Cloudsoar Monarch had quite a few doubts. There was something he could rely on, however, and that was that Emperor Peafowl's judgments about people had never been wrong. He had no doubt about the continued truth of this fact. Pill King Zhen? Still, the choice left the monarch feeling a little helpless. He admired the young pill king, sure, but he had never imagined that His Majesty would secretly decide on the youth as his heir!
"Your Majesty, isn't Pill King Zhen only a sage realm cultivator right now? Given his level of cultivation, it'll take at least a hundred more years for him to reach the emperor realm. To become someone at Your Majesty's strength… that would take several hundred more. If you feel the call of the heavens, how many more years can you keep him safe?"
Emperor Peafowl smiled faintly. "A decade or a century, perhaps? I cannot be sure myself regarding such matters. However, I'll wager that when Pill King Zhen reappears, he'll be in the sky rank sage realm for sure. For him, the emperor realm can be attained within the next twenty years. And perhaps, he'll become as strong as me in just a hundred."
"What? A hundred years to become as strong as a titled great emperor?" Cloudsoar Monarch was baffled at the emperor's statement. From sage realm to great emperor realm in only a century? Was there even historical precedent for that, anywhere on the Divine Abyss Continent? Cloudsoar had never been as skeptical about His Majesty's insights as he was now. There had to be some exaggeration in his statement, right? His Majesty was being just a bit too optimistic?
Emperor Peafowl appeared to have no plans of elaborating on his reasoning, however. He smiled again. "Cloudsoar, there is no need to speak of the matter any further. We shall see all in due time."
The monarch could only nod. "Then, Your Majesty, let's talk about something else… the top-ranked wandering cultivator in the Pill Pagoda Battles is a pill genius. Is there anything about his background…"
"Veluriyam has a specific set of ways for discerning his background. I'll pay attention to it personally. Enemy factions' interference in the city's affairs is forbidden. Thank you for the concern. You may rest easy."
"What, hmm…" Cloudsoar was silent for a moment, then interjected in spite of himself. "Your Majesty, why not ask him to join us? Sacred Peafowl Mountain should have enough of a reputation now to be considered one of the sacred pill lands of the world."
Emperor Peafowl chuckled. "I'm sure he's talented, but can he compare to Pill King Zhen?"
"Of course he can't, Your Majesty, but I think a genius like this is still fairly rare. No other faction in Veluriyam is worthy of someone like that, no?" Cloudsoar was dead set on protecting Sacred Peafowl Mountain's paramount position.
"Cloudsoar, calm yourself." Emperor Peafowl gave the man an ambiguous smile. "If he is truly wise, then he will make his decisions accordingly. If he is short-sighted and foolish, then it will only prove that his genius is wasted."
There was a lot of hidden meaning behind the comment, and the monarch had to think long and hard about it. At its core, though, he knew that His Majesty did not wish for them to recruit the wandering cultivator genius. Resigned, Cloudsoar asked another question. "Your Majesty, do you know when Pill King Zhen will return from his travels?"
"According to my calculations, he'll be back within the month. We cannot speak in absolutes, however. Nothing is perpetually smooth in the world."
Jiang Chen and Huang'er's journey out of the Swordland Region encountered no setbacks. In only a day or so, they reached Myriad Peoples City, on Veluriyam Capital's border. Jiang Chen discovered many forces taking orders from the Eternal Celestial Capital on the outskirts of the city. But he now had extremely clever ways of disguising himself—ways that were virtually undetectable by anyone from the Eternal Celestial Capital.
Thus, he and Huang'er both passed through the encirclement without much actual danger, returning to Veluriyam's holdings succinctly. They found that the entire countryside was filled with a fervent atmosphere. Anywhere they went, people were talking about the Veluriyam Pagoda events. Many rumors and tales made the rounds here, each more fantastical than the last.
In particular, Jiang Chen heard one rumor the most often—that Emperor Peafowl was old and weak, and was likely abdicating to Emperor Shura. He found the notion plainly ridiculous. Though Emperor Peafowl had already lived a few millennia, and he was a titled emperor that had touched the dao of heaven. It wasn't a stretch to call him a half-step empyrean cultivator. How could such a man be old and weak?
Rather than being naturally spread by the commoners, this type of rumor was more likely to have been intentionally sown as seeds of discord. Jiang Chen didn't need any brainpower to guess that Emperor Shura had been behind this. If not the emperor himself, then his crazed henchmen. This kind of gossipy rumor was very compelling, because it satisfied the public's desire for entertainment. Rumors aside, though, most still doubted whether Emperor Shura could lead Veluriyam towards continued prosperity, just as Emperor Peafowl had done. There wasn't much evidence from the former emperor's part thus far to prove that he was capable of such a thing.
Having heard all the news flying around, Jiang Chen stepped into the city gates of Veluriyam. He gazed at the Veluriyam Pagoda, with its cloud-piercing peak; the structure radiated an eye-dazzling brilliance, as if it was made entirely of its eponymous gemstone. He knew that the light came from the tower's opening. Now that he was on his home turf, relatively speaking, Jiang Chen had no further need for disguise. He revealed Pill King Zhen's countenance, which caused the gate guardsmen to clamor with great excitement, even from a considerably distance away.
