Chapter 641: The Appraisal
Ju’n er smiled, a soft smile that touched the hearts of the surrounding Adepts. She muttered a few inaudible words, and a flash of white light issued from the orb. A silvery portal had appeared among them.
The Eye of Tomorrow, one of the Clairvoyant’s artifacts! Studied Adepts knew what they were looking at. OF course, this little girl was still far too young to employ the object to its full potential.
A Paragon’s astrum was even more alluring to normal Adepts than the vital crystals. The Eye of Tomorrow in particular was astounding. The Clairvoyant had used it ascend to Nirvana. Inheriting it was how the Clairvoyant earned his title.
Of course the Adepts could be covetous, but none would dare try to snatch the artifact from Jun’er’s grip. Four steely-eyes Paragons were watching everywhere at once, waiting for someone to make a move. Besides, not just anyone could snatch up an astrum and make a run for it. Who knows what sort of dangers were in this powerful crystal ball?
Jun’er regarded everyone with a small smile. “Please enter.”
She was the first to step through, showing everyone it was safe. The Epochrion took her hand and followed without hesitation.
Everyone else passed through the door in a trickle of twos and threes. Since the Terminator, Metatron, Lucifer and other powerful Adepts were in attendance, the less famed appraisers weren’t too worried for their safety. They represented some of the richest and most powerful organization in human space, after all. Even Skyfire Avenue wouldn’t be so bold as to attack directly.
As they stepped through the portal, the visitors found themselves suddenly in a strange and fantastical world. Errand beams of light shot through empty space in endless treks into nothing. Overhead was the limitless expanse of a starry sky. Stepping through the door of light was like striding out into the embrace of the universe. However, there was air to breathe, and this spot felt particularly rich with the planet’s natural energies.
Was this… a Domain?
The Clairvoyant’s Domain had been called Ocean of Stars. How else could they describe this scene? Paragons were able to leave behind wondrous things in their passing but fewer and fewer knew this skill. If there was any Paragon capable of
maintaining their Domain once they’ve moved on, though, the Clairvoyant would have been one.
Jun’er waved her little hand again, and once more the scenery changed. For a moment every Adept felt a rush of power, like they had been dropped into a sea of energy. Several gasped as they felt every cell of their being filled with vibrant potency.
This was… vital energy?
They started to see the purple crystals suspended in space. Each one of them was a different shape or size, but all of them radiated with a similar, substantial aura of vital energy. That wave of power had come when these crystals were all collected in one place.
The vital energy wasn’t particularly pure, there were vestiges of other powers within. However the sheer amount was staggering. By now the appraisal process was a formality. Several of the appraisers already had a greedy light in their eye.
Vital crystals… all of them were vital crystals! With so much power hidden within them, no wonder using them with the exuvium process extended a life for so long.
Greed was not shameful, at least in some circumstances. Even the Terminator was eyeing a particularly large vital crystal with some interest.
“One hundred and eight crystals are available during this auction. The differences among them are because they come from different alien breeds. The only way to determine their strength is to record them individually. We’ve done this for you, and each crystal has been assigned a serial number that corresponds with their asking price. Now we invite you to take a look for yourselves. No one appraiser shall have access to a single stone for more than five minutes so that everyone has a chance to look. I will remind you all that generally the size of the crystal corresponds to how much power it contains. However, that is not the case all the time. One of these crystals contains a tremendous amount of power, but is smaller than the others. Very well, that’s all I need to say. Feel free to look around.” The Wine Master concluded his speed with a wave of his hand.
Skyfire Avenue’s guests had stopped listening already. The moment they were given permissions, representatives scrambled over one another to get their hands on the crystals.
With over a hundred crystals and only a little over eighty representatives, everyone had a chance to get up close to the
items. The rules also assured everyone would have ample time to see what they needed, so no one complained.
Lucifer snapped out with keen eyes and nimble fingers, snapping up the crystal closest to him. It was about the size of his fist. For an Adept of his level the check took only a moment. He flooded the crystal with his consciousness and examined the pulses of energy within.
Right away he felt his psyche embraced by the dense vital energy. He struggled against the urge to drink it all up into himself. He knew that if he did, the impure nature of the crystal would cause more harm than good. That was what the exuvium process was for. For all he knew, absorbing the energy directly might turn him into one of those alien beasts. Besides that, there were four Paragons who were looking for any excuse to use their powers.
A small number of assessors had seen these crystals before. However, even for them they had never come across crystals so vibrant as these. Knowing that the potency of a crystal was a sign of an alien’s strength, it was a clear display of power that East had so many to give away.
Among all the representatives, only the Terminator remained
still. He didn’t even take a crystal to examine.
“You don’t want to take a closer look?” The Epochrion asked her old comrade.
He shook his head. “What’s the use? In reality this whole process is unnecessary. If these crystals were fake the East would be taking a foolish gamble holding this auction. As far as I’m concerned, we’re here so that these people can justify spending so much.”
The Epochrion smiled back at him. “I don’t know about any of that. The Wine Master is in charge of everything.”
Of course the Terminator was right. If you didn’t let your customers see the goods, how could you expect them to pay what they were asking? The crystals had all gone through rigorous inspection and selection before coming to auction as well. There were crystals of all kinds, strong and weak. A few were even very rare crystals from stronger aliens. They were smaller, but could be picked out by their richer color and energy.
The truth couldn’t be hidden from the people in this room,
even if they wanted to. Luckily they did sense things clearly and it was making them excited.
Jun’er was interested in the crystals, too. She weaved in between her guests as they examined the crystals. She looked like a little adult, walking absently back and forth with a concerned expression on her face.
Metatron was increasingly surprised by what he was feeling. The energies were so dense they looked thick as ropes. He busily recorded a few serial numbers for tomorrow’s auction.
Time stretched on, with everyone having an opportunity to experience the vital crystals. The more they felt, the happier they were. Many were powerful Adepts in their own right and knew the secrets of vital energy. This was especially true if they understood their own powers. At least they knew that vital energy was integral for extending life and keeping strong.
War ships were costly, but what better use was there for resources than to extend one’s life? The men and women with handfuls of crystals may have been representing powerful people, but their personally excitement was on full display. Just one of these had the ability to dramatically extend their lives. A creaky old death was no longer to be feared. Exuvium, it remade
you right down to your genes. These vital crystals forced an evolution in the human body that likely even helped their Disciplines.
Beep-beep! The Epochrion’s communicator rang. She dropped her head to spy the number, then turned toward the Terminator beside her. “I’m sorry, I have to take this. Wine Master, if you’d come with me for a moment?”
The Wine Master approached her side and said something quietly in her ear. She answered by gently shaking her head, and then the two walked off to be by themselves.
Most were still absorbed with the vital crystals, and didn’t notice the two Paragons separate from the crowd. The Keeper and Bookworm were still standing vigil to watch for thieves. Not that any would dare, this was the Ocean of Stars, a Paragon’s Domain.
As the Epochrion and Wine Master talked among themselves, several of the guests staggered and nearly fell. A deep blue- purple crystal was clutched in their hand. The energies contained inside were particularly dense, almost thick. The bearer was overwhelmed and almost couldn’t handle the power contained within.
Chapter 642: A Trap
The person stumbled and nearly collapsed, but no one paid any mind. Everyone’s total attention was on the vital crystals, what did the other appraisers mean to them? All but Jun’er, who was standing in the path of the representative.
The small girl’s eyes did not work, but her other senses compensated. “Be careful,” she squeaked. A tiny hand extended to help. Only just then the representative jerked away. To the outside observer it looked like they were trying to avoid bumping into the girl. Something in it grabbed the attention of the Keeper and Bookworm, though.
“Nobody move.” A deep, gravelly voice hissed through the air. All eyes turned to the dagger pressed against Jun’er’s throat, throbbing with purple light. The culprit’s free hand shot out, and ten vital stones suspended nearby shot into his grasp.
Suddenly a wave of crushing power filled the area, pouring from the Avenue’s two scientists. The suffocating aura ripped through like a tornado, swallowing everything up.
“I said, don’t move. You’re smart enough to know what kind of poison is on this dagger. A clean cut through her aorta, and
no one could save your precious little Clairvoyant.” His voice was grim and low. The expression on the thief’s face never changed.
“Astral Phantom!” The Keeper’s face went pale. He knew it because he could feel the protogenia flowing from him, the aura of a Paragon. Between the Keeper and the Bookworm, their holding aura was enough to make escape difficult. However not to comply was putting Jun’er in danger.
The Astral Phantom’s current face wasn’t his real one. The Paragon never revealed what he really looked like. His appearances were rare, and this one seemed foolishly planned. With so many Paragons, getting away seemed impossible. But the best methods were often the most direct. One little girl was stronger than a whole room full of Paragons. She was the future of Skyfire Avenue, and the Phantom knew that. He was unaffiliated and didn’t fear the wrath of Skyfire Avenue. Besides, his attempt on Lan Jue’s life already put them at odds.
“What are you going to do now?” The Keeper growled.
