Skyfire Avenue Chapter 551-560

Chapter 551: Lan Qing Wavering

Not really Paragon. Rather, like the Pharmacist Lan Jue found himself with one foot in the Realm of Protogenia. All he needed was a little more cultivation, and the desire. He could become a Paragon any day.

The thunder essence, through the catalyst of Captus, had deepened his comprehension of purebolt, the protogenia-laced evolution of his Discipline. It would take time and cultivation to fully comprehend, however.

Lan Jue was beginning to understand his brother’s situation. If his brother wanted, he could attempt to become a Paragon immediately, and would have a high chance of success. But he chose not to, instead taking it one small step at a time. He was tempering his willpower, and shoring up his foundation. Now that his ascension was assured, he had to prepare for future growth.

Jue Di’s instruction was also priceless. While normal Adepts dreamed of the day they may become Paragons, Lan Jue and his brother were adopted by one. For them, becoming a Paragon was never in doubt. What would be difficult was what came after. They had to become stronger than their father, and do it fast.
The longer they stood at the cusp of Paragon, the deeper their understanding became. It was an investment in their future progress.

Lan Jue’s face betrayed a soft smile. “Maybe now I can catch up, brother.”

ζ

An Lun.

Lan Qing walked down a corridor from a meeting that had just concluded. He rubbed his tired face, heading for his quarters.

The super soldier never demanded much in the way of outer comforts, something he and Lan Jue did not share. Lan Jue appreciated the finer things and sought them out. Lan Qing’s focus had always been becoming a soldier. Service and discipline was how he built his character. Lan Jue would never catch up because it wasn’t in his character.

Training for the Bloodiron Khans had been going well. Lan Qing was lauded for his performance upon inspection by the top
brass. But perfection came at a cost. Lan Qing was feeling from the pressure from the added responsibility. Now that they knew his program was successful he would receive more resources. More resources meant more responsibility and expectation.

An Lun orbited a star right on the border between East and North. It was an important strategic location. They didn’t know where the aliens were going to strike, but it was safe to assume it would come from outside the periphery of human occupied space.

He knew about small-scale incursions from Lan Jue, but those were relatively easy to handle. It would be impossible for the real threat – one of their home planets – to sneak by their perimeter defense. With the intel at their disposal, it was most likely that the planets would make first contact in the North. That didn’t mean that the East or West were in the clear, though.

An Lun was at full combat readiness. Scouting sorties and probes were busy at all hours. Tension was thick in the air because everyone knew that at any moment the enemy could appear at their gates.

Lan Qing’s Discipline was also embroiled in an important
crossroads. Every day he inched closer and closer to his breakthrough. He struggled mightily against it, fighting for every hour of preparation. However the mind was powerful, and influenced his cultivation. When he’d heard of the attempt on his brother’s life, it had taken every ounce of will not to break through right there.

The Astral Phantom wouldn’t dare remain on Skyfire, but his whereabouts were always a secret. The bastard was far too cunning. He could appear almost anywhere, at any time, and disappear into the shadows just as quickly.

One day I’ll end him with my own hands! A light  of murderous promise blazed in Lan Qing’s eyes.

He stepped into his quarters and pulled the door shut. His uniform was removed and carefully put to the side. He ate a simple meal, nutritious and bland. Then he sat cross-legged on the ground and began to meditate. This was his routine, when work did not demand his attention.

“This is not the son I know.” The sudden voice made Lan Qing immediately tense up. He shot to his feet and swung his shocked eyes to its origin.
He sat in a chair, leaning against a nearby chair lazily. His jumpsuit was dirty and his hair was tousled.

“Father…. You’re here…” Lan Qing’s voice trailed off. He couldn’t sustain his normally chill and emotionless exterior. A surge of feeling flitted through him.

Jue Di smirked. “You don’t have time to visit, so I thought I would come by. Who’s going to stop a father from seeing his son, eh?”

The rush of emotion had quickened Lan Qing’s breath. His heart beat hard against his ribcage. If his subordinates saw Prometheus, the An Lun Super Soldier like this, it might put them in a coma.

“I’m thirsty!” Jue Di complained.

“Oh, oh.” Lan Qing snapped awake and hurried to fetch his father a glass of water.

Jue Di took his time, taking a sip before placing the glass on the table. His eyes then returned to Lan Qing, looking him up
and down. He nodded. “You look like you’re struggling with something.”

Lan Qing nodded. He couldn’t hide anything from his father.

“When A-Jue was attacked by the Astral Phantom I nearly lost control. Mother intervened, but ever since my condition has been unstable.”

“Mother?” Jue Di looked at him, stupefied. “When did you get a mother? Why don’t I know about this?”

Lan Qing gave him a strange look. He told his father everything that had happened on Skyfire.

By the end, Chi Bupang looked deflated. He chuckled ruefully. “This woman, goddamn! I never figured se’d use my own kids against me. Hmph! Never mind, let’s not talk about her. Let me see what the Clairvoyant gave you.”

Lan Qing pulled down the neck of his simple white shirt to reveal the pendant fused to his chest. There was no way to take it off, and it was as connected to his Discipline as it was to his
skin.

Jue Di scowled at the flickering pendant. After a few moments of silence he spoke up. “He’s quite the handyman, isn’t he? Damn shyster. It should help you when you’re ready to break through. You don’t need to be concerned. Strengthen your faith, stick to the plan, and control your growth. Only when you can overcome yourself will you become truly mighty. You and A-Jue are different, you tread different paths. Astral Phantom, was it? Right! Mess with this old man’s kids and this old man will make you eat your own spine.”

“Father!” Lan Qing cried.

“Eh?” Jue Di looked back at his son.

Lan Qing met his gaze with a steely one of his own. “Let me, don’t get involved. This is a challenge for A-Jue and I.”

Jue Di’s face changed, and he smiled back. “Alright, it’s up to you. Whatever he throws at you, kill him with it. Now soothe your spirit and cultivate. I’ll be for here a little while. Do you guys need a mechanic?”
“Ah?” Lan Qing blinked at his father. His chest was filled with a happiness that was difficult to describe. Dad was sticking around?

He had grown under the strict, sometimes harsh guidance of Jue Di. Quietly he suffered whatever was necessary to please his adoptive father. So it was, day by day up to this moment. It wasn’t just respect, or admiration, or fear. He adored this man and worshipped him as a role model.

Jue Di was the strongest human in the universe. He was the sole victor in the legendary battle of the Paragons. There was no equal under heaven. Lan Jue was desperate to catch up with his brother, but Lan Qing’s singular desire was to surpass his father. So he fought with himself every day, working himself harder so that he could become strong. To protect his brother, to protect the East. It was his obsession.

Yet no matter how tremendous his power grew, a part of his heart would always remain soft. As the threat of foreign invasion loomed he was buried beneath a mountain of responsibilities. He could feel fatigue creeping into his bones. His dad chose now to come stay by him. He didn’t need to say or do anything, just having Jue Di close helped. Even if all three of those alien planets where to show up right now, with his father at his back Lan Qing could face anything.
“Father, you…”

Jue Di gulped down the rest of his water and stretched. “You know I’ve always been restless. All this news of aliens and life- extending procedures – interesting stuff! Why wouldn’t I come take a look? Maybe I’ll grab a few of those Cores myself. They should be especially useful for pure lives like ours, eh?”

“Excellent!” Lan Qing’s exhaustion was gone. Suddenly he was in high spirits.

“Where’s A-Jue, anyway,” Jue Di asked.

Lan Qing explained. “He’s in the Shattered Starfields, clearing out pirates and training soldiers for his Star Division. And relax, the Gourmet is with him.”

Jue Di nodded. “He’s a sad and sentimental kid, compared to you. But he’s damn lucky, and there’s something about him that draws people. That’s probably why that shyster picked him in the first place. ‘Link’ my ass… you just wanted my kid’s power, and his connection to me. Ah, you old shit. You spent your life making plans, even got me caught up in it. But since you’re dead I guess we won’t make a fuss.”

Chapter 552: Chu Family

Lan Qing wasn’t qualified to offer an opinion on the Clairvoyant. But his little brother’s face swam up to his memory. “I don’t know why, dad, but I feel like these past couple days things have felt off. I’m afraid A-Jue might have run into some trouble again. I’ve got no way to get in touch while he’s in the Starfields.”

Jue Di shook his head. “It’s fine, you don’t need to worry so much about him. That shyster was bold but skillful. If your brother was destined for an early death, the bastard wouldn’t have put so much responsibility on his shoulders. Take care of yourself first. Enough of that now, it’s time for some exercise. Let’s see where you can improve.”

“Alright!”

ζ

Planet Luo. Chu family estate.

Chu Cheng sat alone in a dark room, unspeaking, unmoving. He hadn’t moved since coming back from Skyfire. The chamber
was composed of stone. More specifically, it was composed of power gems – a fact that would deeply surprise your average Adept. They weren’t the best gems, but making a room out of them was extravagant.

The benefits were in the fact that the internal energies couldn’t escape. Even a pulse of protogenic energy would be leached away by the thick stone walls.

He was clad in simple, thin clothing. Around him a flickering aura of red would appear and then vanish. The flashes of red were in the shape of a lotus flower. Emberblossom – the Clairvoyant’s pendant – burned bright against his chest.

Outside, two men watched. They looked through the translucent layers of stone as Chu Cheng meditated.

“This kid… when the time came, he stepped up. I’m surprised the Clairvoyant saw this in him.” The one speaking was a craggy old man with waves of white hair, somewhere in his eighties if his looks were anything to go by. Old though he was, he was not lacking in vitality. There was a quiet strength within him, and an even temperament.
“Unstable, but consistent improvement. This revelation will help him lay a solid foundation.” He was talking to a middle- aged man who stood nearby. That was Chu Cheng’s father, the patriarch of the Hades bloodline and the Gourmet’s older brother.”

