Skyfire Avenue Chapter 381-390

Chapter 381: Crafty Satan

The haunted house version of the Dark Citadel was renowned for it’s fear-inducing hallways. The creators took  pains  to ensure that everything was real; if one encountered a vampire in the dark rooms of the mansion, then that vampire was real and likely thinking of sampling your blood. The werewolves, even the corpses, were not props. There were periodic areas for visitors to escape if they so chose, but of course they’d forfeit the cost of their ticket.

This was why in the West, there was a saying: A man’s true bravery is tested at the Dark Citadel. They even gave a medal of bravery to anyone who completed it.

The house was a series of macabre scenes, including a ‘sea of blood’ and a morgue, according to the introductory material. The advertisements alone were enough to make Qianlin’s face pale.

“Don’t worry, we’re not really going to walk through the whole thing. We just need a ticket to get passed the door. It certainly seems like a suitable place to hide something.”

A few minutes later, with tickets in hand, Lan Jue and Zhou

Qianlin walked into the haunted mansion. If the exterior was somber, the dark confines of the mansion were bleak. They could only see the patches of what small flashlights in their hands revealed. Progress was slow.

Feral sounds, guttural and monstrous, swept by them as they passed. It sent shivers down Qianlin’s spine. The temperature was cold and dropping the further in to the building they went. A stuffy blackness surrounded them, a cocoon of darkness where monsters lurked.

Lan Jue was unfazed, but Qianlin gripped his hand tight. Luckily, she didn’t have to suffer long. A few turns from the entrance, Lan Jue placed his hand against the smooth metal surface of the wall. There was a crackle of electricity, and the pair was gone.

So long as it conducted electricity, Lan Jue could use it to travel. He didn’t have a map, but that didn’t matter. Their destination was up.

In a flash, they reappeared in the highest room of the Dark Citadel attraction. It was bathed in red, with every inch painted crimson. Organs had been pinned to the walls like artwork, stretched across canvases of dried human skin. A desiccated

corpse was the largest ‘piece’ on display.

Qianlin wasn’t ready for the sudden and grotesque change in scenery. Her eyes popped wide once she registered where they were. Then, bending at the waist, she began to retch.

“Kiss me!” She squeezed her eyes shut and raised her head toward him.

Lan Jue looked at her. The room didn’t bother him, but there was horror written on his face now. “You… you’re not going to vomit in my mouth, are you?”

Before he could even finish, Qianlin swung around and wrapped him in a tight hug. She pressed her mouth to his.

“Huerghhh–!”

Lan Jue only felt a hint of her ice-cold lips before she vanished. He was really beginning to dislike this place! Looking around, he was also set on edge by the gruesome decor. Still, it was better to share than to do it alone – maybe the Pope would like a look.

Perhaps because of the stomach-turning cost of the ticket, for the time being they were alone – no visitors or employees were within earshot. After a moment’s examination, Lan Jue determined that this was an interlude between scenes and not a scene itself. What was the point, he wondered, when the breaks were more unsettling than the attraction. The corpse hanging from the wall looked like it’d been placed and prepared years ago.

Lan Jue began to film the scene from his communicator. He waved his free hand, and two bodies appeared on either side of the pinned-up cadaver. Uriel and Raphael looked like corpses themselves, and Lan Jue gave each a close-up so the Pontiff’s Citadel could appreciate the artistry.

Lan Jue finished his small movie, but of course he would not be sending it directly to the Pontiff. He shot it off to the Accountant so he could work his particular brand of magic.

“Goddamn Jewelry Master. Sending me this stuff so early in the morning… aren’t you afraid it will influence my development?” Came the Accountant’s reply.

“Alright, stop screwing around,” Lan Jue said with a note of irritation in his voice. “Send the video to the Pontiff’s Citadel

through encrypted channels in two hours.”

The Accountant sounded shocked. “What the hell is going on? Is this some sort of joke? What the hell did you do to the Citadel? Why wasn’t I invited to the fun, I thought we were brothers?!”

“Fun?” Lan Jue said. “Well if you think facing down a pissed- off Pontiff is fun, by all means fly over. I won’t stop you. Bring the Gourmet and his people while you’re at it, you guys will be coming to the North for the grand tournament anyway.”

“I heard about this,” the Accountant whined. “But I wasn’t invited! The Gourmet said I was too weak and didn’t allow me to participate. I guess my Discipline is no good in a fight, either.”

Lan Jue laughed. “Alright, don’t get your panties in a knot – I can help you there. You won’t be in a fight, but I can make you one of the entourage. I’ll let the Gourmet know, you just get the details from him.”

The Accountant snickered. “Two hours. Got it, they’ll get your message.”

“Do not let them discover where the video came from,” Lan Jue urged.

“You think I don’t know this simple shit?” The Accountant snarled. “You’ll see – they have screens all over Reims, and that’s where this message will pop up. Hah! So what’s the deal, are we going to kill the Pontiff?! Man, Grandpa would get me something good for that!”

“Go ask him then!” Lan Jue sighed.

Immediately, the Accountant’s voice grew soft and timid. “Never mind. Grandpa and the Bookworm have been fiddling with something. No one’s seen them for days. I need to get out of here before those two madmen accidentally blow up the Avenue.”

The Jewelry Master chuckled. “Well expect it. And don’t forget that thing! When it’s all done let me know.”

“No problem.”

Once his conversation with the Accountant had concluded,

Lan Jue sned a short message to the Gourmet. The young guy wasn’t the most reliable, but when it came to high-tech gadgetry, he was the one to go to. He also had the benefit of being backed by the Keeper and the Bookworm both. Bringing him along would help him avoid all manner of troubles. He had a mind like a super computer.

Lan Jue made it back to the public air hangar via taxi. When he got there, he found an abandoned corner to release Qianlin and have her change her clothes. When she was ready, they boarded the next ride out of Gomorroah.

“I don’t know how much longer I can support this lifestyle,” the Jewelry Master complained. “In the last few days we’ve gone through several sets of clothing.”

Even now, Qianlin’s face was still pale and drawn. “When have you ever supported me? All these lost clothes belonged to me, thank you very much. You only ever got me the stuff from Reims.”

Lan Jue looked at the uncomfortable mecha research student. “Are you still scared? I thought you had guts…”

Qianlin pouted at him. “No scared. That was just… disgusting.”

Lan Jue laughed. “We should have gone through the whole thing.”

Zhou Qianlin looked at him discouragingly. “I’d have to strangle you to death.”

Their pleasant exchange was punctuated by the tell-tale rumble of lift off. They left the bleak landscapes behind.

ζ

The Dark Citadel.

“Your Majesty!” Lucifer’s face bore a strange and unsettling expression and he burst in to the Dark Citadel’s daunting audience chamber. Satan sat upon his throne, meditating. This was also where he cultivated his powers.

“What.” The leader of these terrible beasts opened his eyes.

Traces of scarlet red undulated beneath his eyes.

Lucifer motioned with his hand, and a pair of guards entered. They were dragging another two people behind them. “We found them in the haunted house,” he said with a sneer.

Satan dropped his eyes to the unconscious pair on the ground. Upon seeing who they were, he couldn’t keep his face from betraying shock.

“Do we know who brought them?” Satan demanded.

Lucifer shook his head. “Visitors, maybe. But we have no way of tracking the origins of the tourists. I’ve already dispatched men to take a look but they came back empty handed. This is no small matter! They could be enemies of the Pontiff’s Citadel, no? I heard from my source in the government that things haven’t been going well in the Holy City either. They’ve closed the city off twice within a few days. The Pontiff himself shuffled out, hunting for someone. It’s more than likely these two play a part in it.”

Satan’s eyes narrowed, thick with murderous evil. “So you suspect someone had captured the Angel of Healing and the

Cherubim, and delivered them to us. Do they intend to place them blame on us, or do they have other motives?”

“I think they’re trying to set us up,” Lucifer said. “But it’s one hell of a gift. The loss of two Archangels in no small blow to the Pontiff. I looked them over and they’ve been cut off by some strange power. These ignorant subordinates don’t know how to remove it.”

Satan’s figure shimmered like a nightmare and, in a flash of crimson, he was beside Lucifer. The area around him begin to swirl and warp, hanging over the room.After a time a cold smirk split Satan’s lips.

“They have been sealed. By protogenic energy, it seems, and pure. The adept is probably equal to yourself in strength, but he’s had some experience in the world of pure energy. Only a Paragon could unravel this knot. If it remains, though, it will consume the Adept of his Discipline. Eventually they would die.

“How should we handle this,” Lucifer asked.

“Someone wants us to shoulder the blame,” Satan said. “But that doesn’t mean there have to be consequences. Put these two

somewhere safe until the Pontiff’s men come to collect. Ask for an s-ranked power gem for each of them.”

Lucifer nodded. “Of course, My Lord. And the seal?”

Satan’s response was dismissive. “We found them this way. Just the fact that we aren’t killing them should earn praise from that idiot Pontiff. When he brings them back and looks over them himself, he’ll see that it wasn’t our doing. If they’ve been hurt, it has nothing to do with us. We’re making a bargain, and that’ll give the zealot face.”

Lucifer’s eyes lit up as he came to understand. “My Lord is wise. I’ll handle this myself immediately. We’ll wait for the Pontiff’s Citadel to take the initiative.”

Chapter 382: Luring The Tiger From The Mountain

The Pontiff’s Citadel.

Metatron had been in a sour mood the last few days. He hadn’t felt like this for quite a long time. The easy days of yesteryear were certainly passed, he thought.

With the kidnapping of two Archangels, the situation was dire. Not only was it a terrible disgrace, but the Citadel had been in crisis mode ever since. Raphael wasn’t so bad. He had been captured outside for the Cathedral, and he wasn’t much of a fighter anyway. But Uriel? He was the Cherubim, known his his wisdom. However, that didn’t mean he didn’t know his way around a fight. He was a ninth level sixth degree Adept, and the fight had taken place on his home turf in the Cathedral. Everything had occurred right under the Pontiff’s nose. Still he was captured.

Worst of all, their unknown enemy possessed the powers mastered by Jue Di. The prospect of what that meant was terrifying.

Who’s next? Will it be me, or another of the Archangels?

