“I’m not sure,” Mika said in response to her boss’ query. “It seems to be the same for everyone lately. By a third, and it’s the evening rush hour as we speak. It’s like the place is deserted. So the short answer is no, I don’t know.”
“It’s actually clear as day. The North and the West’s Pontiff’s Castle are holding a big Adept competition. The prizes are amazing, and the alliances are making a pretty big deal out of it with all sorts of resources and manpower being thrown around. Their intentions for that is clear. They are saying there are three s-ranked power gems as rewards to the winners. Aside from the champion’s prize, the North has also sworn to build a mecha to their specifications, using only the latest and greatest technology. It’s the same for all levels of prizes, probably to attract the universes better Talents to come and participate. That being the case, you can imagine why we’re seeing the result here.” Lin Guoguo had appeared from the back, a tray in hand. Several power gems were arrayed atop it.
Lan Jue’s brows furrowed at the news. “This is the first I’m hearing about it. The Keeper didn’t mention anything.”
Mika’s chuckle bore a chilly undertone. “Of course we wouldn’t be able to participate. The North and West arranged this whole thing as posturing against us. The Avenue’s prestige has only grown over the last few years. Then you have the Keeper’s visit to the Pontiff’s Castle, which was revealed recently, where he threatened to use his abilities to tear the hole castle down. After coercing the Pontiff’s submission, suddenly the Castle and the Dark Tower delay their visit for a whole month. Probably to prepare for this tournament.”
Lan Jue looked thoughtful. “Do you know when exactly this is supposed to take place?”
“In about three months,” Mika answered 1. It’s being held on Planet Luo.”
A twinkle flashed in Lan Jue’s eye. “Got it. I’ll ask Chu Cheng about it later – he should know more.”
“Think we should participate?” Mika asked.
Lan Jue pondered the question. “Even if we do, you and Ke’er couldn’t come. With so many adepts around, I wouldn’t able to properly protect you.”
And that was the truth. If the North and West both decided to focus their efforts on capturing Mika while on Luo, there wouldn’t be anything he could do.
Mika, though, huffed dismissively. “Still so antsy about them. At worst we have a mighty struggle.”
Lan Jue helplessly shook his head. “Alright, well you just keep working on your cultivation. How are you feeling lately? Anything requiring my attention?”
“I’ve been training just as you instructed,” Mika replied, “slowly motivating the power in my blood to manifest and strengthen. Even though I’m only at the beginning of fusing my powers, there haven’t been any problems yet. Your determination was the right one; bottling it up is much worse than letting it flow. Simply keeping it locked away would allow my devil’s blood to grow in power, and eventually explode forth. At that point it’d be too late. So I’ve been working on controlling it, fusing it into myself, so diffuse some of that terrible power and prevent it from negatively influencing me. Once that happens, my progress should speed up considerably.”
Lan Jue smiled at her, and nodded his head. “Excellent. Very good. Well keep after the store, at least for a little while. If it remains this slow then lock up shop, take the time to rest up. I’m off to find A-Cheng and A-Li.”
With that, Lan Jue made from the warehouse set in the back of the jewelry shop. When he got there, he didn’t find the two training as he’d expected. Instead, they were seated on the floor with plates of snacks between them, talking as they munched away.
“Aren’t you guys afraid of getting fat, eating all this junk?” Lan Jue teased the pair as he sauntered towards them.
Chu Cheng snickered at him. “If there’s any danger of us getting fat, then the whole world should fear for their waist lines. You’re back then – you know, you make a terrifically bad landowner. And a worse friend. We’ve been locked in here and you haven’t taken us out to relax this whole time. Vanished, poof, like a magician.”
Lan Jue adopted an imperatorial air. “I’m a hardworking gentleman, unlike you two loafing about. Why aren’t you two training today?”
It was Hua Li’s turn to speak up. “We wanted to use the sim pods to train, but it’s too difficult. Unfortunately, the sim is the only place to properly train our coordination. However, without the ability to use our disciplines we’re stuck. We heard you might be training with us soon, anyway.”
“I’m back aren’t I?” Lan Jue answered. “You know there’s a new sim pod being developed as we speak. If everything works out, the problem of discipline and mecha unification in DreamNet will be solved. We wouldn’t have any further problems pushing ourselves to our limits in that situation.”
Chu Cheng was visibly surprised, and Hua Li looked at his friend incredulously. “Bullshit. Where’d you hear that? If that were true how have I never heard of it?”
Gobi Entertainment was among the largest cooperatives in all the Three Alliances, and an integral sponsor of DreamNet. Hua Li prided himself on the belief he would be the first to learn about these sorts of things.
“That’s probably because it hasn’t been finished,” Lan Jue explained. “It’s still in its development phases. We should have some very good news in the near future, I promise you. Oh, and by the way, I just heard from Mika and Guoguo about this tournament on Lir. Have you heard about this?”
