Skyfire Avenue Chapter 261-270

Chapter 261: Satan And Hades

This was the power of Paragons! Lan Jue was secretly awed by what he witnessed. No wonder mechas were useless once Paragon status was achieved – at this precipice of power, their bodies and abilities far surpassed anything mecha suits were capable of.

Lan Jue thought back to his time in school, and one of the great professors he studied under. He’d said that the most awesome, most terrifying power in the world of man was a Paragon flying a Bastion ship. Only a Paragon was able to employ such a destructive weapon of man to its fullest potential.

Horrific waves of power wreaked havoc over Skyfire City. The Wine Master hovered beside Lan Jue, watching the battle unfold with unblinking eyes. There was much hidden from Lan Jue amidst the dark clouds, that the Cosmagus had no trouble spying.

This was a scarce opportunity, Lan Jue thought as he fought to see what he could. If he had hopes of ever breaking through to their level of mastery, he had to feel the fluctuations of protogenic power as they were used in combat.

The heart of this unnatural darkness looked like another world entirely. It was comprised of black mountains, scorched earth, lava flows, and stygian rivers.

It was a world constructed by the unbridled protogenic force of these two powerhouses. They were its creators, and its destroyers.

At Lan Jue’s level of power, he was able to touch upon these powers that underpinned reality, but only just barely and for a short time. It was what powered his Ascension, but it was nothing compared to what was happening before his eyes. This was Paragon territory – literally, as this level of power could allow a Paragon to create a world all their own.

Or destroy one.

To describe a Paragon’s power in relation to other adepts, was like comparing a God-ranked pilot to a Sovereign.  The difference was enormous. As a result, even Adepts at the peak of ninth rank were irritating gnats before a Paragon. Resistance to their whims was futile.

Columns of nightmarish flame, larger than the avenue itself

swirls like hungry dragons through the heavens. The gourmet let the fires wash over him, but was not harmed. The fires were his, and were birthed from strange, still, grey fires that surrounded him.

The King of Devils, too, cast out vicious tendrils of dark red fire. However where his opponent was wreathed in grey, he stood in a corona of purple fire – deep, and regal.

The difference between them could be condensed to one simple differentiation; the Blood of Hades derived its power from the souls of the dead. Satan’s was demonic in nature. The manifestations of their abilities may look similar, but their origins were anything but.

Clearly the magma flows were dominating in this terrifying hellscape, taking up more than seventy percent of the overall area. At this level of power, it was indicative of absolute dominance. Satan was right; the Gourmet may have been a Paragon, but only just, and had yet to fully realize the power of the Paragons. He didn’t even have an Astrum, yet.

The end result was a clear advantage for the master of the Dark Citadel. For at least fifty years he’d been learning the scope of his reality-altering powers, equivalent to the Pontiff.

The blood-red eyes of the King of Devils glared with hatred and the promise of violence. The Gourmet’s own eyes were grey and dim like the eyes of a corpse, seeing far beyond in to the abyss.

“It was you who brought Mina’s corpse back?” Satan’s voice boomed through the world they’d created.

For the briefest instant, the Gourmet’s face looked pained, as though recalling a terrible memory. “It was.”

“Then you killed her, to show us your intent. To weaken the Dark Citadel.” His voice had risen as Satan’s anger flared. Around them, the rivers of molten stone erupted high in to the air. Impossibly hot sprays of lava fell to earth like hundreds of thousands of falling stars.

“I was going to make the same accusation against you,” the Gourmet growled. “If I had, why would I still be searching for the person who killed her. Ten years later, and I still can’t let it lie. I suspected my family, suspected her death was them flexing their power – to make me hate you. But I’ve recently come to the conclusion that it wasn’t them. I loved Mina… it didn’t matter where she came from, or who her family was. She was mine, more important to me than anything. It’s time to stop the

lies, Satan. Don’t pretend you didn’t know about she and I – she told me, you sent her after me. She was your temptress.”

Satan screamed at him, the roar beastial and untamed. He reached out with his right hand, fingers curled like claws, and a beam of caustic purple light tore through the at the Gourmet.

He reacted by lifting his arms in defense, and a vortex appeared before him, born of a spectral grey light. As the beam of demonic energy collided with it, the vortex adopted the purple hue.

There was no sound, not even a whisper, but the collision of the two powers was cataclysmic.

The craggy mountains and lava flows, the flood of life-stealing water and the acres of dead land were a result of the two Paragons and their battle. It was a world created from, and reflecting their decades-long conflict.

Already occupying most of the surrounding power, the manifestations of the King of Devil’s mastery expanded even farther. The Gourmet’s eyes changed as well, their color deeper and more clouded.

“Bastard! You think I’d kill my own daughter over you?! Mina was my successor! My child! The most talented of us all. She had the capability of awakening the full potential of our Bloodline. Even a vicious tiger will not eat its own cubs. We live in a world of darkness, but we are not savages. How could you not understand this?!” Satan bellowed at his ancestral enemy over the calamitous din.

For a moment, the Gourmet said nothing. A few seconds passed before he spoke again. “Mina’s death ruined me, for ten years I wallowed in self-pity. During that time I thought a lot, I went over every scenario and possibility. I even sought retribution. I found nothing – no clues, no trace. Even the slightest chance, I took. The smallest lead, followed. Nothing. Then I brought her body home to you. Tell me, have you tried to find her murderer?”

“Search?” Satan responded incredulously. “Why? You were her killer! I searched for YOU for over ten years. I hadn’t suspected you’d flee to the Avenue, and if I had you’d be long dead. What you do now just proves it: my daughter is dead because of you. YOU are my Mina’s killer, and I will end you to bring her spirit rest!”

The mountains erupted in fiery explosions, spewing columns of lava hundreds of meters in to the air. The rivers of molten

stone below overflowed their banks and bubbled furiously as Satan’s fury blazed. The deadly flows became purple, as did the King of Demon’s eyes, and the overpowering waves of his power overtook everything around them. The skies split, the mountains crumbled, and the world came apart around them as corrupted permeated everything.

“Satan.” A craggy old voice interrupted the dramatic display.

Everything froze. Crimson, black, purple and grey – all were covered in a dim golden light that brought a momentary respite to the chaos.

Sunlight, like the rays of a new day pierced the inky veil that covered the sky. Dots of starlight blazed like gemstones, and where their light touched the world was remade. The tempestuous terrain was made still and beautiful. The maddening auras that threatened to undo the planet settled and disappeared.

As the great columns of molten fire descended and vanished, the unnatural purple light in Satan’s eyes slowly disappeared.

“Do you not see that he has yet to fight back? How do you

think you’ve gained the upper hand so quickly?” As the words filled the heavens, a giant wrinkled face was projected against the starry backdrop.

A nigh imperceptible change overcame Satan’s angry features. A paragon was at their strongest just before their death, and if this was a display of the Eye of Tomorrow’s powers, it was as frightening as it was awe-inspiring.

The Avenue’s founder and protector faced two of the deadliest Bloodlines, steeped in the highest demonstration of their power, and stopped both dead in their tracks.

“What is the meaning of this interference, Clairvoyant?” Satan hissed.

The old man’s disdainful huff rushed past them like a gale. “I had no interest in your squabbles, but what I have just learned concerns the both of you, and your conflict.”

“This man did not kill your daughter. Nor was she killed by his hand, Gourmet. Unfortunately, this is all I can see. The visions are… complicated. Even in my last moments I cannot see the answers to this mystery. Things are clearer, as I prepare to

leave this world, but not enough.”

The murderous intent fled from Satan’s eyes as the Clairvoyant revealed his vision. He glared at the Gourmet. “Even that being the case, he is not without blame! Were it not for him, Mina never would have- “

“You speak of blame, King of Devils,” the Clairvoyant interrupted. “Are you not her father?”

Satan visibly shook, and lapsed in to silence. An array of emotions tormented his features.

The ensuing silence hung between them, and as the Clairvoyant’s starlight projection slowly faded, the world around them was back to normal.

Satan recovered enough to star at the Gourmet, that hard light never leaving his eyes. “We’re just getting started – don’t think this is over. The truth will come out, and if I find that you were at all responsible for her death, no one will stop me from getting retribution.”

Grey and black separated, and the darkness that hung over Skyfire finally abated. As azure blue took the place of inky black, the two Paragons became clearly outlined in the air.

There was confusion in the depths of the Gourmet’s eyes, but more than that there was pain. All the fear and pain and hatred in those old memories had bubbled to the surface, as had the longing that had lived in his heart for so many years. But as the vestiges of Satan’s power receded, the gourmet came to his senses. In his mind’s eye a beautiful face emerged, that filled his heart with hope for a better life.

The Wine Master slowly allowed his arm to drop, and his white-knuckle grip on his scepter to loosen. Had the Clairvoyant not intervened in that moment, he’d have had to get involved himself. The gourmet was a member of the Avenue, and more than that one of their Paragons now. No matter the circumstances, family had to be protected.

Satan’s eyes slowly swept to Lan Jue, floating by the Wine Master’s side. “My quarrel with him is done, for now. What, then, shall I do about you? Where is Mika.”

Lan Jue met the Citadel’s master with a calm stare. Though he had just witnessed the extent of Satan’s power, he faced the

man fearlessly.

“Mika has chosen another path for herself. She had chosen to forsake your blood, and the conflicts of your world of darkness. If you truly love your daughter, as you claim, you will respect her decision.”

Chapter 262: Satan’s Rage

Satan burst in to a fit of uproarious laughter. “She is my daughter. From the moment she was born, her life belonged to me – to the Satan bloodline. She has no choice, she can only obey. One day, she will be the next Satan, and when that time comes she will dominate the world of darkness. You, who mean nothing in the scale of things, what makes you think you can help her at all?”

The Paragon then turned his attention unto the Wine Master. “Bring my daughter to me, Cosmagus. Me and my people are leaving. I will forget what’s occurred between our two organizations, but Mika is my sole successor. She is the last of my bloodline, and is destined to carry it on. She must come with me, there is no other way this plays out. If my demands are not met, I will have no choice but to take her by force, without hesitation.”

Satan’s arrogant, domineering voice rumbled through the skies. His oppressing aura was so strong that the color drained from Lan Jue’s face.

Satan had only two daughters. This wasn’t from lack of interest, but his Bloodline diluted with each subsequent generation. The trials of the Satan Bloodline where in the

methods used to purify the blood, and subsequently how they’ve managed to remain in conflict with the Hades Bloodline for so long while maintaining dominance.

Lan Jue’s face was hard, and his voice came cold and threatening. “You’ll be stepping over my corpse to get her.”

Satan snorted disdainfully. “That’s your decision?”

