Emperor Cloudbillow was rather surprised. They'd hypothesized about what would happen before coming here.
By their estimates, the Heavenly Dragon Sect was sure to staunchly oppose them. That sect would have to be taught a lesson before it retreated. The Ninesuns Sky Sect should have been wiser - or so it was thought.
It seemed now that though the Ninesuns Sky Sect was a bit more polite about it, their stance was extremely firm. They would not be denied entrance into the secret realm.
Emperor Cloudbillow pondered for a few moments. Afterwards, he nodded as if he'd found an answer.
"Pillfire has always acted in a fair and equitable manner to ensure benefit for all. Since Agarwood Valley touches upon the matter of the Boundary Steles, the proper thing would've been for all factions to sit down and discuss first. What good is fighting and worsening things for?"
The shift in his attitude was a shocking inversion. There was a real feeling of him caring about the wider world.
Stern consideration flickered across Jiang Chen's heart when he heard such a disgusting performance. Pillfire had learned how to put on an act! They were beginning to hide their ambitions in public.
It seems that Pillfire City seeks to change as well. Jiang Chen braced himself. A changed Pillfire was perhaps a far more formidable opponent.
There was nothing to fear about one that rampaged according to its own wishes. A strategic and thick-skinned one, specializing in plots and conspiracies, was much more dangerous.
Since the last time he'd seen them, it would seem that Pillfire had begun to switch up its tactics. It no longer used brute force to accomplish everything.
Is the city changing because it's lost so many times to me?
As the foremost faction in pill dao, Pillfire had always given off a haughty, imperious impression. Because of this, few cultivators had any positive feelings towards them. Veluriyam's rise further ground Pillfire's reputation into the dust.
However, Pillfire still had a great many resources to rely on. If it could reflect on its problems and adjust accordingly, it would be much thornier to deal with.
"Pillzenith, that old coot... he's as wily as a fox." Cursing to himself, Jiang Chen continued watching Cloudbillow's performance.
"Phoenix Cry Lower Region is the rightful owner of Agarwood Valley. No matter what we do or what decision we come to, we shouldn't ignore the owner, hmm?
"Moreover, most are here today because of the Boundary Steles. The human race would be negatively affected if they were to break. Thus, we have a common point of consideration. Let us peacefully discuss the details and come to a consensus in compromise."
Jiang Chen's eyes widened at what the emperor was saying.
Since when had Pillfire City become so noble? Worried about Boundary Steles and the fate of the human race?
It was most ludicrous thing he'd ever heard of!
"Long Baxiang, I know that Phoenix Cry is very close to the Heavenly Dragon Sect. As a veritable native, you should value this land as if it were your own."
"Hmph, what a waste of air," Long Baxiang retorted coldly. "My response is the same as before. The Heavenly Dragon Sect arrived first and we have no intention of being shoved out."
His attitude was staunch.
Rumors of this secret realm had spread far and wide recently. Everyone thought that there was a treasure within Agarwood Valley.
The bit about the Boundary Steles and the fate of humanity had been utter bullshit. These people had never been that great in their entire lives!
"It's fine if the Heavenly Dragon Sect doesn't want to leave. However, we must follow some rules for this expedition. We must maintain principles of fairness and law. Neither Pillfire nor the Heavenly Dragon Sect should break these principles - nor anyone else, after entering."
Emperor Cloudbillow was offering Long Baxiang an easy way out, and the latter knew it as much as anyone else.
Long Baxiang didn't think that Pillfire was afraid, per se; but that it had more important ambitions and therefore didn't want to expend energy here. He took the offered truce. "That sounds more reasonable. As long as the rules are fair, the Heavenly Dragon Sect is happy to play by them."
The fact that these large factions were dividing up the profits so brazenly left a bad taste in the mouths of those of Phoenix Cry and its neighbors.
"There's a reason why this secret realm has attracted so many people. I suggest that we first…" Emperor Cloudbillow had clearly prepared a speech beforehand. His words made perfect sense, and he was almost sincere enough to fool Jiang Chen.
It was a solid plan.
With Pillfire's typical way of doing things, ownership would be declared instantly, disallowing everyone else from entering. Selfishness had always been the city's most familiar forte.
This time however, they didn't behave like a bunch of petty tyrants. Instead, their plan was built on communal cooperation. This alerted Jiang Chen to potential danger.
