Skyfire Avenue Chapter 451-460

Chapter 451: The First Round Finishes

Ying Suifeng’s three body’s melted away back in to one. He wordlessly nodded, then exited the ring.

Constantine, who was recovering in the resting area, watched with a look of disbelief. Even he didn’t know the truth of what this group had in store for him. What was this Discipline? Mistblades… and so strong.

Lan Jue’s eyes were bright after watching the contest. It would be a very interesting fight, no matter who he would be paired against later.

“That’s it for the first round of the quarter-finals! These fights were so exciting, my heart’s still racing. That will be all for today’s events, but we will continue tomorrow with the second round.” Mo Xiao’s excitedly addressed the audience from the VIP platform. The Terminator, resting at her side, was no longer glaring with murderous intent and looked calm.

The final results for round one winners were;

Group One – Titan and Lan Jue
Group Two – the Pharmacist and Jiang Yuan

Group Three – Jun Yongye and Cao Shuiqin

Group Four – Constantine and Xuanyuan Shishi

All eight of them wished to advance to the finals. Now, after the first round, everyone had a clearer picture of where they stood.

Titan was the one everyone had their bets on for group one. The Pharmacist dominated the second, and Jun Yongye looked nearly invincible. For the fourth group, it was difficult for people to choose between Constantine and Xuanyuan Shishi. In terms of Discipline Constantine was the clear favorite, however there was more to it than that. Shishi’s strength had never been revealed before today, and that changed everything.

A hard look flitted across Lan Jue’s eyes, and he crossed his arms over his chest. His next opponent would be Qi Mu. He’d revealed one of his tricks to win against Bing Yu, and now he had to ponder how it was he would defeat the Wolf King and his three transformations. His expression was sour because he knew he might have to really tip his hand to win.
Lan Jue rose together with the Pharmacist. Side by side they walked, though the Pharmacist kept her eyes upon the departing Xuanyuan Shishi. Almost as though he sensed it, Shishi turned then and noticed the Pharmacist. He gave her a wide, pleasant smile before joining someone in the waiting room.

The other one stood as Shishi approached and joined in his amicable smile, though it was more reserved.

The two shared a high-five – Clap! – than separated. Shishi returned to his seat.

And who was it he was so chummy with? None other than the first one to shock the crowd, Jun Yongye.

This… these two knew each other? What was their relationship? The curiosity burned in the gut of everyone who saw. Not only was the Accountant unable to learn about this, but no one seemed to. These just appeared out of thin air!

The White Blademaster Jun Yongye. Ten-Thousand Swords in one, Xuanyuan Shishi. Both of them had given the viewers a spectacular show. Both had made quite the impression, and had
a real chance at making the finals.

Lan Jue looked at the Pharmacist. “Do you know him?”

She shook her head. “But I’m very familiar with his technique. I learned it from my teacher, as I inherited his knowledge. All schools of sword mastery started with him. According to the information I received, it started in the Former Era. I committed myself to everything I could learn, but those styles were never imparted to me. I walk the traditional path of the Flying Sword – they have mastered genuinely mythical techniques. I never would have dreamed I would encounter them here. They must have gained the master’s knowledge the same way I had.”

They were also Celestial Master Qian’s Disciples? It was a stunning revelation, but with it there was a surge of pride. His own master once told him that his greatest regret was not living in the same generation as Master Qian, so as to test himself against the Paragon. Indeed his level is considered higher than Qian’s now, but they weren’t tested. It would never be certain who was better, since the only way to know was face to face.

The Pharmacist was his partner, and he was just as eager to see what he could learn from the two master swordsmen.
Meeting them on the field would help him along his newly chosen path of the blade. He could learn.

The fights were done, and the day was over. Participants and audience alike trickled out in to the city. The Great Conclave Arena gradually became silent. At least, it had outside. In a secret room within was hushed conversation.

The Terminator and the Epochrion sat facing one another.
Titan stood behind his master, and Yan Ningya behind hers.

“You saw it?” the Terminator asked them.

The Epochrion gently nodded her head. “I did. Protogenia. It radiated from both of their blades, especially Jun Yongye. He has grasped the essence of it, and has achieved perfection in simplicity. Before I broke through, I could never have reached his level of comprehension.”

The Terminator sighed. “In the realm of martial arts, your Eastern Alliance has a wealth of advantage to draw from. The North will never be able to compete in that way. They represent a threat – if they become Paragons than the East’s strength will be unchecked. They’ve been quiet these last few years letting us
think they were weak, though we knew that they were rapidly improving in science and tech. Here we seem to have hit a plateau in development. They’re weak on resources, but the universe is limitless. They just need time to develop the infrastructure.”

His partner nodded again. “The development of humanity will only go so far with science. At a certain point, the burden will have to be borne by the human body itself. There is still so much we don’t understand about ourselves, even now – things we have yet to explore. Strength was the capital we needed to propel us through the universe, so everyone chose their path. The North chose to put their faith in technology. The West decided to play around with genetics. In our respective goals it can be said we’ve succeeded. The East chose a different tack, using science to stimulate natural talent and evolve along a more natural path. It was this disagreement in direction that made me leave Skyfire Avenue. Now, it appears that they were right. Ancient China was full of incomprehensibly strong things.”

“Are you having second thoughts?” The Terminator looked at her with solemn eyes.

She shook her head. “No. I’m firm in my belief, there is no looking back. It just seems like the Eastern Alliance has been
making miracles. It’s a great thing for  humanity,  but not necessarily for us.”

Once more, the Terminator sighed. “Alas, I am only the Northern Paragon and do not represent humanity. I hope they can forgive my selfishness.”

The Epochrion’s dazzling eyes fixed him with a serious look. “I know your character. The ends do justify the means, so long as your ends are just. I will continue to support you. We keep an eye on the two young gentlemen. After all, it is definitely no easy feat to grow as powerful as Jue Di.

The Terminator lifted his eyes to Yan Ningya. “Ya. What did you learn, today.”

Her answer was quick. “Concentration. At first I didn’t feel that his abilities were that strong, but once he fixed his concentration on the sword he began to resonate with it. That was when his power exploded. Perhaps there was protogenia, but I couldn’t feel it.”

The Epochrion sniffed. “Your loss wasn’t from a weaker Discipline, but from understanding. He hadn’t even used a
fraction of his skill, I think. He’s much stronger than you suspect. He may not be a peak-ranked Adept, but has the understanding of a Paragon in regards to Domain. He has one foot through the bottleneck already. Barring any further surprises, I suspect he will be our champion.”

Yan Ningya shook ever so slightly. It was unsettling to hear her teacher praise the foreigner so highly.

“I will end him!” Titan growled from behind the Terminator. “Master – I want to complete the experiment!”

The Terminator turned back to look at him, and furrowed his brows. “But if you do, then you will lose any real shot at becoming a Paragon.”

Titan’s voice was low, guttural. “You have taught me that man can conquer nature. Nothing is  impossible.  This tournament is destined to be won by the Great Conclave, but I need more power.”

The Terminator turned back. Silently, he nodded his head.
**

Lan Jue immediate settled down to meditate once returning to his hotel room. He wasn’t joined with Qianlin this time, he was just seated in quiet thought. He focused on the changes in his body.

His Core was more stable after being under such high pressure. Crystal-like threads of purple electricity danced around it. It was smaller, but he could feel the strength within it surpass what it had been. He had a great deal of trust in what he felt.

Chapter 452: Do You Even Know How?

His Core’s volume had been condensed by a third. Roughly speaking, it meant his energy was increased by the same amount. For a ninth level Talent this was unheard of! It was likely because of his re-cultivation, which improved his foundation for growth. His powers were more potent, now.

He meditated upon the things he witnessed, like the sword styles of Jun Yongye and Xianyuanshishi. He liked the self- deprecating, simplistic style of Jun Yongye especially. Simple and direct was always powerful. To focus on it was to comprehend the true meaning of the blade. And the essence of swordsmanship… that was like a power all its own. The sword, king of weapons! This would be his path.

By the time he opened his eyes, the street lights glowed beneath a darkening sky. A faint and pleasing odor met his nostrils. “Smells good!”

“Eat. You haven’t had anything since we came back this afternoon.” Her gentle voice drew his attention. Here in the hotel, she was clad only in a long sleeping shirt. The bulky outfit hit her feminine figure, but each step revealed a flash of thigh.
Lan Jue smiled softly, and pulled her in to his arms for a hug. He could feel her warm against him. “Yeah I wouldn’t mind a bite,” he said, looking at her suggestively.

“Eating people is illegal,” she said with a roll of her eyes.

He chuckled. “I guess that depends on how.”

‘Eat your tofu’ is a euphemism for sex in China.

This earned a laugh from Qianlin. She fixed him with a charming look. “Do you even know how?”

Lan Jue was instantly filled with the pang of regret. Could he? The moment their affections reached a certain degree, the two would meld and the act would stop there. He doubted their restrictions were limited to kissing.

The barriers between them had quietly begun to dissolve as they spent more time with one another. Qianlin’s silhouette was painted ever deeper in his heart. Their union allowed them to interact on a higher level than most.
Adaptation to one’s environment, Lan Jue made no attempts to resist. Hera was gone, and he could not spend his life wallowing in the tragedies of the past. Life was meant to be enjoyed. He decided to grow stronger, to reach Paragon, and to experience that which he had been putting off.

Qianlin extricated herself from his embrace and brought over the little food cart the hotel had provided for them. She pulled away the lid and let a gust of aromatic steam escape. The scent of sumptuous meat filled the room.

It was a big cut of steak. Wine-sauce was dribbled over it, with greens on the side. It was a fierce stimulation for his appetite.

The ‘eat you’ flirty thing was dumb, this this is an interesting Chinese phrase. It literally says ‘the smell made them helpless but to move their index finger tremendously.’ Nonsense, except when you realize the word for index finger in Chinese is actually ‘food finger’. Chinese can be fun.

