Skyfire Avenue Chapter 501-510

Chapter 501: Nirvana And Luo Xianni

“Chi Bupang! Get out here right now!” Just then, a woman’s voice full of anger and alluring promise echoed through the forests.

The characters sound like ‘eat and not get fat’, I wonder if it’s the author’s play on Jue Di’s insatiable need for new experiences. OR I’m reading too much in to it.

In that instant, the colors of this whole world seemed to change. The vibrant expanse felt like it came grinding to a halt, or perhaps more fitting was to say it was a picture. Everywhere he looked, it was like a hundred thousand detailed paintings layered on top of one another. Even he looked like a painted reflection of himself.

“Rip!” The sound was followed by a hand that appeared to tear open reality and pull itself out. Cracks spider webbed out from the hand and crackled in all directions. They shook and quivered for a moment then, as though they were glued together, things returned quickly back to normal.

Jue Di thrust himself between Lan Jue and the strange hand, and in that moment Lan Jue felt like he was a towering
mountain standing in his defense. And yet, there was a sense of instability in his master’s power. No… that wasn’t right. Not his power, his emotions.

A figure appeared in the air above them. It dissolves in to a beam of light that shot to earth, and coalesced once again a few feet away.

From behind Jue Di’s wide shoulder, Lan Jue could see a very attractive, middle-aged woman. She wore tight-fitting jeans that made her legs look long and shapely, a white jacket that accentuated her other features. Her hair was pulled back in to a simple pony tail. If it weren’t for that strange light in her eye, Lan Jue would have assumed she was around twenty years old.

Right now those eyes were blazing with fury, and they were fixed dead on Jue Di. The whole place was suffocating under the weight of her rage.

Lan Jue knew it without having to ask – she was a Paragon. The brief moment he experienced the flare of her power, he could sense that it was stronger than the God of Wine he’d encountered before, Bize. However, in his memory Lan Jue couldn’t remember a Paragon with these abilities.
Long ago the Clairvoyant had said that there were a number of hidden Paragons out in the universe. This woman must be one of them, and what’s more, she seemed to know his dad.

In a situation like this there was nothing Lan Jue could do to help. He stayed put behind Jue Di, and didn’t dare try to join in with his Discipline.

Jue Di looked embarrassed. “Ho-… how did you find this place?”

The woman glared at him with eyes like frozen daggers. “Hiding! You’re hiding from me! Chi Bupang, I swear, you could run all the way up to heaven and dig all the way down to hell and I’ll still find you! But this time I’m not letting you go anywhere!”

“Heh, eh… Xianni… you see we have a young man here. Help me save a little face.” Jue Di’s voice was placative and apologetic.

Lan Jue could only watch, with his mouth hanging open in shock. What the hell is going on?! He thought to himself. I this the same Jue Di? He’s scaring my melons off.
In every instance he could remember, Jue Di was always in a position of power. His strength, wisdom and character assured that he was never seen as lesser than anyone else. Forget never seeing or hearing anything like this, Lan Jue downright couldn’t believe what was going on.

“Face? Do you even know what that means? Face. What about my youth?! Ten years wasted, and where are we now?” The angrier she got, the fiercer her aura became.

“You head back first,” Jue Di said, speaking over his shoulder to Lan Jue. He curtly waved the younger man away in attempts to hide his humiliation.

“Oh.” Lan Jue didn’t protest or ask questions. He knew when it was appropriate to ask question, and in this case it would be safer to watch from a distance.

“Wait right there!” The woman roared.

Lan Jue froze in place. His wide eyes slowly turned to Jue Di.

At last the newcomer turned her eyes to Lan Jue and looked
him up and down. She narrowed her eyes to angry little slits. “What’s your relationship with him?”

Jue Di hurriedly piped in. “Disciple! He’s my disciple.”

Her eyes hardened further. “Just a disciple? Young man, what do you call him?”

Lan Jue just stared at her.

She took a step forward, and in a blink she was mere inches from Lan Jue’s face – like she just appeared there. He was familiar with interdimensional powers from the Wine Master, otherwise he would have assumed that was what she was using. This was different, though it seemed to have something to do with interdimensional space.

“I asked you a question. Did you not hear?” She hissed the words mere centimeters from his face.

A smothering pressure bore down on Lan Jue. He found himself speaking in spite of himself. “Father, this…”
“FATHER?!” She screeched. Her voice was so pregnant with indignant rage that Lan Jue stumbled backward to get away from her. By then she had railed on Jue Di, and the little thirty- something woman looked ready to tear him apart. Reality swirled and warped frantically around them.

An orb of black appeared suddenly, as deep and dense as a black hole. It swelled until the two were swallowed up, and then disappeared just as quickly. Lan Jue stood alone now in an empty field, too stunned to react.

It wasn’t that he was confused, he knew had happened. When a Paragon reached the third level – Nirvana – they were able to flee to interdimensional space.

Jue Di was the undisputed master of such skills, but he knew his father’s energy signature and that wasn’t it. It was hers! She wasn’t just a Paragon… she was a third-level Paragon!

Lan Jue remembered a talk he had with the Pharmacist, where he vaguely recalled her mentioning that Jue Di was the only one that may be a fourth-level. Her own master, Celestial Master Qian – was third level, or possibly fourth if he was alive. The Eye of Tomorrow had just entered in to third level when he sequestered himself. Other than those three, the remaining
known Paragons were level two or below.

This woman was an unknown factor, at least not a Paragon he’d ever heard of, and actually at Nirvana level. Since when where there so many Paragons running around? Was she really that strong?

He suspected there was more to this. Who knew the true identity of this woman his father didn’t seem able to handle?

After thinking for a moment, Lan Jue pulled up his communicator. He had a sneaking suspicion that this new Paragons Domain was similar to the Wine Master’s. He could sense the dimensional ripples she created, but they weren’t as pure as the one’s he’d sensed from his old friend. It felt more… solid. Perhaps the Wine Master would know something.

“Uh.” The Wine Master’s voice crackled on the other end. He sounded as somber as the day they got back from Luo.

Grunting is the preferred way to answer summons in China, though ‘wei’ is usually used when speaking on the phone.
“Do you have a minute to talk?” Lan Jue asked.

“I’m having some wine.” It was code, meaning if it isn’t important, don’t bother me with it now.

“Yeah? What are you enjoying?”

“Rieussec.”

Lan Jue chuckled. “They say Rieussec is good when you’re in a good mood or when you’re lovesick. So which are you?”

“If you’ve called to waste my time with nonsense then I’m not interested.” The Paragon growled.

“I’ve found another Paragon, a new one,” Lan Jue said. “I’ve never heard of her. A new player certainly changes things, don’t you think?”

“Who does she work for?” He asked.
Lan Jue explained. “I’m not sure. She’s a woman in her thirties or forties, and very pretty. Her Discipline had vestiges of strong dimensional ripples, and her protogenia seems to somehow segment reality. It was like everything existed in a cracked mirror. What I can tell you is that she can summon the Protogenic Singularity. That must mean she’s entered Nirvana.”

On the other end, the Wine Master was quiet. Lan Jue didn’t trouble him, he knew the old man was thinking.

A little while later the Wine Master spoke up again, but there was a strange note in his voice. “Is her last name Luo?”

“I dunno,” Lan Jue admitted. “But I heard someone call her Xianni.”

He heard the old man yelp. “Her? Where is she? I’ll be there right away.”

Lan Jue chuckled sheepishly. “I’m sorry, I can’t tell you where we are. It concerns an elder family member.”

The Wine Master was a Paragon, and had a wealth of
experience in controlling his emotions. His momentary shock was replaced quickly with calm once more. He was also aware of this enigmatic ‘elder’ Lan Jue spoke of. “Him?”

“Yeah.” Lan Jue didn’t need to hide everything from the Wine Master.

“So you know this lady, Xianni?” Lan Jue inquired.

He heard the Wine Master chuckle dryly. “I don’t just know her, she’s my aunt.”

Lan Jue’s face twisted in confusion. “But, she’s so much younger than you.”

“Bullshit!” The Wine Master’s tone was irritated. “A Paragon’s appearance remains the same as the day they broke through, until they die. My aunt had incredible talent, and broke through when she was only thirty-seven. Of course she’d look younger than me.”

“Why haven’t I heard about this Luo family ancestor until just now? At her level of power, she should be widely known! She’s
not on the Paragon list…”

The Wine Master’s tone eased again. “That involves Avenue secrets. All you need to know is that she was one of the founders. The Clairvoyant was the Council’s chairman at the time, and she was his right hand. She was also part of the reason the Clockmaker left. Later, for reasons I don’t know, she had a falling out with the Clairvoyant and left. She’s isolated herself ever since. She used to be the Avenue’s secret weapon, if she were still here then we wouldn’t get so much trouble from the other groups. It’s been so long… it’s incredible you’ve run in to her. Tell her I’d like her to come back.”

Lan Jue scratched his head. “Well, eh… I’ll try. Your aunt has quite the temper, heh.”

Chapter 502: Dad’s Getting Old

“Yeah, not the greatest,” the Wine Master confirmed. “Before she reached Paragon we used to call her Little Pepper. She’s still famous for her temper, apparently.”

“So, I can only promise I’ll try. I don’t think I have much leeway, especially since I intend to live for a few more years,” Lan Jue quipped.

The Wine Master chuckled. “Do what you can. If you learn anything else, tell me right away. Tell her also that the Clairvoyant isn’t doing well, and will likely pass. Whatever you have to do to convince her.”

“Alright.” That was something he could do.

Their conversation was interrupted by a sudden wave of energy that swept through the house. The mysterious singularity appeared again, and two figures emerged above the fields. But this black hole was high overhead, and the figures came tumbling through in freefall. The first was Jue Di, somehow missing the top half of his overalls. The pants were a ragged mess.
Luo Xianni’s descend was purposeful, and direct. She slammed in to Lan Jue’s father at full bore. Jue Di reacted by crushing her against him with his burly arms. She struggled, but couldn’t wrench herself free of his bear hug.

“Let me go!” Luo Xianni shouted.

Jue Di cackled. “Then stop pitching a fit. Finish your tantrum and I’ll let you go.”

“Fine.” She answered flippantly.

He let her go, but the second she had wriggle room she spun around, and dug her teeth in to his shoulder.