He was overjoyed beyond words to see his historically lazy son so engrossed in cultivation. He was at least a hundred times more proud than he had been during the tournament.

The old man was Chu Cheng’s grandfather, former patriarch of the family Chu Yun. He himself was a peak-level Adept.

In the North, the Cheng family enjoyed a fine reputation and some considerable clout. The Perennial family enjoyed abundant riches and influence that extended to all three Alliances.

Chu Yun smiled. “Of course he’s doing well, I taught him after all. He’ll at least be stronger than that bastard brother of yours. It won’t be long before we wrest back control of the Dark Citadel.”

Chu Dong’s face was even, but he didn’t dare speak what was
in his heart. He harbored an unspoken criticism of his father. Yes, it was true his son was taught by the elder Chu, but what did he teach him? To indulge in the unimportant, and shirk your duties. He was born with potential and if he had worked hard from the beginning, he’d have a chance at Paragon by now.

“You still blame me, don’t you? I know you do. You understand nothing.” He only had to glance at his son to see the disapproval on his face.

“No, how could I blame you?” The question  sounded insincere.

Chu Yun scowled. “Enough. You’re my son, you think I don’t know what you’re thinking? You say you don’t blame me, but you do. I do, too. I saw so much go wrong with your brother. He was too pure, too easily deceived. If he’d had more experience in society, more time with people, then the results would be better today. The wound he suffered was too deep, and it cut him to his soul. We were blessed with Chu Cheng, a second great Talent in as many generations. If I didn’t try my best to correct after a loss, I would have been unworthy as a leader of the family.”

“A-Cheng may have learned the distractions of life from me,
but he has been a part of interstellar culture since he was small. He’s experienced a lot, sown his wild oats as it were, of course he’d be resistant to settling down with a woman. Even if it becomes a problem later, he’s more capable of handling it than Xi was. He won’t be like him, a single setback won’t tear him from his path. No matter what you think the proof is before your eyes. A-Cheng is much better than Xi was at his age. My guess is he’ll awaken from this meditation at ninth rank. With his comprehension of Hades Blade and protogenia, I suspect he’ll break through in no more than three years’ time. Then the sky’s the limit, ha ha ha ha!” Chu Yun threw his head back and cackled at the heavens.

Chu Dong winced. Ah, father… all of Chu Cheng’s idiosyncrasies he learned from you. If you could just…

Lately Chu Yun’s mood had been particularly good. He was well pleased. And for good reason. The Hades bloodline had been under Satan’s thumb for generations. They’ve had to watch as he reaped the benefits of his pillage. It had been so long Chu Yun had begun to give up hope. You didn’t get where they were without knowing some shortcuts, and they employed the experience and wealth of the family to get them this far.

But there were no easy roads to Paragon. You needed understanding, luck, and talent.
The Gourmet was Chu Yun’s second son, Chu Xi. He was their great hope. A symbol for the return of the Hades bloodline. Who could have fathomed a woman would come and drive him away to distant parts of the galaxy. Vanished, for years.

After that, Chu Yun sunk into depression for a long time. He relinquished management of the family’s affairs. He shook himself from the fog once Chu Cheng began to display tremendous talent.

And now? His grandson was on the cusp of that coveted title, and his estranged son had broken through in secret. He was part of the Paragon list – low on the list, but that didn’t matter! He just broke through, who didn’t start from the bottom? What was most important was that the family had a Paragon.

The Gourmet didn’t have the stomach to face them and didn’t come, but Chu Yun didn’t care. At least he gave himself the name ‘Infernal Vanguard.’ I meant he would remain in self- imposed exile and keep watch over Hades. He still  thought about the family, and if there was a problem he would come to their aid. To Chu Yun, that was enough.

If Chu Cheng broke through soon they would have two young Paragons. With enough time they could recapture the Dark
Citadel from Satan’s control. It was within his sight. Just thought often woke him up at night, giddy with anticipation. He was mad with joy.

Chu Cheng was not aware of how long he was in meditation. He sat alone, engulfed in the fires of Hades. Emberblossom had shown him a glimpse of fire’s true face. From the instant the pendant fused to his skin, a deluge of knowledge filled his mind. In the center of it all was that single kernel of deep understanding.

Hades’ Hellfire was made of the stuff of death, but was not death itself.

Legends told of Hades’ realm, the world of the dead where souls ran rampant. Hades existed to control them. Just as the end of death was life, the Dark Citadel would burn bright again with the light of hellfire.

Life and death, dark and light. The deeper his thoughts ran the clearer it became; his Path. He was already in control of his Hades form, and the bottleneck that was keeping him burst to a new level of comprehension.
This feeling was as profound as it was wonderful. He needed more time to find it, and so the moment he returned from Skyfire he sunk back into meditation.

The deeper his understanding became, the more he could see the connections between life and death, light and dark. He felt remade body and spirit by the revelation.

This was an incredibly important event for Chu Cheng. Hypothetically speaking, if his potential capped at Paragon, now he had a chance at finding his specific Domain. It wasn’t confined to the realm of Death. There was more to it than that.

ζ

Planet Cobalt.

The blue planet circled quietly in the depths of Western Alliance territory. It got its name because of its striking hue.

Ninety-five percent of the planet’s surface was covered in ocean. They were remarkably similar in composition to the seas on mankind’s original planet. What few splotches of land did
exist were spread apart as various islands.

Although Cobalt was within Western territory, it wasn’t a part of the Western Alliance. In fact it belonged to all three Alliances, and one single powerful family. Or rather, group – the Poseidon Group!

Chapter 553: Poseidon’s Palace

The Poseidon Group was the first to discover the planet. By then they were already a famous family, with a third for the secrets of the universe.

When their discovery was relayed to the West they demanded it become property of the government. Against everyone’s expectations the Poseidon Group refused. Instead they chose to flex their muscle, stating that if they took the planet their family would no longer be affiliated with the Western Alliance. Their headquarters and assets would be moved to the North. It would make them an enemy for life.

If any other family had dared to threaten them this way the Western government would have laughed in their faces. They wouldn’t shy away from more underhanded measures if they became necessary. However, the Poseidon Group was powerful and had their fingers in everything. Their influence resonated through all levels of government. If they did leave, it would have collapsed Western economy.

On the other hand, giving up a planet clearly rich in resources would undermine their credibility among their own people. The damage to their prestige would be disastrous. This, too, would reflect very poorly in their economy.
Parliament wasn’t sure how to respond. They were prepared to deal with such a suddenly and openly hostile former ally. While they debated, the Poseidon Group used their connections in government to propose several stipulations. Included were assurances that half of the planet’s mined resources would be sold back to the West at a reasonable price. In addition, the Poseidon Group would design and manufacture a Bastion ship to offer in trade.

The money and resources needed to create these cosmic fortresses was astronomical. In all the years previous the Western Alliance had managed three with great effort. These humongous machines were the symbol of human power!

The West noted this contribution and stopped any further efforts in retrieving the planet. It was formally transferred to the Group’s control. They, in turn, agreed to pay taxes and swore not to create any weapon of war stronger than a stellar cruiser.

For the Poseidon Group to have enough resources to build their own Bastion ship was a problem. If they applied themselves toward unbridled development, they would become a threat to the control of the Western government. With so much wealth they would need an army to protect it, hence the West’s insistence on a stipulation to control their military. They
were allowed as much firepower as the North had had in their Seventh Fleet.

The Poseidon Group lost a great deal of capital in that deal, but earned their own planet. They stayed a part of the West, and their reputation continued to grow until it was a shining gem among humanity. A single family that could bargain with a government, that was crazy!

Over the next fifteen years the Poseidon Group toiled to create the most modern Bastion ship the West had ever seen. They called it a Poseidon-Class Bastion, and to this day it patrols the West’s borders.

The gift was a benefit for the Poseidon family in several ways. Most notable was the fact that much of the ship’s crew were members of the Poseidon family. In order to protect their sizeable investment – and with the blessing of the West – a large portion of the Bastion’s military personnel had to be from the family.

Another way to put it was to say a good portion of that ship was still under Poseidon control. Building a ship took resources, but keeping it running was just as pricey! Taking into consideration the family’s government connections, it wasn’t
too much of a stretch to get their numbers up to one third the total personnel. The commander didn’t have any connection to Poseidon – at least on the surface. Whether or not he had any sort of relationship with the universe’s most powerful family was impossible to say.

The Group’s business headquarters was on Europa, but the true heart of the family was on Cobalt. The planet did not have to adhere to any higher government, so whatever the Group did was completely hidden from inquiring eyes. The West sent a representative once every year to make a cursory examination, and that was it.

Indeed, the Poseidon Group had spread across all of human space. They were a fact of life in every industry. In the West their influence was only getting stronger. Sharp-eyed specialists were often quoted as saying, ‘The future of the West is Poseidon.”

But they were smart, and worked to keep themselves away from government backlash. They avoided becoming a target by reigning in their ambition. Their military was only half of what was agreed to and were only used as protection for merchant vessels. Every business had to deal on some level with the family, but they never got themselves involved in military. They kept themselves sharply separate from the other Adept
groups, and restricted their financial endeavors largely to the West. This restraint earned them a fair amount of goodwill. By keeping everything strictly business, the Poseidon Group continued to win allies instead of enemies.

They were quick to open their coffers for humanitarian aid as well. To use their own words; ‘For the People.’ The Poseidon Group often liked to call themselves a charitable organization.

Satellite images affirmed that the surface of Cobalt was very calm. There were signs of manufacture and development on every island, but it was kept small. Only three of the islands were just large enough for a ship to land on.

This was largely symbolic, most people suspected. The planet’s primary feature was its vast kilometers of ocean. But was that true?

The Poseidon Group called the ocean Achanis. Its surface was perfectly still, like a mirror. But underneath it was an entirely different world.

