Skyfire Avenue Chapter 311-320

Chapter 311: Lan Qing’s Analysis

Lan Jue didn’t say anything, and asked no questions. He immediately trotted over to his brother and followed him as Lan Qing left.

Before long a mag-lev car appeared parked nearby. They both got in, and started for the bowels of the camp deep underground.

Eventually they reached their destination – a metal door set by itself far from anything else. Lan Qing exited the car and stood before it as a beam of light swept over his body.

The doors opened with a groan of protest. The brothers entered.

They walked in to a simple room which, like the rest of An Lun’s military base, was mostly metal. Every inch of the place was densely covered in instruments and computer screens. A couple workers were busily toying with the equipment. They all stopped, and snapped to attention as Lan Qing entered.

The vice admiral returned their salute. Without a word, they

sat back down and continued their enigmatic work. Lan Qing made his way to one screen in particular, and Lan Jue followed at his heels.

“We’ve already prepared all the mecha suits for your students. Gao Lei is bringing the arm bands by personally.” Lan Qing said.

Lan Jue answered with a nod. “Thank you.”

His older brother waved dismissively. “No need for that. Your students’ due reward, nothing more. Your people for exceeded expectations, a rare thing these days.”

His words were simple and his tone indifferent, but from his mouth is meant quite a lot.

A small smile crept on to Lan Jue’s face. “How could my students be anything less than spectacular? You just commanded an army, and I had a few kids.”

“Don’t be so self-satisfied,” Lan Qing replied. Lan Jue stared back, at a loss after his brother’s chastising tone.

Lan Qing turned on the monitor. A few button presses, and a recording of their simulated battle appeared on the screen. It was showing from the beginning.

As they watched, a series of changes swept across the battlefield. From the staggering charge of the Iron Army, to Lan Jue’s surprise assault leading Delta squad, they watched the fight unfold.

“Why am I watching this,” Lan Jue asked.

Lan Qing stared at the screen with his arms crossed. “We’re looking for problems. You and your students did very well this time. In training, your students do very well especially on an individual basis. As soldiers, though, they’re far from adequate. Where this a real battle, the Iron Army would certainly have come up victorious, despite suffering heavy loses.”

Lan Jue narrowed his eyes as he watched the recording. He spoke, his voice thick with challenge and irritation. “You wanna try it again? I never took you for a sore loser.”

Lan Qing fixed his brother with an even, hard stare. He reached out and pressed a few keys. The image of the screen

magnified so every detail was apparent.

As he watched, he saw dozens of black figured darting across the screen. They were An Lun soldiers – rather, a simulation of troop movements, and as Lan Jue watched his smug expression faded.

Among them he saw Gao Lei, who was rushing to meet Tan Lingyun. In the end he’d been defeated, unable to break free from Tan Lingyun’s indelible frontal assault. She’d cleared the path for victory by smashing that part of the line.

However, as he watched there was a change. Gao Lei wasn’t defeat, but perished together with Tan Lingyun in a ball  of flame.

Lan Qing’s quiet voice explained while Lan Jue watched. “Each Bloodlust Warsuit comes equipped with a self-destruct system. It varies with each individual, and can only be initiated by the pilot. For pilots without Disciplines, when the energy flow reaches critical mass, they press the button. For Adepts, the suit’s own energy and their Disciplines combine to extend the force and blast radius. When their core detonates, the resulting blast in three times stronger than the pilot’s individual strength. Your assistant wasn’t weak, certainly, but

wasn’t suited for command. She took out Gao Lei, but sacrificed her squad in the process. She failed to protect her comrades-in- arms, despite her status as an eighth-ranked Adept. This is not behavior befitting a soldier. If Gao Lei had employed the self- destruct sequence during their encounter, there would be an eighty-seven percent chance he’d have taken her with him. The remaining thirteen percent sees her alive, but rendered combat ineffective. That’s a one-hundred percent chance you lost your squad leader and all her soldiers.”

Lan Jue watched, though incredulity was clear on his features. “But would Gao Lei have chosen the right moment? After all, he’d be giving his life.”

Lan Qing answered by knocking his fist on the desk. He spoke to the soldier on his left. “In the last five years how much of our total losses have come from self-sacrifice?”

The soldier shot to his feet and saluted. “Vice Admiral! In the last five years, self-destruction has accounted for eighty-four point six-three percent of total casualties.”

Lan Jue looked at the soldier in surprise.

What did this mean? That more than eighty-percent of the An Lun soldiers chose death when their mechas suffered critical damage. Once that decision was made, there was no going back
– no escape. What Lan Qing was trying to impress upon his brother, was that Gao Lei – in fact, almost all of his soldiers – would have taken his students with them if this were a real fight.

“This is too cruel!” Lan Jue was not a pacifist. On the contrary, he had significant blood on his hands from past battles. A few times he’d been willing to give his own life in the course of a fight, much like on Taihua.

But to require that of his students? He simply couldn’t imagine it.

“Cruel?” Lan Qing sniffed. “There is no such thing in war. Only victory, and defeat. Had Gao Lei chosen self-sacrifice, your assistant would have been lost. His remaining forces would have captured the advantage, and maybe even gone on to win their skirmish without any further losses. One life for twenty – it’s simple math. These twenty soldiers could then go  one  to support their brothers fighting other enemies. The other engagements would end similarly. Your students are strong physically, but do they have the same strength of will, strength of character? After seeing their friends lost to even just three

kamikaze attacks, their morale will have been  completely eroded. Ten, and you students would be routed. I’d have needed only thirty percent of the soldiers I brought to secure victory.”

Lan Jue listened carefully, but internally he was conflicted.
He felt like he knew nothing.

“But they’re people, not machines!” Lan Jue looked at his older brother fiercely.

Lan Qing, as always, remained indifferent. “Alas, that’s what the Iron Army is – machines of flesh and blood. If you can’t give yourself to the cause, then you aren’t really a warrior of blood and iron. Officers, commanders, vice admirals… we all have this self-destruct sequence installed. Coeus, is equipped. By the time we join the Iron Army and step in to the Warsuit, we are ready to give our lives for the Alliance. What your students faced today wasn’t the real Iron Army. It was like fighting us with our arms and legs tied. Watch!”

He pressed another button. The video slowed to a crawl.

Lan Jue’s keen observations revealed what his brother wanted to show. One by one, as the soldiers’ suits neared annihilation,

they brought their right hands to their waist and fumbled for something.

“That’s where the self-destruct signal is initiated. Even in an exercise you can see them, unconsciously reaching for it. You know we’ve carefully calculated how many it would take to destroy a god-ranked pilot. How many would it take to end a ninth-ranked Adept? Confidential military information, of course, and exceedingly important. The Iron Army routinely suffers very little damage in a fight, but our death rates are sky high. Now you know why this is.”

Lan Jue was well and truly stunned. He’d wracked his brain, pulled out all the stops to help his students win victory over the Iron Army. In the end, though, it had all been a game.

Lan Qing started the recording over. “But, if you left those kids under my command, accompanied by a  trained  combat unit, things would be different. Of your five groups, only one met the grade.”

The video cut to Charlie squadron, led by Tang Xiao. They watched as he defended his team through the conflict, then rush in to secure victory.

“Deployment here was well thought out. Your officer is strong and competent. Clear-headed. The defensive advance caused their enemies to give ground. They had no recourse but to take to the air. They proceeded to wipe the enemy forces without casualties. This, is the bright spot among your chosen teams. This student is qualified. The others are unacceptable, yourself among them.”

“You aren’t far off, but still inferior. The reason being, you were too focused on me.” Lan Qing had no qualms underlining Lan Jue’s faults. “Your tactics were reactionary, revolving around how I paced the battle. You were locked in to one objective and left the rest of the field to their own devices. If you’d have micro-managed better, losses would be significantly lower. But your greatest fault lies in deployment. You students are all Adepts, and not weak. Why, then, didn’t you arrange them by specialty? In this way you did well with this team, though even then their full power wasn’t accessed.”

Chapter 312: Qianlin’s Discipline

“If you gave me these fifty students to train,” Lan Qing said, “They’d be eligible soldiers within a year. At present, if they meet a powerful enemy they will most certainly fail, and at heavy cost.”

It was rare for Lan Qing to speak this much, at least as far as Lan Jue knew. In simple words, he delineated each one of Lan Jue’s tactical mistakes. He explained the capabilities of the students, and how they were still not reaching their potential. Every detail was delivered, painstakingly explained.

At first he’d been upset with his brother, but as Lan Qing’s instruction continued Lan Jue’s features changes. He grew serious and attentive. As he watched it was clearly shown that, without Lan Qing and Lan Jue present, the winning side would not have been his.

The An Lun soldiers were truly like machines. They made for terrifying enemies.

At last, Lan Qing finished his explanation. He handed a copy of the recording to Lan Jue. “Inside is all the data we’ve collected. When you get some time, look it over. Pay attention

to the soldiers, and how they react in different circumstances. From there, teach your students in accordance with their needs.”

Lan Jue took it with a wry grin. “I thought I’d figured it out already. Now when I look at it, though, I see we’ve got a long way to go. Thanks for pointing it out. Do you think they should remain for a while longer?”

Lan Qing answered with a shake of his head. “We’ve focused on their deficiencies, but the kids you brought have talent. Under your training, they’ve been given a strong foundation, including in their Disciplines. They’ve gone about as far as they can go at this point in the fundamentals. But remember, the strongest get there through actual battlefield experience. Now, what they need is to be tempered, not trained. Here’s my suggestion…”

Lan Jue nodded his head, while his brother imparted his knowledge. “I feel like I’ve been hard, but it’s nothing compared to what you’re saying.”

Lan Qing’s voice was dispassionate. “A short time of brutality so that they may live longer in the midst of war. Are you their father? No – you’re their drillmaster. You’re here to teach them

how to kill.”

“I know.”

“By the way,” Lan Qing went on, “This one here has a noteworthy Discipline. Unless I’m mistaken, that’s a very rare amplification Talent.”

The video passed frame by frame, focusing on two mecha suits. They were surrounded by a pale white light, and the bottom one was veritably tearing through whatever was in its path. They watched as it cut through the ranks of the Iron Army, blades flailing madly.

The other mecha remained plastered to the first one’s back, and followed where it went. The white light was coming from that one.

As Lan Jue watched, he blinked in recognition. Wasn’t that Tang Mi’s suit? Who was that behind her? He couldn’t remember assigning a student with that sort of Talent to her team! He narrowed his eyes in thought.

“If the Discipline is pure amplification, it’d have unending uses on the battlefield When you get back to your pupils, pay attention to this one.”

“Yeah.” Lan Jue nodded. He already had his suspicions.

