Skyfire Avenue Chapter 171-180

Chapter 171: Le Zi Qian

This Professor Le was an average man man, not strikingly handsome. He exuded an erudite and scholarly air that was enhanced by the pair of gold-rimmed glasses pressed up on his nose. He had the sort of face that made him look as though he were always absorbed in thought, no matter the time. It looked like it would be a chore for anyone to intrude upon his own little world.

Upon hearing Wu Junyi’s words he nodded ever so slightly, but said nothing.

“Look, Professor Le, what do you think? Which students should participate in the competition? Lir University suddenly changed the competition date on us, and now we have no time to prepare.” Wu Junyi complained.

Le Ziqian shook his head. “There’s no need to be worried about this educational exchange. Cold feet solve nothing. Besides, our National Scholars are exceptional students. As far as I’m aware, that Zhou Qianlin from Professor Tan’s class is a fair choice. Then we have Yang Zi Mo and Jie Guangsheng from my own class. Those three should be sufficient.”

“Alright.” Wu Junyi wasn’t interested in discussing the matter, and settled it quickly. And regardless of his own opinions, Le Ziqian was definitely the authority when it came to this.

Tan Lingyun was seated next to the brooding intellectual. As he spoke her eyes were glued to him, her face calm. But there was a look in her eye – a lingering flash that was hard to pinpoint.

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Were one to look down upon the NEU campus from on high, they would see it as a shifting sea of blue. What’s more, it looked shut up so tight not even a drop of water could escape from it.

Scores of police and security personnel were on hand to lock down the exits. If you weren’t a student or teacher, you weren’t getting in – period.

Eventually one o’clock arrived. The various members of the media were permitted to enter, but only after a rigorous security check. It was a process that everyone had to endure,

students included.

The NEU’s auditorium was the largest in the Alliance, capable of housing over ten thousand people. If necessary, however, it could fit three times as many.

At this moment the auditorium was empty. This area was still blocked off by the security guards for the Poseidon concert, who kept it free of media and students. There was, however, a single exception.

A red-haired young man was sat comfortably on a chair in the middle of the first row. Despite all the chaos outside, he was seated cross-legged like he had not a care in the world. His eyes were on the stage in front of him.

“A-Jue, why aren’t you here yet? Didn’t A-Li tell you to arrive early? We’ve already set aside a seat for you. Later there’ll be a mess of people pushing in here, you’re gunna get trampled.” Chu Cheng lazily drawled in to his communicator, grinning with pleasure at the prospect of his friend’s forthcoming difficulties.

“At the door,” Lan Jue’s voice replied.

And he was indeed, handing a golden card to the guards blocking passage beyond. Once they saw it, they let him pass with bows and scrapes and a great deal of respect.

The moment he stepped in, Lan Jue’s eyes lit up. He’d never actually entered the auditorium before – more like an arena, in truth – but he absolutely hadn’t expected it to be like this.

In a glance he could confirm that indeed the arena could hold a downright frightening number of people. It was beautiful and large, with three fifty-meter tall walls hemming it in. Each were covered top to bottom in fresh forget-me-nots. The ceiling above them dripped with shimmering crystal lights. They were in the shape of various sea fauna; fish, crustaceans, clams, starfish and sea urchins. Anything one could think of when considering the ocean, was present in some fashion or other. This was underlined by the largest piece – a thirty-meter long crystal whale. Never mind how the damn things were made, how were they even safely suspended like that?

The lighting of the auditorium interior was still dim, but the gentle light was working from several angles. It’s reflection off of the towering walls covered in flowers gave everything a soothing blue hue. As the lights shone through the shimmering crystals, too, their reflections filled the arena. It looked like they were underwater, with reflections of sunlight dancing on the

ocean floor.

The crystalline figures hung a few dozen meters from the ceiling, and as Lan Jue cast his eyes around he was convinced there must have been ten thousand or more of the exquisite decorations hanging here and there. It was of course the stupendously large whale that especially gave Lan Jue pause. Were that thing to fall the death toll would be staggering.

A thick curtain hung heavy over the stage, hiding the contents of the stage from view. Every seat he passed on the way forward sported a single blue flower, and a copy of Poseidon’s Sounds of Nature.

Each album was a treasure, as far as the common man was concerned. Poseidon’s releases always came with a steep price, the last release running around four hundred NED. This album would be more expensive, undoubtedly. More than ten thousand seats, which meant ten thousand albums. It was an enormous profit to be giving away for free.

Lan Jue shook his head in wonderment as he walked. It wasn’t long before he arrived at the front and took a seat beside Chu Cheng.

“I’m a teacher here,” Lan Jue complained. “If I’m seen up here sitting so close to you it could bode poorly. I’ll stay a while then move to the back.”

Chu Cheng chortled at his friend’s concerns. “You think there’ll be space in the back? Stay here, trust me. I’ve seen one of Hua Li’s concerts before, and the second it kicks off no one will be able to keep their head. No one will be paying attention to you, I promise. Besides Hua Li’s already thought about your potential troubles, so he set your school luminaries off to one side. We’ll have international big-wigs and Poseidon staff on either side of us, so no one will recognize you.

“So be it,” Lan Jue answered grudgingly. “I have to say, Poseidon Media certainly knows how to do these sorts of things. But the amount of money they threw in to this must have been insane. And that’s not counting the whole rest of the school they decorated!”

It looks like the author decided to make some changes to the terminology, or I’m an idiot. Either way, I’m going to make an adjustment here: Gobi Entertainment is the name of the entire company of which Hua Li’s family is the primary owner. Poseidon Media will be their PR and activity arm

Chu Cheng chimed in. “Just the surface, bro. The amount of money they give the school just to do the performance here would cross your eyes. You think all these stuffy suits would let some star take over their school for a concert otherwise, much less attend themselves? But in the end you know this is a good thing for the university – not just because of Hua Li and Poseidon Media’s name, but also the fact that it’s a benefit concert.”

Lan Jue shook his head. “This guy! It seems like being a superstar is anything but worth the effort and hardships. And having to hide every time you want to go out… it looks like even Hua Li is tired of it.”

Chu Cheng laughed. “What can he do about it? It’s in his blood, a product of heritage. If he wants to be rid of it, he’s gunna have to find a woman to birth the next victim. A son, and then he’ll have to wait for him to come of age. Only then will he have the ghost of a chance at a normal life. The reputation of the Poseidon line is the product of generations. when you think about it, it’s like it has a life of its own, an amazing thing.”

Lan Jue looked off across the auditorium as he changed the subject. “When the concert’s done, how about you two come stay over mine tonight. We have some training of our own to get to.”

Chu Cheng nodded his fiery red head. “That DreamNet thing. The news is already all over. Go to any search engine and you’ll see the first result is the God-team battles. Second is the Divine Monarchs and this ‘mysterious challenger’ that  we’re  up against. Then the next ten down the list are  about  various aspects of this whole thing. There is absolutely no way we’re allowed to lose this.”

“Ngh.” Lan Jue nodded his head resolutely.

Beep, beep, beep! Lan Jue’s communicator beeped to get his attention.

Lan Jue answered, and Jin Yan’s voice chirped at him from the other end. “Hello Professor Lan. Where are you? The Poseidon concert will be starting soon, we’re out here in line. You should get here soon! We’ll keep a seat for you.”

Lan Jue waggled a finger at Chu Cheng as though to say ‘I told you so’. “I’ll be there soon, thank you guys.”

The young etiquette instructor cut the connection, and rose to his feet. “What was that about no seat in the back? It’s safer back there anyway. I like to keep things low key.”

Chu Cheng shook his head helplessly. “What about your seat here then? We can’t just have an empty spot right here in the middle.”

Lan Jue snorted. You were just telling me about how busy this’ll get. Give me a moment and I’ll find someone outside to fill the spot, alright?”

He didn’t wait for Chu Cheng’s response, making his way towards the exit. He had become accustomed to the university life since being here. He was learning to enjoy it. It wouldn’t be at all worth it for his cover to be blown over some concert. Indeed, it would be best for him to be back with the other teachers.

Lan Jue avoided the main entrance of the auditorium, deigning instead to exit from a side door. However, despite his attempted subterfuge, he was met outside by a crowd so large he nearly yelped when he saw them. It was a veritable sea of humans, but luckily the guards were doing a fine job of keeping order.

Lan Jue called Jin Yan once more to determine their location, and went off to meet them.

He turned a corner on his trek, only to be caught in a deluge of students making their way to the arena. He quickly jumped to one side, but as he did he stepped directly in to the path of another rushing figure. His attempts at being covert caused him to collide right in to them.

He felt like he was hit by a truck. He very nearly let his unconscious take control and employ his Discipline to keep him upright. Fortunately, he remembered who and where he was. Unfortunately, this meant he had to allow himself to stagger to the side, and fall.

A hand grabbed him by the collar and yanked him straight.

“Be careful.” The voice was chillingly familiar.

Lan Jue nearly crumbled to the ground by virtue of the realization alone. There’s no way, he inwardly lamented.

He slowly, slowly turned around. There in front of him was the single last person he ever wanted to see again.

“You?” Tang Lingyun’s eyes were hard and cold as they fixed

on Lan Jue. The disdain was so thick in her glare that he felt as though it might actually cut him.

Lan Jue smiled, but it came out more pained than anything. “When is it not me. Hello, Professor Tan. I’m very sorry to have run in to you. Are you alright?”

Tan Lingyun dropped her head to look at her feet. Lan Jue followed her gaze and saw the invitation envelope for the concert on the ground. He quickly stooped to pick it up, fumbling with it.

Each admission ticket came in a large envelope. He laughed sheepishly as he handed it to her, then hastily made his retreat.

“Who was he?” Le Ziqian asked curiously from Tan Lingyun’s side. They’d arrived together after their meeting. He was just about the only teacher who didn’t stay as far away from Professor Tan as they could.

“A teacher. Electives, I think. A damn waste of space. He almost got us all killed on Taihua.

Le Ziqian chuckled. “Little Yun, you shouldn’t always be so cold. From what I can tell he doesn’t seem all that bad! Polite and courteous. You know this will only get you in to more trouble the older you get. It’s time a phase that has passed its time.”

Tan Lingyun responded with displeasure. “Ziqian, if you’re getting ready to lecture me I can just go home. If I decide never to marry then that’s my decision to make. Men have nothing good to offer.”

Le Ziqian rubbed his nose in exasperation and annoyance. He pushed his gold rimmed glasses higher on his nose, grinning sourly. “You shouldn’t always burn bridges. Already you can see it in the school – be it student or teachers, they all hide when you pass by.”

Tan Longyun laughed. “That’s good then, saves me the trouble of having to deal with morons. Women should always be out to protect themselves. Now let’s go and get in line.”

Chapter 172: Switching Seats

It wasn’t long before Lan Jue found Jin Yan and Wang Hongyuan. By the time he did, he discovered they’d already set aside a seat for him. The dance instructor greeted him by pushing an invitation ticket in to his hand. “I figured you wouldn’t have one.”

Lan Jue chuckled. “I actually wasn’t going to come. This sort of thing is more suitable for younger generations. I’m honestly not all that interested!”

Jin Yan huffed at him. “Talking like you’re an old man. Could you be any more anti-social? You know any normal Poseidon concert anywhere else in the galaxy, you’d have to sell a kidney to get one. This one is a big benefit concert and album release – we’re only here because we’re lucky enough to have our school hosting. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be a shadow of a chance any of us could get tickets.”

“Alright,” Lan Jue said in defeat. “I’m here, so I might as well give it a listen.” He made a mental note to have A-Li sing for him just one on one sometime.

People began to file in to the auditorium. Members of the

media entered first to set up positions. Afterwards, faculty and students were allowed in to find their seats. There weren’t any outsiders or foreigners – like Jin Yan said, tickets were impossible for them to come across.

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The line moved until Tan Lingyun and Le Ziqian were before the doors.

“Tickets.” The gate guard regarded the two of them indifferently.

Tan Lingyun handed the man her crumpled envelope without a second thought. He responded by taking it from her. As he did, a single dark golden card slipped free and tumbled to the ground.