“Your conflict wouldn’t be with him alone, Satan.” The Wine Master remained poised, calm, but firm as he stared at the Dark Citadel’s master. “Do you really want Skyfire Avenue as your enemy?”

Tendrils of purple crept in to the King of Devil’s eyes once more, until it consumed them, turned them in to dual vortexes of madness. “And? What of it, if the Avenue should become my enemy? Do you think you can fight me off? Your prophet is gone and dead, his final prophecies concerning mankind and not the continuance of your pitiful street. That leaves… you, and him? Maybe the Magnate. Even if you manage to harm me, your precious Avenue will be reduced to ash and rubble. Is this a price you’re willing to pay?”

A dangerous light crept in to the Cosmagus’ eyes. “You would create an enduring hatred, that could only end in death.”

“What does some feud mean in the face of my Bloodline’s extinction?” Satan replied. “The Hades Bloodline now has a Paragon, and if I lose a second successor, the Dark Citadel will change hand within a hundred years. I am shocked I have to explain the importance of this to you.”

The imposing atmosphere thickened, for below the warriors of the Pontiff’s citadel stood in vigil. From the Archangels to their holy knights, they watched the exchange. In their eyes, a war between the Avenue and the Dark Citadel would be quite a boon.

A voice called up from below. “I’ll go with you.”

The voice was quiet, calm, but firm.

Lan Jue felt his heart leap in to his throat, and even before his eyes cast downward he knew that voice. Mika was flying towards them, a fiery red contrail in her wake.

She was clad in the uniform the women wore for the jewelry shop. Her red hair was not tied in to a bun, as was her preference, but flowed freely and fluttered in the wind. Her glasses were gone, leaving nothing to hinder the view of her pretty face and moving eyes.

“Mika, what are you doing here?” Knowing that the Dark Citadel was coming, Lan Jue had had her transferred to West Hill by the NEU. Her appearance here was an unpleasant surprise.

Mika gave her long-time protector a sad smile. “I can’t be so selfish, boss. You’ve undergone too much for me already, and all I’ve brought you is trouble. Let me go. I promise nothing will happen to me. I’ll always be your Amazon.”

Upon seeing his daughter, the madness in Satan’s eyes immediately abated. He didn’t utter a sound and, folding his hands behind his back, simply watched and waited.

“What is this bullshit?!” Lan Jue shot back, his anger and frustration bubbling to the surface. “When you left with me back in the beginning I swore to always protect you. No matter what or who or why, no one would ever steal your freedom again. You’ve made your choice, all you have to do is follow it.

No matter what you say, I will not allow you to leave with him.”

“And what of you, Cosmagus?” Satan called over.

The Wine Master’s answer was quick and decisive. “If we were to sacrifice a woman to protect the Avenue, that wouldn’t be a Skyfire Avenue worth saving. Satan, you will not – not now, nor ever – take one of my people from this place. Like our Jewelry Master, my body will have to be your threshold.”

As he spoke a dazzling light flared in to existence around his scepter. With terrifying speed, reality around the Wine Master appeared to fracture like a broken mirror, leaving cracks in space-time radiating out around him.

The Gourmet appeared beside him in a flash of light, once more surrounded by the grey eminence of his Bloodline. The two of them stood shoulder to shoulder, blocking Mika from Satan.

Indecision was clear on the King of Devil’s face. Had he a choice, he would never dare openly offend the Avenue in this way. Especially after his private discussion with the Clairvoyant.

But now there was a Paragon for the Hades Bloodline, and the threat was far too large to ignore. Satan’s own Bloodline was jeopardized, and the last best hope for him pumped through this girl’s veins. He had no choice. As he’d said, without her the Dark Citadel would be lost.

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Skyfire Avenue, street side.

Metatron leaned closer to the Pontiff, speaking in furtive whispers. “What should we do, Your Holiness?”

“Wait, and watch,” the Paragon responded in calm tones. “This conflict is their own. We have no cause to interfere.”

Metatron nodded and said nothing further. As for the Dark Citadel’s representatives, they were already airborne and arrived at Satan’s back as he faced off with the two Skyfire Paragons.

All of those who’d arrived with Satan stood by, roughly ten of his number. However, despite their small numbers these were

the elite of the Dark Citadel. Not a one was below ninth ranked, which was power enough to fly for those without a Discipline permitting it. It was three on a dozen.

But that would change.

Much to the surprise of Satan’s henchmen, many others began to appear around them, encircling the small group. One after the other faces appeared, hard, angry and ready for conflict. The Barber, the Beautician, the Seamstress… every Council member – nay, every shop owner of the Avenue appeared and surrounded them. They circled like sharks preparing to strike.

All told, a hundred Adepts now hung in the skies over their Avenue.

By now, it wasn’t just Satan’s men who were rethinking their choices, but the Pontiff’s as well.

They were the two leaders of all the West’s Adepts. The Pontiff, and Satan, were the pinnacle of Western Discipline, and with them had come their strongest soldiers. One of their reasons for coming had been to put pressure on the Avenue, and

to uncover information about the Magnate and Clairvoyant.

Once Skyfire Avenue had achieved the status of being the greatest Adept haven, there was no shortage of Talent that flocked to them. The display now was the reason this place was feared. They held the advantage in their number of Paragons as well. If this trend were to continue, how long would the Northern and Western Alliances be able to claim dominance over the East?

An Alliance’s strength or weakness when it came to their Adepts was reflected in their military. The inevitable march of human progress meant humanity and technology were inseparable at this point. But as their weapons became more and more fatal, they required stronger and stronger men to bear them. As it had been for so long, and will continue to be, a weapon was only as mighty as the one who used it.

The West and North had always focused on finding ways to make normal men capable of bearing these weapons. Through research and experimentation, they’ve molded humanity to their whim. But their unnatural methods always came with a ceiling, for an average human’s body didn’t have the physical requirements necessary to sustain this power. This was true from control of the simplest mecha suit to piloting the strongest battleship.

Put simply, a powerful Adept, piloting a battleship, could increase its combat effectiveness by three to five times. An Adept’s will and fortitude meant fewer people would be needed to pilot it effectively. The fewer people needed to perform a task, the more efficient it became. It was a marriage of power and cooperation.

It was the same for mechas. Normal men and women could pilot one, but an Adept could turn it in to a force to rival an armada. From power to energy utility, a normal human was inferior.

And so, there was a saying that was used through all the Alliances to reflect this simple truth: Gain Adepts, and you gain the universe.

The East was inferior to its Western and Northern counterparts when it came to science and technology – this was a widely known fact. But for strength of the individual soldier, the East reigned supreme.

Anlun was a fine example. With Prometheus at the head of the Anlun army, they were an outstanding force to be reckoned with. This was proven when they beat back the North’s assault, outnumbered seven to one.

As a result, both the North and the West had spent an inordinate amount of time and money in the hopes they could attract more Adepts.

The average for normal humans and Adepts was about ten to one. Middle-range Adepts – from about fourth ranked to sixth – was about a hundred to one. That number became thousands when you reached the higher echelons of Discipline control.

The East, by comparison, had been spending the last few years on their own research and development programs. Due to the Avenue’s appeal they had had no trouble in recruiting Talents to help them with their technology. With the government’s concerns in regards to Adepts settled, their technological development has improved quickly.

This constituted a crisis for the other two Alliances. They would have to respond or risk losing supremacy.

But in this moment they knew, even if Satan and the Pontiff joined together, they faced a threat they may not be able to overcome. The hundred or so faces watching their every move confirmed that.

Chapter 263: The Power Of The Avenue

What did this mean? That – aside from those with flying Disciplines – all of them who floated in the air were at minimum a ninth-ranked Talent.

There were thirty-nine ninth ranked Adepts in the West according to their records, counting both Citadels. Specifically, twenty-one in the Dark Citadel, and eighteen among the Pontiff’s number.

According to their former intelligence, Skyfire Avenue should have had about thirty of these powerful Talents, and then the three Paragons. The Avenue’s power was formidable, but they had thought if they joined forces it would be enough to frighten the Avenue in to capitulation.

In this moment, it was clear their assumptions were wrong.

There were perhaps seventy or more Adepts here who were obviously at that level of mastery or higher! Moreover, these were genetic Talents, not man-made.

Satan wasn’t blind to the circumstances. The Avenue’s power

was far beyond what he’d anticipated. Now he figured, if he tried to openly steal Mika away, there he’d do it with most of his forces obliterated. But he was Satan, master of the Dark Citadel, lord of the world of darkness where only strength is respected. How could he just tuck his tail and flee?

Their stand-off was interrupted when a wave of strange power rushed past them, originating from the Avenue below. An odd voice followed.

“A mountain of books has many pathways to the summit, and the sea of knowledge is boundless.”

They were simple, if strange words. However, as the moving voice delivered them, the whole of Skyfire Avenue was embraced by a dim light, a hazy luminescence that hung over everything.

It had a milky quality, the light, with threads of inky blackness that meandered throughout. As the waves of power emanated outward they brought with them a refreshing fragrance, that filled them with a sense of scholarly integrity.

A column of white light beamed in to the heavens.

Satan, the Wine Master, and the Gourmet were the most affected by the interrupted, as their faces revealed. Satan’s features bore an even nastier scowl. Manifestations of surprise and relief were clear on the Wine Master and Gourmet’s faces.

But their differences in expression hid the exact same internal reaction. A single thought rang through their minds.

This is…

On the Avenue, the Pontiff was most affected. “How could this be?!” he cried in alarm. For the first time since showing himself here, the Pontiff couldn’t control his reaction.

The Gourmet reaching Paragon status was still within their scope of acceptance. After all, the Clairvoyant was no longer a threat, and he was more powerful than any of them. But this voice, this light, was a surprise.

This rich, scholarly aura could be nothing but pure protogenic power. And this abundant, overbearing energy could only come from one source. The birth of a Paragon!

Indeed, another was about to join the illustrious ranks of the Paragons.

Every Adept was different, and this was equally true for the demonstration of protogenic power that was released when one became Paragon. Some were even able to affect the whole of a planet’s aura. Others achieved it without any fanfare or dramatic revelation. How a Talent broke in to the Paragon level was dependent on their Discipline.

The Gourmet earned Paragon status when we ultimately and completely immersed himself in the territory his power was derived from, the Underworld. As this was a world of his making, no one else was made aware of the breakthrough. This new Paragon, having broken through right here on the Avenue, made his ascension remarkably obvious.

The gentle white light was pure and gentle, harmonizing with the energies of the world around it. The core of it was even restrained. Even the Pontiff wondered if he were capable of producing such a calming, peaceful aura.

Most younger Paragons weren’t ready for the awesome power a Paragon possessed, and required a period of adaptation so that they could train themselves to become conduits of this might.

