Silence consumed the dark, damp cave.
Every gaze rested upon Ling Xian. Everyone waited for him to speak.
"First, I am very touched that you are all willing to fight with me and die with me. I haven't done anything extraordinary, but I'm honored," Ling Xian's toned suddenly turned serious, "But, to speak frankly, if we stuck together, perhaps none of us would leave here alive. However, on my own, I have a better chance at escaping while you won't be targeted."
The silence continued.
Thinking it over carefully, the crowd must admit that Ling Xian had a point.
The members of the Ling Clan present were all relatively young, an age of impulse. They were keen on shouldering the burdens with Ling Xian and diffusing some of the risks they all faced. But in the process, they had failed to consider their own strength or lack of it.
Ling Xian's strength could not be questioned.
However, their strengths were so lacking in comparison that they couldn't even defeat the Fangs. They were doomed if confronted with hundreds and thousands of powerful, magical beasts.
Chances were better that they would be chewed up and spat out in pieces before a battle even began. Perhaps hurtful, but the true was often hurtful.
If Ling Xian were traveling with them when they were attacked, Ling Xian would not only have to fight his battles but also protect his comrades. Of course, comrade would be a polite term in this scenario. More realistically speaking, they would all be a burden to him.
Digesting Ling Xian's recommendation, the crowd finally understood the implications, thus sighing in unison. Color had drained from many of the faces, not because they were hurt by Ling Xian's bluntness, but rather ashamed that they were too weak to help him.
"Do not fear, believe me, I will walk out of the Hidden Territory alive. Then, I'll treat all of you to a nice meal and bottomless wine." Ling Xian smiled, radiating confidence.
But to the rest, this confidence had been mistaken for a sad, hopeless submission to fate.
The legend of a hero was usually written with the sadness that echoed his fate, blood that he left behind, a smile that masked loneliness, and comforting words that became his last.
[Look at Ling Xian, evidently afraid that we'd all die because of him, but purposely drives us away to protect us while sacrificing himself. He would become bait, luring the beasts away from us. What a heroic deed, what an admirable spirit.]
Two youths who were drunk on emotions silently said to themselves, "Farewell, my hero!"
If Ling Xian had known this, he'd be infuriated of course. Are you cursing me to die? Oh no, I have no intention to die.
"But…" Ling Tian Xiang began to speak but paused.
"Not buts," Ling Zhan stopped her at once, then continued his stern lecture, "Aunty, if you care about him, then let him go. This is the best option for us. We are too weak. We will become a burden for him. If the beasts found us all together, we would all die."
"Ah…" Ling Tian Xiang let out a long, hopeless sigh. She had a brilliant mind and keen senses, of course, she understood.
It was the mixed emotions she was feeling, the fear of letting go of him. But regardless, this was the best and only option for him and for everyone here.
Even if this goodbye was the final goodbye.
"Stop it, what's with the long faces? Rest assured, I fought off every beast that found me these last few days, I'll be just fine." Ling Xian stepped forward and patted the two misty-eyed youths on the shoulders. His smile exuded endless confidence and optimism about the future.
"Good, I believe you will survive this." Ling Zhan tried to diffuse the tension with a bright laughter. However, deep down, he was as worried as everyone else. There had to have been tens of thousands of beasts living in the Hidden Territory. There was no way to know, but that can't be far from the truth. Not the mention the Almighty Rulers and the Privy Council, all of them Foundational realm.
The Foundational realm, for a typical cultivator, was the ultimate dream, the star forever beyond their reach.
Ling Xian was only a cultivator of the sixth realm, how could he possibly escape unscathed?
This sentiment was shared by most in the crowd. This was the final goodbye. A possibility accepted by many as fact, as fate, weighing heavily on the heart of everyone present.
"Ling Zhan, before we part, how about a duel?" Ling Xian suddenly recalled the pact they had made the day of the Martial Arts contest.
"Ha ha, no, let's not. You call it a duel, I call it a beating. It's true that I'm a fighter, but I don't go looking for beatings." Ling Zhan shook his head while roaring in laughter. He continued, "Come back safely, I'll wait for that beating."
"Good, it's a pact."
Ling Xian chuckled, finally understanding why everyone had such long faces. Even Ling Zhan, who had pretended to laugh, was trying to hide his sorrow. No one here believed that he could leave this place alive.
Shaking his head, Ling Xian did not want to explain further. There was no use trying to convince anyone. When he emerges safely from the Hidden Territory, these people would finally understand that he wasn't being egotistic, he was simply confident in himself.
As if floating on air, Ling Tian Xiang stepped in front of Ling Xian and looked deeply into his eyes. "Ling Xian, I'll pray for you. You must come back to us alive. You promised me this. If you don't keep your promise, then you are a coward."
I promised you?
Ling Xian descended into a cloud of confusion.
Seeing as he was confused by this, Ling Tian Xiang explained, "You said your dream lies above the highest cloud overlooking the universe, and that the City of Qing would be a mere speck of dust."
Ling Xian remembered. "Don't worry, I'll be just fine. I've had to say it so many times in this short period of time, where's the trust? Don't forget, I've already killed a few hundred beasts."
Hearing this incredible feat a second time did not lessen the impact of shock one bit.
However, even this reminder could not boost the confidence of everyone there. It wasn't going to be a question of a few hundred beasts. Rather, Ling Xian would have to face hundreds of thousands as well as the most feared Almighty Rulers and the Privy Council.
A few hundred seemed quite the picnic in comparison.