The guard hastened to pick it up with a change coming over his dismissive expression. He jerkily invited Tan Lingyun to proceed with a sweeping motion of his hand. “This way if you would, ma’am. There are already many people inside, allow me to help you find your seat.”

The Savage Goddess was struck by his change in demeanor. After all, everyone else in front of her had simply taken their own tickets and pushed through the crowds. What was different about her?

She craned her neck to look back at Le Ziqian, who laughed as she did. “It looks like beautiful women always get special treatment. Go on in, I’ll be right behind you.

She had no choice but to follow the guard. He pushed through the throng of young, rambunctious students to the front few rows. The closer to the stage they walked, the more she felt like she didn’t belong. She was just a teacher, she thought, it was wrong for her to be up here with the more important folk.

The school had reputedly given out the same normal tickets to students and teachers in an effort to keep things fair. Only the school’s luminaries were different, and sat closer to the stage. She also clearly recalled her own seat, which should have been somewhere in the middle of the auditorium.

“I’m sorry, but can you look again? I’m sure my seat isn’t this close…”

The security guard turned back to her with an amicable smile. “There’s no mistake. Your VIP card is very special – your seat is in the very front. Please, let’s get you seated.”

And so it was, because she had no idea how this came about or how to get out of it. Still stunned at the circumstances, she followed the large man until they reached the very front. They stopped before the seat Lan Jue had occupied earlier.

Chu Cheng was seated next to the empty seat, looking impossibly bored. However, the second he spotted the firestorm that was Tan Lingyun he sat straight in his seat.

His eyes shone, as they were wont to do when in the presence of a pretty girl. He swept those hungry eyes up and down her svelte figure like a scanner.

This girl, certainly the envy of all her friends! And her temperament.. black clothing… she has to be a teacher.

Tan Lingyun, her heart still full of confusion and surprise, confirmed once more with the guard that this was her seat. He assured her it was, so she sat.

She had no idea the danger she was in.

She decided to let things lie, and take matters as they come. Besides, she was incredibly close to the stage. How could this be a bad thing?

“Hello there.”

Her thoughts were interrupted by a magnetic voice from the next seat over.

Tan Lingyun turned her face to the sound, laying her eyes on Chu Cheng.

Although he was seated, she could still tell that he was tall. He was positively bursting with testosterone, as well. He was covered in wine red pants and a vest, covering a snow-white shirt. A black tie finished off the ensemble. He looked… neat.

She nodded her head. “Hello.”

“You’re a friend of Lan Jue’s?” He asked.

Instantly her face curdled. “Lan Jue? You mean that pustule?”

“Pustule?” Chu Cheng tilted his head and looked at her. He’d known Lan Jue for years, and this was the first time he’d heard anyone address his brother like that.

Tan Lingyun’s voice was soft, but biting. “You don’t mean that cowardly waste of air? Useless as a coin purse.”

“A-hehm!” Chu Cheng covered with mouth, feigning a cough to find his expression. His stomach undulated as he fought to keep the fit of laughter he desperately wanted from exploding to the surface. He didn’t want to spoil his image in front of this lady.

He really couldn’t imagine what A-Jue must have done in front of this girl for her to be reacting like this. And yet he gave up his card to her. Interesting, he thought, very interesting. At the very least he knew there wasn’t anything between she and Lan Jue he had to worry about.

“Maybe we’re talking about two different people. Ehm, let me introduce myself. I’m Chu Cheng.” He hurriedly changed the subject, and brought his face under control. As he spoke, he

extended his hand towards her politely.

She nodded once again, but made no move to grasp  his waiting hand. “You aren’t from our school, obviously,” she replied in that same quiet voice.

Chu Cheng nodded. “Yeah. I guess you can say I’m part of the Poseidon Media group.”

Her voice suddenly grew icy cold. “Shut your eyes, and keep your thoughts to yourself. Be careful and you’ll stay out of trouble.” She sat back against the chair and crossed her arms, eyes fixed on the stage ahead. It was pretty clear to her that this was orchestrated.

Chu Cheng’s hand stiffened, hanging in mid-air. Quite the character, this one.

However, in no time at all Chu Cheng was making adjustments to his approach. He let his hand drop and sat properly in his chair. He had spent years perfecting his skirt chasing, his experience was copious. If one method wasn’t working, well, he had no shortage of other tricks to try. This Tan Lingyun had piqued his interest.

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Various sounds took turned dominating the interior of the auditorium, from sighs of admiration to gasps of alarm as the students gaped over the decorations. Everything was in a state of chaos.

Lan Jue entered the auditorium once again, though this time as a teacher. He followed close behind Jin Yan and Wang Hongyuan as they waded in to the fray. Their seats were situated nearer to the back.

“Are you in the arena?” Zhou Qianlin’s voice whispered in to Lan Jue’s mind.

“Yup, just walked in,” he said.

“That Lir university student from yesterday morning just sat next to me.”

“Coincidence?” Lan Jue’s face darkened.

“Probably,” she answered. “He just started speaking with me.”

Lan Jue thought for a minute. “Then I’ll switch seats with him.”

“Alright.”

He rose to his feet and began to move. There was no need for him to ask where Qianlin was, for by virtue of the Soulcaller gem he knew her general whereabouts in this confined space.

A cursory search revealed several tall students, but no Zhou Qianlin beside any of them.

Lan Jue spoke gently to Jin Yan, who was seated beside him. “Professor Yan, I spotted a friend. I’m going to go over and say hello. After a minute someone may come to take my seat because that friend and I have something to discuss.”

Jin Yan looked somewhat disappointed. “Not much point, is there? It looks like the concert will be starting soon, you won’t have much time to talk.”

Lan Jue only chuckled, then left.

Zhou Qianlin was seated diagonally behind Lan Jue’s seat. He had to walk a big circle to get to her location, eventually approaching from the opposite side.

When he got there he saw a noticeably irritated Xiao Han.

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Xiao Han’s actions that morning were largely to cause trouble at the NEU, but he couldn’t ignore the attraction he had for the girl.

In his estimation, this one was something special. She had a different sort of air to her. She was pure, spotless, quiet and perfect. He had always been the chosen one of Lir University, and as a result there had been no shortage of girls at his side. Who knows how many pretty female students have been his study partner. But none of them were like Zhou Qianlin. This was a first.

In fact, he’d spent the last couple days asking around about

her, eventually discovering that she was the greatest beauty the school possessed.

“Hey gorgeous, looks like it’s destiny that binds us. Zhou Qianlin, right?” He addressed her with a small smirk on his face.

Qianlin kept her eyes fixed forward, deigning not to address his advances.

Xiao Han was not deterred, and in fact continued like a man well at ease. He knew where he was, and keenly understood that making trouble with someone who was always the center of attention wasn’t a good call.

“Well Qianlin, I’m Xiao Han. How about we meet properly this time. I’m from Lir University. In fact, you’ll see me in the arena when our schools start the competition. If you have time you should come and watch. Here, this is my communicator number.” He plucked a strip of paper from his breast pocket as he spoke. He stretched it out to her.

Qianlin, meanwhile, sat unmoving.

A stern look flashed across Xiao Han’s eyes. He’d never encountered such stiff resistance at his university. Even newly weds didn’t treat him so coldly. It was like he was empty space.

“Did you hear me? Take it.” His voice was quiet, hard.

Not a sound from Zhou Qianlin.

His face grew cold. He fought with himself against the desire to just cram the piece of paper in to her hand.

Suddenly a hand clamped down on his shoulder. “Hello there, student,” a warm voice entreated. “May I have a word with you?”

Unfortunately, Xiao Han couldn’t really hear the greeting. He was too focused on the fact that his entire body had gone numb. And then everything went black.

To anyone looking on, it looked like Xiao Han heard the Professor, nodded, then rose to follow. Lan Jue brought him forward a few rows to his own seat.

“Hey guy, why don’t you hang out here for a little while. Me and my friend have something to discuss. Thanks man.”

Xiao Han simply sat there as though he were made of wood.
Soon, however, his eyes shut and he began to snore.

Lan Jue shook his head helplessly and addressed Jin Yan. “These young people, am I right? Always burning the midnight oil, so bad for you. Now here he is sleeping with such an incredible concert about to start. Well I gotta go talk to my friend.”

Wang Hongyuan gave him a strange look. With a gentle push of his Discipline he warped the air so only he and Lan Jue could hear. “The hell are you up to?”

Lan Jue responded in the same fashion. “Giving you a chance! Didn’t you say you wanted me to avoid Professor Jin at all costs? Look how good I am to you. You owe me, got it?”

He didn’t wait for the dance instructor’s response. Instead he just walked back a few rows and took the vacant seat beside Zhou Qianlin.

Chapter 173: Poseidon’s Sounds Of Nature

Zhou Qianlin didn’t know when that small smile had first appeared on her face.

Lan Jue took the seat beside her, very serious of expression and mannerism. He looked straight ahead, looking neither right or left as though he didn’t know the people beside him, and didn’t care to. He was succeeding spectacularly at not attracting attention.

The Soulcaller Gem warmed.

Lan Jue: I put him a few rows ahead. He’ll be sleeping for a little while. Sleep’s important for those kinds of guys, with surplus hormones.

Zhou Qianlin: Mm. A qualified bodyguard.

Lan Jue: Of course!

Qianlin: So you seem rather comfortable with this position.

Lan Jue: Doesn’t matter if I’m comfortable. If you’re going to guard someone you take it seriously.

Zhou Qianlin said nothing further. By now all the teachers and students had filed in to the auditorium and found their seats. The twinkling lights began to dim.

Sweeping one’s eyes around the area you would find not an empty seat in the house. There were even people in the aisles, settled on stools.

Ever since the place had begun to fill up, the riotous din of people had grown louder. Now, though, as the lights darkened, a hush fell over the crowd. All eyes turned to the stage.

“Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to a world of endless ocean.” A warm, pleasant female voice washed across the occupants. It came from all directions at once, bringing with it the gentle sounds of crashing waves.

From all around appeared shimmering halos. They undulated and expanded outwards like ripples in a vast sea. The ears were full of the sounds of water as the rippling lights spread all around. The whole arena was awash in sapphire, as though they

were indeed far beneath the waves.

The air was thick with moisture, and even the slightest hint of sea salt tickled the nostrils. As ten thousand eyes watched, the ripples crashed against the crystalline figures hanging from the rafters. They shone brilliantly, for all the world appearing alive with an inner light. The crashing waves grew gradually louder from small lapping waves to great crashing ones. As the raucous crescendo of a tsunami tore all around, every onlooker’s heart skipped a beat.

Lan Jue looked on with rapt attention. Silently he came to the realization the power of water element was thick in the air. This was by no means a product of special effects; clearly this was the power of a water Adept. What’s more, the power appeared evenly distributed even throughout the enormous auditorium. This wasn’t just the work of one person.

The audience collectively held their breath, all of their attention trying desperately to take it all in. They were, one and all, completely consumed by the spectacle.

“Myriad creatures exist within the deep blue depths. Here, there is only silence… and yet it is full of vibrance. This world is ruled by a handsome Monarch, who guards his people. At his

command the waves recede, and in this way he protects us, too.”

Once more the moving female voice arose, and as though at her own command, the terrifying crash of tidal waves quieted.

A peaceful silence fell over the arena. Only the gentle slaps of water on sand remained, amid the lingering charm of that voice.

The ocean sounds were almost imperceptible, but there. As though they were under the water themselves. It lent a genuine air to the atmosphere.

From within and among the ambient sounds there came a singing. It was sweet, and melodious, and only just loud enough for you to know it was there.

It was soft, and pleasing to the ear. Mellow, like an undersea scene. In addition, there was a powerful gravity to it, a magnetism that put listeners on the edge of their seats. There was a sense of omniscience, as though it were narrating a tale. In fact, none could make out the words, but it was a sound that was soothing as it was mysterious. For all the world, they were

there among the beasts of the sea, one of them, giving ear to the songs of the ocean.

An opera aria! That was precisely what this was. His voice was perfectly accompanied by the musical sounds of the sea and waves as though they were instruments. And that was it, a perfect trio.