The Astral Phantom’s voice was cold, dead. “Nothing extravagant. You’re going to give me every vital crystal in this place, and then I’m going to go. Once I’m safe the child goes
free. You all know when I say something I mean it.”
The Keeper responded with a huff. “You have two choices. First, surrender. Pledge your support to the fight against the aliens and you can have leave with a vital crystal. Submit to a series of restrictions, and when we fight the aliens maybe your deeds will outweigh your crimes.”
The Astral Phantom regarded the scientist flatly. “Has dementia already set in? I’m the one in control of this situation. Keep your Alzheimer’s to yourself.”
The Keeper continued as though he hadn’t heard. His voice stayed calm. “Your second choice is to face them. Beat them and you’re free to go.” He casually pointed to where two figures were standing, not far away.
The two bore expressions promising similarly brutal deaths, but through different methods. One was cold as ice and hard as a mountain. The other had a more elegant and refined bloodthirst. Four golden stars twinkled on the fiercer one’s shoulder. His companion was also smartly dressed, but in place of stars he wore a mocking grin.
They were ready? The Astral Phantom’s face went dark. If this was a trap, he’d fallen for it. But what about the child in his hand?
“You’re pretty foolish, Uncle. I am a prophet, how would I not know when I’m in danger? I knew this would happen days ago.” Her voice sounded small and piteous. The naïve tones of a child made the words much more cutting.
A light flickered and Jun’er vanished from the assassin’s grip. She reappeared in the distance, bathed in ethereal starlight. The Ocean of Stars Domain was an inheritance from the former Clairvoyant. Although the manifestation of power was permanent, it only existed here in the museum. However, so long as Jun’er stayed here she had access to all the benefits of a Paragon’s Domain. Benefits like teleportation and concealment.
Lan Jue smirked at the Astral Phantom. “When Jun’er said she felt danger, you were the very first person I thought of. You’re the only one with the skill to masterfully sneak in, then immediately do something stupid. You’ve assassinated our people, and today those accounts will be paid.”
The steely-eyed general was Lan Qing. He had come to Skyfire to participate in a high-level government meeting. His mocking
companion was, of course, Lan Jue.
Jun’er had told Lan Jue she didn’t feel right the day before. It didn’t take him long to puzzle things out. The only person mad enough and good enough to be a danger to Jun’er was standing right in front of them. When it came to profits death did not concern the Astral Phantom!
Lan Jue’s eyes were strangely absent any hate as he regarded the assassin. There was only a heartlessness in his cold stare. If it weren’t for this man, Qianlin wouldn’t be in the state she was in. He had almost succeeding in taking the second love of his life from him, not to mention the many times he’d tried to kill his brother. Jun’er had predicted his arrival and here he was, the infamous killer. Today their disagreements would be settled.
The Astral Phantom flicked his wrist, sending the vital crystals he’d stolen tumbling back out into the air. The movements were calm, almost flippant. Like he was capitulating for the greater good, rather than the potential danger.
“If I beat the both of you, I may leave?” He didn’t look at Lan Jue. The killer only had eyes for Lan Qing. He could feel it; this thorn in his side, who had survived so many attempts on his
life, had broken through. His progress and determination were enviable.
“So long as you don’t run, you’ll only have to deal with me.” Lan Qing took a step forward, his voice even.
When he spoke everyone looked his way. The An Lun super soldier wasn’t known to everyone, but he did have a reputation.
“Prometheus, God of Wisdom and hero of the Eastern military. He is challenging the Astral Phantom?” Someone asked.
Lucifer’s ears perked up. He knew those names and titles well, and the moment he heard them his face changed. The An Lun super soldier, great hope of the East – was it really him? Hadn’t he been vice-admiral? He’d heard nothing about Prometheus becoming a Paragon.
The Terminator was similarly blindsided by the revelation. However, his mind immediately turned to reports of An Lun satellite images. Was that golden aura a result of this young man’s protogenic power? If that were true…
Ordinarily Lan Qing would not have tipped his hand and revealed his ascension. Typically this information would remain secret to keep an advantage over the West and North. Now, however, things were different. The worlds of man were upended with the alien crisis, as well as the discovery of vital crystals and the exuvium process. It was as much a danger as it was an opportunity. The East – being the weakest of the Alliances – was seeking to exploit and profit from these opportunities. Surely they hoped the East would eventually surpass its two neighbors. Perhaps now wasn’t the time for secrecy, instead it was time to flex muscles and make a show of what the East could achieve. With the alien menace at their doorstep, at least they didn’t have to worry about overt Northern or Western aggression. The West’s presence here was proof; despite their hateful rhetoric, how could they pass up the chance for a few vital crystals? How could they want them and at the same time say they were fake?
“Very well! It looks like you’ve been promoted. Now show me how strong you’ve become.” The others around them scattered back to give them space. Still there were many who were visibly frightened. This was a Paragon battle, collateral damage was likely.
However their fear was only short lived. In the starry expanse above, a single celestial body flared brightly. The star’s gentle light enveloped Lan Qing and the Astral Phantom. Right away
both of them appeared to shrink. From the outside they looked like miniatures. To them, it was like they’d been cast into a pocket dimension. Completely oblivious of everything happening outside.
Inwardly the Astral Phantom was in a sour mood. He was too bold, too careless. It was foolish to underestimate the Clairvoyant! He was dead, but managed to leave behind such a powerful tool even from beyond the grave. Too risky – in the future, he thought to himself, he would need to be more careful.
Lan Qing’s figure floated in the dark expanse of this pocket universe, facing his foe. For a moment he just regarded him. A gentle cyan light radiated around his body.
Chapter 643: Fighting the Astral Phantom
These two could be considered old, bitter foes. The Astral Phantom figured he knew Lan Qing’s powers well; that Wind Discipline that refused to be shut out, that powerful ancient martial style, and his near super-human insight. Most importantly, though, was how often he’d escaped the Phantom’s clutches. Things would be different now that they faced each other face to face. A lot of the assassin’s ploys didn’t apply. He was not worried about safety, however. After all, he’d been a Paragon far longer than this upstart soldier. He wasn’t a Reflection of Heaven and Earth, but years of experience as a Paragon had taught him a great deal about staying alive. He put his chances of escape at twenty, thirty percent, however he knew the rules and limitations of those who commanded protogenia. It wasn’t easy for people like them to go back on their word, lest protogenia revolt like it did against unscrupulous killers. Because of this, even assassin’s like the Astral Phantom had rules he had to abide by.
So what if he was a Paragon? What did it mean to him if Lan Qing was ‘gifted’? The Astral Phantom had faith he could best this upstart. It was just a shame he couldn’t kill him. The pay- out for Lan Qing’s head was hefty indeed.
The Astral Phantom made the first move. At first he didn’t
seem all that fast as he rushed for the Eastern general. His body was enveloped in a thick, mysterious purple light. It was important to remember where the assassin stood among his fellow Paragons. He had been considered stronger than the Gourmet, the Bookworm and the Pauper the day he ascended. Although he had yet to succeed in becoming a Reflection of Heaven and Earth, years as a Paragon assassin meant he was a master of his skills.
Lan Qing ducked and spread his arms out to his side, like an enormous eagle spreading its wings. Formless yet oppressive, the general’s aura sprang to life. Coiling eddies of cyan energy swirled around him until suddenly they burst out, illuminating everything.
Rookie mistake, calling on your Discipline when it wasn’t necessary. The Astral Phantom regarded the move with disdain. He didn’t move or avoid the general’s encroaching Domain. On the contrary, the Astral Phantom picked up speed and bore directly into the face of Lan Qing’s power.
The result was strange and unexpected. As the Astral Phantom met Lan Qing’s Domain, the cyan universe split to let him pass like cloth before a pair of sheers. A number of gasps arose from the spectators as they looked on. Such power!
Six shadowy figures appeared behind the Astral Phantom, following in his wake. A pair of black daggers had appeared in his hands. Since the blades didn’t reflect any light, they could only be seen from specific angles.
These were the weapons the Astral Phantom was famous for; Soulblight. No one knew how many lives these two dark blades had taken.
A flash of purple light temporarily blinded everyone who watched. The Phantom and his six copies spread out every which way. They arced out, surrounding Lan Qing, then charged in from every direction. His Domain seemed to exist in name only, as the assassin and his copies effortlessly plowed inward.
As the evil daggers bore down on the young hero, many in the crowd audibly gasped in dismay. One of them was An Liu, her pretty eyes wide and full of fear. But just then, the Astral Phantom began to despair. It was too easy.
How could it be this easy? They’d crossed blades a number of times, and although the Phantom had the advantage, Lan Qing always got away by virtue of his smarts. He’d escaped so many impossible situations that the Astral Phantom started to wonder
if he was even human. Was the ‘God of Wisdom’ really just going to stand there and wait to get stabbed? The Eastern super soldier didn’t react at all, even as his Domain was being torn up around him.
When he looked up, he saw the ridicule in his opponent’s eyes.