On the seabed, twenty thousand meters below the surface, the pressure was strong enough to kill most living things. However,
a dim blue light existed in the darkness.

Enormous fields of light hung over more than twenty square kilometers of sea bed. Strange as that was, one didn’t see the brilliance until they got closer.

It was an underwater palace!

Simply for it to exist beneath the crushing pressure was a testament to their deep pockets. It was hard to imagine the kind of technology and resources they would need to pull this off, but that’s just what they did.

Stranger than the shield was the building it protected. It was not a modern structure, but instead prescribed exactly to the myths of the Grecian sea of Poseidon. It was like peering into the past.

Naturally, it was called Corinth.

Only the heart of the Poseidon family were permitted to enter. In fact, the only ones to know Corinth existed at all were part of the family bloodline. That was how they built it, with the power
of their ancient lineage. Their dramatic adherence to this ancient tradition was an inspiration.

Poseidon’s bloodline was the seat of the family’s power. All of the riches they accrued later was the work of careful management.

Hua Li stood quietly in a circular room. It was an enormous room in every sense of the word. Its ceiling stretched up thirty meters, supported by scores of pillars that stretched to the far walls. The Monarch stood before a beam of blue light that shot up from the floor at its center and seemed to penetrate the roof.

The beam of light was fifty meters in diameter. A soothing, soft blue nimbus radiated from its center. The room was filled with the rippling power of water.

“Have you at last come to take the Baptism? Have you had your fill of fun?” A deep voice demanded.

Hua Li turned toward the source of the voice; a tall, middle- aged man walking towards him.
They looked practically alike. The only difference was a hardness that underlined the older man’s expression.

“Father.” Hua Li bowed respectfully. This was his father, the Poseidon of the last generation, Hua Xu.

The patriarch was clad in a flowing golden cape, draped over the traditional Grecian garb of the gods. Upon his head twinkled an ornate golden crown. He was a living remnant of that ancient religion.

Slow steps took him across the expansive room until he stopped a few feet from his son. His deep voice returned. “Have you made your decision? All you must do is submit to the Baptism of the Blood and birth an heir.”

“Yes, I have made my decision. Only, must it be Mo Xiao? I don’t wish to hurt her.” A bitterness crept in to Hua Li’s face.

His father’s imperial gaze remained fixed upon him. “If you truly wish no harm to come to her, then she is who you must chose. It is her destiny to be your bride. To be the mother of the next Poseidon. This has been her choice. You may let her down, but you do not have the right to deprive her of that honor. You
knew this day would come.”

Hua Li’s fists clenched. Waves of erratic energy flowed off of him.

“If you wish to pursue all that you desire, this is something you must undergo.” There was a faint note of compassion in Hua Xu’s voice.

Hua Li took a deep, calming breath. The conflicted look in his eye gradually faded. He offered a resolute nod. “Alright.”

Chapter 554: The Ceremony

Hua Li turned back, his face calmer. His clothes fell away to reveal his perfectly sculpted form. A blue light suddenly shimmered to life between his brows. It looked like a drop- shaped power gem.

A gentle blue light enveloped his entire body. With a single step, Hua Li was swallowed into the beam of blue light. As he vanished into it the star-shaped pendant on his chest, Cerulea, seethed with wisps of pale blue power.

Hummmmm. The column of light intensified, as did the buzz of power. The people in Corinth all stopped and turned to face Poseidon’s Palace.

A massive pillar of light shot from the palace into the sea above, through the shield and the vast fathoms to pierce the sky. The whole city began to shake as waves of water elemental energy converged on that point. A flood of blue light responded that covered all. The central beam blazed majestically.

The people here were either progeny or servants of the Poseidon bloodline. As the light fell upon them, one by one they piously fell to these knees in praise. This was the ancient rite
passed down from generations, the ceremony that heralded the birth of another Poseidon.

Hua Xu stood just outside the column of light. Slowly his hands rose, lifting the golden crown from his head. All the while, a faint smile of pride turned his lips.

Although he wasn’t perfect, he was his son. Hua Li was destined to take this step just as his father had before him. And he achieved it five years earlier than his father had.

He hadn’t attended, but Hua Xu had watched the Great Adept tournament from start to finish. He saw the emergence of many talented young Adepts. But where there were riches, there must also follow tragedy. He had also heard the Clairvoyant’s prophecies.

The future belongs to you, the youth. Go, my son, and put down your burdens. Chase your wishes. In my day I lacked the courage to seek what I desired. You are a stronger man than I was.

A dark figure appeared silently at Hua Xu’s shoulder. The only people allowed in this place now were those involved in the ceremony.
“It is too late for regrets. He says he owes you too much.” Hua Xu turned slightly to face Mo Xiao, clad head to toe in black.

She was exceptionally beautiful today. Her full length black dress made her porcelain skin seem to shimmer. Upon her head sat a beautiful silver tiara, but that was all. That was all it took to make her look regal.

Her eyes took on a far off look as she faced the pillar of light. Hua Li remained suspended within, surrounded by motes of light. She murmured softly, “I was destined to be his wife from the moment I was born. If he doesn’t agree, or refuses for any other reason, in my heart that does not change the fact. I am his mate, forever. I will bear his children, and they will be the glory of the Poseidon bloodline.”

Hua Xu nodded slightly at her affirmations, but said nothing further. He turned away, but looked back once more to look upon his son, and Mo Xiao as her form became like crystal.

ζ

Lan Jue’s consciousness returned to the room where the joining had commenced. All evidence of past tribulations were
gone. He moved even easier than he had before Captus carved at his Core.

The Pharmacist narrowed her eyes and focused on him. She could tell he was still at the peak of ninth level. She couldn’t be sure how much his Discipline had improved when not joined with Qianlin, however she could sense that Lan Jue seemed completely different. It was a sensation she only ever felt from Paragons. Even then there was something unique about it, a gentleness that radiated around him. Even someone of her capabilities had to admire it.

What she felt wasn’t something that could be given by a Banishing Blade! The Pharmacist was surprised, for she could only compare it to her own joining process. His was much smoother and more complete by comparison.

Part of the reason was Lan Jue was stronger than she and her husband had been when they attempted it. Jun Yongye was also a more vibrant spirit than the one who guided her. Then there were other reasons.

What the Pharmacist saw, Xuanyuan Shishi saw as well.
The sword-spirit looked carefully at Lan Jue. “You must have taken something, some special treasure. I can sense the essence of an immortal around you. Impossible! The immortals have left the realm of men long ago and passed into infinity. Things are different now – it is inconceivable an immortal could be born!”

Lan Jue smiled. “Under Jun Yongye’s instruction, I consumed some thunder essence. That aura you feel isn’t mine, it must be from the essence.”

Surprise was clear in Shishi’s voice. “The product of empyrean lightning, thunder essence?”

Lan Jue nodded.

Xuanyuan Shihi gasped in amazement. “Your luck is unbelievable! I couldn’t fathom how you joined with Captus so well, but the thunder essence explains it. You’ll be able to support Qianlin in the joining without any trouble. Very well, it’s time to begin.”

Lan Jue looked back at him. “What do I have to do?” This time it was Qianlin who was receiving the sword, so he wasn’t sure how the process would be different.
Chortles issued from the spirit. “Nothing, just relax. I will take care of everything, you just need to shoulder the pain. I must find her spirit. Don’t worry, I will be careful. Who knows, you may be surprised.”

Lan Jue was solemn. “I only have one request. No matter the outcome of the joining, do whatever you can not to harm Qianlin.”

Xuanyuan Shishi answered with a nod. “It’s alright, everything will be channeled through you. It cannot fail. I will warn you, though, that what you feel will be different from what you experienced with Jun Yongye.”

“Fine, let’s get going!” He was eager, and confident he could handle whatever was coming.

The typical, lazy smile was gone from the sword-spirit’s face. Instantly his aura changed. To Lan Jue, it was as though the world around them became dim and indistinct. He watched as Xuanyuan Shishi fractured into several copies, then rushed at him.

It felt like being stabbed by needles from different directions.
They were like his muscles were trying to twist themselves in knots, causing insufferable spasms. Lan Jue shuddered, and then the needles buried themselves deeper into his body. Then it felt like they reached his veins. The stabbing pain immediately flowed all through him, making him shake. Outwardly it looked worse than his joining with Captus.

“Demortus is ever changeable, able to adapt and overcome. Steady the Core, bolster your will!” The Pharmacist’s urgent advice filled Lan Jue’s ears.

He could sense the flickering red light from his Core. A quiet and unassuming aura radiated around it.  In  response, Demortuis’ boring trek into his body seemed to slow. Captus was giving him an opportunity to get his bearings. Jun Yongye was very familiar with Xuanyuan Shishi and this process. He chose to involve himself now, at the beginning when the pain was most severe.

Lan Jue’s aura stabilized and the pain receded, but he remained steadfast and prepared. Qianlin had faced down death for him. It was his turn to suffer on her behalf. He knew she was strong, so the joining wasn’t just to protect her. He knew she also wanted to grow and improve. That way, when she awoke she would not be far behind.
Captus stabbing pain had been constant, strong and unique. Demortus’ pain was like a hundred thousand biting cuts, all different but equally agonizing. It was appear first one place, then appear in another half a heartbeat later – like there was a barbed needle for every pore on his body.

However, after the initial shock wore off, Lan Jue settled in to the discomfort. He had the experience of surviving Captus. And with the benefit of the thunder essence, he didn’t have to fear damage to his Core as Qianlin underwent the joining.

Lan Jue was pleased to find that as the process continued, Qianlin appeared to join with the sword seamlessly. Qianlin’s Discipline was inherently adaptable and accepting. There was no conflict as their two spirits met. The sword was met with the genuine desire to be interconnected.

Lan Jue silently nodded his admiration, not for Qianlin, but for the sword-spirits. They had indeed chosen well, as one might expect of a legendary sword.