He took the knife and fork offered by Qianlin and immediately tucked in. He was clearly hungry, but was trying to remain refined.
“It’s been a while since we’ve had a drink,” he said. “This would have gone wonderfully with a fine bottle.” Lan  Jue heaved a satisfied sigh once the steak was gone. A belly full of food and booze – a joy no one should have to do without.

“You didn’t get hurt in today’s fight? I felt the danger, but it looked like it was on purpose.” She took a warm cup of water in her hands and sipped from it.

He shook his head. “I’m fine. I used the low temperatures to try again and concentrate my Core. The results were much better than I expected. The cold slowed my lightning powers, and made them more stable so I could condense my Core by a third. It’s about as much as I suspect I can handle for now.”

Qianlin’s eyes glittered in interest. “So it helped with control.
But does it also make your attacks less potent?”

“At the time, it looked like that was true,” he answered. “But I’m not sure. Temperature has an effect on any Adept, it would take more experience to determine specifics. It’s a shame I won’t be fighting her any longer. Later we’ll do some cultivation, and we’ll see if we can’t condense your Core as well. I believe that once we merge our Cores do as well, so maybe now that I’ve succeeded we can do something for you, too.”
Qianlin nodded in understanding. “The process may be easier since my Discipline is naturally more stable than yours. Then again, there’s a great difference in power, too. So I’m lacking your power, and you’re missing my stability. Before I couldn’t even comprehend your level of Discipline so I couldn’t help. Now, though, you’ve already managed to succeed. Helping me along shouldn’t be a problem.”

Her prediction was proven true when they merged later that night. Qianlin’s Core was condensed just as his was, without a hitch, as smooth and compliant as water. When they joined, her own Core shrunk to match Lan Jue’s. At first, her Discipline was unused to the change and rebelled, but eventually settled down. Their formerly peak-level strength was reduced now, however. They could sense that there was more room for growth, expansion. It was nothing short of a miracle. Now, their Disciplines were rapidly trying to take advantage of the space.

Lan Jue wasn’t overly interested in that aspect. His interest lay mostly in purifying their Disciplines, so that they had an even stronger foundation for improvement.

One night of careful cultivation earned them the same progress they would gain in three or four days. When the morning rays peaked through the curtains of their room, Lan
Jue’s eyes popped open. They glittered with promise and excitement.

He walked to the bed and picked off the comforter. Holding it close, a soft white light radiated from him, and after a moment the lithe figure of Zhou Qianlin was wrapped in the blanket.

He held her close, wrapped tight, and smiled. “It looks like we’re pretty lucky!”

Qianlin had become used to this. She huddled beneath the blanket, revealing only her beautiful face. “Yeah! Tonight’s results were very good. But perhaps you should keep me along. You’re fighting Qi Mu today, and with your Discipline where it is, I’m afraid…”

Lan Jue’s eyes sparkled. “You’re my wild card. It’s not time to show our hand just yet, but today I’ll need to start pulling out some tricks, but not you. Besting Qi Mu without you isn’t impossible. With enough motivation and pressure, anything is possible.”

Qianlin, as though thinking of something, said “Yes… ever since coming to the tournament your Discipline has been
improving quickly. I can see it ever yday. But you must still consider your safety. If the odds are too great, then don’t overdo it.”

“It’s fine. Go get some clothes on and let’s have breakfast!”

They could feel the palpable air of nervous excitement as they walked through the city. The closer the tournament came to its conclusion, the more invested everyone became. After the first round of the quarter-finals, the tournament boasted a higher viewer rate than any time in human history – like the whole of humanity had their eyes glued to these young men and women. The event sponsors had spent an astronomical sum on the prizes, but it looked as though they would be recouping the loss and then some. Already the souvenir items had been selling like wildfire.

Bookies, meanwhile, were also making a killing. Bets for the finals were already done, finished before the first round was over. Jun Yongye and Xuanyuan Shishi had sent the whole betting world in to a tizzy, with their sudden and dramatic rise. You could measure their success by the tears of gamblers. It was a guessing game, and they only earned a payout if all their picks for the finals got in. In Jon Yongye’s last fight, Yan Ningya had been favored at 1/0.6. He was 3/1. Judging by just the numbers, many put their hard-earned cash on the Northern disciple. It
cost them dearly.

Now that more information was known, betting for the second round had increased. There were more gamblers than in any previous round. Now, in the early morning, bets had already started pouring in for an hour. Most of today’s bets had been picked the night before. Few people would choose this time to come out and put down money.

Of course, there were always exceptions.

Two women in silver fleece walked in to the bookie’s office. They were hidden beneath hats, sunglasses  and  facemasks. Their features were entirely hidden from view.

“Are you ladies interested in betting?” A worker greeted them pleasantly as they entered. In his experience the only ones who liked to hide their faces were people with a great deal of money to spend.

The woman on the left spoke first. “Yes. Qi Mu against Zeus.”

“How much would you like to bet?” The worker began to tap
at the screen before him as they spoke.

“Five hundred million dollars.”

Immediately, everything fell silent as she said the number. The woman on the right added. “What, is that not alright? That’s the bet limit, correct? Or is that too rich for your blood…”

Chapter 453: The Bet

Five hundred million…. Not a small sum! Dollars and NED had a 2-1 exchange rate, meaning a dollar was two NED. Five hundred million was enough to buy the Great Conclave Arena. The bet these women were making was the max, because no one had ever spent that much before.

“Of course,” the worker said with a somewhat curt tone. He looked down at the odds on his screen, revealing Zeus at 6.3/1 and Qi Mu favored at 0.16/1. “Who are you placing your bet on?”

The one on the left answered. “Put it all on Zeus.”

It was bold. Although Qi Mu had ultimately lost to Titan, he’d shown his strength. No small number of people believed he could easily handle Zeus. Dozens of talking heads had provided their opinions on the masked Monarch’s fight against Bing Yu, where they claimed his victory was a result of exploiting opportunity. No one looked at the weakest competitor as a threat. Even though his Discipline was famed for its explosive force, there didn’t appear to be any path to victory against Qi Mu and his three transformations. In fact, Qi Mu’s odds would have been higher but for speculation he’d been injured in his fight against Titan.
The worker swallowed, printed the ticket, and handed it to the women.

Their bet altered the odds for Zeus, to 6.2/1. Despite the large bet, things remained mostly stable though. It was a testament to the faith the public put in Qi Mu.

The women finished the transaction through their communicators, then left. Once they were out of ear-shot, the worker turned to a colleague. “Go upstairs and let them know.”

And that was it, five hundred million dollars on a long shot. It wasn’t rare at all for people to lay bets on the underdogs, but five hundred million dollars? That was unheard of.

Lan Jue walked through the competitor’s entrance of the arena, breathing in the crisp morning air. It had a pleasant, soothing effect on his mood. He could feel the ebb and flow of energy through his meridians. He tightened his fists, excited for the battle to come. This was important for him, for he knew that to fight against such a strong opponent would undoubtedly teach him something.

Fight, cultivate, understand. Rinse and repeat. The last few
days had seen tremendous progress. He felt like a teenager again, when he had been considered a great future Talent. Then, as now, surpassing his brother had been his goal.

His brother’s role in the military was very unfortunate. Lan Jue hoped he could have an opportunity to see him in the ring. His presence certainly would have made things more interesting. Even as his brother, Lan Jue didn’t know how much Lan Qing was capable of.

He ruminated as his feet brought him to the waiting area. There were a few others competitors who had already arrived, though the Pharmacist was still absent. The Driver was seated a short distance away in his sofa, staring intently at something. Lan Jue followed his gaze to Cao Shuiqin embracing her guqin. Everyone knew that she used the guqin with her Discipline, but now why she held it so affectionately.

Cao Shuiqin paid the Driver no mind, as though she didn’t notice his existence at all. However the flush in her cheeks screamed that she was anything but on an even keel.

Lan Jue felt something odd, a strange sensation. Since when did this tournament become a dating reality show? Come to think of it, he hadn’t seen Chu Cheng in days. Who knows what
he was up to with the vampire princess, or if they were talking at all. He figured they were – Chu Cheng was possessed of a very specific skillset that almost assured his success.

From what he could see, the Driver also had the bug. His compatriot certainly had an eye for beauty, he’d give him that. Cao Shuiqin, herself from the East, looked as gentle as water, and just as strong. It would be a fine victory for the Avenue if they managed to convince her to come over.

Lan Jue chose not to bother the Driver, lost as he was in his appreciation. Instead, he chose a seat and shut his eyes for a little soul rejuvenation.

But, just then, a nagging sensation made him pop his eyes open. A massive figure was trundling passed him.

Titan?

The convert’s gait was heavy, thudding hard against the ground with every step. He made for the far side of the waiting area and sat. Lan Jue couldn’t tell why, but something told him that Titan’s Discipline was erratic. When he shut his eyes and regulated his breathing, though, the inkling dissipated.
The common diagnosis for an Adept of his level suffering from unstable Discipline, was an injury. But could he be? There was no way! He’d watched yesterday’s fight, and Qi Mu hadn’t left any lasting damage. His own martial style was defense- focused as well, to an almost startling degree.

Lan Jue’s eyes sparkled. Something wasn’t right.

The remainder of the competitors trickled in as the morning stretched on.

“What are you looking at? He isn’t your opponent today.” The Pharmacist took a seat by Lan Jue’s side, greeting him with a smile.

Lan Jue answered. “When he walked by me just now, something was different. His energies are chaotic.”

“Eh?” She, too, looked at the concert. At present he looked perfectly fine, calm as the surface of a lake.

“You should focus on today’s tribulations. You don’t have to worry about him until your next fight.” She offered.
“Yeah.” He nodded, for she was right. Every fight was going to be a struggle. At the levels they competed at, there were no easy pickings.