Something’s not right! The Astral Phantom stuck to his gut instinct. Three of the copies continued their headlong rush toward Lan Qing. The three others joined with the original before breaking off into four separate directions.
The cyan light became more intense as a vortex appeared without warning near Lan Qing. The vortex itself was crystal clear, but waves of green energy poured from it. Every pulse was full of a vital energy that made the heart race. From outside the vortex seemed unmoving, but the truth was revealed when the assassin’s copies were caught in its pull. When the images were swallowed up, their bodies were sliced away into a hundred thousand pieces by some invisible force. Half a breath later, nothing remained.
How is this possible? Is it actually…
The Astral Phantom craned his neck mid-flight to stare at the scene. He was able to sense the power of the vortex through the last moments of his copies. It was protogenia, wind protogenia. Lan Qing had managed to master the essence of his own element and melded it seamlessly with the waves of cosmic turbulence abound. His mirror images had no way to escape and were summarily destroyed.
How could someone who’d just become a Paragon be so strong? He couldn’t come up with an answer, but that wasn’t important. In a flash, Lan Qing appeared behind the Phantom.
Countless edged gusts gathered around the general. They were so thick in the air they left his enemy no way out. The wind- weapons were condensed cosmic turbulence and as such were heavy with pure wind element. Not even a Paragon would dare test how sharp they were.
The Astral Phantom was taken by surprise, but he didn’t hesitate. He steadied his heart as the truth of his unfathomable foe was revealed. His retreat stopped, and as the Astral Phantom turned he lashed out with the Soulblight daggers, quick as lightning. He cut at the wind daggers, and when they collided Lan Qing’s weapons dissolved into their elemental essence. Little by little the Phantom danced among the cosmic flows, carving out a safe circle.
As for the other three copies, they seemed to have simply vanished into the vacuum of space.
Wind daggers continued to sail toward the assassin, birthed from Lan Qing as he remained suspended in place. The Astral Phantom was in the center of a deadly tempest, and each gust was a piercing dagger at his weakest points. No dodge to the left or dash to the right freed him from the prison of air. They were locked in a battle of stamina.
The Terminator swung his eyes toward the Keeper. “Congratulations! The East produces another Paragon. Why is it we Northerner’s don’t have such luck?”
The Keeper answered with a knowing smile. “Because you’ve chosen the wrong path. The mysteries of the human body can’t be answered by installing technology. To truly understand ourselves we must reduce, not add to. It only happens through hard work, step by step, day by day. While manufactured and altered Adepts rise quicker and are stronger in the early stages, everything’s different after ninth level. You were looking for numbers. We have only ever pursued perfection. Our results speak to the righteousness of our path.”
The Terminator grinned. “Maybe. Though I contend our
technology just hasn’t caught up, yet. If one day technology could reveal the potential we contain, everything would be different. When that day comes we can make Paragons. That is when humanity will be the true masters of the universe.”
The Keeper didn’t engage him further. This was an ideological rift that went beyond the two of them, and both knew the other wouldn’t be swayed. Each had their own truth.
In the depths of their pocket universe, the rivals continued their battle. In a short span the clash had reached a fever pitch. The Astral Phantom was gone beneath the constant purple flashes of his defenses. All he needed was a break in this never- ending flood of cyan, then he could get through. But he couldn’t, the daggers never stopped. Both of them continued to throw everything they had at one another.
Cosmic secrets had been revealed to Paragons, and they were capable of bending the rules of reality to their whim. However, they weren’t gods. Their powers had limits, as did their stamina.
From outside, spectators might assume the more practiced Paragon had the advantage here. After all, he had years of cultivation under his belt. However to those with more combat
training, they saw that the fight was just getting under way. Everything up to this point was feeling each other out.
The Astral Phantom had already guessed that the cyan power was not Lan Qing’s Domain. The vortex was. Lan Qing deserved the praise, he thought. He was strong for a newly arisen Paragon. But at the same time the Phantom was starting to read the situation. Perhaps it was because Lan Qing was new to his powers, but his attacks were uniform.
Unerring, time was needed for a Paragon to learn how to integrate their protogenia into their fighting tactics. The Astral Phantom had tread this road, he knew how things were. As far as he was concerned Lan Qing was too tender. He’d been holding back since the start of the fight.
Meanwhile the Phantom’s preferred style was more like a viper; wait for just the right moment, then strike. One blow to shake the pillars of heaven. Both Lan Qing and Lan Jue had been instructed in how lethal that style could be. Lan Jue had nearly met his demise because of it.
Enough! Time to show him a little muscle. A cold light flashed in the Phantom’s eyes. His Soulblight daggers were surrounded by a caustic purple light, then leapt from his hands in either
direction. The started small but the farther they flew the larger they became. Eventually they were enormous, big enough that they threatened to slice apart the universe containing them. Both slashed their way toward Lan Qing.
Chapter 644: The Power of the Astral Phantom
The daggers of wind tore themselves apart the moment the purple light touched them. Lan Qing felt the forces of chaos unravel his elemental Discipline. The strange power from the Phantom’s daggers were accompanied by a low rumble. Its resonance made the tempest unstable, and dissipated Lan Qing’s attack.
If Lan Qing’s daggers were solid wind than the Phantom’s daggers were acid. Everything the purple light touched was wiped away without a trace, like the protogenia was just erased.
Only protogenia could contend against protogenia! The Astral Phantom was only a first-degree Paragon, but he knew the mysteries it entailed. He was more versed than young Lan Qing in the control and use of these powers. Here was where his advantages began to be revealed.
However Lan Qing was not put off. A pale cyan light shimmered around him like a shell, and the next moment he shot off like a bullet to avoid the daggers. The air around him reacted as tendrils of purple energy grasped and groped. Each one of them seemed sharp enough to cut space-time apart. In fact Lan Qing’s rapidly retreating body froze, and suddenly he
was back where he was a moment ago.
It happened in the space of an instant. Lan Qing hardly knew what was happening.
Spectators watching outside were also surprised, not least of them the Wine Master. Those purple tendrils were definitely having an effect on space-time. They’d cancelled Lan Qing’s retreat like it’d never happened.
It demanded masterful control to counter another Paragon’s protogenia with one’s own. No wonder the astral Phantom was respected for his long years as a Paragon. It was a trick, to lull Lan Qing into a false sense of security. He’d seemed weak, and revealed his strength at just the right moment.
A smug grin spread across the assassin’s face. This child thought he could face up to me. Too bold, kid. Let’s see if you can block the combined might of heaven and earth – my Daemon-cleaver!
There was nowhere Lan Qing could flee to. The roaring aura of the Deamon-cleaver attack ripped his defensive shell away. Terrifying to behold, there was also a sense of beauty in
watching protogenia so expertly castrated. It was akin to the sounds of a frantic guqin, springs buzzing with sound until all at once they snap – sad, shrill and beautiful.
Ding-ding! In the final moment, just as it seemed the Astral Phantom’s daggers would cleave Lan Qing in two, the crowd gasped. An Luo’s super soldier reacted in a way none of them could have expected.
He lifted his hands, and using nothing but his calloused palm swatted the daggers away. A soft golden aura surrounded them, flesh white as polished porcelain. In fact his whole body was illuminated by an internal glow.
The Astral Phantom stared incredulously as Lan Qing batted his daggers away. The incomparably sharp Soulblighter daggers didn’t even get passed that thin gold aura around his head. It was like trying to pierce cast iron.
How could this be? Although it hadn’t been the Phantom’s deadliest attack, it was among his strongest! How was it possible it was swatted away like an irritating fly? With two bare hands? Even the leaders of Skyfire Avenue wouldn’t have been able to do that. Why was he different?
Combat was about living in the moment. Lan Qing didn’t give his foe the luxury of time, and thrust forward with his palms before the Phantom could recover. A wall of invisible force bore down on him.
It sent the astral Phantom spinning wildly through the air. He sailed out of control for a good while. When the would-be killer finally came to a stop he could only gape in disbelief. Whatever power Lan Qing used, he couldn’t comprehend it.
How could this be happening? What did I get myself into? My daggers, just ignored like rubbish by a fresh Paragon.
But then he took another look, and his mind went blank. Lan Qing was completely different.
The gusts of Discipline had been restrained. Although he calmly floated just as before, he was now surrounded by a pale golden aura. The ethereal, aloof face of Prometheus was spread in a mellow smile of content.
Once an Adept became a Paragon their protogenia could not change. It wasn’t just nonsense told to them by trainers. It was equally impossible to see someone’s protogenia spontaneously
evolve. Yet, that’s what the Phantom’s eyes were telling him.
Lan Qing regarded the Astral Phantom calmly. Then, one hand curled into a loose fist and he thrust a punch at his opponent.
Sinister determination hardened the Phantom’s face. If he’d underestimated Lan Qing before, things were different now. Anyone who could block his attacks the way this young soldier did was a formidable enemy.