The older Adepts had had time enough to cultivate themselves to the required level, and their understanding was far more profound. The drawback was that the older Adepts had a much more difficult time advancing to higher levels of mastery. It was an unfortunate double-edged sword.

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The whole of the heavens overhead adopted the milky-white light, and every student on Skyfire Avenue lifted their head as a wave of harmony and intellect inexplicably washed over them. Whatever problem they were  working  through  instantly became clear – a universal eureka moment.

Even the embattled students of the NEU, struggling on West Hill looked to the skies in curiosity, unable to stop themselves. They were training under Hua Li’s direction, and though their Disciplines were still sealed the wave of unstoppable vigor forced their powers to the surface.

The arena filled with the sounds of clattering steel as the needles within them fell free of their own accord. They felt renewed, awakened as their power was restored.

Hua Li’s eyes widened as he spied the heavens, and without hesitation shouted out to his charges. “Cross your legs and sit up straight. Meditate on this changes in the atmosphere, let it wash through you.”

He took his own advice, dropped in to a meditative position with his chakras aligned, and closed his eyes to more clearly feel the sensations.

To be able to absorb and experience the radiant power of a Paragon breaking through was an exceedingly rare opportunity! The more profound an Adept’s understanding of their abilities, the more deeply they felt such expressions of power, but it helped all who experienced it with their future growth.

This was why Hua Li had remained for so long. These sorts of good happenings were so rare in the history of humanity, that it would be a tragedy to miss.

This is especially true when considering that this sort of protogenic expression wasn’t always this beneficial. If the adept had less than sublime control over its exuberance, disasters could easily follow. Especially for the common man.

Moreover, not every Paragon opened themselves up in this way for the benefit of others. At the very least this revealed their power to everyone, tipped their hand so to speak. The result was that this sort of thing had only publicly occurred four or five times in the history of humanity. But each time it did, everyone who experienced it became better as a result.

Though there was no way for Hua Li to know which Adept specifically had attained Paragon status, he was able to determine comprehension was the crux of the Discipline. It was something every living thing could benefit from, so how could he let the opportunity go to waste?

For the students involved in training, the benefits were immediate and intense. They, too, didn’t dare waste a moment. Over the last few days of needles and boiling water they barely felt human, but in this instant they felt renewed. Their eyes blazed with excitement and comprehension.

After Lan Jue had removed their second needle, he’d left the rest in for a protracted period, largely because their bodies needed time to adapt to their newfound strength. The third needle was removed by the seventh day, and the fourth needle just the day before. Before now, they all still had five needles to go.

Now, all five tumbled to the ground of their own accord. Every student was stunned, nearly floored, by the tremendous power that welled up inside of them.

Everyone sat in contemplative silence; Wang Hongyuan, Tan Lingyun, Lin Guoguo… everyone. A quiet tranquility hung over the training grounds.

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Skyfire Avenue.

Lan Jue immediately shut his eyes when the power came. Hua Li felt it, and so could he. Everyone hovering in the skies above the Avenue felt it clear as day.

This included the denizens of the two Citadels. After their surprise subsided, they quickly shut their eyes in attempts to capitalize on the opportunity themselves. However, despite their efforts, they felt nothing. Helplessly they opened themselves to the power, only to be denied.

A craggy, ancient voice reverberated all around them. “I seek

benevolence, to share my gifts. Unfortunately, our guests came with evil intent. Satan, do you still see opportunity for retreat in the face of your transgressions?”

A point of light appeared amidst the gathered paragons, and grew in size until it was the dimensions of a man. The blinding light eventually receded, revealing the Keeper.

He was clad in a simple robe, giving the onlookers a sense of scholastic integrity, of knowledge and culture. He looked precisely like what his title implied, a Keeper of Knowledge. But strangest of all was his face, for while his voice was cracked and old, he appeared much younger than he had just a day before. His yellowed eyes were now bright and piercing, and now his youthful vigor was greater even than Satan’s unnatural youth.

The gentle white light dimmed and eventually vanished, though the skies above remained bright. The childish voice returned, though where at first it had been one, now it was a chorus of youthful cries.

“All men are righteous at birth, and close to their nature. They grow and change, their habits mold them. But through knowledge, through learning, that goodness is retained.”

There was another explosion of white light, and an image appeared before them that stretched hundreds of thousands of meters. It was the image of a Confucian scholar, with one hand behind his back and the other clutching a tome. His eyes were shut, and as the young voices spoke he nodded sagely. The very picture of leisure and contentment.

The old Chinese Confucian system of learning was to have children recite these ‘pearls of wisdom’ endlessly, over and over and over again until they were ingrained within them. This practice still goes on in every Chinese class – in essence, they have a textbook with quotes, which they read while the teacher listens and corrects. Today, this is used for pronunciation and grammar purposes, though they still pick many Confucian documents and phrases to do so, for cultural reinforcement (or indoctrination, however you want to look at it). This quote above, all the several following, are all real lines recited in classrooms to this day.

“Thrice Mencius’ mother moved, to provide for him a place of learning, but played truent, so his mother cut cloth from the loom. Dou of the Yan Mountains, trained his five children, and through their learning grew famed and knowledgeable, passing the imperial exams.

Which were basically the prerequisite to becoming a

government Bureaucrat and setting your family up for life.

The young voices rose to a crescendo, and smaller figures appeared in the air before the massive scholar as they read the Three Character Classic.

“Uneducated children are a failing of the father, unindustrious students are borne of negligent teachers. Learning without passion is pointless, and forsaking knowledge in youth, how can one be successful in old age?”

The towering scholar opened his eyes. The light in those eyes became stern and commanding, much like a teacher instructing his pupils.

“An unpolished jade sculpture cannot be called a work of art; Men who do not study cannot comprehend the moral path, and will not become great men.”

A single small figure stood out, standing directly before the scholar. As the instruction continued, he grew.

“All children should show deference to their parents, it is the

basis of humanity. Understanding the weal and woe of our ancestors shows piety, and cultivates a hardworking nature. When Kong Rong was four, he gave up his pear to his elder brother, this filial respect and admiration is something that should be taught from birth. Respect is the first and foremost measure of a man, fraternity the guiding principle, only then can we learn the ways of life; of numbers, words and wisdom.”

The scene changed again. Images of the stories they head, of the lessons that were taught, hung in the air around them. The charm and wisdom of the ancient Chinese philosophies filled the hearts of every onlooker.

Chapter 264: The Karmic Scholar

“Ones, tens, hundreds, thousands. The three forces; Heaven, Earth, Man – the Three Luminaries; the Sun, Moon and Stars. So, too, are there Three bonds: The First – Obligation of Sovereign to Subject. The Second – The Love between Father and Child. The Third – Harmony between Husband and Wife.”

Dozens of twinkling white lights appeared around the massive scholar. Each one was a small child enveloped in light, hunched down and diligently reading from books in their tiny hands. They revolved around the scholar as though in orbit, reciting from the text.

The Confucian wise man smiled, a smile full of satisfaction, then clapped his hands together. The dots of light rose in to the heavens and vanished.

Overhead white light still spread out over the horizon, as though the universe were made of white gold. A single ray of errant light descended from on high to illuminate the book opened within the scholar’s hand. A single word appeared within the tome, large and blazing on the parchment.

“Karma”

The Keeper cackled merrily. “Hah! A fine display. A hundred years of penance, and the reward is immortality. As Paragon, you will need a new name; I name you, the Karmic Scholar.”

“Hahahaha!” The ringing laughter came from everywhere, and the massive spectral scholar dissolved in to a massive column of light. It condensed, shrunk, until a figure appeared within it rising from Skyfire Avenue.

As the light dimmed, it revealed an elderly man clad in the white robes of an academician.

Despite his age the old man was alive with a vibrant aura, his face pink and cheeks ruddy. His eyes twinkled with a lively spirit that reflected the pure light of knowledge that encompassed everything. He gripped a book in his hands, one identical to the one the massive Confucian scholar had held.

It’s him!

Though Lan Jue had his suspicions, he was still surprised when the figure was finally revealed.

The one who’d broken through to Paragon status, the one who’d shocked both the Western Citadels, was none other than the cantankerous man he’d brought back from planet Lyr; the Bookworm.

Compared to when they’d met, he seemed much more pleasant. He seemed so much younger for it, full of life and positivity. And not only him, but the Keeper seemed to have changed similarly. It was as though they were ten years younger over night.

The Bookworm took a step forward, and a wake of white light fanned out behind him. With a flash, he appeared beside the Keeper.

“A fine name… I shall be known as the Karmic Scholar.” His face was brightened by a smile, and he nodded in satisfaction. He didn’t seem to pay any mind to Satan, he scowled dangerously at them.

“Congratulations, Honorable Karmic Scholar.” The Pontiff’s deep voice called out to the newly anointed Paragon. By now he was also aloft with the others, but not with intention to fight. This fight would be one they lost, he knew. The Avenue’s strength was far and beyond what they’d anticipated. Without

even considering the many powerful Adepts that surrounded them, there were now five Paragons. Four, with the passing of the Clairvoyant.

The Gourmet may have been on the weaker side of the scale, but the Karmic Scholar’s aura was startling to say the least. He didn’t seem at all weaker than these established leaders who stood before. And as far as the Pontiff could remember, he had absolutely no information on this man. And the vigor he and the Keeper emitted certainly didn’t seem like a couple of old men nearing their final days.

Once again Skyfire Avenue proved its superiority in force. Even without the presence of the Clairvoyant, their pillar, the Avenue still had enough paragons to match the West and North together!

The Karmic Scholar, Bookworm of the Avenue, snorted derisively. “Enough, do not try to curry favor here. You mean just as little as this uncouth visitor. If you have no  other business, you all are free to leave. Skyfire Avenue does not tolerate impolite guests.”

Neither he nor the Keeper appeared to be in a very forgiving mood. In fact, it was the Keeper’s famously poor temper that

had kept the Pontiff from enraging him further when he visited the Citadel. Both of these elderly men gained Paragon status through knowledge and scientific discovery, and though their actual combat prowess was difficult to discern at least the Keeper’s pure destructive power was fabled. No one wanted to have this sort of man as their enemy.

The Wine Master fixed Satan with a hard glare. “What say you, King of Devils?”

Satan’s eyes swept toward Mika. “Why… why do you want to leave? Why do you refuse to return home with me? Is being the master of the underworld really such a terrible destiny? You are the last of my bloodline – your sister, dead in a foreign land. Would you leave me with nothing but corpses as family? An elder should never have to see their children’s funerals.”

Satan’s remark was met with the surprised stares of all the gathered Adepts. This was the man who feared nothing, who could tear a hole in the heavens and will the earth to his bidding. This was the true Satan?