“Aaahhh! Did you just bite me!?” Jue Di yelped. The fiercest beasts could tear at the Paragon and he would feel nothing, the strength of his Discipline was indomitable. It looked, however, like he was not engaging his defense here, perhaps for fear of hurting Luo Xianni.

Lan Jue clapped a hand over his eyes and felt his way back in to the cabin. Some things were better left unknown, he thought,
to spare oneself the trouble.

A little while later he heard the door open.

“Brat! Get out here, now.” Jue Di’s thoroughly irritated voice called to him.

Lan Jue was instantly transported to the days when he and his brother suffered this man’s abuse regularly. He remembered them fondly. He sprang up to his feet and went outside.

“What is it, father?

Jue Di and Luo Xianni were in the main room, both looking a little beat up. Xianni was in better shape – at least her clothes were in one piece – while Jue Di looked like he’d been mugged.

Jue Di’s angry voice called to him. “Still calling me Father. Do you see how much trouble you’ve caused? Xianni, you go check
– there is absolutely zero blood connection between me and this punk. I’ve looked after him and his brother since they were small. They’re my disciples, my foster children.”
Lan Jue was smart enough to recognize the cues, and started to piece together the relationship between his master and this Luo family ancestor. He sputtered to interject. “Yes, that’s right! I’m not related to father at all.”

Luo Xianni sniffed derisively. “If not, then fine. But if there is, I’ll castrate him.”

Jue Di felt himself tense up. “Can’t you show at least a little sympathy in front of the boy?”

“I ask again, what about my youth? I have been looking for you for thirty-six years! And you dare talk to me about saving face?” She spun on her heels and tore in to the older man again. Tears had begun to accumulate at the base of her eyes.

Thirty-six years? What’s that about, dad? Lan Jue quietly criticized his adopted father. But then he sighed, for wasn’t this his doing? He’d come home to visit his father, but ended up causing trouble.

“Dad, how about you and the Lady Luo talk first? I’ll take a walk around, I haven’t been here for a while so it’ll be godo to see what’s new.” He didn’t even stop talking before he started to
trudge away.

“Stop!” Luo Xianni shouted again

Lan Jue was starting to get very tired of this conversation.

“What are the lady’s instructions?” Lan Jue said with an impossibly sweet smile.

This only made her glary even sharper. “How do you know my family name? Did he tell you? Did you guess?”

Lan Jue looked over to his master, trying to gauge the expression in his face.

Lan Jue answered with a knowing air. “Yes! Father told me. He used to talk about you all the time, his very close lady friend
– the most beautiful girl in the universe, he’d say. He said her name was Luo Xianni. That’s how I recognized you.”

She grunted, thoroughly unimpressed. “Stop the bullshit. A three year old wouldn’t believe that nonsense. If he thought
about me so much, why didn’t he ever come find me, huh? It’s not like he couldn’t. Now tell the truth!”

Lan Jue looked over at Jue Di again, but his father was too busy holding his head in his hands.

“The Wine Master told me. I just asked him.” Lan Jue muttered dutifully.

“Wine Master?” When she heard the name, she straightened her back and got a far-away look in her eyes. Her full-on sprint down the warpath eased. “You’re also part of the Avenue? What’s your designation?”

“Jewelry Master,” he answered.

Luo Xianni turned back to Jue Di. “At least you’re the slightest bit conscientious. You sent him to the Avenue to look over things.”

Jue Di heaved a sigh. “It was my apology. Things change as time inevitably marches on. I’d rather not hash up the past again.”
Lan Jue hardly contained his look of surprise. But Dad… you didn’t ask me to go to the Avenue! All that head-holding was an act, too. On more levels than one, he and his dad weren’t anywhere near the same level.

She sniffed again. “Don’t bring it up? You’re dreaming. You will never have a moment of peace ever again, not until you kill me!”

What could have spawned so much hatred? Lan Jue swallowed hard, then scurried away toward the nearby door. It was best to not get involved in old wounds. Dodge the bullets when you can.

Jue Di separated a few steps and fell in to a nearby chair. “Xianni, if you want to hit me, then hit me. If you want to curse my name then do it. But first sit and have a cup of tea.”

Her well-practiced sniff made a return appearance, but she did walk over to him and sat nearby. She sat on the same side as the clear indentation of her teeth set in his shoulder.

Lan Jue desperately wished to take a picture of the scene and share it with Lan Qing. He wanted his brother to see what had
become of their harsh taskmaster.

“Get the hell out of here!” Jue Di snapped. Lan Jue spun around fast enough to give himself whip lash, and ran inside. Anyway, the whole thing was too weird for him to handle.

Once he was out from under that angry cloud, he felt much more relaxed. He just kept running until he reached the edge of that expansive forest. He was convinced that he didn’t want to know what was going on between his father and this woman. Whatever it was, it had to mean they used to be very close. It was almost unthinkable that his dad – who had never shown interest in women before – had this fiery woman on the side. An unhappy couple, but still.

Lan Jue heaved great breaths of familiar air as he came to a stop before an enormous tree. This particular tree was beautiful, laden with blooms and healthy. He lifted his eyes skyward, where he looked through dappled sunlight at the expansive canopy. It provided him with cool and shade. It would take over a dozen people to surround the base of this old denizen.

Lan Jue sat down beneath the shade and pressed his back against the tree. He remembered when father would tie him and
Lan Qing up to this tree and beat them. The intent was to teach them to dodge. They would writhe and wriggle like fish on a line as Jue Di whipped them.

That time they were beaten black and blue. They were suspended then for ten days, and every sunrise brought a new round of beatings and an herbal soak. Beat, soak, beat, soak. Only when he and his brother were barely breathing did he let them down.

Phantom pains still caused his muscles to spasm at the mere memory. At least it served its purpose, though, for their reaction time improved by at least one hundred and twenty percent.

Memories danced all through this forest, filled with long gone days of him and his brother among the trees. Things change as time inevitably marches on. Now that he was back, everything seemed different.

Father did seem a little older, not least because of his more easy-going attitude. He could tell it was something he had been working with. It made Lan Jue’s heart feel heavy.
No one knew Jue Di’s true age, but Lan Jue knew that even Paragons passed away eventually. Was his father nearing that inevitable end to the road?

He refused to face it! Those memories were painful, but without his father he and Lan Qing would not be the men they are today. Anyway, love and appreciation for all the work he did to raise them trumped everything. They didn’t have a mother to learn on, just this strict father.

Lan Jue lifted his communicator to his face, and quietly dialed in his brother’s number. He knew his brother was busy, but the action just came naturally.

“Di di… di di!” The ringing continued. Lan Jue was about to hang up when suddenly there was an answer.

“You went back?” Lan Qing asked.

“Yeah, I’m here.” Lan Jue said, nodding his head.

“Father, he…” Lan Jue could hear the hesitation on his brother’s voice as he tried to explain. But he cut him off.
“Dad’s changed. He hugged me.” The words felt strange in Lan Jue’s mouth, almost distasteful. He went on to tell his brother everything he’d seen.

“Dad’s getting old.” Lan Jue finished.

“….” Lan Qing was quiet for a long time.

After a while, it was Lan Jue who had to break the silence. “How are things over there?”

Lan Qing finally answered. “For the moment, dead calm. Our investigations have concluded that these planets are real, they are a threat, and their first target will likely be the North. The agreement is that once the aliens make their move, every Alliance will hit them with everything we’ve got. We’ll provide aid and combat assistance. We’ve put everyone on high alert and have them drilling constantly.”

“When I’m done here I intend to go over and help,” Lan Jue said.

Lan Qing’s tepid voice replied. “Don’t. You’re not a soldier.”
Lan Jue face set in to a stubborn expression. “What, is it too late to join?”

Once more, Lan Qing lapsed in to silence. “I don’t want you to come.”

Chapter 503: A Greeting Gift

Lan Jue glowered at the communicator. “You aren’t telling the truth. Things must be worse than you’re saying. When I was coming here I ran in to one of those things. It was strong, and could fight in space. I used Thor to take advantage of its carelessness and bore through its body, killing it. There’s no way there isn’t some record of this thing coming this far in to human territory. Bro, you don’t need to hide anything from me. I don’t want to go and help just because you’re my brother. I’m doing it because humanity needs it.”

Lan Qing’s low voice replied. “If you really want to help, then don’t enlist. There’s a lot more you can do in this fight. I’m sure the Avenue has plans for how they’re going to act. All of our research shows that all Adept Disciplines work well against them – much better than all our guns and ships. I suspect it has something to do with biology. They evolved different from us, on a completely separate path. We’ve evolved our brains to build protections for our bodies. These creatures, through millions of years of tribulations and consumption, have perfected their bodies. The radiation out in space is lethal to us, by they were molded by it. All of our laser weapons, all of missiles, they are built to withstand that. The North’s sacrifice showed that Adept-driven mecha – that union of Discipline and Technology – was what did the most damage.”
Lan Jue’s heart started racing. “Was this one of the reasons for the Great Adept’s Tournament?”

“Yes, it was. It was a great excuse to get the best Adepts together and judge their abilities. From there, all you had to do was get them to enlist. Not just the North, but all of the Alliances were watching closely.” Lan Qing affirmed.

Lan Jue was beginning to understand. The Avenue delegation back on Luo had back-up, but the Terminator and Epochrion didn’t even really try to discourage them from leaving. Everything had been the threat of force, but no punches were thrown. Now he knew why – because the future depended on Adepts.

All of this information started what became a change of heart.
His brother was right, there was more he could do.

“I know what I need to do. After a few days, I’ll go back to Skyfire Avenue. “Lan Jue said.

“Right.” His brother answered. “I have to get to a meeting.
Keep in touch.”
“Yup!” Lan Jue nodded.

Lan Jue cut the connected and lapsed in to quiet thought. The fate of humanity now lay squarely on the shoulders of all Adepts. He would need to improve, and be at his best.

As his mind pondered, he allowed his eyes to slip shut. Soon he was deep in meditation. He wanted to firm up his foundation, then he could continue the trek to the peak of ninth rank.

He couldn’t tell how long he’d been there before an ineffable feeling caused him to open his eyes. He saw the familiar, towering silhouette across from him together with another smaller one.

Jue Di had changed his clothes. When he saw that Lan Jue was back in the present, he nodded. “You’ve improved a little. Re-cultivated?”

