Skyfire Avenue Chapter 531-540

Chapter 531: The New Paragon List

Yes, he would get strong. A man who always ran from his problems was a coward. The things that happened couldn’t be undone, and even the Clairvoyant was powerless to change that. Hera was dead, all that was left for her was revenge. Qianlin still lived. Lan Jue had to protect her, and find a way to wake her up.

Once an Adet reached Paragon, it opened up a whole new universe of possibilities. He thought that, if they one day could break through to Paragon together, than Qianlin might wake up. Starting now, that was his ultimate goal.

They were as close as flesh and blood. She was an inalienable part of him, one that he would keep with him until the day she awoke and would be his wife.

When he left the museum he was surprised to find the sky dark. It was clearly still day, but they were surrounded by the night. Stark against the black was a searing comet, leaving a trail of starfire in its wake. The Wine Master, Keeper, Bookworm, and Gourmet all watched it pass in silence.

At some point without him noticing, Skyfire Avenue had become choked with people. No one spoke, or moved, or cried.
Every eye fixed its solemn gaze on the shooting star as it blazed a path through the darkness of the heavens.

That was the third strongest Paragon known to humanity. The Eye of Tomorrow; the Clairvoyant; the preeminent sage of humanity; the founder of Skyfire Avenue. Gone.

A day later both the Avenue and Underground were wreathed in white. Stores were shuttered and Skyfire’s members spent the day in retrospection. For a time Skyfire Avenue was quiet as the grave.

ζ

The Dark Citadel.

“He’s gone.” Satan muttered the words to himself. There was something in his tone, something difficult to place. “I should be happy, but why do I feel so dismal? It’s like losing a part of myself. Ah, you slippery bastard. Why did you have to go now? You’re abandoning your post.”

For days Satan was in terrible spirits, lashing out at his people
with particular ferocity. No one understood his sudden irritation, but likewise no one dared approach him about it.

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The Pontiff’s Citadel.

The Pontiff stood under the starry sky. He lifted his scepter. “We all die, and there is a world waiting for us when we do. Which one will you find yourself in, Clairvoyant? Heaven, or hell? Safe travels.”

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The Great Conclave.

The Terminator and the Epochrion sat facing one another.

The Northern leader stared blankly at his feet until his brows furrowed. “He’s gone.”
“I know,” came the Epochrion’s soft reply.

Bitterness underpinned the Terminator’s smile. “Shouldn’t you be more upset? There’s no reaction from you at all. I’d prefer you cry or show some kind of emotion.”

The Epochrion rose smoothly to her feet, shaking her head. “Forgive me, Davis. I’m going back.”

This took the Terminator by surprise. “He asked you to go back and send him off and you didn’t. Why now?”

A mournful smile turned her dainty lips. “I didn’t go back because I didn’t want to see him like that, mostly dead. I didn’t want to bring back all that heartache. If I want to give up my past, then I mustn’t give it any opportunity to catch up with me. Now he’s gone I will go back to the Avenue, because I have always been Skyfire’s Clockmaker.”

The Terminator’s eyes were wide and indignant. “You!”

The Epochrion’s voice was dispassionate. “We made an agreement when I first came. We agreed that you would not try
to stop me if one day I decided to leave.”

“This is really what you want? Honestly, I never thought the day would come,” the Terminator pleaded.

“I’ve missed so much,” she replied, though it sounded like she was talking more to herself. “There are some things I’m not longer willing to miss out on. In the end, that is my place.”

Agitation was clearly written on the convert’s face. “That may not be how they see it. They might not even want you back!”

The Epochrion smiled back. “So what if they don’t? I’m going back because I want to. So I’m going back.”

ζ

Planet Ziluo.

Chi Bupang rose to his feet, with a glass of whisky in one hand and a cigar in the other.
“The old shyster is on his way. Respect.”

ζ

Three days later a new paragon list was officially drawn up.

Celestial Master Qian was gone longer than most can remember, so his name was removed. The Eye of Tomorrow had met his end. The new official rankings had changed;

1. Jue Di

2. The Terminator (Force)

3. The Epochrion (Time)

4. The Pontiff (Faith)

5. Satan (Dark Faith)
6. The Arcane Magnate (Science)

7. The Cosmagus (Dimension)

8. The Astral Phantom (Speed, Poison)

9. The Karmic Scholar (Science)

10. The Infernal Vanguard (Death-Faith)

Chapter 532: The Clockmaker’s Return

Lan Jue wanted to take command personally. Not everyone was compelled to participate. People Lan Jue knew well, and those whom he had enough mecha data on where not required to join. These included Lan Jue himself, the Bartender, the Driver, and the Seamstress. They were involved as judges and team leaders rather than competitors. There were eight hundred of them, testing one by one was ludicrous. The A.R.C. students weren’t exempt, though their participation was to determine how strong they’d gotten.

The Wine Master watched Lan Jue go and couldn’t help but sigh. He knew what the young man had to bear, how heavy the load was on his shoulders. How could he, a Paragon, not? Anyone could sense what kind of burden it was.

Yet, Lan Jue seemed to be carrying it well. In fact he looked positive, ready to attack the task ahead.

His eyes unconsciously swept back to the Clockmaker’s shop. He took a deep breath and straightened his clothes, and before he knew it, his long legs were moving him across the street. He made up his mind, so there was no more  hesitation.  When things needed to be faced, it was important to face them head on. He had been a coward for so long, would he be a coward for
the rest of his life? So long as he was alive he would avoid regrets, not accrue them. That was what Lan Jue was trying to tell him, he was sure.

The Clock Store’s display had been cleaned, he noted as he walked by. When he stopped at the open door he heard a chorus of mismatched ticks and tocks. Inside, needles jerked and pendulums swung.

From the door he could see the Clockmaker inside with a grandfather clock. She muttered to herself from time to time, probably trying to find the perfect spot.

He walked in, picking through the store toward the Clockmaker. He pointed to a spot nearby. “I like it there.”

She shot him a glance, then without a word moved around to the other side of the hefty clock. She straightened, managing to get it halfway off the floor before stopping. Her eyes fixed on the Wine Master. “Help.”

For a moment, the Wine Master was startled and didn’t move. But he quickly recovered and quickly took up the other side. Neither used their Discipline, struggling mightily by muscle
strength alone. Together they shuffled it to where the Wine Master had suggested.

The Clockmaker straightened, then walked back toward the store’s interior. The Wine Master remained behind scratching his head, unsure whether he should follow.

“Come.” Her voice saved him from the awkward indecision.

“Oh.” He hurried over.

She stood behind the counter, looking at him. He looked back.
Both seemed unsure of what to say.

“I want some wine.” Her wet, sad eyes betraying her hard façade.

“Yeah,” the Wine Master nodded. “What would you like?”

She sighed an even response. “It doesn’t matter. I just want to send him off.”
The Wine Master didn’t have to ask who she meant. The pain of the loss of his friend was still fresh, and it showed on his own face. “Alright.”

She looked him dead in the eye. “I mean, from my heart.”

The Wine Master looked at her, confused for a moment as though he’d heard wrong. Then it dawned on him…

ζ

The sparring started in earnest. Lan Jue, along with the others, busily watched them for clues to their abilities. There were only ten proctors, so only ten fights could be watched at a time.

DreamNet was convenient for this. It saved them a great deal of space, money and labor. There was zero possibility one of them would be injured or killed, but in all intents and purposes it was a carbon copy of real life. This was especially true for Adepts, which was why the upgrades to DreamNet were seen as the beginning of a new Era.
Lan Jue stood behind the main control board, transfixed by the screens. From what he could see things weren’t great, but they weren’t dire either. Most of them had at least some experience piloting mechas. As Adepts they were also naturally superior over normal cadets, and that meant training would go smoother. The highest praise he could give them was that they all knew how to use their Disciplines to enhance their mecha combat effectiveness. That was the single most important factor of an Adept pilot.

There were faults as well. In regards to maneuverability, they were all over the map from fresh faced to near-masters. While they could use their Discipline with the suits, they still relied too heavily on the machine to do the work for them. Their advantages were going to waste.

Lan Jue had anticipated all of this. They weren’t in a rush and he didn’t expect perfection. First they had to separate them into type, then round them up into groups. That was the bedrock on which their full potential would be realized.

The busiest person, though, had to be the Accountant. On top of running the procedures he was also carefully studying each fight and sorting data. He had three separate computers arrayed before him, and his fingers danced fluidly over the keyboard. He was starting to look like he could give the Coffee Master, the
‘fastest hands alive’, a run for his money.

They carried on, one fight after another. It wasn’t any sort of round-robin tournament, but rather in teams. A small team had ten pilots, so that meant every cadet fought nine times. There wasn’t anything after that because it wasn’t about rank. This was a chance to test every fighter against different opponents so they could see what they were made of.

Lan Jue was surprised at his A.R.C. students’ improvement. Their piloting and integration were much better than they used to be. In fact, their virtual suits were brand new, but it only took them a couple of days to become wholly familiar with them. Many Adepts stronger than them fell to superior training during the sparring. It was a rare, happy surprise.

The Accountant was flagging. He was leaning back in his seat with lidded, misty eyes. His hands never stopped dancing across the keyboard, though.