By the time he returned to the barracks, most of the students had already gotten the excitement out of their system. As the milled about among the crisply-made beds, they felt free and uninhibited for the first time in months. It was hard for them to express the sensations they were feeling.

Lan Jue did not immediately share what he’d learned from Lan Qing with them. Instead, he walked directly to a single room, and knocked on the door.

A familiar, charming face answered. As the door opened and she saw the golden-masked man on the other end, she shook ever so slightly. However, she reacted instantly.

“Hello, Drillmaster.”

“Can I come in?” he asked quietly.

“Of course.” Qianlin opened the door wider. She took a step back, her heart still racing somewhat from the surprise of his arrival. Since the beginning of their training, this was the first time Lan Jue had taken the initiative and sought her out.

Lan Jue stepped inside, and Qianlin shut the door behind him. It was a small room, with little more than a single-person bed. There was hardly any room to stand, and with the two of them there it felt tight.

Qianlin pointed to her bed. “Go ahead and sit.” In this private setting, she didn’t refer to him by his title.

Lan Jue complied, sitting on the bed and pulling the golden mask from his face. For reasons unknown, Qianlin felt a wave of relaxation overcome her as Lan Jue’s true face was revealed behind the mask.

“Much better without the mask,” she sighed almost unconsciously.

Lan Jue answered with a chuckle. “Why? Am I not myself with it?”

Qianlin nodded her head emphatically. “I think so. You’re scary with that thing on. Everyone’s afraid.”

“How about you? Are you scared of me?” Lan Jue said around a smirk.

Zhou Qianlin returned his smile. “Yeah.” She shivered theatrically.

Lan Jue couldn’t help but laugh. “Alright, I never thought you were scared of me. I’m actually here to ask you something. Do you know what your Discipline is? You were the one supporting Tang Mi earlier, weren’t you?”

Qianlin had guessed this question was coming. She nodded her head. “Yes. I just… could feel it. I just suddenly knew. It was all very strange, but it seems like my abilities are purely support. It doesn’t work on all levels, but it does seem to join with the target’s own Discipline and amplify it. Tang Mi and I gave it a try, and it worked very well. You saw it on the battlefield.

Lan Jue nodded. “Try it on me, let’s see.”

“Alright,” she replied. Qianlin raised her hands, and gently pressed them toward Lan Jue. Instantly, ripples of pure white light radiated from her palms and fell over her drillmaster.

Lan Jue felt a sensation of warmth and comfort wash over him. A pale blue light emerged around him like a halo.

He searched his feelings, and was surprised at the result. His discipline was full, surging with excess and… oily? No – but motive, surging through the meridians like a raging inferno. Though the addition didn’t push him through to Paragon levels of ability, it was at least half a rank higher with Qianlin’s help.

For Lan Jue, amplification to this level wasn’t enough to turn the tide of a battle. But the fact she could even amplify powers as high as his was an impressive feat.

Qianlin was currently a fifth level genetic Talent. Where she to use her amplification Discipline on an equivalent Adept, the results would be spectacular. It was a truly impressive Discipline to possess. What’s more, if she kept improving at her current rate, her powers would be able to significantly impact his in no time.

“I never would have thought you’d have such an extraordinary Talent. It’s support, but a wildcard.”

Qianlin answered with a roguish smirk. “’Wildcard’ doesn’t sound like such a good thing. Did it help you?”

“A little,” Lan Jue admitted. “It’s true that a wildcard has few individual characteristics that are personally helpful, but as a good support the benefits are endless. Since it’s very rare for someone like you to use your powers on someone with an identical Discipline, you’re essentially a universal amplifier. You can help everyone on the field to push against the enemy. Your Discipline is also very pure, and very gentle. I felt no ill- effects from your energy. This makes your abilities even more precious. Keep improving, you’re sure to be the primary support for the ARC students.”

There were three other support Disciplines among the students.

“I’m just trying to keep up,” she said.

“It’s been rough on you,” Lan Jue replied. “You’re thinner.”

Qianlin sighed. “I can handle rough. I just miss my friends from the hospital. I’ve been gone for so long, and they can’t get out. I wish I could see them. I’m sure they’re worried.”

Lan Jue gave her a reassuring smile. “Take it easy, I’ve taken care of it. Ke’er and Guoguo go there often. They’re helping you look after your duties, so things are good when you get back.”

Qianlin’s face lit up. “Really?”

Lan Jue nodded.

“Thank you.” Qianlin could feel her cheeks redden with heat.
She wasn’t sure whether it was from excitement or modesty.

The questions that needed asking were asked, and the results were pleasing. Lan Jue prepared to leave. He was, after all, in the women’s dormitory, and remaining in a students too long would certainly be suspicious.

Just as Lan Jue was rising to his feet, however, Zhou Qianlin reached down, perhaps to grasp something from the bed. It happened simultaneously, and the result was what one might

expect.

Qianlin yelped as they collided, and Lan Jue instinctively wrapped an arm around her waist. The force of the bump plopped him right back down on the bed. The arm around her waist pulled her right on to his lap.

Qianlin instinctively steadied herself with an arm around Lan Jue’s neck. Her eyes shone, and there was little bashfulness there.

Her soft flesh and feminine smell lingered between them, and Lan Jue pulled her tighter. For a moment, he really didn’t want to let go.

But this was the dormitory!

“I should go.” He said.

“Don’t move.” Qianlin said, softly.

They remained that way for a moment, in each other’s arms.

He looked to her eyes, framed by long lashes, and didn’t have the heart to make her move. So they sat, with Qianlin’s head on his shoulder and Lan Jue unsure of what he should do. Except remain calm.

His heart didn’t get the message. An intense ideological struggle raged within. Just then the gentle sounds of breathing arose. Zhou Qianlin’s supple body relaxed as she slipped in to sleep.

Her sweet smell hung in his nose, with her head against his shoulder. In his arms, she snuggled closer.

Chapter 313: Light Bulbs

A strange, gentle sensation lingered within Lan Jue. The training had been exceptionally laborious for  these  talented kids, but Zhou Qianlin persisted. Never once did she cry out in pain, or for help.

He slowly stood with her in his arms, then laid her gently onto the bed. She never loosened her hold on his neck – even when he tried to get himself loose, she just held him tighter. “Don’t go,” she murmured.

Lan Jue hadn’t been expected her to pull back, and she’d gotten quite strong after her two-month training. He practically fell down on top of her.

Qianlin’s breath caught in her throat, but she didn’t wake.
Only her cheeks reddened.

The contact was like an atomic bomb in Lan Jue’s brain. They were so close, this sensation… Lan Jue’s breath began to quicken, and Zhou Qianlin instinctively gripped the bed sheets.

Bang bang bang! A knock sounded at the door. Tang Mi’s voice

called in. “Qianlin…. Qianlin you there?”

Lan Jue’s eyes popped wide, and he shot to his feet. He was so quick to extricate himself from the student that he banged his head against the wall. He pressed a hand to his  head  and winced. Qianlin was, by this point, completely awake.

“I’m here Little Mi. What’s up?” She fought to bring herself back under control while speaking to her friend.

“Open the door, I have to talk to you about something,” she said.

She glanced at Lan Jue, who had already replaced his golden mask. He gave her a nod.

“Coming.” She stood and opened the door. Tang Mi’s impatient face appeared on the other side. She blinked curiously at her friend’s rosy cheeks and heaving chest, then gave her wink

Qianlin just looked at her, confused and unsure of her meaning. Tang Mi pulled the door open the rest of the way to

step inside, and that’s when she saw Lan Jue.

“Ah! D-drillmaster, you’re here too! Hello.” She snapped to attention.

He nodded. “I also had something to discuss with this student. Our business is complete – I’m leaving.” He shot Tang Mi a glance before swaggering out of the door.

Tang Mi smiled sweetly, and stepped aside to let him pass. But the moment he was gone she shut the door with a disdainful sneer, as though she were removing something repulsive.

“Little Mi… what are you doing?” Qianlin said in agitation.

Qianlin’s friend looked her over. “Are you alright? Did he do anything to you?”

Qianlin’s response was cold and irritated. “What the hell is wrong with your head?! He was asking me about the fight today, and my Discipline. Now what do you want?”

Tang Mi heaved a sigh. “Good… good. It scared me! I thought… well, you’re so pretty. And he’s so strong. If he wanted to, ehm, emulate the birds and the bees, which one of us could stop him? It’s good he didn’t do anything.”

Qianlin’s lips curled in to a frown. “What makes you think the Drillmaster is such a despicable person?”

Tang Mi sniffed derisively. “Who says he’s a good man, either? Have you already forgotten how he tormented us? I still remember the needles he stabbed us with. That pain, I’ll remember for the rest of my life. When I’m stronger, I’ll give him a taste of his own medicine! Henh henh henh henh…”

The young politician’s daughter laughed in spite of herself. “Alright, that’s enough. Weren’t you just telling me about how much improvement you feel you’ve made? Say what you will about the Drillmaster, but his methods are effective. Why the change of heart all of a sudden?”

Tang Mi chortled. “Alright, fine. I’ll be honest – he’s actually very cool, and ruggedly handsome I think. I wish I knew what his face looked like under that mask. They say people with disabilities hide them behind masks. I  think  that’s  probably why he does it, otherwise why wear a mask all the time? His

assistants, too. It’s all too strange, am I right?”

Qianlin was on the verge of erupting in to laughter. She quickly and silently relayed this information to Lan Jue through the Spiritcaller gem. She responded to Tang Mi before she could tell something was amiss. “How do I know?”

Tang Mi continued on her ruminations. “Or maybe he’s as handsome as Poseidon! That’d be nice. Then he’d be the perfect man. You know I saw the way Tan Lingyun was looking at him – very unusual. She’s been staring at him through the whole training, intentionally or not. Like she wants to eat him. Think I should throw my hat in the ring? I may not have a mature figure, but my advantage is in age!”

Qianlin patted her forehead. “Hey! Would you stop being such a nympho? You go through dream lovers like candy. First it’s this one, then another. How about a little consistency!”

Tang Mi adopted an indignant, morally superior air. “I like what I like. If, one day, there is a man who is worthy then I’ll put all my attention on him.”

“Alright,” Qianlin said, wishing to change the subject. “Get

out of here, I’m sleepy. I think I’ll take a nap. Rest is a rare thing.”

Tang Mi jutted her tongue out at her friend. “It still looks like you’re upset! And I don’t get a ‘thank you’ or anything. I risked offending the Drillmaster to come save you!”

Qianlin smirked. “Yes, yes – thank you ever so much, Sister Mi.”

Eventually, with great effort, she managed to send Tang Mi off. Qianlin couldn’t help but shake her head. Tang Mi was a good friend.

