Skyfire Avenue Chapter 91-100

Chapter 91: All Accounted, All Is well

Though they were struggling to believe what they were seeing, neither Gabriel nor Raphael were interested in wagering their life to find the truth.

“Have you forgotten the Code of Chivalry?” Ke’er asked Gabriel with a sneer.

The Messenger of Death’s face reddened. “It was you three who were planning to interrupt the duel. We heard everything you were saying.”

“And what of it,” Lin Guoguo responded. “We aren’t knights.
We’re ladies.”

The sentence caused both the Angels to almost gag.

Mika watched them both with devilish red eyes. “If you have a death wish, then try to get past us.”

Bang! The strange sound drew all five pair of eyes towards the source.

The two mechas, pressed tightly together, finally separated with a snap. One melted in to a beam of blue light and raced towards them. The second, tumbled inelegantly towards the ground.

“Go!” Gabriel and Raphael retreated, heading to ground. They knew it was Thor who sped towards them.

Thor hung mangled but triumphant in the sky. It’s former dazzling glory had paled as the damage to it’s surface was clear. The entire top half was largely unrecognizable. It’s internal components whirred and ground, revealed through deep gashes in Thor’s armor. Irregular jolts of electricity added a dramatic undercurrent to how poorly it looked.

However, the battle damage only increased it’s imposing presence. Now more than ever it looked the grizzled veteran. A gash of white lightning shimmered against it’s chest, with another on it’s back. It’s two mechanical eyes were as bright as when it appeared.

In the distance, the sound of the Angel of War impacting the ground wafted towards them. The angelic mecha looked much worse for wear, having suffered at least twice the damage than it’s opponent; half of it’s wings were missing, and it’s two arms

were irreparably broken. It was lacking even stumps. The only thing that had saved the mecha from absolute obliteration was the faint golden light that still issued faintly from around it. It had managed to stabilize just enough before making landfall so as to avoid disintegration.

“Zeus… thank you.” Michael’s growling voice rang through the air. Judging just by tone alone, it was impossible to tell if the Archangel had severed any further injury.

“None are needed,” Lan Jue responded indifferently. “But be warned, this matter will be settled sooner or later with my visit to the Pontiff’s Castle.”

Michael was silent for a moment, but eventually called to his comrades. “Gabriel, convey my orders; all ships involved in the blockade are to stand down. This time, I’ve lost – and I keep my word.”

“As you command.” Gabriel nodded his head respectfully.

A twinkling caught their attention as a blue light arrived from the horizon. A dazzling azure ship arrived at battlefield, making directly for Lan Jue and his three charges. Raphael and Gabriel

watched it approach with both shame and anger. Uriel, too, had been bested.

The four distant figures melted in to one. A moment later, the single dot of light also faded in to darkness.

Tsss! The hissing sound of depressurization arose as the Angel of War’s chest plate gradually spread open. The damaged cockpit was revealed.

Michael sat strapped to the chair, a shade of his former glory. His grim, resolute façade was gone, replaced with a blackened mask. A charred husk of an angel.

“Michael!” Gabriel hastened to his side, struggling to extricate him from the mecha. Raphael moved to his side. A pale white light emanated from his hands, their healing glow extending to cover Michael’s broken body.

Under the Angel of Healing’s power Michael found the strength to pull himself from the wreckage. The movement caused the slag that was his mecha to shift, grinding painfully as it crumbled to the floor.

Michael’s face had been burned away, now a black mask of charred skin and gristle. If he was even capable of expression, it was impossible to see what it would be. But one could guess that it wouldn’t be a smile.

“Michael, are you alright?” Gabriel supported his commander by the arm. He keenly felt the sizzling heat that radiated from him. His own hands felt numb just by touching him.

Michael shook his head. “We were wrong. Our assumptions were false. Zeus is far more powerful than he’s let on. Or he’s become much stronger in the three years since his disappearance. Still, he didn’t leave our battle without a scratch. He’s likely just as hurt as I am. The fact he got away… the future for us looks dark indeed.”

Gabriel’s eyes shone with anger and violent intent. “Then we-”

Michael’s smile was dour, bitter. He shook his head again, cutting Gabriel off. “Nothing we can do. Do you think he’ll give us another chance like this? His codename wasn’t just given for his power. He’s got the scheming heart of the ancient god as well. I know for a fact he didn’t know our plans when he came before the Moonfiend Empress. And yet the moment he knew it

was us, he’d made his plans – to employ his Ascension, confuse and divide us to produce his opening. The Ascension was the strongest he let slip, during his time in the public eye three years ago, so using it at the onset would make us drop our guard
– lull us in to a false sense of superiority. And make me match him with the Adventus.”

“It was unexpected he’d possess a second Discipline. A speed that outstripped even Adventus. By the time I knew what was happening I’d already expended too much power. He knew I would fall back on the Angel of War. Counted on it. I don’t have the reaction time and control of a younger man. The gravity nova would prevent him from out-maneuvering me… but Thor’s strength was superior. My guess, Thor’s core gem is S- ranked. That’s the only way he could have commanded power like that. Hell, he could obliterate a battleship and not blink an eye.”

Raphael interjected. “Let’s get to the Castle first, and deliver our report to His Majesty. Zeus is tied to the Avenue. This will likely put us under pressure from Skyfire. Our hunt for the Succubus will have to be secondary.”

ζ

“Boss!” Lin Guoguo exclaimed, supporting Lan Jue. His face was as pale and thin as tinsel.

Lan Jue lifted his head. He looked at Guoguo, then the three others. A strained smile spread across his face. “All accounted… all is well.”

Chapter 92: The Man In Black

The Accountant stood to one side, looking with envy upon the nearly comatose Lan jue. The King of Mercenaries lay battered, but in the embrace of four beautiful women.

Ke’er supported his head, resting it upon her thighs. Mika and Xiuxiu knelt at either side, gripping his arms and shoulders. Lin Guoguo rested her hands upon his legs.

Four lovely girls, with tears in their eyes for the man between them.

“Damnit!” Ke’er spat through her tears.

“You said it,” Lin Guoguo replied, her teeth gritted in anger.

Xiuxiu was speechless. Mika’s lips were turned in a scowl. Her eyes shown with an ominous light.

Suddenly the four turned as one. Their collective fear, anger and vengeance focused upon a single point.

“What are you waiting for, fly the damn plane!”

ζ

Planet Skyfire. Skyfire Avenue. Skyfire Museum.

“I hadn’t expected the Castle’s involvement,” the Clairvoyant said. He stood staring out of a window, speaking softly to the glass.

The Wine Master stood a short distance away. “Why didn’t you let us go with him? It doesn’t matter who the enemy is, there’s a price to pay for assaulting one of ours.”

The Clairvoyant responded with a thin-lipped smile, reflected in the mirror. “The young man needed to grow up. There’s a price to pay for that, too. Otherwise how is he supposed to lead Skyfire… to stand up in the face of Three Alliances?”

The Wine Master stood a little straighter. “You’re sure?”

The man’s smile slipped, and a bitter expression overtook his

face. “Do you remember who you’re talking to?”

The Wine Master shot a look at the Clairvoyant’s back.

“Old coot, as inscrutable as your visions. The Pontiff’s Castle eh… hmph!” The quavering, aged voice arose from the opposite side of the Wine Master. An old man, stooped and wrinkled, struggled valiantly to rise from a nearby stool. He extricated himself from the stool and made his way from the room.

The Wine Master looked at the Clairvoyant, and though he didn’t turn his head to watch the old man leave, he spied the reflection of the museum door’s crystals flashing as the door opened.

“Shall I bring him back?” he asked the Clairvoyant.

The augur grinned. “Let him go. We’re always that familiar. Small things like that don’t offend. At any rate the old man needs his exercise. Don’t worry, though. That whole ‘one foot in the grave’ look he cultivates is his greatest means of defense.”

ζ

National Eastern University.

“Today we’ll be continuing our discussion on interplanetary technology, mecha coordination and how the two are joined. As I’m sure everyone is aware, the advancement of interstellar technology has permitted us to develop mechas with the ability to absorb and – when needed – release the stabilization properties of special power gems. This allows them to employ space flight. As for mechas pilots, with enough practice they almost become one with their machines. This makes not only travel, but combat much more fluid. So, can someone tell me any other relationships between interstellar technology and mechas?”

The professor continued to blather on behind his podium. The students arrayed before him listen with rapt attention.

All but Zhou Qianlin, who was looking distractedly out of the window. Her pretty blue eyes where filled with visions of the crystal blue sky and towering trees.

“Qianlin!” She felt a light jab at her side, which woke her from her daydreaming. She looked inquisitively to her side.

Tang Mi looked at her suspiciously. “What’s going on with you? We spent course credits to get in to this class. I can’t even calculate how long I had to save up for this. Meanwhile you’re watching the flower’s grow.”

Zhou Qianlin shot her a petty glance. “I’m a good student – I’ve got plenty of credits.”

“Tsk. I don’t get you. It’s like you’re some lovelorn airhead.” Tang Mi huffed in disappointment, then returned her attention to the class.

Professor Roger’s eyes swept the classroom, landing eventually on them. Zhou Qianlin immediately became the very picture of attentiveness, smiling politely as the instructor proceeded.

The Professor appeared himself well impressed with the young woman, nodding and returning her smile.

Professor Rogers was the foremost mind in the field of astronomical technology and it’s utilization in mecha piloting. He possessed a special talent for the subject, on top of being a seventh-ranked Adept in the discipline of cosmo-manipulation.

He was only a visiting professor for the NEU, and only gave lectures once a month. His classes were always full of national scholars whenever he came to teach.

As class ended, Zhou Qianlin and Tang Mi gathered their things and left. The two were like magnets, drawing eyes wherever they went. They were all too scared of Tang Mi’s temper to do anything, but that didn’t stop them from staring.

“Hey Qianlin, I heard we’re going to have a transfer student moving in to our class.” Tang Mi said off-handedly.

“Oh.” Her response was tepid.

“Hey, are you listening?!” Tang Mi gave her friend an agitated look.

Qianlin sniffed good-naturedly. “So what? What does this transfer student have to do with me? Do you like the guy or something?”

“Oh this new kid’s got nothing to do with me,” she said mysteriously. “But I’m guessing he’s got an interest in a certain

someone. He’s from the Western Alliance, you know. Pretty far from here, don’t you think? I heard they pulled all sorts of strings to get him in to our program. To sweeten the deal they sent two visiting professors along with him.”

Understanding began to dawn on Zhou Qianlin’s face. “You mean…”

Tang Mi shrugged. “Naturally it would be your former fiancé, wouldn’t it.”

Zhou Qianlin froze in place. She stared, dumbstruck, at her friend. “How is that possible? It was a giant scandal. How could they just let that slide?”

“Politics isn’t my forte,” Tang Mi responded flippantly. “As far as I understand it Sylva Austin only has the one son. And you know his character. A stalker’s love never dies. As I see it Prime Minister Austin doesn’t want to lose his only son – the family’s sole successor. So, some things just need to be compromised.”

Zhou Qianlin chewed her lip nervously. “When is he coming?”

