Skyfire Avenue Chapter 151-160

Chapter 151: Aftermath

Hua Li followed Chu Cheng to the strange rock. They both had to see with their own yes the result of this treatment. Lan Jue did indeed look like he was going to be fine.

The Doctor pushed passed them to his patient, and placed his hands over his body. Almost immediately the familiar virescent glow encompassed them both. After a few moments of concentration, the Doctor’s surprised voice arose.

“All his meridians are as they should be, no longer broken or tangled. Blood flow is one point five times normal rate, vital signs are good. Skin elasticity about twice as good as it was… and that’s all I can see now. The rest I suppose we’ll discover later. It’s almost inconceivable, I mean his meridians were a mess. Now it’s like nothing ever happened. They  weren’t kidding when they said -”

“A-hm!” The Wine Master’s sudden cough stopped the Doctor from going further.

The Doctor knew his cue, and stepped over to join the other three. “The Jewelry Master is already in much better condition. All he needs now is rest. He’ll wake up on his own after a little

while.”

Hua Li narrowed his eyes, but he did recognize how much better Lan Jue looked. He relaxed visibly with the confirmation there before him. He turned then to the paragon and spoke in deferential tones. “Sir, are you and the Doctor planning to return to Skyfire soon?”

The Wine Master nodded.

“If the Cosmagus would prefer, we could take Poseidon 1.”

“I appreciate it, thanks for taking the trouble.”

Ten minutes later, the group was safely aboard Poseidon 1 as it rose. The ship dissolved in to a brilliant blue light, streaking off towards the heavens, then was gone.

Their escape was quickly followed by the arrival of dozens more ships. The destruction of Taihua was monstrous, and the aftermath would require a great deal of manpower and effort to address. First, of course, would need to be a search and rescue operation for the missing. It would be an exhaustive process to

finalize the list of the dead – and then, the families had to be told, and compensations made.

ζ

The airship shuddered gently as it began its descent.

“Hm?” Tan Lingyun awoke with a start from deep sleep. Her body protested every movement with aching pain and groaning joints that caused her to moan in discomfort.

Her eyes were hazy, like the area around her was covered in a fog, but with each passing moment her vision cleared.

“Where am I?” She suddenly shot up to a sitting position, assailed by the crippling pain in her muscles. She winced against the discomfort, trying to look in all directions at once.

It was clearly the interior of a ship. Empty. Save for herself, it looked like there wasn’t anyone else around. It wasn’t a large vessel, and judging by the interior it was for civilian use.

She patted her forehead, urging her sluggish mind to recall the details of the last few hours. What stood out most among the haze was a towering blue figure. But there was more. Eyes, stately eyes that glowed gold.

Such a powerful mecha! Was that the thing that saved me?

“You’re up?” The voice that greeted her was somewhat curt.

Tan Lingyun turned in time to see a decidedly disheveled Wang Hongyuan exiting the cockpit.

“You? It was you who saved me?” Tan Lingyun’s surprise was anything but concealed. Her expression was incredulous. Was it even possible that this dance instructor was the one who piloted that magnificent mecha?

“No, not me.” Wang Hongyuan’s voice faltered, and his eyes grew distant as though lost in a painful thought.

“Not you… then who?”

“I’m not sure,” he replied. “Some blue mecha just deposited you on to the ship. Then it was gone as quick as it’d come.”

Tan Lingyun’s face fell. She struggled to remember any detail of what occurred, but the more she fought the less she remembered. Only that sapphire machine and those golden eyes.

The reason she stayed behind came back to her all of a sudden. “And Professor Lan?”

Wang Hongyuan hesitated. The briefest flash of sadness darkened his features before he spoke. “I don’t know. We got separated.”

Tan Lingyun, the powder keg that she was, immediately burst in to a rage. “Separated? Didn’t you run out there like an idiot specifically to get him and bring him back? He’s just some man, and you’re supposed to be an Adept with power. You’re telling me you couldn’t even protect a single teacher? You’re as garbage as I’ve always said you were!”

Her sudden outburst took him by surprise, but contrary to their earlier spat the dance instructor did not attempt to refute

her curses. “You’re right,” he muttered.”

“Compared to him, I am garbage. Go, we’ve already arrived on Skyfire and its time to disembark. I take full responsibility for Professor Lan’s disappearance.

Tan Lingyun took a deep calming breath. She spoke again when she regained some measure of composure. “I’m sorry. It wasn’t meant to be directed at you, it’s just with what we saw, if he isn’t here it likely means… I’m just upset. I’m sorry!”

Wang Hongyuan met her apologies with a sad smile. “You aren’t wrong. We’re the lucky ones to get back alive. But I, at least, don’t deserve to be. I am not as courageous as the others who stayed behind to help. After a catastrophe like this, things have become clear.”

Tan Lingyun sorrowfully nodded her head. “Let’s go… there’s still a lot we have to do.”

ζ

“This is the Eastern Alliance News Network, bringing you the

latest information from around the galaxy. We’ve just begun receiving reports from Taihua, where we hear a terrible attack has occurred. Monstrous beings from outside of our galaxy attacked the tourist destination. Preliminary reports say that as many as thirty percent of the visitors lost their lives in the ensuing chaos. This truly was a terrible tragedy for everyone involved. Thankfully a number of stranded and missing tourists have already been found as rescue operations continue. Our thoughts and prayers are with the families of the victims.”

“Satellite video and images from around Taihua were uncovered, revealing a number of heroic individuals who fought the fiends themselves. Undoubtedly their brave deeds saved untold lives. We will continue to look in to the events on Taihua, and the identity of those heroic people. Whoever you are, we salute you.”

“Already we’ve heard of both the North and  Western Alliances calling Chief Minister Zhou to offer their condolences. They’ve sworn to cooperate with our own agencies to try and uncover where these beasts came from, and what exactly they want.”

“The Goby Entertainment group has pledged ten transport ships for use in the search and recovery effort, in addition to their state of the art facilities which they’ve graciously opened

up for use during this catastrophe. This comes with a donation of one hundred million NED which they hope can help in discovering where the aliens came from, and bring some small measure of peace to the bereaved.”

ζ

Jin Yan sat within the electives building, stunned and silent. She stared off in to the distance, with images of Taihua racing through her mind. She still felt like she was locked in that nightmare, unable to free herself from the fear of certain death. Her body was still shaking.

In the whole of the office, there was only her. When they’d returned, it was Wu Junyi’s first order of business to send all the teachers home to rest. Jin Yan, however, didn’t know what do. After what felt like half a day she stirred herself to move. Her feet led her here.

She’d been kept appraised of the events as they unfolded, and knew that the last of their number had come back, Wang Hongyuan and Tan Lingyun. Professor Lan was nowhere to be found.

Is he really gone? When she’d heard, it was like the world went dark. The ring of the class bell chimed in her mind, with his voice calling over the din: “This is nobility!”

That elegance, his impish grin, that noble countenance. They all lingered in her slowly beating heart.

Gone… missing! What about Jin Tao? Where did he bring my brother? With him gone, what about the boy? What am I going to tell our parents?

She sat in the encroaching darkness, lost.

She was roused when the sound of footsteps came from down the hall. Clunk, clunk, clunk.

Immediately her head shot up, grasping at the unlikely hope that she’d see that thin figure rounding the bend and entering the office. Desperately praying she’d face him again.

But it was not to be.

White shirt, black suit, slick black hair. Wang Hongyuan silently entered the electives office.

Without a sound, he walked in, making his way towards the far window where Lan Jue had chosen his desk. He stood before the vacant chair for a time, then dropped to his knees and bowed.

“Wang Hongyuan…” Jin Yan slowly rose to her feet.

The dance instructor rose to his feet and turned to face her.
His face was pale and drawn. “Professor Jin,” he muttered.

Her response came hard and bitter. “Do you really have no hope that Professor Lan will come back alive?”

He stood silently before her, shifting from foot to foot. It was a dozen long seconds before his sunken voice replied. “I can tell you that he was a damn hero. But I’m afraid…”

Jin Yan’s eyes were red and swollen. “Whether or not he’s a hero isn’t important. I’m only interested in whether or not he’ll be coming back!”

Wang Hongyuan said nothing further. His own eyes were red from tears. The Etiquette teacher’s final words before they parted were still fresh in his memory.

Beep, beep, beep! Jin Yan shook with a start as the communicator on her wrist vibrated. She looked down out of pure habit, but was met with an unfamiliar number.

Still, she answered.

“Hello, who is this?” Jin Yan fought valiantly to get her voice under control, forcing the sadness down.

“Hello Professor Yan. I was hoping you could help me ask for leave. I’m afraid I’ll need a few days of rest before I can return to work.” The voice that greeted her on the other end of her communicator sounded tired and worn.

She looked at the contraption on her wrist like it was made of snakes. When she did talk, her voice was several octaves louder than she intended.

“Professor Lan?!”

Hearing her cries Wang Hongyuan rushed to her side. He stared at the number with eyes wide as saucers.

“It’s me. After helping where I could I took another shuttle back. I’m already back on Skyfire. Please tell Director Wu and the others not to worry over me. I’ll be back to work in a few days.

She couldn’t help it. The tears she’d been fighting came unbidden to her eyes and rolled down her pretty cheeks. Only these were tears of a different origin. And as her body shook it was not from fear or sadness, but joy and relief.

Wang Hongyuan grabbed her wrist and pulled it towards him. “Lan Jue, it’s really you? You really aren’t dead?”

Lan Jue’s response was a tepid one. “Disappointed?”

Wang Hongyuan scowled at the communicator. “Why didn’t you let us know earlier?!”

“What’s this about,” Lan Jue challenged. He sounded uncertain.

The dance teacher was quiet, a flood of emotion crossing his face before settling on a small smile. “I’m just glad you’re alright!” With that, he cut the connection, then with as much force and ferocity as a thunder strike he grabbed Jin Yan up in a hug.

Jin Yan yelped. Her tears had stopped, but she heard the choked sobs coming from her shoulder.

“He’s alive… alive. Thank whoever’ll listen the bastard made it! Hah! He made it!”

Chapter 152: Lan Jue’s Uncertainty

Lan Jue was propped up in one of Poseidon 1’s spacious and comfortable lounge chairs. He had come to about an hour earlier, but still felt out of sorts.

Poseidon 1 had already entered Skyfire orbit by this point. It would be perhaps another hour before they were on the ground. He’d used Hua Li’s communicator earlier to get in contact with Jin Yan – hers was the only number from the NEU staff he could remember.

Wang Hongyuan, this guy… A smile crept across Lan Jue’s face.

He turned his head and looked at the Doctor, sleeping fitfully nearby. He shook his head, deeply impressed.

He had no idea the young physician possessed such talent in healing. At the time he could feel the cold grip of death reaching out for him. He could sense his own body and the damage it had been dealt; the broken bones, the fractured meridians, the injured organs. After the decoction, he certainly should have died. Just the fact he was still breathing was a miracle. But here he was…

The golden tint that had overcome him after taking the potion remained, but it had dimmed considerably. Now, only a closer look would reveal something out of the ordinary. It became more apparent, however, if the skin was palpated.

His various meridians and collaterals were firm and unobstructed, in better condition than they had been for years. The benefit extended all the way to his Core, which was safe and stable in the hollow of his chest. Shadows of golden lightning still hung around it, but there was no danger. He’d been awake only an hour, but he could feel himself improving rapidly. Already he gathered he was about halfway to total recovery. All in all he couldn’t be healthier – not a scratch remained from his earlier fight with Michael or his time on Taihua. Even the secondary effects of the Fantascia Genetica decoction were absent.

Could this be because of the Genetica? Could it have remolded him after he survived the initial rush of power? But that would simply be too amazing to fathom. The Western Alliance have had this technology for an age, but their research never uncovered anything like this. So the more practical answer was that the Doctor somehow brought him back from the very brink of death.

The questions rattled around in Lan Jue’s brain.

Unfortunately, he couldn’t get an answer out of anyone. Chu Cheng and Hua Li claimed the Doctor had completed his treatment before they arrived. The Doctor himself was asleep. The Wine Master would only tell him it was a miracle.

It was quite the damn miracle.

