Skyfire Avenue Chapter 181-190

Chapter 181: Flogging Corpses

Xu Renjian’s chubby face twitched at Han Ruchao’s incessant, passive-aggressive whining. However, his voice was calm and even as he spoke. “I disagree, it’s a very different thing from actual strength. Geng Yang is still inexperienced, and in fact his mecha was more than capable of handling a blast or two from that canon had he managed to succeed in the forward assault. Had he managed properly, that barrage wouldn’t have given him pause. Had that first strike not pinned him in a killzone your student’s victory would have been far from assured. But it was a clear indication of your school’s dominance in this area, Ruchao.”

Han Ruchao nodded his head. “Mecha technology is important here, but experience always trumps toys. Every week our university holds a small sparring session, with real mechas. If their suits are damaged, they must earn study credits to repair it. Then, they can continue to participate. Rinse and repeat. We also offer a great deal of incentives in the form of rewards for a good showing. Under this sort of motivation, we foster a vibrant spirit of learning and competitive exchange.”

Xu Renjian shot him a glance, but did not speak. A lump formed in the pit of his stomach, the result of the depressed realization that this was destined to get worse. He didn’t anticipate his students would ever pull out a victory, he just

hoped it wouldn’t be an ugly defeat. At present, it looked like he could only pit all of his hopes on Tan Lingyun in the instructor competition.

With the first fight finished, the NEU’s second challenger appeared in the ring.

Tang Mi entered with a fiery gusto, ready to risk everything. She was well aware of the skill discrepancy between herself and her opponent, and that left her with only a single course of action. She would focus her strategies on consuming the sniper’s energy reserves, in order to set up an advantageous start for her brother. If they could just get the better of this one guy, they’d be redeemed!

Compared even to Geng Yang, she was a weaker pilot. However, where she had the upper hand was in her experience. This was a result of the Tang family’s resources. The family was wealthy enough to properly outfit both she and her brother with capable mechas once they’d joined the NEU. As they grew and improved, so too did their suits.

Hua Qianhu beckoned her forward tauntingly.

As the losing party, she had the option of continuing the fight with the current arena or opting for a new one. Without hesitation, she chose to continue where they were. It was the best fit for how she intended to proceed.

The suit she used now was not the same she’d employed in her fight against Nooblet so long ago. Compared to Geng Yang’s, it was a far sight flashier.

The streamlined, golden mecha released a shimmering halo of light. By simply looking at it, it was impossible to distinguish precisely what the suit was specialized in. It resembled its pilot in many ways; long legs, crouched and ready for a fight.

“Three. Two. One. Begin!”

The second contest began with the blow of an alarm.

Like Geng Yang before her, Tang Mi’s mecha began the fight by leaping upward leaving a contrail of golden light in its wake. All thrusters burned as it tore through the air, and what’s more the mecha itself was surrounded in a grey halo and a golden shield of light. Disruption and defense.

It was not that Geng Yang had forgotten to use a shield in his own fight. The constructed and loadout of his mecha was different from Tang Mi’s. His particular choice wasn’t properly suited for combat against long-ranged fighters like the sniper, even if he had used it. It would not have made any difference.

The golden mecha barreled forward at incredible speed. Its right arm stretched out, and from the palm a blast of golden light fired towards the distant sniper.

It wasn’t straight, but instead traced an arched trajectory through the sky, spinning erratically like a boomerang. It rushed in almost sideways towards Hua Qianhu.

The slender sniper mech dropped in a crouch. It was starting to look like his standard response to any attack.

The golden mecha, like Geng Yang before it, advanced with Disordered leaps. But unlike Geng Yang, Tang Mi’s hand speed wasn’t quite as developed. As a result her advance, and the jerking motions of her Disordered leaps, was visibly slower. There was no afterimage from her passing.

The golden beam of light whistled over Hua Qianhu’s head.

The slender mecha stood, never moving from its spot. Still that same, terrifying calm.

A pale pink light spread out from Hua Qianhu’s back, stretching over him in a photomask.

“Dang!” His shield came online, encompassing him in a rippling orb of pale pink light.

It was quite the powerful shield! The suit must have had at least a c-ranked gem powering it to maintain such an effective defense.

Tang Mi fumed, both at the situation and in envy of his mecha. She quickly recovered, however.

The boomerang of light hung in the air for what felt like an age before screeching a path once again towards Hua Qianhu. In the same instant, the deafening blast of the sniper’s cannon rang out.

A sizzling beam of red light lanced through the air with a frightening metallic roar.

“Miss!”

Tang Mi was attentive, and made adjustments as she watched the sniper move.

Sure enough, the cannon’s blast made landfall less than five meters from Tang Mi’s golden mecha. It was indeed a miss, but in the space of a few seconds another thunderous blast was heard. A forest of deadly laser beams came crashing down from on high.

Tang Mi coaxed her mecha to leap high overhead, while in the same instant the thrusters launching her forward went from gold to white. The mecha vanished in a flicker of light before appearing at Hua Qianhu’s side!

“She got passed the kill zone!”

The entire NEU section of the audience watched on the edge of their seat, fists clenched as their representative finally got within striking distance.

As Tang Mi reappeared, her mecha had at some point

produced two shimmering golden daggers which were now clutched in its mechanical hands. The  matching  armaments were a frightening pair, almost appearing possessed  of  their own intimidating aura. High-frequency blades. With these in hand, Hua Qianhu’s shield was not as intimidating.

Weapons that oscillate at high frequencies so as to weaken molecular bonds. An example is the high-frequency blade in regards to the Metal Gear Series universe.

The sniper certainly hadn’t anticipated this golden mecha was capable of such speed. He subconsciously jerks his suit to the side, narrowly avoiding Tang Mi’s deadly scissor slice.

Lan Jue watched from within the crowd, and quietly shook his head. No one saw, for all their attention was fixed on the large screens before them.

As the sword cut through the air, the golden mecha’s chest was left exposed. However, as its arms spread wide in the follow-through a glaring burst of light spat from its torso to launch at Hua Qianhu. It was a textbook, arrogant move. NPD, near-proximity detonation.

The striking distance was less than five meters, and though it was dangerous the destructive power was increased as  such close range, even beyond that of the sniper’s electron canon. Its utility was compounded by an increased blast radius. It was an important aspect of a close-ranged fighter’s arsenal for countering snipers.

Victory! Tang Mi swelled with pride and excitement. The NPD was too close for her opponent to dodge. Even his c-ranked gem couldn’t deflect the attack.

But, did she really pull out the win?

The sniper lay prostrate on the ground, but was still movement. The suit twitched and struggled. It’s left hand clutched the cannon, and with a fierce thrust of its right the suit was upward once again.

Just as the NPD fores, Hua Qianhu’s suit released two beams of light from its shoulder plates. It launched his suit backwards to mitigate some of the damage and push back from the hot zone.

He caught the edge of the blast, but it was enough to violently

knock him to the ground.

The sniper mecha twisted while airborne, spinning directly above Tang Mi’s head. Time almost appeared to slow as the cannon lined up directly over the golden mecha. He pulled the trigger.

“Booommmm!!”

The golden mecha’s head exploded in a brilliant shimmering display. When the dust settled, the suit’s entire torso was missing.

Peng! Hua Qianhu’s sniper landed with a thud. It paused, looking over the crowd for a minute before continuing. He slowly walked around the wrecked, placed a foot against it, and viciously kicked the remains to the floor.

Shouts of indignation rose from the crowd as nearly every NEU student and faculty member balked at the display.

That digitized voice returned: “Tang Mi had been annihilated.
Hua Qianhu is victorious.”

Wang Hongyuan was absolutely livid as he glared at the screen. “Too excessive. He wins and then beats on the wreckage!”

Lan Jue said nothing, but his own face was a mask of displeasure. Lir University certainly was one to go too far. This was clearly provocative behavior.

Xu Renjian’s glowering face turned again to Han Ruchao. “Director Han. Is this what your university teaches its students?”

Han Ruchao looked on as though nothing untoward had occurred. “In combat you must never give your opponent an opportunity, What is the suit is equipped with a self-destruct mechanism? Naturally we teach our future soldiers to avoid this risk. You can’t feasibly expect us not to treat this like a battlefield, Renjian. Our instructors use simulation as a foundation, to prepare them for the real thing. It’s common sense, I’m surprised you don’t understand this.”

“You…!” Xu Renjian’s face was dark with rage.

The crowds below bellowed their curses at the screen.

There was a term for Hua Qianhu’s actions in DreamNet: flogging corpses. It was specifically to humiliate the opponent, despite whatever training they touted, and was universally despised as a practice.

And think of Tang Mi’s reputation. She was one the school’s Great Beauties, and an Emperor-grade pilot. She may not have had the same following as Zhou Qianlin, but she was still a school celebrity. This was especially true in the mecha combat department, where she was considered their muse. How could anyone suffer this sort of humiliation and keep a level head?

The crowds raged and cursed, oblivious of the filming equipment quietly watching from a dark corner.

“Silence!” Wu Junyi’s commanding voice rang out, but even with his deterring presence he had to shout three times before he could illicit a response. Eventually he succeeded in curbing the vitriolic riot that was on the cusp of boiling over.

By the time Tang Mi pulled herself from the simulator, her face was pallid and drawn.

Those many  days  ago  when  she’d  been  dismembered  by

Nooblet’s Brunois Assault, the only ones to witness it had been herself and that damn landmine. This time, however, two entire universities had witnessed her outrageous defeat.

“Tang Mi.” Suddenly she felt herself enveloped in a comforting embrace.

“Your brother will avenge you!” Tang Xiao’s pudgy face was conspicuously absent of his normal teasing smile. Now, it bore the brutal expression of someone out for blood.

He hugged her tight. He spoke to no one, did not even acknowledge Tan Lingyun. Wordlessly, he stuffed himself in to the simulator and began the set up.

Hua Qianhu shouldered his weapon. He stood proudly at his end of the arena, soaking in the jeers.

A flash, and at the other end of the arena appeared his third and final challenger.

Chapter 182: Trainwreck

Hua Qianhu stared in silence at the third and final challenger.
It looked like an average mecha.

It was coated in a bright silver plating, with a stocky composition. It was a good deal sturdier than Geng Yang’s, but of course the greater volume meant it’s speed suffered.

A close combat mecha? Hua Qianhu sat comfortably in his simulator, a smug grin on his face.

Hua Qianhu was the second strongest of the three mecha students that had been chosen for this competition, inferior only to Xiao Han. In fact, he’d already attempted the Sovereign- grade test once already. He’d only failed because he was lacking a little experience.

Though a part of the competition from the beginning, his interests were never in the opposition or even his own team mates. His primary desire was to do well, so that the school could earn more prestige and thus more resources for development.

After all he was very nearly set for life. A student who reached Sovereign status before even graduating was going to have a bright future, be it with an important family, a business collective or the military.

Hua Qianhu was no fool. He knew precisely the strengths and limitations of his abilities. He was well aware that the power he craved wasn’t going to come solely by his hard work alone. There was talent and effort, sure, but contacts and resources were just as integral.