Dad would be dad. He was the kind to critique his cultivation methods and progress. But he didn’t go in to the whole story, about all the things that had happened in the last year.
“Let’s head back. We’ll talk there.” Jue Di nodded curtly at him. There was a chill in his expression, a shadow of his old father.

Luo Xianni walked by his side. The pissed off face Lan Jue knew her by was gone, replaced by all things with a gentle smile. That was one hell of a one-eighty! What did you do, dad?

Although Lan Jue was critical of his father, he didn’t dare let any hint of that escape. He didn’t particarly fancy a beating, and dad wasn’t in a great mood.

As they made their way back in to the log cabin, Lan Jue took a minute to look over this mysterious woman.

“Hey kid, what do you think you’re looking at?” Luo Xianni snapped. “You’re gunna be calling me mom before long, you hear me?”

Jue Di visibly winced, but he didn’t dare contradict her. Lan Jue thought he’d try again. “Em… Lady Luo? You’re so young, calling you mother might make you seem older…”
She sniffed at him. “It’s fine, mother doesn’t mind. So that’s what you’ll call me!”

“Sure!” Lan Jue beamed at her. If his dad was going to be stuck with her, what could he do about it? Honesty was always the best policy.

He addressed her with a gentlemanly air of respect. “Mother.”

“Good boy!” The overbearing dragon lady was immediately supplanted with a woman all smiles and sunshine. She thrust out her hand, and pressed something in to his palm.

“Take it. It's mother’s greeting gift.”

It’s customary in China to bring a gift, but usually only when you visit a friend’s place for the first time.

Lan Jue turned his hand over and opened his fingers to look at it. It was a lump of snow-white metal, about the size of a chicken egg. Its spotless white exterior looked thick, and he could tell it had been neither forged nor polished.
This is…

His eyes went wide. “Mother, is this power ore?” This time, Luo Xianni’s new title sounded a lot more genuine.

What was power ore? It was similar to power gems, in that they both were minerals that contained energy. But power ore had an advantage power gems didn’t have. Malleability.

A power gem could never change its size or shape without being destroyed. However, power ore could be shaped in to whatever form the use desired.

They were much rarer than power gems. Normal metal could have special properties, but they couldn’t contain any intrinsic energy within themselves.

Lan Jue dealt with these materials all the time, but really only ever with power gems. He’d never had the opportunity to see power ore, due to its rarity. The uses of it were numerous, and only a few planets produced the stuff. Manufacture and distribution were very carefully controlled by the Alliances, because it was an integral component in making power gem lattices. That was to say, that any time someone wanted to
connect a series of gems together and really employ their full potential, this stuff was the way to do it. Only power ore could handle the strain.

Another way to highlight its importance, was as a requirement for new generation core reactors in ships. Using it for the engine already makes that battleship a flagship. Using it in any other systems would be extravagant.

Bastion and Mother ships had power ore as a necessary part of their construction as well. This little nugget looked small, but it was packed with pure energy. It wasn’t enough for a battleship, but it was more than enough to make a lattice for a mech suit. Lan Jue had been searching for a way to get his hands on some, but it was ludicrously expensive. A chunk this size of power ore was equivalent to the cost of an S-ranked power gem. He’d never had an opportunity, until here of all places.

“Seems like you know about it.” Luo Xianni made no effort to hide her pride.

“Hey, are you gunna talk or what!” Lan Jue reminded him.

“Oh.” Lan Jue then began to tell Jue Di and Luo Xianni all
about what had happened in to him. Thankfully, news of Qianlin’s forced marriage and the events proceeding had already been told to Jue Di. He would at least be spared that embarrassment. He started his tale from when he joined the National Eastern University.

Jue Di and Luo Xianni quietly listened as he talked them through it. Neither of their faces showed any expression. That was, until Lan Jue got to the part where Bize fused he and Qianlin’s powers together.

The old Paragon’s brows furrowed. “That old shyster. Daring reading my people.”

Lan Jue stopped and looked at him in curiosity. “What do you mean?”

Jue Di huffed. “That fraud the Clairvoyant, always boasting he knows it all. Well he must have been in his visions, then. Qianlin suddenly appearing couldn’t have been an accident. What a coincidence that you should run in to someone on Skyfire, who looks exactly like Hera. She has the power of the Queen of Heaven – practically tailor-made to prop you up. Do you really think all of this just happens out of the blue? He’s got to be involved in this in some way. When you get back, you need
to get to the bottom of this and make sure his motives are good. I won’t have him turning my son in to a weapon.”

Lan Jue felt his heart skip a beat. Ever since Qianlin appeared, his life had turned upside down – the definition of chaotic. Her similarity to Hera clouded his judgement, but when Jue Di said it it all seemed clear.

Yes! Everything did look like one big coincidence. Qianlin always appeared whenever he needed her most. He only got pulled out of his self-loathing when she arrived. Did that mean, she…

He felt himself shiver right down to his core.

Jue Di’s soft voice intruded. “Continue.”

Lan Jue obliged, telling them next about the Gods of Wine and their experience in the vineyard. When he got to the Arrow of Compassion, he noted that Jue Di’s pupils narrowed again, but this time his father didn’t interrupt.

Luo Xianni was entirely calm, almost detached. She sat quietly
as he went about describing the last year of his life.

All of the minutia in between, the conflict with the Pontiff’s Citadel, the tournament, and even his interactions with the Pharmacist were shared. He told them everything he learned about the Banishing Blades, exactly as she had told it to him.

When he got to the legendary weapons, both Paragons revealed surprise in their faces. Evidently, they knew about the swords as well.

Chapter 504: Imparting Knowledge

“This Pharmacist sounds like something,” Jue Di said appreciably.

“That’s everything. I went back to the Avenue for a few days, then came here. You must be right about Qianlin, there’s something going on. When she rejected me on Luo her expression was strange, but I was too hurt to understand. That must mean, this really is…”

Jue Di looked at Lan Jue, saw his downtrodden expression.
Then he slapped him forcefully upside the head.

“Hey! Why are you hitting people?!” Luo Xianni glared at Jue Di, her voice sharp and threatening. She was taking her new role as mother seriously.

Jue Di dragged his eyes to her and gave her a flat stare. In a domineering voice, he said, “when I’m teaching my child, try not to interrupt.”

Much to Lan Jue’s surprise, Luo Xianni obliged and remained silent.
Jue Di turned his callous gaze back to Lan Jue. “What, you’ll die without a woman? We’re facing a powerful enemy, you need to stop putting so much focus on things that aren’t important. We can at least assume he has no intent to cause you harm. That gypsy bastard – always so self-righteous, bemoaning the state of the universe – his little games aren’t to hurt you, either. Right now, your first priority must be to become stronger. I’m certainly not pleased he’s put his fingers in your destiny, but it’s better than you laying about on the Avenue.”

Lan Jue didn’t utter a word. Right! This last year he’d been active, even lively. Father was right again, improvement had to be first.

Jue Di rose to his feet and turned to leave. “Come with me.”

Lan Jue knew who he meant, and quickly followed. Luo Xianni also stood, but she didn’t go far. She just walked to the door and watched them go from the threshold.

Jue Di raised his hands, and dropped in to a stance. Lan Jue got the hint, and moved in front of his teacher to copy the pose.

The Paragon’s hands began to move. The motions were slow
and fluid, but each wave and twist sent crests of energy rippling around them.

Push Hands. A common training method in Taiji. Lan Jue could still remember back in the day, he could never last more than ten seconds against his father. Now, after so many years, it was time to test himself again. He focused his concentration, accumulating and swirling the energies within himself as he followed Jue Di’s movements, hand to hand.

Visible vortices of energy whorled between them. To Lan Jue, he felt like his father was an infinitely deep chasm that could swallow everything up. He didn’t fight it, instead going along with that sensation and simultaneously released his own stored power. He followed to the limits of where he could maintain stability.

The familiar haze of black and white sprang up around Lan Jue. He felt himself slip in to that state, the same one he felt during the tournament.

Natureally, he was much stronger now than he was the last time they did this. However, his strength only highlighted how unfathomably vast his master’s skill was. His father wasn’t applying any force, simply keeping to the repetitive movement
of the dance like the whole world was in that singular motion.

Jue Di’s feet began to move, slowly but as fluid was a gentle river. The two of them played off of one another, moving through the field as mirrors of one another. Their dance created arcs pleasing to the eye.

Lan Jue stumbled, and the haze of Taiji power around him thickened and the image of yin and yang shimmered in to existence behind him. He settled in to a rooted position immediately, retracting his injection of force and keeping himself in sync with the Paragon.

As Luo Xianni watched, a flicker of surprise flit across her face. She nodded, ever so slightly. This was a sign of real comprehension of Taiji essence. For a man this young to have reached this level of mystical understanding was no easy feat.

After a minute, Jue Di suddenly stopped and planted his feet. His arms jerked at the perfect moment, and the sudden change caused Lan Jue to spin like a top. He made ten circles before regaining his footing. All throughout, his arms where reacting, keeping him from going out of control. When he stopped, his face was as placid as a spring sky. The halo of Taiji power around him receded back inside of himself.
Jue Di dropped his hands and nodded. “Not bad. You’ve got your foot in the door. Your foundation is much stronger. Keep training, and you’ll get far.”

“Yes, sir.” Lan Jue said with deep respect. He didn’t give voice to it, but there was some surprise in his eyes.

In that short period Jue Di had used the practice of Push Hands to excite and galvanize his Taiji abilities, and the inherent energies of his body. The whole process looked passive on the outside, but in fact Lan Jue fought to maintain stability. His comprehension deepened, feeling the truth of the opposition of yin and yang. When yin was an excess, Yang strengthened. When Yang was overbearing, Yin undermined. They supplemented and restrained one another, and that experience improved his awareness.

“Pay close attention to this business with the Banishing Blades. They have the power to destroy everything we know. If you do find the Banishing Diagram, understand that there is no one today who can contend with that power. This means that you cannot come at this half-cocked. At the very least, you must have perfect mastery of the weapon you inherit. At the very least the weapon won’t become your enemy. Now that you have chosen the sword, I will teach you the Taiji style for it. The Harmonious Swords is passable for attack, but there is no better
defense than Taiji.”

“Yes, sir!”

For the next several days, Lan Jue remain at the log cabin, training with his Father.