Although the Pontiff’s elite were silent, Metatron could tell from their faces that they shared his concerns. Their enemy possessed a power no less than his own, one that was as mysterious as the man himself.

“Lord Metatron!” A surprised shout tore him from his silent reverie.

“What’s all the commotion,” Metatron said in displeasure.

The clergyman, clad in the vestments of a Bishop, bowed low at the waist. The anxiety on his face only deepened. “Your Majesty, important news. The Citadel’s mainframe has gone dark.”

Metatron’s scowl turn vicious. “So call a technician! Why are you interrupting me for this?”

The Bishop sheepishly fiddled with his  robes.  “The mainframe was taken over. All of the screens showed a single message. Look.” As he spoke, the Bishop insert a holodisk into the nearby projector. A three dimensional image sputtered to life in the space around them.

The Pontiff’s chambers were turns in to a world of blood and severed limbs. The image of Uriel and Raphael beside a corpse was the main attraction. A voice, masked by modulator, boomed around them.

“If you want them back, the Pontiff will come alone to the Dark Citadel. The seal will begin to deal them harm in three hours. In twelve hours they’ll be permanently disabled. Hehe… the Dark Citadel isn’t even this intimidating.”

The sound cut off.

The whole city was in chaos. They’d seen it even before Metatron had. A short time later, the Lord Archangel was standing before the Pontiff with the video in hand.

“Bastard!” The Pontiff bellowed. He looked like he wanted to murder somebody.

Metatron looked no better. “What should we do Your Majesty? It appears he wants to provoke something between us and Satan.

The Pontiff sniffed. “He underestimates him, then. Satan’s… rabid exterior is an act. In reality, he’s more insidious than anyone I’ve ever met. If it were you there, then perhaps Satan couldn’t resist ridding himself of a powerful enemy. Raphael and Uriel aren’t worth it. He’ll make demands and ask a price.”

“We should get in touch with the Dark Citadel and confirm this information,” Metatron muttered. “If it is I’ll go take care of it.”

The Pontiff shook his head. “No, there’s no point in you going. Satan won’t use this to attack us, but he’ll certainly turn it to his benefit.”

“We’ll give it a try through our correspondence first, hear any conditions they may have,” Metatron said.

The Pontiff answered with a nod.

Ten minutes later, a holo-call was connected.

“Well, who is this?! If it isn’t my old friend, His Majesty the Pontiff.” Satan appeared in the room, languidly draped across

the Demon Throne. A self-satisfied grin was plastered on his face.

“Satan.” The Pontiff greeted indifferently. “Are you holding Raphael and Uriel?”

Satan’s grin spread wider. “I am! Some… good samaritan delivered them to us early this morning. I  pondered  the meaning, then came to conclusion that it must be a gift. It’s really very generous of you – Your Majesty.”

The elderly priest regarded the shimmering image of his nemesis with calm façade. He looked impervious to any of the emotional jabs Satan threw his way. “This is the result of someone trying to provoke us to conflict. Return my men, and there will be no repercussions.”

The King of Devils shook on his throne, wracked with laughter. “No repercussions?1 Ah, you are a humorous old man. And for argument’s sake, let’s say I don’t. What would you do then, hm?”

The Pontiff’s voice remained calm. “The man doing this is likely a disciple of Jue Di. He took my Archangels, and used the

God-King’s Taiji mastery to do it.”

Satan’s smirk slipped a fraction. His dark eyes narrowed. “Jue Di? What do I care if Jue Di himself did it? It was your house that instigated the siege all those years ago, and then fought from the back lines. That was what earned Jue Di’s ire. I remember my father forbidding me from revenge. He said he had a great deal of admiration for the God-King. He died of his wounds with those words. In his last hours, he gave me the Dark Citadel and tasked me with stamping out the Hades bloodline. He has no qualm with us. If he’s shown his hand, it’s to strangle you. We have nothing to fear.”

“But I will not waste time bantering with you. You want them back, fine – it will cost you one S-ranked power gem for each of them. Those are my terms, then they’re all yours. A Paragon will be needed to break this seal, and by the looks of it, if you don’t make a decision soon then they won’t be worth much in trade. It’s a pretty good situation I find myself in, you know? I didn’t even do the work, and I’m getting two s-ranked gems. Or I don’t, and I have two less Archangels to worry about. Anyway, none of this was our doing and we’ve let the parliament know as much. What’s next is up to you.”

Satan’s image shimmered and vanished.

The Pontiff’s calm was gone, swept away in the face of his fury. Fluctuating emotion caused him to forget him power, and unrestrained vestiges of his Discipline brightened the room like it was midday.

“I beg calm, Your Eminence,” Metatron entreated. The Pontiff responded with a curt wave of his hand.

“Satan isn’t stupid. This is all an act to humiliate me. So be it, even if it does disgrace me. Be careful, even though all of this was perpetrated by our mystery attacker just to ferment trouble. Adhere to the tenets of the Church, lest the devil take advantage of your weakness. The rest of you will remain together at all times while I’m gone.”

Metatron nodded. “Yes, Your Majesty.”

The Pontiff clapped his hands. A milky white orb of light surrounded him, and in seconds the old man melted in to a column of light. The beams vanished in to the center of the runic circle carved on the ceiling.

Metatron’s mood had soured even further. “Please call High Inquisitor Constantine back to the Cathedral,” he ordered.

“Yes, sir!”

This enemy was wily, and unpredictable. Even aside from taking two Archangels one after the other, he managed to evade the Pontiff’s hunt entirely to deposite their friends in the hands of a bitter enemy. Now, no one had any idea where these two terrorists were. It was like some terrible practical joke. No one had been hurt – yet – but the trouble they’d caused was infuriating. If Jue Di had their back, then what was stopping them from doing it again? He’d already had the courage to snatch up two Archangels, would he be next? Metatron pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed, fighting the headache he could feel coming on.

After a few minutes, the Archangels returned with Constantine. This was what remained of the Citadel’s leadership.

Metatron’s voice was low. “His Majesty has gone himself to retrieve our brothers from the Dark Citadel. To ensure everyone safety, you all be confined to this room until the Pontiff’s return. He should be back in around two hours.”

At the Pontiff’s level of strength, getting to Gomorrah would take a matter of seconds. The remainder of that wasted time

would be spent negotiating with Satan.

The four Archangels voiced no objection. Everyone had been on edge the last few days, and that went double for the Cathedral’s upper caste. Although they knew no harm would come to any of them, the embarrassment was unbearable.

Sariel, Archangel of the Moon, was as expressionless as ever. She took a seat on a nearby sofa. No one noticed her fiddling with her communicator.

The Cathedral was closed to all visitors. It wasn’t the first time, but in addition to all the other frightening happenings, people were on edge. Rumors were beginning to spread.

Lan Jue and Zhou Qianlin idly strolled down a lane. She looked completely recovered.

“I prefer this place to Gomorrah.” Zhou Qianlin let her eyes wander over the religious-inspired architecture.

This made him chuckle. “It means you aren’t a psychopath. Only madmen like to live in the world of darkness. Come, our

business here draws to a close. I owe you a new wardrobe.”

Qianlin shot him a flirtatious smirk. “Not bad… but is all this ‘for security’, or your own interest?”

Lan Jue heaved a sigh, and Qianlin’s smile fell away. Her big eyes looked concern. “What is it?”

Lan Jue’s morose tones hung between them. “All this kissing… what If I get addicted?”

Chapter 383: Rescuing Little Yue

Qianlin’s face turned beet red, and she swatted at him. They were nearing the Cathedral.

The guard was thick, and the entrance clogged with both clergy and Inquisitors. Of course guards were only useful at protecting what they could see. Lan Jue found one of the many electric outlets that powered the structure, and in a flash he was gone.

Within the Cathedral, the High Inquisitor’s office suddenly had a new visitor. It was empty, save for Lan Jue, and surprisingly spartan. In stark contrast to the lavish interior of the Cathedral, this metal-filled office was barely habitable.

Lan Jue expanded his perception. He could focus his eyes on the search, instead of defense. His Discipline would alert him of any living thing drawing near. Nothing! It looked like his plan was working – without the Pontiff here, there was no one who could threaten his life. The place was also absent the Paragon’s all-pervasive omnipotence.

A ninth level adept had quite the scope of perception, but it was the most discriminate power. He could tell if there were

living things, but who could tell if they were enemies, or who were clergy? As far as Lan Jue knew, there was no power that could distinguish friend from foe, and certainly not one Metatron possessed. This was one of the numerous differences between a Paragon and a peak-level Adept.

Sariel’s intelligence continued to prove useful, and it took him no time to find the entrance to the Citadel’s dungeons. She’d told him that it was protected with particularly tough defensive systems that could even seriously injure a ninth level Adept. What those defenses were precisely, she couldn’t say. It was a closely guarded secret of the Inquisition that they operated in concert with the clergy.

This didn’t trouble Lan Jue. No matter what these defenses were, they would undoubtedly require electricity or metal. So long as his objective wasn’t hidden behind a layer of insulation, he could go where he pleased. Lightning coiled up his body as he found a way in. Then, with a crackle, he was gone.

Lan Jue reappeared in a distinctly more dismal locale. He stood in what could have passed as a sepulcher, with a long and dark hallway stretching out before him. The walls on both sides were composed of damp stone. There would be no more electrical corner-cutting from here on out, he thought.

With his perception feeling the way before him, Lan Jue walked on. He stepped carefully, feeling for any fluctuations in energy. However, it was starting to look as though his caution was unwarranted – there didn’t seem to be anything around to halt his progress. Twenty meters in to the darkness a stairwell appeared. His footsteps rang against the stone steps as he descended. When he reached the bottom, an expansive hall greeted him.

The chamber was ablaze with light, revealing the twinkling metal bars of prisoner cages. The cells stretched all the way to the far wall, numbering in the thousands. Amidst the chaotic din he suddenly found himself in, Lan Jue could spy a black-clad inquisitor wandering the lanes.

Lan Jue couldn’t help but balk over the scene. It wasn’t the existence of this place that surprised him – any organization had its secrets – but the sheer number of cages. What were they doing with all these prisoners?

Lan Jue took a cursory look around while still hidden from view. As far as he could tell, none of these prisoners were elderly, and nearly all of them appeared to possess a Discipline. It was a prison of Adepts, almost exclusively.

