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Ling Qi closed her eyes as she considered her options for the fight ahead, shutting out the murmur of the crowd washing over her and the actions of her fellow disciples. She had faced off against Chu Song and her group earlier in the year during one of the factional conflicts between those aligned with the Sun and Cai. It was a fight her side had won, albeit with Bai Meizhen handling the duel against Chu Song.

Chu Song had been a close range fighter; quick on the draw with her usage of wind and mountain arts. Ling Qi had to consider that Chu Song might get the first blow in, and for all that she was tougher in a straight fight than many would suspect due to her Thousand Rings Fortress art, her advantage would be greater in medium to far range. She couldn’t say she was particularly eager to engage in a melee brawl with the heavy-set girl. On the plus side, Ling Qi remembered that she had managed to snare Chu Song within her mist in the last fight. While the girl had probably tried to bolster her spiritual defenses since then, she felt confident that without the realm advantage Chu Song had held previously, any improvements would not be enough.

Ling Qi turned her thoughts further inward to her spirits, who had been remarkably silent since the start of the demonstration.

<Zhengui, are you alright?> she asked, only now noticing the way that he seemed to have shrunk in on himself. When silence was her answer, she turned her thoughts to the feeling in the back of her head, the complex mix of thought and emotion that represented her other spirit. <Sixiang?>

<You’ve got steel nerves, you know?> Sixiang’s voice shook in her thoughts. <...like Grandmother after the Millennium Wine Incident,> they trailed off, muttering something about thieving monkeys.

Understanding quickly clicked in Ling Qi’s thoughts. <They’re gone, Zhengui,> she thought, doing her best to surround the young spirit with feelings of comfort. <It’s alright now. Big Sister promises.>

<Is Big Sister sure?> Zhengui asked, his voice trembling like a child’s after a nightmare.

<I am,> she thought soothingly. <Don’t worry. They weren’t enemies anyway. You’re safe, little brother.>

<...Okay.> Ling Qi felt Zhengui’s presence shifting as if he were poking his head carefully out of his shell. <Are we fighting now, Big Sister?>

<Soon,> she thought. <Do you remember Chu Song?> she asked, thinking of the girl’s face.

<Oh! The mean girl who scared Big Sister when Zhengui was small!> he chirped, recovering from his fear with the speed only a child could manage. <Do you want Zhengui to bite her?>

<Maybe if you get the chance,> Ling Qi thought, a small smile reaching her lips. <Here’s the plan…>

Soon enough, the time for preparations came to an end, and the contestants of the first match were called to the arena. Sun Liling was dressed in her customary boyish clothes of red and black, differing only in the gleaming jade bands that now adorned her wrists, and the intricate golden wire woven through her braid. Her expression was stony, and it would have been difficult for Ling Qi to miss the fury in her eyes.

Her opponent looked unsteady. Hei Boqin was a handsome boy of above average height with an athletic build similar to Han Jian’s, cultivation straining at the edges of the second realm. He could have been attractive, had he not held the look of a man being led to the gallows as he took his place in the arena across from Sun Liling.

“It is my honor to face the Princess of the West,” the fair-haired boy said, offering a low bow as the arena’s formations began to glow and shimmer.

Sun Liling’s expression didn’t change as she rolled her shoulders, loosening up in preparation for the match. “Yeah. It is. Let me give ya my condolences,” she drawled as the stone arena faded and shifted into golden sand dunes around them. “Nothin’ personal.” Her tone was flat and cold.

The boy grimaced and straightened up as the terrain solidified. “As you say, Princess.”

Outside the bubble of altered reality which formed the fighting stage, Sect Head Yuan’s cane rapped once against the stone of the balcony, the resulting clap of thunder signaling the start of the match.

A straight-edged sword sprang immediately to Hei Boqin’s hand as he began to backpedal, a layer of metallic qi washing over his body like armor. A brief distortion of air beside him brought forth an enormous boar, three meters at the shoulder with tusks as long as a man’s arm. The beast’s hide, formed of overlapping plates of burnished bronze, glinted in the bright desert light, and not a moment had passed before its mighty legs launched it into a full charge down the slope of the dune towards their opponent.

As the beast bore down upon her, Sun Liling simply… stood there, posture utterly, contemptuously relaxed. Cloven hooves thundered against sand, kicking up plumes of dust in their wake, vicious tusks glinting with the promise of violence. Still, she did not move.

In the span of an instant, she was gone.

The boar did not have the time to acknowledge the absence of its target. Only a crater of hardened sand and muffled boom remained of the Princess. As it charged through that empty space, a slipper-clad foot touched down upon its back, and Sun Liling launched herself towards its master. A terrible rent opened in the boar’s plated hide in the wake of her passage. A trailing ribbon of crimson flowed upwards, coalescing into that familiar barbed spear as she rocketed through the air over the dune.

