Chapter 521: Unexpected
Lan Jue gulped. “Mom, you must be busy…”
Luo Xianni answered with a charming smile, then sashayed away from them looking for all the world like a care-free young woman. But who would dare tell her that to her face!
“Your Majesty, has your aunt always been this terrifying?” Chu Cheng asked the Wine Master.
The Wine Master shot him a look. “She taught me everything I know. At the inception of the Avenue, my aunt was the most experienced fighter we had. She would have been chosen our leader, except her terrible temper wasn’t suitable for the job. Even then there weren’t many who knew her, and she wasn’t one to brag about her strength so most never knew. She stopped coming to the Avenue frequently, until eventually she disappeared for thirty years. I haven’t seen her in a very long time.”
The others exchanged quiet looks. Lan Jue’s mind, though, went back to what the Clairvoyant had told him. At the height of the crisis, he was to find the hidden Paragons littered through human society and recruit them against the threat. He didn’t
give it much thought at the time, since the ten recorded Paragons were the only ones known, not included the Avenue’s recent additions. However, since then he’d had a number of unexpected run-ins with Paragons, each one stronger than the last. How many secret Paragons were there, hiding under rocks in distant galaxies?
What’s more, the longer Lan Jue spent on the Avenue the deeper he became embroiled in its secrets. The Clairvoyant’s time had come, but his machinations would continue long after he passed away.
The Pauper and the Pharmacist were the future Paragons of the Avenue, and unique additions at that. His brother was set to lead the charge, with no obstacles on his path. If in the future that included himself and Qianlin, than Skyfire Avenue would be by far the wealthiest nation in regards to Paragons. The East would never need fear for their defense.
Everything had the Clairvoyant’s fingerprints on them. The Eye of Tomorrow’s greatest strength was never on the battlefield, it was controlling the fate of humanity.
Ignoring the rest, the oppressive power of the Photographer was enough to instill fear. She was stronger than the
Terminator, and even back in the day she was a better fighter than the Clairvoyant. She could only have improved since then. She was the only Paragon knew, aside from Jue and Celestial Master Qian, ever to reach Nirvana.
“Wine Master,” Lan Jue asked in curiosity, “what is mother’s Paragon title?”
The Wine Master thought quietly to himself. “She doesn’t use it often. Usually she prefers ‘the Photographer.’ I’ve forgotten what it was, I suppose you’ll have to ask her.”
Lan Jue turned to Lan Qing. “Shall we go, then?”
His brother nodded.
The group bade farewell to the Wine Master and left. They didn’t return to the Jewelry Store – it was too small – so they went to the hotel that had been arrange for Lan Qing and the others.
Lan Jue led them from the Avenue, and drove them in to the city.
When they arrived, Lan Qing pulled him aside. “A-Jue, I have something I want to discuss with you.”
Hua Li and Chu Cheng left for their respective rooms. Lan Jue followed his brother so they could talk.
“Ask your question,” Lan Qing said. He waved his hand, and a pale green aura hung over them.
Lan Jue nodded. “You’ve taken the step?”
Though Lan Qing had been the one to invite him in, he’d done it because he saw the glint of doubt in his brother’s eyes.
“Yes,” he said. “And no. My situation now is similar to your re-cultivation. The further I walk the path, the more I see my Path. To do that, this step needs to be done as slow and careful as I can. I never re-cultivated, and your foundation now is already better than mine. Without that benefit, slow is better. If I control my Doman and pay attention to its changes, it will remold me. Then I will learn all its secrets.”
Realization dawned on Lan Jue’s face. “No wonder!”
He’d sensed something was off during their fight. Lan Qing was holding something back, even though he was as strong as ever. He could feel the power lurking underneath, and it made him shiver.
That final, fateful step could happen at any moment. All Lan Qing needed to do was be calm, be patient, and maintain control.
Lan Jue’s latest race to catch up with his brother had seen some strides. Lately, his improvement had been incredible. Still, it looked like the gulf between them was as vast as ever!
He wasn’t discouraged, though. On the contrary, the extra challenge was motivating.
Lan Qing handed him a bottle of water. “You’ve made some very impressive strides lately. But what’s going on between you and Qianlin? There’s got to be some problem you’re going through. Will it affect your cultivation?”
Lan Jue sighed. “It was a misunderstanding, but there’s something else separating else. She wants to tell me something, but this confusion is making it harder. I’ll deal with it, don’t worry. It won’t affect my cultivation. But I want you to know, if I agree to establish a division here, I won’t be able to help you.”
Lan Qing shook his head. “I don’t need your help. An Lun has organized its own Bloodiron Khans, a mecha unit of Adepts like yours but weaker. We’ve gathered crack soldiers and we’re going to train them to fight in units to improve coordination. If you need help with anything, ask.”
“Alright.” Lan Jue said with a nod. “I’m out, then. You take it easy.”
Lan Qing followed him as he rose to his feet. “What do you think will happen with the Clairvoyant?”
Lan Jue considered for a moment. “Right now I’m not sure. I guess he’ll announce a successor. That’s what the Avenue needs most. What Hua Li said was right, the East is on the upswing. The North and West are going to be much more vigilant. When the fighting starts we can’t rely on anybody. We’ll need to watch our backs.”
Lan Qing nodded sagely. “I’ve long believed the only one you can rely on is yourself, and the soldier at your back. You be careful. Winning the tournament is going to be a double-edged sword for you. You’ve got a big target painted on your chest, so if I were you I’d stay put a little while.”
“Yeah,” he agreed.
Lan Jue rose, wished his brother a good night, and left. His fights today with Chu Cheng and Lan Qing had improved his understanding of Taiji. Victory and defeat were both vehicles for improvement. Since it was so rare for them to get together like this, it was good to take the opportunity to test themselves.
He left the hotel and was heading for his car when a sudden chill spread through his chest. It was unnatural fast and sharp.
Without hesitation, Lan Jue reached out and slapped the hood of his car. The Jewelry Master dissolves in to a hundred thousand bolts of lightning, then vanished. He appeared a moment later inside the car. His lightning’s conductive nature allowed him to pass through the metal.
His eyes snapped to the window. In the space where he had
stood, a tranquil gust of energy swept by. If he had been even a second late, he had no doubt that energy would have pierced right through him.
Lan Jue didn’t dare waste time. All at once the car and everything around it was swallowed up in a ball of electricity. Lan Jue’s hands were brought together in a circle which galvanized his Taiji powers to create a field of energy.
Even as his powers surged, Lan Jue could see reality around him draining of color. He could see everything, but it was all reduced to shades of black and white.
Domain! A Paragon!
In that moment, Lan Jue felt a chill boring in to the center of his back. He knew who this was.
He had to rely on area attacks, it was the only way to deal with them. He wouldn’t be able to tackle a Paragon in a straight fight, but if he bought enough time his brother might notice something wasn’t right. It was his only hope for survival.
As though to taunt him, a shadowy figure appeared just outside of the car’s windshield. Lan Jue’s plan had been to become electricity and get lost in the forest of lightning, but his opponent’s timing was masterful. It left Lan Jue with nowhere to hide, against a foe who stood amidst the sea of lightning like it wasn’t there.
As a thunderbolt Adept, one of Lan Jue’s specialties was speed. However, he was surprised to find that somehow his speed was being restrained. It wasn’t just that his foe was faster
– which they were – but that his agility was curtailed. His enemy’s Domain was doing this.
An entry-level Paragon’s Domain was strong enough to overcome any Adept. No matter how strong, the difference between a normal Talent and these superhuman beings was enormous.
In this instant of crisis his body reacted instinctually. The familiar swirl of black and white as his Taiji powers swelled appeared at his back. Lan Jue’s hands thrust forward together, and his body shook as a shell of consuming lightning surrounded him. One-Inch Guard!
Phu! A spear of ethereal power pierced his defense like paper,
and buried itself in Lan Jue’s chest. Thankfully, the One-Inch Guard lived up to its promise. The attack narrowly missed his heart. There was no pain, only an instant of cold. Even that was short lived as a breath later he felt a crazed flush of energy rampage through his chest. He was going numb.
Chapter 522: Blocking Daggers
This small victory was thanks to the One-Inch Guard. Without it the evil energies would have been far worse. The poison would have been injected right in to his organs.
As things got more chaotic, Lan Jue grew calmer. He did not fluster, because losing his cool meant death. He reacted by shutting off all the meridians in his chest and creating a defensive net of electricity around his Core. Everything leading to it was locked down. The toxin and the rampaging force it rode in on couldn’t invade.
His eyes blazed as they filled with golden light. A stately and commanding aura poured from him.
“Stagnate!” The deep voice boomed from Lan Jue. He was like a star, blazing in the center of the black and white vortex.
Everything slowed, like they were stuck in a mire. He could see a black dagger in the air – the dark image that had attacked him.
Ascension, and protogenic command! His One-Inch Guard had
bought him the opportunity to call on his full strength. It had been some time since he’d had to use his Ascension, but it benefited from his deepened protogenic understanding just like everything else.
“Eh?” The whispered gasp of surprise came from all around. The dark weapon became translucent, and from it radiated rays of impenetrable darkness. Gold and black fought in the skies overhead, while color returned to the world below.