“We’re about to encounter atmosphere. Please return to your seats and fasten your seat belts.” The electronic voice filled the cabin and shook Lan Jue from his reverie. The smile on his face spread further.

Whatever the causes he was still breathing, and the experience was certainly something. Going through it brought him a strange sense of peace. Perhaps this was part of a new beginning, a fresh start. There was still so much in the universe for him to enjoy. Not to mention, acting the hero felt pretty good. He was starting to understand why his big brother had stayed in the army all these years. He’d gotten a taste for what it was like to be a guardian.

He lifted his left hand as he pondered, and stared at his palm. The slightest hint of a purple stone stuck out, no more than a centimeter. Occasionally bolts of golden lightning would flicker in its depths.

The Phylactery Stone! Already the power gem was becoming a part of him, inexorably tied to his life force, like it’s been there all along. The frightening power of the Genetica – the power that catapulted him in to the realm of the Paragons – was safely contained within. If he concentrated, he could feel maddening fury of it.

What he owed the Doctor couldn’t be rectified with simple things, not just for saving his life but all the other positive side- effects he’d accrued here. He had just been saved from the brink of death – good things were sure to follow. The stored energies in the phylactery were only secondary, for there remained the protomorphic abilities he’d gained while a Paragon. Of course he wasn’t a real Paragon, not yet, so the powers were weak. But they were there. Whether when employing his Ascension or achieving Paragon status in the future, what he’d lived through would certain prove to be invaluable.

Hhrrumnnn… Poseidon 1 shuddered gently as they struck atmosphere. Half an hour later they were in the Public Hangar, with a private Gobi cars already waiting for them.

“So how are you feeling, A-Jue?” Hua Li rose to his feet and stretched, dispelling the travel fatigue.

Lan Jue smiled. “Can’t get any better than where I’m at. Maybe too good, actually. I’d really be curious to know how it is I’m not a cripple.”

Hua Li’s response was sans his usual flippant demeanor. “Best not to look a gift horse in the mouth. You have no idea, when we couldn’t get you on your communicator we were sure you were dead. Luckily the Cosmagus and the Doctor were around to save you. How about the next time you go out to handle business, you keep your suicidal impulses to a minimum?”

Lan Jue lifted his hands in front of his defensively. “Alright, I concede. I’m still in recovery, don’t go teaching me  any lessons.”

Hua Li stuffed his hands in his pockets, and flipped his fop of blue hair dismissively. “Fine, I have to go prepare for the concert anyway. If I miss any more rehearsals, I’m afraid Mo Xiao will bite me. Alright Chu Cheng, this bastard’s your responsibility now.”

Chu Cheng chortled. “I’d heard from A-Jue before that there was this old coot of a Wine Master on the Avenue who operated out of a Gothic-style winery. I’ve been wanting to take a look for myself since forever. It’s supposed to be full to the rafters with

excellent spirits. What kind of drunkards would we be if we didn’t raid the place at least once?”

The Wine Master, himself just arrived from a nearby seat, stopped in his tracks to glare at the red-haired young man.

Lan Jue shot Chu Cheng a warning glance, but the airhead didn’t notice. He had to cough a few times before his fellow mercenary got the hint.

The Wine Master clapped a hand on to Chu Cheng’s shoulder before taking the lead and exiting the airship. His pleasant voice wafted towards them from over his shoulder. “The Gothic Winery welcomes you.”

“Eh…” Chu Cheng may have been an airhead, but that didn’t mean he was stupid. He slowly turned his head to stare at Lan Jue, eyes wide.

“Don’t tell me the Cosmagus…”

Lan Jue grinned, apparently pleased with his lot. He patted Chu Cheng on the shoulder as well. “I’m not sure if I should call

you homie or halfwit. Think about it, if you’re planning to store fine wines from the former area, wouldn’t interspacial abilities come in rather handy?”

“Ah, I guess you’re right.”

Hua Li suddenly interjected. “A-Jue, Jin Tao’s situation is good. Normal. He’s currently in Deep Sleep, triggered from the genetic changes. I have Mika monitoring him. You should go talk to all your ladies, actually. Are they aware of what happened on Taihua?”

This caused Lan Jue to laugh. “Of course not. If they did I’d already be getting an earful.”

Chu Cheng’s shot him a cool grin. “No? I’m pretty sure they do. I just heard the recent news reports, they’re even streaming pictures and video from Taihua satellites. They’re even saying stuff about these heroes that were there for the fight. Are you sure they didn’t get any footage of Thor? On top of that your communicator’s been offline. How do you think they’d react if they couldn’t get a hold of you?”

“W-well…” Lan Jue stopped, his face changing to a look a

distress as he snatched Hua Li’s communicator and dialed in a set of numbers.

“Boss, are you ok?” Mika’s voice arose from the other end.

“fine, fine. I’m already back on Skyfire. See you in a little while.” He was working hard to keep any fatigue or worry from his voice. He sounded the very spirit of ease.

“The boss is back,” she said to someone next to her.

“Long live the boss!” A second perky female voice answered.

He didn’t expect her voice to change to a threatening growl so quickly, but when she spoke again he could feel the anger. “So you sneak off to Taihua for a vacation, run in to this catastrophe, and then lose your communicator. Do you have any idea how worried we were? We’re already aboard Zeus 1. Any later and we’d already be on our way to Taihua.”

“I’m sorry, forgive me!” Lan Jue chuckles sheepishly. “My communicator was broken in the scuffle. I’m fine, really. Perfect condition. Oh, and then that means you guys are here at

the hangar. I am too, on Hua Li’s Poseidon. Let me go out and join you.”

Chu Cheng couldn’t hide his mirth, and chuckled heartily at Lan Jue’s side. “That’s what you get for getting enjoyment from other people’s misfortunes! At least you’re treating those ladies well. By the way, Hua Li was telling me their full on babes. Xiuxiu’s off the table, but you definitely should introduce me to those other three. Mmm mm.”

“Get lost!”

Despite Lan Jue’s desperate hopes, not a single happy face met him when he joined his Amazons. Even Xiuxiu, the sweetest and warmest of the bunch, stared at him with a cool indifference.

“Ugh, A-Li! Look, we just have the one verti-car. Too tight. How about we call another to come take me back.” Lan Jue sounded guilty, a dog with his tail between his legs.

“Boss!” As a single, pissed off unit the girls stamped their feet and glared at him, hands on their hips.

“Forget I said anything.” Lan Jue hastily bade farewell to Hua Li and Chu Cheng before clambering in to his own verti-car.

Whoosh! In a flash they were on their way back to the safety of the Avenue.

Chu Cheng watched him go, then blinked like he was slapped in the face. “This guy, no humanity! He just left me here!”

“Right?!” Hua Li glowered at the rapidly vanishing verti-car. “Come on, I’ll take you in.”

Chu Cheng answered in lilting tones. “How about you eh? Other than Mo Xiao, you got any hotties following you around? Just a little eye candy, amiright? That guy there’s trying to build a harem, I tell you. Worse, it’s a harem he doesn’t even use. What a waste! He obviously doesn’t realize that waste and corruption are man’s greatest sins.”

“See ya!” Hua Li clapped his hands, then turned on a heel and made to leave.

“H-hey now, A-Li, you can’t just throw me away here! Look, I

didn’t say nothin’. Worse comes to worse I suffer a dry spell for a few days, right? Wait up…”

“Get lost!”

ζ

Within the McKelly P12 Verti-Car

The atmosphere in the car was stifling. Mika and Lin Guoguo sat up front, while Lan Jue sat between Xiuxiu and Ke’er.

All four women stared ahead with sour expressions. Not a word was spoken.

Lan Jue wanted to say something, but every time he opened his mouth he couldn’t summon the words. All he could do was shut his eyes and try to nap.

Chapter 153: The East’s Sorrow

The high-altitude verti-car steadily made its descent to the southern parking lot behind Skyfire Avenue. The two doors spread open like mechanical wings, and four attractive women exited.

“Stop faking boss, we’re back.” Mika called to Lan Jue, lazily sitting in the back seat with his eyes shut. She still didn’t sound pleased with him.

“Eh… oh, we’re here! I’m so tired, I’m just going to go right in and head to my room. Just so so tired.” Lan Jue pulled himself from the car and groggily stumbled towards the Avenue.

Zeus’ four amazons naturally fell in to formation around him, placing their boss in the center and walking back towards the shop.

Inwardly Lan Jue was fighting a smile. Dismissing the ladies this time would prove to be a daunting task.

The door to the jewelry shop opened, and he once again found himself in that world of sapphire blue. Lan Jue stopped and

raised his hands in a show of capitulation. “Alright, ladies. This is all my fault. Whatever you say is how it’ll be, and I’ll accept my punishment without question. Ok?”

Xiuxiu’s eyes were red, and wet from tears. “How could you be like this, boss? Even with your injuries you still sneak out. Then this happens, you’re out there all alone and what are we supposed to do?”

“Don’t cry Xiuxiu, don’t cry.” Lan Jue hurried to comfort her.

Ke’er was next, and stuck out her ruby lips petulantly. “You’re the one talking about punishment. We just want to talk about what happened and be clear.”

“That’s right,” Mika’s strict voice interjected.

Lan Jue looked towards Guoguo to save him from the angry ladies, but was met with her pained expression.

“So what do you want me to do,” he said helplessly.

Ke’er moved to his side, dragging a stool behind her. She forced Lan Jue to sit. Mika saddled up before him. “Three rules. Agree and we’ll forget all about what happened today, otherwise… otherwise we’re all leaving. After all, if you can’t even consider your own safety, you can’t be expected to take care of us. If that’s the case what are we still doing here? Right ladies?”

“That’s right!” The other three women chimed in.

“What is this a mutiny?!” Lan Jue glared at the four of them in turn before rising to leave. However, before he could get far the four women converged on him. Four sets of sad, pained, angry eyes pinned him in place. Under their unified assault his indignation was useless. He sat back down.

“Alright, fine. Speak your piece,” he grumbled.

Mika continued. “First, we must always be appraised of your whereabouts.”

“Second, no matter where you go, at least one of us must be with you at all times,” Xiuxiu added.

Ke’er was next. “The third we’ll hold in reserve. If something else crops up that needs dealing with, we’ll revisit this rule.”

Lin Guoguo was last. “In conclusion, I hope you understand that your life isn’t your own. What happens to you has an effect on all of us. You absolutely mustn’t ever dump us again to go galavanting. If you want to see us cry, then go right ahead. But that’s when we leave you forever. We’re here for you the same way you’re here for us, so if there really is a problem you have to face we’ll be there to look after you. Like we said when facing the Archangels, we live and die together.”

“That’s right!”

“You heard it.”

“Mmhm.”

It would take far more than any normal man possessed to stand against the pressure these four Amazons were putting on Lan Jue. He almost felt himself breaking out in a cold sweat. “Ok, you got it. I agree completely, settled?”

Mika towered over him. “Take this seriously!”

Lan Jue wordlessly and vehemently nodded his head. Finally, the slightest hint of a smile spread across her face.

“Long live Zeus and the Amazons!” Ke’er shot her fists in the air, then high-fived Lin Guoguo. Xiuxiu’s teary eyes dried instantly. Mika stood there looking infinitely pleased with herself, hands on her hips. “Remember boss, a real man stands by what he says!”

Lan Jue was helpless, and simply sat looking at the four victorious ladies. But despite his dressing down, in the depths of his heart he was proud and appreciative.

Ah, home. Indeed, this was his home. And these women weren’t his maids or servants, they were more like sisters. With them near, this was home.

Ke’er tittered as she bounced happily to Lan Jue’s side. “You look tired boss, let me give you a back rub.”

Lin Guoguo followed her. She snapped up Lan Jue’s left hand.

“I’ll relax your hands.”

Xiuxiu wordlessly moved to his right, getting to work on his arm.

Mika dropped to a knee and shot him a charming smile. “Foot rub?”

Lan Jue’s voice was serious when he addressed them. “I will not be fooled by your sugar-coated bullets!”

One minute later.

The sound of fitful snoring filled the shop.

“The boss really was tired.” Ke’er’s fingers danced from Lan Jue’s shoulders up to his head. She gently kneaded his scalp.

