When Would the World’s Atrocities End?
Tiantang City, the capital of the Empire of Yutang. If a city were the crown jewel of a country, then Tiantang City would be the heart of the entire Tianyuan Continent. The city boasted a population of around 3 million citizens, with walls strong and high enough to deter even the most fervent of marauders. Fortified crenellations and numerous arrow slits made it a defender’s dream and an attacking party’s nightmare.
At this moment, funeral music could be heard drifting on the wind in a quiet melancholy; denizens from every corner had come out, forming a long queue that headed towards the center of Tiantang City, where the Tiantang Square was located.
The square was acknowledged as the largest square in the city within the Tianyuan Continent. Built under the supervision and commission of the Empire of Yutang’s founding emperor, it served as the militia’s training field, but on occasions such as these, was made avail to the general public.
The founding emperor had once said, “All the warriors who train in this square – now, and in the future – will forever be heaven’s guests, even when they have perished in the battlefield. Their brave souls shall never be forgotten, and will live on for eternity!” Thus, in the very early days, it was called “Heaven’s1 Square”. As the years rolled by, it gradually came to be referred to as Tiantang Square. The original name of the city, “Wu An City” was also slowly replaced and became Tiantang City.
A mass of bodies poured into Tiantang Square. Everyone was either wearing white flowers or had a strip of black silk crepe tied around their arm. In their hands, they carried either fresh flowers or candles, amongst other items for a memorial, their faces expressing the deepest respect and honor.
Today was not just any memorial. Today, the entire nation came together in remembrance of the sacrifices that these noble souls had made, especially those by the Nine Supremes. The Nine Supremes were the most unlikely combination of heroes, with names akin to a mystery. Nine mystical paragons, they were nameless and without faces, yet everyone knew that they were the Empire of Yutang’s best-kept secret, its patron saints. The Nine Supremes had always been involved in the largest and most critical wars in the Empire’s history. Each time they appeared, a battle doomed to be lost would take a blessed and unexpected turn. Just their very presence was assurance of victory on the battlefield!
The ninth of the third month last year – a date that the Empire of Yutang’s people would never forget.
That was the day that they had lost the Nine Supremes.
The Nine Supremes had led 800 warriors to execute a secret mission when they were ambushed and killed at Tianxuan Cliff. There had been no survivors among the 809 brave individuals who partook in the mission.
It had been an undertaking of the highest secrecy, but somehow, news of it had leaked out, resulting in the deaths of the Empire’s finest. The Empire of Yutang had thrown all of its vast resources to hunt down the culprit for over a year now, with little to show for its efforts.
In the square, many generals and veterans looked towards the center of Tiantang Square with tears welling in their eyes. There, nine tall monuments stood proudly side by side – resembling the towering legends that they were built in memoriam after. These brothers had fought together when they were alive, and even in death, they would still stand steadfastly together. Ragged sobs could be heard from the crowd northwest of the square, where the veterans were bunched together. Having survived the wars by paying the price of limbs and longevity, these old and crippled warriors who could barely walk, stood up to pay tribute. Even those who had lost their legs sat upright; facing their heroes and saviors with their hearts brimming with reverence. A vision of the Nine Supremes charging through the battlefield appeared before them; valiant, brave and inspiring all at once.
Dragons of soil thrash the earth, burying their enemies; as the Supreme Earth demonstrates his might.
Flames spout high and mighty, as the Supreme Flame arrives.
Turbulent waves churn the sea, as the Supreme Water moves.
Wind, cloud, thunder and lightning split the tranquil sky, as the Supreme Wind, Supreme Cloud, and Supreme Thunder manifests themselves.
The Nine Supremes!
These were the litanies engrained in the monuments of the Nine Supremes. Those who had come to the square would stare long and hard at them, both saddened and agonized by the majesty of those words.
Borderless earth rages like dragons – Supreme Earth.
Refined gold in his hands, the pack caves in – Supreme Gold.
Monstrous waves, churning majestically across the world – Supreme Water.
Towering wood, standing indestructible – Supreme Wood.
Rising flames of invincible victory – Supreme Flame.
Thunder roars, intimidating the world – Supreme Thunder.
Blood of the heroes, adversities await – Supreme Blood.
The wind in the vast sky, justice with the kind – Supreme Wind.
Heart of the Nine Supremes, clouds that could sink the heavens – Supreme Cloud!
The names of the Nine Supremes were carved onto the monuments; briefly, the sight of nine masked heroes standing tall before powerful enemies, while calmly saying, “Rally forth!” seemed to greet everyone’s eyes again. The throng of people stood upright in front of each memorial, looking at them in tribute, with their heads raised high. There was an unusually large crowd that gathered in front of Supreme Cloud and Supreme Earth’s monuments. Supreme Earth, the leader of the Nine Supremes, had been the eldest. Supreme Cloud, on the other hand, had been the youngest of the Nine Supremes but was also the brain and heart of the team.
