Plumscore Retreat was snowy year-round. Plum blossoms bloomed around the ingress, a sea of trees stretching into the distance. Many spirit fowl and cranes soared overhead.
A white bolt of lightning descended from the skies, revealing a majestic snow hawk. Upon the bird was a little girl with bright eyes and brilliant teeth. She was dressed in a light-blue robe, her eyes as pure as a mountain spring. Her rosy cheeks and exquisite features evoked adoration in anyone who saw her. The girl was about ten years old and hadn't fully developed yet. Her slender legs however, was clue enough that the girl would be indescribably beautiful once she had grown up.
"Wonderful, Big White. You're getting faster and faster!" Her voice was soft and crisp, as pleasant as a canary's.
Further into the sea of plum blossom trees, Miss Dan'er stood behind an old tree, looking at the hawk-riding girl from afar. Her eyes reddened as she did so, her emotions having gotten the better of her. She began to weep softly, clapping a hand over her mouth.
The girl seemed entirely unaware that there was someone watching her from afar. She was focused solely on playing with the hawk, bursting out in innocent giggling from time to time. The plum blossom grove was brightened by her mere presence.
When girl and bird had played for a while, the former picked herself up from the ground to preen the hawk's smooth feathers, still smiling.
"We have to go back, Big White. When grandma comes back to see me playing all the time, she'll chide me for being lazy. Grandma always says that if I don't cultivate well, then I won't be allowed to see mom… I really miss her..." Nian'er's voice became lower and lower. She clutched the hawk's neck, uttering an almost dreamlike murmur. It was enough to break the heart of any listener.
The hawk let out a shrill airborne cry, transforming into a bolt of white lightning once more. It shot back into the inner part of the Plumscore Retreat.
Behind the old tree, Miss Dan'er couldn't suppress her passions any longer. She collapsed upon the trunk, sobbing silently against its bark.
"Nian'er, Nian'er, I've really let you down. I'm too selfish. I… I'm to blame for everything. I can't teach you anything useful. That's why I hardened my heart and handed you over to Plumscore Monarch. I want you to get somewhere someday, so that you can grasp your destiny in your own hands. Don't be like me…"
Wiping away her tears, Miss Dan'er collected herself before casting a forlorn glance in the retreat's direction. She lingered there for a moment before harshly turning her head away.
She wanted more than anything to be with her daughter again, but she was worried that she would lose to herself. There was no way she could resist her daughter's pleas to take the girl away when they came face to face. Alas, Dan'er knew intimately that her own strength and knowledge were insufficient to instruct her daughter.
"Wait for me, Nian'er. I promise I won't let you wait too long. When I come back, I'll never leave you ever again. Even if the sky caves in, I'll be by your side to protect you. This is the last time. If I don't take this chance, I'll regret it for the rest of my life…"
Softly incanting these words to herself, Miss Dan'er departed from Sacred Peafowl Mountain in a streak of light.
Veluriyam Capital was a bustling place. Wandering cultivators in the millions surrounded the Dragon and Tiger Meet's premises, clogging up the surrounding space.
Jiang Chen spoke spiritedly from the stage, words flowing from his mouth with ease. There was a style in his mannerisms that naturally drew respect. Even the Upper Eight Region heavyweights in the guest area waited with bated breath to hear what he had to say. Not a single discordant word was heard.
"Some have asked me this: the Upper Eight Regions has never heard of a Pinecrane Pill or an Emperor Supremacy Pill. Did I make them up?" Smiling placidly, Jiang Chen's expression contained a confident wisdom as he looked toward the Sublime Chord Temple's Master Dong Ye.
"I think that Master Dong Ye should know the answer to that in his heart now." The young man laughed. "1.61 billion saint spirit stones isn't a sum that's given away for free.
"The universe is an enormous place, without border or limit. Our known world is a grain of sand in the vast sea, a staggeringly insignificant mote in the grand scheme of things. Unlike the universe, human knowledge has limits. It's fine if you haven't heard of the Pinecrane Pill or the Emperor Supremacy Pill. But from today onwards, you no longer have that excuse. These pills do exist. Can they represent the pinnacle of the pill world, however?" Jiang Chen smiled faintly. "Clearly not."
"Pill dao has no limits either. Even pills like the Pinecrane Pill and the Emperor Supremacy Pill are rather ordinary in the grand scheme of things.
"Let's not get too ahead of ourselves, here. On the Divine Abyss Continent, we only know of the human domain. How much knowledge do we have of the world outside of that? How many worlds do we know of outside of ours?