This showed the disparity between an Adept’s comprehension and true Domain. After all, Lan Jue had not entered in to the Realm of Protogenia. He was simply an Adept, and fleeing the full force of a Paragon’s Domain would be very difficult.
His struggle continued as he shoved his palms forward, delivering nine palm strikes. They spread all over the area before him.
This crucial moment was the time to go all out. The One-Inch Guard bought him time, so did the Ascension command. He could hit like a Paragon, but he had to join the powers of yin and yang with his lightning to get there.
The first time he’d tried protogenic lightning was during the DreamNet battles. He led the Driver through the process of joining their Disciplines, yin and yang. Results were mixed.
After some training he and the Driver tried again. His comprehension of Taiji was better by then, and he came to understand protogenic lightning more deeply.
His Ascension, meanwhile, was protogenia – but there were degrees. The Domain he was fighting against could only be commanded by someone who had truly broken through. Protogenic lightning was different. It was a single attack, not a sustained state. He could cross the barrier to Paragon-strength if he could condense it in to a single attack.
It was the same power he relied on to win the Great Adept Tournament.
That time he’d been joined with Qianlin and commanded the power of a peak-level Adept, with one foot in the Realm of Protogenia. Now his Discipline was dropped to ninth level fifth rank. Summoning protogenic lightning was going to effort. His Ascension did serve to boost his abilities, but to bring yin and yang to its brink with protogenic lightning would require power he did not possess.
He watched as the yin and yang energies reached their apex, could feel his internal energies failing to meet demand. It was ravenous, even the phylactery stone would serve no use. Lan Jue bit his tongue and drew upon every ounce of power within him. Success hung upon this singular moment. He would life, or die for his cause.
He suspected his enemies would send men after him. His failure had been in underestimating how soon, and how violent their pursuit.
Clang! The golden light scattered. The world regained normal speed as the Ascension command was overcome.
The darkness closed in from all around. The dagger reemerged but translucent as before, details hidden beneath an unnatural blur.
Just in time, for in that moment a column of lightning exploded out from Lan Jue. Protogenic lightning lanced out every which way, warping reality in its wake. Even the swirl of black and white behind him warbled threateningly.
“Ay?” The surprise sounded as countless holes appeared in the
shimmering world of black and white. The evil energies assailing Lan Jue seemed to calm, but only for a moment. Soon the world was back as it had been. Lan Jue had used up everything he could.
He was finished!
He’d done the best he could. Only once you faced a Paragon did you realize how powerless you really were. His protogenic lightning had been strong enough to cut through his enemy’s Domain, but only for a moment. He thought it must have been enough to get Lan Qing’s attention, but his brother was nowhere to be found. It was too late – the final blow was near at hand, and even Lan Qing couldn’t contend against this Domain.
Just as hopelessness was threatening to overwhelm him, Lan Jue was blinding by a beam of white light. All of a sudden, he felt like he was nothing. The enemy Paragon’s Domain was slow to close, which allowed Lan Jue to slip through. The living dagger cut at the beam, but couldn’t stop Lan Jue’s retreat. In his place there appeared the stifling aura of a Paragon, and a rain of cyan energy.
“Hmph!” The irritated grunt reverberated through the air. All of the hues of black and grey were swallowed up in to a single
point, then blinked out of existence. It looked like nothing had happened.
Lan Qing, his face pale and livid, descend from overhead followed closely by Chu Cheng and Hua Li. Another group of figures appeared swirling with protogenia.
“No–!” Lan Jue’s body bucked and shook, down to his very soul. He could describe it, other than to say it felt like his heart was being carved out of his chest.
He was in a dim room with stone walls. Refracted colors danced across them as light filtered through stained glass windows. In the center of the room a pale figure rested in the arms of a woman in a snow-white dress. They were a dramatic centerpiece to a drab scene.
A few moments ago Lan Jue was sure death had caught up with him. But then, a familiar energy. Summoning! Yes, it was
the intrinsic bond he shared with Qianlin. Everything was gone, only Qianlin holding him protectively. Then, through that portal a tendril of evil power lurched through. It was quickly repulsed, but not before digging in to Qianlin’s body. She threw herself between him and the killing blow.
“No. No! Qian. Qianlin, wake up! Don’t die! Wake up!” Lan Jue gathered her in to his arms now, holding her tight. Tears covered his face, his emotions unmitigated. He felt the soulless hand of death with its grip on his heart, strangling every beat.
Qianlins’ face was white as snow. IT was amazing how quickly blood left. Her eyes were wide and unfocused. He could see the light of life within them start to dim. She never said a word, all through the terror and pain. Not a single word.
She knew it the moment Lan Jue fell in to the ambush. Right away she turned her whole focus to him, thinking only of him so as to summon Lan Jue out of danger. But the Paragon’s Domain had cut him off.
Her heart had been full of fear, much worse than Lan Jue’s. She’d cried bitter tears as each attempt to summon him failed. She focused on the hate she felt for the idea of never seeing him again. She prayed desperately to exchange her life for his.
Then, when that dagger struck, she was filled with an unspeakable sorrow. As the darkness came down on her, she welcomed it.
In the end it seemed her prayers had been answers. Her desperate tries had summoned him to her side, but in exchange she took his place. It was a choice she made consciously and willingly by putting herself between him and that mortal blow.
Fresh blood stained her favorite white dress. Flows of deadly energy slithered through Qianlin’s veins. Their enemy had managed to infect her with his poison, and now she looked up at Lan Jue’s tear-streaked face with no way to say what she felt. It was a cruel sort of torture.
How did this happen… ?
Qianlin’s life was quickly slipping away. The poison had managed to overcome Lan Jue’s blockages as well, and surged through his meridians. The Jewelry Master set his jaw, his face full of a grim resolution. If they were to die, then they’d die together.
He’d watched helplessly while Hera died. He couldn’t bear to
have another woman he loved die in his arms. Dying together wasn’t so bad.
The morbid promis swam in his brain as Lan Jue looked in to Qianlin’s beauty, hazy eyes. He dropped his head, and kissed her pale lips. They were cold, so cold it made his heart skip shudder. But he didn’t pull away. He kissed her deep and long.
We’ll die together!
This single thought echoed again and again in his head. A lone anchor as everything else slipped from his mind. Nothing existed anymore, just her lips and her smell.
Sure as the rising sun, Qianlin’s body was slowly consumed by light and fused with Lan Jue. They would bear this pain together, he inwardly assured her.
As his meridians spread the rapid increase of power, he felt the cold and numbness consume every inch of him. IT was Qianlins’ power, and that poison. It was all through him now, too.
Lan Jue sat, his chest heaving. If today is the day it ends, then I’m ready to go with you!
He stared ahead with hard, firm eyes. All the locks sealing the poison in place gave way.
He felt the potent toxin flood through him like a tsunami. Soon it infested every meridian and every vein. A poison this strong would kill a normal man in under two hours.
Chapter 523: Antitoxin
As Adepts he and Qianlin were more resilient than normal people. But, like any poison, once the Paragon’s toxin spread through him it would spell his death.
The assassin’s blade cut through the fissure in their Domain, but couldn’t strike accurately. The dagger struck Qianlin as she placed herself between it and its target, but luckily it missed any major structures. Now that they were joined, both of them would defend against the poison together. But if they failed, they failed together as well.
Lan Jue clenched his jaw, aware of every moment the cold and numbness ate at them. Thankfully, joining brought his Discipline – and thus defense – up to peak level. His Core was desperately injecting his meridians with energy to protect them and counteract the poison’s corrosion.
Sharp pain sharpened Lan Jue’s focus when he bit down on the tip of his tongue. A golden corona of energy sprang out around him as he called on his Ascension. This poison was from a Paragon. He thought – he hoped – that protogenia could help him defend against it.
Lan Jue had his suspicions as to the identity of the assassin. He’d discovered a number of hidden Paragons, but the famous ones were widely recognized. There was only one on that Paragon List who was an expert in both speed and poison; the once-weakest Paragon, the Astral Phantom. After this brief encounter, Lan Jue placed the assassin ahead of the Karmic Scholar or Infernal Vanguard.
What could be more terrifying than a superhuman assassin? He’d attacked Lan Qing a number of times, forcing the super soldier to rely on several methods to keep himself alive. He was the only one of the Phantom’s targets still walking around. Likewise, Lan Qing owed some of his impressive power growth to the constant assassin threat.
At least for right now, Lan Jue was part of the very short list of survivors. For how long, was the question.
Paragons were already creatures of unfathomable power. They became the thing of nightmares when they choose to specialize in murder. It was too fast, too sudden. Lan Jue had been smart enough to respond right away, but he was fighting a Paragon! The only one who could compete was someone on the same level.
Lan Jue took personal control of the flow of energy through his meridians. He needed to carefully direct it to combat the poison. Perhaps he could force it out.
“I command you to stop!” Lan Jue’s voice was low and dictatorial. Suddenly, his entire body became flooded with resplendent golden light. He looked like a statue made of precious gold. His Ascension command had stopped the blood in his veins. Lan Jue wouldn’t be able to hold it for long. He was still human, and without moving blood he would soon be dead. But it was his only choice.
