Banners flying high, the five thousand strong army marched towards the Southwest with a frightening speed only made possible by their sleepless marching.
It was a gruelling march to be sure, but with the dire condition of the southwestern front, Ning Chen didn't dare to dally about lest the defensive line crumbled. As long as they had a breath left in them, he intended to keep up the furious pace of their forced march.
Normally, the vast expanses of Grand Xia, spanning from Beichui City to the southwestern territories, would take at least a month to traverse. However, the forbidden guards were all martial practitioners thus they marched at speeds incomparable to a normal person's, even with an injured commander like Ning Chen leading them.
Because of his injuries, he had to carry a ton of medicines. Adding on the numerous miraculous pills and poultices of the army, his medicines were basically candy for him to munch on at this point.
On the third day of their march, their monotonous marching was interrupted by a cerulean pillar of light that pierced the heavens. Rising high above the resplendent halls of Weiyang Palace, the heavenly phenomenon, just for the slightest of moments, blasted away the gruelling but drab pall with its shocking appearance.
As of this moment, with the forces of the world arrayed against Grand Xia, even the once invincible empire was beginning to waver like a lone tree amidst an ongoing monsoon —ephemeral, as if it was going to be drowned out at any second.
While the appearance of this cerulean pillar wasn't enough to signify a grand turn around of Grand Xia's situation, at the very least it was able to restore a sliver of confidence within the masses. It was as if the heavens had bestowed a sign upon them, a sign that showed that the heavens hadn't completely given up on Grand Xia yet. In the midst of all that, a certain empress was toiling behind the scenes to ensure the survival of the empire.
A drawn-out silence pervaded the air around Ning Chen as his eyes remained glued to the cerulean pillar; he knew that Qing Ning had succeeded.
Since the beginning, he had always remained a little scared of Zhang Sun. On the other hand, his relationship with Qing Ning, who was one the dragged him into Weiyang Palace, remained the most cordial of the two ladies. Yet today, as he looked at her breakthrough into the Xiantian realm, he just couldn't bring himself to feel happy.
His mission was to defend against the buddhist nation and their monks. For that, he needed a Xiantian. However, truth be told, this was a suicide mission.
Now that Qing Ning managed to breakthrough into the Xiantian, the one sent to the frontlines would undoubtedly be her.
Sighing to himself, he couldn't help but lament to himself. He truly didn't wish for her to risk her life with him. Should they both perish, what was Zhang Sun to do then? At the end of the day, Zhang Sun needed someone trustworthy by her side.
Naturally, he had never once resented Zhang Sun for sending him to his death in the southwest. In this world, the person who treated him the most harshly was Zhang Sun and yet at the same time, the person who treated the best was also Zhang Sun.
Up till now, Zhang Sun had done everything a senior should do. Normally, she was strict with him, whether it was punishing him, chiding him or even hitting him. Yet when the Xia Emperor tried to kill him, she was the one who risked everything to shield him.
During his days in the palace, the transgressions he committed were just as numerous as his accomplishments. However, in the long history of the imperial palace, there was no precedent of someone making up for his offenses with his accomplishments. Once a person committed an offense, he was thrown into the depths of hell, never to see the light of day again.
In his short stint there, he managed to sneak out of the palace, falsify an edict by Zhang Sun and even defied an order to return. Zhang Sun had every reason to be angry at him and yet she merely confined him, going so far as to spare him the rod.
The only time she ever lost her temper for real was when he secretly made a deal with the Ninth Princess to get himself smuggled into the marriage entourage.
He was the one at fault then but he had his reasons. The eunuch working in the purification room, the one murdered by Mu Chengxue, was discovered and that gave him the fright of his life. It made him decide to run away no matter the cost. Ultimately, it was that decision that angered Zhang Sun.
Back then, he knelt for three days and Zhang Sun even threw a tea cup at him out of anger, resulting in a faceful of blood leaking from his forehead.
Even so, she still secretly instructed Xia Miaoyu to look after him. Had it not been for that, Xia Miaoyu would have probably ignored him entirely.
To Ning Chen, Zhang Sun was the greatest senior in this world. In this situation where someone had to risk life, the fact that he was chosen meant that there was really no other candidate but him.
