Skyfire Avenue Chapter 541-550

Chapter 541: Combat

Lan Jue wasn’t shaken by the fountain of gore. His eyes narrowed and he stopped their forward advance. Below, the ground rumbled and a series of sickening ‘squelch’ and ‘poof’ noises filled the air. Enormous alien monstrosity heaved themselves up from their surroundings covered in a strange sort of sludge. Roughly a hundred of them were belched from the violet landscape.

Lan Jue issued his orders through a shared mecha comms channel. “You’re all going to be fighting, but do not separate. Try your best to stay in the area. Gourmet, Pharmacist, we’ll deal with the progenitor. Once it’s finished we won’t have to worry about reinforcements.”

He wasted no time, and urged Thor up high into the air. The two Ace Squad leaders were in close pursuit.

The other two also had their own mechas, but were reluctant to use them. Lan Jue convinced them otherwise, explaining that mecha combat was a strength with benefits for safety. There was nothing else better. What’s more, this was a Mecha division. He couldn’t have his Ace Squad leaders shirking that rule.
Their suits had been constructed to forgo  combat effectiveness, and instead focus resource on boosting speed and amplifying Discipline. Their strength wasn’t in piloting but Talent, so their mechas had to at least not impede that.

The Gourmet’s mecha was grey and smaller than Thor by two thirds. However, it was incredibly dexterous. Three pairs of wings were affixed to its back, and when they were unfurled, the jets on them made him incomparably fast. He was at Thor’s side in a blink.

The Pharmacist’s mecha was white, covered in a flower pattern. It was slender and bore no weapons. Hers also bore wings that quickly caught her up with the other two. Three sparkling machines soared through the atmosphere toward the alien progenitor.

But, just in that moment a dozen sprays of violet light shot toward the sky, as alien creatures rose to block their path. They were hideous things, with an aura as sick and toxic as they were. Corrosive gas poured from their maws as wings unfurled and issued them into the air.

A flash of light issued from the Pharmacist’s mecha. It was a flood of sharp energy that spread and brightened until it became
a sword, blazing from the light of seven miniature stars. Scores of strikes just the same as what came from the Pharmacist covered the sky. When the alien invaders got within twenty meters, they were instantly cut apart into a hundred thousand pieces that tumbled to the ground below. Nothing was between them and the progenitor, but a cloud of fine violet mist.

On Lan Jue’s other side, the Gourmet’s ash-grey mecha lifted its right hand. A tornado of crimson fire arose, and burned away the remaining cloud of blood and gas the monsters left behind.

There were no normal monsters that could hope to block the likes of the Pharmacist or Gourmet. The progenitor seemed to sense this, and reacted by ripping its great branches from the building around it. Like great tentacles, the progenitor’s pulsing limbs swatted at the three attackers.

The beast was over three hundred meters tall, and oozing with terrible power. When its throbbing tentacle-arms began to writhe they nearly blotted out the sun.

The Pharmacist’s seven-star blade led the charge. One of the beast’s tentacles heaved into view to cut off their approach. There was a flash, and tentacle reeled back with a vicious gash that almost cut it in half.
Almost. Tough! Lan Jue knew how strong the Pharmacist and her sword were. Yet, just the creature’s tentacle managed to survive a head-on strike. Surprised was not enough for what he felt.

Of course, that didn’t represent the Pharmacist’s true strength. The single sword fractured into a hundred copies, and they swung through the air like a tornado of deadly light.

Thor lifted its burly arm with the giant sword in its grip. The blade burned with a blinding light. In the next instant, its energy was released as a beam piercing through the heavens.

After upgrades from both he and Jue Di, Thor was like a different beast altogether. The energy it released was strong, strong enough to satisfy Jue Di.

Lan Jue was also a God-ranked pilot, in contrast with the Gourmet and Pharmacist who gave up their mecha training. His combat effectiveness was helped significantly by his piloting skills and Thor’s new construction.

A thick beam of shimmering golden light split the sky. The darkened sky was painted bright, and the clouds looked as
though they were on fire. Joined with Qianlin, Zeus was currently at the peak of ninth level. With the formidable additions of Thor, his lightning was pregnant with protogenia.

Soon after, the sky exploded into a magnificent light show, with golden bolts of lightning falling to earth all the way to the horizon. But their target was not the progenitor, or the other monsters. There were precisely as many bolts as there were soaring blades from the Pharmacist. The lightning sought the swords and collided with them, imbuing each with flickering electric power.

What was strange about this lightning was more than the color. Whereas most lightning curved to find the path of least resistance, Thor’s lightning bolts were perfectly straight. They fell upon the swords like beams of sizzling light. The next time one of those swords cut at a tentacle, they imparted their electricity into it. Sparks spewed from the wound, and coiling golden lightning consumed the flailing appendages.

They were wracked with spasms. Between Zeus’ power and the Pharmacist’s strength, the tentacles’ defenses  were overcome. They were cut away and discarded like weeds.

The progenitor squirmed and lifted a second host of tentacles
to deal with its attackers. Lan Jue and the others weren’t in a rush to pull out their big guns, though. These creatures were virtually unknown to them. This was an opportunity to see what else they could learn. Things were different now than they were on Taihua.

Behind them, the numbers of both Ace Squads were already engaged with the monsters. They’d drawn themselves into a defensive posture so that each individual’s strength was unimpeded. The best from pilots from First and Second Brigade unleashed a devastating counter as the alien’s descended upon them. They specialized in long-range and melee combat respectively, making the aliens fight for every inch.

Few aliens even approach the ring of deadly fire, and fewer pierced it. When they did the contingent of close range combatants made quick work of them.

After months of training, there was an unspoken but universal understanding between all brigades. These Ace pilots were all ninth level and were well versed in mecha combat as well. A hundred of the creatures threw themselves at the humans, and a moment later a hundred alien corpses littered the poison ground.
Yet, despite the relative ease, none of the soldiers were relaxed. During breaks in the fighting their eyes scanned the horizon. In the distance, it almost looked as though the ground was rolling toward them. Scores of black dots tainted the sky. Reinforcements.

Zeus-1 had returned to Majesty and both entered the battlefield. As the ships hovered overhead, one mecha suit after another began to tumble from the cargo bays. They rushed to meet their brothers in arms and joined the fray.

From on high the scene was particularly chilling. The ground rumbled and spat out aliens in droves. They burst from membranous cocoons, spewing caustic fluid every which way. Though they different drastically in size, every one of them rushed with incredible speed to the progenitor’s defense.

“First and Second Brigade, defend the Ace Squad’s outer perimeter. Third and Fourth Brigades, reinforce and backup. Majesty and Zeus-1 are air support, fire at will.”

The human warriors rushed to their compatriots’ aid. It was their first encounter with the monsters, but the Star Division warriors never missed a beat. The aliens were hideous and frightening to behold, but Lan Jue’s charges were confident in
their strength. They also knew that the Core crystals from these monsters was how the exuvium process was performed. The more they got, the better position they’d be in.

Lan Jue didn’t need to stoke their battle-fervor. They were already eager for a fight.

Tang Xiao charged into battle with the unit he commanded, Squad 11, in tow. He didn’t get the position due to his relationship with Lan Jue. The merits of his performance during the Division’s creation was evident to everyone.

At his request, his sister Tang Mi was also in his unit. In fact, most of his people were former members of the A.R.C. class.

Tang Xiao’s mecha bore a striking resembling with its pilot, enormous and plump. It looked a little ridiculous. No other mecha in the Division could best it in terms of bulk.

“Squad, with me!” Tang Xiao commanded. He led his people down to earth. Lan Jue’s standing command was not to come into contact with the purple swaths of ground, but not every inch was covered. Several taller mountains rose bald over the hellscape. Without vegetation to draw on, the aliens didn’t
appear interested in spreading over them.

The squad left contrails through the air as they descended to the mountain’s peak. Tang Xiao chuckled as he surveyed the battlefield. “Witness! Fat-God, transform!” Fat-God, of course, being the name of his mecha suit.

Before their eyes, the soldiers watched as Tang Xiao’s suit began to expand. It went from a solid tank to something like a water balloon as it swelled.

“All aboard!” He cackled.

His soldiers were used to Tang Xiao’s means and antics. Without hesitation, they each one after the other vanished into the thirty-meter wide ball of undulating metal.

Chapter 542: Tang Xiao And Jin Tao, All Grown Up

The plump orb was perfectly round, without blemish. It wasn’t long before the whole of Squad 11 was snugly fit inside.

Then, the orb changed again. This time a drill head slowly appeared at its base. The entire orb began to spin, and the drill tore open a hole. Tang Xiao and the mechs within him drilled through the ground. A pair of mechanical hands at the top busily covered up the hole above it by disrupting soil. Tang Xiao and his team disappeared.

Before long the aliens arrived at the mountain top. The first one to scale it was a two-headed creature, long and sleek like some sort of mutated wolf. It leapt upon the patch is disturbed earth and started to dig. However, in that moment a gear hidden within the soil shot up and buried itself in the creature’s belly.

The inertia from the leap and the gear’s force split the monster cleanly in two. Two mangled halves collapsed to the floor.

