Skyfire Avenue Chapter 281-290

Chapter 281: Doppelgangers

Windbreaker was struck dumb with surprise. He was ready, waiting to strike the killing blow on Thor. But when he arrived it wasn’t Thor in front of him, nor any explosion from the collision of their two powers. Instead it was the deflected breath weapon of his own companion heading straight for him. Before he had time to react, the strike rammed against his own shield of compressed air. Thor, now separated in to two identical images, simply went around.

In short, both Thor and Bahamut were assaulting the beleaguered Windbreaker.

But that palm strike…

How was it that Bahamut’s breath weapon could be so easily deflected? Controlled? It was the primary question running through Yu Honghu’s mind as he helplessly watched the interaction.

Thor would not be answering his question. As for his strike, it already reached a target, just not the one he wanted.

However, Windbreaker was not your average pilot. Twentieth on the aggregate power lists, he was among some of the most talented pilots there were. That’s why, in the face of such sudden and dangerous changes to the field of battle, he kept his cool. Suddenly, a white light erupted from the mecha and surrounded it, as the brunt of Bahamut’s attack struck it head on. Wave upon wave of compressed air rushed out to meet it, and the resulting shockwave succeeded in deflecting the dangerous energy away.

Windbreaker’s entire metal frame had, by this time, become a brilliant titanium white, blazing with the power of a small sun. The atmosphere around it warped and distorted uncomfortably.

This was a powerful skill unique to Windbreaker: Airburst. It was a maneuver that was simultaneously offensive and defensive in nature, with the capability of creating a powerful single-front shield and obliterating anyone too close to the blast radius. It was an effective martial tactic. He’d used it once in another god-ranked battle after grabbing his opponent. The resulting, violent explosion left nothing remaining of his competitor. Considering the situation he faced now, Windbreaker undoubtedly made the right decision.

The most upsetting revelation was how quickly Thor turned the two of them against each other. It was two on one, but even

a trade of Thor for one of theirs wasn’t something they could afford.

But while he released the Airburst, Windbreaker’s face changed sitting there in the darkness of his sim pod. Thor still hadn’t attacked directly, coaxing the two mirror images around him like a stone in a river. He fused back in to one once he’d passed windbreaker’s sphere of influence, and rushed directly toward Bahamut.

“Beautiful! A flawless deception against Windbreaker by Thor, giving him a chance to take on Bahamut one on one. Now he’s got the path open for a charge.” Mo Xiao cried her expert analysis rapidly over the scene.

Yu Honghu, upon seeing Thor revert back to one suit and charge his way, was understandably alarmed. It was all he could do before Thor arrived within melee range.

In no time at all, Thor had turned a two on one encounter around so he had the upper hand. No one had expected it to happen, especially so fast. Zeus; display wasn’t just of power, but of experience, intent and control as well.

After the last fight, watching his brother’s remarkable sacrifice, Zeus was ready to give it all he had. The experience coaxed him to reveal every bit of ability he possessed.

His hand speed soared to over ninety CPS. Creating doppelgangers as Thor just had looked easy, but it was impossible for anyone with a hand speed under eighty-five. On the lists of fasted hand speed, Zeus sat at number four. But that list didn’t take in to account his most recent improvements.

Thor’s lightning spear, appearing now in its hands, lashed out. The strike spawned countless shadow images, creating a forest of deadly strikes aimed right at Bahamut.

The dragon mecha’s specialties lay in battlefield control and local support. Relying on his mobility and powerful standard attacks, Bahamut was an integral addition to support his allies.

However, one on one he wasn’t so powerful. Of the four other members of his Star Alliance team, he was certainly weakest in this regard. Thor was right on top of him, so even with his speed advantage he didn’t have the time to employ it. All he could do was face what was coming.

The two dragon’s heads began to spurt plumes of energy. The red emulsion swept around the suit and congealed to form a light shield, in the hopes of deflecting Thor’s melee onslaught. Bahamut’s powerful strikes were long-ranged, and not calibrated for close-combat. Windbreaker’s first priority had to be making sure Thor didn’t get too close.

Thor appeared to grow denser as Windbreaker watched, and the myriad spear strikes all melted in to one. Zeus’ massive mecha suddenly erupted with color of its own, disappearing in a golden orb and stretched cone-shaped as Thor launched itself forward. Like a golden comet, the towering mecha collided viciously with Bahamut’s shield.

“Boltcutter!” Mo Xiao exclaimed.

Much like Thor’s Hammer, Boltcutter was one of Zeus’ unique abilities. Its purpose was to break through, like a hardened ballistic missile.

Bahamut’s shield parted, offering little more protection that a shell of warm butter, like it was hardly there at all. The dragon mech wrenched itself to the side, and brought its long tail over like a hammer.

But Thor was ready, once again displaying his mastery of the craft. He anticipated Bahamut’s defense, and his response dropped the jaws of every onlooker.

Once again, Thor split in to two Instead of splitting left to right, however, this time it was above and below.

“Staggered doppelgangers! Wow!”

Creating the doppelganger illusion one on top of the other was particularly difficult, even when compared with the traditional left-right formation. This was due to the powerful weightlessness the pilot felt while performing it. The physical cost and hand speed required were on a different level.

The masterfully performed maneuver allowed Thor to completely avoid Bahamut’s tail. His lightning spear crackled as it swung through the air, and caught Bahamut’s tail in its center.

As the spear connected, it immediately infused Bahamut with countless coiling bolts of golden lightning. Windbreaker, meanwhile, had just finished deflecting his friend’s breath weapon with an Airburst. It turned to come to Bahamut’s

rescue.

Thor didn’t look back. It thrust its left hand backward, and from the mechanical palm shot out an orb of roiling electric power. It tore through the air toward Windbreaker, and if one looked closely they could see an electric hammer simmering in the orb’s heart.

“Empowered Thor’s Hammer!”

Windbreaker froze. Before these fights had started, he and his companions had broken down the Four Monarch’s abilities. He was particularly familiar with Thor’s Hammer. Up until today, any opponent of Thor’s who encountered the Hammer, never once pulled away to victory.

When the Hammer came, all you could do was run. It was a well-known fact in Dreamburg.

Windbreaker’s form shimmered, and then it also fractured in to two doppelgangers in the hopes of avoiding Thor’s Hammer. His hope was to do as Thor had – split, avoid, merge while keeping his speed up. But his hand speed simply wasn’t fast enough…

He only had one choice. Dodge, and make a mad rush to save his friend.

The golden orb expanded, and eventually detonated in mid- air. Hundreds upon thousands of lightning bolts lashed out like furious snakes, while thunder rolled all around them. Windbreaker had no way to approach without getting struck.

Thor never turned to watch his rear flank, he didn’t need to. The spear strikes had set Bahamut off balance, who tried to rise above the kill zone. Golden light enveloped the mecha.

As he did, the skies darkened. From on high, suddenly and with frightening power, a lightning bolt easily five times the size of an average mecha came crashing down. Seven times this occurred, all of them in the same spot.

Eventually, the chaotic burst that was Thor’s Hammer subsided. From the ground below, another light flared to life, this one a deep violet. It took off for the skies.

Thor’s Starfall! Bahamut was no more!

Only a few seconds had passed since the fight started, no longer than the time it took to settle in to one’s seat. It had started two on one, but Thor already dispatched one of his enemies.

Although Thor had shown quite a powerful display in the first battle, he’d held back due to Prometheus’ presence, and his battlefield control. Now, he was making a statement: It was I who climbed these Sanctuary Lists! See my power! His place on the power lists was no longer indicative of his real abilities.

Windbreaker stopped his headlong rush. Alone in his sim pod, the pilot scowled as an unprecedented sense of repression hung over him. Thor was a terrifying force to reckon with.

The remains of Bahamut fell to the ground in smoldering pieces, while Thor rose to the heavens. Sunlight glinted off of the polished sapphire frame, highlighting the lack of damage.

Thor didn’t even stop to pause as its trajectory began to swing it back down. It’s next target – Windbreaker.

The Calming Wind took a deep, long breath as though coaxing more air from his legs. He fought to adopt the emotional state of

his moniker. The mecha’s thick arms splayed out, and once again that white light shone outward as the atmosphere around it condensed.

The other three spawn points were also hot-spots of action, replete with explosions and waves of power as the god pilots clashed. For the first time, many of the audience members were beginning to understand the power a god-ranked pilot commanded. As they looked on, strikes powerful enough to obliterate space stations were exchanged with inhuman speed. Only fifteen seconds had passed since the start, but in that time three pilots had fallen.

The first had been Bahamut, but Poseidon and the Knave quickly followed.

Starlord had handled Poseidon masterfully, escaping the confrontation unscathed. Prometheus had dealt with Windshade, but it cost him one of his moonblades.

Only Thunderclap and Cerberus remained in stalemate.

The main screen remained trained on Thor and Windbreaker. By the time the audience had reacted to what was happening,

the other two fights were already finished.

CAT sales continued to rise. After all, the audience barely had time to register what was happening with Thor. How could they see the others?

The victorious combatants, Prometheus and Starlord, both raced toward the map’s center where Chang’E’s statue awaited.

In the previous fight, teamwork had been integral. However, as most pilots knew, Chang’E’s domain forced combatants to focus more on individual encounters. In this competition it was impractical for everyone to try and meet in the center for a team fight. It was in part due to this that Chang’E’s Domain fell out of favor for competitive matches.

Starlord looked to have the advantage here, due to faster flight speeds. Prometheus was a fraction of a second behind. Both of them could have chosen to aid their respective allies, but they didn’t. Taking charge of the map’s center, to them, was the most important thing.

Chapter 282: Shrewd And Ruthless Starlord

Starlord was the first to reach Chang’E’s statue. Under the dim moonlight, Deimos’ mecha became an indistinct shape in the shadows, until it eventually vanished altogether.

Not a moment later, Prometheus found his way to the map’s center as well. The area was blanketed in an ominous silence as the two competitors shut off their main engines to maintain stealth.

Neither Deimos nor Prometheus had seen each other since the fight’s beginning. The audience, however, had a bird’s eye view of everything. They could see every movement from the two team captains.

Each had taken position in a corner and, with their engines dark, looked very much like statues themselves. There they sat in silence, waiting… waiting for the others to come searching.

Hades and Thunderclap were still duking it out, with Cerberus’ pilot facing an uphill battle. Aside from Starlord, Thunderclap was the strongest pilot in the Star Alliance. Some would say stronger even than his rival, Zeus.

