Skyfire Avenue Chapter 631-640

Chapter 631: The Power of Star Division!

Star Division had improved far beyond Lan Jue’s expectations, be it strength, cooperation or discipline. When they were faced with the Bloodiron Khans, it broke into its individual cells to harass and surprise attack the enemy. In this way, they gnawed away at the Bloodiron Khans until they collapsed. If they tried to push the offensive, Star Division focused its strength to turn guerilla strikes into full-on raids.

After experiencing the epiphanies of Lan Qing’s breakthrough, Star Division had undergone another sharp rise in capability. No small number of troops used what they learned to smash through bottlenecks. The number of sixth level Talents was shrinking as they advanced to seventh and eighth. Their equipment only continued to improve, making them a nightmare to contend against.

The strictly disciplined Bloodiron Khans grumbled and quietly nursed their grievances when the games were done. They requested better mechas after finding their own were insufficient. However, there wasn’t anything Lan Qing could do to help them. How did Star Division earn their impressive gear? They took it themselves. Star Division was laden with riches, and was the most affluent military outfit in the East. A national organization with limited government funds couldn’t compete. Star Division’s mechas were custom tailored to suit their
soldier’s Disciplines. They were choked full of the best power gems available to enhance those Disciplines. It gave them a nearly insurmountable advantage.

An Lun’s soldiers weren’t alone in their displeasure. Lan Qing was similarly perturbed by the results. He had personally commanded his troops during the second exercise, but the results were the same. There was nothing for it – the difference in equipment and individual ability was too great.

Currently Star Division was so flush with ninth level Adepts that each squad was led by one. These exceptionally talented soldiers were also empowered by their mechas. Even though they weren’t all god-ranked pilots, they were  head  and shoulders above any normal soldier. Lan Qing had to watch as his own soldiers were cast into disarray by Star Division.

Lan Qing knew that if his solders were as strong individually as his brother’s soldiers, under his command they would have more than a solid chance at victory. For now, however, the chances were simply too remote to entertain. He could have joined in himself and single-handedly turn the tide of battle – but what would be the point? Didn’t Star Division  have Paragons of its own? They just weren’t present at the time.
Lan Qing’s final analysis of Star Division was that it was an incomparable Adept fighting force. He secretly admired Skyfire Avenue for taking the risk in its creation and training. Establishing a small army the likes of this took tremendous resources and iron determination! It was no easy feat.

As it turned out, Skyfire Avenue had a singular vision. You couldn’t describe Star Division as a normal mecha division by any stretch. Gathering all these adepts under one banner and giving them the full support of Skyfire Avenue resulted in the fastest creation of a major military installation ever.

Aside from everything else, what normal person could boast being present for the breakthrough of two Paragons? Until recently the occurrences were rare and available only to a select few, and normal humans didn’t benefit at all. By contrast Star Division was proud to find that many of their soldiers gained incredible insights from these experiences. The best of them acquired the most.

Lan Jue was pushed on by the success of his brother. What he didn’t know was that Lan Qing was inspired by adversity as well. Lan Qing yearned for the impossible so that he might overcome it. How else could he have achieved so much at such a young age? Talent alone wasn’t enough. Strength of will and unwavering determination blazed the path.
As Lan Jue listened to the Bartender and Coffee Master’s exulted reports, a strange expression came across his face. An immense surge of pride filled him. So long as they continued on this path, his soldiers would grow in strength and ability. All he had to do was mention the wealth of crystals they’d recovered and morale would skyrocket. Now that it was confirmed their Disciplines were effective against the aliens, it also affirmed that Star Division would be an integral weapon against the invaders when the time came.

“What about the ones we left back on Skyfire?” He asked.

The Coffee Master replied. “They’ve all come around after their insights. That fat disciple of yours seems to have gained the most from it. I could even sense faint waves of protogenia coming from him. It really chaps my ass! Even being by your side for so long, I still can’t even see the realm of protogenia on the horizon.”

Lan Jue scowled at him. “Enough nonsense, you seem happy enough with where you are not to work hard. You think your potential is somehow inferior to anyone else’s? ‘Fastest Hands Under Heaven’?”

The Bartender sounded curious as he joined in. “What you’re
saying isn’t entirely accurate. These days potential isn’t enough. Without grueling work you don’t have a chance. You haven’t seen what the teams do, they’re constantly competing. Not just with others outside of the Division, but among each squad. They’re constantly testing themselves. We know that’s what you want encouraged so we’ve thought up an inter-Division competition. The winning team will be put on the list for the exuvium process, what do you think?”

Lan Jue was taken aback. “How did you think this up?”

This made the Coffee Master chortle. “Our soldiers have too much pent-up energy and nowhere to let it out. We were trying to think of something for them to put their effort toward. It’d be along the same lines as the Great Adept tournament, with them initially separated by brigades. It’d take place in DreamNet, ten on ten. Ace squads would participate too, against two normal squads. We figured it was fairer. In the end the winners are put on exuvium list.”

Lan Jue laughed. “Excellent idea! But the soldiers in Ace squad are too strong. Even if you broke the squad in half they could still handily defeat a normal squad. Break them up and have them compete as individuals, among one another. At the same time, each squad can elect one person to fight in single battles. We have two competitions going simultaneously, one for teams
and one for ace squad members. Brigade commanders can participate in the individual fights as well. Paragons, of course, can’t. Neither can I or the Pharmacist.”

The Bartender gave an approving thumbs-up. “Much more thorough. So be it, we’ll call this part of their training. Give us half a month to get things in order.”

Lan Jue nodded. “We can make it a common thing, these competitions. We can use it to inspire them to work harder. The rewards will be different each time. Right now the Avenue isn’t hurting for riches or equipment.”

The three of them hammered out the remainder of the details. They expected it would cause a fierce competitive spirit to emerge. Of course, safety had to be considered and their training with the Bloodiron Khans would continue. Real life battles weren’t needed anymore, DreamNet was enough of an analogue for real life.

With this in mind, Lan Jue set off to find his brother and suggest the two groups continue to train together. Perhaps leave the Star Division here for a while longer. At any rate it would take time for the East to digest the information they brought, and share it with their colleagues in the West and North.
Predictably, Lan Qing was very busy. But he made a point of carving out some time for his little brother. “What is it? I have a meeting in a little while.” Lan Qing said, wasting no time.

Lan Jue launched right into it. “I was hoping to keep Star Division here for a little while. I’d like them to continue training with the Bloodiron Khans, I think it’d benefit everyone. We can continue the joint battles in DreamNet, that way we can practice in different terrains and conditions. Get them ready for anything.”

Lan Qing gave him an accusatory sideways look. “You haven’t won enough? There’s too much difference in individual strength and equipment. It won’t help my people very much to keep getting trounced. It’ll only undermine their morale.”

Lan Jue grinned at him. “When did you lose faith? If you’re worried about that we can reduce the numbers participating. We can’t downgrade their gear because they used it all throughout their training, it’s a part of their strategy. It’ll take away too much of their effectiveness.”

A hardness flashed through Lan Qing’s eyes. “You think I can accept this sort of scorn for my people?” Ever since taking command, he never had to ask his opponents to go easy.
Lan Jue shrugged. “Those are the facts. And anyway, you shouldn’t be discouraged. Your men are facing the greatest Adept army in history – the epitome of Skyfire Avenue’s strength! Each soldier is strong on their own, with a mountain of money behind them. Facing a smaller group doesn’t mean you’re losing face. The whole point is mutual improvement, surviving the alien invasion and making them pay for what they’ve done. How does saving face help this?”

Chapter 632: Do You Want to Torture Me?

Faced with his younger brother’s sass, Lan Qing laughed. “Very well, you’ve got your wish. On one condition; we fight, in front of all our men.”

Lan Jue froze for a minute, then burst out. “Do you want to torture me?!”

Lan Qing’s irritation flared. “You come to me for the help of my men and this is how you react?”

Lan Jue’s eyes nearly rolled out of his head, but after a moment he nodded. “Fine, it’s agreed. Losing to my brother doesn’t mean anything, I’m not concerned about face. Only, you’re an illustrious Paragon now. You’ll earn no glory from beating me. I should fight with Qianlin, I think you’ll agree to that. Two on one.”

“Alright!” Lan Qing agreed straight off. His intention wasn’t to abuse his brother. Ever since breaking through he’d been unable to find anyone of comparable level to contend with. He was immersed in a whole new realm of capability he had no opportunity to test. Outwardly he looked calm, but he was
struggling with an itch he couldn’t scratch.

“Tomorrow, then!” Lan Jue promptly decided.

Lan Jue was also curious what his brother could conjure up as a Reflection of Heaven and Earth. The effects his breakthrough had on An Lun were still fresh in his memory. The East had been clever in concealing the truth, stating that the strange aura that had hung over the planet was the implementation of a new defense system.

The Bloodiron Khans had been struggling with their recent losses to Star Division, especially since they’d lost under the command of their illustrious super soldier. Their morale had taken a significant hit. Their training was second to none, but every one of them knew that overcoming the powerhouses from Skyfire was almost impossible.

It was in the midst of this gloom that they learned Star Division would contend against them with fewer numbers. The shame and indignation they felt nearly made them choke. They were the Bloodiron Khans! Since when where they the ones looked down on? But they had no option but to swallow their pride.
Early the next morning, both armies gathered on the An Lun training grounds.

