Skyfire Avenue Chapter 21-30

Chapter 21: Tang Mi

She moved silently through the gloom, pausing in the shadow of a building. A white figure quietly making her way.

In the distance she’d traveled from Skyfire Avenue, she’d already changed direction several times. Were someone looking for her trail, it would be almost impossible. Walking in the dark night, she’d managed to avoid all of the probes capable of recognizing her. Even the satellites far overhead had no means of detecting her.

Were it not for her wedding, she’d be wearing her communication device around her neck; enough for the satellites to get a lock. As it was she was doing everything she can to avoid detection. And all of it was for that guy.

Upon thinking about him Zhou Qianlin couldn’t help but knit her brow. The pain in her body she could endure, but the chaos in her heart was another matter.

Though she walked in the darkness, in her mind the only shadows were his figure.

Everything that happened was only over a short time, but in her heart it felt like it was stretched over a century ago.

She paused, unconsciously looking back towards Skyfire Avenue. Through the emotional tumult in her eyes arose a shimmering tear.

When she stood before him she was strong, even cold. But in the end she was only a little girl!

With tears in her eyes she slowly walked through the shadow, passing under the glow of a streetlamp. From beneath the towering buildings and yawning eaves she was revealed.

Slowly, step by step she moved on, her mind blank, unable to think.

Suddenly, a whistling blast arose, a rapid surge of air swirling past her.

Zhou Qianlin almost stepped aside, her hands pressing down her dress to prevent the air from ruffling it.

A Ferarri verti-car hovered overhead. This sort of car was best suited for high-speed movement ten meters or less above the ground, though not as expensive as a high-altitude verti-car. But considering it’s high energy efficiency, it was not expensive.

The window facing Zhou Qianlin descended, revealing a man young man with yellow Mohican-styled hair. He whistled while staring at her.

Zhou Qianlin’s white dress hugged her eye-catching figure, especially her shapely backside which moved with her gait.

Her beauty certainly didn’t just attract Zeus.

“Hey there pretty, all by yourself?” The young man ran a hand through his blond hair, pity revealed in his almond eyes.

Zhou Qianlin’s look was biting, clearly the blast of air that’d startled her was intentional. This sort of obscene behavior towards women was downright detestable.

She disdained to even speak to him, holding that hard glare a moment longer before turning to leave.

“Saucy!” The young man’s eyes lit up. Zhou Qianlin’s dismissive glare made her look all the more virginal. And to come across such a pretty lady all on her own in the middle of the night, in his eyes lady luck had blessed him.

The Ferarri deftly moved forward to catch up with the retreating Zhou Qianlin.

The verti-car slowed, and the young man opened his mouth to speak further. As he did, he got the sense Zhou Qianlin had somehow grown brighter. It was then he noticed the column of golden light descending from the skies to envelope her.

Boooommm!

Almost instantly after the light washed over Zhou Qianlin, a massive golden figure came crashing down, looking terribly mangled.

The Ferarri was abruptly smashed beneath it. The entire back half of the car had disappeared, while the front had been irreparably warped by the impact. The force of the collision had caused the young man in the driver seat to faint. Luckily, he’d been wearing his seat-belt.

The shockwave tore across the street like a gale. Thankfully there weren’t any others on the street. Zhou Qianlin was unaffected, protected by the column of light sent specifically from the golden figure.

The metallic mecha was eighteen meters tall, it’s body smooth and streamlined, coated in gold. The sole imperfection were the crumpled armor plates on it’s shoulders, traces of the damage the mecha had suffered.

“Qianlin,” a tender voice arose, followed by the hatch of the mecha hissing open. A figure arose from within and leapt from the mecha. Unfazed by the eighteen meter height, the woman turned two circles in the air as she tumbled forward. As she did a layer of golden light encased her, and moment before she hit the floor she stabilized and landed firmly.

She was a tall and beautiful woman. Zhou Qianlin herself was considered tall, but this woman stood half a head over her.

Her legs were strikingly long, seventy percent the proportion of her legs and torso, but most gripping was the sense of power her imposing figure commanded.

She wore a black skin-tight flight suit, with a head of long golden hair and jade-green eyes that glittered like crystal.

The flight suit perfectly outlined her figure, and although her long legs seemed almost out of proportion her strong and beautiful posture gave her a tameless beauty.

The golden light quietly dispersed, and the golden haired woman closed the gap between herself and Zhou Qianlin in three long steps. She looked her up and down, asking with concern in her voice, “Qianlin, are you alright?”

“I’m fine, Little Mi,” replied while shaking her head.

“I’ve said it countless times,” the woman grumbled, “Don’t call me Little Mi. Say my full name, Tang Mi!”

Zhou Qianlin smiled. “You got here fast.”

Tang Mi responded, “Like I had a choice. You know after your disappearance the entire wedding site went crazy. All of Skyfire City now sees danger lurking around every  corner.  They haven’t officially declared martial law, but they’ve already

called for four whole Mecha Battalions to search the entire planet for any trace of you. I was so worried, no one at the wedding was able to protect you. I’m a terrible friend.”

Zhou Qianlin shook her head. “No one blames you.”

Tang Mi acknowledge that with a nod of her head, her big jade eyes excited. “Of course you can’t blame me. That was THOR! The single greatest Mecha-pilot in our Alliance, no way I could stand against him! Agh, why didn’t he grab me! If he had, I’d not have fought back, I’d have gone right along with him.”

Zhou Qianlin’s brows slowly began to rise. “What do you mean, ‘not fought back’?”

Chapter 22: His Story

“Mm, good stuff.” Lan Jue was a little drunk. He breathed in the scent of the alcohol, detecting hints of smoke and peat. His eyes looked dulled.

Before him was a table capable of seating eight and, though small, was quite magnificent with a classical style. It was composed of parqueted wood, inlayed with gold tooling and of very fine texture.

The Wine Master sat at the head of the table, Lan Jue to his left. To his right sat the Gourmet.

Today the Gourmet was clad in a fine black suit and white shirt, though differing from Lan Jue in that he also wore a u- shaped waistcoat. He was the very picture of the gentry.

The cuffs of his shirt had been rolled up. In his right hand he held a long knife, it’s blade thirty centimeters long with a sandy beige handle. Were an expert present their eyes would bulge from shock – not from the beautiful moiré pattern on the blade, but due to the fact that the handle was made from mammoth tusk, exceptionally rare even in the Former Era.

The Gourmet’s slender fingers moved deftly, cutting the Iberian ham in slices as thin as a cicada’s wings and flicking it in to the ceramic whiteware clutched in his other hand. Beneath the plate a candle burned, causing the ham to adopt an almost crystalline texture.

The Wine Master first looked to the Gourmet, then to Lan Jue. “You’ve had nearly half a bottle of Talisker already, are you ready to share your story?”

Lan Jue swirled the whiskey glass in his hand, picked up a piece of ham and popped it in his mouth. A thick, yet not oily taste filled his mouth. He took another small sip of Talisker single-malt, the fine whiskey like fire down his throat, spreading through his every pore.

