Chapter 301: The Old Way
Suddenly everyone nearby felt like they’d been hit by an armored truck. That murderous aura was thick as syrup as it hung over them.
Lan Jue felt sluggish, and the others felt it too. His four teaching assistants could barely move.
Such a powerful, dangerous aura!
The green masked man didn’t race toward Lan Jue right away. He took a step, and then suddenly he was off like a gust of wind. He threaded between Tan Lingyun and Wang Hongyuan, then whirled around so that he was behind the dance instructor. Now the assistant stood between Lan Jue and his opponent.
While Wang Hongyuan was fast and reactive, the green masked man was simply too quick. He couldn’t keep up with the man’s speed. He kicked a leg out behind him in hopes of connecting, throwing everything he had in to it.
In this sort of all-out melee, the focus was to do more damage to our opponent than he did to you in a short time. But as the
green masked man moved around, he reached out with a hand and slipped to the side. This permitted him to simultaneously avoid the kick, and grab Wang Hongyuan by the back.
By this time Lan Jue had arrived. But instead of pursuing the green masked man, he instead headed straight for Wang Hongyuan, and punched at the beleaguered dancer’s shoulder.
The poor man felt a strange power course through his shoulder, and his back grow hot.
The green masked man wrenched his hand back as quick as he’d lashed out. A quiet ‘yi’ was sputtered through the mask. But he wasn’t done, and before Wang Hongyuan could turn the man was slapping viciously at his back with both hands.
Lan Jue, never idle, reacted by thrusting both hands forward toward Hongyuan’s chest.
The National Eastern University’s dance instructor became the proxy for the war between the two masked drillmasters. He could feel a series of blasts rush from behind him.
Tan Lingyun grunted in dissatisfaction, throwing herself in a flying kick over Wang Hongyuan and toward his green masked assailant.
The man retreated a step, faster than anyone would have thought. Now his series of exchanges with Lan Jue had come to a close. As he retreated, Wang Hongyuan’s clothes fluttered, then dissolves in to ash. He stood there, naked as the day he was born.
“Ah!” Mika, Xiuxiu and Tan Lingyun were all understandably taken aback. Xiuxiu especially yelped in surprise.
The green masked man moved like the wind, weightless and effortless in every movement. He raced to the side, smooth as silk, appearing behind Xiuxiu.
Xiuxiu’s bashful and tmid nature had her stunned at the image of Wang Hongyuan’s naked body. All she felt was her body going numb, and then suddenly Xiuxiu collapsed to the ground.
A dignified indignation flared in Lan Jue’s eyes. Faster than lightning he raced forward to meet the green masked man head
on, and protect the second of his companions assailed by this stranger.
Since the beginning, this man’s target had been Wang Hongyuan, and then Xiuxiu. And Wang Hongyuan’s clothes, specifically. A true master of battlefield control.
“Back off,” Lan Jue’s voice growled. “He’s mine.” He knew attacking in numbers would add no pressure to this man. On the contrary, it just gave him more opportunities.
Wang Hongyuan tiptoed off the field, his face bloodless. There was a flash, and he vanished. That was certainly his Discipline at play.
The fight had only been very brief, but it had felt like hell. Wang Hongyuan could feel wave after wave of that terrifying aura passing through him. Although it did no harm, he felt himself frozen, locked in place like a statue. Even the bursts of air that passed by him didn’t strike. But the mere fact of being that close to the terrifying specter of death was draining. For these two, clearly the slightest mistake could mean terrible consequences.
Insane! These two are like damn nightmares! Without any hesitation, he was gone the moment Lan Jue said he wanted this fight one on one. He couldn’t have gotten out of there fast enough.
Gao Lei watched as Wang Hongyuan veritably blinked out of existence. It caused his brows to raise. He was no weakling, evidently! More surprising, though, was the golden masked drillmaster. He really could face down his own military instructor. Who the hell was he!
Mika and Xiuxiu backed off the moment they heard their boss’ voice. Tan Lingyun, however, did not.
There was a light for the lust of violence in her eyes, and excitement written clear on her pretty face. She looked at Lan Jue fervently.
“If you want to go one on one, that’s fine. But let me go first!”
“You?” Lan Jue paused, looking toward the green masked opponent.
He stood calmly to one side. “Very well then,” he said without being prompted.
The light in her eyes shone ever brighter, and she crouched like a lioness eyeing her prey. Then, straight as an arrow, she launched herself fist-first at the man’s face.
The green masked man swept his arm back and around, slapping Tan Lingyun’s fist toward the ground.
Tan Lingyun’s wrist flowed like water, wrapping backward around the man’s own hand. But she didn’t stop there. Her hands were like silk, and slid along the inside of his arm until she struck his chest.
“Huh?” Lan Jue blinked, surprised at what he saw. Even without the use of her Discipline, she was a competent fighter. It was news to him.
A flash of surprise flitted through the masked man’s eyes as well. He twisted his torso, and with the motion his arm began a corkscrew motion downward from the shoulder. Lingyun’s arm began to vibrate.
But Tan Lingyun was right where she needed to be. Her body arched as her legs swept up and over. With an acrobatic twist, her legs wrapped wrapped around the man’s neck. It was a nigh inhuman display of suppleness.
The green masked man stumbled back a step, groping at her back. She writhes from side to side like a snake, deftly evading his hands. With her ankles locked and her legs squeezing his neck, the Savage Goddess twisted her body violently to the side, making a full one hundred and eighty degree turn.
The very acrobatic strike was unexpected. Lan Jue also knew this was not some manifestation of her Discipline. She sure had some spectacular fighting methods.
Unfortunately, she didn’t know what she was going to face
Her legs were clamped around the man’s neck, but he responded by throwing his head back, trying to throw her free.
The inertia from her upper body forced her legs to twist. She hoped the fulcrum of the twist would force the green masked man to the ground.
But the end result was similar to Gao Lei’s exchange with Lan Jue. It was like the masked man could anticipate her every move.
Her legs were strangling the air from the man, but despite her hold and twists he never moved. She’d come at him full bore, but he was like a cast-iron statue. He would not be budged.
She felt a fist like steel strike her lower abdomen. By virtue of his terrifying strength, she was thrown away flailing. She curled in to a ball, pained by the strike.
There were many things to consider in a fight between a man and a woman. A man had to be careful not to strike a woman’s head, face or private areas. As a result, the abdomen became the primary target. Hits there didn’t leave any permanent damage, but they certainly reduced your opponent’s combative prowess.
Tan Lingyun flew a good five or six meters before striking the ground. The green masked man approached and, with the tip of his boot, kicked her.
Tan Lingyun was in the air again, flailing unceremoniously toward Lan Jue.
The drillmaster caught his assistant. Immediately he could see the skin of her face around the mask was pale and drawn. Sweat was coursing down her forehead. There was a fear in her eyes that spoke volumes, underpinned by a strange and unsettling mania.
Lan Jue passed her over to Mika, and then slowly turned to face her assailant.
Their powerful and frightening Savage Goddess lost so easily? The students of the NEU stood in shocked silence. Who was this man? He was like a monster!
The green masked man returned Lan Jue’s stare. After a moment his calm voice emerged from the mask. “I did indeed look down on you all. But this woman’s strength is passable, and your students are not entirely worthless.”
Lan Jue nodded. “I hope to have them undergo the Iron Army selection process after their training is complete. What do you say.”
“If they can pass twenty courses, then fine.” The man said.
“Excellent!” Lan Jue’s voice was fierce and prideful. Then, once again the fight was on. He raced forward toward his opponent without warning. He even began much the same way Tan Lingyun had, fist first.
The green masked man responded by lashing out with his own fist. The two white-knuckled appendages met in mid air, and where they collided there was an audible bang! A burst of air followed, and the gathered students and soldiers stared wide- eyed and open mouthed as they gust of air buffeted their faces.
How strong were these guys!
Lan Jue attacked, fast as lightning. His whole body was like a martial weapon, and he used every part to put pressure on his enemy. Hands, shoulders, elbows, knees, legs – even his head. Whatever was needed to get the edge.
But the green masked man’s defense was impermeable. His hands were like fan blades, no matter which direction Lan Jue approached from, his blocked any attack that came his way. Gust after gust of wind blew out from between them with each exchange.
The wind was strong to begin with, but as the fight raged on it became almost a tempest. The sounds of their strikes landing sounded like thunder. Footprints and craters appeared on the battlefield beneath them. The metal alloy floor couldn’t stand up to the sheer strength of the two men.
Chapter 302: Wisdom And The Way
They got faster and faster as time stretched on. Some of the students were having a hard time following.
Were they really not using their Disciplines? This was a question in the minds of every spectator. If they were so strong and frightening without Disciplines, how much of a terror where they with them?
Bang! Lan Jue’s body was cast away, with a footprint displayed prominently on his chest. He soared twenty meters and hit the ground with a grunt.
“There has been progress,” the green masked man said.
Lan Jue’s eyes narrowed. He rose to his feet, but remained stationary instead of racing forward to re-engage. He lifted his arms, trailing them gently through the air in a smooth arc. A gentle sensation began to radiate from him, and the surrounding students and soldiers felt the energy modulating their temperament. The hard and implacable became gentle and calm. There was an almost indescribable elegance to it, an ethereal quality that was difficult to pin down.
The pain in Tan Lingyun’s stomach where she’d been struck eased almost immediately. Her eyes lit up when she saw the man she knew as Lei Feng undergo the transformation. “The old way?”
The green masked man took a step forward, knees in, hands up. One arm was held in front of him with the palm pointed toward his chest. His other hand was raised above his head with palm pointed to heaven.
It was the strangers’ turn to attack. He launched off of his back foot, and floated like a leaf on the wind straight toward Lan Jue. He reached out with a palm strike.
The advance looked slow and easy. Even reaching out for a hit as he was, he seemed gentle. But Tan Lingyun could clearly see that his hand had grown, swelled almost, and a green light was radiating out around it. She could sense, even just by looking, that the man’s hand could probably chop right through a boulder.
Lan Jue lifted his arms to block the strike. When the two connected, the drillmaster flowed like water under the attack. The man and his powerful lunge were negated, and cast aside.
