Skyfire Avenue Chapter 111-120

Chapter 111: Gobi Entertainment

“We had a teacher who commanded thunderbolts. Why have another who called the rain?”

-Memoires of the Metal Fox, Army General Tang Xiao

“More cruel than beating someone half to death, is curing them afterward and beating them again. A fist for hello and a fist for goodbye, over and over again.”

-Memoirs of the Frenzied Lion Mastiff, Army General Jin Tao

Lan Jue and Hua Li idly strode along the wide avenue cutting through the campus’ yard. The smile on Lan Jue’s face was a sinister one, and the expression in Hua Li’s eyes was one of joy and contentment.

“It was indeed a good time for me to come. I don’t even know how long it’s been since I’ve felt like this. Remember when I used to bully the kids back in school?”

“Pretty cruel,” Lan Jue said. “How can you beat them so

badly, heal them up then beat them again like that?”

Hua Li straightened and spoke as though delivering a line. “Nonsense, clearly it was you who wished it so. A teacher like you, beating his students? At any rate I was trying to give them more time to practice their combat skills, and fixed them right up before leaving. Nothing more than a little mental stimulation. A little rest and they’re right as rain!”

Lan Jue humphed. “We’re taking a shortcut. At their age and ability, if we don’t how are they ever going to improve? Now that they call me teacher, the are my responsibility!”

“Tsk. Stop with your crap. Who believes your malarkey anyway.”

ζ

“Qianlin! Qianlin!” Tang Mi excitedly bounded to her friend’s side.

“What’s all this about?” Qianlin gave her friend a curious look. Tang Mi’s face was flushed, making her appear vibrant

and cute. Her large eyes were wide and excited, even a little watery.

“Qianlin! Today I went to attend that etiquette class we talked about. Really very interesting! You have to come with me next time.” Tang Mi artfully cooed at her friend in attempts at manipulation.

Zhou Qianlin slightly dropped her eyes. “Not interested.”

“Oh but that Professor Lan is so handsome!” Tang Mi continued unfazed. “Oh right, I heard he had a run in with that.. what was it, goddess of violence? She dragged him to the teaching affairs office. Is that true?”

“Yup,” she responded, short and concise.

Tang Mi sighed. “He’s just so good in other areas, only a little weak. But it’s fine, behind every strong woman there’s a weak man.”

Zhou Qianlin looked at her like she was an alien. “What is this? Are you smitten?”

Tang Mi scowled at the accusation. “Never. Don’t you know me by now? I’m just talking, besides in my heart there’s already a Prince Charming.”

“And who’s that,” Qianlin inquired.

“Zeus! The Great and Powerful Zeus, of course!” Tang Mi’s eyes twinkled dreamily.

Zhou Qianlin snorted her criticisms. “Hmph. What sort of friend is this? He was the one that kidnapped me!”

“But that has nothing to do with you,” she replied. “If he wanted to kidnap me that’d be the best!”

“Friendship’s over!”

“Wait wait ok, I’m wrong, don’t go. I’ll treat you to some delicious food. How about some sweetened calabash?”

“Fine!”

ζ

The Soulcaller gem grew warm.

Do you need me to send you home this evening?

No. Tang Mi will accompany me. If you aren’t interested in her, you shouldn’t lead her on.

When did I lead her on?

Silence

ζ

Now that class had concluded there was nothing to do. With Zhou Qianlin refusing his company, he simply took Hua Li back to Skyfire Avenue on the back of his bicycle.

“You’re heavy! Next time I’m going by myself. You’ve had your biking experience,” Lan Jue muttered sourly.

“Don’t you have any humanity? I’m here to protect you.” Hua Li didn’t seem to be bothered.

“Then you definitely shouldn’t have me wasting all my strength!”

“Pfft… what’s next anyway? Is that guy from yesterday gunna make us some more awesome food?”

“You wish. The Gourmet’s culinary talents are only surpassed by his laziness. Keep bothering me and you’ll soon find yourself blacklisted. We’ll hang out at the shop. Ah right, I also told the ladies we’d be drilling them on combat skills, what do you think,” Lan Jue asked his buddy.

“Like the two young gentlemen from this afternoon,” he asked.

Lan Jue shook his head. “Press them a little. Shouldn’t take long, then we’ll head over to the Wine Master’s. Ask about the Castle and Tower matter.”

As they made their plans, they were already coming upon

Skyfire Avenue. They went directly back to Zeus’ Jewelry Shop.

Ding ding!

“Boss, you’re back.” Xiuxiu looked towards Lan Jue, and immediately met him with a sweet smile. Only then did she notice the man who’d entered with him.

Hua Li removed his mask and shot her a winning smile. “Xiuxiu. It’s been a long time.”

“You are…?” Xiuxiu knit her brows and narrowed her eyes as she examined him.

He answered by lifting a hand and removing his wig.

“Poseidon!” Xiuxiu almost jumped in surprise, and stumbled back a few steps.

Hua Li matched her retreat with an advance, spreading open his arms as though to give her a hug. “I bet after so long you must miss me, huh?”

Lan Jue grabbed his friend’s arm and yanked him back. “Stop messing around. Coming in here messing things up. We aren’t that familiar.”

“All man but no humanity. Always the same!”

Xiuxiu had by this time recovered, and bowed towards him in greeting. “It’s nice to see you, Poseidon,” she said with a smile.

Lan Jue turned to her then. “Xiuxiu, go let Mika and Guoguo know we’ll be heading down in a little while to spar. Ke’er, if you would please go invite the Wine Master to join us at the arena.”

“Yes, boss.” Ke’er – stepping forward from behind the counter
– and Xiuxiu replied in Tandem.

Lan Jue left then to his apartments to change clothes, Hua Li in tow.

“Hey sis, who was that handsome guy with the boss?” Ke’er watched them leave in curiosity.

Xiuxiu looked at her co-worker in surprise. “You don’t recognize him?”

Ke’er shrugged. “Should I?”

“That’s no normal guy,” Xiuxiu replied. “His name is Hua Li – his nickname is Poseidon.”

“Poseidon… it does sound a little familiar.”

“You’re something else. The Four Divine Monarchs? You still don’t know?”

Realization suddenly dawned on her. “He’s that Poseidon?”

Xiuxiu nodded. “The Four Divine Monarchs are as follows; The God of Wisdom, Prometheus. King of Hell, Hades. Lord of Thunder, Zeus. And King of the Seas, Poseidon. Our boss is Zeus, obviously. Just now, that was Poseidon. With the boss injured he’s probably here to help look after him. Prometheus, who came the other day, is the boss’ brother, but these two have a much different relationship. Back before, when they were fighting shoulder to shoulder, he apparently took a serious

injury for the boss to keep him safe.”

“I see. I had no idea that was Poseidon! He really is so good looking! But I still think our boss is better. More manly!” Ke’er nodded resolutely.

Xiuxiu covered her mouth and stifled a giggle. “Is this supposed to be a compliment? You don’t call him handsome, just ‘manly.’ I doubt the boss would applaud the choice.”

“I-I’m off to speak with the Wine Master,” Ke’er stuttered, leaving in a hurry.

As Ke’er left, Xiuxiu’s smile faltered and slipped away. A strange look filled her eyes. “Poseidon,” she murmured.

ζ

Lan Jue set about changing clothes while Hua Li settled on the sofa. He intermittently popped some dried fruit in his mouth as he watched T.V.

“We interrupt your program for an urgent news bulletin. Gobi Entertainment would like to announce the new Poseidon special release! Poseidon: Sounds of Nature, to be released first in the Eastern Alliance’s own Planet Skyfire! This product of Gobi Entertainment, two years in the making, was personally supervised by Poseidon every step of the way – and who’d have thought they’d choose Skyfire for their debut! The only thing left to answer is; are you ready?!”

“Damnit!” Hua Li nearly leapt from the sofa, like someone lit a fire under him. Filled with indignation, he began to shout at the television screen. “I run all the way out here to Skyfire and they STILL stalk my every move! It must have been that female officer from the other day. Mo Xiao, you’re ruthless!”

Lan Jue grinned, gloating at his friend’s misfortune. “You deserve it. Such are the trials of the rich and famous!”

Hua Li howled piteously to the ceiling. “Why is being handsome such a sin!”

By this point Lan Jue had changed his clothes. “With narcissism as pervasive as yours I wonder if you’ll ever have need to marry. You should be afraid you’ll be the only one to love you.”

Hua Li fixed his friend with a penetrating stare. “No. I also have your love.”

“Garbage!” Lan Jue shot a foot out at Hua Li, but his saucy friend deftly slithered out of the way. He stood just out of reach in a victorious pose.

“Let’s go,” Lan Jue muttered darkly.

The took the elevator directly to Skyfire Underground’s version of the Jewelry Shop. Mika and Lin Guoguo were already waiting as per Xiuxiu’s instructions.

“Oh, you’re Poseidon? You really are handsome!” Lin Guoguo batted her eyes at him, infatuation clear in her eyes.

Hua Li shot a proud gaze to Lan Jue. It’s message was clear; you see? All women like what I got.

However in the next moment that beamish smile froze – no, it would be more accurate to say it was squeezed.

Literally, as Lin Guoguo pinched his face between her fingers. “Poseidon, what plastic surgeon did you use? Even flawless complexion! I’ve been wanting to ask you forever. I heard a journalist interviewed a whole slew of cosmetic surgery operations. So far eighteen have admitted to working on you. So which one was it, really?”

Hua Li’s figure vanished in a flash, free from Lin Guoguo’s evil clutches. He hissed at her, teeth grinding. “I’m all natural! Everything else you hear is slander!”

Lin Guoguo only blinked. “But… that’s what everyone says.”

Chapter 112: Pointers

Hua Li snapped his head around to glare at Lan Jue. “A-Jue, did you teach them this?!”

Lan Jue coughed uncomfortably. “Stop framing good people! Only you are responsible for your reputation. Come on, let’s get to the sparring arena. Ke’er should already be there with the Wine Master.”

He turned and began to make his way. As he did, hidden from view, a goofy grin nearly split his face. He couldn’t keep it hidden any longer.

Face-lift! HAH!

When they arrived they spied the Wine Master waiting. He stood quietly before the gates of the Reaper’s Arena, meticulously put together and almost regal. Above ground he managed the Gothic Winery, but here the Reaper’s Arena was under his purview. Ke’er stood behind him, as she felt uncomfortable at his side or in front.

“Wine Master,” Lan Jue greeted when he was not far off.

“Nm.” The elderly man nodded to the Jewelry Master. “What are you planning to do in my arena?”

“I’d like to rent a ring, one with no surveillance. I have some pointers I’d like to share with these young ladies. Oh, and let me introduce my friend, Hua Li.”

The Wine Master ran his eyes across Hua Li, who likewise was sizing up the old man. However after a moment’s observation it was Hua Li who was struck with surprise, and a slight fear crept through him. Employing his energy awareness had revealed absolutely nothing before him – a void, like there was no man there at all.

“It’s nice to meet you, Wine Master,” he offered with a smile.

The Wine Master stared quietly at him for a moment before reacting. “Hello. You’re Poseidon, are you? From Gobi Entertainment.”

“I am.” Hua Li’s smile broadened. There was no way for him to truly conceal his identity. After all the Supersoldier of An Lun wasn’t the most well-known of the Divine Monarchs – it was in fact him, Poseidon. A name that was known throughout all the

Alliances, as an artist. The most famous artist in the universe. His fame transcended borders, and through the help and advertisement of Gobi Entertainment he could not be claimed by any one faction – he belonged to his fans alone.

