The sun was bright and air gentle inside the Painting of Nine Immortals.
Waves of majestic clouds floated lazily in tight clusters against the stunning blue backdrop.
On top of a busy branch hundreds of miles high up a gargantuan tree whose tip punctured through the cloud stood an ethereal figure dressed in white. The Keeper of Land and Sea gazed towards the sky, her bright eyes melancholy as if reminiscing over the years past.
She stood on her tiptoes on an extended branch, light as a feather. Her regal figure appeared out of the world.
Her skin glowed in the sun. Her eyes were misty, lips soft, features firm. A gust of wind blew aside her dress to unveil a formidable figure. The Ice Queen had woken from her long sleep, even the bravest of souls only dared to admire her from afar.
She is the Keeper of Land and Sea.
She is known as the Untainted.
A proud name, fit for royalty.
She rose during an epic warring period that nearly spelled the end of humanity. Armed with a lone sword, she paved a path to hell with the blood spatter and mutilated bodies of her enemies, saving humanity from the brink of extinction.
She had fought countless battles throughout her life. From humble beginnings to ruling the known world. She had never experienced defeat. Her most magnificent victory took place on top of Lung Feng Peak, herself battling the most fearsome warriors from all ten enemy states, a battle which ended with her stomping onto the Peak, sending it and her enemies crumbling down into the valleys thousands of miles below.
That was the defining battle which not only extended her winning streak but also solidified humanity's undisputed dominance amongst the warring states.
The Untainted thus inked her name into history as the uncontested leader of her generation.
After a millennium had passed and young leaders of humanity everywhere began to emerge, the Untainted was finally ready to pass on her legacy. She chose Immortality, leaving behind myths and legends that continue to fascinate humanity today.
"You have been staring at me for hours. Am I that fascinating to look at?"
Without breaking her gaze from the sky, the Untainted suddenly broke the silence.
"You knew I was watching." Ling Xian emerged slowly from beneath the tree. Searching for her gaze, Ling Xian continued, "Certainly fascinating, you are the Goddess to every male within the Taoism Community. No one has and will ever take your place."
Unmoved, the Untainted responded, "Hard to imagine at 200,000 years old, I still attract attention."
"And you always will. Even if the stars fade and seas dry out, you will always fascinate our dreams." Ling Xian couldn't and wouldn't stop. He had insurmountable admiration for her since childhood. Despite having just matured for a hundred years inside his Fantasy, her presence still tugged at his boyish heartstrings.
"I am not Liao Cang Xiong, I do not respond to flattery." The Untainted remained unremoved as if she did not hear a single word.
Any woman would respond to such flattery, but the Keeper of Land and Sea simple would not be swayed so easily.
"I am not flattering you. Everything I said reflects how I truly feel," Ling Xian reasoned. Suddenly, he remembered someone and asked, "Where is Liao Cang Xiong?"
"Sleeping," The Untainted responded indifferently.
"Still?" Ling Xian frowned. In the past, these periods of retreat had all been brief. This time, he had yet to see him or hear his voice since entering the Painting. A bad feeling suddenly emerged.
Sensing his concern, the Untainted uncharacteristically offered him an explanation.
"He dedicated most of his power to speed up my awakening. Then he broke the laws of the Hidden Territory to ensure your safe passage. When he discovered the danger of the Fantasy you were in and knew he was powerless to help you, he decided to put himself to sleep in exchange for my awakening so I could rescue you. But the Fantasy Territory you got yourself into was a bizarre universe. I too was powerless to extract you from it. So I was forced to wait until you extracted yourself."
Ling Xian blushed as a wave of warm air penetrated his pores. Liao Cang Xiong had sacrificed too much for him. He quickly followed up in a worried voice, "Will he be alright?"
"He will be fine. But he will be asleep for a long time." The Untainted shot Ling Xian a surprising look and said, "I didn't think you two had such a close bond. That old fart certainly has a way with his students."
Ling Xian let out a long sigh of relief. Ignoring the last part of her speech, he mumbled to himself, "That's good, as long as he's alright. Wait for me. When I acquire more power, I'll wake you myself."
"That won't work. The power he used came from the core of his soul. The powers of the soul must be regenerated by the body itself. It'll take time..." The Untainted appeared as though she wanted to continue, but perhaps sensing that such feat would be too difficult or too much to ask of Ling Xian, she stopped herself."
