Skyfire Avenue Chapter 401-410

Chapter 401: An Informative Battle

The last time the two sparred Lan Jue walked away with the man’s Harlequin Silver. Now he knew the ins and outs of the Barber’s power well.

He was very skilled in speed and force. A solid mastery of Wind made the councilman even more dangerous. Considering the Barber’s age, his future looked bright. He’d said during their last confrontation that there were no ninth level ninth rank Wind Adepts yet. Of course Lan Jue disagreed – his brother was living proof that there was.

Luckily for the Jewelry Master, the Barber was still unaware of his sudden drop in power. He would be hesitant to try and test Lan Jue’s limits directly.

The Barber waved his hands, and the air became thick with condensed air. They were visible only by a shimmer, but where sharp enough to cut through bone. The wind blades filled the air, then fired toward Lan Jue like a hail of arrows.

There were different cultivation methods even among Adepts of the same Discipline. For example, the smallish guy from the Driver battle was specialized in wind-accelerated speed. The
specialty lacked direct attack force, which was why he turned to machinery to help. Strength and control together made him a capable foe.

His decision was not a poor one, but there were consequences. A Bionic was no longer entirely themselves. Their blood was part machine fluid. Breaking through to Paragon became far more difficult once an  Adept surrendered himself to the  knife. In fact, in all the history of humanity the Terminator was the only one to achieve this. Through some unknown method, he joined his body with machinery to break through the barrier to super-human status. It had been reputedly as dangerous as it was mysterious.

The Barber did not possess the same comprehensive grasp of Wind that the other man did, his strengths lied elsewhere. In the future it was likely the Avenue denizen would far outstrip that Northern contemporary.

Every Adept was faced with a choice; take the short path to power, or build on what you were given. The Driver’s opponent probably came to a barrier he couldn’t breach, and elected for help to overcome it. Most Adepts with adequate Talent didn’t choose to become Bionics.
That was not to say there weren’t advantages to making the change. At the very least, machinery and science could make them stronger almost over night. In the North they called it Stratified Refinement, and many low-order Adepts chose this path. For most they knew that advancement beyond a certain point was hopeless. The desire for strength was especially strong for these unfortunates. It was for most the best way, as the West’s Fantascia Genetica was both expensive and uncertain. At worst, a failed surgery resulted in being maimed.

The wind blades joined together in a veritable tidal wave that covered the entire arena. It was a move to prevent Lan Jue from fully employing his terrifying speed.

He didn’t have any illusions that he would beat the vastly stronger Lan Jue. His hope was that he’d be able to stick it out a little longer this time. He knew – or thought he knew – that Lan Jue was a seventh ranked Adept, and you couldn’t feasibly overcome that at his level. The sour look on his face was due to that realization.

Dappled sunlight shimmered as the rain of wind blades covered the sky. Lan Jue was on the move. His advance wasn’t quick, but steady. With a wave of his right hand there was a flash, and lightning condensed in to his trademark spear.
He thrust the weapon forward, then it blasted outward like a column of explosive energy. Every cutting slice of wind it encountered was dissolved. It carved a path directly toward the Barber.

The Barber paused. He half-expected Lan Jue to start with his overpowered Forest of Lightning, and had his next moves planned accordingly. Now the whole thing was scrapped – Lan Jue was taking a different approach.

A close-quarters battle, eh?

The Barber was as touched as he was stunned. For someone so far above his skill level to elect for a close-combat battle was clearly a way to give him face. This was more a friendly exchange than a competition.

The remaining blades of wind came fluttering back to the Barber’s hands and fused in to a spear of his own. The cyan- hued weapon was surrounded by the sound of buffeting winds – the sounds of his elemental gathering to strike.

“Die!” he hollered, as the councilman lunged right for his adversary. The spear of wind became ten roaring beams of light
sharp enough to cut steel. It cut at Lan Jue and all the areas around him. It was an imposing scene to run head-first in to.

With a grunt, Lan Jue tore his own spear through the air. Where it passed, a sizzling crescent of energy was cast outward. The Barber’s thrusts and Lan Jue’s sweep collided. A blast of energy resulted, that nearly knocked them to the ground.

It was important to remember that lightning was explosive, but it also had a tendency to spread. Wind, alternatively, had a powerful coverage and cutting force. Both were strong, at their level much of these battles came down to mastery, control and application.

The intensity of their collision continued for a long moment, with thunderous roars and stabbing light punctuating their meeting.

Meanwhile the Barber was focusing his concentration. He could feel himself becoming one with the tempestuous winds swirling all around. The fierceness of his earlier attacks was somehow softer – but no less frightening. Like a strong man behind a gentle face, these attacks could punch a hole through a man if they weren’t careful.
Lan Jue faced the change calm as a spring morning. His spear of lightning thrust out again and again, sometimes disappearing entirely from view. Like his opponent, Zeus was resonating with his lightning element. There were benefits to this, of course – such as a tremendous increase in his Discipline’s direct damage – but there was also an increasing element of uncertainty. Lightning and thunderbolt Disciplines were inherently chaotic. One could never rely on them completely in the heat of battle.

Speed versus versatility. Wind against Lightning.

The two competitors forget the tournament. They forgot time. There was only their encounters, clashing again and again. It was clearly the closest battle yet of this second round.

“Time!” The buzzer called for an end to their exchange.

The two of them separated, eyeing one another. Lan Jue’s face was hidden behind the golden mask, the the Barber was all smiles. “That was excellent,” he exclaimed. “I surrender.”

He walked off the arena without another word, and without looking back.
Though no one could see, a small smile crept in to Lan Jue’s features as he watched his countryman leave.

Even though his abilities had dropped to second rank, it still wasn’t very difficult to win victory over the Barber. Aside from his two Disciplines, he also had a wealth of experience and understanding that Barber simply didn’t have yet. The Avenue representative had lead the pace of the battle, but that was a result of Lan Jue’s guidance.

An Adepts first order of mastery came from understanding their own element, and adroit use. Comprehension of one’s truth allowed them to know their place in the universe they lived in. From there, one could begin to trace the path of protogenia. That’s where the road to Paragon began.

Lan Jue flt that if the Barber spent time pondering their battle, the benefit to his journey would be significant. As for the Barber, though he didn’t say anything it was clear the animosity from before was gone.

Lan Jue allowed his spear of lightning to dim and eventually vanish, as he descended back t other arena from overhead. He, too, was quiet for although he didn’t not learn so much as he suspected the Barber did, it was the first time he’d had a serious
fight since the reduction in his Discipline. He was remembering a lot of the nuances to the rank he’d long since forgotten.

The situations were very different, between now and when he’d achieved ninth level the first time. Now he had the comprehension of a peak-ranked Adept, and that made the details of the rank clearer. Like watching a movie a second time, subsequent viewing revealed secrets you’d missed before. It would certainly come in handy during the process of recovering his strength. A strong foundation would make the breakthrough to Paragon easier. Their brief but illuminating exchange has been good, and he could feel the tendrils of second rank within his grasp.

It had come to the end of the second round. The one thousand seven hundred challengers had been whittled down to half. Around eight hundred remained to test their mettle in the third round.

Beginning from this point on, their tournament field would be undergoing some changes. They next leg of the competition was still elimination rounds, but the arenas were a sight larger. Fewer adepts would compete per batch to accommodate. The audience won by getting a better view of the action, whereas the Adepts now had more space to really let their powers flourish.
Lan Jue left the tournament grounds with the other competitors. Zhou Qianlin was waiting for him.

In terms of means of communication, Qianlin and Lan Jue certainly were not lacking. Through their blood bond, and the Soul Caller stone there was no need to call out. Once they were within a certain distance they could sense precisely where the other was.


“Alright, let’s head back,” he greeted. He took her by the hand and turned to go. He was in somewhat of a rush, with the looming promise of a breakthrough on the horizon.

What he didn’t see was the Pharmacist, standing a few feet away. Jun’er clutched her mother’s hand, and stared sightlessly in to the crowd. Luckily she didn’t have her helmet on. Her mother had a look of disappointment behind her eyes. Then, as though remembering something, she gently shook her head.

“Mommy, where’s daddy?” The little one turned her face up toward her mother.

She answered with a smile. You could hear in someone’s voice if they were smiling. “Daddy’s busy sweet heart. He’ll come
back when he’s finished.”

“Do you think daddy will be upset if I use the helmet big Uncle gave her?” She asked, with a note of worry in her little voice.

Now the Pharmacist’s face bore a full, warm smile. “Of course not, dear. The helmet big uncle gave you is even better than your old one. It won’t hurt you as easily as the last one might. When daddy hears about it, he’ll be very happy.”

The helmet – brand new and top of the line, had been the Terminator’s gift to little Jun’er. He’d had it tailor-made with nothing but the best technology the North had on offer. Of course, nothing but the best would be provided to the Paragon’s request. Not only did it offer better quality, but it also was less likely to cause damage.

When they got back to the hotel, Lan Jue turned to Zhou Qianlin. There was an inquisitive look in his eye.

Chapter 402: Hades’ Hospitality

Although Qianlin suspected something was going on, she didn’t immediately ask about it. Her face reddened as she bit her lower lip.

Part of Lan Jue’s insistence was for her benefit. He could have broken through the barrier to rank two alone,  but  wanted Qianlin to experience it as well. Differences in how quickly two people climb the ranks lie in how quickly they could strengthen their energy.

Adepts beneath the rank of ninth level ninth rank could envelope two people. Although Lan Jue couldn’t directly improve her Discipline, he could help to strengthen her body. A strong temple was important for a strong Discipline.

The speed and strength of their combined powers was strong when they melded together – right to the peak of ninth level. He went rigid as the energy struck him like a flood, with shimmering electric purple light exuding from his pores. The pulses of energy evaporated his own clothing. This happened a total of three times before Lan Jue broke through completely to second rank.
Even though he and Qianlin were at the peak of ninth rank level when joined, he could still feel that their total power had increased somewhat since the last time. Their Disciplines were more vivacious.