Sadly, he soon discovered his efforts fruitless. This poison was too strong, he could feel it eating away at his cells. How could you expel something that was destroying you on a cellular level? The words of command would help him live a little longer and stop the spread of the poison, but without a way to remove it from his system it was only delaying the inevitable. Even the Phylactery Stone couldn’t help.
Qianlin, I don’t know if you can hear me. I just needed to tell you I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have left you, and you shouldn’t have had to suffer so much because of me.
I love you, Qianlin. Whether or not you love me back, I love you with my whole heart.
But no, I shouldn’t be saying this nonsense. After everything you’ve done how dare I question your feelings? It’s me who’s wrong. Me.
Lan Jue’s heart was full of regret. The bitter realization that is was too late was crushing.
Qianoin didn’t answer. The poison must have put her in a coma. Hopelessness and a whole host of negative emotions threatened to break his will. Damnit, no! I’m not supposed to die like this.
A silver light cut reality in twain right in front of Lan Jue’s face. An alluring figure emerged.
“Capture spirit!” The voice was boisterous and strong. The force in it put some of Lan Jue’s despair to bed. Although the poison had begun to take his sight, he knew who it was by the sound of her voice.
It was mother! The Photographer, Luo Xianni!
Luo Xianni’s hands were pressed against Lan Jue’s back. In
the next instant his Ascension command gave way, but instead of poison he felt another strange energy permeate him.
Lan Jue was locked in place, but it was different than his command. This time even his thinking was sluggish, though he could feel everything that was going on around him.
Silver silk-like strands slithered in to Lan Jue’s body. They were impossibly thin, but beautiful. They seemed to move at Luo Xianni, who looked at her son in law absent her usual coquettish smile. It was quite the opposite, for her eyes betrayed a deathly calm overhanging smoldering rage.
As the slivers of energy invaded, Lan Jue’s body began to shake. Luo Xianni retracted her hand and took a step back. The frail, pink camera was in her hands again.
Lan Jue became a photo, frozen in time. The Polaroid gently fell in to Luo Xianni’s hand. She gripped it by the top of bottom, then pulled to stretch the photo larger.
Lan Jue flickered with a strange silvery light against the face of the picture. It wasn’t all silver, though. It clashed against threads of dull grey. Luo Xianni continued to fiddle with the photo as her fingers – ethereal and enigmatic – danced across its surface. Every tentative flick galvanized that grey energy, and hung around the top of Lan Jue’s head like an evil shadow. Before long there was a copy of Lan Jue in grey, like a ghost- image from the camera.
Luo Xianni reached in and pulled the flickering silver Lan Jue from the photo, depositing him on the floor beside her. She left the grey Lan Jue in the picture. She clapped, and it shrank back to normal size within her palm.
Lan Jue had a moment to check himself over. He felt remade, but the process had him reeling. It was like being slices in to a hundred thousand paper-thin slices. It felt like even his soul had been segmented and cut apart. Though the pain was brief, the sensation was seared permanently on his memory.
The numbness was gone, but tremendous pain remained. He felt like he’d been broken in to a thousand pieces. Evidently, Luo Xianni’s healing had side-effects.
He winced when his eyes were assailed by another flash of
silver. This time it was the Wine Master and the Doctor who arrived.
“What happened?” The Wine Master hurried to Luo Xianni’s side.
Her face was cold and callous. “He won’t die. You guys are really something. An assassin was able to get right up to your front door and attack one of your people. If he hadn’t used that special retreat, he’d be dead. Did you catch them?”
A dangerous glint shone in the Wine Master’s eyes as he shook his head. “A crafty one. He took his shot then ran. Too fast to catch.”
Luo Xianni’s eyes narrowed. “What’s the name of this assassin’s crew?”
A chill ran through the Wine Master’s chest. “Aunt, you…”
She rounded on him, eyes wide and wild. “Don’t tell me someone gets to attack my son and get away with it! I’m not done with them. An assassin never does anything for free right?
I’ll follow the money and find their employer. If they won’t tell me, I’ll wipe every trace of these arrogant bastards from the universe. They’ll all face my camera!”
“Blood Phantoms, that’s what they call themselves. The Astral Phantom founded it. We have some more information on them, I’ll give it to you when we get back,” the Wine Master said.
The Doctor rushed to Lan Jue’s side and clapped a hand on his shoulder. An emerald green light spread out from within the Doctor and in to his patient.
The Pain was starting to take its toll on Lan Jue. He fought against his dimming vision, but eventually succumbed to darkness.
“Ah!” A searing pain shook Lan Jue from sleep. He shot up, and after a moment recognized the interior of his rooms behind the Jewelry Shop. The pain was gone, it was only a memory that woke him up.
Everything felt like it was in its proper place. When he groped a hand against his chest he couldn’t feel a wound. Internally he searched his Discipline: Ninth level fifth rank, thankfully the same as before the attack.
Wait! What about Zhou Qianlin?!
His pupils contracted to two dark points. Ninth level fifth rank – it meant he wasn’t joined with her. So where did she go?
“Boss, are you ok?!” Xiuxiu hurried in to the room. When she saw him sitting up, and so tense, she was filled with concern.
“Am I ok?” He gasped. Lan Jue took deep breaths and tried to calm his racing heart.
Everything that happened before his coma came rushing back, like some kind of dream. It was more than a dream, though – that pain was real, and he would never forget it.
Chapter 524: The Last Clairvoyant
He remembered Qianlin turning to light and being absorbed into him. He remembered her eyes; no pain, no despair, just satisfaction. Happy to protect. Zeus was supposed to be the one protecting her, but she was willing to pay her with her life to save him.
“Where is Zhou Qianlin? Have you seen her?” Lan Jue asked Xiuxiu, standing by the bed.
This gave his Amazon pause, and a subtle change overcame her expression. She recovered with a quick shake of her head. “Nope, haven’t seen her. The Pharmacist was the one who brought you back.”
“You up?” Lan Jue looked passed Xiuxiu to the door when his three brothers came walking in.
Each of them had dour expressions, especially Hua Li. Lan Jue had never seen the singer so upset before. When he saw Lan Jue sitting up, though, his mood improved.
The Jewelry Master nodded. “How long was I out?”
“Two nights and one day,” Lan Qing responded. Lan Jue wanted to follow up, but his brother cut him off. “Don’t talk too much right now. If you’re feeling alright, we need to see the Clairvoyant.”
Lan Jue fought the tearing urge to make them tell him where Qianlin was. How was she?! But as he awoke and calmed down, his perception widened. He could sense Qianlin, somewhere. She was alive… she was still alive.
“Wait for me outside. I’ll change and then we’ll head out.” He was, of course, aware of the fact that beneath the covers was nothing to protect his modesty.
Xiuxiu’s face reddened as she walked out of the room. Nothing I haven’t seen before, she said to herself.
Lan Jue felt weak and woozy as he got us from bed, like he’d lost a lot of blood. Fumbling with his clothes, Lan Jue thought about what happened. Astral Phantom! One day I’ll pay you
back a thousand-fold for the pain you put me and Qianlin
He remembered the thoroughly bizarre process by which Luo
Xianni had saved his life. He couldn’t understand by what power she’d managed to do it. It had felt like he was cut into sheets and put back together while the poison was drawn out. It was not a feeling he wanted to experience a second time. Far, far too painful.
He changed into some clean clothes and joined the others outside. Lan Qing was by the door, and when his brother emerged the super soldier placed a hand on his shoulder. An infusion of energy swept through Lan Jue. After a second, the Eastern general removed his hand and nodded. His face was calm, but there was the promise of violence in his eyes, and it was clear who that homicidal intent was meant for.
Chu Cheng’s angry voice filled the shop. “Astral Phantom… there will come a day when him and his little group of faeries will be wiped from existence!”
Hua LI’s voice was low, but no less harsh. “We won’t stop with them. The Blood Phantoms are a business. Whoever paid them for this job is the most important target.”
“Who else could it be? There are only a few people with the capital to hire the Astral Phantom.” Chu Cheng’s voice was cold and calculating. “The North or the West, the Great Conclave or
one of the Citadels. That’s about it.”
Hua Li nodded thoughtfully. “It’s gotta be one of those. How are you feeling, A-Jue?”
“I’m fine,” the former mercenary said. “We’ll talk about this later. Let’s go see the Clairvoyant.”
The four of them left Zeus’ Jewelry Shop without any further discussion, and headed for Skyfire Museum. As they walked, Lan Jue took the opportunity to examine his internal state more carefully. His energy felt plentiful, and there didn’t appear to be any after-effects. It was the second time Qianlin had saved his life.
The attack had been so sudden and so fierce. It had nearly killed them both, but it also shattered something inside of him. There was resolution in Lan Jue’s eyes.
Skyfire Museum was as quiet as the name implied, and as empty as one might expect. That is, except for the person waiting for them by the front door.
When they got close enough, the Wine Master nodded to the four of them in greeting. He never said anything as they pushed through the doors and made their way to the back of museum. As they made their way through, Lan Jue could sense a strange energy lingering in the air. It was soft, but confining – soothing for mind and spirit.
Lan Qing, Huali and Chu Cheng felt it too. Their furious thoughts eased as they passed through the eddies of pacifying energy. Footsteps were the only sound as they ascended a flight of stone stairs.