Why would the Pontiff’s Citadel detain so many Adepts? He didn’t know. The Cathedral was meant to be a place of faith! Who’d believe that, underneath, despair reigned.

Lan Jue crouched, concealed in a dark corner for a few moments. Then he was on the move. He knew he couldn’t remain in one place too long or the inquisitors would find him.

The distance between the two Citadels spanned a planet, but it was nothing to a Paragon. At that level of power, there was no science or machine that could match their speed. After all, a machine had to speed up, whereas a Paragon just willed themselves in to action. A round-trip from one to the other would not take the Pontiff very long.

The cells themselves were made of some sort of alloy. That helped Lan Jue move around a little easier. Some of the prisoners may have spotted him, but not in any form they’d recognize. A flash of electricity, perhaps, or a bolt of dim light. Downtrodden as they were, none paid it any mind.

Lan Jue reached his objective in little time. It was in the farthest reaches of the dungeon; a round altar, with a woman tied to a crucifix in its center. Her long black hair was splayed all around, and plastered to the sweat on her brow.

She hung with drooped head, from hands and feet that had been nailed to the cross. Strangely, though, there was no blood. A pale light swept over her incessantly, from head to the runic circle carved at her feet. The power would flow through her, through the dais to the eight pillars situated around it. The energies would rise and congeal at the peak of each column. Each identical beams of light shot from the pillars, to a golden gem over the prisoner’s head.

Four figured sat at four corners of the altar. They sat with straight back, unmoving, as though they were deep in meditation. Their auras were strong – ninth level Adepts almost certainly – and they were young. A holy light shimmered around each of them.

Ninth level Adepts, yes… but in the early ranks, from what Lan Jue could tell.

The mercenary king approached unhidden. That was no longer a priority. Time was of the essence.

He appeared out of nowhere in a nearby corner, and his appearance stirred the four priests. Each of them slowly opened their eyes, and turned their heads toward Lan Jue. However, before they could even see the details of his face the world was

upended. Everything around them began to swirl and melt until thy had no idea which way was which.

Lan Jue’s hands swirled around one another then, pushing outward from the center of his chest, a pair of white and black beams raced forth. They intertwined to form a roiling beam of yin and yang energy.

The four Adepts felt themselves being wrenched forward. Then, an equally striking and powerful force sent them flailing away in to the distance. Lan Jue leaped up and grabbed the golden crystal from over the woman’s head. Channeling his yinyang powers through the gem severed it from the beams of light that held it in place. He dropped back to the ground, and placed a hand against the rune-etched crucifix.

The woman groaned pitifully as her body moved of its own accord. By some unseen power, she was lifted and detached from the cross. The nails in her feet and hands fell away.

She collapsed to the ground like a broken thing. For a moment, Lan Jue was afraid she was too far gone. He rushed to her side, and lifted her in to his arms. Her coarse breathing and pained whimpers filled his ears.

The four other Adepts were recovering. Shaking the haze from their minds, they looked toward the man and the woman they were responsible for. They watched just in time to see a large yin-yang symbol appear emblazoned on Lan Jue’s back. The power spread until his entire body was equal parts black and white.

It congealed around him, and just before it looked like it would consume him entirely, the dual and opposing forces burst out against the cross.

“Boom–!” A shudder tore through the dungeon as the startling shock wave ripped passed in all directions. They would be feeling that up top, he knew, even if just due to displaced dust. The blast sent the four channeling Adepts sprawling once again.

There was a flash of silver, and the Moonfiend empress vanished in to the interspacial containment ring Lan Jue always wore – the same he’d kept Raphael and Uriel in. He then raced back along the cages as a bolt of electricity to the exit.

No trace of the crucifix remained. Well, a crater smoldered where it had stood and that was all. The hurricane-force blast that tore through was gone as though it had never existed. The prisoners had fared well with the cages to protect them, but the

inquisitors were a different story. None of them were strong enough to withstand the blast, which sent them face-first in to the stone walls. They lay comatose on the floor with enough injuries to keep them there a while.

By the time they came to, their attacker was long gone. A depressingly familiar ear-piercing alarm rang through the Cathedral.

In the inner hall, the meditating Archangels each opened their eyes. Constantine was the first to react.

“That’s the dungeon alarm,” he cried. “The terrorist must have struck there.”

Constantine hadn’t even finished, before Metatron was gone in a brilliant flash of golden light. The other Archangels followed close behind. One after the others, they raced toward the dungeons.

The upper echelons of Citadel leadership knew the significance of what they called the Tribunal. What went on down there was more important even than a few missing Archangels.

Now it was beginning to dawn on them that this stranger’s target may not have been them, but something they had. Something in the dungeon. But what? There were the prisoners… and the Morning Star.

Only the wise would rise to lead the Citadel, and it was true for all of the Pontiff’s Archangels. Now they knew what had eluded them before – this wasn’t about starting a fight. It was a rescue mission.

The stranger had performed a flawless feint, looking one way while moving in another to throw off his scent. Only in the final moments of his plan, when it may have been too late, was the whole picture revealed.

Constantine was overflowing with anger. The inquisition and its Tribunal were his responsibility. The Pontiff’s excursion had forced him here instead of with his men – and now he’d been made a fool of once again. His pride, the Tribunal, had failed in a matter of moments.

Chapter 384: Nine Strikes Of Taiji

He recognized the strength of their opponent’s martial ability. Four ninth level adepts had been guarding the Empress, with a skill that grew stronger as they channeled together. And yet, one single Adept bested them all.

Metatron mulled over the details again and again. Annoyance was etched in the lines of his tired face. He had thought of everything. Everything, except the Empress.

Michael stood a few paces behind the Lord Archangel. He his body was almost completely recovered from his battle with Lan Jue, and in that time his mind had grown sharper. He had his own suspicions about who it might be, or who they might be connected but. Now, though, it was all conjecture. Besides, the victim was most important.

Metatron headed toward the Inquisition officers. A rattling sound followed as the Lord Archangel let his wings unfurl. Twelve spectacular wings spread wide, and he glowed with a golden aura that outshone the sun. The piercing blaze burst out in all directions, enveloping the dungeon in golden luminescence.

Seraphic Luminescence! The slightest details revealed!

An image appeared, suspended in the golden light. A figure, black and white. For half a second, no one moved.

Metatron’s mood changed suddenly. He raised his hands to the apex of his head and pressed them downward through the air. A hundred thousand voices boomed through the dungeons in an angelic chorus. The whole foundation shook as the weight of the whole Cathedral came pressing down on that lone figure.

The figure was Lan Jue. He had gone as fast as he dared toward the exit, but Metatron was no slower. They met each other at the entrance to the dungeons.

Smarts would not get him out of this one. It was time to get reckless.

Metatron was more than worthy of his position as second-in- command. By speed alone he could outstrip any of the other Archangels. Only Michael was able to keep up. Constantine, who’d had yet to recover from his self-abasing haze, was last to arrive.

Lan Jue had managed to slip the mask on his face before their ill-fated meeting, so he didn’t worry about his identity. His next movement was fluid and almost involuntary. He planted his feet as the crushing load came bearing down. He sank lower, but more like a cat ready to pounce. His hands feel toward his waste like sinking through a puddle before gently pushing out from his abdomen. The space before his hands shimmered with black and white power before they swirled in to one another. They spun to create a vortex which forced the focused rage of the Lord Archangel to either side of him. Michael, who’d tried to flank, was blasted away by the errant power.

He performs real Taiji moves during combat. The idea behind Taijiquan is maintaining balance in one’s body for health and defense. So long as you aren’t uprooted by an enemy, a perfectly balanced body becomes like a well-balanced engine; actions are strong, precise, and almost effortless. Taking advantage of the imbalance in your opponent is how you win, if that’s your aim(most taiji practitioners do it to prevent fights, not  win them). The move described above is called many things, but this resource refers to it as ‘Apparent Close and Push’. If anyone is interested in Taiji as a form of health, exercise and self-defense you should really look in to it. The body’s Qi is not some nonsense from fiction writers – you’ll feel it if you learn how your body works.

Becoming a Taiji master was a means to perfecting one’s

understanding of self and improving cultivation. The energies of yin and yang became interchangeable with one’s own Discipline. The result was quicker improvement and fine-tuning of one’s abilities.

In regards to combat and understanding of self, Taiji taught that it was best to use the enemy’s strength against them. There is iron in softness. Artists of the craft perfected their own skills which, while not as directly powerful as the Three Canons employed by the Arhat of the Descending Dragon, were especially suited for their guile and wide application. All together, the moves were called the Nine Strikes of Taiji.

He’d used one to obliterate the runic cross in the dungeon moments before, a move called Deflect and Strike. The second he used now, was called Parry Block and Punch.

Parry, Block and Punch was the only one of the Strikes that was primarily defensive. It was the apex countermove, allowing the master to redirect a foe’s attacks while created an opportunity to strike.

Jue Di had used this skill in his battle against the army of Adepts. It’s defense was so perfect as to make him practically invincible. His mastery of the skill was comparable to

protogenic energy, able to create a Domain by this power alone. It came from a fundamental understanding of one’s place in the universe, and thus was something no one from the West or North would ever come to grasp.

Metatron felt like a void had opened up between them, and watched helplessly as his power was deflected aside. Lan Jue recognized the opening, and pressed his right hand out toward Metatron’s head. The dual powers swirled ominously, consuming everything around it like a black hole.

Metatron fought to keep himself under control, both emotionally and physically. It was important not to get careless in the face of this stranger’s powerful attacks. He dropped in to a low squat while thrusting his right fist forward.

Lan Jue and Metatron’s strikes met mid-air. While the Archangel expected to find fierce resistance, the strange power fell away like punching through a wet paper bag. The energy became a soft breeze that caressed his face.

Lan Jue’s wrist went limp, allowing it to slide around Metatron’s fist like water. Metatron, expecting resistance, was stumbled forward. Lan Jue’s left hand swung around at just this moment and collided viciously with the angel, joining with the

full brunt of Metatron’s own forward momentum.

Strength hidden in weakness! Metatron’s mistake cost him dearly. Still, he was the Lord of Archangels. His body was cultivated to near-peak form. The man was a small step away from Paragon status. His right fist flailed limply forward while his left arm was blocked. But he still had wings.

