Skyfire Avenue Chapter 211-220

Chapter 211: The Tear Of Neptune

The organizers hadn’t anticipated one of their draw items would be auctioned off so quickly.

Lan Jue sat amidst the gazes, cool and collected, face calm. He may as well have been seated beneath a cloudless sky enjoying an afternoon breeze. The only indication he was even present in the moment, was his eyes sweeping the front row.

The bidder who’d attempted to take Lan Jue’s prize quietly stood up. He bowed at the waist, then removed himself from the auction.

The elderly bid caller watched him go, nerves causing his heart rate to quicken. Of course he knew why the bidder left. It was a common enough occurrence. This situation was mild when compared to some other events he’d hosted. Sometimes arguments could erupt. However, no one wanted to offend somebody so overtly powerful.

“Finally, we come to last item in today’s auction. Our main attraction, of which I’m certain you’re familiar. I present to you, manufactured right here on Lir, the s-ranked Tear of Neptune.”

On the cart, in its own crystal box, rested a teardrop-cut stone.

The gemstone had a dream-like quality, emitting a gentle blue light that was pleasing to the eye. It lent the powerful item an aura of mysticism and peculiarity. The light seemed to emanate from somewhere deep inside of it, and yet despite its striking appearance the waves of energy emanating from it were gentle. It felt cleansing, like the near proximity was enough to reinvigorate you. Even negative thoughts and sour moods abated under the pleasant warmth of the stone’s aura.

Lan Jue’s eyes flashed with electric power. Just as quickly, however, they were back to normal.

“How much available funds do we have for transfer,” Lan Jue asked Xiuxiu.

Xiuxiu answered by giving him a thumbs up.

Lan Jue nodded, and said nothing further.

The bid caller went on. “As everyone knows, any planet that produces an s-ranked gem is called a ‘Gem Planet.’ It is a

distinction Lir enjoys, thanks to the five karat gem you see before you; the Tear of Neptune. The very museum we sit within was named after it.”

“The Tear of Neptune. Touted as the purest power gem in the universe, and not just for its own purity of energy. It spreads that virtuousness wherever it goes, effecting everyone it comes in contact with, sharing its untainted power. Carry it with you, and say goodbye to troubling thoughts or emotions. Enjoy days uninterrupted by afflictions of the mind and spirit. And that’s not all…”

The bid caller’s earnest introductions continued, but there was no reaction from the buyers below. All of the momentum gained from the sale of the Pelagic Pearl was gone.

“Alright, let’s get to the bidding. This is the largest Tear in the history of production, available tonight to you for a starting bid of four hundred million NED. Increases must be more than five million at a time.”

Silence.

Four hundred  million.  It  was  a  minuscule  price  for  an  s-

ranked gem. In fact, it was difficult to even give a price for the better gems of this class.

Once more the problem lay in the largely uninteresting power of the gem. It may be in a class of exceptionally valuable gems, but couldn’t count itself among their number.

Simply put, it’s primary function was to cleans and purify another power gem’s energy. It improved its overall quality. However, the process required a great deal of sustained energy output. The gem itself couldn’t release energy, only take it into itself. This was first. Secondly, the better power gems already had very few impurities – true for most of the known s-ranked gems. The Tear had no positive function for those.

Under circumstances such as these, who would agree to paying such a high price for a Tear of Neptune? This was already the third year they’ve paraded this stone before the auction bidders. It was beginning to look like once again, this year would pass without a sale.

Time ticked slowly by. With each passing second the bid caller’s expression became less and less hopeful. According to their rules, if an item underwent auction three times and no one swiped it up, it was no longer worth presenting. What would

they do with the gem then?

During its first showing, the gem had been priced at six hundred million dollars. They’d already lowered the price by a third, so even if it sold it was already below cost.

Originally the hope was that someone with more money than sense would commit to the Tear. Now it looked like it was them who would have to eat the cost. It simply looked like this was not something people wanted.

“Four hundred million.” Once more, the imperatorial voice from before called out a bid.

The bid caller physically jerked at the sound. The first time he heard his voice, it brought a host of negative emotions in tow. This time, though, it was like a smile from the face of god.

“Four hundred million. The gentleman with number five seventy. Are there any bidders willing to go higher?” His voice had become noticeably higher in pitch.

In the end his question was just an interlude in a play where

everyone knew how it ends. Half a minute, a few more calls, and…

Bang! “Sold!”

At last, the most expensive piece ever offered in a Tear of Neptune auction was finally sold. The final ticket price, four hundred million dollars.

For the third time, Lan Jue was the focus of everyone’s attention. And for good reason; the aggregate cost of everything else purchased today was five hundred million. Not including his purchases.

Su He swallowed back his surprise, the corners of his mouth twitched. “Are you really a teacher?”

“I may also run a small shop,” Lan Jue told his friend. “The next time you visit Skyfire you should come by Skyfire Avenue. My place is there, Zeus’ Jewelry Shop.”

Two groups of security personnel entered. They flanked both sides of Lan Jue, separating him from the crowds as he left to

finalize his purchase. It was a unique situation, and they wanted their big spender safe.

It was ultimately Xiuxiu that actually finished paying everything off. She was handed their highest level of VIP card in the process. A car came for them, waiting underground in a series of tunnels. The whole thing was specially crafted  to protect their buyer’s safety and anonymity.

Lin Guoguo gripped the Palegic Pearl tightly to her chest as they left, while Xiuxiu was left responsible for the Tear of Neptune.

Lan Jue and Su He took up seats in the front of the car. Xiuxiu, Lin Guoguo and Ya Xiu were in the back. They fit comfortably; these sorts of cars were large enough to comfortably house eight travelers.

“Xiuxiu, you’re the boss’ assistant here and you just let him spend all that money? But I guess I can’t blame you, he looked quite determined!” At last Ya Xiu couldn’t hold her piece any longer. She asked the question of Xiuxiu in quiet tones.

The blade maiden laughed. “The boss always has his reasons,

especially when he’s determined. And as far as I’ve seen, he usually makes the right decision.”

Lin Guoguo was also grinning. “You’re more than welcome to try and brainwash the boss in to behaving with his money,” she said.

Ya Xiu helplessly shook her head, but said nothing else. In the end things like power gems were more than their worth. Who knew in the end if it would be worth the cost.

Ya Xiu and Su He traveled with Lan Jue and his two Amazons until they reached the hotel. Everyone was in a fine mood when they made plans to meet the Bookworm together tomorrow.

“Guoguo, come to my room,” Lan Jue ordered.

This surprised the young woman, whose face instantly went red. “Today may not be the best day boss.”

Xiuxiu, for her part, watched the exchange with a clear glower on her face, and her brows knit tight.

Lan Jue knocked on her head with a loose fist, his face a mask of agitation. “What the hell is going on in that head of yours? Xiuxiu, you’re coming too.” He didn’t wait for an answer, and left.

Lin Guoguo was flush with embarrassment, and stuck her tongue out. Xiuxiu covered her mouth and tittered. Both women followed as their boss made for his room.

Once they had, Xiuxiu shut the door behind her and took a step toward her employer. “Here’s the Tear for you, boss.”

Lan Jue shook his head. “You hold on to it,” he commanded. “When we get back we’re giving it to the Skyfire Council. I have to pay them back for the help they gave me on Taihua. In the hands of your average adept, this gem means little. But for us, we can do amazing things with it. Guoguo, give me the pearl.”

“Mhn.” She handed the pearl over as instructed. Lan Jue immediately stored it away in his inter-dimensional storage space. The remainder of the items they ordered would be delivered to the address they’d given the auction house at a later date. There wasn’t any need for them to lug them all back with them to Skyfire.

There was a silver flash, and suddenly a crystal box appeared in Lan Jue’s hand where a moment before there was nothing. Within, the liquid living metal sloshed about like it had a life of its own.

Lan Jue carefully placed the box upon a nearby table, then turend to Lin Guoguo. “You’re a psychic,” he began. “See if there’s any way for you to communicate with this.”

Now she finally understood why the boss had called her, and she nodded. In a blink, her eyes shimmered an immaculate golden hue. Waves of gentle psychic energy flooded the room.

Quietly, Lan Jue watched his Amazon work with rapt attention. Meanwhile, the light in Guoguo’s eyes grew more intense as time passed. Strangely, the metal seemed to respond by releasing a dull silver glow all its own. It might the bright blue spots along its surface even more brilliant.

Narrowing his eyes, Lan Jue took a closer look. He paid particular attention to the electric field, which didn’t appear to react. In all it seemed unchanged from when he first checked it.

Fifteen minutes later, the golden light in Lin Guoguo’s eyes

gradually vanished.

“No good boss,” she said. “I tried several methods to try and communicate with it, but there was no response. I never felt anything like sentience from it. But I could feel the purity radiating from it. The gem has a strange sort of energy resistance quality that I came upon, that tried to resist me. It succeeded in keeping me from seeing all things about it. I can tell you that it has an extreme softness to it, an all- encompassing forgiveness. And yet there’s a… tenacity to it. It has its limits.”

Lan Jue’s brows furrowed in thought. He speculated for a moment. “That’s proof then. If Lin Guoguo is unable to communicate with it using her psychic powers, then the metal is either lacking psychic ability or isn’t intelligent. That, or it’s somehow managed to hide this information deeper than we can penetrate. Alright, you guys can go. I’ll keep at it.”

“Alright. Well since we’re finished, boss, what’s for dinner?” Lin Guoguo inquired.

“That I leave to you,” he replied. “I want to look over this metal. I have a feeling this little treasure will prove very important for me.”

“Hm.” Lin Guoguo pouted, but grabbed Xiuxiu by the arm and left Lan Jue to his own devices.

Chapter 212: Bliss Of An Empty Mind

Lan Jue sat in silence, staring at the metal on the table in front of him. He looked lost in thought. The crystal box the metal was held in remained closed.

ζ

Dwarka, the Imitation Skyfire Library.

“Ha ha ha! Hahahaha! Of course, of course it would be this way. My original determinations were  correct.  Completely right! Hahahahaha! Keeper, you old bastard, I knew you were unwilling to give in. Of course I have to verify it. This old man won’t lose to you again!”

The Bookworm danced happily around his apartments. The Accountant sat slumped against a chair not far off, his face pale.

The last two days – two whole days – the Bookworm had been asking him questions non-stop. No food, no water, and if the Bookworm didn’t like the answer he punished the Accountant with physical blows.

Against such oppressive power the Accountant couldn’t do much. This crazy old man’s knowledge was as vast as the oceans, and his questions were poignant and cunning. The Accountant did his best to appear cowed, but his brain was ever working on the problem before him.

Two days without food and drink, wracking your brain morning to night. The Accountant was close to breaking.

The Bookworm celebrated by himself for what felt to be a good half an hour, before returning his attention unto the young man.

“Mmn. Now that we’ve taken care of that, this kid has no further use.”

The Accountant was greatly frightened, and despite his slow descend towards unconsciousness he snapped back to life. “Y- you shouldn’t act so recklessly! Look, I’ve done all you asked, answered all your questions. Think of how my  grandfather would react if you did something untoward? And the Jewelry Master!”

The Bookworm curled his lips in a hideous grin. “Your

grandfather? Distant waters hold no respite for the man dying of thirst. I wouldn’t count on him, no. But that tricky gentleman, yes, we’ll wait for him to show up. Heh heh. I’ll deal with him, too! Daring to deceive me… hah!”

The Bookworm came slinking back, bearing in his hand a strange bottle. In a blink he was standing before the Accountant, the sadistic grin on his face betraying his ill-intent.