The green masked man came at him with strike after strike from his palms, both of which were surrounded in a dazzling golden light. Each wave of those hands looked easy, almost lazy. But there was a startling power behind them. Lan Jue moved as well, and with both of his hands spread, he extended his legs out wide in a single coordinated movement. Every attack he received was diffused or redirected. Every strike was met at just the right point to render them useless. However the deafening blasts were gone, and their exchange was much slower than they had been. Now, again, the onlookers could see clearly. From what they could see, this part of their fight was much more frightening than what had come before, even without the gusts of wind and bursts of thunder. The slightest mistake, on either side, meant obliteration when using attacks this strong.
The green masked man’s palm strikes became more oppressive as time passed. But still he retained that strange sense of calm harmony.
Lan Jue, meanwhile, gave the impression he was one with everything around him – an integral piece of the natural way. Even the air around him was like a part of him, and his movements were as smooth as clouds through a calm sky. But underneath the gentle display, was the potential for explosive power. He would show it from time to time, and the green masked man would retreat and reevaluate.
Tan Lingyun’s own Discipline was mastery of the Supernatural, so she could feel the powers clearly. It was fascinating, for even she couldn’t achieve that level of symbiosis with nature without using her Discipline.
The gathered students and soldiers watched with rapt disbelief as their two instructors duked it out. Mika and Xiuxiu forced them back and out of harm’s way.
Gao Lei continued to watch, shock in his eyes. This is martial arts, he thought, the ancient styles of kung fu!
The martial arts were skills developed in the ancient days. But they were more than skills, they were a way of life – with a culture all their own. These particular styles came from China of the former era, with roots tens of thousands of years old on the mother planet.
Unfortunately as time passed and man progressed, more and more of these combat styles were lost to history. Gao Lei could faintly remember hearing that the masters of these styles passed their knowledge through word of mouth, as family secrets. True masters of the craft were said to have powers to match Adepts. Of course, they didn’t have the sphere of influence a Discipline afforded.
He’d always been told that an Adept who could learn and develop with a martial arts style that suited their natural abilities would undoubtedly grow strong. So it was that many of the highest order of Adepts would seek out and learn a style. Of course, finding a master of an ancient fighting tradition was much easier said than done.
He knew that Tan Lingyun had used martial arts in her fight, but he’d never imagined this Lei Feng or his own master would be such powerhouses.
Just then, the situation changed on the battlefield. Without warning, the green masked man threw himself in to a vaulted back flip. He pressed his palms to his chest and, amid a dazzling display, was enshrouded by a golden aura. The scent of sandalwood filled the air, and then his aura silently burst in to bloom, expanding to fall over Lan Jue.
“Mantra of Spirit.” The green masked man’s deep voice hummed the words. Even the tone seemed infused with magical essence, and as his body doubled in size no one could look away.
The golden light and aura of profundity seemed to cover the whole world.
Lan Jue planted his feet, stretched out his arms, and drew a slow circle in the air before him. A dull, peaceful white light sprang up, and like a vortex drew the encroaching wave of energy in to itself. They clashed and tangled, and Lan Jue was slid back a few paces. However he never lost poise, and his ethereal link with the supernatural never wavered.
The green masked man landed. Then, striking forward, he pushed his pressed hands outward.
“Mantra of Clarity!”
The sweeping force of golden energy retracted, and was drawn in to the man’s outstretched palms. Two beams of pure light exploded from them.
Lan Jue drew back his arms, folding his arms like holding a ball. The white light that had surrounded him condensed between his cupped hands, and then it too was launched out.
Once again the white and gold lights met.
A wild whipping gust of wind tore across the field. Lan Jue was pushed back, one step after another for ten paces. Deep grooves were left where he’d stood.
A nimbus of golden rays protruded from behind the green masked man. He retracted his hands, clenching them in to fists.
Lan Jue was breathing heavily as he regained his footing. His chest rose and fell with the effort. He didn’t move, remaining still, with his eyes closed. The green masked man was also at rest, waiting with his fists crossed at the small of his back.
A moment later, Lan Jue opened his eyes. He offered a nod to the other man. “Thank you for the instruction.”
“You’ve improved,” the masked man replied. He said nothing further, and left without acknowledging anyone.
Lan Jue turned back to the students. “Have you seen enough?
If so, we’ve got more training to do.”
The esteem in Gao Lei and his soldiers’ eyes was evident. Although they had no idea what rank or Discipline this Lei Feng
Drillmaster really possessed, but from what he’d revealed just now he was certainly awe inspiring.
The exercises continued, but Lan Jue stood back a ways. He was silent, choke full of emotion – at last he’d been able to face down the mantra of clarity! He could still remember years ago, the best he could do was the mantra of spirit. Each time he had to face clarity, though, he’d lose. This time he’d almost compelled him to resort to his final attack.
He went over the fight in his mind, the details clear and fresh.
He pondered, and digested.
It is said the top pilots were always the ones who were able to join themselves with their suits. But in the world of mecha piloting, that isn’t enough. Training in a martial art is very important.
Until now no one had learned how to fully incorporate all three aspects. A suit capable of doing so would be prohibitively difficult to construct. The rarest of metals would be needed for the alloy, the most powerful power gems, and it would need to be perfectly customized. Every martial master’s requirements are different, not to mention the need for their martial art and Discipline to combine. If they didn’t, both would be made
weaker as a result.
This has been an important watermark for pilots in the East, even though they rarely had the opportunity to use it. There had yet to be built a specialized martial mecha suit, and that where the pilots met their hard ceiling.
Lan Jue had actually used some of his most fundamentally understood martial moves with his mecha during the god team battles. After years of improvements and upgrades, and years of practice in DreamNet, he was able to perform some very basic moves.
It was during his battle with the Driver, known to him then as Thunderclap. He’d managed after a fashion to join the art with his Discipline, and it was that that had allowed him to combine the yin of Thunderclap’s power with the yang of his own. The result was the terrifying powerful beam attack, that turned the tables.
“A-Jue. Your Discipline is a manifestation of the firm, and the positive. It is the accumulation of the earth’s true energy. When
you follow the right path, your Discipline will be strong; but if you lose your way, your Discipline will weaken. Remember to keep yourself on the path of righteousness, do not permit exogenous evils to persuade you. Stand tall through bright days and stormy nights. What is hard can easily break, so today I shall begin to teach you the secrets of Tai chi. Therein you will learn flexibility in the face of hardships. Firm, and pliable; Yin, and Yang. A man of military and social responsibility.”
“A-Qing. Quick, clear, controllable. For you, the mantras of freedom, so that you might keep an even temperment. They will sooth the tempestuous winds within you, and also give them freedom. This will be a grand achievement. Turn the cool breeze to a raging hurricane, and the world will bend the knee. But unbridled freedom has no root. It is easy to grow deficient without a source of sustenance. To you, I will teach the Hannya. Wisdom. And with it, just as you control the winds of storms, you will also command the Vajra. Your power will be fearsome!”
“Bro, you’re art is too much for me. How am I supposed to block it without my Discipline?! Tai chi is as soft as water. It’s
useless in blocking your attacks.”
“You heard the teacher. If your Tai chi can one day block my three mantras, then you’ll have perfected it. Get up! If the teacher says you can do it, then you can do it!”
The NEU students’ solid foundation carried them through the remaining exercises, pushing the limits of the training. As the day wore on the ten trainers they ere allotted became fifty, and each student had a sparring partner. Lan Jue’s fifty-first student trained with Gao Lei directly. Tang Xiao had won that honor.
Chapter 303: The Right Guess
Tang Xiao had made quite the impression with his rage-filled assault in the last fight. It left a particularly powerful impression on Gao Lei. He was so impressed, in fact, that he’d approached Tang Xiao before the training, patting him on the shoulder, and shared a few words. If he ever joined the forces, he’d said, Tang Xiao was sure to become an excellent soldier. He promised to lay a solid foundation so the young man could achieve that dream.
Then Tang Xiao…
Wang Hongyuan, Tang Lingyun, Mika and Xiuxiu were underwhelmed by the military training, when compared to the last month the students had suffered. For them this was especially true; what they needed, was combat experience.
It was also notable that they were still forbidden from using their Disciplines. To Lan Jue, the best way to become better was trial by fire.
When meal time came, the students wolfed down their nutrition like ravenous animals. They fell asleep almost immediately and, in conjunction with the injections the young
women were administrating, they were right as rain by the time they woke up.
“Drillmaster Lei Feng.” Lan Jue turned to face the unfamiliar voice, an uninvited guest in their dormitory.
Tan Lingyun stood a small distance away. Even in her flaking mask she was a stunning vision of beauty. The tight-fitting flight suit accentuated her feminine charms.
“What is it?” Lan Jue’s door was open. He had yet to remove the mask, so his identity remained intact.
“I wanted to verify something with you,” she replied.
Lan Jue shot her a curious look. “Verify what?
The Savage Goddess’ chest heaved in a sigh. She looked as though she were struggling with herself. “That man in the green mask… he was the An Lun supersoldier wasn’t he? The one they call Prometheus.”
“Why do you say that,” Lan Jue answered.
She went on. “I know what kind of power you command. You showed that today with the fight – more than any normal man could handle. But the other one was even stronger. He was able to wander around here without any of the soldiers stopping him, and young. If he isn’t Prometheus, then I have no idea who else he could be.”
Lan Jue’s eyes reverted to the calm indifference they usually bore. “So you think he’s Prometheus. I guess he must be. It’s late, time for you to get some rest.”
Tan Lingyun didn’t move. She just looked back at him. She sputtered suddenly “That means you’re probably Zeus. I should stop calling you Lei Feng. Drillmaster Zeus – that’s what I should address you as.”
“Eh?” Now Lan Jue was truly taken aback. He thought desperately about how he revealed himself.
Tan Lingyun’s eyes twinkled fervently as she looked at him. “There are so few god-ranked pilots, and even fewer in DreamNet. You’ve worked hard to keep your identity a secret,
but I first saw it during the god-ranked battles. There are a few small movements you and Zeus perform exactly the same. Furthermore, we’ve seen that you have a strong Discipline, that focuses on lightning. There are only a few famous pilots who fit that description. That, and your close relationship with Prometheus which we could guess from that exchange, just confirmed it. You’re Prometheus’ brother in arms – Zeus. I’m right, aren’t I? And that man who came to the NEU and helped with the training, that water Adept, he must have been Poseidon!”
