Jiang Chen observed impassively from the back of the crowd. He wasn't deluded by the display of luxury before him. Any kind of scenery could be forged by the strongest experts. Sometimes, all it took was a single formation, a small trick, or art.
In the world of martial dao, what one saw with physical eyes was never necessarily the truth. Especially given the present circumstances, what he was seeing was extra likely to be fabricated.
If this place really was an oasis, why hadn't anyone from Phoenix Cry's expeditions returned alive?
That was utterly illogical!
Though he could only see peaceful harmony before him, Jiang Chen felt an unnameable irritation. The chain seal in his consciousness was on high alert.
With each increase in his own strength and consciousness, the seal in his consciousness became dearer and more familiar to him. It was no longer mysterious and impenetrable. This seal likely held the secret to his rebirth and reincarnation; he just didn't have the ability to unseal its riddles yet.
The seal had unquestionably protected him at crucial times and warned him of impending danger without fail.
Currently, the chain seal was clearly much warier than it usually was. It was irrelevant that Jiang Chen couldn't read its entire meaning; he understood the hint that this place hid a plethora of evils under its serene surface.
Above the seven pillars of light, waterfalls of radiance began to pour down. The radiance shimmered with iridescence, glassy and crystalline in their splendor.
Eye-catching ripples flickered across the screens of light, and many images with them. Scenes of the divines and demons, of arms and weaponry, of ancient beasts, exotic flora, celestial palaces and starry seas…
The images were as beautiful as they were transient. The interplay of light and shadow shocked every observing cultivator, their mouths agape in an attempt to take more of it in.
Aside from Jiang Chen, everyone's heart was captivated by what they had seen before them. They collectively shivered in anticipation. Ambition snaked into them like fast-moving vines. They were champing at the bit to enter the secret realm and see what ancient mysteries it held.
"Look, look, what's that inside?!" someone screamed suddenly.
Everyone's gazes hurriedly focused inside. Within the veil of light was a gargantuan palace complex, glowing with aureate brilliance. The seven giant pillars of light originated from the palace like seven defending stars, shooting into the heavens.
"This must be a sacred place of the ancients!"
"We're rich! A secret realm like this appears only once every ten thousand years."
"Tsk tsk, look at how glorious that palace is. It must have been the best of the best even back then."
"There has to be ancient heritages and treasure within!"
More and more glimpsed the palace that was peeking through the veil. Like the tip of an iceberg, it gave plenty of room for imagination as to what was beneath the surface.
Emperor Cloudbillow didn't wait for the others to ask his opinion. "Let's all go and see," he called out.
Pillfire's men were quick, but the Heavenly Dragon Sect and the Ninesuns Sky Sect were just a step behind them.
All the biggest factions rushed forward. The remaining ones piled after them, attempting to secure a reasonably advantageous vantage point for themselves. They couldn't compete with Pillfire City and the first rank sects, but mutual competition was still possible.
"Come, let's go see as well," transmitted Jiang Chen to the Purple Smoke Sect's forefather.
Having been warned by the young lord earlier, the forefather didn't dare make any fast moves. He nodded only after receiving the instructions. "After them, everyone!"
Jiang Chen and Phoenix Cry's team were able to catch up rather quickly because of a spatial restriction in their way. Like a heavenly denunciation, it lay in the explorers' path and separated them from their beloved treasure.
Emperor Cloudbillow looked coldly upon the restriction before him.
It was a river-like obstacle, save that the water within was replaced with surging lava. The earth itself seemed to be boiling, and geysers of magma rose up several hundred meters from time to time with incredible momentum.
This restriction seemed to be the final blockade before entering the secret realm proper.
Truthfully, it look very terrifying. The gushing lava and boiling magma appeared hot enough to melt the entire world around them. The fearsome aura they exuded was plenty intimidating.
Standing before the restriction, even Emperor Cloudbillow and his great emperor fellows were awed by the waves of heat smashing into their faces.
"Are we supposed to fly past it?" Someone piped up, looking doubtfully at Emperor Cloudbillow.
"Don't be hasty," replied the great emperor in a deep voice. "Let's wait and see."
No cultivator who entered this secret realm was ordinary. Sage realm was the lowest level among the entrants, so flight was of no issue. The restriction was clearly not something that one could simply fly over, however.