“Hey stupid… bet you’re hungry, right? Thirsty? Soon you won’t feel any hunger… any thirst. Uncle here will get you something delicious, this decoction here! It’s a wonderful draught that took me ages to figure out. I actually prepared it for use on your grandfather. However, now that I’ve worked out his game… now that I know I can beat him!… then I don’t need it. It’s yours. If you hold any grievances about any of this, keep that to yourself, and you can blame your grandfather for all of it. Heh heh heh.”

“No! I’m not thirsty! I’m sure we can find a solution to this. Your gripe is with my grandfather, why not just go after him? Ooohh-!” The Accountant struggled mightily as the Bookworm’s skinny hand gripped his lower jaw. He unceremoniously dumped the cloudy, purple liquid in to the Accountant’s mouth.

The Bookworm flicked the younger man’ adam’s apple. He heard a gulp, and knew the concoction had been swallowed.

“kah, ugh, hach, gah! You… you will not die a natural death! My grandfather will avenge me!” It was about this time the Accountant began to feel a strange sensation in his brain. It was like an explosion through his mind, and the world before him went dark. He’d fainted.

The Bookworm’s sinister expression slowly receded. For the briefest of moments, it was replaced by a strange smile. “You old wretch. Bastard!” He suddenly looked much more like his age, hobbling pitifully with a crackling voice. However, his eyes remained as clear and cutting as ever.

The bookworm cast the bottle away over his shoulder. The thoughtful look that that invaded his eyes began to change. He looked to be simultaneously concerned and excited.

“Professor.” A deep voice called from outside the door.

“Come in,” he replied.

The door opened at his command. Su He and Lan Jue entered.

Upon seeing them, a distinct chill overcame the Bookworm’s expression.

Lan Jue smiled at him. “Have you looked it over?”

“What do you think,” the Bookworm replied curtly.

“The Keeper asked me to give it to you,” Lan Jue said. “Factual proof. You both were right,  and  neither  were wrong. You say you wish you could go back, and now’s your chance. Back then, no one had made any efforts to deceive you. The Library needs it’s master.”

The Bookworm’s eyes flashed. “Do you presume to come here and test my IQ, young man?”

Lan Jue’s eyes flashed to the Accountant, passed out in a nearby chair. He gradually lowered his head. “The Keeper also asked me to tell you, that he’s not long for this world. His hope is to return to you what’s rightfully yours, before he passes.”

The Bookworm’s whole body shook suddenly as though he’d been struck. When his spoke, his voice bore an icy chill. “Child, twice now you’ve come before me. And twice you’ve lied. Lie a third time, and what do you think the result will be? I don’t care who you are, or where you’re from – no one would be able to talk me out of the things I’d do to you.”

Lan Jue sighed. “Whether or not I am lying, you only need to dial a single number to find out. Determining the truth from lies is not difficult in this instance.”

The old man almost staggered. He recovered by quickly turning his lithe frame around, walking to the window, and punching in a number on his communicator.

Beep, beep.

“Ah, you old coot. You finally agreed to get in contact with me?” The Keeper’s voice crackled through the line.

The Bookworm’s voice was harsh, mean. “I heard you’re dying.”

“Does that please you,” the Keeper replied.

The Bookworm sneered. “Oh yes. Of course I’m pleased. Terribly pleased. When are you going to kick the bucket? I’d love to come participate in the funeral.”

The Keeper’s voice came back thin, and weak. “About three months. I’m glad you’re happy, Bookworm. Sad would also be fine, though – everything passes. You know it’s a nice feeling, with everything leaving your mind. I’ve spent the last little bit trying to hold to that, an empty mind. It’s a wonderful sensation. Putting all of that away keeps the heart in a positive place.”

The connection was cut off.

Lit by the light from the window, with his wrist raised and stone still, the Bookworm looked like a thoughtful statue.

Lan Jue hadn’t moved. In fact, he seemed somewhat lost in thought. He’d heard the exchange. And despite his earlier conversation with the Keeper, he had to wonder; was this all a trick, or was his old friend…

Silence prevailed within the Bookworm’s apartments for a time. A gloom came over Lan Jue’s expression.

The Bookworm spun around, speaking quickly to Su He. “Help me pack. We’re leaving for Planet Skyfire immediately. I’m curious to see how this old man dies. Such splendid news! Best would have been if he’d died years ago, but this will do. I hope he dies before my very eyes. I’ll curse him. I’ll shame him. I’ll make his death a misery, his last thoughts will be of sorrow and regret!” The elderly scientist roared at them from across the room. Moister had begun to gather in the corner of his eyes, seeping through the creases and wrinkles. His whole body shook ever so slightly.

“Yes, Professor.” Su He left at once to prepare.

An hour later, everyone had made their way to the public airship hangar in the heart of Dwarka.

Upon seeing the beautiful azure make of Zeus-1, the Bookworm’s brows wrinkled. His eyes flashes, and then were covered by streams of cascading data.

He waved a hand towards the ship, and a white light appear

before the bow.

“What are you doing?” Lin Guoguo balked. Lan Jue held her back.

The white light glided over the length and girth of the ship. Once it reached the tail, it vanished. The strange light in the Bookworm’s eyes also faded in to nothing.

Hi lips curled in to another unwholesome grin. “Who designed it?”

“I guess I did,” Lan Jue replied.

The old man chortled, but his face went slack as quickly as quickly as it changed. “A cute little toy, but it’ll do.”

Both Lin Guoguo and Xiuxiu shot him uncomfortable looks. Lan Jue silenced them with a glance, before they could voice their displeasure. The small group climbed on to the plane. Lan Jue carried the unconscious Accountant slung over his shoulder.

He never asked the Bookworm what had happened to his fellow Avenue denizen. The tears he’d seen when the Bookworm spoke to the Keeper was all the answer he needed.

The Bookworm scuttled in to the master control room, with Su He close on his heels. The older man was emotionally unstable, everyone knew, and so Su He had to postpone his own vacation until after his Professor was settled on Skyfire.

“Please buckle your seat belts. We’ll be taking off shortly.”

Zeus-1 slowly rolled onto the runway. As it did, a pale light surrounded it until, suddenly, an electric blast fired from the engines and launched Zeus-1 in to the skies.

“Hey kid,” the Bookworm said. He had chosen a seat nearby, and craned his neck to look at Lan Jue.

“Your command?” Lan Jue replied with a smile.

The Bookworm gave him a sidelong glance. “Do you want to improve this bucket you’re riding in?”

“Of course,” the Jewelry Master said. “Why? Do you have any suggestions?”

The old man chortled. “I was an aerodynamics engineer in my youth. Even today, the majority of the East’s navy employs my designs. The reason I’m telling you your ship is no good, is because of all the waste. Improper use of the materials  and power gems you’ve installed have led to this. None of what you’ve tacked on is employing it’s highest potential. I can improve overall performance by thirty percent as is, but if you add a few materials we could double its output.”

Lan Jue was surprised at the accusation and subsequent offer. Zeus-1 was the single most advanced ship of its class, he thought to himself. A top-of-the-line battleship couldn’t compete with it. If the Bookworm was speaking true, what sort of levels could Zeus-1 reach?

“What sort of price are we talking?” From the Bookworm’s face, Lan Jue knew this wouldn’t be free.

“There’s always a price,” the Bookworm cooed. “I can hardly be expected to work for free. These last few years I’ve been busy with my own research and designs. Unfortunately, I’m in need of testers. Su He has told me that you’ve attained the rank of

God pilot years ago. A first-rate pilot. If you’re willing to help complete my research, I’ll help you put together a blueprint for this leaky bucket.”

Chapter 213: Research Subject?

At this moment, the Bookworm looked for all the world like the Big Bad Wolf from the red riding stories. “I guarantee that, in this area, you won’t find a better person in all of the East – nay, all three alliances. The Keeper, the old wretch, is a master of weaponry and simulation. When it comes to design, though, I leave him in the dust. Blocks behind, mind you.”

Lan Jue listened respectfully. “And what does your experiment require me to do?”

The Bookworm was suddenly alive with the vitality of a man twice his age. He shot up from his seat after popping the safety harness free, and made his way to a spot with a little more open space. He reached out with his right hand and, as if in response, a silver light appeared before him. Before his eyes the light split, spread, until it created a hovering silver portal.

From the other side of the strange fissure, an enormous mechanical manipulator forced its way through. In it’s ‘hand’ was something that looked similar to the sim pods they used to enter DreamNet. It deposited its payload, then vanished.

As the sim pod was placed upon the floor a loud and startling

sound of suction filled the cockpit. The pod fixed itself to the floor, essentially becoming another part of the ship.

Upon seeing the pod Su He’s face blanched. But he quickly shut his eyes and, when he opened them again, it was as though he’d never seen the machine before.

“This is it. My experimentation process takes place entirely in a simulation. I call it the God-Pilot Rating System, G.P.R.S. As you probably are aware, the difference between a Sovereign- and a God-ranked pilot is immense. It is not wildly uncommon for a pilot to break the threshold in to God-hood, however the Three Alliances never communicate this information. And, once someone has reached God-ranked, there aren’t any systems of differentiation, or rankings. This makes it very difficult to determine who is strongest and weakest among the known God- ranked pilots. I designed and created this testing apparatus to remedy this problem, using it with pilots to place them in a new rating system. It was built with nothing but the most modern, top-of-the-line technology. And let me tell you this, I was one of the master researchers of DreamNet. If my research leads to success, this system will feature within DreamNet itself. But more than that, it possess a very special ability… this item you see before you may just solve DreamNet’s problem of being unable to allow pilots to employ their discipline in a simulation. That is to say, with my design, even in a simulation, you’ll be able to fight to the best of your capabilities. You can fight with

your mecha, and your power, as a cohesive unit.”

Upon hearing the news, Lan Jue’s face clearly displayed his shock. He understood the implications at play. There was no amount of money that could measure the importance of this DreamNet upgrade. Giving sim pilots the ability to use their discipline safely for practice was practically the beginning of a new epoch!

After all, the cost of manufacture for a mecha suit was quite high, and training in reality always came with the possibility of injury to the pilot or damage to these expensive pieces of equipment. If what the Bookworm claimed was true, and a simulation was better able to mirror real life, this would give young pilots more opportunity to train. This, in turn, meant better pilots in the long run.

Lan Jue couldn’t help respect the old man, who’s stoic features were trained on the younger adept. He unclipped his harness, saying “Elder, even if you didn’t promise to improve my ship, I’d still help you with this. Would it be alright if I ask how much a pod like this will eventually cost?”

The Bookworm nodded. “Because of the many items needed in order for the pod itself to resist Discipline power, it’s quite

expensive. At least ten times the cost of modern sim pods. However, we might have found a way to get around that. It has to do with the various levels of Discipline and Adepts, and using pods specific to them. In this way we can solve a pressing issue. After all, the destructive power of a first-rank Adept and a ninth-ranked Adept is enormously different. Moreover, ninth- ranked Adepts usually won’t be in dire enough financial straits to be unable to purchase one. What’s you’re looking at is one of the latter models, capable of sustaining against anyone but a paragon. Virtually indestructible. But I warn you… if you do decide to participate in this testing program you must complete it in its entirety. Otherwise, the program will believe you’re still testing and won’t let you exit. There is no way for me to open it from the outside. The entire testing process takes about three hours, and we have more than enough time before we reach Skyfire.”

Lan Jue’s eyes flashed in anticipation. “No problem. It’s my honor to help you complete this test.”

The Bookworm nodded. He slapped his right hand against the side of the pod, and slowly it’s doors opened to reveal the small cockpit within.

The exterior of the machine didn’t look any different from the sim pods already in use, but for a small keyboard similar to the

one found on the outside of mech suits. At a glance, no one would be able to tell this machine was any different from the hundreds of others scattered throughout the Alliances.

Lan Jue wasted no time in climbing in.

