Skyfire Avenue Chapter 651-660

Chapter 651: Competitive Bidding

Lan Jue’s face betrayed a small smile. They couldn’t contain it any longer!

“Three expedition ships!” The mysterious stranger who’d stoked the chaos cried out again. He didn’t bother with incremental bids, and instead immediately offered another big bid.

“Three expedition ships and one battleship.” A Westerner challenged his bid. His paddle bore the number two.

“Three expeditions and five battleships!” The Northerner with paddle number one added his voice.

“Four expedition ships!” Mysterious Number Three was on a tear.

“Four and one battleship!” Number two shouted.

The Northerners were silent. Number three threw up his paddle. “Five expedition ships.”
Stunned, everyone went quiet. These were expedition ships! Their systems could draw radiation from space to keep it going, almost indefinitely. They were considered the real force in an interstellar fleet, second only to dreadnaughts and capital ships. Typically, a fleet didn’t have more than thirty expedition ships. Relinquishing five of them for a single vital crystal, it seemed crazy.

“Bidder number three has offered five expedition ships. Any other bids?” The Wine Master calmly asked.

One of the Western delegates was glaring bloody murder at the cloaked man. His face was a thunderhead. He’d been specifically told to get a crystal just like that – but this price was too high!

The Wine Master didn’t let the prices or bidders affect his auction. “Five expedition ships. Going once. Going twice…”

“Wait! Five expedition ships and one battleship.” The elderly Northern gentlemen threw his paddle up!

The auction hall broke into an uproar. The North apparently accepted this as a worthy price. The other representatives felt
their hearts sink. These prices were madness!

There were high-level buyers hell-bent on winning, but not just from the West. The North was just as hungry!

“Five and two battleships.” Mysterious Number Three increased the bid, but much less aggressively than before.

“Six expedition ships!” The Northern representative lifted his paddle to confirm the bid. He knew that if this trend continued, the remaining crystals would be even harder to obtain. Bidding would only get more intense as supply dipped and demand grew. Chances only increased that desperation would drive the prices up.

“Six and one battleship!” The Westerner’s curt voice arose with his paddle. Everyone here was intelligent, and he had to have come to the same conclusion as his Northern contemporary. Things were only going to get worse. This crystal was also the third best one in the whole batch.

Bidder number one’s face was stern. “Six and two.”
Number two. “Six and three!”

“Seven expedition ships!” A new voice broke in from somewhere in the back.

The Northern and Western representatives craned their heads back to see. They first saw the paddle held high – number twenty three. It was borne by a stiff-faced man in his middle years who no one seemed to know. He was at least eighth level, however, judging by the waves of energy coming from him.

Seven ships was too much. The Western and Northern leaders glared with unbridled hatred. Both were uncertain whether they wanted to continue.

The Wine Master was ambivalent to their troubles. “Seven expedition ships. Any further takers? Seven expedition ships going once, going twice. Three times. Sold!” The hammer fell, another crystal was sold.

Number twenty three allowed himself to crack a small smile. All throughout the auction he’d been silent, until now. His sudden and expensive addition captured some attention.
His bid proved timely. A third high level crystal followed, vital crystal sixty four. The bidding was vicious, but the Northern representative came away the victory. His winning bid had been six expedition ships and six battleships. However, the crystal was a full twenty percent smaller than the last one.

The atmosphere felt white-hot, fervent. Those without the wealth to throw around were slowly being weeded out.

The North employed their riches to gather sixteen crystals, but they were not the biggest winner. Mysterious Number Three boasted that honor. Twenty crystals were his, including one high-grade piece, crystal number seventy nine. It was the second largest of the batch. He’d started the bid with a dreadnaught, and no one contested him.

Afterwards no one thought he was an Eastern agent any longer. There was no more need to fire up the crowd.

After three hours, the final vital crystal made its way on stage.

“This is our last piece on offer, and one of the best.” A grin broke the Wine Master’s professional façade. He didn’t feel the need to introduce the crystal beyond that sentence. The East
was already rich, boasting the equivalent of six hundred battleships. That was half what would be considered a fine interstellar navy. Half, only because dreadnaughts and Capital ships were tremendously expensive.

Everyone perked up when they realized it was time for the last crystal.

An Liu brought the cart up from backstage. The box atop it was hidden beneath a red cloth, but it was clear the box was bigger than all the others before it. The buyers’ thoughts went back to yesterday, and a sparkle of interest lit up their eyes. Several representatives were especially zealous.

The red cloth was removed. Presented within the box was a vital crystal roughly the size of a man’s skull. It glowed purplish-black, and from time to time a strange mist seemed to surround it before quickly vanishing. Despite the box, everyone could feel the vital energies coming from the crystal.

The four high-grade crystals together couldn’t compare to this specimen. Hearts sank to think of what it would cost.

Breaths came more rapid. Mysterious Number Three had
taken two of the four best crystals so far. The other two belonged to number twenty three and number one respectively. The crystal one stage now was everyone’s last chance. Even before the auction began they knew this was going to be a vicious bid. It was destined, there were too many people too desperate for a quality crystal.

The Western government was determined to have it, as were the two Citadels. The Great Conclave was less rabid. Because the Terminator had such close connection to the Northern government, they were sure to give him crystals to complete research of the exuvium process. In that way they shared the benefits.

But be that as it may, who didn’t want a crystal for themselves? Who was to say the North didn’t have some interest in this, the largest of the vital crystals? The rich families were especially determined. They had money, if they were still here.

“Starting price is five expedition ships. Minimum increase, one expedition ship. State your bids!” The price had catapulted, far above any previous item. Scout ships, battleships – they were no longer enough. The auction had not yet started, but the pain of the bidders was palpable already.
“One dreadnaught!” Mysterious Number Three threw his paddle up, immediately increasing the base price by half.

His deep pockets and determination caused several buyers to openly gasp. A dreadnaught!

“One dreadnaught and one expedition ship.” Paddle number one rose. There was an underlining fear of the Wine Master among the buyers. He was fast, there was no time to think. A moment’s hesitation could lose them their prize.

This final crystal was everyone’s last chance, why not try? What’s more, if bidders couldn’t have one themselves they would make sure their competition couldn’t get it cheap. There was no more room for equivocation.

“One dreadnaught and three expedition ships!” The Western delegate raised the bid.

“One dreadnaught, five expedition ships.” A bidder from one of the richer families threw their offer in.

“Two dreadnaughts!” This bid came from Lucifer. He’d been
mostly quiet but for a few common crystals earlier in the auction.

The Great Conclave and both Citadels boasted a Paragon as their leader, Paragons who e\yearned terribly for a crystal as powerful as this one. Their representatives had no option but to throw everything they had at the opportunity. Therefore, Lucifer was not conservative with his bid, hoping to scare the others into silence. Judging by what they’d seen so far, two dreadnaughts was not too much for this item.

“Three dreadnaughts!” A voice beside Lucifer called out right on the Fallen Angel’s heels. He angrily snapped his eyes to the side. His old rival, Metatron, had challenged his bid.

Chapter 652: His Majesty Poseidon

Metatron was calm. What was money? Those faithful to the Pontiff’s Citadel demanded supremacy over their darker counterparts. Of course, lately the Pontiff and his men had been less than successful in their other endeavors. The loss of their assets in the Shattered Starfields was particularly damaging. But who could they blame? Skyfire Avenue? If they wanted vengeance, they would need to meet the Eastern organization’s strength. Beyond that, alien fiends had moved into the territory. Archangel Gabriel had witnessed it all, and shared the information with his superiors. When the Pontiff heard the news, he nearly spit blood. Metatron could still remember the rage in his master’s face and the tempest of protogenia that had surrounded him. Without Metatron’s vociferous protests, Gabriel would likely be a corpse.

The auction was of particular interest to the Pontiff’s Citadel, largely because their leader was getting on in years himself. Metatron had spent precious years of his life trying to break through, but as of yet had been unsuccessful. Constantine had a better shot, but since he’d used the fantascia genetica decoction in his youth, breaking through would be a herculean task. As a result, making sure their single Paragon lived for as long as possible was of paramount importance to their Citadel.

A cold air surrounded Lan Jue, his arms were folding before
his chest. Whenever the light in his eyes flickered, reality seemed to shiver ever so slightly. He could sense the tension from Metatron and Lucifer behind him. He loved it. This was the way to make sure they stayed under the East’s thumb.

“Three dreadnaughts and an expedition ship!” After a deep breath, Lucifer raised the bid. It was a stupendous price. Interstellar fleets typically boasted one Capital ship and four dreadnaughts. Especially doughty navies had more. By the looks of things, this one stone was on track to win the East at least that many.

“Four dreadnaughts!” Even before Lucifer could settle back in his chair, the bid was raised. Muffled gasps flitted through the crowd.

It was the mysterious stranger.

“If you keep raising the price, aren’t you worried humanity will make you pay for it?!” The Western delegate seethed.

Mysterious Stranger Number Three finally turned his head. A wave of terrifying power swept through the auction house – not strong, but suffocating. Like being steeped in an ocean of water.
A pale blue light like a clear sky tinted everything around them, strange and beautiful.

Protogenia? Domain!