Tang Mi gave her a questioning look. “What is going on with you? What’s wrong with Richard anyway? Young, rich, talented with a mecha… maybe even better than me. He’s even supposed to be a decent Adept. And with the Austin family at his back, no less. How can you sit here and stick your nose up at him? Why even agree to marry him in the first place, then? Avoiding the guy like he’s some poisonous snake… I really, really don’t get you.”

“You don’t understand!” Zhou Qianlin quailed.

“In the end it doesn’t matter if I do or don’t. Clearly this guy bothers you.”

ζ

Skyfire Avenue

A tall, slender figure gradually made his presence known at the end of the Avenue. He was a man clothed entirely in black; black suit, black shirt, black hair. He walked the street in even strides, slow and unhurried. His gait was elegant but… almost robotic.

In no time, he stood before the entrance to the Avenue proper.

“My apologies. Ahead is Skyfire Avenue. Please produce your badge if you wish to enter.” The single Avenue guard politely lifted a hand to entreat the suited man to stop.

The black-clad man paused. “I’m looking for someone,” his deep voice responded. “I have no badge. What shall we do about that?”

The guard’s response was practiced, as though it were a speech he’d given dozens of times. “To acquire a badge for entrance in to the Avenue, you must submit an application, and undergo a series of examinations. The process takes about a hundred days. I’m afraid without a badge, I can’t let you pass.”

“No other way?”

“Nope,” the guard replied.

“Very well,” the man said. “I’ll call him out, then.”

“That’s fine, and in fact if his clearance is high enough he can bring you in with him.”

The black-clothed man nodded. “Hm.”

He lifted his head, quietly calling out towards the empty street.

“Lan Jue!”

The expression was a quiet one. As the guard looked on, he felt, just for a moment, as though things had gone dark. It was only temporary, though, and soon things were back to normal. However, those two words suddenly began to echo countless times through the length of Skyfire Avenue.

It started as a whisper – audible only with some effort – but as the echoes rolled over one another, repeating again and again, soon the sound became a shout. The deep, stately utterance soon filled every corner.

The various shop-owners piqued their ears at the sound, lifting their heads from their business. For most, the voice

caused clear changes to their easy expressions.

“You…!” The guard reacted to the unconventional use of Discipline – if at this point he still hadn’t, he wouldn’t be worthy of the post. Without any further hesitation, he launched himself at the black-clad man. The surrounding area quickly grew populated as other figures arrived.

The man didn’t move, still as a statue. The guards who had gathered ran at him, their bodies glimmering with the power of their disciplines. Still he did not react – at least, not physically. Instead tumultuous gusts of hurricane-force wind extended from him, casting the guards away to distant corners like so many rag-dolls.

They screamed violently through the air, crashing to the ground – and yet, strangely, none suffered even the slightest injury. The winds were gone as quickly as they’d come.

Alone again in the darkness, the man in black stood. Calm, patient, he waited. Still as a shadow.

The guards had gathered themselves together, staring at the man with soured expressions. But none dared attempt another

assault. They simply surrounded him, and waited. They all knew well the disparity in power between themselves and this strange man. To continue fighting would only mean their likely demise. They didn’t even possess the capabilities of Skyfire Underground’s policing squads. Thankfully the man did nothing, and so they waited to see what would transpire.

After a short while, a figure did appear from the depths of the Avenue. The silver silhouette marched slowly towards them, like a star slowly moving through the inky night. The black-clad man watched them come. His face was calm, but his eyes… they were cold as ice.

Chapter 93: Lan Qing

With a flash of silver, the figure appeared amidst the gathered Skyfire guards.

“What’s this?” A frigid, clear voice broke the silence. As the words rolled along the wind, the temperature around the small group dropped distinctly.

The guards finally reacted, snapping to attention as the figure passed. “Captain!”

Silver hair cut to her ears framed silver eyes, complimented by a silver uniform. It was like she was made of metal – metal, or a block of ice.

“It was you who called?” She turned her frigid eyes to the man in black.

“Indeed it was. I’m looking for someone.” The man’s response was cool, collected. He seemed almost disconnected, relating news as though from a note card.

An Liu continued her questioning. “That’s how you call people?”

“I was told I can’t enter without a badge,” he responded. “When I stated I would call for him, the guard claimed that was fine. So I called.”

“Is that right,” she said, turning to look at the indicated guard.

“Yes, captain,” the guard hastily replied.

An Liu’s brows wrinkled as she considered the  situation. “Very well. As that is the case no rules were broken. You’re free to leave. However the use of your Discipline has disrupted the peace of our Avenue. This isn’t something we can permit. Should this occur again, my response will be decidedly less polite.”

“I’m only here to speak with someone,” the man in black affirmed.

“And who is that?”

“Lan Jue.”

“There is no ‘Lan Jue’ here,” An Liu offered flippantly. “And if there was we still wouldn’t know. We don’t ask such information of our Adepts here. As you aren’t of the Avenue, you must acquiesce to a badge examination. Register, pay the fees, follow the rules.”

“Is there a way to enter without this badge,” he asked once again, still calm and polite.

An Liu nodded. “One other way.”

“How is that?”

An Liu turned once more to face him. “As you disturbed me, causing me to come deal with this matter personally, your method will be more difficult than average. Survive an attack from me, and I’ll consider you cleared for entry.”

“Very well,” he answered.

An Liu raised a hand, and lightly reached for the man. The guards, as though fearing for heir safety, quickly moved to clear the area.

The man stood still, silent. He hadn’t moved, and the stony expression on his face hadn’t altered a hair. His dark eyes watched as her hand drew nearer.

Just as it seemed her hand would touch his face, the air suddenly suffered a dip in warmth. From the young woman’s palm, a blast of arctic wind shot forth and enveloped the mysterious gentleman.

Finally, he moved. Swift as a cool breeze, he retreated from the cone of cold. Her glacial grope was quick, but he was quicker. But while his movement was brief and simple, the location he’d so recently vacated had changed. In his wake there appeared a vacuous void. The freezing winds were harmlessly devoured in to it.

An Liu watched him withdraw, saw the void appear. The power of her cold discipline was drawn away in to the darkness, and then was gone. So strong was the resulting pull that it caused her to stagger forward.

“Hm?” Surprise crept in to An Liu’s silver eyes. She reached out again, and this time a beam of icy-blue light shot out towards the man in black.

He made no move to dodge. The beam raced towards him, but as it came within three inches of his person it suddenly fractured and split away. Bolts of blue light reflected in every direction, as though repelled by some invisible force. The black- clad man remained, unmolested. He stood now in a field of icy crystals, ten meters in diameter.

“I thought you said one attack,” the man said flatly.

The woman paused, looking him up and down. “So I did. I suppose you’ve passed. We still have some registration formalities, but you’re cleared for entrance in to Skyfire Underground.”

“Thank you.” He offered her a nod, a simple gesture of regard. His features and movements bore no excess effort. Only just enough as was needed.

An Liu watched him carefully. She knew her powers, could control their force. Though she had held back, that second blast

would have caused a seventh-level adept to struggle. Of course, it would only really freeze them temporarily.

But he shrugged it of like it was nothing. If it was so easy for him to deflect, then his power must be  something considerable…

An Liu felt she could handle the man if needed, but decided it still would require some looking in to. If he turned out to be a ninth-level talent, she would need to report his presence to the Council.

The man finished his registration procedures quickly, and was led by a guard to the Underground’s elevator. An Liu looked over his information as he did so.

“Lan Qing. Discipline; wind.”

The Avenue’s registration process was brief and cursory. They did this for the Adept’s secrecy and protection. However, there was something about the name An Liu recognized. She just couldn’t put her finger on it…

She needed to discover more. She turned to join the man in black, relinquishing the data to the guards.

ζ

The man in black, Lan Qing, strode from the elevator and paused to spy his surroundings. He watched in silence at the bustling, boisterous scene before him.

“Worthy of the name. Skyfire Avenue… it’s larger than expected.” There was praise in his eyes now, jostling for space amid his icy glare.

He walked slowly through the Avenue, his eyes sweeping along the storefronts. He took each one in carefully, as though searching for something.

“So who is this person you’re looking for? By the name I’m guessing someone from your family?” The frigid tones tickled his ear from behind.

“My younger brother,” he responded, though he did not bother to turn his head.

“I’ve checked the records,” An Liu stated. “There has never been anyone of that name who visited here.”

Lan Qing paused, then, and turned to look at her. “Thank you,” he said, but there was no trace of a thankful expression. Still, it put An Liu at ease.

“But he isn’t a visitor. He is one of your own number.”

An Liu blinked. “A shop owner? Then I certainly wouldn’t be able to find him by name. It would be a waste of time to try. Here our shop owners are known by titles. Are you familiar with your brother’s?”

Lan Qing paused in thought. “I believe I might. Ah, yes… I think he goes by, the Jewelry Master.” The name tumbled through the back of his mind, likely mentioned by Chu Cheng the last time they’d met.

“The Jewelry Master?” This caused An Liu to stop her lazy gait as well, and look towards the older man.

“Is there a problem?” Lan Qing fixed An Liu with his dark

eyes.

But it was her eyes that bore more interesting facts, for aside from their inherent icy depths, curiosity bubbled behind them.

The Jewelry Master? This is the Jewelry Master’s older brother? No wonder he’s so strong… but the Jewelry Master is lightning. His is wind?

“Nothing. We do actually have a Jewelry Master here. But I’m afraid you might have made the trip for nothing,” she said.

“Why’s that?” Lan Qing raised a brow at her.

“Because he isn’t here.” She shrugged a shoulder before continuing. “He left not long ago. I think there was something he needed to get done.”

“He left…” Lan Qing took the news with some level of surprise. Could it be his brother had finally gotten over his hardships?

“That’s right.” She nodded in conformation. An Liu couldn’t be sure everything the man before her had told her was true, but it was his appearance and power that convinced her to stick around a while longer.

“Would you mind directing me to his shop, so I can have a look for myself?” Lan Qing said after a moment.

“Not a problem,” she said without hesitation. This was no strange request. They walked in silence as An Liu lead them to the Underground’s iteration of Zeus’ Jewelry Store.

The Avenue was only two-thousand and forty-eight meters in length. It was an attribute shared between both the underground and Skyfire Avenue proper. Thus it didn’t take long before that telling blue façade and flickering lightning-bolt sign came in to view before them.

Sure enough, the store was closed. A sign had been hung on the door, confirming suspension of business.

“He took those four women, workers, with him. Maybe they went to restock.” An Liu suddenly caught herself, surprised at her words. She’d only just met this man, and yet she was telling

him all she knew. It certainly was out of character. Was it simply because he claimed to be the Jewelry Master’s brother?

“Thank you again.” Lan Qing stood before the door of the jewelry shop and stared in to it. He remained there, silent, as though in thought.

After a few moments he turned his attention back to An Liu. “When he returns, will he be coming back here? As far as I’m aware there is also a store on the upper Avenue.”

An Liu looked back at him. “I’m afraid I can’t answer that.” She was determined to answer no further questions from this man. She already feared she revealed too much.

“Oh.” Lan Qing paused once again. “Am I unable to visit the other shop?”

An Liu nodded her head in affirmation. “The avenue above is reserved primarily for citizens. Citizens of means. There are a number of evaluations required before you can enter.”

“About how many, do you suspect? What sorts of

evaluations?”