But Hades was stronger than Thunderclap predicted. By the time Thunderclap claimed victory, half of its frame was destroyed beyond recognition. Cerberus’ Hellfire Cannon had grazed him, and the result was a left leg and arm that were now puddles of molten metal. Thunderclap, while still motive, was essentially castrated after their clash.

More surprising was Thor and Windbreaker’s fight, which had just concluded. Everyone’s attention was on Coeus and Starlord, and so did not see the thrilling conclusion.

After finishing off Bahamut, Zeus turned the momentum toward Windbreaker, who had since recovered from his earlier hopelessness. The mecha’s shell of compressed air surrounded a sizeable swath around it, and waves of it battered Thor from all directions. His head was clear, and his tactics simple.

Windbreaker knew that Thor came out the other end of his conflict with Bahamut unscathed, however he must have expended a fair amount of energy by this point. And this was so. Sustaining against such powerful strikes couldn’t be done indefinitely, and so Windbreaker was determined to keep up the pressure. He would rely on these strikes to keep up the pressure on Thor, eventually exhausting it.

The area within three hundred meters of Windbreaker warped nauseatingly, like the air was boiling. Zeus could feel the increased atmospheric pressure crushing Thor from all directions.

Zeus was restraining his suit’s speed. He was finding it difficult to see Windbreaker through the undulating air. This was one of Windbreaker’s specialties – Atmospheric Refraction! Not only did the compressed air apply pressure to the enemy, it also hid him as the thickening atmosphere refracted light. It was almost as effective as cloaking.

This ability meant Windbreaker had no need to rush for the statue. It could hide itself wherever it chose to.

Thor came to a halt in the air, the errant bolts of electricity that always surrounded him quieting down. Both hands clutched the shaft of its spear, as Zeus quietly searched for any indication of his enemy. Lan Jue empowered his shields, in anticipation of an attack as well as to help ward off the buffeted blasts of compressed air.

Windbreaker appeared suddenly at Thor’s back, silent as the grave. He did not rush forward, but instead coaxed his mecha to approach from low altitude. Then, the mecha’s thick

mechanical arms reached out to grab Thor’s legs.

It was a well-planned angle of attack. Hidden approach, hard to anticipate, and difficult to break out of.

Windbreaker was executing his plan. Honor would be recovered by succeeding in where he’d failed before. The moment he managed to grapple Thor, the rest of his plan went in to motion; increase the atmospheric pressure until one or both of them were crushed. Even if he fell in the process, removing Thor from the equation was well worth it.

Thor didn’t move. It looked as though Windbreaker caught him totally by surprise.

Windbreaker’s silver hands grabbed Thor’s ankles in a vice- like grip, then pulled violently. He didn’t yet employ any real power, instead seeking to position his enemy. Thor came tumbling down.

As the sapphire mecha began to fall, Windbreaker went with him. They twisted around one another as they did so.

Something was wrong, and the moment Windbreaker sensed it he reacted. He immediately released the store of energy he’d been keeping, to release an Airburst that would end their trade. Once again, a powerful aura of white light sprang up around Windbreaker. The difference was, this time he was right in the center of the blast radius.

Thor’s lightning spear crackled as it tore through the air. It swiped viciously at the space below as they fell. But then something surprising happened, that even the god-ranked pilots who wrote battle analyses would find impressive.

In this critical moment, at the crux of victory or defeat, Thor’s spear strike was directed at his enemy. He swung his spear at himself.

The shielding for Thor’s legs disappeared and then, with a flash of the crackling spear head, they were gone. In an all-out slash of its spear, Thor cut its own feet off at the ankles. The force of the strike knocked it up and away from Windbreaker.

Thor’s enemy continued to fall, gripping impotently at the mangled feet. It was too late. The air around it erupted as Windbreaker’s Airburst was released.

Thor’s speed and maneuverability were hampered by the loss of its feet and the thrusters beneath them, but it was still enough for it to avoid Windbreaker’s last gasp.

A violent, staggering explosion of violet energy burst in to bloom directly on top of the Star Alliance powerhouse. Thor’s Hammer!

Boooom! The impact force stunned Windbreaker, making him unable to control his mecha. The audience gasped as they saw streamers of golden light spurt out from Thor’s back. Its weapon glowed with a similarly potent aura, and fired it out at its foe.

In less than a second, Thor executed seven simultaneous thrusts. Each one found its target.

With a loud explosion, windbreaker was reduced to debris. Pieces of the defeated suit fell to earth in a fiery display. It was no longer a threat to the God of Lightning.

In the sim pod, Lan Jue’s face bore an ice-cold and obstinate expression. He wasted no time, directing his mangled suit toward the moonlit statue at the map’s center. Sparks flew

incessantly from the mangled remains of its legs.

In a straight, one-on-one fight, there was a distinct disparity between Windbreaker and Thor. Trying to finish off Zeus in a short time was exceedingly difficult. Sometimes you have to lose some to win it all, and Zeus knew this. He might have lost his mecha’s feet, but after his flagrant display he remained alive and ready to support his team.

His enemy could always have defended against his attacks, but Thor’s feet couldn’t. Who could have suspected that such a high-ranking mecha pilot would actually choose self- mutilation? The feet were an integral part of any mecha construction, after all.

Without the stability and thrusters, Thor’s combat power dropped to perhaps sixty percent. It was simply the price he had to pay to keep going. But when it came to Chang’E’s Domain, no one had more success. The proof was right in front  of everyone’s eyes. Two on one, and in the end Thor emerged victorious!

He also proved to the audience that the Four Divine Monarch’s strength wasn’t just in cooperation. They were nearly as strong apart as they were together.

The last three years had been rough on Lan Jue, but not crippling. After the events of Tai Hua, he returned changed – stronger, calmer, and more detached. He had matured as a combatant.

Meanwhile, Thunderclap had managed to finally make it to Chang’E with some effort. Judging by the damage, however, it didn’t look as though he would be a threat.

Two against two. The audience held their breath as they waited to see who would win this nail-biting exchange.

The tension was palpable. Zeus and Prometheus separately were demons on the field. Together, their fans were sure they could overcome anything. But that’s what was said in the last fight, when Starlord turned the tables and took the win right out from under them. Could it happen again?

No one knew. But they were all anxious to see how this decisive battle would end.

Thor arrived sooner than Thunderclap, having sustained less damage. When the statue came in to Zeus’ view, his communicator crackled to life. Lan Qing’s calm voice outlined

the next part of their strategy.

Just then, something caught Zeus’ attention. There wa something glinting on top of Chang’E’s statue. He noticed that the light released by the statue was stronger. Originally it’s stealth field covered five hundred meters in any direction. Now it felt much farther.

This was…

No, it’s not moonlight! He came to the realization just as an intense beam of energy came hurtling toward him. Thor flew headlong in to it.

Nearby, a figure went up in a blaze of light. Lan Qing’s voice went silent on the other end of the communicator. Lan Jue watched as his screen went dark.

“Winner: Star Alliance!”

It was over? Skyfire Avenue’s Jewelry Master sat in stunned silence. What had happened? How could he have been so handily defeated?

How could they have lost, a second time?

Even if they hadn’t have had the upper hand, they should have at least had a chance at victory!

Lan Jue’s self-pitying reverie was cut short when his brother’s voice came through the pod’s communicator. “The fault wasn’t with you. It was me. Starlord self-destructed, blowing all of the power gems in his suit. I underestimated the time it would take for him to initiate the meltdown. He didn’t hesitate. What’s more, it seems like his suit’s energy matched perfectly with the moonlight from the statue. The primeval energy it was releasing covered the power from the statue, and we couldn’t tell the difference.”

Indeed, from what the audience could puzzle out, Starlord, Prometheus and Zeus were all destroyed simultaneously. In the end, only the half-destroyed Thunderclap remained alive.

That put the Star Alliance up two victories. One more, and the Divine Monarchs would lose their crown.

Chapter 283: Evolution And Retirement

In the eyes of the audience, there was no satisfaction to be had in this fight. The comment section was a plethora of curses and unmitigated irritation. Deimos had lead his Star Alliance to victory, but in the hearts of the onlookers the Divine Monarchs were the real winners. Thor’s valiant showing was proof, defeating both Bahamut and Windbreaker with nothing but his own abilities. It left quite a profound impression.

Since when was Deimos reduced to relying on self-destruction to win a straight fight? All he had to do was hide in the concealing moonlight. Any other map, he’d likely have lost terribly.

Mo Xiao was silent, her heart filled with sadness, sadness for Deimos. She was witnessing the sunset of an era. The Starlord was too old now, and had to use cheap tactics to obtain the upper hand.

Just then, a smooth and sultry voice filled everyone’s sim pods.

“Ladies and gentlemen, salutations. This is Deimos.”

Eight words were enough to command absolute silence from everyone.

Why was the Deimos speaking after these two fights? According to DreamNet’s policies, he shouldn’t be interrupting a competition.

Did it have something to do with his actions?

He continued. “Of your five matches, two have been completed. I have two announcements to make. The first concerns myself, and the second all of DreamNet.”

With this news, many of the audience members began to panic. What did the best mecha pilot the universe had ever known want to say? Even before his disappearance, Deimos was famously tight-lipped.

“We will begin with the first. After today’s competition, regardless of the outcome, I will be retiring from DreamNet. These will be my last fights.”

Last fights? This hero of a bygone era was retiring, which

meant his name would be stricken from all the lists. He would fade in to history.

Several in the comments section grumbled about the hypocrisy of this announcement after winning two fights. Deimos went on.

“For the second matter, I represent DreamNet in making the announcement. After today, DreamNet will be down for three months. With the exception of some universities and private simulators, all public pods will be collected and recycled. But don’t worry, everything be back. DreamNet will be taking this time to upgrade its services to all of the Alliances, ushering in a new era for this generation’s pilots.”

The shock of Deimos’ retirement was already a news-worthy item. The addition of DreamNet’s shutdown and subsequent upgrade caused an uproar.

Roughly a hundred years had passed since DreamNet’s founding. Throughout its run, the system had constantly undergone upgrades, but they were largely procedural adjustments. Never once had the entire network needed to be shut down like this. For three months, DreamNet would be unavailable.

In truth there were several gaming networks that were analogous to DreamNet. Were they not afraid of being surpassed by the competition? Then there were the true fans, who took DreamNet for granted. For many this was a second home. How could they close their home for three months? How could they get used to it?

