Ling Qi grimaced as she settled onto the padded seat beside Cai Renxiang. Her abdomen still throbbed, but the medical disciples had assured her that she was recovering well. She needed to refrain from any strenuous activities for a time while the foreign qi and blood was purged from her body.
Zhengui, on the other hand, was fine, if exhausted. She knew that his final technique was something that didn’t do any permanent harm, but seeing him cold and still had been bad for her heart.
She glanced at her liege as she tried to find a comfortable position. She had been unconscious for most of the day before and had missed the other match, lost instead in half-remembered dreams of dancing starlight and the wind in her hair.
“So, things ended like this then, my lady?” she asked mildly, breaking the silence between them. They were alone in the box as of yet. Their seats were set directly below the central box where the Duchess Cai Shenhua would be seated later, if several levels down.
“Miss Bai was quite formidable,” Cai Renxiang agreed, looking briefly down at her. The central seat of the box was positioned to be just slightly above the others. “It is no surprise that a scion of such a venerable clan would surpass me in matters which are not my specialty.”
Ling Qi hummed, not needing Sixiang’s whispers to hear the things said between her actual words. Their match’s ending had been pre-arranged, probably as a counterpoint to the demonstration match at the beginning of the tournament and to avoid allowing Sun Liling to gain too much advantage by her opponent in the finals having to go all out in the round before.
<Ah, I’m becoming useless already,> Sixiang lamented. <What am I to do…>
<You could always cultivate, instead of lazing around,> Ling Qi thought, amused. Her thoughts were less crowded today. Since she would not be fighting, she had given Zhengui permission to go visit Hanyi and Zeqing today. He had not been in the best of moods on her awakening due to her injury, but her little brother was as irrepressible as he always was in the end.
<Still not sure that was the best idea. Poor little fella isn’t feeling good, despite everything,> Sixiang pointed out.
<I know,> Ling Qi thought. There was no reason for him to feel bad. In the end he had accomplished her goal for the match. But he didn’t like how badly she had been hurt. <Letting him sit still and stew all day won’t help though.>
Out loud, she continued her conversation with Cai Renxiang. “Are you satisfied with that, my lady?” she asked, giving the other girl a sidelong look.
Folded neatly in her lap, Cai Renxiang’s hands twitched as if to clench, although the motion never got that far. “I had thought so,” the other girl said in a low voice. “But I have been reminded that power must come first for anything else to hold meaning.” She spoke calmly, but Ling Qi could detect a lingering edge of bitterness there. “I will redouble my efforts in the Inner Sect.”
“I will not disagree,” Ling Qi said. “Strength is the key to accomplishing anything, but it is still only the means, not the end.”
Cai Renxiang made a sound of agreement, but she didn’t look back down at her. “Of course. You need not remind me of such a basic thing.”
“Forgive my musing,” Ling Qi replied. “I was only thinking aloud. I look forward to reaching greater heights with you in the Inner Sect.” And even if she had lost yesterday, Ling Qi could feel proud knowing that she had gotten this far in only a year.
“I suppose you have proven yourself quite a grindstone,” Cai Renxiang said, her tone briefly becoming light.
Ling Qi grimaced. “Please do not remind me,” she pleaded. “I do not intend to be forced into such positions so easily in the future.”
The other girl made a small sound of amusement. “As you say. In any case, the stands will be filling soon. Let us leave personal matters aside for the moment.”
Making a sound of agreement, Ling Qi fell silent as the stands around them filled. Their box became home to a number of young faces, a few of which were familiar to her. Bao Qingling entered and took a seat, looking as dour as ever and wearing the same shapeless, utterly concealing clothing that she always did, if a set that was free of medicinal stains. There was a girl she had known briefly from a tutoring session regarding the mixing of wood and wind elements. After her was a boy who shared the narrow features and spindly build of the Luo representative she had greeted on the first day of the tournament.
It quickly became clear that those seating themselves around Cai Renxiang were Inner disciples associated with the higher-ranking noble clans of Emerald Seas. Thankfully, there was not time for more than introductions and pleasantries before Sect Head Yuan took the stage far below.
“For the final time this season, I offer my welcome to the honored guests observing Argent Peak Sect’s New Year’s Tournament,” the elderly head announced, his voice easily audible despite the distance. “The Sect’s fortune has been truly inordinate this year for the crop of talented youths we have had the pleasure of raising has been beyond all expectations. I am certain that we shall feel the effects of this year’s competition for many years to come.”