“Etiquette, style, wine and food appreciation…” An Liu rattled off the simplified list by rote.

Lan Qing listened earnestly. “Would I be able to undergo these evaluations now?”

An Liu was taken aback. “Take the evaluations? Those aren’t just about the strength of your Discipline.”

“If Lan Jue could pass them, so can I. We grew up together, after all.”

“I’d have to ask,” An Liu stated. “Is there a way you can prove your relationship with the Jewelry Master?”

Lan Qing said nothing, only reached for something in his coat pocket. He handed it to his inquisitor.

An Liu took the offered proof. It was a metal star, with five points. The surface had been polished to a mirror shine. It was

surrounded with a pale blue radiant light. At a glance, it was clear this was composed of something special.

An Liu turned it over, and what lie behind suddenly caught her eye.

“You’re…” She looked back up at Lan Qing, her eyes wide.
Disbelief caught her tongue.

Chapter 94: The Eastern Alliance Super Soldier

Finally she understood. She knew why the name had sounded so familiar to her. Finally she understood why she’d been so curious about the man in black.

On the back of the five-pointed metal star was a column of words. It was carved, and painted with a special coating that made it glow with a metallic light.

“Lan Qing, Commander-in-Chief, An Lun Planetary Military Command..” It was a simple string of words, but it nonetheless took An Liu by surprise.

She knew about An Lun. With the name of the place and this man together, she knew precisely who the gentleman before her was.

An Lun was a planet located on the border regions of the East’s celestial territories. It was the closest planet to the Northern Alliance, and one practically bursting with all many of power gems. It was a place of strategic importance for resources, and a military staging area. It was an endless expanse of mining and military personnel.

It was the land of legends – legends largely involving Lan Qing.

His background was a mystery. He first appeared on record as a simple infantry man, stepping foot on An Lun as a common mecha pilot.

One of the greatest legends was about that simple soldier, who carved a name for himself with nothing but the standard issue mecha the army had supplied him with.

Under the pretext of cleaning out pirate infestations, the Northern Alliance had sent a crack team of mecha pilots to An Lun. The clandestine operation was tasked with sabotage of the mining and military operations. It was Lan Qing’s third day in the armed forces.

The primary objective of the infiltrators was a simple one; destroy the largest power gem mine on the planet.

The Northern Alliance engaged with pirates in An Lun planetary air space, attacking unprovoked to provide cover for their mecha unit. The conflict drew the brunt of An Lun’s defenses to orbit for support.

Five hundred expert mecha pilots, sporting the latest in stealth technology. This was the squad that invaded while their support drew attention away to the skies above. It took them no time at all to reach their target. The mine, meanwhile, only had a hundred average infantry garrisoned in defense. Lan Qing was one of those.

In the opening wave of attacks the Eastern defenders had lost more than half of their number to the invaders. It was a crushing defeat that routed the garrison. It looked like the mine was lost.

Despite their victory, the Northerners discovered several of their number inexplicably missing. The Eastern soldiers, scrambling to retreat, discovered one of their number standing firm.

What Lan Qing then said to his comrades has been forever etched on the cultural memory of the East: “Make for safety. I’ll cover your retreat.” These simple seven words are what catapulted the simple soldier to heroism.

Against five hundred of the best the North had to offer. It was a suicide mission. More than that, their objective was sabotage. This was no deciding battle.

Indeed everyone suspected Lan Qing was sacrificing himself so his squad-mates could escape. What they didn’t expect was that Lan Qing would perform a miracle.

First, his masterful control of his mecha allowed him to set the surprise attack in disarray. He then utilized the native defensive systems of the mining facility to keep them at bay.

Losses continued to increase for the invaders. Eventually they broke through the defensive line of the mine’s systems, but their number had been reduced to three hundred. More than a hundred of those lost were at Lan Qing’s hand.

The Northerners were indignant and enraged, but still were on the cusp of completing their mission. However, Lan Qing’s audacity had not been spent. He still had a plan.

The mine they had chosen to attack was currently being used for storage. The gems housed therein were integral components for mechas of the time. They gave them their motive capabilities.

As his enemies gathered for their third assault, Lan Qing arranged a number of the gems together. He waited patiently

for the company to swarm in to the mines. Then he detonated the stones.

The resulting explosion was enough to obliterate half the mine, and a hundred mechas.

At this point the Northerners had suffered grievous losses. However, with the mine in shambles they considered their objective complete. What they couldn’t have known was that Lan Qing had detonated the front part of the mine – an area that had long since been mined dry. The richest veins still lied within, safe from the blast radius.

The infiltrators prepared to depart, but Lan Qing still wasn’t satisfied. As they made their retreat, Lan Qing was like a specter at their heels. Like the angel of death he picked them off one by one as they fled, with nothing but his standard-issue mecha.

He came and went with no more substance than a shadow. He struck with the force of a hurricane. Even to this day no one understood how he could know the terrain so well after only three days. But it was simple – he used every tool at his disposal, every ounce of knowledge and skill.

As the enemy’s numbers dropped to near fifty, their morale collapsed. They couldn’t stand in the face of this unbelievable assault. All they wanted was to escape. All their energy went to running.

Lan Qing was too exhausted to proceed. He’d single-handedly turned the tide of what should have been a massacre. There, battered and tired, he received a communication: the remaining enemy forces had been wiped out. The reserves at the mine had regrouped, returning to fight by their comrade’s side. Even two Master-Ranked pilots who’d come as reinforcements met their end.

Lan Qing had made a name for himself. In these short moments he’d become a hero of the East. His legend only increased when he refused his medals, choosing to have them honor his squadron mates instead.

Even those self-same squad mates thought he was nuts. The kind of psychopath willing to face five hundred enemy soldiers. Still, a triumphant psychopath. A hero.

As the conflict between the North and East continued, Lan Qing repeatedly proved his military talent. It didn’t take long for the East’s officer to realize he wasn’t just a genius on the

battlefield, but also far surpassed any of his peers in areas of strategy and leadership. They were skills that led him to victory in every skirmish he participated in.

He was eighteen years old at the time.

In the ten years following he remained on An Lun, at the forefront of the East’s conflicts. His intelligence and strength resulted in victory, for all two hundred plus battles he fought. Never once was he or his company defeated. His medals, accolades and commendations lead him to become the youngest Rear Admiral in the history of the Eastern Alliance. He was also given command of the entire military force of An Lun, and in that time the North hadn’t managed a single foothold or earned any beneficial victory. It was a post usually reserved for only the highest ranking military personnel.

He had yet to achieve the top posts of the military, but there wasn’t a soul alive in the East that wasn’t willing to bow to him as the Supersoldier of An Lun. The Northerners knew him as the Specter of Death. It was widely accepted that the East was the weakest of the Three Alliances, however Lan Qing insured they were able to maintain control of this most coveted territory.

Of course fame brought it’s challenges. In the criminal underworld he remained on the list of top ten targets for assassination, a list that changed extensively but for his name. That’s how important he was to the East.

This was the person who stood before An Liu. A hero, supersoldier, and commander of the Eastern Alliance’s most battle-hardened company.

Skyfire Avenue was detached from politics and the outside world, but that didn’t stop An Liu’s normally frigid exterior to melt before this storied Guardian of the East.

She took a deep breath and calmed her nerves. “I have to verify your identity,” An Liu stated, choosing intentionally not to use any honorific.

“Very well.” Lan Qing’s responses had become familiarly concise.

An Liu’s mind was a chaotic mess. Was this legend really the Jewelry Master’s brother? And here to find him. She decided his presence had to be kept a secret – others couldn’t know he was here on the Avenue.

“Wait here for a moment,” she ordered. “I’ll be back shortly.” After speaking she disappeared down the street.

Lan Qing walked slowly towards Zeu’s Jewelry Shop once again. He rested a hand upon the raised lightning bolt emblazoned on the door. He stood like that for the space of a few moments, then let his hand drop.

An Liu’s return was as quick as promised. This time, she’d brought someone with her.

“You shouldn’t be here,” the imperious tone of the man began.

Lan Qing stiffened at the voice, and turned to meet it.

The Wine Master stood at An Liu’s side, a hard light of disapproval in his eyes.

“You are…?” Lan Qing inquired.

“I am the Vice-Chairman on the Skyfire Avenue Leadership

Council. You may call me the Wine Master.”

“Then salutations, Wine Master. I’m here to speak with Lan Jue.”

“You claim he is your younger brother?” The Wine Master’s tone was suspicious, but inquisitive.

“Mm,” Lan Qing verified with a nod.

The Wine Master’s eyes narrowed. “Come with me,” he said, immediately making his way to the nearby elevator.

The procession moved to extricate themselves from the underground; the Wine Master in front, Lan Qing behind, and An Liu bringing up the rear.

An Liu watched the back of Lan Qing as they moved. She wasn’t sure whether it was panic or confusion that set her heart to fluttering, but whatever it was it was something she hadn’t felt in years. But there it was, as sudden and unsettling as a bolt of lightning.

The military commander was tall, straight, almost regal in posture as he moved. Nothing in his movements seemed forced or false. It was a posture that said he could face anything. She was convinced this man was indeed the Lan Qing she’d heard of.

A memory tickled at the back of her mind, the fact that his military achievements were paired with an accomplished Talent. In the world of Adepts he’d been named Prometheus. The God of Wisdom. One of four others titled after gods of Greek mythos, who together were named the Divine Monarchs. Adepts who were pushing the boundaries of becoming Paragons.

As they exited the elevator, it was as though the Wine Master and An Liu had forgotten – or simply disregarded – their rules. Lan Qing walked the Avenue above unmolested as they trekked to the Gothic Winery.

“Sit.” The Wine Master unceremoniously indicated a chair situated on one side of a simplistic table.

“A Francisco. Black Dragon, unless I’m mistaken.” Lan Qing glanced over the chairs and table.

The Wine Master smirked. “I’m pleased to discover you know

more than how to fight, Prometheus.”

Chapter 95: The Astral Phantom

“Where’s Lan Jue?” Lan Qing sat opposite the Wine Master, saying nothing more about his Prometheus remark.

The Wine went on with his line of thought in a gentle voice. “Of the Four Divine Monarchs, you’re the most well known. Supersoldier of the Eastern Alliance. The ‘God of Wisdom’. But with all that supposed wisdom, you still come here. Unless I’m mistaken, your name is number six on the Black List after you destroyed that Northern battalion masquerading as pirates.”

Lan Qing smirked. “The guy above me is called ‘the Astral Phantom’.”

The Wine Master mirrored his smile, but his tone was serious. “You shouldn’t have come. You’re brothers, you could call him to you.”

“He wouldn’t come,” Lan Qing said, shaking his head. “Otherwise he would have long ago.”

“Would you like something to drink,” the Wine Master inquired, suddenly changing gears.

Once more, Lan Qing shook his head. “I used to be quite the lush. But I haven’t had a drop since I was twenty. Alcohol impairs judgment.”

The Wine Master chuckled in spite of himself. “As well as your strength, hm?”

A hard glint shone through the admiral’s eyes. “You must never give your enemies an opportunity for attack.”

“The Jewelry Master is on the way back.” Once again, the Wine Master suddenly switched topics. “He should be here in roughly an hour. I assume he’ll go directly to his shop on the Avenue surface.

