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<Do you think I was too harsh?> Ling Qi wondered as she made her way back to the line of the participating disciples under the bright cheers of the audience. She caught Ji Rong’s eye as they passed one another on the path to the arenas. Perhaps unsurprisingly given his relationship with Chu Song, he was scowling.

<Well, you infuriated her pretty well,> Sixiang noted. <I don’t really get the things you two were talking about though. Is human life really so unpleasant?>

Ling Qi let out a quiet huff as she rejoined the line, returning to her position between Cai Renxiang and Gu Xiulan. <How can you read people so well with so little understanding?> she thought.

Sixiang made a thoughtful sound that echoed oddly inside of her mind. <Dreams and art are born from experience, but they’re expressions of those things, not the feelings themselves. I’ve felt the echoes of your experience in your music, but I can’t really say I understand it.>

<You don’t eat so you’ve never hungered. You don’t feel pain… You don’t even really understand the fear of death,> she mused. She couldn’t imagine what living like that must be like.

<Right,> Sixiang agreed cheerfully. <And the Chu girl… Her pain is secondhand, so I kinda get it. I have memories from Mother and Grandmother after all. But in the end, I’m not her friend.> Ling Qi got the impression of a shrug from the capricious spirit.

<But you share her unease about the Cai,> Ling Qi thought.

<...Yeah,> Sixiang admitted. <Maybe I understand a little more than I thought.>

Ling Qi held in a sigh and turned her attention outward once more. She had been harsh in her wording to Chu, purposefully so, but she hadn’t lied either. Ling Qi had seen her own reflection in the Argent Mirror, and despite her efforts to grow it, she still had little enough room for sympathy in her heart and certainly not for a declared enemy.

In the arena, Ji Rong was facing Han Fang.

“... an ass, but he’s had my back,” Ji Rong said idly, flexing his scarred and calloused hands. “Gonna have to kick your ass for that, you know?”

Han Fang had no verbal reply for obvious reasons, though the bald boy did cock an eyebrow at the threat.

“Tch, forgot. Not gonna get any trash talk from you, am I?” Ji Rong mused as the formations took hold, beginning the transformation of the arena into that of a sheer mountainside cliff.

Han Fang merely smiled, tracing the ugly scar that crossed his throat with one finger.

“Yeah, yeah, I see it,” Ji Rong replied, raising a hand to scratch at the burn scar that stretched across his cheek and neck. “It’s not gonna stop me from breakin’ your jaw again.”

Han Fang shrugged as the arena solidified fully around them, leaving the two boys standing atop a high and misty cliff beside a river that thundered over the edge, drowning out any further speech. The thunderclap that signified the start of the match sounded a bare moment later.

As Ling Qi watched, Ji Rong’s body crackled with heavenly energy, and his limbs dissolved into actinic light. He crossed the distance between himself and Han Fang in the blink of an eye, seeming to almost materialize out of the air with his fist already slamming into the taller boy’s jaw, lifting him from the ground with the force of the blow.

Wind shrieked around Han Fang, and he himself vanished with a thunderous boom before reappearing with a loud crack atop a large boulder set in the center of the river, his hammer now in one hand and a small, glowing pellet in the other. Han Fang flung the pellet at the boulder he stood upon, and a roiling cloud of sand and dust sprang up in its wake.

Ling Qi saw Ji Rong fall into a crouch, his lips moving in speech she couldn’t quite make out over the roar of the waterfall. What she could understand, however, was the intense spike of qi as he pressed two fingers against his forehead and drew forth a crackling orb of blindingly bright energy. It shot from his extended fingers in a searing beam of spiraling energy, striking the cloud. Then, the beam warped, bending at a right angle to shoot to the left and curve around a second boulder on the far side of the river, shattering the cloak of obfuscating qi and sending the previously hidden Han Fang sprawling as the energy drilled through his chest and out of his shoulder, leaving a smoking hole in its wake.

