
Cai Renxiang let out a frustrated breath. “I was left to face my enemies on an open plain. Given my opposition’s weakness, even being seen to put forth serious effort would have been a failing on my part, as would allowing the preliminary to proceed for too long. In the end, I chose to make use of my Mother’s Incandescent Tyrant Art to force submission in an instant,” she said, frown deepening. “I dislike the indiscriminate nature of the art’s ultimate technique.”
Ling Qi opened her mouth to ask what the art was, but then she glanced toward the faint halo of light behind the girl’s head and remembered that terrible pressure exuded by her Mother. She was pretty sure she knew already. “Well, you succeeded in showing your strength though, right?” she pointed out, waiting for the shallow nod from her liege before continuing. “Then it’s fine. Sometimes, collateral happens.” It wasn’t like she had never caused damage in the process of getting away with a theft when stealth failed. “I have to ask… Why were the makeup of the preliminaries so clearly stacked against us though?”
“I find that my understanding of Mother’s thoughts on the matter is lacking,” Cai Renxiang admitted, the pale light glimmering behind her head slowly ebbing back to a more healthy brightness. “I imagine that it was meant to test my abilities further,” she theorized slowly. “Yet in allowing others to exercise such power openly, here in Emerald Seas, in front of her very eyes… All my lessons say that this is a loss of face for the Cai.”
“Maybe the Duchess regards that as an acceptable cost?” Ling Qi hedged. She didn’t know much about this kind of thing, but in her one meeting with the woman, she had felt a certain irreverent attitude in her bearing.
Her liege shook her head, the dangling diamond earrings she had donned for the tournament jangling faintly. “Perhaps. And yet, I have never known my Mother to accept a slight without offering retort, even in the service of other goals. It may merely be my inexperience, but I feel that I am missing some portion of the pattern she is weaving.”
Ling Qi glanced up as she felt the presence approaching from outside, its qi muted and guttering low. Cai Renxiang fell silent as well, her expression of consternation smoothing away into her usual stern expression as she stood up from her seat just in time for the heavy sound of the door’s knocker to ring out.
“Enter,” Lady Cai said, all the little traces of frustration and emotion in the girl’s voice fading away.
Ling Qi ignored Sixiang’s murmurs about the deliberate nature of those “slips” as she carefully stood up as well.
The door opened, and Gan Guangli stepped through, looking positively small. Wearing a plain silver robe, he seemed diminished. As the door silently swung shut behind him, the tall boy first fell to his knees on the thin carpet and then fell forward into a full kowtow with a booming thud. Ling Qi winced at the sound of his forehead hitting the floor.
She glanced worriedly at Cai Renxiang, who looked down at Gan Guangli without expression. “Baron Gan, explain your failure,” she stated blankly.
“I have no explanation sufficient for the insult I have allowed to be dealt to you,” Gan Guangli replied, his voice muffled by the carpet. “This servant’s preparations and strength were both insufficient.” Ling Qi shifted uncomfortably at the brittle edge in the boisterous boy’s voice. “I can only beg forgiveness for my weakness, Lady Cai.”
Silence fell in the wake of Gan’s words, and Ling Qi glanced surreptitiously at Cai, whose expression hadn’t changed. As seconds ticked by, the atmosphere in the room only grew more uncomfortable, but Ling Qi held her peace regardless.
Finally, Cai Renxiang spoke, and her words were without pity. “You have no excuse then,” she said calmly. “The failure is wholly your own, and as such, you will need to work without pause to redeem yourself. Since it is no longer possible for you to be at my side, you will need to be reassigned.”
She saw Gan Guangli’s fists clench, and she found herself wishing that Cai would be more understanding here.
Sixiang sighed irritably. <Do you really think that the big guy would be happy with that?>
Ling Qi lowered her eyes to the floor. She knew Gan wouldn’t. Her liege continued to speak, unmindful of Ling Qi’s internal conversation.
“... In the year following, it will be your duty to improve on the discipline in the Outer Sect. Recruit the talented in my name, and forge them into fighters worthy of the Cai. Show the province our might in the next year. In this, you will have your chance to regain your honor as my shield. Do you understand?”
“Absolutely, my Lady Cai,” Gan Guangli vowed fervently. “I will not dare bring such shame to your name again. I will carry your generosity in my heart, even in your absence!”
Cai gave only a small nod in response before looking to Ling Qi. “I will be relying on you in the coming year, Baroness Ling. I hope that you will be up to the task.”
“I thank you for your confidence, Lady Cai,” she replied, falling into formality as well. “I will do my best to solve any problems which you come upon.”
“Very good,” the white clad girl said, letting out a breath. “Ling Qi, you are dismissed. There are some private matters which I must take care of.”
She wasn’t dismissing Gan though. She bowed and offered some formal words of parting before leaving Cai to it. As she stepped out and turned to close the door, she caught Gan’s shoulders shaking and Cai’s hand on his shoulder, comforting him.
Ling Qi turned her eyes away and closed the door. Some things were not meant to be seen.