Skyfire Avenue Chapter 351-360

Chapter 351: Richard’s Domain

“I love you… I love you Jin Yan, so much. I’m no longer lonely, without a family. Now, I have someone to love. I can’t tell you how happy that makes me.”

“Let me down, silly!” Jin Yan playfully ruffled his hair.

Wang Hongyuan quickly and carefully did as asked. He used his free arms to wipe the tear from his face. “Sorry, I’m just very excited. I didn’t mean to hurt you.”

Jin Yan rolled her eyes. “I’m not a doll, alright. I’m not nearly that fragile. Do you know why I agreed to be with you?”

Wang Hongyuan shook his head.

She looked at him with an earnest expression on her pretty face. “Your sincerity. You started out by telling me your deepest secret. More than anything else, that was moving. The one who should be apologizing is me, actually. I had no idea you had these kinds of feelings for me. I’ll admit that I had an interest in Professor Lan, but that was more admiration. I found out quickly that he and I couldn’t be. I’m just guessing but I don’t

think that man is as ‘normal’ as he appears. There’s something very different, you can see it in his eyes. There’s a sadness in them. I decided to give you a chance because of your sincerity, so you have to make sure that sincerity remains.”

Wang Hongyuan nodded his head. “Absolutely. To you, I’m as clear as glass. Anything you want to know, you need only ask.”

Jin Yan narrowed her eyes at him. “Oh? So who is Professor Lan, really?”

Wang Hongyuan didn’t hesitate to throw Lan Jue under the bus. “Professor Lan is a very strong man, stronger than me for sure. But we have to keep this quiet – I don’t know why he came here, but he’s a good man. On Taihua, it was actually him who saved everyone. I just helped.”

Jin Yan looked around at all the flowers. “You and he live here together right? How are you two going to sleep?”

“Professor Lan said he was going out on a trip tonight, actually,” Hongyuan replied.

“If he not coming back? That means he and Zhou Qianlin….” She trailed off.

Just then, a voice called out. “Zhou Qianlin, can you come out to the front of the hotel.”

The voice was coming from somewhere outside. Jin Yan and Wang Hongyuan exchanged a glance. , then quickly went to the window to peer outside.

Both their eyes popped wide at what they saw.

From the second floor they could peer out to the beautiful horizons of the Barrows. They saw stretching vistas, gorgeous forests, and giant beams of golden light that formed words in the air: Zhou Qianlin. Below, a sea of flowers had been arranged in the shape of a heart before the window. A man stood amidst the fragrant flora, clad in a snow-white suit and an orange shirt behind a white tie. A golden rose was clutched in his hand.

Wang Hongyuan muttered quietly as he stared. “What’s this guy doing crashing our party?”

The flower arrangement Wang Hongyuan had set was beautiful, but what was going on outside…

He pulled open the window and attempted to climb out. Jin Yan quickly pulled him back in. “What are you doing?”

“I’m gunna kick his ass!”

Jin Yan chuckled as she held him back. “You shouldn’t compare yourself like that! I prefer the flowers in here.”

Hongyuan stopped, and looked a her. “Really? You’re the best”

Jin Yan closed the window, and pulled the blinds.

Wang Hongyuan still seemed perturbed the scene outside. “Should we go and see who’s trying to get Qianlin’s attention?”

Jin Yan answered by shaking her head, and sitting on a nearby chair. “I’m not interested in gossip right now. You said before, that you would do whatever I wanted, right?”

Wang Hongyuan nodded in confirmation.

Jin Yan smirked. “So it’s time to put that to the test. Tell me ten thousand times that you love me.”

Wang Hongyuan approached and once more dropped to one knee. He took up her hands in his own. “Jin Yan, I love you.”

“Go on.”

“Jin Yan, I love you.”

“Mmhm.”

“Jin Yan, I love you.”

ζ

Most of the hotel’s interior was peaceful and calm, but outside it was more than Wang Hongyuan and Jin Yan who were surprised by the situation.

The ruckus caused a stir within the place, and many patrons wandered toward the windows to see what was going on. Lan Jue and Qianlin – just about to open the window – were among them.

“Is… is someone calling my name?” She asked.

Lan Jue shrugged. “Looks like it. I guess we ran in to an acquaintance of yours.”

Zhou Qianlin’s brows furrowed in contemplation. “Let’s go look.” She was off before she’d even finished her sentence.

Lan Jue hurried after her.

Before long, both of them were out of the small hotel’s front doors. The moment she exited, a beam of golden light showered down on her from on high. All the other lights dimmed and disappeared, leaving only that one spotlight, picking her out for all to see. The only things that remains were Qianlin, the flowers, and the man who stood within them.

“Qianlin!” The man called out to her.

Richard looked majestic in his white suit. He was very meticulously put together, clearly.

Zhou Qianlin looked at him, flabberghasted. “You… what are you doing here?”

Richard gave her a charming grin. “Because you’re here. So, here I am!”

Her expression hardened. “What do you think you’re doing?”

Richard shook his head. “I’m not doing anything – I’m just here to see my wife. Have you forgotten? I’m from the West, and many of these planets could be considered my home. And now that you’ve come to visit my home, I must do the proper thing and introduce you to my parents. You are the mother of my future children, the continuance of the Austin lineage. We have to show you all of the manors you have now – whatever belongs to the Austins, belongs also to you. Because you are my wife.”

The windows were full of curious and excited faces. None of the many onlookers had ever seen anything like this before. They couldn’t look away.

Lan Jue stood a small distance behind Zhou Qianlin, watching the exchange. He didn’t move forward, or make any efforts to intervene. He calmly looked on, with a derisive smirk.

It had been quite a while since Richard had shown his face. He’d disappeared ever since his encounter with Hua Li and Chu Cheng. But for why he’d show up right now, Lan Jue had no idea.

Of course Richard was telling it true. The West was his domain, and his family was very likely the strongest in the entire Alliance. More than that, they had been so for the whole modern era. Qianlin’s family had gotten where they were through political tact and skill, remaining uncorrupted in the process. But the powers behind the Austin family were vast, and suspect.

Leaving a spy behind in the university to keep an eye on Qianlin was not a difficult thing to accomplish. So long as she was on Skyfire, Richard and his cronies wouldn’t dare act indiscriminately. But that was the East, with Skyfire Avenue a few short minutes away. But now she was here, in the West. Richard felt this was his opportunity.

As for Lan Jue, he’d completely forgotten about the guy until

just this minute.

Zhou Qianlin took a minute to process the crazy coming out of Richard’s mouth, but a moment later she had regained her composure.

“Richard, you need to stop believing and spreading these delusions. Our wedding was never finished. I am not your wife. Please, stop calling me that. It makes me uncomfortable.” Her voice was soft, but firm.

Richard smiled, and slowly made his way out from the center of the flowery heart. “Uncomfortable? That doesn’t mean anything. I just want you, to be my wife. That’s how much I love you. I have ever since the moment I laid eyes on you. Although my parents very much disapprove, I would rather die than live in regret. You’re right, our wedding was never concluded. But, now that you’re here we can finally finish the wedding you deserve. No one’s allowed to marry on The Barrows, but if that’s what you want, then it will be done without a problem. We’ll have the grandest wedding anyone has ever seen. Anything you want, I will give you. You already have all of me. Qianlin, I love you, and my family is happy to give you everything you could ever want. All I want is for you to be my wife, and whatever you need for that to happen I will do.”

“Enough!” Zhou Qianlin snapped.

Richard stopped dead in his tracks from her fierce outburst. He’d never seen her angry before. She had always ever been the picture of graceful poise. But now she was clearly full to the brim with anger. It made her even more beautiful.

Zhou Qianlin glared at Richard. “Love is not a transaction, Richard. I am not goods you can purchase by trading fine jewelry or extravagant weddings. I’ll admit to you right now that I originally took advantage of you, and that was a mistake. I’m sorry, and I regret that I did it. But after taking an honest look at myself, I knew I couldn’t love you. You must give all of this up. I really hope this is the last time you harass me. I don’t want to hate you.”

“Hate me? Ha-hahaha!” Richard suddenly burst in to great peals of laughter. “Hate, huh? Alright, Qianlin – since you want to talk about this, I’ll drop the nonsense. Whether you agree or not, we had our wedding, and you are my wife. Now that you’re here, you can forget about going back. This is the West, and Skyfire’s far away. Once things have been consummated and you bear my children, then I’ll go back with you so your parents can see their grandchild. Right now, I just need you to come with me so we can finish this wedding.” His hand shot out to grab her, and the light from above illuminated his hideous

expression.

The skies suddenly exploded in to light, and a host of mecha suits descended. There were more than a hundred with flashing cobalt-blue armor and the Austin family emblem on their chest. Their sudden appearance sent many of the onlookers scrambling away.

Zhou Qianlin shouted right back at him. “What do you think you’re doing! Are you trying to start a war?!”

Chapter 352: Force!

Richard’s voice was soft and indifferent. “Don’t label me with that nonsense. I am an individual, and this is my decision. This has nothing to do with my family, and if the East should want to investigate, then they can come find me. Now come, don’t make me have to make you. And as for you.” Richard’s attention quickly shot to Lan Jue.

Lan Jue looked back. “What about me?”

“You will leave this planet forever. Spend your life repenting for how you’ve treated me in some quiet corner,” Richard said. He waved his hand toward the etiquette teacher, and two of the nearby mechas took a menacing step forward.

Just then, however, a thunderous roar proceeded by a streak of turquoise captured everyone’s attention. It smashed in to the ground between them.

“Let’s see who dares!”

It was a massive green mecha, which exuded a strange aura of similar hue. The voice was infinitely cold and threatening. The

mecha was crouched in preparation, bearing large spikes jutting from its hands.

“Lan Jue, Zhou Qianlin, get away. I’ll hold them off!” Tan Lingyun called from the cockpit.

The Savage Goddess never faltered in the moment of truth. Director Wu had even tried to hold her back, but she threw him back and rushed in to the fray.

As a Sovereign-ranked pilot, numbers didn’t  frighten  her. This was different, though. Nearly all of the mechas  were pulsing with their own prosperous energies. They were not your average mecha pilot. Fitting for the Austin family, Tan Lingyun knew.

“Thank you, Professor Tan.” Lan Jue called to her. He took Qianlin by the hand and ran.

“No, we can’t just leave Professor Tan here!” Qianlin struggled, but couldn’t break free.

The Spirit Caller gem warmed against her chest:

Lan Jue: Silly girl, I’m not going to jump in right here, in front of everyone! The faculty don’t know my real identity or strength.

Qianlin: Ah? So what are we going to do?

Lan Jue: The sneaky always have their ways.

Richard could only watch as they fled. He howled at the surrounding mechas. “Get them!”

They moved out, almost before he even gave the order. One hundred mechas acted in synchronicity. These were the elite personal forces of the Austin family, and none of them were below Emperor rank. Immediately, ten of them surrounding Tan Lingyun. The rest gave chase to Lan Jue and Qianlin through land and air.

