Skyfire Avenue Chapter 411-420

Chapter 411: Secret Of The Pontiff’s Citadel

“The Pontiff’s Citadel certainly looks righteous on the outside, even lead by a Paragon represented by the Holy See, but there’s a lot of filth underneath that glittering veneer. It’s one of the reasons I left.”

“Ever in search of greater influence, the Pontiff’s men will often go out among their flock and choose young children. They tell their family that their sons and daughters will be raised by the church, but that’s not the whole truth. Eventually what was really happening started to get out so they passed them off as ‘bishops’. Do you know why the West has genetic potions and the North experiments with machinery? All of that is because we can’t compete with the East’s Adepts. Adepts are needed in every level of government and military now, and you can’t grow strong without them.”

“So to increase their influence and strength, the Pontiff’s Citadel passed down a special decree to the inquisition; a new task, to collect orphans. Under the guise of adoption the inquisition would bring them back for training. It starts with a genetic test.”

“The West has experimented with acquired Talent for many
years. They have more experience and infrastructure for it than anyone else. Whether or not you get your Discipline from birth or have one created for you, it has to agree with your genetic make-up as I’m sure you know. So they test them, to know what their Disciplines will be once the process is complete, and likely how strong they will become. They can even tell more or less the age the powers will awaken. Through this process about eighty percent of the children are filtered out and given to an orphanage. You can see, then, why they want to keep that quiet. Many of the clergy who remain and work in the Citadel started as orphans, but…”

Her face darkened, “Those kids who get thrown away are the lucky ones. That twenty percent who pass their test stay, and live a miserable existence. They stop being children, and become experiments.”

“Faith is one of the biggest differences between the West and the North. Here they have a wide range of ideologies that are followed, but in the West people follow the Pontiff, with a smaller group believing in Satan. The Dark Citadel is marginally better in their process. They choose their most fervent followers and subject them to doses of the fantascia genetica. They always seem to have enough willing subjects.”

“The North is even more systematic. There are many who
choose the path of the Convert to gain more power, and the North accommodates. If their tests are passed, the new Convert will see their strength spike dramatically. If they fail, they can eventually recover their Talent like you are. The Pontiff’s Citadel is especially lacking in this area.”

“Their faith is based on love, but these genetic experiments are not. They’re dangerous, and the faithful would never accept them. They can’t even request it of zealots, because it runs so counter to what they claim to believe. It would shake the faith of their followers – the faith their power is built on. Still they have to progress, to ensure that the balance of power between themselves and the Dark Citadel remains at least even. How else do you think they keep coming up with such gifted followers, all curiously with Light-based Talents? They pump the next generation with enough drugs to turn them in to super soldiers. Crueler than anything the other organizations can dream up.”

Lan Jue knew where she was going with this and interrupted. “So all those people in the cages were the Pontiff’s ‘experiments,’ or they were about to be. And you…”

She cut him off with a pained smirk. “That’s right. I was one myself. Of that twenty percent that get chosen, only ten percent make it to the end of these trials. The rest die in the process. Once you graduate through the program they brainwash you in
to their religion and make you forget everything of who you used to be. I’d forgotten myself, but I remembered it all when they dragged me back there. My memory got clearer with each rank in power I lost. It was like watching a terrible movie you couldn’t look away from. Every agonizing moment came back. I’ve been…. struggling with this since we left the Citadel. But I’m a little better now.”

Lan Jue’s face was an ashen grey as he listened. Qianlin, who had been listening silently, was red with indignation.

“How… how could they do that? To children?! Those poor orphans have already suffered terribly, and then…” She couldn’t even find the words to express her wrong that felt, and curses weren’t her style. Her chest rose and fell with every angry breath.

Xiaosu just smirked. “Now you know how wicked our ‘benevolent’ Pontiff really is. They put the scary-looking Dark Citadel to shame. Master, if you really don’t want me with you then I’ll go. I’ll find somewhere to hide and recover, and I won’t bring you any more trouble.”

The trouble she mentioned was real. The Pontiff’s Citadel may not know she has all of this information, but she was a former
asset and has seen the dungeon. Her continued existence was a terrible risk.

Lan Jue waved a hand almost in irritation. “You’re coming back with me. You think I’m scared of a little trouble? Figuring out what to do with this information will take time. Relax, before long that torture chamber will be rubble.”

This was very important news, and much bigger than he could handle on bis own. What still puzzled him was how they reacted when they thought he was a disciple of Jue Di. That’d saved him up to his discovery of Xiaosu. At that point their fear become the rest of the galaxy finding out what they were really up to.

Xiaosu immediately interjected. “Master I said not to be hasty! By now they’ve broken it all down. There would be nothing left to incriminate them.”

Lan Jue nodded his capitulation. “You can take it easy, I won’t do anything rash. No decision will be made until we get back to Skyfire Avenue.”

He couldn’t stop the Pontiff’s despicable actions, but that didn’t mean there weren’t others who could. What they were
doing was worse than monstrous, and if their true face were revealed they would have hell to pay.

Lan Jue felt strange, like the air around him sizzled. There was a strange hum perhaps only he could hear, of the Arrow of Compassion resonating with his Discipline. It set him on edge.

What was the saying? The darkest shadows reside behind the brightest light.

The former mercenary was already forming a plan, but now was not the time to act. He showed Xiaosu out when they had finished, and turned back to the clearly upset Qianlin.

“If we want to stop this travesty, then the first thing we’ll need is power. Ready?”

“Let’s do it.”

Beside his fights and looking after Jun’er, Lan Jue spent as much of his spare time as possible cultivating his Discipline with Zhou Qianlin. This games were stimulating, and the pressure helped improve their training.
**

After three days and three rounds of elimination, less than four hundred combatant remained in the tournament lists. At this point, there were no lucky standouts left – all the rest of these fighters were strong and hardened. Statistically no one they would meet from this point on would be below eighth rank.

Like the last round, there was a ‘resurrection’ vote to see who would live on in to the next round. As the vote went on, information began to trickle out.

The handsome and gentlemanly Chu Cheng has given up his place in the running to save the beautiful Lina Lee. Lina was defeated in battle against a lightning-based Adept some suspect to be the Divine Monarch Zeus. Wounded, having lost by the skin of her teeth, Lina Lee was met by Chu Cheng who valiantly give up his chances at glory to help her tend her wounds. They have since become good friends – a true Romeo and Juliet tale!

The reports came out with recordings of Lan Jue’s fight with the vampire princess. Towering images of Chu Cheng leading the bleeding Lina from the arena was plastered on every screen.
The news catapulted their fight to the most watched fight of the third round. This time, though, the doughty hero saves the battered heroine from the villain.

It was an underdog’s tale that captured the hearts of most viewers. Zeus faced quite a lot of criticism for his scandalous deeds on the net, while Chu Cheng earned a second chance at the crown.

Why not Lina? Because she’d lost twice, and the chance was no longer available. If a fighter lost their resurrection match than they were finished. If they didn’t do it that way, then the people would simply keep voting back their favorite people. Imagine if someone like Poseidon were to participate.

The rabid fans would have been surprised to discover all three of these heroic souls together now, out for dinner like friends.

Lan Jue was quite surprised and not a little impressed with Chu Cheng when he showed up with Lina. He had skills, he had to admit! Not two days and Lina was out with him. The man was on another level.

Chu Cheng was clad in a blood-red suit today with a clean
white shirt beneath. It was an aesthetic vampires could really appreciate. A white handkerchief peeked from the hem of his pocket and a black tie slithered down his chest. All in all he was the picture of classical charm.

Those of a particular bloodline always thought of themselves as nobility. How noble they were was a badge of honor, a sign of quality. Part of this was making sure that one’s outward appearance displayed that. Lina Lee showed off her own superiority with a long purple night dress. Her face was pale, but otherwise she looked in fine shape.

Chapter 412: The Nightclub

Lan Jue and Zhou Qianlin rose to their feet as the other couple entered. Qianlin was fetching in a simple white gown. The pelagic pearl twinkled prettily at her wrist, and on her neck the Soul Caller gem glowed with its own light. There wasn’t much to the outfit, but that was to her benefit, and allowed her natural beauty to shine. Lina was sure she was quite pretty, but Qianlin’s beauty was something almost supernatural.

Her hair was raven black, framing crystal blue eyes. Her skin was a flawless cream. She could easily be mistaken for a sculpted masterpiece. Lina, even being a woman, enjoyed looking at her.

Qianlin greeted the vampire princess with a warm smile and a nod. Lina was not so dismissive to women as she was to men, so she answered with a friendly smile of her own. There was an air of haughtiness around her, but it wasn’t disdain.

“Here, let me introduce you.” Chu Cheng stepped forward and signaled Lan Jue with his hand. “This is my very close friend, Lan Jue, and his girlfriend Zhou Qianlin.”

It’s important to note that in Chinese girlfriend and ‘friend
who is a girl’ can use the same characters.

Che Cheng swung his eyes back to Lina, and they could see the tenderness in them. It was like he was looking upon some delicate treasure.

“This is Lina Lee. She’s from the West.”

Lan Jue smiled. He was suddenly reminded of the conversation he had with Chu Cheng before they’d arrived. His old friend threatened to have him hung if he showed up dressed nicer than He. Tonight Chu Cheng had to appear the hero.

That was why, today, Lan Jue had chosen to come in a pair of white ninth pants, with a long-sleeve blue sweater and blue leather pants. Refreshing and simple.

I’ve never heard of ninth pants, but I guess these are them? If that’s ‘noble’ style, well….

“Hello, I’m honored to meet you.” He extended his hand to shake in the Eastern fashion. In the West they often preferred to kiss hands.
Her eyes grew sharp. “The same Lan Jue that’s always giving you those bad ideas?” She asked. Chu Cheng was unpleasantly surprised by her open challenge. He’d hoped she would keep that little fib quiet.

Lan Jue, certainly confused, looked questioningly at Chu Cheng. The apologetic smirk on his friend’s face said it all, and all he could do was nod. “I… guess that’s me.”

Her brows furrowed. “And where have we met before? You seem familiar.”

“I don’t think we’ve ever met,” he said, absently rubbing his nose. “Qianlin and I are just here on vacation to see the tournament. I’ve never been out this way before.”

Lina didn’t press it. Instead she offered a smile. “I’ve happy to meet you as well. I know your friend here exaggerates terribly. You didn’t even try to defend yourself when I called you out – I can tell you’re a good friend, and a better man than this guy.” She jabbed a thumb toward Chu Cheng.

Under attack, Chu Cheng’s eyes went wide. “Don’t fall for it, Lina, this guy and his false halo.”
“All I’m going to say,” Lan Jue quietly interrupted, “is that the eyes of the masses are sharp.”

