Skyfire Avenue Chapter 851-860

Chapter 851: Between Life and Death

In the midst of that gold and purple world a host of sparkling stars emerged, their light fighting past the haze. It was strange when the avatar’s overwhelming power became a backdrop for such a beautiful display.

Beams of starlight descended upon Lan Jue, making him appear more substantial and dignified. His aura surged as well to ten times its typical strength.

Even here – deep in enemy territory, captured in an avatar’s Domain, nearly lost in the immortal realm of these monsters – Lan Jue was able to summon the power of Boundless Starlight. Despite the terrible circumstance he was still successful in bringing his power to bear.

Nirvana!

But his level of strength went beyond Nirvana, especially in comparison to aliens of similar rank. Lan Jue had inherited the essence of the Middle Heaven Great Emperor of the North Pole of Purple Subtlety and thus the power of the stars themselves.
Light from these stars permeated all of the universe, even in the hellscape that was Monarch’s planetary body.

A small smile played on Lan Jue’s handsome features. Through the power of the stars Monarch’s influence was reduced.

A white light arose behind him. Within it were flecks of gold that hung in the air like sprites. The light of the Queen of Heaven. Qianlin was the first of her Discipline to reach such tremendous heights of cultivation, and as she broke through to Paragon her protogenia underwent another phase shift. Now her powers and Lan Jue’s joined, filling them with that enigmatic golden light.

Golden thunderclouds gathered overhead, and bolts of lightning began to flash through the Domain. The air was thick with the promise of a storm. Despite the avatar’s vast strength, even he couldn’t hide a slight anxiety from crossing his eyes.

“Is this the power of your immortals?” He asked with genuine curiosity.

Lan Jue could not answer. In fact, he’d never experienced the
realm of immortals and did not know what to expect. He became to approach the avatar, and with ever step the blaze of starlight that surrounded him increased. It shone out from points all over his body in patterns that echoes the stars overhead. Each passing moment saw his aura grow stronger.

If the Pharmacist’s Slaughter Discipline augmented her strength, this was doubly true for Lan Jue. He had fought back as hard as he could against the Violet Prince and Princess but had not combined his skills.

Now he channeled his Boundless Starlight Discipline inward, swelling his power to the upper borders of Nirvana. That was the limit, for any further increase would thrust him into the realm of the Infinite. At that point the dangers of universal protogenia were too great.

Lan Jue advanced upon the avatar with Captus raised, choosing to make the first move. His movements were slow for he was fighting against the planet itself. However the purple Domain of the beast gave way, moving before Lan Jue and his Banishing Blade in a wave, pushed away by his determined charge.

Monarch’s avatar watched him come and offered a small nod.
“Interesting. We did not believe your species could be this strong, much less amplify your abilities. The fact that you’ve dared to come here reveals that you are in possession of sensitive knowledge. Unfortunately for you, it will not be enough.”

As he spoke the avatar waved a hand, almost lazily. The waves that Lan Jue created were instantly calmed and the golden undertones gave way to an angry black that spread from earth to sky. Only the avatar himself retained that resplendent golden glow.

Lan Jue felt it acutely. Half a moment passed and suddenly the world around him was an inhospitable black hole of energy. Crushing pressure fell upon him from all directions and constrained the spread of Lan Jue’s Boundless Starlight. The ubiquitous light of those burning stellar bodies was being blotted out.

Monarch couldn’t stop the starlight entirely, but he could obscure and disrupt it. As it shone down into his Domain it was swallowed up, depriving Lan Jue of its aid.

Yet Lan Jue and Captus never stopped. They pressed ahead, slow but refusing to be denied. The reflected starlight coalesced
around the godblade, creating ripples. Beneath those ripples were voids of darkness that drank from reality around them.

The starlight was absorbed and became a part of the weapon.

Captus began to shine brighter and golden runes burned along its length. Even without the starlight Lan Jue shone like a beacon, an authoritarian blaze. The essence of the Emperor of the North Star emerged around him once again.

Lan Jue was one with the will of the sword. For the first time he truly felt like the weapon was a part of him, inextricably bound to his mind and spirit. For the first time he felt capable of controlling the power within it. Captus’ influence was fed back into him, and in a sudden epiphany he understood the meaning of the runes on its blade.

Red light coalesced at the tip of Captus, gradually deepening to a rich crimson and eventually black. If the avatar’s Domain was an enormous black hole, then the darkness at the top of Captus was the singularity within it.

Captus moved ever forward. Small though the orb at its tip was, the sense of danger surrounding it was intense.
The Pharmacist, Occisus in hand, was right behind Lan Jue. Her Slaughter Discipline was different from before, forsaking its typical murderous style for a light and easy air. The light of Occisus even seemed to dim.

Her otherworldly weapon appeared for all the world like a normal sword, but the light in her eyes was anything but ordinary. They were filled with warmth, pain and hope. Her sword became an extension of her heart and soul, and all the conflicting emotions that roiled within her.

All three humans knew there was no room for leeway here. Holding back meant death – and not just for them, but possibly for all of humanity.

Right now, the Pharmacist’s heart was filled with the thought of her lost husband, filled with all the beautiful things life had to offer. She poured all of it into her sword.

Behind slaughter was new beginnings. Life followed death. It was similar in some ways to the Birth and Destruction Domain of her enemies, but in contrast to those monsters the Pharmacist was a human with emotion. Her life was filled with pure love and sadness. All of these emotions coalesced in the intention of her weapon.
At first the weapon appeared entirely normal, like any old iron sword. However soon the golden runes appeared along its length much like Lan Jue’s. They weren’t quite so clear as his, but glimmered with mystical power. There was no murderous sense, but the fear it inspired was palpable. Suddenly, the Pharmacist understood the essence of the weapon she had carried for so long.

Only Zhou Qianlin did not raise her sword. She floated like a kite behind Lan Jue, bathing the three of them in the light of her Domain. The surge of strength Lan Jue and the Pharmacist felt was a result of Qianlin’s abilities. Not only did it stabilize their Domains, but it amplified them – and further still, it deepened their comprehension.

Qianlin didn’t pay the avatar any mind. Lan Jue was all that filled her vision, her sole focus. The memory of the first time they met rose from the depths of her memory. She was dressed in her beautiful wedding gown, and he descended like an angel from the sky. He was resplendent in gold from head to toe and stole her away. He took her into his arms then – firm, decisive, strong.

Qianlin’s wedding had been a farce, organized by the Clairvoyant to spurn Lan Jue to action. But she had been uneasy. Of course she didn’t really like Richard, she never had.
Even back then there was some part of her that knew she had feelings for Lan Jue.

Perhaps it had started with curiosity. What sort of man was he that her sister loved him so deeply? Loved him so much that he was her last thought at the moment of her death? Was this man worthy of her?

Her body was given before an answer was received, much to her dismay. Yet afterwards she found she did not regret.

She still remembered his eyes on that day. She saw the pain that was writ deep in his soul that made her want to do nothing more than sooth him. That was the only time they were intimate, since afterwards their affections were blocked by the arrow of compassion.

Chapter 852: Hearts Beat as One

But while the arrow closed the door on their physical relationship, from that time on she’d felt him engraved deep into her heart. She burned with an internal fire, her heart thawed by the love she held for him. She forgot her pain as it was replaced by affection.

But it was bittersweet. She knew the love he had for her in their first meeting wasn’t hers, but Hera’s. Still she couldn’t help but be pulled in deeper. He seemed to have been imbued with some natural charm that just drew women to him.

This was proven when she saw so many beautiful women caught in his wake. But despite his wealth of choice Lan Jue was single-minded. It was part of what drew her to him.

Since then their tale had been written in the joy and pain they’d shared. However, looking back Qianlin’s fondest memories were of their time in the National Eastern University; her seated below as he lectured from a podium.

He was refined, courteous, suave, and witty… he shared a special sort of knowledge with her and her classmates. They couldn’t help but like him. Even Tang Mi was taken in by his
charm.

But he is my man.

As the words crossed her mind Qianlin’s heart filled with pride. Her mind turned again to other memories, painful memories not of when Lan Jue refused her but of the day they shared that special bottle of white wine. The day he professed his love.

That day it was she who turned him away. It wasn’t him or anything he did that inspired her to turn him down. It was her, the fact she couldn’t forgive herself for the deceptions she maintained. She did love him, but she couldn’t abide a relationship built on a lie.

Her liberation came at the edge of the Astral Phantom’s knife. In her willingness to give up her life for him, she allowed herself to accept their circumstance as well. Their love was pure.

For a long time she was lost in a hazy world, on the edge of life and death. But when she came to everything was perfect – perfect but for one regret. She lamented over her stubborn determination, making such a big deal over something they
could have put aside much earlier. If she had been forthcoming earlier perhaps they would have had more time. She felt like she missed out on any number of happy days with him – a beautiful if painful thought!

When the aliens appeared and began their aggressions Lan Jue became busy with the business of saving humanity, but they still ended up together. Now they faced a mission that may very well mean their death, but they faced it together. He didn’t explain everything to her either, but she was happy to be by his side.

She was happy because she knew she was part of his life, that he understood her. If he died she would refuse to live on. Now that they were together any alternative was unthinkable. They would live or die as one. Their spirits would remain inexorably tied, forever.

As she pondered the breadth of their past, present and future, Qianlin’s spirit entered an extraordinary state. Her soul and Lan Jue’s joined into one. She did not raise Demortus but the connection she felt to her man was deeper than ever. They were a single entity – now, and always.

