Chapter 92: The Man in Black

The Accountant stood to one side, looking with envy upon the nearly comatose Lan jue. The King of Mercenaries lay battered, but in the embrace of four beautiful women.

Ke’er supported his head, resting it upon her thighs. Mika and Xiuxiu knelt at either side, gripping his arms and shoulders. Lin Guoguo rested her hands upon his legs.

Four lovely girls, with tears in their eyes for the man between them.

“Damnit!” Ke’er spat through her tears.

“You said it,” Lin Guoguo replied, her teeth gritted in anger.

Xiuxiu was speechless. Mika’s lips were turned in a scowl. Her eyes shown with an ominous light.

Suddenly the four turned as one. Their collective fear, anger and vengeance focused upon a single point.

“What are you waiting for, fly the damn plane!”

ζ

Planet Skyfire. Skyfire Avenue. Skyfire Museum.

“I hadn’t expected the Castle’s involvement,” the Clairvoyant said. He stood staring out of a window, speaking softly to the glass.

The Wine Master stood a short distance away. “Why didn’t you let us go with him? It doesn’t matter who the enemy is, there’s a price to pay for assaulting one of ours.”

The Clairvoyant responded with a thin-lipped smile, reflected in the mirror. “The young man needed to grow up. There’s a price to pay for that, too. Otherwise how is he supposed to lead Skyfire… to stand up in the face of Three Alliances?”

The Wine Master stood a little straighter. “You’re sure?”

The man’s smile slipped, and a bitter expression overtook his face. “Do you remember who you’re talking to?”

The Wine Master shot a look at the Clairvoyant’s back.

“Old coot, as inscrutable as your visions. The Pontiff’s Castle eh… hmph!” The quavering, aged voice arose from the opposite side of the Wine Master. An old man, stooped and wrinkled, struggled valiantly to rise from a nearby stool. He extricated himself from the stool and made his way from the room.

The Wine Master looked at the Clairvoyant, and though he didn’t turn his head to watch the old man leave, he spied the reflection of the museum door’s crystals flashing as the door opened.

“Shall I bring him back?” he asked the Clairvoyant.

The augur grinned. “Let him go. We’re always that familiar. Small things like that don’t offend. At any rate the old man needs his exercise. Don’t worry, though. That whole ‘one foot in the grave’ look he cultivates is his greatest means of defense.”

ζ

National Eastern University.

“Today we’ll be continuing our discussion on interplanetary technology, mecha coordination and how the two are joined. As I’m sure everyone is aware, the advancement of interstellar technology has permitted us to develop mechas with the ability to absorb and – when needed – release the stabilization properties of special power gems. This allows them to employ space flight. As for mechas pilots, with enough practice they almost become one with their machines. This makes not only travel, but combat much more fluid. So, can someone tell me any other relationships between interstellar technology and mechas?”

The professor continued to blather on behind his podium. The students arrayed before him listen with rapt attention.

All but Zhou Qianlin, who was looking distractedly out of the window. Her pretty blue eyes where filled with visions of the crystal blue sky and towering trees.

“Qianlin!” She felt a light jab at her side, which woke her from her daydreaming. She looked inquisitively to her side.

Tang Mi looked at her suspiciously. “What’s going on with you? We spent course credits to get in to this class. I can’t even calculate how long I had to save up for this. Meanwhile you’re watching the flower’s grow.”

Zhou Qianlin shot her a petty glance. “I’m a good student – I’ve got plenty of credits.”

“Tsk. I don’t get you. It’s like you’re some lovelorn airhead.” Tang Mi huffed in disappointment, then returned her attention to the class.

Professor Roger’s eyes swept the classroom, landing eventually on them. Zhou Qianlin immediately became the very picture of attentiveness, smiling politely as the instructor proceeded.

The Professor appeared himself well impressed with the young woman, nodding and returning her smile.

Professor Rogers was the foremost mind in the field of astronomical technology and it’s utilization in mecha piloting. He possessed a special talent for the subject, on top of being a seventh-ranked Adept in the discipline of cosmo-manipulation. He was only a visiting professor for the NEU, and only gave lectures once a month. His classes were always full of national scholars whenever he came to teach.

As class ended, Zhou Qianlin and Tang Mi gathered their things and left. The two were like magnets, drawing eyes wherever they went. They were all too scared of Tang Mi’s temper to do anything, but that didn’t stop them from staring.

“Hey Qianlin, I heard we’re going to have a transfer student moving in to our class.” Tang Mi said off-handedly.

“Oh.” Her response was tepid.

“Hey, are you listening?!” Tang Mi gave her friend an agitated look.