Ji Rong easily avoided the flung hammer that came his way as Han Fang scrambled back to his feet. Ling Qi closed her eyes, and a moment later, her silent prediction came true as the sound of an electrified fist striking flesh reached her ears.

“The winner of the fourth match is Ji Rong, by right of knockout,” Sect Head Yuan announced to the mixed cheers of the audience.

Her own match had been the longest one so far in this first round of elimination duels, Ling Qi noted. She supposed that this was the reason that the Sect had arranged for the crafting competition to take place on the same day; the visitors would probably find this first round rather short.

As the Sect Head called up the next two combatants, Ling Qi could not help but feel a pang of pity for the stocky, dark haired boy who had been matched with Meizhen. Much like Hei Boqin, Wei Jing looked like a man marching to meet the headsman.

While she was well aware of how this match would go, out of courtesy to her friend, she kept her attention focused on the arena rather than any further musing.

Meizhen stood with her arms hanging loose at her sides, seemingly unguarded in posture as she observed her opponent. On the other hand, Ling Qi could see the faint trembling in Wei Jing’s hands as he clasped them in front of his chest and bowed respectfully.

“M-may we have an honorable match, Miss Bai,” he said carefully, keeping his eyes down as the arena wavered and reformed.

To Ling Qi’s surprise, Meizhen actually deigned to respond. “As you say,” she replied coolly, somehow giving the impression of looking down on the older boy despite his greater height. “You are not my enemy, so I will endeavor not to inflict undue pain.”

Her opponent straightened up, looking as if he had bitten into something unpleasant, but he kept his hands together for a moment longer regardless. “This one thanks you for your regard,” he said, swallowing thickly.

The terrain had finished taking shape during the exchange, leaving the two cultivators standing on small isles of dirt protruding from rippling brown waters. The shores were overgrown with rushes and other such plants, and here and there, twisted trees rose from the mist that clung to the ground and water, their branches hanging heavy and low.

The moment that the thunderclap indicating the start of the match sounded, dark waters began to trickle down Meizhen’s back, condensing from the moist air, and Cui’s sinuous emerald coils began to form, coiling around Meizhen’s feet.

At the same time, a long wooden staff capped with bronze formed in the hands of her opponent, and the boy turned, his boots digging deep into the moist earth as he prepared to leap away from his starting island and opponent.

“Running is futile.” Meizhen’s quiet voice rang out like a clear crystal bell, and pale golden fire bloomed in her eyes. That was a sure sign, in Ling Qi’s experience, that Meizhen was putting active effort into her aura of terror. Ling Qi winced in pity as the boy’s limbs stiffened and his eyes bulged out, leaving him to trip and sprawl in the mud, whatever movement technique he had begun to activate guttering out.

Meizhen’s flowing stride carried her out onto the murky waters, her passing leaving only faint ripples as the surface of the water supported her as easily as the ground had, while at her side, Cui slipped silently beneath the muddy surface. As Meizhen’s Abyssal Mantle took on its full shape, her face was shadowed, visible only by the glow of her eyes.

Wei Jing scrambled to his feet, clutching his weapon, and spun to face his approaching doom. He brought the butt of his staff down on the muddy ground with a thump. The earth rumbled and rose, a meter thick barricade of packed earth rising to twice the height of a man in an instant, but then, he screamed as a serpentine head erupted from the waters at his feet, Cui striking in an impossibly fast blur to sink her fangs in through qi, leather, and flesh alike before vanishing back into the waters as quickly as she had appeared.

As his staff dropped from nerveless fingers, she saw Meizhen swipe her hand horizontally through the air in a single, quick motion. In its wake, the waters rose in a sharp wave, carving through the raised wall and allowing her to step gracefully through the muddy rubble to stand a short distance away from her opponent. Wei Jing was struggling to rise off of his knees, but even with his thick pants and boots, Ling Qi could tell that his leg was swollen to a worrying degree, and the blood which wept from the holes left by Cui’s fangs was marked with greenish black flecks.

“Do you yield?” Meizhen asked as she moved to stand over him, her empty hand extended toward his cheek, sparks of poisonous qi dancing around her fingertips.