Two hearts beating as one!
Those five words rang Qianlin’s mind like a mantra. She found she liked them, they reverberated deep within her.

Something changed in the avatar. Monarch realized there was something he couldn’t simply grasp in the emotions of these three humans. None of them could match him in strength – not even close. What’s more they were caught in his territory. Still, there was some mystifying sense that there was something he could not comprehend.

To call it uncomfortable did not speak to the depth of his disquiet. If there was one thing he could not abide, it was a lack of control.

A turquoise light sprang up as Ultus appeared in the avatar’s hand. This creature was still just a doppelganger of Monarch’s power, yet still was different from the others Lan Jue had encountered. This avatar was more than just  a  copy  of Monarch. It was a piece of him – an important piece.

In order to prevent anything from interrupting their evolution, Monarch had left a portion of himself behind in the form of this doppelganger. It was the strongest of the avatars, unique, and in many ways it was much like the immortals from old human tales. However, in order to prevent universal
protogenia from destroying it, the avatars powers were constrained to the Infinite. Here within the protective embrace of Monarch’s true form the powers of the universe were halted.

In fact this avatar was stronger than Lan Jue or the others could know. Still, he summoned the Banishing Blade to help defend himself from the humans’ attack.

Ultus became a flash of lightning and lashed out toward Lan Jue and Captus. But as the points of the two swords met, the avatar sensed that a part of his own weapon was swallowed up in Captus’ charge.

Ultus was the keenest of the Banishing Blades, and in the old texts was called the all-conquering. But this clash between swords wasn’t one force smashing into another. Captus wasn’t a wall, it was a void.

Lan Jue came to a sudden stop, but his Boundless Starlight Domain reacted by exploding out in all directions. Light from his All-Heaven lightning painted Captus in electric blue. The weapon spat a coiling blast of energy at Monarch like a pair of lightning dragons.
The Harbinger Faerie and her legendary sword reacted in the same instant. Blue light was complimented by a streak of gold, and though the murderous aura of Occisus was not present an inscrutable power made Monarch shake.

He was forced to lash out with his other hand, punching toward the Pharmacist.

An outpouring of solidified energy smashed into Occisus, but much to his dismay it was easily cleaved in twain. The flood of deadly power split apart and rushed passed the Pharmacist on either said, harmlessly passing her by. Where he thought he could finish this foe off with a single punch, now she was nearly right on top of him.

Squelch! Suddenly the whole world around Lan Jue was an ocean of purple, assailed by a torrent of the alien’s Domain. The impossibly sharp intent of Ultus ripped through Captus and into his body. It was so intense it threw Lan Jue backward.

It was as Monarch said; at a certain point pure force could overcome anything. Lan Jue bore one of the strongest weapons in the universe and understood its secrets, but there was simply too large a gap between his strength and that of the avatar.
It was simply the Infinite he faced! Lan Jue was certain this monster’s power went beyond such a simple explanation. The Violet Prince also commanded the power of the Infinite, but if it was that creature he faced instead of Monarch overcoming Captus would not have been so easy – even if this was their home turf.

Qianlin, who had been right behind him, also felt the attack land. She and Lan Jue collided as they were forced back. Her left arm flung out and wrapped around Lan Jue’s neck, but both of them still held out their right hands in defiance, blades firm. A deluge of rainbow light was summoned that surrounded the two of them.

Qianlin and Lan Jue stared deeply at on another. They looked upon the swirling emotions hidden behind their eyes.

They smiled. Then, together, they thrust forward with their swords.

Two hearts beating as one!

Harmonious Swords gave way to a new name they settled on in this moment of pure connection. A spiritual connection, two
hearts beating as one! The light became a rainbow heading straight for Monarch’s chest.

It was more than their intent that was channeled through the swords. Lan Jue and Qianlin were one mentally, spiritually, even their Disciplines were completely integrated. The golden runes upon their blades burned as their hearts beat together.

This was the first time they used the paired sword fighting style since breaking through to Nirvana. Now it went beyond a tacit understanding they shared, it was true fusion.

You within me. Me within you.

Just as Monarch was preparing to turn on the Pharmacist, he sensed a power unlike any he’d experienced before. The beast was forced to face it, and deflected the Pharmacist’s attack with an absent-minded flick of his fingers. It was enough to cast the Harbinger Faerie away in a flailing heap. Monarch struck again with Ultus, this time holding nothing back.

Golden purple light replaced the turquoise glow of the sword. It was aimed at Lan Jue and Qianlin. The corrupted weapon rang with a sweet sound but never once did golden runes appear
upon its blade. It was nothing but pure force.

Ting! The crisp, ringing sound peeled through the area. Lan Jue and Qianlin shook, but only for a passing moment. They remained steadfast.

The light of their combined swords swallowed up Ultus’ power. Monarch’s face betrayed shock as he was forced backward. The power he faced was at once solid and disperse and had within it a dynamism he’d never felt before. It wasn’t just attacking his body, but his very soul.

The pain was excruciating, eliciting a long scream of pain. A flood of power swept across the area, nearly blowing apart Lan Jue’s Domain.

But Skyfire Avenue’s leader did not retreat. He was not pushed back. Together with Zhou Qianlin the two of them draw out a circle in the air with their swords.

Although the Taiji sword style didn’t possess the same spectacular abilities of the Harmonious Swords, it easily neutralized the effusion of power released by Monarch.

Chapter 853: Execution

The technicolor light blazed again and once again the two Banishing Blades thrust for their mark. A streak of white joined in after but was the first to come near Monarch’s avatar.

The doppelganger’s eyes were dual pits of rage. He never would have imagined these insignificant creatures were capable of constraining his strength. He responded with a cold grunt, and the golden-purple light living in his eyes flared. Ultus was raked cross-wise through the air before him, so thick with power it make his deep purple Domain rumble. Every ounce of his power seemed focused into the Banishing Blade and the wave of energy it released.

But the white light of Occisus would not be denied, and it bore down on the avatar with a dense and murderous aura. It was unaffected by Ultus’ strike, and the Pharmacist pressed forward even despite the very real possibility of destruction at Monarch’s hand.

Scorn was writ plain on the doppelganger’s face. In his view this insignificant woman would be swept away by the wave of energy. More threatening were the other two and their dual sword technique. They were the focus of his attention.
Drawing on his extensive combat experience with humans, Monarch estimated that Lan Jue and Qianlin, though strong, could not maintain such power for very long. This avatar’s power was obtained from the home worlds themselves and was near limitless. He only had to keep up the pressure and eventually the Paragons’ Domains would fail. Then, death.

But in truth Monarch’s hubris blinded him to the fact that Lan Jue and Qianlin’s combined might was indeed a match for his on. However his determination for the Pharmacist proved mostly true. Even before Occisus light could reach him, it was dispersed by the shimmering light from Ultus. She was like an infant trying to bring a sword to bear against an adult. An adult who wielded a legendary weapon, Ultus!

But the Pharmacist pressed on. The two swords were on the path to collision.

Then, in the moment before they struck Ultus’ inherent turquoise light erupted from deep within the blade. Its impossibly sharp nature coalesced into a whirlpool of power that tore apart the purple-gold aura that hung over it.

Clang! The two swords met and the ring of steel on steel hung in the air. For the space of a breath the avatar felt muddled, his
hand loosened, and in a flash of blue-green light Ultus stuck to Occisus. The Pharmacist pulled her arm back and disarmed her enemy.

The wave of power emitted from Ultus and cast by the avatar dispersed like leaves on the breeze. As his weapon was wrenched away a grotesque fissure split his body. His soul shook with the reverberating din of the swords’ collision.

And then the rainbow of color came crashing down upon him.

The power of the Harmonious Swords poured into him like a clay ox disappearing into the sea. Once it struck home, the dazzling colors vanished.

Reality warped sickeningly all around them, like a beast writhing in the throes of its demise. Then the rainbow light erupted from the avatar’s back and carved a path through the purple world behind it.

Reality fractured like a broken mirror.

Meanwhile Lan Jue and Qianlin had arrived before the avatar,
in the wake of their mighty attack. Lan Jue released Qianlin and lashed out at his enemy. Parry and strike! Lan Jue brought the power of his Domain to bear in the Taiji attack, aiming for the doppelganger’s head.

Even up to this moment Monarch couldn’t shake his disbelief. He couldn’t comprehend how it was he was disarmed, or how it managed to shed his power so easily. He was nearly an immortal, but the sword denied him!

Conditions changed quickly in the heat of battle. However much the avatar refused to believe it, the truth would not be denied.

Shhhhck! Monarch’s avatar dropped its head. A streak of electric blue light carved a path from his crown to his groin and then, in an explosion of light, the avatar was no more. Only a glittering golden-purple vital crystal remained. An  invisible force started to draw it away.

Clang! It didn’t get far. The Pharmacist appeared to block its path and batted the crystal back toward the others with the flat of Occisus’ blade.
Power roiled behind Lan Jue’s eyes, and his Domain concentrated around them. He reached out and from the palm of his hand shone a universe of stars. Its light hung over the crystal and drew it into his grip, smooth as water.

“Go!” An urgent voice cried out to them from within Ultus.

Lan Jue didn’t dare hesitate. He took Qianlin’s hand and together they reached out once again with their swords. The rainbow light of the Harmonious Swords cut open a path for them to escape.

Once the avatar was lain its Domain began to collapse. The world of purple bucked and shook, eventually changing back to the misshapen landscape that was Monarch’s body.

But things had changed. Lan Jue could feel a vast and angry energy bearing down on them. Clearly Monarch knew something had gone wrong and aiming to intercept them.