He was a supremely arrogant man, and as lethal as he was self- absorbed. But he, like the other adepts of the Dark Citadel, were tools of the West and were bound by the Alliance’s support.

This contemporary Satan had earned a particularly close relationship with the politicians of his home. As a result, despite his iron-fisted control over the dark underbelly of humanity, he never had his people lift a hand against the common man. It was the only fact keeping them from the hangman’s noose. Further, it gave them enough wiggle-room to grow in strength. Currently, they were on track to surpass the Pontiff’s Citadel.

Mika regarded her father with a calm expression. “I wanted to leave because I don’t want to lose myself to this power. The blood of the King of Devils changes you, corrupts your spirit. Do you still remember, father? Do you remember what you were like when I was young? You were fair, merciful, peace-loving. I loved you more than anything. You were the pride of me and my sister, and our role-model. You were our idol, the greatest man we’d ever known. Do you remember what you told us, then? You said you would become master of the darkness so that we wouldn’t have to grow up in that world. You had more control than any Satan who had ever lived, you had the ability and it only strengthened after becoming a Paragon.”

“Then it all changed one day. We saw it, the madness that overcame you when you murdered our mother. That’s when we knew, in the end you lost your soul to the darkness. You could only suppress it for so long, and even with all your power the blood won out. What did my sister and I have to live up to then? From then on you were more frightening, strange and

monstrous. More like the Satans of old. The Dark Citadel rejoiced at your submission, but your children wept. We didn’t want that. We didn’t want you! So my sister left. She chose exile, but she told me before she left, that she would return with someone who could bring you back to the man you were.”

“We never blamed you for mother. We understood that you weren’t yourself. All we ever wanted was our father back! I used to pay every day that she’d come back soon, and then we could be a whole family again. I longed for that loving father we’d lost. He would hug me like he did when I was small, kiss my cheeks, tell me he loved me more than anyone else in the whole universe. I waited, and waited.”

“Then one day my sister did come back. She came back in a box. Her body was so cold, and I could see the pain on her face she must have felt before she died. The marks of your power were all over her, and I trembled as I realized that it had been you. You killed your daughter. You killed my sister. It’s true, isn’t it? It’s true! Why would you want to kill her, when all she wanted was our father back!?”

“All that was left after that was me. I didn’t want to become like you, to have my children crying for the return of their mother – only to die at their mother’s hand. I had to leave, to escape from the Dark Citadel and the poison that coursed

through it. So I ran, fled far away. I didn’t care about power – the only power I needed was control over this curse within me. That’s all, was that too much to ask? Dad… if there is any part of you the darkness hasn’t touched, if there’s any love for me and my sister left then I’m begging you… please, let me go.”

Mika’s voice was choked with sobs. One hundred adepts from Skyfire Avenue and the two Citadels looked on in silence.

The Pontiff’s eyes were closed, and he pressed a fingertip to his forehead. A shimmering cross glimmered to life, stretching across his chest and arms. His lips moved in silent prayer.

Satan stared at his young daughter, stunned and without words. His eyes betrayed internal struggle.

The Gourmet’s hands had unconsciously curled in to white- knuckled fists. His own eyes bore the threat of revenge, and he watched in deathly silence.

The power of death was what Hades offered to his descendants. It was a power that did not erode the bearer’s soul. This was in contrast to Satans, whose demonic powers were a constant threat. The price of such power was selling your soul

to the darkness. It was the doom of every King of Devils, and in his own heart Satan had already become a monster.

It was him, he was revealed as Mina’s killer! Murderous intent roiled like a volcano within the Gourmet, threatening to burst free.

“No, it wasn’t me.” Satan gently shook his head. There was no rage, no explosion, no fit… there was only a bone-deep sadness, as he stared with pained expression at his daughter.

“Mika. The father you loved is gone, and yes my soul has been lost to the corrupted. I even killed your mother, I can’t deny that. But never… never would I harm Mina. It doesn’t matter if you believe me, but what happened to your mother woke me up from the madness. It took me twenty years from that day to control it again, and master the power. It is still a dark power, but it is not invincible. I am the King of Devils, and all darkness falls under my purview. Mina did not die by my hand, this I swear. I’m… I’m so sorry. Your father owes you and your sister so much. Hearing you now, though, and listening to what you have to say makes me happy. Now, I finally understand what pushed you two away. It wasn’t that you didn’t love me – it’s because you loved me so much. I apologize for what I’ve done. I beg forgiveness, from you and from Mina.”

Chapter 265: Returning To Base

“Very well… I will respect your decision. If you truly have no desire to return, then you may stay. On your own.” As he spoke, Satan gently nodded his head toward Mika. His dark eyes once more fell upon Lan Jue, who stood at her side. “Look after her well.” Their conversation concluded, he turned and dissolved in to a streak of black light. Without a word to anyone else, he disappeared in to the distance.

The elite of the Dark Citadel were close behind their master.
Soon, all of them were small dots on the horizon.

Once more, the Pontiff sighed in a show of pity. “Kindness lives even in the heart of darkness. I only hope that these sentiments were real.” The Pontiff turned and nodded to his coterie, and then with them in tow descended back to Skyfire Avenue. It didn’t appear as though they intended to leave.

As they left, Mika buried herself in Lan Jue’s chest and began to sob. The Jewelry Master returned her embrace, running his hand gently through her fiery red hair. He comforted her quietly, as she shook against him.

The Gourmet let his clenched fists relax. Could Satan be

believed? He was the Father of Lies! But the claims he never hurt Mina…

The Gourmet wasn’t sure how to process this information. But his ruminations were cut short when a soft hand took his own. He turned, and saw the Seamstress looking up at him with a small smile on her face.

She nodded, and spoke to him softly. “Come… let’s go home.”

He responded with a bitter smirk, then resolutely nodded his head.

“By the way,” the Wine Master interrupted, “you’re a Paragon yourself, now. What will be your title? Hades?”

The Gourmet shook his head at the suggestion. “I refuse to take that name. Even if I took it, it wouldn’t bring Mina back. No, I will be called the Infernal Vanguard, ever watching the darkness for her soul to appear. Maybe one day I’ll be able to bring her back.”

The Infernal Vanguard! So the universe would come to know

the Gourmet – as the Eleventh Paragon – followed immediately by the Karmic Scholar, Skyfire’s Bookworm as the twelfth.

For the next several days the Pontiff would sit in conference with his fellow Paragons. The Wine Master, Gourmet, Bookworm, Keeper and Pontiff would all be locked away as they spoke on things no one else was privy to.

Lan Jue did not participate. There had been a great deal of misfortune surrounding the Citadelians’ visit, but his responsibilities had finished with the reception. There was still much he had to prepare for, at any rate. For protection’s sake, Lan Jue decided to bring Mika, Xiuxiu and Ke’er to West Hill. He would carry on training the young men and women, with their help.

They arrived the same time, and when they showed up at the base Lan Jue was surprised at what he saw.

The star-lit training field was full of students, seated in orderly rows as they meditated. Their needles lay on the ground, twinkling in the dim light.

“You’re back?” Hua Li’s distinct voice encroached.

Lan Jue looked at the golden-masked instructor with surprise evident in his face. He approached quickly, and spoke in hushed tones. “What’s going on?”

Hua Li laughed. “I should ask you! Skyfire Avenue must be the proud poppa of a brand new Paragon. He released the whole of his protogenic expulsion, so that the entirety of Skyfire must have felt it. How could we pass up such a rare and awesome opportunity? I won’t lie, I profited quite a bit from it myself. It must be tenfold for these young pilots. What’s more, with all the work and medicines we’ve been doing, it appears to have had a wonderful affect when paired with the protogenic powers. They’ve been meditating since this morning, with no evidence of difficulty or desire to stop. All of their needles popped right out, too, entirely of their own accord. You can feel it – their internal energies are much more powerful than they were, and are joining well with their biology. As far as I can tell, our first month’s attempts at tempering these guys are complete.”

Lan Jue was quiet for a moment as he thought. Eventually a small smile crept across his face. “Luck is absolutely an aspect of power. I guess how much they absorb is up to them.”

Lan Jue found a place for Mika and the other girls before joining Hua Li in their dorm. He spent the next several minutes telling him what had happened on the Avenue.

“Two new Paragons?” Hua Li’s eyes were like saucers, and his expression was hard to describe. “So there are now  five Paragons residing on the Avenue. That kind of power can shake the pillars of heaven!”

Lan Jue sighed at his comrade. “Unfortunately, the Clairvoyant has closed his eyes for the last time. He’s performed his final prediction, and now without his guidance we’ll definitely be seeing a change in the Avenue. The presence of the Eye of the Tomorrow was mostly what kept the West and North at bay.”

Hua Li chuckled. “After being surrounded by Paragons all day, you must be thinking you’re pretty garbage huh.”

“You’re garbage,” Lan Jue grumbled. “Only thing I felt was crisis.”

“How’s that,” Hua Li asked.

“If the Clairvoyant was any indication,” he began, “then all of the older generation Paragons are nearing their inevitable end. The Bookworm and Keeper may have found a way to extend their lives, but for how long? The Pontiff and Satan aren’t

necessarily spring chickens, and we can probably safely assume the same for the North’s two Paragons. These men are the anchors of humanity, and they’re dying.”

Hua Li nodded. “It looks like you’re still worrying over that alien species.”

Lan Jue nodded in confirmation. “The Clairvoyant spoke with the Pontiff and Satan separately today. I don’t know what they spoke about, but when the two Citadel leaders returned they were certainly brooding. At the very least there was less hostility between them and us afterward. I imagine it was the addition of this foreign enemy. Sometimes rivals must band together to face a violent outsider. My guess is the Clairvoyant’s final prediction had to do with this problem.”

This is a common trope everywhere, but also in China with historical undertones, especially when fighting against the Japanese. While that isn’t the case here, the implication is ‘protect the home and family against outsiders’. Historically this has a relationship with the tentative peace enjoyed by the Communists and the Guomin Dang/Nationalist Party when fending off the Japanese invasion of China circa 1937

Hua Li shook his head. “Alright, well there’s no use worrying

over all of it now. What we’re doing now is in service to humanity as well, right? Truth be told I’m a little jealous of you. Such a lucky bastard! Where it I training these young men and women, I doubt they’d enjoy such marvelous results.”

Lan Jue snickered. “I’m just a better quality of person! Better character means I’m better at everything. You go ahead and take an early rest, I’m going to meditate as well. There are still some residual protogenic powers left to absorb.”

It wasn’t just the Bookworm’s powers they all felt. The result of Satan and the Gourmet’s encounter was also thick in the air. He’d been immersed in it while under the Wine Master’s protection. It was a rare occurrence indeed, and the benefits even to his own Discipline were not to be ignored.

