Chapter 95: The Astral Phantom

“Where’s Lan Jue?” Lan Qing sat opposite the Wine Master, saying nothing more about his Prometheus remark.

The Wine went on with his line of thought in a gentle voice. “Of the Four Divine Monarchs, you’re the most well known. Supersoldier of the Eastern Alliance. The ‘God of Wisdom’. But with all that supposed wisdom, you still come here. Unless I’m mistaken, your name is number six on the Black List after you destroyed that Northern battalion masquerading as pirates.”

Lan Qing smirked. “The guy above me is called ‘the Astral Phantom’.”

The Wine Master mirrored his smile, but his tone was serious. “You shouldn’t have come. You’re brothers, you could call him to you.”

“He wouldn’t come,” Lan Qing said, shaking his head. “Otherwise he would have long ago.”

“Would you like something to drink,” the Wine Master inquired, suddenly changing gears.

Once more, Lan Qing shook his head. “I used to be quite the lush. But I haven’t had a drop since I was twenty. Alcohol impairs judgment.”

The Wine Master chuckled in spite of himself. “As well as your strength, hm?”

A hard glint shone through the admiral’s eyes. “You must never give your enemies an opportunity for attack.”

“The Jewelry Master is on the way back.” Once again, the Wine Master suddenly switched topics. “He should be here in roughly an hour. I assume he’ll go directly to his shop on the Avenue surface.

His guest nodded. “Thank you. I’ll wait.”

“Feel free to wait here. His shop is just across the way.”

“Hm.” Lan Qing closed his eyes. Like that – still, silent, blind – he remained.

An Liu remained standing to the side. As Lan Qing shut his eyes, his famously frigid exterior warmed by considerable degrees. The hardness of his expression eased as well, all but the area around his eyes which retained that steely resolution. His lashes were so long! Sitting like this, she could certainly see the similarities between him and the Jewelry Master. Even sitting ‘at ease’ his back was straight and his posture perfect – certainly worthy of a military designation.

“Ms. An, I’m sure you have other things to do than look after us,” the Wine Master said, mild-mannered and fatherly.

“Yes, sir,” came her respectful response. She turned and made her way to the door. As she moved past Lan Qing, his hand suddenly shot out and gripped her by the wrist.

An Liu’s reaction was swift, unconscious, and powerful. Instantly a suffocating aura of cold arose from around her. However, just as quickly she felt as though she had been covered by a blanket, an invisible force that stopped her powers from manifesting on the surface. She whirled around and stumbled to his side.

A thick dark spike, black as pitch, appeared directed at Lan Qing’s chest. But it did not pierce him.

The light around Lan Qing shifted, warped, and in the next instant he and An Liu vanished. The Wine Master quickly followed.

A stuffed, muted voice arose. It sounded like it was coming through the walls, from another room. The hoarse tones accosted them from all directions. “Ah, Cosmagus. It looks like I still arrived too late!”

As the voice faded in to the air, three shadows coagulated in to reality.

Lan Qing sat where he’d always been. He looked unchanged, unfazed. An Liu also had come to her senses, but appeared now on the opposite side of where she’d vanished.

The Wine Master’s face was hard and angry. “The Astral Phantom!”

An Liu understood then that Lan Qing had grabbed her to save her life. The warmth of his hand still lingered on her skin, but the expression that spread across her face was dark and cold.

“I’ll deal with him,” she said, stepping forward.

“No need.” Lan Qing lifted his arm to block her progress. She collided with his arm, and the brief impact caused her to lose her balance. As she tumbled the general grabbed her against his chest.

The contact was brief, but it nonetheless caused Lan Qing some awkwardness and surprise. As he grabbed her, An Liu’s firm, taught backside landed on his thighs. For the first time since their meeting outside the Avenue, he saw her as the attractive woman she was.

An Liu’s pretty face had grown red. “What are you doing?!”

Lan Qing shook himself from his temporary stupor. “Don’t bother going after him, there’s no point. He’s one of the Ten Paragons – the lowest of them, but his mastery is speed. There isn’t anyone in the Three Alliances that can match him. He can even fold space, create wormholes. Presumably he made his way here the instant he heard news of my arrival. He likely didn’t count on the Cosmagus being here.”

The Wine Master’s response was level, but cold. “This is something he and I will settle. His arrogance has been allowed to go unchecked for too long.”

Another rare instance of a small spread across Lan Qing’s face. “I’m assuming he panicked, once he realized you were present. After all, if there is anyone in the universe with the ability to control him and his speed, the three Paragons of Skyfire Avenue are them.”

The various Paragons had attached themselves in one way or another to different forces of the Three Alliances. Specifically, the Avenue had three Paragons in attendance. In the Western Alliance, the Pontiff’s Castle and the Dark Tower had one each. The Coterie from the North had two of their own. Three more existed, though their alliances lay elsewhere. This Phantom, the last counted among the Paragons, belonged to the largest and most notorious coven of assassins in all the known territories.