Ling Qi knew the man wasn’t exaggerating. She honestly felt bad for those who would come in the next couple years. It would be some time before the competition for Inner Sect entry evened out to a more normal level.
“We come now to our final match,” Sect Head Yuan continued. “Both participants have shown ability far beyond the standard of their age, and each is a credit to their lineage, the Sect, and the Empire as a whole. However, a tournament may have but a single winner, and so we come now to the final round. Please give your full attention to the young disciples before you for they have earned that regard, at the least.”
Ling Qi’s hands clenched in her lap as she saw the small white figure of Bai Meizhen walking toward the arena beside the bright swatch of red and green that was the Sun Princess. Bai Meizhen would win, Ling Qi thought. The idea of Meizhen losing to that cocky girl was unconscionable.
Against her will, memories of that day early in the year surfaced, of Meizhen seated amidst the rubble of their first home, gown tattered, bleeding from many wounds. That fight with Sun Liling had been a draw, and it had also been the sole time in which she had seen her friend in a state of physical vulnerability.
<I won’t tell you not to worry, but she’d probably be happier if you were confident in her, you know?> Sixiang pointed out in her thoughts.
Ling Qi let out a quiet breath and forced herself to relax as the arena began to activate. Sixiang was correct.
Below, the two finalists came into sharper focus as the formations activated, allowing Ling Qi to see and hear them as clearly as she would if she stood right outside the arena.
The two girls stood silently across from one another. Sun Liling’s dislike for her enemy was barely veiled, her lips set in a scowl and her eyes narrow. Bai Meizhen’s expression was as empty and cold as the night sky overlooking Zeqing’s home.
“I’d apologize for breaking your toys,” the princess said coldly as the mists engulfed them, “but let’s be honest. It’s not really that important, is it?”
“I have no patience for prattle, child of Sun,” Bai Meizhen replied frostily. “Be silent, and wait for the match’s start.”
Sun Liling let out a small laugh. “Just saying. I didn’t see you anywhere near the recovery rooms yesterday or even the day before. Then again, that’s just how the Bai are, isn’t it? More snake than human, hiding in your holes and lakes, looking down on everyone without a forked tongue.” Sun Liling sneered. “It’d be more surprising if you did show any loyalty to a friend.”
Ling Qi glanced around as an uneasy murmuring rose from the disciples around her. She thought that the girl’s words seemed a little over the edge of rudeness. Ji Rong had been cruder perhaps, but that was expected to a degree. She also became uncomfortably aware of the looks cast her way.
Bai Meizhen’s expression remained blank and unperturbed. “I have no need to explain myself to you,” she said coldly. “Nor is there any meaning in discussing loyalty with a Sun.” Venomous contempt very nearly dripped from her final words.
Thunder boomed then, ending the exchange before it could go any farther.
The field that formed for the two girls to do battle on was unlike any that had come before it. Under an open blue sky marred with only wisps of cloud, there was an endless field. No trees or raised stones marked it, and not a single blade of grass grew there. Instead, stretching in all directions was the crumbling, freshly upturned earth of a well tilled field before the planting.
Ling Qi supposed that the terrain was the closest thing the Sect could make as a perfectly fair battlefield. But wouldn’t the fertile earth give Sun Liling and her spirit a slight advantage?
She didn’t have much time to ponder that as both girls acted. Dark water poured down Meizhen’s back and rose, rippling to cast her face in shadow. The silvery strands of her whiplike sword appeared, coiled in one hand, and Bai Cui appeared around her feet, poisonous green scales standing out brightly against the dull background.
At the same time, Sun Liling stood, relaxed as Dharitri materialized in a shower of shimmering pollen behind her, perfect visage once again set in an easy smile. Ling Qi couldn’t help but frown as she watched. Why was Sun Liling materializing the spirit in full view? The red-haired girl’s hand clenched and her spear formed in her hands, barbed point rising away from her opponent.
Ling Qi’s eyes widened only a moment before the barbed point punched into and through the spirit’s back, erupting in a shower of black-tinged blood from Dharitri’s back. The spirit continued to smile, even as blood poured from her lips and her smooth flesh withered and dried. Crimson armor practically leapt across the princess’s limbs, covering her arms and upper body in the blink of an eye.
Meizhen’s golden eyes only narrowed in reaction as Cui’s head rose, swaying from her coils and opening her mouth, baring fangs the length of daggers. As she released a bone chilling hiss and spat a mass of sizzling near-black venom though, Ling Qi noticed something glimmering amid the noxious mix.
