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The only choice I have is to accede, or you'll kill yourself?
What a terrifying encounter! I can't believe that I'm at a loss for words!
"Right!" Ji Lingxi was a smart girl. She immediately understood the situation and grabbed her sword with another clang. Copying her sister, she said, "Sister Lan is right, I'll behead myself if you dare to avoid our questions! I'll sever my meridians! I'll slit my own throat right in front of you!"
The corners of Yun Yang's lips were twitching.
She was quick on the uptake now; why was this amazing lady not already in heaven?
Yun Yang did not dare to take them up on their threat; he did not even dare to avoid their stares. One of these two ladies in front of him was his eighth brother's young sister and the other his eighth brother's fiancée. If they had really killed themselves before him… Yun Yang shuddered at the morbid thought.
"Okay, okay. Ask whatever you want… I'll tell you what I know, but I can't help it if I don't know. It's no use even if you try to force me with your own deaths." Yun Yang was crestfallen.
Yue Rulan's eyes were smiling. "You will know the answer to my question. Perhaps, you're the only one in this world who knows."
Yun Yang considered this and said, "To be honest, I really do know a little about this question… but I can't speak about it here."
"Why not?" Yue Rulan questioned curiously.
"Sister Lan, the war has ended, but we might still be watched even now and those people… they will want to know the answer to your question as well. It's better we don't speak about it until we reach the capital," said Yun Yang in a low voice and a serious mien.
Yue Rulan and Ji Lingxi were both hard-pressed to doubt his sincere-sounding words, dramatic as they were.
However, he did have a valid point. The Nine Supremes had just appeared and defeated the Dongxuan army. Those who had painted a target on their backs in the past must surely be working on pursuing the Nine Supremes; it was only a matter of time before they were carefully watched and tracked. The enemies of the Nine Supremes were a pinnacle of existence in the Tianxuan Continent, much more dangerous than Lei Dongtian… Both of them were insensible today, to actually broach the topic at such a sensitive time.
Thankfully, Yun Yang did not submit to them, otherwise, it would have been a close call indeed.
Both the ladies nodded, their looks a mixture of regret, fear, and a sense of apology. Yun Yang heaved a breath of relief in secret, knowing that he had survived this round.
Although the fear of being watched was only conveyed upon Yun Yang's words, it was still possible. However, Yun Yang did not sense any anomalies up to this point. If there was really someone spying upon them, what Ji Lingxi had exposed earlier was already too much information, sufficient to for them to be attacked.
The most important thing for Yun Yang was the fact that he had yet to figure out how to dish out the matter. He believed that both the girls would never be able to accept the plain truth; how should he go about it then?
Yun Yang's thoughts were scattered all over the place and he was still unable to finalize a decision despite many rounds of contemplation. There was still a long journey ahead to reach Tiantang City. With this gift of time, perhaps he could figure out some sort of explanation or a way to tackle the issue.
Yun Yang sighed inwardly; the path ahead was going to be vague and difficult one!
Oh, my brothers, how many unexplainable problems have you all left me with? Yet I dare not offend anyone… Oh, how difficult my life is!
After Yun Yang left the Fortress of Resilience, the western relief troop had also formally bid farewell to Fu Baoguo, rearranging themselves to return to the western border.
Currently, the men from the western troop had at least a parcel on each of their backs, piled up high. Some even carried dozens of parcels, straining under the load. It was the same throughout the troop, making it a rare sight to behold.
There were also soldiers who did not carry parcels but those were all injured members who bore severe injuries and were hardly mobile. They were laid in hundreds of carriages, temporarily commissioned, but even then, the injured members carried a few parcels in their embraces as well.
These parcels contained the remains of their comrades, their brothers. They did not want their brothers' remains to be placed on the cold carriage; they would rather carry them like this all the way back until they brought their brothers home!
They were all alive, like those who were carrying them; all living and breathing together in the vitality of life!
Sun Zihu's fierce face was already dotted with tears as he watched his troop behind him. The wintery wind billowed as usual while Sun Zihu sat atop his horse and turned back to look, reluctant to leave despite them already set off on their journey.
The hundred and fifty thousand western elites who came for the relief effort were finally going back since the war was at an end. Yet, of the hundred and fifty thousand bothers, there were only thirty thousand men who could follow him back – no, a more precise number was twenty-nine thousand, six hundred and fifty-three men.
The figure could not even reach thirty thousand.