It wasn’t long before the arena was a cacophonous press of milling humans. There were too many to count. However, they did seem fewer than when the tournament had begun. By now a lot of the competitors had shown the breadth of what they were capable of already. But where attendance in the arena might have dropped, viewership over the net was exploding. Countless watchers wanted to know what the deal was with the White Blademaster, and how he would perform in today’s battle. Jun Yongye would be facing Cao Shuiqin, while the Driver would be facing Jun Yongye’s defeated opponent Yan Ningya.

The third group was undoubtedly top of everyone’s list of most interesting fights. After the battle between Qi Mu and Titan in the first fight, there was little else to capture people’s attention.

Mo Xiao had since arrived, and had taken her place on the viewing platform beside the Terminator. She was ready to start the day’s ceremonies.

“Your Majesty.” She curtsied respectfully to the Paragon. He
nodded back.

“What can you tell us about today’s events, sir? Which one are you most excited for?” She beamed a dazzling smile.

He chuckled. “Group four.”

“Group Four?” She parroted, looking at the fight list in her hand. Then she understood. “Ah. Xuanyuan Shishi and Constantine.”

The Paragon slowly nodded.

Indeed, today the stage was set for a clash of two goliaths. Constantine and his spear of Fate, against Xuanyuan Shishi’s Mistblades. Which would turn out to be more powerful? This was the question on everyone’s lips. Like the Paragon, many waited with baited breath for their encounter. Most bets were placed on Constantine, the peak-level Adept of the Pontiff’s Citadel. Along with Metatron, he had the greatest chance of eventually breaking through to Paragon.

Mo Xiao went on. “There doesn’t look to be any surprises in
store for our first group. Bing Yu will be facing off against Titan, and Qi Mu against Zeus. Titan’s chances for victory far outstrip his competitor, but what do you think about Zeus and Qi Mu?”

The Paragon’s deep voice boomed back at her. “From what we’ve seen of Zeus’ Talent so far, it doesn’t look like he’s got much of a chance. His victory against Bing Yu may have been luck, but I don’t think we’ve seen everything he’s capable of. Bing Yu had lost because of a lack of understanding, her element being fundamentally weak to lightning. There is no more explosive Discipline than Lightning. In contrast to Bing Yu, Zeus has a very deep awareness of his powers. If he’s got any more tricks up his sleeve, he’ll need them for today’s fight.”

“You think he has a chance?” Mo Xiao asked, somewhat taken aback.

His reply was tepid. “From all the information we have, Zeus should be a rank six or seven Adept. All we’ve seen in this tournament, though, is the work of a third rank at best. Why this is, I can’t say, but I can’t imagine it’s a simple answer.”

Mo Xiao fell silent for a moment, then said, “I suppose we’ll see! Perhaps Zeus will prove as mythical as his namesake.”
ζ

Chu Cheng lounged in a VIP box tucked away within the arena. He watched the bustle below while occasionally taking a sip of cognac or a bite of dried fruit.

“Well you certainly know how to enjoy yourself. Your friend is about to enter the ring with a monster, and you look cool as a cucumber. Aren’t you at all nervous?” Lina muttered darkly at his side. Hua Li was also seated nearby.

Chu Cheng chuckled in response. “Why should I be worried?
If he loses it makes me look better.”

Hua Li grunted. “What makes you think he’s going to lose?”

“I never said he would!” Chu Cheng countered.

“I just hope he does.”

Chapter 454: Caterpillars To Butterflies?

“Just wait,” Hua Li threatened. “Just wait till he’s done with the tournament and we’ll see how he reacts when I tell him.”

Chu Cheng simply shrugged. “I’m soooo scared. I hope he gets no quarter, but at the same time there are his group mates to consider. Qi Mu’s ninth level ninth rank, vicious fighting style is a problem. If he was at his normal rank, then he’d have a shot. Now, though, it looks bad.”

Lina sniffed. “What, is he deliberately hiding his strength?”

“I’ll talk about anything else with you,” Chu Cheng earnestly said, “but my brother’s secrets are off limits. Anyway you’re not my girl – we’ve been estranged!”

She sputtered a laugh. “Cut the bullshit, I don’t believe it for a second. You say whatever you want.”

It was much to Chu Cheng’s regret that he discovered she was more cunning than he. Despite his repeated efforts, she always kept herself at an infuriating and enticing distance. She was an itch he couldn’t scratch. The Prince of Nightlife had been absent
lately, as the Vampire Princess had siphoned all of his attention.

Hua Li cut in. “The fight’s about to start. I for one hopes he jumps this hurdle, he’s had it rough. He’s had nothing but rotten luck, running in to every tough opponent.”

Chu Cheng fixed him with a flat look. “Do you really believe that?”

With a knowing smile, his fellow Monarch lifted his wine glass and gave his friend a wink. “Think about it.”

The edge of Chu Cheng’s mouth twitched upward ever so slightly. “The caterpillar trick.”

Hua Li chuckled, but said nothing. Lina swept her gaze between the two grinning idiots until curiosity got the better of her. “The hell is the caterpillar trick?”

Chu Cheng tapped his cheek, flippantly adding “kiss me and I’ll tell you.”
Lina almost sniffed. “I’ve got no problem with that if you don’t have a problem with me draining every last drop of blood out of you.”

He gave her a strange smirk. “Go on then. I wouldn’t mind you suckin’ me dry.”

Lina grit her teeth, then planted a kiss on his cheek. “Speak.”

“Caterpillars become butterflies,” was his cryptic answer.

“Caterpillars to butterflies…” Lina was a very intelligent woman. A knowing look dawned on her pretty face.

By now the fight was starting. Mo Xiao’s crystal-clear voice called out for the contestants – Titan and Bing Yu – to begin.

Few people were desperately interested in this fight, but their apathy changed to shock when the match begun.

Titan took the defensive, his overwhelming power conspicuously absent. Bing Yu, conversely, rushed ahead
flagrantly, seemingly without concern. Titan’s strikes were noticeably weaker and extended only ten meters or so through that biting cold.

Her loss yesterday was a painful reminder, and she knew today she had no chance to win. Still she threw herself at Titan like a flash freeze, pummeling him with everything in her arsenal.

After ten minutes, Titan found his opening. A single punch smashed through her defenses.

“It looks like Titan’s taking pity on her,” Mo Xiao expressed with a tinge of emotion in her voice.

The Terminator just smiled. He didn’t appear much interested in this fight. This wasn’t the case for Lan Jue, though. He thought it strange.

Compared to what they’d seen yesterday, it looked like Titan had lost a great deal of power. He was weaker, it was clear, and although he defeated Bing Yu it wasn’t the shutout people were expecting.
When the fight was finished, Titan left the Arena instead of returning to the resting area. He was two for two, so far the undisputed champ of group one.

“Something seems off.” The Pharmacist always watched him go with knitted brows. “He wasn’t hurt in the last fight, that can’t be it. There’s only one thing it must mean, that he’s using some new method. It’s affected his body, but he still wants to continue fighting. Why risk it now?”

Lan Jue stood as he spoke. “It might be because Jun Yongye and Xuanyuan Shishi put some fear in to him.”

She nodded, suddenly convinced. “Probably. You be careful, don’t over extend.” His fight was next.

Qi Mu stood up on the other side of the waited area. With a dismissive expression, he marched toward the ring.

Lan Jue still pondered Titan, and his own sour luck. He bemoaned the fact that he hadn’t faced the convert today. If he had, Titan wouldn’t have stood a chance. Unfortunately, his luck was not this marvelous. Even the Epochrion couldn’t turn back time, otherwise she would have.
Lan Jue and Qi Mu entered the ring together. They stared at each other across the expanse.

Mo Xiao’s voice filled the air. “Our second fight of group one features Qi Mu and Zeus. Zeus has one victory under his belt, and if he wins today that will put him neck and neck with Tian.”

The first fight was less of a spectacle than people had wanted, so they pinned their hopes on this one. This was especially true for two silver-clad women, hidden behind sunglasses.

Lan Jue’s mask glinted softly beneath the floodlights, making him look all the more majestic. He couldn’t know how many people were actually watching this fight very intently.

ζ

Planet Skyfire, Capital Alliance Hospital.

The Savage Goddess, Tan Lingyun sat quickly at the head of the class. The tournament stream flashed on a projector, the focus of her young charges. The school wasn’t a broadcast
station, but the administration felt it would be good for them to watch the tournament for academic purposes. Starting from the quarter-finals, classrooms were expected to show the stream. Otherwise none of their students would come to class, they suspected.

The A.R.C. class’ students watched, and couldn’t forget their golden-masked torturer. However there had been a great many fights and they had been busy, so they didn’t think too much on it. It wasn’t until there were only twenty-four competitors remaining that they started to wise up to the fact that he was their demon drillmaster!

The students weren’t overly familiar with Zeus, but the information was widely available. Before long they had accumulated a wealth of information. Then they realized that he was the Divine Monarch from the God battles, and subsequently lost their minds.

The Drillmaster was Zeus! The Divine Monarch, pilot of Thor!

Tan Lingyun was conflicted. This bastard, she thought, this bullshit about Lei Feng. Zeus! She had spent even more time than those students with him, so naturally she was the first to discover the link.
She never could have imagined that her idol was beside her that whole time. Every time she thought about their close encounter in the mech suit, her heart began to race. This all confirmed it. She had good taste in men.

But where had he gone? She’d asked Wu Junyi, but his response was that he had no idea where the slippery rascal went.

This classroom had been reserved for the A.R.C. class students, who all sat together now watching their teacher. So while the wider audience held their breath for the confrontation between Constantine and Xuanyuan Shishi, the students from the NEU had their eyes glued to this one.

