Frostmoon City was a prosperous place and its urban sprawl enormous. Liu Zhen's meeting place was discrete. It took quite a while for Jiang Chen and the group to find out where it was. On the outside, it looked like a small, run-down tavern. The district it was located in was one of the most chaotic in the city. It took great effort for the young man and the emperor to find where the tavern was located. Its dilapidated appearance prompted the latter to voice his concern.
"Do we have the wrong place, little brother?"
Jiang Chen was a bit suspicious of the establishment as well. He scrutinized it closely before concluding with a half-hearted laugh, "I think it's right. The address that Liu Zhen gave me matches perfectly."
"Well, never mind then. Let's take a look inside." Emperor Peerless gave a big flourish with his hand. He was at ease regardless of where they were headed. He was in a great mood, the best he'd had in years. Ever since Ah Yun's injury all those years ago, the emperor had brought her everywhere in search of doctors and treatment. From that point on, he'd devoted all of his thoughts to the treatment of his dao partner's condition. It had been difficult to maintain any sort of cheer.
Jiang Chen's appearance also came with the Pinecrane Pill. The pill had improved Madame Yun's condition and kept the amount of suffering she experienced strictly under control. Furthermore, it repaired to varying degrees many of her vital functions. Most importantly was the newfound knowledge that his partner had a ninety-percent chance of making a full recovery.
For Emperor Peerless, it was a miracle. He had spent many, many years scouring the entirety of the human domain. He had visited countless pill kings and numerous hermit pill emperors. But the only repayment for his efforts had been disappointment; more and more and more of it, until he was overflowing with despair.
In that hour of need, Jiang Chen's appearance was his lamp in the darkness. How could he not feel galvanized? It was natural for him to be in a good mood now. He was willing to go anywhere now, no matter how dirty or derelict the place. Physical, environmental conditions were the furthest thing from his mind.
If it had been for Liu Zhen's sake alone, Emperor Peerless would not have come here. The emperor had little interest in actual sky rank spirit herbs, much less the possibility of them. But he knew that Jiang Chen needed Radiant Celestial Grass. The young man had been willing to bid four hundred million on it. That sum represented its importance for him. Because Jiang Chen put so much value on the Grass, the emperor was willing to help.
Though it appeared unassuming from the outside, the tavern's interior was reasonably decorated. However, it was also obvious that those who drank here were of dubious, mixed origin. Among its patrons, there were wandering cultivators, local snakes, and passer-by merchants. Seeing a man as magnificent as Emperor Peerless walk in, one of the tavern's staff keenly came forward to receive the company. "Honored guests, please, come in."
Of the four people in Jiang Chen's group, none were ordinary enough to lose in a crowd. The waiter marveled silently at the sight. In all the years of the tavern's operation, never had people like these come to their premises. What day was it today? What kind of wind had blown these great men and women here?
The quartet found a table in an inconspicuous spot. After ordering a casual selection of food and drinks, they quietly partook of the refreshments. As time passed, the appointed hour came and went; yet Liu Zhen did not appear.
"He didn't trick us, did he?" Long Xiaoxuan furrowed his brow.
"He seemed on the shrewd side, but I don't think he's a malicious sort," Emperor Peerless laughed. "Let's keep on waiting."
Madame Yun had heard from her partner about the eventual destination of the excursion, and nodded to back him up. "Yes, let's have some patience."
"I wonder how much more of it I'll need, exactly." The dragon in human form twisted his mouth.
The better part of an hour went by, but short man Liu Zhen was still nowhere to be found.
Even Jiang Chen couldn't wait much longer. He glanced towards the emperor. "Seems like that guy isn't coming, Old Brother Mo."
Emperor Peerless sighed. "I didn't expect an origin realm cultivator to trick us."
"Maybe it wasn't intentional. Did he encounter something unexpected, perhaps?" Madame Yun was ever the kindly sort, always thinking on the bright side of things and people.
"Still… I think we're done here." Jiang Chen made the final call. As they were about to get up and leave, a silhouette appeared in the doorway. It darted inside like a gust of wind, rushing towards Jiang Chen with a burst of joy.
"Young master Shao, save me!" It was a breathless man, terror evident on his face-Liu Zhen.
In the next instant after his entrance, several other burly men flooded into the tavern. Dressed uniformly in black, they carried the same insignia on their shoulders. It was clearly the sign of some gang or another.
"You bastard, let's see where you're running to this time!" Their leader was a man with a flat nose. He looked at Liu Zhen with a vicious grin, the very image of a cat playing with its prey. It was a gesture full of derision.
"What does he mean?" Jiang Chen looked, frowning, at the very same man.
"Y-young master Shao," Liu Zhen gasped for air, still in a panicked fright. "I've been laying low the past couple days, but someone found me out in the end. Please, help me out here! I'll double what I promised earlier."
Double? The agreement prior had been that if Jiang Chen solved his problems in Frostmoon City, then he would give Jiang Chen a specimen of Radiant Celestial Grass. Did doubling it mean that he was going to give two instead?
"Are you sure?" Jiang Chen smiled in a strange and sudden fashion.
"Of course I am," Liu Zhen answered hurriedly. "Heaven and earth judge me if I renege."
Jiang Chen nodded, then turned to Long Xiaoxuan. "Brother Long, didn't you say that you were bored a few minutes ago? Your time is now. Remember, don't be too cruel to them. In fact, don't smash up this tavern either. Let's take things outside."