ζ

Lan Jue had returned to the boy’s dormitory by the time he heard Qianlin’s messages.

The Spiritcaller Power Gem:

Lan Jue’s voice was thick with umbrage: She thought I was

there to take advantage of you?!

Zhou Qianlin: Then what were you doing laying on me?

You pulled me!

You’re strong as an ox. I weigh a hundred pounds, how can I pull you?

Ah? So you deny it? So if that kind of man, I guess I could just sneak in there while you’re asleep…


What do you think about that?

I wouldn’t be disinclined.

I… a thousand showers wouldn’t clean the spirit from that.
You really pulled me!

It’s fine, no need for excuses. At any rate, it’s not like you were in any rush to get off me. What, you didn’t think I was awake?

This is emotional abuse! I’m being framed!

Don’t worry. I forgive you.


ζ

In the early morning, the traditional bugle call the NEU students had all come to recognize roused them from their slumber. There was no departure party or flashiness – it was just time to go. Not even Gao Lei was present. Only the guide was there, to lead them to Zeus-1.

The small sapphire ship took off and glided through the atmosphere, under escort from two An Lun patrol ships.

After a moment, Lan Jue’s ship shook and they sped off

toward the stars.

Lan Jue watched An Lun shrink in to the distance from a porthole. He struggled with conflicting emotions.

Brother. I’ll be back. I look forward to standing at your side in the fight to come.

The students felt similarly. They were silent as An Lun slowly disappeared behind them. A month wasn’t very long in the grand scheme, but they’d learned a tremendous amount in that time. Everything they’d gained here would benefit them for the rest of their lives. It was an important, life-changing experience.

As they set their course for home, the students all unconsciously tightened their safety harnesses. Who knew if the Demon Drillmaster would take this chance to test their g-force resistance again.

But the ride was unexpectedly smooth. However, it wasn’t long before a silhouette appeared before the ship, suspended in space.

“Do you all think you really won that battle, yesterday?” Lan Jue’s question was simple, but there were clear notes of disdain.

He snorted. “Truth is, that’s what I thought. Then,  I discovered I was wrong…”

Lan Jue went on to share what he’d learned with the students.
Their faces blanched as they came to the realization.

He then went on to discuss groups. After discussion with his assistants, the squads were restructured. There were still five teams, with some changes. Jin Tao switched with Tang Mi, for one, replacing her as captain of Echo squad.

The reason for the slight change was simple: Echo had taken the most casualties from their exchange. Only Qianlin and Tang Mi had survived. Their decimation was a direct result of Tang Mi’s command.

Jin Tao had been in Geng Yang’s group for the fight. Although Delta was sacrificed, he fought with bravery and relied on his own strength to pull him through. He’d put himself between the enemy and his squad to cover their retreat. Unfortunately, his opponent had been Prometheus.

Although they’d ultimately been defeated, Geng Yang and Jin Tao’s sacrifice had revealed the enemy’s location. Although Jin Tao’s time on the field had been brief, he’d performed admirably. That is why he was promoted.

Tang Xiao was also commended. Charlie squad, under his command, performed the best. Tan Lingyun, conversely, was criticized for the great losses her team had endured.

After the teams were restructured, they found their roles similarly adjusted. After witnessing the demonstration of their Discipline, Lan Jue was able to separate them more effectively. New tactics were devised to better suit the changes.

Chapter 314: The Crimson Massacre

The interior of Zeus-1 was not exceedingly large, but they were able to explain maneuvers and tactics with the help of a whiteboard. Sadly, the ship didn’t come equipped with a sim pod, otherwise they’d do this in DreamNet where the results were likely to be better. But even if they had a pod, that idea was no good. DreamNet was in the midst of an upgrade.

This sort of training was a blessed relief to the students. As far as they knew, the training was over – they could relax on the way back to school. In fact, the ARC classes had been a truly transformative experience. They were looking forward to the next few days, as they returned to normal life.

They were somewhat surprised by how quick the flight was. When they peered out of the portholes on either side, they saw a queer sight.

It was an asteroid belt, that stretched for hundreds of millions of kilometers. The background light of the universe shone between them, obscuring the details so all that they saw where hulking silhouettes suspended in nothingness.

This isn’t right! There was a specific flight path for the return

to Skyfire, and to their knowledge they weren’t supposed to be any asteroid belts this large on the way. Could they have gotten lost? Unlikely! All shapes came equipped with cruise control, especially combat vessels.

In the midst of their confusion, Lan Jue turned on the ship’s holographic projector. As the light sputtered to life, an enormous silver ship was revealed in the distance. A few of the students recognized it immediately. It was a cargo ship, for interstellar travel. It could be fitted to house both freight and passengers. Judging by the markings, it was an Eastern ship.

It floated easily along the lane. The transport vessel hung in space, disappearing among the asteroids and re-appearing moments later. It looked almost like one of them.

Lan Jue said nothing. He just returned to his seat, and kept his eyes on the ship.

These ships were effective for their purpose – comfortable, and spacious. It was humming along at a good speed, he determined. Ships like this could sustain sub-light speeds for quite a long time, longer that normal patrol boats. They were both comfortable, and spacious.

As they watched, there was a twinkling light in front of the silver vessel, and suddenly a massive net of shimmering light appeared. The ship collided head-on with the deterrent. Thankfully, it’s shields were operational. They lost control, but the shields kept them from being destroyed. Instead, the silver cargo ship spun listlessly through space.

Just then, seven or eight patrol ships of varying colors appeared from the blackness. They were like specters, arriving without notice. Obviously they had set an ambush: eliminate your target’s ability to flee, and mop up.

In no time at all, they were surrounded.

The silver ship was fighting to right itself when the ships appeared. The pilot seemed to know what was coming, and tried to urge the ship forward. Unfortunately, although the ship’s top speed was impressive, it needed time to reach that level.

A barrage of guided missiles collided with the ship’s shields. The attacks came in concurrent blasts, one after the other, that prevented the ship from gaining speed.

The students, under careful observation, were beginning to

understand. The beleaguered ship looked to have been stopped by a cloak mine. It was likely placed there by one of the Alliance from back in the day. It operated like any other mine, except that it was fitted with a cloaking device. It’s sheer damage, and the fact that you could be right on top of one when it went off, made them exceedingly dangerous. Because of the insidious nature of the weapons, the Alliances eventually agreed to discontinue their use. After all, ships were expensive.

Pirates. That’s what they must be, those vicious boats surrounding the silver cargo ship. The ship came to a full stop as damage rendered it inoperable. The video’s angle cut to the interior.

Armed personnel stalked the halls bearing laser rifles, their faces set as they faced inevitable demise. Thousands of souls were on board, and at this moment they were clambering over each other in terror.

At last, the shields failed. Without weapons to defend itself, the pirate boats were able to pull up right alongside. The hulk was cut and breached quickly, venting the ship’s oxygen in to space.

Several mecha suits fought through the hole. The screen

flashes as laser fire was exchange. But the passengers were no match. Unequipped and unprepared, the interior of the ship became a hell-scape, with mountains of bodies and rivers of blood.

Men, women, children, elderly… it didn’t matter. They were put down without a second thought. Only a few pretty women were kept, locked in the hold below.

The fresh blood and mangled bodies were reflected in the students’ eyes. The images were terrifying, atrocious, sickening. They fought rage and nausea as they watched these mechas callously murder everyone they came across.

The video panned to the side, revealing a pirate mecha standing nearby. It raised its alloy sword overhead. He brought the blade down on a child – he mustn’t have been more than five or six. Screams and gasps sprang up all throughout the NEU trainees.

Their cries had no power over what they saw. They could only look on in terror as innocent lives were summarily extinguished. They were Easterners, like them, just trying to get somewhere.

In the end, the ship was a floating hulk of metal, home to nothing but the dead. The prettier victims had been hauled away, and the ship itself towed in to the black.

The pirates knew when to go and when to stop. They’d only breached the outer hull, leaving the interior structure undamaged. Even in this condition, a ship of this size would catch a pretty penny, not to mention whatever cargo it may have contained.

The image dimmed, and vanished. Lan Jue’s dark voice hung in the ship’s bridge.

“What you just watched happened about six months ago. It as a massacre. It happened on the outskirts of the Shattered Starfields. That part of the lane was supposed be patrolled by the North, but they were inexplicably absent that day. The victims were our own, from the Eastern Alliance. Two-thousand three-hundred passengers, two-hundred sixty crew. Fifty-four women were abducted, and all the rest were put to death. They were pirates, the Crimson Flag. According to our intelligence reports, they were among the best equipped pirate clans in the Fields. Their base wasn’t in the three main planets of that system, but that didn’t matter – their benefactor was the Northern Alliance. It you were to claim they had no connection to the  North, no one would believe you. More than two-

thousand five-hundred lives, taken in this way. The Crimson Flag hid in deeper recesses of the Starfields after that, knowing that the East would send a fleet to answer for this crime. However, the North – who controlled the regions around the Starfields – blocked their passage. To this day those pirates have never answered for this atrocity. It’s been known ever since as the Crimson Massacre.”

The students collectively glared at the space where the screen was. Their hearts were full of anger, and sadness. Many of the young men openly sneered, their knuckles white as they gripped their arm rests.

Most of them had heard of the Crimson Massacre, some even knew the details. The Shattered Starfields were a chaotic and unruly place, where ‘complicated’ failed to describe it. Larger ships simply couldn’t make it through due to this. On top of that, the East couldn’t send ships through their own borders to the Starfields without having to traverse the whole of it to get to their last known location. The closest ingress was in the North’s territory.

But the North decreed their space unapproachable. Each request by the East to pass was met with cool refusal. They negotiated, but the North couldn’t forgive the grievances that had built up between them over the years. This is one reason

why many suspect the North were complicit in the massacre.

Lan Jue had asked Chu Cheng about this when it’d occurred, but he didn’t know anything about it. The Northern military was an independent force and the strongest of all human federations.

The video they were watching had been given to him by Lan Qing. The vice admiral sometimes had his hands tied in the bureaucracy of the military machine. Lan Jue was not so constrained.

The Mercenary King had once stalked the Shattered Starfields, decimating every pirate clan he came across. They would feel the cold gaze of death on their backs in every dark corner when he was finished. They dared to assault Eastern civilians. They slunk deeper in to their holes after that.

Lan Jue rose from the captain’s chair. “If you recall, before we left for An Lun I noted that our training period may increase as needed. Your training, is not yet finished. Specifically, this is our third phase. Originally I’d planned something else, but with some additional data concerning the Crimson Flag – plans change. Your task is simple: Annihilate the Crimson Flag.”

“Professor, put me at the front!” Jin Tao fiercely shot his arm up. His eyes were red – his grandfather had been one of the victims.