All twelve of his massive wings beat in unison. A golden light shone from the apex of each, then merged. The radiating light collided with the center of Lan Jue’s fist.

Another misjudgement. Lan Jue’s left hand became strangely opaque, like an illusion. Under the swirling vortex’s guidance, the beam arced away and flashed just passed Lan Jue’s cheek and behind him.

Michael had to dodge again.

With Metatron distracted by his left hand, the ignored right hand came crashing down with explosive force. The angel tried to block, but it was too late. Wielding opposite and complementary powers, using Metatron’s own momentum, Lan Jue’s right hand rose empty, while his left fist settled beneath

his right elbow. The expulsion of opposing powers tore through the space between them like a torrent. Spinning, reversing, consuming and and again in the split second before reaching Metatron.

“Boom–!” The Lord Archangel soared backward toward the stairwell, but at his level of strength remained relatively unharmed.

This was the Third Strike; Fist Under Elbow!

Lan Jue originally disdained using this strike. He felt it less than honorable. After hanging around Fatty Tang for a time, though, well…

Metatron went flying. The other Archangels, by now, had gathered together for an assault. Gabriel, Sariel and Ramiel surrounded him, cutting off escape.

They looked on in confusion as the masked man did the opposite of what they’d expected, and chased after Metatron.

His gait became strange. Each stride swiped from one

direction to the other like a yin yang pattern. The whole area around them began to twist. Reality inverted as yin and yang of all things swapped, a skill not unlike protogenesis.

The absence of a Paragon gave Lan Jue confidence, especially at his current rank. The fact that these angels had never experienced something like this gave him the opportunity he needed.

Lan Jue took seven strides, but they were more than that. The raging qi within him caused his strides to extend. Each one took him dozens of paces forward, like a ball of screeching yin yang energy.

Each step left a dot of light behind, blazing light a star. Where the Fist Under Elbow utilized trickery, this skill was righteous and straightforward.

Before Metatron went soaring, he could feel the opposing forces rip through his body. He had to call upon his Faith to protect himself from being torn apart. He’d also expected this stranger to try and flee, but instead he was rushing forward for another exchange. Each mighty stride caused him to swell until, by the final step, he was as tall as a mountain.

His flickering fist of black energy came tearing down Metatron’s face. The Archangel roared in defiance as his wings blazed with golden fire. A halo more brilliant than the sun hung over his head. His entire body radiated pure golden energy, and as his hands reached out a blade of light pierced through the center of his palms. The golden blades stretched to meet Lan Jue’s descending fist.

Reality around them still shuffled through a myriad of inverted scenes, heaven and earth were interchangeable. The terrible force of this strike used no trickery, and bore no flourish. It was a direct and devestating attack.

Seven Stars Fist!

“BOOM!” Metatron collapsed, his golden blades reduced to twinkling gold dust. Lan Jue swung back again and, netting his fingers together, brought both fists down on the angel. His momentum was so fast that a swirling contrail of black and white followed him. The resulting blast of energy sent Metatron’s encroaching friends flying in all directions.

Downward Fist!

“Boom—“ Metatron took the full brunt of the strike that sent him through the ground, and buried half of his body in the floor.

Lan Jue gave a dark chuckle. With the strongest of their number down, his work was done. He raced for the exit.

A blazing light filled Michael’s eyes. He swept his holy blade toward him, and an arc of light tore out through the air. Gabriel, Sariel and Ramial all lashed out with their own powerful attacks to try and stop him. Constantine swept his hand, and the Spear of Destiny appeared in his grip.

But just as it appeared as though their foe had nowhere to run, he reached out and gripped something. There was a flash of light, and then – nothing.

The Angel of War raced forward, in time to sense the faint vestiges of electricity crackling through the air.

“Bang! Crack!” A series of small explosions reverberated off the wall. They were electrical lines, which burned away until nothing was left but ash. Just like that, the mysterious attacker was gone – a ghost amid the dungeon halls.

Chapter 385: Succeed And Retreat

Lan Jue crouched in a dark corner, hidden in the shadows of an awning. He heaved deep, heavy breathes but there was still the light of excitement in his eyes. The crackling sounds of electricity filled the air as he vanished once again in to a power socket.

He’d planned all of this ahead of time, of course. Lan Jue had been confident from the beginning that the Pontiff had been the only one he need fear. Joined with Qianlin, these bird-men could be bested. Even Metatron couldn’t handle it.

It wasn’t that Lan Jue was ‘stronger’ than the Lord Archangel. The key lay in planning. He knew that everyone in the Citadel feared Jue Di a great deal. Seeing the mystical powers Jue Di possessed set them off balance, and gave him the advantage.

Lan Jue had trained in the mysteries of Taiji for years, but ever since experiencing Qianlin’s Queen of Heaven it felt different. His comprehension had improved by leaps and bounds. Secrets that had been obscured were clear now, and that understanding had helped me escape from the lion’s den unharmed.

Metatron’s face was a pale blue – not from Lan Jue’s strike, but from the internalized anger he was struggling to control. This was the first time since becoming the Lord of Archangels that he’d been so thoroughly defeated. If this stranger had been a Paragon it would be another matter, but he was just an Adept! A man with a Discipline no further developed than his own. Even with all his support, they couldn’t land a single blow. Metatron couldn’t afford to lose this man again.

Metatron had seen clearly that, had he blocked that final attack, his attacker would have needed time to recover. They could have grabbed him them, and kept him locked down with their Discipline. Unfortunately, he hadn’t had the strength to content with Lan Jue’s strike.

Gabriel and Constantine didn’t say anything, but there was disbelief in their eyes as they stared at Metatron. Never once had they seen Metatron employ the full range of his abilities like that. And still, this man who was one step from Paragon, couldn’t stop a single Adept?

It was also the first time they’d ever encountered a power like this. Even now, they couldn’t entirely grasp both the leveraging and explosive force of this martial power. That brutal offensive that beat Metatron to the ground still had them stunned.

Only Metatron himself clearly saw what had happened. It hadn’t been strength – at least, not his enemy’s strength. Through misdirection and subtle influence, he’d used his own condensing powers while borrowing Metatron’s momentum to block others and strike at him.

All of that together had been too much, and Lan Jue was able to flee.

“Constantine, recall all Inquisitors and ask if they witnessed anything. Everyone else, with me. We’re going to tear this city apart until we find him.” The Archangel was absolutely livid.

Metatron was off in the direction Lan Jue had fled. He was a flash of golden light as he raced to catch up with the enemy. The light around him revealed all, a physical manifestation of his divine consciousness that was able to differentiate things that were dissimilar. The Light of Faith

Compared to the Pontiff’s, Metatron’s light covered a much smaller area. While it was an exceptional ability, Lan Jue just needed to remain fifty meters away to ensure he stay hidden.

As the others rushed to search through the Cathedral, Lan Jue

idly strolled down the lane, away from the scene of the crime. Lan Jue wasn’t silly enough to leave the planet directly from Reims, so he boarded a flight to another city, the capital of Eurmania – Europa. Long-distance vehicles were the ones being most closely watched currently, so going directly was asking for trouble.

He didn’t ponder too long on what the Pontiff would do once he returned. His objective was complete, and never once had he used his true Discipline to do it. Puzzling out who he was would be almost impossible. The last time he’d tussled with the Angels he was a rank six. No one would expect him to have grown this strong in only a few short months.

As to being pegged a Disciple of Jue Di… so be it. It was what it was. Anyway, the distinction wasn’t false. In fact it couldn’t be more correct.

With modern technology, commutes between cities rarely exceeded one hour. It held true for their trip to Gomorrah, and it was no different now. Half an hour after take-off, they were in Europa.

Zhou Qianlin and Lan Jue exited the plane together, hand in hand. They stepped out on to the streets of Europsa, and Lan

Jue turned to his companion. “What are the odds of your fiance showing up, huh?”

Qianlin glared at him. “I don’t have a fiance.”

Lan Jue had been bored on the trip, and told Qianlin about the time Richard had sent his goons after him. All the old wounds Qianlin was trying to forget were reopened.

“When are we leaving, anyway? Are we going directly from here?” she asked.

Lan Jue nodded. “But not just yet. The Pontiff has a great deal of clout with the Western government, and a complicated relationship. They couldn’t ignore this even if they wanted to. Right now, all long distance flights are being very closely monitored. So we wait, there’s no rush. Besides, Little Yue can’t stay in interspatial containment too long. She doesn’t look like she’s in very good condition, so we’ll have to patch her up a little.”

Europa was the financial and governmental capitol of the Western Alliance. It was a bustling press of humanity, weaving in and out of renaissance-era buildings that had been

painstakingly brought all the way from the mother world. It lend the whole place a cultural, antiquated charm.

Lan Jue booked them a room in a hotel called The Westin. Unlike Reims, they wanted one of the best hotels the city had to offer.

There had been a need for secrecy in the Citadel’s territory. Europa, though, was absent the Pontiff’s absolute control. They wouldn’t dare brazenly accosting citizens here without governmental consent. Luxury accommodations were also much more conservative with their client’s information, which was another reason he’d chosen this place.

Lan Jue chose one of the nicest rooms available, and they were lead to it. Once inside he immediately turned on the ‘do not disturb’ light, which earned a smirk from the bellhop. He was given a tip and sent on his way.

“You men are all pigs,” Qianlin complained haltingly.

Lan Jue sighed. “I know! And I can’t do anything about it with things between us like they are!”

Qianlin chortled at him. “Serves you right.”

Lan Jue sorrowfully shook his head, then walked in to the bedroom. He retrieved the Empress from his dimensional pocket and deposited her on the bed. She was still unconscious, but breathing. Qianlin saw the ragged holes where she’d had her hands and feet nailed to the cross, and gasped in alarm. She covered her mouth and turned away.

Lan Jue scowled and her took the pirate’s hand. He lifted her wrist to spy the finger-sized hole they’d left. The surrounding tissue had already begun to die. A thick, foul pus ran from her wound, but there was no longer any blood. The wounds in her feet were no different.

She was much thinner than she had been the last time. She was practically skin and bones, and by the looks of her the last few weeks had been torment.