"Some might say that our strength and knowledge are limited. As long as we understand what is within our grasp, that's more than enough. Others might say that knowing the unknown is meaningless.
"Yes, I am sure that many here would agree with these two sentiments. It's because so many think this way that the world of martial dao has so many unremarkable cultivators. Those that truly get to the top do so by daring to think what others do not, to do what others do not, to shoulder what others do not.
"Perhaps you might think that we're deviating from the original topic. We're supposed to be talking about pill dao, yes? I sound like I'm wasting time getting into irrelevant, esoteric topics.
"I simply wanted to tell you that the world is a big place. Look a bit further and higher. The world of martial dao has countless undiscovered things, places, subjects. A lot of the time, it's your own self that limits you the most. Your environment, your upbringing, pointless faction squabbles, egotistic profiteering… these are all painful obstacles. I'm only thirty years old, and yet, who can rival me in pill dao knowledge in the Upper Eight Regions?
"Perhaps you might think I'm making an overly general statement, but I'm more than happy enough to make a formal declaration. In terms of pill dao, I am second to none. I have this much confidence at least. No matter who comes to challenge me, I will be ready to defend myself. I'm here anytime!
"Why do I dare to make this bold assertion? Because I see things from a higher vantage point than everyone else. That's what gives me my confidence.
"Back to pill dao. Let's talk about pill dao factions… there are countless pill dao factions, but anyone who belongs to a faction that reaches its peak won't further restrict themselves to staying in a section. True masters always amass the advantages of many…" Jiang Chen's speech was polished and suave.
Suddenly, his heart trembled. He felt that someone's eyes was on him from a distance. He hadn't noticed it until now, but its attention pained him. It was the most bizarre feeling, hazy and ambiguous. It wasn't something that one could get a solid grasp on.
Jiang Chen's consciousness moved, his God's Eye moving into action. Unfortunately, all he saw was a throng of wandering cultivators in every direction. He couldn't find his mysterious observer at all. How can this be? Jiang Chen felt somewhat lost. He was losing his grip over his own emotions.
It wasn't something that easily happened to him, given his Boulder's Heart.
Is it someone I'm familiar with? The phenomenon piqued his curiosity. How could someone he knew hurt his heart so?
His mother? Sister?
They were both at the Moon God Sect. There was no way they would be here, of all places. It didn't seem like them in any case.
She was back at the young lord residence on Sacred Peafowl Mountain. She hadn't left at any point.
Who could it be, then?
There was an indistinct shadow in Jiang Chen's heart, but he found it impossible to gather them into a discernible figure.
Deep within the crowd, Miss Dan'er assessed the young lord on the stage. Her heart was completely calm. "This young lord Zhen is an eloquent speaker. Foiling Emperor Shura's conspiracy and now hosting an event like this… he must be quite capable. I needn't worry for His Majesty's sake any longer; Sacred Peafowl Mountain is in good hands now. I only hope that this guy can uphold His Majesty's legacy."
Having seriously considered young lord Zhen quite a while, Dan'er thought that the young lord's only flaw was that he talked too much. Considering his accomplishments, she could forgive him this much.
Though she had some interest in the lecture's contents, she wasn't in the mood to listen to the rest. She lingered a few more moments within the crowd before disappearing with a quiet sigh.
"Your Majesty, I must disobey your instructions once again. I guarantee that this is the last time. If I still can't find any news of him this time, I'll give up my fantasies altogether. I'll cultivate here at Sacred Peafowl Mountain in peace, raise my daughter, and stay by Your Majesty's side. I only hope that Your Majesty is free of whatever trouble you were in, and we can meet again someday." Reaffirming these words to herself, Dan'er drifted away from Veluriyam Capital without a trace.
Back on the stage, Jiang Chen fell into a slight daze before quickly recovering his wits. He was perfectly calm once more. He told many enjoyable, unknown stories about pill dao history. His listeners cheered and guffawed in support. After about two hours, he slowly wrapped up the lecture.
"My idle words shall end here, my friends. Next comes free time to ask questions. Opportunities are limited, so I'd like to hear some difficult ones. I wouldn't want to waste anyone's time - both yours and my own. Ah yes, a small note: everyone has only one chance at asking questions. Anyone who has already done so is not eligible to ask any more."
He was hinting that easy questions should not be posed. Each person was incentivized to value their sole chance at having their questions answered.
The wandering cultivators had waited a long time for this.