“Don’t give me any shit,” she said, fixing Chu Cheng with a hard stare. “I know your type. You’d take a knife for a friend but put two in for a woman. I knew you were no good the second I set eyes on you.”

“I-…” Chu Cheng sputtered stupidly at her, blindsided by the situation.

Lan Jue couldn’t help himself, he shot Lina a big thumbs up. “At long last A-Cheng makes a good decision! My deepest respect, Lina. You have a discerning eye.”

The vampire covered her mouth and stifled a laugh. She shot the beaten Chu Cheng a sideways glance, full of mirth at his expense.

A cruel look came over his companion’s face. “I thought we were brothers? You know, just mess around a little bit? Don’t make me start letting things slip.”
Lina interrupted again. “What? That he’s Zeus? Jewelry Master of Skyfire Avenue? Or what about his lightning and thunderbolt Disciplines? Oh, or maybe that he’s the one that beat me this afternoon.”

“You know?” Chu Cheng looked at her slack-jawed.

She cast him a dismissive sideways glance. “You men are such smug bastards. Always underestimating the intelligence of women. Most people guessed you were Zeus already, and you think I wouldn’t do a little digging in to who beat me?”

Chu Cheng sighed. “I’m sorry, you’re absolutely right. Lan Jue, I’m starting to understand why you never take advantage of these powerful women following you around. I just can’t compete with ladies this smart! I pine for the ones with big tits and no brains.”

“Having regrets?” Lina cooed, fixing him with a smoldering look. “Go on then, now’s your chance.”

Chu Cheng huffed in irritation. “You think you can just own me, woman?! We live in a nation of laws!”
“Alright, alright you two,” Lan Jue scolded. “Save the flirtatious banter for when you go home. The waiters have been waiting, let’s order.”

Lina was instantly all graceful smiles. Chu Cheng put his acting talent to work, also suddenly the charming gentleman.

Northern food was defined by its lavish cuisine. Huge steaks were a common sight dinner, or plates of giant oysters. These were paired with bottles of red or white wine and a hefty salad. That was traditional fare up here.

The meal was amusing. Chu Cheng and Lina would occasionally trade barbs or bicker over some comment. Their war of words kept things fresh and entertaining.

Lan Jue and Qianlin exchanged bemused glances, and ate quietly as the others bickered. Despite the sharp exchanges and long diatribes, though, they all finished at the same time.

“Let’s go.” Lina rose to her feet and stretched, causing her dress to outline her fine figure.
“What are you doing?” Chu Cheng asked, looking at her.

“We’re off to a club for round two!” She said matter-of-factly.

“You guys have fun,” Lan Jue quickly said. “We won’t be going out.”

Lina rolled her eyes at him. “I figured you for the boring type. How often do you come up to the North, huh? If you only think about the tournament then it’s a waste of a trip. Northern bars are quite a lot of fun, but we need more than just two. Come on, let’s go!”

She had wandered over to Qianlin’s side by now and pulled her to her feet.

Lan Jue slowly drew his eyes to Chu Cheng. “You’re in to slave drivers now then, yes? Some kind of masochism thing?”

He could almost see his friend’s face tic. “I’m starting to have second thoughts. It’s like I threw myself in to the net on this one. But come on, a little fun never hurt anyone. It’s good to relax from time to time.”
Luo had a district set aside for entertainment. The streets were lined with bars and rooms with red lights. No one lived here so the party just kept going. Under Lina’s direction they went to the biggest nightclub they could find.

The sun had gone to sleep by now, and the nightlife was beginning to kick up. The bar was already beginning to fill with revelers. Giant speakers thumped raucous house music that was loud enough to wake the dead.

Sturdy gentlemen tasked with maintaining order stood at various parts of the club, while women in scanty bikinis milled around serving drinks. They were surrounded by the sounds of celebration, with cigarettes and  wine  and  pulse-pounding music. All of it swirled together in to that unique nightclub atmosphere.

As they pressed further inside with Lina in the lead, the scene unfolded before them in strobe flashes and laser light. Clearly it was not Lina’s first time here. She spoke few words with a bouncer, and a moment later a scantily-clad woman lead them to the second floor.

This upper level was marginally quieter than the ruckus below. It was still a party atmosphere, but there were
significantly fewer people. Arced booths were set against a glass wall that gave patrons a chance to look over the chaos below.

Lan Jue didn’t have much love for this sort of place, but at least he found the second floor more palatable. It didn’t have the pressing crowds of the club below.

“Hey!” Lina called to Lan Jue. “You guys order drinks!” She yanked Chu Cheng out of his seat at gave him a commanding look. “We’re gunna go dance.”

He could only sigh. “Alright.” He removed his coat and placed it on the cushions before following her to the dance floor.

When they were out of ear-shot, Qianlin leaned in close. “You don’t like these places, do you? Should we stay for a while then go?”

Lan Jue laughed. “No, it’s fine. I just prefer something quieter. Since we’re here, let’s enjoy it. Lina was right, too. We’re always cultivating, and you just finished that rough training. We need to relax a little. Despite its flaws these places really know how to get you excited. If you want to dance I’ll go with you.”
She timidly waved her hand. “I can’t dance, and there’s so many people. I’m happy just watching. Look, they’re down there.”

They’re booth was suspended directly over the dance floor below, giving them an unobstructed view of the writhing masses. It was oddly shaped, with a dais in the center hosting a couple alluring dancers.

They could see Lina pulling Chu Cheng along behind her on to the floor. She had already begun to sway and move with the rhythm of the music. Certainly not one to be bent by rules, she pushed to the dais and let out a scream so loud even the music couldn’t completely drown it out.

Just as eyes were drawn to her she leaped up on to the dais.

There were unspoken rules to these places, one of them being that the platforms were off-limits for normal guests. If you had the balls to jump on one, you better dance better than their professionals, otherwise you’d be booed out of the place.

Chapter 413: The Dance Battle

The moment Lina leaped on to the dais in her form-fitting purple dress, all eyes were on her. Almost right away a pair of colored lights swung over to her. The DJ certainly had an eye for entertainment.

The dancers were professionals. They needed to be, since the establishment was among the most famous in the North. It was indeed a rare site for anyone to have the gall to jump up on stage when their competition was these beautiful women. Today, however, someone had the courage to do just that. Everyone looked at the brave woman, and her enthusiasm brought the energy of the club to a fever pitch.

She was like a woman possessed. As the music thumbed and the tempo rose, she shot her right hand in the air. Her purple dress melted away like water, revealing a leather cat outfit beneath.

The top only just barely covered her chest, leaving her shoulders exposed. Hot pants concealed her charms below. The pallor of her skin clashed dramatically with the shiny black clothing. Screams and whistles cheered her on as she flailed her head of fiery red hair.
She jabbed a finger at the DJ, and he immediately responded with a change of pace. The steady thud gave way to an explosive cacophony of heavy metal music.

She swung her arms out, and the dancers on either side were forced to back off. Lina planted her foot on the dance floor, then swung herself around in a circle. Policy at the club stated that dancers would have money deducted if they were shown up by the customers. These ladies weren’t having any of that, so they danced all the harder to try and show her up. When she started spinning, though, they knew they didn’t have a chance.

It is common practice in China to deduct money from someone’s paycheck if they don’t do something. Unfortunately, these deductions are completely unregulated, so they could decide to withhold entire paychecks and the workers can’t do anything about it. Because of the largely unskilled workforce in my former line of work, the ladies were sadly very underpaid, and often had to suffer managerial corruption or other severely unfair practices – and because they were easily replaceable there wasn’t anything they could do about it. My wife once didn’t get paid for almost three months.

She looked like a ballerina – a stunning princess spinning effortlessly on the tip of her toes. All throughout her arms swam through the air in fouette turns. It was a feast for the eyes of
every patron there.

This style of dance wasn’t typically paired with this sort of head-banging rhythm, but the turns were so fast and so violent that she was actually keeping up with the screaming beat.

Then, when the beat dropped, she stopped the spin and dropped right to the ground. She kept herself aloft on one hand while her legs swung around in a wide, windmilling Thomas flare. They were perfect, quick, and rhythmic.

Her long legs swung through the air over and over again, and each swing caught the beat of the music. Her legs were a blur that reached three meters high at the apex.

Her form wasn’t as clean as the dancers, but she made up for it in raw energy and good looks. The fervent rush that poured from her in waves made the dancers look like timid wallflowers.

The energy in the club rose with each spin, each thump of the bass. The appreciative cries didn’t let up. Young men and women got caught up in the moment and began to writhe around the base of the dais with their new heroine.
Her image vanished and came back, frozen in the half second that the blinking light caught her alluring form. Each half- second interval saw her in another tantalizing twirl, spin or dip. It almost made her look like magic, some sort of playful interdimensional sprite there for their entertainment. She was their queen of party.

Chu Cheng stood beneath her shadow at the base of the platform. His looked up with eyes full of awe and desire. He was himself a fun-loving person, and this madwoman kicked it up to a whole new level. His eyes veritable blazed in the flashing lights. He didn’t dance with the others around him, and in fact created a small empty space around him with the radiating force of his Discipline. No one dared draw near within a three meters radius while Chu Cheng watched. He would clap from time to time, or nod his head, completely absorbed in the scene.

The music stopped, and as silence hung over the ground the lights on Lina intensified. She stopped, and pointed her finger to a spot below the platform. With a turn of her hand the finger curled in, beckoning her target forward.

A single spotlight pierced the dim club interior, blanketing Chu Cheng.
She pointed to the spot in front of her on the dais. Her lips were turned in to a scornful frown, an expression that said she doubted he had the guts. His response was to burst in to bemused laughter. The cries of the spectators grew louder as they realized what was happening.

A dance battle!

This was the most exciting thing that could happen in a night of clubbing as far as the patrons were concerned. They had seen how skilled she was on the floor, and now they were curious to see who she felt had the chance to upstage her.

In their second floor booth, Qianlin and Lan Jue watched the exchange.

“She dances so beautifully!” Qianlin exclaimed.

Lan Jue smiled. “Why don’t you go show her how it’s done?
I’ll go down with you and make sure no one gets near.”

She vehemently shook her head. “I’ll appreciate from here, thank you. I wouldn’t dare show off my modest skills. But
what’s going on? It looks like Chu Cheng is going to get up on that platform too.”

“It’s a dance battle,” he explained. “She isn’t convinced about Chu Cheng yet, so she’s testing him this way.”

Qianlin bit her lip. “Can Chu Cheng dance?”