Thankfully, Lan Jue could feel that her life force was still vibrant. Lan Jue’s abilities didn’t emphasize  healing,  and neither did Qianlin’s. The empress, though, did have healing capabilities.

Qianlin acted first. She turned back and laid her hands upon the  woman.  Her   power   flooded   through   Yue’s meridians, clearing them of blockages. Qianlin could feel that she had been sealed, like Raphael and Uriel had been. There weren’t any traces of protogenesis, though.

In Chinese medicine, trauma is said to cause stagnation of qi and blood, which blocks the meridians and prevents nutritive energy from qi and blood from nourishing the injured tissue.

Those gentle, soothing powers continued to permeate through the pirate’s cells. After a time, the seal pulsed and released a faint light. The Moonfiend Empress reacted with a weak sigh. It was clear that torturous ceremony had nearly drained her Core. Luckily, the damage didn’t reach the source. She could recover.

Lan Jue fetched a glass of water, which he handed to Qianlin. She carefully helped the Empress drink a few sips. After a few minutes, color began to return to her sallow face. She opened her eyes.

They were a strange pink in hue, and when she could focus her eyes fell immediately upon Lan Jue.

“Zeus… am… am I dead? But wh-… why would you be here?” Her muttered words were barely audible.

“No,” Lan Jue’s deep voice assured. “You’re very much alive. And so am I. We got you out from the Citadel dungeon. How do you feel?”

“You saved  me?”  She  stared  up  at  him  with  wide  eyes.
Moisture began to collect at their corners.

Seeing the look on her face, Qianlin followed her gaze up to Lan Jue. She smiled.

Chapter 386: The Fifth Amazon

Lan Jue coughed uncomfortably. “Your man came and got me. He said the Pontiff’s men had kidnapped you, and brought you back to the Citadel. Qianlin and I went in to get you out. We still aren’t safe, though. We’re holed up in Europa for the time being. Are you well enough to use your Discipline? Your wounds are serious.”

The Moonfiend Empress was fully present now, and looked from Lan Jue to Zhou Qianlin. Her face was calm, but there was an ache in her eyes.

Lan Jue produced the gem they’d pilfered while rescuing the Empress. He handed it to her. “We’ll talk more later. Right now, you need to restore your Discipline and heal. When you’re better, we’ll get off of Eurmania and find a safe harbor. We’ll talk then.”

“Mh.” She took the gem from Lan Jue without a word of thanks. He helped her in to a cross-legged position on the bed. She held the crystal in both hands, then with eyes closed galvanized what remained of her Discipline.

A short time later, a pale golden aura began to pulse around

her. Lan Jue’s concern was visibly reduced then. So long as a ninth level adept survived, they would recover.

“We should spend time on cultivation ourselves,” Lan Jue urged as he looked at Qianlin.

“Alright,” she responded with a compliant nod.

The Moonfiend empress suffered from grievous injuries, but any Adept whose Discipline was light-based had potent healing capabilities. At ninth level sixth rank, her body’s own inherent regenerative abilities were already strong. Together, it meant her body would recover in a day. The Empress’ Discipline, though, would take time to fully return.

Lan Jue and Qianlin settled in to their meditative arrangement, just as Bize had instructed. It had been proven to do just as the old god of wine had claimed, and speed up their cultivation. After every session both of them could clearly feel improvements in their Discipline. For Lan Jue, this had been building up since the beginning of ninth level.

Their fused meditations immersed them in protogenic energy, infusing them with an understanding they wouldn’t otherwise

achieve. However, although their individual Disciplines improved their power when fused together never seemed to change. It was to be expected, though – the peak of ninth level was the upper limits of humanity. Only Paragons, super humans, could pass that threshold. With their current abilities there was still work to do.

Regardless, they were cultivating at the level of a peak Adept even if their individual Disciplines weren’t there. They could sense the fluctuations of protogensis around them just as someone nearer to Paragon would. All of this was preparing them for their bottleneck, for when they would need to break though.”

Europa was a worthy capitol city. Never once during their stay were they harassed. Lan Jue watched the Western news on the holograph projector for reports on the Pontiff’s Citadel, but none were forthcoming.

Another day passed, and it’s end saw the Empress’ powers back over ninth level. She wasn’t back to her old self – that would need longer – but it was enough.

“When are we leaving?” The Moonfiend empress asked.

“Where are you thinking of going?” Lan Jue looked at her. “The Starfields? I think it might be better if you come back with us first. I’ll have Zeus-1 send you home from there. There’s something I have to take care of first. How about you go back to the Avenue and wait for me there.”

She shook her head. “No, I’m not going back. The Moonfiend Pirates are entirely under the Pontiff’s control now, but for a few. I couldn’t take it back even if I went. And you, you’ve always watched over me. I don’t want to cause you any more trouble than I already have. I am no longer the Moonfiend Empress, that woman is dead. I rise again as the Morning Star. But not the Citadel’s. I shall be Zeus’ Archangel.”

Lan Jue could immediate sense the change in Qianlin’s mood beside him. “Little yue, this…”

The Morningstar’s face spread in a bewitching smile. She looked to Qianlin. “Zeus has his four Amazons, they don’t need me to round them out. My name… my real name, is Su Xiaosu – The Morning Star, Su Xiaosu. I am now the Fifth Amazon.” She rose to her feet and, with resolve in her eyes, bowed low toward Lan Jue.

Lan Jue bound to the side in an effort to avoid the

uncomfortable ceremony. He laughed awkwardly. “Now Little Yue, stop this nonsense. How are you going to be forcing people to control you?”

She rose and smiled at him. “I’m not compelling control. Boss. If you refuse, I don’t mind. I’ll just walk back in to the Pontiff’s Citadel. When they put me down there, my old life was over – I don’t have anything else to return to. If you aren’t willing to accept my oath, then leave me here. I understand, and with four Amazons already you have a lot on your plate. You don’t need a Morning Star.”

Lan Jue spied the easy tilt to her lips, and relaxed. But though she smiled, he could see the sadness and rejection behind her eyes. How could she not? She was entirely alone, without help. Her Moonfiend Pirates were gone, so where could she call home?

What’s more, the Pontiff had harmed her gravely with their torment, and she would need a place to heal.

He heaved a sigh. “How about this. Head back to the Avenue with us first. You can hang around until you get back on your feet, but none of this ‘fifth amazon’ nonsense. I’m just a friend offering a place to stay. Once you clear your head, find a path,

then we’ll part ways.”

“Alright,” she answered reluctantly.

Zhou Qianlin urged her will through the Soul Caller gemstone:

“I guess I know why those other women started hanging around you.”

“I can’t just leave her here helpless! She’s been through a lot, and has been injured. Relax, alright? There’s nothing between she and I.”

“Relax? Why should I have to relax – there’s nothing between you and I!”

“…”

Lan Jue contemplated the decision for a moment more, but in the end he decided it was best to bring the Morningstar back to the Avenue. There was a chance her presence would be

discovered at the adept tournament, but they wouldn’t be on home turf. More troubling was the exhaustive searches going on all through Eurmania and the ships around it. If Lan Jue left her to try and escape on her own, she’d likely be found – especially since she was headed to Skyfire.

With his mind made up, Lan Jue purchased two first class tickets on the next flight to Planet Luo. He then had the Accountant hack in to the transit system and get them an off- the-books third ticket.

The last part was easy; Su Xiaosu was concealed in Lan Jue’s interdimensional transport while he and Qianlin calmly waltzed through the security check.

Chapter 387: History Of The Amazons

It looked easy, but in reality no ordinary person could pull it off. Only Adepts who were eighth level or above could hold their breath for long enough to be transported through a customs check. But this was more than that – the Morningstar was in a complete, compressed vacuum in the interdimensional space created by Lan Jue’s ring. Ninth level Talent was the minimum needed to survive that ordeal.

There also wasn’t any current technology capable of sniffing out a ninth level Adepts aura. At that point security forces just did the best they could.

Once they were boarded Lan Jue and Qianlin sat together. Su Xiaosu sat separately. She was quiet at first, like a refined young woman. No one would ever suspect they sat beside a fierce pirate Queen.

“I’m not sure she’ll leave once she gets to Skyfire Avenue.” Zhou Qianlin let her skepticism be known.

“I can’t very well drive her away in that case,” Lan Jue said with a helpless grin. “You were right, though. All of those girls back at the shop came my way for some reason or another.

Mika’s Satan’s daughter, for example. Ever since I helped her escape, Satan’s harbored a deep resentment. He could cause me no end of troubles at any moment. Xiuxiu agreed to follow me, but we’ve been friends since we were children. We grew up together. My grandfather had his own plans and made the arrangements. Guoguo and Ke’er I rescued from the North. Lin Guoguo’s family is also quite storied, but because of her unsettling Discipline they plotted to have her killed. They’d find another successor, one easier to control. She narrowly escaped death, but Ke’er’s story is the most tragic.”

Qianlin looked surprised that the adorable Ke’er’s history would be so bad. “What happened?”

Lan Jue’s face fell as he recounted. “You probably already know that many of the West’s Adepts got their powers through Fantascia Genetica and other genetic manipulation. That’s largely the reason the West has so many more Adepts than the East. The drawback is that higher level Adepts do not react well to the serum. The risks are very high, and the cost astronomical. It sees some use in the North as well, as part of their Adept creation process. Mostly, though, they’re made by joining human to technology. The two are violently smashed together to force a result. Ke’er was an orphan out there, and grew up in their system. She was born with a Discipline, but it was very weak – first level, just barely. But then they came for her, and started their experiments. They said they were trying

to make a super soldier.”

“They were careful to choose children with no background, no one anyone would miss. The experiments were a series of failures that often left the children permanently crippled. Many died. In their final ‘batch’ of subjects a few showed promise, Ke’er among them. Her core isn’t a real one, but a special s- ranked power gem and her Discipline is mostly from the gem itself. Maybe a third of her entire body is precision military equipment.”

Qianlin’s eyes almost popped out of her head. A child, forced to be cut apart and put back together with a machine, entirely without her will. It was a nightmare, that Ke’er had to suffer through day after day.