Hua Li shrugged. “Of course. They reached out to me to do the opening ceremony. Why, are you thinking of going as well? I heard there weren’t any invitations sent to the East, though. This is something cooked up by just the West and North.”
“A provocation from you all?” Lan Jue pondered quietly.
“What’s this ‘you all,’ I have nothing to do with it,” Hua Li countered. “Politics disgusts me. I’m surprised you haven’t gotten that yet.”
Chu Cheng, meanwhile, shrugged his shoulders. “I may go and participate. After all, I’m always getting nonsense from pops about ‘wasting the family fortune. Hmph. Maybe coming back with some winnings will shut him up for a little while. Hell, I guess I have to go! You think this is that sensitive a matter, A-Jue?”
The Jewelry Master nodded. “Very sensitive, I’m afraid. We have two of the three alliances gathering together all the adepts they can, specifically barring the East from getting involved at all. Isn’t their intention clear?”
“This I actually do understand. The East may be less powerful than the West and North when you consider aggregate power, but when it comes to Adepts you occupy the top spot.” Hua Li picks at the food as he explained. “Look at the Avenue alone, where its three Paragons outmatch anything the other two Alliances have. Two paragons each. Moreover, the biggest of the baddest of those powerhouses is in your camp. That alone is a massive deterring force. I heard the North is actually researching ways to manufacture a paragon. Fusing the greatest adepts they have with precision equipment and power gems to catapult them to their highest levels. I don’t know if they’ve succeeded or not.”
Lan Jue frowned. “The North hasn’t been sitting around. Ever dreaming up ways to take control of the other two Alliances. Your Western Alliance teaming up with them is a doomed marriage from the start, I’m telling you.”
Hua Li shrugged. “Who can say definitively? You want my people to try and put a stop to this?”
“What your mouth, A-Li!” Cu Cheng’s face had grown critical. He spoke low to his comrades. “This tournament has been arranged by the most powerful Alliance in the universe, and the two biggest organizations of the West. The Pontiff’s Castle is even putting aside it’s feud with the Dark Tower to get it going. Gobi may be powerful, but not powerful enough to stare down all the adepts from two Alliances. You’re a Westerner yourself.”
Hua Li grunted dismissively. “What’s that got to do with anything? I’m the black sheep of the family. Compared to you what’s it matter if I lose the whole company. I’m sick of this family inheritance anyway. And when it comes to my brothers, I don’t give a damn who they are or where they’re from.”
He said the words with sincerity, without any hint of bluster. However, as ever, he paired it with his trademark charming smile.
Chu Cheng slapped his forehead comically, muttering to himself. “Thank whatever powers are up there you aren’t a woman, otherwise I’d be your biggest threat.”
Hua Li stuck a leg out to kick at his companion. “Go die in a hole 2. Pervert. I am a woman, but A-Jue’s the love of my life. Whaddya ya say, A-Jue, let’s elope.” That unsettlingly gentle, feminine quality invaded his voice as he spoke. He whined at his friend prettily.
Lan Jue’s whole body shook, and he quickly shook his hands as he suppressed the urge to vomit. “That’s enough, alright. We’ll revisit that thought in your next life, when you’re an actual woman, how about that? Let’s get in DreamNet and back to training.”
Chu Cheng lazily unfurled and got to his feet. “Let’s do it. Still two on one? Your amazons aren’t around, but I still think you could handle it!”
“I’ve told you a dozen times to go kill yourself. What are you still doing here,” Lan Jue spat. “Have some pride.”
Hua Li cracked his knuckles. “I think it should be the two of us against him, A-Jue.”
Lan Jue slowly nodded his head.
The three broke up their little pow-wow, and made for their respective sim pods. A few moments late three avatars met in DreamNet.
Three figures stood amid the deserted streets.
“So where to? The Arena?” Chu Cheng, appearing now as Hades, asked.
“Onward,” Lan Jue said in response. “By the way, has someone gotten in touch with big brother? Does he have any time to meet up with us?”
A distinct tinge of fear appeared in the depths of Chu Cheng’s eyes. “You couldn’t pay me to talk to him about this. It’s asking for a beating.”
“Yeeeaaahh, I think A-Jue’s best suited for that job,” Hua Li said. “That guy’s temper… and who’s to say he isn’t in some super important meeting or something.”
Lan Jue could only helplessly shake his head. “Is he really that scary?”
Chu Cheng and Hua Li both vehemently nodded their heads.
“Guess I’ll give it a shot,” Lan Jue sighed.
He tapped a number in to the communicator. Three rings later, someone picked up.
“A-Jue?” Surprise was clear in Lan Qing’s voice as he answered the call. Beneath that, though, was the tough and commanding tone of an officer.
Wait, how does she know this? Didn’t she just say she didn’t know why there were so few people? Lin Guoguo is a ventriloquist as well. ↩
Best friends forever! ↩