"Is there another way?" Ling Xian frowned. He was born gifted. The hundred years spent inside his Fantasy had helped him maturity infinitely. He knew she had more to say.
"Can't hurt, you won't find it anyway." The Untainted continued, "There are five unusual items that together can rejuvenate the soul. They are the Mount of the Healing Soul, Lake of the Resting Soul, Iron of the Setting Soul, Wood of the Warming Soul, and the Flame of the Shielding Soul. If you were to gather all five, you will not only wake him in an instant, but they will also form a lasting magnetic field which can heal your soul regardless of how much damage it has received. Not only that, but this magnetic field can also help you recover the long lost Immortal Soul."
Her voice shivered ever so faintly. Evidently, recovery of the soul was important even to the Untainted.
Recover the long lost Immortal Soul?
Ling Xian was startled by this prospect. Carving the names of the five items into his heart, he thanked her. "I will find them. I will help him recover his soul."
Ling Xian had always wanted to help Liao Cang Xiong reconstruct his body in the flesh so he could walk the streets of the mortal world. If his soul were reconstructed, his body would not be far behind.
"Your determination is admirable. I wish you a safe journey. But I warn you, nine of us Immortals had only ever managed to discover nine Mounts of the Healing Soul. As for the remaining items, the Lake is perhaps the easiest to find. No one has ever seen the rest." Warmth radiated through her gaze, but her words were cold as ice.
"I'm not fazed. One day I will find all of them. I will wake him and help him become whole and human again." Ling Xian smiled softly. Of course, he understood the difficulty of the task, but he was ready to dedicate his life to finding them.
For that was Liao Cang Xiong's only chance at returning to his former self.
"I wait for that day to come." The Keeper of Land and Sea tipped her toe, rose from the branch and descended towards the ground surrounded by an enchanting aura.
"Let's cut the pleasantries."
The Untainted landed, soft as a feather, directly in front of Ling Xian and uttered a word that startled Ling Xian.
Ling Xian opened his eyes wide in amazement, unsure if it was his ears that malfunctioned. "What?" He asked, uncertain how to react.
Her gorgeous brows furrowed faintly. "Have students stopped paying respect to their Masters after 200,000 years?"
"Ah, that's why." Ling Xian finally understood. The Untainted was asking him to formally recognize her as his Mistress. However, truth be told, Ling Xian had no such intention. In his mind, he was bound by the "one disciple, one master" tradition. In his heart, his feeling for the woman went beyond this simple, plutonic relationship.
"My apologies, I already have a Master."
The air tensed up around them as his voice landed.
The Untainted showed no emotion, but her eyes exuded a tiny puff of icy air.
She was the warrior who saved humanity from extinction and led them out of the dark ages. She was an Immortal.
If news were to spread across the Taoism Community that she was seeking disciples, people would sell their souls for the opportunity. Regardless of their station, they would kneel for a hundred years to gain her acceptance.
But in this moment, she had been rejected. She had been sternly rejected by a young, insignificant cultivator.
In addition to shock and anger, she was also mildly amused. She had not faced rejection for centuries. However, this child dared to reject her for Liao Cang Xiong. Doesn't he know she is much more powerful?
"Don't look at me like that, and there's no need to threaten me with violence either." Ling Xian smiled politely. Completely devoid of fear, he continued, "Liao Cang Xiong is my one and only Master. Regardless of who you are, I do not recognize Masters based on their power or what they are willing to offer me. My first Master will be my only Master. He has been kind to me. He has sacrificed much for me. He will forever be my only Master."
"Are you not afraid that I will kill you?" The Untainted tested him with her ever icier gaze, waves of killer intentions steamed out of her pores.
Ling Xian couldn't help but let out a shiver. But his face remained composed. He smiled again and explained, "Afraid, of course I am afraid. The saying goes - one shall know his place, but…"
"The tumultuous experience inside the Hidden Territory has taught me that one must protect his bottom line. If he does not have or can't keep his boundaries, he is nothing more than a walking corpse and his life devoid of meaning." Ling Xian's voice echoed throughout the Painting, soft but stern and deadly.
"Perhaps these words appear too lofty and condescending. It is not my intention. Why don't I restate this in plain terms?" Ling Xian let out a proud, mildly arrogant but generally respectful smile.
"It would be an honor to call you my Mistress. But I don't want to. What can you or anyone do to me?"