Lan Qing’s punch looked weak but the whole space around them warped because of it. From the Astral Phantom’s perspective, Lan Qing got larger and larger until he took up his whole field of vision. And yet, it seemed strange, false like an illusion. He didn’t know what was real or not anymore. This punch seemed to go beyond the constraints of protogenia.
The Astral Phantom reacted. He thrust his hands behind his back and shut his eyes. All of a sudden, his whole body became translucent, like an amethyst. The assassin dashed forward like a bolt of lightning, right into Lan Qing’s formless punch.
Tssssssshhhhh! A strange sound thundered from every
direction. Waves of wild energy crashed against the boundaries of their pocket dimension. The Clairvoyant’s Domain appeared to react, and soon resplendent starlight was twinkling all through the room. Separate though they were, spectators could still feel the feral and ferocious power of their collision.
When the ripples passed and reality settled, the Astral Phantom was the first one they saw. His battered form hung in the emptiness of space. When they spied Lan Qing in the distance he looked no different. Clearly the general had won their exchange.
Representatives who did not know Lan Qing couldn’t hide their shock. It was inconceivable that a young Paragon who just broke through could stand toe to toe against the Astral Phantom and emerge unscathed. It was a glittering endorsement of his strength and potential. The Representatives clambered to get a better view of the display.
Lucifer, the Fallen Angel now understood why he’d felt such pressure when their eyes met. Only someone on an entirely different level could give him that sense of dread!
Archangel Metatron didn’t look any better. He’d spent a fortune in research after Zeus revealed his identity at the Great
Adept Tournament. Lan Qing and Lan Jue were brothers, and the younger of the two was already at the top of the Pontiff’s black list. Now, however, they see a big brother stands behind him. The pressure this added to the Citadel could be imagined. How would they contend against a foe like this?
The Astral Phantom still hadn’t gotten over his disbelief. He’d thrown real power behind that attack. However, he knew that neither of them knew the truth about the other. The Astral Phantom’s secret was his protogenia. It wasn’t poison, nor was it his speed. In fact, the assassin’s greatest power was his perception. Perception was his chosen path to Paragon.
Cutting perception was what had allowed him to manipulate the Soulblgiht daggers to resonate at just the right frequency. That rendered Lan Qing’s wind daggers useless. Total situational awareness was his strong suit, with poison and speed used to get him the advantage.
He’d focused his perception on Lan Qing’s punch in the hopes of gleaning some clue as to how to beat it. What he saw was a perfect sphere, seamless and without a weakness to exploit. It crashed onto him like a stone curtain. Flawless.
It was simply impossible. A Paragon’s protogenia was the
integration of natural principles, powerful energies and the Paragon’s comprehension. However for Lan Qing’s power there was no border from one to the other. It was a total, unbroken whole. It went against everything the Astral Phantom thought he knew about Paragons.
Yet the truth had been painfully demonstrated to him. His only recourse was to counter his foe’s attack with one of his own.
Lan Qing shared some of his foe’s surprise. The Astral Phantom was stronger than Lan Qing would have guessed. He’d used his speed to amplify the strength of his protogenia. He’d lashed out with the Soulblighters, and their power was cast out in seven shadowy copies. When they converged on the force of the punch, they were strong enough to carve a path through. They was even enough energy to reach Lan Qing. However, it was so weak by that point the General avoided it with ease.
Chapter 645: Buddha’s Revelation
The two combatants stopped again. A flickering aura appeared and disappeared around Lan Qing, and a thoughtful expression was on his face. Was it really as simple as it seemed? After all, Lan Qing was called the God of Wisdom! Evolution was an integral part of Lan Qing’s chosen path. Through training and battle he constantly evolved toward the most perfect version of himself.
Of course his protogenia couldn’t change. But Adepts were more multifaceted, like layers of an onion. At the heart of Lan Qing’s abilities was the Prajna curses and Varochana. Wrapped around that was Wind. In effect, the general had been fighting with one hand behind his back.
Jue Di had told Lan Qing that the universe shrunk after you became a Paragon. There were so few like you. A situation like that, new Paragons needed a whetstone to hone their abilities. Friends and training partners were no use. Paragons were exceedingly precise and sensitive, and only real danger catalyzed their potential.
The Astral Phantom was a perfect whetstone. Lan Qing wasn’t going to put him down so quickly. He used this opportunity to understand the deeper truths of his protogenia.
The Phantom’s body vanished in a flash of purple light. He didn’t wait around for Lan Qing to attack. The Astral Phantom was a killer, a master assassin as they were called in the old days. No assassin worth their salt attacked a target head-on. Attack from the shadows, that was his specialty.
Just as the Phantom vanished, a light arose in Lan Qing’s eyes. He pressed his palms together at the center of his chest. Though his body didn’t disappear, his aura ceased to be felt. The Phantom, however, was completely gone.
Ting! The Astral Phantom appeared from the shadows behind Lan Qing’s right shoulder. Lan Qing didn’t have time to turn and face the assassin, the Phantom was too quick. All he could do was twist his ribs away and block the stab with his back.
Sounds of shock rippled through the onlookers. The Astral Phantom’s name and reputation were widely known. His strength was not in question, nor was the lethality of his Soulblight daggers. Meeting him was like being served a death warrant.
Every ear perked to the sound of ringing metal, and wide eyes stared in disbelief. The Phantom’s dagger didn’t pierce the skin. A blinding halo of golden light appeared behind Lan Qing’s
head, and his heroic form swelled to several times his original size. He dropped to his knees and knelt among the glittering stars. A golden lotus appeared below to lift and support him. An impassioned hymn arose, rumbling all around them.
When the Astral Phantom reappeared, it was far away from his target. He gaped at Lan Qing. “Reflection of Heaven and Earth. But how…. You… “
Lan Qing’s face remained even and placid. He spread his hands away from his chest, palms facing heaven. All of a sudden the chants grew louder. Lan Qing’s golden halo became brighter. It expanded and shot out rays of light like a miniature sun. Wherever the beams of light swept past, nothing was hidden. The light illuminated everything within its scope. The Phantom was revealed and he was left nowhere to hide. He darted into the distance like a terrified ghost.
This was his Domain! Buddha’s Revelation!
Indeed this was the true realm of Lan Qing’s power, far more potent than what he’d felt at the beginning of their fight. The brilliant light of the Buddha revealed everything to the young Paragon. The Astral Phantom’s Domain was what he’d just revealed, blinking. Within the scope of his power he could
instantly move from any one point to another.
Unfortunately for him, Varochana’s power abolished all things duplicitous and negative. Their pocket universe was reset to its purest and simplest state.
“Great Prajna Curse!” Lan Qing retracted his arms, then pressed forward with his hands. The pure light of the Buddha intensified still further, until the spectators outside could sense nothing from within their pocket dimension.
The Astral Phantom juked and dodged as best he could. No matter how fervently he disbelieved, Lan Qing was showing the abilities of a second-degree Paragon! That’s the only way he could have blocked the Soulblight daggers with nothing but his own skin. No wonder he was so eager to fight! Did he really jump an entire degree? The Astral Phantom didn’t know what to believe. He couldn’t understand why he’d been stuck for dozens of years, but for this young man it seemed effortless. It seemed too impossible an idea to entertain.
He raced as fast as he could, searching for a way to escape Lan Qing’s Domaine. No matter how fast he flew or how far he went, he couldn’t get free enough to summon his own powers. Even if he could, the difference between first and second degree
Paragons was outstanding. This was pure protogenic force. He had to get free if he wanted a chance.
However, once Lan Qing croaked those three words, everything around the Astral Phantom changed. No matter where he turned or how fast he fled, the image of Varochana followed. Eventually the pure light swallowed him up entirely.
There was nowhere to go!
The Phantom took a deep breath then came to a halt. He knew nothing else would come from running. He knew that his own Domain would be suppressed by the overwhelming power of the general. He was completely at his prey’s mercy!
He reacted by throwing his arms back, although this time his shoulders were thrown back as well. The action was so sudden and violent it looked like his arms would be pulled out. Then he began to move. A shadow copy was left behind in his wake. His actions looked almost slow, so much that the spectators could see every movement clearly. The sharper among them, though, noticed how when he moved he seemed like a shadow. He wasn’t really going so slowly.
Thirteen! Including himself there were thirteen shadowy assassin’s racing straight for Lan Qing. As the Phantom picked up speed his copies kept pace. They would occasionally collide with each other, and when they did the new copy was more defined. In front of him, the purple light of his empowered weapons blazed a path. It, too, seemed to become sharper and more real the farther he flew until it was carving apart space- time – and the pure light of the Buddha.
This was the real power of the Astral Phantom. Assassins were known for keeping their deadliest attacks to the last. How much more terrifying was a Paragon assassin once trapped in a corner? The Astral Phantom seemed committed to showing everyone.
He appeared to be little more than a gloomy shadow, somehow able to deny light from reflecting off of him. All of his strength, Discipline, perception, poison, speed, and Domain – all of them were focused on a single point in space. This was it; do or die. If this strike failed to finish his target, he wouldn’t have enough energy to a second try.
