Morning came before she knew it, and once again, Ling Qi found herself standing before a great crowd of the Empire’s nobility, the weight of their combined spiritual power leaving the air heavy, even without the pitiless light of the Duchess Cai shining down from the very highest box.
She stood on the opposite side of the arena from Sun Liling. The red-haired girl was smiling a friendly, easy-going smile that did not reach her eyes. It set Ling Qi on edge immediately. Nonetheless, she offered a proper bow of respect toward her opponent.
Sun Liling’s smile didn’t fade as she returned a much more perfunctory bow. “I really have to praise you,” she said brightly as she raised her head.
“You are too kind, Princess Sun,” Ling Qi replied warily, eyeing the dangerous girl across from her. “I can’t imagine what one of your stature would praise one such as me for.”
“You’re too modest, Ling Qi,” Sun Liling said, her smile growing sharp. “Why, you’re practically a living example of what the sects are supposed to do. Someone as talented as you woulda been wasted as a mortal.”
<Don’t get put off-balance,> Sixiang whispered.
“Thank you very much for your kind words, Princess,” Ling Qi replied mechanically, not quite able to keep all of the bewilderment out of her voice. “I am more than honored to hear such praise.”
Something wasn’t right.
By now, she was sure that the story of the year’s events had spread to everyone watching. Sun Liling so openly praising an enemy who had caused her so much trouble would surely make her look bad. Was she just trying to seem generous and clean up her tarnished reputation? Ling Qi doubted it.
The other girl nodded amicably, not breaking eye contact. “Right. I just wanted you to be sure.”
A bad feeling began to stir in Ling Qi’s thoughts. “Sure of what, Princess Sun?”
“That I would be taking you seriously from the start. I think you’ve earned that,” Sun Liling replied lightly.
As the formation’s mists rose and solidified, forming a maze of roots beneath her feet and a sweltering sun above her head, shining through the high tropical canopy of a thick jungle landscape so overgrown that a man might hardly be able to pass through between any given pair of tree trunks, Ling Qi could only stare at her grinning opponent.
Thunder boomed, and time slowed to a crawl.
Standing atop a tangled root network, she saw Sun Liling’s left hand clench, her sharpened, green painted nails digging into the soft flesh of her palm. Wet gleaming strands of crimson bloomed, stretching out into a spiralling helix, all in the space between eye blinks. Crimson liquid became dark metal and thorny barbs.
Ling Qi was already moving, the shadow of the canopy deepening and swallowing her up as her fingers and toes trailed off into dark mist, joining with the shadows themselves. Zhengui’s spirit streamed from her dantian, heavy qi solidifying into his sturdy body.
She was too slow. The spear had already flown from Sun Liling’s hands, a streak of sanguine light screaming through the air toward her chest. As its barbed tip reached to impale her, Ling Qi flickered, her form fading into mist and shadow as she appeared to the right. It wasn’t enough.
Although she was expecting it, it hurt her eyes as the air itself seemed to scream, warping under the weighty of bloodthirsty qi. The spear tore across her lower ribs, shredding silk and flesh alike, even as she twisted away from its new path and blunted the majority of the tearing barbs with layer upon layer of vital qi.
It was only a minor wound, Ling Qi thought distantly through the fugue of battle, but it was only the beginning. Zhengui’s weight cracked the roots beneath his feet as he solidified, and an echoing ghostly shriek erupted from her storage ring as her Ossuary Horror burst forth. It was an ugly thing, an eagle-sized construct in the shape of a bird, crackling black energy forming pinions over its skeletal wings.
Sun Liling merely regarded her with a raised eyebrow from her perch, her spear having returned to her hands and the beginnings of her armor crawling up her arms. Ling Qi’s focus remained on the brief flickering pulse of qi she had felt emerging from the girl as the battle began, slithering down into the roots under their feet to blend with the ambient qi. That must be Dharitri, Sun Liling’s spirit.