There were more than a hundred and twenty thousand western troop warriors who were buried under the Fortress of Resilience.
"How am I supposed to tell the western troop brothers who are waiting?" Sun Zihu sobbed, "How am I supposed to break it to the marshal? A hundred and twenty thousand brothers…"
"How do I tell their families?"
"You have fought for the country and perished here; it's what a man should do. But we, those of us who are alive... we are the ones in a deeper despair!"
"Brothers… come back… We are going home…"
"Brothers! Let's go home!"
The thirty thousand shouted in unison. Their shouts were those of agony, the aggrieved voices resonating across the battlefield.
The clouds were thick and low in the sky, the gale whizzing by. It was almost as if the hundred and twenty thousand heroic souls were gathered together, assembling themselves into a formation, ready to go home with their brothers.
The forlorn horn ricocheted in the snowy plains, ringing loudly before slowly fading away.
The thirty thousand men were silent, there were no spoken words along their way. Other than the noise from their feet and horses' hooves treading the ground, alongside an occasional hissing from the horses and the fluttering of flags, no one said anything.
They traveled in a neat formation with strong steps. It felt like those brothers who were deep asleep under the earth were still in their lines, embarking on the long homebound journey with them. They were still by their sides, keeping them company.
The thirty thousand men could still hear their breathing, could still smell the reeking stench of their sweat, the stench they would normally have hated. They were like them, quietly making their way forward, making the most poignant music with their footsteps.
Behind them, before the faraway location where the old Fortress of Resilience stood, Fu Baoguo fell into position neatly with the rest of the eastern troop.
"Salute! Send the brothers of the western troop off!"
Fu Baoguo cried out as all of the eastern troop raised their hands simultaneously.
They watched the retreating backs of the western troop quietly, their hands raised in a salute which never once wavered or dropped.
The western troop went departed in that manner, slowly drawing out the distance. Suddenly, someone within the troop wept softly. The grief was catching, and it spread throughout the army swiftly. Soon enough, the sounds of weeping and heaving sobs could be heard throughout the ranks of the army.
Sun Zihu was still moving forward in silence like he did not hear anything, but he felt an unusual tightness about his chest, bands of iron that clenched at his heart. He breathed harshly, momentarily suppressing his emotions, but he could not hold it back for long. He let out a roar of anguish, "What are you all crying for? Are all of you f*cking women? Our brothers have died fighting for the country, it's a worthy cause to die for! They are all heroes! All of them are! Heroes, you know! What are you all crying about? We should be proud! We have such great brothers, we…"
Sun Zihu's roar suddenly broke off, as his voice was suddenly torn away from him. He rolled off his horse and sprawled on the ground, sobbing his heart out as blackness threatened to take away his sight.
He grabbed onto his chest, feeling his heart breaking into pieces. The pain was heart-wrenching!
"It would not have been as bad if we had died together, but this huge amount of casualties… how do we go back and tell the marshal? It's one thing to tell the marshal, how do we face our own hearts?"
Sun Zihu wept hard.
No matter what happened, this journey had to be made. They had to head back!
Hearing that the war was not faring well, the marshal had sent a messenger eagle and informed him that he had already sold all of his assets and gathered all the finances from the army. He would take these silver taels he earned from selling his assets and the pension the country would give to distribute them equally to the families of their fallen brothers in the name of all the western troop soldiers!
This was befitting Sun Zihu's knowledge of his marshal, but he also knew that what the marshal thought about the difficult war and his estimation of the casualties differed greatly from the truth.
The marshal had grimly tried to probe for more information in the letter. "Are there still about a hundred and ten to a hundred and thirty thousand men who can fight among the hundred and fifty thousand brothers? How steep are the casualties? Why is nothing being relayed back?"
Sun Zihu did not answer the questions in that letter because he truly did not know how to.
If he were to let the marshal know that there were barely thirty thousand men from the original hundred and fifty thousand who were following him home, how would the marshal feel about such a crushing war and its brutal reality?
It was better if he could vent his fury on him; whether he berated or trashed him, even if he killed him in anger, Sun Zihu would have no complaints. He was only afraid that his marshal who was so passionate and loved his soldiers like his own would vomit blood and faint on the spot.
Sun Zihu's eyes were crying tears, but his heart was bleeding.
Let them return first. Let them send their brothers back first.
Only then would they speak about other matters...
