Wei Xing'er's departure alleviated the last of Jiang Chen's concerns. His load thus lightened, he was ready to jump back into the fray. He lingered another few moments on the formation's edges before he readied himself for reentry.
Just as he was about to move, something tickled at his ears. He slowed his body and footsteps, pausing beneath a tree and probed the surroundings with his consciousness. His eyes were focused straight ahead.
"Come on out!" he harrumphed softly. His scan had told him about the ambush in the wings. There were two assailants on each side, clearly prepared to intercept him.
Jiang Chen found this a little odd. On his first time out with Wei Xing'er, there had been no one here. He hadn't taken long to send the girl off, and yet four new people had suddenly shown up.
Have these people come specifically for me? Jiang Chen mused in surprise, but let none of his astonishment show through. His consciousness told him that these four assailants were quite strong. All of them were third level emperor realm. However, there was nothing for him to be afraid of. His own cultivation level was far too high for that.
"Kekekeke…" An ear-piercing cackle suddenly came from his right. A figure in hemp flew out from within the grass.
With that figure came a ray of blinding light. Suddenly, a strong sensation of danger crept into his heart. Jiang Chen instinctively dodged.
A pillar of gold shone down like a blast of harsh sunlight. It was a storm of gold needles, shot at an impossible speed!
A decrepit old woman wearing tattered hempen clothes stood before him. Her face was as wrinkled as a sun dried orange peel, utterly ugly to behold.
"Hmm. You got out of the way of granny's gold needles, eh? Not bad, kid. Too bad you've come to the wrong place!" The old woman was one of the twelve protectors that the Veranda master had handpicked. She was Granny Goldneedle and one of the four wandering cultivators.
Jiang Chen had seen the four's reception by the Veranda master. This old granny had definitely been there. But shouldn't she be with the other couple of protectors right now? And shouldn't they be somewhere else?
The Resplendent Emerald Veranda master's misdirecting strategy involved sending off a group of protectors with an impostor. In theory, the old lady should've been there. So why was she here?
Did they return after going somewhere else? What's the point of having a plan in the first place, then? Jiang Chen was thoroughly confused. This was growing curiouser and curiouser. There was a grand conspiracy behind all of this, an invisible man behind the curtain. The puppeteer… was the master of the Veranda.
Or… is he? Jiang Chen was doubtful that a man of his abilities could set up such a large game board on his own.
Does he have helpers? Or is he one of the puppets too? The young man felt a jolt of sudden unease. This was where his Boulder's Heart came in. He was able to maintain mental calm despite his anxiety.
"There's more of you. Are you mice? Do you plan on hiding forever?" Smirking, Jiang Chen look straight at the remaining trio's hiding place. He hadn't seen the other three yet, but they were sure to be none other than Old Man Clearcloud, the Silversand Cavalier, and Sir Miao. The other three wandering cultivators had also come.
"This is no place for your insolence, child!" A thunderous shout cracked through the air, heralding the entrance of another figure into the fray. This man had uniquely silver eyebrows. Yep, the Silversand Cavalier.
From the left and the right, two more showed themselves. Old Man Clearcloud had snowy hair, and Sir Miao, a handsome appearance. The four wandering cultivators took one corner each, pressing Jiang Chen in.
With lightly furrowed brow, Jiang Chen swept his God's Eye across the quartet's eyes. His gaze was deep and soul-searching, piercing against the defenses of their consciousnesses.
Refusing to be cowed, the four emperor realm experts sneered back. There was apathy, devilry, disdain, and solemnity. The personality of each member in the quartet was revealed in their look.
Granny Goldneedle was the apathetic one, Sir Miao, mocking; Old Man Clearcloud, disdainful, and the only solemn one was the Silversand Cavalier. The last of these was the only one who took Jiang Chen seriously. It had something to do with his experiences. Having once been part of a sect, the Cavalier had the painful experience of having his entire sect wiped out. Therefore, he tended to be a bit more cautious than the others.
Granny Goldneedle was undisciplined and unruly, and used to having her own way. Her aloofness biased her towards apathy.
Sir Miao was young, famous, talented, and flippant. In his eyes, Jiang Chen was a mere ant. He was easy prey, nothing more-hence his more toying attitude.
Ole Clearcloud was a man of high position amongst the wandering cultivators. A well-traveled individual, he found very few people worthy of serious consideration. This transferred to Jiang Chen as lackadaisical disdain.