“The particular thing about Talisker is the strong taste of peat, a specific trait of an island. It is an untamed and legendary vintage spirit. For those who truly love the flavor, they can’t help but partake.”

“You want to tell me a story about whiskey?” The Wine Master muttered.

The Gourmet finished heating another plate then sat, motioning with his knife as though he would bury it in the fine tabletop. The Wine Master shot him a glare, to which the Gourmet smirked and replaced the knife to it’s wooden sheath.

Reaching out, the Gourmet gripped the half bottle of Talisker in his hand, it’s golden contents shimmering with a faint halo in the light.

“Don’t give him any alcohol and he’ll tell you on his own,” he said, pouring himself half a glass. He placed the bottle to one side.

The Wine Master nodded approvingly.

Lan Jue looked disappointed, downing the contents of his glass is one gulp. “I’m a little tired, I think I’ll just go home and sleep, so…”

The Wine Master’s eye twitched. “Then go.”

“Will I be able to come back later?” Lan Jue said with a small smile.

“What do you think,” the Wine Master responded, looking at him obliquely.

Lan Jue leaned against the back of the chair, speaking calmly. “I’ve been here three years, right?”

“Three years, one month and three days,” the Wine Master responded studiously.

The corners of Lan Jue’s mouth curled bitterly. “I had a beautiful wife. She was gentle, kind, gorgeous… when you were with her it was like a spring breeze. From the moment I saw her I was lost, loved her instantly.”

“We were the envy of everyone. Everything was perfect, we enjoyed each other’s company, did everything together. It was so natural being together, so natural that we just felt happy with one another. She was my whole world. When she was with me, the entire universe seemed more colorful.”

“But they say good days are brief. Three years ago because of an accident, she left me forever. Even now, I don’t know if it really was an accident or was somehow orchestrated. According to all evidence she vanished in a giant explosion. I couldn’t find

her, she left no trace. It was like she never existed in my life at all.”

“She was gone so… my heart was empty.”

“As a result I came here. I like the tranquility of Skyfire Avenue, like living here. In my early years when I’d visited here I liked it. I’d planned to bring her here with me, but she was gone so suddenly.”

Lan Jue related the story calmly, his eyes reflecting his even temperament. It was like he was simply telling a tale, a story he wasn’t involved in.

“Not long ago someone came to the shop, left me a note. It said my wife wasn’t dead. It contained a video. I believed it. How could I not believe it. Even though I knew I was lying to myself, even though I knew it was impossible, I believed it.”

“I helped them, and they told me my wife’s location. And they told me she was going to marry someone else. You are men… I think you must understand what I was feeling.”

“So I went after her. Took back my wife. I was so happy. She was like a paintbrush, bringing life and color back in to my life.”

“But I’d deceived myself. She just looked like my wife. She wasn’t… her.”

Lan Jue stopped there, the trace of a smile on his face. But the emptiness in his eyes was unsettling.

The Wine Master looked at the Gourmet, beckoning towards him with a wave of the hand. A faint light, and suddenly the Talisker bottle was in his hand.

Removing the cork, the Wine Master quietly poured Lan Jue a glass, then lifted his own.

Lan Jue picked up his drink, threw his head back and downed it. The high-proof liquor burned through him. But the burning in his throat couldn’t touch the pain he felt. He felt like he did those three years ago, when he learned of the accident.

“I’m off.” Lan Jue placed his glass on the table, and left.

Neither the Wine Master nor Gourmet asked him to say. A man’s pain wasn’t so easily resolved through talking.

Lan Jue was worn out, dispirited. He’d even lost interest in seeking revenge against the people who’d given him the false news. No matter what he said, they had filled him with a great hope, only to deliver greater despair. But at least, for those few precious moments, he’d thought Hera had returned to him.

The Wine Master and Gourmet said nothing to one another, finishing the drinks in their glass. The Gourmet finished the last piece of ham.

“I’m leaving as well,” he said.

“Mm,” the Wine Master faintly responded.

As he stood the Gourmet’s brows rose. “Eh, he didn’t pay for the whiskey did he. I thought he said he would.”

The hand with which the Wine Master held his glass froze suddenly, as though by magic, paralyzed.

Chapter 23: The Mercenary King

“I’m fine.” Zhou Qianlin had already forgotten how many times she’d said these two words. At her side fluttered her frightened mother. Chief Minister of the Eastern Alliance, Minister Zhou, paced back and forth in the spacious room with brows scrunched tight.

Her best friend, Tang Mi, stood not far off.

An hour before Tang Mi had delivered Zhou Qianlin back to the villa, where she gave a very simple account of her capture.

Captured. Passed out. Awoke in the street.

It was just that simple.

The Eastern Alliance hadn’t hesitated to block any news of the wedding’s upheaval from leaking, but it was already without question a massive scandal.

Everything had changed, the tone of the former political unification irreparably altered due to the sudden events. Sylva

Austin was furious, and had already begun dressing down the Eastern Alliance security. A daughter-in-law stolen from her own wedding, this was a great stain the Austin family wasn’t prepared to endure.

Regardless of whether his rage was real or born out of political necessity, Sylva Austin had left back to the Western Alliance with his unwilling son.

The Prime Minister’s growling voice reverberated in the Zhou Xueguan’s ears: “Minister, I am extremely disappointed in the security of your Alliance. This disgrace is not something we will suffer lightly, there will be consequences!”

After he’d said that, he’d stormed off and left.

At the time Minister Zhou had not gone in to an explanation. He’d had the entire planet shut down, searching for any trace of his daughter. To him, there was nothing more important than the safety of his daughter.

But now his daughter had been returned safely. And had changed clothes.

A beautiful woman, captured and taken away, only pass out and return in different clothes. What did that mean? Even if nothing had happened, Zhou Qianlin’s reputation had been tremendously affected. And clearly the Austins had broken off the wedding. And what’s more, as Chief Minister he was expected to address questions about what had happened from his political peers.

“Darling I’m no stranger, tell your mother, tell me honestly are you alright?” Zhou Qianlin’s mother, Bai Xiao, asked quietly.

“I’m fine, really.” Zhou Qianlin stood. “Mother, father, I’m a little tired. Let me rest. I never thought something like this could happen. Father, I’m sorry I’ve caused so much trouble.”

Minister Zhou stopped his pacing, and looked thoughtfully at his daughter. A pained sigh escaped his lips. “Who’d have possibly expected something like this would happen. Fortunately you’ve returned safe and sound. Qianlin, you don’t need to worry. Go. Your father will take care of the rest.” He was the backbone of the family, and no matter the difficulties it was his responsibility to shoulder what comes.

With everything said, he approached Zhou Qianlin and gave

her a light hug.

Zhou Qianlin’s eyes had grown red. “Father.”

“Don’t cry, sweety. Go and rest. Little Mi, please accompany her. She must have been terrified,” the Minister warmly requested.

“Don’t worry uncle, I’m not going anywhere.” Tang Mi quickly took up Zhou Qianlin’s hand and led her away upstairs.

Watching her daughter leave, Bai Xiao moved to her husband. “Xueguan, this is very serious matter. The Western Alliance is already applying pressure. The Upper House is dissatisfied with you. Will you be able to find the man who kidnapped Qianlin?”