Star Division’s soldiers stood as one, imposing and full of stamina. Their faces were bright with self-confidence. They’d first joined Star Division for profit, some of them because of an affiliation with Skyfire Avenue. But over time, after sweeping through the Starfields and defeating the Bloodiron Khans, after developing relationships with teammates, they felt like part of something. Most importantly, they could clearly see rapid improvement after joining up. Every squad was under the direction of a ninth level Adept that guided their betterment. They trained and cultivated together. With the addition of the Avenue’s resources, and the opportunity to witness a Paragon’s breakthrough, all of this together was far beyond anything they could have accomplished by themselves.

With things as they were, none of them pined for the old days. Who didn’t want to stronger? The smart ones knew how dangerous the coming fight was going to be. Backed by strong allies, they were more likely to achieve the success they desired. Skyfire Avenue was a haven for the strong. If they couldn’t be safe there, then humanity was closer to destruction than people thought. Star Division’s soldiers were flush with confidence.

An Lun’s Bloodiron Khans stood in precise formation, but a
closer look penetrated the discipline to reveal the resentment beneath. A few furtive glares were thrown toward their Skyfire compatriots across the field, thick with hostility. Finally meeting an insurmountable foe dug at their ego.

Lan Jue and Lan Qing appeared simultaneously in the center of the field. Both brother regarded each other with a chilly calm. Qianlin stood beside Lan Jue, hand in hand.

Peppered among the Skyfire soldiers were many of Lan Jue’s
A.R.C. students. When they saw Qianlin, they almost gasped in surprise. Only a few even had an inkling of the relationship between them, and when they discovered his true identity many couldn’t help but lose a little respect for the Demon Drillmaster. After all, he was their etiquette teacher! Qianlin’s sudden and complete absent had also made many of them curious. Now here she was, and the revelation shocked them.

Tan Lingyun’s eyes narrowed ever so slightly. She had a boisterous and overbearing personality, but she was still a woman. The gentleness in his eyes when he looked at Qianlin was proof enough, she didn’t have a chance. But dwelling on it served nothing, her only purpose now would be to become the strongest she could be.
“The purpose behind our joint exercises is to make  one another better. Commander Lan Jue and I have spoken, and decided that over the next month, we will be conducting these exercises every two days. Half of Star Division will contend with the full might of the Bloodiron Khans. As we continue, we will analyze the results to make adjustments as necessary. Khan, if you wish to recapture your reputation, you will need to examine yourselves.” Lan Qing’s voice was soft, but his words were like a fire in the hearts of his men. A fierceness sparkled in their eyes.

Lan Jue and Qianlin stood behind the Commander in Chief, never speaking a word. However, his easy smile and encouraging expression inspired the Star Division soldiers. They’d defeated the undefeated An Lun super soldier!

“I suspect we all know what it means for Adepts for compete against one another. In a moment, Commander Lan Jue and I will exchange blows. We hope you all will find it enlightening. Everyone, sit.” Lan Qing’s soft voice commanded.

Every one of the Bloodiron Khan’s obeyed, practically in a single motion. Star Division didn’t move a muscle. Lan Qing was the An Lun super soldier, leader of the Bloodiron Khans and commander of the Eastern armies. What he wasn’t, was their commanding officer.
“Everyone sit,”Lan Jue quietly ordered. They looked upon their leader with fervent, burning eyes. In the eyes of his brigade officers, however, Lan Jue could see pity. It was no secret to them that Lan Qing had immediately become a Reflection of Heaven and Earth. It seemed ludicrous that Lan Jue would agree to this fight when anyone could guess the outcome. It was masochism! They just waited for it to be over.

Lan Jue slowly swung his eyes back to Lan Qing. Lifting his free hand, he beckoned for him to begin.

Lan Qing lifted his own arm, but to speak into his communicator. “Tell them to cut off all satellite surveillance footage.”

Their fight couldn’t take place in DreamNet because the system couldn’t handle protogenic energy. As a result, their contest would take place in the real world. Lan Qing’s aim in making the planet dark was, of course, to confound the West and North.

With his commands given, Lan Qing gave his brother a final look, laden with unspoken meaning. His body shook, then suddenly became a beam of turquoise light. It cleaved the air, racing into the heavens and disappearing from view.
Lan Jue looked to Qianlin who stood quietly beside him. His hand tightened around hers, and they shot up after him. The three fighters were invisible to the armies waiting on the ground below, however as they vanished a holographic projection flickered to life. It focused on Lan Qing, Lan Jue and Qianlin so that they didn’t miss a moment. As the promise of a spectacular fight hung in the air, their mutual animosity was gone. Everyone’s attention was fixated on the hologram, especially the Bloodiron Khans. They might have lost, but their high commander wouldn’t!

The Khans knew about Lan Jue. They’d watched the Great Adept Tournament like everyone else. Meanwhile the analysts of An Lun had busily learned all they could about Star Division – and especially their Grand Champion commander.

Champion of the Great Adept Tournament against the An Lun super soldier. Who would win? For the Khans the answer was clearly their general. After all, he was a Paragon of the second degree!

Lan Qing continued until he was hovering in the stratosphere. For one with powers strong as his, this was effortless. For Qianlin and Lan Jue it was also posed no threat. A crackling aura of thunderbolt energy surrounded them and kept the suffocating pressure of space at bay. They weren’t the least bit
slowed and kept pace with the Paragon.

Excitement smoldered in Lan Jue’s eyes. He could test his powers against his brother at last, and why wouldn’t he be excited to show off how much he’d accomplished? He and the Driver had managed to transform about half their Discipline to the powerful yin-yang lightning. While they’d both benefited greatly, Lan Jue was quicker and smoother through the process because he could endure more of the energy at once. Both he and Qianlin had been in a constant state of development. The immortal qi was penetrating all the way down into their DNA. Its effects had been particularly evident in the last few months, like they’d reached a new level.

Chapter 663: Battle of the Brothers

He wasn’t yet a Paragon, but Lan Jue’s mastery of protogenia was singular. It was more vibrant and cooperative than it ever had been. Although he couldn’t command the power to manifest a Paragon’s Domain, his failure certainly wasn’t for lack of comprehension.

Qianlin’s Discipline had grown over time as well. Her progress wasn’t fast, but rather steady. She managed to keep pace with Lan Jue. However, swordplay was another matter. As they continued to train, Qianlin’s skills had flourished. The unfortunate state of her consciousness didn’t inhibit her at all, to the point where she even surpassed Lan Jue. Xuanyuan Shishi claimed it was her nature. The Queen of Heaven Discipline was the purest energy in the universe, and the closest to the immortals of old. An innate understanding of these old secrets lived within her, which resonated with the inherited knowledge imparted by the sword spirit. As they practiced the bonds only strengthened. For Qianlin, all it took was a step at a time.

Lan Qing led them high over the An Lun base. Below, soldiers from two armies watched via satellite. Holographic images shone with crystal clarity in the center of the An Lun training field. Meanwhile, monitors in the West and North shrieked and returned nothing but white noise. Something was blocking
their signals.

No one blinked an eye. This was common circumstance when watching An Lun. They did this any time they were holding exercises. It never lasted long, scramblers cost a lot of energy to keep running.

Lan Qing turned toward the two of them. He sighed. “Is she any better?” Lan Jue’s character was no secret to him. Lan Jue was talented and smart, but he had a clear weakness. He was emotional and quick to action. The moment something caught his passion it took over his thinking. Those raging emotions sunk him into depression for three years.

Lan Jue struggled to catch up with Lan Qing, but he never knew how much it cost for his older brother to maintain the lead. Lan Qing knew he didn’t have his brother’s talent, that’s why he pushed himself so hard.

It warmed his heart to see his little brother with someone he loved, standing shoulder to shoulder. The battle fervor diminished in the face of joy, and uncertainty. Was power really so important? Or, was it more important to live your life with someone you loved?
Lan Jue quietly watched. He spotted every micro-expression that crossed his brother’s face. When a glimpse of sadness revealed itself, Lan Jue replied. “Better. At least… on the path to being better. Her Queen of Heaven Discipline has a strong regenerative power. She will recover. She will!” Certainty rang in his voice.

A smile crept onto Lan Qing’s face. “I wish her a speedy recovery. You also mustn’t put too much of the burden on yourself. That’s my job.”

Lan Jue blinked. He’d never heard his brother talk like this before. “Hey, are you alright? Don’t tell me you’re scared you can’t beat me.”

It was such a rare occurrence to see his brother’s romantic side, Lan Jue wasn’t sure how to react. Ever since Lan Qing broke through, he was like a different man. Before, ‘stick up his ass’ would have been an apt description of the admiral. Now he was looser, almost calm. That made Lan Jue very happy.

“Come, show me how you’ve been spending your time. Father has a lot of praise for your abilities.” All expression drained from Lan Qing’s face, his voice was flat. It was the familiar mask of the God of Wisdom. It was the face of Prometheus.
Lan Jue smirked. This was the Lan Qing he knew. He gripped Qianlin’s hand, and a soft blue light began to radiate from him. His blue eyes swirled with eddies of gold, and his imperious gaze was as godlike as his namesake.

Qianlin became a brilliant beacon of white light. Flecks of silver rollicked through the snowy expanse. Her life was lived by instinct, but through her telepathic link with Lan Jue he could guide her.

Lan Qing’s eyes also brightened, but there were no flashes or changing colors. Instead, his body was surrounded by a strange gleaming aura. It was he was a part of everything around him, and he could seamlessly merge into the universe at any moment.

For a moment, Lan Jue felt like it was he and Qianlin against the whole universe. It was far from pleasant. A nameless pressure crushed him from all directions. It wasn’t strong, but it eroded his confidence, convincing him it was hopeless. Everything was under his opponent’s control.

