Skyfire Avenue Chapter 251-260

Chapter 251: The Pauper

“You know my problem,” the Gourmet said. “If it isn’t delicious, I won’t eat it. I’d rather starve.”

“Oh I know,” Lan Jue answered indifferently. “But I also know, that noodles are your favorite. It’s something we have in common. Go on, give it a try.”

The Gourmet chuckled, then in order to appease his guest began to eat. He recognized all the ingredients, especially the spices which were his favorites. He nodded in appreciation, then ate some more.

It was a mistake to assume cooking chili oil was an easy process. In reality, the degree and duration of heat employed while preparing it was integral. It had to be precise, but it appeared Lan Jue had a natural talent for it.

The dish was a smattering of oil over noodles, drenched in vinegar. It was simple, direct, and unparalleled.

After a few minutes of hearty slurps, the contents of the two large bowls was gone. Lan Jue heaved a contented sigh, wiped

his mouth, and sunk further in to his chair.

“As ever, your spices make the dish. So what do you think, my craftsmanship isn’t bad, eh?”

The Gourmet curled his lips. “You managed, after a fashion. But I have this young guy here who shows up out of the blue, and offers to make me a meal. It isn’t impossible to imagine you have some ulterior motive. Speak, what do you need.”

Lan Jue chuckled at the crotchety old man. “As I’m sure you’re aware, soon the Pontiff’s Castle and the Dark Tower will be visiting Skyfire Avenue. There will be talks and spars and group battles. Unfortunately, we’re missing a few participants; one for the five on five group fight, and three for the one-on-one battles. Which would you like to participate in?”

The Gourmet looked at him, stupefied. He spoke softly in response. “My reward is a bowl of noodles?”

Lan Jue shrugged. “What else do you want?”

He thought for a moment, then said, “I recall the Wine Master

mentioning once a bottle in his possession. A vintage from the great wine masters from the Former Era, called Richebourg.”

Lan Jue’s eyes nearly popped from his skull. “My dear Gourmet, you’re asking for my life here. That’s more precious to the Wine Master than his own eyes.”

The Gourmet shrugged. “I guess you don’t want to try it.”

“Not too hasty,” Lan Jue said with a wry smile. “How could I not?”

“When pairing for a meal, go all out,” the Gourmet said sagely. “As for wines, have you had anything that could be its equal? I’m fairly certain even the Wine Master hasn’t tried it. I reckon that means we have a chance.”

Lan Jue’s face twitched. “You aren’t going to ask me to steal it, are you?”

The Gourmet chortled. “Of course not. We’re cultured, distinguished gentlemen. Just wait for me to puzzle out a solution, and help me execute the plan when it’s ready. I swear

it won’t end with the Wine Master beating you to death.”

“Yeah… never mind, I’ll find someone else.” Lan Jue vehemently shook his head.

Taking from the Cosmagus was like snatching food from the mouth of a tiger – he wasn’t that stupid. What the Gourmet was asking was a death wish!

Suddenly, Lan Jue felt his whole body go cold. The Gourmet’s small cabin became dark as oil, and a chilling aura permeated from every direction. It was like they were suddenly transported to another world.

Lan Jue backed away a step.

Everything around them had gone black. Only the Gourmet remained, seated calmly on the other end of the table. However, the jovial man he’d known for so long was gone – his mood had changed drastically.

“When?” Lan Jue asked, almost without thinking.

“When you get back,” the Gourmet answered, his voice soft and pleasant.

Lan Jue heaved a sigh, then shot his compatriot a thumbs-up. “Alright, I’ll do it.”

Everything around them turned to normal. The Gourmet was seated opposite the table like nothing had happened, his empty bowl situated in front. The scent of spice still hung in the air. But even though the surroundings were back to normal, Lan Jue could see something had changed in the Gourmet’s eyes.

“I’m off,” the Jewelry Master said, rising to his feet.

“I’ll join your five-man team,” the Gourmet said, quietly. “Find someone else for the singles.”

Lan Jue nodded. “Any recommendations?”

The Gourmet nodded. “The Pauper, and the Pharmacist. The rest are up to you.”

“Got it.” Lan Jue nodded his farewells, then left the Gourmet’s small home.

Once outside, he wandered down the street with an excited sparkle to his eyes and a knowing smile on his lips.

The two castles… bring it on!

The group battle was already finished, and the single fights were short only two.

The Pauper… is it that guy? He isn’t a committee member…

After taking the elevator to the Underground, Lan Jue let his intuition guide him down the street. After a few minutes of walking, he found his target.

It was difficult to determine his age, due to the dirt and grime. Tendrils of oily and disheveled hair hung over a dirty face. He was covered by an overcoat so filthy, the last time it was washed must have been the former era. It was only an overcoat by generous description, anyway, as it appeared to be mostly patches covered by more patches. The Pauper rested lazily

against the corner of a wall, looking half asleep.

Were it not for the Gourmet’s recommendation, Lan Jue would never have considered this man. He approached the poor man and stopped a short distance apart.

The Pauper’s eyes were closed, but as Lan Jue approached his hand flashed out. Lan Jue reacted by snatching it out of the air.

It was a tarnished metal plate. Words were scrawled across it: Permit to Panhandle. Underneath was the seal of the Skyfire Avenue standing committee.

The Pauper waved a hand at Lan Jue, as though shooing away a fly.

Lan Jue answered with a soft smile. “I’m not with the enforcement team,” he said, “you don’t need to show this to me.” He threw the plate back.

The Pauper caught it effortlessly, then opened his eyes.

His eyes bore the same lackadaisical sense as the rest of him, to where his dark eyes almost seemed dim. He sized the young Jewelry Master up once or twice, then shut his eyes again.

“The Gourmet said I should come find you. There’s something I was hoping to get your help with.” Lan Jue said.

At mention of the Gourmet, the Pauper opened his eyes once again. This time, though, they were clear as day.

He swallowed a mouthful of saliva. “Is he inviting me to eat?” The Pauper’s voice was exceedingly pleasing to the ear; deep, sincere, masculine.

“Whether or not he plans to, I can’t say.” Lan Jue shrugged. “But he did ask me to find you, so I’m sure he has his reasons.”

The Pauper’s mouth curled in to a frown. “What reason could that be, hm? To bother me, whatever it is. I’m not going. No food, no drink, no Pauper. Three years the beggar, not once the king – heard the expression? I need sleep, so leave me in peace. Stop bothering me.”

“The Gourmet told me the Wine Master has a particularly excellent vintage on offer – a Richebourg,” Lan Jue mentioned off-hand.

This time the Pauper’s eyes glittered, like sunlight on a snowy bank. “Really? That stingy old goat has one squirreled away? How come I’ve never heard this?”

“If I’d have let know, I imagine the ensuing chaos could be heard from Planet Luo. His whole cellar is theft-proof.” The soft voice came from behind Lan Jue, and he didn’t have to turn his head to know the Gourmet had made a personal appearance.

“Can you give us a bit? Just a sip? With that penny-pincher, who knows how long he’s had this fine wine locked away.” The Pauper complained.

The Gourmet responded in placating tones. “If I distract him, would you be able to find a way?”

The Pauper’s eyes twinkled. “If I had an hour. Could you manage that?”

The Gourmet nodded. “Done.”

The Pauper replied with a hungry grin. “What are we having with it?”

“Snowflake beef and white truffles,” the gourmet answered. “Along with pan-seared blue lobster.”

The Pauper swallowed once again. “It’s a deal. When is it happening?”

“When you’ve finished your other responsibilities,” the Gourmet said. He looked pointedly at Lan Jue.

Lan Jue took his cue and explained. “The Pontiff’s Castle and Satan’s Fortress are coming for a sort of exchange. We’re missing some people for the one-on-one battles, and we were hoping to getting you involved.”

The Pauper’s brow furrowed, but he answered positively. “Fine.”

Lan Jue nodded with a smile, and the Gourmet simply left with the business complete.

The Pauper watched him go with a piteous expression on his grimy face. “Can we throw in another boiled lobster? It’s been so long since I’ve eaten anything with a decent flavor…”

“Clean yourself up and I’ll boil a second,” he said, without looking back.

The Pauper nodded. “Alright,” he said with sincerity. “Wait for my news.”

Lan Jue caught up to the Gourmet. “I’ve never heard of this Pauper before.”

The Gourmet laughed softly. “He’s an interesting character. He used to be an incredible talent, then one day something happened that altered his mind. Some sort of stimulus. He’s been a beggar here ever since, for twenty years. He was here even before I. Other than food and drink, he is interested in nothing.”

“I tried to figure out his abilities, but I couldn’t find a way to ascertain how powerful eh is,” Lan Jue said.

At this, the Gourmet smiled. “If the Archangel Metatron should make an appearance, it would be a good idea to send the Pauper out to greet him.”

“Alright.” Lan Jue was shocked at the revelation. Metatron was on the very cusp of being a Paragon – and the Gourmet was telling him the Pauper was his match?

“Some things defy logical explanation,” the Gourmet said with a grin.

“I guess the Pharmacist is next on my list,” Lan Jue said.

The Gourmet replied. “This time I won’t go with you.
Whatever price you offer him, I’m sure the council will pay.”

“Alright.”

The Gourmet went off on his own, leaving Lan Jue behind in

the Underground. He walked down the Avenue until arriving before a particularly antiquated building.

It was built in the ancient Chinese style, simple and pleasing to the eye, but with a classical atmosphere. A horizontal, inscribed board bore the name in golden print: Hall of Supreme Harmony

Named after the largest hall in the Forbidden City

In all the Avenue, this store ranked fifth among the area’s impressive architectural achievements. It was almost as large as the Skyfire Museum.

People walked in and out of the hall in an endless stream. Even though the overall tourism to the Avenue had slowed recently, it didn’t appear to have any negative effect on the hall’s patronage.

No sooner had Lan Jue entered the shop, then a young man in clerk attire approached. He greeted him respectfully. “Jewelry Master, you’re here? Please, come in.” As he spoke, the clerk stepped aside and motioned for Lan Jue to enter with a sweep of his arm.

Lan Jue nodded and moved further in.

The interior of the hall was even more in tune with the classical style than its façade. It was all red wood, cool stone and antique ornaments gathered together to create a truly unique atmosphere. Walking through the store was like being transported back to ancient China.

Chapter 252: The Pharmacist

With the young associate’s guidance, Lan Jue crossed a cross over a small lake and traversed a lengthy corridor.

Each step of the way was accompanied by the quiet, peaceful sounds of a guqin. The hallway itself ended in an octagonal pavilion, which was host to a woman. She sat behind a square table, upon which rested the ancient Chinese instrument he’d heard while approaching. She played it slowly, her long and delicate fingers dancing over the silken strings like flowing water.

As performed on a very popular Chinese television show

This may also be a reference by the author to guqin music, where Flowing Water is one of the most popular songs from the instrument, and is incidentally the song being played in the video linked above.

One corner of the table bore a censer, with a single joss stick poking free. Its pleasing aroma filled the area, as tendrils of fragrant smoke curled through the air.

The woman looked to be in her twenties, garbed in a long purple dress. Her dark hair was held up in a bun by a jade hairpin, keeping it up and away from her bright and pale face. She was pretty as a picture, an image of ancient Chinese culture and refinement. The music, the smell, the outfit… it certainly made an impression.

Once they reached the pavilion, the assistant stopped in his tracks. He turned, and once more indicated for Lan Jue to enter. The Jewelry Master did so, and waited with a look of silent appreciation as he listened to the young woman continue her song.

When she eventually did finish, the final pleasing notes hung in the air like a memory. Resting her delicate hands on the strings, she looked up to regard Lan Jue. With a small, gentle smile, she spoke. “It’s been quite a while, Jewelry Master. How have tings been? Is there a problem with my medicines you’ve come to discuss?”