“How much longer until the analyses are complete?” Lan Jue walked over to stand by the Accountant’s chair and put a hand on his shoulder.
“A day for preliminary results,” he replied. “Three for a full run-down.”

Lan Jue nodded. “Alright. There’s no rush, don’t overwork yourself.”

The data analyst nodded acknowledgement. “I can tell you just from what I’m seeing that some recruits won’t be suitable for battle. Several of them have Disciplines like mine. I plan to conscript them to help me here. They maybe won’t fight but we need intelligence and battlefield coordinators too. What we really need is a battleship…”

“As you say,” Lan Jue replied. Not everyone in a mecha unit was built to be a warrior. They would need logistics personnel for the back line. There would come a time when they were needed to fight, but they won’t need a battleship to do it.

The real-world mechas being built for them by the Avenue came with interspatial storage capabilities – that probably cost them an arm and a leg. The battleship Lan Jue brought back after meeting with his Master would be sufficient. To honor his teacher Lan Jue had the ship’s name changed to the Majesty, flagship of the Avenue military.
Of course, it wasn’t just a transport ship. Lan Jue had delivered it to the Keeper and Bookworm, and asked them to try and find anything that could benefit from an upgrade. The results should make it more formidable in a fight.

The communicator on his wrist buzzed and blinked. When Lan Jue looked down to see who was calling, his eyes lit up. He hastily connected the call.

“Little Su, you finally called me back.” The former Bloodfiend Empress was on the other end. Now she went by a different moniker, the fifth of Zeus’ Amazons, the Morningstar.

“Boss.” She sounded tired.

“What’s up?” Lan Jue asked. “How’s the situation in the Starfields?”

“We’ve had a few scraps already and I got my people back, at least some of them. The rest have been scattered or killed. I’ve got a battleship and some resources, that’s it.” Xiaosu’s voice didn’t sound inspired. The Bloodfiend clan had been the product of her heart and devotion, and her allegiance was mirrored by her core people.
“Come back,” Lan Jue urged.

Su Xiaosu was quiet for a time after hearing the words. She was strong, and in the face of an enemy she could be as cruel as her former title suggested. But those few simple words from Lan Jue made her eyes mist up.

“Boss, I… “ She was the leader of a pirate clan. Her flock had served her loyally for years, even forsaking lucrative Citadel bribes for her. She couldn’t just abandon them.

“Go to An Lun. I’ll give you some contact information, get in touch with him. Leave your ship and have them drop you off here. I’ll incorporate you and your men into my forces.” Lan Jue’s voice was calm and logical.

“Really?” He could hear the excitement in her voice. “Boss, you’re willing to take them in?” She knew the full implications of what that meant. By taking them in, he was also agreeing to bear responsibility for everything these pirates had done, past and present. She could also guess at Lan Jue’s status in the Avenue. They could request asylum, and her people would have a chance at a normal life.
Lan Jue didn’t need to answer. “Here’s who to call…” He gave a number to Xiaosu. All of this had been planned, he would fill her in when she got back. When it came to pirate leadership there was no one more capable than Su Xiaosu. She was also an expert in guerilla tactics, the same Lan Qing had suggested he use for the Star Division. As the analysis continued, Lan Jue became more and more convinced his brother had it right.

Chapter 533: Creating A Division

The tedious but necessary process of separated the Adepts by strength continued. Afterwards cadets were arranged into small squads. Individually these squads weren’t going to win the war, but with the right training they could be invaluable scouts and shock troops.

The pirate fighting tactics were perfect for the job. He needed Su Xiaosu’s experience. In addition, she had imposed control and restraint on a group that traditionally had neither. The people she commanded were not wicked, but were fiercely loyal.

“Get some rest, don’t stew on it too long.” Lan Jue urged the Morningstar. When they hung up he took his own advice and returned to his dorm. With training officially underway, he couldn’t return to the Avenue.

Once he got back Lan Jue ate some dinner and released Zhou Qianlin. Her condition was unchanged. Physically she was fine, but there was nothing behind her eyes. They were dull, staring voids.

He dressed her, then placed her in a seat nearby. “Alright sweetheart,” he said softly, “you should eat.”
He fed her spoonful by spoonful, then bathed her. Once the nightly ritual was complete, he kissed her to join their bodies and began to cultivate.

Every day when they joined, he focused inward and called to her. He flushed their shared vessels with nutritive energy. Qianlin’s Queen of Heaven Discipline was also known for self- regenerative effects, Lan Jue knew. She would wake up one day naturally, but even if she didn’t things would change when they became Paragons. Protogenia was a mystical force that could do incredible things, joined with her healing powers. That was why he used every spare moment cultivating.

Thankfully Qianlin’s loss of consciousness didn’t affect the speed or quality of their cultivation. When they joined it proceeded unhindered under Lan Jue’s direction. He’d tried using bioelectricity to stimulate her brain, but she looked hurt and didn’t dare try again.

He didn’t neglect the worst case scenario. What if she never got better? It didn’t matter. Just having her with him would ease his heart. It’d suffered a lot of ups and downs lately, culminating in the assassination attempt that put Qianlin in this state. At least it had stirred his potential, and sped up his cultivation.
ζ

Three days later.

Skyfire Avenue’s Star Division was nearly established.

The cadets were arrayed on the field in their flight uniforms. It was white, with a swirling flame emblazoned on the right breast; the insignia of the Star Division. All eight hundred plus stood in rows, stretching across the grounds. Lan Jue and a few other Skyfire elites stood before them.

“Evaluations have been completed. Today we will be separating you into units. Once that’s done training can begin.” His voice was hard and low. However, curt though it was, there was a captivating quality to it. Every eye was fixed on him.

It wasn’t his charisma. He’d imbued his voice with the protogenic power of his Ascension command. If he wanted respect, he’d have to flex his muscles.

The Gourmet and the Pharmacist stood at either side of him. One was a Paragon, and the other showed stupendous strength
during the tournament. It was hard to say if Lan Jue still would have won if not for her forfeiture.

“You all came for different reasons. We are Adepts, we yearn for perfection, we yearn for strength – but we also have families. This Division has been created to protect Skyfire Avenue. It was made to protect the Eastern Alliance and yes, it was made to protect your families. I’m not going to stand here and lecture you on ideals. I’m just going to tell you straight; if you want to survive this war, and maybe improve yourself in the process, then you’ll need to prove it on the training field. This Division will do its best to bring you back to those families but to do that, you have to be more than Adepts. You have to be soldiers.

“You all came of our own volition. No one coerced you to sign up. If any of you want to go at any time, no one’s going to stop you. You turn in what we provided for you and we part ways. But by completing this training you swear to rise to the occasion when the time comes. When the call to fight rings out you answer. I hope by then we’ve formed a bond here – brothers and sisters in arms – a pact where you know the person beside you has your back. We will stand strong, stand together, and fight.

“In addition, as a representative of Skyfire Avenue I will remind you that anyone who remains in active service for three years or longer will be placed on a priority list for the exuviation
procedure. But if a long life is what you’re looking for, you have to make it back in one piece. Remember that you and a unit are not the same. When there is discipline and unity, you will survive. Alright, now for teams.”

“The Star Division will consist of four brigades. I will be leading the First Brigade personally. The Driver will command the Second, the Coffee Master will lead the Third and the Fourth will follow the Bartender. Some of you may be wondering why the strongest leaders – the Gourmet and the Pharmacist – are not leading brigades. I would remind you that this is a mecha Division, and commanders must be masters of mecha combat. Do you remember what they called the miracle battles, against the Four Divine Monarchs and the Star Alliance? Allow me to introduce you. The Driver, known to you all as Thunderclap. The Coffee Master is really the Knave, Fastest Hands Alive. Finally, the Bartender – the Demon Dragon of Ice and Flame, and pilot of Bahamut.”

A buzz of excitement rippled through the cadets. Lan Jue and all the Adepts around him were at least ninth level, very strong. However, being a good Adept and being a good pilot weren’t one and the same.

The titan of electricity, Thunderclap. The Knave and his extraordinary hands. The Demon Dragon of Ice and Fire. These
were names that would give them shivers, great pillars of mecha piloting. Lan Jue was himself an illustrious Monarch – Zeus, God of Lightning. With leaders like this, how could they not have unwavering faith in the new Division?

Lan Jue quickly set about organizing the troops. Using the data they’d gathered, he arranged them according to their strengths into four types. The first type were specialized in speed. The second were unique and miscellaneous Talents. The third type were close-quarters fighters and the last, ranged attackers.

This was the best way to call on their full potential. Too many Adepts with different specialties together would get in each other’s way, and ultimately harm the Division. If a team shared a specialty then their effectiveness improved, and their training was easier.

It would behoove them to learn how to work together as companies, but at present he didn’t even know how long they would have before the enemy arrived. Right now they needed to stick to simple and effective methods.

Lan Jue would be responsible for the First Brigade, which was composed entirely of long-ranged mecha fighters. The Driver’s
Second Brigade was close combat. The Coffee Master and his Third Brigade were special units, and the Fourth Brigade under command of the Bartender was all about speed.

The First and Second Brigades were the most populated. Together they numbered over five hundred strong. Third Brigade added another one hundred, and Fourth Brigade was double that.

Now it was time for squads.