Lan Jue couldn’t hold back for even a moment, not against a Paragon. A flash of blinding golden light burst from his eyes as he stepped forward. Suddenly a wave of terror gushed from
him. Beams of gold erupted all around him threatening to consume everything. That overbearing presence felt like it was simultaneously a part of and separate from its surroundings.

Lan Jue did not speak the words of command. Instead, without warning the radiant columns of gold dispersed, becoming motes of golden light floating away in the wind. Lan Jue’s aura vanished, but the pressure from Lan Qing’s did not take its place. It, too, was gone. In that moment of stillness, a slash of red split the sky. When it materialized, reality quivered.

Lan Qing squinted his eyes. Sharp-eyed soldiers watching the hologram could spot the general’s hair rustling, like something was tugging on him. The red light coalesced into a sword a hundred meters tall, tumbling right for the top of Lan Qing’s head.

Space seemed to collapse before the tip of the weapons as it fell inexorably downward. Everything was torn apart and gobbled up! A vast chasm of nothingness was left in its wake. At this point it was no longer a sword. It was hell, come calling for Lan Qing’s soul.

Lan Qing watched it come. He nodded, as though he were judging the attack and found it worthy. As the weapon came
barreling down, he remain suspended in the air, but not idle. Extending his hands, the Paragon pressed outward. A keen flash crossed his eyes, and suddenly a strange scene emerged. Lan Qing seemed to merge into the rippling space around them. As it moved, so did he.

The soul-crushing swipe of the sword raced through. Lan Qing became translucent and his body warped furiously. However, a moment later he phased back into reality like nothing had happened.

Immediately upon the heels of the sword, Lan Qing’s face was lit up by a blazing blue. The silvery display was as dazzling as the tail of a comet before it detonated. Swirling  tendrils  of power shot off in every direction, expanding and lengthening until they covered the Paragon completely. A hundred million sword-swipes danced among each other – as beautiful as it was deadly.

If the red sword was a hellish visitation, this blue glow was a torch from the immortals. Mysterious, perplexing, stunning.

The intertwining colors cracked Lan Qing’s famous calm. He splayed his arms out in wide semicircles before bringing his palms together before his chest with a clap. A flash of gold
rushed from behind him, bearing a fervent aura that penetrated into the soul.

Resonating chants bore the weight of timeless faith. Its arrival swept away blue and red, leaving no trace of their passage. As unmovable as a mountain! Prometheus was gone, replaced with Lan Qing the Buddha. His holy manifestation demanded everything before him prostrate in worship.

Waves of gentle golden light radiated from him out into space, casting light upon the darkness. While the universe was painted a radiant gold, shadowy silhouettes appeared in contrast. The throaty chants of Buddhist monks intensified. It imparted a kindness that made Lan Jue feel sluggish and unwilling to lift his arm in attack.

Domain… this was Lan Qing’s Domain? It wasn’t as strong as the Deva-gati shown by Jue Di, but it was full of unspoken power. The entirety of the past and the future washed over them, borne from the image of Vairochana seated in the exact center of this pocket universe. Everything revolved around him, worshipped him. Struggle was futile.

“Prajna-paramitah!” The deep chants cried. They were loud, but sharp and clear like they spoke directly to the heart. Captus
shivered in Lan Jue’s grip as he fought the urge to fall to his knees.

Prajna-paramita was one of the most powerful sutras of the Buddhist faith. Lan Qing did not attack or take advantage, for with a single phrase he had collapsed Lan Jue’s will to fight.

Before absorbing the thunder essence, this would have spelled the end. Now, though, a flood of energy thrilled through him, clearing his mind of the booming sermons. He lashed out with the sword, and a sweeping arc of sword-energy swept them up and away to safety.

Where the cutting blue light passed, the golden couldn’t help but recede. Its destructive force was so intense, it shook Lan Qing’s Domain to its core.

Chapter 634: Stronger

Lan Qing froze. He knew that his brother had obtained thunder essence and was absorbing the immortal qi within. He knew Lan Jue was in the process of transforming his thunderbolt Discipline. The ancient, mystical lightning was real and he could feel it in the younger Lan’s power. He knew he couldn’t contend with it at his current strength, but Lan Jue couldn’t sustain it, either.

As Lan Qin stood still, stunned, Lan Jue escaped from his Domain with Qianlin. Down among the soldiers, two more figures joined in watching the hologram. Jue Di had changed into his favorite pair of overalls. He watched the two brothers compete with a grin plastered on his face.

“Who knew A-Jue could break free of A-Qing’s Domain! It looks like he’s underestimating his brother.” Luo Xianni mused out loud at Jue Di’s shoulder.

Jue Di shook his head. “No, he didn’t underestimate him. It’s A-Jue’s Thunderbolt. It isn’t true All-Heaven Lightning, but his luck is other-worldly. The thunder essence bore the residuals of the real stuff. Whatever creature it used to be must have been strong. Strong enough that the old immortals chose to bring it down with All-Heaven Lightning. Now that it’s a part of Lan
Jue, no average Domain can contain it. Taking into consideration that Lan Qing isn’t completely familiar with his Domain yet, and he didn’t know what to expect from Lan Jue, we can see how A-Jue managed to escape. Keep watching, let’s see what other surprises they have hidden up their sleeves.”

Lan Jue managed to free himself and Qianlin from Lan Qing’s Domain, but he didn’t relax. Now that he’d experienced it, he knew Lan Qing’s Domain wasn’t just energy oppression. More frightening was its psychological and emotional assault. Indeed, his brother’s powers were physical and mental both. No wonder he rose so sharply through the ranks of Paragon.

Lan Jue remembered something his father had taught him. The strongest Domains had a psychological component, able to suppress the enemy’s thoughts and actions. Not only did it undermine one’s foe, it also boosted the self. At some point the imposing aura becomes strong enough to completely cow the weak-willed and empower one’s ability to new heights.

Their clash had been brief, but already Lan Jue was beginning to understand what he was up against.

Lan Qing reappeared. He didn’t seem the least affected by watching Lan Jue cleave apart his Domain. On the contrary, he
was calm as ever. Lan Jue was learning about Lan Qing’s Domain, but at the same time he was discovering what he could about Thunderbolt Discipline. The two brothers eyed one another from a distance, sharing a moment of quiet understanding.

The soldiers couldn’t say their first clash was very exciting. To them there was just a flash, two flashes, and then they were watching each other. Only the few ninth level Adepts among them could glimpse parts of what had happened.

Lan Jue slowly lifted Captus, gripping it tight. Beside him, Qianlin released his hand. Demortus appeared in a flash to fill the void. Both of them pointed the god-blades toward Lan Qing.

Without physical contact, both Lan Jue and Qianlin felt their powers rapidly decline. However, Lan Qing had the inexplicable feeling that right now, these two were even more dangerous.

The sword in Lan Jue’s hand lashed out. What followed was a torrent of ghastly power, a tidal wave that raced for Lan Qing. At first it looked like a straight column, but as it approached Lan Qing saw it as a sea of energy. He became the focal point for the full force of it.
Zhou Qianlin attacked in tandem. Her strike fractured into ten thousand glimmering swipes. Like leaves on the breeze they flowed through space, descending on Lan Qing from all directions. While Lan Jue’s attack was a focused flood, hers was a torrential downpour. Individually her strikes were weak, but they were relentless. Every opening, every weakness was found and exploited. As the red and blue lights shone brighter, the two sword-bearers vanished.

Ten Thousand Swords as one, and Focused Flow! Zhou Qianlin and Lan Jue! At last their knowledge combined as a singular overwhelming assault on the An Lun super soldier!

Lan Qing sensed the purity in their sword dance. Neither could call upon the full power of their swords, but he daren’t hesitate or underestimate what they could do. Hands he’d kept pressed to his chest were thrust out in a dual-handed push. His chanting stopped, everything went silent. But his body did not remain still. The general’s figure exploded to a hundred times his normal size, blazing gold like a Buddha. A pale and unimpressive light shimmered behind his head. Although he did not change in appearance, an incomparable sense of shock struck Lan Jue like a train.

The Three Prajna Mantras! The Great Spiritual Mantra!
A Paragon-level Great Spiritual Mantra!

An enormous golden palm appeared. It blocked the red and blue sword-strikes, mingling with them, and blocking them from proceeding.

Ruin, penetration; wide as the ocean, thin as a needle. Lan Jue and Qianlin could not enact the Harmonious Swords, but nonetheless what they created in their union was baleful. The focused power of Cpatus and Demortus roiled over one another until they carved a path through the golden palms. They blazed a path for Lan Qing.

The An Lun general didn’t speak, and didn’t run. His hands arose, fingers splayed like picking a flower. His fingers waggled.

“Ding – ding!” The two ringing sounds came one after the other. The two Banishing Blades shuddered as their waves of power were parted to either side of Lan Qing. Next he stepped forward, and the motion seemed to free him from the golden aura. It fell away like a shed skin, and in its place Lan Qing was a homogenous cyan.

In the next instant Lan Jue felt like he was in the eye of a
tornado. Lan Qing’s pervasive and overbearing power underwent a dramatic upheaval. The wave of force swept passed him, thrusting him a hundred meters away. Qianlin – who had been standing by his side – was gone.

“You…” Lan Jue was too surprised to speak. He raced forward to regain the lost ground. However, every centimeter gained was contested by whirling cyan winds. One concentrated storm after another buffeted him, and as they continued to come they took on the form of hideous bloodthirsty dragons. Lan Jue was forced to rely on Captus’ power to fight them off.