Case in point were the power gems a mecha suit employed to run. Expensive was an understatement, more than your average pilot would be able to afford. Luckily Hua Qianhu was a talented student, but he came from an average family. Where he got to now was largely a result of his own efforts, in a place where the university was giving him accolades. But even then, he still couldn’t match up to those who came from a wealthy family.

He was graduating in a year. Now he was fighting tooth and nail with himself, pushing as hard as he could. He was dead-set on a single goal, all he wanted – to be a Sovereign-grade pilot.

The conflict between Lir and the NEU was as old as the hills. It was a good opportunity for him to ingratiate himself to the

dean. Xiao Han was strong, true, but that wouldn’t matter if he never got in the ring. That would mean it was him and him alone that represented Lir University’s strength and superiority. He’d no longer be overshadowed.

It was for these reasons that Hua Qianhu was taking this competition so seriously, painstakingly studying his tactics. The arena wasn’t the most suitable to his strengths, but he had faith in his abilities. As far as he’d seen, there was no danger of running in to a pilot that was his match.

ζ

“Would you like to draw lots for a new map?” The digitized voice rang through Tang Xiao’s cockpit.

Tang Xiao’s face was cold, and hard. He growled his response.

“No.”

“Three. Two. One. Begin!”

The third student battle began without delay. Were Tang Xiao to lose here, it would mean a crushing, humiliating defeat for the NEU. Losing three to zero would be a humiliation that would be seared in to the school’s historic memory forever.

ζ

Han Ruchao sat languidly within the VIP box, content in the results laid out before him. He found the first two victories very agreeable, and Hua Qianhu to be performing exceptionally. He found the young man’s demeaning actions particularly fun to watch. Altogether the sniper mecha’s power stores had barely been touched. It looked more than likely this was going to be a complete shut-out.

Xu Renjian’s own mood was, naturally, entirely contrary to his Lir counterpart. The moment he’d seen Geng Yang enter the field first he’d guessed Tan Lingyun’s strategy. What he did not anticipate was that their best student would be eliminated so quickly. There was more than skill discrepancy there – Geng Yang also had to learn to better recognize opportunity, and the lack thereof.

He’d anticipated Tang Mi’s defeat, truth be told. But to lose in such a fashion, in front of the entire school, was a strike at the

very heart of the university as a whole. If they lost again this time, the effect on their future recruitment would be catastrophic. Not to mention the strangled death of the entire school’s moral, students and teachers both.

But this was the reality he found himself in. What could he do? Who but he was at fault for their inferior learning in regards to Lir?

Within the arena, the fight had already begun.

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As this was the final bout, Hua Qianhu decided to switch up his strategy. Immediately his cannon was aimed directly at the silver mecha’s head. A strong energy disturbance  sizzled through the air as his weapon spooled.

According to Hua Qianhu’s estimation, the one-thousand meter distance between he and his opponent was enough for two good shots. All he needed, was one solid hit.

By now he was supremely confident in his marksmanship, and

for good reason. Within his kill zone, even Xiao Han wouldn’t dare get on his bad side.

Tang Xiao began precisely how Geng Yang and Tang Mi before him had, with a direct rush. The instant the digital voice called for the fight to begin, he was off in a flash of light.

In regards to speed, his direct assault wasn’t much different from Geng Yang’s, though perhaps slightly poorer. His blazing thrusters were clearly already at maximum power as well.

Hua Qianhu was certain two shots was more than enough. With his extensive combat knowledge, he could read the result before it even happened. He grinned with satisfaction as his cannon beeped, indicating weapons lock

Hm? Weapon lock already, like he doesn’t care? I guess he’s mad and making mistakes.

Hua Qianhu was surprised to discover there was nothing Tang Xiao was doing to try and prevent a lock from his cannon. This meant no matter where he shot, the shell would find it’s mark. It was a critical, catastrophic error on the part of his enemy.

Boom! The sniper took its first shot. Now that it was locked there was no need to wait.

A smile was already spreading across Hua Qianhu’s face as he waited for the Hat Trick.

If this whole thing really was the result of his opponent’s mistake, then all the better. He was already thinking of how to disgrace this guy in front of his friends. If, on the other hand, he managed to find some way to evade the strike, he still had time for his second shot. He had the dominant position no matter what.

“Aaaahhh!” A howling cry tore through the bleachers as the NEU onlookers collectively cried out. Not every student in the NEU was a mecha pilot, but all of them knew the process inside and out. A close-combat mecha taking on a sniper with no protective jamming was painting a giant target on your own chest. Defeat was inevitable.

The electron cannon’s fiery red beam found its target. A virtual flash as the mecha exploded filled the screen.

Tang Mi’s dull, defeated face was turned up to watch the

screen. Her pretty face was heavy with melancholy. Was this the result of her brother being too emotional, she thought. It didn’t matter, it was over!

Suddenly the cries stopped, as though someone simply turned off the volume. Everyone held their breath.

They’d seen it true, Tang Xiao’s mecha really had been struck by Hua Qianhu’s cannon. However, as the fires of the explosion raged an enormous figure broke through the wall of fire to rush forth.

A mecha, silver, but now with a dim silver shield of light encompassing it. Were it not for the laser’s blast, it would have been entirely invisible and gone without notice.

He actually faced down the electron cannon’s shell!

Within the VIP box, both deans watched the screens very carefully. Han Ruchao looked incredulous. Xu Renjian was absolutely shocked.

Both university leaders were calculating the precise stopping

power of an electron shell. Next was how much power the suit must have consumed to deflect the blow.

And yet as they watched, the small line on the screen detailing Tang Xiao’s energy reserves trembled only just slightly. Hua Qianhu’s energy reserves were at twenty percent.

The giant silver mecha barreled through the smoldering cloud where impact had been made, rushing headlong towards his opponent.

But Hua Qianhu’s training and experienced kicked in. His stunned surprise lasted only have a second before he began to react. He was an ace pilot, he knew what had happened – he just hadn’t been expecting it.

This time he didn’t remain locked in place as he had the previous two fights. He made a hasty retreat to the side. While his mecha twisted and raced diagonally away, it’s upper body remained stationary, locked still to face his opponent. His cannon locked on Tang Xiao for the second time.

It was unfortunately Hua Qianhu was unable to see the harsh light of hatred in Tang Xiao’s eyes, or the hard lines of his face

as he scowled. His fat hands were a blur over the controls.

The silver mecha jerked to a stop without warning. The thrusters at its back sputtered, and changed colors.

The formerly incandescent light of the thrusters became a dazzling purple. There was a flash, and the air was sliced by a shimmering violet contrail.

Hua Qianhu blinked, confused by the illuminating display.
Then, everything went black.

Booooommmmm!

Countless pieces of slag and debris tumbled from the simulated skies. The audience had seen it the clearest from the various screens overhead. The silver mecha had essentially turned itself in to a cannon shell – a freight train that had obliterated Hua Qianhu while he’d been caught off guard. The deadly sniper was now no more than a pile of shrapnel. Like he had been struck down by the hand of god himself.

The silver mecha landed with a thunderous boom, skidding to

a halt. It stood tall and unscathed, imposing as a demon. It’s giant metal hand raised, and waggled its pointer finger in denial towards the Lir University bleachers.

“Hua Qianhu’s mecha has suffered one hundred percent damage. Combat complete. Victory, Tang Xiao!”

Chapter 183: Concealment, Assimilation Gems

Finished?

This match was even quicker than the last two. Sudden, and violent.

Lir University’s Dean, Han Ruchao, shot to his feet faster than a llama on jet skis. His eyes were wide and round, utterly disbelieving the scene in front of his eyes.

His expression was matched by Xu Renjian’s own face, slack- jawed and dumbfounded. Behind at the edges of his lips, the ever so faint hints of a haughty smile started to show. He knew his students, knew Tang Xiao’s abilities – or so he thought. How could this be? Everything was backwards, and Bi Qianhu’s attacks didn’t even scratch him!

A simulator hissed sadly as the door opened. Bi Qianhu pulled his medium-sized build from the cockpit with a howl, his handsome features twisted in rage.

“B-BASTARD!! How the hell did that happen?! How did he go

from a lumbering idiot to a damn light-speed battering ram?!”

The team’s Lir University instructor looked on. Surprisingly he was young himself, perhaps in his thirties, with an unusually calm expression. After a moment his brows furrowed – just the slightest bit.

“You got flattened.”

This was the young man whom Lir’s Teaching Director, Shi Jiujiu, had treated with such respect. Su He.

Bi Qianhu stared at him, fuming. “You think his equipment was better than mine?”

Su He nodded, impassively gesturing towards the screens. “Note his energy consumption.”

Bi Qianhu’s head snapped up, where he was shocked to discover Tang Xiao had used only three percent of his energy stores. His eye twitched furiously.

It had been such a short match, but in that time he’d had to ward off his opponents and lug that cannon on his shoulder. And here he was at three percent?

He simply couldn’t fathom what was going on, and his head nearly exploded as he witnessed Tang Xiao’s energy reserves regenerating. His mecha was actually restoring itself!

“Ch-cheating! They must be cheating!” He shouted rancorously at the screen.

“Shut the hell up! Two victories aren’t enough for you?” Xiao Han stood a small distance away, and spat the words accusingly.

“And what does that mean, huh Xiao Han?” Bi Qianhu narrowed his eyes, glaring daggers. The two school celebrities exchanged heated looks.

Xiao Han snorted scornfully. “Listen and learn. My guess he’s got at least three a-ranked gems specifically for energy management on that thing.”

“A-ranked?” Bi Qianhu turned his head to look back at Su He.

The instructor was as before, expressionless and calm as the surface of a lake. He simply gestured towards a third student. “Ming Han. You’re up. Select a new arena. Use the advantage of your speed to keep him at bay, don’t let him get a hand on you.”

“Yes, Professor Su.” The entirely average looking youth jumped in to the simulator.

Bi Qianhu stood to one side, still pondering the situation. A- ranked power gems? C-ranked were the only thing he’d ever actually seen employed at one of these things. It was extravagant! After all, the cost of gems in DreamNet weren’t even slightly cheaper than those in the real world.

Next, Su He slowly turned his attention unto Xiao Han. “Watch this match very carefully. Distinguish the particulars of his equipment. When it comes down to you, do not under- estimate him. This student’s mecha is a near match to yours.”

Upon his victory over Bi Qianhu, the vengeance and anger in Tang Xiao’s heart eased. Steamrolled… of course. He thought back to earlier, to the things his teacher had lent him for the games. A cruel grin spread across his fat face.

Bring it on, Lir punks. I’ll show you the fat man’s ferocity.

The arena glowed with a flash of light, and Tang Xiao’s second opponent appeared opposite him in the ring. His name hung in the space over his head: Bi Minghan.

The newly arrived suit looked almost like a toy. It was small, and frail, not a centimeter over twelve meters.

A Darter Mech! Tang Xiao drew a breath.

Bi Minghan elected for another map. The world around them shifted nauseatingly as the backgrounds underwent a series of rapid shifts. The flashes slowed until it settled on their new field of battle: the desert.

“Terrain: desert. Combat shall commence in: Three. Two.
One. Begin.”