Lan Jue rose to his feet, and approached Tan Lingyun. She unconsciously took a step back, but her eyes were as bright and excited as ever.
Lan Jue knew that look. It was the same way Poseidon’s fans looked at him.
The training schedule was a full one. The soldier training program was as brutal as it was trying. But the students were
elated, because there were many devices here a soldier might use for training – tools they now had access to. Not least of these were the mecha used in actual combat.
A month was hardly any time at all to them. Though the work here was laborious and tough, and they only had about four hours of rest a day, but they had the best instructors and then those nutrition injections which made it bearable.
More and more the students were realizing that the hell they’d experienced during the first month was to help them achieve a very solid foundation. It helped them improve their skills, as well as their ability to carry on in the face of hardships. Now they were like sponges, and absorbed every little detail they came across.
Of course the bioelectricity, the medicine baths, and the protogenic emulsion they’d absorbed, all conspired to help them gain as much as they could from the experience, to absorb and assimilate it as quickly as possible. Of course, they didn’t necessarily realize it themselves.
Almost every day a student was breaking through to a new level – not just their Discipline, but their spirit.
Innocence was systematically drawn from the fresh faces of the young pilots. It was replaced by a steadfast resolution, a deep-seated iron quality. They adopted the same expressionless face the soldiers bore. No matter what they encountered, they did so with an indifferent façade.
They had also gotten used to this painfully dreary – and physically painful – existence. They were even starting to like this metal world they inhabited. Every day they worked, they had a deeper understanding on the An Lun soldiers and what they did for the Alliance. Not only were their bodies finely honed killing machines, their willpower was also forged to be hard as steel. Only men and women like these could defend the Alliance from its enemies.
“You’re certainly an effective Drillmaster!” Lan Qing stood on a metal platform, overlooking the training field. As always, his voice was soft, hardly louder than a whisper.
Lan Jue allowed himself a small smile. He wasn’t wearing his mask: his face needed some fresh air.
“Do you really want them to undergo the selection process?” Lan Qing turned his face to look at his brother.
Lan Jue nodded. “So they can prove to themselves how far they’ve come. Powerful people require confidence, and confidence is the root of power. If they use their abilities to improve their confidence, they’ll improve even further. Then they’ll really be ready to stand on their own.”
“What then? What’s the plan once they’ve completed this training?”
“Make me a battalion commander,” Lan Jue said off- handedly.
“Eh?” Lan Qing looked at his younger brother in stunned disbelief.
Lan Jue’s grin revealed rows of pearly white teeth. “I’ve always wanted my own team. I mean, my power has its limits but these kids are full of potential. I’m certain, in a few years, I could turn them in to an elite fighting force.”
“You. Join the Army.” Lan Jue just stared.
“Not now of course,” Lan Jue said. “If what the Clairvoyant
said is true, I’ll come and find you when the enemy appears. I’ll be your errand boy, how’s that?”
“You believe these kids will continue to follow you?” the commander asked.
Lan Jue looked over the students gathered below. “Step by step, brother. Why do you think I brought them here? I’m certain they’ll never forget their days on An Lun, long after this month of training is over. In old China there was a saying, wasn’t there? ‘Only the father and son can win a battle.’ We don’t know who our father is, but when the enemy does show I want to be by my brother’s side.”
Lan Qing’s rock-solid face crumbled just enough to allow a small smile. He raised a hand and patted Lan Jue’s shoulder. “We’ve got to get stronger!”
“Yes. So if these kids do manage to pass muster and get selected, you’re going to owe me something.” Lan Jue said through a smirk.
The smile on Lan Qing’s face widened still further. “Everything you’ve said so far was building to this sentence.”
“Worthy of being known as the ‘God of Wisdom’,” Lan Jue said.
Lan Qing shook his head. “I didn’t guess. I knew because I’m your big brother. You’re never so nice as when you need something.”
Lan Jue brought his eyes back to Lan Qing. “If – when… when the day comes that I can, I’m going to beat the ever loving crap out of you.”
Lan Qing met his gaze. “I’m looking forward to it. Now let’s get going.”
“Go where?” Lan Jue asked.
“I’ve helped you train your Tai chi, and I see you’ve improved considerably. You have to keep it up.”
Lan Jue’s face scrunched in displeasure. “Don’t give me that.
You just want to smack me around some more.”
Fifty-one students stood in five rows. Their faces were still, devoid of expression. This, and their dark flight suits, lent to the faint aura of deadliness that had begun to follow them.
Lan Jue, in his golden masked, stood before them. Tan Lingyun, Wang Hongyuan, Mika and Xiuxiu where fanned out to his left and right.
“It’s been nearly a month since we’ve arrived. Soon we’ll be heading back. This means that the second portion of our overall training is complete. It’s time to leave An Lun.” Lan Jue’s voice was soft, but carried well.
The students stood in formation, absolutely still. No one dared move, or make a sound. They were like statues, dangerous statues. At the very least, they were much more disciplined than when they’d first arrived.
But there was more in their eyes; loss.
Their time here on this famed planet was – literally and figuratively – a world different than the live they’d lived on Skyfire. They didn’t even want to consider time during the first month of training. Every day was a battle against the pain that consumed them, to where they hardly wished to live. They didn’t even want to remember those awful days.
But here, on An Lun, things were different. Although they were weary, beaten down, and in pain, but they felt enriched. They were learning knew things every day, things they they lapped up like a thirsty man in the desert. They could all feel the vast improvements they’ve made since classes started.
The impractical and showy fisticuffs they’d shown up with were gone. They’d learned the proper way to fight, simple and direct without any unneeded flare. Efficiency, callousness, obeisance and fearlessness – that was who they were now. These were things they learned from the soldiers, things only the elite could understand.
Many were surprised to discover that they liked it here. Only those who fit in could see, could understand the industrious and hardworking life the soldiers had here, and why they liked it.
In this world of steel and iron, every one of them had grown
tremendously. And not just in power, either. They’d arrived as boys and girls, but now they were men and women. Now they were on their way to being warriors.
And now it was time to leave? The last two months were all that was left in their memory, that torment and torture and surprise and elation. It was almost done. At the outset the number of students who’d wanted out were innumerable. But that fear and loathing were gone, now they were struggling with regret.
Those emotional, conflicted eyes followed their Demon Drillmaster.
Chapter 304: The Assessment Challenge
“But as we’re leaving, it’s important for us to leave something behind. Your instructors have trained you diligently for the last month, putting their heart and soul in to it. When I asked for their help, they complied. They did so by giving you all a chance to feel the reality of life as an An Lun soldier. In a moment, I will lead you all through a very special test. If you can pass it, then you definitely can pass the An Lun acceptance criteria. If, one day, you decide to join the armed forces and come to An Lun, then the doors to the Iron Army will be wide open for you.”
As the words washed over them, the students couldn’t help but mutter their thoughts to one another. Lan Jue could see the light of excitement in the eyes of several young men in the front row.
“Drillmaster, is this for real? You’re saying we can join the Iron Army?” Very few people would have the stones to interrupt the Drillmaster. Of course, Jin Tao was one of them.
Lan Jue nodded. “If you can pass the test we’re about to administer, then yes. You have a shot.”
Jin Tao pounded his fist in to his left palm, and grinned like a mad man at his instructor.
Being a soldier had been this young man’s dream for years. Over the last few months, he’d seen a tremendous change, and every day he felt stronger. Being here on An Lun had also forced him to grow up somewhat. More and more he felt as though he were no longer a child – he was a man, and no more Dumb-Mutt Jin Tao. And it didn’t go unnoticed, for Lan Jue recognized him as the most excellent student in the whole group.
It wasn’t that the others didn’t try as hard as he did. His passion… his obsession was more than the others could match. He approached every training course with a rabid tenacity, and threw everything he had behind every action. He just wouldn’t stop, until he had it down perfectly. Gao Lei had even approached Lan Jue in secret, and urged him to leave Jin Tao behind. He liked the kid, after all sometimes soldiers needed to be a little crazy.
Many had the same thought process Jin Tao did. In this last month they hadn’t just been training, but were also coming to understand An Lun and the warriors who protected it.
More and more they were beginning to see the truth behind
the Iron Army. It was hard, but glorious work.
And now they had the chance to join them, if they could pass this assessment. This pie in the sky dream of theirs was a possibility, suddenly. They could hardly contain their excitement.
Lan Jue went on. “This assessment and An Lun’s traditional selection process are different. This is largely because we didn’t have the time to participate in several specialized training courses. However, for any warrior there is no better display of ability than actual combat. So, your final assessment will be a fight, with An Lun as your battlefield. Your enemies will be the First Independent Combat Group, led by the First Pilot. And do you remember that man in the green mask? He’ll be directing his soldiers. They will have mechas with training weaponry. Myself and my four assistants will be in charge of your team. If you guys can win, then you’ve passed the assessment.”
Real mecha combat?
Once again the students were blind-sided by the revelation. They’d been using actual mechas throughout the training, but never true combat. It was a dangerous endeavor, especially for students. The specialized training weaponry they used were
harmless lasers, but they still recorded damage. The suits were designed to shake and smoke when the damage threshold had been reached, and that was a sign that the pilot was down. The lasers also recorded shield damage for close-combat attackers.
Lan Jue turned, and pointed toward the distance. “Do you see it? That is an An Lun combat mecha suit.” Their drillmaster indicated an array of pitch black suits with red dragon heads emblazoned on the chest plate. They stood in orderly lines, and an ominous sense of dread sprang up in the heart of all who looked upon them.
The students had used the basic versions of the same mechs for their training. ‘Basic’, though, wasn’t an adequate phrase. Even the lowest level models here were treated with a special coating that made them stronger. It allowed them to fight in space as well. Each time the students were confronted with them, they were extremely excited. After all, who wouldn’t want to fly in the same suits the An Lun soldiers used?
“If you pass,” Lan Jue began, “the army has agreed to lend each of you a Bloodlust suit equipped with an interspace armlet, for one year.”
“Woah!” Many students audible let their surprise known. Tan
Lingyun and Wang Hongyuan, however, shot their drillmaster a strange look.
Lending mecha suits? It was the first time they’d heard anything like this. And they even had interspacial armlets.
The armlets were basic fare for any suit that needed storage. It was restricted to mecha specific items, but startlingly pricey. For these students, it was a beautiful addition.