It was important to remember that the peak of ninth level wasn’t a point, so much as it was a plateau. When an Adept’s power reached a certain point, there they would remain until they discovered the Path to Paragon. It was similar to the discrepancies in hand speed among God pilots. Any pilot with a hand speed over forty was considered God-ranked, but  they were practically children compared to God pilots with hand speeds in the eighties.

Naturally, there were also differences among Adepts when they got to such lofty heights of power. The vast majority of peak-level Adepts remained there for their entire lives, never able to comprehend the secrets of protogenia. This was the strength of a solid foundation and unceasing cultivation.

While the situation he was in wasn’t ideal, Lan Jue didn’t begrudge Bize her actions. By now he understood the reasons, and understood that in the end it had been the clairvoyant’s idea. He suspected that everything he’d experienced since encountering Bize had been carefully arranged by the former Avenue leader. Even down to her taking their ‘altruistic blood’,
and the change in powers it produced.

Having to go over ranks you’ve passed before certainly seemed on the surface to be a monumental waste of time and effort. The advantages came later, when the Adept reached his peak. With the benefit of a strong foundation, breaking through to Paragon would be much easier.

It only went to show how precise and pervasive the clairvoyant had been. The deeper he went down the rabbit hole, the more he saw the old man’s gentle touch.

When it came to the Clairvoyant, Lan Jue was thankful for the old man’s guidance. Btu he was also terrified. It felt like every step he took the Clairvoyant was watching. Although he didn’t know how powerful the old man was in a fight, but his powers of prediction and control alone made him terrifying even compared to someone like the Terminator.

He remembered that his old teacher had been loathe to speak of other Paragons, but the Clairvoyant was mentioned on more than one occasion. He even recalled notes of admiration in the crotchety man’s voice.
Everything was trending toward improvement. A year, that’s how long it would take at his current pace to get back to where he was before the Bize incident. He won’t be back where he started, however – he’ll be in a much stronger position for future growth, at the very least. In three years, he’d probably reach the peak of ninth level. This was a speed comparable to his brother’s, though not quite as fast.

The thought made him laugh. He wanted to be better than his brother, but of course it wouldn’t be an overnight thing. He couldn’t even remember how many times Lan Qing beat him when they were young.

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The Dark Citadel’s coterie had been set up in the Nice Hotel, a famous Western chain that spanned the Alliance. It wasn’t as expansive as the Intercontinental where he stayed, but it had an ‘old-world luxury’ charm.

Lina sat in the hotel bathroom, sulking. Her hope had been to gain some attention during this tournament – to be noted. Her Discipline wasn’t overly strong yet, but she was a third rank ninth level Adept at twenty-four years old. The jump to fourth rank was very close as well. Among the denizens of the Dark
Citadel, she showed the most promise. Most importantly, it was all natural. She hadn’t used any genetica potions or bionic installations to get where she was.

It hadn’t only been Dracula watching her performance. With her tremendous talent, Satan was watching, too. He was, after all, on the look-out for a successor. He’d praised her on more than one occasion, and even gifted her several items to help with her cultivation.

But who could have imagined! Only the second round, and she runs in to that hateful playboy. Her loss had been as bitter as it had been unexpected. That was not to say she didn’t know a fair amount about Chu Cheng and the contentious relationship his family had with Satan’s.

The Lord of the Underworld and the Prince of Devils had always been at odds, regardless of who held the title. It was an interesting balance of power, where no one side could completely destroy the other. Both were Paragon-level Talents, perennial leaders of the world of darkness. So, their struggle continued through the generations.

Ever since the interstellar migration of humanity, the darker side of the Adept world had been growing strained. Darkness
simply wasn’t the prevalent force. This was not just shown by the presence of the Pontiff and his people, but the structures of government as well. If Satan ever had any plans to subjugate the West to his bidding, the path would be long and nearly impossible.

The result effected certain groups more than others. Vampires, for instance, could only drink the blood of animals and not humans. This contention, however, was what the world of darkness believed was necessary to obtain strength. Even inheritors needed to prove themselves, and this was why neither Hades nor Satan would ever be wiped from memory. Satan’s plan was to strengthen his lead and expel his enemies, not obliterate them.

“Bastard!” Lina raised her hand as though to hit something, but let her arm drop a moment later. Thinking about her loss was difficult, especially how it happened. The wretch had even dared to chain her down! When she’d been released, she couldn’t help but take that cheap shot. She had to restrain herself from trying to tear him limb from limb.

Ding-dong. The doorbell interrupted her angry internal discourse.
“Who is it!” She asked impatiently.

“Room service,” a voice from outside explained.

Lina rose and, with a frown, pulled open the door to her room. “I didn’t order any room service.”

She saw the man with the tray, but his face was covered by it. The tray’s contents were also concealed by the large metal cover.

“People are iron, and iron becomes steel. You can only do that if you eat – even when you lose. Otherwise it’ll start to affect your growth!” The man allowed the tray to drop, revealing his grinning face.

At first, Lina didn’t know how to respond but then her anger swelled. It was the man from the tournament! He closed the gap between them, brandishing the tray. A blast of hot air struck her as the cover was removed.

As an Adept of some power, her reaction time was good. She took a step back, almost instinctually, as the hot air caressed her
face. It wasn’t until after her initial defensive reaction that she smelled the mouth-watering fragrance.

Chu Cheng sauntered in to her room and closed the door with the tip of his foot.

“Get out of here! Who said you could come in?!” Lina was starting to get her senses back, but not before the guy had brazenly sauntered in to her room.

Chu Cheng, with helpless expression, placed the tray down on a nearby end table. The contents were revealed to be a salad and a couple steaks.

“Two t-bone steaks, medium, with Angus steak sauce and a Caesar salad. Ah right, and this.” With a theatrical wave of his hand, Chu Cheng produced a bottle of champagne and two fluted glasses seemingly from nowhere. He set them up beside the tray.

“I know you’re upset because of your loss today. For me at least, good food is the best comfort. If it’s that important to you, I’ll report to the judges and surrender. You’ll be able to take my spot and continue up the ladder. What do you think?” Chu
Cheng asked with a smile.

“Who needs your charity,” she spat. Her words didn’t match her emotions, though, as the anger she felt was slowly beginning to subside.

Th red-haired young man pulled out a chair for her to sit, in an old-world gentlemanly style. “You should eat, the food it starting to get cold. We can talk while we eat, alright? If at any point you don’t want to continue, I’ll get up and leave.”

The savory scents of the steak had already filled the apartment. He was right – in her anger, Lina had forgotten lunch. It hadn’t bothered her before, but the food was here in front of her now and her stomach had begun to grumble in response.

With a cold sniff, she plopped down on to the chair.

Chu Cheng elegantly moved to the side of the table, where he effortlessly popped open the bottle of champagne. Pop! The cork flew free from the bottle, but instead of tearing through the air Chu Cheng caught it in his fist. Holding the bottle by its bottom, he filled the two glasses. The happy fizz of the alcohol dispelled
some of the chilly atmosphere.

“I have a friend who tells me that champagne is the only drink appropriate for singers,” Chu Cheng began. “He says its filled with the sound of music. There’s something about it that immediately puts people in a better mood, and helps them forget their troubles.”

As he spoke, Chu Cheng handed one of the slender glasses to Lina. He smiled disarmingly, and tapped the crystal glass to hers. Ting! Came the pleasant sound.

Chu Cheng took a small sip, then put the glass back down on the table. He gathered up a napkin and silverware from the tray, then handed them to Lina before getting his own.

“It’s my pleasure to dine with such a beautiful woman, thank you.” He said.

Lina replied by sipping her champagne, then tearing in to the steak without another word.

Chapter 403: How Could You Be So Shameless?

Chu Cheng served her as a gentleman might. Lina Lee continued to hold her hold.

Sumptuous steaks were a treat for vampires. There was blood, but not a lot. Adepts in general had mighty appetites, and t-bone steaks were a fine remedy.

Due to the universal appeal of T-bone steaks, Chu Cheng did not sit idly by. He was never one to waste.

The bottle of champagne quickly vanished between the two of them. Lina’s eyes had brightened, though Chu Cheng couldn’t tell if it was the alcohol or the food. Her pale face now had a healthy pink glow, making her stunning beauty even more apparent.

“Hey.” It was the first word she’d spoken since they started eating.

“Hm?” Chu Cheng gave her what he fancied was his most charming smile. He looked at her questioningly.
She looked back at him with her head canted to the side, an odd expression on her face. “I want to ask you something.”

“Please,” he said, “I’m an open book.”

Genuine curiosity played on her pretty features as she leaned closer across the table. She fixed his eyes with her own. “I really want know… how you could be so shameless!”

The young gentleman’s face froze, but for a tick at the corner of his mouth. “You’re, ehm, direct. I’m, uh… at a loss for words.”

She frowned at him admonishingly. “Loss for words. You have fewer scruples than a thieving leper. Don’t be coy, I know your game.”

In Chinese, having a ‘thick face’ means one is shameless (the idea being that you have ‘so much face’ that you can afford to lose it by doing shameless things). The original text reads “Guys like you have a face thicker than the Citadel’s walls.” It’s cute.

Chu Cheng’s face relaxed in to a lopsided grin. He looked at
her with a raised brow. “Fine – you’re right. I am shameless. But tell me, how much is pride worth per pound, hm? I have a good friend, Lan Jue. He said, ‘A man who does not feed his pride is invincible.’ This is true in pursuing women – you must be shameless. Either you succeed or you don’t, so to me there’s always a fifty-fifty shot. And for a woman as amazing as you, the chance to live that life is worth my pride. Tell you what, give me a chance. We’ll just chat, straight up. What do you think?”

ζ

Lan Jue, having just broken through to the next rank, sneezed suddenly. He furrowed his brow, and rubbed his nose.

ζ

Lina’s gave him a flat stare. “Who knows how many women you’ve fed that line to. None of it is going to work on me. You playboys are slime, I can’t think of anyone I hate more. I could see you were trash from the moment I laid eyes on you. You’re a pig, now get out.”

She actually uses the word rascal – 无赖 – which uses my Chinese last name as part of it, heh.
As she spoke, she got up and waved him toward the door like a fly.

