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Xiulan dropped into the fighting stance of her family style and swept her leg out across the damp stone, the hem of her dress flaring up to reveal the knee-high boots she wore beneath. From her lashing limb, a wave of blue-white flames erupted, rushing across the intervening distance toward Wen Ai.

A pair of fans appeared in Wen Ai’s hands and snapped open, exposing the silk webbing on which were painted vistas of floating clouds and clear blue lakes. The cloud-painted fan swept out, and the wind howled, scattering the roaring flames. The shorter girl advanced, dancing gracefully through the falling sparks as her second fan swept around and her form blurred, splitting into three separate images that quickly made distance from one another.

As Xiulan rose back into a guarded stance, embers burning in her braided hair and sparks crackling in her eyes, her hand struck out, two fingers extended. From their tips burst a searing line of near liquid flame no thicker than an inkbrush. The blazing line stabbed into the leftmost image of Wen Ai and passed through, leaving a steaming hole in the construct before it collapsed.

Xiulan was forced to duck, the edge of the rightmost image’s fan cutting through the air where her head had been. She was pushed further as the other girl carried the second fan around, hastily blocking the strike with her new gauntlet, a shower of sparks and clashing qi bursting forth where silk and metal met. The damp air howled, and Xiulan was flung skyward, carried by a rising funnel of wind generated by the spinning dance of the center image.

Ling Qi saw her friend’s expression twist into a snarl as a cutting wind tore off her veil and scored a bloody line across her cheek, similar wounds appearing across the rest of her body. The spider web of scars marring her friend’s face smouldered, and Xiulan’s aura spiked upward in potency. The blood flowing from the cuts strewn across her body caught aflame, and smoke rose from her bandage-swathed arm as she flung her hands outward and let out a loud battlecry.

Ling Qi winced at the explosion of heat and light that followed, forced to close her eyes to keep from being blinded. When she opened them next, Wen Ai was retreating, her wide sleeves scorched and gave off wisps of black smoke that licked at her forearms. Her duplicate images were nowhere to be found. The stone of the isle was glowing cherry red with heat in a wide circle beneath Xiulan’s position, and near the center, rock bubbled and ran like wax. Xiulan herself had been launched higher into the air by the force of her blast. Her once well kept hair was now flying free in a fan behind her head, the fringes aflame. Above her floated a tiny figure made entirely of dancing flames, casting her features in shadow from the flickering, hungry light.

As Wen Ai retreated from the superheated stone and found her ground, soft, rippling light beginning to radiate from her dancing form, Xiulan spun in midair to face her foe, the gauntlet she wore flaring with blazing characters. A whip of deep crimson flame sparked and burst to life in her grasp, nine grasping lashes snapped out.

Wen Ai leapt backward, the air rippled and blurred around her. The first and the second lash went up in smoke as they tried to carve through the damp aura surrounding the girl. The third and the fourth made it through, kicking up sparks as they slashed across the rocks at Wen Ai’s feet, avoided by graceful yet increasingly desperate movements. The fifth and the sixth were parried by spinning fans, knocked aside to coil uselessly in the air, while the seventh and the eighth incinerated a pair of blossoms decorating Wen Ai’s hair. The ninth, though, coiled around Wen Ai’s wrist, and burned through qi to sizzle against exposed flesh.

Ling Qi saw Xiulan grin as her shoulders tensed and she tightened her grip on the fiery whip. The burning fairy above her laughed, a sound like underbrush burning, and threw out her flickering arms at the same time that Xiulan’s whip snapped taut. The faerie released a pulse of burning hot air, and her friend’s weapon shrunk rapidly, pulling her through the air at her foe.

Below, Wen Ai’s eyes were wide with pain, but the older girl grit her teeth, her expression twisted in fury rather than helplessness. Wen Ai raised her free hand, and the air before her began to shimmer with the form of a materializing beast.

It was too late for Xiulan to stop, diving through the air as she was. Her injured arm extended, the crackling plasma of an unreleased Radiant Lance burning between her fingers. Xiulan collided with Wen Ai’s spirit beast, sending up a cloud of smoke and dust.

Ling Qi felt her throat tighten with worry for her friend. Looming between the two girls stood a figure from a fairy tale. A huge blue-skinned hulk of a humanoid clad in only a loincloth of tiger’s skin, its face hideous and ape-like, with protruding tusks and thick brows that cast its eyes in shadow. The thing must have been nearly four meters tall.

Xiulan’s arm was buried up to the elbow in its chest, a burning hole in its lower back marking the exit wound of the Radiant Lance. Ling Qi hoped that the wound would defeat creature, but the beast merely let out an enraged bellow. The sheer force of the sound blew away the remaining dust and smoke in the air and it seized Xiulan and smashed her to the ground.

Ling Qi clenched her fists as she saw blood escape Xiulan’s lips and Wen Ai’s face light up in a vicious smile. Then a screaming comet of fire slammed into the ogre’s hideous face. The ogre let out another bellow, swatting at the buzzing fire now assaulting its eyes, nose, and ears, stumbling back from Xiulan’s prone form.

Xiulan took advantage of the ogre’s distraction to recover, rolling to her feet in a quick motion that belied the unhealthy shifting of bones beneath her skin. She was unbowed, her eyes burned with determination.

Her enemy had not been idle. The older disciple immediately pressed an attack upon her, twin fans slashing through the air and bringing with them gale-like winds and rippling air that twisted perception.

