Skyfire Avenue Chapter 331-340

Chapter 331: Popping Corks

Lan Jue dialed in the Keeper’s com number, and shared the situation in a few short sentences. The Keeper answered with a single, irritated sentence: “These idiots – they only ever spoil what they touch.” He cut the connection, and Lan Jue knew the situation was handled.

Originally, Lan Jue had planned to visit the Wine Master tonight and explain the situation with the wine. However, upon second thought he decided to get him the morning of their drinking date instead. He could get everything done together, and would instead spend the night eating something small and meditating.

Ever since returning from Taihua, Lan ue had felt as though his progress had quickened. He felt stuck at the edge of ninth rank seventh degree, but if this trend continued he would reach ninth rank ninth degree at his brother’s age. As an Adept with two disciplines, that would make him especially dangerous.

Lan jue meditated through the night, solidifying the electrical power that had strengthened around his Core after the recent battles. When he awoke, he had a glass of water and two pieces of plain white bread. He didn’t want anything tasty that might influence the wine he was about to enjoy. He finally left for the

Gourmet’s small residence.

The roster was the same; the Gourmet, the Seamstress, and the Pauper look like they’ve been waiting anxiously for this moment.

The moment he saw Lan Jue, the Pauper shot to his feet. “Alright! Everyone’s here, let’s get to drinking.”

The Gourmet nodded. He rose and approached his wine cabinet, extricating the Cros Parantoux from within.

“Alright, so whose dropping the knife or fork.” It was wine nomenclature, and it was describing a means to open a bottle of wine. Traditionally, one would use a corkscrew to achieve the desired result, but using two forks or knives inserted in the edges worked just as well. The most important thing in opening wine was making sure that one removed the whole cork.

The cork itself was a type of oak bark. So long as its integrity remained, the wine inside was protected. Sadly, those bottles which had been poorly corked may find the stopper broken, or reduced to pulp. The residual cork in the wine and it’s aeration promptly ruined it. So, opening bottles was a delicate art, and in

a group of friends it was always the one with steady hands who handled the bottle.

In the new era, good corks from fine were a pricey commodity. This was of course especially true for the cork from a legendary wine like the Cros Parantoux. Both it and the bottle would fetch a good price at auction. They were, after all, rare antiques. There was no small number of people who would pay handsomely to add these to their collections.

The Pauper raised his hands, as though to ward him away. “They call me Cork-Killer for a reason, so don’t hand that to me. If I ruin it, I’d have a room of very angry people to contend with. Can’t you use your Discipline to remove it?” the Pauper asked.

The Gourmet shook his head. “Drinking wine like this requires a process. It’s like a pilgrimage. The path is pure, with only the tools they used in the old days. How could we defile this moment with cheating, by using our Disciplines? It’s a shame the Wine Master isn’t here – he’s the most wise and practiced about these things. In all honesty I don’t entirely trust myself to open it! Jewelry Master, what about you?”

“Remove the foil and let’s see what condition the cork is in,”

Lan Jue said.

“Alright,” replied the Gourmet.

The foil was a thin sheet of aluminum metal wrapped around the bottle’s neck. It’s purpose was to help seal the bottle for future consumption.

Judging from the look, the Henri Jayer masterpiece still seemed well sealed. It was astonishing that a bottle from nineteen ninety-three would have survived so well. Burgundy was much harder to properly store than Bordeaux.

The Gourmet produced a small utility knife which, among its several functions had a knife specifically for removing wine foil. It was a fancy looking thing, with a cover that looked simple but masterfully carved with decorative designs. Lan Jue could recognize immediately that it was made of mammoth tusk, which was exceedingly rare even in the former era.

There were other differences as well. The corkscrew was longer, specifically designed for opening older bottles. Often the older ones had longer corks. A corkscrew had to almost fully penetrate a cork to extricate it successfully.

Two quick circles of the serrated knife, and the glass beneath was revealed. They could see the cork inside. When they saw it, all four onlookers’ faces changed.

“It permeated.” The gourmet’s brows furrowed.

The cork was no longer brown, as one might expect. Now it was a puce hue. The bottom of it was almost black. The wine had, over such a long period, seeped in to the cork. Thankfully the contents looked clear – a turbid wine would have caused Lan Jue to fear for it.

Any wine that had too much sedimentation or was simply stored too long would spoil. Too aged, was the phrase used often
– directly saying a wine had gone bad was disrespectful to the wine.

The Gourmet plucked up a clean towel from nearby and carefully wiped the bottle clean, along with the black condensation on the cork. It wasn’t dirt, but old wine that had penetrated through.

“Should you or should I?” he asked.

Lan Jue took a deep breath. “Let me.” In the moment of truth, Lan Jue took on the responsibility. He didn’t have the culinary mastery of the Gourmet, but when it came to wine he had a wealth of experience. This wouldn’t be the first rare bottle of wine he’d opened.

The Gourmet handed the bottle and utility knife to Lan Jue.

“So if I get the cork out without issue, you’re going to give me this knife right?” He wouldn’t be able to take the cork or bottle as a souvenir, the Wine Master would certainly want those.

“You are nothing short of a wretched bastard, did you know that?” the Gourmet snarled. “So long as you get that out, you can have it. What if you don’t, though?”

A smile crept across Lan Jue’s face. “Then I owe you no less than three bottles of thirty year old whisky.

“It’s a deal.”

Lan Jue pulled the corkscrew out, then placed the bottle flat on the table before him. He put all his focus on the bottle. His

breathing slowed. Both the Pauper and Gourmet nodded inwardly in appreciation as they watched. The Jewelry Master may have been young, but he was mature and level-headed.

With the steady, slow hands of a surgeon Lan Jue brought the corkscrew down. It’s tip pierced the cork in it’s exact center, and Lan Jue carefully pressed down while turning the utility knife, forcing the corkscrew deeper in to the compromised cork plug.

He pushed and turned, keeping a steady rhythm that saw the corkscrew slowly dig further and further. It stayed dead center, not deviating. When it was eventually lodged deep in the cork, Lan Jue placed the metal lever against the lip of the bottle. Now, was the moment of truth. It was time to pull it out.

This was the most likely time for the cork to break. Breaking it wouldn’t ruin the wine, but it would be a great pity.

Lan Jue picked up the bottle, held it horizontally, and only then began to pull. Anyone with experience in opening wines would know this method was the least likely to ruin a cork.

The Pauper and Gourmet’s eyes watched, unblinking.

Slowly, the cork began to creep out from the neck of the bottle. Lan Jue kept the pulling strength constant, and didn’t rush. When finally the sides of the cork peaked from the top, everyone inwardly sighed in relief. Though permeated, the cork’s sides had not been dissolved. They wouldn’t have to worry too much about causing the cork to break apart.

The revelation caused the three onlookers to be overcome with joy. This only proved the exceptional quality of the wine they were about to imbibe.

Ever so slowly, the cork inch out until – at last – it was free from the bottle. Entirely in one piece. When the cork was free, Lan Jue smiled in triumph. With his experience and steady hands, this was no problem.

Phomp! The muffled pop of air rushing in to the ancient bottle hit their ears. But just them, a flashing silver light appeared that blocked the bottleneck.

“Aw damn. It’s been marked.”

The whole of the small shop was suddenly awash in brilliant silver light. A booming, furious voice thick with pretension

howls from within.

“I’ll kill you bastards!”

Lan Jue was the first to react. He raised his hands high, the bottle cradled within. “Hey hey hey! Don’t do anything crazy, think of the wine!”

The dangerous aura that had strangled the room eased, as the Wine Master’s eyes fell on the bottle. Lan Jue’s other hand had the utility knife, with the cork still impaled on the corkscrew. The bottle was open, but there was no scent.

“You bastards… my treasured wine!” The Wine Master’s whine was sad and tortured, as he snatched the bottle away. He did it quick, but ever so carefully. He looked upon it like a man would his lover.

The Pauper and the Gourmet exchanged a wide-eyed look, their expressions awkward. The plan had been to call the Wine Master once the bottle was open, but that was also supposed to be after they’d had a sip. They had feared he would prevent them from having any at all. After all, they hadn’t exactly asked before taking this particular bottle.

“Give it here!” The Wine Master roared.

Lan Jue winced, and quickly handed him the cork. “Look, don’t scare the wine! It’ll change the scent.”

The Wine Master glared him down with a look that could murder. “I knew you’d be here as well.” He snatched the cork away and looked carefully at it. He could still clearly discern the name stamped on it, Henri Jayer.

Upon seeing that the cork was still whole, the old man’s dark glower eased somewhat. He turned his attention to the Gourmet next. “Well, why are you looking at me like an idiot? Get out your best glasses.”

Chapter 332: The Charm Of A Legendary Wine

“Coming right up!” The normally cool and collected Gourmet was quick to his feet to accommodate his guests. He brought over the glasses, which had been prepared earlier.

They were fine looking large burgundy glasses, composed of beautiful crystal. The thin walls of the glass reflected the shimmering light of the wine Master’s residual power.

The Wine Master coldly watched his every move. “I’m surprised you don’t expect me to take this and keep it for myself. I won’t even tell you how much this single bottle costs. Suffice it to say that every one of you owes me, tremendously. If you can’t agree to that, then I’m leaving and taking my wine with me. I’d have to seek recompense afterward, and I won’t be nice about it.”

The Pauper gave a bitter smirk. “Well when you put it that how, how can we say no? I accept, I accept.” The strongest portion of the wine Master’s murderous aura had been direction at the Pauper, who had done the actual thievery. He dare not upset an already intensely irritated Paragon.

The Gourmet looked sheepishly at his old friend. “I agree, but I can’t help my cravings. But consider this, the Seamstress and I are together now, and you haven’t presented us a congratulations gift. You have a commitment…”

They could all see the veins in the old master’s forehead growing large and prominent. “And who the hell in their right mind would offer a Henri Jayer bottle as a wedding present?! If you plan to then I’ll get married every day and find a new one every night.”

“Pfft!” The Seamstress couldn’t help herself, and broke in to a fit of laughter. “Don’t lump me in with these rascals. I’m just here for the entertainment, I’m not having any. A sip is equivalent to the cost of a power gem.”

Lan Jue quickly interjected. “I’ve already agreed to help you with that other business. Look, I’m trying to do the right thing here. I never once refused to help since you came to me with this. I’ve paid my dues.”

The Wine Master snorted. “No, the fact that you brought us fifty power gems makes you square.”

The Gourmet cackled at this. “Alright, alright. We don’t all need to be so nervous. It’ll mess with the taste! You only have this bottle, and we don’t want to ruin this chance to taste something so exquisite. Seeing as none of us have had anything like this before, are there any special considerations?”

