75 A Brutal Test
“I’ll go look for You Ji.” The tip of her sole tapped lightly against the ground and Li Wen was once again floating through the air.
In the distance, after Li Qing’s initial cleave, she brought her broadsword down for a second, third, and fourth time.
Swoosh, swoosh, swoosh!
The luminescence of the blade was practically blinding my unworthy eyes!
Beneath the glare of her strikes that shone in all directions, the monster lay like a fish on a chopping board, sliced apart by a knife-wielding master. Still, the image of its blackened flesh splitting apart was an uncomfortable sight to behold.
For a split second, I thought Li Wen had escorted another mermaid-type monster when she returned with You Ji.
You Ji was covered in splatters of blood with only half the length of her hair left after my arrow struck through them. Her arm was bent at a weird angle and appeared to have been fractured.
Li Qing’s grumbling towards You Ji was relentless as she approached with her broadsword in hand, her. “I instructed all of you to stay put, yet you still took matters in your own hands.” Despite this, it was apparent that she wasn’t truly annoyed by You Ji’s actions.
In spite of the masculine way Li Qing held herself—always with a hint of nonchalance and uncouthness—she had a great temperament, especially towards the residents of her own district. In the Western District, she never viewed herself as a commander, and instead cared for us like a friend.
Nie Zun, who always had little to say, suddenly spoke up in an almost inaudible voice, “What exactly is she? Why isn’t she healing?”
His despondent eyes flitted ever so slightly towards the disintegrated corpse of the Basiliscampus.
There was a split-second flicker in Li Qing’s expression, but she gathered herself just as quick and took us into her outstretched arms. “Perhaps it’s because she was sliced to shreds by me. All of you should head back; I’ll take care of this.”
“I’m covered in injuries, Li Qing. Make me something nice for dinner tonight.” You Ji cried out.
Li Qing chuckled. “You should thank Ah Shen’s ‘arrow that missed its mark’.”
I drowned in embarrassment. “You could tell?”
Li Qing broke out in laughter. “That goes without saying! I’ve never seen you use the bow I gifted before today. Besides, even I might not have been able to get such an accurate shot. When something is that impossible, then it must have been by chance!”
“Ah, so that wasn’t a deliberate shot...” It dawned on Li Wen that she had been mistaken
I scratched my head bashfully.
While everyone was teasing me and everything began to return to the peaceful atmosphere that comes after victory, I noticed an abrupt shift in Li Qing’s eyes.
There was a murderous glint in them when she stared at me.
Baffled by the expression in her eyes, I froze.
While I stared blankly back at her, she had already lifted the broadsword in her hands and charged towards me at a much slower speed than she could have. With a swing, she slashed her blade down onto my arm.
“Ah!” The shrill cry that erupted from my throat was worse than the monster’s, reverberating through the boundary forest.
It hasn’t been long since I arrived at the split zone; hence I had zero experience of combat here. As a result, my tolerance for pain was about equivalent to a regular human being’s, and to the mere student I was in my previous life, the searing pain of a broken arm wasn’t something that could be easily suppressed.
Excruciating pain surged through me all at once, spreading across my entire head at the very moment my arm made contact with the earth beneath me. I convulsed, collapsing to the ground and onto my own pool of blood. Tears streamed ceaselessly as I whimpered, staring at my arm on the ground which was still bearing its warmth.
“Li… Li Qing, you…” I could hear You Ji and Li Wen’s startled voices from beside me.
There was a prickling sensation stemming from where my left arm was severed, and the intolerable pain left me wailing uncontrollably. With the detachment of my arm, my train of thoughts had likewise detached itself from trying to come up with a logical explanation for this. After much struggle, I wanted to look up at them but was instead greeted by an encore of the familiar sound––the sound of a blade slicing through flesh twice.
Another two arms fell by my side and before I could react, a shadow scurried in front of me.
The pain had not only muddled my sight, it had cancelled out all my other senses as well. It was only after Nie Zun had fallen back almost 20 meters that I realized he had picked me up and fled from the battlefield.
Without knowing when he had taken my fallen arm, he held it against the open wound when he sprinted, all the while holding me tightly in his arms. The moment the injury made contact with the detached arm, it began mending with rapid speed.
Despite the swift recovery, the fresh blood that was still gushing stained his black sweater.
He never stopped running, not until Li Qing and the others were out of sight; it was only then that he placed me on the ground.
Stricken with pain, I applied pressure to the arm that had just healed, not daring to move it around recklessly.
“Try moving your arm, it shouldn’t hurt too much anymore.” Nie Zun’s voice was low, but light.
