Bess’ voice was indifferent. “Do you think you’re in a position to make demands? It’s simple – accept, and she lives. Refuse and she dies.”
Lan Jue’s lips curled in to a bitter expression, as though forced to swallow something unsavory. However, it was quickly replaced with an easy smile. “Alright, you can take mine.”
Bess was suspicious. Anyone – regardless of the circumstances – would not be happy to face immanent death. And she could feel it from him – genuine happiness.
“What reason do you have to be so happy?” she asked.
“No reason,” Lan Jue assured. “Death just isn’t such a frightening prospect, sometimes.” What exactly he meant, only he knew.
He’d been off kilter ever since meeting Zhou Qianlin. She looked so much like Hera, that he couldn’t help but think about his dead soulmate every time he saw her. He felt a surge of affection whenever they were together because of it.
Of course, intellectually he knew it was wrong. He couldn’t betray Hera’s memory by falling for her sister, no matter how alike they seemed.
For this reason he’d been avoiding her. He almost lost control on An Lun, and they only stopped because of Tang Mi’s interruption. He was disappointed in how strong an affect she had on him. Even if Hera had given him her blessings, it was impossible. Hera had cast too great a shadow in the depths of his heart.
He owed Qianlin, at least that’s how he saw it. Family was important to Lan Jue, so no matter what he’d make sure Qianlin would get back to hers. If his life truly would spare hers, then it was an acceptable trade. His debt would be paid – and he’d pass on to the next world, where he would meet with his Hera.
As an Adept – indeed, as an Adept that may one day achieve Paragon – Lan Jue was convinced of the existence of the soul. Although he knew that finding Hera’s soul in the vast expanse of the universe would be nearly impossible, the possibility gave him hope. That’s why he’d smiled, because death meant the chance at meeting his lost love once again. This certainly wasn’t a bad thing. Life and death were trivial, in the end.
Bess nodded her head. “So be it, I’ll help you meet death. Don’t fret, I’ll not waste everything she’s given you.”
As Bess spoke, she swiped her claw-like nails through the air. Gashes appeared on Lan Jue’s limp wrists and bright rivulets of blood began to flow.
Lan Jue’s blood was different from a normal man’s. Instead of the dark crimson one might expect, his was a bright, metallic red. Once an adept achieved ninth rank, their Discipline was completely integrated in to their body. It mingled with the blood, bones, muscles and organs. The color and texture of his blood was borne from the presence of pure energy.
It’s said a single drop of a Paragon’s blood contains an immeasurable amount of energy. Under specific conditions, such a drop could perform incredible feats. Although Lan Jue was not himself a Paragon, he had a measure of protogenic comprehension. Some of that sparkling energy was protogenic power.
Lan Jue’s lifeblood vanished drop by drop in to the surrounding emptiness. Suddenly there was a flash, and the world around him changed. A familiar silhouette appeared within the darkness.
Qianlin was lying in the emptiness not far from where he hung. She was bound by shimmering red cords of energy. Lan Jue could see her eyes – those stunning, gorgeous blue eyes – wet with tears.
Lan Jue’s chest tightened. It was happening all over again, just like that day when he was forced to say farewell to Hera.
He could see what she wanted to say in her eyes. He wanted to say the same thing.
He could feel her affection for him, and though he wanted to call out to her he was unable to. Bess slowly hobbled to her. She stopped at her side, hovering over her prostrate form. She lifted her right hand, then – swipe!
Qianlin winced as the arteries of her wrist were opened. Blood poured from her wounds. It, too, was not a dark red. Instead, it was surrounded by a haze of pure white light. It was like the precious fluid was protected by a fluorescent covering.
Lan Jue’s whole body began to shake. He glared daggers at the old woman, furious at her treachery. One was not enough for this monstrous witch.
Bess looked infinitely calm. In fact, her craggy face bore no emotion at all – perfect apathy. The two dying before her were no more than insects.
The flow of blood increased, and very soon the fatigue of blood loss set in. Lan Jue, stronger than most normal men, was losing consciousness quickly.
Qianlin, I’m sorry. I brought this on you! Lan Jue’s laments filled his heart, and he hoped it would somehow reach her through the Spirit caller gem. But there was no response.
