Traveling at full speed, Forefather Bamboo finally caught up to Greenplume Village as the latter marched toward Pillfire. His arrival caused a flurry of trepidation, but that didn't provoke displeasure. Instead, he asked King Greenplume, "Are you in contact with the other villages?"
King Greeplume shook his head nervously. "We agreed to keep in touch at first, but everyone went their own way and we haven't really heard from them since."
Forefather Bamboo's expression changed drastically. "Aren't you afraid of being ambushed by the humans? All of you are acting so rashly!"
King Greenplume had no excuses to offer. Though the forefather was keeping his temper in check, his displeasure was plain to see.
"Forget it, I don't blame you. My delayed arrival has thrown a wrench in our battle plans. What a pity." The forefather sighed. "I hope everyone will reach Veluriyam without a hitch."
He wasn't as confident as he sounded. Instead of feverishly looking for the other three forces, he chose to travel with Greenplume Village.
After Pillfire's defeat, Wellspring had stayed behind to deal with the aftermath and handle the various great factions in the north. He'd already ordered men to haul away all the hoarded riches, sending most of it to Veluriyam.
Therefore, the Savages' looting only resulted in slim pickings, leaving the invaders crestfallen.
The army then followed the road south, finally nearing Veluriyam's territory on this day when King Greenplume suddenly received word from King Yuanqiang.
The message left him pale.
"Forefather, the Gunuo and Flowerback villages have arrived at our meeting location near the Veluriyam border, but they're arguing and will probably end up fighting!"
"What?" The forefather shot up. The two villages were going to fight each other?!
He'd been holding back his temper to begin with. Killing their own at such a crucial juncture? How dare they! That was sheer suicide!
"We march! Make haste!" he ordered, his face dark.
At the forefather's urging, the army picked up the pace. They'd hadn't been too far away from rendezvous point, so they soon reached their destination.
Warriors from the two villages stood opposite each other, glaring at the other side like raging bulls. The tiniest spark could trigger a chaotic melee. King Yuanqiang was vigorously playing mediator.
"What's all this! What the hell are you doing? Is this how you act in my absence?" The anger Forefather Bamboo had repressed for so long finally erupted. These two villages would really give him a stroke.
To march on their own initiative was one thing, but to fight each other so close to Veluriyam? His arrival curbed most of the anger and posturing present.
"Forefather." King Gunuo and King Flowerback hurried to pay their respects, their men in tow. All of them looked uneasy and anxious.
The forefather fixed his stare at the two kings. "Look at the two of you! Why don't you go on and fight already! Do it! I'll be the referee. The winner gets to replace me. How about it, hmm?
"You, Chieftain Flowerback. I hear the plan to split up came from you? You're something, aren't you! Now you're making plans and decisions in my place!
"You also, Chieftain Gunuo, your village discovered the weakening of the human domain's Boundary Stele long ago, so why didn't you notify me? What were you trying to do? Hoard all of the riches for yourself?"
Everyone got their share of the dressing down. Neither king dared reply. They looked down and played dead, hoping the storm would pass.
"Let's hear it. Why were you arguing?" The forefather asked, deceptively mild.
"Forefather, I simply asked how their journey and looting went when I arrived. King Gunuo must have eaten gunpowder for dinner. For no good reason, he accused me of tricking him by giving him the most difficult route. He blames me for his village's grave losses." King Flowerback felt wronged.
King Gunuo retorted, "What? We drew the routes by lots. That's not what I said. As soon as we met up, King Flowerback jeered and taunted me. 'You seem to have lost many men. Your journey must not have gone well.' How can I tolerate this??"
Forefather Bamboo responded coolly, "So you almost traded blows because of this idiotic, petty trifle? Right on Veluriyam's doorstep? What if they've been monitoring you all along? I bet they'd die of laughter. We wouldn't even need to attack them."
The biting rebuke silenced the two men.
Fortunately, the forefather didn't continue the scolding. He took a deep breath. "Forget it. I'm also in the wrong this time, so let bygones be bygones. That you've successfully arrived is proof that we are still blessed. We're already at Veluriyam's doorstep. Do you have any plans?"
