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“What are you saying?” The Pharmacist’s eyes grew sharp and accusatory.
Pain flashed across Li Ke’s face. “There are some things I can no longer give you. I just want you to be happy. If a good man comes along I will happily give my blessing from the darkness. All I want is for you to be happy, like you were in the early years. You always had a smile on your face. Seeing you like that again would bring me joy.”
Seeing the look on his face, the anger quickly faded from the Pharmacist. Her eyes reddened again as she fought tears. “Don’t even say it, Li Ke. I know you’re trying to do right, but there are some things that can never be replaced. Never.”
Li Ke didn’t press the issue. He knew his wife’s heart, how stubborn she was. He could only nod.
“Let’s look out at space together. I remember how we used to like finding the highest places and stare at the sky.”
As he spoke Li Ke’s spirit floated to a nearby window and looked out. Although they could only see the landscape of An Lun, it was real.
The Pharmacist walked to his side, her pretty eyes wet with tears though they did not fall.
“Yes! We used to love to watch the stars together. You used to tell me you would become the commander of a fleet and lead your ships across the galaxies. Conquering planets and experiencing the beauty of the universe.”
He followed the line of her memory. “I also said I would take you across the stars, and when we both became Paragons we would harness the power of our blades to travel far and wide. Now you are a Paragon. Even if I cannot be brought back, will you promise me you’ll fulfil that dream? What you see, I will see.”
“Alright,” she softly replied. She tilted her head toward Li Ke’s shoulder. There was no body for her to rest her head upon, but the motion gave her stability.
Li Ke lifted his hand and brought it to her waist. For a moment the two of them immersed themselves in this hard-win tranquility. What Li Ke could not see were the tears that had begun to stream down the Pharmacist’s face anew, like pearls from a broken necklace.
The twinkling light from the stars outside bathed Lan Qing’s face in an ethereal glow. His hands were pressed together before his chest. Li Ke’s request had struck him deeply, not the sword but the pain the spirit felt.
In many ways he and Li Ke were the same. When he was younger, he had doggedly pursued Li Ke’s every step, desperate to meet and surpass him.
Now, though, Li Ke was a shadow of who he’d been, even envying Lan Qing for what he’d achieved. He’d only known this Harbinger Faerie for a short while but he could already see her obstinate nature, going so far as to choose death for her love even after so many years. It went beyond persistence into the realm of obsession. He could look after her, but Lan Qing knew he would never supplant Li Ke in her heart.
The human armada rendezvoused, slowly retreating from the field. They gathered what dead they could and set about repairing damage to their ships. In truth there were few ships to repair - typically when the aliens reached a vessel it and everyone on board were lost. Few were those who survived an alien strike.
Fighter drones were the hardest hit. The East lost many stellar pilots in the last attack. But such was the cost of war. When would it be over? When would there be peace?
Lan Qing let his mind wander, recalling the fantasies nestled therein. When there were no more enemies to fight, he and his brother would find a small city few people knew about. They would open stores selling things that interested them and every day would be peaceful, boring, and quiet. At least that was the future he strove for.
“What are you thinking about?” Lan Jue wandered over to his side.
Lan Qing gave his a sidelong glance. “Nothing.”
A slight surprise crossed Lan Jue’s expression. “You mean there’s actually a time you aren’t furiously ruminating over something? It feels good to leave your mind blank for a while, doesn’t it?”
Lan Jue could see exhaustion writ clear on his brother’s face. Not just his body, but his heart as well. Though it was Lan Jue who was sent on a dangerous mission, the weight on Lan Qing’s heart was crushing and had been for a long while.
When Lan Jue returned from Monarch he knew his brother wanted to rush forward and embrace him. He didn’t, but it was the first time he’d had that sense from his brother. Blood, it turned out, was thicker than water.
“Now that we’re here, there’s no going back.” Lan Jue said with a sigh.
Lan Qing quietly nodded his head. He knew what his brother meant. They couldn’t turn back the clock on the aliens’ evolution, and the armada had suffered significant losses despite their victory. If they charged in again the fleets would be hard pressed to break the enemy’s lines, much less destroy the home worlds. Lan Jue, Qianlin, and the Pharmacist had seen how difficult it was. The planets were distracted but they weren’t defenseless.
Meanwhile their three bastions had depleted their energy stores. They would need time to recuperate before they could fight again. Time they didn’t have. This left them with only one choice; the Banishing Strategy. If they could enact the strategy - summon even a fraction of its power - their enemy would be destroyed and peace would come. It was the only way.
“There are benefits to having only one option. We know where to focus our resources.” Lan Qing turned toward his younger brother. The fatigue in his gaze was gone, leaving only determination.
“Alright, we give it our all - together.” Lan Jue lifted his hand.
The two brother shook, and through their clasped hands they could feel each other’s puissant energies. Li Ke would direct their next steps.
Ten minutes later.
Li Ke and the Pharmacist returned. They seemed calmer and more collected than when they left. The Pharmacist’s face was even graced by a small smile. The Paragons all turned their eyes toward them as they reappeared.
Li Ke looked over the crowd, nodded, then spoke. “I apologize for making you wait.” As he spoke his eyes inadvertently moved to Qianlin. Jun’er was cradled in her arms, listening with a calm beyond her years.
A quick flash of emotion crossed over Li Ke’s eyes but was quickly gone. He’d made the decision to keep his distance from the child, and though he was destined to vanish from the universe he didn’t want to impact the sense of family that’d been so difficult for her to find. What purpose was there in telling her about her father? He had given her nothing, and telling her would only bring pain.
Steeling his heart, Li Ke floated toward Lan Qing. His low voice continued. “Lan Qing, Ultus has consented to taking you as its master. However, before you can use the Banishing Stance the four of you must find a way to improve your cultivation. Best would be to break through to the Infinite, then you might be able to manage its awesome power.”
“Each of you have a lineage that resonates with the essence of the swords. Relatively speaking Lan Jue and Zhuo Qianlin are capable of summoning some measure of the Blades’ powers because they have achieved Nirvana. You and little Yue, however, are not yet powerful enough. You must also reach Nirvana, then when the four of you are similar in cultivation you can begin to study the Strategy. It must be quick, for time will not wait.”
Lan Qing frowned. He had exploded onto the Paragon scene as a Reflection of Heaven and Earth, but he had since been kept busy with the war. He’d hardly had any time to cultivate. Even with all his talent and his mighty lineage, without special circumstance progress was still one step at a time. At present if he could achieve Nirvana in five years it would be miraculous. Breaking through within the prescribed time seemed impossible.
The Pharmacist was in a similar situation. She’d broken through to Reflection of Heaven and Earth, and through her Slaughter Domain and Qianlin’s Queen of Heaven abilities her breakthrough was stabilized. However, taking the next step to Nirvana seemed almost insurmountably difficult.
Lan Jue and Qianlin’s circumstances were marginally better. Due to the faith Qianlin’s Guanyin dharma commanded from the masses, both of them were enjoying a boost to their cultivation. What’s more spreading that faith would not be hard, requiring only that the two Alliance lift their blockade of information.
Of course their path wasn’t without problems. Their meteoric rise was quick and successive, from breaking through to Reflection immediately, then days later achieving Nirvana. This was dangerously fast, and once they entered into the Infinite they would have to suffer the ire of universal protogenia. For now, remaining at their current level was the best option.
For now, the main concern was figuring out how to get Lan Qing and the Pharmacist to Nirvana.
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