Now was the time to flee, as fast as they could. Lan Jue believed the avatar was right, and Monarch’s attention had been focused on joining with Europa until this moment. Attempting to destroy the planet now was unwise if not
downright futile. They had to go. Recovering Ultus was already a great success. Seen another way, if they’d had a chance to destroy the planet Ultus would not have suggested they leave.

The ray of rainbow light tore a path through the purple world, severing the walls of the undulating vessels like paper. They could do nothing to impede the protogenia-imbued attack, though the torrent of power Lan Jue felt coming their way certainly could.

However Lan Jue and Qianlin together commanded as much power as an Infinite-level Paragon. What’s more they were the bearers of the Banishing Blades. Between Captus’ reality- rending abilities and Demortus’ ubiquitous  presence  their escape would not be denied.

The Pharmacist stuck closely behind. The three humans raced for the relatively safety of space as fast as they could.

ξ

The light of a thousand golden stars appeared in the sky, and the dense reality the Prince was caught in began to break apart. However, so long as that man knelt nearby the Violet Prince
didn’t dare make a move. He feared the opposition of a man on his proverbial deathbed.

He could not comprehend why this human would do what he did, knowing that the universe would exact a toll. Still it filled him with a peculiar sense of respect. This human was willing to battle against his own instincts of survival for the betterment of his species. Jue Di could have chosen to live forever as a part of their immortal pantheon, but instead he chose death. Human priorities confounded him.

As the beast looked on he grew calm. After all, the Prince was a product of Monarch himself, a true heir. He was familiar with their evolutionary process and precisely what it would take. Even locked within this human’s Domain he could sense that the home worlds’ process was nearly complete. The humans could delay him, but only temporarily. Once he was free they would not be able to break the aliens’ line of defense, even despite their worthy fighters. Without this man,  their strongest, the humans had no one who could stand against him.

All he had to do was wait.

Clang! There was a cacophonous rattle like the. The bronze light surrounding Jue Di faded away. And then, so did he.
A single beam of dark golden light rose toward the heavens. It flickered weakly, and then was gone. The Prince saw that it was the last remaining light from the human’s weapon.

He had wanted to take that golden staff as his own, but he was in no rush. For now he would be content with the destruction of the human race. Afterwards there would be time to discover what had become of this tool of destruction. He suspected it would be quite useful.

Once Jue Di’s Domain was gone, the Prince and his cohorts reappeared in the battlefield. In a hundred seconds the situation had changed dramatically. He suspected that would be the case, but the Prince was still filled with anger and indignation once he saw how bad things had become.

The left flank was hardly worth mentioning. Under sustained assault from the armada it had been steadily pushed back. About forty percent of his forces were destroyed. Luckily these lesser creatures were possessed of only rudimentary intelligence, otherwise they would have been routed long ago.

The condition of the horde’s right flank surprised the Prince.
Poseidon in its human form, with Middle Heaven at its side, were slaughtering his soldiers with wild abandon. Scores of alien fighters broke against the bastions like waves against a mountain side. A third of his people had been cut down, and that number was quickly rising.

Chapter 854: Breaking the Blockade

Poseidon continued to punish the alien horde in its mecha form. Its enormous mechanical body was a terrible weapon of war, compounded by the golden trident it bore. Wherever it pointed, the enemy was smashed. They had no means to fight back, and could only slow the monstrous bastion down with overwhelming numbers.

“Why won’t you die!” The Violet Prince howled. The Princess blade in his hand shook as he swiped it toward the distant bastion.

A sonic boom of purple-golden light issued forth. It began as a slash several meters long but quickly swelled as it raced through space. By the time the swipe reached Poseidon it had stretched to several thousand meters across. It was so imposing it seemed capable of cleaving the whole universe in two.

Poseidon was unconcerned by the rapidly approaching attack. It raised its trident in response and replied with a horizontal blow of its own.

Rrrrriiipp! A strange and uncomfortable sound arose as the two attacks met. Golden light ran up and down the length of the
trident and became areoles of color. They neutralized the Prince’s assault.

The alien general stared in a moment of surprise. Was this not one of their technological weapons? The destruction he and the Princess could wreak was without question, even a bastion should be incapable of defending itself. The two of  them together could potential destroy whole planets.

And yet Poseidon and its trident neutralized their awesome power in a manner the Prince couldn’t fathom. It could only mean that the bastion’s weapon somehow contained its own special energy, or that it was a mystical artifact of some sort. Only, an artifact that was somehow reproduced to a hundred times its original size.

The other creatures around the Prince also moved to re- engage the humans. Without Jue Di to stop them they could unleash their savagery. Three of their number had been lost while locked in Jue Di’s Domain, but they still had the advantage of numbers.

A hurricane of energy swept across the battlefield, destroying scores of human ships. Even before the wrecked fleets cooled the horde’s right flank began to react. They pushed forward to
try and overwhelm the bastions and the remaining fleets were forced back while taking heavy casualties.

Until now the flow of battle had been firmly under Lan Qing’s control, but there was a near insurmountable difference in strength between the two sides. Whereas before the fight had managed some measure of organization, now the war collapsed into outright chaos. Both sides relied on sheer destructive power to keep themselves alive.

No matter who emerged victorious, both sides would pay dearly for it.

The Prince made no attempts to safe the left flank, it was all but fallen. Most of the human armada was focused there. His focus was the two bastions, especially Middle Heaven.

Were it not for that damn ship and its tricks, would he have lost so many soldiers? These humans were living on borrowed time, only capable of fighting back because the home worlds were busy with their evolution.

The Violet Prince charged into battle, ready to destroy Middle Heaven with extreme prejudice. But just as he was readying to
strike his head whipped to the side, casting his eyes toward the three planets. They were full of shock, outrage and disbelief.

In the distance he saw Monarch heave and shake. An atypical purple haze surrounded his father in uneven patches, followed quickly by a spear of rainbow light tearing through the atmosphere and into space.

Massive tentacles heaved from the surface of Monarch and gathered round the beam of light to snuff it out. But nothing seemed capable of stopping it as it continued its trek, heading right for the battlefield.

Through the Prince’s psychic connection with Monarch he could feel his father’s bilious anger. Then came shock as he reared his head back and bellowed into the darkness of space. All of the alien avatars and himself changed course, moving to intercept the rainbow light.

Lan Qing and his people – who had been ready to face their final moments – noticed something had changed. The admiral saw the change in Monarch’s surface and the streak of kaleidoscopic light. Two pieces of information that spoke volumes.
He immediately began shouting orders. On the left end of the battlefield the myriad Paragons broke off and headed for where the Prince and the light were destined to clash. Poseidon spun its massive girth and thrust its golden trident at a passing high- level alien avatar.

They had come to a point where the battle rested on a knife’s edge. Every moment counted. Although no one knew the implications of that light they knew it was key to victory.

An orb of dazzling light shot out from Middle Heaven and suddenly another figure appeared in space to join the battle. They burned a path toward the cluster of elite aliens like a shooting star.

The East’s super soldier, Peerless Light Emperor of Middle Heaven, the God of Wisdom. At last Admiral Lan Qing took to the field in this conclusive moment.

A similar flash of blue emerged from Poseidon headed in the same direction, following the line marked out by its massive trident. Hua Li, the true Poseidon, came to their aid.

From Tyrannosaurus there came an angry streak of red fire so
fast it was hard to follow. But discerning eyes might catch a glimpse of a deathly grey sword encased in fire. Any beast caught in its path was impaled and burned to ash before they knew what was happening.

Chu Cheng, the terrifying Hades, was coming to lend his strength!

Until now the three men had been barred from joining in. They had been required to remain behind and command troops. But now their brother had returned to them, bearing the very thing that could win them victory over the alien menace. Nothing would stop them from coming to his aid.

Humanity’s armies and starships were no longer the priority. The fight had come down to an all-out brawl between the strongest each side could throw at one another. They had to fight passed the formidable evils barring Lan Jue’s return.

ξ

Once he fought his way out of Monarch’s sphere of control Lan Jue felt his whole body become lighter. Although the tentacles that barred his path had been mighty, they still fell
before the light of the Harmonious Swords.

He knew the home worlds’ evolution had to be nearing completely, otherwise their escape would not have gone so smoothly. Nearly all of the planets’ energies were within Europa, leaving little to block Lan Jue’s path.

In fact the aliens had made all the right choices, took all the right precautions. At any other time Monarch’s avatar would have been more than sufficient to end Lan Jue and the other interlopers. Their single failing was in understanding the human spirit, and its connection to the legendary Banishing Blades. Monarch never realized the treasure he’d captured.

Lan Jue knew it when he faced the avatar. Monarch revealed his error when he said the sword had led them there – not that they had come to recover it. The Pharmacist’s husband  had saved them, even in death, by concealing the truth of Ultus and what it was capable of.

For all of Monarch’s attentive plans and perfect defense, this was the one aspect he carelessly ignored.

The Pharmacist’s husband had become the spirit of Ultus. He
had bided his time, appearing to capitulate with the monsters until – at just the right moment – he dropped the façade. Ultus’ true power was released, shattering the avatar’s decisive blow and adhering itself to Occisus. Finally, it was able to break free.

The Pharmacist and her husband did not speak through the exchange, but they didn’t need to. They had been together for years before Monarch took him from her, their understanding ran deep.

Her plan had been simple. First and foremost was to disarm the avatar if at all possible and return with Ultus. If she could not, she had been willing to give her life so that Lan Jue and Qianlin could have a chance. She had long ago prepared herself for the possibility of dying for her cause – ever since she left for the Shattered Starfields. What did her life mean in the face of humanity’s destruction, if her sacrifice could recover Ultus and save their species?