A set of large but simple double doors stopped them when they reached the top. Several others were already waiting. All of the Star Alliance was present, along with the Keeper, Bookworm, and Gourmet. Many of the Avenue’s councilors were also here, along with the Pharmacist.
When Jun’er’s mother saw Lan Jue approach she waved him over. “Relax,” she said when he came close, “Qianlin is fine. I sent her back myself.”
Lan Jue had suspected as much, but hearing it from her did help settle his worries. He nodded his thanks and tried to get his emotions under control.
Everyone was quiet, and somber. There was no idle conversation or chatter as they awaited the Clairvoyant’s appearance. No one looked happy to be here, for they knew what this gathering meant. Three months ago they were told this would be their leader’s final revelation. Afterwards, he would die. Silence prevailed as they waited, with many going so far as to bow their heads before the double doors. The atmosphere was as bleak as a funeral.
Half an hour passed, but no one seemed eager to get on with it. Most of the Avenue’s denizens hoped this day would never come – or at least not for a while longer. That was the hope they kept quietly to themselves as they waited.
Finally, a familiar old voice whispered through the hall. “Come in, everyone.”
Heads rose, and people roused from their contemplative stillness. The old seer’s voice was as gentle as they remembered, but everyone heard the notes of grief. The enormous double doors slowly opened. Waves of ultraviolet light flowed out like a breeze.
The mourners entered, led by the four Paragons. Next followed the Avenue’s leadership and the Four Divine Monarchs. What greeted them was an extraordinary scene. Crossing the threshold took them into the center of an infinite universe. It was spectacular. The door vanished to reveal the glittering expanse of the cosmos laid out in all its splendor.
Everyone’s reaction was different. For Lan Jue, the sea of stars was a backdrop for a lightshow, with rays of brilliant light radiating from the highest point above him. Whatever it implied, it had something to do with him.
Raising his head brought everything into sharper focus. He peered deep within the galaxies as their light washed over him.
A change of perspective helped everyone forget their sorrow for a moment. Hearts eased as eyes swept the majestic cosmic vista. Then a single point no brighter than any of the others intensified, scattering the others like snowflakes. Three figures stood out against the blazing starlight.
Two were tall, and one small. The small one was little Jun’er. She’d been dressed in a pretty yellow summer dress that made the adorable child look like a pixie. What struck Lan Jue wasn’t her clothes, though. There was a sparkle in the little girl’s eyes
that wasn’t there before. There was also a silver crystal between her eyebrows, a third eye.
The child felt her father’s gaze. She looked right at him and smiled the sweetest smile, but obediently stayed in place. Leading her was a gallant looking man in his fifties. He was dressed in a flowing robe littered with twinkling gemstones. Two deep black eyes reflected the image of the universe around them.
Standing beside him was the Photographer, Luo Xianni, clad in a pink dress that made her appear even younger and more vibrant than usual. Her expression, however, was calm and impassive.
Lan Jue didn’t know this middle-aged man who stood in the center, but he knew his aura. That infinitely deep, almost surreal aura.
“You’re… the Clairvoyant?” Lan Jue asked.
He smiled. “I allowed my body to show signs of aging so that I might save energy for living. That’s no longer necessary, and I like this look for me.”
It was him, the Clairvoyant. The gathered luminaries of Skyfire Avenue bowed in respect.
“There’s no need for that.” He smiled affectionately as he addressed them. “I can feel your sadness, but I will tell you there is no need for it. Abandon your sorrow, because for me this is a liberation. I can give up my burdens to you and join what I have watched for so long. A prophet’s soul never dies, so long as you continue to believe the Eye of Tomorrow is watching over you.
“Is there really no other way?” The Wine Master sighed.
The Clairvoyant gave his old friend a sad smile. “Why? I am losing nothing, what have I to regret? I have only one final responsibility, and I have called you here today so that I may pass it on to you. My time has come to rest, but the Avenue – and humanity – still need all of you.”
Chapter 525: The Link
The Clairvoyant paused, and dropped his eyes to look fondly upon Jun’er at his side. His face was full of contentment. “I’m grateful I got to meet our sweet Jun’er before I had to leave. I have already passed the title of Eye of Tomorrow to her and she will continue my legacy. Once I have gone she will be the proprietor of the Skyfire Museum, and the new Clairvoyant.”
The Gourmet quietly added his voice. “We will do everything in our power to protect the legacy of the Clairvoyant. The Eye of Tomorrow will watch over Skyfire Avenue for a long time to come.”
Nodding in appreciation, he continued. “I elect the Wine Master as your new Chairman, and the Jewelry Master will take the position he has vacated.”
Everyone’s eyes fell upon Lan Jue. He anticipated this would happen, but nerves still fluttered in his stomach. He strode forward to stand by the Wine Master’s side. “I won’t let you down.”
The old Paragon sighed and then, under Lan Jue’s shocked gaze, he bowed to the Jewelry Master. Lan Jue wanted to rush
forward and pull him straight, but an enigmatic column of light fell from the sky and froze him in place, stopping him from interrupting.
“This is..” Lan Jue shot back, surprised.
The Clairvoyant straightened, a glint of something in his eye. “I’ve had my eye on you for quite a while, Jewelry Master. Longer than you’d probably care to know. All that time I have been quietly guiding you. By now I suspect you know I will try to guide your path again. I must start with an apology. No one’s life should ever be under another person’s control. I know the pain of it more than most. But I was left with no choice.
“I saw the first signs of this disaster in a vision, fifteen years ago. Mankind was devoured beneath a tide of purple. Humans became extinct. I realized I was witnessing the end of our species.
“These kinds of ominous visions are rare, and it was my first as a seer. I was so frightened – was this the way our people were meant to end? I was established in the East by then, of course. I thought, I must convince the East to find other planets to flee to. However, it was unachievable. The process was too long, and finding a habitable planet far enough from harm was difficult.
“Later, I became less frantic. I remembered something my teacher told me. He said, ‘Destiny is never certain.’ There’s no such thing as unavoidable extinction, and the more dire the danger the brighter the gleam of hope. If we could just harness that hope, we could save life from destruction. We still had a chance.” Even near death, there was a fierce and fervent light in his eyes.
He looked at Lan Jue. “I decided a way had to be found at any cost. Using the most powerful techniques I knew to perceive the future, I searched time for that one in a million hope. All the danger, all the cost, it all paid off. I found that one in a million chance. I found you.”
Lan Jue felt his heart seize. He’s heard the Clairvoyant say things like this before, but now – after everything that had happened – it felt different. The Clairvoyant sensed this.
Hi voice was low and soothing. “At first I didn’t understand. A single person is capable of only so much. We don’t live in a universe with grand Saviors. How could one lonely boy save us from our fate? But every vision led to you, so I went myself to see how you were different from the rest. I wanted to know what hope you bore.
“Ultimately it came to me.” He stopped, and pride overtook his bearing as he looked at Lan Jue. “You’re the link! Even if you were as strong as your master you couldn’t save us all by yourself. However, you could be the link. Everything you do affects the people, the places and the organizations around you. This connection and your good fortune could be used to give all of humanity its best shot to save itself.
“Once I realized this, I started to exert my influence. With you at the center of my visions, our chances at survival were under twenty percent. It was apparent that I would need to make you a stronger link. Something radical would need to happen, and I would need to guide it – either directly, or indirectly.”
That pride was gone now, replaced with an expression of deep shame. His voice soft, he continued. “I cannot ask for your forgiveness. I only hope that you choose to continue to bear this responsibility. Would you grant me this?”
Lan Jue looked at the storied Paragon calmly. “If you want me to reply from the heart, then no. I am not a hard-working man, on the contrary I love life and I love to enjoy life. If I had my choice – a real choice – it would be for lazy days without stress. But you succeeded, and I’m stuck in this storm whether I like it or not. I will acknowledge that your guidance has brought me here with all these friends, and a life I’m proud of.
“Once my goal was to experience everything the universe had to offer. Now I’ve experienced a great many things I never would have without your meddling. It never contradicted my desires for myself, so after some thought I decided it wasn’t all bad. You can relax, I’ll keep walking this path because now there are a lot of people I want to keep safe. For them, for me, I won’t stop.”
He didn’t mention humanity in his impassioned speech. He stuck to simple, and he stuck to true to convince the Clairvoyant of his commitment.
“Thank you,” the dying Paragon replied.
Lan Jue shook his head. “If anyone should be thankful, it’s all of us. The words alone aren’t enough. You have been an unparalleled defender of humanity. But if I may make a small request…”
The Clairvoyant urged him on. “Of course.”
Lan Jue looked at him in earnest. “You’ve been watching for so long, please tell me who hurt Hera. I know Hera is dead, it was all real, but there was never any trace.”
His voice went low. “I will tell you, once we’ve finished here.”
He turned to the others, then. “I tell everyone this, because it is my hope you will help him through. Our organization is loose, and free, but when it counts I believe we will unify. The exuviation technique has also inspired many. You stand on the cusp of a major step in human evolution.
“If we survive this dark time, mankind will enter into an unprecedented golden age. It will be a step toward becoming the true masters of the universe.” The fiery resilience from before blazed in his eyes again as he looked at each person in turn. “We must band together, and face this foe with our full strength.”
Everyone nodded. The Keeper chimed in. “Clairvoyant. What have you seen in your final visions?”
