A mysterious smile spread across Lan Jue’s face. “Don’t worry yourself over it. Once the trip is done, I’ll have to head out for business. The whole thing should be a month or two, at most. They still need time to entirely process their training, anyway, to let it all sink in. When I get back, we’ll start phase two of the ARC class.”
“Really?” Wang Hongyuan’s excitement shone through his features. “That’s excellent! I’d like to be an assistant again.”
“Sure,” Lan Jue said with a nod of his head.
While Wang Hongyuan and Lan Jue were discussing the class in the electives building, Zhou Qianlin was in Director Wu’s office. Her family had received a note, asking her to present herself to the teaching affairs director.
“Director Wu, you asked for me?” She had made her way to his office directly upon getting to school. She was still technically on holiday after the ARC classes, and had intended to spend the next few days in Grace Hospital. Unfortunately, her encounter with Bess and the subsequent result had made her less than willing to meet people. She was still struggling to come to terms with some of it. Instead, she had so far spent the day at home.
“Ah good, you’re here. Please sit.” An uncommon smile was plastered on the man’s face. Usually students only say the strict, fierce side of him.
Qianlin sat as instructed.
Once she was settled, the Director went on. “Here’s the situation. You performed excellently during the ARC classes, despite your major in mecha systems. The faculty is quite surprised, and impressed. We’ve decided to give you an award for your performance – a trip to the Barrows with our teachers during their retreat. I called you here to let you know, so that you may go home and prepare. We’ll be leaving for the Western Alliance in three days.”
“A trip to the Barrows?” She looked at the teaching director with wide eyes. A reward? For her alone? What was going on? Since when was the NEU so good to their students? She didn’t even do all that well in the training!
“That’s right,” Wu Junyi affirmed. “That’ll be all. You can go and start getting ready.”
“Director,” she engaged quietly, “Can I choose not to go?”
He looked at her with confusion. “You’re willing to let this golden opportunity go to waste? The university is covering all expenses.”
Zhou Qianlin apologetically explained. “We just got back, and I’m rather exhausted. Really, I’d just rather stay at home and rest. I’m not very interested in another trip.”
“Well,” he began, “In truth the idea was Professor Lan’s. He’ll be going as well. So is your class leader, Tan Lingyun.”
Her brows rose, and a strange emotion filled her. She nodded. “Oh… well, alright. I’ll go.”
When the young girl left, Director Wu settled back in to his chair. He stared in to the distance, lost in thought. No, he thought. Professor Lan couldn’t be here because of Zhou Qianlin…
He knew, of course, that she was considered the top beauty of their university. She possessed a fine mind, as well. Her reaction showed that she had some interest in the etiquette teacher as well. Director Wu was convinced it was something he’d have to keep a close eye on. Perhaps he could find another way to ingratiate himself to this Professor.
The Spirit Caller gemstone warmed:
Zhou Qianlin: It was you who had Director Wu invite me to the Barrows, wasn’t it.
Lan Jue: Yup!
Qianlin: You’re in some kind of trouble?
I’m not sure yet. We’ll know once we get there. You are going, right?
You’re in this situation because you came to save me from Granny Bess. I’ll help in any way I can. And don’t worry, I won’t pester you – now, or in the future. If you find a way to sever this connection we have, I’m all on board.
Alright, I guess I’ll talk to you later.
Lan Jue could feel Qianlin’s apathetic mood through the power gem. This girl… she was like an iron fist in a velvet glove – something he’d experienced before, certainly. There was a faint ache in his chest, and yet he thought that this would be good if it ultimately lead to her forgetting about him romantically.
Lan Jue went about his business. He arranged what he needed for the trip, and relayed the information to the Wine Master. He would be leaving with the school, while the Avenue’ foremost Paragon would be traveling to the West with the Pauper.
The trip to the North for the Adept tournament, Lan Jue left for the Gourmet to handle. Those who would be joining them were the same the gourmet had mentioned before. But there was one that Lan Jue would have to deal with personally.
The Hall of Supreme Harmony.
Lan Jue strolled in to the pharmacy. Compared to the last time he’d visited, it was even more stuffed to the rafters with customers. The faint aroma of homeopathic remedies lingered in the air, lending an even deeper sense of mystery to the already ancient-looking structure. Likely, the atmosphere played a role in this shop’s success.
As he entered, an assistant greeted him with a bow.
“I’ve come to see the Pharmacist,” Lan Jue revealed.
“She’s currently entertaining guests,” the assistant explained. “I must trouble you to wait for a little while. I’ll let her know that you’re here.”
“Very good.” Lan Jue stepped off to the side without instruction to make way. He looked down the beautiful corridor, and the lotus leaves surrounding it. The peaceful environment helped to ease some his emotional turmoil.
Before long, the assistant returned. He address the Jewelry Master respectfully. “The Pharmacist will see you now.”
Lan Jue followed as the young man entered in to the heart of the Hall of Supreme Harmony. No small number of enviable stares watched him go. The rules of his place were quite strict; entrance beyond the shop front was strictly prohibited. Over the years there had been some who’d attempted to break that rule, though one can imagine the result.
