Standing under the bright morning sun, Ling Qi could not help the restless nerves that made her want to shift from foot to foot rather than remaining perfectly still, lined up between the other winners of the preliminaries. The weight of the crowd’s collective auras tingled at the edge of her senses and weighed down on her shoulders still, but after last night, it was easier to endure. A surreptitious glance to either side showed her fellow competitors all standing at the same attention.
Cai Renxiang stood to her right, looking as stoic as ever. On her left stood Gu Xiulan, whose eyes burned with a fierce ambition and confidence as she gazed up at the stages and the Head of the Sect. Breathing in, Ling Qi focused her attention ahead as the Sect Head began to speak.
“Welcome, all, to our second day of competition,” the old man announced, his ancient voice carrying easily through the stadium. He faced away from them, leaving her with only the sight of his billowing white cloak with the characters for “silver” and “wholeness” splashed across it. “Yesterday, you were witness to the winnowing of the Outer Sect down to the core of its most talented, but today, we will begin the true testing,” he continued. “Though unity is the strength of the Empire, each link in a chain must be forged to utmost strength, else the entire length be shattered. Today, our youth will display the strength that will carry the Empire into the future!”
It was hard not to feel at least a little swell of pride as the Sect Head spoke. Just one year ago, Ling Qi had been a helpless mortal, and now, she stood here listening to one of the heroes of the Empire praising her, if indirectly. Later, she could worry about politics. Today, she just had to show the results of her cultivation.
“Before we begin the tournament proper however,” Yuan He continued, and from the motion of his arm, she could tell that he was running his fingers through his beard, “we have the exhibition. In a normal year, a pair of our own elders would take the stage for a demonstration to encourage our disciples with a taste of what they might one day achieve.” Ling Qi had been somewhat curious if Elder Jiao would be one of the ones participating. The Sect Head made it sound like something was changing though. Were the Elders busy?
“This year, however, a special arrangement has been made. In deference to the many august personages present, our most resplendent and honored Duchess has deigned to grace us with her performance, and the honorable and most redoubtable Lady Bai Suzhen has volunteered as her opponent.”
Ling Qi blinked, bewildered, as a susurrus of murmuring and noise began to wash over them from the stands. She glanced at Cai Renxiang but found the girl’s expression pinched in the tiniest of frowns. The Cai heiress hadn’t been expecting this either.
The Sect Head rapped his cane against the air beneath his feet, the resulting boom of thunder silencing the noise as he began to sink down through air until he stood at the edge of one of the four stages. “I will undertake the duty of containing the clash to the stage, and our own venerable Elder Jiao will see to the maintenance of the arena,” he announced.
Ling Qi saw a flicker of shadow on the far side of the arena, and there stood Elder Jiao, his expression set in a frown of passive irritation. As she watched, he raised his hands, placing them upon one of the four corner pillars. “Disciples, pay your utmost attention. It is a rare day when one is allowed to witness the peak of cultivation.” Ling Qi straightened her shoulders as the Sect Head spoke, glancing back over his shoulder at them. “I cordially invite our honored guests to take the stage.”
In an instant, the empty arena was occupied. There was no flash, no burst of wind or sound, only perhaps a tiny pop of displaced air as two figures appeared between one instant and the next, facing each other in the arena. Ling Qi shuddered as that same oppressive aura from yesterday slammed down onto her shoulders, but without it, she might have hardly recognized her liege’s mother.
Cai Shenhua’s appearance had almost changed entirely from her appearance yesterday. Where before she had worn a clinging, form-fitting gown of scandalous cut, she now wore an elaborate dress to match anything Ling Qi had seen at the Golden Fields’ party last night. The tall woman was swathed in multiple layers of white and pale rose silk with wide billowing sleeves and a meter-long train of fluttering silk and lace at her feet. Her dark hair hung down to her feet in four braided streamers like black silk, fluttering behind her in a phantom wind that kept any part of her from touching the ground.
The other woman on the stage was much more austere in appearance. Bai Suzhen looked much like her niece in the structure of her face. Her chin was perhaps a bit sharper, and her lips a bit thinner, but it would be easy, if she did not know already, to wonder if the woman was Meizhen’s mother. Her white hair was shot through with streaks of steely color as if her hair were truly strands of metal and was woven through an elaborate headdress which rose above the back of the woman’s head like a fan of jade knives.