Xiuxiu replied, her voice terse. “Those beasts on Taihua must have been terribly dangerous, and we still don’t know what happened. It’s clear he doesn’t want to talk about it. From what the news is saying, it must have been terrible.”

Lin Guoguo sniffed in agitation, though the look she shot Lan Jue was gentle. “He stayed back to help save the others, otherwise how would his abilities have recovered like this. If he wasn’t already hurt those monsters wouldn’t have stood a chance.”

“Not of that matters to me,” Mika sad harshly. “He’s my boss, I want him to be safe and at ease. If he died, I’d probably bury myself with him.” Her hands inadvertently increased their pressure as she massaged his leg.

Lan Jue stirred somewhat. The Stygian Succubus quickly reigned in her anger, and her grip softened.

ζ

A bloodcurdling roar tore through the dense forest.

“This is Gamma Unit. Gamma Unit reporting. We’ve encountered some sort of orangutan-like monster. It’s quick, and very strong. Our laser rifles aren’t doing anything. We need some support, send backup right away.”

“Wait, look out. Ah! Com-“

A series of pained screams arose. All was dim, chaotic.

A dazzling, clear blue figure appeared then. In the blink of an eye the purplish beast was burnt black as coal. It didn’t even have time to scream.

“Ah! What the hell was that?! A mecha! A huge one. We’re saved, saved! Hell yeah! These must be the reinforcements.”

**

“Damn! Look up there, what the hell is that? Watch it, it’s coming straight for our ship.”

“No good. Look there, that ship’s been wrecked. It’s coming right for us. Full speed ahead. Full speed!”

“It’s too late!”

Suddenly, a resplendent flash of golden light washed over them. A dazzling sapphire figure thundered by, followed by a monster’s pained cry.

**

The maroon mecha moved with terrifying speed. It vanished in a flicker of sanguine color, appearing again a moment later in another spot. The monster it was facing was cut asunder. The machine continued on without any hesitation, like it was duty- bound.

A group of trembling children stood below it, none older than perhaps ten. Another group of adults were no far off, lying in a pool of blood. It looked as though they had died warding the children from something.

The purple monstrosity collapsed to the floor with a thud.

As the mists faded, the dark red mecha became more distinct. It reached out its large mechanical hand and gathered the kids together.

“Mama-!”

“Daddy!!”

Their shrill cries for help hung in the thick air of the forest.
Unfortunately, their parents could no longer protect them.

**

The images shone on every eye, three-dimension and stark. As the news images flickered from the holographic emitters, the heart of every on-looker was heavy with terror over what they saw.

Time and again the red and blue mecha appeared before them, fighting off beasts and protecting tourists. The most frequently spied was the sapphire mecha, but it was too fast for the satellite images to get a clear picture. Still it’s flashing bolts of lightning were unmistakable, and with each burst of energy another monster was slain, and another group saved from certain death.

The news also showed another, a young woman covered in green light, who battled the creatures with nothing but a

machete.

And then the golden man, with blades of light in his hands that ended whatever beast crossed his path.

Most striking, however, was the last few images. They revealed an enormous colossus, far larger than all the others. It writhes in pain as a quiet silver light slowly carved it in to pieces.

Viewers stared wide-eyed and open-mouthed as the images flashed past them. They fought to watch through misty eyes and choking sobs.

The videos and images continued for another half an hour before they finally stopped. They were replaced with the pretty face of a female news anchor.

“What you’re witnessing is an unprecedented disaster, one that invariably fills each of us with a deep sadness. However, this great tragedy has also shown us the might of the human spirit. Several great heroes arose when they were needed. They charged in to the enemy ranks, fearless despite the odds against them. They pressed on to save the lives of their fellow man.

This includes our brave fighting men and women of Taihua who are all worthy of our respect and admiration. Unfortunately, our recent reports reveal that seventy percent of the soldiers garrisoned on Taihua have been lost. Seventy percent of our righteous protectors fallen, having given their lives for our brothers and sisters of the Eastern Alliance, and in defense of our sovereign territory.”

“Other than those brave soldiers, there were more heroes who chose to remain behind and fight against the  invaders,  who brought great power to bear against our enemies. In light of this information, our station is launching an effort to uncover the identity of these courageous individuals. As we’ve seen, not all of these great saviors managed to escape Taihua with their lives, but it is our duty to find the ones  that  did and  thank  them  for their service. At the very least, they should be showered with flowers and applause. I’m sure those that were saved by their actions would like to  personally  give  their  thanks.  To  our heroes, your actions bring  you  glory  that  rings  through  all  of the three alliances!” [1]

[tl: [1] = As a foreigner, this news report might sound a little strange. Very flowery and dramatic. I’d thought about ‘drying out’ the language a little to make it seem more in line with what we might expect a news report about a national tragedy to be, but in reality channels in china like CCTV and Xinhua – mouthpieces of the government – deliver reports just like this. ]

Her voice rose in power and emotion as she spoke, with the images of the mechas and soldiers flashing continuously on the large screen behind her.

“As we near the end of this broadcast, I’d like to say – I’m still single. If any of you valiant young men are hearing this, I’d like to take you out for a drink.” As she spoke, she rose to her feet to point directly at the streak of blue light that soared passed the screen behind her!

Chapter 154: Ninth Level Seventh Rank!

Lan Jue sat cross-legged upon the bed, his chest rising and falling with each breath as he meditated. He focused his power through him, following it as it filled every corner of his body. He watched carefully for signs of injury.

In truth this was his third check, and so far he was surprised to find not a hint of trouble. No wounds, no hidden dangers.

It was like he was reborn! Without any training or cultivation, he was back to peak condition with only a few hours’ rest. What’s more, he felt like he may have even gotten stronger.

A breakthrough? Once an Adept got to ninth level, each subsequent improvement came with a considerable leap in power.

He felt as though even his Discipline was gentler, that was the greatest indication. Thunderbolt and lightning were well known as among the more destructive and explosive Disciplines. However, as the Adept’s power grew he was able to distill the Discipline in to liquid form. This would stabilize it without sacrificing any power. This was, in truth, the goal he’d been chasing for ages.

Making the jump from ninth level six rank to ninth level seventh rank was like traversing a glorious threshold. It was important not just due to the effect it had on an Adept on his road to perfection. It was also the bane of many a Talent with dreams of being a Paragon.

Lan Jue was indeed happy with the discovery, but he had his doubts about the whole thing.

The phylactery stone embedded in his hand was an s-rank gem, and for good reason. Still it’s benefits did not lie in improving or enhancing an Adept’s powers. So if not the gem, then the Doctor. The young man brought him back from the brink of death, and improved his overall ability. But that would be incredible, miraculous in fact. Then could this mean that the jump in power came from him alone? No – no, it couldn’t be that simple. No matter how he tried there were no more answers forthcoming from either the Wine Master or the Doctor.

It also wasn’t wise or proper to interrogate them further. The Wine Master alone must have expended an obscene number of power gems to come to his rescue. That was the only way he’d able to stride from one planet to another like he claimed. Hell, the only time he’d ever heard of anything like that being performed before was in old stories!

Regardless of the how, the fact of the matter was he was stronger. And now, that meant things could stabilize. Even better, his physical condition was better than ever. Before, where his meridians glowed with only a dull gold light, now they shone brilliantly. This was a change Lan Jue only expected at around ninth level ninth rank. His bones and organs weren’t spared the metamorphosis either. He felt like he’d not only survived, but came out like a jackpot winner.

Three days later.

Knock knock knock! The gentle sounds of someone rapping on the door filled the room.

The golden aura around Lan Jue slowly dissipated. He stood and pulled open the door.

Xiuxiu’s pretty face greeted him. When she saw him in his pajamas, her face adopted a sense of concern. “Boss, are you alright?”

He answered with a smile. “Take it easy, I’m fine. In fact, I’m better than fine.”

The uncertainty melted from her face, replaced with a sweet smile. “That’s good. The Wine Master asked that I invite you to visit him.”

Lan Jue nodded. “Alright, I’ll go meet him.”

“And we got your communicator repaired,” she continued, handing it to him.

Lan Jue snapped it to his wrist and beamed her a smile. “Xiuxiu, ever so thoughtful.”

His eyes glanced down to the screen, where he discovered no small number of messages; Chu Cheng, Hua Li, Wu Junyi, Jin Yan and others.

Chu Cheng’s message was something about helping Hua Li prepare for his concert – though God only knew what that waste of space was doing to ‘help.’ Wu Junyi was asking over his health, imploring he take a few more days of rest and reorganization before returning to class.

Hua Li’s message contained specific information concerning

the concert. Three days from now, or so the message assured.

“Let me go change,” Lan Jue said after reading through them.

“Sure. Uh, and boss… maybe by the way take a shower,” Xiuxiu replied softly.

“Eh…? Do I have a scent?”

Did he ever. In fact, he hadn’t washed himself since getting back from Taihua. He’d been focusing primarily on getting better.

Half an hour later.

The familiar chime of Zeus’ Jewelry Store rang as a refreshed and put-together Lan Jue exited the store. He wore a blue shirt and black pants, and walked down the avenue with an agile gait. The fresh air was revitalizing. He stopped long enough to take a deep, long breath so that it filled every part of him before making his way towards the Gothic Winery.

He pushed the door open and stepped inside. He was greeted by Eva, who smiled welcomingly. “Ah, we’ve been expecting you, Jewelry Master. The Wine Master is in the tasting room waiting for you.”

“Alright.” He nodded, then made his way inside.

Today, the Wine Master was clad in a brown formal suit. He sat quietly at the head of the tasting room’s giant table. A bottle of red wine waited in front of him.

Lan Jue walked to his side without any pomp or ceremony, pulled out a chair, and took a seat. He glowered disappointedly at his host. “Just one bottle?”

The old man shot him a disapproving glance. “And when do you plan on delivering that Conti you owe me?”

Lan Jue blinked. “Owe you? You were being serious?”

“What do you think,” came the Paragon’s answer.

The younger man chortled sheepishly, revealing a row of pearly white teeth. “I guess I owe so much it’s just not registering.”

The Wine Master reacted with a smile of his own. “No rush. In fact, you may just have an opportunity to pay it all back. We’ll talk about it.”

“What is it?”

“Your punishment, of course,” the Wine Master replied.

“Punishment?” Lan Jue was genuinely taken by surprise. “Why am I being punished?”

The Wine Master glowered through his explanation. “Because your antics nearly cost Skyfire Avenue dearly. Do you think something like that warrants punishment? The cost in powergems that were consumed for me to teleport to another planet you can owe me, we’ll call it part of the job, but your carelessness almost led to the death of a Skyfire Councilman. That must be answered for.”

Lan Jue smirked. “Somehow I feel like I’m going to end up owing you something else.”

“You think this is something disregarded to easily,” the Wine Master asked. “Ever since you decided to become a Councilman, you became part of a team. Sometimes being a team member means receiving, but it also means you’re available to back the others up when they need it. Otherwise what’s the point is Skyfire Avenue? Our organization is loosely established, yes, but we help and protect every Adept under our collective wing. As for this recent matter, if you’d have informed us right away of the situation on Skyfire I’d have made my way there at once. You wouldn’t have needed to take that decoction, and all of this trouble could have been avoided. And even more lives could have been saved.”

Lan Jue listened in silence, his face becoming serious as the gravity of his decision became clear.

The Wine Master went on. “In the future I hope you remember your role. If there is a problem you can’t handle on your own, the first thing you should do is call on the Avenue. We’ll do all we can to help.”

Lan Jue’s serious countenance broke in to an appreciative

grin. “I hadn’t expected someone to almost literally move space and time to deal with this. I honestly didn’t expect the Avenue to react any faster than the East’s reinforcements. I thought the only option was for me to face it on my own. Still you’re right, and in the future I’ll certainly let the Avenue know first thing, if there’s a problem I can’t handle. I’ll accept any punishment you deem necessary.”

The Wine Master nodded approvingly. “In this aspect at least, you’re a reputable man. Too impulsive on occasion, but your ability to learn and self-direction are a step above our average member. It’s important that we recognize our own failings, and work to correct them. Once our little discussion is finished, we’ll begin by revoking your status as a Councilman. You’ll be put on suspension. In addition, when the Avenue comes calling for assistance you must offer it unconditionally. If and when that happens, you’ll regain your Council seat upon completion of the task.”