In the end her decision had been the right one. It had been the moment her husband had been waiting for. Avatar’s strength was suddenly and substantially reduced, and opened itself up to destruction.

The sound the swords had produced was a part of their secret
power, an attack on the spirit of an enemy. This immortal-level assault had been discovered by the Pharmacist’s husband after becoming one with Ultus, and the knowledge was passed on to Lan Jue and Qianlin. They used it at just the right moment to constrain the avatar and destroy it with their Harmonious Swords.

Chapter 855: The Four Swords Gathered

Without the avatar to deter them, breaking passed Monarch’s blockade and back into space was easier than Lan Jue had anticipated. The opportunity had come largely because the planet was distracted with its evolution.

But it was more than that. Many factors went in to their success.

The Pharmacist eyes were red as she held Occisus and Ultus in her hands. One could only imagine the rush of emotions surging through her. Her husband had yet to speak with her but she could feel him – faint, but it was his essence! She had waited for so, so long to be near him again. The possibility of it was all that had kept her going.

At last the four Banishing Blades were reunited. They couldn’t employ the banishing stance yet – they had yet to unlock its secrets. However, the fact that the swords were gathered meant that humanity could battle the alien home worlds, even if they succeed in becoming immortal.

The Prince bore down on Lan Jue with an aura of biting cold. Star Division’s commander was not anxious, and in fact was
happy to see him come. The monster attacked at Monarch’s order, meaning the planets themselves could not.

Before Lan Jue would have been anxious, worried that he didn’t have the strength to protect himself from the Prince and his cohorts. However, after breaking through to Nirvana, and once he and Qianlin uncovered the secrets of the Harmonious Swords, those fears were allayed. Together, with the power of the Infinite at their fingertips, even the Violet Prince could not stop them from rejoining their friends.

Shock and anger alternated in the Prince’s heart. He knew what it meant the moment that human emerged from Monarch’s grasp. At the time he did not find it unexpected that the humans might try something, but he also knew how strong Monarch’s avatar was. It was his father’s final line of defense – strong enough to face the whole human armada by itself if necessary.

And yet, these three humans must have destroyed it.

Monarch spoke directly into his son’s mind, telling him the ominous sense that filled him now that the sword was gone. There was something special – something unique about the weapon that made it a danger. It had to be recovered at all costs.
The Princes new mission was to destroy these invaders and return the sword to their control. He could sense from Monarch’s urgency that this held precedence, even over destroying the human armada.

The two sides drew nearer. As the distance closed Lan Jue and Qianlin reached out with their swords and the rainbow light swelled. This time Lan Jue did not empower it with his Domain. It was too draining, so the harmonious swords alone would have to suffice.

Clang! The light of the harmonious swords and the Prince’s sabre met with an ear-piercing ring. The Princess-sword darkened, and the rainbow light was dispersed. Both sides met.

Lan Jue took the initiative. He reeled back with Captus, and with the power of the harmonious swords carved out a circle with the Taiji style.

The Violet Prince felt his opponent’s energies suddenly change, and suddenly there was too much to keep track of. Without foundation his body was immersed in the strange power, and his felt his own force diminished. The inscrutable pull of the circle Lan Jue carved out pulled him off balance.
Just then a cold and callous light rushed forth from behind the two humans. A murderous aura deep and indelible as the time crashed over him. His sword was caught in the traction of the harmonious swords, forcing him to punch with his free hand to try and get free.

Ka-cha!

The sound of the shutter was sharp in the vacuum of space. The Prince’s movements froze and he was stuck with his fist raised.

Occisus glinting point struck his shoulder

The Prince screamed, fighting against Luo Xianni’s power. He wrenched to the side just as Occisus strike arrived, causing it to glance off his shoulder. However the temporary delay was enough that Lan Jue, Qianlin and the Pharmacist could slip passed him. They shot into the distance as three streaks of light.

Luo Xianni appeared beside them, her face cold and drawn. Her pink camera was clutched in pale hands. When the Prince saw her appear she yelled in impotent rage.
Of course what followed was to be expected. There was a flash of pink, and the four of them were gone.

When they reappeared they were safely among the other Paragons.

There had been a reason for Jue Di’s instance that he fight these aliens alone. He forbade Luo Xianni from spending her energy because he knew she would need to bring Lan Jue and the others back safely. Only her interdimensional powers were strong enough to escape the clutches of the Prince.

Luo Xianni was forced to watch helplessly while the love of her life arose to immortality in order to delay and kill these monsters through his own powers, sacrificing his life.

The pain that ate at her was unspeakable. His Compliance Rod was strapped to her back, and though the weight of what it meant threatened to crush her she soldiered on.

The Paragons gathered around them, including Lan Qing.

The admiral immediately saw the two swords held in the
Pharmacist’s hands, and though his features retained their cool detachment there was relief in his eyes. He reached forward and gently laid a hand upon his mother’s arm. “Let’s go back.”

The hatred that consumed her for the Prince receded when she heard his soft voice. She wanted nothing more than to wring the life out of every last alien abomination, but she couldn’t forget the final promise Jue Di made her give.

ξ

“Xianni… I’m sorry. I have to do it.”

“Then let me go with you!”

“If it was just us I wouldn’t stop you. We would die facing them together, a fine way to go. But… but our children. If we both die, what will happen to them? A-Jue is on a mission that is more likely to see him killed than returned safely, you know this. You also saw how much this is destroying Lan Qing inside. Only A-Jue can do what needs to be done.”

“They’ve grown up, and now the fate of humanity rests on
their shoulders. If something happens to me you have to remain strong, at least in order to protect our children. Promise me!”

ξ

Luo Xianni raised her camera. As the soft pink light fell over the gathered Paragons a single tear rolled down her cheek. Chi Bupang! You bastard. Are you really going to abandon me?

A flicker of pink, and they were gone.

The Prince could only watch as they Lan Jue and the others were squirrelled to safety. He didn’t race after them because he’d felt the power of their harmonious swords. As the power headed for him he was filled with the uncomfortable suspicion that he could not win. It was unthinkable, but true.

After a moment of hesitation he called for the horde to withdraw. Monarch wanted him to recover that weapon, but in order to do so it looked like he would need to destroy the whole human army first. Even that would not be an impossible request but for the fact that the horde had been nearly decimated in their last exchange. Few were the aliens’ advantages now, and fighting through the strongest of the humans to recover the
sword looked to be more than troublesome.

For the time being it was more important to fall back and protect Monarch during his evolution. At least, as far as he was concerned.

The aliens fell back like a receding tide, but the human ships did not give chase or harass them. Instead they fell back into formation to assess the damage.

Though it was not decisive victory, the humans retreated from this battle triumphant. No fewer than a third of the alien horde had been destroyed as well as four of their elite. The Violet Prince, Princess, and the other four Infinite-level aliens remains, but most of their lesser Nirvana brethren were slain. Still they did not give chase.

“Admiral Lan, why don’t we pursue them? We’ve bled for an opportunity like this!” Kang Hui’s stern face was the first thing Lan Qing saw on his screens when the aliens began their retreat.

But after his outburst he saw the Paragons gathered in the control room. He saw their despondent expressions.
“Obey my orders,” Lan Qing reminded him coolly. “Return to Angel.”

“Retreat? Admiral Lan, are you crazy? If we retreat now –“ In his incomprehension his voice continued to rise.

Lan Qing fixed him with a cold, hard stare. “Admiral Kang. We have achieved the mission we set out to do. We can take this opportunity to pursue but we ultimately do not have the power to overcome their defenses. However we have succeeded in our main objective, and soon we will have a super weapon ready that will allow us to destroy these creatures once and more fall. What’s more we need to recover from casualties. Including his Majesty Jue Di. My father. He’s dead.”

When he said it all the strength drained out of him. Lan Qing, forever the stoic and emotionless, couldn’t keep the red from his eyes.

Kang Hui’s body shook. He hadn’t known. Everyone was busy with their sector, and the battle was chaotic enough when only one aspect was on your mind. Now he learned the fate of Jue Di.

He knew how important that Paragons was to everyone,
especially the army. He was as brilliant a tactician as his son and backed it up with incomparable power.

No wonder they were insisting on a retreat. Where their losses not enough already? Jue Di had fallen, given his life.

But as for that super weapon, what did he mean?

Chapter 856: Jue Di’s Essence

Kang Hui wanted to learn more about what happened, but he knew now wasn’t the time.

“Aye aye! We comply with your orders, Admiral.” He made no further fuss and cut the connection.

The control room was calm, and the only sound was Lan Qing giving his soldiers orders. The armada began to fall back while maintaining formation. They were heading back toward Angel.

The human forces considered this exchange a victory, but it didn’t come without significant cost. Battle damage reports quickly started crossing Lan Qing’s desk.

Drones from Middle Heaven and Poseidon suffered, with more than two thirds of their total number gone. Both bastions were running on minimum energy because their stores were almost entirely depleted. Poseidon wouldn’t be able to deploy its mecha transformation for at least half a month. It had also run out of all Soft Water bombs.

The greatest loss was the death of Jue Di.
He was the strongest human alive, master of the Infinite. Through his own power and sacrifice he struck down scores of monsters, and kept the alien elite busy while Lan  Qing decimated the enemy.

Even Lan Qing did not know Jue Di was planning to give his life in this way. Although, he had felt that Jue Di was on the verge of collapse from the weight of universal protogenia even before making the decision to break through into immortality.

