Bess hissed, “Altruistic blood! Hers is very pure, but the power in it isn’t strong. But yours… yours is strong. Though I do not know how deep your altruism flows. Of course, if you agree to give up yours for her life, that would prove it, wouldn’t it? You have a choice, puppet.”
Lan Jue met her gaze with one of his own – infinitely calm, and infinitely cold. “What if I refuse to choose? I only need to beat you to save her.”
Bess croaked a withering laugh. “You were smart not to involve the Avenue, otherwise you’d never have seen her again. And it is true that the only thing standing between you and this girl is an old lady. The question is, can you defeat me? I suppose we’ll see!”
The words weren’t even gone from her mouth before her clawed left hand groped out for him.
The room darkened as a sinister power drank the light. They were replaced by haunting rays of blood red, that painted the room in nightmarish displays. An all-pervasive terror bore down upon him while the tiny room seemed to expand until he was surrounded in a blood-red world of fear.
Lan Jue’s dispassionate expression changed. He knew Bess was strong – he’d felt that before 1 – but not like this.
Use of protogenic ability wasn’t always a sign of Paragon status. Some talented Adepts were exceptions, such as the Four Divine Monarchs who were each able to use at least some protogenic ability. This was especially true after the inspiration they got from the Bookworm’s break-through. But to use protogenic powers derived from ones own alternate reality? That is real power that only a Paragon could achieve.
But of the twenty known Paragons, Lan Jue knew she was not among them. It caused him even greater shock and anxiety.
Granny Bess was a truly unknown Paragon, and that made her absolutely terrifying. His chance at victory in a straight fight was practically zero. But he didn’t back down. For Qianlin, and for himself, he had to do everything he could.
Lan Jue had never faced a real Paragon in combat before, but that fact didn’t discourage him. The bolts of writhing blue lightning turned a vivid gold. If he was going to face protogenic power, the only way to survive would be to use his own.
The piercing golden light filled the room. Those bolts of lightning eased in to a steady rhythm around him. In the same moment, a tyrannical presence like Bess’ own rose – the stifling power of Lan Jue’s Ascension come to bear!
All of the sinister red light within ten meters was consumed and became gold.
Granny Bess remained in her blood-colored seat, watching him from her world of black and red. The slightest hint of surprise registered in her eyes, and she silently nodded her head. “Very good. This should make my life a tad more interesting.”
Once more, she swiped her hand at Lan Jue. The movement itself was unhurried, but the world around her became to ripple violently. Suddenly Lan Jue was a small spec caught in a giant hand, about to be crushed in the folds.
“The skies shall open!” Lan Jue roared, and his gold-coated body burst in to countless rays of light. The skies above were alive with a spiderweb of lightning. Bolt after bolt struck the top and walls of their blood-soaked world.
Several fissures appeared. The light emanating from Lan Jue grew ever more prosperous. In his left palm, the phylactery stone shone with a thick purple haze that drastically strengthened his power.
Protogenic power was a mystical and mysterious thing, but despite its similarities to Disciplines that was not how one learned to employ it. Unlocking one’s protogenic capabilities required a fusion of Discipline and spirit, as well as the energies that surrounded them in that unseen reality. All of that together is what generated such staggering power.
Motivated by the danger and pressure, Lan Jue’s abilities were operating at their peak. If there were even the slightest chance to save himself and Qianlin, he had to be ready to take it.
As Lan Jue had commanded, the skies did indeed appear to be opening as a tremendous fracture appeared overhead. A blackness like the depths of space was seeping through.
Lan Jue took a deep breath and, ripping his hands apart as though he were physically doing it himself, he cried out.
“THE SKIES SHALL OPEN!”
A single blast of golden energy erupted from the top of Lan Jue’s skull. It was heading directly for that gathering darkness in the heavens. The undulating, crimson landscape was rocked. Everything around them thickened, like congealing blood.
Granny Bess’ right hand moved in response. The motions were fluid and unhurried, and with it a gentle red light – lighter somewhat than the surroundings – sprang to life. The strangely wavy quality of the landscape stabilized, and the apocalyptic fissure in the sky stitched shut.