The Bookworm’s voice followed him in. “After the door closes, the test will begin. Don’t hold back, pay attention to the pod’s reactions. I’ll be able to watch from outside as well.”

“Alright.” Lan Jue shot the Bookworm a big thumbs up to indicate he understood.

The pod door slowly began to close. It shut with a hiss, completely isolating Lan Jue from the outside world.

Su He swept his eyes towards the Bookworm. “Professor… are you sure this is alright?”

The Bookworm scowled at his disciple. “What’s not alright? Would you like to take his place? This punk dared to try and deceive me, heh, we’ll see how long before he begs for death. In fact this probably isn’t even a bad thing for him. That old

bastard asked him to come on his behalf, so he must like him quite a lot. Trusts him. I’m simply curious how much he can take, since the lying scrooge gave him this task. In a little while why don’t you go check up on the one that passed out. See how his body has reacted.”

“Yes, Professor,” Su He said. He dare not say  anything further.

The Bookworm then returned to his seat and, calling forth his own inter-dimensional locker, produced a strange helmet from within. He quickly placed it on his head.

ζ

As the doors closed, Lan Jue’s world was plunged in to darkness. He dutifully, almost unconsciously affixed his harness even without any light. He wore no flight suit, since he’d assumed he wouldn’t need it on their journey on Zeus-1, and so instead was seated comfortably in his leisure clothes. He unconsciously placed his hands on the control board. He knew it all explicitly, by feel.

A helmet slowly descended from somewhere, fitting itself to

his head.

“Neural connection established. Test commencing.” Suddenly, the interior of the pod lit up. Lan Jue found himself somewhere else entirely.

It looked like an arena, upon which he stood nestled in a sim mecha suit. The suit itself didn’t appear to be special in any way. Just a normal fighter. Nor was there any energy bar present – so it appeared the energy restrictions had been removed for this simulation.

“Test One: hand speed. Please avoid the incoming mortar attacks. You may not avoid the strikes by neutralizing them. If the mortars score a hit, the test will end. The emotionless electronic voice filled the pod. As soon as the instructions were delivered, arcs of golden light began to rapidly approach from all directions. There appeared to be ten incoming strikes in all, all of which descending quickly right where Lan Jue waited.

It wasn’t a mass attack, this first volley. Instead, it seemed designed to restrict his dodging options. That was even more frightening than a wall of mortar shells.

Lan Jue, however, felt no pressure as the golden light washed over him.

Slowly, Lan Jue’s mecha dropped in to a crouch. Then, in a flash, he exploded off of the arena floor, becoming little more than a flashing beam of light.

Outside of the pod the Bookworm nodded, causing his helmet to wobble atop his head. “Disordered advance. Nice. Decent hand speed.”

The piercing bolts of light drew ever nearer. Lan Jue, however, was like a strange silver fish flopping from one location to another. He would wait until just the right moment, then leap out of the way.

This was a test you could participate in using normal pods as well, though the difficulty level of this far outstripped the one offered in DreamNet.

By Lan Jue’s estimation, a hand speed of even forty wouldn’t be enough to pass this opening part of the test. Clearly this test was designed for god-ranked pilots.

More waves approached. As he watched not only did they become more intense, but also appeared to be coming faster. They tore through the air, bringing with them a screeching, ear- piercing wail.

Sound interference? They were coming faster.

Lan Jue’s mecha matched the increase in speed. Flashing, racing faster, even changing location as they drew closer. Sometimes they would be little more than distant dots of light, and then sometimes they would be clear and closer than they appeared. Still, none could come close to the wild mecha, which danced between the blasts effortlessly.

On occasion, Lan Jue would also employ ghost abilities and similar high-level skills to avoid the strikes.

As the test progressed Lan Jue was pleased to discover his silver suit was capable of taking quite a beating. No matter how Lan Jue chose to use it, the suit reacted normally. There were no indications that it was being pushed too far. He felt like he could relax his inherent caution.

Lan Jue was further surprised to discover that he was able to

perform his maneuvers and actions calmly, without excess effort. His reaction time, hand speed, everything was far from his limit.

Once an Adept had reached the levels Lan Jue had, their understanding of their own body reached a keen knowledge others were incapable of. Any difference could result in a significant effect at ninth-ranked. Of course his also meant that even the slightest increase in hand speed at this level was a heroic feat. Lan Jue could feel that his hand speed wasn’t the same as it used to be.

Ten minutes later.

Lan Jue’s fingers danced like specters across the keyboard. Were others able to see the scores of incoming attacks, they would be horrified. One after the other fell in terrifying volleys, with no gaps in between them!

Still, the silver light danced in between them, again and again just barely avoiding obliteration.

For this test, just one of those dangerous bolts of light would spell the end.

Outside, the Bookworm occasionally slapped the armrest of his chair, betraying his displeasure with the situation. With his helmet he was able to see everything Lan Jue did – and how he did it.

Fifteen minutes later.

Bolts of lightning had begun to race along Lan Jue’s body. The silver mecha had also, at some unknown adopted a blue hue, and it’s speed had increased exponentially from when they began. Still the blue light deftly avoided the attacks from all directions. He was too fast for the human eye to see, at this point.

Twenty minutes!

“Booommm!”The sound of a detonation ripped through the cockpit. The lights vanished, and things returned to as they were at the onset of the test.

Lan Jue’s hands shook slightly. He shook them to try and bring some life back to his fingers. Beads of sweat had begun to congregate on his forehead.

Chapter 214:The God-Ranked Battle

The constant, high-speed maneuvers were difficult for Lan Jue to keep track off. Indeed, he’d already lost track of how long he’d been dodging. He did know that, at around the thirteen- minute mark, he’d begun using his lightning discipline. Thankfully the machine worked as the Bookworm assured – it was able to read and translate his discipline in to the simulation. Through that power he was able to inject his mecha and make it move the way it did.

But really, it was a carefree and enjoyable experience to test one’s limits! He’d been involved in very many tests over the years, but in all of those he couldn’t recall one that went to the length this one did.

His hands ached, but there was a competitive excitement in his eyes.

It was a gift, and to him it seemed like there really was no difference in the simulation and the real world.

Also, through the course of the test, he found himself to be stronger than he remembered after his recovery. Even his hand speed had improved.

“Test complete. Hand speed: ninety CPS. Total peak hand speed unknown. Peak hand speed for the first test: ninety CPS.”

Commands Per Second

Ninety?! I’ve reached ninety commands! Lan Jue stifled a gasp at the surprising results.

He’d been stuck at eighty-seven for six years. It wasn’t as though he hadn’t vigorously trained to change that in the past, but he hadn’t had many opportunities to train it.

Now he was hearing from the simulation that he’d reached that hurdle, and passed it.

What’s more, that may not even be his peak speed.

Of course Lan Jue was not aware that his mysterious increase in power was a result of the Silkworm Discipline that’d saved him. The power that had poured through him was enough not only to heal his ruined body, but improve it. Lan Jue was only starting to clearly see the benefits his troubled have reaped.

Outside the simulator.

Slap! The Bookworm viciously smacked the armrest of his chair with a wrinkled hand.

Su He, recently returned from checking on the comatose Accountant, jumped at the sound.

“The kid actually passed! Hmph! But we have more fun in store for him, and I doubt he’ll be able to handle it!”

Within the simulation.

“Practical combat skill determination commencing. Please note, pilots will feel the simulation as they would in real life. Battles will continue until complete, or until the pilot sustained critical, life threatening damage.”

The cold mechanical voice hung in the small sim pod.

Practical combat, eh? Lan Jue’s eyes flashed with anticipation. He was excited to get started.

“Weapons selection.”

Several sorts of weapons, of many different styles and sorts, appeared before the silver mecha for selection.

Lan Jue picked up a spear with very little consideration necessary. He reached out for another, but they all vanished.

A beam of red light appeared in the distance. It was a mecha, ruby in color, that released a fiery red aura as it raced his way. This was a practical combat test, he recalled, not a competition. As such, there wouldn’t be any starting whistle or other outside indications.

His simulated opponent bore a large sword, with a blade as red as the rest of the suit. In the span of a few breaths, he’d arrived before Lan Jue.

The silver mecha braced itself by shifting its left foot back and bringing its spear up before it.

The encroaching red light fell to earth. Lan Jue did not move.

With a flash the red light washed over him. It was startling, but left no damage. The Jewelry Master suddenly thrust his weapon straight upwards.

Dink! The sound of impact rang out. The red mecha shivered, lost its balance and tumbled to the side.

It was clear now that the first appearance of the red mecha had been a mirage. The simulation was employing ghosting techniques.

The Silver mech moved the instant the red light flashed over him, shimmering with arcs of blue electricity. He was like a bullet, charging ferociously towards his enemy with spear outstretched.

The red mecha, in response, swept its sword back once it got back to its feet. A fiery red aura sprung to life around it.

The silver mecha continued its approach. The suit’s forward motion was clear at the onset, but suddenly Lan Jue shifted, approaching obliquely. A flash, and then his direction changed again. He left a dazzling blue contrail in his wake, tracing his erratic advance.

The spear flashed keenly in the Jewelry Master’s hand. The strange conical blue light that followed him vanished, as the silver mecha disappeared from view. Then, without warning, Lan Jue barreled headlong in to the red mecha.

Booooom! The ensuing impact was so intense that it seemed the whole simulation shook. Lan Jue’s opponent was thrust to the ground like a sack of metal parts. The fire that surrounded it spread out in all directions. Lan Jue took the moment to recover his balance and, with a vicious swipe of his spear, obliterated the spot where the pilot’s cockpit would be.

Boooommmmm! Lan Jue’s unfortunate opponent exploded, with shrapnel flying every which way. The pieces dissolved in to disparate flashes of light, then vanished.

As his first opponent vanished in to oblivion, a second mecha appeared a distance away. This one was orange, and a sniper judging by the similarly-colored rifle it bore. A moment after appearing, a frighteningly fast orange light raced towards him. The orange mecha reappeared at Lan Jue’s back.

The silver mecha vanished, as though it ceased to exist in the simulation. When he was spotted once again, he was floating in the air overhead. With a ferocious blast, the mech raced

towards the orange attacker at impossible speeds.

It was working. His power was flooding through the suit, forcing it to move at the speed of a lightning bolt!

The orange suit was pretty quick itself, but whether from programming limitations or simply a failure of the suit, it couldn’t compete with Lan Jue’s speed.

The following encounters between the two were brief, vicious, and in the end there was nothing left of the orange mecha but a pile of scrap metal. Arenas were really no place for a sniper.

In no more time it took to tie his shoes, Lan Jue had defeated two challengers, both coded to be god-ranked. They were only just the beginning stages of God-ranked, though. Despite his apparent dominance, he knew that extended battles like this would really put a strain on his capabilities.

More importantly, though, it was also pushing him towards the peak of his prowess. The unbridled emulated combat, his hand speed… he lost himself in the moment. There was nothing else he need consider but for the obstacles before him.

The result: two God-ranked challengers, defeated in less than five minutes.

The next enemy to reveal themselves was a yellow mecha. The moment the mecha appeared, Lan Jue knew it wasn’t like the others.

The orange mecha hadn’t had time to completely employ its Discipline before Lan Jue put an end to it. This yellow one, though… it was smart enough to use it right away.

The moment it landed the ground beneath its feet became an earthen yellow. Immediately following, great boulders extricated themselves and rose of their own accord in to the air. Lan Jue stood in the midst of them and, as he looked on, the numerous crushing stones fell towards him from all directions.

The yellow mecha blended well with the tempestuous boulders, disappearing among them.

Earth Discipline! What’s more, even the topography bowed to the whim of this simulated enemy.

The question was, how would it manifest itself?