To her right, Zhengui stamped his feet and let out a twin-mouthed cry, unleashing a billowing fountain of ash that washed over the nearby area. To her left, the horror circled upwards, letting out another echoing shriek as the cloak of qi granting it a facsimile of feathers rippled, green and vital qi sinking into all three of them, strengthening bones and flesh with dense wood qi. Around Ling Qi, ten rings of defense rippled and joined one hundred rings of armament, hiding Ling QI’s slender figure from sight beneath a coruscating armor of qi.
Ling Qi met Sun Liling’s green eyes and saw curiosity and excitement, tempered by anger and wariness. Then, as the bloody armor crept up over her shoulders and began to spread across her chest, the Sun Princess exploded into motion, wood shattering beneath her feet as she rocketed toward Ling Qi, barbed spear outstretched.
Ling Qi ghosted backward into Zhengui’s ash, light-footed even under armor that would make a grown man stagger if it were solid and real, but the princess was too fast to be avoided so easily. The girl was suddenly on top of her, barbed spear blurring and spinning through the air in a complex dance that bit and jabbed again and again, its haft flexing to slip past her defenses and growing rigid when the butt slammed home in brutal, bludgeoning blows.
Their battle, Ling Qi thought, desperately pushing her reflexes to their limit, sounded like a thousand axes being taken to an old oak at high speed. Yet under the storm of blows, her armor held. It cracked, energy wavering as entire chunks shattered, and she was faintly aware that a ragged stretch of cloth from her gown floated away on the wind of their movements, exposing part of her legs. But she did not bleed.
Her Ossuary Horror was not so lucky. She became aware of its plight when the sound of shattering bone reached her ears. It had done its job, allowing her to fully armor herself and repel Sun Liling’s first strike, but Ling Qi had hoped it would last longer as her ‘surprise’ for this round. She spared a half second glance at it, the sight causing her eyes to widen. Through the falling ruin of bones and qi, a gleaming emerald disc flew, spinning through the air on a returning arc that would carry it to her.
The wailing song of her own domain weapon joined the din only a moment later, its song sending the jade chakram off its course by a few crucial centimeters. She could feel the disc’s acidic, hungry qi from here though, eager to dissolve and break armor and defense. She grimaced as Sun Liling’s darting spear carved a furrow through the regenerating armor on her forearm, coming a hair’s breadth from piercing flesh. She had to hope that her own domain weapon could last at least a handful of passes with Sun Liling’s. At least her friend would know what sort of domain weapon the Princess was using.
Ling Qi took some satisfaction in the tiny signs of frustration in her opponent’s expression as the spread of Sun Liling’s blood armor slowed to a crawl. The ornate breastplate was fully formed and her arms armored, but the tassets and leg guards were only half-formed and her helm incomplete. The girl’s eyes narrowed as they met hers, and Ling Qi’s stomach dropped as she felt a flare of dark, sickly bloodlust. The only visual sign of change was a blood vessel bursting in the girl’s right eye and the grimace that hardened her expression. Sun Liling’s crimson armor exploded forward in growth, completing itself as skeletal limbs began to sprout from her shoulder blades.
Ling Qi fell back before the storm of blows that followed, reforming her armor, dissolving into shadow, and using every other trick she could think of as Zhengui diligently spread his ash far and wide, just like she had instructed. All the while, she did her best to keep track of that slithering trail of qi, sneaking beneath the earth.
In the instant that she felt that presence spike, she screamed a silent warning to Zhengui through their connection and leaped backward with all of her might, rocketing away from Sun Liling. A thousand reveling phantoms burst from every shadow and surface, filling the jungle floor with a riot of psychedelic light. The moment her feet came in contact with one of the pillar-like trunks of the jungle trees, she pushed off again, rocketing away the growing revel just ahead of the trunk cratering beneath the force of Sun Liling’s barbed spear.