Lan Jue smiled pleasantly. “A joke, certainly. If our Pharmacist’s medicines are problematic, then there are no decent pharmaceuticals in the whole of the Eastern Alliance. Expensive, perhaps, but nothing can be said with regards to quality.”

The Pharmacist watched him carefully. “I’ll admit, I am curious as to why you might require so much high-class medicine. Are we training an army?”

Lan Jue offered a lopsided smirk. “It’s a secret.”

The Pharmacist indicated the stone stool by the table. Lan Jue approached, and sat. She placed an elbow on the table, and supported her head in her palm.

“You didn’t bring your contingent of girls this time? A solo visit today – it makes me think you aren’t here for pleasant conversation.”

Their exchange was temporarily halted as a young girl – dressed similarly in old-style garments – arrived with a couple glasses of tea. The contents were a thin green tea, and as they each took a sip of the refreshing brew it was like a cleansing wash.

Lan Jue took a second tentative sip. “Excellent tea. You certainly know how to enjoy life.”

The Pharmacist smiled prettily. “Do I? You are daily surrounded by four grand beauties.”

Lan Jue chuckled. “They’re friends… more like sisters.”

The Pharmacist’s lips curled in to a pout. “Men. Such duplicitous creatures. You think I don’t notice the look in their eyes when these young women speak about you? I know what I see.”

Lan Jue’s face twitched ever so slightly. He wanted to say something to the contrary, but chose instead to refrain.

“What do you want, no more beating around the bush.” The Pharmacist set her teacup upon the small table and stared at Lan Jue.

He complied. “The West’s two great Adept organizations are coming, and we’re going to celebrate their arrival with a friendly competition. A team battle, and four single combat bouts. We’re still missing a single challenger for the one-on-one fights.”

The Pharmacist’s laugh was as pleasing to the ear as  her guqin. “Alright. Things have been feeling stuffy as of late. Let’s say… an s-ranked gemstone, and I’ll throw my hat in the literal ring.”

Lan Jue snorted with bitter mirth. “Of all those on Skyfire Avenue, you’re probably the wealthiest. What do you need all of this for?”

“To enjoy life!” she said, matter-of-factly. “No one to cause me pain, no one to live me, just me and my work. Hoarding for my funeral, one does suppose. If the mighty Skyfire council should agree with my payment, I’ll participate. Otherwise I suppose there’s nothing to be done for it – you can find someone more qualified.” The pleasant smile on her face was gone, replaced with a frigid expression and an equally chilly tone.

This woman, he thought – he was a visitor sharing tea, and she so suddenly had become hostile. “Fine. I’ll find someone else.” A loose organization like theirs, even if they had those kinds of resources, wouldn’t pay so rich a price.

“Stop.” The Pharmacist called out as Lan Jue rose.

“Hm?” The Jewelry Master just looked at her.

“If you won’t give an s-ranked gemstone, that’s fine,” she began. “You can do me a favor instead.”

Lan Jue regarded her, surprise evident on his face. “You have money, you have power… what else is there that you can’t handle on your own? Much less that I can deal with.”

At this, the Pharmacist expression grew… strange. It changed quickly from one of harshness and displeasure, to soft and inviting.

“Only a man can do what I need. I can’t do it alone.”

Lan Jue’s eyes widened as he took a tentative step backwards. “I’m afraid I’m not for sale for your entertainment!”

“Idiot!” A malicious lit flashed through the Pharmacist’s pretty eyes. She picked up the tea cup she’d relinquished, only to viciously throw it at Lan Jue’s head.

Lan Jue, out of breath, laughed sheepishly. His hand shot out and grabbed the cup from midair. Not a drop was spilled.

“What then, speak.” He said.

Suddenly, there was a hesitation in the way the Pharmacist held herself. She rose to her feet as she continued. “Come with me.”

She lead the Jewelry Master along the corridor, the opposite way from which he’d approached. A building loomed at the end of their trek.

Lan Jue watched her incredible figure as they walked. Narrow hips swelled in to a pert and firm backside that swayed from side to side. By any metric, she was quite the woman. And yet Lan Jue was not drawn in by her allure. He stared calmly ahead, and appeared to have no urge to look her over. He didn’t want to be indecent!

Further, the words of the Wine Master rang through his mind. They were warnings and things of note, that were revealed to him when he’d first arrived at the Avenue and was undergoing his tests. Among those important bits of

information was one concerning this very Pharmacist.

Even in a loose organization like the Avenue, the Pharmacist was a special case. She was not a council member, but held more authority than any junior member.

Do not provoke her, the Wine Master had warned. If he did, no one would be able to help him.

Lan Jue only knew that she was more powerful than him – maybe ninth-ranked eighth-degree… maybe ninth-degree, he couldn’t say. Whatever the case, she was strong.

Certainly, this was the reason the Gourmet had suggested the Pharmacist in the first place. She was definitely a powerful enough Adept for what they needed.

The Pharmacist led him to the building, and inside. The passed through a courtyard, then entered a second. She stopped when they faced the entrance to a room.

The room – and in fact the entire building – closely adhered to the architectural principles of the pharmacy, all very ancient

Chinese. The wooden doors and window frames were exquisitely designed, and the windows themselves were composed of rice paper.

Once more, the Pharmacist looked hesitant to proceed. She turned to face Lan Jue.

“Unless I’m mistaken, you come from a Former Era Chinese Bloodline, Jewelry Master. Is that correct?”

Lan Jue nodded.

“What I need,” she said, “is for you to pretend to be my husband, for a little while.”

“Huh?” Lan Jue’s gigolo comment had been a joke. He had no idea she was actually asking to purchase him.

The Pharmacist shot him a look so cold it nearly froze him in place. “Put it out of your mind this instant. The whole thing would be a farce. More than a husband, I need you to pretend to be a father – my child’s father.”

Lan Jue stared at her in silence. She had no idea the Pharmacist had a husband, much less a child. It was big news!

“Your child doesn’t know their own father?” he asked.

The Pharmacist shook her head, sending the long silken tresses trembling. Her face was a mask of bitter resentment. “Her father died while she was still in the womb. Because of my sorrow, the poor child was affected, and she was born blind. I’ve thought for years, searching for any way to return her sight, to no avail. All I can do is keep her close. Lately, though I don’t know why, she’s been calling for her father. But where am I supposed to find her a father? I was hoping this is where you could help me.”

Lan Jue looked at her doubtfully. “Why me?”

“Because of your power,” she said, “and your pure Chinese bloodline. My daughter may be blind, but she possesses senses no ordinary person could understand. I couldn’t just randomly select someone for the position, otherwise she’d know. This is ‘why you.’”

“Then, what do you need me to do?” he asked.

The Pharmacist went on. “Just spend time with her, every now and again. If you do this, I won’t just help the Avenue this once. If in the future there is anything you need from me, I’ll happily oblige. On top of that, I’m willing to offer you a special medicine. You’re probably aware that my cultivation came as a result of the ancient Chinese Taoist alchemical arts. There is no cultivation method better for reaching the pinnacle of human capacity. The first among these methods, is the Pill of Immortality.”

Lan Jue considered this for a moment. “How long would I be helping you with this?”

The Pharmacist laughed bitterly. “I can’t tell you. Until she figured it out, or is old enough to understand…”

“This is a very difficult thing you ask of me,” he said, a helpless tone to his words. “especially with no deadline. I can’t make this promise.”

The Pharmacist stood in silence for a moment. When she looked at him again, two glistening tears were rolling down her porcelain cheeks. “Help a pitiful mother, won’t you? I won’t impose any limits, there will be no requirements. All I beg is that sometimes you come to give my little one a father. Just… so

that she knows a little bit what it’s like. A child needs their father, and hopefully with your help she can grow up healthy. I no longer harbor hopes to return her sight, but… but I hope at least you can make sure she doesn’t grow up with a broken heart.”

Hearing her quavering voice, seeing her tears, Lan Jue was nodding even before he could stop himself. “Very well. I can’t promise a result, but I will help the best I can. As for remuneration, don’t worry about it – just help out the Avenue in the upcoming exchange. After all, we are family here.”

“Yes.” The Pharmacist nodded her head, ever so slightly. “Thank you. No matter what comes, I will always remember your kindness.”

Chapter 253: The Mystic Maiden

The Pharmacist wiped her eyes, and set about the business of composing herself. After a few moments, she returned to the doorway and softly knocked.

“Mama, come in.” A silvery voice called out to her from within. A young girl’s voice.

A small smile was on the Pharmacist’s face as she pushed the door opened and entered. “Hello darling.”

Lan Jue entered right behind her.

Though he’d guessed it earlier, what he saw proved that the Pharmacist’s actual age was much different from her appearance. This young girl was older than he’d anticipated.

She was perhaps seven or eight, and so adorable it made one want to just smother her in affection. She wore a small white Chinese-style dress, embroidered with a plum blossom pattern. Her shoulder-length hair had been bundled up on the top of her head like her mother. It made her look even more a tiny classical beauty. There was a purity about her as well, the purity

of youth.

She had two large and beautiful eyes, with long eyelashes. The eyes were bright and clear, though the pupils were slightly larger than they should have been, and lacked any vivacity.

Although it was only the first time he’d met her, already Lan Jue’s heart was full of pity for the young girl. She was adorable, and gorgeous – perhaps her blindness was a result of heaven’s jealousy.

“Jun’er,” the Pharmacist cooed pleasantly.

The little darling’s face lit up with a smile, and she tentatively picked her way towards her mother’s voice. She took a few steps, then paused in uncertainty. “Mama, is the guest here?”

She had excellent perception! At Lan Jue’s level of cultivation, he was constantly and automatically hiding his aura from others. For most, if he wasn’t directly in their line of sight, then no one would know he was around.

“No, darling. Not a guest. Mother has answered you sweet

heart. Do you remember your seventh birthday, the wish you wanted?” The Pharmacist covered the distance to her young one, knelt down, and wrapped her in a hug.

The little girl’s whole body shook ever so slightly, as she turned her face towards Lan Jue. “Mama, mama… you, you brought daddy back?”

Tears flowed freely from the young medicine woman’s eyes, but she nodded emphatically all the same and choked with sobs.

Lan Jue was at a loss for words. He’d originally suspected this role would be an easy one to play, however now that he was face to face with her, he was finding it very difficult to present any deception.

He took a few steps forward until he was beside the Pharmacist, then knelt as well. He gentle took up one of Jun’er’s tiny hands. “Jun’er.”

The little thing nervously shifted from one foot to another.
Her dim eyes lit up, and her tiny voice was hopeful. “Daddy?”

Lan Jue was silent. The Pharmacist looked at him – not with intimidation, or command… just hope. Tears glittered in her eyes.

“Yeah,” he said.

Pretty laughter bubbled up from within the child. “Daddy! Daddy why’d you go for so long? Mommy is always telling me stories about you. Can I touch your face?”

“Of course,” he answered. Lan Jue lifted her tiny hand and placed it on his cheek. The Pharmacist relinquished the young girl from her embrace.

Jun’er’s second little hand lifted, and gently began exploring the contours of the Jewelry Master’s face.

Her hands were cold, but tender and delicate. The smile on her face was sweet, wide. “Daddy’s very handsome. The bridge of your nose is very straight, you must be very handsome. And now that you’re back, mommy won’t be so tired all the time. You should be nicer to mommy, she missed you a lot too. I hear her crying at night sometimes when she thinks no one is listening.”

Lan Jue took her in to his arms. “I guess I’ve made things hard for you and your mother these last few years.”

To this, Jun’er quickly shook her head. “Jun’er’s been good. I’ve gotten big! See, I’m not crying. Daddy, can you tell me a story about your time in the army? Mommy says you’re a hero, that you left us because you were out saving people. You were too busy fighting the enemy, so you couldn’t come back.”

Lan Jue blinked. Jun’er’s father was a soldier? Surely, he mustn’t have been any ordinary man to marry a woman like the Pharmacist.

“Alright… how about I tell you the time I fought off a bunch of monsters!” He lifted her up, and they both took a seat on a nearby sofa.