A gentle blue light shone from on high, illuminating the stage. It was just enough light to see the curtain being pulled away. The stage was a staggering blue, that reflected and refracted the floodlights above in a dazzling crystalline display. This was because it was crystal, an aquarium fifty meters high and a hundred meters across. It was filled to the brim with sea water.

However, shocking as that was, ultimately the greatest surprise was what was in the aquarium.

The frothy water danced with a hundred thousand prisms borne from the crystal walls that confined it. They flashed and hung in the water, shimmering against the walls of an enormous palace of blue and gold. The building’s colors complemented each other, perfect like a dream. It was surrounded by walls of coral and a moat of swaying kelp. Fish of all sorts swam lazily among the eddies. In the space of an instant

the audience went from among the ocean tides to the heart of this undersea world.

This was no holographic projection, no trick of light or shadows. This was a real scene, built in the middle of the arena. So much clearer than a hologram could ever be, and so lifelike.

That faintly singing voice swirled among the ways from within the golden palace. Fish did as they were wont to do, darting about aimlessly – and yet, as the voice strengthened the fish within the tank slowed, stopped, and faced the palace. As though they were listening.

Under the watchful gaze of its subjects, the palace doors slowly began to open. A figure was revealed, slowly coming in to focus as it floated out in to the light.

His movement was slow, deliberate. It matched his melodious voice. The first thing the audience could make out was his garb. Armor, a deep cerulean blue that shone. He was the very heart of the ocean.

Silken threads of powder blue hair hung free, displaced by the ornate golden crown upon his head. A single drop-shaped

gemstone was inlayed in the center.

His eyes were a sea blue that bore the spirit of the ocean, with fair skin and a high nose bridge. It all coalesced in to a face that stopped the breath in your lungs. Unblemished. Perfect. He was precisely what a king of the ocean should be.

As dazzling as he was, it didn’t go unnoticed that he was immersed in the sea. How, then, was he singing? It was a trick, they thought, and none suspected it was actually him singing.

Under the weight of the performance the auditorium had lapsed in to a stillness, a silence. No one made a sound. All there was, was that vivid and vivacious voice among the ambient noises of the sea. It grew stronger, louder amid the silence. Even the hardened media, far in the back, were struck agape at the display.

Poseidon’s face bore a small smile. He moved inexorably forward, until he crossed the coral walls. Strangely, the schools of fish at his gates did not flee at his approach. Instead, they flocked closer in his wake.

He stretched out a slender hand, long fingers opening one by

one. A tiny orange fish drew close and settled there. His alluring voice continued as his eyes fixed upon the fish. And the fish appeared to look back. Louder still his singing became until, just as the crowd was ready to burst, the volume dropped. Poseidon looked on in surprise as a blue light filled his hand.

It wasn’t long until that dazzling light consumed the entire interior of the aquarium. The light burst out with the power of a tsunami, eliciting a startled gasp from the audience.

The crystalline blue shards of light twinkled and disappeared, revealing again the underwater paradise. The palace was as it had been, and there stood the king as before. But his palm no longer bore the small orange fish. In its place there stood at his side an adorable mermaid.

She looked perhaps seven, or eight. Young and  smiling prettily from the reefs at him. Much like his audience Poseidon, too, was startled by this. Slowly his surprise gave way to a small smile, and he waved her forth with a gentle motion.

The little mermaid giggled. In her joy she swept her bright orange tail through the swirling waters. All the other fish hung around her now, and danced with her as they surrounded Poseidon. Even the most incredible dancers couldn’t compete.

Once again the singing increased in volume. Though this voice did not belong to Poseidon. It was hers, crystal clear and beautiful. Compared to Poseidon’s throaty vocalizing, her voice may be immature. But it was so sweet, full of naivety. It brought a smile to every face in attendance. It was cozy, sentimental.

She was almost like a spirit, a guardian of love. Her voice was bright and full of hope.

Poseidon extended his hand with a smile, whereupon the young mermaid crept closer. She allowed him to pat her hair.

It was his turn again, and as Poseidon’s voice rang out it bore notes of the little mermaid’s own hope and vitality. There was a fondness as well, like a brother instructing his little sister. And all throughout the gentle sounds of nature continued.

So beautiful! This was the thought flashing  through everyone’s mind as they watched. Be it the sounds or the sights, all were so perfect so as to be impossible. A dream or illusion, perhaps.

The media scowled for they knew, no matter how fine their equipment or large the TV, nothing could capture what they

were witnessing. But they rejoiced at their luck, at the honor of being here. To see the Sounds of Nature concert with their own eyes.

Lan Jue looked up to see Hua Li singing radiantly upon the stage. But he couldn’t help but be a little absent-minded. Could this really be his close friend from years ago? A-Li, really? He really did look like the King of the Oceans, Lan Jue thought. And too damn handsome for his own good.

Zhou Qianlin was also enchanted. She watched everything on the stage with a sharp, keen interest.

The undulating sounds of his voice echoed through every corner of the auditorium. It hovered, reverberated until it filled every inch of space.

Chu Cheng watched from the first row. At one point  he learned sideways towards Tan Lingyun at his  elbow. “Handsome right? You like how it sounds?”

Tan Lingyun’s eyes hadn’t once left the stage or the scene upon it since the show had begun. She nodded her head, and her voice was full of sincerity. “Oh, handsome. Probably the most

gorgeous man I’ve ever seen. And his voice is amazing.”

Chu Cheng’s chest tightened, curses coming unbidden under his breath. Anyone hoping to score chicks with A-Li around was doomed to failure!

“That’s the sort you like eh?” He might as well go for broke.

Lingyun shook her head. “Nope.”

Chu Cheng was surprised at her reaction. “Why not?”

She turned her face to look at him. “You talk a lot of shit. Watch the show. And of course I don’t like him cuz he’s a queer.”

A queer?! At last Chu Cheng could hold it no longer and burst in to laughter.

Scores of eyes along the first row turned to scowl, but their interest was short lived. They didn’t want to miss a moment of the show.

“Well gorgeous, how about I show you a real man? Time to get on stage.” He smirked at her.

Chapter 174: Chu Cheng Goes On Stage

“Well gorgeous,” Chu Cheng said through a grin. “How about I show you what a real man looks like. Time to get on stage.”

Tan Lingyun was considering how to respond when suddenly she felt a scorching heat at her shoulder. Before she could say anything, a burst of thunderous laughter filled the arena.

“Ah ha ha ha ha!” The sonorous laughter was so loud it even drowned out Poseidon’s pleasant melodies. All eyes turned to the smoldering red light that appeared at the fore of the auditorium.

The sudden and un-telegraphed change was shocking. Even the school leaders were unable to resist the draw of the show, and nearly jumped from their seats when the sinister laughter began.

The swirling light looked infinitely hot, and flared angrily. As it did so, the crystalline figures suspended on high twinkled crimson. The peaceful underwater world was gone, now a sea of magma.

Poseidon’s face betrayed shock. The myriad fish that surrounded him fled in trepidation to his rear, desperate for shelter. The little mermaid followed suit.

“The king’s subjects were many, beautiful, and easily submitted to his rule.” The laughing subsided and the background music swelled as the voice narrated. It seemed constrained, devoid of it’s former carefree warmth.

Slowly the audience came to the realization that this flaming pillar was part of the act.

Tan Lingyun was perhaps more surprised than most. She turned her head to look for the man who had been at her side, only to find him now standing before the stage. She couldn’t see him clearly in the light, but she knew it was him. He was awash in red, like the god of fire given flesh.

Almost unnoticed, Poseidon’s voice started again. It strengthened until it filled every ear, demanding attention. It bore a distinctly regal tone, his voice. Majestic and commanding, and yet there was a note of condemnation as his voice roared with the power of the seas. The gentleness in his voice when he’d sung with the mermaid was gone, replaced with indignation. He gesticulated and cried, entreating the

entire ocean to rise in protest against this invading evil. Ripples of light appeared throughout the auditorium in response to Poseidon’s calls. Compared to their lazy appearance before, this time they moved and rippled with vigor.

The living flame would not be cowed. As the scene rose against it, the fiery figure raged. It swelled from the human size it once was to a dozen meters or more. Even the temperature in the arena changed, heating up as the fires rose to almost uncomfortable levels. However, a keen observer might note that the fires weren’t causing any damage to the auditorium.

The fiery behemoth did not sing, like it’s underwater nemesis. There was only a deep and persistant growl that called out. It met and mixed with the powerful notes of Poseidon’s call, a cacophonous battle of sound. The crystal figures and glass walls of the aquarium flashed with the opposing fiery and the blue of the ocean. Everything was drawn in to the epic struggle for the soul of the ocean.

They lights clashed, crashed in to one another. They flashed and flooded the arena from floor to ceiling. A sorrowful note invaded the heated musical exchange as the battle raged.

In the midst of their exchange, the fiery giant rose from it’s

feet. With a terrible roar it lurched forward, becoming a raging lance of fire that raced murderously towards the ocean king.

“Boooommm…!” The deep shuddering impact tore through the arena, shaking the entire structure and filling the audience’s ears with the unsettling sound. Those in the back assumed the shuddering was from the speakers, but those in front knew better. To their shock and amazement, the giant antagonist had actually rammed directly in to the crystal wall of the aquarium!

Poseidon’s cries were righteous, piercing. A sapphire blue light had begun to exude from him, prosperous and powerful as it filled the under water realm he inhabited. The intensity in his voice, and the dissonance of the blasts against the background music was harsh and nerve-wracking.

“Boom!” Once more the giant rushed against the crystal wall. This time even those in the back saw clearly what was occurring before them. To their trepidation they saw the cracks appearing along the wall’s surface. Under the audience’s frightened gaze, the cracks spread quickly in all directions. They crackled threateningly until it spread across the whole of the aquarium wall.

Cries of alarm ripped through the crowd, but Poseidon’s

alluring voice called out to them. “Do not fear, my subjects! This evil shall never know victory. I am your protector, and I shall defend you in the face of this threat!”

“Bang!” he giant of fire struck the glass a third time, in defiance of Poseidon’s claims. The crystal fractured under the stress, and shattered in to a hundred million pieces. The water once contained within rushed out like a terrifying tsunami. The water’s roar was not enough to drown out the startled screams of the audience.

“Ahhh—!” Before anyone could move, every seat flared as a golden hoop fixed them in place. There was no escape as the wave barreled toward them.

Zhou Qianlin’s gasp of fear and surprise joined the rest of the crowd. She unconsciously scotched closer to Lan Jue, and wrapped her arms around his.

“Eh?” Tan Lingyun, seated in the front row was similarly surprised at what she was witnessing. A flash of power flared in her eyes. The leather of her seat cracked as he pressed her hands against it. Under the force of her pressure, the golden harness that kept her still broke free. Her hands shot skyward, inciting dual beams of green light to spring to life. It surrounded and

enveloped her like a shield as she prepared to parry the force of the encroaching wave.

“Sit down, cut it out!” A voice light with humor captured her attention. That sizzling red light fell over her. Tan Lingyun felt no heat, but the oppressive force of the light pressed her back in to her seat.

She was not the only rebel. In fact there were many adepts in the audience, and several of them were strong enough to break the harness as she did. But like the Savage Goddess, the moment they succeeded in breaking free that fiery red light pushed them back down.

The fiery power that filled the auditorium grew stronger still, flaring with rage. It roared as the flaming power collided with the wave. Red and blue, fire and water. The colors became the arena’s dominant hue as they broke against one another.

Much to the relief of frightened onlookers, none of the resulting wave managed to reach the audience. The only thing that washed against their bodies was the conflicting red and blue lights.

“Unreal,” Lan Jue muttered. “No wonder A-Cheng’s been hanging around with A-Li for so long. He’s also in the show. And this fairyland they’ve created, that must be Mo Xiao. Flawlessly executed, perfect cooperation.”

The resonating sound of singing broke through the din. It was a warcry, filled with the promise of battle. This was Poseidon’s promise of protection, bringing the ocean to bear for his people. A will as strong as a fortress, calling the united powers of an entire world!

Red and blue, flashing incessantly, shining harsh and quick as they battled. The crystal statues swayed and shook. The lights filled them as well, flashing against their edges. Some twinkled a pale red, and others bore the soothing blue of their king.