The question made him sigh despairingly. “I’ve seen all that I was meant to see. That which I see now only confirms what we know. I’m as blind to the future as you are. Opportunities are there, but all I can do is my small part in making them better and easier. I am finished, I guess you’ll have to see if those opportunities arise.”
The Paragons were unpleasantly stunned by what they heard. They had expected more instruction before the Clairvoyant’s passing, but he had nothing more to impart.
He gently patted Jun’er’s head. “Go to your mother, sweetheart.”
“Yes, teacher,” Jun’er answered respectfully. She then quickly tottered over to her mother’s side. Her eyes were bright, but it still seemed she was blind. Lan Jue rushed forward to take up one of her groping hands and lead her to the Pharmacist.
“Little Jun’er has more Talent at her age than I did when I was older. She wasn’t in any of my visions. It appears as though the universe has its own ideas of providence. She was a gift.”
He watched Jun’er for a moment longer before returning his attention to the adults with a smile. “It’s time for me to bid you all farewell. If we have the chance to meet again, someday at the end of time, that would make an old man happy.”
“Your Majesty.” The collected Adepts and Paragons bowed low to the Eye of Tomorrow. Only the oldest – the Keeper and Bookworm – declined to bow. However, they nodded at their
compatriot, with eyes full of respect.
“Thank you, I ask that you all return to your homes. Zeus, Prometheus, Hades, Poseidon. If you would stay. And the Pharmacist as well.”
“Hey, you old scoundrel, I’m not staying?” Luo Xianni looked at him ready to disagree.
The Clairvoyant looked back, and seeing her set expression could only sigh in resignation. “You stay too then, I suppose.”
She sniffed. “Right. As it should be.”
The Wine Master shook his head. When it came to his crazy aunt, there wasn’t anything he could do. Adepts and Paragons filed out. They weren’t sure why, but after seeing the Clairvoyant the sorrow that clouded their hearts seemed lifted. Now they felt disappointment, like saying goodbye to an old friend for a long time.
The Clairvoyant turned his attention to the Four Divine Monarchs. He waved a hand through the air, and four distant
points of light twinkled in response. They rapidly grew larger and more defined, separating into four dazzling flashes of green, red, gold and blue that in front of the four Adepts.
Chapter 526: Starlight Pendants
The Clairvoyant’s face grew solemn. He turned first to Lan Qing. “Prometheus. You have spared no effort in your work for the Eastern Alliance. You and people like you are the reason we persevere through these hardships. The future strength of our nation will rely on you. I have four protective talismans. To you I impart Aerius, and wish you calm seas and blue skies.”
The azure-green star descended unto Lan Qing. It flickered incessantly, from a dark jade to pale aquamarine and back again. They were buffeted by gusts of vigorous wind. Lan Qing was a spot of darker green against the blaze of jade until, suddenly, the light erupted out in all directions in an incredible supernova. The core of the store merged with the An Lun Super Soldier and vanished.
Lan Qing felt the center of his chest grow warm. A pendant sat against his sternum, feeling as much a part of him as blood or bone. For a moment it was as though he were in a place of nothing but stirring winds. He recognized it, the essence of wind he’d born on his heart for so long. Now it felt as though he were a part of it, tapped in to its elemental nature.
Next, the Clairvoyant turned to Chu Cheng. His smile was wide and pleasant like this was a weekend get-together, but
underpinned with a quiet dignity. The man’s words were calm and sparse, but all of them could recognize the true weight of it all. This great man had used the last days of his life to create these for them!
“Hades, the Master of Death, so full of life. Of all those who held the title before, your heart is the kindest. Beneath your impetuous exterior is a heart that beats in defense of the righteous. You are destined to go far. Remember that the master of the underworld does not just command Death, but also that which comes after. I present Emberblossom, and hope that you continue to strive for that spark of life in the fires of the underworld.”
Everything around them was bathed in red light as the star approached. Flashes of crimson red interspersed with a rainbow of colors were ejected in violent bursts along with a gratifying warmth. Its corona soon engulfed Chu Cheng.
The others looked on as Hades burst in to flame, becoming a raging column of fire. He felt it sear all the way down to his soul, a cleansing ache. He understood it now – if he wanted to master the flame of Hades, he had to know it like he knew himself. Chu Cheng stood amidst the swirling clouds of ash, renewed!
The flood of understanding brought him to his knees. Emberblossom smoldered against his chest while inside, realization raged like a tempest.
The Clairvoyant nodded. His third gift was for Lan Jue.
“You have a languid nature, but an honorable heart. You have been touched by destiny, an old god reborn. You bear the hopes of mankind, future Paragon. There will come a day when you transcend it all, and will wield power that make the universe shake. However, you must never act against your nature, for when you stand at the precipice it is your essence that will bring you happiness. Look to it to keep you from losing your way. In that way you will control destiny – it will no more control you. Compassion, honor, courage, persistence. For you I have created Lumina. May it help you become a shining reflection of the heavens.”
The golden star approached, slowly entering in to Lan Jue’s chest. The intensity of its light surged for a moment, turning Lan Jue to gold. To the Jewelry Master the pendant’s power felt like a piercing beam through his soul. The deluge of energy was difficult to describe. He saw things with new eyes, like the frailties scarring her heart were washed away.
The resplendent light fell upon him. It illuminated his body, but also his heart and soul. The Arrow of Compassion, glittering and translucent, flickered with light. It fluctuated in reaction to the pendant. Lan Jue’s apprehensions about when and how to use the Arrow inexplicably eased. Meanwhile, a star-shaped talisman appeared upon his chest, pouring golden light.
A storm of light surrounded him. Zeus closed his eyes, and immersed himself in the current of power.
At last, the Clairvoyant came upon the final Monarch. However, his face did not bear the happy smiles he’d had for the other three. Instead, there was pity. “You are a reflection of what you command; as relentless, as soft, as pure as water. You possess its fragility and gentleness as well. If you were a woman, you would grow to be a great Queen of nations. Alas…”
Hua Li shook. His watched the Clairvoyant with wide, stunned eyes.
The Clairvoyant’s own twinkled like starlight. “You will bear Cerulea. May it lift your might and mind, and help to cleanse the ills of the world.”
A mollifying blue light arose as the star came to Hua Li. It entered through the performer’s chest and went supernova like the three before. Hua Li became a blue silhouette in the flood of light.
He was different than his companions, though. He looked through the blaze to the Clairvoyant beyond. Deferentially he spoke, “Please – show me the path.”
The seer hesitated, but his low voice eventually replied. “The tide of destiny needs you to proceed. There will come a time when you may…”
Pale blue light erupted from Hua Li, cutting the Clairvoyant off. Poseidon felt something within him give way, and like a dam the roaring tide of awareness swallowed him up. The Clairvoyant said something, too soft too hear. His face was full of sympathy.
The four Divine Monarchs stood suspended in the infinite expanse of space. Their pendants blazed with shimmering light
– four lustrous stars in the sky. Lan Qing and Aerius; Chu Cheng and Emberblossom; Lan Jue and Lumina; Hua Li and Cerulea. The colorful lights surrounded them, infiltrated them, making them extraordinary.
“You’re quite the artiste,” Luo Xianni loudly commented.
The Clairvoyant chuckled. “This is the last of what I can offer.
What use are tools and baubles beyond this, these days?”
Then, he looked to the Pharmacist. “It will be a little while before they snap out of it. I am delighted to see that you have shaken yourself from that haze, Pharmacist.”
Her eyes lit up, and she smiled. “That is because Jun’ers father has returned.”
The Clairvoyant nodded, knowingly. “Indeed. The two of you are very happy. Be wary of Occisus, for there is nothing sharper. As you strive to neutralize the danger, come to lean on the Jewelry Master’s Taiji to redirect it. Remain close to him, and you shall reap the benefits.”
Chapter 527: The Clairvoyant’s ‘Flaw’
The Pharmacist nodded. “I’ve sensed it already. There’s a comfort when I’m near him, now I know why.”
The Clairvoyant then turned a warm eye upon Jun’er. “The little one has already been gifted my inheritance. She will be the future Eye of Tomorrow. Soon she will surpass even me. However, precisely because she is my successor, I cannot see what the future holds for her. Even now, with my sight at its clearest, there is nothing I can tell you. Protect her, and she will grow naturally. It’s a shame I’ll never see the things she accomplishes!”
The Pharmacist took up Jun’er’s tiny hand. She stood tall and proud. “She’s my daughter.”
The Clairvoyant smiled softly. “It’s time to bring her back home. Then, I must trouble you to return here.”
“Alright.” She didn’t question or argue. She knew by now the man must have his reasons. The two of them left for the Temple of Supreme Harmony, leaving only the Clairvoyant and Photographer conscious in the swirling sea of stars.
“Xianni, do you still blame me?” The Clairvoyant’s voice was soft and low.
The emotion behind Luo Xianni’s eyes shifted somewhat. Her warm smile faded, replaced by a rigid expression. “It’s been decades. What could I still have to blame you for?”
The old Paragon sighed. “If not for me, the two of you would have been together long ago. It was I who told him so much that was better left unsaid. I instigated that change of heart.”
Her eyes hardened the more he spoke. Her responses bore a distinct chill. “I said it’s done!”