Zhou Xueguan shook his head. “Qianlin remembers nothing, no news we can use. He was also very powerful, left no trace. I’ve asked the members of the Holy Eastern Church to take a look at the video. They said they thought it was the mercenary king from three years ago, Zeus.”

“Zeus?” Bai Xiao’s eye’s betrayed her shock. “You’re mean

Zeus of the Four Divine Monarchs?”

He nodded. “In the last twenty years the Four Monarchs have been the most famed Adepts and Mecha-Pilots, mysterious and powerful. According to our data, each of the Monarchs are God level pilots, and at least Ninth level Talents. None are older than forty. Zeus pilots Thor, and holds sway over the Discipline of lightning. Thus his name, Zeus. Seven years ago he entered the scene as a mercenary, taking up an S-Ranked mission for his first job and completing it with no trouble. He was famous from then on. Because of that mission he’d been promoted to B-Rank in the mercenary company. Next he completed seven Triple S- Rank missions in succession, and assumed the reputation of Mercenary King. He’s never had a mission he didn’t complete.”

“But he’s very particular about the missions he accepts, only picking those he likes. I’ve looked in to the missions he has accepted for anything special, and nearly all of them involve vigilante justice. He performs the tasks fairly. But three years ago for unknown reasons Zeus vanished. He hadn’t been seen since, not taking any missions. If that truly is Zeus, we have no idea who hired him.”

Bai Xiao, her mouth agape, said, “I’ve heard of this mercenary king. If it really is him then I’m actually relieved. Zeus has never helped evil men. Our daughter really should be fine. Only,

we don’t know why Zeus would kidnap our daughter. Do you think it was one of your political opponents who hired him, to break up the wedding and ruin your alliance with the West? But judging by his past missions Zeus just isn’t that sort of person, he rarely goes in for politics.”

“It’s hard to say,” Zhou Xueguan responded. “If he is from the Northern Alliance this would make sense. It would add up that he’d get involved if it was for his own alliance. Alright, get some rest, I’m going out for a spell. I have to go see the Chancellor of the Upper House. I’ll handle this, try to control the damage.”

Bai Xiao gently smoothed out her husbands clothing. “Hurry back.”

Chapter 24: He Doesn’t Like Women?

It had been a week since the incident and Skyfire Planet had returned to a state of calm. Interstellar news had reported nothing further about the bride snatching. Everything was back to normal.

Lan Jue returned to his normal life, operating his jewelry store.

Recently business had been slow, with few customers to speak of. Luckily for the shop, it didn’t needs very many to stay afloat.

Ding ding ding. The bell above the door chimed as a man in a leisure suit found his way inside.

Xiuxiu smiled and gave a slight curtsey to the man in greeting, welcoming him inside. Ke’er had already dutifully prepared a cup of warm water which she held in both hands.

“What do you need? Speak – no discounts.” Lan Jue lazily leaned against the back of his chair as he spoke to the newcomer.

The Gourmet took the glass offered by Ke’er and sat beside Lan Jue. He grumbled, “So stingy. You never paid for the whiskey you drank at the winey, either.”

“Oh, really? I don’t recall,” Lan Jue responded his eyes large.

“Nobles never keep their word,” the Gourmet responded disdainfully.

Lan Jue scowled. “What do you want.”

The Gourmet responded by lifting his brows. “Do I need a reason to come see you?”

Lan Jue laughed. “With your cool demeanor? You wouldn’t be here if you didn’t have a reason. You sit in your little shop all day refusing to leave.”

The Gourmet sighed. “Well, I guess you aren’t too fond of me.”

Lan Jue drummed his fingers, grinning at him. “No one likes a

debt collector.”

He huffed. “You don’t owe me money. I just came to let you know I have a whole bluefin tuna coming in in a few days. I wanted to see if anyone was interested in a bite.”

“A whole one?” Lan Jue’s voice raised an octave, his eyes lighting up.

Of course he knew finding a whole bluefin tuna was exceedingly rare. It certainly wasn’t a natural  product  of Skyfire, it must have come from someone’s fish farm.

The Gourmet stood. “Fine, I’m leaving. After they catch it it’ll be three days before it arrives, and another two after before it can be eaten. We’ll meet in five days. At the winery, it’s large and we’ll put the space to good use.”

“Good, good.”

The Gourmet made his way outside, lead by Xiuxiu. As he did he said over his shoulder, “It’s a big fish. Bring a friend.”

“Boss, bring me!” Ke’er looked peeved, laying atop the counter before Lan Jue with her lower stuck out.

“Ke’er,” Xiuxiu said in rebuke.

Ke’er stuck out her tongue, shuffling towards her. “We wont’ make the boss lose face, what’s wrong with going with him?”

Xiuxiu took her arm, speaking in quiet tones. “He hasn’t been in a good mood, lately.”

Beep beep beep! Lan Jue dropped his head to look at his interstellar communicator. An unfamiliar number flashed on it’s screen.

He answered.

“Thirty-Seven Huayin Street, Luo Yun teahouse.” A pleasing but indifferent voice came wafting through the communicator.

At first he listened apathetically, but his features could not help but shift once he realized who the voice belonged to. “I’ll

be there soon.”

As he spoke he rose quickly and exited the shop.

Watching his back as he hurried away, Ke’er gave him a suspicious look. “The boss doesn’t seem quite right.”

Xiuxiu, on the other hand, looked anxious. “He’s seemed like his normal self the last few days, but I can feel he’s been pretty depressed. Something must have happened.”

“With the boss’ abilities what sort of thing could make him so unhappy,” Ke’er wondered aloud. “You should ask him Xiuxiu. He likes you best.”

Xiuxiu’s face grew red. “Stop talking nonsense.”

Ke’er snickered, speaking quietly. “Don’t tell me you don’t like him. Every time you look at him I see it in your face. You got eyes for that goofy guy and no one else.”

Xiuxiu laughed bitterly. “You give him too little credit. If you

can see it, so can he. He ignores it on purpose.”

Ke’er blinked in confusion. “Why? You’re so pretty and sweet!”

Xiuxiu shook her head. “I don’t know either, but.. do you remember? When the boss had first opened the store he was awfully depressed every day. Like he’d had his heart broken.”

“Hey, do you think he’s… you know?” Ke’er said cryptically, her voice softer still.

“What,” Xiuxiu responded, confused.

“You know, us two beautiful girls, strutting in front of him day in and day out, but no reaction. Only way to explain it, he doesn’t like women!”

“Ah?” Xiuxiu looked at her dumbly, the color draining from her face.

ζ

“Atchoo!” Lan Jue rubbed his nose and muttered to himself. “Who’s talking trash about me.”

In China, it is said a sneeze is caused when someone is talking bad about you

ζ

Huayin Street was located in the Western section of Skyfire City, a significant distance from Skyfire Avenue in the city’s downtown district.

Lan Jue sat upon one of the public lev-buses, unaware of his scrunched brows.

His tolerance exceeded that of the average person, and even then it took three years to free himself from the pain he’d experienced. It had been a week since his actions at the wedding, and his mood had gradually returned to normal. But that call, the voice on the other end of his communicator, brought back that night in his memory.

