Editor: Dhael Ligerkeys
Tang Wu’s thorough flurry of troop deployment looked mind-boggling enough at first glance, when he was, in fact, presenting to Han Zhe Yue a pair of options.
The first was obvious. Green Feather Mountain first surrendered a hill territory to the Tai Luo Clan as a gesture of goodwill on the condition that the Clan agreed to end the Conference.
It was a win-win deal for Han Zhe Yue, saving everyone the trouble of prolonging what was already a determined victory for Green Feather Mountain. But if Han Zhe Yue were to foolishly decline this offer, then the second option would kick in.
The hastily-assembled vanguard platoon would immediately launch an attack at the Tai Luo Clan hill they congregated at. With Squad Xie Jin in play, Tang Wu was certain that even if the platoon failed to capture the hill, the defenders would most definitely suffer huge casualties.
With less than twenty days before the actual end date of the Conference, Tang Wu had complete faith that Green Feather Mountain would be able to maintain its advantage and initiative with the help of Squad Xie Jin’s invincibility and prowess on the field of battle.
Han Zhe Yue was no fool and she knew very well which of the two options was the one she should go for.
And in the end, she resigned by sending a few of her men to take the hill Tang Wu surrendered, indicating her intention to take him up on the offer.
Capturing that one hill posed quite a sizable significance to her and the Clan. Without that one hill, Green Feather Mountain’s dominance in this Conference could be viewed as being manifestly smaller with less than half the number of hills in its control.
That would at least allow the Clan to salvage some of its dignity that has been shredded into tatters during that fateful multi-pronged assault before.
By now, Qin Wan Li finally understood the euphemistic exchange between the two masterminds before him. He could barely suppress a shudder when the truth kicked in that he would never be on par with them…
On the other hand, with a mutual understanding established, all representatives of the three contesting factions announced the end of this year’s Dragon Spring Conference.
There were mixed feelings amongst the participants from all three factions. The experience had its ups and downs. Green Feather Mountain looked as if it was stripped of its former might and supremacy at first, being placed last when almost forty of the hillocks it controlled were wrested away with impunity. But it was Tang Wu’s strategic wizardry that managed to turn the tables around, leading Green Feather Mountain in a comeback charge that not only saw a reclamation of all lost territories, but also a one-sided beatdown of first the Qins then a subsequent routing of the Tai Luo Clan forces, culminating in their record-breaking performance in the Conference’s history.
With this credit, Tang Wu would undoubtedly enjoy a bright future with more attention and opportunities afforded to him by the order’s upper echelon leadership, so long as he didn’t err in his ways.
Meanwhile, Lu Ye was meditating inside his tent when he received word from Tang Wu about the early conclusion of the Conference, leaving him surprised and impressed at how efficient Green Feather Mountain was. Xie Jin was only just telling him about how the Conference could be ending prematurely in the morning and here was everything a done deal come sundown!
The Dragon Spring Conference might have arrived at its end, but the excursion into the Spring needed to be delayed for one day. This was for the leadership of the Green Feather Mountain forces to come up with a list of names of participants who would be awarded a place of admission, in addition for all other Green Feather Mountain participants to travel and gather here.
With no stomach for diplomacy, Lu Ye kept to himself the whole time, staying inside his tent and meditating.
He needed power, not the joy and merriment of mingling over liquor and food.
Xie Jin came again the following day to tell him that the list of names was ready. He came bearing more good news. Apparently, all of Squad Xie Jin had been included in the list and they were to hurry to the centermost peak in the One Hundred Peaks Mountain Range to meet up with the rest of the chosen participants to enter the Spring.
In just minutes, Squad Xie Jin rolled out with Xie Jin leading the front, riding over hills and valleys as they headed straight for the centermost peak of the range.
Unlike their earlier sorties where Squad Xie Jin rode in solemn silence, the raiders traveled with garrulous revelry and high spirits. Tao Tian Gang was so jubilant that his hearty laughter triggered more pain from his wounds eliciting groaning and wincing the rest of the way.
The raiders’ mount did good work in making sure that Squad Xie Jin made it to their destination in good time. In barely a half day’s time, they reached the top of the peak where they found themselves staring at the huge gates of an ancient and stately structure.