Next, another silver light flashed where Tang Xiao had been.
The ground was disturbed as the light shot out, revealing itself as a long silver spear. It soared over two hundred meters in the air, ultimately burying itself in the throat of an incoming flying creature. It ripped itself out and returned underground even before the alien was dead.

For a moment it was still on the mountain top. After the spear’s return the ground was visibly churned. However, those odd little hands squirmed out again and smoothed out the ground to hide their location.

Only Tang Xiao would fight so dirty.

He had hand-picked every soldier on his squad. Half of them were specialized in energy enhancement or conduction. The remainder, including Tang Mi, had Disciplines relating to metal. Practically everyone from the A.R.C. class with these abilities were part of his team.

The result was a unit with a special fighting-style Tang Xiao called the Transformer approach. Tang Xiao manipulating himself and his mecha to serve as a protective shield for his unit. They launched attacks and kept energy levels high, while he managed the unit in general. His ability to transform assured that they were suited to any battlefield environment while
giving them the element of surprise. With everyone together it was a strategy that bolstered defense and allowed them to play off one another’s strengths.

It was the first time the tactic was used in a real fight. During the extermination of the Poison Wasps Tang Xiao had been disappointed. He didn’t even have time to prepare the transformation before the fight was over. Now that he could see the payoff, he was pleased with their new style.

He was an eighth level Adept now. Benefiting from his fellows and the fine mecha provided by Skyfire Avenue, his tactics were solid. If one could overlook the less than honorable fighting style, they could recognize that no other squad worked better together.

While these monsters weren’t among the stronger breed, that didn’t mean they were stupid. After two of their number were killed, another seven or eight flooded the area and discovered their wily tactic.

The first of this second wave was a giant, grotesque bear. It towered thirty meters tall with arms thicker than a mecha suit. Its violet claws began to dig furiously where it had seen the spear vanish.
The sun caught something metallic that flashed in the light. A blade was revealed slicing toward the beast. However, the monsters were now prepared. The alien bear roared and reared, swiping its great claws at the threat.

The attack impaled one of the monster’s enormous hands and stopped. Just then a second creature much like the first joined it on the mountain top. Its first reaction was to open its maw and vomit sickening violet light that incinerated the ground.

A shield plopped up from below the dirt, deflecting the burning power. Then great spikes of steel suddenly shot up from below the aliens’ feet like a forest of metal. They caught the monsters in their soft underbellies, killing them mid- charge.

The alien’s defense was strong, but these spiked were infused with Tang Xiao’s Discipline, as well as the aggregate power of the support Adepts and the mecha’s power gems. They all served to increase his damage potential. The mountain became a bristling alien graveyard.

Fat-God exploded out from underground. Different from when it vanished, now the orb was dotted with razor-sharp blades that stuck out in all directions like a porcupine.
Whatever alien creature managed to evade the spikes was quickly mowed down by Tang Xiao the human meat-grinder. The mountain was cleared in under half a minute.

But the respite was brief. Before long another wave of alien creatures were rushing for the mountain top. The orb changed back to the familiar pudgy war machine before Tang Xiao led them forth to rejoin their enemy.

Tang Xiao did not underestimate these creatures. They were weaker than he, but yet he plotted his tricks. Strong or weak, pirate tactics were about survival at all costs – Su Xiaosu had taught them that. The most important thing was getting back alive. It was a practice Tang Xiao could get behind. He would often seek out Xiaosu for instruction if there was nothing else to do. He might have had some ulterior motive, but if he did he was keeping it close to the vest.

Because Tang Xiao was Lan Jue’s student, Su Xiaosu held nothing back in her instruction. Tang Xiao learned quickly.

Of course, not everyone subscribed to Tang Xiao’s doctrine.
There were others that preferred a more direct approach…
Jin Tao’s former nickname had always had an effect on him. Dumb-mutt was a moniker he both loathed and loved. For this reason, Jin Tao chose a rarely-used animal shaped mecha. His looked like a huge Tibetan mastiff.

The mastiff was a mysterious animal from former-era China, the most powerful of its species. Fully grown alphas were said to be able to take on lions. They were almost entirely extinct now, but Jin Tao had been fascinated with them since he was a child. When the chance came to choose his mecha, he knew exactly what he wanted.

It was fifteen meters long and half as tall, and stocky. Its head was covered in plate armor that could be used for both attack and defense. The alloy claws bristling from its four paws were the mechas strongest weapons. While piloting he also employed his own Discipline to transform. In this way he could more completely meld with the suit.

There were specific differences between piloting a beast mecha and a humanoid one. Humanoid mechas required input, whereas beast mechas were controlled by the movement of the pilot’s body. It was more direct, but the requirements demanded of a pilot’s body were much higher. It was perfect for Jin Tao.
He was also squad leader, though circumstances were different. He wasn’t as strong as the others, but his ferocity on the field was unparalleled. In a mecha he was better than most, and was particularly adept at head-on fights. So, even though he and his team were low on First Brigades’ totem pole, Jin Tao was a solid leader.

Unlike Tang Xiao, his team wasn’t only made of A.R.C. students. All of them were like him, with Disciplines mimicking beasts of prey. Each of them also piloted beast-shaped mechas, just like their squad leader, which made them a unique part of the division.

When they spotted the aliens coming, Second Division reacted with a flurry of ranged attacks. Jin Tao and his Squad 31 were the first ones to charge the line. Long range attackers needed melee support to keep them protected. Even though Jin Tao and his crew piloted animal mechs, every suit provided to the Star Division had the power of flight. He named his own suit Black Gold, after the two-tone color scheme it sported.  The mechanical mastiff sprouted a pair of small wings which lifted it into the air and toward their foes.

The first volley trickled and stopped. In its aftermath were scores of dead alien beasts. Their enemies weren’t given a chance to catch their breath before Jin Tao and his squad were
on them.

A monster that looked like a massive bird swooped down to meet them. It’s razor sharp beak whistled through the air, right for Black Gold’s head.

Transformed, even the aura pouring from Jin Tao was different. A wild, feral sense followed in his wake as he shot up to meet the creatures with a swiping right claw.

“Bang!” The claw knocked the beak away, leaving enough space for the flying dog-machine to swing around and  grab ahold of the giant bird’s back. The beast had the advantage in size and strength, but Black Gold was too fast and Jin Tao’s resolve was too strong. Black Gold’s great claws shimmered a dark gold and with a mighty swipe, separated the bird’s head from its body.

Errant spurts of dark violet fluid spewed all through the air. Jin Tao carefully evaded, and leapt from the beast’s back into the air. He immediately started toward his next target. The mangled corpse of his first victim tumbled to earth and made contact with a sickening splat.
But below, a different monster had chosen Jin Tao as its next meal. It leapt into the air, groping for him with its hulking arms. Black Gold spun in midair to avoid the rush while simultaneously swiping at the arm with its back legs. The force kicked the arm away and Jin Tao shot for the hideous baboon it belonged to.

Chapter 543: Righteous Protogenia!

If one had to describe Jin Tao’s fighting style, one word would suffice – insane. The others in his crew weren’t any better. They were like a pride of lions, tearing apart any alien beast that crossed their path. They didn’t move on to the next until the first one was a bloody mess.

The unyielding pack of animals and the aid of the other brigades made it impossible for the aliens to advance. Everywhere they turned, destructed awaited.

The fighting reached a fever-pitch. For every alien that was killed, ten more took its place. It was like the entire planet was rising against them. They were certainly deficient in numbers, but each fighter was prepared and well trained. They were strong, and though their fighting wasn’t as cohesive as a normal military division they relied on individual strength to advance and their mecha suit for defense.

Majesty and Zeus-1 were also integral as they soared overhead. Whenever the beasts seemed about to overrun the soldiers, one or several beams of light would crash down and obliterate great waves of them.
Third and Fourth Brigade were now in the fight. They were there to shore up the weaker parts of their defensive line against being flanked or overpowered.

The best way to learn about war was to participate in it. They needn’t worry about morality against these foes. They would not surrender or plead for their lives. No one held back or harbored regrets.

This disregard allowed them to fight like demons. Aside from the A.R.C. students, one would be hard-pressed to find an Avenue Adept who didn’t have at least some battle experience. They had the benefit of exquisite training and air support, and none of these creatures were overly difficult. Star Division didn’t seem to have anything to fear.

All of this was even before considering the Paragon that flew among them! The Gourmet, the Pharmacist, and all four brigade leaders was the backbone of their strange company. When Lan Jue created the Division he did so with the core principle that they must be invincible. They could not be allowed to lose or morale would suffer. If spirits remained high their progress would be quick, but that required victory. Insubordination, despite Lan Jue’s fears, was not an issue. Everyone worked well together, and they were only getting better with time. Squad Leaders were effective in keeping their people in line. The Star
Division’s cohesive force was starting to show.

Of course, Lan Jue had not anticipated the appearance of their true enemy. Thankfully none were as strong as the beasts he’d encountered on Taihua, but that didn’t mean they were out of the proverbial woods. Enough ants could take down an elephant, and these things were much larger than ants.

