Chapter 395: The Competition Begins

    Chapter 395: The Competition Begins

    Lan Jue was the most excited of them all. Had it not been for his suggestion, little Jun'er would not have come. Ever since leaving the Avenue, her mother had recognized a difference. In the end the Jewelry Master had been right - locking a little one up is very bad for development.  The more she learned of the outside world, the better.

    There were drawbacks and dangers to using the psychic projection helmet. He'd discussed these concerns with the Pharmacist already. In fact that had been the reason why the young mother hadn't already tried it. She never even considered it an option before. When Lan Jue first asked if he could buy her one, she'd been reticent. However, Lan Jue explained that a child's mental and emotional growth was just as important as their physical well-being.

    Until now, Jun'er had never experienced anything other than the inside of the Pharmacist's shop. It was truly amazing for this little girl, to experience the whole world opening up to her. The helmet only became dangerous if it was used too long, so if they regulated its use there would be no problems. It was an easy decision to make when you considered the benefits.

    When Jun'er first used the helmet - when she saw her 'parents' loving looks, and saw all the richness and color of the world - she'd crowd copious, happy tears. She was almost like a different girl entirely. For more than an hour, she wandered around muttering 'I can see... I can see' before eventually falling asleep.

    Now she was full of light and excitement, a child with a new lease on life. Her pale face was even turning a little ruddy as the sun kissed her cheeks. All of this meant that Lan Jue had been right. The Pharmacist's protection of her little girl had been absolute, and her atrophied figure underlined that.

    The Pharmacist did not approach the stories Paragon to get her child. Instead she decided to remain behind, and sit in the seat provided for her a few rows back. Now she was beginning to understand that if she wanted Jun'er to grow in to a healthy adult she would need to experience everything the world had to offer.

    The Gourmet interrupted the unlikely friends. "Jun'er, you've been wearing the helmet for quite a while. Time to take it off now, sweetie."

    "No! I want to see daddy fight," she replied fiercely.

    The Terminator chuckled. "Which one is your daddy? What does he look like?"

    She shook her head emphatically. "Daddy said that's a secret only he and I know. He said I can't tell anybody else. Only I know who daddy is."

    This caused the giant man to erupt in great bursts of laughter. "Your daddy sounds like a very mysterious man! Very interesting... very interesting indeed."

    The first batch of the tournament's initial round finished in short order, not even breaking thirty minutes. With so many competitors and the random draws, there were many uneven match-ups. A ninth level Adept didn't need more than a few seconds to finish a sixth or seventh level. Other than the Pharmacist, the Barber and the Seamstress. By twenty minutes, the second batch was getting ready to get on the field.

    Once the first round of festivities was complete, robots flooded the area to help clear things away. They took the injured for recovery while the victors found they own way back to the waiting room. Each of their badges had an extra light, indicative of their victory.

    After a ten minute break to reset the field, fighters from the second batch made their appearance.  For those watching the stream, they were subjected to a round of advertisements.

    They were just as quick as the first batch. Lan Jue didn't recognize anyone on the field with, and everything seemed normal. Of course it was difficult to get an accurate lay of the land down here among the milling competitors. With nothing to focus on, Lan Jue closed his eyes and simply allowed himself to get swept up in the energy around him. It was a practice he engaged in a lot more recently after the first time he'd joined with Qianlin and felt the sensation of being a peak-level Adept.

    Gramps would tell them 'once an Adept reached the height of his power, he must begin to commune with the powers around him.' Everyone had to find how they fit in the unfathomable patchwork of the universe, and discover the road to enlightenment. This process would not be a quick one; it would come like a supernova once one's accumulated understanding was sufficient.

    Every Adept had to break through their personal obstacles to achieve Paragon. The first attempt was the most important, and had the highest rate of success. Someone who failed would find their chances diminished almost to nothing without some epiphany.

    This was why Lan Jue did not let up, despite understanding the nature of protogenia. He tried every day to commune with the universe like he was told, to find that underpinning truth.