“You’ve got this, professor!” Tang Xiao shouted from the first show and shot his fist in to the air.

Jin Tao sat right next to him, quivering with excitement.

Neither saw the strange expression on Tang Mi’s face beside them.
Zeus… Qianlin. Zeus, Qianlin?!

Tang Mi could still remember the day of her friend’s wedding, fresh as though it had happened yesterday. Zeus had burst on to the scene and snatched her away, only to return her some time later.

She didn’t know how to react to the news that her drillmaster had been Zeus. It had taken her the last few days to sort it out in her head.

She knew that his arrival at the school had something to do with Zhou Qianlin. Or maybe he came with her.

You can’t imagine how jealous I am of you, Qianlin. Why didn’t Zeus choose me? Idol… my idol!

Changes overcame everyone who was involved in the A.R.C. class once they knew. The lessons they’d learned from him were a part of them. The training had only been the beginning. Every one of them were improving faster than their professors could keep up. Three months had ended up being as effective as years of hard work. That was the gift he’d given them. The pain ebbed and the memories faded, but what they earned, they kept.
Their teacher was one of the best mecha pilots in the universe!
That answered a whole lot of questions.

And then they remembered that he promised to continue their training. The trek had been grueling, but an inexplicable anticipation grew within all of them. When will they meet their drillmaster again?

Chapter 455: Battling The Wolf King

The projector cast images of the ring against the far wall of the classroom. All the students fixed their eyes upon the heroic, masked figure of their drillmaster.

“He’ll win it!” No one knew who said, but they all joined in triumphant cry.

“He’ll win it!”

ζ

Lan Jue stood in the ring once again, allowing the feel of the place to flow through him. His heart eased in to a comfortable silence. There was the faintest hint of electrical light behind his eyes. Even though the fight was yet to begin, he could feel the oppressive pressure from Qi Mu’s Discipline. And that’s exactly what he was looking for!

“Three, two, one. Begin!”

As the buzzer sounded, Lan Jue stood tall and straight.
Suddenly he seemed bigger… Not his body, necessarily, but his presence seemed to swell. Meanwhile, Qi Mu quickly shifted to only his first form. He seemed unconcerned about this fight.

Lan Jue wasn’t annoyed by the slight. He switched up his tactics, like he had before. He did not immediately rush in to the Forest of Lightning. Instead he raced to the center of the ring along with Qi Mu. Although Zeus didn’t seem all that fast, by the time Qi Mu reached the center he was already waiting for him there. The Monarch was wreathed in crackling purple lightning that hugged close. This was his armor, protecting him from harm.

Qi Mu sprang forward and wickedly swiped at Zeus. His claws ripped through the air so quickly that shuddering air rippled visibly from their path. His tactics were straight domination, made possible by a superior Discipline.

But Qi Mu didn’t understand why he didn’t use his powers to block the attack? He just stepped to the side, lazily sidestepping the blow. The mercenary’s right hand swung around for a strike.

Qi Mu still looked down upon his opponent. Nothing he’d seen in any of the previous fights had convinced him that this
upstart could prove to be a challenge.

“Bang!” Lan Jue’s fist found its target, and Qi Mu was viciously blasted to the ground. Thousands of volts raced throughout the wolf’s body.

This…

The audience saw it plain as day and it nearly sent their eyes rolling out of their heads. Was this for real? He was supposed to be the weakest one of the group.

The classroom tucked away in the NEU shook with cheers. Watching their teacher put the dog down was like doing it themselves.

Mo Xiao was likewise shocked, and gasped from the viewing platform. “Is that martial arts?”

The Terminator’s eyebrows had risen a few degrees, but he said nothing. It was Metatron, seated behind him, that really felt the shock of what they saw. He knew that move.
One of the Nine Strikes of Taiji… Warding Fist Strike!

That was indeed Lan Jue’s first move. His intent was to knock his opponent off course – he hadn’t anticipated it would fire him in to the ground.

But this was a fight, he wasn’t going to waste the opportunity. He shot a foot out to tangle the wolf up. He remain flat on the floor ungracefully, tangled up in his own limbs. Though the wolf king had managed to shrug off the damage from the strike, but his body felt numb. He couldn’t dodge.

Lan Jue clapped both hands together and raised them overhead. The lightning energy from all around him condensed to a point between his clenched fists. He brought them down to the sound of crackling electricity and purple flashes, right on his enemy’s spine.

Qi Mu was a young darling of the Dark Citadel. He wouldn’t take this lying down, and so he quickly broke in to his second transformation.

The second shift increased his defenses, with a red-gold glow that hung over him. Qi Mu couldn’t dodge, so he flexed the
muscles of his back to ward off the strike.

“Boom–!” The thunderous explosion shook the arena. Qi Mu thought his second transformation would be enough, but he felt the weight of a mountain come crashing down on his back.

When he felt the energy first slip passed his defenses and in to him, it felt almost gentle. However, he could sense the strange sensation within this energy, where it gathered up and set his own energies in disarray. His second transformation had saved him from a painful injury. This time he avoided damage, but was thrown to the ground again.

Two strikes, and twice his enemy hit the ground! You could have asked anyone and they would have scoffed at the prospect, but now they weren’t sure. Did Qi Mu get weaker, or was Zeus stronger than they thought?

Downward Punch! A powerful Taiji strike.

Lan Jue had to acknowledge his opponent’s defense. He was a second rank, but his strikes were hard enough to shatter a third rank opponent. His attacks were empowered by the principles of Taiji which made them even stronger. But even with this he
couldn’t surpass Qi Mu’s guard.

Qi Mu was on the ground, but not as helpless as before. He shuddered with a deep growl and the golden light surrounding him swelled to force the insidious lightning out. This was the advantage of his superior Discipline. The wolf urged himself in to an ungraceful roll out of the way.

Lan Jue, though, had a wealth of combat experience to draw from. He wouldn’t give up his advantage so easily. As Qi Mu tried to roll away, Zeus released the lightning coiling around him. It became a brilliant gold and fired off in all directions. In the same instant, he forced his palms toward his foe, and a column of golden lightning consumed Qi Mu.

“B-boom-boom b-b-boom….” A series of fierce attacks laid in to Qi Mu. The Wolf King was stronger than Lan Jue, but couldn’t match his speed. This put him in a very unenviable position. Under the onslaught he had to use his Force abilities to protect himself. The last two strikes had also affected his meridians. He fell to the floor for a third time.

Lan Jue flashed around Qi Mu, peppering him with attacks. He was too fast, almost faster than the audience could follow. At second rank he could no longer reach light speed, but lightning
was still plenty fast. His yang-nature Discipline and the nine strikes of Taiji had Qi Mu on the ropes.

Qi Mu waited for the cooldown. Lan Jue’s rank was lower, so he had to come out for air eventually. Of course, he didn’t know of the phylactery stone nestled in the flesh of Zeus’ left hand. He could keep this up as long as he needed. He was like a relentless battering ram, and that’s what made him a competitor.

The audience watched in abject shock as the bearer of their hopes, Qi Mu, was brutally beat down. Qi Mu could only try to protect himself from the thunderstorm.

Lan Jue was too fast, and only a few of the onlookers were able to pick out the specifics of his strikes. Again and again the wolf was hit, and fell. Each time a peal of thunder followed.

In the VIP box.

Chu Cheng watched with mouth agape. “Goddamn! I’m gunna wet my pants here in a second.”

Lina Lee looked just as confused. “What the hell is he?!”
Only Hua Li watched with a knowing smile. He jabbed his fists as though he were in the ring himself.

Lan Jue had taken the advantage of underestimation and turned it in to a crushing assault. In the last minute, he’d laid Qi Mu out with over a hundred blows. Qi Mu could only manage half-hearted reposts, but was unable to land any. Crafty! Zeus’ attacks had a numbing effect that made the whole ordeal harder. Qi Mu was strong, but not at the same level as Titan. He couldn’t stop it. His lightning played directly against the wolf’s speed, and under the incessant assault he was losing strength.

“Bastard!” Qi Mu roared. He reared up, and a blood-red light sprang out from around him. He met Lan Jue’s next strike, the Fist of the Seven Stars, without hesitation.

The seven-star strike laid in to the wolf, and he was swallowed in to a sea of lightning. This time, he didn’t fall.

Chapter 456: Zeus And Taiji

Qi Mu was downtrodden. He felt worse than he did after the loss to Titan. Everyone knew how big a difference there was between their Disciplines – it was disgraceful! His second transformation was enough to protect him from harm, but these strikes would eventually wear him down. So, to protect himself, he was forced to use his energy-intensive third metamorphosis! The wolf’s muscled figure shrunk again, but there was a distinct change in his aura.

Qi Mu’s defenses were quite powerful in his third metamorphosis. Even against Titan he hadn’t taken much damage. He even had a chance to come back. Lan Jue’s weaker attacks shouldn’t be able to cause any trouble.

But the stress of maintaining this had begun to burn away at his blood and affect him physically. He’d have to finish this fight in a hurry – he couldn’t hold it for long.

The lightning vanished, and Lan Jue did not press the attack. He leapt back to increase the distance between them, gone in a flash and appearing at the far end of the field.

But as quick as he was gone, a flash of angry red was back in
his face. It was the crimson energy of a claw swipe, raking at his face from above. The speed of Qi Mu’s third metamorphosis was ludicrous. He was so furious with Zeus that he fully intended to end him right there. The full strength of his force Discipline, as well as his person loathing was behind the encroaching blast of power.

Lan Jue held his arms before him in bowed arcs, his right hand on top and his left on the bottom as though cradling a watermelon. In the hand above a white light flickered, which was mirrored by the vacuous black energy in his bottom hand. Golden tendrils of lightning danced between them.

The energies grew until they met and began to swirl in to one another. They created a vortex of black and white, with an orb of golden electricity in the center.