Lan Jue stood in dumb silence. He knew something was amiss when he saw the Compliance Rod of Luo Xianni’s back. Suddenly he realized what that dark and ominous feeling was he had on Monarch.

His father. His father was dead. It was more than he could get his head around.

All his life Lan Jue thought his father was unbeatable – a powerhouse without equal, towering as a mountain. There was no power in the universe that could stop him. And yet it was the power of the universe that laid him low, slain by universal protogenia!

For the first time Lan Jue hated it. He hated the whole universe for what it took from him.

“No, that’s impossible. Dad can’t be dead! I don’t believe it – I can’t!” Lan Jue muttered his rejection but the tears on his face told a different story. His body shook as he confronted Luo Xianni with long strides.

“Mom... Dad, he…!” Luo Xianni immediately wrapped him in a tight hug. She shuddered with a painful cry.

With Jue Di gone, the Photographer was the last Infinite-level Paragon left to humanity. But right now she cried like a child, consumed by pain and sadness. This despondency hung over everyone like a fog.

The flows of protogenia around Luo Xianni were rough and intense. So much so, in fact, that Lan Jue worried for her. Universal protogenia was cruel and undiscriminating.

After achieving Nirvana, Lan Jue had become more sensitive to the dangers of that ubiquitous power, though he was not a focus of it yet. His eyes burned with rage and pain. Damn universal protogenia!
He was plotting ways to get back at the universe when a soothing energy descended upon him and Luo Xianni, isolating them. The threat of universal protogenia subsided at it seemed to lose its target. Under that gentle power Luo Xianni’s protogenia stabilized.

After achieving Nirvana, Zhou Qianlin’s ability to sooth and steady one’s powers had grown significantly.

“Ah!” Qianlin gasped, and quickly moved to join the other two. “Aunt, stop crying.”

Like a petulant child Luo Xianni’s head snapped up. She glared daggers at the girl. “What did you call me?!”

Her face reddened. “Mother!”

Luo Xianni’s head returned to her son’s shoulder and she continued to sob.

Qianlin looked at her, then at Lan Jue. She spoke to them softly. “Mother, please stop crying. Father, he… he may not be dead… “
The Photographer’s body straightened, stuff as the rod on her back. Lan Qing also roused from his morose stupor. Suddenly the eyes of every Paragon were trained on Zhou Qianlin.

“Qianlin. What are you saying? He isn’t dead?” Lan Jue placed a hand on her shoulder and tried to keep the excitement from his voice.

She glanced at her shoulder, caught in his slightly painful grip. She nodded. “Just now I could feel him, just barely. His body is gone but I can still sense his presence, like his essence has become part of my protogenia.”

The humans gathered in the control room were the peak of human ability. Wordlessly they turned their eyes to the Compliance Rod. If there was anything left of the man it would live in the astrum he’d created.

Luo Xianni deftly reached behind and with a flick of the wrist brought the staff forward.

“Qianlin, now isn’t the time to delude your mother. My heart can’t take it. Now you make sure your father didn’t –“ She couldn’t go on, her body shook and sobs stopped her from
completing the thought.

Lan Jue felt hope and anxiety rise within him. The greater the wish, the deeper the disappointment. If there was a chance that some part of his father remained, he would be elated. But if it were not true, the death of hope would be cruel and acute.

Qianlin solemnly placed her delicate hands on the staff. The white light of her Domain spread out and enveloped it. Lan Jue immediately stepped behind her and placed his hands on her back, lending his power to hers. Though their Disciplines were different, Lan Jue’s help amplified both their abilities by several times.

Under the light of the Queen of Heaven the Paragons felt their exhaustion melt away. The erratic pulses of protogenia that emerged from their battered bodies steadied. Those that were close to their bottleneck felt the pull of a breakthrough tugging at them.

Qianlin’s abilities were already near legendary, and their usefulness widely lauded. If she could somehow bring Jue Di back it would be nothing short of a miracle. The faith in her as a goddess would come from more than just non-Adepts.
After ten minutes her white and gold aura slowly receded, then was gone. The look on her face was one of confusion.

“What is it?” Luo Xianni asked, though she feared the answer.

Qianlin looked at her mother in law. “It’s fine. Father had reached the pinnacle of humanity long ago. In a way he’s learned to evade universal protogenia, like the home worlds did by becoming planets. He had his own method, specifically this staff. It has a way to hide him from the universe. Father sacrificed himself, certainly, but he put his essence – his soul – into the Compliance Rod. I can feel him clearly, he’s in there.”

Luo Xianni’s words were growing more desperate. “Is there a way to bring him back?”

She knew what it meant to speak of an Adept’s soul. So long as her husband’s will remained there remained a chance. Only, even she had been unable to sense him in the staff.

Qianlin explained. “Father sealed himself away deep within the weapon. He had to, otherwise universal protogenia would still be able to find him. I was only able to sense him because my Domain isolated us from the threat.”
The Pharmacist was the next to speak up. “There is a precedent. In the ancient days immortals were somewhat of a misnomer. Their lives were limited, but lifespans stretched for thousands of years. Three thousand years was typical, I believe – of course, assuming they were protected in an immortal realm. Just as Qianlin said, like the aliens his Majesty Jue Di could have found a way to hide himself from universal protogenia. That should mean there’s a chance to bring him back. Once one achieves immortality reforming a physical body shouldn’t be too difficult. However I imagine it would require a tremendous amount of vital energy. The only way to withstand the power of universal protogenia is to have enough power to match it.”

Zhou Qianlin nodded in agreement. “I had the same thought, and gathering that vital energy shouldn’t be a problem. In fact we just killed an Infinite-level alien and recovered its crystal. The real problem now is that we aren’t strong enough to contend with universal protogenia. Perhaps, when I break through to the Infinite, we can try.”

Hearing them discuss the possibility helped Luo Xianni shed her grief. She had experienced the mysteries of Qianlin’s power herself, even going so far as to rely on it to rise to the Infinite. So far it had protected her reliably from the wrath of the universe.
“It would be a miracle if you could bring their father back. Qianlin, thank you. Without you we wouldn’t have known his soul remained, much less have a hope of bringing him back.”

Lan Jue and Lan Qing openly gaped, and how could they not? Their father was not wholly dead, and there existed a chance to bring him back. They’d found fortune in the midst of tragedy.

Lan Jue’s eyes almost unconsciously turned toward the Pharmacist. “Sister, if we can do this with Father, could your husband…?”

The Pharmacist’s face bore signs of sadness as she lifted her head, and sorrowfully stared at Ultus.

Chapter 857: Li Ke

The turquoise light of Ultus shimmered along its length. Pulsing, like a living thing. As its aura spread Captus, Demortus, and Occisus hummed from within their bearer’s bodies.

Lan Qing had since recovered from the shock of the revelation. “Bringing your honored husband back should be considered a priority. He has knowledge pertaining to the Banishing Strategy.”

Once he said the words, the Paragons and even a few of the Easterners instantly understood. They knew that Lan Jue, Qianlin and the Pharmacist had left for a secret mission, but now they knew what for. The Banishing Blades – legendary weapons that were capable of killing even the strongest immortals!

The Pharmacist’s lower lip quivered. All the way back from Monarch and up to this moment she had tried to commune with the spirit of her husband. Yet all she could feel was a hazy, impermanent sense of her lost love. She could not seem to speak with him.

The possibility of bringing Jue Di back rested on the fact that
his soul was that of an immortal. In many ways he remained as the will of a god. His essence was complete, and wholly contained within the Compliance Rod. Her husband, however, relied entirely on the power of Ultus to keep his spirit intact and his will alive. The chances of bringing him back into the physical world were small beyond measure.

She knew this, but she had also seen what Qianlin could do.
The faintest light of hope sparkled in her heart.

Suddenly Ultus began to hum, and as the light around it expanded the faint image of a man appeared within.

When she saw who it was the Pharmacist’s whole body shook uncontrollably, and tears streamed down her face. Jun’er, seated nearby, also seemed to feel something and turned toward them. She couldn’t see, but reached out with her perception.

Lan Qing was also stunned when he saw who it was.

“You… You are Admiral Li Ke?” Clearly this man was important to Lan Qing.
Lan Jue fixed his eyes on them. This flickering spirit was not possessed of a solid body like Xuan Yuan Shishi or Jun Yongye. In fact he seemed only barely able to keep a recognizable form. Yet he could still make out the tall, lithe figure. He wasn’t the most heroic looking, but he held himself with a sense of wisdom and refinement. Scholarly. His presence was gentle, and though there were no eyes its attentions seemed deep and profound.

“Hello, classmate.” Li Ke sighed emotively as he ‘looked’ at Lan Qing. The admiral’s eyes were full of surprise, shocked to discover that the Pharmacist’s husband was actually this man.

Li Ke? When he heard the name a curious expression flit across Lan Jue’s face. He faintly remembered hearing the name from his brother before.

Being possessed of a fine memory, it took Lan Jue only a moment to recall. He cried out involuntarily. “You used to be called the East’s most talented commander. They made an exception to enroll you in the military… upperclassman Major Li Ke.”

None of the others were familiar with the name, but at one point his name had caused a fervor in the East.
Li Ke was two grades older than Lan Qing, and exceptional as Lan Qing was his brilliance was overshadowed by Li Ke. He had a thorough knowledge of Eastern and foreign disciplines, especially when it came to ancient Chinese warfare. In his time Li Ke was the darling of the Eastern military establishment.