The Wine Master nodded once more. “Your father and I used to be close, once. I was surprised to hear he retired.”

Hua Li’s smile turned bitter. “Then you likely know the Gobi habit – striving to retire as early as possible. There’s nothing grand about being a high-profile figure.”

The Wine Master spoke no further on it, turning instead to Lan Jue. “I’ll give you an arena for use. No monitors or surveillance. It’ll cost you, though.”

“No discounts?”

The Wine Master turned and walked in to the Arena as though he hadn’t heard.

The others followed a few steps behind, but Lan Jue shuffled a few quick steps to catch up with his old friend.

“Wine Master, there’s actually something I’d like to discuss with you. It’s about the visit from the representatives of the Pontiff’s Castle and Dark Tower. They should be arriving soon, if I’m not mistaken. Unfortunately I’m not at my full strength currently, and I’m afraid I’d be little use directly participating in the exchange. Perhaps Hua Li could take my place, if you approve.”

The Wine Master’s brows wrinkled as he spoke. “Unacceptable. He isn’t a part of the Avenue, and as such can’t represent us. But you don’t need to worry, we’ve actually heard from the Pontiff’s Castle. For… reasons unknown, they wish to postpone the exchange for another month. Will you have recovered in that time?” He turned his head to look at his younger council counterpart, something curious in his eyes.

“Postponed?” His face revealed a sardonic grin. “That’s enough. I hope they have the nerve to show up.”

By then they’d arrived before a towering metal wall. The Wine Master lazily lifted a hand, waving it at the barrier before them. A moment later, the solid metal wall began to ripple like a curtain of water.

“Alright. This arena has been fully shielded, nor is there any

surveillance. Head on in – here’s the key. “The Wine Master handed an Jue a metal orb inlayed with a sapphire power gem. “One c-ranked power gem per month.”

Lan Jue scowled. “Why not just rob me?”

The Wine Master’s response was chilly. “How much do you suspect a bottle of Romanee-Conti costs? Hurry and recover from your injuries. Don’t forget your promise to me.” He turned away then. He nodded once to Hua Li, and suddenly vanished from view – a void as empty as Hua Li had witnessed.

“Ooee,” Hua Li uttered in surprise. “That one’s scary strong.
I’m guessing he’s the Cosmagus?”

Lan Jue nodded in affirmation. “A ceremonious but adorable old man. Come on, in we go. The cost of this is three times higher than normal – so inhuman. Someday I’ll spend a week in his cellar, see the look on his face then.”

Hua Li chortled. “You won’t see any face. He’ll just immediately shred you to ribbons. It’s rumored his true power is in folding space. I wonder how many interspatial fissures you can endure.”

They passed through the rippling barrier and as promised, everything was concealed. Darkness enveloped them, but a moment later the world beyond the curtain was revealed. Suddenly, they found themselves standing in a massive, open area.

“Well!” Lan Jue’s voice matched the surprise in his eyes.

The arena was circular, rising over two hundred meters to a ceiling. It was roughly five hundred meters in diameter. They felt insignificant in it’s vast expanse. It may have cost Lan Jue three times the going rate, but compared to normal rented spaces it was monstrously large.

“Extravagant,” Hua Li hummed. A place like this was enough to practice even mecha combat. He, too, knew that a c-ranked gem a month wasn’t cheap, but they would be hard pressed to find a better sparring arena. Mecha piloting, Discipline training… anything they liked, without fear of collateral damage. Lately the authorities had become far more strict in this area, and finding a private space to train for any period of time was exceedingly difficult.

If you really wanted to improve in combat, the best way to do it was to give it your all, and hold nothing back. Thus this sort

of space was indeed expensive.

Lan Jue stepped forward a few paces, then turned to face the four women.

“Our last foray in to the Shattered Starfields I think left us all with a very strong impression. I will always do my best to keep you safe – but I am not the strongest person out there. Each of you possess great talent, and with training can grow to become incredible powerhouses. These last three years, I’ve been far too lazy, far too indifferent, and it’s held you four back. Starting today, we’re all going to snap out of this funk, and work on getting stronger.”

“Xiuxiu,” Lan Jue said, looking at her.

“Boss.” She stepped forward.

“Your talent has reached the peak of eighth rank,” he addressed her. “Ninth rank is within sight. Your Discipline, Sharpness, is enough to overpower most in combat. Even so this last time Uriel managed to damage your Asura. It is my hope you break through to ninth rank within the year – then we’ll see a substantial increase in your abilities.”

“For all four of you, cooperation is the key to successful cultivation. If you work together, covering each other’s weaknesses, even a Paragon couldn’t stand against you.”

“Ke’er,” Lan Jue turned his head to the blue-haired young girl.

She almost leapt forward. “Boss.” Her rush forward caused her full chest to jiggle [1].

[ TL Note : [1] = Swear to God, that’s the translation. (Jiggle Bell]]

“Your Discipline’s focus is raw physical attack and explosive power. Different from Xiuxiu’s. She excels in close combat, and you from a distance. I know because of your history, you’ve avoided further cultivation, but…”

“Boss!” Ke’er suddenly interrupted his thought. The corners of her eyes had grown slightly red. “Boss, not to worry. There will be no further problems in my cultivation. I’ll work hard to improve. I am also nearly ninth rank, and will break through. I want to protect you.”

“Eh…” For a moment, Lan Jue lost his momentum, but quickly recovered. “Excellent! Our Ke’er knows what needs to be done. Keep it up!”

“Right!” She emphatically nodded her head.

“Guoguo.”

Lin Guoguo stepped forward, a smile on her pretty face.

“Mind control… your potential is huge. But you lack perseverance. In the face of enemies you grow timid and overcautious. This locks your mental powers, preventing them from reaching out to the fullest. Your abilities and the willpower of others are closely tied. It’s in this way you must strive to improve. For you, your specialization is in control. In conjunction with Ke’er and Xiuxiu, you are a terror. You’re already ninth ranked, but first degree. We’ve got to get you to the second.”

“Yes, boss!” She stuck out her tongue. Timidity was always her weakness.

Finally his eyes fell to Mika, and a hesitation was revealed in their depths.

Mika’s eyes, however, grew hard. She took the initiative, and stepped forward. “Boss. What do I need to do?”

Chapter 113: Poseidon, The Sparring Partner

Lan Jue muttered inaudibly to himself, then a resolution came over him as though a decision had been made. His voice came low. “These last few days I’ve been thinking on your problem. Mika, frankly speaking your capacity is the greatest among you four. However, it is also the most dangerous – the most likely to bring catastrophe. The blood in your veins, that of the Prince of Devils, can spiral out of control quicker than you know. If that were to happen, you’d lose yourself. Little by little, it would eat you up until you no longer existed as Mika. Your kindheartedness would vanish, and all that would be left is death. None of us wish to see this happen, so as always I must beg your restraint.”

“However, this isn’t the long term plan. In these last few years your control over the dark blood has been excellent. However this has been due to the fact you haven’t had to get in to a fight. Now, your identity and whereabouts are revealed – although you’re safe in the Avenue, I can’t suggest you remain here forever. So, in my view, letting it out is better than keeping it in. Escape isn’t an option. The Dark Blood is full of evil, yes, but there’s a pattern of manifestation. It can be controlled. For this month, continue of the path of cultivation we’ve already laid out. When I’ve recovered, then we’ll attempt to keep that dark blood under control. Eventually your mastery will be complete… and then you’ll be a Paragon.”

“Alright.” Mika watched her protector with somber eyes.

Lan Jue took a moment to look at the four beautiful young women in turn. Smiling, he went on. “The women of Zeus’ Jewelry Store [1] are without compare. No matter what, and no matter when, I’m honored to know you. Next, I would like to introduce your sparring partner for the next month – Mr. Hua Li. Lili, would you come on stage, please.”

[ TL Note : [1] = Dibs on playboy cover story]

“Eh? Sparring partner?” Hua Li jabbed a finger at his own nose.

Lan Jue nodded sagely. “Don’t you think it’s wonderful to have these four beautiful women to train with? Let me introduce you to them.”

“This, is Hua Li. I imagine you all have heard of his nickname, Poseidon. He’s my good friend, as close as a brother. We were two of what were called the Four Young Divine Monarchs. He is the successor of the Gobi Collective, Diva of Gobi Entertainment. The most famous entertainer of our time. Heart-throb of a good ninety percent of the girls in the universe.

Ninth ranked, sixth-degree Talent in the Discipline of water control. His family, the Gobi Collective, is the most mysterious in all the three Alliances, and their influence is seen everywhere. Here, is the lord of that illustrious family.”

“A-Jue, with such an introduction you’re embarrassing me! It’s nice to meet you, lovely young ladies.” Hua Li bowed in a fluid and gentlemanly fashion to the gathered Amazons.

Lan Jue interjected. “You? Shy? I thought that  was  an emotion you were born without. Xiuxiu you’ve met, but let’s go through proper introductions. This is Xiuxiu, whose discipline is sharpness. Her handle; the Asura Blade-Maiden.”

“Next is Ke’er, with a Discipline of metalmorphosis, energy explosiveness. She is an Acquired Talent. Her nickname is the Baleful Tempest.”

An Acquired Talent? And two disciplines? Hua Li was clearly surprised at the revelation. And yet it struck something in him, something familiar like he’d heard of these  two  disciplines being used together before.

“Lin Guoguo, Discipline psychokinesis. Called the Psychic

Tide.”

“And last but not least, Mika. Her Discipline is Hellfire. They call her the Stygian Succubus.”

Hua Li took them all in; Zeus’ Amazons! The Asura Blade- Maiden Xiuxiu; the Baleful Tempest Ke’er; the Psychic Tide, Lin Guoguo; and the Stygian Succubus, Mika. Just as Zeus described. One look and he could see the potent  energies exuding from them.

Lan Juue grinned at the lot. “Next, the time is yours. Ladies, today’s lesson is simple – beat the crap out of him. Begin!”

“A-Jue! Don’t you have a heart?!” Hua LI shouted agitatedly at the grinning Lan Jue.

“You can only defend and evade. No striking back!”

The ladies’ reactions were quick as lightning. As soon as the call to begin rang out, they were in motion. First was the Psychic Tide, Lin Guoguo.

Her eyes flashed a dazzling gold, and suddenly a formless power smashed in to Hua Li’s body.

“Eh?” Surprised thrilled through those clear eyes, but he quickly recovered. His eyes changed in color, shifting from the color of calm shores to tumultuous deep seas. Two golden points shimmered in their depths. Suddenly they began to twist and rotate like a whirlpool, and the golden spurs were swallowed within.

The change was quick, but still Hua Li stood rooted in place. The three other women wasted no time and spread out. Xiuxiu moved laterally, and Ke’er sprang in to the air. There floating in the air, a strange blue light began to expand from Ke’er’s chest. It was a blue unlike Hua Li’s, and burst forth with no trace of gentleness. Instead it seemed almost metallic.

Her body imploded above, dissolving and expanding out as a photosphere. Following the transformation a series of metallic gun barrels pushed forth from the light. Each issued a dazzling salvo of blue energy beams that raced towards Hua Li. Such was the power of Ke’er, the Baleful Tempest.

