In the wandering cultivator world, the Jiao brothers of Mt. Huai had a certain degree of prestige. They weren't as famous as the six titans, but they still wouldn't have come at Emperor Pillzenith's beck and call if he didn't have dirt on them. Moreover, the emperor had told them that the task wouldn't be difficult. They just had to listen to Emperor Shura's orders and kill Veluriyam Capital's young lord.
As long as they could pull that off, the debt they owed to Emperor Pillzenith would be cancelled out. That was why the Jiao brothers had agreed to help Pillfire City in the first place. The only reason, honestly.
They'd analyzed the situation before coming to Veluriyam, arriving at the conclusion that the job actually wasn't hard. After all, the young lord was only an emperor realm genius. So what if he had an expert like Mo Wushuang by his side? Could the five of them not deal with one measly young lord?
Therefore, the Jiao brothers hadn't expected anything life-threatening on the trip. Even if they couldn't kill young lord Zhen, they should've had no problem making a tactical retreat. They hadn't expected such a drastic change in the situation.
They couldn't even control their own lives anymore! This was truly an astonishing turn for the worse. From what Emperor Inferno was saying, if young lord Zhen didn't forgive them, it was a very real possibility that their peers would cut them down where they stood. After all, they were peers in name only. Each man fended for himself.
"Daoist Inferno, you'll be the laughingstock of the wandering cultivator world if you kill us here. We are fellow wanderers. How can we squabble among ourselves? Wouldn't such a thing be ridiculed by everyone?" The elder brother, Jiao Yun, protested loudly.
"That's right. We've admitted defeat already. Daoist Inferno, Daoist Reliance, are you really going to stamp us out?" The younger brother, Jiao Feng, sounded just as resentful as his brother.
Jiang Chen had been observing the proceedings all this time, and snickered when he heard what the Jiao brothers were trying to pull. "The Jiao brothers of Mt. Huai, hmm? Your reputation precedes you. Are you a pair of death-fearing cowards?"
The brothers knew the speaker was young lord Zhen. Though they were inwardly furious, they didn't dare to lash out. Their lives were in the young man's grasp, after all.
Veluriyam Capital's young lord didn't wait for a response before continuing. "You call yourselves fellow wanderers. Are you saying that your opinion of the two emperors here has decreased after you've seen them help me?
"Why don't you think about what you were doing by coming here in the first place? Who sent you? Do you think it's more honorable to attack Veluriyam Capital at his orders? What, is Emperor Inferno and the others not allowed to make a deal to assist my defense?"
Jiang Chen taunted the brothers with cold scorn. He could see that the Jiao brothers were trying to use the wandering cultivator community's loyalty and justice as a tool. The brothers wanted to use something for the common good selfishly to save their own lives. However, they'd forgotten that Emperor Inferno and company were here to assist him with self-defense. There was no shame in that whatsoever anywhere.
Countless experts in the wandering cultivator world were hired for precisely such a task. This was a perfectly ordinary occurrence by any stretch of the imagination. But the Jiao brothers had been hired to mount an open assault on another faction. That was something entirely different. One was premeditated murder, the other was justified self-defense.
When judged, the former were naturally the unreasonable party. Therefore, Jiang Chen was obliged to jump out with criticism when he heard what the Jiao brothers were attempting to do.
Emperor Inferno nodded at Jiang Chen's words. "Jiao Yun, Jiao Feng. You are wandering cultivator experts, and yet you attacked Veluriyam Capital on behalf of another. What right do you have to tell us what's right and wrong?"
The Jiao brothers sweated in embarrassment. They had no ground to stand on when a more serious, logical approach was taken. Why would one bother to reason with dogs who had aggressively bitten them?
The brothers were both quite distressed. Jiao Yun was the first one to express contrition. "Never mind, then. I suppose there are worse ends than dying at the hands of one's fellow wandering cultivators. Do your worst."
Emperor Inferno gazed thoughtfully at Jiang Chen. "Young lord Zhen, the Jiao brothers of Mt. Huai aren't usually bastardly scum. We fight for separate masters in this battle, but I must ask for mercy on their behalf."
The other great emperor participants were displeased by Emperor Inferno's intervention.
"Daoist Inferno, you couldn't possibly be pleading for their lives? If you do, then how will we get our Pinecrane Pills?"
"Isn't that right? Now's not the time for unnecessary compassion, Daoist Inferno."
"Daoist Inferno, I thought you were a decisive man. Are you going to give up now for such a trivial reason?" Even Emperor Reliance's eyes glittered. She was considering the merit of her peer's suggestion rather than accepting it outright.
The wandering cultivators present were all acting for the sake of their own Pinecrane Pill. They didn't bear much actual loyalty to young lord Zhen. Not killing the brothers of Mt. Huai was insufficient fulfillment of their promises. If they didn't use their full strength, then young lord Zhen had the right to renege. If he did, then today would've been a big waste of time.