Compared to the old days, Jue Di was much calmer. He was a guide now, leading Lan Jue through the problems he encountered in his own cultivation. He consulted on methods and concerns after his student’s re-cultivation, solving them as they came. It was only a few days, but Lan Jue felt renewed and changed by it. He came away with the fundamentals of Taiji sword, and a deeper knowledge of Taiji in general.

Three days solidified that knowledge.

“Alright, you’ve got it – more or less. Let’s go.” Jue Di, today clad in his work uniform, waved for Lan Jue to follow.

“Where are we going, dad?” Lan Jue asked, following dutifully.
“We’re going to the lab. You’re trying to upgrade Thor, yes?
We have the materials ready to go,” he answered.

Lan Jue blinked. “But I didn’t bring enough power gems. It’s mostly just an idea, but I need gems to finish it off.”

Jue Di nodded. “I have some here. If they aren’t enough, you can construct the lattice and complete the installations when you get back.”

“Alright!” Lan Jue said without any further questions.

The common man knew Jue Di the Paragon, but there were more than a few that knew him by another name – his true name – and another job. In the East, they knew him as Chi Bupang, the famed researcher and engineer. He was no less knowledgeable than the Bookworm or Keeper, only unknown because he wanted it that way.

Luo Xianni lived there with them in the last few days. Aside from her very emotive arrival, she remained perfectly gentle since. The only indication of her temper was her presence, in that Jue Di never got a moment to himself.
During that time, Lan Jue never spoke to Xianni about the Avenue. Jue Di also didn’t bother with it, so they spent those days immersed in training.

Luo Xianni followed along. However, as they reached the capsule, Jue Di looked regrettably to her. “Xianni, you stay. This isn’t suitable for you. You like action and this you’ll probably find boring.”

She started her response by giving him a sharp look. “You’re still trying to get rid of me? I’m telling you, don’t even dream about it. No matter what you say, I’m going – you’re going to have to kill me. Aren’t you that same cruel man? Just kill me and rid yourself of all this trouble.”

Jue Di sighed helplessly. “Didn’t you hear A-Jue? The Clairvoyant is dying, the Avenue will need a leader. And this disciple has been bullied. Don’t you want to head back? Relax, I’m not going to run anywhere. I’m used to life here, and if you’re willing then we’ll get used to living here together.”

“I’m not going!” She flatly rejected.

He sighed. “I have no interest in women!”
“Well I’m interested in you, and that’s all I need,” she shot back.

“I’m old!”

“I’m not young!”

“… …”

Luo Xianni’s voice suddenly became sweet as honey. “Isn’t it really so bad to have company in your old age? Come, I’ve been looking or you for so long. I’ll do whatever needs to be done for you. I know you don’t like my temper and that’s why you left. I can be gentle! If this doesn’t please you, then tell me what you want me to be. I will do it. But no matter what, I’m not leaving. I’ll be right with you.”

Another sigh from the Paragon preceded his reply. “I was clear with you back then. We just aren’t suitable together. We’re pursuing different goals. I am not a man who will remain smooth, or live steady. I want to experience all of the wonderful things this universe possesses. I will not settle, not for the rest of my life.”
Luo Xianni would not be deterred. “Then I’ll accompany you!
Where you go, I’ll go.”

Jue Di’s anger flared. “How do you not understand?! I want freedom, I refuse to tie myself to anyone! You’re a good woman, it’s me who isn’t up to snuff. I am not a good man, period. Why do you insist on staying? I cannot stand having someone attached to me at the hip, can’t you understand that?”

Luo Xianni was quiet.

Lan Jue was unfortunately stuck in the middle, trying to make himself as small as possible. Dad was right, he sure wasn’t a good man!

Chapter 505: I’m Leaving!

Jue Di’s face was infinitely calm.

The capsule shook, then arrived at its destination. Jue Di was the first to rise and exit the vehicle.

Lan Jue nervously swung his eyes to Luo Xianni. “Mother, you…”

She laughed. “Relax, I’m not so easily defeated. The more he wants me to go, the more I’m going to dig in. One day he’ll come around. Come, let’s go.”

Lan Jue followed after Luo Xianni and clambered out of the capsule. He had no right to speak to their relationship dispute, nor did he dare to incite her anger. But, he was starting to like this lady.

Father was being honest. He was not one to stick around. Even when he and Lan Qing were small, he’d often go missing. The longest he was away at one time was six months.
“Chi Bupang!” Luo Xianni called out to him.

The man stopped and turned back to look at them. “Change your mind?”

She chuckled indifferently. “Yeah. You don’t want me, right?”

Jue Di’s hard expression softened, and he offered a bitter grin. “It’s not that I don’t want you. It’s that I can’t dare to. I know what kind of man I am, and I can’t settle down. I know that although I like you…”

“Fine! Enough said. I’m leaving!” Luo Xianni spun on her heels and stomped away with big strides.

This was a quick and unexpected change of events. Didn’t she just swear she’d never leave? And then… she leaves?

Lan Jue was thoroughly confused, as was the great Paragon. Jue Di thought he knew this brilliant woman – the two had been tied up with one another for more than a hundred years, on again and off again.  And she was going to just walk away? That
can’t be right. This was completely out of character!

As he sat there pondering, Jue Di couldn’t help the pang of uncertainty that ate at him. It just couldn’t be that easy.

But he watched her sashay away, head held high, and completely ignorant of what was going on in there. Both men felt something ominous about the whole thing.

“Come on!” Jue Di barked with curt wave of his hand. Lan Jue skittered after him.

Soon, they arrived in a large open warehouse, a typical mecha construction assembly. The machines needed to perform this were arrayed around them.

“Let me see your designs.” Jue Di seemed to relax for that Luo Xianni wasn’t peering over his shoulder. He could sense that she had meant it, she was no longer nearby.

Lan Jue walked to a nearby computer and uploaded his plans.
**

Ziluo Public Air Hangar

Luo Xianni had changed clothes and freshened up, and  a pretty fragrance followed her as she boarded a ship. As she took her seat within a first-class cabin, a smile spread across her face.

“Chi Bupang, you old bastard. You’ll be looking for me soon enough. Your old lady won’t have to go looking for you anymore. Hehehehehe…”

A pleasing, artificial female voice cooed through the announcement system. “Thank you, ladies and gentlemen, for joining us on today’s flight. Our destination is Planet Skyfire. Skyfire City.”

**

Planet Anlun.

Lan Qing stood tall, peering out of the expansive window on
the bridge of a ship. He watched the traffic pass quietly by, a sharp glint in his eye.

The date they’d set with the Clairvoyant was rapidly approaching. He would need to set out soon.

These days, Anlun was like a ravenous war machine, always in motion. This was one of the foremost military outposts in the East, so there were always resource ships coming and going. Soldiers were drilling constantly in all corners of the bases.

“Beep! Beep!”

“A-Cheng!” Lan Qing connected the call.

“Hey big brother, when are you going to Skyfire Avenue?” Chu Cheng’s trademark lazy voice answered.

“The day after tomorrow.” He kept to simple answers.

“Ah, then I’ll start getting ready as well. Ah, right. I haven’t seen A-Jue for a while, where’d he disappear to? He doesn’t
answer my calls, it’s been almost half a month.”

“He’s fine,” Lan Qing said. “He’ll be there on time.”

Chu Cheng switched topics. “Things have been pretty crazy up here. Planets on the boundaries are already under martial law and they’ve got fleets going back and forth all the time. You got any news on your side?”

“Military secrets.”

Chu Cheng chortled. “As uninteresting as ever. So what do you think, huh? Lan Jue’s gotten pretty good, I’m not sure you could take him anymore.”

“He said you’ve gotten better, too.”

“Eh… you know, forget I said anything.”

When they hung up, Lan Qing allowed the faintest ghost of a smile to turn his lips.
“Sir!”

“Enter.”

“Admiral, the Bloodiron Khans have completed their training.
We await inspection.” The major snapped to attention.

“Nhm.” Lan Qing’s answer was quit and simple. “Let’s go.”

The Bloodiron Khans, a new collection of soldiers borne from the reorganization of their forces. Every pilot was outfitted with the latest generation of war machines, the Anaxigen class mecha suit. The Bloodiron Khans consisted of three thousand warriors, every one of them Adepts. None were below fourth rank.

Struggled with this one. The name of the suits are 炎黄机甲, Yan and Huang referring to the first two emperors of China. I chose to go with a clipped version of the suffix for ancestor, and what google tells me is the prefix for king.

The formation of this group had been at Lan Qing’s direction. His brother’s A.R.C. class had been the inspiration. Usually, a single mecha fighting unit wouldn’t make that much of a
difference in a deep space battle, but the Bloodiron Khans had only the best mecha pilots in the East. Their commander, none other than Lan Qing himself, the Supersoldier of Anlun!

Beyond all doubt, when the fighting began these men and women would be the tip of the spear.

ζ

Jupiter-1 slipped through the emptiness of space, somehow simultaneously moving fast and slow. That was just the sense, though. The ship was cruising along at twice the speed of light, and it wasn’t even at top speed. In the whole ship there was only one person, making the ship designed for mecha platoon transport seem awfully empty.

Lan Jue sat in the captain’s chair, a smile plastered on his face.

It was one incredible ship, he thought. It didn’t have the benefit of the Blinding Stone, but everything else was head and shoulder above Zeus-1. It was also larger, and better equipped for combat. Its speed was its defining attribute, though.
It had been a gift from father before he left, while he took Zeus-2 and set out as well. He suspected that Luo Xianni, so quick to vanish, must have been up to no good. Although he didn’t know what she did, it was better to go take care of it.

In front of Lan Jue, was that purple crystal swinging back and forth. With Jue Di’s stabilizing efforts, the crystal’s impressive stores of energy acted much like an Adept’s Core. But it wasn’t, it was an Alien Core.

A Core with enough inherent energy to rival an S-ranked gem.

The first Core they’d carved free, he’d given to the Bookworm and Keeper. They’d used it to extend their lives. The Bookworm’s ultimate breakthrough to Paragon was due in part to the use of that strange crystal Core. They showed up for the rescue on Luo because they owed Lan Jue.

This crystal was muddled, it would need the power of the Tear of Neptune to filter it. It would improve and supplement its vital force.

From what he learned from father, the importance of these Cores in the struggle between Alien and man was already
beginning to make itself known. Every beast that died left one behind, and the smarter ones were already on Lyr looking for the Tears they needed. The formerly cheap s-ranked gems were suddenly in high demand, and the first ones there were representatives from Skyfire Avenue.

