Skyfire Avenue Chapter 231-240

Chapter 231: What Moral Integrity?

The two newly arrived challengers had chosen their timing well. Lan Jue was still recovering from his strike. He had no chance to retreat, especially with Tan Lingyun hot on his heels.

“Not bad!” The chilly praise crackled from Nooblet’s suit.

Tang Mi and Geng Yang sat in their respective suits. Since combat had started, the two carefully watched the drillmaster for an opening. They’d been patiently waiting for just this moment.

Nooblet planted its metallic foot and, with incredible speed, spun entirely around. Both Tang Mi and Geng Yang felt their weapons connect with their target, however they suddenly felt themselves being yanked off balance. Before they knew it, they were both stumbling in to Tang Lingyun’s path.

Tang Lingyun saw what was coming and pulled back the assault. She recognized his game, and would not serve as his inadvertent helper any longer.

However, the Savage Goddess was surprised to find that she

was still tearing forward. A thrusting force was keeping her mobile. She could only watch as her deadly spikes rammed right in to Geng Yang and Tang Mi.

Her attacks were especially dangerous due to the fact that they were specialized Sovereign-class weapons, that bypassed most defensive shields. The ear-splitting sound of fracturing metal followed Tan Lingyun’s spikes ending her two students.

Naturally her sudden forward momentum wasn’t out of the blue. Somehow, Nooblet had distance himself from Tang Mi and Geng Yang, with enough time to get around Tan Lingyun and seal their fate.

The spikes at her back spat beams of powerful green light, attempting to give herself some room. By then, however, Nooblet was already gone.

This brought the friendly-fire count up to three, with Tan Lingyun laying waste to her own team from Nooblet’s manipulations. Worse, they were three Emperor-class pilots. Tang Xiao, Tang Mi and Geng Yang had been her strongest pilots.

Tan Lingyun’s heart was cold and anxious. She certainly had a temper, as everyone was aware, but she was usually able to keep her head on straight in a fight. She was able to keep it together enough to understand her folly, and the defeat of her three best students shook something loose in her head.

I’ve got to be the one dictating the pace here, she thought. He doesn’t have the attack power to defeat us by himself. Twice he’s redirected my attacks against my own soldiers. The fact both enraged and surprised her. It was just a damn sabermech! And yet it was not only rendering her Sovereign-class suit ineffectual, but actually turning her strengths  against  her.  It was as astounding as it was maddening.

“Spread out. The rest of you focus on the flea!” Once again she shouted her orders, her voice hard and commanding. Thirty- one of their number had already been defeated, the rest did as instructed.

Was it really so easy to defeat all of these students? Tang Lingyun had recognized the problem, but she was sure Nooblet wasn’t going to give her another chance.

The carnage continued, with ten more students defeated in as much time as it took to look at them. The rest were terrified.

But where they couldn’t even fathom the destruction they suffered, Tan Lingyun saw it all clear. To them, he really was a demon. As a result of their fear and confusion, Tan Lingyun’s orders were followed, but instead of an organized diffusion the students ran headlong in every direction. No formation was maintained. The students were routed.

Nooblet was gone before Tan Lingyun could pin him down. He raced towards the closest group of students. However, he made no move to attack them when he arrived. Instead, he ran with them at their side to avoid Tan Lingyun.

Now that the Savage Goddess knew his limitations, and how he’d planned to overcome them, she was significantly more careful. And yet, despite her  best efforts many of the students fell under Tan Lingyun’s onslaught, caught between her and Nooblet as they attempted to flee.

Once they’d fully employed their shields, none of the mechas were capable of outrunning the sabermech or the Savage Goddess. Their squealing retreat was punctuated now and again with thunderous explosions.

If there was anything Tan Lingyun could take solace in, it was that Nooblet wasn’t just using her to defeat the others.

Likewise, he positioned his enemy in the line of fire of their long-distance comrades. Several of them achieved locks on Nooblet’s position, but firing invariably  meant  assassinating one of their own. The drillmaster would shed their lock, timed perfectly so that their attacks would hit other students he was passing.

With so many enemies, Nooblet’s situation awareness and battlefield control was nothing short of spectacular. More importantly, however, was the fact that his tactics hardly drained any of his energy reserves.

Little Flea only added to the nightmare, wreaking havoc along the outer edges of the arena. Though he wasn’t as adept as Lan Jue, Wang Hongyuan was more than a match for the many riflemen around him. Their focus was on speed and power, not so much defense. So it was that the two drillmaster danced among the enemies, Nooblet within and Little Flea without, knowing precisely what the other needed to come out victorious.

More and more students fell with each passing second. What had begun as a crowded area was slowly but surely growing deserted.

From outside of the simulation, the defeated students could still watch as the combat unfolded. The longer they stared, the greater their amazement grew. Before today, none would have imagined a basic model mecha could be piloted with such mastery.

On the surface, in didn’t appear as though Nooblet was doing anything special. Still, somehow Tan Lingyun was unable to catch up with him. Success explosions continued, as more and more students left the fight. Nooblet was never among them.

Only ten fighters remained against the two instructors. Their despair was thick and palpable. However, Tan Lingyun could see she was getting closer. Several times Nooblet escaped her strikes by just the skin of his teeth.

The Savage Goddess suffered to contain her flood of emotions. From pleasant surprise, to shock, then anger, amazement and finally… calm.

She took a deep breath, allowing a sense of peace to wash over her. She knew from the beginning she’d been forced to follow Nooblet’s lead. By this point, there wasn’t much she could do to reverse the situation but try her best. Her final hope was that the limitations of the sabermechs energy reserves would work

in their favor. She didn’t need to worry over her own, so if she could just sustain this pace she could come out on top.

She was keeping an eye on Little Flea as well. The teaching assistant’s own powers were considerable, but certainly not on the level of Nooblet. With Nooblet gone, she would have nothing to fear from him.

Boom! The final close-combat fighter erupted in to a shower of steel and fire, once more at Tan Lingyun’s hand.

Finally, only two remained in the center of the arena; Nooblet, and Tan Lingyun. Four riflemen were still in the fight, racing along the outskirts in a vicious dogfight with Little Flea. For the present they appeared to be in a stalemate.

“Halt!” Nooblet’s voice rang through the simulation. It was cold and hard, but not emotional.

“Halt? Do you yield?” Tan Lingyun responded.

“I do. I’m out of energy. What’s more, you were never my target.” Nooblet said.

Tan Lingyun’s peridot mecha rumbled to a stop. She huffed derisively. “Energy reserves are a part of combat. You lost, that’s that.”

Nooblet stopped as well. His response was tepid, even. “I said fifty against two in the beginning. You weren’t part of the equation.”

“Without me here you’d-!” Tan Lingyun roared, but she stopped upon realized what she’d said. Indeed, her own kill count was significantly higher than his. All friendly fire! After being so blatantly led by the nose, how could she act so indignant?

A profound sense of disappointment washed over her.

Just then, Nooblet once again was on the move. They were close to start, but once the battle finished their suits were even closer.

Upon hearing that he’d given up, Tan Lingyun had retracted the spikes along her mecha. She’s completely dropped her guard.

Who would have anticipated that Nooblet would continue, after having ceded defeat?

Its thrusters launched Nooblet forward. The spear in its hands punctured her shields and, with a groan of metal, the spear lifting her up and tossed her in to the air.

The spear in Nooblet’s hands fractured, becoming a countless barrage of light beams. They crashed against Tan Lingyun’s green mecha like raindrops against a tin roof. Dozens upon dozens of strikes enveloped Tan Lingyun, screeching terribly as they met steel. The students, both in and out of the simulation, watched in bewilderment.

The spectators saw it most clearly. The suit’s spear had broken in to a countless number of mirror images that struck at Professor Tan from all angles. Was this a result of intensely high hand speeds?

Tan Lingyun was similarly shocked. How could a God-ranked pilot have such repugnant moral integrity? What sort of despicable person would wave the white flag, only to continue attacking? It left no one any chance to strike back. The strike against the chest plate of her mecha had caused the entire suit to shake violently, setting her off-balance and unable to control

her suit.

The many spears congealed back in to one, with Lan Jue striking the final blows.

Nooblet’s spear was battered and dull. Despite that, it had still ended the Savage Goddess, and remained lodged in the mecha’s chest plate.

Nooblet heaved the spear high, with Tan Lingyun’s ruined suit dangling from the tip. Glinting beneath the harsh rays of the simulated sun, the green mecha exploded in to a shower of twisted metal. The blast filled the sky like a firecracker.

The remaining riflemen were stupefied, which left Little Flea with no resistance. Shocked, and with no will to continue, they were handled with little fuss.

The Prince of Devil’s harsh, taunting voice reverberated within every pod. “This was a classic example of what not to do. Until you’re sure of your enemy’s defeat, never drop your guard. Otherwise, you’ll end up like her. Mecha combat is life and death… survival or extinction. Moral integrity has no place here.”

Chapter 232: You’re Lei Feng?

“There is no place for moral integrity.” The simple phrase was like a slap to the face. Tan Lingyun silently ground her teeth, alone in the darkness of her sim pod.

Bastard! Using me as an example of what not to do! He’s the one with that low-down attack, and he accuses me of not being vigilant?! I won’t let this slide. I can’t let this slide!

The distinctly one-sided battle had come to an end. Two on fifty-one. Just two basic mechas, against the best the school had. Nooblet and Little Flea had relied on nothing but their own skill and ability to show the NEU’s most outstanding students what really power was.

“Everyone, out of the pods!” The barking command rang through everyone’s communicator.

One by one the various pods set around the warehouse opened, and relinquished the sweat-soaked students within. Their shell-shocked faces hardly registered the real world they were faced with.

Not once since becoming pilots, had any of them suffered such an agonizing, frustrating defeat. They stumbled around in a daze, trying to puzzle out what had happened.

What they did know, at least now, was that the most basic, fundamental mecha suit available had the ability to completely route a group of Emperor-class pilots, and a Sovereign.

Until a few minutes ago this was so far outside the realm of imagination, that they’d have laughed if someone would have told them otherwise. Some even swayed unsteadily on their feet as they left the pods, unable to process what had happened. The rest stared blankly in the far-away stare reserved for disaster survivors. Their fundamental idea of themselves and their role as a pilot had been fundamentally altered.

“Gather!” The shout shook them from their stupor. Almost unconsciously they did as commanded, gathering in to columns.

Zhou Qianlin stood near the back, unconsciously chewing on her lower lip. There was a distinct bitterness written across her pretty face. She had been piloting a rifle mech – in fact, the only rifle mech Nooblet had destroyed himself.

At the onset of the fight, she’d used the Soulcaller gem to alert Lan Jue as to her location. She’d warned him of it so he would leave her be. What she got was Nooblet’s sword in her energy reserve tank.

This guy had no idea how to treat a lady, she thought. She would ignore him completely for the rest of the day! Her thoughts seethed as she planned her passive-aggressive punishment. Still, there was just the slightest hint of a smile in the corner of her eyes.

“You bastard!” Just then, one of the pods opened. It immediately released a burst of green energy, and a flash of light charged directly towards the golden-masked drillmaster.

The moment the cry resounded, it was as though all joy was drained from the world. An imposing, strangling area blanketed everything, pouring in waves from Lan Jue.

He didn’t even look at her. Instead he lifted his right hand, and a small orb of dark blue light fired off to intercept the green beam. Its speed was startling, and the two dazzling light collected in the space of a breath.

Grrzzt! The students in formation watched wide-eyed as the green beam hung in the air, and turned a shimmering blue. Chaotic arcs of electricity lanced out in every direction as a silhouette fell to earth.

There was a flash of blue light, and the Prince of Devils was gone. He reappeared before the Savage Goddess, their great and terrible hero, with his hands on her shoulders.