Sun Liling leapt away, a flick of her spear sending her withered spirit flying away from the fight as the haft spun in her hands to bring its barbed tip, still wet with Dharitri’s blood, to bare. As the venom struck the ground, Ling Qi caught the sound of clay shattering amidst the sizzle of the venom, and water gushed explosively forth. There was a muffled boom as the earth cratered and split under the sudden pressure countless geysers, miniature whitecaps spreading outward across the surface of the newly formed lake.
Bai Meizhen had yet to move an inch, save for her eyes, which tracked the arc of her enemy through the air. Cui uncoiled, slithering toward the watery pool she had just created. As Ling Qi watched, the inky blot of darkness at Meizhen’s feet flickered and moved. Tendrils of shadow spread like a tracery of veins across her pure white gown, and her mantle of water grew darker and more solid.
She got a single glimpse of the veins of shadow reaching up Meizhen’s pale throat before it happened. Even weakened by distance and formation, raw animal terror sent a chill down her spine, and in the arena, the very air around her friend distorted visibly under the weight of her qi. Half-glimpsed phantasms of terror and pain took shape in the flows of the wind, the rippling water, and the rising dust.
She saw Sun Liling grimace visibly in midair, even as her blood armor finished encasing her feet in pointed toed boots of scarlet metal, its many sharp edges highlighted in a green that Ling Qi had never seen before on the girl’s armaments. Sun Liling’s grip on her spear grew white-knuckled as a star was born again on her brow, the multi-hued petals of a great lotus blooming into life behind her. The instant that her feet touched the muddy earth, her long legs flexed, and she launched herself forward with thunderous force, shattering the ground beneath her feet in a plume of dust as she rocketed spear-first toward Meizhen.
Meizhen’s ribbon blade unfurled with a crack like thunder, its metal strands carving air and earth alike as they lashed out toward Sun Liling. The princess wove through the striking blades with impossible agility, her red spear blurring as haft and point spun, deflecting biting heads of silvery metal. In an instant, they passed one another with a sound like a boulder striking a lake.
As Sun Liling and Bai Meizhen spun to face one another again, Ling Qi saw the faint red stain on Meizhen’s hip where cloth had already repaired itself. In the pause that came as the two girls sized one another up, there was another blast that shook the earth from further away. Ling Qi looked aside to trace it and found herself looking upon a field of colorful flowers, torn apart by the introduction of another pool of water and an emerging serpent. One way or another, the girls’ spirits would be checking one another until one of the ducal scions fell.
The moment’s respite ended with the sound of metal striking stone. Above the two girls’ heads, a wide-bladed silver sword struck a spinning jade chakram and screamed, sparks showering down on the combatants below as the weapons struggled for supremacy.
Below, a spear and two blades clashed against the tongues of a serpentine sword, and this time, it was the crimson princess who felt the bite, the armor on her left arm cracking, and the force of the whip-like strike carved a rapidly purpling bloody line across her bicep. Sun Liling only let out a grunt of exertion in response, her muscles flexing beneath her tanned skin as brackish purple and red liquid was forced from the wound and the armor restored itself. Neither girl’s face was visible any longer, one hidden in the maw of a demonic helm and the other shadowed by a hood of cold water, leaving only golden eyes visible.
The combatants circled one another amidst the clangor of their battling domain weapons and the hissing and screeching of their spirit beasts. Sun Liling’s spear flared with bloody light and the crimson princess leapt back, drawing her arm back for a throw. Bai Meizhen shifted her stance in response, presenting a narrower profile as her black mantle rippled and expanded, engulfing her lower body entirely in bubbling, white-capped waters.
As the spear flew, Meizhen loomed tall, rising on liquid coils, and darted to the side, blurring before Ling Qi’s eyes, spiralling darts of envenomed water launching themselves back in retaliation.Yet Sun Liling’s twisted spear could not miss so easily. As Sun Liling slashed her friend’s counterattack out of the air with her jagged swords, space fractured, and the red spear reappeared, centimeters from Meizhen’s chest. Liquid shadow roiled across her gown, the tracery of veins which had spread rising from cloth and growing thicker and more solid as the spearpoint slammed into it with a thunderous retort.
An eerie wail rose, raising the hairs on the back of Ling Qi’s neck as shadow and spear strained against one another. Both shattered in a flash of light, the broken spear reforming in Sun Liling’s hand, and the shadow fading back into ragged lines, a jagged hole left in its pattern.