It was the same for each Brigade; ten pilots to a squad with a squad commander and a sergeant as second in command. Leaders were chosen from data acquired during registration. The most difficult in this regard was Third Brigade. They had scores of different abilities that didn’t quite fit anywhere else. After three days of wracking their brains, though, they managed to work out a plan that matched their needs.

Once that was finished each Brigade picked an Ace Squad to lead by example. First Brigade’s Ace Squad was saddled with the Pharmacist, but Second Brigade had it worse with the Gourmet. Third Brigades’ was the Beautician. Fourth Brigades’ Ace Squad was led by the Mechanic.
The Ace Squads were composed of the best pilots on the Brigade. Their strength would be applied to sensitive missions and special tasks. They were all equipped with God-ranked mecha suits.

At last the structural part was done. The cadets hurriedly reorganized themselves by Brigade and Squad, leaders at the fore. The Ace Squad members stood proud with a crown insignia pinned to their shoulders.

Lan Jue made it clear that the Ace Squads were expected to take the most difficult and dangerous missions. However, they would also reap the best rewards. Through meritorious action and hard work, members of other Brigades could challenge for a post on Ace Squad. If they succeeded, they were welcomed with open arms. There was no max capacity.

Then, in front of the collected gaze of the Division, Lan Jue handed out an A-ranked power gem to every Ace Squad member as a reward for making the cut. They were carefully selected to be useful for the pilot.

The gems weren’t all provided by the Avenue. In fact, a large amount came out of Lan Jue’s own inventory. The Amazons were less than pleased to see them given out like this. In return
the leadership of the Avenue agreed to front the cost of Majesty’s upgrades, and at the very least look for a replacement stealth gem. The Amazons were less upset after that.

Lan Jue didn’t resent using his own resources, but more than just he relied on Zeus’ Jewelry Shop. The Amazons all had financial and emotional stock in the store, and he respected their opinion. Most of their haul from Luo had been sold to the Eastern government, but with the stipulation that they were only used to create the Star Division mechas.

Chapter 534: DreamNet Training

Now that this was a true Division, they would need the equipment to match. Normal loadouts weren’t going to cut it, heavy weapons would be needed for deep space combat.

Once all was said and done, Lan Jue gave the command for them to relax and take a moment to get familiar with their squad mates. Humans were high-functioning and emotional animals, so communication and relationships were important. Communication lead to understanding, mutual faith, and friendships.

Next on the agenda was rigorous training. Since their real mecha suits weren’t ready yet, training would begin in DreamNet. The system he would use for the Star Division would be different than what he’d used in the A.R.C. class. Those were kids, with weak foundation. He had had to start from scratch. All of these cadets were adults of sixth level or higher, with strong foundations. The tactics used for the A.R.C. class weren’t suitable here. Instead, they needed to refine the skills they already possessed, strengthen their mecha control, and keep working.

Hua Li’s training procedure from Gobi was a good start. Lan Jue put them through it. Its greatest advantage was the
program was designed to push every pilot to their limit. With the Bookworm’s upgrades it was even better, since now they could use their Disciplines.

This first stage would take about a month for all cadets to complete. Everyone, with the exception of the Pharmacist and the Gourmet, was going to participate. This included Lan Jue.

By putting themselves in their cadets’ shoes, it seemed to have the desired effect. At least everyone was actively participating. The Avenue’s structure was loose, but these were adults. He could rely on them to make more mature decisions. They knew what they stood to gain from following orders, and what they stood to lose by ignoring them. The harder they trained, the more likely it was they would survive to talk about it. No one backed out.

This time he was implementing a series of rewards, completely different than his tactic for the A.R.C. students. For those who performed outstandingly in training, their reward would be power gems. Very pricey power gems. In times like this, when all of humanity was preparing for war, power gems were the best form of currency. As an incentive, it certainly did its job to get the cadets fired up.
Being sixth level Adepts, it didn’t take them long to adapt and overcome this first challenge. At the end of the first month every pilot could teach a master class on fundamentals. Medicines from the Pharmacist and Skyfire Avenue arrived as well. Generally they would have been too expensive for too little worth, but the Pharmacist’s decoctions were a cut above and the Avenue was covering costs. The medicines she provided weren’t for improving their Disciplines, although formulas for that existed. This was instead not unlike the medicines Lan Jue had used for his students, more for restoring the damage to their bodies. A pilot’s body was their biggest obstacle to mastering a mecha suit. If they didn’t have the hand speed, reaction time, or endurance then they wouldn’t be able to keep up.

Tan Lingyun was an example. The day she sat on his lap for the games, she became dizzy when he was using his higher skills. Her body wasn’t ready. Before a pilot could perform the more advanced maneuvers, they needed to make sure they could handle them.

That was what this medicine was specifically designed to do. Lan Jue was confident that it would make them strong and committed. No amount of money was too high for that sort of return.

As the first month closed out, not a soul dropped out of the
program. Basic training was done, it was time to move on to tactical drills. This was when Lan Jue introduced them all to their Chief Military Instructor – the Morningstar, Su Xiaosu.

Twenty six pirates fled the Starfields with the Moonfiend Empress. They were the best of her people, by her side since the clan’s inception. Now they held different positions.

When they got to An Lun they were forced to give up their ship. However, they were allowed to keep all the resources in it. In a shock change of identity, Xiaosu was also given a job in the An Lun military; Colonel, a Commissioned Officer. Her men were made drillmasters. You couldn’t tell by looking at them, but behind those military fatigues were hardened former pilots.

Why did it take a month for them to return? Their trip wasn’t idle. When they got to An Lun, they were also put through a brief training, watched over by Lan Qing himself. When they were ready to head to Skyfire, they were like whole new people.

Lan Jue didn’t know what Lan Qing did to train them, but even mentioning the name Prometheus almost made the former pirates soil their pants. Even Su Xiaosu grew pale when he came up in conversation.
Even true soldiers didn’t have the breadth of combat experience pirates did, at least in peacetime. The Moonfiend Pirates had been the greatest pirate force in history, so this went double for them. These twenty-some men and women had been the heart of that powerhouse. Making them drillmasters to teach his people the way of Profiteering was a fine decision.

It was a little rocky at first. The pirates were like country bumpkins coming to the city for the first time. They were showered suddenly with riches, from tailor-made mechas to the Majesty, which made their mouths water.

Soon they found their place and proved themselves in solo combat. However, in regards to battlefield tactics they were all greenhorns. Pirate combat was shrewd and dirty. They only faced their enemy when they had a huge advantage. Ambushes, assassinations, guerrilla strikes, these were where they excelled, what they would teach the others.

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In the blink of an eye, three months had passed. Now it could be said that the Star Division was a preliminary success. At the very least, the cadets knew how to fly their suits. There were only a few trainees who were good enough their respective Ace
Squads. But what they lacked in numbers, they made up for in skill and strength of Discipline.

In three months all of the mechs were ready to go, and real- world training could begin.

Lan Jue had also been furiously training, and was now at sixth rank. Qianlin was only a rank below. Sadly, her spirit was still lost. The good news was that thanks to his meticulous care, Qianlin was able to perform simple functions herself. Eating, changing clothes, and walking were tasks she could manage.

These were excellent developments that gave Lan Jue hope.
These were signs that Qianlin was healing.

Since receiving the amulets, each Monarch had gone their separate ways. Lan Qing returned to his duties on An Lun. When Chu Cheng awoke from his coma, he immediately returned to Luo and locked himself away. The amulet had given him insight, and he had to use this opportunity to discover his Path.

Hua Li went back to the Poseidon Group. They were preparing their own response to the crisis. Although he didn’t tell Lan Jue
what it was, he promised that when war broke out, he’d be right by his side.

Day followed day, and Lan Jue’s Pirate scouts began returning information. There were more sightings of the aliens in every Alliance. They were like spies, probing for weakness. So far no sign of the three home planets had been found.

Humanity continually sent out their own reconnaissance flights as well, but information was sparse. Many scouting parties never returned, and those that did had to turn flee from heavy alien aggression.

As these incidents increased, everyone became more convinced that humanity was their final destination. It was simple logic. These beasts feasted on vitality. Humans were many, and their worlds were verdant.

Every Alliance was throwing itself behind the war effort. Their respective militaries were operating at full steam. In the North, they just completed construction of a new class of Bastion ship, and have undergone real-world testing. At present the North had eight active Bastion ships. The West and East were also creating new generations of Bastions with five and four respectively.
That numbered seventeen in total. They were distributed along the border of human space, with their main battery pointed toward the black, ready to welcome those three alien planets should they come knocking.

Chapter 535: Star Division, Dispatch!

The search for information never ceased. A great deal of what they learned was a direct result of the the North’s Seventh Fleet and their sacrifice. Comprehensive intelligence estimated that humans would now be able to stand their own against the monsters, when they came. A fair amount of that confidence came from the mighty Bastion ships. Be it offensive or defensive, the capabilities of those  technical  marvels outstripped a whole fleet. Strange though these creatures and tactics were, they still had to resign themselves to the law of conservation. There were only three alien planets as opposed to humanity’s seventeen Bastion ships. All they had to do was surround them and their chance at victory was great.

“Parliament has approved your request. You can begin whenever you like.” The Wine Master informed the bright-eyed Lan Jue seated across from him.