The students continued their silent cultivation. In the end, much to Lan Jue and Hua Li’s surprise, they remained that way for three days and three nights. At least in general, for some would wake earlier than others.

Zhou Qianlin was the first to finish. Lan Jue was absolutely stunned to discover that the entire process of their training had lifted her Discipline from second rank to fourth – in a matter of days! The speed that she was improving was unprecedented!

Even Lan Qing, who had improved at a staggering rate, wasn’t this fast. Part of it was due to her low rank, but even that couldn’t explain away the extraordinary situation. Strangest of all, however, was the fact that he still couldn’t tell what her Discipline was, even now. All he could determine was that her internal energies were very gentle and… familiar.

Qianlin had awoken on the morning of the second day. The Savage Goddess was second. The moment Tan Lingyun opened her eyes, everyone could feel themselves flooded with a sense of vigor and vitality. She wasn’t quite ninth ranked yet, but even she knew she was at the very peak of eighth-rank, and it would only be a matter of time. She left for her room to continue meditating.

Next was Wang Hongyuan, who was nearing eighth rank. Like Lingyun, he left for his dorm room to continue on his own.

The other students eventually came to, awakening mostly in order of prowess. By the end of the third day, almost all had opened their eyes. Each one of them felt the tremendous changes within themselves immediately. Their Discipline was stronger, as was their bodies.

Their muscles felt strong, elastic, and they felt their powers

fusing seamlessly with their physical forms – much stronger and more potent than they’d experienced before. Some  of  the weaker students found themselves improved by an entire rank. All in all, they felt remade.

While their Demon Drillmaster was as cold and as hard as ever, the students felt no fear. There was only respect. All of them were the pride of the NEU, and if they couldn’t recognize the effort their Drillmaster had put in to them, they certainly weren’t worthy of the distinction. Originally there had been a great deal of skepticism with their teachers’ assurances this class would improve their piloting ranking by a whole class. Now there was no doubt.

Not everyone had risen a full rank during their training as of yet. However, the vast majority had seen incredible improvement. Improving one’s Discipline rank was much harder than improving a piloting class, and what’s more it was common knowledge that improvement of one’s Talent almost inevitable lead to improvement of their piloting ability. As the body improved, their strength and control did as well – qualities integral to mecha piloting.

Three days and three nights had seen stupendous improvement, and yet there were two students who had yet to awaken. Lan Jue’s two disciples remained immersed in self-

reflection.

Jin Tao sat still, with his shock of red hair poking out in all directions. He drew long, calm breaths that were drawn in and exhaled over the span of a minute. However, underneath the calm exterior, the waves of his power held an explosive quality.

Over the course of the week’s training, he’d come to understand his own body again. He was faster to do so than any of the other students. The Genetica’s influence was evident in this way.

Tang Xiao’s situation was the polar opposite of his rival’s. He was much thinner than he had been at the training’s outset. He sat, completely motionless, even appearing not to breathe. It was like he was made of stone.

Tang Mi had awakened on the second day, but never moved from his side. She kept watch, anxiously waiting for her big brother to come to. The others had all awakened, with the more powerful opening their eyes first. So why hasn’t her brother?

Chapter 266: Keeping Watch Over Brother

The two had a very close relationship, as brother and sister. Ever since they were small Tang Mi had bullied her brother, despite being younger. However, regardless of the abuse the cunning Tang Xiao would always be right where she needed him if everything were to happen. He was her protector. He was a large man, but in Tang Mi’s heart he was heroic.

She had quite a mischievous streak in her younger years, and Tang Xiao couldn’t recall how many times he’d warded her from danger with his own expansive girth. Now, here he was silent a the grave and gaunt as a corpse. How could she not be worried? How could she not feel for her brother?

“Drillmaster, is my brother alright?” Tang Mi saw Lan Jue approaching from her position beside Tang Xiao. She shot to her feet and trotted over when he drew near.

Lan Jue answered by moving in front of his disciple. He did not touch him, but stood in silence and looked over his situation. Eventually, a smile split his face and a twinkle lit his eyes. “Don’t worry,” he assured her, “he needs just a little more time, then he’ll wake up. There won’t be any problem.”

Tang Mi still struggled with her anxiety. “But all the others are up already. Why not him? My brother’s a seventh-rank Talent! He should have come to earlier than me, at the least.”

“When I say no problem, that means he’s in good shape,” Lan Jue replied. “Don’t mess with him – you should go back and rest. Tomorrow the training continues.”

Tang Mi, still unsatisfied, opened her mouth to protest. However, Lan Jue had already turned and was making his way from the training field. It wasn’t that she didn’t trust the Drillmaster’s determination, only this was her brother they were talking about. Simply relaxing was easier said than done.

And so, she did return to her dorm, but only long enough to grab a comforter and return to her brother’s side. When she grew tired she would sleep for a little while, but otherwise she remained at Tang Xiao’s side, keeping vigil. No matter the goings-on around her, she refused to move. Zhou Qianlin had to bring her dinner.

ζ

Terrifying waves of power raced through Jin Tao’s meridians,

to the point where he genuinely feared for his safety. However, as he meditated, growing accustomed to the changes, he found the power to be easily controllable. Each precarious situation was surpassed, and the dangers navigated. Each time he did, he adopted a new perspective. Each step forward came with an epiphany. Of course each breakthrough was underpinned with pain and struggle, but he was used to it. Pain was a comfort to him at this point.

Eventually even the most impetuous river meets with the sea. The tumultuous waves of energy within him eased to a glassy calm, then were absorbed by crackling bones and numbed muscle.

Finally he moved, stretching his arms and arcing his back. The gratifying sensation of taught muscles washed over him. It felt like growing pains.

He wasn’t far off in the assumption. He had never had an Adonis-like physique, but ever since imbibing the Fantascia Genetica decoction his body had been undergoing physical changes. His physical capabilities were heightened, he felt stronger, and after a month of dreaming he came to with his dream figure.

It was, in a word, wonderful. And just as Lan Jue had anticipated, the more physically capable he got, the crazier he became. He found joy in the most bitter of hardships, something the Genetica had strengthened in him. Compared to the unnatural, cell-fracturing torture of the Fantascia Genetica, this training was like a weekend on the beach. It was helping tremendously in his effort to understand his own body again.

Through the course of his meditations, Jin Tao was able to profoundly feel every change he’d undergone. He could see how large a leap he’d taken. He could feel the latent strength in his bones and muscles, strength that had yet to wane.

After a good long stretch, he finally opened his eyes.

The blanket of night hung heavy in the sky, smothering the training field in darkness. However, Jin Tao was surprised to discover that he could see everything as clearly as though it were midday. He was on his feet with what felt like negligible effort.

“Shh!” Suddenly, a quiet but determined sound accosted him from nearby. Jin Tao’s eyes sought the source. When he caught the sight, his gaze seemed to last an eternity.

Tang Xiao sat nearby like a fleshy mountain. Judging by his posture, he was still meditating. A blanket had been laid out in front of him, and a bedraggled head popped out from within. Tang Mi was staring back at him, with one finger pressed to her lips, imploring silence.

Under the gathering darkness, Tang Mi was even more beautiful than usual. The hard exterior she worked so hard to cultivate was missing, and beneath the blanket she looked as gentle as a kitten.

“What’s going on,” Jin Tao asked quietly.

Tang Mi pointed to her brother. “You were all meditating. He hasn’t woken up yet. I’ve been worried, so I’m looking after him.”

Jin Tao looked from one Tang to the other. Envy was bright in the depths of his eyes. “I wish I had a younger sister like you.”

“Shut up,” Tang Mi grumbled in irritation. “Your sister isn’t good enough to you? It isn’t their fault you never live up to their expectations.”

Jin Tao answered with a bitter smirk. “True. I’ve let them down. That’s why my sister doesn’t treat me like you treat your brother. She’s tired of me and my weakness. My whole family is disappointed in my failure. They hide away, embarrassed. I’m a burden to them, to her especially. I know she loves me, but I can’t bear that look in her eyes. To them I’m a waste. Perhaps they aren’t wrong.”

Tang Mi had no relationship with Jin Tao, knowing him only through reputation as a troublemaker. The most unbearable student the NEU had. However, it had to be said that his performance during this training was out of character.

Was this really the same obnoxious boy from before? The best of the NEU were gathered here, and as they screamed and cried and nearly went mad, requiring the intervention of the psychic lady, Jin Tao persisted. He never complained, never once screamed. He did as he was told with calm indifference, and suffered the slings and arrows with stoic silence. Sometimes there would be a look in his eyes, but it wasn’t pain or regret – it was excitement! She was sure of it.

In this hellish experience dressed up like a training course, he was having fun. Either he was totally insane, or he was much stronger than his classmates thought.

“You’re performing so well during the training, this proves you’ve got it. But why haven’t we seen this earlier?” Tang Mi asked in curiosity.

Jin Tao took a seat beside Tang Xiao, and took a good long look at his rival. “Because of our master. He changed my destiny. I still remember the day I pledged myself as his student, what it was like. At first Master wasn’t interested in teaching your brother and I – he made it pretty obvious. I guess he was in a sour mood or something, so he beat us both to within an inch of our lives. As powerful as he is, it was quick work. But afterwards he used his own abilities to stimulate our Discipline. Those strikes of lightning we’ve been getting, they’re the same thing we experienced. At first, you know, I thought I’d been fooled. I’d attached myself to some garbage sadist. But soon after that, I learned this was the greatest opportunity I would ever encounter, in my entire life.”

Chapter 267: The Same Spirit

“Your brother and I were beat pretty badly, but once we’d recovered we found our power had increased quite a bit. Me especially. My Discipline rank was very low, and the effects were stronger on me. I thought maybe I was wrong, and this was the best thing that could happen to me. And so I show up day after day, hoping he’ll beat on me some more.”

“Later, when your brother and I were formally accepted as his Disciples, the Master asked if we were willing to tear everything down and start anew. I said I was. That was when he gave me a very sobering opportunity, one that at the very least endowed me with the belief that I can accomplish my goals. I want to be strong… to be able to protect my sister, and my family. I want to make them see that I, Jin Tao, am not garbage. All I ever need is an opportunity.”

Excitement was alive in his eyes. Already he was like a different man, bucking the expectations and assumptions of his classmates.

“Your Master is also the Drillmaster,” Tang Mi asked. “You also study under Nooblet?”

Jin Tao nodded emphatically. “I do! This is him. At first your brother wasn’t sure why he was being beat, and thought the teacher was just cruel. Later he also saw the chance we were given.”

Tang Mi wasn’t sure how to react to the news. She was sure it was she who gave her brother this opportunity to get involved. And yet, if what Jin Tao was saying was true, why didn’t Tang Xiao warn her, or at least let her know?