Others followed, who originally had been loathe to interrupt their Drillmaster.

Lan Jue looked out the porthole. “Accountant. Take us to the Starfields.”

The Shattered Starfields! Their Drillmaster’s words set a fire for vengeance in their chests. They were headed for the legendary pirates’ haven.

If An Lun had been a common site on the map, how much truer it was for the Starfields. None of them, however, had ever previously had a yearning to visit.

The pirate playground, a den of degenerates and scum. Danger lurked around every corner. That was where they were going.

The heat in their blood cooled a few degrees. Only the

confidence earned from their training and skirmish victory stopped some from outright fleeing. After all, they were students. Out there were pirates. What they were about to experience could mean life or death!

But Lan Jue looked in the faces of each of his students, and he was satisfied. They remained calm, and in the face of this revelation that was no easy task.

“We will head directly for the heart of the Crimson Flag territory. Your task will be to suit up, in the Bloodlust Warsuits that you have earned, and eliminate the clan. They should all die a thousand times, but you can give them one at least. In the process, your second objective is to rescue a compatriot under their control. This is the third phase of your training.”

Zeus-1 deftly maneuvered toward the heart of the Shattered Starfields under the Accountant’s masterful control.  The sapphire ship darted like a fish between the spiraling asteroids, failed planets and ship wreckage.

Chapter 315: Lord And Lady

The star map he’d been given from the Moonfiend Empress was in Lan Jue’s hands. Although the entire ordeal had been a trap, the map was real enough. It’d been a little while since their last visit, but the map should still be current enough for their purposes.

The Crimson Flag wasn’t among the strongest of the Starfields’ pirate clans, and compared to the Moonfiend pirates they barely registered. However, they did have the Northern Alliance as silent benefactors. They fit right in on the borders of the Northern Alliance’s stretch of the Starfields.

Their base of operations was a small planet, roughly a tenth the size of Skyfire. It resided in a relatively stable part of the asteroid belt, so it was relatively safe from impact.

According to intelligence from the An Lun army, the Crimson Flag had a moderate roster. As far as was known, they had three mecha combat camps that were all excellently equipped. They may have appeared as lawless cretins, but underneath were hardened, armed killers.

They also possessed two battleships, and somewhere between

ten and fifteen patrollers – more than almost any other pirate clan. Each of those were equipped with enviable power gems that made them more than a match for any similarly classed ship they may encounter.

Zeus-1 was cutting through the blackness, already approaching the Northern Alliance side. They would be arriving at their target in two days. The Crimson Star, was the name of the planet they’d come to dominate.

“Engage stealth cloak,” Lan Jue commanded.

The shimmering blue color of Zeus-1 deepened until it matched the expansive darkness of the universe around them. This obviously wasn’t proper stealth, but a special cloaking capability of the coating Zeus-1 was covered in. Following, Lan Jue had the Accountant start their radar interference to conceal them from scanners. Within the scope of these functions, the ship was all but invisible.

Lan Jue sat up on the captain’s chair. His eyes were hard and cold. He’d made several incursions to wipe out pirates during his time as a soldier for hire – but he never got his hands on the Crimson Flag.

“We’re approaching radar range.” The Accountant coaxed Zeus-1 in to orbit around the Crimson Star. Any closer, and they’d be spotted.

“Prepare main battery,” Lan Jue growled. “Accountant, give me a layout of enemy positions.”

The young man looked at Lan Jue wide-eyed. The drillmaster looked him right in the eye. “I have faith.”

“Alright.” The Accountant nodded his head resolutely. Suddenly, his hands were dancing on the keyboard lightning fast.

Zeus-1 was indeed the most excellent craft he’d had the opportunity to pilot. Everything – from the combat systems to the life support and everything in between – was state of the art. The ship’s radar scanned the planet white the Accountant kept his eyes glued to the screen. A rapid sequence of frames flicked before him in quick succession as he and the ship put their minds to uncovering the enemy’s position.

“Found them.” He pointed to something on the screen. “Their airfield is here.”

“Status of main weapons?”

Mika’s voice answered. “Primed and ready.”

Lan Jue slapped the armrest of his chair. “Fire!”

“Fire!” Mika confirmed the command. Their cloak dissipated, as congealing orbs of energy appeared before the ship’s main barrels. A few moments later the space around them lit up with resplendent blue light, as a series of lethal energy beams peppered with starlight burst forth.

The students unconsciously gripped their armrests as they witnessed the battle commence.

It wasn’t long ago that many of these kids were taking their first interstellar trip, their first ride in a fighting vessel. Now they were engaged in open combat. But could Zeus-1 find its target from this distance? Would it cause sufficient damage for an opening salvo?

They had their answer right away.

A shield protected the airfield. It flashed white as Zeus-1’s battery make contact. It was sufficient to block the surprise attack from causing damage. However, as the students watched from the main screen in the ship’s cockpit, the beam began to twist and rotate. The action condensed the energy, and increased its penetrating capabilities.

A drastic explosion arose, the sound of crashing metal and roaring flames audible even from their location.

Then, the Crimson Star reacted. Dots of light appeared on the surface, and that’s when the Accountant spoke up. “It’s a planetary defense system… shit, are we sure this is a pirate colony and not a Northern army base?”

Neither his mouth nor his hands ever stopped moving. In the midst of his curses the Accountant immediately re-engaged their stealth routines, and pulled the ship out of stable orbit. It pitched in to a combat roll.

Mid-maneuver the students could see what the Accountant had – dozens of anti-airship volleys were converging on their position. They danced around one another to form a wide- reaching net of deadly energy. Thankfully, the Accountant’s reactions were swift and the ship narrowly avoided destruction.

They raced to a safer distance.

“These idiots think they can hit me?” The Accountant was hyper-focused, almost like a different man. The formerly lecherous youth with a sour temper glared at the screen in front of him. Flashes of black and white twinkled in his eyes like lines of code. His fingers raced over the keys faster than the students could keep up.

Even with the gravitational stabilizers engaged, Zeus-1’s occupants pitched and jerks with each severe motion of the ship. Now, the students understood why Lan Jue had subjected them to that extreme g-force. Right now it was looking downright necessary. At the very least, their former experience afforded them a sense of calm, and their bodies were better equipped to handle the rigors.

“Drillmaster. Our main battery penetrated their shields and have destroyed one battleship. Heh, I bet that hurts!” The Accountant cackled gleefully as he made the report and dodged incoming fire.

“It’ll hurt a lot more before we’re through,” Lan Jue said with fire in his eyes. “Turn us around. Prepare to engage.”

It was time to nail this coffin closed.

The Crimson Flag would have to respond after such a devastating loss. They watched as several patrol ships took off and headed their way. They spread in to an intercepting formation as they drew near.

Lan Jue could not help but admit that these pirates were well trained. They scrambled an answering force in no time at all, under fire from an unknown enemy without provocation. Clearly they were always vigilant for this sort of situation. Out here, every pirate clan had to be ready, and mastered their own ways of doing it.

Lan Jue’s expressionless face remained pointed at the screen. He watched the boats approach, stoic. No matter how powerful this foe, he thought, they must pay for what they’ve done. Zeus- 1 turned to face its pursuers, hidden in the inky blackness of space.

Eight pirate patrol ships were en route. The Accountant’s determinations were correct, and one of their battleships lay smoldering on the tarmac. The second had yet to lift off, either because they were underestimating Lan Jue or for some other purpose.

ζ

The leader of the Crimson Flag was a man named Feng Lin. He was an exceedingly portly fellow. At this moment, he was watching his screens with a malevolent twinkle in his eye.

The harsh notes of an alarm rang from all directions. The sudden attack had set off the planetary alarm and defense systems.

He was in the battleship, the one that had been spared destruction by the surprise attack. He was a man known for his brutality and blood lust, but also his caution. It was the arrogant pirates that became corpses, so he chose his flagship and headquarters to be one of the battleships and kept it under ground. He’d have kept both there, if they’d possessed the ability to make the underground hangar large enough.

He looked to be a man in his forties, with a face unfortunately plagued by scores of soybean-colored growths. They were about the size of his eyes, and twitched with the muscles of his face as he frowned.

Ever since they’d attained support from the Northern armies,

he had grown complacent and confident in his strength. He was the uncontested lord of his domain. But in contrast to his fierce exterior, Feng Lin possessed a delicate heart, and feared death. His covered this ruling his pirates with an iron fist. As for the planetary defense system, it had cost him quite a lot of money for that peace of mind. After all, it was a system to ensure planetary dominance. It was a micro-version, to be sure, but nonetheless difficult to acquire since it was military grade.

It was a source of pride. Other than the three largest planets in the Starfields, no other clan could match his technical superiority.

Though he was a cruel man, he was prudent, and so did not get himself involved in a fight he couldn’t win. He only revealed his presence if the advantage was well in his favor. It was this quality that got the attention – and support – of the North. But to the other pirates of the Starfields, it was a shameful existence. The called him the Lady, for his feminine timidity.

This was why the second ship wasn’t in flight – Feng Lin’s cautiousness. However, it had been refitted to allow for long- rate engagement. That was its trump card, in the event he encountered an enemy he couldn’t best.

“Who the hell is this?!” he bellowed. Feng Lin watched the screen before him as the patrol boats spread out and searched for the culprit.

The enemy had been briefly revealed through radar, and from what he’d seen it was a smaller ship, like a patrol boat. But that didn’t make any sense – that blast had had the force of a battleship behind it!

“Bastard… when I get you, I’ll skin the flesh from your bones and use your tendons as guitar strings!” Feng Lin growled ferociously at the screen. However, he did not give the order to have his ship engage. Feng Lin’s nickname was not  given lightly.

Chapter 316: Valiant Clash

Just then, a series of energy beams glowed stark against the black sky. They swept over a patrol boat, and that was when the little blue boat appeared on Feng Lin’s screen.

He shows himself! Feng Lin’s eyes narrowed as he carefully regarded the image on the screen. Something he saw, however, turned his face a ghastly pale.

The golden lightning bolt painted on the side.

Boom–! The assailed pirate boat exploded in a shadow of flames and debris. A fiery ball burned ferociously where it had been.

Meanwhile the sapphire ship weaved and dodged. The remaining vessels couldn’t land a strike.

“Enough! Retreat!” Feng Lin shouted.

His lieutenant looked at him in confusion.

“Boss – retreat? We can take this guy! It’s got some crazy firepower, but there’s only one of them.”

Slap! Feng Lin turned around and with such speed and force that the slip he gave his attendant sent him spinning.

“Moron. Don’t you know who that is? That boat belongs to Zeus. Dial the planetary defenses up to eleven. Whatever you do, do not let Zeus get close to our base. Send a distress signal to our allies in the North. Now!”

