Skyfire Avenue Chapter 511-520

Chapter 511: I Prefer The Mask

“You..” IT was the only thing Tan Lingyun could manage to mutter.

“Are you alright, Tan Lingyun?” Lan Jue waved his hand in front of her eyes.

Suddenly, there was a flash in the woman’s eyes. Before Lan Jue could react, Tan Lingyun reached out and grabbed his hand, and tried to twist it around.

Lan Jue was taken aback for a moment, but his subconscious reacted for him. He took a step back, his hand still held tightly by the Savage Goddess. He turned his wrist, forcing hers to as well. A half-second glint of lightning flashed as a bolt struck her wrist. Her whole body went numb, while Lan Jue took a few steps back to maintain a safe distance.

“Professotr Tan. I really don’t understand why you have to be violent every time we run in to one another. Is there so much hatred between us?” Lan Jue was beginning to grow irritated.

“Yes!” She screamed back in challenge. She lunged at him like
a leopardess, her fingers swiping like claws at his face.

Lan Jue watched her coming, and grunted angrily. “I’ve tolerated you for long enough!” Lan Jue’s body shimmered and vanished. All Tan Lingyun saw was a flash, and then suddenly, before her eyes, there were countless Lan Jues menacingly glaring at her. The whole world went spinning, and when she finally got her bearings she discovered she was on her back. Luckily, Lan Jue was not the kind of person to react in anger. She’d hit hard, but he’d floored her on the grass. He could have just as easily driven her through the concrete a few steps away.

Lan Jue pressed her against the floor with a hand against her shoulder blade. His other hand kept her wrist twisted  and pressed against her middle back. “Are you convinced?” He asked, dryly.

She writhed in ager. “I am not! Let me go!”

“I can do that,” Lan Jue answered. “But you have to stop acting like a crazy person.”

Tan Lingyun did not protest. She didn’t say anything.
Eventually Lan Jue let her free.
She took the opportunity to whip herself around, trying to sweep Lan Jue’s legs out from under him.

Damnit, Lan Jue muttered inwardly, is she trying to cut my legs off? He brought his legs together and launched himself backward. In the same moment, his right hand reached out and released a gust of gentle energy. When it struck Tan Lingyun, it sent her spinning in the opposite direction.

He came to a stop, pointing threatningly with his hand. There was a flash of gold, and suddenly Lan Jue face was replaced with the opulent golden mask familiar to Zeus. “Enough! Stay your hand!” he commanded.

Tan Lingyun, upon seeing the true Zeus before her, was frozen in place. Her whole body quivered. For reasons unknown, when she saw him this way all violence drained from her.

He saw her standing there, stunned. “What’s wrong with your head? Are you finally finished?”

She summoned enough gall to stammer at him. “Y-you… you look better this way. I can stomach it.”
“You’re a damn masochist!” Lan Jue hissed at her. “Where are my A.R.C. students. Take me.”

“Oh.” She’d been a vicious tigress moments before, but dutifully pointed out where the students were and trotted off without any further argument.

Behind the mask Lan Jue watched her go, truly speechless.
Mean women need mean men, apparently. This lady…

Tan Lingyun quietly led him to the distant building, never once looking back. She managed to get herself under control, but tshe could feel the hard eyes behind the golden mask at her back. It made her shiver, and memories of the A.R.C. class swam through her foggy head. It was a feeling she found she liked, one she didn’t get from Lan Jue.

Am I really a masochist? Tan Lingyun worried over the question. None of that mattered, though. He came back.

Her lips spread in to a sinister grin. “Drillmaster, now that you’re back, do you need your assistants again?” She queried.
Lan Jue nodded behind her. “If you all agree, we can continue the training. But it won’t be on campus.”

“I agree!” There wasn’t an ounce of hesitation from her.
Inwardly,

Lan Jue sighed. Those were the words he wished he’d heard from Qianlin. If only! But pondering the what-ifs wasn’t helping anything, and it was all too late. She was gone, and he didn’t know where.

“Other than Qianlin, which other A.R.C. students have left campus?” He asked.

Tan Lingyun called back over her shoulder. “They’re all here, except for Qianlin. Me and Wang Hongyuan, too. With his identity and exploits made public, Wang Hongyuan’s was also caught in the crossfire. Everyone knew about him as well. In fact, the two of them had been in charge of the independent
A.R.C. program since his departure.

“What’s been going on with the university lately?”
They continued to walk as Tan Lingyun caught him up to speed. “Things are very good. Ever since the news of who you are broke, enrollment has skyrocketed. A lot of foreign instructors have applied for positions, too. The local government’s been keeping a close eye, and are angling to turn this in to a military university.”

“Mh.” Lan Jue nodded as she explained. “That’s good. Let’s see how the students are doing.”

He kept the mask on. It seemed to command respect from the Savage Goddess, so perhaps the students would react similarly. Under Lingyun’s direction, they traversed the college and walked in to a separate area off to one side of campus. A single building and a small training field had been constructed there.

The school sure was generous! Lan Jue looked over the additions with silent praise.

Of course, the University was run by a couple of crafty old bastards. After Lan Jue’s victory, it took them no time to capitalize on it. Snippets of the training he lead were inexplicably ‘leaked’ and served as wonderful advertisement. The A.R.C. kids were the university’s trump card.
As a unit, they were spectacular. When you added in their gear earned from An Luo, they were definitely the center of many discussions. Not least of this was Wu Junyi’s clandestine trip to Luo, where he tried to convince the university to come for another round of competitions.

His goal was obvious.

Su He was no longer part of the university’s teaching team. Lyr had many good pilots, but the school didn’t have the benefit of Lan Jue or his training program. Nor did it have the likes of Tan Lingyun or Wang Hongyuan. You didn’t have to be the Clairvoyant see how that competition would play out.

The NEU’s teaching director also called in the media once the story broke. Under his sneaky dealings, students from worlds away were trying to find a way to get in to his school.

The A.R.C. students themselves suddenly awoke to discover they were hot commodities. Stellar offers were being thrown at them from everywhere.

Thankfully, Tan Lingyun had remained to look after his students, and she kept to his strict teaching doctrine. With her
keeping careful watch, they worked to solidify the things they learned during training. Firming up after a period of laziness was always harder than just maintaining!

“We’re here. At around this time, they should be training.”
Tan Lingyun indicated the stadium

“Right, let’s go take a look.” Lan Jue followed behind her. When they got closer, he started hearing the sounds of activity. They slipped in and stood in one corner to watch.

Forty-nine crack pilots in training practiced battle stances under the close watch of Drillmaster Wang Hongyuan. One on one fights! Limitations in space kept the groups to four each. They alternated, and it appeared that the day’s training focused on Discipline integration.

“Can you insure safety while training like this?” Lan  Jue asked Tan Lingyun.

She nodded. “We’ve thought about that. Every fight has either Wang Hongyuan, myself, or a high-rank Adept keeping close watch. They all know to take it easy against each other. It doesn’t have the same benefits as a real life or death struggle,
but it helps them. They’re much better at employing their Discipline in combat now, and that means more efficient use with their mechas as well.”

Lan Jue nodded in appreciation. “You’ve taken a good tack, but they need to be stronger. Let’s see how much they’ve improved.”

Even before his words disappeared from the air, Lan Jue vanished in a flash. Like a bolt, he raced toward the oblivious trainees.

His sudden and dramatic reaction startled Tan Lingyun, and excited her. Big green eyes sparkled, and the verdant green aura of her Discipline surrounded her. Her voice boomed across the field as she raced after the demon Drillmaster. “Enemies are at the gates! Attention!”

Her call was like a password. All at once, the students broke off from one another and scattered in all directions. Defensive mechas were in the front, filling the stadium with light as their Discipline birthed shields.

Lan Jue was a golden arc of electricity. He always preferred to
start things off with his own people. His first target was Tang Xiao.

The young Adept hadn’t changed much since the last time Lan Jue saw him, still a little fat. Tang Xiao reacted immediately when he saw the figure approach. Crouching low, human flesh became metal and what was a mecha became an orb of metal. Dozens upon dozens of dangerous spikes suddenly sprang out from its surface.

As crafty as ever!

Lan Jue came to a sudden halt in midair. A single finger stretched out, and from it shot a bolt of lightning. The wild blast of electricity struck Tang Xiao, and coiled around in preparation to blast him away.

However, in a shocking reversal, Lan Jue watched as Tang Xiao reacted. The spikes around him stretched taller, then splayed out like umbrellas. This second metallic shell protected his inward body from being directly affected. He got hit, but there was no conduction for the lightning to cause real damage.

His head snapped around when, suddenly, he heard an earth-
trembling scream coming from his flank.

Chapter 512: The Demon Drillmaster Returns!

Lan Jue extended a palm just as Jin Tao came rushing at him. The berserker went tumbling over his head, but Lan Jue was genuinely surprised as how strong he’d suddenly become. Flooded with his Discipline, he stretched over eight feet tall. Coarse, golden hair sprang out from every pore. He looked like a wild lion, and was just as fierce – it reminded him of the Wolf King, Qi Mu. His Discipline wasn’t as strong, but Jin Tao was no less savage.

But so was Lan Jue.

The Drillmaster broke away from Tang Xiao and Jin Tao, pressing into their protective circle. His right hand shot up and pointed to the sky. Bolt after bolt of feral lightning exploded out from Lan Jue in all directions until it swallowed up the whole field. Even Tan Lingyun and Wan Hongyuan were swallowed up. No corner was safe from the Forest of Lightning!

It was time to see what his students could do. How would they react to an attack like this, something so sudden and all- encompassing? React they did, by clumping together in to groups. Each student dew upon the full strength of their Disciplines for defense.
Mutual support formations? Good choice.

A single person’s defenses could be overwhelmed, but there were limitations to lightning. Its strength and damage depended on conduction, and that meant it could be countered. By making the target bigger and consolidating defense, the students diffused the lightning’s power over a bigger and sturdier bulwark. It was the perfect contingency measure.

However, not everyone was quick enough. They had to manage in other ways. Tang Xiao, for instance, was too far away to quickly join a group. The metallic ball became human-shaped again, and he threw himself at Tan Lingyun soaring by overhead. But Tan Lingyun saw him coming. When he got close enough, her long leg shot out and booted him away.

Deflect a single bolt and facing a whole Forest of Lightning was very different. Tang Xiao couldn’t protect himself. The lightning callously ignored his screams as the pudgy pilot was swallowed up.

He wasn’t the only one. Several students had been caught out and lay splayed across the field. The stronger ones, like Tang Xiao, were able to scream. The others could only convulse.
Lan Jue watched and gauged their reactions as he attacked the young unit. He never let them see it, but he felt pride. It was obvious these kids hadn’t been wasting time. They were better than before. None of their control or experience had been lost to idleness. Very good.