“Very well,” Lan Jue agreed without hesitation. “By the way, Wine Master, how is the Doctor doing? Unfortunately, I don’t have any s-ranked gems on hand to offer in payment. It may be a little while.”

“Not something you need to worry about just now,” the Wine Master replied. “The Avenue will see to compensating him for

his time and effort. It was necessary for what we needed, and so the Avenue will assume responsibility for the cost in your place. If you still feel the need to repay him, you can when you have a power gem of suitable quality to offer. Or perhaps you can give him a cut of your store’s revenue.”

Lan Jue thought about it for a moment. “Allow me to handle this myself. The store is being taken care of largely by Mika and the other girls, and they hold sixty percent of the stock. I can’t simply make a decision without their input. Nor can I expect them to pay my debts.”

“Up to you,” the Wine Master answered. “There are still a few more things we need to discuss which concern you. For instance, the imminent arrival of the Dark Tower and Pontiff’s Castle’s representatives. Our most recent reports suggest the Pontiff and Satan might come themselves.”

“What?” Lan Jue’s eyes widened at the information, slivers of lightning arcing behind his lids. He hadn’t forgotten the sins of the Pontiff and his people. After all, things on Taihua would have been very different if he hadn’t had been injured in his battle with Michael.

Now they were coming to his home turf. It was time they had

a serious discussion.

The Wine Master continued. “The Keeper went himself to call on the Pontiff about what happened. Used it to coerce the Castle’s Paragon. The Pontiff came to us afterwards about diffusing the conflict. Is this something you can do?”

Lan Jue’s brows furrowed at the thought, clearly pondering the matter. If it wasn’t for the crisis he’d encountered on Taihua, he’d absolutely refuse outright. Lan Jue wasn’t one to hold a grudge, but this was different. They had knowingly laid a trap for one of his family, planned to kill her. If he didn’t seek revenge for something like that, he couldn’t call himself Zeus.

But after everything that happened – after the Doctor and Wine Master spent so much to save him – his thinking changed. Skyfire Avenue’s needs were more important to him now. He had to think of things from a different point of view, now. What would benefit the Avenue most?

What’s more, with the events of Taihua behind him it was time to look at all things differently. At the end of the day, the Adepts of the Castle and Tower were all people. There were differences that needed handling, certainly, but in the face of this danger to all of humanity it was a small thing.

“I am willing to do this for the Avenue, and defer to the Council’s decision.” Lan Jue nodded firmly, fixing the Wine Master with his gaze.

Chapter 155: The Benefit Concert

The Wine Master broke in to laughter. He lifted his right hand and, with a small motion, a shimmering crystal glass appeared on the table before Lan Jue. It looked handmade, of sophisticated and rare craftsmanship.

The Wine Master lifted the bottle set before him. He tipped it over the glass until two fingers of wine sloshed within.

Lan Jue watched the display, his eyes bright. “So is this my reward for capitulating?”

“That’s right.”

Lan Jue lifted the glass and swirled its contents, watching as the rich red liquid swung around in a clockwise direction. He dropped his hand and took a wiff. “Very fine. I quite like the Leoville Las Cases. Certainly worthy of being called the best of the Bordeaux Super Seconds.”

“What year, do you recon,” the Wine Master tested quietly.

Lan Jue took a tentative sip, sloshing the fluid around his mouth. The pungent wine rolled around, covering the sides and tip of his tongue, down to the base before slipping down his throat.

Lan Jue hesitated, and frowned. “The Leoville is among the more balanced Bordeaux wines across the years. They’re all quite good, so it comes down to which ones are exquisite, and which ones aren’t quite as wonderful. But this one seems… boring, bland. Thin aftertaste. I can’t place a specific year, but this must absolutely have been produced in the seventies of the former era. The seventies were the worst years for Bordeaux. Only the 1970 and 1975 bottles were acceptable. This wine isn’t one of those. So one of the other eight years, then. You really are stingy! This is definitely among the lowest quality Leoville there are. Even compared to a village wine.”

The Wine Master clapped his hands in approval. “Good. Your analysis was very good. But you’re here drinking my wine, so what is there to loathe? This particular bottle is from 1972. It hadn’t been stored well, and as such is on the verge of going bad. I figured if we didn’t drink it now, we never would. Older wines have a specific taste all their own, you can take larger mouthfuls.”

Lan Jue smiled. “Drinking is certainly better than not

drinking. So other than this business with the West’s Paragons, where are we on your search for the product of the Three Masters?”

“Wait a few days after the Castle’s visit. I’m still gathering information about it. We’re waiting for the Clairvoyant to come up with something as well. There likely will be some trouble in whole matter, but success will mean quite the benefit. I really do hope the quality and skill of these masters will have been retained after all these years.”

Lan Jue nodded. “I have my doubts, truth be told. They’re not masters, but the product of. As for us what problem could we encounter? They’re wine makers, aren’t they? Not powerful Adepts.”

“We’ve never met them, who’s to say what they’re like? In the end I trust the Clairvoyant’s visions. Like recently with you, his visions claimed the situation would be more threatening than dangerous. But he knows the state of things, and how they can change. A person’s destiny can change as time marches inexorably forward. In the end all we can do is face it with energy and positivity.”

The Wine Master paused then, and snorted gently. “There

isn’t very much left in the realm of ‘curious’ that holds my attention any longer. However this, looking for the Masters and their progeny, has always been a dream of mine. Whenever I think about it, think about chasing after this dream, I get more excited than I’ve felt for a long time. And the closer we get, the more it seems the masters might even still be with us.”

“What?” Lan Jue shot to his feet, nearly overturning the crystal glass in front of him.

“That’s impossible. Nearly all of the Three Masters were born in the twentieth century of the Former Era.  The  nineteen thirties, more or less. It’s been over two hundred years, almost three. Our genetic technology now is ages ahead of where they were, and even now a person only lives to about a hundred and fifty. How could there possibly still be a Master among us?”

The Wine Master shrugged. “At the moment it’s a guess, but that doesn’t mean it’s an impossibility. Let me ask, how long does a Paragon live?”

Lan Jue shook his head. “I should ask you. I haven’t reached that level. How would I know?”

“In reality it’s different for each Paragon, in accordance with their own situations,” the Wine Master said, in answer to his own question. “But I can tell you that if a Paragon truly cherished their life, they could employ their own protomorphic powers to delay the problems that come with old age. It’s not impossible.”

Lan Jue looked at him with a curious glint in his eye. “So you’re saying if these masters were Paragons, then…”

“We can’t ignore the possibility. However, this is all still in the realm of conjecture. More information is needed to uncover the truth. At least it’s got your attention, no?”

Lan Jue chortled. “I was a mercenary. A spirit of adventure comes with the territory. I almost can’t wait to get started.”

The Wine Master nodded. “If everything from here on out goes smoothly, we could embark in a month and a half. As for this matter with you and the West’s Adepts, don’t worry. The Avenue will make sure you aren’t given the short end of the proverbial stick. If they’re truly interested in burying the hatchet, they’ll need to show sufficient sincerity.”

Lan Jue sniffed a laugh, draining his glass in one gulp. “Then I’ll leave the issue to you. Let me have some more wine – two fingers only equates to a few mouthfuls.”

The Wine Master’s face betrayed a hint of disgruntled resignation. “I don’t know why I never make no persona non grata here like I always threaten.”

Beep beep beep! Lan Jue’s communicator cut the conversation short.

A message.

Come for dinner tonight. Short and simple, but it brought a smile to Lan Jue’s face.

The Win Master’s voice intruded. “The Gourmet?”

Lan Jue looked up at him. “How’d you know?”

The old man laughed. “Of course because he invited me as well. There’s a few hours yet before dark, let’s finish this glass

and you can head back to your store.” As he spoke he poured once again in to Lan Jue’s glass, though only a single finger this time.

Lan Jue types in a response while the Wine Master spoke.

Would it be alright if I invite two others?

Certainly.

Lan Jue drained his glass with a sigh. “Older alcohol has a distinct bitterness. It’s a shame the 1970’s Bordeaux were such bad years.”

The Wine Master glowered at him. “Right, off you go.”

Lan Jue chortled, set his glass down and made his exit.

Lan Jue paused as he exited the Gothic Winery and pondered how he should spend the next hours. Eventually he sauntered from his shop pushing the old antique bicycle given to him by the Keeper. He hadn’t been to the school in days, he thought, it

might be worth a trip over.

Drinking the Wine Master’s Leoville had awakened the glutton in him, though it had given him an idea as to what to teach next time. Alcohol was also a fine item! Wine culture was deep and complicated, be it Western reds, Eastern whites or Scottish whiskey, even brandy. He liked them all, and had a working knowledge of each. It was time, he supposed, to teach the kids what he knew.

When Lan Jue arrived at the school he was taken aback. It looked like an entirely different place. The first thing he spotted from a fair instance away; three-meter tall banners had been plastered to the sides of the main gate. The figure on them was one he knew well.

As he closed in he spied two platforms that had been constructed by the gates. Poseidon’s Sounds of Nature Benefit Performance could clearly be seen written on banners nearby.

A benefit concert? Lan Jue snorted a laugh as the words came in to view. Mo Xiao certainly had an uncanny knack for advertising, he thought. It had started like any other performance, but had now become a show to benefit the victims of Taihua’s crisis. Now championing such a righteous cause, it

certainly made the concert seem more special. Bumped up their profile quite a bit. It was certainly a wonderful thing for Gobi to open up their wallets, but the benefit for Gobi Entertainment was nothing to scoff at. It was supremely good publicity. It was no surprise the enterprise had been seeing growth by leaps and bounds since Mo Xiao took over.

With his mind on Mo Xiao, his thoughts went back to the strange expression Hua Li had on his face, that day when they had their heart to heart. Lan Jue honestly couldn’t fathom why Hua Li didn’t go for it with Mo Xiao. She was gorgeous, and talented. The only thing he could think of was Hua Li must be intimidated by her aggressiveness.

Though if he were being honest, Lan Jue figured he’d react much the same in a similar situation. Too strong a woman would make a man feel suppressed. Hua Li was a guy with a great deal of ability, and his personality reflected that.

Hera was still the best! Her gentle, beautiful face floated up in his memory. Visions of that white world flitted behind his eyes, and her moving voice echoed in his ears.

Things would have been so different had she lived. I’d be with her forever. We’d be right here at the base of the stage watching

Hua Li perform. Then we’d eat a fine meal at the Gourmet’s before finishing with an exquisite bottle of wine at the Wine Master’s.

Poseidon’s Sounds of Nature was everywhere, and its influence on the school was even more apparent as he pushed his bicycle inside.

Scores of posters canvased the school’s interior. Platforms had been set up intermittently, housing advertisements and publicity broadcasts. There were even pamphlets specially printed for the occasion and souvenir kiosks. He couldn’t fathom how Gobi Entertainment got the university to acquiesce to all of this. They’d come in and absolutely taken over.

Lan Jue lifted his head and peered at the banners flapping in the breeze. Hua Li looked down at him, standing casually in a black suit. Those uncanny features were turned in to an easy, captivating smile that seemed full of sunshine. Even though it was just a banner, those large blue eyes seemed to glitter, making hearts flutter. Passers-by couldn’t help but stop and stare on their way to classes.

“This guy!” Lan Jue shook his head, unable to completely hide his criticism.

He tapped Hua Li’s number in to his communicator.

“A-Jue, what’s up?” Hua Li’s tired voice answered on the other end.

“Let’s have dinner tonight. The Gourmet’s invited us.
Where’s A-Cheng?”

Chapter 156: To Go, Or Not To Go?

“Got something delicious cooking? Any cute girls?” Chu Cheng’s voice was clearly heard on the other end.

Lan Jue was nearly speechless. “How about you don’t come, on second thought. We’re looking for guests with some moral integrity.”

Chu Cheng snickered at the insult. “Hey, I have  moral integrity in spades. If there aren’t any pretty women, I can live with it. Oh, speaking of, damn dude your school’s got no shortage of hotties eh? I saw a picture of that one that looks like Hera. Like twins bro! But look, if it’s true you don’t have any interest in her perhaps you’ll let me give it a shot, yeah?”

