Her flute formed in her right hand, and Zhengui began to take shape in front of her, a dark shadow in the grass. Even as she raised her hand to bring her flute to her lips though, she found herself staring point blank at the knuckles of Ji Rong’s right hand, with thick rings of bronze crackling with electricity adorning them. She had a bare instant to flood vibrant wood qi through her spine and activate Ten Ring Defense before it crashed into her nose.
Despite moving with the force of the blow, reducing the impact, stars exploded in her vision. Ling Qi felt something in her face snap. She tasted blood on her lips as she retreated, avoiding the follow-up blow by leaping over it, her gown fluttering in the wind as she landed on the far side of the now solid Zhengui.
Above them, their clash was reenacted, a wailing sword with a spiralling blade meeting a flashing golden mirror in a cacophony of noise and light.
How long had it been since her nose had been broken? The idle thought scurried across her thoughts as she began to play, suppressing the twitching in her muscles and nerves from the lightning flooding her body. Ji Rong had chipped her front teeth as well, she thought, adjusting her playing for the slight change.
Zhengui cried out in fury as her melody rolled over the battlefield, and superheated ash mingled with shadow-haunted mist. The cherry red embers greeted her like an old friend, and the cool, slick feeling of Sixiang’s moon-aligned qi quelled the lightning seizing her muscles.
It wasn’t enough. Ji Rong was immediately back in her face, the scent of his burning sandals reaching her nose as he landed on top of Zhengui’s shell. A quick jab snapped Zhen’s head back and away while his follow-up blow caught her in the shoulder, his fist shrouded in blinding actinic light.
She had to fight against her own muscles as they tried to become rigid with the voltage flooding through them until Sixiang could act, and only the protection of Deepwood Vitality and her qi armor prevented the damage from being worse. Yet as she met her enemy’s eyes in the moment before Ji Rong leaped away to avoid Zhengui’s retaliation, she saw surprise there. He had been hoping to overwhelm her entirely with his initial blows; he hadn’t expected her toughness.
So it was with a bloody smile that she summoned a qi card into her hand in preparation. She didn’t unleash her worm constructs. Yet.
She had another surprise first. Phantasmagoria of Lunar Revelry, the art she had gained from her performance under the Dreaming Moon, was quite potent. This match was well suited for its debut.
Ling Qi twirled, limbs swaying to an unheard tune, and flooded the field with laughing, dancing phantoms. A riot of color and light spilled from her, casting the sunset hill in lurid color as fairies danced in the sky and elfin figures reveled on the ground. At the same time, she activated the Hundred Ring’s Armament. Rippling green light spilled across her limbs and coalesced the faint vital aura into something more solid.
The revelers danced through the mist and the ash, cups in their hands and raucous songs on their lips, and Ling Qi faded back among them, just one more dancing figure.
Ji Rong navigated the tittering, grasping figures with the light of heaven burning in his eyes. He was dogged in his pursuit. He crashed rudely through the crowd, bowling over shrieking phantoms, punching away shadowy fangs, and shrugging off grasping hands. Even as Ling Qi danced away, her hands and feet trailing into shadow, his eyes remained on her. His feet couldn’t keep up.
She saw the moment of realisation in the grimace that appeared on his scarred face, the song of her flying sword rising to a fevered shriek and denting his mirror. She felt the precipitous drop in his qi, and braced herself even as thunder boomed and Ji Rong’s body became an arc of lightning.
He appeared in front of her with a furious snarl of ozone and plasma, embers and sparks burning his hair, his fist already cocked back for a punch. Ling Qi threw up her arm to block. Their limbs met with the crack of a millenial tree struck by heaven’s fury, and though her arm trembled and her feet were driven back through the dirt, gauging furrows in the ground, she held. The surprise in his eyes was worth the bruise she could already feel forming across most of her forearm.
The qi card in her hand flashed, and Ji Rong’s eyes widened further as she sprung her trap. A hissing worm, slimy and grey, sprang from her sleeve. Its open, toothy maw let out a whistling shriek even as he slapped it away from his face. But there was far more than one. The earth under his feet boiled with slime-slick bodies. Muscular coils wrapped around his ankles, and circular maws dripping acid spit gnawed at his boots.
Ling Qi was already vanishing back into the crowd of revelers and phantoms, circling back to Zhengui. Zhengui, stamping forward with all the limited speed his tubby legs could muster, saw his opportunity. Just as Ji Rong tore one leg free of the writhing worms under his feet, a grasping green rootlet sprang from the ground and coiled around it. A dozen more followed, and Ji Rong let out a shout of frustration.
Ling Qi smiled thinly as Zhengui’s warm ash settled on her shoulders like grey snow. It burned green, and her little brother’s qi spread through her channels. Bruises faded, and the trickle of blood from her nose dried up. If there was one thing her former life had taught her, it was how to run. If there was one thing she had learned in the Sect, it was stubbornness.