There was nothing to be resentful about, it was merely a matter of fact.
As night descended, Ning Chen finally ordered the army to rest for an entire night.
High above the night sky, as the silvery moon rose to its highest point, a flash of cerulean streaked across the horizon, illuminating the nine heavens in an instant. Qing Ning had arrived.
Her petite face, as beautiful as always, seemed to shine as her towering figure floated high in the sky. It almost had an ephemeral beauty as her hair gracefully danced in the wind.
However, Ning Chen didn't fancy this sort of beauty so he beckoned for her with his hands, "Come down."
Landing, she walked up to the teen and said, "Her Majesty instructed me to aid you."
Hearing that, he wasn't the least bit relieved at all. He would rather that old eunuch come instead but now that she was here, he knew that there was no changing this fact.
"Prince Yan told me to hand this to you."
With a wave of her hands, a light yellow sword appeared before him. It was that desert sword the prince retrieved from the Mongolian desert. The only difference between then and now was that the sword finally had a stabilized form.
"This sword contains the true essence of Prince Yan, however it can only block one move. Be sure to use it wisely."
Accepting the sword with his hands, he immediately felt an unprecedented level of power emanate from its steely exterior. It washed over him like a vast, endless sea the moment his hands gripped its hilt.
Infusing his own true essence into the sword, the sword immediately turned into sand and adopted a malleable state. Seeing that, he hid the sandy sword in his sleeves as a hidden trump. Without a doubt, this was a timely gift from the prince; in dire times, it would definitely play a pivotal role.
As the night grew darker, only the soldiers on patrol were awake now. The rest had already gone to sleep except for a certain person who wasn't willing to do so.
Qing Ning had just broken through into the Xiantian realm so her body was filled with an otherworldly aura, the kind that Mu Chengxue gave off. It was precisely the kind of aura he detested the most. Mu Chengxue had already forgotten about him, the last thing he wanted and the greatest thing he feared was that she would do so as well.
Thus, he didn't cultivate this night, neither did he try to recover from his wounds or sleep. Instead, he spent the entire by her side, tugging on her as he chatted the night away.
Seeing that, Qing Ning didn't move to stop him either but merely listened patiently for the night. At the break of dawn, she left him these words, "Not everyone who breaks through into the Xiantian realm will forget their past, you're worrying too much."
Hearing that, Ning Chen awkwardly rubbed his nose. He was such a worrywart.
Two days later, Qing Ning was finally able to rein in her aura and return to her original state. With that, a burden seemed to have been lifted off Ning Chen's heart as well.
By now, the army had already completed the greater half of their journey and should arrive at their destination in another three more days. Ning Chen had the army rest for another half a day so as to allow them some free time before setting off.
After all, martial practitioners were humans as well. It wasn't possible for them to operate forever without rest or sleep. That was nothing more than a monster then, like the Xiantian.
Of the entire entourage, Ming Yue was the only one who didn't practise the martial path. After rushing for so many days, her maladjustment was clearly etched onto her gaunt face.
Seeing that, Ning Chen's heart couldn't help but ache for the little girl. She had truly suffered too much under his care with their daily breakneck speed. The fact that they barely stopped to rest didn't help either.
Yet, this was the battlefield, a battlefield that was going to drag on much longer. Little Ming Yue was aware of this fact as well thus she kept quiet.
Half a day of marching later, the expression on the two heads of the forbidden guards had grown noticeably darker. These two heads were in the later stages of the Ninth-grade and though they weren't at the peak yet, they weren't that far off either.
Even so, they knew that their esteemed status was no help here. Deep in their hearts, they knew that this journey was most likely going to kill them.
A Late Ninth-Grade expert truly didn't amount to much in the buddhist nation.
It was said that the head abbot of the Western Doya Temple had under his command, four dharmapalas. Each one of them possessed a combat strength at the absolute peak of Ninth-grade. Unless one was a Xiantian, it was impossible to defeat them.
As the commander of the forbidden guards, these two were privy to information that most didn't know of. Their commander, Marquis Zhiming, was the most trusted aide of her Majesty. Now that even he was sent out to die, it was clear for all to see how dire their straits were.