The rest of the process went uncharacteristically well. Under the sword’s direction their Cores split; one was Lan Jue’s, and the other was a milky white hue with innumerable specks of blue swimming within.
Neither Core was the same as they had been when together. They seemed to yearn for each other, rely on one another. Qianlin’s Core was the shadow image of Lan Jue’s, the other side of the coin.

The strength of their Discipline did not change. It remained steadfast at the peak of ninth level. Demortus exhibited remarkable precision in keeping them from Paragon. However, the changes were evident.

Lan Jue was starting to understand the situation the Pharmacist had been in. She had just reached ninth level when she decided to join with Occisus. Ever since they were inseparably joined – she was a part of the sword. Cultivation became a very difficult exercise in resolve, as you constantly fought against the dominating will of the Banishing Blade.

Chapter 555: The Joining Is Complete

Lan Jue and Qianlin were lucky. The sword-spirits guiding them were wise and powerful, helping them navigate the many problems in their path. They inhibited each other’s tremendous power to ease the process. Together, they were also much stronger in Discipline than the Pharmacist had been. After- effects of the joining were few, and Lan Jue could feel Captus within him, everywhere and a part of everything.

A gentle hum arose, rousing Lan Jue from his meditations. The stabbing torment spread from head to toe, a sign that Qianlin and the spirit were one. This pain was his own from a body battered by the power of the swords.

“Is it finished?” The Pharmacist asked in wonder.

Lan Jue took a deep breath. The energy inside of him was like a raging tide, healing his damaged meridians. He smiled. “The joinings are done. Though it will take time for me to understand everything.”

The Pharmacist returned his smile with one of her own. “You are much stronger than I was. It took me seven days and seven nights to complete my joining. You did it in three, with two
swords. Rest and recover, I’ll be right here to look over you.”

“I will in a moment,” he said. “I should see how the troops are doing first.”

Three days joining with the swords meant his people had been sitting around for three days. These soldiers weren’t here to help him cultivate, they were on a mission, and that had to take precedence. Besides, he had finished what he’d come to the planet to do.

It wasn’t until after the process that Lan Jue understood the swords’ insistence on finding a suitable planet. They’d needed a stable place where the tides of energy and space were consistent. There was too much in flux out in space, which was dangerous when the swords contained world-cleaving  power.  A momentary loss of control could mean disaster.

When he stepped out, the first thing that met the eye were mechas from all four brigades busy with drills. Star Division didn’t have many – maybe eight hundred, half what you’d expect from a normal mecha division. Star Division stilled earned the name because it did more damage than a normal mecha division.
There was a flash, and a shadow appeared by Lan Jue’s side.
He turned his head to spot the Gourmet.

“Finished?” The Gourmet looked Lan Jue up and down. He was a little surprised to find little different on the kid after three days in meditation. Other than the fact his essence was gathered inside, there wasn’t much else to speak of. It was his keen senses as a Paragon that told him there was something below the surface that was new.

Before he was called an outstanding Adept of his generation. Now, he could sense that this young man was already on his level. He could feel the threatening power wafting from him, and the only ones to make a Paragon feel that were other Paragons. And yet Lan Jue was clearly still ninth level. Something was special.

Lan Jue smiled and nodded. “You’ve worked hard. Have there been any more alien sightings?”

The Gourmet shot him a thumbs-up. “Your guess was spot on, a carrier alien showed up not long after you started meditating. It seemed strong. We were its target.”
Lan Jue looked at him curiously. “Seemed strong? You didn’t fight it?”

This earned a wry chuckle from the Paragon. “I didn’t even have a chance. What a terrible thing to hide from me, why didn’t you say something earlier?”

It was Lan Jue’s turn to chuckle apologetically. “I only found out when we were in Tempest’s orbit. Anyway the old lady was in deep sleep, I couldn’t count on her to be reliable.”

The Gourmet chuckled. “I’d be careful with your words. You don’t know how good a Paragon’s hearing is.”

Lan Jue’s face went white as a sheet. “I-I-I didn’t say anything! Tell me what happened with the alien.”

The Gourmet fought his laughter. “’Take advice from Luo Xianni, a camera is all you need!’”

He gaped at the Gourmet. “Even that thing she could just turn into a picture?”
“You haven’t reached Paragon yet,” the Gourmet said. “You don’t know what the true power of a Paragon is like. That woman is probably only just slightly weaker than Jue Di. Forget aliens, with a thought she could turn me into an ugly selfie. I remember once the Wine Master telling me the story of the time Jue Di came to the Avenue. He took the opportunity to test himself against the Photographer. Jue Di was at a disadvantage through the whole fight. She was called Skyfire Avenue’s secret weapon for a reason. With her back, the Avenue is really back to its former glory.”

Lan Jue took a breath. He was learning more all the time about the woman who called herself his mother-in-law.

He pulled up his arm and dialed a string of numbers into the communicator. “Xiaosu, Driver, Bartender, Coffee Master. Time for a meeting.”

The Gourmet looked at his commander. “So what’s next on the agenda? Pirates, or aliens?”

Lan Jue’s response was quick and resolute. “We can’t know if there are any more in the vicinity. And if there are, we won’t know where they’ve taken a planet. Our only objective can be pirates. They also find the most hospitable places for life. If the
aliens were looking for nutrient sources, they’ll be looking for pirates as well. Stick to the plan, and if we run across any of the monsters we take them out. If we don’t we still have miscreants to kill. For me I should stay put for a little while and stabilize the two swords. The Star Division doesn’t have that luxury. Coming off the high of victory we need to keep their morale up. They need a new mission.”

It wasn’t long before the leadership of Star Division was assembled. Lan Jue told them his plans.

Su Xiaosu had long since prepared a plan of operations. “Let’s just stick with our plan. We leave a small force here, and the rest go out hunting pirates. We’ll sweep the surrounding systems using Tempest as a base, what do you think?”

Lan Jue nodded. “You know these tactics better than anyone. The Division is under your command. There won’t be many needed here, just leave First Division’s Ace Squad and Zeus-1. You take the rest. With Majesty, I’m not worried about you.”

Su Xiaosu was a resolute and decisive leader. She immediately set about arranging everything.
The Driver watched her go and huffed. “What kind of chick pheromones are you using? Beautiful women all around, each one more capable than the last.”

The Coffee Master Chortled. “Capable. Yeah, that’s the word.”

“Screw off.” Lan Jue scowled dubiously at the Coffee Master, who danced away with a snicker.

Xiaosu was, as always, remarkable efficient. It wasn’t long until Star Division was ready to board Majesty and embark on their next adventure. Lan Jue had the Gourmet go with them as well. Tempest would be left to the Pharmacist, Lan Jue, and his Ace Squad. He left Xiaosu in command of First Brigade.

Majesty descended from above. Its ventral hull spat out a traction light that swallowed up the soldiers below one by one. Once aboard the ship returned to stealth mode and vanished into the dark sky to continue their hunt for pirates.

“Ah, it’s always best with your feet on the ground.” The voice was drawled and lazy. Lan Jue didn’t have to see to know who it was.
“Mother, why did you stay behind?” Lan Jue faced the Photographer, who’d surreptitiously arrived from who knows where, with a pleasant smile.

She pursed her lips and muttered like a malcontent child. “So inconsiderate, you miserable child. Don’t you know I’m here to protect you? Chu Bupang, that lousy bum, he can throw you to the wind but I can’t. It was a chore just to meet you, I need to make sure you stay safe.”

It was indisputable that Luo Xianni was a few flowers short of a bouquet, but her words were a comfort to Lan Jue. He’d never had a mom, or knew what a mother’s love felt like. It was nice.

“From now on I’m going to call you Ma,” Lan Jue announced.

There are several words for mother or mother in law in Chinese. Previously TJSS was using mother in law for a lot of these addresses, but I shortened in to mom because it’s clunky in English. Part of the wedding ceremony in China is to change the way you refer to your spouse’s parents. You drop the more respectful term for the more familiar, like ‘Mother’ to ‘Mom’ or in our case, ‘Ma.’ It’s a touching display of acceptance for someone, like adopting them as your mother and taking on the responsibilities that entails.
Luo Xianni looked at him, stunned. Their eyes met, and she saw the sincerity in their depths.

Lan Jue was careful to address her respectfully up to this point. He spoke to her in that way because of her relationship with Bupang. These words, though, were from the heart.

“Good, good!” Luo Xianni laughed happily as she replied. The rims of her eyes had begun to get a little red.

He did mean it and everything the word implied. Without Luo Xianni he and Qianlin would be dead. The whole reason she’d come on this long, uncomfortable journey was to make sure he stayed safe. She was a Paragon who had reached Nirvana! Everything she was doing was out of that inexplicable desire to protect him. How could he not be moved by that?

Lan Jue approached her and took Luo Xianni gently by the arm. “My brother and I are orphans. After Jue Di took us under his wing, we spend all of our youth training. We had no one to turn to when it got hard. When we started going to school, the worst part of the day was always just before and just after classes. We’d watch other kids get picked up by their parents. We just had each other. He’s never said anything about it, but I know Lan Qing saw it the way I did. Those were the times we
wished we had a mom and a normal family. Now I have a chance to look after you as you grow old.”

Luo Xianni reacted to his sweet display by rapping her knuckles against his skull. “What do you mean grow old?! You think I’m old? Go and cultivate, I’m going to have a look around.” She pointedly wrenched her arm from Lan Jue’s grip and then vanished in a blink. The only evidence she’d been there were a couple drops of water.

Chapter 556: The Destructive Power Of Captus

Lan Jue’s hand snapped out and caught the drops in midair.

He sequestered himself again. This time it wasn’t just for his body or Discipline, but also to more deeply understand the sword he’d joined with. He wanted to see how the thunder essence had changed him, too. He needed time to process and understand it all, on top of seeing how Qianlin was reacting to the process.

