Lan Jue emerged from the roaring flames unscathed. The roiling inferno burned furiously around him, reflecting of his crystalline body but leaving no mark. The electric blue of his presence flashed in the eye of every onlooker.
“Huh?” Hua Li, expecting the battle from the sidelines, was as struck with questions as his lazy counterpart. Even as distant as he was, Hua Li had to protect himself from the baptism of fire by virtue of a radiating blue light. It served to isolate him from the heat.
His observations were keen, and he knew Chu Cheng was taking it easy on his opponent. Still, for A-Jue to sustain this level of heat without blinking was impressive – even by his standards.
Things were different between Chu Cheng and Lan Jue. For starters, they hadn’t really kept in contact for the last three years, and Chu Cheng wasn’t aware of much of what had happened to the Jewelry Master. Hua Li, though, remembered their battle from not long ago. Lan Jue hadn’t been able to employ his Discipline much at all, but Hua Li could still feel Lan Jue’s fluctuating power levels. Comparing them to what he saw now, the lancing bolts of electricity, they were different. It was as though his friend’s thunderbolt discipline had become ‘gentler.’ What could that mean?
Chu Cheng’s figure appeared from the bowels of the flames, his dark figure stark and ominous against the fire light. He was at Lan Jue’s back, and without hesitation reached a hand out for him. His grasping palm grew red, then gold, like a little sun seeking to devour his enemy.
Lan Jue didn’t move.
Poof! The gathered Amazons gasped as Chu Cheng’s hand disappeared in to Lan Jue’s body.
Chu Cheng was likewise surprise, whereupon he suddenly felt the explosive power of thunder gathering above his hand. Quickly and without warning, his entire body was wracked by tremors. The golden-red light around him faltered and dissipated.
Chu Cheng’s agonist response arose automatically in his defense. The young man’s eyes flashed gold with energy, after which an unsettling gray shadow appeared at his back. It yanked his trapped hand free.
In a flash Lan Jue’s figure raced backwards, colliding with Chu Cheng’s chest. He became the center of a blinding corona as crackling bolts of electricity exploded outward in all directions.
Of course Chu Cheng didn’t simply allow this to happen – he was a Monarch for a reason. He curled in to himself and erupted, the flames swallowing him in to an angry ball of fire. The nightmarish shadow behind him rushed in, joining with the fires and turning them a deep crimson. With a sizzling hiss, Chu Cheng extricated himself from the collapsing field of lightning.
Lan Jue was gone in a flash. Moments later he reappeared with his hand raised. He beckoned in the air, and with a peal of thunder a lightning bolt was in his grip. He reeled back, and threw!
The writhing spear of lightning chased after Chu Cheng, who was still surrounded by dark hungry flames. By the time the bolt caught up, the flames had turned to grey. Once the attack collided – nothing. No blast, no force. The bolt vanished as though it had never existed.
The fireball fell to the ground and melted away, once more revealing Chu Cheng. His hair stood on end, and his right hand still shook ever so slightly.
Lan Jue watched his friend dispassionately. Blue light still emanated from his crystal form.
“Your electromorphism’s certainly improved,” Chu Cheng noted.
Lan Jue nodded. “Just recently. In fact, you’re my guinea pig. From where I’m standing it looks pretty effective.”
Chu Cheng’s expression was irate. “When did you become so insidious. You’ve been learning from A-Li.”
Hua Li chimed in from across the ring. “Want me to throw down?”
“Hold it,” Chu Cheng replied with a humph. “Watch me wail on him a bit, then we’ll see. Take care now, A-Jue, time to get a little more serious!” He took a menacing stride forward as he spoke.
Chu Cheng was already a tall youth, and as they looked on he began to grow taller still. In the blink of an eye he stretched three meters.
His squirly head of red hair changed as well, turning gray like ash. The nasty smirk on his face melted in to an icy-cold mask, with a long smear of blood tracing a line along his forehead. The aura he exuded was tremendously stifling.
He was covered then in a lengthy black robe, shimmering with embroidered lines of silver. His ordinarily tanned skin faded until it was a ghastly pale. As the slowly boiling flames around him died, those terrifying grey eyes fixed upon Lan Jue.
The Jewelry Master watched the change, unmoving, though his eyes narrowed as the forbidden art unfolded. Of the other observers, it was Mika’s reaction which was the most pronounced – she even cried out in surprise.
“Hades… Monarch of the Underworld, he’s… he’s actually Hades!”
Ke’er shot her companion an uncertain look. “What’s up with you, Mika? You mean you didn’t know? The boss and his three companions were known as the Four Divine Monarchs. The God of Wisdom, Prometheus; Lord of the Afterlife, Hades; Zeus, King of the Gods; and Poseidon Lord of the Seas. Chu Cheng is that second one, Lord of the Afterlife. Of course he’s Hades!”
Ke’er sought to educate her friend, but Mika seemed lost in her own thoughts. “No… I always just thought it was a title, some sort of designation. But he – he’s the real deal. Like my father, possessing a pure malevolent Discipline. He just hasn’t cultivated his powers to their peak, yet. Such powerful abyssal energies… if my father were to ever discover his true power, there’s no question he’d have someone sent to murder him. He’d have him killed, and his powers absorbed. If he were to succeed in that, he’d be more powerful than any of the Paragons. He’d truly become master of the universe!”