The commander nodded. “Good. Give us three days to get our things in order, then we’ll set out.”

“Keep damage to a minimum,” the Wine Master urged.

“I know,” Lan Jue replied. “Every soldier is a son or daughter
of the Division. Still, they’re soldiers. The best way for a soldier to learn is in combat. This mission isn’t about making them hard, but to make them confident. We’ll see how they’re coming along.”

The Wine Master still looked dubious. “Be quick. Those things will show up any day and we’ll need to react immediately. Remember also that no matter what you’re doing the East will disavow any knowledge of your existence. As we prepare for the invasion, this fragile peace must be maintained.”

Lan Jue returned with a soft laugh. “Relax. I’ll bring them back in the same condition they left in. I’ll need Majesty and Zeus-1. We’ll need to hurry with upgrades to Zeus-2 and 3 as well.”

The Wine Master rubbed his wrinkled forehead. “Do you have any idea how much money we’ve spent since you started this Division?”

Chuckling, Lan Jue shrugged. “What’s that got to do with me? My only responsibility is to turn them into a fighting force. Anyway, who’s to say we don’t come back with some plunder of our own.”
This earned a wry smirk. “Fine, go prepare. We’ll cover your departure. Strike quickly and decisively, then get back.”

“Yeah.” Lan Jue nodded, then left.

Four months had passed since the establishment of the Star Division. The bulk of that time the cadets trained in DreamNet. Later they added real mechas, but still leaned on DreamNet for most of their drills. With their training beginning to bear fruit, it was time to test them and deepen their comprehension with a live exercise. It was time to show off this lauded troupe they’d created. It was like Lan Jue said, they didn’t need to be thrust into the fray. They needed confidence and unity. Victory would give them confidence, and shared investment would forge unity.

Two days later, two ships quietly slipped out of Skyfire’s public hangar. They roared through the atmosphere and into the darkness of space.

Lan Jue stood in the center of Majesty’s bridge. He looked at the soldiers of his Star Division milling about. After its upgrades, Majesty was able to house a thousand soldiers onboard. In regards to mass it wasn’t any less spacious than a standard battleship, with a flashier hull. The hull’s strength
wasn’t its only improvement, though. If the military brass knew the full specs of Majesty they’d probably faint from all the blood rushing from their head.

Lan Jue had allowed the use of his ships, but with conditions of course. Majesty had been Jue Di’s creation, and while he was certainly not lacking in scientific prowess, his resources were limited. With the Avenue’s agreement all of its older core gems had been replaced. Even with Lan Jue’s experience as Jewelry Master, he visibly gulped when he found out what they’d put in it.

“After four months I’m sure you’re all stir crazy. Now it’s time to see if you’ve learned anything. So, we’re on our way to a live exercise. Now take note, this is not practice. You’re about to face a real battle.” His face was serious, stoic.

The four brigade commanders looked back at him with eager expressions, ready for battle. To keep their journey a secret, only a few had known their purpose. Once they’d gotten the soldiers on the ships some had their suspicions, but now they were confirmed.

Lan Jue was pleased with how they’d turned out. There was little chance of finding cowardice among these men and women.
They were Adepts with solid Disciplines all, and sure in their abilities. Adding months of training had honed their mecha control, and every one of them had seen great improvement. With cutting edge equipment, overwhelming power, and shrewd leadership, they didn’t need to shrink from combat. It was time to go find it. Lan Jue wasn’t the only one who wanted to see what these warriors were capable of. They needed to see it for themselves.

Lan Jue’s authoritative voice returned. “This time our target is weak, and soft. This should not be a difficult fight for you. I will stress that any resources captured will be evenly distributed as determined by Division leadership. You will follow orders, and if you don’t you will be summarily dismissed. Are we clear?”

“Yes, commander!” The soldiers called back in a single voice.

Lan Jue nodded in satisfaction and smiled. “Then with that said, it’s time to raise the black flag. We’re the Star Pirate Clan, now. Our operation zone is in the Shattered Starfields. Our goal is to create the largest pirate clan in the system within one month. We’re going in there to fight fire with fire.”

The Division soldiers shared looks of confusion. Starfields?
Pirates? Combat in the Shattered Starfields was mostly ship-to- ship. How was this going to involve a mecha division?

There were a lot of questions, but the four months of training had not been in vain. Squad commanders had a tight control over their people, and the weaker leaders had been swapped out long ago. Questions though there were, no one disobeyed.

Majesty soared through the vacuum of space at a moderate speed with Zeus-1 at its flank. Lan Jue’s ship was piloted by the Accountant and the commander of his operations intelligence squad. The Accountant’s men were responsible for intelligence gathering and missions, and had Disciplines suited for the task.

Zeus’ Amazons were the crew of Zeus-1. Su Xiaosu and her main crew were aboard, along with the other Division trainers. If they were going to the Starfields than it was important to bring someone who knew the place well. It was a complicated place with more clans than common sense. There was nowhere better to learn pirate tactics.

At present the largest of the system’s three planets was under the thumb of the Pontiff’s Citadel. The former Moonfiend Empress had come in beneath their radar thanks to Zeus-1’s cloaking capabilities, but it was a single ship and a lone woman.
For her to walk away with her people was pretty impressive.

In addition, simply being a clan represented strength. You needed resources and information to grow large. Constant problems you needed a strong handle to handle.

The Pharmacist approached Lan Jue with a smile. “I have good news.”

“What news?” Lan Jue asked.

When they’d started he had hoped the Pharmacist would agree to more important duties. He’d wanted her to be the second in command, or even commander of the First Brigade. She refused, stating that she was only interested in dealing with matters of the Ace Squad.

She looked at him. “They’re here.”

“They…?” Lan Jue was confused for a moment before recalling who she meant. His voice immediately dropped to a whisper. “Where?”
She grinned back at him. “Come with me.” She turned and left the bridge.

Majesty’s battleship construction meant it had spacious room as sleeping quarters for the soldiers. Zeus-1, by contrast, had only a cramped cabin. The Pharmacist lead him to a private room and shut the door behind them. With a wave of her hand, three blazing lights joined them.

They were a glimmering white, blue, and red. As the light receded they were revealed as three swords suspended in the air before Lan Jue. The flood of power he expected from them was conspicuously restrained.

The white one he knew; that was the Pharmacist’s Occisus. The other two were simple-looking aside from the hue until one looked closer. A strange aura hung around the red blade that drew the eye and focused concentration. Lan Jue fought the desire to reach for it. The blue sword seemed fuzzy and unreal, like it was a thousand possible realities of itself forced into one place.

“You can come out,” the Pharmacist assured.
The swords shuddered in response, and then with a flash of light they became two familiar faces. They were none other than the White Blademaster, Jun Yongye and his companion, Xuanyuan Shishi the Ten-Thousand Blades.

“Ah, gentlemen. It’s been a long time.” Lan Jue greeted them with some surprise.

The two swordsmen nodded back.

The Pharmacist went on. “You boys chat. I’ll be around.” Her delicate mouth opened and Occisus became a beam of light that vanished down her throat. Then she left.

“Please, sit.” The cabin wasn’t large, and it was a little tight with the three of them.

Chapter 536: Godblade Secrets

Jun Yongye smiled at him. “Lan Jue. No need for courtesy. We believe you know our purpose for being here. We are Captus and Demortis – our spirit given human form as we seek our bearers. When we were made aware of the Great Adept Tournament, we decided to take a look. After all, no normal human has what we seek.”

Xuanyuan Shishi sat at the other’s side, nodding.

The White Blademaster continued. “We selected you. Or to be more precise, you and the woman with you. We were once with the one you call Celestial Bearer Qian, and when we took human form he taught us two sword styles. But maintaining this form is draining, and cannot be maintained for long. This is why we seek a suitable bearer. If we do not, then our bodies pass in ten years’ time.”

Lan Jue blinked, surprised. “Ten years and you die?”

Jun Yongye nodded. “We are not the first generation of sword-spirit. We pass, and every once in a while a new soul- spirit is born. Only once a suitable handler has been found will the spirit bond totally within the sword. Until the bearer’s
death at which time they, too, pass. We exist as transient faces until we find our bearers, or pass away and wait for the next time we take shape.

“It is not easy to earn our loyalty. There are many conditions to be met. They must be strong, and true. They must be unique in their skills and singular in potential. Then they will have earned a chance at our acceptance. They must be the pride of the Banishing Blades.”

“After Luo we returned to the site of our true forms and rejoined with them. We had to first prepare ourselves to accept a new bearer before seeking you. Then, we heard about Ms. Zhou…”

At mention of Zhou Qianlin, Lan Jue’s face darkened, though a sad smile lifted his lips. “I failed to protect her, and she suffered it by getting poisoned. It has caused her to become… lost. She doesn’t recognize the outside world. I’m afraid there may be no way…”

Xuanyuan Shishi’s brows furrowed. “This is troubling. The style we know must be taught to two who share a common mind and purpose. Without her senses about her,  I  fear  the acceptance process may be dangerous for her.”
Jun Yongye’s deep voice continued. “But our time also grows short. If we wait any longer our spirits will grow weak – we won’t have the strength to join. Then we will disappear.”