Chu Cheng looked to her clean plate, then to her frigid expression. With helpless expression he rose to his feet. Though his face bore a forlorn expression, he said nothing. He set about carefully piling the dirty dishes and napkins back on to the tray and even wiped the table down. He set the lid back on the tray, took it up, and finally walked to the door.

As he passed her, Chu Cheng offered a slight nod. “I’m sorry to have disturbed you.” With that said, he walked around Lina and left without looking back.

A sudden and inexplicable chill raced through her as she watched him leave. This cheeky shit, she thought. Shouldn’t he be a sticky sleeze like all the others? Instead he left without any fuss. Almost as though he really didn’t have any ill-intent.

Those steaks had been delicious. And juicy. After she shut the door, Lina realized the anger that’d burned at her was gone.

ζ
The last two days of competitions was the most watched stream in all the Great Alliances. Each round, each match left an impression on the audience.

After the fights were finished, analysts looked over the fights and hand-picked which ones to rebroadcast. Several were already emerging as classics, with views in the millions almost right away. Surprisingly Lan Jue’s fight with the Barber was not the most viewed, but in fact was Chu Cheng’s.

In terms of valuable content for Adepts, the Lan Jue’s fight was full of excellent footage. The common viewer, however, sought drama. A fight between a man and a woman never failed to draw eyes, especially when the woman looked like Lina. The drama of her hidden appearance, then Chu Cheng forcing her to reveal her gorgeous frame and figure – it was so perfectly watchable as to be almost scripted.

Chu Cheng was also a draw, representing the North and the Great Conclave. As he’d been unfortunately reminded by his run-in with the robot earlier, there was no shortage of screens trained on him.

It didn’t take long for the sweeping banners of their faces to be plastered all over the web. There were conversations about
other fighters, pictures as well, and they rose and fell in popularity too. With so much to see, the adoration of the crowd was fickle and hard earned.

However, when the tournament organizers took this opportunity to have the crowd pick their favorite losers, Lina was one. The other was the Barber, who unfortunately fell second to the vampire heiress.

She was a true femme fatale.

Lina was stunned by the news. To lose so badly, but be voted back in by the people was completely outside of her expectations. It was a very pleasant surprise. The loathing she felt for Chu Cheng eased – just a little bit.

The competition entered its third day.

The original three thousand plus competitors had since been whittled down to a little over eight hundred. Lan Jue found the waiting area considerably less stuffy.

Meanwhile, the tournament field was changing once again.
One hundred arenas were reduced to fifty, and their breadth increased in kind. All the shields were reset to adjust for the changes.

Lan Jue needed no time to recover or adjust afer breaking through to second rank since he’d done so already. He’d spent his night playing with Jun’er until she fell asleep, then returned to Qianlin and continued their cultivation.

A few snobbish Adepts wandered the waiting area loudly boasting, but most competitors concealed their excitement behind a calm face. Most were quite pleased with themselves having already earned fine rewards. For each round they climbed, things would only get more extravagant.

Lan Jue stood by himself in a corner, silently hoping his luck would change before they drew opponents. His last two encounters were far more difficult than they should have been if one considered the odds. But even if he did run in to someone his own strength, he always had an ace up his sleeve.

Lan Jue was no longer escaping attention either. So far, his fight with the Barber was the second most-watched recording in the net. Expert commenters were lauding it as very educational. Many already begun to suspect the masked man was the Divine
Monarch – Zeus.

A great deal of Zeus’ fame was due to Thor. He was a famed pilot, but no one had ever seen him in contest as an Adept alone, without his storied mecha. It was for this reason his fight was second only to the crowd-pleasing Chu Cheng battle.

There were others, of course, who had already captured the imaginations of the crowd, though they were not yet so flashy. Among them were powerful as a thunderbolt Pharmacist, the seemingly invincible Constantine, and the strikingly beautiful Sariel.

The decision to restrict competitors to forty or below proved inspired. These young figured quickly became heroes in the eyes of the audience, and especially for the youth. It seemed evident the experience of these games would resonate in the lives of generations to come.

The viewer numbers continued to climb as the tournament continued. So far, they still hadn’t reached the vaulted heights enjoyed by the Star Alliance and Divine Monarch fight, it was important to remember that these were still the preliminaries. When it came time for the finals, things would be drastically different.
Lan Jue was told all about the Terminator and Jun’er. He found it quite funny. The enormous man, feared for his power, was a giant teddy bear to a little blind girl.

And calling him Uncle, like those two were anywhere near the same generation? Hilarious!

Hilarious, but only very quietly. Making his mirth known to the Terminator would be asking for a very complete and painful demise.

“Selection has begun.” Once more, the tournament system began assigning opponents. Eight hundred faces appeared in the sky over the arenas and began to arrange themselves in pairs.

Silent prayers filled the hearts of the Adepts. Now that they were coming closer to the semi-finals, they knew most of the weaker competitors had already been eliminated. Chances were the person they faced next would be a true challenge, nothing less than eighth rank.

Lan Jue watched calmly from his corner. He didn’t want to face a powerhouse, but if he did than so be it. He didn’t mind much leaving the ranking lower than expected. He’d come
mostly just to participate, hoping for no higher than the semi- finals. Already it was proving to have a very positive effect on his cultivation.

As if to spite him, Lan Jue saw his opponent. Now with so few competitors, the portraits above were much larger. Such strange luck he had, when things went well they went great, but when things went bad… well, you fought Lina.

He couldn’t believe it. He’d watched the fight between Chu Cheng and Lina, and it was quite illuminating. Although Chu Cheng had won, he’d had to show some real muscle to do it. Lina was a third rank, but her dual Disciplines made her a double threat.

Chapter 404: Zeus vs. Lina

Lan Jue was in trouble. Even returning to second rank wasn’t going to assure him of anything against Lina. Winning this fight would not be an easy thing.

His opponents were getting stronger one after the other! At this rate he’ll be fighting Constantine next. He fault like he wanted to cry but couldn’t shed a tear. Well, if this was to be the way, then this was the way.

At some point Chu Cheng had slithered near unnoticed. He didn’t fear speaking openly with Lan Jue. Most people – especially in the North – knew that Chu Cheng was Hades of the Divine Monarchs.

“That’s some stellar luck there, brother! You’ve got my woman!” He clapped a hand on to Lan Jue’s shoulder.

“’Your woman’ already, eh?” He gave Chu Cheng a skeptical look behind the mask.

The red-haired scoundrel chuckled. “Hey I learned from the best, am I right? Victory was easily won. Now I’m telling you, if
you hurt her I will write you off for the rest of our lives. That woman is your future sister-in-law.”

Lan Jue snorted. “Do you think if my sisters-in-law and I linked hands we could make a circle all the way around the field?

“I had no idea Big Brother was so popular with the ladies,” Chu Cheng cooed.

Lan Jue looked like he wanted to vomit. “How could you be so shameless.”

Chu Cheng gave an irritated sniff. “Lina asked me the same thing yesterday. What’s the point? Pride isn’t something a woman can hold, something to comfort her. Look at Big Brother. Anyway, you better be careful. Don’t hurt her.”

“Hell, then how about you ask her to go easy on me,” Lan Jue lamented.

Chu Cheng looked like he was choking. “And you aren’t shameless? A Divine Monarch even I have trouble trouncing
sometimes and you’re asking for protection from a woman? No courage, man. I’m ashamed to call you brother.”

“Ugh,” Chu Cheng squared his shoulders. “Now get ready, you’re early, right?”

Indeed. Lan Jue and Lina were in with the first batch. Their time in the spotlight was nearing.

Chu Cheng’s face split in to a sinister smile as he watched his brother-in-arms leave for the arenas. He wasn’t an idiot – he knew Lan Jue’s Discipline had taken a hit. How much, he wasn’t sure, but he’d seen Lan Jue’s last fight. He looked like a match for Lina.

Kick some ass, girl. Spank the crap outta this guy. Chu Cheng had no trouble cheering for his compatriot’s opponent when she was a beautiful vampire princess.

Lan Jue and Lina stepped in to opposite sides of the arena at the same moment. Dracula’s heiress was not covered in the thick black coat from the day before. Today, her full figure was on display with a form-fitting cat suit. Her dark red hair fluttered at her back, flailing like tendrils of fire behind her cold
face. Her sharp eyes were pinned to him, like a predator eying its prey.

Lan Jue gave her the slightest nod of acknowledgement.

In appearances, no one of the Divine Monarchs could come close to Hua Li’s famed good looks. Lan Qing and Lan Jue looked similar – as brothers do – though the elder sibling had a much less hospitable face. He was like a robot, programmed to be as grim as a paranoid android and that meant the exciting element of chaos wasn’t part of his charm. Lan Jue had the grace of a gentleman, with fine looks and temperament. He wasn’t as handsome as Hua Li, but his heroic façade earned some heated looks.

Chu Cheng and his brothers had their differences, but he wasn’t counted any less. In terms of looks he was considered right there with Lan Jue and Lan Qing. His appeal came in uncertainty and juxtaposition. Although he was a descendant of Hades, he was a fiery and manly youth. That was, until he employed the Hades power, which was gloomy and cold. He was the proverbial wild card.

Lina Lee couldn’t see the small smile behind Lan Jue’s mask, but she returned his greeting ith a nod of her own.
“Three, two, one. Begin!” The familiar buzzer rang, and another round of fights began.

Once more Lina was the first to react. This time, however, she didn’t choose the high ground. Instead she raced along the ground at incredible speed, appearing a short distance from Lan Jue in the blink of an eye. She waved her hands through the air. Time seemed to stutter, and cracks appeared in reality all around Lan Jue.

He couldn’t afford to be careless against someone so close to his own power. Like him, she also had two Disciplines so it was not an advantage he could depend on. He still had the advantage of experience, though, both in combat and in Discipline mastery.

Dazzling flashes of purple preceded the flashes of Lightning that tore through the air around Lan Jue. It was a forest of terrible lightning that consumed everything in ten meters around him. A Forest of Lightning, on a small scale!