Tang Xiao winced against the sudden bight light and heat from the sand. It was a vast and expansive field, so close to reality it was difficult to tell the difference. The rolling dunes stretched for five kilometers in all directions, and the beating

sun meant that anyone flying overhead would be lost in the glare.

Tang Xiao was off, like he didn’t even need to think. He was the first to react as the match begun, and took a step forward.

The mecha plunged headfirst in to the dunes. Within the cockpit, the controls were unresponsive, silent as a grave.

The audience’s omniscient view afforded them more information, like the dim yellow aura that hung over Tang Xiao’s silver mecha.

Su He watched the screens, and for the briefest of moments, his brows lifted in surprise.

Xiao Han sneered at the screen, then called out to his instructor. “An assimilation gem, right Professor?”

Su He nodded slowly. “C-ranked.”

Bi Qianhu stood to one side. His rage had begun to subside,

and he was now more annoyed than angry. The mention of the assimilation gem brought him back to the battle at hand. He recalled the power gem’s function as he watched the scene.

Assimilation gems were able to force a mecha’s environment to accept it as part of itself. In that way it resonated with the surroundings and fought off radar detection. The Achilles heel lay in the fact that it was too effective. If the pilot found themselves in an area of high energy output – like, say, a sun- drenched desert – it overloaded the electrical systems. Tang Xiao knew this when he hid himself beneath the sands.

Restarting the mecha would take time.

Lan Jue looked on from the bleachers, nursing a bitter expression. This damn fat-ass! There hadn’t been any assimilation gems in the kit Lan Jue had provided him. The only explanation was that it was Tang Xiao’s own. It was like he was determined to depress the hell out of everyone!

Half a second after Tang Xiao went down, Bi Minghan was on the move.

However, they appeared to have been deposited a distance

from one another. Seek and destroy would be the game. Bi Minghan engaged its radar acquisition equipment and began to scan for Tang Xiao’s location. The Darter’s strength was immediately apparent as it raced over the sands fast enough to look almost ethereal. Two ionized light sabers sizzled in its hands. It was like a monstrous spirit racing through the scalding desert.

The audience was able to observe both contestants on different screens, and by now many who had previous cursed Tang Xiao were forced to mutter praise. Luckily for him, the moment the assimilation gem shorted his suit and activated was the very moment Bi Minghan’s radar sweep was passing over him. Was it not for that gem he’d certainly have been discovered and caught unawares.

Tang Xiao made no effort to turn on his own scanners once the mecha was operational. He simply poked a hole in the sand to peer out of.

Of course Bi Minghan was unaware of any of this. As a contestent he wasn’t made aware of the situation as the audience was. And so he kept searching the dunes, wary of stopping for fear that Tang Xiao would do to him what he did to Hua Qianhu. His nerves were certainly on edge, ready to bolt and evade at a moment’s notice.

Su He’s instructions were clear, if not direct. It wasn’t important that he defeat Tang Xiao, but instead to drag out a battle. With any luck Tang Xiao would tip his hand, reveal his abilities, and consume some precious energy.

The audience watched with baited breath. They saw Bi Minghan’s own energy reserves begin to deplete as he raced around the desert arena at staggering speeds. Tang Xiao’s energy levels had regenerated to full.

The previous battles had been short and violent. This looked like it was going to be a different beast. The audience readied themselves for a knock-down, drag-out battle.

Ten minutes passed.

Beads of sweat dripped down Bi Minghan’s forehead as he sat in the dark simulator pod. As the time stretched on, his nervousness only increased, and keeping up his mecha’s speed was exhausting. Still his opponent was nowhere to be found – like he’d vanished in to thin air.

Twenty minutes.

Bi Minghan was grappling a growing impatience. He knew very well that Tang Xiao must be hiding, but where he couldn’t fathom. How was it his radar detection could find absolutely no trace?

Twenty-five minutes.

The time indicator on the screens over the audience’s head began to flash red as the final five minutes of the battle began to tick down.

Bi Minghan’s eyes flashed down to the control console, where he saw the state of his energy levels. Twenty percent gone, just from racing through the desert searching. The price of his high speed. Still, there was five minutes left in this fight – and a DreamNet competition was judged by damage to the mecha, not the amount of energy stored.

If it continued until the end, the match would result in a draw
– really, a loss for both sides. But since the NEU was already down two wins, it would mean their aggregate score would be lower. They’d lose the competition.

This realization caused Bi Minghan to have a shift in thinking,

focusing instead on self-preservation and protection instead of seeking out the enemy. He lifted in to the sky, distancing himself from the battlefield so he could get a better view.

Twenty-eight minutes.

Only two minutes remained until the end, and yet Tang Xiao was still nowhere to be found.

Was this really to be how it’d end? In a tie, a terribly anti- climactic finish. Bi Minghan suspected his enemy was still biding his time, concealing himself until the last minute where he’d reveal his strength.

Twenty-nine minutes!

Bi Minghan decided upon what he thought was the best option given the circumstances – he coaxed his darter mech higher towards the simulated cloudless sky. His mecha was specialized in speed, no slower even than Tang Xiao with his empowered thrusters. All he had to do was keep his distance, just for one more minute. That’s all, then he’d done his job.

The console beeped as Bi Minghan’s radar caught a ping.

The large silver mecha burst from within a sand dune, filling the air with choking dust. Bi Minghan sat slack-jawed in his simulator as a veritable meteor shower of particle beams filled his screen.

Chapter 184: A 1% Victory

“Bi Minghan has suffered 1% damage. Tang Xiao 0%. Tang Xiao is victorious.”

The emotionless digitized voice hung in the air.

The fourth student battle finished as the time ticked down to zero. Tang Xiao had won his second in a row, by virtue of a single minor attack.

The entire audience burst in to uproarious laughter.

It rang in the ears of every Lir student and teacher.

A 1% victory was usually a display of luck, just barely winning over the enemy. But when it was intentional, as this battle was, it was more embarrassing than flogging corpses.

Bi Minghan burst from the simulator, his face purple with rage. Even Hua Qianhu, whose mecha was absolutely obliterated, looked on him with sympathy.

This fight wasn’t lost because of any difference in equipment. No, he lost this one because he was outplayed. His enemy had more heart.

Bi Minghan knew it was a lesson, and an image he wouldn’t forget. Behind his eyes he could still see the curtain of red lasers filling the sky.

The laser curtain was a weak strike, but it was an effective long-range tactical tool. It was called a pinning laser, and it was meant to force a target where you want. If you knew where the target would be, all you had to do was pull the trigger. Naturally it’s damage wasn’t much of a concern, and what’s more it’s distance and scale were prohibitively expansive.

What was embarrassing was that this ploy was precisely what won Tang Xiao his victory.

ζ

Han Ruchao stared at the screens. His face was dark, and great huffs of hair were pushed through flaring nostrils. He snapped his head to his NEU compatriot. “You’re indeed quite the teacher, Renjian! Using tactics one would never actually witness

on the field of battle! Easily tolerable.”

Xu Renjian’s response was even and unhurried. “What is a man? A man is to endure, Ruchao. This was a fine showing. He waited until the last possible moment, so as not to give his enemy any chance at a reaction. I think that shows good battlefield tactics, don’t you? He has been well trained.”

“You…” Han Ruchao only stared at him.

Xu Renjian smiled. “Ruchao ,excess anger will bring you health problems. Think of your heart.” Xu Renjian couldn’t be any more pleased with this moment.

These last two victories were a better showing from the NEU than any in recent history. They were unorthodox, true – but who cared?

It was now time for the LU student body to glare spitefully at the victorious Tang Xiao. A few looked on the cusp of an outburst.

Tang Xiao’s little trick wasn’t something entirely unheard of.

Kids used these sorts of tricks to tease their friends. Everyone knew about it. It was a cruel joke to use it in an actual battle.

But it wasn’t just a trick now. It had snatched victory from Lir, turning the tables in a fight they should have won easily. It had changed the game.

Su He frowned openly. He turned to regard Lir’s final hope. “Be wary. Do not get careless. This one, the cunning of a fox. Appearances can be deceiving.”

Xiao Han’s face was solemn. He may have fought his way to the top of the school’s power rosters, but he wasn’t arrogant in this. “I’ll be careful, Professor Su.”

The teacher turned back to the screens. “Choose another map.”

“I will.”

Xiao Han wasted no more time. He strode to the simulator and pulled himself inside.

The silver warrior’s energy reserves were back to full. Tang Xiao’s pudgy face bore a small smile. He thought about his sisters, congratulating himself on bringing vengeance to her assailant.

Your brother’s gunna upset the balance. This is a coup! I may be fat, but that’s all strength. Hell, might even I get a girlfriend out of this.

There was a flash, and the opposite side of the ring was host to a shadowy figure.

The mecha was bright red, and the light danced across it like licks of flame racing along the metal. Judging by it’s construction, it looked like a melee mecha: big, and burly, with a massive saber on its back. The blade was easily ten meters long, and two meters wide. Just seeing it brought a shudder to some witnesses.

“Selecting new map.” The digital voice came from everywhere at once.

“New terrain selected: Ocean.”

Once again the world around them flashed, shuttered, warped until it settled on a vast blue expanse of sea. Tang Xiao and Xiao Han hovered above the waves, just close enough to make each other out.

Nearly every modern mecha was equipped with systems for underwater combat, but it was rare to find a mecha that specialized in it. So in a way this map was similar to the arena, and it was going to be a tough fight.

Su He nodded his head ever so slightly, pleased with the result.

Tan Lingyun, in the other sim room, frowned as she saw the terrain shift. Her eyes narrowed. She had seen Tang Xiao’s explosive power in the first fight, and his trickiness in the second. However, this was going to be a much less hospitable battlefield, against a very difficult enemy.

The silver mecha hung in the air, large and imposing. Slowly, it’s left hand lifted to give the distant challenger a thumbs up. But it’s wrist slowly turned as the arm extended, until the thumb was pointed down.

Xiao Han’s eyes flashed as anger shot through him.

He’s actually taunting me?!

The red mecha burned all the brighter, surrounded in a carona of red light and energy.

“Three. Two. One. Begin!”

Xiao Han raced towards his enemy, the sound of his mecha loud as a jet engine. Bi Minghan’s mecha was considered a step up from Hua Qianhu’s, but neither came anywhere near Xiao Han’s beastly machine.

Tang Xiao’s silver mecha followed in kind, racing swiftly ahead. His thrusters blazed, but were absent the purple light from before. He was holding back.

The two war machines closed, until it looked as though they were right on top of each other.

Xiao Han’s fiery red mecha’s arm flashed, and the giant blade

was in it’s hand. As the weapon was drawn, it flashed through the air. A sonic boom of energy raced outwards with the action.

“Energy blasts?” Tan Lingyun’s eyes narrowed. “A Sovereign- ranked pilot!”

Energy blasts were a staple of Sovereign-ranked pilots. It was a different sort of strike, compared to a long-ranged attack – it was congealed energy, manipulated and controlled. It was powerful, and frightening. Usually it required the use  of  a pilot’s Discipline to employ with ease. It wasn’t something seen often in DreamNet.