Gradually the sounds eased, and the lights dimmed. Poseidon’s voice hung in the air, adopting a sorrowful air. Only the angry red pillar of fire remained vibrant.

Without warning, the entire arean was suddenly plunged in to darkness.

A moment  later  the  world  was  revealed  once  again.  The

crystal wall had reappeared to protect the audience from danger. Where it had, moments before, been nothing but a multitude of fractured glass, now it looked as though nothing had happened. But the scene within had changed. Now in place of Poseidon’s awe-inspiring palace there was only rubble. The pained singing continued, howled from the mouth of Poseidon as he lay upon the floor.

A dark figured approached, black as though it had been burned. The water around it boiled furiously. It’s charred hand was wrapped around the little mermaid’s throat.

The audience had a chance to get their bearings. It had been an illusion, all part of the show. But it had been so real that many in the audience were still trying to recover from the fright.

Poseidon’s mournful voice was hoarse, thick with sorrow. The mermaid struggled against her assailer, her own voice a mixture of pain and fear. No small number of audience members reflected the tears in the little mermaid’s eyes.

Tan Lingyun was well aware that this was all a show, but she couldn’t help but clench her fists at the visions before her. She ground her teeth at the child’s suffering.

The enormous man of fire hoisted the mermaid in to the air.
His hand squeezed tight.

Poseidon’s singing stopped. His eyes were wide and moist as he called out to the giant. “Nooooo….!”

But his cried fell on deaf ears as the mermaid was consumed by fire. Tears hazed the scene for many in the audience, but the mermaid’s death was clear – an icy dagger to the heart.

At his cried, Poseidon’s crown shimmered with power. The teardrop-shaped gemstone set at it’s center bloomed in to a halo of golden light that fell over him like a blanket.

His blue armor shone with the additional light, making the king of the sea appear more severe and dangerous than before. The golden light became a pillar, as with it there slowly dropped a jagged trident in to Poseidon’s hand.

Blinding beams of errant golden light shone in all directions. Poseidon rose brazenly to his feet to the rising crescendo of a battle march. His voice belted forth, strong and challenging, to mingle with the battaglia. There was a distinctly murderous sensation to it, now.

The two figured met in battle among the ocean waves. Vortexes of sapphire light fired out from the trident, forcing the fiery beast back.

At last the fiery monster’s defenses failed against Poseidon’s onslaught, and his great trident found it’s mark. It cast the giant backward, slamming it in to the aquarium wall. Once again the thunderous crash of an impact filled the auditorium, and once again the wall cracked and fell away. The antagonist flailed wildly as it flew across the arena and collapsed in the far reaches.

Poof! As they looked on, the audience witnessed the giant’s body burst in to flame. A blue light appeared moments later unexpectedly, the king of the ocean hunting his prey.

A deluge of water crashed against the flaming giant. Instantly the attack was met with screams of pain from the beast. Plumes of steam and smoke black as pitch towered towards the ceiling like a mushroom cloud.

The lights cut out. All that could be heard was that shrill, ear- piercing scream. The fight was over.

Poseidon had emerged victorious, and yet still his voice was thick with sadness. The depression from witnessing the death of the mermaid still weighed heavy on the hearts of all those present.

All were awash in sadness, so that at first none noticed the sound of gurgling water. It was like a bubbling stream, undercutting Poseidon’s laments.

A pale blue light, soft and dim, began to illuminate the arena. It gradually strengthened until, as though with a live of it’s own, the light congealed atop the stage.

The lights revealed the scene, with the crystal wall once more in tact and in place. The golden palace had somehow returned to it’s former glory. The once tumultuous sea waters surround it had calmed. Lights glistened off the water’s surface like a fine spring day. The light refracted prisms of sea blue throughout the arena.

Still Poseidon’s eyes were full of sadness.

The audience watched, fighting with themselves to squelch the dread and depression that Poseidon’s heavy expression

inspired. Their desire to rise and comfort was almost palpable.

As the silence stretched on, the tiniest little fish appeared, wandering lazily towards Poseidon. It swum circles around the dejected monarch, growing closer with each circuit.

Poseidon’s doleful expression revealed a small smile, though the hurt remained clear in his eyes. His voice whispered forth through the silence, warm and beautiful once again. He sang longingly, as though calling out to the little mermaid who;d fallen at the hands of the monster. His song bade her farewell, giving voice to the pain in his heart but sending her to eternal peace with an assuring smile.

Chapter 175: Shocks And Curtain Calls

Nearly every eye in the auditorium was wet with tears after the display. The need to speak with and comfort Poseidon was only just kept in check.

The king of ocean sang his laments as the fish swirled around him. Then, as the audience watched, a single small orange fish separated itself from the others.

Poseidon stared at it, stunned. A few moments passed, and that paralyzing shock wore off, replaced with an expression of pleasant surprise. The thick and pained quality of his songs changed with the fish’s arrival, more joyous.

He reached out a finger, and the area around it light up with a pale blue hue, like he’d turned on a light. It spread, expanded, until the orb of light surrounded the tiny orange fish.

What followed was strange. Within the nutritive cover of the orb, as the concert-goers watched, the little orange fish within began to change. In no time the orb was filled; not with fish, but a small mermaid which looked as though she were just waking up.

She blinked sleepily at the audience, then turned her attention to Poseidon. She called out in surprise and excitement before draping her tiny arms around his neck. Her excited singing was bursting with joy.

No one knew who started it, but waves of uproarious applause spontaneously erupted through the auditorium. It was like thunder, or the crashing of waves against the shore.

Everyone was clapping furiously. Tan Lingyun, Zhou Qianlin. Even Lan Jue was fervently applauding his friend’s performance.

At some point Chu Cheng had returned to his seat. He, too, was busily clapping. A wide, excited smile was plastered on his handsome face. Then the curtain dropped.

‘Successful’ was an understatement: Poseidon’s performance was remarkable, like a bolt of lightning directly to the heart of every audience member. They watched as though they were there, a part of this magical undersea world.

Two hours passed in the space of a blink, with Poseidon never once breaking character to address the crowds. He didn’t need

to. The show and its remarkable execution said everything that was needed.

The Sounds of Nature. Everyone knew the name, but now they felt it. It lived within them, after witnessing Poseidon bring it to life. The applause continued for a full ten minutes without pause.

By this point the harnesses that had kept them in place had released. Pockets of the audience stood, and before long the entire arena roared from the standing ovation. Their hands were red from the clapping, but no one seemed to mind. What they witnessed had touched them deeply – watching Poseidon’s range of emotions and the magic of the story, it was all burned in to their memory forever.

The curtain spread wide. The crystal wall and sea water were gone. The palace, however, remained, along with the other decorations of his undersea realm.

Poseidon appeared on stage, walking slowly to the center. He held the little mermaid in his arms.

As the lights brightened, it revealed a host of guards who’d

quietly entered the arena at some point during the show and positioned themselves at the bottom of the stage for protection.

Hua Li bowed slightly to the crowd, a smile soft and warm on his face. His magnetic, moving voice was heard once more. “Thank you,” he called to them.

The crowd reacted with calls of their own, all blending together so that the only thing that could be heard was the deafening roar of his fans. Both Hua Li and the mermaid lifted their arms and waved. Bathed in light, surrounded by adoring fans, in glittering sapphire armor… he really did look like a king.

He lifted his hand, entreating silence. After a moment the excited throng quieted down. By now he could rely on his own requests to keep the audience’s emotions in check.

“I’d like to thank every one of you for coming today. This is also my first time performing in an institution of higher learning. It has been my great honor to meet all of you, and to share my latest music with such amazing fans. On each of your seats should be a copy of Sounds of Nature, inscribed in holographic form for your enjoyment. Give it a watch when you head back to your rooms. It’s got a different feel than the

concert. You’ll see.”

“Recently I was made aware of the terrible tragedy that occurred on Taihua. I was filled with a terrible sadness, for the comrades we have lost, the lives cut short. And so we decided to donate all of the proceeds earned today to Taihua. We’re also giving twenty percent of the sales for every copy of Sounds of Nature to the families of the victims. Our hope is that this might, in some small way, help alleviate their pain.”

Once more, a round of applause met his words. This time it was the luminaries and school department heads that lead the expression.

Among them was Wu Junyi. At his elbow was an elderly gentleman who looked to be in his sixties or seventies. He was a congenial looking man, with grey hair and a warm smile. The old man’s other side was occupied by Director Shi from Lir University.

The competing director looked exceedingly jealous as he stared at the stage. As a school director himself, he clearly understood what this concert would do for the NEU’s reputation. Beyond all question, this school would have the advantage when it came to enrolling desirable students for next

semester.

After a long while, the applause subsided. Hua Li smiled and continued. “In reality, the fact that I’m in Skyfire – here with you – was all up to coincidence. I actually came to spend time with a good friend of mine. He brought me here. Obviously he doesn’t want me to embarrass him or influence his standing here, so I can’t say who it is. But I do have something to say to him, and that is: It’s been many long years since I’ve stepped foot on a school campus, and coming here to the NEU has brought back all of those relaxed and excited dreams and hopes of my youth. Countless cherished memories bubbling back up to the surface. Now, I do like to think I’m  not quite  that old yet, but looking out over this sea of bright young faces fills me with a profound envy. Make sure you take time to appreciate this magical time in your lives. College life is a beautiful and important chapter in your story. I’d also like to take this opportunity to thank another friend of mine who came today for a cameo appearance. It’s my sincerest hope that, if you should run in to him around campus, that you try your best to look past his scandalous exterior.”

Immediately following his words, a loud guffaw burst from the front row. Chu Cheng brazenly displayed his middle finger to the stage.

Tan Lingyun turned to look at her neighbor. “You were that fire Adept?”

Chu Cheng shook his head, his face a mask of apathy. “No no, miss. I’m the mighty fire Adept.”

“Pfft!” Tan Lingyun snorted disdainfully at his response. “Is it acceptable to call oneself mighty?”

Chu Cheng looked at her then, his eyes a roiling crimson as the fires burned within him. “Well miss, you can find out for yourself if you don’t believe me.”

Immediately Tan Lingyun’s eyes lit up with the promise of violence. “Fine. When?”

“A guest must yield to the convenience of the host,” Chu Cheng said with a gentlemanly air.

Tan Lingyun opened her mouth to continue the banter, but stopped as though a thought had occurred to her. When she spoke again, her voice was only just loud enough for him to hear. “Give me your com number. When I’ve finished with my

business over the next couple of days, I’ll call you.”

Chu Cheng’s lips curled in to a wolfish grin. And remained that way as he gave her his number. He was secretly pleased with the result; as he anticipated, this was a special woman – special tactics were required. Certainly a good start.

With Hua Li’s thanks and farewells concluded, the curtain closed once again. He vanished behind them with his entourage of security personnel. He still had a series of media events to get through before his job was complete tonight. He certainly still had his work cut out for him.

Under the direction of the Poseidon group’s staff, the teachers and students made a well-organized exit. It was then that Xiao Han stirred from his forced nap.

He shook his head forcefully, like a man who’d been struck. His vision, still blurry from sleep, swept the auditorium as everyone was filing out – much to his surprise. What the hell, he thought. How could I sleep through this?

The people on either side of him had gone already. He didn’t even know how he got to this seat, all there was the faintest

memory of someone putting their hand on his shoulder. There was half a moment when he felt numb, then… nothing.

Was it that girl, Zhou Qianlin? No, that couldn’t it. She’d been sitting next to him when it happened. So who the hell was it? How did they even do it?

He abruptly shot to his feet, glaring in every which direction in the desperate hope he could discover the culprit. At last his eyes fell upon Zhou Qianlin near the auditorium entrance, together with a tall and thin man. He lurched ahead to give chase, but the crowds were too thick. A moment later and he’d lost them again.

ζ

As they left the arena, it wasn’t just Lan Jue who felt like he was returning from a fantasy world. Zhou Qianlin heaved a heavy sigh. “It really was an amazing concert.”

“Qianlin! Qianlin!” No sooner had the words escaped her lips than she heard her name called. She turned to see Tang Mi trotting toward her. She was practically hopping with excitement by the time she caught up. “That was amazing!