The building looked very, very old, which was expected since the Dragon Spring Conference has been a tradition for more than a century.
Scores of Green Feather Mountain acolytes thronged outside the gates and all of them greeted Xie Jin warmly the moment they arrived. The raiders responded to them all with polite nods as they passed by.
Until they reached the gates where they dismounted.
Xie Jin led his squad to right before the gates and saluted. “Squad Xie Jin reporting in, Senior Brother.”
“Do come in!” a deep voice boomed from inside.
Xie Jin and his squadmates stepped into the hall.
Lu Ye’s gaze immediately fell on the Shadow Moon Disc the moment his eyes got used to the dimness indoors. But before he could observe it better, he immediately felt a sharp, harsh glare on his back.
He turned around and found himself looking eye to eye with a mysterious yet jaunty-looking woman who was staring at him with unfriendly eyes.
[This must be the Ninth-Order Cultivator of the Tai Luo Clan,] Lu Ye realized. Feeling tense and wary, he quietly channeled his powers in anticipation of an ambush.
He might not be able to best a Ninth-Order Cultivator in a fair fight, but he would nevertheless do whatever it took to defend himself.
[What the hell is Tang Wu thinking by calling us here?! To shift the hatred of the Clan on me?!] Lu Ye frowned, absolutely displeased. For the past few days, he had been putting Tai Luo Clan Cultivators to the sword by the tens and hundreds, especially in that last assault when it was he who had almost single-handedly thwarted Han Zhe Yue’s plan. Of all people, she must be thirsty for his blood the most!
Green Feather Mountain had snagged the victory it wanted. Not rubbing it into the faces of the defeated would have been a smarter thing to do.
“Don’t ogle. You’ll frighten the kids,” Tang Wu remarked coldly. Yet despite his composed stoicism, he was doubly pleased with himself. He turned to face Lu Ye and said, “Show us your Battlefield Imprint.”
Lu Ye did not know what it was for, but he complied nevertheless. He lifted his arm and tapped on his Battlefield Imprint. The back of his arm shone with bright bluish text.
“That’s all, thanks,” Tang Wu nodded.
Squad Xie Jin took their leave and went away.
Tang Wu said, “Now, satisfied?”
“What?!” Han Zhe Yue was still staring at Lu Ye’s back with undisguised revulsion and rancor when Tang Wu’s question jerked her out of her momentary stupor. Then she realized what he was referring to. “How dare you!” she snarled like a lioness.
Tang Wu had been pestering her for the winnings of his wager with her which she had been avoiding with the pretense that she needed to see the proof with her own eyes. For this reason, Tang Wu summoned Lu Ye here and had him show her his Battlefield Imprint to prevent her from talking her way out of paying.
“Your oath was sworn upon Heavens!” Tang Wu growled, motioning at her arm, “Fulfill your promise!”
Han Zhe Yue could hardly find the words to retort him. But he was right—the oath of their wager was made upon the divine judgment of Heavens and she needed to do as she promised to. She wiped a hand on her Battlefield Imprint and a red-glowing spot rose from her arm and melted into Tang Wu’s. “I hope you choke on these winnings!” she cursed viciously.
[Good Heavens, that’s two hundred Contribution Points!] Han Zhe Yue could barely hide her agony.
“Heh,” Tang Wu chuckled with triumph as he watched the reddish speck vanish into his arm. Then he peered at Qin Wan Li, growling, “And what are you waiting for?”
“Me?!” uttered Qin Wan Li, astounded. [I’m just an innocent bystander! I have nothing to do with all this!]
“Don’t you dare deny! Twenty Contribution Points! One point less and I’ll rip your head off with my bare hands!” Tang Wu snarled viciously, seeing no reason to be nice to him.
Qin Wan Li did not know what to say, although he finally realized what it was all about. Han Zhe Yue had been the one who suggested a wager as to who Lu Ye was and he had agreed to a twenty Contribution Point wager that Lu Ye was not one of the Grand Sky Coalition. But that was originally between him and Han Zhe Yue. He did not agree to anything with Tang Wu. One could argue that it was unreasonable for Tang Wu to demand his winnings from him.