His guest nodded. “Thank you. I’ll wait.”

“Feel free to wait here. His shop is just across the way.”

“Hm.” Lan Qing closed his eyes. Like that – still, silent, blind – he remained.

An Liu remained standing to the side. As Lan Qing shut his eyes, his famously frigid exterior warmed by considerable degrees. The hardness of his expression eased as well, all but the area around his eyes which retained that steely resolution. His lashes were so long! Sitting like this, she could certainly see the similarities between him and the Jewelry Master. Even sitting ‘at ease’ his back was straight and his posture perfect – certainly worthy of a military designation.

“Ms. An, I’m sure you have other things to do than look after us,” the Wine Master said, mild-mannered and fatherly.

“Yes, sir,” came her respectful response. She turned and made her way to the door. As she moved past Lan Qing, his hand suddenly shot out and gripped her by the wrist.

An Liu’s reaction was swift, unconscious, and powerful. Instantly a suffocating aura of cold arose from around her. However, just as quickly she felt as though she had been covered by a blanket, an invisible force that stopped her powers from manifesting on the surface. She whirled around and stumbled to his side.

A thick dark spike, black as pitch, appeared directed at Lan Qing’s chest. But it did not pierce him.

The light around Lan Qing shifted, warped, and in the next instant he and An Liu vanished. The Wine Master quickly followed.

A stuffed, muted voice arose. It sounded like it was coming through the walls, from another room. The hoarse tones accosted them from all directions. “Ah, Cosmagus. It looks like I still arrived too late!”

As the voice faded in to the air, three shadows coagulated in to reality.

Lan Qing sat where he’d always been. He looked unchanged, unfazed. An Liu also had come to her senses, but appeared now on the opposite side of where she’d vanished.

The Wine Master’s face was hard and angry. “The Astral Phantom!”

An Liu understood then that Lan Qing had grabbed her to save her life. The warmth of his hand still lingered on her skin, but the expression that spread across her face was dark and cold.

“I’ll deal with him,” she said, stepping forward.

“No need.” Lan Qing lifted his arm to block her progress. She collided with his arm, and the brief impact caused her to lose her balance. As she tumbled the general grabbed her against his chest.

The contact was brief, but it nonetheless caused Lan Qing some awkwardness and surprise. As he grabbed her, An Liu’s firm, taught backside landed on his thighs. For the first time since their meeting outside the Avenue, he saw her as the attractive woman she was.

An Liu’s pretty face had grown red. “What are you doing?!”

Lan Qing shook himself from his temporary stupor. “Don’t bother going after him, there’s no point. He’s one of the Ten Paragons – the lowest of them, but his mastery is speed. There isn’t anyone in the Three Alliances that can match him. He can even fold space, create wormholes. Presumably he made his way here the instant he heard news of my arrival. He likely didn’t count on the Cosmagus being here.”

The Wine  Master’s response  was  level, but  cold.  “This is

something he and I will settle. His arrogance has been allowed to go unchecked for too long.”

Another rare instance of a small spread across Lan Qing’s face. “I’m assuming he panicked, once he realized you were present. After all, if there is anyone in the universe with the ability to control him and his speed, the three Paragons of Skyfire Avenue are them.”

The various Paragons had attached themselves in one way or another to different forces of the Three Alliances. Specifically, the Avenue had three Paragons in attendance. In the Western Alliance, the Pontiff’s Castle and the Dark Tower had one each. The Coterie from the North had two of their own. Three more existed, though their alliances lay elsewhere. This Phantom, the last counted among the Paragons, belonged to the largest and most notorious coven of assassins in all the known territories.

The Wine Master gave Lan Qing a curious look. “You survive an encounter with the Phantom, and you aren’t even a little shaken?”

Lan Qing’s response was lukewarm. “And what purpose do nerves serve? Were this An Lun he wouldn’t have dared moved against me. I can’t contest the man is exceptionally powerful,

but in the face of modern science and technology even the powerful can only achieve so much. Even as a Paragon, even at the peak of his power, his destructive ability isn’t unlike  a capital ship. But what if he faces a bigger ship? Stronger? All he can do is flee. My metaphor isn’t the most fitting, but in the world we live in there isn’t anything – Adepts included  – modern technology can’t overcome.”

“It appears my concern for you is unnecessary,” the Wine Master said thoughtfully.

Lan Qing did not respond. Instead, he shut his eyes and sat in silence.

An Liu’s breathing had, in the interim, become distinctly quicker. She stood, and silently watched Lan Qing for a few more moments before making her way outside.

As she exited the Gothic Winery a cold wind greeted her. Her eyes became sharp as she faced the zephyr. However, despite the chill a flush crept up along her cheeks.

He held me!

ζ

The high-alt verti-car hummed silently through the air until it reached the area of Skyfire Avenue. It’s door slowly opened, and the glint of lamp lights glowed prettily against the blue streamlined surface.

Four slim and graceful figures exited in tandem. Behind them, a mote slower, Lan Jue’s khaki windbreaker flapped as he stepped out. His face was still somewhat pale.

“It’s good to be home,” he said around a strained grin.

His assertions earned no response. Mika looked miserable. Ke’er and Lin Guoguo didn’t look much better. Xiuxiu looked like she was on the verge of tears.

“Alright, homeward bound!” Lan Jue good-naturedly patted Mika on the back. He took the lead as they headed for the Avenue.

The four women gave each other a silent look before hurrying to catch up with their boss. Behind them the doors of the verti-

car closed, and from outside it looked like there were no doors at all.

“Jewelry Master.” A small group Skyfire Guards snapped to attention as Lan Jue drew near. He gave them a polite nod in response.

A cold wind blew. The Jewelry Master pulled his collar tighter against the chill. His eyes swept along the Avenue, taking in the beautiful shops situated along it’s length. Unbidden, they became misty as he stared.

Three years. In that time, Skyfire Avenue had indeed become his home. Even when he’d escaped here in his grief, inconsolable, he felt as though he belonged. Perhaps it was fate.

Walking against the blowing winds, he made his way home. But his trek was interrupted as a sensation overcame him. He lifted his head, and looked down the dark street.

Skyfire Avenue was never very bright at night. The stores here rarely employed gaudy neon signs. It relied on natural light and the like for illumination. In the encroaching darkness he could make out a black-clad figure standing on the street before

him. Still, Lan Jue knew instinctively the man was there before he even lifted his head.

Lan Jue’s eyes narrowed at the sight. Slowly he came to a stop in the middle of the poorly lit Avenue. His body shook, as though he were in danger of collapsing.

“Boss!” Xiuxiu lurched forward a step to offer him support, but Lan Jue waved her off.

Ahead, the black-clad figure had turned to face them. Their eyes met, and though they were separated by a hundred meters the glint in their depths were clear.

A shadow fluttered past, and the man in black was gone.

“No!” Mika called out. But no sooner had she opened her mouth than Lan Jue lifted his hands. His body was cast away like he’d been struck by a freight train.

Xiuxiu was closest, and had raced forward to protect Lan Jue from the blast. Mika, Lin Guoguo and Ke’er were quick on her heels. However the force was too strong, too fast, and the four

women found themselves knocked back ten meters and thrown to the floor.

Lan Jue groaned, a trickle of blood snaking from his lips. He had been pale and frail, but now he looked like he was made of paper.

Lan Qing appeared where his younger brother had stood. He looked down Lan Jue, and the blood that was pooling beneath his cheek. Something burned in his eyes.

“Bastard!” Mika fumed like a volcano, moments from eruption. She scrambled to her feet and leapt in to the air. The Avenue became bathed in light as the crimson fires exploded around her. She launched herself at Lan Qing, becoming a screaming bolt of fire. An enormous trail of flame hung in the air where she passed.

Lin Guoguo’s brilliant eyes flashed like diamonds, and a surge of mental energy exploded outward. Ke’er, too, lept in to the air like her flaming sister. But where Mika’s fires where red and angry, a blue light erupted from her. In the midst of the blue halo her body began to change, twisting until it became a massive artillery canon.

Only Xiuxiu remained still. She stared at Lan Qing, frozen in shock.

The three amazons were terrifying blazes of energy, but Lan Qing acted like he hadn’t seen them. His eyes remained fixed on Lan Jue.

His brother’s trademark, lackadaisical smile was gone.  A scowl had replaced it; stubborn, cold, and angry.

Chapter 96: Brothers

Thunk! A massive, cyan hand effortlessly swatted the fiery lance from the sky. Mika went careening through the air.

The dazzling cyan light reflected off of Lan Qing’s dark eyes. He turned and fixed his gaze on the distant Lin Guoguo. She huffed in response, and the golden glow in her eyes began to fade.

Ke’er was preparing for her own attack when a hand covered in snaking bolts of electricity fell upon her. “That’s enough. Everyone stand down.” Lan Jue’s harsh voice stopped the women in their tracks.

Xiuxiu remained by Lan Jue, supporting him as he stood. Lan Qing, step by step, made his way towards his brother.

The howitzer-sized canon situated before Lan Jue had shifted again to the form of Ke’er. “Boss!” she called.

With her shift Lan Jue’s hand rested now on Ke’er’s shoulder.
He moved around in front of her.

Mika and Lin Guoguo wasted no time getting to their patron’s side. Zeus’ Amazons formed ranks behind him.

Lan Qing’s advance stopped three meters before his brother, and he slipped his hands in to his trouser pockets. He struck an impressive figure in his black suit, facing the small group in front of him with indifference.

Mika, Guoguo and Ke’er watched him carefully. Now so close under scrutiny, they felt he looked familiar and turned to peer at Lan Jue. Surprise overtook them as they immediately spotted the resemblance between this black-suited man and their boss. About the only thing markedly different between the two men was their temperament.

The man they faced was like a rock; hard, cold, unforgiving.
Lan Jue was elegant and placid.

“What do you want.”

“Are you hurt?”

The two men spoke at the same time, then became silent.

They were of about the same height, and shared many similarities in appearance. The brothers stood staring at one another in the growing darkness.

There they were in the middle of the Avenue, but surprisingly no guards or enforcement personnel were present despite their brief scuffle. In fact, it seemed like there was nothing, no one around them. Just Lan Qing, Lan Jue, and the Amazons.

“Young Master.” Xiuxiu spoke up, her voice timid.

[tn : 1. A title generally reserved for stuffy British aristocracy, here it means the eldest son of a rich family. It’s the closest phrase I could think of to express what she’s trying to say.]

“Young master?” Mika, until recently ready to spit fire, and the three others all looked at her in curiosity.

Of all the Amazons, Xiuxiu had been with Lan Jue the longest. While the other three were close with their boss, they weren’t as familiar. Not longer after they joined him, he chose to live here in seclusion. Now, hearing Xiuxiu’s address and seeing the similarities between the man and their employer, the others understood. But if that was true, why would he attack first

without a word?

Lan Qing’s dark eyes narrowed. “Who was it.”

Lan Jue’s face was equally as cold as his brother’s. “None of your concern. My business, I’ll deal with it.”

Lan Qing took a step forward, though whether to say or do something wasn’t immediately clear. What was clear, was the almost instant and unspeakably violent sensation that filled the air around him as he did. All four Amazons shifted uncomfortably as the murderous aura enveloped them like a nightmare. Even Mika, titled the Stygian Succubus, turned ghastly pale in the face of it.