Lan Jue took a deep breath. “Then choose others.” Lan Jue said it with force. Jun Yongye and Xuanyuan Shishi exchanged a look after seeing the change in the commander’s eyes.

These two were representative spirits of some of the strongest artifacts in the universe. Joining with them would mean Lan Jue’s Paragon Astrum would be unparalleled but for the other swords. Could he really be turning down something so magnificent as the chance to wield a godblade?

After he said it, Lan Jue seemed to deflate a little. He bowed respectfully before the two sword-spirits. “I must apologize. Though I do wish I could battle with you in the coming war, I cannot accept such a risk to Zhou Qianlin. She suffered greatly because of me and was nearly killed. I will not allow that to happen a second time.”

There was admiration in Jun Yongye’s face as he smiled and replied. “It is evident we have selected well. Not just anyone has the qualifications to bear us, and our decision is not lightly made. Even if it means our death, the selection of a bearer is
venerated.”

“I can see the connections between you that go deep as veins. Joining with us is not impossible. If you can bear the process for the both of you, the end result will be the same. Though be warned, it will be a grievous path for you. You will face the baptism of Demortis and Captus together. This is to say that Xuanyuan will join with Qianlin, but your body will be her surrogate in sustaining the internal energies. Once the powers are filtered, they will be imparted unto her. In this way she may painlessly accept to bear Demortus. From what we have seen of your joined strength, we suspect the chances are good. However, the process will be painful.”

Lan Jue’s eyes sparkled. If they said there was a chance, then he couldn’t give it up. Pain? What pain could be worse than the pain he bore in his heart? Ever since seeing the videos from Hera and Qianlin it was like a scorched hole in his chest. Maybe some pain in the body would help distract him. Most important was making sure Qianlin didn’t suffer a thing.

“Very well, I accept. I’ll accept you both!” Lan Jue resolutely said to Jun Yongye.

There was appreciation in the sword-spirits response, and he
nodded back. “Good. However, space is unsuitable. We must wait until your feet are on solid ground. Best we finish in under half a month. After that, there may start to appear fluctuations in our presence.”

Lan Jue nodded in understanding. “Alright. After we enter the Shattered Starfields, we’ll start looking for a place to merge right away.” The Division was well established by this point, and their mission wasn’t difficult or critical. Lan Jue did not need to keep his eye on them the whole time.

Majesty and Zeus-1 crept through the darkness of space like shades. Somehow the Wine Master had made good on his promise, and by means unknown acquired another Blinding Stone just like the one on Zeus-1. Now even the most sensitive radar couldn’t pick them out.

Hence how precious Blinding Stones were.

Five days later the two vessels slipped past the border into the Shattered Starfields. Thanks to their cloaking abilities they encountered no pirate resistance as they penetrated into the inner parts of the system.
The Starfields were a big place. Thousands of pirates roamed the asteroid fields but the distances were vast. Only those small planets with valuable resources saw any settling, and the rest were lifeless hunks of heavy elements.

Lan Jue and his brigade leaders had come up with a simple plan; from easy to hard. Start with the weaker pirate clans for experience and confidence. Then, start hunting for fatter fish. The task began the moment they entered the Starfields. With only a month to eradicate the pirate menace, they had work to do.

As former mistress of the system Su Xiaosu took the lead. She would direct them to objectives, all of which were wicked men.

Their first target was a small clan called the Poison Wasps.

The Poison Wasp Clan did not have a long history in the Starfields – a couple of years, at most. They had no battleships, only five modified patrol ships. Relatively weak, the man who ran the outfit made up for it with cunning and ferocity. They were a type of pirate that preyed on others of their kind. They were new and small, but infamous.
They did have their advantages. They had no static base, living on the five ships they used for pillaging. They would hit a target, loot it, then disappear into the dangerous seas of asteroids to evade counterattack. Other pirate clans had their own territories they didn’t appreciate being violated. And yet, that’s what the Poison Wasps did regularly and got away with it. Every time they made themselves stronger. When they started, they only had a single patrol ship.

Poison Wasp’s leader was also called Poison Wasp, a cruel sociopath.

Su Xiaosu was already familiar with them, since they’d been a popular topic of conversation for some time. They would hit one of the three primary planets and then vanish before a deterrent force could muster. Cunning as a fox. Not long ago they signed up with the Pontiff’s forces and were absorbed. Now they served as an advance force, with a small base planet to call their own.

This was, of course, covert support from the  Moonfiend Pirates that few were aware of.

The location of their new base wasn’t far from the three primary planets, but separated by a dense asteroid belt. If you
had a pilot with experience navigating it, you could cross the belt and get to the planets in a day.

Majesty and Zeus-1 quietly slipped closer to Poison Wasp and his band of murderers.

Their base planet was not resource-rich. On the contrary, it could be said to be barren. If it did the Moonfiend Pirates probably wouldn’t have let it go. At the very least, however, it was safe harbor. At a certain point every pirate clan needed a territory to establish and expand from. The alternative was to drift through space, desperate for resources and unable to grow. After all, strength needed men to wield it. Those patrol boats didn’t have very much in the way of space.

Lan Jue stood by the porthole and watched the tiny planet as it spun through space. He could see its three big sisters behind it in the distance. His brigade leaders stood at his side.

“Give this one to Fourth Brigade,” he said.

The Coffee Master looked up. “Why give it to them? Third Brigade can handle it.”
The Driver scowled, but didn’t reply.

Lan Jue explained. “We’re testing synergy. There’s no need to fire a nuke at a bunny rabbit. Now it’s time to talk about our plan…”

ζ

Poison Wasp looked out with pride over the base beginning to take shape before him. With the support of the Moonfiend Pirates they had already secured and established and area of one square kilometer.

It wasn’t the most welcoming planet. Life support systems needed to be in place for anyone to live for long. They also needed shields and other defensive structures to protect against harmful cosmic radiation and keep precious oxygen inside. All food was either brought from off world or cultivated from small plots of land beneath the shield.

Chapter 537: Poison Wasp Pirate Clan

Of course, as pirates most of their food came offworld, from pillaging. Sustenance was an important resource. The only clans that could produce what they needed were settled on one of the three major planets. The Poison Wasp Clan took what they needed – otherwise they wouldn’t be very good pirates.

Through the last couple years of struggle, the Poison Wasps haven’t been making any friends. In fact, most of the Starfield’s denizens would be happy if the predatory crew was dealt with. But none of this was important, you didn’t become a pirate to be liked. They got noticed by the Moonfiends, didn’t they? Everyone needed a rabid dog to turn on their enemies.

One day we’ll be the greatest clan in the Starfields, and all of this will be mine!

Poison Wasp’s face split into a sadistic grin. He had a plan for his future, and an advantage the others did not. Not only was he an accomplished airship pilot, he was also a Sovereign-rank mecha pilot. He was strong in his own right, and  the  main reason the Poison Wasps still existed today.

“Boss!” A large pirate hurried over.
“Yeah, did you get the girls?” Poison Wasp’s eyes lit up. Like all pirates his tastes were particularly lascivious. Their planet didn’t come with women, but there were enough in the Starfields to take what he wanted.

His subordinate answered with a dark chuckle. “They just got here, fresh off the boat. Guaranteed to please the boss.”

Poison Wasp nodded. “Once I’ve had my fill you can divvy the rest up among the men. Let’s go take a look.”

“Alright!” The man didn’t waste any time, and brought him to the residential area.

Poison Wasp didn’t fear for his base’s safety. One of the conditions he had before being absorbed by the Moonfiends was a state-of-the-art radar system. The Deep-Probe Radar was capable of picking up everything in a large swath around their tiny base. It came with a price tag as lofty as its capabilities.

Years as a pirate taught Poison Wasp how to survive. He knew the importance of scouts and information. No matter what mark they were after, he never left his ship. He preferred to rely on the upgraded ship’s speed and maneuverability to use the
asteroid fields as cover. Trying to catch him then was impossible.

They had the radar in place even before their headquarters had finished construction. Poison Wasp could rest easy. No one was going to sneak up on him.

The residential area was a sector that had been carved out for habitation. Metal prefab houses brought over from the three main planets had been hastily put up all over. They’d cost Poison Wasp a pretty penny, but in the years of banditry he’d managed to build an impressive cache of treasure.

He was an intelligent and experienced man. He didn’t have aspirations, like many pirate leaders, of commanding a battleship. Although they were strong, they weren’t nimble enough for what he needed. He preferred smaller ships, upgraded patrol boats that could strike fast and disappear. There was no better choice for survivability out here.

“Eh?” Poison Wasp stopped in his tracks and look up at the sky. It was night on their tiny rock. The stars twinkled quietly overhead.
“What is it, boss?” The other man asked.

Poison Wasp stared at the sky with furrowed brows. “My heart rate increased. Whenever there’s danger I feel it.”

He wasted no time, and dialed a number into his communicator.

“Scar. Scar! Pick up!” Poison Wasp growled at his wrist.

“Boss, what’s up?” A lazy voice finally answered on the other end.

Poison Wasp’s tones were less than pleased. “Pay attention, dammit. Is there anything on the radar?”

“Nothing,” Scar answered. “I’ve been sittin’ here staring at it. Boss, will you relax and let me handle it? Everything’s normal.”