Lan Jue raced ahead of them, pulling Qianlin behind. Soon they were in the hotel’s front courtyard again. The two of them hid in a dark corner.

The Austin family bodyguards were famed for being both

individually strong, and excellent as a unit. A dozen mecha descended upon the courtyard from above, and surrounded the inky-black shadows of the corner. All together, floodlights from the mechas painted the corner with bright light.

However, to their surprise, neither target was there. They paid no notice to the electrical outlet set against the wall.

There was a flash, then Qianlin and Lan Jue appeared within the safe confines of the hotel. Zhou Qianlin turned to her protector. “Tan Lingyun is under attack, are you sure she’s alright?”

“The Savage Goddess is fine,” Lan Jue assured. “She’s nearly at the height of Sovereign rank – almost a God pilot. These guys are no joke, but it’ll take a lot to defeat her. What’s more, although Richard came here to kidnap you, the West does have rules. He wouldn’t dare murder somebody  over  this.  That would make things far too loud and public. Even the Austin family wouldn’t protect him then. He has only one objective, and that’s to get you. So how are you hoping we solve this?”

“If we can ensure the teacher’s safety, then just get me out of here,” she said.

Lan Jue gave a calm response. “We could always kill him, end the problem once and for all.”

Qianlin looked at him, stunned, then shook her head. “Whatever the case now, I was almost his wife. I might not like him, but I certainly don’t want him dead. All of this came about because of me. I owe him.” Qianlin couldn’t allow that to happen. Richard still had no idea what he was up against. Zhou Qianlin understood that the only reason Lan Jue hadn’t handled the situation already was because it would expose him to the faculty. Although his features were calm, Qianlin could see the fury behind his eyes.

“As you wish,” he answered. “I’ll let him go. But I promise you a third encounter like this will end very differently. He’s already caused a great deal of trouble to us both. Next time, I’m going to beat the holy hell out of him.” He was not the sort to talk badly behind someone’s back, so he refrained from telling Qianlin about Richard’s earlier plans to have him ‘dealt with.’ He honestly didn’t care about that. Lan Jue had never really seen Richard as an enemy – a goofy stalker, maybe, that that was all. But now, with his true colors revealed, Lan Jue was ashamed he didn’t see it earlier.

Lan Jue connected quickly with someone through his communicator. They exchanged a few quiet sentences, then Lan

Jue pulled her through the socket again.

ζ

The targets had disappeared without a trace. None of the mecha could grasp how that could be, it didn’t make any sense! They must have sort of cloaking device, they postured, though where would they go?

“What? Disappeared?! You find them, you  understand?  I don’t care if you have to tear the place apart, find them!” Richard’s voice rose to a screeching yell. He was like a man who’d lost his mind.

Tan Lingyun was locked in an epic struggle. One on one she could handle. Even three, or five didn’t worry her very much. But ten was too many, and as a unit they were that much stronger.

There was a level of unspoken understanding in an Emperor Unit. None of them were weak, physically or in Discipline. Tan Lingyun sensed that they were equivalent to the An Lun soldiers and the ARC students. None were below fifth rank. With their expert training and the small area they were even more

threatening. Under these conditions, they were even more dangerous than the An Lun soldiers. About the only difference was their mechas were equipped with self-destruct buttons.

Still, Tan Lingyun was fearless. She lashed out at them with her spiked fists like a wild animal. After the ARC training, she could feel that she had improved.

Tendrils of green energy constantly wove together and pulsed outward to ward off attacks that got through her jukes and parries.

“Take care of this one first, I don’t believe they’ll just watch one of their own get hurt. They didn’t run.” Richard looked on with calm expression. He cruelly, and calculatingly considered the situation.

The moment Richard knew where she would be, he encircled the positioned and kept it tight. Lan Jue and Zhou Qianlin couldn’t have simply vanished or broken through. He was even monitoring all air traffic through his family’s connections. That was how he knew where to be so quickly. So long as they didn’t get off the planet, he had his ways of tracking them down. At least, that’s how Richard thought.

More cobalt blue mechas joined in. They slithered like quicksilver, weaving in and out to deliver attacks on to Tan Lingyun.

She was outnumbered, and it was becoming more than she could ward off. Their strikes and laser blasts pelted her incessantly. But her hand speed was enough, she had the capabilities for more – but she did not want to kill these pilots. Her only option was defense. If she killed any of them, nobody was going to be making it off this planet. Tan Lingyun, however, had made the same determination Lan Jue had. Richard wouldn’t dare murder someone in full view of a crowd. Much less a foreign tourist. Already what was happening would certainly get back to official channels through Director Wu.

A lazy voice called out above the din. “What is the matter with you – a bunch of men picking on a lone woman. Get out of here, you disgust me.”

There was a flash of light as a figure appeared, charging in from the side. A thunderous blast followed violent golden light – a dragon!

Boom—! One of the mechas was sent spiraling in to the distance. The pilot gaped at the jagged tears in his mecha’s chest

plate.

A mecha’s cockpit was in the chest, so obviously that was where a suit’s armor was strongest. To damage that thick plate of alloy titanium at all was impressive, much less ruin it! The pilot shivered in terror.

The piercing, bestial roars rose in strength and volume. The Austin elite guards were thrown aside like rag dolls in every which direction as the dragon of golden light threw them to the horizon. Each ended the same – soaring limply through the air with their chest plates turned to scrap. Their shields were like paper before this terrifying beast.

“Who the hell is this?!” Richard roared.

“I’m your daddy!” The teasing, disrespectful voice replied.

“Young Master – Careful!” A figure darted out from the shadows and sprang in front of Richard, just in time to ward him against another’s arrival.

Bang! The one who leapt out to protect Richard was violently

shoved back a few paces. They regained their footing, but the look of confusion on their face spoke volumes.

A man stood in the spot he’d occupied a moment before. He was disheveled, with a rat’s nest for hair and thread-bare clothing. A… beggar?

The Pauper looked listessly around. He rubbed his dirty face and then, one finger digging in his nose to dislodge a booger, pointed with his right hand. Another great dragon of light roared to life at his gesture.

Funny note, ‘booger’ in Chinese is literally translated as ‘nose shit’. I love it.

The guard, a man clad in black as it was revealed, did not dare underestimate this situation. His hands shot out, and an expansive shield of blood-red energy sprang out to protect them.

Booom-! This time, the force was enough to send the man flailing away half a dozen yards. Richard had no one else to hide behind.

The Pauper motioned at Richard, and the young Austin family heir felt a terrifying pull dragging him toward his assailant. He fought, but couldn’t free himself. Anger was no longer appropriate in this situation, he determined. So Richard began to wail for help.

“E-elder, please have mercy!” The man in black called out from a distance.

But by now the Pauper already had Richard by the neck. His finger since extricated from his nose, he use the same hand to rudely pat the young boy on the cheek. “Hey there kid, throwing our weight around are we?”

Richard couldn’t respond, on account of his wind-pipe being crushed beneath that dirty hand.

Chapter 353: Searching Separately

Several mechas had been maneuvering for a rush, but stopped in their tracks. These pilots were adepts themselves. They recognized their betters when they saw them. This beggar was able to ruin mechas with nothing but the strength of his own hands. How were they to win against power like that? What’s more, the black-clad man beside Richard was a ninth rank Talent. Reputedly, he was ninth rank second level, from the Dark Citadel. But even someone with his training and abilities had been knocked away like a child. There was an unsettling sense that they hadn’t even seen the worst these vagabond could dish out.

“You’re absolutely right, Elder. I beg you to please release the young lord.” The man had traded violence for pleading.

He knew this man’s power clearer than the others – he’d felt it. That simple and modest power felt like it scorched all of his internal organs. The Pauper didn’t even seem to be using much of his potential. He must be at least ninth rank seventh level, the black-clad man figured. There was nothing he could do to stop him.

The Pauper lazily looked around at the slowly approaching ring of mech suits. “You know,” he said in that lazy voice, “I get

nervous when there are so many people around. And when I’m nervous, my hands tend to tremble.”

The Pauper sat, with Richard’s throat still caught in his grip. He pulled the young man down beside him. “It would be a real tragedy, you know, if my hand should tremble. There’d really be nothing I could do about it.”

“Everyone back off!” The man flailed his arms and shooed the encroaching mechas away. None of these pilots were a match for this man. They’d need a God ranked pilot if they wanted to stand a chance.

The Austin mecha pilots did not dare disobey. They quickly gathered their fallen comrades and retreated. In a matter of seconds, the outside of the hotel was cleared. Only the man in black remained.

“The men have all gone, elder. We’ve done as you asked and fled. Please release the young master, and I swear we’ll never return to this place. We won’t be coming after anyone.” Clearly this man had some clout with the Austin family himself, otherwise he wouldn’t be making promises.

Even if they did get those two, so what? This man could clearly murder anyone here without much effort. Capturing some woman wasn’t even remotely worth offending an Adept of this caliber.

The Pauper’s response was tepid. “Yeah, alright. I guess I wouldn’t get much pleasure from squishing this bug. Remember what you said, yes? I’m not a patient man, I will admit. And I especially hate people who lie to me. When I’m upset my hands tend to do whatever they want.”

The Pauper threw Richard, who flew threw the air as though he weighed nothing. The man in black was there to catch him. Only after a cursory glance revealed that the young Austin was unarmed did the man appear to relax.

“What is your name, honored elder?” Although they’d failed, he at least needed to provide an explanation to his bosses.

“I’m just a nameless beggar! The destitute have no names. But if that’s not enough for you, you can come asking  around Skyfire Avenue.” Before his voice even faded, the Pauper was gone in a flash of golden light.

Once more the man’s face changed. At the mentioned of Skyfire Avenue, everything changed. Of course he would be! He had to quickly get back and let everyone know. A proper response could ameliorate the matter. Word of the Avenue’s five Paragons had of course reached the West by now – they couldn’t afford to upset them.

Richard heaved deep, gasping breaths. An all-consuming hatred burned in his eyes as his hands unconsciously clenched and relaxed. For the first time, he was confronted with the fact that only those who are individually strong get what they want. Power… I want that power! There will come a day when I will personally take Qianlin for my own.

Lan Jue, of course, couldn’t know of Richard’s sinister affirmations. Either way, he only had disdain for the boy. They ran from the hotel until they were a few yards in to the surrounding forests. They found a man standing beneath a tree. His hands were clasped at the small of his back. He was staring up at the canopy overhead.

He was in a swallow-tailed coat and a fine, tailored suit. A silver-haired wig sat on his head. He certainly didn’t fit in with these more rustic surroundings. However, the environment did seem to respond to him standing there. It warped continually, giving the unsettling sensation that the man was both very near

and very far away. The entire scene was surreal.

“Well, we’re here,” Lan Jue said with a grin. “Shall we go?”

The man turned around, revealing himself as the Wine Master. “When the Pauper arrives.” The change in locale didn’t seem to have any effect on the Wine Master’s mood or choice of outfit.