It hurt, but the pain served as a reminder and an inspiration to them. That golden mask glinted in the harsh light of lightning, bringing with it a bittersweet revelation. He’s back! The Demon Drillmaster is back!

Just like Tan Lingyun, how could they not be excited at the return of their harsh but effective teacher? They had worked hard every day for this very moment, to avoid punishment. It was the time of reckoning, and perhaps the beginning of the next phase of their training. Few realized this, however, as the weaker members were too busy trying not to lose consciousness.

Geng Yang had improved his tenacity. He could handle much more now than he used to. Wang Hongyuan had also refined his abilities. And Tang Mi, her legs were looking even longer!

But if she was here, it meant she wasn’t with Qianlin. If she wasn’t with Tang Mi, then who in the world was Qianlin with? It couldn’t be a male classmate!
The mere thought reflected itself in his Discipline, and the lightning he released became stronger. The shakes and cramps of the afflicted worsened.

Wonderful! The feeling was wonderful!

He held the flood for a long time, but eventually the power receded back in to him. Eventually, the students began to recover. Lan Jue looked over the scores of collapsed bodies with his hands stuffed casually in his pockets. “Your resistance is garbage! I bet if I keep this up, every one of you will end up pissing your pants. Five minutes – anyone else who thinks they can take some more had five minutes to get themselves in order.”

Flashes of light and color flared around the field as students fought back on to their feet. Five minutes was five minutes, this man would give them not one second more. All through their struggled he could see it in their eyes – the ferocity and excitement. It was more than that, though. That was the light of fanaticism.

These kids had grown up quick.
Tan Lingyun recovered the fastest. She stood before the Drillmaster panting lustily. That green aura shimmered around her, while those pretty green eyes blazed.

Lan Jue looked back at her in surprise. “You’ve advanced?”

She was filled with pride when she nodded to him. She had advanced – ninth rank! And on the cusp of being a God-rank mecha pilot! She was responsible for the A.R.C., but that hadn’t been an excuse for her to work less than anyone else. On the contrary, she pushed herself the hardest. He was looking at the result of hard work, and she was better for it in every way.

Lan Jue nodded. “Keep up the hard work. You’re advancing, but you’ve still got a long road ahead. Remember that you can’t train with the goal of quick success. Every time you rise in rank, firm up your foundation, do you understand? The next time you’re about to take a step up, tell me. I’ll check your bases.”

Re-cultivation had served to deepened Lan Jue’s experience and understanding, especially of ninth rank. He could use this knowledge to help the newly promoted Tan Lingyun.

“Alright.” She punctuated the response with a nod of her
own. She could hardly contain her excitement now that he was back. She was buzzing with it.

Chapter 513: The List

“Understood, Drillmaster!” The students called out in one voice. No one else rushed to say they’d join.

Lan Jue nodded. “That is all.” He turned his back on them and walked away. The students remained where they were, looking at each other speechlessly. The expected return of their Drillmaster was at hand, and they suddenly realized fully what that meant.

Lan Jue had pulled no punches in telling them about the danger, but he also promised to protect them as much as he could. The students felt it, felt inspired by it.

“I want to be a soldier, and nobody’s gunna talk me out of it. If it wasn’t for the Drillmaster I’d have signed up already. My family always said I was good for nothing, well I’ll show them. I’ll protect them, and the whole Alliance! Without a country how could we have a home? What makes us different from those aliens then? I’ll kill every one of them!” Jin Tao’s spirited voice carried on the air.

He was a very frank, very direct young man. In all the students of the class, he had improved the most. From the
moment he agreed to start training with Lan Jue, he was a new person.

Before meeting Lan Jue, Jin Tao secretly thought he’d never be strong. He never thought people would look at him with pride and concern, instead of pity and disdain. His family no longer looked at him like a waste of space. His desires to join the army never changed, though. He’d told Lan Jue that dream long ago, and now his Drillmaster was to become his division commander. There could be no better outcome for Dumb-Mutt.

Tang Xiao chortled. “Yeah, you’re the smart one, right? I’m definitely going, too. Your elder brother isn’t so morally obligated, though. Listen. if I die under Professor Lan’s protection, then that mean’s it’s lights out for humanity already. When it’s war, you want to put yourself right next to the strongest person, that’s the safest place to be. It’s a simple concept. Easy as that. Let’s go, I gotta take a shower!”

Jin Tao’s fire and Tang Xiao’s practicality where mirrors of what all the students felt. Lan Jue, who had not gone far, secretly lauded his choice in disciples.

Wang Hongyuan and Tan Lingyun fell in with their Drillmaster, the dance instructor leading the way. They left the
small stadium and entered the nearby building. Wang Hongyuan led them up to the offices.

“Back at last. You don’t know how much the kids have been looking forward to this,” Wang Hongyuan chuckled.

Lan Jue pulled the mask away, revealing his true face. “It was always the plan, there was just a lot to do. Now that things are handled, of course I’d want to come back. After all, I raised these pups. I can’t just abandon them, I want them to grow up strong. I want them to be a benefit to humanity.”

Wang Hongyuan nodded. “Where’ve you decided to bring everyone? At least me, anyway.”

“I’ve decided to bring them to Skyfire Avenue,” Lan Jue answered.

Tan Lingyun looked at him, surprised by the answer. “Skyfire Avenue?”

Lan Jue affirmed. “Yup. It’s where I come from, and I’m a council member. Those monsters will be here soon, and the
Avenue’s going to prepare by building its own army. We’ve got full coffers, which means the best equipment and the best training. They’re going to be part of a force that will protect the Eastern Alliance.”

Tan Lingyun spoke up. “Why didn’t you say so? If the kids knew they were headed to the Avenue, and were going to be so well equipped, no one would give up that chance.”

But Lan Jue shook his head. “I don’t want them to join for the benefits. We aren’t interested in numbers, we want quality recruits. I hope you both understand this.”

“Drillmaster.” Tan Lingyun’s self-control slipped for a moment.

“What is it?” He asked.

“Would you mind wearing the mask? I’m not used to seeing you like this…”

“…”
Lan Jue fit the mask back over his face, and heaved a sigh of resignation. “Pay close attention to these kids over the next few days. If they make the decision, there can’t be any reluctance. Leaving is not an option. I hope you both understand this, too.”

“Yes.” Tan Lingyun was less uncomfortable now that his face was hidden.

Wang Hongyuan shook his head. “Not a problem to me, and the students are smart enough to follow their own ideas. What about the university, though? How are you going to explain it to them?”

Lan Jue waved his concerns away. “Easy to handle, I’ll speak to them. We’re going to need West Hill, too.”

West Hill was the closest military instillation to Skyfire City. There was enough space for what they needed. Especially now that they were creating the Star Division, they would need a place to train. After some thought, Lan Jue determined West Hill was the best place for it.

With his connections to the Keeper, Lan Jue knew it wouldn’t be a problem to talk the administration in to it. They had no
reason to refuse.

“I’l go with you to the Dean,” Tan Lingyun announced.

Lan Jue nodded. “Fine.”

As he suspected, no one opposed the idea. There were, however, some small requests. They asked him to keep special excursions to a minimum, and give two lessons to the top students once a month.

None of their requirements were a problem, and Lan Jue agreed.

With his business complete, the Demon Drillmaster replaced his mask with the three-piece costume he arrived with and left on his bicycle. As he rode along back to the school, he was suddenly struck with a thought, and pulled off on to a side street heading a different direction.

ζ
Grace Hospital

Lan Jue rolled up to the combination hospital and retirement home, and set his bike against a nearby wall. He pulled open the door and walked in.

He hadn’t been by in so long, and Qianlin had been off on the trip as well. His old friends popped suddenly in to his mind. He remembered feeling that spending time here felt renewing. Things were about to get very busy, and he wasn’t sure when – if ever – he’d have a chance to make it back here.

“Ah, Grandma Li – you’re looking radiant! All rosy cheeks.”

“Grandma Zhang, how’s your leg feeling? Hey now, slow down. Let me help.”

ζ

Lan Jue learned that Qianlin had been visiting the hospital a lot lately, and least three times a week. He, however, had been gone entirely too long for a polite young man.
Reminders of his troubles with Qianlin made his heart sink. Their problems needed to be addressed, at least before he started training in earnest. If he didn’t that painful distracted would eat at him every day.

By the time he got back to the Avenue, the sky had darkened to night. He ruminated on the fact that he hadn’t had a single day of solid rest since coming back. He stumbled in to his room and fell on his bed, bone tired. Still, he couldn’t rest. Her image kept flashing through his mind.

Qianlin…

The night passed without incident. The next day…

Lan Jue woke early in the morning, had his breakfast, than left Zeus’ Jewelry Shop. He made the short trip across the street to the Gothic Winery.

“So early,” the Wine Master said in greeting. “Eager to embrace your new role!” He sat at the head of his long table, dressed in very gentlemanly attire, enjoying his breakfast. Bread, milk, jam, fried eggs, and a glass of white wine.
Lan Jue pulled out the seat next to the old man, and took a seat. He took a glance at the fluted wine glass in front of the Wine Master before commenting, “They say only lovesick gentlemen drink sweet white wines. To drown their sorrows.”

The Cosmagus dropped his knife and fork onto the table with a clatter. “Do not disturb my pleasant breakfast!”

Lan Jue chuckled. “I just can’t stand to watch a prideful man gloat over his breakfast.”

The Wine Master didn’t take the bait, instead lifted his hand over the table. He snapped his fingers, and in a flash of silver light a parchment appeared in his grasp.

Lan Jue smirked at him. “What year is it? Who uses paper anymore?”

The Wine Master sniffed in disapproval. “Paper is the best way to keep secrets. There are only two people in the universe who know about this list; you, and me.”

Lan Jue was captured by curiosity, and leaned over to get a
better look. Across the top of a sheet was a string of script; name, age, Discipline type, specialty, mecha piloting rank and more. What followed was a detailed list of data.

The top entry on the last was familiar:

Name; Jewelry Master

Age; Under thirty

Discipline Type; Thunderbolt

Specialty; Eastern martial arts and discipline integration

Mecha Piloting: God-rank

Below him was the Driver, then more familiar names after that. Not all of them had designations, either. Several of the names were true names of outsiders. When Lan Jue saw what it was, his face went solemn.
The Wine Master went back to delightfully finishing his breakfast. Though, perhaps tellingly, he didn’t touch the wine glass.

He eventually finished, wiping the corners of his mouth with a napkin. Only then did he address Lan Jue. “What? Is there a problem with the list?”

“Of course there’s a problem. A lot of problems,” he answered. “Off the top of my head, the mechas. If every one of these people are going to get a custom suit, that’s going to require time. Where are we with that now? That’s just one. Another thing, are all of these people even here on the Avenue? I’ve found a training area on NEU’s West Hill. If we want to make a fighting force that means anything, we’re going to need to understand that time is a factor. There’s a whole lot to do, and only me to do it. I’m going to need help.”