Qianlin had entered a strange state after joining with Demortus. Lan Jue found it difficult to sense how her energy changed. Her Core had been separated from his, and now she was as though lost in a deep meditation. He wanted to release her back into the world but found he couldn’t. Thankfully Jun Yongye said this was to be expected, otherwise he’d be worried.

Star Division continued to clear out the pirates from around Tempest. The more experience they accrued the more efficient and masterful their raids became.

Su Xiaosu treated every skirmish like a war. No matter the foe, everything was meticulously planned and no punches were
pulled. Any unit that dared to slack off was harshly dealt with, and those that performed well were rewarded with praise and commendations.

Over time the Star Division’s strength increased. They worked better as a group.

Tempest was a remote planet, in the fringes of the Shattered Starfields far from the three primary planets. The magnetic disturbance of the Starfields made communication over such distances hard. It was good news for the Star Division, who were thus still a secret.

Xu Xiaosu still had contacts on the main planets feeding her information. From what they could gather, no one had any idea their crew was out here. The only thing out of the ordinary was the suspicion that the Poison Wasp clan might have been taken out. They were a small crew, though, and no one was all that troubled. Clans took each other out all the time. The Moonfiend Pirates didn’t rush to look into the matter.

This emboldened the Star Division, and their exploits reflected it. In twenty days they abused Majesty’s speed to destroy more than twenty pirate clans of all sizes. They’d grown fat with plunder. None of the clans were larger than the Desert
Tempest clan, and most were smaller.

They were halfway home when Lan Jue briefly left his hermitage to lengthen their mission. After twenty days of intense cultivation, he was like a new man. Lan Jue could already summon some of Captus’ power.

“If we’re going to keep this war up, then we’re going to need to make a shift. We’ve taken care of most of the pirates in the area, we should start moving into the center of the galaxy. There are pirate clans in there who would be more deserving enemies.” Xiaosu delivered the info and looked to him for guidance.

He nodded. “You’re right, it’s time to change things up. We’ve been here too long. Tell everyone to start packing up and load whatever’s valuable on the ships. We’re going deeper into the Starfields.”

“Boss, don’t you need to finish your meditations?” Xiaosu asked.

“For the time being, no,” he answered.
She smiled. “Good, I’m happy to transfer command back to you. Too much pressure for me.”

This made the Driver laugh. “Sure, I didn’t see any evidence of that. On the battlefield you were a Valkyrie and you were rock solid through every conflict. Which battle have we walked away from with anything less than a flawless victory? Have any of our people been hurt?”

Lan Jue’s answer was mysterious. “Do you want to see what I’ve been up to?”

The others looked sideways at once another. The Coffee Master was the one to respond. “Don’t tell me you’ve broken through!”

Lan Jue shook his head. “That’s still a long way off. No, I’ve been learning to control a new weapon, I thought I’d show you the result. Strengthen your resolve.”

The Star Division’s biggest problem was that individually, they were too strong. To command a strong army, you needed first to suppress that strength for the benefit of the team.
Lan Jue had locked himself away for over twenty days. The soldier’s’ commander had to make an appearance, and he also was eager to see how far he could push himself with Captus.

Under everyone’s curious gaze, Lan Jue soared into the air overhead. A pale golden aura surrounded him like a rising star. Several of the nearby soldiers stopped to watch.

Suddenly the sky grew dark. Before the shocked eyes of the onlookers a colossus figure emerged from nowhere. It was over a thousand meters long, with skin that was a violet-purple hue. A host of megafauna like the beasts they fought before writhed around it.

Every eye was airborne now, shocked by what they saw. Soldiers rushed to summon and enter their mechas, ready to fight.

But they were stopped when a fierce red light appeared.

Lan Jue stopped, hovering high above ground. The golden aura had become red and then was gone. If the belly of the behemoth there was a flicker of crimson. Faster than one could breathe the light spread like a pestilence, spewing bursts of red
light until it covered the monster from head to toe.

The humongous beast writhed and screamed. Cavernous wounds spontaneously opened across its body and spewed chunks of mangled flesh. Seconds later, that nightmarish beast was in tatters.

A red flash lit up Lan Jue’s hand, and reality gave way to a black hole. Space and time rippled around it in protest. As the beast struggled in its last throes of life, the event horizon severed it into countless billions of slivers, thin as an atom. Then it swallowed them up.

It happened in the blink of an eye. From the moment it appeared to its final death rattle, only a minute had passed. Lan Jue had needed only two motions to put it down.

The red light receded and vanished back into his body. Lan Jue returned to ground.

“Sorry, I just wanted to give the new sword a try.” He explained no further then returned to where he’d been sitting to wait for them. He was neither red faced nor out of breath. It was like nothing had happened at all – everything was perfectly
normal.

Everyone just stared at him. A couple forgot to breathe for a moment. What the hell was that! That red light?

The others didn’t know where that beast had come from, but Su Xiaosu recognized it because she’d seen it from Majesty’s deck! After the beast had disappeared from their radars no one had known what was going on, but Lan Jue gave them the all- clear. Now it suddenly appeared out of the blue, only to be carved apart in a single minute, it was incredible.

In reality Lan Jue was also stunned by the results. What the others didn’t know was that just those two waves of Captus power drained his energy by eighty percent. Still, what power! The pillars of heaven shook with each movement of the banishing blades. ‘Frightening’ didn’t even begin to describe the sensation.

At Paragon – if what Jun Yongye said was true – he’d only be capable of using one tenth of what Captus could do. At his stage of cultivation he wasn’t yet able to join his Discipline with Captus. He shuddered to think of what would happen then.
He underestimated how much he’d have to work to kill the alien. When he faced the beast, a peculiar facet of the sword’s power was revealed. The aliens didn’t seem to have any way to shield themselves from it.

After so long captured as one of Luo Xianni’s pictures it was bound to be weak. However, it shouldn’t have been long enough to strip its natural defenses! It had evolved to exist in the unforgiving environment of space. Even so, two strikes from Captus was all that it took.

As if summoned, Jun Yongye’s voice reverberated in the back of his mind. “Not bronze, not iron, not steel. Once hidden beneath Mount Meru. What can refine this? What fire can temper sharpness? We are the weapons meant to kill the unkillable. What paltry defense could these base creatures offer?”

Now he understood the source of the Pharmacist’s awesome power. The Banishing Blades were even closer to legend than he’d imagined! He couldn’t help but feel a rush of excitement. If there came a day when he could command all of its power, what sort of herculean feats could he achieve? He might even be stronger than his father.
Jun Yongye had become a part of him. Lan Jue’s ideas were the sword’s ideas. Yongye replied to his thoughts. “You will only be able to access all of Captus’ strength if you became as strong as the ancient Da Luo, greatest of the god-immortals. Or, if you find the Banishing Stance. With the Stance, you could call upon all of our power.”

Lan Jue was at a loss. Da Luo? Could he even imagine such a level of power?

Jun Yongye’s voice returned. “Unless I am mistaken, the one you call father is on the cusp of immortality. He holds himself back, teetering on the precipice of a new reality. However he will not join the ranks of immortality. Their time has passed. The empyrean lightning flickers no more. Even if it were possible, the tiers of immortals were many. Ordinary immortals, celestial immortals, golden immortals and then at last you will rise to the power of Da Luo golden immortal.”

Chapter 557: Envy Lovers, Not Immortals

“Alright,” Lan Jue said helplessly, “you’ve sufficiently dashed my hopes. I know I’ll never get that strong.”

The Voice of Jun Yongye chuckled. “Actually, it’s not entirely out of the question. You have the benefit of Captus and the thunder essence. If you reach the strength of your father, then there would be a chance at becoming an immortal. We could find a planet that is young and full of its primary qi to seek the empyrean lightning. These days the world of immortals has passed. If you were to reach the status of immortal, I’m not sure what would happen to you. At the very least your life will be extended by around three thousand years.”

“Three… three thousand years?” Lan Jue’s internal voice was thick with disbelief. No wonder people in the old days were so desperate to become immortals. Three thousand years put the exuvium process to shame!

“What about Qianlin? Could she reach that level?” Lan Jue hurriedly asked.

“For her, I fear it is impossible,” Jun Yongye replied. “Only you took on the properties of the thunder essence. You need
need to find another treasure housing the spirit of an immortal if you want her to succeed. Or, you can try to have her reincarnated – but I strongly advise against that. The dangers are too great.”

Lan Jue sighed. “Yeah. If that’s the case then I won’t try it either.”

“Why? You’d be willing to give up life as a god?” Jun Yongye would be well pleased if Lan Jue lived for so long. The Banishing Blades could have only a single master at a time. Having chosen Lan Jue, he would do everything he could to help his  new master improve. The longer Lan Jue lived, the longer Yongye’s consciousness would persist.

Lan Jue smiled. “Haven’t you heard the phrase, ‘Envy lovers, not Immortals.’ What would be the point of living for so long without the woman I love by my side? Life would be long, but wasteful.”

Jun Yongye was quiet for a moment. “Then you must strive to find another artifact like the thunder essence.”

Lan Jue was a little surprised. “The Banishing Blades are the
strongest weapons that ever existed. You don’t have immortal qi as part of you?”

“Ha ha ha!” Jun Yongye burst into a string of guffaws. Lan Jue found it uncomfortable to be on the other side of mocking laughter.

When Jun Yongye regained his composure, he explained. “Of course not, not even heavenly qi. Our power is derived from time immemorable. Even the greatest Buddhist immortals discovered us and were afraid. If the Banishing Blades are gathered and their power revealed, any immortal nearby would be eradicated. So you tell me, would we bear such an essence?”

“Got it, you’re amazing!” Lan Jue said in resignation. He couldn’t think of anything else to say.

