The large-scale manhunt reached the edge of the forbidden area not long after Jiang Chen passed through the restriction zone.
Inspecting the scene together with the three houses’ upper echelons, Xuan Zan nodded after a moment. “Gentlemen, do you see what I’m seeing? There are clear traces of damage to the formations. This must be where the suspects went inside the second level. They can’t be very far, especially the impostor. We must catch him at all costs!”
“That’s right, our houses can’t afford this sort of humiliation!”
“Warden Ding, are you going to lift the restrictions, or shall I do it by force?” Kuang Han glared coldly at the chief warden.
The latter threw a helpless glance at Prince Huo, waiting for his decision.
The crestfallen prince waved his hand. “Lift them then.” He raised a cupped fist salute at the three houses. “Gentlemen, this junior has but one request. Please refrain from destroying the formations once inside. With our men as your guides, you’ll certainly find the suspects if they’re really inside.”
“Hmph. Let’s see how sincerely you guide us first. We reserve the right to act as we see fit if we can’t catch our targets!”
Focused on their murderers, the noble houses paid little heed to his request. They might drop the matter if they caught the two, but they’d naturally make no promises in case they didn’t.
The prince sighed. Even if he was unwilling, did he truly have a choice when furious eminent figures from Polylore were breathing down his neck?
His men slowly undid the restrictions.
The three houses divided their forces into nine different groups. The chief warden and the prince dispatched guides to each as they started the manhunt.
The deeper one went into the forbidden area, the closer one neared the core of the Blackwraith Mountains. Compared to the first level, the much greater surface area was an obstacle in the search.
Utterly cautious after setting foot in the new area, Jiang Chen had retracted his aura as match as he could. A single mistake might allow the terrible pursuers on his heels to catch him, so he couldn’t lower his guard even for a second.
“I wonder what kind of secret this place hides, for Winterdraw to attach so much importance to it.”
His curiosity was piqued. There must be a reason for the island to repeatedly warn them not to stray into the second level. Now that he was inside, he’d personally experienced the sharp increase in the degree of risk.
He ran into many hazards on the way, but he could rely on the powerful sense for danger born of his formidable consciousness. More importantly, he could anticipate many pitfalls thanks to his vast experience.
“This place is dangerous, but not really life-threatening. I wonder why the wardens are so nervous?”
Half the threat came from the mountains themselves, and the other half man-made elements arranged by Winterdraw.
Noxious flora, poisonous insects and violent fauna, as well as all sorts of plants that could kill; for him, these posed little threat. The various formations, devices, or sudden traps were a greater menace.
Thankfully, he had enough knowledge to spare in these areas. Otherwise, he might truly have been brought down in a moment of carelessness.
“Strange. The wardens must really be wary of intruders. The place is armed to the teeth with all sorts of mechanisms.” Jiang Chen became increasingly curious. All of a sudden, his consciousness perceived a faint omen of danger. He looked back in spite of himself.
A blinding light illuminated the zone he’d traveled through not long ago.
“Hm? Have the restrictions at the entrance been lifted? Are the pursuers already inside?”
He shook. He knew he’d be hunted, but hadn’t thought he’d be placed so fast between the difficult terrain and the three great houses.
“If locals are leading the way, they’ll easily avoid all the pitfalls. They can proceed much faster than me since I have to stay alert at all time. Things will be hairy from now on,” he cooly analyzed. The situation was very unfavorable.
But at this crucial juncture, he had little time to lose on idle thoughts. He faced forward once again and pressed on deeper into the mountains.
“No matter. I must continue onward. I can’t look back even if I have to cross the entire mountain range. According to the map, I should reach the coast if I journey for a few dozen thousand miles. And then, I can make good my escape if I can cross the waters!
“That said, there are formidable barriers and formations near the coast. They’re no trifling matter, and there are roughly two thousand miles of dangerous seas to deal with afterward. Leaving will truly be an uphill battle.”
He could feel in his bones the challenges lying ahead. For a moment, he even considered using the spacetime seal to return to Veluriyam.
But there were no guarantees the seal could be used on Winterdraw. More importantly, after leaving the third Palace of Heritage, he’d been warned in no uncertain terms he couldn’t challenge the fourth palace before half-step empyrean realm.
Although each palace allowed for one chance of failure, Jiang Chen wasn’t keen to squander it so casually.
“The seal is a last resort. I’d have to start over again. Coming back to Myriad Abyss Island will probably be even harder by then, not to mention the time wasted.” He didn’t want to turn back now after making it this far.
The urgency of his situation brought to light even more of his talents. His formidable consciousness was fully put to use inside the forbidden area.
He perfectly avoided every mechanism and prohibition along the way. A single triggered trap might expose his whereabouts and alarm his pursuers, making life so much easier for them. Fortunately, he sidestepped every one of them and stayed under the radar.
Despite the many people hunting him down, they must have split into quite a few groups to cover the land in a wide-ranging human net.
This method was reliable, but also had its flaws. At the very least, they must have spread manpower thin, so they couldn’t form a perfect encirclement in the short term.
Being surrounded was his one and only worry. In a forsaken place like the Blackwraith Mountains, it was almost impossible for him to break out of a siege. After all, fearsome experts at sixth level empyrean realm were hot on his heels.
It wasn’t his first time contending with such existences, but he’d relied entirely on trickery to defeat the Embittered Savages’ Forefather Bamboo. He felt that his chances of victory in a straight confrontation were nil.
And apart from the spacetime seal, none of his trump cards would be of help. So he stayed as cautious as he’d ever been.
He found himself in unfamiliar territory. He was on enemy soil, none of his predicaments part of his plan. Circumstances had forced him to adapt time and again, firmly putting him on the backfoot.
He traveled for two days without a second of rest, his mind stretched taut by the constant tension.
The flight took its toll. Though everything had gone perfectly thus far, and he refrained from exposing his position or losing ground to his pursuers, he hadn’t had a moment of respite. He never felt safe or free from the manhunt.
His energy was running low after fleeing for two days and nights straight.
“I can’t go on like this. I need to get some rest.” He very much wanted to hasten his journey, but reason prevailed in the end.
Even a few hours of meditation would be a huge boon to alleviate his excessive fatigue and help him to recover. Despite his decision, he didn’t dare stop immediately. He arranged some Goldbiter Rats on the wayside as scouts and sentries.
His preparations done, he found a secluded spot and began meditating. Every second mattered. He needed to regenerate his reserves in order to face the even greater difficulties lying ahead.
The nine groups of pursuers sometimes traveled together and sometimes went their own ways. Like finding a needle in a haystack, the search had yet to yield results after a few days.
On the verge of exploding, the three houses’ leaders once again convened a meeting, their faces so glowering that Prince Huo and Warden Ding were a little afraid to look at them in the eye.
“We haven’t so much as spotted the murderer’s shadow after so many days, to say nothing of catching him. Warden Ding, your wardens are the ones leading the way, so how do you explain this?” asked an exasperated Kuang Han.
Chief Warden Ding coughed in embarrassment. After a few days of large-scale manhunt, he’d begun to wonder whether a murderer truly existed.
It was possible the geniuses had killed each other, while and Jiang Huang and Su Hong were entirely innocent. But it was a mere fleeting guess born from frustration. How would he ever dare voice it?