Now able to educate his colleagues on a matter of interest to him, the Wine Master relaxed somewhat and took a seat. “Pour it like you would a Romanee-Conti. The only difference is, one should keep a ten minute break between sips of a Jayer.”

This was the first time Lan Jue had heard this. “Oh? Why?”

The Wine Master shot him a look. “Have some, then you’ll understand.” He followed up by gripping the base of the bottle, and pouring approximately two fingers in each of the four cups.

Te moment the wine left the bottle, it’s fragrant scent wafted out among them. It was restrained, like a bashful maiden.

“A Jayer bottle is the ultimate treat. After about two minutes, we can have our first sip.” By now, the Wine Master’s expression had calmed. However, a smoldering excitement could be spied behind his eyes. This was a very special bottle,

and it deserved the requisite excitement and respect.

The Gourmet’s small place sunk in to silence. The Seamstress
– not in the least upset she was not participating – tittered to herself. Everyone had their hobbies, and hers didn’t involve red wine. The Driver’s influence had actually imprinted more of a love for single-malt whisky.

The Driver always complained that he was unable to taste the subtleties of red wine. He preferred simpler fare, and single- malt whisky was his go-to choice. Perhaps it was his yin nature that contributed to his desire for the very yang-oriented drink.

Contrary to popular believe, red wine also wasn’t the most expensive alcohol out there. While something like a Jayer would fetch quite a windfall, single-malt whisky was in a class all its own. Classified as a spirit, it could be left for ages without any requirements, and didn’t need special storage like wine. Those whiskies which had survived from the Former Era until now were known to be exceptionally rich in flavor. The price was just as dramatic. To true connoisseurs, they were priceless treasures.

“Alright.” The Wine Master lifted the fine crystal glass by the stem. He swirled its contents, looking for sedimentation. Lan

Jue, the Gourmet, and the Pauper mirrored him.

It was important to note that the Pauper had looked very clean the last few days. Though he was only clad in little more than a wife-beater, he had taken pains to look as presentable as one might expect a beggar to be. He was even surrounded by a faint, pleasant scent. All of this was certainly to maintain the proper atmosphere for their tasting party.

The wine’s scent wasn’t strong, and nor was it entirely fragrant. It was complicated, and possessed layers of peach and pear blossoms, apricot, lily, forget-me-nots, cornflower, and tulips. Although the scents were faint, it contained a wealth of pleasant aromas. Once the bottom opened, it was like they were transported in to a flower garden. They could almost see them blooms in their minds eye.

If Bordeaux were considered a more masculine wine, then burgundy was its feminine balance. This, was its extreme, and the scent was like a punch with an open fist – hard and soft. It passed through ever cell, and settled in their hearts. It was like the essence of the scent was melting through them.

Lan Jue was suddenly somewhat unwilling to drink. He shook his head ever so slightly, then took another wiff, then again. It

was like he truly was in a flower garden. He could almost see the lilies, and a vision of a beautiful garden blanketed in moonlight swam behind his eyes. He felt the wine was even more complicated, now that he had his nose in it. It was a feeling very difficult to describe.

The Wine was first to partake. He took a sip, and not a small one. Only half of the treasured liquid remained. Truly exquisite alcohol needed to be enjoyed in somewhat larger quantities, only then could one experience all of its flavors.

The Wine Master’s face scrunched in pleasure, and then Lan Jue and the others took their sip as well.

Romanee-Conti, it is said, penetrates your gums, right down to your very soul. The Cros Parantoux was something altogether different. As the crimson liquid slipped passed his lips, Lan Jue’s mind went blank.

There was only one word to describe this sensation: boom!

Indeed it was like the flavors of the wine had exploded in his mouth. In contrast to its gentle smell, the flavors filled his mouth without subtlety. He – like the wine Master – winced as

he felt his whole body react.

How could this be? It was just pinot noir, how could it have such a stupendous flavor? Lan Jue hardly noticed swallowing the mouthful. All he knew was that staggering, intoxicating sensation as the flavors overcame him. He’d never tasted anything like it in his life.

The four of them placed their glasses upon the table, one after the other. For a long time, no one spoke.

Lan Jue finally understood why the Wine Master had instructed them to pause for ten minutes between drinks. The flavor lingered, much to his delight.

The first few moments when a wine touched the tongue was called the foretaste. While in the mouth, the flavors were referred to as the mouthful, and then finally the aftertaste. When determining the quality of a wine, all three sections are important. It had to have all three, well balanced and pleasant, and only then was a wine even considered decent.

This wine, though, didn’t have those three. It had one – an explosion of flavor! It penetrated to the bone, even after the sip

was done.

Even now he felt as though the aroma was seeping from his very pores. All three ‘sections’ of the wine were one in this complicated flavor that lingered on the tongue, as though it had been branded on the taste buds. It felt rooted in his mouth.

As predicted, ten minutes later the flavors had begun to subside, and gradually disappeared.

Licking his lips, Lan Jue wanted to say something, but ultimately refrained. He didn’t want to say anything that would effect this ambrosial flavor. At any rate, he didn’t think he could summon the words to tell them how this wine made him feel.

The five Avenue denizens sat just like this for the rest of the morning, quietly sipping wine.

Once the wine was gone, the Wine Master reverently gathered up the cork and bottle. The Gourmet shot to his feet. “I’m sorry.”

The Wine Master glanced at him. “No need. Just remember that you owe me.”

“I used to think drinking a bottle was much better than having one,” the Gourmet said. “But now that I’ve had the Cros Parantoux, I know I was wrong. In order to truly appreciate this wine, everything needs to be perfect. The right place, the right food, the right atmosphere… every detail seen to. We were curious and capricious. Drinking it in this way was blasphemous. I not only owe you a favor, but a bottle of wine. Just tell me where another Jayer can be found, I’ll do anything in my power to recover it. The next time, everything will be perfect.”

A small smile finally appeared on the crotchety old man’s face. “Understanding is enough. In a few days, the Jewelry Master and I will leave in search of the Great Master’s descendants. I can’t make any promises, but if while we’re gone we do need assistance, I’ll call on you. Make sure you don’t leave the Avenue.”

Chapter 333: Save Me!

“Count me in,” the Pauper said. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you, and I’m sorry for drinking your wine. It was truly an experience I’ll never forgert. I never thought I’d feel something like this in my lifetime. That explosion of taste, of flavor. So many layers. It was like having an epiphany. I think I may have found my path.”

“Oh?” The Wine Master’s eyes brightened. “If you have than it was no waste of a very fine wine.”

For ninth-ranked Adepts, finding one’s path had more meaning than the average phrase. Upon reaching the peak of their abilities, Adepts hit a sort of bottleneck – just as Lan Jue had said about Lan Qing. Once an Adept reached this point in their cultivation process, they began a lengthy journey of discover, to find their own path. They began to search through a parrallel world of protogenic energy, the root of things. Only once they themselves could fully integrate in to that world and learned to master their corresponding protogenic power did they become a Paragon.

It was a long and difficult process. This accounted for part of the reason as to why there were so few Paragons, and also why they were all so strong. Paragons and adepts were separated by

orders of magnitude. Lan Jue at ninth rank seventh degree was a threat to an adept at their ninth rank peak. And yet, a group of ten such adepts wold be no match for a Paragon.

Like Lan Jue, Lan Qing’s future was bright because he’d already discovered his path. For Lan Jue that was his Ascension, which was also his corresponding protogenic image. As a result, upon reaching the bottleneck their torturous journey would be considerably shorter. Comprehension of the protogenic energies would be quick.

The Pauper wasn’t fortunate enough to have known his path beforehand, and as a result had been stuck at his peak for many years. A bottle of wine for a lifetime of self-perfection was a fair trade.

“I feel as though I should go and meditate on this, and really imprint this feeling on my mind. Please do bring me when you go searching for the descendant. I couldn’t pass up another opportunity to taste such a wine again. I’m confident that another chance will show me the correct path. I’ve been preparing for this for years – the chances of success are good.”

“Good.” The Wine Master’s response was concise.

“So it is for today, friends. I haven’t prepared anything to eat, and I think I should meditate as well. I don’t want to forget this either.” He was, after all, the Gourmet. His appreciation of finer cuisine was all-consuming.

“Wine Master,” Lan Jue interjected. “If I might have a word?”

“Certainly.”

They left the Gourmet’s shop, walking together toward the Gothic Winery. By now the Wine Master’s expression was back to it’s normal stately countenance. However, every few steps he’d stroke the empty bottle, and a flash of regret would pass over his eyes.

“I suspect I’ll never have another bottle like it, for all the rest of my days,” he sighed.

Lan Jue smiled. “Of course you will. I’ll help you. We’re all excited for another taste. The Pauper, the Gourmet, and myself all felt it. That explosive, sustained, complicated flavor… it was an astounding thing. I’d have never expected such a  gentle aroma to hide a taste that rich. It had a wonderful balance of powerful and subtle. It was the most intense wine I’ve ever had.

The Wine Master nodded. “Indeed! It was the greatest wine I’ve tasted in my life. My only desire now is to find that descendant.”

“That’s actually what I wanted to speak with you about,” Lan Jue said. “Is your suspected location for the descendant far from the Barrows?”

“The Barrows? How’d you know that’s where we were going,” the Wine Master said, surprised.

“Ah?” Lan Jue was just as shocked. “That’s crazy coincidence. The university is organizing a teacher retreat to the Barrows. Now you’re saying that’s where the descendant is.”

“I don’t know if that’s where they ended up, only where the clues lead. I asked the Clairvoyant to see what he could discover and he said the Barrows would be my destination. He said the world which was most like our mother planet. The Barrows must be our destination.”

By the way, this was referenced all the way back in chapter 12.

Lan Jue smiled. “This is good news. Two birds with one stone. I’ll arrive as a tourist, and I guess you’ll find your own how. Shall we leave in a few days?”

The Wine Master thought for a minute. “That’s fine. Luckily there’s nothing terribly important in the next few days. The Gourmet’s back as well. We’ll go and take a look, hopefully we’ll find something. You’ll be representing the Avenue in the North’s farce of a tournament soon as well. Are you sure you have the time for all of this?”

“I’ll be leaving for the tournament right after our business on the Barrows. The West is a closer journey. I’ll meet up with everyone on Planet Luo.”

“Very good then. You should have time. When precisely are you leaving for the Barrows?”

“Within the next couple of days – I don’t know the specifics. I’m going to the university this afternoon, so I’ll find out and sign up. Anyway, you arrive whenever you’re ready and we’ll meet up.”