The pirate leader allowed himself to relax. If the radar didn’t show anything, then it must mean he was just on edge.
“Alright, keep a close watch. I’ll have Gorilla send you up a girl. But if you screw up with that radar, you’ll pay with your life.”

“Heh, boss, I wanted to tell you Gorilla and his crew got back. Get me a soft one!” Scar wasn’t a scrub in this outfit. He was a commander of one of their few vessels and an ace with electronics. These skills made Scar the natural choice when they needed someone to man the radar. He was also one of the few henchmen Poison Wasp could trust.

“Let’s go.” He cut the connection, already feeling better.
Vigilance. It’s what kept him alive so long.

ζ

Scar sat across from the radar monitors, scowling. “That guy needs to get the stick out of his ass. Who the hell would come all the way out here to pick a fight?” He took another glance at the monitors and, seeing they were all quiet, put his boss’ concerns out of mind.

They’d only been here a short while, but in that time the radar had already proved itself. It had picked up several ships,
but they were big ones from the Moonfiend Pirates, on their way to the main planets.

Everything was Moonfiend Pirates now, he supposed. Ever since their shadowy backers arrived their strength had exploded. Moonfiend battleships now numbered eleven. The last time they were there, they saw one of their mecha squads too. They were crack pilots, with some of the best equipment.

With so much friendly firepower in their backyard, what did they have to fear? So, Scar didn’t pay much mind. Poison Wasp’s fears were unfounded.

“Potato.” Scar called.

“Ey, brother Scar!” A tiny ugly man with narrow eyes and a crooked mouth came bounding in.

“Go and get me a couple bottles of beer.” He was about to have company, he wanted to get a good buzz going before it happened, set the mood. In this meteor-blasted landscape there wasn’t much fun to be had normally.
“Got it!” Potato barked, then he was off.

ζ

In total, the pirate clan numbered around two hundred souls. None of them had been with the clan for very long, so families weren’t a staple yet. Here in the radar building they had five people, electronics specialists and people with talent.

As Potato trotted away from the radar building, a lusty smirk was plastered on his face. He’d heard what Scar and the boss were saying. Generally once the higher ups had their fun they gave their men a turn. He was aching for a little fun himself.

Behind the building was their warehouse, which housed food and drink. Alcohol was also on offer. Bars were one of a pirate’s favorite things, after all, and that wasn’t going to change.

Potato pulled open the warehouse door and walked in. Right away he felt what seemed like a nip in the air. Then, a large hand clapped down over his mouth. His neck felt a sudden and intense cold and the young pirate felt all his strength draining away through the chill.
“Clear.”

A dim light filled the warehouse. If Potato were still alive he’d have been shocked to find ten strangers huddled in the dark interior.

A tall slender man had been the one to take care of the pirate. He had eyes as hard and sharp as an eagle’s. All ten of the intruders wore white flight suits with a purple flame emblazoned on the chest. The insignia of Fourth Brigade.

“Peepers, whatcha got.” The tall man turned his head to the side and addressed another thin youth nearby.

“No reaction so far. Everything’s normal in  the  radar building. We can make our move, squad leader.” The slimmer man’s eyes flashed red as he squinted toward the nearby structure.

This was Fourth Division’s First Recon squad, second only to Ace.

Their squad leader was the tall man, called Stonehammer. He
was a formidable, ninth level Adept. The Recon leader had to be more than strong, though. They had to be fast, stealthy and sharp.

Zeus-1 was the first to land on the planet. Majesty was too large and well equipped. The moment it landed, the energy it put off would be picked up for miles around. Instead they sent Zeus-1 ahead with fifty soldiers to prepare for the full attack. The rest of the force would follow in Majesty.

“With me.” Stonehammer waved for them to follow and slipped out of the warehouse. A particularly diminutive and demur girl went after him.

Her eyes were an unsettling, absolute black. There was no white at all. A similarly dusky aura sprang up and surrounded everyone. As it enveloped the team, reality rippled and they disappeared from view.

Group Stealth. A rare Discipline indeed, and very useful. She was by no means weak in her own right, but her skills were used now to help them slip into the radar building undetected.

“The hell is taking Potato so damn long?!” Scar muttered in
irritation. “Yo number three! Go take a look.”

“Ah no need, Scar. I bet the kid’s just sneaking a drink. When he gets back you can ask him. If he smells like booze when he gets back we can kick his ass.”

“Alright, enough. Shit, which of you haven’t taken a little secret sip here or there. You’re a bunch of animals, I tell ya.” Scar muttered.

Suddenly he had the feeling something wasn’t right. No time to think, he just reacted. His right hand shot out and smacked the big red button on the table in front of him. In the same instant an iron-hard carapace formed around his body.

Chapter 538: Poison Wasp’s Destruction

Scar’s Discipline was entomological in nature, and his danger sense was keen. This uncomfortable inkling in the back of his mind was a familiar friend to him. He felt like there was suddenly more breathing in their small building. Faint, but enough to make the hairs on his neck stand on end.

Scar’s Discipline was called Golden Beetle. He could use several of the small creature’s capabilities to aid him in battle, especially defense. He could also fly short distances. The plan was to hit the alarm and call up the shields. Then in the confusion he could mount a counterattack. This was their home turf, all he had to do was let his compatriots know.

Unfortunately, that was not to be.

Something ice-cold, smooth and yet sticky affixed itself to his hand. It was stopped him mere inches from sounding the alarm. The next thing he felt was like being hit with a sledgehammer.

CRACK! The harsh sound would make you grind your teeth. Scar was hit so hard he hit the ground with bone-jarring force. He grunted as the air was knocked out of him. He couldn’t believe it. Him – a sixth level Adept specialized in defense –
floored so easily. It didn’t just crack his shell, either. He felt like his organs had been rearranged around bits of broken bone.

He lifted his head to see a very large figure towering over him with a shield in hand. It was bronze, wide on top and narrowing to a tip at the bottom.

Thunk. The shield fell. Scar’s head rolled away.

Whoosh! The stuff gripping Scar’s lifeless hand retracted. It returned to an obscene looking middle-aged man with a dour smirk. “Come on, so violent squad leader. You got his blood all over my tongue.”

“Quit the bullshit, Iguana. Check the radar.” Stonehammer commanded.

The other occupants of the radar building had been silenced. With the way they’d been trained and organized, a small group like this didn’t even break a sweat. Only Scar had been an enemy of merit, the others were mediocre Adepts. They’d been disposed of with hardly a sound.
“We’ve got control of the radar, Squad Leader. Shutting down outside shields and communications.” The girl from before who’d smuggled them in hastily reported the news.

“Good. Send a message to Majesty, let them know it’s done.
Defensive perimeter.” Stonehammer ordered.

“Sir.”

A shadow spread across the pirate base, silent as a shade.
Behind a bunker, a dark figure furiously waved their arms.

Overhead, a beam of white light soundlessly beamed to the surface. A thousand meters overhead, the air shimmered and rippled unsettlingly.

Wide-Spectrum Frequency Jammer. Interference would choke every wave-band except their own within the affected area. Outside communication was impossible.

Afterwards the hum of engines were the only sign as an invisible ship soared up through the small planet’s atmosphere. Zeus-1 continued its patrol for errant pirates they might give
them away.

All of the planet’s warning systems had gone the way of its radar. Normally, alarms were sounded when their systems were interrupted, but instead everything was silent. A frightening, total silence.

Next a group of dark silhouettes lifted from the ground and hovered over the pirate base. Their broad chests were painted with a flame insignia. Suddenly they were alive with light as they charged ahead. Dazzling wakes of flame hung in the air, and the night sky was pierced with light from their passage. Their target; the docking port. Below the ground shook as a host of mecha charged in like a hurricane.

The unnatural silence was suddenly and violently shattered, as this small planet was descended into fiery chaos. The air was filled with blasts and screams. The pirates on guard didn’t even have time to realize what was happening before they were torn to shreds.

The blitz continued for nearly twenty minutes before the bombardment stopped. A contingent of mechs charged in towards the base’s center. It was too late by now for the pirates to react. One by one, they fell to the terrible death machines
that prowled the night. In five minutes, the base was firmly under their control.

Poison Wasp himself was tossing and turning in bed when all four walls exploded around him. He scrambled up and brought his Discipline to bear. Stonehammer stood in the ruins of his cabin.

Poison Wasp’s Discipline was much as his name suggested. He possessed the powers of a wasp, giving him speed and attack. His hands could become stingers to be used in battle.

Unfortunately wasps didn’t do so well against boulders, and stingers couldn’t pierce mountains. There was nothing he could do to best Stonehammer’s defense, and no way to get to a mecha. His met his end at the bloody point of the invader’s shield.

The battle was short, simple, and fierce. The enemy was overwhelmed.

All four brigades participated. Fourth Brigade’s goal had been reconnaissance, first strike, and taking the radar building. First Brigade had provided air strikes and destroyed the most
dangerous pirate capabilities with surgical precision. They mopped up those who managed to get into a suit or ship and cut off all escape. Second Brigade handled the main fight, and Third Brigade moved in to mop up and gather up their spoils.

When all was said and done, the Star Division soldiers milled about, ultimately unsatisfied.