The orders were roared at his subordinate. But the last few sentences were filled with something else – a clear and present fear of the man who was coming for them.

Zeus was an infamous character in the Shattered Starfields, a name everyone recognized. His solo murder trip around the Starfields had ended with no less than thirty pirate clans wiped from existence.

When it came to things such as this, Feng Lin did not overestimate his abilities. There was only one attacker, but Feng Lin knew himself, and the men he commanded. Clans much stronger than theirs had fallen before the wrath of the

mercenary king. What chance did they have? The only advantage they had right now was the planetary defense system.

A deep regret had settled in Feng Lin’s heart. How could he forget this monstrous killer! He should never have agreed to attack that Eastern cargo ship, like the North had asked – or at least not that obvious. All it had served to do was announce their culpability.

But hadn’t Zeus been gone for several years? Why now? Why here? Damnit! What shit luck!

The skin tags and carcinomas of his face became a crimson red as his anger rose. It made him look particularly unpleasant.

ς

One of the eight ships sent to intercept them was destroyed.
After the Accountant’s impressive display, the remaining seven had turned tail and fled.

“The hell is this? Too scared? I thought they were pirates!” The Accountant watched slack-jawed as his targets made for

cover. He could hardly believe what he was seeing.

“Prepare for light speed,” Lan Jue calmly instructed.

“Light speed.” Mika and Xiuxiu responded with one voice.

Lan Jue then turned his attention back to the students. “When we breach and make landfall, the fight is yours. I will not be participating. You all remember your task?”

“Yes, sir!” The students’ response was quick, but their hearts were struggling against confusion, fear, and excitement. Their courage and training kept them stable.

Lan Jue’s deep voice continued. “Alpha squad will be responsible for destroying their planetary defenses. Bravo will proceed with the extraction mission. The remaining forces will focus on exterminating these pests. There will be no survivors.”

“Yes, sir!”

This time the answer came from Tan Lingyun, Wang

Hongyuan, Geng Yang, Jin Tao and Tang Xiao.

The bloodlust in Tan Lingyun’s eyes was obvious. She’d never participated in an actual battle, but the desire to enact justice ran deep to her bones. After seeing the cruelty to her compatriots on that video, a fire was ignited within her for vengeance.

Wang Hongyuan was much calmer than his co-worker. To him, this sort of ‘cleanse’ was not a problem. After all, there was a reason he chose a life on Skyfire, working in education.

Tang Xiao, as cunning as he was, had had his confidence boosted considerably after the An Lun training. His determination to succeed and grow stronger burned fiercely.

Geng Yang, in comparison, was more fearful of what was to come. But, he was a star pupil, the pride of the NEU. Before Tang Xiao’s sudden inexplicable leap in power, Geng Yang was the one to watch. There was no time to slow, no time for hesitation. So he swallowed his fear – he couldn’t play second fiddle to Tang Xiao!

Jin Tao’s eyes were a dangerous red, and his heart already

roared in his ears. He yearned for battle – to visit ruin upon those bastards who hurt his family!

“Main drive systems prepped.”

“Energy levels at maximum capacity. Main thrusters are open!”

Mika and Xiuxiu delivered their reports one after the other.

“Holy shit! What do you think you’re doing?!” The Accountant looked at Lan Jue like he was a mad man. Was he planning to use their ship to ram through the defenses? Granted it was a watered-down version of the system, but it still had enough firepower to rival a battleship. If they chose a straight rush, the defensive systems would undoubtedly tear them apart. What’s more, the system was designed to be condensed and intensive. Getting passed one line of defense didn’t mean you were out of the woods. They were likely to encounter resistance every step of the way. A blitzkrieg was not something the pirates feared.

Of course, Lan Jue wasn’t swayed in the slightest by the Accountant’s fears.

“Engage!”

Lan Jue closed his eyes, and from overhead a half-helmet descended and settled on his crown. The armrests also reacted, simultaneously opening and extending two metal orbs beneath his palms.

The Accountant snapped back around and busily banged the keyboard before him. However, he was surprised to discover that his screen had gone dark – he could not control the ship from his station. The whole of the ship’s interior went dark.
From the window, he could see that a pale blue light had sprung up around the ship like a bubble – their shields.
He’s really going to try and ram through? This guy’s crazy!

The Accountant knew he couldn’t stop it. He couldn’t do anything.

Suddenly the passengers of Zeus-1 were violently thrust against the backs of their chairs as a tremendous accelerating force arose. The students felt it too, and for those brave enough to turn their heads they could see the universe warping uncomfortable from the windows. Zeus-1 charged screaming toward the Crimson Star like a vengeful bolt of lightning from the gods.

The planet’s defenses were already operating at full capacity, as per Feng Lin’s command. A wall of laser blasts pierced through the planet’s atmosphere to meet them.

Part of the system’s strength was its lack of a ‘blind side.’ Of course, this was supplemented by frightening powerful weaponry. The trade-off was a stupendously expensive price tag, and the power gems to run it.

As a result, Zeus-1 could not evade or out maneuver the system to reach their objective. The only avenue open to them was a head-long rush.

Zeus-1’s shields flashed as the strikes collided. The whole ship shook under the assault. The students looked on in shock; only a few had complete confidence in Lan Jue, the rest had gone pale.

This was space they were floating in. Once the shields were gone, there was only a thin sheet of metal between them and asphyxiation. No one would survive if the hull was breached. Everyone’s mind was on the same fact. The question was, would the shields hold?

The ear-piercing squeal of the ship’s alarms filled their ears.

They shook and pitched, but in that moment a vibrant blue light erupted around Lan Jue. Bolts of errant electricity revolved around him. His hands were living lightning, opaque and super-charged as they sat on the metal orbs. The brightest point was around their Drillmaster’s helmeted head.

The Accountant was more than familiar with all manner of technological devices. Now that the process was revealed, he understood what Lan Jue was going for. Specifically, he was using his Discipline to reinforce their shields. But was this crazy guy’s individual power enough to face down an entire planet’s defensive systems?

The Accountant was scared, furious, but as he looked once more out of the window he spied their shields – studier than ever. Shimmering bolts of electricity surrounded them like a protective net and fed their defenses. Although the anti-aircraft batteries were strong, they weren’t enough to pierce Lan Jue’s power. They were deflected harmlessly in to space, like they were little more than an afterthought.

Zeus-1 was picking up speed.

Lan Jue’s patrol ship was fitted with excellent drive systems that could ramp it up to light speed in no time. It had been fast

enough to circumvent the Bastion and battleship attacks during their earlier foray in to the Starfields.
Despite the fully-powered systems desperately trying to dissuade it, Zeus-1 would not be denied. It drilled through the planet’s thin atmosphere under heavy assault. The ground came in to clear view.

“Brace for impact!” Xiuxiu’s sweet voice rang loud in the cockpit.

The students felt their harnesses tighten. The shields outside their window flared with energy. They were charging at light speed – slowing down would be a problem. Unless you hit something. Like a planet.

Boom…..!

It was like the entire planet shook. A shockwave of excess energy blasted out in all directions. Four of the seven returning ships were instantly disintegrated by the force. The remaining three fled wildly, colliding with one another in their furious escape. The damage was extensive – they were no longer threats.

ς

Feng Lin sat in his captain’s chair, staring wide-eyed and open-mouthed at what he’d just seen. This was why Zeus was so terrifying – this was the mad Mercenary King. Not even a planet could stop him.

Zeus-1 crashed in to the surface like a nuclear bomb. Their point of collision left a crater twenty kilometers wide. Where there had been an airstrip, there was now only rubble.

Chapter 317: Your Turn!

Zeus-1 was, itself, a weapon of mass destruction. After the terrible collision, by virtue of the ship’s powerful shields, it revealed itself to be completely undamaged. Of course, the impact was still felt – the NEU students were all dizzy and confused after the strike.

Hack! Cough! The Accountant heaved and sputtered, trying to shake off the uncomfortable feeling. He coughed for several minutes.

His discipline was unique. It had very little effect on the physical body, so he was struggling to keep himself in equilibrium following their crash landing.

Mika and Xiuxiu, meanwhile, had already disengaged their harnesses and were milling about the bridge. Lan Jue was next, and as he rose to his feet he indicated with his right hand. In response, a bolt of lightning shot out, fractures in to countless smaller projectiles, and landed upon each of his students. The purpose was to dull their nerves so that the impact didn’t hurt so badly. It would also help them recover faster.

“The rest is up to you.”

The Crimson Star was pretty hostile to life, as might be expected, though it wasn’t quite so bad as An Lun. You could survive in this atmosphere for a short time, at least. Gusts of strange, toxic-smelling air filled he ship when its doors were opened. By then several of the group leaders were already standing and organizing their people.

The interior of the patrol boat was too small for them to get set with their mechas right away. Originally it wasn’t constructed to handle even the amount of people it ferried now. They’d have to choke down the caustic air for a few moments before exiting the plane, and getting in their new suits.

Lan Jue was the first to disembark, with Mika and Xiuxiu at his heels. They didn’t need a meacha suit just yet – their Disciplines would sustain them. Eventually, all the students followed. The Accountant remained behind the ship’s controls, shutting the door once everyone had left.

The An Lun mechas were relinquished from their interspacial confinement through their wristbands, so it took very little time for the students to extricate and board them. They arranged themselves by team, and awaited instructions.

Lan Jue didn’t keep them waiting. “Keep a line of

communication open with the ship. It will provide you with a map, and markers for all objectives. Remember that this is a live fire battlefield. You aren’t using training mechas. How you proceed out there could mean everything. If you fail, the price will be your life. Now is the time to put away all your fear, all those negative emotions. Focus on the enemy. Focus on the person we’re here to save. Move out!”

Five small groups of students launched toward the skies at his command. Under their squad leaders’ commands, the teams raced toward their predetermined targets.

Mika and Xiuxiu stood at Lan Jue’s shoulders. Xiuxiu’s timid voice chimed in. “Boss… are we really leaving them to their own devices?”

Lan Jue chuckled. “So long as the pirates don’t mount any sort of effective defense. Remember, they’re the school’s elite piloting An Lun Warsuits.” As he spoke, he fitted his flight suit helmet on his head. He spoke in to the mic. “Accountant, give them the map.”

The Accountant had, by now, entirely recovered. He couldn’t help but share his thoughts. “Jewelry Master, you are unequivocally insane. What if your shield wasn’t strong

enough, ey? What then?”

“Impossible,” Lan Jue responded indifferently. “Stop with the nonsense and get to work.”

The former mercenary took his own advice, for even before he’d finished talking his right hand was already lifting. He could feel the surging energy of the phylactery stone in his palm.