Still he was pleased with what he was seeing. Lan Jue ordered Majesty to patrol overhead and monitor the situation. He commanded the ship to engage if any sign of stronger enemies were spotted.

Meanwhile, the progenitor’s tentacles continued their wild assault. Wherever the Pharmacist’s swords chopped one down, another took its place. They seemed endless. What’s more, the violet creatures that were killed within the sick zone were quickly consumed and used to creature reinforcements.

He left Majesty and Zeus-1 handle it from here.

He turned to the Gourmet at his side. “Alright, that’s good enough.” The three powerful Adepts were in no hurry to deal with the progenitor. First Lan Jue wanted his soldiers to
experience the enemy. They had to become familiar with the beasts they were trying to eradicate. Analysts were also busy getting all the information they could to make future encounters easier.

“I’ll do it!” The Pharmacist exclaimed.

Lan Jue turned to her. “Alright.” At first he’d planned to go in himself, but the Pharmacist was just as well. He wanted to save the Gourmet as a trump card in case there were any stronger aliens lying in wait.

The Pharmacist’s mecha split as its chest plate opened.  A beam of light issued forth and deposited the powerful Adept in midair. The myriad swords she’d summoned returned to her like rivers to an ocean.

The Pharmacist adopting a fighting stance, hands in front of her. As the swords approached they tried to overlay one another and occupy the same space. As they combined the ten-meter long sword began to swell. With every copy it consumed the sword’s aura became more oppressive. It bore a sharpness that filled the area with the promise of destruction. The progenitor’s tentacles were suddenly hesitant to engage.
From the weapon’s point, a beam of light issued up toward the heavens, and the sword began to rise higher. The woman’s eyes were alive with scenes of the cosmos, and then her sweet voice called to the sword. “Banish the demons!”

A rune was scrawled in light at her back, burning against the darkness. Motes of errant light began to gather around her sword. The next moment it was off, leaving behind a glimmering after-image.

Night had fallen on Tempest, but was assailed and split by a beam of light. Occisus, headed right for the progenitor.The creature appeared to know the danger and writhed grotesquely. Its flailing tentacles did everything they could to try and keep the sword at bay.

But it was fruitless. A wake of smoldering fire and shimmering starlight was left behind in the sword’s passage. The two-hundred meter long weapon carved through the night sky, ultimately burying itself in the monstrous bud and disappearing.

Time seemed to stand still. The creatures below were suddenly wracked with convulsions. Combat slowly ceased. The soldiers could feel the tremendous power radiating from
overhead and lifted their eyes. Many of them could only stare in wonder.

This power…

Protogenia!

Lan Jue could feel the purity of it, like she was molding the essence of protogenia. She wasn’t a Paragon, but she had long ago come to comprehend her own protogenia. It was the first time he’d seen her use it.

Righteousness! Yes, the Pharmacist’s power was virtue, a righteous heart! ‘The universe is possessed of righteousness, which it bestows upon the myriad creatures. From the lowest rivers to the loftiest mountains; from the basest life to the soaring stars. In men it is called integrity, and it permeates everything.’

A line lifted from something called ‘The Song of Righteousness’, which near as I can tell was a manual for living a righteous life.
No wonder. No wonder she was accepted by the deadly Occisus. I relied on that righteousness and an invincible heart!

Just then, several glossy beams of light shot from the wound left behind by Occisus. It spread throughout and began to burst forth in blazing fissures. As the creature’s exterior was ripped apart, the star-like brilliance within drawing every eye.

Within the bud was a second creature, but markedly differing from the others. Instead of being some towering beast, this one was roughly shape of a man. Albeit a stubby, bloated man. Its arms were noticeably shorter than you’d expect, and thick. They managed with some effort to lift the Pharmacist’s glittering sword.

The creature’s whole body shimmered with a crystalline violet light, absent the sickening quality of its children. Something flickered within its chest, visible only occasionally. Black, writhing veins ran up and down the length of its stunted legs. That must be how it sustained itself, and the black substance nutrition from its surroundings.

“Ey!?” The Pharmacist blinked in surprise. She raised her right hand in preparation to strike it down, when suddenly Lan Jue cried out.
“Wait!”

Thor was gone in a flash. It shot through the air in a golden burst of lightning and reappeared in front of the progenitor. The beast continued to struggle keeping Occisus at bay. Sparks of violet became more erratic and intense as the fight went on.

Thor came closer and was able to pick out more detail. Compared with the mecha, this crystalline beast was much larger. It looked weak physically, but the waves of power radiating from it were fierce and powerful. Normal attacks likely wouldn’t do it much harm.

Thor swept its enormous sword, issuing forth a boom of sharp energy. The blast crossed the distance quickly, but the alien wasn’t its target. Instead it screamed through the air toward the black veins extending from the creature’s legs. When they collided many of the pulsing veins were blown apart. Great geysers of purple-black fluid were flung into the air.

A corona of golden electric light buzzed around Thor, burning away any of the fluid before it made contact. Suddenly without support the beast appeared on the verge of collapse. It was brought to its knees and the crackling light burned even fiercer.
“Sister!” Lan Jue called out. The Pharmacist knew what he was going to say.

Thor reeled back, then plunged its mammoth blade toward the progenitor’s chest. However, when it made contact Lan Jue was surprised to find how sturdy it’s ‘flesh’ was. His sword couldn’t penetrate.

An irritated grunt huffed from the mecha. Under Lan Jue’s control Thor exploded with golden light that extended through its weapon. All of the electric energy concentrated at the tip until it blazed brighter than a sun.

Crack! At last the beast’s skin split and the golden blade slipped through. In that instant the seven stars affixed to the Occisus glowed. Starlight flooded the beleaguered monster until it detonated into a fine dust.

Floating amidst the cloud of ruined progenitor, was an orb of gold. The remnants of Thor’s piercing sword.

The ground below was a ruin. After Lan Jue cut away the creature’s arteries the beast below had all toppled, dead. Their bodies melted away into the violet landscape. Thor blasted high
over the battlefield. The mecha flipped it’s sword and the tip landed squarely in its palm, along with something else.

Chapter 544: Another Vital Crystal

Lan Jue brought Thor back to hover by the Gourmet and Pharmacist. The Pharmacist was back in her suit and her seven- star sword had vanished in a flash of light.

Cries of victory rang across the battlefield, filled with crazed enthusiasm. They had seen the alien progenitor destroyed in spectacular and shocking fashion. Every soldier was brimming with pride.

Lan Jue’s voice addressed them through a universal communication channel. “We have slain a progenitor and earned an alien core for the Star Division!”

He punctuated the declaration by thrusting Thor’s robotic hand into the air. Behind the glimmering light was a crystal roughly thirty centimeters in diameter. It was surrounded by an undulating halo of violet light.

An Alien Core! Quite the treasure after only their second fight, how could they not be excited? One step closer to the exuvium process! However not everyone was pleased. The Gourmet, Lan Jue and the Pharmacist were dour.
This progenitor wasn’t overpowering. It couldn’t stand up to the full might of the Pharmacist. However, making the Pharmacist employ her full strength was telling enough. In terms of human equivalency, the progenitor was probably akin to a peak-level Adept.

“I got the feeling it was still gestating.” This time, Lan Jue’s words were reserved for the two squad leaders with him.

The Pharmacist replied. “I think so, too. The dark arteries we severed were providing it energy from the planet. That would mean the bud was its cocoon or egg, and the crystal monster inside was the product. That is to say, it was strong but not a mature progenitor. But if that’s true, how terrifying would a fully grown one be?”

It was her first time seeing these monsters face to face, and what she discovered shook her confidence. This one was affixed to the planet as well, and couldn’t compare to the destructive powers of the ones that took out the North’s seventh fleet. Not to mention they had the capabilities to fight in deep space.

Obviously they hadn’t seen how strong these things could ultimately get. From the recordings, everyone had seen the three alien planets and what they could do. It was the stuff of
nightmares.

The Gourmet added his voice. “We need to alert Skyfire Avenue right away. We’ll send back all the data we’ve collected, too. Now that we’ve found one out here I’m sure there will be others. The Shattered Starfields lies right at the heart of human occupied space. If they can be here, then they can hit us anywhere. I shudder to think.”

“Absolutely,” Lan Jue agreed. “Let’s sweep the planet and see if there are any more of them here. This is the third time these things and I’ve crossed paths. I can sense… something. These smaller aliens, the hundreds we fought, aren’t really aliens. They’re perverted life created from the planet’s energies. Mutations that heavily favor genetic traits of survivability. Note that when we fought them they could attack and defend, but didn’t have any higher order of intelligence. Outwardly they look different, but really they’re just skin deep. They are real living things, they’re more like puppets. That’s likely why they don’t have Cores.

“The situation we found on Taihua was very similar. I killed countless monsters there and none of them had one. It was only once the Wine Master killed the progenitor hidden there that we got it. Now the monsters there were much stronger, and that’s probably because of how much life there was on that
planet. All the more for the progenitor to use in its gestation. It seems as though a progenitor lands and uses its own DNA to create these puppets. They, in turn, assist in devouring the planet’s life. I don’t really have any way to confirm this theory, but that’s how I think the true aliens take over a planet.”