This brought an apologetic smile to the Clairvoyant’s face. “There are many I owe an apology to in this universe. More than I can count. But of them all, you are the one who’s owed it most. My involvement made him leave.”
A secret pain surfaced behind Luo Xianni’s eyes. “Involvement? You are an instrument of chaos, Clairvoyant, but don’t delude yourself into thinking our relationship problems were all your doing. He’s always loved his freedom, that wasn’t something you made. Even if we’d never met you, it
wasn’t likely we would be together long. You helped him see his own heart more clearly and fermented his fear of mediocrity. He was being true to himself when he left. I did hate you… I hated how your damn fingers were in everything. Later when I thought about it though, I questioned whether he really would have stayed otherwise. That’s when I came around, and knew there was no looking back.”
The Clairvoyant dropped his head. “There are flaws in every human. I once thought I was somehow separate. Maybe since I was such a perfectionist, I figured I must be perfect by extension. But nothing’s perfect, and even someone with a view as long as mine can’t escape fate.”
Luo Xianni took a deep breath, then turned a glare to the Paragon. “I’ve told you there’s no need for explanations. Why do you insist on bringing it up! Do you need me to hate you, just before you die? I have always looked at you like an older brother, and when I knew that you had to bear the consequences of what I did… I didn’t just leave because I was angry. I didn’t know how I could face you. So I left. I came back so that I could at least give you a happy send-off. I don’t want to rehash old times, and you are determined to open old wounds.”
The Clairvoyant was silent.
She took another breath. “Fine, if you want to talk about it then let me get a few things straight. Why did you do it? Why get involved in the relationship between me and Chi Bupang? How in the world did I offend you so deeply? You were the kindest, truest, most self-less person I’d ever known and then you stain my life for years. How?”
His face jerked as she spoke, like he was being stabbed. He winced against her cutting words. When he answered he was full of regret. “Yes, I was wrong to intrude. I knew what I was doing but I couldn’t control myself. I never saw you as my little sister.”
Luo Xianni froze, unsure of how to respond.
The Clairvoyant went on, the words hard and bitter in his mouth. “Clairvoyant, founder, Eye of Tomorrow… I had everyone’s respect. Respect, but I never had anyone’s affection. I hoped that would be different with you. I thought about you every day since the day we met. Yet, as founder there was so much to do. You were with me every day, I had hoped you understood me. All through the creation of Skyfire Avenue you and I strove side by side. I saw everything falling into place, like a stream carving out a channel to flow through for the rest of its days. It was all I’d hoped. Ultimately you and I would walk the path together. Not as my sister. As my wife.
“But then he came. At first I was overjoyed! I thought, with his support surely the Avenue would become the greatest gathering of Adepts in humanity. Soon, though, it was clear you… you liked him. I may have been kind, and I may have been self-less, but when faced with losing my one chance at love, I lost control. Jealousy took root. I couldn’t wait to see him torn to pieces. He couldn’t leave fast enough. I’d chase you right back into my arms. Because I love you.”
A pair of tears rolled down the Clairvoyant’s cheeks. Luo Xianni was stunned to silence. A million times she’d wracked her brain, trying to puzzle out why he acted the way he did. She could find no answer. Hate came then, for infecting her relationship with Bupang. That hate was a real part of her reason for staying away.
Then all of this, all these years, was the result of jealousy? He was her brother, she never looked at him any other way. She never knew, and this is where they ended up. It was like a dagger cutting at her heart, but all that resentment was bleeding away.
It took the Clairvoyant some time before he could get his emotions under control enough to go on. “I am no competition for Jue Di. Otherwise I may have actually fought him for you. Unfortunately I was never on his level. There was nothing I
could do, only the stupid and desperate decision to try and break you two up. I’ve regretted it my whole life, but it hurt too much for me to confront you. I can’t tell you how happy I am to see you now, at the very least because you’ve given me the chance to say sorry. If I could have a final wish, it would be to have told you this from the beginning. In the end, though, I got to tell the woman I loved, that I have loved her for my whole life.”
Luo Xianni bit her bottom lip, saying nothing.
Chapter 528: Cripple
The Clairvoyant sighed. “I’ve searched my heart and all of this
– all the work I put into the Avenue and to humanity as a whole
– all of it was to distract me from the guilt I felt. I am sorry, Xianni. I was wrong.”
“Alright!” Luo Xianni suddenly snapped. “It’s over! Enough. I will always see you as an older brother.”
The Clairvoyant was hopeful as he looked her way. You… you’re willing to forgive me?”
She shook her head. “I don’t forgive you. But I don’t hate you.”
The Clairvoyant pressed her. “It made Huan Xue leave, too. Only she knew where my heart was. Then she left. This whole thing has been a sour combination of errors. I liked you, she liked me, the Wine Master liked her. Love is the strangest to human emotions. It’s as wonderful as it is agonizing.”
“I knew Huan Xue liked you for ages,” Luo Xianni replied. “She told me in confidence once about how she felt. I told her
you were by brother and there wouldn’t be any competition. She was so happy… you shouldn’t have failed her.”
With a bitter voice, the Clairvoyant nodded. “Affection does as it wishes, I’m sure you understand. You will always see me as a brother, for instance. To me Huan Xue is like a sister.”
Both mighty Paragons were silent as they ruminated on things. Everything that had happened lingered like a painful memory.
The Clairvoyant sighed again to break the silence. “Thankfully you decided to come back. When I am gone, I wish to impart the Avenue to you. With you around, I can go in peace.”
Her face also turned bitter and hard. “Maybe I fell in love with the wrong man.”
The first one to awaken from their haze was Lan Jue. He ached all over, but despite the discomfort his spirit felt anxious.
It was bursting with energy, ready for anything.
He turned his perception inward to discover his Core acting strangely. It would swell and contract like it was breathing, and the power it exuded had become a dazzling gold.
Lan Jue stopped for a moment, surprised. This was protogenic lightning! Before, he could only manage it when conditions were right. However, in this quiet time, this lightning around his Core seemed no different. His Thunderbolt Discipline was at the next level, but he didn’t expect it to get there until after he’d become a Paragon.
What was going on? Was it because of the pendant? He opened his eyes, and saw the Clairvoyant watching him with a heavy expression. While Lan Jue had only been out for a short time it looked like the Clairvoyant had aged a decade.
“Come with me.” The clairvoyant waved a hand at him. Beams of pure white starlight appeared out of nowhere and surrounded them both. In the next instant, Lan Jue felt like they were lost somewhere out in the expanse of space. The stars and galaxies were suspended in the darkness around them, not unlike the room they’d just been in. Their twinkling light illuminated the two men from all sides.
“Clairvoyant, where are we?” Lan Jue looked around as he asked.
The Clairvoyant quietly replied. “This is my Domain.”
The Jewelry Master felt odd. There was another flash, then they were joined by a third presence.
“Qianlin!” When he saw her, Lan Jue was overjoyed. It was short lived, though, for in the next moment he looked into her eyes and saw nothing. There was no light, no consciousness – no signs that a person existed in there. Like she had no soul.”
“She… what’s the matter with her?” Lan Jue asked. He was obviously distressed.
The Clairvoyant took a deep breath. “Your saviors were a moment too late. The Photographer recognized the problem right away, but not before the poison had started to affect Qianlin’s brain. We’ve done everything we can but she won’t wake up from this persistent vegetative state. She reacts to stimuli, but there’s no consciousness.”
I considered changing this because it’s somewhat of an offensive term. However, the visceral impact of it, and the emotional state of Lan Jue led me to keep it in. I imagine that, in situations like this my mind might go to the worst way to describe something.
It was all so sudden. From one moment to the next Qianlin was no more than an empty home. Lan Jue looked at her in a daze. He’d have been dead if Qianlin hadn’t come along, but she was paying the price.
The Clairvoyant’s face was bleak. “Perhaps this was is a cruel turn of Destiny. When the universe gives us great gifts, it often makes high demands as well.”
Corded muscles rippled along Lan Jue’s jaw as he clenched his teeth. “No. No one’s taking her away from me. This woman is going to be my wife.”
The Eye of Tomorrow looked upon his in surprise. “What if she never awakens? Will you live like this forever?”
Gradually, calm came upon Lan Jue. His face and eyes relaxed and softened. “Then I’ll care for her, every day, until we grow old and die.”
The old Paragon nodded. “This young girl’s love was not misplaced. There was something that she wanted to tell you, but since she cannot the task falls to me.”
Lan Jue suddenly turned his whole focus on to the Clairvoyant. By the way he’d spoken about Qianlin, he had reason to believe the old schemer knew her personally. All the signs were there, in his explanations ind apologies. If Lan Jue couldn’t figure at least that out by this point, he would be a very poor Zeus.
The Clairvoyant’s voice was low and solemn. “You’ve probably surmised that Qianlin and I have met. This is correct. I also met Jin Yu. To be more precise, my relationship with them can be compared to the one you and Lan Qing have with Jue Di. I raised those girls.”
Lan Jue went rigid. He had some idea, but when the Jewelry Master heart the words it felt like his heart seized. The Clairvoyant had said his influence over them was extensive, and now he knew how much.
“Hera… you told her to stay with me?” His voice cracked. An indescribable fear hung over him like a hurricane.