Lan Qing’s ordinarily dispassionate façade had changed, curdled and grown hard as a lust for blood shone behind his eyes. The fear that welled up inside the girls was hard to imagine.

Lan Jue appeared unmoved. The chill in his voice remained. “I said, it’s none of your business.”

After a moment, Lan Qing’s suffocating aura and his dark expression melted away. For Xiuxiu and the girls, the sudden shift felt like they were standing on the cusp of an abyss. Any misstep and they could get lost in it.

Xiuxiu had still managed to retain her composure, but her three sisters were on much less of an even keel. How strong was this guy! Just his presence was almost enough to reduce them to sniveling balls of fear.

Mika had been affected worst. There was a difference between her own powers – a power, a terror derived from darkness – and his. What she felt from him was pure, unadulterated bloodlust. It was something only one who’d killed many, many people could know. And yet there was something else there, unexplanable. There was a sort of stateliness, or nobility. The two forces seemed opposed, and yet there they were – integrity, nobility. Barbarity.

“Fine! Keep it to yourself. I’ll just go back, and let him know.” Lan Qing’s voice was soft, even. His features had again returned to their solemn default.

The cool regard he’d given his brother changed with the assertion. An anxiety crept in to his voice. “No you wont!”

Lan Qing’s features softened as he regarded his younger brother.

“It was because of me!” Mika stepped up to her boss’ side as she spoke. “He was protecting me. That’s how he got hurt. The men were from the Pontiff’s Castle, and if you’re really the boss’ brother those are the men you should seek out for revenge. Not here, making him worse. Can’t you see how bad his condition is?”

“The Castle,” Lan Qing growled. “Which one of the Archangels was it.”

Lan Jue just looked at him. Mika, her prickly manner making an appearance, snarled at him. “Archangels? This is my boss, why not guess the Pontiff himself?”

“Were it the Pontiff,” Lan Qing answered quietly, “and he’d brought you four – you’d all be dead. If it were he himself, he’d have managed to flee. But I know him… understand him. That weakness, weak will.”

“Who are you calling weak?!” Ke’er’s anger flared.

Her challenge was ignored. Instead Lan Jue’s brother stepped forward and reach a hand out as though to grab him.

Ke’er pushed herself between them, to block Lan Qing’s advance. However, she was pushed away by a sudden fierce wind exuded from the black-clad general. In response, four beams of cyan light flashed through the air, cutting orbits around Lan Jue’s position.

An ear-splitting squeal filled the air, as four ragged gashes appeared from nowhere. The four women looked on helplessly. Lan Qing’s hand had reached it target, taking hold of his brother’s left wrist.

“It’s fine,” Zeus assured his Amazons.

A moment later, Lan Qing relinquished his hold. “Let’s go,” he said quietly.

“Mm,” came Lan Jue’s reply. He then turned towards the Jewelry Shop and began the walk home.

Meanwhile the four women watched, struck still in confusion.

“If you would, the four of you please stay in the Underground tonight. I’ve got some things to talk about with him,” he said, pausing just long enough to speak over his shoulder at them.

“… boss!” Mika stuttered towards him in hesitation.

Xiuxiu, however, had begun to pull at her. “Let’s go,” she said, making for the public elevator nearby. They all fell silent in tacit consent.

Lan Jue continued to make for the Jewelry store, as did the women; one above, and one below.

ζ

“Xiuxiu, what in the hell is going on? Who is that guy?” They had arrived at the elevator by then, and Mika could contain her confusion no longer. Lin Guoguo and Ke’er looked similarly perturbed by these events, but said nothing.

“That,” Xiuxiu said, “was the Young Master, Sir’s older brother by birth – Sir, of course, being the boss. By the time you three had come, he’d made me stop calling him that.”

Lin Guoguu’s expression was afire with curiosity and surprise at the gossip. “He’s fierce.. frightening! That power that tore the air… so powerful! I almost ran right in to it. The boss certainly knows some unsettling people. But if they’re brothers, why would he show up and immediately start beating on his sibling? What kind of family is that?”

Xiuxiu’s vexation was clear as she shook her head. “I can’t say. I’m not at liberty to talk about anything relating to the boss’ family. Just this… you’ve heard of the Four Divine Monarchs? Three others, with names like our Zeus.”

Ke’er shrugged. “We knew he was the Monarch Zeus since we met him. You’re not saying his brother is one too, are you? There was Prometheus, Hades, Zeus and Poseidon – named after the most powerful gods form Greek mythology. So… which one was he?”

“The most famous one,” Xiuxiu responded.

Lin Guoguo couldn’t help herself. “First of the Monarchs… the supersoldier of An Lun… the god of wisdom. Prometheus!”

Xiuxiu nodded.

“Ahhh!” Lin Guoguo veritably squealed. Her three companions jumped in surprise.

“WHAT are you doing?!” Mika glared at her.

Lin Guoguo was almost shaking. “Prometheus used to be my idol! When I started following the boss I’d asked him if he’d take me to meet Prometheus. At the time he didn’t say anything. And now, to find out he’s the boss’ brother is just the best! Ah, man! I wanna go back up and see him again.”

In contrast to Guoguo’s excitement, Ke’er’s face had grown sour. “The supersoldier of An Lun. What’s so great about him?”

Guoguo stopped, stunned, and shot her sister a look. “What’s your problem?” Mika is the one who responded, fixing Guoguo with a meaningful stare. It didn’t take long for her to realize what it meant, and immediately shut her mouth.

Ke’er, however, had already calmed down. Her face softened as she spoke, and took her companion’s hand in her own. “I’m sorry. I was just… thinking about before. I didn’t mean to, and I shouldn’t have. Ever since I chose to follow the boss I gave all that up. Here, this, this is my family now.”

Lin Guoguo almost tripped over herself to reply. “It was my fault. I forgot you were from the Northern Alliance. I’m so sorry, Ke’er.”

Mika grinned at the pair. “Alright, let’s go. We can continue all this jaw-waggling on our own turf. It’s hard to know who’s listening out here.” She pushed the call button for the elevator for emphasis.

Lin Guogguo snickered suddenly. “You guys think the Accountant got back? My guess is he wont be back for a little while. Wasn’t our fault the verti-car could only hold five. And public transport is the worst. Just thinking about the look on his face when we left him back there makes me laugh, hah!”

ζ

Zeus’ Jewelry Store.

Ting ting. The doors situated above the door rung prettily as they entered. The lights were off, and the interior was blanketed in darkness.

Lan Jue made no move to turn on the lights to the exterior. He continued on until reaching the inner rooms, only then illuminating their surroundings.

Lan Qing followed silently behind. The two brothers stood, quiet, bathed in gentle light.

Lan Jue settled himself on the nearby sofa. Little by little, his hard expression eased. Lan Qing remained standing, facing his brother with arms crossed over his chest.

“What do you want from me,” Lan Jue began, his tone markedly inhospitable.

“Nothing,” his brother replied.

Silence.

“So tell me, what’s with that girl. For the Castle to send out it’s Archangels after her, they must have known she was with you.”

Lan Jue’s response was swift and angry. “Why do you have to stick your nose in my business? You should get the hell away from me.”

“Because I’m your brother!”

Chapter 97: Lan Qing, Lan Jue

“Because I’m your brother!” The words struck Lan Jue like a slap to the face.

It was the first time he’d heard anything like that come out of his brother’s mouth. A look of incredulity overcame his features, but vanished as quickly as it had come.

“Mika was of the Dark Tower. Satan’s daughter, and his successor. Satan’s blood, his power, lies within her. The strongest of his brood. If that taint isn’t controlled, the consequences could be catastrophic. She’s trapped between two powers; the Pontiff’s castle, which seeks to exterminate her, and the Dark Tower which seeks to exploit her – to lose herself in the madness and bloodlust as a reincarnation of Satan. But Mika… she’s got a good heart. It was on the cusp of the Awakening when Satan’s power was consuming her that she came to her senses. She ran.”

“Later we crossed paths. I took her in, taught her to suppress the darkness, and brought her here. So long as she didn’t use them, Satan’s power would never awaken. It’d be locked inside her forever. Not long ago I let my presence slip. Something… caused me to forgo caution. The Castle found me, manipulated me to bringing them to the Shattered Starfields. There, we

faced the Angel of War, the Messenger of Death, the Angel of Healing and the Cherubim. Michael, Gabriel, Raphael and Uriel had set a trap for us. Luckily it was the Moonfiend Empress who warned me to their presence. I was able to prepare, otherwise I’m afraid we really would have died out there. That, is what happened.”

The recounting was short, succinct. Lan Qing listened, lapsing in to silent consideration once all was said. A few moments passed before he lifted his head, and regarded his brother. “And you still wish to help her?”

“Why would anything change now,” he responded.

Lan Qing nodded. “Very well. You’ve made your decision, time to follow through. For this, there’s no need to get the Avenue involved. You don’t need to go chasing after the Castle’ s people, either. As I see it, the Avenue already knows. As is their custom they’ll cover things up, handle what they need to. From now on, you shouldn’t leave Planet Skyfire. Under the Avenue’s protection neither the Pontiff nor Satan would dare come knocking. Your own abilities should also be sufficient on your home turf for self-preservation. As for the girl, make sure she doesn’t go anywhere, either.”

Lan Jue’s eyes narrowed, and anger shone in the depths of his eyes. But whatever his thoughts, they weren’t given voice. Silence hung over them for a time.

After a while Lan Qing spoke again. “Your wounds are serious. You shouldn’t draw on your Discipline for a while, or you could make things worse. You’ll need at least three months to recover.”

Still, his younger brother was silent. A flash of  hesitation came across Lan Qing’s features. “Do you want me to stay?”

This took Lan Jue by surprise. He lifted his head and asked, “Do you have time?”

Lan Qing nodded.

But Lan Jue’s sardonic smile returned. “Since when does our illustrious supersoldier of An Lun have time… go, I can manage by myself.”

Lan Qing’s response was brief, and tepid. “Then rest up.” He turned and left without another word.

Ting ting! Once again the sound of the door chimes ringing hung in the air. Alone with the silence, a pained look came across Lan Jue.

“Brother…”

ζ

Lan Qing shut the door behind him, but didn’t move towards the Avenue’s exit. Instead he leaned against the wall of the shop and looked towards the twinkling heavens.

Beep-beep! The communicator on his wrist interrupted the silence. He answered.

“Admiral, when can we expect your return?” The man’s voice on the other end sounded urgent.

“Family matters. For the time being I wont be returning,” he answered.

“But Admiral, as I’m sure you know, the delegation will be

arrival in half a month. Will you be ready to receive them by then?” The caller sounded even more agitated by the news.

“I’m afraid not. Tell them I took leave for personal business.” His expression was blank and stony as he spoke to the man on the communicator.

“But, sir, this could impact your promotion. Admiral…”

He unceremoniously cut the connection. He’d already put the message out of mind, instead letting his thoughts dwell on that day, those message, three years ago.

“Brother, something doesn’t seem right. Hera might be in trouble. You’re closest, go help her.”

“Is your mission really that important? Hera’s your family!
I’m begging you to go save her!”

“Brother…”

“I’m sorry, A-Jue!” The words were bitter in his mouth.