The buyers were learned and experienced people. They knew what this feeling meant. The Western government official gaped at Mysterious Number Three. Domain…. He… he’s a Paragon? He’d just threatened a Paragon? However, this Domain didn’t belong to any of the known superhumans.

Mysterious Number Three lifted his hands and slowly pulled down his cowl. Long, ocean-blue hair tumbled free and with it a strange aura. He turned around fully so everyone could see his face.

Delicate yet heroic features were so perfect they hardly seemed human. Sparkling blue eyes as deep and alluring as the ocean where pools of protogenic energy. His Domain collapsed, and the stifling sensation subsided. However, it was those eyes that left the most lasting impression.

“Poseidon…” A few shocked murmurs rippled through the museum.
Seated nearly in the first row, Lan Jue smiled. Yes! It was the perfect time to reveal who he really was. Who would dare oppose the leaders of the West and North other than the head of humanity’s richest family? The youngest of the Divine Monarchs, and Lan Jue’s brother – Hua Li!

Poseidon represented his family and business in this auction. Now everyone understood why he had so much wealth to throw around. The Poseidon group had more means than any other organization, including their very own planet. It wasn’t even worth trying to guess how much money Poseidon had.

But, when did Poseidon rise to Paragon? It wasn’t long ago he’d shown the universe his power, and it wasn’t even the peak of ninth level! His sudden breakthrough was even more of a shock to these representatives than Lan Qing’s.

“Should I assume that’s a declaration of war against the Poseidon group? Are you permitted to make these sorts of decisions on behalf of your Alliance?” Hua Li asked the question in a calm, even voice. Every syllable was a perfect note that rang in the ear. Even compared to his spectacular concert at the Great Adept Tournament, it bore a strange and irresistible charm.
The Western representatives swallowed so hard the whole museum could hear it. The anger fled from his face as he rose, and when he spoke he did so with a sheepish tone. “I apologize. I did not know we had been blessed with his Majesty’s presence. Please forgive my offensive remarks.” Anyone who was here knew when it was time to take your losses.

“Then let’s continue with the auction.” Hua Li didn’t bother to debase him further. He settled back in his seat.

Poseidon Group was represented, sitting in the first row! A place deserving of their wealth and status!

When Hua Li sat back, for just a moment his eyes met Lan Jue’s. The brothers shared a furtive smirk.

When Lan Jue had returned to Skyfire Avenue he’d tried to contact Hua Li, and learned he’d intended to participate in the auction. Today he was here as a Paragon, and it was his spend- thrift approach that had in part made this auction such a success. To those who suspected he was a plant, would the Poseidon Group stoop to that? Certainly not!

But he was! He and Lan Jue had agreed on a course of action
long before the auction begun. The added cost didn’t trouble Hua Li any, and he was as interested in these crystals as anyone. Privately, Lan Jue had also promised him more crystals for the trouble and expense.

“For dreadnaughts. Any further bids?” The Wine Master’s interjection came at just the right moment.

“Four dreadnaughts and one expedition ships.” The Western delegate didn’t have any choice but to push the bid higher. He was going home with that crystal or he wasn’t going home at all!

“Four and two expedition ships.” The Northern representative wasn’t going to be left out. He, too, was hell-bent on obtaining this prize. Keeping it out of the hands of the West was also considered a victory. Spending resources could also be used to buy time. What’s more, the energies in this crystal were unlike anything they’d seen. Surely it could be used a multitude of times to help them with discovering the secrets of the exuvium process.

The Terminator had used protogenic trickery to speak with him. He promised the wealth of the Great Conclave to help the North in acquiring this vital crystal. Afterward they would
share the crystal for their various needs. Thus the Northerner’s uncharacteristic persistence.

At this price, neither Lucifer nor Metatron could raise their voices. It was already questionable whether the Pontiff had the resources to continue when Lucifer made his bid, but now Metatron knew he could no longer participate. It was simply too much. At any rate, it was assured more of these aliens would be fought and killed. There would be more opportunity for vital crystals. This batch wasn’t the last of them.

“Five dreadnaughts.” Hua Li was nonplussed. He was determined to have this crystal for himself.

The Western delegate stared at him, then addressed the Paragon in respectful tones. “Your Majesty, this crystal is integral to my Alliance. We have a long history of mutual respect, I must ask that you consider this. Five dreadnaughts and one expedition cruiser.”

Hua Li’s brows furrowed, as though in thought. He fell silent and didn’t speak again.

Indeed these crystals were very important for the West and
North. They were in dire need of them to learn what they could about the exuvium process. In this regard, Hua Li and the group he represented were less needy. He’d already gathered a number of normal crystals for that purpose.

“Five dreadnaughts, two expedition ships!” The Northern delegate took the opportunity.

His Western counterpart had nothing to say to that. He could only swallow his curses and press on. “Five dreadnaughts, five expedition ships!”

The two of them continued to try and outbid each other. Soon it was six dreadnaughts. With the Poseidon Group no longer in the running, the increase in price came in smaller increments.

“Seven dreadnaughts!” When the Northerner called it out, the Western official’s face fell. At last, it was more than he could afford. It was a single damn vital crystal!

The North also knew the single crystal wasn’t worth such a price. However, he also knew that slowing the West’s progress was good for the future of the North. The East was already too far ahead to catch, and with the West’s genetic expertise they
had an advantage the North did not. Any chance the West could make a breakthrough was not in the North’s best interest.

“Seven dreadnaughts. Going once, going twice. Sold!”

At last, the final vital crystal was purchased. Everyone breathed a little easier, especially the representative from the North. Seven dreadnaughts had stretched the limits of what he could offer. Any more and he wouldn’t have dared to increase. In cost of production, they could have built a capital ship for what it cost to build seven dreadnaughts. The price the North had paid throughout the auction was a truly staggering sum.

Chapter 653: The Final Item

“”Ladies and gentlemen, please wait for a moment.” The Wine Master’s voice suddenly called out. The buyers all cast their eyes his way.

The Wine Master continued. “In recognition of your presence and support, the Eastern Alliance has decided to relinquish one final vital crystal for our auction, the best yet. It is on its way now, we simply ask you to wait a little longer. Jewelry Master, if you would fetch it for us?”

“Alright.” Lan Jue rose to his feet and stepped out.

More? A final item?

The dejected face of the Western delegate changed and an excited light glinted in his eye. The Northern representative gaped at the Wine Master. This wasn’t on the auction agenda! However, there were no rules against adding items.

What sort of crystal could be even more impressive than the last one? When Lan Jue left the museum, he took a brief stroll along the Avenue. What did he need to get? The crystal was
stored safely in Thor’s Promise.

When he returned to the hall, his arrival was heralded by an intensely rich aura. Cradled in his hands was a vital crystal, not particularly large.

The crystal itself was surrounded by a hazy rose-tinted hue. It was about the size of his palm, flat, and octagonal in shape. The surface was oddly ridged. This was far more potent than any of the crystals that they’d seen before.

The Terminator, who had for a while been silent, suddenly popped his eyes wide. The fire within them was fierce. He sensed that the energy inside was in a liquid state. What’s more, it had protogenia! Vital protogenia!

This crystal was alive with vital protogenia! Logically this meant only a Paragon could create it. The Avenue was holding onto a crystal like this all along? He could hardly believe it, but as a Paragon this crystal had tremendous significance.

Of course the Pontiff wasn’t the only one who desired to extend his life. The Terminator was no less urgent. Although he wasn’t as old, the process of converting his body into a machine
had riddled his body with problems. Upon breaking through, protogenia helped to mitigate most of them, but they did not disappear. Whether he wanted to take the next step as a Paragon or just live longer, these problems had to be addressed. Vital protogenia would help greatly.

Lan Jue’s gait was deliberately slow, allowing everyone a chance to see the crystal, feel its energies. One could even use it to supplement their cultivation and catapult them to Paragon status!

Lucifer felt similarly. Although he was slightly weaker than Metatron, they were stuck at the same hurdle.

Dozens of fervent stares followed Lan Jue, but he paid them no mind. He hadn’t the slightest fear that someone might try to take advantage. What had happened to the Astral Phantom was still fresh on everyone’s mind. Skyfire Avenue had dealt with her handily. They sat within the Avenue after all, the museum – former home of the Clairvoyant.

Greedy eyes drank in the light of the crystal. Their minds raced. Everyone knew what this meant.
Lan Jue made his way to the Wine Master’s side.

The Avenue’s chairman did not immediately open bidding. “I imagine you’re all tired after such a long and competitive affair. We’ve prepared food and drink for you to enjoy. After a half hour break we’ll proceed with the bids for our final item.” With that, both he and Lan Jue left the stage. There was a flash of silver, and they were gone.

When they vanished, order crumbled. The chatter became loud and unruly. Many were making calls to their backers with the news.

It wasn’t the first time something like this had happened at auction, but this level of ardency was unprecedented. The crystal was one-of-a-kind.

“I’m a little reluctant!” The Wine Master handed Lan Jue a glass of brandy. He sounded upset, clearly the crystal was of interest him, too.

“The covetous child can’t trick the wolf,” Lan Jue  said through an impatient frown. You know what our goal is, here. Don’t you already have one, anyway?”
This final crystal was indeed one of the best they’d obtained during their time in the Starfields, capture by Jue Di in that single-punch massacre. However, there had been a good seven or eight other crystals which had been better than this  one, which the Wine Master had access to.

