Skyfire Avenue Chapter 241-250

Chapter 241: We’ll Go All Out!

“Very well,” Lan Jue said in his dispassionate voice. “Let’s get started.” He wasted no time, for as the students looked on in surprise and horror their Drillmaster shoved the giant needle through Tang Mi’s back.

Her whole body went rigid, as though she had been immobilized by some unseen force.

“Xiao Mi!” Tang Xiao and Zhou Qianlin called out in one voice, and Tang Xiao immediately rushed forward to attend to her. He had only the one sister and, even though he knew his Master wasn’t going to hurt her, it went beyond all his instincts not to do something.

There was a flash, and suddenly Lan Jue was holding another, frighteningly long needle. Tang Xiao ran directly in to it in his head-long rush, burying the needle in his own chest. He, too, was frozen in place.

“Did I ask you to break rank? You wanted to protect her from some perceived injustice, and now you’re here right along side her. Anyone else?” Lan Jue glared at the others.

Silence.

The needles were almost two feet long! And nine-tenths of them were buried in the brother and sister.

Tan Lingyun looked own, grinding her teeth. Logically, she understood that this Drillmaster must have a reason for his actions. However, these were students he was hurting. She only just barely managed to control herself.

“Me!” A powerful, moving and steadfast voice rang through the training grounds.

“Xiao Mi is my friend,” the voice assured, as an alluring figure rose from amidst the others. With deliberate steps, the sleek silhouette walked towards the Drillmaster. “If she has to suffer your punishments, then I will too. Go on then.”

Zhou Qianlin stood a small distance apart, challenging Lan Jue with her stare.

Lan Jue was surprised to see such firmness on her beautiful face. None of the other male students had the courage to suffer

the needle’s stick, but here she was asking for it. She might have known who this Drillmaster was, that he would do nothing to harm them. However, just the fact that she was so willing to face whatever it was he was doing with the spike, displayed her bravery.

“As you wish.” He relinquished one needle and, with the flick of a wrist summoned another. In the blink of an eye, he buried it in her chest. She stumbled around, frozen solid, but facing the others dropped in horse stance. As they watched Qianlin’s flush and ruddy face blanched until it was white as a sheet. Her face was frozen in an expression of pain.

And the pain was intense. In truth they did not feel  the stabbing sensation of the needle. Instead it was an all- encompassing numbness. At least on the outside. Within their tortured bodies it felt like every organ was twisted, jerking and locked in spasm. Blood rushed through their veins at intense speed, making them feel bloated and swollen. But they couldn’t move a finger.

“Enough! How could you do this?!” Tan Lingyun could finally take no more. She faced Lan Jue, her voice thick with anger and incredulity.

Flash. Suddenly Lan Jue was standing before the Savage Goddess, but before she could react he thrust a needle in to her throat. She froze.

An overwhelming sensation of anger hung over the area like an encroaching tempest. The pressure made it hardtop breathe.

When Lan Jue spoke again, his voice was as detached and dismissive as it was from the onset. “I had told you all yesterday, that once we got started you wouldn’t be able to back out. You had your chance leave. Now you’re here, and this is my domain. I am your master here, and unless you can take me on… unless you can beat me, then you’re going to do everything I say. You’re going to suffer every punishment I levy. And every transgression, will be dealt with harshly.”

His eyes swept across the crouching pilots. “You probably think I’m crazy. Even my assistants are displeased, and now punished. And you’re right… I am crazy. And since this is my domain anyone who irritates me – staff included – will  be treated as harshly as you will be.”

As he spoke he made his way to Wang Hongyuan. His second assistant made no effort to evade as Lan Jue plunged a needle in to him.

“So courageous, you young men and women! You witness the cruel treatment of your colleagues, your teachers. You stay where you are. All… but two women. Very nice. If this is the strength of character I can expect from NEU students, I’d hate to encounter a coward.”

“We are not cowards!” Geng Yang, situated near the front, shot to a standing position. He glared hatefully at Lan Jue. “Fellow students, we don’t have to take this! Here’s here to hurt us! How can we sit here and let him treat Zhou Qianlin and Tang Mi this way? If you’re men, then advance!” With that, he charged forward with a rallying cry. Behind him, a golden aura bloomed in to existence much like a small sun. A dozen golden orbs launched out from it towards Lan Jue.

The fiery, metallic orbs raced ahead with malicious intent. However, as they approached the Drillmaster, each other exploded in a shower of golden light.

“Metamorphosis?” Lan Jue watched him approach with interest, but his reaction time did not suffer. Almost unconsciously he weaved a net of interlacing electric bolts – a net of crackling electricity. As the orbs interacted and collided with it, they subsequently exploded in to nothingness.

Geng Yang’s call to arms ignited the fiery passions of several young men. They rushed at the Drillmaster, eyes red with rage.

They knew they stood no chance, but how could they not be incited to action after what they’d seen and heard? Were they not men? The women they admired and desired had stood up in defiance, it was unthinkable for them to cower like children.

The sky lit up as Disciplines of a dozen different colors flared.
They charged at their Drillmaster from all directions.

“Do any of you believe you stand a chance, in the face of my power?” He shot out a leg and viciously kicked Geng Yang away. Lan Jue vanished, only the briefest glimpses of him visible as one student after another was viciously thrown from the crowd. They tumbled to the ground, with needles jabbed in various angles within them. They then lay on the floor, their bodies frozen in the instant they were stabbed.

Chu Cheng and Hua Li stood in the distance, watching the students revolt. Chu Cheng leaned towards Hua Li, and spoke softly. “Look at this punk. Why does he get to have all the fun?”

Hua Li responded with a lilting sigh. “But… he also never told

us not to get involved. Onward!” Hua Li dissolved in to a beam of pale blue light, and was on the move.

Chu Cheng, naturally, could not refuse the promise of entertainment and himself raced off in the other direction. The two insidious young men launched themselves in to the fray of angry youth and wild discipline. Neither employed their own powers – they didn’t have to. As they danced among the rioting students, they would grab one, then throw them towards Lan Jue.

Lan Jue’s response to their assault was relaxed. He handled them easily as they came. With the addition of his two companions, the revolt was quickly settled. In no time at all every students was motionless, sporting a two-foot long syringe jabbed somewhere or another.

“At least your response proves you still have some measure of courage. But you’re weak, pathetic, and rash. For that, you shall pay the price.” Lan Jue’s derisive voice hung in the quiet air.

The Prince of Devils raised his right hand, and within a crackling blue light was revealed. Slowly, the orb of electric light grew and changed, until it was an undulating ball of golden power. They couldn’t move, couldn’t react, but each one

of the students stared in terror as their Drillmaster prepared their next punishment.

He wants to kill us, they thought. He’s going to kill us!

They barely had time to fear for their lives, before the orb shot up in to the air and exploded a few feet overhead. The syringes jutting from each student acted like a lightning road, guiding the golden bolts right to them.

Before long, a dim golden aura hung over every frozen figure. Every one of them were frozen in twisted positions. Their mouths were open, but despite their pain, fury and fear, not a sound would come out.

It was difficult to imagine what they were going through! Just the initial jab from the needle alone was difficult to bear, however now it felt like they were being ripped apart. And then compressed, and then torn to ribbons. This wasn’t pain, to them – this was obliteration.

It wasn’t simply a physical pain they experienced, but a horrible affliction that scarred their souls. No adept, no matter how strong their Discipline, could mitigate how monstrous this

pain felt. In fact, it was like their Talent had been sealed away.

As Chu Cheng and Hua Li looked at their handy-work, they spied no end of twitching students. Some just showed the whites of their eyes – their pupils had rolled back in to their skulls.

Lan Jue walked among them, stopping occasionally to slap them.

As he did, the golden aura blanketing some of the students would react by weakening visibly. Others would grow stronger. Wang Hongyuan and Tan Lingyun, for instance, shown with brilliant golden light.

It took several minutes for the release of power to be modulated in this way. Once he’d finished, Lan Jue returned to his original position.

He stood before Tang Mi. Gently, he turned her around so she could see the destruction he’d wrought. He spoke to her softly, calmly. “The suffering they are experience, is directly as a result of your actions. They endure this torture, because you were too stubborn to follow orders. If this were a battlefield, your fellow

soldiers would all be dead – because you had to make your point. You could die a thousand times and never make up for a mistake of that magnitude. When the moment comes that lives rely on you, remember that you are not one person. You are part of a team. You are all part of a unit. The next time you decide to act, think first about how this will affect your companions.”

Tang Mi had no way to respond to the Drillmaster’s instruction, by word or deed. Her eyes were dim, and she could barely hear what he was saying. She only wanted to die… she so badly wanted to die.

Lan Jue took a step back, and looked at Hua Li. “You may begin.”

Chapter 242: Spastic Pain

Hua Li nodded in acknowledgement, then lifting both his hands, pressed them toward the sky. Under a beam of gentle blue light, waves of power rippled from him. The cyan-colored emulsions intertwined with Lan Jue’s sparks of electric power. As the undulating waves spread outward, they covered all of the students and teachers.

As the power blanketed them, the students  and  assistants could feel tendrils of it worming its way in to them. It felt like being splashed with scalding water, but somehow eased the spasms caused by Lan Jue’s bio-electric strikes. Each of the afflicted began to feel pulses of their Discipline trying to break out.

The throbbing waves of their Discipline coincided with the ripples of Hua Li’s energy as they washed over the students. They were still writhing from the electricity, but strangely, the twitches became rather rhythmic.

Gradually, the tearing pain was reduced to more manageable levels.

Lan Jue remained standing before them, motionless, however

his eyes stared fixedly at each of his charges in turn. His psychic sight carefully assessed the condition of all of them.

They had only two months to incite a qualitative change in each of these aspiring pilots. It wasn’t going to be easy, for anyone. Extraordinary measures would be required.

Everything they experienced today, was just the beginning.

Lan Jue paid special attention to the changes Qianlin’s body was undergoing. Although her cultivation speed was impressive, her overall Discipline power was still weak. Compared to the others involved in the program, she was the furthest behind. It was for this reason he’d used significantly less electric power on her.