He grinned at the two of them down below. “They call him the Prince of Luo Nightlife for a reason. Being a playboy like him is not an easy lifestyle to maintain. He needs a wide array of abilities. A woman is a multi-faceted thing, and he needs to shine on all surfaces. He told me once in a rare display of honesty, that when he does settle down it’ll be with a woman who likes him for him. All the rest of this is just for show.”

Lina’s chest heaved as she caught her breath. She wasn’t completely recovered from the beating she’d received at Lan Jue’s hand. The extra exertion didn’t help. She had to rely on her Discipline in the end for her big finale.

Chu Cheng’s long legs brought him up on to the platform. He faced Lina with a smirk on his face, but he was the one out of place. In his suit, button-down shirt and vest he looked like he’d
gotten lost. Silence prevailed as the two faced each other.

Chu Cheng took a step forward, his footsteps ringing in the stillness. “A dance battle?”

She looked at him, cold as ice. “Win and you take me home tonight.”

Chu Cheng laughed, and his mannerism was like a fox on the prowl. He lifted a hand to slowly loosen his tie. He yanked it off, a sharp snap in the air quickly following as the fabric whipped away. He then gently laid it around Lina’s neck. He then removed the vest and opened the top three buttons of his shirt revealing the line of his pectoral muscles.

He took a few steps back, extending the distance between himself and his challenger. Then, his boisterous voice shattered the calm.

“You told me today that I was a playboy. You’re. I was. But if you’d done your homework then you know that being a playboy isn’t just about money. That’s not a playboy, just a glutton – and that’s not me. My aim is to be the ultimate man. Whatever vice or pleasure you can think of, I’ve done it. I’m about to prove to
you that you will never meet another guy like me.”

As he spoke he placed his right hand against his chest and spread his legs.

Ba-dum, ba-dum, ba-dum! A rhythmic drumbeat like the beating of a heart shuddered through the crowd. Chu Cheng’s hand tapped against his chest to the beat, like it was his own heart making the noise. All lights extinguished but the single spotlight over his head.

Now this dance platform belonged to him.

Each bone-shuddering thud from the giant speakers saw Chu Cheng’s face change a little, like he was falling in to a trance. His face was bitter sweet, as though looking on the face of a loved one.

A single, gentle, tungsten light illuminated Lina Lee. She looked like she’d stepped out of a dream.

Chu Cheng launched himself forward suddenly with two long strides. His arms swung open like he wanted to grab her in a
hug.

She frowned, taken by surprise. But he stopped half a meter away as the sounds of graceful music rose around them. He began to rock to the music.

Lina’s dance had been raw emotion, violent and loud. Chu Cheng’s, by comparison, was more refined. It didn’t have the explosiveness of heavy metal, but the notes made the listeners move almost without thinking.

This wasn’t just a dance. This was a story.

Lan Jue didn’t lean over to watch the dance – he’d seen Chu Cheng’s mating wiggle too many times to count. Thankfully his communicator rang, giving him an excuse not to watch. Using his Discipline to help reduce some of the din around him, he answered the call.

“Hey A-Li, what’s up man?” He greeted.

“Chu Cheng’s a right bastard.” Hua Li’s voice answered on the other end. “You know you’re the villain of the whole internet
now, by the way?”

“Eh?” He helplessly sighed. He hadn’t been following the ‘controversy’ over the forums.

Hua Li told him all about it, interspersing a healthy dose of humiliating laughter. Lan Jue joined him. “This guy, he’d sell one of us in to slavery if it earned him a night with a pretty girl.”

Hua Li cackled. “Chu Cheng will be Chu Cheng, right? Where are you at, let’s get together and give him shit.”

“I came with that fool to the Crescent Moon,” Lan Jue muttered. “He left me up here so he could get a shot at Lina. Wait a while and we’ll go find you.”

Hua Li’s voice raised an octave. “Eh? You’re there? I’m right around the corner, I’ll be there in a second. Chu Cheng is a snake – luring the poor girl in to his lair. Looks like this one’s already another notch on his belt.”

Lan Jue laughed. “Not this time. The lamb lead the wolf to its
own den. Except the lamb is actually a lioness. He’s strutting around like a peacock right now, you might catch the end if you hurry.”

Qianlin had been quietly listening the whole time. She spoke up suddenly. “Chu Cheng’s ‘den’, hm? But she’s the one that brought us here!”

Chapter 414: Compensation

Lan Jue gave her a conspiratorial look. “You didn’t see him hiding behind me when we came in? He was hiding his face – he didn’t want anyone to recognize him. Lina may have brought him here, but Chu Cheng’s in his home court. He was just playing innocent to lure her in to his trap. Why do you think everything was so quiet, so well orchestrated when he got up on stage? Everyone knows him here, even the boss is his close friend.”

Qianlin’s face reddened. “It looks like Lina was right,” she said quietly. “He’s a less than reputable guy.”

Lan Jue laughed. “And me? He and I have been close friends for years, and several of those questionable skills I’ve learned myself. There were times he and I painted the town. I guess that makes me just as disreputable.”

“It’s not the same,” Qianlin assure. “You aren’t as bad as he is.”

He looked back at her with a brow raised in surprise. “How’s that?”
Her face broke in to a suspiciously sweet smile. “No reason. I guess I just have faith.”

“Heh, that makes one of us,” Lan Jue said helplessly. “I was a young, full of piss and vinegar once. I partied irresponsibly like my friend does. I was a playboy, too, in several senses of the word – not nearly so nice as you may think.”

Qianlin’s face fell. “It sure sounds like you’re trying to talk me out of hanging around you.”

“Not at all,” he assured hastily. “Just sharing a bit of my past.”

She was immediately all smiles, as much an actor as Chu Cheng. “That’s enough of that. I don’t believe any of it. If you were a womanizer then why haven’t you done anything with your amazons? They are all beautiful girls who certainly wouldn’t say no. I’ve seen the way they look at you. To me, this is proof that you’re a good man.”

“The… ehm… situation we found ourselves in when we first met shows you like women, so that’s not it. The scars you bear for my sister have never healed, and no playboy could have that
much passion for a single woman. Whatever you did in the past isn’t important, because I can see you for who you are now. I’ve thought a lot about it, and I think I know what I should do.”

She moved closer to him and laid her head on his shoulder.

Lan Jue dramatically knocked the heel of his hand against his forehead. “Alright, yes, fine – you got me. But the most detestable thing is to see that cake, but be unable to eat it!”

Qianlin laughed. “I guess we’d better work hard at cultivation. Oh, look at Chu Cheng! He really can dance!”

The Hades descendant was just getting to the meat of his dance as floodlights picked him out from the darkness. It was a story of sorts, like a young man courting a girl on campus for the first time.”

Again, university is the first time a man is allowed to begin any sort of courtship process. Parents and teachers actively watch for signs of affection before this – high school included – and squash that shit with an iron fist. I’ve had student complain to me about having to sit in parent-teacher conferences because they told a girl they liked them.
It was a story expressed through his flailing limbs and swaying hips. Boy meets girl, boy falls in love, and the chase begins. Through hardships and trials he wins the girl’s affection, however her family encounters tragedy. Never once does the boy leave her side. He spun his yarn beneath the lights, under scored by the moving music. Lina was a prop in his show
– a show that would give Hua Li a run for his money. Every motion was a word, every step a sentence.

At first, Lina reacted to him with scorn. Who danced like this at a night club? However as the story unfolded, and as the whole place seemed to come around him to tell the tale, she realized she was no match for Chu Cheng. He was a professional, and she was an amateur who knew how to use her Discipline for effect.

This fictional girl’s family survived whatever calamity had befallen them, but the boy began to succumb to exhaustion. Chu Cheng seemed to slowly buckle while keeping to the rhythm. Each chord was a death kneel as he theatrically collapsed to the ground. The control he had over his body confessed years of training for this sort of thing.

Although he had slowly succumbed to collapse his eyes never left hers. They were full of forgiveness, love, but most of all despair. Though Lina knew this was just all for show, she couldn’t keep the moisture from welling up in the corner of her
eyes.

Chu Cheng shot to his feet, his face suddenly devoid of that sad expression. An easy smile took its place as he bowed in gentlemanly fashion toward Lina. But before she could even react, his head dropped down to his stomach

The sudden unexpected change caused Lina to scream  in terror. “Aaaahhhhh!!!”

The crowd erupted in a fit of laughter, and Chu Cheng’s head inexplicably rolled back in to place.

Realization dawned on the vampire princess, and she realized his clothing must have had some sort of wire or hook. The illusion was created when he squatted and the clothing remained in place.

“Oh you’re really going to die, now!” She indignantly punched him in the chest.

“Brother Cheng! Brother Cheng! Brother Cheng!” Cries of adulation surrounded them.
Only an idiot would be unable to see, now, that Chu Cheng was a cherished member of this establishment. Lina was no idiot. She turned in a huff to leave, but Chu Cheng shot out a hand to grab her. He pulled her close, and the two of them began to rise off of the platform toward the second floor.

“You made a bargain,” Chu Cheng softly said in to her ear. “Tonight, you belong to me.”

Lina craned her head back to look at him. Traces of red had begun to creep in to her cheeks.

They eventually returned to their private booth looking over the dance floor. With one arm wrapped around Lina, Chu Cheng waved at his fans below. Another round of fervent claps and cheers replied.

The playboy turns his face to Lan Jue, who was also clapping in appreciation. He feigned modesty, saying “Listen to them laugh at how terribly I did.”

He shot his friend an enigmatic grin. “All hail the prince of nightlife! Quite the show, sir. Quite the show.”
With a gasp, Chu Cheng waggled a finger. “You mustn’t besmirch my good name, A-Jue!”

Lan Jue sniffed derisively, and lifted the communicator on his wrist for emphasis. A projected array of some of the… less than kind commentary about Zeus appeared before him.

Suddenly the wild youth’s countenance changed. “This-this has nothing to do with me…. Alright, fine yes. I spread the rumors, but you’re wearing a mask! It doesn’t matter. Oh damn, you have no idea how much shit I was in at home. I’m out because pops would probably fry me to a crisp if I went back.”

Lan Jue allowed the projection to dissipate, then took a sip from his champagne glass. “There’s always a price when punting off the blame, A-Cheng. I wonder what the prince of nightlife is willing to pay?” The table before them was arrayed with a spread of fruit, and a bottle of pink Don Perignon. This was Chu Cheng’s domain, so of course none of this came at any cost to them.

Sincerity lit up his friend’s face. “Name it. So long as it’s in my power to provide.”
“A 1966 Cohiba cigar, Luis XIII brandy… though I guess Hennessy would do in a pinch. A 1929 Cognac Tesseron would be ideal, and perhaps a 1990 champagne Krug? Deliver that and we’re even – in the appropriate interspatial containment apparatus, of course.”