Lan Jue chuckled as he looked his old friend over. “You couldn’t change your clothes? Or at least lose the wig.”

The Wine Master looked at him for a long time. “No.”

He could only shake his head. “Qianlin, I believe you both have met.”

The Wine Master regarded her for a moment with those penetrating eyes. He nodded. “Hello.”

“Hello,” she responded with a small curtsy.

None of them exchanged any further words. The Wine Master simply returned his attention to the rustling leaves above. Lan Jue followed the Paragon’s eyes to a patch of sky the trees couldn’t hide. Stars twinkled prettily across the velvet-black background. He also caught the faintest light of regret in the Wine Master’s eyes.

“You’re thinking about the Clairvoyant,” Lan Jue said.

He nodded, suddenly looking much older. “The man spent his life in servitude to the Avenue. You could say, to all of humanity. I truly wish there was a way to save him.”

“But is there?” Lan Jue asked. “If there’s any chance, you know we’ll all do whatever it takes.”

Yet the Wine Master bitterly shook his head. “He is a Prophet. No one knows the way of the universe better than he. If there was a way, he’d have found it already. There’s nothing that can be done about it now.”

Lan Jue went silent. He had a great deal of admiration for the Clairvoyant.

“So, where do we start our search for the descendants,” Lan Jue inquired. He needed to change the subject, before the mood became too solemn.

“I’ve already taken a look at the satellite images,” the Wine Master replied. “There was no new information to help us. If they are here, then they’ve found some special way of hiding their presence. It looks like we’re going to have to find them the old-fashioned way.”

Lan Jue frowned in thought. “That’s going to be very troublesome. This place is huge. The Barrows is even larger than Skyfire, so canvasing the place will be impossible. Are you trying to conceal your identity as well? If you use your Discipline, I’m sure we could find them.”

He knew the answer. The reason he’d asked the Pauper to intervene instead of the Wine Master, was because he didn’t want to reveal the current Skyfire Avenue leader’s location. A normal adept coming to the West would mean nothing. But a Paragon – that was something different, especially considering the Wine Master’s current appointment. Remember that, although the Wine Master may not have been as powerful as the Keeper for instance, his interdimensional Discipline was still terrifying. Who would want an enemy-affiliated, planet- destroying demi-god traipsing around their backyard

unannounced?

If they needed to search this place inch by inch, than the best method would be the one they used on Taihua when fighting the monsters. A Paragon could soar high overhead and use their abilities as a sort of scanner. The method, however, produced a massive shock wave of energy pulses. Certainly any satellite would pick it up, and then the Barrows would be the center of some very uncomfortable attention.

The Wine Master responded. “I called you together precisely because this would be difficult. You’ve got the gift of gab, and good perception. We’ll be approaching the search from different angles. Here, I’ve made a map – there are twelve districts where the descendants are most likely holed up. You and the Pauper will take three each, and I’ll search through six. The goal is to find them within the week. Of course, whosoever find them first will alert the others through communicator.”

The Cosmagus fiddled with his communicator for a moment, and transferred the map to Lan Jue.

He looked it over. “Alright, so it is.” It would have to be this way. He only had three districts, but they were large. The Paragon’s interdimensional abilities would help him cover far

more distance.

Just then, the Pauper quietly descended from overhead. “Situation handled, Jewelry Master.”

Lan Jue threw the crusty man a thumb’s up. “Thanks a lot.”

The Pauper chuckled. “No problem. A non-issue among drinking buddies.”

The Wine Master fixed him with a cold stare. “Let’s get going, divvy up the work. If we haven’t found them by the time we’ve swept these districts, it means they aren’t here. If you do find them, don’t act rashly. I believe there may be a Paragon among them. Wait for me to arrive before taking any action. Remember that we aren’t here to cause trouble.”

Lan Jue nodded. Of course they wouldn’t leap before thinking, especially with the Wine Master around. The Pauper shrugged, as the old scoundrel was wont to do, but he wouldn’t have hidden away in the Avenue if he didn’t have a great affection for it. The Avenue had a good many known adepts on their council like the Pharmacist. And while both she and the Pauper were both at the peak of ninth rank, the Pauper was a

wild card – a hidden gambit. That made him exceedingly dangerous. He wasn’t the only one on the Avenue to hide their abilities, either.

The Wine Master strode forward, and just before he walked nose-first in to the tree before him, there was a silver flash and he was gone. The Pauper regarded Lan Jue and Qianlin for a moment. Then, with a laugh, he turned in to a beam of golden light and pierced through the forest toward the horizon.

Lan Jue was also in a hurry to begin. He’d made a promise, and his loyalties would forever lie with his friends in the Avenue. He couldn’t just drink a man’s cherished Jayer and not try to repay him!

Lan Jue took Zhou Qianlin’s hand. He could feel his powers swelling. Lightning sizzled around the both of them as he curled himself low. Then, with a grunt, he was soaring through the air with Qianlin beside him.

They dodged among trees, as Lan Jue spoke to Qianlin. “Pay to attention to how you feel when transformed in to lightning. Once you’ve mastered this and are able to completely transform yourself, then we’ll be able to reached our max speed – the speed of light. However, the strain on the body to go that fast is

severe. Although you can command the same level of power than I can, your body is comparatively much more fragile. Remember that if you end up controlling the pace. Don’t go too fast. If you do ever need to pull out all the stops, make sure to reserves a portion to shield your body.

Chapter 354: I Want To Take A Bath

Zhou Qianlin nodded her head. “I understand. Should I give it a try?”

“Alright, go ahead,” Lan Jue replied.

Three seconds later.

Boom–! A bolt of electricity smashed headlong in to a bush.
Two figures clambered from the small crater.

“Why the hell did you go down?” Lan Jue said in irritation.

Qianlin sheepishly stuck her tongue out at  him.  “I  lost control. It was too fast. I was off by just a bit.”

He patted his forehead with a sigh. “I forgot, sorry. Your psychic control isn’t strong enough to meet the amount of power you have all of a sudden. Your perception isn’t trained enough. We need to work on our coordination as well – but practice makes perfect. Let’s keep it up.” Thankfully falling wasn’t much of a concern when in electrical form.

Now that both of them had seen their Disciplines changed, control was paramount – especially for Qianlin. If she were able to learn to use his powers in combat, then they would have two ninth rank seventh level Adepts with the same Discipline – quite a frightening combo.

Qianlin was a smart girl, with uncanny coordination. It took a few painful lessons, but she got the basics of it very fast. She was even able to perform simple jukes and dodges. Lan Jue’s only job was to guide her efforts, and protect her from risk.

Now was certainly not the time for Qianlin to practice movement at light speed. It was far too fast for her to manage currently. It was very unlikely she would use the skill on a planet’s surface, anyway. The strain on the body was too great. It would most likely be put to use while within Thor during battle, where it would have the greatest effect.

They soared through the air until dawn, and as the morning rays peaked over the horizon their first destination came in to view. They ate a simple breakfast, then washed their faces in a nearby stream. Once the day had started, the search for the descendants was on.

“The Wine Master had said he wasn’t able to find anything

through satellite,” Qianlin said at one point. “What was he even looking for?”

Lan Jue smiled. “Pretty clever, actually – vineyards! If you want to make wine, you need grapes. Acres and acres of grapes. Contemporary estimates claim your vine should be at least twenty years old before you try to make wine from its grapes. The quality of a wine is, of course, directly correlated to the quality of its grapes. Makers of the best wines are exceedingly picky when choosing the best ones for their creations. Only the best begets the best. You know, some vines can live up to eighty years – and their grapes are the most sought after.”

“Well that makes sense,” she said. “So we just need to find the vineyard then we’ll find out targets, right?”

Lan Jue nodded. “Do you need to rest?”

She shook her head emphatically. “No need, I’m not tired. Let’s go.” She had never been a fragile girl. But beyond that, the Barrows was a gorgeous place. Although they were here on business, it was an enjoyable journey.

This place and Taihua were about as similar as Llamas and

stone crabs. The planet itself was smaller than the Eastern tourist spot, but was densely packed with any biome you could fathom; mountain ranges, rivers, lakes, forests, rain forests, even glaciers – all of them were represented somewhere. Each of them were teaming with life, very little of which posed any threat to tourists. They certainly hadn’t encountered anything during their trip here.

It was very much like a vacation. Due to the requirements of their Disciplines, they had to spend most of their time hand in hand. They looked for all the world like a couple.

“When are you going to teach me how to use lightning attacks?” Zhou Qianlin asked.

Lan Jue lazily wandered down the paths as they chatted. “Not here. The environment is so nice, we should avoid damaging it as much as possible. When we get back we’ll use the Wine Master’s Reaper Arena, and I’ll train you there. Ah – but we may not have time. How about this, when we get to the Northern Alliance. In the beginning you don’t need to learn anything complicated anyway, just my most common abilities.”

“We’re going to the Northern Alliance?” This was the first she’d heard of it.

He nodded. “To participate in a competition. We won’t be gone for very long. Do you need to ask permission from your family?”

Qianlin answered with a shake of her head. “I’m an adult. Mom and dad let me do my own thing. Lan Jue, be honest… if not for the connection between our Disciplines, you wouldn’t have brought me along. Right?”

Lan Jue nodded without hesitation. “You’re absolutely right. Both looking for these descendants and the Northern competition involve danger. How could I bring you, considering I’m your bodyguard? What happens if you run in to danger? But with our Discipline as they are now, you’re strong enough to protect yourself very well so long as you’re with me. And I’m here with you, so there’s nothing to worry about.”

Zhou Qianlin rolled her eyes. Did he truly not understand, or was he playing dumb? He must know that wasn’t what she meant. Still, she liked his answer.

The two of them continued to search the large area. If Lan Jue strengthened his perception to its strongest levels, he could still only search about a thousand meters at a time. Their only recourse was to adhere to the map, and wander back and forth

until the whole area was covered.

The search continued until nightfall. In the end, there was no trace of their objective. Lan Jue was tired from the effort, so he meditated and recovered some of his energy.

The next few days passed much the same as the first. Five days later, two of the three areas they had been given were searched and found to be empty. Only the third remained for them to check.

By now both Qianlin and Lan Jue were exhausted. This was especially true of Lan Jue, who had spent most of the last week very carefully examining every inch they came across. But while it was quite tiring, it also served as serviceable exercise.

They searched about a third of the final sector, and still there was no indication that the descendants were anywhere nearby. Neither had he heard anything from the Pauper or Wine Master. Clearly, they hadn’t had any luck either. This was likely their last shot at finding them somewhere on the Barrows.

“It’s looking pretty unlikely we’ll find anything here. They may not be on this planet. Hell, they may not even exist.” Lan

Jue sounded a little despondent at the revelation.

He had also genuinely wanted to find these people. If the secrets of those great wines were lost, it would be a  great tragedy indeed.

“Ugh, I need a bath.” Zhou Qianlin pointed to the shore of a nearby lake.