Of course, in only a very short time Qianlin had brought him no end of surprise. This girl, who looked so soft and gentle, was tougher than all the guys in this training field, suffering the bolts of electricity without hesitation and recovering quickly. It had apparently served to incite her Discipline as intended, but the effect on her physically was minimal. Her muscles, meridians, organs… all of them were exceptionally hardy. She had handled it better than any of the others, and of them all looked the least in pain.

This was greatly surprising to Lan Jue. He’d carefully regulated the first strike against her, but she drank it like a sponge. Her power absorbed the undulating energy from Hua Li as well.

He adjusted the shock so that it was more in line with the other students. Instantly her relaxed face twisted in a pained scowl. He carefully watched as her body adjusted, and despite her expression he saw that she was sustaining against the increased pressure well. Where she stronger in Talent, he thought to himself, she would be able to sustain several times more punishment than any of the others.

The golden electric light filled the training area, bathed it in shimmering light. Workers in the distance looked on, stunned. They’d never witnessed any sort of training like this, and naturally since they weren’t the ones being stabbed in the chest and repeated blasted by lightning bolts, they relished the entertainment.

Chu Cheng’s eyes twinkled as he looked on. He was filled with an intense sense of satisfaction. The scene confirmed once more to him the fact he always knew – Lan Qing and Lan Jue’s up- bringing must have been something terrible. These kids, they were lucky.

Heh.

The seconds ticked by. Each one felt like a lifetime, at least to the students who remained jerking like epileptics. It was certainly only by virtue of Hua Li’s healing aura that they were able to continue suffering the torture.

The first student to begin foaming at the mouth was a younger student, smaller than the others. Only then was his body spared further shock, and he slipped in to a coma.

A moment later, a second student follows suit.

Eventually the golden bolts subsided, one by one. As they did, the student it was attached to collapsed and lost consciousness.

This was as good a metric as any to compare these pilot’s sustaining ability. The stronger they were, the longer they could hold out. The opposite was just as true.

The first student to pass out had lasted thirty minutes.

Lan Jue left them where they fell. There was no more electricity, but Hua Li’s healing waves remained. By the time the clock ticked the final second of an hour, most of the students were dead to the world. Only a few rare holdouts remained.

Among them were Tang Xiao, and Tang Mi, along with the mecha piloting star Geng Yang. Wang Hongyuan and Tan Lingyun were also still standing. But most impressive, was Zhou Qianlin!

Qianlin remained, teeth gritted and valiantly suffering past the point of many of her stronger classmates. The trauma was still within her means to withstand. Lan Jue considered increasing the power of the electricity coursing through her even higher. However, he decided against it, fearing that her weak Discipline wouldn’t be able to protect her against serious injury. He left her as she was.

Another ten minutes passed before Geng Yang had enough. Tang Mi was next, then Tang Xiao. They fell one after the others, like dominos. By the time Tang Xiao passed out, he’d lasted five minutes longer than the school’s previously favorite pilot.

They were getting in to dangerous territory, now. The longer a body was locked in electric spasm, the more fragile it became.

Three persisted; Wang Hongyuan, Tan Lingyun, and Zhou Qianlin.

Lan Jue watched, speechless. Qianlin stared right back at him. Her body was wracked in convulsions, but her conscious remained firm as iron.

Her willpower was unbreakable, a fact Lan Jue was shocked to discover. She had surprised all of her class-mates, even his own chubby disciple. It was incredible!

Eighty minutes.

Qianlin’s whole body was red, like she’d been burned. The tics and twitches were more violent than ever. Still, she grit her teeth and willed her body to hold.

No, it was too much. This was her first time suffering something like this, and too much could cause irreparable damage.

He approached his young charge, until he stood directly before her.

Zhou Qianlin stared at him.

Lan Jue lifted a hand, intending to relieve her of the electric current. Before he could, however, a weak but obstinate voice filled his mind.

I’ve got it!

You… There was hesitation in his answer.

Chu Cheng and Hua Li had by now understood what was happening. Both of them were equivalent in power to Lan Jue, at least comparatively. Both of them could certainly maintain themselves under Lan Jue’s electric prison. However, they understood what it took to do so, so they watched Qianlin with deep interest, to see how far she could go.

‘Endurance’ wasn’t enough. You needed an iron force of will – something she evidently possessed. All of this, and she was just a young girl.

Lan Jue took a deep breath, and suppressed the urge to ease her suffering. He bit back on the anxious lump in his throat. He nodded to her, ever so slightly, then went back to his position in the middle of them all.

He respected her decision, and to a degree understood why she made it. He had no reason to make it stop – if she wanted to go on, that was her right.

Erratic lights still flashed through the arena. The atmosphere was thick, and the air began to warp around the hold-outs.

One hour and twenty-five minutes in, Wang Hongyuan let out a sigh then collapsed. Only Tan Lingyun and Zhou Qianlin remained standing.

Tan Lingyun never took her eyes from Lan Jue. Like Qianlin, her eyes were bright and stubborn. What’s more, by now she had a faint understanding of Lan Jue’s purpose.

She was the strongest of those who’d been caught in this electric trap. An eighth-ranked Discipline was nothing to scoff at, and subsequently her voltage was highest. At this point, it was about five times more powerful than what the students had

encountered.

Under the intense stimulation, Tan Lingyun could feel her core furiously at work. With each pulse of power, and each shock of energy, she felt not only her perception of the outside world growing but also her energy itself.

The experience was hellish, but she faced it with excitement.

The students couldn’t feel the slight changes in their Discipline, even if they were awake. It was different for the Savage Goddess. And it wasn’t just her energy or power – her body, too, was becoming stronger.

Any doubts Tan Lingyun had at the outside had been quieted, now. She could feel through the waves of elemental power, that the golden-masked newcomer was at least a ninth-level Talent. It was confirmed by the ac that it would require at least that much power to sustain this release of energy for so long.

If Lan Jue was the Prince of Devils, then this man must be his counterpart, a guardian angel.

I… must… endure! Over and over, Tan Lingyun snarled the words to herself.

Suddenly, Lan Jue was standing before her.

“We’ll finish here.”

The golden bolts of electricity vanished. Tan Lingyun and Zhou Qianlin were freed from their torment.

Qianlin swayed on her feet for a moment and then, with a defeated sigh, slumped to the ground. However, she did not lose consciousness. She lay crumpled in a heap, breathing heavily. Residual tremors periodically swept through her.

Tan Lingyun was in much better condition. She had dropped to one knee, and was panting headily like her younger student. Her flight suit was soaked through with sweat, and her whole body shook.

“Wh-y… di-…. did you… stop?” she said between shuddering gasps.

“I only have the one female assistant,” he replied dispassionately.

“If you were to pass out, who’d look after our female students?”

He regarded her for a moment longer. Then, with nothing more to say, he motioned the distant workers to approach.

Chapter 243: Boiled And Eaten?

A contingent of workers Lan Jue had had Director Wu prepare beforehand came rushing onto the field. Three levitating medical vehicles came with them.

The paralyzed students were loaded on to the cars and removed from the area.

The flashing green aura around Tan Lingyun shimmered and dissipated. She had recovered from Lan Jue’s assault, requiring a few minutes’ rest before she was able to rise to her feet.

Zhou Qianlin was still gasping for breath a short distance away. She was in and out of consciousness, lying on the floor.

“What else are you planning?” Tan Lingyun stared at Lan Jue with glassy eyes.

“Come with me,” he replied. With that Lan Jue, Hua Li, Chu Cheng and Tan Lingyun followed one of the workers as he led them from the training grounds.

Tan Lingyun, her teeth clenched, walked behind them best she can. Her gait would sometimes suffer from a stagger, and her knees threatened to give, but she continued on. Pride alone pushed her to keep up.

They followed the worker in to the training base.

Under Lan Jue’s instruction, the flat-bed cars bearing the unconscious students were separated according to gender. The boys were placed in one big room, and the girls in another. The center of each of these rooms was dominated by a boiling pond.

“W-what’s going on?” Tan Lingyun asked again, peering at Lan Jue in curiosity.

Lan Jue’s response was quiet. “Boil them. Get everyone in the water and watch them. No one is permitted to leave until an hour has passed. You are to join them. Understand?”

“Boil…” The Savage Goddess looked at him with wide eyes. She was slowly becoming convinced the man in front of her truly was a devil in disguise.

“But… why?” She asked dumbly.

“I’m going to eat them,” Lan Jue replied.

“Ah!” Chu Cheng and Hua Li couldn’t help but snicker at Tan Lingyun’s reaction.

The students were efficiently set up in their respective rooms. Lan Jue had several of the female staff accompany Tan Lingyun to the female section.

“Remember, no one gets out till time’s up, yourself included! Disobey at your own risk.” She could hear Lan Jue call after her as she left.

The two rooms were entirely segregated for privacy. Hua Li left with Tan Lingyun, while Lan Jue began dropping pouches of some unknown material in to the pool.

As the contents of the bags boiled in the intense heat, the pool’s waters changed to many different colors. Eventually the colors combined, and the water adopted a dark brown tinge, almost like a coffee.

Lan Jue infused the water with a jolt of electricity to keep the contents churning.

Lan Jue stepped back, and with an indication of his hand the workers began to strip the male students of their flight suits. One by one they were placed in the pool with only their heads above water.

Chu Cheng watched from Lan Jue’s side. “You know, I really should be on the female side. I’m positive I could do a better job than Hua Li.”

“You?” Lan Jue said, his irritated tone clearly delineating his opinion on the matter. “If you went it’d be for the sole purpose of getting us all arrested. So long as you’re in my sight I can relax. But if any of the young men catch your fancy far be it from me to interfere.”

Chu Cheng’s middle finger relayed the fiery young man’s response.

The boiling pool was now a boiling potion of herbs and medicines. Once everyone was in, it was clear Lan Jue had not been exaggerating. They were all to be boiled alive.

On the other side of the partition, Hua Li was filling the relatively smaller female pool with medicine. Once he was finished, he left and returned to Lan Jue.

Soon the girls were also submerged in the mixture. Tan Lingyun was the only one conscious, and hesitation was clear in her posture as she looked upon the furiously boiling waters.

Could a person even handle it, she thought? She watched as the young women’s fair complexion quickly became beat red from the heat. Still they remained asleep.

With a determined snarl, Tan Lingyun removed her clothes and jumped in.

She didn’t ease her way in – to her, a short spell of suffering beat long and drawn-out any day. It was only hot water, she told herself. It couldn’t do anything to her she hadn’t already suffered.

