"Hahaha, we really made it!"
"What's with this secret realm? It prevents us from entering one moment, then lets us in the next. It must be toying with us."
Those who'd overcome the restriction beamed with exhilaration. Even great emperors grinned from ear to ear.
Only Jiang Chen remained impassive. He was actually more vigilant than ever. They hadn't truly passed the barrier. Rather, a certain entity inside had let them through. While everyone basked in their excitement, he observed the surroundings, taking in the tiniest detail.
This area was night and day compared to the previous ones.
Had they entered the land of the immortals? Clouds and fog wreathed the distance where a magnificent palace was located. Seven divine pillars of light piercing the sky extended from it.
"It's right in front of us!"
Even cultivators from Pillfire and the Heavenly Dragon Sect had trouble staying collected. Their burning gazes landed on the faraway palace as if they could already touch the riches inside.
"Hurry up, don't fall behind!"
"We can't miss this opportunity no matter what!"
Apart from Jiang Chen, the secret realm had blinded them all with avarice. In their fertile imaginations, this place was the greatest holy land from times immemorial, hiding inconceivable inheritances and treasures. How could they not lose their minds at the prospect of this fortune awaiting them with open arms?
Suddenly, the faint ring of a bell chimed in the distance.
Simple yet melodious, it seemed a sound from antiquity, reaching their ears after crossing through space and time.
It erased their fears and worries, delivering ease and comfort instead, as if they'd returned to the safety and well-being of their mother's arms. Unconsciously, doubt and confusion faded from their eyes, replaced with peace amidst fervor.
Jian Cheng's hackles rose at the spectacle. The seal in his ocean of consciousness fought back fiercely against the bell's emotional influence, as if loathing its mere tinkle.
He dared not be careless. The wondrous seal had saved him too many times to count and he trusted it with no reservations at all. Almost everyone seemed under the bell's bizarre spell. Only a handful had maintained their lucidity, while he most likely was the only one fully aware of the danger.
It truly sounds ethereal and otherworldly, so why do I have this ominous premonition? Am I being overly paranoid?
This fearful thought sometimes crept in his mind, but he instantly squashed it every single time. The chain seal had never been wrong. Since it rejected the sound, so would he.
Ring after ring, the bell slowly sang a perfect tune. The rhythm was as slow as a napping old man, but its charm was impossible to resist. Go, yonder palace is waiting for you.
As the saying went, never mistake a clear view for a short distance.
The palace seemed within arm's reach, but no matter how fast the crowd sped at top speed, the palace always remained distant.
Though they made substantial inroads into the distance, but the way was much longer than their eyes perceived.
"Damn it, we've traveled for so long, why aren't we there yet?"
"It looks a couple hours away at most, but it's almost nightfall and we don't seem to have made any headway."
"Is it playing tricks on us?"
"What nonsense. You can leave if you want, but stop grumbling if you're staying!"
"That's right, do you ever hear of people complaining in the legends?"
"I know, right? Do you think ancient inheritances are to be plucked like cucumbers in a market?"
Some became impatient while others kept their cool. But without exception, none could hide the greed in their eyes.
"It must be a test. There'll be many trials to overcome along the way as ancient treasures aren't so easy to obtain. But the prize will be well worth it!" Many shared this opinion.
The restriction they'd encountered was one such trial. Many others likely awaited them, as ancient secret realms were wont to do. For example, everyone could see the misty palace and feel the distance shorten. Yet, a long, tenuous road still lay ahead.
But without warning, they suddenly arrived in front of a tall mountain with many transparent lazurite mirrors standing before it.
"Dear juniors, congratulations on making it this far!" A weathered, venerable voice suddenly emerged on the mountain road. It also seemed to echo from antiquity across time and space.
The cultivators froze, halting despite of themselves. They looked at each other, shaken by this new presence.
"Since you're here, this realm must have acknowledged your right to enter. However, if you want my personal approval, you must challenge the trial of the Gate of Life.
"What is the Gate of Life, you might ask?" the voice continued confidently. "It sees through you and me, and through all things living. You may enter the palace if you can pass through it. Treasure and knowledge will be yours. You might even… become my sect's disciple and perpetuate the sect's former glory. You better think your decision through."
The Gate of Life?
"Who does the voice belong to?" Jiang Chen puzzled. "Is it the creator of this realm? Does this place truly hide extraordinary ancient heritages?"
This thought spiralled in his mind. He suddenly realized the others were almost fully brainwashed. He had to bow to the voice's magnetism. If the man had truly created this place by himself, he'd prove a formidable opponent.
"Let me tell you a few more things before you make a decision. This sacred land belongs to the strongest sect during antiquity, the Primosanct Sect. Fairness, integrity, and justice are the sect's tenets! The creed of the leader of the ancient righteous sects!"
The leader of the righteous sects in the ancient times! The cultivators felt their blood boil.
"Moreover, the palace is the Primosanct Sect's most unfathomable mansion. It contains copies of almost all the sect's martial techniques, as well as many treasures. Some of you, I'm sure, are destined to obtain them and become unparalleled heroes!"
A fevered shiver coursed through the crowd. Even the great emperors weren't immune. They strained their ears, afraid of missing a single word.
"Whether you're a great emperor, emperor or sage realm, you'll automatically become my sect's disciple as soon as you obtain the inheritance from the forbidden area. From there onwards, you must discard your previous identity and sever all ties. Or else, the grand dao will be forever out of your reach!"
Forsake their factions?
Everyone hesitated. Stealing and mugging was one thing, but to betray their sect would be a hard pill to swallow. No one could easily take the plunge.
The ancient Primosanct Sect? Fairness? Integrity? Honesty? It sounds great and all, but why should we sever all ties? Is it true fairness to spurn one's own? Jiang Chen's eyes narrowed at the contradiction.
It would be delightful news if they truly were on the Primosanct Sect's ground. However, would the ancient leader of the just sects have someone to abandon their beloved ones, using almost threatening methods?
Jiang Chen had been the son of the celestial emperor in his past life. In all the heavenly planes, few people understood the grand dao and heavenly dao better than him. He'd never heard his imperial father mention anything of the sort.
Dao followed the course of nature. To discard attachment went against heavenly principles. Such dao couldn't possibly be the genuine grand dao!
With the wisdom from his past life, the seemingly profound words abruptly filled with strange aberrations. Of course, his insight was second to none. He could stay clear-minded, but the others hadn't noticed the issue therein.
"Remember, be true to yourselves. When you pass through the Gate of Life, your deepest thoughts will be like an open book to me." The voice continued impassively, "Very well. You have fifteen minutes. If you can't decide by then, you'll be expelled from the secret realm!"
The crowd rustled uneasily at this ultimatum.