The Wine Master fixed him with his steely gaze. “I’m here to work with you to solve all of those. First, the mechas. You’re first – time is important. By our estimates it will take between three and six months before tailor-made suits are completed. But, your training can start right away. You’ve forgotten – DreamNet’s upgrades are completed.”

Chapter 514: Solving Problems

Lan Jue’s eyes glittered. That’s right! According to the time frame announced earlier, DreamNet’s upgrades were either complete or very nearly so. He was sure this would turn out to be a huge boon, since now users could integrate their Disciplines into the virtual world. Students would be able to integrate their abilities and mecha combat just as though it was happening in real life.

The Wine Master grinned in self-satisfaction. “The real suits are being manufactured, but we’ve already begun to port the schematics in to DreamNet. Ten days at the most, and they’ll all have been uploaded and ready for use. When the time has come, you can begin training your Skyfire’s Star Division right from the comfort of a pod.”

“Stop! This Division is not mine.” Lan Jue glowered in irritation. “I’ll also be bringing the A.R.C. students from the university, so they’ll need suits as well. When will we be getting the new pods?”

“Already here,” the Wine Master answered. “I’d originally planned to put them in the arena here, but since you’ve decided on West Hill I’ll just have them delivered there instead. I’ve already spoken with the Gourmet, and he’s agreed to help you
with the Division. You should make a visit to the Pharmacist yourself sometime soon. The other members of the original Star Alliance will be your right hand, and any problems you run into will be their problems, too.”

Nodding, Lan Jue praised the Paragon. “Very thoroughly prepared! It looks like my manipulation wasn’t hastily thrown together, at least.”

The Wine Master’s brow rose. “Manipulation is an art. I’ll gather everyone together once the time comes for the Clairvoyant’s departure. After we bid him farewell, the training can begin. Ah, yes. Also, to stir up interest in the Division, we’ve put out information about the alien Core. We’ve come to call them animulae.”

Lan Jue was excited by the implication. “So you’re saying that the Keeper and Bookworm’s experiments are finished?”

Nodding, the Wine Master explained. “After purification through the Tear of Neptune, the animula’s energy can be directly infused into a human. We’ve found that cells which have been exposed to this process are revitalized, thus leading to a complete internal renewal. We’ve taken a cue from our animal brethren and call this mechanism exuviation. At present, the
first stages of research are complete. You’ve seen for yourself how it’s transformed the Bookworm. Exuviation was particularly effective on him – he’s probably lengthened his life by at least fifty years. It isn’t an easy procedure, though, and one needs a lot of experience if they want to reap stable healing benefits.

“A major concern is how this applies to varying skill levels. We’ve only tested the animula on a Paragon, how will a lower level Adept react? Can the exuviation procedure be used on non- Adepts? Only once these questions have been answered can a final determination on its use be made. Unfortunately, we have a critical shortage of testing material. The sample you brought back with you is nearly used up. If we wish to refine more animulae, then we’re going to need a great deal of the base material – the monster Cores.”

Lan Jue immediately picked up on the Wine Master’s unspoken implication. “You plan to announce the current progress for exuviation?”

A smile spread across the old man’s face. “I do! If this process ends up being everything it promises, the benefits to humanity would be priceless. But all of this is predicated on having enough supply. In order to get what we needed, we entered into deliberations with the Eastern parliament. After some
discussion, it was agreed that experimentations would continue in return for the Eastern military having a say in the distribution of the first batch of animulae.”

Lan Jue shook his head, and fixed the man with a steady stare. “Wine Master, you really are a cunning old fox.”

In tones that were equal parts pride and apathy, the Wine Master replied. “All of this wasn’t solely my doing. The decision was reached by everyone. If I’m a cunning old fox, then we have an avenue full of them.”

“All this work on one person’s promise,” Lan Jue replied with a sigh.

Assurance was in the Wine Master’s answer. “But this promise is real. The life of a human being has its limits, Paragons included. About the only exception are Paragons that keep rising in rank, like your master. Only the smallest fraction of Adepts will ever achieve something close to that, but everyone deserves a long life. We only get one. If exuviation works, then money and man hours are a small price to pay. Fighting for the people has always been an honorable endeavor, and those who pay the highest price are cheered the loudest. The Eastern government has already passed a bill which
promises to staff the experiment with soldiers as long as they’re needed. From what we’ve found through trials, the data points to life extension of at least fifty to one hundred years – and we’re not sure yet if repeating the process is dangerous. But we have the subjects, we still need the materials. We went to the other Alliances, but the problem is the same – not enough of the raw stuff needed. I guess in a way, the appearance of these monsters isn’t a total tragedy.”

At least in the areas of China I’ve been to, religion is not really a thing. You have practicing Buddhists, but ideas of reincarnation and so forth aren’t really present. The ceremonies are traditionally more than spiritual. This is compounded by the flip-flopping of the Communist party, which will alternatingly allow and forbid members from openly participating in a religion and if you want to be anyone in a powerful position – business or politics – you need to be in the party. There are a number of secret Christians I’ve run into, though.

Lan Jue felt something within him stir, noting the excited glint in the Wine Master’s eyes. “So you’re saying, that if this experiment succeeds and the aliens don’t attack… we’d start a war anyway.”

The Wine Master sighed in frustrated resignation. “Survival
of the fittest; it just doesn’t apply to the beasts of the forest. Everything in the universe follows this cruel tenet. In the end, only the strongest species will be allowed to propagate. I don’t think I need to explain this to you.”

Lan Jue nodded. “Survival of the fittest, you’re right. If that’s the case, then humanity must be the one to come out victorious. Should one of the Division’s goals be collecting animulae?”

He answered first with a nod. “Right now, our greatest asset is actually Lyr. A few months ago the Tear of Neptune was considered trash, and neither the North nor West made any attempt to retain a stockpile. In the last few days, resolutions had passed in all three Alliances, designating the Tears as war assets. Any outside sale is a punishable offense. But this, as with all things government, was subject to bureaucracy and took time to implement. Forward thinking organizations with money were smart enough to buy up a great deal of Lyr’s exports before the rules could take effect. Chief among them is your friend’s Poseidon Group.”

“A-Li?” Lan Jue exclaimed.

The Wine Master continued. “The Avenue still currently has the largest cache of Tears, but as we continue to refine
animulae, they’re consumed. I hope you understand how important this and exuviation are to the East.”

Lan Jue nodded. Of course he understood. Once the East perfected exuviation, it would became mecca for the best of humanity. It had incredible implications for the development of their Alliance, possibly even usurping the North.

“The North and West have appealed to open trade with us for Tears. We’re in the process of negotiations, which I imagine will involve a number of conditions. The Avenue must continue to focus on obtaining animulae so research can be completed as quickly as possible.”

Upon hearing once more of their need, Lan Jue’s response was to lift the pinky finger of his left hand. Thor’s Promise glinted as it caught the light, and suddenly there appeared before them a large purple alien Core.

The Wine Master gaped. “This is…

“On the way to meet father I ran into one of them,” Lan Jue explained. “It must have been a scout. I got this from its skull after I killed it. This must be one of the animulae you
mentioned – similar to the one we got from Taihua, seems to me.”

The Wine Master looked at the crystalline structure between them with open surprise, and nodded. “Spectacular. With this, research will definitely speed up. We have no way to determine how expensive something like this is, what do you want for it?”

To this, the Jewelry Master shook his head. “Nothing. I am a member of Skyfire Avenue. I just hope somehow this exuviation process can be used on the Clairvoyant.”

But the Wine Master sighed, undermining Lan Jue’s hopes. “That doesn’t seem possible. The Clairvoyant’s problem isn’t just vitality. His body is like a funnel, and whatever life-giving energy we try to give him is just swallowed up and disappears. If we could, we would absolutely save him from the brink  of death. All I can promise, is that when this is finished you and whoever you like will have access to exuviation.”

“Alright.” Lan Jue didn’t see the need to be polite, and instead of fighting the courtesy simply accepted it. The allure of a prolonged life affected everyone, he was no exception. In addition, he had a number of people he cared for, who he promised to look after. This process improved vitality,
lengthened life, and keep one’s spirit young – something everyone could benefit from.

This is a constant concern. You have to be very diligent in the reception and giving of presents. You must vociferously deny a gift or offer of a gift, but only up to a certain point. You must also vociferously fight to give gifts, and are constantly chastised for gifting someone or paying for dinner. The trick is finding when it’s appropriate to accept.

Zeus’ Amazons were always his worry. Four women hell-bent on standing at his side, but he was only one man, He couldn’t give them the affection they wanted. Perhaps he could repay taking their youth by extending their lives. Maybe then he wouldn’t feel so guilty. Earning the right to use exuviation on more than just himself was an important point.

“I’ll take the list with me, then head over to the Pharmacist’s. Hopefully she’ll agree to join the Star Division.” After the Wine Master’s explanations and a glimpse at the big picture, Lan Jue felt a little less apprehensive about what was to come.

Even the most unruly of Adepts would find it hard to pass up exuviation. With such an impressive carrot, managing everyone should be easier.
Lan Jue’s first priority had to be the setup of this new fighting force. Then, training. Only once they’ve started would he be able to see what his recruits were capable of, and what they were good at. That was when the future of Skyfire Avenue’s Star Division would be planned.

Chapter 515: Nearby Godblades?

Lan Jue left the Gothic Winery and took the elevator down to the Underground. His destination was the Hall of Supreme Harmony. When he entered, he encountered no resistance. The workers there were under instruction to allow him in without question previous notification.

The Pharmacist sat in an eight-pointed pagoda, plucking at a guqin set before her. She was a vision of classical beauty, clad in a shimmering white qipao.

“You’re here.” Her delicate fingers stopped, resting upon the strings and bring them to silence. She smiled at him.

“Where’s Jun’er?” Lan Jue asked.

“The Wine Master came to pick her up a little while ago. He said the Clairvoyant wanted to see her,” she replied.

Lan Jue felt his heart flutter. “The Clairvoyant…”

The Pharmacist cut him off. “The Clairvoyant is nearing the
end of his life. I don’t know what he could be giving my girl, but it can’t be bad.”

Brows knit, Lan Jue fixed her with a serious gaze. “Is this the path you want for her?” The road laid out before her, even before taking up the mantle of the next Clairvoyant, was a difficult one for a child. Her life would be sacrificed for it, her childhood. She will have to face many things a little girl like her should not have to face.

She sighed, clearly troubled by the idea. “My little girl is already doomed to a life without the ordinary. What reason do I have to stop this? She may be small, but she has her own idea. I asked her, and she said she agreed – she wanted to help.”