It was only a few moments later that she started screaming. She was just about to leap out when a strange began to gush forth and diffuse some of the scalding heat.

Ey? This power…

It wasn’t long before she found the heart of the issue. This energy wasn’t her own. In fact, it was a property in the water, brought about by the Drillmaster’s electric stimulation.

The energy somehow regulated the heat, and though ‘anguish’ was a suitable description for how she felt, it was still just within the realm of bearable. Her mind went to the pouches of medicine floating along the water’s surface. She sunk in to the water, jaw clenched.

They were in fact being boiled alive!

Surely, any outsider who could see this would be horrified. Even the workers looked on with pale faces and doubt in their eyes. They had been commanded to prepare the water earlier, so they knew precisely how hot it was! They were convinced putting the students in there was a danger to their health.

Like were like fleshy hard-boiled eggs.

However, their misgivings were squelched. The school had

made it very clear the Drillmaster was to get whatever he wanted. Every order, no matter how strange or unpalatable, was to be carried out to the letter. The school treated them well here, and none of the workers were keen on looking for other work. They comforted themselves with the assurance that the NEU wouldn’t do anything to really hurt their students.

Ten minutes later

A scream rang out.

“Aaaaahhh!” The noise was shrill, forlorn, as though someone were being murdered. Like a ding swine.

A large and fleshy figure leaped out from the water, throwing boiling droplets in every which direction. His whole body was bright pink like a boiled shrimp’s.

Before the bulky silhouette could entirely escape from the hellish waters, a bolt of electricity struck them right back down.

Splash. The stout body belly-flopped back in to the scalding water. Their pitiful cries abruptly fell silent.

A few seconds later, like a cresting wale, the fat body returned to the surface screaming bloody murder. Another blast, and again he was submerged.

“Ahhh! I’m boiling to death!” The screams were given words, this time, but they were no less tragic. The fat student made no further attempts to extricate themselves from the pool, but writhed pitifully beneath the roiling waters.

Tang Xiao’s fat head bobbed on the surface, contorted in pain.

Tang Xiao wasn’t the strongest of those who were electrocuted and injected today. Wang Hongyuan, the seventh- ranked adept that he was, took that title. What he did possess, however, was better endurance than the rest of them, and a faster recovery speed.

Part of this was due to his metalmorphosis Discipline, certainly. But more than that, his resistance was a result of the terrible beatings he was receiving daily from Mika.

He’d been knocked out a few dozen times at least by this point, so he was the first to pop out of it today.

Of course Tang Xiao desperately wished that wasn’t the case. If he were unconscious, he at least couldn’t feel this excruciating pain.

The scalding waters caused him to scream over and over. His small, pitiful-looking eyes glistened with tears. He glared through the burning drops at the stoic, golden-masked Lan Jue.

Steam filled the room, making it difficult to see anything clearly. Lan Jue’s lithe figure seemed to undulate in the mist, disappearing and reappearing through the cloud of pain like a true demon.

“Teacher… save me please! Why are you doing this?” Tang Xiao howled, gasping desperately for breath through the screams and choking steam.

Chu Cheng’s gloating voice was the one that responded. “He’s the one that put your fat ass in there. You think he’s going to save you? It’s best to suck it up and learn to live in there, pig- boy. It’d be better for you.”

“Ahh! It’s too much, I’m dying!” The poor child whined and writhes incessantly, but Lan Jue made no move to save him. He

had no desire to make it stop just yet.

“It’s too much,” Tang Xiao whined at his Master. “Professor, I can’t handle it!”

Finally, Lan Jue responded, though his voice was chilly and dismissive. “If you can’t handle this slight discomfort, how are you going to survive through the rest of the training? Keep shouting, but it’ll only waste energy. Where I you, I’d be focusing on the changes in my body instead of complaining. Pain is the best way to temper oneself. Enjoy it.”

Tang Xiao said nothing further, after all he understood his Master on some level. He knew the type of person that he was. If there was one thing he knew absolutely, it was that nothing he could say would make this situation better. Behave, and endure. That’s all he could do.

With his determination made, Tang Xiao quit his woeful cries, grit his teeth, and focused on the pain. What he discovered was that, somehow, the needle his teacher had inserted within him was somehow sealing away his Discipline. No matter how he tried to pull it forth, to protect him from the terrible waters, no power would answer. He truly had no choice but to bear it on his own.

Lan Jue’s voice rang in his ears, over and over. This is your last chance. You can’t back out. Last chance. Tang Xiao understood, now, why he’d said it so many times.

The needles and lightning were just the beginning, and now the hot pool. This was the training! They were there for one purpose – to experience the torment of all eighteen levels of hell.

But despite the terrible situation he found himself in, Tang Xiao would do it again. If given the opportunity to change his mind, he wouldn’t. That didn’t mean, though, that he wouldn’t hesitate.

One phrase from his master rolled in his mind over and over again. If you decide to come, don’t even dream of leaving. Once this two-month training starts, there’s no going back.

The thoughts helped solidify Tang Xiao’s resolve. He knew there was nothing he could do. He wasn’t alone, there were others at his side suffering the same fate. He had to change his attitude. He narrowed his eyes, and learned to love the pain.

Another piercing scream filled the thick air. This time, it was

from Wang Hongyuan. The dance teacher, like Tang Xiao before him, instinctively pounced from the water to try and distance himself from the agony. Like Tang Xiao, a blast of lightning sent him tumbling back in.

The silver mask hid his face, though his figure gave him away.

“Lan-“

CRACK!

This second blast was terrifically more powerful than the last, and before Wang Hongyuan could inadvertently scream the Prince of Devil’s name, he was frozen solid.

Chapter 244: Boiled Alive

“Shut up, and take it like a man.” Lan Jue’s cold voice was sharply contrasted by the scalding hot water.

Wang Hongyuan had had enough time, now, to react to the water. His Discipline wasn’t much stronger than Tang Xiao’s, though his cultivation was further along. However, the heat was proving particularly difficult to bear in contrast to Tang Xiao – largely because he didn’t have several centimeters of fat protecting him!

“Drillmaster, what is this? Why am I in here?! This water is boiling!” Wang Hongyuan realized his folly, and kept Lan Jue’s name out of the conversation. But that didn’t stop his screams from being any less shrill. He screamed and writhed, but dared not attempt to leave the water.

“Nothing. Behave, endure.” Lan Jue’s voice was calm and easy.

The intense heat worked as a stimulus for a person’s mental fortitude. Fortunately, Wang Hongyuan was a smart cookie. It took him no time at all to understand this was part of the training. So he shut his mouth, scowled through the pain and

suffered in silence.

Tang Xiao and Wang Hongyuan were able to get this far largely due to their understanding of their teacher. The others students, however, didn’t have that benefit. One after the other they awoke to the heat and pain, and didn’t know why.

As one screaming voice arose another would join it. Then they would fall silent and another would take its place. The pained screams of men and women filled the pools. It was like a song of suffering.

Blasts of thunder would punctuate the cries. Whether screams or curses, Lan Jue didn’t hesitate to drop bolts of lightning upon his students. Under his brutal ministrations, not a soul could escape the boiling pools. This formerly relaxing room was now a living hell, filled the ear-piercing screams of its victims.

The female side was less soul-crushingly harsh, though screams were still heard. Likely because there were fewer of them.

In general, there were fewer women who were interested in becoming career mecha combat pilots. Other than Zhou Qianlin

and Tang Mi, there were only two other female students in the class of fifty. Adding Tan Lingyun, their group had only five girls.

Tan Lingyun had had the longest opportunity to adapt, and her higher level of cultivation helped tremendously. She couldn’t employ her Discipline, but she could sense – little by little – the medicines in the water permeating through her. It was raising her own body temper to match the pool. As time went on, not only did she feel capable of bearing more punishment, contrarily she felt a sense of comfort spreading from within her.

The stiffness from the Drillmaster’s lightning attacks was beginning to wear off, along with the numbness. The catalytic properties were beginning to wane as well, but she could feel the results even in the suppleness of her movements.

Indeed, her Discipline seemed sealed, but there was more energy flowing through her veins with her blood. It brought the power to all of her muscles and meridians. She felt like something had taken root, and was growing.

Although Tan Lingyun couldn’t yet understand what benefit this treatment would have on her, she had to admit that she

hadn’t felt her Discipline like this in a very long time. Not since it first Awoke.

The manifestation of an Adept’s Discipline was energy, but it was an energy that intermingled seamlessly with the body. Thus, as the Adept grew so too did their power, but it simply felt like the normal growth process. Like one’s own skeleton and organs, they grew as time progressed but their changes went unnoticed.

And what was this medicine in the water?

Admittedly Tan Lingyun had been too busy focusing on the pain to consider these sorts of things. Now she was able to start considering her surroundings, and as she did surprise filled her pretty eyes.

She was certainly no expert in medicine, but she’d used medicines to promote body and Discipline growth once before, when testing her Talent. She remembered the smell of it, and it smelled very similar to what she was immersed in.

Golden mugwort, that’s what was in the water. And what else? It was used to clear the collaterals and bring nutritive

energies to the five organs. She couldn’t recall the name.

Chinese herbal medicine, as part of the TCM system, performs functions based on their various properties in accordance to the ‘Five Phases’ – that is, their elemental properties. Those are Fire
-> Metal -> Wood -> Earth -> Water. Ai Jiu, or Chinese mugwort, is used most often for moxibustion and aromatherapy, where it has properties of cooling and clearing. In addition, Chinese medical theory posits that our organs are separated in to Yin and Yang organs. The Yin organs are considered the more important because they provide essential energies for growth- reproduction-health. These are the Lungs, Liver, Kidney, Spleen and Heart. Technically the Pericardium is also a yin organ, but ancient texts bundled it in with the Heart, to call them collective ‘the Five Zang Organs’. In TCM, you’ll often want to support and/or brings nutritive energies to the Yin organs to help give them the power they need to fight illness.

How much medicine did they need to fill up this whole pool?! The anger and indignation in her heart subsided, replaced by surprise.

Is this some sort of unorthodox teaching method?

At present Tan Lingyun was the only one to puzzle it out. Her

body was strong enough to withstand the heat, leaving her mind free to consider other things.