The auction had been for the benefit of Skyfire Avenue, but they also had an ulterior motive. It wasn’t the Wine Master’s brainchild, but a suggestion from Jue Di. It was simple; Lan Qing would get his pick of the earnings from the auction, up to fifty percent of the total.

The alien planets were powerful enough to present a real danger, even for Jue Di. Something in there was more powerful than anything they’d encountered, but even Jue Di couldn’t tell how strong. In a situation like this, safety was only assured through personal strength. An Lun had been struggling for resources, especially ships.

The East was not flush, either. They only had four interstellar fleets. One was stationed on An Lun, but it was hardly their strongest. It was unsatisfying. Indeed, their interest was making sure the other side didn’t outpace them.

However, right now the situation had changed. Lan Qing was
a Paragon, inheriting great abilities. His influence in the East was vast. As far as the East was concerned, strengthening An Lun was in everyone’s best interest. They would worry about the scope of his power if humanity survived the alien menace.

The Eastern government agreed to Skyfire Avenue’s suggestion. It was part of the reason why Lan Qing was at the auction.

The Wine Master replied. “Ah, you. A real scoundrel. Collaborations between you and Hua Li are going well? Ah, who’d have thought he’d be a Paragon?” He hadn’t known, but once Hua Li revealed his face the secret was out. He and Lan Jue were so close, he couldn’t blame them.

Lan Jue answered. “I didn’t think it would be so fast, either. It must be an inheritance. In fact, every generation of the Poseidon family has a Paragon. It’s a power that’s passed down. Hua Li’s father must have sacrificed much to lift him into this Domain. Once it’s stabilized, he’ll be a true Paragon. Right now my brother and Hua Li have both ascended, A-Cheng is sequestered away in cultivation. I’ve fallen so behind. Skyfire Avenue isn’t hiding any secret powers that’d make a Paragon, eh?”
“Enough crap,” the Wine Master muttered in irritation. “If we did could anything compare to Jue Di? He’s showed you the way step by step, there’s no better situation.”

Lan Jue changed the subject. “This auction has been a great success, but I’m not sure about the next one. They’re likely already bitter at having to give up so many strategic resources. I’ve already set up the jewelry shop, you want to let them out for fresh air?”

The Wine Master nodded. “It’s all prepared. When the auction is over the news will get out.”

Some participants in the auction found it impossible to compete, and were going to go home empty-handed. Their longing for even one was almost too much to bear. The Avenue still had many, and could use this opportunity to sell another batch on the black market. Prices weren’t limited to ships; mechas and power gems were also accepted as valuable resources. They planned to leverage the crystals’ rarity to get whatever they needed.

There had been a plan for this auction from the beginning. First, was to put the West’s doubts to rest. Then suck up as much power from their rivals as possible. This was how they
would profit from the crystals. Also, it gave them an opportunity to puzzle out the state of these governments and wealthy families. Under all of that, though, the intent was to prepare the East as best they can for the alien invasion, and as a deterrent force against their neighbors.

The East’s relative weakness wasn’t something that would be changed overnight. However, the fact that their Alliance had a bevy of powerful Adepts. Their sheer number of Paragons was a deterrent against attacks, and it was only going to grow. The East or North would have to destroy the Avenue to take it.

Chapter 654: The Final Auction

Whether the East would benefit from the alien menace would depend on where the three invading planets made their first strike. Certainly the first Alliance unlucky enough to face the aliens would be the hardest it. There was a three in one chance, and no one knew what to expect.

“It’s about that time. I believe they’re ready by now. I’m anxious to see how much this crystal will fetch.” Lan Jue smirked as he rose to his feet.

The Wine Master sighed and shook his head. “You get craftier by the day. I’m glad you’re on our side.” Lan Jue had handled the details of the auction. He’d collated all the information they had about the current state of things, and presented it to the Western leaders for discussion before they eventually agreed.

“And still you taunt me,” Lan Jue replied. “When this auction is over we have to plan our next excursion into the Starfields.” Scouting was integral and couldn’t be delayed any longer, they had to know where the planets were headed.

When they returned, ‘raucous’ was a mild term to describe the museum’s interior. The faces of several buyers were already
flush with excitement and anger.

Lan Jue did not doubt that agreements would be reached and a good price obtained for the crystal. It was too precious to pass up for those in the audience. The Terminator and other Paragons were no exception. It seemed likely this crystal would break the snobbish attitudes of these opposing factions, which was part of Lan Jue’s plan. He wanted people as strong as possible when the aliens showed up.

Just imagine. What if the Pontiff used the crystal to extend his life? What if Metatron and Constantine used it to breakthrough and become Paragons themselves? How much would that improve the Citadel’s sorry state?

The same went for the Great Conclave and the Dark Citadel, too. At least three major organizations were very interested in getting this final crystal for themselves. They wouldn’t dare allow for the auction to be compromised. None of them even knew how many times this crystal could be used, or how many people the vital protogenia within could help.

The Wine Master spoke. “I presume you’re all ready to continue. I will not take any more of your time than is necessary. Our final item on auction is about to be open for
bidding.”

“This vital crystal’s starting bid will begin at three dreadnaughts. Every increase must be a minimum of five expedition ships. Begin.” The lofty starting price was indicative of how valuable the crystal was. Lan Jue guessed in the end they would get a Capital ship for it.

Determining which was more valuable – a Paragon or a Capital ship – was hard to evaluate. In the battle was outside of a planet’s atmosphere, a Capital ship’s main guns would vaporize a Paragon. It didn’t matter how many Paragons, either – so long as they were below the rank of Nirvana the ship would end them. Even Jue Di would be gravely injured by a direct blast. Paragons of who had achieved Nirvana or later still tried to avoid a situation like that as much as possible.

However, if a Paragon got close or managed to infiltrate a Capital ship, they could destroy it easily. If they were on the surface of a planet a Paragon’s abilities were even more dominant. As a general rule, the smaller an item the more powerful its energy, and Paragons could do many things a Capital ship wouldn’t.

The East’s current lofty standing was due to their wealth of
Paragons. For their Alliance they were strategic resources.

The two citadels had already contacted the West’s government leaders to discuss the importance of this crystal. The reasoning was simple; the government had more ships, and the citadels needed this crystal.

The North was much the same. The Terminator and other Northern leaders would support each other.

ζ

“Sir, please alert the Western congress that if His Majesty the Pontiff receives this crystal it will extend his life by at least fifty years. It will also allow myself and Constantine to become Paragons ourselves.” Metatron urged the Western representative.

“Sir, with our specialty in energy absorption Satan can become a Reflection of Heaven and Earth with this crystal – the same as the Terminator. It will also help me to break through.” Lucifer countered.
“Gentlemen, I’m not in the position decide. I’ll run it up the ladder, and we’ll just have to wait and hear what they say.” The poor man was overwhelmed in the face of the two peak-ranked Adepts.

Metatron and Lucifer cast each other hateful glares. This was too important – both personally and for their masters – to let the other get the upper hand. Ascending to Paragon not only made them stronger, it also came with a longer life.

Both of them quickly alerted their respective leaders in the hopes they could apply pressure to congress as well.

ζ

“Your Majesty, do you know exactly how this crystal could help you?” The Northern representative respectfully addressed the Terminator.

The Paragon’s deep, rumbling voice answered. “Judging by that aura, it can help me uncover the errors in my construction. Maybe even help me ascend to the next level. I wouldn’t have to worry over my health for at least another fifty years. It would work similarly for Titan. The Paragon manufacturing procedure
caused a great deal of damage to his body, but it also pushed him into the Realm of Protogenia. Once the errors are corrected, he’ll be a true Paragon. So you can see how important this item is.”

Having said this, he needn’t go into any more detail to prove his point.

**

“Three dreadnaughts and one expedition cruiser!” The first one to shout out their bid was the Terminator. The Northern leader was clearly chomping at the bit.

“Three dreadnaughts and two expeditions!” Metatron raised his paddle next. Much to everyone’s surprise, Lucifer sat back, expressionless, with his paddle on the table before him.

Moments ago the Pontiff and Satan had come to an agreement. They would work together to get this crystal, for they knew there was a vast difference in wealth between the West and North. Right now, harping on their differences only made both sides weaker. Because of the Pontiff’s urgency he would use it first, but the Citadel had to cover sixty percent of
the cost. The remaining thirty percent would be the Dark Citadel’s responsibility. The ships themselves would be provided by the West, with the resources gathered by the two Citadels.

The agreement had been hammered out in just thirty minutes. It proved that in the universe there were no eternal enemies when it came to profit.

“Three dreadnaughts and three expedition ships!” The Terminator tried to slow the increase, feeling out his competition.

“One Capital ship!” Suddenly, a boisterous and harsh voice called out without warning. It sucked the breath out of everyone, even the Terminator.

A Capital ship? That was three times more than the current bid. This was crazy! Even the Wine Master looked astonished by the scene. Their highest guess was a Capital ship, but it’d taken only a few bids to reach that.