Lan Jue went on. “I guess I saved them all, not much different than Little Moon. So you know, what can I do? Could you just let them go their own way and fend for themselves? My only option was to let them stay. They live happy lives now, and the day they decide to leave I’ll give them enough to live comfortably. I didn’t agree to any of this Amazon stuff. I see them as my sisters.”

I’m going to retroactively change the pet name Lan Jue has

for the Moonfiend Empress. Originally, when we did not know her name, I elected to use ‘Yue’ in place of moon (which is what it meant) because I suspected her name might contain the character – many Chinese female names do. I thought it seemed more familiar and affectionate. Little Moon makes more sense, since it fits with her title of Moonfiend Empress. I’ll try and replace previous mentions of Little Yue to little moon to avoid confusion as soon as I can.

This was the first time Qianlin could think of that Lan Jue shared something so personal. She sighed. “That may be the case, and you’re a good man, but what about them? How would they feel about bringing someone else back? Do you expect them to not have any sort of feelings for you whatsoever?”

Lan Jue was taken aback, and grinned at her. “What am I supposed to do about that? There are two sides to every coin, right? The best I can do is not lead them on. You know better than anyone who I hold in my heart.”

Qianlin didn’t want to provoke him or act snide. She just sounded anxious. “You should really think about what needs to be done for these women in the next couple of years. They may grow up and make other plans, but what if they don’t? you’ll just let them stay with you forever?”

“You think I haven’t done that yet? I’ve spoken with each one of them in private about it, but the second the topic comes up the tears come down. Sometimes they cry so hard they can’t speak, or they desperately ask not to go. What am I supposed to do? I don’t even dare broach the topic anymore. The second I start in on it, everything goes crazy.” Lan Jue huffed.

Qianlin gave him a flat look. “From the looks of it, even if my sister were alive she wouldn’t be happy marrying you. Not with so many women following you around.”

Lan Jue humphed. “Hera was nearly so mean as you. She knew all those girls well and never once said a word about it.”

She sniffed a laugh at him. “You talk like you understand women. No ordinary girl would ever approve of sharing her man. My sister was just a good person, that’s all.”

A deep and pervasive pain flit across Lan Jue’s eyes. “Well it doesn’t matter, does it. She’s dead.”

Zhou Qianlin was silent. After a time, she raised her head. “I’m sorry.”

Lan Jue shook his head. “Do you know why I’ve kept you at arms length since I met you? I’m actually still a little afraid of seeing you, because every time I do I see your sister. You two look so similar, I still forget sometimes. I stay away to protect myself I guess, but that leaves you alienated.”

Her eyes dropped to the floor. “I’d be very happy if I met a man who loved me as much as you love her.” What she didn’t express, was her own sadness for her unrequited affection for him.

Lan Jue said nothing more. He leaned back in the big, comfortable first class seat and closed his eyes like he were sleeping.

The ship calmly went on its way. Once it left atmosphere it picked up speed, and then at last Lan Jue could claim victory. The Once-Moonfiend empress, now again the Morninstar Su Xiaosu, was saved. Now that they were out in open space, the Pontiff’s men would have a hard time intercepting them even if they found out they were here. The West wouldn’t send troops after them.

The ship’s destination was the capital of the Northern Alliance, Planet Luo. It was the single largest, populated planet

in all the human colonies. It was the political and economic heart of the North.

This was as much true for Adepts as it was for normal citizens. The North’s Adept organization – The Great Conclave – was located on Luo as well.

Unlike the Western Capital, Lan Jue had been here several times. It also happened to be the home of one of his close brothers. Chu Cheng, successor to the Hades bloodline, had his place here.

This Adept tournament was like a cyclone sweeping through the Adept world. It was one of the greatest occasions in the last decade, and it was starting very soon.

Chapter 388: Planet Luo, Luo City

The flight from Eurmania to the capital of the Northern Alliance took four days.

Su Xiaosu was quiet for almost the entire trip. She sat in thought, silently ruminating her fate. The several times Lan Jue went to check on her, he could see that she was far from her normal self. Of course she never admitted it, instead assuring him that she was fine. All she needed was time to get her head straight.

Zhou Qian Lin didn’t press him any further about the Amazons. On the contrary, she was uncharacteristically warm. It was almost as though she were trying to make up for her past misgivings.

The two of them didn’t cultivated together as they’d done on Reims, but did practice circulating each others’ Disciplines. Lan Jue taught the young politician’s daughter more finely tuned skills in using his powers, while also considering what he’d learned from the use of his master’s Taiji abilities.

Ever since meeting Qianlin – even more since she’d used her powers on him – Lan Jue’s cultivation was significantly faster.

In a few months he’d discovered more than in three years of careful meditation. His decadent days of self-pity were gone, and though the pain in his heart persisted he was able to cope now.

Four days passed quickly, and before they knew it Planet Luo was looming large in their vision. They began their descent toward the capital of the massive planet – Luo City.

This was among one of the most famous cities in the history of humanity, and the economic hub of the Northern Alliance. The place was rife with service and entertainment for visitors, state- of-the-art scientific research facilities, and the Adept organization the Great Conclave. This place was the Jewel of the North, and the heart of Planet Luo.

The ship eventually touched down, and Lan Jue lead the two beautiful women from the hangar. The stewardesses watched him go with a fiery light in their eyes. It was unusual to see a man with such an entourage, to say nothing for his first-class tickets.

Lan Jue found a place to change in to a blue leisure suit and a white shirt. The two-piece ensemble didn’t need a tie. Qianlin was clad in a fine white dress with her sleek hair pulled in to a

pony tail. She exuded youthful exuberance, and her big blue eyes shone like diamonds.

Su Xiaosu was less in the mood for pure beauty. She wore black trousers with a black jacket and white blouse. Her head of full, black, curly hair tumbled down to her shoulders. She looked as beautiful as she did capable. Compared to Qianlin she looked much more professional, and her red-tinted eyes bestowed a very different feel from Qianlin’s cobalt blue. She followed a few steps behind Lan Jue, demur and silent like an assistant.

Two black-haired beauties; one in white, one in black; blue eyes, and red eyes. Although Qianlin was in a class of beauty all her own, Xiaosu had the charm and figure of an experienced woman. Both ladies were of a similar height.

With these two in his wake, it was going to be impossible for them to go anywhere without a host of eyes following.

Now that they were on Luo, Lan Jue wasted no more time worrying over the Pontiff and his cronies. They were safe here, and even if they did run in to some of the Pontiff’s men here they had nothing to fear. So what if he brought Xiaosu? The Pontiff’s Citadel had no proof that he’d been the one to save her.

This being the North, even if they could prove it, so what? Even despite the glitz and glamour of this ornament, the Pontiff wouldn’t be attending. The highest officer of the Citadel would likely be Metatron. With them being so thoroughly embarrassed, he wasn’t sure when they’d show up.

“We’re here.” Lan Jue said in to his communicator.

“Come on out,” a voice urged. “We’re waiting at the front.” The voice drawled on in a lazy tone.

They passed through the security check, and not an instant after they stepped outside was Lan Jue able to spot their welcome party. The man wore a sharp suit of black and red, and was busily flirting with a woman laden with luggage.

“A-Cheng!” Lan Jue called.

Chu Cheng turned his face to the sound. Before anything, his eyes picked out the two beautiful woman at Lan Jue’s side, and his eyes shone with promise. The woman he’d been chatting up was entirely forgotten as he made his way over to them.

“A-Jue, why is it always like this with you! Always with a pretty girl on your arm! It’s a pleasure as always to see you again, Miss Zhou. And who is this new face?” Chu Cheng’s eyes roamed unabashedly over Su Xiaosu’s form. He wasn’t sure of Lan Jue’s relationship with Qianlin, especially considering her similarities to Hera. But this woman was free game, and was nearly as beautiful.

“Hello,” she said, politely extending a hand. “I’m Su Xiaosu, the boss’ new secretary.”

The muscles of Chu Cheng’s face twitched. He turned his face and stared at Lan Jue without uttering a word.

The former Mercenary King scowled. “Your own lady is waiting for you over there.”

Chu Cheng stared wordlessly at Lan Jue a moment longer before turning away. He called for the woman to come over. She did so, haltingly.

Chu Cheng returned to the group. He addressed with a note of embarrassment in his voice. “We, uh, just met. Exchanged a few sentences. Shall we go? The car is out front.” He wrapped an

arm around Lan Jue’s shoulder as they meandered toward the exit.

Chu Cheng’s questions were relentless. “Another one for your store, eh? Fess up, all of these beautiful, feisty, voluptuous women… how do I get me some?”

Lan Jue glowered dubiously. “Can you not? Can’t you take a day off from chasing skirts? You’re like a bee, just mindlessly after honey.”

“Bullshit,” Chu Cheng muttered so just his friend could hear. “Do you think this common woman could compare to either of these girls? So you gunna find me a ninth level secretary Adept or what? Go on and tell me, how many is it you’ve got now? Or maybe we can talk a trade, right? I don’t see Mika here, and instead you brought the new girl. What gives?”

Lan Jue turned his head, and gave his friend a deceivingly warm smile. “I’m not telling you!”

Chu Cheng scowled. “I thought we were brothers!” He almost shouted.

Lan Jue’s voice was thick with disdain. “And a proper brother wouldn’t ask to throw good women to the wolves. There’s a reason any girl who likes you turns out unsuitable. Hell out here they’ve got fire insurance, health insurance, and Chu Cheng insurance – every family knows. I’ll tell you what though, if I ever meet a woman I want to torture, I’ll send her your way.”

“You’re a sour bastard,” Chu Cheng complained. “I always knew there was something wrong with you. Fine, screw you then. I’ll find introduce myself, and if it works out I expect you to stay out of my way.”

Lan Jue waved his hand, wordlessly inviting Chu Cheng to make good on his threat. If he had the balls to chase the Moonfiend Empress, Lan Jue wouldn’t stand in his way.

As anticipated, Chu Cheng’s attempts fell on deaf ears. No matter what he said on their way to the car, Xiaosu replied only with tiny nods or shakes of her head. She didn’t open her mouth once, and her eyes never left her boss’ back.

Chu Cheng could do nothing in the face of her intractable silence. He had to accept defeat.

A gorgeous maglev luxury car was waiting for them outside, and they filed in. Chu Cheng and Lan Jue occupied the front, while the women sat in the back.