A streak of green carved through the air, slashing through Meizhen’s mantle in a spray of water tinged with red. Meizhen’s defense bubbled violently, destabilized, but it lasted less than an eyeblink. The pale girl’s golden eyes narrowed at her opponent, now finally falling to earth with two new limbs forming on her shoulders. The crimson princess raised her twin curved blades just in time to meet the silver blur that struck her like a meteor, driving her into the ground with a muffled boom as her feet dug a meter-deep furrow in the dirt.
One black blade snapped under the pressure, and the second cracked before the haft of her broken spear slammed into the side of the wide-curved blade of Meizhen’s flying sword, forcing it from its course. As her final two arms finished forming, she was, for a moment, wide open, but Meizhen did not advance on her. Instead, Meizhen’s golden eyes gleamed with malicious light, and the feeling of pressure and terror still flooding the arena redoubled and took on a different edge.
It took Ling Qi a moment, and a surreptitious activation of Discerning Gaze, to understand what Meizhen was doing. With her senses enhanced, she could make it out among the natural flows of qi in the area, twisting threads of something invisible and without scent, a toxic qi just barely discernible even to spiritual senses filling the air for more than a hundred meters in every direction.
Its effect became obvious in the sudden stiffening and clenching of Sun Liling’s hands on the haft of her spear. It only seemed to anger the girl more, and her jade chakram came spinning back to slam into Meizhen’s domain blade with a metallic shriek, knocking it from the course of its follow-up blow on Sun Liling. One of her six arms, the one that was a hand with no weapon, flared with a rainbow of light, washing over her form in cleansing waves, and Sun Liling launched herself once again toward Meizhen.
They met in a cacophony of clashing blades. Meizhen moved with serpentine grace, the watery coils granted by her Abyssal Mantle art removing any pretense of moving like a human being as her ribbons met Sun Liling’s repaired armaments with thunderous cracks. Yet not for a moment did the crimson princess’ assault let up, her false limbs bulging with greater bulk, forcing plates of armor apart to expose muscle fiber formed entirely of glowing green qi. Metallic ribbons tangled and mired her blades, seeking to rip them from her hands, but instead of being disarmed, the princess let out an almost bestial snarl, ripping them back with enough force that Meizhen was off-balance.
The massive blade of Sun Liling’s axe swung down, slamming hard into Meizhen’s liquid-armored shoulder. The mantle dented inward, bubbling ferociously as it held back a force that was cratering the ground beneath their feet.
Sun Liling’s armor cracked, bright, glowing vents opening in her armored shoulders, and with a sound like a sudden gale, the expulsion of qi from the vents drove her downward in a spray of blood like misshapen wings. Meizhen’s mantle was cloven through, and the blade of the axe bit into flesh and bone with an ugly crack.
The pale girl let out only a low hiss of pain as her right arm spasmed, nearly losing her the grip on her weapon, but then Sun Liling screamed, stumbling backward as she raised her false limbs defensively. Ling Qi only understood what had happened when she saw the trickle of sizzling, toxic purple fluid running down the demonic jaws which framed Sun Liling’s face.
Ling Qi did not think she would ever see the day when Bai Meizhen would literally spit into someone’s eyes.
Despite that, she was feeling uneasy. The wound Meizhen had suffered was the more serious one, she thought, and Sun Liling was even now recovering while her friend’s grip on her weapon remained shaky and the stain of blood running from her shoulder spread across the front of her gown. As rippling waves of multi-hued light went out from Sun Liling’s sixth hand, Bai Meizhen went on the offensive.
Meizhen darted forward, crossing the distance between them in an instant, and the ribbons of her blade shimmered and melted, fusing together into a single, gleaming, violet length of metal. With an ear splitting crack, it struck, twisting like a hungry serpent between the multitude of weapons that rose to block it, and slashed across Sun Liling’s chest, carving through her breastplate and the flesh beneath with equal ease. At the same time, the air around Meizhen darkened, and the twisted phantasms that formed in the whorls of wind and the patterns in the dirt screamed like a chorus of the damned.
Under the assault, Sun Liling backpedaled, batting aside the second strike of Meizhen’s urumi, as well as the third, but after that, her heel struck the mud at the edge of the artificial pool created in the opening moments of the bout. Cui struck.
Deadly fangs dug into the back of Sun Liling’s knee, and the girl snarled in fury and pain. The butt of her spear slammed into Cui, sending the serpent spinning away into the dirt. Then, flaring with a blinding red light, the point of her barbed spear slammed into the ground.
Ling Qi saw Meizhen’s eyes widen in alarm just before light engulfed the area, blinding her. When her vision returned, the field was much changed. The pool was gone, and in its place was a forest of red black stakes studded with the yellow blooms of sunflowers. In its center stood Sun Liling, bloodied but unbowed, with a twisted caricature of a woman made of wood and vines who must have been Dharitri.