Tan Lingyun’s body was numb, from head to toe. She wanted desperately to tear this man apart, but her frozen nerves refused. Snakes of electricity still criss-crossed over her, causing her to shake violently with each pass. Every single hair on her head stood erect, like a massive afro!

Lan Jue drew his hands back from the prostrate Tan Lingyun. His eyes swept back towards the deathly silent students. “If there’s anyone else who has a problem, they’re welcome to bring it to my attention.”

The warehouse was quieter than a room full of fifty-three people had any right to be.

Their Savage Goddess was an eighth-ranked Talent. In as

much effort as swatting a fly, this Demon had completely incapacitated her. Who would dare contradict this man after seeing that?

Tang Xiao looked upon his teacher with a strange expression.
He secretly jabbed his fat thumb upward in encouragement.

So good. So good! Lan Jue’s heart was so full of righteous joy it threatened to choke the heavens. His desire for vengeance had been percolating, building for months now. She had been such a bully he could hardly stand to look at her. Hah, and here she was like a chia pet!

The word they use is 爽, and unfortunately there isn’t a perfect way to translate it. It’s basically a supreme sense of happiness and contentment. The person who taught me the word described it thusly: that feeling you have after taking a massive crap.

Wang Hongyuan’s expression was monstrously appeased, though it was hidden by his silver mask. His own heart was full to bursting with a dark sense of satisfaction. It was all the greater considering the fact he couldn’t do this himself.

Lan Jue slowly walked back to the gathered students. “Are you aware of why you lost so quickly?”

“Drillmaster, I have no idea!” Tang Xiao called out, loud and in true military fashion. He stepped forward to separate himself from the others.

Lan Jue slowly nodded his head. He could count on his disciple to be cooperative.

“Fall in,” he said quietly, to which Tang Xiao replied by getting back in to formation.

Lan Jue went on. “Fifty-one against two, and you still lost. You lack steel. From our short skirmish I can already see that your fundamentals are shot. So, we’ll be going back to the basic saber and rifle mechas. We’re going back to the very beginning, to temper yourselves in the ways of proper mecha combat.”

“Scientific research has discovered that everyone benefits from a low-level electrical shock. It helps assist in mitosis – cell division. The stimulation strengthens resistance and furthers one’s Discipline. Today, then, we’ve got one last thing to do before I dismiss class…”

Lan Jue stretched out his hand, and gentle pressed downward. A lance of blue light tore across the sky, whereupon ten bolts of lightning – thick as a man’s wrist – came crashing to earth. Right on top of all the students.

The students no longer need lament the cruel treatment of their Savage Goddess. They got to experience the sensation first- hand. Now there were fifty students and a teacher laying numb and infuriated on the floor. The arena looked like a war zone. However, as promised, the catalyst had caused each of their Disciplines to react in order to protect them from the strike.

Zhou Qianlin had herself been struck by the residuals of a bolt. Like the others she felt herself go numb, though it was only just slightly. She had sustained the strike much better than her peers.

“Right, I think we’ll end here for today. Tomorrow, same time.” His voice was quiet, and with that said he languidly strolled towards the arena exit.

“Wait right there!” Lan Jue hadn’t employed a strike intended to damage any of them, and the Savage Goddess was an eight- ranked Talent after all. As a result, she had already begun to recover from the embarrassing incapacitation. When Lan Jue

stopped to look, he saw her running towards him.

Lan Jue stopped, and watched her approach. When she drew near he spoke. “Today, in front of the entire class, you assaulted an instructor. I’ll let it slide this time, but if it happens against don’t blame me for the result.”

With her afro bobbing comically, Tan Lingyun finally caught up to the masked drillmaster. Her eyes were bright as she looked at him. “Are you Lei Feng?”

Lan Jue snorted, and turned away.

“Are you Lei Feng?!” She stumbled after him.

All she saw was a flash, then once more she was staring at the sky as her body shook from countless volts of electricity.

“Who I am doesn’t matter. If you’re interested in participating with the other students, then be here the same time tomorrow with all the others. You can be my teaching assistant.” As he spoke there was a flash in the drillmaster’s hand. A silver mask appeared, which he placed upon Tan

Lingyun’s quivering body.

He did it again! Oh no… no I have to pee… this BASTARD!

Lan Jue walked on, unaware of Tan Lingyun’s unfortunate reaction.

Wang Hongyuan walked a few steps behind, silent as a mouse. He didn’t want to be the Prince of Devils’ next victim. He knew Lan Jue was strong, but he didn’t know how strong.

Their time in DreamNet hadn’t only surprised the students, but Wang Hongyuan as well. From outside it looked as though Nooblet and Little Flea had worked in tandem, but Wang Hongyuan knew that his own actions had been simple and self- serving. Nevermind anything else, had Tan Lingyun chosen to go after him first, he wouldn’t have been able to fend her off!

After a little while most of the students recovered. While there were still others fighting against their own bodies, the rest pulled themselves up to a seated position. Those with short hair themselves had a hairstyle to match Tan Lingyun’s.

“So this demon was Nooblet! Brother, you have to avenge me!” Tang Mi growled viciously through gritted teeth. The mortifying defeat by Brunois Assault she’d suffered from Nooblet was still a sore wound.

Tang Xiao fixed his sister with a serious stare. “Tang Mi, how would you say I treat you.”

The young girl blinked. “Very well!”

Her brother’s voice was full of sadness and indignation. “Then why are you so insistent on throwing me in to the depths of hell? I’ve told you, he’s my master! Did you not see how strong he is? Even Professor Tan can’t stand up to him, how the hell am I supposed to avenge you? You give up this crazy idea of revenge immediately.”

Tang Mi huffed. “What about it? Who’s more important, your master or your little sister? Maybe you can’t right now, but that doesn’t mean you can’t in the future! We’ll work hard, so that one day we’ll make him pay for this. I don’t know why, but you’re sure smitten with this guy. I should be worried about you!”

Tang Xiao glared at her. “You think too much. When do you think you’ll have another opportunity to meet such a talented pilot? And a powerful adept, no less – ninth-ranked! A god- ranked pilot, that can take on the Savage Goddess without a second thought. Hm?”

“How did the school manage to convince this monster to come teach, anyway. Acting young and inexperienced with a name like ‘Nooblet’. Shameless! How is what he did today called teaching? He beat us, and then shocked us. This is abuse!”

Tang Xiao’s tone grew comforting. “You’ll get used to it.” He knew from experience that their nightmare was just beginning. It was his teacher’s style. He shuddered to think what was in store for the next class.

ζ

Lan Jue and Wang Hongyuan quickly made their way to a private room Wu Junyi had prepared for them, so that they might change. Afterward they stepped back out in to the campus.

“So, what are your thoughts, Wang Hongyuan?”

Chapter 233: Private Instruction

“So what are your thoughts, Wang Hongyuan?” Lan Jue asked with a smile. His voice had reverted to a more congenial tone, almost lethargic.

Looking at him, Wang Hongyuna felt almost as though he were in a trance. He couldn’t even determine whether the person in front of him was even really a man.

This was the same person who, just moments before, was as cruel as the name-sake he’d given himself. Before the eyes of DreamNet and the NEU students, he treated them like slaves and prisoners. Yet here he was now, polite and smiling.

Wang Hongyuan’s expression was stiff. “Pretty good… just, was it true what you said about the lightning. That it would promote their Discipline?”

Lan Jue chuckled. “Of course! As long as it’s within a reasonable scope, and it’s bioelectric energy, then it will indeed boost their abilities. So that is to say, we can’t use the electricity we employ to, say, power our televisions, but an adept’s bioelectric current will have an effect. How much will vary from person to person, though. Why? Are you interested in giving it a

try?”

Wang Hongyuan grit his teeth. “If what you’re saying  is indeed true…”

Crack!

Before the dance instructor could even finish his thought, Lan Jue slapped a hand on his shoulder. There was an ominous crackling noise, then suddenly Wang Hongyuan’s body went stiff as a board. Arcs of electricity danced over him, filling the air with a charged buzzing noise. The man’s meticulously slicked-back hair now stood out in every direction.

Ahh, so nice! Lan Jue stretched his arms out in a display of contentment. He nodded his head to the violently twitching Wang Hongyuan, then left.

Darkness had begun to creep up, turning the sky purple. By dusk most of the classes had already finished for the day.

As he meandered through the campus walkways, he came across Tan Lingyun walking the opposite direction. Fury was

written plain as day on her pretty features. She really looked in a bad way. Her hair was tousled, and part of her face had been burned black. Her clothes were damaged as well, covered in tears and burn marks. She certainly looked like she’d suffered some inhuman treatment.

Lan Jue, recognizing the danger of the situation, immediately stepped to the side of the road to give her space. He was playing the role of etiquette teacher once again, so he had to avoid conflict.

Naturally Tan Lingyun saw him as well. Much to Lan Jue’s surprise, however, she didn’t sweep by, but instead stopped right in front of him.

“Hey! Have you seen someone come by here, with a golden mask? About as tall as you are. Maybe a little stronger.” Her tone was accusing and impolite.

Lan Jue rubbed his nose. Stronger than me, eh? She needs her eyes checked, I guess.

“Nope!” Lan Jue’s response was simple, to the point, and likewise not very amicable.

Tan Lingyun huffed at him. “If you do, find me right away.”

“Mmhm.” The etiquette teacher replied by nodding his head, simultaneously sizing her up as he did so. Despite her pitiful appearance, he found that there was a difference in her. Her rough edges had been somewhat smoothed, if only just slightly. In her complimenting flight-suit she was actually quite feminine. However, there still remained that wild, untamed energy about her.

“What are you doing.” Just as she was about to leave, she noticed the guy drawing his eyes over her. She hadn’t stopped long enough to see what she looked like, but she could imagine she wasn’t at her best. She narrowed her eyes dangerously at Lan Jue, desperately hoping he’d dare crack a joke.

“Nothing!” Lan Jue animatedly shook his head.

“Nothing?” That tell-tale hardness crept in to the Savage Goddess’ eyes. She was absolutely lousy with choice curses and violent intent. She took a threatening step forward, and grabbed the front of his shirt. “You think something’s funny, don’t you?”

He could only helplessly allow himself to be man-handled. “Professor Tan, please control yourself. Take it easy.”

“Take it easy, my ass!” She pivoted on her foot and, whipping Lan Jue over her shoulder, violently thrust him to the ground. She stomped over, growling like a wild animal.

Lan Jue lay on the ground, all twisted limbs and odd angles. Higher voltage next time, he thought. This woman! Why in the world was she always so violent? He had to remind himself, though, that while on the outside she was as monstrous as they came, she had a good heart. After all, she’d thrown him on the lawn instead of on the concrete.

He clambered back on to his feet and set about fixing him rumpled clothing. His musings were interrupted by Zhou Qianlin’s voice, ringing through his mind.

Zhou Qianlin: Don’t send me home today! I’ll be going with Tang Mi.

Lan Jue: You’re angry.

No I’m not!

Now that you’re a student, I have to treat you the same as everyone else.

I want to study piloting. Of course I’ll study hard.

Good, then I can teach you.

Then come by my place tonight. I have a simulator we can use.

So you really aren’t angry!

Yeah, I’m just upset that I’m so unskilled. You really are something else.

Naturally. Otherwise how could I be your bodyguard. Are you sure it’s alright if I go at night?

My parents are out on a trip. There’s no one home.

Are you trying to find out if I’m a bad boy?

Would you dare?


With that, their conversation came to an end. Lan Jue slapped his forehead in frustration. He muttered darkly to himself. “Am I too nice? Why is it everyone bullies me!”