Of course, the only one able to offer such an exorbitant price was the president of Gobi Entertainment, Hua Li.
Hua Li looked perfectly calm, and graceful as ever. He sat with a small grin, like it was someone else who’d offered that nightmarish bid.

The atmosphere was smothering. By now the East had enough promised ships to make a more than impressive interstellar fleet of their own. Buyers looked at once another in speechless despair. They couldn’t help but wonder if they should send their own people out to hunt down the aliens for these crystals. These prices were astronomical!

However, if they knew that it’d taken Jue Di himself to acquire them, they might rethink the idea.

The room fell into an uncomfortable silence. A Capital ship, what a price. To build one you needed three years’ worth of resources from three rich planets. A single ship required over a hundred s-ranked gems to power.

The Wine Master didn’t rush the auction, and stood on stage with a quiet smirk. He let the silence stretch. Meanwhile, Hua Li sat in his chair with a thoughtful expression.

Lan Jue cast a surprised glance toward his friend. He hadn’t
asked him to offer that bid. Appetites were already high enough as it is. For him to offer such a price, he must have been just as interested in it as everyone else.

“One Capital ship, one expedition cruiser!” After a moment of consideration, Metatron offered his price. He looked absolutely pained to say it, but the Pontiff’s Citadel could not do without this crystal.

“One Capital ship, one dreadnaught.” Poseidon’s chilly voice brought another moment of silence.

“One Capital ship, one dreadnaught and an expedition ship.” The Terminator’s voice was higher than usual. His anger towards Hua Li could be heard in it. Gobi Entertainment and the Poseidon Group had gained more from this auction than anyone. Their sudden and ludicrous offers could not be countered. Hua Li had been silent for a long time, but now at the last moment he was making his final push.

Hua Li, as though intimidated by the Terminator, did not open his mouth. Metatron looked at Lucifer, who eyes him back. Each saw the hesitation in the other’s eyes. Their threshold had been a Capital ship.

Chapter 655: The Auction Ends

By now the auction was downright stifling. Every new bid could be the last. Every second was the buyers grappling with whether they could justify the price. The North was rich and prosperous, while the West needed the combined wealth of Satan and the Pontiff to compete. The Western government could provide the ships, but they’d need the citadels’ capital. However, their relationship with the Western government wasn’t nearly so close as in the North.

“One Capital ship, one dreadnaught and two expedition ships!” Metatron grit his teeth and lifted his paddle.

“Take it then!” The Terminator hissed. He didn’t press further.

Metatron, a ninth level Adept at his peak, nearly collapsed. He let out a long breath. Was it over? He’d won.

“One Capital ship and two dreadnaughts.” Just as the buyers were thinking the Terminator’s refusal meant the end of the auction, another took his place. Poseidon.
Metatron’s hands were shaking. Where this anywhere else he might not have been able to hold himself back. But Poseidon was already a Paragon, and at his back was humanity’s wealthiest organization. He didn’t dare offend.

“His Majesty Poseidon still feels he hasn’t purchased enough?” Metatron snidely spat.

Hua Li replied in an even voice. “Whether it’s enough or not is my business. This crystal as just as important to me as it is to you. If our friend Metatron has the resources, he can feel free to raise the bid.” Hua Li had never liked the Pontiff’s Citadel. Especially after what they did to Lan Jue, which prompted him to cut off relations.

Metatron sighed, fury writ clear on his face. Of course he wanted to keep going, but the Western delegate had already turned and shook his head. This was already far beyond what they agreed was the limit. Pressing any further would overwhelm his Alliance’s government. After all, there were limits to what this crystal could provide them. In times of war these ships were priceless resources.

But this crystal was just as important! What could they do?
The Wine Master interrupted. “One Capital ship and two dreadnaughts. Going once.”

Metatron grit his teeth, mad with determination. “Add an expedition cruiser!” His breathing was ragged, his face twisted. He absolutely could not pass up this chance. It might be his only opportunity to become a Paragon. Lucifer, perhaps for the first time, admired the man. He wanted it just as bad!

With luck this crystal could mold several Paragons from the ranks of the Western citadels while extending the lives of their leaders. They needed it.

Veins protruded from the Western representative’s forehead, which was slick with sweat.

“All yours!” Finally, Hua Li spoke the words.

Metatron leaned against the back of his chair. His mind was blank. Lucifer was the same. The two of them were practically hand in hand – the first and likely last time such a phenomenon was to occur.
It was over! In the end the grandest prize had gone to the West. Paying what was owed, however, would be a long process. Once the ships were delivered they would receive the items purchased.

Lan Jue and his brother quietly slipped away. Lan Qing’s calm exterior had been replaced with a grin he couldn’t seem to shake. Skyfire Avenue had made out like bandits, and half of that was going to An Lun. Adding the fleet he already commanded, An Lun was now a frightening force to be reckon with.

He looked at Lan Jue and smirked. It had been a fine idea! Of course, the North and West might have felt differently.

“I have something I need to take care of, I’ll catch up with you later,” Lan Jue said as they left the museum.

“Mh.” Lan Qing nodded, he had things to tend to as well. Namely, the Astral Phantom. There were still problems that needed to be solved. Her soul was marked, but there was still much to do.

Lan Jue left for Zeus’ Jewelry shop, its surface counterpart.
Ke’er greeted him with a bubbly smile. “Boss! You’re back!”

“Are things prepared underground?” He asked immediately.

“All set,” she replied. “Mika, Xiuxiu and Guo-er are there.
They’ve been very busy.”

Lan Jue smiled. “Prepared two glasses of cold water. We’ll have guests soon.”

“Ok,” she answered, then bounded off to fetch them.

Just then, a pillar of blue light arose from the ground like a mountain spring. It coalesced into a familiar form.

“His Majesty Poseidon certainly had a dominant bearing today!” When he saw him, Lan Jue couldn’t help but laugh. Hu Li materialized from the spectral light.

Hua Li replied with a smile. “All arranged by you, of course. Why didn’t you let me take that last crystal? It’s useful to my people as well. It could be used to supplement my father’s
power, maybe even return him to Paragon. Bringing that back home would have been significant, especially in helping my family’s next generation of Paragon. It’d make it easier and more stable.”

He wouldn’t have offered such tremendous sums without reason. He meant it; that crystal would have been wonderful for the Poseidon family.

Lan Jue shook his head. “I didn’t want you to throw money away. Gobi Entertainment has money but that doesn’t mean you should waste it! I’ll give you one.” As he spoke there was a flash around his hand. A crystal about the size of his fist appeared. In terms of size it was similar to the one he’d given up, but the energies inside were even more potent.

Hua Li looked at him, shocked. You have more. This is too much, I can’t accept.”

Lan Jue tossed it at him. “What does any of that mean to friends? Stop the bullshit and take it. It belongs to you. Without you we wouldn’t have walked away nearly so rich. It won’t be long before the Pontiff and Satan head out to try and get their own, considering their poor showing today. This was likely the last auction we’re going to hold as well.”
Hua Li looked doubtful. “Is killing those aliens that easy?
Aliens with cores like this won’t be weak.”

His friend nodded. “This did come from a strong alien. Energy to match a Paragon, but not on a protogenic level. One on one, we’d be able to take it alone though it’d be a tough fight. Our last trip to the Starfields we came away with our coffers full. When the aliens attack things will be different, but not impossible. We just need to make sure we have the upper hand.”

Hua Li didn’t voice any more opposition, taking the crystal. “I’m happy to have completed my task. I’ll bring this back home and give it to my father. We have our own preparations to attend to before the fight. When the time comes we’ll likely be here.”

“Excellent,” Lan Jue replied. “Skyfire Avenue is the safest place in the East. The West is unreliable. But it depends on where the planets show up first.”

Hua Li laughed, making his face even more attractive and elegant. Even Lan Jue stopped to appreciate it. “No matter where they show up, though, I’ll be by your side.”
Lan Jue chortled. “Stop talking like a hopeless romantic, yeah? Alright, you have things to do. I need to take every opportunity to cultivate as well. You’ve broken through and I’m way behind. With A-Cheng sequestered for so long he’s probably broken through as well. I’m the last one.”

“You’ve split yourself up too much,” Hua Li said. “Quiet your heart and focus on cultivation. Don’t let the outside world intrude too much.”

“Yeah,” Lan Jue replied with a nod.

Hua Li bid him farewell and left. After a moment, Lan Jue left too to find the Driver. Their Disciplines hadn’t been fully transformed yet. He was close, and the thunder essence had pushed him to a new level. His intentional suppression was what kept his Discipline from advancing faster. He was in no rush, breaking through would happen sooner or later. In fact the later he could push it, the better the end result.

ζ

Lan Qing’s living arrangements on the Avenue had been set up in the Gothic Winery. Typically it would be the jewelry shop,
but Lan Jue was too busy.

Several rooms were in the back of the winery where people could rest. Streams of light filtered through the stained glass, giving the room a fairyland-type feel. On a stool by the window was the Astral Phantom in a plain yellow dress, peering out onto the street. She seemed entirely tranquil. Lan Qing admired her attractive face in portrait, and the delicate lines of her slender neck.