Deimos was not finished. “I imagine many of you find this strange, maybe upsetting. Why would this upgrade need such a large-scale operation, even recycling all of its sim pods? I’ll tell you. This upgrade will bring DreamNet in to the future, an upgrade that will change everything. After the new pods have been installed, they will allow users to employ their Discipline in the simulations themselves. However strong your Talent, DreamNet will render it in real time. Finally, Adepts can compete in a safe place, holding nothing back so that they may learn and improve with one another. Of course, this includes mecha piloting, and all suits will thus be able to sustain and utilize its pilot’s powers. To punctuate this another way, DreamNet and the real world will end up with an eighty-five percent compatibility after these upgrades are complete. Afterwards, pilots can rely on DreamNet for all of their training needs.”

Discipline Simulation? Deimos hardly had time to finish before the comments section exploded.

In truth, an upgrade like this had been rumored for a long time, though it was largely conjecture. No one could have anticipated that the announcement for such a revolutionary upgrade would be made during this god-ranked battle.

And it wasn’t just the audience, even the Divine Monarchs were stunned by the revelations.

Lan Jue’s first reaction was that of admiration. DreamNet had chosen a spectacular moment to reveal their future plans. It was likely DreamNet had never enjoyed an audience like the one they had today, and then choosing the famous Deimos as their mouthpiece made the announcement that much more hard- hitting. It made everyone excited for the three-month hiatus.

However, intermingled with that admiration was indignation. The DreamNet guardians never revealed any of this to them. Instead they had claimed this exchange was to raise the fighting power for all of humanity, in preparation for invading foreign foes.

The other three Monarchs had similar thoughts. They had been fooled. None of this was something they wanted or agreed to.

Deimos’ voice was still speaking through their communicators. “Presumably you are all wondering how this will affect combat in DreamNet going forward. You needn’t wonder: our next fight will be using the new system. Call it a diagnostic test.”

“A-Jue, what the hell is going on?” Hua Li’s voice interrupted the broadcast. He had been told earlier about the new pods.

Alone in his pod, Lan Jue shook his head. “I have no idea. I was never told any of this.”

“Where do they get off making this sort of decision for us?” This time it was Chu Cheng, his voice thick with irritation.

Before he could answer, a voice from outside the pod caught Lan Jue’s attention.

“Come on out a second,” the voice implored. It was strangely familiar. Shocked at who he knew to be outside, Lan Jue disconnected from DreamNet and opened the pod.

Outside stood a man in formal attire, with a wig and a

glimmering scepter. It was the Wine Master.

“Wine Master? What are you doing here,” Lan Jue asked in surprise.

In lieu of response, the Paragon waved his scepter. There was a flash of silver light, and suddenly two new sim pods appeared where there had been nothing.

Compared to the original pods, these were about twice as large. The quality of the materials used looked amazing. By now Hua Li had also exited his pod, and looked quizzically at the Wine Master.

The Wine Master looked at the two of them for a moment, then began to speak in his traditionally quiet voice. “Deimos’ announcement was a spur-of-the-moment decision. This wasn’t part of the plan when you two were being recruited for the task. It was supposed to be a simple competition. There was no time to bring you all in to the loop. We hope you forgive the circumstances. We ask that you use these pods for the next fight.”

Lan Jue couldn’t help but scowl as the Wine Master explained

the situation. “What’s the meaning of this? Is there some sort of relationship between DreamNet and Skyfire Avenue,” he asked, his voice clearly revealing displeasure.

The Wine Master answered with a nod. “Not just the Avenue. The Three Alliance, the Conclave, even the two Citadels. All of us are in constant contact with DreamNet. Since the beginning the network has been run by those in power. Considering the circumstances, this upgrade is absolutely imperative. We just didn’t expect things to be ready so quickly. Once the Bookworm broke through to Paragon, the problems that had blocked him were overcome as well. He had a series of revelations and, with the help of the Keeper, was able to push the project through to completion. So, the DreamNet administrators had a meeting and decided now was the time. They would… borrow this event to make the announcement.”

“Everything the DreamNet Guardian told you before was true. Humanity will face an unprecedented foreign threat. The Northern Alliance has already dispatched another exploratory mission, this time with a mothership-class battle frigate fully equipped for combat. According to the situation as it stands now, the enemy can appear at any moment. This is why DreamNet is in such a hurry to get this upgrade finished. It is paramount that we do everything we can to prepare humanity for this confrontation. We hope you can understand and cooperate with the changes.”

Hua Li’s brows furrowed. “Is it correct o assume then, that you yourself are a DreamNet Guardian, your majesty?”

Once again, the Wine Master nodded. “You could say that, though it’s very rare that I show up anywhere in DreamNet. I’m not a pilot, just an Adept. After the upgrade, though, I’ll likely start making appearances.”

Lan Jue was next to speak. “This time I’ll give you face and participate. However, I do not agree that the DreamNet administration never approached us for permission before making this decision.”

The Wine Master’s normally stoic expression darkened. “You don’t agree? You have the nerve to disagree? Before you had no scruples agreeing to help the Gourmet or the Pauper with their little task. You were going to steal in to cellar and abscond with one of my treasured possessions. You don’t agree?”

Lan Jue, surprise written clear on his face, blinked at the new master of Skyfire Avenue. “The Pauper actually succeeded?”

“Those two bastards have just vanished,” the Wine Master spat confrontationally. The Pauper even had the gall to leave a

message. He said if there was a problem to call you. He probably knew I’d see you during the competition, and can settle accounts then.”

Lan Jue gave the Paragon a bitter chuckle. “But I never directly participated! I’m a victim here too you know, I didn’t even get to drink any of your precious treasure. The Gourmet, that guy, he never even told me. And he calls himself a friend.”

The Wine Master snorted furiously. “Fine, enough nonsense. Hurry up and get ready for your next fight. When all’s said and done we’re sit down.”

“What about Hades and Prometheus,” Hua Li asked.

“They’re already prepared and waiting.”

The two Monarchs climbed in to the new pods and reconnected to DreamNet. Lan Jue was prepared somewhat for the differences – after all, he’d done this before. He did note that the pod was more comfortable than the experimental design he’d used earlier. Overall it had seen some significant improvements.

Hua Li was pleasantly excited by the novelty of it. Being able to use your Discipline in DreamNet… this was no normal upgrade!

Lan Jue immediately got back in contact with Chu Cheng and Lan Qing.

“My dad brought the new pod to me. What’s all this? I’ve got no choice but to continue with this farce,” he said angrily.

Lan Qing’s words were likewise surprising to Lan Jue the most. “A few commissioned officers brought the new one to me here at Headquarters.”

Zeus went on to relate their own experience with the Wine Master.

Chapter 284: Fully Simulated Battle

“So what do you think, boss? Do we trust ‘em?” Chu Cheng asked.

The four young men were clearly struggling with discomfort over the sudden change in circumstance.

Lan Qing’s deep voice replied. “Soldiers are bound by duty, and follow commands. Headquarters has commanded I proceed. For the rest of you, the decisions are your own.”

“We go on,” Lan Jue said resolutely. “I have faith in the Wine Master, Keeper and Bookworm.”

Hua Li nodded his head. “Let’s do it. Gives us a chance to see what these things can really do. If what Deimos said is true, these things will be a huge benefit to our training. It’s a true, fully simulated battle!”

“You leave Thunderclap to me this time,” Lan Qing growled dangerously. “With my discipline, he’s in for a nasty surprise.”

A digitized voice asked the Monarchs if they were prepared to continue.

Lan Qinq answered in the negative, claiming he needed to debug. It was a new pod, and they needed to get used to it.

In the meantime, the third map was announced:

“The Dark Forest!”

Like the map before it, this was an old classic. It was comparatively complicated, with bogs, hills, rivers lakes and more dotting its surface. The Dark Forest was about the size of the previous two maps combined. There were only two spawn points, one on either side of the map. Teams spawned together, so the Dark Forest was an excellent map for any number of cooperative tactics. Of course the rugged nature of the map also meant there was considerable risk of damaging one’s suit inadvertently.

It was a very good choice as the first map to test the fully- functional sim pods.

Ten minutes later, Prometheus indicated that his team was ready to proceed.

Mo Xiao’s voice called to the audience, calm once more.

“Even with all my years as a host, I could never have anticipated an event this dramatic, this exciting. We’ve seen incredible upsets, which cut right to the heart of me. And yet, what a display of power from our beloved Poseidon!

She was practically an advertisement!

She was certainly earning her keep as Hua Li’s manager, Lan Jue though wryly. Through all of this she never once missed an opportunity to talk him up.

Her blatant plugs were the focus of quite a bit of discussion in the comments section. The fact that Poseidon was a god-ranked pilot on top of his other talents was a very widely utilized fact for both Poseidon Entertainment and the Gobi Group. It did wonders for his popularity.

Of course, it was common that a powerful pilot in DreamNet

ended up being less than stellar in reality. After all, a real master pilot used their Discipline together with their suit.

Critics and analysts have argued the fact, but many insist that DreamNet god-ranked pilots would likely be at least Sovereigns in the real world – likely on the higher end as well. They couldn’t, however, claim that every one of them would be god- ranked.

Aside from their masterful control of a mecha suit, pilots were also required to be at least ninth-ranked Talents. This was why Su He was so unwilling to state he was a god-ranked pilot.

Of course the addition of this new feature was a massive reshuffle for DreamNet. In the near future, only truly God- ranked pilots could claim the title in the simulated world! Could Poseidon really possess a ninth-level Talent? Didn’t the other Monarchs – Prometheus, Zeus, and Hades – also have to be at that level to be so successful already? And what about the Star Alliance?

A host of new and exciting questions filed the hearts of the audience. Their zeal, their enthusiasm for the coming fight was at a fever pitch.

Mo Xiao went on. “Sadly the situation is what it is, and there’s nothing I can do to change it. I am but a host, and these matters are above my capabilities. All I can do is offer my support to Poseidon, and his Divine Monarchs. I pray they come back from their two-loss deficit, and I believe they have the power to do it!”

“Both sides are ready to continue. Fight number three – the Dark Forest. Begin!”

“Three. Two. One. Commence combat.”

The screens flashed, and the audience squinted against the gloom to see the Dark Forest appear.

The Star Alliance appeared at the map’s Northern border. The Divine Monarchs were in the South.

So far, neither side revealed anything new or different after the change. As with the first two battles, so far this was all maneuverability. Both teams set out in search of the other.

As the Star Alliance pressed forward, the other members

created a circle of protection around Starlord. Bahamut served as vanguard, scouting the path.

This sort of terrain – large and difficult to see – was Bahamut’s home turf. Long range probing attacks and high-grade scanners were always big helps in any team composition.

On the other side of the forest, the Divine Monarchs had chosen a different approach. Instead of remaining together, they set out through the trees in four different directions.