It demanded a full twenty percent of his total energy. Twenty percent of concentrate death.
Cosmic Smite. This was the name he’d given the attack he used only in time of absolute necessity. In all his years he had never had to use it. Although, he’d never before tried to kill a Paragon.
It was without pomp, without drama. It was pure, deadly power. Everything hinged on the tip of this strike.
Lan Qing’s hands shot out, for he felt the light of Varochana above him dim. The overwhelming sense of danger told him the precise moment to move.
Supreme Incantation! Lan Qing’s strongest Prajna Curse!
Palms forward, sturdy as a mountain! No I, no they. In the boundlessness of the Buddha, with no up nor down, there is no fear.
Suddenly Lan Qing’s entire body took on the image of the Buddha, like the second coming of Varochana. The heat was so intense that distant stars melted in the face of it.
Dang—-! The crisp sound, like the call of a grandfather clock,
hung for a long time in the air. The whole of the universe seemed to vibrate in response.
Lan Qing’s Varochana projection also shook. A large white scar appeared on it, stretching across the forehead. When he saw this Lan Jue rushed forward, but the calloused grip of Jue Di held him fast.
“Prajna-paramitah!” The guttural chant filled the air, rolling like thunder. It was clear as a bell to everyone.
The Astral Phantom was revealed again. His true form was picked out from the shadow doppelgangers. He’d been half- hidden before but was once again fully revealed – though, he was different. The emaciated assassin’s suddenly grew to several times his size. Without warning his frail body filled out.
Golden light enveloped him just as the resounding chants of Buddhist monks deafened the ear. The pale scar on Lan Qing’s forehead disappeared. Meanwhile the Astral Phantom dropped his arms beneath the power of a blazing sun. The incessant blaze burned away the purple light surrounding the assassin.
Lan Qing’s dharmic image came to an end. When he
reappeared his face was pale, and he looked drained. He’d sensed the mortal danger from the Astral Phantom’s attack. He’d only just managed to protect himself from annihilation with his curses and defense.
After all, Lan Qing was still very young as Paragons were concerned. He still hadn’t grasped the full breadth of his abilities, especially since he’d jumped a degree. On the other hand, the Astral Phantom’s Cosmic Smite was strong enough to nearly pierce a second-degree Paragon’s defenses. In terms of attack power, the Paragons ahead of him on the list may not necessarily be his superiors. With all of the Phantom’s strength focused on that one strike, Lan Qing had had a very literal brush with death.
Chapter 646: Fealty or Death
Lan Qing sensed something as the powers of life and death intertwined around them. His body had reacted suddenly, expanding the image of his dharma to ward off the attack. It also served to deepen his personal understanding.
Yet none of this made any difference in the shocked look on his face. Nothing could have prepared him for the truth.
Beneath the searing fire of Varochana, the Astral Phantom had to draw on the last vestiges of ‘his’ energy. In fact ‘he’ was no longer ‘himself’ – the disguise was slipping.
Long purple hair was the first thing revealed, followed by a sleek and slender figure. A pair of royal purple eyes burned with rage and disbelief. Varochana’s fiery light continued to devour the remnants of purple protogenia. What lay beneath was a beautiful face, cold and sad.
Lan Qing wasn’t alone in his shock. Who among the spectators – especially Skyfire’s Paragons – would not be
similarly flabbergasted? The knife in the darkness, heartless and malicious, a killer for hire. The Astral Phantom, bringer of death to so many men – was a woman?
Speculation over the Phantom’s true face was always fuel for the imagination. However, usually the stories painted him as a wretched old man. But a woman? And such a beautiful woman, at that. Only Zhou Qianlin was her rival, with the Epochrion a close second. She was also a Paragon, something Qianlin could not yet boast.
Lan Qing quickly recovered, his face adopted that familiar frigid expression. The fact that his opponent was a woman didn’t give him any cause to relax his guard. He pressed his hands together once again, and the Buddha’s Revelation Domain manifested anew. The all-consuming heat of Varochana continued to broil the Astral Phantom.
The assassin had no way to strike back. She only had enough energy to fend off Lan Qing’s Domain. She knew that if this continued for much longer, Varochana’s rays would burn her away.
She glared at Lan Qing with such a deep, abiding hatred that he could feel it. If looks could kill, he’d be slain twice over. But
he faced her with stony disinterest. Her wicked stare washed over him like a statue.
Outside of the pocket universe, it was silent as the grave. The fight was over, Lan Qing’s victory was clear. To witness the breakthrough of a Paragon was rare, but it was rarer still to watch one die. It seemed likely it might happen now. The appraisers representing humanity’s most powerful organizations watched, expressions as varied as their patrons. And yet, they all had the same thought; it would be wise to follow the rules during the auction.
A sound caught Lan Qing’s ear. He paused, then peered into the distance with a golden light in his eyes. His vision pierced the protective Domain created for them to spy Jue Di. He stood beside his brother, who both gave him a solemn nod.
An Luo’s general swung his eyes back toward the Astral Phantom. “You have a decision to make. Release your protogenia, allow my light to mark your soul. Swear fealty. Or, die.”
Only the Astral Phantom could hear him.
IF it had been left up to Lan Qing, this choice would not have been offered. He wanted the assassin put down. But Jue Di offered an alternative. He looked at Lan Jue because this was their enemy. Lan Jue had even more cause to hate her after what happened to Qianlin. Lan Jue’s nod was in agreement with Jue Di.
The fiery Domain around her set her shocked expression in stark light. She gaped at Lan Qing incredulously. “You want me to submit?” The fury in her eyes threatened to set her eyes on fire, bordering on madness. It was an insult, an affront! Paragons were known for their pride. Swearing service to another was unthinkable.
Lan Qing regarded her with unfeeling eyes. “You don’t have long to make your choice. Fealty, or death!”
“You think you can kill me?” The Astral Phantom spat back.
He answered with a scornful smirk. “You’re a Paragon, you live for your own interests. You’ve undertaken tremendous risk for those interests. You’re not conceited, but you have a singular focus on potential profit. You are sinfully selfish. I think in your heart you’d chose life over honor. However I’d be just as pleased for you to prove me wrong. So Phantom, do you
have so much pride? Am I wrong?”
“You..!” Poisonous words welled up in her throat, but a flash in Lan Qing’s eyes stopped her. The burning hell she found herself in got a few degrees hotter. The lapping flames didn’t scorch like normal fire. It was, in fact, much worse. They were spouts of pure, cleansing energy. This unfeeling purification burned passed energy, passed the body, right down into a victim’s soul. The danger the Astral Phantom faced was the obliteration of her body and soul. Escape was not an option, with so many Paragons watching.
What could she do? Her mind was in chaos.
Lan Qing was right. Avarice was her drug of choice, there was nothing better than a new pretty bauble. She commanded the greatest organization of criminals in the history of humanity, and yet she still wasn’t satisfied.
The Phantom was a sixty year old woman in truth, but looked like she was in her twenties. A result of many rare treasures, which used together allowed her to break through without effort. It was a feat that required skill and a fortune in resources. All so she could keep her good looks forever as a Paragon.
She had been overjoyed at the news of vital crystals and the exuvium process. Paragons had to die like any other living thing. The exuvium process changed all that. A single crystal wouldn’t mean much to her, but a whole lot of them, or even just a particularly potent one was enough to extend her life. And through those extra years she could grow stronger. She’d been stuck at the Realm of Protogenia for so long already with no signs of progress. This time she acted out of desperation.
Still she’d been cautious. She’d watched and listened for a long time, had a series of meticulous back-up plans. Yet never occurred to her was one hateful little girl. Skyfire Avenue was prepared, rendering all her back-up plans useless. She walked right into their clutches.
At this moment of mortal danger, she did feel pride. But what could compare to life? You had to live to see a future. In death you lost everything – gone in an instant.
It was only seconds but it felt like minutes of agony. An unending flood of fears and questions ran through her mind. She wracked her mind for any way to wriggle out alive.
But Varochana’s light was too strong. She could not shed it.
Chapter 647: I Swear
A bitter pain stabbed at the Phantom’s chest. She’d had the gall to infiltrate Skyfire Avenue because she thought only the Epochrion was a problem. She was the only Reflection of Heaven and Earth, and thus the only one who could pose a threat. The other Paragons mostly new to their powers. Under those conditions fleeing wouldn’t have been difficult.
But who could have anticipated the arrival of that freak, Lan Qing. A Reflection of Heaven and Earth immediately after breaking through, while she was still stuck.
“Stay your hand!” The Astral Phantom cried.
The aura around Lan Qing dimmed, and Varochana’s burning light receded. However, the whole universe around her seemed ready to detonate at a moment’s notice.
The Astral Phantom was red faced, and ground her teeth in fury. “I will absolutely not swear myself to you, but I will swear to three things, whenever you need them. I’m a Paragon, I have my pride…”
The pure fires sprang back to life before she could finish her thought. Their crackling cacophony drowned out her words.
Lan Qing addressed her with a calm voice. “You aren’t in a position to negotiate. You will die, or you will serve! Those are your only options.”