The Wine Master gave Lan Qing a curious look. “You survive an encounter with the Phantom, and you aren’t even a little shaken?”

Lan Qing’s response was lukewarm. “And what purpose do nerves serve? Were this An Lun he wouldn’t have dared moved against me. I can’t contest the man is exceptionally powerful, but in the face of modern science and technology even the powerful can only achieve so much. Even as a Paragon, even at the peak of his power, his destructive ability isn’t unlike a capital ship. But what if he faces a bigger ship? Stronger? All he can do is flee. My metaphor isn’t the most fitting, but in the world we live in there isn’t anything – Adepts included – modern technology can’t overcome.”

“It appears my concern for you is unnecessary,” the Wine Master said thoughtfully.

Lan Qing did not respond. Instead, he shut his eyes and sat in silence.

An Liu’s breathing had, in the interim, become distinctly quicker. She stood, and silently watched Lan Qing for a few more moments before making her way outside.

As she exited the Gothic Winery a cold wind greeted her. Her eyes became sharp as she faced the zephyr. However, despite the chill a flush crept up along her cheeks.

He held me!

ζ

The high-alt verti-car hummed silently through the air until it reached the area of Skyfire Avenue. It’s door slowly opened, and the glint of lamp lights glowed prettily against the blue streamlined surface.

Four slim and graceful figures exited in tandem. Behind them, a mote slower, Lan Jue’s khaki windbreaker flapped as he stepped out. His face was still somewhat pale.

“It’s good to be home,” he said around a strained grin.

His assertions earned no response. Mika looked miserable. Ke’er and Lin Guoguo didn’t look much better. Xiuxiu looked like she was on the verge of tears.

“Alright, homeward bound!” Lan Jue good-naturedly patted Mika on the back. He took the lead as they headed for the Avenue.

The four women gave each other a silent look before hurrying to catch up with their boss. Behind them the doors of the verti-car closed, and from outside it looked like there were no doors at all.

“Jewelry Master.” A small group Skyfire Guards snapped to attention as Lan Jue drew near. He gave them a polite nod in response.

A cold wind blew. The Jewelry Master pulled his collar tighter against the chill. His eyes swept along the Avenue, taking in the beautiful shops situated along it’s length. Unbidden, they became misty as he stared.

Three years. In that time, Skyfire Avenue had indeed become his home. Even when he’d escaped here in his grief, inconsolable, he felt as though he belonged. Perhaps it was fate.

Walking against the blowing winds, he made his way home. But his trek was interrupted as a sensation overcame him. He lifted his head, and looked down the dark street.

Skyfire Avenue was never very bright at night. The stores here rarely employed gaudy neon signs. It relied on natural light and the like for illumination. In the encroaching darkness he could make out a black-clad figure standing on the street before him. Still, Lan Jue knew instinctively the man was there before he even lifted his head.

Lan Jue’s eyes narrowed at the sight. Slowly he came to a stop in the middle of the poorly lit Avenue. His body shook, as though he were in danger of collapsing.

“Boss!” Xiuxiu lurched forward a step to offer him support, but Lan Jue waved her off.

Ahead, the black-clad figure had turned to face them. Their eyes met, and though they were separated by a hundred meters the glint in their depths were clear.

A shadow fluttered past, and the man in black was gone.

“No!” Mika called out. But no sooner had she opened her mouth than Lan Jue lifted his hands. His body was cast away like he’d been struck by a freight train.

Xiuxiu was closest, and had raced forward to protect Lan Jue from the blast. Mika, Lin Guoguo and Ke’er were quick on her heels. However the force was too strong, too fast, and the four women found themselves knocked back ten meters and thrown to the floor.

Lan Jue groaned, a trickle of blood snaking from his lips. He had been pale and frail, but now he looked like he was made of paper.

Lan Qing appeared where his younger brother had stood. He looked down Lan Jue, and the blood that was pooling beneath his cheek. Something burned in his eyes.

“Bastard!” Mika fumed like a volcano, moments from eruption. She scrambled to her feet and leapt in to the air. The Avenue became bathed in light as the crimson fires exploded around her. She launched herself at Lan Qing, becoming a screaming bolt of fire. An enormous trail of flame hung in the air where she passed.

Lin Guoguo’s brilliant eyes flashed like diamonds, and a surge of mental energy exploded outward. Ke’er, too, lept in to the air like her flaming sister. But where Mika’s fires where red and angry, a blue light erupted from her. In the midst of the blue halo her body began to change, twisting until it became a massive artillery canon.

Only Xiuxiu remained still. She stared at Lan Qing, frozen in shock.

The three amazons were terrifying blazes of energy, but Lan Qing acted like he hadn’t seen them. His eyes remained fixed on Lan Jue.

His brother’s trademark, lackadaisical smile was gone. A scowl had replaced it; stubborn, cold, and angry.

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