Mika vanished, appearing again chasing Xiuxiu at full speed. Roiling hellfires had already covered her body. Her red hair

flowed free from constraints, and fluttered behind her like a hood of fire. Even the black-rimmed glasses she always wore couldn’t diminish her intimidating  appearance.  On  the contrary, she was like a wildfire.

She drew closer to Xiuxiu, but suddenly the Blade-Maiden disappeared, seen again instantly at Hua Li’s side. Her two hands raised, and jabbed viciously at Poseidon’s waist. As they rapidly drew closer they were no normal hands – they glowed silver, and adopted a strange texture. They screeched as they tore through the air.

Lin Guoguo grunted, and her eyes dimmed, but it was only temporary. Xiuxiu’s hands found their mark. Her hands like razors tore through Hua Li’s figure… and the latter began to ripple like a mirage.

Under stress from Xiuxiu’s attack it’s ripples increased. Hua Li’s image undulated within a halo of gentle blue light. Though the Blade-Maiden’s attack had landed she felt nothing but air. That is, until the image began to congeal. Something thick and confining gripped her hands and started to snake it’s way up her body.

Xiuxiu felt the temperature rise, and suddenly two fiery orbs

raced past her on either side. They collided violently with the melting image of Poseidon. Fire and water, polar opposites. As the diametrically opposed elements collided an ear-piercing sound filled the arena. Xiuxiu just managed to get out of the way.

Ke’er energy blasts also landed in the same moment, and Hua Li’s form shuddered drastically under the assault. From somewhere Hua Li’s cries arose. “A-Jue! This is cruel! If they keep this up I can’t hold them off!”

Lan Jue chuckled. “Fine, but be careful not to hurt them.”

“Oh fine, fine. Me, a lover of all women kind, how could I bring them any harm! You worry too much!” It was then the gentle halo that surrounded him began to brighten. It grew and expanded until it was full with an overwhelming energy. When it burst, spears of dazzling light shot in all directions.

After her first assault Lin Guoguo had shut her eyes. Their golden light was gone, but in it’s place her entire body had begun to emit a golden light. Suddenly and without warning a golden figure separated itself from Guoguo’s aura and launched itself in to the distance.

“Ahh!” Hua Li’s surprised cried erupted, and in the next instant he appeared before them. The shimmering golden projection was racing directly at him.

But that golden Lin Guoguo was as soft as a shadow, and she penetrated that blue shadow like she herself was little more than a dream.

Ke’er, already a glimmering ball of gun barrels underwent another change in the same instant. The bristling barrels melted and bonded in to one, reforming in the shape of a 300 milimeter canon. Closer inspection would reveal that the mouth of the barrel bore thousands of streaking blue threads that raced along it’s length. The body of the surreal artillery weapon glowed with a pale blue light. It hadn’t released it’s payload yet, but even so Hua Li felt the threat bearing down on him.

With Hua Li revealed by Lin Guoguo’s psychic doppelganger, Mika and Xiuxiu were instantly on the move. Xiuxiu was first, and leapt in to the air. A blinding white light surrounded her enticing frame before suddenly, she vanished. In her place, within that halo of glimmering light appeared a longsword.

The meter and a half long blade was simple in design, though strangely a series of waves like wood grain were imprinted on

the weapon’s surface. They looked like countless snarling faces. The hilt of the weapon was nearly a meter long itself. A distinct chill emanated from the sharp edges of the slender blade, and with the blade’s arrival miniscule tears appeared in the space around it. It was like even the air couldn’t bear the weapon’s sharpness.

Mika lifted a hand, and took hold of the surreal blade that was Xiuxiu. Almost lazily, she swept the sword towards the distant Hua Li. The simple motion called from within the sword a burst of white energy that rushed out like a sonic boom.

But it wasn’t the first time Hua LI had encountered the Asura Blade.

In the early years of his time with Lan Jue, he’d met Xiuxiu. At that point Xiuxiu had still called Lan Jue Sir, having been raised at his side – his maidservant, and his secret weapon. Anyone who knew Zeus also understood that when he held the Asura Blade in his hand, he was at his most dangerous. A god and a god-blade, this was a true warlord.

Were Xiuxiu at his side that day against Michael, things would have turned out very differently. Now, it wasn’t Zeus who held the blade, but that didn’t diminish it’s sharpness.

Hua Li had become entangled by Li Guoguo’s doppelganger. Already he felt himself held fast, and even if he could dodge it was too late. Instead he simply raised his right hand, waving it in a circle before him. He executed a strange gesture, and gently pushed out with his palm. A swirling, cobalt blue vortex appeared at his side.

Chapter 114: The Power Of Poseidon

The sizzling arc of light spat from the Asura Blade cut in to Hua Li’s vortex. What was moments before a deep blue ripple became pure white – but the whirlpool remained. The deadly attack was swallowed in to it.

“Brine Mires,” Lan Jue reminded them cryptically from a distance.

The words echoed through the arena. Hua Li stood unmoved but not unchanged. That coy smile common to his handsome face was gone. His body spun around, and his hands shot out in a flurry. Like before, each strike of his palm birthed a spinning cobalt blue vortex.

As they blasted outward the Asura Blade strike was deflected. Lin Guoguo’s golden doppelganger, too, was pushed violently away. The powerful force was clearly a conglomeration of the ocean’s powers and Hua Li’s own mental force. He was no psychic like Guoguo was, but once a power was cultivated to the ninth rank, one’s control was nearly absolute.

The Brine Mire eddies surrounded Hua Li like moving armor. Slowly they gathered inward, melding in to one, until they

swallowed Poseidon and left a massive tidal vortex in his stead.

Mika viciously swiped the Asura Blade, sending wave after wave of deadly surges against the vortex. But no matter how sharp they were, none could penetrate the water’s defense. Each were swallowed in to the roiling depths.

It was no wonder he was called Poseidon! His power was indeed strong.

“My turn!” Ke’er’s voice called out, and is it did a great beam of dazzling blue light exploded from the giant energy canon she had become. It’s destructive volley fired directly in to the heart of the whirlpool.

In response a powerful, almost regal sensation issued from the ocean depths. Soon after, it was joined by a massive, cobalt blue figure. It was seen only faintly at first, a dark blue figure in rough seas. Humanoid, but larger than Hua Li – holding itself with a majestic posture.

“Destroy!” The rumbling voice roared through the  entire arena. The indistinct image extended a finger  towards  the energy shell Ke’er had launched it’s way. A slender, slithering

blue light shot out. It collided precisely in the center of the attack.

The beam of power stopped as it was struck. The area around it suddenly grew bright as the sun, waves of energy blasting out in all directions. As it faded, amidst the ripples of heat and energy, a hollow space remained where the two opposing powers had met. The beam was gone.

ζ

Planet Skyfire. The Azure Sea.

Boom–!

A great, deafening blast filled the air. In the seconds following a terrific column of water fired in to the sky, towering hundreds of meters. The corpses of myriad sea creatures tumbled out from the spout in all directions. A staggering pulse of energy swept over the ocean’s surface. It continued for a good ten seconds before finally dissipating.

ζ

The Four Amazons froze, stunned that such a powerful force was simply commanded to cease. The massive vortex began to expand, growing larger still.

Frightful waves of energy blasted out like ominous tides, crashing over them. Mika, with the transformed Asura Blade in hand, were cast away. The whirlpool continued to expand at an alarming rate.

“Be careful. Guoguo’s his target,” Lan Jue interjected.

Lin Guoguo jumped with a start, the gold in her eyes flickering. The golden doppelganger had returned to her side. As her eyes flashed she lifted her right hand and pointed. The golden light around her flared, coming under assault from Poseidon’s crushing wave. Neither budged.

“Good.” Hua Li’s clear voice spoke out in praise as his figure appeared. But as the four women looked on in confusion, his body melted away like water. He disappeared in to the tidal waves.

Lin Guoguo expelled a psychic pulse, searching for her enemy’s presence. But how could she find him, as water in an

ocean?

Her head shot up as though she’d found her target. She looked up just as a blue figure was crashing down on her – a bubble, which quickly swallowed her up.

A flash of blue light, and Lin Guoguo was gone. When she reappeared she was several hundred meters away, in the belly of the spinning bubble. Her mental powers were rendered useless.

“Alright, that’s enough.” Lan Jue called for them to cease. As he did, the waters settled, vanishing. Poseidon’s regal figure was revealed as they did.

Mika lay down the Asura Blade, and Ke’er reverted to her adorable and unthreatening appearance. The bubble around Lin Guoguo burst. The soaked amazon trotted over to meet them.

Lan Jue looked over his warrior maidens. “You’ve already lost. If A’li had wanted to, at least two of you would already be gravely injured – or worse.”

“In respect to individual power you each are at a

disadvantage. However, together you shouldn’t have lost this quickly. Guoguo, you’re problem is exactly as I just outlined; persistence. Your psychic powers didn’t reach the level they could have. Through the whole fight, you were far too gentle. Had you pushed yourself, your ninth ranked powers would have caused him real trouble.”

“Yes, boss.” Lin Guoguo’s face grew red, and she inadvertently stuck out her tongue in shame.

Lan Jue turned then to Mika. “your powers weren’t employed at all. Even controlling the power of your blood, you’re still a ninth ranked Talent. Fire and water are mortal enemies, both in competition with one another. Your manipulation of the fire element wasn’t nearly sufficient. Are you avoiding disrupting his water attacks because of your cultivation training?”

“Xiuxiu. You were correct in assuming the Asura Blade during the fight. But, you picked the wrong time. You have to pick the most beneficial moment to use it – and certainly not when no opportunity presents itself. Doesn’t this reveal your hand too early to the enemy?”

“Last, Ke’er. Ke’er, your energy manipulation shouldn’t be as you used it. Whether strength, density or timing, none were

enough. We saw none of your energy tempest.”

“But for all of you, your greatest failing was cooperation. Think, as you continue to improve how will you employ your powers symbiotically for mutual benefit. In this way, your final result would be better than if you did so alone. In the future I’ll ask A-Li to train with you all every day. Use what you learn from him in the ring to improve.”

“Yes, boss,” the four women responded in unison.

Hua Li and Lan Jue left the secret arena, leaving the women behind to continue their training. Once alone, Lan Jue turned on his friend. “You don’t have any shame?”

Hua Li lifted his head and blinked. “What are you talking about?”

Lan Jue grunted. “I’m not in the mood. Using the power taught to you by your ancestors, against a few girls. Poseidon’s Mark! Aren’t you just the greatest ever.”

Hua Li’s face reddened. “Four against one and you’re still

telling me to hold back? You do it next time!”

“If it weren’t for the fact I couldn’t use my discipline I wouldn’t need you! I’m already much stronger than you are. Do you think differently?”

Hua LI sniffed. “Three years ago, no. But some people have been moping around for the last three years, so now who knows. Who’s to say I wouldn’t kick your ass in to the dirt?”

“You wanna give it a shot?”Lan Jue fixed him with an angry glare.

“Let’s go then! If you think you can in the state you’re in.”

“They got DreamNet, don’t they?”

“That’s right!” Hua Li’s face broke in to a sinister smile. “DreamNet would work. There’s nothing to fear there, and no restrictions. Let’s go, it’s been a long time. Loser’s gotta bark like a dog.”

“Grow up,” Lan Jue spat, shooting him a sideways glance.

Hua Li chuckled. “Well there’s gotta be some fun in it.”