    "Batch three competitors, take positions."

    Lan Jue's eyes popped open, and he made his way to the field. He was in arena 350, against contestant number 1724.

    By the time he got there his opponent was already waiting. He was a man with a dark aura and half made of metal. Even half of his head was man-made, and it made him look terribly ferocious. His eye had been replaced with a blinking orange substitute.

    So this was 1724.

    They stood at opposite ends of the small arena and eyed one another. Beside's Lan Jue's dramatic mask, he didn't look anything special. Clearly though, 1724 was a product of the North.

    These sorts of Adepts were unique to the North, remolded humans who were neither machine nor man. The Terminator was testament to what the method could produce - although just what he did to reach such lofty heights was a mystery.

    1724 slowly lifted a meaty thumb between them, held horizontally. His orange eye glared at Lan Jue as the thumb waggled, and ultimately pointed down. 1724 smirked scornfully.

    Lan Jue stood with his hands clasped behind his back. He didn't move a muscle, and showed no reaction to his enemy's taunts.

    "Prepare to fight. Fifty-nine, fifty-eight, fifty-seven..."

    "... five, four, three, two, one. Begin!"

    The moment the electric buzzer sounded, 1724 was bounding across the arena. With a feral yell he leaped, and came crashing to earth with his alloy fist.

    "Phboom-!" A dramatic blast accompanied an invisible wall of force.

    A seismic wave!

    An important distinction of a remolded Adept was that their powers still came from their own core. Others who didn't were simply cyborgs.

    Even the space between them shivered as the concussive force swept across the arena. The surrounding shield rippled in protest.

    This was quite the foe. He was as strong as he was unique. Lan Jue cursed his luck - no lazy start for him, it would appear.

    But that didn't mean he outlook was at all dire.

    Lan Jue took a small step forward, and instantly a cloud of writhing lightning bolts appeared around him. The sea of disparate bolts linked together to form a protective net with Zeus in its center. As the seismic wave reached his shields they were scattered harmlessly.

    "Hmph!" 1724 grunted in irritation. He launched from his crouched position, soaring through the air like a missile. He blazed a silver light and an ominous 'wenggg' sizzled through the air as a long whip snaked from the man's arm. It lashed out toward Lan Jue's face.

    Vibration? Was this his Discipline? If so then it must be amplified by his machinery. The truth was something he'd likely never learn, since a Convert - as they called themselves - considered their construction their most important secret.

    Lan Jue's right arm shot out to block the humming whip. It entangled itself, then began to glow a smoky white. The net of electric energy dispersed like oil from water. With a fierce tug, 1724 pulled himself closer.

    A red light flickered on his metallic shoulder, then a moment later it opened to reveal a small weapon. No sooner was the barrel revealed than a beam of energy thick as a man's arm shot at Lan Jue.

    The corner of Lan Jue's eyes tightened. This one was crafty! He'd kept his methods secret until an opportune moment, and here it was. He looked like a hand-to-hand fighter, but the whip was a feint. He just needed an opportunity to blast Zeus close range with his laser. The real danger was coming right at his nose.

    He couldn't compete with the speed of light, there was no way he could effectively dodge the attack. The fraying net of lightning flared with power.

    With an impotent puff his shields parted. The beam struck him at the right shoulder.

    A shadow of anxiety crept in to Lan Jue's heart. He'd grown so weak. Although his improvement with Qianlin was quick, he was still only ninth level, maybe the peak of first rank. It was still a bitter loss, to drop from seventh rank. Lan Jue suspected the Convert was the peak of eighth level, but certainly not ninth. Where he at his real strength, the piddling laser would never have penetrated his shield.

    Seeing his attack hit the mark, 1724 began his charge again. He dropped his shoulder and a boquete of spikes half an inch log sprang out, set to impale his foe to the arena floor.

    Lan Jue cursed his rotten luck.
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