“Commander, let’s find a target with a little more bite next time. What’s the point of sending in a force like this for some piddling pirates?” The Driver mumbled in dissatisfaction. He only just was getting ready to join the fray, but it was finished already. The fight was practically over, even before his Second Brigade joined in.He never got the chance to satisfy his itch.

The Poison Wasp Pirate clan had about two hundred men, whereas Star Division numbered over eight hundred. Crack pilots and strong adepts, with four times the manpower. On top of that, they had two ships for backup. The difference was too great, like an elephant stepping on cockroaches.

Lan Jue smirked at him. “Don’t be hasty. Let them get their bearings first, then we can throw something bigger at them. Sweep the area, then we withdraw.”
The pirates didn’t have much for them. There was the radar system, and the booty they had squirreled away from their raids. It seemed to be a trope carried over from the olden days, but it was still a habit for every pirate clan to have a secret treasure stash. Finding them were simpler now, though, with modern technology.

It was a pretty good cache, all things considered. There wasn’t anything in the way of cash, but energy-saving power gems instead. Standard currency for pirates. Altogether they pillaged over a thousand power gems. There were only a handful b-rank or better, all told it was a worthwhile haul. They might not have been exquisite specimens, but the stones would recharge their mechas with a lot to spare. Both Zeus-1 and Majesty could recharge with cosmic radiation, so the stones didn’t have much use for them. Any surplus could be sold. So in the end, it was a good harvest.

An hour later all the goods were boxed up and shipped out. Majesty approached and landed, now that the base was liberated from pirate control. Star Division boarded and soared off to their next objective with Zeus-1 as its entourage. The pirate base lay silent behind them – a ghost town. In the center was burned the image of a swirling flame, and a skull in its center.

The insignia of the Star Pirate Clan.
Lan Jue was looking for a place to commence the joining process with the Godblades, but the Poison Wasp’s relationship with the Moonfiend Pirate Clan made him uncomfortable. They were likely to check in sooner rather than later. How long the joining process took, Lan Jue had no idea. It least it would be important to find a place that was safe and peaceful.

The debriefing was quick. Destroying this small band of criminals was nothing to boast about. Lan Jue praised them for their victory and adherence to command. He pointed out Stonehammer and his team in particular for taking the radar building and killing Poison Wasp.

Their feats were recorded.

On to their next objective.

While the fight had seemed simple and straightforward, the results were unique. There was something more in the eyes of every soldier. Excitement. They had no remorse for the killing of these monsters, to them they were performing a service. Cleaning cancer from humanity. Repaying these scoundrels for their misdeeds and getting paid for it felt pretty damn good.
Everything they earned through the raid was distributed to the Division. This had been part of Lan Jue’s agreement with the Avenue. No matter what they found out here among the asteroids would be used to make them stronger. Everyone would get a piece for the work they were doing, determined by individual merit.

A system of rewards and punishments was integral for effective command. This was especially true for an organization like theirs, which enjoyed a unique sort of freedom for its soldiers. They didn’t have the same restrictions here that an official army might face. How else were they going to pay their people? No high-level Adept was hard-up for cash, so wealth had little meaning to these men and women. Other than the exuviation process, they were only interested in getting stronger. For Adepts, strength meant a good life and a bright future.

But building a powerhouse took resources. Where did they come from? Your own effort!

Chapter 539: Tempest

Lan Jue had told his people all about this before coming. For commercial enterprises, the Shattered Starfields were no- man’s-land. Even the Alliance militaries avoided this place. To the Star Division, however, it was a goldmine with everything they could want.

Battle plans were moving along, it was time for them to attack their next objective. Lan Jue’s people have proven that small groups were not a challenge, so their target was a larger group further away from the three main planets. It was an older, more established group they had in their sights. They were called the Desert Tempest.

This clan was in possession of a battleship and eight patrol ships, hosting over one thousand five hundred pirates.  They were much stronger than the Poison Wasps, and subsisted off commercial vessels that skirted the rim of the Starfields. Not only were they a considerable force, but pirates of Desert Tempest were disciplined. The planet that served as their home was called Tempest, and had served as their base of operation for over thirty years. They far outstripped the Star Division’s last enemy.

The Desert Tempest were carefully chosen for their next
campaign. They were far from the main planets, which was important if they were to fight against such a well-established group. In addition, its distance meant Lan Jue could use the planet for whatever it was the Godblades required for the joining process. In the first month’s battle plan, this was the longest flight yet.

The Moonfiend Pirates would be quick to investigate any changes to their little pet planet, and were unlikely to let the matter lie when they discovered what happened. At the very least, they’ll want to find out who would dare attack their people. The best course of action would be to avoid the Moonfiend Pirates – for now. It was destined, since they were Lan Jue’s ultimate target. That fight would be the final test for his fledgling Division. If they couldn’t handle a group of pirates, how would they defend against aliens?

“This time no one’s gunna take it from us! Second Division’s taking the lead.” The Driver arrogantly flailed the battle plans crumpled in his hands.

The Coffee Master scowled in response. “Who says, you? Your people will just rush in and trip all their defenses, and lose half your number. Remember, this crew had been around a while. Ground and space defenses are not going to be anything to sniff at. And as for radar, they likely have more than one system and
I’m betting they’re better than the last. These guys won’t be as easy as the Poison Wasps.”

The Driver answered with a scornful glance. “That’s just your guess. Commander, send me in with the Ace squad. We’ll tear them up from within while the rest of Second Brigade attacks them head-on. I swear not a soul will come back harmed, the Desert Tempest will be handed to you on a bloody platter.”

The Driver’s assurances weren’t arrogance. He believed everything he said wholeheartedly, and so did Lan Jue. His brigade commander was one of the top ten god-ranked pilots in all of humanity, after all. In all likelihood the Driver could probably take out the pirate clan himself without a scratch, all before even considering the Ace Squad. Infiltrate and deconstruct. That was the Driver’s specialty.

“Come now, Driver. We’re old friends – when we come across a windfall we share in the benefits, right?  Fourth  Brigade should go with you as intelligence and oversight.”  The Bartender wanted his piece, too, and made it known.

Lan Jue chuckled at the lot of them. “Come on, we’re all adults here. Calm down and act like it. Driver, aren’t you concerned about keeping face? The Ace Squad and its leader are
good enough. Somehow I don’t think he’ll find a group of pirates troubling.”

“Eh…” the Driver shrunk beneath the haughty looks of the other three. When Lan Jue said it, they all remembered who the leader of Second Brigade’s Ace Squad was. Their secret weapon, the Infernal Vanguard – the Gourmet!

Indeed, how could a mid-sized pirate clan cope if he decided to unleash his full power? A Paragon had the destructive capabilities of a battleship all by themselves, otherwise how was it they were considered such a deterrent force?

The Driver was aching for a fight. In reality if he sent the both of them, the damage they could cause…

Lan Jue rapped the table between them with his knuckles. “We’re here to train. We’re definitely not here to wave our dicks around. No matter the enemy, the four brigades must work in synergy, as a whole. United we’re stronger. Once they’re broken in, they’ll face a tough enemy and be unyielding. None of our Ace Squads are going in this time. They’ll supervise and rescue as necessary. For everything else stick to the battle plan.”
The Bartender nodded. “Alright, so it is. I’ll send in my team first for reconnaissance and to collect intelligence for the final plan.”

“Good.” Lan Jue replied.

He looked around the room. Aside from Lan Jue and the Brigade leaders, the war council was further populated by Ace squad leaders and the Division’s Second-in-Command, Su Xiaosu.

Su Xiaosu sat beside Lan Jue. When he was here she didn’t speak or involve herself much. Behind the scenes, though, all of their military strategy had been devised by the Morning Star before they were open to discussion. Her title was Second-In- Command, but she was the one directing their every move. Her commands were given through Lan Jue’s mouth. Her responsibilities were numerous. Her voice held the greatest weight, but her work was endless.

Endless, but enjoyable. She found purpose in her work that brought her joy. She was different from the Amazons, and this role suited her better she thought. As former leader of the Moonfiend Pirates she had experience in spades, and compared to her former force the Star Division was far stronger. The
Moonfiend Pirates had twenty ships to the Division’s two, but on an individual level they could never compete.

Su Xiaosu had already told Lan Jue her thoughts on this. If this division could work together, develop a chemistry, then it would be the most terrifying pirate force the universe had ever seen. Yes, pirates – not soldiers. Soldiers required strict discipline and fought in a group. The strength of the individual was ignored. What Su Xiaosu meant when she said pirates, was a unique and fearsome mecha division.

Afterwards, once the analyses had completed, she presented Lan Jue with a comprehensive training and integration plan. After taking a look and discussing it with the  others,  the decision to make her Second-in-Command was passed down.

From training to this expedition, Su Xiaosu had shown herself to be a remarkable commander – the mastermind. She was just as much the leader as Lan Jue was.

After the council was adjourned, Lan Jue turned to the Morningstar. “Is there anything you’d like to add?”

“Relax, boss,” she replied. “I’ll have a detailed plan. They
have numbers, and they’re well spread across the planet. We’ll need to be very precise. We need to rout them, but we need to do it with zero casualties. The Blinding Stones help us a lot with this. In addition we can lure them in, and…”

Lan Jue nodded repeatedly. Her overall idea put him at ease.