The silver mecha rose in to the air amidst a shower of sparks and lightning. The boulders raced towards him and just as Lan Jue’s escape seemed impossible the sky suddenly became a deep, navy blue. From the cloudless sky, scores of angry lightning bolts crashed to earth.

The arcing bolts of electricity blanketed the entire Arena. As they fell, they exploded against the levitating hunks of stone. The fractured pebbles were flung every which way, as the many earthen projectiles were obliterated.

Strength in the face of one’s enemies! This was Lan Jue’s creed!

His enemy’s invisibility was too strong, his cover too wide. He decided to play upon the strength of his Discipline: to blanket the world in lightning!

Under that terrifying anger from the heavens, and the cascading debris of burning rock – who could survive? His enemy had chosen to become his element. Lan Jue used his own to destroy it.

The skies quieted abruptly, the shuddering roar of thunder peeling through the sky. Bits and pieces of the yellow mecha – most no bigger than a screw – tumbled to the ground in a shower of slag.

Lan Jue had no respite. Next came green, cyan, blue and purple mechas.

Lan Jue determined that they must also possess elemental powers. Notably the purple one, which bore a very rare Discipline: Darkness. Now, not only would Lan Jue have to contend with the inherent caustic properties of the Discipline, he’d also have to do it in the dark.

It took him ten minutes.

Seven battles. Seven mechas. Seven heaps of scrap.

Scars and scraps dotted Lan Jue’s battered silver warrior. However, despite the damage it looked ready to take on another seven.

Within the sim pod, Lan Jue was soaked through with sweat.

His eyes were bright as the stars.

Outside of the sim pod, the bookworm clutched the armrest with a white-knuckled grip.

Within the simulation, sunlight flashed off of a silver mecha as it came to ground a distance from Lan Jue. It was slower than its predecessors, more dramatic. It gave Lan Jue a moment to catch his breath.

Lan Jue could sense that, after seven intense battles, his Discipline was strained. It was to be expected, since his enemies have all been God-ranked ninth-level adepts!

The purple mech he’d disposed of was ninth-level seventh rank Darkness adept. That was where he’d expected the majority of his energy. Where it not for his innate double Disciplines, for their combines power, he’d probably have lost long ago.

Now came the eighth. Judging by the exterior, this silver mecha looked a lot like his own.

Lan Jue could instantly sense a danger about this one. It was a sensation he was familiar with.

If the former sequence was being upheld, then this time he’d be facing a Ninth-level Eighth-rank fighter. With his powers so diminished, how could he defend himself?

A ghost of a smile emerged on Lan Jue’s sweat-soaked face. He lifted his left hand from the keyboard, and slowly clenched his fingers in to a fist.

A halo of dim blue light slowly spread outward. The light wasn’t strong, and bore no intense aura. But there was something strange.

Lan Jue’s eyes flashed a bluish-purple, and the light that surrounded his suit adopted the same hue.

Outside of the sim pod.

“The hell is this? A phylactery?” The Bookworm shook with impudent rage. He’d seen Lan Jue defeat the seven previous mechas. Seven of them, all God-ranked! And still he fought.

His simulated opponent had unlimited energy to employ. A real adept had so such luxury! These fights had drained him immensely, and already Lan Jue was surprised he had more to give. How much longer could he hold out?

Chapter 215: Little Monster

The bluish-purple power enveloped him, Lan Jue could feel his discipline recovering. The phylactery stone embedded in his palm was the last bit of energy he could draw from.

And it was enough: phylactery stones stored enough to satiate Paragons!

The Bookworm glowered bad-temperedly as he watched the simulation unfold. But he was confident this eighth mecha would prove to be the young man’s undoing.

With a flash, Lan Jue’s silvery opponent vanished. Then, bolts of a strange black power bloomed to life all around him. Powerful vacuums pulled at him every which way, causing his suit to lose balance.

Inter-spacial Discipline! Tears in the fabric of space!

Lan Jue was stunned. He finally understood why his opponent had seemed so familiar – it was the Wine Master’s aura.

The silver challenger appeared once more in the sky above him. As he looked up, he was met with a silvery beam crashing down from on high. An orb of silvery light, containing with an unstable inter-spacial core.

In terms of explosive power, the inter-spacial disciplines weren’t quite a match for thunder. However, if you were to consider them by the metric of pure destructiveness the two were quite evenly matched.

The electric power surrounding Lan Jue’s suite fluctuated violently. The outer layer prepared itself from the oppressive strike of the orb.

Just before impact, the manifestation of Lan Jue’s power changed, adopting a brilliant golden hue. The majestic, battered mecha he commanded was suddenly surrounded by an overpowering golden aura.

“Skies, defend!” A commanding voice filled the arena. Everything stopped. It was as though the world had frozen, and now everything in their surroundings was painted gold.

The entire simulation.

“Moron, what are you doing!? Stop it!” The Bookworm quickly lept to his feet and sent a wave of light careening towards the sim pod. The errant power lay over the pod like a membrane, blanketing it.

Within the simulation.

The engineered world around him vanished. The Bookworm’s irritated face appeared in the darkness before Lan Jue.

“Ehm…” Lan Jue sheepishly avoided the old man’s irritated expression. He immediately allowed his Discipline to disperse.

Screeeetch. The sim pod’s hatch creaked open allowing a plume of dark smoke to billow free.

Xiuxiu and Lin Guoguo had raced over. They rustled to see inside and spotted Lan Jue’s sweat-soaked form. He looked fine, though, so the women visibly relaxed.

The Bookworm, who looked to be mostly dead most days, moved with a speed that was simply staggering. He effortlessly yanked Lan Jue from the simulator. His voice was furious.

“Look at what you did! What the hell were you thinking?! Who told you to use proto powers? Did I not tell you this machine can’t sustain Paragon level abilities?”

“Hack, cough!” Lan Jue coughed, giving the Bookworm an awkward and apologetic glance. “I’m very sorry, sir. It wasn’t intentional. I was caught up in the fight… I forgot it wasn’t real. You really made something incredible here. A damn miracle, almost. Ever since attaining God-rank, I felt like DreamNet had nothing more to offer me. Now, it has the capabilities to employ Discipline. It’s a game changer. Elder, you’re amazing. I’m sure your name will go down in history as one of the Three Alliances’ greatest scientists.”

The Bookworm’s face softened under the deluge of praise. He let go of Lan Jue’s shirt. “Change your clothes, you stink. This little… monster!”

Lan Jue chortled and trotted off. It had been two hours of joyful, carefree practice. Excitement still filled him with energy.

It had also been his first time tapping in to the phylactery stone. Every day during his meditations he’d inject some of his energy in to the stone, but he had yet to fill it entirely. One could only imagine the staggering amount of power it could

contain. Just then it had taken him  only  a dozen  seconds to have his power returned to just under half. It was a point he had to remember – It could heavily influence his combat time. Previously he had to be careful not to overtax himself, and be economical. Now, not so much.

As Lan Jue made his exit, the Bookworm stared forlornly at his ruined invention. He busied himself will diagnosing the problem.

His original hope had been to watch Lan Jue suffer a vicious beating in the simulation. But who’d have thought he’d actually break the damn thing. Though it was, after all, only a semi- finished product.

ζ

Zeus-1 steadily made its descent into the Skyfire public airship hangar. The Accountant was still in a coma as they touched down. Lan Jue had to sling him over his shoulder before disembarking. There were too many people to handle on his own, so Lan Jue had to hire another verti-car to fit them all. Thus they all made their way to the Avenue together.

The car stopped just outside of the Avenue. As they approached, Lan Jue used his Councilman’s batch to get Su He and the Bookworm temporary blue badges for entry.

“Elder, will you be visiting the Keeper right away?” Lan Jue asked.

The Bookworm’s face was strange. His expression was almost sentimental. There was something there, but whether it was regret or pure madness was difficult to discern. Eventually, he nodded his affirmation.

“Let’s go. I want to see if that wrinkled toad really is dying.”

Lan Jue and Su He exchanged a look. Lan Jue pondered for a moment, then spoke again. “I’ll accompany you. Xiuxiu, Guoguo, you guys head back. I’ll take the Tear now.”

“Yes boss,” Xiuxiu responded. She immediately fished the Tear from her luggage and handed it over.

He Bookworm’s eyes flashed as he watched the exchange. “You bought it, eh? From the auction?”

Lan Jue smiled. “I have a use for it, elder. You’ll see later, I suspect. Shall we? This way, please.” As he spoke, Lan Jue urged him on with a welcoming motion.

The Bookworm slapped his hand away. “I know this place better than you do,” the crotchety old man rumbled. He stomped off down the Avenue with big strides.

Lan Jue and Su He fanned out behind the old man. The Accountant bounced along on Lan Jue’s shoulder.

As always, a permeating sense of peace and calm surrounded the library. Anyone who came here to actually read the books understood that there were a number of strict stipulations. For instance, damaging a book required the culprit to offer another of equal value, or otherwise you paid with your life.

As one can imagine, the result was very few visitors. The books were all in pristine condition, though.

Upon entering the Library, the Bookworm ignored all that and stomped directly to the stairwell. Still his nose twitched incessantly as his did, taking in the particular aroma of an old book shop. He bore an expression of regret.

Returned at last. But why, he pondered, did he not feel any joy over it?

He moved through the place without even having to look around. He was as familiar with it as he was his replica back on Lir.

Once he got to the Keeper’s office, he didn’t even knock. He simply pulled open the door and walked inside.

As the door opened, the large swivel chair behind the enormous office desk swung around. An old, craggy face came in to view.

“I was just wondering who would be so uncivilized as to just barge in, then I remembered you were coming,” the Keeper’s frail voice called out.

The Bookworm spat out his response. “Who are you calling uncivilized?! You’re the uncivilized one! And a soon to be dead swine as well. Hurry up and die, piss off, give my library back to me.”

Lan Jue pushed his way in, the Accountant still slung over his back. He eventually maneuvered him on to a nearby chair.

“What did you do to my grandson,” the Keeper grumbled.

“I poisoned him,” the Bookworm replied.

The Keeper sighed. “You’re a senior citizen. Can’t you act like a normal human person?”

“Bullshit,” the old man said crassly. “What’s not normal about me? I’m a hell of a lot more normal than you! You shit Paragon, mister Arcane Magus, you can’t even extend your own life. What right have you got to talk.”

“I was lying,” the Keeper said in that same quiet voice.

“Lied? Pfft-“ The Bookworm’s response was automatic, but after a second the words sunk in and his pupils narrowed. When he spoke again his voice was monstrously enraged. “W-what?! You lied? You’re not dying?!”

The Keeper chuckled, unfazed. “Mmhm! By the time you’re dust I’ll still be stomping around.”

Lan Jue suddenly had the sense he should leave the two alone, and escape while he still could. It was getting more dangerous by the second!

He stooped down to pick up the Accountant once again when he heard a voice from behind him. “It’s fine, leave him there,” the Keeper said. “Give me that Tear of Neptune.”

“Eh?” Lan Jue straightened and faced the old man. “How did you know I was bringing you the Tear?”

The Keeper chuckled, this time bearing a note of polite disdain. “We think alike. I heard that this s-ranked gem had been sold, then remembered you were in Lir. Then since I was already looking, I checked through the Tear’s information. By coincidence, I tapped in to the auction feed just in time to see you purchase it. Not bad, it holds promise.”

Lan Jue was speechless. Coincidence? He was expected to believe that? People could just willy-nilly tap in to auction house video feeds?

“I’ll kill you myself, then, you rotten bastard!” A figure raced wildly at the Keeper.

“Wait!” The Keeper shot out a hand, and the Bookworm skidded to a halt. “Let me show you something, then you can continue with your murderous rampage.”

The Keeper produced a box as he spoke. Within lay the energy core they’d ripped from the Tai Hua monster.