Each biting word saw Chu Cheng’s face darken.

“This is robbery!”

“I’ve never taken a thing that wasn’t owed,” Lan Jue said. “If you don’t want to pay the price then that’s your prerogative. I’m sure there are no small number of journalist who might like to learn more about us. That I am ‘that’ Zeus. That you are ‘that’ Hades. Perhaps we conspired together to deceive this poor girl. I mean, according to everyone I’m already a bad guy, so screw it I guess.”

“Ruthless,” Chu Cheng breathed through a depressed frown. “How did you even know I got the Tesseron? Are you spying on me?”

Lan Jue’s eyes nearly popped out of his head. “You do?!”
“Oy! Do what?! Finders keepers?” A voice sounded nearby, someone trying to make their voice as low as possible.

Lan Jue turned behind, and laughed as he saw the culprit. It was his accomplice.

Hua Li looked like he often did when out in public. He was wrapped up in more layers than carnival clown, with a hat glasses and a mask to match his track suit. It was a very sort of hip-hop style.

He plopped down in a seat beside Lan Jue. “So what do you really have, eh?”

“A bottle of 1929 cognac Tesseron,” he answered with a smirk. “He said he’d be happy to share it with us. A-Cheng’s really quite generous.”

“Excellent! I do prefer a nice glass of brandy.” Hua Li rubbed his hands together. “So break it out big guy! Might as well drink here right? I haven’t been in your realm for a while – I see it’s still a good time.”
“Two damn bandits,” Chu Cheng complained.

Hua Li blinked at him. “Oh, bandits? Take a look at yourself there, buddy. You slander your brother and gripe over a bottle of liquor to settle it. You’re a shameless bastard.

The playboy swung an angry glare Hua Li’s way. “You’re the shit that sold me out!”

Hua Li shot back with a wide grin. “Whatcha gunna do about it?”

Chu Cheng was in his face almost right away. “What am I gunna do about it? Maybe I’ll just take off these sunglasses and this hat, huh? Oh my god, people, look who’s here?!”

Hua Li almost crumpled in on himself. “Let’s not be hasty!”

“Yeah! You didn’t think of this when you sold me down the river, did you!” Chu Cheng accused.

Chapter 415: Dance Of The Three Monarchs

Hua Li huffed, then produced two pipes from his clothing and gave one to each of his friends. “The trials of the good always go unsung. Here you are threatening me and all I want is to lift my brothers up.”

They were odd aluminum pipes that ere half yellow, and half black with small white dots. The sight of them immediate put a smile on their faces.

“It’s all good, reparations have been made. Getting your hands on a 1966 is pretty incredible. You’re the one who gave Lan Jue the one from before right? Why is it you never treat me so well.?”

“You?” Hua Li scoffed. “It would amount to reckless waste. Lan Jue is a man of taste – you’d probably use it to pick up chicks.”

“I don’t believe we’ve been introduced,” Lina interrupted. She looked expectantly at Chu Cheng.
He looked back as he answered. “Ah, yes. This is another brother of ours, Hua Li. Since you know Lan Jue so well, do you want to take a crack at him?” A moment later he shot an accusatory finger at Hua Li. “And don’t take off your mask.”

“Ah! You… you’re Poseidon?” He underestimated Lina, who immediately sussed out Hua Li’s identity after the Lan Jue hint. Suddenly excited, she barreled onward. “Can I get an autograph?”

Chu Cheng’s face fell – this wasn’t the reaction he’d hoped for. “This is why handsome guys have no friends,” he complained. “Hua Li, I love you brother but sometimes I want to pinch your face off. Stop coming around here, alright? This happens every time. I never get to have fun when you’re around.”

Hua Li pulled a pen from his pocket as though he’d done it a million times, plucking a napkin off of the table. He scribbled his name and handed it to Lina. “If you want that cigar you’re gunna have to deal with it.”

“Don’t forget the cognac,” Lan Jue warned. “If you try and sweep it under the rug you won’t like my reaction.”
Chu Cheng’s voice turned bitter. “You guys are mean as hell. I’ll send someone to deliver it. But we can’t just drink it – let’s stir some stuff up! We never get to hang out.”

Hua Li deflated. “Dance? I dance so much I wanna puke.”

“So what,” Chu Cheng challenged. “Here we are, three brothers together again. Have you forgotten the trouble we used to get in to? When did you get so old, A-Li?”

Hua Li dragged his eyes to Lan Jue, who shrugged indifferently. “If he wants to dance then why not. Just be careful not to encroach on his majesty’s domain, I guess.”

This earned a chuckle from Chu Cheng. “I like a little competition. You’re in for a treat Lina – you get to see what it means when the three of us start raging. Waiter! Call the DJ over, and tell the Red Rat to come by as well.”

A few moments later a middle-aged man in a suit came bowing and scraping. “Master Chu, what can I do for you?”

Chu Cheng looked pained. “Go fetch the 1929 Tesseron from
the house. Ah, the injustices I suffer. Go.”

“Sir.” The ‘red rat’ shuffled away without another word. He knew precisely of what his master spoke, and what it cost. However now that the master was entertaining friends it was important to give him face. No hesitation would be tolerated. They would have a treasure to drink while they enjoyed the night, that was certain.

The young and talented DJ appeared in the spot Chu Cheng’s man vacated. “Brother Cheng! What’s up? You still plan to keep this party bus rollin’?” It was clear the DJ and Chu Cheng had a familiar relationship. How else could his earlier dance have been so well choreographed?

Chu Cheng approached and whispered a few sentences in to the young man’s ear. The younger man offered a knowing nod, then left without a word.

Qianlin looked toward Lan Jue with a curious expression. “Are you going to dance?”

Lan Jue plucked the 1966 Cohiba cigar from its tube. Carefully, he snipped a bit off the end, and lit the other end with
a lighter.

“I can try I suppose. It’s been a long time. We’re all having a good time so why not?”

Hua Li smiled. “I think it must be more than seven years since we’ve last got together to cause some trouble.”

A sentimental look crossed Lan Jue’s face. “Sounds about right.” That was when he first met Hera. There was no more need for him to go out trawling the clubs after that.

Now Hera’s spitting image sat right next to him, but even though she looked the same everything was different. He wasn’t at all like the man he’d been seven years ago.

Lan Jue plucked the cigar from his mouth, and as if on cue a low buzz rumbled from the dance floor below. It was followed by the DJ’s voice, altered by computer to sound like an android. His rousing voice called out to the crowd.

“Today is your lucky day people! Our very own dance god of Crescent club, Chu Cheng, is gunna show us all how it’s done
again. But this time he’d brought along a couple buddies who’re just as badass on the dance floor. I can promise you guys are not gunna forget what you witness tonight. We’re calling it the Flight of the Monarchs!”

Clunk! All the lights shut off, plunging the club in to darkness with the DJ’s final word. The three Monarchs rose to their feet.

There was a sharp snap, and a ball of fire was born. It roiled like a small angry star in Chu Cheng’s palm. The sudden light drew every eye.

“Brother Cheng! Brother Cheng! Brother Cheng!”

With a wave of his hand the ball of flame raced out to hang over the crowd. Chu Cheng himself rose in to the air and followed. Just as he reached the ball’s location it exploded, reforming in a great phoenix that hang over Chu Cheng’s shoulders. Squeals and screams ensued. Even if they didn’t know Chu Cheng this would solidify him as a legend.

The screeching phoenix descended toward the dance floor. Behind it there appeared another light, this one blue. An orb of water like a planet orbited overhead, and as they watched the
crust slowly solidified in to a dazzling mother-of-pearl.

Hua Li soared through the air and settled upon the orb, allowing it to bring him slowly to the dance floor as well. The flashy gentlemen occupied either side of the platform.

Red versus blue. The glimmering lights clashed and set the stage ablaze with color. Though no further illumination was needed beams of light covered both, matching their respective element.

The atmosphere buzzed with anticipation. BOOM! A crack of thunder took everyone by surprise, and a golden bolt  of lightning struck the platform dead center. All  three  colors blazed bright as a supernova.

The massive speakers exploded with electrifying rock music. Three figures flashed gold, red and blue upon the stage as they broke in to synchronized dance.

TJSS describes it as ‘synchronized dance full of manliness.’

The three men all danced the same steps, but with vastly
different feeling. The thudding music and dramatic light set the atmosphere of the club ablaze. The excitement was almost oppressive.

Lina was no stranger to the spotlight as she’d shown. She even used her Discipline to spice things up as they did. However she could only stare with disbelief at what she was watching. Compared to them she was like a child.

These guys…

Zhou Qianlin wasn’t any better. Her face was a picturesque expression of embarrassment and excitation. She stood next to Lina at the banister near their booth and, just like the crowd below, shouted their approval.

It was a unique experience for Qianlin – the first time she’d visited a place like this. It was a true shock to see Lan Jue’s wild side.

Chu Cheng writhed like a demon, lit all around by columns of fire. Hua Li flitted through a mist of twinkling water like a sprite. Only Lan Jue’s moves were a marriage of strength and beauty. Every thrust of an arm and swing of a lag brought a
contrail of sparks in its wake.

The three auras of their Discipline battles incessantly around them. Each clash elicited a violent firework display which would dissolve only to be reborn again. It was similar to what Lina had done, just dialed up to a thousand.

Eventually the raging flood of music subsided, and with it the lights around the three men. Once more the floor was cast in to darkness, but where before there was silence the screams now threatened to bring the roof down. The DJ hadn’t been lying – they wouldn’t be forgetting this night for a long time to come.

When the lights came back on the dance floor was empty. Chu Cheng, Hua Li and Lan Jue stood by the railing on the second floor with glasses of champagne raised to the spectators below.

The crowd went wild.

A big grin was plastered on Chu Cheng’s face. “It’s been a long time since I’ve had this much fun. I gotta say, this makes me happy. Come on Hua’Li take that mask off – aren’t you suffocating?”
Hua Li bumped his friend’s glass with his own. “Say something useful from time to time, would you?”

Qianlin shook her head and laughed. “Who knew you were such a party animal!”

Lan Jue winced just as Chu Cheng burst in to loud guffaws. “No doubt, party animal is right! When he was younger it was like taking a beast out on the town.”

“Shut the hell up!” Lan Jue was ashamed to irritation, as his face betrayed.

Hua Li didn’t react, only turned his head away and pretended like he couldn’t hear anything.

Champagne is a drink for celebrations, and it put people in the party mood because the carbon dioxide brought the alcohol right to the head. In a place like this champagne was the drink of choice.