A cutesy name for Lin Guoguo

Chapter 656: Misfortune is No Excuse for Evil Deeds

“When I was young, my family was desperately poor. We lived in a slum, rats like all the rest. There was a trash dump outside of our front door. If we went outside the smell would make you gag. Eventually I began to think the smell was getting into my pores. I’d smell like garbage forever.” The Astral Phantom idly stared out of the window, her words soft and thoughtful.

“For years afterward I had this phobia of getting dirty, a vestige of those dark days. I have this memory… me, with a piece of bread in my hand. I asked my mother ‘how much bread do I need to eat to feel full?’ I remember the tears that streamed from her eyes and dripped onto my face. They were hot and slick. I asked her why she was crying, but she only shook her head and said nothing.”

“My father was disabled and couldn’t walk. He could only manage simple tasks. My mother was beautiful and hardworking. When they first got together my father was an excellent mecha pilot. But then he lost his legs. He was too young to have any savings. He was also an orphan with no family to lean on.”

“Mother shouldered the family’s burdens on her own, but she
didn’t have any special skills or training. So we had no choice but to live in the slums, a hard and bitter life. But I wasn’t sad – in fact I was a pretty happy child. I got to be with my parents, that was enough. We tried not to let poverty ruin our lives. Until one day, mom didn’t come home. I searched all over for her until I heard crying. It was her. I dug through the trash until I found her, her clothes ripped and flesh bared. Someone had hit her so that her face was red and swollen with blood dripping from her mouth. Nothing covered her bottom half.”

“I didn’t know what to do when she grabbed me and started sobbing. I couldn’t understand what had happened. She cried like that for a long time… I said, ‘mom, I’m hungry. Can we go home and get some food?’ I was five years old. Although I was scared, the pain in my belly was stronger. She stopped crying and took me home. She didn’t talk to father. She just took a shower, changed her clothes, and made us food. When father asked why she’d gotten back so late she just said she was busy at work.”

“That night I ate bread until I was full. I was still frightened but tired, so I went to bed. When I woke up the next day mother was gone.

When we found her she was in a river not far away. It wasn’t deep, but she was floating face down… a rock had been tied to
her upper body to keep her submerged. The police said there wasn’t any sign of a struggle. They suspected suicide.”

“When she died my father broke. He got sick and wouldn’t get better and was confined to his bed until it took him, too. Later I learned that it had been a gang of vagrants from the slums that’d attacked my mom. In my mind this was all because of poverty. Because of poverty we couldn’t defend ourselves. Because of poverty my father couldn’t afford the bionic legs necessary to keep working. Around that time was when my powers awakened. I hunted down and killed those vagrants. I wasn’t afraid, I just swore that I would become the world’s strongest, richest person.”

“In time I made money. I had power and influence. I could defend myself. But there was always an emptiness I couldn’t fill. I would never get my parents back, no matter how rich or strong or pretty I was. I’d lost all my money in those pursuits. Then someone told me that if I became a Paragon there might be a chance to find their lost souls and call them back. I began to regain what I’d spent. My talents were clear. I knew that if I wanted to keep getting better I need hard work and luck, but also a great deal of money. Money bought resources. The world seemed so broken and unfair, so I turned to murder. The method to make money didn’t matter to me. Once I earned enough, I used those resources to break through. I never cared who I killed or why, so long as they paid me well. Nothing was
more important than money. I had grown into a greedy woman.”

“When you marked my soul I was terrified. I felt like my spirit was marred by it. However these last few days that fear has passed. I realized I could slow down, be at peace. Watching Skyfire Avenue from this window, I’ve realized there was so much I didn’t consider. This would could be as beautiful as it can be ugly. I’m tired… but I’m grateful I didn’t choose death. Thinking back on it I suppose I’m lucky it was you who got me. At least you aren’t like me. You aren’t a bad man.”

At this point the assassin rose to her feet, and ran her fingers through her hair to straighten out the strands.

“It makes me happy to say all this out loud. They’ve been poisoning my heart for over fifty years. Tell me what you wish of me, super soldier. I serve at your leisure, even my body. I’ve never lain with a man.” She turned to Lan Qing, her face sultry with a promising grin.

But in Lan Qing’s eyes, there was only sadness and pity.

He’d listened to her heartbreaking tale in silence. He didn’t
interrupt and instead let her get it off her chest. His face expressionless, the soldier slowly made his way to the window and peered out over the street. He could see the striking blue façade of Zeus’ Jewelry Store.

“You’re lucky, actually.” Lan Qing’s voice was soft, low.

“Lucky?” She looked at him skeptically.

“My brother and I are orphans, we never knew our parents. Before we met our teacher we never knew what a full stomach felt like. We only knew life as pain and suffering. We were born on Earth, after it’d been ravaged and destroyed by greed. Only the most unfortunate remained. We begged anyone we could for food, convinced that just surviving made us lucky.”

Flickers of emotion raced through the Astral Phantom’s eyes. She looked at him, seeing for the first time his handsome but gaunt features. His voice was calm and his features still, like he was talking about someone else’s life.

“I’d have never thought we’ve lead such similar lives,” she sighed. Something else stirred in her pretty eyes.
Lan Qing turned his head to face her. His deep, dark eyes fixed hers. “No, we’re nothing alike. My misfortunes taught me to be strong, gave me perspective. It motivated me to chase the light. You… you became a demon.”

The Astral Phantom’s face slowly went stiff.

Lan Qing’s soft voice proceeded. “You’re beautiful, and your tale is moving. But none of this can hide the evil within you. In all the lives you’ve taken did you ever stop to consider the families left behind? Sparing your life doesn’t mean I accept you
– you’re a tool to use against the creatures that want us all dead. The only way to clean the blood off your hands is to save as many lives as you can when the aliens come. This is your atonement. You can stop your games as well, because they won’t work on me. Should I call you aunt? Or grandmother.”

The Astral Phantom gaped at him. It was worse than a slap to the face. “A – Aunt?! You bastard!” She threw her arm back, ready to slap him.

Her movements were fast as lightning, but the stabbing pain that wracked her spirit was faster. She gurgled a pained cry and fell to the ground. The mark that was placed on her did not permit any defiance.
A dangerous chill had crept into Lan Qing’s voice. “Now that you’ve decided to live, make sure you get as many years as you can. Do not try to take advantage of me or this opportunity I’ve given you.” With nothing further to add, he left her there beside the window, alone in the room.

The Astral Phantom’s childhood was a nightmare. Every word had been true and spoken from the heart. But one’s pain didn’t give them license to visit that pain on others. She had accepted money to slaughter countless of innocent victims in her role as a master assassin. Lan Qing was too smart for a sad story to make him forget all that.

A full five minutes later the Astral Phantom managed to pull herself up off the floor. Her teeth ground audibly as she glared daggers at the door. Never in her sorry life had she hated someone so intensely, but she was powerless to end him. She was sure her looks and sad story would move him – if not to let her go, then at least to get close. That would have given her time to search for a way out. But calling her aunt, grandmother, was a punch to the gut. Her efforts were heartlessly denied. As a Paragon she had never known this level of humiliation. What woman didn’t take pride in her appearance?

Lan Qing didn’t impose any constraints on her, but regardless she couldn’t leave this place. Through the mark Lan Qing
instantly knew everything she thought, said and did. Even if she left the planet she couldn’t be free from his control. Her life and death were in his hands and that was the end of it.

Chapter 657: The Proposal

“You came?”

“I did.”

The dry, somewhat aloof conversation was between two Reflections of Protogenia. The Epochrion regarded the Terminator warmly, while the Terminator’s face was less readable.

“Huan Xue… I feel regret. For the first time in my life.” The Terminator said softly.

The Epochrion paused. Was this the same strong, inflexible man she once knew? In all this time she never thought regret was part of his vocabulary.

The Terminator’s dark and creviced features broke into a small smile. “I’ve felt it ever since you left. I regret giving up so much of a normal life for power. But there’s one thing I couldn’t cut out – feeling. I realize now that you’ve always had a special place in my heart, but I never felt I was good enough for you.”
He spoke frankly, holding nothing back. At their age and station they didn’t need to be coy. He wasn’t telling her this because he wanted something.

Conflicting emotions trilled through the Epochrion’s eyes, and she sighed. “Davis, you’re a good man. Honest, determined. Pursuing your goals is nothing to regret. The situations life put before you left you few choices, but you did the best you could and became a national hero. You have always been a close friend, a brother. That will never change. As I told you when I left the Conclave, no matter what happens you will never be my enemy. These last years you’ve have to shoulder incredible burdens. You must allow yourself time to relax sometimes.”

The Terminator chuckled wryly. “I’m afraid I’ll have to rest when I’m dead.”

She helplessly shook her head. “You’ve weighed yourself down with so many shackles. This is for you.” She produced a glimmering vital crystal and handed it to him.

He gathered it with a nod. “I’ll have my people send over a Capital ship.”
But the Epochrion shook her head. “No need. This is a gift from me. After all the years you looked after me, it’s the least I can do. I hope it can help heal you.”

“I can’t accept such a gift without payment,” he replied. “Besides, the politicians will find out and grow suspicious I’m sure. We should pay, and I will. You know, although you might not believe it I hope to see a prosperous East. We will need everyone to face the alien threat. The politicians don’t seem to understand that resisting destruction is the top priority. The aliens aren’t just bearers of vital crystals.”