Of course Zhou Qianlin being interested in learning to pilot a mecha was a good thing. If what Lan Qing told them was true, humanity would be facing a significant threat in the near future. Being able to protect ones-self would be an invaluable skill. There was also the matter of the unnatural speed with which her Discipline was improving. He promised himself to check her progress again soon.

By now Lan Jue had retrieved his bicycle, and was trundling along towards Skyfire Avenue. He ate a quick dinner with Chu Cheng and Hua Li, then furtively left without alerting anyone. To save time, this trip he chose to use his verti-car. In a few minutes he’d arrived at Mount Tian.

By now he was well familiar with the single road leading up the mountain. He made his way towards the chairman’s residence at the summit, but not before alerting Zhou Qianlin to his presence. He used his electric metamorphosis abilities to quietly enter the home.

Qianlin had already prepared everything, and though she’d experienced Lan Jue’s strange entry habits before, she was still surprised when his form appeared in a flash of light from a nearby socket.

“You’re here.” Her face was grown slightly red. Her thoughts turned to their conversation, where she’d inadvertently mentioned the absence of her parents. She mentally chided herself for the embarrassing slip. What sort of respectable girl spoke that way to a man!

Lan Jue kept a straight face, and when he spoke his tone was strict. “Refer to me as Drillmaster. Is this your learning attitude?”

He didn’t wear the mask, but in all other aspects he was once again the Prince of Devils from earlier.

Qianlin was surprised by the sudden change. She quickly recovered, though, and stuck her tongue out at him. She paid no mind to his blustering façade.

Lan Jue’s expression was hard and unfriendly. He’d wanted to frighten her!

“Pffft!” Seeing his irritated and surprised expression, Qianlin couldn’t help but snort a laugh. “Fine, Drillmaster Lan, hurry up and get this lesson under way. Do you want to go to the pods?”

Lan Jue fixed her with a fierce stare. “You think you’re good enough to use the pods, with the level you’re at? We start with the basics. Stretch out your hands, and let me see.”

You see this sometimes in the West, but it’s a common trope in the East, and used as – they believe – an acceptable metric to determine whether you have the ability to be effective in a job that uses your hands (mostly instruments, like the piano, guzheng or pipa, but also art like calligraphy). If your fingers aren’t perfect for it – long, thin, slender and nimble – they won’t even bother to teach you.

“Ok,” she replied, then stretched out her hands palms up.

Lan Jue looked over the appendages, deep in thought.
Uncanny, he thought. Even the palms look exactly like hers.

He grabbed one of her hands and pulled it up to eye level.

The blush in Qianlin’s cheeks darkened, but she didn’t struggle. She let him examine to his heart’s content.

His eyes carefully followed the lines of her hands, while at the same time he kneaded the flesh with his thumbs. Her hands were soft, and supple like there weren’t even any bones. Tender, and slightly cold, he couldn’t help but to warm her hands in his own.

With each passing moment Qianlin’s face was becoming more and more red. Her breath was coming a little quicker. His hands were not calloused, and like hers bore long slender fingers. However, where they different was in grace – his hands moved with an unconscious finesse. With her smaller hands in his, she felt warm, and safe. She felt her heartbeat quicken.

“Done yet?” She felt like she was having trouble controlling her own emotions, made evident by the challenging question.

“Hm?” Lan Jue blinked, as though coming back from some other reality. He released her hands with a nod, oblivious to anything out of the ordinary. “Alright. You got good hands for it. Your meridians are pliable and tough, good flexibility, all things necessary for a high CPS. But remember that hand speed isn’t everything when piloting a mecha, but the  inability  to reach a baseline speed means you’ll never be able to reach the higher levels of mastery. Your Discipline has yet to  fully emerge, but I can feel how quickly its improving. A tremendous pace, really. If this keeps up, you’ll be a second-rank Talent in no time. Have you had any feelings? Something to tell you your Talent has awakened? It feels like… there’s something else within you, all of a sudden. Or maybe that you are something else.”

Zhou Qianlin shook her head.

Lan Jue narrowed his eyes in thought and, pondering for a moment, went on. “Anyway, keep up with your cultivation exercises we discussed. At least it isn’t hurting. If in the process you feel discomfort anywhere in your body, let me know immediately. I’ll help make some adjustments.”

“Alright,” she answered, and nodded.

Lan Jue flicked his wrist, and where there had been nothing a moment before, there now appeared two beads in his palm that looked to be made of glass. They were perhaps only a centimeter in diameter.

“Take a look!”

He stretched his hands out, a bead in each palm. He rhythmically began to wiggle his fingers.

As they did, the small bead tumbled from finger to finger, and the grooves between, from one side to the other and back again. The motions weren’t fast, but they were very fluid like the tide.

“See what I’m doing?” He asked.

“Mmh,” she replied.

Chapter 234: Genius

“Right. Now you try.” Lan Jue placed the two glass balls in Zhou Qianlin’s palm.

She extended her palm as she’d seen Lan Jue do, with the balls in the center. She paused for a moment, as though thinking, then began to appreciably undulate her fingers.

Qianlin’s fingers were longer than Lan jue’s, and thinner. However, she left no space between them as the pearl rolled, so that the ball bounced precariously from digit to digit. At the onset it was clear she was struggling, but little by little a fluidity crept in to the ball’s movements. It was absent the smoothness Lan Jue had displayed, but her control was impressive. Qianlin herself stared fixedly upon them, concentrating on her work.

Lan Jue nodded approvingly. “Your kinesthetic control is good. Let’s make it a little more difficult. Now have the left- hand pearl roll counter-clockwise, and the right side clockwise.”

“Mh.” She paused, considering his instructions, then began to roll the balls in circles along her palms and fingers.

She adapted quickly, performing well but for a few brief pauses. But before long the new exercise was mastered.

Lan Jue watched in silence, surprised at her speed. It appeared she had a real talent for this. Of course, a woman’s poise and suppleness were innately superior to your average man’s.

“How am I doing?” Qianlin continued to roll the balls around as she shot her instructor an inquisitive glance. There was the faint glint of pride in her eyes.

He pursed his lips and nodded sagely. “Not bad. That’s enough.”

“Got it!” Qianlin complied, allowing the balls to settle in the hearts of her palms.

Lan Jue had more balls in his hands now, at some point plucking them from some unseen locale. He took back the two from Qianlin as well. “Watch carefully,” he instructed.

Each hand had two balls; one in the palm, and the other near the fingertips. With Qianlin lending close scrutiny, Lan Jue had

the ball in his palm move towards the radial end of his hand, while the distant ball followed it’s trajectory in a circle until the two glass balls had switched places. Both hands undulated in similar fashion to the exercise before, but this time the balls rolled and danced around one another.

In theory the addition of an extra ball wasn’t much, but practically it was significantly more difficult. Lan Jue’s movements were slower than he was capable of, so that his student could observe.

The exercises were called palm spinning, either mono or duo. It was a viable metric to determine hand speed, as someone who could maintain a good speed and fluidity with the balls could sustain ten CPS. If you couldn’t complete this exercise, then there wasn’t even any point in getting in a mecha suit.

“You give it a try.” The balls were passed to Qianlin.

She didn’t say anything, but leapt right in to it. The movements were fine, but when it came time to swing the ball around she hadn’t used enough power. Both were cast in to disarray, and fell to the ground.

Lan Jue snatched them up and put them once more in to her hands. Qianlin’s face was red.

“I must seem pretty dumb,” she said, hanging her head sheepishly.

Lan Jue shook his head. “When I first started doing this, it took me three days to master the basics. You’re just starting, don’t rush. When it comes to controlling anything, the most important thing is a calm heart. Pay attention to your state of mind. Start slow, and when you’ve got the movements down you can add speed.”

“Got it.” Qianlin began again, with Lan Jue at her side periodically giving pointers. Tiny details, tricks and pointers were delivered in her ear as she practiced.

Time passed, with Qianlin carefully working the exercises. She never complained, never commented, only diligently performed what her teacher demanded.

Lan Jue’s surprise only grew as their session continued. She really did have a natural ability for this, and her choppy movements were already much smoother. She was as yet

unpracticed, but the rhythm and foundation were there. It had taken him a whole day to get to this point, when he started learning. If this was any indication, the fact she started her training late didn’t look like it would stop Qianlin from achieving a very high CPS. The suppleness of her movements were as good as a child’s.

“Spend the next two days working on this, and once you’re ready we’ll move on to the next. This is specifically to help your hand speed, and you’ll see the benefits of it soon if you keep it up. Speaking of, tell me what you think about your mecha manipulation ability.”

“I haven’t reached second-grade yet, I think,” she answered. “All the basics I know, but I’m not proficient. I haven’t studied much.”

Lan Jue nodded thoughtfully to himself. “That’s fine. It’d be better if we started from the beginning anyway.”

Qianlin looked up from the balls. “Why do you say that?”

Lan Jue explained. “If you’ve been teaching yourself, or you had a bad instructor who taught you poorly, you’re likely to

have developed a number of bad habits. Reversing these mistakes would be much more difficult than just starting over with the proper methods. Your improvement will be faster, too. If what I’m seeing here with your hands is any indication, your hand speed improvement will be impressive in the beginning. Once you hit intermediate, we’ll see if your Discipline will be able to help you push it further. We’ll need to see whether or not your body will be able to handle higher speeds or mecha manipulation. The higher your abilities become, the more stress the suit’s actions will put on your physique.”

Qianlin gripped the ball in her hand, and raised her tiny fist towards Lan Jue. “I’ll study hard. Who knows, one day I might be better than you!”

Lan Jue chuckled at her zeal. “I’ll hold my breath.” Before Qianlin could answer, he’d dissolved in to electricity and vanished in to the nearby wall socket.

Qianlin stared at the wall with a small grin on her face. Her eyes dropped to the glass balls in her hands and, with an obstinate glint, got right back to practicing.

ζ

Lan Jue was also smiling as he left Mount Tian. He was surprised at how good of a student Zhou Qianlin was. By the time he’d met Hera, she was already an outstanding pilot. Her hand speed had been as good or better than his own! He hoped her little sister would one day reach that level.

His mind turned back to his own days practicing hand speed, and the experienced he had. When you spoke about the four Monarchs, everyone talked about their power and ability. No one knew the torment each of them had suffered in their childhood.

He couldn’t speak for Chu Cheng and Hua Li, really, but it was certainly true for him and his brother. For them, it wasn’t glass balls they practiced with, but razor blades. For those few years at the beginning, neither he nor Lan Qing’s hands were ever fully healed. He didn’t know what they’d done to deserve such bitter punishment.

His brother had gotten the worst of it, often times as a result of trying to protect him. Often he’d sneakily replace Lan Jue’s razors with balls for him to practice with, then help him improve.

The reason Lan Qing’s hand speed would never match up to

Lan Jue’s was due to that very fact. At one point he’d been severely punished, and sustained a serious injury to his hand. Though it eventually healed, his potential had been cut short. If it hadn’t been for that, there’s no doubt Lan Qing would have bested his brother in this regard, too, long ago.

How much emotion bubbled beneath that cold and solemn exterior, Lan Jue wondered? I’ve really never blamed you, brother. I only blame myself.

Lan Jue lifted his eyes to the heavens, thinking about his kin. He knew him to be on An Lun. He knew war was coming, and when that day came he would proudly fight by his brother’s side.

ζ

Early morning.

“What’s with the panda eyes,” Lan Jue said when he encountered Zhou Qianlin.

Qianlin gave a soft laugh, rubbing the dark circles under her

pretty eyes. “It’s nothing, I just didn’t sleep very well. I had bouncing glass balls in my brain all night.”

Lan Jue shot her a gentle smile. “So it is in the beginning. It’ll be better once you get used to it. You also shouldn’t overtire yourself, pace yourself and once you feel proficient let me know.”