The sorry had already been pressed down, hidden away, but

the trouble from that night was far from resolved.

But once he’d heard that voice, his heart beat grew rapid.

He couldn’t help it. Not because she and he had been as close as a man and woman could, but because of what that voice resembled.

And so, almost unconsciously, he lept from the bus disregarding all of his normal grace and poise.

The Luo Yun teahouse wasn’t large, but quite fine. It bore a classical Chinese style construction from the former era, located on a building with letters written over it.

He was met at the door by a woman in a cream qipao. She lead him inside to a tasteful private room.

A qipao is a traditional Chinese woman’s dress, often made of silk. In modern times it sees the vast majority of use in restaurants, worn by waitresses

As he entered, he stopped in his tracks. The  cream-clad woman behind him had already left and shut the door.

The room was small, only capable of seating two.

She wore the same dress as the night she left, long and white. Her long hair was brushed in to a pony tail, revealing the fair skin of her forehead. She didn’t look up, instead staring quietly at the boccaro before her.

The enameled teapot wasn’t large, the top set with a raised relief of plum blossoms. The surface was a deep red, and stood out.

The slightly golden, deep red tea water was poured out and the faint scent of it filled the silent room. The brief sound and smell only added to the quietude.

Lan Jue just stood, staring at the elegant women seated before him. Though he could only see those long eye lashes, he felt his heart sink. Just like the first time he’d met her.

Chapter 25: Bodyguard?

It was as if time had stopped; white skirt, black hair, slender fingers, plum blossom teapot, the faint scent of tea. If you were to just see the contours, it was as perfect as a painting.

The tea was poured into two matching cups, red as the teapot.
Just enough tea for one mouthful.

“Are you just going to stand there?” Zhou Qianlin lifted her head, looking at the frozen man before her.

White trousers, pale green shirt, short black hair, sender build. But his most arresting feature were those eyes, full of reminiscence.

“Oh.” Lan Jue was shaken from his haze and approached, sitting in the rattan chair set before her.

Zhou Qianlin motioned towards his drink, lifting her own cup. As the scent wafted towards her, she lifted it to her mouth and took a sip.

Lan Jue lifted the cup to his nose, then took a sip. “Jin jun mei, Lapsang Souchong black tea.” He’d always liked the nice things of this world, the ceremonial tea traditions from Former Era China with centuries-old history and culture. It was full of countless principles and traditions, so naturally he’d enjoy it. Contrary to most tea lovers who preferred green tea, he always enjoyed the black.

Green tea was for the scent, black was for warmth.

A small sip, and the aroma washed over him, like his body was transparent. For a moment his worries melted away.

“Good tea,” Lan Jue said praisingly.

Zhou Qianlin poured them both another cup. The small containers could only hold a very small amount. One sip, and more must be poured.

He took another drink, and placing the cup on the able before him, looked at the person adjacent.

Bright azure eyes, calm and impassive, quivering eyelashes.

“Let’s try this again. I am Lan Jue, proprietor of Zeus’ Jewelry Store on Skyfire Avenue.” He reached a hand towards Zhou Qianlin to shake.

Zhou Qianlin regarded him coolly, her eyes serene but distant.

Lan Jue awkwardly retracted his hand. In fact he’d barely managed to keep himself from asking how she was. Clearly that wouldn’t have been appropriate.

“I didn’t ask you here for a fresh start. We should talk about our situation.” Her voice was as pleasant as ever, but there was a distinct chill to it. Perhaps her cold nature was the reason she had chosen black tea, he thought to himself.

“Fine.” Lan Jue nodded.

Zhou Qianlin fumed. He acted like nothing had happened!
Honestly…

“Unless I’m remembering incorrectly, you promised me a favor,” she said.

“Indeed. And you’ve thought of one?” Lan Jue stared at her. Zeus had made that promise, surely her request wouldn’t be an ordinary one.

Zhou Qianlin nodded. “I have.”

Lan Jue was anxious to resolve this. His face was calm, but it didn’t mean he’d forgotten. In fact he had never known this level of guilt.

“I’m a student,” Zhou Qianlin began, opening the lid of the teapot. She poured in more hot water and continued. “National Eastern University, National Scholar, Junior.”

National Scholar? Amid the beating of his heart he remembered the video they had sent, the first time he’d seen her. She had been moving between classes.

He’d heard of the National Eastern University, a top school in the nation. It was a mecha-piloting university. Everything they taught was related to mecha. However only the mecha branch was famous for combat, so the whole school wasn’t named a military university.

Considering the background of the Eastern Alliance, the NEU was the single best institution of higher learning. A four year bachelor’s degree and you could find any related job immediately after graduation. With this sort of education background you were guaranteed social progress, and a stepping stone to success in the military. Of the bachelors, the particularly talented were selected to continue their studies. They were the National Scholars.

National scholars, too, studied in a four year program, but they were the elite of the four alliances. They were assured an important position in their field, moreover it was very possible they would see further advancement in a very short time.

In the Eastern Alliance there were only a handful of institutions who trained National Scholars, thus every year less than a thousand such graduates were produced. As a result, National Scholars were highly prized. It was the same in the other two alliances as well.

“I didn’t know you were a National Scholar.” Lan Jue smiled.

“I haven’t graduated yet,” Zhou Qianlin replied, “You can’t call me that.”

Lan Jue said, “If I’m not mistaken, the NEU is a mecha- piloting university. As you’re a graduate student, did you want me to train you in regards to mechs? This I can do, though it wont be easy.”

It was the first thought that crossed his mind, though she may not know of his identity. However she had seen his capabilities the day he’d captured her, she looked like a smart girl.

But what she said next left him stunned.

“I don’t need a mecha teacher,” Zhou Qianlin replied dismissively. “You think I’d want a teacher who was rude and boorish to me?”

“Rude.. boorish?” Lan Jue felt the hair on the back of his neck rankle. No one had ever called him that before.

“We’re nobility, how could I possibly be boorish?” Lan Jue’s breath came uneven.

“Aren’t you,” Zhou Qianlin snapped back. “You don’t even know what a hospital is, and you aren’t boorish? If you aren’t,

what else could I call you…?”

Lan Jue looked like he’d been slapped, his agitation beaten out of him. He frowned and leaned against the back of his chair. He said nothing else – there was never else for him to say – there was nothing he could do to erase his sin.

“What do you want,” he asked. He just wanted to leave, quickly. The woman across from him made him feel impotent. He didn’t feel like Zeus – he felt like minced meat on a cutting board.

“It’ll be some time until I graduate. Two years. Because of what happened a week ago, the Western Alliance is likely to seek reprisal against the Eastern Alliance. Especially my family. I’m worried about my safety. You’re rash and infuriating, but you’d do well as a bodyguard. Until I graduate, I’ll need you to protect me at school.”

“Bodyguard?” His voice raised an octave. He’d absolutely never expected her to ask for something like this. He’d thought Zhou Qianlin would disregard his offer, but now he felt like there were ten thousand alpacas stampeding through his head.

Chapter 26: Sat on by a Pig

“Nope.” Lan Jue refused without hesitation.

