Han De chose the dungeon because it was the easiest way to appear uncooperative. The normal procedure for something like this was quite tedious. The location of the negotiation, the time delay before it started, the service provided to the guests during their stay, all had different cultural meanings. Obviously, Han De had no patience for all of that. He wanted this to be over in 10 minutes, not in 10 days.
Han De’s group passed numerous dark corridors and finally arrived at the large cavern-like opening. The snake-like dragon was still in his true form at the back, and the fox was at the left side of the cave. Due to Han De’s previous assignments, apart from the jailed, the dungeon was empty.
The fox didn’t have a cultivation base and even if he had one, the powerful seals on the ground would restrict him anyway. However, he was a fox, and his sense of smell was superb in his true form. Hence he was the first one to notice the group a few minutes ago. The scent he detected made his skin crawl. A primal instinct was awoken inside of him, warning him of the danger ahead. As the group got closer, the scent got stronger. A sense of wrongness overwhelmed him.
The snake-like dragon had a powerful body. He was a true dragon in every sense of the word. He first detected the group through the disturbances in the air. Then, came the scent. A foul scent that was evoking emotions of disharmony and oppression inside him.
Neither the fox nor the dragon could make a peep as Han De and his group arrived at the center of the large cavern. Under the wary attention of both, they sat on chairs that Han De specifically ordered Merry and Pippin to bring.
Ning Bi was already familiar with the two. She looked at them in satisfaction after noticing their behavior. Yao Qing and Jin Shu though, had no idea who they were and why they were here. The dragon and the fox couldn’t even look at the direction of their master. While their master completely ignored their presence as if they were insignificant insects.
* * *
The fox tribe representatives came to the Starfall Mountain to negotiate the release of their prince and his servant. From outside, these fox demons didn’t seem to put much stock in their family or their tribe. But the reality was the opposite. They were elusive for others, but fiercely loyal to their own. This little misconception served them well over the years. Naturally, they wouldn't do anything to correct it.
Although they called him a prince, the title itself didn’t have any value. Foxes were a meritocratic tribe. Calling someone a prince or princess was purely out of tradition. If these princesses or princesses wanted power, they would have to work for it themselves.
Currently, the matriarch of the tribe and the five other representatives were entering a dungeon being led by Han De's people. They were surprised when their request was immediately accepted instead of a weeklong delay. They were even more surprised when they heard that the location was inside the abode of Han De.
The representatives that nodded to each other with knowing smiles 10 minutes ago now had deep frowns in their faces when they realized the venue was inside a dungeon. Despite that, the matriarch herself wasn't objecting to any of it. They knew their place and swallowed their frustrations for now.
However, as they entered the dungeon, the fox tribe representatives got tenser. A faint sense of danger came out of nowhere and caused them to pause their steps. The air inside the dungeon had a touch of wrongness in it. They looked at each other, then shook their heads and followed their matriarch, who had walked in without hesitating.
The Starfall Mountain elders behind them were puzzled. They were carrying the 'gifts' of the fox tribe. They narrowed their eyes and followed Elder De's people along with the fox tribe representatives.
This was all within the matriarch, Mao Tao's expectations. She had listened to her daughter's story about Han De's character. Under normal circumstances, Mao Tao would be glad for a situation like this.
Choosing a dungeon as the location for discussions was an insult, but it was also a telltale sign of short negotiations. The other party had already come to a conclusion and just wanted to accept whatever offer they would get while preserving their face at the same time. A simple-minded solution that could only come from the unsophisticated.
Mao Tao didn't even consider the possibility. The underlying purpose was clearly something else.
'Does he want the cooperation of the fox tribe?'
She knew about the strange movements of the Brass Stallion city and Tan Renshu. She also knew about the close relationship between the Starfall Mountain and Brass Stallion.
The sense of wrongness that she was ignoring grew as they got further into the dungeon. Concentrating on something else became harder as her instincts were warning her of danger.
Finally, they reached an opening and saw them. She ignored the two young girls and the young woman. She ignored the Nascent Soul and the Immortal Realm experts behind them. She ignored her idiot son and his servant. Her entire being was forcing her to focus on the expressionless young man sitting in a chair.