The Gourmet’s response was low and thoughtful. “It makes sense. We don’t know a lot yet, but we’re bound to learn more as contact increases. Send your theory back to the Avenue along with the other data for analysis. We need to prioritize bringing back a specimen. Third Brigade is already collecting samples.”

“Good,” Lan Jue agreed.

Lan Jue’s communicator buzzed. It was Zeus-1.

“Boss.” Mika’s voice greeted him.

“Yeah, what’s up?” He replied.

“The infected area has started retreating. A quick look showed that it leaves barren land behind. Judging by its current speed, it should all disappear within a day.”
“Alright,” he said. Lan Jue then hung up and hailed Majesty. “Xiaosu, take Majesty on a quick scout of the planet and see if there are any more violet areas. Search the oceans as well. No stone unturned.”

“Aye,” she answered. Majesty’s radar was broader and more sensitive. It was well suited for seeking out any more foes.

First, Second, and Fourth Brigade set about searching the immediate area for any monsters that may have slipped through the cracks. They also kept an eye out for any indication of another progenitor. Third Brigade continued to gather specimens for research.

However, it wasn’t long before Third Brigade ran into a problem. Any sample they removed would immediately crumble to dust. Lifeless, drained dust. In fact the only thing they managed to hold on to were fragments of the arteries which were feeding the adolescent progenitor. Everything else defied their efforts. Experts from the brigade in botany and zoology concluded that the bogs were created when the alien introduced a substance that bonded with living material. Once the alien was killed and that substance deprived, the world quickly returned to normal.
In the end they had to be content with whatever they could box up. Any clue was a small victory.

Majesty made two circuits around Tempest, ultimately confirming that all alien life was extinguished. Tempest’s scans were clear of everything. The Desert Tempest Pirate Clan seemed to have vanished into thin air. It was noted, though, that the battleship they were reported to have was nowhere to be seen, even though there were several more ships still in the hangars. Sadly they were too corroded for use.

Their consolation prize came when scans picked up the pirate’s treasure cache. It was buried underground, as pirates seemed to prefer, in an underground warehouse. It was protected by thick alloy walls. There were signs of damage as well, but not as extensive. Soldiers estimated it would take ten direct hits from a battleship to pierce those walls.

There had to be something good in there.

Of course where a battleship failed, Occisus would not. It wasn’t the sharpest of the Banishing blades, but a godly weapon nonetheless. Warehouse walls were not a problem. When the Pharmacist was done, the Desert Tempest pirates’ greatest treasures were revealed to them.
Tang Xiao, as Lan Jue’s disciple and a squad leader, had come over to observe. When he saw what was inside, his first reaction was to blurt out, “space piracy pays damn well!”

His comment earned a number of sidelong glances, but that was just until they saw the riches for themselves. The cache was more than ten times the size of the Poison Wasp Clan’s. Advantages of being an established pirate clan.

The first thing to draw the eye was the fifty mecha suits, perfectly maintained, standing in solemn silence. Star Division soldiers were spoiled, but they still recognized quality when they saw it. Crates of weapons were stashed nearby.

Lan Jue couldn’t help but look impressed. The Desert Tempest was strong. In the end, though, the alien was stronger. Its strategy was insidious, hiding until its strength was gathered then attacking without warning. By the time they sensed something wasn’t right, it was already too late. The pirates had all their gadgets pointed at space and weren’t defended against an enemy from within. Their hubris ultimately lead to their doom.

Yet, there were still questions. They were an established pirate clan, but this made them seem weak. They should have
had no less than five hundred mecha pilots. Assuming they could mount a defense, it wouldn’t have been too difficult to get all their ships off the ground. Under circumstances like that, could they have really been so easily obliterated?

Lan Jue pondered the troubling question as he led the others into the warehouse.

A section was reserved for stacks of power gems, meticulously organized. The fist-sized stones pulsed with enough energy to power a standard mecha for three hours. Best guess, there were two thousand of them here. This was a good day’s work.

Chapter 545: Another Fortune

Several boxes were stacked in the far reaches of the warehouse, surrounded by non-perishable foods. When the boxes were opened, they found them filled to the brim with more power gems.

The majority were C-rank. Two of the crates were B-ranked gems, and only a handful were A-ranked. From where Lan Jue was standing, it looked like the costs for sending out the Star Division had already been recouped. The Shattered Starfields were two pirate clans poorer, and they were sitting on a good haul. These gems and suits would fetch an excellent price.

“Commander!” The Bartender hurried over to his side.

Lan Jue nodded. The Bartender continued with a wry chuckle. “The Desert Tempest were being bankrolled by the North. I did some digging and found traces of serial numbers on the mechas that hadn’t been completely filed off. They were all manufactured in the North. Five hundred suits is a whole lot. How could they manage it without someone high up in the government to help them out? They’re good suits, too, standard kit for Northern infantry. Twenty of them are upgraded versions we can probably use.”
The Driver interjected. “The heavy suits are suited for long- range, those should go to Second Brigade. You can divvy the rest among yourselves. “

“Shameless,” the Coffee Master complained. No one saw him approach. “What use are the others except to sell? You treacherous bastard!”

The Driver snickered. “Slander. The desire comes making the best use of the equipment we find. Second Brigade is specialized in long-ranged attack. It makes sense that they should go to us.”

“We’ll spread the wealth later,” Lan Jue ordered. “Get everything on the ships.”

Lan Jue had practically abused his relationship with the Wine Master, extorting him for the best equipment available. Among that were interdimensional storage arrays to collect and store their booty. These pockets of space between realities weren’t simple to create. It wasn’t a matter of money or power gems. One needed a high-level Adept skilled in the Discipline to set them up.

The Wine Master was just such an Adept. In fact, aside from
the Cosmagus’ aunt there was no human alive with more command of interdimensional space. Lan Jue had no qualms tapping that resource. So, even though this warehouse was full to bursting, moving everything to their own coffers would not be a problem.

Third Brigade was put in charge of organizing transport.

As they exited the warehouse, the Pharmacist addressed her commander. “This place seems as good as any. Will you join with them here?” He knew she meant the sword-spirits Jun Yongye and Xuanyuan Shishi.

But Lan Jue shook his head. “No. I still sense something isn’t right. This isn’t the best place for it. The amount of treasure they have suggests their crew is larger than we thought. They have to have more than fifteen hundred pirates. Populations always grow over time as families are made, then pair that with the level of infrastructure. I wouldn’t be surprised if there were more than ten thousand people here, wives and kids included. You don’t get to be that big without having your systems complete. That means that even if the alien caught them unprepared, they would still be able to fight back. Yet, there’s no signs of struggle. Their battleship is also conspicuously absent. It’s not right.”
The Pharmacist was a smart woman. She picked up on his concerns right away. “So you’re saying there’s another alien. One that can fight in space and shot the battleship down?”

Lan Jue nodded. “That’s why Majesty is still airborne. Consider the progenitor we fought. If the beasts and bog come from it, where did it come from? Who brought the seed of the alien here to gestate? Whatever did must be powerful to make the trip here from those alien planets. It’s likely that alien is still around, and that’s what destroyed the Desert Tempest Pirate Clan.”

The Pharmacist nodded thoughtfully. “It’s as good a theory as any. If you don’t plan to join here, then where? Other planets aren’t sure to be safe, either. The Starfields are full of pirates and we can’t be sure what we’ll run into.”

Lan Jue put her at ease. “We’ll do the joining here, just not now. First let’s make sure everyone’s safe.”

The Pharmacist frowned. “The universe is vast. We can’t be sure another alien is here or will come back!”

Lan Jue offered a placating smile. “We don’t need absolute
proof, just stick to the plan. We establish a temporary base here to rest and resupply. Then we radiate outward, picking off the smaller clans. First let’s make sure we get the base up and running, then we can revisit the issue. If the carrier alien returns it won’t hesitate to attack and we’ll need to be ready. Once we know we can defend ourselves, the joining can continue.”

A pretty smile stretched her lips. “Fine. The wisdom of experience. Don’t worry, I’ll guard your back no matter what. Just let another one of those things dare attack. I’ll handle it, and we’ll have another Core to add to the collection.”

He nodded, however a mysterious look flit behind his eyes. What he didn’t share was the question of what they would do if the carrier alien attacked from orbit.

ζ

It didn’t take long for Star Division to establish a base of operations. A lot of the infrastructure from the Desert Tempest remained. Although damaged by corrosion, some equipment could still be used. They also installed the radar system from the Poison Wasps. Most of the work was done by a host of construction droids which got the job done in no time.
Zeus-1 was docked at base, but Majesty was nowhere to be found. In fact, even Brigade commanders weren’t told where it’d gone. They were busy setting up the base on Tempest.

After several long flights and two battles, everyone was tired. Tempest was a planet not hostile to life. The oxygen content was lower than human were accustomed to, but a few puffs from an oxygen tank now and again was enough to stave off hypoxia. The food they’d pillaged from the warehouse became their dinner and the base’s interior became a hive of activity.