The other students, Wang Hongyuan among them, were too lost in their abyss of suffering.

Just think; the smell of boiling students, so nice.

“Save me! I don’t want to train. Let me go. Let me out!”

“Drillmaster, I’m sorry. Forgive me! Forgive me please, I was wrong. I don’t want to be boiled alive!”

“Mother…”

Cries of all sorts, curses of all styles, rang through West Hill. The training grounds had become purgatory for these pour souls. Cries rang out, rising and falling in a terrible crescendo, as dozens of bodies writhed and screamed themselves hoarse.

Not all present were screaming, however. The first to awaken
– Tang Xiao, was huddled in a corner, taking long deep breaths.

He was trying his best to avoid the other students.

Wang Hongyuan was not far away, similarly cowering in the waters. The both of them knew screaming would serve no purpose. Lan Jue would not allow them to escape. Though their understanding didn’t go as far as Tan Lingyun’s, as they fought for calm the scent of medicine filled their nostrils.

It shouldn’t be harmful… in fact, it mustn’t be harmful! Once they came to this realization, they simply shut their mouths and took it.

Where any normal person put in to this water, they’d have been cooked through in short order, but Adepts were a different breed. From the day their Discipline awakens, an Adept’s energy flows through them, nourishing and strengthening their bodies. It was also the reason why Adepts made the best mecha pilots – they could handle more than an average man.

The students were horrified and surprised to discover that the steel needles their Drillmaster had used somehow sealed their Discipline away. Still their energy persisted, and in fact had no problem protecting them from the more harmful effects of the water. None of them knew, also, that Hua Li had infused them with the water element to protect them.

With all that in mind, despite how cruel and terrible the situation looked there was no real risk.

The peels of thunder and blasts of lightning grew steadily fewer and farther between. Only a few hold-outs still had strength enough to struggle against the pain.

The seconds ticked by. After what felt like an age, Hua Li stepped close to Lan Jue and spoke in to his ear. “That’s enough, I think.”

Lan Jue gave him a slight nod.

He knew very well that going too far was just as bad as not doing enough. But today was the first day, so he had to make a show of being harsh. He had to teach them a lesson, so that they understood they will need to follow orders during the training. On top of that, there was a saying in former era China: First time taking the medicine, double the dose.

As for mental and nervous breakdowns, there was no chance of that happening. Part of the injection he’d given them was to prevent that from happening. If any of them were on the verge of having a mental break, the medicine would put them in to a

medically induced coma.

This was designed to prove to them, unequivocally, that they were capable of suffering far more than they realized. Until now, not a single student had fallen unconscious. They sat in the water, still struggling against the pain with vitality.

Five minutes passed, and those in the water began to feel a drowsiness hang over them. Their struggles lessened, and that was the clue Lan Jue needed. The workers began feeding rails in to the water.

“You’ve got three minutes to climb these rails and get out. If after three minutes you’re unable to climb out, you’ll stay in another half an hour.” He delivered the instructions, then left.

The students looked at each other in surprise and uncertainty. Silence prevailed, until a fat body churned the already tumultuous body in his rush to clamber up the railing. It was a very clear display of the phrase ‘fighting for your life.’ He was out of the terrible water much faster than his girth would have to believe. Escaping the torture, he collapsed belly first on the floor like a puddle of flesh. He took large, heaving breaths as he lay inert, unable to move a finger.

The second to exit the pool did so with impressive grace. Like a swallow, he was up the pool and out on to the ground with pretty and dramatic movements. Obviously, it was the masked Wang Hongyuan.

With their example, the other students rushed towards the poles like a swarm of hornets. Their speed was impressive.

“It’s pretty hot,” Lan Jue commented in a leisurely tone, wiping sweat from his brow. He seemed decidedly less murderous than usual.

“Why do I get the sense hurting these poor kids is satisfying some dark craving in you.” Chu Cheng watched the exchange from behind Lan Jue, hands behind his head and fingers laced together.

“Because you have mental problems.” Hua Li’s voice interrupted his friend’s thoughts, as he approached from behind with his hands stuck in his pockets.

“You’re the one with mental problems. Damn near psychotic,” Chu Cheng muttered in irritation.

Hua Li looked over the students. “Suitably intense, but this required quite a lot of medicine. Next I guess we’ll see how they react.”

Lan Jue chuckle behind the mask. “That’s enough for this morning. We’ll pick it up after lunch.”

From the moment they arrived to now, with the students steaming pitifully on the floor, only two hours or so had passed. To the kids, however, it felt like a lifetime of wading through hell.

“Meet me in the training field in half an hour. If anyone’s late, you’ll try for round two of this treatment. Lan Jue’s icy-cold voice was like a blast of thunder to their eardrums. They lay panting on the floor, beat-red like well-cooked meat.

Half an hour!

Tang Xiao was the first to react, urging his body to turn just enough for him to confirm the time with the clock hanging on the wall. It was an act quickly mirrored by all the rest of the students.

With the lessons derived from Tang Mi’s tardy arrival, who would dare challenge the Drillmaster?

The situation wasn’t much better on the female side of the pool.

In order to save face in front of the others, and retain the dignity of an instructor, Tan Lingyun had found the willpower to sit up once out of the pool. Zhou Qianlin had tried several times to follow, but her body wouldn’t let her move. Tang Mi, one long leg splayed over Qianlin’s lower back, panted pitifully against the floor. It was quite the display, but even if the men next door were given an opportunity to take a peek, they were all too weak and beaten to appreciate the views.

Chapter 245: Afternoon Delight

It took about twenty minutes in total for the students to pull themselves out of the water, throw on some clothes, and gather in the training yard.

It was a slightly easier time for the women. There were only five of them, so it was easier to distinguish their clothes from the pile and get organized. While their hair was messy, they were at least fully clothed, if somewhat uncomfortable.

The young men bustled among themselves.

For a dozen or so of them, their clothes had been cast in a pile. In the midst of their pain – and the fear of being late – they chaotically rummaged through the fabric in a desperate search for their own gear. In fact, those who got themselves together in a reasonable time frame were the exceptions.

Tang Xiao, for instance, had simply wrapped himself in two pieces of clothing; one on top, and one on bottom.

Flight suits were form fitting, and sadly Tang Xiao had been unable to find his own. They were composed of an elastic fabric,

but he was simply too large to grab any suit. So he had to improvise, using the two separate ones he’d grabbed for a shirt and pants. The middle was left bare, and his expansive stomach wobbled in protest as he bounded around.

But as comical and pitiful as he appeared, the other students weren’t any better off. Those with average builds were lucky, and they just grabbed whatever was lying around to cover themselves appropriately. Some of the slower students, they were dismayed to discover, ended up with no clothes at all. They had to settle with picking up whoevers’ underwear they could muster and running out to the field.

They were a pathetic sight, as they stumbled out on to the field. A number of students were still groaning. Residual tics and jerks still plagued a few.

Hua Li, Lan Jue and Chu Cheng were waiting in their golden masks. They stood in the center of the field, silent as the students desperately gathered.

Seeing them in such dire circumstances, it took everything Lan Jue had to keep his severe countenance in place and not burst in to laughter.

Tan Lingyun lead the girls in to position, all the way glaring daggers at Lan Jue. She snapped to attention. “Drillmaster. Assistant Instructor Tan Lingyun, reporting all our female students in attendance.”

“Line up,” was all Lan Jue would say.

The male students came in bits and pieces, led presumably by Wang Hongyuan. His figure was one of the lucky few where he was able to simply grab a flight suit that served its purpose. When he reported in, his tone was gruff and embarrassed. He stood to one side, his head hung and staring at the ground. The silver mask, however, retained its stoic expression.

It was an impressive feat, all things considered. They were all here, not one tardy student.

Lan Jue’s soft voice greeted them. “Smells good, doesn’t it – the smell of boiling people.”

Silence greeted his words. Even the groaning stopped. Who would dare single themselves out before this mad man? Who knew what other terrible things this monster had in store.

Now they were truly beginning to understand why the Drillmaster had chosen to call himself the Prince of Devils. It was a nickname that probably didn’t go far enough. Ever since becoming adepts, none of the students could imagine they would have to suffer such torment. And that’s precisely what it was – torment. How was this training?!

“Do you see yourselves? Like a routed army. As you are now, if you were really in a fight you’d drop everything and run like cowards.” Lan Jue addressed them, his voice both derogatory and disappointed.

“Director Wu assured me you were the best the NEU had. The university’s strongest and most skilled mecha pilots. Not according to what I’m seeing. I’m already doubtful there’s a decent pilot in the lot of you. Today’s class is going to teach you two things: First, I require absolute obedience in all things. Anyone who dares violate this rule, I have methods that’ll push the limits of what humans can endure. Second, you all are a team. As a team you will suffer as your team mates suffer. You will face the same trials and difficulties. These people around you, they’re your compatriots. Brothers and sisters in arms. Remember this when you make a decision, for it affects every person here. I don’t care who make a mistake, everyone – including our two assistants – will suffer the consequences.”

“This morning’s class will end here. You have an hour to get yourselves tidied up, shower, eat and rest. Meet back here when your hour’s up. You can be late… honestly.” The last few words were delivered with sincerity, the Prince of Devil’s intonation free and easy. But the gathered students weren’t fooled. They felt that chill running up their spine, heard the ominous wind at their backs. No one said a word.

“I’ll finish with a reminder,” Lan Jue went on. “Those needles are to be left where they are. Anyone who removed theirs, will be stabbed twice. Dismissed.”

He left, without saying anything further.

Once the three demon drilmasters were out of sight, the students were finally able to relax. Some left, a few immediately fell to the ground. Those of weaker mental constitution openly wept.

Very vocal complaints filled the air from all directions.

Lan Jue couldn’t care less how the students were reacting. Tan Lingyun and Wang Hongyuan would at least keep them from deserting. If they chose not to eat, and instead complain

for an hour, Lan Jue didn’t mind. The afternoon class would be the same – largely because he hadn’t planned further than that.

Tang Xiao didn’t complain, didn’t belly-ache. He felt like his actions were correct, and didn’t waste time bemoaning his fate. He saved his energy for what was to come.

He fought against his tired and beaten body to find the one who had grabbed his clothes. Giving no consideration to the women in the audience, he quickly disrobed and switched clothing. Thankfully he had underwear to preserve some semblance of dignity. Once changed, he teetered away.