But Qin Wan Li could barely enunciate his complaint out loud. He rubbed at his Battlefield Imprint and a red glowing speck flew towards Tang Wu. As much as all three of them were peers of the same rank, he could nowhere near claim to be equals in both combat ability and guile.
The Green Feather Mountain candidates who had been chosen had all arrived. Being just nearby, most of them did not take long to converge on this spot.
More people arrived less than two hours later, riding up the slopes in large retinues of men.
Unlike ordinary Green Feather Mountain Cultivators who were dusted with grime and disheveled with weariness, this new group looked like a bunch of privileged rich kids with their handsome-looking mounts and fancy colored silks.
Lu Ye immediately recognized them for who they were: acolytes or scions of militant sects and orders who were allied with Green Feather Mountain. They had been watching the Conference and knew that the entry into the Dragon Spring was nigh, they had ridden all the way here to meet up.
The new group numbered at least thirty to forty men.
The imposing cavalcade rumbled past adroitly, attracting envious and admiring looks from many Green Feather Mountain acolytes. Not that there was no reason to. Acolytes belonging to the Outer Circles of most militant orders and sects did not enjoy the same privilege, treatment, and abundance that Inner Circle acolytes were blessed with and the difference was even more in stark contrast, especially between low-tiered Cultivators.
The newcomers stopped outside the hall and got off their mounts. Despite their different-colored garbs, they mingled together and talked like old friends.
Lu Ye discovered something strange. “Xie,” he asked Xie Jin, “Why are there no Fifth-Orders around at all?”
None of the newcomers or even Green Feather Mountain candidates were Fifth-Order Cultivators.
“The magical effects of the Dragon Spring do not work well for Fifth-Order Cultivators. That is also why only Cultivators of the Fifth-Order and below are permitted to participate in the Conference. As to why, I’m afraid I don’t know the answer to that myself. But we are certain about this restriction.”
Lu Ye nodded.
“But what about our mounts when we get in?” Qiao Qiao Er voiced another point of concern.
With so many Spirit Beasts around, they might get into a riot and fights that could end up very bloody and awkward for everyone.
“There’s no need to worry about that,” Xie Jin smiled, “There are stablehands who will take your mounts into temporary safekeeping until we come back.”
Green Feather Mountain has had numerous experiences in managing the custodial duties of the Dragon Spring Conferences in the past where they have always had staff and infrastructure ready to handle matters such as the care of the participants’ mounts.
They did not wait long. Stable Hands appeared soon enough and they took the mounts away. Lu Ye accompanied Amber to make sure he would be fine. There were more than one hundred cages specifically prepared for this purpose and the caretakers placed Amber inside one of them.
The last glimmers of the Sun were just peeking over the rims of the mountains in the distance as night slowly descended when a huge rumble came from beneath their feet, followed by ripples of tremors.
Just when everyone was reeling with shock at what was going on, Tang Wu appeared, stepping out of the hall. He surveyed the crowd and declared loudly, “The Dragon Spring is opened, everyone! Kindly wait for your turn and proceed with order, my friends! The Spring will remain open for nine days—three for each faction! Only go as far as you can and don’t force yourselves. Remember, Green Feather Mountain will not be responsible for any mishaps that might happen…”
After Tang Wu’s short briefing, everyone began shuffling towards the entrance leading into the hall beginning with the allied Cultivators.
Only after they’ve all gone inside, the Green Feather Mountain Cultivators took their turn.
Conquering forty-nine hillocks in the contest had won Green Feather Mountain ninety-eight places, but with more than thirty of these slots allocated to its allies, that would leave Green Feather Mountain with only sixty-plus places.
The number might not seem small, but it really was not enough, considering how many Spirit Creek Realm Cultivators Green Feather Mountain had in its ranks.
For this reason, Green Feather Mountain, more often than not, found itself hardpressed to offer any places to independent Cultivators. This year, however, was a real anomaly where Green Feather Mountain had given three places to the independent Cultivators in Squad Xie Jin. After all, victory would have not been possible without Squad Xie Jin’s crucial and all too important gallantry and valor in battle.