The Clairvoyant nodded again. “The best way to influence a man, is to have the ear of the woman beside him. Yes, I asked Hera to remain with you. She would be my hand, guiding you without your knowledge, a positive influence. She helped me to make you kind, compassionate, just and strong.”
Lan Jue’s hands curled in to fists. “And our relationship? Was that all fake, at your command?” He’d loved Hera for years. After her death, he was devastated. If everything they’d experienced had been manufactured – if he was just a mission – he wasn’t sure he could handle it.
The Clairvoyant heaved a sigh. “I admit that I had a measure of control in everything. I believe you underestimate how much control over Destiny I possess. But that’s precisely why you shouldn’t fear. Hera’s love for you was real. My manipulations took her affections into consideration.”
Lan Jue stood there, still and silent. He didn’t really understand.
The Clairvoyant went on. “When I had Hera approach you, my only order was that she try to influence your behavior by osmosis. Stay by your side, and protect you. Beyond that, she had no other instructions.”
Lan Jue just looked at him, still trying to process what he was hearing.
“Hera’s love was real,” the Clairvoyant assured, “everything you experienced together was her choice. I would never send her to seduce you, as a matter of principle. I was trying to guide you to be good. Under-handed methods are counter to that message. Once Hera realized she loved you, she came to me and asked if it was ok that you were together. I told her of course it was, and that whatever happened between you was her decision. All I required was that she kept guiding you on the righteous path.”
At last, the muscles all through Lan Jue’s body began to relax.
Gently shaking his head, the Clairvoyant continued to explain. “You have so little faith in yourself. You are a disciple of Jue Di. If you cannot see truth from falsehood, how can you become the link my prophecy describes? Jin Yu loved you. Qianlin loves you. This is undisputed truth.
“Hera’s death was a great tragedy, not just for you. I was… greatly saddened. I searched time, even going so far as to use my greatest techniques. The only thing I could discover about who was responsible was that they must be powerful, with amazing destructive capabilities under their command. This is the only way this ‘accident’ could have been pulled off so flawlessly. Beyond that, they must be someone who is very familiar with you. That’s how they were so accurate and precise.
“The North’s reason for remotely destroying the planet was because of a dangerous radioactive source. If left alone it would have influenced the planet’s Core. The explosion would have impacted star systems all across Alliance space. The closest planets would be stripped of their magnetic fields. A pre- emptive strike would avert the danger before it could affect innocent lives.
“Before the attack the exploration team was evacuated. Hera went there to help save someone. Who, we never discovered. She never said in her final correspondence. Whoever it is, it’s someone you and Hera knew well, otherwise she wouldn’t have trusted them.”
Chapter 529: Hera
“Someone who knows us?” Lan Jue’s breath was coming faster. There weren’t very many people he knew both he and Hera. That narrowed it down, and with some investigation he might be able to find a thread.
The Clairvoyant went on. “I believe now is when she would show you this.” He lifted his hand, laden with a small box.
The sight of it made Lan Jue quake. It was the same box she was holding the night she saw him with Xiuxiu. The pang of sorrow in his chest sharpened.
The Clairvoyant opened the box to reveal that it was in fact a computer. The screen inside flickered to life and displayed a stream of data.
Lan Jue looked at the screen, then back to Qianlin. Her pretty eyes were open but saw nothing. His hands clenched in to quivering fists.
The truth was steadily revealed.
When the computer was booted, the Clairvoyant navigated to a specific folder and opened it up. Within were a number of video files. The Paragon chose the first one, and they were greeted by a pretty face. Beautiful figure, black hair, blue eyes. A long, white dress. She was standing on a sunlit beach with the ocean waves crashing behind her.
She and Qianlin were very, very similar. But Lan Jue knew his his lost love. He could recognize her spirit in her eyes. Her eyes were warmer, whereas Qianlin’s were more alive.
“I met him today.” Hera’s slightly distorted voice issued from the computer. “He’s a little arrogant – looks ok I guess. Cocky, certainly. Master wants me to get close to him. We’ll see. Here’s hoping he isn’t too hateful.”
The first clip stopped.
Lan Jue got a far-away look as he stared at the screen. He recognized that place, a resort planet called Zodenka. That was where he met Hera, yes! That was where they’d first met. And the same day – this was like a journal, or a mission report. The
Clairvoyant opened the second video. This one also featured Hera, though the location was different.
“Ugh, I’m so tired. We were out playing around all day, and I’m sure he’s trying to get closer to me. Heh, I guess I’m pretty charming. He’s pretty haughty but he’s got class, I have to give him that. He knows a lot so at least it’s interesting being around him. Alright, that’s about all for today. I need a shower.”
Entry two finished. They opened the third.
“It was a good day today. I was apprehensive when Master gave me this mission, but it isn’t looking too difficult. This is a good guy. Yeah, a good guy. I fell today and sprained my ankle. He carried me all the way to the hospital on his back. Even when we got there he wouldn’t put me down. When they were done he picked me back up, and carried me back. I could feel that he was anxious, and he didn’t try anything.”
“Ah, why is my face so red? Today there was a development. He… well he took my hand. He said he liked me. What should I do? What should I do! Should I tell Master? I was told to guide
him, but… oh what should I do! I’m so confused.”
“Hehehe, excellent! Master said I could make my own decision, he had no opinion. I mean, he didn’t look upset. So should I tell him I like him back? No – no, it can’t be that easy. He won’t appreciate it if it’s easy. I’ve got to string him along a little! Hehehe…”
“Zhou Jinyu, you are useless! I said I’d string him along, right? Then why, the moment I’m in front of him I lose all restraint. Ugh, his eyes. You get lost in them… Alright, alright. I said yes, and that’s that. Gah, why is my face so red. I mean, really…”
“I can’t keep watching!” Lan Jue grabbed the Clairvoyant’s hand, stopping him. He was choked with sobs, and tears streamed freely down his face. Each video was a knife in his chest. Hera… it was Hera! As she used to be, as the girl he loved. This was a record of all their time together. He didn’t seem to appear anywhere, but the memories were clear and bittersweet.
Lan Jue liked to think he was a strong and stable man, but these videos exposed the chink in his armor. Six short videos had reduced him to a sobbing mess.
The Clairvoyant looked at the younger man with an expression of sorrow and pity. With a sigh, he opened the last video in the folder. A scene of ruined metal buildings appeared. Hera stood among them, scanning her surroundings.
“Something isn’t right! I’m here, but why isn’t he coming out? This isn’t right! When he told me to come I thought it was strange, but I didn’t have any reason to suspect… Now I’m here and – ah! What’s that!”
The video panned to bring an enormous beam of light into frame. When it struck, the entire planet began to shake. It made landfall hundreds of miles away, but the destruction it caused came surging towards Hera at terrifying speed.
“No… no I don’t want to die! A-Jue, A-Jue!” She whimpered for a moment, but then grew calm. Courage started in her eyes then bolstered her whole person. As the world shook itself apart, she looked right into the camera.
“Master. If I die… if you find this recording, give them to Qianlin. Have her study them, and take up my mission. No… no that’s not good. I’m being too selfish, aren’t I. He’ll be so sad! Qianlin, baby sister. I’m begging you… I’m begging you.”
The world-swallowing light was moments away, poised to eat Hera up alongside everything else. Hera’s jaw was set in determination as everything around her fell into chaos. She ripped the communicator from her arm and threw it into a box. Then everything went dark.
Lan Jue watched, silent. His tears had stopped.
Hera… even when staring down death she was afraid I would be sad. When she said she didn’t want to die it wasn’t because she was scared. She was angry, and unwilling. She was reluctant to leave me. Hera! My Hera! It was me… I couldn’t protect you. It was my fault! How could I let her leave on her own? Why?
Lan Jue was cursed with a clear memory of the day. Hera said she had a surprise for him then left. Later he got the news that the planet had been destroyed. It was all so sudden. There was no trace.
The Clairvoyant’s low, soft voice returned. “The data on
Jinyu’s communicator had been hacked, which means whoever was responsible had enough clout to authorize tampering with a communicator’s operating system. We could tell from her tone and what she said that whoever it was that lured here there must know you two. However, after a great deal of searching I could uncover nothing. Those at your side are loyal, as far as I’ve been able to divine. For years I have searched, but have come up empty-handed.”
Lan Jue’s fists were clenched so tightly his knuckles were white. After all this time the pain and anger were no less than the day she died. When he heard the news he hardly wished to live. It had destroyed him.
They had plans. They were going to pick out her wedding dress and make invitations. They were supposed to argue over who would it where. Instead she died, and no trace that she ever existed remained.
From that day he was lost, confused, hardly a man at all. He spent years nursing his emotional wounds. In all that time he never gave up his thirst for vengeance, but without any information to go on he was castrated. Everything was atomized when the planet exploded.
The fact that the Clairvoyant had even this small piece meant he’d exhausted all resources to find whatever he could. Finding a single box in the mangled remains of a planet could not have been easy.
“Does this… am I a bad person? I can’t think of any reason why someone would hurt her. If this person has so much power and hates me so much, why don’t they go after me directly? What was the point of killing someone whose only goal was to be a good person?” Lan Jue’s eyes were screwed shut against the painful questions. He maintained his composure, though. It was an old wound, even if all of this was tearing it back open.