She couldn’t form the words, she was putting all of her energy toward warding off the holy flames. Her belligerence seemed pointless in the face of the God of Wisdom. An Lun’s super soldier was completely immovable.
Varochana’s flames dimmed again. The assassin took great gulps of breath, but only in part from the strain. She felt like she had been on the edge of a precipice, about to be swallowed up. The fear still seized her chest.
“I have limited patience. This is your final chance to make a decision.” Lan Qing’s keen eyes never left her.
The Phantom’s chest heaved as she fought to regain her breath. She wanted nothing more than to make Lan Qing stop breathing, but she when hanging over a ledge you didn’t bite the hand holding you up.
“Ten!” Lan Qing’s eyes were bright and firm.
“Wait! What are your intentions?” The Phantom asked.
“Eight!” He ignored her entirely and continued the count down.
“Wait! I need time to think. Give me time!”
“Six!” Lan Qing’s eyes were hard. His hands slowly rose and the fiery sun behind his head got brighter. Everything the light touched could hear the bone-shuddering chants of invisible bodhisattvas. It was so peaceful, but for the Astral Phantom it sounded like the inevitable march of death coming for her soul.
“You…” The struggle was clear in the Phantom’s eyes. She knew what it would mean if he marked her soul.
“Three!” Lan Qing’s hands rose higher.
“Wait a minute! What happened to four and five?!” She whined.
The flames got higher.
“Two!” Lan Qing had her shaken to the core. Why would he give her room to breathe?
“Wait – fine, fine! I agree!” Every inch Lan Qing’s hands rose her willpower eroded. Eventually when it seemed he would move, her defenses collapsed. Nothing was more important than life.
The fiery lights around Lan Qing’s hands dispersed. His face changed. “Submit your spirit, and don’t think about pulling any tricks. I don’t have the patience to fight you anymore. If I feel like anything isn’t right, you won’t get a second chance.”
The Astral Phantom looked at him, conflicted. Her breath was rapid from exertion and fear. She was filled with regret. Why did she have to be so greedy? Avarice is what led her to this
point. Everything would have been different. Her cherished life would not have been so upset.
“When… when you make the mark… if you wouldn’t…”
The aura around Lan Qing’s hands flared. “I said no negotiations.”
“Fine! Ruthless!” She glared bloody murder but daren’t delay. She genuinely feared a change in Lan Qing’s mood. He might kill her at any moment.
Her heart was unwilling, but a decision had to be made. She took a deep breath, grit her teeth, and closed her eyes. The purple aura that had surrounded her was gone. Moments later a small vortex appeared in the center of her forehead. Flecks of black swirled through the outer edges, while in the center knelt the cloudy image of a silver man.
Soul essence! Only a Paragon was able to manifest an image of their own souls.
The fierce and bloodthirsty expression was gone. Now the
Phantom was a ghost of pain and sorrow. When she opened her eyes they were wet with tears. Her piteous expression and beautiful face tugged at the heart.
“Such a big man, bullying a weaker girl. I don’t really have a choice, do I?”
In another circumstance, with another man, her desperate plea might have meant something. Unfortunately, Lan Qing was unmoved. He did not hesitate and pointed with an index finger. A beam of golden light issued forth with spiraling lines of archaic runes in tow. Each strange symbol pulsed with Buddhist mysticism. The golden light was peace and calm, delivered into the purple vortex.
The tide of the vortex lurched in protest, but almost instantly the Phantom felt the burning fires of Varochana lapping at her skin. The vortex stabilized shortly thereafter and allowed the light to pass.
The silver silhouette within the vortex became more distinct. A shrill cry from the depths of her spirit followed. The golden light struck it right on the forehead. It blazed a path, leaving a golden 佛 behind.
The sudden, intense pain caused the Astral Phantom to fall.
She shuddered uncontrollably, drenched in sweat.
When a Paragon applied their mark, it meant the victim had to do everything they commanded. If they refused, the Paragon could erase their soul with a thought. By that point it didn’t matter how strong she became, the mark was there forever. There were very few instances where a mark like this had been placed. A Paragon’s dignity was sacrosanct. In the end it wasn’t that the Phantom was lacking in dignity, but that her love of life was too great.
The golden light persisted for about a minute, then vanished. Shortly after the burning light filling the universe receded into the image of Vairochana behind Lan Qing. The bodies of both combatants returned to normal size, and their battlefield vanished back into the Clairvoyant’s Domain.
The symbol for Buddha.
Chapter 648: The Tragedy of the Astral Phantom
The Astral Phantom was slumped on the floor. Her long purple hair was splayed all around in a mess, concealing her face.
Seeing her collapsed upon the ground like this, Lan Jue couldn’t help but feel something unexpected. This was so much worse than just killing her. It seemed so unlikely to succeed.
Lan Qing noticed Lan Jue’s expression and nodded his way. Lan Jue smiled. “Brother, it looks like you’ve found yourself a fine bodyguard.”
Lan Qing walked over to the Astral Phantom and plucked her up, throwing her over his shoulder like a sack of rice. “Surrender the vital crystals,” he growled.
The Astral Phantom answered weakly. “I’m already your slave, can’t you leave me some dignity?”
Lan Jue’s face twitched. He could hardly believe she was still gambling her life! All for these crystals.
Smack! Lan Qing gave the Astral Phantom’s rump a firm- handed slap. This elicited a surprised yelp from his captive. Several vital crystals tumbled out from her clothes. Lan Qing gave the surrounding Paragons a nod of respect, then he and the Phantom disappeared in a flash of light.
As An Liu watched them go, a strange sensation gnawed at the pit of her stomach. It was something sour, but not a flavor.
The Keeper’s calm voice broke the silence. “Alright. Now that we’ve seen tonight’s entertainment you may all continue with your examinations. All the vital crystals are accounted for.”
Capturing a Paragon was hardly a common occurrence. Although most of the spectators didn’t see how the fight ended, it was clear Lan Qing was the victor. The Astral Phantom had been arrested, the universe’s foremost assassin in the hands of the Eastern military.
In a moment, the atmosphere had changed. The appraisers gave each other nervous sideways glances. They couldn’t feel the waves of power thanks to the Domain’s protections, but they didn’t have to. It was such a visual spectacle that the fear and power were without question.
Everything they thought they knew about the Avenue had to be thrown out.
They were unassailable! The strength Skyfire Avenue showed was staggering, how were they to compete with them? The scene before them was evidence of how much clout they held.
The rest of the viewing continued under this unspoken pressure. Anyone with a thought of causing trouble had it banished from their mind after watching the spectacular fight.
The first part of the auction concluded without further event. Soon after, news that the An Lun super soldier was a Paragon spread across the human worlds. Now the news outlets were just waiting for any indication of what he chose to call himself. It was a spectacular story – a meteoric rise straight to Reflection of Heaven and Earth! Who knew, he might be the next Jue Di. One powerhouse usually didn’t represent an alliance, but he was An Lun’s commander. His presence made causing trouble more difficult for the West and North.
Even the Astral Phantom was bested. Who could stand against the An Lun super soldier? No other Alliance could boast having a Paragon commander! In an instant people’s perception of Eastern might changed. It was another stinging slap to the
West’s face that ruined all their plans.
Now all eyes were on the vital crystal auction. Information about the specifics had already been released, and appraisers had given their backers their reports. These crystals were pure, better than any that had been discovered before. A few of them were clearly from a higher breed of alien. What it meant, only the clever could deduce.
Never before had crystals like those been seen in human space. What were they capable of? How were they different from normal crystals? All of this needed careful study to understand. OF course, to study them they would need to be purchased first. Puzzling out the exuvium process would also need a large number of crystals for experimentation. These were new issues for them to consider, but first they had to have the crystals in hand.
Certainly, the fact that the East was auctioning so many of these off meant they had a surplus. They also must have had enough for research. It was clear to everyone that the East was leveraging these crystals to bolster their military strength – but what could they do? This was a wide-open strategy no one could do anything about. This was one pit they were destined to tumble into, the crystals were simply too precious.
After the showing demand for the vital crystals was at a fever pitch. Representatives from the rich and powerful were nearly rabid with lust. Whoever had the most crystals could position themselves for future profit and influence.
It was evident that the North and West could not match the East for vital crystals. However, they did have faith in the skill of their researchers. The East may have the raw materials, but technology wasn’t something that fell in your lap. It needed study and man hours. So they had trust in their science. Despite their late start, the other Alliances were confident they could catch up.
This was the atmosphere that filled the air as the auction day arrived. It would be held at Skyfire Museum, and the auctioneer would be Skyfire Council’s chairman, the Avenue’s Wine Master, the Cosmagus himself!
It went without saying that this auction was held by the joint efforts of the East and Skyfire Avenue. The East’s presence was at the Avenue’s behest.