Really incredible. Poseidon’s so handsome! I think I might be obsessed with him. His voice is just so beautiful. Here feel, my heart’s racing! I think I’m dying.”

She took Qianlin’s hand and pressed it to her plump chest.

Qianlin allowed herself to be man-handled. Helplessly she addressed her friend. “Tang Mi, relax. Aren’t you always telling me Zeus is your idol? Suddenly now it’s Poseidon?” She shot a covert glance at Lan Jue, standing at her side.

“It’s not the same!” Tang Mi whined. “Zeus is my idol, but I’ve never actually met him. But Poseidon we’ve seen with our own eyes! They said Poseidon’s a powerful adept himself, and a God-ranked mecha pilot to boot. Good friends of Zeus’ too. Have you heard of the Four Divine Monarchs? Poseidon and Zeus are both members. If I get in with Poseidon, he’ll introduce me to Zeus. Ahh, if only they had some sort of harem I could join that would be incredible.”

“Ka, ah, hack! Mm!” Lan Jue nearly choked on his own saliva.
This girl had no shame! Where all girls like this these days?

“Professor.” A tiny voice entreated Lan Jue’s attention from

behind him. He turned to look for the source, and discovered Tang Xiao’s pudgy face looking back at him excitedly from a distance. He walked over.

He shuffled his expansive girth closer, and whispered in to Lan Jue’s ear. “Uncle was pretty great. I didn’t expect such a sissy voice to be so nice. He beat me so bad I’m still hurting, but I think I can forgive him.”

Lan Jue looked down at him with an admonishing frown. “Guess you never know till you try. Aren’t you afraid he’ll show up right behind you, while talking this nonsense?”

Tang Xiao chuckled flippantly. “How could he? He’s got to be very busy right now. By the way I don’t have any classes this afternoon, Professor, but I still have the tactical training they’re requiring for the competition. But anyway, I’ll see you later!”

With that said, Tang Xiao turned and wobbled away.

Chapter 176: Overburdened Bicycles

Lan Jue watched the young man trot off. It was then he spied Chu Cheng sauntering over towards him with a lazy, unhurried gait. In his fine suit and vest, he was having no trouble attracting looks from the young girls around campus. From time to time he’d shoot a charming smile at them as they passed.

Lan Jue turned his back and made to leave, like he had no interest in dealing with the guy.

Of course Chu Cheng wouldn’t be denied, and his reaction time was nearly inhuman. Immediately his voice rose in a shout. “A-Jue, wait a minute!”

Zhou Qianlin and Tang Mi both turned to the source of the greeting.

Chu Cheng made his approach with big steps. By the time he arrived, he was already puffed up and beaming with pride. “What didja thing? Nice, right?”

“Him or you,” Lan Jue asked.

“Me!”

“You said two words,” Lan Jue muttered. “What’s good about it? Tell you what though, I had no idea how talented he was.”

A ghost of agitation flashed across Chu Cheng’s pained face. “Are you even capable of being a pleasant human being?”

“You’re free to keep your distance,” Lan Jue replied. “And when you’re all steeped in your machismo bullshit don’t tell people you know me.”

But Chu Cheng had already tuned Lan Jue out, the moment his eyes found the two young women standing nearby. His eyes lasciviously traced paths up and down their bodies.

“Eh? Little sister, you’re here as well.”

The second the words left his mouth, Lan Jue winced. The damage was done, there was nothing he could do.

“Little sister?” Tang Mi looked at Qianlin and Chu Cheng,

back and forth. “Qianlin, what’s going on?”

Zhou Qianlin’s own appraisal and reaction skills were impressive. “I don’t know you,”she said instantly. “Xiao Mi, let’s get out of here. This one reminds me of Richard.” She grabbed her friend’s hand and pulled her away.

Lan Jue watched the exchange in conflicted praise. She was quite the sneak, but he wasn’t sure this was a good thing.

Chu Cheng watched her leave. “She really does look just like her,” he muttered, mostly to himself. “Cut from the same mold. I’m telling you A-Jue, you better know what you’re doing.”

“Will you shut the hell up, or am I going to have to make you a mute,” Lan Jue said in hushed tones. “Let’s go. I’ve got no classes, so let’s head back and get to practicing. I guess we’ll find out later when A-Li will show up.”

Chu Cheng laughed suspiciously. “Such a troublesome business, these concerts eh? If we wait around for a bit we’ll run in to him, I’m sure.”

Lan Jue raised a brow. “He spoke to you?”

Chu Cheng rolled his eyes. “You need to ask? You really have been hidden away from the modern world for much too long. Let’s go!”

The Soulcaller gemstone warmed as his will flowed through it.

Lan Jue: When are you going home? There shouldn’t be any classes this afternoon if I recall.

Qianlin: Original I’d planned to head out after the concert. But I just ran in to the R&D Director who says I’m expected to participate in the competition again Lir University. The R&D section, obviously. He said he wanted to have a word with me. I’ll probably be heading home later.

Lan Jue: Let me know when you’re finished and I’ll go find you.

Qianlin: Alright.

The two young men left the campus. As they did, it was like Chu Cheng predicted; a furtive figure sneak up up  to  them trying desperately to remain inconspicuous. Hat, mask, glasses, and a school uniform. A-Li.

Lan Jue pushed his bicycle over to the bundle of mis-matched clothing. “Absolutely wretched. If only your fans could see you now.”

“Hush!” What little bit of Hua Li’s face could be seen was scrunched in admonishment. “Keep it down. You’ll know wretched if anyone finds me here.” He practically growled the words, trying to look every direction at once.

Lan Jue only chuckled. “Your concert today was really something, truth be told. It was just my first time seeing one but I gotta say, you don’t hold back with the Discipline do you.”

Hua Li chortled. “Indeed. Got a pretty moving voice if I do say so myself. First Star of the Alliances, I think it’s fair to say.”

Lan Jue smirked. “That’s enough. Let’s head back to mine, it’s time we finally got back to training our mecha combat coop.”

“Yup, let’s do it. Only you just have the one bicycle, what’s the plan?” Hua Li asked inquisitively.

Lan Jue paused. “This is a problem,” he said, glowering at the bike. “So who’s running?”

Hua Li’s indignation flared. “You’d make the First Star of the Alliances run home?! Do you have any humanity?”

Chu Cheng’s response was equally as wrathful. “You’d make the First Heart-throb of the Alliances run home? Do you have any humanity?!”

Lan Jue looked from one to other for a minute before answering.

“Do either of you have any shame?”

Five minutes later.

A bicycle wobbled precariously down the street in the direction of Skyfire Avenue. Lan Jue was peddling valiantly,

Chu Cheng sat on the back, and Hua Li was perched on the cross girder just behind the handlebars.

The bike had long since started protesting with a series of painful squeals.

Lan Jue rode the bike a sight less gracefully than he’d have liked. The three of them with their long legs – none of them were shorter than a meter eighty-five – where too large even for this bike. In it’s time the antique was among the larger sized bicycles, but despite this it was a struggle to fit the three of them.

“No shame!” Lan Jue breathlessly rebuked his friends as he strenuously peddled forth.

Hua Li spat back at him. “It’s not your ass being split by this damn bar, what are you complaining about?”

Chu Cheng’s rumbling voice interjected. “Quite the experience though. If elder brother was here he’d probably have to stand on the handle bars.”

Lan Jue’s voice was cold and biting. “My brother has more self-respect than the two of you. If he were here the two of you’d both be desperate to hide from a beating.”

Hua Li snickered. “Well he ain’t here is he. Hm? What’s this person doing blocking the road.”

Lan Jue craned his head around the clothing mannequin perched in front of him. It was as his friend said; four people were blocking the small road, leaving no way around.

Lan Jue rolled to a stop and steadied himself on one leg. “The two of you get off!”

Chu Cheng only needed to let his legs relax and drop to the floor to be free of the bike. Hua Li had to wait for Lan Jue to release the handled before he could get down.

“Hey, you guys are blocking the road!” Chu cheng called out to the four figures before them.

“We’re looking for Lan Jue. If you aren’t him, you’re free to pass.” A cold and threatening voice replied.

The young men where clad entirely in black, and bore a sinister air. They stared with open hostility at Lan Jue.

Hua Li and Chu Cheng looked at their friend in tandem, but it was Hua Li who spoke first. “The hell is this? Looking for trouble?”

Chu Cheng was next. “These guys don’t know who you are, huh.”

Lan Jue regarded them both. “Time to earn your bike ride.”

Chu Cheng was literally hopping with excitement. “Oh! Oh let me! Me!” He was off at a trot towards the four young men before getting an answer.

One minute later.

The bicycle groaned pathetically as it struggled along the path.

“So who’d you piss off, A-Jue? Got these noobs hassling ya.

Not a one higher than sixth rank. I didn’t even get myself going. What a let down.” Chu Cheng grumbled dejectedly from the back.

Hua Li huffed. “You didn’t leave any for me, either.”

Of course Lan Jue knew where those four hoodlums had come from. He could see the moment they used their Disciplines that they had Acquired talents. Clearly they were from the Western Alliance. Hua Li and Chu Cheng knew this as well, but that didn’t answer their question.

If they were from the Western Alliance then their master was obvious. Richard finally grew the balls to go for him? Lan Jue figured it was time the young guy was dealt with. He was becoming a problem.

“Hey A-Li, let’s get a song,” Lan Jue said, changing the subject.

Hua Li was easily swayed. “Any requests?”

“One of the ones from the concert,” he said. “Let’s hear ’em

again.”

“…”

While Lan Jue and his two companions were slowly making their way home, the NEU was still awash in the afterglow of the concert. The excitement was still evident in the passing students and teachers wandering around campus. After all, this was probably a once in a lifetime event.

“What? Run away?” Mo Xiao had to employ all her will power not to smash the tea table in front of her in to pieces.

Outside, members of the media had already filled up the sizable reception room for Poseidon’s scheduled address. Hua Li had said he was going to change his clothes – and then, he’d just vanished.

“This bastard! I’ll KILL HIM!” Mo Xiao shot to her her feet in a rage, fists clenched and knuckles white. She paced back and forth in the dressing room. “Could he be any more unreliable?”

The assistant at her elbow spoke up in quiet tones. “Well he is

a Pisces.”

“I know!” She roared. “Alright… help me with some make-up.
I’ll deal with the journalists. Such a goddamn waste of time.”

Ten minutes later.

Mo Xiao stepped out to the junket, and appologized to the media that Poseidon would be unable to participate. Tearfully she explained that the whole experience had been an emotional one. Poseidon was still composing himself, and so was currently unable to hold a fair interview.

The craze that had grabbed a hold of the students had also infected the journalists, and the vast majority understood and sympathized with Hua Li’s fictional plight. The vocal minority who were still upset with his absence were cajoled by Mo Xiao’s persistent apologies. She assured them that Poseidon would give interviews as soon as he was able. She followed by formally announcing the release of Poseidon’s Sounds of Nature special throughout the whole of the three Alliances.

Ξ

By the time Lan Jue returned to the NEU campus, the land was covered in the encroaching darkness of night.

Zhou Qianlin was standing on her own, tiredly pinching the skin between her eyebrows. All afternoon had been talks and considerations, to the point where she was too tired to go on.

“By the looks of you, you haven’t eaten yet.” Lan Jue was standing beside his bicycle, calling towards her.

Qianlin lifted her eyes to look at him, and she couldn’t help a small smile from flashing across her face. She shook her head. “It’s fine, I’m not hungry. Just a little tired.”

Lan Jue produced a lunchbox from the bike and handed it to her. “Here.”

Qianlin took it with surprise. She opened it to see, and discovered a handful of dumplings steaming within.

“Chives and egg,” he said with a grin. He handed her a pair of chopsticks. “We’ll go when you’ve finished, otherwise you’ll get sick if we eat and move.”

The Chinese believe that doing anything while eating is bad. Here specifically, it is said that if you eat and move you’ll ‘eat wind’ – wind is the basis for pain and exogenous illnesses in Chinese medicine

“Mm.” Qianlin hummed her agreement. She found a nearby rock big enough to sit on, then tucked in.