Lightning’s explosive power was hard to contest, and under the thunderous assault Lina’s advance failed. She skidded to a stop when she saw her interdimensional tears dissolving away.
The Vampire Princess reacted. It was clear she had absorbed the lessons of her last fight with Chu Cheng, for once again her shadow blade appeared and she joined with it. In the face of his Forest of Lightning she did not flee, but as the weapon of shadow pierced right in to its center. A hazy aura of black was the only thing protecting her from the chaotic storm. Where the blade went, a trail of darkness followed, and in its inky wake time rippled like water. Before long an odd and unsettling bubble had begun to form around her. Like a surgical strike, the shadow blade pierced straight through, right toward Lan Jue.

What the… So aggressive.

Lan Jue hadn’t expected her to pull out such a strong counter attack right away. In the time it took for his face to fall in to a scowl, he had retreated to give himself some room. Almost instinctually, his hands sprang up and bolts of lightning congealed between them. Lan Jue leaned to the side and brought up the newly-formed spear of lightning to deflect the shadow blade away.

Out in the bleachers, Qianlin carefully watched the battle from a good seat. She had been surprised to discover Lina Le would be Lan Jue’s next opponent. It was fortuitous, because the two of them had discussed her fight with Chu Cheng the day before. They carefully analyzed her style, Disciplines and
weaknesses.

Who would have thought he’d have such sour luck! Yet here she was, a powerhouse… but not invincible.

Qianlin wrung her hands as she watched. This was the first time she was really feeling regret. She blamed herself for Lan Jue’s drop from seventh to second rank. If he were at his true level of power, this woman would be no problem. But now…

Bang! Sparks flew and the black blade and shimmering spear met. Lina had him on the defensive, and was mitigating her power. Lan Jue, meanwhile, was simply trying to maintain. She had the upper hand.

He stumbled back with a gasp. The spear in his hand had dimmed, and was growing darker still as a strange, infectious darkness consumed it.

Both of their weapons were the result of condensed Discipline power. His weakness allowed her power to infect his own – another indication of his poor prognosis. The front of his spear turned black and fell away.
Lina hung in the air for half a moment before plunging back toward her foe. The air filled with the thick scent of blood, a distraction that occurred just as the shadow blade vanished from view. Lan Jue felt his back tighten – in the same moment that impossibly sharp blade of shadow appeared behind him.

For a split second the audience saw two Linas; one in front of her opponent, and one behind. They came at Lan Jue from two angles, cutting a deadly cross with him in the middle.

Chu Cheng wasn’t among the first batch of contestants, so he carefully watched the battle from the sidelines. He winced as he watched the scene unfold. “Ferocious,”  he  muttered appreciably.

Despite the violence of her assault, the strike would not land. She cut right through him like paper, before his image shimmered and vanished.

An electric clone, to get him out of that tight spot. He appeared away from her pincer trap, safely across the field. Spots of golden light grew in his palms, them exploded toward the two Lina images.
The two vampire princesses melded in to one ,and the shadow blade slowly pushed itself out from inside her.

Ba-bang! Two deafening peals of thunder caused the arena’s force shield to shudder. It was Lina’s time to be on the back foot, because she had overestimated her abilities. She thought she could dodge, but obviously could not. The result was a bolt of lightning right to the gut that swallowed her up in a blast of electric light.

She felt all the energy inside her scatter, like a panicking crowd. She’d used an interdimensional shield to protect her from the blast at the last minute, but it still had an effect. She was quickly losing her lead.

Dodging the blasts individually was not a problem for Lina. Lan Jue’s genius was in positioning; he’d used the blast  to isolate her means of approach, so that she had no choice. She could dodge but that would give Lan Jue the space and time he needed to press the attack. She went for the most  direct approach, and suffered for it.

Lan Jue blasted forth a third ray of electricity. This one looked thicker and more robust than the first pair. He then leaped to the side, rushing for the far end of their arena and
putting more distance between himself and the vampire.

“Well are you a man or aren’t you?! What are you running from!” Lina hollered after him. The offended Lan Jue sobbed inwardly at the injustice. She certainly shared Chu Cheng’s biting commentary.

Although Lan Jue bemoaned the curse, he was not still. His electric spear was back and strong as ever. He turned to face her, and instantly his persona changed.

The calm, almost gentle aura he emitted was gone, replaced with a berserker rage. The roiling bolts around him flashes and began to shimmering with golden light. His majestic appearance was so strong as to cause Lina to stop in her tracks. She dodged his third blast, but did not approach further.

This aura… Disgusting! Lina’s eyes narrowed in loathing as she stared at her foe.

Lightning – especially yang-lightning – was a manifestation of Upright Qi. It was anathema to the yin-evils of the darker Disciplines. Unfortunately for Lina, that was precisely what category her powers fell in to. In that way, his Discipline was
already a restraining force on hers.

That’s the real English name for it in TCM. Zheng Qi, or true/upright qi, is what the body uses to combat exogenous pathogens. It is composed of both yin and yang, though it is a more yang-focused function.

Lina, though, was also possessed of expansive combat experience. She knew that the fight would be more difficult against someone whose Discipline counters hers. She also knew how to react.

Chapter 405: Experience Prevails

The dark aura dispersed like a fog before hurricane winds. The shadow blade in her hand also changed, becoming a thin silvery rapier. The whole of her actually seemed transcendental, sort of separate. The oppressive threat of her aura was missing.

Darkness turning to dimensional Discipline!

A knowing smirk spread across Lan Jue’s face, hidden by the mask. Things were turning out just like he’d hoped.

He thrust forward with his spear, but slow enough to make the motion obvious. Shimmering electric light converged on the tip of his spear. It was taken from all around, gathered from out of thin air. When enough of it had come together, a massive dragon of writhing lightning exploded toward the Vampire Princess. The golden lightning serpent seemed to roar as it burned through the air.

Even just the pulse of energy released by the strike felt staggering powerful. The air around him warped and shimmered. The figure of Lan Jue vanished as it was consumed by the lightning dragon.
Lan Jue was very familiar with Dimensional Disciplines, thanks in part to his time with the Wine Master. The different in power between the Paragon and Dracula’s heir was too wide to calculate, which allowed Lan Jue to unravel some of her peculiarities. Any bit of information was valuable in such a fight.

Lina had begun the fight with joining her two Disciplines together, resulting in a finely honed offense for him to contend with. Luckily for him the process took time, and she was just beginning to understand how the two fit together. In this way Lan Jue was much further ahead than she was.

He was starting to come up with a plan.

Lina began to furiously wave her rapier. Each swing came with a tearing whistle that pierced the air. A hundred thousand tiny tears appears around her as the blade split reality in its wake. The lightning dragon smashed in to her hazy shield , resulting in a teeth-rattling explosion.

In the midst of that fiery abyss, she could see him. Lan Jue’s outline was visible against the fires and electric light, but was moving before she could react. He was airborne again, but only until he changed in to a bolt of golden lightning. With a crack of
thunder, he launched himself directly at Lina.

Boom! Lina staggered backward a few steps, and Lan Jue reeled backward. His retreat shifted effortlessly back in to a charge. He needed no time before racing right back toward his foe.

He’s so fast! Lina was fast, too, but found herself struggling. Although she was able to ward off his attacks as they came, each one wore her down by degrees. She was starting to fall behind.

Chu Cheng – watching from the sidelines – smirking in spite of himself. “Audacious,” he said in appreciation.

Lan Jue’s strategy was simple and direct; play his strengths against her weaknesses.

Despite Lan Jue’s drop in actual power, he still had the benefit of knowledge. His mastery of the  lightning  and  thunderbolt dual Disciplines was well beyond other Adepts of this rank. This included Lina, and her Shadow-Dimensional Disciplines.

When considering just pairing, shadow and dimensional
powers were stronger than lightning and thunderbolt. However, all of them were the peak of pure elemental power.

But this revealed another problem. The Disciplines were too strong. Individually they were prosperous and worked alone. There was no correlation between her two powers, which made finding a way to merge them effectively a difficult and lengthy process – maybe even impossible. Lina wasn’t there yet. This wasn’t a joining of her powers she used now, instead they operated in unison.

In this regard Lan Jue was leaps and bounds ahead of Dracula’s daughter. Lightning and thunder were natural allies making their merger much easier. Along with his experience, it gave him an edge.

The strategy he was using now required his two Disciplines to be joined. Lightning’s speed and thunder’s explosive power – together called Thunderbolt.

This had been the Driver’s tactic as well. Lightning first, accompanied by Thunder. Together there was impact force, explosiveness, and kinetic lethality. The three traits made Thunderbolt a destructive force that was hard to match.
Lina was experiencing the totality of what that meant just that moment. In a rush she’d allowed her control to slip and her interdimensional powers took over. There was no chance of merging them now. Under constant assault from Lan Jue’s speed-of-light attack she retreated, step by step. Every second drained her, and took away any chance of fighting back.

Lightning was the fasted human-based Discipline there was. That was underscored by the unending, torrential rush of Lan Jue’s attack.

Spectators saw the arena become enveloped in golden light. Lan Jue was gone, but the dramatic figure of Lina was cut against the column of golden lightning. She valiantly swiped and slashed, but was still retreating. It looked as though she were nearing the borders of their ring.

“You want a fight?!” Lina roared and bit her tongue, filling her mouth with blood. She spat, leaving a vibrant red streak against the silver light of her sword. Instantly, the weapon burst in to crimson fire. She bore her burning weapon high overhead, and the tournament field was suddenly flooded with an aura of defiant strength. With the whole of her powers behind her, Lina pushed back.
The world around them became a nightmarish world of blood red. Horrific, ripping waves of energy were so strong they warped reality around them. Through the  bloody  haze,  an arcing boomerang of intermingled shadow-dimensional power screamed his way.

It aimed to cut directly through the golden ray, but the ray changed, ever so slightly. It’s trajectory shifted just a few centimeters – enough to allow a single, slender bolt to slither passed.

Lina was exhausted. Her last-ditch effort had failed. Her grim face was starkly lit by golden light as Lan Jue’s attacks overwhelmed her. The ring was consumed by a booming explosion.

“Winner: 315.”