Lan Jue arrived in a wine-colored suit with a black tie, and a white shirt beneath. The outfit was accented by handmade brown leather shoes and a white kerchief stuffed in his breast
pocket. He looked like the essence of a gentleman. Beside him was his brother. At Lan Jue’s request, the An LUn super soldier traded his military uniform for a sapphire suit. They looked so alike in some ways, but were as different as apples and oranges. Lan Qing exuded an air of wisdom and consideration. Lan Jue had an elegant sort of genteelness. The both of them captured a lot of attention.
Most of those eyes followed the newly arisen Paragon, Lan Qing. After breaking through directly to Reflection of Heaven and Earth, and defeating the Astral Phantom, he was immediately put within the top four of the Paragon list! Jue Di remained solidly at the top, but the Terminator and the Epochrion sat just below him. Before Lan Qing’s arrival, they were the only two known second-degree Paragons remaining. Now there was a new name to add. Although he was part of the Eastern military, he was still marked under the banner of Skyfire Avenue. It meant the Eastern Adept organization added another Paragon to their ranks, and all the power that came with them. Skyfire Avenue was already considered the promised land for anyone with Talent.
After the last stretch of time, the Avenue had accepted a great many new members. Most of them were unaffiliated Easterners looking for instruction, but there was a fair number of defectors from the other Alliances as well. These foreign Adepts had to submit to strict scrutiny before gaining entry. This undoubtedly
also served to make the Avenue stronger.
The Great Conclave and the Citadels were aware of what was happening, of course. There wasn’t anything they could do about it. After all, you needed strength to be considered. How could they be strong enough to confront the Avenue? How many Paragons did they have now? If the West didn’t have their decoctions and the North their technology, the power gap would be staggering. And Skyfire Avenue would have even more potential members.
Lan Qing and Lan Jue walked to the first row before the auction block. The other participants parted to make way, and they took their seats.
Only Eastern government officials and Avenue higher ups were allowed to sit at the first row. Besides Lan Qing and Lan Jue, representing the Avenue was the Gourmet, Epochrion, and Pauper. The Wine Master was leading the auction. The Keeper and Bookworm were not in attendance. They were absorbed in their research. The high-quality crystals recovered from the Shattered Starfields had been wonderful news for them.
A dark figure arrived, clad in black robes from head to toe. Their features were hidden beneath a shadowy cowl. They
approached the front row and took a seat on the far end of the table. Their mysterious image and arrival earned a few whispers from the others. The auction paddle in their hand meant they were supposed to be here. Whoever they were, they had to be from the Northern government. Adept organizations from the West and North had been assigned to the second row.
The Terminator didn’t appear to feel one way or the other about it. He was seated in the center of the second row. Although he represented both the government and the Great Conclave, the North decided to send separate representatives to show on behalf of the two organizations. This meant he had to sit one row back. Amusingly, Lucifer and Metatron sat on either side of him. All three looks a little uncomfortable.
Who was this mysterious stranger in black? What was his station, where he could sit with the leaders of nations? Many curious eyes followed him, the Terminator among them.
Lan Jue leaned in to speak with the brother. “The Astral Phantom?”
Chapter 649: Multiple Auctions
“She needs peace and quiet,” Lan Qing replied. “Why did you agree with dad to spare her life, yesterday? She could die a hundred times and it wouldn’t absolve her of her sins. Even she doesn’t know how many lives she’s taken.”
Lan Jue grinned. “For you.”
Lan Qing glanced at him. “Me?”
Lan Jue explained. “I did want her killed, but when I saw how she looked – and her status as a Paragon – I decided to spare her life.
Bewildered, Lan Qing pressed his brother. “What does this have to do with me?”
“How could it not?” Lan Jue retorted. “Dad’s told me countless times to help find you a woman.”
Lan Qing scowled. “Don’t worry about it.”
Lan Jue narrowed his eyes and peered at the Eastern general. “Bro, if it’s a… physical thing, then you know a Paragon has strong self-curative abilities. You don’t need to be ashamed…”
“I will literally kill you.” Lan Qing hissed.
Lan Jue chuckled. This was the first time he saw his brother act like this. Piercing that calm veneer was a humorous past time, certainly. “Embarrassed to anger, eh?” Lan Jue chortled.
Lan Qing’s even expression quickly returned. “A-Jue, every day brings you closer to Paragon. You need to be focusing on the secrets of protogenia.”
“Quit it! Don’t even think about it, I won’t give you the chance to abuse me. What about your military meetings, huh? Don’t you need to be heading back to An Lun?” Of course Lan Jue would know immediately what his brother was up to. He wasted no time calling him on it.
Lan Qing sniffed. “So be honest.”
Lan Jue gave him a helpless look. “I’m not honest? When I
have been dishonest? If you keep bullying me I’m going to go tell mom!”
Lan Qing’s mouth curled into a scowl. He shook his head, but said nothing else.
The auction hall was nearly full, all the participants had arrived. It was tight, there were no unneeded seats to take up space. This was not an open auction, so there wouldn’t be any media or walk-ins to swell the numbers.
It wasn’t too loud in the auction hall yet. Everyone was here on behalf of some powerful person or organization, so they each quietly brooded over their goals. A few representatives put out feelers and tried to leverage the auction to network, but the vital crystals were everyone’s top priority. Yesterday’s showing had stoked everyone’s interest.
A woman appeared on the stage pushing a cart before her. It was the enforcement team’s leader, An Liu. Only Skyfire Avenue would hire a ninth rank Adept to serve as support crew for an auction.
As he pushed the cart to center stage, she couldn’t help but
allow her eyes to flicker toward the two Lan brothers. When her eyes met Lan Qing’s, they darted away quick as they could. She even started to walk slower.
Lan Qing smiled at her for a moment, and Lan Jue saw it all. He leaned over. “You like her? An Liu’s a good girl, I don’t think she has a boyfriend. I can help introduce you.”
Lan Qing didn’t even look at him. “If you want to take a beating, keep talking. I don’t need you poking your nose into my romantic life. I can manage on my own. Do you think I have time to run around chasing women?”
Lan Jue shrugged in resignation. “I’m worried about you! Anyway what chasing. All you have to do is open your arms and there’ll be a flock of women swooping in.”
Lan Qing’s eyes peered into the middle-distance. “We have different goals, different desires.”
Lan Jue gave him a thumbs-up. “Alright! Worthy of the being called the greatest Monarch. But when is His Majesty the Monarch going to publish his Paragon name?”
Lan Qing’s face froze. That particular task had given him no small measure of heartache. He felt loathe to turn down his father’s suggestion, how could he ignore it?
“Sooner or later you’re going to be in my boat. You can’t run from it. Your name’s going to be just as long.” Lan Qing said coldly.
But Lan Jue chuckled. “I’m in no rush, I still got time. Right now it’s you in the hot seat. I’m sure we’ll adapt as needed. Hurry and make up your mind, then you can use the auction as a platform. Pick something strong and domineering, something that makes people feel your power the moment they hear it. Hahaha!”
He couldn’t help but give a little, maniacal cackle. An Liu’s eyes shot back their way. In her heart was the image of a stoic man, who was looking utterly uncomfortable. Then, she saw the sharp, thoughtful light in Lan Jue’s eyes!
Just then, a deep voice interjected. “Our auction is about to begin. Please prepare to make your bids.”
There was a flash of light, and a silver portal appeared upon
the stage. The Wine Master, his face expressionless, stepped through. He was clad in a very formal full suit. His Astrum was clutched in one hand. The moment he appeared, the heady aura of a Paragon swelled to fill the room. A pale silver light spread out over everyone, simultaneously isolated everything outside.
An Liu offered the Cosmagus a respectful bow. At his signal, she pulled away the sheet covering the cart’s contents.
A translucent crystal box was revealed. Within, pulsing with a gentle purple light, was a vital crystal. It was about the size of a fist, but bore the standard rhombus shape.
The Wine Master’s deep voice issued through the hall. “Our first vital crystal, examined by all of you yesterday. Each of you should know well the power it contains, so I won’t waste time with an introduction. Let’s begin, with the opening bid set at one battleship. Each subsequent bid must match or exceed one scout ship. Ten scout ships equals a battleship, ten battleships an expedition and so forth. I won’t waste time with unnecessary details. We are now taking bids on Vital Crystal Number One.”
There was no long-winded introduction, it was pointless. Everyone here knew enough about the crystals for what they needed, anything else was a waste of time. With a hundred
crystals to sell, things needed to move along at a good pace. As for how well those crystals would sell, it depended on the aspirations of the crowd.
“One battleship!” Someone in the back threw up their paddle.
“”One battleship from the gentleman with paddle Forty- Three.” The Wine Master feel into his role as leader of the auction effortlessly. He knew that was a very low offer. A crystal this big could be used ten time in the exuvium process. The participants knew it, too. They’d verified all the information themselves yesterday.
“One battleship and two scouts!”
The auction went back and forth between a few bidders, nothing too intense. Everyone was hesitating.
A deep voice suddenly arose from nearer to the front. “Five battleships.”
Everyone stopped, and all eyes went to the bidder. It was the mysterious stranger clad in black robes. His bid was a large one, and surprised everybody.