The tip of his weapon danced in circles as Lan Jue drew upon his Taiji sword knowledge. He flooded the sword and its movements with All-Heaven Lightning. It was enough to carve up his brother’s attacks, but were very draining.

When the dust settled he looked for his opponent. He saw instead Qianlin, captured in a column of cyan light. She valiantly slashed with Demortus, but couldn’t penetrate the curtain of power. Of course, without enough strength she couldn’t summon enough of the sword’s abilities to free herself.

“You… you’re protogenia isn’t Vairochana?” Lan Jue looked at his brother with surprise clear in his gaze.
Lan Qing was once again the familiar, intractable figure of Prometheus. The same, only much stronger. The swirling waves of power from him continued all around, only now they were the essence of wind.

Lan Qing smirked. “They come from the same source, not much different from one another. It is an intrinsic part of me, why not employ it? It was my Discipline. Vairochana and Wind… there is no conflict. Do you understand?”

Lan Jue just looked at him. Of course he didn’t understand. He couldn’t grasp how his brother seemed to change so completely. Could a Paragon use two separate kinds of protogenia? How was this possible? But despite his disbelief the proof was right in front of him. He’d seen both  from  his brother, but that didn’t make it any less inconceivable. He’d been caught off guard and separated from Qianlin. He certainly was no match for general now.

Gusts of cyan wind roiled around Lan Qing’s body, once more becoming gold. Prometheus became the golden Buddha, and with the new appearance returned the crushing aura. Again, Vairochana! The change was instantaneous, like it was subject only to the will of Lan Qing.
Lan Jue’s shocked expression gradually gave way. Something was becoming clear to him.

There was a flash of turquoise and Qianlin was deposited back to Lan Jue’s side. When he took her hand their psychic connection was reestablished. Both of them felt their Disciplines surge to the peak of ninth rank. After a moment of quiet thought, Lan Jue spoke up. “I need to go back and think on this.” The words were absent-mindedly murmured by way of explanation before Lan Jue took Qianlin and left back toward An Lun.

Lan Qing’s face revealed a small smile. This was exactly the result he was looking for!

What could two ninth level Adepts do against a Reflection of Heaven and Earth? The point wasn’t to beat Lan Jue. All of this was his way of imparting the things he’d learned, to bestow his knowledge upon his little brother. With luck it will shorten his path. That was all Lan Qing had aimed to accomplish.

“He knows how to make the best of the situation.” Jue Di nodded in satisfaction, after which he turned and left the field. Luo Xianni laughed, overjoyed at what she saw. How could she not? These two brothers propped each other up, they would go
much farther than the generation that guided them.

Lan Jue took Qianlin back to base, and directly back to their room. There, he sunk into quiet contemplation.

There was no question that Lan Qing had won their fight. It served to stoke the fires of competition among the Bloodiron Kahns and Star Division. They didn’t need any more motivation words from their commanders. Soon they could test themselves in DreamNet, and a single-minded thought consumed every soldier. Get strong. Stronger. Stronger!

Chapter 635: Parliamentary Disagreements

Planet Skyfire, Parliamentary Assembly Building.

The Speaker sat stony-faced in the silence after the holograms ceased.

“This is the latest information brought back by Commander Lan Jue and his Star Division. It’s the only information we’ve received at all. So far the data’s already taught our researchers a lot about the aliens. Most importantly know is crafting  a strategy. What we’ve learned from commander Lan Jue is that these creatures are much stronger than we’d assumed. Our people will suffer and pay with their lives wherever this enemy chooses to emerge. While I understand that the commander’s earlier suggestion – to evacuate the people to better defended areas – is difficult, that it will affect the plans we have crafted and even undermine the foundation of  this assembly, I  believe in the interest of preserving lives it is the best course of action.”

Murmured conversation followed the Speaker’s remarks. The strength of these aliens had been revealed to them in the images from Star Division. Even Paragons couldn’t stand against an invading army that large. The Accountant’s analyses were particularly troubling. Many aliens were spied on the alien
planet’s surface that could rival human capital ships. However it was the planet itself that was their most fearsome weapon. It could be anywhere at any time, swallow entire planets, ending all life in an instant.

A choice had to be made. Commander Lan Jue had called for a mass evacuation. Smaller and verdant planets had to be cleared as high-risk targets while their citizens found succor closer together. They could wait out the battle in relative safety. Until the armies of man fell, their citizens would not suffer the brunt of alien hostility.

But, what about when it was time to go back? This troubles the politicians greatly. It was a question of unity and obeisance. Western and Northern governments were likely having a lot less polite conversations around this decision.

“Mister Speaker!” An elderly parliamentarian called out for his attention. “According to the information before us, we know that these aliens are dangerous. In fact, they are a threat to our continued existence. I also support the suggestion put forward by Commander Lan Jue. However, we must be cognizant enough to view the problem from a wider perspective. For instance, how could we respond if we evacuate these planets, only to have the West or North occupy them in our stead? If the aliens pass us by then not only have we suffered tremendous
loss, our sovereignty may be at risk. Remember that the planets which are most attractive to these beasts are also the ones that empower them. We evacuate these planets and leave them to their fate – strengthen our foes.”

The elderly man paused, after a moment beginning again with a valiant expression of determination on his face. “There will need to be sacrifices for the future of the Eastern Alliance. To me, it seems the best method is to quarter our interstellar fleets within Eastern space. If the aliens show, we will be capable of an immediate response. Although this plan will put several important government planets and their people at considerable risk, it is the best for our Alliance overall. In the end, we must also consider there is a one-in-three chance the aliens will even come our way.”

It sounded cruel, to sacrifice these planets for the security of the majority. Leaving them behind as fodder. Several faces in the chamber went pale.

“I cannot accept that.” Eastern Alliance’s Prime Minister Zhou Xueguan shot to his feet. His booming, indignant voice rang through the chamber. “Every single life is priceless, and the most sacred duty of a government is to defend its people. How can we even consider leaving them in the path of danger? I am in agreement with the Speaker; I would rather suffer a loss of
resources, than to lose our people. Let the West and North do as they will. If they choose to take advantage of us in the face of this apocalyptic threat, then they shall reveal themselves as an enemy to humanity.”

The parliamentary assembly erupted into a shouting match.

Zhou Xueguan stood amid the chaos, his face hard as he thought. The East was supposed to be better off. At least when it came to the aliens there appeared to have been some kind of understanding. The news he was receiving out of the West and North made him even more nervous.

All of the data recovered from An Lun was poured over. Sensitive material had been redacted, but otherwise the Eastern government was quick to give everything they could to their counterparts in the other Alliances. Initial reports, however, revealed that many contested the reality of these reports, accusing the East of deliberate fabrication. Some were even going so far as to denounce the East as enemies.

The loudest detractors came from the West. In some regards this was to be expected considering the scandalous way in which the wedding between Richard and Qianlin had ended. The Austin family had a great deal of political clout in the West, and
their rancor for the East was no secret. They were lobbying as hard as they could for the Western congress to ignore any further correspondence from them about the alien threat.

Zhou Xueguan and his administration was keeping this information under wraps, though. Revealing the West’s distrust would only make matters worse. At the same time they could find no means to convince them otherwise. The West had thrown a lot of resources at scouting but weren’t looking in the right place. They believed, like all the others, that the aliens were going to come from outside human space. They even reputedly had some data from deep space, a fact that rendered many members of the East speechless. Both sides were working with different numbers, each distrusting the other.

The aliens hadn’t made their move, but already humanity was in disarray. Discord was the worst situation they could find themselves in, but here it was.

Now was not the time to deal with Western skeptics, though. Once their own people were safe, others could be considered. The war hawks in parliament may be callous, but at least they’re willing to confront the truth. Unity in the face of a foreign enemy was something they could count on, at least. Their struggle was finding the best way to proceed.
“Silence!” The Speaker slammed his gavel, combating the chaos that had come over the assembly. A few sharp bangs was enough to capture most everyone’s attention.

The Speaker’s solemn voice filled the quiet. “There is another matter that needs to be addressed. Skyfire Avenue’s Star Division, under leadership of commander Lan Jue and the Avenue’s dignified Paragons, returned from their scouting expedition with some vital crystals. I’m informed it’s not a small number, enough that there will be a surplus when we’ve taken what’s needed for research. Skyfire Avenue has recommended that we use them in trade for weapons and other materials from the West and North. It’s a decision that must be made quickly. General Li Si, as head of the armies what are your thoughts?”

General Li Si occupied the row closest to the Speaker’s podium. Various luminaries from the many branches of the military were arrayed by rank. The Li family was well-known as a perennial military family, and in fact the new,  youngest general in history had once been his disciple. Indeed, General Li had fought vociferously for Lan Qing’s promotion.

Li Si was seventy three years old this year, but he had the bearing of a man half his age. Tall, with a straight back and a quiet strength, when he stood the chamber was completely
silent. Everyone’s attention fixated on this venerable old warrior.

He was sixteen when he joined the army and had been a part of the company for nearly sixty years. In that time he’d participated in ten separate campaigns and earned himself the name Predator General. Every officer he cultivated shared his ferociousness, and a dogged desire to guard their borders.