“Alright, and I’ll let the Pauper know so we can go together.”

The Wine Master said with a nod.

Lan Jue smirked. “At least make him change his clothes, otherwise we’ll start looking like a gang of homeless people.”

The Wine Master laughed. “You don’t need to worry about reputations with the Pauper. He is among the strongest adepts there are. He was once quite a dapper young man, actually. The power he inherited turned him this way. He became the Pauper to search for his path, and now he was lucky enough to find a hint of it.”

But it was more than that. Wouldn’t they stick out tremendously if they ere wandering around with a beggar?

Lan Jue chose not to discuss the issue of the Moonfiend Empress with the Wine Master. It was his own private affair he had to handle. The Avenue had already helped him tremendously in a myriad of ways. He didn’t want to trouble them any further. However, he knew they’d have his back if he couldn’t handle it himself.”

Lan Jue sen the old man back to the Winery then returned for his bicycle. He took the ride to work in order to prepare for the

trip.

Suddenly…

“Save me!”

Lan Jue was puzzling over the best way to deal with the pirates when the faintest cry called at the back of his mind. His entire body froze.

His vision became sharp and focused, bolts of cobalt blue racing across his eyes. The cry had come from the Spirit caller gem.

“Come to the Grace Hospital.”

The last message came from a croaking, sinister voice.

Lan Jue was stunned. Once the Spirit Caller gem was bound, only those two people could use it. Hearing another voice meant whoever it was had enough power to penetrate Qianlin’s heart. Whoever had Qianlin was a master of the heart and soul.

No further communication came through the gem. The world around him was calm.

Who? Lan Jue’s pace did not change. He was in no rush. In these moments, he’d learned to be calm.

From the sound of the voice, they were old. He was well familiar with Grace Hospital from his visits, and a single image swam up at him from the depths of his memory.

The old and silent woman, silently staring out of her window. He remembered her strange aura, and her calm demeanor. Her?

A blinding flash burst around him as Lan Jue changed in to a bolt of lightning. He flashed in to the skies in the direction of Grace Hospital.

Moving at such staggering speeds, he was at the hospital doors in the blink of an eye. He was surrounded by an imposing chilliness, worse even than when he’d adopted his persona as the Demon Drillmaster. Zhou Qianlin wasn’t Hera, but she was a good person, and if she got hurt here because of her kind- hearted nature…

Lan Jue took a moment to bring his focus back to the present, then walked inside. He encountered none of the other elderly occupants, and quietly slipped through a nearby power outlet. His consciousness shot through the entirety of the hospital through the connections.

It didn’t take very much time or effort for Lan Jue to find his intended target.

Indeed it was the room he’d expected. As ever she was looking expectantly out of the window, but there was something far darker in her eyes now. Nearby, a terrifying blood-colored cocoon sat. It slithered gruesomely with undulating threads of sanguine light.

That must be her!

Sparks of errant electricity spat from the socket in Granny Bess’ room. In a flash, Lan Jue was standing in the gloomy room, his eyes alive with electric energy. He was careful to keep his powers hidden, but it was evident he was one wrong move away from bursting like a volcano.

Those flashing eyes fell upon the ancient woman in her chair.

His voice was a growl. “Why.”

She didn’t move, didn’t even look his way. It was then Lan Jue noticed her left hand, resting on the table by the window. Each finger bore claw-like nails, as red as the cocoon nearby.

She looked normal, unthreatening.

Lan Jue was careful not to act rashly. He saw the cocoon, but was unable to get any sense of Qianlin’s location – but, maybe ever so faintly.

Bess finally turned her head and looked toward Lan Jue. Her bright eyes were the eyes of a young woman, but her voice was that of a crone. “No reason. I needed something. Both of you have it. Yours is somewhat better. So, if you agree to relinquish it to me, she will live. If you do not, I’ll need to take it from her.”

Lan Jue ground his teeth. “What do you want?”

Chapter 334: An Unknown Paragon

Bess hissed, “Altruistic blood! Hers is very pure, but the power in it isn’t strong. But yours… yours is strong. Though I do not know how deep your altruism flows. Of course, if you agree to give up yours for her life, that would prove it, wouldn’t it? You have a choice, puppet.”

Lan Jue met her gaze with one of his own – infinitely calm, and infinitely cold. “What if I refuse to choose? I only need to beat you to save her.”

Bess croaked a withering laugh. “You were smart not to involve the Avenue, otherwise you’d never have seen her again. And it is true that the only thing standing between you and this girl is an old lady. The question is, can you defeat me? I suppose we’ll see!”

The words weren’t even gone from her mouth before her clawed left hand groped out for him.

The room darkened as a sinister power drank the light. They were replaced by haunting rays of blood red, that painted the room in nightmarish displays. An all-pervasive terror bore down upon him while the tiny room seemed to expand until he

was surrounded in a blood-red world of fear.

Protogenic Domain!

Lan Jue’s dispassionate expression changed. He knew Bess was strong – he’d felt that before – but not like this.

Use of protogenic ability wasn’t always a sign of Paragon status. Some talented Adepts were exceptions, such as the Four Divine Monarchs who were each able to use at least some protogenic ability. This was especially true after the inspiration they got from the Bookworm’s break-through. But to use protogenic powers derived from ones own alternate reality? That is real power that only a Paragon could achieve.

But of the twenty known Paragons, Lan Jue knew she was not among them. It caused him even greater shock and anxiety.

Granny Bess was a truly unknown Paragon, and that made her absolutely terrifying. His chance at victory in a straight fight was practically zero. But he didn’t back down. For Qianlin, and for himself, he had to do everything he could.

Lan Jue had never faced a real Paragon in combat before, but that fact didn’t discourage him. The bolts of writhing blue lightning turned a vivid gold. If he was going to face protogenic power, the only way to survive would be to use his own.

The piercing golden light filled the room. Those bolts of lightning eased in to a steady rhythm around him. In the same moment, a tyrannical presence like Bess’ own rose – the stifling power of Lan Jue’s Ascension come to bear!

All of the sinister red light within ten meters was consumed and became gold.

Granny Bess remained in her blood-colored seat, watching him from her world of black and red. The slightest hint of surprise registered in her eyes, and she silently nodded her head. “Very good. This should make my life a tad more interesting.”

Once more, she swiped her hand at Lan Jue. The movement itself was unhurried, but the world around her became to ripple violently. Suddenly Lan Jue was a small spec caught in a giant hand, about to be crushed in the folds.

“The skies shall open!” Lan Jue roared, and his gold-coated body burst in to countless rays of light. The skies above were alive with a spiderweb of lightning. Bolt after bolt struck the top and walls of their blood-soaked world.

Several fissures appeared. The light emanating from Lan Jue grew ever more prosperous. In his left palm, the phylactery stone shone with a thick purple haze that drastically strengthened his power.

Protogenic power was a mystical and mysterious thing, but despite its similarities to Disciplines that was not how one learned to employ it. Unlocking one’s protogenic capabilities required a fusion of Discipline and spirit, as well as the energies that surrounded them in that unseen reality. All of that together is what generated such staggering power.

Motivated by the danger and pressure, Lan Jue’s abilities were operating at their peak. If there were even the slightest chance to save himself and Qianlin, he had to be ready to take it.

As Lan Jue had commanded, the skies did indeed appear to be opening as a tremendous fracture appeared overhead. A blackness like the depths of space was seeping through.

Lan Jue took a deep breath and, ripping his hands apart as though he were physically doing it himself, he cried out.

“THE SKIES SHALL OPEN!”

A single blast of golden energy erupted from the top of Lan Jue’s skull. It was heading directly for that gathering darkness in the heavens. The undulating, crimson landscape was rocked. Everything around them thickened, like congealing blood.

Granny Bess’ right hand moved in response. The motions were fluid and unhurried, and with it a gentle red light – lighter somewhat than the surroundings – sprang to life. The strangely wavy quality of the landscape stabilized, and the apocalyptic fissure in the sky stitched shut.

The massive hand shut, blotting out Lan Jue and his radiant light with bone-crunching force. But in the center of that grip, Lan Jue was safe within a shell of his own protogenic power. It crackled thunderously as it battled against the murderous encroaching force.

He couldn’t remain like this long. The entire weight of reality was bearing down upon him. The pressure was causing rivulets

of blood to trickle from his ears. It was too much, he was facing a true master of these powers, and his was just a show. He could feel himself nearing total collapse.

Lan Jue, eyes wide, clapped his hands together before his chest. He swung back, gathering whatever remaining energy he possessed, and focused it through his arms by means of elaborate motions. His arms shot out, and the shell around him was injected with another inexplicable aura. Suddenly the crushing energy was met by an elastic wall, rather than a solid defense.

Granny Bess’ calm exterior fractured slightly. “What! Martial arts!”

Lan Jue’s coiling arms met, and once again his palms clapped together. Reality before him appeared to dissolve. He pushed his palms toward the opening.

An explosive force to rival nuclear blasts erupted from his palms, three times stronger than the force from earlier. Behind him, the dazzling image of a lightning bolt was branded in the air. All of his Discipline joined with the force of his art, was directed at a single point.

The crimson hand splintered and fell away under the attack.
Bess’ nightmare world of blood and shadow, also collapsed.

“Well done! You’re even stronger than I’d hoped.”

Behind the hellscape was nothingness. It was vast, and empty, and darker than black. Lan Jue’s heart sank in despair; Bess’ protogenic reality wasn’t just a single level. He was drained, having used all he had to tear away the world of blood. This place of oblivion was stronger.

Bess appeared again in his field of view. She was standing, it was the first time Lan Jue had seen her do so. She was slightly stooped, with her hair neatly combed and her pink jacket as clean as ever. She certainly looked ready for the grave, but the surging power that flowed from her spoke to anything but weakness.

She was thin, and short, but in this emptiness she looked enormous. With a wave of her hand that blackness smudged, and again a swath of crimson red shone through the black. That same terrifying pressure could be felt seeping through it.

“Hack!” Lan Jue spat up a mouthful of blood. He staggered, as

the gold aura around him began to fracture and fade.

He couldn’t do it – the tai chi-empowered protogenic energies were too much for him to sustain. Too much to control.

But as Lan Jue teetered on the edge of collapse, something stopped Granny Bess in her tracks. The expression on her face was more pronounced than the surprise she’d revealed before. This was shock.

She fiercely swiped her hand upward, and another monstrous fist of blood emerged from the emptiness. Lan Jue had no further strength to contend. It snatched him up by the trunk, and squeezed. A series of cracks and pops followed as the fist crushed Lan Jue in its grip.