As he sat there, lost in thought, the Star Division was in disarray. The dramatic scene from moments before was  still fresh in their minds. It was dead? So quickly? The four brigade leaders furiously chattered among themselves. They were all Adepts of considerable power. That monstrous beast had blot out the sky, its power surging like tidal waves across the land. And then, it was chopped up like a brisket.
If it had been the Gourmet, then the beast probably would have been taken care of even quicker, but it wasn’t the Gourmet! It was their commander, who had just come back from three days of retreat. Did it mean the Star Division’s commanding officer had broken through to Paragon?

That was the only explanation any of the Division’s leadership could come up with. In fact any Adept who knew Lan Jue even superficially had the same thought.

If he did break through, then how many Paragons did the Avenue have, now? That wasn’t even considering the Division itself. A second Paragon at their back meant there were practically assured victory in whatever they chose to do.

There was a subsect of soldiers who weren’t in the know. For them, the question always persisted as to why Lan Jue was their commander, and not the Infernal Vanguard. Their questions were laid to rest after their commander’s display. After what they saw, even the Gourmet may not be able a match for the Jewelry Master. With someone so strong at the helm, they were a force that would shake the faith of all their enemies!

Su Xiaosu, the Driver, the Bartender, and the Coffee Master each shared furtive looks, sharing their unspoken confusion.
They sat across from Lan Jue who seemed lost in thought. No one dared speak and disturb him.

The Driver was particularly struck by what he’d seen. He and Lan Jue were old friends, drinking buddies. They’d cultivated together while searching the properties of their yin-yang Thunderbolt Disciplines. After blowing up a hotel room they didn’t cultivate together any more, but his Talent had still improved.

The Driver always knew Lan Jue was stronger than he was. He was blessed with an almost unnatural streak of luck, too. This, though, was more than just a rank or two different! He must be cheating!

ζ

Once Majesty and Zeus-1 left with the soldiers, Tempest had grown quiet. Their riches were already worthy of song, so there wasn’t much on Tempest to keep them there. As their mission progressed, the likelihood of coming back to this distant planet was practically zero.

Lan Jue stood before the bridge’s expansive windows, smiling
softly. He turned his head toward Su Xiaosu. “What’s our next objective?”

“The Red Widows,” she answered. “They’re one of the top ten pirate clan in the Shattered Starfields. After a month the soldiers are all working well together, it’s time for them to face a stronger opponent. It’ll stimulate their growth.”

“Alright.” He didn’t press for any more information about the Red Widows. He trusted Xiaosu.

Normally, as commander of the Star Division, he personally managed all matters no matter big or small. However, after his meditations things were different. First of all, Xiaosu’s command and responsibility was no less than his own by this point. In the future Lan Jue would need to put more of his energy into cultivation, and he wouldn’t have the mental or physical energy to deal with the multitude of problems that come with running an army. So, without making it widely known, Lan Jue went about expanding the responsibilities of his subordinates.

Once their destination was confirmed, Lan Jue returned to his quarters and returned to meditating. For the last few days he’d felt ill at ease, especially when he came out of his hermitage.
Ever since the joining, he and Qianlin have been unable to separate.

Ever since accepting Demortuis, Qianlin had fallen into a strange state, almost like hibernation or meditation after deep understanding. He had to wait for her to snap out of it before they could separate. But could he wait? There was no other option.

Because they were still joined, Lan Jue was unable to tell how much his own Talent had grown. He was in no hurry for Paragon and wished to wait for Qianlin, so the bulk of his cultivation was spent trying to grasp the secrets of the thunder essence, controlling Captus, and stabilizing his own Discipline.

Jun Yongye applauded this period of relative peace. Joining with the Banishing Blade was only the initial step. If he wanted to become the sword’s true master, than they had to be in complete harmony – completely symbiotic. To get there would take time and patience.

Two days later, Star Division was closing on their next target.

The Red Widows were different than the clans they’d faced
before, in part because their base wasn’t a planet, or even several planets. Strong though they were by comparison, they still didn’t even come close to threatening the Moonfiend Pirates.

In fact their base was on a sizeable asteroid, which itself had captured three smaller space rocks in its orbit. The quad- asteroid set-up endowed them with natural barriers to protect themselves, and the bases on each of the smaller rocks were capable of mounting a tenacious defense. At the first sign of danger the smaller bases would react, sending in whatever reinforcements they needed. Most of the clan’s might was focused on their outlying bases because the planetoid had its own defense system that even extended to protect the asteroids.

According to Xiaosu’s information, the Red Widows had two battleships, more than twenty patrol ships, and a well-equipped mecha division. They were also equipped with a planetary defense system which allowed them to bring a good slice of the Starfields under their control. That’s how they earned their top ten spot on the pirate list.

The Red Widow Pirate Clan didn’t have a very long history, maybe only fifteen years. In fact, the vast majority of pirate clans didn’t have much of a history to speak of. They rose and fell faster than the ancient dynasties.
The Red Widows had caught Su Xiaosu’s eye back when she had been the Moonfiend Empress, but she had been careful to not act rashly. It would have been very costly to deal with them, so she opted to permit their existence.

That was, until now. The Star Division needed a target.

Majesty and Zeus-1 stopped a few thousand kilometers from one of the clan’s asteroids. With the Blinding Stones equipped, they were indistinguishable from the black expanse of space.

When Lan Jue entered the war room, his commanders were all gathered. Everyone agreed on the plan of action. It was time to press the attack. Lan Jue was settled in the captain’s chair with Su Xiaosu at his side. The whole plan was hers, after all, it only made sense for her to lead the charge.

Chapter 558: Red Widow’s Iron Curtain

Su Xiaosu tapped the table before her. Immediately, a three- dimensional image sprang to life in front of them. It was their primary base, on the rock they called Arachnid behind the asteroid belt.

“Arachnid’s planetary defenses are all-inclusive. Thanks to its asteroids, they have a considerable system of attack and defense established. If we go after one of the outlying bases, we’ll have to contend with the defenses and reinforcements from the other asteroids. If we go after their main base, the considerations are the same. This deterrent is what has kept the Red Widows safe. There’s no way to approach them.”

Su Xiaosu’s eyes were trained on the image as she spoke. She spread her hands, and the image enhanced.

“So, you have to overwhelm them with superior firepower. All four brigades could launch attacks on all four targets at once. If we can prevent the outlying bases from recovering, then our task is half done. Our intelligence says the Red Widows are three thousand men strong, with a thousand fully equipped mecha suits. Their fleet is spread through the bases, but their mecha are all on the main asteroid. Clearly their strategists are smart.”
The Driver chimed in, brows scrunched tightly together. “We’ve only got two ships, how are we going to fly four missions? Also if we don’t destroy the planetary defenses first thing, we’re likely to face casualties. The kind of firepower that things has, mecha suits won’t stand a chance. We’ll be routed.”

Xiaosu met his question with a mysterious grin. “You’re right, so the perfect plan isn’t available to us. We’ll have to resort to more drastic measures. We solve the little problems first, then we deal with the rest.” She pointedly indicated the largest asteroid, where the main base sat.

“Relatively speaking, our biggest concern is the planetary defense system. Majesty and Zeus-1 are fine, but if our mechs join in the fray we won’t be able to avoid losses. What we need to solve then, is that particular menace.

“According to what I’ve been able to find out, the Red Widow Clan’s defenses are almost perfect. With their resources, no one could do it better. Their defenses are equipped with an electromagnetic field. That means that the Blinding Stone’s effects won’t help us once we get past the atmosphere. They’ll see it right away and engage their planetary defenses.”

The Coffee Master looked flustered. “And the pirates
themselves? What are they doing hiding beneath their tortoise shell?”

Xu Xiaosu laughed. “Preparing to deal clean up when it comes to people like us, out to clean house! I can’t imagine how many pirate clans have been repelled by their defenses. So this is what we have to do…”

As they listened to her plan, the leaders of the Star Division each nodded in understanding. Cruel smiles spread across their lips.

ζ

The Arachnid Asteroid Cluster.

One of the four enormous rocks spun quietly through space. It was mineral-rich, but hostile to life. Still, the Red Widow pirates paid a lot to have a base erected on the unforgiving surface. More than a few thousand souls occupied the planet now, along with a battleship and five smaller ships.

The Red Widow commander was a cautious man. While they
were creating this place he was often prone to outbursts of anger. He was a strong man in his own right, but feared keeping this miscreants in their proper place. As time progressed the pirates came to understand that his caution kept them alive.

They didn’t go out to plunder often, but chose their targets well. They would leave for a few days only to come back with ships heavy from plunder. They would hit hard and disappear.

No one knew the history of the Red Widow’s origins. There were whispers that they had their start in the Northern military. After some misconduct a group of them left before being court marshalled. At first they didn’t do very much looting, and used what they did gather to establish their pirate clan.

Ten years later, they were already among the strongest clans in the Shattered Starfields. The Red Widow himself earned the love and respect of his people. They were given hot food, good drink and a life, they couldn’t ask for much more than that. Ever since, their numbers have grown.

Now, all of the Arachnid asteroids’ stores were full of riches, especially food. They were able to get a portion of that from their surroundings, but they were pirates. There weren’t many
here with agricultural know-how. A lot of it had to be bought from elsewhere.

Pirates were a greedy bunch, but they were also wise. There were always merchants willing to trade with the clans in exchange for ‘protection.’ Cheap food and drink from the Alliances would find its way out here and suddenly become invaluable. The Shattered Starfields were also rich in resources, which they used to trade. The desperate drive for riches made people take risks they normally wouldn’t.

All of the pirate clans in the Starfields built supply lines like this, and the Red Widows were no exception. It took a lot of food and drink to keep things running, and they were getting more people every day. They had people coming constantly to resupply.

They didn’t bring any of these resources right to the main asteroid for security reasons. Policy was that anything they off- planet had to go through the three surroundings asteroids, first. From there, the Red Widow’s own people brought it to the main base. Outsiders were strictly prohibited from entering, otherwise they would have to face down the planetary defense.