“I thank the both of you for your gracious acceptance of my little impulse,” Cai Shenhua said, her rich voice light. In her right hand, she casually held a silk fan, half-concealing her smiling face. “It is so very rare for me to receive the opportunity for exercise.”
“It is my honor, Duchess Cai,” Yuan He said humbly, bowing his snowy head. “I regret only that I could not receive your attack myself.”
“There are few others I would trust to properly contain a match such as this, Sect Head Yuan,” the Duchess replied easily. “Another day, perhaps.”
“The arrangement proposed was satisfactory,” the Bai heir’s cool voice rang out, her expression neutral as she faced the Duchess with her hands hidden in the wide aquamarine sleeves of her simple but luxuriously layered gown. “It will be an honor to face the strike of a cultivator of such skill.”
“And I will be honored to test the defenses of the legendary Bai clan,” Cai Shenhua replied evenly, a slight smile still playing across her lips. “If you and your subordinate would prepare…?”
Ling Qi felt a tingling feeling of worry begin to bloom in her chest. Something far above her head was being set in motion here. She wished she could see Meizhen’s face right now. Perhaps she was aware of what was going on. A glance at her own liege revealed only hints of worried realization.
Sect Head Yuan cleared his throat then, raising his free hand toward the stage as he did. “The exhibition round will continue until the first drawing of blood. Begin!”
Ling Qi had no more time to think then. The fan in Cai Shenhua’s hand snapped shut, and the world vanished.
She floated bodiless in the face of a wall of whirling dust and wind that stretched out beyond her sight in all directions, endless in its churning fury and yet utterly silent and controlled. Yet for all its awe-inspiring size, she could barely pay it any mind. Above her head floated an incomprehensibly vast mountain of white metal. No, a mountain wasn’t quite right. It was a city.
A many tiered city of unfathomable beauty, its every angle was utterly perfect. Figures clad in white thronged in its streets, moving in an incomprehensible yet somehow perfectly ordered dance, stirring faint memories of warm water and immaculate hands working the stress from tired muscles and the filth from clogged meridians.
At the very peak of the city, where the lord’s palace would usually be, was a woman’s face sculpted from the same colorless metal that made up the rest of the city. The face was relaxed, her eyes closed in repose and her lips slightly parted, and with each instant that passed, ethereal threads emerged like breath, scattering outward to settle over the city like rain. It was nearly impossible to tear her eyes away from the city, and Ling Qi found her heart filled with a deep longing. How heavenly it would be to live in those streets, perfect in form and purpose.
Only the churning of another presence dragged her eyes away from the dreamlike city. Far below, in the mountain-city’s shadow, there was a lake stretching beyond sight, its surface mirror smooth and dark, a shade of blue that was nearly black. The only interruption in its smooth surface came from an island in its center. It was no natural thing though. Emerging from the lapping waters, a monolith composed of scattered bone and melted steel rose, sharp-edged and pitiless. The edges of countless weapons bristled outward, menacing and sharp, their edges seeming to slash at her very eyes even from this distance, and amid the fused remains of blade and armor, nestled in crevices and impaled upon blades, were human and beastial skulls. They formed the only spots of color upon the menacing cliffs, and from their empty eye sockets dropped tears of poisonous black tar. At the narrow top of the mountainous island was a flat plain ringed by bristling blades, and at its center was a rippling pool of clear blue waters in which sinuous white shapes swam and coiled about one another.
For a moment, there was stillness as the city floated, serene above the lake, but then Ling Qi found her gaze dragged upward at the sound of well oiled machinery shifting. Her eyes widened as she once again beheld the resplendent city and noticed what sat upon its walls.
One hundred thousand siege engines opened fire, and it was as if the very stars were falling from the heavens. Beneath, the surface of the lake boiled violently, steam rising from the heat of falling streamers of colorless light. But the roiling waters could not be wholly traced to the action above. From white-capped waters, a single gleaming shard of metal shot upward, too fast to be seen as more than a flash, and then another followed, and another after that.
From the black lake poured blades of every shape and make, filling the sky as surely as the falling light with gleaming edges that screamed for blood. A million blades and more all howled through the sky to explode against the incoming barrage. When they met, Ling Qi was blinded and deafened by the blast of their explosive impact. By the time she had blinked the stars from her eyes, the sky was clear save for a handful of silver comets streaking upward toward the gleaming city, the very light it had disgorged rising back to strike at its maker only to disintegrate into twinkling lights as they impacted the shimmering threads which surrounded the city.