They traversed a small bridge, then circuited a small lake before taking the long corridor to the octagonal pagoda at it’s end. This was where he’d met the Pharmacist last time.
She was there now. Someone else was with her.
He was a simple-looking man with red hair, and eyes to match. He couldn’t determine his age, but he could feel the fierceness of his aura, barely constrained. He seemed feral, almost beast-like.
“You can leave. I’ll contact you when the matter is done.” The Pharmacist was speaking calmly with the gentleman when Lan Jue came within ear shot.
The red-haired man’s brows furrowed dangerously. “There’s an order for all things. You won’t even follow such a simple standard?”
A biting cold flashed across the Pharmacist’s eyes. “What do you plan to do about it?”
“There’s nothing I can do,” the man growled. “At least I know the rules of the Avenue. But I still haven’t got what I came for. You must at least give me enough time to find something adequate for a trade. My time is valuable, too, you know.”
The young woman’s face darkened considerably. “Leave. Take whatever you want, but I will not be changing my mind.”
Anger flared behind the man’s eyes. “ Because of him? What the hell is he worth?” He didn’t look Lan Jue’s way, but the accusing finger he thrust out was pointed right at him.
The Pharmacist fixed the red-haired stranger with a dangerous gaze. “He is the father of my child.”
The moment the words left her lips, the man’s expression changed from anger to shock. He whipped around in his chair to stare at Lan Jue.
The beleaguered Jewelry Master felt strange. He would not contradict the Pharmacist’s assertions, for after all she was right in a sense. He’d promised her that much.
Lan Jue met the man’s glare with a polite smile, and a nod of acknowledgement. He didn’t bristle at the man’s discourteous words, and remained ever the gentleman.
“The hell are you lookin’ at?!” The man shot to his feet, and instantly the brutal aura he’d been restraining exploded outward. “I’m curious what you did to become the Pharmacist’s man.”
Waves of overbearing, oppressive energy crashed against Lan Jue. It was condensed, with the full force of this man’s suffocating bearing focused precisely on Lan Jue.
Suddenly, Lan Jue felt as though he were lost in a world of terror and nightmares. Before his very eyes, blood-red phantoms danced and shrieked. Hideous demons clawed at him as though they wanted to tear the life from his body.
Lan Jue’s reaction was to furrow his brows. He instinctively took a step back – the man was strong, at least above ninth level sixth rank.
Where he at his peak strength, Lan Jue would have nothing to fear. However, the inexplicable tragedy that had befallen him and Qianlin had reduced him to barely ninth level. Even with both his Disciplines, he wouldn’t be able to face this man in a straight fight.
Lan Jue’s shoulders bowed, as a gut of powerful wind set his clothes to flapping. He rocked from the force of it.
The Pharmacist looked on, stunned. To her knowledge the Jewelry Master should have been a match for this red-haired man, and yet he wasn’t. How was merely the threat of pressure was almost more than he could bear?
Just then, Lan Jue’s arms shot up and traced a circle through the air with his hands. That overbearing pressure seemed to dissipate, as a vortex appeared before Lan Jue’s chest. The stranger’s mental assault seemed to be drawn in to the vortex, and was unable to be focused on the Jewelry Master.
Coiled bolts of lightning arced across Lan Jue’s eye sockets. Now, it was his own intrinsic aura that bubbled forth.
“Tai Chi?” The red-haired man cried. The stifling power dissipated without a trace, as though the man had seen something incomparably startling. He staggered back a couple paces and stared in astonishment.
Lan Jue’s expression tightened further. “You know of it?”
The stranger’s haughty expression had fled, replaced with a near palpable discomfort. Cowed, he spoke. “I have been fortunate enough to have seen Tai Chi used effectively. I still remember it as though it happened yesterday. I’m sorry to have troubled you. I’m leaving, I’ll go.” He shot Lan Jue a searching glance and, assured that he would not stop him, he turned and left the pagoda. He was in such a rush that he’d forgotten the Pharmacist was even there. It was a strange contrast to is earlier demeanor.
The assistant was standing to the side, looking on with utter amazement. The red-haired stranger had been exceedingly arrogant upon arrival, he remembered. How was it that he so quickly became meek as a mouse before a cat? What in the world was ‘Tai Chi’?
Lan Jue frowned as he watched the man leave, but he made no move to find out more. He simply wasn’t in the space physically or emotionally to do so. But why was it that the use of his martial art alone was enough to send this man running?
“Where’d this guy come from?” Lan Jue asked as he walked to the Pharmacist.
She waved her hand, and the assistant who had delivered Lan Jue left without a sound. Undoubtedly, his impression of the Jewelry Master had improved after this display.
“A loose end,” she murmured. “An impossibly arrogant ass. The Dhampyr – have you heard of him? He has the rare Blood Discipline. But you… I had no idea you were a disciple of Jue Di, or that he’d know about it.”