“Alright.” She said nothing further, situating herself on the back of the bicycle and wrapping an arm around his waist. She rested her head against his back and shut her eyes.

Lan Jue could feel her gentle breathing against him. He kept his pace slow, so as to make the ride as smooth as possible.

It didn’t take long for Qianlin to fall asleep, even perched on the small back seat of the bike. A smile curled the edges of her lips, as she enjoyed some unknown dream.

When they arrived at the university gates, they once more played their roles. One entered before the other, as though they didn’t even know one another. She walked on ahead, but Lan Jue’s trek was blocked by the appearance of Director Wu.

“Do you have a moment to speak,” the Teaching Director asked in low tones.

“Mmhm, but don’t come looking for me like this.  An observant person will know something’s going on. I was serious when I said I’d leave if anyone found out my identity.” His tone was quiet, but firm as he reminded Director Wu of their agreement.

“Relax, relax. I’ve already gone over all of this with the Dean. We’ll support you in any way you need, and spare no effort in keeping your identity secret. If there’s anything you need, you only need ask.” Wu Junyi’s pledge was sincere.

Lan Jue nodded. “So what do you need from me?”

“I was looking over the recording of your last class in DreamNet,” Director Wu began. “I’ve got to tell you, you’ve been hiding a great opportunity from us! You really are something special. I just wanted to thank you, and say how lucky we are to have you with us.”

The school’s DreamNet area was all under surveillance, and while of course Wu Junyi had no intention of sharing the video,

he was curious how Lan Jue would teach the class. He was, after all, still the Teaching Director. He had no complaints or worries, but had simply been curious. He remembered how excited he’d been after Professor Lan’s first etiquette class. He wanted to see if that success would carry over.

Chapter 235: Closed Special Training

“No need for thanks.” Lan Jue said softly.

Wu Junyi regarded his young employee. “Professor Lan. Thinking on the ARC class, do you think that one class a day is sufficient? All of our students seek to improve, and they’ll do that quicker if they’re working with you more. Otherwise we’re just wasting time. I intend to open the classes up, and have them working with you all day long. Of course you won’t need to be there all the time. If you create a lesson plan, I can have another instructor or your assistant lead the class in your absence.”

Lan Jue narrowed his eyes. This was a problem, for truly one class a day wasn’t enough to impart the information these students needed to improve. If they wanted to get better, they would have to work ten times as hard.

Luckily the students weren’t aware of Wu Junyi’s plans, otherwise they would be trembling at the prospect. They were standing on the precipice, looking out over an abyss of suffering. If Lan Jue agreed, they’d be tumbling towards a world of pain.

“Let me put together a teaching curriculum, Director Wu, then we can see about implementing it. Just make it clear that these classes require absolute discipline. They’ll be exceptionally difficult, and once you start you can’t back out. You can’t just quit halfway through. This may lead to some complaints by the family, who will likely cause you some trouble. I’ll do my best to reduce the likelihood of this, though. Now that we’re making it full time, it’s best to include evenings as well. I’ll also need a closed out space, big enough for training. The first condensed ARC class will run for two months of intense training. What do you think?”

Wu Junyi narrowed his brows. “Make the ARC classes closed?”

Lan Jue nodded in response. “That’s right, close it off. Yesterday I got a feel for their power level as a group. Frankly speaking, they’re foundations are alright but their practical combat experience is absolutely deplorable. Even their combat philosophy. If we want them to feel and understand that they’re here learning, they can’t be allowed to simply give up. We want to turn quantity in to quality, and that means imparting knowledge through strict discipline.”

Wu Junyi fixed Lan Jue with a resolute stare. “If that’s so, we’ll do it as you say. You have the university’s full support,

Professor. No matter the methods, you have the backing of myself and Dean Xu. Teach as you see fit.”

Lan Jue was genuinely surprised. He hadn’t expected Director Wu to agree so readily. He figured the director would at least have to consult his superiors before anything could go forward.

“Alright, then I’ll submit a lesson plan later today. No point in wasting time, we’ll get the new class started tomorrow.” Lan Jue murmured thoughtfully.

“Good,” Wu Junyi replied. “I’ll get things started.” With that he bid farewell to Lan Jue, and left.

He watched the director leave, a small smile on his face. “They’re lucky to have a director like him,” he mused. “At the very least they won’t be missing opportunities. I have to ensure I do my best, this time, and help the East develop a generation of talents.”

He lifted his wrist and tapped a number in his to communicator.

“Boss.” Mika’s voice answered from his wrist, her voice affectionate and lazy.

“Mika,” he replied. “How’s Jin Tao been doing lately? Has he finished absorbing the first round of treatment?”

Mika’s response was quick and informal. “He’s doing great. The first round of treatment should be finished in the next few days.”

“Alright, let me know when he’s finished. I’ll help him get used to the Discipline increase myself.”

“Alrighty.”

Taking the Fantascia Genetica decoction required three stages, each lasting about a month. Of course the time varied from person to person, so Jin Tao would require observation.

From what he’d seen in the student battle yesterday, all of the students sported at least a fifth-rank Discipline. Where they would eventually end up in that regard, he’d just have to wait and see. There’d be more information at the end of their

intensive training course.

His hope was that he’d temper them in to hardened pilots in this short period. But, what about Zhou Qianlin?

The Soulcaller gem warmed:

Lan Jue: Qianlin, there’s something I need to speak with you about. I just had a conversation with Director Wu, and we’ve decided to close off the ARC classes, make ‘em private. For the extent of the class, students will have to stay in the school. They’ll live, train and study together.

Zhou Qianlin: Alright, so what?

Your Discipline is still weak. Your body… I think it might be best if you drop out. I can train you individually.

No. If it’s no problem for others, then it’s no problem for me. I’ve told you before, I’m not some princess with a silver spoon in her mouth. I’m the same as everyone else. What you did during class was right, we don’t want others to know about our relationship. I’m to be treated the same as everyone else. And if

they can stomach it, so can I. I’m not going anywhere.

With that said, Lan Jue felt the Soulcaller gem cool.

Lan Jue stared blankly at nothing. This girl… an iron fist in a velvet glove, he thought. She may look soft on the outside, but she had an unbreakable spirit. Perhaps she didn’t understand just how torturous this class would be. Although it would not be as bad as the hellish treatment he and his brother suffered, it would certainly change the way these students thought about improvement. She wouldn’t come out of it unscathed – would she be able to handle it?

He squelched the qualms within him, pushing them away.

He wandered towards the electives building, lost in thought. Almost in a daze, he made his way to his desk and sat. Only then, much to his surprise, did he discover the steaming cup of tea situated there.

“You’re back, Professor Lan.” Wang Hongyuan greeted him as he sat. He approached, indicating the tea. “I bought some. Jasmine tea, give it a try. It’s pretty good.”

Lan Jue gave him a skeptical look. “What’s all this? Making up for some unknown evil, eh?”

When Wang Hongyuan answered, his voice was low but excited. “I realized you were right, Professor. My Discipline has been stagnant for a long time, but after the shock I received yesterday I’ve felt it improve. I spent the night focusing on cultivation, and sure enough it was stronger. I was hoping that, if you had some time you could shock me again.”

The edges of Lan Jue’s mouth twitched mirthfully. As he’d told them, bioelectric shocks certainly could enervate one’s Discipline. For Adepts a blast wouldn’t do any lasting harm, but may help push their powers to a higher degree. But that wasn’t certain. He’d just thought to give it a try when he shocked Wang Hongyuan, but apparently it had really helped.

“Aren’t you afraid my control might slip? I could kill you.” Lan Jue asked the question through a smirk. He lazily lifted the teacup and sipped the fragrant liquid within. The lingering, pungent scent seeped through him, filling him with a sense of ease.

Wang Hongyuan laughed. “If you did, I wouldn’t have any regrets. It’s settled, then.”

“First I have something to discuss with you,” Lan Jue said. “A few minutes ago I spoke with Director Wu. He wants to make the ARC class a closed, intensive course. Since I can’t be there all day, every day, I was hoping I could rely on you to fill in the gaps. And as a heads-up, the Savage Goddess will definitely be there. There’s no way she’ll give up the chance to participate in this class.”

Wang Hongyuan’s excitement only grew. “Not a problem, Professor. Do you think I should post-pone my dance class for now?”

Lan Jue shook his head. “That won’t be necessary. It won’t take a lot of time out of our schedule, and besides if you were to suddenly stop the classes it might raise suspicion. You could inadvertently reveal your identity. While you’re teaching, I can look over the students.”

“Alright.” The dance instructor nodded in acquiescence. His experience yesterday confirmed it; if he stuck with Lan Jue, it certainly wouldn’t lead to any disadvantage on his part. It was a short-cut to improvement.

“What are you guys talking about?” The curious voice interrupted their exchange.

Jin Yan walked in to the office, and immediately spied Lan Jue and Wang Hongyuan chatting, all smiles. It was a strange enough scene to cause her confusion.

“There sure has been some changes between you and Lan Jue since you’ve gotten back from Taihua, Professor Wang. So harmonious all of a sudden.”

The dance instructor smiled. “We’re all colleagues here. Why shouldn’t we work together as a unit? At any rate I’ll have to get going, I’ve things to take care of. Nice chat, Professor Lan.” Wang Hongyuan shot Jin Yan a winning smile before returning to his desk.

Jin Yan approach Lan Jue, looking at him through skeptical eyes.

“What’s with the look?” Lan Jue asked.

“I hadn’t realized you were so charming,” she answered. “I’ve known Wang Hongyuan for some time. He’s a serious man, avoiding frivolity. Even to a fault, maybe. And yet, lately the two of you have been the best of friends.”

Lan Jue laughed. “It’s like he said: we’re all colleagues. We should all try our best to get along.”

Jin Yan piped up, as though suddenly remembering something. “Oh yes, and by the way Professor, how is Jin Tao? I hope he isn’t causing you any trouble.”

Lan Jue shook his head. “It’s actually been a while since I’ve seen him. I imagine your family is also worried. You shouldn’t be, in a few days the first round of treatment will be complete and he’ll be back to classes. However, I’ll still need him to stay in the Avenue at night. He can’t return home yet. I’ll have him find you as soon as he is able.”

Jin Yan lit up with pleasure at his assurances. “Thank you so much.”

For the first few days Jin Tao was gone for his training, his family felt liberated. Without the trouble-maker around, they enjoyed a level of peace they hadn’t had in ages. However, despite his rocky history it didn’t take long for family to long for their own. Whether it was Jin Yan, or her parents, they had begun to desperately miss the naughty kid. The fact Jin Tao hadn’t kept in contact with them at all since started compounded matters, and increased their apprehension about

the whole arrangement. It was for this reason Jin Yan had sought Lan Jue out, to find more information about her brother. Now, after hearing from him that her brother was fine, she felt more at ease. It was a pleasant quality he possessed, she thought, by making other people around him comfortable.

It had been nearly a full day before Lan Jue showed his face in the office. He’d been occupied by the ARC class all day. His thoughts wandered back to the first meeting, and he pondered over how to improve. There were always ways to improve, but he had to be careful he didn’t make it too similar to the life he and his brother suffered through. He wanted to strengthen those fifty students, not kill them.

Chapter 236: The Clairvoyant’s Starry Sky

Skyfire Avenue. Gothic Winery.

“Wine Master. We just received news from the Pontiff’s Castle. They said they and the Dark Citadel will be arriving in ten days for the meeting.” The Barber gave his report solemnly.

The paragon nodded his head. “So be it. How goes the preparations? With the presence of both the Pontiff and Satan, the Clairvoyant will be in attendance as well. He’s decided to be part of the welcome party.”

The Barber continued. “Everything you’ve asked us to prepare is more or less ready. However, I do have some opinions about a couple of the greeters.”