Of course everyone one of the competitors knew the nuances of this map, due to its perennial status. They didn’t need to be timid, or feel out their way forward. They moved inexorably forward, toward a fated meeting in the map’s center.

The first to arrive at the center was Bahamut, who able to capably and speedily negotiate the terrain. The dragon-like suit was ever surrounded in an orb of light that alternated between blue and red, which at this time was darker than average. If one didn’t look carefully, it really could be confused for a black hydra. Were it not for the occasional flicker of the aura, no one would be able to tell its true color.

The machine cunningly swept through the area, its two heads peering in different directions.

The most emotionally effected competitor from the last match was Yu Honghu. He had been so easily fooled in a god-ranked match, in front of a full audience. Under the magnificent and terrible force of Thor’s Starfall, he’d lost. He never even had a chance to really show some force. He was determined to remedy that mistake this time.

Just then, a flash. Blue and purple intertwined as a figure appeared from the shadows.

And speak of the devil, here to open old wounds! It was none other than Thor!

Bahamut refrained from rushing in for an all-out attack. Yu Honghu’s first reaction was to report Thor’s location to the others. With the information shared, both heads released jets of energy from the maws toward the sapphire mecha.

Just as Zeus didn’t know their abilities, they didn’t know just how powerful he was. The first encounter would be seeing what each other was capable of. There was still a significant distance

between the two of them – enough for a talented pilot to flee if needed.

Two roiling balls of energy tore through the air, leaving sizzling contrails in their wake. It took no time at all for them to reach Thor, aimed just right.

Thor’s figure launched forward, sped up, and changed direction to get out of the way of Bahamut’s attack. The maneuvers were needed, for the dragon’s breath were tracer blasts. Two orbs of power stuck right to Thor’s heels, and were gaining.

Thor froze, then turned and slapped at the projectiles.

Poof! With a whimper, Bahamut’s attack was dispersed. No collision, no explosion. Thor swatted it away like one would cigarette smoke.

Discipline? What Discipline was this?

The audience stared in wide-eyed bewilderment.

Thor’s metallic eyes flashed as they looked Bahamut’s way.

But he did not charge. The sapphire mecha executed a practiced bow and then, without explanation, disengaged and fled in to the woods.

“Huh?”

Doubt flooded Yu Honghu’s mind. Thor withstood his breath attack as though it were halitosis. He absolutely must have employed his Discipline. It was enough for Yu Honghu to estimate Zeus’ Talent at ninth-ranked, at least. Only a ninth- ranked Talent could be that strong.

However, Bahamut was not anxious at the revelation. The two massive metal wings at its back spread wide, then the dragon was off like a rocket in the direction Thor disappeared to.

Blast after blast of its breath weapon rocked the forest, as Yu Honghu blindly sent them coursing through the trees.

There were two goals in employing this tactic. The first was to flush Thor out of hiding, so as to give chase. Secondly, the noise

alerted his other team members to his location, as well as the direction and speed they were moving.

The small comprehensive map revealed the location of all the challengers. It showed the audience that Bahamut’s teammates had gotten the message, and were rapidly in route to his location. The three other Divine Monarchs also gave chase, though they were swinging around to attack from the flank.

In terms of speed, there wasn’t much difference between the two teams. Thor and Bahamut maintained distance, with the former artfully dodging the dragon’s attacks they sped between the trees.

Yu Honghu, alone in his pod, growled angrily. His skin had begun to crack, forming in to scales. A closer look showed that they, like his suit, were also blue and red and were separated on either side of his body. His hand speed sped up, in the same instant that his mecha began to emanate a powerful aura. Once more the two massive dragon heads opened, and within the depths of their mouth two points of energy began to congeal.

Radar exactly pinpointed his foe’s location.

Last time, Yu Honghu lost at Zeus’ hand. Now, he clearly had the advantage – this map, and distant engagements, where his forte. And so Bahamut gave chase, but not because he had any illusions of defeating Zeus on his own. Soon the rest of his team would arrival, all he had to do till then was keep up the pressure. He had faith in his team, and in the idea that they had to be ninth-ranked pilots. Other than the Knave, who was comparatively weak, his companions were strong enough to clench victory.

The two congealed orbs of power gathering before the dragon faces became larger with every passing second. Waves of staggering power warped the air around Bahamut.

Then Thor reacted.

Chapter 285: A Mighty Clash

Thor’s maneuver seemed exceedingly strange, with him retreating rapidly like a beam of light. This was followed by a headlong rush and, before Yu Honghu could react, the safe distance he’d tried to maintain disappeared. Thor appeared behind the two-headed dragon mecha.

Impossible, how could this be? His Discipline is speed?

The three incredulous thoughts set him to scowling.

The change was too fast. Thor’s frightening speed was far beyond what Yu Honghu anticipated. Once again he was forced in to defensive maneuvers.

But things were different this time. Like his foe, Yu Honghu could use his Discipline.

He didn’t panic. Bahamut released the charged breath attack, but instead of reacting to the enemy behind, Bahamut launched itself directly in to the roiling ball of energy.

Instead of destroying the mecha as one might expect, as the dragon suit entered the dual-colored orbs they congealed to form a sort of energy shield around it. It was like a giant protective bubble that hung over him.

There was no denying:Yu Honghu’s Discipline was metamorphosis, specifically a Hydra of Ice and Fire – one of the greatest transformational Disciplines known to man.

With this fact revealed, and protected by its own weapon, Bahamut was able to avoid falling in to a disadvantageous position. Once again, the mecha’s hammer-like tail swiped at Thor.

Thor decided to forgo the use of weapons and simply side- stepped the flailing appendage. It’s thick mechanical hand rose to knock it away.

The general audience determination was that this choice was unwise. Bahamut was a sight larger than your average, humanoid mecha suit, and more powerful. Paired with Yu Honghu’s Discipline, it was stronger and more study still. Was Thor being cautious by refusing to use weapons?

Clunk! Thor was knocked away, tumbling at least ten meters in to the distance as Bahamut’s tail connected.

But as Thor tumbled away, the sky darkened. Ominous peels of thunder rumbled in the distance.

The threatening sounds set Yu Honghu on edge. Alone in his pod, his body began to glow with an internal light.

The other members of the Star Alliance and the Divine Monarchs were quickly closing the gap. Sounds from the battle between Thor and Bahamut urged them onward.

Thor raised a single metal finger to the heavens. As if in response, the skies split and a bolt of lightning descended from on high to assail the dragon mecha.

The bolt was a blinding gold in color, and hit like a freight train. It was impossible to tell how much stronger this empowered strike was compared to those from their earlier encounters. Bahamut, still recoiling from the strike on Thor, was too slow to avoid it. Contact was inevitable.

Bahamut’s whole body adopted a golden hue as the bolt found its mark. Arcs of lightning cross-crossed it’s metal frame like angry serpents.

Thor disappeared. A moment later, it was spied high overhead and, leaving behind a golden contrail, descended toward Bahamut at terrifying speeds.

Boom! Bahamut was once again reduced to slag. Yu Honghu had lost again.

If he had lost the previous fight from lack of tactical assessment, this time it was purely due to insufficient power. With a slap and a single attack, Bahamut had been given more than it could withstand. But it wasn’t the loss that made Yu Honghu feel like there was a boulder on his chest – it was Thor’s appalling speed! Even specializing in speed, he was outclassed.

Mo Xiao earnestly continued her duties, calling out the action as it appeared on the screen. “I’ve just found out there’s no way for me to comment on what we’re seeing. Like all fo you, I have no idea what Disciplines these great pilots possess. I haven’t the slightest idea how Thor was able to suddenly become so fast. Could it be that Thor’s Discipline is actually speed? Perhaps Zeus is able to share speed with his suit?”

After destroying Bahamut, Zeus stopped trudging the warpath and retreated several meters from the point of collision. His speed was back within expected parameters.

This fight was now four-on-four.

The Four Divine Monarchs converged on Zeus’ location from all directions. The remaining Star Alliance members were suddenly hemmed in, forced in to a standoff.

Each of the Four Divine Monarchs’ mechas glowed according to their intrinsic powers. Thor’s dazzling display was especially prevalent, and it filled the Star Alliance with dread.

“Zeus, do you dare to meet me solo?” Thunderclap called out over comms.

Most of the time, silence was strictly adhered to in battles such as things. Thunderclap seemed to have no claims parting with tradition. He didn’t even finish before his mecha was racing forward to intercept his rival. He didn’t seem the list bit anxious about besieging all Four Divine Monarchs.

Starlord, Skyshade and Windbreaker hung back. Thunderclap was on his own.

This was the arrogance of high-level pilots. Zeus certainly wasn’t under any obligation to face Thunderclap one on one, but choosing sneak attacks over direct confrontation would likely earn the God of Lightning considerable disdain from his fans. None of this violated any regulations.

“So be it,” Lan Jue replied, simple and direct. Thor detached himself from his compatriots. There was a flash as the mecha reached out its ride hand, and then there appeared a shimmering golden spear of lightning caught in Thor’s grip.

“His weapon is a sword. Watch out,” Chu Cheng warned over the team channel. He’d learned this the hard way after losing a duel against Thunderclap in an earlier fight. In fact, had Thunderbolt not taken the initiative and challenged Zeus, Hades likely would have proposed one himself. These one-on- one showdowns were a dramatic display of force. Chu Cheng strongly believed that, with the use of his Discipline now permitted, he’d have had no trouble dealing with him.

Both mechas and their pilots bore names related to the chaotic force of lightning. This fight was undoubtedly to determine who

the strongest Lightning adept really was. It was no different from a real-world fight. Whoever won was the uncontested master of electricity.

Thunderclap’s color, a manifestation of his abilities, was inherently darker than Thor’s. It was blue, but a sort of dark blue like peering at the universe through the evening sky. Even the intermittent flashes of electric power were a deep shade of cobalt. The power it represented was palpable.

The two proceeded as though their duel was pre-arranged. In a single fluid motion, both of them rose in to the air and came barreling toward a collision. The simulated earth below trembled when they met.

No one was able to see the result. Likely even other pilots couldn’t puzzle it out. The two god-ranked warriors were simply too fast. All that could be discerned were two indistinct figures, who would collide and separate again and again. Sometimes there would be more shadows, but they would soon disappear, only to re-appear once more a few moments later. They would engage for a moment, then break. Rinse and repeat.

Thunderclap bore a navy-blue sword in its hand, with its tip pointed toward the ground and wreathed in lightning. Every

collision between the two pilots was punctuated with explosive peels of thunder.