However, she wasn’t sure she would have wanted to know. If she had had even an inkling what this Demon Drillmaster was capable of, Tang Mi was afraid she’d never have agreed to join this training.

She trembled remembering everything they’d been through over the last ten days. For the rest of her life she’d remember the feeling of that needle as it pierced her. Nine of them! She could still remember the feeling, like she was going to explode.

“Now that you’re done meditating you should go rest,” Tang Mi said in her traditionally commanding fashion. “The Drillmaster said we’d be continuing with the training tomorrow.”

Jin Tao shook his head. “No need. I still feel like I have a bunch of pent-up energy. I’ll wait here with you for a while. So you won’t be lonely.”

Tang Mi burst in to a fit of tittering laughter. “Are you flirting with me?”

Researching the phrase lead me to an interesting work called ‘The Thirty Six Stratagems on Chasing Women’. It is, apparently, a more, er, specialized version of ‘The Thirty Six Stratagems,’ an old book on how to trick your way in to success. Maybe one day I’ll translate them. Here’s a quick search on the Thirty Six Stratagems if you’re interested.

“Eh…” Jin Tao winced, and gulped hard. When he spoke, it was delivered sheepishly. “No, no. Of course not, I swear. Never in my wildest dreams. We’re from two completely different worlds. How could you ever like me? I’m self-aware enough to know that much. Tang Xiao is my fellow apprentice. But if I’m bothering you, I’ll leave.”

Tang Mi looked at him, saw his discomfort. “What are you doing?”

She dropped her eyes and smirked. “Still so self-conscious. Just now you spoke so strongly, and then suddenly again with the personal abuse. That’s a terrible thing for your confidence and psychology. Even if you become a powerful man, you’ll still have problems if this doesn’t get fixed. You’ll get vindictive. In this world life really is unfair. There is no balance among people. Some people are born privileged, rich, comfortable. Some are born with innately powerful Disciplines. But everyone’s soul… that’s the same. At birth everyone is born with the same pure spirit, unsullied and untarnished. It’s the things we experience during life that changes it. Souls aren’t inherently noble or humble, so you mustn’t look down on yourself. You do you. It’s not about being better, or being the winner. You don’t even need to prove anything to yourself. You just need to be better, every day. That is success. You need confidence, handsome guy.”

Tang Mi snuggled deeper in to her blanket as her words hung in the air. The night was a little cold. Where it not for Lan Jue’s strict instruction not to touch him, she’d have fetched a blanket for her brother long ago.

Jin Tao sat still and silent, Tang Mi’s words running round and round in his skull. She was one of the school’s beauties! Even just their brief exchange was more than he could have fantasized about. She was a woman far beyond his level, and here they were talking. Calmly, amicably – it was more touching

than he could describe.

He sat in silence for a moment, thinking. Eventually his eyes hardened. I am different, he thought. After everything that’s happened, it’s like I’ve entered another world. I’m another Jin Tao, now.

Lan Jue and Hua Li stood in the darkness a distance away, hidden behind their golden masks. They’d arrived once Jin Tao woke from his meditation. After all, these two were his personal disciples, how could not pay them special attention?

Lan Jue had planned to tell Jin Tao the very same lesson Tang Mi had. In the end it was better she did it, he thought. It seems to have been more effective coming from her.

“That’s a good kid, there. A fine girl.” Hua Li mused.

Lan Jue smiled behind his golden mask. “What, are we smitten?”

Hua Li shook his head. “I told you, didn’t I? I already have someone.”

The Demon Drillmaster turned his face toward Hua Li. “Why won’t you tell me about her? How can we have secrets between brothers?”

Hua Li chuckled in response. “I course I can’t you,” he said, his tone mysterious and playful. “I haven’t succeeded in winning her over, yet. If, someday, she agrees to be with me then you’ll be the first to know. You can share in my happiness.”

Lan Jue’s face was hidden, but his body language clearly displayed surprise. “You mean there’s a woman in this universe who isn’t already madly in love with you?”

To this, the singer snorted. “Perhaps that’s why I want her so badly. We always want what we can’t have. Sometimes I know it won’t happen, but there’s always hope. I don’t have very many extravagant wishes, and anyway I’m still young. There’s still time. Hell, next to you I’m young and vibrant.”

Lan Jue’s tone took on a gruff displeasure. “You’re a year younger than me. Go on then, tell me about this girl. Is she so beautiful that she can ignore the advances of our illustrious Poseidon?”

Hua Li shrugged. “You’re wrong you know. It isn’t about looks. I’m interested in her heart. She has a huge and righteous heart, who sacrifices herself for the benefit of others. She would give up everything to protect those dear to her. She is brave, and empathetic, and she reaffirms the strength in everyone she comes across. To me, she is perfect.”

For a moment Lan Jue just stared at his friend in stunned silence. “I find it hard to believe there’s someone fitting that description around here somewhere.”

Hua Li turned his face towards Lan Jue, and that’s when Zeus spotted the mirth in Hua Li’s eyes.

“There isn’t, I made her up.”

It took Lan Jue a moment to recover. When he finally did, he responded by lunging at Hua Li’s neck and wringing it. “Are you messin’ with me?!”

Hua Li cackled as he fought for breath, allowing Lan Jue to shake him around.

Lan Jue eventually let Hua Li go. He rubbed his forehead. “It sounded real. Hell, the look in your eyes was spot on. So what about Mo Xiang, then? Have you told her?”

Hua Li nodded. “Yup.”

“What was her reaction?”

A bitter laugh, muffled and short, came from behind Hua Li’s mask. “She didn’t react. At the time she wanted to murder me, and we haven’t said anything about it since.”

Lan Jue sighed, and shot his friend a sidelong glance.

“I kinda wish she had murdered you.”

Chapter 268: The Poseidon Program

Early morning.

Silence hung over the valley. The mountains hugged one another, bathed in the golden light of a rising sun. A new day begins.

The National Eastern University’s West Hill was also stirring, preparing. Fifty students stood in five orderly lines, buzzing with vitality, eager to begin. There was a hunger in them this morning. They were eager to continue their training.

The last ten days had been like a nightmare to them, but more than that it had been transformative. Just the memories of the training so far were painful to recall, but not one of them would ever forget. The torment of twenty years of harsh training had been condensed to two short weeks, but the results were clear as day.

Now that the seals were gone, everything was different. Every student could feel differences, some of them profound.  Ten days! Though the suffering was beyond compare, it was a brief hell. The past was the past.

They rejoiced, not just for the passage and result of the last ten days, but because they were lucky enough to suffer the lash of their Drillmaster.

One sixth of their two-month journey was complete. What did the next fifty hold? What heights could they reach? Even if the future held suffering like the first ten days, the rewards were clear. Improvement was born of suffering, and they were ready.

Fifty students waited. The fifty first, though, didn’t join his comrades – he was still meditating. Tang Xiao’s body was covered in dust and dew, and he sat with the spiritual detachment for a monk.

Wang Hongyuan and Tan Lingyun stood before the students as assistant instructors, watching them gather. The emotional and qualitative changes they had undergone was no less than the students they proctored, perhaps even greater. The questions and misgivings they may have felt in the beginning towards the Demon Drillmaster had given way to respect, largely because his methods had seen results. Both of them could see how difficult this process was, and how much it drained him.

“You were all very lucky. Experiencing the birth of a Paragon

is something that happens maybe once in a hundred years. Remember the power you felt – it will guide you for the rest of your life.”

Lan Jue stood at the center of the students’ attention, an intimidating figure in his golden mask. However, his abrasive demeanor seemed softer today.

“But it’s important to remember, this is just the beginning. The last ten days have been an awakening, tempering you so that you’ll be ready for what’s to come. The last several years you all have been like canaries raised in a cage. Now that I know you can take it, we’re going to spend the rest of our time here turning these canaries in to warriors. For the following twenty days, our focus will be technique. Your only job is to obey, and work hard. I promise you that once we get passed it, that final month will be an experience you’ll never forget. Completing my training over the next twenty days is the prerequisite, survive and you’ll have earned the second month’s experience.”

“Next we’ll be moving to our sim pods. You will not leave these pods unless you’re shitting, sleeping or snacking. It only ends when I say it does, so that sleeping I talked about, that’s not happening ‘till you’re where you need to be. Our pods have been specially adjusted for our purposes here, with electric shock devices installed in every one. If your heart-rate drops

below a predetermined value, try to count the voltage coursing through you and get your heartbeat to that number. And this isn’t bio-electricity, which you’re familiar with. This is just your run-of-the-mill, high-voltage pain. Presumably your pain tolerance is better now, after so many days. Maybe. Now get in your pods.”

Five minutes later, the students had all found and entered their sim pods.

When Lan Jue told them the next section of their training would be in the sim pods, the students collective heaved a sigh of relief. Whatever the demon drillmaster had planned, it couldn’t be worse than the personal physical torture they’d endured. Sitting in the tiny make-shift cockpit was a far sight more comfortable than being stabbed, beaten or broiled.

None of them could see the impish grin behind Lan Jue’s golden mask.

Now we can get this training started.

Jin Tao ran his hands over the familiar equipment inside the pod. He saw it all with new eyes. I am a new man, he thought,

no longer the piece of trash I was. I’ll make sure you see it, Professor. I won’t let you down.

The pod hummed as it started, but the occupants weren’t cast in to DreamNet as usual. The routines it ran were different.

“Training course commencing. Section One: Advancing, retreating, and strafing. The fundamentals of movement. Perform each action one hundred thousand times. Begin.”

Ten thousand times?

Jin Tao blinked. For real? That many times?

His surprise was interrupted when the screen flashed.A series of floating arrows hung in the air, pointing forward. Instinctively, he coaxed his simulated mecha in to motion. As his suit stepped forward, the arrow changed, pointing left. He moved left.

The arrows changed with each command, and he continued as instructed. With each correct movement, the arrows changed quicker. Jin Tao narrowed his eyes in concentration.

It was easy in the beginning, as the commands came slow. He felt his hands relax from the warm-up. However, as the sim program continued and the arrows sped up, Jin Tao began to find it difficult keeping up.

Too fast… this is too fast, right? Jin Tao’s brows furrowed as he struggled against the program.

However, he still wasn’t being overwhelmed. Much to his surprise, he discovered that – though difficult – he was hanging in there. The arrows popped in to existence, and almost automatically his hands were in motion. There wasn’t any means to test it currently, but Jin Tao was sure his hand speed was much faster than it had been. Maybe it was a result of the training.

Front, back, left, right. These were the basic commands for moving a suit. Even a child could do it. But the randomly generated commands were coming faster, and that’s where the students encountered their limitations. Moreover, it was boring! Four hundred thousand commands, he was asking. They weren’t considered crack students for no reason, so it took them little time to understand this was to teach them about driver fatigue.