Chapter 177: Competition Arrangements

Zhou Qianlin ate at her own pace. She dropped her head, and slowly placed the dumplings in her mouth one by one.

Lan Jue took the time to find a spot beside her. He watched the sky grow darker over the horizon. He enjoyed the sense of stillness and quiet.

“How is it? Good?” Lan Jue looked back towards her with a smile.

“Mm.” Qianlin nodded her head.

Lan Jue continued. “You know the drawback to eating chives?”

Qianlin looked at him with curiosity in her eyes. “What’s that?”

“Chives have a great deal of nutrients,” he explained sagely. “Unfortunately It does have a detriment. You see the smell is so strong you can’t kiss anyone for a while after eating some.”

“Who in their right mind would want to-” She trailed off, her face red with embarrassment.

Her abashment caused her lily-white skin to become pink as a flush crept across her face. Her glance was admonishing and shy. In the dim light of the streetlamp overhead, she looked like a dream.

The two sat close upon the rock as the darkness closed in around them. The smell of the dumplings filled Lan Jue’s nose on occasion. He spoke up, almost without thinking. “Actually, I quite enjoy eating chives.” He was surprised to find himself struggling with the nearly overpowering urge to kiss her.

Qianlin’s face grew redder still.

Lan Jue haltingly produced a travel cup and handed it to her. “What I mean is, when you finish up, drinking some tea will help. It’ll get rid of the smell.”

She tentatively took the bottle from him and loosened the lid.
The full-bodied aroma of the tea greeted her.

“Ngh. Smells good. Jasmine!” She took another long wiff.

“Yup.” Lan Jue nodded. “The best for reducing the smell of chives.”

She took a few small sips. Lan Jue sat quietly beside he as she finished her meal.

She did, eventually, finish. Once she had, they got on to the bike and made their way towards Qianlin’s Skyfire Mountain residence.

“Thank god you’re so light,” Lan Jue said in relief.

“Who else have you been driving around,” she inquired.

“A couple shameless bastards.”

She wrapped her arms around his waist for support, and said nothing.

“Why so quiet,” he asked.

“I’m just tired,” she replied.

Lan Jue went on. “Right, what’s going on with this educational exchange thing? Why are they forcing you to participate?”

Qianlin shrugged. “Our two schools have always had a rivalry, though what exactly happened to make it this way I don’t know. All I know is, they do this every year. The previous competitions were all mecha combat, an excuse to beat us under the guise of educational exchange. It’s unfortunately not something our school excels at. So we lose, sometimes very badly. Only this year they decided to add R&D, I don’t know why. That’s why they called me in and want me to participate. That is something our school can do well.”

“What’s the competition arrangements?”

“Tomorrow will be mecha combat,” she said. “Each side will dispatch three of their best students and three teachers to compete in the arena. The combat portion itself is separated in to two parts; the first is in a simulator and the second is actual

combat. The simulation will be done in rounds of three. The real fights are ‘sudden death’. After all, mechs are expensive. There’s also of course the risk of injury, so they make the real fights one and out.”

Lan Jue nodded in understanding. “So that’s the way it is.
Sounds simple enough.”

Zhou Qianlin sputtered an acrimonious laugh. “It is simple, but who can stand losing again and again year after year? Last year only Professor Tan was able to pull out a victory against another instructor. She helped us redeem a little bit of face. We lost every other competition, from every other year, but that one.”

“How do they intend to compete for R&D?”?”

Zhou Qianlin explained. “One teacher comes with three students, one team for each side. Each team comes up with three problems that they present to the other side for them to solve. The winner is the team that can adequately answer the most questions. We’re expecting Lir to be well prepared, since they’ve finally agreed to the competition. This afternoon Professor Le spend a good deal of time going over the plan. I feel like we have a pretty firm standing. Which is no surprise, since

this is Professor Le’s forte.”

Once more, Lan Jue nodded. “Good then. Just don’t overdo it. If there’s something you can’t quite get you can always ask me as well.”

“Ask you,” Qianlin said incredulously.

Lan Jue shot her a glance. “What. You don’t think I’m smart enough? When it comes to mechs there’s very little I don’t know. At the very least I can offer a different point of view.”

Qianlin chuckled at him. “Alright.”

ζ

It had been a full day since the conclusion of Poseidon’s Sounds of Nature benefit performance. However, the school was still a fairy dreamland and slowly dying indigo forget-me- nots.

The Poseidon entertainment group had yet to clear things

away, instead considering it a ‘gift’ of a fine view to the students and faculty of the NEU. Of course this didn’t hold true for the auditorium. The harnesses, decorations and myriad crystal sea creatures had all been safely stowed away. This was to be expected, of course, since this certainly wouldn’t be the one and only Sounds of Nature performance. There were bound to be other shows on other planets.

Even though the show was long over, the excitement remained. Every teacher and student who watched the show left a loyal fan.

Excitement was in the air, but truth be told it wasn’t entirely from the concert. The NEU still had one important event to consider – the educational exchange competition.

A single black high-alt verti-car was parked quietly outside of the campus gates.

An elderly man who had been present for the performance stood inconspicuously nearby. Director Shi and Director Wu were behind him, engaged in conversation.

Upon seeing the car, Director Shi’s eyes lit up. He

immediately walked to the car and pulled open a door.

An aged man, tall with a head of silvery hair, stepped out.

He was strikingly tall – very nearly two meters – with his hair slicked back and a fine grey suit to match. An overcoat hung on his shoulders. He was advanced in age, but that didn’t seem to detract from the manly charm of his face, which looked like it had been chiseled from stone. Were he a decade or two younger, he’d be quite the sight.

“Ruchao, it’s been ages!” The stocky, elderly man from the NEU stepped forward to greet the newcomer and vigorously shake his hand.

The other gentlemen responded in kind, smiling amicably. “Not so long I think. Maybe a year. But I must say, Renjian, you look like you’ve put on a few! You need to take better care of yourself.”

Renjian chuckled good-naturedly. “Oh it’s nothing, I just take up a little extra space. So long as the wife doesn’t run off with another man more svelte than I, there’s nothing to worry over.”

An inexplicably sullen expression flashed across the taller man’s face. “Shall we head in?”

The fatter one stepped aside and motioned his friend in with a wave of his pudgy hand. The two of them walked passed the gates shoulder to shoulder. They were a somewhat comical sight
– Ruchao was at least a head taller than the other.

After a few long moments, both Director Shi and Director Wu followed behind them.

The newcomer was the Dean of Lir University, Han Ruchao. Of course the fatter gentleman was his counterpart, the Dean of the NEU, Xu Renjian.

Their names rang in the education circles of the Eastern Alliances. Both were responsible for many well-trained graduates, who went on to live successful lives in their own right.

The two traded words as the meandered through the university. “So Renjian, when are the games commencing? Is your university prepared?”

Xu Renjian smiled ever so slightly. “As expected. All the best pilots were stolen away by you, naturally. What can we do about it? We make the best of what we have.”

Han Ruchao laughed pleasantly at the candid remark. “You’re far too humble, my friend. Who knows what the result of this year’s competitions might be! We might all be pleasantly surprised. In fact, why don’t we make the whole ordeal more interesting? Maybe a little wager?”

Xu Renjian’s flabby face twitched at the prospect. Again, he thought ruefully. The last year his friend walked away with a b- ranked power gem. No here he is again looking for more. Of course he couldn’t allow the challenge to go unmet, that would be weak.

“What sort of wager are you thinking?”

Han Ruchao didn’t miss a beat. “Some changes this time since we have two competitions, don’t you think? A b-ranked gem for the sparring part seems fair. Same as last year. As for the R&D, how about something a little more interesting for the inaugural year. How does an a-rank gem strike you?”

Xu Renjian felt a pang of fear in his chest after hearing the offer. He was very familiar with the type of person Han Ruchao was, and he never gambled on something he had a chance of losing. Clearly combat was his school’s specialty, but for such a wager he must be very confident in his school’s chances for success in the R&D competition.

“We’ll forget about the a-ranked gem. You know I’m a man of limited means!” Despite his tone Xu Renjian wasn’t in the least interested in negotiating a fair exchange. He was simply embarrassed at his lot.

“Ahh, I see.” Han Ruchao shook his head piteously at the shorter man. “Never mind then. I was unaware your school was struggling like that – I suppose you haven’t had any decent researchers come through lately. With this being the case, I suppose we’ll just stick with our former arrangement. A b- ranked stone for the winner of the sparring contest.”

Xu Renjian’s brow furrowed as their chat continued.

Is this some sort of cat and mouse game he’s playing? His plan all along, for fear I’d delay the exchange further?

He found himself in a proverbial pickle. His hesitation and speculation were not lost on Han Ruchao. As the silence stretched, so too did his enigmatic smirk.

Eventually Xu Renjian spoke up. “We’ll put a b-ranked gem on the R&D contest. After all the combat portion is already stacked against us, bad luck you know. It’s fair this way.”

The old fox! A surprised displeasure took root in the visiting Dean’s heart. He wasn’t fooled, the slippery snake.

“Excellent!” Han Ruchao belted his acceptance with only the slightest hesitation. He’d already gotten what he wanted, anyway.

The two smiled pleasantly at each other. But in their hearts it was a different matter, both with a jagged axe to grind. They laughed and talked as they strolled to the reception hall.

Chapter 178: Last Minute Preparations

As was often the case, Lan Jue had arrived at the mountain early this morning to send Qianlin to school. He likewise heard from her that today was the day the NEU and Lir University were to begin competing at the West Hill training grounds. All teachers were expected to attend and learn from the spectacle. The electives instructors were no exception.

He’d left Hua Li and Chu Cheng back at Skyfire Avenue. They were in the underground, training mecha combat in the jewelry store warehouse while he was busy. Hua Li had shut off his communicator and was once more effectively ‘in the wind’ – at least as far as Mo Xiao was concerned. Hua Li knew she was no fool, that she probably suspected he was hiding in the Avenue. Luckily, however, she had no way to get in and find him. In this part of the galaxy, there were some things even the Poseidon Group couldn’t pull off.

ζ

“Professor, you were looking for me?” Tang Xiao trotted up to Lan Jue, who was waiting patiently behind the electives building in their former meeting place. The young pupil panted from the exertion.

“Right, stop pretending. Your fat, but all this for two steps of running is a tad ridiculous don’t you think?” Lan Jue’s words were honest and cutting. An apprentice as deceitful as this, he didn’t have any recourse.

Tang Xiao chuckled, and sure enough his panting stopped immediately. “Am I getting predictable? I do it to perplex my enemies.”

“So I’ve noticed,” Lan Jue said wryly. “Your downright rotten to the core. Are you feeling confident about the competition today?”

Tang Xiao looked almost pained as he answered. “How could I be? It’s like a King of Fighters style battle with three people, right. So last year we only knocked out one of their fighters before the second cleaned us all out. This year they’re even meaner. They’re saying it’ll only take one of them to finish us.”

Lan Jue looked impressed. “What rank are these pilots?”

“The word is Emperor-Class, but I dunno how accurate that is.” Tang Xiao shrugged. “Students don’t know anything about their competition before the actual bout. The professor war

games are even more intense. They’re all at least Emperor First Class. Strong. So they have us beat on every side. It’s a pretty cruel way to lose.”

Lan Jue thought for a moment, staring at his pupil. “Simple. Time’s a little tight, but I can teach you a few tricks. Call it last minute preparation. Are there any restrictions on the mechas specifically?”

Tang Xiao blinked. “Actually, no. Everyone’s permitted to use their own mecha in DreamNet. We’re pretty crappy in that department, too. As you know, in DreamNet each component costs. Every part and gem, and what’s more it’s about equivalent to what you’d get in the real world. The school helps us a little, but they don’t have the resources compared to LU. This is the main reason why we can’t beat people even our own rank, much less stronger. They’ve got some big money behind them. I mean enough to launch a whole contingent of war mechas. They’re just altogether better than we are in every way.”

Lir University

Lan Jue chuckled in response. “Outfitting is the single last thing you need to worry about as a pilot.”

Tang Xiao’s eyes flashed with sudden interest. “But professor, if I don’t prep my equipment I won’t have any stopping power.”