That young man was Han De, the heir of the Starfall Mountain and the Han family. Mao Tao and the representatives of the fox tribe behind her had stopped. A few of them secretly gulped. While they were calculating their chances of escape, Mao Tao moved forward and sat on the single empty chair facing Han De.
'This scent, this sense of wrongness, where is it coming from? It almost feels sacrilegious.'
Mao Tao's mind was working on overdrive. A part of her was in deep thought on what Han De represented, and the other part was going through the probable scenarios regarding the negotiations.
The fox tribe representatives took their place behind Mao Tao, and the Starfall Mountain elders with the 'gifts' were at the side, between Han De and them.
For a while, no one talked. Mao Tao wanted to observe the situation, but the pressure she felt from Han De wasn't dissipating in the least. She broke the silence first.
"Elder Han De of the Starfall Mountain sect, and the Han family. On behalf of my foolish son and his foolish servant, please allow me to apologize. The Fox tribe always had a peaceful relationship with the Starfall Mountain. We naturally wish to protect that relationship and came with gifts to prove our sincerity."
Mao Tao pointed towards the 24 sealed experts that were harmlessly floating on the side. These were the experts of the Silent Silhouette Sect. The conflict between them and the Starfall Mountain inside the Brass Stallion didn't escape the notice of the foxes. These high cultivation elders from the Silent Silhouette were their preliminary offer.
Han De glanced at the sealed elders, then ignored them and continued staring at Mao Tao.
All of the fox tribe representatives were on edge. One of them, in particular, was finding it difficult to restrain his emotions. He was a genius of his generation, the tribe valued him greatly, and his cultivation was high. In this life, he rarely felt fear. Concern, anxiety, nervousness sure. But not fear. Not like the one he was feeling right now.
He should've been an expert in control of his emotions, but his mind was too chaotic. In his desire to regain self-control he blurted out his thoughts before Mao Tao could restrain him.
"We ask that you release Mao Ju and his servant, and return the spiritual herb Crimson Terror in exchange for these Silent Silhouette elders."
Silence ensued. Mao Tao immediately felt regret. Her lack of focus caused her to miss the obvious. She instructed her subordinates to stay silent through voice transmission, but it was already too late. In front of her, Han De looked at the expert with furrowed brows, but he turned his attention to Mao Tao once again after a moment.
"Elder Han De, I will personally severely punish him for this incident. His words do not represent the tribe. We only wish for an opportunity to negotiate a separate deal for the spiritual herb since it is a crucial factor in restoring my son's cultivation base."
Han De raised one eyebrow and spoke for the first time.
"Crucial factor... Red Chrysanthemum and its cousin Fire Chrysanthemum require a rich Fire Qi environment to grow. They cannot grow with Qi gathered by a formation either. The impurities in the Fire Qi they collect becomes nutrition for their base. After all, it is a spiritual herb, not an elemental rock. The correct ratio of Earth Qi and the Fire Qi inside the soil depends on many factors."
Han De paused for a moment. From his expression, Mao Tao could tell he was deeply annoyed.
"A mutant Fire Chrysanthemum is still a Fire Chrysanthemum. When I stumbled upon the herb, it was inside a damp, dark cavern, surrounded by a Qi gathering formation. It was a miracle it could stay alive in that environment, let alone fully bloom."
Han De continued with a strange glow in his eyes.
"That location was directly in the middle of the route between the Starfall Mountain sect and the Brass Stallion city. I wonder... Of the people that the Crimson Terror absorbed, how many of it came from my sect?"
Mao Tao already expected Han De to know about the properties of the herb. He was the son of Han Wei and Long Xiu, of course he would look into the matter. She was also confident that they would be able to reach a deal even if hundreds of disciples were fed to the flower. Her daughter's assessment of Han De also supported her conclusion.
'Perhaps it was a mistake coming here. He seems genuinely furious. No, this must be a precursor to something. But wha-...'
'Of course... Why else would he release my daughter first, why else would he choose the dungeon, why else would he mention the disciples? They are about to move out.'