New wounds appeared on her friend - a slash across her right shoulder, a rising knee slamming into her stomach, and a vicious stomp of a dainty heeled shoe likely breaking at least a few toes. Xiulan faced it, reversing her fighting retreat. Her gauntleted hand snapped out to grasp Wen Ai’s wounded wrist.

Xiulan inhaled deeply, unmindful of the creaking from strained and broken ribs, three tongues of flame bursting through the sealing bandages on her ruined arm, and Xiulan exhaled. Flames poured from her lips, blue-bell bright with an incandescent core of white. Wen Ai shrieked in pain as the hungry stream washed over her, ravenously devouring the qi that sought to block their touch.

The burning figure that stumbled away and fell to one knee hardly bore a resemblance to the elegant girl that had entered the ring. The flowers in Wen Ai’s hair had been incinerated, ugly burns stretching across the arm that had been raised to defend her face, and the fanciful gown had been reduced to tatters clinging to a surprisingly practical bodysuit of cloth armor laced with formations.

Xiulan was similarly bent over, taking short, sharp breaths as she tried to recover from the exertion of her previous fire breath. Before she could take advantage of Wen Ai’s disorientation, Wen Ai’s spirit beast stomped over to the girls, having finished catching and smashing Xiulan’s flickering fairy against the ground before stomping hard on the little thing. Ling Qi was glad that the fights took place within Elder Jiao’s formations. She had enough experience to know that the lethality within such arenas was under his control.

Xiulan straightened up, a trickle of sizzling blood leaking from the corner of her mouth as the brute charged her, its swinging fists failing to strike her even in her wounded state. Yet, dangerous as it was, she refused to give the ogre her full attention, having eyes only for her recovering opponent. In the wake of one swing, she slipped under the brute and slashed her own limb through the air. The sky screamed as a bolt of brilliant lighting fell from the heavens to strike at the other girl, even as the beast spun and slammed a foot into her back. The force of the ogre’s kick sent Xiulan tumbling across the rocky ground, stopping just shy of falling into the churning waters around the island.

That did not help his master though. Wen Ai raised her sole remaining fan, and the lighting flared as it met the silken talisman and Wen Ai’s guttering aura. The rippling qi that had shrouded Wen Ai failed. With a sound like shattering glass, the lightning punched through her fan and into her hand, and Wen Ai screamed.

Xiulan struggled back to her feet to face the roaring charge of the spirit beast, but the arena was already fading.

“The winner of the seventh match is Gu Xiulan, by right of knockout,” Sect Head Yuan announced through the cheers of the crowd.

Ling Qi noticed that Xiulan, face triumphant and fist upraised, was fading into the mist of the vanishing formations as well. She supposed that made sense given the extent of Xiulan’s injuries. Ling Qi let out the breath she had been holding. Xiulan had made it through, by the skin of her teeth perhaps, but she couldn’t have been more pleased for her friend.

Ling Qi glanced over, and met Cai Renxiang’s eyes. Her liege was last up. There was hardly any tension in this match though.

Cai Renxiang’s opponent, Shu Hai, had some resemblance to Kang Zihao and Lu Feng. Tall, thin, and handsome, Shu Hai wore polished armor that looked fit for a parade. As they took their places in the arena, Shu Hai bowed low.

“It is an honor, my lady, to face your blade,” he murmured. “To think that I would be able to stand in the same arena as the heir of the one who cast down the accursed Hui.”

Cai Renxiang’s expression remained even as the air began to distort, transforming their surroundings. “The Shu of Xiangmen deserve their honors. Your father has more than earned his position as an officer of the White Plume regiment.”

Shu Hai smiled as a cold and windswept mountain peak formed beneath their feet. “That Your Grace would recall the name of a humble sergeant is all the honor we need. Although… if I may make a request?”

“You may,” Cai Renxiang said. The air around her right hand shimmered, and her sheathed blade appeared.

Shu Hai straightened up, finally meeting her eyes. “This one has no pretensions, so please, allow this soldier to receive the full weight of Your Grace’s blade.”

Ling Qi noticed the subtle way Cai Renxiang’s lips thinned, the faintest show of frustration. “As you wish.”

The starting signal thundered out.

A saber blazed like a colorless sun.

The roar of crumbling rock drowned out the sound of metal rent asunder as the whole of the cliffside gave way.

The match ended.

***

“I will require you to attend me before sunset,” Cai Renxiang said quietly as they left the tournament grounds, the other winning disciples scattering to take up their own business.

“For the Duchess’ gathering, right?” Ling Qi asked, walking just behind her at a careful pace.

“Yes,” Cai Renxiang agreed. “In addition, consider what resources you would like prepared for your coming match tomorrow.”

Ling Qi raised an eyebrow in surprise. “I thought I would not be receiving such assistance.”

Her liege glanced back at Ling Qi. “My wise Mother has chosen not to interfere, but I retain the last of the resources I was granted for my time in the Outer Sect.”

“I see,” Ling Qi replied. “May I ask what sort of budget I should consider?”

“Anything you desire that is available within the Sect markets. Mother has forbidden me from making outside orders,” Cai said. “In any case, the rest of your afternoon is yours to do with as you please.”

“Thank you for your generosity, Lady Cai,” Ling Qi was already considering her current stock of medicines and tools as they split up.

Putting such thoughts in the back of her mind for the moment, Ling Qi made her way toward the central entrance plaza. She had not seen Li Suyin since the beginning of the tournament week, and she was curious to see just how the girl was doing.

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