Lan Jue gave her a strange look. “What, you want to bathe together?”

“In your dreams.” She replied. A blush crept in to her cheeks.

Adepts of higher levels didn’t have to worry much about washing as often as normal folks. The bacteria that caused unpleasant scent and disease didn’t effect them nearly as much. But she was a young woman, and going several days without a shower was unbearable. She’d been struggling with the need for a while, so seeing the opportunity was inspiration enough to take it.

Interestingly, it is not uncommon for Chinese to shower once

every three to four days in the colder and dryer northern climes. In fact, in some places that receive little rainfall, showers are a rare commodity. Thankfully the Chinese diet and anatomical make-up make them considerably less ‘smelly’ than Westerners. In fact, body odor was rarely encountered for me, even in tight places like buses and classrooms. Now booze sweat and unbrushed teeth are a different story.

“Of course, I was joking. I want to bathe too, so we’ll separate.” Lan Jue said.

She humphed in suspicion. “Then off with you, I’m going to wash up. It’ll give us a chance to wash our clothes as well.” Although she was not as strong as Lan Jue, her own level of Discipline was enough to dry a set of clothes.

“Then we might as well try joining like before. We haven’t practiced that yet.” He said.

“But my clothes…” She was hesitant. She had only this one pair. There was very little more precious on her person right now.

Lan Jue laughed. “Simple: Find a big tree, get behind it, and

take your clothes off. Then just stretch your hand out. Eh… wait, maybe not. Last time we did it, we were…” As he spoke, Lan Jue’s eyes unconsciously wandered to her chest.

Immediately her face went red. “What the hell are you looking at?!”

Lan Jue grinned. “A beautiful woman!”

Zhou Qianlin stepped back a few steps. “I won’t join with you. Go find somewhere else to wash up. I’ll stay here and call you when I’m finished.”

Lan Jue didn’t hang around. With a sheepish laugh, he turned and walked off through the trees.

As she watched his retreating form, Qianlin couldn’t help but grin. “Coward,” she said under her breath.

ζ

Lan Jue followed the coast of the small lake for a while.

Eventually he came across a clear inlet, where he removed his clothes and jumped in. It was far enough away to protect his companion’s modesty. He was a gentleman, after all – he wouldn’t dare peek.

He was suddenly reminded of an old poem he’d once heard, and loudly called it out to the trees;

“I stand at the head of the River

Whilest my lover resides at its Source.

Though we drink from Identical Waters

Her face is obscured by the Course.”

Qianlin, who had just finished removing her clothes, snorted in laughter. She dipped a toe in to the water. “How about you drink from this water. How’s my foot taste then, huh?” she muttered mirthfully.

Lan Jue was blissfully ignorant of Qianlin’s sinister

machinations. Though the water was cold, he sighed in contentment as he was immersed. The pure waters felt as though they were washing his worries away. Laying in the lake’s embrace was more comfortable than Lan Jue could express.

This section of the lake was shallow, and only rose to his waist. The further toward the center he tread, however, the deeper it became. Soon he was submerged up to his chest. Each step he took was clear as a bell, and the perfectly translucent water revealed the stony lake bed beneath his feet. He shut his eyes, and slipped in to a sort of half-meditation. He felt… disconnected, and it seemed immensely satisfying and refreshing.

He wasn’t rushed – women took their time in washing, after all. He lazily floated amidst the spectacular views and let time flow by.

Gradually, in his meditative state, his consciousness slipped in to the ethereal. Psychic energies flowed from between his eyebrows, and fused with the environment around them.

Ever since the strange situation with Qianlin, Lan Jue felt as though he had a deeper connection with his own protogenic

powers. It was small, but important – he felt as though it might one day make finding his Path easier.

Chapter 355: Lan Jue’s Discovery

Just think: The Pauper had been lost in the search for his path for years, without result. The Keeper was an even more extreme example, and if it weren’t for the Keeper’s involvement he’d probably have died unable to break through to Paragon.

In this regard, Lan Jue was very lucky. His grasp of his Ascension abilities helped give him a glimpse in to how his path would look. As time went on, his understanding only deepened.

He did think it was time to visit home, though. He’d been too ashamed to do so in the last few years. Though he’d probably catch a beating, he needed to know how things were going.

A face swam up to him from memory, a craggy and ancient face with a serious scowl. Lan Jue couldn’t remember ever seeing his father smile. It was always seriousness and intensity. That was something Lan Qing had inherited.

“Hm?” Lan Jue stopped in surprise, and focused as a strange sensation tickled at him. There was something in this water, an energy that he could feel flowing through him. It was faint, but he could feel it permeating his body and supporting his energies. It was pure, and clean, and although not strong the

nutritive effects felt very comfortable.

A flash of inspiration shot through Lan Jue’s head like a bolt of lightning. It was so intense that he almost leaped out of the water. Disregarding his clothes, he sat himself down cross- legged and began to meditate.

His eyes popped open after only a short moment. A light shimmered within them. “Yes… that’s right!”

Just as he’d discovered the first couple times he’d meditated here on the Barrows, both the air and elemental forces of planet itself were strong. However, it wasn’t stronger than parts of Skyfire, and not as pronounced as when he was in the water. This confirmed that the waters here were unique, and bore its own special energy. If that was the case, then…

All plants needed water and sunshine, and grapes were no exception. If the descendants of the gods of wine knew this, then it was very likely they’d create a vineyard around here. The source would be where this effect was greatest.

Lan Jue hurriedly pulled his clothes on while he thought.
Once he finished, he dialed the Wine Master.

“What have you found, Jewelry Master?” Lan Jue could tell from the old man’s tone that he was expecting bad news.

He went on to explain his thoughts.

When the Wine Master responded, he was clearly impressed. “Why didn’t I think of that? You’re absolutely right, the Pauper and I will start examining local bodies of water. If they have the same properties as you’re describing, then we’ll need to adjust our plans. There are countless rivers, streams and lakes on the Barrows, and densely packed as they are it’ll take us forever to thoroughly explore them. Hopefully we can narrow these energies to a single area, that’ll narrow the search.”

Lan Jue immediately launched himself in to the air, with a light that shone bright in his eyes. Again, he spread his perception outward to probe the surroundings. Who knows? If he was lucky, perhaps the descendants were holed up somewhere around this very lake.

And yet the moment he felt his consciousness spread out around him, he felt it improper. He spied suddenly the very fetching woman bathing nearby. At his level of cultivation, every detail was outlined and highlighted, and instantly transcribed to memory even before he knew what was

happening.

The sudden not altogether unwelcome shock almost caused him to tumble from the sky. He’d completely forgotten she was even here, with all the excitement of their lead.

He immediately retracted his perceptive field, adhering to the gentleman’s code of ethics.

I didn’t mean to, he kept telling himself. I didn’t mean to.

Only his mind was convinced. The rest of his body reacted as any normal man would to the image of a  beautiful  woman naked in a crystal clear lake.

He swallowed hard, shook his head, then found a place to settle to ground. He had no alternative but to wait for her to finish. She didn’t make Lan Jue wait long, however. Once her bath was done and her clothes were dry, she called out to him.

As Lan Jue saw her again face to face, it was like watching a lotus on the water. Pure, simple, and beautiful. Qianlin’s beauty didn’t come from cosmetics, but was all natural. Now scrubbed

clean, she exuded a natural and comforting aura. She had a spectacular figure, with skin like milk and a face that looked like it was carved from marble. Her cheeks were a vivacious pink, that set off her eyes that were a blue more deep and pure than the lake they stood beside. Then there was her head of luxurious black hair. It was already dry, and swayed like strands of silk with the breeze. She looked like a fairy tale princess.

“There’s been some new information, we should go.” Lan Jue said. He reached out a hand to her.

Zhou Qianlin stretched out her own, and the moment their fingers laced their shared power upsurged. Her hands were cold, perhaps from the lake. Regardless of the reason, however, Lan Jue held her hand tight to confer some of his own warmth to her.

It was a simple gesture, but it touched something in her that was difficult to explain.

They soared through the air, with the lake stretching out beneath them. Together, they began to search the three- thousand meter diameter lake for any signs of their objective. After a circuit revealed nothing, they came to a stop.

If Lan Jue’s hunch was correct, all they had to do was go back over their areas and narrow the search to water. Sadly, nearly all twelve of the suspect areas were densely peppered with various bodies of water. Only a few swaths were absent of it.

One by one, they went over the major lakes and rivers, and each time they left empty handed. In the end their second sweep revealed nothing new. Another conversation with the Wine Master ensued, where they decided that a latch-ditch search of the source waters was their final gambit. If they weren’t there, then they weren’t anywhere.

Lan Jue and Qianlin were tasked with searching their nearest target, an enormous inland lake. It took them half a day to reach its banks. Immediately they saw that this one was not like the rest. It was a stunning cobalt blue that stretched to the horizon without a single ripple.

Lan Jue approached, and crouched to dip his hands in to the lake. There was something, a faint tinge, so he spread his consciousness deeper.

As he’d experienced, the energies of the lake immediately penetrated in to him. It was purer and more abundant, but that may have been a result of the lake’s sheer size. He discovered

through his psychic exploration, that the lake got deeper the closer one got to the center. At it’s deepest, it was a hundred meters to the bottom. At least, that was as far as he seemed able to sense. He’d have to dive in to learn if it went deeper than that.

Lan Jue extricated his hands and peered out over the horizon.
He silently pondered the situation.

“What’s wrong?” Qianlin asked.

“If you asked me to pick a place for a vineyard,” Lan Jue muttered, peering down the shoreline, “I’d be hard pressed to find a place better than this.”

Qianlin’s face lit up. “So you’re saying it’s likely this is the place we’re looking for?”

He nodded. “Let’s see what we can find.”

They were off again through the skies. The lake – called Soul Mirror Lake – was a massive expanse of water, but with Qianlin and Lan Jue’s speed they completed the search in three hours.

Sadly, despite Lan Jue’s hope, they still turned up nothing.

When they got back to their starting point, Lan Jue’s eyes were beginning to betray despair. “Nothing. It looks like the descendants aren’t here after all.”

Their search was nearly concluded with nothing to show for it. Silence from the Wine Master and the Pauper proved their experiences to be much the same. Their chances looked grim.

But then there was obstinance, and it reared it’s head as Lan Jue stubbornly crossed his arms over his chest. “I refuse to accept that they aren’t here. I’m going down to take a look.”

Zhou Qianlin blinked at him. “Down?”

Lan Jue nodded. “My perception can’t reach below a certain depths. These waters, though, are very pure. I don’t know anything about being a vintner, but just look at the vegetation surrounding this place. It’s much thicker and more vibrant than the other ones we’ve visited. That means this lake must be providing all of it with nutrients. So look, you remain here and I’ll go down to take a look. If I’m not back in half an hour, to get the others – it’ll mean there’s something up with this lake.”