What he was about to face would truly be a testament to his strength and resilience.
"I won't try to convince you anymore." Seeing that he couldn't bring people out of their sad and concerned state, Ling Xian was at a complete loss for words. Only he was aware of his own strength, and he believed in it. Even if he couldn't defeat them, he had full confidence in his ability to evade them.
Shaking his head in defeat, Ling Xian walked towards Ling Hu and said, "Brother's going to leave you now, but don't be afraid, stay with the team. When the Hidden Territory opens, leave immediately. Do you understand?"
Ling Hu nodded and, in a heavy voice, said, "Brother, be careful."
Ling Xian smiled back, waved at Ling Tian Xiang and the rest, and walked out of the cave.
Every member of the Ling Clan watched him leave in silence. They watched him leave not without a hint of uneasiness but definitely without a fear of loneliness. Some became misty-eyed.
What they still firmly believed was that Ling Xian was leaving so they could live.
Holding both hands into a joint fist, everyone was making a promise to themselves. They were going to be braver, try harder, practice more, and protect those that they loved. They would not allow a replay of the scene against the Fang Clan where a choice had to be made between life and death.
Even though this was a misunderstanding, this was most definitely the most beautiful of all misunderstandings.
Ling Xian could not have expected that this unremarkable episode was the key to motivating the near dozen young cultivators who would later leave the Hidden Territory and return home changed men and women who would bravely go after their dreams and become the pillars of their Clan.
Lin Qing Yi felt as though she was near death.
Her face had turned ghostly pale, the light in her eyes had diminished to a sliver, her light green dress torn to pieces to reveal batches of equally pale skin.
Worse yet, there appeared to be a black mole in between her eyes.
This was a sign of poisoning, a deadly poison that she could not expel out of her body.
Lin Qing Yi had never been this injured in her entire life. She never anticipated that a trip into the Hidden Territory, which she had perceived as a vacation, would spell her doom.
Indeed, she was a powerful cultivator of the eighth realm. The Hidden Territory of the City of Qing to her was no more than a playground. She had only to avoid the Almighty Rulers.
Unfortunately, she had some rotten luck.
She stumbled on the powerful Xuan Ming Snake, the most poisonous of all beasts of the ninth realm, a snake feared by even the mightier beasts of the eighth realm. The creature had bitten her and injected its lethal poison into her veins.
"Is this how death feels?" Lin Qing Yi leaned against a giant tree, her Qi evaporating, her body freezing up. She felt as though she had been pushed down an icy hell.
Her gorgeous face let out a hapless smile as objects around her began to blur. She knew clearly that death was near.
A figure suddenly emerged inside her fading mind. It wasn't her dearest grandfather, nor her parents whom she had met only once, but a cultivator in a dark traveling cloak whose face was covered by a sun hat.
"Strange, wouldn't the people one sees right before their death be those who were closest and dearest to them? How did I think of him? Had I fallen in love with him?" Lin Qing Yi couldn't contain a smile as she thought of him. Feeling half amused, half pathetic, she felt a stream of tears run down her cheek. "But, I would really…really love to see him one last time."
"Ha ha, you hideous human, you've been poisoned. You won't have a chance to see anyone," the Xuan Ming Snake sneered, dangling off a large branch. "Or, you could beg me some more. Perhaps I'll take pity and let you live."
"In your dreams!"
Lin Qing Yi shouted at the snake. With the last of her will and power, she stood up, preparing to detonate herself and force the snake to die with her.
At this moment, it was not fear that she felt, but courage and determination.
Facing death, how many can claim that they felt no fear and couldn't care less about the last breath they would take on earth. How many would have the courage to die at their own hands, next to their enemies?
But Lin Qing Yi was one of them, a soft beauty with the inner strength of the most vicious warriors.
"Ha, ha, you wish to end your own life?" The Xuan Ming Snake eyed her indifferently and hissed, without fear, "Quit dreaming, my poison has reached every corner of your veins, you won't have the power to summon anything, let alone detonate yourself."
Lin Qing Yi clenched her hands and attempted to summon her powers with the last ounce of her strength. But just like the snake pointed out, her veins had been locked up.
This was indeed the most poisonous venom on earth.
"Damn you, I don't believe I can't take you with me." Lin Qing Yi bit down on her lips hard. However, with a furrow of her brows, she took a step backward and fell hapless onto the cold, hard ground.
"Ha ha, I told you so. The poison of the King Snake is world renowned. Not even a beast of the eighth realm can survive it, let alone a weak human. You dare to dream that we die together? How naïve!" The Xuan Ming Snake let out a terrible laugh, slithering down the tree, preparing to finish her off with a swing of its tail.
"The King Snake is in a great mood today, so why doesn't he take pity on you and give you a swift death!"
The snake swung its huge tail backward, creating a huge gust of wind, which tossed her hair and further shattered her clothing. In the face of death, Lin Qing Yi did not stir an inch, her face as calm as the undisturbed surface of the most beautiful lake.
The figure flashed again inside her mind which gave her the strength to smile again and a mutter a few words. "If the heavens would let me near you one more time, I would run towards you and take off your veil. But unfortunately, there won't be another chance. Farewell, my first love…"
The snake took aim at the delicate forehead of the delicate lady and unleashed its tail. Once hit, there would be no other outcome but instant death by trauma.
However, in this final moment, a cold voice interrupted the scene.
"The King Snake, eh? Only a few days, and it appears that you've outgrown your own arrogance."