Mika knew much about the darker side of the galaxy, and the powers of the abyss. It was a part of her, ever since she was small, to the point where she couldn’t be sure there weren’t actual ghosts and demons to be found in the universe. What she was sure of, however, was that although ghosts and devils were a part of the world she lived in, they were the enemy.
The Prince of Devils, Satan, and the Lord of the Afterlife, Hades. Each sought to devour the other.
It was often said that, in ancient times, Hades was stronger than Satan. However, for various reason, as the new age dawned Hades was incapable of finding his true self. Satan persevered, slowly growing stronger until they were of equal power.
The story was rarely heared now since the stellar migration. Perhaps those mythical beings didn’t exist, never existed. However, in a way they did, through these powerful Adepts. The Prince and Lord, masters of their dark Disciplines, inherited through blood or other means.
Satan, one of the world’s Ten Paragons, and his Dark Tower were ever searching the stars for those who possessed the power of Hades. Mika never really thought she’d ever come across the real deal. But here he was – Lord of the Afterlife, Hades, in the flesh.
Lan Jue wasn’t still during the process. He, too, took a step forward. Immediately the familiar changes overcame him; his eyes changed to gold, the crackling sound of thunder split the air, and an imperial aura of command surrounded him.
A golden cloak appeared, affixed to his shoulders. Countless bolts of lightning flashed around him, real for just the space of an instant and leaving a charged halo of energy around him. His hair changed to gold, matching his flashing regal eyes.
“Ascension. A-Jue, don’t overtax yourself.” Chu Cheng’s voice snakes from between the worm-like, pallid lips of Hades.
Lan Jue’s response sounded irritated. “What would you expect? You’re channeling the Spirit of Hades, my next move is Ascension. What is this anyway, are you saying you’ve mastered your forbidden art already?”
“More or less. Come on then – see if you can stand my abyssal flame!” Hades lifted a hand towards Zeus as he spoke. A lake of grey fire sprang up beneath Zeus’ feet.
Zeus was gone in a flash, appearing ten meters away. His golden clothes smoldered ever so slightly.
The Lord of the Afterlife made another motion with his left hand. Suddenly it was clutching the handle of a blade, black as pitch. It’s shimmering opaque blade was grey, and with the flick of his wrist the steel stretched outwards.
“Too long and neither of us will be able to sustain it. Too much damage to our vital qi. Let’s let a blow determine the winner; a single strike, and whoever’s left standing is the victor. What do you think?”
Zeus nodded. He moved his hand out in much the same manner as his darker counterpart. In a flash, a writhing bolt of lightning shaped in to the form of a spear writhed in his grip.
However, before their deciding clash could commence, a staggering tremble swept through the arena. As they looked around to find what had occurred, both spied strange trembling veins snaking up the walls.
“You’re really incapable of making life easier for the ones around you.” The Wine Master’s defeated voice surrounded them. A blink, and they found themselves in an undulating world of silver light.
Zeus and Hades regarded each other, In wordless, tacit agreement both disposed of their weapons. Their imposing auras diminished, and their fluctuating Disciplines lessened until they were back to their normal selves.
The world warped, and the wine Master appeared between them.
“It looks like you’re planning to level my training arena. Do you somehow expect this interspacial arena to endure your protomorphic powers? If you insist on practicing these abilities, you’re going to have me to contend with as well. Otherwise, find another place to ruin with your horse play.”
Chu Cheng looked sheepish. “I forgot, forgot. So sorry, Cosmagus.”
Another flash, and the Wine Master vanished without a trace. His voice remained. “I see this again and we’ll revoke your sparring privileges!”
“It’s all your fault,” Chu Cheng muttered, “with your Ascension nonsense.” He glared at Lan Jue for getting him in to trouble.
“You don’t care about losing face, do you,” Lan Jue retorted. “You think I’d have used it if you hadn’t invoked the Spirit of Hades?”
“I only used that because you forced me to!”
“Forced you how?”
“Yeah! Forced me, like slavery!”
“Stop with the garbage back and forth.” Hua Li shouted at them from across the arena. “Are you fighting or what?”
“Yeah we’re fighting!” Both Lan Jue and Chu Cheng shouted back in unison.
Hua Li’s solemn response wafted towards them. “Get to it then. And remember, no protomorphism.”
Lan Jue clasped his hands, then, at the space of his back and grinned at the two. “Both of you.”
Hua Li blinked at him. “A-Jue, I must have heard wrong. Even people looking to be abused aren’t that direct.”
Lan Jue smirked. “I never said I’d be fighting alone. Ladies, it’s time to see how your cultivation’s been progressing.”
Mika, Lin Guoguo, Xiuxiu and Ke’er shouted back: “Yes, boss!”
Chu Cheng regarded them with hesitation. “This… this isn’t right. I can’t lift my hand against a woman, much less four. Far too much a fan of the female species, you understand.”
Hua Li’s words were thick with disdain. “Give it a rest. I don’t think you’ve ever refused to put a hand on a woman.”
Chu Cheng chortled. “That’s different. Those are gentle hands,” he assured.
“Enough, keep it in your pants. Zeus and his ladies are going to be tough to deal with. Don’t hold me back.”
Chu Cheng snarled at him. “Who’s holding who back?”