The dragon's eyes lit up. "What do you mean, 'don't be too cruel'?"
"As long as they don't die, it's fine." Jiang Chen waved a hand, signaling that the dragon should rely on his own judgment.
Long Xiaoxuan was very eager indeed, chuckling profusely. His boredom was gone, instantly replaced with impatience and fervor. Slamming a hand on the nearby table, he walked towards the men who were after Liu Zhen.
The hubbub tipped the tavern's owner off to the ensuing chaos. He made several cursory motions with his hands. "Friends, friends, please give this old man some consideration. Any disagreements can be settled outside, where there's plenty more room. We're a small business!"
Long Xiaoxuan did not dignify those words with a response. Instead, his hand blitzed towards the men. One by one, he tossed them outside, grabbing them with only a single hand each time. The five men were launched outside with remarkable accuracy and speed. Everything happened in the span of a breath.
"C'mon, buds, let's go outside for some fun." Long Xiaoxuan chuckled. He picked up the flat-nosed man by the nape of his neck. "I have to thank you guys for alleviating my boredom. I really appreciate your cooperation."
Jiang Chen paid no mind to the commotion outside. Instead, he fixed his eyes directly on Liu Zhen, his expression locked in an unamused half-smile. "You know that we waited for you more than an hour, yes? Are you trying to put us up?"
Liu Zhen's neck retracted. "No, no!" he vehemently denied. "How could I dream of putting you fine gentlemen up to anything? It's because of my own weakness, really. Despite how careful I've been, I've still attracted a bunch of unwanted attention. I would've never gotten here without noticing it quickly."
With a leisurely upward push, Emperor Peerless erected a soundproof barrier. "Alright, the outside won't hear us speak here. Tell us, what do you need help with? Don't forget your promise of a doubled reward."
"Absolutely not, absolutely not," Liu Zhen nodded a few times in succession. "Here, take what's rightfully yours. It's only fair after you helped me out back there."
Liu Zhen astutely handed over another jade box. It was a simple one, the basic type commonly used to hold spirit herbs of all kinds. Jiang Chen opened the lid a sliver. Another specimen of Radiant Celestial Grass lay inside, larger than both the one at the auction and the one from taking Liu Zhen away from Pillfire City. This was the third one that the origin realm cultivator had given out.
This made the young man quite curious. "Liu Zhen, how many shoots of Radiant Celestial Grass do you have? Why do I feel that you have an inexhaustible amount of them? Were you so lucky to find a whole patch of them?"
Liu Zhen looked rather embarrassed. He gave a flustered smile, but refrained from answering the question directly. "Kind sirs, I have a friend who's fallen into the hands of the number one underground faction in this here Frostmoon City. They gave me half a year to save him by paying them off. But you know, someone like me… even if I had the money, I doubt I'd get anything I wanted by going anywhere near them. That's where I need you sirs' help. I would really appreciate if you could… accompany me when I go to deliver the ransom."
"The Heavensfall Society?" Emperor Peerless interjected suddenly.
Liu Zhen nodded several times. "Right, right. As expected of a world-wise great emperor, sir."
"What cultivation level is your friend, hmm? How did he earn the Heavensfall Society's ire?" The emperor found it a little odd. "They usually don't concern themselves with people like you, no?"
Liu Zhen exhaled with some exasperation. "It's a long story. I first made the acquaintance of that friend a few years back. Like me, he is a wandering cultivator. We really hit it off back then, and we've saved each other's hides a few times, so he's practically a brother. He hadn't wanted to offend the Heavensfall Society, obviously. He'd gone to them to list a bounty for information. But for whatever reason, they detained him then and there. It was only three days later that I got the news to bring five hundred million saint spirit stones as ransom for him to the Society's headquarters."
"That's why you went to Pillfire City to auction off the spirit herb?" Jiang Chen asked.
"Pillfire City is dangerous as well, but it's at least somewhat more principled compared to Frostmoon. In Frostmoon City, each faction is as black-hearted as the next. If I were to auction Radiant Celestial Grass on Three River Street, I might not even get to leave in one piece, much less get the money from the sale."
Liu Zhen's face was contorted in a ghastly smile. "If not for my friend's sake, I wouldn't stay a day longer in a place as awful as Frostmoon City."
The man's impression of the city was undoubtedly horrendous. However, origin realm cultivators were middle-lower class existences anywhere in the Upper Eight Regions. In a place where neither the authorities nor the gangsters had scruples to speak of, they had no security whatsoever.
"So, did you get your hands on the five hundred million?" Jiang Chen inquired.
Despair flashed across Liu Zhen's face. "I only have the four hundred million you bid at the auction, young master Shao, minus the fees taken away by the Temple of Cleansing Fire. I was thinking maybe they'd be alright with another specimen of Radiant Celestial Grass to make up the difference."
Jiang Chen didn't know what to say. If the spirit herb reached four hundred million at the auction-house, why was he using another to substitute for only one hundred million? Wasn't that a huge waste? Did he have more Radiant Celestial Grass than sense?
"Liu Zhen, I'd like to hear the truth from you. How many specimens of Radiant Celestial Grass do you really have? I'll happily buy you out at a hundred fifty million per shoot."
The young man kept his gaze honest, as free of desperation as he could muster. As an origin realm cultivator, Liu Zhen was right to be a bit oversensitive. If he showed too much urgency, the other man would likely second-guess his intentions. He didn't want Liu Zhen to lie because of unnecessary misgivings.