Lan Jue spoke up as they went on their way. “Is A-Li here? He mentioned he might be interested in participating.”

“He got here a while ago – even set up a concert on the planet. He really pissed Mo Xiao off, so he’s been paying his dues with a strong of performances. I made another guest appearance when he did the show here, actually. In fact the tournament organizers asked him to do the opening ceremony. I bet he made a pretty penny off of that deal.”

“Does that mean he can’t compete in the games themselves?” he asked.

“Hua Li wanted to, but Mo Xiao shot that idea down. She said unless there was no doubt he’d win, he was staying put. Said it would ruin his reputation.” Chu Cheng grinned.

Lan Jue laughed in spite of himself. “Mo Xiao’s a professional
– she knows the business. What about you? Are you participating?”

“The master has to school the students,” Chu Cheng haughtily assured. “What, you nervous?”

“Oh yes.” Lan Jue nodded emphatically. “I might cry.”

“Well aren’t we an arrogant ass,” Chu Cheng replied, a little surprised. “I can sense that hidden power, not a bad trick. Make yourself seem weaker, right? A wolf in sheep’s clothing!”

The Chinese reads as ‘dress as a pig to eat the tiger.’ It’s pretty fascinating how these things evolve independently, but are still so similar.

Lan Jue chuckled. “You discovered my secret. I guess I won’t have that going for me when we meet in the ring. Oh, there’s something I have to tell you as well. You better mentally prepare for it, because your uncle’s coming with the Avenue’s team.”

Chu Cheng’s eyes popped. “Eh? He actually agreed to come out here?”

He already  knew  of  his  uncle’s  rise  to  Paragon  status,  of

course. It must have been a stunning shock to the whole family. It was of monumental importance to the Hades bloodline. At last, they had a champion to lead the charge against Satan.

Lan Jue went on. “I wanted to remind you and your family not to harbor any false hope for him. He didn’t choose Hades for his title. He chose the Infernal Vanguard. You should know what that means. Aside from him, you’re the only other one of this generation with the potential to reach Paragon. He left that title for you, when it’s your time. But he also left you that responsibility.”

Chu Cheng’s face grew solemn. “The old bastard is shameless!”

Lan Jue snorted a laugh. “Stress is a motivating force. Work for it.”

“When you get to where we are, how much use is ‘working for it?’ The only improvements come from sudden epiphanies. Anyway, uncle coming here is a good thing. Whatever the circumstances, he should come home to visit. After all these years things are sure to have mostly blown over. I asked dad myself, and he said that woman’s death wasn’t his order.”

Lan Jue shrugged. “This is your family’s business. You should handle it on your own. As an outsider there isn’t much I can contribute. As far as I know, the Gourmet has zero interest in going home. He said he likes the Avenue, and liked being the Gourmet. Right, and your new aunt is probably coming as well.”

Chu Cheng nodded in understanding. “When are they coming?”

“Should be soon,” he answered.

Chu Cheng arranged for the three visitors to stay in the same hotel he’d visited before – the Intercontinental. Lan Jue wouldn’t be so brash as to insist on sharing a room with Qianlin, so the three of them had separate suites.

Chapter 389: Tournament Rules

Three people, three separate rooms. Of course Lan Jue and Qianlin would meet at night to cultivate their powers, but it would be done secretly to avoid questions and preserve Qianlin’s reputation.

After the ladies left, Chu Cheng remained with Lan Jue in his suite. “So what’s the deal – what brings you to Luo this time around? The Avenue sent several representatives, young ninth level Adepts, but what’s the North’s play here?” Lan Jue asked.

As a member of the Hades bloodline and under protection of the North, Chu Cheng was naturally a member of the Great Conclave. His all-pervasive disinterest assured, though, that he didn’t have any real responsibility in the organization. But with his reputation, and his ninth level seventh rank Discipline, he was still a well respected member.

Chu Cheng replied. “On the surface, it’s all about friendly inter-Adept exchange. Underneath they’ve got other plans. One of them is of course to see just how powerful our competition is. The sudden rise of two Paragons from the Avenue, and it’s unexpected pressure on the two Citadels has made the Conclave nervous. They’ve changed tack.”

“One of them, you said. What are the others objectives?” He asked.

Chu Cheng’s normally jovial and impudent expression grew serious. “It has to do with those aliens. The North has gathered a fair bit of information about them after several exploratory missions. They even brought back some physical evidence. The science and tech department has been hard at work analyzing the findings. I believe they should share their findings sometime during the tournament. I don’t know the specifics, but if the reaction of the North’s upper brass is any indication than this is serious. These creatures are a hell of a lot stronger than we thought.”

Lan Jue’s face was hard as he peered in to the distance. He knew precisely how strong these things were. Between the Clairvoyant’s forecasts and his own experience on Taihua, there were probably few who understood them better than he.

The universe was vast. There had always been a significant possibility that some strong outside force might be encountered. It was wise for the North to use this opportunity to spread awareness. It was already a danger to the whole of the human species.

Chu Cheng went on. “All efforts in the hopes that we can survive what’s coming. The North already sent three Bastion ships out to the area as a precaution. If those alien planets are found encroaching on the territory, then war is inevitable. The Northern Alliance will be the first to face them.”

Lan Jue nodded. “If they do attack, I’ll be right there on the front lines. I plan to join the military. What’s your plan?”

“Military?” Chu Cheng shot his friend a surprised look. “Shoulder to shoulder with the big guy, eh?”

Again he nodded. “We don’t leave a man behind, right?”

Chu Cheng gave him a thumbs-up. “Word. I guess I’ll kick up some trouble myself if it comes to that, and join the army as well. Hopefully hostilities between the East and North will be forgotten by then and we can join forces. After all, we have a common enemy.”

Lan Jue grunted in acknowledgement. “That’s the hope. Unfortunately there’s a lot of history between the three Alliances. If it isn’t taken care of then It’ll be a serious handicap. So what else, other than this announcement. How is this

tournament going to be run?”

“Nothing complicated,” Chu Cheng assured. “A simply show of strength. There was a period of indecision, but eventually they landed on some rules. Anyone under forty is allowed to participate, and the prizes are well worth the effort. I think at last estimation, there’ll be around two thousand Adepts competing – all top grade adepts. The actual match-ups will be decided by drawing lots so luck is also a factor. I think your first round is against a seventh level Adept. You won’t have any trouble… that is, unless you pull my name out  later.  Then you’re in for some trouble!”

Lan Jue patted his head in exasperation. “When pigs fly. Go on.”

“Well, with so many people they had to keep things simple. It starts with elimination rounds until we’re down to sixteen competitors. Then, they’ll be separated in to four pairs. Once the losers are eliminated, those four will compete. Anyone who gets passed the elimination rounds will get bonus prize – an a- ranked power gem for getting in the semi-finals. Anyone in the finals will get an s-ranked gem, with an extra s-ranked gem for the grand champion. Runners-up will earn stones whose rarity will be based on their final standing. But they don’t accumulate. You only get the highest award you’ve acquired.”

Lan Jue nodded. “Easy is right, but also the best way to go about it. The whole thing shouldn’t take too long to complete. Is it all one-on-one, or is there anything else going on?”

His companion shook his head. “Nope. But I did hear some talk about an all-in mecha melee between the three Alliances. It’s supposed to happen when DreamNet’s completed its upgrades. The idea is to inspire more young people to work hard and join up. Pilots are going to see combat so this is likely to help prepare everyone for what’s to come.”

“Good plan,” Lan Jue commented. “That was also the idea behind our competition with the Star Alliance. Has the North instituted a draft?”

“Not just yet. There’s still some time before the threat reaches us. They won’t just show up on our doorstep,” Chu Cheng said.

Lan Jue grunted. “I’ll get in touch with A-Li. Should we get together tonight?”

This caused Chu Cheng’s eyes to light up. “Call those two ladies! Right, I forgot to ask – where’d Su Xiao Su come from? How the hell did you get so lucky, anyway. You’re always

running in to these gorgeous female powerhouses. If five is finally enough for you introduce the next one to me. I’m marrying age now, according to the family, so they’ve got me set up on all these blind dates. Since our powers are genetic, the family makes to make sure I start on the next generation. Of course, now that I’m supposed to be getting married I’m not supposed to be meeting just any lady. Xiaosu is definitely not a bad fit. Introduce me, I’m serious!”

This is still a common practice, even in big cities in China. It often falls on the parents (read as: they take it upon themselves) to find ‘appropriate’ mates for their children. For men, this means finding a beautiful and obedient woman who will make a good mother. For girls, they want a man who is a) tall b) rich c) well-connected and d) respectful to family. This needs to be achieved by twenty five. Anyone – especially women – over 28 is considered spoiled goods.

The look on his face confirmed his words.

But Lan Jue had long since grown immune from his friend’s false assurances. “Cut the shit. If you want something, take care of it yourself. But don’t say I didn’t warn you – if you do shack up with Xiaosu, you’re in for a world of trouble. You’re already locking horns with the Prince of Darkness, and if you make things worse than even the Conclave might not be able to shield

you.”

Chu Cheng looked stunned. “What do you mean? Does she have some sort of connection to the Pontiff’s Citadel?”

“Have you heard of the Moonfiend Empress?” He asked.

He nodded. “I’ve heard of her. The pirate lord out there in the Shattered Starfields, right? Don’t tell me Su Xiaosu is the Moonfiend Empress! The hell are you doing with a pirate lord at your heels?”

Lan Jue laughed. “Pirate? If only it were that easy. She has another name: the Morningstar.”

Chu Cheng’s mouth fell open.

“You… you sure love to stir shit up! You’ve been back for what feels like a few days and already half the West wants to murder you. I’m starting to see a pattern – screw it, you can keep her. I suddenly feel a great deal of pity for you. They may look like beautiful women, but they’re all time bombs!”

He wasn’t wrong. These five women had more caustic baggage than a nuclear waste disposal truck. Every one of them was trouble waiting to happen.

Back when they were all hiding away in the Avenue, lost in their life of decadence, then there weren’t any problems. No one would come to the Avenue to cause trouble, even if they’d had known they were there.

But once Lan Jue started coming out, his identity was becoming more widely known as was his location. Plenty of people already knew where he laid his head. All of his old rivals and new enemies would never be far behind.