The sun rose in slow cadence.
Before long, the emperor arrived, surrounded by his bureaucrats, signaling the official start of the ceremony.
Yun Yang stood silently in the corner, just another observer in the multitude of people.
“Young master, do you need me to go over with you?”
“There’s no need.” Yun Yang shook his head.
“This… Now your…”
“There’s no need.”
“As you wish, young master.” Lao Mei’s voice was tinged with disappointment.
Yun Yang had rejected Lao Mei’s company, not because he knew he would embarrass himself by being overwhelmed by emotions, but because he did not want anyone to know his true identity as one of the Nine Supremes! Until he had avenged his brothers, he did not deserve to announce his mantle to the world. Besides, the enemy was all too powerful, and knowledge of his true nature would put him at significant risk.
He stood in silence, watching the nine monuments with heartache and longing in his eyes.
Brothers, I am here.
I’m here to see all of you.
It was as if he was invisible, standing quietly in the dark.
The smell of candles and incense filled the air; the emperor read the funeral oration in an agonized voice, as quiet sobs came from the people.
Yun Yang stood far away, his body ramrod straight and eyes dark as the night. People walked past him, but none of them seemed to realize that there was someone who was alive and breathing, standing in the shadows. The Cloud Veil was a spell unique to the Supreme Cloud of the Nine Supremes, one that rendered him invisible, a formless soul. He stood there silently and motionless; the breeze blew against his dark purple robes, while an air of loneliness swept over him.
Dusk came creeping in.
The ceremony had long ended.
Fresh flowers covered the ground, the smell of candles wafted to the heavens. Warm blood drenched the space in front of the Nine Supremes’ memorial; the crimson red belonged to Wu Wenyuan and his cohort.
The crowd bore no hint of sympathy for them, no tears of remorse towards their kin, even after witnessing the bodies being mutilated further after the execution.
Old Marshal Qiu Jianhan had kept a straight face throughout the event.
Just yesterday, Wu Wenyuan had mysteriously disappeared from his prison, but just as suddenly, his dead body had reappeared at the stroke of midnight. It was also about then that they noticed Wu Wenyuan’s wife and mother’s disappearance. These events had angered the old marshal. The military’s defense was impenetrable; the prison was guarded with utmost security, trained professionals keeping a close eye on the perimeters. How could such things possibly happen without a single hint of who had done it?
The marshal would become the world’s laughing stock. He had already switched out three batches of prison guards in light of these events. The punishment served had already broken several dozen paddles, but it was too late to make any difference.
Finally, the crowd at the square dissipated; the large space gradually cleared and silent once more. Yun Yang stood unmoving in the shadows, his gaze depthless and stern.
This life was one of battles and deaths by warhorses; he wished his brothers a lifetime of safety and happiness in the next realm.
The night breeze blew cold, and the entire Tiantang Square was cloaked in darkness. Yun Yang remained standing where he had stood the whole time, with his eyes closed and his senses extended outward. He could faintly feel the echoes of the past; he was standing beside hundreds of thousands of his comrades. The feeling of countless suits of steel armor felt incredibly real; he could almost hear the words as he and his brothers engaged in idle chatter. The breeze ruffled his stray hair, blowing it back from his well-defined visage. He resembled a delicate statue in the night, calm and secure, yet lonesome and melancholic at the same time.
Soft sobs could be heard, as a young woman in white approached with weak steps and a tear-stricken face. Clutched tightly in her embrace was her young daughter, and by her side, an equally bereaved elder who supported her as she walked. Stumbling like a drunk, her mourning heart had apparently drained her of her energy, and she walked like one of the dead.
“Wang Zhuang, we’re going home.”
The young woman mumbled, her gaze and expression emotionless and numb. She passed by Yun Yang, close enough to touch him, but without noticing his presence. The latter had his eyes shut tight and remained motionless, but the corner of his eyes twitched as the deep grief hidden within surfaced once again.
Assistant General Wang Zhuang’s wife.
Yun Yang remembered Wang Zhuang – the man had only been married for two years when he was deployed a year ago; his daughter had just turned one. However, he had never returned from his stint. The warriors who gave their lives for their country did so with no regrets, but what about their families?
It had already been a year, how was Wang Zhuang’s family faring after losing their pillar of support?
The trio went on their way, slowly distancing themselves from Yun Yang.
He sighed inwardly.