“Yay!”

“Not long ago,” he began, “your father visited another planet. It was a beautiful planet, with lots of pretty trees and oceans. People called it a holiday paradise. But then came the monsters…”

Lan Jue told the story of his time on Tai Hua. He embellished parts of the story, and through his artful recounting Jun’er was hooked.

The Pharmacist sat at one side, watching silently. Her tears had once more stopped, replaced with a smile.

As Lan Jue continued with the lengthy story, Jun’er had cuddled up beside him to listen. By the time he finished, she was fast asleep. He and the Pharmacist brought her to bed and tucked her in. He watched her for a moment, an expression of disappointment on his face, before the Pharmacist beckoned him over with a wave of her hand. They left together, quietly shutting the door behind them.

“Thank you,” the Pharmacist said, quiet and genuine.

Lan Jue shook his head. “She a brilliant little girl. Her father…”

A pained smile spread over the Pharmacist’s face. “He went missing, during a military expedition. Out in the cosmos, a fight… there are a lot of unknowns. I had thought, strong as he was, that he wouldn’t have any problems. Who’d have thought

he’d never return. I was pregnant with Jun’er at the time. His name was Mo Liansheng.”

“Was there any attempt to find him?” Lan Jue asked.

Once again, she shook her head. “We tried everything,” the Pharmacist responded, “but the only information we had were his coordinates before he disappeared. It was out in the middle of space, nowhere near a planet. I was pregnant, and though he left no trace I hired a spacecraft to take me out and search for him. The result was that the background cosmic radiation… now Jun’er can’t see.”

Lan Jue sniffed. “So he could still be alive. Our universe is not lacking in miracles.”

The Pharmacist gave a dismissive laugh. “I’ve given up on that possibility years ago. I’m fine, but thank you for your comfort.”

“Alright, well I’ll head out,” Lan Jue said.

The Pharmacist called after him. “Will you be coming back?”

Lan Jue nodded. “To the best of my ability. I’ll spend time with her whenever I have spare time. My Discipline is lightning, so perhaps I can also help her train with bioelectricity. And who knows, maybe it can help her eyes.”

This clearly pleased the Pharmacist. “Really? That’s excellent. Thank you.” As she spoke, a small porcelain bottle inexplicably appeared in her hands. She handed it to Lan Jue.

The Jewelry Master answered by gently pushing her hand away. “I help you, because we’re both part of Skyfire Avenue. And because I respect your husband. He must have been a first- rate soldier. My brother is a soldier, too. If I accepted any sort of payment from you, it wouldn’t be a favor I’m doing – it’s be a transaction. If we did that, there would be no way for me to face Jun’er. Do you understand?”

The Pharmacist was stunned. However, she gently nodded her head. “Again, thank you.”

Lan Jue’s heart was heavy as he left the Hall of Supreme Harmony. The Pharmacist and her daughter were not the only family this had happened to. The East employed many soldiers. He still remembered the young man he spoke with on Tai Hua.

A soldier’s honor and responsibility… but if something should happen to them, it’s their families that bear the pain. It wasn’t just the soldiers themselves that were deserving of respect, but their families as well.

Lan Jue went back to the surface and got on his bicycle, then left the Avenue behind. He pedaled easily towards the NEU, all the while thinking about his class. He would discuss soldiers today, he thought, and though it was a difficult subject to broach he imagined it would draw a good number of students.

ζ

There were quite a few students today, as he anticipated. Perhaps it was the residual memories of the Ma La Tang he’d taught them of last time, but whatever the reason two thirds of his classroom was full.

He started the class by assuring them there wouldn’t be any fine cuisine today, no etiquette instruction. He just wanted to share a story. It was about a man, a soldier for the East who left on a mission out in to the reaches of deep space. When he vanished, his wife went looking and their daughter ended up blind. It was a story about pain, and about facing the bitterness that life can sometimes provide. None of the students spoke

during the story, and only sat in rapt silence as the information was delivered. When the bell finally rang and the students filed out, their eyes were wet with tears.

After class, Lan Jue made his way to Grace hospital. Zhou Qianlin would be busy with her training for the next little while, so he had decided long ago that he would stand in for her in the interim. It would be a way to cleanse his own soul as well.

There were many in the universe that needed help, he thought, and though he couldn’t do much it was his responsibility to help who he could.

ζ

Grace Hospital was quiet, peaceful.

It was the afternoon, and at this point many of the hospital’s denizens were lazily enjoying the sunlight.

“Ey? Little Lan’s here. Where’s Qianlin? It’s been a few days since we’ve seen her. We miss her!” An elderly women smiled happily at Lan Jue as she greeted him.

Lan Jue smiled amicably at her. “Hello Granny Meng. Qianlin has enrolled in a training program, so she’ll be out for about two months. It’s a closed training, so they won’t let her leave. She asked me to come in her pace for the time being, and help where I can. I’m all thumbs, so if there’s something I get wrong please let me know!”

“Nonsense, nonsense. Ahh, two months without  Qianlin! We’ll miss her, but you Little Lan – don’t tire yourself out. Here, I brought you an orange, have a taste.”

Enthusiastic patrons of the hospital surrounded Lan Jue. He gracefully accepted their kindnesses, then set about helping; cleaning clothes, cleaning robes, cutting hair, cutting nails…

Chapter 254: Give Me A Chance

Lan Jue had come several times to Grace Hospital with Zhou Qianlin, so he had become proficient in most of the tasks they usually perform. However, even with his training and Discipline, the process was still a slow one. It was night by the time he’d seen to most of the hospital’s tenants.

As he was preparing to leave for the night, he suddenly remembered one denizen he hadn’t seen yet – that old woman who had left him with such a strong impression the last time.

He climbed the stairs and walked down the hallway to the final doorway before the end. Sopping before the knock, he quietly knocked.

“Come in.” The quiet, quavering voice called out to him. To him, the voice sounded unhappy.

Pushing the door open, he entered.

“Granny Bess. Hello.” Lan Jue smiled pleasantly towards the old woman, who was seated in her favorite spot by the window.

As ever, Granny Bess was dressed meticulously. She stared out of the window, but Lan Jue didn’t know if she were watching the skies or the roads.

She turned her head to regard the young man, with eyes of uncommon clarity. They were gorgeous eyes, that made the viewer think Granny Bess must have been exceptionally pretty in her youth.

Lan Jue nodded amicably. “I’m here to help clean up your room, and clean your clothes.”

“Mh.” Granny Bess nodded her head.

Without any further discussion, Lan Jue set about his tasks. He performed them as he’d seen Zhou Qianlin do, first cleaning the clothes then returning to tidy up the room. By the time he’d finished sweeping, her clothes were ready.

These were all things he preferred, and was very particular about doing properly. He was a bachelor, so he knew how all of this had to be done. When he finished, he approached Granny Bess.

“Hey there, your fingernails look a little long. Would you like me to help you clip them?” Lan Jue asked.

She shook her head, lifting her eyes to stare at him.

He answered by dropping to his haunches. This meant Granny Bess wouldn’t need to crane her neck to look at him.

This was the closest he’d ever been to this old woman, and though he couldn’t understand why, there was something very familiar about her. He was inexplicably fond of her.

“The moon will be out. We had fine weather today.” Darkness had blanketed the world outside, but the clear skies were alive with dots of distant starlight.

“The moonlight is beautiful. Granny Bess, you should have some food.” Lan Jue said with a smile.

Once again the elderly woman shook her head. “The moonlight is enough. When the moon comes out, that’s when I’m needed. You can go.”

Lan Jue’s heart was heavy, worries that Granny Bess was beset by no small number of weights on her shoulders. Her eyes regarded him, clear and bright, but there was something strange alive in their depths. There was a story in there, somewhere.

Lan Jue nodded, and rose to his feet. He opened the door but, with one foot out the door, he heard Granny Bess’ voice calling towards him from behind.

“Be good to her.”

Lan Jue stopped in his tracks, and turned to regard her.

Her eyes were already staring back out of the window. She spoke again, quietly though and mostly to herself. “Don’t let appearances cloud your eyes. Don’t let suffering blot out the moonlight.”

Lan Jue just looked at her, not understanding. But there was substance there, he knew. He bid her farewell once more, then left the hospital.

Granny Bess’ words followed him on the road home. Though he didn’t understand what she’d said, he felt it held some profound significance for him.

By the time he got back to the jewelry shop, his guest was already waiting for him.

“Did you go looking for me?” The Driver stood as Lan Jue entered. He wore a dark grey suit with white stripes, a shimmering vest within, and a dark blue tie. His short-cut hair and impressive figure completely the manly representation.

Still, even so handsomely dressed, there was still an air of rogue-like charm that surrounded him. The chilly flash in his eyes didn’t help.

“Yeah, lemme just change my clothes.” Lan Jue waved to him, indicating that he sit. He exited to his apartments in the back to change.

When drinking, one’s environment and atmosphere were important. He’d been comfortably dressed and busy all afternoon, but now that the Driver had arrived dressed so formally, he had to match him.

When he re-appeared, he was clad in a French grey three-piece suit with dark blue stripes. The cobalt blue tie held the whole ensemble together, and pared well with both the color and style.

A gentleman’s clothes shouldn’t exceed three  colors, otherwise it looked messy and fickle.

When the Driver saw him, he smiled. His suit was a product of Wendy’s, and wearing it was a sign of respect and appreciation.

The two gentlemen left the jewelry shop, with the Driver in front and Lan Jue just behind. They walked leisurely towards Wendy’s shop.

The posh interior of the seamstress’ shop was already prepared for their arrival. The sign outside expressed their current disinterest in visitors. Inside, a simple table had been stocked with an ash tray, some dried fruit and a fruit bowl. Beside that was another table, this one over a meter long and more than thirty centimeters wide. Upon it were set a host of various whiskies.

“You sure are a fan of single-malt!” Lan Jue said through a laugh.

The Driver had already snatched up the first whisky in line. Wendy appeared from somewhere in the back, bearing two crystal glasses which she placed on the table for them. She, too, laughed. “Not just him. I thought you also favored the taste. Even me, after smelling your cigar smoke and the scent of whisky I’m starting to enjoy it myself.”

Lan Jue smiled pleasantly at her. “So why did you only bring two glasses? It’s always more fun to drink together.”

Wendy shook her head. “No thank you. I’ll be fine watching you two enjoy yourself, I don’t drink much anyway. If I woman always drinks and becomes a drunkard, how will she ever get married?”

The smile on Lan Jue’s face spread wider. “If word of that ever got out, there’d be a line spanning across the Avenue of gentlemen looking to propose to Miss Wendy Wang.”

The Seamstress responded with a snort, and a despondent look.

“Alright,” the Driver interjected, “don’t pay any mind to this heartless young man. I don’t know why you like that crazy guy

anyway.”

“Am I crazy?” The voice startled them, especially since it came from the door they’d locked. A man had someone found his way inside.

His normally scruffy hair had been slicked back and fondly managed today. He was dressed in a fine, wine-red suit. His beard had been cut and cleaned up, making him appear ten years younger.

He bore a bottle in one hand, and an arrangement of flowers in the other. They were white as the driven snow, and looked like beautiful crystals in full bloom. Strangely, they emitted a strange blue mist which formed floral patterns of its own

Wendy stared at him in shock, an expression mirrored by both the Driver and Lan Jue.

The Driver was worse, with a scowl that turned his craggy face. He nearly dropped the whisky bottle in his hand.

The man approached the table and placed the bottle upon it. A

silver stag head glinted in the light. Written on the label: 46 year. It was a famous bottle of former era whisky – Dalmore 46. Even in the former era, it was an exceedingly rare find.