Not everyone’s family had the funds to purchase a suit. The NEU wasn’t a top university, or a particularly affluent one. Their students were normal people living off of normal salaries. These military suits, though, weren’t even on the market for the rich!
Almost immediately, the excitement before a fight sprang up around them, almost palpable in the air. Aside from a few less enthusiastic participants, everyone was itching to give them a try.
Lan Jue’s deep voice cut through the din. “I do need to remind you, the difficulty to win matches the prize. According to An Lun tradition, a battalion has one hundred men. This means
you will be having two-to-one odds, against trained killers. Their leader is a god-ranked pilot even stronger than I. He was an almost superhuman ability for critical thought and tactics, on top of being a powerhouse physically. So, when the fight starts, don’t underestimate your enemies. Don’t enter in to this with the mistaken assumption that it’ll be easy. You must follow orders to the letter. Next I’ll be giving out specific assignments.”
Lan Jue looked over the crowd. “We have fifty-six bodies, which we’ll separate in to five teams. First team will be led by Tan Lingyun. Those I call line up behind her…”
The groups were arranged quickly, five as he’d promised. However, none of the groups contained the Drillmaster himself, or his two mysterious female assistants – Mika and Xiuxiu.
The group leaders were Tan Lingyun, Wang Hongyuan, Tang Xiao, Geng Yang and Tang Mi.
“The actual fight will take place on a hilly battlefield roughly ten kilometers in diameter. This is a seek and destroy mission, so victory won’t be achieved until all of our enemies are defeated. I will be passing down orders throughout the match. Group leaders, make sure the instructions are followed to the
letter. The base rules are as follows; do not continue to fight when you’re down or otherwise instructed; do not leave the allotted battlefield area; and do not give the enemy the opportunity to flank you. As the situation on the battlefield changes, you’ll be given more specific instruction. Understood?”
“Yes, sir!” the students roared.
Lan Jue nodded. “Good. Time to get started!”
The mecha suits they would use had been prepared earlier. They were military suits, but specifically altered for training purposes. All of their weapons were replaced with training gear as well.
Lan Jue, Mika and Xiuxiu also entered in to similar suits. Fifty-six mecha took off simultaneously, then formed ranks and headed for the battlefield.
By now the students were all very familiar with the lay of the land. Like their teacher said before, this was their chance to leave a mark before they left. It was a chance to show off what they’d learned over the last month.
As they left the base, the barren wasteland of An Lun’s surface came in to view. Now that they were beyond the base’s environmental shields, no living thing could exist out here. It was all noxious gasses and poisoned earth. The suit’s life- support systems were the only things between them and a painful death.
But despite the less than hospitable conditions, it was a perfect place to start a fight.
A small overhead map appeared on the console within each suit. It was a common tool in the arsenal of the warrior. Within no time at all they were following the map to their final destination.
As they were told, the terrain was hilly here. The ground rolled from peaks to valleys, stretching in to the distance. The tallest peak was only five hundred meters of dull yellow rock.
They received the signal from the An Lun soldiers; their enemies were in position. The assessment was set to begin at any moment.
“Attention everyone. Engrave it on your memory – this is not
a drill. You are to treat this as a real battle, and use everything you’ve got. Disciplines are permitted. Remember to cease the moment your opponent’s suit starts to smoke. Is that clear?”
“Yes, sir!” the students replied through their communicators.
Lan Jue’s deep voice crackled through the consoles. “Alpha team, take cover in sector B. Echo and Delta, to your assigned positions in sector A. Charlie will start for sector D, and Bravo to E. Move out.” The students complied.
Fifty-six mecha spread out and shot off in different directions. Lan Jue, Mika and Xiuxiu headed straight for the opposite end. He was the commander of these students, so that meant he not only needed to give them direction, but also serve as scout.
Sector A was closes to the enemy’s starting position. Wang Hongyuan was leading his group there, as was Tang Xiao. Sector A did have higher ground, so the primary objective was controlling that area. Control of high ground was also of paramount tactical importance, because it made it easier to control the overall situation. That’s why there were two groups here.
Alpha team, led by Tan Lingyun, was the strongest one they had. Jin Tao and other accomplished pilots fought at her side. At least six of them were emperor-ranked pilots already.
The ping of functioning radar filled their cockpits as the ultraviolet rays swept toward the distant horizon in search of enemies. The deep heralded a frightening site. Every screen in Sector A saw it – a thick cloud of red dots descending upon them.
The An Lun soldiers spread out like a net, spreading wide as they approached the students’ location. None of their enemies were spotted in the skies, which was to be expected – it would make them easy targets. They worked together a cohesive unit and, although they looked to be spreading further apart, they were all ready to react to their neighbor’s movements at the drop of a hat. They came rushing in to the sector, then slowed as the search for their victims began.
Chapter 305: Terrifying Enemy
The opposition had an entire battalion, and the green masked man. One hundred and one enemies, almost twice the number of students from the NEU. Lan Jue didn’t know how good these soldiers were in the realm of mecha combat, but thy were undoubtedly better than his own students. He figured they had practically no chance at victory in this one.
If they wanted to have any chance, the first step would be breaking through their formation. If they can spread them out and sow a little chaos through the ranks, it could do something but help.
For the NEU contingent, their greatest advantages lay in their Discipline. Now that Qianlin’s Discipline had advanced, there was no one among them with a Talent below the fifth rank. In fact, over the last two months every one of his students have had their Disciplines improved, though some more than others. Those who were originally fifth rank saw their Talent improve a whole grade and then some. Between the copious amounts of medicine and Lan Jue’s bio-electricity, how could they not improve? Then of course, there was no improvement without suffering.
Lan Jue led Mike and Xiuxiu toward the center of the zone. He
knew, of course, this would reveal them to enemy radar.
Sure enough, five enemy mechas detached and formed a strike force, headed their way.
To preserve equanimity, everyone had exactly the same mecha suit. This was true for the lowest soldier to Lan Jue and the green masked man as well. This silution presented a problem, however, in that Lan Qing couldn’t tell where Lan Jue was in the mess of identical suits. This was the same for Lan Jue.
For those two, the beginning of the drill was a battle of wits and courage. If the enemy general was among those five encroaching mechas, they had a hard fight under retreat to look forward to. On the other hand, if he wasn’t among them then the enemy side was short five men. It was a gamble, but this was how the game was played at their level.
Lan Jue wasn’t playing foolhardy risks. He knew his brother, and though he was a calm man, he had no hesitation to go for the throat in matters of military strategy. Of course he also wasn’t a fool. Lan Jue’s brother was a keen military mind, with a far reaching strategic vision. If he was among them, bringing soldiers along not only concealed his identity, but increased his
combat effectiveness at least thirty percent.
With these truths concerning his enemy in mind, Lan Jue’s own principle during this fight was to be steadfast, and calm. Be patient, and wait for opportunities to present themselves.
He led Xiuxiu and Mika away, maintaining low altitude as they cruised toward sector A and the others. When the five mechas arrived at the location they were just at, they didn’t give chase.
Suddenly, a blast of electromagnetic energy tore through the area. The Iron Army was buffeting them with radar blocking. Lan Jue and the others were blind were blind.
“Enable signal interference!” Lan Jue commanded. His voice crackled through the coms as he rapidly positioned the teams.
The earlier exploratory excursion was to entice the enemy, a tactic both Lan Jue and Lan Qing used often. Now their contest was truly under way.
Lan Jue picked up speed, leading his two amazons toward his
small army’s left flank. If one were to look from on high, they’d see all of the students using the hilly land to conceal their numbers and location, just as Lan Jue was.
When fighting against superior numbers, consolidating was the best defense. It was a basic tenant of military strategy. The students began to congregate under the cover of an undulating landscape.
Lan Jue was certain Lan Qing was counting on this. He didn’t know how his brother would approach this situation, nor did he want to guess, but he did know very well how strong Lan Qing was. If he led the vanguard, they might as well not even bother fighting. No, they would have to just wait, and hope for an opportunity to take them by surprise.
The students were almost completely assembled. Clearly, their two-month training had not been a waste. They reacted swiftly, and their situational awareness was on point. They knew to conceal themselves as they arrived, and to remain so to foil the enemy. They re-positioned with great care.
Then, suddenly, an ear-splitting alarm rattled through Lan Jue’s suit.
“This is Geng Yang. We’ve encounter the enemy. They’re approaching in arrow formation.” Geng Yang’s urgent voice filled the small cockpit.
Lan Jue’s heart sank. From the radar he could see the whole flank charging forward. It was a perfect arrow, tearing forward like a scythe before weeds. Delta team was right in its path.
At this point Alpha, Bravo and Charlie were very close. Echo had already formed up beside Delta. The way the enemy’s charge was positioned, it threatened to cut the two sets of teams off from one another.
“Echo, break off and hide. Delta, retreat!”
But just then, Geng Yang’s voice returned to report that the arrow had dispersed. Then, the sky was blotted out by a hail of laser fire. The sizzling red lights engulfed Geng Yang. Like that, it was likely his Delta squad was cut down.
Even from a distance away Lan Jue could see plumes of dark black smoke rising from of Delta’s position. The sign of a ruined suit.
Echo squad, under Tang Mi’s command, quickly found hiding places. Luckily she hadn’t rushed full out to Delta’s aid, or her team would likely be among them.
Lan Jue’s expression was dark and grim. He knew his brother would be a trial to deal with, but he certainly hadn’t anticipated tactics like this. Attack with everything you got – a full swam. Simple, direct, effective.
“Come with me!” Lan Jue raced forward in a counter-charge, bringing three squads with him. Thankfully Geng Yang’s defeat was not in vain. They knew where the enemy had been, and could track them from there if needed. Follow, nip at their heels, pick them off, retreat and repeat. Circle around them and peck away until there was nothing left. That was their chance!
He sped to the peak of a mountain, and looked out over the terrain. Once more, his face changed.
He saw all one hundred and one An Lun soldiers, their dark suits like a cloud of angry bees from this distance. They were concentrated in a valley, organized so that squadrons faced out in all directions. They were unapproachable.
In their brief hand to hand exchanges, Lan Jue and his students had come to learn the ferocity of the An Lun warriors. Speed, formation, leadership – they were much higher trained in all aspects. Lan Qing could command as he pleases without fear of reprisal!