There was a flash, and Lan Jue’s battered body appeared floating in the darkness before Bess. She dipped a clawed digit in to the spattered blood on his clothing, then brought it to her nose for a sniff.

Her eyes widened, and a terrible light burned in her eyes.

“How… why does his aura surround you?!”

Lan Jue just looked at her, stunned and unable to speak.

Bess paused. Lan Jue couldn’t know what she was thinking, but after a moment she waved once again and the hand that held him fast relaxed. He immediately collapsed, hanging limp in the black landscape. He felt more as though he were floating in some viscous fluid, which slithered through him to force his Discipline all the way down to its core. Lan Jue was no stronger than a normal man now, and there was no fighting back.

“Speak! Where’s your wine,” Bess croaked.

Lan Jue glared at her, obstinate and silent.

She spoke again, her voice soft like sweet poison. “Do you think you have any chance, puppet? You can choose not to speak, but if you do I’ll remove one of her limbs.”

Unadulterated hatred smoldered in Lan Jue’s glare. “We drank it, in the Avenue. One of the Wine Master’s treasures.”

Bess looked skeptical. “You’d actually drink it?”

Once more she brought her wicked finger to her nose and sniffed. Lan Jue couldn’t see her clearly, blocked by swathe of red she’d conjured. He could, however, sense her violent mood swings.

“It’s time to make your choice, puppet. Will it be her, or you? Only the most willing would be altruistic enough to sate my thirst.” She seemed to have recovered her composure.

Lan Jue never hesitated. “How do I know you’ll keep your word and let her go?”

Chapter 335: Bess And The Clairvoyant

Bess’ voice was indifferent. “Do you think you’re in a position to make demands? It’s simple – accept, and she lives. Refuse and she dies.”

Lan Jue’s lips curled in to a bitter expression, as though forced to swallow something unsavory. However, it was quickly replaced with an easy smile. “Alright, you can take mine.”

Bess was suspicious. Anyone – regardless of the circumstances
– would not be happy to face immanent death. And she could feel it from him – genuine happiness.

“What reason do you have to be so happy?” she asked.

“No reason,” Lan Jue assured. “Death just isn’t such a frightening prospect, sometimes.” What exactly he meant, only he knew.

He’d been off kilter ever since meeting Zhou Qianlin. She looked so much like Hera, that he couldn’t help but think about his dead soulmate every time he saw her. He felt a surge of affection whenever they were together because of it.

Of course, intellectually he knew it was wrong. He couldn’t betray Hera’s memory by falling for her sister, no matter how alike they seemed.

For this reason he’d been avoiding her. He almost lost control on An Lun, and they only stopped because of Tang Mi’s interruption. He was disappointed in how strong an affect she had on him. Even if Hera had given him her blessings, it was impossible. Hera had cast too great a shadow in the depths of his heart.

He owed Qianlin, at least that’s how he saw it. Family was important to Lan Jue, so no matter what he’d make sure Qianlin would get back to hers. If his life truly would spare hers, then it was an acceptable trade. His debt would be paid – and he’d pass on to the next world, where he would meet with his Hera.

As an Adept – indeed, as an Adept that may one day achieve Paragon – Lan Jue was convinced of the existence of the soul. Although he knew that finding Hera’s soul in the vast expanse of the universe would be nearly impossible, the possibility gave him hope. That’s why he’d smiled, because death meant the chance at meeting his lost love once again. This certainly wasn’t a bad thing. Life and death were trivial, in the end.

Bess nodded her head. “So be it, I’ll help you meet death.
Don’t fret, I’ll not waste everything she’s given you.”

As Bess spoke, she swiped her claw-like nails through the air. Gashes appeared on Lan Jue’s limp wrists and bright rivulets of blood began to flow.

Lan Jue’s blood was different from a normal man’s. Instead of the dark crimson one might expect, his was a bright, metallic red. Once an adept achieved ninth rank, their Discipline was completely integrated in to their body. It mingled  with  the blood, bones, muscles and organs. The color and texture of his blood was borne from the presence of pure energy.

It’s said a single drop of a Paragon’s blood contains an immeasurable amount of energy. Under specific conditions, such a drop could perform incredible feats. Although Lan Jue was not himself a Paragon, he had a measure of protogenic comprehension. Some of that sparkling energy was protogenic power.

Lan Jue’s lifeblood vanished drop by drop in to the surrounding emptiness. Suddenly there was a flash, and the world around him changed. A familiar silhouette appeared within the darkness.

Qianlin was lying in the emptiness not far from where he hung. She was bound by shimmering red cords of energy. Lan Jue could see her eyes – those stunning, gorgeous blue eyes – wet with tears.

Lan Jue’s chest tightened. It was happening all over again, just like that day when he was forced to say farewell to Hera.

He could see what she wanted to say in her eyes. He wanted to say the same thing.

I’m sorry.

He could feel her affection for him, and though he wanted to call out to her he was unable to. Bess slowly hobbled to her. She stopped at her side, hovering over her prostrate form. She lifted her right hand, then – swipe!

Qianlin winced as the arteries of her wrist were opened. Blood poured from her wounds. It, too, was not a dark red. Instead, it was surrounded by a haze of pure white light. It was like the precious fluid was protected by a fluorescent covering.

Lan Jue’s whole body began to shake. He glared daggers at the old woman, furious at her treachery. One was not enough for this monstrous witch.

Bess looked infinitely calm. In fact, her craggy face bore no emotion at all – perfect apathy. The two dying before her were no more than insects.

The flow of blood increased, and very soon the fatigue of blood loss set in. Lan Jue, stronger than most normal men, was losing consciousness quickly.

Qianlin, I’m sorry. I brought this on you! Lan Jue’s laments filled his heart, and he hoped it would somehow reach her through the Spirit caller gem. But there was no response.

Qianlin’s eyes were locked on his. She wept openly, even as those eyes began to dim.

Bess swiped her arms through the air, and the two victim’s other wrists were also opened. Both Lan Jue and Qianlin could feel a warmth penetrate through them, and then… darkness.

Lan Jue’s metallic red blood flowed in to Qianlin’s opposite wrist, while her own slipped in to his. The strange transfusion continued under Bess’ control.

This continued until a pale white aura surrounded Lan Jue’s body. For Qianlin, spiderweb-sized bolts of lightning danced across the surface of her skin. Bess’ face remained expressionless, even when a burst of rainbow color exploded overhead.

Another figure appeared, but this one different – more like a projection. It hovered by Bess’ side.

“This is different than what we’d discussed.” The voice was also elderly, and flowed from the strange image. Were Lan Jue conscious he would immediately recognize him – the Clairvoyant, third strongest among the known Paragons.

Bess’ response was cool. “What difference does it make? I’m upholding my end of the bargain – how I choose to do it is irrelevant.”

The Clairvoyant smiled. “It doesn’t matter to me, I just didn’t see it coming. It’s touching to see this side of you, a woman

whose heart is normally cold as iron. It seems to me you might have some affection for this young girl.”

“I’d helped her, in another life,” the old woman said. “It’s so seldom we find someone with a soul so pure. Her heart bears many worries, but never have I ever encountered a young person whose conscience was so clean. You know I like clean. There’s more, as well. She has… old blood, and powers very few would understand. This other one you’ve asked me to help isn’t bad either. He was willing to sacrifice his life for his woman. He passed my test… or I wouldn’t have agreed to help.”

He smirked. “Are you saying you don’t trust in my visions?”

“I only trust myself,” the old woman responded. “You’re an old man on the cusp of death. Do you really want to squabble over nonsense? After this we’re even. I’ve paid my dues.”

The Clairvoyant sniffed. “You haven’t changed a bit. I always wanted to learn why, but you’d never let me know.”

Bess’ response was tepid, and dismissive. “The past is gone, it means nothing. You can die in peace, old man. As for my history, perhaps you’ll learn a little in your next life.”

“You know better than that,” the Clairvoyant teased. “Even if I do return here, it won’t be here. Another time, place and dimension beckons me. But before I go, I must trouble you for one last thing – watch over them. After all, you and I saw with our own eyes the growth of humanity.”

“This hasn’t the slightest to do with me. Now get lost.” Bess waved him away as though he were some detestable thing.

The Clairvoyant was not perturbed by her attitude. “Thank you, Bess.” He looked her in the eye, deeply and genuinely, before his image dissolved without a trace.

Only once the space beside her was empty did the old woman’s iron façade change. A flash of regret flashed across her eyes as she stared at the dark space where he had been. She sighed, and shook her head.

The world of darkness around them began to melt away. Moonlight appeared overhead, full and bright, and where it touched the black and red were banished. What occurred next was a strange scene observed by none, for beneath the silvery glow the elderly woman herself changed. Her stoop figure straightened, white hair changed to rich gold, and the craggy features from before disappeared to reveal a beauty beneath.

She was beautiful, beautiful enough to catch a man’s breath in his throat. Blonde haired, blue eyed and with a wonderfully slender build. Those hideous red nails changed, and began to radiate silvery-white light. Her voice was no longer the quavering croak of an old hag. Now, it was clear and melodious. She spoke softly to herself. “It’s grape harvesting season again. I always think of you.”

When Lan Jue came to, his found himself lying in the middle of a deserted wood. Qianlin was beside him.

Lan Jue pushed himself in to a seated position, and immediately regretted it as waves of weakness threatened to black him out again. His head hurt, and his body was stiff.

Qianlin was still asleep, but her breathing came slow and easy. He could tell from the flush in her cheeks that she was in no danger of dying.

Lan Jue couldn’t help but look around in a daze. The moments leading up to this cycled over and over in his mind. Where it not for the discomfort he felt, he’d never believe it was anything but a dream. What kind of dream leaves you weak and stranded in a forest?

Chapter 336: Disciplines Change

Lan Jue lifted his head to spy the sky above. It was dark now, but the full moon seemed unnaturally bright. It was like a jade plate suspended high against a black velvet backdrop. As the radiant silver light washed over everything, Lan Jue felt… comfortable.

Taking a deep breath, Lan Jue searched inwardly for his core. One’s Core was most important for an adept, and so long as it remained healthy he would be able to recover from anything.

Once he found his, Lan Jue was struck with amazement.

There were marked differences between his core now and what it was before. Usually it was a bluish-purple in color, with tendrils of white lightning surrounding it. It changed slightly as he employed either of his two Disciplines.

Now, his core was covered by filaments of silver light. They densely criss-crossed his core until they formed  an encompassing net. The silvery threads released a faint white light, and it seemed to be constricting his energy flow. He could only call about a third of his power, by his estimations.