The man didn’t stop once he’d placed the whisky on the table. He moved around until he was facing Wendy, and stretched out his hand bearing the bundle of flowers he’d brought with him. “I’m sorry, for making you wait so many years. He’s right, actually – I must be crazy. The obsession in my heart clouded my mind. I haven’t been able to move past what happened all those years ago. But I woke up… and although there will always be things that will never be fixed, those things are gone now. The living must always look forward. I’m sorry you had to wait for me. I just hope, if it isn’t too late, that you could give me another chance? I will do everything in my power to make up for it.”

Wendy’s eyes were wet with tears, and she instinctively took a step backward. She stared at the man before her, and though her eyes were moist no tears would fall for they were also filled with stubborness, even anger. But even as they watched the hard light in her eyes gradually receded. In the face of everything, that burning anger eased.

She stomped forward and began beating her tiny fists against his shoulders.

He said nothing, did not attempt to dodge or retreat. Instead he smiled and wrapped her in to his arms.

The Driver and Jewelry Master exchanged a wordless glance. Suddenly, the two of them felt it was no longer appropriate to be here.

Lan Jue gave the Driver a telling look before rising to his feet.
It was a beautiful moment he didn’t want to tarnish.

The Driver also stood, though his expression was somewhat gloomy, and helpless. But more than that, there was joy.

“Where are you going? Such a happy occasion, and we have no friends to celebrate with?” Wendy, her arms wrapped around the man’s waist, smiled happily towards Lan Jue and the Driver.

“You know, I am really fighting the urge to lay my hands on you.” The Driver growled. “No… it’s more accurate to say I’ve been fighting the urge for years. I’m warning you right now that Wendy isn’t just my business partner. In my heart, she’s my sister. If I hear you hurt her again, I won’t be responsible for my actions.”

Lan Jue reached out an arm and patted the Driver’s shoulder. “You know you’re threatening a Paragon.”

The Driver’s response was thick with contempt. “I don’t care, he –“ He stopped suddenly, eyes wide, and stared from the man to Lan Jue and back again.

Lan Jue shrugged at him, mirth dancing in his eyes.

Wendy lifted her head to look in to the man’s eyes. “You did it?”

The man nodded. “I have. Not because of any power, but because my experiences finally opened my heart, and allowed me to see clearly what I should have learned so many years ago. That was the only way I could discover what was  truly important to me. Power, was not what I needed. You are what makes me happy, and I’m sorry it took so long for me to realize it. I will use all the rest of my days making up for this debt. I will love you completely, and with the same zeal as one cooks food.”

The Seamstress laughed.

Comparing endless love to cooking food… surely there was only one person in the cosmos who could make such a metaphor. The Gourmet smiled back at his Seamstress.

Chapter 255: The Visit

Drinking excessively invariably lead to hang-overs. So it was, when Lan Jue finally regained consciousness in the early morning, he felt like his head was ready to split open.

He didn’t remember how much he’d ultimately had to drink. The night passed in a blur of joy and good tidings. The others were likely suffering as he was.

The first to fall to the alcohol’s charms was the Gourmet himself. Be you a normal man or a paragon, once you let yourself go no amount of special energy was going to neutralize alcohol. He drink’s numbing peace overcame him. But oh had he laughed – real laughter, as though he were trying to make up for so much lost time.

The Driver had also had entirely too much. Once discovering that the Gourmet had reached such heights of power, he knew his threats were nonsense. Pointless nonsense. He decided, then to show his strength and menace through the consumption of liquor. His ferocious coaxing of the Gourmet had ultimately lead to the Paragon’s downfall.

The chef accepted it all, and drank until he was full with

mirth and happiness. The Driver was not far behind.

Lan Jue kept them company, and drank as they did. At his level of drinking proficiency he was able to handle the volume – so long as he poured for himself. But he didn’t.

Once the Gourmet was done, the Driver then turned his attention to Lan Jue. It wasn’t long after that the both of them were well sloshed.

He faintly remembered talking a lot with Wendy. She carefully tended to the Driver and the Gourmet, all the while talking through tears and laughter. She’d carefully placed the flowers the Gourmet had given her in a vase, and tended to them like a priceless treasure. She would return to gently stroke the silken petals throughout the night.

Most of their conversation was lost to the drunken haze, but Lan Jue did remember one thing. She said she couldn’t drink, not even one drop. She feared that if she drank and fell asleep, she’d wake up to find it had all been a dream. She wanted to feel, to remember everything. And when her man awoke, not to let him have any regrets.

Lan Jue had called Ke’er and Xiuxiu to come help him home – the first time he’d needed it since coming to the Avenue. He vaguely recalled seeing the gourmet pulling Wendy to the back as he left. As for the Driver, presumably he ended up in his car.

It had indeed been one crazy night! He stumbled from bed and poured himself a glass of water, and although his head was pounding he was in high spirits.

Driving while under the influence was an irresponsible and reckless habit, so he didn’t. Xiuxiu ended up being the one to drive him back to the NEU campus’ West Hill.

As he fitted the golden mask on his face once again, he pondered on whether he could keep a solemn exterior. The happiness he felt had spread to every cell in his body.

ζ

The students knew the moment they saw him that something was different.

What’s going on? They thought. The Prince of Devils is almost

warm today.

“Were you drinking, boss?” Lin Guoguo asked quietly.

“Mnh.” He answered. He then turned his eyes towards the rows of students.

Today the students were vibrant and full of energy. They’d practiced all day the day before, and though they spent the night tossing and turning, they awoke excited to continue. They were dedicated to the far beyond ordinary training by this point. Further, waking in the morning and having a needle removed flooded them with that wondrous, warm sensation from before. Though they still didn’t have access to their powers, the sensation and power they obtained from the needle’s removal was beyond description. It was like they could feel themselves growing.

Finally, they felt like this was a serious training, not just torture.

As Lan Jue walked from student to student, pulling needles free, the students eyes lit up as they experienced that sense of release once again. Paired with the strange change in their

drillmaster’s aura, they were starting to believe this Prince of Devils may not be so bad after all.

Unfortunately, they were wrong.

“We’re adding fifty percent to the training you did yesterday.
If you can’t complete it, you won’t be sleeping.”

Their hell would begin anew. Sweat fell like rain, as the bitter exercises commenced. Now, though, the students were different from when they’d started. They had changed.

They had had their second needle removed. Eventually the third would come out, then all of them. They were like seals locking away parts of their bodies, their spirits. Once they were all gone, what awaited them? What would they find?

Expectation was alive in their hearts, and it was pushing back against excruciating pain of training.

“You go drinking yesterday and don’t invite us!” Chu Cheng viciously gripped Lan Jue by the neck.

Lan Jue, in response, rolled his eyes at his friend. “Let me go, I have something to tell you.”

Chu Cheng huffed. “Hell no. Not unless you bring me some of the stuff you had yesterday.”

“Want me to puke it out for you?” Lan Jue asked.

Chu Cheng hurriedly let his friend go. “A-Jue. When did you get so nasty?”

The masked Jewelry Master chortled. “I learned from you!”

“Sod off!”

Hua Li snickered. “You do look pretty happy today, A-Jue.
What’s going?”

“His uncle’s found himself a wife,” Lan Jue said.

“Eh?” Chu Cheng looked at him in confusion, but eventually

his confusion made way for something else. “You’re saying my uncle has a wife? That woman from before didn’t die?”

Lan Jue gave him a lopsided smirk. “No, not that woman – that’s certain. He fell in love with someone else, the Seamstress from Skyfire Avenue. Wendy’s loved him for a long, long time, but the Gourmet has never given her the time of day. That was until last night, when he chose her. Those two have found each other, so I’m happy. Very happy for them.”

Chu Cheng was struck dumb by the revelation. “You’re saying my uncle’s fallen in love with another woman? So… he’s gotten over his depression? Recovered?”

Lan Jue nodded. “That’s what I’m saying.”

Chu Cheng let out a long breath, he didn’t know how to react. Everything that had happened all those years ago had been a massive blow against his family. The worst of it had been his uncle’s disappearance. Were it not for the fact that Chu Cheng was also strong with Hades’ blood, their house would certainly have fallen in to decline.

“And what else? Did he find out who it was that killed her?”

Chu Cheng asked.

“This I don’t know,” Lan Jue said. “I think you could probably go ask him yourself, if you liked. His mood is very different than it was before. Go to him, perhaps he’ll tell you everything. Maybe he’ll even go back with you… but who knows.”

“I’m going right now!” Chu Cheng was gone, barreling across the training field to find his uncle.

Hua Li ambled to Lan Jue’s side, watching Chu Cheng’s figure disappear.” This is very good news. No wonder you look so happy. If it were me, I’d do the same. In fact, more and more I’m enjoying life here on the Avenue. There’s so little back- biting and trickery. The atmosphere is loose, no one tells you what to do, but it’s… kind. In the West we have that bitter stalemate between the two castles. Even the Conclave in the North has got terrible internal strife. Skyfire Avenue really is an Adept’s Paradise.”

Lan Jue smiled at his friend’s description. “If you like it then why not stay here. No one will make you leave. The precondition is you couldn’t bring Mo Xiao with you – that’d be more than we could bear!”

Hua Li sighed. “If it were that easy, then I’d definitely stay here. Unfortunately, there are still some things that need doing. I lack a sufficient excuse to abandon them. So, yesterday we kept an eye on them – today it’s back to you. Go ahead and see where your students are at – their progress has been good. You should use the medicine again today. I’ll get everything ready.”

“Alright.”

So it was, today they’d once again turn them all in to boiled eggs.

ζ

Skyfire Avenue had changed, adopting an imposing aura as the adept exchange approached. Everyone knew the West was coming for a visit. It was certainly big news for the Avenue.

Of the eighteen council members, fifteen were present. Three were unable to quickly make their way back. The remainder prepared to greet the West after their journey.

Chu Cheng’s trip to the Avenue had been quick, seeking out

the Gourmet then leaving right away. He left a message for Lan Jue stating that he needed to go home for some family business. When it came time for the God-team battles, he’d meet them in DreamNet.

The words exchanged between nephew and uncle, Lan Jue was not privy to. It was telling, though, that Chu Cheng had left, but the Gourmet remained behind.

Today, in the early morning, Lan Jue made his way to the Gothic Winery clad in a fine blue suit.

The Wine Master was also dressed meticulously, in a wig and courtly raiment. His face was calm and stoic.

Besides the two of them, several others were in attendance; the Barber, Coffee Master, Doctor, Driver, Seamstress, Gourmet, Beautician, and Mechanic to name them. Ten councilors in all.

Several others not of the council were also in attendance. Among them were the Accountant, and the Pharmacist. The Pauper was also skulking about.

The Pauper stuck mostly to a distant corner, while the Account was at Lan Jue’s side. The Pharmacist stood a good distance from the crowd, clad in a gorgeous ancient-style qipao. She glowered dubiously at everyone and everything, like they owed her money.

The surface area of Skyfire Avenue had been closed to all traffic today. The streets were entirely deserted but for the welcome party. The Wine Master took a moment to regard everyone in attendance.

“The two Citadels will be arriving shortly,” he began. “Let’s go say hello.”

With that said, the Cosmagus lead them towards the far end of the Avenue, scepter in hand. The others fanned out behind them as they left the Gothic Winery behind.

Chapter 256: Paragon Status

All the stores along Skyfire Avenue were open. They’re doors were open wide, and their wares on display for all to see as proprietors stood by. They nodded and gave their regards as the welcoming party passed. Still, there was a solemnity that hung heavy the air.

As the councilors reached the end of the Avenue, dots appeared on the horizon. A motorcade of vert-cars approached.

They were separated in to two processions; one set of gold vehicles, and one set of black. They flew in tight formation as they closed upon Skyfire Avenue.

Their approach was slow, and when they finally drew within fifty meters of the Avenue they descended, and came to a stop.

The luxurious vehicles settled, and their doors opens. Several figures exited.

The Wine Master stood at the head of the procession, watching with calm expression. He made no move to greet them.

Lan Jue was not far behind. His eyes were hard, and a cold light shone in their depths as he saw the golden cars open and their passengers emerge.

