Beneath the silent night sky, the fragrance quickly carpeted the valley in an eerie atmosphere, startling all those present. Cultivators tended to be more alert than most. Their hackles rising, their thoughts immediately drifted to poison. Is someone behind this?
Poison wasn't a major art in the world of cultivation, but it was one very difficult to defend against. As recorded in the annals of history, it'd humbled and even killed many towering figures. Hence, many despised this unpredictable art, and also feared it nonetheless.
It was also Jiang Chen's first guess.
As a pill master renowned throughout the planes, he'd studied them thoroughly in his past life. He understood them far better than anyone else. The lethal ones, the most secretive ways of applying them, the antidotes...
His brain contained an encyclopedia of toxins.
Of course, he feared no poisons thanks to the Golden Cicada blood. But hidden further away, Emperor Peerless and the Jiao brothers weren't immune, so he stayed alert and immediately analyzed the scent.
Surprisingly, it had none of a poison's virulence. Is the smell noxious at all?
He frowned. The scent had appeared so suddenly that he'd been certain it was dangerous, but it seemed his first hunch had been mistaken. Is it simple coincidence? Perhaps it comes from a rare plant inside the valley?
The elites at the scene seemed to have realized as well that the fragrance was benign.
"Everyone, it's harmless. Perhaps it's even a clue?"
"Indeed, no need to panic." Outside the valley, the restless crowd slowly settled back down.
Jiang Chen observed the great sects from a secret spot, looking pensive. Is someone trying to drive away the competition? That would make things even more interesting.
However, this was mere idle conjecture. The prominent sect figures were all wary and vigilant. None of them appeared suspect.
Jiang Chen's suspicions slowly vanished, but the scent still puzzled him. No matter how harmless, there had to be a reason behind it. He couldn't lower his guard.
The night was fated to be a tense one.
No one dared breathe too loud, as if a apocalyptic demon god was waiting inside the endless darkness, ready to pounce and swallow them whole. When the sun rose again in the east, the smell suddenly vanished without a trace.
Even Jiang Chen was shaken by this development.
"Is it afraid of sunlight?" Countless possibilities whirled in his mind. However, the arrival of the sun didn't bring with it an entrance to the secret realm.
According to Phoenix Cry's locals, the secret realm would create a passageway of its own volition once it opened. Yet none had appeared in spite of the long wait. It would seem the time wasn't ripe yet.
The day slowly passed amidst the tense atmosphere. The fragrance reappeared when night fell, even denser than before.
"The f*ck, it's here again. It's even worse tonight. Is it trying to ruin our noses?"
"I know, right? For the first time, I finally realize a strong fragrance can be a huge torture."
The dialogue exposed the crowd's inner feelings. They knew full well that it was innocuous, but they couldn't help being afraid of its mysterious origins.
Night turned into day again, then back into night.
Ever punctual, the scent reappeared night after night. By the seventh night, quite a few cultivators had chosen to leave the valley. The physical assault on their nostrils was one thing, but many couldn't endure the ever-present pressure and dread of the unknown.
Jiang Chen was as calm as ever. It might not be a bad thing if it truly was a poison. He'd kept a watchful eye on the other cultivators during the last few days while he studied the scent.
The crowd had thinned by now and those remaining were clustered tightly together. Many of the former swarm of wandering cultivators had fled.
Those who remained mostly belonged to the great sects and had made themselves immune to the fragrance. For example, many had chosen to to seal off all of their senses. But it left them vulnerable, empty bodies without a soul. That was an unacceptable solution for the young lord.
When twilight descended again, a disturbance suddenly ran through the crowd. "Look! Look inside the valley!"
A strange scene unfolded in front of their eyes.
A scarlet mist rose in the depths of Agarwood Valley. Seen from afar, the valley seemed to be roiling with a fiery blaze. One couldn't help being suffocated by its mystique.
"What's the matter?" Jiang Chen frowned. He could sense the eerie aura emanating from within.
Those present held their breath, unsettled.
Bewildered, they suddenly saw a red, blinding light flash at the mouth of the valley. Like a sharp blade, it cleaved a path inside. As the light dimmed, an enormous entrance came into view.
"It's open! We can finally enter!"
"Is that the passageway to the rumored secret realm?"
"Fortune favors the brave. Let's go!" Without the slightest hesitation, the great sects scrambled inside.
Jiang Chen followed them, but once past the valley's mouth, he felt an enormous heat radiating from its depths, as if rejecting them. However, it couldn't stop the sects' fevered charge.
Mixed with the crowd, Jiang Chen was very taken aback. With his formidable consciousness, the heat posed no threat to him, but he vaguely sensed a colossal power hiding within, one that didn't welcome their presence.
However, it wasn't the only entity he could perceive. Another one seemed to be luring them inside, as if summoning them.
Jiang Chen puzzled over the baffling duality.
Was it a mirage? But his instincts had always proved keen. It was worth trusting them, no matter how strange the situation.
"Perhaps there are truly two opposing forces inside? One rejects us, while the other wants even more of us to enter?" He stayed his course, despite his many conjectures. At this stage, how could he give up exploring Agarwood's many mysteries?
As the crowd went deeper in the valley, the intense, burning light seemed to approach him. The temperature climbed continuously until the very air seemed to be burning.
"Zi Tan, did Phoenix Cry explore this secret realm before? Did the same phenomena appear when it opened?" he transmitted.
"Well… It's impossible to answer. None of those we've sent ever made it back alive…" The forefather's voice quavered, betraying his fear of the dangers awaiting in the secret realm.
The air had been a gentle warmth at first, but now blazed like a bonfire. Even a bonfire burned gently at first before suddenly flaring. Agarwood was giving off a similar feeling. The previously tolerable temperature had now become smothering.