What is guarding? Day in and day out with the client, always by their side, constantly on your toes. The key factor was time, because poor timing could mean someone’s life.

Zeus, the untouchable master of the mercenary world, had served before as a body guard for two years. It was intolerable.

Why did he become a mercenary in the first place?

A Ninth Level Talent, God-Ranked Mecha-Pilot, infinite possibilities… why choose the life of a mercenary? It was simple, really – freedom.

Thus Lan Jue rarely returned home, he couldn’t stand the constraints.

Simply said this condition set by Zhou Qianlin went against his very nature, indeed he couldn’t comply.

He took up the enameled pot, pouring himself another small cup of tea. He replaced it and took another sip.

“Something else,” Lan Jue said in ill temper. When in her presence, even if he didn’t realize it, he hardly seemed like a noble.

“No need.” Zhou Qianlin stood. “A man who fails to keep his promise, what use could I have for him?”

As she spoke, she moved towards the door to leave.

“You!” Lan Jue jumped to his feet, grabbing her wrist. “What on earth do you want?!”

She glared cruelly at him. “What do I want? I told you what I want, but since you can’t agree then forget it.”

“Then what happened between us…” he began in hesitation.

Zhou Qianlin yanked her hand away and stood toe to toe with him, staring fiercely in to his eyes. Lan Jue unconsciously took a

step back.

“It was like being sat on by a pig.” She spat the sentence at him, turned on her heel and left.

Lan Jue felt like a victim of his own Lightning Discipline, standing there frozen for a long while.

“Stop!” After a few moments he finally reacted, running outside. He ran nearly headlong in to the waitress.

“Sir, you haven’t settled the bill.”

He paid hurriedly and hastened outside. He finally caught up with Zhou Qianlin at the door to the Luo Yun teahouse.

“Stop right there!” Lan Jue shouted at her.

Zhou Qianlin lin spun around, regarding him calmly. “You have something to say?”

“Y-you…!” lightning rippled in Lan Jue’s eyes, clearly on the verge of erupting.

She lifted her head, scorn evident in her beautiful sky-blue eyes. “What’s the matter? Ashamed?”

Lan Jue loosened his tightened fists, stepping back. “Ask for something else!”

Zhou Qianlin turned once again and began to walk off.

This time Lan Jue did not pursue, watching her slender form vanish around a nearby corner. He couldn’t stop his fists from clenching once more. He was finding it difficult to contain his emotions.

Around the corner Zhou Qianlin had stopped when out of sight, leaning against the wall. She covered her red face with her hands, gasping headily through her open mouth.

The pressure was immense, and she felt as though in that moment there still burned the heat of those two large hands pressing down on her shoulders.

And then a laugh burst unbidden from her lips. The whole scene was too much! Sat on by a pig!

Hah! He’s got to be so pissed! What choice does the honorable and respected Zeus have?

ζ

In the same instant Lan Jue was returning to Zeus’ Jewelry Store.

Seeing his infuriated face, Xiuxiu and Ke’er gulped. The expression in his eyes was stranger still.

Lan Jue said not a word, going directly to his room. He needed to think.

“Who’s he so upset with? He looks so… ugly,” Ke’er said, wide-eyed and open-mouthed.

Xiuxiu shook her head. “It’s the first time I’ve seen him this angry.”

As he entered the room Lan Jue flopped down atop his bed, his head resounding with Zhou Qianlin’s pleasant voice.

“Bodyguard!”

“Sat on by a pig!”

The two phrases echoed over and over in his mind. He knew that had someone else spoke to him like that he’d have incinerated them. But not Zhou Qianlin, she was his Jinyu’s sister, and he still…

Only, this request was nearly impossible to accept. To be beside her every day as a bodyguard. How could anyone who values freedom live like that? And it was more than two years – the length of her schooling, at least two years and three months.

No, impossible! Regardless of the circumstances, impossible!

Yet to refuse was to go against his own moral code. In the heat of the moment they never discussed terms. Moreover he was the one that had taken her innocence. If he didn’t make recompense it would be like a thorn in his heart forever, like a fish bone

caught in the throat.

At the same time Zou Qianlin was also lying in her bed, covered by a light pink gauze curtain. Her room was constructed like an ocean of flowers. Lying atop the soft bed, her eyes were hazy, filled with several emotions, her mind in a constant state of flux.

Will he accept? If he doesn’t, what then?

Beep, beep, beep!

Zhou Qianlin nearly leapt from the bed, but sputtered when she saw he number on her communicator.

“Little Mi, what is it?”

“Tang Mi!” came the agitated shout from the communicator.

“Fine, fine. Tang Mi,” Zhou Qianlin responded helplessly.

“I heard you’ll be returning to classes next week. Are you sure everything’s alright?”

Zhou Qianlin responded, “What do you mean alright?”

“Your mood,” Tang Mi said. “After something like this you certainly can’t forget it right away.”

Zhou Qianlin snorted. “I forget about it ages ago. I’ll return to class next week. Let me copy your notes.”

Tang Mi chuckled. “You really want to forget then that’s fine. I’m telling you though, you aren’t allowed to have any sort of relationship with my idol. I’ll be a mercenary myself, the beautiful woman chasing the every step of the Mercenary King, you wont be able to compete with me.”

“Go then, meet a man and lose all your friends.” She unceremoniously hung up the communicator.

Beep, beep, beep the communicator rang anew.

Zhou Qianlin impatiently answered. “I won’t compete with you, alright? He’s all yours!”

“Compete with what,” a surprised voice answered from the communicator.

Zhou Qianlin sat up. “Is it you?”

The response was low, simple, like it required a great deal of courage to utter.

“You’re request… I accept.”

Chapter 27: Be a Teacher?

“Your request… I accept.”

Upon hearing this sentence Zhou Qianlin’s eyes lit up, her lips curling in to a smile. “Don’t be reluctant. I wouldn’t have asked if I didn’t think you could do it.”

From the other end of the communicator came a sound like grinding teeth.

“I’m not reluctant!”

“Excellent,” Zhou Qianlin said, not seeking to provoke him further.

Lan Jue choked down the impulse to smash the communicator in his hand. He took a deep breath, exhaled through his mouth and continued. “When do you need me, and what will I be doing?”

“I have excellent bodyguards at home,” she responded. “You just need to watch over me while at school during the semester.

When school’s in recess, so are you.”

Hearing this Lan Jue let out a sigh of relief. Luckily it wouldn’t all the time, and he’d have some time to himself.

“What’s my cover while protecting you? Shall I enter in to school as well, be a classmate?” Lan Jue inquired.

The communicator was silent for a moment. “Uncle, have some dignity. At your age could you be my classmate?”

“U-uncle…” Lan Jue’s face contorted, and when he could endure it no longer replied indignantly, “I’m that old?!” He wasn’t even twenty seven. The average life expectancy in the Eastern Alliance was a hundred and twenty, he absolutely was still a young man. What’s more there were certainly post- graduate students who would graduate at his age!

Zhou Qianlin covered her mouth, muffling her laughter, a task she found difficult. “So old. Don’t be a student, it’d be too easy for your identity to be revealed.”