There were a few familiar faces from the procession. Rafael, their Archangel of Healing, was among them. The Cherub Uriel was also present, along with the Messenger of Death Gabriel. Three of the Pontiff’s six Archangels spread out as they exited their vehicles, and waited.

From the middle of the motorcade, a middle-aged man emerged. He was tall, and muscular, with a handsome bearing. He was surrounded by an aura of shimmering golden light.

As he exited the car, this dazzling man, too, stepped to one side. Another figure made its presence known, this one considerably older and more fragile.

He was clad in a magnificent white robe, embroidered with golden thread. A crown rested on his head, and his frail hand gripped a dazzling scepter. Once he was free of the car, every member of the Pontiff’s clergy bowed deep in respect.

The elderly man looked like any normal gentleman – just a

man in the winter of his life. However, the look in his eyes was anything but average. His sight was clear, and cutting, as though he saw and knew all. He was followed by an indistinct choir of angelic voices, just barely audible. The area around his head appeared brighter than its surroundings.

Opposite the golden motorcade was its mirror, black as pitch. The dark cars also parked, and from within exited a series of equally inky figures.

Their clothing was a motley array of blacks and crimsons and moss greens. The aura that surrounded them filled the area with a sense of darkness, in direct contrast with the bright light of the Pontiff’s entourage.

The first to make their presence known was an enormous and powerful man with silvery-grey hair. His eyes were a bright, sickly yellow with vertical pupils. His black clothing was stretched taught over his intensely muscular frame, and looked as though it might split at the seams any moment.

Immediately after his appearance, another figure exited from the car. This one was a woman, with an alluring and enchanting figure. She wore a pine green gown, and a flowing cloak that hid her face from view. She was voluptuous and tall, perhaps even

reaching two meters. She, too, bore a scepter in her delicate hand.

It was a curious object in and of itself, fashioned in  the likeness of a serpent. A forked tongue stretched from it’s carved face, while two eyes of crushed emeralds twinkled in the dim light. Compared to untamed menace of the large man who’d come before her, she seemed far more sinister.

The next to exit the dark vehicles was a tall, thin man. He was exquisitely dressed in a fine tuxedo, blood red, with a black tie and white shirt. His dark hair was slicked back and oiled so that the light reflected off of it, contrasting against a pale white face. His eyes were a pale red, but despite their appearance were handsome and gentlemanly.

Like their golden counterparts, these three also moved to one side and waited silent as the grave. The next to exit did so from the motorcades middle car.

He was an attractive man, easily a match for the on who’d come second to last on the Pontiff’s side. Flowing robes, black as the depths of night, covered him. Dark crimson lines were threaded to it, swirling around each other to form numerous patterns.

Strangest was the fact that his eyes were entirely black; two orbs of darkness in a pale face. Peering in to them was like staring in to abyss, like losing your soul.

After exiting the car he, too, took two steps to the side. The car’s final occupant stepped out.

He was young, and of average build. Compared to the others who appeared before him, the man was largely inconspicuous. He wore a gown the color of tarnished brass, and appeared largely normal in comparison to the others. Red hair, normal eyes clearly separated in black and white… but if you looked closely, his pupils were the same unsettling black as the other man’s.

As he exited the vehicle, the world around him was visibly darker. The sun seemed dimmer, and the air dropped several degrees.

The young man in black, and the old man in white, exchanged a long look. One was warm, the other ice cold.

Neither spoke and, surrounded by their soldiers, approached Skyfire Avenue. Their gait was easy, their pace almost

practiced, and the others fell in behind like it had been one a million times – in utter silence.

Finally, the Wine Master took a few steps forward until he reached the border of the Avenue. His eyes remained calm, impassive. Once the two contrasting groups drew near, they stopped.

“It’s been quite a long time,” the Wine Master greeted them.

The black eyes youth was first to speak. Strangely, his voice sounded much older than he appeared. “Indeed it has… Ages. And yet only you come to greet us. It’s surprising that the presence of myself and this old zealot still isn’t enough to inspire all three of you old fellows to come say hello.”

The Wine Master didn’t react to the younger man’s complaint. He replied in soft, even tones. “The Clairvoyant waits for both of our illustrious guests in the Museum.”

The older man smiled pleasantly. “Thank you for taking the trouble.”

The Wine Master retreated one step to the side, and motioned them towards the avenue with a sweeping gesture. “Please.” He refused to address them by name, as he knew their contentious nature.

Undoubtedly, the older man was the Pontiff himself. That would make the second man, the one with the younger face, the master of the Dark Citadel – Satan.

The two citadels had never known an era of peace. Each was the others’ greatest threat. However, they both were still part of the same Western Alliance.

Lan Jue stood now beside the Cosmagus, and sure enough every one of the Pontiff’s Archangels had their eyes on him. None of them looked pleased.

The Archangel Michael’s absence didn’t go unnoticed, and spoke to the poor state of his health. Lan Jue acted as though nothing were amiss, under their intense stares. How could this not rankle them?

The resplendent and handsome gentlemen stood at the forefront of the Archangels. This one had to be second in

command of the Pontiff’s forces – The Lord of Archangels, Metatron.

He shot Lan Jue a look, his eyes full of interest, sizing him up. With a small smile on his face, he nodded politely to the Jewelry Master.

Lan Jue, courteous as ever, returned the smile.

As they slowly made their way down the Avenue, the Pontiff idly spoke through a smile. “Ah, it’s been a very long time since last I visited. Wine Master… that’s how I am to refer to you, yes?”

The Paragon nodded. “One of several ways to describe me, I suppose.”

“This is true,” Satan responded in a chilly voice. “I call this one the old zealot. The two of us have been trying to murder one another for years innumerable, but couldn’t help but visit together his time. I heard the Arcane Magnate recently made a visit to your Citadel, Pontiff. I’m honestly surprised he didn’t reduce it to rubble.”

His words caused a cascade of angry glances from the Pontiff’s followers. Satan’s own coterie glared right back.

The Pontiff simply raised his scepter, ever so slightly. His angels fell in line.

“Let’s leave our problems in the Western Alliance, Satan. We shouldn’t burden our hosts with it, “the Pontiff sagely instructed.

Satan responded with a hearty laugh. “Zealot seems inappropriate these days, yes? I should call you general.”

The Wine Master walked slowly on the Pontiff’s other side. He never spoke a word as the two powerful men bickered, knowing that their barbs were very unlikely to result in a showdown just this moment. Where that a risk, the two wouldn’t have come together to Skyfire Avenue.

The giant doors of Skyfire Museum were open wide to receive its guests. Eight young people in spotless white robes stood at either side. Standing in the center of the portal, was the Clairvoyant himself clad in all his regalia. His own white robes shone brilliantly with every errant beam of light, as they danced

and refracted off of the multitude of gems sewn upon it. His face bore an easy smile.

Upon seeing him before them, both the Pontiff and Satan couldn’t hide the awe and respect they held for the man.

There were seven Paragons in all the Three Alliances. Among all seven, the greatest of their number stood before them now.

The Paragons all had titles by which they were known; the Cosmagus, Arcane Magistrate, and so forth. The Clairvoyant was no exception. Among the greatest adepts in the world, he was known as the Eye of Tomorrow.

In truth they were ten Paragons that were known, though who the top two were often discounted. The Eye of Tomorrow was third of all the cosmos’ Paragons.

The fourth and fifth of their rank were denizens of the Northern Alliance. They, too, were masters of the Adept organization there – the Great Conclave.

The Pontiff was sixth in line. He was called the Hand of God.

Satan was seventh, and people called him the King of the Abyss.

The Arcane Magistrate was eighth, known to the residents of Skyfire as the Keeper.

The Wine Master – the Cosmagus – was ninth.

At last there was the tenth Paragon. He had also made his presence known on the Avenue once, when he attempted to assassinate Lan Qing. The Astral Phantom. He bore no alliance but to himself, and was lauded – and feared – as the greatest living assassin.

Each of the Paragons were master of their sphere of influence, and each was different. However, the rankings were universally accepted and adhered to.

Both the Pontiff and Satan, therefore, knew very well that the ancient man before them had power enough to obliterate both of them. He was among the greatest Adepts ever to have lived.

“It’s been a very long time, my old friends,” the Clairvoyant

said.

The Pontiff offered a rare display of respect, and nodded. “It has indeed, Your Majesty.”

Satan nodded also, his face a frigid and haughty mask. But something else was hidden in the depths of those unsettling eyes.

“Please, enter.” The Clairvoyant turned his back, and stepped through the doorway in to the Museum. The Pontiff, Satan, and Cosmagus were directly behind. Everyone else lined up to follow.

Chapter 257: The Clairvoyant’s Farewell

Half of the strongest Adepts known to man, gathered in one place. Under such circumstances, even a meeting of the Eastern parliament wouldn’t register as important. The fact was, that even the parliament wouldn’t be privy to what was to be discussed among the great Paragons – they would be reduced to begging for scraps of news. This was the world of the Adepts, and normal man held no power here.

The Clairvoyant walked slowly down the vaulted hallways of the Museum, and even the impetuous Satan didn’t dare rush him. The young-looking king of devils never once let his eyes stray from the fortune teller’s back.

A long table had been set up in the main hall, with enough space for fifty to sit in council. The Clairvoyant, naturally, took his position at the head. The Pontiff and Satan sat to his left and right respectively. The Wine Master sat at the next position down from the Pontiff, and the gourmet beside Satan.

As the Gourmet was taking his seat, Satan eyed him in curiosity. His look curdled, fixing upon the Gourmet with a dangerous light. The perennial chef didn’t appear to notice, or chose not to pay any mind. It was as though everything occurring around him had no interest with him. Uncertainty

and violence roiled in the depths of Satan’s eyes, but it was short lived. A moment later, and it was as though nothing had happened.

The other gathered Adepts separated and sat according to their camp and designation. Metatron sat beside the Wine Master, while the imposing man with pure black eyes took up post beside the Gourmet.

Lan Jue sat nearer to the rear of the large table. He watched the others, paying especially close attention to the black-eyed man. He knew that he must be the Dark Citadel’s second-in- command – the Fallen Angel, Lucifer. The rumors held that, as his name suggests, Lucifer was once a member of the Pontiff’s coterie. The hatred the Pontiff’s men held for Lucifer, especially the Archangels, surpassed even their loathing for Satan himself.

Once everyone was settled, the Clairvoyant addressed them with a smile. “Skyfire Avenue is honored by the presence of the two great Citadels, who have come together to call upon us. It brings me great joy to see you both again, as I near the end of my days. This will be our opportunity to bid each other farewell.”

Everyone – be they from the Citadels or Skyfire Avenue – sat

in stunned silence as the Clairvoyant’s words hung in the air.

Even though it had been the goal of the two Western powers to determine how the Clairvoyant and Keeper were maintaining, it was still a surprise to hear it from the lips of the man himself. It had been completely unexpected.

A solemn silence hung over the table. The death of a Paragon was no matter to be taken lightly, nothing to be joked about. This was especially true for this grand Prophet, the Eye of Tomorrow.

The Pontiff was first to break the silence with a sigh. “This is certain?”

This caused the Clairvoyant to chuckle. “At my age, how much more certain can we be? As the both of you are I’m sure aware, death may not be the end for us. Perhaps it is a new beginning, we cannot say. It is the natural way of things; I rose to prominence before the two of you, it is just that I should succumb first to exhaustion.”

Not everyone could understand what the Clairvoyant was expressing. He was actually a generation older than the most

recent manifestations of the Pontiff and Satan – and half a generation older than the Keeper. A hundred and fifty years before humanity took to the stars, he was already a Paragon.

His predictions and assistance saved humanity from innumerable loses during their first years traveling through the cosmos. Henceforth he was considered a priceless treasure to all three Alliances. Years later, at the height of his career in office, the Clairvoyant retired and established the Avenue. He was the founder of the great Adept’s Paradise many of the people at the table called home, and everyone present respected. No other Paragon living or dead, had contributed as much to humanity as the man who sat at the head of this table.