The remains of Delta squad limped from the carnage, reduced by a fifth. This final exercise was only getting more difficult.
Had it not been for Lan Jue’s reconnaissance, they’d have run headlong in to the entire battalion. It goes without saying that would have ended poorly.
A direct assault was suicide in situations like this. Lan Jue immediately gave the order to halt. The three squads moved as a unit, finding cover. Only Lan Jue and the amazons ventured out to survey the enemy’s formation.
They’d likely been there five minutes, and clearly not expecting a sneak attack. As they watched the group switched formation, and drew in to a single battle array. It started heading for Lan Jue and the others.
Lan Jue understood. This was the contingent Geng Yang had
seen coming their way, before they’d disappeared, revealing the enemy’s advance. Lan Qing wasn’t giving him any chance at all!
In this sort of situation, he had four choices it seemed; retreat, veer left, swing right… or if they were adventurous, straight ahead.
Breaking through was ridiculous, of course. His main force would be discovered immediately. They would meet their end surrounded by Lan Qing’s terrifying Iron Army. Left, right or retreat… but Lan Qing likely had a reply and response for each. He was stuck in a progressively shrinking box.
What can I do?
“Retreat.” Lan Jue’s voice was calm and dispassionate. The command trickled down from leader to leader. The three squads broke off in separate directions. Echo, so far untested was also given specific orders to fall back.
Lan Jue tapped a few commands through the mech, and in response his viewing screen filled with data.
His eyes brightened. His face, lit by the streams f data flashing passed his screen, revealed the faintest hint of a smile.
Lan Qing had been calmly commanding his soldiers from the front, in the center of the independent battalion. He’d seen what Lan Jue’s students could due this last month, and didn’t look down on his brother’s training regimen. They were talented, and dangerous, pilots.
Adepts were a relatively rare thing among the vast spread of humanity. Finding those above the fifth rank was even less common. Among these soldiers it wasn’t even certain all of them even had Disciplines. Though Adepts were prioritized over ordinary humans due to their superior physical fitness, the talented ones were also sought after.
The Iron Army did have the highest concentration of Adepts in all of the East’s armed forces, but even then they composed perhaps a tenth of the total forces. The remaining non-gifted were selected through an exhaustive, layered process that included mecha combat. It was imposing and difficult, but it would be true to say there weren’t any non-adepts among the ranks of God-ranked pilots, rare though they were.
Every single one of Lan Jue’s students were Adepts, and
decent ones. To the Iron Army they were equivalent to their upper echelons of Talents. Throughout the training, none of them had been permitted to use their Disciplines outright. Lan Qing couldn’t know what they would be bringing to the fight. He’d be needed at the front to command them directly. He suspected each student individually would require about twenty soldiers to overwhelm and defeat. Under his command they could do it easily. After all, what was one month of training compared to over ten years of experience?
His plan was revealed, at least in part. He would command in battle groups, whose concentrated firepower would deny them the chance to use their individual advantage.
Chapter 306: Lan Jue’s Tactics
With one charge a fifth of a squad was defeated, as anticipated. He had a wealth of talent and experience in military matters, and knew what to expect. Right now, though, the most important thing was finding Lan Jue. If his younger brother were allowed to direct these students, joining their Disciplines and the mechas, he was afraid of the result. If he wasn’t there with his soldiers, they’d probably be wiped out.
His eyes narrowed. This wasn’t just a contest between student and soldier. This was a duel between brothers.
Over the last month the two engaged in several ‘exhibition matches’, none who which Lan Jue won. However, Lan Qing was very clearly able to see his brother’s improvement.
In fact, Lan Jue’s progress was no less than the students he led. He was a ninth ranked, seventh degree Talent – how could he be advancing so quickly?
Lan Jue was also aware of the changes. He felt like he was undergoing a second awakening, and under the direction of his militant older brother he was improving quickly. His Discipline was as strong as ever, but he saw greater improvement in all
other aspects. This was especially true for his level of fitness. After continuous training, he could now ward Lan Qing’s Mantra of Clarity and maintain stability in combat, and sustain much longer during mecha battles.
“Prepare to engage.” Lan Jue’s voice was cold and hard. The laser rifles rose to a ready position. All of the suits around Lan Qing were sharpshooters, so the signal interference the enemy was using didn’t much affect them. They could accurately peg anything within their field of view.
The enemy’s suits were outfitted the same as theirs, so Lan Qing knew they couldn’t stand against the concentration fire of thirty attackers. That was what brought doom to Geng Yang and the others. They’d tried to employ their Disciplines when first spotting the rush, but they nonetheless dropped like flies under the volley from his sharpshooters.
An ominous sensation tickled at the back of Lan Qing’s mind. It was a feeling he hadn’t felt for a long time. As a ninth ranked, ninth level Talent he was very nearly a Paragon, with the ability to command protogenic power. He’d long ago learned to pay attention to his feelings. “Defensive positions,” he shouted.
Less than a second later, the surprise attack commenced.
The An Lun soldiers had been organized in to a single file battle array. The benefit of such a formation was permitting for mutual support if they got caught under fire. It also spread them out to control more of the battlefield. If they encountered a more tenacious force, the head and tail could wrap around to surround the enemy and attack them from every side.
But the benefits of this formation were castrated when the surprise strike arrived. It was too quick, and from too many directions.
Errant laser blasts tore through the area as the ferocious charge ensued. The surface of An Lun was once more a war zone.
Lan Qing looked at his tactical map to discover that they were attacking from five points. They were evenly spaced, and designed to attack his battle array at its weakest positions. The execution had been perfect.
How could be make such an accurate prediction, especially with their radar blocked? Lan Qing was stunned, but that didn’t stop him from engaging the enemy. As the An Lun soldiers fought back, energy shields flared around the attackers. There was still some distance between the two sides, so they exchange
rifle fire as they neared.
Lan Jue led the charge with Mika and Xiuxiu on his heels. They sped around the middle section of the formation, and engaged it’s left end.
A corona of blue light sprang up around the black mecha, leaving behind a stream of pale color as Lan Jue sped forward. The demon drillmaster knew his window of opportunity was a small one. It wouldn’t be long before Lan Qing joined the fray. How much damage he could inflict would be a matter of skill.
He hadn’t chosen a sniper mech, sticking to his preferred sword-bearing model. The alloy weapon in the mechas hand vibrated ever so slightly, then began to crackle with electric energy like the rest of it. The electric power coalesced with the blade at its center. When he jabbed the weapon toward the heavens, all of the lightning was released in a terrifying blast of power. Forest of Lightning!
He and his students were outnumbered two to one, this was not the time to hold back. Manifestations of his power tore
through the small contingent of soldiers like a deadly wave. Their shields fluctuated and flashed as they attempted to save them from the attack.
Lan Jue’s mecha was not, unfortunately, Thor. His attacks did not have the benefit of employing power gems to beef them up. All of his strikes would be pure Discipline. However, that didn’t stop the waves of lightning from tearing through the shields, and immobilizing the pilots within.
Lan Jue kept up the assault like some kind of nightmare. His sword, coursing with power, exploded outward in to shards of pure energy. It was like a hail of a hundred million tiny daggers.
In this moment, the individual potency of the An Lun soldiers was revealed. There were certainly adepts among them, but none with strength enough to contend with Lan Jue.
Lan Qing arrived to aid his beleaguered soldiers. Gusting winds with a faint cyan hue gave the supersoldier a tailwind, so he arrived quick as a flash. But even before he arrived, cyclones were converging on Lan Jue’s location from all directions.
The younger Lan twisted in midair, and the errant bolts of
electricity which surrounded his suit congealed to form a solid layer of armor. In the same instant, several orbs of surplus lightning were cast toward his assailant.
The Forest of Lightning and the thunder orbs cost energy, but Lan Jue did not hesitate to use them. This was their chance.
Mika and Xiuxiu, who had followed him at the onset of his charge, weren’t with him now. They had charged toward a different section of the formation, cutting off one part of the group from the others. The remaining section were focused on their flank, where Tang Mi’s Echo squad had their attention. Mika and Xiuxiu put pressure on them from the opposite side. Although they had a disadvantage in numbers, they were out- positioning their enemy.
Lan Qing knew well what Lan Jue was planning. He would keep Lan Qing at bay while Mika and Xiuxiu mopped up.
The battle unfolded between them. Alpha, Bravo and Charlie joined the fray against sixty hardened soldiers.
Could they succeed? Other than himself, the others had Gao Lei to contend with. They only had a few small squads of
soldiers, so how realistic was winning? His brother had done a masterful job in seizing an opportunity, but the end result would be the same.
But as before, the NEU wouldn’t be counted out. They had the Savage Goddess, Wang Hongyuan and Tang Xiao, and they had yet to make their presence truly felt.
Chapter 307: Frightening Rapport
Tan Lingyun took to the front, rushing headlong in to the fray. She didn’t have the dual knives she usually preferred, but had chosen a sabermech instead. Two daggers were replaced with two enormous titanium alloy broadswords.
A pale green light surrounded her suit like a cloud of vibrant energy. As beams of laser fire surrounded her, some found their mark but most were deflected by the shield. Being more advanced than the students, and certainly faster, she pierced the line and tore in to the enemy camp first.
The An Lun soldiers were able to mitigate some of Lan Jue’s damage due to the distance between them during the opening salvo. With Tan Lingyun, things would be more difficult to deal with.
The center of the soldier’s single-line battle array retreated, stretching them in to a thin arc shape. The entire contingent focused their fire on the Savage Goddess.
Fortunately, the three student squads arrived in time to give her backup. They approached from three directions, trying to box in the soldiers.
Tan Lingyun’s unit swept passed her and in to the fight with guns blazing. Like her, manifestations of their Discipline surrounded their suits.
It had been almost unbearable this last month. Not because of the difficulty of the training – though there certainly was that. For the entire course of the training they had been expressly forbidden from using their Disciplines. The power inside them felt bottled up and ready to burst. Now, at last, their Drillmaster had given them permission to pull all the stops, and they couldn’t be happier. This only deepened when they finally got to sense how much their Talent had improved.
The area around them was a deadly forest of laser fire. However, even with their advantage in numbers the soldiers couldn’t mount a counter-attack. They tried to mount a rush, to shatter the student surprise attack, but couldn’t.