Lately, all of his more powerful manifestations – whether the training on An Lun or their dramatic entrance here – were touched by the power of the phylactery. With power enough to run a mother ship in his palm, certainly some would be expelled unconsciously when in combat. During the course of his fights some would leak out and fuse with his own abilities.

ς

Tan Lingyun, commanding Alpha squad, was racing toward her own objective – the main controls for the planet’s defense system. Now that they were passed the defensive perimeter, it would be much easier to disrupt.

In no time at all, the Accountant had tapped in to the planet’s communication systems, using it to deliver information to the students. The control systems were located deep in the enemy base. Its layout, even personnel locations, was revealed on the Accountant’s map.

Tan Lingyun looked over the information from within her own Warsuit. It wasn’t as well designed or as powerful as her Sovereign-ranked suit, but she wanted to feel the spirit of the blood iron soldiers as she performed this righteous mission.

As ever, her weapons were dual swords. They glinted as she raced forward to their objective. Her radar incessantly swept the area before her for surprises. She kept one eye on the stream of information the Accountant was feeding them.

This was a true fight! Lan Jue’s address within Zeus-1 had inspired her. Her failure during the An Lun trainings was serious, and now the chance arose for her to redeem herself. What happened was irreversible – there was only the path forward.

Clearly, she was advancing much more cautiously than the last time.

However, as time went on Tan Lingyun discoveredn that her caution was perhaps unwarranted. The information they were receiving from Zeus-1 was supremely accurate. All she had to do was following the route laid out, and that was it.

Hell, this real fight was looking much easier than their training!

Similar revelations were shared by the other group leaders. The Accountants information was exhaustive, comprehensive and completely accurate. It was like he had a dozen eyes in the middle of the camp, feeding him info.

Tan Lingyun and her team arrived at their target in ten minutes. According to their intel, there were thirty mechas stationed here. Because of their rather flashy entrance, the suits were already armed to the teeth and prepared to defend the system.

It was the pride and joy of the Crimson Flag. There were here to obliterate it.

Lingyun raised a hand signal, and came to a stop just outside the enemy’s detection radius. The enemy had long ago engaged

their own interference devices, which served to hide them well. Pirates, of course, were well versed in actual combat, and knew what had to be done.

Luckily, the pirate interference systems would only effect mechas, and not the whole of Crimson Star’s electrical systems. What’s more, the cameras they relied on outside of the base belonged to the Accountant now! That was how they got such accurate information concerning enemy routes.

Tan Lingyun gave out tasks to her charges, using the information in her mecha to direct them. The first strike group included her, and the eleven members spread out. They turned on their own radar as they pressed forward.

Tan Lingyun stalked like a cheetah. Silent as the grave, she crept up behind an enemy mecha and readied her blades to pierce it through the cockpit.

Interstellar pirates lived a life of blood and corpses. They made them, or became them. And so, even though Tan Lingyun approached from his blind side, the pirate’s sixth sense kicked in. He felt the impending danger, and strafed sideways.

Clang! Lingyun’s swords pierced the enemy mecha’s metal shell. She’d missed the cockpit, but it was good enough she felt. She poured her supernatural energies in to the blades, and right away they glowed with a vibrant green. She wrenched her blades sideways to the cockpit, and the blades moved smoothly through like a hot knife through butter.

A scream arose from somewhere inside the suit. Tan Lingyun didn’t stay to gloat – in a blink, she was stalking her next prey.

The attacks on other targets were also underway. The students’ maneuvers weren’t exactly refined, but they had just completed an exhaustive two month training course. Though they weren’t on their A-game, they were still talented Adepts with extensive mecha training. They had the advantage.

The entire operation was unfolding before them.

Similar scenes were playing out for every squad. They swept through the enemy forces without any showy moves or fancy tactics. This was war, and wars were won with strength and discipline.

The students’ foundations were solid. What they lacked, was

actual battlefield experience. This was their first time encountering a true enemy who wished to see them dead. Clearly they weren’t used to it, yet. Still, they possessed a unique supremacy in their Disciplines.

Obviously, Talent alone wasn’t going to win the day. But it could save their lives, and give them a chance to correct their mistakes. Luckily the opening charge had gone smoother than they’d anticipated. Now, however, with the fight well and truly under way, things were becoming more challenging.

Now was when their individual strength would be revealed.

Alpha squad was under Tan Lingyun’s command. Wang Hongyuan was responsible for Bravo, and Charlie followed Tang Xiao. Geng Yang and Jin Tao led Delta and Echo respectively.

Jin Tao’s squad was composed of melee specialists. Their objective was the underground base of the Crimson Flag. They encountered opposition immediately.

Jin Tao led the charge. A faint golden aura surrounded his Warsuit as it plowed ahead. In his wake a strange image followed, like a spectral lion that moved faster than the wind.

He leapt like a beast on a nearby enemy and then, with the golden aura around him flaring, he tore the machine’s arms off. He repeatedly rammed his suit’s head in to the mangled enemy’s cockpit until the screaming stopped.

Fierce, vicious, and wild. He was an angel of death, who’s like a knife cut a bloody swathe wherever he went.

The Crimson Flag was not a weak clan, but even if they were twice as powerful they couldn’t match up to the Iron Army! They were decent fighters, withextensive combat experience. But they didn’t cooperate, so they were a mess disparate parts falling to a superior force. Against the soldiers of An Lun, they’d have lost. But these were pirates, and their deaths were all but assured.

Lan jue, Mika and Xiuxiu did not engage. This was truly in the hands of the students, now.

Chapter 318: Geng Yang’s Crisis

Plumes of acrid dark smoke rose to the skies, as angry fireballs dotted the Crimson Star’s surface. Explosions roared like thunder.

A battleship rose from the fray, heading toward the atmosphere. Its sleek surface was painted orange by the dancing flames below. It rose under cover of the planet’s defense systems, just as they went offline.

Feng Lin’s chins quivered in fear, and his eyes flashed with enmity. The Crimson Star was his territory. He’d poured years of blood and sweat in to making it his, but now this bastard was taking it away.

The moment the saw the blue ship crash in to the planet, he knew he had no chance to fight them off. Zeus was too strong. More than once he’d seen video of what Zeus did to pirates. He dispatched the whole of his mecha warriors, while ordering his closest subordinates to join him on their flagship.

The battle below was in full swing. Zeus and his people were on the path to wiping them out, but they needed time. Why, then, should he stick around, Feng Lin thought? No point in

pining for grass when you were off to greener pastures.

Thankfully, Feng Lin’s caution helped. His ship’s systems and communications weren’t connected to the planets, so the Accountant had no means to stop his escape.

The young man reacted quickly, however, when he saw the ship angling for escape trajectory.

“Jewelry Master, a battleship is attempting to flee. Should I give chase?” he asked.

“No need,” was Lan Jue’s response. “Keep up your analysis of the battlefield situation. I’ll deal with that boat myself.”

There was a flash of blue light, with gradually rose in intensity until it was a blazing orb of golden energy. It released the condensed energy in a lancing bolt of lightning, which raced in to the heavens and disappeared.

About a thousand pirates remained, with three hundred mechas among them. It was enough for three standard military companies. This was something rare for a pirate clan to

organize. Among them were also several proficient pilots. Pirate life made for effective motivation. If you didn’t learn a skill, you died.

ζ

Geng Yang’s rifle muzzle smoked. In front of him, the headless body of a pirate collapsed to the floor. The enemy mecha twitched, expelling a shower of sparks.

Things on his end of the field weren’t going precisely as planned. His team was responsible for storming the compound together with Charlie and Echo. But despite having three squads, the enemy’s numbers were far superior. In this area alone, the Accountant’s analysis read one hundred and fifty enemy soldiers. They had thirty.

As the fight began, the enemy soldiers were in disarray. With their suits, Discipline and the element of surprise, the students smashed through their perimeter defenses and began to clean house. Twenty mechas were destroyed in the opening moments, but the pirates were experienced in the ways of small skirmishes such as these. They recovered quickly and mounted a defense.

A pirate’s life was lived on the edge of a sword. Every one of them had taken a life before. They were fiercer, tougher, and far less scrupulous than the NEU students – worse than they’d thought. Still, the young pilots cut intimidating figures in their Warsuits.

The fight against the An Lun soldiers had left Geng Yang with a profound impression. He and Jin Tao had worked well together, giving their own team an opportunity to regroup and reengage. Unfortunately, they had been completely annihilated.

This time, he was determined to protect his soldiers. And so, from the very beginning he threw everything he had in to the advance. More than six enemies had been felled by his gun already, at this point.

He staggered, but recovered quickly as the enemy forces began to focus their fire his way. He swung around rifle first, and used it to deflect a laser blast. He took the opportunity to steady himself.

Geng Yang was a first-class pilot, and their trump card. He had an innate talent when it came to mecha control. He dodged the enemy’s shots with fluid feints left and right, then fired his rifle in to the soldier next to him at point blank range. The

pirate screamed helplessly as he was blown away. But Geng Yang turned to the other one who’d tried to get the drop on him, simultaneously drawing the alloy blades fixed to his back. In three chops, the enemy sneak attack was put down.

Geng Yang felt his Discipline flood through him, growing strong and prosperous. A golden aura sprang up around his Warsuit, condensing in to a vibrant amber as it empowered his weapons. Out of the corner of his eye, he spied another contingent of pirates heading his way. He twisted, and with a mighty sweep of his blades sent out a blast of power over ten meters long. The force knocked the enemies flying. It would buy his team a few more moments.

The young pilots were even more practiced in technique and cooperation this time. A result of their affair in An Lun, certainly. However, nerves had to be considered, and some were so nervous it was effecting their combat effectiveness. After all, this was a real fight, where the consequences of failure could very well mean death. Under conditions like these, how could these students – who had never taken a life before – not be nervous?

Geng Yang’s breath came quick and haggard. Sustained use of his Discipline was exceedingly draining. He took a quick glance at the battlefield analysis to see that at least one hundred and

twenty enemies remained locked in conflict. He was unfamiliar with the terrain, but he could see they were trying to position around and encircle his squad.

No good! That would certainly lead to injuries or deaths.

The An Lun Warsuits were equipped with thick armor and a powerful core. The central energy core was also tied to a reserve shield system. If the suit were to encounter an attack it couldn’t survive, the shields would come online. It was in part due to this functionality that Lan Jue’s students had yet to report any incidents. However, energy had its limits. Because they were nervous, many of the inexperienced pilots begun the fight pouring all of their powers in to the opening charge. Now, about halfway through, they were starting to fade.

In regards to mecha piloting, these fearsome pirates were no less adept than their attackers. As their Talent advantage waned, naturally the pirates’ response strengthened.