Lan Jue stood on the field, his clothes sticky with sweat. If only she knew! If Lina hadn’t had gone off half-cocked like she did, there was a good chance she could have won. It would have even left a mark. That final blast of power was lethal. The ancient power of blood joined with Discipline… she didn’t want to win, she wanted to kill him! If that had landed even years of bed rest wouldn’t have seen a full recovery. Determination was
putting it lightly!

Lina lay on the floor, drained. His parting gift had been that final bolt of lightning, which leached away what remained of her exhausted Discipline. She got to her feet, but just barely. She fixed Lan Jue with a murderous glare, then on shaky legs, turned and left.

Lan Jue rubbed his mask. Damn, what did I do to earn that kind of hatred? If looks could kill…

What he didn’t know was the emotional state Chu Cheng had put her in. She was confused, angry, embarrassed. This masked man couldn’t know how hard it was for her to show up today and compete. He definitely didn’t know her secret desire to face Chu Cheng again. Her dreams of redeeming herself by humiliating Chu Cheng were dashed by this stranger. He’d stolen revenge from her.

Lan Jue had no idea. Chu Cheng, though, had an inkling.

Hade’s descendant trotted after Lina. It was fine, he assured himself, since his fight wasn’t until later. He couldn’t give up an opportunity like this.
“Lina… are you alright?” He swept around her to block her path.

“None of your business.” Lina slapped his hand away and walked on.

It wasn’t hard for Chu Cheng to see the bright red streak of blood on her pale face. He wanted to say something but she didn’t give him the opportunity. He could only follow.

They proceeded to the exit of the arena, where Lina slipped out through a gate. Chu Cheng attempted to follow, but was blocked by a robot attendant. “Competitors who leave the arena grounds will forfeit their match!”

Chu Cheng froze in his tracks. Lina looked back just long enough to shoot him a glare full of loathing before stomping off.

A few steps later she heard something from behind her.

“I forfeit.”
Linda suddenly felt like her body was very light, a though a gust of wind could blow her away. There was a yelp of surprise, then a pair of strong arms were holding her up by her waist. She looked over to see Chu Cheng’s concerned and handsome face looking down at her.

Did he really forfeit?

Her wide eyes searched his for a minute before she blurted out, “Idiot! What are you thinking, giving up? You represent the Northern Alliance! You’re as thick as alpaca manure!”

“It was for you,” Chu Cheng answered. He smiled then said, “I guess being thick is worth it. The North has a bunch of other strong Adepts to take my place – they don’t need me. You’re hurt, let me take you home. The tournament doesn’t matter.”

With that, he took a long step across the boundaries of the sports arena.

Lina felt… complicated. She just watched the man give up his chance at fabulous riches, and at his power maybe even the top spot. He really didn’t want all of that?
As they walked on, Chu Cheng began to relay a story. “Yesterday, after I left, I thought a lot about what you said. And you were right… I’m a shameless playboy. I’ve been with many women, and I’ve enjoyed every moment. When I was with them I was happy, I loved them. When I was young I always yearned for that perfect, beautiful thing. I would accept nothing but the most beautiful woman. I tricked myself in to thinking it was charity. But as time went on I began to notice things. When the infatuation and excitement would invariably go, I could see that a beautiful face didn’t always mean a beautiful soul.”

“I was lost, but gradually I began to understand what I really wanted. Now I won’t deny my love for beauty hasn’t diminished
– that exists in the hearts of all men. Still there needed to be more. I needed to see the goodness of them, the beauty of their heart and not just their bodies. Only that kind of woman could I ever love forever. I’ve experienced a lot… seen it all. Maybe tomorrow you’ll leave and I’ll never see you again. Maybe we’ll get married in a whirlwind ceremony. Either way, that’s tomorrow. It starts now, if you give me a chance. Let me get to know you, because I need someone to cause trouble with long term. My playboy days are over.”

“But, I’m in the West,” she stuttered, “and you’re in the North. Then there is the little matter of our family’s mutual hatred.

Chapter 406: Spoiled Goods

Chu Cheng laughed in surprise. “Before I’d have no way to answer your concern. Now, though, this isn’t a problem. You’re right – I am a descendant of the Hades bloodline. However my uncle had already broken through to Paragon. Eventually we’ll have someone to content with Satan himself. If I get Paragon, than the prince of devils will not be leading the Dark Citadel for long. Your family has always followed strength, so our enmity isn’t with you – it’s with Satan and not his brood. There exist no conflict between our dark families, and I hope that if we should wrestle control from Satan, then Dracula will follow the Dark Citadel as he always has.”

Chu Cheng was certainly chasing a dream, whether it was what he said or simply to spend time with Lina was hard to say. Inwardly he chuckled – he may have lost the tournament, but it wasn’t for nothing.

Lina sniffed. “Anyway, I’m not interested in spoiled goods.”

“Spoiled…. Spoiled goods?” Chu Cheng looked at her with wide eyes. “You’re calling me defective?”

She smirked at him. Although she was clearly hurt and tired,
the smile still bore a vibrant, devilish charm. “By your own admission you’ve had many women. How could something so thoroughly used not be broken down? I come from a noble house, and have no interest in poor quality. Let me go, I’ll walk myself home.”

Chu Cheng’s heart lurched. His heartfelt and protracted speech had been for nothing. It was like a slap to the face – this chick let it go in one ear and out the other! Not everything he’d said was a lie. In fact a good chunk of it was totally genuine. It didn’t have the desired effect, though.

“Never mind. Even if you aren’t interested the least I could do is send you home.” Chu Cheng sighed.

“Then can you take your hands off my ass?” She snarled back. “I don’t want to have to chop it off.”

“Heh.. ehm, habit. It’s a habit, my bad. I’m sorry.” The unfortunate truth was it really was his habit. The ultimate goal of putting his arms around a woman, presumably.

No wonder she wouldn’t give him a chance. Righteous words, sure, but idle hands…
Chu Cheng didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. He reeled back like he was shocked. She wouldn’t have to worry about cutting her ass off if he cut these devil hands off, first.

Chu Cheng walked with her to the entrance of the Nice Hotel. He looked at her, full of sincerity. “I’m sorry to have caused you trouble. I promise I never had any ill intentions. I hope that the next time we meet, I’ll have bested Satan and gained control of the Dark Citadel. Maybe even we’re still unattached, we could give it another shot. Goodbye.”

Unrelated to the story, but China has a funny habit of being very on-the-nose with their naming sometimes. The Nice Hotel is a real place, I think, but it’s not out of place in China. In my town we had a chain of pizza joints called Best Pizza. Much to my amusement, it was later bought out by another franchise, OK Pizza. The quality of the pizza remained poor.

With that said, Chu Cheng began the lonely walk back. He might have been an… amorous youth, but he didn’t mean any harm. The lady had clearly expressed her disinterest, and he wouldn’t press her. In this regard, he kept to a very strict moral code.

“Hey!” Lina’s sharp voice challenged from behind.
“Hm?” Chu Cheng stopped, and half turned to look back at her.

She looked at him for a moment. “I’m hungry, and I need to have these wounds looked at. Go get me something. There wasn’t any command in her voice, more like one would address an old acquaintance.

Chu Cheng’s eyes lit up. In his experience, half the battle was getting passed the door.

“Only because you gave up the tournament for me,” she quickly added. “That’s the only reason you get to hang around, right, so don’t get any ideas.”

Chu Cheng pressed his right hand to his breast, and delivered a very gallant bow. “It’s my honor,” he said with a smile.

ζ

Lan Jue saw Chu Cheng chase Lina out of the arena as he left the field. He saw his friend step out and forfeit with his own eyes. He caught Chu Dong’s expression out of the corner of his
eye. No doubt he knew what his son was up to.

Lan Jue wanted to help his friend, but that was out of the question. He was done, but the Pharmacist was still here. She waved at him as he left the ring. Lan Jue made his way over to where she stood, stopping a few feet away. There was nothing preventing contestants from watching other fighters from the sidelines.

“What up?” Lan Jue asked.

Frowning, the Pharmacist asked, “What’s going on with your Discipline? Yesterday I thought that business with the Barber was on purpose, but from what I saw today I can’t help but suspect something. Otherwise, you wouldn’t have had such a hard time.”

“No big deal,” Lan Jue assured. “I did drop a few ranks, but we’ll talk more about it later.” It was important to remember that he was Zeus here. It wouldn’t do for the famous ex- mercenary and Divine Monarch to be seen speaking at length with an Avenue woman. The Pharmacist recognized this as well, and said nothing further.
On the VIP platform.

The Terminator held Jun’er, and they both watched the fights from their overhead vantage. He explained events to her as they unfolded. To have a Paragon as a personal narrator was a blessing little Jun’er couldn’t even begin to appreciate.

“That was an interesting fight, that one. The masked man is very smart, and has great control over his power. He wasn’t as strong as the girl, but his use of Discipline was shrewd and ruthless. He never gave her a chance to catch her breath. At the end she managed that final gasp, but it was her relative inexperience that lost her the fight.”

“Mmm, hmmm.” Jun’er thoughtfully nodded her head as though carefully considering the giant man’s words.

The Terminator continued through a bemused grin. “After all that all you have to say is ‘mm hmm’? Tell me, Jun’er… you’ve seen three days of the tournament. Who do you think will win?”

“Mmm, let me think,” she muttered. She shut her eyes tight and pondered.
The Terminator couldn’t keep the ghost of pity from showing on his face, just for a moment. What was the difference if she had her eyes opened or closed?

A moment later, however, his pity turned to shock. Jun’er was different as well.

As she closed her eyes, a small but distinct pulse of energy arose. It burst outward like a ripple on a lake. In its wake was a strange field of energy that looked… almost like a Paragon’s Domain.

For this little girl, with no perceivable Discipline, to reveal such a power was inconceivable. Domains  were  pure protogenia, so how was it possible this child could do it?

The little pocket dimension vanished as quick as it had come.
Her eyes popped open, but she looked drawn.

“Hard to guess, but they were familiar… maybe mommy or daddy. That’s gunna be the winner.” Jun’er tittered as she ‘looked’ out over the field.