Violet met deep blue in the skies over the Dark Forest. Artifacts of their fight hung in the air and left a charged residue in their wake.

The series of feints and attacks were largely exploratory, and neither side employed their strongest attacks directly. Neither of them currently held an advantage over the other, it appeared the two of them were more or less evenly matched.

Thunderclap lifted its cobalt blade and pointed it at Thor.
Thor, likewise, positioned its crackling spear for attack.

Strangely, in this moment the colorful auras around the two machines began to change. Thunderclap’s deep blue blanched until it was a pure, radiant silver. Tendrils of lightning raced across the whole surface of the suit, making it look silver itself.

Thor, on the other hand, was a magnificent gold. Like his opponent, grasping tendrils of electricity lashed out from Zeus’ mecha erratically in all directions.

Their display of power continued to rise, strengthening until it seemed the entire battlefield was positively charged with electricity. The waves of energy caused the skies to ripple.

The other six mecha pilots looked on with baited breath, watching as they traded blows. It was an important moment – whoever won here, would grant their team a real and oppressive advantage.

Thor and Thunderclap launched in to their second round of attacks. They were like two bolts of electricity, one silver and one gold, clashing in the center and sending sparks flying in all directions. Another ear-splitting boom swept through the map. An aftershock erupted and spread out in all directions, a result of their impact.

Two massive, revolving balls of energy hung in the air where the two mecha met. One was gold, and the other silver, and the majority of the Adepts’ raging battle occurred within. Sadly, no one could clearly see what they were doing.

Mo Xiao exclaimed in joy and surprise. “Ladies and gentlemen, this is what a god-ranked duel looks like!”

Boom-boom! Less than ten seconds later, both orbs detonated at the same time. The two indistinct figured within disengaged.

Finally, the two mechas could be clearly seen. Both were changed by the fight.

Thor’s chest pate had been badly damaged, with a cross- shaped burn splitting it in to quadrants. It was clearly a new addition. Its left arm was worse off, and was broken beyond repair. Tendrils of lightning still raced over its metal frame, both gold and silver.

Thunderclap wasn’t any better off. It had lost its left leg somewhere, as well as it’s left hand. Even half the suit’s skull was missing, mangled. Electricity surrounded it as well.

The exchange had cost them both dearly.

With a flick of its wrist Thor’s spear vanished as though it were never there. Then, in a distinct break from traditionally expected, Thor’s movements took on a strange quality. In opposition to the hard, fast, explosive nature of its elemental power, Thor now began to move like flowing clouds and trickling water. Every motion was smooth and natural, like a

dance.

“This is…” Mo Xiao trailed off, but the incredulity in her voice was obvious to all. Incredulous and uncertain.

Thunderclap raced forward, though this time his speed was a sight slower than it had been. With a twist it brought the lightning blade to bear, but the blow was nowhere near close enough to damage Thor. Instead, the sweeping motion spawned a dozen arcing waves of electric light. They spread and grew, until there was a veritable army of screeching electric dragons tearing across the sky. From every which way they approached, converging on Thor’s location.

Thor was suspended in the air, unmoving. Its working hand made a small semi-circular motion, then pushed outward toward its foe.

The auction coaxed the whole of Thor’s aura to migrate to its palm, and congeal therein. Little by little the power consolidated in the small space, until the small spot of light seemed dense enough to obliterate everything around them. The color darkened until the twinkling gold was gone, replaced with a deeper hue.

Chapter 286: Victory!

A dozen silvery dragons of lightning screamed toward Thor. Strangely, though, there appeared to be some invisible force acting upon them. Like water following a riverbed, the writhing electric bolts all flowed toward Thor’s right hand.

One after another, they gently disappeared in to the gathering golden light.

The orb expanded with each passing moment, now an intermingled sphere of silver and gold. Thor thrust his arm out toward Thunderclap.

The resulting release of energy shook the forest, as a beam of light fired outward. The beam itself was thirty meters in diameter, and easily swallowed Thunderclap in its depths. Then the beam went on toward the rest of the Star Alliance, watching nearby.

Deimos and his crew were not prepared for such a dramatic change in circumstance. As the fight neared its conclusion, Lan Jue had also been in contact with his team, outlining his plan. At Prometheus’ command, Coeus, Triton and Cerberus rushed in to the fray directly behind Thor’s beam.

Prometheus lead the charge, and in his wake were spawned several tornados that went spinning after him. They swept around to assail the Star Alliance from several directions.

Hades’ Hellfire Cannon roared like a demon as it’s payload was released. He didn’t need to charge it, he already had his target in his sights – Skyshade.

The Knave’s mecha was lit in red, gold and silver. Thor’s beam was seconds away with him dead center. If the fastest hands in Dreamburg dodged, his only escape put him directly in the path of the Hellfire Cannon’s barrage.

The three Monarchs reacted exceedingly fast in grasping the opportunity. The moment Thor’s strike consumed Thunderclap, their duel was considered over – no one said there needed to be downtime between winning and continuing the fight.

Hades and Prometheus took up position on either side of the lightning god, while Poseidon took to higher skies. Where Triton soared, a wake of metallic blue light followed its trident. Upon reaching the peak of its arc, the glorious three-pronged weapon silently burst in to a bloom of light. The vibrant colors painted the world in blue, and when in the next moment it was

restrained there appeared countless halos hovering in the air. They fell over Poseidon and his companions, enveloping them in a shroud of gentle energy.

It was a perfectly executed attack and regroup maneuver. A testament to the excellent synergy of the Monarchs.

The Star Alliance had been caught completely off guard, Deimos included. The Knave saw the attacks coming a fraction of a second late, but his hand speed was fast enough to cover the hesitation. Skyshade split in to two images, each strafing sideways to avoid Thor’s energy beam. But there was still Hades’ Hellfire, and it was right on top of him.

A mecha’s inherent powers were changed when a pilot added their Discipline. It was a fact the Knave understood, however in this critical juncture, his reactions only took in to account the DreamNet Thor he knew, not the one battling him now. His doppelgangers were effective in dodging the first threat, but nothing escaped Hades’ Hellfire. Skyshade was knocked away, encased in flame.

A nearby cyclone was just in time to snatch up the tumbling mecha, as though it had been waiting there for just that purpose. The Knave was spat out right back in to the gold and

silver beam.

Boom—! The unfathomable power of the beam claimed another challenger.

Another dramatic encounter was setting up as Prometheus and Windbreaker met on the field.

As suspected, Windbreaker had been chosen specifically as a counter to Prometheus. As Coeus’ cyclones came for him, Windbreaker used his Discipline in attempts to disperse them. That was his power, mastery over air. Between he and his mecha, Prometheus would have a hard time influencing much with his wind Discipline.

However, when their powers collided Windbreaker was confronted with his own naivete. His control over air wasn’t enough to stop this wind, like it had a will all its own. Six whirling tornados converged on Windbreaker’s location, and as he was swallowed in to the buffeting assault, all he could do was focus on not being smashed to pieces in the storm.

Poseidon’s radiating power continued to descend from on high. Like the fathomless ocean, Starlord was drowned in it.

Thor then focused its beam at the Star Alliance’s leader.

The moment he became the target, Deimos was in motion. His first reaction was to take an oblique juke up and to the side. As he did, those twinkling stars appeared again upon the mecha. Halos of resplendent light burst in to existence, and merged to create a shield that looked like a microcosm of the galaxy surrounding Starlord.

Still, Poseidon’s Boundless Depths attack was there first. Poseidon’s area-wide emulsion couldn’t break Starlor’s shield, but it did slow him down considerably.

Starblade flared to life, with a myriad of constellations appearing along its make. It split the Boundless Depths like a tree parting a stream. He cut a majestic igure with sword raised high to face the incoming tide. However, this didn’t stop the other three silhouettes who were coming at him from three angles.

Eventually Poseidon’s energies overwhelmed him, and Starlord lost control of its motive functions. Deimos could only watch from his cockpit as Thor’s golden beam filled his screen.

Booooom–!

The galactic orb detonated, sending out twinkling detritus as though the Milky Way itself had exploded. In its center blazed an orb of fire so bright, it was like a mother star at the heart of the galaxy. It was stunningly beautiful.

And yet, there were few to appreciate its beauty. For the audience, the more important circumstance was what the fireball meant.

Starlord, the greatest mecha pilot to have ever lived, first under heaven, was beaten back.

Deimos had finally been bested.

It wasn’t just the audience members who were stunned, either. Even the streak-breakers themselves, all four Divine Monarchs, looked on speechlessly as their mighty foe burned.

Still their victory was tainted by Deimos’ announcement of retirement. On the contrary they were sad. They had contributed to the downfall of a public hero.

In addition, they had found it strange and disconcerting that Starlord had employed no Discipline whatsoever in his defense, or in conjunction with his mecha at all. It meant, or might have meant, that this man who had dominated DreamNet for so long was in fact a weak Adept. He relied on other things to get himself the advantage in combat, and that alone catapulted him to the very peak of the mecha pilot world.

Windbreaker was finally relinquished from the cyclone’s grip, but lasted less than a second. This fight was decided.

And yet there was silence. The audience, in fact all of DreamNet was still as the grave. If there were any who doubted Deimos earlier words were a result of his two wins, they changed their mind now. He then went on to announce the addition of disciplines to DreamNet. This said everything. He could have waited to make the two announcements until after the games. He could have preserved his spot at the top of the lists. But he didn’t. Instead he used his own defeat to showcase this new era in simulation. It was a fine display of spirit, and dedication to the cause.

Chapter 287: Electric Payload

As the match ended, the Four Divine Monarchs approached the swirling ball of flame that was Deimos. The mecha gathered round, and as one, bent low at the waist in veneration. At this point they had no further qualms with DreamNet or their guardians. Deimos had paid far more in his time than any of the Divine Monarchs likely will. He gave a majority of his life for DreamNet, and that was to be respected.

“I can’t say I’m happy with this result,” Mo Xia pined. He words mirrored the feelings many spectator’s shared.

“I imagine that, even though the Star Alliance lost this match, we’ll forever hold Deimos in our hearts as one of the greatest pilots to have ever lived. Long live Deimos!”

“Now to the Monarchs, let me say I hope you’re ready to pull out all the stops for our next battles. Let your actions bring honor to the First Under Heaven, until his very last strike. Win or lose, please respect our hero!”

Mo Xiao’s figure appeared, hovering in the air before the giant Sanctuary screens showing the fights. She bowed as well.

Now, it was on to the fourth map.

“Turret Legend!”