That went against the reason they had agreed to come in the first place. Even a man as influential as Emperor Inferno couldn't make the decision in their stead. Unless… young lord Zhen also agreed to show the brothers mercy.
The Jiao brothers finally understood what was going on. The other great emperors' murderous gazes made their scalps sting. The others in attendance alone were enough to overwhelm them.
"Young lord Zhen…" Emperor Inferno wanted to keep trying.
"I know what you want to say, Emperor Inferno," Jiang Chen smiled faintly. "They were only working for someone else, so there's no point shooting the messenger. But if I don't, will my Pinecrane Pill really be worth the effort you've expended so far? A deal can't be unequal."
The young lord's words made a lot of sense. There was no room for Emperor Inferno to criticize him. Even the emperor himself thought that it was unreasonable to expect Jiang Chen to pay for only what they'd done so far. No man could accept releasing a bunch of ruffians who had come to his doorstep. Emperor Inferno had no right to force Jiang Chen to do that.
"Ah, let's wait until Old Brother Hui finishes his fight and have him arbitrate." He deferred to await further input.
Jiang Chen presented a slight smile in the meantime. "The Jiao brothers, correct? I'd like to know what Emperor Pillzenith was able to give you to get two wandering cultivator seniors to fight for him willingly? Why did you risk your lives in coming here for?"
The youth was quite curious about this. If Emperor Pillzenith had extensive control over the wandering cultivator world, then he was a terrifying opponent indeed.
Jiao Yun sighed with exasperation. "There's no point relating the entire story. It would only bring us further shame. What can we do? We owe him a favor. Kill us if you wish, young lord Zhen. We are in your hands."
Though the Jiao brothers showed occasional trickery, they had a few shreds of dignity. They would never kneel and beg for their lives. However, what Jiang Chen had just heard was material proof that Emperor Pillzenith was involved.
Jiang Chen nodded slightly, his tone serious. "Jiao brothers, Emperor Pillzenith hired you for this job. Similarly, I hired Emperor Inferno and the others for one job only. If I don't kill you, I'll be at a loss. Therefore, I have a suggestion that nets us both a gain in the end. Whether you accept it is entirely up to you. Just like my deal with the other wandering cultivators, I don't wish to compel you either way."
The lifeline that the young lord had thrown astonished the brothers. Their heads perked up, their minds piqued.
Emperor Inferno blinked, glancing at Jiang Chen with bewilderment. Emperor Reliance, on the other hand, carried a sweet smile on her visage. Judging from her ponderous expression, she seemed to have guessed what was going to happen next.
"It's very simple. Veluriyam Capital has a lot of things that need to be done, and quickly. If you are willing to join Sacred Peafowl Mountain, you'll not only live today, but also become esteemed guest elders of our faction."
Jiang Chen said this very matter-of-factly, but the content shocked every wandering cultivator present. Young lord Zhen was recruiting the Jiao brothers for Veluriyam Capital?
A strange scene, indeed. The other wandering great emperors were a bit dumbfounded. How had it come to this point so suddenly and unexpectedly? Hadn't they been fighting just moments earlier?
They were wandering cultivator experts helping Veluriyam Capital to rope in a few of their fellows. No matter how one looked at it, that kind of situation was exceedingly odd. But further consideration revealed that it made a lot more sense than one would expect.
Since the Jiao brothers' lives were in young lord Zhen's hands, wasn't it very appropriate that he would ask them to join up instead of killing them? The young man himself said that they desperately needed talent.
The proposition came as a surprise to the Jiao brothers as well.
"At the end of the day, it's your choice," Jiang Chen said coolly. "I never force anyone to do anything. The fruits of such labor are rarely sweet."
The brothers exchanged several meaningful looks, clearly communicating with each other. They'd been caught in a deathtrap. Either they died here and now or they joined up. There was no third choice.
Death ended all things.
Joining up would elevate them to becoming esteemed guest elders of Sacred Peafowl Mountain. There was nothing intrinsically wrong with that. Perhaps it was a bit embarrassing from a self dignity point of view since wandering cultivator experts generally prided themselves on their aloofness. They never fawned over authority, nor did they bow to the prominent.
They were sure to receive disdain from the wandering cultivator world if they suddenly attached themselves to Sacred Peafowl Mountain. Even a giant like Mo Wushuang who'd done so to repay a kindness had endured a similar, albeit reduced, reaction.
Their reputation wasn't as strong as Mo Wushuang's, so there was no reason to expect any better. But what was a reputational hit compared to death itself?
Moreover, there was nothing to lose and everything to gain by joining Sacred Peafowl Mountain. Young lord Zhen's current ability and magnanimity showed that he was quite possibly capable of greater heights than Emperor Peafowl. It wasn't a bad choice when one thought about it.
If they had to enslave themselves to Sacred Peafowl Mountain, they would've never accepted that condition. But if they could exist on the same level as Mo Wushuang, that in itself was somewhat reputable. By this point, the Jiao brothers had made their choice.