“Fine. Snort like a pig then. Best two out of three. If I lose, I gotta snort like a pig in front of the ladies. But if you do, you gotta call Mo Xing and snort at her over the phone.”

“Well shit, that cruel?” Just the mention of her name caused Hua Li to shiver.

Lan Jue chortled darkly. “What do you say?”

Hua Li hesitation, but eventually replied. “It’s a bet! Where’s the machine.”

“The Underground’s Jewelry Store should have everything we need.”

“Let’s go!” Hua Li threw an arm over Lan Jue’s shoulder as they walked. Cocky grins spread across both of their faces, and for a while it was like it was before; young, brash times.

Zeus Jewelry Store had a metal door situated in the back. Opened, it revealed an expansive warehouse within – larger even than the warehouse that housed Zeus’ three airships.

As they entered Hua Li swept his eyes around the expansive chamber until they settled on a flickering electric spark in the center. A small team of robots were at work with various tools, repairing something several dozens of times larger than themselves.

“Looks like Thor took quite a beating as well.” Hua Li paused to look over the enormous mecha.

Lan Jue nodded. “Michael wasn’t an easy one to put down. His mecha control isn’t as good as ours was in our prime, but his Angel of War is still top of the line after all. That attack of his, like a tactic that kills one thousand of the enemy and eight hundred of his own. I wasn’t careful and got tangled up. He almost turned me in to toast. I was lucky to get away. If it wasn’t for him underestimating me, going one on one in the mechas, I’m not sure I’d have come out of it. Come on, the simulator’s over there.”

Beep beep beep! Just then, his communicator rang out. He lifted his hand to look, and couldn’t help but smile. He swung

his arm towards Hua Li to give him a look, then answered.

“So when?” A lazy voice immediately arose from his wrist.

“When what?” Lan Jue said, smirking.

“When are we going to the Holy City! Call The big guy and A- Li, the four of us haven’t gone out together in a long time, right?” Even through the communicator Lan Jue felt the excitement in that voice.

“He told you, huh?”

Chu Cheng answered. “Yup. So pick a date. I’m stoked. Say the word and I’ll let A-Li know.”

“Pfft, not an ounce of sincerity,” Hua Li shouted at Lan Jue’s wrist.

Chapter 115: Dreamburgh

“Ey?” upon hearing Hua Li’s voice, Chu Cheng couldn’t help but sound surprised. “Well you got there quick.”

Hua Li’s voice took on that distinctly feminine quality as he effected a sweet reply. “Of course! My affection for A-Jue is unquestioned!”

“Ugh, by the… cut it out, will ya? Your integrity’s already rolling around in the dirt,” Chu Cheng replied, his voice pained.

“Cut the garbage,” Hua Li said, his voice back to normal. “If you got nothing better to do get your ass down here. We’re not heading to the Castle just yet, A-Jue’s gotten himself messed up pretty bad. Not to mention in about a  month  the  Pontiff’s people will be making their way here to Skyfire.”

“Got it. I’ll be there before then. A-Jue, get a bottle of brandy ready.” Chu Cheng’s voice was veritably bursting with dramatic aplomb.

“Chengcheng, come quicklyyy!” That pretty voice cooed at Lan Jue’s wrist.

“Ugh, erg… I-I’ve got stuff to do. Gotta go.” The connection broke.

Lan Jue patted his forehead. “This guy… guess a dog can’t help eating shit 1. Guess a punk’ll do as they do.”

[TL : [1] = I just had to leave this as is in the translation, too funny. The meaning is clear, but for clarification it’s akin to the western phrase ‘a tiger can’t change it’s stripes’ – you can’t help who you are. But I know I’m going to be using this one from now on. ]

Hua Li’s voice was full of indignation. “And the nerve, saying I have no integrity! Like he’s got room to talk. I’mma beat his ass!”

“Well he’ll be here soon,” Lan Jue said, patting his friend on the shoulder comfortingly.

Hua Li shot him a glance. “Good. First I’ll deal with you, then I’ll show him what’s up. Show him what his insides look like.”

An uncanny smile flitted across Lan Jue’s face as he nodded.

“Alright!”

There were only five simulators here, but each were top of the line models. After all, the Jewelry Store was among the best earners on the Avenue. In reality Lan Jue himself didn’t even know his current net worth, not after giving up management of the store. He left that up to his ladies.

The two young men picked their respective simulators and climbed inside.

ζ

“Qianlin, want me to send you home? Are you feeling better?” Richard spoke politely to her as he walked by the young woman’s side. They walked slowly from the campus grounds.

“I’m fine,” Qianlin tepidly replied.

Richard looked at her, surprised. “But when I went to your house last night for dinner, you said you were too ill to come down and join us?”

Zhou Qianlin stopped, turned, and fixed Richard with her pretty blue eyes. “Richard, do you really not understand or are you pretending? I don’t want to see you. We. Are. Over. Although it’s better to say we never began.”

Richard looked like he’d been struck with a hammer. “But you’re my fiancé,” he said bitterly.

Zhou Qianlin hesitated, but after a moment she had made her decision. Determination filled her as she stepped forward to Richard’s side.

Richard’s face lit up. Until he heard her speak.

“That day… the man who took me from the wedding he… he had his way with me.”

If Richard had been hit with a hammer before, this time it was a bomb. His whole body shook, but he felt locked in place.

“I’m sorry. I want nothing to do with you anymore.” Zhou Qianlin backed away a few steps, before turning and walking away.

Tang Mi had been beside her the entire time. Though her voice had been quiet, she’d still heard clearly every word she said.

“Qianlin… that can’t be true, is it? You and Zeus really…”

She didn’t utter a sound, only sped up her gait. Tang Mi got the point, and fell quiet as she raced to catch up.

After several long moments, watching the two girls leave, Richard’s hands curled in to white-knuckled fists. That day was still clear in his mind, like it had just happened. It was the most shameful day of his life, brought about by that golden-masked man. His lofty voice still rang in his ears. “I am ZEUS!”

Tang Mi didn’t speak again until they were at the school’s main gates. “Qianlin, what you just told Richard. Was that just to get him to stop, or was it real?”

Qianlin dropped her head, and when she spoke her voice was quiet. “Little Mi, you know I feel very sorry for Richard actually. Before when I accepted his advances, I thought he was a playboy. Later when we actually met I found him to be a good man. Unfortunately he and I would never work out. It’s better a

sharp pain for a short time, than a dull pain for ever.”

Tang Mi blinked her big eyes. “But that’s not my concern! What I want to know is if you and Zeus REALLY did it, what’s he like?! Is he as good a lover as he is a mercenary? Introduce me to him. I know we’re sisters, but we’ll keep the competition fair.”

Zhou Qianlin spun around so quickly her hair fanned out. Her blue eyes were deadly.

“Eh… well, I… I’ll go on ahead.” Tang Mi turned tail and fled.

“Stop right there!”

ζ

DreamNet. Dreamburgh.

The skies above were a rainbow of colors. Everything was like a fairyland, like a dream. The towering buildings glowed with a faint titanium white, spotlessly clear and without blemish. It

was a world of peace and quiet, comfortable. Gentle gusts of wind brought clouds lazily floating in the rainbow sea overhead. A sweet fragrance danced in the eddies, but more than that was a cooling moisture that cleansed the mind and body.

“It’s been a long time since I’ve been here. Every visit it’s like I’m stuck somewhere between reality and a dream.”

It was a tall, slender man who’d spoken. Gold robes, golden hair, golden mask. A single word floated above him, nearly translucent: Zeus.

“Yeah! It has been ages. It was more than three years ago you last visited the Sanctuary. If you waited much longer I’m afraid they’d kick you out.”

Zeus’ companion was like him, tall and thin. His robes were a deep blue, and was embroidered like ripples in water. His long blue hair splayed out behind him as though they had a life of their own. His mask was silver. The name above: Poseidon.

Dreamburgh was a special area of DreamNet. Nearly all of DreamNet had a corresponding area in the real world, and were normally as lively. Only a very small handful of people were

qualified to enter this large, isolated part of the web.

Here, the peak services of DreamNet were available. Most of which were compatible with the real world outside. Here, they were auctions for s-ranked gems, masterful blueprints for top level mechas, things almost unimaginable outside. But here they could be found.

Indeed it was a very selective place, for only a very special few. The gods themselves.

God-ranked mecha pilots stood at the peak of the piloting world. This status carried over to DreamNet. To every pilot it was considered a great honor to enter here. The ability to be a part meant any further simulated battle for them was meaningless. Most important was the exchange between pilots of the same caliber.

Every pilot here was known only by their callsign. No one could know the identity behind the mask. This, too, was anything but insignificant. This, was the territory of the gods. Here is where one honed themselves, becoming qualified to stand at the top of the power pyramid.

There was a time when the Four Divine Monarchs were kings among kings here, known far and wide. At one point they’d had a one hundred day winning streak in five-man battles – just the four of them. Even today, the record had not been bested.

Of course there were some discrepancies. Real-world god- ranked pilots and those of DreamNet weren’t always the same. Here, members were pilots alone – no disciplines were employed. The world’s pilots were a combination of power gems, Talent and personal ability.

Still to this day it was the wish of all younger pilots to one day enter Dreamburg. To them, this was Valhalla.

It really had been ages since Lan Jue’s last visit. So long, in fact, that were he an average citizen he’d no longer be permitted here. But Zeus was not average citizen. There wasn’t a soul here that didn’t know his reputation. Here in the sanctuary three separate ranking lists bore his name, and he was in the top sections of each.

The Sanctuary was a place for pilots of the highest grade to meet and compare notes. There was a list of all the participants. The contents of the list were widely known through DreamNet, passed by word of mouth.

To say there was one list though was inaccurate. There were in fact several; one for men, for women,  arrangement  by fighting capability, win ratios, and on and on. But among them there was one list that was the most telling – and likewise was the one most people adhered to. That was the Comprehensive Power Analysis. It was the final word when it came to the abilities of the sanctuary’s pilots. Especially speed of hand.

As was well known proper manipulation of a mecha suit was a combination of mental commands and physical kinetic motion. The higher your acknowledged rank, the more masterful your control. And so one’s speed of hand was an important factor to know.

For most, when they spied the lists, they had the same reaction; inhuman!

There was also the God-Team rankings. A common mecha unit consisted of five members, but this was a difficult thing for pilots of their caliber. In fact the total number of effective teams was very small. Only a few hundred in the entirety of DreamNet. Being part of such a team meant you were among the best of the best.

Zeus’ name was on all of these.

God-Team rankings: The Four Monarchs. This is where they became known, and where they earned their nickname.

Hand speed rankings; Zeus was fourth. It was determined by the number of executed commands in a short period. Next to his name was written 87.

What this meant was that he could execute eighty seven commands in a second. It was a number he had to maintain for a full minute before it could be counted.

Chapter 116: The Audacity!

Eighty-seven a second!

Staggering couldn’t begin to describe it. What the average mecha pilot could barely manage in a minute, these god pilots did in a fraction of the time.

The final list was the aggregate power ranking, of which Zeus came in ninth. Of the other three Monarchs only one out- performed him there, his brother Prometheus. He was third. Strangely, however, in terms of hand speed the ‘god of wisdom’ clocked in at sixty – more than fiftieth in the rankings.