“Chu Cheng!” Lan Jue’s voice became a growl, heavy with the promise of violence.

“Hah, I’m messin’ with ya bro.” Chu Cheng’s stupid chortling echoed through the communicator. After a minute he regained his composure. “But seriously, A-Jue, she’s like exactly the same. Well, not as nice, but you – “

Lan Jue hung up.

ζ

Hua Li, dressed in a fine formal suit, kicked at the man at his side. “You got nothing better to do, idiot? Lan Jue’s been all broken up about Hera for so long, what the hell are you doing bringing it all back up?”

Chu Cheng stood lazily to one side, a cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth. “Running away won’t solve some things,” he said quietly. “In fact I’m surprised you don’t see this as a good opportunity. Suddenly we have this woman here who looks strikingly like our lost Hera. Who’s to say she isn’t the reason for Lan Jue’s resurgence?”

Hua Li narrowed his eyes, a curious light in his dazzling blue eyes. “Let’s hope that’s the case.”

ζ

After hanging up, Lan Jue’s mind couldn’t help but turn to that alluring figure. A strange sense of agitation filled him.

She’s not Hera! She’s not Hera! She’s NOT HERA!”

The mantra did seem to bring him a sense of ease.

But what has she been up to these last few days?

Almost without thought, his consciousness reached  out through the Soulcaller gem around his neck.

“I’m back.” He projected his thoughts out towards her.

No response.

Hm? Apprehension shuddered through him. The benefit of the gem was that the user’s thoughts were instantly transferred to the receiver. She should be able to know right away, unless she took it off.

“I’m back.” He tried once more.

“Got it.” This time there was a reply. Her response was calm,

as though nothing out of turn had occurred.

“I’m ready to continue with the bodyguard duties. Tomorrow.
Want me to bring you to school?”

“Fine.” The reply was short, to the point.

Lan Jue couldn’t pinpoint why exactly, but something didn’t feel right. His consciousness reached out again. “Where are you?”

“Home. I haven’t been feeling well, I took a few days off.”

“Not feeling well? What’s the matter?”

Zhou Qianlin was silent for a time. After what felt like half the night she answered. “Since when have you been so concerned with everything I do?”

Lan Jue blinked. She was right, since when did he start having such concern for her?

“Are you going to begin classes tomorrow?” He changed the subject.

“Yup.”

“Then I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Alright.”

With their little chat concluded, Lan Jue lapsed in to thought. Uncomfortable? Home sick? She was a very tough girl. What kind of sickness would put her out like this for so long?

His mind tumbled over the issue as he pushed his bike towards the exit.

“Professor Lan?” A surprised voice stopped him.

He lifted his head and spied golden-haired Tang Mi trotting towards him.

He nodded in greeting. “Hello, Tang Mi.”

She looked him over a few times. “It’s great you’re back, Professor. You probably aren’t aware, but now there are a whole slew of students who want to join your class. They’re saying you teach a whole bunch of things they can’t learn anywhere else. Didn’t you also go with the others to Taihua? So long as you got back safe that’s great. It must have been so scary with those monsters over there.

“I was lucky,” Lan Jue said. “I didn’t run in to any of the monsters. If I had, I probably wouldn’t be standing here talking to you.”

Tang Mi patted her plump chest. “Then we’re all in luck!”

It was Lan Jue’s turn to question her. “Tang Mi, what about that black haired girl I always see you with. I haven’t seen you two together for a while.”

Tang Mi looked surprised, then a little hurt. “All you men are always fauning over Qianlin. She’s home sick.”

Lan Jue chuckled at her distemper. “Just a teacher’s concern for his students is all. Is it serious?”

“I don’t think so,” she replied. “I went to visit her. Probably just a cold. She feels weak, so a few days rest at home and she’ll be fine.”

Lan Jue felt the inexplicable tightness in his chest ease somewhat. “Alright, I won’t bother you then. Class will begin again in a few days.”

Tang Mi called back. “Professor, do you guys really just like those gentle sorts of women?”

Lan Jue answered with a serious expression. “This is a school, young lady. Your task should be to study well, not busying your head with this sort of thinking. I hear you’re already an Emperor-Class mecha pilot, which is an amazing feat for your age. Such being the case, you should focus on studiously exploiting your natural talent. You don’t want to squander this chance, during this special time in your life.” [1]

[tl: [1] = In China, while it isn’t ‘illegal’ for children in university/high school to date, it is highly frowned upon.

Students are expected to focus entirely on their studies. Only after they’ve graduated are they expected to find a spouse. Of course they are then expected to already have a car, a house, and an excellent paying job (for men). ]

The young lady replied by sticking out her tongue. “Don’t be like that, Professor Lan! We students all find you fun and interesting, you shouldn’t act so much like Director Wu.”

Lan Jue’s expression suddenly changed. “Director Wu  is here.”

Tang Mi covered her mouth as she tittered. “That’s right. Teasing sometimes is good fun. But you really are acting like him.”

“Acting like who?” A stately, deep voice boomed from behind Tang Mi.

The young pilot’s face suddenly went stiff. “Ah! W-well Professor, I have things to do. Time for training!” She ran off without looking back.

Director Wu watched Tang Mi flee with a shake of his head. “This girl. So fidgety. She needs to adopt a calmer character, then she’d really be making progress. She actually has more talent even than her brother. The two of them are the pride of our school.”

Lan Jue nodded his head in agreement. “I’m ready to begin classes whenever you like, Director Wu.”

Wu Junyi sauntered to Lan Jue’s side. “As long as you’re feeling well, all’s fine. This last trip got us all frightened, sad. For that I’m deeply sorry. We’ll be having another activity at a later date to make it up to the faculty.”

Another activity? Lan Jue had to physically restrain himself from flinching. “That’s fine, really,” he hastily assured. “What happened out there was a tragedy, no one could have seen that coming.”

Giving his farewells to Director Wu, Lan Jue then made his way towards the electives offices. However, the two he’d hoped to meet weren’t there.

Wang Hongyuan’s status as an Emperor-Class mecha pilot had

not been revealed. He was off teaching class as though nothing had changed. Jin Yan was also in class.

Lan Jue busied himself with arranging his desk, and organizing his teaching materials. He aimed to wait until they arrived so he could say hello. However, he fell to busy work to combat the unsettling sensation that had grown within him.

Time passed, and though he can’t remember leaving the school, he found himself standing at the foot of Skyfire Mountain when his thoughts abated.

She’s just sick?

Should I go in and check up on her?

Is that really the right move?

I wouldn’t want people to misunderstand.

Just for a quick minute.

A figured appeared at the peak of the mountain, on the edge of the woods surrounding the nearby villa. For Lan Jue, the various security protocols in place were there in name only.

This was the East’s equivalent to the White House, and was suitably large for its status. Its security was tighter than normal, more than likely due to the wedding incident.

Lan Jue stood about five hundred meters from the villa. Miniscule bolts of lightning raced across his eyes as he spied the dim, partially visible glint of infrared beams. It was the first, outward-most defense system of the house.

“How many romantic love stories would be denied if all women’s houses were like this,” Lan Jue muttered. He chuckled at the situation, then was on the move.

Flickering electric blue light arose, with Lan Jue hidden in its midst. He dropped to a squat position, and stuck his arm down in to the dirt. Suddenly, soundlessly, he vanished.

Anywhere lightning could go, so could he. He was a creature of thunder and lightning. This power to enter and escape at will was known by a specific name, Fulmenating.

The hand he’d stuffed in to the ground had grasped a buried cable. With that the whole of the mansion’s metal structure and electrical network were at Lan Jue’s mercy.

Everything became an extension of himself. He saw all.

He spied Zhou Qianlin lying in bed, demurely covered in a pair of traditional white pajamas. She was covered to the waste in a comforter with her hair splayed out around her. She held a book loosely in her grip, and stirred on occasion.

Her face was somewhat pale, and her eyes weren’t a bright as they once were. She turned a few more pages then, as though tired, shut her eyes and put the book to one side.

Flashing electric light spat from a socket in the corner, it’s sparks and embers congealing in to a humanoid form.

She looked at peace, resting quietly atop the bed, pure as a lily. She looked so weak he couldn’t help but feel pity.

He spied the Soulcaller gem, still attached to her neck. Lan Jue gently pulled the blanket up until it covered her. He reached

out a finger and placed it against her jugular, searching for a pulse.

A moment later a curious look overtook his features, speculation, which caused him to shake his head. He moved around until he arrived at the other side of the bed and climbed on. He gently placed the palm of his hand against her back.

A moment later he let out a long, quiet breath. He turned over, and climbed off the bed. He vanished in to the nearby outlet as quickly as he’d arrived.

A minute after his departure, Zhou Qianlin’s long eyelashes began to flutter. She slowly opened her eyes to the world around her. He reached a hand out from beneath the comforter to touch her neck. The corner of her lips turned up in a small smile.

Chapter 157: Discipline Awakening?

A flash of electricity, and Lan Jue’s hazy form appeared once again at the edge of the mountain forest. His face bore a peculiar expression.

“Discipline Awakening? Her ‘illness’ is from her Discipline blooming? And how is it her Discipline fells so much like Hera’s did in the beginning? Hera never told me what her Discipline was either, but these energy fluctuations can’t lie. They’re weaker than Hera’s was, though, like it has just Awakened. What’s going on?”

His confusion gave way to joy, however, since in the end her problems weren’t serious. On the contrary, a person’s Discipline awakening was a grand occasion.

It had been three years since he’d lost Hera, but he remembered everything about her as though it just happened. In the beginning, like him, she was a talented mecha pilot. However, she was different from all of the higher level pilots, too. Her Talent didn’t appear to have any specific combat proficiency. It just made her body better. He responsiveness, flexibility, agility and physical strength all were beyond the levels of an average human. That was how she managed to reach the heights of mecha piloting that she had. By virtue of

that strange Discipline, her hand speed had been even faster than his.

He’d asked her more than once about it, her Discipline. With such high energy output, he said, why is it her Discipline was never used in combat? It would certainly make her a sight more powerful. She said nothing more than that her Discipline didn’t fuse well with mechas. The result was she was never able to break in to the God-class of pilots, and remained an Emperor.

Every time he asked she was secretive, and would only tell him that there would come a day when he would find out what her Discipline was. But she never expected that day…

To feel that power again brought the memories flooding back, so similar to Hera’s own. The difference in power was inescapable, but so too was that familiar feeling.

She was already so similar to her, and then now at his age to have her Discipline awaken, a discipline so similar to Hera’s… inconceivable couldn’t describe it. Lan Jue knew nothing, not even if she would be able to cultivate her Talent to be stronger. What in the world was this?

With these questions still roiling unanswered in his mind, Lan Jue made his exit from the mountain top. He swung up on to the seat of his bike and began rolling down the path.

By the time he got back to the jewelry store, Hua Li and Chu Cheng were already waiting.

Today’s disguise for Hua Li was a hat, and thick black-rimmed glasses. It wasn’t a major effort to hide his identity, but then there were never very many people on the  Avenue.  There wasn’t much of a need for his snowman suit.

Chu Cheng was seated on the counter, discussing something with Ke’er in quiet tones. Something unsavory, judging by the small grin on his face.

Ding ding. The door announced Lan Jue’s arrival.

“Boss, you’re back,” Ke’er greeted without hesitation.

Lan Jue nodded in greeting. Chu Cheng’s smile was gone, and he stared at the ceiling in the very picture of false innocence.

His friend’s very poor cover-up caused him to laugh. “Alright, alright. No need to pretend. We all know what sort of man you are.”

Chu Cheng chuckled. “Yeah? And what sort of man am I?”

“A bastard,” Lan Jue said without missing a beat. “Xiuxiu, Ke’er. You ladies give this scoundrel a wide berth, you hear me? He’s no good for any of us.”

Xiuxiu covered her mouth sweetly as she laughed, while Ke’er shot her recent conversation companion a glance. “Well he did just offer to take me out for a meal and a movie, boss. You think he harbors evil intentions?”