This…

Metatron shot to his feet. His hard eyes glared flagrantly at the ring below.

Him? Is this the one that dared shame the Pontiff’s Citadel?
Yes! No wonder he sensed something familiar when he saw him fight. Was it not just the same as the other one who stole in to his home? Jue Di’s disciple had left any permanent damage – he hadn’t harmed anyone – but he had succeeded in thoroughly embarrassing the entire hierarchy. He stole away an asset, which was a heinous affront. They’d put a strangle order on the news, but everyone with power in the West knew all about it. Their reputation had suffered.

But the one he’d faced had been much stronger. If this was the same man, though, Qi Mu wouldn’t be a problem.

Back on the field, Qi Mu’s attack had found its target. The red light tore right through the strange vortex but did not break it. Lan Jue dodged nimbly to the side, and where he had stood a deep groove appeared in the floor.

Qi Mu just gaped at him. Never in a thousand years would he believe that this weakling would simply knock aside his full might! Some trickery had saved the masked man from being slashed in two.

The murderous light in the Wolf King’s eyes flared. He raced forward, a flash of bloody red, and was in front of Lan Jue before he could blink. Jagged claws reached for his head, as fast
as red lightning.

Lan Jue’s hands shot out, smooth as water. He slid backward with the claw, keeping it at length, retreating and directing his opponent’s deadly swipe to the side. If the first time he’d avoided the wolf was a fluke, this one could not be. The full speed and strength of the third metamorphosis was a terrible force to behold. Qi Mi, though, felt it was all wrong.

The Dark Citadel’s representative reared back and lashed out again with both claws. Their deadly arc cut off Lan Jue’s retreat.

Zeus’ eyes narrowed behind the mask. The golden lightning around him crackled louder, and the conflicting powers of black and white swelled in his hands. His palms stretched out to gently guide the deadly claws, while Lan Jue deftly maneuvered between them. Qi Mu’s arms crashed together and Lan Jue danced out of harm’s way.

“Bang!” There was a burst of sound, and Qi Mu nearly lost his balance. The pain in his hands was blinding.

“Taiji!” The Terminator’s voice thundered through the arena.
His pitch had risen sharply. The Gourmet sat beside him, holding tightly to Jun’er.

The little one was busily clapping her tiny hands. “Daddy is the best!”

The older generation of Adepts close enough to  hear  the words Taiji were startled. For the elders, surprise was replaced with fear. They knew what that word meant. It was utterly inconceivable that they would witness it here, used by this seemingly weak young man.

Back in the day, when Jue Di was attacked by the collected strength of the Alliances, he had used this martial art to protect himself. It was said that when one’s Taiji mastery reached protogenic levels, no harm could come to them. The forces of Taiji, the forces of the universe, would inexplicably cast all dangers to the side. The nine strikes of Taiji were very strong, but that was not the whole nature of the art. It was a product of ancient China, the birthplace of all martial arts, and taught the practitioner to best the unyielding with softness. Very few practitioners ever really understood the essence of Taiji.

Qi Mu’s third metamorphosis gave him the power of a ninth ranked Adept, furthering the gulf between him and Lan Jue.
Still, every attack was parried, diffused, or avoided. The harder he hit, the more potent his opponent’s Taiji defense.

Waves of energy rippled through the ring as though they stood in a pool. They spread out from Lan Jue to undermine any attack the Wolf King tried to pursue. Thirteen times he swiped at the masked man’s face and missed. Lan Jue eventually stepped away from the insidious energy, but when Qi Mu tried to pursue his body resisted. His face darkened like a bruise.

“Ugh!” The Wolf King spat out a mouthful of blood. He staggered backward and finally could sustain his third form no longer.

Lan Jue watched him calmly from a few steps away. “You’re hurt. If we keep this up it may cause lasting damage. Are you sure you want to go on?”

Utter disbelief was written on Qi Mu’s face, but he knew Zeus was right. If he kept it up he may eventually win the fight, but at the cost of his health. He snarled, bearing his lupine fangs, then stomped out of the ring.

He’s lost… Qi Mu, the Wolf King, has lost to Zeus! Titan had
his challenger in the Monarch, who shared two victories. He’d displayed trickery and tactics before, but his victory today was pure skill.

Taiji masters renounced all worldly pleasures. In the end, their task is to spread their knowledge.

Even Jong Yongye, the new darling of the tournament, watched Lan Jue carefully and with interest. Xuanyuan Shishi was the same. He exchanged a glance with Jong Yongye, and a nod of the head.

Group One was nearly decided. The next fight would be Lan Jue and Titan, and no one dared discount Lan Jue after what he’d done to Qi Mu. No one could say for certain Titan wouldn’t meet the same fate.

Mo Xiao heaved a long breath. She had an odd look in her eye, and looked at the Terminator with a little uncertainty. “Your Majesty. You mentioned Taiji… the martial art that Jue Di was known to use, from the former era?”

The Terminator look at her and nodded. His face was sour, and he did not speak. For Adepts – and for Paragons especially –
the name Jue Di was taboo.

Hua Li watched with scrunched brows from the VIP booth. “What is Mo Xiao doing? What the hell is she thinking talking him up right now?”

“Now don’t say I didn’t warn you, A-Li,” Chu Cheng instructed. “I’ve always said that Mo Xiao has something against A-Jue. Who the hell knows why, but you’ve got to handle that business. We’re brothers, don’t avoid it.”

“Yeah I know… but I had no idea Lan Jue’s Taiji skills were at this level,” the rock star praised.

Chu Cheng pulled a sour face. “Qi Mu’s just an idiot. See if it were me, I’d blast him in the face with an inferno. See how he deals with that.”

“Funny,” Hua Li mused. “I’m pretty sure you aren’t in the quarter finals and he is.”

Chu Cheng went rigid, then pretended like he hadn’t heard.
Group Two fights were about to begin; The Pharmacist versus Qian Bian. Chi Tianjiao versus Jiang Yuan.

Nothing unexpected happened, and they finished as without any upsets. Qian Bian could do nothing in the face of the Pharmacist’s overwhelming strength. Her attacks were so oppressive he didn’t even have a chance to shift in to his weapon forms. He managed to block seven attacks before succumbing.

Chi Tianjiao seemed shaken to her Core from the Pharmacist. She wasn’t even able to mount a defense against the necromancer.

Chapter 457: Failure Is The Mother Of Success

The second group also had two competitors with a pair of wins under their belts; the Pharmacist and Jiang Yuan. They would also determine who would proceed to the finals after tomorrow.

Other than Lan Jue’s shocking defeat of the Wolf King, things stayed quiet and straightforward for the other fights.

Of course, gamblers who’d placed their hard-earned cash on Qi Mu were less than pleased. All of it, down the drain. There was nothing in the universe less reliable than gambling.

The audience had had their appetite wet by the first two fights. Now it was time for the next two, the main course.

Group Three. The mysterious powerhouses would return to the ring. The Driver would be facing Yan Ningya, while Cao Shuiqin would square off against Jun Yongye.

The Epochrion’s disciple was determined not to lose a second time. However, the Driver had shown some considerable power.
His case may not have been as hopeless as it seemed. He walked over to Lan Jue.

“No encouragement for me?”

Lan Jue smiled. “You seem like you’re doing fine! Just don’t lose too terribly.”

“Shit!” The Driver flipped him the finger, then stomped toward the ring.

Yan Ningya was without her veil today. Her status had been revealed yesterday so there was no further need for it. The Driver looked as his often did, with well-kept short hair and a cunning glint in his eye. He looked ready to go.

Yan Ningya nodded at him. He inclined is head in response.

In terms of physical appearance, Yan Ningya was more attractive Cao Shuiqin. Though, for some unexplicable reason the Driver did not appear the least bit interested. On the contrary, he had eyes only for Cao Shuiqin, otherwise he wouldn’t be watching her like he was.
“Three, two, one. Begin!”

There was a flash of silver right away. The Driver would not hesitate like he had for Shuiqin. With the speed of lightning he raced right for her. However, as he drew in for the strike, he could feel himself become sluggish. All around were ripples of prismatic color emanating from Yan Ningya. The Driver’s explosive charge was turn to a crawl.

The time Adept lazily stepped to the side, and suddenly time sped up to breakneck speed. The Driver sped past his target and struck the ground with a jarring blast.

The Driver had put his whole strength behind the strike, and silver lightning crackled violently all around where he’d stopped. It enveloped him as well, acting as a shield against Yan Ningya’s own counter attack.

It looked as though the Driver anticipated that his attacks wouldn’t be precise, so he spread his power to cover a larger area. All of this while keeping his defenses primed.

The shimmering light surrounding her bloomed outward like a starburst, enveloping her in a magnificent kaleidoscope of
color. She floated away from her foe as delicate as a fairy. Her sword swung this way and that as she did so. “In the North there lives a wondrous beauty, peerless and independent. One laugh and cities fall! Another laugh razes countries. In her steps comes disaster, but her beauty cannot be denied.”

She sung the lines must faster this time, and with each wave of her sword the light that composed it blazed brighter. The host of colors in her eyes sparkled enigmatically.

By her second stanza, the Driver could feel something wasn’t right. The waves of power that swept from her sword weren’t directed at him, but instead focused on herself. He couldn’t stop her if he wanted to, though, since her time dilation powers negated the speed of his lightning. He also needed a moment to recover from his first blitz.

He spun around and launched himself at Yan Ningya once again. Silver arcs of lightning spat out all around him in another electric explosion. By now Ningya was finishing her  final stanza.

A beam of white light cut right through the electricity. The piercing force washed over Driver.
A red aura sprang into being around the Driver, appearing without warning. His meaty hand was extended forward, flagrantly keeping the light several feet away.

“Leniency!” the Gourmet’s voice called.