But Ji Rong was strong. With a roar, he tore his feet from the grasp of worms and roots alike and launched himself after her. He flew through the air, lightning crackling in the air, and his foot drove Gui’s head into the dirt. His fist lashed out for Ling Qi.
It struck only a shadow, a laughing wraith that broke apart into glittering lunar moths. He caught Zhen’s striking fangs on his forearms, and magmatic venom sizzled as fangs skittered across his skin.
From within the shifting revel, Ling Qi watched, dancing with the phantoms, her resplendent gown as good as camouflage among its shifting colors. She flicked her wrist, and another qi card appeared between her fingers. It flashed, and again, worms emerged to harry Ji Rong. They gnawed at his feet, leaving ugly cuts and burns on his skin. Rootlets grabbed at his wrists as he punched Zhengui over and over in frustration, lightning-clad fists leaving nigh invisible fractures in his shell, driving him back bit by bit.
Ji Rong suffered for it though. Shadowy phantoms in the mist emerged from between laughing dancers, and their claws drew lines of blood and shredded his sleeves. The dancers grasped his hands, calling him to dance, and their touch drew in his qi, draining away life. They would dance him to death if they could, lunatic madness given form.
With each moment, attacked from a dozen angles, Ji Rong’s movements grew just a touch weaker, just a touch slower.
Overhead, a mirror flashed. It drew Ling Qi’s eyes upward as her singing sword spun away with a wail, trailing mist from the nova of golden light. Ji Rong’s domain weapon glowed with the light of the sun and burst into a thousand glittering fragments. She saw power infuse him, and the crackle of lightning drowned out the singers of the revel. Ling Qi was already moving, but it wasn’t enough.
A fist struck her in the gut like a thunderbolt, and she felt a burn as lightning erupted from her back, tearing a line through the earth behind her, shredding revelers into laughing figments. She saw Ji Rong then. His eyes burning with the blue light of lightning and hair spiking up with static, the sheer force of his unleashed spirit sent phantoms shying back with the force of the pressure coming off of him. A burning glob of venom from Zhen spattered across his back to no avail.
Ling Qi tasted blood. She felt a weakness in her knees as the lightning coursed through her spine, barely kept from seizing her muscles by Sixiang’s dispersing qi. She saw the triumph in his eyes, and resentment bubbled up.
She could hit hard too.
This time, the song she played was not lilting and melancholy. It was harsh and fierce, the scream of a blizzard in the dead of winter. Ji Rong barely had time to react, so close was he when the first note lashed his skin, freezing a line of blackened flesh across his bare chest.
Ji Rong fell back, raising his arms over his face as she sang, and winter came. Lightning sparked and died as the endless cold drank greedily from its energy. Heat fled, sound died, and snow fell. She saw the black mark on his chest spread and then crack, weeping half-frozen blood.
The worms he had left behind emerged from the dirt. The laughing phantoms closed in.
Thunder boomed again, and he lashed out, but his fists struck naught but air and phantoms, and Ling Qi vanished further into the revel. A card flashed, the worms came again. A beam of light erupted from his outstretched fingers, zig-zagging through the mist and confusion to strike her, but she blocked it with a raised arm. She felt something crack.
The phantom dancers whirled him away, laughing and giggling, even as worms crawled up his pant legs. With a snarl, he tore one arm free, and lightning burned a dancer to ash. He whirled, his eyes wild as he searched for her, only to be met by a spatter of Zhen’s venom. He raised his hands to block, and another dancer took him.
Ling Qi’s singing blade hummed eerily as it flew and circled him, no longer held back by his mirror. Each pulse of its tune struck him like a physical blow, bruising his flesh. Winter sang, and the cold lashed him.
In the center of the revel, surrounded by mist and phantoms and cold, Ji Rong at last floundered. The dancers took his hands again, and this time, he didn’t escape.
The moment that Ling Qi felt his qi cease resisting her, her trembling legs collapsed under her, bringing her down to one knee. Taking a shuddering breath, Ling Qi forced herself to straighten up as the terrain began to fade.
Her left arm was broken, a hairline fracture that sent sharp pain with every movement. She could taste blood in her mouth, and a terrible burn scarred her stomach and back. But she had won.
She felt a foreign yet familiar qi tugging at her own then. In its soft yet insistent touch, she could feel the presence of Xin. Ling Qi allowed her eyes to drift closed and accepted the pulling sensation tugging at her meridians.
Staying behind while injured would likely just distract Meizhen anyway. Her friend did always get so agitated when she was hurt. By the time she had completed that thought, she could feel the pain fading, and her awareness growing fuzzy. Vaguely, she felt Zhengui returning to her, his warmth offering comfort as she drifted.
She won, and she could allow herself a little pride for that.
With that thought, her consciousness faded.
“Hmph. So she is not entirely a fool then.”
Ling Qi’s eyes snapped open as the familiar irritable and harried voice of an old man reached her ears. Blinking, she tried to reorient herself, old instincts almost making her leap back up in a crouch. However, she found her limbs heavy and her muscles slow to obey. She was lying down in a soft bed under the light of a paper lantern shining with a soft gray light. As she watched, the light pulsed briefly, sending the shadows cast by the characters painted on its sides dancing across the room.