As an old Transcendent Realm master, it was impossible for Mao Tao to not know about the spiritual energy decline. As the matriarch of the fox tribe, it was impossible for her to not receive intelligence about the recent strangeness of the weak points. This effort that Han De was going through couldn't be just for simple extortion or revenge. Not even a child would believe that.
'Something must've happened. My daughter's release coincides with the events of the weak points. The timing cannot be accidental. Their senior sect elders seem to be busy with something as well.'
As Mao Tao was trying to analyze the situation, silence reigned inside the dungeon. Han De did not even look at anyone other than Mao Tao, but the fox tribe representatives still felt enormous pressure after his words. Their instincts were screaming at them. This tyrant was going to be the end of the tribe.
If anyone paid any attention to the youngest girl in the dungeon, they would've seen her clenching her fists. But no one did. Everyone was too focused on Han De.
Mao Tao realized she didn't have enough information. Everything went in an unexpected direction. She wanted to take her son and leave, but she knew that was impossible at this point. Still, even if it was futile, she had to try.
"Elder Han De, my worthless son has made mistakes. My fox tribe will do everything it can to compensate you and the Starfall Mountain sect and will take full responsibility. I hope we can continue our harmonious relationship in the future."
Her son may act like an idiot at times, but he still would know better than to lure Starfall Mountain disciples en masse. She just wanted to leave the discussions open since it was obvious that an agreement couldn't be reached anytime soon.
Han De narrowed his eyes and looked at her for a while before answering.
"Hope is the first step on the road to disappointment."
"Do you really think a few dogs of the Silent Silhouette means anything to me when I can charge into the Red Stone Basin anytime I wanted? Do you really think a few trinkets are enough to forgive the sins of your offspring?"
No one could breathe. Han De’s expressionless face and dead eyes seemed to imprison the fox tribe representatives. They felt they had to do something, but the fear was too overwhelming. This man, this tyrant, this devil, seemed hell bent on revenge. Han De slowly continued.
"Fortunately Miss Tao, I am not ready to start a hunt. Today."
"You will leave whatever it is you brought here to buy the life of your kin. I will show you magnanimity this once and release them. In the future, make your choices carefully."
Han De and his people stood up. He gave instructions to his people to handle the rest and left along with his disciples.
Even after he left, Mao Tao felt that the pressure still lingered in the air. She carefully examined what had transpired.
'Him releasing the prisoners was showing goodwill. Rejecting the current balance was the threat. He really wants us to submit.'
She wasn't the only one that came to that conclusion. Behind her, all of the representatives had unsightly faces. The thought of submitting was an insult at best. But submitting to him? Submitting to that... abomination?
They did not know why they felt a strong repulsion and fear toward Han De. It was coming somewhere deep inside them. Warning them. Mao Tao felt it too, but she also felt the unspoken implications behind Han De's words and actions.
* * *
In his favorite courtyard inside his abode, Han De breathed out a sigh of relief. Throughout the entire ordeal, the way they stared at him made him inexplicably nervous. Especially that Mao-whatever woman, she just kept staring at his eyes.
'I should name this one Arrogant Profound Expert. A good balance between Arrogant Young Master and Profound Expert. The strengths of both and the weaknesses of neither!'
The negotiations satisfied Han De in the end. He got the goods, the elders were a nice bonus. He acted within his character while still taking a step toward his Hidden Expert dream.
It would've been better if he could determine if his bloodline had any effect on them, but he didn't expect much to begin with. Those were old foxes, even if his bloodline did have an effect, he was sure they wouldn’t show it.
'Maybe I should get some spiritual beasts and do some experiments on them. I suppose I could hire some intelligent spiritual beasts and do covert experiments too.'
Han De made a mental note to follow this through once he got back to the sect from the northern continent voyage. His bloodline was considered 'Extremely Powerful' by the system. He needed to make an accurate assessment of its abilities.
His spiritual sense detected eight servants walking towards his abode. They were all carrying something too. Han De realized they were carrying ornate trays that were thick with spiritual energy. He raised an eyebrow, but then he remembered the trembling woman.
'... Is she really an immortal chef? I thought that was just something mother made up? Wait, wouldn't she poison the food in a case like this?'