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Ling Qi wasn’t certain what to think of the girl standing next to her. There was something different about Cai Renxiang this morning, and she was not sure that she liked it. She wasn’t referring to the change in look, although it was unsettling after how unchanging the other girl’s appearance had been for the past year.

From the crimson wings formed of folded cloth still splashed across her chest, the dress spirit was still Liming, but it had been obviously altered. It had in some ways been simplified. The wide billowing sleeves were now drawn in, cinched tightly around its wearers wrists, the cut of the robe seemed more boyish, despite the way it clung to Cai Renxiang’s chest and hips tighter than before, and the lower hem ended a few inches above the ground, leaving exposed the white, high-heeled boots Cai Renxiang wore underneath. A long cut up the side showed that the boots rose to her knees when the powder blue under-layer shifted.

Ling Qi glanced again at the other girl’s face. The touch of cosmetics was light but still striking given the previous lack. Rather than playing down her sharp, unforgiving features, it gave her a more imperious and forbidding air. Even her hair had changed. Twin braids held by white ribbons framed her face in the front while the rest spilled down to her lower back in a smooth waterfall, free and unstyled

Ling Qi couldn’t help but notice that Cai Renxiang’s eyes held an unsettling emptiness compared to when they had parted.

Ling Qi turned her attention to the arenas ahead. She couldn’t afford to gawk at the other girl in public. Sun Liling and Shen Hu were already mounting the stairs which led into the first arena, overseen by Sect Head Yuan. He had given a short speech extolling the virtue and strength of the eight disciples to the audience, as well as urging them to give their all now for the honor of their families, the Sect, and the Empire.

Sun Liling wore a cool expression today, strolling into the arena at a casual pace. The simmering anger that Ling Qi had seen in her demeanor yesterday was nowhere to be found. Shen Hu, on the other hand, had an expression equally as passive as it had been yesterday. Yet Ling Qi could not help but notice the more serious set of his shoulders and the other little signs of tension in his frame as the combatants offered polite bows to one other.

“It’s funny. A few days ago, I’d never even heard of ya,” Sun Liling said casually as she straightened and lowered her hands, her bow having been more a nod of acknowledgement.

“I thought the mountain would be a bit too noisy,” Shen Hu replied as the air shimmered. “I like to take things at my own pace.”

“Heh, I guess that’s fair enough,” Sun Liling said, rolling her shoulders in an eye-catching way. “I’m surprised ya didn’t get rusty, just wandering out in the woods.”

“The beasts around here are a little weak,” Shen Hu admitted. “But they can still make good opponents if you handicap yourself,” he continued, falling into a wide defensive stance. “It’s surprising how much of a fight they can put up in that case.”

Sun Liling laughed, not bothering to take a stance herself, but Ling Qi noticed her fingers curling, preparing to grasp the haft of a spear as the terrain solidified around them. “I guess you’re not lacking courage,” she said, a smirk finding its way onto her face. “Gotta say, I still think your training plan is flawed.”

They stood now on the shore of a small lake, only a hundred odd meters across, with a small burbling stream feeding it. The stream passed between them where they stood on the grassy shore, dotted with a handful of trees.

“Probably,” Shen Hu agreed, breathing in deeply as he opened his hands and extended his fingers claw-like. “I won’t be an easy opponent though.”

“You’ve got a good attitude at least,” Sun Liling said idly, subtly shifting her feet.

A thunderclap stirred the faint morning mists shrouding the lake, and the two figures blurred.

Shen Hu’s forward foot dug into the mud, and the rich earth at his feet splattered in his wake as he launched himself forward, bubbling mud and marsh reeds pouring from his shoulders even as glittering diamond claws grew to encase his outstretched fingertips. The crimson princess grinned in the face of the charge, her green eyes gleaming with bloodlust. Blood gushed from her palms, crawling up her limbs to form gauntlet and vambrace even as her terrible, black barbed spear took shape. As her own feet launched her backward, she drew her arm back, and in the blink of an eye, she launched the spear, which screamed through the air like a newly launched arrow.

A great granite slab shimmered into existence in front of Shen Hu. The blurring missile struck its surface and shattered, sending a spider web of hairline fractures across its surface.

... Only it didn’t.

Ling Qi restrained the urge to rub her eyes as the spear simultaneously struck Shen Hu’s shield and warped past it. Its straight arc bent at a sharp angle to shoot past Shen Hu’s defensive domain weapon and dig a bloody line across the wide-eyed boy’s shoulder as he arrested his charge to try to dodge.