Lan Jue looked over his pupil for a moment before speaking. “You’ve worked hard lately. Fine, I’ll help. It helps that your combat style is different from others’. Oh, and by the way, if you should run in to that Xiao Han in the arena beat the piss out of him for me. If you win, be patient.”

“Got it!” Tang Xiao snapped to attention, giving his professor a sloppy salute.

ζ

Nation Eastern University Reception Hall.

“Is the press release ready?” Han Ruchao inquired of Shi Jiujiu.

“Everything’s prepared,” Shi Jiujiu’s deep voice answered. “The NEU has garnered no small amount of fame simply by hosting that Poseidon concert. This can be to our advantage, however. If we win not only will it improve our standing, the

press will turn right around and trample all over their current golden boy.”

Han Ruchao nodded his head in tacit acceptance. “I can’t wait to see that look of utter defeat on his pig face. We’ll beat them so bad he’ll feel it. If he gets ill enough from the shame, maybe he’ll lose some weight.”

It wasn’t a stretch. Rarely did the NEU hold such activities, and now two in as many days. It was only during their field day once a year that the school approached anything as busy as this.

This was different. Right on the heels of Poseidon’s Sounds of Nature benefit concert, was the highly anticipated (or dreaded) educational exchange between Lir and NEU. Under the guise of ‘cooperative improvement,’ of course.

And yet everyone on campus knew this drama was inevitable once a year. They expected to suffer at Lir’s hands, accepting it as their lot.

So here it was again this year, with the people of the NEU bracing for humiliation. But there was a silver lining; at least they got to watch some nice mecha combat. That was something

everyone could get behind.

Perhaps that was another reason for this farce they embarked upon year by year. Of course this was not their world, but like anyone the students of the NEU desired to experience and get better at it. Their piloting abilities and the strength of their mechas were crucial to their identity.

In the last five years the NEU had suffered significantly in this area. In the hardware sector alone they were only just catching up with other high level universities. With their reputation so low, they had no means of attracting talented students. And thus cycle continued. Every school wanted to see their facilities improve, in all areas. Unfortunately, it was easier said than done.

ζ

It was after lunch, and students had begun to make their way in chattering groups towards the mecha combat area situation on the campus’ West Hill. Lan Jue got the news moments before from Qianlin via their Soulcaller gem, telling him that Tang Mi would also be competing. The both of them felt like it was an embarrassing shot in the dark.

It really was interesting! He thought back to when he was in school, though admittedly not that long ago. He never had any opportunities to join in activities like these. For the simple reason that none of the universities were interested.

But he didn’t know anything about how schools were run these days. He never really paid attention to that sort of news.

His thoughts wandered further, to the beginning of his studies, and almost immediately his face slackened. Those memories always brought a darkness with them when they floated to the surface.

ζ

West Hill, NEU Mecha Training Area

The training field was actually a massive stadium, easily ten times the size of a normal field.

The entire thing was supported by the hills that composed the area to save on costs. Inside, it was separated in to several sections. Among them were the forest, mountain, plains and

desert. Each one was the result of a simulation, but served as excellent practice fields that trained students in tactical awareness.

Of course, they also had a standard combat arena, though that was used for the real thing.

As the teachers and students of the NEU filed in, they immediately spread out across the spectator’s bleachers. Looking over the stadium, it was clear that the National in the school’s name wasn’t just for show. They certainly would need the help of the Eastern government to pull something like this off. It was the largest arena on Skyfire. In fact, it was among the three largest in the entire Eastern Alliance.

It could handle thirty thousand spectators without trouble. Hanging above the stands were scores of holographic televisions. This way the spectators had a comprehensive view from every angle.

The NEU welcoming committee was on a stage nearby, Tan Lingyun among them. The Savage Goddess was clad today in a white combat suit, that brought out her every proud curve. Yet despite her alluring figure no soul dared venture near, for fear her attention would fall upon them. As Lan Jue knew,

misunderstandings were a real danger. Easily provoked was probably an understatement.

Tan Lingyun spun around, and her eyes fell upon Geng Yang, Tang Mi and Tang Xiao. Her voice was low and harsh. “Remember the order. Geng Yang, when the sim goes live, you’re up first.”

“I’m frst?” Geng Yang gaped at her in surprise. He was the best pilot the school had, enrolled in the Emperor-rank for more than a year already. Recognized as the valedictorian of his mecha combat class. He was truly dumbfounded by Tan Lingyun’s decision to send him in first.

She nodded. “I don’t know what the opposition’s roster is, but I do know that beyond a doubt we’re no match for the Lir team, at least in terms of raw power. Situations like this, you rely on your ace in the hole to get an advantage. If you go in first, you’re guaranteed to take out at least one, and if we’re lucky weaken another. An important task, our vanguard. You understand?”

“Yes Professor, I understand.” Geng Yang’s eyes shone with anticipation, the fire of combat lust deep in their depths.

Next, Tan Lingyun turned her attention to Tang Xiao and his sister. “Tang Mi will be second. Your job is to keep the advantage on our side, to the best of your ability. Tang Xiao you’re last, and for you I have only one demand – just do the best you can.”

“I will, Professor!” Brother and sister answered in unison. To Tan Lingyun, Tang Xiao looked like a good, honest kid. He was obedient, quiet and simple.

Tang Mi poked her brother’s pudgy waist. “Bro,” she whispered, “You think you can do it?”

Without a moment’s hesitation, Tang Xiao nodded his head in resolution. “I know it.”

“You don’t know crap,” Tang Mi said suddenly. “Even if Geng Yang beats his first opponent and weakens the second, I’ll still need to try my best to at least drain their mecha’s energy stores. In this sort of competition, they won’t allow us to stop and charge our suits. It’ll be up to you to take on the second challenger and the third. At any rate, if we even get that far, it’d be better than last year. Hell, we’d probably get awards from the school.”

Chapter 179: Mecha Skirmishes

Tang Xiao chuckled through his pudgy face. “Such little confidence in your big brother huh, little Mi? I’m doing my best to be a man and make the best of the situation! Professor Tan Must know this, that’s why she put me at the end.”

Tang Mi gave a tepid response. “Bro, don’t be a punk this time. Anything shady and the Savage Goddess is sure to make you pay for it.”

“Alright, alright,” Tang Xiao surrendered. “How about focusing on yourself. I’ll handle the rest.”

By now the sun had begun it’s slow, inexorable trek westward. Beneath it many had begun to fill the sparring platform. It was becoming an ordeal, for not only were the big-wigs from Lir and NEU in attendance, but also leaders from other schools and Skyfire government officials. All came to watch the schools battle.

This sort of exchange was always sure to garner the interest of the varying schools. As peers they were ever curious as to the state of their competition. It also made for the perfect schmoozing opportunity, with so many important names

gathered together.

This was not even considering the mecha pilots. Even the Northern Alliance – the strongest nation in the galaxy – was seeing an alarming shortage in capable pilots. A single mecha pilot was very rarely the determining factor in a battle’s success or failure, but a good pilot often is one of the most important factors.

The three alliances were always in a state of undercover, simmering contention. Even considering this, however, there was an unwritten rule: any conflicts were restricted to mecha pilots. Whatever the issues it was never to extend to warships, simply because their cost was too great. This was something every alliance understood.

Even though humanity had been scouring the galaxy for a couple of hundred years, in the grand scheme everything was still new. There was still a good chance that a frightening and powerful alien race could make itself known. It was for this reason that the alliances kept their main strength at bay.

Mechas are especially crucial now, as planetary exploration and development has progressed. A skilled pilot was highly prized anywhere they went. They were considered strategic

resources to advance the strength of a nation.

Lan Jue sat amidst the crowd. Jin Yan and Wang Hongyuan appeared after a short while.

Before Jin Yan could even react, Wang Hongyuan swept passed her and took the seat at Lan Jue’s side.

She stood there looking at the two of them curiously. She had no choice but to take the seat next to Wang Hongyuan.

“Professor Wang. Professor Jin.” Lan Jue nodded politely to the two instructors.

Jin Yan smiled prettily. “Hello Professor Lan. You’re also interested in mecha combat?”

Lan Jue laughed. “Part of being a man. I’d wager it’s just part of our DNA.”

Jin Yan grinned. “I’m sure! Men are always interested in things that hit and kill.”

Wang Hongyuan’s imperious voice interjected. “No! I actually am far more interested in art. Clearly, otherwise I’d never have chosen dance.”

Jin Yan sniffed at him. “Well I like it for the manliness of it all.”

Wang Hongyuan nearly choked, pupils contracting. He was entirely flabbergasted.

Jin Yan scooted forward a little to separate herself from Hongyuan, and directed her attention to Lan Jue. “What do you think of all that yesterday at the Poseidon concert? How can he sing under water? And that mermaid, definitely a suit. Or something swimming back and forth with her. But she really was like a fish. How can they sing under water?”

“No idea,” Lan Jue said. “Perhaps they have some sort of special contraption. Maybe a secret of the Poseidon Group. You know, if we knew the method it would ruin the effect.”

Jin Yan looked impressed. “Looks like our scientific progress really is going too fast. It was my first time going to any sort of concert like this, Poseidon was quite handsome. I used to think

you were pretty cute Professor Lan. Little did I know there existed guys like Poseidon.”

Both gentlemen sat stone still, their faces gloomy and sour.

Eventually Wang Hongyuan coughed to break the silence. “So, ehm, Professor Lan. What do you think of our chances in this competition?”

“I have no idea,” he replied with a shrug. “I’m no mecha pilot, I don’t know what’s going on.”

Wang Hongyuan suffered a slight tick, but quickly recovered.
And least until he blurted out, “What crap.”

Lan Jue feigned shock at the accusation, the very picture of innocence. Hongyuan immediately muttered, “Nevermind.”

Lan Jue leaned back in his seat and stared at the looming screen before him. “Anyway it’s fun simply to come and watch. Days like this I really love the college life. Peaceful and relaxing, watching the youth of tomorrow grow in to leaders. It’s a fine feeling.”

Wang Hongyuan paused. He knew Lan Jue meant him. These peaceful days were hard earned. He didn’t want them bothered.

He himself was a smart man. It didn’t take him long to figure it out. He simply nodded. “Well let’s watch the game eh. Should be starting soon.”

Then, as if on cue, the National Eastern University’s Director of Teaching Affairs Wu Junyi appeared upon the stage.

“Teachers. Students. Please quiet down. The Official Educational Exchange Competition between the National Eastern University, and Lir University will begin shortly.”

His powerful and imperatorial voice boomed across the auditorium. Instantly, the place went still. Not a soul wanted the Director’s attention to fall on them.

Wu Junyi paused for a moment. He let his eyes wander over the crowd, and then he continued. “Next, please join me in welcoming our Dean, Xu Renjian onstage to speak a few words.”

It was the first time Lan Jue had heard this name. He was

further surprised to see the man was in fact nearly as chubby as Tang Xiao.

Xu Renjian beamed towards the audience. “Respected teachers, and honored students. Welcome, one and all. First, I would like you all to raise your voice with me in welcoming the Dean, teachers and students of Lir University to our home.”

Xu Renjian was the first to clap his hands together. Only a few scattered applause was all the crowd could muster.

Sitting on the stage nearby, Han Ruchao’s expression never changed. He was already accustomed to this kind of reception. He was well aware of the animosity between the two schools.

Xu Renjian’s smile grew a little brighter. “Today, the chosen contest in which we shall be competing with Lir University is mecha combat. As I’m sure you all know…”

Xu Renjian’s propensity towards pomp and circumstance was quite apparent. He went on for ten minutes before he reached the closing words.

“Director Han, perhaps you would like to share a few words?” At long last he finished, turning the focus on to the opposing Dean.

Han Ruchao rose to his feet, and approached the podium. By his bearing it was clear he was out to top Xu Renjian.