Su He was acting as the representative for the Avenue in the area for all their purchasing needs. How many Tears he’d purchased for them he couldn’t say, it was being kept a closely guarded secret.

Lan Jue had already promised his father, that when he got back he would send the Tear he had over. His father’s aged state of mind still troubled him. Perhaps he would use the alien Core to help extend his life like the Keeper and Bookworm. He wasn’t sure the Clairvoyant would need it.

The three months since his last meeting with the Clairvoyant was nearly up. It’s was time to go back to the Avenue as he’d promised.

The ship’s incredible speed traversed the trip from Ziluo in half the time. He descend in to the air hangar, and then discovered that his own space wasn’t big enough to accommodate the much larger Juppiter-1. He had no choice but
to lease a new one temporarily.

A car was already waiting when he disembarked. Xiuxiu had come to pick him up.

“Boss.” She greeted him with a sweet smile, then drove them back to the Avenue.

“You’re always so considerate,” Lan Jue praised with a smile.

Xiuxiu laughed, but behind her eyes there was a bitter light.
She focused on driving.

The car lifted off, and Lan Jue leaned the chair back to make himself more comfortable. “Things have been good these days?”

Xiuxiu nodded. “Everything’s good. As per your instructions, we’ve suspended business. Our suits are all fully upgraded and ready.”

“Good. And Xiuxiu, this last time when I went back, dad taught me a new style. I’ll show it to you when we have some
time.” Lan Jue said with a smile.

“Ok.” Her eyes lit up.

He hesitated for a moment, then said, “Xiuxiu. These last few years I’ve wronged you.”

Xiuxiu laughed  dismissively.  “Boss,  what’s  this  nonsense?
Serving at your side has always been Xiuxiu’s mission!”

Lan Jue glanced at her. “You know I’ve never looked at you like an attendant. You’re like my little sister. So stop acting like a servant, we’re partners, friends. We’re family, alright?”

Xiuxiu’s face blanched somewhat, and her pretty lips puckered. “Boss, what are you trying to say?”

Chapter 506: Misunderstanding

Lan Jue responded with a sardonic chuckle. “I don’t want to steal the spring of your youth.”

Xiuxiu turned her head and gave him a look. “I’ve never wanted anything from you. I’ve only ever wanted to be by your side. If you want to deprive me of that, then I have nothing to live for.”

Lan Jue was stunned by the strength of her words. “You can’t be serious?” Lan Jue knew Xiuxiu. She looked soft, but she was made of iron. When she made up her mind that was it.

She proved that with her rigid answer. “Absolutely!”

He gave a soft laugh and shook his head. “Alright then.
Pretend I never said anything.”

Her mousy voice came again after a moment. “Don’t bring this up again, ok? I just want to see you often, and be by your side when you need me. That’s enough for me. I’m different from the other girls. I didn’t stay with you out of affection. My reason is simple.”
Lan Jue felt his heart sink from her tone. He knew Xiuxiu was the one who felt most deeply of all the Amazons. That’s why he spoke with her first. These were young women in their twenties, it wasn’t fair for him to keep them so close. It was a waste of their precious youth, and he couldn’t give them what they wanted.”

It was impossible that Xiuxiu didn’t have any interest at all. However, he’d always seen Xiuxiu as a little sister. After so long, that feeling was deep-rooted. When later he met Hera, Xiuxiu was even more the confidante and friend than a love interest.

Through all the years Xiuxiu was unfailingly at his side. She never asked for anything, and she never brought him trouble. This truth, though, only made him feel worse.

The verticar quickly made the trip to the Avenue’s periphery, then settled just outside. Lan Jue stepped out and began walking back when he was suddenly grabbed from behind.

Xiuxiu’s soft body gently shook against his, her arms wrapped around his waist. “Please don’t make me go, ok? Please, I beg you.”
Even if Lan Jue was a hard man, he couldn’t help but crumble before Xiuxiu’s sad display. He heaved a sigh, saying, “alright. I promise I won’t say anything like this again. Xiuxiu, I’m afraid you’re in too deep.”

“I’m not afraid.” She answered resolutely.

They separated and Lan Jue turned around. He gently stroked her hair, and Xiuxiu fell in to his embrace. Great tears tumbled from her eyes.

Soemthing tickled at the back of Lan Jue’s mind as he held her, and he lifted his head. He saw another figure nearby, her face also wet. Zhou Qianlin stood in silence, with a black box clutched in her hands. She wavered slightly from side to side as though she might fall over, and her lip was caught between her teeth.

Her delicate hand slowly rose to her chest where the precious Soulcaller gemstone sat. Deflty, she plucked it off her neck, followed by the twinkling pearl on her wrist.

Lan Jue heard her voice in his head.
“Have these back.”

She crouched and placed the box, necklace and bracelet upon the floor. Full of grace and composure, she rose to her feet and left.

Lan Jue wanted to follow, but Xiuxiu held on to him tightly. She was still shaking from her sobs. Without the Soulcaller, he had no way to explain.

He couldn’t see Xiuxiu’s red eyes, staring in the direction Qianlin had left.

She cried for ten minutes before being able to reign herself in. “Boss,” she finally managed to say, “Let’s go home.” She wrapped her arm in his and started back.

“Yeah,” he answered, his heart heavy. His right hand rested at the small of his back. Out of Xiuxiu’s view, he indicated with a finger and the jewelry Qianlin had left flew over to his palm.

When they got back, Lan Jue went straight to his chambers. The Jewelry Store on the upper Avenue was still open as he
walked through. It was just a normal Jewelry Store, after all.

The other girls were ill at ease when they saw Xiuxiu’s red and puffy eyes. Yet they didn’t trouble Lan Jue, who walked by them as though they weren’t there. His face was dark and sad.

ζ

“Didi – didi – didi!” Lan Jue looked at his communicator as it rang. No one picked up on the other end. He let it go on as he stared at the heart-shaped Soulcaller and the pelagic pearl cradled in his palm. There was a dull ache in his chest that wouldn’t go away.

He could have guessed she would come quickly. Their shared
connection meant she could feel when he was nearby. She was waiting for me, to tell me something. But she got there just in time to see Xiuxiu hugging me. Of course she’d misunderstand.

The communicator rang and continued to be ignored. Lan Jue couldn’t keep the frustration from his face, and he heaved a deep sigh. He focused on her, thinking of them together. He reached out to summon her to his side.
But, much to Lan Jue’s shock, Qianlin had somehow cut their link. Her energy was still there intermingled with his, but without her cooperation he couldn’t call her close.

What in the world is all this?

When it came to matters of love, sometimes it was best to step away from a misunderstanding and let cooler heads prevail. The fear, though, was how deeply entrenched that misunderstanding became.

This wasn’t something he was prepared to allow. A glint of determination flashed in his eyes. Although he’d worked hard at his cultivation these last few days, the specter of Zhou Qianlin had lingered in his mind. It was clear she occupied a special and eternal place in his heart.

Now he knew this to be true, and he understood what his heart wanted. There was no further reason to hesitate. He was on the other side of his pain from Hera, and he had grown tremendously as a person in the interim. It was maturity that came from time and experience, an important factor in being a man.
He needed to find her so they could talk through their pain. When he saw her he knew that she was not heartless, and that she had real feelings for him. Otherwise, what was everything they’d been through?

After he calmed dwon, Lan Jue could see things much clearer. Sometimes matters of love needed logic too. A lot of intractable misunderstandings happened because the chance to resolve them slipped by.

He took a shower and changed his clothes once his mind had been made up. When he left, he saw the girls gathered in the shop. They called to him all together when he stepped out.

“Boss.”

They’d been with Lan Jue for a long time. Of course they would pick out his poor mood. Though, now he seemed better.

The communicator on Lan Jue’s wrist chose that moment to start ringing.

He connected right away when he saw who it was. “Wine
Master.”

“Are you back?” The Paragon’s deep voice answered.

“Yeah.”

“Come pay me a visit.”

Lan Jue’s brows furrowed. “Now?” He’s only just made the decision to go after Qianlin and explain things. He wanted to avoid future heartache, but the Wine Master seemed determined to change his plans.

The Paragon affirmed. “Unless you have something very important to handle, then yes.”

“Alright.” Lan Jue replied helplessly. The Wine Master was insistent. The only thing he could think of that would need immediate attention, would be the Clairvoyant.

Chapter 507: Meeting Mother Again

Lan Jue stepped out of the Jewelry shop out on to the Avenue. The Gothic Winery was only a few feet down the lane. The walk was short, but the familiarity and comfort of home helped put his mind at ease.

Lan Jue was a little surprised to find the Wine Master waiting for him in the foyer. He welcome him in with a smile. “Thank you.”

“Eh?” Lan Jue blinked. “Why so cordial?”

“Come with me and you’ll find out,” the Wine Master cryptically replied.

Lan Jue chuckled. “Well whatever the reason you can keep your thanks. I’ll take a bottle of wine.”

This made the Wine Master chortle, too. “Fine, then we’ll share a bottle later. Whenever you have time.”

Lan Jue was well and truly shocked, but he kept it to himself.
He followed the Paragon deeper in to the Winery.

They made their way back to the familiar long table they often drank at. This time, there was already someone waiting for them, seated at the place of honor. When Lan Jue saw who it was, he stared with wide yes and an open mouth. It’d been no time at all!


“M-… what are you doing here?”

Seated on the other end of the table was none other the bane of Jue Di, the same woman who vanished at his request. Luo Xianni, Lan Jue’s new adopted mother.

Evidently this had been her destination after leaving Ziluo.

She shot him a sidelong glance. “Call me what you’re supposed to call me. We’re away from Ziluo and suddenly I’m not your mother anymore?”

The Wine Master, hearing this for the first time, slowly turned to Lan Jue and lifted a curious brow.
Lan Jue met his gaze with a sheepish expression. “So, what are you doing here, mom?”

The Wine Master continued to look from one to other, so stupefied he couldn’t think of anything to say.

“This used to be my home,” she answered. “The shyster and I founded it. Why wouldn’t I come back? You came back just in time. Take a seat.”

Lan Jue shot another look at the Wine Master, who was still trying to process what was going on. The Jewelry Master made his way over to the chair beside his mother, and took a seat.