Claiming death was not the end was something only a Paragon could truly grasp. Exhaustion was also not a term thrown around lightly. As old as the Clairvoyant was, he should have left the worlds of man long ago. Moreover, the things he learned and secrets he revealed took a great toll on his body. He relied on his own powers and several special methods to extend his life to this point, but how could a life like this be enjoyable?

Though the Pontiff and Satan both ached for a Skyfire Avenue without the Eye of Tomorrow – the loss to the autonomous Adept organization would be immeasurable – they took the news with heavy hearts. His death would be a loss for humanity

as a whole.

Satan’s deep voice interjected. “If His Majesty were to come back to the Dark Citadel with us, I’m sure we can employ some of our own life extending techniques to help.”

The Clairvoyant met the suggestion with a smile, his drawn face becoming an endless array of wrinkles. “I thank you. The fact that my situation has inspired Satan himself to extend the offer is something to be proud of. However, the fact of the matter is nothing can be done for it. It is not just my life that draws to a close, but my soul as well. But it is nothing to fear. I imagine both of you are curious as to how much longer I will draw breath. Today, with my two old friends here with me, I will reveal that secret. Once you leave here after our exchange, I will be gone within three months. The title of Chairman of the Skyfire Avenue council, will fall to our Wine Master.”

The Pontiff didn’t utter a sound, but hung his head in solemn consideration. Satan looked on, his brows furrowed. Denizens of the Avenue were openly sorrowful at the revelation.

The Clairvoyant’s smile never wavered. “I would also like to express to all the people of Skyfire Avenue, my most heartfelt thanks for their support of our home. Do not grieve for my

passing, and know that Skyfire Avenue will only prosper after I am gone.”

The Pontiff sighed once more. “We should not have come.
Please accept my apologies Your Majesty.”

The Eye of Tomorrow shook his head. “On the contrary, you both arrived right as you were meant to. There are things we shall need to discuss. If the two grand masters would attend me.”Once more the Clairvoyant stood, and headed towards the far end of the hall.

Satan and the Pontiff exchanged a glance, then stood. Their eyes did not bear animosity or disdain, but fear.

Had they not known that the Clairvoyant was nearing the end of his days, perhaps Satan and the Pontiff would not have reacted as such. However, here was a paragon in the twilight of his life – it was not inconceivable that he might employ the last vestiges of his power to deal with them. It was a mortal threat they couldn’t ignore.

As though sensing the fear in their hearts, the Clairvoyant stopped and turned back to face them. He chuckled. “You

mustn’t worry, friends. The future needs both of you. I have no interest in bringing ruin upon either of you. Please, come with me.”

It was as though he’d read their mind, for after the Clairvoyant’s assurances, both the Pontiff and Satan  were visibly relieved. It was somewhat of a surprise to both that they would harbor such fear, being Paragons  themselves.  Neither had expected it.

The three mighty Paragons disappeared through a small door near the back of the hall. The remaining adepts remained where they were, watching in silent curiosity. None could guess what the Eye of Tomorrow had to say to his two contemporaries.

Their silence was interrupted when the Lord of Archangels, Metatron, rose to his feet. All eyes fell on him.

But Metatron’s eyes, they went immediately to Lan Jue. He offered a nod. “Zeus. I speak for the Pontiff’s Citadel, and would like to extend His Holiness’ personal apology for… recent events. We humbly ask you forgive our transgressions. We are committed to ensuring no further issue remains between our organization and yourself.”

Metatron, second only to the Pontiff in command of the great Citadel, punctuated the sentiment by bowing low at the waist to the Jewelry Master.

Lan Jue did not rise, and when he spoke he did so with furrowed brow and chilly tone. “Your organization should be relieved no harm came to my people. The Citadel paid it’s price, consider the matter settled.”

Not everyone knew Lan Jue, but there wasn’t a soul present who wasn’t familiar with the name Zeus. In fact, the majority of the Avenue’s denizens weren’t aware of Lan Jue’s history before he arrived. Upon hearing Metatron address him as Zeus, there were no small number of surprised stares. The one King of the Mercenaries was their very own Jewelry Master!

There was also the news of the God-team battle, which had been spread far and wide, and here sat one of their protagonists. Zeus the Lord of Lightning, one of the Four Divine Monarchs.

Metatron smiled and nodded, but said nothing further. He returned to his seat.

“You’re Zeus?” A second voice called out, deep and strange. It

almost seemed to reverberate through the area.

Lan Jue’s eyes swept towards the origin of the voice. “That’s right, I am.”

The question had come from the man who sat besides the Gourmet, known as the Fallen Angel Lucifer. The intimidating man stared at Lan Jue with hard eyes. “Finding you was one of our reason for coming here. I trust the Princess is in good health?”

Princess?

The Gourmet’s eyes shot immediately to Lan Jue.

The Jewelry Master gave an indifferent smirk. “Mika’s very well. But if you’re here to bring her back with you, there’s no point in discussing the nonsense.”

The exceptionally burly man who had accompanied the others of the Dark Citadel’s forces glared murder at him, and suddenly an overbearing sensation filled the air. Those yellow eyes filled with a crimson red light. Meanwhile the woman in the pine

green dress watched Lan Jue as though admiring a work of art, while the tuxedo-clad man only smiled and scratched his face with a pallid hand.

“Excellent,” Lucifer said, and left it at that.

As they waited, several rounds of drinks,  fruit  and snacks were offered by a host of white-clad servants. The Wine Master lifted a cup of water. “Welcome one and all. Forgive my lapse as host.”

Metatron smiled pleasantly. “There is no need to stand on ceremony, Honored Cosmagus. We are honored to come visit the stories Skyfire Avenue. It is our sincerest hope that this exchange will strengthen the ties between our two great organizations.”

“Such hypocrisy from the Pontiff’s lackeys,” the large yellow- eyed man rumbled. He snatched up an apple from on the table and, with a quick squeeze, broke it in to pieces. As juice and pulp flew every which way, he slowly licked his fingers clean. Those dark eyes never left Metatron.

Chapter 258: Constantine

“You dare provoke us at this table, Wolf King?” growled the Angel of Death, Gabriel.

The burly man flicked his wrist, casting bits of apple towards the opposite end of the table. “What are you going to do about it? All of you, Pontiff’s boy toys… you’re disgusting to look upon.”

Raphael lifted a finger, and with a flash the apple residue was cast aside before it could offend him and those beside him.

“Ahem.” The man in the tuxedo interrupted with the quiet sound.

The Wolf King turned his head towards the man. “What are you coughing about. You’re just as despicable.”

Meanwhile the Barber chortled at the exchange. His voice was thick with disdain. “I can’t tell if he’s supposed to be a wolf or a mutt. He’ll nip at whoever crosses his path.”

“You looking to die, kid?” The Wolf King shot to his feet.

“Sit.”

The voice was calm, but commanding. The Wolf King shuddered at the sound, as though struck by lightning, and sat back down with no further complaint. As the words filled his ears, he had suddenly been afflicted with a terrible, suffocating sensation of terror wash over him. He knew that if he didn’t immediately comply, he’d have been erased from existence.

The Wolf King’s eyes were dual pools of indignation and embarrassment. He was rude, certainly, but he was no fool. He simply looked at the Wine Master, proverbial tail between his legs.

Lucifer looked calmly towards the Paragon. “Please excuse my companion, Honored Cosmagus. The Wolf King has a hard time controlling his outbursts.”

“This is Skyfire Avenue.” The Wine Master’s response was simple, and straightforward.

Though his words were delivered quietly, they had a terrific and shuddering effect on those who listened. It was like gunpowder, and the slightest provocation would set things off. Both Metatron and Lucifer narrowed their eyes.

“We aren’t sure when the three Masters will be coming back,” the Gourmet chimed in. “Since everyone’s so impatient for a fight, why not begin the Reaper Arena contests slightly ahead of schedule. This will help us avoid trouble with anyone a little too eager to get started.”

Metatron’s handsome face split in a small smile. “Alright,” he said with a nod.

Lucifer similarly agreed. “Fine.”

The Gourmet and Wine Master exchanged a look, then the newly minted Paragon nodded.

The largest battlefield in the Reaper Arena had already been prepared. With the Wine Master himself present, there was no danger that the copious levels of power the combatants possessed would cause any damage to the structure.

“In accordance with earlier determinations, there will be four individual battles, and one group battle of five on five. Who will be competing in the first fight?”

Metatron shot his eyes towards Lucifer. They had already come to a consensus, and the previous animosity between them was put aside.

A man, tall of stature, separated himself from the group, on the Pontiff’s side. “I will be first.”

Lan Jue, standing behind the Gourmet, took measure of the man. He couldn’t help but reveal his surprise, for he had no idea who this gentleman was. He certainly wasn’t an Archangel.

In a contest like this between two great Adept alliances, tactics were very important. There were things like antagonistic Disciplines to consider. If a combatant didn’t know the strengths and weaknesses of their enemy, they were at a severe disadvantage.

The Wine Master watched Lan Jue, curiosity in his eyes. The Gourmet, meanwhile, waved towards the Pauper, who was squatting in a nearby corner.

The beggar unfurled and rose to his feet, revealing his height to be no less impressive than the unknown challenger. He hadn’t bothered to change from his rags for this important meeting. He certainly stuck out.

“The Pauper will be your opponent,” the Gourmet revealed.

“Ah.” The transient walked towards the Wine Master, and stood at his back.

There was a flicker of doubt in the old master’s eyes as the Pauper approached, to which the Pauper responded with a yellow-toothed grin.

“Hah! Is the Avenue running out of people? You’re sending a panhandler after us. At least give the man some food before you send him out to get beat on,” the Wolf King growled mirthfully.

It was a sentiment largely shared by the denizens of Skyfire Avenue, who couldn’t understand why their resident beggar was called on for this task. However, the Gourmet was sat opposite the Wine Master, revealing his status in the Avenue – no one dare contest his decision.

“I’m curious to see when it’s your turn.” The frigid voice cut through the banter.

The Wolf King turned to find the source of the challenge, revealed to be a beautiful woman clad in an ancient-style qipao. Her eyes were hard and unforgiving, trained on him.

“What?” he began, “You want to play with me pretty girl? You and me can find a quiet place to… spar. Aware from prying eyes. What do you think?” His words were full of malice and lasciviousness.

However, the sentiment was ignored, as the Gourmet and Lan Jue both raised their brows. The message they deduced from his response was that the Wolf King would not be participating.

A few moments later, the two challengers were waiting in the Reaper’s Arena to begin. The Wine Master would be the judge. No one complained, for they knew a Paragon was above such petty things as favoritism and cheating.

The Pauper shambled off to one corner, and very carefully placed his patched cotton comforter upon the floor. He ambled back to the center of the arena, clad in his patchwork monk’s

robes, grinning broadly at his opponent from the Pontiff’s Citadel.

The tall man, by contrast, wrinkled his nose as though he smelled something particularly unsavory.

“The purpose of this fight is mutual education. We will not tolerate attempts to injure, or kill. If any such attempts are made, we will cease combat immediately.” The Wine Master’s imperatorial voice boomed from all directions.

“Begin!”

These battles were not for show, they were real competitions. No prologues or redundant ceremonies were required here. They got right down to business.

The rules governing power during competitions were largely unwritten commandments in the world of Adepts. Skyfire Avenue was hailed as the strongest gathering of Adepts because of its total aggregate strength. And how was this determined? By the very activities they were engaged in now.

“I am called Constantine,” the tall man offered.

“Constantine? I’m the Pauper.” The dirty man answered through his grin.

A thick golden light suddenly burst outward, surrounding the Pontiff’s soldier. In the blink of an eye, he was like a golden torch.

Not all powerful men of the Pontiff’s Castle had wings. The aura released by this one, insured his lack thereof wasn’t construed as weakness. Thanks to the power of the Wine Master, even those observing from outside of the arena were able to feel it.