Twice more did the city and the lake exchange fire, their projectiles no longer meeting head-on but spiralling and twisting through the air at impossible angles, clashing in the sky as they sought holes in their opponent’s defenses. Despite the dizzying array of projectiles screaming through the sky, the city and the island both remained utterly pristine.
Ling Qi felt the pressure on her shoulders redouble then as the eyes of the face at the peak of the city opened by just the slightest crack. Twin crescents of liquid starlight lashed out, boiling the very air in their passage as they slammed down into the dark waters and carved an explosive rift of steam down to the very bed of the endless lake, exposing bone white earth as it ripped through the waters toward the central island.
Just before the lashing lines of colorless light could reach the central island, the waters roiled, and from their depths emerged a serpentine tail, mammoth in scope, its scales forged of steel and adamant. It swung through the air with impossible swiftness for such titanic size, slamming against the incoming beams with thunderous force. Metal scales glowed white hot at the point of impact, weeping droplets of molten steel into the hissing, white-capped waters below.
But the deflection succeeded, parrying the line of destruction back into the endless black waters…
Ling Qi blinked then, almost losing her balance as the world once again changed. She found herself back where she had been, standing before the arenas of the tournament ground. It was obvious that she was not the only one feeling the disorientation, and those whose cultivation were only in the second realm were the worst off. Han Jian was pale, sweat gleaming on his brow, and one of the other boys who had squeaked through the preliminaries was nearly on his knees.
In the arena, the two combatants had not seemingly moved an inch from their starting position. Yet dozens of rivulets of liquid metal from the slowing melting shards of steel scattered around the arena and the cracked stones at the Duchess’ feet spoke of the battle which had just taken place. Cai Shenhua’s expression was serene as the last flickering vestiges of a curved saber of light faded from her left hand.
Bai Suzhen was a bit worse for the wear. She slowly lowered her right hand, which had been extended, palm outward. Ling Qi glimpsed a deep cut bleeding silver fluid on her hand before it vanished back into her slightly frayed sleeve. More obviously, the twin meter deep furrows of vaporized stone extending diagonally past the Bai heir to the edges of the stage evidenced the deflected attack.
A glance showed Sect Head Yuan and Elder Jiao still standing at the edge of the stage. The Sect Head looked as serene as ever, if somewhat thoughtful, but Elder Jiao’s teeth were grit in frustration and effort. It was strange to see an Elder look genuinely out of breath.
“I see the prowess of the Bai is not exaggerated in the slightest,” Cai Shenhua said then, her voice still light. “What impeccable movements, Lady Bai.”
The elder Bai tipped her head in a very shallow bow, the ornaments in her hair flashing in the morning light as the rivulets of liquid metal scattered across the stage began to flow back toward her feet. “You are too kind, Duchess Cai. The edge of your blade is as ferocious as the tales say,” she said evenly.
“Hoh, it is good to see that I have not lost my touch,” the Duchess said, snapping her fan back open with a twitch of her fingers. “I hope that we might one day have another round when you take your next step.”
“I would be most satisfied with such an arrangement. You honor me with your regard,” Bai Suzhen said as the last gleaming drops of metal vanished beneath the hem of her gown. It was only Ling Qi’s familiarity with Meizhen that allowed her to see the hint of a satisfied smirk playing about the older woman’s lips.
Ling Qi shuddered as she felt a brief pulse of power wash over her, furious and copper scented. It was gone almost before she could perceive it. She was right. Things far over her head were being played out today. She felt a tiny hint of resentment that whatever she did today, it would be overshadowed by the plays of those who stood above her, but letting out a single breath cleared it away. That was just the nature of the world. That was part of why she couldn’t stop climbing.
As the two monstrous cultivators traded the final formalities and returned to the stands, Sect Head Yuan turned to face them. By then, those who had been impaired had already scrambled back into position. “As you can see, disciples, the peak of cultivation is a long climb indeed,” he said, moving his gaze along the line steadily. “Do not be discouraged, but rather, carve that knowledge into your hearts and strive for those heights.” The elderly man’s eyes met hers, and in them, Ling Qi saw the living heart of a storm fit to consume the world.
The moment ended as his gaze continued past her. “Now, let us announce the pairings for this day’s battle. You will have one quarter hour to prepare for your match… and to give our esteemed Elder Jiao time to repair the first arena,” he said with a faintly amused smile before raising his free hand and snapping his fingers.
Lightning crackled in the sky over his head, lines of light and fire carving themselves into the air as they spelled out the tournament brackets.