Prometheus was also present on the lists, but the only one he broke the top ten on was the god-team. For the others he was no slouch, but didn’t quit reach the same level. Thirty-eighth in hand speed, and fifty first in overall power. In Dreamburg Prometheus was ranked high, but not overly so.

The only person to rank in the top ten of three lists was Lan Jue himself. Although it didn’t accurately portray real statistics here, in Dreamburg, among the best pilots in DreamNet – there was none better.

“Doesn’t look like there’s been a lot of changes in the sanctuary since we’ve come last,” Lan Jue said, looking over the lists. His name remained precisely where it had been three years ago.

Hua Li replied, “Only a few people are allowed in here, you think a significant upset would be that easy? Today, though, I’m here to beat you – aggregate power rankings are sure to see some changes. Three years with minimal practice from you, how much hand speed do you think you’ve lost?”

“Hah!”

“Let’s go then!”

ζ

Dreamburg, Battle Prep.

“Honored Zeus, Poseidon, would you like your spar to be available publicly?” A pleasant, female voice wafted towards them.

“Private,” Lan Jue responded.

“Private, confirmed. After one minute, please enter the arena.”

A moment later the same voice echoed throughout the entirety of Dreamburg. “51st Ranked pilot Poseidon, has issued a challenge to Ninth Ranked pilot Zeus to a contest. One minute to commencement.”

A white light flashed before them. The God of Lightning, Zeus, and the Master of the Oceans Poseidon appeared on an expansive platform.

The platform itself was magnificent; round, suspended in mid air, and surrounded by that shifting technicolored sky. It was called the Altar, the combat ring for god-ranked pilots. Each time the pilots here chose to spar, this is where they did it. Battles could be public or private, and spectators to public matches had to pay great sums of money to enjoy them. Private matches, on the other hand, were somewhat of a misnomer. Spectators could come, but their fee was a hundred times greater. A truly astronomical figure.

Spectating a normal match cost DreamBits, but in the real world the cost would amount to a b-ranked power gem. And you could only watch one bout. The proceeds were all given to the combatants – DreamNet took nothing.

Hua Li shouted to his opponent. “Hey A-Jue, do you think it’d be crazy if someone paid to watch our little competition?”

“This isn’t going to be a competition,” Lan Jue shot back. It’s gunna be a massacre.”

Hua Li laughed it off. “Yeah?”

“It’s been three years since we’ve last met, and you’re bullshit hasn’t let up,” Lan Jue said.

“Well it looks like there aren’t any crazies coming out to watch today. Let’s do it.”

Both Zeus and Poseidon lifted their right hands. Two beams of light fired down from the heavens and enveloped them. The columns expanded, dissolved, and in their place stood two massive mechas.

On one side of the platform towered Thor, exactly as he would appear in the world outside. Opposite Zeus’ mecha stood another, aqua blue and considerably more slender than the lightning god’s. It’s height was similar to Thor’s, streamlined and towering. A teardrop-shaped gemstone glimmered in it’s forehead, and in fact every important part and junction of the armor bore a similar gem. Looking on, it was like it’s body was moving ever so slightly, undulating like deep-sea waves. A sapphire blue trident was clutched in it’s hands.

This was Triton, Hua Li’s mecha armor.

In this instant a flash appeared in the distance. A metal chair suddenly appeared just outside the platform, and in it a tall figure. A woman, judging by the figure, draped in a flame-red robe. Similarly fiery hair hung down her back, and her features were hidden behind a red mask. Her impressive stature glowed like an ember, but instead of appearing like a lick of flame she instead gave the impression of fresh blood.

“Woah, is that Piao Hong? Sure enough, there’s our big wig Piao Piao! Same one from years ago who wanted to provide for you – looks like you’re still on her mind.” Hua Li’s surprised voice issued from Triton. Any sound from the platform wasn’t heard from outside.

“Shut it!” Lan Jue sounded especially sour.

Thor burst in to motion. Crackling bolts of lightning raced over it’s figure as it launched itself toward Triton in an all out gambit. It looked like a raging ball of thunderbolts, twisting dangerously at it’s foe.

Triton took a step back. It was careful and calculated – after all, the two men knew each other well. He did not dodge, but juked diagonally to the side to avoid impact. In the  same moment Triton lifted it’s massive trident, a hazy blue light enveloping it’s prongs.

The misty lights flashed, and a vortex appeared before the weapon. It’s pull yanked Thor to the side. Even the mecha was capable of Brine Mires.

The vortex pressure pulled violently at Thor, whose speed and ferocity caused it to stumble off balance for a moment before Zeus retook control. Triton’s timing and power were spot on. For an instant it looked like Thor would tumble head first in to the vortex, but it abruptly stopped at a distance of about a meter.

The pull remained, but Thor was in no further danger of being torn apart by the whirlpool. Countless threads of crackling lightning bolts appeared, interweaving to create a massive electrical net. It exploded outward, batting away his opponent’s weapon. Moreover, Thor’s giant figure became fuzzy, and a mysterious buzz filled the air.

The net fractured, it’s once thick electric frame separating until it was almost like a photomask. It surrounded Thor like a blanket. This was an impressive combination of Thor’s lightning net and oscillation – a combination that required a master hand. The punishing speed of oscillation, and a second function besides. To your average pilot this was, in a word, insane.

He looked almost like a mirage, and in the space it took for his net to complete, he abused the opportunity. Giant bolts of electricity fired off in all directions. But Triton had not been taken aback. It’s own figure had become hazy, and as the bolts washed over it, it vanished. The flowing figure reappeared several meters away. It soared through the air, crackling with residual electricity.

“Stop knowing me so well,” Hua Li gloomily engaged.

Lan Jue answered with action. Thor fired itself upward towards Triton, shinning like a shooting star.

Before the rush could find it’s target, Triton changed. It split in to three identical images, each brandishing their tridents threateningly. With the motion a light swept over Thor, swallowing it within. The azure blue mecha was unfazed. Lifting it’s right hand, a golden light flashed and a lightning- shaped spear appeared in the raised appendage.

It did not strike or jab. Instead Thor gave the spear a shake, and countless dots of lights shuddered free like dust motes in a beam of sunlight. They shimmered and shook, become a hundred thousand tiny spears of light. It was they who rushed out, finding every hole and weakness in the tridents’ radiating power.

This clearly reflected the differences between the two great mechas. As the spears strikes rushed against the trident’s power the weapon rippled like waves. It diffused and muted the spear’s effectiveness. Meanwhile the spears attacks were indomitable, powerful, and precise. It was brute force against redirection.

The earlier strikes had put Triton at a disadvantage. He’d lost the offensive, and struggled back a few steps under Thor’s

onslaught. However, it was not a broken retreat, he still retained control.

At the levels in which these two competed, victory wasn’t decided in a matter of seconds. Neither were employing their best skills or strategies – instead searching the best opportunities to use them.

“A-Li!” As the fight raged, Lan Jue’s voice shouted over the din.

“Ah?” Hua Li’s response was surprised, taken aback by the sudden cry. To shout in such a way in the midst of an intense stand off, surely there was something the matter.

However, Lan Jue’s voice was calm. “A few days ago, while I was teaching class, there was this female student who desperately needed to fart…” [1]

[ TL : [1] = Oh no he didn’t.]

“She couldn’t hold it, so she came up with an excellent idea. She would loudly clap her hands, and at that precise moment let

loose thus concealing the sound. She went about  her  plan, loudly clapping her hands in the quiet classroom. And just as everyone was turning their heads to look at her, she ripped a fantastic one.”

“Ahh hahaha!”

Bang! A bolt of lightning shot out and collided with Triton’s shoulder. The mecha fell in to an uncontrolled dive, and smashed to the floor. Thor wasted no time. Golden light washed over him, and as his friend was tumbling he became roaring bolt of lightning. Immediately upon hitting the floor, Thor slammed in to him with the force of starship.

Brruuughhhmmm! The whole area shook as thunderous roars tore through the sky. The entire platform was awash in golden light. A mushroom cloud rolled and raised above it, the fiery lights dancing in it’s depths.

Hua Li’s screams echoed through the Altar, mixing with the thunder.

“Combat has finished. Winner: Zeus.”

The cloud was swept away, and the golden light dimmed.
Thor stood triumphant in the center of the ring.

Outside of the ring, the red-robed woman had already stood from her chair. She looked on with doubt in her eyes. Thor had indeed had the upper hand, but Triton’s disposition hadn’t been significant. Poseidon’s mecha had simply sat there, frozen in the air as the attack landed, with no attempts at defense.

Thor hadn’t let the opportunity go to waste, and combat was done right then and there. From where she sat it almost looked like Triton let him win – where they trying to exploit the list standings? But that simply couldn’t be! God-ranked pilots wouldn’t do such a thing!

“THE AUDACITY! A-Jue, that was some a-class bullshit!” Hua Li’s enraged voice tore through Dreamburg.

Chapter 117: Fantascia Genetica Decoction

Lan Jue’s voice was serious. “If this were real combat, would you talk this way to your enemy? You’d actually have no chance, because you’d be dead.”

“Wh-…” Hua Li trailed off.

Within Thor, Lan Jue was fighting valiantly with himself to stop his laughter from bubbling out. It was a difficult task!

It appeared Tang Xiao’s tricks were useful after all. Even he was almost beaten the first time he’d encountered that nasty deception.

“Unacceptable! Again!” Hua Li was audibly grinding his teeth.

Lan Jue’s voice was lofty and dismissive. “The discrepancy in power is too great. Train harder, and challenge me again when you’re ready!” Thor disappeared in a flash of light, without giving Hu Li a chance to answer.

It wasn’t long before Zeus and Poseidon where once more walking the streets of Dreamburg.

“A-Jue! Since when did you become such a little punk!” Poseidon rushed at Zeus, grabbing him by the neck!

“Execute systems protection,” Zeus answered quietly.

Boom! An arc of lightning crashed down from the heavens. It threw Poseidon away a dozen meters, burning him black.

Zeus waggled a finger at his companion’s smoldering body. “Bad touch.”

“Zeus!” In this moment a digitized female voice called his name.

He turned to find the source of the sound, spying the red-clad woman who’d watched their battle. “Piao Hong. Thanks for the gem.”

Piao Hong’s voice was curt. “Unfortunately I didn’t see what I

came for. I’ll likely apply to DreamNet for reimbursement.”

“As you like. That’s right, I actually was looking for you.”

“For me?” Her voice was surprised.

Zeus nodded in response. “I wanted to know if you were interested in a business proposal. I wanted to buy some fantascia genetica decoction.”

She blinked. “It’s still useful to you?”

“Don’t worry about it,” Zeus said. “I have my uses for it.
Name a price.”

Piao Hong was quiet for a moment. Eventually she spoke up. “You should know, this sort of thing is priceless. For those that need it, no price is too high. It’s also secret, and I can’t verify your identity. I can’t sell it.”

Zeus smirked behind the mask. “In this place, there’s no such thing as priceless.”

This brought a smile to Paio Hong’s face. “You sure live up to your name. You speak true – here there’s nothing truly beyond the scope of purchase. In fact I’m also here because there’s something I wish to discuss with the two of you. If you agree, the decoction is yours as advanced payment.”

“Oh?” Poseidon had heard the exchange. “What’s so important you’re willing to give up the decoction in advance?”

Piao Hong smiled secretively. Her red clothes seemed to wax and wane like a pulse. “A God-Team battle!”

Surprise and suspicion both flickered through the two Monarch’s eyes.