The Wine Master smiled knowingly. “And who is it you’d like to discuss.”

“The Jewelry Master,” he answered. “He is also a councilman who’s been assigned to this duty, but he hasn’t once made an appearance. In fact, he’s never even in his store and is

exceptionally difficult to get a hold of. Those women who run his store are impossible, each more arrogant than the last. They forced me out of the store, the last time. The Jewelry Master himself is prideful, arrogant, unreasonable and impossible to deal with. I suggest he be removed.”

The Cosmagus laughed in spite of himself. “Alright take it easy. Everything’s fine, you’re just being a little narrow- minded. I know all about the little competition you and the Beautician had with him in the Reaper Arena, just as I know who instigated the whole thing. Take care of your own business, that’s all we’re asking. As for the Jewelry Master, I would suggest you work on developing a better relationship with him. It is true that he hasn’t done anything to help prepare, but it is also true that the Archangel Michael won’t be in attendance.”

“Why?” The Barber seemed confused. The Wine Master’s gentle chastisement made him blush, but the mention of Michael made the slight all but forgotten. The Archangel was possible the strongest player in the Pontiff’s circle aside from the Pontiff himself, and the Lord of Angels. He was a terrifying, ninth-ranked ninth-degree Adept.

The Wine Master’s response was soft and conversational. “Because he and the Jewelry Master had a… run in. The wounds he suffered were dire, and in fact he’s still recovering.”

“What?!” The Barber was struck dump with amazement. “What did this happen? I just saw the Jewelry Master a few days ago!”

“Not long ago,” the Wine Master assured. “The Jewelry Master was injured as well, so I made him exempt from participating in the preparations. Wait until the two powers arrive, and he’ll be among the welcoming council members. This will not be the case for Michael. Need I explain further?”

He didn’t. In the time after their fight, Lan Jue had recovered fully whereas Michael still wasn’t capable of making the trip. What did this mean? It meant their Jewelry Master was even stronger than the Pontiff’s Angel of War.

The Barber already had a high estimation of the Jewelry Master’s power, but saw him as a pesky waste of space on the council despite their similarity in age. Could he really be so powerful as the Wine Master described? He felt a chill run up his spine as he thought back to their friendly match. They were never even close to competing with his abilities. This guy’s power…

The Wine Master rose to his feet. “There is also the matter of the Great Adept Competition occurring in three months,

sponsored by the Northern Alliance with the West’s powerhouses in attendance. Undoubtedly, part of the reason the two castles are coming is to feel us out. Me and the other two elder councilmen will handle what we can there, so you needn’t worry. Handle your business, do the job you’ve been assigned, and things will go just fine.”

A hard, cold light grew in the depths of the Barber’s eyes. “If it were up to me we’d show them why the Avenue is a force to be reckoned with. Do they believe they can join together and that we’d be frightened? Skyfire Avenue is not so easily cowed.”

The Wine Master shook his head. “You shouldn’t always be so confrontational. We are a loose organization, remember, even down to our council members. We don’t have the sorts of restrictions – and thus planning – that they do. Remember also that this competition of theirs may have nothing to do with us. There are… other things to consider.”

“What sort of things?” the Barber asked curiously.

“Now it’s still too early to say, but I’m sure you’ll hear more about it later,” the Wine Master assured. “But that’s enough for now, you’re still busy I imagine.”

“Very well.” The Barber gave his response, then made his way from the Gothic Winery. His heart was beating as he thought upon the Jewelry Master’s purported fight with Michael. This was no small feat! It looked like he was really going to need to correct his attitude around the young adept.

A short time after the Barber left, the Wine Master also exited the winery. He made his way towards the Skyfire Museum.

Today, the Clairvoyant was clad in long, white robes tied at the waist with a simple cotton belt. The robes were interlaced with a veined pattern of thread, bearing twinkling gemstones that surrounded him in a dim halo of light. He topped off the ensemble with a tall, white hat.

He looked older, since the last time the Wine Master had met him. His skin was thinner, and his color pale. However, age hadn’t seemed to touch those piercing eyes.

Even as a Paragon himself, the Wine Master always felt strange in the Clairvoyant’s presence. It was like he was in a daze, somehow separate from reality when nearby.

“Clairvoyant.” The Wine Master politely nodded his head

toward the older gentleman.

The leader of the Avenue offered a small smile in response. His warm voice flowed around his amicable smile. “I knew you were coming.”

The Wine Master made his way across the expansive chambers to stand before his old colleague. “How are you feeling?”

“Fine,” the Clairvoyant assured. “No need to worry over me.
I’ve a few years yet before there’s any cause for alarm.”

The Wine Master looked at him skeptically, eying his strange small. “And what’s got you so happy?”

The smile spread further on the old man’s face. “One of my visions has been confirmed, the Bookworm is back in the Avenue, the Keeper is going through something similar and improving… it puts me at ease, after a fashion.”

Surprised crept in to the Wine Master’s face. “You mean the Keeper…”

The Clairvoyant nodded, without saying anything further.

“What about you?” the Wine Master hurriedly followed. “If the Magnate is improving, surely we can use his methods to help you get better?”

The Clairvoyant shook his head, though the smile remained. “No. My circumstances are… different. We’re both advanced in age, to put it mildly, but his troubles come as a result of exhausted vital essence. He’s little left. Mine own problems are similar, in a way, though my years were clearly delineated the day I became a Paragon. My end is a result of destiny. No matter what power or method we employ, there’s no escaping the master plan. When you achieve the same levels the Keeper and I have, you’ll understand.”

The Wine Master frowned. “But, you…”

The Clairvoyant raised a hand, cutting his companion short. “After the Castle and Citadel have come and gone, I will seclude myself. I’ll need to conserve my energy, and prepare for the Final Prophecy. It is something that may very well affect the lives of all future generations – and I am sure it will occur. My own life is a limited one, and I have always sought to use it where it was most needed. Now the Keeper, for all his

knowledge, is not a leader of men… so when I begin my preparations for the end, I will need you to take over Skyfire Avenue.”

The Wine Master’s brows furrowed in concern, but he nodded his head nonetheless.

The Clairvoyant let loose a gentle laugh. “You’ve known me and this business for so many years, there’s nothing you won’t be able to handle. You’ll likely see it long before you get as old as I, but the truth of the world is that life and death are fallacies. All energy is permanent, it only changes form. So long as you keep me in your thoughts, I’ll live on.”

The wine Master huffed. “You’ve done so much for humanity, not to mention the Avenue. We won’t survive without you!”

This caused the old man to chortle. “Don’t be so melodramatic. You know the old adage; out with the old, and in with the new. As one generation passes, the youth shall rise to replace them, as they have always done. Humanity will thrive, it is an undeniable rule of the universe.”

The Wine Master looked apprehensive for a moment, then

spoke. “The most important aspect of the Castle and Citadel’s visit is almost certainly to check on how you and the Keeper are faring. How should we respond if they should ask?”

“Go with it,” Skyfire’s leader replied. “The Keeper likely won’t make an appearance. It’ll be you and I who meet with them. Their purpose in coming may not necessarily be of ill intent.”

“Oh? Have you seen something?” The Wine Master inquired.

The Clairvoyant smirked. “No, just years of experience. It has been quite a long time since anyone seen the Pontiff or Satan out and about – having them make an appearance is a good thing.”

The Cosmagus nodded his head silently. He saw no further purpose in taking any more of the Clairvoyant’s time, so he left of his own accord.

The Clairvoyant remained where he was, and simply watched as his companion left. Afterwards, he made his way to the tallest level of the Skyfire Museum with unhurried steps. Now, with nothing but the walls of the museum to bear witness, he

certainly looked like a man in his twilight years.

It took him several minutes to climb the twenty-odd steps to the top. He was met with a pair of massive double-doors. The old man stood before the seven-meter tall doors, dwarfed by their immensity.

Despite his frailty, the Clairvoyant only need gently push the doors to have them open. They moved soundlessly, as though they weighed nothing.

As the doors split, a strange light emanated from the fissure. Bathed in the sudden luminance, the clairvoyant’s  body appeared to undergo a strange shift.

His body, bent from rickets, straightened. His white hair thickened and became black. Under the power of that strange light, his youth was returning. In the space of just a few moments, the old Clairvoyant had become a valiant looking young man in his thirties.

The myriad gemstones interwoven throughout his robes shimmered like stars.

The small, easy smile on his face never changed. He strode across the threshold, and the doors closed at his back, isolating him from the rest of the world.

Soft golden light followed his every footstep, expanding out in complicated flowery patterns. They expanded, twirling amongst one another until they filled the entire circular room. Were one to look up, they would discover a vast and endless expanse of starry sky. Everyone one of the twinkling suns shimmered with a golden light.

Endless skies, infinite light, countless stars… bathed in the soothing glow, the Clairvoyant strode to the center of the room.

The light hung over him like a blanket. He was coated in the golden luminescence as though it were shining out from within him. Behind him, in stark contrast, arose an orb dark as pitch. It floated upward until it was level with the back of the Paragon’s head.

Lifting his head to the heavens, the Clairvoyant’s eyes looked unnaturally clear. They reflected back every twinkling light he gazed upon.

The crystal ball at his back suddenly glowed with a furious glare. Rays of blinding light shot in every direction as it hovered like a terrifying eye. It’s expulsion of luminescence grew until it filled everything, even the skies above, until there was nothing but white.

The golden stars scattered like fireflies. One by one they fell to the ground and joined the magnificent patterns. The Clairvoyant stood amidst the stunning display silent, still, as though frozen. In a blink, the young man became encased in gold and stood there still. Like a statue.

Chapter 237: I Am!

Again the ARC students were in formation, ready to begin. Again, Tang Xiao stood at the front of the group. It was the same group from yesterday, and their mood was strikingly different from the first class.

Where yesterday there was excitement, today they stank of fear.

It certainly couldn’t have felt good to be blasted with bioelectricity. It was like being perpetually stabbed by a hundred thousand tiny needles. While simultaneously your body was too numb to do anything about it.

Moreover, the last time they’d seen just a smidge of this demon’s ability, and it was terrifying. Even the ‘god-ranked pilot’, their Savage Goddess Tan Lingyun had been completely unable to offer up any resistance. The Prince of Devils has used a basic sabermech to obliterate a high-level instructor and fifty of the school’s best students. What else could he be capable of?

There wasn’t just fear, though. There was also excitement, faint and buried beneath the terror, but there. They felt like they were passing through a threshold, to a whole new realm of

possibility.

They were mecha pilots, and the pride of the school. How could they not thirst for improvement, and grow excited at the prospect? After all, everyone knew implicitly just what being a great pilot meant; an infinitely bright future.

They were still students, not fully integrated in to adult society but excited at the prospects. Hot-blooded and anxious, they each imagined how high their abilities might soar.

But what would today’s class be like?

Tan Lingyun had arrived early, and stood at the head of the group wearing a nasty expression. Today her hair had been brought under control, and she’d changed in to a less desperately singed flight suit. She glowered at nothing in particular, lost in thought.

The blow to her own self-esteem had been minimal, after yesterday’s loss. However, the real damage came from the whispers. Already word was spreading that she wasn’t a real God-ranked pilot. She ultimately didn’t care, though – her primary focus was finding that ‘Lei Feng’, and this guy… this

golden-masked devil, he had to be him.

He helped because he’s also part of the faculty. He said it himself. What kind of person is he? Today, I’m going to find out.

Zhou Qianlin was also in attendance, in her place near the back of the group. She had been first to learn about the change to the ARC class structure, though of course she couldn’t tell anybody.

Tang Mi was at her shoulder. She leaned in, and whispered to her friend. “So what sort of bad things were you up to yesterday, Qianlin? You’re acting weird today, sleeping during class… it’s not like you! Something about this class got you bothered?”