Another legacy map from DreamNet. This one had been available here since the very day DreamNet launched, and enjoyed the nostalgic affection of millions of pilots. It was a balanced map, with no inherent advantages for any one class of pilot.

Like the last fight, the map was separated in to two camps. However, the difference lay in what sat in between. Countless towers dotted the landscape, stretching to the horizon. The prerequisites for victory here wasn’t the destruction of your enemies, but to raze their stronghold. The towers and their formidable defensive capabilities served as watchmen and protectors.

There were three separate paths to the enemy base. With two teams of five, there were a number of tactics that could be employed here. Each road had to be defended, least the enemy march directly in to the base unopposed.

The fight started without any further pomp or circumstance.

A series of flashes heralded the competitors’ arrival.

Nine figures appeared. This time, when the audience watched there was something different in their eyes. There was a sort of solemn respect, both for the Star Alliance, and the Divine Monarchs.

DreamNet’s upgrades had shown the two god teams in a new light. These fights were destined to be remembered for as long as DreamNet remained.

But what about the last fight? What was that beam of gold and silver Thor had used? What new surprises were in store for this battle? Was Thor now the strongest of the Monarchs? These questions and dozens more peppered the comments section.

They hoped this fourth encounter would answer some of them.

As the match commenced the Divine Monarchs broke for their respective routes. Cerberus took the top lane, and Coeus took bottom. That left Thor and Triton were in the middle.

‘Mid-lane’, as it was referred, was the widest of the three. It was common practice to send two members to defend it together.

The Star Alliance was deployed as well. Skyshade and Windbreaker were up top, and Thunderclap in the middle. Starlord took up position on bottom lane. Bahamut, for his part, chose no road. Instead it employed it’s impressive speed and disappeared in to the surrounding jungles, toward the enemy stronghold. Flying-class mechas had a slight advantage there.

The trade-off was that those same flight-specialized mechas were prime targets for towers. Any time one of said towers came under fire, it sent continuous pings to team members, to come and defend.

Thor raced ahead, with Triton taking up the rear. After the last fight, they were still in high-gear.

There had been quite a degree of luck involved in their last victory. In fact, even the other three members of Zeus’ team weren’t aware of what that beam he’d used was. Only Lan Jue himself knew.

During their duel, it had taken him two collisions to puzzle out precisely what Thunderclap’s Discipline was. As expected, it was electricity. Thunderbolt and electricity, in fact, precisely the same as Lan Jue himself. The difference was that Thunderclap’s powers were intermingled. Just light real life, his lightning back to come before thunder. The two wouldn’t manifest simultaneously. It was enormously powerful, but lacked flexibility. But there was more than that.

Lan Jue’s dual disciplines were of a purely positive nature. The lightning powers bore a positive energy that served him well in destroying the darker inclined. Any negative Discipline faced quite a struggle when encountering Zeus.

This was precisely the opposite for Thunderbolt, though. His was purely negative. Simply put, it was diametrically opposed to Lan Jue’s. It was something he’d heard from his teacher many years before was possible, and he’d since sought to see it for himself.

Chinese Yin-Yang Theory underpins a great deal of what the Chinese do. At its heart, it’s a simple idea of positive and negative, though neither have the same connotation we expect in the West. Neither is inherently good or inherently evil, they just are. Further, there are several aspects of the yin-yang relationship that make things more complicated, but expand the

theory to involve all life as we know it. Those are a.) the opposition of yin and yang – each one controls the other to ensure there is balance, and not excess of one or the other. b.) interdependence – each one requires the presence of the other to exist; yang requires yin as a root so it won’t float away, and yin requires yang to ensure it remains motile and doesn’t sink c.) interchangeability – yin and yang can transform in to on another when there is too much of an excess, to maintain balance and d.) interconsumption – the relative levels of the two forces are ever in flux as they strive for balance, a little bit of the one exists in the other.

Positive and Negative working in harmonious union. A true and complete electric payload! That was what that gold and silver beam was.

Lan Jue employed a special method for using his powers. He used the positive force of his lightning to contain and command the negative force of his thunderbolt Discipline. The result was a ying-yang conglomeration of the two, manifesting as a beam of energy. Even though the attack wasn’t itself classified as a protogenic power, it was stronger than many of them. The violent and definitive destruction of his enemies in the last fight gave credence to the claim.

It was an understatement to call viewing such a special

circumstance today a ‘pleasant surprise.’ Thunderclap! No matter the result, Lan Jue was resolved to confront him at the end of their competition. Were the two of them to combine forces, they’d be powerful enough to rival Paragons!

He remembered the lesson of his professor from so long ago. If you met the opposed aspect of your Discipline, he said, don’t let them go. If they were of the opposite sex, marry them. Otherwise make them your best friend.

Lan Jue had completely forgotten about it until this second. The possibility had seemed so slim back in the day that he hadn’t considered it. He never would have expected to be confronted by that infinitesimal chance here.

Thunderclap, he surmised, must not have been familiar with the mysteries of yin yang, or may have otherwise forgotten. As a yin-prominent Discipline, he also would never likely be in a dominant enough position to seek one out.

The question then became how to persuade him. He had to find an excuse to meet with him after the matches, first. If Thunderclap was a denizen of the East, there’d be no better circumstance he could hope for.

“Careful.” Hua Li’s voice brought him back to the present.

Lan Jue’s eyes were stabbed by a flash of dazzling light.

Starblade!

Thor’s spear appeared in its grip, almost like it had a mind of its own. In the next moment, dozens of lightning-fast spear strikes filled the space before it. The stress and difficulty of the situation was a boon for Lan Jue, and he felt in better shape than ever before. One thousand and eighty spear strikes passed in the blink of an eye.

The starry shield surrounding the Starblade couldn’t stand against Thor’s rapid-fire assault, and shattered. Under Zeus’ impressive martial assault, Starlord’s forward charge was shut down.

Chapter 288: Starlord’s Finale

Deimos’ frontal assault cut short, and forced to retreat. Was this the power of a Discipline-infused mecha?

And as the others stood in silent tribute, Starlord took its opportunity. While still charging backward, it swiped Starblade toward the stationary enemies.

Meanwhile Thor, hovering in the air, began to wobble to and fro as though it were losing its balance. Then with an audible bloop, the sapphire mecha was engulfed in a  bubble.  The strange shield was a gift from Poseidon, who stood close by.

Triton had a mechanical hand resting upon Thor’s shoulder, trident in hand. In the next moment the god of the seas swept his trident out, and great waves went crashing toward Starlord.

The star-spangled mecha thrust it’s sword high in to the air, and a dazzling pinprick of light exuded from its tip. Triton, meanwhile, started to wobble just as Thor had before – like Poseidon was having trouble wresting controls.

A staggering streamer of condensed starlight violently made

its way toward the Divine Monarchs, forcing them to retreat.

Starlord Deimos, still a force to be reckoned with!

Both Lan Jue and Hua Li were intensely surprised by what they’d witnessed. Their strange and sudden wobbles were not for no reason. Each time either of them had tried to advance, Deimos had placed a shot precisely in their path. They had only just begun to move when Deimos correctly assessed their intention and cut them short. Their rhythm was shattered. Thor’s indomitable advance was barred.

Knowing his enemy’s motives in advance? Deimos was that intelligent? Unless, it wasn’t that he didn’t have a Discipline – his Discipline was Foresight.

Starlord’s attacks laid siege to Thor and Triton’s shield. Its mighty sword never paused, and the torrential attacks kept coming.

However as the audience watched, they noticed that Starlord’s attacks weren’t actually damaging their targets. It wasn’t that the strikes weren’t fierce, or swift. They simply weren’t strong enough to penetrate the shield!

Were one to only consider mecha construction, Starlord was in a class all its own. Even compared to the tricked-out Thor and Poseidon’s deep pockets, Starlord was a terrifying force. But things change when Disciplines are added to the equation.

Starlord’s attacked hadn’t changed since the last few fights, before the new sim pods were introduced. However, Thor and Triton were infinitely more powerful now. In skill, technique and tactics Deimos was nigh impossible to overcome. But in sheer power, in Discipline, the younger pilots had the advantage.

This was the difference between being an Adept, and not. It was for this reason it is true all god-ranked pilots are also accomplished Talents. One fed the other.

As Thor slid backward away from Starlord’s attack, it hefted the crackling lightning spear in its hand. The skies overhead erupted in to a terrifying and violent display, where hundreds of thousands of lightning bolts came crashing down upon Thor. The towering mecha absorbed them, then released the contained power in a cone of devastating electric fire. Forest of Lightning!

The beam of light from Starblade, and Thor’s Forest of

Lightning met in the air. Amidst the shuddering corona of disparate energy, the two vanished. However, where Thor and Triton had been under pressure moments before, now the tables were turning.

As god-ranked pilots, and ninth-ranked Talents, these men were masters of battlefield control. Without any hesitation, making a split-second decision, both Thor and Triton were in motion. They positioned for an area attack.

Golden blasts of lightning joined with crashing blue waves. They seemed to cover the whole of this simulated  world. Despite Deimos’ wealth of experience, he was still losing ground.

The comments section was silent. Many of the older pilots shut their eyes, bitterly refusing to watch. They knew DreamNet’s upgrade meant this was the end of an era, and they didn’t want to see it happen. Would Deimos – heroic pilot, legendary powerhouse – have to exit his kingdom in this way? They feared it might be.

But in the end…

Boom–! Starlord disappeared in to the storm of destructive energy. Mecha, sword, and pilot went up in flames.

A unified cry went up through the audience: “No–!”

But there was nothing they could do to change the result.

Deimos fall was indicative of the rest of the match. Thor and Poseidon tore down mid lane unopposed, which drew the ire of Starlord’s teammates. They came thirsting for revenge, eventually converging in the center of the field. The Monarchs and Star Alliance went head to head, but the end had already been determined. In the end, the Monarchs lost Poseidon and Hades, but the Star Alliance headquarters was destroyed. The Monarchs had won their second victory.

Miao Xiao had not continued to offer explanations or analysis during the fight. From beginning to end, she maintained her silence. When the fight was finished, everyone was quiet.

There were no more illusions about these matches. Deimos – originally the strongest of the Star Alliance by a massive margin
– was now the weakest. The anxiety and suspense was gone, and the audience knew Prometheus would give the enemy no

quarter. No matter how many battles followed, the result would be the same.

Mo Xiao by this point had received some information. She looked it over and then, with serene expression and a small smile, began to speak.