“Ah-heh, hm!” Ch Cheng was suddenly overcome by a fit of coughs. It did little to dispel the awkward situation. “Well. I heard you were taking us out there, bro. Hua Li was telling me there’s this Gourmet on the Avenue that makes some delicious grub.”

Lan Jue made his way over to the small crowd and took the glass of water offered by Xiuxiu. He took a sip before answering. “No idea what he’s making, though. We have the time, so how

about we head underground. I can see how my two baby apprentices are doing.”

“Off we go then.” Hua Li arose and stretched. He looked tired.

“What’s got you in such a sore mood, A-Li? You’ve got that huge concert coming up,” Lan Jue asked.

Hua Li’s pretty face revealed a hint of lamentation. “Mo Xiao, as always! She’s paying me back for disappearing like I did. She’s got me training twice as hard as I would for any normal concert. I’m sleeping only a few hours a night! You guys have no concept of her cruelty. What’s worse is this righteous kick she’s on, all about how this is a benefit concert and we need the donations for the search and rescue operations. All of this and I have no means of rebellion, she’s got it all locked down tight. Poor me! A-Jue, let’s just elope and get outta here.”

Lan Jue chuckled at his pitiful companion. “Let’s do it. But first you’ll have to find a habitable planet Gobi Entertainment hasn’t got it’s claws in yet.”

“Ah…” Hua Li glowered helplessly at the floor. “God damn I wish I wasn’t doing this stupid concert.”

“Shut your face!”

“Cut it out.”

Both Chu Cheng and Lan Jue spoke together, Lan Jue going so far as to clap a hand over Hua Li’s mouth.

“Don’t you realize what kind of chaos it’d cause if someone heard you say that? The economic ramifications?” Chu Cheng had changed suddenly, from his normally distant and lackadaisical persona to someone a sight frostier.

Hua Li slapped away Lan Jue’s hand. “Fine! Go check on your students. That fatty’s progress has been pretty good, he’s got some serious potential. The other one’s still asleep.

Lan Jue turned his attention to Xiuxiu and Ke’er. “You two come along as well. We’ll close the topside store for a little bit.”

“Yes boss,” Xiuxiu said, moving towards the door and locking it tight. It wasn’t as though it mattered much, really – the surface store rarely saw any visitors.

The five of them took the shop’s elevator to its Underground equivalent.

“Ah boss, you’re here.” Mika greeted them as the doors opened. Today she was dressed in a black suit and skirt combo, with her fiery red hair sitting atop her head in a bun.

The second he saw her, Chu Cheng’s eyes adopted a hungry light. Wordlessly he shot a glance at Lan Jue, though it’s meaning was clear. Lan Jue, however, seemed not to have noticed.

Lin Guoguo also trotted over. “Hey boss. I guess you brought Ke’er and Xiuxiu down here to see how our training’s been going?”

Lan Jue smirked and shook his head. “Negatory.”

“Oh?” Lin Guoguo cantered her head and blurted, “What’s the deal then?”

“You’ll find out in a bit,” he answered cryptically. “First take me to see Jin Tao.”

“Yes boss.” Mika led the way, bringing the others to the shop’s back room warehouse.

As they walked Lan Jue addressed his number two. “Mika, let me see the shop’s inventory list when you get a chance.”

“You got it,” she said. “I’ll have it for you tomorrow.”

He nodded. “It was by the grace of the Wine Master and the Doctor that I got back alive this time. I owe them a great deal. The Doctor had to expend an s-ranked gem as well. We don’t have any in stock, but a show of gratitude and intent to pay back is important. Make sure to take it from my own stock.”

“What are you on about boss,” Mika said. “We’re all in this together, stock included.”

Lan Jue smiled, but said nothing further.

Chu Cheng made a motion as though he were swooning from behind Mika. Hua Li kicked him back to normal.

Jin Tao was still asleep in the nourishment pod, quietly floating in the strange gel. From time to time, multi-colored flashes of light arced across the surface of his skin.

Lan Jue took a glance at the pod’s computer, reading over the vitals. He nodded, apparently pleased with what he saw.

“This kid’s got intense willpower. The effects look good. The second two injections should be a sight easier on him.”

Hua Li spoke up. “You got a good eye. When I first saw the kid I didn’t think much of him. Now I see you were right. He has no real Talent, but his willpower is damn near supernatural. In that way he’s got a ton of potential. We just can’t know how much this Fantascia Genetica decoction will improve his Discipline.”

Lan Jue turned to look at Mika. “When is Tang Xiao coming today?”

“Should be soon,” she replied. “He comes every day. He may be fat but he’s damn cunning in a fight. He keeps harassing me in the middle of it, so naturally I have to beat the piss out of him every time.”

Lan Jue snorted a laugh. “That’s his special combat style. Any indication of his Discipline’s second Awakening?”

“Nothing for the time being. Still, with the pressure we’ve been adding his progress certainly isn’t slow. Definitely faster than an average seventh level Adept. As far as I can tell it shouldn’t be long.”

“That’s good then,” he replied. “We’ll keep waiting.”

Hua Li gave him a wondering look. “So what are we all doing down here, anyway?”

“To watch a little spar.”

“Spar?” Chu Cheng asked. “Who what and where?”

Lan Jue looked them over. “Have you forgotten why you came here? We’ve got that challenge we accepted from Piao Hong and the Guardians. If we aren’t up to snuff and lose, big brother’s gunna let us have it. We need to get to training. We haven’t worked together in ages – it’s about time we remembered how to.”

Chu Cheng’s face lit up, exchanging a look with Hua Li. “So you’re really looking to make some improvement, eh? Good, so we’re here to compare notes as adepts or mecha pilots?”

Lan Jue’s grin split his face from ear to ear. “I came to a recent realization. Today we start with our Discipline. After a while, when Tang Xiao shows up, we’ll get to it in a big way. We’ll show them what a real team working together looks like. Tomorrow it’ll be mecha combat.”

Chapter 158: Comparing Notes

Hua Li’s face looked pitiful. “Can I not participate? I’ve been doing nothing but training these last two days. At this pace I’m gunna die, I can feel it.”

Lan Jue’s countenance grew hard. “Stop whining. At your level you think I believe a little singing and dancing makes you that tired?”

Hua Li’s eyes nearly popped out of his head. “Shit A-Jue. Have you ever actually watched one of my concerts?”

Lan Jue waved a hand dismissively. “Looking at you is enough. What’s the point of seeing one of these prancing shows of yours?”

Chu Cheng, standing next to him, laughed at their exchange. “There’s a connection between his physical prowess and his fame, you know. He puts his Discipline to good use during his concerts, too. It’s not just singing and shaking his ass. Some crazy special effects. When he says he’s tired I believe him. And in the end, who knows how hard Mo Xiao pushes him.”

“Lan Jue!” Hua Li nearly gnashed his teeth at his friend, grabbing his nose between his fingers. “I hate your face! You’ve really never seen one of my concerts!? You don’t know people say I’m the most handsome of my whole familial dynasty? No wonder you haven’t shown the least bit of interest. I am the greatest celebrity ever known, and when I’m dancing on that stage you have no idea how handsome, charming and awesome I really am!”

Lan Jue simply rolled his eyes. “Why should I be interested?
Isn’t it mostly young girls that are infatuated with you?”

Hua Li’s white-knuckle grip relaxed as he fell in to a combat pose. “We’re settling this, right now!”

Lan Jue rubbed his nose. “Fine, soon. You pinch my nose like that and you’re asking to be put in the ground.”

“No doubt,” Chu Cheng interrupted. “What kind of man are you anyway? A-Jue’s only just recovered from his injuries and here you are being so rough. If I were you, A-Jue, I wouldn’t put up with any of this nonsense. You should beat the crap out of him on principle. I’ll be the ref.”

Both Lan Jue and Hua Li turned the force of their glare onto Chu Cheng. He instantly shrunk away. “I’m just trying to seek out justice here, right, looking out! What’s all this hostility alluva sudden?”

Hua Li’s cantankerous voice growled at him. “People who stir up shit are the worst kind. A-Jue, you and I will beat on this piece of trash, then we’ll see what’s up.”

Lan Jue’s fists tightened. “I like it. It’s far past time we shut this guy up. Always sitting here profiting at other people’s expense.”

Chu Cheng’s response was angry, indignant. “The hell is wrong with you two, treating me like this? You really take me for that sort of person?”

“Yes!” Hua Li and Lan Jue shouted in unison.

“Ah, Professor!” Their heated exchange was interrupted by the surprised cry from behind them. Lan Jue turned his head to spy the large silhouette bounding towards him.

Lan Jue lifting his hands to protect himself from the jiggly onrush of his student. “Use your words there, kid, save all this gesticulating for the ring. Don’t you know how heavy you are?”

Tang Xiao hobbled excitedly towards his teacher, his moon- shaped face jiggling. “It’s good to see you back, Professor. Miss Mika’s been great with me the last few days, studiously teaching me. Miss Lin Guoguo as well. Under their guidance my power has increased by leaps and bounds!”

Lan Jue couldn’t help himself in the face of the kid’s sincerity, and actually ruffled his disciple’s hair. “Good, keep it up, reign in that sensitivity. Later I’ll see for myself how far you’ve come. Right now it’s time for us to head to the Reaper’s Arena.”

“Huh? There’s no need, Professor, here should be fine. I was told only Adepts with high levels of power need to go to the Arena. Miss Mika’s teachings are enough for me, there’s really no need for you to bother yourself with me.”

The kid was really scared! He was working fine with the two women. It was harsh, but his improvement was obvious to anyone who saw – only, with them sometimes he was beaten so badly he hardly wished to live. How much worse would it be with his Professor doing the beating? From what he was

hearing, it sounded like Professor wanted to take matter in to his own hands, literally. Though he’d never actually witnessed Lan Jue’s true power, he could guess considering how powerful Mika and Lin Guoguo were. Would he even live to see home?

Lan Jue smiled mirthfully. “Don’t be scared. Today you get to rest, just watch and learn.”

“Oh.” Tang Xiao breathed a sigh of relief and said nothing more. He respectfully took a step to the side, out of their way. With so much power around him, he didn’t dare resort to his more wily tendencies. He turned his head and looked at Jin Tao, sleeping fitfully in the nourishment pod. This guy! He was the lucky one, asleep and unaware.

......

Reaper’s Arena.

Lan Jue busied himself with setting up their special combat arena, employing the special control apparatus the Wine Master had given him.

Zeus’ Amazons and Jin Tao sat in a separate area, with a panoramic view of the layout. Only Lan Jue, Hua Li and Chu Cheng remained inside.

“It looks like second brother [1] was right when he said you’re doing much better. Are you feeling alright?” Hua Li asked.

[tl: [1] = Here I believe he’s referring to Chu Cheng. ]

Lan Jue nodded. “I’ve already checked things out for myself, and I can honestly say I can’t be any better. I can’t figure out how I ended up recovering so well. In fact, did you guys see anything out of the ordinary when you arrived that day?”

Hua Li spoke up. “When we got there we found you asleep in a hollowed out hole, in something that looked like white rock. I went over to check on you myself and you were fine; calm, breathing. It was like you’d never gotten injured at all.”

“A white rock?” Lan Jue felt a flash of… something, but he couldn’t pinpoint precisely what was striking about Hua Li’s statement. Nor could he recall any of the methods the Doctor used to treat him at the time.

“Alright, well we’ll leave that discussion for another time. So bring it, which one of you two is first?” Lan Jue swept his eyes between his fellow Monarchs.

Chu Cheng gave him a surprised look. “What? You’re thinking two on one?”

Lan Jue smirked. “Just taking advantage of an opportunity, what’s wrong with two on one? Didn’t you say earlier you were planning on uniting with A-Li against me? A-Cheng, you’re getting more cunning every time I see you.”

Chu Cheng snorted, puffing his chest out with pride. “What kind of person do you take me for? A-li, let me deal with this punk first. Three years with his thumb up his keister, I’m positive he’s lost all his edge.”

Hua Li shrugged. “Alright, he’s all yours then.” He lunged back a few steps to give them adequate room. He didn’t exit to the observation platform, though, but remained at the edge of the ring.