Space travel wasn’t a new experience for these soldiers, but only a few of them were ever involved in plundering. It was a novel experience for most. Their victories and riches fresh in mind, the base was filled with sounds of joy.

Lan Jue stood on the second story balcony of a building, looking out into the distance. He had an arm wrapped around Qianlin.

Qianlin’s eyes stared blankly at nothing. She stood there like a beautiful statue. Occasionally Lan Jue would straighten her wind-tousled hair or stroke her bright face. A look of contentment filled his face.
Qianlin’s condition was steadily improving. A lot of what was once impossible, she could now do with only a little help. It helped save Lan Jue a lot of effort in caring for her. Still, he never left her alone for more than a moment. Other than official duties or battle, he was by her side.

She still couldn’t talk or respond to him in any way, but Lan Jue felt enriched by her presence.

“Are you ready?” A voice called to him from behind.

Lan Jue turned his head. Jun Yongye and Xuanyuan Shishi had arrived. They were both dressed in breeze white garb.

Lan Jue looked at them, then looked at Qianlin by his side. “I’ve been ready.”

“Then we must begin as soon as possible.” Both men flickered with a faint, ethereal light. As sword-spirits, the chance to bond with a master and embark on a new era of life was the most exciting prospect. It was preferred over fading into nothing.

Lan Jue led Qianlin back into the room. Inside the Pharmacist
was already waiting, along with all of First Brigades’ Ace Squad. Soundlessly they fanned out to protect the room from without. The Pharmacist remained.

The Gourmet wasn’t present, since his responsibility was to watch for any signs of the alien. For now the base was the site of widespread celebration, but that was on the surface. The soldiers were ever wary, and now that the base was established they could react at any moment.

The Pharmacist offered a stern reminder. “Open your body and heart as much as you can. No matter the pain you experience, keep your mind sharp and your willpower  firm. Lose control for a moment and it will fail. Fail and your body will suffer the consequences. Do you understand?”

Lan Jue nodded. He took Qianlin’s hand, and the two of them walked to the center of the room. He turned to face her and then, looking deep into her eyes, leaned in for a gentle kiss. Her pink, plump lips were infatuating. Lan Jue’s eyes were full of love.


The Pharmacist turned away, just enough so they were out of view. She couldn’t stand to watch these public signs of affection. Her pained heart inevitably wondered if she would
ever see that familiar silhouette again.

Chapter 546: Uniting With The Banishing Blades

In a flash of light, Qianlin vanished. Lan Jue’s aura swelled as he rose to peak level.

He nodded toward the sword-spirits. “What do I need to do?”

Jun Yongye responded. “There are stages. First I will join with you. Then, Xuanyuan and Qianlin. Once our spirits clash you will experience the fluctuations in Captus, then you will perceive the dissolution as two become one. I will help you as much as I can.”

“Got it!” Lan Jue nodded resolutely.

Jon Yunye motioned. “Please sit.”

Lan Jue sat cross-legged on the floor with hands on his knees.
His back was straight and tall.

Jun Yongye’s face became serious. Xuanyuan Shishi retreated to stand by the Pharmacist’s side.
Clang! The ringing sound was harsh against the ears. Lan Jue felt his very soul reverberating from impact. His focus immediately sharpened to a razor’s edge, his eyes bright and vibrant.

A faint red light began to radiate around Jun Yongye. An unfamiliar sensation flooded the room.

Everything around Lan Jue vanished. It was as though he’d slipped into a separate reality. Lan Jue stared, but the outside world seemed murky and different.

Before his eyes, Jun Yongye fractured into a host of beaming lights. They arced up into the air. His red aura deepened until, all of a sudden, everything went dark. A single beam of red light was all that was left.

It was dark as a black hole. The stark red that split it in two was breathtaking.

The fabled blade, Captus, descended through the light, blade first. It was a bright red from hilt to point that pulsed incessantly. The moment he set his eyes upon it Lan Jue felt himself caught in its influence. His soul was painted with the
red light of the sword.

It was marvelous. He made no effort to resist and simply experienced the sensations.

And then reality warped around him. A flash, then a slash of red light was racing right at him. It struck Lan Jue directly on top of his head. He shook violently as the light pierced him, impaling his soul. The power contained within him threatened to burst out of him. He felt like he was being torn into a hundred thousand pieces.

It was definitely not marvelous. The obliteration of one’s soul was not something one could just grit their teeth and endure.

Lan Jue threw his head back and screamed at the top of his lungs. Glorious rays of red light erupted from every pore. He couldn’t stop shaking, and with every painful jerk lightning burst from him.

Bolts of golden lightning appeared and vanished, colliding constantly with each other around and through his Core. It poured its energy in wild abandoned, like a dam that had burst.
Lan Jue suddenly knew what it meant when they said a pain worse than death. This is what they were talking about. Pain, unendurable pain the likes of which could break a man.

Everything was spinning. Lan Jue could feel his own body caught in the wildfire that was Captus. More precisely it was like a black hole in the pit of his stomach. It was sucking in bone, blood, organs and meridians.

“Clear your heart, focus your mind! You are joining with the sword spirit. You must endure it no matter what. Be strong and you will succeed.” Jun Yongye’s disembodied voice called through his mind. It helped root him in the moment.

The pain was excruciating, but Lan Jue clung to a single image. A pair of eyes, heavy with unwillingness and dismay, filled with agony. She didn’t want to leave him!

They were Qianlin’s eyes, moments after receiving the killing blow meant for Lan Jue. The poison had stolen her ability to speak, leaving just her eyes to try and impart her final words.

How could any physical or ethereal pain match such agony? How could it compare with nearly watching Qianlin die? To the
videos from she and Hera?

In that moment Lan Jue fixed on the thought. The pain is his body was separate like it belonged to someone else. In his heart was only the boundless love he felt for Hera and Qianlin.

From the Pharmacist and Xuanyuan’s perspective, Lan Jue had been consumed in a cocoon of glaring red light. The image of him wracked with pain was burned into their minds. Xuanyuan Shishi watched with knitted brows, while the Pharmacist nervously clenched her fists. She had experienced precisely what he was going through. She knew how much it hurt. Worse, it was insidious. The more you focused on the pain the worse it became.

Judging by the look on his face, she judged his process was more difficult than hers. This was to be expected, for the Banishing Blades were not equal in strength. Xuanyuan Shishi had told her once that Jun Yongye was the strongest sword- spirits to arise in the last ten thousand years.

He’d revealed that Jun Yongye had held back during the tournament, and that was the sole reason for Lan Jue’s victory. The stronger the spirit, the more dominating the weapon – and the more painful the joining. Lan Jue had a tremendous weight
on his shoulders.

This was the premise behind Jun Yongye’s insistence of joining with Lan Jue first. Helping Qianlin bond with Xuanyuan Shishi would be an easier endeavor.

Their nervous gazes eased when they saw him begin to stabilize. His face was no longer a mask of pain, like he felt it no longer. It was replaced with a sentimental smile. He still shook from time to time but remained still and straight, seated on the floor. The red light flowed freely from his pores, and the aura he released was firm. The light that surrounded him was cross- shaped, like a sword.

Xuanyuan Shishi’s voice was joyful and relieved. “We have made the right decision. The results are even better than we’d hoped. The first one was the worst, what comes will be easier. He was a strong will.”

The Pharmacist’s face revealed a knowing smile. “Experienced men know how to overcome adversity. He’s known suffering in his life. I had no idea he would channel it for fortitude.”

The sword-spirit smiled and nodded. “They are fine
candidates for mastering the Harmonious Swords.”

This earned a surprise look from the Pharmacist. “You two were unable to learn the style? It’s obvious both of you have studied the sword to near perfection!”

Chapter 547: Thunder Essence

Xuanyuan Shishi’s face fell. “You shouldn’t tease, sword- sister. The Banishing Blades have creates spirits out of balance. Only one of us is female, Occisus. It would be…. Strange for us to perform a style based on such affection. As we have both trained profoundly in other styles, combining them is also difficult.”

The Pharmacist’s eyes were wide. “So that’s the way it is? I thought you two could combine harmoniously. No wonder you two fled so quickly when the Terminator showed up.”

Xuanyuan Shishi was trying to keep his composure. “I’d appreciate it if you didn’t always have to point out the truth, sister.”

“Huh?!” Their conversation was interrupted as the Pharmacist suddenly exclaimed, and snapped her eyes to Lan Jue.

At some point, they don’t know when, a white light had begun to spread from him. It was a gentle light was settled just over his skin and muscles like a film. It was only visible in passing, swelling and contracted with his breath. It gave Lan Jue a
strange, ethereal quality.

This…

It wasn’t the destructive power of Captus, nor was it Lan Jue’s own Discipline. His Thunderbolt abilities had already been overcome and scattered by the Banishing Blade before being absorbed. The white light was none of this, and it permeated his whole body.

“That must be Qianlin’s power.” The Pharmacist offered after some consideration.

Xuanyuan Shishi was uncertain. “But hasn’t she lost consciousness?”

She rolled her eyes. “Haven’t you ever heard of lover’s instinct?”

He stared blankly at her. “I’m a sword-spirit. All I know is that love is strange.”
She grunted. “That’s instinct.”