Qianlin rolled her eyes at her friend. “There’s plenty that bothers me – you, mostly. I was going over what happened yesterday, so I went to bed late.”

Just then, two familiar figures stepped in to the warehouse. Their respective gold and silver masks twinkled in the fluorescent light.

The moment they appeared, the chatter among the students died, until the silence was absolute. The young pilots stood with backs straight and eyes forward.

Yesterday, Lan Jue’s whole purpose had been to prove his strength to the students. They were adults, and they knew to respect strength. He approached until he arrived before the gathered pupils, and stopped. His eyes fixed upon Tan Lingyun.

Tan Lingyun stared right back.

For a long moment the two simply looked at one another. Eventually, however, the demon’s intense stare was too much for Tan Lingyun, and she dropped her eyes.

“Professor Tan, if you’d like to remain you can do so as my assistant. However, I demand that you respect this class and my instruction. If you can’t do that, I must ask you to leave. Anyone who tries to disrupt this class will be removed.” Lan Jue’s cold voice rang out, filling the warehouse.

Tan Lingyun hesitated, regarding the golden-masked drillmaster. She eventually and vigorously nodded her head. “I accept.”

“Don your mask, and stand beside me,” he ordered.

Tan Lingyun took a deep breath, and choked back the comments she so desperately wanted to voice. Instead, she fumbled in her suit for the mask Lan Jue had given her at the end of yesterday’s class and put it on. She moved to his side, and turned to face the students.

Lan Jue returned his attention to the students. “Starting tomorrow, the ARC class will be considered a closed curriculum. This means we’ll be training all day, every day. You won’t be going home to your mommies.. This is the final time I’ll say this, before this class really gets under way: if you want to quit, now’s the time. If not, I’ll let Director Wu know to tell our parents you won’t be having dinner. The training period will last for two months. During that time all required resources will be provided by the school. I can promise you right now, that by the end of this class each of you will advance at least one rank as a pilot. I can also promise that these two months will be the worst of your short lives. Once your decision is made, there’s no going back. Join or not, this is the time to make your choice. Going forward, those who remain will be treated as soldiers, not students. You have five minutes to think on it.”

Lan Jue lifted his wrist and peered at his communicator.

The students had learned from the last class that if this demon said five minutes, he meant precisely five minutes. The situation quickly washed through their brains: Closed class? Two months?

It wasn’t as though they were unfamiliar with the concept. Every prospective mecha pilot student was required to undergo an intensive three-month training before they could enter the mecha combat program. Everyone in attendance had been through it.

Two months, then, was certainly acceptable. They knew on some level this would be difficult, but the Prince of Devil’s assurances that an increase of at least one rank was an enticing prospect.

A mecha pilot’s rank wasn’t just a means to determine their relative strength. It was also a metric by which society would treat them, when they entered the real world. For those interested in military service, for instance, a third-class pilot would simply be admitted as a private, perhaps not even given the opportunity to pilot a suit. However, a second-class pilot would immediately be assigned a combat group. These were the bulk of soldiers, private first-class in the army. Students who graduate from a combat program and enter the army untested begun two ranks lower. Once they prove themselves, and get to

understand life as a serviceman, those ranks would increase quickly. The equivalent rank for a first-class pilot was Lieutenant. Emperors were Majors, sovereigns became Lieutenant Colonels. A god-ranked pilot, if they chose to join, was immediately granted the rank of Colonel, without the need for any checks or provisions.

So for these young men and women, still enrolled in their classes, the allure of raising an entire rank was too good to pass up. This was especially true for those students stuck at first- class.

The National Eastern University’s mecha combat program currently had three thousand enrolled pilots. Of those, there were only fifty who were first-class or higher, and they were standing in front of him. Of the fifty, twenty-eight were first- class, second grade. Sixteen were first-class. Five were Emperor- class, second grade, and one who’d just been promoted to Emperor.

If what Lan Jue said came to fruition, and all of these students jumped up a rank, then the NEU itself would be catapulted in to the top five mecha combat schools, practically overnight.

Five minutes passed quickly.

“Those who’ve decided to give up, get out of my sight.” Lan Jue called. There was a harsh and demeaning light in his eyes.

No one moved.

Each of these pilots before him were considered exceptional students in the NEU. They were prideful, and if no one else was going to leave how could they? They’d never be able to show their face in school again. Plus, what was two months of struggle when the result was an immeasurable increase to their future prospects?

One minute later.

Lan Jue nodded. “Very well. You are all very courageous to remain. I assure you that in two months, you will feel no regrets for your decision. That’ll be because you’ll have plenty of time for regrets before then. Remember that no matter what happens, physically or mentally, you will complete every task put before you. There is no failure permitted, understood? Tonight you will go to your homes, class begins for real tomorrow at eight a.m. Gather here, then we’ll leave for the training grounds. Bid farewell to your parents tonight, children, you won’t be seeing them once Director Wu lets them know what’s coming. Dismissed!”

Was this it? There was to be no training tonight?

Scores of nervous students let out audible sighs of relief. They left in twos and threes to see their families.

Lan Jue did not leave. He remained, watching them scatter until only himself, Wang Hongyuan and Tan Lingyun remained.

“Professor Tan.” Lan Jue turned towards her.

“Hm?” Tan Lingyun had never taken her eyes off of him.

“Once we begin you also must remain with the students,” he instructed. “I’ll be giving you certain tasks that you must adhere to, and execute to the best of your ability.”

Tan Lingyun simply stared at him. “Are you Lei Feng?”

Lei Feng? Wang Hongyuan, standing on Lan Jue’s other side, was surprised and curious at the name. Lei Feng was a hero from the former era! When did Lan Jue become a long-dead cultural icon?

Lan Jue craned his head to look towards Wang Hongyuan, and waved a hand in dismissal. Though the desire for gossip blazed bright in his heart, the dance instructor wouldn’t dare offend his new instructor. He took his leave.

The expansive classroom was now only populated by two.

“Are you?” Lingyun asked.

Lan Jue nodded his head.

“I am.”

Chapter 238: Tan Lingyun’s Excitement

“I am!”

Tan Lingyun’s eyes widened until they were like saucers. “Is it really you?” An intense blush reddened her cheeks – this mighty woman blushed like a schoolgirl, recalling everything that happened when they were locked together in that mecha suit.

“How… how did you get out, that day? I clearly remember locking the cockpit.” Tan Lingyun said softly, her head hanging.

“You still have the nerve to talk about it, after biting the hand that feeds you?” Lan Jue hissed back in irritation.

Tan Lingyun’s head shot up. Her tone was apologetic as she attempted to defend herself. “No! That wasn’t my intention. I just wanted to know who you really are. I needed to find out your identity and thank you for what you did.”

“Figure it out yet?” he asked.

“Remove the mask and let me see.”

Lan Jue’s eyes were hard and accusatory. “Tan Lingyun, let me make this clear. I am a special instructor under employment by the NEU. Right now, you may be an assistant, but you are also my student. If you wish to truly break in to God-class, then you need to concentrate on absorbing everything I have to teach. These pointless obsessions are a waste of time – are you hearing me?” Lan Jue’s voice had risen in volume, until the final few words were veritably shouted at her.

Tan Lingyun jumped slightly at the force of it. She straightened in indignation. “I… understand. How shall I address you, Drillmaster? As Lei Feng?”

“Whatever you like,” Lan Jue responded absently. “Call me Drillmaster in front of the students. Now if there’s nothing else you can take your leave as well. What’s coming in the next two months will be more difficult than you or the students can imagine. Go home, enjoy your time. It’ll be the last opportunity you have for two months.”

“Lei Feng,” she interjected, “you claimed that everyone who participates will raise one pilot class. Is this true?”

“Who do I know,” Lan Jue said dismissively. “I’m just trying to get them interested in the process. It was to stop them from

quitting half-way through.”

“Ah?” Tan Lingyun blinked, surprised by the revelation.

Lan Jue payed her no further mind. He turned to leave without saying another word.

But Tan Lingyun wasn’t finished. She trotted after him. “Lei Feng. Let me take you out for a meal, as thank you for helping with the Lir competition.”

Lan Jue stopped in his tracks. He turned his head towards her. “That’s not necessary. I didn’t help you, I was helping the university. You just happened to be there, so don’t feel as though you owe anything. Just do your job these next two months.” With that said, the warehouse filled with light as Lan Jue dissolved in to a streak of white-hot lightning. When the blinding light receded, he was gone.

So fast! Tan Lingyun stood stunned, her eyes bright.

This was a real man! A powerful man. Excitement filled her.

ζ

Lan Jue changed his clothes, and went out among the others once again as the etiquette teacher. He rubbed his tired face, kneading the hard lines away so that the noblesse avait l’air might return. A small smile sat upon his lips as he walked through campus.

As fate would have it, once again his trek led him directly in to the path of Tan Lingyun. However, this time their chance encounter didn’t result in confrontation – on the contrary, she walked by as though he didn’t register to her at all. With excitement clear on her face, she swept by like Lan Jue didn’t exist.

What is she so happy about, he pondered. Maybe she thinks our future classes are going to be easy.

A sinister light filled his eyes as he watched her go. I’ll do to them what dad did to me and my brother. Hah! I’ll forge you kids in to useful members of society yet.

“What’s with the evil grin?” Zhou Qianlin jumped as she came around their usual meeting corner, and spied Lan Jue with his

decidedly unwholesome smile. Her bodyguard’s mild and graceful exterior had a shady feel today.

Lan Jue coughed, and chuckled sheepishly. “Nothing, just thinking about the olden days. What? Are you really thinking of sticking with the class? I’ll tell you that if you do, I’m not going to take it easy on you. It’ll be difficult, more difficult than anything you’ve done before.”

Zhou Qianlin was steadfast. Her determined stare met his. “I’m not afraid!”

Lan Jue’s smile fell away, so that when he spoke again the words were serious and heavy. “I’ll ask once more; are you sure you want to join the ARC program? I’ll work you to your limit, past what a normal person can endure. You will not be given any exceptions, no quarter. These two months will require inhuman levels of persistence. You will not be able to back out later.”

Zhou Qianlin’s own expression was solemn and serious. She took a breath. “I can handle it!”

Lan Jue nodded. “Very well. Good luck!”

Lan Jue clambered on to the bicycle, and held it steady while Qianlin shimmied on. They bounced their way towards Mount Tian, mostly silent until they reached the foot of the mountain.

“Alright, you can go back. With the changes to this class I’m sure you have a lot you have to do.” Qianlin said.

Lan Jue nodded. “You, too. I’ll come and get you tomorrow morning.”

She shook her head. “No need. Tang Mi said she’ll come and get me with her car, since we’ll have things to bring with us. You can go to the school director, Prince of Devils Drillmaster!” She couldn’t help but grin at the dramatic title.

Lan Jue followed suit. “Laugh it up. Soon you’ll be saying that with sincerity.”

ζ

Upon returning to Skyfire Avenue, Lan Jue made his way directly to the Underground, so that he might check up on his student Jin Tao. As anticipated, the first round of treatment

had concluded and the young mutt had absorbed it all without incident. Everything was normal. Three days at most, he judged, and Jin Tao would wake up from the induced coma.

“Mika, I have a list here of things I’ll need you to help me purchase right away.” Lan Jue handed his office manager a slip of paper.

She took it and gave it a quick glance. Surprise flit across her pretty face. “What’s with all the medical equipment, boss? You know how black-hearted the Pharmacist is, this is going to cost us.”

Lan Jue’s response was delivered through a grin. “Don’t worry about it, just get what we need. It’ll be reimbursed. The Pharmacist’s goods might be expensive, but they’re better quality than you’ll get anywhere else outside the Avenue. The East’s medicines may not be as potent as those developed in the West, but they’re the product of thousands of years of experimentation and development, and that makes them something special.

