“Miss Ling, Miss Chu, proceed to the second arena.” Ling Qi started as she heard the Sect Head speak her name, but quickly straightened her shoulders and stepped out of the line of competitors, along with Chu Song.
Ling Qi shared a look with the other girl, who was now only slightly taller than her, and found her opponent’s expression cold, which was hardly unexpected. The other girl had not been fond of the Cai when last they had met, and Ling Qi was now a direct retainer to the clan’s heiress. As they stepped into the arena, pacing to the far ends, she saw the older girl take a deep breath, clenching and unclenching her hands.
“I see you didn’t give my words the slightest bit of regard,” Chu Song said as the gemstones set into the arena’s pillars began to glimmer. “I can’t say that’s unexpected.”
Ling Qi made a noncommittal sound, idly tapping her foot to the beat of the tune Sixiang was humming now in the back of her head. She would have to ask the spirit what it was called later. It would be rude to ignore her opponent, she supposed, but she had to remain conscious of the fact that what she said would be heard by any who cared to hear.
“I’ve studied some history since that time at the vent,” she started.
The muscular girl raised an eyebrow. “And what does that have to do with anything?” her expression darkened a moment later. “You gonna say we deserved it for failing to hold back Ogodei?”
Ling Qi shook her head, her braided hair swaying with the motion. “No, it’s just… Things don’t really change, you know?” She didn’t think about things like this often, but the difficulty of true change was often in the back of her thoughts as she learned more about the past. “Yesterday, a million people were crushed by the world’s unfairness, and today, it will be the same for a million more.”
“Didn’t take you for the philosophizing sort,” Chu Song snorted as the shapes of trees began to take form around them and the distance between their positions began to stretch. “What’s your point?”
“No matter how peerless my honored ruler’s might is, she didn’t change that,” Ling Qi replied. “You aren’t special for suffering. After all, even with all your misfortune, there are countless people who would sacrifice everything to be in your position.” What person living in the gutters would not kill for the chance to join even the least of cultivators?
Chu Song sneered. “Sounds like you’re making excuses. Lil’ self-serving, isn’t it?”
“It is,” Ling Qi agreed. “I guess I just don’t really care about the fading ghosts of clans a hundred years dead.”
Ling Qi felt a little bad as her opponent’s expression twisted into fury, but her words had the desired effect. Thunder boomed, rustling the leaves of the trees overhead, and Chu Song launched herself toward Ling Qi, her massive slab of a greatsword appearing in her hands.
The charge was sloppy.
Ling Qi launched herself skyward, darkness pooled in her channels and washed across her skin, her limbs blurred into misty incoherence as she expressed her flute, its silver markings gleamed amidst the shrouded trees. The first melancholy notes of the Forgotten Vale Melody echoed through the once bright summer sky.
Below her, the area where she had stood and the closest trees in every direction were blown away, howling wind carved through wood and dirt alike as an arcing blade of air tore apart the terrain. For Ling Qi, it served only to make her gown rustle in the rising winds.
Ling Qi did not stop there, flying further still into the sky, carried on the dark wings of her gown. Abusing her flight against Chu Song to set up her music in peace was unfair, yes, but expecting fairness in a competition such as this was foolish. She called forth the shadows of hungry spirits to infest her mist, writhing and snatching at the promise of violence. In the dim light, her skin darkened with deep green qi, layering itself like bark as she wrapped herself in the Hundred Rings Armament technique.
Ling Qi almost paused in her playing when she felt a sudden and violent shift in the air all around her. The nearby clouds were torn asunder by the suddenly swirling wind before a whirling, invisible twister slammed into the top of her mist. Ling Qi quickly channeled still more qi through the pulsing lines of vital energy that laced her spine, adding another layer of defense to the rough, barklike aura that enshrouded her.
Wind tore at her hair and gown, howling, screaming, trying to scatter her building melodies to the four corners of the world. Futile. Her music and mist were beyond such things now, lessons learned in the all-consuming embrace of Zeqing’s snowstorm. The serene notes of the Forgotten Vale floated over noise and fury, unperturbed by the tantrum of the winds.
<Are you ready, little brother?> she asked as her mist grew more cloying still with her song seamlessly transitioning into the Starlight Elegy. Below, she could feel Chu Song and her spirit beast, fruitlessly trying to stop her build-up.
<Zhengui will beat up that bear good, Big Sister!> Zhengui exclaimed, eager for his first real battle.
Ling Qi worried. The bear had quite the cultivation advantage over her Zhengui, but she would be nearby, effectively bolstering Zhengui with her mist, hindering their opponents. Ling Qi was confident that Zhengui could at least hold the beast off while she dealt with Chu Song. Her little brother was young, but he was tough indeed.