As Sun Liling landed lightly on the extended branch of a leafless tree, Ling Qi caught a faint, split second fluttering of her eyes, but any hope that the Sun girl had suffered a setback died as qi flared from the center of her forehead. A thousand rainbow patterned leaves of a vast lotus flower flickered into sight behind her like a mighty banner.

“Tricky,” she said, clicking her tongue as the armor finished forming across her chest and twin skeletal arms grew from beneath her own, clutching jagged blades. “You’ve got a second spirit after all.”

Shen Hu didn’t respond, now fully encased in the hulking form of his earth spirit. With even his head submerged, Shen Hu seemed to be entirely fused with his beast, an impression made all the greater as its limbs swelled, taking on muscular definition and half meter-long spines of black crystal erupted from its back and club-like hands. Lanhua’s footfalls shook the earth as the two thundered toward the Sun princess.

Lanhua was not content merely charging though. The tree Sun Liling had landed on tilted drunkenly, the soil at its roots softening, and grasping muddy hands rose to clutch at the girl’s limbs.

Sun Liling laughed, launching herself from the branch, her voice distorted, reverberating within the fanged maw of the three-faced demonic helm that now covered her head. “You’ve made another mistake!” she exclaimed, bloody mist erupting from channels all across her armor as she twirled through the air, avoiding the grasping hands and launching spikes of crystal.

Ling Qi felt it then, a ripple of disquieting qi that spread outward from the now fallen tree that Sun Liling had stood upon. Bright colored flowers bloomed from now swiftly rotting bark of the tree and spread outward, devouring grass and soil alike in a multichromatic carpet. It reached Lanhua’s thick, trunk-like feet, despite the beast’s alarmed step backward.

She winced as the beast, who had suffered everything she had rained on it in near silence, let out a warbling scream, a great gash of a mouth opening across its upper body and hungry rootlets digging into its muddy flesh. New flowers bloomed, crawling swiftly up the earthen pillars of the beast’s legs.

Lanhua tore its feet from the writhing ground, leaving behind head-sized chunks of mud in the grasp of the hungry rootlets. It wasn’t enough to escape. Already, new blooms of vibrant green were swelling with cancerous life across the beast’s pockmarked legs.

As if to add insult to injury, a blurred, six-armed form fell on the beleaguered spirit from above. A barbed spear dug into the mud, whipping and darting in a red blur, carving great furrows to seek the flesh beneath, and a mighty arm, raised to swat away the foe, fell with a crash to the earth, cleaved from its body with a single stroke of a mighty black bladed axe. Lanhua’s torso bubbled then, and Shen Hu emerged, gleaming crystal talons raised, only to crash against two upraised curved blades dripping with sizzling sanguine fluid.

Still, the weight of the clash forced Sun Liling away from the thrashing Lanhua, whose wet, bubbling screams had not stopped. The bright colored growths blooming across the spirit’s body wriggled and writhed, spreading with impossible speed, and even as she watched, the dusky skinned Dharitri bloomed from the other spirit’s back, woody stems and soft roots alike flowing together to form the bare limbs of inhuman beauty. The jungle spirit’s beatific smile didn’t change despite the other spirit’s wailing.

Lanhua dissolved then, mud and reed disintegrating back into earthy qi that flowed into the scowling Shen Hu’s navel. He stood at the ready in a vast field of flowers now, flanked on one side by the near naked Dharitri and on the other by Sun Liling.

The princess’ armor had evolved. She still held her twisted, thorny spear easily in her two true arms, but the curved blades held in the false limbs below had grown smoother, more refined, and longer. A third pair of false arms, thick with muscle, sprouted from above her natural limbs. The right upper arm held the massive curve-bladed black axe which had taken Lanhua’s arm so easily while the left upper arm was empty, its hand held near her face, palm out and fingers straight as if in prayer.

“That was unnecessary,” Shen Hu said flatly, ignoring the bloody cut on his shoulder.

“Well, what can ya expect?” Sun Liling’s reverberating voice answered. “Waving a meal like that in front of my poor spirit’s face?”

The boy’s lips were set in a thin line as he turned on his heel and charged, crystal claws outstretched toward Sun Liling’s smiling spirit. Sun Liling blurred, but the slab of gray rock that was Shen Hu’s domain weapon shimmered into existence, blocking her path with a crash. Concern never appeared on the Dharitri’s features as black claws slashed through the space where her head had been. The curvaceous creature’s spine bent, silken garments fluttering as she escaped the path of Shen Hu’s attacks, leaving him to catch only a few strands of dark hair.