Chapter 407: Jun’er’s Discipline

The Gourmet was just as taken aback by Jun’er’s sudden change. The others were unaware – her brief power had been weak enough so that only he and the Terminator in the first row could see it.

Just like the Northern Paragon, the Gourmet’s expression was strange. It matched the peculiar thought that tickled at his mind.

In a sweet voice, the Terminator spoke to the little girl. “Jun’er… can you see what’s going to happen? If you really think hard, can you know what’s in the future?”

Jun’er canted her head and thought. “I guess so. But I can’t tell if it’s real or not. I didn’t used to, but it started ever since I started weapon daddy’s helmet. Since I could see what was happening outside, maybe I could start seeing what was going to happen.”

The Gourmet looked at the Terminator, his eyes sharp and full of unspoken meaning.
Jun’er, perhaps sensing something, snickered girlishly. “You don’t need to be scared, Uncle Gourmet. Big Uncle wouldn’t hurt me, he’s a good man.”

The Terminator heaved a sigh at her words before handing the child back to the Gourmet. He shook his head with a rueful chuckle. “The Avenue will be the Avenue, I suppose. As leader of the Conclave the last thing I want is for Skyfire to have another Eye of Tomorrow, but from a human perspective there is no better news. Especially since…” he trailed off.

The two old Paragons had exchanged only a couple words with the young girl, but it was clear to them her Discipline had awakened. She was an Adept with an amazing and rarely encountered gift of prediction – just like the Clairvoyant.

More importantly, Jun’er was only five or six. For her Discipline to awaken so early meant it was destined to be strong. With the Avenue’s help, it was certainly not unthinkable that little Jun’er would grow to become another Clairvoyant!

This was precisely the reason why the Gourmet was nervous. They were in Northern territory against a an enemy they maintained a cold war with. The Terminator was staggeringly powerful and on home turf – there would be little chance the
Gourmet could protect Jun’er if the big man really wanted to hurt her.

It was an irrational fear, though, as he well knew. The Terminator wouldn’t hurt a small child, by virtue of his reputation alone.

The Gourmet was still agitated as he embrace Jun’er. There was a lot to consider. An awakened Discipline meant years of careful training and great expense of time and resources. However things might be different for the young seer, since the Clairvoyant was still alive in his state of suspension. With his help and guidance, it could save her untold amounts of effort. The Clairvoyant would be passing soon as well, and would need to find a new owner for the powerful Astrum he bore.

That was getting ahead of the situation, though. An Astrum had to resonate with an Adepts’s Discipline before it could be used properly. If that turned out to be true though, then this little girl’s future was limitless. This instantly made her priceless to the Avenue.

The Gourmet struggled with the desire to bring her back to Skyfire immediately. For every day they delayed, the Clairvoyant could pass and all that potential wasted. The loss
would be catastrophic.

The Vanguard could no longer pay attention to the splendid display of Discipline below. All of his thoughts were now on the small girl in his arms.

Jun’er somehow knew. She looked at the Gourmet, then to the Terminator. Her lips were pursed in admonition. “What’s wrong with you two? You’re acting weird.”

The Terminator smiled at her. “It’s because of what we saw you do. You can relax, Gourmet – we wouldn’t dare do anything to the little one. When you leave I’ll have a small contingent of ships lead you safely from the system. We’ll make sure Jun’er remains safe and happy. Humanity needs unity now, not conflict.”

The Gourmet allowed himself a relieved sigh. “Thank you, Your Majesty.”

The action continued below. The Pharmacist was part of the day’s second batch, so it was her turn to enter the arena. Her opponent was no slouch, this time.
He was tall and stocky, and where he stood reality seemed to warp around him. He was like a black hole that drew in all, and it felt like things were collapsing around them.

“Absorption Discipline,” she muttered.

Her foe gave her a thumbs-up. “Good eyes. They call me the One Who Eats the Sky. I’m looking forward to an illuminating fight.”

“The One Who Eats the Stars? That’s certainly a mouth full. Clearly we aren’t afraid to boast.” The Pharmacist’s face was cold and hard. She’d learned from Lan Jue that the Star Alliance team had been led by the Clairvoyant. This man’s name offended her.

“I suppose we’ll see if it’s a boast or not in a second,” the man arrogantly replied.

“Three, two, one. Begin!”

The Pharmacist thrust out a hand, and a beam of golden light fired out. In this way she’d begun the same way as her last two
fights. It was an attack like a blitzkrieg, full of force and grandeur. It made the whole arena shake.

The Star-Eater knew his opponent before they’d started, as all the competitors did. Knew, however, was used loosely. What he did not know – nor anyone for that matter – was what her Discipline actually was. The anxiety ate at him, and it made refining tactics difficult.

What he lacked in knowledge he made up for in self- confidence. His power had spiked ever since breaking through to ninth level first rank. His Discipline was also uncommon, which threw a lot of his foes off.

He spread his hands, and between them a small black hole was birthed. The Pharmacist’s screaming ray of light was swallowed right in to it and disappeared.

The One Who Eats the Sky grinned at the Pharmacist, and then he shoved his hands out with a grunt. At his action the hole grew, and with it the vacuum force that surrounded it.

The Pharmacist seemed mostly unfazed by the counter, except to curl her mouth down in a disdainful frown. She brought her
hand up in a sweeping motion, and from within the black hole a light twinkled. Impossible as that was, the light grew until the hole split cleanly in two.

Chapter 408: The Future Of Skyfire Avenue

The dramatically-named He Who Eats the Stars had sharp enough eyes to see what the Pharmacist had done. It had been a sort of dagger, dark gold and about seven inches long. Seven jewels were affixed to it, and they each glimmered with a strange light. The brightest was the first one, and with the dagger moving so quickly it almost looked like nothing more than a streak of light.

Right now, it was stopped in place about an inch from his nose. The air around him sizzled and a hundred thousand tiny daggers shimmered almost invisible in the air around him. He couldn’t move, he could hardly breathe. Any wrong move and those daggers could fall.

He took gasping breathes, and in a quavering voice said, “I-I concede!”

The Pharmacist lifted her hand, and the golden dagger obediently returned to her grasp. She walked away from the arena without a word.

Another pair of eyes were carefully studying the fight.
Constantine watched from the sidelines,  quiet.  As representative for the Pontiff’s Citadel he’d been given an important task – win champion for the glory of the Pontiff.

The recent losses suffered by his compatriots lately was far too bitter, both in cost and reputation. The infiltration by Jue Di’s apprentice had undermined their authority terribly. It was just the people of the Holy City who were grumbling, but skeptical tones were coming from the Western government as well.

Right now, the most important thing was to recover their standing among the Adept population. If he were able to come out with the crown, not only would the Pontiff look better but the earlier problems would quickly be forgotten. This was why his master made him come. He even let him bring the Spear of Fate. He knew his objective.

There weren’t very many who could stand up to Constantine, as far as he could tell. But the Pharmacist was one of them – probably the strongest of them.

He remembered the Pharmacist from when they met on the Avenue. She had left quite the impression. She looked so young, but commanded incredible power. The likely reason for that
was evident by her abilities. She used skills passed down from Former Era China… skills that were most famously used by the second strongest Paragon alive, Celestial Master Qian.

Celestial Master Qian was the oldest known Paragon – he’d drawn breath for hundreds of years. Whether he was still alive was a matter of debate, but if he was that made him over four hundred.

Jue Di was considered strongest, but he and Celestial Master Qian had never really fought to see who was strongest. The reality was that no one really knew just how strong he was, many still thought that he was never second to begin with.

It was customary to remove a Paragon’s name from the lists if they hadn’t been heard from in over a hundred years. The cut- off was drawing near for Celestial Master Qian. If he didn’t show himself within the next three years, then his name would be stricken from record.

Constantine was even more sure of his estimations once he saw the dagger. The Flying Daggers – was that not a skill old- time cultivators mastered? The story went that during a time of great prosperity for these hermits, their numbers swelled so high they could have swept across the world and taken it for
their own. They were the strongest living beings on the planet. Jue Di was said to come from Former Era China, too. The Taiji skills he employed were likewise remnants from that time.

If he was right, then this was going to be a tricky fight. He wasn’t scared of her, especially not with the Spear of Fate. If the two of them ended up on the same field, it would be a toss-up who came out the victor, from what he could see. They’d have to see when they got there.

He did have to be careful, though. His people were already in trouble with one of Jue Di’s Disciples. He wouldn’t want to provoke one of Celestial Master Qian’s. That would prove messy. The Pontiff was strong, but even he couldn’t win a war on a dozen fronts. The most important thing for him was to find a way to deal with the situation, otherwise the Pontiff would never know peace.

But not now. Now he had a job to do. The thoughts that troubled him passed away as he focused on the present. The first thing was to make the Citadel’s name mean something again.

The Pharmacist walked away without any word or action. There was no honor in boasting over the defeat of a first rank
contender. Like any other fight, she made her way back up to the VIP viewing platform to retrieve Jun’er.

When she saw her daughter in the Gourmet’s arms, instead of with the Terminator like the last few days, she knew something wasn’t right. Her eyes hardened.

The Gourmet, seeing the look in her eye, immediately shook his head to warn her off. Nothing’s wrong, the motion said, relax. And she did as she walked to the Gourmet’s side and took her little one back.

“Thank you so much, Your Majesties, for looking after her.” She bowed politely to the two Paragons.

The Terminator smiled at her. “You have quite the extraordinary daughter!”

“Huh?” She didn’t understand. Perhaps he was joking? “You’re too kind, Your Majesty.”

The Gourmet rose to his feet. “I’ll explain later,” he said. “Your Majesty, we’ll be heading back first.” He shot the
Pharmacist a dire look then motioned for them to go. He followed behind protectively.

The Gourmet had a lot on his plate, and found it difficult to think of much else. Jun’er predictive powers were very important for the Avenue, and word had to be sent back right away. A reliable method had to be sought to bring the little one safely back. He also had to let the Clairvoyant know – he would tell them what to do about her future lineage.

The Terminator didn’t stop them, or make any effort to complicate things. If he were in their position he would do the same thing. The reason the gourmet hadn’t left  upon immediately discovering her abilities was because  the Pharmacist was still fighting. Now that her day was done, they had work to do.