Put simply, all his years of training had been undone. A fraction of his abilities remained unchained. No wonder he felt uncomfortable he thought, his Discipline wasn’t prosperous enough to promote healing.

Further investigation revealed that his body had undergone some changes as well. His vessels and bone seemed to shimmer, and appeared smoother than he remembered. Where once his whole body had shone with the faint golden light of protogenic power, now everything was white and smooth like milky jade. But if he looked very closely, some of that gold still remained locked deep down.

What’s going on? What in the world happened? What did that Bess woman do to us?

Lan Jue rose to his feet, and focused on the surroundings. Thankfully, his perception didn’t seem affected by the constraints imposed upon his Core, and so he was still able to see the world around him clearly as ever. No one else was around.

Lan Jue turned back to Zhou Qianlin, and pressed his fingers to her wrist to check her condition.

What he felt was very strange. There was a link, somehow, like they were connected. The moment he touched her, he could sense the silvery net around his Core bloom with white light. It began to blend with his own power, and likewise he could feel traces of his own familiar Discipline within her. He felt as though he himself had grown my powerful, perhaps the peak of seventh rank.

What does this mean? Lan Jue stared at Zhou Qianlin in a stupor.

This…

He felt as though their connected had deepened, especially considering the link he’d felt in their pulses. Even more astonishing was finding echoes of his own Discipline within Zhou Qianlin!

In a moment Lan Jue felt like he’d become the village idiot. He had no idea what was going on. He’d trained for many years, was especially privileged, and had perfected himself to ninth level – and this was the first time he’d ever  experienced anything like this.

Lan Jue lifted the sleeping Qianlin in to his arms, for fear the cold ground would make her sick. He couldn’t help but again sense the changes in her.

Indeed, exactly the same. She had some of the exact same energies he did; thunderbolt and lightning. Both were yang, just as his were. Not a single thing was different from his own.

Qianlin’s Core in her chest had also come more in to focus. The interior was that same milky-white hue, but now a net of golden lightning hung over it. Lan Jue was both amused and infuriated. The net surrounded and restrained her core, but as he held her hand the golden net dissolved and joined with that pure white light. Her core shimmered a pale gold. Now her Discipline was as his, even about as strong.

What did this mean? It meant that when Lan Jue and Qianlin where hand-in-hand, there were two Zeus’. However when they parted, his power was reduced to only a third. Qianlin’s returned to its normal white.

This was all too strange. Too strange for Lan Jue to know what to do about it. As far as he could tell, this was a bad thing. Alone, he was far too weak to perform as needed. However, with Qianlin they were twice as strong. That was the supposed

trade-off.

To have his powers returned, all he had to do was break through that silver mesh hanging over his core. But the power it bore was strange. It felt almost like a part of his own Core, and using his own Discipline to attack it was completely useless. It was like shouting at a brick wall. But there was something else in there, something indistinct. He could swear the protogenic inspiration that filled him was slightly greater, but why he couldn’t guess.

He wasn’t sure, but the creeping suspicion that filled him seemed inspired. The only way he was going to free himself from this, was to break through to Paragon. Otherwise, he’d remain like this forever.

How could that be allowed to happen? There was still so much he had to do. Not least of which was a tournament, and he was probably equivalent to a ninth-rank third level now.

Although the levels of ninth rank were very different, it wasn’t in the order of tens of times. In fact, the difference between a ninth rank first level and ninth rank seventh level Adept was about three to four times. This was especially detrimental to Lan Jue due to his dual Discipline.

For now, there didn’t appear to be any way for him to fix this problem. He’d have to accept it until he got back to the Wine Master and Keeper for an answer. Only they could figure out what was going on. After all, they were Paragons.

Qianlin twitched in his arms, and called out. “A-Jue!” Her eyes popped open, and in her surprise she’d begun to flail her arms. Eventually she caught them around Lan Jue’s neck.

Lan Jue held her tight, instinctively reacting to her concern. “It’s fine. I’m fine.”

Her eyes came in to focus, and the moment she recognized him she squeezed his neck tight and began to cry.

“It’s over, everything’s alright.” Lan Jue gently patted her back as he comforted her.

She cried for a while. When she regained some composure, she lifted her head and searched Lan Jue’s face, to make sure he truly was alright.

He stared in to her eyes, full of tears and sincerity. He was

filled with a flurry of emotions, to which he answered by gently stroking her hair. “Take it easy, I’m fine. I don’t know what happened, but we’re alive. N-“

Zhou Qianlin didn’t let him finish. She leaned up, and kissed him.

Lan Jue sat, stunned. However he could feel that impulse rising up within him, but just in that moment a strange sensation overtook them. Both could feel their Cores shake, then suddenly release a blast of energy.

As Lan Jue watched in complete shock, Qianlin’s body flashed white, then melted away in to his own body. Lan Jue’s own silver-shackled Core burst in to a corona of vibrant light. Qianlin’s Core, meanwhile, had also slipped in to his own body and mingled with his own. The two  danced  together  within him, emitting pulses of powerful pure energy. Suddenly, Lan Jue felt lost in a sea of power. His Core was writhing his energy, and almost instantly he could feel himself tearing through the shackles of eighth level. The power surged still, rising ever higher to the peaks of ninth level ninth rank, and only then did it subside.

Lost in the sensation, he could faintly make out rays of golden

light coming from… somewhere. They weren’t clear, but they somehow bore an attraction he couldn’t resist. Everything in him wanted to pursue that light.

Is that my path?

At some point Lan Jue had become suspended in air. There he hung, and he could feel his surging energies racing through him. They were the same; thunderbolt, lightning, both yang. But he felt so much stronger. The difference between seventh rank and ninth rank was considerable – this was why Prometheus was such a terror even among the other Monarchs.

This is what it feels like to be ninth-ranked. But why… how did Qianlin do that? What the hell is going on?

Lan Jue turned his attention ward, to his pale gold Core, which appeared to have doubled in size. His entire body froze in surprise.

“What… what the hell is this?” Qianlin’s voice rang in Lan Jue’s skull.

All Lan Jue could summon was a wry, apologetic chuckle. “I have no idea. We fused together. It probably has something to do with that Bess woman. Our powers are stronger, and linked somehow. After the fusion, it seemed I was able to come out dominant. Qianlin, can you control my body?”

“No.” Once again, Zhou Qianlin’s voice was in his mind. “I can feel everything, but I can’t move. What is going on?!”

Lan Jue, too, could only sense her energy. “I guess the priority is figuring out how to get you back.”

The moment he formed the thought, Lan Jue could sense his Core begin to radiate with an ever-expanding silver light. It actually began to pour from his chest, until gradually the form of Zhou Qianlin reemerged.

And yet the alarmed Lan Jue all the more, for when Qianlin separated from the silver light she wasn’t the same. She was entirely naked, her silk-like skin bare to the world.

“AAAAAHHHHH—!”

The trees shuddered as flocks of birds fled from the wail.

Chapter 337: Summing Up

Five minutes later.

Qianlin was wrapped in some of Lan Jue’s oversized clothing, making here appear like an undersized mannequin. A bashful pink tinted her cheeks. Luckily, Lan Jue had brought some spare clothes in his interdimensional pocket, otherwise he really would not have known what to do.

Lan Jue sat beside her, and the two of them remained in silence, ruminating over the bizarre circumstance they found themselves in.

“Ehm… Qianlin.”

“Hm?”

Lan Jue muttered, “We have no idea what caused this. But at least I can try and explain what I know – what do you think?”

“Alright.” Qianlin nodded her head. Indeed these strange events had caused things to grow uncomfortable between them.

Whether Lan Jue or Qianlin, both suddenly felt as though they were a piece of the other. Thankfully, however, they were unable to read the contents of the others’ innermost thoughts – otherwise, it would be a truly terrifying situation they found themselves in.

“My Discipline appears to be blocked by a special seal,” he explained. “I can only call on about a third of my total strength. About ninth level first rank. From what I can tell, the block has something to do with you because it vanishes whenever we have any physical contact. Then my power is back to  normal.  It seems like your powers aren’t effected when we come in to contact, at least in terms of strength. Instead, you seem capable of using my own Discipline when we touch. Follow?”

Qianlin nodded.

Lan Jue continued. “When we, uh…” he paused, and shot her a glance. Her face was already flushed. “When we show intimacy, our bodies meld together. I guess more specifically, your body melts in to mine. This increases my Discipline immediately and intensely. It was only for a second, but it felt like I was at the peak of ninth rank. So from what I can see, we can’t call what happened here an entirely bad circumstance. At least not for you, right?”

Qianlin’s eyes shot up and fixed him with her eyes. “How is this not a bad thing for me?”

Lan Jue blinked in surprise, while Qianlin’s face reddened further.

Lan Jue was a smart man, and after a moment he realized her meaning. There were side-effects here, not least of which being their need to be effectionate to unlock their powers. Even if they wanted to, she’d simply melt away in to his core. Aside from the very expensive cost of always replacing clothing, this had a slew of problems.

“I-I wasn’t finished. I mean, of course there are problems. Any time there’s any sort of deep contact our bodies join. So, th- there’s that. Right, and your clothes vanish. But it seems like metal and power gems are exceptions.” He’d spied the Spirit caller gem around her neck, and the pelagic pearl on her finger earlier.

Zhou Qianlin didn’t utter a word. She stared off in to the distance, resolutely ignoring him.

Lan Jue offered a half-hearted laugh. “I have no idea what to

do about this either. But I promise I’ll figure out a plan, and I’ll ask around about it. This whole thing was strange. That Bess being a Paragon – and an unknown one! Plus, why did she do this? What was her motivation? What did she even do to us? I’ll back to the Avenue, and I’ll ask the Paragons there. Maybe they’ll know something. What do you think?”

She only shook her head. Her mind was a mess, and her heart fluttered with a flood of emotions. Everything was too strange, too sudden. She was entirely lost.

Lan Jue spoke on, helplessly. “I guess we’ll try this first. It’s already late, anyway. I’ll send you home.”

“Mh.” She nodded.

They rose to their feet, then stopped and stared at one another.

Lan Jue took the initiative, stepping forward. “Now that we’re here, we don’t have a choice but to deal with it. Now that you can use my powers, I’ll teach you the methods I use to control it. That way, so long as we’re together it’d be like having two of me.”

“Mh.” She acquiesced once again.

She was shy, he could see it in her face. He took up her hand. “We start now.”

The moment they touched he could feel it. His core opened up, unrestrained, and flooded him with energy. Qianlin felt light as they rose to the air under Lan Jue’s power

“Fix your attention on your core. Slowly coax the power free. If you immerse your will in it, you’ll turn in to a bolt of lightning. Now there’s no rush, take your time. Thunderbolt powers are fierce, so you mustn’t rush. It may reverse and harm you.”