“The Four Divine Monarchs have occupied the top of the Altar’s rankings for too long. In three years there is sure to have been some changes. We present a challenge against your team.” Piao Hong’s metallic voice grew sharper.

Zeus’ response was tepid. “According to the rules, you must first be in the top ten. Only then can you issue a challenge. Through DreamNet’s audits, we have three months to prepare. We’d have to accept, or risk losing our ranking. What are you

playing at?”

Piao Hong’s aura become appreciably gentler. “Clever. What we want, is simple: Make it public! A spectacle for everyone in the three alliances to come and witness. Let’s give them all a show, so they know a true god battle is. Boil the blood of all the young pilots with dreams of being where we are. Stir up the whole universe!” Her voice rose to a moving crescendo, fiery and emotional. Even Zeus and Poseidon were swept up in it.

“Public? This is nonsense right?” Poseidon said. “You have to know all top pilots have their own tricks and secrets. Having a competition like that, open to the public, would reveal all their secrets to everyone. Modern recording equipment can catch every tiny detail. It’d be giving our entire playbook to our enemies, to look over at their convenience. It would be the first public god-team bout in the history of DreamNet, much less open to all three alliances. Fantascia Genetica is important, but compared to what you’re asking it’s nothing.”

“That’s just so,” Piao Hong replied softly, “and that’s why we’re discussing. This is not our attempt at pleasing the peanut gallery. It’s something… reserved for a rainy day.”

“Go on then,” Zeus said. “But you should know that only a

very good carrot’s going to get us to agree to your stick.”

“You should know DreamNet’s origins, I assume?” Piao Hong suddenly switched topics.

She went on. “DreamNet is the largest multinational cooperation in all of the alliances. An independent platform created by the three great nations. In order to assure it’s impartiality, it’s central committee broke away from the alliances they came from and became it’s own, special unit. It’s more advanced than all three alliance armies put together. It’s technological support is more powerful than the ten greatest families of the alliances put together.”

“And have you heard of the Justice’s Proclamation?” She paused to regard them.

Zeus and Poseidon shot a glance at one another.

“Of course,” Zeus said. “The Proclamation was aimed at the central committee. They were too powerful, and required restrictions. During it’s establishment, the three alliances and the cooperation itself came together for an agreement, creating the Proclamation and it’s rules to help determine it’s effect on

the people. For instance, one rule states that if a virtual personality develops emotions, it must be destroyed. And so on with the rest of the Proclamation, making it fool-proof.”

Piao Hong nodded. “I ask you this, because I want to know if you agree. That all of the central committee’s proclamations are just and equal, and in the best interest of human development.” As she spoke, she lifted a hand. A golden light trickled towards Zeus.

Zeus deftly plucked the golden light from the air. The light itself was no corporeal thing, and as it came in to Zeus’ grip a column of golden light shot down upon them from on high. A stately, ear-splitting voice howled at them from all directions.

“I protect the balance of DreamNet.” As the words raced around them, it was as though the entirety of Dreamburg trembled. Before Zeus and Poseidon’s wide eyes, a majestic figure appeared. They were middle-aged, alive with  golden light. A pair of golden eyes looked at them, but it was as though they saw everything, all at once. It was as though they could pierce your very soul.

“A DreamNet Guardian?” Zeus and Poseidon spoke as one.

The trembling earth, the golden light… in an instant it was all gone.

Zeus stared wide-eyes at Piao Hong. “I had no idea you were a Guardian.”

The DreamNet Guardians were a special group, who existed specifically to deal with the expansive reality’s internal affairs. They existed here only, and from the day they accept the mantle of Guardian, their job is to protect DreamNet – and the myriad people who used it – from threat. Like DreamNet, they were also free from alliance restrictions.

Their identities were a closely guarded secret – no one knew who the guardians truly were. The masked protectors only ever showed up when something serious was happening in the virtual world.

Piao Hong nodded. “Indeed. Though I was born in the Western Alliance, I am now a Guardian of this place. Remember that what I have shared with you now, is an absolute secret. If this is a responsibility you two fail to keep, you will become an enemy to DreamNet, and all the guardians in it.

“Promise!” Zeus and Poseidon spoke with one voice. They knew quite clearly what the Guardians were, what they did. In the whole history of mankind they had averted civil strife at least thrice, and four times warded off catastrophe. They were deserving of everyone’s respect.

When Piao Hong spoke again, her voice was low. “Eight months ago, the Northern Alliance had sent out an exploration party. They were mapping a distant galaxy when they got caught in an assault. Only a tenth of the expeditionary force returned. With them, they broke top-secret news; approximately seventy-eight light years from Planet Luo they’d found three new planets. Planets that housed endogenous life. The life forms they found were exceedingly monstrous, and frighteningly strong.”

“Stranger than that, though, were the planets. They were fixed in space, stationary. They had no orbit, no trajectory. But what they could do, is affix themselves to other planets… destroying them, and taking their energy. When the Northern party came across them, the planets were in the final stages of plundering a small planet. They watched the planet disintegrate with their own eyes. The aftermath of the planet’s death hit them like a supernova.”

“Afterwards they came under attack, suffering strange

biological attacks. They suffered great losses. Luckily they were scouting ships, fast, otherwise there likely wouldn’t have been any survivors.”

“When the scouts returned and delivered their report, it was determined the power of one of these planets was equivalent to a space bastion in sheer power – and that is  merely  a preliminary estimate. Also their combat styles are entirely different from our own. Seventy-eight light years… not such a great distance away. We humans have settled dozens of worlds, rich with energy. Perhaps we’ll get lucky, perhaps these alien planets wont choose to come our way. But even if they don’t, we must prepare. And what’s more…”

Chapter 118: Consent

Piao Hong stopped here, pausing for just a moment. When she spoke again, her voice was graver still. “According to our own calculations at DreamNet, there is a sixty-four point seven eight percent chance they will come our way. If that ends up being the case… humanity could be at war.”

“Judging by their distance it may be years before we face the risk, but we should prepare ahead of time. Because of this, we at DreamNet hope to improve the quality of our civil defense. We’ll start with inflaming the passions of the younger generation. What better way to do that, then to stage a god- team match, in full view of the human population. It would be an unprecedented event, one for the ages. The Four Monarchs, top of the lists, would be the main event. It was good you came today – another three days, and I’d have had to approach you through different channels. I hope, in light of these circumstances, you’ll consider the future of the human race. I hope you will participate, for everyone’s sake.”

“Of course the DreamNet corporation will compensate you for this. All you need to do for now, is participate in this competition. In addition to the decoction you requested, you’ll also receive one s-ranked power gem each. And, thirty percent of the proceeds from telecasting. This doesn’t include advertising or screening costs – a pure thirty percent. With this

sort of money, you can make yourselves each a brand new, top- level mecha.”

Piao Hong went silent. Zeus and Poseidon stood in quiet contemplation.

Three alien planets… the words weighed heavy on their consciousness. The universe was indeed vast and boundless, and who knew how many intelligent species and habitable planets existed out there? After humanity had begun it’s interstellar programs in a serious way, it encountered many  habitable worlds and strange species. Some were even threatening, but they were decidedly few.

However never before had they encountered something with the ability to rival their own destructive power. These three planetary bodies somehow had the sheer obliterating force of a space bastion. It was a threat unlike humanity had ever faced. A menace that threatened their very existence.

“We can’t shirk our responsibility!” Zeus’ head rose as he made his thoughts known.

Poseidon, said nothing.

“I’ll relay this information to our other two companions, and give you an answer as soon as possible,” Zeus concluded.

“Very well. But please be quick.” Piao Hong nodded towards Zeus, and the roiling red aura around her undulated. With nothing more to say, she vanished.

Zeus turned to Poseidon, who in turn looked back at him. They knew what each other thought, and a tacit understanding was reached. A light flashed and they, too, were gone.

Lan Jue and Hua Li pulled themselves from the simulators and faced each other.

“What do you think?” Uncertainty lived in Hua Li’s moving eyes.

“There was no doubt that was a Guardian,” Lan Jue muttered. “The information should be reliable.”

Hua Li’s brows wrinkled, adding a dash of melancholy to his handsome features. “Your response was too quick. This whole thing… too sudden. Fine, so what did you want the Fantascia

Genetic for anyway?”

“Tang Xiao’s own abilities are pretty solid,” Lan Jue began. “He’s begun to unlock his potential. But Jin Tao’s genetic talent is minimal, and without some sort of catalyst I’m afraid he’ll never advance past third rank. The only method left to him is man-made.”

Hua Li lifted a brow at his friend. “You mean business with these two apprentices of yours, huh?”

A devilish grin spread a across Lan jue’s face. “Didja like my joke?”

“%!*$!” Hua Li brazenly displayed his middle finger under Lan Jue’s nose, his face dark.

Lan Jue’s voice interjected, flippant and disinterested. “Keep it up. I’ll take a picture and send it to all your fans in DreamNet. Let them see what their hero is really like.”

“A-Jue,” Hua Li muttered. “I haven’t seen you for a long time.
You’ve become a real pain in the ass!”

“The first time I met Tang Xiao was in DreamNet. That little piece of comedy was something he told me. I only just managed to win that fight. I won through oscillation, and it was then he begged to learn from me, wanted to see me. I beat him viciously to vent my anger.”

“A-Jue, I suddenly thought of something…”

“Eh?” Lan Jue looked at Hua Li inquisitively.

The superstar chuckled in supremely sinister fashion. “There are some out there who can’t use their disciplines for… various reasons. I, too, seek to let go of a little agitation. What should I do, do you think?”

Lan Jue’s self-satisfied grin faltered. “J-Just wait for me to finish talking. We really shouldn’t just go around  beating people, it isn’t good for our abilities. I used lightning to give the kid a little shock, but hadn’t expected he’d actually have considerable talent. Natural evolution, even.”

“Evolution?” Hua Li suddenly appeared to be paying more attention. “That’s certainly rare! So you’re saying it’s possible for him to develop to ninth rank?”

Lan Jue nodded. “The kid’s endurance is almost supernatural. He certainly doesn’t look like much, but he’s got the heart of a victor. He’s also very clever. He definitely knew why I beat him that day, but he was still willing to call me his teacher. In his eyes I saw that familiar look, that pursuit of power. The second time I saw him, when he accepted me as his master, I saw sincerity there, too. I had nothing to do, free time at my disposal. I saw his talent, and decided to teach him. But where he ends up, is up to him.”

“As for Jin Tao, he… moved me. That crazy kid. Completely disregards the fact that his genetic talent is practically nonexistent. But his desire, his heart exceeds his abilities two hundred percent. His desires have been pent up for so long, he wants change even more than Tang Xiao. I need to keep an eye on his temperament.”

“Are you done?” Hua Li’s arms were crossed over his chest. He grinned unsettlingly at Lan Jue.

“Yup. Alright, let’s go, I need a drink. What do you feel like?” Lan Jue calmly turned and began to walk away.

“All I want, is to LET OFF SOME STEAM!”

“A-a-Li, don’t be like this!”

“I’ll beat you till you shit your pants!”

“AAHH….!”

Half an hour later.

“Do you want to tell him, or should I?” Hua Li sat upon the floor of Zeus’ Jewelry Shop, sipping on a soda water.

Lan Jue was perched on a chair, tenderly massaging his face. There weren’t any marks there, but from his pained expression one can only guess at the inhumane treatment he’d just suffered.

