Skyfire Avenue Chapter 431-440

Chapter 431: Quarter Finals

Seated beside Metatron, Lucifer was the very picture of calm indifference. He watched the fight with a detached look, as though this was nothing important. Qi Mu and Jiang Yuan’s advancement to the round robin phase was a great display for the Dark Citadel. For the two fighters, however, now was when they started stretching their might. Getting here was a great achievement.

The Pontiff’s Citadel only had Constantine left to represent them in the tournament. He was a powerful symbol and a terrifying Adept. But who knew how strong Satan’s secret warriors really were? They hadn’t seen the breadth of their skills yet.

Skyfire Avenue wasn’t in the best position either. The Pharmacist, Seamstress and Bartender were all in the losers bracket already, making the Avenue’s chances at being washed out uncomfortably high. If they were unfortunate enough to be paired against each other, then a loss for their team was inevitable.

Lan Jue knew the next set of fighters. One was the Conclave representative, the one the Pharmacist had told him about. He was called Titan. Another was an old friend of Lan Jue’s, and
one of the few remaining Avenue survivors – the Driver, also known as Thunderclap. He took a minute to appreciate the fact he didn’t have to face him yet – or either of them, in fact.

The fights got under way!

The Driver’s opponent was from the West. He wasn’t a member of either Citadel, but like many from that part Alliance, he was a shifter. It was clear by his aura,  which  flared drastically when the digitized voice called for the fight to start. A feral roar filled the ring as the Conclave’s man quickly warped in to a three-meter tall baboon. His whole body was covered in coarse, purple-black hair. He beat meaty fists against his chest, then rushed at the Driver.

The god-ranked mecha pilot and Avenue representative watched him come with an arrogant expression. He stepped forward, then was off like a meteorite. The two collided in the middle of the field.

Boom–! The thunderous explosion followed a blinding pulse of light. The shifter was left tumbling through the air. Although his body was covered in a strong field of purple energy, it wasn’t enough to completely protect him from the Driver’s  electric blitz.
Now it was time for the Driver to show his skill. Criss-crossing streaks of lightning bounced all throughout the ring, so thick they hid the Driver’s form from view. The bolts of electricity arced through the distance between him and the baboon before viciously blasting at the shifter over and over again. Number 32
– the baboon’s competitor number – couldn’t do anything but hop around and try to avoid the Driver’s assault as best he could. In the face of the Driver’s fierce onslaught he was stuck. It didn’t take him long to realize this, so he forfeit the match. It was the proper decision in this stage of the tournament. There was no sense in breaking oneself against a clearly superior opponent if another chance remained.

Titan’s fight was even faster than the Driver’s. The Convert was like a younger version of the Terminator. He’d walked in to the ring with an expressionless face, but rushed fist-first at his enemy the moment the match began.

The loose fist seemed imbued with crushing power, and the whole arena could feel the shock of the collision. For a moment, it was like all the air in the arena was condensed to a single point, then exploded. Titan’s opponent found himself right in the blast radius.

Boom! Boom! Boom! Three times Titan struck him with those sledge-hammer fists, then the fight was over. No tricks, no
strategy – straight steamrolling. Titan didn’t seem any worse for wear after the brief fight. It was the most overpowering display they’d seen yet – and Titan’s opponent was a fifth rank! But to him that didn’t mean anything, apparently.

He left the ring just as he’d entered, without any emotion betrayed on his face. He walked lazily to his sofa in the waiting area and sat.

“Pure physical power… that’s a problem.” Lan Jue muttered to himself. Adepts like him were rare, since the levels and kind of power he was using weren’t a staple of normal human capability. His body had to be fundamentally altered so it could withstand using such power. Otherwise his attacks would more likely destroy himself, rather than his enemies.

Without question, Titan had had to undergo some drastic changes to get where he was today. Now he could control levels of power the human body wasn’t meant to produce. It made for staggering explosive force. Lan Jue figured the man could probably rival an attack-class god-ranked mecha all by his lonesome. He wasn’t a man, he was a living weapon!

About the only way to survive his attacks was to have power enough to block them. And who had that kind of power? Even
an Adept his own rank probably wouldn’t have the strength to withstand his blows. He was a peak level Adept! Only a Paragon could stand in his way.

Lan Jue stole a look at the Pharmacist beside him. For the first time since the tournament began, he could see excitement in her eyes. She was looking forward to testing her strength against Titan.

It was difficult to imagine what might happen if these two terrifying fighters were to meet. Lan Jue could understand that. If he were the Pharmacist he’d be excited as well. But if he had to fight Titan as plain old Lan Jue? That was different.

All the fights had been fast, the next was no exception. It was the pretty young girl the Pharmacist had also told him about, the one from the Conclave. Her name was Yan Ningya. Unfortunately, her opponent had been another from her own group, so she was forced to forfeit.

The remaining fights followed expectations. The remaining fights were won by obviously stronger opponents. The one outlier had been the Pharmacist, who gave up her spot in the first round of winners to help give Lan Jue a chance.
Now it was time for the losers to get their shots in. In an hour, the high-stakes battles for a spot in the next round would begin. There wasn’t any reason to hold back now, so the fights promised to be quite a display.

The Pharmacist handily defeated her challenger. With her strength, she wouldn’t have to worry about being voted in to the next round. Her fellow Avenue fighters, though, experienced things differently. The Bartender lost his second fight and was thus removed from the tournament ladder. The Seamstress won her fight, but ultimately failed to be chosen in the votes by the public. At last the final sixteen were chosen, and the next round was set.

The Avenue still had the Pharmacist and Driver as emissaries. The Great Conclave boasted the most with three; Titan, Yan Ningya and a third Lan Jue wasn’t familiar with. The Wolf King Qi Mu and Jiang Yuan the Necromancer demonstrated the Dark Citadel’s power, while the Pontiff had only Constantine to bear his banner. The two Citadels together rivaled the North, and that meant Skyfire Avenue was the least represented of all the Alliances. However, this did not take Lan Jue’s presence in to account, even if he did need the Pharmacist’s help to climb the ladder.

Now that the sixteen contestants had been chosen, the
Terminator slowly rose to his feet upon the main viewing platform. The area was so large that he got lost in the chaos when seated, however when he stood it caught everyone’s attention. The air thickened as a quiet but clear indication that he desired everyone’s focus.

“To maintain fairness through the final stages of our tournament, future fights will be determined by  random drawing. No fighters will be seeded. Where they end up is where they end up. Tomorrow we will continue, with a single batch every day. Winners will receive three points and losers will get none. In the event of a draw, the competitors will receive one point each. By the end, competitors with the highest points will be entered in to the semi-finals.”

It was a strange sensation, to have their fights analyzed and announced by a Paragon. This wasn’t just about the attention. It was about glory, and profit.

Sixteen pictures appeared in the sky.

“I, the Terminator, swear upon the truths of protogenia that the selection process is equitable. Begin selection!” No one questioned the Terminators assertions. A Paragon’s word was enough.
The portraits began to move, slower than they had before. Lan Jue had his eyes fixed, but his prayers weren’t for victory. To him the champion title meant little. He just hoped the group he was selected to fight in was strong. He was eager to reap the benefits of tougher opponents for his Discipline.

It was a pity, Lan Jue thought, that his brother hadn’t come. Lan Qing hadn’t offered any explanation as to his absence, but Lan Jue thought he might have some idea.

For one, if the North was worried over the encroaching alien threat than the Eastern military must be in chaos. Second, Lan Qing was a high-ranking military official. Who could ensure his safety, deep in Northern territory? Not coming was the right decision.

But he was an ambassador of the Divine Monarchs. His glory was their glory. The next few fights would be crucial, and he had to careful not to tip his hand too early.

Not the Pharmacist! If there was one person he desperately wished not to be paired with, it was the her. He’d never sparred with her, but now was not the time. She was the best hope for the Avenue, and he wanted her to win. Lan Jue still wasn’t sure what he would do if it came to that, if he would have to pull out
all the stops.

There was a flash and the pictures stop moving. The fighters had been moved in to their combat groups.

The sixteen remaining competitors looked up, and faces began to change. Some were happy, others less so. After so many days, they all knew each other well. Well enough to know by a picture whether they were screwed.

Chapter 432: The Group Situation

The flashing stopped. One, two, three, four; four golden numbers appeared around clusters of portraits each. These were the groups for the next round.

Group One: Titan, Qi Mu, Bing Yu, Zeus

Group Two: The Pharmacist, Jiang Yuan, Chi Tianjiao, Qian Bian

Group Three: Yan Ningya, the Driver, Cao Shuiqin, Jun Yongye

Group Four: Constantine, Xuanyuan Shishi, Xianyuan Shishi, Blackmoon

Lan Jue’s face was hidden beneath the mask, but the pupils of his eyes contracted when he saw who he would be facing. He couldn’t stop his eyes from turning to the mountainous man who sat nearby. This wasn’t the worst group Lan Jue couldn’t gotten, but it was close.
Defeat was a real possibility, with the Wolf King and Titan as his opponents. However, the tide of competition had washed away all but the strongest challengers. He wasn’t the only one bemoaning his luck, to be sure. In fact, none of the Avenue denizens had to fight one another, so the end result was good for them.

The Terminator’s thunderous voice filled the arena. “The groups have been chosen. We will have a day of rest for our fighters to prepare. Afterwards, the tournament shall resume.”

The news was a clear shock to several of the competitors. Others were clearly careful to hide their reactions from their peers. Giving them a day was giving them time. Time to study up on their foes and develop strategies. Members of a group were at an advantage since they had access to a pool of knowledge to help hone their approach. Whatever the case, the quarter-finals were sure to be spectacular. They would have to fight for every inch, and use every advantage.

Only the best from each team would advance to the semis. Each competitor would have three tries max to advance, so they had to fight their hardest for each point. Any loss might mean the difference between getting to the semi-finals or going home.
When Lan Jue got back to his hotel room, a message was waiting from the Gourmet. There would be a meeting tonight to discuss the tournament, so the afternoon was left to him to prepare and research. Research was precisely where the Accountant would thrive. With his intelligence, skill set, and the wealth of the Avenue’s knowledge behind him, they would be swimming in data.

Lan Jue did not spend part of the afternoon in cultivation, and with research handled he elected to take time with Jun’er. They wandered and played while she wore the helmet, happily taking it all in. With her discipline yet to fully reveal itself, she looked like any other happy child.

