Chapter 448: Heartstrings

    Chapter 448: Heartstrings

    The Driver was blindingly fast. Before Lan Jue learned the secrets of martial arts, he couldn't have kept up with the Driver's speed. In a flash, the Avenue delegate appeared behind Cao Shuiqin with his hands reaching for her neck.

    In this instant, the Driver didn't pay much head to the Accountant's concerns. He felt that encountering Cao Shuiqin in the first match was a good thing. Her Discipline was music, based in sound. Sound was a great deal slower than light - the speed he was almost capable of achieving. He wasn't worried his powers would be insufficient.

    As if to prove the point, his hands clapped down on Cao Shuiqin's shoulders, and she didn't even move. He poured electricity through his hands and in to his foe, though even the audience could tell he was taking it easy because he was fighting a woman.

    However, over the din of the crackling electricity, he could make out a crystal-clear buzz.

    The sound seemed to be coming from Cao Shuiqin herself. The Driver's hands were suddenly and forceful knocked away, while his heart began to race without reason. He could feel it buzz, too, just like his foe.

    The electricity numbed her, and caused her to stumble forward a step. However, the playful smile on her face showed that the Driver had had little effect. Her fingers danced along the strings again.

    In that instant his enemy vanished, and the Driver inexplicably found himself in a vast and empty abyss.

    This... dreamland?

    The arena began to thud rhythmically from unseen war drums. Then, without warning, a cadre of troops clad head to toe in armor appeared from nothing like the armies of heaven. Meanwhile, the metal floor had become a sucking bog that attempted to swallow him up.

    The Driver growled. There was a pulse of silver light and then, with a thunderous crash, bolts of lightning erupted from him in all directions.


    Lightning roared from beneath the Driver's feet in attempts to send him catapulting in to the air above Cao Shuiqin's power. There was a flash, and he changed direction in mid-air to plummet into a swath of bristling soldiers. It was the area he last remembered Cao Shuiqin standing. He was still lost in a world of her making.

    Silver light enveloped the ring, followed by a staggering explosion.

    In the use of their powers, the Driver and Lan Jue were quite different. Thunderbolt was thunderbolt, and lightning was lightning - he could use them together or apart. The Driver, though, only employed them joined together. This was one important factor in his comparative weakness to Lan Jue, and his troubles moving forward.

    Thunderbolt especially, being an aspect of righteous qi, was stronger in its yang form than in its yin.

    The Driver jumped back to his feet after the charge, then swung around to envelope another hoard of enemies in fatal lightning. He knew for certain that the things he witnessed weren't real - they were a trick of Cao Shuiqin's power - except that somewhere she was in the darkness. And if he didn't know where his target was, then the plan was simple. Direct, all-pervasive force!

    Explosiveness was an undeniable benefit of thunderbolt Disciplines. Its blast-force was strong enough to destroy most illusions outright. Like Lan Jue had the first time he met the Beautician.

    But no matter how strong the Driver's attacks were, Cao Shuiqin always remade the dreamland when he destroyed it. At least his strikes were having an effect. However, the more serious problem was the music itself. No matter how much strength he put behind a strike, the music continued. He could fill the whole field with lightning and it wouldn't put an end to the constant echo of that stern music in his brain. It was worming its way through him, tugging at his heart.

    What is this?! The Driver was at a loss.

    It was evident that she'd chosen this tactic to combat his specialty, but while effective it must also be draining to maintain. This couldn't continue for long. If the Driver was anything, he was sturdy, and once his mind was made up his resolve was unshakeable.

    A beam of powerful light launched from the Driver, followed quickly by a thunderous blast. Like a terrible firecracker, it blasted through the remaining soldiers nearby.

    While the illusory bodies writhed, he pressed his hands together in front of his chest, wasting no time. His fingers danced and curled around each other in odd arrangements, while silvery runes appeared and vanished inexplicably.

    Hand Seals?