He had represented the East once in a mock battle meant to practice strategies. He went up against several illustrious commands from both the West and North, winning final victory against a Northern admiral. From that day forward he was considered the single greatest threat to Northern supremacy.

His performance was so impressive, in fact, the academy broke its own rules and graduated him early. He was enrolled in the military with the rank of Major, and after only a few years was awarded Colonel Commandant. Unfortunately it was as they say, and only the good die young. One day, during a routine patrol, he vanished. If he’d had come back he was on track to becoming the youngest Eastern commander in military history. Even younger than Lan Qing when he took that title.

Lan Jue had heard his brother mention the name before as a catalyst. Li Ke was his target in the academy, the opponent that made him work harder. He studiously examined every one of Li Ke’s theses. Later, as Lan Qing rose in fame and prominence, he was referred to as one of the East’s two rising stars.
Lan Qing’s determination was that the Eastern army would be a full twenty percent more effective if Li Ke had lived to become a commander. He’d assumed his classmate’s disappearance was at the hands of the North or West, for who could have known back then that the alien planets lurked in the darkness of space.

There was a conflicted look in Li Ke’s eyes as well as he looked on Lan Qing. Especially when he saw the four golden stars on his shoulder bar. He’d achieved the goal Li Ke had set out to accomplish! Admiral in command of a bastion ship,  the strongest power in all of human space.

But once he fell into the clutches of the aliens, his dreams were shattered. In the end he was forced to give up more than his dreams, but his body as well. Most of what the beasts knew of human military tactics they stole from his mind.

“Husband!”

While this may seem like a formal way to regard one’s spouse, it is very typical for Chinese couples. It’s how my wife gets my attention, sort of like the equivalent of ‘sweetie’ in the way we use it, but more acceptable in public.
The Pharmacist’s quavering voice rose and the spirit’s attention returned to her. The Pharmacist, choked with sobs, moved to hug him but grasped only air.

Pain and regret flashed in Li Ke’s eyes. However, without a body there was nothing he could do.

The other Paragons could guess what was happening. Lan Qing briefly explained the situation to them.

Li Ke took a few steady ‘breaths’ before speaking. “I’m sorry for the pain you’ve suffered. But right now it is more important that we deal with the alien planets. Soon they will complete their evolution, and when that happens they will no longer hold back. Beasts will appear in every corner of human space to destroy us. We must use what little time remains to establish the Banishing Strategy, and through it destroy them first.”

Li Ke desperately wanted to speak with his wife, and to be with the little girl who was sixty percent the Pharmacist and forty percent him. Yet much as it pained him there were more pressing matters. Time was short, and the future of the species took precedence.
Zhou Qianlin supported the Pharmacist as she recovered her bearings.

Li Ke turned to Lan Qing. “The secrets of the strategy are hidden within Ultus. I discovered them when I was forced to become the sword’s spirit. I am familiar with the process, all that is needed are people to put it into motion.”

Lan Qing nodded. “Are you capable of handling Ultus and enacting it yourself, commander? Occisus is still under your wife’s control. Lan Jue and Zhou Qianlin possess Captus and Demortus respectively. Each of them are Paragons – is this enough to summon the power of the strategy?”

Li Ke repudiated the admiral’s hope. “Impossible. The Banishing Strategy was one of the most taboo abilities, even in the ancient days. When the swords were first created, they were made with the intention of protecting the immortal realm. Before the strategy universal protogenia holds no power. But before its full strength can be drawn upon, it needs bearers who are immortals themselves. Immortals of the highest cast, Da Luo. Without an immortal realm such all-powerful beings cannot exist.”

He paused for a moment, then continued. “However, that
doesn’t mean we’re left without options to combat the aliens. We may not be able to summon the full power of the swords, but when the aliens complete their evolution they will still be far from the likes of Da Luo. If we can use even a fraction of the strategy, that should be enough to slay these monsters. If we want to achieve this then the bearers must be the best of humanity – meaning, they must have achieved the Infinite. Four immortal-level Paragons would be even better, raising our chances to perhaps thirty percent. If they are only the Infinite that number drops to ten.”

The high demands of the Banishing Strategy  caused everyone’s faces to darken. In all of humanity Luo Xianni was the only remaining Infinite-level Paragon. One out of four that were required. What’s more, three of the swords had already chosen new masters. Until Lan Jue, the Pharmacist, and Qianlin died these weapons would not be wielded by others. And they were still far from the Infinite.

Lan Qing’s solemn voice replied. “What if we can’t produce four? What if their cultivation level was lower, would we still have a chance?”

Li Ke shook his spectral head. “No such chance exists. In the moment when the Banishing Stance is summoned, it will release a staggering level of energy. If the bearer is not strong
enough to control it the power will break free and cause untold devastation. The Infinite is the minimum to see it done.”

Here the spirit turned its eyes to Lan Jue and Qianlin. “But there is another way, a special lineage that is similar to the Banishing Blades. It can increase the amount of power the bearers can support. Now, I must search the auras of those gathered and find the one who is most suitable to bear Ultus.”

Chapter 858: Violet Dominion

“What lineage could be similar to the Banishing Blades?” Lan Jue asked.

Li Ke replied. “Simply put, any inheritance passed down from the immortal realm are similar. Yours, the young female soldier, little Yue’s… they are all derived from the ancient immortals.”

When he looked at the Pharmacist, used her name, her tears began to flow anew. It had been so long since she’d been called by her real name, especially in such an affectionate voice.

Lan Jue nodded. The Middle Heaven Great Emperor of the North Pole Star of Purple Subtlety was indeed a lineage of old. It was unlikely Li Ke knew precisely what Lan Jue’s powers were, but he could sense its profundity from his aura.

Lan Qing spoke up. “But their cultivation still isn’t sufficient. How much can this inheritance offset the deficiency?” The problem was less pronounced for Lan Jue and Qianlin – after all, they had recently achieved Nirvana. However, the Pharmacist was only a Reflection of Heaven and Earth.
Although being a Reflection was a terrific accomplishment among modern Adepts, Li Ke’s words proved it was not enough for the task at hand.

“Only one thing had quickly give you the power you need quickly,” Li Ke explained. “The alien planets have entered the final phase of their evolution, this I can confirm. The method involves fusing the three separate worlds into one, combining the powers of Monarch, Queen and Consort. Then, through the knowledge they stole from human DNA, they will create a single vessel to house this power. Thus will they achieve a qualitative leap, and finally can consume Europa to use it as the seed for their own immortal realm.”

“Creation of an immortal realm requires something real as a foundation, and a core of energy to support it. The aliens likely chose Europa because its core was more substantial than most. In catalyzing that core and fusing themselves with the planet, it is the equivalent to a gestation period. When the process is complete a new entity will be born – what they’ve come to call the Violet Dominion. This entity will simultaneously be their immortal realm. From then on its power will be concealed from universal protogenia and they can grow in strength until they reach Da Luo.”

“Violet Dominion?” The name lay heavy on everyone’s heart
like a curse.

Li Ke continued. “These monsters specialize in consumption. We can assume their Dominion will possess the same ability. Once Dominion is created there will be nothing to hold them back, and we should expect it will not hesitate to destroy us. Pure vital energy will not be enough once their evolution is complete. Dominion will need to consume stars and planets to continue its rise. Their plan is to begin with the cores of living planets, then graduate to stars when their power requires it. It will continued to devour what it can until it is strong enough to contend against the whole universe.”

Everyone was silent, stunned and frightened by the future painted by this spirit. They knew that these creatures were a threat to their species, but few had guessed their aim was to supplant the entire universe. They would do it by stealing the hearts of the stars and planets themselves – like Middle Heaven and its molinite. The energy contained in those cores is what kept a planet alive. Consuming it would destroy them outright.

After listening to Li Ke’s explanation, the gathered Paragons understood why the aliens chose his place. Europa was a large and vibrant planet, and there were seven more nearby. How strong Dominion would be after devouring this planets was frightening to speculate. From there its evil clutches would
extend to other human-occupied worlds, becoming a planet- destroying nightmare.

A beast capable of consuming whole worlds. Nightmare didn’t begin to describe it.

The Terminator listened with an abiding sense of shame. He was from the North, and hi government stubbornly kept to the fantasy that they could protect themselves with the bastions that remained. They were not aiming for success, only to protect themselves from blame. Indeed bastions were strong, but what could they do against a creature that ate whole planets?

“Dominion… that sounds more like hell.” The Wine Master muttered.

Li Ke offered a bitter smile. “Indeed. To us it would be hell. That’s why it’s essential we defeat them now before they get too powerful. Otherwise, the worlds of man will pass into oblivion.”

“Time is short,” the Wine Master confirmed. “You must choose who is most suitable to accept Ultus and its power, and complete the Banishing Strategy. Everyone here is willing to
accept this responsibility.”

At any time in the past the Wine Master’s words would have been almost laughable. Who wouldn’t jump at the chance to bear a legendary weapon, and become one of the most powerful beings in the universe? However, with it came tremendous responsibility. Who could know what would happen once the Banishing Strategy was employed? If successful the amount of energy produced was nothing short of apocalyptic. What happened if it backfired, or spun out of control? IF they failed, they would be the first victims of the Violet Dominion.

Yet one after the other the Paragons nodded their heads. All of them were willing to give their lives, if necessary.

Li Ke swept his eyes over the crown and nodded. “Very well, then I will begin.” His human figure shimmered and vanished, returning to the sword. Turquoise light radiated from the blade as it headed for the Wine Master.