The Clairvoyant gave a hard and bitter smile. “I share all your same questions. It’s the lack of answers that has had my hands tied. There is one more thing I want to show you.”
The Clairvoyant closed the video folder and opened another one. This one was also filled with video clips, fewer than the first but still many. The Clairvoyant opened the first one.
The heart-wrenching sounds of sobs met their ears. A tear- streaked face appeared on screen.
“Sister… sister, sister!” She was screaming herself hoarse. Her black hair was wild. Her blue eyes were red and swollen. Great big tears rolled down Qianlin’s face.
Chapter 530: Qianlin’s Recordings
Lan Jue’s chest tightened. It was harder to breathe. This must be when she first found out her sister had died.
“Sister… I’ll find your murderer. I will…” That was all he could make out. They went to the second recording.
“Sister. This is the one year anniversary of your murder. I found that man, part of Skyfire Avenue but… I don’t have the courage to approach him. I hate him. He’s the reason you’re dead. I hate him! I can’t do what you ask.”
“Sis. I watched him from far away today. I used a pair of binoculars. It was hard to watch. He was like a corpse, shambling around in a daze. Like he had a broken heart. Master hasn’t approached me about replacing you in the mission.”
“You have to help me, sis. I can’t find a single clue anywhere.
We’ve looked in to everyone he knows and they’re all clean. Why weren’t you clearer? Who was it that called you to that place? Tell me something… ah, sister. I miss you.”
“I’ve made up my mind, I’ll give him a shot. I’ve gone over the plan with Pearl. My identity as the Chairman’s daughter has already been established. Now I’ve got to get close to him, but I won’t take your place. I am me. But we’ll see if he likes me because I look like you. If he does it means your love was fake. If that’s true I’ll… I’ll… “
“Why. Why does it have to be like this? I took that medicine because I was afraid I’d give it away. Why didn’t he just take me to a hospital? Sis he… he kept calling your name. We… ah… what should I do?!”
“This bastard. The bastard! I swear I hate him so much…”
“He’s been better to me. I’m happy, but sis, I feel like I should apologize. Now I get it, why you were drawn in. He really loves you, I….”
Entry thirty one.
“He’s started to make some moves toward me. It looks like he’s finally pulling himself out of his haze. I’m so happy for him, and yet not. Sister, what should I do? I’ve refused his advances and I know it hurt him. But how can I? I got close to him with a goal, and everything he knows about me is a lie. I’ve been deceiving him for months, how could I let that continue? I’ve never been the Chairman’s daughter. I used his history with you to manipulate him, even the wedding was staged for his benefit. I engineered the whole thing. I can’t accept his affections like this! I… I have to tell him the truth. I can’t stand it, I have to tell him. But I’m scared. When he finds out everything, will he still like me? Sis, now I know why you called out to him before you died. Loving someone like this is painful. Tell me what I should do. Do I tell him?”
Entry thirty three.
“I’ve decided that, no matter what, I can’t hide anything from him anymore. I’ll tell him everything. He may not forgive me, but he needs to see the real me at least once. Only then can I let myself love him.”
That was the last entry. Lan Jue looked between the computer and the unconscious body of Qianlin. He swayed back and forth like he was going to fall over.
The Clairvoyant had spoken true. Both Qianlin and Hera had loved him without any ulterior motive. It was amazing to discover all that had been going on under his nose. He was sad and embarrassed by how much more Qianlin had suffered.
I don’t mind, Qianlin. Lan Jue fixed his sad eyes upon her. I don’t mind. You were never Hera’s replacement. I love Hera, but I also love you – Qianlin.
He felt it all over again, the feeling of his heart breaking. The Clairvoyant shut off the computer, closed the box, than handed it to Lan Jue like a cherished artifact. He took it with trembling hands and pressed the box against his aching chest. His arms squeezed tight, like the box contained all of his past and present love.
The Clairvoyant took Qianlin’s hand, and led her to Lan Jue. She moved like a doll, with a vacant expression. “I impart her to you once again. You must understand that right now, Qianlin is a blank slate – her truest self. If you need to hate someone than hate me. It was my involvement that has led to these two tragedies. I must beg you, in my capacity as the closest thing she had to a father… cherish her, protect her.”
He looked older the longer they spoke, and tears rolled down the wrinkles appearing on his face. It was strange to see the powerful Eye of Tomorrow reduced to the role of concerned father.
He took her delicate hand. It was cold, and while its contours were all familiar, something about it was off. He gently guided her into his arms where he stroked her long, dark hair.
“I won’t let you leave my side again.” He lowered his head and placed a gentle kiss against her lips. Her body shook then, and like she had a thousand times before, she became a pearl of light and vanished.
The Clairvoyant placed a hand on his shoulder. “Let’s head back.”
“Yeah.” Lan Jue nodded.
There were two flashes of light, and suddenly both of them were back in the museum’s star room. Both Lan Qing and Hua Li were back to their senses, leaving Chu Cheng as the last one still engrossed in the pendant’s powers.
When Lan Qing saw his downcast brother, his eyebrows scrunched together. He looked at him questioningly.
Lan Jue only quietly shook his head. Then, he returned to the spot he had been in before.
The Pharmacist returned only a moment later. The first thing she noticed was the change in Lan Jue’s mood. It was surprising, but she didn’t address it. Instead she took up position before the Clairvoyant like all of the others.
The Paragon looked at each of them. “I’ve told you everything I was supposed to. Prometheus, Poseidon… I would trouble you to wait outside.”
“Yes.” The two of them acquiesced and stepped out of the
twinkling room. Chu Cheng, Lan Jue, the Pharmacist and Luo Xianni were the only ones apart from the Clairvoyant who remained behind.
The old seer looked at them with a calm façade. After a long time he spoke up. “In my life there have been failures and successes, it will be up to the annals of history to decide what I’m remembered for. I’ve said what I needed to say. When I am dead make no efforts to hide the news. It’s time to forget everything that’s come before and look to the future.”
Lan Jue was still reeling from the videos, but his eyes fixed on the Clairvoyant when he spoke. This was likely the last words he’d ever impart.
The dying Paragon lifted his head to gaze upon the starry sky. His face was flushed. “I used to think I was destined to be the savior of humanity. I thought I could control everything, bend the ebb and flow of destiny to my whim. I eventually discovered that Destiny is a path that has been chosen long before I sought to make my mark. I never succeeded, but I suppose I never failed. Now I am off to meet a new reality. I don’t know what will happen, but who’s to say we won’t meet again one day, in some other form. Know that the amulet you were given will protect you in a time of need. But that doesn’t mean you are safe. You must still seek the answer to your question. All I can
tell you is that it will be made clear one day.”
He knew the Clairvoyant was referring to Hera and her killer.
He resolutely nodded his head.
A smile spread across the rapidly aging Paragon’s face. “Alright, it’s time for me to go. I have loved, I have hated, and I have tasted jealousy. In the end it was my past regrets people will remember, but they will leave me. “
The stars that surrounded them began to twinkle. Their soft and soothing light grew and fell upon the aging body of the Clairvoyant. He rose off of his feet and hung suspended in air. His face was ruddy and bright with life, like the abundance of youth was filling him.
This is a phenomenon called ‘false yang,’ or ‘the last light of a fading candle’. It doesn’t happen often, though my time in the terminal wards was brief. If you remember from our course on Qi, yin and yang rely on one another. Yin is the root of yang, and without it yang’s upward nature will make it disconnect and float away. The sudden exuberance, the bright eyes, the ruddy cheeks and flush of energy are the last of a patient’s life. All the rest of what keeps them alive is poured into a few hours so that they are full of life before passing on. It’s cruel if you
aren’t ready for it, but a blessing if you can see it for the gift that it is.
“Thank you all for sending me off. I’ll see you all again, in the next life.” As he rose through the air, the Paragon nodded his appreciation. With each passing moment the blaze of starlight reflecting off of him brightened. Suddenly, there came a surge of cosmic light and power that swept through the whole museum.
Luo Xianni staggered to the side and cut Chu Cheng off from the shock wave. However, as the power came barreling their way it mysteriously split around them. It was like a river parting around a boulder.
“Be at peace, Xianni. I saw the flows of time, how could I be so thoughtless in my last moment? If there is another world, Xianni, then I will wait for you there. I won’t give anyone else the opportunity to get close to you.” The ball of resplendent light dimmed and vanished. The Clairvoyant was nowhere to be found, as though he himself had become one of the twinkling astral bodies surrounding them.
“Clairvoyant!” Luo Xianni shouted his name to the uncaring heavens. All of her pent up emotions were flushed out. Hate was
gone, and now in her mind’s eye she saw him as the young man who had helped her so much.
Brother! That was what she lost today. Lan Jue stood in the same spot, too stunned to move. Waves of powerful emotions assailed his heart. He felt detached, like he was floating through the scene.
The Pharmacist, her own face laden with grief, moved to his side and took his arm. But, when she looked at him again, the sadness in his eyes was gone – replaced with a determination that was hard to describe. Each second saw that determination strengthen behind fiercely bright eyes.
“I will get strong! I’m fine, sister.” He turned to the Pharmacist briefly and gave her a hug. Then, with long, resolute strides, marched from the room.