Su Xiaosu’s intelligence showed that the Red Widow clan had
a wealth of battle experience. How else did they get enough capital to purchase a defensive system like this?

Arachnid-3 – one of the asteroids – was under the command of Mai Ken. He’d been at the Red Widow’s side from the beginning, and had become the pirate leader’s right-hand man. The Red Widow was a suspicious man, and there were only a handful of people among his crew that he trusted.

Mai Ken was the commander of Arachnid-3, and also the captain of the battleship stationed there. The position was awarded to him by the Red Widow. He was precise, and disciplined. He didn’t inundate himself with women or alcohol, and performed all of his duties fastidiously.

“What’s the world on the recent resupply,” Mai Ken asked one of his subordinates.

“Checks are completed, boss. No problems found. Who would dare try and poison the Red Widows?! I don’t understand why we have to check every shipload.” The pirate chortled in self- confidence. Although they didn’t agree with what they saw as unnecessary caution, they followed orders. At Mai Ken’s request, they checked again.
After everything was in order, Mai Ken nodded. He allowed their transport to the main base.

Pirates didn’t use transport ships – they were cumbersome, a liability. Instead they used their battleships, which were much faster and capable of defending themselves against pillagers. The Red Widows were no different, though they used a blacked out patrol ship with a red widow painted on its side. Half an hour after the goods were checked, the ship was on its way to the main base.

The clan had a protocol for checks, to make sure that enemy didn’t sneak in. For instance, the pilot was expected to remain a specific, constant speed. Any deviation in the prescribed plan gave enemies away. They were very particular about their safety.

A series of checks and passwords allowed the ship to traverse the space between asteroids in peace. They moved slowly through the dark with a skeleton crew of engineers. It only took five people to fly a ship of this size. Most crewmen were stations on the main base.

It was a process, but the pirates were used to it now. They recognized the need for Red Widow’s caution and embraced it.
Lan Jue sat in the pitch-blackness, with a resigned look on his face. He was the crux of Xiaosu’s plan because he was the only one who could infiltrate the main base unseen. It wasn’t her preferred method, because sending a single soul into the tiger’s den was irresponsibly dangerous.

But after Lan Jue broadened his understanding and joined with the sword, everyone looked at him differently. So, when Xiaosu offered up the idea they unanimously agreed. Lan Jue didn’t have any say in the matter. After his flashy display, he could only say, he played himself.

Really, Xiaosu’s reasons were sound. Lan Jue going in alone was the best way to avoid casualties. Only he could sneak in and open the door.

Not long after, much to his dismay, Lan Jue found himself crouched in the belly of a pirate ship.

Even sneaking aboard had been somewhat of a chore. Although Lan Jue was capable of spaceflight at his level of cultivation, he still needed a mecha. Without one he would have to expend a great deal of energy. After all, he wasn’t a Paragon. Yet.

Chapter 559: Scout Lan Jue

Lan Jue had approached one of the outlying asteroids via Zeus-1. Under cover of the Blinding Stone, Lan Jue made landfall. He took pains to hide any signs of his power or presence while sneaking through the base to the resupply ship.

Su Xiaosu knew a tremendous deal about pirates and how they got their goods. Where others would find sneaking onto a pirate ship impossible, she knew it wouldn’t be difficult for Lan Jue. So long as there was electricity, the Monarch could find a way in.

That’s what got him to this point.

He was surrounded by metal boxes. Pirates being who they were, the one Lan Jue chose to hide in was filled with booze. The others were mostly food. Sadly the alcohol wasn’t very good. The flight would have been less miserable with an in- flight drink.

The ship kept to its prescribed speed and route. All Lan Jue had to do for now was meditate quietly, and wait for his chance.
Lan Jue’s level of cultivation allowed him to hide his Discipline from all manner of instruments. It was simple; those instruments used electricity, so Lan Jue need only release a specific frequency to blanket himself in white noise.

The patrol boat shook, indicating they’d entered the small asteroid’s atmosphere. Lan Jue awoke from his meditations, his eyes burning in the darkness of the supply crate.

The Star Division commander didn’t offer up any resistance when the mission was proposed. He hadn’t participated in any of the dozen or so missions prior, and Lan Jue felt it important for a commander to lead from the front.

Half an hour later the ship shook again. They’d landed. A pale blue light hung around Lan Jue’s body as he waited, unmoving, in the box.

Sure enough, moments later an inspection apparatus was shining its beam on the supply crates one by one. They weren’t looking for stowaways as much as they were making sure the deplorable pirates didn’t steal some of the goods for themselves.

Lan Jue couldn’t help but be impressed. The Red Widows
were completely different from any of the other pirate clans Lan Jue had encountered. Their practices and bases were informed by Alliance military training. Back during his days as the Mercenary King, he doubted he could have destroyed them himself.

The scan was finished. Robots came in to move the cache from the ship’s hold. One by one the boxes were lifted up and put on a small transporter. Lan Jue did not rush, waiting patiently in the metal box. He spread his perception out to gather what information he could about the surroundings.

The Red Widows’ defensive measures were most stringent around the airship hangar. It would be unwise to slip out now. He would have to wait until the transporter moved them to a safer place.

It wasn’t that Lan Jue couldn’t handle himself. With his new heights of power the likelihood of danger was small. Still, this was an important lesson. Prudence was an important skill, especially the stronger one became. It would keep him alive.

If he had been more cautious on Taihua, he could have avoided a great deal of trouble. That was even before he considered how much it had impacted Qianlin.
A sharp pang of regret stabbed Lan Jue’s chest. He missed caring for Qianlin. He desperately wished for her to snap out of her coma and separate. At least then he could see her!

Sometime later he sense the area was safe. Lan Jue pressed his hand to the box’s interior, dissolved into lightning, and appeared outside of the box a moment later. He slipped out of the transporter and his himself in a dark corner.

He lifted his head and peered into the sky. It was a huge base, made up of several large metallic buildings. This was exactly what he wanted – a bunch of metal where conduction could bring him wherever he pleased.

He pressed his back against the metal wall. A flicker of electricity, and he was gone. When he reappeared Lan Jue was in a large empty room.

An airship hangar?

He spotted a patrol ship parked within. It looked brand new, never flown. The Red Widow must have just bought it.
Lan Jue stuck a small metal orb out of sight in a small corner. It was a signal emitter, one that Majesty could use to get a read on the asteroid from a distance. So long as they kept out of the asteroids electronic defense perimeter, the ships could avoid detection and learn all they needed.

Lan Jue moved through the area, placing the signal beacons in various hidden spots before leaving the hangar.

Not even Su Xiaosu had credible information on the Red Widow’s base. Thus, Lan Jue’s first objective was to act as an advance scout. Scouting was an integral part of any military endeavor, something Lan Jue knew well.

Checkpoints and scanners were erected throughout the base. These restricted areas would be more troublesome for Lan Jue to traverse with his conductive powers. Over time, though, he managed to get a comprehensive look around.

The Red Widow’s main base camp was larger than he thought. He couldn’t help but admire what they’d built. Even if a progenitor showed up, it would be almost impossible for it to make landfall without suffering direct resistance.
However, there wasn’t anything here that would interest the creatures. Nothing lived on the asteroid’s surface aside from pirates, nor was there any water. Anything a progenitor would be interested in had come from off-world.

Clearly Red Widow had taken pains to find the perfect spot to build his Clan. It was organized into several large districts. One was residential, but the others seemed to focus on different aspects of military industry. Everything was organized and compartmentalized. Lan Jue also came across mecha pilots in the midst of drills. Their training regimen only confirmed that the Red Widow commander was former military.

The next step in his mission was to locate the planetary defense hub. Once the electromagnetic defense was offline, they could proceed with the next step. Su Xiaosu called these clandestine missions, where he was to infiltrate the base and hit targets without alerting the enemy.

Half a day passed quickly as Lan Jue worked. He transmitted all the information he gathered to Majesty using an encrypted frequency. The Accountant had been the one to set it up, and no matter how safe they thought their system was, it didn’t mean anything to one of the East’s preeminent scientific minds.
“Jewelry Master. We suspect the defense systems are housed in the spire at the center of the base. It’s very well protected. Every floor needs a security key card. All of their physical and electronic checks are top of the line. It’s likely the building is also insulated. They really thought of everything! Finally, an interesting enemy.” The Accountant’s jittery voice sputtered through Lan Jue’s communicator.

Lan Jue responded in exasperation. “So what do I do about it?
If it’s insulated I can’t get in.”

“What makes you think that?” the Accountant challenged. “They only insulate walls, there are bound to be other routes. All you need to do is find a power outlet. It shouldn’t be much of a problem. After that, it’s up to you. Do your best not to destroy the defense system, we’re going to want it. Heh heh. I can hardly wait.”

“You wanna come get it?” Lan Jue shot back.

The Accountant chuckled. “If I could, you think I’d still be your gopher?”

Annoyed but otherwise powerless, Lan Jue cut the
connection. The Accountant wasn’t the only one excited about the mission, Lan Jue felt it too. A strong enemy motivated one’s potency.

Lan Jue studied the map for a moment and planned his infiltration. The sky had gone dark, plunging the base into darkness.

Lan Jue made his way through the pirate-infested base building by building, relying on his electric powers to convey him to the central spire. Soon he was standing right outside.

Lan Jue what he felt was a suitable spot and pressed his hand against the metal wall. He became lightning and slipped in.

That was when he encountered the insulation.

Thick rubber filled the wall’s interior, blocking any path for him to slither through. He returned to his human form and followed the wall until he found a power outlet. Only, it was dead.

This is one hell of an iron curtain!
What could he do? Lan Jue’s brows furrowed as he thought.

As he did, Lan Jue spied a nearby elevator open. One of the surveillance systems was running a scan.

What’s this? It looks like a thermal reader and infrared scanner. Goddamnit, guy, why are you making this so hard?