“No way.” Qianlin clamped down on Lan Jue’s had as she flat out refused his plan. “When you’re by yourself, you’re much weaker than if we’re together. It’s much safer for both of us to go. We’ll be prepared if we run in to something. If you’re going, so am I.”

Lan Jue opened his mouth to patiently, calmly, and logically explain why that was an unwise course of action. But he shut it again when he saw the look in her eye.

It wasn’t that he was cowed, or afraid. It was the exact same look Hera had given him once.

A sharp pang seized Lan Jue’s heart. He nodded. “Alright, we go together then. I’ll let the Wine Master know.”

After a few sentences with the Paragon Lan Jue hung up and took Qianlin’s hand once again. With a leap, both of them tumbled in to the water.

Once an Adept had cultivated his abilities to about the ninth level, they had a deeper control of their interior environment. Through micromanaging their body’s systems, they could hold their breath for far longer stretches of time. This was also true

in airless environments. Here, however, they didn’t have the benefits of cosmic radiation.

Lan Jue pulled Qianlin down behind him, toward the murky depths at the lake’s center.

Chapter 356: A World Under Water

With his whole body immersed in the water, Lan Jue felt the nutritive energies grow stronger. It was pure, and became more prosperous as the water pressure increased around them.

Lan Jue absorbed the energies and coaxed Qianlin to do the same through their shared connection. It couldn’t be directly absorbed, since conversion was required to make it so. Even so, he gauged the special waters to have only about twenty percent impurities. To put it another way, an Adept who spent their time cultivating their abilities while in this water would improve by leaps and bounds over others. Simply, the planet’s special life-giving properties were especially prosperous here.

Filtered light from the surface grew dimmer as their depth increased. This was no problem for Lan Jue, however. With a thought, spiderweb coils of lightning began to wrap around him. It was enough to illuminate their immediate surroundings.

The water was exceedingly clean and clear. There wasn’t very much wildlife in it at all, though. Occasionally they’d see a sleeve fish dart by, but that was all. Like the creatures on the surface above, nothing in here could harm a human even if it wanted to. On the contrary, one particular fish hung around for a moment to watch them in curiosity. Lan Jue responded by

ceasing his electrical light source, for fear of harming the fish.

The lake was much deeper than Lan Jue would have guessed. Before long they’d descended over two hundred meters, and still hadn’t reached the bottom. Lan Jue’s perception told him that the bottom was another hundred meters down.

Nothing. The quiet underwater world was still and beautiful, as though they were locked in a crystal. Sadly, no signs of the descendants were revealed.

Zhou Qianlin was just along for the ride, and wasn’t nervous about their depth or location. Lan Jue was helping to regulate her internal breathing, so that she wouldn’t feel uncomfortable. All she had to do was feel and accept the special energies of the water around them.

They swam on for another ten minutes before reaching the bottom. Lan Jue’s Discipline flickered to life once more, revealing the lake bed beneath them. It was flat, and littered with smooth stones. They came in all different colors, and glittered as the light of Lan Jue’s power revealed them. It was a beautiful, surreal scene. Like a sea of technicolor jade.

They each bore their own faint energy. While individually none were as strong as the weakest power gems, together their powers were amplified. Perhaps the water got it’s special qualities from these stones. Whatever the case, it was a magical experience. Although they still hadn’t found what they were looking for, the journey so far had been grand.

His musings were interrupted by an undertow, tugging at him. It wasn’t a physical current, instead something else that drew both their attention toward it. Lan Jue, surprised, ceased the coiling bolts of lightning and peered in to the darkness ahead.

Still nothing, but Lan Jue’s heart rate had increased. He couldn’t say for sure, but there was something different about this place.

Once more Lan Jue called upon his Discipline, but this time the lightning sprang up around them in a protective net. He inched them forward, closer to whatever power was tickling at the back of his mind. Slowly, carefully, both his body and perception converged upon the spot.

A hundred meters seemed to pass in a blink, and that was when he started to feel a strange physical current joining with

the energy eddies. This time, it was their bodies that began to be drawn in.

Lan Jue and Zhou Qianlin exchanged a glance. Their concerns were the same; in this clear, calm lake, where would this undertow be coming from?

The former mercenary paused, looked at Qianlin, then pointed toward the water’s surface.

Through the Spirit Caller gem…

Lan Jue: I think we’ve found the right place. We should get to the surface and wait for the Wine Master and Pauper, as insurance. Then we can all come down and check it out together.

She nodded her head in agreement, and gave him a thumbs- up.

Alright.

Prudence was a virtue.

Were Lan Jue by himself, then perhaps he would have continued through the current to discover more. However, with Qianlin in tow, safety had to be the priority.

But as they were preparing to leave and contact the Wine Master, that gentle current strengthened sharply. Before they could react, both were sucked to the center of whatever invisible vortex awaited.

The two of them were a pair of ninth level seventh rank adepts, the top one percent of their species! And yet, in the face of this strange current, their struggles were useless.

The two of them were swallowed further in to the crystal- clear depths of the lake. Lan Jue knew that they’d been caused in some sort of invisible whirlpool, where the eyes couldn’t see it but it could certainly be felt. The course and pressure sucked them deeper, ever downward, and they were powerless to stop it.

Lan Jue immediately pulled Qianlin close, hugging her tight to his chest. The net of lightning surrounding them flared

intensely and became gold. It grew thicker until they were protected in a blazing golden cocoon of energy.

They pitched and rolled through the water, protected by the orb of light. The jerking motions were vicious, but Qianlin felt safe and secure in Lan Jue’s arms.

Suddenly, the darkness around them was dispersed with the arrival of a powerful light. The tearing current also dissipated without a trace. Both Lan Jue and Qianlin could feel the pressure from being under water recede. When they hit the floor, it was confirmed – they found themselves somewhere altogether different.

Lan Jue’s reactions were quick. He stabilized his energies and used them to help both he and Qianlin recover from the dizzying ride they’d just experienced. After a few moments, once both were acclimated, they stared stupefied at the scene before them.

With mouth agape, Lan Jue’s eyes followed a mountain range as it stretched in to the horizon. Every square inch was covered in grapes. They expansive vineyard was carefully arranged and tended, with the meter-high plants separated in to lines by big old trees. Somehow, they’d found themselves in an altogether

different world of beauty and mystery.

The mountains and vineyards themselves weren’t anything to be overly stunned about. What was strange, was the air here. It seemed to ripple and undulate like waves, even though overhead looked for all the world like an azure sky. But it wasn’t, their ceiling was the bed of the river.

Stranger still, there was sunlight down here. A blazing orb hung suspended in the air like the sun he’d expect on the surface. Warm rays hung over the amazing scene, however, and the grapes knew no different.

There was more than just grapes stretching off in to the distance. Several other species of flora had also been cultivated here. Like the grapes, they had also been carefully tended and arranged in their own areas.

Of course, pretty as it was, Lan Jue and Qianlin had other concerns. Namely, the people surrounding them.

There were eight in all, standing around in a circle. They were dressed in crude farmhand clothing, and bore hoes and scythes. Eight pairs of suspicious eyes pinned them in place.

“Alright everybody, we aren’t here to cause any problems.” Lan Jue raised his arms, revealing no weapons. Meanwhile, he instigated his Discipline to dry he and Qianlin’s clothes.

All eight of their hosts were suspended in air, without wings to help them do so. It meant they were at the very least ninth level Talents. One in particular – the oldest of the crew – was surrounded by an aura as deep and vast as the ocean. That one was ninth level seventh rank or higher.

Lan Jue quickly determined that quietly adhering to everything these people said was the wisest course of action.

The elder looked at them with cold, hard eyes. “Who are you, and why are you here.” It was more a demand than a question. “And you’d better have an excellent explanation.”

Lan Jue grinned sheepishly. “We’re actually here looking for you. Truth be told, I wasn’t sure we would.” There was no reason to hide his objectives, Lan Jue felt. He couldn’t really lie about finding this place by accident, because what would they say? They were just diving? Where was their diving equipment?

“Looking for us?” The older man seemed surprised.

Lan Jue nodded. “Yes. We’re here looking for the descendants of the Gods of Wine. I presume that’s you all. We’re only here to talk.”

The man’s face darkened. He fixed them with hard eyes, but there was surprise at Lan Jue’s words as well.

“Take them down!”

The others dropped their crude weapons. Immediately, each of the other seven farmers were surrounded by a sinister blood- red aura. A sense of pressure, of crushing dread, poured from them with Lan Jue and Qianlin in the center of it all.

Even before they’d started talking, Lan Jue had carefully observed their attackers. He watched their every move, because he needed to be ready for a situation just like this. He would not simply stand by and wait for death.

An electric blue light flickered around Lan Jue and Zhou Qianlin. Lan Jue thrust his right fist into the air, and a solid blast of electricity tore upward.

It formed in to a golden orb, and rose until it hung over them all – another small sun. It expanded, pulsing his waves of energy before erupting with a thunderous blast.

The explosion tore out in all directions, flattening acres of vineyard. The others overhead had yet to fully combine their Disciplines, and the sudden shock of the blast completely dispersed their aggregated power.

Lan Jue couldn’t hesitate. He’d stopped their channeling, but that old man’s aura was still strong and growing. It flared large and encompassed his friends to protect them from the rapidly approaching flames of the explosion.

But Lan Jue wasn’t fighting alone. He had a partner, and as he was dealing with the others a speck of light no bigger than a fingernail sped toward the old man before them. Zhou Qianlin watched in anticipation as her own attack rushed forward. In the same instant, Lan Jue release a second orb in to the old man’s comrades.

Bo-Boom! Two shuddering explosions filled the air.

Chapter 357: Another Paragon!

The old man’s aura quickly shifted to a golden hue, and the shield he’d created withered and vanished. A look of utter shock was plastered on his face. In the space of that  instance, somehow, his Discipline dropped in power by half! There was absolutely no reason for him to suddenly have grown so weak. It was like it had just been swallowed up in to nothing.

The second explosion, obviously, had come from the golden orb. The other seven adepts lost their joined Discipline powers and – despite his efforts – were sent smouldering through the air.

In the second the chaos afforded him, Lan Jue gripped Qianlin’s hand tight and morphed the both of them in to lightning. They flashed out from within the circle of adepts.

Fighting against numbers wasn’t that frightening if you knew how to handle it. The key is making sure you aren’t surrounded. There were eight adepts, and all of them seemed to possess the same Discipline. Had they been able to successfully link together, this situation would have played out much worse than it already had.

Thankfully, Lan Jue had been naturally equipped to protect against this. The combined discipline he possessed prepared him, with the lightning portion of his powers specializing in speed.

Lan Jue was confident. Despite the poor odds, the two of them hand in hand would not be at a disadvantage.

“Well no wonder you dared to come here. You two have a fair bit of strength.” The old man regarded Qianlin and Lan Jue with a sour frown. However, he made no move to strike. The other seven adepts regained their composure and stood at his back.