Their commanding officer was Gao Lei. His mecha was a ball of a fire, with bright flames scorching the dark paint. He faced his suit toward Tan Lingyun and charged forward, while a group of soldiers nearby formed up and followed. Teams of five broke rank to face the Savage Goddess.
Were this a real fight, the mechas certainly wouldn’t have
been so uniform. There would be specialists, scouts, defenders and strikers. Scores of different roles to round out a fighting unit. Uniformity failed to cover all aspects of a fight, leaving them weaker overall. In the end this was a training exercise, and the suits were identical to preserve fairness. The soldiers would have to depend on superior tactics and formation to win.
The rest of the soldiers formed up in to groups of five, with twenty suits becoming four strike teams. They retreating while maintaining cover fire.
They didn’t separate, instead working well as cohesive, five- man teams. This give them both an element of defense as the soldiers were able to tackle threats from all directions, but also the ability to rapidly switch targets and focus-fire a single enemy.
The tactic was proved successful when one of the student fighters’ suits began to smoke, as their Discipline was exhausted the concentrated fire took its toll.
The soldiers were all blazing fast in their reactions and deployment. They were separated in to groups of five, but worked like a single organism. They would advance and retreat as one, moving without flaw or hesitation to engage enemies as
needed. Even when they focused an enemy, their rifle fire was all in one spot.
The NEU students also worked together, but not at the same level as the soldiers. They mostly relied on their Discipline and individual piloting ability. Amidst the mess of fire and the ever- changing terrain of the battle, they would dodge and re-engage. But these soldiers acting as though they were of one mind, to the point where all four groups would pick one target and assail them relentless until they feel, giving them no chance.
Alpha squad had yet to join in, but already two of their number were eliminated. It viscerally underlined their deficiency in the face of experience.
Among the Alpha squad was one mecha, resplendent in a pure white light. There was a flash and then, with the speed and force of a cannonball, the mecha barreled in to one of the An Lun units. When the mecha made landfall the ensuing blast shook the ground, and left a crater in its wake.
But the soldiers did not flee. They held, and refused to be routed, much to the surprised disbelief of onlookers. They watched the scene play out with wide eyes.
As the kamikaze mecha made its attack, all four groups leapt in to the air simultaneously. Were one to look from on high, they would appear like heavenly figures spreading light throughout the barren wasteland. On the ground, it was a much more terrifying experience. As the soldiers flung themselves in to the air, they began to fire – all twenty – in to the hole where that brash student had fallen.
Puff! A plume of black smoke arose from the crater. Whoever that was had used the full force of their Discipline behind the attack, but was left exhausted. Ho, then, could they survive against the focused fore of twenty soldiers? Alpha squad lost another one.
But Gao Lei and Tan Lingyun’s engagement was just beginning. Tan Lingyun tore her sword through the air, and where it passed a tail of green light followed. Under the assault, Gao Lei was steadily being pushed back.
As far as Lan Jue could tell from where he was watching, Tan Lingyun certainly understood the idea of overwhelming attack.
Gao Lei’s fire-based Talent was seventh ranked. Lingyun, meanwhile, was approaching the peak of eighth rank. However, in regards to mecha control, she lacked polish. Her style was to
rush in guns blazing, and wreak as much havoc as possible.
Gao Lei sat in his cockpit, gritting his teeth and glaring daggers. Whoever this person was, they hit like a battleship. They wielded their two alloy blades like a dervish of deadly steel. Gao Lei was confident in his combat abilities, but his opponent was practically a force of nature. Whatever that green light was, it seemed to gather the atmosphere around their sword. He couldn’t find any opening for a counter-strike.
As the fifth member of Alpha squad met their end, the An Lun units moved in to engage close-quarters.
The students’ mechas were replete with the manifestations of Discipline. It penetrated their suits and hung around them like a halo of light. The soldiers, on the other hand, fought back with expert coordination and tactics. What’s more, clearly the soldiers were using the minimum effort needed to keep their energy reserves high. This allowed them to keep up sustained, concentrated fire without ceasing. That was how they finished Alpha squad’s fifth casualty.
Just as Lan Qing had posited, these students, with only a month of training under their belts, couldn’t stand up against the frightful cooperative power of the Iron Army.
In the end, an Adepts advantage isn’t very significant without the mecha to back it up. After all, mecha suits were sheets of steel and machinery. Trying to destroy one without the aid power gems would be pretty difficult. It couldn’t overcome the soldiers’ strength in numbers, and superior tactical understanding.
Fortunately, as the sixth Alpha squad member was felled, Tan Lingyun managed to knock Gao Lei flying. It gave her some breathing room, and that was all she needed.
She puffed heaving breaths in the darkness of the cockpit. As her fury and determination consumed her, Lingyun’s discipline imploded. Her body took on a crystalline composition, flooding the mecha’s interior with refracted light. She coaxed her mecha higher and brandished her two enormous swords. With a terrible warcry, she launched herself toward two enemy groups. Her swords shone brilliantly, leaving resplendent arcs of light in the wake as she brought them down upon her foes.
B-boom–! Her enemies her scattered by the tremendous blow, flying in every direction. The unfortunate targets of her strike were both billowing black smoke.
In a flash, she was off in another direction. Hunting for prey.
Chapter 308: Stalemate
The leader of Bravo squad was Wang Hongyuan, and they appeared to be faring better. This was to expected, however, as his enemies didn’t include Gao Lei.
Speed was the dance instructor’s specialty, and the other students in his group were similarly endowed. So it was that when the charge was called, they were like the tip of the spear.
Their answer to Wang Hongyuan was the same as it had been for Tan Lingyun: Groups of five, focus-firing weak targets. His leadership skills were better than the Savage Goddess’, which was shown when he had his small company form in to a line with him at the head. Like an arrow they pierced through the battlefield, with Wang Hongyuan at the fore. His massive sword flashed as he knocked away anyone in his path.
The soldiers’ reaction was quick. The four groups scattered, then turned to attack one point from their new locations. This prevented Wang Hongyuan from protecting the rest of his formation. By the time they drew close again, two of their number were out of commission.
Thankfully this wasn’t a real fight, but even so the frightening
capabilities of the Iron Army were evident to all. To them, this whole process was routine – but one they threw their whole self in to. There was no second round, there was no next time. The enemy would be crushed right now.
Wang Hongyuan grit his teeth. His voice called over the comes to his unit, telling them to separate and fire at will. If they remained in formation, his whole squad would be lost. If they focused their attacks on a single strike unit, the other three would tear them to ribbons. He feared his students wouldn’t have an answer for that, so it would fall to him. He knew he couldn’t allow the opposition to continue its concentrated assault for too long. Their hit rate was too high, and there would be no opportunities for him and his to dodge and counter.
They were down to nine men. Wang Hongyuan launched himself at the most distant enemy team, while the remaining eight students also charged their targets.
Once they got close enough, it was time for the students to show what they could do. Although they all had different Disciplines, they were all possessed of potent energy they could employ during battle. Pouring this energy in to their suits, they fanned out like a deadly lotus.
A strange sanguine aura hung around Wang Hongyuan’s suit. An undulating cloak of blood hung at its shoulders. In no time at all, he caught up with the enemy team, and as he arrived a strange choking fog of red surrounded them.
The five soldiers quickly determined this one was a powerful adept, but it only made them a more cohesive unit. They holstered their rifles, and pulled out their close-quarters weaponry. The small group bristled with titanium prepared for the encounter.
They, too, poured energy in to their suits. Wang Hongyuan could feel it, a strange and uncomfortable sensation that filled him as their swords came slashing through the air.
The dance instructor’s suit seemed somewhat off-kilter, but the veil of vitae surrounding him and his enemies reacted. It seemed to throb, filling the soldiers with a profound sense of unease. Their strikes all missed. Wang Hongyuan took the opportunity to charge in to the center, bull rushing the whole team.
They simply didn’t have what it took to hold against the Sovereign-ranked pilot. Four enemy soldiers were put to rest.
Similar scenes were appearing with the other enemy strike forces. So long as the students could ward off destruction for their enemy’s volley, they could close in and finish them off.
Their five-front surprise attack ultimately was a success. At the very least, they’d inflicted significant casualties on the enemy’s side.
Tang Xiao Charlie squad against one end of the enemy formation. As they engaged he was first to clash with the enemy. A silvery metal plate hung before him, defending him both above and below like a tower shield. The enemy’s concentrated laser fire bounced harmlessly away while Tang Xiao plowed through them like a tank.
Tang Xiao’s Discipline was even stronger than the dance instructor’s, and in fact was second to none among all the trainees. He was also the most cunning.
He’d chosen to make his approach under cover. He’d employed his Discipline to pick up a boulder, and push it on front of him to conceal himself as he drew nearer. He was right on top of them by the time he was discovered, and that’s when the metal shield appeared and he rushed in. The shield was important, for not only was it an excellent means of defense,
reinforcing it with his Discipline gave it the ability to self- repair.
Still, the soldiers were a highly disciplined group, with superior tactics and strategy. Twenty enemy soldiers split into groups and spread out to attack. Tang Xiao couldn’t move very quickly with his shield, so while he could defend his fellow students the counter-attack was simply too intense. He couldn’t push further, and his Discipline was quickly becoming exhausted.
Just then, ten beams of steady light fired from behind Tang Xiao’s massive shield. They found their target, a group of An Lun soldiers.
Not all students had chosen melee fighters, of course. In fact, other than Tang Xiao the others in Charlie squad were all long- distance attackers. The reason for this was simple: Tang Xiao was confident in his defensive capabilities. Within a reasonable scope, he and his squad wouldn’t need to fear the enemy’s attacks. In the face of the Iron Army’s chosen tactics, long-range engagement was likely the most effective strategy.
Accuracy wasn’t a problem for these crack NEU students. One among Tang Xiao’s number was famed for his sharp-shooting, a
student they’d named Deadeye. He could spot and anticipate an enemy’s movements, and what’s more shared the benefits of his Discipline with those around him. At his current level of cultivation, he could share power with people in a thirty-meter diameter around himself.
Tang Xiao was familiar with his abilities and strength. He was a good choice for command, and so far this was as good a result as Charlie squad could hope for.
The soldiers couldn’t defend against the invisible attack. The moment they rose in to the air they were targets. Right away one of them was taken out of the fight.