When the sun came down they went back and had dinner with the Pharmacist. Afterwards, they all went to the conference room the Gourmet had rented out.

By the time they got there, everyone had already arrived and were locked in intense discussion. Most of it as the Accountant, who was veritably vomiting words on anyone who would listen.

“It’s not that simple with Cao Shuiqin. She’s listed as only sixth rank, but all of her previous fights and the data I’ve dug up suggests she’s much stronger- Hey! Why hello there gorgeous
lady!” the Accountant stopped when he spied Jun’er. He hopped over with an impish smile.

Jun’er returned the devious smirk. “Hello Uncle Accountant.”

He went on with sweet countenance. “Call me Big Brother, I’ve told you a million times! I’m not old like your father.”

Lan Jue grinned at the banter, then muttered something to him under his breath.

The Accountant’s eyes went wide. “What?” He balked. “No way. You’re messing with me.”

“Would I joke about something like this?” Lan Jue asked coolly.

“Right,” he answered. “My mistake. Well let’s get to work! Time to plan countermeasures. I’ve been busy all afternoon – I am such a reliable guy. So hurry up, stop loitering about. We’re all here so let’s get started!”
The others looked curiously at Lan Jue. They were keen to know what the Jewelry Master had said to get such a response from the Accountant. Of course, Lan Jue failed to explain and left it at that. He walked to a seat and fell in to I, placing Jun’er on his lap.

The Gourmet nodded at the Accountant, indicating that they would start. “Tell them what you’ve learned. Focus on the members of the other teams.”

“Very well.” The Accountant’s persona shifted noticeably. His usually irritating and abrasive nature was replaced with a scholarly air that surprised everyone in the room.

His eyes went first to Lan Jue. “The quarter-finals consist of four teams, and the contestants are all formidable fighters. We’ll start with group one. It consists of Titan, Qi Mu, Bing Yu and Zeus – our Jewelry Master.”

The group grew quiet. Everyone wanted to learn more about Lan Jue, even those who weren’t participating in the Tournament. The fact that he rose so high made him an outstanding Adept, and young. Those who weren’t fighting could still watch, and having background information would make it more interesting.
“I’ve also made my determinations who I think will advance.” He stopped and gave the Lan Jue a quick look, then went on. “Titan will be the winner from the first group.”

“I looked around for a long time but could only find a little information about him. Most of it has been deleted or misplaced, so the information I have had to be pieced together.”

“He’s stronger than the Jewelry Master?” The Driver asked.

The Accountant nodded without the slightest hesitation. “Unless he has any more tricks up his sleeves, I don’t think he has any more than a fifty-fifty shot.”

The Accountant’s certainty surprised the Avenue delegation. Although he was ordinarily full of hot air, in these matters he was deadly serious.

Lan Jue nodded. “Alright, go on.”

The Accountant obliged. “From what I could gather, Titan is the Terminator’s own disciple and the single successful result of a program to build potential Paragons. His specialty is physical
force. Ninety percent of him has been replaced with high-tech machinery. Everything except his brain is made from metal. And he’s a ninth level, ninth ranked Talent. It’s very likely that, at his level, he has a fair knowledge of protogenia. Since its use is forbidden in the tournament, you can expect him to use the full force of his Discipline.”

“If I had to pick a single person I thought would win the championship, it would be him. A lot of people look down on his Discipline as simple, but that would be a mistake. Any power trained to perfection could be terrifying. I did some basic calculation after his last fight, and the power output he displayed was twice the stopping power of a loaded mech suit. I only had my eyes to gauge, but I suspect he used about a third of his entire energy stores in those attacks. Remember, that all of this is without considering that he may have some other hidden functionality we aren’t aware of. Direct force isn’t going to work against him, so you only have two paths to victory. The first is to outlast him. The second, is to focus all of your power in a single point, at a single moment, and hope it’s enough to penetrate his shields. From there the target should be either his head, or his Core located in his chest.”

“It’s fair to say Titan isn’t even really human anymore. He is a product of the North’s technology machine, and it’s clearly much more advanced than anyone had imagined. I actually managed to hack in to their military supercomputer. I only had
three seconds before they found me, but I managed to find something. The amount of money they put to their Paragon- building program was enough to build a mothership. This is much larger than their human-weapon programs from the past.”

Remember that Ke’er is a product of this program, which was the reason she was saved by Lan Jue and ultimately became his Amazon.

“I also managed to come across an interesting bit of information, from three years and seven months ago. It said they’d successfully concluded research on something called ‘ferrocytotropism’. In short, it’s designed to attract iron from the body to replace the cell membrane’s phospholipid bilayer. It also slows their metabolism, but the trade-off is incredible strength and resilience. My estimations put them at two months passed launch of this program now. I think all of these are connected.”

The Gourmet face was grave as the Accountant gave the report. If this was true and the North had found a way to manufacture Paragons, it would be an historic event. But while it would be a tremendous leap forward for ‘humanity’, it would almost certainly also spell ruin for the West and East. If there came a day when the Northern Alliance was able to reliable
create power like this, no one could stop their domination. Unification would be inevitable, and weapons of mass destruction would freely roam the galaxy.

Chapter 433: Daddy Will Win It!

The Accountant broke in to laughter. “Don’t worry everyone. Current estimates put their success rate at zero-point-zero-three percent. At present, the idea of mass producing Paragons is impossible. A Paragon Is a special entity whose body, will, and energy have all coalesced in to a complete whole. It’s almost inconceivable anyone could have the technology to replicate that. But even with occasional success they are still hemorrhaging money. It would be hard to justify spending it on this program instead of upgrading their naval fleet. So, it is my estimation that Titan is an exception rather than the rule. In fact, I suspect he’ll never reach Paragon – that’s why the North is revealing him to us now instead of after he’s broken through.”

The Accountant’s assurances eased some of the hard faces in the room. He went on.

“His strength is nonetheless unquestionable. The only thing I don’t know is how much punishment he can ultimately dish out. I’ll need more information, so I’ll continue my analysis as the tournament continues. The only advise I can give you, Jewelry Master, is pray you don’t meet him in the first round. I’ll need time to find his Achilles heel.”
Lan Jue remained impassive as the Accountant explained. “Very well. Pressure is motivation. I’m not interested in winning, just doing my best in each fight.”

The Gourmet nodded sagely. “Well said. I hope that the Pharmacist and Driver share your philosophy. Whoever takes the crown is not important, but the safety of everyone from the avenue is. After that the aim should be to learn what we can. Go on, Accountant.”

He obliged. “Next, Qi Mu. You’ve all seen him in action. He represents the Dark Citadel, and was one of their surprise additions to the tournament. He is a ninth level eighth rank Adept, given the name the Wolf King. The data on him is also somewhat thin, but we know he is a genetically modified Talent. When he achieves his second metamorphosis his speed, strength, and defense are all improved. There are indications he’s also holding on to some tricks we haven’t seen yet. Unfortunately, he’s been paired with Titan, and I judge his chances at beating the Convert to be pretty low. He doesn’t have a way to overcome Titan’s overwhelming force.”

The Bartender – his expression sour – said, “You said it, the Wolf King almost certainly has some more up his sleeve. Are you sure his chances are so low?” He’d just lost to Qi Mu, and if the Wolf King wasn’t strong enough to beat Titan than what did
it say about him?

The Accountant shot him a look of irritation. “Did I say it was certain? Of course there’s a chance he could win, but if he does it will be by a small margin.” It was clear he stood by his analysis.

“Well let’s hope they meet in the first round,” the Bartender growled resentfully.

“It would be the best situation for the Jewelry Master,” the Accountant answered, his brows furrowed. “If they tired each other out, then he might have a chance at the semi-finals.”

Lan Jue sat silently, though his expression looked a little uncomfortable. The Accountant gave him a knowing look then went on. “The third person in group one is named Bing Yu. We know a little more about her. She’s an older, attractive woman. About the Jewelry Master’s age.”

“Daddy, why is this man so bad?” Jun’er interrupted. “He’s always saying mean things.”
Lan Jue smirked. “It’s because he’s sick, baby. He’s what we call a ‘tight-butt’, and is in desperate need of someone to help him ease it out.”

“Ahem! Jun’er, I wasn’t talking about your daddy. I’m just trying to explain! You should convince him to forfeit, Jun’er – these next fights are going to be really hard!”

Jun’er, clearly annoyed by the suggestion, answered. “You’re a liar! Daddy’s definitely going to win the competition!”

“Hehehe!” The Accountant broke in to laughter. “You’re definitely your father’s daughter. I hope it all turns out well, but reality is cruel little one. He’s going to need to give it all he’s got.”

Jun’er swung her face to Lan Jue, then to the Accountant. “Daddy will be the winner.”

The Accountant gave her a tolerant chuckle. “Yeah, so how about a bet? If I lose and your daddy wins then you can kiss me. But if he loses then I get to kiss you!”
“I will literally murder you.” The Pharmacist looked at him with a pair of cutting, angry eyes.

“Ehhh…” The Accountant blanched when he suddenly remembered the young girl’s mother nearby. He quickly added, “pretend I never said anything.”

“I’ll bet you. A real noble doesn’t go back on their word.” Jun’er’s tiny but resolute voice called attention back to her.

The Accountant didn’t know how to react. The Pharmacist was likewise surprised. “Jun’er, honey, enough,” she chastised.

The girl’s voice rose an octave. “I won’t! Daddy will be the champion! And if I lose then I will give you a kiss. But if you lose then you have to be my daddy’s sidekick. Whatever daddy needs you to do you have to do. Are you brave enough?”

Her audience watched in speechless amazement. She would not be dissuaded.

A nervous chuckle escaped the Accountant. “Alright, alright you clever little thing. You’ve got a bet with your big brother.
Better wash your cheek for that kiss you’re gunna owe me!” He found himself in an embarrassing situation, but thought little of it. She was just a kid.

Jun’er sniffed in acceptance then snuggled back in to Lan Jue’s arms.

The Avenue delegation was a sea of smirks, all but for three. The Accountant didn’t notice anything funny. The Gourmet had a strange, enigmatic look in his eye and the Pharmacist was contemplative. Lan Jue looked bewildered.