But this was Xiao Han’s opening strike. The more astute among the audience noticed the red gem affixed to the massive weapon’s pommel, that shimmered with a life of its own. The power flowing through the gem made it more obvious than it originally was.

It was at least a b-ranked power gem. Very competitive equipment.

In the face of Xiao Han’s strike, the silver mecha collapsed. Not from a hit, but because the thrusters on its back all shut off

in tandem. The enormous and hefty machine tumbled in to the drink.

Xiao Han’s energy blast passed harmlessly overhead.

He wants to fight in the ocean? Does he expect to hide under the waves? Xiao Han considered the possibility, but the fact the bout had just started and Tang Xiao was just in front of him meant that If it was an attempt at concealment, it was a very poor one.

The audience looked on, confused. Suddenly, the silver mecha changed even as they stared on. The shoulder panels separated, and from the cavities therein extended two polished gun barrels. They fired without a moment’s pause.

“Boom-boom!”

Xiao Han’s reactions were worthy of his status. He swept his buzzing sword and blocked the two shells with little effort. But half a second later, the silver mech burst from beneath the brine and tore in to the distance. This, time, however, it was now literally bristling with protruded weapon barrels.

“Long distance fighter…?” Su He’s face twitched as he fought the expression from his face.

What kind of monster had the NEU created? It was built like a melee fighter to confound the enemy, but it was… off. It had used a shield to protect itself from the impact that obliterated Hua Qianhu, but the most telling was the fact that it carried no weapon.

The barrels lit up as a series of lasers raced back towards Xiao Han.

Xiao Han was also surprised by the revelation, but his mecha manipulation didn’t seem to suffer. To him, the machine was like his right arm. A piece of him. He stopped only long enough to deflect the beams with his sword, and then he was off again towards his prey.

Tang Xiao released wave after wave of attacks as he raced in to the distance. Xiao Han followed on his heels, dodging the attacks as they came. They raced over the water’s surface, spraying up water behind them in a wake.

This wretched bastard! Xiao Han’s face was dark with anger.

Lying from the outset… It was a thought echoed by no small number of those in the audience.

It was a classic tactic from the games of old – the ranged fighter was kiting his close-ranged enemy; pulling him along, like a kite, and taking pot-shots as he did. And Xiao Han was happy to go along with it. Still this was a crafty one, changing up tactics on the fly and spurting the purple thrusters  on occasion to keep the lead.

But really as they chased each other over the waves, it looked more impressive than it really was. The silver mechas blasts were flashy, but not all that powerful. Xiao Han blocked them handily with his weapon. It was catching up, without a single scratch.

Chapter 185: Miraculous Victory

Both mechas were seeing their energy stores in decline. However, as expected, the ranged mecha’s energy was being spent faster than the melee’s. The battle was shaping up to be a violent one, with a lot of back and forth. Not five minutes in to the match and Tang Xiao’s energy reserves were down thirty percent. Xiao Han was only missing ten percent.

Xiao Han raced towards his enemy, cool and calm. All the while he was carefully watching the wretched pilot darting in front of him, waiting for his next trick. He wasn’t scared or intimidated; as far as he could see, it didn’t matter what trick the guy tried to pull, his efforts would be futile. All he had to do was wait his enemy out. When his energy stores were too low for high speed or other attacks, that’s when he’d make his move.

Tang Xiao began to circle around. His suit’s power drained faster.

Lan Jue watched from the audience, his face a  glowering mask. He inwardly cursed his student. This  wasn’t  anything he’d taught him! This was the kid’s own design.

He was fairly certain Tang Xiao’s enemy now was the guy who’d been sniffing after Qianlin. A sovereign-ranked pilot with decent abilities and a decent punch. The tools he’d provided to shut down the kid’s advantages still went unused by Tang Xiao. Instead he was falling back on his ultimately useless trickery.

Still, there was a ghost of expectation as Lan Jue watched. He still bore a dissatisfied frown, but memories of the fatty’s near- victory from so long ago danced in his head.

Fifteen minutes passed quickly. Already, the silver mecha was down to forty percent energy. In terms of mecha combat, this was already in dangerous territory.

Tang Xiao recognized this as well, hence his decision to stop using the empowered thrusters. Now, he only relied on evasive techniques and defensive strikes. Xiao Han was in no rush to close the gap, instead remaining just behind him as they raced over the waves. He was waiting until the silver mecha was drained. That way his prey had no opportunity for escape.

Su He watched from nearby the simulation pod. His features were once more the familiar calm he’d arrived with. His lips curled in to a frown, suddenly, as though he’d just thought of something.

“Hm, no. He’s been tricked.”

Both Hua Qianhu and Bi Minghan looked inquisitively towards their instructor. “What do you mean, Professor?”

His brows furrowed as he spoke, his eyes never leaving the screen. “His opponent’s energy levels shouldn’t be dropping this quickly. By what we saw in his fight against the two of you, his central power gem is likely a-ranked. His power stores would thusly be… colossal. As would his energy regeneration. But in this fight it’s obvious his reserves are draining faster than they should be. There’s definitely something going on here, I just hope your compatriot recognizes this as well.”

His teacher didn’t need to worry. Xiao Han was well aware of the discrepancy.

In the beginning he hadn’t noticed, but once Tang Xiao’s reserves had dropped to fifty percent, it dawned on him. His own mecha used an a-ranked gem as its core, and his reserves were only down thirty percent.

You wanna play games? We’ll play games. When your energy drops to twenty percent, and you don’t have enough for your

shields, that’s when I’ll move in. The energy he poured through his weapon extended the blade a hundred meters. He wouldn’t even need to get that close. The only person this silver mecha was going to mess with was himself.

But Xiao Han was making a mistake that he could never have realized: He was trying to judge Tang Xiao’s behavior against a normal person. He wasn’t anticipating it was a total bastard that was piloting the thing.

Twenty percent remained.

Tang Xiao’s energy surplus was already in the red. His speed was visibly slower. There was a flash of red light, and a sonic boon of energy swept mere inches from the back of the silver suit.

What was the ace of Tang Xiao’s sleeve? Xiao Han chased his enemy, his heart filled with a nerve-wracking uncertainty.

If you won’t show me, I’ll make you show your cards.

Xiao Han’s fingers danced along the controls like lightning.

The red light surrounding his mecha dimmed somewhat, but not for lack of power – more like it was drawing in to itself. Moments later, the red light burst out from thrusters behind it. However, despite expectations, the light didn’t do anything to modulate his mecha’s speed. Instead it transferred to the weapon in his hand.

In the space of an instant, the fiery red sword in his grip flashed and became a dazzling gold. It flashed with a mass of congealed power.

Xiao Han roared as he lifted the weapon overhead. The air around him sizzled with errant jolts of energy as he brought the great blade down onto his opponent.

In the same instant, the silver mecha reacted. All of the thrusters and engines keeping it aloft sputtered and went dark. Once more he tumbled towards the briny seas in freefall.

“You think you can run away from me?!” Xiao Han screamed at him from within the simulator. He pointed his sword downward towards the spinning silver mecha, and a beam of red light shot down towards it with frightening speed. But that wasn’t the end, for the second the beam of light issued forth, Xiao Han coaxed his mecha to pursue. Soon the strike and the

mecha were barreling right towards the exposed silver suit.

This was the end!

By now the match had already stretched on for twenty minutes. Han Ruchao, Xu Renjian, and all the onlookers could see no way in which the intrepid silver mecha could get out of this unscathed.

What none could see was the smile creeping up Tang Xiao’s pudgy face.

BOOOOMM!!

The red beam cast from the empowered sword connected. Surprisingly, Tang Xiao had lifted his left arm to block the brunt of the blast. In this way he protected the most integral parts of his machine.

The draw back was that his left arm was now a lump of slag. Half his suit was burned black and badly damaged. The swords power was so great that, had Tang Xiao not blocked when he did, his suit would likely have been sliced right in half.

Success! Xiao Han wasted no further time in hesitation – this was his opportunity. He was on his enemy in no time. His blade was moving again, another strike that set the air around it to undulating. The red beams of energy cast forth tore through the air in a ‘Z’ shape. If it landed, Tang Xiao would be reduced to half a dozen mangled pieces.

The silver mecha hit the water with a splash. His thrusters remained cold. He simply let himself sink in to the water.

Xiao Han’s attack was ever so slightly off, however it was close enough that it struck.

A silver, mechanical skull hung in the air where Xiao Han’s strike had separated it from the rest of the suit.

No one celebrated, not yet. In mecha combat this didn’t spell the end of a match. The pilots weren’t located in the head, after all, but safely nestled in the depths of their suit’s chest.

The fiery red mecha wasted no time, and was on his enemy once again. He hit the water and began to sink. The high temperatures of his suit elicited a massive cloud of steam to rise from around him.

The only thing anyone could see was the steam, turning the simulated world in to a blank white canvas.

Before their vision could clear, first came a noise. It was an explosion; one so intense, so frightening that it was difficult to compare. It was like a strike from a starship, birthed from the arms of the ocean.

BOOOOOMMM!

The sudden and violent eruption was compounded by the steam, making vision difficult, fuzzy. Great, towering tsunami waves arose a thousand meters high from ‘ground zero.’ The water directly above where the mechas fell churned and boiled.

Bolts of bluish-purple danced along the water’s surface. The audience only watched, silent, struck dumb by the power of the strike they’d hadn’t actually witnessed.

What was going on? What was the result?



“Xiao Han’s mecha has sustained one hundred percent damage. Tang Xiao’s mecha has sustained forty-eight percent damage. Victory – Tang Xiao!”

Tang Xiao victorious! It was both a blessed relief and a vicious gut-punch. The Students of Lir University stared in utter horror and disbelief at the words plastered across the screen.

They were all, to a man, utterly speechless.

The water calmed, and from its depths slowly arose a busted up, silver middle finger.

The rest of Tang Xiao’s mangled mecha followed, proudly brandishing its remaining arm and the risen finger as though raising a flag.

“You CHEATED!” Han Ruchao shot to his feet, shouting impotently at Xu Renjian at his elbow.

Xu Renjian sat, unmoving. Slowly he turned his head, and when he spoke his voice was hard as iron, and calm as the simulated ocean on screen now was.

“Come now, Ruchao. You’re a dean – let’s control ourselves, hm? You know as well as I that matches held in DreamNet are impossible to fix. If you have a problem with the way this fight was conducted, yelling at me won’t solve a thing. Bring your grievances to the Guardians.”

Han Ruchao literally shook with rage. He fell resentfully in to his chair. After a moment he leaned towards Shi Jiujiu at his other side and whispered something.

Shi Jiujiu nodded, and quickly left the VIP box.

The shock and surprise was fading. Suddenly, as though subconsciously communicated, the entire NEU presence in the audience burst in to howls of praise and cheers of joy. The waves of emotion were so powerful it was almost as though the whole West Hill resonated with it.

Victory. A real and honest victory. A miraculous victory!

None could have expected that the thoroughly trounced NEU would turn the battle around with their last fighter. By virtue of a single fighter’s power, they took out all three Lir challengers. It was unthinkable.