“I apologize, I’ve been very quiet. Watching this last fight, I could hardly breathe. Unfortunately this is the inevitable march of time, as the newer generations grow and improve the elders are left behind. Still, it’s not what we want! I actually have some news, from the Four Divine Monarchs. They would like to announce that they are forfeiting the fifth and final fight. With this development, we would like to announce the winner of today’s first ever God Team Competition – the Star Alliance! Deimos remains undefeated, and leaves DreamNet after this final victory. For those of you who have already purchased the full analysis package, DreamNet will reimburse thirty percent of that.”

Mo Xiao carefully and clearly revealed the news. Once again, the comment section erupted in to excited discussion.

Part of the Monarchs’ decision to forfeit was certainly out of respect. Their esteem of Deimos was such that they didn’t wish

to see his legend tarnished. In turn, it earned them some respect from audience members as well. The comments section confirmed it.

In effect, there were no losers in this fight. DreamNet’s evolution would constitute a massive change for the network. Certainly there were those, like Deimos, that would see their prestige diminished. On the other hand, there was certain to be more young adepts appearing on the scene. It was an integral addition in the end, allowing DreamNet to more accurately mimic life..

Already DreamNet had expressed the fact that there will remain certain sectors unavailable for Discipline use. In this way some of the charm of the old DreamNet will remain, as well as to keep it fairer for non-Talent pilots. It was there that Deimos’ name would forever live at the top of its power rankings.

These were DreamNet’s plans and machinations for the near future. Undoubtedly the results would be more than favorable. At the very least it will overshadow any grumbling about the change.

“Hey bro.” Zeus’ voice called over the coms.

Prometheus was alone in his pod. No one could see the sadness in his eyes. “What is it?”

“There’s something I need to discuss with you,” the younger Lan went on in a quiet voice.

“Alright. We’ll open a dedicated channel.” Lan Qing did just that. There were few methods more reliable for absolute secrecy than a god-ranked pilots conversation in Sanctuary.

Their exchange didn’t last very long. Chu Cheng and Hua Li waited patiently for them to finish. Both of them were content to stand in silence, ruminating on the circumstances. Neither appeared to be in a pleasant mood. Although victory was all but assured, it wasn’t a win they wanted. The top spot was poisoned.

Likewise, had there not been a sudden change in DreamNet structure, their defeat would have been inevitable. The same would have been true if Deimos was an Adept.

After a little while the two brothers finished their conversation. Prometheus nodded at Zeus. “Alright, we’ll leave it there for now. I’ve got to head out.”

A voice interrupted Lan Qing’s exit. “I was wondering if I could have a word with the four of you,” it said.

Shock froze the Divine Monarchs in place. It was Deimos who approached them!

Several figures walked to the gathered Monarchs. At the head of the small entourage was the First Under Heaven. Thunderclap, the Knave, Yu Honghu and Windbreaker fanned out to either side. The whole of the Star Alliance stood and stared at their rivals.

Deimos didn’t look any less regal after the affair. He stood straight and tall, slowly made his way toward the others.

Lan Qing stopped. Clearly he couldn’t leave just this moment, not least because he was interested in what in the world Deimos had to say. Even with all his wisdom, he couldn’t puzzle it out. Where it simply about his retirement, or the upgrade to DreamNet, there were better avenues. Instead he’d chosen this one.

The Starlord waved a thick hand. In response, the world around them became a universe of twinkling stars.

Constellations swam in the dark expanse that surrounded them on all sides. Eventually the lights receded and a room was revealed. All nine of the competitors appeared within.

“This is…” Hua Li trailed off as his eyes stared in bewilderment.

“Discipline!” Lan Jue’s eyes were wide. This wasn’t some DreamNet function, it was Discipline! Deimos was indeed an Adept like the rest of them. Now he felt them, the waves of power pulsing from the Starlord from somewhere deep within. They had been well hidden. But now he felt it – terrifying was the only way he describe the sheer volume of ability he felt! They were all wrong, he surely was a powerful Adept. But, then why didn’t he use it during the fight?

“Sir, what’s the meaning of this,” Lan Qing coldly greeted.

“Forgive me,” Deimos replied while shaking his hand apologetically. “I hope you all don’t think I’m looking down on you, or was taking it easy. In truth, I can’t use my Discipline in combat. I don’t have the ability to control it anymore. Seeing as we’re safe and separate here, there’s also something I want to talk with you about.”

The Four Divine Monarchs were finding it difficult to respond. Their minds were muddled by the strange revelation they just had. Yet they felt at ease with Deimos, and felt as though they could trust him. There was no time for small talk or wasted words now.

But what did he want to say?

Deimos lifted his hand again, and removed the mask from his face.

Chapter 289: Deimos Is…

Masks were an integral part of a god pilot’s outfit here. In DreamNet, there was no way to change one’s appearance, so they existed to protect anonymity.

Deimos looked…

When the First Under Heaven removed his mask, all four Divine Monarchs stared in disbelief. Not because he was old, but in fact quite the opposite. He looked like a young man.

His handsome and vibrant face belonged to a man in his thirties, with eyes that twinkled like the depths of the universe. It must have been those he used as inspiration for the color of his mask.

Standing there, he radiated a gentle, dim light. It wasn’t strong, and didn’t bear any powerful sense. It was difficult to express, but not unpleasant.

For reasons unknown, Lan Jue felt something familiar about him, about this aura he released.

Deimos was famous some fifty years before their encounter today. He certainly be looking this young. Perhaps he used some sort of special scientific process to regain his youth, like the Keeper and Bookworm? Or perhaps he wasn’t even  the ‘original’ Starlord.

Deimos laughed. “I imagine there’s a lot of confusion in all of you right now. How could Deimos be that young, you might be asking. Let me start by assuring you that I am Deimos – but I am not, at the same time. You’re looking at a mask, just a mask of the former me.”

Lan Jue and his companions were still befuddled, perhaps worse than before he’d started talking. But before any more questions could be uttered, they witnessed a strange change overcome the Starlord.

Hua Li, Chu Cheng and Lan Qing handled the transformation well, considering. It was Lan Jue who was particularly struck by it. As the young man’s face began to age rapidly, he was sure he knew this man.

And indeed he did. He’d known the Starlord, First Under Heaven, for years.

“How… how can this be?” Lan Jue asked in utter disbelief. It was light his lightning Discipline was sending bolts through the recesses of his brain, and yet all the things that weren’t clear before suddenly made sense.

Deimos’ face bore a small smile as he watched their expressions change. As they looked on they watched this heroic individual age a hundred years before their very eyes. Wrinkles sprang up and spread across Deimos’ face, which grew paler and more gaunt with each passing second. Hos body became frail, thin, and weak and he began to stoop like the weight of years lay on his shoulders. Only those two twinkling eyes retained the youth of his former appearance. Eyes that could see the whole of time and space.

“How can it not? Jewelry Master.”

Lan Jue’s eyes were big as saucer. He simply wasn’t prepared for the number of shocking circumstances he’d experienced today. But first among them was this, because never in a million years would he ever have expected Deimos to be…

The Clairvoyant!

Yes, Deimos was indeed the Clairvoyant, founder of Skyfire Avenue and the third strongest Paragon to have ever lived. Did that mean Deimos was the Clairvoyant’s real name? Was this truly the frightening powerhouse of DreamNet, known as First Under Heaven?

The Clairvoyant only smiled. “Alright. The rest of you can remove your masks as well.” The statement was directed to the rest of his team.

The Knave was the first to comply.

When Lan Jue finally spied the face of the clown, his mouth curled in to a scowl. It was a face he was very familiar with. The Coffee Master!

The jittery man chortled at Lan Jue. “Yeah, you had no idea the fastest hands ever would be mine, huh!? You know, when I first found out you were Zeus, I couldn’t believe it. And I still don’t agree with these results – if it hadn’t have been for the addition of our Disciplines, I’m positive we’d have won without trouble.”

The Knave was actually the Coffee Master. Lan Jue couldn’t

believe what he was seeing, it was like all the surprises from his entire life were rolled in to these last few hours.

After the Knave’s revelation, the next person to remove their mask was the one under continuous assault from Zeus. Bahamut.

“Jewelry Master, I have to say you pack one hell of a punch! Let me introduce myself – I’m the Bartender. We’re not at all familiar with each other since I’m rarely in the Avenue. The Wine Master has, unfortunately, stolen a good deal of my business.”

He was a middle-aged man, handsome, with a head of long blue and red hair split down the middle. He had a calm expression, and gentle eyes . There was no animosity for his destruction at Lan Jue’s hand.

“Hello, Bartender,” Lan Jue replied. He looked at those gathered, wondering if they all were…

Windbreaker stepped forward, and removed his mask. “How…!” Lan Jue couldn’t help but sputter out the word, but was too stunned to finish the thought.

As Windbreaker removed the back, their body shrunk like a popped balloon. His large and robust figure became thin and curvaceous. With the mask removed, a smiling face greeted him, one he knew well; Wendy, the Seamstress!

Wendy tittered. “Why not, huh? A pleasant surprise right?”

“Pleasant surprise?” Lan Jue repeated with a sheepish laugh. “Amazing! Our Skyfire Avenue has no shortage of savants! And what about this one? If he’s also part of the Avenue that’s an amazing and welcome coincidence!”

“Hurry the hell up and tell me how you absorbed my Discipline? How’d you do it?!” The second Thunderclaps voice reached Lan Jue’s ears, he knew.

“You!” Lan Jue took a lunging step forward and tore the mask away from Thunderclap’s face, revealing the resolute face of the Driver!

Thunderclap was Lan Jue’s drinking partner!

Lan Jue was temporarily speechless. As he looked out over the

crowd of familiar faces, he felt a discontent welling in his heart.

“You all knew from the very beginning you’d be fighting me in the god battle, didn’t you? Hell, I was drinking with you, Driver, just a few days ago! You guys…”

Hua Li and Chu Cheng were just as stunned, and looked on with mouths agape. They weren’t as intimate with the denizens of Skyfire Avenue as their compatriot, but they knew enough. It was stupefying, to say the least. How did they even get themselves in this situation…

Only Lan Qing looked on with dispassionate expression. He fixed the Clairvoyant with calm eyes. “Your Majesty, I think you owe us an explanation.”

The Clairvoyant replied with an emotional sigh. “We didn’t tell you about any of this earlier because we were afraid the surprise would get out. And it looks like our plans were successful.”

Lan Jue couldn’t help but interject. “So this DreamNet upgrade is a result of Skyfire’s involvement? No wonder it was the Wine Master who brought us the new pods.”

But the Clairvoyant shook his head. “No, they’re only relying on us to manage the upgrade and distribution. DreamNet represents the whole of man kind, and I can tell you that everything Piao Hong told you before is true. The real reason behind all of this is to inspire the next generation of pilots to train and grow strong, so that we’re ready when we need to be.”