Yan Ningya dropped her sword and turned her eyes to the VIP platform where the Paragons sat. She gave them a little bow, then left the ring. She only stopped when she reached the waiting area, while passing the White Blademaster.

“Thank you for your instruction,” she said. He answered her with a smile.

The Driver was glum. His bet with the Accountant hung over his head, and it looked like he would owe the mousy man a bottle of fine whisky. The bet was that he wouldn’t be the worst in his group, but two fights in he was zero for two. His next opponent? Jun Yongye.

“Does that count as losing terribly?” The Driver griped as he walked back to Lan Jue’s side.
Zeus met him with a smile. “No. She was using all of her power, too, you just didn’t know what you were going up against. Her time abilities shut our speed advantage down, which is why it was a short fight. But losing fast doesn’t mean you got trounced.”

Lan Jue’s drinking buddy laughed. “Well now I feel much better,” he quipped sarcastically. This earned an admonishing look from his friend.

“Failure is the mother of success!”

“At least get me out of the Accountant’s bet,” he whined.

Lan Jue shrugged. “I think he told me that if he won, he’d give the bottle to the Keeper. I guess it’s up to you.”

The Driver left quietly. Sad though he was, this didn’t stop his eyes from following Cao Shuiqin up to the ring.

Jun Yongye was clad as he ever was in the white coat, spotlessly clean. There was a comforting consistency; this was how we was, and how he would always be.
They faced each other from across the field, until eventually the blademaster called out to her. “I’m eager for a song!”

She looked back at him. “Very well,” she replied with a nod.

The countdown had no meaning. Before the eyes of the crowd Jun Yongye folded his knees beneath him and sat. He shut his eyes, and listened.

Cao Shuiqin followed, sitting prettily on the floor with the guqin across her knees. Her delicate fingers lay upon the strings. The tones they produced were low and ethereal, lingering in the air. From the stands they looked like two people whiling the day away.

The first sign that all was not as it seemed, was when the air between them began to contort.

This continued for ten minutes, until Cao Shuiqin calmly placed her fingers upon the strings and made them still. She looked up, her expression detached. “I’ve lost.”

Her music hadn’t only failed to hook the blademaster. It
didn’t seem to have affected him on any level. It was like serenading a blade – your notes just rang off the surface.

When Jun Yongye opened his eyes, he sighed with regret. “Your heart isn’t in it!” He rose on to his feet and left the ring without saying anything further.

He was two wins up. No one else in the third group could stand up to him. Even if he were – by some miracle – to lose in his next fight against the Driver, he still had more points. The first one to qualify for the finals was not Constantine, not the Pharmacist, nor Titan or Yan Ningya… but the simple swordsman, Jong Yongye!

Cao Shuiqin sat in silence for a little while, thinking over her opponent’s parting words. She eventually gathered up her instrument and left the ring, hiding her reddening face. He was right – her heart wasn’t in it. She had meant it when she told the Driver that his loss wasn’t a whole loss. They affected her as well, and took time to dissipate.

Three fights in, things were looking clearer than ever. The next fight certainly did not fit that category, but it was the most anticipated match-up of the day. Even the Terminator had said he was looking forward to it.
High Inquisitor of the Pontiff’s Citadel, Constantine; versus Xuanyuanshishi and the Ten-thousand Blades.

Constantine rose to his feet. A holy light blazed in his eyes, so bright it was like he couldn’t contain it. The audience could feel the waves of confidence coming from him. It wasn’t a surprise, after all he was one of the most promising young Adepts in the Citadel, and a contender for the spot of Pontiff someday. He would not accept defeat.

He’d witnessed Xuayuna Shishi’s strength yesterday, but the display had only served to stoke his lust for battle. He longed to test himself against such doughty opponents. The harder he was pushed, the further he walked on his Path. Lan Qing, Lan Jue, Chu Cheng… like him they had also come to grasp the protogenic world early. But the Path the High Inquisitor walked was much more difficult than theirs.

To be so strong and so young, he’d had to employ a great deal of fantascia genetica. It fully stimulated his Talent, made him one of the best, but there were dangers to rewriting one’s DNA. The final steps to Paragon were much more difficult for anyone who took short cuts. This was why the Angel of War, Michael – once lauded as the right hand of the Pontiff and set to succeed him – was ultimately stuck at the peak of ninth level.
If Constantine didn’t discover his Path before the age of fifty, he would end up like the Angel of War.

The Pontiff was an old man. No one knew how long a Paragon lived, but he had already clearly expressed his wishes. When a worthy disciple broke through to Paragon, he would pass the mantle on to them. Metatron’s chances were quickly dwindling, while Constantine was at the height of his potency. At this point there wasn’t even any competition between them.

Chapter 458: Give It All You’ve Got!

Constantine was anxious to pit himself against the strongest. For Xuayuan Shishi, though, it looked like just another encounter. He grinned at his foe with a congenial smile and engaged in some light warmups. He looked like he was preparing for a foot race.

“Please. Give it all you’ve got!” Constantine’s low voice called over as he offered a nod to his opponent.

Shishi smiled back. “We’ll have to see if you can handle it.”

On the VIP platform.

Mo Xiao turned halfway in her seat to look at the Terminator. “Your Majesty, who do you suspect will win this next fight?”

“Mm, tough to say,” he growled. “Xuanyuan Shishi did not show us his full power yesterday. It’s difficult to know how strong he really is. Constantine is also an amazing talent, and I’m sure he has some secrets of his own. In the end, I’d say there’s a fifty-fifty chance for both of them.
She blinked in surprise. “Shishi is that much of a threat?”

The Terminator went on. “There is something that perhaps you missed. Xuanyuan Shishi wrote his title as ‘The Ten Thousand Swords Become One.’ I suspect he will be at his strongest when that happens. We’ll have to see. Xuanyuan Shishi will likely have to use his full power if he hopes to best Constantine.”

“Three, two, one. Begin!”

The buzzer called a start to the biggest fight of the day!
Whoever won was going on the finals.

Shishi waved his hand, and at the gesture a soupy mist arose. In response, the High Inquisitor muttered a few words and shot his right hand toward the sky. A resplendent golden light flared outward and enveloped him.

Blessing of Holy Light! One of the Citadel’s strongest light- based defenses. It was so bright it blinded the eyes, so pure it caught the spectators’ breath.
Shishi continued to strengthen the mist. It became thicker and spread out farther, spurting out from him in attempts to smother that light. The inquisitor didn’t seem to care or notice. His risen hand dropped and pointed in to the roiling mist. From the digit, a beam of light exploded out.

The light pierced right to the heart of the mist, but the heavy air responded by surging around the intruder. Constantine’s light widened while the mist splayed like the maw of some enormous beast.

The two powers met straight on, and it was soon evident which one had the advantage. The mist began to slowly recede before the power of the High Inquisitor’s holy light. It was an indication of their strength disparity.

The golden light was as dense as it was bright, and Constantine’s eyes shone with the same flood of energy. Where he had been a foreboding figure in his fight against Blackmoon, Constantine looked like a saint today. Waves of divine power rippled from him.

Suddenly, there was a fierce howl. The thick, low-lying clouds vanished without warning as a hundred thousand blades of mist appeared. It was just the same as last time, with the strong
blades tearing through the holy light unimpeded.

The light blazed stronger, hoping to destroy the swords outright. They would not be denied. Burning with seraphic fire, the blades descended upon Constantine faster than he could blink.

Six motes of light appeared beneath his feet as, with a hefty grunt, the holy light solidified around him in to a protective shell. Wave after wave of Xuanyuan Shishi’s swords pummeled him, but they only produced ripples on his shield. They were cast back with such force they went sailing all through the ring.

Holy Spirit Aegis! A powerful light-based shield.

A hundred swords were useless against the Aegis. Shishi, though, had a hundred thousand. An endless tide of living blades dashed themselves against Constantine. They would be blasted back only to return. Over time, the Inquisitor’s shields grew brighter and brighter.

The Pontiff’s man stood in the center of that blazing light, calmly experiencing everything around him. He was searching for Xuanyuan Shishi. His foe’s swords weren’t enough, but if
Constantine wanted to end the fight he’d have to find his target first. Anything else was fruitless.

Somewhere in the dense sea of swords, a faint light pulsed. There was sunlight radiating from it, and at its urging the swords beat against Constantine like rain against a tin roof. Halos of reflected light were beginning to appear around the shell.

The mistblades swirled among one another like angry eddies, and under that gentle sunlight they began to fuse. Two swords would ferociously clash midair and unite. Their combined strength put even more pressure on Constantine. No two attacks were the same, either. Some swords came as spirals, others crosswise or straight down from overhead. There were even some that tried to drill up from underneath – probing for a weakness.

The relentless assault continued while the sounds continued to join. Now, the majority were the combination of two swords. When ten or so of those drew close they would join as well, in to a single monstrous saber.

Those halos were more frequent now, and were pulses of energy from Constantine he used to bolster his shield.
Xuanyuan Shishi’s magical – if strange – display opened up the audience’s eyes. This must be the peak of perfection.

The Pharmacist especially, watched the ring with avid attention. Her burning eyes never moved, unwilling to miss any detail. . She muttered to herself, “The Way of Changes! I never thought I’d see it in person. I remember master saying it was among the strongest sword styles in ancient China. If paired with-“

She trailed off as the situation in the ring swallowed up her full attention.

Constantine’s face wasn’t the calm façade it was before. He’d continued to search, but could find no trace of Xuanyuan Shishi. At first he suspected his foe would hide within the press of misty weapons, but Constantine quickly discovered that every sword bore a trace of the swordsman’s aura. This feeling seemed to intensify when the swords combined.

Could it be? Were the swords his foe? How could this be?

Just as Constantine was struggling with his disbelief, every blade stopped in midair. For half a second they simply hung
there, but then suddenly began to rearrange themselves. The buzzing aura around them grew ever more potent. Their misty surfaces hardened to be more like a proper blade. Someone was taking things more seriously.