“I yield,” the boy choked out.

The first round this year was really unfair, Ling Qi thought as the Sect Head announced Meizhen as the winner to a backdrop of cautious approval radiating from the audience. She offered Meizhen a small smile as the girl returned, and the other girl caught her eye for a moment before looking to Cai Renxiang beside her and offering a small nod of her own.

Keeping up appearances could be quite annoying. Ling Qi held back the small sigh that wished to escape her as her friend took up her place on the opposite side of her liege in the rapidly shrinking line.

Ling Qi watched with only minor interest as the next match began. The two participants facing off were Kang Zihao and another of the poor sacrificial second realms. She wasn’t concerned about the other boy as an opponent. Not only was he in the opposite bracket, but he would also be facing off against Bai Meizhen next.

As Ling Qi listened to the two’s dialogue, she realized that Kang was going to be giving the other boy some face. From their conversation, it seemed that the second realm had been one of Kang’s subordinates. Ling Qi couldn’t recall this disciple’s face.

Given her lack of interest in this “fight,” Ling Qi instead turned her attention to Zhengui, who was practically vibrating with happiness at winning his first fight. Praising her little brother for toughing it out against a third realm opponent was more important and more entertaining.

Ling Qi did tune into the match from time to time. The other boy was a spear wielder as well, and Kang Zihao had decided to engage the other boy in a duel of pure spearmanship, showing nothing new. As boring as the match was to her, it looked like the crowd at least enjoyed getting to see a slightly longer match this time. In the end though, the duel reached its obvious outcome, with Kang’s speartip resting against the other boy’s throat.

The next match, on the other hand, Ling Qi intended to give her full attention. As Gu Xiulan’s name was called, she gave her friend an encouraging smile, which the other girl returned with a confident smirk behind her veil. Gu Xiulan marched up the path beside her opponent with her head held high, as haughty and confident as the day Ling Qi had met her. She wore a single layered gown of dark red silk embroidered with flickering flames that clung rather scandalously to her figure. The red glove she had worn since the beginning of the year was gone, replaced with a fine golden gauntlet so well articulated that the plates seemed almost like a second skin.

Wen Ai, on the other hand, kept a more demure expression, her steps flowing gracefully along the path. The girl practically had a whole bouquet of flowers woven into her hair, and the colorful blooms swayed with every step like the dangling ruby earrings worn below. Unlike Xiulan, her gown was a many layered thing, burying the smaller girl in a cloud of floaty silk and lace that seemed quite good at masking the movements of her limbs. Also unlike Xiulan, she was fully in the third realm.

As the two reached the arena and took up their places, both girls bowed politely to one another in almost perfect unison.

“I hope that we may have a good match,” Wen Ai said in her quiet, musical voice.

“That is my hope as well,” Xiulan agreed easily.

“Allow me to offer my condolences for your incomplete breakthrough, Sect Sister,” Wen Ai said. “It must have been a terrible disappointment after your sacrifices.”

Xiulan’s eyes narrowed slightly in the fading light of the changing arena, sparks igniting in her dark brown eyes. “Thank you, Sect Sister,” she said sweetly. “Allow me to congratulate you on your own. A mere two years of effort for such a result is certainly impressive.”

“Thank you for your acknowledgement,” the other girl replied, her voice unstrained as the sky darkened above them, and rough stone replaced the tiled arena under their feet. “I will, of course, endeavor not to worsen your disfigurement in the coming match.”

“I will apologize in advance for any damage you suffer as well, Sect Sister.” Ling Qi recognized the look in Xiulan’s eyes well enough to know exactly what sort of sharp-edged smile hid beneath her veil.

Their arena finished taking shape as the girls fell silent, leaving the two standing on a small rocky isle in the middle of a great expanse of water. White-capped waves rose and dashed themselves against the sheer stony cliffs that made up the isle, and overhead, storm clouds rumbled with unreleased rain.

The starting thunderclap rang out.

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