Even with all his intelligence, the Accountant couldn’t know that Jun’er’s insistence could have been a prediction. Had he some inkling, he’d be wise enough to know the dangers of betting against a psychic.

The Gourmet and the Pharmacist silently pondered the meaning of what they’d seen. Surely it meant her powers were quite strong already, if she could see something so clearly already. She was already outstripping the Clairvoyant when he was her age.

For Lan Jue, the prediction didn’t matter. He would put as
much of himself in to the fight as possible, but failure meant disappointing Jun’er. That could not be allowed to happen!

“I’ll continue.” The Accountant said. “Bing Yu is from the West, and as her name suggests, her Discipline concerns ice. She has an impressive reputation in her Alliance that is especially telling, since she is not affiliated with either Citadel. Whether or not she’s used genetica to improve her skills isn’t clear, but she’s a ninth level seventh rank nonetheless. They call her Absolute Zero. Ice Adepts are strong in general, but she began to realize protgenia when she was only third rank. Since then her progress has been practically light speed – real potential to become a Paragon. She’s no less powerful than the one the Pharmacist fought, Hades.”

The Accountant’s words were specific, chosen to illustrate to Lan Jue precisely how strong she was.

The Barber huffed. “You’re in the group of death, here. There aren’t going to be any weaklings.”

The Accountant shoot a glance at Lan Jue, then chortled. “The best situation for our Jewelry Master would be to encounter Bing Yu in the first round, then Titan last. If Qi Mu and Titan rough each other up, he has a chance. But that being
the best option doesn’t mean it’ll be easy. I’m sure the Jewelry Master knows enough of his own abilities to craft his own defense, much more than I. Anyway, his group isn’t even the worst.”

The Barber blinked, openly stunned. “What, you mean the Pharmacist’s group?” The strength of their resident drug pusher was evident to everyone, and everyone suspected she was going to be the one to walk away with the crown.

“No.” The Accountant shook his head. “There’s nothing special there – b-barring you, Pharmacist, of course. You’ll need to watch out for the Necromancer, Jiang Yuan, because he’ll try to restrain you in various ways. But I’m certain your skills will triumph over his. You’re our hope for the semi-finals.”

The Driver glowered at the Accountant. “You’re one hell of a downer, do you know that? The Jewelry Master’s right, you should see the doctor for that tight ass of yours.”

The Accountant immediately adopted his well-practiced, victimized pout. “I’m giving a presentation! Gourmet, you should take responsibility for the content. I’ve been busy all afternoon and look how they treat me!”
“So give your presentation and stop sniveling over every asinine comment. Go on.”

“I’m really not trying to say anything about your abilities,” the Accountant said earnestly. “In fact, the worst group is yours! Altogether your group has the highest destructive rating. It makes your chance of success… ehm, remote.”

“Eh?” The Driver gave him a skeptical look. “There’s no one of any note, no one with a reputation. That Yan Ningya might have me break a sweat, but the others haven’t displayed anything in their last fights to make me concerned. What could you come up with that I missed?”

That smirk spread across the Accountant’s face again. “There are many people in this universe who appear as sheep but are truly wolves, my dear Driver. Your group is proof. You think Yan Ningya’s strength is something to sniff at? That’s exactly why you can’t see it. I managed to get in to a Conclave supercomputer to look for clues, and the clues lead me to a surprising discovery. Yan Ningya is as high up the chain of command as Titan, according to Great Conclave internal correspondence. As we all know, a Conclavian’s rank in their organization is directly correlated to their ability. What does it say that she doesn’t take orders from Titan? Wore, that’s about the only information we have on her. From what we could
gather, her Discipline is time-based. That’s rare, about as rare as
…oh, I don’t know, predictive Disciplines. In fact the only information I could dig up about any notable time Discipline was the Clockmaker. A member of the Avenue for a while, but a Northerner – now known as the Paragon Epochrion. That leads me to one conclusion; Yan Ningya is either the student or disciple of Epochrion.”

Chapter 434: The Accountant’s Analysis

The Driver’s countenance changed after hearing the Accountant’s explanation. His self-confidence, however, did not recover.

Lan Jue was also surprised, but for a different reason. The Northern Paragon came from Skyfire Avenue?  The Clockmaker?

Now that he thought about it, there was always a shop on the Avenue that never opened its doors. It didn’t seem to have a proprietor. It was just a bit down the Avenue from the Gothic Winery, and he could remember seeing clocks in the dark windows. He asked the Wine Master about it once, but the Paragon only shook his head, and said nothing.

It would make sense that the empty shop belonged to this absent Clockmaker. The same person who became one of the leading figures in the North. At her current rank, she would have been the second most powerful Paragon in the Avenue at the time! Imagine how strong they would be today if the Epochrion had stayed.

The Driver looked unsure after his opponent’s history. He
looked towards Lan Jue. “Do you have time tomorrow?”

Lan Jue nodded.

Neither explained further.

Lately Lan Jue had spent his time training with Qianlin, so he hadn’t had the opportunity to discuss the ying-yang aspects of their Disciplines. His reduction in power meant that the benefit to the Driver would be small, but it appeared his friend could no longer wait.

The Gourmet turned his attention to the Accountant. “What about the other two? What’s their story?”

The Accountant nodded. “The other two are Cao Shuiqin and Jun Yongye. Where Yan Ningye’s power is on the surface, these two are insidious. When I said wolves in sheep’s clothing, I was talking about these two.”

“First I’ll discuss Cao Shuiqin, an unaffiliated Eastern Adept. She comes from a mysterious family I’ve only been able to learn a little about. They’re apparently based on our mother planet,
Earth. They call her ‘Heartstrings,’ because that’s how she plays people. Ninth level sixth rank, specializes in sound. She’s cultivated her abilities to the point where she can command aspects of spirit and physics in offense. None of her former opponents have lasted long enough to let her finish her song. Her energy stores look smaller, but make no mistake that she’s very dangerous. Your strategy should be to blitz, Driver. If you can overwhelm her with your Thunderbolt Discipline’s speed and explosiveness, then you can beat her. If you let her play her song, then you’re chances are slim to none.”

The Driver didn’t contest the Accountant’s dire tone this time. He silently nodded his head, and pondered the limited data they had on this Cao Shuiqin.

But the Accountant wasn’t finished, and his face grew darker still. “She is strong, but her powers are erratic. At least we know more or less what she’s capable of. That other one though, Jun Yongye, is an enigma. His Discipline is strange. It manifests somehow with a wooden sword, very simple and nothing special. However, none of his opponents seem to make it past a few minutes. I asked around and none of them even seemed to know why they lost. It’s likely that his swordsmanship has its basis in ancient martial technique. Evidence puts his Discipline at ninth level seventh rank, more or less. I suspect that he’s already managed to completely fuse his martial technique with his Discipline. I suppose we’ll know how strong he is if you face
him in the bring. His nickname is a clue, though; Blademaster – White Blademaster, on account of the white coat he prefers.”

Now that everyone had a clearer idea of the foes they faced, there wasn’t a smile in the room. They’d come to the North with the expectation of making a big impression, but that didn’t seem practical anymore with this new knowledge and the groups they’d been placed in. They stood on footing much weaker than they’d anticipated.

The Accountant didn’t skimp on the last group either, going in to great detail concerning the information he’d been able to uncover. By comparison, they were weaker than the others and didn’t stand out. It was the others he advised caution for.

Once the information had been delivered, the Avenue delegation sunk in to a contemplative silence. It was late at night, and Jun’er had long since fallen asleep. The Pharmacist took her to the bedroom within, while the Gourmet dismissed everyone but the three participating in the tournament.

The Gourmet looked toward the Accountant. “Is there any chance you’ll find out more tomorrow?”
The Keeper’s apprentice shook his head. “Doubtful. I spent all day today trying every trick I know. I’ve poked around in more than a few places I shouldn’t have, so cyber security is probably ready for me. It’ll be better for everyone to just rest an relax, I think. At any rate I’m confident the Pharmacist will make it to the semi-finals, with a shot at champion. Things are much more difficult for The Jewelry Master and the Driver. And Jewelry Master… now that it’s just us here, I have to ask. Did you Discipline get weaker? By a lot, if I’m not mistaken.”

Lan Jue’s brows rose. “Why do you ask?”

The Accountant gave a dismissive sniff. “How else would I determine your odds so low unless I suspected you were weaker? All truth is in the data; I analyzed all of your fights and none of your abilities revealed a strength above third rank. There was one exception, when you hid your actions from the crowd. What happened only you and Sariel will know. Other than that aberrant variable, all evidence indicates an Adept who is ninth level third rank – so what happened? Internal injuries? If it is you should consider forfeiting, Titan is a dangerous adversary.”

Lan Jue secretly admired the mousy man. He wasn’t the most reliable team member, but no one could read a situation better than he could.
He awarded the Accountant with a slight nod. “You’re right. Because of unforeseen circumstances, my Discipline was reduced to ninth level second rank. The fact I’m in the quarter finals is a miracle, as far as I’m concerned. I’m going to give my all in the next fights no matter what, that’s the only way to get back in touch with my Discipline. You don’t need to say anything else about it, I’ve got things under control.”

The Driver looked at him with a flabbergasted expression. “Your discipline dropped that much! What could have caused that? The only thing I can think of is Kundalini syndrome, that sometimes happened to the ancient martial fighters. You…”

Lan Jue chuckled and shook his head. “It’s not Kundalini Syndrome. Call it a coincidence… or I guess more accurately a cultivation method. It’s not as bad as it might seem.”

“Alright,” the Driver replied. “But these next fights…”

A smile spread across the Jewelry Master’s face. “A loss isn’t always entirely a loss. I have my methods, you all can relax. Even if I run in to Titan I’ll put on a good show. You’ll all see who walks away.”
“Judging by that reaction you definitely have something hidden up your sleeve,” the Accountant accused.

The Pharmacist’s firm but tepid voice interrupted. “Don’t forget your wager with my daughter.”

The Accountant’s face twitched. “Wait a minute, you were serious? Jun’er’s just a child, she doesn’t even comprehend rule of law.”

The Pharmacist’s eyes never wavered from him. “I’ll remember everything that just happened. If  you  dare  break your agreement with my baby girl, you’ll wish you’d never have met me. Even the Keeper wouldn’t be able to save you.”