It took the five of them no time to put down several bottles. By the time the Tesseron arrived they were well in to the drink.
When Hua Li expressed only tepid interest Lan Jue decided to put it away for another time. Just as Chu Cheng was about to beg for a sip or two, the DJ’s excited calls came from below.

Chapter 416: Brother Cheng! Brother Cheng!

“It’s coming up on the witching hour ladies and gentlemen!”

At some point three young women in leather miniskirts had come on stage. As the dance music resumed they swayed with the hypnotizing rhythm.

Qianlin gave Lan Jue a curious and uncertain look. “The witching hour?”

Lan Jue chortled and shot a glance Chu Cheng’s way. “It’s about time to call it I think. It’s late and we have fights tomorrow.”

“I heard that! We three respectable gentlemen would never be involved in something so base as the witching hour.” It was a fine phrase, but from Chu Cheng’s mouth is took on a very different flavor.

Lina looked from one to the other in curiosity. “What’s so special about midnight here?”
Chu Cheng almost tripped over his own tongue to answer. “Nothing! Nothing. We should go.” He grabbed at Lina’s hand to pull her toward the exit.

A flash of light caught their attention and pulled the girls’ eyes to the stage. There they saw the three women had removed their outer garments and were clad solely in leather bikinis. They swung their dresses over their heads to the excited cheers of the spectators below.

Lina – a veteran of establishments like these – suddenly understood the premise behind ‘the witching hour.’ Her eyes popped out of her head. “Strippers? What sort of place is this?”

“I-it’s art!” Chu Cheng fumblingly explained.

“Ladies and gentlemen!” The DJ’s dramatic voice boomed through the club. “Lemme know! Who do you think our lovely ladies should enlist to help them… hold their clothes hm?”

“Brother Cheng! Brother Cheng! Brother Cheng!”

The thundering dance music was changing now to slinkier
tunes, things more suitable to the idea of the witching hour. Chu Cheng’s face froze.

The look in Lina’s eyes was one of piercing ridicule. “I guess so! Such lovely bedroom art.” She punctuated the sentence by turning and stomping off.

“Lina!” Chu Cheng ran after her. “That was before. Look, let me explain.”

Hua Li and Lan Jue exchanged a knowing look. The famed entertainer sighed. “How many times have we watched drama like this? It’s the same every time. I guess you can’t teach a dog not to eat shit. The boy’s gotta learn to change his nature!”

Lan Jue just shrugged. “It’s a difficult life he lives. Who knows if this relationship of theirs will last the week. But this time he’s pretty passionate. This is a vampire princess here – not your run of the mill girl. That’s a whole new level of challenge and excitement that money can’t buy. I hope A-Cheng realizes how special the opportunity is, though.”

Hua Li chuckled. “Shit who cares. The longer he remains occupied with her, clear or not, the less time he’s spending as a
scourge to the young flowers of our species.”

“Ugh, men!” Qianlin looked at Lan Jue, appalled.

“Time to go!” Lan Jue’s tone was brisk and energetic.

Chu Cheng had chased Lina out of the club in time to see her stop a taxi. He couldn’t let her go – victory was so close!

He rushed toward the car and jumped in right beside her.

“What are you doing?! Go have fun with your dancing girls!” She spat.

He chuckle apologetically. “Please, those girls have nothing on you! I said that was all in the past, right? You’re the girl in my heart now, there isn’t any room for anyone else.”

“Screw off! This bullshit won’t work on me.” She viciously slapped away the arm he’d tried to snake around her waist.
His sheepish expression grew bleaker still. “It was your idea to come out and have a good time, but you’re still unhappy. I didn’t even want to come back to this place!”

His words eased some of the tension in her face. After all he was right, wasn’t he? It had been her idea and her choice of location.

The taxi driver chose this moment to cut in. “Brother Cheng? Which hotel am I bringing you to tonight? Got your hands on a spicy one tonight!”

Chu Cheng’s face scrunched tight like he’d been punched in the gut. Lina stared at him with wide, hard eyes. A loud smack rang through the interior of the cab and Lina left with Chu Cheng rubbing his face. He cast a hateful glare toward the driver.

“D-did I say too much,” the dimwitted man asked.

The corners of Chu Cheng’s mouth twitched. “Do you think you could possible just live life as a mute? This is karma or something – some sort of dark retribution. Just take me home.” It was time to retreat and like his wounds – pursuing her any
further would only make things worse. In his experience he knew any chance of a happy night of cuddling was practically zero. This was the danger of a life lived in dark alleys and smoky clubs. Sometimes you run in to vengeful ghosts, and your night turns out just like this.

Thank goodness for small victories, though. No news of their altercation would get out since no one had been there to see it. He maintained his image as the great knight, and the masked man was the villain.

So it was that when Chu Cheng showed his face the crowds cheered and hailed. For Lan Jue, though, he received nothing but boos.

The two young men stood side by side. Chu Cheng was loving the attention, so saw no need to hide himself away in the Adept resting areas.

“I should choke the life out of you,” Lan Jue muttered with a tired anger.

The originator of his misery chuckled. “Take it easy man. It is what it is, right now it’s best to just go with the flow. We’re in
the same boat anyway, you know Lina ran off somewhere and probably isn’t coming back.”

“Oh please. Get the hell away from me, you stink like hormones. Don’t put me anywhere near your boat. I’m not even in your ocean. For you this whole thing is warranted. I’m just suffering for your sins.” Lan Jue whined.

“Fine, alright – it’s my fault. If we happen to run in to each other on the field I’ll let you win, alright? How about that – we’re even.” Chu Cheng hastily buried the issue.

As if on cue, the sorting process began. The sound like flicking playing cards filled the air as pictures soared overhead.

After three rounds the challenger pool had been whittled down to over four hundred. Elimination rounds were to proceed that would reduce this number by half again. But whether or not they moved on now, everyone present was a winner in regards to the richness of the rewards they’d earned.

The pictures in the sky above swiftly organized themselves in to pairs precisely as had been done the three days prior. At this point Lan Jue had stopped holding up hope for some luck,
especially considering his match history so far. That was why when he saw his opponent he was pleasantly surprised – at least it wasn’t a friend of his.

More than those of his Avenue or acquaintances, there were also the true powerhouse enemies like Constantine that he was really afraid of running in to. In a case like that he’d be forced to pull out all his tricks, and even then the chances of victory would be slim.

The Pharmacist was also in that category, and running in to her would be an even more bitter tragedy. Even for Skyfire Avenue standards she was stunningly strong. Also, how could he possible fight her when Jun’er was watching in the audience? At that point he’d have no other option other than to forfeit.

He thanked his lucky stars that wasn’t this time. His opponent was number 122. If he were bold enough to ask for better luck than it was possible this unknown opponent could be one of the few remaining eighth ranks.

The Tournament was moving along well. Five rounds would see it complete and they were three in. The enormous press of Adepts had dwindled to a select few, but that didn’t diminish
the energy. With every new day the fights became more splendid.

To highlight and capitalize on this e very fight was extended from thirty minutes to sixty. Contestants were given a full hour, to give everything in them for victory.

Lan Jue was with the second batch today. Chu Cheng was with the first, and he drew the short straw today. His adversary was Sariel, Archangel of the Moon!

“Dayumn look at this hotty.” Chu Cheng, clearly,  wasn’t aware of his bad luck.

“This is one of the few good ones. Don’t hurt her.” Lan Jue implored.

“Don’t tell me there’s something between you two?” Chu Cheng couldn’t keep the curiosity from his face.

He answered with a shake of his head. “Not in the least. She helped me once, and of all that mess in the Pontiff’s Citadel she’s one of the few that leaves me with a good impression.”
“Fine, fine, whatever. Look the vampire princes didn’t work out so how about an angel as my next one eh, whadda ya say? Ngh, and what if those two ever met. Ooh baby that’s a fun image. Darkness on the left and purity on the right, different temperaments, different styles… the thought makes my mouth water.”

Chu Cheng was getting carried away, but the look he saw in his friends eye caught the words in his throat. It was pity! How could he not be praising him for his vivid imagination!

SMACK! Something hit Chu Cheng so hard he went reeling.

He spun around with a curse on his lips that died the instant he saw who his him. Those angry eyes were cast down meekly.

“Dad, you’re a judge! You can’t go around slapping people.” He cowered obsequiously before the ice-cold glare of Chu Dong.

Chu Cheng’s father said nothing. He only slowly lifted his finger and pointed it directly at his face. There were no words but the look he gave his son promised there would be literal hell to pay. A man like this kept his promises.
Chu Cheng looked like a terrified child. “What did I even do to deserve this? That really hurt dad, ow! Help me see if there’s a bump.”

“Karma’s a bitch.” Lan Jue gloated. “You’re a skirt chasing bum. Consider this a reckoning. If I were your dad I’d beat the shit outta you so you don’t bring disgrace to the family.”

“I’m not your friend anymore!” Chu Cheng shrilly exclaimed.

Lan Jue’s spine straightened in righteous indignation. “Excellent, get right on that! I won’t bother with you or your baggage any more. And let me tell you something else! You better pray she beats you senseless because if I meet you in the next round – uncle.. uncle hey! Where are you running so fast!”

A few seconds later Chu Cheng was rudely deposited on his side of the assigned arena. His impassive opponent, Sariel, stared at him from the other end. She displayed no mirth at his misfortune not offered disparaging words. She was all silent determination.

“Three. Two. One. Begin!” The sharp buzzer sounded, and the fourth round of the Great Adept Tournament began.

Chapter 417: The Dark Mage

Sariel’s face changed a little when she saw her opponent for the first time. She didn’t look happy. Of course the Pontiff’s men had dossiers on members of the Great Conclave, and Chu Cheng was no exception. She knew who he represented and had watched his fights. Sariel had faith in her abilities, but she also knew her limits. This would be a difficult fight.

In another arena not far away, another person Lan Jue was familiar with was preparing for battle. The Coffee Master was clad today in white trousers, a white shirt and coffee-colored trouser straps. His opponent was an ominous looking old man who looked to be fifty or sixty years old. The rules were quite strict about age restrictions, but even then the Coffee Master wasn’t sure this man didn’t cheat his way in.

He bore a dark scepter in his hands that was capped by a midnight blue gemstone. A faint light surrounded it.

The instant the buzzer sounded the craggy old fighter lifted that scepter in to the air. He called out a litany in a strange and monstrous voice. It was like nails scraping the inside of one’s skull, and the words resonated over and over. Each poison syllable saw an orb of blackish-green energy belch from the stave and race toward the Coffee Master.
“Dark magic!” the Coffee Master picked out his opponent’s powers right away. The story was that Adepts with supernatural powers like this sold their souls to powerful demons in exchange. In fact, even the Dark Citadel was reticent to deal with these sorts – they felt their foray in to necromancy was filthy.

