"Face me, you Shen cur!"
The rogue cultivator’s words echo through the entire hall reaching much further than the spittle that Ling can see fly out of his mouth during his outburst. As she’d suspected the man had indeed been glaring at Qiu. Given that the girl in question is currently too busy looking confused to even be offended by the insult she assumes Qiu knows roughly as much about the man as Shun’s inquiries turned up. Absolutely nothing.
“Baofu Fuchou, twenty nine years old. Fourth Stage Foundation Establishment. Come face me you coward!”
Ignoring the gasps and cheers-- albeit while memorizing who amongst the crowd cheered-- Ling narrows her eyes and focuses on the man on stage. Even ignoring the level this supposed rogue cultivator managed to reach without backing something about him feels off. She doesn’t like it one bit.
“Shen Qiu, twenty two years old. Sixth Stage Foundation Establishment. Please, uh, advise?”
The man’s muscles twitch in anticipation, his eyes hatefully glaring at Qiu as she takes the stage. He barely has the restraint to wait for the starting signal before lunging towards her like a frenzied animal. Without enough time to fully manifest her armor Qiu settles for covering her arms and meets his charge with a rocky fist.
It meets his open palm and stops dead.
“Tranquil Palm.” Fuchou states in a flat tone with anger roiling beneath the surface. “Echo!”
To everyone’s surprise Qiu’s fist rebounds and she has to take several steps back to regain her balance. The last is more of a thud than a step as her armor fully finishes forming turning her likeness into that of a stone golem. Baofu Fuchou does not manage to make use of the moment Qiu’s guard was broken, his stance shaky and his breath heaving as he clutches his hand. A raspy laugh echoes out of his throat.
“I’ve done it. I’ve struck back. Your end is nigh, Shen!”
With a roar he charges back into the fray and lashes out with a series of probing strikes to bait retaliation. Not wanting to repeat the same move she just made nor the mistake that let Tai Hen beat her Qiu takes a deep breath and pushes her qi out through her feet.
The arena shakes, cracks forming in the tiles as she keeps up the pressure to make her opponent lose his footing. The moment she sees him slip she throws out a jab, her fist meeting his cheek and sending him crashing into the ground. Getting a hand beneath himself Fuchou pushes down, rocketing him back up to his feet. He sways and almost loses his footing once more, his eyes struggling to maintain focus and the shaking beneath certainly not aiding his attempts.
Qiu does not run to meet him. She walks. Like an implacable juggernaut her approach is steady and unrelenting, each step making the ground shake further. When she arrives it is with deceptive slowness, her fist raising at a snail’s pace before she brings it down on his head. At the very last moment the man manages to duck left, the blow connecting with his shoulder instead causing a loud crack to resound.
Ling clicks her tongue as the man grits his teeth and strains to pop his shoulder back into its socket. Not only did Qiu pull her blow, she’s now waiting for him to recover. Her eyes narrow. There’ll be a need for re-education after this.
The redhead feels a chill run down her spine. Trusting her instincts she changes her mind and lunges at him before he can recover. Forced to abandon his attempt Baofu lets his arm hang and dodges to the side and around Qiu. He doesn’t even make it to her back before part of her armor violently detonates peppering him with sharp fragments.
When Qiu turns to face him he grits his teeth and hisses in pain. He charges forward, narrowly slipping past her strike. Without any force behind it he places his remaining hand against her chest armor.
“Tranquil Palm: Reverberate!”
Against any other rock cultivator on his level this move would assure his victory. The reverberations are not only unhindered by the armor but bounce off it time and time again to destroy the squishy insides within. Organs would shake and tear. Muscles and ligaments would be pulled apart and their brain would rattle in their skull, ensuring that even if this strike itself did not put them down the opponent would not be able to put up a guard against the next.
Qiu shrugs it off without complaint.
Grabbing both of his arms while he still believes himself victorious Qiu lifts Baofu up and tosses him out of the arena. The stunned man lands with a crash. Confusion and dismay war for supremacy and for several long moments he remains motionless on the ground, his wide eyes staring up at her as if he just saw the breadth between heaven and earth.
“Congratulations on your victory, Qiu.” Ling says the moment they return to the privacy of their room. Qiu gets the distinct impression that the ice princess’s words are less than sincere.
‘Ah,’ Qiu thinks. ‘There it is.’
“...surely even you can see the extent of your mistake?”