Behind them, Lucifer and Metatron watched . They hadn’t seen what happened, but they knew something was going on. What would make the Gourmet take Jun’er back all of a sudden? What would make them so quick to leave? It was incredibly disrespectful to their host, the Terminator. However the Paragon didn’t seem bothered by it. Curiouser and curiouser, they thought – could the East and North be this close?
By the time the three Avenue denizens left the sports arena, Lan Jue was waiting for them. He had already changed his clothes, and removed his mask. Qianlin remained inside to watch the fights, so as not to confuse or trouble Jun’er. It was very good for her to watch these powerful Adepts compete, since she’d just started to study combat herself.

Upon seeing the gourmet accompanying them, Lan Jue also had an inkling that something had happened. He didn’t say anything at first, and greeted them warmly.

“You’re so great, daddy!” Jun’er swung her arms wide as Lan Jue picked her up, then draped them around his neck.

He smiled and bounced her a little on his waist. “So are you! What brings you out here, Gourmet? It seems wrong to leave so early… did the Terminator go as well?”

The Gourmet looked at him and shook his head. “Not here.”

His suspicions were confirmed. The Gourmet’s discreet bearing meant something had indeed happened. He didn’t press the Paragon any further as they returned to the hotel.
The Gourmet’s station was enough to demand the Presidential suit, which they now inhabited. They filed in, and he shut the door behind them.

His eyes became a boundless grey, and in that instant the whole room was submerged in a murky aura. Everything was muted, colors and sounds – Nether Isolation. Anyone passing by from outside would get the distinct sense of death hanging over the room.

Lan Jue’s face was grave. “It’s this serious?”

The Gourmet nodded adamantly. “It concerns the future of Skyfire Avenue.”

Jun’er knew it, too. She was calm on the outside, and sat quietly on the sofa. Her eyes said something troubled her, however.

The Pharmacist was less reticent to speak. “What in the world is all of this about, Gourmet? Why are you and the Terminator acting so strange?”
This caused the Infernal Vanguard to sigh. “You should thank your lucky stars Jun’er and the Terminator got on so well. All of this has to do with her. Unless we both were wrong – and I don’t think we are – then Jun’er’s Dsicipline has awakened.

Awakened?

Both the Pharmacist and Lan Jue were stunned at the revelation, and pleased. Both their faces bore smiles of delight. An awakened Discipline at five years old meant she would be very strong.

The Pharmacist immediately went to her daughter and gave her a hug. “But that can’t be the reason for such a big reaction from the two of you. There isn’t any Discipline that would make you so skittish.”

The Gourmet fixed her with his gaze. “What if it was a prophetic Discipline?”

Lan Jue’s eyes nearly popped out of his head. The Pharmacist looked at him with her mouth hanging wide open.
“Pro…. Prophetic? So, like the Clairvoyant’s? Wha-…” The Pharmacist trailed off. Now she understood why the Terminator and the Gourmet were acting so strange.

Truly prophetic beings were very rare in the realm of humanity. Exceedingly rare, but possible. The ones that did appear were usually half-prescient, like those who could commune with the spirit world. Fully prophetic abilities never really awakened before the age of twenty.

Jun’er wasn’t even six. If this was a full-prophetic Discipline awakening within her, it was completely unprecedented! By comparison, the Clairvoyant had been ten when his Discipline awoke.

Chapter 409: Extreme Focus

Jun’er was as much a part of the Avenue as any councilor. The Clairvoyant had founded the organization, so it was an undisputed fact that diviners were a hot commodity there.

The strong were rarely awash with friends, but the Avenue was in a particularly sour state. Though they had their five Paragons, they knew that things would get much more difficult for them once the Clairvoyant passed.

That’s why it was so important to get her back. For someone with powers similar to the Clairvoyant’s – maybe even stronger than the Clairvoyant’s – was phenomenal, especially now. In twenty years, those powers would develop to great heights within Jun’er. If they were lucky enough to have the Clairvoyant train her, then it was almost assured the Avenue would have another Clairvoyant leading them in to the future. More than that, she would lead humanity in to prosperity.

“No wonder the Terminator’s face looked so strange. That’s why you were holding Jun’er yourself.” The Pharmacist’s own face changed as understanding of the gravity dawned on her. She had never thought something like this would happen, and it took her entirely by surprise. She desperately wised Jun’er’s awakening had happened on Skyfire where it was safe. Right
now they were surrounded by foreign Adepts with aspirations of their own. If word of the little one’s powers got out, the journey home would be fraught with lethal dangers.

Lan Jue’s first reaction was to get on his communicator. The Gourmet was punching a number in to his own at the same time.

“Mika,” Lan Jue said to his wrist, “get the girls and take Zeus- 1 to Luo City, as fast as you can go.” Lan Jue had first wanted to have Xiuxiu accompany the Gourmet to the tournament, but later changed his mind. Qianlin’s presence and their ability to meld meant he didn’t need her. Now he was calling all of his Amazons, an act which showed just how grave he saw this situation.

“Wine Master.” The Gourmet spoke in another corner, huddled over his communicator. “We’ve run in to a situation. Don’t worry, it’s a good thing. Find a way to let the Clairvoyant know that Jun’er divination Disciplines have awakened. It would be best if you told him yourself. The trouble is that out here, I’m not sure I could protect her adequately.”

The other side of the line was silent for what felt like a full minute. After a time the Cosmagus’ voice answered. “Alright, as
fast as I can. Do not leave Luo if you can help it. Anyone who means you ill is far less likely to act under Conclave and government supervision. Wait for me to get there, then we’ll figure out what to do. Participate in the tournament as normal but protect that little girl with your life. I’ll go tell the Clairvoyant now.”

“Very good.” The Gourmet cut the connection.

A tense atmosphere hung over the room. Jun’er, the focus of this storm, sat upon the couch with a small smile.

The Gourmet then went to her and kneeled. “How do you feel, Jun’er? Do you feel like you’re safe?” Behind the words was a deeper question. The Gourmet knew that diviners were keener than anyone, and their read on a situation was invaluable especially when it concerned themselves. And although Jun’er was only five, this was not a hindrance – in fact, it may be helpful. Visions were never common sense, they came as feelings or ideas. A child was more connected to this, and at a time when their latent energies were richest it made these sensations clearer.

Jun’er’s pretty face beamed at her uncle. “Of course I’m safe, uncle. Mommy and daddy are here. They’ll get me home.”
Her genuine words brought a smile to the somber old man’s face. “You’re a good girl. We’ll all go home together in a few days when the tournament is over.”

“Thanks uncle Gourmet!” Jun’er tittered sweetly.

The Pharmacist took up her daughter and hugged her tight. A light flashed through her eyes but it wasn’t fear. It was a dark, dangerous light.

“At least the Terminator didn’t seem keen on doing anything,” the Gourmet offered. “Right now he’s the only one outside of us here who knows. Metatron and Lucifer suspect something’s going on, but they don’t know what. All we have to do is keep up appearances until the tournament is over. Then the Wine Master will come.”

Lan Jue quietly replied. “But we can’t afford to let down our defenses, even for a moment. This concerns the fate of all Adepts, so I’m sure the Terminator will discuss it with his people, even if he doesn’t share the news with outsiders. Eventually that information is going to get out. We have to remain cautious and vigilant.”
The Infernal Vanguard nodded. “I’ll keep a tracer of Jun’er. If anything should happen, I could be there in an instant. It might be uncomfortable, but I need you to move her in with the Barber and Beautician. You can look after her together.”

“I don’t want to do that,” Jun’er complained from the couch. “I want to stay with mommy and daddy!”

The Gourmet looked from the little girl to her parents. Both of their faces had begun to turn red.

“It’s ok sweetie, you don’t need to worry. I’ll be right here to protect you. I’ll just forfeit the tournament and stay back to look after her, it’s fine.”

“That won’t work,” the Gourmet said with a wave of his hand. “For us, our strength is front and center in minds of the galaxy’s Adepts. We have to keep up appearances. You, though, can get in the dark places with your face hidden. With me Jun’er will be safe, unless the Terminator and the Cosmagus come in to conflict. The crotchety old man was right, we just have to stay here and ride it out. No one would day openly accost us here. No battleships, no angry Paragons, and nothing to worry about. Even if the Pontiff and Satan hear about it, they won’t have time to react. News needs time to spread and the Wine Master is
already on his way.”

Lan Jue nodded thoughtfully. “It sounds good. Should we bring Jun’er to the tournament tomorrow?”

The older man nodded. “We can’t show them anything’s wrong. I’ll look after her, and the Terminator would never let a little girl get hurt. The arena is the safest place to be right now.”

Lan Jue looked at the Pharmacist, and she nodded her approval. With their conference concluded, Lan Jue lead the Pharmacist and Jun’er back to their room.

“Mommy… daddy… am I causing trouble?” Jun’er quietly asked.

Seated on their hotel room’s couch, Lan Jue gave the little girl a sad smile pulled her up on to his knee. “That’s impossible. Jun’er is the best little girl in the whole universe. You’re the opposite of trouble little one. One day you’re going to do great things. You’ll be even greater than your mommy and daddy!”

She tittered and wriggled on his knee. “Then I’ll be able to
take care of you and mommy, right?”

He nodded emphatically in response. “That’s right! You don’t need to worry about anything at all, sweet heart. Mommy and daddy will protect you. We’d never let anything bad happen to you. The only way they’re getting to you is over our dead bodies.”

His tone was soft, soothing, but what Jun’e couldn’t see in his eyes was clear as day to the Pharmacist. He wasn’t just talking, this was a solemn promise. It was only there for a second, but it definitely left an impression. A moment later his eyes were warm and comforting.

“Alright, we’ll that’s enough of that. You don’t need to worry either. With so many of us here even the Western military wouldn’t dare.” The Pharmacist’s estimations were calm, something which impressed Lan Jue.

“So should we talk about your thing?” She asked.