“I’M TWENTY SEVEN!”

“Way over the hill.”

Crunch, came the sound of a breaking communicator over the wire.

“Hahaha!” Zhou Qianlin rolled atop her bed laughing uncontrollably, reveling in the sweet sensation of revenge.

Beep beep beep! The communicator rang anew.

Zhou Qianlin hastened to regain her composure, her stomach hurting, and answered.

“Zhou Qianlin! I’m warning you, if you insult me like that again I’ll –“

“You’ll what?” she spat.

Lan Jue fell silent. Anyone else, and he’d have a slew of choice things to fire back, but from her he had nothing to say…

“A good man doesn’t fight with a woman. I owe you, and I’ll pay my debt. After these two years, we’ll have nothing more to do with each other. Speak, what’s my cover?” Lan Jue tried valiantly to keep his voice under control, for he knew that if he didn’t it would only make Zhou Qianlin more pleased. He would not give her the satisfaction!

“Enter as an instructor, you’re about the right age. How you do that is up to you. You can do that, can’t you? Mr. Zeus?”

She hung up without giving him a chance to respond.

“Instructor?” Him, a teacher? How could he be a teacher?

Although the NEU didn’t produce the most famous Mecha- Pilots, it was a proper piloting university and nothing scoff at. To enter as an instructor, Lan Jue felt, would pose no problem for him. He was a God-Ranked pilot, the highest rank attainable in the Three Alliances – more than sufficient for a teacher.

Stop! He couldn’t let this impetuous girl get everything she wanted. He had promised to comply, but how he did it was never outlined. A teacher, right? But not a mecha instructor!

Lan Jue had a stroke of genius, gradually crafting his idea. He couldn’t stop his mouth from curling in to a mischievous grin, his sour mood swept away.

His right hand suddenly grew hot, and Lan Jue lifted it to look upon the golden bracelet on his wrist. It emitted a gentle golden light, and as the light expanded it revealed the image of an old man.

He was an elderly man, big and tall, his face a landscape of craggy features. His true age was difficult to decipher, but he was possessed of two very clear blue eyes, deep and shining as though they reflected the universe itself. He wore a magnificent white robe, embroidered in silver and encrusted with gemstones. A pointed cap rested upon his head, and a large shimmering ruby on the ring finger of his right hand.

“Honorable members of the Skyfire Avenue Council, please make your way to the Skyfire Museum in one hour. If you have a scheduling conflict, please alert us as soon as possible.”

As the voice faded, so too did the image.

The urgency of the Skyfire Council meeting made Lan Jue

uncomfortable.

There were a total of one hundred and sixty eight shops on Skyfire Avenue, each with their own management. But the Council itself had only eighteen members.

The Council met bi-monthly for regular meetings to manage the Avenue’s internal affairs. It was only when something serious cropped up that they would hold an emergency meeting.

It was also the first time since Lan Jue arrived in the Avenue that such a meeting was convened.

Skyfire Avenue wasn’t simply a noble’s street. It was also a place of Adepts. When entering the Avenue to be a shopkeeper, you also had to possess at least a Seventh-Level Talent, passing a series of tests. Further the eighteen members of the Council were the strongest among the Adepts present. Though the organization was freeform, the members were some of the most celebrated and illustrious Talents in the Three Alliances.

Were it not for the combined strength of these members Skyfire Avenue never would have survived as long as it had, with it’s freedom intact.

Lan Jue rose quickly, donning a three-piece blue suit and slipping a ring on his little finger before stepping out.

In China, wearing a ring on your little finger represents independence

In the dim light of the room’s lamp, the ring seemed to leave behind it a green afterimage that shimmered with a life of it’s own.

The ring itself had a peculiar look, forged of a silvery metal. The top half was curious, one side wide and the other side narrow. It created a trapezoid, set with fragments of diamond and sapphire like leopard print. In it’s center was set a triangular green gemstone. The ethereal light, full of vitality, originated from there.

Before he stepped out Lan Jue turned the ring inward, hiding the gemstone in his palm.

The ring itself had a name: Thor’s Promise.

Chapter 28: Skyfire Avenue Council

Skyfire Avenue. Council Hall

The floor space of the classically beautiful Council Hall was quite large, nearly three hundred square meters. The walls were covered in famous paintings, awash in dark red adornments, lending a simplistic but beautiful atmosphere.

A dozen people sat on either side of a long table. With the Clairvoyant at it’s head, the total count stood at thirteen.

The Wine Master sat to the left of the Clairvoyant, and beside him was Lan Jue. The Gourmet took up the third position.

The Clairvoyant lifted his hand and gently rapped upon the tabletop. All eyes turned to him.

“All council members on Skyfire have gathered, the other five away on business in other planets.” There was an odd charm to the aging man’s features. Every eye was upon him, and though they revealed no emotion a deep respect lay in each gaze.

Elder of Skyfire Avenue, Chairman of the Council, the Clairvoyant was for all intents and purposes the brain of Skyfire Avenue.

He continued. “I’ve called this emergency gathering in order to resolve an urgent matter. Today, a government official was sent to meet me…”

Hearing this Lan Jue’s eye twitched. An official from the Eastern Alliance government? What did he want?

“Diplomatic emissaries have been dispatched from the Citadel of the Western Alliance’s Pontiff, and have indicated they wish an exchange with us here at Skyfire Avenue. The government officer intimated that he wished us to agree to this exchange.”

Was this revenge from the Western Alliance? Lan Jue was surprised, but quickly banished the thought. The Austin family was certainly influential in the Western Alliance, but they certainly had no means to employ the might of the Pontiff. The Pontiff’s Citadel was to the Western Alliance what Skyfire Avenue was to the East, only more illustrious still as all held high stations of power. It was highly unlikely that a political fiasco like the failed wedding would inspire them to make a move.

For the Clairvoyant to attach so much importance to this correspondence, to display apprehension over the exchange, was unusual indeed.

With the onset of the New Era, Mecha sciences and development advanced quickly, soon becoming an integral component of the battlefield. The Three Alliance all spared no expense or effort in creating the latest mechas, or training the best pilots.

Though on the surface the Three Alliances lived in harmony, in practice the border planets between the three often saw conflict.

In addition to the advance of Mechas, on the battlefield each unit required exceptional pilots to dictate the flow of war. A pilot had to be athletic, with high genetic Talent, thus making training an exceptional warrior more likely. As a result Adepts also received a fair amount of attention.

Adepts were separated in to several groupings. Those who possessed awakened innate talents were called Intuitives. Adepts of the Eastern Alliance mostly fell in to that category. All of the Adepts who lived on Skyfire Avenue were Intuitives, and that was in fact a prerequisite for membership.

Those who acquired talents later, through special means designed to manipulate genetics, were called Derivatives. These constituted most of the Western Alliance, and the Alliance was second to none in the study of the medicines needed for genetic manipulation. There were two organizations representative of the Western Derivatives; the Pontiff’s Citadel and the Dark Citadel. The two were, naturally, at odds. Though both names indicated locations, in truth it was just the name of their organizations.