Admiration was plain on her face. “As clear-headed as ever.
I’m glad you understand.”

“Anyway, a transaction isn’t representative of our friendship,” he continued. “And who knows, maybe if this crystal heals me I will be worthy of you. Perhaps by then you’ll want me in the Avenue, and maybe I won’t turn the offer down.”

“This will never happen!” There was a flash of silver light. Suddenly, another figure appeared beside the Epochrion – the Wine Master. The Cosmagus’ face was a thunderhead.
“Huan Xue will be my wife, and no one will take her from me.” The Wine Master’s voice was fierce and aggressive.

A forced smile spread across the Terminator’s face. “Is that so? I see no husband – only a coward.”

“You!” The Wine Master’s anger flared. This man was a rival both politically and for Huan Xue’s affections. He found it difficult to contain his temper.

The Terminator continued, unperturbed. “Am I wrong? What has stopped you from plainly stating your love? You expect results without the work? If I were you I would have gone to the Conclave years ago to seek out the one I loved, no matter the odds. There are no excuses in the face of true love. But what did you do? I have never believed emotions to be unchangeable. Time and age change all things, psychology included. In all this time you have refused to change, to try, because you fear failure. Is this not cowardice? Is this not selfishness?”

The Wine Master’s breathing was quick with anger. He fixed the Northern Paragon with burning eyes and waves of protogenia pulsed from him.
The Terminator broke into laughter. “You may be a coward but you have a conscience. You’re single-minded. Your heart’s been unchanged all these years. My blessings to the both of you, then. But I warn you, if she ever comes back to me and the Conclave, I will never let her go again.” He ended his reproaches there, and left the two of them alone.

The Wine Master blinked, stunned. The Terminator’s sudden shift in mannerism threw him. He was hard and composed, but suddenly gave in. But he turned his focus to the Clockmaker. Her feelings were most important.

She looked back at him with a faint smile touching her lips.
The Wine Master awkwardly spoke. “I’m sorry, just then…”

She gently shook her head. “I liked seeing the bad side of you.
A pleasant break from the norm, don’t you think?”

The Wine Master didn’t know how to respond. “I…”

She stopped him with a chuckle. “He knew you were listening.
He said those things on purpose, he knows how I feel.”
The Wine Master’s face became deep red as he realized he’d been fooled by the Terminator. He was so incensed that he couldn’t see the truth. The perils of a heart in chaos!

The Clockmaker stepped forward, and the Wine Master instinctively stepped back.

“Did you mean what you said?” She asked.

“What part?” He stuttered.

She stared into his eyes. “It sounded like you wanted to propose! I’m an old woman, I can’t wait forever.”

Finally the Wine Master realized what was plain in front of his face. He smiled. “True. It was all true. Marry me, Huan Xue. I will be good to you, you’re the only woman I’ve ever loved.”

“Prove it,” she replied.

With a smile the Wine Master flicked his wrist, and a ring appeared cradled in his palm. It was lavender hue, and its
faceted surface sparkled prettily. It was the picture of grace and dignity. It was a power gem, masterfully crafted.

“I remember you like purple. I made this myself, little by little, with my own hands. I did not use my Discipline. I finished it a long time ago and have fantasized about putting it on your finger ever since. Will you give me the chance to make this fantasy a reality? If you do, it will make me the happiest man in all the universe.”

As he spoke the Paragon held the ring aloft in both hands and dropped to one knee before her.

As she looked down on him she bit her lip. Her smile was gone, replaced with a mixture of joy and anticipation.

This was the day they’d been anticipating for so, so long.

“It took me so long to come to my senses, you’ve had to wait all this time. I’ve wasted the spring of our lives, but I hope it isn’t too late.” The Clockmaker presented her pale, delicate hand to the Wine Master. A comforting white light enveloped them. Time seemed to slow to a crawl. The two looked lovingly at each other as the Wine Master slowly slipped the power gem
ring onto her finger.

ζ

The Auction was more successful and impactful than anyone would have dreamed. Now that it was over, Skyfire Avenue was abnormally rowdy. Word had gotten out that the black market had a few crystals to sell. Since the crystals came from the Avenue itself, no one was going to corroborate these rumors. However when the first crystal appeared that was proof enough.

A pale blue light swirled around Lan Jue as he opened his eyes. He looked like an azure crystal statue. His skin was clear as glass and the blood pumping through him was plain to the eye. Although the energies radiating from him weren’t strong, they bore a unique quality. His appearance wasn’t frightening, what was frightening was the aura around him.

In the center of his chest, his diamond-shaped Core glittered with a faintly discernable light. Threads of silvery light embraced it. Though the immortal qi was fluctuating and unstable, it gave the sense of flowing through his whole body.

It was done. Finally, after so many days of training, the
evolution of his Discipline was complete. The yin and yang lightning was joined, thick with the marvelous powers of the thunder essence and immortal qi. Lan Jue’s powers had undergone a complete transformation.

A dual-natured lightning was a rare and marvelous thing in the world of Adepts, but Lan Jue’s powers had risen to a whole new level. It went beyond his own comprehension, meaning only once he’d broken through to Paragon could he use it to its full potential.

The Chinese call the ring finger ‘the nameless finger,’ I’m not sure why.

Chapter 658: Aliens Reemerge!

The pulses of thunderbolt power that came from Lan Jue had undergone a clear, qualitative change.

The Driver, seated across from him, opened his eyes. He sounded upset. “I’m not there yet. I still need time.”

“About half a month,” Lan Jue replied. “You’ve been working hard, don’t push yourself too much.”

The Driver had worked harder than every over the last stretch of time. He’d been tirelessly cultivating in attempts to catch up with Lan Jue and transform his Discipline. However, there was an enormous difference in potency between him and the Jewelry Master. It would take time to close that gap. Grasping this opportunity would take time to fully realize.

That is not to say the Driver had not sensed progress, he had undergone his own significant transformation. He had reached the peak of ninth level, and suspected that he could breakthrough to Paragon once the evolution of his Discipline was complete. However, hoping and achieving were different beasts. There were at least ten times as many peak-ranked Adepts as there were Paragons in the universe. Breaking
through was a rare happening.

Lan Jue enjoyed most of the thunder essence’s benefits, but some small amount of the immortal qi contained inside was transferred to the Driver. It had a metamorphic effect, however the Driver adhered to Lan Jue’s suggestions and restrained the growth of his powers. He intended to temper his abilities as much as possible, and shore up his foundation. It was a long and grueling path.

“Alright, I’ll head back. I need to consolidate my Discipline.” Lan Jue stretched and rose to his feet. The crystalline quality gradually disappeared from his flesh. The waves of energy from him also became gentler and more subtle.

By the time his feet touched the ground he was back to normal, and his powers were once again contained within. Now that the conversion of his Discipline was complete, he was a conduit of yin-yang lightning. In other words, he was All- Heaven lightning. It was sure to substantially speed up absorption of the thunder essence. The power within the essence was concentrated, and very pure. In all this time he’d only managed to take in one-tenth of it. However, even that little bit was incredibly potent.
The immortal qi was another matter. It wasn’t only useful to him, but to Qianlin as well – even more so. The Queen of Heaven abilities were inherently rich with congenital qi, so although her consciousness had yet to return, her powers felt like a fairy goddess.

Beep! Beep! His communicator called for his attention. He peeked at the screen and saw it was Lan Qing calling.

“Hey, brother!” He said by way of greeting.

Lan Qing’s tepid voice replied. “Where are you?”

“I’m headed back to the surface shop,” he said.

“I’m going there now.”

When Lan Jue got back to the jewelry store, Lan Qing was already waiting for him.

“What’s the rush?” Lan Jue asked in curiosity.
Lan Qing’s face was downcast. “A planet in Eastern space has reported an alien sighting. I have to go.”

Lan Jue was shocked. “Which one?” If it was an Eastern planet, did this mean the aliens had chosen them to begin their invasion?

“Lyr,” he answered.

When he heard the name, Lan Jue’s heart sank. Lyr, former home of the Bookworm. It was a planet covered in oceans that were teaming with life. Lyr University had a long history of rivalry with the NEU. More importantly, it was where the Tears of Neptune were mined – items integral to the extraction and purification of the vital crystals. If the aliens were there, it meant…

Lan Qing’s troubled voice continued. “We can’t underestimate them, the aliens may very well be smarter than we are. Come with me, now isn’t the time to mobilize An Lun. Is the Star Division ready for deployment?”

“Let me check with the Wine Master for instructions,” he said. The communicator didn’t even have a chance to ring
before the Wine Master answered.

“Jewelry Master, aliens have been sighted on Lyr. The soldiers garrisoned there have already engaged the enemy, but they need reinforcements. We can respond quickest, so prepare Star Division for dispatch.”

“I heard the news from General Lan,” he said. “We’ll leave as soon as we can. I’ll tell the Division to get ready. You stay here and look after the Avenue, and make sure this information doesn’t get out. We mustn’t let the West or North know. We’ll handle it.”

The sudden tense situation shattered Lan Jue’s calm. He was ready for action. He fired off a series of orders through his communicator, and half an hour later Zeus-1 was tearing through the atmosphere toward Lyr.