“My thing?” Lan Jue asked. He suddenly remembered, though, that she’d asked about his loss of power before.
“It’s nothing,” he assured her. “A strange and very rare ability reduced by Discipline to the first rank. I’ve already started to climb back to where I was. Guessing by the trend so far, I should be back to normal in a year.”

The Pharmacist’s hand shot out o feel his pulse without a word. Lan Jue did not react or pull away because he trusted her, and Jun’er was still on his knee.

Her hands were strong, and coursed with power. With the slightest pinch to his wrist to read his pulse, his whole body began to feel numb. The strangely sharp powers of the Pharmacist entered him through her fingertips, and spread everywhere until no aspect of his health was hidden from her.

After about a minute she left his hand go. Her brows were scrunched in consideration. “I didn’t feel anything out of the ordinary. Your blood and qi are exuberant, better than an ordinary man’s… in fact better than most seventh ranks. Your meridians are flexible and healthy, and your Discipline is vibrant. It reveals an exceptionally strong foundation. All this being the case, how in the world could your Discipline have collapsed so dramatically? Did you do it on purpose to redo your cultivation?”
“Redo cultivation?” Lan Jue was curious. “Are there really adepts who choose to do that?”

She answered with a nod. “It’s rare, but not unheard of. Some Adepts feel that their Discipline may grow too fast. It becomes difficult to control and influences their abilities. It’s a secret art that only those who trained in the styles of ancient China possess, someone like me. It’s usually of great benefit for those who are finding it hard to break through the bottleneck. This gives them one chance to stabilize their protogenic realm enough to break through to pull Paragon status.”

“But from what I can remember form your earlier displays, you didn’t need it! Your Discipline was stable, clearly carefully trained. Your Talent is powerful, and better still there are two aspects. You even have an idea of protogenia with your Ascension. You were practically a golden child. You already had a sixty or seventy percent chance of success. You have more Talent than anyone I’ve ever met. To go back and do it again when you’re already so far ahead makes no sense, it’s almost crazy. But I guess I admire your nerve.”

Chapter 410: The Four Degrees Of Paragon

In Lan Jue’s estimation the Pharmacist’s power was only matched by her tragic story. Through all of this, though, she persevered. More than that, she saw the situation with clarity and calm.

Lan Jue’s face spread in to a sheepish smile. “It wasn’t intentional, the result of a change to my Discipline. I suppose telling you about it won’t hurt anything…”

Over the next several minutes he recounting Qianlin’s run-I with Bize, all the way to the God of Wine antics on the Burrows. He included the Clairvoyant’s plans, as well as the method they would use to recover his Discipline. He also explained their ability to merge and summon one another.

The Pharmacist grew ever more curious and surprised as he explained. “Well that explains it, the Clairvoyant’s touch as always. I can confirm that your situation is similar  to  the process I described. Qianlin has turned out to be a costly compatriot, but you’re the one profiting most from another’s expense. The Queen of Heaven powers are incredibly rare, and it’s even rarer to see the Mystic Raiment in use. One of its limited uses was to make sure you lived. As for your reduction
in rank, I don’t think that was the intention but a result. There’s only one reason that might have happened, and that’s likely that the impurities were being removed from your Discipline. Rank one was where landed with nothing but pure Talent, and this foundation will help your cultivation going forward.”

This was the first Lan Jue was hearing about this, and with surprise in his voice asked, “Really? I haven’t felt like the intensity of my powers are any stronger.”

“That’s simple,” she explained. “Think about it. Your Discipline dropped dramatically, of course everything feels weak. But don’t be impatient, you’ll feel it clearly once your Discipline returns to its former strength.”

“No Adept has a naturally pure Discipline. In fact, becoming a Paragon is one process by which an Adept purifies it and leaves the vital essences behind. Once these impurities are removed, the Adept is able to sense even the slightest changes in the universe around them. That moment when they break through to Paragon is the moment of their ultimate success, when that purge and union are complete.”

“Another way to look at it is how it will affect your journey.
You’ll probably find it easier to reach Paragon since your Talent has already been tempered. Your bottleneck will be less severe as well, but the benefits don’t stop there. Now with your Talent in a more stable state, and once your Destiny is realized as a Paragon, and your protogenic mastery solidifies, you’ll be much further along than others. Your level of comprehension will be better than most Paragons when they started.

Lan Jue nodded. “It sounds like you know the world of Paragons very well.”

“I know a little,” she confessed. “You probably already know that Paragons are separated in to four degrees, similar to Adept levels. The difference in power between Paragons from one degree to another is a vast gulf, even though it’s hard to tell when even the lowest degree Paragon can obliterate a star ship. The Gourmet said that if the Terminator wanted to do something there wouldn’t be anything he could do to stop him. Each of these stages have been given a name to describe them: First degree is called the Realm of Protogenia, the second is Reflection of Heaven and Earth, third is Nirvana, and fourth degree is named the Infinite. Each one is a reality in and of itself.”

I’ll try to describe it according to my understanding. First degree is entering in to the world of protogenia, not a part but a
denizen. Second degree is when the Adept becomes a reflection of protogenia, they aren’t immersed in it but they begin to understand it’s nature. Third degree, Nirvana, is when the Adept becomes one with the universe of protogenia. Finally fourth degree, The Infinite, is unknown and unknowable because no one’s gotten there.

Although he was one of Jue Di’s disciples, the great master had never explained this to them. At the time they weren’t anywhere near their bottleneck – the information was useless at the time. The Pharmacist was rectifying the holes in his knowledge, which he appreciated. Now at least he knew what to call them.

She went on. “Of the ten Paragons, it’s suspected only Jue Di has achieved the Infinite, or maybe the upper reaches of Nirvana. My own teacher, Celestial Master Qian, is unlikely to break through Nirvana. If he did he’d live for at least another two hundred years. As for the Clairvoyant, he had the Talent and power to reach the Infinite,but he expended a great deal of energy in guiding humanity and the cost kept him from advancing.”

“Next beneath them are those who’ve reached second degree, the reflection of Heaven and Earth. The Terminator and his partner the Epochrion belong to this realm. The rest are at
various places in first degree. The Pontiff and Satan, for instance, are at the border with second degree. The Wine Master and the Keeper are in the upper reaches. The rest like the Gourmet are still at the beginning of their journey in understanding protogenia. The goal of first rank is to make one’s domain stable.”

Lan Jue felt like the door to a whole new realm of understanding had opened. The most important revelation, however, was confirmation that the Pharmacist was a disciple of the Celestial Master.

“So you mean to say the Celestial Master is still alive…?” He couldn’t help but ask. The Pharmacist was still young, so the Master couldn’t have been gone for any more than ten years.

However the Pharmacist  answered with a shake of her  head. “I don’t know. I’m not actually a direct disciple. When I was still an infant I came in to possession of a jade pendant. Somehow master had imbued it with his consciousness, to pass his knowledge on to another. From that I learned his cultivation methods, and the eternal wisdom of the Dao. This knowledge helped bring me to where I am now, even influenced the kind of person I am. But I have never actually met him.”
A bitter smile crossed her features as she explained. She spoke about him like she would her husband.

She heaved a somber sigh, and held Jun’er close to her chest as she went on. “The pendant went on to reveal that the old master left for another realm – the secrets of the Infinite. He would say that the one who achieved the Infinite would be capable of communing with the universe. They would be an integral, irremovable part of reality. To me this means that even though Jue Di is the strongest Paragon in combat prowess, it doesn’t necessarily mean he will achieve the Infinite.”

Lan Jue shook his head. “I had no idea about any of this. And since you’re being forthcoming it’s only fair that I do the same. I am a disciple of Jue Di. We called him grandfather, he raised us when we were young.”

The Pharmacist smiled. “I know. I’ve known it for a while.” At the Hall of Supreme Harmony, when he encountered the sanguine-Adept. That was when she learned of his abilities.

The two looked at one another in silence for a moment. They could feel the barriers between them falling away as their secrets were revealed. He smiled back. “Thank you for telling me so much. I understand a little better what I need to do.”
“All of it was to tell you how good your prospects look. With your Talent, your foundation and the state your Discipline is in, things are looking very good,” the Pharmacist claimed. “The mystic raiment and purification have prepared you better than perhaps anyone for what’s to come. So long as you keep cultivating, you will achieve Paragon. From what I can see, third degree is a high possibility. Fourth degree, I don’t know. Perhaps no one does.”

Lan Jue was starting to glimpse the great lengths and tremendous cost the Clairvoyant had expended. It was thanks to the old diviner that he had such a future!

“I won’t let anyone down. I hope that day comes soon,” he said.

Jun’er, who had been silent for a long while, finally spoke up. “Yes! So you can protect mommy and me!”

Lan Jue laughed, deep and genuine. He took little Jun’er from her mother’s embrace and gave her a peck on the cheek. “That’s for sure. I’ll do anything and everything to protect my little Jun’er.”
The Pharmacist felt a flood of warmth and appreciation fill her. “You must remember not to use any unnatural methods to increase your Talent. I was considering a pill that would return your Discipline to normal, but from the looks of things you won’t need it. All of these outside methods are inherently impure, so they’ll render all of this pointless. Do it the right way, step by step, and you’ll realize this potency.”

“Ngh.” Lan Jue grunted in determination. The Pharmacist had given him confidence today.

He stayed to eat lunch with Jun’er, and eventually coaxed her in to falling asleep. He then returned to his own room, where he was surprised to find Su Xiaosu waiting.

“You’re back, Master,” Su Xiaosu called out as he entered. She shot to her feet and bowed.

Lan Jue chuckled nervously. “Cut it out, it’s weird. Do you feel better?”

Su Xiaosu smiled at him. “Luckily Master was able to grab that gem. I’m about eighty-percent back to normal. I’ll have to spend time nourishing my Core before I’ll be back to full power. I’ll
get there.”

“Eighty-percent is pretty good, let’s not be hasty.” For her that meant Su Xiaosu was back to about ninth level fifth rank – pretty damn strong.

“I’ve been thinking a lot these last few days,” she confessed. “I think there’s something I need to tell you, but you have to promise not to react hastily.”

Her wrinkled brow and nervous expression set Lan Jue on edge. “About the dungeon?”

Su Xiao su only nodded.

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