Other than these two groups of talents there was a third, wherein machinery was joined with the body to create a high- tech conglomerate of flesh and metal. Gene manipulation and robots joined to endow great power. These were called Converts.

The Northern Alliance was the most technologically developed, thus did they possess the most Converts, who themselves were gathered in to a group they called the Great Conclave.

Of the three groups Inuitives were the rarest, with the other two more or less the same in number.

Derivatives and Converts were quicker to produce, thus saw

more use in military campaigns. However, they lacked the limitless potential of Intuitives.

The Clairvoyant began to speak once more. “Were it only a representative of the Citadel’s Holy See it would be preferable to respond. However, it is very probable they will be accompanied by a delegation from the Dark Citadel. The situation between these two organizations is tenuous at best, I can’t imagine why they would choose to travel together in this instance.”

The Wine Master spoke up. “This so-called exchange, I fear it is an indispensible opportunity to learn about the other Adepts and their powers. We should consider our response as soon as possible.”

“Representatives from the Citadels will arrive at Skyfire Avenue in one month,” the Clairvoyant said. “At present we do not know the names of those who will attend. Be that as it may, we should prepare appropriately. The focus of this meeting is to confirm that we will be responsible for these delegates. As it seems now, we will require three members to participate in this exchange. Naturally they shall have to be shopkeepers, and willing to participate. You may volunteer at will.”

The Wine Master, as vice-chairman of the Council,

interjected. “Judging by the status of these groups, our standards must be equally high. Such being the case I volunteer to participate.”

The Clairvoyant nodded. “Anyone else?”

“I will,” Lan Jue stated, rising. Regardless of whether this meeting had to do with the events of the week before, Skyfire Avenue had tacitly agreed to his actions. It was his responsibility to contribute here.

“Very well, Jewel Master,” the Clairvoyant responded with a smile.

“And I,” came another voice. The hoarse tones came from the young man seated to the Clairvoyant’s right.

He looked slightly older than Lan Jue, his hair neatly trimmed and teased up. He wore a leather jacket, and his stocky build and small eyes gave him a lethargic appearance.

“Oh, the diabolical Little Clippers deigns to act?” The taunt came from a woman several seats down from the young man.

His face stiffened in response. “My title is not Little Clippers!”

The woman snickered. “Doesn’t the Barber use little clippers? If you used shears like a gardener no one would have anything to say. Our delegation is all big bad men, that wont do. I’ll join. Four members will make them look even more important.”

The Clairvoyant agreed. “Very well, then the welcoming committee is settled. The Wine Master, the Jewel Master, the Barber, and the Beautician shall be our representatives.”

Chapter 29: Beautician And The Barber

The Clairvoyant stood. “The welcoming committee has been selected. The rest of you may go. Thank you all for coming.”

The remaining council members stood and filed out. Once leaving the chamber they spoke quietly amongst themselves.

“Forgive me, Keeper. If I might bother you for a moment.” Lan Jue stood, addressing the elderly man who had been seated to the right of the Clairvoyant.

He looked an age comparable to the Clairvoyant, and wore an ancient Tang Chinese style gown. He looked quite scholarly, but at the same time frail and sluggish – like he had one foot in the grave. Still he was the second vice-chairman of the Skyfire council, and in fact may have been slightly older than the Clairvoyant himself.

Lan Jue moved to the Keeper’s side, gripping his elbow to help him stand.

“I must trouble you with something, would it be alright if I met you at the Library later?” Lan Jue helped the old man

towards the door, speaking softly in his ear.

The Keeper gave a grandfatherly smile and nodded his head. “Of course, of course.”

Lan Jue thanked him, then returned to his seat in the council chamber.

Only the Clairvoyant, the Wine Master, the Jewel Master, the Barber and the Beautician remained.

“I am sorry to trouble the four of you,” the Clairvoyant began. “We must choose twenty shopkeepers to participate in the event. Wine Master, if you would.”

The Wine Master nodded. “I will choose them.”

“Then what about me? Just wait for the reception?” The Beautician looked stunning in a long pink dress. Her figure was breathtaking, the late-twenties beauty smiling alluringly towards the Wine Master.

“The reception itself will be handled by the government of the Eastern Alliance,” the Wine Master stated. “We are only responsible for the exchange.”

The Beautician shot a glance towards Lan Jue, sitting across from her at the table. “Little Brother Jewel Master hasn’t said a word since joining our little committee. Come on kiddo, participate!”

Little Brother is a sort of emasculating term, used for familiarity, to marginalize, and sometimes both

Kiddo…

Lan Jue’s cool features stiffened for but a moment, but he did not respond. He wasn’t entirely familiar with all the members of the Skyfire Council, but he did know the Barber.

The Beautician’s taunting moniker of the Diabolical Little Clippers wasn’t baseless. According to what Lan Jue knew, the Barber had been an accomplished assassin in the Northern Alliance before coming to Skyfire. The most wanted man in the North. Not even thirty, but she teased and taunted the Barber in public. And he didn’t retaliate. Despite her young, sweet

appearance, she wasn’t someone Lan Jue had any inclination to tussle with.

When compared to the Northern Alliance’s Great Conclave, even Skyfire Avenue and the two Citadels together couldn’t match their numbers. However, they did possess the most universally acknowledged top-grade Talents.

A member had to be at least a Ninth-Level Talent to be considered for entry in to Skyfire Council. Because the Avenue was only loosely managed, members coveted their specific abilities as a secret, and even the most senior  members  did know the abilities of the others.

It was frightening to think of a ninth level Talent one knew nothing about.

In the last year the only person who’d been able to make him loose his temper, to fail to control his emotions was that blasted girl who’d asked him to be her bodyguard.

The Wine Master spoke gently. “Know your enemy as you know yourself, and in a hundred battles you will have a hundred victories. Three will stay in the event they will be

needed as comrades in arms. As a result, I ask that each of us clearly reveal our abilities so we can be familiar with them.”

The Beautician fiddled with her constellation-encrusted fingernails. “No problem. I don’t believe we know much about Little Brother Jewel Master either. My ability; Illusion. How about you, kiddo? Hehe.”

Looking upon the Beautician’s cunning and sweet smile, Lan Jue’s heart rate increased in trepidation. Illusion!  To  the average person the word held no special significance. But to his ears it was like a peel of thunder.

He’d heard of this ability once in a story. Twenty years ago a small girl’s family had been murdered. As the evil men approached the girl to finish the job, her innate Talent had awakened. Illusion.

Just awakened, a Ninth-Level Talent, she was unable to control her own powers. But in the blink of an eye her assailants were caught in a dreamscape of heavenly bliss and hellish terror. The young girl’s fears bubbled up from her mind. In the end, the ones who’d killed her family all succumbed to the phantasmagoria. None survived.

Shattered by the experience, the young girl then wandered out in to the streets of the city. There she enveloped the entire place in her dreamscape, inflicting upon it horrendous damage.

Later she had been overpowered by the forces of the Eastern Alliance. She was tested, the extent of her illusion powers determined, and then taken away. It is said she was quietly executed.