Skyfire wasn’t far from Lyr. Majesty was further away at An Lun but at top speed it would arrive at roughly the same time. An expedition cruiser was with Zeus-1 as well – Lan Qing’s transport. He was bringing an elite squad of mecha pilots.

Lan Jue connected with his brother’s ship through the
bridge’s main controls.

“General Lan, please share the information you’ve received with us.” The two brothers faced each other through the screen.

“I’m sending it now,” he answered.

For this excursion only Su Xiaosu of Zeus’ Amazons had come along, the others remained behind to look after the stores. They knew the market better than anyone.

Besides Xiaosu, the Driver had also come along. The Wine Master, Clockmaker, Keeper, and Bookworm had all remained on Skyfire. Lan Jue also didn’t trouble his parents. Preliminary reports suggested the invaders were typical breeds, none of the stronger ones. There was no need to bother the two strongest humans alive. Lan Jue and his brother had also sensed a problem the last time their father took to the field. They had an unspoken agreement not to trouble him unless necessary.

The Accountant wasn’t on Zeus-1 because he had been left on An Lun to iron out their plans for electronic warfare. He’d taken well to the role, and in fact was an entirely different person than when Lan Jue had first met him. Now he was one of the
most important people in the Division. Since Xiaosu had returned to Skyfire with Lan Jue, he had been left in charge of the Division together with the Bartender and Coffee Master.

Lan Jue had told them about the crisis on Lyr moments after he’d learned about it. Majesty was already on the way.

A data upload began. It wasn’t much, just a few images. There were some surface photos and satellite images, and that was all. Su Xiaosu opened the files so Lan Jue and the Driver could examine them.

Judging by the satellite imagery things didn’t look too bad. There were a few small splotches of purple here and there, but nothing dramatic. After so many encounters they knew the aliens tactics. The more their caustic power covered the planet, the more dire the situation. So far it wasn’t an occupation.

The environment was different on Lyr than it was on Taihua, the last Eastern planet visited by these creatures. Taihua was a tourist planet, its population was few and far between to protect the planet’s environment. Lyr, though, was a colonized planet. Although it had a relatively small landmass, there was a stationed military presence. The closest interstellar fleet had already responded.
Images from the planet’s surface revealed that the aliens were coming from the sea. Once they made it on land they began to terrorize the population.

“What do you think? You have a plan?” Lan Qing asked.

Lan Jue studied the pictures with furrowed brow. “On the surface it doesn’t look bad. Typical invasion procedures, from what we’ve experienced. It starts with a progenitor. It infiltrates the planet and starts to gather vital energy to create its soldiers. They in turn spread out and gather more energy for the progenitor to continue the cycle and grow stronger. So long as the progenitor remains alive and life remains, it’s soldiers never stop. If there are first responders left they should use their most sensitive sonar scanning systems to sweep the ocean beds.”

Lan Qing responded. “They have sonar, but you know that Lyr’s oceans are full of power gems. The magnetic fields they release will interfere with their systems. They won’t be able to get any accurate readings. Right now the soldiers are busy trying to stem the tide of creatures coming from the ocean. They’re holding, but the corruption is spreading fast. A fair amount of area has already died. Transport ships have already begun evacuating civilians and two small fleets are on their way. In six hours they will have a few mecha units to shore
them up until we arrive.”

“Alright. We proceed full speed ahead and try to get there as soon as possible.” Speed was the best option. Thankfully the East was ready for war, so their response was quick. If they hadn’t been waiting for it, it could have taken them three days to muster a defense.

Chapter 659: Fight to the End

Zeus-1 darted ahead at full speed with Lan Qing’s expedition ship close on its heels. They kept pace with one another, steady at FTL travel.

ζ

Lyr!

“The mecha department is ready to engage, weapons are being distributed. Those who didn’t want to remain behind have left with the evacuation ships.” The Dean of Lyr Han Ruchao sounded hoarse and tired, but his eyes showed a steely determination

Lyr University was one of the preeminent institutions of higher learning on the East, famed for producing quality soldiers and especially mecha pilots. But the aliens at had arrived suddenly, without warning, giving them no time to prepare. The initial order was for a full retreat, these students were considered the future of the East. Those who chose to evacuated with the civilian elderly, women and children. Nearby military garrisons sent transport ships to facilitate the evacuation.
But the university was simply too big. The four ships were only able to evacuate six thousand people at a time, but the school’s population was closer to fifteen thousand – they weren’t getting everyone in a single trip. Yet, the military had no solution to this problem, all their other transport ships were tied up protecting the citizens of lyr.

Their scramble could be understood. This was the first time since the East acquired Lyr that such a catastrophe has happened on the planet.

The sports field of the university was thick with people, some students and some teachers. The class leaders stood in front of their groups.

In this critical time all students, good or bad, stood calm and collected in the face of danger. They did not run or lose their heads, something that could not be said for the routed masses outside the university walls. Those same walls bristled with defensive installations to protect from alien incursion.

As a military school they were stocked in the full gamut of traditional gear, except for weaponry. Those were provided on a temporary basis by the army. The teachers and students all had some level of combat experience, so in a time of crisis they
became reinforcements. All of a sudden they found themselves on the front lines, but it also meant no one was coming to save them. Hold and retreat when able, that was their only option.

“Dean, all of our instructions are willing to stay behind. They want to live or die with their students.” The clear, strong voice came from a gallant-looking instructor. It was none other than the Bookworm’s disciple, Su He!

After Su He’s break he’d returned to the university as a teacher. His transformation from haughty adjunct to calm professor was clear to everyone. He had Lan Jue to thank for that, as well as the Bookworm’s teachings.

Han Ruchao’s burning eyes fixed upon Su He. He was the school’s best mecha pilot, and a ninth level Talent. His determination was like a shot of adrenaline.

“I’m staying, too!” From among the students, one of them shot their hand high up in the air.

The Dean had hid nothing from his charges, they all knew only six thousand people could leave at a time. The rest would have to hold on for the next round. When that was, though, no
one knew. The closest planet was still a ways away.

The student who raised their hand was one of the few who’d attended the sparring competition at the NEU, Xiao Han. He was much more composed now than he had been. The loss he’d suffered didn’t break him, instead it served as motivation to get better. Over the last year his progress had been phenomenal, under the tutelage of Su He.

“And me!” Several more hands joined his, lifted high as desperate enthusiasm swept through the crowd. Lyr’s training field was abuzz with anticipation.

As he looked at their eager faces, the passion in their eyes, tears blurred Han Ruchao’s vision. For many years he had been Dean of this school, giving his energy toward its progress. He knew he had his problems – he was arrogant, headstrong, prideful, and most importantly he wanted to win. But today, that pride was warranted. That pride made him stand tall.

Despite his shortcoming he had molded students who did not back down in the face of death. Dauntless they thrust their hands toward the sky, ready to defend their school to their final breath.
Nor was it just students from the mecha department putting their lives on the line. Airship trainees and support department students were just as fervent in their desire to fight. None of them wanted their companions to see them as cowards. Their blood boiled for the chance to prove their worth.

Han Ruchao’s voice quavered with emotion as it passed through the microphone in front of him. “Thank you… thank you all. You should all be proud of how you were raised. Children. You bring glory to the school. I have spent my life in pursuit of making quality members of society, and today I see it was all worth it. No matter how strong or how fierce these creatures are, as your Dean I swear to be the last one to leave. Now, I want you all to listen closely to our plan. Students from the mecha department will suit up, find a weapon and get ready for battle. Class leaders will arrange you into squads and prepare you to face the enemy. Airship pilots, those from the mecha maintenance department, female students and female teachers will evacuate. That’s an order. Teachers, make sure it gets done.”

“In times of crisis we need order. Soldiers, toe the line! Execute!” The Dean’s powerful voice thundered across the field. IT curtailed the dangerous levels of excitement agitating the students.
Su He stood nearby, silently nodding his head. When it was needed Han Ruchao kept level-headed, despite his own passions. His orders were simple and to the point. These children were the future of Lyr, of the university. Until the ship returned they had to get to safety.

Students from the mecha department raced for the mecha warehouse where the suits were stored. They were training suits but they were better than nothing. At least with the weapons provided by the army they could fight back.

As the largest university on Lyr they were stocked with over a thousand mecha suits. As training mechas their cockpits were also designed to fit two pilots – a teacher and student. That was enough for two thousand, while the remainder took up overwatch positions along the perimeter walls. This would at least give them a defensive position as they fought the aliens.

Han Ruchao’s breath was quick, his heart raced. He had never been in a situation like this before, but as a learned man he was clear-headed enough to manage the crisis. He was the backbone of this effort, and could not break. If he did, they were lost.

They had lost communication with the outside world, and getting word from anywhere was almost impossible. The Dean
couldn’t know if or when the military would come to their aid. In the last correspondence, all he’d learned was the aliens were fierce, and weren’t stopping.

Just then, an explosion shook the university walls. A plume of smoke arose in the distance.

Han Ruchao narrowed his eyes. It was coming from the front lines. Did the enemy already break through?

“Quickly! Get those transport ships off the ground, quick as you can! Professor Su He… where is Professor Su He?” He shouted into his communicator, using it as a walky-talky.