His face went a ghostly pale. “Y-you… Why does it feel like I’ve stumbled in to a trap?!”

“You made a promise, what’s this trap nonsense,” the Driver said in irritation. “The bet was your idea anyway. If there was any trap you built it then fell in to it yourself. Now we were all witnesses, so you better pay out if you lose. Enough – is there anything you’ve been holding out on saying?”
The Accountant looked at Lan Jue, huffed, then spoke. “Even if I did why should I tell him. Anyway who knows what will happen. I don’t have enough data to determine who will move on to the semi-finals with any reliable accuracy.”

“We should bet as well,” the Driver said. “I think Lan Jue will reach the semis.”

“We should bet on the Pharmacist,” the Accountant parried.
Carefully of being fooled again, he wanted to be cautious.

“Enough of this pointless talk,” the Gourmet interjected. “Do you have anything else that’ll help?

With a crooked smile the Accountant shrugged. “I’ve told you everything I know. The only thing I can add is to take care of yourselves. This is especially true for the Jewelry Master. Qi Mu and Titan hit like ballistic missiles. If the judges don’t see something in time, it could be a danger to your life. As for you, Driver, do the best you can. With luck and care you have a chance.”

There was a flash in the Driver’s eyes. “Good! Then I bet you I won’t come in dead last! Whadda ya think?”
“A bottle of whisky,” he countered.

“Deal!”

Lan Jue sighed inwardly. The Driver was certainly a personality, but it looked like he bit off more than he could chew with that bet. Even Lan Jue’s own faith was shaken.

Chapter 435: Lightning Is Male And Female?

There was a faint glimmer of light in the room, somewhat ominous. “If there’s nothing else I’ll continue with my meditations. Come find me tomorrow, Driver.”

The other quarter finalist nodded in response.

The constant stress of the tournament continued to aid his cultivation efforts with Zhou Qianlin. Their unions were smoother, and the pressure helped to hone his focus. Going through the ranks again caused him to notice things he’d missed or didn’t understand the first time. He felt like a novelist who felt one way when writing the first draft, but had matured by the time editing was done. In the China of the Former Era, a great novelist of the Tang family said ‘every edit is a revelation. If one wishes to write a great piece, one must be dedicated to persistent self-reflection and adjustment.

Lan Jue’s situation was no different. It was bitter, to feel like you had to start over. But the benefits were obvious. As if to underscore his point, both he and Qianlin felt their Disciplines advance after a night of meditation. Qianlin’s famously fast advance through the levels had slowed significantly since reaching ninth rank. However, with Lan Jue’s help she was still
much faster than anyone else.

She’d been pressing against the boundary of ninth level second rank for the last few days. Her mastery over Lan Jue’s thunderbolt Disciplines had also improved. The environment was appearing to have a transformative effect on her own abilities. The Pharmacist had mentioned this in her discussion with Lan Jue before. It was a sign that they were on the optimum path.

The Driver came knocking early the next morning. Lan Jue and Qianlin had just finished their breakfast.

“Early enough?” Lan Jue remarked dryly.

The Driver huffed. “I don’t have time to sit on my ass. I believe every word the Accountant said last night, so forgive me if my opponents have me a little stressed.”

“This is pretty unlike you,” he answered. “With talk like that how do you have any hope of winning? Confidence and determination is what will help you rise to the challenge.”
“Or maybe it’s because my defect has started to affect my mood,” the Driver revealed.

“Eh?” Lan Jue regarded his friend with surprise and concern.

The Driver’s voice grew somber. “You must already know that I’m stuck in a bottleneck. Each one is different, some big and some small. But this has been the worst block I’ve ever come experienced. I haven’t been able to budge from the peak of seventh rank. If I could only break through, I have the perception of a ninth level ninth rank Adept. I may even have potential to become a Paragon. I’ll never get there if I can’t get through this bottleneck, though. It was too sudden, and too intractable.”

Lan Jue nodded reassuringly. “Whatever the case, I’ll do whatever I can to help.” Their Disciplines were two sides of the same coin. Thunderbolt and lightning, one yin and one yang but otherwise mirrors of each other.

The Driver fixed him with a look. “In truth the bottleneck has to do with you. Usually, these bottlenecks appear to force an Adept to achieve greater levels of control over their energy. For those like us who have practiced for many years, those blockages are easily overcome. However, this is different. The
bottleneck I’m suffering has infected my Heart meridian. It started after the god-rank battles, when you absorbed my Discipline. There was a sense… something there that I could feel, but not clearly. It’s been nagging at me and affecting my Talent ever since. I’ve tried to tell myself to let it be, but my mind keeps returning to whatever it is. It’s come to taint my cultivation; I can’t focus, and I can’t feel what I need to break through to the next rank.”

There was a glimpse of something in Lan Jue’s eyes, and a smile spread across his face. “Got it.”

“Got what,” the Driver asked.

Lan Jue smirked at him. “You should be thanking me, actually. I went through the exact same process myself once. That sense you feel as a type of protogenia that resonates with you. That’s why it has such a powerful effect on your heart. You should know that the earlier you experience the more effect it has on your future development, too. For instance, if you’d only started to sense protogenia when you were at ninth rank then your chances for breaking through to Paragon or no better than twenty percent. However, you’ve got an early start, which means your chances have increased significantly.”
The Driver’s eyes lit up. “Protogenia? That’s actually what I’m feeling?”

Lan Jue offered a sagely nod. “We’re both lightning-based Adepts, yin and yang – the basic energies of all the universe. Part of this understanding lives within you, you only need to cultivate a deeper understanding. So, in a way you’re right – your bottleneck does have to do with me. If your goal is to break through to seventh rank, then your path  must  include developing a knowledge of protogenia. When you’ve put your feet on the Path, then you’re ready to continue. Then you’ll be ready for the journey to Paragon.

The Driver nodded in understanding. There was a strange look on his face, though. “I guess that means I owe you. So when can we start cultivating, so I can understand the Path? And with your discipline so reduced, do you think it will have an effect?”

To this, Lan Jue smiled. “You’re in for a bitter surprise if you’re worried about my Discipline.”

“Oh yeah?” The Driver asked.
Lan Jue chuckled. “I’ve had more than a few fine whiskies of yours. I’ll show you what I mean. Qianlin, let’s go.”

Qianlin had been quietly listening, interested in their exchange. Lan Jue’s sudden call caused her cheeks to redden. He knew what Lan Jue planned to do.

As she moved in close, Lan Jue wrapped a hand around her waist and leaned it. He pressed his lips to hers.

“I-I could come back…” The Driver’s awkward reaction to their kiss was amplified when Qianlin dissolved in to a flash of light and vanished in to Lan Jue.

Lan Jue lifted is right hand, and a bolt of lightning leapt from his fingers. It raced through the room, charging the atmosphere and masking their presence. Once they were hidden from prying eyes, he allowed the full extent of his powers to reveal themselves. The Driver was stunned to feel the tempestuous flows of Lan Jue’s Discipline as it flooded the room. Somehow, the Jewelry Master was suddenly so much stronger than he was.

“This…”
This was Lan Jue’s biggest secret; the power he wielded when he and Qianlin joined. Still, he shared it with the Driver, for two reasons. The first was their personal relationships – they were friends. Second, he trusted the clairvoyant’s visions. Both he and the Driver had been the subject of the old Paragon’s visions. He couldn’t have seen it wrong, so he didn’t feel there was anything he needed to hide.

“Are you still worried about my Discipline?” Lan Jue regarded his friend with a self-satisfied smirk.

“The change in your discipline had something to do with her,” the Driver mused.

Lan Jue nodded. “We underwent a very… interesting experience, too complicated to explain. When we’re together, my discipline returns to normal or improves. When we’re apart my discipline becomes weak.”

The Driver’s expression adopted a pensive tint.  “You shouldn’t have told me.”

Lan Jue laughed it off. “We are among the ‘strongest under heaven’, right? That was the idea of Deimos’ team. If I don’t
trust you, then who can I trust? Remember that a single man’s power is finite. You’re my brother in arms, and if I don’t tell you the truth then how can you watch my back in a fight?”

The Driver nodded again, his lips tight and face resolute. “Right!”

It was a simple response, but Lan Jue could see a subtle difference behind his eyes. Men didn’t need words to express themselves among other men.

“So,” Lan Jue asked, “shall we get started?”

The Driver nodded emphatically.

The two Adepts made their way to the center of the living room and folded their legs beneath them as they sat. They didn’t touch, only allowed their Disciplines to emanate freely from their bodies. Their eyes were closed, but the room flashed erratically with the manifestations of their Talent.

The differences in their powers became clear as the lightning raced around them. Lan Jue’s Discipline was sky blue,
sometimes a vibrant purple. The Driver’s Discipline appeared as a deep blue, almost black. That was a product of their yin and yang nature, but the explosive properties of the lightning Discipline were precisely the same for both of them. Gradually they were brought under control, and brought in to contact.

K-cha! The feral tendrils of power clashed and released a spider web of lightning overhead. The charged atmosphere caused both men to shake slightly.

The Driver opened his eyes, brows furrowed. “A mountain can only have one tiger!”

Lan Jue smiled. “True, unless one is female.”

“Who are you calling female?!” The Driver barked. Lan Jue chuckled.

“Stop screwing around. I’m talking about the lightning, not you. Pay attention to their reaction, feel the changes. I’ll take care of the rest.”

“Got it.” The Driver was concerned with breaking his
bottleneck, not the intricacies of energy gender. He nodded and focused on the swirling powers around them.

Lan Jue, meanwhile, folded his hands in to an oval in his lap. A short while later, another sensation crept through to join with the others, something strange and subtle.

Flashes of white and black flickered through the room. This strange power helped to constrain, and condense the electric energies. Lan Jue’s own sky-blue tendrils of electricity were drawn in to the milky depths of the white power. Likewise, the Driver’s Discipline was innately drawn to the darkness. Once joined by Lan Jue’s Taiji mastery, the two opposing electrical forces began to gather.

Although the Driver had his eyes closed, he could feel the ebb and flow of the universe. Whatever skill it was that Lan Jue commanded was like a vortex that swallowed everything up, including his Discipline. Now that they were bound to either yin or yang, the two Disciplines were separated as though by a moat. There appeared no way for the two to interact.