None of this was the style of a Pillfire of yesteryear.
Since Phoenix Cry was the nominal owner of the land, it received a reasonable share in the number of allowed entrants. The other factions present also received a few accordingly.
"Friends, there would be complete chaos if everyone goes in at once. That's why quotas have been imposed on each faction. Now that that's been settled, there should be no further concerns, correct?"
Emperor Cloudbillow's attempt at burnishing his reputation was obvious. And indeed, there was a wave of cheers at what he had said.
"Pillfire City is quite fair! The Heavenly Dragon Sect is the real tyrant here!"
"That's right. A faction like Pillfire doesn't use their clout against the weak, yet the Heavenly Dragon Sect has no problem doing just that. I hadn't thought much of Pillfire before, but the difference after a quick comparison is palpable."
"There are many rumors of Pillfire's selfishness and despotism. Emperor Cloudbillow's behavior directly contradicts this! He's neither of those things."
"As expected of one of the leading factions in the human domain!"
Those that had received permission to enter had been indirectly bought out with the favor.
They'd forgotten that Pillfire didn't have the right to divide up entrance spots in the first place. It had overshadowed the real owner, Phoenix Cry, in order to do so. The only difference between it and the Heavenly Dragon Sect was that it had paid lip service to everyone else.
The Heavenly Dragon Sect on the other hand, had wanted exclusivity!
He's buying reputation so self-righteously. What's laughable is that Phoenix Cry is being manipulated left and right, its own will ignored entirely. Jiang Chen didn't know whether to laugh or cry.
It wasn't a bad thing for him to be ignored along with the rest. Given his disguise and pseudonym, it was better and safer to conceal himself.
The division of entrants was rather generous. Out of apparent respect for Phoenix Cry's native factions, they were offered more than sufficient spots.
Because the Purple Smoke Sect was one of the largest factions in the region, it received a commensurate amount of opportunities.
Pillfire's representative had crushed the Heavenly Dragon Sect in influence, sorting out any disorder in the process. Every faction here was excited for the secret realm to open.
"What do we do about our lack of spots, young lord?" messaged Emperor Peerless.
"No worries, you can wait outside," replied Jiang Chen. "I'll be fine. I'll keep an eye out for you if there's any particularly amazing heritage or treasure. Pay attention to any changes from the outside."
Jiang Chen was wholly unconcerned about a team led by the likes of Emperor Cloudbillow. Any group without Pillzenith was a piece of cake to deal with.
No one objected to the current draft of the plan and the gunpowder in the air dissipated greatly.
"My friends, you must carefully consider who you're sending into the secret realm. It's not a good choice to brashly go inside if one is weak. Brawls often break out for the sake of profit and treasure. Prepare yourselves for the potential bloodshed and casualties that may come very soon."
These words were a follow-up in order to steal people's hearts.
Jiang Chen didn't pay much mind to it. Instead, he sat in a corner to observe any further developments that took place. He had made an almost certain judgment about the nature of this expedition.
Pillfire's participation in this means that there must be some conspiracy afoot. He couldn't see exactly what that was yet, so there wasn't much of a need to think about it. He would just deal with things as they arose. He sat down cross-legged to await the opening of the secret realm.
When night came, he sniffed at the air slightly. There was a strange smell wafting in the wind. Jiang Chen had the vague sensation that he'd once smelled it before, but couldn't recall where.
"Does Agarwood Valley emit a fragrance every night?" There was something very peculiar about this.
Even if a valley were filled with specimens of exotic flora, the smell should linger into the day. There had been absolutely nothing to smell during the daytime, so the nighttime scent was rather unexpected.
"Where have I smelled this scent before?" Jiang Chen tried very hard to dig up any memories he had of it.
The other cultivators noticed the intensifying fragrance in due time.
"Could there be poison of some kind? The fragrance is too strong!" shouted someone.
"Strange, very strange. There was nothing during the day. Why is it so fragrant during the night?"
"There's something off about it. Given it's sudden appearance, there must be more behind this smell."
"Isn't this place called Agarwood Valley? Agarwood is known for its fragrance. Maybe the plants here only release fragrance at night?"
There were guesses of every variety.
Jiang Chen's own thoughts whirred furiously as well. He instinctively knew that there was something completely wrong about the scent.