Constantine? The name was foreign to the denizens of Skyfire Avenue, but his presence here meant he must be at least equivalent to the Archangels.

As the oppressive energies soared, the first one to attack was – unexpectedly – the Pauper.

He bore no impressive aura, like Constantine, and while his

advance was met with a golden halo of his own it was thin and hazy. It was like looking through threads of fine silk, or a cloud of dust. Remarkably unremarkable, just like him.

The Pauper was on the move, traversing the distance between him and Constantine in a flash. His right hand lashed out, dark and skinny as a bird’s.

Constantine huffed dismissively, his right fist exploding forward. As he did, the clear and loud cries of a holy chorus sprang up around them. Layers of what looked like  pristine white mountain ranges appeared behind him like a mirage.

This was the development of his Discipline? What he displayed was available only to Adepts who were ninth ranked, seventh-degree at the least. The dense aura of  his  energy washed over the crowd of onlookers.

An unknown player with such power, who would not be surprised by the development?

Both the Barber and Beautician sat with sour expressions. They were not participating in the one-on-one fights, but they were part of the team battle. They hadn’t expected the two

Citadels would bring so many who were more than halfway to paragon status. This one alone could contend with the both of them.

Constantine’s empowered attack met the Pauper’s incoming grapple.

Boom!

The Pauper was swallowed whole in to the undulating golden light, and as he did a golden blanket of light covered everything. The resulting wave of power felt strong enough to rival a blast from a battleship’s cannon.

Metatron’s face bore a tiny, self-satisfied smile.

Constantine. The Pontiff’s secret weapon. It was in part because of his furtive existence that the Citadel agreed to this.

He was a demon hunter, infamous in the Western underground. His purpose, his specialty was to destroy evil. Be they Satan’s men or even the Pontiff’s, once Constantine had proof they were sinister he did not hesitate to deal with them.

He was evil’s bane.

Constantine wasn’t here to represent the Pontiff’s Citadel, but to represent the Western Alliance. Even Metatron wasn’t sure what his true purpose in agreeing to this was. However, his sense of justice was without question, and that was enough.

Gradually, the blinding golden light receded. The arena slowly came back in to focus.

The Pauper was standing where he had been, unmoved. Constantine, however, was about ten meters removed from where he’d been before the blast. Upon his arm had appeared a shield; shimmering gold, and alive with raging fire. His previously calm façade was replaced with unbridled surprise.

No advantage? The Demon Hunter Constantine, didn’t have the upper hand? Metatron’s eyes narrowed at the unpleasant revelation.

Constantine’s power relied on his all-consuming sense of mercy and justice. It was where his strength, and thus reputation, derived. The Pontiff’s Citadel hailed him as God’s will on earth. He was, in fact, a ninth ranked eighth-degree

Talent, who once battled with Michael. He managed to hold his own for thirty minutes, and even Metatron was amazed by his breadth of divine empowerment.

And yet facing this unknown, unwashed beggar, he came out of their first collision the underdog.

Just as Skyfire Avenue was well familiar with the big names in both Citadels, they too were versed in the skills of Skyfire Avenue’s councilmen. Metatron knew, therefore, that this Pauper was not a councilman.

So who in God’s name was he?

Chapter 259: Cattail Fan vs Spear Of Destiny

The Pauper chuckled, and rubbed his nose with a dirty hand. When he pulled his hand away, he curled it in to a fist. “If you keep dispersing your power like that, I won’t be so easy on you next time.”

As his words hung in the air, the beggar took a single step forward. The motion launched him forward with an intense blast of power, that screeched like an angry bird as he barreled toward Constantine.

The Demon Hunter’s eyes were wide with amazement, and he raised the shield in his left hand just in time. The golden aura spread out around him coalesced, shrunk, until he looked like he was a statue made of gold. The stifling sensation that had come along with it also vanished.

“Boom—!”

Onlookers clearly saw the impact this time, free from any blinding golden light.

The Pauper’s fist connected with the shield. Constantine was forced back a step, and his aura shuddered from the blow. Grinning madly, he smashed his fist in to the shield once more, and again Constantine was pushed back.

Seven times this happened, and seven times Constantine survived solely by virtue of his massive golden shield. To the untrained eye they looked like simply exchanges, but a discerning viewer would note the changes in the golden aura of the defender.

Where those seven strikes really all the same? In fact, they were not – there was a distinct and unique power behind every one.

Constantine blocked each with his shield, but used different defensive maneuvers each time. Still he was being pushed back.

As they looked on, suddenly the beggar’s form shimmered and grew opaque – like an illusion. Where moments before there had been a deafening chorus of angels, now their heads buzzed with the sound of Buddhist chants. Where a vision of majestic mountains had appeared behind Constantine, a resplendent Buddha shimmered at the Pauper’s back.

The image radiated a sense of solemn grandeur, and rays of golden light shot out from him in every direction. The impish smile on the homeless Adept’s face was gone, replaced by a look of pious devotion. His fist unfurled, and using just his palm he began to slap at Constantine’s shield. Each one struck with the force of an explosions, and rang against the golden shield like as though he’d struck a great bell.

The shield managed to deflect each attack as they came, shuddering as one after the other the staggering palm strike were pushed aside. But each time, he was forced to retreat.

It was the first fight, and each side had dispatched an unknown soldier to represent them. The resulting power of their match-up shocked everyone looking on. And more surprising still, was the fact this dirty man was a stronger Adept than the Demon Hunter.

Bang! Another strike from the Pauper. As they disengaged, he pressed his hands together in a devout display, and a pious aura flooded the arena. The radiant Buddha at his back also changed, with his calm face suddenly revealing a peaceful smile.

The Pharmacist, watching with hard eyes, muttered as the sensations washed over them. “Arhat of the Descending

Dragon.”

“Arhat of the what?” Lan Jue shot her a curious look. “What in the world is this guy’s Discipline?”

“The Western transfer and reception of the Western religious powers are done through medicines and other procedures,” the Pharmacist explained. “As it turns out, our own Alliance possesses similar Disciplines, but are hereditary. The Pauper appears to have the Arhat of the Descending Dragon bloodline. It’s one I’m familiar with. All of this happiness and posturing between the three alliances seems harmless, and the spread of Disciplines and ability seems fair, but it isn’t. I had no idea that the Pauper had such ability, and that he was here in Skyfire Avenue. You see, the Arhat’s powers are derived from the Buddhist faith. The Pontiff’s Citadel, meanwhile, has its roots in old world Christianity. You could say this fight in really a battle of two faiths. The difference is the Pauper’s powers are entirely obtained from congenital ability. Constantine’s, however, was gained from hard work, training, and pharmaceuticals. Acquired – as opposed to Natural – Talent grows quickly, but has its limitations.”

“Boom!”

The Pauper’s body swayed, and he staggered away from his opponent. After retreating more than  a  dozen  steps, Constantine finally found solid footing. Spider-webbed cracks and scores of dents dotted his shield.

The Pauper spreads his arms wide. “Should we keep this going?”

Constantine hadn’t yet given up, despite his inferior position. On the contrary, his eyes burned with determination. His golden shield flashed with light, then disappeared. Lifting his right hand above his head, the Demon Hunter curled it in to a fist.

In a flash, a spear appeared in his grip. The massive weapon stretched over seven meters. With its appearance, the whole of the Arena was bathed in a strange glow. It was like the special pocket the Arena was built in was struggling to sustain the manifestation of power.

“Oh,” the Pauper said, lifting a brow. “So the Pontiff’s Castle has given you the Spear of Destiny. So generous! It’s no wonder you refuse to give in. Very well then, we’ll continue.”

Note: the translation describes this as the ‘Spear of Judgement,’ however it’s appearance, description and prestige rings true to a purportedly ‘real’ religious relic. This author’s done a great deal of research, since The Lance of Longinus – which I believe this spear is based on – is a pretty obscure thing, even among Westerners. I’ve elected to keep the Western name instead of the translation, due to these facts.

As he spoke, the Pauper waved a hand through the air. There was a flash of golden light, and suddenly he, too, bore a weapon.

It was a cattail leaf fan, patched and torn. By the look of it, flapping it through the air would be enough to reduce it to splinters.

I was unable to find any reference to a particular relic in Buddhist mythology, but here is a small article detailing the role of fans in Buddhism.

The Pauper laughed gently, and with an almost dismissive gesture waved the fan toward Constantine.

As the fan materialized, something strange occurred. The reality they existed within, having been destabilized by the

Spear’s appearance, settled down and returned to normal. The Pauper swayed on his feet like a drunk man, and suddenly there were six more of him. Amidst the sounds of guttural chanting, the figures raced forward, dashing in zig-zag patterns at their target. They surrounded Constantine.

The Pontiff’s secret weapon stood, unmoving, with spear in hand as the Paupers approached. Once they had, he lashed out with the spear – but his objective wasn’t the seven grimy beggars.

Where the tip of the spear ended, a small black dot appeared in the air. As Constantine retracted the weapon, the dot became an infinitely black hole, which immediately began to draw everything toward.

However, in the same moment a hundred thousand dots of golden light appeared all around them. The Pauper’s mirror images vanished, and in their place appeared a giant hand reaching forth from the void. The spectral appendage grasped at the head of the spear. The raggedy fan, appearing without foundation from nowhere, waved once again. The power it released sent Constantine flying.

“Bang!” Constantine’s body slammed against the far wall with

enough force to break bone.

The massive spectral hand vanished, and the Pauper once again revealed himself. He stood calmly, gently waving the fan back and forth in front of his face. The Spear of Destiny was suspended in midair between them.

“You’ve lost.” The Pauper smiled amicably toward his distant opponent, turned, and walked toward the Arena’s exit.

Constantine clambered to his feet. He was by no means dispirited from the loss, however. With an indication of his hand, the spear flew back toward him. With the massive weapon in hand, he too left the Arena.

Metatron’s face was the very picture of astonishment.
Evidently, he’d not expected to lose this round.

“Constantine,” he called.

The Demon Hunter simply shook his head. “I can’t match him.”

The Pauper left the Arena, and just kept walking. He left without a word, addressing no one. What they did not see as his figure disappeared from the Reaper Arena, was his hand which had been burned black. His victory had not come as easily at it had appeared.

The Wine Master’s voice thundered through the air. “Second round.”

The Pontiff’s Castle had chosen first in the last fight. This time, Skyfire Avenue would begin the proceedings.

No words were required, however, for the decision had already been made. The Pharmacist shot a sidelong glance at the Wolf King, then with graceful motions rose to her feet and made for the arena.

The burly man watched her go, brows furrowed. She’s actually going in to represent the Avenue? He thought. Direct as he was in interaction, he made no effort to hide his dour expression.

Lucifer, Fallen Angel of the Dark Citadel, waved a hand as the Pharmacist left. A dark shadow separated itself from him, like a

piece of him was torn away and given form. The dark image vanished, appearing in the Arena moments later.

Lan Jue turned his face to the Gourmet, who stood at his shoulder. “Will the Pauper be alright?”

The Gourmet responded with a shake of his head. “It isn’t serious. He’s a very competitive man, our beggar. In truth both the weapons they employed had protogenic powers, but his mastery over it was more profound than Constantine’s. He’s also at a higher level of cultivation. The further down the Disciples’ path an Adept treks, the greater advantage a congenital Adept obtains. Simply the result of accumulation.”

The Pharmacist stood facing a figure encased in darkness.
Nothing was clear, and even its aura was difficult to perceive.

“I am called the Pharmacist,” she softly proclaimed. Be they Citadelians or denizens of the Avenue, all onlookers were surprised to see this beautiful woman in a fine dress approaching for a fight. At the very least her fine clothing would make it difficult to move!

“I… am… Judas.”

The voice that rasped from the shadow was coarse and thick, like a snake slithering through sand.