“I endorse this plan. The exuvium process is a breakthrough in prolonging life in times of peace. But this is war. We must ensure that we are adequately prepared to protect ourselves when the alien menace comes. In addition, strength of arms directly correlates to obtaining these vital crystals. From the data collected we have discovered that the most effective deterrent against these creatures, are adepts and mechas that can empower them. They consume vital energy, but fear the products of it. In the eyes of Adepts the East has become a promised land. Skyfire Avenue boasts five Paragons, more than any other organization. If we’ve managed to bring back one haul, we can get another. Our most pressing focus now must surely be shoring up defenses. One way to do that is to increase the fleet. Then we could protect more planets.”

The General turned away from the Speaker, addressing the rest of the assembly. “I have listened to your debates. There is
merit to each side. Know that I am being upfront with my allegiances. I am a military man. For us, our first responsibility is our duty to the nation. We will fight for whatever this governing body decides. However, a soldier’s duty is also to protect the homeland. All of it. We cannot face sacrificing one group to protect another. We will fight to the last drop of blood, to keep all civilians safe from harm.”

General Li let his words hand in the air for a moment. Then, he turned back to the Speaker. With a small nod of respect, the soldier retook his seat.

His words weren’t just a vote for the Speaker’s plan, but an affirmation of their martial code. He was telling everyone what the Eastern military stood for. Their strongest advantage had always been unity, and the general was a shining beacon of that. Now after witnessing the rise o his disciple Lan Qing, no one questioned this man’s status.

The Speaker’s low voice returned. “We will have a ten minute recess then reconvene for a vote on how to proceed. I hope in that time everyone can agree on a plan of action.”

Chapter 636: Good News and Bad News

Half an hour later the Parliamentary session had come to an end. Afterwards a proclamation was released, ordering the evacuation of all metropolitan worlds. Their resources would be reallocated to the war effort, and any troops were told to be on alert. Part of their responsibilities would be to assist moving goods and people closer to the center of Eastern space. Many would also remain to look after government interests against the other Alliances. As for how this enormous amount of people were to be moved, parliament said that would come when all the options had been examined.

Lan Jue knew about the decision right away. He heard it from Lan Qing, when his brother summoned him to An Lun’s leadership headquarters.

“What do you think?” Lan Qing’s stony expression cracked just enough for a smile to sprout.

Lan Jue answered with a dramatic thumbs-up.

“Didn’t expect it, did you?” Lan Qing openly smirked now.
Lan Jue nodded. In fact he’d already chalked it up to a lost cause. A decision that would hurt so many bottom lines must have been caustic for a room full of self-serving politicians. If it hadn’t been Lan Qing to tell him, he’d say they were joking.

Lan Jue had never been a fan of lawmakers, but he was proud to find they at least had a sense of comradery. Only when the home front was stable and happy could they face a foreign foe!

“However, there is also some bad news.” Lan Qing’s expression fell, as did his voice.

“What is it?” Lan Jue asked.

“The West has sent scouting crews to the last stand of the North’s Seventh Fleet. They claim there are signs an alien planet is nearby, even fought some of the creatures. Leaders continue to deny the veracity of your scouting reports and have turned down any further correspondence.”

Lan Jue scowled. “Why would they even think like this?”

Lan Qing explained. “It certainly involves you. The West has
chosen to make us enemies and resist our progress. A lot of that is fueled by influences from the Austin family, which I imagine is somewhat your doing. Relations have taken a sharp dive since the wedding between Richard and Qianlin was called off. Some of this distrust is a grab for profit, but a lot of it was incited by your actions.”

Lan Jue dropped his eyes helplessly. “There wasn’t anything I could do. I was polite – at least I let Richard live. After the amount of times he got in my way I’d say that’s fair. I admit I stayed my hand because of guilt, and pity. Qianlin never wanted to marry him, it had all been part of the Clairvoyant’s plan. Now if the West left us alone and focused on their own issues it would benefit everyone. Anyway, that doesn’t mean there’s no way to combat their thinking.”

Lan Qing chuckled softly. “Yes, there are still ways. Whatever your thinking the brass has already planned out. Some things are inevitable.”

ΞΆ

Western Alliance, Europa.
Set in the center of Europa’s capital city was a famous landmark, an old hexagonal building that served as the seat of the Austin family’s power. An insignia affixed to the top of the structure caught errant rays of sunlight. An oval with maple leaves, the Austin family crest. It sparkled so brilliantly you could spot it from miles away.

Sylva Austin was this generation’s leader for the Austin family. His office occupied the top floor of the striking family building, glass from wall to wall. He felt like he could see all of Europa from here.

He busied himself with administrative affairs while sitting behind the enormous office desk. He was the President of the Western Alliance and the business of running an interstellar nation often kept his busy past dusk. He was also expected to be social, which left very little time for relaxation. All of it was in service of the Austin family. Politically, there was no more connected family than his.

“Mr. President.” A melodious voice interrupted him, chiming from a nearby speaker. The only one permitted to disturb the man was his trusted secretary, Judy.

Sylva’s brows furrowed. He knew Judy wouldn’t trouble him
unless it was important. “What’s happened?” He asked.

“Urgent news, sir,” she replied. “I was asked to brief you face to face.”

“Come in.” He knew she was already waiting just outside of the door.

When the door opened a blond haired woman in a black business suit and black-rimmed glasses was revealed. Her high- heels clacked against the floor as she brusquely entered. “Mr. President,” she said without ceremony, “We’ve received news from the East that they will be holding an international auction. The items on offer are vital crystals. However the West has yet to receive an official invitation. So far only Northern government officials and important families have been told to attend, and the Gobi Entertainment group from our alliance. All other organizations, even government representatives, have received nothing.”

A cold smirk split Sylva’s face. “Their response to our stance. Pay no mind. When the aliens come we’ll have plenty of vital crystals for ourselves. What’s the sense in paying them for any? Besides, it must have cost them to get so many. None of this is outside of my predictions.”
“But they’re auctioning more than one hundred pieces. This is more than anyone has gotten ever since we learned about the alien planets.” Judy’s voice bore a faint note of urgency. She was as professional a secretary as one could find, but  the promise of a longer life appealed to everyone.

“What did you say?” Sylva’s voice came in a sharp his, disbelief widening his eyes. “The East brought back more than a hundred vital crystals? How could they kill so many  aliens, much less bring them back?” The President’s breathing increased. Obviously the East’s actions were directed at the West. Everyone knew the benefit of the exuvium process, but crystals were needed to perform it. Eastern leadership was too smart to throw away so many crystals out of spite, so that could only mean they had more than they needed for research.

Taking it a step farther, he could infer they must have found a great many aliens to come back with so many crystals. It had to be true, everything they were claiming. The East had found where the aliens were hiding.

That simple fact was like a mortal wound for Sylva Austin. He had been the one most vocally against them. He’d convinced his colleagues the East was lying, and orchestrated their harsh response to the news. This auction was like a smack to the face. He could almost feel it burn.
However, Sylva was an old hand when it came to dirty politics. Surprise overtook him for only a moment, and soon after he was a picture of calm deliberation. “Send a correspondence to the East, asking why we weren’t provided an invitation. These vital crystals are a priceless resource for all of humanity, and are integral for the shared progress of ours species. As such, it is imperative all three alliances participate in uncovering their secrets. There is nowhere else they’ll find more talented geneticists than in the West. We would be very open to participating in this auction.”

“Yes, sir!” Judy’s eyes lit up as she answered. She was already formulating the communique in her head.

Sylva rose from behind the massive desk and turned toward the window. He was quiet for a moment and let his eyes sweep out over the city’s horizons. He loved to stand here and enjoy the view. It made him feel in control.

“Send another to the North. Ask them for help in applying pressure to the East. If we work together we can get the most and give the least. Then send a note to the generals that we want a scouting mission scrambled and sent into the Shattered Starfields as soon as possible. We have to confirm the alien’s location if we want to explain things to the public.”
From the outside it looked passive, but President Austin was doing the best he could under the circumstances. He hadn’t suspected the East would use these crystals as a bargaining chip to undermine the West. How could he have known this might happen? Who would have guessed the East would suddenly become flush with vital crystals? Their actions were the sort taken by a group confident in their strength!

Proliferation. That was the goal of any race. This international auction the East was holding was just that – proliferation. It was the purpose of life, and hope for any living thing. The Exuvium process was still a long way off, but proof of concept was already well known. Even powerful Adepts could benefit from it. Further research was needed to see how it would affect normal people.

Most current reports claimed that the process could extend someone’s life by a thousand percent. The average lifespan would catapult from a hundred years to a millenium.

A life ten times as long! It wasn’t a literal fountain of youth, but it sure was an improvement over their own bodies’ limitations. Influence, money, beauty… none of it was more important than life. Without it, what did all the rest mean?
So it was that the moment word of the exuvium process got out, it captured the imagination of every living creature. The only thing that stood between mankind and hundreds of years among the stars, were these vital crystals.

Chapter 637: Return

For those in positions of power, the mystery and danger of the alien invaders was of no importance. Their single-minded interest was whether they could get their hands on enough vital crystals. At least for now, the exuvium process didn’t look like a privilege everyone would have access to. For many, there was nothing taboo in their pursuit  to join that lucky group. They were desperate to extend their lives at any cost. Eventually humanity would puzzle out a way to achieve the same ends without vital crystals. However, you had to live long enough to see the technology succeed.

Every politician’s imagination was on fire with the possibility of eternal life. How could they not scramble at the chance?

Word of the auction had spread quickly, and everyone’s attention was on the East. Clearly, this meant the data they had on these aliens was true. If it were not, how could they have so many crystals?