The elderly Paragon stood before the sword, still and dignified as the cutting energy of the Banishing Blade fell upon him. He made no effort to avoid it. Once the light of the weapon reached him it stopped and swept around to his side.
The Pharmacist watched through tear-misted eyes. If only he were alive, she lamented. Then Ultus would have the bearer they needed to enact the Banishing Stance.

It did not escape her notice that Li Ke never mentioned resurrection. Before his death they had been together for many years, and she knew her husband to be a wise and rational man. If there was any way to bring him back he would have taken it. In saying nothing it meant no such possibility existed. He was gone.

“Mama.” Suddenly a tiny voice called out to her.

She looked down and saw that Jun’er had snuck up on her. Her tiny hand slipped into hers and tugged to get her attention.

Her face wet with tears, the Pharmacist lifted Jun’er into her arms.

She wanted to tell her daughter that her father was here. Here real father. But she could not, because she couldn’t be sure how long that would remain true. She couldn’t decide whether telling her would be better than maintaining the lie they crafted.
She was no fool, she suspected Jun’er already knew Lan Jue was not her father. After inheriting the prognosticating abilities of the Clairvoyant, how could such a secret be kept? But so long as she didn’t ask, the Pharmacist was in no hurry to tell her.

The light of Ultus made a circuit around the Wine Master before heading toward the next Paragon. It continued in this way through the control room, a carefully constrained stream of cutting power.

The last Paragon it examined was Lan Qing. It flitted around the admiral the same as all of the others.

At first Lan Qing felt nothing, but after a moment the outside world was suddenly lost in a sea of turquoise light.

“Classmate.” Li Ke’s voice called into his ear.

“Upperclassman.” He replied.

Li Ke hesitated for a moment, then spoke. “I knew you were the one to bear Ultus when I was brought here. I can feel that you bear the lineage of a great and ancient power. Buddhist in
nature, but you may still command this weapon. The reason I wished to undergo this process was to consider a problem. I am still unwilling, but I must.”

Lan Qing furrowed his brows. “What do you mean?”

Li Ke explained. “When I lived I threw myself at my endeavors without sparing any effort. I was born into a normal family, typical in many regards. When I was ten my mother died, her dying wish was that I became a great man.”

“Everyone has the opportunity for greatness within them. It comes down to how much work you’re willing to do. I used this truth to spur myself on, to work the hardest I could without sadness or regret.”

“Despite my humble beginnings, my hard work paid off and I was recognized for my talent. I excelled and was rewarded with praise and scholarships. I worked hard through middle school and was accepted into a famous private school. There I realized there was a vast universe outside of my bubble, that there was an enormous gulf between my schools and others. I enjoyed vast returns for half the effort of what others required. The harder I strove the more I learned, I never stopped pushing myself. I can remember that I rarely slept more than four hours a night.”
“It was not in vain. Whether knowledge or cultivation, I was always at the top of the student achievement lists. I was a target for the most ambitious students. That’s when I met her. For the first time there was something outside of study that was worth appreciation. She was beautiful and arrogant, with a respectable lineage and a traditional flair. Our attraction to one another felt completely natural, it was almost like we were fated to be together. She even taught me the secrets of her lineage. During school recesses we would spend our time exploring ancient relics and ruined sites. Each discovery was a joyous celebration that made us strive even harder. It brought us closer.”

Chapter 859: I Understand

“Eventually our paths split. I chose the life of service and she wishes the peace of seclusion. If she did not studiously focus on her cultivation, she said, she would quickly fall behind me. It was the only way for her to keep up.”

“So, as you know, I became a highly sought after student in university. Many women were interested in me, but I never pursued any of them. It wasn’t that I didn’t like women, I had her. She had taken my heart and there would be no other. I liked it, this feeling. Although we only saw each other very rarely our feelings for one another never dulled. Our affection only grew stronger.”

“Later, when I graduated, I proposed to her. By then I was recognized as talented and nothing stood in the way of  our union. In the end I regret… I regret focusing so hard on quick success. Destiny makes fool of people, maybe if there was fairness in the universe we would have lived long happy lives together. Instead I left on my mission and was captured by the monsters. My wife was left without a husband.”

“You see me now, know my condition – bodiless. In order to live on and preserve my consciousness I fused with Ultus. I became its sword spirit, though even now I cannot completely
combine myself and the sword. I used to be its master, and no matter the circumstances the master can never become his own servant. A true sword spirit must be naturally occurring. Were it not for my obsession to see her again my soul would have passed into the nether long ago.”

“In helping them to defeat that avatar I used up the last of my energy. I can only remain a short time more, my final death will come at any moment. I felt her desire to die before, when she came and found me in the Shattered Starfields. If she learns that I am gone I fear she will lose all will to keep going. I needed time to think, and I believe I’ve come up with the only way for her to come around and enjoy life once more.”

Now there was pain clear in Li Ke’s voice. There was so much hope he would somehow live on – to live with the Pharmacist forever! Instead his deep-held desire would need to go unfulfilled, replaced with the pain of hopelessness.

He had been gone from the world of the living for too long. It was a small blessing that he did not know he had a daughter. His only concern was to find something his lost love could rely on.

Lan Qing nodded. “How would you like me to help?”
After a moment of silence Li Ke went on. “Marry her. I realize how this requests sounds, but I need to know she has someone solid to lean upon. I can’t stand to watch her in pain, nor can I watch her sadness convince her to follow me in death.”

Lan Qing was stunned to silence. He had never been an overly emotional man, and had no experience in these matters. The thought had never even occurred to him until Li Ke made the strange proposition. Now he understood, this had been Li Ke’s plan. It was inconceivable…

“Why? Classmate, why choose me?” Lan Qing queried.

“Because you are most suitable,” came the spirit’s answer. “I know you. I understand you. No one else was more like me when I drew breath. You are a commander, and command great potential. Most importantly your original yang is plentiful and you’ve known no other women. Thus you are the best choice. Ultus has also chosen you. It is not lost on me that this is unfair to you, but all I can offer is what remains of me locked within this sword – including knowledge of the Banishing Strategy. With this legacy you can break through your bottleneck to the next level.”

A euphemism, I believe, saying he’s never lain with a woman.
Original qi is derived from the Kidneys in Chinese medicine, and excessive sexual activity can drain your ‘pre-heaven essence’, damaging your original qi. The Chinese do not believe there is a way to replenish this pre-heaven essence.

“I’m not sure this will work…” Lan Qing sighed. “I’m not refusing, it’s just she’s unlikely to accept this. She’s already a Reflection of Heaven and Earth, and even if you request it of her directly she likely won’t have any amiable feelings. I’m not you. I will tell you I will try, because it’s the right thing, but I do have hopes for my own future. The Pharmacist is a good woman, but we’re unlikely to end up together.”

Li Ke paused. “You have someone you love?”

Lan Qing wasn’t sure how to respond. A face swam up from the depths of his memory. She was part of the allied forces and had fought with them in fight after fight. He hadn’t seen her for a long while, but he still remembered that time they shared a cigarette on Skyfire Avenue.

Everyone saw him as a title; the God of Wisdom, or the An Lun super soldier. But beneath his shrewd, cold, calculating exterior there was a man struggling with his feelings. His heart was pure.
The purer the experience the deeper its impression. The Pharmacist was much stronger than the woman he was interested in – and more beautiful as well – however if Lan Qing had his way he would choose to look into those silver eyes every day.

Li Ke’s stoic features gave way to a quiet sadness. “Then you would have her watch he die? I know her, she is unyielding in her moral integrity. When I die there is more than a passing chance she will try to follow. I only want her to live a long and happy life!”

Lan Qing hesitated. He wanted to help Li Ke, and more than that he understood what the man was going through. As commander of the allied forces he had to make sacrifice in order for humanity to succeed. But when he opened his mouth he couldn’t summon the words.

Suddenly a thought sprang to mind. “Classmate, do  you realize you have a child?”

Li Ke looked back at him, surprised. “A child?”

He turned his head toward the Pharmacist. Some part of him
guessed when he saw Jun’er, but Lan Qing confirmed it. Jun’er was snuggled quietly in her mother’s arms as she looked toward him, tears streaming down her face.

A searing ache burned deep in Li Ke’s soul. A child… we had a child! That is how she’s persisted all these years!

Lan Qing continued. “She was pregnant with Jun’er when you disappeared. Unfortunately the pain she experienced from Occisus also affected her infant child. She was born blind. Jun’er grew, and eventually the Pharmacist approached my younger brother…” He explained the situation briefly to Li Ke.

Li Ke had no body, so no tears would grace his face. However, the look in his eyes spoke volumes. The intensity of it caused his spectral body to flicker. He knew that the Pharmacist’s life must have been difficult after his disappearance, but he had no idea how bitter it had become for her.

His own daughter could not see. Somehow she became the apprentice to Skyfire Avenue’s Clairvoyant, and will one day grow into that title herself. Though her eyes were useless, she was still the Eye of Tomorrow.
He never would have imagined it possible.

And he, her father, would be unable to fulfil his obligations. He no longer had a physical heart, but the pain within him was chaotic and overwhelming.

Lan Qing took a deep breath. “I think you should speak with her, just the two of you. She won’t be convinced by anyone else. But do you think she’ll ever pick someone else, after suffering so much waiting for you to return? It isn’t what she wants, and trying will only cause her more pain. The two of you need to speak, if for nothing else than to let her say all the things she needs to say.”

A storm of conflicting emotions ran through the spirit’s eyes. A calm gradually came over him as he fixed Lan Qing with a steady gaze. “Thank you, underclassman. I think I understand.”