This is in reference to the assurances that Traditional Chinese medicinal theory and application is different from Western medicine modalities, both practically and in approach. Eastern

medicine tends to focus on the root of an issue, with symptoms being utilized for syndrome differentiation so that the germ of the issue can be eradicated. Often – well, traditionally, anyway – these symptoms were secondary to the cause of the problem and only treated forcefully if they’re life-threatening. This is true for their medicines as well: Many of the pharmaceuticals we enjoy today are the result of isolating and chemically reproducing therapeutic effects derived from herbs. Chinese medical formulae often use the herb itself instead of a synthetic. This results in less potent pharmaceuticals, but also less extreme side-effects, and less stress on the liver. So in short, Chinese medicine has always been about ‘slow and steady wins the race’, even forgoing quick relief of symptoms, whereas the Western medicinal system has become ‘make it go away as soon as possible.’ There are arguments for the validity of these statements on both sides, but that’s the crux of the argument from a TCM perspective.

“Alright.” Mika didn’t push the issue further, and left immediately to do as requested.

Lan Jue had already run the list passed Director Wu, who gave his consent. But the price of these materials were so high that the school could only afford a portion. He’d gone to Lan Qing for the rest, hoping to apply for a grant from the army.

These young pilots were the property of the Eastern Alliance, he figured. More than that, they were where the East pinned their hopes for the future. It was for these reasons that Lan Qing approached the grant, without any conditions applied.

“Guoguo,” he went on, addressing the other Amazon. “I’ll need you to prepare some things for me as well. From our own stock.” He produced another paper and handed it to her.

Lin Guoguo snapped it up and looked it over. Her tones curious, she asked “What do you need all these power gems and medicines for, boss? Are we training an army?”

“That’s about right,” he said with a smirk. “And an experiment.”

“Oh. Alright, I’ll get it done.” And with that, Lin Guoguo also headed out.

Next, he tapped Hua Li’s number in to his communicator. “Hey Hua Li,” he began. “Get Chu Cheng and come on down to the store. The girls are out and I’m keeping an eye on things, but we have something we need to talk about.”

It wasn’t long before the two showed up.

“What’s going on? I heard you’re acting as Drillmaster for the NEU now.” Chu Cheng regarded Lan Jue with no small measure of surprise.

Hua Li’s face was similar. The two Monarchs exchanged a wordless glance.

Lan Jue replied first by shrugging his shoulders. “If those three monster planets are real, then humanity is set to face a nasty problem in the near future. We have to do everything we can to prepare, am I right? Lan Qing was right, the other day: we’re not going out like this. What I’m doing isn’t just for them, but for me – so I’ll have a clear conscience in the knowledge that I did everything I could. If the fight breaks out, I’ll be on the first ship to An Lun.”

Chu Cheng chortled. “It wasn’t a criticism!”

Hua Li nodded in agreement with his fiery counterpart. “We’re just wondering why you never told us about this? It’s sure to be a good time! Do you have any idea how boring it is here? And it’s not like I can just up and leave. Wouldn’t it be

better if I hide at the school? And we have the god battle in less than a month – lots of fun stuff on the horizon.”

Chu Cheng nodded in sagely agreement. “Indeed, indeed! There’s just a gaggle of cuties in your school too, students and faculty both. Ahh, the pursuit of knowledge is such a wonderful thing! A-Jue, we’re all brothers here. You must get me in the program.”

Lan Jue looked at the two, slack-jawed. It took him a good few seconds to recover. “Idle hands are the devil’s playthings, huh…”

Chu Cheng laughed. “Right? We never see you, so we’re stuck in the Avenue training. We’ve got cabin fever! And with three paragons ambling around, I have to walk on eggshells all the time. Certainly the university campus would be a different story. With our good looks and formidable skill, there’s sure to be no end to the pretty girls who’d throw themselves at us!”

“Shut the hell up,” Lan Jue muttered. “A-Li, maybe. But you can get lost! I’m responsible for my students – I’m not throwing a wolf in among them!”

Chu Cheng’s anger flared. “Why? You’re always on about moral integrity. Worse case I won’t run around chasing girls, but I won’t reject them either. Come on, you know that’s fair.”

Lan Jue shot him an icy glare. “I’m trying to keep my identity a secret. If you guys go, you’ll have to do the same. With masks on, how do you intend to pick up women? And you being who you are, I can’t imagine you’ll be able to resist the urge to show your face the first time a nice pair of legs walks past. Nope, absolutely not, you’re not going anywhere. A-Li, you can come – just put on a mask.”

“No problem, Hua Li said delightedly. “There’s no difference between a pollution mask and whatever you’ll have me wearing. Even if you didn’t say anything, I couldn’t brazenly be walking around in the open. Hell, if you told them that the magnificent, beloved, worshipped Poseidon was their drillmaster… shit, they’d all faint before we even got the class under way!”

Chapter 239: Unhappy Youth

Lan Jue slapped his forehead in frustration.  “Enough,  you two. I got one megalomaniac and one sexual predator. How in the hell did I get stuck with you two as my brothers!”

Chu Cheng slapped a hand down upon Lan Jue’s shoulder. “A- Jue, I swear to you no one will discover my identity. But you’re underestimating my charm, because even with a mask the girls will be swarming me. I don’t expect you to understand. So go on then, tell us what you’re gunna do.”

Lan Jue revealed his plan for the students and future dealings, simple and uncomplicated with nothing held back. The other two gentlemen were clearly bemused by the prospect, and their excitement only grew as he continued to lay out his plan.

“Isn’t that too… savage?” Chu Cheng couldn’t help but share his opinions, after hearing everything.

“Yeah!” Lan Jue replied, his own tones conflicted. “I’m honestly afraid these young people won’t be able to stick to it.”

Chu Cheng’s tone grew solemn. “This is your problem, A-Jue.

You’re always underestimating how much we can handle. How do you think humanity’s become master of the stars? How is it we came to colonize and rule over so many planets? Because we’re amazingly adaptive. We’re ferocious! When I was young and in training, a few of my teachers employed cruel methods. Sometimes I hardly wished to live. Hell, you could probably learn a thing or two from them for your schemes.”

Hua Li took up his favored imperatorial inflection. “Do you two have any humanity? You’re sitting here discussing the best ways to destroy the future of the Alliances by crushing their flowers under foot. My own training was very different from the two of you. Like baptism in a rainstorm. My father told me once, ‘if you seek to control the oceans, you must stand firm against the roaring waves.’ I think he was right. We of the Poseidon bloodline, we have our family secrets but you two are my brothers. There’s no reason to hide any of this from you, so I have no qualms in sharing it. What do you think?”

Lan Jue and Chu Cheng both shot their thumbs towards Hua Li. Pointed downward.

Three young men, with three very different ideas. Lan Jue took their thoughts in to account, while simultaneously shuddering. It was like the Three Stooges asserting they were smarter than Einstein. If the three of them really did join to

teach, then it really would be like a vision of hell.

When Mika returned she saw the three troublesome youths conspiring quietly. She couldn’t help but slink over, and in doing so caught a few sentences. When she cried out it took all three men by surprise. “What is this? Planning some sort of terrible thing no doubt.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Lan Jue replied. “Medicine?”

Mika produced the myriad pharmaceuticals she was asked to purchase. It was a large bag, with many smaller ones inside.

Lan Jue turned his eyes towards Hua Li. “According to our new system, we’re gunna need a higher dosage. But I’m running low on funds…”

Hua Li shrugged. “Money will not be a concern. This is about the future of humanity. Mika, buy whatever you need – I’ll reimburse you. No expenses spared!” As he spoke, he produced a small card from his pocket and handed it to the Stygian Succubus.

Chu Cheng wrapped Hua Li in a bear-hug. “Hey money-bags, take care of me too!”

Hua Li’s knee shot up towards Chu Cheng’s gibbly bits, forcing Chu Cheng to retreat. “Keep away from me, you stink like all kinds of body fluid! Come at me again and you’ll suffer death with no descendants!”

Lan Jue beckoned the other two closer. “Alright, alright – stop messing around. Let’s continue planning. Time waits for no man, after all. This first ARC program will last two months, and from what I can tell a normal program will not be enough. They don’t need rigorous, they need tragic. We have to think about how to prevent deaths or madness.”

The other two solemnly nodded their heads. “That’s a problem,” they said in unison.

ζ

Early morning. Lan Jue had gotten up in the early hours, along with his two troublesome comrades.

“Are we taking the verti-car?” Chu Cheng asked piteously.

Lan Jue shook his head. “My identity is still a secret. I go every day by bike – if I’m suddenly arriving in an expensive car it’d attract too much attention. You two come by car, if you’re joining.”

“No way,” Hua Li said with a lilt in his voice. “I thought riding the bicycle was awesome. Quaint and amusing! You can take the car on your own, A-Cheng.”

Chu Cheng sniffed righteously. “How is this acceptable? We three brothers have to stick together, and since you both want to rise the bike I guess I am, too. I call the backseat, though – you got the crossbar this time, A-Li!”

“Don’t you have any humanity?”

“Dunno, how much does it cost?”

“We’ll play rock-paper-scissors for it!”

“Fine!”

Ten minutes later, Lan Jue was groaning piteously as he pedaled the antique bicycle along the road. Hua Li had been stuck with the crossbar, and his mood was accurately revealed by his pained expression. Three pairs of long legs bounced and banged as they fought their way towards the university. ‘Crowded’ did not do the scene justice.

“I should have played for the seat, too!” Lan Jue moaned, pedaling valiantly.

“Why the hell is that,” Hua Li grumbled, turning his head back to glare at Lan Jue.

Bitterness crept in to Lan Jue’s voice as he spoke. “Do you know how heavy you two are? I’m just surprised this bike hasn’t crumpled already. If it did you two would be dead for sure.”

Chu Cheng chuckled at his colleague’s displeasure. “You’re the host, and this is a good display of manliness.” He sat in the VIP seat atop the back tire, sans the discomfort of Hua Li and the effort of Lan Jue. He had no reason to complain.

The remaining trek to the university was a difficult one. Once they arrived her hurriedly kicked his two team mates off of the bike and walked the rest of the way to the gate himself. He didn’t have to worry about getting them in to the university. He’d also already given them their golden masks.

Upon entering campus Lan Jue was surprised to discover Wu Junyi waiting for him once more. This time the director was waiting inside, and stood silent and stoic. It was as though he were just there to observe the students filing in to classes. Seeing his serious expression, the students didn’t loiter around.

Lan Jue approached, and stopped his bicycle once they were face to face. “What are you doing here again?”

“Waiting for you!” The director replied. “The students are all prepared, and things have been organized as per your instructions. We’ve chartered a bus to take them directly to West Hill. I already set up everything for them there. We’re all set.”

Lan Jue nodded. “Good. Where’s the bus?”

Director Wu indicated with a wave of his hand. “By the mecha

combat department. Once you’re ready to go, you can be on your way.”

Lan Jue looked towards the department, then turned his attention back to Wu Junyi. “I brought two others with me today. Help them in, in a little bit. One of them is wearing a pollution mask, you’ll spot him right away. They’ll be helping me teach over the next several days. They won’t be able to help us all the time, but when they’re here it’ll make the classes even better.”

Of course, director Wu couldn’t have known ‘even better’ meant ‘even more terrifying.’ When he replied, his inflection was full of enthusiasm. “Even better! I’ll bring them in right now, then send them to the bus. Go ahead and get changed.”

Lan Jue nodded, then left.

ζ

Mecha Combat Department.