Qianlin sniffed good-naturedly. “So what? What does this transfer student have to do with me? Do you like the guy or something?”

“Oh this new kid’s got nothing to do with me,” she said mysteriously. “But I’m guessing he’s got an interest in a certain someone. He’s from the Western Alliance, you know. Pretty far from here, don’t you think? I heard they pulled all sorts of strings to get him in to our program. To sweeten the deal they sent two visiting professors along with him.”

Understanding began to dawn on Zhou Qianlin’s face. “You mean…”

Tang Mi shrugged. “Naturally it would be your former fiancé, wouldn’t it.”

Zhou Qianlin froze in place. She stared, dumbstruck, at her friend. “How is that possible? It was a giant scandal. How could they just let that slide?”

“Politics isn’t my forte,” Tang Mi responded flippantly. “As far as I understand it Sylva Austin only has the one son. And you know his character. A stalker’s love never dies. As I see it Prime Minister Austin doesn’t want to lose his only son – the family’s sole successor. So, some things just need to be compromised.”

Zhou Qianlin chewed her lip nervously. “When is he coming?”

Tang Mi gave her a questioning look. “What is going on with you? What’s wrong with Richard anyway? Young, rich, talented with a mecha… maybe even better than me. He’s even supposed to be a decent Adept. And with the Austin family at his back, no less. How can you sit here and stick your nose up at him? Why even agree to marry him in the first place, then? Avoiding the guy like he’s some poisonous snake… I really, really don’t get you.”

“You don’t understand!” Zhou Qianlin quailed.

“In the end it doesn’t matter if I do or don’t. Clearly this guy bothers you.”

ζ

Skyfire Avenue

A tall, slender figure gradually made his presence known at the end of the Avenue. He was a man clothed entirely in black; black suit, black shirt, black hair. He walked the street in even strides, slow and unhurried. His gait was elegant but… almost robotic.

In no time, he stood before the entrance to the Avenue proper.

“My apologies. Ahead is Skyfire Avenue. Please produce your badge if you wish to enter.” The single Avenue guard politely lifted a hand to entreat the suited man to stop.

The black-clad man paused. “I’m looking for someone,” his deep voice responded. “I have no badge. What shall we do about that?”

The guard’s response was practiced, as though it were a speech he’d given dozens of times. “To acquire a badge for entrance in to the Avenue, you must submit an application, and undergo a series of examinations. The process takes about a hundred days. I’m afraid without a badge, I can’t let you pass.”

“No other way?”

“Nope,” the guard replied.

“Very well,” the man said. “I’ll call him out, then.”

“That’s fine, and in fact if his clearance is high enough he can bring you in with him.”

The black-clothed man nodded. “Hm.”

He lifted his head, quietly calling out towards the empty street.

“Lan Jue!”

The expression was a quiet one. As the guard looked on, he felt, just for a moment, as though things had gone dark. It was only temporary, though, and soon things were back to normal. However, those two words suddenly began to echo countless times through the length of Skyfire Avenue.

It started as a whisper – audible only with some effort – but as the echoes rolled over one another, repeating again and again, soon the sound became a shout. The deep, stately utterance soon filled every corner.

The various shop-owners piqued their ears at the sound, lifting their heads from their business. For most, the voice caused clear changes to their easy expressions.

“You…!” The guard reacted to the unconventional use of Discipline – if at this point he still hadn’t, he wouldn’t be worthy of the post. Without any further hesitation, he launched himself at the black-clad man. The surrounding area quickly grew populated as other figures arrived.

The man didn’t move, still as a statue. The guards who had gathered ran at him, their bodies glimmering with the power of their disciplines. Still he did not react – at least, not physically. Instead tumultuous gusts of hurricane-force wind extended from him, casting the guards away to distant corners like so many rag-dolls.

They screamed violently through the air, crashing to the ground – and yet, strangely, none suffered even the slightest injury. The winds were gone as quickly as they’d come.

Alone again in the darkness, the man in black stood. Calm, patient, he waited. Still as a shadow.

The guards had gathered themselves together, staring at the man with soured expressions. But none dared attempt another assault. They simply surrounded him, and waited. They all knew well the disparity in power between themselves and this strange man. To continue fighting would only mean their likely demise. They didn’t even possess the capabilities of Skyfire Underground’s policing squads. Thankfully the man did nothing, and so they waited to see what would transpire.

After a short while, a figure did appear from the depths of the Avenue. The silver silhouette marched slowly towards them, like a star slowly moving through the inky night. The black-clad man watched them come. His face was calm, but his eyes… they were cold as ice.

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