The jubilant cries were raucous, but there were few if any in the crowd who actually understood what was happened in the last three fights – especially at the very end.

Lan Jue, of course, was the exception. He sat calmly amid the cheering crowds, with a small smile on his handsome face.

Wang Hongyuan just looked at him. He leaned in and spoke softly, just enough for Lan Jue to hear over the din. “How in the hell did he pull that out in the end? Did you see it?”

“Nope,” Lan Jue replied.

“No? So what the hell are you smirking about? You look so sinister.” Wang Hongyuan glowered, afraid he was being kept in the dark.

Lan Jue rubbed his face with a sigh. Agitation was clear in his

voice as he spoke. “What are you on about. This is a knowing smile, alright. Tang Xiao didn’t win this fight from one strike – he won the mental war.”

Wang Hongyuan was still unclear. “Mental war… what do you mean?”

“Keep watching,” was all Lan Jue would say.

A voice cut them off, calling towards the audience from the main platform. “Lir University has request an analysis of the final battle. We will be reviewing the footage.”

Battle review was one of the best advantages of fighting in DreamNet. It allowed anyone to view a fight from all angles. They could sharpen or slow the footage as much as they liked to pick out every tiny detail. But like anything, it cost money.

No one cared about the price at this point. Everyone was dying to know what the hell happened.

In the expansive simulator warehouse, two pods opened. Tang Xiao and Xiao Han stepped out as if in tandem.

Tang Xiao’s face bore a proud expression, which only grew more arrogant as he stuck his index finger high in the air.

He looked for all the world like a returning, victorious general.

Chapter 186: What Wretchedness!

“Ah, ah, ah!” Tang Xiao proudly waggled his finger in the air, when suddenly a slender figure snatched him up in a bear hug. Tang Mi squeezed him as hard as she good and kissed him on the cheek.

“I love you bro. Long live Tang Xiao! Muwah! Love you!”

Tang Mi hugged him tightly, kissing him once again on each cheek before finally letting him go.

Even Tan Lingyun, the famously sour Savage Goddess, stood a short distance away with a smile on her face. Tang Xiao’s victories were not insignificant, and proud couldn’t describe the whole of the NEU’s feelings towards their student hero. It was fair to say their pudgy pilot had made history today.

Years of suppression and shame had finally been rectified.

ζ

“What was that.” Su He’s face was as close to an outright

scowl as it could be as he stared at Xiao Han.

The young man looked on the verge of tears. His red eyes glared ruefully at the fat bastard who’d bested him.

“He’s an insufferable prick. He had the ability to end the fight from the very beginning. Instead he went on to deliberately humiliate me. I’ll kill him!” Xiao Han stomped towards the distant Tang Xiao with his hands clenched in to fists.

Su He calmly reached out and grabbed the fiery young man by the collar. He yanked him back before he could get too far. “Haven’t you lost enough face? The competition isn’t finished yet. We may have lost the first exchange, but that doesn’t mean Lir University has been bested. We’ll make up for this embarrassment in the real battles.”

The fight recorded flashed up on screen as they spoke. Su He turned his back on Xiao Han as though he no longer existed, and began to study the playback.

The video raced through the early moments of the fight. Onlookers were able to review the battle from all directions and angles.

The first minutes were sped up. After all, everyone had seen clearly what had happened in the beginning. However, once the final moments of their exchange approached, the recording slowed.

The silver mecha had yet to hit the water, and was flailing through the sky. But now, with the images slowed, it was revealed that his flailing was a ruse to hide him pulling a dagger from a compartment behind his back with his remaining arm. It was a strange weapon, one that was black as ink and seemed to drink the light. But beyond that there was something else, only barely glimpsed: a bluish-purple orb, clutched in his mechanical hand.

As the frames slowly passed they watched as Tang Xiao hit the water, casting brine and water vapor high in to the air. Xiao Han’s fiery red mecha was close behind.

The spray and steam hid everything on the surface from view.
Under water, was another story.

The silver mecha’s dwindling power reserves never changed, but from behind it the thrusters had burst to life and glowed a furious purple. In a flash the massive suit vanished, appearing directly in front of Xiao Han.

The sudden change in environment had certainly had an effect on the red mecha and its pilot. He’d assumed he was in the dominant position, and rammed in to Tang Xiao head first.

In reality his reaction was the proper one, at least under normal circumstances. A red shield had sprung up around him prior to impact, and judging by the vibrant light alone it was clearly a powerful shield.

The two mechas collided, and in that instant Tang Xiao’s hand was in motion. The black dagger clutched in his grip lashed out, and from it sprang forth a caustic-looking black light. It cut through Xiao Han’s shield like butter, and slashed a ragged hole in its chest plate.

“Sovereign-ranked?” It was a rhetorical question sputtered by no small number of shocked onlookers.

Was it possible that the silver mecha was piloted by a Sovereign-ranked pilot? Was Tang Xiao really that skilled? And why, then, did he appear so weak normally?

The fight hadn’t ended there. The knife had cut deep in to the mech’s chest, but hadn’t punctured the cockpit. Xiao Han reeled

back and swung his giant sword towards Tang Xiao. Had the silver mech continued the assault, he may not have been quick enough to escape the strike.

So instead, the silver mecha did something strange. He pulled the dagger free and used the relatively tiny weapon to ward off the buster sword. He let the weapon be knocked free, then reached out with his right hand and pushed Xiao Han away by the fissure in his chest plate. Tang Xiao’s thrusters sent him reeling in one direction, which the thrust sent Xiao Han tumbling in the other.

The film slowed to a crawl, and spun back a few frames.

The images closed in on the silver mecha’s hand. Now, slow as it was, everyone could clearly see precisely what the odd move was about. As the dagger was knocked away, the hand quickly fell and stuffed a small purple orb in to the fractured armor.

Rewind. The dagger had just sliced through the armor, and was being extracted to deflect the red mecha’s sword.

Xiao Han detonated, instantly reduced to debris. Tang Xiao managed to avoid the brunt of the explosion by disengaging

early.

Now they saw it, and the cheers from the NEU were almost entirely drowned out by the heated curses of the Lir student body.

Indeed, it was as Xiao Han had said. This fight could have been finished in the first minute.

Su He’s pupils contracted as he watched. His intonation was thick with incredulity.

“Soulcrusher!”

The Soulcrusher was a weapon. More accurately, perhaps, an ultimate weapon. It was a strike that could only be used once before it was consumed. It had the power to rival an a-ranked power gem.

But what did it mean that he was using something  so powerful, so extravagant, in a student exchange? And on a Sovereign-ranked mecha?

The Soulcrusher was a God-ranked ability, one which Tang Xiao avoided by sheer luck.

It was such overkill that he could have won the fight in the first few seconds of the fight. There hadn’t been any need for their air chase, goading Xiao Han on. All he’d needed was to be in close enough for the strike to land.

Of course he hadn’t done that, instead making Xiao Han chase him for his own demise. He wanted to draw him in, and snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. Or so he aimed to make it appear, but he’d had the bout won before it even started.

What Su He and the others couldn’t see, was what made this particular trick of Tang Xiao’s so downright rotten. When the Soulcrusher had been deposited in the broken armor, he’d placed it directly in front of Xiao Han’s ‘face’, something Xiao Han saw very clearly. Were this a real fight, the little orb would have detonated in his embrace.

The fight was finished. Xiao Han’s anger and depression were understandable. He didn’t know what the hell he was fighting until the very end.

Tang Xiao’s mecha wasn’t meele, and wasn’t long-ranged. It was an Assassin. As for the rank, Xiao Han still wasn’t sure what the hell he was.

The audience was in chaos. The din was deafening as they milled about and shouted over the fight’s conclusion. In the VIP box, Han Ruchao’s chest rose and fell in angry huffs. He was like a volcano, ready to erupt at any moment.

This was death by torture! Unbridled arrogance and humiliation! What’s worse, they lost all of that equipment.

All because of a single Emperor-ranked pilot.

Chapter 187: I’ve Picked A Master

Xiao Han’s heart was a tempest of hurt, depression and anger.

He was a considered a rare talent, first in his family, and relatively well known from an early age. Even though he was so young, he was close to earning his own piloting alias. 1

It wasn’t as though he’d never been defeated. He’s faced stronger foes, certainly. But in those bouts it was a joy – exciting and challenging. That’s how a pilot improved.

But this was different. This was unprecedented, a shameful loss that filled him with rage and indignation.

He knew the fat lard was weaker than him, possibly by a lot. And yet through those damn tricks, and that insane equipment, he was able to pull out a win he hadn’t deserved.

Unacceptable! I refuse to take this! How the hell could I lose to him.?

Xiao Han’s anger threatened to consume him.

Just then he spied the hateful fatty looking his way. He stretched out his hands with a shrug and a smile on his fat face, like nothing was wrong.

Fatty Tang then rolled his eyes at Xiao Han dismissively.

Tang Mi hung on his neck. “You gotta tell me bro, where’d you get such awesome equipment? What gem did you use to power that shield? And what’s up with those thrusters? What was that orb thing?”

Tang Xiao whined as he tried desperately to extricate himself. “You’re gunna kill your brother! Lemme go, I’ll tell you if you let me breath.”

Of course Tang Mi knew precisely how strong a pilot her brother really was. It was no different in DreamNet. She knew her brother was stronger than her, at least, but this? This wasn’t normal.

Tang Xiao straightened himself up once Tang Mi had released him. “I’ve picked a Master,” he said with a chortle. “That stuff you saw, all of that was stuff my master gave me from his own DreamNet stock.”

“Master?” Tang Mi was surprised to hear the news. “No wonder you’ve been so secretive lately, you’ve been training with this Master right?”

Tang Xiao nodded his meaty head. “That’s right.”

She cantered her head at him in curiosity. “Who is it?”

Tan Lingyun was close enough to overhear, and the subject caught her interest as well. Tang Mi may not have been aware of the Soulcrusher, but she certainly knew all about it! The cost of that was astronomical. The number of people who could afford that that she knew, she could count on her fingers.

Tang Xiao smirked knowingly. “Remember that guy who beat you with the Brunois Assault?”

“You’re damn right I do,” she hissed, nearly gnashing her teeth. “I remember how much I want to rip him to pieces. You said you were gunna avenge me, but instead came back looking like a tenderized ham.”

Tang Xiao nodded. “I actually did find him originally to get

revenge, as you wanted. But then I lost, too. That’s when I saw his ability with my own eyes, and asked to be his student. I’ve studied with him in DreamNet every day since.”

Tang Lingyun was next to question him. “What’s this pilot’s name? He must be a God-ranked pilot to have given you a Soulcrusher orb. There are only so many of those running around.”

“Unfortunately my Master has hidden his identity. He’s called himself Nooblet.” 2

“Nooblet.” Tan Lingyun had no words. Whoever he was, he certainly had poor taste. His choice in names made that clear.

“Enough of that for now. Next is the real thing. How are you feeling Tang Xiao?” Tan Lingyun asked.