“Bidder with paddle Three, five battleships. Any more bids?” The Wine Master calmly asked. He wasn’t the least bit surprised by the development.
Five ships for one crystal – expensive, wasn’t it? The other bidders wavered. The Wine Master also didn’t see the need to drag it out. “Vital Crystal Number One, the bid to beat it five battleships. Going once. Going twice. Three times. Sold!” He spat the words quickly, not waiting for responses. The small gavel in his right hand rapped against the desk.
Bang! The first vital crystal had been sold.
An Liu brought the second cart up onto the stage and removed the cloth. She took the first one away.
“Bidding will begin on our second crystal. Opening bid remains on battleship. Takers?” The Wine Master offered.
The auctioneers didn’t respond right away.
“Five battleships.” Mysterious Number Three called his bid without waiting for the others. Anyone else interested in buying felt their bid catch in their throat.
The Wine Master shot him a glance. “Paddle three, five battleships. Any other bids?”
No one spoke. The second crystal was smaller than the first. To them it wasn’t worth so much. Who was behind paddle three? Why would he bid so high? It didn’t make any sense – could he be a plant?
The Wine Master didn’t leave a lot of room for thought. “Five battleships. Once… twice… thrice… sold!”
Bang! The gavel cracked again, another vital crystal was sold in as many minutes. There had been hardly any bidding at all.
An Liu brought the third cart on stage. Right away, low chatter filled the hall. Several bidders glared at the mysterious stranger in the first row.
Chapter 650: Mysterious Number Three
“Silence!” The Wine Master’s low voice growled. He lifted his Astrum, and that was enough shut everyone up.
Archangel Metatron shot to his feet. “Your Majesty Cosmagus, fairness and equality must be the foundation of any auction. No one here has taken to hiding their identity. I ask we make the bearer of paddle three reveal themselves to everyone.”
The Wine Master’s response was tepid. “Everyone had the choice to hide their identity and affiliations.”
An Liu had pushed the third cart to the center of the stage. In clear contrast to the two before it, this crystal was larger – about fifty centimeters in diameter. It contained about as much energy as the last two crystals put together.
“Vital Crystal Number Three. Starting bid, one battleship.
Please make your offers.”
“Five battleships!” The black-clad buyer was not bothered by Metatron’s pleas.
Five more battleships? The others couldn’t handle it anymore. The prices were one thing, but they couldn’t even match this stranger’s bids! Undoubtedly it was a fine piece, large and full of pure vital energy. With a Tear of Neptune, those energies would be even more potent.
“Five battleships and one scout!” Metatron lifted his paddle, number fifty.
“Ten battleships!” Mysterious Number Three retorted with a firm voice, doubling the bid straight off. Again, silence. Metatron quietly stared daggers at the stranger’s back.
Three crystals in, the stranger had pledged twenty battleships
– practically a small fleet! A pirate could easily turn those twenty ships into a formidable clan. No ordinary group had access to resources like that. If he was a normal buyer, fine – but what if he wasn’t? What if he was placed there to drive up prices?
“Vital Crystal Number three, going for ten battleships. Any other takers?” The Wine Master was moving quickly. Clearly he was pushing for the countdown.
The auction floor fell into turmoil. What on earth was this stranger doing? There were a lot of crystals left, but if this kept up many participants would be priced out before they even began. War ships needed resources, manpower, and technology. The East had been clear about what ships would be considered useful for trade. There would be no way for buyers to cheat them, and crystals were delivered upon purchase.
“Ten battleships going once. Going twice. Going three times – sold!” The Wine Master paid no mind to the angry grumblings. He patiently and rapidly went through the procedure.
The fourth crystal was brought out. It looked very similar to the first one.
“Vital Crystal Number Four. One battleship, starting bid. Do I have one battleship?”
“Five battleships!” Mysterious Number Three started out the bidding once again.
“I’d be worried this auction might cost you more than you’re willing.” The angered voice growled from all around them, generated by some special means.
The Wine Master turned a blind eye to the interruption. He continued in attempts of maintaining the auction’s integrity. “Vital Crystal number four, five battleships. Anyone else?”
“Five battleships, one scout.” The Terminator spoke up.
“Six battleships!” The mysterious stranger countered.
“Six battleships, one scout!” Metatron joined the exchange.
The mysterious stranger paused as though thinking, but didn’t say anything further.
“Six battleships and one scouting vessel. Does anyone have another offer?” The Wine Master asked twice more before banging his gavel. At last there was a crystal that didn’t fall into the mysterious stranger’s grasp.
The fifth crystal was pushed onto the stage. When it was revealed several of the buyers sat up in their chairs. The crystal wasn’t any larger than the others, but it had a deeper color and vital energy so potent they could feel it like a soup. Clearly, this crystal was on an entirely different level from the others. When
it was revealed, a lot of attention came its way.
“Vital Crystal Number Five. Starting bid is five battleships. Let the auction begin.” Skyfire Avenue’s chairman continued the same as before. The higher quality of the crystal didn’t change his demeanor.
“Five battleships!” A buyer in the back shouted out before the mysterious robed man could.
“Six battleships!” Another retorted.
A vital crystal like this had never been seen in human space, at least not as far as anyone knew. There was no way for them to measure the energy precisely. Further research was needed to discover specifics.
The exuvium process relied on vital crystals, so it was fair to assume the quality of the crystal would have an effect on how it worked. At least it was known that the more powerful the Adept, the more potent the crystal needed to extend their lives. There were several buyers in the crowd who were particularly interested in this piece.
A faint smile spread across Lan Jue’s lips. He knew what was to happen.
“One expedition ship.” Mysterious Number three raised their paddle. This was the first time an expedition ship was put forward. They’d paid out an equivalent sum already, but this time their posture was different. They wanted to win.
Yesterday’s showing revealed five such crystals on offer – vital crystal number five was one of them. It wasn’t the best one, but it certainly wasn’t something to sniff at.
“One expedition ship, one battleship!” No hesitation this time.
The Terminator jumped right into the exchange.
When the Northern leader made his bid, everyone went quiet. Being second on the Paragon list made one a pretty effective deterrent force, even in an auction.
“One expedition ship and three scout ships.” Unfortunately for the Terminator, Mysterious Number Three didn’t seem to care who he was.
The Paragon’s eyes narrowed. “One expedition, five scouts!” He appeared interested in this crystal.
Mysterious Number Three would not be denied. “Two expedition ships!” Two! Equivalent to twenty battleships, all for one crystal.
Both Archangel Metatron and Fallen Angel Lucifer stared in disbelief. The East couldn’t have set this up. Who was allowed to sit up front? Government leaders from the three Alliances. Not just anyone could sit among them.
So far the West and North were stuck on the sidelines, watching.
The Terminator was silent, he made no more bids. This was too rich to make it worth it for him. The North had money, but not as much as the East had these days. Besides, they weren’t just talking money, during this auction. Ships were a different beast.
When Mysterious Number Three gave his bid, another representative from the first row in his sixties couldn’t help but speak out. “Two expedition ships and one battleship.” He lifted
his paddle, bearing the number one.
“Two expeditions, two battleships,” countered Number Three.
“Two expeditions, three battleships!” Number one offered.
Mysterious Number Three wavered. After a moment he leaned back and offered nothing more.
“Vital Crystal Number Five, going for two expedition ships and three battleships. Do we have any other interested parties? Going once, twice, three timer. Sold!”
The elderly Northerner nodded toward the Wine Master, a pleased expression on his face. He was also a senior Adept, peak of ninth rank. He’d been specifically asked to come by the North.
Finally, the auction began to liven up. Mysterious Number Three continued to throw his wealth around, and it earned him several more crystals. However, the remainder of his bids were more conservative. With so many thirsty auctioneers, the prices
were getting too high to outbid everyone.
There were only a hundred crystals and eighty participants. At best, everyone would walk away with one. But Mysterious Number Three had ten to his name already. The others were getting anxious. Who knew when the next auction like this would take place? For every crystal passed, the chances of walking away empty handed grew.
Almost overnight, vital crystals had become one of the rarest and most sought-after items in human space. And what wealthy family wouldn’t want some? When word of the auction emerged, they clambered over one another for the chance to extend their lives.
Western government officials continued to look on in silence, while members from the North continuously raised the bids. They were already richer by several crystals. It made sense, considering the North had the most resources to throw around. They had the best ships modern technology could produce.
“Vital Crystal Forty-Eight. Starting bid, one expedition ship. A battleship is the minimum bid increase. Let the bidding begin!” At last, another high-grade vital crystal. Visually it wasn’t much different from the fifth crystal except it was fifty percent larger.
“Two expedition ships!” A representative from the West spoke up for the first time. The West had managed to acquire some normal crystals, but had yet to get their hands on one of the finer specimens. They lost the first one to the North, so the pressure was on to walk away with a win. They could see it plain as everyone else; the longer this went on, the most expensive the bids would get. It was imperative they got a crystal or two of significance before the opportunity passed.