The tour bus was beautiful, clean and white. Students were

milling about, placing bags of all shapes and sizes underneath the bus and filing in. As they were going to be gone for a month, there was a consider amount of baggage to consider – especially true for the female students.

Zhou Qianlin was the exception. Unlike Tang Mi – who came with a massive rucksack – Qianlin arrived with only a small bag of clothes and toiletries.

The presence of Tang Mi and Zhou Qianlin gave the other students a false sense of security. They believed that, with these two beauties permitted to join, the classes couldn’t be that difficult. For these young men, all full of spunk, this was a very good situation for them to find themselves in. Or so they thought.

Tan Lingyun had also arrived, quite early. She wore a flight suit, which showed off her impressive figure. She did not sit, but instead stood at the front of the bus and watched the happenings with vibrant, excited eyes.

For her, this was certainly a good thing. After all, the belief was she would exit this program a God-ranked pilot. It was the only thing she could think about.

It was Lei Feng’s ability, the power he displayed, was a determining factor in her enthusiasm to be sure. Even without considering everything else that was in store, if she learned the different tricks and skills he’d displayed, that alone would launch her to God-hood.

Wang Hongyuan was also in attendance, though in contrast to Tan Lingyun, he was seated in the very last row of the bus. It looked as though they shared a tacit understanding; one assistant in front, the other in the back, watching. The reality was less altruistic, that being that Wang Hongyuan simply wanted to limit his exposure to Tan Lingyun as much as possible. The chance of blowing his cover was too high.

By now, all the students were settled, chatting loudly among themselves. Just then, a tall figure appeared in the bus’ doorway.

The moment he stepped foot in the bus, silence took over everything. All eyes turned to him, and it felt as though the temperature dropped a good few degrees.

He was tall, with a golden mask and a decidedly frightening aura.

“Hello Drillmaster.” The first few rows of the bust called out to their teacher in unison. The others followed suit on their heels. No one dared show this man disrespect.

Lan Jue swept his eyes over the gathered students. In the end his glance fell upon Tan Lingyun, standing at his side.

She spoke without hesitation. “Drillmaster. Fifty-one registered ARC students and two Assistant Drill instructors, all present and accounted for. We’re ready to go on your command.”

Lan Jue simply nodded. “We’ve got two more coming.”

Two more? Curiosity welled up within the Savage Goddess.
Who else could be coming?

No sooner had the thought crossed her mind, then the two final travelers stepped through the door. Every student on the bus stared, eyes wide, as the mystery individuals appeared.

Chapter 240: Three Demon Drillmasters?

As the two figures entered the tour bus, every ARC student’s eyes popped wide. The reason for their astonishment was simple: their masks were golden as well.

Beyond that the two were of similar height and build to their Drillmaster, with only slight differences visible. In fact, only their flight suits differentiated them.

Their drillmaster had split himself in three?

Tan Lingyun was not spared the jolt. Two more with golden masks – could this mean they were also God-ranked pilots? When did they become a dime a dozen?

Lan Jue’s deep voice filled the bus’ interior. “These two gentlemen will also be your Drillmasters for the near future. You may refer to them as you refer to me.”

“Hello, Drillmasters!” the students cried.

The red-haired one was obviously Chu Cheng, and the blue- haired one Hua Li. The masks ensured neither need  be concerned about their true identity, which was especially important for Hua Li. The two of them nodded in response to the greeting, but said nothing. For Chu Cheng, this was largely due to the fact that he was too busy ogling the several pretty girls in attendance. It was inevitable that both he and Hua Li would eventually turn their attention to Zhou Qianlin, who was seated near the back. They hadn’t expected to see Hera’s doppleganger among the students.

“Off we go.”

The bus lurched forward at Lan Jue’s command. In no time they were out of the school and on their way. Wu Junyi was not present; he’d already relayed his commands to the school and West Hill. From here on out, all decisions were Lan Jue’s, and orders were to be executed upon his request.

The bus rumbled along the road outside of campus and began to pick up speed. West Hill was a lump on the horizon.

West Hill had its own special personnel on staff, who’d been arranged by Wu Junyi to accommodate the training. When they finally arrived, Lan Jue was first off the bus.

“Get off the bus, and hand over all your communicators and any other equipment you can use to communicate with the outside world, “Lan Jue commanded in his regal voice. “If I find anyone holding out, punishment will be severe.”

No outside communication? Suddenly, the students felt like their original idea of a pleasant school outing wasn’t quite what was in store.

None dare deny the God-ranked pilot, so one by one communicators were relinquished to Tan Lingyun and Wang Hongyuan. Hua Li, Chu Cheng and Lan Jue stood in front, silently watching.

What about the Soulcaller gem? Lan Jue’s head swam with Zhou Qianlin’s voice.

That’s fine. You can only communicate with me anyway. What we’re trying to avoid is sharing information with the outside world. Lan Jue was entirely in ‘Drillmaster mode’, so his deep ‘voice’ was somewhat curt.

Once everything had been collected, Lan Jue asked the base personnel to help the students get checked in. He gave them

twenty minutes to settle in and return.

“After twenty minutes, gather in the training field. I’m desperately hoping someone shows up late.” His chilly voice was heavy with the promise of violence. His commands relayed, Lan Jue turned and left.

Chu Cheng and Hua Li fanned out behind him. Chu Cheng’s excited voice whispered his way. “Woo, A-Jue, so vicious! Next time lemme give it a try. Seeing you like this brings me right back to when I got my start. Ugh, those memories are hard to remember!”

“No doubt! But it’s damn interesting.” Hua Li responded.

Lan Jue sighed helplessly. “You two are truly a pain in my ass, you know that? And here you are taking pleasure in others’ misfortune.”

ζ

Tang Mi and Zhou Qianlin walked side by side as they went to check in. Tang Mi quietly spoke to her friend. “Qianlin, I heard

my brother say the Prince of Devils – Nooblet from the first class
– is his Master. This whole ARC class is odd! Beginning with the fact they took all of our communicators! The training we took when we enrolled in the university wasn’t anything like this.”

“Better management, probably,” Qianlin replied. “This training will also be much stricter, I think. We should brace ourselves.”

Tang Mi chuckled dismissively. “I’m in awesome shape, it shouldn’t be any trouble. If you’re worried over your delicate feminine curves why’d you join the training!”

Qianlin shot her a glance. “Delicate? Maybe to you. In willpower, though, you’re not even in my bracket. We can put money on that.”

Tang Mi laughed openly. “You wanna compare yourself to me? Do I seem that low-down?”

“Keep your voice down,” Qianlin said with a glare. “Don’t you see everyone staring at you?”

Sure enough it was hard to count how many people were interested in just how ‘low-down’ Tang Mi really was.

“You better hurry, Little Mi. Twenty minutes isn’t much for you lady folk.” Tang Xiao had been walking ahead of them. He’d turned back when he heard his sister’s voice.

Tang Xiao may have had the advantage over the other students, but his advantage was also why he was so apprehensive. He knew very well how vicious his Master could be. When he said twenty minutes, he damn sure meant twenty minutes. A second late, and he was sure Master would make good on his earlier promise.

Twenty minutes later the three Drillmasters and two Assistants were waiting on the training field. Lan Jue was waiting in the center, with Chu Cheng and Hua Li on either side. Wang Hongyuan and Tan Lingyun were beside them.

Students had been steadily trickling in. Tang Xiao, with his bulging belly and trunk-like legs, had been first to arrive.

The female students were naturally among the last to arrive, with Tang Mi being the final comer. Lan Jue was watching the

clock.

Seeing this, Tang Mi was running to join the others. Her heart was racing as she remembered her first run-in with Nooblet, and the subsequently cruel defeat she suffered from his Brunois Assault. It made her furious. Tang Mi, who was almost never tardy, was moving slowly on purpose. Not only was she the last to arrive, she was also ten seconds late.

The Chinese reads as ‘anger not coming from one place’. In Traditional Chinese medicine, the emotion of anger is said to come from the liver. This expression notes that the anger is coming from many places, so it’s more than just normal anger. It’s pissed the f*** off.

“Drillmaster, all fifty students have arrived.” Tan Lingyun eyes Tang Mi as she gave her report.

Lan Jue nodded.

“Tang Mi, to the front.”

She did as commanded, and separated herself from the group.

Her head was held high, and there was a defiance in her eyes that said ‘what are you going to do about it?’

“To the front,” Lan Jue said softly.

“Alright,” Tang Mi replied. She took another large step forward, bringing her a few feet from the Prince of Devils.

Lan Jue first turned his attention to the other gathered students. “If you recall, I said twenty minutes. Within that time frame, everyone one of you arrived on time. Except for Tang Mi. Now, I’d like everyone to spread out one arm’s length.”

The students all raised their arms at his command, without hesitation, and spread out to give each other room.

“Arms down.”

They complied.

Tang Mi was beginning to sense doubt snaking its way within her. What was this Drillmaster doing, asking her to stand in

front?

Lan Jue went on. “Spread your legs, and drop in to horse stance. I want your thighs level with the ground.”

Horse stance? Everyone could do this. They did as instructed.

Lan Jue then turned to regard Wang Hongyuan and Tan Lingyun. “I’d like our two assistants to serve as examples in the front.”

Tan Lingyun blinked behind her mask. He was going to have her do the horse stance as well? Was this his ‘training’?

Despite her misgivings, she moved to the front and dropped in to the stance. Wang Hongyuan did so without any hesitation or internal grumbling – his hope was to truly improve.

With the two assistants as examples, Lan Jue stood between them and went on. “Horse stance is your foundation. I hope you all can hold it, otherwise – like a poorly built house – your foundation crumbles. If you can’t, you’ll join Tang Mi in her punishment.”

“Yesterday, you all felt the catalysis of the electric strike. Afterwards I put my mind to it, and I came up with an even better way to instigate your Discipline. In the next two months, I’m certain every one of you will enjoy this process. But today, Tang Mi will be… awarded… the first demonstration.”

Tang Mi stood before the gathered assembly, fearlessly staring at the others. What was he going to do, shock her again? She lived through it once, what was there to fear? She was sure she could handle it.

Unfortunately, her back was to Lan Jue. She couldn’t see what was occurring behind her. But the students in front of her could, and every one of them was staring in abject horror.

What are they looking at?

A silver light shimmered in Lan Jue hand and then, without pretext, a long steel needle appeared. It twinkled with a strange, surreal light, and was about the length of Lan Jue’s forearm. The unnatural light caused no small number of students to shiver uncomfortably.

Tang Xiao’s mouth was wide open, literally slack-jawed. He

wanted to call out, but Lan Jue’s harsh glare stopped the words from coming.

The Prince of Devils approached Tang Mi until he stood at her back. He spoke softly. “Bioelectricity had a profound effect on the human body, even down to the molecular level. Student Tang Mi, what is your Discipline?”

“Metal domination,” she said curtly.

Her own Discipline was different from Tang Xiao’s metalmorphosis, but were in the same vein. Tang Xiao’s was slightly better, for it involved both attack and defense. Tang Mi’s own powers were more suited for attack, as her own body couldn’t become metal. As a result, she was slightly behind her brother. A sixth-ranked adept.

Lan Jue nodded. “Very good! Metal dominion, somewhat similar to a Mental Discipline. It relies on the strength and will of metal. In today’s world we encounter metal everywhere. It’s a good Discipline. So, if we want to improve your Discipline there are two locations that are best suited for the task. The first is your Core, and the second your brain. Judging by the waves of power from your aura, your core isn’t located in your brain. If it were, your Talent – and thus your metal domination –

would be better. In my estimation, your core is located in your chest. Is that right?”

Hearing this, Tang Mi couldn’t help but be both confused and surprised. Lan Jue was precisely correct with his determination. Her core was indeed in her chest.

“That’s right,” she said.

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