The white light eased and supported Lan Jue. Captus’ corona of red energy had vanished within him. Lan Jue sat cross-legged and unmoved, like he was in a trance. The seconds passed in silence until they became hours.

ζ

“Lan Jue!” A low voice shook him from his focus on Hera and Qianlin. When he opened his eyes, he found himself still in that dark pocket of reality where nothing existed but the red sword. The red light it exuded surrounded them like a cocoon in the darkness.

“Yongye, is it you calling me?” Lan Jue asked, but did not speak. It was a thought given voice in this strange place.

“Yes. I am still in the process of joining with you. But there is a problem. There are some properties that do not meld well, and forcing them will make the process incomplete. We will need some outside help. If you have a power gem with thunder properties, I can try to channel myself through it as a means of transformation. That should solve the issue.”
Lan Jue’s face scrunched in thought. “Thunder gems are rare. The ones they find are all a-ranked. In fact I have one stored in Thor’s Promise. Would that do?”

Jun Yongye’s voice rang out once more from the sword. “Unlikely, it doesn’t have the potency we need. Filtering my power will be difficult, but let us try.”

Captus flashed, and Lan Jue was surprised to find Thor’s Promise react in kind. Its pale green light flickered and danced among the steady red light of the sword. Another flash, and the sizeable contents hidden within Thor’s Promise was laid bare.

The Banishing Blades were dimensional weapons. It would stand to reason their interdimensional control would extend to something like Lan Jue’s ring.

Flash! The thunder gems in Lan Jue’s collection hovered in the darkness between man and sword, twinkling in a rainbow of colors. “They’re all roughly the same; impure, weak… ey? Wait!”

Flash! Something else joined the stones. A box, with a strange metal nestled within. It was a light blue color itself, but deep
sapphire specks of blue twinkling around it. Stranger still, at almost looked like it moved. Just a little – an incessant buzz back and forth – but enough to make it seem alive.

“This is…” There was hesitation in the sword-spirit’s voice.

Lan Jue’s eyes sparkled. He remembered it the moment it appeared. “Living metal. Nothing like it has ever been seen in the Three Alliances. I still haven’t been able to figure out what it does, but it seems to involve amplification. Injecting it with even a little inert energy doubles its potency. I also suspect its movements help make unstable energy easier to control. I got it in an auction, I don’t know any more specifics.”

“Oh, right. This is a type of metal only detected on Lyr’s seabed, salvaged from twenty thousand meters below the surface. It is likely there is nothing else in the universe like it, and if there is another in the future it’ll be different. As far as we know these living metals are possessed of a single element. They are also unyielding, resistant to any efforts to break it apart. I bought it in the hopes it could be made into an Astrum when I ascended to Paragon.” This was all that he knew of the strange prize from Lyr.

“You’re luck is unbelievable. This, this is thunder essence!”
Jun Yongye’s infinitely calm voice was a pitch higher.

“Thunder essence? What metal is that?” Lan Jue asked curiously.

Jun Yongye explained. “Thunder essence isn’t actually metal, but a purified element of the planet. Legends talk of a time when great beasts roamed the land. They would grow so powerful that they threatened all life. In those dire times, there appeared the divine Empyreal Lightning. If the lightning’s support is strong, then the beast becomes an immortal and rises to the heavens. If it cannot then the process continues. Empyreal lightning was said to come in sets; four, six, or nine sets of nine. Only when the ninth bolt of the ninth strike is just enough to empower a creature with lightning properties is thunder essence born. The creature rises to immortality, and though they leave only a fraction of their life force behind, it is the strongest, purest element in the universe.”

Lan Jue listened in stunned silence. “I am lucky! So should I use it for my future Astrum?”

“No, impossible! Thunder essence cannot be molded to suit your needs. Instead…”

Chapter 548: Thunder Essence Is Absorbed

“Thunder essence cannot be molded!” Jun Yongye’s deep voice boomed from Captus.

Lan Jue was curious. “Then what is its purpose?”

“Absorption,” he answered. “It resonates with your thunderbolt Discipline. You should combine it with your core to make it a part of you. With time you will absorb the empyreal lightning and the essence of the life form that ascended to godhood.”

Lan Jue was still surprised by all he was learning. Are these things real? This empyreal lightning? Becoming an immortal?”

Jun Yongye nodded resolutely. “Of course they’re real. You did not used to think the Banishing Blades were real, and yet we are. Our existence is to restrain the power of these immortals. With the Banishing Stance, even Da Luo would be easily vanquished. Although this thunder essence is wonderful, it cannot hold a candle to the strength we blades possess. Even when you break through to Paragon, you will be capable of harnessing no more than a tenth of my potential. As you grow
in strength, so too will you draw more upon me.”

I believe Da Luo is the name of one of the highest Taoist immortals. It’s important to remember here that there is a precedent for contesting with immortal beings in Chinese literature. Journey to the West was all about spitting in the face of Taoist belief.

Lan Jue was veritably slack jawed. It was like a whole new reality opening up before his eyes.

“What should I do?” Lan Jue asked, desperate for instruction.

Jun Yongye’s deep, calm voice obliged. “First you must accept the thunder essence. Let it become a part of your Core. In this way it can nurture and protect you so that the joining will be easier. Once this is done, my concerns will be addressed and we can proceed. In the future you can use it as a supplement to your cultivation. With time it will become an integral part of your Discipline and make it stronger. Once absorption is complete, my estimation is you will be capable of commanding twenty, maybe thirty percent of my strength.”

No wonder they were considered ancient treasures. A Paragon
capable of using only a fraction of its strength spoke volumes. What were these things ultimately capable of?

“Begin.” Jun Yongye urged with some impatience. The state they were in was a construct of Lan Jue’s mind, created with help from Captus. It was draining to his will, and couldn’t be maintained for very long.

Lan Jue nodded. He flicked his right hand and the box floated over to his. He opened the glass lid and took the thunder essence into his palm. His careful study of the object was put to the side when things started to become complicated. His road to Paragon had lengthened, so he’d put an Astrum out of mind. Now, it seemed like it was the proper moment.

The essence’s glossy exterior was a magnificent sapphire blue that twinkled in the light. Moments after picking it up, the malleable substance flowed over and coated his hand. It felt cool and smooth to the touch, much like a metal. However, there was still no sign or sense of energy from it. This was why the LYrian scientists were so stumped. How could a normal man, even a scientist, understand empyreal lightning or the immortals? How could they command that power?

“How?” He looked at the sword.
Jun Yongye’s voice answered. “Protogenic blood.”

Lan Jue shuddered down to his bones. He knew what he meant. Lan Jue lifted his other hand and it began to glow with a resplendent golden light. His Discipline had been reduced to chaos by the sword, but with Jun Yongye’s restraint he was able to command some portion of it. The accumulated protogenia slowly diffused outward. He drew upon the righteous power of his Ascension as the reservoir for this power. In this way, he was similar to the Pharmacist. The difference was in his versatility, culminating in the Ascension commands. The Pharmacist’s powers were pure amplification. One was general, one was specialized – which was better, it was hard to say.

Her path was undoubtedly decided by the presence of Occisus. The sheer lethality of it paired with amplification meant she didn’t need to rely on any Domain. A single thrust could pierce anything. That was her path. Lan Jue was different. He adhered to the tenet that man was an inexorable part of nature. I am heaven, and heaven is me. Everything was connected.

As the crux of his protogenic comprehension continued to flow through his hand, Lan Jue’s aura changed. It became vast and towering, turning the darkness around them into a fairyland of color. It was a hypnotic, engrossing world.
Lan Jue quickly flicked two fingers against one another, producing a small, vivid trickle of blood from their tips. The beads of blood were a pale golden hue.

This was protogenic blood, when the entirely of one’s protogenic comprehension was infused into their essence and blood. It was only a few drops, but already Lan Jue’s face was becoming pale and drawn.

The thunder essence sensed something, and began to shake more vigorously. It pitched and rolled, trying to get to the drops of protogenic blood. Lan Jue crooked his finger and shook it, splattering a single golden drop against its surface.

Almost immediately, the thunder essence stiffened to its previous globular state. Where it was a liquid before, now it looked more like a natural sculpture. The darker blue specks of color on its surface shimmered with an internal light and the shaking intensified.

Inert moments before, Lan Jue was immediately assailed with a torrential blast of some terrifying and indescribable.

It was an aura, not energy that he felt. And yet, Lan Jue felt
like something had him by the throat. He couldn’t breathe. In the face of that aura he was afraid he would he blown apart.

But then the familiar red light returned, seeping from his pores. As the light went out the vacuum left behind drew in the surrounding nimbus. It began to shake. Lan Jue was aware that this process would have been much more difficult without the Banishing Blade’s help. After all, this was the product of mythical powers and immortal beings! With Captus and its sword-spirit at his side, he need not fear any storm.

The essence reacted, too. It melted in his hand and spread until it covered Lan Jue’s whole body like an extra layer of skin. Soon nothing was left uncovered.