King Gunuo suggested, "Forefather, we were the first to arrive, so I've pitched a tent. Why don't we continue inside?"
The forefather glanced his way. King Gunuo's eyes sparkled with hopefulness.
"We might as well. Your itinerary was the most arduous one, wasn't it? It can't have been easy arriving first." He ordered, "Let's chat inside."
Naturally, no one protested. Everyone set off for that area of the encampment. The Gunuo tent was a spacious and luxurious affair. The feeling of being enveloped in luxury greeted them as soon as they stepped inside.
Forefather Bamboo tsked in praise. "King Gunuo, you know how to enjoy yourself."
"Forefather, if you find it to your taste, it's yours to rest in. I can set up another one elsewhere."
"No need. I'm not in the habit of snatching someone else's belongings." The forefather waved it off. "Alright, let's talk business. Everyone should already know why I'm late. That human is truly despicable."
"Forefather, did you end up capturing him?"
"I told those stationed behind not to let him escape. He was definitely trying to delay me, so how can I let him prevail?" This was still a touchy subject for the forefather.
"Back to the matter at hand. You four villages have arrived safe and sound. That's worth celebrating. Next, what's your plan? Let's hear it. We can go from there." He'd just arrived in the human domain and so wasn't familiar with the latest developments.
"Forefather, Veluriyam's the only faction that can stand up to us. It's smooth sailing as long as long as we defeat them."
"But the city's young lord is a remarkable figure. From what we've uncovered about his sudden rise, Jiang Chen is simply a miracle maker."
"Fortunately, the secluded empyrean masters all seem to dislike him, so they might not come to his rescue."
"What else? The more precise the better," the forefather asked. Even the smallest detail wouldn't escape his scrutiny.
The villages immediately relayed all the information at their disposal.
When Gunuo Village's turn came, King Gunuo reported with a wry smile, "My village fought against him at the northwestern border. The kid has strength and courage in spades. But ultimately, he's nothing more than a fledgling who hasn't reached empyrean realm yet, so his foundations aren't firm enough."
The forefather nodded. "True. A young man rising too fast will become the object of envy. Steady foundations? Easier said than done. Didn't you mention his bad relationship with the secluded human experts? What does that tell us? The human domain is in a transition period. The old leaders haven't passed the torch to the new ones yet. But Jiang Chen's become the leader, both de facto and in name."
"Forefather, the kid's subdued eight Stone Golems. Their fighting prowess is fearsome. I hear that many of our men have suffered at their hands."
"Oh right, he also has a dragon. That's the truth, not a rumor. He also seems really close to a Vermillion Bird."
The forefather's glance swept through the gathered men. "No matter how strong he is, there's nothing for us to fear when we have so many braves with us. Apart from the golem brothers, no one really stands out on his side!
"Alright, I'll assign your tasks now. We need eight empyrean fighters to contend with the golems. Each village is to dispatch two empyrean elders to pin them down. Any questions? Remember, even if you can't defeat them outright, you need to stall for time!"
"Forefather, are you planning to…?"
"I'll personally subdue the kid."
"My dear Holy Beast." The old man stroked the ferocious beast at his side. "There's a Vermillion Bird among our enemies, but I have you! Once the battle starts, you're in charge of delaying Jiang Chen, understood?"
The spirit creature nodded obediently.
"Remember, this assault is our best opportunity and also mankind's weakest hour. Our chance might vanish once they react," he urged.
King Gunuo nodded as if in perfect agreement.
"Everyone has their own mission, so go and get ready. Remember, when you breach Sacred Peafowl Mountain, don't ransack it without my express command. Understood?" he warned sternly.
"Don't worry, forefather. We wouldn't dare act on our own even if we conquer Sacred Peafowl Mountain. We'll notify you first and wait for your word."
The forefather laughed merrily. King Gunuo had become much more polite since the last time they'd met.
If only he knew how secretly delighted King Gunuo was at this moment. The tent was a dark trap laid with meticulous care. Soulless Powder permeated every corner!