"Daoist Cloudbillow, this restriction looks quite extraordinary. I don't fancy our chances if we simply fly over. Shall we send someone to scout it out first?"
This was tantamount to ordering someone to commit suicide. Because Pillfire's expedition team was filled with elites, it wasn't appropriate to send any of them.
Emperor Cloudbillow frowned slightly, muttering a few sentences to a great emperor near him. Said great emperor inclined his head a little, a strange smile curving his lips. He suddenly walked out from the front of the group into its rear.
"Friends, there's a restriction up ahead," he smiled faintly to the factions following. "There's something odd about it. Is any one of you willing to scout ahead for us?
"Don't say that I didn't tell you about this, there's a lot of benefits to being a scout. Anyone that manages to pass the restriction can keep any treasure he gets his hands on. That's a promise you can trust us to deliver on. Pillfire guarantees that scouts' rights shall not be infringed upon."
Because Pillfire City's men were too valuable, none of them was viable as a scout. However, there were always fearless people amongst the other cultivators present. Sometimes, one had to acquire riches through danger.
Pillfire had everything all planned out.
Sadly, those who'd entered the secret realm were no fools. Pillfire had led the way all this time, and yet they were loath to send one of their own to scout. There was something fishy about this.
All several hundred of the lagging cultivators presented difficult expressions. None of them was willing to volunteer.
It was easy enough to guess that the mortality rate of scouting approached a hundred percent. Treasure was enticing, but not enough to throw away all caution to the wind. If one couldn't guarantee one's own safety, what was the point of taking everything and dying right after?
The treasure would then fall to another anyways.
The Pillfire great emperor waited quite a while, but no one stepped forward from the crowd in the rear. This incensed him somewhat.
"It seems that none of you deems the chance to scout as valuable. What use do we have for you pieces of trash, then? Are we supposed to let you take a share of the treasure inside for free?"
The great emperor's tone became increasingly frigid. "I'm giving you one more chance. If you don't take it, then go back to where you came from. Cowards aren't fit to possess the riches of this secret realm!"
Among the crowd, Jiang Chen found Pillfire's behavior pretty amusing. It was fine to let others risk their lives, but only they were allowed to take the first share of the treasure.
Cowards? It wasn't bravery, but foolhardiness to run to certain death.
The scene was complete crickets. No one stepped up because no one wanted to die. Even the slowest of men saw that Pillfire was picking out hapless fodder to be sacrificed.
The lack of volunteers after a prolonged wait displeased Emperor Cloudbillow. He transmitted a few words to the great emperor he'd sent.
The emperor's expression also darkened. "Alright," he nodded, "if you don't think that kind of opportunity is valuable, then you don't know what's good for you. From this moment forward, Pillfire is claiming this valley. We represent the Upper Eight Regions, the pinnacle of the human domain. Unless you are from a faction there, you must depart immediately. Otherwise, we will do it for you."
This was an ultimatum. They had to either send people in or leave!
It was also brutal and straightforward.
There were perhaps a hundred factions that had entered Agarwood Valley. Each faction had a decently sized team, which meant that the entire entourage was extremely large. Pillfire City's original intent wasn't to let them have a share of the treasure either. They were supposed to have been the perfect cannon fodder in a time of need.
Alas, none of those let in had such self realization. This upset the Upper Eight Regions' factions greatly.
"The way ahead is not obvious, honored great emperors," a representative from a second rank sect said humbly. "Anyone that ventures in now does so to their deaths. In theory, we second-rate factions should present a token of our sincerity, but no one is willing to actively sacrifice themselves. I think we don't need to go in all at once. A few chosen to do so should be enough."
"Hmph. You don't have even one right now, much less a few." The Pillfire emperor smoldered with anger.
"We can choose right now. Anyone that is chosen mustn't shirk their duty."
"How are we supposed to pick? There's no way of doing that that's fair! I think we should draw lots."
These second-rate factions were beginning to acquiesce. The giant factions from the Upper Eight Regions could very easily clear out the room despite their disadvantage in numbers.
There were too many first rank sects here today, plus something as gargantuan as Pillfire City. Too many great emperors existed on the other side. This was the fundamental reason for the second-rate factions' lack of resistance.