A crystalline red aura sprang up around each of them. The elderly man slowly lifted his right hand, and unfurled his fingers. Within his palm was a perfectly smooth crystal ball. It sparkled and reflected the red light that surrounded them all.

Suddenly, a sanguine light came piercing down through the mirror-like lake overhead. Lan Jue, seeing this, felt his heart seize. “Not good,” he muttered. Immediately he grabbed Qianlin in preparation to change again and streak toward the furthest reaches of this underworld.

But it was no use. Before they could flee, the world around them became a sea of red. They could feel the power around them making their movements sluggish. A staggering pressure bore down on them, as though they were being slowly crushed by the weight of an ocean, like the skies were crashing down right on to them.

A golden light flashed in Lan Jue’s eyes. Now things were desperate. This was their domain, and the fact that they’d attacked right away meant they would do anything to keep it secret. They had no qualms silencing both him and Zhou Qianlin.

Their priority right now had to be retreat. They would wait for the Wine Master, then return. They’ll be better prepared, then. With a Paragon at their side, there would certainly be nothing to fear.

Lan Jue tugged on Qianlin’s hand, and without a word she pressed herself in to his embrace. She lifted her head without hesitation, knowing precisely what Lan Jue’s plan was. Her face betrayed a slight blush.

It was Lan Jue who hesitated, but only for a moment. He leaned down and pressed his lips to hers. They were a little cold,

but there was a strange sweetness to them. However, before he could really sense the kiss, Zhou Qianlin turned in to a ball of light that quietly merged with Lan Jue and vanished.

It was the second time, but Lan Jue already knew what to expect. Immediately his Discipline skyrocketed to the peak of ninth level. The world around them was still a soupy red deathtrap, so he had to react. Lan Jue lifted his right hand, and in response a golden light bloomed out from him in all directions. When his electric powers met with the overpowering red energy, the world began to shimmer as though on a hot day.

Eventually that golden light seemed to cover him entirely, exuding forth and transforming him in to his Ascension.

The old man’s face changed. “Protogenic powers!” He said, eyes widening.

Lan Jue’s commanding voice boomed. “Open!”

As his command rang out, the wine-red skies overhead shook violently. Thunderous blasts shook all around them, as a place overhead opened in a great fissure. Lan Jue then turned his eyes to the others in the distance. Calmly, he reached out his right

hand as though to push them away.

A blast of golden lightning shot from his palm and through the air, right for the old man’s chest. The red world was burned away around the lightning’s passage. It opened a path right toward Lan Jue’s attackers.

The old man scowled, and raised his crystal ball. It swayed in his grip, and with the motion the world surrounding them grew even more dense and tight. Both the path cut by Lan Jue’s bolt of lightning and the fissure overhead were sealed.

Lan Jue was secretly very pleased with the results he was experiencing. After joining with Qianlin, his Discipline was now ninth level ninth rank – just on the cusp of Paragon status. With the addition of his Ascension, he was all the more terrifying in battle.

“Hmph!” Lan Jue dismissively regarded the man and his ball, when suddenly his body erupted in to a font of electricity. Bolts of electric power blasted out like a deadly spiderweb, hanging over everything.

Where the lightning passed, the world of red dispersed. Under

it’s explosive power this man’s illusions could not sustain. Nor did the old man react right away – he was stunned at how powerful this intruder was.

He couldn’t keep warding off these blows directly. With a grunt, another beam of light exuded forth, casting a half-boom shaped bolt of energy spiraling forth to meet the encroaching wall of lightning..

Boom–! The lightning exploded outward in a million simultaneous explosions. The old man and his colleagues radiated electrical energy as they were thrown backward. Some strange of that protogenic power became gripping chains, which captured and retrains the attackers.

Now, with a large swath of the under ground world free from the red taint, Lan Jue lifted his head to the faux sky. He shouted as loud as as strong as he could. “I command the skies to open!”

As if in response, a deafening roll of thunder echoed through the the area. Two massive golden hands appeared, and viciously ripped open a fissure in the skies even larger than the last.

Lan Jue fixed the eight captured Adepts with an imperatorial

glare. Then, turning away, he transformed in to a golden bolt of energy and flew toward the newly made exit.

Even Lan Jue could not have imagine how much powerful his Ascension’s commands were upon reaching this level of cultivation. It was almost like when he’d taken the entire Fantascia Genetica decoction on Taihua. The feeling – like he was strong enough to take on the universe – made his understanding of the protogenic world that much deeper. Struggle always leads to improvement.

But just as Lan Jue was preparing to escape, he heard the faintest sigh. It was sudden, and sounded as though it was right beside his ear. The world of red had been obliterated by his forest of lightning, but now the whole of reality seemed to crystallize.

An odd fragrance hung in the air, and as Lan Jue watched everything began t change. Reality warped like he was staring at the world through a pane of glass. The giant hands summoned by Zeus’ command vanished in to smoke.

In fact, everything around him vanished. Once again, Lan Jue was lost in a very familiar universe of red. That fragrance grew stronger, penetrated through him, until Lan Jue felt like he was

drunk.

To Lan Jue, though, it wasn’t aromatic. It was bitter.

A Paragon’s Domain!

Since when did these damn guys become a dime a dozen?! But this power was different from the Paragons he knew.

Lan Jue thought back to something the Clairvoyant had told him once; find the Paragons spread throughout the universe. It was looking like one of those hidden paragons was right here among the descendants.

The sigh was craggy and ancient, born from an old throat. Even just through the brief sound, Lan Jue coul sense a sort of genuine quality. He made no further moves to escape. He was in a Paragon’s grasp now, and the only way out was to beat them in a fight.

However, as before Lan Jue would simply wait for destruction. No matter how or what, he had to do whatever he could to survive, especially with Zhou Qianlin’s life in the

balance. The situation was dire, but he had to try.

“Stay your hand!” The ancient voice called out, loud and clear.

Lan Jue felt as though the entire world was crushing down around him, like he was at the center of a collapsing star. He found himself in the middle of a terrifying vortex, with a pull he recognized from when he and Qianlin were in the lake. It was strong enough to completely stop him from moving forward.

He certainly couldn’t say it was a comfortable situation to find himself in. He was struck dumb with amazement at the sheer scope of this power. After all, though he knew a few Paragons it was always incredible when another was revealed. The power they exuded was staggering and enlightening, every time.

Of all the great masters he’d met, the strongest aside from his own teacher was the Clairvoyant. He’d never experienced the full scope of the old soothsayer’s power, though. Still, he was sure it was as great and boundless as the universe itself. That was easy to tell.

Their own master, the one they call Jue Di, had been known

far and wide as the most powerful Paragon to have ever lived. However, Lan Jue never actually felt any protogenic powers from his master. That was because Jue Di never had to use it, and the torment he put he and his brother through was done without its need. For as far as he ever saw, Jue Di was nothing more than a common man with an exceptional love for martial arts.

What he felt now was different from the Clairvoyant’s power, but he could sense that this invisible Paragon’s strength was greater even than the Wine Master’s, or the Keeper’s. Whoever this person was, they’d have given the Clairvoyant a run for his money.

Lan Jue couldn’t do it. He couldn’t continue to fight, especially with Qianlin under his protection. The vortex he was suspended within perhaps wasn’t as damaging as Hua Li’s, but nonetheless he couldn’t handle it.

Suddenly the whole of reality appeared to  shudder  and change. Everything was backwards: Yin became yang, and up became down. Lan Jue stood, helplessly watching as the mad world around him changed. He was unable to do anything, especially when he realized his power was slowly draining away. Every passing second saw him more incapable of defiance.

He was almost at Paragon level himself, with Zhou Qianlin’s powers combining with his own! Still, the end  result  was failure. One could only imagine how strong this unknown Paragon was.

“We did not come here with ill intent.” A familiar voice said.

Chapter 358: Domains Conflict

Lan Jue felt as though his body had become very light. In the next instant a silvery doorway of pure light appeared embedded in the crimson world. Countless more streams of light fractured away from the silver glow and spread out from it. Where the light touched, the world of red quickly receded. A new, silver nucleus expanded from their location.

Lan Jue heaved a sigh of relief. “Excellent timing. If you’ waited any longer I’m not sure there’d be anything to save.”

The Wine Master stood calmly, scepter in hand. Disjointed planes of silver light expanded out in fractals around him, and the old man was reflected in each. The toxic red energies without swirled angrily around the border of this silver pocket, but could not invade.

This was a war of Domains. A Paragon’s standoff!

The Pauper appeared from another interdimensional fissure, standing beside Lan Jue. Upon seeing the Jewelry Master, the Pauper gave him a surprised look.

The aura that surrounded Lan Jue was the focus of his shock.

Lan Jue nodded toward the beggar as he appeared. He maintained the same majestic façade, an integral part of his Ascension. After all, empowered with protogenic energy as he was why shouldn’t he be confident in the presence of his allies?

“You should not have come here.” The scratchy, ancient voice echoed all around them. It was as though it bubbled up from the thick world of red surrounding them.

The Wine Master’s eyes flared with silver light, that shone out like a pair of stars. He raised his scepter high and, from the shimmering power gem at it’s crest, a gentle wave of silvery light swept out like a shock wave. In it’s wake countless motes of light swam and danced through the air. They twinkled, they swirled, they rose and fell, and as Lan Jue looked closer he was stunned to discover every one of those hundreds upon thousands of specks was a star. As the swirling mass expanded, they found themselves in the center of a miniature Milky Way.

His Domain was evolving!

As the twinkling universe grew, the world of red receded like

a shadow. But more accurately, the red was being devoured, for each individual star was it’s own reality with a powerful vacuum force. Then, as it must have been at the beginning of time, the condensed cluster of stars exploded out in every direction. The reality around them grew until they sat in an entirely separate universe, entirely created of the Wine Master’s will, surrounded by planets that would rival anything they’d seen before.

This was the true projection of a Paragon’s Domain. The Wine Master was facing an unknown foe, who was likely significantly stronger even than himself. He made the right determination; pull out all the stops.

But then, something else was in the domain with them – another life force. As they looked on, a creeping presence like a weed snaked through the starry expanse.

Compared to an entire universe, what was a weed? This weed, however, spread it’s creeping tendrils through the fabric of reality. Slow by cosmic standards, it grew and grew until it began to shock planets. The thickening twigs became wide as meteor belts.

It didn’t matter how large this universe was. It didn’t matter

how many stacks of reality existed. The weed existed in all of them.

Both Lan Jue and the Pauper adopted focused, concerned expressions in the face of this threat. The powers of the Paragons were in contest, intertwining like serpents. They would war like this for supremacy. No matter who won, however, Lan Jue and the Pauper would be the ones to suffer the consequence.

Evidence pointed to their opponent as occupying the superior position currently. Their hidden opponent had taken the initiative, which put the Wine Master on the defensive. Worse, he couldn’t stop her.

As they watched, the weeds – now thick as vines – encroached in to the heart of the Wine Master’s domain. They writhes and twisted over one another until they were a dense, living net. Closer and closer they inched, and coiled so tightly that nothing but the vines existed.