The revelation also explained his strange appearance. For these Adepts powers were earned through sacrifice – of both their body and soul. The ultimate goal was immortality in the form of an immortal Lich.

Contemporary knowledge recognized Liches as their term for Paragons. If any existed at all, however, they kept themselves well hidden. The moment a Lich revealed itself, every one of the remaining Paragons would make it their mission to hunt them down.

Liches were the embodiment of destruction and death. Anywhere they went, they left a trail of desolation. Pestilence, disease, and all other manner of curses were inevitable when they appeared. So it was that the presence of a Lich became a problem for all humanity.

This one wasn’t a Lich, likely still a ways from it based on
cursory judgment. However, he was a representative of the Dark Citadel. It meant he was quite powerful indeed.

The Coffee Master couldn’t afford to be careless. His first reaction was to launch himself in to the air and tear like a missile toward his foe. Graceful and elegant off the field, once the fight started the Coffee Master was like a wild animal.

However one of the black-green orbs caught him en route.
Immediately he could feel the strength leeching out of him.

Curse of Weakness! The attacks of these mages afflicted one’s spirit, stemming from black occult powers. The Coffee Master had a fair amount of battle experience, but his real expertise lie in mecha combat. It was widely accepted that when it came to one on one Discipline battles, only the Accountant was worse than the Coffee Master.

The fact that he’d made it here to the fourth round spoke volumes to his luck, especially considering his lower rank in ninth level. It looked like all that luck was about to run out.

The Coffee Master bit firmly down on his tongue. The pain sharpened his mind enough for him to descend and land of his
feet. When he straightened his body had begun to swell. His shirt ripped, his pants tore, and the skin beneath was thick with corded muscle.

On the VIP platform the Gourmet watched with a slight frown. Must he always go straight for this madness, the Gourmet silently chided.

The Coffee Master, of course, was not mad. His Discipline was called Berserker. It’s function was to rapidly and tremendously increase his musculature. So, even though the Coffee Master wasn’t as strong in a duel as other fighters, you would be hard pressed to find someone who could take more punishment.

The violent change dispelled the weakening curse. In the blink of an eye the Coffee Master was a few steps in front of the mage with his enormous meaty fist flailing through the air.

The elderly necromancer never moved. His dark eyes like vipers simply watched him come.

He moved the scepter, just the slightest bit. A dark  light sprang up around the wild Avenue Adept before we went running off to the side. He’d completely lost control of his body.
Curse of Confusion! It was a high order necromancy ability, specifically suited in combat against a close-ranged fighter like the Coffee Master.

Wordlessly he cursed his situation – he didn’t know how to proceed. His Discipline instantly shot all aspects of his physicality in to the stratosphere; strength, endurance, energy – everything was greatly empowered. At the ninth level he was even stronger than most mech suits. Of course for everything there was a counter. For ones such as him who relied on close combat and strength, a mage steeped in battlefield control was a true nightmare.

The Coffee Master knew enough to know when he was in trouble. This would be payback for his former good luck. Statistics demanded that he would come across a true challenge eventually.

The Confusion Curse forced him to race far from his target. All the while the old man stood unmoving from his spot. The incantations ceaselessly filled the air with unsettling calls. As the audience held their ears and watched a pale purple aura pulsed wildly out from his scepter.

A single beam of toxic light shot out from the necromancer’s
gem toward the Coffee Master. The light itself appeared unremarkable, but it was often the innocuous that were most dangerous. The audience couldn’t feel the soul-devouring energy hidden in the depths of that light, but the all-pervasive sense of dread that swallowed them up stopped the breath in their throats.

Death Ray! The strongest and most terrible necromantic curse!

The Coffee Master, under the effects of the curse, couldn’t avoid the inevitable. The beam struck, and where it landed a rippling violet light spread out. He collapsed upon himself, like a corpse.

The body lurched. It shook and rocked, and a disgusting rip sounded around the arena. The Coffee Master pulled himself out from underneath layers of dead muscle with gasping breaths. “I concede!”

The mage was clearly stunned at this last-minute revelation. The Coffee Master had saved himself by hardening and shedding a shield of muscle. Having won victory, he ceased his dark curses.
As for the Coffee Master, he cast a hard glare toward his foe then stepped out of the arena. This was a competition and not a life or death struggle. He only came here do well enough to save face, and he had. The rewards he would be bringing home were also a nice parting gift.

Their fight had been fast. By contrast, the fight between Chu Cheng and the Angel of the Moon was just getting started.

Fierce columns of fire belched within the arena, although Chu Cheng himself appeared especially calm. Roaring flares of pitch black flame continuously raced toward Sariel.

The young woman had always been beautiful, but with her wings spread wide and bathed in holy light, she was a vision of heart-aching purity. The light was silvery and ethereal, giving illumination to the origin of her name. Overhead its source was spied to be a crescent moon suspended in the air a few meters above her head. The beautiful light had a purpose, to strengthen her coming onslaught.

Like the other Seraphs, Sariel’s weapon was the congealed energy of holy light. It’s piercing white light beamed outward to cut the flaming attacks away. The holy light shone fiercely against the hellish fires of Chu Cheng’s assault. This was a battle
of dogma, diametrically opposed beliefs.

On the outside it looked as though they were neck and neck. Neither could break the stalemate. However, keener observers and especially Sariel understood the tactic. Consume energy.

Chu Cheng was seventh degree, and herself sixth –  a difference of a single rank. Still she couldn’t sustain against the full strength of Chu Cheng’s offense. The tack he took now was a guarded opening move. His violent and expansive display seemed silly in a battle of staying power but the idea was to leave nowhere for Sariel to turn.

She didn’t puzzle out his other objective, however, which was one he’d cooked up after Lan Jue’s warning. Let her stay a while and win with dignity.

But how could this pity be something Sariel could approve of?

A glimmering crescent moon emerged between her eyebrows. Her six majesty wings beat in unison to send her soaring back several meters. The space she vacated was immediately consumed in hellfire, which burned and roared after her like a hellish serpent. She brought the blazing sword high overhead, a
ringing prayer simultaneously cast from her lips.

Her melodious prayer rang through the arena like a church choir. The rousing devotion set the holy light around her ablaze and a great pulses of energy beat back the waves of black fire.

The moon suspended overhead grew and grew until it was a full moon. The white light blazed with the power of a sun and flooded her with intensity, so fierce in fact that the white burned away to shimmering silver. Under the sudden and sensational increase in power, Chu Cheng’s hellfire was beaten back.

The Hades successor looked on in shock. This was a last stand
– what was she doing?!

In the audience Metatron ever so slightly nodded his head. On paper Sariel was among the weaker Archangels. She was of few words, almost timid. But Metatron knew there was much more to her than that.

Chapter 418: A Monarch’s Bane Is A Woman

Metatron knew Sariel to be tough. She’d shown it after being selected for genetic experimentation. The harder they pushed her the faster she bounced back. She was fearless, and indomitable. Where others cracked she stood firm, ready to die for what was needed and take the enemy with her.

But this was a competition, not a fight to the death. He admired her determination – and who could say? Perhaps she’d work a miracle and remove the Hades heir from play.

The disgrace the Pontiff’s Citadel had recently suffered was a fresh wound. Metatron had continued to ruminate over it, eventually coming to the conclusion that these foreign foes must have had help from the inside. Furthermore only someone with significant trust could provide useful information, or even be effective in helping them get in. Sariel was on his list, but his suspicions were eased upon seeing her fervent drive to earn the Citadel honor.

The Terminator watched carefully from the front row of the platform. His face was a mask of indifference. The sudden divide between he and little Jun’er was plain as day but there was nothing that could be done. The very special child had
become invaluable overnight, and he didn’t want to do anything that might make his guests wary. He also greatly respected the Gourmet for remaining here in the face of this new information. It showed real character.

Chu Cheng’s eyes narrowed, fixed upon Sariel. The holy light surrounding her grew brighter with each passing moment. He lifted his own hands in response and pressed his palms outward. A pale grey aura appeared around him like a host of spirits, and the sea of flame around his saw all the color bleed away. They flashed and flared in mono-color, and the increased forced Sariel’s cocoon of holy light to begin retracting once again.

This was pure Hades Hellfire. Even an amateur could tell at a glance that Chu Cheng had the advantage in energy manipulation. There was a reason he was considered a natural talent with potential greater even than the Gourmet. Like Lan Jue, he’d already had a wealth of experience commanding the protogenic powers of the Hades Ascension. Because of this he had been blessed with a natural understanding of his powers that went far beyond your average Adept. Sariel was simply outclassed.

Sariel grunted. The silvery light around her imploded toward the blade in her grip. Streams of silvery energy swarmed together to infuse the blade with potency. The full moon that
hung over head descended and shrank until it took up position behind the Angel of the Moon. She blazed so brightly that she looked like a silver seraph statue that threatened to blind the eyes.

A strange smirk crossed Chu Cheng’s face as the image of a school girl in a tiny skirt tittered “On behalf of the moon, I will right wrongs and triumph over evil, and that means you!” All she had to do was throw that quote out and he’d laugh himself out of the arena.

Sariel wasn’t aware of Chu Cheng’s lascivious thoughts. She continued to gather energy until it seemed as though she might burst. And then, without warning, she blasted forward like a silver lance. The burning light pierced right through the gray flames, right for the center of Chu Cheng’s chest.

Ding! Chu Cheng was pushed back a step and the ringing sound resounded across the arena. His right hand had risen just in time to ward off the deadly strike from Sariel.

Chu Cheng looked down upon her with eyes of smoldering grey. His aura was thick and bleak, like a choking manifestation of death. She could feel something in the aura around him, some terrible and indescribable beast that hungered for her.
She’d managed to knock him back, but where she should have retreated she discovered nothing but a world of grey. The light around her was gone, and with it her immense speed and strength. She wanted to wave and slice with her blade but it was impossible, a crushing wave of silvery fluid like Mercury crashed around her. It seeped in to her every pore.

This… was…

Sariel’s pretty eyes were wide in alarm. She tried to react but a boundless expanse of grey stretched out ahead drawing her attention. She could feel something lurking, unseen – a terrible presence. Her right arm had been the one knocked away, and it was over her right elbow she felt that presence descend upon her.

Ding! The sound of ringing steel was heard again, but this time it was Sariel who was knocked back. She could feel the penetrating energies grow ever stronger, and the light of her holy weapon dimmed considerably in response.

She had spied Chu Cheng’s weapon, briefly. It was a dagger that he held upside down in his right hand. The base of its hilt was home to a strange grey gem. That was what had saved him from her last strike, and what had nearly ended her just now.
What she couldn’t figure out was how this clearly empowered weapon was not releasing any sort of energy or aura.