“Girls, with me!” Tan Lingyun’s commanding voice rang out over the field. Her own needle glinted in the light, still sticking out of her chest. It prevented her from using her Discipline, but the Savage Goddess’ physical fitness was already far and away better than most. She supported a couple of the girls as they limped off the field.

Tang Mi was silent, her face gloomy. The exhaustion, the discomfort she felt didn’t bother her. What did, was the fact that she had been propped up as an example of what not to be. Though none of the other students said anything, the look in their eyes was clear enough as they stared at her.

She pondered just how poorly this would have ended up, had she been a boy. Whether or not it was that loathsome drillmaster’s intention, the implication had been the morning’s torture lay squarely on her shoulders.

Tang Mi was not a spoiled girl, but she had always been talented even when she was young. She was no ordinary girl, as was evident by the fact she was the most skillful female student the NEU had. Never before had she encountered such treatment in her short, blessed life.

The pain she felt, both physically and emotionally, fundamentally altered her view of the world.

“Little Mi, don’t think too much about it. Let’s go eat.” Qianlin wrapped an arm around Tang Mi’s, and spoke gently to her friend.

Tang Mi nibbled absent-mindedly on her lower lip. She looked at Qianlin with red-rimmed eyes.

Qianlin responded by wrapping her in a hug. “Don’t think about it. We’re all in the same boat. What happened was a result of you being late, this was the Drillmaster’s plan all along. After

all, why else would he prepare so many needles?” When she spoke, her voice was purposefully louder, so that the students around them couldn’t help but hear.

Tang Mi nodded her head, ever so slightly.

“Let’s go,” Tan Lingyun called to them. “We’ve only got an hour.”

Her jaw set, Tang Mi followed Qianlin towards Tan Lingyun and the exit. The other two girls were close behind.

The students rinsed themselves off and, with no time to change clothes, followed the worker’s instructions to the cantina. Upon smelling that full-bodied aroma, and seeing those steaming plates of food, the students were finally beginning to feel like they’d escaped the depths of hell.

They had an expansive spread to choose from, with at least ten different meals to choose from. Nine of them were meat dishes, and the tenth being a vegetable soup.

The students stumbled around, preparing to eat. The residual

effects of their morning ‘training’ remained, and there wasn’t a soul present who wasn’t limping from the trauma.

The cafeteria was a bustle of activity.

Tang Xiao took to the food with a vengeance. It wasn’t so much eating as it was viciously throwing food at his stomach. At one point he’d managed to cram an entire drumstick in his mouth, extricating only the bone. He chewed just enough so as not to choke and swallowed it down.

They ate like ravenous animals, and to a man each student felt like their stomachs were bottomless pits. No matter what or how much they are, it was never enough. The women were no exception. No one was concerned with appearances at this point.

An hour was all they had, and it was hardly enough. Every one of them ate while staring fixedly at the clock. At this moment being late was their primary fear – after all, that hellish drillmaster had told them it was all for one. A single student could ruin it for everybody. No one was interested in suffering the murderous stares of their peers. Tang Mi might have been uncertain how they would react, but they understood quite clearly.

An hour later, every student was standing at attention in the training field. A few of them burped, still working through their lunch.

The three drillmasters were punctual, already waiting when the students arrived. In their golden masks, they really were like demons.

It couldn’t be said that the students’ clothes were tidy at this point, but they were at least in far better straights than earlier. The girls had showered and put their clothes right, but their hair remained a mess. They’d had no time to comb their hair.

Lan Jue regarded them calmly. Eventually, he spoke. “I trust you enjoyed your lunch. Our training is nothing if not humane, so you’ll find this afternoon’s class to be gentler. You just ate, after all. So we’ll keep the physical exhaustion to a minimum.”

Humane? Do you even know what that word means? The flabbergasted sentiment rang in the heads of every student. Of course no one had the gall to say it out loud. They still had the desire to survive this ‘training.’

Lan Jue waved at a group of workers standing nearby. They

approached the students, bearing trays.

“Four for each of you. Rest them in the palms of your hands.” Lan Jue commanded.

As the trays arrived before the students, they noticed they were filled with razor blades. No, they were scalpel heads, like those used for operations. They were about  an inch long, and half an inch wide – and exceptionally sharp.

Chapter 246: Dancing Blades

The trays were heavy with surgical razors!

But no, that wasn’t right. Scalpel blades were only sharp on one end. These looked painfully sharp on both sides.

Each student very carefully plucked four from the trays as the workers wandered by, then placed them in their palms. They didn’t know what the Drillmaster had planned, but their hearts were full of foreboding.

Before long, every palm bore a set of razor blades. A worker with surplus blades approached Lan Jue.

The masked jewelry master snapped up two blades, pinching them between his thumbs and forefingers. He approached the students, hands high. “Two more each for Emperor pilots, and six more for Sovereigns.”

Tang Mi, Tang Xiao and Geng Yang were given two more blades each, while Tan Lingyun and Wang Hongyuan  were given six more.

Lan Jue kept just the two.

“Watch carefully,” he instructed, as his hands begun to move.

Under the student’s scrutiny, the razor blade began to dance along the back of Lan Jue’s finger, flipping over and between them back and forth. The sharp inch of steel tumbled back and forth over his finger joints like it had a life of its own.

The sun was high over the outdoor field. With the sun high overhead, shining directly upon Lan Jue and his razor blades, it gave the onlookers a strange sense of beauty. They felt like they were watching a man playing with a friendly spirit, as the blade flashed occasionally catching the sun’s rays.

However, no one was excited to watch. By now they expected nothing but terrible things from their demon Drillmaster.

Lan Jue meandered among the lines of students, still coaxing the razor blade along his fingers. His trek was slow and deliberate, giving everyone ample time to see what he was doing.

His finger speed was fast, but very rhythmic. Despite the sharpness of the blade, no damage was done to Lan Jue’s hands. The rise and fall of his fingers, and the flash of steel as it tumbled along them, was almost hypnotic.

“For the next hour, you will learn to control this blade as it runs over and between your fingers. The other drillmasters and I will be responsible for supervising you. Should anyone stop, or deviate from the method shown, you’ll all be treated to a wonderful surprise. Begin.”

Lan Jue returned to the front of the class. The razor blades were gone, and now an orb of roiling lightning crackled in his palm.

The sizzling sound it produced filled the air. It’s cobalt blue, electric light cast stark shadows on the faces of the nearest students.

With the ‘wonderful surprise’ of this morning still fresh in their minds, the students didn’t dare hesitate. They took a final, dismal look at the razors, then started.

Lan Jue never told them any tricks, never related any

techniques. He’d just showed them the example.

These young pilots had all done similar finger  exercises before, however their training methods had involved either crystal balls or small iron rods – never razor blades. Who used razor blades?

They proceeded carefully, with ginger and jittery movements.

Hua Li and Chu Cheng made a tour of the student lines, heading off in different directions. Chu Cheng wandered among them with his hand raised, a roiling ball of fire swirling within. The orb was alive with licking flames of red and orange, but the core of it was black as night. Looking at it too long, it felt like your soul was being drawn inside. Most unsettling of all, however, was the heat – or rather, the lack thereof. Instead of heat, the orb released a palpable, ominous chill.

None of the students knew what it was, or what it did, but the feeling it released was enough to frighten them. No one was willing to discover the properties of this devil’s fiery orb.

The morning’s lesson was clear; the Prince of Devils demanded obedience, and none dare challenge that. Not after

Tang Mi.

It took very little time for the first student to cut their hand.
He picked it up where it fell, and continued.

Of course anyone who let their cadence slip, or who slowed even a little, was met with a streak of lightning, a lick of flame, or a blast of water.

It was a mistake to assume the water was the least terrible of the options. The moment that water touched them, it felt like their skin was simultaneous numb and itchy. It made controlling the blades harder, and thus made them more likely to suffer other punishments.

Fresh drops of blood began to trickle on to the dirt of the training ground. Fresh cuts and slices appeared with every passing second, whether boy or girls, making their hands slick with blood.

Still the grounds were silent as a grave. No one dared cry out, and no one dared stop. Tight-lipped, they trained.

Lan Jue made his way to Tan Lingyun, and stopped. He waved Wang Hongyuan over to join them.

The two of them were also sporting cuts, mostly due to the extra number of razor blades they bore. With five in each hand, it made the motions chaotic and uncoordinated.

“Watch carefully,” he told them. He grabbed the ten razors from Tan Lingyun. Under his ministrations, the blades rolled harmlessly along his fingertips.

Tan Lingyun watched, the surprise on her face hidden by the mask, as the sharp bits of metal undulated in his hands. They flashed as they moved unceasingly along his fingers, over and under, over and under.

This time, as he demonstrated what he wanted, he lectured them on the proper techniques. They were responsible for ten razors, so their basic knowledge of the exercise wasn’t going to be sufficient.

Tan Lingyun listened intently. It didn’t appear as though the several cuts she’d suffered troubled her in the least. How much blood could the fingers have, anyway? This pain meant nothing.

Nothing was more important than achieving God-ranked status.

The afternoon’s lesson, despite the bloodshed, was significantly less terrifying than the morning. Relaxed wasn’t the word, but something akin to it. But oh how the fingers suffered. Several of the students were struggling to control the blades, since their hands were coated in blood. They couldn’t help but stop to wipe the blood on their flight suits, and continue.

An hour later, Lan Jue called for them to stop.

By the time the razors were collected, blood sloshed along the inside of the worker’s trays. Another set of workers rushed ahead with prepared bandages to wrap up the students’ hands.

Each of them had performed admirably, working hard and not trying to shirk the training. Their Disciplines were sealed, and they’d only get them back once the training was complete.

They were unpleasantly surprised to discover that the bandages were coated in some sort of medicine that made their wounds burn, but they suffered in silence until the discomfort was pushed to the background.

Several of the students took deep breaths of relief. It wasn’t as bad as the morning routine, they told themselves. That satisfaction was short lived.

“Good, it looks like you’ve had enough time to digest. It’s time to begin the afternoon class. Horse-stance, begin!”

Horse-stance began easy enough, but where it became a problem was as time stretched on. Things changed the longer you held the stance, and they couldn’t even use their Discipline to help dispel the pain.

Their legs went from sore, to pained, to numb.