He hung his head, and spoke again after thinking for a moment. “She’s made up her mind, our job should be to support her. But I’m also here to talk to you about something else, sister.”

“Why are you standing, sit!” she said, changing the subject. Her small hand reached out and picked up a beautiful red- enamel tea pot, and poured him a glass of steaming liquid.
Lan Jue took upon a seat across from her. “Sis, I’ll just go ahead and say it. The Wine Master has approached me, and asked that I turn the Star Alliance in to Skyfire’s own army.”

He went on to tell her the rest of what the Wine Master had revealed. The Pharmacist listened patiently, with a faint smile on her face. “And you came here to ask me to help manage it.”

“Yes,” he replied frankly, looking at her.

“Alright!”

“You agree?” Lan Jue had come fully expecting her to turn him down.

She laughed. “Why shouldn’t I? This exuvium sounds beneficial to me, too, not to mention Jun’er. Plus, I’m a woman! What woman doesn’t want a few more years of youth and beauty?”

He chuckled. “Thank you, sis. You can be sure exuvium is going to happen, we just need to wait for news of success. You’ll be first in line.”
Smirking, and shaking her head, the Pharmacist replied. “There’s no rush. Actually, there’s something to discuss first. Fighting I can do, but commanding a unit is not something I’ll be doing. Instead, I’ll act more like your bodyguard. How’s that?”

Ugh,” Lan Jue reacted. “Don’t even say that, I can’t handle it!”

Her clear and pleasing laughter echoed through the temple interior. “There’s nothing to handle. Relax, I’m perfectly pleased with the idea. Jun’er would be happy, too. I’m not much of a mecha pilot, though. I’ll need to learn from the beginning. What do you think should I start studying?”

Lan Jue shrugged. “As strong as you are, it doesn’t make much of a difference if you learn or not. The advantage of a mecha suit is personal protection. It also makes deep-space combat easier. Even a Paragon would benefit with the right suit. But in terms of power, there’s nothing a suit can offer you that you can’t do better.”

Her nod said she understood. “There’s truth in that. I’ll have a suit made for me as well. A strong defense is also important. I’ll rely on my own abilities in fighting, so the mecha won’t need to
focus on amplification.”

She’d never touched the controls of a mecha suit, but Lan Jue was confident she would learn quickly. People as strong as she was usually did. However, joining one’s Discipline with their suit was something that took time and wasn’t necessary in her case. She was a breath away from Paragon, and once that threshold was crossed even the defensive benefits of a mecha suit didn’t mean much.

Lan Jue’s eyes lit up. “That’s a thought.” The beautiful fairy of destruction was so strong she didn’t even need a mecha weapon! Occisus was strong, stronger than he could know.

“Has there been any news from Jun Yongye or Xuanyuan Shishi?” Lan Jue asked. Things were busy, but he couldn’t forget his interaction and possible future with the Banishing Blades.

But she shook her head. “No word. I haven’t heard anything since you left. However, I do have an inkling, in the back of my mind. It’s possible they’re already on Skyfire. There’s a connection between them and Occisus, but I can’t use it to tell where they are exactly. After all, I still can’t even fully command the weapon.”
He nodded in understanding. “It is what it is, we’ll let things take their natural course.” He was anxious, but the only option was to wait for the right time. Lately he had improved a great deal, both in ability and comprehension. While the weapons would be a tremendous help, he still felt he would break through to Paragon in a couple years, if this current trend continued.

The Clairvoyant had put a lot in to quietly arranging Lan Jue’s path. At least it was a path aimed at helping him succeed.

“That’s all the important stuff that needed discussing, sis. After we send off the Clairvoyant, training will begin,” Lan Jue announced.

Alright.” She nodded. “And if you need any money, I’m happy to help. Lately business has been quite good.”

He laughed in spite of himself. “Far more than ‘quite good’, I’d think. You have a line out the door.”

Medicine and power gems were different. Power gems were non-renewable resources, once you used one it was gone. Lately, gems were becoming invaluable military resources. Medicines,
though, were easy to cultivate. Modern scientific technology made re-growing them even quicker. In a short time, exhausted supplied could be replenished. The rarity of a medicine lay in their combination and preparation, both things the Hall of Supreme Harmony specialized in. Making money was not a problem for this place!

“Alright, but do you need money? How many power gems did you bring back from this last trip to the North?” She asked, a little irritated.

Lan Jue answered. “It shouldn’t cost us anything personally to build the Division. The Wine Master has assured me that all costs will be borne by the Avenue. Our target is going to be these animulae, and once we’re all set up I imagine we’ll be called on to be the tip of the sword for the East. No resting on the back lines for us. As you can imagine, those animulae are going to be exceedingly rare. However, they’re also going to make all three Alliances much more dangerous. Right now, it’s hard to say whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing. Even if these invaders were headed elsewhere, we’d probably be coming after them for their Cores. In essence, I guess we’re no different from them.”

She saw the light of disappointment in his eyes, and it made her frown. “It’s not helpful for anyone to think like that. We are
different species, with different needs. Remember that they were the aggressors. Whatever their purpose, our two species were meant to kill one another. Put the thoughts to rest. You have a good heart, but when it comes to survival of the species, sometimes we have to do bad for the ultimate good.”

The Pharmacist’s voice became hard but resolved. It made him shiver.

Yet, her resolve put his heart at ease. His eyes hardened. “Yes, I understand.”

What he didn’t realize, was that Arrow of Compassion’s effects where what he felt. Humans were good hearted by nature, but reacting to everything with empathy wasn’t the right course. There was a time and place to be good.

The Pharmacist watched his expression become sober. “Alright,” she said, then, “I’m afraid you’re going to be pretty busy for the near future. If you need anything, give my communicator a call. You don’t need to always come here in person.”

“Alright,” he answered. They were friends, he didn’t need to
be overly polite.

ζ

He stepped out onto the Underground Avenue after leaving the Hall of Supreme Harmony. For a moment, he just stood in front of the doors, lost in thought. Then, after a moment, he began to head toward Zeus’ Jewelry Store. While things were going to get busy very quickly, right now he had the time to get his thoughts in order. He needed to figure out how he was going to train his new soldiers.

As soon as he entered the store, though, the door chimes were joined by the buzz of his communicator.

“Bro! Have you arrived at the Avenue?” The number belonged to Lan Qing. Lan Jue started their conversation with the question.

His brother’s low, even voice answered. “Come out and get us.
We’ve at the entrance.” He hung up.

Here already? Lan Jue turned on his heels and walked out
again. He was already heading toward the Avenue entrance when it hit him. We!

It didn’t take him long to get to the Avenue’s gate. He saw three figures waiting patiently outside.

Chu Cheng was as flashy as ever, wearing a dark red blazer and his collar popped up. His eyes were hidden behind dark glasses and his shock of red hair had been slicked back.

Hua-Li kept a much lower profile. He was dressed in a dark blue blazer, sunglasses and a mask to hide his identity. He apparently felt safe enough to leave his hat at home.

Lan Qing stood in the center. He was dressed entirely in black, underlining his severe countenance. Compared to the other two, he was much more stately and respectable looking.

In front of them was a young woman. She was none other than the Captain of the Guard, An Liu.

“An Liu,” he called to her, “These are my friends.” He hurried over to join them.
She greeted him with a nod, but her eyes went right back to Lan Qing’s stony face. It was then the younger Lan saw something strange in his brother’s face. It lasted for only a fraction of an instant, but he’d caught it.

Chapter 516: Gathering Of The Monarchs

“So what is this, a fashion show?” Lan Jue looked pointedly at their matching outfits.

Chu Cheng chuckled lazily. “Nah, great minds think alike is all, I shouldn’t have to tell you that. Or maybe I should – it looks like you aren’t part of our unspoken psychic connection.”

He did happen to own a similar blazer. His was part of a dark blue suit.

“Let’s go!” He curtly waved them into the Avenue. An Liu stepped aside to let them pass.

He led them to his own Zeus’ Jewelry Shop first. As they traversed the Avenue, Lan Jue turned to his brother. “Why didn’t you guys tell me earlier? I’d have gone to meet you.”

“Wasn’t worth the trouble,” Hua Li answered. “Didn’t you just get back?”

Lan Jue shook his head. “Thi isn’t any trouble.”
They arrived before the Sapphire entrance of the Jewelry Shop. He pushed open the door, and they found all four of his Amazons inside waiting. They rose to their feet as the Monarchs entered.

It wasn’t a very large store. Eight people started to make it feel stuffy.

This didn’t go over Lan Jue’s head. “This place is starting to feel a little small,” he ruminated,” there’s no way to make it bigger, though. Let’s head inside.”

They traversed the store, and entered Lan Jue’s quarters located behind the service counter. Xiuxiu brought in some seats, and with the sofa it was enough to accommodate everyone.

Lan Qing took a seat, and then turned his attention to Lan Jue. “How’s father?”

“Well his face looks the same, but his character sure has changed,” Lan Jue replied.
Lan Qing’s eyes dimmed as his thoughts turned dark. “I’ve been so busy. I should go see him, too.”

Chu Cheng, his tones regretful, chimed in. “Are the things you’re responsible for handled?” It was a fair question. Humanity was about to be embroiled in a war, and Lan Qing was one of the foremost commanders in the East. He was personally responsible for a whole planet, An Lun. How could he leave with all this going on?

His presence on Skyfire was only possible because the Avenue requested his presence from the Eastern military. He was given special permission to leave his post, otherwise this would have been impossible. Once this business with the Clairvoyant was done, he would have to return right away.

When Lan Qing didn’t answer, his younger brother spoke up instead, “Dad’s got cabin fever. I heard him say it a few times while I was there. He may not be on Ziluo anymore. Can’t know unless you go there, I guess.”

A hard light glinted in Lan Qing’s eyes. “I suspect the arrival of these aliens and father’s sudden wanderlust aren’t a coincidence.”
Jue Di was the single strongest human living today. If he were to show up in the fight against these invaders, then the benefits were self-evident.

A smirk touched Lan Jue’s lips. “My hope is that he comes to Skyfire Avenue. But at least for the time being, that probably isn’t going to happen.”

Chu Cheng thrust his head toward Skyfire Museum. “How’s the Clairvoyant? When is he supposed to break his hermitage?”

Lan Jue turned to Chu Cheng. “Soon, within the next couple days.” His mood soured when reminded of the Clairvoyant.

“Every human life has its conclusion.” Hua Li’s soft, sage-like words joined the conversation. “Don’t be too sad, it’s the natural way.”

Lan Jue swung his eyes to Hua Li. “This reminds me. You guys at Poseidon are damn slick. Got a nice haul of Tears, I hear.”

Hua Li gave a demur smirk. “That has nothing to do with me. Mo Xiao deals with all of that – I don’t do much on the business
end.