Chapter 436: Conciliation Of Yin And Yang

The Driver had never felt this sensation before. He could feel every minute shift in his body. As if in response, his Discipline flared even more vibrantly. There it was again; that strange, elusive sensation he’d faintly perceived months ago. It was elating, to feel himself come to grips with something that had tormented him – something intractable.

Lan Jue was also attentive, but his focus was the integration of the two energies with his Taiji manipulation. The subtle but powerful attraction of the yin-yang energies were strong enough to bring the thunderbolt Disciplines in line. The longer this was maintained, the closer the two opposing but similar powers became. His control was much improved over the last few weeks, both from his prolific use in the West, but also his empowered Discipline. He analyzed every shift to deepen his understanding, and he was beginning to grasp its secrets.

When the two pure forms of their thunderbolt Disciplines clashed, it was just as the Driver has said; a mountain is only big enough for one tiger. However, when the unifying powers of Taiji were added, it fully activated their yin-yang aspects. In the Spiraling Taiji power they joined, to spectacular results. Even these small demonstrations of their Discipline were capable of generating great blasts of light when they met. The flashes were
a myriad of colors, and it felt as chaotic as it did innocent. The energy flooding the room surged to a new level.

Their dual powers were forced closer and closer, condensing until it took up the space of acorn – a third of when they started. But despite its lack-luster appearance, Lan Jue was nervous. It was even more worrisome when he discovered it more difficult to differentiate the changes. At ninth level ninth rank, it was quite frightening to encounter an energy he couldn’t understand.

With careful guidance, Lan Jue guided the powers toward himself. He knew immediately that if he consumed these powers in to himself it would be of tremendous value, and so he carefully sought to use himself as a conduit. However it was dangerous, for even as he did so the power increased. The stronger it got, the more frightening the dangers of a misstep. He began by simply interacting with it, feeling it, before he dared take it in.

Then…

Boom–! There was an explosive rush, and a thunderous crack. Lan Jue was thrust against the far wall like he’d been struck with an artillery round. He struck so hard cracks slithered
through the plaster. The whole room looked like the aftermath of a tornado. The furniture was smashed, and the Driver had also been flung against the wall. Thankfully, he’d only suffered the blow-back from Lan Jue’s encounter. If not for Lan Jue’s forethought in shielding the room, the blast would probably have taken out half the floor.

The shields were not enough to stop the building from shaking, though, or the shuddering blast. As they were recovering, a cadre of hotel security were rushing for Lan Jue’s room. He couldn’t wait – the moment he came to his senses, he leapt from the room to the gardens below.

Burnt almost black, he lay smoldering against the cool grass. No rushing it! He panted and groaned, and it felt like every bone in his body hurt.

Protogenia… no doubt about it. Lan Jue bitterly mused.

He’d done all he could at this point. Anything further was far too frightening to attempt again – not until they could make certain the correct path.

However it was not a total failure. In the moment before the
explosion, he felt as though he were on to something. There was a resonance between his power and that explosion. Although it had been slight, he had trained himself to recognize these small changes.

To say the blast had hurt would be an understatement. Thankfully he had been joined with Qianlin at the time. In the instant the blast was released, he was filled with a protective warmth. It had spared him from any real damage – just residual pain and some bruising.

He couldn’t stay hidden forever, and eventually Lan Jue was found. However it was the Gourmet, not security, who caught up with him first. It wasn’t any surprise, since the entire Skyfire delegation had been staying at the same hotel.

The matter was eventually settled by the Avenue Paragon. Lan Jue would be responsible for all repairs, and the Gourmet would work to ensure things remained quiet. The Hotel would receive remuneration immediately and they would promise not to cause any more trouble. Another offense and they would be removed from the hotel.

They were given another room, and then finally Lan Jue and the Driver had a minute to take in what had happened. The two
burned and stricken men looked at each other.

“What the hell were you doing?” The Driver’s clothes were in tatters, but he was still better off than the charbroiled Lan Jue.

The Jewelry Master coughed. “I just wanted to see what would happen. I was curious to see if we could use our combined Disciplines to help with the cultivation. But then…”

The Driver rolled his eyes so hard they threatened to pop from his head. “Are you a moron? You never learned how to cultivate? When the yin and yang energies of thunderbolt Disciplines join it’s almost at protogenic levels. What made you think we’re capable of handling anything like that at our ranks? I’m pretty damn sure you’re psychopathic.”

“Heh… I mean, no harm in trying? And it wasn’t all bad.” Lan Jue offered helplessly.

“I had it, after so long – and then you blew the room up. Joining our Disciplines to cultivate is already incredibly beneficial, what more could you want? Curiosity killed the cat.”
A sheepish grin was plastered on the Jewelry Master’s face. “Alright, I mean I wanted to tell you about what I discovered in the explosion. But, I guess if you’re upset then I don’t have to. We can just focus on the incredibly beneficial unification of our Disciplines.”

The Driver gave him a dark look.

“Why are you eyeing me like that?” He sounded anxious.

Suddenly his friend changed tack, as suddenly as the breeze. “I’m sorry, my friend.”

“Hack-Kha! Hchcha!” Lan Jue choked on a mouthful of spit. He certainly wouldn’t have expected the gruff and aloof Driver to suddenly become so earnest!

“Hahahahaha!” The Driver burst in to a fit of booming laughter.

It began to dawn on the mercenary king that perhaps he’d been taken in. “You’re looking for an ass-kicking.” Lan Jue half- heartedly threatened.
“You just blew me up, you deserve it,” the Driver countered. “Now we’re even. So stop stalling and tell me, what did you find?”

“It’s hard to say,” Lan Jue confessed. “The blast had some sort of effect on my Core. There was something there, an influence on the energy throughout my entire body. It felt like an evolution, an enlightenment.”

The Driver’s expression became thoughtful. “So that would mean that when our powers joined, they were capable of perpetual increase. That is the influence of protogenia, and if that’s the case then there is much we can learn from this.”

Lan Jue gave him a flat look. “Didn’t you just say we shouldn’t try it?”

A shrug answered his question. “Why not? The blast didn’t kill or maim you did it?”

Lan Jue chortled. “As much as I’d enjoy watching you burnt to a crisp, I have to warn you that I only survived because my Discipline is at its peak. I also have the benefit of internal protections that blocked most of the explosion’s power. I can’t
promise you won’t get hurt. If we do continue, you have to take that in to account.”

“We should wait,” the Driver conceded. “We’re in the North after all, so perhaps it would be best to proceed when we return to the Avenue. The Wine Master may be able to lend us a pocket dimension in his Reaper Arena that would be suitable. Comprehending the secrets of protogenia doesn’t happen overnight anyway. For now it’s enough to feel their combination. We can save whatever piece of the puzzle the explosion holds for later.”

This earned an uncertain shrug from Lan Jue. “Subjecting ourselves to that abuse may not be the best course of action.”

The Driver gave him a challenging sniff. “It’s a chance Adepts would kill to have. Don’t keep the knowledge all for yourself. How can you still doubt? We should find a name, too… we can’t keep saying ‘the unification of yin and yang thunderbolt elemental Discipline lightning.’ It’s a bit of a mouthful.”

Lan Jue thought for a moment. “Purebolt. What do you think?”
The Driver answered with a nod. “Catchy. Purebolt it is. So tell me honestly, how much do you think you can control it?”

The mercenary king spread his hands. “How should I know? I didn’t even get to try. We’re talking about protogenia, if we could control it then we would have the power of a Paragon. Don’t you remember how strong the result was during the God battles.

“It looks like we still have a long road to tread.” The Driver nodded. “Let’s get on with it then. Right now it’s just sensing, no more fireworks. Otherwise we’re going to run out of places to sleep.”

Lan Jue laughed. “The only thing in danger of being exploded is you. Let’s go!”

The conditions were replicated. The Taiji energies brought Lan Jue and Driver’s Disciplines in to itself and joined them. As they watched they came to understand Purebolt as the true form of lightning, uninhibited by limitations of yin or yang. They made sure to carefully restrict how much energy they put in.

It was a busy day for all challengers in the quarter-finals.
Some were lost in meditation, others were studying opponents. Every one of them had their own methods of preparation, but the one thing they all wished for was time.

The quarter-finals of the Great Adept tournament, where the future of the Adept world was on display, was underway.

By early morning all of the arena’s seats were occupied. Members of the galaxy’s great organizations of government officials crowded the VIP viewing platform. There was also a new face among them.

A new, gorgeous face.

Chapter 437: The Quarter-Finals Begin

Her figure was hidden beneath an aquamarine dress, and her hair was tied in to a high bun atop her head. She was so captivating some men forgot to breathe, and she sat in the front where everyone could see right beside the Terminator. She looked frail beside the towering convert.

Mo Xiao was respectful and demure, seated quietly with her hands folded in her lap. She watched the crowds with a small, humble smile on her lips. The Terminator exuded a stately calm. The din of celebration didn’t seem to affect him, as though he hardly noticed it at all. Those who peered his direction would quickly flinch and avert their gaze. A pressure fierce enough to flatten you was felt whenever someone stared too long. It wasn’t by design, but rather a result of the Terminator’s staggering power. His effect on reality was uncomfortable for most.

The Gourmet sat with the Pharmacist, holding Jun’er in his arms. The little one called to her enormous friend happily when she saw him. The Terminator reacted with a pleasant smile.

“Ah, Jun’er,” he said. “Do you think your mother and father are going to do well today?”
Jun’er’s response was without hesitation. “Of course! Mommy and daddy are going to do great. Daddy’s going to win the whole contest!”

The Terminator gave her a surprised and amused expression. “Because they’re your mommy and daddy, right?”

“Nuh-uh,” Jun’er said firmly. “Daddy will win the tournament.”

The Terminator fought to keep his expression placid, but sometimes the absence of something was more telling. Mo Xiao, who had been watching the screen before her, interrupted.

“Your Majesty, we’re streaming live to more people than even the God-Team Battles.”

“Mh.” The Terminator nodded thoughtfully. “You’ve done a fine job.”

“You’re too kind,” Mo Xiao hurriedly replied. “I’m very much looking forward to today’s contests. These are the best of the next generation. Do you have your hopefuls for the semi-
finals?”

It was a clever ploy. He was unlikely to commit to his choice for champion, but the top four were a possibility. Just that instant the cameras went live, and the feed connected to hundreds of millions of viewers. All eyes were pointed at them.