When they moved into the land within Yutang's border, the towns and cities along the way eventually became more frequent in number.
There were countless people waiting in anticipation for Yun Yang and his entourage as well as the western troop. No matter which town or village they passed, they were eager faces and crowds, despite both groups not taking the same route.
Among those who waited were the elderly, women and children.
They had prepared steaming dishes and warm water, sending them forward once they saw the army making their way over from afar. They gave the militants food to eat, water to drink, and clothes to wear. The gave the best comforts they could afford.
There were also some who asked questions carefully with worried gazes, "Sir… uh… do you know how is Yutang's east army's third troop? My third son is there… There haven't been any letters up to now… I know that I shouldn't be asking about this, one should not be afraid of death when serving the country, but I just miss him…"
"General… do you know about the Steel Cavalry's fourth squad? My husband is a leader in the Steel Cavalry... Now, no news is good news, but there should still be some news for sure!" A young, pretty woman with a big baby bump asked worriedly.
"General, do you know Liu Sanhu…" A shy girl blushed as she stroked her braid. "I'm his fiancée. His father and mother are both aged, and their legs aren't too good for standing around… I… will ask with a thick skin, is he okay? I made a promise to him… that we'll get married once he comes back…"
The girl was charming, with a blush coloring her cheeks, her eyes glistening with hope. She was a little shy, but she still asked with courage. Her gaze was filled with anticipation for the future… a hopeful look for life after marriage…
Yun Yang felt a heavy blow to his chest.
"Sir… do you know…"
"Sir, you know…"
"General, you… do you know…"
Countless people came over fearfully, their expressions compliant and their eyes nervous… How small they seemed when they asked their questions, their voices shaking when they spoke. They yearned to know the answer, but their eyes were gleaming with a sense of fear.
They wanted so much to hear about their family, but at the same time, they were afraid of ill news.
Yun Yang and group were quiet when faced with these questions, not knowing how to answer them. They could only feel blood dripping from their hearts.
Countless veterans who were carrying parcels on their back quickly hid the parcels, hunching themselves over as they kept the parcels in their embrace.
"We've won… Dongxuan is defeated, they have withdrawn… Your family's news will be relayed soon… They are all great men, great men who protected the homeland!" Marquis Yun stepped out to comfort the people. "There are too many people who joined the east line defense during this war. We are truly sorry that we can't know them all…"
"Dear people, do be patient. The kind ones are always lucky and blessed…"
"I believe your families will return safely…"
Marquis Yun felt like berating himself each time he mouthed meaningless platitudes. How hypocritical could he possibly be? Even his heart rebelled against the false words he uttered!
The psychological mastery of an emperor, the ability to be friendly and easily win people over, were second nature to the royal descendants. Marquis Yun was no exception. However, to utter these words with such ease and confidence was somewhat galling. Being friendly was actually not a compliment, it was the biggest form of hypocrisy!
Dongxuan saw three million people participating in this war while Yutang had deployed more than a million to stand against them.
When the war ended, Dongxuan had retreated with less than four hundred thousand men, about one-tenth of the total, while Yutang's survivors numbered less than two hundred thousand from the all of the eastern and western army, relief efforts from the others and the members of the martial world!
In other words, there was a total of four million people fighting in this war from both sides but there were only six hundred thousand people who had survived. The rest of the three million and four hundred thousand people had all perished.
With such terrible casualties, who could say for certain that any particular person was still alive?
At this point in time, comfort would perhaps be even more detrimental when the bad news was received later. What could be harder to accept than the hopelessness that came after receiving hope?
These families of those who had enlisted in the military - there would only be grief and hopelessness for eight out of ten of them.
Even as they thought about it, the troop could barely swallow the steaming dishes sent over by these families. It was like their throats were closing in on themselves; even with the prominent sentiment, they found it hard to consume the food which had suddenly lost all taste.
Their hearts, too, were wracked with pain.
Facing those hopeful gazes, listening to the carefully worded questions, everyone thought that they were already steel-hearted from the fact that they did not weep on the spot.
Along the entire journey home, it was the same scene that greeted them, again and again. Their hearts were repeatedly torn apart and put back together hastily.
The army slowly moved farther.
However, the people from the towns and villages who were still waiting in anticipation along the road watched the winding path with hope. They hoped for their sons, their brothers, their husbands to return, galloping in on their horses, dirty from the long journey and hollering richly, "I'm back!"
They waited, and waited…