As the name whispered through the Arena, every one of the Pontiff’s men sucked in a breath of surprise. Even Metatron, who was usually calm and composed, had his anger and surprised revealed as his aura took on a fierce undertone. His eyes, bright and haunting, slowly moved to regard Lucifer who stood a short distance away.

Jehova was the name of the man who’d created the Pontiff’s Citadel. The man had not been a Pontiff, and was instead reverently called the Father. During his reign, he had twelve disciples. The first among them had been named Judas, a man who betrayed his master for the promise of wealth. It was this treachery that lead  to  the  capture,  and  eventual  murder of Jehova. The act completely transformed Judas, and left a permanent, painful scar on the soul of the Pontiffs Citadel.

You’ll recognize this as the story of Jesus, but TJSS specifically wrote Jehova, gave him the name Father, and set him as the creator of the future Christian faith. It is likely fair to assume, then, that this is some sort of agglomeration of God and Jesus. One could argue that Jesus is God, the Father, and so Jehova is actually Jesus and vice versa… but that’s a religious discussion for another time. We’re sticking to Jehova.

Not long after Judas’ betrayal, he hung himself from a tree. So of course, the creature they spied now couldn’t be the real Judas. But for him to simply use the name, was an unbearable provocation to the Pontiff’s men.

Lucifer did not react to Metatron’s dark glare. He spoke quietly, nonplussed. “He only possesses the image of Judas. Don’t forget why we came here.”

Metatron raised his hand, and little by little the others of his party restrained themselves. That didn’t stop them, though, from hiding the murderous intent in their scowls.

The tense exchange was interrupted by the sound of footsteps from behind.

“Your Holiness.”

“Unholy Father.”

Both groups offered their salutes as the Hand of God and King of Demons re-emerged.

Both their faces bore dejected expressions. Without addressing their followers, both walked to the end of the viewing platform to watch the exchange within the arena.

The fight had already begun.

It had started with the one called Judas, who’d dark form shimmered then raced forward. Like a putrid black fog, like a black storm it rolled toward the Pharmacist until it enveloped her.

The Avenue’s representative did not move or attempt to flee. She stood her ground, with that cutting glare in her eye. She gently waved her hand, and the motion birthed several rays of dazzling yellow light. There was a rumbling, like the stirring of some great beast, before a crackling bolt of lightning crashed down from on high directly in to the heart of the fog.

Lightning? This was her Discipline?

The dark figure, largely concealed by the fog, paused as the Pharmacist waved her hand. In the same instant a strange wave of power shuddered through the arena, bringing with it a silvery light that glimmered in front of Judas. It deflected the

lightning strike, leaving the shadow unharmed.

After splitting the lightning and forcing it away, the silvery light rapidly expanded. It grew until it was clear – a silver coin.

Every one of the Pontiff’s men snarled in unison.

Chapter 260: Sage Of The Heavenly Way

Thirty pieces of silver. That was the bribe Judas took to betray Jehova. This one who called himself Judas, used the blood money in his defense. More than anything, this was an affront to the followers of their fallen leader.

Even the Pontiff’s face grew dark. “Explain yourself, King of Devils.”

“We both see this as heresy,” Satan returned, his voice cold and sinister. “What is there to explain?”

After deflecting the lightning attack, Judas advanced until he was very near the Pharmacist. But as he approached the beautiful young woman opened her mouth and a beam of brilliant light shot forth. It expanded and warped until it was a massive blade of light, then swiped viciously at the living shadow.

Lightning wasn’t her discipline? What was this light sword?

Judas launched backward in retreat, distancing itself from the blade. Not before the weapon had landed a blow, and where the

impossibly sharp sword pierced the darkness that was Judas parted like melting ice.

The Pharmacist swept out her right hand, and the blade swelled larger still. Now, roughly the same size as Judas, the dancing blade raced forward anew.

Lucifer’s brows furrowed as he watched the exchange. He muttered, almost to himself, “Orient Discipline? Sword of the Emperor… a powerful ability from Former Era China. Is she somehow related to the Sage of the Heavenly way? No… there’s something strange. The light has a high-technology feel… waves of high-frequency oscillation. Very strange indeed.”

Venerated as second among all the great Paragons was the Sage of the Heavenly Way. The Sage was a powerful being that was intensely secretive in their doings and whereabouts, and hadn’t been seen in an age. It was said that the Sage was also the oldest among the Paragons, much older even than the Clairvoyant.

It had in fact been more than ninety years since the Sage of the Heavenly Way’s last sighting. But despite their long absence, the Sage’s reputation was still illustrious and far-flung. The story goes the man who would become Sage did so through

the ancient cultivation practices of old China, and attained immortality as a result. His existence was legendary, and was as hotly debated as the existence of God or the Devil. However, his abilities had persisted, passed down among his disciples – the most famous being the Imperial Sword.

“That’s enough, both of you, stay your hand.” Satan’s voice boomed across the Arena.

Both the Pharmacist and Judas, who had been retreating under assault from the blade, stopped combat. There was a flash of light, and suddenly the Wine Master stood within the center of the combat ring.

All eyes turned to Satan.

The strangely geriatric sound of Satan’s voice was heavy with irritation. “All of this fighting nonsense. Cosmagus, deliver us to our lodgings – all subordinates of the Dark Citadel, any who dare to cause issue during our stay will face mummification by my own hand.” With his edict delivered, Satan turned to leave.

“Wait a moment,” a deep voice interrupted.

“Hm?” Satan stopped in his tracks, and shock a glance over his shoulder toward the one who’d dared to address him.

“We are in Skyfire Avenue,” the Gourmet said, staring at his family’s nemesis. “And this exchange was proposed by your organization. You feel you can just come and go as you please?”

Satan’s face grew dark as a thunderhead, and his eyes bore the threat of violence. He slowly turned back to face the Gourmet. “What are you going to do about it?”

The Gourmet didn’t back down. He met the great Paragon’s gaze with his own.

“I’m going to fight you.”

Five simple words tore through the gathered Adepts like a thunderbolt.

A challenge? Against Satan? This was the King of Devils, uncontested Lord of the Dark Citadel!

A laugh bubbled out from the dark Paragon, full of scorn and dismissal. “You think you – having just broken through to Paragon – have what it takes to challenge me?”

Paragon?! This was their second shock.

No wonder… no wonder he had sat across from the Cosmagus to represent Skyfire Avenue. No wonder he had dared to challenge Satan. He was a Paragon – Skyfire Avenue’s fourth.

The Coffee Master spat out the lollipop that had been in his mouth upon hearing the news.

The Driver scowled, and made to leave. He pulled the Seamstress after him.

The Gourmet’s face, by contrast, was calm as he met Satan’s stare. “I do. I believe I have the right.” The air around them was thick and gloomy. A deathly stillness radiated out from within him, and the entire area looked as though it were consumed in a pale mist, like color had drained from the world. It reflected the sensation in everyone’s heart.

Rivers of strange, brackish water trickled up beneath everyone’s feet, and where it touched them they felt a stifling depression fill them to their bones. They felt like they would simply sink in to the depths of these waters and drown.

“Trickling death… Styx! This is power derived from Hades.” The Pontiff muttered.

Satan’s eyes lit up with a dark hunger, and though he didn’t appear to do anything the turbid waters at his feet became a crimson red. It glowed like magma, and stretched out in all directions.

Whether it was the water of the river Styx or the magma flows of hell, both were manifestations of protogenic power.

“If you’re to fight, you will NOT do it here!” A beam of silver light shot down from on high, parting the opposing powers of grey and black. The threatening contestation of their powers were unceremoniously severed.

The silver beam stretched and became a portal, from which the Wine Master emerged. He stood directly between the two men.

“Hades… excellent!” Satan chuckled darkly. He said nothing further, then turned once more and left.

The Gourmet patted Lan Jue upon the shoulder. “Come. We’ll need a witness.”

Lan Jue nodded. “Let’s go.”

“And a judge,” the Gourmet continued, this time turning his head to the Cosmagus.

The Wine Master regarded his friend in silence for a moment. “Is this really what you want?”

The chef nodded, determination bright in his eyes. He followed Satan’s footsteps with eager strides.

Lan Jue followed, until they reached the elevator to the surface.

Satan had already walked inside, and was holding the door for the other two. They stepped in as well.

The doors closed, and they slowly rose to the upper Avenue.

Satan’s eyes flit between the Gourmet and Lan Jue, and that small smile never left his face. There was a sinister enjoyment in it, but also a biting chill.

“Was it you who took my daughter?” Satan asked.

“Yes.”

“Yes.”

Lan Jue and the Gourmet spoke in the same moment.

Satan blinked at the two of them. “Who are we talking about?”

“Mika is with me,” Lan Jue said, calm and collected.

“Mina was my lover,” the Gourmet followed.

Suddenly, the temperature in the elevator plummeted. All light was extinguished, and everything was plunged in to unnatural darkness.

“What… did… you…say?”

BOOOM!

The whole of Skyfire Avenue shook, and a thunderous roar filled every corner. An elevator rocketed from its shaft, exploding in to the skies over the surface Avenue. Two flash followed, one black, and one grey.

As the elevator crashed to the ground, a figure pulled itself out of the elevator shaft, coughing and covered in grey ash.

“Hack! Cough! Is this retribution for those kids I tormented? Damn it… everyone I meet, I offend. Why am I always in the middle of this shit?”

Lan Jue sat upon the ground, covered in dirt and grime. He heaved a sigh.

The skies over Skyfire were dark and gloomy already. Without any indication or warning, the whole of the planet darkened. Dark clouds roiled overhead, swirling and congealing in to a massive, terrifying cortex.

The black skies and frightening winds threatened to tear the whole of Skyfire City asunder. Flashes of red shot out from the center of the vortex periodically, but in the very center of it all was a single point of grey ever expanding outward.

Without warning, a single massive column of blinding light exploded toward the heavens, originating from Skyfire Museum. About five hundred meters in to the air the column burst in to bloom, and created a photoshield that fell to envelope the whole of Skyfire City.

“What the hell happened?” The Wine Master appeared standing beside Lan Jue.

The Jewelry Master simply smirked. “The Gourmet’s former lover was Satan’s daughter.”

The Wine Master blinked, surprised by the revelation. As a Paragon, he was well aware of humanity’s trend toward

resentment and grudges, and especially the history of it when it came to Adepts. At one point the houses of Satan and Hades has been mortal enemies, bent on the destruction of the other as they battle for supremacy in the world of darkness. It continued that way for generations, with its ups and downs, but neither house emerging victorious.

That is until modern times, where Satan occupied the higher position. Now he controlled the Dark Citadel, and because of this and their history Satan considered Hades his foremost threat. Even more so than the Pontiff.

Even if the Pontiff chose to attack the Dark Citadel directly, it would only unify the dark powers against it. But if it were the house of Hades that were to rise up, that was a different matter. Darkness only respected power, and if Hades could overcome Satan, allegiances would change in a blink.

So it was that the two bloodlines were ever in conflict. The Hades bloodline eventually fled to the North for protection, lest the Dark Citadel wipe them out entirely.

Therefore, for Satan’s daughter to fall in love with the enemy, one can imagine the fallout. What’s more, this descendant of Hades had achieved Paragon status. The Gourmet’s challenge

against Satan made much more sense in this context, as did Satan’s fury. This wasn’t just a battle over control of the Adept underworld, but the result of generations of hatred.

“Let’s go.” The Wine Master grabbed Lan Jue’s arm, and the two vanished in a flash of light. A moment later, they were suspended in the inky blackness over Skyfire City.

As they did, Lan Jue took stock of his situation. The first thing he noticed were the six dimensional folds that surrounded them, keeping the terrible waves of energy that tore through the heavens from obliterating them.

But even with that protection Lan Jue could feel the terrible power of their protogenic energies wreaking havoc. Wave after wave of maddening power washed over them, threatening to tear them asunder. Pain, fear, death… all of the darkest parts of humanity swirled around them as the two Lords of Darkness fought for their lives.

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