Five minutes later sweat was pouring from their foreheads.
Soon the pain in their fingers was utterly forgotten.

Ten minutes later, and a few of the students were threatening to collapse.

They desperately wanted a break, to rest and give their tortured legs some respite. But before them stood Lan Jue, idly twirling a steel needle they were all so familiar with. There was

no mistaking what would happen if they couldn’t hold the stance.

Chapter 247: Extreme Excitation

After fifteen minutes, their bodies hardly knew how to handle the sensation. Once a person’s limitations were reached, they had no more control over how it reacted.

People started to collapse.

The moment someone fell, a second steel needle was quickly jabbed in to their thorax. They would subsequently be thrown to the side, and blasted with an arc of electricity that caused them to seize up.

It was a stark visual that helped keep the others in place – none dared break rank, as they didn’t want to be the next pin- cushion. There was a sense of hard determination hanging over the training field.

Eventually it was Tan Lingyun who was the last to fall. As before, she was not exempt from the punishment. Another steel rod jutted from her, as she twitched and jerked.

Errant arcs of golden electricity danced every which direction. The students didn’t even have enough energy to scream or

protest their treatment.

One after another the students came to. Up to their neck in boiling water…

It was almost an exact copy of their morning routine, but for the fact that lunch was replaced with dinner.

It was assumed, for the most part, that after dinner they would be given some respite. It was a false assumption, though, as after eating they simply went right back to the field and practiced with the razors again. Followed by horse stance. Which inevitably concluded with steel needles, lightning strikes and boiling water.

This time they didn’t snap out of it. One by one they were plucked from the water like corpses and deposited in their beds. By the time their unconscious forms were finally given quarter, it was late in to the night.

Lan Jue, too, rested upon his bed in exhaustion. Hua Li stood at his back. Soothing waves of power infused Lan Jue through Hua Li’s hands, which were lightly pressed against his shoulders. The water element coursed through him like a

cleansing rain.

Lan Jue had used about eighty percent of his energy reserves today, and that was after relying on the phylactery stone to help him recover. More than his power, though, he felt as though the vitality had been drained out of him.

From the outside it might have appeared easy – stab a kid, shock a kid and so forth – but in fact he had had to pay very close attention to every one of the students through the entire process. He was responsible for their well-being, and had to ensure the motivation they were using to improve their Disciplines didn’t cause any permanent damage. He had to be ready – at a moment’s notice – to spring in to action and protect them.

By the end of the day, he was physically and mentally exhausted.

Chu Cheng sat at his side, idly sipping a glass of brandy.

“I’m pretty sure every one of these kids are having very pleasant dreams of murdering you,” he said. “Today was just as bad as what we experienced all those years ago. Heh, I’d love to

see their faces if they knew just the medicines cost as much as an a-ranked power gem. I was impressed with them  today, really. Good quality students. With sufficient time I think every one of them could be Sovereigns. A few of them even have a chance at God-ranked.”

Hua Li chimed in. “A-Jue took a beating today as well. It aint so easy being the bad guy! It’d certainly be a surprise how much these methods take out of every body. But unfortunately they’ll never know – it’d affect their improvement.”

Chu Cheng nodded. “And for the next three days, the most important thing is that they stick to it. We’ll see what happens then.”

Hua Li smirked at his friend. “Without me here, you’d probably already have a few who couldn’t hash it. Don’t worry about them, with me here there won’t be a problem.”

Lan Jue opened his eyes, but didn’t look at either of his companions. “Yeah, with A-Li here it’s a big help. The stimulation we’re giving here may not be as beneficial as the Fantascia Genetica decoction, but between A-Li and I the difference isn’t that large.”

With a shrug, Chu Cheng took another sip of brandy. “Suddenly I’m feeling like helping you isn’t in our best interest. I’m from the North, and Hua Li’s a Westerner!”

“Don’t give me that,” Lan Jue muttered, shooting his friend a disdainful glance. “You think I don’t know you’re trying to be all sneaky and steal my training regimen?”

Chu Cheng laughed. “What would be the point? I don’t have your bioelectric Discipline, so the results would be sub-par. It’d have to be replaced with the North’s specialty – merging man with machine.”

Lan Jue shook his head. “I figured you had a plan, from the beginning. The East, the North, the West… in the end these internal disputes they bicker over don’t mean a thing. I have no interest in any of that. My concern is the future, when we inevitably run in to things we never even knew we had to protect ourselves from. The survival of the human race is the only goal.”

Chu Cheng’s rarely encountered serious face met Lan Jue’s assertions. “You’re absolutely right. I verified it with the family last night. The second reconnaissance fleet we sent  has vanished, and likely has encountered some trouble. We’re

assembling a third party now – this time a large scale sweep and clear, I’m told. We’ve even repositioned two bastions to face the last known location of the monster planets. We’re ready, on emergency alert. We’ve also let the other two Alliances know.”

Hua Li was in agreement. “I’ve also been monitoring the Poseidon group intelligence reports, and they confirm it as well. Everything’s calm on the surface, but there’s a lot happening under wraps. Arms production has ramped up, and the scuffles between the North and the East have died down. Now it’s come down to the wire, and the decision-makers have finally decided to work together. Truth be told I’m taking notes throughout this process as well, and plan to use them for my own family once this is done. Sorry A-Jue.”

Lan Jue simply shook his head. “There’s nothing to be sorry about. This whole process is the brainchild of the three of us, anyway. Besides, I’m only too anxious to spread this, and improve humanity’s chances as much as possible.”

“How long do you plan to continue at this pace,” Hua Li asked.

“Three days,” Lan Jue replied. “That should be about the limit to what they can bear. Any longer than that and I’m afraid there might be – unpredictable consequences.”

“You’re actually doing three days, eh?” Chu Cheng shivered. They’d originally only planned for one day of this sort of treatment.

Lan Jue explained. “I made the determination after watching them today. They’re endurance is a lot better than I’d originally expected. Such being the case, we need to make sure they reach their limit. Now I say three days, but not everyone’s going to make it that far. We’ll need to watch every one of them very carefully, pay attention to their physical state. If we can break them all the way down, they’ll rise up that much quicker.”

Hua Li nodded. “It’ll certainly show us their willpower and potential. Those are the two basis for a person’s strength.”

Just then, Lan Jue’s communicator rang.

“Boss, Jin Tao’s up.”

“Good,” he replied, “send him here tomorrow morning. We’ll see how much of the decoction he managed to absorb, and what effect it’s had.”

Hua Li’s eyes flashed. “I’m very curious myself. Fantascia Genetica, your Eastern medicines, and our power combined on one subject. It’ll be very interesting to see where he ultimately ends up, and how quickly.”

The thought brought a grin to Lan Jue’s face. “I’m anxious as well. Anxious to see how this little psychopath reacts. Looks like we’ve got fifty-one students, now.”

Chapter 248: Enter Jin Tao

Jin Tao sat within the verti-car, looking out of place. It wasn’t that he was unused to the car, of course. He was uncomfortable in his own skin.

For the last month he’d been tossing and turning, coming in and out of consciousness until finally waking up the  night before. He still hadn’t been able to shake that feeling, the sense of being somewhere between sleep and wakefulness.

Everything that had happened since entering the Avenue has felt like a dream, every day stretching by like a year. It had been an eternity of pain, where his body struggled to absorb and persist against the poison of the Fantascia Genetica. He’d been ripped apart, and put back together.

He’d survived it mainly by virtue of his dogged willpower. He’d refused to let his body get the better of him. That wasn’t to say the painful experience hadn’t permanently burned itself in to his memory. When he final came around, he understood that it hadn’t been a nightmare.

Now it seemed the obvious, caught as he was in this fugue state it felt like time was flying by. The pain in his body was

subsiding, replaced by strange sensations. He’d have flashes of cold, then searing heat. Sometimes his whole body would itch, and then that excruciating pain would come back. They would come in short-lived waves that tumbled over one another. It was like he was living in some strange illusion. He didn’t feel at all like himself.

At last, when he’d been let out of the life support pod and his feet touched the ground again, he could almost feel the earth’s vitality coursing up through his limbs. It was a sensation that was difficult to explain.

There were several things that were difficult to explain.

Not the least of these were the changes in his body. For starters, he was a good deal taller than he had been before taking the decoction. In the space of a month he seemed to have stretched at least two inches. His skinny frame had filled out. His muscles hadn’t grown larger, necessarily, but there was certainly more definition. He felt more… elastic, more malleable.

More than his looks, his personality had also undergone some changes – a normal reaction to the experiences and environment he’d been in for the last month. He’d grown up.

He unconsciously clenched his hands in to fists. His body, suddenly and ferociously, filled with wild power. It  rose  up from within him until it threatened to spill free, like a tsunami – a landslide, especially when compared with how limited his energy had been before. As his Discipline flooded him, threads of thin golden hair sprouted from his skin, and he stretched to over two meters. The dumb mutt from before released an aura of majesty.

Are these arms even mine? This power…

He allowed his newfound power to course through him for a good few minutes, before gradually allowing it to abate.

After awakening, he’d been subjected to a number of tests from Mika and Lin Guoguo. Though he’d been kept up most of the night from them, he didn’t feel tired. But that discomfort persisted, from last night until this very moment. There was still so much he didn’t understand.

Mika had told him all of this was normal. Any acquisition of power, especially so quickly, took time to get used to. He was told next he would be delivered to the Master, who would help him adapt to the changes and continue his training.

So it was that he found himself in the expensive verti-car, barreling through the skies towards who knows where. He had time to reflect upon his situation, and he was overjoyed.

He was ecstatic with his decision, one he knew to be right without question. Had it not been for the Professor, and his own hard work, he’d be nothing – just as he was before.

Now, though… now things were different. He had more power. He might need some time to feel comfortable in his own skin again, but the strength that filled him was a beautiful sensation in and of itself.

By the time he reached the training field, it was early morning. At some point during the journey – Jin Tao couldn’t remember – Mika and Lin Guoguo had donned a pair of silver masks. They walked with Jin Tao in to the training facility.

Someone was already there when they entered, and looked to have been waiting for some time. He led them from that point without any superfluous discussion.

The guide brought him to a group of familiar faces.

And of course he did. Wasn’t that the hateful pig-boy, Tang Xiao? And his sister beside him. He really couldn’t figure out how he could be so fat, while his little sister might as well have been a model.