Sap wept from blackened wounds across its skeletal form, and the wide fanged grin on its skull- like head hardly resembled the spirit’s normal beatific smile, but her qi was much the same, if greatly weakened.
On the other hand, bloody gashes marked Cui where spearing stakes had ripped open her scales. Her form was fading, and Bai Meizhen’s aura felt dangerously depleted.
The silence of the standoff was broken by the crack of breaking stone and the thump of the two shorn halves of Sun Liling’s domain weapon falling to earth. As Meizhen’s newly freed domain weapon shrieked triumphantly through the air toward her enemies, Dharitri’s talons grasped Sun Liling’s shoulders. The crimson princess’ muscles bulged with the infusion of qi as Dharitri’s form crumbled into wooden detritus. Sun Liling bounded out of the sunflower forest, switching her spear into a single-handed grip as a second bloomed in her newly free hand. She ignored Meizhen’s domain weapon carving a deep wound along her flank, the arterial spray of blood solidifying into another spear, quickly snatched by one of her lower arms as it abandoned its curved blade.
Her other arms were doing much the same. Axe, sword and the open hand were discarded and replaced, and when Sun Liling launched herself into the air over the defensively coiled Meizhen, she was wielding six barbed spears that glowed like the evening sun. Ling Qi saw her friend raise her free hand in warding, water springing from her fingertips with a waterfall’s roar.
Then the spears fell. They split and split again, six becoming a dozen, a dozen becoming a score, and more, all aimed for a single target. Ling Qi found herself briefly blinded once more, this time by the light of their impact. As her vision cleared, Ling Qi saw only a rising dust cloud at first, but quickly, her eyes zeroed in on the only spot of color.
Sun Liling stood shakily, her armor crumbling from her form, and her sharp green eyes darted to and fro through the dust. She looked pale and haggard, almost frail, standing there with only her two true limbs left, but Ling Qi could feel the trickle of qi flowing back into her channels. There was no sign of Meizhen amidst the dust of the deep crater where she had stood, only the gleam of her flying sword lying in the dirt.
The mud beneath the princess’ feet rippled.
Her heels digging into the dirt, Sun Liling backpedaled as quickly as her shaking limbs could carry her.
What emerged from the dirt hardly resembled Ling Qi’s best friend. Her normally stoic features were twisted into a rictus of hate, her perfect white hair was tangled and stained with mud and blood, and her hands were reaching out like claws from shredded sleeves. Bai Meizhen looked more like a snake demon than a young girl.
Meizhen’s hands latched onto Sun Liling’s forearms, and they both went down, tumbling in the dirt and mud. Ling Qi noticed that Meizhen’s gown was surprisingly intact, mostly red and brown at this point, but then again, Meizhen’s robe was also a Cai-gifted robe. Even now, she could see the sleeves reweaving themselves from tattered scraps.
As the veins in Sun Liling’s arms burned red with poison, her knee rose and slammed into Meizhen’s stomach where a deep red stain marked a wound, and Meizhen hissed in pain, but she maintained her deathgrip on the girl’s arms. They struggled against one another, but Sun Liling freed one arm and her knuckles slammed home once, twice, then a third time, hammering Meizhen’s rapidly bruising cheek and bleeding lips.
Meizhen did not loosen her grip though, an inhuman hiss rising from her throat. Just as Sun Liling was pulling back her fist for another punch, she snapped her own head forward. Ling Qi thought that Bai Meizhen was going to headbutt the other girl.
Instead, Meizhen’s jaw distended, and Ling Qi caught the glitter of fangs before her best friend dug her teeth into Sun Liling’s throat. Sun Liling screamed, and her fist smashed with renewed force into Meizhen’s cheek, finally disloging her.
As Sun Liling rolled onto her hands and knees, her limbs trembling, Ling Qi winced as she vomited blood and less identifiable fluids. Still, she rose, staring hatefully at Meizhen as she did, toxic blood dripping from her wounds and blackening her veins. Qi no longer flowed into her from her surroundings.
“You… damned snake,” she whispered hoarsely, “What’d you -”
“Did you believe...” Bai Meizhen wheezed out, her voice slightly lisped by her bleeding lips, “... that the Bai would not develop counters to the abominable fusion of Imperial and barbarian arts, you arrogant tart?"
“You think we're gonna lose to a few measly…” the red-haired girl slurred as her eyes rolled up in her head, and she collapsed, already dissolving into mist.
The tournament had ended.