“What are you doing here?” The voice came from not far off.
A flash of silver, and suddenly there was another beside him.

Lan Qing shot her a glance. “You’ve been lurking for a while already. Don’t pretend this is some chance encounter. What do you want.”

An Liu stuttered, flustered. “Y-“

“Do you have a cigarette?” The admiral turned his head to ask her.

“Eh?” An Liu blinked at him. “I thought you didn’t take anything that could impact your judgment.”

“Right now,” he said, “I’m not the admiral.”

“Wait a moment.” With that, An Liu disappeared in to the darkness. When she returned, she bore a packet of cigarettes and a lighter.

He opened the packet and slapped the base. A single stick

poked free from the opening. He plucked it out and, running it under his nose, took a whiff. Something like regret shone in his eyes. “Do you remember? I was eighteen, you were fifteen… we were curious, so we stole away with a cigarette and sat smoking in the thicket. So strong. We couldn’t stop coughing. It was so bad that he heard us and found out what we were doing. Beat us both.”

“Wh-…” An Liu looked up at him in confusion. Clearly she couldn’t understand.

Lan Qing didn’t elaborate. Instead, he lit the cigarette and took a long, slow drag. Almost instantly he started to cough, the smoke bursting forth in plumes. “Ach! Kha!” The sudden coughing fit was so violent it brought tears to his eyes. Still, he was smiling through it all.

An Liu felt her heart skip a beat. That electric jolt that ran through her, was a feeling she could never get enough of.

“Are you alright?”

Lan Qing, coughing, took another drag on the cigarette in lieu of a response.

Ting ting! The familiar sound of the Jewelry Store’s bells made an appearance once more. Lan Jue pushed the door open and exited, stuffing his hands in the pockets of his windbreaker. Wordlessly he settled beside his brother, snatching the pack of cigarettes from his hand. Like his brother before him, he slapped the bag, pulled a stick, and lit it.

An Liu watched them both, silent and unsure what to do. Her first thought, Are these two sick in the head? Her second, though, was that her presence here wasn’t for the best.

Silently, she faded in to the surrounding darkness.

The cigarette was quickly spent. Lan Qing’s face was red cough coughing. Lan Jue’s wasn’t much better.

“Wouldn’t it be nice to just go back,” Lan Jue said, his voice heavy with remorse.

“Go back?” Lan Qing cracked a bitter smile. “Lamentation is the crutch of the foolish. Right?”

Lan Jue rolled his eyes. “Always the realist.”

“No, not realist. Pragmatist, maybe. No point in dwelling on the things we can’t change,” he countered quietly.

Lan Jue frowned. He pushed himself straight, stuffing his hands in his pockets once more. “Whatever you say.” He walked back towards the door to the shop.

Ting ting! He stopped in the entrance and turned his eyes towards his older brother. “I’ve never blamed you. Never. I just blame myself. Tomorrow you go ahead and head back. I’ve already told A-Li, he said he’d come. Plus I’ve got Xiuxiu and the other girls. Nothing will happen.”

“Hm?” Lan Qing hadn’t moved, and turned his head to look at Lan Jue.

The Jewelry Master’s hard expression melted away. “I always wanted an admiral as a brother. It’s something I take pride in. And it looks like I’m on the edge of a breakthrough. You better hope I don’t catch up to you, or I’ll beat you just as badly as you used to beat me.”

Lan Jue disappeared from site as the door shut behind him.

Lan Qing remained where he was. He remained still for what felt like an age, before extricating another cigarette from the pack, and putting it between his lips.

Another smoke was pulled free, but this one was thrown to the darkness, towards An Liu.

“Don’t skulk around. Join me in a cigarette.”

An Liu plucked it from the air and made her way back towards the admiral. Wordlessly she took the lighter from him, and lit the stick. “You know, you can really lay low a person’s self- confidence.”

Lan Qing smirked and shook his head. “It’s fine. We’ve been like that ever since we were small.”

An Liu gave him a cool look. “I was talking about me!”

ζ

Early Morning.

Lan Jue’s outfit today consisted of a coffee-colored shirt under a white business suit. A white neck tie hung around his neck. He looked, as usual, meticulously put together.

Breakfast had been prepared for him by Xiuxiu, and it was wonderful.

“Boss, did the Young Master leave,” Xiuxiu asked nonchalantly.

He nodded. “Early this morning.”

The news elicited a sigh of relief. “You and he…”

Lan Jue shot her a quick look. It was enough to kill the sentence before it left her mouth. “I’m going to the university today,” he interrupted. “I’m afraid if I stay away much longer they’ll fire me.”

Xiuxiu looked at him nervously. “You want to leave the Avenue? But your condition…”

He cut her off again with a shake of his head. “I’m not so fragile. Still Planet Skyfire, still Skyfire City,” he assured her with a smile.

Xiuxiu screwed up her courage. “Well then how about I go with you.”

Her boss laughed in spite of himself. “So you really do think I’ve got one foot in the grave, eh?” He lifted a finger and waggled it at her. A thin bolt of electricity writhed at the end. “Take it easy, nothing’s going to happen. I haven’t forgotten I still have to look after you crazy girls. Besides it’s been a long time since the store’s been open. You need to be here to help manage things. I’m off.”

Lan Jue pushed his way out of the jewelry store. It wasn’t his first excursion since returning, but nonetheless he still looked up and down the street before proceeding.

By the storefront a small pile of cigarette butts had accrued, and he felt as though the smell of smoke still hung in the air. It somehow brought a smile to his face.

“This time I came out the victor. Probably the first time in my

life.”

His high spirits persisted as he left the avenue, got on his bicycle and made for the NEU. The rattling chain of his bicycle gave sonance to the beautiful scene of clear sunlight, fresh air, and warmth as the young man made his way to work.

Chapter 98: Returning To Work

Jin Tao bobbed his head, setting his pink hair swinging manically as he made his way to school.

Man, Professor Lan hasn’t been around for a while. When are we gunna get another class? I mean, how much longer is he gunna be gone?

Jin Tao glowered at the ground in front of his feet, suddenly in a sour mood.

The day after Lan Jue’s ‘lesson’, Jin Tao had been beaten so bad he was practically begging for death. He had to take several days off school. But he swallowed the pain, and refused not only to visit the hospital but also the probing questions of his family.

However, it had seemed worth it. To his surprise, once the pain had cleared and his wounds had healed, he did  indeed notice a change in his Discipline. Before his abilities only allowed him to change in to a pug. Now the base of his abilities got him to the level of a wild dog. It was absolutely a big change!

With the discovery that he was improving, Jin Tao’s body had

stopped aching so desperately. On the contrary, he was eagerly looking forward to more instruction from his new instructor. But to his dismay, when looking for Professor Lan he heard from his sister that the master had taken leave. One class and suddenly he’s absent for so long? Certainly a capricious guy! He’d visited the yard behind the electives building every day since, but Professor Lan was never there.

Still, Jin Tao’s performance in school had leapt forward at least as much as his discipline had. Maybe it was the inspiration he got from that first Etiquette class, or maybe it was the better control he had over mechas since his Discipline’s cultivation. Whatever the means, a quiet self-confidence had grown within Jin Tao. It may have been small now, but it was an improvement that everyone could see.

Ding ding! The sound of rattling bells sounded nearby, jolting Jin Tao from his gloomy trudge.

“This blind moth-… hey, Professor Lan!” He’d scuttled to the side and swung around, ready to curse out the source of the bells when he noticed who it was. Lan Jue stood behind him, one leg planted on the floor and the other on the pedal of his antique bicycle, staring his pupil up and down.

“Hey,” he replied.

“Ah awesome you’re back.” Jin Tao’s rush to greet his master was so sudden and so intense Lan Jue had to lift his arms to protect himself from the onslaught. He kept his student at bay by the shoulder, and just in time otherwise he’s afraid Jin Tao would have trampled down on top of him.

“What are you doing,” Lan Jue said, glowering dubiously at him.

“I-it’s me, Dumb-mutt. You don’t recognize me?” Jin Tao almost shook with excitement.

“Sure I do,” Lan Jue said. “You’re the little pig-faced one I beat right?”

Jin Tao vigorously shook his head like a tambourine, his pink hair flopping about comically. “Nah nah. Pig-head was Fatty Tang. I’m the mutt.”

Lan Jue frowned at him. “Why so anxious to be the mutt?”

Jin Tao chortled. “What’s wrong with it? Dogs are loyal, bright, strong, good runners, have an excellent sense of smell and are man’s best friend. It’s my discipline… how can I dislike myself?”

His tirade had taken Lan Jue by surprise. He didn’t expect such a response. “And what are you doing blocking my way?”

“Waiting for you to beat me again! You probably don’t know, but when you beat me the last time my Discipline advanced by leaps and bounds. Go on and beat me, I can’t wait to get better!”

Lan Jue caught him in a sharp glare. “If you want the whole school to find out about it keep up the yelling.”

Suddenly Jin Tao became keenly aware of his surroundings. He’d forgotten where he was, about their agreement in his excitement. Now, several students on their way to classes had stopped to give the two strange looks. He winced, his face growing stern as he shuffled closer to his teacher and dropped his voice to a whisper.

“Sorry, my fault. Don’t worry about it Professor, our secret. Between master and apprentice. No one will find out about it.

So how about it, when ya gunna beat me next?”

Lan Jue shook his head and smirked. “Still looking for a beating. Noon, I still need to go to the office and report in. Go and tell Tang Xiao as well. After lunch – wait, no, don’t eat. Waste of calories. Just come to the yard behind the electives building at noon.”

“Got it!” Jin Tao was practically bursting with joy. He whooped excitedly as he raced off. Lan Jue watched helplessly as the youth raced madly towards the school.

Frankly speaking he had no interest in taking on an apprentice. His main purpose that day was to provide a catalyst for that pitiful wretch Tang Xiao to better himself. He wasn’t interested in wandering around, randomly smacking around students. He’d also stimulated the guy’s discipline with his own thunderbolt 1 powers so he wouldn’t feel he’d suffered the beating in vain.

As for Jin Tao, he couldn’t tell whether he should have considered himself lucky or unlucky. A chance meeting. And so Lan Jue did what was asked of him, of course boosting Jin Tao’s abilities as well. He hadn’t expected he’d run in to him again today. The guy had sampled the sweet taste of improvement,

had learned he can improve. And now Lan Jue knew he wouldn’t get any peace. But it really did look like the kid had gotten better.

So did he really inadvertently acquire two new disciples? It would appear so, but these two guys? One so pathetic he associates with a wild dog, and the other morbidly obese. Whatever, he’ll deal with it as it comes. This time, he thought, he’ll beat them harder. They won’t come knocking tomorrow.

National Eastern University. Teaching Affairs Office.

Wu Junyi stared at the suited young man in front of him. After a long moment, his sour countenance broke to reveal a smile.

“Professor Lan. You’re finally back with us.”

Lan Jue’s response was offered with sheepish expression. “Director Wu. Please accept my apologies, asking for leave just after starting classes. It was an emergency, but it’s been dealt with. I’m ready to get back to classes at your convenience.”

“Immediately, naturally,” Director Wu replied. “Of course you wont be receiving a salary for last month – since you weren’t here. As you’re aware electives teachers don’t have a base pay.”