“Tears… are you guys talking about those useless ‘S’-ranked trinkets from Lyr?” Chu Cheng gave them both curious looks.

Lan Jue darted him a look down his nose. “Your head for economics… The Poseidon Group knows what they’re up to. Not a moment’s hesitation when they sensed opportunity. What I mean by that, is those useless gems are going to become one of the most precious commodities in the universe very soon. It cost them a pretty penny to buy up what they did, but the potential returns I can’t even imagine.”

Lan Qing’s low voice added to his brother’s explanation. “The Group also knows how to get what it wants. Their purchase was originally blocked, but they leveraged the help they’d given Taihua to push the purchase through. A one-time deal.”

“Wait wait wait… hold on. How is it all you guys know this and I don’t? What the hell is going on with these Tears all of a sudden?” Chu Cheng swung his eyes from one face to another.

Lan Jue explained. “Here’s the deal…” He went on to fill him in on the animulae, and how the Tears fit in.
Chu Cheng’s eyes got progressively bigger until Lan Jue finished. “So you’re telling me… that we’ve discovered a way to stay young. Forever.”

“Forever? Unlikely, but at least extend your life and delay old age,” Lan Jue said. “These animulae follow the law of conservation of energy just like everything else. This is a transfer of energy from one state to another.”

Chu Cheng took a deep breath. Then, he fixed Lan Jue with a solemn look. “Does the Avenue need any more people?”

“Sure,” Lan Jue said. “We always want people. Not swine, though. People.”

Chu Cheng’s face lit up at Lan Jue’s first words. Soon, though, that face was less bright and more constipated. He vomited a string of curse words.

Hua Li, meanwhile, was guffawing loudly. “Well said!”

“Well said my ass!” Chu Cheng challenged. “Life is precious, and love is worth even more. Not that any of you lonely sad saps
over here would have any idea what I’m talking about.  Sooner or later society is gunna weed you bastards out, mark my words. Now speak, is all of this even possible?” His last question was put to Lan Qing.

The super-soldier nodded slightly. “Preliminary experiments have already concluded, but the next step will need more research. We aren’t the only ones working on this. The North and West have their own programs looking into it.”

Chu Cheng whistled appreciatively. “So that means we’re gunna live longer than anyone before, and still look good while doin it! Haha!”

Lan Qing just stared at him with a flat expression. “The best way to stay young forever, is to stop wasting your energy chasing women and cultivate instead. Once you hit Paragon, your body will stay the same until the day you die. I would also highly advise all of you to decline exuviation until after you’ve broken through. So far, we aren’t sure if this process has an effect on an Adept’s potency. The Bookworm might have been a special case. He was trapped at peak rank for many years, and the exuviation process helped him to shed the blocks of his old body. For others, if they have the possibility of breaking through naturally, then that should be their priority. It might end up posing as an impediment.”
“So you think it has the potential to stop us from advancing,” Lan Jue asked.

His brother nodded. “I’m not certain, but the evidence has shown that the possibility is significant. Outside energies are outside. No matter how well purified it is, there’s a chance your body will reject some of it. Until you break through to Paragon, it will of course affect everything. Still, the best way to keep your youth will always be working to become a Paragon. When you are immersed in understanding of the universe, your life will naturally be extended.”

Lan Jue nodded. He definitely agreed with his older brother’s thinking. His foundation was much stronger than it had been, and since re-cultivating his ultimate breakthrough to Paragon was certain. It wouldn’t be long.

Hua Li looked back at him, his eyes full of meaning. “After taking the Championship, the Avenue’s status in the universe has grown. It may not be a good thing, ultimately, but at least it’s an opportunity.”

Lan Jue’s face fell. He look to his brother.
Lan Qing sat ramrod straight, immovable as a mountain. “The desert wants the rain; the maid seeks to get married. What will be, will be. We will resist what we can.”

Lan Jue smiled. In this moment, he was glad to have an older brother.

Hua Li nodded slowly. “Just prepare as early as you can. A- Jue, you’ve got a lot swirling around you lately. Be cautious.”

Chuckling, Lan Jue spoke up. “I was hoping just be an observer, but that won’t be the case. The Avenue is making a mecha Division, and the Wine Master’s put me in charge. It’s given me a headache. They’re all Adepts, and the Avenue has always been a loose organization. Commanding a group like this won’t be easy.”

Chu Cheng and Hua Li were both visibly survived by the news. Only Lan Qing’s face remained impassive, like he already knew.

Hua Li eventually recovered and nodded. “That’s definitely a problem. What are you gunna do about it?”
Lan Jue answered. “The best I can. I’ll figure it out when training starts. I need to know where they’re at.”

Lan Qing was encouraging. “It won’t be as difficult as you think. At the very least you’re all fighting for the same thing, and have similar goals. What you need to do is you make sure you’re all on the same page, then divide and conquer.”

“Divide and conquer?” He looked at his older brother, eager for advice. He’d brought it up so he could get Lan Qing’s thoughts. It would have been a waste otherwise.

Lan Qing nodded. “An Adepts greatest strength is their individual fighting ability, which is much higher than an average soldier. The Avenue won’t be sparing any expense for these machines. These men and women won’t find army training suitable. Fighting as a cohesive unit takes time and training, and it won’t allow them to employ their full strength. Adepts are too different to work effectively together that way. I suggest you separate them into small groups, and watch how they progress then. Have them separate when the fight starts, and stay away from the main battlefield.”

“I have the same thinking,” Lan Jue replied. “The front won’t be suitable. That’ll be up to your army. We’ll be backup, and
support.”

Lan Qing went on. “You can use the pirates as a proof of concept. Hit them hard then retreat, protecting yourselves by disengaging. In this way, if the war goes south you’ll be poised to give aid.”

Chapter 517: Lan Qing’s Suggestions

Pirate fighting techniques? Lan Qing was, of course, referring to the clans of the Shattered Starfields. If that was the case, didn’t they already have fighting pirates? Su Xiasu’s figure flitted across Lan Jue’s mind. She hadn’t made contact since leaving Skyfire Avenue.

Lan Qing continued with his advice. “Another important point. The number of Adepts isn’t something to worry about. Remember that Adepts are also separated in to the strong, and the weak, The system is built so that those who are strong command faith. If you can earn the respect and obedience of the strongest Adepts, the others will fall in to line. That will make managing easier.”

Lan Jue was inspired. Yes! Lan Qing was right. He didn’t need everyone to follow his commands, just the unit commanders. They could handle their own men. In this way, he needed the support of a lot fewer people.

He only needed to look at the A.R.C. class, and recognize that he could turn fifty kids in to a crack mecha squad. With Tan Lingyun and Wang Hongyuan, the task had been easy. He’d pick out the strongest and make them leaders. Then, with enough faith and familiarity, command would be shared.
Lan Qing recognized the look in his brother’s eyes, and didn’t interrupt his thinking with more pointless talk. He was confident his brother had the head for it.

Chu Cheng, seated to the side, poked Lan Qing. “Bro,” he said, voice low, “Look. You know Zeus is sitting all high and mighty with this championship he won. Don’t you think you should challenge him? I mean, being the best has to feel great, am I right? It’ll be an opportunity for you to see if your little brother’s improved.”

Lan Qing stared at him with that stoic, stony expression, silent as a statue.

A malicious expression touched Lan Jue’s face, as he turned his eyes to Chu Cheng. “Your jaw sure is flappin’ around a lot, A-Cheng. Maybe you need me to help you knock it back in to place?”

A dark chuckle answered from the red-haired Northerner. “You think I’m scared of you? I’ve been making strides, too.”

Lan Qing appeared slightly confused as he addressed Lan Jue. “I sense that you’re weaker than you were during the finals.
Almost like before. What’s going on?”

None of them completely understood his relationship with Qianlin yet.

He sighed, and spoke in a low voice. “My situation is somewhat special…” He then proceeded to give them the simple version how he and Qianlin fit together. He talked about how they were stronger when joined, and how cultivation was better together.

All three of them, Lan Qing included, sat in shock as Lan Jue told them the story. The worst was Hua Li. He looked like he was half lost in a trance the whole time.

“This is a thing? Re-cultivation? Has this always been a thing?” Chu Cheng’s surprised questions came in rapid succession. “No wonder it felt like you were all funky, and I knew you were hiding something the whole time. This is cheating! I’m gunna report you!”

Lan Jue just cast him an irritated look. “Go on, then.”
Chu Cheng snorted. “Why aren’t I showered with infinite gifts, huh? No wonder you’re with that broad every day. Speaking of, where is she, anyway?”

“We’re in a little bit of a spat,” he said. “She ran off.”

He got no sympathy from Chu Cheng, who chortled back. “So, if we fought now do you think you could take me?”

Lan Jue’s eyebrows shot up. “You think my Discipline isn’t high enough to do the job, eh?”

His friend’s expression seemed to ask, is that not obvious? “That’s right. Without a strong Discipline, how could you be a challenge for me? Let’s go! Let your older brother teach you a thing or two about kung fu!”

A grin spread across Lan Jue’s face. “Fine, let’s give it a shot.
Bro, you coming?”

Lan Qing nodded. He’d seen all the videos, but being there in person was still more vivid, the details were clearer. Lan Qing wanted to see what his brother was capable of with his own
eyes.

For Adepts of their level, there was only one place nearby where they could really test their skills; the Wine Master’s Reaper Arena. He ddin’t mind troubling the old man with accommodating them. He’d caused Lan Jue plenty of trouble, lately.

Lan Jue had the four women close up shop and come as well. It would be good for them to watch combat at this level and take notes. It was a good opportunity for their future development.

They walked across the avenue to the Gothic Winery. Lan Jue entered without announcing himself.

“You’ve all come,” the Wine Master greeted. When he saw them enter, he gently relinquished a glass of wine on to the table.

Lan Qing gave the Paragon a respectful nod. “Hello, Your Majesty, Cosmagus.”

“You’ve been working hard, commander,” the Wine Master
responded. “Let me get someone to arrange rooms for all of you.”

Lan Qing was the one to answer. “That won’t be necessary, thank you. We’ve arranged for our own accommodations. We would like to trouble you for use of the Reaper Arena, however.”

“Arena?” The Wine Master’s eyes immediately went to Lan Jue. He looked strange.

Lan Jue’s face was stern. “As future commander of Skyfire Avenue’s forces, I feel that my personal abilities are far below adequate. Sparring with other Adepts of similar rank is sure to have a positive bearing on my development. You said that we would have whatever we needed from the Avenue in the establishment of this fighting force. This is therefore an official request. In addition, I have brought in Commander Lan Qing for consultation, and as this is an official function I expect the Avenue won’t require payment.”