Gradually, the vines began to sprout little purple pearl-like grapes, and the heady scent of the fruit filled the air. As the grapes grew plump, they were treated to a beautiful display, hiding the danger beneath.

The silvery eminence of the Wine Master’s powers continued to coil round. He simply watched as the scene unfolded. Stretching out his scepter, the old man still did not engage. He simply felt all that was occurring around him.

Eventually, a dim silvery light gradually arose. The image of a moon, reflecting the light from a nearby star, appeared suspended in the newly made universe. As it grew, its power intensified. The soothing silver glow hung over every minute vine.

The ripening grapes began to waggle of the vine under their own weight. They appeared as they they might fall at any moment.

The image reminded Lan Jue of a special, complicated system of making wine called biodynamics. A small part of it was the belief that grapes should be collected under the light of the moon. This Paragon was simulating the process of a grape harvest, or so it appeared.

So far, Lan Jue could to feel the adverse affects of their battle. However, he knew that if this continued, the situation won’t only get more dire.

The Wine Master remained still, like a statue suspended in space. He was lost in the totality of everything around them, scrutinizing every detail.

The first grape fell. As it tumbled through eternity, it burst open. Energies sealed within were instantly absorbed by the vacuum of the Wine Master’s multiverse. But under the light of that strange moon, even the stars changed. They dimmed, until they themselves became enormous purple grapes.

Then, there was a pulse of energy, as the newly formed grapes broke the Wine Master’s control. Lan Jue and the Pauper exchanged a silent, stunned looked.

Both of them knew how frightening the world of a Paragon could be, but this was beyond expectations. Neither could have suspected that the simple grape could congeal, and drown an entire universe. The vine’s unstoppable expansion was almost predatory, and permanent.

What neither Lan Jue nor the Pauper understood, was why the Wine Master wasn’t doing anything! All he did was watch as that enormous star was lost to his enemy’s power. Flashes of emotional turmoil did appear in his eyes, though.

More and more grapes fell, burst, and their contents covered the star further.

The Wine Master sighed, and waved his scepter. The mass of stars and planets, the entire universe, began to contract. It continued to shrink until the whole of it was reabsorbed back in to the Cosmagus’ body. The three Skyfire Adepts stood now in a field of wild grape vines, stretching far as the eye could see.

The only thing that separated them from that reality was a translucent shell of light. The Wine Master looked out over the fields, and shook his head. “Clearly we aren’t welcome. We should leave.”

He punctuated the sentence with a wave of his scepter. A golden door of light appeared soundlessly before them.

This was the first time Lan Jue witnessed the Wine Master using a portal like this. It felt… steadier, than the silver dimensional fissures the Wine Master usually used.

In the end, a Paragon – even a defeated Paragon – could make their escape. Killing one was no easy task, even among themselves.

As the golden light of their succor filled the area, the nearby grapes became illusory. Gradually, they vanished until the only thing remaining of their presence was a lingering scent. The scene around them cleared as well, revealing them to be floating in the air over the vineyard below.

“Wait a moment. Gates, bring them to me.” The old voice returned, reverberating through the air like the voice of god.

Gates, apparently, was the old man who’d been the focus of Lan Jue’s ire earlier. The Jewelry Master turned an eye to the acting head of Skyfire Avenue. The Wine Master responded to the unspoken concern with a nod of his head. The Cosmagus swept his arm once more, and the portal vanished.

Now that the conflict appeared to be over, Gates dispassionately floated their way. He bowed at the waist. “If the three gentlemen would follow me…”

He wasted no further time in discussion, and headed back to the ground expecting them to follow. They did, once the Paragon felt safe enough to drop his shield.

Lan Jue did not bring Qianlin forth. Her… wardrobe issue

would be a problem. Things would have to remain as they were for a while more.

They finally had time to appreciate their surroundings once they reached ground, and what they saw was as picturesque as anyone could ask for. Towering mountains in the distance grasped at lazily wandering clouds. At the peak of these mountains had been constructed great buildings made of stone. They looked worn, and crude, but retained a rural beauty. They were old-style castles, constructed to overlook the vineyards.

Most vineyards were established on the sides of mountains. Although flat-land grapes existed, they were few and far between. Most of the flatter plots were reserved for other crops.

It was like Shangri-La from the tales of old, idyllic and gorgeous. Now that matters weren’t so tense, Lan Jue took a deep breath to enjoy the perfectly clean air. The elemental forces here were stronger than on the surface world, and the vital energies swirling around them were plentiful. It would be a wonderful place to enhance Tan Lingyun’s ability. Wonderful, or terrible, depending on who you asked.

“I imagine this is a separate dimension.” Lan Jue said to the Wine Master.

But the old man shook his head. “No. We really are beneath the lake. Clearly they’ve used tactical employment of power to conceal themselves and keep the lake suspended. It’s the same way they simulate sunlight. Unless I’m mistaken, this place is very much similar to the environment on the Mother world. We have certainly found the right place.”

Lan Jue nodded, then smirked. “It’s a shame our arrival was met with less than stellar hospitality.”

“I’ll guess we’ll learn more in a minute,” the Wine Master replied.

Gates, who was ahead of them, hesitated half a step when he heard the Wine Master’s deductions.

They wandered through the fields, the soil’s fragrance filling their nostrils. Lan Jue noted that the oxygen content was lower here than it was on the surface, but he quickly got used to it.

If it was like the Wine Master said, then why shouldn’t he acclimate quickly? Men were of Mother Earth, and this place was made to emulate her.

Chapter 359: A Generation Of Masters

Gates brought them across an expansive field of plump grapes. Their destination appeared to be the stone structure Lan Jue had spotted earlier. However, their ultimate terminus was not the structure itself, but what lay behind it, as they discovered when Gates brought them around the side.

Their trek had garnered no small number of stares from farmers. Their expressions were restrained, but the faint hint of hostility in their eyes was still visible.

As they wrapped around the stone building, they were met by a hidden hillside. Like all the others, it was blanketed with thick grape vines. However, in contrast to the others, these plants rose a good two meters high. The vines themselves were so thick a man could hardly wrap his arms around one, and were draped in heavy clusters of grapes. Each one bunch was a beautiful amethyst hue, and crystal clear. Certainly these were not your average grapes.

The Wine Master visibly recoiled in surprise. “This is…”

That craggy voice interrupted. “Welcome. Welcome to our village – Beaune.”

Here’s a link to the wikipedia description of the real-world town in Burgundy.

Lan Jue and the Pauper looked on, eyes wide. The voice had come from the grape vine. Gates lead them closer, and each step brought the heady scent of wine to their nostrils. The scent was as full-bodied as it was aromatic.

Lan Jue looked toward the Wine Master, who was clearly just as stunned as he.

“When our domains conflicted, I saw that you hadn’t the heart to destroy the vines or grapes. I could see in your eyes that you cherished them. You have earned the right to be here, you and your friends.”

The voice was louder now, and directly before them. There was no mistaking it – the vine was talking to them. As they looked on, a face appeared in the the branches; eyes, a nose, and a mouth all became apparent. Although the features were made up of twigs and grapes and branches, there was still a spirit there, a sort of humanity.

Was this really a talking grape vine?

This voice was the same he’d heard before, the voice of the Paragon. It must be, but could a vine be a Paragon? This was inconceivable!

The Wine Master took a step forward and, pressing a hand respectfully to his chest, bowed before the vine. “I am very honored to meet you, predecessor. We, your juniors, have come from Skyfire Avenue. There, I am called the Wine Master. Would you grace us with your name?”

“Wine Master? Very well, it does appear you have a great love for wine. I’ll admit, however, that it is very surprising indeed that you should find us. As for this old fellows name… That, I remember… though I’ve forgotten many things indeed. How could I forget? When I made wine, my name was stamped on every bottle. This one’s name, is Aubert de Villaine.”

Aubert de Villaine! The name struck like thunder in the three Adepts’ ears. Even more than when the existence of a second hidden Paragon, this revelation left them dumb-struck. This was a legend in the world of a wine, in the… flesh.

Their goal in this journey had been to locate the descendants of the great Gods of Wine. The hope had been to recover some of the great masters’ lost secrets. Never in a million years would

they have guessed they would come face to face with one of them.

Henri Jayer was likely the most famous of the three, and the wine they partook confirmed his mastery of the craft. However, his wines could not compete with Romanee-Conti in the realm of reputation. The great red wine was too widely known, and Jayer’s offering were so few yearly. No wine would be more widely beloved than a good Romanee-Conti.

Because of this a lot had to be considered in the purchase of – for instance – a Jayer bottle Average price and reputation were among them.  Among  the  Burgundy  wines,  none  could  top the DRC. The DRC was both a company, and a family business. They had seven top-shelf wines, of which Romanee-Conti was but one.

Domaine de la Romanee-Conti

Other than the Conti, there was also Poligny-Montrachet, La Tache, Grands Échezeaux, Échezeaux, Richebourg, and Romanée-St-Vivant. None of these were piddly boutique wines. The Montrachet was considered the pinnacle of Chardonnay, and no competitor even really came close.

The DRC had a number of excellent wines, that were consistently among the best in the world. They did it through advertising, skill and proper business management. Now the mastermind behind it, a man who was a contemporary of the mighty Jayer, was here now.

And indeed it was he, Aubert de Villaine. That was the name of this grape vine. Master Vintner of the DRC, Chairman of the Board of Directors, and legendary figure – Auburt de Villaine!

The man had been born at the beginning of the twentieth century. That would make him well over three hundred years old. Even Paragons, with their extended lives, were only able to achieve this once humanity had taken to the stars and discovered power gems. Of course, those early Paragons were also long-lived, but few lived much passed one hundred.

But Aubert de Villaine was a man! How was it this vine came to speak, and to call itself by such a name?

“I know, unbelievable isn’t it?” Aubert said.

The Wine Master took a moment to find his voice. “Absolutely astonishing. I’d never dreamed of one day actually meeting one

of the great gods of wine. Much less under circumstances like these.”

“I am not the legendary god of wine,” Aubert assured. His tone had grown hard and irritated. “There is only one, and his name was Henri Jayer. Neither I nor Bize-Leroy were ever worthy of the name. Back in my younger years I was full of pride. But now, three hundred years later, I still can’t compete with the man. No one will ever match his talent.”

Were these words borne from the mouth of any normal modern vintner, the Wine Master wouldn’t not have paid them much mind. No one in their right mind would compare themselves to one of the three gods of wine. However each had their fans, and Aubert’s storie wines were the most followed. In those ancient days, it was unrivaled in many ways.

For the maker of such a fine wine – such a beloved wine – to say that… the Wine Master felt that deeply. He’d scoured any record of these great men, and never once did he hear of Aubert conceding to Jayer. The only hing he had said was that what he did, Henri couldn’t do.