“... Elder Jiao?” she asked fuzzily, peering at the shadowed figure standing at the foot of her bed. She felt a cool touch on her hand then and looked to her left to see Xin, seated comfortably on a chair beside her bed. The moon spirit smiled at her attention.
“Sturdy enough not to go into shock without her qi holding the damaged area together. The Lantern will be enough,” the old man said in a clipped tone, not looking at her but instead, scribbling a note in the folio in his hands. “The rest is disciple work.” Xin shot him a sour look as he turned away.
Ling Qi glanced up at the moon spirit’s face then Elder Jiao’s back, which was already beginning to lose corporeality. “Elder Jiao. Sir. I wanted to thank you for your offer, even if I couldn’t take it.” She had not had a chance to speak with Xin, let alone the elder, since she had made her choice; she could not let this opportunity to settle things pass.
His shimmering outline paused in its fading and grew solid once more as he turned to look at her over his shoulder. “I have not the slightest idea what you are talking about, girl. Perhaps that boy knocked something loose with his fisticuffs?” he asked with a sneer. “But, perhaps as your esteemed elder, I might offer some advice on your chosen career.”
Ling Qi blinked, taken back by the bitterness in the elder’s expression. “... I would be most thankful, sir.” She glanced at Xin, whose smile had faded.
“I know much of reformers, and you have chosen a miserable path,” he said. “There is neither happiness nor satisfaction to be found as a shadow. Be mindful in choosing what you are forced to discard on the roadside of the Way.” He had faded away by the time his last words echoed in the small stone room.
“He wasn’t angry at me,” Ling Qi said, half to herself, half to Xin, who remained at her bedside, holding her hand.
“He was not,” the spirit said sadly. “Excuse him. These past weeks have been stressful. When the things we retired to leave behind come to our doorstep, it is a most vexing experience.”
With her thoughts as fuzzy as they were, she wasn’t quite sure what Xin was talking about. Did she just mean all the nobles? “I understand,” she replied anyway.
“Does she?” Xin asked lightly, glancing at a point about two centimeters above her eyes.
“She’s still a little concussed, Auntie, and Uncle’s toy isn’t helping,” Sixiang answered helpfully. “Sorry I wasn’t more helpful back there,” they added apologetically to Ling Qi. “That flashy guy’s tricks weren’t something I could do much about.”
“S’fine,” Ling Qi mumbled, looking up at the ceiling. “Where’s Zhengui?”
“Sleeping,” Xin answered. “Letting excitable children romp around a patient is not the best idea,” she said with a slight smile.
Ling Qi blinked drowsily. That was right. She could feel him, a little napping ball of warmth. It was just hard to concentrate. “I really am sorry,” Ling Qi said after a moment, looking up to meet Xin’s eyes. “No one would tell me anything about the Inner Sect, and I wanted to be able to meet Meizhen still, and... and Cai Renxiang’s not a bad person, you know? She really means what she says, and the… the opportunity...” She was babbling, but it was hard to stop.
Xin looked sad but not reproachful. “Hush, dear. You need not explain things to me.” She sighed. “This has been a most unusual year, and not wholly in a good way. Our treatment of the Outer Sect has been more hands-off in recent years than we might like.” Her silver eyes gleamed oddly in the dull light of the lantern. “In exchange for certain favours.”
Her blurry thoughts couldn’t help but turn to a certain terrifying woman. “Is that why Elder Jiao is so angry?”
“He has had his fill of scheming, that husband of mine,” Xin replied with a musical laugh. “But no more of such things. You’ve done very well.”
Even in her state, Ling Qi could tell when a subject was being gently closed. “Thank you. I couldn’t have come so far without you and your sisters.”
“Perhaps, or maybe another spirit might have snatched you up,” Xin said lightly. “Might I add that I found it adorable when you chose to take my greater self as a patron for my sake?”
“I didn’t…” Ling Qi denied, color rising on her cheeks. “Not just for that,” she mumbled.
“Even if you do not fit us very well just yet, it is never wrong to cultivate curiosity,” Xin said. “And the seeds are there. Did your pulse not quicken, at least a little, when you reached the bottom of the tomb?”
Ling Qi nodded, thinking back to that day. She had never been able to afford curiosity before in Tonghou. She couldn’t afford much of anything beyond immediate gain.
“There you go then,” Xin said with satisfaction. “Nurture the wonder of discovery, and you might grow to be a scholar yet.” She grimaced then, looking up. “Ah… and I need to go. The next patient is arriving soon.”
“Goodbye, Xin,” whispered Ling Qi.
“Farewell for now, Ling Qi,” the moon spirit replied. “You are not leaving the Argent Peak Sect just yet.”
She vanished in a glimmer of starlight, and Ling Qi was left to drift off under the drowsy light of the lantern.