Ending her ascent, Ling Qi began to dive as she played the first notes of the Traveler’s End, the finale of her performance, the mist becoming completely opaque to mundane sight. At fifty meters up, she expressed Zhengui above the concentration of mountain and metal that could only be Chu Song’s spirit. Her little brother dropped like a stone with an excited woop from both of his heads, and his shell glowing with magmatic heat that distorted the very air around him.
Ling Qi swooped below the treeline and cut off the flow of qi to her gown, turning her flight into a controlled fall. Chu Song awaited her, skin faded to the color of granite and a veritable tornado screaming around her torso-sized blade. A crescent of silver shot toward her from above the girls head and met its match as the girl’s lower quality flying blade clashed against the onyx edge of Ling Qi’s singing blade.
Despite the power Ling Qi sensed in the other girl’s sword, it could not reach her. Chu Song’s eyes glowed with the light of a perception art, but Ling Qi flowed around the path of the first blade of wind launched from Chu’s blade. The second was met with a single, sharp note from her flute, a muffled boom of imploding air resounding through the arena as both attacks shattered. The cloying qi of her mist sept into Chu Song’s channels, clouding her senses and sapping her vitality, but the girl only roared a battle cry and charged forward.
Some distance away, Ling Qi could sense that Zhengui and the great bear were engaging in battle. A massive paw crashed into the smaller tortoise’s shell with a ground-cratering smash, only for the bear to rear back with an irritated roar as superheated ash engulfed its head.
Her enemy’s charge faltered as a pulse of hungry darkness washed over the field and Chu’s flying sword was sent spinning away. In that moment of weakness, Ling Qi spun from the path of the charge with a dancer’s grace, gown flaring out around her legs and pulled back from the melee, careful to keep Zhengui in the embrace of her mist. Not content to merely defend herself while the mist did its work, she sang the Aria of Spring’s End.
The wordless notes of the song caused the temperature to plummet immediately, frost rippling across grass made damp from her mist. This time, when Chu Song spun and slashed at her, Ling Qi fought back directly. Between the techniques of her various arts, qi from all around her streamed back in to refill her reserves.
She did not intend to play fair.
Ling Qi flitted through the mist like a shadow, battering the older girl at the center with bone-chilling cold carried on the notes of a sad, lonely melody and drank deeply from her despair. Always just out of reach of Chu Song’s sword, she led the girl on a merry, hopeless chase. When a wind blade clipped her shoulder, it served only to chip at her recovering qi. When Chu Song tried to link back up with her spirit, crying out his name, Ling Qi buried her deeper still in the mist until the girl could not even perceive her own spirit beast.
Part of Ling Qi delighted at the feeling of power she felt as her opponent's movements grew weaker and more sloppy. She had strived for this. This strength and control. An enemy she could only cower before half a year ago was reduced to stumbling around, lost and at her mercy.
Ling Qi let out a quiet breath as Chu Song’s faltering steps found a tree root, invisible in the mist, and the girl’s stone armor crumbled under the eager claws of the mist phantoms. There was no need to be cruel. It was time to end this.
<Done already?> Sixiang questioned as Chu Song glared out impotently into the mist. <You seemed like you were having fun.>
<There’s no point in drawing this out unnecessarily,> Ling Qi thought back. From the noise, Zhengui and the bear, Yan, were still fighting. They were at a stalemate. With his cultivation disadvantage, Zhengui could not hurt the other spirit easily, but weakened by her mist, the reverse was also true, if less so, and Zhengui recovered far more easily.
“Do you yield?” Ling Qi asked, her voice echoing from everywhere within the mist.
“Go to hell,” Chu Song spat, her teeth chattering from the cold.
Ling Qi sighed. “Then don’t complain,” she warned before raising her voice in song again.
The older girl crashed to the ground, covered in frost, her qi extinguished.
Ling Qi let out a deep breath as the trees and her enemy began to fade along with her mist. Zhengui trotted back to her side. His shell was chipped, and Zhen was bleeding, superheated white fluid dripping to sizzle on the stage, scales torn from his snout in a bloody line, but even now, she could see new ash-grey scales sprouting.
“Are you alright, little brother?” she asked lightly.
“Zhen’s face itches,” the young serpent grumbled. “But it is nothing!” the proud half of her little spirit declared.
“Gui kept the bear from bothering Big Sister!” his other half chirped.
“What a good little brother you are,” Ling Qi praised. “Return now though. We need to make room for the next fight.”
As Zhengui dissolved with an agreeable chirp, Ling Qi regained her sight of the tournament grounds, meeting the Sect Head’s eyes.
“The winner of the third match is Ling Qi, by right of knockout,” he announced as the last vestiges of the formation-generated terrain faded.
Ling Qi smiled and stepped down from the stage. Despite her victory, she couldn’t rest easy. She still had to progress as far as she could in this tournament to show off her strength. With a better placement, she’d gain a higher starting rank in the Inner Sect and show that the Cai had made a good choice in supporting her.
Regardless of her final placement, though, she had done it! She had secured her place in the Inner Sect!