Behind her, the boar let out a piteous squeal of agony as one wound became six, five sharp stakes of wood erupting from the sands into its underbelly. They drove it upwards off the ground, legs flailing frantically, uselessly against air and bark. The momentum of its own charge had skewered it so thoroughly that no escape could be had.

From the darkened sand beneath emerged Dharitri, immaculate and smiling beatifically as blood poured down her outstretched arm. It was the terminus of the stakes, lovely flesh transforming into a claw of jagged wood. Sun Liling’s spirit looked much the same as the last time Ling Qi had seen her in that fight that had kicked off the faction ‘war’ - willowy and tall, with smooth, ochre skin barely covered by scant, red silk scarves. Her eyes closed in contentment as her flesh drank in the dripping blood and sinuous bronze flesh.

Hei Boqin fared no better than his spirit beast. The descending lance of crimson batted aside his guard as if it were nothing more than a paper screen, speartip shattering protective metallic qi like so much glass. In the next instant, twin curved blades pierced his abdomen, wielded by a pair of skeletal arms forged of blood that drove their sharp tips in and through, emerging from his back in twin showers of gore and arterial spray.

Only then did the Sun Princess’ feet again touch sand.

“You yield?” she asked conversationally, looking down at her slumping opponent without any particular emotion.

Hei Boqin coughed violently, blood speckling his lips, and weakly nodded his head. The blades holding him upright dissolved back into the blood from whence they had come, leaving him to slump bonelessly to the sands. Hei Boqin and his spirit beast shimmered, dissolving into a cloud of glowing lights before the false terrain began to fade as well.

She wasn’t going to learn anything about the strongest opponents in the first round. The competition would not be strong enough to push them to reveal any hidden trump cards.

“The winner of the first match is Sun Liling, by right of forfeit,” Sect Head Yuan stated evenly, unaffected by the quick and brutal ending of the match. “Would the young Sirs Han Jian and Shen Hu please proceed to the third arena?”

Ling Qi let out a breath as Sun Liling hopped down from the raised platform of the arena, her armaments already vanishing. The other girl looked up then, and Ling Qi met her eyes. She saw the promise of violence there.

Han Jian and Shen Hu passed the princess by as the red-haired girl took up her place at the far end of the reduced line, and Ling Qi turned her attention to the next match.

In the arena ahead, Han Jian was taking up his place across from Shen Hu. His expression and posture were perfectly neutral, unusual enough for the friendly boy. “I hope we can have a good match,” he said in a polite and even tone as the formations began to flicker around them.

“I suppose,” Shen Hu replied, standing with his arms crossed over his bare chest. “Ah… Sir Han, right?”

“Yes,” Han Jian answered. “If you don’t mind me asking, I haven’t heard of the Shen family…?”

“Our village is pretty far out west,” Shen Hu admitted. “You’re from the eastern desert, right?”

As they spoke, the terrain solidified around them, leaving the two boys standing across from one another in a field of waist-high yellow grass stretching out to the horizon in a flat plain. “That’s right,” Han Jian replied, shaking out his sleeves.

Thunder boomed, and the match began.

Mud boiled out of Shen Hu’s every pore, building him higher and higher until he towered over the tall grass, encased within Lanhua’s muddy bulk. The air shimmered as Heijin sprang forth, golden fur gleaming as he darted out into the field to vanish like a shadow.

Han Jian did not move from his place as his sword appeared in his right hand and dark stripes began to crawl across his skin, matching the tiger striped patterns of his armor. To Ling Qi’s surprise, Han Jian ripped a strip of white silk from his white sleeve with his newly sharpened fingernails. Casting the ragged ribbon into the air, his sword blurred, and the strip of silk was cut into a half dozen scraps of fluttering cloth.

As she felt the surge of qi flood the pieces of his garment, she glanced over at her liege, who met her gaze with a raised eyebrow. She had almost forgotten that Han Jian had received a Cai robe as well.

As Shen Hu’s lumbering form picked up speed in its ungainly charge, the scraps of silk expanded, rapidly growing to the size of grown men in height. They were simple things, a child’s paper dolls writ large, but the blade-shaped edges of their limbs gleamed with a metallic sharpness.

Shen Hu’s momentum could not be so easily stopped. Encased in mud, the only part of him visible was the pale face set in Lanhua’s ‘chest’, he crashed through the line of constructs, trampling one underfoot and scattering the others. Black crystal claws emerged from the bubbling mud at the end of Lanhua’s massive club-like arms.