The Terminator gave her a coy smile. “Oh, I don’t know. Tournaments like these are full of surprises. It’s in the nature of Adepts to keep their best tricks close to the vest. When you’re competing at these levels, it’s not just strength that determines the victory. A winner must have strength of will, resolve, the ability to exploit opportunities… these are what make a champion. But more important than all of those is actual battle experience. An Adept’s true mettle is proven on the field, when the full breadth of their training comes to bear. All the things we know on paper don’t mean anything, that’s why I’ll be looking for details, secrets and strategies.”

Mo Xiao nodded her head. “Well said,” she replied. “I suppose we’ll just have to see what the future holds in store.” She didn’t wish to push the Paragon further. They would learn more of his thoughts when he chose to share them.

The lights over the arena dimmed, giving the illusion that
dusk had fallen.

A single beam of light shot down from on high, painting the center of the arena in silver light.

“Quarter-finalists, please enter the field.”

The audience felt their pulse pounding, their hearts racing.
Cries of anticipation rippled among them as they waited.

Sixteen figured walked in to the light, separated in to groups of four.

Titan led them across the grounds, basking in the cheers from his countrymen. Lan Jue walked with him and the two others that made up their group. From what he’d heard, the Accountant’s analyses had been spot-on, as always. Even the organizers weren’t giving him much of a shot. He had time to think about it while tournaments droids arranged them on the field.

Going forward, the field would no longer be shared among contestants. Each fight had full use of the battleground. They
would also be the sole focus of the crowd. They stood now in the center of the field, beneath their excited gaze, each one different but important. Somewhere among those sixteen young Adepts, there was at least one future Paragon. Literally anything could happen.

“Ladies and gentlemen, join me in welcoming our mighty contestants back to the field. Fighters, I speak for all of us here and watching at home when I express my gratitude for your magnificent exhibitions these last few days.” Mo Xiao’s sweet, ringing voice called from the stands.

The applause shook the entire stadium. Cheers erupted from all sides, and some viewers clapped with tears in their eyes for one simple fact; at last there would be live commentary! They wouldn’t have to rely on day-after replays.

Mo Xiao made a great show of respect in turning to the Terminator. “Your Majesty, is there anything you’d like to say to our brave contestants before they begin?”

The Paragon smiled pleasantly down at the sixteen Adepts on the field below. His deep voice thud in everyone’s chest. “I urge each of you to pour everything you have in to these fights. Do not hold back for fear – I will intervene if necessary. Now is not


the time to hold back.”

Mo Xiao’s eyes lit up at the promise of drama. “Personal protection provided by a Paragon. Who could ask for more! I’m sure we’ll have some incredible demonstrations of Talent today.”

The Terminator’s assurances were as much for the crowd as they were for the contestants. It meant that they didn’t need to worry about losing control and harming their foe. The Terminator would prevent that, thus allowing them to do whatever it took to win.

Mo Xiao’s smiling face swung back to face the camera. “Very well, we won’t delay the audience’s wishes any longer. In just a moment the Great Adept tournament will continue in to the Quarter-Finals. We will be treated to eight spectacular fights today. Friends, let’s see who will be the first to fight for a spot in the semi-finals!”

Four gicantic images appeared suspended in the air: Titan, Qi Mu the Wolf King, Absolute Zero, and Zeus.

Mo Xiao went on. “Allow me to introduce the first battle
group. The first contestant – Titan. He hails from the Northern Alliance, and commands the Discipline of Force.”

The Audience erupted. Great cries of admirations swept through the audience like a wave. Titan took a step forward and waved to his adoring fans.

“Titan is the disciple of the Conclave Paragon leader, the Terminator,” Mo Xiao revealed. “I’m sure we’re all aware of how incredible this young man is. Personally, I hope we get a chance to see him in today’s fight.”

“Our second contestant is Qi Mu, a Western Adept known as the Wolf King. His Discipline is metamorphosis.”

Qi Mu took a step forward to stand shoulder to shoulder with Titan. His expression was hard and cold, with a dark light in his eye.

“Third, allow me to introduce Bing Yu. She is the only female in this battle group. Also from the West, she is a young Adept with mastery over the element of ice. They call her Absolute Zero.”
Bing Yu was small but exceedingly well formed, as revealed by the skin-tight cat suit she wore. She had long locks of ice-blue hair that hung freely at her back. Her eyes were also blue, and sparkled like diamonds in snow against her pale skin. Just looking at her imparted a sense of bone-chilling cold.

She walked forward to stand beside Qi Mu. She made no motion, and bore no expression.

“The fourth and final contender goes by the name of Zeus! He is also called the God of Lightning. A very aggressive name that hopefully hints at a very aggressive performance. His powers; Thunderbolt.”

Lan Jue’s brows furrowed, hidden beneath the mask. Why does Mo Xiao always have to pick me out, he complained to himself. I didn’t do anything to offend her!

“The contestants for today’s first battle will now be chosen.”

The digital portraits began to flicker, then swirl. They danced around each other as though caught in a tide. In contrast to earlier rounds, this process was much faster.
The pictures now had numbers above each. Titan was one, Qi Mu was two, Bing Yu had three and Lan Jue was four.

In accordance with the rules, the fights would be one against two, and three against four. Then, round two would be one against three, two against four. The final round would be one and four, then two and three.

For today that meant the first match would be fought between Titan and Qi Mu. Lan Jue would face off against Bing Yu. It was the Accountant’s best hope, and it had come to pass. At last his luck looked as though it was starting to turn.

“The matches have been chosen. We shall proceed to the first match; Titan, versus Qi Mu the Wolf King! Potential champions, please prepare for battle. We invite the rest of our contestants to wait in the rest area.”

Titan turned to face Qi Mu. The Wolf King looked him right back in the eye.

In respect to the average human these two men were beasts – especially Titan. He had the same imposing demeanor of his master, the Terminator. As the two stared each other down, the
crowd went wild, rattling the beams of the stadium itself. There was a thunderous boom! The match was going to begin!

Lan Jue followed the other adepts back to the resting area. No one could see his expression beneath the mask, but even so he kept it calm. In truth, it didn’t matter who he was paired against. Fighting a powerful foe later would only delay his development.

He could suddenly feel a child run up his spine, as tough a pair of ice-cold eyes were following him. When he turned his head, he met Bing Yu’s chilly gaze.

Chapter 438: Titan’s Power

Lan Jue nodded acknowledgement of Bing Yu. The woman known as Absolute Zero said nothing. She left without engaging him further – hostility was a normal reaction before a contest.

The waiting area had undergone another makeover, with even more luxuries than were provided earlier. No expense was spared for their comfort. Lan Jue took up position beside the Pharmacist and faced the field. Although he wasn’t participating in the first fight, he didn’t want to give up his opportunity to watch from the sidelines. It would undoubtedly help him in the games to come, if he got that far.

The Pharmacist smirked as he sat beside her. “Aren’t you the lucky one!”

“So it would appear,” Lan Jue replied. “Maybe Qi Mu will surprise us all.”

The Pharmacist’s brows rose. “Remember that in your next fight. Surprises go both ways. If we do see something this fight, though, it will help you quite a lot.”
He nodded. This was part of the reason why the Accountant had mentioned this pairing as the best situation. His best chance was against the next weakest person, after himself.

Only one person was going to make it through the group phase, and that meant that every fight was a life or death struggle. He had to win to advance, that was the only way. Even one loss would prevent him from getting the points he needed.

Even in the first fight there was no holding back. Especially with how strong Titan was, the Wolf King would need to use every trick up his sleeve to earn victory. Lan Jue was anxious to see how strong Qi Mu was, and how much punishment he could take. He needed to know for his own fight with Qi Mu later.

It was an advantage that didn’t always apply, though. If he had been the first one to fight Qi Mu it would have been him giving it all he had. Later in his fight against Titan, it also wouldn’t matter how well he knew his enemy. Zeus was going to have to dig deep no matter the circumstances.

But he wasn’t interested in riches, titles or reputation. His goal had always been only to better himself. The greatest gains came through the greatest tribulations, he knew, so he would fight his hardest for that reason alone. Progress through
conflict. He was no different than the others here, young and talented Adepts who represented the great potential of the future.

His three year lapse in cultivation was not entirely a bad thing, either. It gave him time for the dust to settle, to absorb all that he had experienced. This was like a new start, and his road ahead looked blessed. It motivated his Discipline to keep improving.

Only Titan and Qi Mu remained on the field. The two commanding Adepts slowly separated, each going to one side of the ring. There, they waited for the match to begin. Titan seemed hardly motivated, whereas a sharp and dreadful light blazed in Qi Mu’s eyes.

Pressure was motivation. Qi Mu felt it as clearly as Lan Jue did. The fear and uncertainty had awakened his lust for battle.

Several dozen beams of light sprang to life with an electric buzz, cleaving through the air to meet at a point a hundred meters over the center of the ring. In the place where they met, a brilliant golden light bloomed to form the force field. It filtered down to encompass the battlefield, and only then dimmed in hue. Once it was in place, it could only be faintly
seen. The audience could hardly notice it.

For the contestants it was different. All the sounds from inside could be heard by the audience, but for the fighters themselves, they were cut off from everything outside of their bubble. It was like their own world, completely isolated. The shield’s had clearly been upgraded for the quarter-finals, to prevent the chances of having them shatter mid-contest.

Mo Xiao’s voice called all eyes back to the viewing platform. “Your Majesty,” she said, addressing the Terminator, “what are your thoughts on the coming battle?”

The Paragon turned to answer. “Titan has trained in pure force. This has restricted him to a single path – direct. However, if a challenger seeks to win he has to at least meet Titan’s own energy levels and surpass them. Qi Mu is from the Dark Citadel, and is undoubtedly a formidable opponent. His abilities appear more balanced, but in reality he has also specialized more in strength. This is pure force against an impure imitation. The result comes down to simple common sense.”

Mo Xiao was somewhat taken aback. She hadn’t expected such an in-depth answer, nor his matter-of-fact assertion that his disciple would win. However, she was a professional and
recovered quickly. “Right to the heart of the matter, Your Majesty! Let’s see what comes.”

The monitors in front of every spectator’s chair lit up with a clock face. The numbers flashed tantalizingly as a digitized voice began the countdown.