An hour passed. Fingers, wrists and arms felt sore and heavy. Their bodies were already fatigued. Fortunately, their Disciplines were no longer sealed. Finally they could modulate their body’s output with their powers. This ended up being a curse more than a blessing, though, and they reluctantly continued.

Outside of the pods, Lan Jue watched his students from diagnostic screens. From here he was able to monitor the situation in each cockpit. He shot Hua Li a thumbs-up.

“Yup, I’d say this is mean enough. There’s some weird sadomasochistic thing going on with the Poseidon Group, isn’t there.” One hundred thousand times. Forget the students, just looking at the number was giving him a headache.

Hua Li answered with a shrug. “Guess you should ask my dad that question. I had to go through the same cruelty. My father holds the record for fastest to complete the segment. Eleven days and thirteen hours. I finished it in a little over twelve days. All I remember is crawling out of that damn pod, about half my original body-weight, seeing double. Not the most pleasant experience.”

Lan Jue chuckled. “I’m pretty sure this is classified as

psychological torture. It’s a pity it won’t have much of an effect for me, otherwise I’d be tempted to give it a shot.”

“Yeah, forget about it,” Hua Li said. “We have the god-battle soon at any rate. We have our own pair training to consider, keep our bodies in shape.”

“Yeah,” Lan Jue agreed. “Speaking of, I wonder if Chu Cheng knows his uncle is a Paragon. More importantly, the Gourmet never accepted the mantle of Hades, likely leaving it for his nephew. It doesn’t look like our newly-minted Infernal Vanguard has any plans to return to his former family.”

Hua Li chuckled. “If I were in his position, I wouldn’t go back either. Life on the Avenue is slow, laid-back. Hardly any responsibility. I can bet the Gourmet has grown quite attached to the lifestyle. It sure is a surprise to discover Skyfire Avenue has so many titans of the Adept world though, I’ll tell you.”

This brought a bitter smirk to Lan Jue’s face. “You and me both, brother. I had no idea just how strong the Avenue really was until recently. It was like the two Western Citadels came crashing it and hit an iron curtain. But the Clairvoyant…” The memory of the respected, elderly leader of the Avenue filled him with a gloomy depression.

Of the Avenue’s Paragons, Lan Jue had the most contact with the Wine Master. After him was the Keeper. He only met the Clairvoyant a couple of times, but that didn’t diminish his estimation of the man in the least. In some ways, he was far and away superior to his two counterparts.

Lan Jue would forever remember the Clairvoyant’s eyes, orbs that seemed capable of piercing reality. He could see the universe in a way no one else could.

Hua Li sighed. “It doesn’t matter how strong you are. In the end all humanity must bend to natural law. The Clairvoyant’s help and accomplishments will never be forgotten, so long as humans exist. He will be remembered in the annals of history. He might not have been the strongest Paragon, but if you wanted me to pick one person who was widely beloved and respected, it’d be him.”

Lan Jue agreed. “You’re right in that. Now all we can do is swear to protect and maintain the organization he spent his life building.”

Hua Li’s answer was a determined nod. “Let’s go. We have some training of our own to conduct. I won’t go easy on you this time, I’m warning you. I’ve been enlightened by all of this

myself. Today, you’ll know the extent of my power.”

Lan Jue looked at his friend.

“Pff-ha ha ha!”

Chapter 269: Hand Cramps

It is said there are many levels of hell, and to these students the sim pods were certainly one of them.

After the first day, their eyes were bloodshot. After hours of careful piloting their breathing was ragged and their hands shaky.

The computer program which ran the sim was designed to base it’s pacing on the pilot’s physical condition. The speed rose and fell, adjusting to be only slightly less than their highest capability. The better a pilot was, the faster the program delivered commands. Naturally it also meant they could finish their task sooner.

Moving mecha suits wasn’t just shoving a joystick. It took more than a single button-press to perform an action. All of the commands had to be performed smoothly, harmoniously – because even the slightest error could mean your enemy’s victory.

Four hundred thousand movements, and this was just the first go ’round!

The first lunch, many ate quite a lot of food, of course due to the amount of exercise they’d endured. Those unfortunate souls vomited it out by the end of the day. Working for so long in the sim pod was torturous, with the spins dizzying and the shocks nauseating. It was quite a physical trial.

What the students didn’t know, was that these pods were designed for adepts for seventh ranked or higher. Several of them would likely be unable to finish the program.

The deadline was twenty days. The Poseidon group designed it that way, with a final evaluation when the program was complete. Anyone who was capable of finishing could certainly be considered an ace pilot. Sovereign-rank was their destiny.

If Lan Jue had wanted to perform this test at the beginning of the training, he suspected less than one fifth would be able to pass. Now, however…

Tang Xiao finally awoke from his meditations the day the sim pod training began. He opened his eyes, revealing pupil-less orbs of white. His eyes rolled back to normal, but then his whole body began to react.

His large form grew thinner, almost like a new person. By the time the shift was finished, he looked like a far more toned – and, strangely, handsome – version of himself. He looked more like his sister as well.

Looking down at himself, Tang Xiao’s face showed satisfaction. He found it difficult to contain his excitement, and is flashed in his eyes.

“You’re ok?” a moving voice intruded, from not far away.

He turned his head, and his eyes met a silver-masked woman who waited nearby. He knew it was – hers was a voice he knew well. His face twitched instinctively. “Hey Mika,” he said through a nervous laugh.

Mika nodded her head in satisfaction. “The boss was right. Under all this pressure, your Discipline has had a second awakening. It looks like you’ve broken through to eighth rank. With your genetic talent, you’ve probably already surpassed Wang Hongyuan. What he needs is to accumulate more energy, then he’ll break through as well.”

Tang Xiao smiled. “What’s the next exercise?”

“The complete the routine in the sim pods.” Under Mika’s instruction, Tang Xiao quickly gathered himself and entered the program.

The first to finish the initial leg was Tan Lingyun. She completed the simulation in one day and four hours. Four thousand high-speed commands – she felt like she needed to puke.

Then the second leg started.

“Complete in sequence: eight-directional movement commands. If you fail, the exercise starts over.”

The four commands from earlier became eight. There were no specifications on how many times this would be needed, only that missing one would start the whole thing over.

Of course, when the arrows appeared they did so significantly faster.

The program AI was constructed to modulate speed, determined by how well they did in the first section. Tan

Lingyun, therefore, had to perform at her peek capabilities from the very beginning.

In total, the sim lessons numbered eight, and all of them were concerned with fundamentals. That did not mean, though, that they would be easy.

Hua LI had only given Lan Jue and Chu Cheng a basic overview of the training method. Even with just the cursory information, they were excited. With every success, they were met with an even meaner procedure to overcome.

Once their bodies were beaten down, it was time to torture the mind.

Some of the students tried to ease off during training, and sneak in a rest. However, if they failed to react within three seconds, ear-piercing sirens would sound and their laziness would be broadcast to every pod. “Lightning to keep you awake! You want to be lazy? Hah!”

ζ

A week passed. The students were revealed for lunch every day, and every day they looked paler. They could barely keep their eyes open. However as much as they burned for rest, Zeus’ Amazons wouldn’t allow it. Under the beautiful women’s supervision, as soon as their meals were done the students were right back in the pods. Hua Li and Lan Jue, meanwhile, where nowhere to be seen.

Other than his responsibilities in etiquette class, and his weekly visits to Grace hospital, Lan Jue spent the majority of his time in DreamNet training with Hua Li.

The results were clear and pronounced. He felt as though he was returned to his peak, three years ago. He was pushing himself hard, and there were no small numbers of reminders as to why. The last few days, advertisements for the Dreamburg god battle where being blasted to every corner of the Three Alliances. It was shaping up to be a widely-viewed event, to say the least.

DreamNet was preparing for the intense load, and had a lot to do in preparation. Advertisements where everywhere, for anyone who logged in. Highlights from the previous god-battles were on a constant loop. Their opponents were left a mystery, revealed only as ‘Unknown’ to the curious.

Four versus five, so far that was the only news they had on the fight. The Four Divine Monarchs, against five enigmatic challengers. Who would emerge victorious? There was no shortage of opinion on the matter, and a vote was arranged.

The Monarchs held an overwhelming majority. Eighty percent.

Over the last several years, no one had really heard anything from the Divine Monarchs. However, their names still remained top of the lists in Sanctuary. Any and all news about them was still immediately disseminated – they were superstars.

Lan Jue sat cross-legged within his Avenue warehouse, meditating peacefully. Likewise lost in introspection was Hua Li, sat beside him in a black flight suit.

In his tight-fitting clothes, with his handsome face and pretty hair, it was a blessing no fans were nearby. Surely they wouldn’t be able to contain themselves if they saw their idol in such daring garb. Poseidon truly was something.

“It’s time,” Hua Li said, opening his eyes and looking toward Lan Jue.

Lan Jue nodded. Indeed he was right, it was time. The god- battle was here.

The two young men rose as one, and walked across the warehouse in silence. Wordlessly, they entered their sim pods, and booted in to DreamNet. There was a flash of light, and their monitors revealed Dreamburg. They were already in Sanctuary.

Almost immediately they felt the weight of a million viewers on them. It hung thick in the air like a mist. In Sanctuary alone, there were over a hundred mecha pilots of all styles, watching with bated breath.

Lan Jue and his companion shared a glance. This was quite the scene to be greeted with.

Everyone one of the spectators in Dreamburg were god-class pilots! In all the Alliances added together, there were perhaps three hundred god-ranked pilots on record. About half were here now.

The Divine Monarchs would have been familiar with several of them, having been former competitors. Others were unknown. More than a few glared with open hostility.

“Zeus. Poseidon. You finally decide to join us. This is quite the spectacle we have today! They say the victor gets an s-ranked power gem. Are you thinking of selling it?” The offer came from a man with a strange, jocular voice.

Lan Jue spied the voice’s origin, coming from a small and frail individual. The man stood before them, with abnormally long arms folded across his chest. His face was hidden behind a clown mask. The fingers resting on his biceps twitched and jerked restlessly.

“Knave. It’s been a long time.” Lan Jue called back amicably.

“Indeed it has,” the tiny man responded. “What has kept you so busy these last few years? Why haven’t we seen you? You know I’ve been waiting for a rematch since forever. We really should, losing is not something I’m comfortable with.”

Lan Jue chuckled. “When we get a chance maybe. Unless you’re one of our opponents today.”

“Take a guess,” the clown chortled mirthfully.

“I think not,” Lan Jue said. “Truth be told I hope you aren’t!”

The Knave shrugged. “Unfortunately, your wish is not granted. I won’t go easy on you, later.”