Originally they had intended for Geng Yang to participate in the live exercise, but Tang Xiao’s showing in the sim fights was absolutely remarkable. All the teachers and students of the NEU were more than willing to overlook his unconventional methods, so long as he kept winning. For the glory of the entire school.

Tan Lingyun may have been inflexible as a person, but she wasn’t an idiot. She knew an opportunity when she saw one, and was willing to make tactical adjustments as required. Geng Yang was also more than willing to give his place up to Tang Xiao, hoping desperately the fatty could pull off another miracle.

“I’ve learned that I knew nothing. Now I’m starting to pick some stuff up,” Tang Xiao assured with a chuckle. He cast a sizzling eye towards the distant Xiao Han.

Tan Lingyun nodded her head. “Good, then you’re our guy. Remember, victory or defeat aren’t important here. Safety first.”

“Got it.” Tang Xiao fumbled through a comical salute to his instructor.

ζ

Following a short discussion upon the main platform, things eventually quieted down. An announcement rang out once it could be heard.

“The Simulated Battle Exchange between the National Eastern University and Lir University has come to a close. The NEU had proved victorious. Next we will begin the live mecha exercises. Lir University, having lost the last contest, may chose the field of battle. Each combatant will have access to a bare-bones, unmodified mecha for the duration of the fight. Choose them now. combatant for Lir University, choose your arena.”

They were coming to the main event.

This was going to be a different circumstance altogether. After all, a simulation was – in the end – just a simulation. How much the human body had to bear in DreamNet was modulated to protect them. A real fight didn’t have that luxury. There was always the possibility of serious injury, even death.

Xiao Han’s eyes were red from sadness and anger. Tang Xiao was smiling victoriously. There was even a hint of disdain in his face, and he didn’t even pay Xiao Han any mind.

Xiao Han fought against his own raging emotions, squelching them down. He was resolved – already determined to exterminate his competition by any means necessary when the real fight begun.

During the fight, both of them would only be permitted to employ the very basic models of mecha suits. As a result, this fight wouldn’t see any discrepancies in equipment. It would be a contest of straight piloting ability. Of course, this included their Disciplines! That was the draw for real battles, the fact that pilots could employ their own strength in conjunction with their suit. Xiao Han was absolutely convinced Tang Xiao didn’t have him beat in that department.

His choice: a saber mech.

In fact both Tang Xiao and Xiao Han had chosen the same style of mecha. Xiao Han chose the normal gladiator arena for them to meet.

He didn’t want to give this fat trickster any sort of advantage in terrain. He would employ the simplest, most direct, and cruelest method he could wipe that smug smile off his fat face.

In the audience bleachers, Wang Hongyuan reached out to poke Lan Jue at his side. “How long you think Tang Xiao will be able to hold out in this one?”

“Why hold out?” Lan Jue shot his friend a glance. “Why not

win?”

Wang Hongyuan’s response was no-nonsense. “You saw the other guy. He’s a Sovereign-ranked pilot. Tang Xiao, at most, is an Emperor. Maybe not even that. He’s fighting in the arena with nowhere to hide or tricks to pull. This time, he doesn’t look like he stands much of a chance.”

Lan Jue smiled at Wang Hongyuan’s assessment. “In this day and age, there’s no shortage of miracles,” he said sagely. “Even in a ring like the arena.”

Wang Hongyuan lifted his brows in surprise. “So you think he’ll win it?”

Lan Jue nodded.

“Why?”

Lan Jue turned his head to look at Wang Hongyuan. His smile was wide, and his voice just loud enough for his friend to hear.

“Because he’s my disciple.”

Chapter 188: Tang Xiao’s Home Turf

“He’s my Disciple.” Lan Jue’s response was simple and straightforward.

Upon hearing this, the surprise in Wang Hongyuan’s face slipped away, and he nodded. “Yeah, that makes sense. You’re both a couple of bastards.”

Lan Jue frowned. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

Wang Hongyuan smiled ruefully. “You’re a God-ranked mecha pilot. Teaching etiquette. In a mecha research school. What do you think?”

“Ehm…”

ζ

The two combatants entered the arena.

They were two identical saber mechas, composed of titanium-

alloy plating. Beyond their standard loadout, there was nothing else for these suits to rely on. They were the suits used by instructors for teaching mecha control systems.

As DreamNet was no longer employed as the judge, two new figures were enlisted for the job; Wu Junyi, and Shi Jiujiu.

The combat arena was a good distance from the audience bleachers, so again the large screens were turned on for a closer look.

Wu Junyi’s stern voice cut through the chatter as he delineated the competition rules.

“Remember that this contest is an educational exchange, for the purposes for mutual study. The moment your opponent surrenders, or their mecha is no longer able to fight, the battle’s done.”

The NEU’s resident arena and the one they’d seen in DreamNet were very similar. Both were roughly the same size and composition.

Now, as the battle was starting, silence once again fell over the audience. They were even more excited than before to witness the class of these two remarkable students.

Xiao Han settled back in his mecha, looking over the cockpit. He was well familiar with this sort of saber mech, but underwent a basic check regardless.

“Practice Mecha J1 is attempting to open a connection.”

Hm? Xiao Han stared in confusion at the controls as the mecha’s digitized voice hailed the call. He’d noticed his own unit number when he’d clambered in:  J2.  Almost unconsciously, he accepted the signal.

“Hey bro, how ya doin’?” The voice on the other end was jovial and sincere.

Xiao Han wasn’t familiar with the voice on the other end, but he knew immediately who and what this call was about. “What do you think,” he said impatiently.

Tang Xiao went on, ignoring his tone. “I actually wanted to

apologize. I’m sorry! I actually didn’t want to fight like that, but our instructors told us that’s the way we should compete. You know how it’s like between our two schools.”

Xiao Han spoke back, his voice hard and chilly. “Whatever you say, it’s too late. I will not show you any mercy.”

When Tang Xiao replied, his voice had changed considerably. “Mercy? You got a brain tumor or something? I just called to ask if the rumors are true, that you have a room temperature IQ.”

The Chinese here is interesting, though I had to make something else up cuz it doesn’t translate. What he wrote was “You are the second in command of both the Number and Letter kingdom.” The second number is 2, the second letter B. 2B in Chinese is internet slang for a ‘stupid cock.

Xiao Han had no opportunity to reply. Their communication cut and Wu Junyi’s voice interjected.

“Begin!”

Tang Xiao’s saber mech was instantly off like a bullet. Xiao

Han’s reaction speeds were markedly slower, with Tang Xiao’s taunts echoing in his head. He wasn’t an amateur, though, and he put the thoughts away to focus on the fight ahead.

Both suits were exceedingly simple, with no bells or whistles. Since their mechas were identical, the only discrepancies in speed would be from their personal ability. This meant Tang Xiao, having reacted first, had the upper hand.

The two drew closer. A flash sizzled behind Xiao Han’s eyes, and immediately the cockpit filled with a stifling power. The titanium alloy sword gripped in his mechanical hand pulsed with a deep red aura.

The two mecha met, though it was not apparent at first glance whether Tang Xiao was employing his Discipline.

Su He had returned to the Lir side of the stadium. His eyes were glued to the screen, calmly judging every movement the two young men made. He was familiar with his student Xiao Han, of course. He knew his pride, the pride that came from being universally favored, had been hurt by the loss – it was sending his heart in to chaos. Still he was confident in his student’s ability. He had the advantage in a real fight. And so, when Xiao Han had been preparing, Su He had said nothing.

This was an excellent learning experience for the young pilot.

Tan Lingyun had also left the warehouse, and watched the screen with the others of the NEU. Like Su He, she calmly watched as the battle began, though her eyes shone with something else. She was not afraid of a loss – the last two victories she considered a happy accident. No, she was worried the Lir combatant wouldn’t hold back if he saw an opportunity. There was a significant threat of harm, maybe even death, if they weren’t careful.

Sparks flew as the two giant titanium blades met for the first time.

The first clash was a straight measure of strength. The mechas were the same, true, but that wasn’t the final word. Tang Xiao had the advantage, and was on the offensive. However, Xiao Han’s Discipline was flowing through his weapon, covering it in a fiery corona of energy.

Then, Xiao Han took his shot.

At first it looked like a miss-step. Xiao Han’s mecha stumbled, but only just enough to stagger around Tang Xiao. As he did, the

offending foot stamped solid against the floor, and a powerful fiery light was cast up from the ground. It raced towards Tang Xiao, crashing in to him with a staggering impact.

Xiao Han’s thrusters burst, sending him careening forward with the point of his blade leveled towards Tang Xiao’s torso.

Dodge, blast, thrust. It was perfectly executed, masterfully planned.

But Tang Xiao knew crafty when he saw it. His mecha rocked to the side as the blast came, deflecting it off the side of his suit. As he staggered backward, he rotated away from Xiao Han’s deadly thrust. His own blade whirled around for an upper-cut slash to Xiao Han’s back.

Lir’s chosen didn’t slow down one iota. Instead he reversed thrust and sent his suit reeling backward. As he did, hi sword swept back at an impossible angle to deflect Tang Xiao’s strike. The two mechas collided with a screech of metal.

Cccrruunncchh!!

Xiao Han’s sudden increase in speed and change of direction caused the two to slam in to each other unceremoniously. Like Tang Xiao in their earlier fight, Xiao Han’s thrusters were empowered, becoming an angry red with the addition of his Discipline. It sent his enemy flying, and he was right behind with both hands gripping his giant sword.

Tang Xiao’s suit had barely hit the floor before Xiao Han had caught up. But he wasn’t alarmed or taken aback, instead hitting the thrusters on one side to push his prostrate suit out of harm’s way. As he slid away from Xiao Han, his torso twisted, bringing the sword to bear.

Spiral strike!

Clang!

Once more Tang Xiao was thrust away, but he’d brought his sword up just in time to block the blow.

From the outset both fighters had been aiming for speed. It was simple, but in straightforward melee fights with these standard mechas, it was an integral part of gaining the upper hand.

It was also the first time Tang Xiao was showing anything other than trickery, and it was real skill. He currently was at a disadvantage, true, but solid basic skills have kept his opponent from landing any strikes.

Xiao Han saw his advantage solidified, then lashed out with a series of blows as furious as a storm. The fiery wall around him burst in to bloom, and with each strike of his sword an explosion of power ensued. Tang Xiao lost ground, retreating under the barrage. His own mecha was beginning to grow hot and blacken. Parts of the armor were beginning to crack.

Tang Xiao was holding on, but only just. Who could say how much more of this he could sustain? Defeat seemed inevitable.

ζ

“Now, Tang Xiao, remember – In general, a DreamNet pilot of high rank will pick his mecha so that it compliments his Discipline. So that means, during the sim battles you better be observant. You might be able to tell their Discipline by the mecha they use. Also, try your damnedest to make sure your own Discipline remains a secret. Now with these things I’ve given you, there’s no way in hell you’re losing. Then you’ll have the real fights, and it’s more than likely you’ll run in to that

Xiao Han guy again.”