Lan Jue and Chu Cheng stared at each other from across the arena. Little by little their respective expressions became calm

and impassive. The two knew each other exceedingly well. Lan Jue had indeed been languishing in sorrow the last three years, but in reality Chu Cheng didn’t in the least underestimate or look down upon his friend and mercenary companion. He knew as well as any that of the Divine Monarchs, it was Lan Jue’s Discipline that was the most destructive.

Lan Jue looked back at his friend, still and unchanged. He was calm, like the surface of a lake. They stood in silence, staring, until a change overcame them.

A crimson hue slowly began to overtake Chu Cheng’s eyes until they looked like burning charcoal. A powerful, stifling aura arose in tandem, and the air around him shimmered as though viewed through extreme heat.

Mika muttered to herself within the observation platform. “Heat-based Discipline.”

Lan Jue, meanwhile, was undergoing his own changes. Coiling arcs of electricity flashed across his vision, until his eyes were a startling electric violet. Flashes of power sparked from behind his lids. The unsettling crackle of lightning filled their ears, making skin crawl.

Suddenly, both of them were on the move. There seemed to be some tacit agreement not to employ their Disciplines just yet. Lightning arced from Lan Jue off to the sides.

Chu Cheng’s lithe figure launched in to the air, spreading out like some terrible bird. With a twist he was tumbling towards Lan Jue delivering a flurry of kicks.

Lan Jue made no move to retreat, but instead kept up the advance. He did not leave the ground to meet his assailant. His hands shot up, however, and pressed at the air towards Chu Cheng.

Bang bang, bang bang! The sounds of impact filled the arena.
With each one the air filled with sparks of lightning and fire.

Chu Cheng fell back to earth with a graceful backflip. He glared across the field and growled while hungry flames exuded from him. Everything around him was illuminated by the angry blaze. If one were to look carefully, they would see drops of golden-red fluid dripping from him.

Lan Jue chuckled. “Who are you trying to scare?” As he spoke lightning began to coil up his form. With a flash he became

covered in a crystalline blue light.

Strangely, it wasn’t just the color of him that changed. He almost looked as though he were composed of crystal himself. There were no sparks, no thunder – it was as though his Discipline simply manifested.

“Eh?” Chu Cheng couldn’t help but vocalize his surprise. This was different, and until this moment he was sure he was totally familiar with Lan Jue’s abilities.

Electromorphosis! This was among Lan Jue’s most powerful of abilities. It helped to amplify his thunderbolt Discipline. But despite what he knew, this wasn’t the same. Usually when he employed this power, he would be a mess of lightning bolts and electric light – but not this time. When did he learn to control his Discipline so well, Chu Cheng thought, to keep it in check? Not a single iota of his power was escaping his grasp. But hadn’t he been in hiding for three years, without any training? Not judging by what he was seeing!

He was surprised, but Chu Cheng was too good – too much a professional to let that deter him. Without stopping, he lashed out with a chopping motion towards Lan Jue.

A roaring, frightening wall of flame came racing towards the Jewelry Master. The heat it released was so great that the area it passed warped nauseatingly.

But Lan Jue didn’t move, made no effort to sidestep. It was almost as though he hadn’t noticed the fiery wall that was crashing down towards him. With his hands pressed against his chest, his powers seemed even more restrained.

Boooooommm! The fiery attack landed a direct hit, and Lan Jue was lost amongst the roiling flames. Flame and smoke rose to the heavens like a volcanic eruption. Odd crimson orbs were interlaced in the fiery column, rising from the point of impact. The heat was so intense Zeus’ amazons and Tang Xiao could feel it from the observation platform.

The overweight disciple looked on, silent as a mouse. He thought Mika’s fiery discipline was frightening to behold, but the difference in power was clear as he watched this young master at work. Whether power, prestige or intimidation factor, he was on a whole other level.

Mika herself looked on with a manic flash in her eyes. The power and purity of his Discipline was astonishing. She felt the explosive power of it when the attack landed. He was at least

ninth level fifth rank, by her estimation, if not stronger. This was definitely her chance to learn and improve, she thought.

Chapter 159: Spirit Of Hades

Lan Jue emerged from the roaring flames unscathed. The roiling inferno burned furiously around him, reflecting of his crystalline body but leaving no mark. The electric blue of his presence flashed in the eye of every onlooker.

“Huh?” Hua Li, expecting the battle from the sidelines, was as struck with questions as his lazy counterpart. Even as distant as he was, Hua Li had to protect himself from the baptism of fire by virtue of a radiating blue light. It served to isolate him from the heat.

His observations were keen, and he knew Chu Cheng was taking it easy on his opponent. Still, for A-Jue to sustain this level of heat without blinking was impressive – even by his standards.

Things were different between Chu Cheng and Lan Jue. For starters, they hadn’t really kept in contact for the last three years, and Chu Cheng wasn’t aware of much of what had happened to the Jewelry Master. Hua Li, though, remembered their battle from not long ago. Lan Jue hadn’t been able to employ his Discipline much at all, but Hua Li could still feel Lan Jue’s fluctuating power levels. Comparing them to what he saw now, the lancing bolts of electricity, they were different. It was

as though his friend’s thunderbolt discipline had become ‘gentler.’ What could that mean?

Chu Cheng’s figure appeared from the bowels of the flames, his dark figure stark and ominous against the fire light. He was at Lan Jue’s back, and without hesitation reached a hand out for him. His grasping palm grew red, then gold, like a little sun seeking to devour his enemy.

Lan Jue didn’t move.

Poof! The gathered Amazons gasped as Chu Cheng’s hand disappeared in to Lan Jue’s body.

Chu Cheng was likewise surprise, whereupon he suddenly felt the explosive power of thunder gathering above his hand. Quickly and without warning, his entire body was wracked by tremors. The golden-red light around him faltered and dissipated.

A trick!

Chu Cheng’s agonist response arose automatically in his

defense. The young man’s eyes flashed gold with energy, after which an unsettling gray shadow appeared at his back. It yanked his trapped hand free.

In a flash Lan Jue’s figure raced backwards, colliding with Chu Cheng’s chest. He became the center of a blinding corona as crackling bolts of electricity exploded outward in all directions.

Of course Chu Cheng didn’t simply allow this to happen – he was a Monarch for a reason. He curled in to himself and erupted, the flames swallowing him in to an angry ball of fire. The nightmarish shadow behind him rushed in, joining with the fires and turning them a deep crimson. With a sizzling hiss, Chu Cheng extricated himself from the collapsing field of lightning.

Lan Jue was gone in a flash. Moments later he reappeared with his hand raised. He beckoned in the air, and with a peal of thunder a lightning bolt was in his grip. He reeled back, and threw!

The writhing spear of lightning chased after Chu Cheng, who was still surrounded by dark hungry flames. By the time the bolt caught up, the flames had turned to grey. Once the attack collided – nothing. No blast, no force. The bolt vanished as

though it had never existed.

The fireball fell to the ground and melted away, once more revealing Chu Cheng. His hair stood on end, and his right hand still shook ever so slightly.

Lan Jue watched his friend dispassionately. Blue light still emanated from his crystal form.

“Your electromorphism’s certainly improved,” Chu Cheng noted.

Lan Jue nodded. “Just recently. In fact, you’re my guinea pig.
From where I’m standing it looks pretty effective.”

Chu Cheng’s expression was irate. “When did you become so insidious. You’ve been learning from A-Li.”

Hua Li chimed in from across the ring. “Want me to throw down?”

“Hold it,” Chu Cheng replied with a humph. “Watch me wail

on him a bit, then we’ll see. Take care now, A-Jue, time to get a little more serious!” He took a menacing stride forward as he spoke.

Chu Cheng was already a tall youth, and as they looked on he began to grow taller still. In the blink of an eye he stretched three meters.

His squirly head of red hair changed as well, turning gray like ash. The nasty smirk on his face melted in to an icy-cold mask, with a long smear of blood tracing a line along his forehead. The aura he exuded was tremendously stifling.

He was covered then in a lengthy black robe, shimmering with embroidered lines of silver. His ordinarily tanned skin faded until it was a ghastly pale. As the slowly boiling flames around him died, those terrifying grey eyes fixed upon Lan Jue.

The Jewelry Master watched the change, unmoving, though his eyes narrowed as the forbidden art unfolded. Of the other observers, it was Mika’s reaction which was the most pronounced – she even cried out in surprise.

“Hades… Monarch of the Underworld, he’s… he’s actually

Hades!”

Ke’er shot her companion an uncertain look. “What’s up with you, Mika? You mean you didn’t know? The boss and his three companions were known as the Four Divine Monarchs. The God of Wisdom, Prometheus; Lord of the Afterlife, Hades; Zeus, King of the Gods; and Poseidon Lord of the Seas. Chu Cheng is that second one, Lord of the Afterlife. Of course he’s Hades!”

Ke’er sought to educate her friend, but Mika seemed lost in her own thoughts. “No… I always just thought it was a title, some sort of designation. But he – he’s the real deal. Like my father, possessing a pure malevolent Discipline. He just hasn’t cultivated his powers to their peak, yet. Such powerful abyssal energies… if my father were to ever discover his true power, there’s no question he’d have someone sent to murder him. He’d have him killed, and his powers absorbed. If he were to succeed in that, he’d be more powerful than any of the Paragons. He’d truly become master of the universe!”

Mika knew much about the darker side of the galaxy, and the powers of the abyss. It was a part of her, ever since she was small, to the point where she couldn’t be sure there weren’t actual ghosts and demons to be found in the universe. What she was sure of, however, was that although ghosts and devils were a part of the world she lived in, they were the enemy.

The Prince of Devils, Satan, and the Lord of the Afterlife, Hades. Each sought to devour the other.

It was often said that, in ancient times, Hades was stronger than Satan. However, for various reason, as the new age dawned Hades was incapable of finding his true self. Satan persevered, slowly growing stronger until they were of equal power.

The story was rarely heared now since the stellar migration. Perhaps those mythical beings didn’t exist, never existed. However, in a way they did, through these powerful Adepts. The Prince and Lord, masters of their dark Disciplines, inherited through blood or other means.

Satan, one of the world’s Ten Paragons, and his Dark Tower were ever searching the stars for those who possessed the power of Hades. Mika never really thought she’d ever come across the real deal. But here he was – Lord of the Afterlife, Hades, in the flesh.

Lan Jue wasn’t still during the process. He, too, took a step forward. Immediately the familiar changes overcame him; his eyes changed to gold, the crackling sound of thunder split the air, and an imperial aura of command surrounded him.

A golden cloak appeared, affixed to his shoulders. Countless bolts of lightning flashed around him, real for just the space of an instant and leaving a charged halo of energy around him. His hair changed to gold, matching his flashing regal eyes.

“Ascension. A-Jue, don’t overtax yourself.” Chu Cheng’s voice snakes from between the worm-like, pallid lips of Hades.

Lan Jue’s response sounded irritated. “What would you expect? You’re channeling the Spirit of Hades, my next move is Ascension. What is this anyway, are you saying you’ve mastered your forbidden art already?”

“More or less. Come on then – see if you can stand my abyssal flame!” Hades lifted a hand towards Zeus as he spoke. A lake of grey fire sprang up beneath Zeus’ feet.

Zeus was gone in a flash, appearing ten meters away. His golden clothes smoldered ever so slightly.

The Lord of the Afterlife made another motion with his left hand. Suddenly it was clutching the handle of a blade, black as pitch. It’s shimmering opaque blade was grey, and with the flick of his wrist the steel stretched outwards.

“Too long and neither of us will be able to sustain it. Too much damage to our vital qi. Let’s let a blow determine the winner; a single strike, and whoever’s left standing is the victor. What do you think?”

Zeus nodded. He moved his hand out in much the same manner as his darker counterpart. In a flash, a writhing bolt of lightning shaped in to the form of a spear writhed in his grip.

However, before their deciding clash could commence, a staggering tremble swept through the arena. As they looked around to find what had occurred, both spied strange trembling veins snaking up the walls.

“You’re really incapable of making life easier for the ones around you.” The Wine Master’s defeated voice surrounded them. A blink, and they found themselves in an  undulating world of silver light.