“Chairman Zhou, we would be very happy to participate in your nation’s auction. However, we will need to examine the cargo, to verify the quality of its contents.” A patriarch from one of the North’s ruling families grinned at Zhou Xueguan.
The Chairman responded with a smile. “Of course. We hope to put everyone’s misgivings to rest before the auction begins. Take heart, you will have an opportunity to verify the cargo.”

“Thank you very much, Chairman Zhou.”

Zhou Xueguan was surrounded by representatives from the North’s financial and political elite. He had patiently answered every one of their questions, including the origin of the crystals. However, there was ever an air of secrecy about him.

On the second day, the rules of the auction were announced. It sent the Northern dignitaries into an uproar.

Money would not be an accepted form of payment throughout the auction. That was not uncommon for auctions of particularly treasured goods. In those cases it was more common to use power gems in exchange. However, the East had taken things to a new extreme. This time, the chosen method of payment would be measured in war ships.

Yes, war ships.
More specifically, every time someone bid higher on an item the minimum increased bid would be a standard scout ship fully equipped for duty. Ten scout ships equaled the value of a standard battleship; ten battleships added to an expedition ship; ten expedition ships equaled a dreadnought. Ten dreadnoughts were equivalent to a Capital Ship.

To add insult to injury, the East also offered a buyout option; all one hundred crystals, for one top-of-the-line Bastion. When the auctioneers saw that, they had to fight their first instinct to just walk away.

The worth of these war ships to any nation was clear. This was especially true with the threat of alien invasion on the horizon. Certainly the East was leveraging their surplus crystals to shore up their strength. It put everyone else in a very difficult position. Trading in ships was very different from exchanging war assets.

But the East had them beat psychologically. It wasn’t only government officials who had been invited, but any organization with the money to participate. After all, everyone dreamed of a longer life. Even though they were all from the North, there were too many people with too much money, too desperate to let their chances be dictated by others.
With all of the drama, no one paid any mind when a small scout shipped slipped virtually unseen into the Skyfire public airship terminal. No one paid any mind when the small group walked out.

Walking at the head of the group was Lan Jue, who’d changed into a smart blue suit. He disembarked hand in hand with Zhou Qianlin. The Epochrion, Wine Master, Pauper, Driver, Zeus’ five Amazons, and the Accountant followed in a quiet procession. Naturally, Jue Di and Luo Xianni were the last to quite the ship.

Star Division had been left on An Lun to train, but Lan Jue and his scouting team had come to back to Skyfire to deliver the vital crystals. Considering how much these crystals were worth, Lan Jue felt they needed a sufficiently strong escort.

“Have you arrived?” Lan Jue muttered into his communicator.

“Yeah I’m here,” came the response.

A smile spread across Lan Jue’s face. “Good, we’ll see you in a bit.”
“Right to business the second we touch down? When are we going to have time to cultivate? This is no time to dally! The longer we wait the slowly the transformation becomes.” The irritated complaint was, of course, from the Driver.

“The impatient burn their mouths of hot burn curd,” Lan Jue instructed. “I’m more anxious than you are, but you need time to process everything. I’m heading out for a moment then I’ll be back, I’m not dallying. You’re being too hasty. Remember that the strength of your foundation directly affects your chance to breakthrough to Paragon. Besides that’s not even our limit. Not unless you want to stop at the Realm of Protogenia? Aren’t you interested in how far you can go? Take it easy.”

The Driver rubbed his beard and stared off into the distance as though thinking. “I understand.”

He had indeed been impatient lately. Excitement from absorbing even some of the thunder essence thrilled him. Although the growth of his Discipline had slowed, the quality of it was evolving continuously. Any Adept would fall head over heels in pursuit of a chance like this. If he were being honest, he’d felt the instability within himself even before Lan Jue pointed it out. However, the Driver figured that making small adjustments once his Discipline became primordial lightning would not be too difficult. Lan Jue’s words brought him back to
reality and caused him to break out in a cold sweat. If he rushed now, it would only create bigger problems after he achieved Paragon status.

When Lan Jue saw the consideration and contrition in his friend’s eyes, he knew he understood. Adepts at their level were all intelligent, they didn’t need much explanation.

Verti-cars from Skyfire Avenue were already waiting. They filed into the vehicles and headed back toward home.

Lan Jue led Qianlin and his Amazons back to the Jewelry Shop. The rest of the scouting party went their separate ways. The Wine Master and Epochrion took the vital crystals under their watch. Nothing short of an army would have a chance at taking them.

As the hours ticked down to the auction, representatives trickled into the Avenue. More detailed information wa revealed about the auction. The entire thing would last two days. Day one would consist of registrations. In addition, every interested party was permitted to send their own appraisers to verify the auction items. The second day would be the actual auction.
Joining in the auction wasn’t so easy, even with an invitation. In order to ensure the safety of the items, and to ensure a smooth auction, everyone was required to put down collateral. It was mandatory in order to confirm participation. If there was even a hint of trouble, the East had promised to cancel the auction without returning this holding payment.

But, what would count as collateral? War ships, of course. In addition to reserving a party’s place in the auction, it also served to prove their capability in paying. Only then could they make a bid. Northerners found no fault in this. After all, this was the first time an auction like this was being held – it was wise to be cautious. For Westerners, however, it was a different story. This was because the East’s rules for them were completely different.

Other than Poseidon Group and Gobi Entertainment, the East did not extend an invitation to any government official or rich family from the West. Initially the West maintained their instance that the news was fake, but assurances from the North changed their tune. Over time the clamoring from Western dignitaries only grew louder.

The exuvium process and the vital crystals it needed were a budding science, but the rich and powerful had already caught the scent. They knew how important they would be for all of
humanity. No one wanted to pass up a chance for a longer life, especially the rich. They were all just as keenly aware of how hard getting their hands on these crystals was.

The exuvium process wasn’t complete, but the fundamental principles had been proven. Scientists knew the vital crystals were its most necessary component, needed to complete study of the process and ultimately employ it. Without them, any study was a waste of time. To get them, though, you needed to kill aliens. Easier said than done. No one was going to be putting these crystals on the market, so a rare auction like this was the only opportunity for the rich and powerful to get the jump on a longer life. Their clamoring was justified.

Paying one’s dues in war ships may have been hard to swallow, but compared to the benefits of the crystals it was a price worth paying. Ask any of the old leaders wringing their hands as the auction neared. No amount of money or weapons of war could extend their lives. At least, not until now.

Chapter 638: Collateral

With the premise of an extended future in mind, everyone’s heart ached for the chance. Western politicians resisted the calls from their own people, but only briefly. Before long the Western Alliance had released a number of official protests. In flowery and diplomatic language, the West decried Eastern attempts to keep them from the auction. They made the case that although it was the East who recovered the crystals, they were a precious resource for all of humanity. The West had as much of a right to buy them as anyone else.

Zhou Xueguan’s administration gave an even more clever response. Because the West had refused to accept these crystals as real, their invitation was rescinded to avoid conflict. Harsh words were flung back and forth, but as the time for the auction neared Western politicians had begun to walk back on some of their rhetoric. Politicians wanted to live long lives as well, and behind every politician was a group with money. If those silent partners pulled support, they would be reduced to nothing. Vital crystals would be the least of their worries.

In the end the West had to admit defeat. They acknowledged that the East had indeed found and recovered accurate data on the alien creatures. They also had to made concessions in other areas, and on top of all that required a  higher  collateral payment.
For Northerners, the buy-in was a single battleship. For the West, they required an expedition cruiser – ten times the worth of a battleship. Only twenty seven parties from their Alliance could even afford to join. But for the East, that was already twenty seven expedition ships! Not a single crystal was sold, and already the East had the value equivalent of two dreadnoughts. There had never been a higher buy-in for an auction.

In the end, the West was permitted to participate. However, that was just a chance, not a guarantee. Obtaining these crystals from competitors would be daunting, and trust did not come easy. No one side wanted the others to know how much they paid or received. The West elected to participate anonymously. Of course, participating openly was also an option, if the buyer elected.

First to suffer fallout from the West’s public shaming was the Austin family. Both directly and indirectly they had been the loudest skeptics. Consequences as biting as these would need to be answered for, and those in power were quick to put the loss on the Austin’s shoulders. Thankfully the East had only increased their buy-in. If the political cost had affected direct bidding, Sylva would have had hell to pay.

Undoubtedly, the East was using the pricelessness of these crystals for political gain. They dangled them like carrots before
the Western government’s collective noses. For the first time, weak little Eastern Alliance was in a position of absolute authority.

The long-awaited day of inspection had come. After paying so much just to participating, the rich and powerful were eager to hear from their representatives. Because of how much was at stake, every representative was either experienced with the exuvium process or had gone through it themselves. Everyone agreed to adhere strictly any rules the East imposed. If anyone dared to break those rules – for instance, by attempting to steal a crystal – their delegation’s invitation would be revoked and their pay-in kept. These rules were meant to be restrictive and strict, but also fair.

Where the inspections were held was kept a secret until the day before. When delegates learned where it would be held, they couldn’t help but scowl to themselves. For those with less honorable intentions, they news was even more distressing.

Skyfire Museum!

A plain and simple name, but what it represented made Adepts shiver. It’d been the seat of the Clairvoyant. Although the one called the Eye of Tomorrow was gone, he was famously
enigmatic. Who knew what surprises the old seer left after his passing? Beyond that, anyone familiar with Skyfire Avenue knew what choosing this location meant. Anyone who dared step a toe out of line would immediately suffer the full force of the Avenue’s ire.