There was a flash of light and Lan Qing was separated from Li Ke’s small spiritual reality. The soul returned to its previous spot, steady in its human shape.

“I believe Ultus has made a decision. Underclassman, you are the most suitable bearer.” As he spoke the other Paragons all
nodded in agreement.

Lan Qing’s abilities were evident to all, both in personal strength and his talent for command. Without him humanity wouldn’t have come this far. Without him mankind would already be lost. It was his brilliance today, and Jue Di’s sacrifice, that brought them to this critical moment.

Li Ke’s attention turned to the Pharmacist. “Little Yue, I was hoping we might have a chance to speak. Is that alright?”

Literally ‘small moon’, it’s the same name given to Si Xiaosu by Lan Jue. However, where in Su Xiaosu’s case I think it was a nickname alluding to her title as Moonfiend empress, for the Pharmacist I suspect the character 月 is part of her true name.

The Pharmacist nodded.

Lan Jue stepped forward without having to be asked, and took Jun’er from her arms. The small girl didn’t struggle and hung upon Lan Jue’s neck. Against all expectations, her face was calm.
No one underestimated this small child, who had inherited the power of the Eye of Tomorrow. Although she said nothing many understood that she was likely to know what was happening.

Lan Qing personally led the way, bringing the Pharmacist and Li Ke to a quiet resting room near the bridge.

The Terminator watched Lan Qing go, some anxiety writ on his features. “Ultus. Is it really capable of destroying those aliens? If they succeed in creating Violet Dominion – a monster that can devour planets – it isn’t just humanity in danger. The whole universe may be wiped out!”

Lan Jue gently nodded his head. “The Banishing Blades are god weapons passed down from antiquity. If we can lay out the Strategy killing those monsters would be no problem. Father was sure of it. Ultus used to belong to the Pharmacist’s husband, this Li Ke. He was captured long ago by the aliens when he went on a scouting mission…”

He went on to fill in the rest of the Paragons about the spirit and the history of his blade. Finally they understood why Lan Jue, Qianlin and the Pharmacist had been absent all through the last battle.

Chapter 860: Husband and Wife, Face to Face

The Wine Master’s face darkened. “It was dangerous for you to do this without alerting us first. If you-“

Lan Jue smirked at him. “Alright, it’s done and it all worked out. I’m here, right? Don’t be angry, right now we need to focus on defeating our enemy.”

By now Lan Qing had returned. He bowed before the Wine Master. “I apologize, Wine Master – to all of you from Skyfire Avenue. Dangerous as the task was, there were no other alternatives. After making my plans I knew that our chances of winning the last battle were very slim. Even if we did, we wouldn’t be strong enough to destroy the home worlds ourselves. We had to attack the problem from two sides. It was an opportunity we couldn’t ignore.”

The Wine Master and the other members of Skyfire Avenue didn’t respond. The exhaustion in Lan Qing’s face was apparent to everyone. All throughout this war their commander of the allied forces had had to shoulder tremendous pressure. The fate of humanity rested on his shoulders!
Lan Qing had to bear the knowledge that his decision to send Lan Jue into harm’s way could have meant his death. The struggles he faced were no less dire than the soldiers out on the fields. He just had no choice.

In the end his gambit was successful. Not only did humanity win the day against the alien horde, but Lan Jue returned victorious from his desperate quest. Now humans had a way to fight back, and with Ultus their chances were even better.

The Keeper spoke. “Admiral Lan. In the last fight we held the advantage. Should we rally our troops and move in for another offensive? With the power we bear now we should at least be able to stand toe to toe with the monsters. The Banishing Stance is said to be powerful, but none of us have witnessed it. None of the bearers are yet strong enough to succeed, either. If we put all of our hopes in one method and fail, all will be for naught. I think we should diversify our tactics.”

Lan Qing nodded in agreement. “That is also my thought. However, we suffered significant losses in the last exchange. Assuming we do not consider the fact that Poseidon cannot use its mecha transformation again, Middle Heaven will need a minimum of five days before it can return to battle. The core is already unstable and pushing it any farther could be disastrous.”
The Keeper nodded, apparently satisfied. The Bookworm spoke next. “So we hope that the alien home worlds don’t complete their evolution in the next five days.”

Then came the Wine Master. “I have a thought. Admiral, now that you have been chosen to bear one of the Banishing Blades it is integral that you return to Angel and cultivate with the Jewelry Master, Qianlin, and the Pharmacist. It is counterintuitive to have you commanding the troops. Leave command of the forces to us. Certainly we lack your tactical brilliance, but we should at least suffice to weaken the horde. Our goal would be to present you four with the best opportunity to complete the Banishing Strategy.”

The Wine Master offered the suggestion with calm dignity. However, Lan Qing could clearly hear the note of authority in his voice.

Lan Qing considered for a moment. “I understand your thought process, but give me some time to weigh the options. I will also need to assess whether Ultus can do what they claim, and then I can make plans. When I can I’ll ask Li Ke when, precisely, he suspects the aliens will complete their evolution.”

The Wine Master nodded. “Alright, we will go by your
decision. No matter the circumstances you have our full support.”

As the others spoke, tears had begun to tumble down Jun’er’s smooth cheeks.

“Daddy, I saw him,” she whispered in his ear.

“Saw who?” He asked.

Her response was muttered. “I saw another daddy, but he wasn’t really here. He was very sad, and so was mommy. I think that daddy has to go soon. What should I do?”

Lan Jue fondly stroked her hair. “I don’t know either. But no matter what, Jun’er is daddy’s little girl.”

“Yeah. Jun’er loves daddy.” She hugged tightly to Lan Jue’s neck. Her tiny body shook against his.

Lan Jue was speechless. This little girl understood much.
ξ

Within the sitting room.

Li Ke and the Pharmacist stood, facing one another. Tears continued to stream down the Pharmacist’s face.

The Pharmacist looked at the faint image of her husband through hazy eyes. How many years? How long had it been since she’d seen him? She was ashamed to admit that she’d begun to forget what he looked like.

All this time she’d gone it alone, no one knew the pain she’d borne. Without help she raised a little girl who was blind, all the while bearing the memory of her lost husband.

When the pain of her lost was almost unbearable, when she discovered that it’d been these monsters that took her husband from her, the Pharmacist had been ready to give her life in vengeance. For love. She had decided that living was far more painful than dying. Now at last her wish was granted and the man she loved was returned to her, at least in spirit. But it was transitory, for he could vanish at any moment – gone, just like before.
For now, however, his body was more distinct. Still how could he keep the pain and sadness from his eyes? She knew how much it must have cost him to battle the aliens, to retain his will locked within the sword. All of that, to see her. After years of struggle they looked one another in the face, but neither was sure what to say.

“Are… are you alright?” It was Li Ke who ventured the first question. But the moment the question left his lips he scowled. How could she be?

The Pharmacist looked back at him in silence. She wanted desperately to throw herself into his arms like she did in years past. But she couldn’t. His stoic aura, his strong shoulders, his body… gone.

“I miss you so much!” She choked. “I think I’ve lost my will to live. I’m so lonely all by myself. I miss you, every day. I thought about the days we shared all the time, hoping for a miracle that would bring you home to me.”

“Day followed day and I hoped that feeling would ease, but it didn’t. I told myself to be strong, to wait. For our daughter. Together we would wait for you to walk back through that door. When Jun’er was small she would always ask me why daddy
wasn’t back. Every time she asked my heart would ache, because just like her I was wishing so much for that day.”

“Jun’er is our daughter, born eight months after your disappearance. Because you were gone, the pain was too great and Occisus turned inward. My daughter lost her vision because I was weak. I’m sorry.”

“No. No!” Li Ke shut his eyes tight in pain. “It was me. All of it is my fault. I didn’t need to go on that mission, I was ambitious and impatient. If I’d have just been content I could have stayed with both of you. Jun’er is blind because of my decision. I should be the one apologizing to both of you!” His voice was choked with emotion, but there were no ghostly tears.

The Pharmacist rigidly shook her head. “As time went on I couldn’t stand her questions. I asked the Jewelry Master to pretend to be you. His aura was similar to yours, and he was of Chinese lineage like you. Jun’er was so happy believing her father was back. Thanks to him her heart was filled with the joy of having her dad returned. And I saw a glimmer of hope. I began to take Jun’er out of the house so she could experience the outside world. Her mood improved.”

“I found a way to solve her longing, but I could think of no
way to ease my own. I couldn’t make it go away, or even make it less acute. I couldn’t stop asking myself why you never came back. For a while I was so angry I was out of my mind, blaming you for taking that mission. In the end I just pleaded with whatever god would listen and begged them to bring you back to me. I just wanted you back, whatever the cost!” She fought against her crying to get the last few words out.

Li Ke hurried forward to hold her, but could not. There wasn’t even any way for him to show her how deeply he felt her pain.

After a few moments the Pharmacist regained some composure. She lifted her head and peered through red, watery eyes at him. “When I heard from the Violet Prince that you had been killed by Monarch, the last hope within me died. The pain was gone, all feeling was gone. That was the moment I broke through to Paragon… when I achieved the dream you and I shared. But you weren’t there anymore. Without you, it wouldn’t matter if I became the strongest human alive.”

“I thought about dying. No matter what I wanted to lay my eyes on Ultus one last time. I had no expectations, just the determination that I would die and be with you again. I was only thinking about myself, even our daughter didn’t enter my mind. Was that selfish?”
“No. No it wasn’t.” Li Ke’s voice shook when he answered.
The spectral image of his long dead body quivered.

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