It immediately drew the old exile’s eye. The anger, however, remained. “I’ll tear you apart in a little while.” With a flick of his wrist, an instrument of some sort appeared in the Bookworm’s hand. He swept it over the box.

With the crazy old men occupied, Lan Jue felt it safe enough to approach and hand over the Tear, safely nestled in its crystal box. The Keeper smiled in thanks, then wordlessly motioned for him to depart.

Lan Jue smiled in return, proud at completing his mission. Indeed, it seemed the Bookworm’s ‘anger’ wouldn’t result in any misfortune.

Lan Jue soundlessly made his exit, pulling Su He along behind him.

His former classmate looked worried. “You think the two of them will be ok?”

Lan Jue smirked. “They’ll be fine. If your teacher was really as angry as he let on, they wouldn’t be pouring over research material together. I also believe, now that the Keeper has convinced the Bookworm to show up, he’ll find a way to convince him. Let’s let the two old friends work it out on their own. Let’s go, I’ll show you where you’re staying.”

Chapter 216: Stealing In To The Boudoir

Su He breathed a sigh of relief. “So long as there isn’t going to be any trouble, then great. I was so determined for a vacation, and was worried my plans would be dashed to pieces. I’ll stay for another couple of days to observe, and if there really aren’t any problems I’ll be on my way.”

Lan Jue lead Su He to Skyfire Avenue, where he’d arranged a room in a luxury hotel for his friend. After dropping him off, Lan Jue didn’t immediately return to his shop. Instead, he returned to where the high-alt verti-car had been waiting.

The Soulcaller gem hummed with power:

Lan Jue: I’m back.

Zhou Qianlin: Ah, you’re back quick!

What are you up to?

Meditation. What you taught me. I feel like it’s very useful. I can feel the energies moving within me, it’s very interesting.

This is Discipline, huh? What exactly is my Discipline?

Once your Discipline has been cultivated to a certain level, it will reveal itself on its own. Maybe you’ll turn in to a tigress.

YOU’RE a tigress!

How about I go meet you. I bought a little special something on Lir I want to give you. And by the way I can see where you’re Discipline’s at.

Alright, so when will you be here?

Ten minutes. I’ll meet you downstairs.

Alright, I’ll tell the guards.

No need. We don’t have to trouble others. I have my ways.

Oh.

Their conversation ended there. Lan Jue’s McKelly verti-car soundlessly rose in to the air, and took off in a beam of light.

Zhou Qianlin leaped from the bed and immediately went to her closet. She nibbled her lower lip as she rummaged through her options, eventually extricating a white dress. She changed quickly, pulling her loose hair in to a pony-tail. It was a very relaxed look. Her eyes couldn’t conceal her excitement.

Five minutes later.

Tap tap! A soft noise came from the window lattice.

Qianlin shot to her feet and made for the window. She drew back the window curtain to reveal Lan Jue outside, clad in black.

She shut of the infrared security measures, and pulled open the window. Lan Jue silently pulled himself in. Safely inside, Qianlin took a quick peep outside before shutting the window and pulling the curtain.

“You’re pretty good at skulking around. You’d make a good

burglar.” Zhou Qianlin said through a grin.

Lan Jue couldn’t respond, he was too busy lost in thought after seeing her in the white dress. However, he recovered fairly quickly.

“How have things been at school these last few days?” he asked.

She shrugged. “Nothing special. Richard went back to the West and hasn’t returned. Other than that, everything’s more or less back to normal. Of course everyone’s still excited about the concert and our victory over Lir. They had quite the influence on our school. The mecha combat department is tearing ahead at full speed, and Professor Tan has been given tenure. She isn’t even thirty, and already the youngest tenured professor in the school’s history.”

Lan Jue smiled. “I’ll be taking that title in the near future, probably.”

Qianlin could only roll her eyes. “You. A tenured professor. Your work week consists of three days fishing, two days sunbathing. You can count the number of classes you’ve taught

on one hand. Oh, by the way I heard a few students talking about you the other day. I had suggestions.”

“Oh?” Lan Jue replied.

“They like your teaching style,” she began, “but your lifestyle is very different from most of the students. So, I suggest you tailor your classes more towards things they’ll actually encounter. I bet that’ll get you an even better response.”

Lan Jue was speechless. His face was scrunched in thought as he pondered her recommendation. She’s right, he thought. I’ve been addressing them, teaching them as though they were already nobility. That’s not a bad thing, but they’re still too young and too unrefined for a lot of the content. I think it best I teach them about fine liquors another time.

Zhou Qianlin went on. “I’m not saying your classes aren’t good, just…”

Lan Jue waved his hand, cutting her off. “I understand, you had good intentions. And you’re absolutely right. I really hadn’t thought about it until you said so, after all this is my first semester teaching. I’ll make the necessary changes.”

Qianlin smiled pleasantly at him. “Great. It was your own decision to teach etiquette anyway. If you’d come as a mecha combat instructor we wouldn’t have anything to worry about.”

Lan Jue huffed. “If I had all the other instructors would be out of a job. That’s no good, am I right?”

Qianlin’s lips curled in to a smirk. “Megalomaniac.”

Lan Jue, taller than she, looked her over, followed the curve of her slender neck. He puckered his lips thoughtfully. “Alright, let me see how your Discipline is progressing.”

Qianlin’s face reddened ever so slightly. “How are you going to do that?”

“Give your hand,” Lan Jue answered.

“Ok!” She stuck her hand out towards him. Just then, a voice called. “Qianlin? Are you asleep? You ate so little at dinner, I brought you a glass of warm milk. Drink it before you go to bed.”

The voice was getting closer. The last few words were spoken just outside her door.

Lan Jue, by this point, was holding her hand in his. For a moment the two of them were in a daze, unsure of what to do. It was the first time they’d encountered an interruption, especially under such clandestine circumstances, and both were at a loss.

Knock, knock, knock!

Lan Jue reacted first, pulling Qianlin in to his arms and speaking quietly in her ear. “Answer the door, I’ll hide.” He nudged her towards the voice, and she obliged.

As her hand gripped the doorknob, she unconsciously turned back. Lan Jue was already gone from sight.

She pulled open the door.

Her mother, Bai Xiao, stood outside. In her hand she bore a tray, upon which was a glass of gently steaming milk, and a cookie.

‘White Dawn’

“Qianlin, are you alright? Why is your face so red?” She walked in to the room, concern written on her face.

“I’m fine,” she replied hastily. “My face is red? Probably because I just took a shower, so I’m still a little hot.”

Bai Xiao placed the treats she’d bought on a nearby nightstand. She gave her daughter the once over, her face skeptical. Her eyes narrowed as she noticed something on the floor.

“Ah, darling, your floor is so dirty!”

Qianlin gulped. “Really? Yeah I guess so. I’ll clean it up.”

Bai Xiao nodded. “Go get a cloth.”

Qianlin entered the bathroom connected to her room. Her heart beat like a drum; she didn’t know where Lan Jue was hiding, and he could be found at any moment.

She pulled open the bathroom door. Lan Jue was nowhere to be seen.

As Qianlin left to find a rag, her mother furtively rushed to look under the bed. Then the writing desk. Then the closet.

Qianlin returned in time to see her mother shuffling through her things. She blinked. “Ma, what are you doing?”

Bai Xiao shut the closet door, smiling sheepishly. “Mama’s just checking to see if you need any new clothes! It seems like you prefer white clothes these days. I see it more and more in your things.”

“Yeah,” she replied, nodding her head.

“Ai-you,” Bai Xiao whined. “Mama’s tummy hurts. I’m going to use your restroom.” She didn’t wait for a response, immediately making for the door while covering her belly.

Qianlin dropped in to a squat and begun cleaning up the dust on her floor. Tiny beads of sweat had begun to form on her brow. She mustn’t fall for her trap! How could she face her

mother? A man in her room, so late at night…

After a short while Bai Xiao reappeared from the bathroom. She smiled pleasantly. “Alright dear, make sure to go to sleep early, I’ll leave you to yourself.”

“Thanks mom. You make sure to rest, too.” Qianlin followed her mother to the door.

Once her mother was outside, and the door locked behind her, Qianlin breathed a long sigh of relief.

Just as she was about to call out for Lan Jue, a finger pressed against her red lips. The Soulcaller gem warmed.

“Shh.”

Qianlin, wide-eyed, turned her head to look to the side. She spied Lan Jue, flickering in an undulating aura of blue light. He’d just crackled out from the nearby wall socket.

Her wide eyes looked at him incredulously.

Bai Xiao was outside her door, ear pressed to the wood. She waited patiently for something, a sound or sign that something was amiss. She eventually left, though suspicion was still clear on her face.

Lan Jue was back to normal shortly afterward, fully extricated from the power socket.

“Alright, she’s gone.” It was Lan Jue’s turn to sigh. “Your mother must have been a forensic detective in a previous life. She has the eyes of a hawk.”

Qianlin stuck her tongue out at him. “Yeah! I was told she used to be an investigator. A shrewd one. But how in the world did you get in to a power socket?!”

“Lightning is my discipline,” he explained. “Part of that is I can become lightning. By virtue of the transformation I can follow any electrical or power line.”

“That’s amazing,” she said. “But, that means… you can enter my room through the socket, there’s no need for the window.”

“Hack, cough, ehm!” Lan Jue’s mind filled with memories of the one time he’d done just that. He stuttered over himself as he answered. “I-impossible, see, cuz, your house has protective measures in place for electricity. Surge protectors and the like, right? I can only stay changed like that for a short time anyway. Yeah… yeah, so there ya go.”

“Really.” Zhou Qianlin fixed him with her gaze.

Lan Jue looked like the very avatar of truth and morality. “Of course really! Alright, let’s get on with this check.” He snatched up her hand.

Qianlin felt a tingle go through her arm, making her cheeks redden once more. She didn’t fight him.

After a few minutes Lan Jue relinquished her hand. Now it was his turn to be shocked.

“Your cultivation is progressing very quickly… unnaturally so. From nothing to something, and first-ranked too. It’s not a terribly difficult landmark to reach, but in only a few days? To improve so quickly, without any outside forces to help… it’s inconceivable.”

Chapter 217: The Pearl’s Defense

The first time Lan Jue had performed this check of Zhou Qianlin’s abilities, they had just indistinct and only just beginning to manifest within her. This time, however, there was no mistaking its presence. It was far more substantial than it was the last time. For an Adept whose powers just awakened, didn’t even know what their discipline was… it was startling, the speed at which it was evolving.

“It must mean your genetic talent is very strong…”

Generally speaking, the strength of one’s innate talent and the speed at which their Discipline grew were inexplicably tied. As everyone’s level of congenital talent was different, so too was their cultivation speed. The better their Talent, the faster their improvement. If, for instance, a person’s Talent could reach in the levels of ninth-rank, even if they didn’t spend time cultivating their abilities they would rise to a certain plateau all on its own.

Some people express it as genetic talent being the denominator, and their actual power level as the numerator. The higher the denominator, the easier it was for the numerator to quickly increase. But if the numerator wanted to break the bonds of its denominator, it would take special circumstances.

Whether through the West’s Fantascia Genetica Decoction, or the North’s cyborg programs, there were ways to break that denominator or catalyze its evolution.

But ‘quick’ couldn’t appropriately describe the speed at which Zhou Qianlin’s powers were rising. Lan Jue thought back to his own youth, when his discipline had just awakened. His growth wasn’t nearly this fast. Jin Tao was the only person who could match it, and that was due to the genetica decoction.

“Is there a problem?” Qianlin asked.

Lan Jue shook his head. “Nope. It’s just your progress is incredibly fast. Strange. We should keep this under surveillance. We’ll wait a little while then check again, maybe then we’ll be able to get a clearer picture. I had no idea it was even possible for something like this to happen to someone your age.”