Su He’s calm voice replied. “I’m on the field. I’ll be there in a moment.

A few moments later a mecha descended from overhead with Su He at the controls.

“Professor, I need you to scout out the situation outside. If the aliens have broken through, I want you to coordinate our defense.” Han Ruchao knew he wasn’t a military commander.
Having Su He assume control would serve better.

Su He’s voice was low and solemn. “I already went to look. They’ve broken through the perimeter line outside of the city. They’re pouring through the streets. We need to prepare to hold them. The military has started to move evacuees toward us.”

Han Ruchao felt his heart skip a beat. Suddenly his school was the most well-defended location on Lyr. It made sense to bring the vulnerable here. However that made keeping order worrying. With enemies at the gates, the situation was deteriorating rapidly.

“What are your suggestions, professor?” He asked.

“If the situation comes to it, we hold,” he replied. “We can’t break, no matter what. The moment they get through we’re done for. Please give the order for everyone to follow my lead. I’ll do everything in my power to protect the university.”

“Very well. Everyone will listen for your commands, myself included.” Han Ruchao answered without hesitation.
Su He burst into action. He knew more about military matters than the dean, and as a god-ranked pilot his reputation was second to none. The best scoring students in the school were his personal charges. Under his direction they quickly formed a defensive line; laser rifles to punish the creatures from afar, and mecha units as support. Other defenses were established along the walls as back-up.

They watched civilians swarm their way from the ravaged city. The university doors were left half-open so they could be closed again quickly. Six classes – over three hundred students, including fifty mechas – ushered the civilians inside. They were put in classrooms or out in the field, wherever they could fit. With the addition of city police, they managed to keep order.

In China classes are organized differently than in the US, for instance. Students remain in the same class and teachers rotate out. Each class has a ‘head teacher’ which can be a teacher of any subject, who is responsible for the overall discipline and performance of their class.

Honestly I don’t know why he singled out women. Women and girls undergo the same mandatory military training as boys when they’re in middle school and high school, presumably for reasons such as this. Well, not aliens, per se, but you know.

Chapter 660: Fight, Lyr!

Flashes of purple flickered incessantly on the horizon. Booms and smoke rose as buildings fell. Roars, explosions, collapse… they all clashed together in a cacophony of terror.

Su He stood at the top of the clock tower, staring into the distance. High though he stood, his heart felt like it had sunk into the ground below. As temporary commander of the defenses he was meticulous in preparation, but he knew if the soldiers couldn’t hold the aliens back the students didn’t stand much of a chance.

They’d come too quick, too fierce. The world was swallowed by a toxic purple cloud that came on the heels of the alien warriors.

Su He heaved a sigh, squashing his own anxieties. Memories of a blue mecha darting through the jungle swam up to the front of his mind. Holographic recordings of scores of enemies being felled, and scores of lives being saved flashed behind his eyes.

Lan Jue, everything you did I can do, too. Or maybe I can’t, and this will be my last stand. But if it is, I’ll make sure the aliens pay dearly.
Every moment he watched the purple light crept closer.

“Everyone, prepare for battle.” Su He calmly gave the order from his vantage.

“Classes one, two and three prepare. We have aliens coming in from one o’clock. Hit them with laser fire. Mechas, ready your weapons.”

The inevitable clash with the aliens frightened the students.
Behind stoic faces and metal breastplates their faces were pale.

Aoooooohh–! A lumbering beast heaved into view. It looks like a tortoise, with a body ten meters long and a thick shell on its back. In contrast to its likeness, though, it moved very fast on legs thick as verti-cars. Its whole body flickered purple as it bore down on them.

“Fire!” Su He shouted.

The students were nervous, but the bearers of the heavy weaponry were the best the school had to offer. They obeyed orders, and knew how to use the guns. A wall of shimmering
laser light erupted from the university’s walls and rained destruction on a large swath of land before them. The creature responded by reeling back and deflecting the shots with its shell. However the assault proved to be too much and the creature was blasted away.

They beat it back! A cheer rang out among the students. But it only lasted a moment when suddenly their cries caught in their throats.

Ten more purple figures appeared on the horizon, each one different from the last but all looking like corrupted marine animals. Looking upon them struck fear into the hearts of the human defenders, but most frightening of all was the creature soaring overhead. A great and terrible bird was headed right for the school interior.

“Ignore the sky, fire at will. Don’t give them an inch of ground.” He gave the order and launched himself into the air.

His mecha picked up speed, the wind whistling around its sleek frame. He blazed as brightly as a star as the distance closed between him and the alien bird. For half a second the sky was dazzlingly bright – in the aftermath tumbled two severed halves of the beast. Blood fell like rain onto the training ground below.
Su He’s mecha swung wide and returned to the clock tower.

The students and civilians looked on, witnessing for the first time the death of one of these nightmarish foes. Triumphant cries rose to meet their commander. Meanwhile the defenders along the walls managed to fend off the first wave of attackers.

But the aliens were strong, resilient. The turtle alien joined the others and pressed forward, acting as a shield so they could advance. Each lumbering step brought the hoard closer.

A line of mechas lines the balustrades, close-range fighters adept at tearing through whatever was in front of them. Another line of long-range mecha fighters and laser riflemen were at their backs.

Finally the beasts made their move. A frog-like creature leapt overhead and spat its tongue out. It blasted out with the force of a missile. The students responded with a hail of angry red laser fire.

Phomp! The frog screeched as its tongue was blown apart. The student who landed the shot was seated in a delicate-looking constructed mecha with a laser rifle twice its size. Its muzzle
glowed red with heat.

Xiao Han! The Pride of Lyr University!

Xiao Han raced forward even before the chunks of tongue could hit the ground. Nine of his fellow students charged at his side to meet the aliens on the field. Besides Xiao Han, the other mechas were piloted by instructors. They were the only members of the staff with real combat experience. Serving as vanguard, they lead the students in routing the first batch of foes.

Moral soared as student and teacher alike watched the aliens fall before them. Their concerted fire didn’t stop, though, only becoming more ferocious.

The line was holding, but Su He did not look happy. He knew from his scanners that the world around them was a sea of deadly purple. He couldn’t tell what was waiting for them within that caustic mist.

A hard light glinted in his eyes. They would fight to the last man, until blood soaked the earth. It was the only way!
The four transport ships bearing civilians and non-combat faculty lifted into the air, shooting into the distance. They bore the future of Lyr to safety before the aliens could surround them and cut off their retreat. Su He let himself breathe a little easier as he watched them go. At least some would live to see another day.

Now they just had to hold for reinforcements. From the appearance of the aliens to now, over a day had passed. The closest military installation had to be close. Only, Lyr was big, who knew how long it would take the soldiers to get to them. Their focus was the main alien force!

More aliens appeared within sight of the walls. Mechas and defensive gunners alike were immersed in frantic battle. Su He was forced to join the fray himself. Whenever a more powerful alien appeared, he was there to deal with it personally.

The initial fear and shock had begun to wear off, and Lyr’s students fell back on their excellent training. Empowered by their mecha suits the students and teachers met the alien attackers in a dazzling display of color and sound. Instructors lead them valiantly to destroy wave after wave of foes. The normal alien soldiers no longer posed a serious threat.
The fighting continued. Su He commanded  three  hundred suits in battle, and the rest remained behind to defend the walls. Every now and again students would switch out to charge their suits and rest while others took their place. Only in this way could they keep up the fight, because the aliens  weren’t stopping. Luckily LU was well-stocked with power gems which they used to keep the mechas in the fight.

Su He did not expect the students to perform so well. Inwardly he praised them all for their grit and determination. If they lived through this they would come away with more knowledge than six months spent in a classroom. The best way to motivate potential was a real life-or-death struggle.

Lyr city had already been thoroughly destroyed. As Lyr’s biggest city and its capital, it’d been the alien’s first target. The soldiers that had been posted there were all dead. If one could look down from above, all they would see was an expanse of purple.

The first wave of reinforcements had already arrived in planetary orbit three hours ago, but were searching for the progenitor. However, Lyr was so large and finding it proved difficult. At the same time more aliens were arriving from outer space to cut off the approach. Aid was locked out.
Time crawled one, one minute – one second at a time. Scores of aliens continued to barrage the school. Strong though these aberrant creatures were, they couldn’t hold a  candle  to  real alien life forms. However, they were exceptionally sensitive to the presence of vital energy. The moment they  sensed  the living, they charged in for the kill. The LU was among the last bastions of humanity, making it an enormous target.

These humans were not machines, and even machines needed to be recharged. As the battle stretched on to the two-hour mark, things began to get dangerous. Chief among them was they were running out of energy!

Although the school could boast some Adepts, they were few. Without the help of mechas, how could they stand against the unending alien assault?

“Professor Su He, we’re out of energy. We have an hour at most.” One of the teachers in charge of support gave Su He the news. His heart sank.

This was bad. Without energy what could they do? The fields outside of the school were teaming with aliens out for blood. If the mechas couldn’t hold them, they would be lost.
“Stop the laser cannons and save the energy for the mecha pilots,” he ordered. The aliens were better at defending against long-ranged attacks than close combat, but it left them open. He had to make the hard decision.

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