The Wien Master’s voice was thick with aggravation. “Fine! If you don’t want to spend money than just say it! I didn’t need the self-righteous diatribe.”
Lan Jue sighed. “Didn’t I learn it all from you?”

The Wine Master could clearly sense the young man’s resentment. He had no recourse. “Very well, I’ll go along with you. I have to make sure you don’t destroy my arena with your horsing around.”

The Wine Master led them down to the underground. Before long they were at the Reaper Arena.

Business here had also flourished in recent days. There was no small number of Adepts who came to test themselves and help each other improve.

The elderly Paragon waved a hand, and his astrum scepter appeared in a flash of silver light. A pale light filled the corridor, and on the far side was revealed a doorway.

This place sat amid many dimensional pockets, divvied out to Adepts as they came to test their strength. Lan Jue had been here a few times, but he’d never seen this silver doorway before. It was a large, and silver, with hinged double doors. The surface was engraved with old style patterns. Most importantly, space- time was strange here. The energies were thick and potent.
The dazzling dimensional scepter gestured toward the far door as the Wine Master waved his hand. The great doors opened inward. What was revealed, was a portal of undulating energy that warped space.

The Wine Master turned to face the four of them. He nodded. “Come with me.”

They walked through in, into a space between. Then, in the next moment, they were somewhere else.

It was different from the Reaper Arena Lan Jue knew. His first sensation after walking through, was that this place was real.

The other pockets he used always felt a little surreal, and it was clear that you weren’t in the primary reality. This place, by contrast, felt very stable. He could hardly tell it apart from the reality he lived in every day.

Sweeping their eyes around the space, they found it to be no less expansive than the Great Conclave Arena, with nothing but a void all around them.
“Who’s come in here to bother me?” A sweet, melodious voice wafted over to them.

When the Wine Master heard the voice, he was struck with surprise. Then, a helpless smile spread across his face. “Aunt… how did you get in here?”

Lan Jue was well aware of who ‘Aunt’ was. The others, however, had no idea. Even Lan Qing, who was about as expressive as a rock, looked taken aback. The Cosmagus was a Paragon, and while not as old as the Clairvoyant or Keeper, he was still on in age. For him to call out Aunt, while the voice sounded so young… what was going on?”

A flash of light, and suddenly there was another in this pocket dimension. Luo Xianni.

The woman almost completely ignored the Wine Master. Her attention went immediately to her ‘son.’ She quickly became a bubbling font of joy. “Ahhh, my adopted son! Have you come to see your mother? And you’ve brought friends, so lively! Which one of these lovely young women is your wife? Or, are they all?”

The line of questioning immediate turned every Amazon’s
face red, but curiosity kept their eyes on this woman. She couldn’t have been past her thirties!

Adopted son? Since when did their boss get a new mother?

Lan Qing was particularly speechless. However, it wasn’t her words that struck him. It was her power.

Lan Qing was the strongest of their group aside from the Cosmagus. That was, until Luo Xianni appeared. When his perception fell upon her, he was struck by the flood of energy radiating out of her.

No matter how hard he looked, Lan Qing could not sense the depths of her strength. That could only mean one thing; she was a Paragon. Only the breadth of a Paragon’s power felt this vast.

Skyfire Avenue actually had another Paragon?

Luo Xianni, as though sensing Lan Qing’s thoughts, turned to him and pressed a finger to her lips. “You have to keep secrets. Ey.. why do you look so much like my son? You must be Chi Bupang’s other adopted charge. He speaks so highly of you.”
Lan Jue was afraid his brother might not react properly, and rushed to his aid. “Yes, mother, you’ve guessed right. This is my older brother, Lan Qing. Brother, this is dad’s very close lady friend. Our mom.” He caught his brother’s eye, silently pleading with him to go along.

Chapter 517: Recognizing A Son

Lan Qing looked between Luo Xianni and Lan Jue, clearly confused. However, he remained perfectly respectful, bowing before her. No matter who she was, as father’s woman, she was their elder.

“Your Majesty, hello.” Lan Qing greeted.

She flicked a wrist, and then there was something else resting in the palm of her hand. A silvery metal, that shimmered in the light. “Call me mother. Here, take a gift for our first meeting. Ah, if only I had children as handsome as you two.”

Lan Qing wasn’t sure how to take that, but he accepted her gift all the same. “Thank you so much for the consideration, but I can’t accept. This is too expensive.”

Her face darkened. “What? You don’t want to get to know your mother?”

“Bro, take it.” Lan Jue plucked her gift out of Luo Xianni’s hand and gave it to Lan Qing.
In truth, Lan Jue fostered a silent pity for Luo Xianni. She was infatuated with Jue Di, but he only wanted to hide from her. As members of the younger generation, it was their duty to try and help work things out.

Lan Qing held himself to a strict code of morals. This felt inappropriate, but before he could say anything further Chu Cheng took a big stride forward.

“Hey auntie, if you want some more sons to look after I’m available. What do you think?” He put on his best charming smile and directed it to Luo Xianni.

She looked him up and down, her brows furrowing. “So young with those bags under your eyes… I can tell you’re a lusty sort of youth. I have no interest in a son like that.”

Chu Cheng’s face twitched. “Auntie! The bags are just because I don’t sleep well. There’s no lustiness about it.” He didn’t believe she could see him that clearly after half a moment.

Appearing almost bored, she explained. “It isn’t something you see on the face. I’ve had decades of experience reading people, so I know precisely the kind of person you are. It’s not
hard to see that you’re Kidney-deficient, either.”

“Kidney… Kidney-deficient?” Chu Cheng’s face drained of color. Motherf-… in front of so many people! Chu Cheng had a thick hide, but right now he desperately wished he could dig a hole and disappear.

The short version is she is saying he gets down too much, either with girls or with his hand. She’s calling him a slut/sex addict.

Mika, Xiuxiu, Lin Guoguo and Ke’er couldn’t help it, and all burst in to a fit of tittering laughter. Hua Li and Lan Jue were howling. Lan Qing even joined in with a sensible chuckle.

Luo Xianni wasn’t done. Her eyes darted to Hua Li. “This one’s grown up well. A pity he’s so girly. Far too soft, and manly-deficient. Hm, my Bupang does have a good eye – my boys are good choices.”

Lan Qing couldn’t stand it anymore. He was the soldier of a generation, and he was expected to simply become adopted by this crass woman. But he took a cue from Lan Jue’s expression. He could tell his younger brother didn’t seem to mind. This was
the only woman their dad had ever appeared close to on any level. Mom made a kind of sense.

“What’s your name?” Luo Xinni fixed her eyes on Lan Qing.”

“I am Lan Qing,” he replied.

“Call me mother. Let me hear how it sounds.” She cooed a genuine plea.

For a moment the commander hesitated, stunned. His thin lips twitched, and after a time he managed to chew out a word. “Mother…”

Her face dropped in to an admonishing frown. “Ah, little Qing. You’re not as obedient as my little Jue. Say it with warmth. Remember next time.”

“Aunt.” The Wine Master rushed in to interject.

“Oh, right. What did you bring them here for?” She turned her attention to her nephew.
He gestured to them. “They’re friends, here to spar for a little while. I promised to offer them a space to do so.”

“Ah, there’s going to be a fight! Excellent, I’m in!” This was a woman who surely thrived on chaos.

The Wine Master entreated calm. “Aunt, please. Be reasonable, they wouldn’t be a challenge. You should serve as proctor.” It was a long shot, but he couldn’t let her wreak havoc in this place. Who could be her opponent, anyway?

She acquiesced, though clearly displeased with  the  idea. “Fine. You need a ref, I’ll be a ref. How are they fighting? Boy- girl pairs or full-on melee?”

The Wine Master stood there speechless. He shot Lan Jue a look.

The Jewlry Master hastily replied. “Chu Cheng and I are going to test each other out first. Then it’ll probably me and my brother.”

“So about standard and boring. Fine, start whenever you like.
Make it interesting!” She clapped, and even before the ringing sound dissipated, there was a flash of strange light. Lan Jue and Chu Cheng were by themselves.

Lan Jue shivered. He’d easily sensed that transition, and to him it felt like reality was being carved up like a loaf of bread. This place had been carved apart just for them, and they they were transferred in to it. It had happened so quick that it looked easy, but even the Wine Master would find it difficult to manage so fluidly. Her strength was proven once again! At the very least, she was stronger than the Cosmagus.

The two young men stood, staring at one another. The light of excitement was reflected in one another’s eyes.

“A-Jue, I’m not going to go easy on you! I will turn my grief in to power!” His public humiliation at the hands of Luo Xianni had him ready to fight, like an angry bull. It was clear in his eyes that he anticipated what was to come. He’d prove it by deed – he was not Kidney-deficient!

Lan Jue, by contrast, simply smiled. He did not stomp or puff himself up dramatically. His right hand slowly rose, and motioned for Chu Cheng to come at him.
He blinked, and suddenly Chu Cheng’s eyes were dual balls of fire. The air around him swirls and was replaced by a thick red aura. He set his stance with his left foot, and punched with his right fist.

The punch itself looked simple and direct. However, there was a rooted sense to it, like it was followed by all the force of a mountain. More importantly, Lan Jue could feel the hidden, explosive quality wrapped up within it.

This was the protogenic essence of fire, explosiveness!

Chu Cheng had been honest, and it seemed he hadn’t spent all his time chasing skirts. After the tournament he must have also worked hard on his cultivation, which resulting in this power spike. All four of the Monarchs knew each other as well as brothers, so even small changes were quickly spotted.

Lan Jue strafed to the side while his arms rose. They swirls in arcs that sought to seal off Chu Cheng’s punch. All of a sudden, everything about Lan Jue seemed softer. There was no more radiation of energy from around him. Instead, all their surrounding energy seemed drawn to that spot between his arms.
Puff! The force of Chu Cheng’s punch vanished in to a void. His capable attack was swallowed up by what he could only describe as an infinite vacuum. There was no resistance, like his opening move simply failed to find a target.

In that instant, Lan Jue’s figure vanished. Half a breath later, he reappeared from Chu Cheng’s flank. Lan Jue crashed in to Chu Cheng’s shoulder like a freight train.

Chu Cheng growled, and bent his knees so as to maintain stability. He dropped his shoulder in to Lan Jue’s charge. Fire poured out from his shoulder like a river of magma. Chu Cheng’s control over Hades’ Fire was muscle memory by this point.

Lan Jue had already exposed his secret, and Chu Cheng knew his opponent was no more than fifth rank. The Northern Hades descendant was seventh rank, nearly eighth – far higher than Lan Jue’s. The gulf in power was enough, he suspected, that he could simply overwhelm him with overwhelming offense.

Bang! Two shoulders met. Just before contact, a shimmering light of black and white – the mysterious energies of yin and yang – appeared around Lan Jue. The swirling image of black and white forced Chu Cheng’s hellfire away to create passage.
Lan Jue found his target.