A frown quickly followed the sigh. Something did not feel right. He opened his eyes and caught sight of four silhouettes appearing behind the trio. The dark shadows materialized into the shapes of four burly men; their gazes were lustily engulfing the weary woman walking ahead. Hiding carefully in the darkness, they continued to tail the woman from a distance, unknowingly passing by Yun Yang.
A dangerous, murderous intent flashed across Yun Yang’s eyes.
As if sensing the impending menace, the men shuddered, feeling as if a ghost had crept up on them.
“This place is indeed a bit uncanny…” one of the men rubbed at his goosebumps that had appeared all over, as he murmured.
“Agreed. Let us go back quickly; there are too many dead souls here. I’m feeling uncomfortable…” another man murmured softly.
Yun Yang’s gaze turned icy.
Were there too many dead souls?
For daring to utter such a phrase, the price would be death.
“But Wang Zhuang’s death could not have come at a better time! The mule has been dead for over a year, and I’ve also been waiting for just as long. Now that the memorial ceremony is over, everything should have toned down…” the round one who was most likely the leader chuckled in relish.
“Yeah, this dead mule, we couldn’t do anything when he was alive; he still died in the end, and became a lonesome ghost… hee-hee”, the thug chortled.
“Hmph, we were bullied when Wang Zhuang was alive, now the tables have turned.” The leader whistled, “I must say, the bastard Wang Zhuang’s wife certainly looks gorgeous… especially with her teary doe-eyed look – it just makes her all the more attractive! Coupled with that small, soft body…” the words trailed into a lustful sigh.
“Hee hee hee…” the other three laughed lewdly as they ventured past Yun Yang.
Yun Yang took in a deep breath and looked towards the square; it seemed like countless pairs of eyes were staring back at him. He nodded, pressing his lips together as he turned quietly; his purple robe billowed as he began to follow these thugs and their unwary prey.
The road he took became increasingly deserted. They were moving towards the outskirts of Tiantang City, and their surroundings were turning eerier with every step they took.
The young woman and her ward kept walking aimlessly, not having anywhere to go nor having a destination in mind. If it weren’t for the elder who was supporting her, she would probably have fainted away a long time ago.
They approaching a building; there was a soft lantern light glimmering just a short distance away.
That was her home.
But alas, is a home without a husband still a home?
It’s been a year, Wang Zhuang. Are you alright down there? If it weren’t because I had to take care of our daughter, I’d have gone down to meet you long ago…
Did you know, how hard it is to live alone like this?
Just as the trio was turning into an alley, discordant laughter erupted from their backs.
“Oh, little lady, don’t walk so fast…” A repulsive voice said, “Turn around and let me have a look at that body of yours…Tsk, tsk, how alluring you are!”
The woman continued walking as if she had not heard anything. The four burly men had finally caught up and moved ahead to block their way, smirking in triumph and anticipation.
“Oh… I can’t quite see clearly in the dark… Isn’t this General Wang Zhuang’s little missus, Juan’er? Tsk tsk… it’s no wonder I can feel your allure. Hee hee, Juan’er, how have you been? Why is there a white flower on your head? I’ve heard that our valiant General Wang Zhuang is now a dead soul? What a terrible shame that must be!” The entire monologue was spoken in the most lecherous manner possible.
The trio faltered in their steps.
The elder who was supporting the woman trembled in rage, “Wang Bao! What do you want? Let us pass!”
The head of the thugs, Wang Bao, chortled, “Give way? Why should I? Oh, sure, I had to give way when Wang Zhuang asked me to, because of his reputation. But now that he has been a spirit for over a year, why should I give way?”
He laughed, and in a salacious voice, he exclaimed, “Still, I have to say… Juan’er’s dressing certainly looks enticing… My heart aches just to look at her eyes, all swollen from crying. Juan’er, Wang Zhuang can’t care for you anymore, so why not just let me…”
The elder stood in front of the young woman, and practically screamed at the thug, “Wang Bao, Juan’er’s husband, Wang Zhuang died in a war for the Empire of Yutang. He protected the country by giving up his life, and he died a national hero. The things you’ve said, do you not have a heart at all?”
The beefy Wang Bao chortled again, “Hero? Who asked him to fight in the war? Certainly not I! He didn’t die for me, and I have no idea what you are talking about. To me, it’s all just a bag of wind!”
“Wang Zhuang, that idiot, restricted us from doing so many things when he was alive. I’ve wanted him dead for so long; it warms my heart to know he’s finally gone! Hee hee, I’ll admit that he was a spectacular bloke when he was alive, but he’s been dead for a year! Now that he’s buried six feet under, it’s time for me to have some fun with his wife. Is he going to stand in my way?”
With a glint of lustful menace in his eyes, Wang Bao began to advance on Juan’er.
1 Heaven (天堂 tiān táng): Shares the same phonology/pronunciation as Tiantang.