In another part of the battlefield, Tang Xiao was taking to the fight like a duck to water. His eighth-ranked Discipline was a terrific boon, and even the enemy suits could be manipulated by his powers once he got within range. His enemies fell, ended by their own weapons. At the outset, at least four pirate mechas

were destroyed before they could engage their shields. Tang Xiao forced their metal cockpits to fill with spikes. They were dead before they even knew what happened. His smarts and Discipline currently had him at the least of most confirmed kills.

Jin Tao, on the other side, had just bust through the enemy line. His Discipline was, in essence, amplification. When poured in to his mecha it increased the machine’s power and speed to frightening levels. Him and his melee-focused team maintained blitzkrieg speed, so the pirates never got a chance to regain their footing.

Unfortunately, Geng Yang was having trouble. Him and his team were distance attackers, and as the battle continued they found themselves squeezed in to a tighter and tighter box. By virtue of their combat experience, the pirates had eventually surrounded their position and were closing in. Naturally, the closer they got, the harder remaining alive would be.

The only way Geng Yang could defend his team was to be everywhere at once. Under the pressing drive of their energies, his people’s mecha energy reserves and Discipline continued to deplete. They couldn’t keep this up for long, even with Geng Yang’s support.

“Tang Xiao, we’re getting overrun.” He didn’t want to ask for help, but he wouldn’t let his pride result in the injury of his friends. These weren’t students fighting for the attention of pretty girls – they were fellow officers locked in a life or death struggle.

“Lead the fight to me,” Tang Xiao said without hesitation. “I’m moving in to support.”

“On my way!” Geng Yang swords burst in to golden flame, as he viciously carved a path. Once a path was cleared, he ordered his team to retreat through the opening. They joined up with Tang Xiao’s squad immediately, giving them a chance to catch their breath.

Just then, though, Geng Yang turned his eyes toward an ominous sound. As his vision swept the field, he saw an enormous crimson mecha barreling their way. He was fast – too fast for Geng Yang to react when the enemy slammed in to the student in front of him. He watched helplessly as his teammate was thrown aside.

Surprised and enraged, he raced forward in the hopes of saving his comrade.

By then the dark red mecha had turned to face his newest challenger. As Geng Yang drew near, he saw that the suit was constructed to resemble a beast. It had features like a lion, but locked in an eternal roar. The mane around its head was a series of compacted metal spikes. The whole suit was built in the same fashion, with sharp claws on its hands and feet. Wings fastened to its back were the lone exception.

After smashing in to Geng Yang’s friends, the beastly mech made landfall on all four feet. He turned and in the blink of the eye, leapt at Geng Yang like a wild animal. A hungry blood lust filled the air as red light surrounded it. The enemy’s clawed hands reached out for Geng Yang’s shoulders.

He was also an Adept, and not a weak one!

The NEU star pupil had only half a second to make a decision.
He set his feet, gripped his weapons, then lifted them high!

He wasn’t, sadly, very used to the use of these alloy blades. He was more proficient with spears in melee combat. There wasn’t much choice in the Warsuits they were so generously given – all were standard construction.

The beastly mecha twisted violently in the air to whip its frame around. This caused Geng Yang’s blades to skin passed, leaving it unharmed. Light flashed off of the beast’s claws as they groped for him.

Geng Yang hastily retreated a step, in attempts to avoid the grab. However, an angry, crimson light fired from behind the lion-looking suit which propelled it forward faster than he was expecting. The two mechas collided chest-first to the sound of crunching metal.

Dark red light shimmered along the dozens of spiky thorns surrounding his enemy’s head. Geng Yang’s eyes widened – if his shields couldn’t stave off what was coming, he might not make it home.

Chapter 319: The Blademaiden Appears

In the moment of truth, Geng Yang revealed his worth as an emperor-ranked pilot. His Bloodlust mecha suit rapidly swung backward blades first, in attempts to pin his enemy to the ground.

But the lion mech was too good for that. It’s clawed hands swiped at Geng Yang’s weapons. He was exhausted from the fighting, so the blades were not possessed of a great amount of his Discipline. The result was that the weapons went flying. Geng Yang was disarmed.

The beastly mech then swung around, and kicked with its back legs at Geng Yang’s hips. The wicked-sharp claws tore through the mecha’s shields, then the metal structure of the student’s mecha with a grating screech. Geng Yang  was trampled to the ground.

Finished. It was all he could think about. His mind was blank except for that crushing realization. But his Discipline surged, reacting unconsciously to the danger to explode outward in a fiery display. His lion assailant was consumed by the flames.

Unfortunately, the beast’s shields were strong and protected it

from any serious damage. Still, it knocked him back and gave Geng Yang some space.

The red aura around the lion mecha began to condense in preparation for a finishing blow. The young NEU pilot, prone on the ground, had no way to dodge.

His squad mates were equally helpless. Ten other enemy had swarmed them in the red mecha’s wake. They were  busy fending them off – too busy to disengage and save their leader.

Geng Yang’s eyes grew wide. He stared at his opponent, waiting for the killing blow. It was then a silvery light lanced across his vision, obliquely colliding with the lion mecha.

Clang! It was like it was struck with the force of a mountain and the red mecha went flying over a hundred meters.

The silvery light was like a specter, some sort of guardian angel that flitted off in another direction after Geng Yang was free from danger. Two pirate mecha nearby stopped in the tracks as the light raced passed. They split first at the chest plate, slowly separating until the mecha was severed completely in half lengthwise. It was like their shields didn’t even exist.

“Can you get up?” A woman’s voice asked over the coms.

Geng Yang tried to maneuver his suit. Not bad – the strike landed, but handled damaged the joint. He rose to his feet. He gulped, covered in a cold sweat. He’d only just barely escaped with his life.

Geng Yang spied a silvery-white mecha standing a short distance off. It had a sleek and aerodynamic design, without any decoration or unnecessary accessories. It was covered in strange grooves, and exceedingly frail-looking for a war machine. It’s two arms where thin like blades. The mecha gave Geng Yang a cursory look, and then she was off – there one second, and gone the next.

So fast! This mecha’s amazing! There was a flash, and once again that beastly mecha was sent flying.

As he watched a red orb of energy descended from above. It was a roiling orb of flame, and it crashed in to the prostrate pirate like a meteor.

It’s silhouette was stark, set against the raging orange of the fires. A silver light swept through and pierced the beleaguered

mecha’s cockpit. The silver mecha slowly lifting its arm, backlit by fire, with the beast mecha impaled upon it. She unceremoniously flung her foe aside like garbage.

Thus did Geng Yang’s would-be murderer meet his end.

A fiery red mecha descended from the skies. Its entire construction made it look like a mass of writhing flame. He could tell from the construction that it was a woman’s mecha. Her weapon was a staff – no, a scepter? A glowing red power gem was on its crown.

The gemstone was almost half a meter in diameter. It had only a hundred and eight facets. It shimmered, alive with an internal fiery light.

108 is an important number in Buddhist lore. It’s also important for Hinduism and Jewish faiths, but the author likely meant to evoke the Buddhist bit. As far as I remember, the beads represent the one hundred and eight lessons of the Buddha. It’s almost ubiquitous with martial arts, and is seen often in fictional literature as a superhuman technique or series of techniques that ties the user to the universe.

The red mecha lifted its scepter, and another orb three meters in diameter was cast forth. It landed in the midst of an enemy squadron, and exploded with frightening ferocity. The surrounding enemies were instantly immolated.

The silvery-white mecha took a different approach. She raced from one side of the field to the other, and everywhere she went, she left a trail of bodies in her wake. One, then another, and other fell before they could even see her coming.

Geng Yang by now had guessed these mechas’ origins. He’d caught a glimpse of these suits in passing during the An Lun battle. They were piloted by two of the assistants the Demon Drillmaster had brought with him. He hadn’t seen them engage anyone during that fight. He had no idea they were so strong!

The titanium-white mecha especially captured his attention. She was like a living weapon, and where she went her enemy’s shields were useless. Sharp, was the best way to describe her.

With the arrival of these two new players, the game was completely changed.

Although Geng Yang still had motive capability, he

nonetheless gathered a few squad mates around him before checking on his fallen comrade, who’d been struck by the lion mech. Thankfully he’d only sustained concussive injuries, nothing that was life-threatening or would take him out of the fight. They reorganized, then under Geng Yang’s command proceeded to give their nearby brethren fire support.

Interstellar pirates were a tough breed. If a battalion of soldiers were to suffer around thirty percent damage to their unit, they were in danger of collapse or defeat. The pirates, though, fought ever harder as their losses neared half. After all, where could they retreat to?

Mika urged her mecha – Jezebel – onward, revealing to all its frightening power. In truth the cudgel she bore was not a weapon, but an amplifier. Mika called it her wand. Jezebel’s Hellfire Wand.

Unless I’m mistaken, this is the first time we’ve seen Mika in her suit. I’ve chosen to name her Jezebel after the tale of Jezebel, which while I don’t see it here, is sometimes referred to as the ‘Mother of Harlots’, or Satan’s Whore. In Chinese the name is ‘Demon Concubine’ – close enough, I think. If I’m miss- remembering, and I’ve already named her mecha, please remind me.

As the mecha raised its wand high, Mika’s eyes flared with an unholy light. Under Lan Jue’s direction she had been attempting to call forth the power of Satan, to control it. Under Lan Jue’s guidance, they could watch to see if she was tending toward a loss of control. He would then step in and help stabilize her. Now, she felt more confident in allowing herself to let it free. She needn’t fear losing herself to the evil.

Finally able to employ and cultivate her powers, Mika’s powers had improved dramatically. She was well through ninth level first rank, and closing in on second. As Satan’s successor, she was certainly the strongest of his Amazons in regards to potential.

The Hellfire Wand pulsed with an unsettling, dark red energy. A corona of light hung around it, expanding. A terrible, oppressive aura hung over the field. The pirates grew frightened at the sight of her. That stifling sensation slithered through them, making it difficult to breathe.

The first pirate to try and flee was near the edge of the conflict. A second followed, then a third.

Mika’s fiery hair flailed through the cockpit like it was caught in a spectral wind. The feral strands darkened until they were

the same devil red as her eyes. With a grunt, she poured her monstrous power in to Jezebel.

The massive gem at the top of the Hellfire Wand shone brilliantly like a small sun. The red aura thickened, and spread like storm clouds over the area. Of course, that shimmering stone was a power gem, an a-ranked Hellfire Stone to be precise. Its function was to greatly amplify any fire-based Disciplines. It increased Mika’s by three hundred percent. In truth, no normal a-ranked stone could do what this one was doing.