“I will! Imma tell my brother you were beating on me, hmph!” Lan Jue spat the threat.

“Hua Li leveled his eyes at his pouty friend. “Have a little integrity guy. Don’t go running to your family like a child.”

Lan Jue was indignant. “And beating on the infirm shows integrity? I’m hurt, and here you are taking advantage.”

Hua Li fluttered his eyes, those long lashes brushing against one another. Those moving sky-blue eyes, full of mirth, shone at his friend. “Am I not helping you to recover?”

“Can you help with the pain in my heart?!”

This took Poseidon by surprise, and his playful demeanor became quiet. “Go on then,” he said. “Call him.”

Lan Jue snorted once more for good measure, then tapped a number in to his communicator.

“Hm?” Lan Qing’s voice rose from his wrist. “You called?”

Lan Jue revealed what he’d learned moment earlier from the DreamNet Guardian.

Lan Qing was silent, listening intently as Lan Jue related the tale. Eventually he spoke. “I know the Dreamburg guards. If you

can be sure of their identity, then what they told you should be the real deal. And, top secret. I’ll let the higher-ups know, and see if I can get cleared. As for the contest, I’m in.”

“Alright,” Lan Jue said.

“How are you feeling?”

“No problems. A-Li’s helping me get better. Shouldn’t be long before I’m back to normal.”

“Good. If there’s nothing else, we’ve got things to do.”

“Mn.”

Hua Li watched the exchange, silent until Lan Jue dropped the connection. His brows wrinkled slightly. “If I didn’t already know you two, I’d never guess you were brothers. Things still no good with him?”

Lan Jue shook his head. “I can’t say I don’t blame him at all… for him, in his heart, duty will always come before family. But

this time, when he came to see me… the hate was gone.”

Hua Li sighed. “He actually cares quite a lot for you. After all, you’re the only family he has.”

“Yeah, well…” Lan Jue waved his hand, as though trying to sweep away the depressing topic.

Hua Li went on. “Rest for a while, then we’ll continue with the healing.

“Alright.”

ζ

“Granny Bess, I’ve cleaned your clothes for you. They’ve been dried, and I put them away in your cabinet. I have to head home, but you look after yourself. Drink some more  warm water. [1]” Zhou Qianlin rolled down her sleeves, smiling politely at the old woman perched on the side of the bed.

[ TL : [1] = ‘Drink warm water’ is a Chinese trope and cultural

phenomenon where literally every single ailment in history can be fixed with rest and warm water. Cold? Warm water. Hemorrhoids? Warm water. Car wreck? Warm water. Still not better? You obviously need more warm water. ]

She looked particularly advanced in years, with a head of long snow white hair past her shoulders. Her pink coveralls were matched with a pink scrunchie that tied her hair back. Inside was a pink shirt. Her pants were black.

She was exceptionally skinny, and the outline of her bones were clearly visible. But her two green eyes were clear and bright, without any hint of confusion. She stared quietly out the window, her thoughts a mystery.

“I’ll just be heading out now, Granny Bess.” Zhou Qianlin pulled over a small blanket, draping it over the elderly woman’s knees. She then quietly stood and left.

As the door closed, the elderly woman finally turned to look at where Zhou Qianlin had just stood. She remained quiet, but her clear eyes were alive with emotion. She lifted her right hand, and skinny fingers slowly splayed wide. The nails on each finger glittered like crystal, and from their tips silken threads of red light slithered forth. Gently they gathered together,

intertwined, until they constituted a familiar figure; that of Zhou Qianlin, remarkably life-like.

“Go!” the woman commanded. An instant later the glimmering red outline vanished without a trace.

The woman returned her clear eyes to the world outside her window. Suddenly those green eyes became glazed, distant, as though revisiting an old memory.

Chapter 119: Sorry, Richard

The Soul-Caller Gem warmed.

“Come get me at home.”

“It’s so early. I’m still sleeping.”

“A bodyguard must fulfill their duties! Nobles must abide by their promises!”

“…”

“A-Jue, what are you doing so early?” Hua Li pulled himself to a sitting position on the couch, watching Lan Jue wash his face with drowsy eyes.

“You don’t have class today either. Where are you running off to? You wouldn’t need to get up this early to train your disciples either.” Hua Li’s questions were fussy at the early hour.

Lan Jue’s response was muttered, almost to himself. “A

bodyguard must fulfill their duties! Ugh, nonsense.”

“I despise you,” Hua Li sighed dejectedly. He grudgingly pushed himself from the sofa.

Ten minutes later.

The antique bicycle rattled speedily along the road. Hua Li’s morose expression stared at the passing ground as he sat behind Lan Jue. “A-Jue I’m starving. It’s not good to skip breakfast. Gives you energy for the day.”

“Shut up, I’m hungry too. And I’m the one pedaling. Already a crappy day!” Lan Jue glared ruefully as they trundled along.

“So why are we up so early anyway?”

Lan Jue was silent, answering a few moments later in a miserable voice. “I’m telling you, you better not laugh.”

“I’d never!” Hua Li’s assurances came without hesitation.

“Not long ago a woman came in to my shop…” As they made for Zhou Qianlin’s house, Lan Jue recounted the tale of Pearl, stealing the Chief Minister’s daughter, and the things that followed.

Hua Li listened aptly to the tale, but upon hearing the tale, he shook almost hard enough to tip the bicycle. His eyes nearly popped from his head.

“Hairy hippos in a jelly tub! You sure you got that right?! How the hell did you mix that up, after being with Hera for so long you’d figure you’d know what she looks like! What kind of moron are you?” Hua Li stayed true to his promise, and didn’t laugh. He was mad!

“Hey, whose side are you on, I’m already miserable about this. Shouldn’t you be here comforting me? Still just accusations and interrogations? Hera’s dead… for three years do you know how I’ve been able to keep on? Living like a drunk man, like in a dream, or nightmare. Wallowing in regret and loss. She was gone so suddenly, and then to hear just as suddenly that she wasn’t dead, do you think I’d be in my right mind? That I could keep a level head? Even you who’ve known me for so long, after three years you start to forget what one looks like. Zhou Qianlin and Hera are very, very similar. Exactly the same. I was nervous, excited, scared, she’d been drugged. I didn’t know at

the time, but when I found out it was already too late.”

Hua Li was near enough the only person Lan Jue could be this honest and open with. He held nothing back.

“That’s all well and good, but that’s not what I mean,” Hua Li said. “Using this opportunity you find yourself in to have her act as Hera’s stand in, is. Sure she looks like her, but is it fair to her, or you, to act this way? To make her fill that whole in your heart?”

Lan Jue’s smile was bitter. “If only it were that easy. You must know, in my heart Hera is absolutely irreplaceable. And what happened… was my fault. She wouldn’t have…”

“Alright, no use dwelling on it,” Hua Li interrupted. “I’m actually curious what this Hera impersonator is actually like. Knowing you I wont be sorry acting as her bodyguard for a while as well.”

Lan Jue let out a sigh. “Maybe it really is as you say. Sometimes I do forget she isn’t Hera, it’s happened more than once. Suddenly it’s like she’s here by my side again. I know she’s just a substitute but, deep in my heart, I long for it to be real –

for her to be Hera. But I figured this out quickly. I’ve been keeping my distance.”

“Are you scared you two will develop feelings for one another?”

“Maybe,” Lan Jue said. He found himself growing irrationally agitated at the thought.

Hua Li patted his back comfortingly, and said nothing further. In emotional situations like this, trying to persuade the heart otherwise was a pointless endeavor. The only cure was time enough to figure things out in your own head.

ζ

The foot of Tian Mountain

An excessively fancy verti-car was parked at the base of the towering mountain. Richard, clad in a fine white suit, stood not far off. An arrangement of roses were clutched in his hands.

Suddenly, his eyes grew bright, and his left hand left the flowers to check his moist, greased-back hair. He shuffled forward a few steps, and gently called out: “Qianlin.”

Zhou Qianlin stopped, her expressionless face turned to Richard. “What are you still doing here? I’ve already made our situation quite clear. We could never work, nor would your family allow a soiled woman in to their midst.”

Richard regarded her in silence, sorrow clear in his eyes. “Qianlin,” he finally began, “I have to admit what you said hurt me deeply. When you said what you did, it was like I was drunk. I couldn’t think, but the pain… but I slowly sobered up. I thought about you, about the pressure you had to suffer, the wrongs you endured. What happened wasn’t your fault. The blame lays entirely with that despicable Zeus. It was he who ruined our union, ruined everything. No, you’ve done nothing wrong, and in my eyes you’re still that perfect, pure Zhou Qianlin. Qianlin, my love, my feelings haven’t changed from the first day I met you. My love is just as strong. It doesn’t matter what’s happened. All of that is in the past. In our future, as a man, I will do whatever is in my power to protect you from whatever comes. No one will ever separate us. If you agree, I will persuade my family to throw you the most incredible wedding the universe has known. I’ll bring the whole might of my family to bear, to protect you. You’ll never again suffer the slightest harm.”

Zhou Qianlin looked in to Richard’s eyes, at the sincerity brightly living within them. The rims of her own began to redden.

Suddenly, she almost collapsed as she bent low before him. “Richard, I’m so sorry. I can’t bear to see you like this. I made the wrong choice. I should never have accepted your proposal. If I hadn’t you’d never have suffered all of this trouble. You’re so kind-hearted, suffered so much, all because of me. But I’m so, so sorry Richard. I simply can’t accept. I beg you to forget me.”

She scrambled to her feet and ran from Richard, down the mountain. The young man stood frozen in surprise. He was at a loss, so much that he was struggling to understand what she’d said.

“Here!” Suddenly a voice arose from behind him.

Richard turned his head in time to spy an antique bicycle squealing as it came to a stop. Two gentlemen dismounted, among them the man who’d suffered the same fate as he at the hands of that awful Professor Tan, ‘the Savage Goddess.’

The two moon looked at once another, Lan Jue’s eyes falling

to the roses clutched in Richard’s hands. They then swept to the tearful Zhou Qianlin.

Hua Li looked wide-eyed and open-mouthed at the girl who looked so much like the lost Hera. His large sunglasses slid askew on his straight nose.

She really was a mirror image. It was no wonder A-Jue couldn’t distinguish the two at first. She was nothing short of Hera’s clone! Unlike Hera, she released no significant waves of energy from a discipline – but otherwise they were alike in every way. Of course, Hera also possessed the ability to hide her powers from view as well. He couldn’t fault Lan Jue; were it he who’d seen her first, he’d have mistaken her for Hera as well.

Zhou Qianlin ran directly to Lan Jue, pulling herself on to the back perch of the bicycle. Her voice, thick with sobs, called to him. “Get me out of here.”

“Right.” Lan Jue nodded, shot a glance at Richard, then began pedaling the bicycle down the mountain.

Richard slowly walked to where Zhou Qianlin had made her escape, in a daze. He stopped just at Hua Li’s side.

“So that day, when he said he was there for his cousin… that really was Qianlin he was talking about?”

“Well shit! What am I supposed to do? A-Jue you unabashed sexist!” Hua Li, suddenly aware of his lot, shouted indignantly at the rapidly disappearing figured of Lan Jue and Zhou Qianlin.

“Hey, have you ever been dumped before?” Richard turned his pitiful face towards Hua Li.

Hua Li shoved his sunglasses higher on his nose. “You’re alone in that, brother.”

