Chapter 265: Returning to Base

    Chapter 265: Returning to Base

    "Very well... I will respect your decision. If you truly have no desire to return, then you may stay. On your own." As he spoke, Satan gently nodded his head toward Mika. His dark eyes once more fell upon Lan Jue, who stood at her side. "Look after her well." Their conversation concluded, he turned and dissolved in to a streak of black light. Without a word to anyone else, he disappeared in to the distance.

    The elite of the Dark Citadel were close behind their master. Soon, all of them were small dots on the horizon.

    Once more, the Pontiff sighed in a show of pity. "Kindness lives even in the heart of darkness. I only hope that these sentiments were real." The Pontiff turned and nodded to his coterie, and then with them in tow descended back to Skyfire Avenue. It didn't appear as though they intended to leave.

    As they left, Mika buried herself in Lan Jue's chest and began to sob. The Jewelry Master returned her embrace, running his hand gently through her fiery red hair. He comforted her quietly, as she shook against him.

    The Gourmet let his clenched fists relax. Could Satan be believed? He was the Father of Lies! But the claims he never hurt Mina...

    The Gourmet wasn't sure how to process this information. But his ruminations were cut short when a soft hand took his own. He turned, and saw the Seamstress looking up at him with a small smile on her face.

    She nodded, and spoke to him softly. "Come... let's go home."

    He responded with a bitter smirk, then resolutely nodded his head.

    "By the way," the Wine Master interrupted, "you're a Paragon yourself, now. What will be your title? Hades?"

    The Gourmet shook his head at the suggestion. "I refuse to take that name. Even if I took it, it wouldn't bring Mina back. No, I will be called the Infernal Vanguard, ever watching the darkness for her soul to appear. Maybe one day I'll be able to bring her back."

    The Infernal Vanguard! So the universe would come to know the Gourmet - as the Eleventh Paragon -  followed immediately by the Karmic Scholar, Skyfire's Bookworm as the twelfth.

    For the next several days the Pontiff would sit in conference with his fellow Paragons. The Wine Master, Gourmet, Bookworm, Keeper and Pontiff would all be locked away as they spoke on things no one else was privy to.

    Lan Jue did not participate. There had been a great deal of misfortune surrounding the Citadelians' visit, but his responsibilities had finished with the reception. There was still much he had to prepare for, at any rate. For protection's sake, Lan Jue decided to bring Mika, Xiuxiu and Ke'er  to West Hill. He would carry on training the young men and women, with their help.

    They arrived the same time, and when they showed up at the base Lan Jue was surprised at what he saw.

    The star-lit training field was full of students, seated in orderly rows as they meditated. Their needles lay on the ground, twinkling in the dim light.

    "You're back?" Hua Li's distinct voice encroached.

    Lan Jue looked at the golden-masked instructor with surprise evident in his face. He approached quickly, and spoke in hushed tones. "What's going on?"

    Hua Li laughed. "I should ask you! Skyfire Avenue must be the proud poppa of a brand new Paragon. He released the whole of his protogenic expulsion, so that the entirety of Skyfire must have felt it. How could we pass up such a rare and awesome opportunity? I won't lie, I profited quite a bit from it myself. It must be tenfold for these young pilots. What's more, with all the work and medicines we've been doing, it appears to have had a wonderful affect when paired with the protogenic powers. They've been meditating since this morning, with no evidence of difficulty or desire to stop. All of their needles popped right out, too, entirely of their own accord. You can feel it - their internal energies are much more powerful than they were, and are joining well with their biology. As far as I can tell, our first month's attempts at tempering these guys are complete."

    Lan Jue was quiet for a moment as he thought. Eventually a small smile crept across his face. "Luck is absolutely an aspect of power. I guess how much they absorb is up to them."

    Lan Jue found a place for Mika and the other girls before joining Hua Li in their dorm. He spent the next several minutes telling him what had happened on the Avenue.

    "Two new Paragons?" Hua Li's eyes were like saucers, and his expression was hard to describe. "So there are now five Paragons residing n the Avenue. That kind of power can shake the pillars of heaven!"

    Lan Jue sighed at his comrade. "Unfortunately, the Clairvoyant has closed his eyes for the last time. He's performed his final prediction, and now without his guidance we'll definitely be seeing a change in the Avenue. The presence of the Eye of the Tomorrow was mostly what kept the West and North at bay."

    Hua Li chuckled. "After being surrounded by Paragons all day, you must be thinking you're pretty garbage huh."

    "You're garbage," Lan Jue grumbled. "Only thing I felt was crisis."

    "How's that," Hua Li asked.

    "If the Clairvoyant was any indication," he began, "then all of the older generation Paragons are nearing their inevitable end. The Bookworm and Keeper may have found a way to extend their lives, but for how long? The Pontiff and Satan aren't necessarily spring chickens, and we can probably safely assume the same for the North's two Paragons. These men are the anchors of humanity, and they're dying."