    Lan Jue regarded his fellow Avenue denizen with some surprise. They could not see the phantoms that plagued him, but they could see the Driver's every move as he combated the dreamland. He tore through the air, spraying lightning everywhere in desperate blasts. Now, as he cast his runes, Cao Shuiqin remained below him in the center of the field playing her guqin.

    Nine runes hung in the air, floating around the Driver. The sounds of thunder played on the wind, faintly heard. Then, there was a flash of silver light that filled the sky. The whole of the ring's interior was immediately buffeted by an explosion so fierce that the force fields screeched in protest.

    This guy...

    Lan Jue knew what he was up to. The Driver knew that even though the dreamland he was lost in looked infinite, there was in fact only limited space in their arena. He was using his greatest attack to fill their limited space, and blast through every corner.

    It was usually a dumb strategy, but in this case it looked as though it might prove effective. What Lan Jue failed to understand was how the Driver succumbed so easily to the illusion. With all of the competitors ninth level and higher, it shouldn't be that easy.

    The flying daggers stopped. What the Driver saw as enemy soldiers were consumed by the burning silver light. When it cleared, he was back in the ring. He turned to look at Cao Shuiqin, who looked somewhat disheveled.

    She looked right back at him, and offered a smile. "I can't tell you why, but you've already lost.... Well, you seem like I nice boy so I suppose I can."

    The Driver just looked at her, confused. Cao Shuiqin simply went back to plucking at the instrument. However, much to the crowd's surprise no sound came out. But the Driver's face changed, and he staggered so much that he nearly fell. To him it felt like waves of overpowering fear were pouring from his own heart. It beat so fast it felt like it might burst from his chest, urged on by some unseen stimuli.

    Cao Shuiqin's poison tones were thankfully only heard by the Driver. Acoustics!

    "You're strong. Everyone in our group is. If it was a contest of direct strength then I would have had to employ all of my tricks, but I need those for the other fighters. And so, to win I took a risk. Your chance had been at the very start when you put your hands on me. You held back, and if you hadn't than I would have been finished. But I knew you well enough to know you wouldn't charge headlong with your full strength at a woman. I was right. The moment you touched me you were infected by my music. My heartstrings got their hooks in to you, and with each pluck of my finger you are powerless. You cannot resist now that the strings are already tuned. I'm sorry to have used your kind-heartedness against you... but as a consolation, my Heartstrings are not such a bad thing."

    Faint hues of red appeared on her pale face. Her delicate fingers laid upon the strings, silencing their hum. The Driver stood still, as though nailed to the floor.

    His brows furrowed as he glared at her. He knew he'd lost. His defeat wasn't from a lack of power, but poor planning. After a moment his brow relaxed, and a smile even split his face. "I didn't lose to you, I lost to myself - the moment I saw you step in to the ring. You are precisely the type of woman I like, perhaps the most beautiful I've ever seen. You win, I'm convinced."

    The Driver finished with a gentlemanly bow, then left the ring. Cao Shuiqin clearly hadn't expected him to be so graceful in defeat. The light red in her cheeks deepened considerably. The cameras streaming to each of the great Alliances caught it all.

    He... how could he say this in public like that? There are qualifiers to win, how am I supposed to behave?

    She furiously stamped her foot and glared at the Driver's back. She spun on her heels and ran from the field.

    The audience was quiet. Then, suddenly, the whole audience erupted in to laughter. It was hard to tell whether it was meant kindly or something else.

    The seriousness of the fight had been relieved by the waves of laughter. "This guy..." Lan Jue said, shaking his head as he watched the Driver come.

    "The nerve!" The Pharmacist sniffed, full of displeasure. "How could he tease her like that after losing."

    Lan Jue chuckled. "It is often wise to find advantage in inferior position. I know him, he wouldn't say something like that out of nowhere. He's got some plan, you wait and see. There's a trap in store for Cao Shuiqin."

    The Pharmacist gave him a flat stare. "Men. Not a single good thing about them."

    Lan Jue responded with a profound stare of his own. "Well... before you patent that, maybe add a little disclaimer; 'but my little brother's ok'."

    She snorted a laugh at him. "You seem skilled enough in singing your own praises."
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