The massive hand shut, blotting out Lan Jue and his radiant light with bone-crunching force. But in the center of that grip, Lan Jue was safe within a shell of his own protogenic power. It crackled thunderously as it battled against the murderous encroaching force.
He couldn’t remain like this long. The entire weight of reality was bearing down upon him. The pressure was causing rivulets of blood to trickle from his ears. It was too much, he was facing a true master of these powers, and his was just a show. He could feel himself nearing total collapse.
Lan Jue, eyes wide, clapped his hands together before his chest. He swung back, gathering whatever remaining energy he possessed, and focused it through his arms by means of elaborate motions. His arms shot out, and the shell around him was injected with another inexplicable aura. Suddenly the crushing energy was met by an elastic wall, rather than a solid defense.
Granny Bess’ calm exterior fractured slightly. “What! Martial arts!”
Lan Jue’s coiling arms met, and once again his palms clapped together. Reality before him appeared to dissolve. He pushed his palms toward the opening.
An explosive force to rival nuclear blasts erupted from his palms, three times stronger than the force from earlier. Behind him, the dazzling image of a lightning bolt was branded in the air. All of his Discipline joined with the force of his art, was directed at a single point.
The crimson hand splintered and fell away under the attack. Bess’ nightmare world of blood and shadow, also collapsed.
“Well done! You’re even stronger than I’d hoped.”
Behind the hellscape was nothingness. It was vast, and empty, and darker than black. Lan Jue’s heart sank in despair; Bess’ protogenic reality wasn’t just a single level. He was drained, having used all he had to tear away the world of blood. This place of oblivion was stronger.
Bess appeared again in his field of view. She was standing, it was the first time Lan Jue had seen her do so. She was slightly stooped, with her hair neatly combed and her pink jacket as clean as ever. She certainly looked ready for the grave, but the surging power that flowed from her spoke to anything but weakness.
She was thin, and short, but in this emptiness she looked enormous. With a wave of her hand that blackness smudged, and again a swath of crimson red shone through the black. That same terrifying pressure could be felt seeping through it.
“Hack!” Lan Jue spat up a mouthful of blood. He staggered, as the gold aura around him began to fracture and fade.
He couldn’t do it – the tai chi-empowered protogenic energies were too much for him to sustain. Too much to control.
But as Lan Jue teetered on the edge of collapse, something stopped Granny Bess in her tracks. The expression on her face was more pronounced than the surprise she’d revealed before. This was shock.
She fiercely swiped her hand upward, and another monstrous fist of blood emerged from the emptiness. Lan Jue had no further strength to contend. It snatched him up by the trunk, and squeezed. A series of cracks and pops followed as the fist crushed Lan Jue in its grip.
There was a flash, and Lan Jue’s battered body appeared floating in the darkness before Bess. She dipped a clawed digit in to the spattered blood on his clothing, then brought it to her nose for a sniff.
Her eyes widened, and a terrible light burned in her eyes.
“How… why does his aura surround you?!”
Lan Jue just looked at her, stunned and unable to speak.
Bess paused. Lan Jue couldn’t know what she was thinking, but after a moment she waved once again and the hand that held him fast relaxed. He immediately collapsed, hanging limp in the black landscape. He felt more as though he were floating in some viscous fluid, which slithered through him to force his Discipline all the way down to its core. Lan Jue was no stronger than a normal man now, and there was no fighting back.
“Speak! Where’s your wine,” Bess croaked.
Lan Jue glared at her, obstinate and silent.
She spoke again, her voice soft like sweet poison. “Do you think you have any chance, puppet? You can choose not to speak, but if you do I’ll remove one of her limbs.”
Unadulterated hatred smoldered in Lan Jue’s glare. “We drank it, in the Avenue. One of the Wine Master’s treasures.”
Bess looked skeptical. “You’d actually drink it?”
Once more she brought her wicked finger to her nose and sniffed. Lan Jue couldn’t see her clearly, blocked by swathe of red she’d conjured. He could, however, sense her violent mood swings.
“It’s time to make your choice, puppet. Will it be her, or you? Only the most willing would be altruistic enough to sate my thirst.” She seemed to have recovered her composure.
Lan Jue never hesitated. “How do I know you’ll keep your word and let her go?”
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Here, and a little foreshadowing here! ↩