Not entirely sure what she means Qiu looks at the rest of the group and finds Qing nodding along. She gulps. If both of them agree with each other it must be something bad indeed. Thinking about what it could be she almost reaches a state of zen, her mind utterly devoid of ideas.
“Uhm, y- yeaaah?”
The ice princess lets out a long suffering sigh. Channeling a mote of ice qi to suppress her emotions she unclenches her hand and looks Qiu straight in the eye.
“You truly have no idea, do you?”
“I shouldn’t have let him hit me?”
“There is that as well, I suppose. Such exchanges happen during combat however, I will not fault you for it. It is most certainly not what I meant.”
“Uhm?” Qiu eloquently states while looking to Hu Qing for help.
“You tossed him.” The demi-spirit shrugs. “Not a smart move.”
“I’ll keep that in mind?” Qiu replies, still as confused as she was before. Seeing Ling’s eye twitch at the interruption she stands just a bit straighter than before and does her best to look sorry.
“You miss the point, Qiu. The problem is that you will have to keep it in mind. You did not finish him, he will be back.”
“Oh.” Qiu mouths uncomfortably. “Wait, weren’t we not allowed to kill opponents?”
“In theory. The rules are a bit looser however when those without significant backing are involved. Killing, however, is far from the only solution. In matters such as these it is indeed not even the best one. The problem, Qiu, is that your decision was even worse.”
“You sure are dragging this out.” Qiu mutters under her breath before she can think her words through, her eyes widening a moment later when she feels Ling’s glare intensify.
“Thou art correct, Shen Qiu. This one was hoping you would catch on to your mistake part way through.” Her cold, formal tone causes the redhead to gulp. “But alas, it appears I set the bar too high.”
“Mistress,” Shun cuts in before things can get out of hand. “Do you need anything before I go help Bao for the rest of the evening?”
Seeing Qing go pester her sister, Shun sets two chairs around the small table they’d moved closer to a corner to make room for their alchemical equipment. For today she chooses to keep it simple and brews an oolong tea. Within minutes both Qiu and Ling are seated around the table with a steaming cup in front of them and Shun dismisses herself to go help Bao. Taking a moment to sip her tea Ling lets herself relax before continuing.
“I’m assuming you still don’t know the problem?”
“I should’ve hit harder.” Qiu replies, her eyes briefly flicking away from Ling to the now approaching Hu Qing while the former is focused on her tea.
“Exactly. Even if you do not intend to kill it is important to be decisive. Conclusively deal with the problem today so it does not return to haunt you tomorrow.” Ling states while calmly sipping her tea. Qiu has to bite the inside of her cheek to suppress a laugh. Peering deeply into her cup the ice princess continues.
“There were several chances to maximize damage that you let slip.” Behind her Qing mimes sliding on a wet floor, silently waving her arms side to side to keep her balance.
“I most certainly noticed you pulling your blow when you struck at his head.” She continues on followed by Qing pretending to pull on a rope, leaning back and gritting her teeth as if it takes all her strength. Lost in her contemplations and observing the swirling leaves inside her teacup, Ling pays little attention to Qiu’s increasingly desperate attempts to hold in her laughter.
“The most important opportunity however was when you succeeded in grabbing his arms. He was utterly defenseless, if nothing else you could’ve shattered both bones to prevent him from competing tomorrow.” Ling sighs while Qing extends her arms in front of her and clenches her fists as if crushing something in both of them. “Mercy is certainly a virtue but in this case it was particularly ill suited. I suppose we will have to dispatch someone to get rid of him once the tournament is over lest he return to cause problems later. There is no point in letting more danger linger at our peripheries.”
With a hand raised to her forehead and her eyes narrowed Hu Qing turns side to side, pretending to look into the distance. Ling lets out a long sigh.
“Do you understand, Qiu?”
“Y-yeah.” The redhead replies while pinching her thigh, her shoulders shaking.
“Excellent. Bring Hu Qing to our quartermaster to finalize our requisitions. Shun should have shown you where Dismissed.”
She closes her eyes while the pair leaves the room. The moment they are gone her cup cracks and her jaw clenches hard enough Shun can hear her teeth grind together.
“I’m surprised you did not stop her, my dear.”
“You noticed.” Shun nods with a warm smile. “The sentiment is mutual, LiLi.”
Ling lets out a long, drawn out sigh.
“Allowances have to be made. Let them have fun while they can.” She swirls her tea around, watching the herbs disintegrate within the roiling water. “Soon we won’t have any moments of leisure left.”