“What do you mean ‘my age’?” Qianlin said through a frown. “Are you saying I’m old?”

Lan Jue grinned ruefully. “No, of course not. Much younger than this body guard. By the way, I brought you a souvenir.” As

he spoke there was a flash of silver light, and suddenly a crystal box was in his hands.

The Pelagic Pearl twinkled within, awash in misty blue light.
It tinted the entire room, like a drizzly afternoon.

“It’s beautiful.” Qianlin admired. Her face betrayed the surprise.

Lan Jue flipped the box open and extricated the pearl. The thing itself was very small, perhaps the size of a cherry, and yet looking at it was like staring at a portrait of the universe. It was covered in layers of gradient blue, making it look like you were peering in to the misty depths of space.

He placed the pearl in her hand. “Make sure to take good care of this. There may come a time when you’re in danger and I can’t immediately reach you. If that happens, pour your Discipline in to the pearl. It’ll create an elemental ward that will protect you. But first make sure you cover it with a drop or two of your blood. It’s necessary for the pearl to recognize you and your power. Afterwards the pearl will head your command.”

Surprise emerged written across Zhou Qianlin’s pretty

features. “This must have been very expensive. I can’t accept it.”

“Nah not expensive at all,” Lan Jue lied. “Anyway, this is me doing my job! Another way to make sure you’re being protected. After all, I can’t be at your side all day every day. What if I have to take a trip to another planet? With the pearl in your possession, it makes me feel better. I can relax a little. You should thing of some way to keep it on you at all times. A necklace, earring or something. When you find out what you like I can help have it made for you. For now, just keep it around.”

Qianlin was still shaking her head. She stuffed it back in Lan Jue’s hand. “Really too valuable. I don’t want it.”

Lan Jue had bought the pearl at auction specifically to give Qianlin. He hadn’t thought that she wouldn’t want it. It certainly wasn’t something he anticipated.

“Why not?” He asked. “Just because it’s valuable? You really don’t need to worry about any of that.”

Qianlin raised  her head,  looking him  in the  eye. “We  are

neither relatives nor friends, how could I take something like that from you?”

Lan Jue, seeing she was hesitant, backed away a few steps. “Look, I’m just your bodyguard. Protecting you is my responsibility.”

A calm came over Qianlin’s features. “So you do it yourself, don’t rely on a pearl. I don’t need it.”

Lan Jue looked at her, helpless. “Then how about this; I’ll loan it to you. When my contract is completed and our working relationship resolved, you can give it back. What do you think?”

Suddenly Qianlin smiled, stepping closer to him. “My dear body guard, you must think I’m stupid. Don’t forget that I’m a national scholar in the NEU. You can’t assume I wouldn’t know about Lir’s famed Pelagic Pearl. A high-class, a-ranked power gem that can only bind with a single person. A drop of blood, and it has a master forever.”

Lan Jue just stared at her for a moment, then an embarrassed grin spread across his face. “You sure are well informed boss! Bought I’ve already bought it, and it can’t be returned. If you

don’t take, it’s a waste.”

“That’s not my problem,” Qianlin said through a sweet smile. Alright, it’s time for you to go. A man and a woman alone so late at night is improper.”

Lan Jue looked at her beautiful face, her moist lips, that impish smile. She made him want to throw himself to the ground in a fit. This girl! He thought. She makes me want to-

Lan Jue took a calming breath. “I’ve made up my mind, there’s nothing for it. If you want accept it, please forgive my impropriety.”

Qianlin took a cautious step back. “What are you talking about?”

Lan Jue chortled maliciously, and took a step forward. “What do you think?”

Before she could answer, his hand shot out to cover her small mouth. A flash of light, arcs of lightning, and Qianlin collapsed in to his waiting arms.

Lan Jue held up her unconscious form. “You know  what, boss? My job as your bodyguard means sometimes I have to take extreme measures to keep you safe. All of this is necessary, as part of my duty.”

He pulled out her hand. A small pinprick of light, no thicker than a needle, appeared from his hand. It struck her finger, and a droplet of blood issued forth.

Lan Jue gently placed the pearl against her finger. As he watched, the pearl drank the blood into itself. The dim light it normally expelled became a powerful halo that bathed the room in blue light.

Then, the light congealed around Zhou Qianlin and was drawn in to her.

Zhou Qianlin’s body was numbed, she could neither move nor speak. But there was always the Soulcaller gem.

Zhou Qianlin: Don’t think you can skirt your duties as my bodyguard by giving me this thing! You absolutely must protect me in person!

Lan Jue: When did I ever say I was trying to get around our deal? I made a promise, and I’m going to stick to it. I may not always be best suited for the job, but isn’t this an example of me protecting you to the best of my abilities? You know I have a lot on my plate, and if something happens when I’m not around what will you do? This is exactly why I brought you the pearl. So behave.

It took a good five minutes for the intense light let off by the pearl to subside. Once again it was the pretty, quiet little pearl it had always been.

Lan Jue finally released Qianlin from the control he’d had over her. She quickly and violently shot to her feet. She was livid. “You forced me!”

Lan Jue coughed uncomfortably. “I’ve already explained my reasoning. I haven’t done anything I wasn’t contracted to do, boss.”

Zhou Qianlin turned her face away, striking him from existence.

Lan Jue snorted bitterly. “Bite the hand that feeds… this girl

can’t recognize good intentions!”

Zhou Qianlin’s head snapped back to him. In one fluid movement she grabbed his arm, pulled it out, and viciously bit him.

Lan Jue didn’t move or attempt to evade. He didn’t employ any methods to lessen the pain. He just took it. His expression even bore a sort of softness.

Qianlin veritably gnawed at him, but when she noticed he wasn’t reacting she let go. She lifted her head and glared at him.

Her hard eyes met his gentle gaze, and the two simply looked at each other. Her look softened and then, soundlessly, she pressed herself in to his arms.

Her silken tresses had come loose, their fragrance filling his nostrils. The scent was burned on his heart. His raised his arms, as though to wrap them around her, but after a few moments frozen in the air he let them drop. Like he’d lost his nerve.

He took a deep breath, then pulled her to arm’s length. “It’s

late, I should go. You should sleep soon. I’ll bring the pearl back once I’ve fixed it up.” Without waiting for her response, he fractured in to a thousand bolts of electricity and vanished in to the wall socket.

Qianlin swayed slightly on her feet, without his weight to support her. It had startled her. She thought back to it, that brief moment… clearly she’d felt there was some impenetrable barrier between them.

Lan Jue made his exit from the villa and Mount Tian as quickly as he was able. He wasted no time returning to Skyfire Avenue.

When he got back, he didn’t immediately go to sleep. He pulled out some tools, some precious metals, and set about fiddling about in his apartments.

ζ

Under the intense heat, the silvery-white metal began to change. Under Lan Jue’s deft guidance, slowly it began to take shape.

His cutting tool flashed, slicing away the metal and leaving slivers along his desk. Eventually, a fair and elegant bracelet began to reveal itself.

ζ

Early morning.

Zhou Qianlin washed her face and brushed her teeth, preparing for the morning. Listlessly she picked at her breakfast, then slung on her backpack and silently made for school.

Did he come today? He just got back from Lir yesterday, he’s probably too tired. He probably won’t be coming.

There was public transportation that served Mount Tian. Certainly she could find something that would bring her to the city. Sometimes, when Lan Jue wasn’t around, she would use them to get to school with Tang Mi. Sometimes just herself.

Although she was the Eastern Alliance Chairman’s daughter, she was careful not to employ any privileges it might afford her.

She was like anyone else. A normal citizen.

Chapter 218: Quite The Adventure

Today, Zhou Qianlin didn’t bother to call Tang Mi. Perhaps there was still some expectation she’d run in to her bodyguard.

She followed the familiar road down mount Tian.

As she did, she noticed the bicycle parked to the side. A familiar figure stood beside it. Grey suit, green shirt, and a grey jacket today. Fresh and clean, with a lopsided grin on his handsome face.

Qianlin couldn’t help but mirror the smile the moment she saw him. She quickened her pace to catch up to him.

Lan Jue pushed his bicycle forward as he walked to meet her. Once they met, neither said a word. Qianlin climbed on to the back of the bike and they were on their way.

The antique bicycle carried them smoothly along the road towards the university campus. At once point Lan Jue’s left hand left the handle bars just long enough to hand something to Qianlin.

She took it in her hands, a white metal bracelet. It was delicate and beautiful, without any unnecessary flourishes. The pelagic pearl had been set along it’s spherical make.

Her lips curled up in an appreciative smile. She said nothing, did not refuse his gift, instead immediately slipping it on to her wrist. Her smile spread wider. Sher slipped her arms around his waist and scooched closer.

ζ

Tan Lingyun had been agitated for days! Indeed, the Savage Goddess was in a foul mood – worse than normal.

She’d become the focus of everyone’s attention since the games, but it was the last thing she wanted. Being constantly under scrutiny wasn’t a feeling she relished. What’s worse, she didn’t even deserve it.

Where is that guy hiding!

She felt like a thief. Every day she accepted the praise and attention of teacher and student alike. As she did, however, she

also furtively observed the male faculty for signs they might be the mysterious ‘Lei Feng.’

Unfortunately, she’d had no luck. She’d started with the mecha combat department, carefully watching every male teacher there for any indication. Contrary to her hopes, though, nothing revealed itself.

He’d vanished as mysteriously as he’d arrived, like a phantom.

Who? Who on earth is he?!

Tan Lingyun sat within the teacher’s lounge, lost in thought. Her fingers were buried in her hair, entangled – much like her heart felt.

For years she’d had a contentious relationship with nearly every man she’d encountered. In her eyes most were trash, hardly worth her attention.

But that day, for the first time in ages she’d met a man who made her feel like a weakling. The encounter had left quite the

impression on her.

She couldn’t even clearly pinpoint why this strange man suddenly occupied so much of her attention. The only thing she absolutely knew without a doubt, was that she needed to find him. She needed to!

“Professor Tan, isn’t your class starting soon?” The teacher seated at the desk next to her offered the gentle reminder.

Tan Lingyun’s head shot up, frightening the teacher who’d addressed her. Sher fixed her hair, muttered a curt thank you, then left for the classroom.

ζ

At the same time, Lan Jue was lazily seated before his own desk. His eyes were closed as he enjoyed the quiet moment.

He was a little tired after his return from Lir, but it was not because of his late-night jewelry-making. Instead, he was still recovering from the exertion of the sim tests he’d endured from the Bookworm.

He was still excited over the prospect of an upgraded DreamNet. Although he hadn’t had the opportunity to finish the entire process, the God-ranked battles alone were clear indication of it’s worth.

He wondered how the two old friends were getting on. He hopes there weren’t any problems.

ζ

Skyfire Avenue, Skyfire Library.

“Eh? It’s actually fine. Interesting, interesting!” The Bookworm hopped from foot to foot in excitement like a small child.

The Keeper stood before an expansive testing table. Upon it were arrayed various research equipment. In the center rested the Tear of Neptune. The piece of Tai Hua monster they’d recovered rested upon another apparatus.

At this moment a pale, gentle blue light was being emitted by the tear. It spread until it covered the monster core. The living

matter had begun to change as the Tear’s power flowed through it.

The turbid aura that surrounded it had faded, and its natural coloration had changed. Little by little it went from purple, to clear, to a deep jasper.

It was a quick change, that took only the night to complete. A dozen or so hours had seen the process through.

Neither the Keeper nor the Bookworm had slept, instead bringing the full force of their collective intellect to bear in researching the items. For researchers of their caliber, a single night of work was only the beginning.