The High Inquisitor took a deep breath. He couldn’t leave his circle of protection to find Shishi, so his only recourse was to completely obliterate all of those swords. The swordsman had his limits, and Constantine had a Talent advantage. He wouldn’t even need to leave his shield.

He pressed three fingers of his right hand to his forehead. His left hand lay lightly upon his chest. There was a heaving blast of holy energy, and the faint silhouette of some majestic figure could just barely be discerned behind the Inquisitor.

The figure was an enigma but for its opulent robes. The force fields rippled from the blast impact. Xuanyuan Shishi’s swords reeled out of control like a routed army.

“Is this… the Second Coming?” Mo Xiao gasped.

“The legendary ability of the Pontiff’s Citadel, revealing the image of God.” The Terminator’s rumbling voice explained.
The Pontiff and his Disciples sought protogenia in a fashion altogether different from their peers. Every one of their Adepts were light – and more importantly, Faith – based. Their path to Paragon would be paved with Faith.

Constantine was no exception. This was the penultimate display of Faith – the Second Coming!

The swords shrank before the encroaching blaze of light. Soon there was nowhere to hide as the whole of the ring’s entire was painted gold. The Pontiff’s representative simply maintained his prayer and posture.

Behind him, the hazy image of God started to solidify. Waves of light as pure as God Himself crashed against the mistblades. Those closest to the Constantine were immediately destroyed, and the others were forced back.

Power would force his foe’s hand!

The High Inquisitor earned his position in part through self- awareness. When faced with this problem, he returned to basics
– which often proved the best decision.
Terrible blasts of holy energy tore through the ring. The ruined swords dissolved back in to puffs of mist, though they didn’t dissipate. Instead they joined together with the nearest sword.

This took Constantine by surprise. He was capable of this, too? Even when faced with the glory of God, those swords would not be vanquished.

“Hmph!” There was a cold grunt. The swords reacted with some unheard signal, and gathered together like  they  were being swept up by some great sea-bound river.

Chapter 459: Godslayer

The many mistbaldes joined together in to a single, enormous sword. Beneath the incandescent glow, the blade seemed less surreal than its smaller progenitors. Roiling clouds rolled along its length.

Although the presence of God was terrifying and intense, the waves of holy power washed right by the great saber. The light parted against its sharp edge like water. There was no resistance for Constantine to interact with.

That shimmering white light around the saber exploded, spreading outward and away. All that remained was the simple
– if gigantic – blade. But then, as a powerful light welled up inside of it, Xuanyuan Shishi’s sword whistled through the air as a beam of light – right for the image of God.

Godslayer!

The light in Constantine’s eyes flared brighter. From the top of his head, beams of light erupted out and lay upon the figure of God behind him. That divine silhouette was even clearer, as His hand reached out for the encroaching saber.
The great figure and the enormous sword were set to collide. However, just then, a strange curtain shimmered around the sword and it disintegrated! Once more, those ten thousand swords went sailing through the air. They swept around the silhouette of God like some monstrous meat grinder.

The auras shifted again, changeable as the tide. The weapons, imbued with a strange energy, were carried through the ring in deadly eddies.

The Second Coming was built on a foundation of Faith. Much to Constantine’s consternation, Xuanyuan Shishi’s sword was able to cut right through waves of pure divine Faith – so completely as to sever the minute connections within it.

The image of God was carved in to a hundred million motes of light, and then disappeared. The mistblades were also affected, and swayed unstably overhead. However, they recovered enough to fly up in to the air over the center of the ring.

Constantine’s face was the definition of disbelief.

It destroyed Faith! This ability completely undermined everything the Pontiff’s Citadel was built on!
“HERESY!” Constantine’s howl rang loud, tearing through the arena. His hand snapped out, and an orb of golden light grew in his palm. It swelled and stretched until it took on the shape of a spear. He hurled it with all of his might.

The spear became a bolt of golden lightning that struck the mistblade cluster dead center.

The Spear of Fate – holy judgment!

“Boom—!”

The blades were immediately blasted away in all directions. No small number were destroyed, those that were struck by the spear directly.

The Second Coming and the Spear of Fate; these were the symbols of Constantine’s mastery. The Spear was one of the Pontiff’s most cherished treasures, a spiritual weapon without equal. The Pontiff bestowed it upon him when his potential as a possible Paragon was revealed. It served its purpose now, as the unexpected addition of a divine weapon set the mistblades in to disarray.
The audience again heard that heartless grunt. The evaporated remains of Xuanyuan Shishi’s swords slithered through the air until they coalesced some distance away. This time, however, they did not become swords. This time the mists condensed in to the form of a man. Meanwhile, the Spear of Fate dissolved in to a beam of light and raced back to its master. Constantine held the weapon tight in his hand, as his shining eyes were filled with violent intent. He glared daggers at the distant figure of Shishi.

This man had the ability to undermine Faith, and thus was a threat to the Pontiff’s Citadel. Constantine, High inquisitor of the faith, had to ensure all threats were eliminated. He himself was a man built on a core of Faith. If Xuanyuan Shishi could shake those deep-seated believes, than he could destroy the man who relied upon them. Constantine knew this clearly, and it filled him with a terrible fear.

He poured all of that emotion, and all of his own holy power in to the spear. The weapon flashed, releasing a pulse of radiant light before settling back to normal. Normal, but for the addition of several golden runes etched in to its shaft. They pulsed as though with a heartbeat, and emanated a pale golden light.

These were the souls of fallen Adepts, the fires of so many
spirits that were taken by the Spear of Fate. It burned with their stolen essence as the Fires of Judgement. A single touch could turn any living thing to ash.

Xuanyuan Shishi did not look any different than any time before. His congenial smile was absent, but that was all. His now familiar grunt sounded, and a blade of mist formed within his hand. It was an exceedingly simple sword despite its construction. No different than any of the swords before. What was different now was the man, and the aura that surrounded him. Something was very different.

Mo Xiao couldn’t help but secretly admire the Terminator. It was as he said. This was the Ten Thousand Blades as One – likely Xuanyuan Shishi at his strongest.

Constantine threw himself at Shishi as fast as he could. His blazing spear was held high, ready to be thrown at any moment. His opponent, calm, moved forward as well. His steps were fluid and he advanced like rolling clouds before a storm.

The audience held their breath.

The two foes collided above the center of the ring.
Constantine lashed out with the spear, but did not throw it. Instead, the weapon fractured in to a hundred thousand burning beams of light. The Fires of Judgement fell over Xuanyuan Shishi.

Another grunt. The sword in Shishi’s hand quivered ever so slightly. Then, seemingly from nowhere at all, a forest of sharp sword-swipes hurled themselves toward the light.

“Clang! Crack!” The cacophonous sounds were so loud they shook the arena. The spectators held their ears, suddenly caught in what sounded like a clash of two massive armies. Through the dazzling display they could see that the Fires of Judgement had no more power over Shishi than God had. The flames would flash against his strikes then vanish like they’d never been.

The Eastern swordsman had vanished somewhere in the clash, but reappeared moments later floating gracefully in the air. He bore a quiet majesty, and a very different sword. It was one, but it was not. Onlookers could see the blade quite clearly, but it wasn’t one blade. It was countless thousands of them, occupying the same space in Shishi’s palm. They were ever shifting, phasing in and out constantly.

Lan Jue’s eyes were fixed upon the swordsman. His heart
raced, carefully analyzing every move. The Way of Changes… wasn’t his own lightning Discipline the same? The explosive nature of it was inherently unpredictable. If he could learn to control it, marry it with something like the ability Xuanyuan Shishi commanded, than his Astrum would be a truly powerful artifact.

All of his focus was on Shishi, trying to ascertain any hint to the man’s philosophy. It would serve nothing to focus on the style – it was too fast, and too much. But if he could learn the intention behind it, he could apply that knowledge to his own studies.

His eyes narrowed. The fight was getting more intense.

Constantine was fierce in his belief in victory. He bore the Spear of Fate! Whatever the tricks, Shishi had only a simple sword. How hard could it be to break through it to the foe behind? He’d wanted to keep it up his sleeve for his fight against the Pharmacist, or perhaps Titan. But he was moved by a vision, this heretic impaled on the end of his master’s weapon.

However fierce his belief, though, he watched as Xuanyuan Shishi and his pauper’s blade unceremoniously blocked the power of his divine spear. The Fires of Judgement had nothing
to burn, and fizzled out impotently. The sword it contended against was ever changing, and it was like the holy fires got lost and overwhelmed.

Shishi had gradually earned an advantage. Constantine could defend himself with his spear, but the swordsman’s style attacked from all angles. The Spear of Fate in this Inquisitor’s hands was good to block only the most basic of attacks. He faced one of the most powerful styles of martial art in the history of mankind.

Their gulf in Discipline gave way to a deficit of skill. Constantine began to give ground, inch by inch. His spear burned fierce as ever, but he couldn’t compete with Shishi’s speed.

“Rrrrrip!” A tear appeared on the front of Constantine’s coat. He reacted by forcing his spear to erupt again, but Shishi hardly moved. There was another quiver of his sword, and countless sword-swipes tore through the air to meet every beam of light.

The High Inquisitor was so enraged he could spit blood. He set his jaw, locked his knees and refused to budge. He would face all his foe could muster, head on.
He was no fool, he knew he couldn’t content with this man in technique. But he was stronger, his Discipline was stronger. He would hold out, until this inferior Adept ran out of stamina. That’s when he would make his move.

But Xuanyuan Shishi showed no signs of slowing down. In fact, each wave of attacks came quicker than the last. The Pontiff’s last great hope was bowing under the pressure. Dozens of small wounds opened up all over his body.

Soon he was covered from head to toe in blood.