Qianlin’s eyes were locked on his. She wept openly, even as those eyes began to dim.
Bess swiped her arms through the air, and the two victim’s other wrists were also opened. Both Lan Jue and Qianlin could feel a warmth penetrate through them, and then… darkness.
Lan Jue’s metallic red blood flowed in to Qianlin’s opposite wrist, while her own slipped in to his. The strange transfusion continued under Bess’ control.
This continued until a pale white aura surrounded Lan Jue’s body. For Qianlin, spiderweb-sized bolts of lightning danced across the surface of her skin. Bess’ face remained expressionless, even when a burst of rainbow color exploded overhead.
Another figure appeared, but this one different – more like a projection. It hovered by Bess’ side.
“This is different than what we’d discussed.” The voice was also elderly, and flowed from the strange image. Were Lan Jue conscious he would immediately recognize him – the Clairvoyant, third strongest among the known Paragons.
Bess’ response was cool. “What difference does it make? I’m upholding my end of the bargain – how I choose to do it is irrelevant.”
The Clairvoyant smiled. “It doesn’t matter to me, I just didn’t see it coming. It’s touching to see this side of you, a woman whose heart is normally cold as iron. It seems to me you might have some affection for this young girl.”
“I’d helped her, in another life,” the old woman said. “It’s so seldom we find someone with a soul so pure. Her heart bears many worries, but never have I ever encountered a young person whose conscience was so clean. You know I like clean. There’s more, as well. She has… old blood, and powers very few would understand. This other one you’ve asked me to help isn’t bad either. He was willing to sacrifice his life for his woman. He passed my test… or I wouldn’t have agreed to help.”
He smirked. “Are you saying you don’t trust in my visions?”
“I only trust myself,” the old woman responded. “You’re an old man on the cusp of death. Do you really want to squabble over nonsense? After this we’re even. I’ve paid my dues.”
The Clairvoyant sniffed. “You haven’t changed a bit. I always wanted to learn why, but you’d never let me know.”
Bess’ response was tepid, and dismissive. “The past is gone, it means nothing. You can die in peace, old man. As for my history, perhaps you’ll learn a little in your next life.”
“You know better than that,” the Clairvoyant teased. “Even if I do return here, it won’t be here. Another time, place and dimension beckons me. But before I go, I must trouble you for one last thing – watch over them. After all, you and I saw with our own eyes the growth of humanity.”
“This hasn’t the slightest to do with me. Now get lost.” Bess waved him away as though he were some detestable thing.
The Clairvoyant was not perturbed by her attitude. “Thank you, Bess.” He looked her in the eye, deeply and genuinely, before his image dissolved without a trace.
Only once the space beside her was empty did the old woman’s iron façade change. A flash of regret flashed across her eyes as she stared at the dark space where he had been. She sighed, and shook her head.
The world of darkness around them began to melt away. Moonlight appeared overhead, full and bright, and where it touched the black and red were banished. What occurred next was a strange scene observed by none, for beneath the silvery glow the elderly woman herself changed. Her stoop figure straightened, white hair changed to rich gold, and the craggy features from before disappeared to reveal a beauty beneath.
She was beautiful, beautiful enough to catch a man’s breath in his throat. Blonde haired, blue eyed and with a wonderfully slender build. Those hideous red nails changed, and began to radiate silvery-white light. Her voice was no longer the quavering croak of an old hag. Now, it was clear and melodious. She spoke softly to herself. “It’s grape harvesting season again. I always think of you.”
When Lan Jue came to, his found himself lying in the middle of a deserted wood. Qianlin was beside him.
Lan Jue pushed himself in to a seated position, and immediately regretted it as waves of weakness threatened to black him out again. His head hurt, and his body was stiff.
Qianlin was still asleep, but her breathing came slow and easy. He could tell from the flush in her cheeks that she was in no danger of dying.
Lan Jue couldn’t help but look around in a daze. The moments leading up to this cycled over and over in his mind. Where it not for the discomfort he felt, he’d never believe it was anything but a dream. What kind of dream leaves you weak and stranded in a forest?