The Wine Master had a plethora of questions, but this was not the time or place. He took a seat on Luo Xianni’s opposite side.

When everyone was settled, she went on. “The fortune teller’s life has neared its end. We used to be close, so I wanted to come and pay my respects. I expect both of you to keep all of this secret.

Lan Jue couldn’t help but interject. “Will you be leaving after
this?”

She turned her wide eyes his ways, the threat of violence ever twinkling in their depths. “Are you saying you want me to leave?”

Lan Jue couldn’t shake his head fast enough. “Of course not!
With you at the head of the Avenue, things are looking up!”

Her face lit up in a pretty smile. “Good, then I won’t be leaving.”

“Truly, aunt?” The Wine Master asked excitedly.

The sniffed. “My baby is here, I’m not going anywhere.”

Lan Jue was resigned. What could he do? She certainly didn’t look like she could be his mother on the outside, by the age difference alone. She was old enough to be his grandmother’s grandmother, but people only paid attention to what they could see. For the Avenue, though, there could be no better result. For a Nirvana-level Paragon of her strength, none of the other Alliance groups had an answer. Beyond that, it was an excellent
boon for humanity in their preparation against the alien invaders.

The Wine Master fixed Lan Jue with a look. He knew it was completely ludicrous that the two would have a blood connection. He couldn’t fathom under what circumstances he would send Lan Jue out to bring back his aunt, only for the kid to turn her in to his mother. It was something he would have to ask in private.

Luo Xianni went on. “Again, my presence and the things I do here must be kept a secret. Whatever you all were up to before, keep it that way. When that palm reader wakes up, I’ll go say hello.”

“Of course.” The Wine Master was quick to answer. Although he himself was a Paragon, he had been growing up with his aunt since he was very small. A lot of what he knew had been imparted to him by her. He had a great deal of affection and respect for this woman.

Luo Xianni turned her attention to her nephew. “You haven’t improved much these last few years. You still haven’t been able to let it go?”
The Wine Master’s face changed, and a hard bitterness crept in to his expression. “You still remember?”

“Enough. Time changes all things. You need to put aside everything that isn’t important. There are always more opportunities, so long as you look for them. She has run off to the North, and it’s been years. It’s clear there’s no place for you in her heart. What’s the point of obsessing over it so much? I’ll introduce another to you, don’t you worry. I hear A-Jue mentioned this woman called the Pharmacist. She sounded nice, what do you think?”

The Wine Master suddenly looked very uncomfortable. “Aunt, let’s not rush in to making you a matchmaker!”

She sniffed dismissively. “What’s this nonsense, don’t you know I used to be known as First Among Matchmakers?”

“Never,” the Wine Master begged. “A hundred  thousand times, no. I’m scared of you.”

She changed the subject. “You’ve been looking after my shop.
How are things? When can we start business again?”
“More or less ready,” he assured. “In a couple days you can head over and take a look.”

Lan Jue looked over to his mother with a bit of surprise. “Mother, what store will you be managing?” According to the rules of the Avenue, every councilor had to have a shop under their direction. At least one was the prerequisite, either on the Avenue or the Underground. The Clairvoyant and the Wine Master, despite being Paragons, were no exception. The only ones who saw a slightly different circumstance were the Keeper and Bookworm. They worked together.

Luo Xianni tittered. “Your mother used to go by ‘the Photographer!’ When you’re ready to get married, I’ll take the wedding photos for you. My shop is called ‘Luo Xianni’s Wedding Photography Studio.’”

Pre-wedding photos are a required part of the wedding process. I have two thousand. They involve several location changes including an enormous set warehouse, wherein there were as many outfit switches as there were rooms to take pictures in. There were a lot of rooms. The other half took place in a pool. We spent so much time gazing longingly in to each others’ eyes that the chlorine blinded us for a whole day. I’m not exaggerating.
Lan Jue stared blankly at her. His mind went back to when he’d first seen her, and the power she commanded. Connecting that with her designation as the Photographer, he was starting to understand. Her Discipline was some variation on dimensional manipulation. “Alright, I’m leaving. I’ll be back when the shop’s ready. By the way, this place stinks like booze. It makes me sick. I prefer my man Bupang’s cigars.” With her opinion given, she rose to her feet, and strut out the door.

My man Bupang…

Lan Jue didn’t know how Jue Di would have reacted if he’d heard, but he sure as hell wasn’t going to take his place by contradicting her.

The return of Luo Xianni to the Avenue was a tremendous boon. Especially now, as the Eye of Tomorrow was closing, there could be no better news. Her return was also important for the Avenue’s strength, if nothing else. Not only did it swell their Paragon numbers, she was also damn strong.

“Ahem… So, Jewelry Master. What in the name of the multiverse is going on?” The Wine Master quietly waited until he was sure his aunt was gone before whispering the question.

Chapter 508: The Avenue Will Raise An Army?

Lan Jue rolled his eyes. “If you don’t know, how should I?”

The Wine Master pressed. “She’s met your master?”

The Jewelry Master nodded. “She has, but I don’t know what’s going on there. I only know what I’ve seen and heard.”

“Yeah, yeah, so it is.” The Wine Master didn’t push him any further. After all, this involved one of the strongest Paragon that has ever lived, Jue Di!

Lan Jue went on. “I also don’t know why mother would want to come back to the Avenue. At first she was dead-set against leaving father’s side. She’s the only one who knows why she came back.”

The Wine Master smirked. “Whatever the reason, it’s good she’s back. All of this, only you and me know. Even the Gourmet, Keeper and Bookworm aren’t aware of everything. Their relationship is likely cooler, since she left shortly after they came to join the Avenue. They aren’t aware of the plans for
her Photography Studio either. I’ve been keeping that under wraps.”

The two of them exchange looks for a moment, sharing an unspoken understanding. None of this could leave this room.

“How is the Clairvoyant?” Lan Jue asked.

The wine Master’s face stiffened, and a despondent look crossed his face. “Three days, that’s how long he has left. On that day we’ll gather and send him off. About a week ago he told me who he wanted to attend. Aunt was on there, as well as you and your four companions and the other Paragons.”

Lan Jue offered a gentle nod. He felt sad as well. The Clairvoyant had done miraculous things for humanity, for the Avenue. He spent countless years in defense of this place, and his time was nearly done.

Lan Jue asked, “have my brother and the others come yet?”

“Not yet,” the Wine Master said, “but the air hangar has been alerted and spots are being held. They should be here in a couple
of days. But to business. I called you here because of my aunt, but also to discuss something else.”

“Alright,” Lan Jue said.

The wine Master nodded. “As we’re all painfully aware, the alien creatures will soon come upon human space en masse. From all the information we’ve been able to gather, we know this is going to be one mighty struggle. The  Clairvoyant’s visions have shown us all that needs to be prepared. We’ve followed his wishes, and have started to expand the Star Alliance. At present, all Avenue resident below the age of sixty have begun training with mechas.”

Lan Jue looked at him in shock . “All adepts under sixty?”

He nodded. “Of course, this was voluntary. No one was forced or coerced to get involved, and the loose structure of the Avenue has been maintained. The Paragons are not part of this, since a mecha suit has little benefit in the face of our natural power.”


Lan Jue was assured of that fact. It wasn’t that the suits weren’t useful, but that in order to be of use to a Paragon, a great deal of top-shelf materials were needed. That kind of
spending made Sovereign-class suit construction look like a cheap knock-off. Most important, though, none of the modern crop of Paragons had an interest in mecha piloting. As Paragons, they commanded power that would outclass a battleship. The saying ‘A Paragon’s reach surpasses the sky,’ was no exaggeration.

“So what’s you’re saying,” Lan Jue probed, “is that the Avenue is making its own mecha combat division. With the aim of sending it in to battle against the aliens.”

The Wine Master grunted. “That’s the basic idea. I also wanted your input. We Paragons will also be on the field. From what we know, while our numbers are few we can do tremendous damage to the enemy. We’re worth far more than one mecha suit. However, when it comes to planning, that’s where we’re deficient. We need you and your brother for that.”

Lan Jue’s brows furrowed tight as he thought. “This is a very serious matter. It’ll need some time to think, so I can’t give you an answer just yet. But that’s not a bad thing. All of our Adepts here are solid, too – strong. However, a good, tailor-made suit will need time and materials!”

The Wine Master grinned. “Don’t worry over that. Our coffers
are not just theoretical. The mechs suits are all being paid for by us. We’ve been in the process for some time already, with the Bookworm and Keeper in charge. They’ll handle it.”

“So how many have joined the Star Alliance,” Lan Jue asked.

The Wine Master thought for a moment. “At first it was about one third of those eligible. After the tournament, it rose to fifty percent and growing.”

This was and is a little confusing. As far as I understand, TJSS meant that everyone under sixty is in the process of training with mechs. However, only fifty percent of those have joined the Star Alliance. I guess.

Lan Jue looked at the Wine Master in open surprise. He didn’t think that so many people would be interested in joining the mecha alliance. This was a battle division being put together to face the alien menace. It was a dangerous posting.

As far as he knew, Skyfire Avenue had forty thousand registered Adepts. About half of those were in the age range they were looking for. Half of a half still made for ten thousand new recruits.
“There aren’t as many as you think,” the Wine Master could see the shock written on the Jewelry Master’s face.

Doubt started to creep in to Lan Jue’s face. “How many really?”

“We also have a power prerequisite,” the Wine Master explained. “Recruits have to be a minimum of sixth rank. Under sixty, sixth rank – those are the requirements.”

Lan Jue gave the older man a flat look. “Stop running me around in circles, people are going to die, alright? With these restrictions we’ve got about ten times fewer bodies.”

The Wine Master smirked. “The Avenue may be strong, but do you think we have Sovereign-ranked pilots just waltzing around all over the place? What we’re building is a strike force, the tip of the spear. Of course we’ll need to make sure our people are strong enough to handle it.”

The minimum requirement for an Adept to register with the Avenue was fourth rank. Demanding that an applicant be sixth rank was cutting their pool by a huge margin.
“So tell me straight, how many people are there actually.” Lan Jue asked once more.

“More than six hundred,” the wine Master finally revealed. “With more joining every day.”

Lan Jue shrugged. “So why are you telling me all this?”