“Three. Two. One. Let the battle begin!”

“Aaaaahhh!” Qi Mu let loose a roar that drowned out the cries of the audience. In a blink his human form was lost beneath coarse fur and gnashing teeth. He dropped to all fours, bristling with murderous intent when a copper-gold light spread out from between his shoulders. The Wolf King grew larger, more regal as he immediately entered in to his second metamorphosis.

His choice was clear and correct. If he wanted a chance to put the whole of his strength to use, he needed it immediately. Restraint would win him nothing, and to prove that he raced forward like a golden bolt right for Titan.

The Northern contestant stood for a moment and watched the wolf come. The audience stared wide eyed and with baited
breath, as Titan lifted one meaty leg. He slammed his foot forward one step to the gasps of the crowd. To them it was like watching a lofty mountain uproot. And then, the convert threw his whole body in to a straight punch!

“Wrrrummmm–!” The audience could see the force field flicker, and hear it crackle in protest. For a moment the whole stadium rumbled beneath their feet. Qi Mu stopped in the middle of his blitzkrieg, followed by a deafening screech.

The Wolf King immediately stopped his advance, and curled in on himself. The thick fur of his back stood straight, and he hugged in tight like a porcupine. When the  inevitable shockwave of Titan’s punch finally arrived, he was thrown across the field like a football to smash against the far side of the force field.

Bang! Qi Mu struck the invisible shield then rebounded back toward Titan, even faster than before.

“What an ingenious defense!” Mo Xiao exclaimed.

Qi Mu was the first one since the start of the tournament to actually survive Titan’s punch. It was a cleverly devised plan
that showed the Dark Citadel had done their homework.

The Terminator had been right in that no one could match Titan blow for blow in terms of direct force. However, balance had its advantages. At least in regards to agility, the Wolf King was clearly superior. Qi Mu used the benefits of his strength, leverage and tactical knowledge to give himself a chance. If he relied on speed and strength, he could dance circles around Titan. Qi Mu fired toward his enemy like a bullet. His right hand shot out as he passed, golden claws bared and set to tear the Convert’s head off.

Only seconds had passed between Qi Mu’s initial charge and his counter attack. Titan hadn’t even retracted his hand before those golden claws arrived.

At the last moment Qi Mu’s claws dropped, going right for Titan’s eyes.

The Terminator’s student had skin harder than titanium, but his eyes and his brain were his weak point. Qi Mu’s strategies must have taken this in to account. Going for the eyes was deliberate.
However, even though Titan could see the strike coming, he didn’t move. Like an indomitable mountain he remained rooted in place. His arm was still recoiling, but changed direction and swept outward toward his encroaching foe. His hand splayed out wide as though to swat the wolf away.

Qi Mu unfurled as he approached, summersaulting through the air to avoid Titan’s sweep. His vicious claws sliced through the air, still aimed for their target. It was an incredible display of skill, lauded for its clean execution despite the wolf’s towering figure. It took the spectators by surprise.

Qi Mu did not completely avoid the convert, though. His enormous arm swung with such force that a  sonic  burst followed and knocked Qi Mu off course. It looked as though his clever riposte would be avoided.

But just then, there was a sickening series of pops. The Wolf King’s arm stretched unnaturally before their very eyes, still groping wildly for Titan’s face.

Qi Mu had studied extensively, considered a myriad of possibilities he may encounter in the fight. He also knew his limitations. A window of just a few moments after the match’s start was all he had. He hadn’t started with any jukes, tricks or
feelers. It was do or die. Qi Mu’s previously unused left hand reached out to slap the ground as he came to it, moments before his other arm started to extended unnaturally. Because of this everyone was focused on the claws, and were stunned when he suddenly shot up and changed direction. It was enough to land the blow, but he missed Titan’s eyes. His claws raked violently against the Northerner’s back.

Titan swung around from the force of Qi Mu’s swipe. The attack ripped away the clothes from his back, revealing the dark skin beneath. Five long, indented grooves appeared down his spine.

But that was all. For all of Qi Mu’s planning and execution, the best he could muster was still not enough to best Titan’s defense.

Chapter 439: Third Metamorphosis vs. Fiend-Crusher

Titan launched through the air, stopping a hundred meters overhead. His big hands splayed wide, and he pressed them down toward Qi Mu below. The motion looked almost tender, but also natural. That telling buzz vibrated the stadium again, louder this time.


Qi Mu felt it immediately, the crushing sensation starting at the top of his head, like a mountain had been dropped on him. Unlike earlier, when the blast had caught him in the air, there was nowhere for him to retreat.

The Wolf King dropped to his haunches, then leapt right toward the oncoming surge. He stretched his arms high overhead, and those ten razor claws fused in to one. He pierced the air, and began to spin like a top. He planned to drill right through Titan’s attack.

Everyone pressed their hands to their ears when a grating screech like steel on steel lashed through the arena. Flashes of red surrounded Qi Mu momentarily as the invisible force swept passed. The stadium rumbled as suddenly two massive palm prints appeared in the arena’s alloy floor. Titan hovered over the crowd like a Buddha.
But Qi Mu was still coming. The thick fur covering him had become a brilliant, piercing gold like a true Wolf King. Piercing Charge – that was the name of the skill. Although Qi Mu’s advance had slowed after fighting through Titan’s thrust, he still covered the distance quickly.

The golden wolf appeared for half a second in front of Titan, then swung around to his side. Razor-sharp claws lashed out again, joined together in a single jagged weapon. To this, Titan answered by side-stepping, and pressing toward the Wolf King with an open palm. It was a simple, but well-executed and effective dodge.

The audience could clearly see that Titan was no match for Qi Mu’s speed. However, the Wolf King had to work much harder just to earn a chance to land a blow. The convert’s simple and direct abilities made it easy to quickly respond, as well.

Qi Mu dropped in to a squat and bounded off again before Titan could hit him. He spun around, then rushed again at Titan with the Piercing Charge.

Titan grunted and thrust his left fist in to the air. Immediately he, too, crouched. He was using his force ability to make himself faster. Qi Mu was lined up to have the attack land, but Titan’s
sudden power boost allowed him to move just in time. The Wolf King struck the ground instead and lifted his head in time to see Titan’s palms pressing toward him. Qi Mu could feel the air displace as another explosion of force headed his way.

Mo Xiao’s narration continued. “It looks like Qi Mu had found a way to get around Titan’s powerful attacks. However, this has certainly got to be strenuous. He will be expending more energy than Titan, certainly. If he doesn’t find an opening soon, then he’s going to put himself in a dangerous position of weakness.” Mo Xiao’s tone was carefully crafted to give the Dark Citadel face.

Titan’s tactics were as simple as they came. Keep your distance, and pummel them with fists and palms. His bursts of pure force were the perfect area-of-effect, long-distance attacks. Your only choices were to deflect it, or take it head-on. Titan didn’t even worry much over Qi Mu’s ‘Piercing Strike,’ because every time he got close it gave Titan an opportunity to land blows as well.

Even the audience could see that if Qi Mu didn’t change the battlefield situation soon, he would lose due to the excess energy consumption.
Just then, an unsettling red light appeared in the depths of Qi Mu’s eyes. A corona of radiance flared out around him. He doubled up, and the massive lupine figure appeared to shrink. The thick fur on its body burst in to crimson flame.

“A third metamorphosis?!” Mo Xiao cried.

What did a third metamorphosis mean for shapeshifters? In a word: Protogenia! Only Paragons were capable of this next-level transformation – so how was it that Qi Mu was able to achieve it?

“It isn’t a complete transformation,” the Pharmacist said, as though she’d read his thoughts.

The undulating crimson slight spread all over Qi Mu’s diminished body, until he was entirely covered in the sanguine light. Titan’s incoming wall of force swept harmlessly passed, burning away around the Wolf King.

Slowly, he rose to his feet. There was a moment where the wolfman was still, but in the space of a breath he’d appeared beside Titan. No one had even seen him move – he was just gone in one moment and beside the convert in the next. Claws groped
violently for his chest.

ζ

In the viewing area.

The Pharmacist spoke quietly to Lan Jue at her shoulder. “This has got to be Qi Mu’s big secret. He can’t afford to lose, so he won’t hold anything back. However, this has got to be the result of some form of overload. Your luck is definitely looking up. If you’d have fought him first I’m sure you’d have lost.”

A mirthful smirk spread on Lan Jue’s face. “So then you’re saying that without the third metamorphosis, I have a chance?”

She rolled her eyes at him. “You may have more tricks than he does, but not by much.”

ζ

Titan fell back seven or eight steps in the direction of where Qi Mu had been. He clutched at his chest, where great
indentations had appeared from the wolf’s claws. For the first time ever in the tournament, Titan didn’t have the upper hand.

Qi Mu’s eyes flared red like a pair of rubies. In the same instant Titan made his escape, the Citadel’s representative bounded forward claws first. He was precise, and he was calculated. Titan was not a man, so the tactics of a man did not apply. The brain was the only option.

Suddenly, a change overcame the convert. Titan’s calm expression shifted, and his impassive eyes lit up. The dents from where his alloy chest had been damaged by Qi Mu, suddenly popped back in to shape. An iron-grey aura poured out from him in all directions.

A defensive ability? On top of his overwhelming attack, he could make himself even stronger?

He pounded his left foot against the ground. The whole of the arena quaked as though the great dragon of the earth rumbled beneath. The aura around him flared and hardened, quickly changing from grey to tarnished gold.

“Dong—–!” Qi Mu’s clawed hands banged against Titan’s
shield. It was like striking a six-inch thick sheet of iron. The reverberating hum set the wolf’s whole body shuddering, and forced him back several steps. The resulting shock wave pummeled through the ring, bouncing off the force field and making it crackle.

“Impenetrable Defense!” Lan Jue and the Pharmacist exclaimed in one voice.

Impenetrable Defense was a skill used in ancient Chinese martial arts. It was the pinnacle fortification, and completely unbelievable that this Northern Conclave convert was able to employ it.

The bloodwolf’s offensive was instantly stopped, and Titan reacted with a straight punch right at his foe. It was a wildly different punch from before, full of a strange sort of detached kindness. It was a stark contrast to the explosion that threatened the force field from earlier. He looked almost at peace.