“Ah, good.” Lan Jue was just pleased he hadn’t been fired.

Wu Junyi went on. “After listening to your class it got people really thinking! Professor Lan, under your guidance I think our students could enjoy a distinct advantage. You even got my heart going there. How about this – we set you up with your own, school sponsored ethics course. You can teach these kids how to act like proper members of society. It’d be a much better situation than your Etiquette classes, and if things go well you’ll be a full professor within three years.

“Huh?” Lan Jue hadn’t expected such a response, and repeatedly shook his head. “No, no it’s fine Director. Really, you’ve already done so much and I’m certainly not qualified for the position. Really I’m only suited for this small area I’m teaching. I believe it’s best if I just continue with the Etiquette course.”

Director Wu gave him a regretful look. “Very well, we’ll keep it as is, for now. You earned a good reputation with the students

after that first class. Quite a number hope they have the opportunity to enroll in your course. If you’re prepared, you can have your next class tomorrow. I’ll have an announcement made to let the students know. From then on, two classes a week. If things go well, and the benefit to the students is good, we’ll consider making your Etiquette class a standard course.”

“Excellent. Thank you very much, Director Wu.” His response was earnest and hasty, though in his heart he was  secretly hoping it wouldn’t come to that. Two classes a week was already more than he wanted.

With the situation explained, Wu Junyi bade Lan Jue return to work. As head of teaching affairs he had a full plate, after all. Though he greatly appreciated the skill and effort of this young man, mecha studies and research had to come first for the NEU.

As he exited the offices, Lan Jue lifted his arm and peered hesitantly at his communicator. After a few moments of consideration he tapped out a brief message.

I’m back

ζ

Beep! Zhou Qianlin was attentively listening to a lecturer when she felt the communicator on her wrist buzz, and issue the quiet sound. Almost by unconscious habit her eyes immediately went to the screen, and she spied those two words.

A tremble went through her slender body, and a flash of pleasant surprise flitted across her face. However, it was quickly replaced with a bitter expression. She pushed the thoughts away, and turned her attention back to class. At least that was her intention, however only a few seconds had passed before her eyes wandered again to her communicator. Her red lips pursed ever so slightly, then evolved in to a nasty, impish grin.

Her fingers raced over the buttons, tapping out her own response.

ζ

Beep!

I’m in trouble. Trouble you brought! Come get me from the scholar classroom immediately! Class is done  in  twenty minutes.

Huh? Lan Jue stared at the message. Trouble? Trouble he brought?

He felt the icy grip of fear squeeze his heart. Could it be the Pontiff’s Castle, looking for revenge?

The anxiety grew until it almost threatened to overcome him. But then, it was gone. No… no it couldn’t be the Castle, he thought. They only knew he was on Skyfire, part of the Avenue
– not what he was doing here. Plus if it were, she wouldn’t be so relaxed about it. It had to be something else.

I have to keep my head! But… if it’s not that, why should I bother?

He shook himself free of the conflicting emotions, and made his way towards the classroom. He tapped out a message on the way.

ζ

Suddenly you’re not afraid the other students will know about us?

Zhou Qianlin glared daggers at the message. She responded: It’s a big problem, you need you take care of it right away, the quicker, the better. If it means the other students find out I know you, that’s a risk I’m willing to take. Just tell them you’re my cousin.

ζ

“Cousin…” Lan Jue was speechless. How could he ever pass as her cousin? And this is Hera’s sister…

Fine, cousin it is.

Chapter 99: The Savage Goddess

The classroom for National Scholars was located in the post- grad building. It was the most strict and rigorous area on campus, home to the most talented – and fortunate – students the NEU had to offer. Be it safety, learning environment or any other measure of respectability, the post-grad section of campus had the best of the best. And, average students were barred from entering.

In this, Lan Jue’s status as an instructor served him well. He proceeded unmolested to the classroom Zhou Qianlin had indicated. He pushed his way in to the post-grad building and took the stairs to the third floor. He followed the signs and quickly arrived at his intended destination. He stopped when he came across the sign.

Second Year National Scholars, Classroom Four.

Yup, this is the place. He stopped before the door and took a look at the time. Still ten minutes before class was slated to end.

It was then he discovered he wasn’t alone, standing there in the corridor. He was a handsome man, with blond hair and blue eyes, and a whip-thin figure. A strikingly large diamond stud

twinkled on his left ear. The youth, seeing Lan Jue stop not far off, also swept his eyes over the newcomer.

He gave the kid a smile – and then froze. He knew, just then, that he’d seen this young man before. Could it be? That day, at the wedding… luminaries abound… was this the young man who was there to marry Zhou Qianlin? The man whose bride he stole?

It was, and if it wasn’t for his intervention that day, this would be Zhou Qianlin’s husband.

He was locked in place, thoughts running chaotically through his brain. His heart thumped raggedly in his chest. But despite what happened, what followed, he felt no pang of regret 1.

“You a teacher?” Richard asked.

Lan Jue simply nodded. He followed Richards eyes to his own clothing and understood why he might have asked.

“Good morning, professor,” the young man greeted politely.

“Good morning,” Lan Jue returned. He nodded, forcing that languid smile back on his face. He was no fool, and quickly deduced that the ‘trouble’ Qianlin had described was standing right in front of him. But it was strange… he was from the Western Alliance, and the wedding that day was as much for them as it was for political insurance. When it fell through, it was undoubtedly a great shame on both their illustrious families. In the face of a situation like this, what was he doing here? In school? In uniform? It was, in a word, weird.

Richard continued his polite inquiries. “Are you here looking for someone?”

“I am,” he said, nodding once again. “My cousin.”

He shot Lan Jue a bright smile. “Oh great! Your cousin goes to school here. I’m waiting for someone as well. My wife.”

“Wife?” For reason unknown, hearing those two words coming from the young man’s mouth made Lan Jue want to punch him in the face.

“Yup! The most beautiful girl in school. She should be finishing school soon. Look for the gorgeous one – that’s her.”

Richard was almost bloated with pride.

“Oh.”

Richard’s tutors were good and, seeing Lan Jue had no interest in speaking further he himself lapsed in to silence. He returned to his languid pose against the nearby wall and watched the door of the room, as though capable of seeing what was going on behind it.

It wasn’t long before classes ended. As the bell rang and students filed from their rooms, the once quiet hallway burst in to pandemonium. The door to the classroom opened and a teacher exited – no, a model.

The instructor wore a pair of pressed black pants,  a  short black blazer and a white shirt. Her black hair was pulled in to a tall bun on the top of her head, and black-framed glasses hung on her pert nose. But despite her severe choice of clothing, Lan Jue wasn’t off-put – but rather, intrigued.

The woman couldn’t have been older than twenty five – not much different than Lan Jue himself. Her big eyes were fetching, but it was her figure that caught one’s attention. She

bore a graceful charm, the confidence and experience of an adult. Each curve of her figure seemed to go on forever, a playground for the eyes.

Richard, however, upon seeing her, unconsciously slid a little behind Lan Jue to hide.

“You again.” Her eyes, sharp like razors, landed instantly upon Richard. “I’ve told you already, stop harassing my students. I guess my warnings don’t mean any more to you than the air it takes to speak them. I honestly don’t care who you are, this is the National Eastern University. Three times already you’ve done this, and you know what they say about three strikes. We’re going to the teaching affairs office.”

She swept past Lan Jue like he didn’t existed, and grabbed Richard by the shoulder. “P-Professor Tan, now just wait a moment,” he said. “I’m not harassing Qianlin. I’m just here to meet her after class. I’m her husband!” He sputtered as Professor Tan tugged him along, and he likewise lifted a hand to resist.

But despite his protests Professor Tan appeared determined. Her tugs were fierce, and Richard’s poor attempts to extricate himself bore no results. She was like a force of nature, pulling

him effortlessly through the hall. Richard’s struggles faltered when he suddenly lost control and feeling in half of his body, rendered nearly paralyzed by a shuddering gust of power from Professor Tan’s hand.

“Ah, Ah!”

She was fierce! As Lan Jue looked on he was immediately reminded of Mika. The two were remarkably alike in  some ways.

“And you are you?” Her piercing glare had turned to him, then. “At least this one’s wearing his uniform, which you have failed to do. You’re coming to the office, too.”

She hadn’t even finished before her right hand reached out like a claw for him.

“Ah?”Lan Jue opened his mouth, but she wasn’t interested in an answer. Her fingers stretched closer. Lan Jue had recognized right away when she reached for Richard that hers was an uncommon Discipline. But it was just that, uncommon. Nothing he had to worry about.

Almost without thought, Lan Jue raised a hand. Were this any other situation, the motion would have been sufficient to stop Professor Tan’s advance. But he’d forgotten that he wasn’t Zeus here – and regardless, an injured Zeus.

A blast of energy exuded from the Professor’s hand. Lan Jue, meanwhile, felt his upraised palm tremble. He tried to urge his Discipline to action, but a dull pain filled his chest and nothing happened. It was just enough time for Professor Tan to grip him with a pinching grip to his trapezius. The numbness that filled his body was almost instantaneous. Even his face froze up.

How novel! It was the first thought that entered his mind. Here he was, King of the Mercenaries, Ninth-Level Adept, with the power of Thunder and Lightning at his disposal, even capable of defeating the best the Pontiff’s Castle had to offer… snatched up by an angry teacher.

He couldn’t even remember the last time he felt like this! Professor Tan humphed in agitation and stomped off down the hall, dragging Richard and Lan Jue behind her.

Richard’s wide, innocent eyes shot towards Lan Jue. Zeus, meanwhile, was suffering from crippling unbidden facial convulsions. He wished desperately to employ his Discipline to

escape the embarrassing situation, but this woman’s own capabilities were nothing to scoff at. Her claw-like fingers dug painfully in to his shoulder, and with his own body weakened from injury he found it difficult to fend off even the slightest assault.

Is this to be my piteous end, dragged to death like a dog?
Disgraceful, utterly shameful. And my suit!…

Now, the only thing going through Lan Jue’s mind was the desperate desire that as few people as possible saw what was happening to him. But reality would be cruel and deny his pleas. Nearly every eye in the hall was on them. Teachers stood by their open doors, and every student was pressed along the walls. It was a nightmare, only real and happening before his twitching eyes.

“Professor.”

“Hello Professor Tan.”

“Good morning Professor.”

She stomped past each overly polite student. With each greeting Lan Jue keenly felt their eyes following him. Gone, all gone! His illustrious name. All he could do was shut his eyes and wish for death. Professor Tan, meanwhile, nodded to each of her greeters and kept on.

ζ

Zhou Qianlin never liked the crowds when classes ended. As a result she was often the last to leave the classroom. He must be here, she thought. Richard too. I wonder if he saw him…

Richard had enrolled and arrived at school only a few days prior. Since then, he’d come calling after every class, for all the world acting like they were a wedded couple. Of course by any measure, ceremonial or legal, the two of them had no relationship. But Zhou Qianlin had been patient with him. She felt guilty – but the reason…

She pushed past the door and stood in the hall, looking left and right.

“Eh? Where is everyone?”

The trepidation in her heart from seeing the young men again subsided, replaced by confusion.