Richard responded with a sigh. “I was going to give you a lift, but… well, the miserable only seek the company of the like- minded.”

Hua Li’s mood instantly changed. “I have been dumped, actually! A-Jue you rat-bastard… Come on brother, let’s get out of here.” He muttered curses as he made his way towards the verti-car. On the way here he’d spotted no means of public transportation.

ζ

Lan Jue silently pedaled the bicycle, Qianlin bumping along behind. She, too, remained silent. The atmosphere was suffocating. The gentle breeze set her long silken hair to fluttering, brushing against her sad face.

“I’m sorry. I brought all this trouble on you. I swear I’ll keep to my word, and be a competent bodyguard.” At last, Lan Jue broke the uncomfortable silence.

“Richard is a good man. I shouldn’t have hurt him,” Zhou Qianlin muttered, her words barely audible.

“It was I who hurt you both.”

Zhou Qianlin looked at his back. “You’re making up for it.
Stick to your promise, and everything will be fine.”

“Alright. I’ll come get you every day, and bring you to school. While you’re studying, I’ll be there at the ready.” As the words left his mouth, he felt a sense of relaxation flood through him, as though a weight was lifting.

As the words reached Qianlin, even though the two were hardly close, it felt to her as though a gap had widened between them.

They rode in silence for the rest of the trip to the campus. As before, Lan Jue dropped her off at that corner not far from the front gates. Lan Jue watched her go, letting her gain some distance before pushing his bicycle towards the school.

“Lan Jue!” A figure rushed at him from the side, grabbing him by the throat.

“Ach! Hua Li, when did you learn how to magically teleport?!”

“I’ll kill you! I’ll kill you!”

“Quiet! Teachers are looking, I’ll call the teaching affairs office for help! I’ll tear off your disguise! Let go, I can’t breathe!”

Chapter 120: Teacher Benefits?

“Hey Professor Lan, did you hear? In two days the school’s going to separate us in to units and send us on a trip. It’s supposed to be a team-building exercise.” Jin Yan spoke excitedly to Lan Jue as he entered and sat at his desk.

“A trip?” In truth the word was rarely directly at Lan Jue, ever since he was small. Every outing he participated in had purpose, not for fun. He looked back at her blankly.

Jin Yan continued enthusiastically. “Yeah! Every year the school will send us out on a field trip. It’s different every time, with the cost and how long. This is the first one this year. I heard we’ll be leaving Skyfire for it’s closest cousin planet, Taihua. It’s the holiday paradise for all of the Eastern Alliance! It’s supposed to have the most beautiful beaches and lakes. They chose this planet specifically for it’s gorgeous scenery. The legislative assembly of the Eastern Alliance set rules to make sure it doesn’t get overdeveloped, so that it stays a vacation paradise. There’s supposed to be thousands of acres of amazing old-growth forests that are untouched, just chalk-full of beautiful colors and scents and sounds. We electives teachers have relatively fewer classes, so for something as nice as this, it’s certainly a first. We can finally go check it out for ourselves.”

In the face of Jin Yan’s overwhelming excitement, Lan Jue could only smile. Unfortunately, in his condition, it wasn’t conducive to his healing to leave.

“Professor Jin, is it possible to skip the trip?”

She blinked, taken aback. “Of course not. It’s a benefit given by the school, but team-building is a part of it. Only teachers with prior notice and special circumstances are exempt. What is it, you don’t want to go?”

“Oh, no. It’s just I’m so busy lately…”

Jin Yan gave him a playful ‘hmph’. “Two classes a week and you say you’re busy?What’s this class on jewelry you’re teaching tomorrow anyway? I want to come listen again.”

Lan Jue smiled mysteriously. “It’s a secret. You’ll find out tomorrow.”

As ever, the nearby Wang Hongyuan shot a glance at Lan Jue.
His mouth turned in a scornful sneer.

Lan Jue excused himself from the office. Once outside he tapped a number in to his communicator.

“Jin Tao, half an hour after lunch. Tell Tang Xao and meet me at our teaching spot.”

“Got it, Teach,” Jin Tao joyfully responded.

Lan Jue was continuously surprised at this guy. This kid really was insane! The last few times he’d been beaten bloody, and yet he was just as excited as the first time.

Jin Tao certainly was excited, and the reason was simple. He was seeing improvement.

Hua Li had beaten and healed them more times than he could remember that afternoon, so bad he didn’t know what was hurt more by the end – his body or his mind. But this morning when he awoke, he clearly felt as though he’d made a good leap forward. Not just his discipline, but his physical strength and reaction time as well. These new aspects of his training had him completely forget the agony he’d lived through.

As usual, Lan Jue’s meal was a simple one: rice, and vegetables. It was hard to make the plain plainer. Whenever he was forced to eat things less than his expectations, he always chose the simplest fair. After all, adepts at his level were able to assimilate energy from the world around them to act as nourishment. Eating was just the most primitive and original source of energy intake.

After lunch he took a brief walk around the NEU campus. Everywhere he went he spied students, heading this way and that. He didn’t know why, but in this crowded and noisy environment he felt at peace. Comfortable. He found himself growing more and more accustomed to this school as time went on, even came to enjoy it. He almost felt like a teacher, and all was well.

He made his way to the two young gentlemen he called his disciples. Upon finding them, he saw two distinctly different expressions on their faces. Jin Tao was excited, and wasted no time in running forward to greet his teacher. Tang Xiao, on the other hand, was more complicated. There was a thirst for growth in his eyes, but there was also fear.

“So teach, what’re we doing today?” Jin Tao dramatically rolled up his sleeves. He looked almost eager to get beat on.

“Let’s talk first,” Lan Jue said. He patted Jin Tao’s shoulder, and they both walked towards Tang Xiao.

The overweight young man felt a trepidation rise up within him. Though he didn’t know from whence it came, he knew that this was the proverbial ‘calm before the storm.’ The Professor had something up his sleeve.

“Talk? Will talking improve my abilities?” Jin Tao spoke almost without thinking.

Lan Jue slapped his young pupil upside the head, frowning. “What are you in a rush for? ‘Good tools are essential things’ – you need proper preparation before you jump in.”

Jin Tao rubbed the back of his head. But instead of chastisement the look in his eyes was strange. This beating, he felt, was deserved.

“Jin Tao, Tang Xiao, I’ll ask you one more time. Do you truly, unequivocally desire to study under me? I’ll tell you candidly, up till now I haven’t really treated you as my disciples. You’ve only studied with me for a short time, but when we truly get started your methods of cultivation will be ten… a hundred

times more difficult, more painful. So much that you’ll wish you were dead. I can’t guarantee results with this process – in the end, it comes down to your own effort, and tolerance.” Lan Jue spoke earnestly, fixing them each in turn with a steady gaze.

“Professor, I am not afraid. Pain means nothing, only strength. I’m ready to do whatever it takes.” Jin Tao scrambled to answer, without a hint of hesitation. “Don’t think I’m impulsive. I’ve thought very much about this. My dad told me once…

‘In this life you only have a set number of chances. If you grab them when they appear, you’ll succeed. If you don’t, you’ll be doomed to a life of mediocrity.’

I don’t want to die as someone ordinary. I want to be strong. I see how the talented look down on me, and I can’t help but want to beat them. I hate that look, that says because my Talent isn’t as strong as theirs that I’m somehow less. I hate that dismissive scorn.” Jin Tao’s voice was heavy with emotion, full of sincerity.

Lan Jue remained calm in the face of his stirring tirade. “And when you become strong? What then?”

The question took Jin Tao by surprise. He dropped his head and began to think. “When I’m strong…”

Lan Jue didn’t wait for an answer, turning his eyes to Tang Xiao. “And you? Do you still agree to be my student?”

“Professor,” he blurted, “may I first ask what level your Discipline is?”

“Ninth,” he answered simply.

Slap! Tang Xiao’s meaty fist slapped against the palm of his other hand. “I’m ready. Dumb-mutt said it, there are only so many opportunities in life. Everything takes work. Teacher, I’m ready to learn under you.”

Lan Jue responded with an easy smile. “Then answer the same question. When you’re strong, what will you do then?”

Tang Xiao’s response came right away. “Join the army! It’s been my dream since I was small, to be a soldier. Not to boast about being a protector of our land and people, but because I want to surround myself with the strong and capable. You say

strong, but I don’t know how strong. Even then it doesn’t matter, no matter how strong I am I’ll always strive to get better. I don’t know if I’ll ever surpass you, but there’s no better place to get better than the army. My idol has shown me that, the An Lun Supersoldier!”

“A Soldier?” Jin Tao’s eyes lit up. “Nice! When I was small my dad always said I’d never have a future. I’ll be a soldier too! I also want to protect our people and alliance. I’ll go with you when you join. We’ll see which one of us takes out more Northerners. Whadda ya think?”

“Heh, you’ve got it all wrong. You’re too impetuous!” Tang Xiao’s voice was flat, not menacing or teasing.

Lan jue’s smile grew wider. “Not necessarily. Soldiers must be possessed of an indomitable will. For now it looks like the both of you have made improvements, but I warn you – when we begin, if either of you fail to keep up with our training schedule, you’re done. If in the future either of you use what I teach you to do evil, to abuse the weak, I will personally destroy whatever power you have.”

“Yes, sir!” Both shouted to their teacher in one voice.

“Professor,” Jin Tao shouted immediately after, “so what are we going to learn today? As far as I see it, the first time you beat me I saw the biggest improvement, so what do you think? Go for it again?”

“You’re circumstances are special,” Lan Jue said to the eager young man. “For you, we’ll need extreme measures. Because of your weak innate talent, they’ll be needed if you ever hope to be strong. These will be difficult, and it means you’ll have to suffer far worse than Tang Xiao.”

Jin Tao was silent, but eventually spoke up. “So that means that under these extreme measures, I may one day overtake Fatty Tang?”

Lan Jue nodded in affirmation.

Jin Tao shot his rival a cantankerous stare. “Then what are we waiting for? I’m ready any time.”

“If you agree,” Lan Jue said, “then call your sister here. I’ll need to speak with her. This can be dangerous, so she’ll need to know. Maybe not life threatening, but it could very quickly all lead to failure…” he stopped there.

Tang Xiao still felt that fear within him as he watched his teacher. His attention shifted between him and his fellow disciple. Jin Tao wasted no time, agreed, and raced off to find his sister.

“Professor.” Tang Xiao was clearly perturbed.

Lan Jue didn’t answer immediately, instead making his way towards a nearby stone bench and taking a seat. He patted the spot beside him. Tang Xiao answered his teacher’s call and settled beside him. His large backside occupied easily half of the entire bench.

“Tang Xiao, your Talent’s natural ability to grow is very good. As you’ve grown older, your discipline has improved along with you. According to my own observations, perhaps becoming this large really has had some sort of effect. Your ability may very well have undergone a natural evolution. That is to say, with the proper stimulation and work, you could very well become a ninth-level Adept.”

“Huh?” The previously uneasy Tang Xiao now stared wide- eyed at Lan Jue.

Lan Jue grinned at him. “Didn’t expect that, did you.”

Tang Xiao could only nod.

“However what I just said is also true. You’re already over twenty. If you want to reach your full potential at your age, you’re certainly going to undergo some significant hardships. But if you persist, you’ll find that it’ll all be worth it.”

“Teacher,” Tang Xiao timidly offered, “will there be any risk to my life?”

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