Tendrils of errant grey power congealed to form an enormous blade of air. It pointed directly at the lunar angel’s chest. She was frozen in place, unable to move, unable to resist.

A buzzer rang. This fight was finished.

The grey light melted away from around Chu Cheng, and fled from his eyes. They sparkled as he gave his opponent a pleasant smile. He even offered a polite bow before leaving the ring.

Lan Jue’s shocked expression was only partially hidden by his mask. He must be really scared of his dad, he  thought.  He fought like a different man! He was beginning to suspect a doppelganger until Chu Cheng came back and opened  his mouth.

“What do ya think? Sexy stuff, am I right? And I was a perfect gentleman – totally left an impression.”

Lan Jue sighed helplessly. “It would have been if you could
shut up about it. What’s the point anyway, it’s not like Sariel’s gunna go tip-toeing to your room because you bowed once. I’d give up your hopes, brother.”

“You understand nothing,” Chu  Cheng  disdainfully instructed. “A bird in the hand is worth more than two in the bush. Lina was definitely watching that, and I’m sure that when she was reminded how awesome I am she started to think twice about this whole running away from me thing.”

Lan Jue couldn’t stifle his laughter. “Here I thought you’d already climbed that mountain last night.”

His friend looked depressed. “Don’t even bring it up. I’ll tell you all about it after your fight. It’s about time for you to get out there.”

Lan Jue stepped out to the open field, and even before he got to the ring a chorus of boos had begun to follow him. Sometimes, he thought, being a man sucked. If his opponent yesterday hadn’t had been a beautiful woman than he wouldn’t be suffering today.


He silently whispered a prayer that he’d be spared a female
opponent this time. The picture of 122 used during pairing hid their identity hidden beneath a helmet.

However, the mystery was revealed when he entered the ring and got a closer look. Indeed, one often came upon the misfortunes they fought to avoid. 122 was a woman.

Female Adepts were not a rare thing, but the higher echelons were largely male. Even here at a tournament like this, coming across a strong woman was relatively rare.

This woman was clad in bright yellow leather that shone distractingly in the light. Unlike the profile picture in the sky above she wore no helmet. She was revealed to have short pale- green hair which hung to her shoulders. The combination made her look like a valiant steam-punk heroine. She wasn’t a very beautiful girl, but she did have a certain charm. ‘Dynamic’ was perhaps the word Lan Jue felt best described her.

She bounced from foot to foot over by her end of the arena.
The vivacious young girl hopped in circled to warm up.

Lan Jue shook his head, and made an internal promise: I will not be called a woman-beater!
She flashed him a dimpled smile, full of sweetness.

He nodded back.

“Three, two, one. Begin!”

Her pretty smile never left as the buzzer sounded. The girl almost skipped forward, seemingly in to rush to make her way over to him.

Lan Jue watched her carefully, then raced off obliquely with a start. Not half a moment later the spot he stood upon erupted as a giant spike of stone leaped out. The spike pierced a good three meters in to the air, with a peak sharper enough to impale him if he hadn’t moved.

The sight of it made Lan Jue’s face go pale. Even with his body’s natural resistance that would have hurt. Now was this an appropriate way for a sweet young girl to act?

Great cries of regret sounded from the audience. They were upset she hadn’t run him through with her opening attack. Lan Jue’s face twitched in irritation. She’s trying to kill me! Where’s
your humanity?!

122 pursed her lips, also looking upset that the attack hadn’t landed. She answered by forcing a second massive column of stone to erupt from the earth.

Lan Jue leaped up in to the air to avoid it. Battling an earth- based Adept on the ground was a bad idea. It was a Discipline one didn’t encounter often, and she had pretty masterful control. Although her contestant number was on the higher end for this round, her Discipline was still a very respectable ninth level first rank.

At this point, Lan Jue didn’t even have anything to say about his lack of fortune.

“Hey!” The girl in yellow jumped up, and came crashing to the ground with both feet. Light as she looked, the whole arena rumbled from the impact. A shuddering booommm filled the air.

The two spiky columns from before shook then shattered, sending shards of stone thick as a man’s arm tearing through the air. They converged upon Lan Jue’s location, but this time
he didn’t dodge. Instead, a shuddering aura of electric energy pulsed out with him at its center like a lightning grenade. Feral arcs of lightning blasted outward to envelope the entire ring.

Forest of Lightning!

The jagged stones were turned to dust as they encountered the lightning storm. He was a rank above this girl and possessed two Disciplines, so he had the advantage in terms on energy stores. He abused that advantage by using such a powerful attack so quickly.

The girl was also lost in the roaring wave of electricity. However, she was save from it beneath a gleaming orb of yellow light. She remained a single calm speck in the chaos of electricity around her. Earth was going to be a problem – it was naturally a counter to Lightning.

122 pressed her hands together in the shape of a heart. A yellow light was birthed and began to grow stronger between her fingers. The moment she saw an opening in the lightning storm she shoved her hands out with a cry. A beam of yellow light fired off toward the sky.
Lan Jue didn’t press the attack after using the Forest of Lightning. This was such a good opportunity to try his hand against a range of Disciplines, so he was in no hurry to finish the fight. The more he pressed himself against powerful foes, the faster he would grow in strength.

Chapter 419: Pressure; The Core’s Catalyst

The roaring forest of lightning eventually restrained itself. The origin of that terrible attack – Lan Jue – shimmered as the last bolt of lightning faded. He looked at the dark yellow light where his opponent stood.

122’s aura of protection extended about two meters in all directions. However, with the onslaught finished the manifestation of the girl’s power explode every which way like a sudden sandstorm. It covered everything in a rich mustard yellow, and even she vanished so as to be indistinguishable from the dirt of  the  arena  floor.  Everything  was  flooded  with the Earth element, which deepened its color even further.

In traditional Chinese thought they believe the entire universe to consist of five elements; fire, earth, metal, water and wood. Each one corresponds to a set of things which they considered to be representative of the element. Fire, for instance, is action, North, summer, and red. Yellow is the color for Earth. Some of the other aspects associated with the Earth element are; sweet flavor, late summer, the center, anxiety and pensiveness, the spleen and stomach, singing, and a certain aspect of the soul.
The young girl’s perky and playful persona had vanished along with nearly everything else. Even the audience could feel the waves of energy pouring from the ring. However, Lan Jue did not react. He remained suspended in the soupy yellow air while errant tendrils of electricity coiled around him. The audience could spot him through the haze, but if they didn’t know any better they might mistake him for a spectator. He didn’t move or react, just… floated. They would all be running if they could feel the crushing pressure he felt.

The tension came from both the sky above and the earth below. It squeezed him from both directions and left him with nowhere to go – the turkey slice in a very unfortunate sandwich.

Not bad! Lan Jue mused. Thankfully the girl in yellow didn’t appear capable of reading thoughts, or she’d have crushed him in to dust for his unspoken insolence.

It was true, he felt pretty great. It wasn’t because of his clear domination of the fight, but indeed because he could feel… something. It seemed like the Pharmacist was right – having to fight his way back to his former power levels had helped strengthen his foundation. He doubted there were many at his current rank that could boast the same.
What Adept would willingly give up their Discipline, even for the promise of future success? Not many. There was maybe only one in a million with that kind of resolve and mental fortitude. There was a great deal of guess work on the process, and he was lucky to have only dropped to first rank. Not many could afford the risk.

Lan Jue’s case was different. It was like fate had determined this course for him. It was the only explanation for how he ended up in this situation. He knew the Pharmacist was right because of the differences he felt – differences he hadn’t noticed until she had explained it to him. Now it was unmistakable, and present every time he trained with Qianlin.

The makeup of his core had undergone subtle changes since the binding. Before, he could describe his core as a solution of condensed electric molecules. Now it was as though someone drained away the fluid, and all that was left were those pure molecules. He felt purer, more stable. It wasn’t an obvious change, easy to miss, but now that he knew where to look he could always see it.

He could see how this effected his max potential. He was stronger than before, more capable. As with anyone else’s cultivation process, however, progress came through bitter training – or, bitter experience. This sort of motivating
discomfort was best when it came from combat experience, and could only really be obtained through combat against someone roughly one’s own level.

This girl was weaker than he, but her Discipline was unique. Earth-type Adepts specifically had very powerful defenses and had a stronger crushing force than any other power. There was nowhere to run, so Lan Jue had no choice but suffer the pressure directly.

In a real fight Lan Jue couldn’t have stood around like this. The idea would be to prevent your enemy from having any opportunity to counter attack. However, Earth Adepts were known for their relatively slow nature, and Lan Jue’s advantage in the area didn’t need to be affirmed.

But why not abuse it? Because he liked when his enemy pulled out all the stops. This girl was showing her true strength, and that was what Lan Jue appreciated. He was a little busy, but if someone were to ask how he felt in that moment, he’d have a simple answer; perfect.

The whole ring began to shake. The girl fixed Lan Jue with an imposing glare, likely biding time. Earth Adepts were slow, but if they had time to prepare an attack than it made then
infinitely more dangerous.

The man suspended in air left the girl with a very strange impression. She’d never met Zeus but knew him by reputation. She expected, considering his status, to lose quite quickly to the Mercenary king. However, instead he had allowed  her  to employ her full strength. Could he be that self-confident? Did he think he could shrug off everything she had to throw at him?

122 clenched her jaw as the thought of his suspected conceit wormed through her mind. Somewhere deep in her chest her Core flared, but all Lan Jue saw was the sudden and violent expulsion of her Discipline. That familiar crush resumed, stronger than before. He could feel his bones creaking.

Still he did not move. In utter stillness he focused on the changes in his own Core. As the outward pressures increased he watched the blue-purple energies condense in to a gloriously shimmering gold. The pale force encompassing it did  not change, though its color dimmed the golden power that tried to expand outward.

The interior of his Core also seemed different. He’d since felt the purity of his Discipline compared to before, but now it seemed even more concentrated. Like it was morphing.
Yes, that’s what it felt like! Lan Jue was overjoyed – losing this fight would be well worth it. If he was right, then the benefits of these changes would be reaped when he got back to the Avenue.

ζ

Qianlin sat within the audience, far from the arena. Still she could also feel her own Core reacting through her connection to Lan Jue. As he was suffering the effects of 122’s Discipline, so was her own Core. The changes were smaller and more subtle than Lan Jues’, but were noticeable nonetheless.

The Morning Star sat beside her. She was caked in make-up and hidden beneath an enormous sunhat to hide her identity. Large, dark sunglasses hid most of her face. In all it resulted in a near complete transformation from pirate queen to little rich girl. The Pontiff himself could walk right by her and be none the wiser. Metatron sat a few dozen meters away and hadn’t the slightest idea.