"Pill King Zhen?"
"It's really him. Pill King Zhen is back!"
"Pill King Zhen has returned!"
The news spread from the gates like wildfire, setting the entire Veluriyam Capital ablaze. So, too, did it reach the scene of the Veluriyam Pagoda's proceedings. The activities of the gathering were still taking place, and the second round of the Pill Pagoda Battles was about to begin. The top hundred pill geniuses were about to enter into a new trial of challenges.
When the people present heard of Pill King Zhen's return, the reaction was uproarious. Each and every one of the pill geniuses clamored for the pill king to come referee for them. Clearly, having their idol watch them compete was a big motivational factor. The people at Sacred Peafowl Mountain were invigorated by the news of Pill King Zhen's return as well.
"I shall go receive him," Cloudsoar Monarch said.
"I as well," the Coiling Dragon clan lord recommended.
"I'll come with, too." A large amount of Emperor Peafowl's retainers actively put themselves forward. The words that Cloudsoar Monarch had received from the emperor had evidently spread amongst those high-ranking enough to hear the news.
Though it hadn't yet spread publicly, the four monarchs and several of the great clans both had their guesses. Jiang Chen hadn't expected such an intimate reception from so many important people upon his return. He became a little embarrassed in the heat of the moment.
"Thank you, everyone. I haven't done anything deserving of such an honor, and so you have my sincerest gratitude." Faced with so many greats from Sacred Peafowl Mountain, Jiang Chen's attitude was mainly one of surprise.
Cloudsoar Monarch laughed, "Pill King Zhen, you don't know how popular you are now. The Veluriyam Pagoda's pill battles are filled with geniuses that all want you to be one of their judges. If you stay away any longer, I think they'll riot."
Though it was an exaggerated claim, there was a grain of truth to it. The Coiling Dragon clan lord laughed as well. "Pill King Zhen, I can vouch for the monarch's words. You're the most popular man in Veluriyam's pill scene. It would be a shame if you hadn't been able to come to the Pill Pagoda Battles, so it's very fortunate that you came back at the time that you did."
Though Ji San, standing behind the clan lord, didn't have much authority to talk, his eyes were lit up as well. He looked at Jiang Chen with eager eyes and made a multitude of faces, clearly in a cheerful mood.
Jiang Chen individually saluted everyone with a cupped-fist salute before walking towards Ji San and patting his shoulder. "Brother Ji, I have some good news of my own for you. I came across an acorn from an Invisible Chameleon Cloudpine during this trip abroad, purely by chance."
"What?!" Young master Ji San's body shook at that last sentence, as if touched by electricity. He was frozen in place for a long while. The Coiling Dragon clan lord in front of him had heard as well, exhibiting a similar reaction. A cocktail blend of emotions surged into his heart, and his skin tingled. He was so giddy that he could barely walk.
How could he not remember that the acorn was one of the main materials for the Pinecrane Pill? He had the Goldencrown Cloudcrane already, but they had looked for the Pine to no avail. It was a major concern for the entire Coiling Dragon Clan. This exciting news came as a sudden shock. Did Pill King Zhen really just happen upon an acorn from the requisite Cloudpine by chance? That meant that both main materials for the Cloudcrane Pill were present, right? Only the pill itself needed to be refined. Even someone as advanced in years as the Coiling Dragon clan lord was overjoyed by the situation. It was a kind of happiness that only one escaping certain death could experience—an indescribable sense of mirth.
"Don't get overexcited. We'll talk about it at length later." Jiang Chen didn't want to explain the details at present.
Ji San took a deep breath to calm himself. "Brother, I owe you one yet again."
"There's no need for that. What else are brothers for?" Jiang Chen returned an easy smile.
The return of Pill King Zhen was an explosive piece of news. The Pill Pagoda Battles' atmosphere only became more heated.
Standing at the forefront of the hundred wandering cultivators, Lin Yanyu saw Pill King Zhen arrive in the midst of a throng of people. His eyes were fixated upon Jiang Chen, looking him up and down.
"Is this Pill King Zhen? He looks very young. Tsk, he might even be younger than I am… the arrogant Pill King Ji Lang was defeated by someone like this? No way… wait a second, how come he seems so familiar?" A strange feeling came over Lin Yanyu. Pill King Zhen looked unfamiliar superficially, but something about him was oddly reminiscent of someone he knew. Suddenly, he noticed the young pill king's gaze was resting on him. The pill king nodded and smiled at him! Lin Yanyu was astounded, his body shaking.
"He knows me? Did Pill King Zhen hear of my name already?" He didn't know how to react to this surprising turn of events. The next moment was even more surprising, though.
"Daoist Lin, you really did come faithfully to Veluriyam Capital after the wildlands." He knew the voice all too well. Lin Yanyu gaped at Jiang Chen. Something was stuck in his throat, and he didn't know what to say.