“You’re really participating?” Both Lan Jue and Hua Li asked simultaneously. Both of their faces adopted a distinct shade of displeasure at the revelation. Thankfully, their masks hid it.

He was a strange looking man, and yet not. He even had a name, simple and yet not. In reality he was one of Dreamburg’s strongest denizens.

And, the fastest hand-speed on record. The Knave liked to boast that no one knew how fast his hands actually were.

Lan Jue, meanwhile, was fourth on the leader boards with eighty-seven commands per second. And the clown? One hundred and three. There really was nothing  –  man  or otherwise – with faster hands than he.

He and the Knave had indeed fought once, here in DreamNet. It had been one of his most trying ordeals. He could still

remember struggling to keep up, but more important the Knave was the only person he’d ever seen who could properly employ three dopplegangers.

There were disadvantages to having too fast a speed, though. He sometimes had difficulty controlling his hands as they worked at higher speeds. Lan Jue had won their exchange by analyzing the Knave’s habitual movements. He’d gambled on it, and the gamble had paid off.

In the end, the Knave occupied number ten on the lists of Sanctuary’s strongest pilots.

At this point, Lan Jue’s hand speed had increased substantially, but no matter the change it was still a far cry from what this clown was capable of.

Although single battles were different from team fights, having the Knave on your enemy’s team was a nightmare the Divine Monarchs would have to face.

Chapter 270: Prelude

So it was, upon learning of the Knave’s presence on the opposing teams, both Lan Jue and Hua Li’s expressions darkened.

The Divine Horsemen numbered four, remember. But they wouldn’t be facing an even competitor – the challenging team had five. If the Knave was any indication, the others on his team were likely to be just as frightening.

“Other than you, who else can we expect?” Lan Jue inquired.

“It’s a secret.” The Knave cackled at them. “I can’t tell you! But don’t worry, you’ll find out soon. Anyway, they’re all old friends. You have nothing to worry about. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think I’ll go warm up my fingers.”

Old friends? It was the last thing Lan Jue and Hua Li wanted to hear. At the very least, ‘old friends’ meant they were just as strong – if not stronger – than that smug clown. The battle was looking to be more difficult than they anticipated.

“A-Jue… it looks like maybe that DreamNet Guardian is

determined to have us lose.” Hua Li muttered quietly.

Lan Jue had already recovered from the unpleasant shock of the Knave’s revelation. He addressed his friend calmly. “Don’t think too much. We have to face the situation objectively, and tactfully. The Knave’s appearance was a game. They’re trying to get in our heads, so no matter what we encounter we must keep our composure. Come on, with the big guy on our side, what do we have to be anxious about?”

“Ngh.” Hua Li nodded once, and said nothing more.

There was a flash of red, then, and a silhouette appeared directly before them. It was Chu Cheng, garbed in the regalia of his avatar – Hades.

“Here.” Hua Li instructed.

Chu Cheng turned to pinpoint his friend’s voice, then approached. “What’s up?” he asked. “Are you guys all set? I’m here to whoop some ass. So you guys back me up, right. I’m looking for a pentakill. Solid?”

Hua Li gave him a flat look. “The Knave is one of the challengers. How’s that pentakill looking now?”

Chu Cheng stared at Hua Li for a moment, stunned. “The Knave? I thought he was gone from Dreamburg ages ago. He was always on about ‘Oh my name will be legendary – that’s enough for me!’”

Lan Jue reiterated his assurances. “It doesn’t matter who we’re facing. Our power as a group is oppressive. The stronger our enemies, the harder we’re going to fight.”

Chu Cheng chortled with sinister mirth. “No doubt. If the sky were falling, the big guy would be there to hold it up, amiright? Speaking of, where is the guy? You think he forgot?”

“You’re confusing me with yourself.” The deep, somewhat terrifying voice came from behind Chu Cheng.

Hades’ face froze. He slowly, slowly turned around. Clad in a jasper flight suit, hidden behind a cyan mask, was Prometheus.

He approached the other Divine Monarchs. Hades, Zeus,

Poseidon and Prometheus stood in a circle, facing one another. Prometheus waved his right hand, and they were cut off from the outside world by an orb of cyan light.

“It’s time to discuss tactics.” There was no greeting, no small talk. Strategy was first and foremost – such was the Military temperament.

Lan Jue and the others were accustomed to it. In fact, they’d be worried if he’d said hello.

The number of spectators in Dreamburg’s Sanctuary was growing by the second. By now there must have been close to two hundred.

It was true that the fight was due to be broadcast to every household in the Three Alliances, but what could be better than watching this ‘in person’? However, only god-level pilots with exceptionally deep pockets were going to have the option.

These were some of the most illustrious mecha pilots in all the known universe competing in DreamNet. This moment was the culmination of a month’s excitement, and the realization of many mecha combat fans’ dreams.

The pre-show was already underway. A series of one-on-one battles were conducted to rev the crowd up for the main event. They, too, were god-ranked pilots. DreamNet had spared no effort or expense on making this a visual spectacle.

The majority of those present, however, deigned not to observe the pre-show. They were only here for one thing.

ζ

NEU, West Hill.

The training proceeded, like an unstoppable raging inferno. The students had long forgotten how long they’d been locked in these damn pods. They’d forgotten how much they wanted to join this training… before they knew what it would entail.

Zeus’ Four Amazons were also in the simulation, though they were there to witness the games. They had recording equipment ready, and planned to share it with the students when all was said and done. They had to focus on finishing their tasks, first.

The pre-show was something to behold. There were two

mecha pilots currently battling, both god-ranked, and masterful in their control of their suits. Each expertly-executed maneuver set the crowd to cheering. They were really showing off what it meant to be a god-ranked pilot.

However, from what the Amazons could tell they didn’t really have their hearts in it. They waited in silence for their boss to reveal himself.

In regards to the Amazons’ relative power levels, Mika was the strongest. Next was Lin Guoguo, and the two of them were both ninth level. Ke’er and Xiuxiu were more or less even, though the blue-haired Northern beauty was perhaps slightly further along. After all she, like Lan Jue, was a dual-Disciplined Adept. Xiuxiu’s strongest manifestation was as the Ashura godblade, Zeus’ weapon. Once she changed, she had no control over how her power was employed.

So essentially, this meant Xiuxiu was the weakest of the four.

But that was with regards to Talent. Mecha piloting was another matter. The order was turned on its head when the suits were involved. Having grown up in the Dark Citadel, forced to train for ascension to take over as Satan, Mika started late. She was a Sovereign-class pilot at present.

Lin Guoguo and Ke’er were similarly situated here. Since their Disciplines were unique, they were also late to the piloting game. They were also Sovereign pilots. There was only one god- ranked pilot in Lan Jue’s coterie, and that was Xiuxiu.

Xiuxiu and her mecha Ashura were like a natural fit, a force to reckoned with. Though it was not as fine as Thor, it was like its appendage. Anyone who knew him understood one important fact; with the Ashura Blade-Maiden at his side, Zeus was a terrifying opponent.

Xiuxiu had spent her life with Lan Jue, growing alongside him, training as he did. In fact, for mecha combat she actually trained with him together. She eventually slowed in comparison, largely because she was genetically inferior. Her status as a god-ranked pilot, though, was well deserved.

At present, all four of Zeus’ special ladies watched nervously in the darkness of their sim pods.

Over the last month, there had been no way to escape the prominent advertisements for the god battle. Though it never seemed to trouble Lan Jue, the same couldn’t be said for his Amazons.

At least half of the two-hundred billion residents of the Three Alliances had their eyes glued to their screens. This wasn’t going to be easily-won glory. For the Divine Monarchs, the significance of this event was enormous. How could these four girls, so invested in their employer, not be nervous?

Who on earth would be Zeus’ opponents? They had been spending a great deal of time ruminating on the question.

“Why aren’t they starting yet? There have been three pre- show fights already, so I guess it should be soon.” Ke’er whined through the closed-circuit connection the four women shared.

Lin Guoguo’s voice crackled through her speakers. “Soon. Have you seen the viewer numbers? Over one hundred billion people are logged in to DreamNet’s feed. It’s crazy! One billion have paid the fee for a VIP connection. This has got to be a record, right?”

The VIP feed was available to anyone with the money to pay. It allowed them multi-angle viewing of the action as it happened, including focus on the competitor of their choice. For fans of the Divine Monarchs, this was a dream come true. DreamNet knew this, and the cost for such a privilege was nothing sort of astronomical.

Mika snorted. “Don’t be in such a rush. Should be any minute. When they organized it, DreamNet’s people said it was to encourage interest in mecha piloting. It’s no surprise they’ll hype it up even further by dragging it out. According to the paperwork, this fight should be the best of five. It’s sure to satiate the viewers. I really hope the boss and them go three and out – really rub it in their faces!”

Xiuxiu’s voice was anxious. “It’ll be hard. When you got to their level of proficiency, even in five-on-five fights victory can be decided by the slightest mistake. The most important information right now is who is fighting who, and in that their enemies have an advantage. They know the Divine Monarchs very well, but boss and the others have no idea. They’re also DreamNet guardians, so they know every detail about the Monarchs and their tactics. Their strategies will absolutely take that in to account, and will be tailored specifically to tear them down. This isn’t even considering their  numbers  advantage. This will probably be very difficult. Without a chance at victory, the DreamNet guardians would never have set this whole thing up.”

“Xiuxiu’s right,” Mika replied. “But we should have faith in the boss. If there’s one thing he excels at, its pulling off the impossible. He’s like a geyser: the more pressure he’s under, the greater he’ll burst out in the end.”

Mika’s words were followed immediately by Ke’ers excited yelp. “They’re starting!”

Sure enough, the third and final pre-fight was finished. A purple mecha had completely routed its enemy for the victory. The entire arena was suddenly bathed in a soothing, golden light.

“Ladies and gentlemen. Hello, and welcome… to DreamNet.” The alluring female voice arose from all directions. Everyone stopped what they were doing to listen.

The voice was clear as a bell, and had a very noble quality. It was a voice that was hard to forget. Even if you listened carefully, it was impossible to find a flaw. It was the voice of every young man’s dreams.

Just then, a column of light descended from the skies. A figure slowly descended from within.

She was a woman, pale and stunningly beautiful. A flowing, aqua blue dress covered her alluring figure. Her long dark hair flowed freely.

Her face bore no expression, even though the attention of billions of people were directed her way. Her hands her held lightly, crossed before her waist in genteel fashion. Every portion, every movement was the very definition of refinement.

“I, am Mo Xiao. It has been a long time.” She offered a dainty curtsey, and her face adopted the faintest ghost of a smile. The sheer aesthetic beauty of it was reflected in the doe-eyes of every young man in attendance.

“It’s her!” Xiuxiu exclaimed.

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