As an organization, no one could doubt its dominance. In recent years the Avenue not only produced a number of Paragons, but also put its bright future on display in the Great Adept Tournament. One of its young leaders even walked away Champion. All analysts were in agreement that Skyfire Avenue was in the midst of a meteoric rise. It already far surpassed the two Citadels and the Great Conclave.

Among the Northern dignitaries were representatives from the Chu family. Chu Dong, as patriarch, had come personally. It was his first visit to the Avenue. His son had told him a lot about it, but seeing it all in person was very different.

He took a shine to the Avenue the minute he walked in. Chu Dong was a traditionalist and loved the old style. Each antique building lining the road was exquisite. Be it the elaborately carved balustrades with fantastical Chinese beasts or soaring gothic towers passing solemn judgment, he saw a striking beauty in them all.
Each step drew him deeper in. He looked bewitched, and for a moment forgot what they’d come here to do. Then something caught his attention. Four eyes met and all at once his pleasant stroll came to an end.

It was him.

Any appreciation in Chu Dong’s eyes fled, chased away by inner conflict. But of course he’d react like this. How many years had it been? How long since he’d seen him, face to face? He’d lost the fiery attractiveness of youth, but had gained a more stately and wizened demeanor instead. He was a Paragon now, but the years had still left their mark.

The Gourmet stopped three meters away from Chu Dong.

“Older brother…” Simple words, but in this moment the Gourmet had to struggle mightily to find them. His voice sounded strained, there may even have been a shake in his tone. His eye were red and moist already.

When they were small, Chu Dong and Chu Xi had been inseparable. Chu Dong was eight years his senior and diligently looked after his little brother. But though he was younger, Chu
Xi was always more talented. Cho Dong had to work harder for less, but he was never jealous. They were family, and together they would recover their former glory.

Even during his darkest period Chu Xi never hated his brother. The one pulling the strings was their father, the cold- blood Chu Yun. Chu Xi couldn’t remember how many times his brother helped him bear the cruel punishments of their patriarch.

All of that happened more than twenty years ago. Old words written on yellowed ages.

Pow! Chu Dong punched his little brother square in the forehead. The Gourmet staggered backward a good eight meters before regaining his footing.

Chu Dong appeared before the Gourmet in a flash, snatching up fistfuls of his shirt. “You bastard!” Chu Dong spat, inches from his face.

The mighty Infernal Vanguard looked like a sullen child who’d just been spanked. His hands hung limp at his side, offering no resistance, eyes plastered to the ground.
“Do you have any idea… -“ Chu Dong’s eyes were red.

The Gourmet’s body shook. The punch hadn’t had any power behind it, just muscle and indignation.

“Do you have any idea how much I’ve missed you!” Chu Dong relaxed his hands and hugged tight to the brother he hadn’t seen for twenty years.

For a moment the Gourmet didn’t know how to respond, but quickly embraced his greying older brother with as much zeal.

“Brother, I’m sorry.” Those two words felt like a thousand pounds. He’d carried that weight in his heart for so long. Since becoming a Paragon, he had come to understand so much. He studied the old, painful memories for truth and learned a lot, like the fact that the Chu family could not have had anything to do with it. How could they frame someone and leave no trace?

When they released their grip, Chu Dong pinched his eyes. His tears steamed away as his fiery Discipline fluttered. “Why didn’t you come back? You must understand what happened by now. You know father’s temper, and if you continue to act like this you’re just like him – more than I am. Would it really be so
difficult to go back, once? He’s old…”

He had to stop with the final words. Tears welled up in his eyes again.

The Gourmet’s voice was pained. “It wasn’t that I didn’t want to. I couldn’t face everyone. I didn’t know how I could stand in front of all of you again with everything I know now. Even today, I hesitated… I thought for a long time whether I could come out and see you. Brother, I must ask you to tell him I’m sorry. I know I was wrong, but what’s done is done. I…”

Chapter 639: I’m Going Back

“Quit your nonsense.” Chu Dong’s tone was harsh with the Gourmet. “If you really want to apologize go home and do it yourself. A heart-felt sorry is enough. Do you think he’s the same man as before? Did you witness him crying hi eyes out, twenty years ago? Then he was fine, until the day he heard you became a Paragon. I saw his eyes get moist when he heard your name; the Infernal Vanguard. In his own clumsy way he told us he was lost. And why not? He misses you, but he’s old and can’t say anything. He very loudly claimed he was going to come here himself to represent the Chu family at auction, but I forced him to stay behind. Won’t you give the man this little bit of pride in his old age?”

The Gourmet was completely dumbfounded. The image of a powerful, dictatorial, stubborn man collapsed in his mind’s eye. In its place was an old man, pale faced and infirm.

“I’m going back! When this auction is over, I’ll go back with you!” The words tumbled from his mouth. Seeing his brother and hearing his admonitions was too much to bear.

Chu Dong silently nodded his head, and patted the Gourmet’s shoulder. “I have vital crystals to buy.” He turned away and began to walk toward Skyfire Museum.
“Brother, wait a moment!” The Gourmet called out, trotting to catch up.

“Hm?” Chu Dong turned back.

“You don’t need to bid,” the Gourmet said. “I’ll think something up for the vital crystals.”

A voiceless appreciation sparkled in Chu Dong’s eyes. After a moment he answered with a nod. “There’s a lot of politics surrounding this business, I’m anxious to broaden my knowledge of how these games are played. I’m confident we’ll be fine.”

“Alright,” the Gourmet replied.

Ordinarily Skyfire Avenue was a temple to silence, but today the walls rang with boisterous conversation. Standing at the front doors, security was being directed by none other than the head of Skyfire security, An Liu. Inside, security personal wandered the rooms with watchful eyes.

An Liu was dressed in a bright silver flight suit, no different
than any other day of work as far as she was concerned. Cold eyes scanned everyone who crossed her path. Guests required an invitation and a pat-down before they could come in.

All three Alliances were represented by eighty four delegates. Only affluent Eastern families had come to participate, since the Eastern government had all the crystals it needed already.

An Liu’s eyes suddenly narrowed, inexorably drawn to large figure coming her way. He had bright yellow hair, and was clad in white from his suit to his pocket kerchief. Handsome as he was, and with such a striking figure, he earned quite a lot of attention. However, An Liu was most interested in his eyes. They were deep, turbulent eyes that defied age. Wisps of power radiated from him that were hard to distinguish, but beneath them one could feel a vast tension.

As the middle-aged man walked toward the museum, he stopped and lifted his head. As his peered upon the old structure, he looked almost disappointed. For a moment he stared, then approached the door and produced his invitation.

“Hello, Sir Metatron. Please come in.” An Liu extended an arm, welcoming him in after looking over the man’s invitation.
Indeed, this white-suited man – elegant and profound – was the Lord of Archangels for the Pontiff, Metatron. He was the manifestation of the Pontiff’s will, half a breath from Paragon himself. But that final breath had already eluded him for many years. The reason was simple; he’d used fantascia genetica. The decoction catapulted an Adept through the levels, but when they reached their peak it caused problems. For twenty years Metatron had struggled, but he was still no closer to a breakthrough.

The Archangel smiled, and offered a polite nod. He was the perfect public face for the Pontiff’s Citadel. Since each organization was only permitted to send one inspector, they had to send their best.

Another figure silently appeared before An Liu. Like Metatron, he bore a supernatural allure. In contrast, however, he was clad from head to toe in formal black attire. His short, dark red hair was a little disheveled, but it also added to his roguish charm. He had dark, sad eyes – fatally attractive to young women who were furtively stealing glances.

“Your invitation?” An Liu calmly asked.

A ly grin split the man’s face. “Can’t I come in without one?
Maybe we could have a chat, discuss some way for me to find a way inside?”

An Liu narrowed her eyes. This was the first person bold enough to step out of line. He was a man everyone knew by name and reputation.

“Sir Lucifer, if you’re here representing the Dark Citadel then I ask that you produce your invitation.” An Liu’s voice was somewhat colder this time.

Right on the heels of Metatron had come the Fallen Angel Lucifer.

He looked the security officer up and down. “A dual-Disciple Adept hm? Unless I’m sensing this wrong, there is a little darkness in you… a rare elemental attribute, and pure. Would you have any interest in being my woman? You know we have many methods to extend a person’s life back at the Citadel, even without vital crystals. Train with me and you can be as strong as I in no time. Through your dark purity I can rise to Paragon, and when I do I can bring you with me.”

An Liu glared at him with eyes sharp as icicles. “Not
interested.”

Lucifer might have been called the fallen angel, but he had more arrogance than any of the Archangels. A fervent look flickered passed his eyes. “Are you sure you won’t consider my offer? It’s a wonderful opportunity for you – think about it.”

An Liu’s voice was low and even. “I said I am not interested. If you’d like to participate in the assessment then produce your invitation. Otherwise please leave, you’re blocking the way for those who were invited.”

Lucifer regarded her with a lascivious smirk. “Very good, little girl. You’re the first woman to turn down my advances.” As he spoke, long spindly fingers plucked an invitation from his breast pocket. Lucifer handed it to her. His eyes – sparkling with Discipline – lazily dragged up and down her figure.

“If you dare make a move, I’ll make sure ‘the Fallen Angel’ is erased from everyone’s memory.” A hard voice, full of violent promise, interrupted his leering.

Lucifer froze. He couldn’t tell where the voice was coming from. Almost unconsciously his eyes snapped to a nearby figure.
He was tall, lithe, and also dressed in black. However the stranger’s garb wasn’t a suit, but military attire. It was the uniform of a high-ranking Eastern officer, functional and made of the best materials. What struck Lucifer the most were the four golden stars pinned to the stranger’s lapel.