His hopes of using the elevator to get in were dashed.

A tall, sturdy man clad in a black flight suit stood inside. A Red Widow emblem was stitched to his chest. As Lan Jue watched, the man’s communicator flashed in response to the scanning device. When the check was finished he left.

It looked like he needed a change of plans! Lan Jue had an idea.

Chapter 560: Infiltration

The pirate stepped out of the elevator and paused to stretch. “Argh! So tired… I need a break.” He tapped at his communicator while muttering to himself. It rang a few times then was answered. “Sister Jia, do you have any openings? Alright, arrange one for me, I’m heading over for a few drinks. A meal, too! See if we still have the sweet shrimp from the West. I’ve been wanting some more of that for a long time. Heh, alright, alright. Excellent!”

The conversation continued as he walked into a nearby warehouse. A few moments later, a verticar exited and rose into the air. The pirate was in the driver’s seat, whistling pleasantly.

“You and I need to have a chat.” A low voice the pirate wasn’t expecting gave him a scare. He didn’t turn around, instead fiercely slapping his hand toward a button on the car’s console.

The interior of the car flickered with an intense blue light.
The pirate’s whole body went numb.

Verticars didn’t have the automatic steering even small airships had and yet the car held steady. The pirate then noticed the golden-masked man in the seat beside him.
He tried to speak, but the numbness extended all the way to his tongue. “Wh….who a’….. y-you.”

Lan Jue’s response was cold as death. “You don’t need to know who I am. Your job is to behave yourself and answer my questions.”

The stubborn pirate grunted and turned his face away.

Lan Jue chuckled. “If you decide not to cooperate, don’t blame me for what you will suffer. I’m fine with it – I’ve learned a few new tricks I’d like to try out.”

He gently stroked a hand along the pirate’s arm.

Immediately the pirate shuddered, and then began to scream like a pig at slaughter. Even Lan Jue was shocked at  the reaction, and he initiated it. I hardly did anything! He thought. All he’d done was briefly stimulate Captus’ power. It was hardly one tenth of a percent of what he could draw  from  the Banishing Blade.

Still, it seemed even that tiny amount was more than the
pirate could stand.

Lan Jue considered himself a benevolent person. He saved the pirate from the pain he’s summoned. He spoke pleasantly to the suffering soul. “Well?”

His prisoner took great gasping breaths, unable to speak. This sort of pain wasn’t something you endured and then got over. He wanted to die, he couldn’t stand even the memory of it.

“Stubborn. Even after that you don’t want to talk. Fine, let’s try something else.” Lan Jue nodded and lifted his hand again.

“Stop!” The Pirate yelped helplessly.

Lan Jue’s hand stopped halfway between them. “Hm?”

“I’ll… I’ll talk, just let me catch my breath.” The pirate’s haggard voice was downtrodden and defeated. How could he refuse? Vestiges of that agony still wracked his body. If he wanted his brief life to remain-pain free, he’d talk.
Lan Jue’s eyes peered out the passenger window. “We’re not far from the residential area. You don’t have a lot of time.”

What came next from the burly man could only be described as diarrhea of the jawbone.

The verticar soared through the air, eventually reaching its destination in the residential area. It touched down without any fuss. When the door opened, a man in a black suit with a Red Widow emblem climbed out. Lan Jue fastened his newly acquired communicator with a small smile on his face. He strutted toward the residential buildings.

A lot had been revealed by the chatty pirate. Firstly, capable as their defenses were there were spots it didn’t cover. Obviously the hub of the planetary defense system was the most severe, other areas didn’t see the same amount of protections. After all, this was a pirate base and not an Alliance military installation. Imposing too many restrictions on these scoundrels would have the opposite desired effect.

This was a home to degenerates of all sorts, who came together to get everything their evil hearts desired. Women, drink, tobacco, drugs – whatever they wanted.
Lan Jue already shared his information with Majesty, adding to the plan they were calling Operation Bugle Call. Tomorrow it would be underway, and he needed something from where the lions slept.

From the pirate, Lan Jue had learned that every pirate had an identifier implanted in their communicators. It was among the more advanced defensive measures pirates had, but it wasn’t strictly enforced in areas of play. Once you got past the security, there wasn’t a lot they marked essential. Hard exterior and a loose interior; that was what the pirates had built here. If they tried to enforce discipline the scallywags would just revolt and that was no good for any pirate clan.

As Lan Jue stepped through the doors, the brisk and inhospitable environment changed. He was immediately struck by the scent of marijuana that made him scowl.

I showed this to my wife for a laugh. After going through pains to describe how terrible these guys were, I found it humorous how TJSS would choose marijuana instead of something more dramatic like heroin or cocaine. My wife made an interesting point, saying that heroin is  endemic  in  many parts of China (the local clubs where I lived were essentially drug dens). Outside of Western China, marijuana is  actually hard to come by. He may have chosen it because of its novelty.
The roads running through the district were lit up with dim red lights and women sat listlessly in the doorway. Sounds of raucous revelry filled the air. Most of the pirates were in normal clothes here, leaving their flight suits at home.

Prostitution is widely prevalent in China. Many if not all of their bath houses have women on staff for this purpose. Just down the street from my house was an alley filled with ‘massage parlors,’ where woman sat in the doorways in nightgowns waiting for customers. It’s phenomenally sad, since sexual slavery or poverty is what has driven these women to prostitute themselves. Young girls are stolen from villages, driven thousands of miles across the country and sold into slavery in the cities

Lan Jue had removed his mask before exiting the car. His handsome features and physique attracted no small amount of attention from the female pirates.

“Hey cutie, you new? Your face is so white! Let big sister here give it a touch.” The proposition came from a woman who looked at least forty. She reached a hand toward Lan Jue.

Woo, more explanations. When it rains it pours. ‘Whiteness’ is the pinnacle of attractiveness in China. They go to
tremendous lengths to avoid tans. My theory – or I dunno, maybe I heard it somewhere – is that those with tans are usually farmers or those who have to work outside like in construction. These are jobs for the poor, dangerous and physical. The rich get to stay inside all day. From a medical standpoint, I also found it interesting that these delicate pale women were also prone to fainting or otherwise weak constitutions. Sexism aside, those are all clear signs of anemia – which would make you pale as shit. This is the same with those you may find with long pinky fingernails. While in the US that is an indicator or a coke head, in China it shows that your job is more cerebral than physical since there’s no labor to break your nails.

He scowled at her and slapped her hand away. “Screw off!”

“Hey! We’ve got one with a nasty temper!” The woman’s face changed, became hard. She blocked his path.

Another pirate joined, at least two meters tall, strong as on ox with ebony skin. He stood behind the woman and glowered dangerously at Lan Jue.

“Kid, you’re lucky Sister Tarantula likes you. But if you wanna die, my friend here will show you what his fist looks like.”
Tarantula, as she called herself, delightfully poked him in the chest with her finger. “Get on your knees and lick my feet, or we’ll see how fast it takes pig-head here to turn you into paste.”

Ripples of laughter surrounded them. Pirates like action, and bullying greenhorns was as fun as anything. Lan Jue was young, an easy target.

“Fuck off,” Lan Jue growled.

Both Tarantula and her enormous companion were struck dumb. In the depths of their hearts his voice seemed to resonate, bypassing their resistance. Saying nothing further, they stepped aside and let him be.

Lan Jue paid them no further mind and walked on.

“Ey, Tarantula! Look at you, so convincing! You must really like that pale-faced kid.” The other pirates were just as surprised. Tarantula was not risk-averse, why’d she let him go so easily?

She shook her head, trying to clear the fog. She didn’t know
what happened, only that she had to do whatever the guy told her to do. She snapped her head around to look for him, but Lan Jue was already gone.

What she could not know was that she was a victim of Lan Jue’s voice of command, a watered-down version. If Lan Jue wanted her to kill herself, he could have made her do it.

Lan Jue turned a corner, and a large bar came in to view. In the world of pirates, bars were the places of choice to spend their down hours. They had good booze and good women, making it one of the most boisterous places in the district. It was the perfect place for rapscallions to unwind.

Coming part and parcel, of course, were the less reputable means of entertainment. Fights were a daily occurrence.

The moment he entered Lan Jue’s brows knit tight. The atmosphere was foul, thick with smoke and old booze. He was a fan of tobacco and drink, but not the fair pirates preferred. What he preferred was a quiet place where he could enjoy them, where pretty girls delivered the drinks to his table.

The Monarch paused to take in the environment. Night had
fallen, which was peak time for these sorts of establishments. It was safe to assume every bar on this asteroid was full by now. That was exactly what Lan Jue wanted.

He briefly rose on the tips of his toes, and a bolt of lightning raced through the floor. It emerged just behind a particularly beefy looking reprobate. The man wasn’t aware until he felt the explosive power strike him in the back. He was thrown forward into the pirate in front of him.

“Bastard! Who the hell pushed me?!” The pirate who’d been struck by lightning scrambled to his feet, turned, and threw a metal table into the crowd.

Pirates didn’t mind trouble, they sought it out. It helped them let off steam, especially when there wasn’t anything to do. Right away the whole bar was a flurry of wailing fists and curses. Since the fight had started in the middle of the bar, it wasn’t long before it swept everyone up in it.

No one paid attention to the lone man wandering through the crowd. He looked like he was part of the action, but no one even got close enough to land a blow. He wandered the bar, picking communicator’s off of pirates’ wrists and stoking the fires.
By the time Lan Jue stepped out of the bar, more than ten communicators were safely stowed away in Thor’s Promise. He made his way back to the car, the pirate still unconscious within. He activated the verticar’s navigation systems to lead him back to the defense control center.

Now it was time to really get things underway.

He parked the car in the warehouse they’d left from and walked out. He was in no hurry, and leaned back in the chair. He shut his eyes for a few moments of rest. There was still some time before Operation Bugle Call was slated to start. He still needed to get in that tower.

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