Chu Cheng could feel the incredibly unloading force as Lan Jue made contact. He reeled, and Lan Jue followed up with another shoulder smash. Their encounter occurred in a very small radius, but Chu Cheng was able to recover and push back with gusto. He fought for a few inches, then lunged to the side to increase the distance between them.

One-Inch Guard! A rare and difficult Taiji technique, only one who understood the true nature of the martial art could call upon it. Jue Di had imparted the knowledge to him only recently. A practitioner who mastered this skill could difuse tremendous destructive power in a very small area. It was a nigh-mythical ability.

Chu Cheng was not aware of it. The unforeseen reversal took him by surprise. Lan Jue – in the midst of his retreat – thrust out his arms and threw dual bolts of golden lightning at his dumb-struck opponent.

He was on his back foot, but Chu Cheng would not be caught off guard so easily. His right hand quickly shot forward with fingers splayed, and from the gesture a thick shield of flame was born. The lightning bolts hit it and were deflected away.
Lan Jue’s arms were moving again, tracing out a slow circle in front of him. The pull of the void sprang up around them once more. Chu Cheng fought desperately to resist it, eventually stabilizing once his Discipline activated.

Lan Jue slid his foot forward and shifted posture, suddenly within striking distance of Chu Cheng. He swung his hips, and his right hand exploded forward. Skimming Hammer punch!

Bang! The shield of fire broke apart in to a million errant flames, then vanished. Chu Cheng stumbled backward.

Lan Jue was like a leaf on the wind. He leapt forward, seven alternating steps. Every silent footfall sent waves of pressure out to Chu Cheng that forced him to keep up the retreat. On the seventh step, his Seven-Star Hammer punch was poised – ready to flatten mountains.

Chu Cheng was out of defensive maneuvers. He could only try to defend by putting his arms between them. When they made contact, he was almost crushed beneath wave after wave of explosive force coursing through the Jewelry Master’s fist. Beneath the alternative waves of pure force and gentle retreat, his defenses were unable to cope. He went flying.
The others watched from a distance. Each of them looked at Lan Jue with new eyes.

Luo Xianni, though, carefully watched with no visible change in expression. Lan Qing was quietly nodding his head, for he recognized that his brother’s comprehension of Taiji was much deeper than it had been when he saw him on An Luo. Their fight wasn’t a dramatic display, but the skill they demonstrated was incredible to watch.

Chu Cheng found himself at a disadvantage, even though he was stronger than Lan Jue. His foe wasn’t letting him call upon his full strength, dictating the pace of the fight. It was very telling.

Lan Jue was relying entirely on the properties of Taiji to undermine Chu Cheng’s advantages. Technical superiority was winning the day.

Chapter 519: Too Nasty!

Chu Cheng flew for a dozen meters before falling to the ground with a crash. His arms were numb and limp. Lan Jue was going easy; if he had used lightning with his Taiji, Chu Cheng would be feeling it.

Chu Cheng’s fighting spirit flared at the humiliation. The hellish red light in his eyes flickered, and then a murderous aura crept out from around Hades. It started beneath his feet, but the dead grey light that consumed the ground quickly started to spread in all directions. Everything was cold, gloomy, and still as the grave.

His numb arms were drained of color. They were grey, like they belonged to a corpse. Meanwhile, the aura surrounding him felt like a chasm of alluring death that would cripple a normal man.

Lan Jue didn’t press the attack. He stood tall and straight, with eyes that blazed with battle-lust. Tendrils of golden lightning emerged and swung about him erratically. Soon they relaxed, becoming a layer of golden clothing. However, unlike Chu Cheng, his power didn’t radiate through the world.
Lan Qing couldn’t help but keep the pleased reaction from his face. Turning lightning in to such a thin shell required tremendous control. Lan Jue was much improved over where he had been even only months ago. This was an accomplishment, as Thunderbolt Disciplines were notoriously difficult to command.

The two men stared at each other from across the field; one gold, one grey. The potential destruction was palpable as their auras clashed between them.

The Wine Master waved his hand. The scepter clutched in his gnarled hands flared, and a protective silver light sequestered the fighters from the others.

Chu Cheng once again made the first move. He knew that if his friend had a chance to focus his Discipline, its explosiveness would overcome his hellfire. He raced forward so fast that a blurry afterimage of himself traced his path. He crossed the field in a heartbeat.

To Lan Jue it looked like a dissolving swath of grey that melted heaven and earth into one wherever it went. His response was to slowly his extend his pointer and middle finger into the air before him. A glorious pattern of lightning hung
where his fingers crossed.

The indomitable press of Chu Cheng’s charge broke off at the last second and he moved to the side. Their Disciplines clashed. Lan Jue juked around his foe and the two changed places.

Lan Jue’s sword-fingers traced another outline,  all  around Chu Cheng. This time the lightning appeared as a full circle, suspended in air. The flickering light set off the hard lines in Chu Cheng’s face. He could feel its buzz affecting his body.

This is where you put your pointer and middle finger together, extended like the blade of a sword. I remember this was taught when learning the Taiji sword styles (I never got to weapons, sadly). Seems like a good way to lose your pointer and middle fingers, really.

Hades saw his leverage slip away. The uncomfortable sensation broke his rhythm.

Lan Jue’s orb of lightning was a dazzling display. But as he looked on, it grew sluggish and an ominous sensation filled him.
Hades’ protogenic capabilities specialized in immediate extinction, the thin line between life and death. Lan Jue’s orbs changed this, though. Somehow, Chu Cheng found he couldn’t command that division as easily – it was like Lan Jue’s Discipline was keeping them glued together.

He flailed and jerked, trying to free himself from the prison of electricity. His form swelled as he railed, and two beams of grey light fired out like a pair of luminous scissors, right for Lan Jue’s neck.

Lan Jue traced another circle with his fingers and darted back. Chu Cheng’s beams of grey were swallowed up by the attractive force of his lightning before being destroyed.

At least it had earned Chu Cheng some breathing room. In that moment of respite, his body joined with a grey sword that surreptitiously appeared overhead. Chu Cheng drew circles.

The sword broke its constraints and fractured into a dozen copies. They surrounded Lan Jue and besieged him on all sides. Lan Jue still traced circles.

Wave after wave of grey light raced toward Lan Jue. Each one
was thick with a sense of death, so numerous that they were like a life-devouring tide.

But, no matter how many attacks Chu Cheng threw at Lan Jue, they vanished into the depths of those golden orbs. Chu Cheng was a raging force of destruction, and Lan Jue was fighting to hold everything together. He was there for every step his foe took.

Seventy-eight attacks, and not a one found its target. Lan Jue’s defense was absolute.

Ting! Chu Cheng had to stop. The last ringing sound of his attack being deflected away hung between them. He couldn’t sustain that level of offense for long. Already Chu Cheng sensed his energy reserves down by a third.

While it may not have looked it, Lan Jue was glad for the pause. That brief exchange had been grueling. His style had changed, no more the reckless warrior like his opponent. But that defense had required endurance. He didn’t dare stop, else he be drawn into its all-consuming vacuum himself.

“I…” Chu Cheng fought for breath, trying to concede. Lan Jue
was also taking big gulps of air. That clash was intense.

Lan Jue didn’t give him the chance. His fingers flicked out, flickering with a golden haze. A sphere of roiling lightning surrounded Chu Cheng. The Northern Monarch’s Discipline flared as he shored up his defense.

What was fierce at fore grows weak at aft. Chu Cheng was exhausted, and yet that mysterious orb from Lan Jue was robust. Defending against it was as impossible as fighting destiny. Little by little, Chu Cheng’s energy slipped away. Soon he couldn’t stop his body from being swept up into the swirling tide of the orb’s power. It was like being caught in an undertow, only getting worse as his Discipline wore out.

Lan Jue’s fingers spiraled out and away, causing Chu Cheng to fly spinning like a top to the distance. He was just adding insult to injury.

The golden light in Lan Jue’s eyes dimmed. The buffeting force that filled the arena fell away. Outside of the force field, a host of shocked eyes followed him.

Even for Hua Li and Lan Qing – who knew Lan Jue very well –
this was beyond comprehension. They both knew that Lan Jue, recently crowned champion at the tournament, had a better chance at victory. What they saw instead was a masterful performance.

Lan Jue hadn’t laid out a single straightforward attack. Instead, his defense had done all the heavy lifting. It matched and surpassed everything Chu Cheng threw at it. It didn’t look like much, but the simple fact it withstood the full force of Chu Cheng’s attacks proved its magnificence.

Lan Jue retracted his finger and stood tall. He stared at his defeated opponent, looking as lofty as a mountain, as deep as the ocean. He was surrounded by a strange and charismatic aura. The swirling vortex of energy finally swirled in to him and vanished, just as all rivers flow down to the sea.

For a full eight seconds Chu Cheng stood where he’d landed, solid as a rock, staring at Lan Jue. Then he began to sway, until ultimately he stumbled and fell on his ass. He face was pale and drawn.

Lan Jue rushed over to his side. He clenched his hands together into a double fist, and bashed them against Chu Cheng’s back. The other man jolted, then seemed to recover.
“Goddamn, what the hell was that? So nasty!” Chu Cheng managed to angrily spat the words after recovering.

Lan Jue stood over him. “A defensive technique.”

Chu Cheng shot him a detestable look. “I am never sparring against you again. That shit sucked. I prefer head to head, getting a beating would be much less uncomfortable. Bro,” he said, looking at Lan Qing, “look at your little brother. How can you look at this bullshit and not want to smack him around?”

Lan Qing regarded his brother with a placid gaze. “Do you need a rest?” He was anxious to test himself, now that he knew what Lan Jue was capable of.

Lan Jue shook his head. “No need. But I do need a sword.”

“Alright.” Lan Qing acquiesced.

“Little-Jue.” Luo Xianni’s voice interrupted.

“Mother?” He answered respectfully, something he reminded
himself he needed to speak with Lan Qing about. He couldn’t help but be a little scared off his new – somewhat off-kilter – mother.

She answered with a smile. “Your Taiji sword play is very good. More agile than Chi Bupang, but less stately. You need more vigor. From light to heavy, something you’ll learn with experience.”

Lan Jue’s eyes lit up. “Thank you, mother.”

By this time Lan Qing had arrived at the center of the ring.
Lan Jue turned to Xiuxiu and waved her over.

She smiled, then quickly jogged to his side. Xiuxiu rose to the tips of her toes, as a gentle silver light enveloped her. Her body lengthened and warped until she became a shimmering longsword hovering in the air. The handle hovered before Lan Jue, awaiting his grip.