“From what I could read from his energy, he’s just about to break eight-level Talent. But he isn’t there yet, so in that you don’t have a disadvantage. However, he’s probably a Sovereign- ranked pilot. When it comes to combat maneuvers, you’re probably facing an uphill slope. With all this in mind, you only really got one shot at victory. Utilize the fact your enemy won’t know your powers. Then, at just the right moment, explode right in to him. If you can find a way to make it sync with the environment, that’ll help your chances too.”

“Remember, you’re trying to goad him in to a mistake. And every pilot is at their most careless when they think they’ve clinched the win.”

ζ

BANG!

For the third time Tang Xiao flew through the air, engulfed in a ball of flame. Parts of the suit had begun to fuse, glowing gold with intense heat.

Xiao Han launched himself in to the air, blade raised high.

“Let’s finish this!” he shouted. “Meteor Strike!”

“Wow guy, you sure did prove it. IQ of a cool autumn night. You’re actually calling out your maneuvers like an anime character? God sure did make you special, huh Adonis. A beautiful unique flower.”

Xiao Han’s rage had slowly been building with each vicious attack he’d lain on Tang Xiao. But upon hearing the taunts from his fat poisonous tongue, his face blanched. Unconsciously, Xiao Han poured every spec of his power in to the burning titanium blade.

The intensity of Xiao Han’s Discipline was so intense it drew every eye. He fell directly towards his foe, indeed like a meteor tearing through the atmosphere.

Tang Xiao’s suit smoldered. It had already sustained quite a lot of damage. Presently, the most serious was a malfunction in the right leg. It looked like there was no way for him to block or avoid the deadly strike.

And then Tang Xiao’s mecha was yanked forcefully to the side. It slid along the metal as though it were being pulled by some invisible hand.

Booooooooommmmmm!

Xiao Han came crashing to the ground in a fiery detonation. The arena’s metal alloy flooring was left with a sizzling metal crater.

There, in the aftermath, Xiao Han sat in his cockpit, eyes wide. He knew immediately he’d committed the most rookie of mistakes. He’d over-extended.

His fingers flew over the controls, coaxing his mecha to flight. But all he heard were teeth-grinding screeches. He didn’t move an inch.

“What the hell?!

Under normal circumstances, he’d never have made this many mistakes. But anger had clouded his judgement, and he’d forgotten a single crucial detail.

The suit he rode was not the Sovereign-rank mecha he was used to. It was a simple thing, and simple things couldn’t be expected to sustain having that much Discipline channeled through them. Already the metal had begun to soften. Or was that the floor? He couldn’t believe it, but before his eyes the alloy arena floor was swallowing the feet of his suit. He was stuck.

Xiao Han viciously kicked and slashed at the floor. He would soon be free.

But most times, it only takes a second to grasp an opportunity.

Chapter 189: Wisdom And Cunning

By this point, Tang Xiao’s mecha had risen to its feet. The giant sword it bore swung in a dangerous arc, glimmering with a strange pure white light.

Xiao Han was still stuck in place, but his torso and arms were still functional. He twisted and brought his weapon up to stave off Tang Xiao’s blow.

Clang!

The two blades met with an ear-splitting clash and a shower of sparks. As they did, Tang Xiao’s glimmering sword seemed to almost grow longer. Then it buckled at the point of impact, twisting around like it had a mind of its own to swipe at Xiao Han’s back.

The Lir challenger was perplexed by Tang Xiao’s mecha, which had at this point was humming with power and emitted a pulsing white light. Much to his surprise, all the damage the suit had sustained prior to this point was gone. Like it was a whole new foe he faced.

Tang Xiao swept around his immobilized target. His sword flowed, and danced through the air leaving streaks of blinding light in its wake.

Still Xiao Han was unable to free himself from the strangely animate metal flooring, but despite that he was managing to keep himself safe from Tang Xiao’s vicious strikes. With a great surge of his power, Xiao Han wrenched his mecha free of the constraints.

“Pitiful! Make a crater and hide in it. Guess that’s the Lir way. See ya!” Tang Xiao’s cruel and taunting voice crackled through Xiao Han’s cockpit speakers.

His suit filled with the sound of steel grating on steel.

He looked down, surprised to find that the floor that had held him fast was the same pure white color of Tang Xiao’s restored mecha. It stretched for twenty meters in each direction, with him in the very center. A giant target.

The floor was alive, roiling like stormy sea waves. It washed over the feet of his suit, grinding maddeningly as it did. He had the Discipline necessary to melt away the grasping metal, he

knew. But he was also keenly aware of the fact that his suit likely wouldn’t be able to handle it.

He watched in impotent horror as a single writhing tendril of white metal wormed its way in to his central command system.

“Bastaaaard!” Xiao Han screamed until his lungs burned. Blood flung from his lips, mingling with spittle. His  body, locked within the confines of the suit, burst in to a frightening display of golden-red fire.

Then, he exploded out from within the mecha, launching himself at Tang Xiao in a raging tempest of fire.

“You think I’m scared? Shit!” The giant silver mecha’s mechanical fist whistled as it tore through the air.

Boom!

The entire arena shook from the force of the impact. The air sizzled and turned red as the explosion lit the skies. Tang Xiao’s mecha reeled back a step, it’s arm now a melted ruin.

Xiao Han floated in midair, surrounded by the heinous flames. No small amount of blood dripped from his mouth, making him look like a madman. And perhaps he was, for his greatest strength over Tang Xiao was in his piloting expertise. In terms of Discipline, he and the fat guy weren’t much different. What’s more, Tang Xiao actually had the upper hand considering the metal construction of the arena they fought in. And he was smart enough to stay in his mecha!

Tang Xiao’s thrusters burst to life, sending the mecha tearing forward at full speed. He lifted his sword high and-

“HOLD!” Two commanding voices cried out in unison. Immediately, Tang Xiao brought his mecha to a halt. The match was done.

He lifted his one remaining arm high, fist clenched.
Victorious!

The audience erupted in to chaos. Great cheers of joy shook the arena and echoed off the surrounding hills.

ζ

Disappointment flashed across Su He’s eyes. He quietly shook his head. By the end he’d clearly seen his student’s shortcomings – that in fact, Xiao Han had lost this fight way back during the simulated battles.

He hadn’t lost from a lack of power or ability. He’d defeated himself.

In the end it had been made clear; these NEU students were tactically superior to the pilots of Lir. Be it smarts or spunk, they came out on top.

Xiao Han’s humiliating defeat in the simulated battles had forced him to reveal his Discipline. Tang Xiao had played the weakling, goaded his enemy in to an ignominious position. Xiao Han had lost control. As Tang Xiao mentioned, he’d dug himself in to a hole. The fatty used that instant to employ his own Discipline, and secured the victory.

Undoubtedly this young man would grow to be successful. Any who underestimated him, deceived by his appearance, were sure to suffer terribly.

Su He looked at the celebrating Tang Xiao with a blank

expression, but he was quite impressed with the kid. Though he was wicked, that word didn’t do him justice. No, this one was a special mix of wisdom and cunning.

ζ

“Ah, just the slightest miscalculation lost him the match. It was well fought, Director Han.” Xu Renjian’s words may have been apologetic, but the smile on his face was anything but.

Han Ruchao said nothing. He only sat, his hands clenched in to fists, trembling in his lap.

He’d lost. In a situation he absolutely should have won, he’d actually lost.

Gradually, his hands relaxed and loosened. When he spoke, his face was calm and his voice even. “Your school’s make some incredible strides in the last year, Renjian. I hadn’t expected such a sound victory. You must certainly have a rare talent on staff, to teach your students so well. I look forward to seeing… whoever it is, competing in the instructor competitions.”

Xu Renjian twitched, apprehensive and yet at the same time excited. Yes! Tang Xiao’s performance today well outstripped his normal capabilities. He knew Tan Lingyun’s style and abilities, and this way not it. What Tang Xiao achieved today, was by no means a product of Tang Lingyun’s instruction. This wasn’t even considering the Soulcrusher he’d somehow obtained in DreamNet. Certainly not Professor Tan’s. No, the only explanation was there was a master in the mecha combat department, one that was keeping his cards close to his chest.

Xiao Han was on the ground, propped up by one knee, the very picture of defeat. He supported himself with his arms, panting heavily. His qi and blood were in chaos, his Discipline fluctuating wildly from the strain and damage he’d caused himself. His eyes were not just bloodshot, but a deep crimson as the power raced through him. He growled through gritted teeth.

“I’ll kill you…. I’ll kill you!”

The one-armed mecha’s chest plate cracked open with a hiss of escaping air. Tang Xiao’s stout constitution as revealed as he jumped out. His two pudgy arms were held high in the air, triumphantly pumping his fists to the chorus of cheers from his fellow students. He was their hero. No, in this moment, he was their patron saint.

Xiao Han shot to his feet, lurching forward to rush at Tang Xiao.

A slender hand then lay on his shoulder, it’s owner completely disregarding the roiling flames surrounding the student. His forward charge abruptly stopped, and he remained where he was.

The young man was furious, on the verge of exploding in to a rage. An icy voice played contrast. “Why did you lose?”

Upon hearing the calm but accusing voice, Xiao Han shivered. “Professor Su.”

“Answer me. Why did you lose?” Su He stared at his student dispassionately. His eyes were like a pair of scalpels, cutting passed to see directly in to him.

A cold shudder went through Xiao Han’s spine, but he did manage to calm his anger.

“I… got careless. I let my emotions get the better of me.” He hung his head in shame.

Su He’s quiet voice replied. “Remember this well. What he gave you today wasn’t humiliation. It was a gift. Let me worry about the glory of our university now. Go back to the lockers.”

“Yes, Professor.” Xiao Han’s respect for his teacher was obvious, and intense. His tone was low and subservient as he answered. The flames around him died, and he left the arena with his head hung low.

Su He did not follow. Instead, he made his way to the center of the arena.

Tang Xiao was there, celebrating, but he was also carefully watching the competition as always. He took pride in his ability to infuriate Xiao Han, leading him to his defeat. But he was surprised that this Professor, who looked so young, could calm him down and reign him in with just a few words. Now he was coming his way.

Tang Xiao wasn’t frightened, though he pretending not to notice the man’s approach. He continued to thrust his fists in the air towards the cheering crowds.

Su He slowly made his way towards the overweight student,

stopping not far away. He looked towards the audience for a moment before speaking. “Next are the instructor battles. Our side will have only one competitor. Please tell the NEU to select three teachers, and I’ll meet them in DreamNet. If any of them can beat me, it’ll count as a total loss. Select three for the real fight as well. They may all engage me together, if they prefer.”

His voice was calm, almost quiet. It was strange, for even despite the boisterous cries of the crowd, and without any microphone, his voice was quite clear. In fact, the whole audience could hear him as though he was standing right beside them.

“Eh?” Tang Xiao’s arms dropped as he stared at Su He.

Xu Renjian and the other NEU administrators sat in stoic silence, their brows furrowed and eyes narrowed.

Arrogance. Exceptional, humiliating arrogance. He was boasting that he could single-handedly defeat the  best  the school had to offer.

The joy in the NEU students’ victory, and the pride in their school, had yet to be spent. It swelled as their indignation

flared.

“Let’s kick these Lir punks all the way back to where they came from!”

“This one’s got some sort of mental problem.”