“But that doesn’t explain the most important thing,” Lan Jue contested. “You’re dead!”

A slight smile wrinkled the Clairvoyant’s face further. “In retreat, and they’ve left a sim pod with me. After all, I was once the First Under Heaven – up until my recent retirement.”

“If that’s the case, then you’re health…” Lan Jue probed.

The old man laughed. “No change. If I still had the years in me we wouldn’t have had to scheme up this competition. And you all performed well, more than worthy for the future I have seen.”

The future he’s seen? The Four Monarchs furrowed their brows in confusion.

The Clairvoyant’s face adopted a deep, serene expression. “I have had the last prediction I will ever see. It is the vision I shared with the Pontiff and Satan during their visit. I told them the result of what I’d seen. But what I shared, was false. My death will serve another purpose.”

“My fortune telling abilities have grown clearer as I near the end of my days. Over decades I’ve watched humanity take to the stars, and I was delighted. The universe was infinite, and with these leap humanity would continue for a hundred million years without threat. For the continuation of the human race, it was undoubtedly a watershed moment. But that didn’t mean peace. We would face many challenges, many obstacles as we pushed toward the stars.”

“We have only just begun to explore the heavens. The universe we know is only the smallest fraction of an unfathomable whole. There is still so much we don’t know, and so many dangers lurking out in the darkness. As we grow and expand, it is inevitable that we should meet them. As we colonized the planets we’ve come across, there have been terrible poisons and powerful beings. Through scientific advancements and stubborn tenacity, humanity has prevailed so far. In that way we have come to the present, treading the path our fore-bearers laid. Modern times see three great Alliances with territories that stretch hundreds of light years. But the dangers remain, out there, waiting. As we take leaps

forward, so too do they. What I saw as my power left me, was a great and terrible calamity, that threatened the whole of our species.”

Deep concern was written clearly on the old man’s face. His voice became a whisper. “I have tried many times to peer closer at this, and learn more. I employed everything at my disposal to try and find a solution. My first premonition happened fifteen years ago. At that time, I felt a terrible wave of death emanate from the darkness. It was slight, but clear – and the results were terrifying.”

Chapter 290: The Clairvoyant’s Confidence

“I was in decent shape at that time, which was good since I expended a great deal of energy in completing the reading. I had worked desperately in hopes of finding out more, perhaps a way we could avoid encounter this terrible premonition. But what I found, was nothing. If that sense of destruction should fall over humanity, there was more than an eighty-percent chance it would spell the end of our species. As for that twenty percent, that was the chance that ten percent us would somehow survive. It meant extinction would be delayed, but not stopped.”

Lan Qing, Chu Cheng, Hua Li and Lan Jue simply listened in pensive silence as the Clairvoyant told his tale.

Had this come from anyone elses mouth, the Monarchs would have dismissed them as doomsayers beneath attention. But this was the Clairvoyant. The Eye of the Future! They wouldn’t dare question this great sage of humanity.

An oppressive sense hung over the gathered pilots. Like their team leader, the Seamstress, Bartender, Coffee Master and Driver bore similarly solemn expressions. It was likely the first time they heard these dark omens as well.

“As time went on I would continue to search time for an answer, so long as my body was capable. In my time here I’ve seen that there is an element of predestination in everything. And yet, under specific circumstances with specific factors involved, variables exist to change our fate. In the universe we live in, there are no pure stalemates. So I dedicated the remainder of my life searching for the light in the darkness. Vitality in the stillness of death.”

“Prophesy after prophecy, my hopelessness grew. My body weakened with each effort. Although I used every technique I’d learned to extend my life, a man’s life is ultimately finite. Even Paragons are slaves to the rules of nature. Three years ago I first began to feel my vital energies exhausting. I see the future, and I knew in this moment that there was nothing more I could do.”

“And just when I was preparing to resign myself to the painful fact of our end, you appeared!” The Clairvoyant’s startling starry eyes fell unto Lan Jue. Their depths stared at him, through him, as though there was nothing the Jewelry Master could hide.

“Me?” Lan Jue blinked, confused.

The Clairvoyant offered a slight nod. “Yes, you – Zeus,

Jewelry Master of Skyfire Avenue. The day you came to us I felt something, a strange disturbance. Suddenly things got more complicated.”

Lan Jue’s mouth curled in to a scowl. He rather felt like he’d been dropped in a pile of shit.

The Clairvoyant then shook his head, and with a laugh said “Not a pile of shit. More like… a mire.”

Lan Jue stared at the Clairvoyant, mouth agape/ He can read my mind? He thought.

The old man went on. “Later I did several readings regarding you specifically. Finally there was that light I sought. Clear, and strong, but my final reading brought it in to focus. I saw the fire of life burning, fighting against the encroaching darkness and clearing the darkness from my sight. I could see it all. The opportunity to survive lay squarely on you young men and your generation. It is you, and the men at your side, that must carry the torch in to the shadow. So before I pass on the mantle entirely, there are some things I wish to impart. In three months come by the Museum. My successor will deliver them.”

Lan Qing’s quiet voice interjected. “Your Majesty. Have your visions revealed what we have to do?”

The Clairvoyant shook his head. “The tides of fate will guide you. How to proceed, I cannot say. Stay true to yourselves as you traverse the path, and have faith that the proper way will be illuminated when needed. Keep up the fight, no matter what.”

The old man smiled to ease some of the harsh bite of his words. “Very well, I’ve said what I had to say. I’m afraid I must trouble you all to come together in three months time to the museum. There, someone will deliver the items I spoke of. Jewelry Master, if I might have a word with you in private?”

“Alright,” the younger man responded.

With a wave of his gnarled hand, the Clairvoyant called upon his powers to envelope both of them in twinkling starlight. No one outside of the beam would be able to hear their exchange.

“Skyfire Avenue is the result of my blood, sweat and tears,” the Clairvoyant began. “It was my hope from the very beginning, that through my efforts I could help the human race improve, and grow stronger. So that we could face whatever

lurked in the depths of the universe. As I leave, my Avenue is entrusted unto you, the youth of today. Now I’ve already spoken with the Wine Master and the Keeper. I would like to elect you, as Chairman of the Skyfire Avenue Council.”

“Me?” Lan Jue stared at him, dumbfounded. “Your Majesty, why me? I’m not strong enough-“

The Clairvoyant cut him off with a wave. “Power isn’t everything. This is something the last Eye of the Future told me. When you came to us, beneath all the pain and anger, I saw vitality. You had experienced hardships, and you would again. The only thing you lacked, as far as I concerned, was the power to hold the position. Trust that you will one day rise to the heights I know you’re capable of. Remember that setbacks are transient, and pain does pass.”

:I am not just entrusting you with Skyfire Avenue. I place the fate of humanity on your shoulders. Don’t bother asking, because I haven’t seen what choices you will make, or what you should do. All I can tell you is this: Man’s future, his hopes, his ability to survive the coming cataclysm, even the beasts who bring the reckoning… all of it is closely linked to you. Your life no longer belongs just to you. Nor will you assume the title of Chairman now. But once you are ready, and I’m sure you will be, the responsibility will fall to you.”

“But responsibilities are not easy. In contrast to the others, I must leave you with a task. The Wine Master will help you see it through.”

“I’m ready,” Lan Jue replied without hesitation or inquiry. Peering in to the Clairvoyant’s clear, deep eyes, he just knew it was something that needed doing.

His mind inadvertently wandered to the young soldier he’d met on Taihua. His words rang in his ears: Our obligation is the safety of the public. Now the situation arose again, but instead of a young soldier, it was an old one. Surely the message was the same.

It was not a duty to be taken lightly, but looking at this old man who had dedicated his life to the betterment of his species, a fire grew in his heart. He felt his blood – hot and anxious – coursing through his veins.

“Unless I’m mistaken, Jue Di was your teacher.” The old man said.

Lan Jue blinked. “How’d you-“

The Clairvoyant smiled. “Originally I had no idea. But watching you today reminded me of the man. You fight like him, and in fact that palm attack of yours is an old technique from ancient times he liked to employ. I can see you have cultivated essence, but only he can point you on the right path to improvement from here. When you’ve reached the heights of ninth rank, seek him out.”

Jue Di, first among the Paragons. No one knew his whereabouts, only that he was an Easterner. The real power of the Alliance.

This was, in part, why the East was considered above the West and North when considering Adept power. It was also why the West and North were in a tentative alliance to undermine the East.

The great master left no trace of his whereabouts. But he was around, that was certain.

About twenty years ago, the North mobilized its armies for a large incursion on Eastern territory. That was the last time Jue Di made his presence known.

The results of that battle were – according to the North – confidential. No one was entirely aware of what really occurred. All that was certain, was that the North turned tail and fled as quickly as they could, and they haven’t made any overt signs of hostility towards the East since.

Even among Paragons, Jue Di was a legend. Not even his compatriots knew precisely how powerful he really was.

Lan Jue quietly nodded his head in agreement.

The Clairvoyant’s eyes were alive with starlight. “Since you’re one of his disciples, you should know that there are more than just we ten Paragons in the world of man. My task for you is to seek them out. If possible, gather them together. We will need their strength in the twilight of humanity’s existence.”

Lan Jue felt his heart skip a beat. Of course there were more than just ten Paragons. There had to be more hidden in every corner where man has tread.

He still remembered something his father once said. He was not the strongest of all humans, just strong. The Clairvoyant said something similar now. A strange feeling began to well up

inside of him – the fighting spirit! The courage of a warrior!

The Clairvoyant spoke again. “The Wine Master has some clues that can be used to help direct you to him. You should go with him. Remember, though, that we don’t have much time. You must use this opportunity to grow stronger and gather our forces.”

“Yes,” Lan Jue affirmed.

With a wave of his hand, the Clairvoyant dismissed the column of light separating them from the others.

The elderly master’s eyes flit to the Coffee Master, Seamstress, Bartender and Driver. “Each of you are outstanding members of the new generation, masters of mecha piloting. I may have set up the Star Alliance, but now it is your responsibility to continue it. You are also members of our Avenue. Jewelry Master, in the future I hope you end up leading this Star Alliance in my place. It’s time for Skyfire Avenue to organize.”

Lan Jue looked toward the other four members of the Clairvoyant’s coterie, and nodded. The Driver met his gaze with

a wry smile and, shaking his fist in determination, nodded in agreement.

“Alright, I swear it!” Lan Jue’s words were solemn, and serious as he made his promise to the soothsayer.

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