"Tsk tsk, the Resplendent Veranda Master is overcautious. Why did he ask the four of us to deal with a child?" Sighing, Sir Miao shook his head. Clearly, he found the task to be joyless and boring.
The old granny's face gained a few wrinkles. "Don't take him too lightly, Sir Miao. He dodged an attack from my gold needles. He's no lightweight."
Sir Miao smiled serenely. "Why flatter him like that, granny? He's just a half-step emperor realm cultivator. Any one of us can easily take him."
"Alright," Old Man Clearcloud spoke up. "We were paid to do a job and now we must deliver. We have the instructions. Even if it's as easy as a tiger hunting down sheep, we still have to put on a show. Since you're so confident, Sir Miao, I'll leave him to you."
"Why are you leaving him to me?" Sir Miao shrugged.
"You're the youngest one here," Old man Clearcloud frowned. "We're giving you a chance to shine because we trust you."
"Don't feed me that nonsense. Granny Goldneedle struck first. I think there's no point bothering someone else to do it. After you, Granny."
"You're all too selfish," Granny Goldneedle huffed. "Fine, I'll do it."
Ole Clearcloud nodded. Sir Miao smiled, but said nothing.
"Don't underestimate him, Granny," the Silversand Cavalier said unexpectedly. "There's more to him than meets the eye."
A disconcerting grin appeared on the old woman's face. "Don't worry. That kid is pretty fast, but dealing with the fast ones is granny's specialty!"
Granny Goldneedle was a master of needles. Her attack from ambush a few moments prior had only been testing the waters. Her adeptness with gold needles was almost legendary. When pushed to her limits, she could fill the air with nothing but needles. No matter how quick one was, it was difficult to make full use of that speed given the needles' density. After all, each emperor realm cultivator had their own domain.
"Get ready to back me up!" A low bark heralded the granny's preparation to attack.
A sneering Jiang Chen chose this moment to laugh aloud. "Ole Clearcloud, a sectless man unafraid of authority… the Silversand Cavalier, a man whose sect was destroyed and yet refused to bow to his enemy… I thought you two were men of character. As for you, Granny Goldneedle, with how individualistic and maverick you tend to act, I imagined that you would have your own principles. How… unexpected. But I suppose fame is often undeserved."
"Hmm? Are you trying to get me to kill you on the spot, kid? Saves you some suffering in the long run, eh?" Jiang Chen's words darkened the granny's face.
"You're well-known, Granny Goldneedle, but don't let that fame get to your head." Jiang Chen was back to his default faint smile. "I'll stand without moving a finger. You can attack with your gold needles all you want. If you can hurt one little hair on my body, then I'll let you do whatever you want with me. Deal?"
The old woman's eyeballs bulged. She was angry enough to cough up blood. "Do you just not know any better, kid, or are you getting your last words out before you die?"
"I suppose words aren't convincing enough." Jiang Chen smiled faintly. "Try me."
A wave of his hand caused something to materialize in his palm. It swiftly expanded to the size of a mountain-no, it was a mountain in the first place!
It was his magnetic golden mountain!
Enraged by Jiang Chen's arrogance, Granny Goldneedle swept her sleeves towards him. Countless gold needles flew at the young man from every direction, assaulting him like a torrent of hairs.
Her needles weren't simple throwing weapons. Each and every one of them had been specially refined. The granny had full and absolute control over their movements. Because of this, she could change their trajectories at any time. Indeed, each needle followed its own path.
They moved almost as if they were sentient. They automatically sought their target's weak spots, and constantly looked for defensive openings. With a shift of his eyes and a push of his palm, Jiang Chen magnified his mountain instantly. It became ten yards tall, and exerted a terrifyingly powerful magnetic field. This caused a strange scene to occur.
The innumerable needles were sucked up by the magnetic field like a dragon drinking water. None of them were left airborne, each and every strand of metal tightly held in place by the mountain's magnetic force.
In a flash of golden light, the mountain's absorbing power took the refined needles as its own.
"Do you have more?" Jiang Chen's faint smile grew wider.
Granny Goldneedle's eyes were as big as porcelain plates. She could hardly believe what she'd just seen.
"How can this be?" The others echoed her surprise.
The wandering cultivators present were all aware exactly how scary the granny's needles were. They had relied on Granny Goldneedle to take care of it precisely because they had faith in her ability to fight speedy cultivators. How could they have thought of the possibility that the young man would devour the granny's entire attack?
"What dastardly trick did you pull, kid?!" Granny Goldneedle was grim. Her gold needles were precious to her. She had plenty more left, but she didn't want to waste them.