“Yo! You need some anti-psychotics! Someone bring him to the nurse!”

Su He was beset on all sides from the angry calls.

In only a few words, the young teacher had managed to anger the whole of the NEU.

Xu Renjian shot a cold glance towards Han Ruchao. “What’s the meaning of this, Dean Han? We’ve gathered here for a friendly educational exchange, not to provoke the ire of our students. If this is what our exchange has come to, I see no further benefit in proceeding.”

Han Ruchao smirked at his colleague’s distress. “Now now,

Dean Xu. You’re making mountains out of mole hills. There’s been no provocation here. Just a part of the game, that’s all. You have to understand that studies have been stringent lately, and this is doubly so for our illustrious instructors. Ultimately, we could only convince Su He to participate. It’s fine, Dean – as Su He said, if he loses then you have bested our school in this area as well.”

Xu Renjian took a deep breath. After a moment, he put back on his business persona, and set aside the indignation his companion was clearly trying to instigate. It wasn’t just them here in the VIP area, but luminaries from Skyfire as well. Were things to turn violent, or out of control, surely they would lose face as the hosts. In a way, that would be as much of a loss in and of itself.

Su He allowed his eyes to sweep over the crowd, staring them down for a moment. Afterwards, ignoring the jeers and hard stares, he sauntered back towards the lockers as though nothing had happened. He was as emotionless as the mechas that surrounded them.

ζ

Le Ziqian scowled openly from the audience, following the

teacher as he left the arena grounds. “Him?”

Beside him, Zhou Qianlin turned to look inquisitively up at her teacher. She was competing tomorrow in the research portion, so she and the other two competitors were at Le Ziqian’s side to prepare.

“What’s the matter, Professor Le? You know that man?”

With a cold, dignified expression, Le Ziqian nodded. When he spoke, he ever took his eyes from the Su He. His deep voice was only just audible. “This is trouble. I have no idea what he’s doing at Lir University, but it doesn’t bode well. He’s arrogant, and aggressive – for good reason. With him here, our chances at winning the instructor portion are dire.”

Chapter 190: I Beg You To Help Professor Tan

Zhou Qianlin was surprised. “Could he even be a match for Professor Tan?”

Le Ziqian nodded. “His name is Su He. Have you heard of him?”

“Su He? You don’t mean the East’s famous Su He, do you?” Qianlin’s eyes opened wide at the revelation. She stared at her professor, flabbergasted.

Once again, he nodded. “I haven’t the slightest idea how Lir managed to convince him to join. It’s quite the problem. Even I’m impressed with the man, and I’m a hard one to enthuse. And unless I’m mistaken, we’ll be against him tomorrow for the research competition as well. Big problem. No wonder they agreed to it, with him on their side.”

“He was an academician at the Eastern R&D University by the age of twenty-six, and a Sovereign-ranked pilot. He should be around thirty-three now, about the same age as me. Differences in ability, however, are hard to determine. We participated in a competition before, and I envied his practical knowledge. In my

youth, he was about the only person I truly admired.”

Qianlin looked concerned. “What should we do, Professor?”

A familiar, bitingly cold female voice rang through the arena. “If this Lir University puppet is so vehement about it, who am I to deny him. If he beats me, they win – just like him. He won’t gang up like they want us to, to make us look cheap.”

Le Ziqian patted his forehead in frustration. “This temper of yours, Lingyun,” he said with a sigh. “I understand her thinking, but it’s misguided. Three on one, we might have stood a chance. In an even fight, though…”

He trailed off, lost in some secret thought. He piped up again suddenly. “Mm, yes. This has to do with our Dean, Xu Renjian. Dean Xu’s research group is always in contest with Su He’s, and in fact the two are the largest in the alliance – with two radically different views on the subject. I fear Su He is here for one purpose, and that is to challenge Xu Renjian’s authority. That is why he’s with Lir University.”

Qianlin thought in silence for a moment before replying. “Do you think he’ll take it too far?”

Le Ziqian’s answer was delivered through a bitter smirk. “I like to think I understand the man, at least a little. Ordinarily, the most striking feature about him is his calm. Almost apathetic. But this guy’s conceit runs to the bone. The student Tang Xiao beat was more than likely his little apprentice, so their fight will be about him regaining face. As for Lingyun…”

He lapsed in to silence, anxiety clearly written on his face.

ζ

Wang Hongyuan leaped to his feet. Lan Jue tried to yank him back down. “What are you doing?”

Hongyuan slumped back in his chair. “Such an arrogant bastard. He wants to go three on one? Lemme show him what pride gets you.”

He’d barely finished the sentence before Tan Lingyun’s voice filled the arena. A cheer went up from the audience around them.

Lan Jue only smiled. “The Savage Goddess’ gumption really is

impressive, eh?”

“Lingyun is strong,” Hongyuan conceded, “but do you think she’s strong enough to beat that punk?”

Lan Jue shook his head.

Wang Hongyuan gave him friend a scalding look. “You look down on her that much, eh? She’s an eight-ranked Disciple and a Sovereign-class pilot. You still don’t think she’s capable?”

“For him to propose this sort of contest, he must know more than the Lir leadership lets on. Plus, I know that man, and he’s undoubtedly stronger than Lingyun. His name is Su He,” Lan Jue remarked.

“Su He?” Wang Hongyuan wasn’t familiar with the name.

Lan Jue stared at him blankly. “Professor Wang. You’re not from the Eastern Alliance, are you. Unless I’m mistaken, I’d say Western. If that’s the case, it’s no surprise you  don’t  know him.”

Wang Hongyuan’s brows narrowed. “And that’s the reason for his vanity, I suppose. If Tan Lingyun should lose, I’m not sure this punk will stay his hand.”

Lan Jue opened his mouth to speak, when suddenly that familiar warmth arose against his chest where the Soulcaller gem rested.

Qianlin: You think you could help Professor Tan? That guy from Lir is supposed to be very strong.

Lan Jue: How am I supposed to help her?

I don’t know…


I’m begging you.

Agh…

Are you unable to?

Fine.

Is that your answer?

Ngh.

Thank you.

No problem. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen this guy. I’d be interested to gauge his progress.

Huh?

Lan Jue said nothing further, and the Soulcaller gem cooled.

“I have to visit the restroom. Excuse me.” Lan Jue rose, and meandered his way through the crowd.

Wang Hongyuan watched him leave from the corner of his eye. A smile spread across his face.

Jin Yan poked him. “Where’s Professor Lan go?”

“The bathroom,” he answered. “Call of nature, he’ll be back in a bit.”

ζ

Tan Lingyun cut the connection on her communicator. She watched Le Ziqian’s name fade from the screen.

“Su He!” Tan Lingyun’s pupils contracted. Le Ziqian’s revelations hadn’t deterred her, in fact only strengthening her resolve.

She looked up, surrounded by Wu Junyi and no small number of instructors from the mecha combat department.

“Professor Tan.” Wu Junyi took a step forward.

She took a deep breath. “I apologize, Director. I  was impulsive. I should not have represented the school in that fashion. If we lose I’ll bear the consequences. You’ll have my resignation.”

Wu Junyi shook his head, smirking. “Alas, the Dean asked me to come here and tell you, you’ve done well. Your decision is the school’s decision. Win or lose, just keep our school’s positive momentum going!”

Tan Lingyun’s pretty face lit up in a rare smile, and she nodded her head. She settled on the floor, crossed her legs, and closed her eyes. She had to mentally prepare for what was to follow.

Wu Junyi wordlessly waved to the others, and the small group dispersed.

There was a thirty-minute interval between the student and teacher battles. It was sufficient time to reset and prepare.

ζ

Lan Jue leaned against a wall, tapping a number in to his communicator.

“Jewelry Master? What are you calling me for?” The voice that answered sounded less than pleased to hear from him.

“I need a favor.” Lan Jue said, smiling at the reaction.

“No! I haven’t forgotten how you guys treated me the last time.” The man sounded decidedly displeased.

“Remember that women don’t like petty men,” Lan Jue cooed. “You aren’t a petty man, are you Accountant?”

Indeed, it was the Accountant, and he remembered just as well as the poor man the way they left him stranded. Ostensibly the excuse was that there wasn’t any room in the car for him, the Amazons and Zeus all together. So they’d just left him there to find his own way back.

The Accountant’s angry voice shot back at him. “Don’t give me that crap. Introduce me to one of those ladies that follow you around, then, and maybe I’ll help.”

Lan Jue’s voice adopted a scornful tone. “You’re asking me to help you chase skirts. Just the fact you’re saying it makes your grandpa lose face. Are you going to help me or not? I can always ask someone else. Your grandfather definitely must know someone with the expertise I need. Someone who wouldn’t refuse a comrade in arms.”

“You will not mention any of this to my grandfather!” The Accountant suddenly sounded flustered.

“Then stop talking nonsense. So what’s the answer.”

“You’re like a damn slave master,” the Accountant lamented.

“I’m recording this.”

“What the hell do you want!”

ζ

Half an hour passed in the blink of an eye.

Su He and Tan Lingyun strode to their respective simulators and began running diagnostics.

“The simulated combat competition between the National Eastern University and Lir University will begin shortly. The combatants shall be; from the NEU, Professor Tan Lingyun; from Lir University, Professor Su He. Would both challengers please prepare. The combat map shall be chosen at random.”

Tan Lingyun’s hands darted over the simulated controls, tapping away to their own rhythm. The screen flashed with each command. She was ready, at her best, and anxious to get under way.

“The map for this battle shall be: Sky.”

An air battle!

In truth the Sky arena wasn’t entirely in the air. There was cloud cover, for instance, and more. They  changed  the necessary tactics and flow of a fight. In the end the differences between an air and ground fight were as different as night and day. It opened up entirely new avenues of strategy, however there was a higher reliance on pilot control.

In the next instant, two mechas appeared in the map.

Tan Lingyun’s suit was a pale green, which rose eighteen meters tall. Just by the look of it, it was clear dexterity was its focus. This was affirmed with the two small metallic wings bolted to its back frame. The whole thing was surrounded by a faint green light – undoubtedly a characteristic of a powerful gem at its core.

Su He’s suit was yellow. It was taller than his opponent’s, with a streamlined construction that made it look more aerodynamic. A massive laser canon was strapped to its back. Like Hua Qianhu before him, this one looked like a sniper mecha.

“Three. Two. One. Begin!”

The digitized voice rang out, and with that the deciding fight in the instructor combat exchange commenced.

Aleady the NEU had cinched the student battles.  Winning here, and in the real fights, would mean an unequivocal victory for the research school. But they were only halfway there.

The entire audience sat on the edge of their seat. Every eye was locked on the giant projector screens.

As soon as she heard the word begin, Tan Lingyun’s mecha was on the move. The pale green suit emitted a cocoon of disruptive energy as she raced towards her opponent. However, a close look would reveal that her seemingly straightforward rush was actually punctuated with precise jukes and dodges.

It was a step above disordered movement, a style they called Anticipative Advance. The tiny movements deterred ranged combat, while still optimizing forward momentum. A high-level tactic used primarily for snipers.

This fight was going to be an intense one.

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