I glanced sideways at him. Even if I had always hated him, he still saved my life. As such, there was no reason for me to treat him with my usual harshness. I obediently moved my arm. There was a dull pain where it was severed, but it was more bearable now.
My heart palpitated from the mere recollection of the agonizing pain, the moment when the blade penetrated my flesh. Now that the pain had subsided, however, my mind began pacing once more.
Why did Li Qing do that?
Could it be a toxin in the monster infected her mind?
Without giving me much time to contemplate the matter, Li Qing was already hot on our heels. Behind her, baring their teeth from the pain and holding their broken arms against their own wounds, were You Ji and Li Wen.
An overwhelming fear brewed in my subconscious when I saw Li Qing rushing towards us. My hand held onto my left arm defensively and I took a few steps back.
In response to my retreat, Li Qing’s usually dignified expression was replaced with a gentler alternative. She stopped while there was still a distance between us and swept her gaze towards Nie Zun, who had moved to shield me from her.
“Do you know why I attacked you?” Li Qing glanced around the few of us, standing in a haphazard circle.
I was silent. You Ji frowned, biting back her pain as she responded with a simple, “No.”
Eventually, Li Qing rested her gaze on me. “Ah Shen, I looked at you with murderous intent clearly written in my expression before I sliced your arm. The amount of time I gave you to counter was enough even for a newcomer with no combat skills. If you had reacted at the moment you sensed danger then, based on my lowered speed, you would have easily been able to dodge my attack. Why didn't you?”
I hadn't expected those words to tumble from her lips, leaving me frozen in shock once more.
She didn't dwell on my lack of response and shifted her focus onto You Ji and Li Wen. “Between the time I severed her arm and your startled cries, I had given you both more than enough time to set up your defense. Why didn't you evade it? You allowed me to slice your arms too without breaking a sweat.”
Li Wen narrowed her eyes but didn't speak. You Ji was stunned for a moment, then gritted her teeth in frustration.
Finally, Li Qing kept her broadsword and returned to her usual, carefree expression. “The only one who passed the test today is Nie Zun. He was able to react appropriately at the most critical moment.”
Following that, she lifted a finger towards me. “Ah Shen, though it’s only natural that you couldn't dodge my attack when you have never expected me to hurt you, that is exactly why I wanted to teach all of you this lesson: you have to take stay on your guard against everyone and everything in the split zone. As long as you cannot guarantee they will never ever betray you, you'll need to take precautions. Even if I never had any intention of hurting you, you have to remain cautious. I had already made my malicious intent so evident, how could you still stand there and not counter?”
She pointed to You Ji and Li Wen next. “You two were worse. I had already severed her arm––I had obviously demonstrated my intentions. At least in that very moment, you must have developed doubts about me, so why didn't you defend yourself? Just because I'm a commander you get along with?”
You Ji had a retort at the tip of her tongue. “But…” She trailed off, never finishing her sentence.
Li Wen took her lip between her teeth, before letting it go again. “You're right. We should have been wary.”
At Li Wen’s words, Li Qing seemed to let go of the breath she was holding, but she sighed once more. “I know it's cruel of me to do this today, especially for Ah Shen. Ah Shen, you haven't been here long and as such, you've yet to endure many injuries. I know a broken arm must seem overboard but I really hope this excruciating pain will help you remember what I've taught you today.
“Only when you're wary enough and protective enough of your own consciousness can you survive in a place like the split zone.” Li Qing’s eyes wavered for a moment then added, “Because I won't always be here to protect you.”
I was quiet through it all. While my eyes glistened with tears, I couldn't tell if it was from the pain or the complicated emotions I'm feeling.
Li Qing broke out into lively smile again, patting each of our shoulders. “Alright alright, I know you must have a lot on your mind right now, and you may even hold it against me. That’s fine––I have faith in all of you that you'd understand my intentions.”
She clapped Nie Zun’s shoulders, the last person in line, though I sensed some hesitation. She let a small smile decorate her features. “Oh, but Nie Zun, how were you able to react so promptly earlier, choosing to flee the scene and even taking Ah Shen with you? Not bad at all, being able to think on your feet at times of unprecedented crisis.
“You have a decent sense of danger and place importance on your bond as partners, knowing better than to flee without them. You even took the opportunity to pick up her arm as you went so she could heal faster. There aren't many who were swift enough to escape from under my nose like that, and with an arm and another person in tow? This further demonstrates your impressive mobility.”
Li Qing was filled with praises for him, her eyes revealing her appreciation and satisfaction towards Nie Zun’s performance.
His eyes, however, were as indifferent as always, his sharp chin tucked in the collar of his black top.
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