Harun couldn't feel the Golden Crow Ancestor's gaze. With the gap of five realms separating them, his Decaying Flower aside, the old deity could see through him like an open book. But while the Golden Crow took care to not let Harun sense his probe, for some reason, Harun's heart still skipped a beat. Hurriedly looking through the countless pairs of eyes, Harun sought the source of his unease, but found none.
For 15 minutes, the page-fairy procession remained at the entrance door, delayed by the officials who, perhaps, needed time to digest the Grand Marshal's oppression. Regardless, once the procession walked in, they didn't meet any of the expectant gazes and festive atmosphere that should have been the norm for a gathering of this magnitude. Instead, lowered heads, gritted teeth and clenched fists joined hands to produce a cheerless atmosphere.
Harun included, many of the pages and fairies realized that the departure of the 12 Gods they saw beforehand was linked to this result. But while the knowledgeable few could guess the ins and outs, as he lacked a solid understanding of the 33 Heavens' hegemonic forces, Harun couldn't.
Hell, because the Golden Crow had been in seclusion for over 200,000 years, the average celestial only knew that the Grand Marshal of the Divine Army used to be a mortal, but didn't know of his full story or might.
As expected of them, the pages and fairies headed to their assigned tables to lay down the plates and pour the wine. Again, Harun's heart skipped a beat. The ups and downs of mortal cultivation told him that—this—was the critical instant of his time in the Imperial Domain. If he could leave this banquet hall in one piece, then from now on he could live in peace, and slowly cultivate to a free and unfettered altitude.
However, the story wouldn't take that turn. When did it ever? As "fate" would have it, Harun was part of the few pages tasked with serving the empress' table. Though he kept his head lowered throughout, the empress didn't restrain the intensity of her gaze, undressing him with a stare some might have found lecherous.
But at his back, Harun felt a similar stare, as if two existences within the room chose to clash through him. Worse, several other eye pairs were starting to focus on him—drawn like moths to a flame.
And at that time...
"Aaaah!" Shrill cries echoed. With a sigh, Harun turned and saw blue sparks flicker around his cosmic pouch.
To weed out outstanding but disloyal seeds, the Peach Banquet kept one rule hidden from the pages. If an overly skillful page somehow managed to pocket a peach from under the Door Gods' gazes, as it happened on average once every Cosmic Cycle, the banquet hall's formations would resonate with the peaches, and produce a blue glow around the guilty page.
Three peaches shot out from Harun's Cosmic Pouch, landing in his hands. Immediately, all eyes fell on him. For a brief moment, most eyed him with confusion. Then they adjusted to nail him with contemptuous stares. Balancing the Golden Crow Ancestor's suppression with this god-given opportunity to lash out, many officials had already stood up, eager to enforce justice on behalf of heaven. Others, however, had seen through the ploy, and stood ready to fight for benefits.
Suffocating auras ranging from the late-stages of the Ascending God to the early-stages Empyrean Monarch Realm locked Harun from all corners. If those deities weren't restraining their pressure to give themselves a chance to abuse him, he would have directly burst into blood and gore.
Now from pages to fairies, all remained as far away from Harun as possible. As expected, those hoes weren't loyal.
"This Peach Banquet is getting more interesting by the second. Your Divine Majesty's Door Gods must have been slacking off that a mere fourth-level Celestial Kin can steal three peaches from under their nose. Or maybe he received some assistance?"
Rajan, the Fourth Celestial Marquis said. Harun and the officials' eyes darted toward Dilnaz, who calmly sipped the wine poured for her. At her right, the second prince sneered. Right now, the God Empress only had to say that she personally granted those peaches to Harun, and she could save his life.
Throughout the vast heavens, only she had that authority. But once those words left her lips, Rajan would forcefully reveal Harun's Double Pupils, and impeach the God Empress. Unfortunately, Rajan misunderstood the God Empress' wishes.
"A trivial Celestial Kin can indeed not achieve such a thing without some help. But for one who cultivates the Dao of Gluttony, snatching Heaven's delicacies undetected is not unfeasible. Or perhaps a mighty God cleft open space to steal and put the peaches in his pouch? In any case, regardless of extra details, his guilt is evident to all. The death sentence is the least penalty. Gouge out his eyes, cut off his hands and scatter his soul," Dilnaz calmly said, startling Rajan who'd not expected her to adopt such a stance.
Knowing that Agiri's death approached, Dilnaz dispatched avatars to the various Heavens to determine their loyalties and bring non-imperial talents under her banner. Rajan had a similar attitude. Both witnessed Harun's ascension to the Fourth Heaven, and sensed what others couldn't: his Double Pupils.
Immediately, the God Empress' avatar attempted to capture him, but was foiled by Rajan who didn't hesitate to alert some Monarch-level elders of his clan. With her true body under Agiri's gaze, Dilnaz could only maintain a stalemate.
Thus, in the shadows of the Fourth Heaven, Dilnaz's avatars and agents clashed with the Golden Crow clan to prevent Harun from falling into their hands. But now that Agiri perished, it was time to end the joust. Or so Rajan thought. But he didn't expect Dilnaz to directly give up on this one in a million years treasure. Perhaps from the beginning, unlike him she never wanted the ownership of the Double Pupils. But how could it be?
"Wise decision, Your Majesty. Such a scornful individual deserves to be damned. If allowed to grow, he can only bring disasters. We should make his punishment an example for all to see. Let all know that even in this interregnum, there are laws to abide to," the Imperial Chancellor declared, backing his words with his Empyrean Monarch cultivation.
By now, those peak-level Heavenly Gods and Empyrean Monarchs had sobered up, sensing the mysterious energy that none below their level could spot.
"I must disagree with you, Imperial Chancellor. This is still not enough. Only the maximum sentence fits this crime. We of the Divine Censorate advocate that all clans jointly activate the Immortal Reaving Formation, and strip this vile creature of all he received from Heaven." The Grand Preceptor rose and chimed in.
The Immortal Reaving Formation was reserved for the most treacherous of officials, those that rebelled against a God Emperor's rule and threatened the stability of the 33 Heavens. Whoever suffered its blade would be stripped of all powers and inborn abilities. The Formation then refined the absorbed force into cultivation pills.
Created by the Ancient Roc, Phoenix and Dragon clans during the Immemorial Era to retaliate against the Serpent Emperor's subordinates, the Formation's activation needed their lines' purest blood. The God Emperors would therefore reward them with a good portion of the pills.
Since the Serpent Emperor's defeat, one hand was enough to count how often it'd been used. How was a petty thief deserving of such a treatment?
Many realized that something was off. Despite their words, the Imperial Chancellor, Grand Preceptor and God Empress clearly spoke on the same tune—as if they'd rehearsed all this beforehand.
Some Ascending Gods could even see their seniors' lips curve into expectant smiles. Knowing he'd outsmarted himself, Rajan clenched his fists.
He couldn't allow Harun's essence to be refined by the empress' lap dogs. Otherwise, in the race for the crown, his Golden Crow clan would get the short end of the stick.
But as Rajan prepared to interject…
Biting sounds drew the celestials' attention, and from Dilnaz to Rajan, all turned to see Harun gnawing in the three peaches.
"Mmmhm! Oh my god this is so good! Damn it, such good stuff makes a man regret not being born early," Harun said while savoring his peaches. Dumbfounded, all just stared at him, mouths ajar, and eyes wide open. By the time Harun finished his peaches, he reached for the God Empress' wine jug, and chugged it in one go.