There was also Zhou Qianlin, the school beauty, patron goddess of the broken hearted. Gu Yingying and Yan Ningya, talented female students in the mecha combat department, were also among them. Behind them, wasn’t that her brother Yan Zhanchen? He and his sister – along with Tang Xiao and his sister, Tang Mi – were praised as the strongest fighting duo in the NEU. Any time they teamed up in DreamNet, they racked up impressive scores.

Gathered around were others, and all of them were equally talented members of his school’s mecha combat division. Familiar figured, familiar names… they ran through his head as he looked them over.

It was strange though, he thought. Why did they all look so miserable?

Nearly every one of them was pale, with their faces pained and drawn. Some had black eyes, others looked like they’d been nearly drowned. A good number of them appeared to twitch

uncontrollably, like they had the jitters.

What’s wrong with all these blessed ones? He thought. They look like mashed potatoes.

He managed, eventually, to draw his eyes away from the pathetic looking bunch. He spied five more people, situated in front of them. Three of them had golden masks, and two others hid behind silver, like Mika and Lin Guoguo.

Though they all wore masks, his eyes were instantly drawn to the man in the center. A nagging, familiar feeling tickled at the back of his mind.

They stopped a few feet away from Lan Jue. “Boss,” Mika said, “we’ve brought him for you.”

Lan Jue nodded, though when he spoke he addressed Jin Tao. “Fall in. First line, farthest to the left.”

The left flank… whether students or soldiers, he knew what that meant. Only the exemplary members got that spot. Right now that spot was occupied by Tang Xiao.

“As you command,” Jin Tao answered without hesitation, then trotted over. His heavy steps thudded loudly as he did so.

Lan Jue then turned his attention to the two girls. He spoke with Mika first. “You go ahead. Guoguo stays here.”

“Very well.” Mika’s answer was quick, but there was a hint of surprise. It was the first time seeing her boss this way, so cold and no-nonsense. But so manly! She desperately wanted to stay and see what was happening, but had no recourse but to obey.

Lin Guoguo veritably jumped in to action. Filled with excitement, she took up position behind him like the other silver-masked assistants.

Lan Jue faced the gathered students, and spoke to them next.

“I’m sure you all know our newest addition, Jin Tao. You know his reputation. However, starting today, he is one of you. Part of the team. He will train alongside you.”

Tang Xiao shot Jin Tao a sidelong glance. He wasn’t the least bit upset with the fact that the dumb-mutt had taken his

position. Instead, his small, dark eyes were alive with sadistic glee over what his fellow Disciple was to experience.

Jin Tao was suddenly filled with a palpable sense of foreboding. He knew the look in that fat fox’s eye meant something nasty was on its way.

Lan Jue went on. “Now that we’re all here, pushups. Begin.
No one stops till I say so.”

No one made a sound, no one dared complain. They fall to the ground and started their push-ups as fast as they could.

After yesterday’s torment, the students had only been given four hours of sleep before they were woken up. Whether physical or mental, they were all beat. In fact, they felt like they were on the verge of collapse. In the end, though, they persisted.

The most common style of push-ups helped define and strengthen the muscles of the shoulders, chest and triceps, with some work being done to the upper back. It was a fine exercise for full-body training.

For these kids, with their Talent and physical fitness, three to five hundred was just getting started. The problem – or, rather, problems – were the needles jutting out of them from various directions. Everyone had at least three, and they locked their Discipline away. That, in addition to the exhaustion they felt from the harsh treatment of the training, meant they were on their last legs. Some started to struggle after only thirty-five.

Lan Jue’s hand gripped a steel needle.

Again?! Is he kidding?!

The stabbing itself was a strangely stimulating. Not physically, but for the sense organs. But could this devil really be considering a fourth?

The push-ups continued.

The only one taking it in stride was Jin Tao. He was in better shape than he’d ever had been in his entire life. He was a blur, and by the one-minute mark he was approaching two-hundred without being out of breath. Only now was he beginning to feel a little flush from the exertion. His power flooded him, gave him power, so much so that he was afraid he couldn’t

adequately control it.

Suddenly, there was a flash. Three quick bursts of… something. Jin Tao felt his body seize. Three shiny new needles sprouted from his back.

He remained there, at the high point of a push, frozen and flabbergasted. An Jue’s voice wafted towards him from behind. “Jin Tao is late, by an entire day. What you all experienced yesterday, he must endure today – and more, so that he can catch up.” As he spoke, a golden bolt of electricity struck Jin Tao. The young man had been in the process of rising to his feet, having shaken off the initial jabs. Now he remained still as a sculpture.

People are all the same; they want others to experience their pain, to exceed it. There was a sick, schadenfreude sense of comfort in it.

Seeing Jin Tao a victim of the devil’s lightning, and seeing him suffer the three needles as they had, immediately brought some solace to the beleaguered students. Suddenly the push-ups didn’t seem so bad.

Though they were operating on four hours of sleep, they didn’t feel weakened from it. They picked up speed, but none seemed to realize an important fact; no one cared how many they did. It wouldn’t make their future troubles any less terrifying.

It wasn’t long before the fourth needle was added to the third, and the boiling medicine water was reintroduced, for everyone. Jin Tao suffered the same fate, but no matter what Lan Jue threw at him, he endured.

That’s why one of the golden-masked monsters interrupted his steam bath with a fireball to the face.

Chapter 249: Withdrawn

Three days passed in the blink of an eye. Well, For Lan Jue, Chu Cheng and Hua Li at least. For the talented students of the NEU, it may as well have been three years. They had no words for the torment they’d endured, and the only thing stopping them from collapsing in to a broken heap was the last vestiges of their spirit.

Their spirit was never exhausted. This was not entirely of their own making, however. Every time they’d see the new assistant teacher – the one in the silver mask, surrounded by golden light – they would feel soothed and emotionally renewed by her presence. Her golden light was like an infusion of courage and power, giving them the will to push on.

There were drawbacks, though, for while the new woman’s powers empowered them, it also heightened their sense. It made everything they went through during the training that much more excruciating.

The students learned that the only way to avoid punishment and pain, was to never allow their willpower to flag. Otherwise, it a vicious cycle of emotional torment awaited them. Having their spirit refreshed inevitably meant their future tribulations became a hundred percent more tragic.

So for them, the sentiment was different; At long last, three days limped passed.

Each one of the students were the not-so-proud owners of several more needles, some with as many as nine. They were beginning to look like they had some sort of genetic similarity with hedgehogs.

‘On the brink’ was certainly the best way to describe these poor souls. Even though the bulk of their torturous experience had been psychological, they were still on their last legs. Breathing came difficult, and long ago the numbness in their bodies had them wondering if they were even still alive.

Early morning on the fourth day, they gathered in the training grounds, arranged in lines before the Prince of Devils. They were so beaten, so broken that they hadn’t even had the energy for food.

Luckily, due to the careful ministrations of the masked teachers, no one had encountered any long-lasting problems or injuries.

In Lan Jue’s hand was a tablet, with the names of every

student and how often they’d had to be healed by Lin Guoguo’s psychic mending. There was also detailed reports on their physical and psychological well-being. Some of them, he noted, had never needed Guoguo’s attention.

There were certainly some exemplary examples among them. Many of the female participants really displayed the toughness of their Talent.

First among them was Tan Lingyun, though the light of stubborn indignation in her eyes – the fire of her spirit – was exhausted. Still, she stood straight and tall.

Zhou Qianlin, Tang Mi, Gu Yingying and Yan Ningya where the four others. None of them had required Guoguo’s services. Though they were all bone-tired, each of them bore an iron will.

Qianlin’s expression was hard, tough, though her eyes were calm. Tang Mi’s face was obstinate, almost arrogant. Gu Yingying had threatened to give out several times, however each time she approached the red line she’d somehow manage to pull through. Yan Ningya appeared similar to Tang Mi. The furtive glances she shot towards the long-legged beauty spoke to a hidden rivalry.

Yan Ningya wasn’t part of the illustrious ‘school beauty’ sect, but was nonetheless a recognized hottie in the eyes of NEU’s gentlemen students. Her problem came when she and her brother had entered school. Ever since then, the two were ever in competition with the ‘great fighting duo’ of Tang Xiao and Tang Mi. It was a seething rivalry, that never gave them any rest.

One’s looks were determined by their parents, and was not something so easily changed without the help of plastic surgery. There was too much pride in Yan Ningya for that, so if she couldn’t compete with Tang Mi in looks, it would have to be through ability. She harbored a desperate desire to surpass Tang Mi, and it was this goal that had given her the strength to push on.

Her brother, Yan Zhanchen, lacked the mental fortitude of his sister, but his heroic appearance ensured he was enshrined as top three of the most desired male students. It had imbued him with a rather serious superiority complex – at least, until Tang Xiao had so handily showed everyone up during the Lir competition. Since then his arrogance had diminished, somewhat. Strength was what a pilot relied on, he realized, not looks.

If Tang Xiao could endure against this inhuman treatment, he

thought, why then couldn’t he? The determination drove him.

But surviving was about all they could manage. There was one more who not only managed to maintain, but thrive – like they enjoyed it.

Ever since the very onset, when he’d been stabbed with the needle and struck by lightning, Jin Tao was in heaven. The discomfort he’d originally felt in his body was beginning to subside. With every needle that stunted his Discipline, he could feel his body reacting. Nothing, however, compared to what he’d gone through with the Genetica.

Part of that was due to the fact that he’d experienced it before, he knew what to expect. He survived once, what could any of this do to him? He was also keenly aware that whether it was the drugs, the lightning or something else, all of it was having a direct and positive effect on his body. One’s strength was contingent on familiarity, and adapting to one’s own power. There was certainly pain and discomfort, but it was all taken with joy since it meant the result would be improvement. It got to the point where Lan Jue even had to treat him harsher than the others.

The secret etiquette teacher swept his eyes across the gathered

pilots. As he made eye contact with them, each unconsciously let their eyes drop to the floor. All but Jin Tao, whose eyes were alive with a manic enthusiasm that would frighten a normal man, and Tan Lingyun who’s stubborn refusal to back down matched the young mutt’s.