To this the older man gave him a flat stare. “Isn’t it obvious? You have been given the Star Alliance, did you think that you wouldn’t be in charge of it? We’ve been helping to get it started, but later things will depend on you. Your first job should be to get them strong enough to make a difference. A good Adept doesn’t instantly make a good mecha pilot. How you make that happen is up to you. I hear your training courses at the NEU were successful. You also have my approval to bring those young men and women in to the Avenue as full members. We’ll create mecha suits for them as well, free of charge. What do you think?”

“Wait, wait, wait, wait.” Lan Jue lifted his hands, entreating the Wine Master to silence. He frowned at the Paragon. “It’s starting to sound like you expect me to lead your army.”
The Wine Master nodded matter-of-factly. “That’s exactly right. You’ve already promised the Clairvoyant, haven’t you? It’s a little late for regrets.”

“I…” Lan Jue stared at him, for a moment too stunned to finish his thought. “This was your plan the whole time, wasn’t it.”

The Wine Master nodded again. “Right! What would be the point of having the Divine Monarchs and Star Alliance fight otherwise. Advertisement for the Star Alliance, which you agreed to inherit from the Clairvoyant.”

Lan Jue’s face twitched. “You’re a pretty direct guy, huh.”

The Wine Master grinned at him. “Always have been.”

“So what am I supposed to do now,” Lan Jue asked.

The Wine Master was the picture of astonishment. “How do I know? Like I said, we’re just here to set you up. If you need money, we’ll get you money. If you need resources, you’ll have resources. What else could you possibly trouble us old men for?
We’re too old to do any teaching. The future belongs to the young!”

Lan Jue could outright puke blood at this old man’s nonsense. What kind of mafia did he get himself drafted in to? Lan Jue suddenly felt a lot less pity for the Clairvoyant.

At first glance, training six hundred pilots didn’t seem like a very daunting class.  Lan Jue was a God-ranked pilot, and had the A.R.C. experience to draw upon besides. But were things ever really as easy as they seemed?

Of course not.

Adepts weren’t students. The NEU kids were young, willing, and without the burdens of adult society. They were weaker, and Lan Jue could direct them as easily as the arm directs the hand.

But Avenue Adepts were different. They were bound to be cunning, experienced, and strong. He still remembered when the Citadels came. In the height of conflict, a hundred Avenue Adepts came flying to their aid. Aside from Adepts with a flight Discipline, only ninth rank Adepts could traverse the skies. A
hundred people that strong would not be quick to follow instruction.

This didn’t even take in to account the loose nature of Skyfire Avenue. These people were used to doing what they pleased. If he was expected to turn them in to soldiers, they would need a soldier’s training. That meant discipline. This division he fell in to was going to be a chore, be it in training or in battle.

Seeing Lan Jue’s crestfallen expression, the Wine Master piped up. “What’s wrong? Is there a problem? Whatever it is let us know, and the council will do whatever it can to help you solve it.”

Chapter 509: Skyfire Avenue’s Star Division

Lan Jue heaved a sigh. “Is there any way I can get out of this?”

The Wine Master theatrically extended his hands toward the younger man. “Look at you. After all the trouble you’ve caused the Avenue, not least of which stealing the Eastern chairman’s daughter on her wedding day!”

“Alright! I get it.” Lan Jue pleaded. “I agreed, and even if I hadn’t you would have found a way to make me do it anyway. But I’m telling you, if I’m running this than my commands have to be your commands. Whatever I need Skyfire Avenue will provide, agreed?”

The Wine Master nodded his head. “We pay the money and you pay out in effort. The Avenue will do whatever it can to help.”

It was Lan Jue’s turn to nod. “To start, any commanding officer will need to be a strong deterrent to breaking the rules. Otherwise controlling these adepts will be impossible. Do you agree?”
“I wish there was something I could do there,” the Wine Master backpedaled. “I’m just an old man… I’m sixty years old!”

Lan Jue responded with a little irritation. “I’m not talk about you. The Keeper and Bookworm would be no help either, the three of you can help with logistics. The Gourmet isn’t sixty. He can help me as assistant commander. The Pharmacist as well, with those two I should be fine.”

The Wine Master agreed. “I’ll be responsible for getting the Gourmet on board. The Pharmacist you’ll need to manage on your own. Her situation is special, you know more about it than I do.”

Lan Jue nodded, indicating he understood. “Alright. I think it’d be best if you called a council meeting and let everyone know.”

This seemed to amuse the Wine Master. “You haven’t been to an Avenue meeting in days. We’ve discussed it already, several times. Relax, everyone knows it’s your job to get the Avenue fighting ready.”

The Jewelry Master’s eyes popped wide. “You guys have been
whoring me out when I’m not even around?”

“Well, you don’t need to make it sound so crass,” the Wine Master complained. “None of this was done on the sly, and we aren’t hiding anything from you.”

Lan Jue shot to his feet. “I’m going!”

The Wine Master was nonplussed. “We’ll send all the relevant data to you, everything is more or less ready for you to begin. We just need you’re A.R.C. students. When you bring them over here, we can start training.”

Lan Jue almost tripped over his own feet. Suddenly he had the overwhelming impression that he shouldn’t have come to visit. Hell, he shouldn’t have come back from Ziluo at all! This old bastard was ruthless!

As he watched Lan Jue’s retreating back, the smile slipped from the Wine Master’s face and he sighed. “Foolish kid. You are the Clairvoyant’s chosen. It’s a heavy burden, but we’ll help where we can.”
ζ

Lan Jue stomped out of the Gothic Winery. A myriad of thoughts and emotions rushed through him, so much that he forgot about Qianlin. This was a big undertaking the Wine Master had laid at his feet. He suddenly felt heavy and tired. This was not going to be easy!

He lost himself in thoughts and began to wander down the street. After a while, he came upon a familiar storefront: Wendy Wang’s Haut Couture Clothing

Almost unconsciously, he pushed at the doors and found them locked. Usually visitors required an appointment. But, after knocking, the Barber pulled aside the blinds. He was surprised for a moment, then opened the door. “When did you get back?”

Lan Jue chuckle. “Is that reprobate the Driver hanging around here?”

The Barber answered with a nod. “Yeah. Come in.”

The room was filled with the smell of revelry, and Lan Jue
picked out the Driver right away. He was seated with a glass of whisky in one hand and a cigar in the other, looking comfortable.

“Ah, you’re back.” The Driver never missed a beat. He pulled out a glass from beneath the end table beside him, and place it beside a bottle of whisky. He poured Lan Jue a generous helping.

Before anything else, Lan Jue plucked up the glass and took a sip of the golden liquid within. His lips spry in to a bitter smirk. “I shouldn’t have! You people – not a soul told me what I was walking in to!”

The Driver’s chuckle was deep and mirthful. “Of course. If we had told you, would you have come back? You can’t lay the blame on us, we were under orders from the Wine Master. And isn’t this a good thing? They’re grooming you for command of the whole Avenue. That’s good, right?”

Lan Jue gaped at him. “Good? I joined the Avenue so I could mind my own business. Now suddenly there’s all this responsibility sat square on my shoulders. You think that’s a good thing?”
The Driver felt he clearly needed more whisky, and poured him some more. “Alright, alright – calm down. Things aren’t as bad as you think, anyway. You’ve been around for a while and have a reputation here. And speaking of reputation, we weren’t the only ones who saw your performance at the tournament. Everyone in the Avenue knows who you are and what you can do. Ever since the tournament ended, volunteers for the Star Division have increased by thirty percent. Who do you think they came for? You’re underplaying your role on the Avenue.”

The Barber reappeared and placed a glass of ice water in front of Lan Jue with a nod. “He’s right. There wasn’t a breath of opposition to the idea of making you Colonel of the Avenue’s Forces. Your qualifications were clear to anyone who watched that tournament. We saw the strength of your Discipline, damn near Paragon, but we also saw your strength of character. Your actions on Taihua were as telling as those on Luo. That’s what their faith is built on, and why it won’t be the nightmare you expect. And, since the council voted you in, we’re obligated to make sure it works. You’ve got a lot of people at your back. You won’t be struggling alone.”

The Driver’s words were convincing, but it wasn’t until the Barber chimed in that he started to feel more at ease.

He was a smart man, and he quickly analyzed the truth of
what they said. There were a number of strong Adepts, but all of the strongest he knew personally. He’d at least have Paragon support, and help from the original members of the Star Alliance. It was by no means going to be an easy task, but it didn’t look as hopeless as it had before.

The Driver went on. “Well, it is what it is. Worry about what you need from the council instead. And before everything, I think you need to consider how to direct your new army. We may not be tight-knit, but there are advantages. Nearly all of them have at least some experience with a mecha suit. A lot are legitimate mecha pilots. They may not know how to work as a unit, but they’ll learn that with time. I think they’re going to surprise you. But you can’t treat them like soldiers. If you did I don’t think you’ll have much of a division left.”

Lan Jue’s brows knit as he thought. “So you’re saying we’re going to need a different training method.”

The Driver shot him a thumbs-up. “That’s the idea.”

Lan Jue’s eyes shuttled back and forth as his mind raced. Yes! A loose structure had its own benefits. However, while the Adepts were strong individually they couldn’t compare to a soldier’s cooperation. Battle groups like on An Luo were not the
way to go.

All of these fighters would have already been customized through their own training, used to a style. There would  be power discrepancies and more to contend with. But if they each fought together, but separate…

There weren’t any forces like this in any Alliance military.
The only equivalent he could think of was…

A tell-tale glint of excitement lit up Lan Jue’s eyes.

“Drink.” The Driver lifted his glass, and gently struck it against his guest’s.

Lan Jue obliged. He could feel the whisky burn a path down in to his stomach, before that comfortable heat spread all through him.

“I’ll think on it, and call the original Alliance members together when its time.”
The Driver nodded. “Not a problem, everyone’s already here to send the Clairvoyant off.” His voice trailed off at the end, and his face darkened. It was clear to Lan Jue that the Eye of Tomorrow meant a lot to this man.

Lan Jue gave a small sigh. He knew he could ultimately turn all of this down if he had to. Maybe if the Clairvoyant was in better health, he’d be more insistent. But things as they were, he had a responsibility to carry the task.

Although it was hard to know his path was chosen for him, his hatred for the Eye of Tomorrow’s meddling eased when he realized it had all been for his benefit. It smacked of servitude, but it was servitude to himself, and to all the worlds’ people.