Chu Cheng’s face changed again as he remembered something important. “A-Jue. Are you going to participate under your real name or your title?”

“Zeus,” he replied. “If I hide my face behind a mask, at least it’ll afford me some level of mystery.”

“You aren’t going to participate with the Avenue team?”

Lan Jue nodded. “I won’t be competing on their behalf. The Conclave has given me a good enough excuse as a competitor. Hopefully it’ll protect me from getting assassinated.”

Lan Jue said it like a joke, but it was only half in jest. As the once-Mercenary King he’d made quite a number of enemies. It was just as true for the Conclave as anywhere else. After all, he’d taken both Lin Guoguo and Ke’er from their clutches.

Chu Cheng’s face darkened. “That’s nothing to joke about, bro. You better remember that your name is damn near the top of the conclave’s blacklist.”

This earned a shrug. “What can I do about it? I know what I’m doing – and I’m going in as Zeus.”

Chapter 390: Hua Li And Mo Xiao

Chu Cheng smirked. “Shouldn’t be a problem during the tournament. You’re right – since the Conclave is hosting, they’ve certainly taken security in to consideration. I know for a fact that Adepts have been told to settle their score in the ring only, no matter the situation. Anyone who breaks that rule will have the Conclave to answer to. Of course that’s only until the tournament ends. After that, we don’t care what people grumble about. The Avenue has sent a good group, but I’m still not sure they can protect you.”

Lan Jue laughed. “Alright, don’t go looking for devils where there aren’t any. I’ve got things under control.”

“Well if you have a plan then so be it,” Chu Cheng remarked. “There are still eight days before the tournament, though. Why’d you come so early?”

To this his friend shrugged. “No reason, really. Prepare for the fight. Let me get in touch with Hua Li and we’ll all go out for a meal tonight.”

He dialed Hua Li’s number in to his communicator as they spoke. A moment later his friend’s voice answered.

“A-Jue? You got here?” Hua Li sounded happy to hear from his fellow Monarch.

“Yup. You got some time tonight for a meal?” he asked.

“Absolutely.” Hua Li replied without hesitation.

But just then a second voice could be faintly heard in the background. “Absolutely my ass! You still have to prepare for the tournament’s opening ceremony!”

“Alright, alright – I’ve given you enough face lately. Give me a damn second to myself, will you? A-Jue and A-Cheng are both here. Worse comes to worse I leave early for rehearsal.” Hua Li complained.

“Fine, I need to eat too so I’ll go. That way I can make sure you don’t run off again.” The woman’s voice continued.

Hua Li could only sigh. “Looks like Mo Xiao’s coming too, A- Jue. Is that alright?”

The Jewelry Master laughed. “Of course, of course. I brought a couple female friends, they can talk.”

The connection ceased, and Lan Jue wondered out loud. “Poor Hua Li sounds like he’s living a nightmare. Mo Xiao has him locked down.”

Chu Cheng laughed at his friend’s misfortune. “You think this isn’t your fault? Mo Xiao was uber pissed when he ran off last time, so much she almost quit. Hua Li’s had to make up for that ever since. Alright, well, you go ahead and rest first. I know a good place for dinner, I’ll make the reservations so you don’t need to run around.”

With that, Chu Cheng left. Lan Jue then took a shower, laid on his bed and pondered the tournament to come. Like he’d told his friend, he could only represent himself this time, and mustn’t show his face around the Skyfire Avenue team. If he didn’t, a discerning observer might be able to guess who Zeus really was.

Although Lan Jue didn’t fear any of the Adepts who would attend the tournament, he didn’t want to bring trouble to the Avenue. This was especially true after his little excursion to the Pontiff’s Citadel. Even if he had to use his Taiji abilities in the

fight, the Pontiff’s men wouldn’t be able to link him to the Avenue. He’d only b representing himself.

He didn’t know who the Gourmet brought with him to the tournament. From what he could gather, though, the most likely candidates were; the Driver, the Coffee Master, the Beautician, the Barber, the Seamstress, the Pharmacist and the Accountant. If there were more, he wasn’t aware. The Doctor would probably make an appearance as well.

It was a very strong showing, and certainly enough to properly represent the Avenue in the tournament. While none where peak-level Adepts, it was important to remember that all of them were natural Talents. They got to where they were through hard work alone, without any shortcuts.

The North and West had their own methods for creating Adepts, remolding people in to powerhouses. However, when it came to one-on-one battles a natural Talent had a slight advantage. That was one reason why he had been able to employ his dual Disciplines effectively against Michael and survive. Those Adepts that used these methods were not only inferior in a fight, but also found breaking through to Paragon status significantly harder.

These competitors from the Avenue were their top fighters. They weren’t many, but they were all of appropriate age, and all were higher than ninth level. Then there was the newly minted paragon, the Gourmet himself.

Lan Jue tried to contact the Gourmet, but there wasn’t any answer. It was likely they’d already left for Luo, since coms weren’t used during interstellar travel. This was true for civilian travel of course – military vessels didn’t have this restriction.

Dusk fell across Luo City, and only then did Chu Cheng reappear at Lan Jue’s door. He told the Jewelry Master to gather his two female friends and they would leave for the restaurant.

Chu Cheng had chosen a traditional Eastern eatery. Hua Li arrived not long after they’d been seated, with a woman in blue business attire at his heels. Just as she threatened, Hua Li’s Agent and the famous emcee – Mo Xiao – had come along.

“Hey hey, A-Jue! A-Cheng!” As ever, Hua Li was covered from head to toe. He only removed his glasses and facem ask after walking in to their private room. Mo Xiao walked in behind him, and removed her sunglasses. Though they were large enough to conceal half her face, they were far less extreme than

Hua Li’s costume.

Many restaurants in China – especially the nicer ones – have separate dining rooms for guests

“We aren’t late, are we?” Hua Li asked. He didn’t look any different from the last time they met. He was working more, but it didn’t seem to affect him all that much.

Lan Jue smiled. “Nope, right on time. We just got here ourselves. It’s nice to see you, Mo Xiao – it’s been a while.” He smiled amicably at his friend’s agent.

Her face was a frigid mask, and she only acknowledged him with a nod. She never uttered a word.

Hua Li scowled at her.

Chu Cheng was wise enough to skirt the awkward pause. “Take a seat, guys. Let me introduce everyone; this is Hua Li’s agent and the CEO of Gobi Entertainment. If you pretty ladies were ever interested in how business, then Mo Xiao here is the one to talk to. Best agent in all three Alliances, without a

doubt.”

“Hello.” Zhou Qianlin beamed her a pretty, friendly smile.

When her eyes fell on Qianlin they grew even colder, but there was surprise behind them. “Hello. You look quite a lot like someone I knew!”

Qianlin shot Lan Jue a glance. “You mean my older sister. We were very much alike. Lan Jue’s made the same mistake.”

The memories caused his face to redden ever so slightly in embarrassment. ‘Made a mistake’ was an understatement.

Wrinkled marred Hua Li’s brow. “Stop acting like everyone owes you money, Mo Xiao. If you keep acting like this how are people supposed to eat?”

Mo Xiao stared hard at him. Her tone was thick with anger. “Who made you run off the last time, huh? Do you know what kind of damages your disappearances caused the company? Lan Jue was the reason for the whole thing.”

Lan Jue chortled. “You think we were going to elope or something? Relax Mo Xiao, alright? Hua Li’s cute but I’m for more conventional fare.”

Hua Li’s face twitched at the underhanded comment. It caught Mo Xiao off guard for a moment too, but she recovered with the same venom as before. “I don’t care about whatever nonsense is going on between you. So long as it doesn’t affect my job.”

Hua Li had had enough. His voice rose. “Will you give it a rest?! We’re here as friends having a meal. If you don’t want to be here then you can get lost – I’ll be back before it affects any of your precious company plans.”

Mo Xiao was silent for a moment, then moisture began to creep in to her eyes. “Y-… you yelled at me! Fine! I’m leaving!” She shot to her feet and did as she promised.

The jovial atmosphere was gone, destroyed by their emotional display. Hua Li’s face was pale, and his features angry.

“You just gunna let her go?” Lan Jue prodded.

The entertainer hesitated, but eventually rose to his feet and followed after her.

Lan Jue sighed. “These two… Mo Xiao’s a good lady, she treats him well. Hua Li’s just projecting.”

“Sounds like gossip,” Chu Cheng urged. “Let’s hear it.”

“It was Hua Li himself told me,” Lan Jue began. “He said he likes someone, but it isn’t Mo Xiao. I think that’s probably the real reason Mo Xiao’s upset. She’s an amazing lady who’s been with him for years, I really don’t get what Hua Li has a problem with.”

Su Xiaosu interrupted, unexpectedly. “Feelings like that don’t come up just because you’ve been with someone for a long time. Especially you playboys, with a heart of iron!”

Lan Jue winced, and Chu Cheng openly laughed. “There’s wisdom in that. But there’s clearly something wrong between the two of them – it’s not that simple. It was pretty terrible of her to embarrass him that way when out with friends.”

Lan Jue motioned toward the table. “Let’s order. We’ll eat when they get back.”

Chu Cheng lookedh is way. “You think Hua Li will bring her back?”

“Yup,” he replied, without hesitation.

Chu Cheng raised a brow. “What makes you so sure?”

Lan Jue winked back. “Wanna bet?”

Chu Cheng waved a hand. “Nope. You’re a right bastard, and I only gamble when I’m sure to win. Alright let’s get some grub.”

Lan Jue was proven right a few moments later, and  Chu Cheng was wise not to gamble on the result. It was only a minute or so before Hua Li and Mo Xiao returned to the table. Mo Xiao’s eyes were red like she’d been crying, but the chill in her expression was gone.

“I apologize. I’ve been too tired. It’s made me uptight and

hard to be around.” Mo Xiao addressed the group. She said it with a demure smile, but it was clearly forced.

Lan Jue grinned back. “It’s no problem, of course. Let’s eat!”

The comforting food of home made for a fine meal. They partook of heavy meals and light snacks arrayed atop the table. Once they were done, they topped off with a plate of fruit.

“A-Jue, are you afraid participating in the tournament as Zeus will cause problems?” Hua Li asked. Like Chu Cheng, he had his doubts.

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