Titan lashed out again with a fist that had become solid gold. A rush of invisible energy followed his arms. From behind, the shadowy image of a figure was faintly visible, and the sounds of chanting wafted on the breeze.
Qi Mu could feel like reality around him was imploding, crushing inward like a prisoner in an invisible cage. He had nowhere to go, and that golden light was fast approaching. Qi Mu brought both arms up to ward Titan’s attack as it came tearing through him.

Boom—! He went sailing through the air, wild and uncontrolled – clearly this wasn’t a ploy to diffuse Titan’s attack force. It was confirmed once he slammed violently in to the far side of the force field. He fell down to the ground with a crash.

“Fiend-crusher fist!” Lan Jue inadvertently cried out again, just loud enough so only the Pharmacist would hear.

Impenetrable Defense, and the Fiend-crusher Fist! These were undoubtedly skills earned from mastery of Mahayana Buddhist martial arts! From what he could see, Titan had merged this ancient practice with his Discipline to allow him to use empowered versions.

It looked like his trump cards outplayed Qi Mu’s.

It was a fantastic display, and only the first round. Lan Jue’s lust to test himself only increased as he watched the contest.
Zeus didn’t fear Titan, and he had tricks of his own to employ. However, it did seem that some of his more coveted secrets may need to be revealed. After all, how could he – an Easterner – lose out to a Northerner in the realm of martial arts? The resolution in his heart began to show in the hard light of his eyes.

The Pharmacist noticed, and regarded him with surprise, but said nothing.

Qi Mu clawed himself back up from the crowd, breathing raggedly. The red light that had surrounded him had dispersed, but quickly recovered after a moment. His seething red eyes fixed Titan with a glare, a smile spread his lupine face, revealing beastial teeth.

“I concede.”

Titan said nothing, made no display of pride or strength. He only nodded, turned, and left the ring.

Chapter 440: The Weakest…?

It was over in a matter of minutes. It was so fast, in fact, the audience could only stare dumbfounded as the contestants left the ring. What an incredible confrontation! Every clash, every move was epic and the memory hung over the arena. Titan and his god-like power was especially stark in their minds. A moving mountain.

Mo Xiao heaved a long sigh, then turned to regard the Terminator. “You spoke true, Your Majesty; pure force won out in the end.”

The Terminator smiled, but he did not take the opportunity to gloat. Nor did he offer any further explanation. He was, of course, interested in maintaining the secrets of his organization and his people.

The first round of the quarter-finals had come to an end and the field was reset for the next fight. Bing Yu arose from her seat in the waiting area and, without even glancing in Lan Jue’s direction, left for the ring. Despite her strong face, Lan Jue spotted her stiff gait – the last fight had shaken her nerve. It was beginning to look like Titan was going to dominate the psychology of this group.
Lan Jue stood. “Good luck,” the Pharmacist offered.

He smiled back at her. “I’ll be meeting you in the finals.” His swaggered out in to view of the crowd.

She watched him go with a little surprise in her expression. The Jewelry Master had just witnessed Titan’s power and still had the gall to predict his victory. Did it mean that he had some plan to beat the convert? If he did, that would be fantastic.

Lan Jue arrived at the ring, then floated up to enter. It was no display, just simple and straight forward. No one could see his face beneath the golden mask – all they could see was the famed Mercenary King, alone in the ring with his opponent.

“What do you think will happen this time, Your Majesty?” Mo Xiao asked the Paragon.

The Terminator’s response was placid. “If every fight was as clear as the last, there’d be little to keep the audience entertained. Luckily, I can’t tell what will happen in this round.”
Mo Xiao replied with a pretty laugh. “Well said, well said! The Westerner – Bing Yu, known as Absolute Zero – is an ice Adept. Her Discipline is considered one of the most potent. Lan Jue has dual disciplines of Thunderbolt and Lightning. Both of them are Adepts of an elemental Discipline.”

“So who do you suspect will come away the winner,” the Terminator asked.

She hesitated for a moment. “Zeus, I think.”

“Why do you figure?”

Mo Xiao’s pretty face was split by an impish grin. “Poseidon and Zeus are good friends. I’m simply going for the name I know!” Her sheepish demeanor was endearing, and caused the crowd to laugh affectionately. But Zeus was a Divine Monarch! He had as much of a chance to win anyone.

“We’ll have to see what tricks he has yet to reveal. Zeus is the weakest of all the quarter-finalists. It makes him a real underdog, and I am rooting for him to perform miracles.”
“Weakest?” Mo Xiao was not aware of Lan Jue’s sudden and dramatic loss of power.

“Let’s just wait and see what happens.” The Terminator left it at that.

ζ

Lan Jue stood at the far end of the arena. Bing Yu glared at him from the opposite side. The air crackled, and flecks of ice hung around her. She didn’t say anything, but it was clear from the buzz of her aura that she was like a beast just waiting to pounce.

Lan Jue took a deep, calming breath as he looked right back at his foe. He had quite the task ahead of him; she was not weak, but he couldn’t reveal all his secrets in the first round. How could he win the upper hand in later fights then? At any rate, stress and pressure were what improved his Discipline. He was determined to rely on nothing but his own rank two skills to win.

“Fight!” The electronic buzzer and voice called the second round to action!
Bing Yu’s right hand shot out, and immediately a soupy fog billowed out from her. It encroached in suffocating waves, right toward Lan Jue. Absolute Zero vanished from view.

Lan Jue’s eyes widened. His hand shot out, too, belching a wild nest of blue and purple lightning. They formed a protective mesh directly before him.

A series of blasts ensued. From within Bing Yu’s enigmatic mist, great icicles came hurling through to cut away at his netting. Lan Jue could still feel waves of icy power pulsing from deep within the mist. From what he could sense, Bing Yu might as well be the mist – he couldn’t pinpoint her location.

He kept his cool. Both hands rose, now, and pressed forward as though shoving something away. A shock wave composed of writhing lightning blasted out to where he pointed. Soon it consumed the entire battlefield. It was quite a feat, since the coverage area was so much larger than it had been. It surprised the audience to see Zeus’ Forest of Lightning cover so much ground.

The fog danced between the bolts, and where they touched the snow-white mist became hues of blue and purple. From outside it made the whole arena look like an enormous, dazzling
opal. The lightning continued to flash, and somewhere in between the blinding flashes, Lan Jue’s form vanished. This was an ability he hadn’t used in his fight against the Angel of the Moon. It was nothing the contestants and audience had yet to see him do.

Great blasts of thunder tumbled over one another again and again, while mists surged and lightning raced. No one could see anything but violent flashes of light and shifting colors. Their clash continued and intensified until, with a shuddering boom of thunder and a flash of light, two figured appeared again within the ring.

Lan Jue hovered in the air. It was hard to tell his condition simply by looking at him. Bing Yu was on the ground, surrounded by a flickering oval of blue light. The orb itself was glimmering and faceted like an ice crystal. Her eyes had become a brilliant shade of blue, and in her hands she clutched a navy- hued spear three meters long. It’s sharp point never wavered from Lan Jue’s direction.

Everything leading up to this point had been the two fighters testing each other out. Now it was time to make their move.

The blue lightning that surrounded Lan Jue gradually
changed to gold. A fine net of electric threads hung over him that made him blaze like a sun.

Bing Yu sniffed derisively. The lights that infected the ground beneath her feet flashed. The air around her condensed in to another volley of icicles she sent flying Lan Jue’s way. She thrust the butt of her spear in to the ground.

As the iciles passed, they filled the air with frozen blue contrails. It all converged on Zeus, surrounded by a mysterious white aura.

ζ

“The temperature in the ring is dropping.” Mo Xiao suddenly exclaimed. A digital thermostat was plastered on the viewing screens. She was right, the thermostat read the force field’s internal temperature as negative eighty degrees centigrade and dropping. Although Adepts had increased resistance to climate changes, it was all within reason. If it got too cold too fast, of course it would be crippling for a fighter.

She had earned the name Absolute Zero for a reason.
Lan Jue came crashing towards her like like a golden bolt of lightning. He blazed like the surface of the sun. Bing Yu’s icicles melted away long before they could do Lan Jue any harm.

She didn’t hesitate, and she had no fear. The moment Bing Yu saw Lan Jue approach, she tapped in to her power and began to grow. Taller and taller she rose, as a crystalline figure appeared behind her. It looked precisely like she did – like a self-portrait in ice. The spear in her hands glowed with inner light until it blinded the eyes. A bolt of condensed power launched from the spear’s top toward Lan Jue.

Boom–!

The explosion blasted through the arena like a tempest, followed by a light snowfall. The light from Bing Yu’s spear was gone, but so was Lan Jue’s shield. Just then, however, lights erupted from the ground below Bing Yu, and quickly enveloped the defenseless Zeus.

Ice Prison!

Lan Jue grunted. Without any motion or word, his body began to spew feral coils of electricity – another Forest of
Lightning, but this one made of gold. He lightning rose to a thunderous crescendo, and once again Lan Jue vanished in the flashing lights. Bing Yu’s ice prison had no effect.

A faint light of understanding dawned in Bing Yu’s eyes as she realized Zeus’ explosive display wasn’t an attack, but a retreat. She could also feel that, although strong, the energy behind Zeus’ attacks didn’t compare to her own, a fact which gave her confidence in her determination. Bing Yu had done her own research before the fight, as everyone had. She’d watched the videos, studied the footage. This man they called the God of Lightning was clearly the weakest one in their group.

She made her move. The spear she bore lashed out like a lightning bolt, piercing the air in the direction of Zeus. A blizzard roared from the end of her weapon, swirling like an angry beast to devour him. At these extreme temperatures, every snowflake was a razor blade at a hundred miles an hour. The deadly blizzard raged through the lightning storm, sweeping over everything. Just like Bing Yu’s eyes.

The battlefield had already frozen at negative one hundred degrees. It had even begun to influence the actions of the lightning itself, making it sluggish.
Slowly at first, everything began to get pulled together, drawn to a central point on the field.

Bing Yu’s response was to launch herself in to the air. There, she thrust her spear forth, and it belched another beam of icy- blue light. The power flowing from her spread out from her pours, making her skin as blue as the light.

And then it all stopped, as sudden as it had been violent.

The lightning that had been coiling together fired in a single raging column, directly in the face of Bing Yu’s attack.

Boom— —!

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