It hadn’t taken the Keeper much effort to persuade the Bookworm to help. All he’d needed to do was explain where the subject had come from, and what he suspected it did. The novelty of it was enough to get the Bookworm’s full cooperation.

The Keeper nodded his white-maned head. “It looks good. The Jewelry Master is a clever boy. He thought of this on his own, without my input. The Tear of Neptune itself isn’t worth its

weight, but if it can join with this energy core and catapult it to s-ranked, then it’d be priceless.”

The Bookworm shot him a crooked eye. “So you’re hoping to see it release all that energy.”

“Horse-puckey,” the Keeper grumbled in irritation. “That would be an unimaginable massacre.

There’s no saying how many would lose their lives in order to create such an energy crystal.”

The Bookworm huffed. “At any rate, purifying it will require no small amount of time. We should address the situation between you and I. You, you old bastard, tricked me to get me back here. You tell me, how do we rectify this?”

The Keeper grunted. “What makes you so sure that I’m lying?”

“You said so,” The Bookworm accused.

The Keeper replied. “I only said that so the kid wouldn’t worry. Three months. That’s really all the time I have left. Everyone assumes this frail exterior is feigned. I’ve also spread that I am the oldest living man in the universe. However, as you know, I am the oldest among the Paragons. I asked you back because, if and when I do pass, I can do so with an easy heart.”

The Bookworm just stared at him for a time. “You’re really dying?”

“Shouldn’t you be pleased?” The Keeper said quietly.

“Bullshit I should be happy,” the Bookworm hissed. “Who will I have to curse? Who will be my arch enemy? How am I supposed to be happy?!” The Bookworm veritably roared at his old nemesis, but there was a sorrow gradually creeping in to angry eyes.

The Keeper gave a small laugh. “If it was a choice, who would choose death? Not you, not me.

My death will undoubtedly effect no only the Avenue, but all of the Eastern Alliance. Worse, the Clairvoyant is nearly as old as I, leaving only the Wine Master to protect our little slice of

neutrality now that we’re reaching the end of our stories. The West and North are also aware of this, if only faintly. And so, it’s a fair assumption that they are sending their agents here to feel us out, under the guise of a friendly visit. Not long ago I took a trip to the Pontiff’s Castle myself, both to impart justice on behalf of the Jewelry Master, but also to let them know I’m still breathing. But the Pontiff, the wrinkled bastard, must have noticed something. Now he’ll be coming to this exchange himself.”

The Bookworm slapped his hands on the table, the sound like an explosion in the small study. “Don’t talk to me about this garbage. I haven’t been a part of the Avenue for years!”

The Keeper responded through croaking laughter. “That’s where you’re wrong – you absolutely are part of the Avenue. You always have been. They never removed your name from their roster, so even in your self-imposed exile you’ve always been one of us. What’s more, even though I may indeed die soon, who’s to say what the future will hold?” A cunning smile spread across the old pedant’s face.

“You’re saying…” The Bookworm trailed off.

The Keeper indicated the energy core. “It’s not just me.

You’re getting on in years yourself. Hell, you probably only have a few more days over me. And with that being the case, we should spend our final hours immersed in the work we love. If we end up cheating death a while longer, we’ll be a couple crotchety old scoundrels denying everyone their wish for our demise. Heh! It’ll give those bastards one hell of a headache!”

The Bookworm’s eyes brightened. “Well, if you really do manage to stave off dying for a little while, I can give you a break. But the second you die, I’m whipping your corpse in to tiny bits.”

The Keeper laughed at his old friend’s threat. “I doubt it. What’s more, it looks like your old scars are finally healing. In the end, neither of us were wrong. We were correct, just in different ways. But don’t you want to see it for yourself? In all my years, I’ve found a way to do it. A bit of a bottleneck, but not impossible. See, your biggest failure is physical limitations, is it not? And if we could figure out this problem, what then? Heheheh!”

The Bookworm stared dumbly at the Keeper, and again the change in his thinking was revealed in his eyes. “You crazy bastard. You…”

The Keeper patted him upon the shoulder. “Perhaps I am. Hell, at our age crazy is the only thing that keeps us going. Like they say ‘You’re only given a spark of madness, don’t lose it.’ Trust your elder, I’ll take you on quite an adventure!”

**

Knock knock! The gentle noise roused Lan Jue from his slumber.

“Oh, Director Wu, what brings you here?” Lan Jue shot up in his chair, surprised by the appearance of his employer standing directly in front of his desk.

Chapter 219: The Old Fox’s Coercion

Wu Junyi nodded. “I knew from the outset you got hired through a recommendation from that respected old master. Knowing that, I didn’t want you here as an electives teacher. Frankly speaking, when the dean asked that we start you at the associate professor level, I balked. I was in complete disagreement. Now I saw that I was short-sighted. I’d like to apologize to you, Professor Lan.” As he spoke, he actually bowed low at the waist to his employee.

Lan Jue immediately lept to his feet, pulling Director Wu up.

Just then, a powerful expulsion of force radiated from Wu Junyi’s shoulders. It was intense, and far beyond what any normal man could sustain.

Lan Jue’s response was immediate, and subconscious. His Discipline flared to protect him, however there was nothing to protect himself from. The frightening aura had dissipated.

No! Lan Jue’s face scrunched in a frown the moment he realized he’d been tricked. It was too late.

Sparks of dancing electricity raced over Director Wu’s body. A yellow light covered him like a membrane to protect from the emulsion, and yet he still had to step back until he bumped against the wall.

Lan Jue straightened, and a bitter smile spread across his face. “What’s this about, Director?”

The Director chuckled, pleased at the success of his deception. “It’s my own fault we never realized our school has such a great talent! Now that we know, however, it’s time to make adjustments. Professor Lan, as Director of Teaching Affairs for the National Eastern University, it is my opinion you are no longer a fit for teaching electives. I ask you pick a more suitable post, for everyone’s benefit. Hm… lightning. That was your discipline, wasn’t it? Powerful!”

Lan Jue sighed. This cunning fox! He was smart enough to catch the holes in my story.

“Director Wu, as it stands you currently have two choices: First, I immediately resign and leave the school. Second, you act like nothing has changed. I continue on with my etiquette class and no one’s the wiser. Peaceful, quiet co-existence.”

A pale blue light flickered around the mercenary king, an icy- cold light in his eyes. The entire teaching office grew heavy with an oppressive energy that threatened to suffocate Director Wu.

Wu Junyi’s suspicions had begun when he’d witnessed him arrive with the Accountant. It was the young scientist’s reputation that was the biggest give-away. And so, hearing Lan Jue had returned today, he went first thing to go and confront him. The sudden release of his powers had been a test.

As expected, Lan Jue had had no choice but to react with his own powers. He saw everything clearly then, why else would he be smiling so profusely?

Facing the younger teacher, under the weight of that terrible aura, he stood strong and still as though nothing were amiss. He let the Jewelry Master’s power wash over him like a tide, and did not resist.

“Fine.” Such was the Director’s response, much to Lan Jue’s surprise.

Of course Lan Jue didn’t really want to leave. He’d promised Zhou Qianlin he’d protect her in several years of service, and

there was still so much left to his ‘sentence.’ What’s more, he was truly enjoying this relatively relaxed lifestyle. He was becoming used to it. Under these conditions, how could he want to give all of this up?

Wu Junyi’s face bore a small smile. “With your capabilities, Professor Lan, refusing a post of your choosing is a monumental waste of your talent. However, logic dictates that there must be a reason for your presence. A man of your status, here on a mission, certainly will not leave utill that mission is complete. If you’re willing to walk away from your duties, then I have nothing more to say.”

Lan Jue fixed Wu Junyi with those electric blue eyes. He stood tall and proud, a king in his kingdom – and he was, for as teaching director everything here was under his purview. But if he was a king, he was a rascally one!

“Director… being too smart is traditionally very bad for a person’s health,” Lan Jue threatened.

Wu Junyi would not be cowed, and when he addressed Lan Jue he did so with a righteous countenance. “My death means nothing if it’s for the development and future of our University.”

Lan Jue’s face went stiff. He was starting to realize that Director Wu’s greatest strength didn’t come from his Discipline, but instead from his scheming brain and insufferable pride!

“Is that really what you want?” Lan Jue asked helplessly.

Wu Junyi responded with a soft laugh. “Of course not! I’m here as a Director, re-evaluating an employee. It’s criminal to cover up a person’s talent, don’t you agree? Ah yes, and unless I’m mistaken the pilot of that blue mecha on Lir was you. Indeed, you are the hero of Lir – a hero for all of humanity. I’m sure there would be no end of media attention as they tried to uncover your plethora of courageous deeds. As your colleague, I feel it’s my responsibility to help you disseminate this information. I also deeply feel it would be in both of our best interests that we work from the same office.”

Lan Jue released a frustrated sigh. He wanted to allow his Discipline to explode like a volcano, but he fought to control it. Growling through gritted teeth, he addressed the cunning older man. “Conduct yourself with some kindness and integrity, Director!”

Wu Junyi chortled, a sinister smile plastered on his face. “I have always treated my companions with integrity! And now

that you’ve shown your hand, I think it’s fair to assume Professor Tan’s miraculous upset during the educational exchange also bears your fingerprints. Tang Xiao has also been cagey about his whereabouts, so I took a look at the school’s security footage. He seems to be coming here to the electives building an awful lot lately. You are an instructor – we, are all instructors here. For the benefit of the next generation, for the future of our university, Professor Lan, I’d like to officially invite you to advance to an official post!” Wu Junyi’s voice had slowly grown more powerful and imperatorial as he spoke, until his majestic announcement rang with power and sincerity.

To truly understand the gravity of this proposal, you have to understand how government positions work in China. Working in a university is considered a solid government job, wherein you can almost never get fired. Tenure isn’t required, it’s just a life-long post unless you do something exceptionally crappy like murder someone. Even then it can be swept under the rug. Now these positions are, ninety-nine percent of the time, actually legally purchased. You spend several hundred thousand yuan and you can buy your way in to an eternal, cushy gig. They’re very rarely given on merit of ability, so for Wu Junyi to offer this to Lan Jue is veritably unheard of, and is a significant display of his respect for him.

Lan Jue found his situation both hilarious and aggravating. This normally upright and righteous man, Director of the

Teaching Department, now seemed nothing short of a miracle worker! With nothing but the faintest hints of subversion, he was able to uncover nearly all of Lan Jue’s lies.

“I ask you give me some time,” Lan Jue said in resignation.

Wu Junyi nodded without a hint of hesitation. “Of course, how long do you think you’ll need? I trust an hour is sufficient?”

“You’re pushing it,” Lan Jue hissed.

Wu Junyi raised his hands in capitulation. “Come now, contain yourself. I’m kidding. Three days. Professor you must understand, I haven’t the slightest idea why you’re here, or how long you’ll remain. Radical action was the only option left to me, to ensure you help our university as much as you can for the time you’re with us. I’m sure you can understand where I’m coming from.”

Lan Jue waved his hand in irritation. “Fine. Three days. You’ll have your answer by then.” With that, he returned to his seat.

Wu Junyi’s face bore a smirk dripping with guile and self- satisfaction. He turned on his heel and left.

However, he was stopped in his victory march by a pudgy face coming around a corner. Xu Renjian approached, and in a low voice asked, “How’d it go?”

Wu Junyi give him a big thumbs-up. “You’re a damned genius, dean. A damned genius! Hehe. He’s got nowhere to go. And he verified all of your suspicions. That was him on Lir, and he was behind our victory in the games. I had my own suspicious about how Professor Tan could suddenly become so proficient.”

The pudgy man’s face wobbled as he nodded. “Keep all of this in the strictest confidence, not a word to anyone. He he he… Now that we’re taking full advantage of this young man, after the grandmaster sent him to us, I almost feel bad.”