“The Savage Goddess put on another display, lost art of torture and public humiliation. The two guys didn’t even see her coming, poor bastards. Looks like she was in a bad mood today.”

The words of the passing student reached her ears. Savage Goddess? That’s what they call Professor Tan. Nice enough lady, but that temper…

It was likely Richard was the victim. He’d already tried several times to meet her here, and the last time was explicitly warned against it. But the second? It couldn’t… was the second Lan Jue?

The concept flabbergasted her. How could that be, with Lan Jue as strong as he was? Professor Tan was something else, but surely no match for him.

ζ

Teaching Affairs Office.

“Director Wu, these two gentlemen have been harassing my students. I demand they get an official warning and reprimand from the school.” Tan Lingyun practically howled her demands.

“Eh? Professor Lan? What in the world are you doing here? Didn’t you just get back, and now you’re harassing students? Ugh, Professor Tan let go of him immediately.” Wu Junyi stared slack-jawed at the teacher who’d just moments before he was praising.

Lan jue’s eyes were still shut tightly from shame and grief.

Gone! Finished! My reputation!

Chapter 100: Apprentice?

“He’s a teacher?” Tan Lingyun, like the Director, looked at Lan Jue in astonishment.

The Director rounded on his female colleague in anger. “Lingyun! Again with this temper of yours! Clearly you acted without thinking and dragged the poor instructor all the way down here. Let – go – at – once! And what would happen if you hurt Professor Lan with that crushing grip of yours?”

“I, eh…. I didn’t know.” Tan Lingyun released her death grip and Lan Jue crumpled to the floor like a sack of potatoes. Without his discipline to protect him, the pain was excruciating.

“Oh, I do apologize.” She immediately stooped down and helped the great mercenary king to his feet.

Upset could not begin to describe the look on Lan Jue’s face.

“Why didn’t you just say you were a teacher?” Tan Lingyun’s eyes widen, her tone accusing.

“And what opportunity did you give me to do so!” Lan Jue shot back in indignation.

Tan Lingyun’s shock only deepened. She took a good long look at this Professor Lan. His meticulously teased black hair, thin body, handsome face, fine white suit and bowtie. Only, the suit had been coated now with dirt, and hopelessly wrinkled.

She covered her disgrace with anger, narrowing her eyes and glaring at him. “What kind of man are you, anyway? You’re an instructor of the National Eastern University, and you don’t employ a Discipline to defend yourself?”

Lan Jue almost gagged, but in the end his response was muted and dejected. “Fine… you win.”

She snorted scornfully, then turned away. “Director Wu, I’ll leave this to you. Take care of this young pilot, because if I find him skulking around my classroom again I won’t be held responsible for my actions.”

Richard’s scowl was deep and bewildered. “I was just there to meet my wife! What’s wrong with that?!”

Tan Lingyun squared her shoulders and glared down her nose at him, full of a domineering arrogance. “First, this is not your house. This is a university. The only relationship we tolerate between students in these walls, is as schoolmates. If you want to go meet your wife, meet her at home. Second, Qianlin has never acknowledged you as her husband. This marriage you have concocted is all wishful thinking, with no legal documents or proof to back it up. Therefore, if I ever see your face again I will be formally submitting a request to have you expelled from school.”

“You!” Finally, Richard’s temper spun out of his control. The faint aura of his discipline began to exude from around him.

“ENOUGH!” Wu Junyi’s thunderous voice rang through the office, cold and commanding. Richard suddenly felt a devastating pressure bearing down on him. The sudden fear that filled him helped to control his temper.

“Professor Tan, you may go. I’ll deal with this.”

“Goodbye, Director Wu.” Tan Lingyun gave him a curt nod, turned, and left. As she stomped out she muttered, just loud enough to hear.

“No kind of man at all.”

Both Lan Jue and Richard stiffened visibly at the insult. They looked briefly at each other, unsure to whom she was referring.

Director Wu watched ‘the Savage Goddess’ leave, helpless. “Professor Lan, this was a misunderstanding. I apologize on behalf of Lingyun. And as for you…” Wu Junyi’s eyes shot quick and fierce to Richard. “I’ll deal with you momentarily. Stand to the side.”

Lan Jue made his way from the teaching affair’s office and back towards the teaching building he was so cruelly thrown from. As he did, a cold gust followed. He shivered and hunched in his suit, burdened and bleak. But more than the chilling breeze, there was that ineffable feeling lingering in his heart. Such was life! In the end, at least it was interesting. A laugh come unbidden from his lips, then. Could I be some sort of masochist?

“So I’ll assume everything’s fine, with you smirking to yourself like that.” The sultry voice arose from nearby. He turned his head, and sure enough there she was. Zhou Qianlin stood behind him, only a short distance away. The look on her face was more inquisitive than accusatory.

“Yup, everything’s fine! Why wouldn’t it be?” Lan Jue stuck out his chest in prime manly fashion.

Zhou Qianlin advanced towards him, a knowing smirk on her face. She ran a hand through her long, silken hair. “Your clothes are soiled.”

“Oh, this…” His squirmed.

“Let’s go,” she said, dropping the issue and any further questions.

The two walked side by side, and as predicted there was no shortage of curious glances directed their way. The title of School Beauty wasn’t lightly given, after all.

“Did you recognize him?” Zhou Qianlin’s voice was low as they meandered through the university.

“Mm. Your fiancé,” he replied.

Zhou Qianlin lifted her eyes to stare at him. She found a face

as still and calm as the surface of a pond. “That’s right, and he’s here for me. What do you think I should do about it?”

Lan Jue blinked. “That’s up to you, how should I know?”

Her face stiffened, but a huff of laughter soon followed. “That’s right! It is up to me. Even though I’m a ‘soiled woman’ I think he’ll still want me. No problem then, you can go!”

Her pace quickened and she pulled out in front. Lan Jue came to a stop, making no effort to follow. He watched as she slowly vanished in to the distance. His features never changed, no expression revealed, except perhaps that shade of gloom returning. He turned the opposite direction, and began to walk.

Electives Building.

“Are you serious? Listen kid, if you’re messing with me you know what’ll happen.” Tang Xiao crackled his knuckles, glaring fiercely at Dumb-Mutt Jin situated before him.

There was a real fear in Jin Tao’s eyes as he tittered nervously. “Look, buddy, how am I messing with you here? You

shouldn’t keep treating me like before. I mean, now we’re the same – we’re both apprentices under the same master!”

The fat on Tang Xiao’s face jiggled perceptibly. “Fellow apprentices? I really have no idea what Professor Lan was thinking. A guy as insignificant as you, working with him? I mean he can oscillate!”

“Oscillate?” Jin Tao’s eyes popped and he almost salivated at the prospects.

Tang Xiao laughed patronizingly. “That’s right, oscillation! Otherwise how could I be sure of his abilities as a master instructor? Only… he surely is a tough one. I still feel the beating he gave me.”

“Did your Discipline…” Jin Tao whispered cryptically.

His compatriot’s eyes hardened. “It’s a secret. How am I going to share that with some mangy dog.”

“Tang Xiao,” Jin Tao growled. “I’ve tolerate your insults for a long time. If you keep talking down to me, I’ll –“

Tang Xiao replied by puffing out his expansive chest. “What are you gunna do? That sentence is the best way to describe you. Not to mention you look like a mangy dog. For other people, a tall forehead means intelligence, but you prove the saying false. What’re ya gunna do, man, bite me?”

Jin Tao snorted derisively. “And you’re better? You’re growing in the wrong damn direction. When you were born whatever monstrous thing created you had to apologize for the error!”

“You are REALLY looking for an ass-kicking!” Tang Xiao’s hand shot out, looking to grab his opponent by the neck.

“Professor!” Jin Tao’s call froze Tang Xiao but only for a moment. He snagged Dumb-Mutt by the collar and grinned hideously in his face.

“Don’t give me that garbage. A three year-old wouldn’t fall for that nonsense. It’s not time yet, and the professor isn’t here. I could stand here and curse his mother and nothing would happen.”

“Is that so?” A dispassionate voice wafted over in reply.

Tang Xiao went stiff as a board, his jiggling fat swallowing that malicious grin. Slowly his expansive girth turned, and he addressed them an behind him with perfect propriety. “Oh, professor. You’re here. I-I was just messing around.”

Lan Jue’s hands were stuffed in his trouser pockets. He looked at him, then to Jin Tao, and nodded. “Hm, not bad. Both of your disciplines have improved. But it’s not enough. I’ve been on a business trip, and just got back. Are you two serious about learning with me?”

Before Tang Xiao could even open his mouth, Jin Tao practically leapt forward, falling to his knees before Lan Jue. Flop.

“Master, I am absolutely serious. I beg you to accept me as your student!” He assurances came as he bowed low to Lan Jue’s feet, so deep as to bang his head on the floor.

The suddenness and intensity of Jin Tao’s actions stunned both Tang Xiao and Lan Jue speechless. Students bowing low to instructors like this, what year was it?

Tang Xiao’s jaw set, and he bowed as low as he could manage.

“Sir, I’m also determined.”

Lan Jue pulled Jin Tao up from the ground, and shook his head. “Good. That being the case, from now on I will also genuinely consider you both my disciples. However, if at any point in the future you do not acquiesce to my commands, any relationship we have as student and master is immediately dissolved.”

Jin Tao was overjoyed. He practically shouted at his new master. “Professor, whatever it is, just tell us what to do.” Despite his incessantly arrogant demeanor, it was clear the boy was no idiot. He and Tang Xiao were different, to be sure. The latter was talented, an ace student. But this one? It was fair to say that here, he was nothing. If it wasn’t for his sister’s position as a teacher here, he’d never have passed muster to join the school.

It was Jin Tao’s customary state to be uncaring, aloof, even dismissive. However, in his heart he did strive for dignity. This was increased when he listened to Lan Jue’s speech that day in class. On that day, he became even more determined. He wanted to be a prince among men, to be a true noble. In his eyes that meant he first had to grow strong. With strength, the most basic requirements for greatness would be met. That is why without hesitation, without question, he threw himself to the floor

before his master. He needed to prove his sincerity.

“Go on… beat him!” Lan Jue jabbed a finger at Tang Xiao, he stared helplessly at his teacher. “You may fight  back,  but neither of you may use your discipline.”

“Heh!” A devilish light shone in Jin Tao’s eyes, and as he slowly advanced on his pudgy opponent his grin became predatory.

ζ

“Jin Tao is nothing but a damn rabid mongrel. Insane, and nobody wants anything to do with him. No, not that. He’s a rabid mongrel who blindly follows a master. I’m convinced he’s only pretending to be a madman most of the time! He shouldn’t be called the Frenzied Lion Mastiff, no. They should call him the Scheming Idiot!”

Memoirs of the Metal Fox, Army General Tang Xiao

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“That fat-ass Tang Xiao isn’t worth being called a human. A brain full of filth and obscenities. Anyone who becomes his enemy doesn’t dare give him a chance to open his fool mouth, otherwise even if you come out the victor you’ve still given him what he wants. The best method is simply to beat him. Beat him to within an inch of his life. Until he can’t even open his mouth. If I was tasked with giving him a nickname, it would be this: the Fathead Porkbucket. That suits him best!”

Memoirs of the Frenzies Lion Mastiff, Army General Jin Tao

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