“To every deeply treasured teacher, and dazzlingly brilliant student of our dearest friends from the National Eastern University, hello. I, am the Dean of your grateful guests, Lir University. Han Ruchao. Every year, our two great institutions come to together in a display of integrity, comradery, and mutual desire for improvement. It is the foremost link our chain, which we have forged in friendly cooperation. Forged, in our resolute search for progress and perfection…”

Lan Jue had thought that Xu Ruchao was quite the talker. But this oddball windbag Han Ruchao was clearly determined to beat Xu Renjian’s word count. He was unmindful of the jeers and disdainful glances as his speech closed after the fifteen minute mark.

Finally, he relinquished the microphone to Wu Junyi. “Alright, thank you for that. Ehm, now it’s time for the contest to commence. First, we’ll begin with the students simulated

King of the Hill event. This will take place in a DreamNet arena, whose terrain will be determined by random drawing. The mechas which the students employ are their own. Will the first pair of students please enter the ring.

The actual competition was taking place in a site to the left of the auditorium, where more than five hundred simulators were arrayed. The competitors were there, busy testing and calibrating their mechas for combat. However, what happened there would appear on their screens, and as instructed two students appeared before them.

The massive screens flashed as the students were formally selected, and their terrain randomly chosen.

“That’s Geng Yang.” Lan Jue heard a snippet of conversation from someone in the row in front of him. Lan Jue wasn’t familiar with the line-up for today’s event, but he did dimply recall Tang Xiao saying that – besides his sister – one Geng Yang was on their team. He’d also said Geng Yan was the single best pilot the NEU had to offer.

Wang Hongyuan’s brows shot up in surprise. “Well, it looks like the Savage Goddess is going for the Tianjin approach.”

This involves the story of Tianji and the Horse race. In short, during this horse race Tianji decided to pit his worst horse against his opponent’s best, his average horse to race the inferior one, and his best horse against the challenger’s average horse. In that he way won two of the three bouts, and the competition.

Lan Jue shot him a glance. “Looks like a subject close to your heart. You sure seem to know a lot.”

Wang Hongyuan just continued. “For this sort of competition, the Tianjin style simply isn’t effective. At best you’ll redeem a little face. It’s perfectly obvious the Savage Goddess doesn’t think highly of our students at all, and plans to shoulder the whole thing herself. No, it’s the teacher’s competition that’s the main event.”

Lan Jue gave A nonplused response. “Is Lir really that strong?”

“Lir’s university is an uncommon powerhouse of a school,” Wang Hongyuan instructed. “They consistently pump out excellent pilots. Of their present student body, they have more than twenty registered in Emperor-class training. For this competition they chose three from their number. So tell me,

how do we compete against that? We’ve got six, maybe seven ready for Emperor class, but only barely second grade.”

Lan Jue grunted. “Oh. And what about the teachers who are here to compete? You think the Savage Goddess has a chance?”

Wang Hongyuan nodded. “She should. After all she’s our school’s poster child. She might have the attitude of a spoiled child, but she’s pretty strong. Be it the simulations or the real bouts, she’s going to hold a dominant position. No surprise since she’s a Sovereign-Level pilot. And an eighth-level Talent to boot. Any school could win a few victories with the likes of her in your corner. Overall, Lir’s faculty are stronger than ours. However, if you’re talking one on one I don’t think they have anyone strong enough to beat her. We had a King of the Hill bout last year, and it took two teachers taking turns to take put her down. So we got one. But she also got another victory in the real combat arenas. They say she’s the one bright spot in our school. I heard she’s been busting hump this year to prepare. No small amount of preparation, or so I’m told.”

“I guess we’ll see,” Lan Jue said. “Perhaps Professor Tan will put on a good show.”

Chapter 180: Let The Combat Begin

Just as they finished speaking, combatants were drawing lots to decide which arena they’d be competing in.

The result: The arena! Simple, direct, and most suited for precisely this sort of thing. It was the best arena for determining who had the greatest aggregate strength.

The scene upon the giant screens changed, revealing the massive arena that would be their battlefield. Two mecha appeared on either side.

Two names appeared on the screen in each corner, followed by a sanguine colored bar. It revealed the condition of the machines. A third bar was also present, this one detailing the energy levels of the suit.

Geng Yang’s name was displayed on the left. On the right, one Hua Qianhu

Gengyang was piloting a black suit. By the looks of it, it was a close-combat mecha – jet black, with thick legs and a spear in its hands. A pair of triangular metallic wings were at its back.

Presumably, speed and maneuverability would not be a problem for Geng Yang.

His opponent was the opposite. The mecha was quite slender, nimble, with a massive laser rifle slung across it’s back. Judging by the look, it was a powerful electron canon.

Once a weapon reached a certain level of power, rifle was no longer an applicable term. This was more akin to a canon, and one direct blast from it was likely to obliterate most suits.

It was a weapon best employed by snipers. He laser electron canon was incredibly powerful, yes, but like anything it had a drawback, and it’s was a very poor rate of fire. Fire one shot, and you needed to wait for it to sufficiently cool before the second could be released. The enemy’s advantage lay in those few seconds in between.

For a sniper, this arena was likely the worst pick.

Competitions in DreamNet needed no arbitrator. It’s systems automatically kept things fair and even.

Three. Two. One. Begin The countdown rang through the speakers, and the fight commenced.

Thirty minutes was set. After that, the match would be considered a draw. In more complicated terrain this was a possibility, but in the main arena it was unlikely to happen.

As the match begun, Geng Yan wasted no time. In a flash he was airborne, all thrusters fiery like a nightmarish hurricane. Judging by the model and loadout of his opponent, getting in close was the best decision.

The arena was a thousand meters in diameter. It was enough that any long distance combatant could work with it – and alternatively, was a chore for any close range fighter due to the distances they had to traverse. They couldn’t safely approach without a hail of laser fire.

But Geng Yang was worthy of is Emperor-grade training. He took advantage of his opponent’s need to ready his weapon to launch himself forward without molestation. He rocketing forward dangerously.

As expected Hua Qianhu’s first move was to pull the weapon

from behind his back, and carefully take aim.

A nearly inaudible buzz arose from Geng Yang’s mecha, whereupon a dim grey aura began to emanate from it. This was an integral part of any high-level mecha confrontation involving close-combat fights: magnetic disruption. Its purpose was simple – to prevent weapon locks. If a sniper wanted him down, he’d have to do with his own eyes and no computerized assistance.

The black mecha shuddered in that moment. Its speed increased, zooming forward – and changed direction midair without warning.

“Mm. Disordered Leap.” Wang Hongyuan muttered mostly to himself as he watched the fight unfold from the safety of the bleachers.

The basics of Disordered Leaping wasn’t difficult. However, mastery and using it properly in a battle required quite a lot of practice, and no small level of talent. A necessary requisite for Emperor-class pilots, disordered stepping was considered when determining a pilot’s ranks and fighting ability.

Hua Qianhu’s mechanical arms were still as they trained the electron canon, like he’d been immobilized in the same spot. Only it’s upper body moved, in the smallest increments. He was calm, deliberate. By all indications the sniper had no intention to evade the encroaching spearman.

The one thousand meter separation quickly became five hundred.

Beads of sweat had already begun to appear on Geng Yang’s forehead, as he fought the controls in the simulator pod. To those on the outside, he looked as though he already had the advantage. What they did not realize, however, was that the closer he got the more lethal his opponent became.

Perhaps only Geng Yang realized the danger. His enemy had yet to fire off a single shot, but every time Geng Yang made landfall to jump again, Hua Qianhu’s weapon was half a second behind. It only took one shot to end it. If Geng Yang slowed even the slightest bit, it would spell the end.

His adversary’s calm could only be described as terrifying. It meant he was smart, waiting for that moment when he let his guard slip, slowed down just enough to land a shot. Just waiting, and watching, in almost perfect stillness.

Snipers were about specifics; just the right shot, and just right the distance, in just the right moment. He knew as well as Geng Yang, that a sniper’s hit average increased exponentially the closer he was to his target. Up to a certain distance, anyway.

Geng Yang didn’t attack yet, though he was drawing closer. This was primarily due to the fear that his attack would telegraph his intentions. If the sniper knew where he would be, it was just as bad as standing still.

Geng Yang clenched his teeth, and his hands sped faster over the control panel. The mecha raced forward in response, to the point where an illusory shadow of itself trailed in its wake. It was an indication of true Disordered movement – ghost images. Of course, the faster the mecha went the harder controlling it properly was. Only truly skilled pilots were capable of pulling it off.

The directors of the competing schools were sat quietly in the VIP box, watching the exchange. Lir’s Han Ruchao nodded sagely, then leaned towards Xu Renjian to speak a few words. “Not bad at all, this student of yours, eh my friend. Employing Disordered Leaping to this level is an impressive feat. I’m guessing Emperor-grade.”

Xu Renjian smiled ever so slightly. “Compared to your own students, he hardly registers! The result of this bout is difficult to guess. Your sniper is as calm as I’ve ever seen.”

Han Ruchao chuckled, but did not continue the conversation.

Five hundred meters. Four hundred. Three hundred.

Only a few seconds had passed since the fight had begun, but already the distance between the fighters had dwindled to no more than three hundred meters. For close-combat mechas, this was enough for them to employ their entire attack arsenal. But, before Geng Yang could have a chance, the sniper was on the move.

He dropped in to a squat.

Geng Yang’s undivided attention was ever on his opponent, and his sudden movement made him assume he was preparing to fire. His figure shimmered, shuddered, until it was three identical figures jumping erratically forward. Three sets of enormous metallic wings unfurled.

However, what he didn’t notice was the sniper’s stance. It had squat, but not for cover. Instead dual sets of canon barrels stretched out from compartments in the legs. With a flash, ten deadly bursts of laser fire launched his way.

They were accurate, and as feared they raced towards the only path Geng Yang had to advance.

Not a pure sniper? The float sent shivers down Geng Yang’s spine.

He heard a blast from the direction of his enemy, then everything was enveloped by a blinding red light.

Boooooooommm!

ζ

The situation was clear to everyone watching from the stands. Geng Yang had dashed headfirst in to a shell from the electron canon. It was a perfect shot, right in the cockpit, that sent him flying to the other end of the arena.

The familiar digitized voice of DreamNet followed. “Direct hit, cockpit. At best, the pilot survives in a coma. Mecha damage exceeds fifty percent. Winner: Hua Qianhu.”

And thus did the first contest end.

The entire match, from beginning to end, didn’t last longer than two minutes. This included all the dancing around and delays Geng Yang employed. It was safe to say this was an embarrassingly short match.

Hua Qianhu holstered his rifle, never glancing towards the smoldering wreck that was Geng Yang as it crashed to earth a few hundred meters away.

Geng Yang sat in his simulator, viciously pounding his fists against the control panel. He knew immediately the  fatal mistake that lead to his ‘demise’.

As he passed the three hundred meter mark, he’d begun to grow nervous. What’s more, after five hundred meters he’d already stretched himself to the limits of his speed. It wasn’t a situation he could sustain for long.

When he spied Hua Qianhu move, he’d assumed it was an attack and put his all in to the onslaught. But it was more than he could take, and for a split second his hands paused. As a result, his mecha lurched. That was all Hua Qianhu needed.

Through the course of the fight, the enemy hadn’t even employed their greatest advantage. Geng Yang hadn’t lost from technological inferiority, but psychologically. His opponent was simply better and more experienced than he was.

Geng Yang despondently pulled himself from the simulator. Tan Lingyun, the reputed Savage Goddess, said nothing to him. She simply patted him on his shoulder. Inwardly, though, she was just as depressed.

Geng Yang’s defeat completely ruined her strategy. Not only had they lost their best combatant, they hadn’t even weakened the first challenger. How to proceed from here? Tang Mi and Tang Xiao both weren’t up to the level of Geng Yang. This Hua qianhu had barely used any of his energy stores – mechanical or physical. It looked like Lir’s one student was going to eliminate all three of the NEU’s.

In the VIP viewer’s box, Han Ruchao sat with a smug grin on his face. “Hua Qianhu is a lucky one. There wasn’t any cover in

there for him. If it hadn’t been for that direct hit, things definitely would have gone differently.

Typical! Such a victory and still he complains of the circumstances. This old bastard is as rancid as he ever was. Xu Renjian fought to keep his expression even.

He continued to gripe. “You agree right? I guess luck, in the end, counts as a strength!”

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