The air shimmered with spreading pollen as the spirit fell back before him, still smiling gently, and when next Shen Hu’s crystal claws rose, they met twisted talons of thorn and wood, scoring deep wounds that wept glistening sap. The sound of shattering stone heralded the end of his advantage, and Sun Liling fell upon him like a crimson meteor. Commendably, he held under her initial assault.

But for all of his ability, Shen Hu was losing. Even as black greaves formed over his legs in a desperate attempt to even the number of limbs, wounds opened across his arms and chest. Sun Liling was overwhelming in her speed and strength, and worst still, Ling Qi could feel more power flooding into the demonic girl, powered by the melodic voice of the jungle spirit Dharitri, who, in the wake of her partner’s assault, had leapt back, escaping the battle. Her limbs were already swaying gracefully through the movements of an eye-catching dance even as her rich voice rose in a foreign song.

Ling Qi felt a spike of irritation.

The battle was not in question by this point. Unable to break her guard nor get away, Shen Hu had no path to victory. Sun Liling danced around him, the staggering complexity of her assault impossible to follow. It was to Shen Hu’s credit that the battle still lasted some time from then.

“The winner of the day’s first round is Sun Liling by right of knockout,” Sect Head Yuan announced over the cheers of the crowd as Shen Hu slumped to the ground, dissolving into glittering lights along with the terrain.

Ling Qi met the eyes of the princess as the red-haired girl hopped down from the raised arena, her monstrous armor and cruel armaments dissolving like so much smoke. There was no anger there, nor elation from victory despite the easy smile on her lips, only stony determination. The moment didn’t linger as Sun Liling returned to her place at the far end of the line, and Ling Qi was called forward along with her opponent.

She marched silently with practised poise to the arena alongside the boy who had once been a commoner like her without giving him more than a glance. Some trace of a thuggish swagger remained in his steps, but it seemed that even he had learned to move with more dignity. Soon enough, they split apart, moving to face one another from opposite sides of the arena.

“You know, it’s funny,” the scarred boy commented, idly cracking his knuckles. “We’ve been on opposite sides of a conflict, but I don’t think we’ve ever faced each other directly.”

“Is that so,” Ling Qi said, standing ready with her hands at her sides, affecting an attitude similar to that of her best friend.

“Yeah,” Ji Rong said evenly. “Ya know why I never tried to talk to you back at the beginning?”

“I couldn’t guess, Baron Ji,” she said blandly. “I am sure you were very busy.”

He grimaced, giving her a sour look. “Tch,” he scoffed, not otherwise responding to her words. “I thought I had you pegged. I’d seen people like you before.”

“Do share your insights,” she said as the formations began to activate, shrouding them in shimmering lights.

He returned her flat look. “You were a rat,” he said. “Too weak to fight, and too scared to join up with anyone. You were the kinda person who’d trip a friend up if it meant getting a few more seconds of a lead on the guard.”

“How rude,” she said coldly, feeling stung despite herself. He wasn’t wrong after all. “Do you think I haven’t seen your type before, Ji Rong?” she asked. “Swaggering bullies who get their friends together to pretend at authority, so they can feel like they control something? How many streets did your gang claim as its fief?”

“Not very many,” Ji Rong said with a lopsided smirk that carried a note of bitter nostalgia. “Xizhou is barely a city.”

“Did you have a point then?” Ling Qi asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Not sure, if I’m bein’ honest.” Ji Rong cracked his neck as the lights began to coalesce into solid terrain. “Guess I’m just curious what made you change.”

“You are much less angry than I was expecting,” Ling Qi said instead.

“Oh, I’m still pretty pissed,” Ji Rong admitted. “We’re enemies, and you’re just as cruel as the rest of your lot. But you’re not that big idiot Gan.” He met her gaze steadily. “If that jackass who’s been tutoring me made one thing stick, it’s that I can’t lose my temper against an enemy who might be stronger than me.”

Ling Qi frowned, electing to ignore the last part of his statement as gratifying as it was. “I don’t think your group has any right to call us cruel.”

Ji Rong snorted, giving her an incredulous look. “Right. Tell that to the poor sods who had the misfortune to cross ‘Miss’ Bai’s path,” he drawled, spitting the term of ostensible respect. “The reason you get to pretend to be better is ‘cause you won. Just like everyone else.”

“Only one side was fighting for something besides their own pride,” Ling Qi replied as the shape of the terrain solidified around them. They stood at the top of a large hill in a lightly wooded scrubland, the sky bright with the colors of sunset. “But this conversation is pointless, isn’t it?”

‘Suppose so,” Ji Rong agreed, a lopsided grin spreading across his face as he raised his fists into a guard stance. “Gonna break your face now,” he said cockily, his usual demeanor returning.

Ling Qi scoffed, and thunder boomed.

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