Below her, Zhengui was retreating from his position, his shell aglow with heat and qi within his ash. The ground beneath his feet roiled, stabbing rootlets scrabbling at his feet and grasping hungrily at his shell. As Ling Qi closed the distance with him, Zhengui let out a cry of pain as wooden claws dug into his stony underbelly and shoved him up and back. Zhengui landed with a crash, legs kicking in the air as the roots and underbrush withered and burned under the heat of his shell.
Dharitri rose from where he had been, elegant and graceful as ever, save for the oversized, jagged wooden talons which replaced her hands. The spirit looked up and met Ling Qi’s determined gaze with a beatific smile as hungry roots rose to dig into her little brother.
That expression didn’t change as the temperature plummeted and plants died, withering under the unrelenting cold of deepest winter, but the spirit did dance back out of range, smoothly falling back with nothing more than a bit of glistening moisture on her ochre flesh to show for the assault.
It gave time for Zhengui to recover though, Zhen’s muscular coils flexing and rocking the stranded tortoise back into a mobile position, even as the young serpent grumbled complaints about Gui’s weight through their connection. Ling Qi could not afford to give him any further attention as she spun to face the crimson warrior once again bearing down on her. The image of a thousand petaled lotus blazed like a banner behind Sun Liling, and a light like a star blazed from the brows of the three demonic faces of her helm, parting the revel around her like a fading morning mist.
Once again, Ling Qi retreated under a rain of blows, grimacing as she felt her layered armor shuddering under the vicious blows. Gashes opened in her gown, baring flesh, and she could feel the protective enhancements of her gown fraying and thinning, even as she felt a throb of pain from her connection to her domain weapon as green jade clashed with black metal and metal gave way, creaking under the strain.
She needed to hurry.
A silent command sent to Zhengui caused one of the ashfields to flare and scatter in a phantom wind, and the minor wounds Ling Qi had suffered so far faded, blood fading into shadowy dust and flesh knitting back together. In that moment, she once again locked gazes with Sun Liling, whose eyes gazed at her from the back of a demonic maw.
She wasn’t done. Ling Qi had mastered the Thousand Ring Defense art, and now, she had reason to use it’s ultimate technique.
Emerald light blazed around both her and Zhengui, and the Thousand Rings Unbreaking technique coursed through her channels. Vitality flooded her limbs, and even as she fell back before the girl’s next attack, she found herself less easily pushed onto the back foot of their exchange.
But she couldn’t forget about the other enemy here as well. A wave of shimmering multi-hued dust washed over her and Zhengui both, mingling with the ash floating in the air and the light of the fading revel to create patterns of dazzling light. The instant that her thoughts began to grow fuzzy though, wild, Sixiang flooded moon-scented qi through her meridians, cleansing the clinging pollen.
Zhengui was not so lucky. Ling Qi felt his thoughts going sluggish and confused, and she saw both of his gazes fall upon the smiling Dharitri and light up with childish delight and adoration. Scowling, she activated her Deepwood Vitality technique, replacing broken armor and cleansing the effect from Zhengui with a pulse of wood qi. Zhen’s eyes narrowed, and Dharitri spun to the side to avoid the sizzling glob of white hot venom that shot through the space where her face had just been.
Once again, Ling Qi disengaged from Sun Liling. This time, she faded into a shadowy wraith, shooting into the shadow of a great tree that had fallen over Dharitri. The card Cai Renxiang had gifted her flashed into existence in her hand and flared white as she brought it to activation. A blazing radiance washed over the smiling spirit, and the air around her burned, something filmy and immaterial that Ling Qi had not even noticed before wavered and faded. Dharitri’s form wavered, reappearing half a meter to the left of where she had seemed to have been before.
In that moment though, Ling Qi was too slow to dodge the howling spear that slammed into her shoulder, its passage sending the hair of the spirit she had just attacked fluttering. Spinning barbs ripped into her layers of defense, tearing through one after another, shredding qi and silk alike, and though they slowed and deflected its path, Ling Qi cried out as a line of heat and pain was drawn across her upper arm from the deflected spear.