Lan Jue took the Asura Godblade. The golden aura sprang back to life, and he charged.
Lan Qing face was as still as a dry lake bed. His slowly retracted his right hand to his chest, then exhaled evenly as he stretched it out again. He stood out, the definition of towering majesty.

As his hand stretched out, it seemed the bearer of stillness. Everything around them, the whole ring, suddenly became calm and silent.

Lan Jue knew that facing his brother would be completely different from Chu Cheng. Hades was like a volcano that could blow at any moment. Lan Qing’s strategies were as layered and boundless as the night sky.

Lan Jue lashed out, commanding the power of Xiuxiu and the Asura Godblade. The blade traced a beautiful arc but, to Lan Jue’s surprise, no hint of power followed in its wake. It was as though Lan Qing’s singular hand was drinking it all up.

Lan Jue understood suddenly that Lan Qing had long since learned to join his Discipline with martial skill. But his reactions were quick. His experience against stronger opponents had been bolstered in the Great Adept Tournament. He channeled the energies of the Asura Godblade, and concentrated his own thunderbolt Discipline. He swung the blade through the air
again, but this time agility was replaced with intent.

Pfu! Lan Qing thrust his palm forward. Lan Jue felt himself shake, and the circle he was tracing was knocked off course.

The super-soldier of An Lun curled his hand into a fist, and struck again with an explosive one-inch punch. The deafening blast of an explosion tore through the arena. Wisps of cyan energy coalesced into a fist, half a meter across. It quickly crossed the ten meter distance between him and Lan Jue.

Lan Jue suddenly began to move faster. A rapid succession of swirling orbs were cut in the air, and knocked the fist aside. In the next instant, it was surrounded by a net of golden lightning.

It exploded. The cyan fist became a ferocious tornado of compressed wind that obliterated Lan Jue’s defensive circles.

Chapter 520: Live Life Like Luo Xianni!

In that instant a nimbus of light surrounded Lan Jue, while a white phantom shimmered at his back. He thrust his index finger forward.

For a moment, nothing happened.

Lan Jue’s pupils contracted, and without hesitation he dropped his sword. He retracted his hands, then returned with the mightiest of the nine Taiji Hammers; Downward Hammer strike!

Boom–!

The concussive force shook their surroundings. Lan Jue staggered back, nearly falling before regaining his footing some ten meters back. Lan Qing had not moved.

Both Hua Li and Chu Cheng watched the brothers in awe. It was no surprise that Lan Qing was strong – the strongest of all of them, no doubt. Only now, they had some measure  to compare it to. Both of them had plentiful experience with peak Adepts – Chu Cheng’s father was one, after all – but even at the
highest levels there were enormous discrepancies in strength. Aftershocks of his power still caused the floor to tremble.

Palm, fist, finger. Three strikes, straightforward and unobtrusive. One might even call it drab. And yet, its strength was such that Lan Jue’s Taiji sword couldn’t stand up to it. This was not just an inferior Discipline, but inferior martial technique.

Lan Qing could see his brother was still a beginner with the sword. His opening tactic was no different than Chu Cheng’s: Overcome with superior force. The difference lay in Lan Qing’s strength.

Chu Cheng’s outright offensive couldn’t penetrate Lan Jue’s defense. Lan Qing’s storm of energy put Lan Jue and the Asura Godblade on the ropes.

“Very good!” Lan Qing’s hard voice called. He raced forward to press the attack. As invasive as wind, as aggressive as fire – in a moment he went from being rooted as the mountains to a raging lion.

Lan Jue saw him coming, but didn’t back down. On the
contrary, a hint of a smirk cracked his lips. And why wouldn’t he? This was the first time in all their clashes that Lan Jue had been able to withstand his brother’s Prajna triple-attack. And he didn’t even get wounded! He’d done it with only rudimentary sword training.

I can’t recall if I’ve described Lan Qing’s martial art before. I believe it was noted somewhere that he and his brother were taught different styles that suited each of them. If I gave it a name before, I’ve forgotten. Henceforth we’ll refer to his style as Prajna technique, where Prajna is the Buddhist concept of wisdom and insight.

He’d dropped his weapon, not because he didn’t have an answer with his sword style, but rather because he feared the attack might injure Xiuxiu. In substitute he fell back on the more familiar Taiji defense. He knew that Lan Qing hadn’t used the full strength of the Three Prajna Charms, but just defending at all was a success.

In an instant, Lan Qing was nearly on top of his brother. He struck at him with a fist. Lan Jue responded with a cross-step, and dropped into a defensive posture with his hands at the ready. His Taiji technique prepared to meet his brother’s fist.
Boom – boom – boom!

Three blast, as the two brothers clashed three times.

Lan Jue’s nine hammers were iron wrapped in silk, imbued with his intrinsic lightning. His tai-yang bearing was on full display.

Lan Qing was as omnipresent as the wind. His attacks were heavy as a tumbling mountain, then light as a summer breeze. From time to time, he’d lash out at Lan Jue with another Prajna charm to keep him on his toes.

They danced around each other, faster and faster, until gradually they were just a pair of blurry shapes. The arena was buffeted with the screeching howl of their powers.

For the spectators, this was a much more pleasing fight than the one before. Lan Jue was forced back with every collision, but he still managed to defend against his brother’s attacks. He was on the defensive, but wasn’t losing too much ground.

“Careful.” Lan Qing suddenly cautioned.
The nimbus that had appeared around his head before appeared anew, and Lan Qing’s entire demeanor changed. His iron exterior seemed to soften with an ethereal benevolence. He thrust out with his palms, alternating one after the other. Each press added to a tide of concussive force headed for Lan Jue. However, not all of them were of equal strength. Some were deceptively soft, which made the stronger ones more acute. The whispering green energy became a fierce wind that kicked up dirt and stones in its path.

Within it, was the faint trace of protogenia.

Lan Jue did not retreat, but rushed forward. The golden aura around him blazed. Behind him, the image of yin and yang, black and white, rotated around one another. His clawed hands rose as though lifting something heavy, then he pushed forward with all of his strength. It was all in total contrast to Lan Qing’s measured strikes.

Boom–! The arena became an explosion of color, as hurricane- force blasts of energy filled the area. Reality collapsed in the center of the ring, and rebounded with a violent detonation that sent Lan Jue flying. Lan Qing tumbled out of the sky and staggered back, but kept his footing.
Lan Jue caught himself, and swung his eyes toward his brother. Gold light poured from them before the whole ring became immersed in it. Lan Qing fell back on his heels, while the halo of light surrounding him fanned out like a holy areole. Behind him, another image of a cyan Buddha spontaneously sprang into being. He pressed his palms together in front of him as bands of white and cyan intermingled all around. Everyone could feel the energy levels rising.

“Stay your hand!” The Wine Master’s booming voice interrupted their exchange.

The brothers were too caught up, and had begun to call upon their protogenic Domain. This was the arena, and while it may look real it was still a constructed reality. If he let them employ the full breadth of their protogenia, he feared this place wouldn’t survive.

But they had already passed the point of no return. Even if the Wine Master intervened personally, it would just be adding his own flame to the raging fire. It could make matters worse.

However, before the critical moment a strange energy infiltrated the arena. A figure appeared, followed by a bone- crunching crack! Everything around them froze as time was
arrested. Lan Jue and Lan Qing were unable to even blink, frozen in the instant before their collision.

Protogenic coagulation?

This…

Lan Jue and Lan Qing had awakened from their battle lust, but found they couldn’t move. The protogenic domains they summoned coalesced in on themselves impotently.

Neither of them had experienced anything like this before. They weren’t Paragons, but at least their command of protogenia wasn’t anything to sniff at! This kind of protogenic coalescence… what sort of power could do that?!

There was an odd flash of pink light. Lan Jue and Lan Qing seemed to shrink, no more the doughty titans of the ring. There was another flash and pop.

Luo Xianni busily flicked a Polaroid photo in her hand. It had captured the perfect moment, just at the peak of the two boys’ conflict, with all their power swirling around them. At some
point during their clash, she had produced a delicate looking pink camera from somewhere. She smirked at the collective stares directed her way. “If you want to know how to life, learn from Luo Xianni. Always carry a camera along! Oh, yeah!”

They… they’d been changed into a picture?

Chu Cheng was struck dump with amazement. He could only stare at the newly revealed Paragon.

They had all guessed, but now they knew. This woman who claimed to be Lan Jue and Lan Qing’s mother, had to be one of the old-style Paragons. She was unknown, a hermit, and now they saw how powerful she really was.

Two men in the midst of calling upon the peak of their power, were immediately reduced to a pretty picture. All of that impressive protogenic energy, gone. How was that even possible?

Even the wine Master looked stunned by what he’d witnessed. After all, it’d been many years since he last saw his Aunt. His memory of the woman wasn’t what it once was.
She tittered on, her face split in a wide smile. “Not bad, not bad! These two young men are an impressive pair. Strong, good potential. Bupang really knows how to pick them. Ay, if only they were my real children!”

In the midst of her lamentations, the flicking photo vanished in a flash of light. Two figured then appeared, suddenly and without warning. They were Lan Jue and Lan Qing. Neither were employing their powers anymore.

The two brothers shared a wordless look, and saw the shock mirrored in one another’s eyes. Lan Jue remembered her telling him she was once known as the Photographer in these parts.

Even the Avenue’s photographer could move mountains.

Luo Xianni chuckled to herself. “It’s been so long since I’ve used my camera, I’m a little rusty. When you’re fighting, try not to move around so much. It ruins the picture and makes  it blurry. Alright, I think that’s enough for today. Come and find me if you ever want some pictures!”

They left the arena. All four of the Monarchs were silent as they stepped back out onto the Avenue. Lan Qing, especially.
Luo Xianni walked right beside them.

“Mother, where are you going to go?” Lan Jue asked.

“To my store to take a look around,” she answered. “It should be more or less ready for the grand re-opening. Make sure I’m the first one you call when it’s time to get married. I promise, you’ll have photos unlike anything you’ve ever seen. It’s up top, called Luo Xianni’s Wedding Photography.”

“Mother, I have a question. How long can you seal time like that when you take a picture?” Lan Jue pressed.

She thought for a moment. “Not too long. At your strength, no more than three years, I suspect. I wouldn’t able to take pictures though, a pity.”

Three. Three years…

Lan Jue just stared at her. The concept was terrifying, worse than any prison. Only moment ago he felt what that was like; he could think, he could even control his Discipline, but he couldn’t move even a centimeter. Nor could he find a way to
break free. This was the containing power of protogenia.

Imagine: No one under the rank of Paragon could deny her a picture. It was terrifying!

Lan Jue went on. “If the photo is destroyed, what then?”

Her answer was thoughtful. “That depends on what you mean by ‘destroyed’. I’m the only one able to damage the photos. If I rip up your image, then you are ripped up too. The higher the Discipline, the more difficult it is to tear up.”

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