Over the last few days, Lan Jue had obsessively trained, merged with Qianlin as always. He had to prepare to join with the godblades, and every step up in strength meant a greater chance of success. Jun Yongye, Xuanyuan Shishi, and even the Pharmacist would cultivate at his side so he could feel the energies of the swords. To become familiar with them. It would make the process easier when the time came.

Su Xiaosu stood at the main controls, looking over the data. She lifted her head and looked Lan Jue’s direction. “Commander, now is as good a time as any.”

He nodded, then turned to the Bartender. “Send out the reconnaissance team.”

“Sir. They’re already waiting on Zeus-1.” In similar strategy to the Poison Wasps, the Division’s smaller ship would deliver the
unit to the surface undetected. They would look and report back to inform the final battle strategy. When the fighting broke out, they’d strike like a thunderclap.

It didn’t matter who – or when – you fought. The most important factor in any fight was your scouts.

“Commander, there. That’s Tempest.” She indicated out of the porthole toward the approaching planet.

The planet twinkled green and blue  against  the  stark backdrop of space. Normally green meant foliage and blue was water – life. Evidence suggested this place was habitable for humans.

Astrologers/astrophysicists/bored keyboard warriors; in what situation could you have three habitable planets in a galaxy’s interior (let’s say they’re in the goldilocks zone), and a habitable planet in its far reaches?

Lan Jue exclaimed in appreciation. “These Desert Tempest guys chose well!”
ζ

Zeus-1 quietly slipped away from Majesty and approached the planet, cloaked by the Blinding Stone. They shut off all nonessential systems to reduce their energy footprint. Su Xiaosu’s voice crackled over their radio. “Zeus-1. Zeus-1, this is Majesty. Respond.”

Chapter 540: Progenitor?

“This is Zeus-1.” Mika’s voice replied to Su Xiaosu’s hails. No one knew that ship like the Amazons, so they were its standard crew.

Xiaosu continued. “Your landing zone is aquatic. When you touch down scan the biosystem.”

“Zeus-1, understood.” When there was a task to complete, Mika wouldn’t get in Xiaosu’s way.

Majesty cut its engines and maintained a geostationary orbit. Without more from the scouting party, it was too risky to approach.

Suddenly, Lan Jue’s eyes fixed on the planet and narrowed. “Quick, get back on with Zeus-1 and tell them to stop their approach immediately. Get them back here.”

Su Xiaosu was surprised at Lan Jue’s command, but wasted no time. “Zeus-1, retreat! Get back now!”
“What?” Mika’s voice answered. “We’ve almost reached the mesosphere.”

Lan Jue shouted back. “Mika, turn your ship around right now!”

She could hear the fear and worry in his voice. She asked no more questions. “Yes, boss.”

The rest of the Star Division leadership realized something was amiss and came over. The Gourmet spoke first. “What is it?”

Lan Jue, his brows furrowed, looked over the planet. “There’s trouble. Look. Enhance the planet’s surface.” He pointed to what he meant. To keep their presence a secret they couldn’t use radar, but long-distance cameras weren’t a problem.

The monitors showed the planet, large and clear in contrast to the view out of porthole. Now everyone could see the streaks of violet that marred its surface. At present they were small and disconnected.
Violet? The Gourmet’s heart skipped a beat. He looked at Lan Jue, making no effort to hide his surprise. “That’s…”

Lan Jue shook his head. “We can’t be sure yet, but I think so.”

“Aliens?” Su Xiaosu ventured.

Lan Jue turned to face everyone. “Recall your reconnaissance team. I’ll lead the Ace Squads from First and Second Brigade to go take a look. Get Majesty ready for combat.”

He had to keep safety in mind. This was training, not a full military campaign.

“You’re our commander. I should lead the reconnaissance team.” The Driver interjected.

Lan Jue shook his head. “No, I’ll go. I’m well familiar with these things. Besides, the Pharmacist and the Gourmet will be with me. There won’t be any problems. Xiaosu, you have the bridge. Keep contact.”
This wasn’t a debate, so the Driver didn’t push the matter further. He wished his commander good luck.

Zeus-1 reacted swiftly to the orders and was docked with Majesty before long. The scout team disembarked and was replaced by Lan Jue and the two Ace Squads. Lan Jue had seen the strength of these beasts with his own eyes. It wasn’t that he didn’t trust these young soldiers, he was just trying to avoid any unnecessary death. When it came to these beasts he knew what to expect, and what to look for.

Zeus-1 crept toward Tempest like a wraith. They overshot the original landing zone and headed for the violet streaks. First they needed to confirm this wasn’t some kind of unique vegetation. If that was the case, then the plan would proceed as before. If it wasn’t, they’d need to change their strategy.

Zeus-1 pierced the atmosphere. After a few moments the planet’s surface was skimming by a few hundred meters below. When it came in to view, Lan Jue sucked in a breath – vast fields of putrid violet. Anything that sick light touched, all the vegetation, was dead. It was a cancer, spreading across the land and leaving a poison bog behind.

“Majesty, this is Zeus-1. Intelligence suggests high probability
that alien invaders are on site. Make preparations for combat.” Lan Jue delivered what information they got back to the ship.

The experience with these creatures on Taihua had put him right in their path. He recognized that poisonous fog that ate life force. He remembered the dead vegetation. It all looked exactly the same.

“Should we disembark?” The Pharmacist asked.

He shook his head. “Don’t rush. Let’s take a look around, see if the Desert Tempest has any people left.” Lan Jue glowered at the scene. The Shattered Starfields were rife with piracy, but it also bordered all three Alliances. Their presence here meant they could appear on planet in human occupied space.

Space was vast, and closing a portion of it off completely was impossible. However, despite this there were no reports of alien presence anywhere since the news broke. Yet here they were. It was a sign, a frightful revelation that these creatures were being led by some form of intelligence. Something was directing these creatures away from Alliance space, probing for weakness and maximizing advantages. Humanity, on the other hand, had no idea where those three alien planets were.
Lan Jue was worried. Not because they were strong – a strong enemy could be overcome. More than that, they were cunning.

Their physiology was also troublesome. They thrived off life force, and with each planet they took the monsters became stronger. Each passing day was a victory for these creatures.

Zeus-1 thundered across Tempest’s sky, scanning for the pirate base. It wasn’t long before they found it. Judging by the buildings and resources they could spot, the pirates were stronger than they’d figured. However, they were working off of Xiaosu’s relatively old data. Apparently the Desert Tempest pirates had done well for themselves in the last few years.

But the discovery revealed that these buildings had also succumbed to the violet swamp. The deadly landscape had swallowed everything up, covering the buildings entirely. The corrosive quality of it had already begun to dissolve the structures noticeably.


They didn’t pick up a single sign of human life, not even corpses or bone. There was only the slowly creeping bog of death desperately searching for more to devour.
Lan Jue spotted a large spot of purple hunched atop a particularly tall building. It looked like an enormous flower bud, with a flashing purple light flickering within it. Great root- like tendrils crawled down the building and buried themselves in the earth. The black-red veins pulsed and throbbed.

Eating. It was eating everything around it.

This was the first time any of them, aside from Lan Jue, had seen one of these aliens up close. They were all changed by it.

Lan Jue’s deep voice called out. “Mika. When we disembark, return to Majesty and lead it back here. Tell all members of Star Division to get in their mechas, and do not land on the ground under any circumstances. There will be no contact with anything infected. Prepare to engage with the enemy, and be wary of any show.”

“Sir,” Mika confirmed.

Lan Jue spun around to face the Gourmet and the Pharmacist. “We’re heading out – get ready to fight. This big guy out there is probably an alien progenitor. It’ll be strong and almost certainly surrounded by protectors even if we can’t see them.
Try not to get separated.”

The ship’s doors opened and several figures flew out into the crisp air. Only Adepts ninth level or higher were allowed into First and Second Brigade’s Ace squads. All of them had the power of flight.

Flashes of light flickered around each of the soldiers, and they were replaced in mid-air with humanoid machines. Lan Jue also summoned Thor, which had undergone no small amount of changes. It retained roughly the same volume, but its bluish- purple exterior was now a deep royal blue with the faintest hint of gold. An enormous sword was fixed to its back, in contrast to its unarmed default from before. It’s arms were thicker, too. Most striking though, was that none of its joints or connections were visible at all. It was an integrated, seamless whole, just like a man.

As Lan Jue entered, it was like Thor was injected with life. Its body jerked as a flash of golden light rippled through it. Then, one of the machine’s enormous hands draw the dark-gold sword from its back.

Other than Lan Jue, there were twenty soldiers preparing for battle. One by one their mechas sprang to life. They weren’t just
strong Adepts – to fight alongside the likes of the Pharmacist and the Gourmet, they had to be amazing pilots, too.

Separate from Zeus-1, the team and their mechas were no longer invisible to prying eyes. Thor soared high overhead, then thrust with its massive blade. A single bolt of lightning erupted from its point, but did not hit the progenitor. Instead, it struck a spot not far from where he and his team hovered.

Boom! The thunderous sound was met with an explosion of debris and fountains of purple fluid, like he’d blown apart a body. The others gasped in surprise. The great swath of violet that was devouring buildings was actually a part of this beast! These monsters were even scarier than they’d thought.

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