This was no slight to Constantine’s mighty defenses. It was instead a ringing endorsement of how sharp Shishi’s attacks were. The energy of these attacks was as changeable and insidious as their physical manifestation. He could block them, but the energy would find a way to worm passed his guard. Each strike wreaked havoc on him internally. He could feel himself losing control over the spear.

To the audience Xuanyuan Shishi seemed the embodiment of all of those swords. Half-seen shadows of blades flashed around the High Inquisitor, so fast and so frequent they were hard to pick out. Constantine stood strong, but his strength was slipping. Soon, it was even hard to keep a grip on his treasured
spear.

The look on Archangel Metatron’s face could slay a man. Although he and Constantine were not of the same generation, that only made the facts more acutely obvious. Metatron’s own hopes were fading, and were now placed on the shoulders of the young Inquisitor. The Pontiff’s Citadel had to ensure its continued strength. They would need a Paragon leader.

The East was much stronger than anyone could have anticipated. From the White Blademaster to the Ten Thousand Blades as One, they commanded abilities that were outside of their comprehension. He was stronger, his Discipline was stronger, his weapon was stronger, he would be a Paragon… how could he be in this situation?

Chapter 460: Ten Thousand Swords As One!

The VIP platform was woefully deficient in Easterners, with only the Gourmet and Jun’er to represent them. The rest were largely Northern dignitaries, with a spattering of Westerners. They were all silent as mice after watching the swordsman.

Ten thousand swords as one, occupying a single space.

“Boom–!” Constantine was fired backwards from a blow. He struck the force field so hard it bounced him back. He lay on the floor, covered in a hundred cuts the Spear of Fate could not defend him from.

“You’ve lost!” Xuanyuan Shishi was completely untouched. His smile was back, one which the audience saw as friendly and appreciative. Constantine saw it differently, however. To him, that smile was full of ridicule.

“Bastard, I’m not done yet!” Constantine roared. His body surged with holy light, instantly cauterizing his wounds and halting the bleeding. The damage from Shishi’s sword qi was ever more evident, though. The Inquisitor’s healing light was not as effective as it should have been.
“Gfah!” He spat another mouthful of blood, staggered, then full to his backside. Constantine, his eyes full of disbelief, had lost.

The sword dissolved in to mist, which slithered around Shishi and up his nose. He smiled pleasantly, then left the ring.

The underdog once more exploded in to the lead. Constantine, High Inquisitor of the Pontiff’s Citadel was eliminated! Xuanyuan Shishi had emerged as the qualifier for Group Four. He still had to fight Blackmoon, but everyone knew how that fight would play out.

The tournament was inching along, with two of the four groups locked up. The results were already much different than people had predicted. Constantine and Yan Ningya – two of the favorites – had been weeded out. Meanwhile the binary shock that was Jun Yongye and Xuanyuan Shishi exploded on to the public stage.

Two groups were still uncertain, though they could be guessed. For Group Two, the fight to watch would be Jiang Yuan and the Pharmacist. Most expected the Pharmacist to win, since Jiang Yuan’s abilities appeared much weaker. Group One looked much the same. Titan held back in his last fight, but
most assumed it was out of respect for his female opponent. Although Lan Jue had pulled a surprise victory over the Wolf King, many believed Zeus’ defeat at the hand of Titan was inevitable.

Tomorrow everyone would have their answer. Tomorrow, the final four would be revealed!

Lan Jue’s keen eyes followed Jun Yongye and Xuanyuan Shishi as they exchanged another high-five. He  stood  and trotted their way.

If you literally translate high-five, it means ‘to attack hands’.
Shout that at the next frat party – Attack my hand bro!!

“I look forward to our fights,” Lan Jue said, stopping in front of them. He smiled amicably, his eyes calm and welcoming.

Jun Yongye returned the expression. Shishi looked a little surprised. “Excellent! We’ll see if your Taiji is stronger, of if my sword style has a little more. But if I’m being honest, it doesn’t look like you have the Discipline. Maybe the next time we meet.”
Lan Jue chuckled. “I guess we’ll have to see what happens.”

“Don’t let us down,” Jun Yongye interjected matter-of-factly.

This tournament had been full of unexpected upset, something the audience could not get enough of. There were two more today for them to talk about. Zeus and Shishi won their matches and in doing so, had made the next few rounds much more interesting.

Who was stronger between the two Eastern swordsmen? What will happen when they have to face Titan or the Pharmacist? The finals were already a rush of emotions for these spectators. To them it seemed almost a formality, and they were eager for the real contests ahead.

**

“Can I take you out for a drink?” The Driver intercepted Cao Shuiqin in the waiting area.

The musician’s eyes dropped to the floor. “I don’t drink.”
The Driver answered. “I have tea.”

“Alright.” After a moment she lifted her head, and nodded at him. Their eyes met, and she could feel the heat in his gaze. Her cheeks flushed.

The Driver motioned for her to lead, in a very classical and gentlemanly gesture. Cao Shuiqin, her instrument cradled in her arms, walked on.

**

Lan Jue and the Pharmacist left the arena together. As they idly walked through the streets, he turned to her. “Hey sis, Xuanyuan Shishi and Jun Yongye. Which one do you suspect you’ll be facing?”

She sniffed a laugh. “I’m only worried about facing you.”

“You have such faith in me!” He remarked.

She smirked at him. “What, just a little encouragement. You
don’t like your chances?”

He replied. “It’s not that. I’m eager to get in the finals and see how I do against those two.”

The Pharmacist was solemn. “These two are definitely not pushovers. Xuanyuan Shishi did not beat Constantine by luck. He won from sheer skill and understanding. Jun Yongye is even stronger.”

“I never said I’d win,” Lan Jue countered with a chuckle. “I want to see what I can learn about swordsmanship, fighting them. I’ve already decided that my Astrum will be a sword, it’s important for me to know how to use one.”

She nodded. “It’s a good opportunity. Honestly, I’m surprised you were able to beat Qi Mu without Qianlin’s help. A pleasant upset to my expectations.”

Lan Jue shrugged. “It’s not usually that easy. He set the tone, I just followed the notes. He never got a chance to use his whole strength. I don’t think he fully recovered from using the third metamorphosis yesterday, either.”
With a smile, the Pharmacist added. “You must have learned quite a lot today. Meditate on it when we get back.”

Lan Jue had been especially punished by the thirteen claw- swiped from Qi Mu’s transformation. He’d been able to deflect them by joining his Discipline with Taiji, but only just barely. If Qi Mu had pressed the attack for much longer, he’d have had to rely on more tricks to eke out a victory. Thankfully he hadn’t had do. He grit his teeth and forced himself to take it, hoping that conflict would lead to progress.

In the end, it was a success.

The last year – largely thanks to the Mystic Raiment and Qianlin’s other powers – he had seen a tremendous boost to his potential. When he’d first starting joining with Qianlin it was like he was a rough diamond. Every fight polished that diamond a little bit more. Each fight changed his Core in a positive way.

It had been much more difficult to defend against the wolf’s attacks than people probably thought. It had forced him to really apply himself to integrating his Taiji abilities. Integration was the most important part of martial training. Only when an Adept joined their martial skill with their Discipline were they at their most potent. Why was Jun Yongye so strong? Because
you couldn’t differentiate him from his weapon. He was his weapon, completely absorbed by his philosophy. That was why people saw his skills as almost peerless.

That was what Lan Jue wanted for himself, and today was a solid step in the right direction. All of this had positive implications for his future that he couldn’t even describe. Already he could sense the progress – he was at the peak of second degree now. Soon, he would break through to third rank for the second time. If he just kept his nose pressed to the grindstone, progress was assured.

“Daddy!” Jun’er’s ringing voice called out to him. His face immediately broke in to a beaming smile as the Gourmet handed her over. She pecked him on the cheek. “You’re so great, daddy. The best!”

He chuckled at her enthusiasm. “I get all my power from little Jun’er! Let’s go, I think you need something to eat!”

The Gourmet smiled at the two of them. “Did someone say eat? Count me in.”

“The undisputed king of Northern food is the steak,” Lan Jue
said with a laugh. “I think that should be our target.”

The Gourmet nodded emphatically. “Sounds good to me! It’s about the only thing I’ll stomach. Impressive fight today, by the way. You certainly captured my attention.”

“Do you know anything about Jun Yongye or Xuanyuan Shishi?” He asked. “Why is it no one seems to have heard of them?”

The Gourmet shrugged helplessly. “No one is right. I’ve asked everyone who could have any information, even the Keeper and Wine Master. No one knows anything about them. It’s like they were just born out of the stones. Not a single bit of information to be found anywhere. Whatever the case, it’s evident that they’re Easterners. When the fights are over I’ll see if I can’t put out some feelers, but I’m not sure if we’ll be able to win them over.”

This is a common Chinese trope in old stories, were powerful individuals like ‘Gourd Boy’ and the Monkey King would be born out of a stone egg or gourd

“You should do everything you can to win your groups! It
would be a mean slap to the North’s face, followed back a swift backhand to the West.”

And wasn’t that the truth? Both of these strong strangers were from the East. They didn’t represent Skyfire Avenue, but they were countrymen. If the Pharmacist and Lan Jue beat out their competition, then the finals would be dominated by a single Alliance. Aside from the prestige, those six S-ranked power gems the North would have to pay to their rival. They’d be so mad it would give the Conclave a collective aneurism.

The Terminator looked like he knew it, judging by his sour expression. He sat quietly in the assembly chamber, joined by the Epochrion Huan Xue.

“This whole things seems wrong. Could the East have rigged the games?” Huan Xue mused.

But the Terminator shook his head. “No. I saw the look on the Gourmet’s face. He doesn’t know them either. But something seems familiar about these two young men. They aren’t as strong as Jue Di, but in the future? I don’t want them to leave the North, no matter who they are.”

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