As they soared through the air, Lan Jue carefully instructed her on control of his Discipline. Free of the forest, Lan Jue used his communicator to quickly pin-point their location. Luckily they weren’t far from Qianlin’s home.

They quickly and quietly made their way to the peak of the mountain. Along the way, Qianlin had had the opportunity to experience becoming lightning several times. By the time they arrived in her room through the electrical socket, she was more

than a little surprised to find she was a little less shy with Lan Jue’s presence here.

Lan Jue spoke softly to her. “Change your clothes, then we’ll leave and come home the obvious way so we don’t arouse suspicion.”

“Alright. Turn around.” She’d only just gotten her emotions under control, and immediately her face flushed red.

Lan Jue entered the bathroom and closed the door.

Zhou Qianlin wasn’t alone. Even Lan Jue needed some time to process this very strange turn of events. What the hell was going on?! On the whole it wasn’t so bad, it just forced a very close relationship between him and Qianlin. Of course, she enjoyed the sweeter end of their bargain. While they were together, she immediately became one of a very few number of Adepts at the higher echelons. Although she couldn’t use the powers too effectively now, she was definitely strong enough to do it. And at this level, even the smallest missteps have reactions.

“Alright.” Before long, Qianlin’s voice gently called at him

from the other room.

Lan Jue exited the bathroom, then brought Qianlin through the electrical sockets and to the front door. He bid her farewell with a wave. He wanted to get back to the Avenue quickly so that he could consult the Keeper and Wine Master. Hopefully they had some idea of what was happening.

Zhou Qianlin watched him go with her eyes, and only once he disappeared from sight did she go back inside. She composed herself, since she was hot from so quickly changing clothes, then called out to her family that she was home. She went to her room.

She lay on her bed, those beautiful shining eyes staring at the ceiling.

There was something she hadn’t told Lan Jue, and that was what Bess had told her.

ζ

“Granny Bess, you-“ Zhou Qianlin froze under the old

woman’s grasp. When did this kindly old woman become so frightening!

Bess ogled the pearl on the younger woman’s finger. “That’s a finer means of defense there. Of course it won’t protect you from me. Don’t fret, puppet. I’m only here to help you.”

“Help me?” Qianlin couldn’t help but reiterate the assertion, skeptical.

Bess explained patiently. “You’ve gotten very strong recently. Unless I’m mistaken, you possess the very rare Silkworm Discipline. Am I right?”

Qianlin’s face changed suddenly. “You can see that?”

“Those who truly understand your abilities are few and far between,” Bess said. “I’d venture to say even you don’t really understand. Lucky for you, I’m one of those few. I’ve been observing you recently, you know. You’re a person of pure and good character. You have troubles, but you look after the elderly here with wholehearted, genuine care. It’s so unfortunate that you can’t properly use the powers. So, I’ve decided to help. I believe you used the power once on that young man you have

following you around, yes? Is he worth anything at all?”

Zhou Qianlin was instantly calm. She gave the old woman a wry grin. “If there was anyone in this universe who deserved the benefit of my powers, it’s him. He had no idea I was a ninth rank Talent, Granny Bess, and I ask that you don’t tell him. We have a very complicated relationship.”

“I’m not interested in the plights of the young,” Bess muttered. “But I learned what I needed to know – he’ s deserving. You must know that after you used the Silkworm, you and the recipient created a… past-life bond. The two of you are inexorably tied, forever.”

“Even those who claim to know the secrets of the Heavenly Empress only scratch the surface. Your powers are derived from virtue, and compassion. But this life is a fair one. You reap what you sow. People just forget why they’re getting what they’re getting. My job in helping you, is to get you that payback. And to keep a promise.”

“Granny Bess… I don’t know what you mean. I don’t understand.” Zhou Qianlin gave her an inquisitive look.

“You don’t have to understand.” Bess waved her hand, and a light flashed in her palm. Zhou Qianlin fell to the floor, unconscious.

ζ

The memories played back in her mind. Qianlin’s eyes were awash with conflicting emotions. Bess hadn’t bore an ounce of maliciousnes, despite her act. She was there to help them. So that must mean that the changes she’d gone through were her ‘payback’? But this wasn’t anything she wanted! The two of them joining together, and the increase in ability, must only mean they ere meant to be partners.

Zhou Qianlin absently nibbled on her lower lip. She quietly focused on the subtle changes of her Core – sixth rank. Her Discipline certainly had grown stronger. With her powers of the Heavenly Empress, she naturally improved at a faster level, but even that didn’t explain this speed. It’d only been a couple months!

Chapter 338: What Did You Do To Me?

All this simply by being near him. Indeed, if she could just be with him always then that would be grand. Zhou Qianlin felt a sudden surge of emotion, and tears began to drip from her eyes.

These last few months had indeed been torture. A torture that was difficult to describe. But as she thought upon the torment, she could suddenly feel something surging out from within her, aside from the emotions she felt. In the next instant, much to her surprise, there appeared another figure beside her upon the bed. Not a foot away lay the man she was just thinking about.

“You-… How did you get here?” Zhou Qianlin asked, stunned.

Lan Jue stared at her, wide-eyed. His pupils were struggling to adjust to the sudden shift in light. “How should I know?”

They looked in to one another’s eyes, and found confusion.
What was this?

“What did you do to me?” Both of them expressed the same thought in the same moment.

“I didn’t do anything!” Again, together.

Silence. Not a sound was made as they lay in the dim interior of Zhou Qianlin’s bedroom. They simple looked at each other, confused and unsure on how to proceed.

Lan Jue sat up, got off the bed and turned back to face Qianlin. His features were serious. “I think it’s important that we perform some experiments. We need to figure out precisely how far this goes.”

“Alright.” Qianlin nodded her head. Yes! They did have to find out how close their connection had become. Did she just summon him?

“I had just gotten back to the Avenue. I was on my way to speak with the Paragons about what had happened, when suddenly I just found myself here. No warning, just poof. I didn’t even feel any sort of energy displacement or power. This has got to have something to do with you, right? What were you just doing?” Lan Jue’s questions were delivered calmly. Only logic would puzzle out what was going on here.

Her face reddened. “I was… I was thinking about you.”

He blinked. “So you were thinking about me, and I suddenly appeared?”

Qianlin nodded. “I thought it would be nice if you were beside me. Then you were.”

Lan Jue’s face darkened to a scowl. This was some shit! It meant he had practically no freedom, and Qianlin could summon him at her leisure. This…

“I wonder if it works the other way. If I just think of you beside me…” Lan Jue muttered to himself, focusing on the thought of Qianlin at his side. When he raised his eyes to look at her, nothing had changed.

“I’ll leave and try again,” he said. He didn’t even stop to let her respond before disappearing in to the power socket.

Zhou Qianlin rose to her feet. She, too, was surprised. She could summon him whenever she pleased, apparently. What was she to make of this?

After a short while, Lan Jue appeared once more from the

socket, his face darker still. “Nothing. I tried thinking of you with me, but nothing happened. I suppose only you have the ability to summon me.”

Zhou Qianlin stood in silence for a moment, before speaking up. “Do you really want me with you?”

Lan Jue’s brows furrowed. “What do you mean?”

She dropped her head, her face reddening once more. “It probably needs to be a genuine desire.”

Lan Jue was struck by the realization. He’d been so shocked with the summoning that he hadn’t considered the implications. They’d separated, and she honestly wanted him with her.

“Qianlin…” Lan Jue didn’t know what to say, but he felt it within him.

The young politician’s daughter reigned herself in. “I’m sorry. I didn’t want to trouble you. It’s just, we are creatures with feelings and emotions. It was a…. a sort of hopeless attraction, I

guess. It’ll go away with time.”

“That’s not what I meant,” he blurted out.

Qianlin lifted her eyes to his once more. “Then what did you mean?”

After a moment of silence, he responded. “Let’s keep trying to figure out what’s going on here, first. I’m going to try again.” With that, he was gone.

As he left, Lan Jue’s emotions were fluctuating more than his lightning Discipline.

Qianlin… if you feel this way about me, how can I face you? Hera will always be the only woman in my heart, and so long as she’s there I can’t give you all of me.

Five minutes later, he was back. Qianlin regarded him with an indifferent chuckle. “Still nothing? This is enough for now, we’ll continue with the experiments later. And don’t worry, I won’t trouble with – I’ll make sure to keep my thoughts in check.”

Lan Jue silently nodded his head. “Alright. I’ll start heading back.”

The room flashed with light as he became lightning, and vanished. The corners of her mouth curled in to a sad frown. It appeared as though her guess was right: You needed to wish with your whole heart in order for the summoning to work. He didn’t see her the way she saw him. He didn’t miss her the way she missed him.

ζ

Lan Jue’s mood was equally dour as he made his way back to the Avenue. Time and again he tried to fill himself with longing for Qianlin, but every time Hera’s smiling face swam up through the recesses of his mind to greet him. Every time, he failed.

Bess’ actions had created some wonderful changes in the both of them, but they were sudden and chaotic. Lan Jue didn’t know what to do about any of it. What would happen between he and Qianlin, he asked himself. What would become of their relationship?

From the beginning he’d wanted to keep a strict distance from her. There had to be boundaries. Now, as he tried more and more to let her in, he couldn’t. He acknowledged an affection for her, certainly, but affection and love were very different beasts. Worse still, he was sure how much of this affection was due to her similarities to Hera. This was most important.

When Lan Jue got back to the Avenue, he wasted no time in imploring help from the Keeper and Bookworm. They were busy men, but this was a very important matter.

“What?” After Lan Jue revealed his story, the two Paragons looked at each other. Their expressions were serious.

An unknown Paragon was staggering news in the Adept world. What’s more, this person had attacked a member of the Skyfire Council only several kilometers away.

The Keeper’s gruff voice was commanding. “Bring me to the hospital. I want to take a look.” The Bookworm nodded in emphatic agreement.

With two Paragons at his back, Lan Jue had no need to fear Bess. Of course, as Lan Jue had expected she was no longer there

when they arrived at her room. She left no trace, no clue to her whereabouts.

“We’ll head back and discuss it.” The Keeper, after a cursory glance at the room, waved his hand dismissively.

When they returned, all four of the Avenue’s Paragons had gathered. Once more, Lan Jue shared his story, and as it progressed every one of the great powerhouses were scowling openly. Nearly killing a Council member made every one of them lose face! And yet, if this woman had indeed harbored malicious intent, Lan Jue would already be dead. Not  to mention, Lan Jue was the Clairvoyant’s chosen successor! He was the future of the Avenue.