Han Jian fell back in the wake of his charge and began to raise his sword, only to falter, his shout dying in his throat as his eyelids drooped. There was a flash, and Ling Qi noticed the understated gold stud in her friend’s ear as it glowed with heated qi. Han Jian’s eyes snapped back open, but that moment of lethargy had cost him precious time. He could do little but raise his sword in a partial block as the mud beast’s fist slammed into his breastplate.

As Han Jian flew backward from the force of the blow, Shen Hu’s spirit beast staggered, mud and muck spraying from its back when four-meter long gashes appeared in its lumpy flank courtesy of Heijin, who was vanishing back into the waving grass. While Shen Hu remained off-balance, the five remaining constructs converged on him in unison, their paper-thin limbs lashing out while streamers of heat began to rise from them, distorting the air.

Ling Qi glanced over to see that Han Jian had landed on his feet, his expression set in a grimace as he raised his sword, the same heat pouring off of his own body. Yet the lumbering mud beast merely shook itself like a dog shedding water, its malleable body warping to avoid the slashing blade limbs of the constructs even as the gashes left by Heijin closed with a sucking sound of a boot caught in wet muck.

A black blur lashed out from the spirit’s chest, diamond claws reducing the head of a construct to tattered scraps of silk, and muddy limbs flattened and sharpened as Lanhua’s entire upper torso rotated with sudden and explosive motion, breaking and flinging away the tattered remains of the constructs surrounding it.

Ling Qi saw Han Jian stumble again, the sword nearly dropping from his hand, only for his earring to flash again, albeit dimmer this time. The moment he recovered, Han Jian swept his sword through the dirt in one smooth motion, the wake of the blade ripping dirt and dust from the ground to form a howling wall of whirling debris.

A move to buy time and recover, she thought.

The mud beast’s rumbling charge would not give him that time. It burst through the barrier hardly any worse for the wear, bearing down once more on the backpedaling Han Jian. As the massive, club-like arms rose to strike him down, the very air trembled with the force of the roar unleashed by Heijin as he pounced upon the mud beast’s back. Muck and reeds were blown away, Lanhua’s back cratering inward from the thunderous sound, and Shen Hu was sent flying as well to tumble through the grass, separated from his spirit.

As Shen Hu staggered back to his feet, disoriented, and Lanhua wobbled, pulling herself back together, Heijin leapt towards longer grasses, intending to hide and repeat once more the ambushes that had been so effective. It was not to be. The young tiger’s limbs went limp in the midst of his jump, leaving him to crash into the ground in an ungainly sprawl. Han Jian had tried to capitalize on his opponent’s opening but found his blade trapped by a stone-encrusted forearm. Ling Qi winced as Shen Hu’s other hand lashed out, sending up a spray of blood as diamond claws punched through steel and cloth alike.

Heijin was doing little better than Han Jian. As he struggled back his feet, golden fur now covered in muck and dust, Lanhua was upon him. Literally. Abandoning all semblance of humanoid form, the muck beast crashed down over the young tiger in a wave of damp earth, engulfing him and dragging him further away from Han Jian. The tiger struggled. Mud bubbled and burst as blades of wind and bursts of sound erupted from the roiling pool of mud, the feline’s furious struggles impotent for the moment.

Lanhua didn’t need to hold the tiger long after all, Ling Qi thought. Han Jian fought with desperate skill, his sword a blurring arc of silver, sending up sparks as he parried and avoided blows from Shen Hu’s stone talons. Ling Qi could see that it was hopeless though. For every strike avoided, another slipped through Han Jian’s guard, sending up embers of dusty gold qi where they would have carved into flesh, and against Shen Hu, every slashing trail of searing wind and every burst of stinging grit washed off his armor.

The outcome wasn’t really in question. Shen Hu was a realm and two stages higher than Han Jian. He seemed hardly winded by the fight while Han Jian’s expression was tight with strain, forehead gleaming with sweat. No matter how valiantly he struggled, eventually the end would come. The final mistake was a poor block made at an awkward angle, the force of the blow tearing the sword from his hand and casting it into the long grass beyond Han Jian’s reach. Without hesitation, a crystal-studded palm slammed into his forehead, shattering the gutted remains of the tiger-stripped boy’s aura.

It was over.

“The winner of the second match is Shen Hu, by right of knockout,” Sect Head Yuan said as Han Jian flew back from the force of the blow, falling to the dusty ground and failing to rise. The silence of the moment was shattered by a furious yowl from Heijin, but even that faded an instant later as the losing competitors vanished into twinkling lights, leaving only Shen Hu and his own spirits in the arena.

The sounds of the crowd were far more muted this time.

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