Ling Qi grit her teeth even as a second throb of pain hit her from the spinning, wailing weapons darting about overhead. She was almost out of time, and her qi was growing depleted, drained from keeping so many blows away from flesh. But she had her best opening. Even if Sun Liling’s damned spirit was still smiling at her, its defenses were stripped.
Ling Qi raised her flute, and before the card she had dropped even touched the now frozen ground, she played the notes of the Frozen Soul Serenade. Bark shattered, plants withered, and the wind howled at the sudden onset of cold, and Dharitri staggered back, raising her talons as if to ward off the song even as lovely skin blackened and wrinkled. The staggering spirit let out an inhuman howl of pain as its body jerked from a second assault, Zhen’s fangs digging into her thigh and filling her veins with molten venom.
Ling Qi had only a moment to feel elation before the haft of a spear slammed into her gut and nearly folded her in half. Only the power of the Thousand Rings Unbreaking prevented the monstrous blow from smashing her bodily through the towering tree behind her, and it allowed Ling Qi the luxury of scrambling back, desperately parrying the biting edges of the twin curved blades now seeking her blood.
Even as she sought an opening to escape, Ling Qi felt the formations woven throughout her gown flare and sputter as a jagged blade laid her stomach bare, a flap of silk waving uselessly in the whirlwind generated by her enemy’s attacks. They faded and went dormant a moment later, and overhead, Ling Qi heard the shrieking sound of metal being rent asunder and saw the remains of her domain weapon raining down onto the jungle floor.
Behind the relentless Sun Liling, she glimpsed Zhengui struggling as Dharitri retaliated. The spirit’s beautiful face had warped, cheeks splitting open all the way to its ears to reveal a maw full of jagged fangs, and frostbitten flesh was flaking away to reveal the barbed skeleton beneath as she fell upon Zhengui in a rain of frenzied blows. But the protection of Thousand Rings Unbreaking persisted, giving Zhengui a chance at fighting back as rootlets and grasping talons alike failed to find purchase on his shell.
Damn it all. She had known coming in that she couldn’t win, but she had hoped to at least defeat Sun Liling’s spirit. She had wanted just for a moment to make the other girl lose in some small way.
Ling Qi felt a pulse through her bond with Zhengui, and her eyes met his. She felt understanding and determination. Gui’s jaws bit down on a wooden claw with an ugly crunch, even as Dharitri’s roots dug into his flesh. Zhengui’s shell burned, a flaring, magmatic light that withered plants for a dozen meters around with its heat. Ling Qi remembered the lesson Gu Tai’s spirit had given her little brother on channeling his flames as the phoenixes once had.
The blast threw her off of her feet from the pressure wave. Massive trunks snapped like matchsticks, and jungle plants carbonized under the heat.
Ling Qi landed feet first against a massive root and righted herself an instant later. In the clearing smoke, she saw Dharitri’s twisted, wooden skeleton lying on the ground, blackened and burned with only feeble rays of red light shining from empty eye sockets. Zhengui’s shell lay on the ground, terribly still, his limbs withdrawn, his shell polished and black like obsidian.
Then a missile struck Ling Qi back with the force of a giant’s fist, and Thousand Rings Unbreaking shattered like glass, sending her sprawling forward at the sudden lack of support. She had but a moment to see the emerald disc spinning away as she scrambled back to her feet before a black axe blade slammed into her chest, making her ribs creak as the majority of the blow was absorbed by her flagging qi. The darting twin blades came next, slashing across her throat in a shower of green sparks and leaving behind thin lines of blood.
The spear came last, shattering the last of her qi defenses to punch into her recently healed abdomen and out of her back in a spray of blood.
As her vision faded, Ling Qi took satisfaction in the fact that Sun Liling’s expression was not happy at all.