Lan Jue was a silhouette of glittering blue. The rest light from within him blazed brighter as Captus unleashed it dimension- fracturing power. The pale blue material vanished in an instant, and all that was left were the sapphire blue dots that peppering his skin. Even though, though, remained only a moment longer before they were sucked into his pores.

All of a sudden Lan Jue felt his body go numb. Normally he was the one inflicting this upon his enemies. It had been a long time since he experienced the discomfort himself.
The numbness wasn’t constrained to his body either. It penetrated to his consciousness and spirit, flowering toward his chest. The more it moved inward, the more feeling returned to his limbs.

Lan Jue was right. Even at peak rank, it would have been practically impossible to try and absorb the essence. He couldn’t withstand the power it held. Thankfully he had Captus and the strong sword-spirit in several generations to give him aid. They acted to restrain the essence and bear it in to the body, then seal it so its power would not release all at once. Together it made the process survivable.

Lan Jue didn’t need to try and coerce or direct it. The essence flowed straight for his Core. Captus had punctured his Core with the intent of remaking it, but instead leaving it fractured. Thankfully, this would make things better.

The thunder essence flowed through the cracks and wormed its way into his Core. It reacted by releasing a flood of blinding light. The spindle-shaped Core warped under some unseen pressure to become rounded. Its golden light now had a pale blue hue that shimmered within, interspersed with pinpricks of darker sapphire light.
Lan Jue passively observed as the origin of his Discipline was subtly influenced before his eyes, to where even his protogenia was affected. This was certainly not a comfortable experience. Protogenia underpinned everything Lan Jue had built, and a chance in that comprehension shook him to the pillars of who he was. It affected his future potential as a Paragon.

His internal energies surged. Any more, Lan Jue thought, and he might even break through to Paragon. This was worrisome, because the sudden change in his protogenic comprehension would make further growth difficult if rushed. Once Adepts became Paragons, there was no going back. Whatever they brought with them in terms of protogenia would be a part of them forever.

What could he do? Lan Jue’s mind raced for a solution.

But just then he sensed another light within his chest. It was the familiar red of Captus, and a beam of light shot through the top of his Core all the way through to the bottom. The feeling of pressure, like he might explode, inexplicably disappeared. This was followed by a blinding display of red light that burst out – bringing with it the excruciating pain of the joining.

Captus was trying again!
With the thunder essence present to filter and soothe Captus’ chaotic power, the pain was duller. The joining proceeded with no further issues.

Chapter 549: Sea Cucumber

Lan Jue awoke from his quiet contemplation of Hera and Qianlin. He suffered the pain of the joining with no more trouble. He had begun to change, influenced by the power of the sword. Under Jun Yongye’ direction the thunder essence and Captus melded flawlessly to wash through Lan Jue’s body and soul.

His skin flickered with red light, flashing from his pores. Skin, bones, blood, meridians… everything felt changed by the harsh addition of this light. Soon his whole body was a blazing red dot in the darkness. Sometimes it was strong, sometimes soft, and it brought to mind the young progenitor they’d recently slain.

ζ

The Gourmet stood nearby, staring into the sky. He silently allowed the energies of the planet to flow around him like a river. Upon becoming Paragon, many changes reforged an Adept. They were no longer purely human, but beings of energy. This extended to their perception, which was thousands of times better than even a normal Adept. That’s why a peak Adept couldn’t content with even the weakest Paragon. Breaking through was to evolve into something else. It was a whole new world.
The Infernal Vanguard, the Gourmet – a newly made Paragon!
He wasn’t old either. There was room for growth in his future.

However, there was regret in the depths of his heart. Regret for a wasted youth. Once he’d become the Infernal Vanguard his thinking changed. His mind opened, and that allowed him to eventually realize that his painful past was manufactured – designed specifically to hurt him and his family.

At one time he was the greatest hope of the Hades Bloodline. He was to be their next Paragon, and was destined to lift the family back to its former glory. The Dark Citadel was very aware of this. However, while everyone knew Satan was ruthless, cunning and evil, they’d seen how he treated Mika. He was a protective father, how could such a man ever visit harm upon his own blood?

It wasn’t Satan, and it wasn’t his own family. Then who? The Gourmet had his suspicions, and even guessed the aim. In the end he’d achieved Paragon status, but the damage was already done. After more than ten years he didn’t have the gall to face his family, nor could he represent them as Hades.

He was the Infernal Vanguard now, watching in defense of his former family though years of depression had weakened him.
Breaking through had seemed sudden, but it was an accumulation over years. Even now his comprehension was as solid as it should have been. There was still time for growth, but the Gourmet suspected his limit would be second level.

But that was by no means a slight. Paragons who were Reflections of Heaven and Earth were among the strongest beings in humanity. Even the Terminator was second level. However, there was something about Lan Jue… about Lan Qing, too, and even Chu Cheng.

Lan Qing, Chu Cheng and Hua Li all left Skyfire after the meeting with the Clairvoyant. Before he left, Chu Cheng’s revelations changed him thoroughly.

Because of this, the Gourmet sat and spoke with his nephew at length. He shared everything he’d learned from years of experience. It was time to pass the mantle to the next hope for the Hades bloodline, Chu Cheng.

From his Paragon’s perspective, they were all powerful potential leaders. But even though Lan Jue was the weakest of them in Discipline, in the end he would surpass them all. He watched the young Jewelry Master explode in strength and display a deep and comprehensive understanding of the world.
When it rains it pours – it was just as true for Paragons. The Pharmacist was the same.

He saw it during the tournament. So long as Lan Jue and the Pharmacist kept improving, they would join the ranks of those like Jue Di and Celestial Master Qian – the next generation of super humans!

The thought brought a small smile to the Gourmet’s face. He was eager for the day they would grow into a leadership role. He was looking forward to a long vacation with the Seamstress, where he could forget about his long years of gloomy solitude. He’d earned some relaxation time.

Just then his spine straightened, and the Gourmet’s eyes snapped to Lan Jue. The Seamstress, seated beside him, yelped in surprise.

“What is it?”

The Gourmet looked back at her, with a complicated and awe- struck look in his eyes. “Such a strong aura.”
The Seamstress was no slouch as an Adept, but her perception could not compare to her lover’s.

Another shock came when the base’s alarm system started wailing. Ree! Ree! Ree! The urgent bells were deafening. The resting soldiers were immediately on their feet, Disciplines flaring. Contingents of mechas rushed to prepare for battle.

“This is Majesty. This is Majesty reporting in. We’ve picked up an unidentified object closing in on Tempest. Preliminary data suggests an alien carrier ship, one thousand two hundred meters long. Power readings are similar to a human capital ship. ETA one hour before it enters Tempest orbit. Prepare for battle!”

The Gourmet’s eyes became hard and cold. “You stay here and make sure they mount a stable line of defense. Don’t act rashly. Let me take a look at what we’re dealing with.”

Even before he finished speaking, the Gourmet dissolved into a beam of light and shot into the sky. He didn’t bring his mecha. If he had to fight, the suit would just get in the way. He wasn’t sure he’d be able to take an alien that large. It was capable of interstellar migration, after all.
Their fears would soon be confirmed. The alien was an enormous oblong thing that was crimson red from front to back. Its whole body seemed to slither through space like an accordion, contracting then expanding rhythmically. It raced ahead at subluminal speeds, it’s six crimson eyes fixed on Tempest.

ζ

Su Xiaosu stared out of the bridge’s windows. “What’s the analysis?”

The Accountant’s fingers were feverishly jabbing away at the controls. “According to the data recovered from the Jewelry Master’s first encounter, it’s a ninety-one percent match – only stronger. Data indicates two levels higher. We have no other way to scan for information or energy readings.”

Majesty hovered above the planet. With the Blinding Stone equipped and running only on essential systems, the ship was virtually a specter. They were taking all precautions to remain unseen by the invader.

“Charge the main cannon!” Su Xiaosu barked the command.
She knew Lan Jue was in the middle of the joining. It fell to her to make sure this beast didn’t interrupt her boss’ cultivation.

Meanwhile the Accountant and his team deftly controlled their flagship, bringing everything online. Their objective changed from observe to intercept. The cannons hummed as they prepared to black the creature’s advance. Confidence in their ship and its crew was high.

A lazy, admonishing voice chattered through the ship’s speakers. “There’s no need for that cannon yet. Let me take a look. I need a chance to move these old bones.”

The Accountant, upon hearing the familiar voice, relaxed immediately. He chuckled and brought his hands back to the armrests. Su Xiaosu saluted from the center of the bridge.

On Tempest.

The Gourmet soared through the sky. In a blink he was five hundred meters above ground, any higher and he’d be in the stratosphere – then space. That was precisely where he was going to fight this thing. As a Paragon he had the ability to fight and survive in space. He wasn’t sure which direction the alien
was approaching from, but the Gourmet wasn’t out to look for it. He just had to protect Lan Jue.

Then something caught the corner of his eye. A red dot was quickly getting bigger. Half a moment later the undulating, oval figure was in full view. It had already pierced Tempest’s atmosphere and was falling fast.

It was here!

The Gourmet took a deep breath and spread his arms out at his sides. The skies around them darkened and were quickly replaced with a swirling world of grey. The Paragon immediately called upon his Domain.