ζ

“Ah-choo!” Once Lan Jue had settled onto his chair, a sudden overpowering sneeze overcame him.

This is equivalent to the Western old-wives tale that your ears burn when someone’s talking about you. In China they said you sneeze when someone’s talking behind your back.

Director Wu is really too cunning! But no, that can’t be right. It couldn’t just have been him. Even as Director he couldn’t extend such a deal without the approval of higher-ups. There must be someone else pulling the strings.

The Dean! Two old foxes sussing me out. No wonder!

Lan Jue knew there was nothing for it. Now that it had progressed to this point it would be enormously difficult to wriggle his way out of it unless he asked the Keeper himself to intervene. But even that wouldn’t work! What Director Wu had said was true; their cause was righteous, the development of the next generation, and improving the strength of their mecha department. How could he refuse?

Did that mean he hadn’t any choice? Was he going to be forced to move to mecha combat?

Lan Jue was painted in to a corner. All he’d wanted was a quiet, peaceful life! If he accepted the post he’d absolutely have

to put his whole heart and soul in to it. He’d certainly become the center of everyone’s attention. There weren’t any guarantees that his history as Zeus wouldn’t eventually be revealed. He had no shortage of enemies, not to mention his flagrant kidnapping of the Eastern Chairman’s daughter. During her wedding! If that were to happen, his only option would be to hole up in the Avenue for protection.

Was this truly the destruction of the peaceful existence he’d worked so hard for?

With no classes scheduled for the day, and his mood soured, Lan Jue prepared to leave for the Avenue. He had to think about things, carefully find his way.

He pondered the issue as he left the building, out onto the campus grounds.

What could he do? What was the right play? How could he protect both his identity and his hope for an easy life? He needed time to really examine the problem.

A cold voice intruded upon his thoughts as he wandered the streets. “If you dare run in to me, you’ll be writing your own

death warrant.”

Lan Jue’s head shot up, and who should he see directly before him but the Savage Goddess herself, Tan Lingyun.

Lan Jue was in no mood to deal with her or her irrational anger. “Are you incapable of going around?!”

“Go around?” Her finely sculpted brows shot up. She, too, was in a sour mood after being unable to locate ‘Lei Feng.’

Lan Jue decided it wasn’t worth it, and stepped to the side. “Go on then, move along.” It was, after all, the gentlemanly thing to do.

Tan Ling huffed, and stormed off. As ever, she glared at him scornfully as she passed.

Lan Jue’s eyes lit up as he watched her leave, as though something had crossed his mind. His right hand curled in to a fist and beat against his chest. “Got it!”

Chapter 220: Mysterious Teacher

He quickly tapped Wu Junyi’s number in to his communicator.

“Director Wu!”

“Hello Professor Lan. Have we come to a decision so soon?” Wu Junyi, on the other end, was nervous after receiving the call. From his earlier trickery he discovered that Professor Lan was at least a ninth-level Talent. It was not a fact he could afford to disregard.

Lan Jue answered. “I do have an answer for you. I can teach your mecha combat class, but I have a few conditions of my own we need to discuss.”

“Go on,” the Director coaxed.

“First, you must swear to keep my identity a secret,” Lan Jue began. “You can’t tell a soul. Second, I wish to keep  my etiquette class without any changes. In addition I’ll wear a mask when I teach to protect myself, and you will ensure that no one
– no teacher, organization or student – find out who I am. Tell

them I’m some visiting professor. In this way we can both work to limit the chance of exposure, preventing it from affecting my life.”

“Not a problem!” Wu Junyi didn’t hesitate in the slightest, accepting Lan Jue’s demands on the spot. All he and the Dean were interested in was that he worked for them. Who he pretended to be in the process didn’t matter to them at all.

Lan Jue went on. “So it is, then. Let me know once the classes have been arranged. Remember, not a word of this matter to anyone. I must warn you that, if my identity should become known… well, the consequences would be dire.”

Wu Junyi did not take the statement lightly. “You can relax, Professor. I give you my word.”

With that, Lan Jue severed the connection. He found his bicycle and returned to Skyfire Avenue without any further delay. The matter was what it was, he thought, but at least now he could hold his head up. Still, he thought, he better speak to the Keeper – f he could avoid this at all, it would be better. Truth be told, he was also curious how the old man was getting on with his rival. He was a little afraid of the trouble they could get up to.

ζ

Immediately Lan Jue made for the Library, upon arriving at the Avenue. However, he didn’t walk right in. Instead he waited outside for a moment to see if there were any waves of power coming from the building.

If something felt amiss, he still had time to run.

The Library was quiet, though, not a sound to be heard. He secretly breathed a sigh of relief. He pushed the door open and entered.

He climbed the stairs, careful to be as silent as possible, when suddenly a craggy voice filled the hall. “Why are you skulking around? Hurry up and get in here.”

“Oh.” Lan Jue hurried his pace.

He found his way to the Keeper’s office, and pushed open the door. What he saw, stopped him in his tracks.

The two old men were seated pleasantly, facing each other across a tale, sharing a plate of dried fruit.

Standing behind their respective masters, were Su He and the Accountant. Both were holding bottles. The Accountant was currently refilling the Keeper’s glass.

Su He turned his face to peer at Lan Jue as he entered. The Jewelry Master’s former classmate shot him a smile.

“It looks like you two are getting along,” Lan Jue began.

The Bookworm huffed. “We’ll be sure to take your marvelous deduction under account. I’ve already spoken with the old bastard, and from now on you’re gunna be my guinea pig. Once I get that sim pod fixed and running again, you’ll continue with our experiments. No excuses!”

Lan Jue chortled. “I won’t. I’m eager to continue.”

The Keeper’s face lit up at Lan Jue’s answer. “I guess the results have been good so far!”

Lan Jue nodded his head. “Excellent, in fact. There are some small detail adjustments that need to be made, and perhaps the difficulty could be increased, but overall it’s something really incredible. God-ranked pilots can finally find a place in DreamNet to further hone their abilities. It’d be even better if there was more variety in combat modes.”

“In the future the Bookworm and I will be conducting the experiments together,” the Keeper revealed. “We’d like to have a working prototype ready as soon as possible. Over the course of these trials we hope to improve everything about it, and we’ll need your help to do that.”

Lan Jue looked delighted. “Very well. I only ask you give me two of them when the bugs have been ironed out.”

The Bookworm shot him an angry look. “What’s the meaning of this? When we’ve got this squared away we’ll have the most advanced simulator in the universe. The price will be astronomical! You’re dreaming if you think I’ll just give you two.”

Lan Jue laughed. “Fine, one then. After all I’m the one in there expending my time and energy, am I right?”

“Hmph!” The Bookworm glowered dubiously. “I’ll  think about it!”

Lan Jue could only smile helplessly. He knew this old man’s bark was worse than his bite. He was going to be using this thing anyway, once it was complete, and it wasn’t like they were going to be the pilots to test it.

Su He interjected. “Hey classmate, the Master’s already made up his mind. I’ve spoken with him, and later I’ll be leaving for my vacation. When I return I’ll come for the Master, and to express my gratitude.”

“I hope to hear news of your breakthrough soon, Mentor,” Lan Jue said. “Sometimes it’s important just to see the beauty the universe has in store for us.”

Su He beamed. “More and more I feel the same. Hopefully one day I’ll have enough ability to face you in the ring and hold my own. If I win, it’ll mean I’ve reached my ultimate goal.”

“Same here!” the Accountant blurted out.

The Keeper’s lips curled in to the ghost of a grin. “Such indelible self-understanding. Stop making us laugh.”

The Accountant glowered, hurt evident in his features. “What’s so funny about that?”

The Bookworm was the one to answer, his quavering voice soft. “For some things, talent is the biggest determining factor. Your Talents don’t lie in that area, so why would you waste your effort? With the skills your grandfather has taught you, how can mecha combat compare? Planning to steer a Bastion ship, are we?”

The Accountant’s eyes lit up. “I’ll be able to drive a Bastion ship?!”

The Bookworm looked embarrassed simply to be having the conversation. “Moron, it was an analogy. Do you think a single person can pilot a Bastion? Do you have any common sense? What has your grandfather been teaching you?”

The Keeper glared across the table. “Take it easy on my nephew! What’s wrong with the way I’ve taught him?”

The Keeper’s objection didn’t appear to dissuade the Bookworm in the least. “Your teaching’s are a waste, especially on this thick-skulled twit. Or maybe the concoction I gave him made him dim.”

The Keeper slammed a fist against the desk between them! Their respective glasses danced and threatened to topple off of the table. “You dare to continue down-talking my family?!”

The Bookworm slapped the table just as hard, and shot to his feet. “What are you going to do about it? Dimwit?”

Lan Jue waved to Su He, and made his escape before he could be dragged in to the argument.

These two old madmen! It was a phrase that described the both of them admirably. A love-hate- relationship if ever he’d seen one.

Lan Jue employed the nearby elevator once exited the Library, making his way to the Underground. Chu Cheng and Hua Li had spent the last few days in the warehouse there training. He went to check on their progress.

There were very many in the Underground today. Most of the stores on either end of the long street looked deserted.

Lan Jue made his way towards his own shop. On the way, however, his trek was interrupted by a figure coming his way. It was none other than the man the Beautician had called ruthless and sinister – the Barber.

Upon seeing Lan Jue the Barber stopped in his tracks, and stuffed his hands in his pockets. “It’s been a while, Jewelry Master! You’re quite the difficult fellow to keep track of, you know. In fact, the Council put me in charge of the reception for the big meeting coming up. Even when you’re here you aren’t attending meetings, so there’s no need for you to trouble yourself with these matters.”

Lan Jue couldn’t help but grin. “Didn’t they push the whole thing back a month?”

“And yet there’s still a mountain of work to do,” the Barber responded. “How we receive our guests reflects the honor of Skyfire Avenue, as I’m sure you’re aware.”

Lan Jue still seemed unconvinced. “Of course I do, that’s why

I’ve been focusing on my cultivation! So you’ll be leading the welcome party when the two powers come knocking?”

The Barber’s face went stiff. The battle the two had those long months before had left a deep impression on him. He had been working on his own abilities of late, but he also knew his place before Lan Jue.

Lan Jue only smiled. “If there’s nothing else I guess I’ll be heading on. If you need something call me on the communicator.” With that he walked on towards the jewelry shop, leaving the Barber in silence.

It was nonsense, saying he had no need to participate. Nobody had said anything to him! Besides, the Wine Master would have told him if there were any preparations to be made. This was all the Barber looking for trouble!

Ding ding! The jewelry shop bell tinkled pleasantly as Lan Jue pushed his way in.

Mika was behind the counter, crouched down and looking at something. She lifted her head at the sound, and smiled as she saw her employer enter. “There’s our diligent boss. Just got

back tomorrow and already here you are in the store. I heard you spent no small amount of money this trip! Where’s the stuff?” He reached out her hand expectantly.

“Most of it should be arriving soon,” he assured her.

Mika snorted. “I’m talking about the Tear of Neptune and the Pelagic Pearl! Those two are the pricey ones.”

Lan Jue could only shrug. “I gave the Tear to the Keeper for his experiments. To pay off my debt to the Avenue. I gave the pearl to someone else. The cost of those will be deducted from my share of any profits. That should be enough, right?”

Once again Mika huffed, clearly irritated by the circumstance. “You run the place and yet have no head for finances, boss. We have the money, but haven’t you ever heard of saving? You spend the money, so it’s done. And fine, you gave them away. Now buy something for our own store!”

Lan Jue laughed sheepishly. “Didn’t I put you in charge of stock?”

“Business hasn’t been so good,” Mika replied.

“Not just us?” Lan Jue asked. “I did notice there were only a few people out today, on my way here. What’s going on?”

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