What followed was a series of questions and experiments. Lan Jue was no longer a Councilman, but a lab rat.

“This is very strange. From the outside it almost looks like a Discipline aberration. It penetrates all the way to your core, though.” The Keeper examined him from head to toe, and gave his determination after.

The Wine Master nodded. “I sense the same. It’s a mutation,

caused by outside forces. But ultimately, this doesn’t look like such a bad thing for you. Once your energy and that other power combine, the result should be intensely pure. It possesses the very essence of this energy. It seals your core, but it also softens and compresses it. My guess is it will improve the rate and quality of your cultivation practices. I know that I don’t have any ability to seal a core in this way.”

The Keeper shook his head. “Nor do I. I doubt it’s solely the ability of the Paragon that caused this. Even a Paragon couldn’t do this alone. You’re only ninth rank seventh degree – she could easily have ended you if she wished – but doing this would be difficult, even for a Paragon.

To this, the Bookworm chuckled. “This Bess woman sounds like she was acting like a matchmaker. You and that girl are suddenly attached at the hip, sometimes literally. If you want to fight at your best, you’ll need her with you. So, if you aren’t together, then the net result in poor, correct? If the two of you marry, then all of your problems are solved. Not only thank, you’ll be stronger.”

Lan Jue’s brows tightened. “Let’s not talk about my relationship with Qianlin just yet. I can’t accept this sort of restriction. I’ve lost all freedom, like I’m chained up in a box. Is there any way to break this seal?”

“None,” the Wine Master assured. “We do indeed have the power to suppress the seal, but that would mean we’d have to be with you all the time. We’d have to be continuously pumping you full of energy. We’d be just as shackled as you are. The only way to do this, would be to obliterate your core. That would kill you. The only way for you to unlock this seal is to continue with your growth, until you’ve mastered the protogenic energies. Once your core has been infused in that power and born again, then the seal will be broken. Luckily, with this seal in place you’ll get about twice the result for half the effort in training. Right now, the only way to be free of this restriction, is hard work.

The Keeper nodded sagely. “This is also my conclusion. There are no other options, unless you seek out that Paragon. Only she knows the specifics of your condition. It’s as they say; only the one who used the poison knows its antidote.”

The Bookworm and Gourmet were newly minted Paragons. They had no solutions for Lan Jue either. He had no choice but to accept this situation. For now, he was a weaker man reliant on the presence of Qianlin.

Chapter 339: ARC Phase Two

Lan Jue gave a morose sigh. “What can I do? Once more I’ve lost my freedom. I still have so much to do, and now with my strength so low…”

“Take her with you.” The Wine Master’s response was frank and curt.

Lan Jue lookd his way. “But she doesn’t represent the Avenue.”

“Enough,” the Wine Master said in irritation. “That isn’t even an issue. It takes no effort to introduce someone to the Avenue. It sounds like you’re finding excuses not to bring her.”

“Men have responsibilities,” the Gourmet responded with serious countenance. “You have things to accomplish.”

“I-“ Lan Jue fought to tell them there wasn’t anything between he and Zhou Qianlin, but the words wouldn’t come. If they didn’t, how could they have become so entangled in this mess? Suddenly the woman who’d cheated him so long ago appeared in his mind’s eye, the one who set him on his path to

Qianlin. If he ever found her or her organization, he thought, they’d have hell to pay. If not for them, how else would this nonsense have happened?

“I have to think about it. I need quiet.” Lan Jue had to accept the reality of what was going on.

He returned home and settled down to meditate. He had been assured that no outward power was going to free him from this prison. His only option, then, was to try and earn freedom from his own power.

He focused on cultivating himself throughout the night, and when he opened his eyes he felt refreshed. Indeed, he felt a little stronger. However, his face was still dark. The seal remained firmly in place. It never moved, much less released. Despite an entire night’s efforts, nothing changed. It was strange, though – during the night he’d sensed that that silver seal had actually absorbed some of the cultivating energies he’d focused toward his Core. It meant that the stronger he grew, the stronger the seal became as well.

Was it truly only possible to be free once he broke through to Paragon? It was practically impossible! Even the highest level adepts needed decades of training and no small amount of luck

to achieve this dream.

Lan Jue’s dour mood put him off breakfast. Instead, he got ready and left directly for the University on his antique bicycle. There were still things to do, and time waits for no man.

He sought out Director Wu, and sure enough the school was preparing them for another trip. The destination, the Barrows.

“I have to trouble you with something, Director,” Lan Jue ventured after some thought.

“Of course.” Director Wu had bent head over heels since discovering part of Lan Jue’s identity. Any issue was immediately solved, most recently being the leak about the ARC. Since discovery of the culprit, the military had ceased any overt attempts at taking away their students. In fact, a representative had expressed their apologies to the University’s Dean. He assured him that they need not worry over their students’ future.

The circumstances had actually helped Wu Junyi come to a greater understanding of Lan Jue. He was even further convinced of the young instructor’s superior abilities. Not only

was he a powerful Adept individually, he also commanding staggering resources. If someone like this was interested in teaching here, who was he to deny him anything?

Lan Jue let the silence stretch for a moment before going on. “I’d like to participate in this trip. But, I was hoping to bring along someone else. I wasn’t sure if this would be alright?”

“Of course it’s alright,” the director responded without hesitation. He didn’t even care who Lan Jue was bringing.

He – as the etiquette teacher – had no classes. Through discussion both he and Wu Junyi agreed to pause it temporarily. In truth they had no option but to do so. The Barrows trip would take time, then Lan Jue had to get to the Northern Alliance. He wasn’t even sure when he’d be getting back. Even if they had a couple classes now, what would happen in the future? When would they be able to start them back up again? No, the best option was to simply wait until these matters were settled before starting in full swing. The students would understand this.

Once his business with Director Wu had concluded, Lan Jue did not return directly to the Avenue. He wandered absent- mindedly to his desk in the electives building.

His long night of cultivation had not produced the results he’d hoped for. He would indeed have to continue examining this with Qianlin, so that they could at least seamlessly join their powers when needed. This was his life now – what option did he have but to deal with it? Thankfully Zhou Qianlin was a sensible girl, so he didn’t need to fear being summoned for no reason.

“Professor Lan! It’s been so long!” The surprised call caught his attention. Lan Jue lifted his head, whereupon he spied Jin Yan walking his way with an arm full of textbooks.

“Professor Jin. Hello.” He greeted her with a polite smile.

“I really must thank you for everything you’ve done for Jin Tao,” she said with an excited tone. “Are you busy recently? It’s been so long since I’ve seen you around. I was afraid you might have stopped coming for classes.”

Of course, Lan Jue couldn’t tell her about the ARC classes. “Family matters,” he lied, “I had to ask for a little while off.”

She snickered. “Well you chose the perfect time to come back. The University is preparing another trip for us. We’re leaving the Alliance and heading to the West for twenty days. It’s a ten

day trek there and back, but still not bad at all.”

“Aren’t you afraid of running in to any more monsters?” Lan Jue asked.

She shook her head with a smile. “come on. I’m a realist – I don’t believe in luck, good or bad. I believe in probability, and the chances are a coincidence like that are slim to none. Anyway, there are dangers wherever one goes. I’ve never seen the Barrows’ dangers. Will you be going, too?”

Lan Jue nodded. “Yes, I’ll be going.”

“Professor Jin. Professor Lan.” Another voice interrupted their conversation.

Wang Hongyuan, his face bearing a smile, walked their way. Ever since he and Lan Jue had become friends, the negative cloud hanging over him had dispersed.

Lan Jue gave the dance instructor a lopsided grin. “Professor Wang! It’s been a while.”

For the briefest instant, Wang Hongyuan’s face bore a hint of confusion. They’d just spent the last few months together! Was the cruelty he subjected everyone to not enough to have him remember? Of course he couldn’t say anything – he’d just ‘been on vacation’ as well, and he couldn’t let Jin Yan know they were together. The charade would have to be maintained.

“Yeah! It had been a while, Professor. Are you going on the trip?”

Lan Jue nodded. “I’ll be going with you all. You’re going to have to protect us while we’re there, Professor Wang!”

Wang Hongyuan’s prowess as a pilot and Adept were not well known, but of course they knew this. After all, their experience on Taihua had been a telling one for all of them – and Jin Yan had been there to see it. It just hadn’t been brought up since they got back.

Wang Hongyuan shot Jin Yan a glance. “Nothing to fear,” he said. “If those monsters show up again, I’ll protect you.”

Jin Yan tittered prettily at him, and nodded her head.

Lan Jue looked at Wang Hongyuan, then looked to Jin Yan. Evidently their relationship was improving nicely, though they still weren’t very close. It appeared to him that Wang Hongyuan just needed to step up his game.

Jin Yan flashed them both a smile. “You guys chat. I have some things to clear up and classes to prepare.” She had been in a particularly fine mood lately. Her younger brother was home at last, and although he hadn’t told her anything about the ARC class he was clearly changed by it. Whatever the situation, Jin Yan and the others were all very pleasantly surprised.

In only a few months, Jin Tao had actually grown roughly a head taller. His physique had also improved dramatically. That fierce, feral air that he’d become known for was gone, replaced with a steady calm. He’d grown up. His speech and behavior saw the most improvement, and he was no longer as flippant as he once was. He was an entirely new person.

Jin Yan knew all of this had to have something to do with Lan Jue. After all, it had been Lan Jue that took him away. Although she didn’t know the specifics, both of them had been gone for the same length of time. Now, her baby brother was somehow inexplicably part of the elite ARC students. She knew very well that only the most promising students were enrolled in that program. She’d never have believed her ‘good-for-nothing’

brother would have been a part of it.

Naturally, Jin Tao’s family was ecstatic at the changes. Jin Yan, also, was very happy. She’d wanted to ask Lan Jue more about it, but Wang Hongyuan had arrived by then. She decided to keep her questions to herself for now.

As Jin Yan left for her desk, Wang Hongyuan saddled up to Lan Jue. He spoke in low tones. “Professor Lan, the ARC class is done and the students have all gone back to their lives. What should we do?”

“What can we do?” Lan Jue asked.

“You know, I really wanted to thank you,” Wang Hongyuan said. “Although I’ve never been treated so terrible in all my life, I’ve also never improved this fast. Finally, I can see some hope in continuing my training. I’m sure the students feel similarly. This is especially true after you piloted that battleship all by yourself, and protected our escape. I could see that it filled them with appreciation and respect. With the cohesion they’re feeling now, it would be a shame if we just let them go their separate ways.”