Their second volley came on the heels of the first. With their Disciplines capable of shoring up their weapon’s abilities, the students had a real advantage in speed.
Three more enemies were defeated. Tang Xiao’s defense remained impregnable.
The An Lun soldiers realized they needed a change in tactics. The remaining pilots broke for the ground below, with some switching out their rifles for swords. They certainly didn’t like
being in a retreating position under pressure, but they fought hardest when they were cornered.
Hidden behind his massive shield, Tang Xiao’s pudgy face revealed a wily smirk. This is exactly the result he wanted! Now he could use the whole of his eighth-ranked Talent!
Alpha, Bravo and Charlie had manipulated the battle to their purpose. Their plan was coming together. They’d suffered under assault from the soldiers, but they took out a bigger chunk while tying them up. They couldn’t close the ends of their battle formation to surround and destroy the enemy, as they’d hoped.
However, things weren’t going quite so well for Echo squadron.
Tang Mi headed the trainee’s weakest student squad. All of the female pilots had been placed with her, Zhou Qianlin included.
Tang Mi’s own powers had improved quite remarkably during the course of the training. In the end, she’d broken through to sixth rank. They’d been hidden and isolated when the sneak
attack commenced, so they had had to take a different approach. They had no recourse but to charge from a poor position in to concentrated enemy fire. Five of their number were taken out right away.
Six pilots were all that remained of Echo squad. The Iron Army was fighting on their back foot, being pushed back, but even though their comrades were falling around them there were still another twenty or so to contend with. They were closing in, but they didn’t have the numbers to cause any real damage. It looked like this would be their final stand. They would be defeated quickly, and the remaining enemies would be free to support their fellows. Victory would be that much more difficult.
A familiar voice crackled through the cockpit of Tang Mi’s suit. “Keep it up, Little Mi! Spare nothing, charge in with all you got.” Her suit shook as she felt something latch on to her back. A pale, eggshell white light gently exuded from the second suit’s chest plate. It swelled until it surrounded both of them.
Tang Mi felt a warm and pleasant sensation penetrate through her. It catalyzed her Discipline, causing it to burst out of her like a volcano.
Tang Mi’s Discipline was similar in category to her brother’s, though not as strong. Now, though, she felt like she could take on an army – so that’s what she did.
The two titanium alloy swords in her mecha’s hands blazed with radiant silver light. With a heaving grunt she swiped her sword at the enemy soldiers, which sent waves of power tearing through the air. Two of her targets were caught off guard and where struck on the side by her attack. Both were immediately removed from action.
Tang Mi didn’t have the opportunity to ask Zhou Qianlin what was happening. With the help of this strange power, Tang Mi felt like her power had increased a while grade. Instead her suit shot forward with alarming speed toward the next confrontation, slicing through the unit closest to her. The silvery energies coursing through her weapons was more than these simple suits could defend against. One after the other, the soldiers fell before Tang Mi’s rampage.
Tang Mi was blazing fast. Although she couldn’t turn herself in to metal like her brother, her attacks were hard as a train and lethally sharp. Supported by Qianlin’s power, her enemies had no choice but to gather together and attempt to take her down as a group.
The younger Tang felt strange, like she was having difficulty controlling her own body. Her Discipline and natural physical energy both were so full they threatened to burst out of her. While dodging a strike moments, earlier she’d actually left a fuzzy image of her suit behind – the precursor to ghosting! She went fast, hit harder. The soldiers closed in on her position.
The surviving members of her squad rallied, and came to her aid. Whether it was her valiant display or the residual power of Zhou Qianlin, they fought harder as well. Tang Mi stood at the front with the rest of her squad moving in to assist. They stood in battle formation as the Iron Army amassed in front of them.
Chapter 309: Black And White
The battlefield was locked in stalemate. In the center of it all, Lan Qing and Lan Jue’s duel continued.
Flashes of lightning painted An Lun’s wasted surface an electric blue. The powerful strikes were area of effect, and where by design. Lan Jue wanted to keep Lan Qing engaged as long as possible.
The master strategist, meanwhile, was little taken aback by what he was witnessing. Dodging was pointless for area attacks, but their power was weak. It was a waste of energy.
Already Lan Jue had used his forest of lightning over half a dozen times. Thunder orbs, he’d used four times. Still, the young jewelry master continued his assault like his energy stores were boundless. Lan Qing figured his brother only had about one strong attack left in him, before he’d have to retreat.
He’s buying time. Does he think his students actually have a chance?
Lan Qing was keeping his eye on the battle as it unfolded
around them. As he fought over supremacy with his brother, he kept track of the tactical situations developing through the fight.
The NEU students were much stronger than he’d originally planned for, if he was telling the truth. Mika and Xiuxiu were battlefield terrors he knew well. His soldiers would suffer dearly at their hands. But, these losses would be acceptable if he could defeat Lan Jue in time. Once he did, there would be no way his enemies could mount a defense, much less steal victory. After all – he was among them!
But there were other hot-spots he was paying close attention to. Tang Xiao, in particular, kept his eye. In tactics, timing and power he was a talented youth. More and more of his soldiers were being lost to the cunning pilot with each passing moment.
Doubt began to creep in to Lan Qing’s iron-clad discipline. How on earth was his brother able to locate his forces, and execute such a sneak attack? It had ruined his serpent formation.
Without tactical superiority, even individual power couldn’t assure victory. Right now, his little brother beating him in both strategy and troop command. It was something Lan Qing was
stunned to face.
The fight continued. An Lun soldiers dropped like flies from the onslaught of student Adepts. When it came to close-combat, the young pilots were terrors. Once they got the rhythm of the battle, even first-ranked pilots could display impressive power. The addition of Disciplines made it that much harder for his men.
Lan Qing’s forehead wrinkled, and a pale cyan light sprang up around him. He himself was surrounded by a dim golden light, which radiated out from within. This was a manifestation of his Hannya style.
He couldn’t go out like this. His side was already losing ground. Mika and Xiuxiu were too strong to contend with. With the two working together, his soldiers were lost. At present they were moving in to assist Tang Mi. If they were allowed to continue, he’d lose that front as well. It wouldn’t be long before his entire force was routed.
The first priority was quickly putting Lan Jue to rest, then closing ranks. That would turn the tide.
Lan Qing began flooding his suit with his Discipline and martial power. His defenses thickened, and the pale gold light that hung over him deflected his brother’s lightning bolts. The An Lun super soldier shot forward in a column of blue-gold light, bearing down on Lan Jue with the force of a hurricane.
But just as he was gaining speed a light shot down from the heavens. It was strange, composed of black and white intertwined. They did not intermingle, and yet maintained a balance of hue.
Lan Qing’s eyes flashed. The winds racing passed him spun in to a cyclone and spun off toward the light. It grew in size and intensity as it tore across the ruined surface of the planet. Flashes of golden energy flashed chaotically within.
The flashes of blue that filled the sky dimmed in comparison to the apocalyptic cyclone. But as it came upon the strange beam of light, they passed through one another as though neither existed. The odd light swept right passed and full upon Lan Qing.
The vice admiral looked on in surprise and alarm as the maneuver functions of his suit cut out. He was barreling forward at breakneck speed, completely out of control.
Was this… data? Lan Qing was at a loss. For all his wisdom, he didn’t know what to do.
His brother’s force came through his comm systems. “Heh. Hey bro. I forgot to tell you, we’re not actually fifty-one people. I’ve got fifty-seven.”
Lan Qing’s mecha began to belch thick, black smoke as the blasts of lightning subsided. Lan Jue pulled up beside his brother.
In the distance, another foot furtively made its presence known. Even the machine’s approach was uncouth, almost wretched. It could only be one person.
The surprise in Lan Qing’s eyes subsided, replaced with contemplation. He went over the last few moments in his mind.
“So your timing was based on calculations. You must have someone who specializes in it.” It took him very little time to uncover the truth.
“That’s right,” Lan Jue said. There wasn’t any reason not to
be candid by this point. “Let me introduce you. This is the Accountant, hailing from Skyfire Avenue.” He didn’t mention the Accountant’s relationship to the Keeper out of respect for the young man. No one liked to live in another man’s shadow.
“Hey there, Supersoldier. Heh, you’re probably feeling pretty crappy right? You want revenge on the Jewelry Master? It’s him who made me do it.” The Accountant chortled.
From the start, Lan Jue never expected his students to defeat a force lead personally by his brother. Both because the soldiers were exceptional, and the overwhelming strength of Lan Qing. No one knew Lan Qing better than his younger brother, and the stories of Prometheus’ abilities were vastly understated.
There was just the tiniest flaw in his otherwise invulnerable exterior. He was using a training mecha.
True combat was conducted in suits the pilot was familiar with, who probably designed them themselves. If Prometheus was piloting Coeus, this would have been an embarrassing brief war game. Thankfully, training mechas were a different story. It was the mechanical composition and A.I. that determined how much martial power and Discipline a suit could take.
Then there was the Accountant, who had improved as well through the training. Not that he’d participated as the students had; his improvement was from assimilation. The young man had endured cruel treatment at the hands of the Bookworm while they were on Lir, but he had also been force-fed a tremendous amount of knowledge.
The Bookworm had already expressed his thoughts to the Keeper, that the Accountant was the best candidate to be their successor. The relative weakness of his Discipline wasn’t an issue – after all, even those two old Paragons had to start somewhere, right? They didn’t get to Paragon status by being born with the ability. They got it through hard work and study. They reached supremacy by understanding the world around them like no one else. Their cultivation methodology was a unique one, that couldn’t be faked or simulated.
But the Accountant also had a strong enough Talent to sustain the constant inhumane treatment the two hateful old men subjected him to. Ever since he was young he’d had to study under the Keeper’s tutelage, and his talents in several areas of study were made apparent. While he was exceedingly indolent by comparison, he was standing on the shoulders of giants. He was like a pig, but with two Paragons as his teachers, at least he was a pig who could count.
He hadn’t been interested in participating in any of the training. Ever since arriving on An Lun he’d spent his time lazing about the place. But when he was bored and there was nothing to occupy his mind, his thoughts invariable turned to his two teachers and everything they’d been trying to teach him over the last few months. As he absorbed everything he was taught, as well as the medicine the Bookkeeper had volunteered him for, he got stronger. To the point where he had a breakthrough of his own. He was now an eighth-ranked Talent.