Zeus and Hades regarded each other, In wordless, tacit agreement both disposed of their weapons. Their imposing auras diminished, and their fluctuating Disciplines lessened until they were back to their normal selves.

The world warped, and the wine Master appeared between them.

“It looks like you’re planning to level my training arena. Do you somehow expect this interspacial arena to endure your protomorphic powers? If you insist on practicing these abilities, you’re going to have me to contend with as well. Otherwise, find another place to ruin with your horse play.”

Chu Cheng looked sheepish. “I forgot, forgot. So sorry, Cosmagus.”

Another flash, and the Wine Master vanished without a trace. His voice remained. “I see this again and we’ll revoke your sparring privileges!”

“It’s all your fault,” Chu Cheng muttered, “with your Ascension nonsense.” He glared at Lan Jue for getting him in to trouble.

“You don’t care about losing face, do you,” Lan Jue retorted. “You think I’d have used it if you hadn’t invoked the Spirit of Hades?”

“I only used that because you forced me to!”

“Forced you how?”

“Yeah! Forced me, like slavery!”

“…”

“Stop with the garbage back and forth.” Hua Li shouted at them from across the arena. “Are you fighting or what?”

“Yeah we’re fighting!” Both Lan Jue and Chu Cheng shouted back in unison.

Hua Li’s solemn response wafted towards them. “Get to it then. And remember, no protomorphism.”

Lan Jue clasped his hands, then, at the space of his back and grinned at the two. “Both of you.”

Hua Li blinked at him. “A-Jue, I must have heard wrong. Even

people looking to be abused aren’t that direct.”

Lan Jue smirked. “I never said I’d be fighting alone. Ladies, it’s time to see how your cultivation’s been progressing.”

Mika, Lin Guoguo, Xiuxiu and Ke’er shouted back: “Yes, boss!”

Chu Cheng regarded them with hesitation. “This… this isn’t right. I can’t lift my hand against a woman, much less four. Far too much a fan of the female species, you understand.”

Hua Li’s words were thick with disdain. “Give it a rest. I don’t think you’ve ever refused to put a hand on a woman.”

Chu Cheng chortled. “That’s different. Those are gentle hands,” he assured.

“Enough, keep it in your pants. Zeus and his ladies are going to be tough to deal with. Don’t hold me back.”

Chu Cheng snarled at him. “Who’s holding who back?”

“You!”

Chapter 160: Unspoken Cooperation

Lan Jue simply stood, bolts of lightning coiling around his eyes. Behind him were his amazons, arrayed for battle; Mika, Xiuxiu, Lin Guoguo and Ke’er.

Across from them were the other two monarchs, Hua Li and Chu Cheng. A faint red aura surrounded one, a gentle blue the other; fire and water, opposing elements that flickered in close proximity. Neither directly impeded the other, but clear and striking fluctuations in their energy occurred where they touched.

“Don’t let them fool you,” Lan Jue said then. “Their Disciplines work well together.”

“A-Jue, what happens next, you asked for. I may not be pleased with raising my hand to a woman, but I won’t hesitate to put you in your place,” Chu Cheng challenged.

Lan Jue’s tepid response followed. “Bring it on. Tang Xiao, make sure you watch yourself.”

The final words were directed at the pudgy boy, a distance

behind the two groups. He was in there with the others, as opposed to on the observation platform. In Lan Jue’s own words, he needed to experience what combat was like between top-level Adepts. In this way he’d be prepared when he was ready to join them. But that wasn’t now – now, all he had to do was make sure he didn’t get hurt.

And so, the overweight young man stood practically plastered to a wall, very nearly trembling.

An eight level talent, and the worst of the bunch. Not just ninth level talents, but several surpassed ninth level fifth rank. This was the sort of power that would dominate a battle field – much like they could have in the Shattered Starfields.

“Yes, Professor!” Tang Xiao’s timid voice whimpered towards Lan Jue.

“Commence!” The Jewelry Master’s voice rang through the arena. Instantly he was on the move. His hands raised, and two crackling bolts of lightning launched out towards Hua Li and Chu Cheng.

Hua Li reacted by lifting his own hands, and a gentle blue

shield of energy bloomed to life before him. The purity of his water Discipline meant it was nonconductive, neutralizing Lan Jue’s powers.

Chu Cheng was possessed of a much higher strata of arrogance. His left hand traced a line through the air, which summoned a fiery serpent that coiled around him. It hissed malevolently, flaming drops of saliva splattering in all directions.

The two bolts found their mark, and subsequently vanished.

Lan Jue continued his assault. As he did, his Amazons were half a step behind.

Xiuxiu took a step forward until she was positioned directly behind Lan Jue. From where Hua Li and Chu Cheng stood, they couldn’t see her. Mika moved, too, huffing dismissively as her body became encased in fire. Her hands began tracing a circle, within which a swirling vortex of flame appeared.

At the slightest motion, countless balls of fire launched towards her targets.

Ke’er stretched her arms out in front of her. As she did, a dozen morphing gun barrels extricated themselves from her body and hovered nearby. A volley of white energy was spat forth, hurtling towards Hua Li. A blue light also began to coalesce around her chest, releasing wave upon wave of undulating energy.

Lin Guoguo’s pretty eyes had closed in the interim. She was as though in the midst of a deep meditation, with the whole of the arena lost to her consciousness.

But the moment she closed her eyes, both Hua Li and Chu Cheng were suddenly assailed by a sense of unease. It was a palpable sensation of fear and discomfort, a sense that made them both secretly anxious to employ the full might of their abilities.

Lan Jue rushed at Chu Cheng as his earlier bolts of lightning vanished. His body was again a living streak of electricity. In a flash he was in front of the red-haired young man.

Chu Cheng’s own reactions were quick, almost inhuman. His whole body flared like a match, releasing a golden red light. The molten balls of fire from Mika weakened and melted as they reached him. They vanished with a dismissive wave of his hand.

With Lan Jue suddenly so close, he launched himself backward in retreat. But as he did, the coiling dragon of flame surrounding him chose that moment to strike. It’s flaming jaw distended as the beast shot out. First up, then directly down towards Lan Jue as it attempted to swallow him whole.

Lan Jue stepped to the side. His body congealed in to a golden bolt of lightning and arced away just in time to avoid the jagged fiery teeth. He appeared again in front of Chu Cheng, and pressed his palm against the man’s chest.

This was his power, the speed of light!

It was already too late for Chu Cheng to react. By the time he knew what was happening, his entire body was encased in electricity.

However, despite the success of the attack Lan Jue revealed no pleasure, took no joy. On the contrary, he balled himself up and made to retreat.

Just as the lightning raced from his fingers, the fiery dragon was racing onward at increased speed. In no time, it was before Mika. There was a flash of golden red light, when suddenly a

figure reached out it’s hand towards her. It was Chu Cheng, and as he appeared the copy assailed by Lan Jue dissolved in to smoke and ash.

A false trail, trickery!

It took Lan Jue by surprise. This guy really was a bastard! All of that noise about refusing to hit women, and yet it was a woman he struck at first. Clearly his plan was to take care of them one by one.

All in all, the four women were not that far removed in power from Chu Cheng and Hua Li. With Lan Jue among them, there was no way they could win. The two Monarchs’ only available tactic was simple; as much as possible, weaken Zeus’ Amazons – then focus on Zeus.

As Chu Cheng moved to attack, Hua Li joined him. As he raced forward, he lifted his arms to the sky. Instantaneously a blue aura surrounded him and short outward in all directions like a powerful ocean wave. It served not only to temporarily obstruct Lan Jue, but also to knock back Lin Guoguo and Ke’er. The waves naturally parted when they reached Chu Cheng.

The two had been veritable brothers for years, fighting side by side. This sort of cooperation wasn’t verbally expressed – they just knew what had to be done, and when.

Mika did not appear phased by Chu Cheng’s advance. Her fiery red hair had fought free of its bonds and flared around her head like an inferno, changing to an angry crimson red color. Behind her appeared the monstrous figure of a demon. The beast was at least six meters in height, and indistinct. A stifling, corrupted aura poured from it, and the only thing that could be clearly seen were its two fiery, blood-red eyes.

“What? The Prince of Demons?” Chu Cheng’s eyes narrowed at the revelation. The new information made him slower to react.

He also missed it when, suddenly, a large piece of artillery appeared at Mika’s shoulder. It launched a beam of staggering blue energy half a meter thick. A beam that raced right towards Chu Cheng’s chest.

Chu Cheng was no slouch when it came to his Discipline, but nonetheless the surprise change in battlefield circumstances took its toll. His own attacks landed, striking Mika, but he took the blast directly as a result.

The blue light flashed and moved away, revealing Ke’er at Mika’s shoulder. The other Ke’er, a short distance away, vanished in a puff of smoke.

An illusion?

Hua Li was similarly surprised. To make matters worse, the sudden shifts were precipitated by a stifling sense of dread that he couldn’t shake.

Lan Jue had made no effort to rescue Mika, in part because Chu Cheng’s attack was covered by Hua Li’s waves. As the waves raced towards Lan Jue, though, they parted before a flash of infinitely sharp white light. Lan Jue vanished and, in a flash, appeared in front of Hua Li.

His body flickered a few times and disappeared, before a tight net of dazzling blue light fell in place around the celebrity.

For Hua Li’s part, his body adopted a spectral quality. Countless rays of golden-blue light shot out from within him, paired with a roar like crashing waves.

By the time Lan Jue reappeared, Hua Li retreated through the crushing trap. The golden light he emanated were a sight less powerful than they were a moment before.

Lan Jue flicked his wrist, sending an orb of pale golden light outwards. Hua Li’s features changed drastically as he juked to one side, followed immediately by a blast that made the whole arena shake.

It was the power of Lan Jue’s Discipline, his speed of light and lightning, that they faced. All one could see was Hua Li and Chu Cheng being unceremoniously cast away.

“Hey, honored teachers, I thought I’d share something with you – something awful that happened to me. I was eating at school when, while digging in to my braised pork I noticed it had started to grow some mold. So I plucked that piece out…”

Chu Cheng and Hua Li were busy with Zeus and his Amazons, when suddenly the strange voice arose clearly through the arena. It bore a distinctly sordid tone.

“What the -” Hua Li reacted first, surprised and irritated by the verbal harassment. He was also fairly sure he recognized the

voice. Tang Xiao?

The same saying was different coming from the kids mouth, rather than Lan Jue’s. His compatriot couldn’t speak like the young man, didn’t have the same oomph. Hua Li, luckily, had already experienced this trickery once so was not so taken aback. Chu Cheng, however, was surprised at the sudden conversation, and the respect with which it was delivered.

Still, the half-second hesitation was all Lan Jue needed to wrap Hua Li up in a net of electricity. He was crouched, his hand slapped firmly against the ground. The cage that kept he and the entertainer in place was narrow and confining.

Chu Cheng shook himself awake and, ignoring temporarily the threat of Mika and Ke’er at his heels, raced to Hua Li’s aid. He knew quite well that if Hua Li was taken out of the equation it would be one against five. Those were, frankly, impossible odds.

“… I painstakingly removed the mold from the piece. I wasn’t going to throw out such sumptuous food so I popped it right in my mouth. And shit, wouldn’t ya know it – it was a piece of ginger!” Tang Xiao’s punchline was delivered just as Chu Cheng was making his attack.

The words cut a searing path through Chu Cheng’s brain. He couldn’t help but snort in a fit of laughter, and the loss of control caused his Discipline to slip.

A self-satisfied, dismissive huff was heard from behind.

The overwhelming force of a psychic blast hit him straight on like a sledge hammer. Suddenly, he felt his mind devolve in to disarray as his thoughts all crashed together. While the effects weren’t physically damaging, he was suddenly too dizzy and distracted to pay proper attention. It was enough of a lapse for Mika and Ke’er to catch up. Chu Cheng went flying as their attack caught him.

The cage shimmered. For most, especially those whose powers were focused on speed, confining oneself in a cage seems like a bad idea. But Lan Jue felt differently.

Hua Li’s inherent self-defense capabilities were among the strongest in their group, and so the arcing bolts of lightning that assailed him in the cage were easily dealt with. However, the steady bursts of sharp light emanating from Lan Jue caused Hua Li to expend much more thought and energy to evade.

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