When Lan Jue was younger he’d once read several secret reports on Adepts, and this story was the one that stuck most in his mind. He still remembered clearly. He also recalled that illusion was a rare Discipline. To his knowledge it was only seen that once. Was this coyly smiling Beautician…

“Hey, kiddo? You?” Her elbows were perched upon the armrests, her face in her hands. She smiled as she watched Lan Jue.

“Lightning,” he said simply.

The Barber shot him a glance. “My ability is speed.”

Speed?

Lan Jue did not look down upon him for his simple speed ability. Any Discipline could be terrifying at the highest levels. Speed was no different. The Barber was considered one of the best among Skyfire Avenue, thus his speed certainly wasn’t anything to scoff at.

The Wine Master nodded. “Good. We’ll finish here for today. We are all now more or less familiar. In accordance with our customs, remember that what is said in  the  council  remains with the council, or the culprit will become an enemy of Skyfire Avenue.”

The Beautician, the Barber and the Jewel Master each nodded their head in agreement.

The Clairvoyant smiled. “I am possessed of a simple prediction. This situation is threatening but not dangerous. It should be interesting.”

Lan Jue walked slowly from the Museum, making his way towards the Keeper’s Library when suddenly he heard the Barber’s voice from behind him.

“Jewel Master.”

“Hm?” Lan Jue uttered, turning around.

The Barber fixed him with a pair of gleaming eyes. “Let’s spar!”

Chapter 30: Another Skyfire Avenue

“No thanks,” Lane Jue replied. He wasn’t in his best mood, and as a result wasn’t the least bit interested in the Barber’s challenge. He turned to face the library and made to leave.

Whoosh, a figure rushed passed him. The Barber appeared before Lan Jue blocking passage forward.

Lan Jue stepped aside, but the Barber matched him, denying progress. It didn’t matter where he turned, the Barber would surely be in front of him.

“I’m not in the mood,” Lan Jue said, stopping.

The Barber, in contrast, smiled. “But my mood is just fine.”

Lan Jue gave a half-hearted chuckle. “Well now that we’re done sharing our feelings, I guess we’ll get on with it.”

“How amusing, I’ll judge!” The Beautician’s giggles wafted towards them.

The three returned to the museum, each feeling for  the emblem pinned to their chests. Each badge was silver, inlaid with eighteen colored gems. Together they made the image of a flame which glittered majestically in even the slightest light.

They made their way to the unimpressive elevator set beside the museum’s spiraling staircase. The Beautician lifted her hand and placed it on the marble to one side.

Instantly a light emanated from the top of the elevator, sweeping over their figures, glittering off of their badges. Afterward it issued a slight di di of approval.

Soon the doors opened, revealing the five square-meter interior.

The three entered, and though there were no buttons the doors shut behind them.

An electronic voice fills the elevator. “Welcome Councilman Jewel Master, Councilwoman Beautician, and Councilman Barber.”

A slight sensation of weightlessness overtook them, indicative of the elevator’s speedy descent. The sensation lasted a good minute before dissipating, then the doors opened soundlessly. Immediately a cacophonous ruckus met them from outside.

Before stepping out, the three almost in tandem removed the badges from their chest. The emblem represented their membership in the council. In a place like this it held an impact, It was a status symbol. None of them had any desire to draw undue attention to themselves.

Exiting the elevator they were met with another sort of street, wide and comparable in many ways to Skyfire Avenue above. Both sides of the street were lined with numerous buildings. Looking up, eyes were met with a blue sky and lazily flowing clouds. Closer inspection, however, would reveal that the sky and clouds contrasted with the free and natural world outside by having their own set rules – that it was in fact the backdrop of a massive dome.

In further contradiction to the Skyfire Avenue above, this place was bustling and lively. Scores of people wandered back and forth among the busy shops.

Indeed this was also considered Skyfire Avenue, another

Skyfire Avenue, a world of Adepts. Any Third-Level Talent, be they Intuitive, Derivative or Convert was permitted to enter so long as they paid the fee.

Here, there were Cultivation Areas, high-grade Adept products, specialty Mecha items on auction, a fighting arena, a casino, shops, and a mission board. You name it, it was here. But this place had it’s rules, and declined any criminal enterprises. It was, after all, run by the Skyfire Council.

Of course no one dared to violate the rules, for no one wished to upset the combined might of the best Adepts the Alliances had to offer.

Every shop topside had an elevator leading to the underground, but only shop owners possessed the badges necessary to use them. Outsiders needed to find other channels in order to enter. Even if you were a shop owner, you could only enter through your shop’s personal elevator. Only the eighteen members of the Skyfire Council were permitted to use any elevator they saw fit.

Exiting the elevator, the Barber, Beautician and Lan Jue tacitly made their way towards the left. Unlike the avenue above, the buildings on either side of the street were even more

elaborate, but still retained that old world charm. In it’s infancy the two avenues had been the same. You could go so far as to say that the Skyfire Avenue situated above them came about through the one underground. It was the Adept’s Utopia, and countless Talents arrived to gain power, earn money, and realize their every desire.

The trio proceeded unabated, until they were faced by a brawny bald-headed figure coming their way. The massive man was over two meters tall, and wore only a vest to show off his physique. His bulging arms were larger than the Beautician’s waist. When he walked down the street it was like being confronted by a road roller. Strangest of all, however, was the metal casing that covered his head and half his face. The red glow from his metallic eye was particularly unsettling.

The rule of thumb was that pedestrians were expected to stick to the right whilst walking. The giant, however, walked contrary to the foot traffic with a palpably threatening demeanor and long strides. Every Talent present almost subconsciously moved out of his way.

In this place people didn’t look for trouble. Skyfire Avenue didn’t permit public conflict. If you wanted a fight, it had to be in the arena. However, it seemed like Big Baldie wasn’t familiar with this particular rule. It was only a few short moments

before he was standing before the trio.

Lan Jue, the Barber and the Beautician, of course, weren’t in the habit of getting out of people’s way. Seeing the three unwilling to part, his metal face twisted in to a sadistic leer. He moved towards the Barber, situated directly in front of him.

The Barber straightened and, turning his head towards the Beautician, muttered, “There’s always that one who thinks the rules doesn’t apply to them.”

Crash! before he’d even finished his sentence, Big Baldie had smashed right in to him.

However, by the time the surrounding Adepts had stopped to look, Big Baldie’s enormous bulk went flying dozens of meters and crashed in to the ground like a sack of garbage.

Lan Jue had watched as speed and power in equal measure collided, and in that moment it was like the Barber had become some ethereal glimmer, his shoulder smashing in to Baldie’s stomach.

The Beautician covered her small mouth with a hand, her eyes wide and full of faux astonishment. “Why Little Clippers, you brute! That looked like it hurt!”

The Barber rolled his eyes. “You really shouldn’t, Big Sister.
My body count pales in comparison to yours.”

Lan Jue looked on impassively, but hearing the  Barber’s words he could help but feel a shudder. For an assassin of his caliber to say something like that…

The Beautician’s eyes fluttered towards Lan Jue just in time to catch his reaction. Giggling, she said, “Don’t listen to his nonsense, Little Brother. A cowardly little woman like me, how could I possibly murder anyone!”

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