He would hold no punches in keeping this thing at bay. But where was Majesty? Why hadn’t it intercepted it? Could it mean the ship was already…

He didn’t have time to think about that, there were more pressing matters. His heart was anxious, but that didn’t stop him from preparing for an all-out confrontation.
Here it was! At last the beast surged in to view. As Gourmet, once his eyes fell upon it he was consumed by a singular thought.

That’s one hell of a sea cucumber.

The world of grey ignited, and a burst of energy like a supernova issued forth.

The Alien creature sensed the danger from below and slowed its approach. Its body swelled up defensively. Below the Gourmet watched as the burning hell he’d created  grew sluggish. The patch of inferno above his head was invaded by a strange pink hue. Then, a deafening crack!

The fires leapt to life, burning normally. The pink was gone.
So, too, was the alien…

How could it be? The Gourmet’s surprised eyes searched the sky but found nothing. Some kind of shift?

“Little cook, relax. It’s taken care of.” There was a flash of light, and someone else was with him in the hellfire. The pink
camera caught his attention first, but then he saw the dark- rimmed eyes, like they’d slept poorly.

“You…” The Gourmet just stared dumbly at Luo Xianni.

She fiddled with the camera hanging around her neck, then sang, “Take advice from Luo Xianni, a camera is all you need. What? Don’t you feel well?”

Chapter 550: The Joining, Completed

“Yes! I’m convinced, you’re the best!” The practiced phrase came almost unconsciously to the Gourmet’s lips. He actually had no idea the Photographer was on board Majesty for this trip. How could she have gone so long without anyone knowing about it?

The Gourmet may not have known, but Lan Jue did. That was the only way he had the confidence to begin the joining here. If Luo Xianni couldn’t protect him, then there was no one in the galaxy that could. This was still human space so there wouldn’t be a lot of these things appearing suddenly. A few of them before a mighty Paragon was nothing to worry over.

She hadn’t come at Lan Jue’s request, but of her own volition. At first the Jewelry Master didn’t know, either. Jun Yongye and Captus’ sensitive perception had alerted him. When he confronted her, the Photographer’s reasons her simple; she wanted to protect her son. Her exact words were ‘So long as Bupang isn’t around, I’ll protect you. Nothing’s going to happen to my baby.”

She was taking to her stepmother role with gusto, despite Jue Di refusing to acknowledge her self-given title. Lan Jue had needed her before,  but now  at the  cusp of  this important
moment, he called upon her for help. Because of her assistance, the world-destroying, capital ship sized alien invader was now just a picture.

“How’d you kill it?” the Gourmet asked.

“Don’t rush,” she chastised. “When my boy wakes up we’ll talk. He’s the commander, after all. I’m going back to bed – ah, sleep has been so good lately. Sleep is very important for women, you know. It keeps them beautiful.” She waggled her hand in farewell to the Gourmet, and was gone in a flash.

The younger Paragon shook his head at the spot where she had been. She was a sneaky one! But also, there was no one he’d rather have on his side!

The Star Division had taken a lot of resources from the Avenue. However, their existence and location were still a closely-guarded secret. Although they’d left the Avenue without an army, they did still have the Wine Master, Clockmaker, Keeper and Bookworm to keep them safe.

Ever since the Clockmaker’s return, the Avenue has continue to rise in strength and status. Although they’d lost a powerful
guiding light in the Clairvoyant, the loss was countered by the return of the Photographer. With the Clockmaker back home, the Avenue was even more a force to be reckoned with.

They were also united in defense against a common enemy. Neither the North nor West had the time or resources to put behind a campaign against Skyfire Avenue. The competition now was in seeing who could come up with a functioning exuvium process first. Who could get the most alien Cores?

Ultimately, success in perfecting the exuvium process was good for all humanity regardless of Alliance. It would be a boon for the species as a whole. Everyone understand that, and it was that knowledge that fueled the research and preparation. Scientists everywhere were throwing everything they had at the problem.

Purely from a technological standpoint, the Northern Alliance was head and shoulders above the pack. The West wasn’t far behind. However, the East had its own advantages in the race. Eastern scientists had started research long before the other two, and the Neptune’s Tears they needed were only produced on Lyr. Their sale was already tightly controlled. The Keeper and the Bookworm were also great minds who were Paragons. The things they could test went far beyond the capabilities of a normal researcher. They had also used themselves as guinea
pigs for the first round of the process, which all together added up to a good head start for the East.

The East may not have had it all figured out, but everyone knew this was their golden age. The North had coveted the Eastern territories and their riches for ages, and if they could use this as leverage for more power and influence, that would turn a dire situation into a beneficial one.

All of this had been the backdrop behind the Eastern government’s steadfast support of the Star Division. They spared no effort in giving whatever it was they needed for the guarantee of riches in the future, in the form of alien Cores.

They were the crux of this life-giving process! Without them, everything was a waste of time.

The Gourmet settled back on Tempest’s surface and gave the order to shut off the alarms. With the crisis overcome, he could relax a little.

Lan Jue was unaware of everything. He was focused on maintaining concentration and battling the deadly pain of Captus.
After consuming the thunder essence, he could sense that the joining process was speeding up. The inherent powers of Captus were too great for it to flood Lan Jue with it directly. In all likelihood it would kill him. Luckily those who had come before knew how to do it safely; join auras, wills, and finally spirits.

After this had been completed, and with Captus carefully policing its own energies, Lan Jue could manage the pain. As Jun Yongye had instructed, the deeper his comprehension became, the more of the swords power he would be able to command. Now he could only sustain himself through sheer force of will.

For Qianlin! To avenge Hera! No matter what, the joining had to succeed. To stand as a model for human accomplishment he needed strength. He yearned for it, for power. He would pay any price for it.

The seconds ticked by until eventually the red light around him began to dim. Slowly, the light seemed to recede back into his flesh. The erratic fluctuations were gone, replaced with an aura of peace and stability.

ζ
Joy lit up Xuanyuan Shishi’s face. “He’s done it,” the sword- spirit said to the Pharmacist. “It looks like everything went smoothly! I’m surprised they were so compatible. I always thought Captus would require an Adept with a dimensional-type Discipline.”

The Pharmacist heaved a sigh of relief. She’d undergone the joining herself, but couldn’t tell from the outside if it had finished. Xuanyuan Shishi’s assurances put her at ease.

“I thought it was strange, too. Why would Jun Yongye choose him? His Discipline is Thunderbolt. Could they not have joined entirely?” The Pharmacist asked.

Xuanyuan Shishi looked back her way. “He was chosen in part for his strength and potential. More importantly, though, was his character. Our final determination was made when we saw the footage from Taihua. He was willing to sacrifice his own life to save others. That is the type of person we require as bearers.”

A twinkle of admiration flitted through the Pharmacist’s eyes. “He did a wonderful thing. The Clairvoyant said he had been in great danger. Qianlin and her Queen of Heaven powers saved his life. If not for her, he would have been consumed by his own Talent.”
“The universe rewards the good. I can sense that he and Yongye have joined well.” Xuanyuan Shishi nodded thoughtfully. “It’s not as easy as it looks, as I’m sure you know. It’s likely he had some treasure squirreled away to help him through. Once it’s done, his Thunderbolt discipline should have tendrils of dimensional power within it. You have work to do, sword-sister. You can’t let him surpass you. Heh heh…”

The Pharmacist answered with a soft smile. “If he manages to surpass me, that’ll be a happy day. Why should I struggle against that?”

**

The red light around Lan Jue continued to decline until it eventually disappeared. When it did, he became the picture of peaceful meditation. His body was slick with sweat, but it wasn’t dirty. His body was purified from Qianlin’s influence and his own daily wash of protogenia during cultivation.

The aura of light around him receded, too, until it retracted back into the top of Lan Jue’s skull. A strange rune flickered in the center of his forehead for a moment before vanishing.
The spot in the center of the glabella, commonly called ‘the third eye’ in English, is an acupuncture point called Yin Tang or ‘heavenly palace’. It’s used for problems with sinuses, the nose, headaches, and the face. Nowadays it has taken on a more spiritual function and it’s widely used for emotional dysfunction.

At last, Lan Jue’s form was again revealed to the others. His aura was calm and even without any noticeable differences from before. His Discipline hadn’t changed, either. He was still sitting at peak-level.

Lan Jue’s eyes popped open. They glowed with a dim red light.

Looking down on him, the Pharmacist felt her spirit stir, like it wanted to stand up and just go. She focused inward to calm her emotions.

Xuanyuan Shishi chuckled, as though nothing out of the ordinary had happened. “Congratulations on your success.”

The red light slowly faded. The Jewelry Master looked perfectly normal. He smiled. “Thank you. Are you ready to join
with Qianlin?”

The sword-spirit’s smile widened. “You’re impatient. There’s no rush, rest for a moment. Recover your original qi and we’ll continue. If not how are you going to protect her!”

“Alright.” Lan Jue took his leave, going for a shower.

He sighed contentedly as the warm water ran down his body. From outside there wasn’t any different in his discipline, but Lan Jue could feel that he’d crossed an important threshold.

And that was Paragon!

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