Lan Qing’s determinations were correct. Indeed, that strange column of black and white light had been a physical expression of the data stream. Although these suits were not bad for what they were, between the Accountant’s manipulations and Lan Qing’s own overwhelming power the suits were insufficient.
With Coeus it would have ended differently. Never mind the fact that it’s A.I. was top of the line, it was also protected from interference by no less than a dozen layers of defensive subroutines. The Accountant would never have broken through his security so quickly.
Had Lan Qing been at all clued in to the Accountant’s presence, it would have been very difficult for this data stream to find its mark. However, as it was, Lan Qing was busy dealing with his brother. Lan Jue had gotten stronger, strong enough in
fact to be a danger to him. He’d gotten careless, and that’s when Lan Jue took his opportunity. In truth it was masterfully done, for Lan Jue had the Accountant use his powers just as Lan Qing was pouring everything he had in to his strike. It left him vulnerable, just what the Accountant needed. Lan Qing had been ready to charge in with everything he had, but it had made him confident. That was what the Accountant capitalized on.
In his brash certainty Lan Qing had chosen not to dodge, but to deflect. Of course it could not be said that his defenses were weak, but the academic powers of the Accountant weren’t physical. You couldn’t knock it away, and that is what caused Lan Qing to lose control. The black smoke that poured from his suit now, meant he’d lost today’s exercise.
Lan Qing was not upset, nor was he too hard on himself for the oversight. It was the first time he’d encountered a situation like this. To him, that had been an invaluable experience. At least he’d be ready for it, the next time.
Chapter 310: Victory!
“I don’t blame him. After seeing how much he’s grown, I’m happy. Not bad… the fight was not bad at all. I’m delighted you took take the tactical victory.” Lan Qing’s voice was soft. It was still hard, and cold, but lacked any malice. As ever, he appeared entirely indifferent despite his words of elation.
Lan Jue chuckled. “So, should we call an end?”
His determination was correct. With the loss of Gao Lei and Lan Qing, the soldiers couldn’t compete with Lan Jue’s students. Despite their dogged determination, they’d lost.
The strengths of the NEU pilots was simply too much. There were two ninth ranked adepts on their side – Lan Jue and Mika. Xiuxiu, Tan Lingyun and Tang Xiao were eighth ranked, as well as the Accountant who’d hid through most of it. Several more were seventh. They were more than an equal to any soldier.
“If any of your students are interested in joining the Iron Army, they have my blessing,” Lan Qing announced. “They’ve earned every promise and commitment we’ve sworn to. Cease fire!”
As the words rang through everyone’s cockpit, the students of the NEU erupted in a triumphant roar! They’d done it! They’d defeated the Iron Army! Although they knew their advantages were many, they still faced an experienced opponent in higher numbers, with mid-level Adepts of their own. To take on and wrestle victory from their idols… this sort of feeling was intoxicating.
Just as Lan Jue had promised them, this was an experience they would remember until the end of their days.
On top of this, they knew their victory meant they could enter the Iron Army themselves at their leisure, AND they got to leave with a mecha to use for a whole year! They were the Bloodlust Warsuits, symbols of the brave departed. This was their prize. They weren’t just sturdy suits, for when you got in to one you were imbued with the spirit of Blood and Iron!
The field was cleared, and the students gathered back at base to celebrate. So elated were they in their victory, that they temporarily forgot their fear of their Demon Drillmaster and hoisted him in to the air.
Lan Jue didn’t stop them, or admonish them for their actions. He let them have their moment – it was the release of two
months of pressure.
There was no alcohol anywhere on An Lun, so when the students were done with Lan Jue and sought further ways to expel their energy, they took to the training field. They ran about wildly, shouting and recounting the battle. They were as wild as the planet they’d come to adopt.
Standing on the sidelines, watching his charges jump and shout, the hardness gradually went from Lan Jue’s eyes. He was pleased to find his own hard work paying off. Not only had he given them a true battle experience, he’d given them confidence. If they could take on the Iron Army and come out victorious, who else stood a chance?
“Thank you.” The soft voice came from behind.
At once, Lan Jue adopted his ice-cold persona. He turned his head, and spied Tan Lingyun standing nearby. The Savage Goddess had snuck up behind him at some point.
She walked to his side, fixing him with an appreciative look. “You’ve changed them for the better. Me, too. I’ve learned quite a lot these last two months, and improved more than I have in
the last several years. If possible, I would like to continue training. If you accept, I’d like to stop being an assistant, and be a student.”
“The training isn’t over,” Lan Jue answered.
“Huh?” She looked at him inquisitively.
They’d said the training would be two months! They’d already learned so much. From knowing only the basics to taking out the Iron Army, that was how far they’d climbed!
“Didn’t you say we were leaving? What do you mean the training isn’t finished?”
Lan Jue answered with a nod. “Who said training finished once we left here? If you recall, I said this portion of our training was finished. We’ve still got the third round of exercises. Like I said at the beginning, this training might take longer than two months.”
Tan Lingyun blinked at him. “What else could there be to learn?”
“You’ll know when we get there,” Lan Jue said dismissively. “Stop asking questions. If there’s nothing important you may rest for the remainder of the day. We leave in the morning.”
Tan Lingyun looked at him for a moment. She chewed on her lips for a moment before blurting out.
“Are you married?”
Surprised did not describe Lan Jue. The possibility of this happening was the farthest thing from Lan Jue’s mind.
“What the hell?”
“Nothing,” Tan Lingyun said. “Just a casual question.”
“It’s a question I refuse to answer,” Lan Jue replied. “This has nothing to do with the training.”
He gave her no space to reply. He turned his back on her, and left the field.
Tan Lingyun watched as he walked away. Suddenly, she shouted after him. “Give me a chance to pursue you!”
Lan Jue very nearly fell on his face. He recovered, and nearly ran to the dormitories.
Tan Lingyun burst in to a fit of laughter. All of the pressure fled from her through gasping breaths. This man, this demon drillmaster, Lei Feng, Zeus – he was a coward!
With her chest puffed out pridefully, Tan Lingyun sneered.
“You have no chance.” The soft, emotionless voice interrupted her laughter.
Tan Lingyun jumped. She’d never heard someone approach. When she turned, she saw only a woman with fiery red hair and a silver mask.
She knew this to be one of the other assistants Lei Feng had brought with him. No one knew who she was – they simply called her ‘assistant instructor.’
The red- haired one, and the black-haired one. That was how the students referred to Mika and Xiuxiu.
“Why do you say that?” Tan Lingyun was not affected by the negative comment. She stood where she was, surrounded in an air of high-handedness.
“You’re back of the line,” she said. “He’s had a healthy following for a while. So if you think you’re just gunna jump in, you’ve got another thing coming.”
Tan Lingyun blinked at her. “You two?” Tan Lingyun took a minute to size up her sudden competition. Mika, she discovered, was no less a catch than she. She looked back at the two ember- red eyes behind the mask. They glowed, almost.
Tan Lingyun knew that look. This was war.
‘Timid’ was never a word Tan Lingyun had had in her vocabulary. She bulled through every challenge she’d ever faced. The harder the task, the more she rose to the occasion. And the stronger her ego. Learn and overcome – that was principle.
She had always had an idol in her heart, like any woman, but it was not Zeus. It was Prometheus.
She was no longer a young girl. It was time for her to find a boyfriend and settle down, but she had some pretty lofty standards. In her mind, her future man would be perfect; he would be possessed of herculean strength and sage-like wisdom. Prometheus fit that mold rather well, so he was her ultimate goal. Had her parents not expressly forbidden it, she’d have joined the Iron Army herself long ago.
This is the single greatest Chinese trope you’ll come across. Understand this, and you’ll get relationships in China. A woman’s role in the far east has always been to find a good man, and provide. They are expected to do this immediately – I mean, immediately after university. Remember that they are forbidden from having any relationships prior to college, and even then it should never go beyond a few stolen kisses. This means there are slews of 25 year-old parents, and every year you don’t have a husband and a child, you’re less and less desirable. So much effort is poured in to nabbing a good man from both parents and the girl herself that school can often be an afterthought. This is, however, thankfully changing.
She’d been blessed with the opportunity, through this training, to see Prometheus with her own eyes. However, when
she finally met him that fervent sense of puppy love had calmed.
When she’d approached Lan Jue with her conjecture before, she was going to ask him to introduce her. She couldn’t slip from the excitement of the discovery. But never once during that night did she dream about the green-masked man. No, the scene that played in her mind over and over was an experience she’d remember forever.
She was on his lap, watching as he masterfully commanded his mecha suit. She remembered watching him work, feeling the heat of him against her, surrounded by his masculinity. That was what she remembered.
The next day she woke up red-faced and flustered. Throughout the morning she couldn’t shake the thought from her mind. The excitement she used to feel for Prometheus was gone. But the image in her heart wasn’t gone, just replaced. It was Zeus.
He was a cold, cold man – but heroic! For the last two months he had been ruthless to everyone he came across. She herself had to fight through more than a few weak moments.
But in the end this terrible experience had lifted them to lofty heights. The ARC classes were unprecedented, and through them she saw that Zeus was strong in more than just combat.
And just now he’d beaten Prometheus in smarts! Although she hadn’t seen how, the victory was enough. After that, Lei Feng completely usurped Prometheus from his spot in her heart. That’s why she’d confronted him like she had – she sure was backward when it came to relationships. But pouring her soul and seeing it reduced to a joke was more than she could handle.
“Just because he doesn’t like you doesn’t mean he won’t find interest in me. Let’s just see who he picks!” Her hands were clenched in to fists, and her voice rose to a challenging crescendo.
Mika just laughed. “Sure! At the very least we’ll see how novel you make the situation.” With the final words hers, Mika turned and walked away. She didn’t see Tan Lingyun as any sort of competition. She knew who her real competition was.
Lan Jue walked from the training field in a confounded daze.
She certainly was cute…
But curiosity was all there was. She was a good girl. He could still remember his maltreatment at her hands, how awkward she’d made everything. Still, he had a very good impression of her. She was grumpy, mean, with a terrible temper – but with a fundamentally good heart. That’s why he’d risked his identity to help her out – and ended up somewhat getting himself exposed anyway.
“Come with me!”
Lan Jue turned his head, and saw his brother standing nearby.