The clouds grew dark, but instead of lightning their lines were painted red. Moments later, screaming balls of crimson  fire came tumbling from the heavens. There were few at first, but they were soon followed by countless more. The sky was burned behind them, leaving a trail of angry fire and choking smoke while they barreled like inevitable doom toward the fleeing pirates. Where they landed, the earth was obliterated, scorched black and ruined. The land around the pirates was blanketed in all-consuming fire, deafening them with terrifying blasts.

Charlie, Delta and Echo had completed their objectives, and their foes lay slain or fled in terror. They watched in stunned silence as the world before them burned indiscriminately.

This…

No suit was capable of this level of destruction. No, this had to be the teaching assistant. This had to be her Discipline! This red-haired, normally silent woman was unceremoniously exterminating their foes.

Alpha squad had succeeded in taking the planetary defense system offline. Tan Lingyun watched the distant horizon as it was painted red. She saw that mecha, like a demonic god, and her pupils contracted.

At her level of cultivation, she was of course capable of sussing out another’s power level. No wonder she was so confident that day, Tan Lingyun thought, she was a ninth level Talent. Her mecha was also something to behold, and powerful if it could strengthen her Discipline to this level.

The apocalyptic meteor shower continued for a few minutes more. The earth below was desecrated beyond recovery, and belched fires that would melt the student’s suits. Clearly, there were no survivors in that lake of fire.

Jezebel and Asura descended to join the others on the ground.

A message from the Accountant flashed on their screens, encouraging all of them to seek out and destroy any who might have escaped. The squads fanned out in all directions and proceeded to hunt down any remaining foes. There was no more fear, or worry over the result. This battle was won, it was just time to put it to bed.

ζ

Feng Ling was furious! He ground his teeth so hard they threatened to break. He could see all that was happening below, on his Crimson Star. Alas, he didn’t even have the courage to blast the planet with the ship’s main cannons and give them support. He wouldn’t delay one second – that was Zeus, the stuff of nightmares!

Chapter 320: Less Than You Deserve

He had to run, quickly and as far as he could. He would hide somewhere in the Northern Alliance, and find safety under their protection. He still had a battleship, it would serve to raise his worth in their eyes.

Luckily, most of the money they’d gained through looting over the last several years had been poured in to the pirate leader’s flagship. Every pirate knew that a day like this would come eventually. So, he had spent his time preparing.

The radar squealed an alarm.

“An enemy is in pursuit,” a pirate hollered.

Feng Lin felt his whole body quiver. He raced to the screen to see for himself. A shimmering ball of blue light was closing in. It was impossibly fast, and was already practically on top of their position.

Blue! He knew what that represented.

Feng Ling was full of anger and resentment, but none of that was worth his life. “Open her all the way up – all thrusters and main engines. Full speed ahead!” He shouted the orders, his voice ringing on the bridge.

He tensely watched the screen, watched as that blue orb approach. However, as he looked on he saw the ball of light flash – and then, it was gone.

“Eh?” The pirate sitting in front of the radar panel was furiously trying to find the orb. “Where’d it go?” The encroaching danger was nowhere to be seen.

Suddenly, the entire ship began to shake.

All the color drained from Feng Lin’s face, turning the fleshy nubs from a dark red to a sickly pale. “Mechas!” He shouted. “Get the mecha ready! Attack!”

Mechas couldn’t compete with battleships on any level, this was a simply fact. Look at the sheer amount of resources that are required to build a battleship! In both attack and defense, a battleship outclassed a mecha by orders of magnitude.

Speed, for instance – an ordinary mecha couldn’t reach light speed, something that was true even for most God-ranked mechas. Battleships, however, needed only slight modifications before it was capable of the feat – even FTL.

However, in the universe there were no absolutes. What a mecha suit couldn’t do on its own, it could do easily with the right pilot.

An example was Jezebel, and the terrifying hellfire meteor shower she’d used to decimate the pirate fighters. If anyone other than Mika were to pilot it, it didn’t matter who they were the same results could not be achieved.

Thor was another. With his own powers and the lightning energies of the suit, he could easily and quickly reach light speed.

Battleships were only capable of accelerating to light speed in the vacuum of space. Feng Lin had yet to break atmosphere.

At its speeds, Thor was like a twinkle of light. In no time at all, it was beside the ship. The ships shields were up, however, and those were formidable for a mecha to handle alone.

Thor tore through the air, spinning like a drill with its spear leading the charge. The shields shuddered, flashed, then parted. Thor was through.

Bang! Thor attached itself to the hull of the ship.

Although battleships and patrol boats were only separated by one ‘level’, they were vastly differently vehicles. Patrollers were meant as supports for battleships, or their stationed planets. They were closer ranged skirmishers, and search vessels. Conversely, battleships were adept at traveling long distances, and were capable weapons for nearly all manner of combat. Because of this, its armor was considerably thicker than its smaller counter-parts. They had to be made to withstand blasts from rival battleships, after all. The result was a much hardier ship when compared to patrol boats.

But Thor didn’t seem to be aiming to destroy the ship it was clinging to. As it stood there, latched to the ship, it began to pulse with waves of electric blue light. The strange energy swept across the length and breadth of Feng Ling’s escape vessel.

Inside, the ship was a chaotic mess. His ship was powerful, yes, but badly understaffed. In his rush to escape, Feng Ling

had brought only his most trusted men. Less than fifty mechas were available to mount a defense.

Feng Lin himself clambered in to a suit. He shook terrible as he got the machine started. He only felt safe inside the belly of one of these beasts. But, why was it so quiet all of a sudden…

Screeaacchh! The strange sound suddenly filled the cockpit. The control board sizzled as bolts of electricity raced through it. Smoke began to fill the interior. All of the ship’s electrical equipment had gone haywire.

Creaks and groans arose as external pressure slowly began to crush the ship. The lights cut out.

“Ah!” Feng Lin screamed impotently, and turned on the suit’s flood lights. He dove to the side and in to a corner.

Suddenly the room’s interior was host to a second figure, this one encased in gold and emitting rays of brilliant, electric blue light. Gold hair, gold robe, gold mask.

That majestic figure lit up the area like a small sun, but the

pirates could only feel the creeping chill of fear crawling up their spines.

Every pirate in the Shattered Starfields was familiar with this figure. The blood of countless buccaneers stained his hands, more than anyone knew.

“Zeus… Zeus, you have to listen to me. Take it easy now, alright? Let’s just… let’s just talk this out.” Feng Ling’s voice cracked from fear. Zeus wasn’t in his suit, but from what he knew of the man that didn’t make the slightest bit of difference.

According to the stories, he could destroy this battleship with nothing but his bare hands.

A cold, empirical voice boomed through the entirety of the vessel. “Say what you need to say.”

Feng Ling’s chest rose and fell with ragged breaths. “I-I know what we’ve done is wrong. Piracy, is wrong. But none of this was my choice! It was all the Northern Alliance, the Northerners made me do it! They said it was so the East would send ships in to the Starfields. I’ll tell you everything, I swear. Just, please let me go! I’ll stand trial and tell everyone about the

North’s plans. Is it money? I’ll give you everything I own. Y-you can give it to the victim’s families, as compensation.”

Now, staring death in the face, nothing else mattered but life. He was on his home turf, surrounded by his men. And yet, upon seeing Zeus he knew the fight was ended.

“Did you think about this when you massacred those people? Did you give any thought to the fact that this day would come?” Zeus took a step forward. Hundreds of errant golden lightning bolts fired in all directions from his body. They were so intense, that the pirate closest to him was immediately encased in golden light. The pilot within was reduced to ash before he could scream.

The other suits reacted by turning on their shields. They began to slowly retreat – none dared face this terrifying man.

“I was wrong, I’m sorry! But, but I didn’t want to do it! What could I do? I can’t stand up to the whole Northern Alliance! And if I didn’t do it, they’d just get someone else. Then they would come for my head! I surrender, I’ll follow you anywhere. I’ll do anything you want me to do.”

Zeus sniffed disdainfully. “Under interstellar law, I cannot kill you once you’ve surrendered. And yet, when you came across that transport ship, I wonder if you extended them the same courtesy. Was it the North who told you to slaughter them like dogs? Did you give those innocent souls any second chances? You did not stay your hand once – not for the elderly, not for the children. You just cut them down. It’s too late for words now. You, all of you, will be reborn in the next life as beasts. And even that will be too good for you.”

“Get him!” Feng Lin howled. Zeus had made it clear he would offer no quarter. If he wanted to live, defeating the Mercenary King would be his only chance.

The interior of the battleship flashed erratically as laser rifles fired. The air hissed and sizzled. The ship’s interior was sturdy and well equipped, with its own interior shielding. In fact, they were specifically installed because the pirates knew the risk of fighting on their own ship was significant. They had to avoid damaging this very expensive war machine. The haphazard rifle fire ricocheted in all directions, but left the ship itself largely unscathed.

The pirates’ eyes grew wide as they watched the blasts penetrate Zeus. They did it! Did they?

But not a moment later, everything around them was painted a blinding gold.

“I command the clouds to gather!”

Foreboding mists of gold crept around them, appearing from nowhere. It reached in to every nook and every corner. Only particularly well-shielded areas seemed to keep it at bay.

“The heavens… shall splinter!”

Bolts of golden electricity – thicker than man’s waist – exploded through every hallway. Countless lightning bolts surged like an ocean, obliterating everything it came in to contact with.

Where they on the planet, Lan Juwe would have needed the help of Thor to route the enemy this quickly. But in the confines of this floating metal coffin, the pirates had nowhere to run – nowhere to hide. Zeus had grown tired of speaking with these animals, so he would speak with action. Under his precise control, those terrible bolts of lightning relayed his message.

When he was finished, not even corpses remained. The pilots in their cockpits had been disintegrated, wiped from the universe by these righteous bolts.

Only one single mecha was spared the reckoning. When that terrifying lightning ceased to wreak havoc, Feng Ling remained. He sat in the cockpit, too frightened to move. His arms and legs shook, and at some point he’d urinated himself. Just the presence of this awesome protogenic power was making it hard to breathe.

This was the power of Zeus’ Ascension. The mighty god of lightning made real.

Once again that golden figure appeared silently out of thin air. He stared silently at Feng Ling for a moment, then spread his arms. Loud creaking protests rang through the ship when suddenly Feng Ling’s chest plate fractured and blew apart. The pirate lord tumbled to the ground.

Lan Jue’s face became a sneer a he looked upon the man. The small ugly thing had soiled himself as well, and the stench hung heavy in the air.

“Tell me. Who from the Northern Alliance asked you to attack that transport?” Zeus’ cold, cruel voice was like metal.

“It was…” Feng Ling spilled what he knew without hesitated or remorse.

Lan Jue huffed. With a dismissive wave of his right hand, a bolt of lightning ended the miserable man, removing him and his stench from existence.

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