The Driver saw Lan Jue’s expression change. He said nothing further.

Lan Jue sat for another half an hour before leaving Haut Couture Clothing behind. He hopped on his bicycle, and turned it toward Mt. Tianshan.

Peace within to resist dangers without. He knew he would be very busy in the coming days, and now was the time to put his
personal problems to bed. He needed to speak with Qianlin and clear up the misunderstanding. Otherwise, there could be no peace within.

Lan Jue didn’t steal up to the mountain top this time. He took the main road, tall and dignified. None of the checkpoints challenged him. He’d called the Wine Master on the way over, and had asked him to handle authorization. After the scan authorized his passage, Lan Jue continued the ascent.

He pushed his bike along the road, and with every step closer to the peak his heart calmed. In his mind were two separate images, clear and distinct: One was Hera, and the other was Zhou Qianlin.

Chapter 510: Halt! I’m Talking To You!

So who was it that held higher status in Lan Jue’s heart? It was difficult to admit, but the image of Hera had begun to dim. Zhou Qianlin was sharper, more impressed upon his mind. However, deep in his heart there would forever be an overlap between them. He’d come to accept that this may always be the case.

It doesn’t matter, I like her! Lan Jue firmly reminded himself.
There was no more time for looking back.

It wasn’t long before he arrived at the peak of the mountain. Lan Jue found a place to lean his bicycle, then walked up to the front.

He pressed the doorbell.

After a moment, the door flung open. Lan Jue was met by none other than the Chairman of the Eastern Alliance, Zhou Xueguan.

Lan Jue went stiff. Ever since taking Zhou Qianlin from her wedding, Lan Jue had been left with an unhealed wound. He
didn’t know how he could explain, and apologize to her family.

The Chairman fixed him with steely eyes. “Who are you looking for?”

This wasn’t the kind of place solicitors frequented.

“Uncle, hello,” Lan Jue began. “I am looking for Zhou Qianlin.”

The most powerful politician in the East stood in the doorway, and sized up the young visitor. Lan Jue had chosen an ash grey suit, with a deep blue shirt and dark grey tie. His brown leather shoes were a stately addition, and with the suit set off his slender, athletic physique. The edge of a white handkerchief peaked from his vest pocket.

“You are?” the Chairman asked.

“I’m her friend. I’m sorry, is she home?” Lan Jue inquired.

Zhou Xueguan shook his head. “She is not. She left early this
morning and hasn’t returned. Why haven’t you called her communicator, friend?”

Lan Jue smirked sheepishly. “We’ve had a bit of a misunderstanding. She’s not answering my calls.”

“A misunderstanding?” The statesman looked at Lan Jue curiously. “Come in.” He stepped aside and pulled open the door. He didn’t know how this young man got all the way up here, but in his years of experience he’d learned to read people well. This young man, in his estimation, had no ill intent.

This was the first time Lan Jue entered this complex by the front door. The place was as spartan as Qianlin’s room. Only the simple essentials and tasteful decoration could be seen.

Zhou Xueguan lead Lan Jue to a sofa and sat. “You still haven’t told me who you are.”

“Ah, I’m sorry, how impolite. Uncle, I am Lan Jue.” He was still a little out of sorts, otherwise he wouldn’t have forgotten such a simple courtesy.
“Lan Jue?” Zhou Xueguan searched his memory for the name, but shook his head. “I’m sorry. I’ve never heard Qianlin talk about you. How do you know each other?”

Lan Jue fumbled for words. “I’m one of her instructors at school. I’m an etiquette teacher at the National Eastern University.”

It appeared those qualifications were enough for the chairman. His face softened once Lan Jue explained who he was. “Etiquette teacher, eh? No wonder I get a refined sense from you. Well, Qianlin isn’t here. I myself have a meeting to get to. Won’t be long.”

Was this a hint for him to leave? Lan Jue looked reluctant, but he was not slow in rising to his feet. “Uncle, if I could trouble you to give Qianlin a message? I have to speak to her about something rather urgent.”

“Sure,” the chairman replied. “But I’m afraid, instructor, I must remind you. You are Qianlin’s teacher, and thus should call me ‘sir’, not ‘uncle.’”

Sharp! No wonder he’s the Chairman.
Lan Jue couldn’t think of a way to answer. He only nodded, and muttered “Of course, Mister Zhou. I’m sorry for troubling you.”

Zhou Xueguan put in his daughter’s number in to the communicator. After a few rings Qianlin’s familiar voice answered. “Daddy, what is it?”

Inwardly Lan Jue couldn’t help but gloat. Hah! I knew she was just screening my calls!

“We have a visitor here at the house,” her father began. “He says he’s your teacher. Lan Jue. He says he needs to speak with you about something urgent.”

“Oh. Hand him the communicator, please.” Her voice was calm.

Zhou Xueguan gave his communicator to Lan Jue, who thankfully took it from him. “Qianlin, where are you?”

Qianlin’s sweet voice answered. “Professor Lan, I’m out walking around with a few friends. What’s the matter?”
He couldn’t be direct with her father standing right in front of him. “Can we meet somewhere and talk?”

Her response was soft. “I’m sorry. I’ve already left Skyfire City.”

“Left?” Lan Jue was surprised at the revelation. “When are you coming back?”

“I’m not sure.” Qianlin’s voice was halting and timid. “If that’s it, Professor, I’ll talk to you later.”

Lan Jue rushed to fit in a last word. “Look, everything was a misunderstanding –“ He could hear the dial tone on the other side. She’d hung up. He was forced to hand the communicator back under the Chairman’s fixed, curious stare. Lan Jue’s face was both bitter but resigned.

“I’ll be leaving uncle, sorry for troubling you.” The former Mercenary King bowed respectfully before the Eastern leader and then left. He didn’t give any thought to addressing the chairman wrong a second time. The Chairman didn’t correct him. He simply watched the young man go, with a small smile on his face.
ζ

As he trundled down the mountain, Lan Jue was a lot less confident and a lot more depressed then he had been coming up. He hadn’t seen this coming, and it was the worst outcome he could have dreamt up. But leaving without saying anything, how could he fault her for that? He’d just done the same thing! He could only blame himself.

Lan Jue pondered on the sour matters as he rolled homeward.
Oh well, he thought, I’ll deal with other matters first.

But wait – she’d said she was out with classmates. He would go to school first, then, and at least find out who she was out with. Maybe he could guess where they went. If time allowed, he’d go find her. It sounded like she was out of the city, but not off planet, so it wouldn’t take too long time get wherever she was.

It had been a long time since he had walked the campus. This was as good a time as any to get in touch with the A.R.C. students and get them up to speed on the plan. If they decided to join his division, he’d at least have a group capable of following instruction. It was a great deal for them as well. Aside from Avenue membership, they also got a damn god level mecha suit for signing up.
However, he couldn’t just show up looking like he did. He was too recognizable now. If what the Driver said was true, he was practically a celebrity after the tournament. He had to be careful, otherwise he’d get himself in trouble.

He pulled off the path at where he and Qianlin used to separate after school. He put on his hat, mask and sunglasses, and then continued his trek to the NEU.

To ensure he wouldn’t be seen, Lan Jue didn’t go through the main gates, either. He pulled the bike around the side and scaled a wall. If he’d wanted to come in the normal way, security would have had to ask him his identity. That would’ve been less than ideal.

The NEU’s perimeter wall was tall, and was equipped with an electronic fence to deter unwanted visitors. This, of course, was not a problem for an Adept who specialized in lightning. He easily hopped the wall, and once inside began to walk the narrow alleys like everyone else.

Lan Jue chose not to visit Wu Junyi in the administration building, and instead head straight for the electives offices. Wang Hongyuan would be there, and he could tell him about the future of the A.R.C. class as well.
His walk across campus was going well. No one he passed seem to recognize him, and his destination was only a few feet away. At this time, most of the students were in class, so the roads were mostly deserted.

He was congratulating himself on his luck, when suddenly a harsh shout pulled his eyes away from the electives building.

“Halt! I’m talking to you, the guy in the hat!”

The shout almost made Lan Jue leap out of his skin. He unconsciously spun toward the source.

Of course he knew who it was! In fact, he was starting to think the two of them were forever cursed to be in each other’s orbit. He could always count on it, and always at the worst times.

Tan Lingyun, known locally as the Savage Goddess, was in his face faster than he could gasp. “Who the hell are you, skulking around the school like this? Take off that ridiculous mask, and the hat and glasses while you’re at it. If you refuse don’t blame me for the consequences!”
The sudden sense of déjà vu caused his hackles to raise. Rude as ever!

He heaved a deep, helpless sigh. “It’s clear that your temperament isn’t ever going to improve.  We  were  born with opposing horoscopes. Why is it whenever I expressly don’t want trouble, you’re always around the corner?”

The Chinese use a system of animals for their horoscopes that are different from ours. Anyone who’s ever been to a Chinese restaurant knows this. I’m a cow!

As he spoke, he lifted his head, pulled off his hat and glasses, and stared coldly at her. He didn’t need to hide his identity from her anymore, not after the tournament. Running in to her was probably a good thing. She must have watched it, too.

When she saw his face, old habits kicked it. “Again I run in to you, piece of tr –“

And then she remembered.

Her curse caught in her throat. “Yo- you… you… you are… !”
“I am what?” Lan Jue said in faux resignation. “Trash? That’s what you were going to say. I’m on the edge of my seat waiting to hear your opinion, Professor Tan.”

The Savage Goddess stared at him with eyes so wide he thought they might roll out of her head. She was still as a statue, and suddenly she found she couldn’t utter a single sound.

Since the end of the tournament, she’d been waiting for him to come back. She wasn’t sure he ever would, but she had been looking forward to the chance to meet him face to face again. She figured that the chances would be small,  though, considering his sudden rise to stardom. After the tournament he was a household name, and she figured coming back to the school would have caused a splash he wasn’t interested in. Still she prayed that was the case. And here he was – was he coming back?

Now, however, with the man right she wanted him, she couldn’t think of anything to say. Here she was, and now everything was not what she imagined. He was Lei Feng? Was that even possible? This was the Demon Drillmaster?

Zeus?
How could this be Zeus, though? How was he not a rough and rugged warrior?

A thousand questions flooded her mind all at once, so many that she couldn’t even straighten her thoughts enough to pick one. She just looked at him, hardly able to believe her eyes.

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