Lan Jue was just as shocked, maybe even more so. Hell, a grape vine was talking to them about being a three hundred

year old master vintner. Things were strange.

The Wine Master responded. “Those great wines, those products of your efforts are quickly dwindling. Drinking one is to deny the universe a rare treasure. It was my hope to meet with your descendants, to find a suitable place, and to restore the glory of those old days. But I see now that would be akin to teaching a fish how to swim. With you here, things change dramatically.”

Aubert’s voice returned. “You can make wine?”

“I can’t,” he replied with a shake of his head. “I am just a humble fan, a sommelier. This is why they call me the Wine Master. I have, however, managed to amass a passable collection of old wines. Several from the DRC, in fact. Bize- Leroy and Henri Jayer bottles as well. If one were to create a superior wine, they would need to experience the product of the masters. I was hoping to donate these bottles to the descendants to help, but that seems unnecessary now.”

After a moment, Aubert’s rumbling voice replied. “Do you truly have bottles from all three of us? Which  bottles, precisely?”

The Wine Master’s response was quick and decisive. “All seven of the DRC labels are among my collection, each their best years. A 1990 Romanee-Conti, for instance. I have the entire set of Bize-Lreoy masterpieces, like her Richebourg. I have a Romanee-Conti of her creation as well – after all, she was part of the DRC for a long time.”

Remember that de Vallaine and Bize-Leroy were co-owners of the DRC back in the day, until differences in business aims got her kicked out. She later ran her own vineyard.

‘Leroy’ was also the name of their business, run by the Bize- Leroy family. It was also the name of the third great master of wine – mistress, in fact. Lalou Bize-Leroy.

She was a remarkable woman, known to many as a dragon lady with iron-fisted control over the DRC brand. Some of the worlds best wines, she had a hand in creating.

Both DRC and Leroy bottles were comparatively greater in number than Jayer creations. However, for true wine lovers that wasn’t overly heartening, for the greatest treasure were those few remaining masterpieces.

If this vine really was somehow the master Aubert de Villaine, then there would be no one who could repudiate his claims that Henri Jayer was the greatest vintner who ever lived.

“And Henri’s? You have Jayer wines as well?” Aubert asked.

“I did… I had managed to discover a single bottle. Sadly the master’s creations were few in number, even in your day. I had spent a great deal of energy in finding it, and kept it enshrined in my collection. Sadly, a few less than considerate friends had it opened. We had no recourse but to drink it.” The Wine Master could still feel the dull pang of regret when he thought about the loss of that magnificent wine.

Chapter 360: Wine Tasting

“Drank it?” Aubert’s voice took on a strange tone. “That’s good. Good! Once all of his bottles are gone, Jayer will fade in to legend.” There was an audible undertone of resentment in his voice. Clearly, there was a story there.

“Since you all are true fans of good vintage, I insist you stay. You’re in luck, in fact. The grapes are ready… it’s time to create the wine. This has bee in the work for three years. You can see how things are done, and try some flor perhaps. Since you’ve had some of my past creations, you’ll be able to better compare them.”

“That’s excellent then,” the Wine Master said, delightedly. “Thank you for your generosity, and hospitality.” Wine had been a passion of his all his life. The opportunity to try a wine made fresh at the hands of a master was like a dream come true. Beyond that, however, he was excited for discovering that Abuert de Villaine still lived!

“Gates, give them the tour if you would. Then return, I’d like to hear their perspective.” Aubrey indifferently relayed.

Gates stood to the side, and indicated for the others to follow.

Once the three visitors offered their respects to de Villaine, they made to follow. Lan Jue, the Pauper, and especially the Wine Master were almost in a daze as they mirrored Gates’ path. This entire experience was unprecedented, culminating in the discovery of a living legend. Was this some sort of reincarnation, where the man became what he loved so dearly? What’s more, the man was frighteningly powerful! In retrospect, it was no surprise his Domain had looked the way it did.

Following Gates’ lead, they entered into the old stone building. As soon as they entered, they were met with the rich scent of white oak. The inside was almost entirely empty but for a massive cask in the center. The wooden container was ten meters tall, perhaps six in diameter, and a mystery to the three visitors.

Gates seemed to sense their curiosity. “We use the most traditional methods in biodynamics to make our wines. Part of that means absolutely no mechanical processes are employed. For instance, we till the land with horse and oxen. The grapes are harvested by hand, and only the best are selected.”

“We spent a great deal of time and effort in perfecting the soil here, all with the ultimate goal of returning those seven DRC wines to modern circulation. We irrigate the land from the lake

above. That isn’t perfectly natural, perhaps, but we’ve taken pains to make this place as close to the mother world as possible. Currently, our vines are about forty years old. Once the wine is made, it is aged in oak barrels for eighteen or twenty four months depending on the crop. Sadly, our barrels aren’t old, so they will likely impact the flavor and quality of our wine this year. The result of our first harvest has already been bottles, while the others are still aging in casks. It’s still mostly flor.”

“Would we be able to sample some of the wine from your first year?” Lan Jue asked.

Gates turned his attention to the young Jewelry Master, then nodded his head. “Certainly. Now that Master de Villaine has given his blessing, we encourage you to. If you would please come with me.”

They walked further in to the old stone fort, where they discovered a flight of steps. Gates lead them down the spiraling stone staircase, and they followed in single file. As they went on, Gates continued the tour.

“Traditionally, wine cellars must be at least ten meters underground. The temperature must be maintained at between

twenty and twenty-five degrees Celsius with a stable level of humidity to ensure proper aging. It is a long process, that involves dust and bacteria, but all of it is part of a wine’s journey. Accumulation is the key. On the home world there were chateaus that had existed for thousands of years, passed down from generation to generation. That, too, was a journey. It was the accumulation of that time, effort and experience that created such wondrous vintages.”

“Are any of Aubret’s inheritors here among you?” the Wine Master asked.

“Of course.”

The Wine Master went on. “And you employ interspacial technology here?”

“Actually no,” came Gates’ response. “Master de Villaine preserved an old winery from long ago. Everything within it was exactly the same as it was during its hay-day. This isn’t that one, and in fact the original hasn’t been touched in ages. We’re not even sure the contents are still intact.”

Of course, the most important thing when sampling a wine

was to make sure it hadn’t spoiled. A spoiled wine, of course, made for a terrible experience. Those wines that had reached such a state were simply called ‘old wine.’ These were largely wines that had been improperly stored, or left to ferment for too long.

Both Lan Jue and the Wine Master’s eyes were bright with the prospect of what Gates had revealed. There existed an intact winery from the former era? However, without interspacial technology to help control the wine’s environment, the harsh rigors of time would likely have spoiled all the contents. The chance that any bottle survived was very slim indeed.

The reached the bottom of the stairwell, and Gates pulled out a pair of wooden doors barring their path. They shuffled in to the next room.

Even before they saw anything, that rich oak scent rose up to meet them once again. Stalagmites peppered the area, holding high the stone roof of the small cave cellar. Scanning widely, one would discovery rows upon rows of oak barrels stacked on two levels with two barrels each. They stretched on down to the dark recesses of the cellar’s far end.

“We’ve just started, so we have around eleven hundred

barrels. About seven hundred of each vintage. The first vintage has begun the bottle process, and the third has just been placed in their casks.”

The cellar was easily capable of housing that many casks, and in fact they could see many open places where more barrels could be stored.

Lan Jue spoke up. “Mister Gates, what do you intend to do with your wines once they’re ready?”

Gates looked back at him. “The Western Alliance has helped us in the creation of this wine. It’ll be kept here in  this Alliance.”

“The Western Alliance?” Lan Jue’s eyes lost focus for a moment, as he pondered on something.

The conversation didn’t continue, and they instead went on with their tour. After they completed a circuit of the cellar, they came upon a barrel with a metal tube sprouting from it.

“What’s this?” the Pauper asked the Wine Master, who stood

at his shoulder.

“It’s called a bung. It’s used by bartenders and sommoliers. After all, a person can only drink so much. Putting away an entire cask would likely kill a normal man. So, to preserve the wine for later, you close the bung hole. Everything must be done to preserve this water of life.”

Gates offered the Wine Master a ghost of a smile, and nodded his head. He extricated three crystal glasses from a nearby cabinet and handed them out.

“First we’ll try one from a newly filled cask. This is called flor, before it’s fermented in to wine. When you try it, really imagine where it will be. A true sommelier can tell the quality of a wine from a sip of the flor.” As he spoke, the elderly vintner gathered up a long glass tube. There was a rubber stopper on one end, and it one looked closely they would see a small hole.

He made his way to a nearby cask, and removed the white spile plugging it closed. He dipped the glass tube in, and plugged the whole on the bottom with his thumb. When he pulled it out, the wine was suspended within. Atmospheric pressure was an important element of biodynamics.

Gates poured a little bit of the deep red liquid in to everyone’s glass, then returned what remained back in to the cask. He gestured for them to take a sip.

Lan Jue swirled his glass’ contents and examined the sentiment, then brought the glass to his nose. The scent was strange, not fragrant as one would expect. Instead, it was very sour, and concentrated.

He took a sip and held it in his mouth. Immediately that acerbic flavor he’d smelled struck his tongue. This was what was called flor, and a little bit of grape juice.

Sour mixed with grape, a sensation Lan Jue had never had before. It was certainly novel. He swallowed it down. Through the glass he spied a name written on the cask: Vivian. This was their attempt at DRC’s Saint-Vivant – a fine wine indeed! He would never have guessed the flor would taste like this.

For a long while that tart sensation remained in his mouth. However, over time, it changed to something richer. This was certainly no comparison to a good bottle, but it was an exciting new experience. He was well familiar with the taste of alcohol, but hops were different. He couldn’t taste it as Gates had said, but perhaps that was because he lacked imagination.

One by one they went down the line, sampling all seven of the DRC’s budding vintages. With more experience, Lan Jue was beginning to taste subtle differences. Once they’d gotten to the last barrel – the Romanee-Conti itself – his eyes lit up. A smile spread across his face. “You can taste it – the best wines certainly come from the best base.”

Gates nodded. “That’s exactly right. Just as the best champagnes come the best white grapes, so that even when the carbonation has gone it is still a fine glass, so too is it here. The principle is the same.”

Lan Jue shot the old guy a thumbs-up.

These were the younger barrels, where their flor had been kept in storage for a year. The entire sight filled them with hope and expectation for the future. Each one of them grew more excited with each taste. The brightness in their eyes gave it away.

Eventually, their wine tasting party came to an end. They returned the glasses to Gates.

The Pauper gazed over the casks, and with a frown gently

shook his head.

“What is it?” Lan Jue asked?

The Pauper muttered. “Maybe it’s because of the taste, but the Romanee-Conti has an excellent taste as well as a strange osmotic property. It’s almost like it seeps in to your cells. These are young, and don’t have that sensation. Not the explosive flavor of the Cros Parantoux. It’s like it’s missing something.

Post a Comment

© Zona Novel Online. All rights reserved. Developed by Jago Desain