Wang Hongyuan seemed discombobulated. He certainly wanted to improve his strength, but he didn’t have the strength of spirit Tan Lingyun possessed. What spurred him on was his position as an Assistant teacher. It kept him from needing Guoguo’s healing aura.

Lan Jue walked slowly to stand before the Savage Goddess. “Very good!” The words were soft, but surprised Tan Lingyun like a slap to the face. The masked drillmaster even extended a hand and patted her shoulder. When he drew back, he’d taken a needle from her shoulder with him. He placed it in her hand, and she was surprised to discover not a drop of blood on it.

She grunted, which from her invariably sounded like a disgruntled snort. Her body trembled, and for the space of an instant she felt a though she might fall over. But she didn’t, and instead a comforting warmth spread from her shoulder until it felt like it filled her up. She felt as though every single cell in her body was injected with vitality, and it was a sensation she couldn’t put in to words. All the pain and exhaustion she felt

melted away.

Chapter 250: Candidates

“One’s own home is always the most comfortable! Minding my own business when that old fox, Wu Junyi, snaps me up for this training. Just absolutely screwing with me.” The stream of complaints tumbled from Lan Jue in groans. Ke’er and Xiuxiu were surprised by the vocal displeasure. It was the first time they’d seen him like this.

Lin Guoguo humphed at him. “It looked to me like you were enjoying yourself out there, boss! It’s not as bad as you say.”

“It’s so dull,” he whined. “It’s so much nicer here with you girls. A leisurely life is a comfortable life. Anyway, has there been any more news about the castles?”

Xiuxiu shook her head. “Nothing. The date they’re arriving hasn’t changed, but the Barber did come by looking or you. He said he had something he wanted to discuss. The Driver came by as well, looking for a drinking partner. Strangely, we haven’t heard from either the Wine Master or the Gourmet in some time.”

“Got it. Do me a favor and set a time for tonight with the Driver. Then get in contact with the Barber and see if he’s in his

shop. If he is, I’ll head over and see what he has to say. Ahh, I really am the absentee councilman aren’t I. Responsible for all this welcome party business and haven’t once gotten involved.”

Ke’er stuck out her bottom lip. “You’ve always been absent, boss, you know that.”

“Ehm…” Lan Jue’s easy smile froze on his face. After a quick moment, he recovered and snickered sheepishly. “You guys are too good at your jobs, that’s why. With you all so good at your jobs, there’s no opportunity for me to boss anybody around. So what’s the point of having me here?”

Xiuxiu quickly made contact with the gentlemen her boss had inquired over. “Boss, the Driver will come by and meet you tonight. He said he’d like to take you to dinner. As for the Barber, he says he’s in his shop. You can go find him there.”

“Good.”

Leaving Zeus’ Jewelry Shop, Ln Jue’s heart was full of helplessness. When did my life get so fast paced, he complained to himself. Never enough hours in the day.

Lan Jue shook his head, and laughed at himself as he made his way to the Barber’s shop.

ζ

Redbud Sculptury!

The white storefront was attractive, with purple letters on the top to display its name.

This was the Barber’s shop, where he not only did hairdressing but also make-up. Lan Jue faintly recalled that many famed and important people would come to the high- priced Barber for a ‘treatment.’ Unfortunately, they were not members of the Avenue, and so were turned away.

The Barber was busy with a client when the Jewelry Master arrived. Much to Lan Jue’s surprise, his client was none other than the Beautician.

The Beautician’s eyes followed Lan Jue as she followed his entrance in the mirror situated before her. She flashed him a sweet smile. Presumably, she’d forgotten about the rage-

inducing beating she and her colleague had received so long ago.

Lan Jue waved at her in greeting. He didn’t trouble the Barber while he was working, and instead took up position upon a nearby sofa. Of course, the Barber was aware of his arrival.

“The busy bee deigns to make an appearance. Such a rarity to see you out and about! So how can I help you today; a little cut and blow, perm, make-up?”

Lan Jue’s answer was delivered through a chuckle. “Unfortunately I don’t have the time. I have something in the afternoon that needs attending. What is being prepared for the big visit? Is there anything I can do to help?”

At first he didn’t answer. The snip snip snip of his scissors filled the air as he finished off his work on the Beautician. Once the errant hairs and split ends were dealt with, he turned to Lan Jue.

“We’re all aware of why the two castles are coming all the way out here. When they come, it won’t only be the Wine Master but also the Clairvoyant who greets them. I’m aware of the history between the Pontiff and yourself… this is a matter that affects

the whole of Skyfire Avenue. You mustn’t be impetuous.”

Lan Jue nodded indifferently. “Alright.”

The Barber went on. “I’ve already done most of the preparation work. The actual reception is being handled by authorities with the Eastern Alliance. We need only wait here for them to arrive. The representatives of the Castle and Tower have been given lodgings in either the Skyfire Museum, or the Gothic Winery. We’re asking that you remain in the Museum during this time.

Excitement flashed through Lan Jue’s eyes. “Is that where Satan’s party will be staying?”

The Barber nodded.

“Very well,” Lan Jue said without pausing for thought.

“We’ll need to make sure we put this opportunity to good use,” the Barber instructed. “We have to face what comes, confront it. And we have their high technology to contend with. So far, the plan is to have five sparring competitions. Four will

be one-on-one, and the final fight will be two groups of five. We need you to participate in at least two. Is this agreeable?”

Lan Jue nodded. “Sign me up for the one-on-one, and the group fight. So other than us here, who else is participating?”

“The Driver is back, and he took the initiative to join the group battle.” The Barber watched Lan Jue closely as he spoke. “We haven’t decided on the final one, yet. As for the one-on- ones, we’re also short-staffed. The Beautician and I won’t be participating in that exchange.”

Lan Jue nodded. He knew their combat abilities clearly, from the sparring exchange they had had. The Beautician was an expert in battlefield control, while the Barber was specialized in precise strikes. Together, they were a frightening team, but individually they weren’t up to snuff. As ninth-ranked first degree and second degree respectfully, fighting alone against the best the West had to offer was a gamble.

Of course the attending and resident Paragons would not be participating. With both Satan and the Pontiff in attendance, the entire exchange would have to be handled with special considerations. The Fallen Angel Lucifer, and the Archangel Metatron would be here, terrifying and contentious rivals.

“You’re telling me I’m the only one who’s signed up for the one-on-one fights?” Lan Jue balked.

“It’s not that bad,” the Barber assured. “The Driver said he’d also double-up. We’re still missing three.”

Lan Jue looked at him helplessly. “Do you think we’d be able to convince the Wine Master to participate?”

“And appear that incompetent? I have faith you’ll find an answer,” the Barber replied.

The Jewelry Master sighed at the prospect. “Alright, I’ll think on it. I’ll find some people for the job once I’ve come up with something.” Already, a few faces were swimming through his mind.

The Driver’s abilities were without question. Lan Jue was very familiar with his Talent. He shouldn’t have any trouble participating in two fights.

The missing member of their five-man team would also be a problem. With the Barber and Beautician among them, they’d

need someone with pretty significant power to join in.

As for the individual battles, he’d also need a powerful candidate.

“Leave the selection process up to me,” he said. “And the rest will be your responsibility.” As Lan Jue made his determination, he rose to his feet.

They watched him leave. The Beautician – up until now silent as a mouse – suddenly let out a gentle laugh. “You’re so lazy. Guess, though… who do you think he’ll choose?”

The Barber chortled. “How can I know? The Avenue is too loosely organized. We’re not even sure of how powerful our own council members are, much less anyone else. Let the Jewelry Master handle this. After all, he’s had significant contact with almost all of the councilors, so he might know. Maybe he’ll surprise us.”

This caused the Beautician to shrug a lithe shoulder. “I’m not so sure. He knows a few, perhaps, but only them. The Gourmet, the Seamstress, the Coffee Master, the Wine Master… who else?”

“At least the Mechanist and Accountant,” he responded.

The Beautician frowned prettily. “The Mechanist, that meat- head, he hardly counts. The Accountant is worse still. None of them are council members. As for the Gourmet, I heard he’s never lifted a finger in violence, the whole time he’s been part of the Avenue. How he even got a spot on the council, I can’t imagine. Other than cooking food, he doesn’t seem to be involved in anything else. He does have an excellent relationship with the Wine Master, but who knows his strength.”

“Well, it’s no longer any concern of ours,” the Barber assured. “The Wine Master has said that it’ll be fine leaving it in the hands of the Jewelry Master. A pleasant surprise, I thought.”

ζ

Leaving the Redbud Scultpury, Lan Jue stood on the side of the Avenue proper. He appeared to be lost in thought, but after a moment began walking.

He had a habit; when there were things to do, it was best to handle them quickly. There was no point in dragging one’s

heels. Since he’d agreed to handle it, what better time was there than the present?

ζ

The Gourmet’s Cabin.

“I’m hungry.” Lan Jue plopped himself before the Gourmet’s prized table and threw his feet on to it. He regarded the Gourmet with a lopsided smile.

If his students could see him now, their Prince of Devils so relaxed and accessible, it’d probably blow their minds.

The gourmet, sitting opposite him, stared blankly for a moment. He reached out, and shoved a plate of soda crackers towards his guest.

“I had no plans to cook this afternoon.”

Lan Jue sighed. “So I see. How about I cook you a meal, then?”

“You. Cook. For me?” The Gourmet just looked at him in shock.

Lan Jue nodded emphatically. Without any further argument, he stood and made his way towards the kitchen situated in the back of the Gourmet’s small shop.

The Gourmet looked as though he wanted to protest, but ultimately kept his mouth shut.

Before long, a hissing sound emerged from the kitchen. It was followed by a gust of aromatic steam, as though the ventilation system in the kitchen simply couldn’t contain it all.

There was a fresh, pleasant scent that followed. The steam caused him to sneeze, but his eyes lit up all the same. He replaced the soda biscuit in his hand upon the small tray before him. He leaned back against the back of his chair and waited, a small smile on his face.

Soon Lan Jue reappeared. He set the table with a trivet and a bowl of chili sauce. Then he placed the bowl before his friend.

The noodles within the steaming pot swam in boiled water and bean sprouts, with a dollop of chili sauce on top. The pungent scent quickly filled the whole room.

Lan Jue handed a pair of chopsticks to the Gourmet. He kept a pair for himself and, without any further courtesy, began stuffing his face.

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