Lan Jue nodded. “Yeah! We should follow up with more. They’ve got a really stable foundation by this point, and the program really set them apart. Their next step should be practical application. If they can work together like the An Lun soldiers, then there’s no limit to their potential.”

“So you’re saying you want them to join the army?” Wang Hongyuan asked.

To that, Lan Jue hook his head. “Military service may not always be the best option. Certainly not right now. The Eastern Alliance’s military has its own problems, and they aren’t strong enough to protect themselves. Joining now would ruin their prospects. My hope for them is that they join once they’re strong enough to handle it. By then, no one would be able to control them.”

Wang Hongyuan blinked. “So what’s the plan?”

Chapter 340: You Are The Father Of My Child

A mysterious smile spread across Lan Jue’s face. “Don’t worry yourself over it. Once the trip is done, I’ll have to head out for business. The whole thing should be a month or two, at most. They still need time to entirely process their training, anyway, to let it all sink in. When I get back, we’ll start phase two of the ARC class.”

“Really?” Wang Hongyuan’s excitement shone through his features. “That’s excellent! I’d like to be an assistant again.”

“Sure,” Lan Jue said with a nod of his head.

ζ

While Wang Hongyuan and Lan Jue were discussing the class in the electives building, Zhou Qianlin was in Director Wu’s office. Her family had received a note, asking her to present herself to the teaching affairs director.

“Director Wu, you asked for me?” She had made her way to his office directly upon getting to school. She was still

technically on holiday after the ARC classes, and had intended to spend the next few days in Grace Hospital. Unfortunately, her encounter with Bess and the subsequent result had made her less than willing to meet people. She was still struggling to come to terms with some of it. Instead, she had so far spent the day at home.

“Ah good, you’re here. Please sit.” An uncommon smile was plastered on the man’s face. Usually students only say the strict, fierce side of him.

Qianlin sat as instructed.

Once she was settled, the Director went on. “Here’s the situation. You performed excellently during the ARC classes, despite your major in mecha systems. The faculty is quite surprised, and impressed. We’ve decided to give you an award for your performance – a trip to the Barrows with our teachers during their retreat. I called you here to let you know, so that you may go home and prepare. We’ll be leaving for the Western Alliance in three days.”

“A trip to the Barrows?” She looked at the teaching director with wide eyes. A reward? For her alone? What was going on? Since when was the NEU so good to their students? She didn’t

even do all that well in the training!

“That’s right,” Wu Junyi affirmed. “That’ll be all. You can go and start getting ready.”

“Director,” she engaged quietly, “Can I choose not to go?”

He looked at her with confusion. “You’re willing to let this golden opportunity go to waste? The university is covering all expenses.”

Zhou Qianlin apologetically explained. “We just got back, and I’m rather exhausted. Really, I’d just rather stay at home and rest. I’m not very interested in another trip.”

“Well,” he began, “In truth the idea was Professor Lan’s. He’ll be going as well. So is your class leader, Tan Lingyun.”

Her brows rose, and a strange emotion filled her. She nodded. “Oh… well, alright. I’ll go.”

When the young girl left, Director Wu settled back in to his

chair. He stared in to the distance, lost in thought. No, he thought. Professor Lan couldn’t be here because of Zhou Qianlin…

He knew, of course, that she was considered the top beauty of their university. She possessed a fine mind, as well. Her reaction showed that she had some interest in the etiquette teacher as well. Director Wu was convinced it was something he’d have to keep a close eye on. Perhaps he could find another way to ingratiate himself to this Professor.

ζ

The Spirit Caller gemstone warmed:

Zhou Qianlin: It was you who had Director Wu invite me to the Barrows, wasn’t it.

Lan Jue: Yup!

Qianlin: You’re in some kind of trouble?

I’m not sure yet. We’ll know once we get there. You are going, right?

You’re in this situation because you came to save me from Granny Bess. I’ll help in any way I can. And don’t worry, I won’t pester you – now, or in the future. If you find a way to sever this connection we have, I’m all on board.


Alright, I guess I’ll talk to you later.

Lan Jue could feel Qianlin’s apathetic mood through the power gem. This girl… she was like an iron fist in a velvet glove
– something he’d experienced before, certainly. There was a faint ache in his chest, and yet he thought that this would be good if it ultimately lead to her forgetting about him romantically.

Lan Jue went about his business. He arranged what he needed for the trip, and relayed the information to the Wine Master. He would be leaving with the school, while the Avenue’ foremost Paragon would be traveling to the West with the Pauper.

The trip to the North for the Adept tournament, Lan Jue left for the Gourmet to handle. Those who would be joining them were the same the gourmet had mentioned before. But there was one that Lan Jue would have to deal with personally.

The Hall of Supreme Harmony.

Lan Jue strolled in to the pharmacy. Compared to the last time he’d visited, it was even more stuffed to the rafters with customers. The faint aroma of homeopathic remedies lingered in the air, lending an even deeper sense of mystery to the already ancient-looking structure. Likely, the atmosphere played a role in this shop’s success.

As he entered, an assistant greeted him with a bow.

“I’ve come to see the Pharmacist,” Lan Jue revealed.

“She’s currently entertaining guests,” the assistant explained. “I must trouble you to wait for a little while. I’ll let her know that you’re here.”

“Very good.” Lan Jue stepped off to the side without

instruction to make way. He looked down the beautiful corridor, and the lotus leaves surrounding it. The peaceful environment helped to ease some his emotional turmoil.

Before long, the assistant returned. He address the Jewelry Master respectfully. “The Pharmacist will see you now.”

Lan Jue followed as the young man entered in to the heart of the Hall of Supreme Harmony. No small number of enviable stares watched him go. The rules of his place were quite strict; entrance beyond the shop front was strictly prohibited. Over the years there had been some who’d attempted to break that rule, though one can imagine the result.

They traversed a small bridge, then circuited a small lake before taking the long corridor to the octagonal pagoda at it’s end. This was where he’d met the Pharmacist last time.

She was there now. Someone else was with her.

He was a simple-looking man with red hair, and eyes  to match. He couldn’t determine his age, but he could feel the fierceness of his aura, barely constrained. He seemed feral, almost beast-like.

“You can leave. I’ll contact you when the matter is done.” The Pharmacist was speaking calmly with the gentleman when Lan Jue came within ear shot.

The red-haired man’s brows furrowed dangerously. “There’s an order for all things. You won’t even follow such a simple standard?”

A biting cold flashed across the Pharmacist’s eyes. “What do you plan to do about it?”

“There’s nothing I can do,” the man growled. “At least I know the rules of the Avenue. But I still haven’t got what I came for. You must at least give me enough time to find something adequate for a trade. My time is valuable, too, you know.”

The young woman’s face darkened considerably. “Leave. Take whatever you want, but I will not be changing my mind.”

Anger flared behind the man’s eyes. “ Because of him? What the hell is he worth?” He didn’t look Lan Jue’s way, but the accusing finger he thrust out was pointed right at him.

The Pharmacist fixed the red-haired stranger with a dangerous gaze. “He is the father of my child.”

The moment the words left her lips, the man’s expression changed from anger to shock. He whipped around in his chair to stare at Lan Jue.

The beleaguered Jewelry Master felt strange. He would not contradict the Pharmacist’s assertions, for after all she was right in a sense. He’d promised her that much.

Lan Jue met the man’s glare with a polite smile, and a nod of acknowledgement. He didn’t bristle at the man’s discourteous words, and remained ever the gentleman.

“The hell are you lookin’ at?!” The man shot to his feet, and instantly the brutal aura he’d been restraining exploded outward. “I’m curious what you did to become the Pharmacist’s man.”

Waves of overbearing, oppressive energy crashed against Lan Jue. It was condensed, with the full force of this man’s suffocating bearing focused precisely on Lan Jue.

Suddenly, Lan Jue felt as though he were lost in a world of terror and nightmares. Before his very eyes, blood-red phantoms danced and shrieked. Hideous demons clawed at him as though they wanted to tear the life from his body.

Lan Jue’s reaction was to furrow his brows. He instinctively took a step back – the man was strong, at least above ninth level sixth rank.

Where he at his peak strength, Lan Jue would have nothing to fear. However, the inexplicable tragedy that had befallen him and Qianlin had reduced him to barely ninth level. Even with both his Disciplines, he wouldn’t be able to face this man in a straight fight.

Lan Jue’s shoulders bowed, as a gut of powerful wind set his clothes to flapping. He rocked from the force of it.

The Pharmacist looked on, stunned. To her knowledge the Jewelry Master should have been a match for this red-haired man, and yet he wasn’t. How was merely the threat of pressure was almost more than he could bear?

Just then, Lan Jue’s arms shot up and traced a circle through

the air with his hands. That overbearing pressure seemed to dissipate, as a vortex appeared before Lan Jue’s chest. The stranger’s mental assault seemed to be drawn in to the vortex, and was unable to be focused on the Jewelry Master.

Coiled bolts of lightning arced across Lan Jue’s eye sockets.
Now, it was his own intrinsic aura that bubbled forth.

“Tai Chi?” The red-haired man cried. The stifling power dissipated without a trace, as though the man had seen something incomparably startling. He staggered back a couple paces and stared in astonishment.

Lan Jue’s expression tightened further. “You know of it?”

The stranger’s haughty expression had fled, replaced with a near palpable discomfort. Cowed, he spoke. “I have been fortunate enough to have seen Tai Chi used effectively. I still remember it as though it happened yesterday. I’m sorry to have troubled you. I’m leaving, I’ll go.” He shot Lan Jue a searching glance and, assured that he would not stop him, he turned and left the pagoda. He was in such a rush that he’d forgotten the Pharmacist was even there. It was a strange contrast to is earlier demeanor.

The assistant was standing to the side, looking on with utter amazement. The red-haired stranger had been exceedingly arrogant upon arrival, he remembered. How was it that he so quickly became meek as a mouse before a cat? What in the world was ‘Tai Chi’?

Lan Jue frowned as he watched the man leave, but he made no move to find out more. He simply wasn’t in the space physically or emotionally to do so. But why was it that the use of his martial art alone was enough to send this man running?

“Where’d this guy come from?” Lan Jue asked as he walked to the Pharmacist.

She waved her hand, and the assistant who had delivered Lan Jue left without a sound. Undoubtedly, his impression of the Jewelry Master had improved after this display.

“A loose end,” she murmured. “An impossibly arrogant ass. The Dhampyr – have you heard of him? He has the rare Blood Discipline. But you… I had no idea you were a disciple of Jue Di, or that he’d know about it.”

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