Military insignias were more or less the same throughout the universe. Four stars – a general? Among the army’s highest command. For pilots they would call him an Admiral, but the meaning was the same. However, this man was far too young to be a general. That didn’t stop Lucifer from feeling a wave of fear from the man’s presence.

Lucifer wasn’t any weaker than Metatron in regards to Discipline. He was considered lower in total power because the Archangel’s power naturally restricted darkness. If the two were involved in a fight to the death, it would be impossible to tell who would come out breathing. Both of them were the strongest Adepts could be before becoming Paragon, stagnant due to the same problem. They pushed themselves further than their potential, and now progress was almost impossible.

Lucifer’s advantage lay in combat experience. In terms of ability and understanding of the Adept world, the Fallen Angel was in the top twenty in the whole universe. Even so, a single look at this army man filled him with dread. He could
remember only a handful of time he’d felt this. Lately only the Pontiff scared him so.

This stranger was like a beacon of holy light, so dazzling that Lucifer felt like his soul was burning. The indescribable discomfort filled him from head to toe. As an Adept of darkness, light was his greatest enemy. This man’s power seemed to be pure light.

“Who are you?” Lucifer unconsciously staggered backward a step, closer to An Liu. If this man really did mean him harm, than relying on An Liu’s character as a guardian of the peace wasn’t a bad method.

But he was wrong.

Dizziness swept over him as Lucifer felt a crushing pressure descend. This must be what it felt like for a vampire to stand outside in midday, he thought. He tried to gather darkness like a shield around him, but the light burned it away. If he tried to move forward, the pressure only got stronger. Sometime in the midst of his trance, the man had taken up position between he and An Liu.

Chapter 640: Lucifer’s Terror

“I wasn’t going to do anything. No ill-will. It’s all a misunderstanding.” Lucifer raised his hands and sputtered the words. He was practically falling over himself in capitulation.

“That’s good.” The general answered in a soft voice.

Lucifer shot a glance toward An Liu. “Can I go in?”

She suddenly remembered his invitation in her hand. She handed it back. “Go ahead.”

Lucifer painfully noted that An Liu didn’t look once at him. The whole time she only had eyes for the golden general – like she was fixated. It made him even more furious. With a dissatisfied grunt and long strides, he  stomped  into  the museum.

“Why are you still staring? Don’t you have a job to do?” The general glanced her way. The moment their eyes met a deep red crept into An Liu’s cheeks. Her subordinates noticed, and could only stare slack-jawed. It was the only time they saw their boss they called the ice queen act like a woman at all. Was this real?
Who was this guy who could make her act this way?

“If I have time I’ll come and find you for a cigarette.” The general offered the sentence quietly, before leaving her alone in silence.

An Liu hadn’t managed to say a single word. She also never once took her eyes off the army man.

It’s him… it’s him. It’s him! He came…

She felt a flutter in her chest. An Liu’s cold, aloof heart was suddenly afire. She could hear it thump against her chest, faster and faster.

What is going on… An Liu, what are you thinking? It was only a cigarette!

Lucifer stumbled into the museum. Unlike the others, he wasn’t interested in the majesty of the building’s interior. A lingering fear kept him looking over his shoulder at the door, waiting for that man to enter.
A Paragon! That man was certainly a Paragon, strong enough to end him if he’d wanted to. But, how could he not know of this mysterious Easterner? What’s more he was a part of their military. It made him feel like there was much more about this Alliance he didn’t know.

Keeping a low profile was the best course. It was a shame about that woman, though. Her Discipline was pure, rich with primordial yin energy. IF only they could cultivate together, the benefits to his progress would be significant. Evidently that was not an option, however. Skyfire Avenue was famous for its secrets, he had to tread carefully.

Skyfire Museum was a press of people from all over. They’d arranged a waiting area, and the various assessors milled around waiting for everyone to show up before they could begin.

When Lucifer walked into the waiting area, he immediately picked out several familiar faces. First among them was his old foe, Metatron. The others were all Adepts as well, and strong ones. No one was more sensitive to the energy fields surrounding them than Adepts, making them the perfect investigators. Every powerful organization was desperate for Talents, especially those who had experience with the crystals first hand.
He looked over at the Archangel. Metatron sensed his stare, and looked right back. Neither of their faces changed, but the hatred in their eyes was unmistakable. A surge of rage welled up inside Lucifer, and he strode toward the Pontiff’s representative.

Metatron regarded him with a guarded demeanor. “Get away from me,” he said.

Lucifer replied with a dry chuckle. “You think I want to waste my time with a hypocrite?” His words were harsh, but the Fallen Angel still took up a spot on the sofa beside his enemy. They hated each other on a fundamental level, so Lucifer chose to ease his own irritation by getting under Metatron’s skin.

As for Metatron, there wasn’t anything he could do about it.
This was Skyfire Avenue – he wasn’t about to start trouble.

People continued to stream in. Eighty-four representatives meant eighty-four interested organizations carefully paying attention. Most of those eyes were on Lucifer and Metatron, but when the next person entered their focus shifted.

The Terminator’s hard, cold eyes slowly drank in Skyfire
Museum. He was an in immaculate tailored suit, but it still looked like someone tried to dress up an iron statue. A Paragon and one of humanity’s leaders had come himself to represent his people.

Metatron muttered under his breath in surprise. He came himself?” Neither the Pontiff nor Satan had come because they knew they were high-value targets. They would be walking onto foreign enemy territory, surrounded by the strongest humans in the universe. Evidently this didn’t trouble the  Terminator.  It was a testament to his faith and self-confidence. He believed nothing would happen during the auction.

As the Terminator walked in, another figure descended from the museum’s second floor. Spectator’s turned their focus from the Paragon to this very small newcomer.

She couldn’t have been taller than a meter and change, her head barely peaking over the bannisters. Bouncy little steps brought her before the Northern leader. “A long time, Big Uncle! How have you been?”

When he saw her, the Terminator’s calm eyes were suddenly a little distraught. But his dark expression gave way to a smile. “I’ve been well, and how about you Jun’er?”
“Very well, thank you,” Jun’er answered happily. “But I have been very busy. A have to study a lot every day. I still can’t see, but teacher says that because I’m blind once I become Clairvoyant things will be clearer than ever.” Her eyes were sightless, but from the outside you couldn’t tell. She didn’t look like a blind person; her eyes were full of light and life.

The Terminator shook his head, battling the gloominess in his heart. She had been chosen as the Clairvoyant’s successor after all. He’d questioned his decisions before, but seeing this vibrant young woman now any regrets were gone. How could he bring himself to destroy something so beautiful with his own hand? Anyway, Skyfire Avenue’s rise was already assured, and that meant the East would rise with it.

“Terminator. It’s been some time.” A deeper voice caught the Terminator’s ear. He lifted his head and spied the Wine Master heading his way.

The Cosmagus was dressed as fastidiously as ever, but the real eye-catcher was Jun’er. She was enveloped in a long dress that sparkled with gemstones of all sorts and sizes. She sparkled like a little universe beneath the museum’s soft lights. The Terminator kneeling before her was a striking image to everyone who looked on.
As the two Paragons appeared, no one remained seated. They all rose to their feet and offered their respects to the leaders.

The Wine Master addressed everyone. “Thank you for your patience. Wait for just a while longer. Once everyone’s arrived we can begin.”

A few more figured descended from the dais above as the Wine Master made the announcement. Sharp-eyed guests recognized them quickly. Gasps were quickly muffled as people tried not to call attention to themselves.

The Epochrion led the group. Once a Northern Alliance Paragon she now represented Skyfire Avenue. A step behind her followed a gentlemanly pair. Beyond being mighty Paragons themselves, the two were famous throughout all of human society. Of course, they were the Arcane Magnate known as the Keeper, and Skyfire Avenue’s Bookworm, the Karmic Scholar.

Four Paragons stood among them as standard bearers for Skyfire Avenue. This was real power! No one dared dream of causing trouble.

The guests had all more or less arrived. An Liu slipped in and
nodded at the Wine Master.

The Epochrion walked until she stood before her old partner. She greeted him with a gentle nod. The Terminator spoke first. “How does it feel to be home?”

The Epochrion heaved a sigh. “I’ve always loved it here. I was always a part of this place, and it will always be a part of me. I don’t suspect I’ll be leaving again.”

“Oh but Auntie Clockmaker, you’re still so young. Not old at all,” Jun’er tittered. She couldn’t see, but her perception far surpassed any normal person’s. She knew everything going on around her, though not as sharp as one who had working eyes.

“So long as you like it. When you get as old as we are, it gets to be even more important to do the things that make you happy.” The Terminator said with a smile.

“Yes,” the Clockmaker replied, nodding.

The Wine Master’s voice interrupted. “Thank you for waiting ladies and gentlemen, it appears we’re all in attendance. In just
a moment we will give you all an opportunity to verify the items we will be auctioning. I will warn everyone a final time, any transgressions will be met with a punishment ten times the cost.”

The promise was particularly potent coming from a Paragon. After witnessing four such powerhouses appear at once, no one dared make a move for fear it could get them in dire trouble.

“Jun’er, you are our leader. You should start us off.” The Wine Master gave her a small nod.

“Alright.” Jun’er replied in bubbly tones. She flicked her wrist, and something appeared in her tiny hand.

It was a crystal orb, with flecks of silver suspended within. Its light shimmered alluringly, and everyone in the museum couldn’t look away. Silvery images came and went, detailing the past and revealing the many paths of the future.

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