Now that her Discipline had returned mostly to normal, she had no more desire to be cooped up in her hotel room. Today she decided to join them at the arena for the games. For your average attendee finding tickets at this point was as likely as turning in to an alpaca. But they had the advantage of being
friends with Chu Cheng.

Xiaosu darted a glance toward Qianlin. Now that they were so close she could feel the waves of energy coming off of her. He spotted her eyes, which although open were staring blankly straight ahead.

What was she thinking?

Xiaosu turned her eyes back to the tournament grounds, and continued to wonder why Lan Jue refused to fight back. Her guess was her new Master aimed to goad his opponent in to using all of her power. Once she was drained and committed he would turn it around to finish her.

Boom —! The building anticipation reached a fever pitch as her attack finally burst forth.

It started on the ground. Towering obelisks of stone clawed upwards. They pointed at odd angles like a mouth of rotten teeth. Yellow light poured from their jagged crowns, each of which pointed squarely at Lan Jue. He could feel the gravity around him begin to change.
122 wasn’t a gravity Adept, but her Discipline was earth. Gravity was a result of mass, so she had a certain measure of mastery over it as well. If her eventual destiny was to reach Paragon, than gravity manipulation would be a staple of her personal Domain.

None of this was a surprise to Lan Jue, even as the crushing force of gravity increased. The air around him warped oddly as though viewed through a veil of heat. Flashes of earthy yellow blinked and vanished all around. He first heard the whistling, which turned in to a roar as boulders the size of watermelons came screaming toward Lan Jue from overhead.

The first few in sight weren’t overly large but larger ones – many over a square meter – quickly followed. It was a meteor shower that encapsulated the whole ring. Lan Jue had nowhere to go.

The falling stones and reaching stalagmites gleamed with a yellow aura. The force of pure earth elemental energy was empowering them. Common knowledge stated that Earth Adepts, if given enough time, could shatter planets. Lan Jue felt that to be an accurate assessment. Up or down, nowhere was safe.
This was punctuated when suddenly the stalagmites ripped themselves from the earth, and launched at Lan Jue like terrifying javelins.

He had nowhere to go, instead dodging the spikes and boulders as they came. He was so quick that he could barely be seen slinking through the tiny gaps between the stones. But with every stone he sidestepped, he could feel the gravity getting stronger. It made him sluggish, and slow.

A meteor the side of his chest howled by when suddenly gravity changed again. He spun out of control just as another stone came right for him. He couldn’t dodge – this one he’d just have to power through.

That wouldn’t work. Instead he fluidly pushed both arms out as the boulder came. It forced his body out of the way and sent the boulder spiraling. This was a benefit of his Taiji skills, which conditioned him to use gentleness against force for defense. He didn’t even need to use his martial abilities.

Chapter 420: Weeding Out The Stragglers

Lan Jue was beset by danger, suspended alone in the air. He looked destined to be impaled on the great earthen spikes.

The stalagmites picked up speed and tore through the air like ballista bolts. They closed the gap between their target and the tumbling meteors that were crashing down from overhead. He had nowhere to hide.

Once the danger from below was more apparent, Lan Jue responded by moving even faster. He moved left and right and in between with the speed of a lightning bolt to evade the threats. On occasion the increased gravity would get the better of him and a meteor would find its mark.

Those that he couldn’t avoid were deflected, just as he’d done before. The point was to take as little damage as he could from these errant boulders and spikes. Still they kept coming until the boulders blotted out the sky and those terrible spikes hid the floor from view. Lan Jue could only be seen as a bolt of blue light flitting between the cracks. This was possible the most stunning fight of the tournament up to this point, as was evidence by the fact that almost the whole audience had their eyes glued to their ring.
“Smash him! Smash him! Smash him!” The cries swelled to a cacophonous chant as the spectators cheered 122 on.

122 watched him from the ground, a dignified and imposing expression on her face. The meteor showers and earth spikes were her most practiced abilities. Her concentration was honed to a laser focus, bringing all of her power to bear against that single dark spot in the sky.

Where she struggled was in finding a way to lock the speedy bastard down. Every time she thought she had him dead to rights he’d find some way to slither out of it. She had every advantage but it wasn’t enough, and the longer this went on the darker the outlook became.

Lan Jue was focused entirely on evasion. He was spending a great deal of energy in the process as well, but it was all worth it to force 122 in to this position. At the very least her doughty attacks served to make him stronger!

For ten minutes neither earned the upper hand, but even so the audience knew what the result would be. 122 was outmatched, even if she was holding him off for so long. In the end the chances of her coming away victorious were slim.
Perhaps she knew it, too, for the staggering hail of meteors lessened. The spikes spat from the earth below came slower as well. Lan Jue could also feel that the gravitational anomalies pulling at him had begun to ease. Just in time, he thought. His clothes were torn and dirty – the result of repeated run-ins with the focused meteor field he’d survived. Although she didn’t know it she’d had him against the ropes. Any faster and there wouldn’t have been much for him to do but get knocked around like a rag doll. He had suffered some injuries though none were serious – but only because the explosive nature of his Discipline and his Taiji training had spared him a very dismal fate.

More important than any of this was the continued adjustments to Lan Jue’s Core. This had been his goal the entire time, and the result of this competition was a distant secondary concern.

Suddenly the yellow haze and pummeling rocks subsided.

Eh? Why’d she stop? Lan Jue pondered. He stopped his erratic flight patterns and looked down at her. Her chest heaved from the effort… but there was something more. Her red-rimmed eyes were thick with tears when, suddenly and with a shrieking voice she cried, “you bully!.” She ran from the ring choked with sobs.
He watched her go, flabbergasted by what just happened. She had tried to flatten him with an unending cascade of rocks the size of his head, and he was the bully? What the hell?

“Lowlife! Lowlife! Lowlife!” The crowed had settled on a single curse to call in unison. Few could hear what she’d said, but there were screens in front of every seat that showed the tears streaming down her face.

It was a possibility and a potential problem with any fight between a man and a woman. Sometimes the women cry, and when they did who would side with the man?

Others decided more choice curses were more appropriate, and screamed them liberally at him. Somehow he’d become persona non grata out here.

Meanwhile, the Gourmet had his hands pressed firmly against Jun’er’s ears. He had to be careful that these overenthusiastic fans didn’t corrupt her young mind.

Lan Jue wordlessly left the ring and made for the relative safety of the waiting area. Contempt was in the eyes of many a spectator as he trudged away. He even earned a strange look
from the Pharmacist as she walked out for her own fight.

“Were you making fun of her on purpose?” She asked, the slightest note of disapproval in her voice.

“What?” He asked quickly. “You’d told me before about my Discipline, and about how retraining made it more stable. I was just testing out the theory, and it ended up being true. But in order to get there I needed to be pushed. I was hoping to get some help from the girl to help me improve! So why the hell is everyone cursing at me?”

She just shook her head. “You fail to understand them. They don’t know how strong she was, or what kind of pressure you were under. All they saw was your determination not to strike back. You forced her to use everything she had and beat her without a single punch. Can you think of any better way to shame an opponent? The girl thinks you’re looking down on her
– not even worth really fighting. The audience sees it as cruel teasing.”

Lan Jue stared at her, entirely dumbfounded. “This is a travesty!”
Worse, his assertions could only be told to the Pharmacist because no one else would believe him. His only course of action was to flee the contemptuous glares of the crowd. He could still hear the curses as he left to change, persisting until he came back some minutes later without the mask or uniform.

Was he just pissing off everyone he came across? He felt completely powerless – luck was actively working against him. Could this be a flaw in his own character?

He had originally wanted to stay and watch the fights, but after the shaming he just experienced the best course of action was to flee.

ζ

The fourth round concluded without any notable upsets. The highlights were widely available on the television. The on- demand options were more telling, with Lan Jue’s fight topping the charts. Reports flooded the screen with images of the young girl’s teary eyes. What followed was a tirade against the ‘monstrous’ actions of Zeus.

Perhaps unexpectedly the resurrection vote for this round
didn’t go to 122. Instead Chu Cheng’s opponent, the stunningly beautiful Sariel, was called back to compete. Meanwhile the media had chosen a pithy nickname for Chu Cheng – the Dark Gentleman. Of course where there was a hero a villain was needed, so Lan Jue filled that vacuum. And once the populace had an idea in their head, changing that was near impossible.

Lan Jue’s singular blessing was the mask that concealed his identity. He praised his wise decision to wear, because otherwise the lynch mob would already be breaking down his door.

Chu Cheng – perhaps wisely – wasn’t answering his calls. He was like a horseman of the apocalypse, and gone without a trace when trouble came knocking. That was brotherhood for you.

Really, though, none of this bothered Lan Jue too much. If he concerned himself with the opinions of others than he’d have lost his mind years ago.

The next few days saw his fortunes experience an upward swing. Though not of his opponents were weak, they also weren’t outside of his capabilities. Meanwhile the contender pool kept shrinking. Round five had more than two hundred Adepts brought down to one hundred and eighty, round six
dropped that to ninety five. Round seven finished with forty- eight Adepts and going forward from here, no challenger would be less than ninth level.

The Avenue had a strong showing. Aside from the Pharmacist, the Driver, Bartender, Barber and Beautician had all advanced to the eighth round. Lan Jue and Chu Cheng were also still in the running. Sariel – thanks to the resurrection vote – was there too, with her compatriot Constantine. The necromancer who had defeated the Coffee Master was also still in contention, and several other notable young Adepts. A few surprising exceptions did exist – unknowns from the West and North – but they were few.

Now they all waited for the eighth round of fights to begin. This would be the final elimination round before double- elimination began.

The twenty four Adepts in that round had two chances to get in the top sixteen. First they’ll fight, then the winning twelve will advance as the losing twelve fight for a second chance.. The losing six are gone from the tournament and the winning six are voted down to four. Those final winning four then join the original winning twelve competitors to advance to the next round – group battles. If the losing two are not voted out by a margin larger than ten percent then they are also permitted to
join the groups. In that case it would be two groups of five against two groups of four.

All of this meant that round eight was very important. The winners here had a real shot. The prize for reaching the group battle stage was an A-ranked power gem, and not a common one either.

Lan Jue had tried very hard to remain aloof, indifferent and invisible through rounds five six and seven. The curses had largely vanished by the eighth round since his last few opponents had all been men.

Chu Cheng was the darling, a representative of the North who was both gentleman and warrior. He was as powerful as he was noble, and suddenly the dream boy of no small number of young ladies.

Woe be unto any of them who learned of his other persona, as the Prince of Nightlife!

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