    Hua Li nodded. "It looks like you're still worrying over that alien species."

    Lan Jue nodded in confirmation. "The Clairvoyant spoke with the Pontiff and Satan separately today. I don't know what they spoke about, but when the two Citadel leaders returned they were certainly brooding. At the very least there was less hostility between them and us afterward. I imagine it was the addition of this foreign enemy. Sometimes rivals must band together to face a violent outsider 1. My guess is the Clairvoyant's final prediction had to do with this problem."

    Hua Li shook his head. "Alright, well there's no use worrying over all of it now. What we're doing now is in service to humanity as well, right? Truth be told I'm a little jealous of you. Such a lucky bastard! Where it I training these young men and women, I doubt they'd enjoy such marvelous results."

    Lan Jue snickered. "I'm just a better quality of person! Better character means I'm better at everything. You go ahead and take an early rest, I'm going to meditate as well. There are still some residual protogenic powers left to absorb."

    It wasn't just the Bookworm's powers they all felt. The result of Satan and the gourmet's encounter was also thick in the air. He'd been immersed in it while under the Wine Master's protection. It was a rare occurrence indeed, and the benefits even to his own Discipline were not to be ignored.

    The students continued their silent cultivation. In the end, much to Lan Jue and Hua Li's surprise, they remained that way for three days and three nights. At least in general, for some would wake earlier than others.

    Zhou Qianlin was the first to finish. Lan Jue was absolutely stunned to discover that the entire process of their training had lifted her Discipline from second rank to fourth - in a matter of days! The speed that she was improving was unprecedented! Even Lan Qing, who had improved at a staggering rate, wasn't this fast. Part of it was due to her low rank, but even that couldn't explain away the extraordinary situation. Strangest of all, however, was the fact that he still couldn't tell what her Discipline was, even now. All he could determine was that her internal energies were very gentle and... familiar.

    Qianlin had awoken on the morning of the second day. The Savage Goddess was second. The moment Tan Lingyun opened her eyes, everyone could feel themselves flooded with a sense of vigor and vitality. She wasn't quite ninth ranked yet, but even she knew she was at the very peak of eighth-rank, and it would only be a matter of time. She left for her room to continue meditating.

    Next was Wang Hongyuan, who was nearing eighth rank. Like Lingyun, he left for his dorm room to continue on his own.

    The other students eventually came to, awakening mostly in order of prowess. By the end of the third day, almost all had opened their eyes. Each one of them felt the tremendous changes within themselves immediately. Their Discipline was stronger, as was their bodies.

    Their muscles felt strong, elastic, and they felt their powers fusing seamlessly with their physical forms - much stronger and more potent than they'd experienced before. Some of the weaker students found themselves improved by an entire rank. All in all, they felt remade.

    While their Demon Drillmaster was as cold and as hard as ever, the students felt no fear. There was only respect. All of them were the pride of the NEU, and if they couldn't recognize the effort their Drillmaster had put in to them, they certainly weren't worthy of the distinction. Originally there had been a great deal of skepticism with their teachers' assurances this class would improve their piloting ranking by a whole class. Now there was no doubt.

    Not everyone had risen a full rank during their training as of yet. However, the vast majority had seen incredible improvement. Improving one's Discipline rank was much harder than improving a piloting class, and what's more it was common knowledge that improvement of one's Talent almost inevitable lead to improvement of their piloting ability. As the body improved, their strength and control did as well - qualities integral to mecha piloting.

    Three days and three nights had seen stupendous improvement, and yet there were two students who had yet to awaken. Lan Jue's two disciples remained immersed in self-reflection.

    Jin Tao sat still, with his shock of red hair poking out in all directions. He drew long, calm breaths that were drawn in and exhaled over the span of a minute. However, underneath the calm exterior, the waves of his power held an explosive quality.

    Over the course of the week's training, he'd come to understand his own body again. He was faster to do so than any of the other students. The Genetica's influence was evident in this way.

    Tang Xiao's situation was the polar opposite of his rival's. He was much thinner than he had been at the training's outset. He sat, completely motionless, even appearing not to breathe. It was like he was made of stone.

    Tang Mi had awakened on the second day, but never moved from his side. She kept watch, anxiously waiting for her big brother to come to. The others had all awakened, with the more powerful opening their eyes first. So why hasn't her brother?

    1. This is a common trope everywhere, but also in China with historical undertones, especially when fighting against the Japanese. While that isn't the case here, the implication is 'protect the home and family against outsiders'. Historically this has a relationship with the tentative peace enjoyed by the Communists and the Guomin Dang/Nationalist Party when fending off the Japanese invasion of China circa 1937
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