As of right now, the forces of Grand Xia was tied down by the various fronts of the empire. Adding on its string of major defeats, the empire was basically in shambles, unlike its mighty appearance of yesteryears.
Grand Xia was an empire that centralized the majority of its power. As a result, the various cities throughout the empire were sparsely defended. The majority of the military power was concentrated in the hands of the ten military marquis and the imperial court. As proof, the recent Rebellion of the Seven Cities only managed to gather up 250 000 troops after brewing its rebellion for so long.
Like that, the remaining three days passed by in an instant. Throughout those days, the morale of the army had grown noticeably darker, peaking on the third day as they finally arrived on the southwestern front of Grand Xia.
Even from this location, the distant flames of war could be heard by the soldiers. It was in such a backdrop that the five thousand strong forbidden army made camp and made their final preparations.
As the pall of night descended upon them, it was as if they were thrown into an eternal darkness. Amidst all that, Ning Chen stood high above the campgrounds peering into the distant scenes of battle, icy cold eyes constantly flickering in the night as he contemplated.
The two heads stepped forward and respectfully saluted the teen, eyes brimming with expectation as they did so. "Sir Marquis, will we really be able to pull this off?"
Within the camp, silhouette after silhouette began to step out as well, eyes focused onto him with equal intensity and expectation.
Turning around, Ning Chen swept his eyes over each and everyone of their unique faces with a complicated look on his face. He knew, more than anyone else, that from today onwards, the lives of these men were completely in his hands.
"Do you fear death?" Ning Chen calmly asked.
Hearing that, the five thousand soldiers all paused in surprise as they turned to look at their comrades. In the end, no one knew where it began but someone started answering in a low voice, "I do!"
"I do too, perhaps even more so than you all."
Hearing that, the soldiers were visibly shaken, clearly at a loss as to how to respond to Ning Chen's candidness.
Even so, Ning Chen proceeded onwards. Turning his head towards the Imperial City, he then continued in a deep voice.
"In this world, there's no one who isn't afraid of death, you all fear death and so do I."
"To me, those who do not fear for their lives do not deserve to live in this world."
"You are all humans, to fear is only natural, there's nothing to be ashamed about there."
"Buddhism talks about the next life and reincarnation but I've never been a believer of Buddhism. I only believe in myself and in this life. Her Majesty, the Empress, saved my life once and thus I owe her my gratitude. This favor of protection is one I plan to repay in this life. Though I may die, I do not regret it."
"In life, one must have their own principles, their own convictions and perhaps these might even be more important than your own life. I possess such convictions. Thus, even though I fear death, I've come. As for whether or not you possess such convictions, that is a question you have to answer yourself."
"I do not intend to squander my life and neither do I intend to waste yours. However, I cannot guarantee that you will all make it back alive."
"Her Majesty, the Empress, has ordered me to repel the buddhist nation for a month. Within this month, you won't hear me utter any nonsense about leaving if you are afraid. Even if you all die, I do not intend to order a retreat. Similarly, even if I were to die, you all must not retreat."
"Tonight, I want you all to think this through carefully. If there is something you have left unfulfilled, write it down and bury it here. In the future, should any of us make it out alive, we will fulfill the wishes of those who passed away."
"Alright, you may all return to your tents."
Having said that, Ning Chen waved his hands to dismiss the crowd. All that could be said was said, as for the rest, it was up to them to figure it out for themselves. The forbidden army of Grand Xia represented the last vestiges of Grand Xia's strength. They can only be defeated in battle but never lose.
A defeat was nothing more than a loss within a giant war. Should they lose however, that spelled the end of a thousand years of faith.
From time immemorial, the battlefield had always been the burial grounds for heroes. In the past thousand years, Grand Xia had been blessed with countless soldiers who sacrificed themselves. That was how its thousand years of peace and prosperity was maintained.
No matter how strong an empire was, it was impossible for them to be undefeated. The reason Grand Xia was invincible was because, no matter what era it was, generations after generations of Grand Xia descendants had never once lost their faith.
Even now, those bloody words written in the desolate city of the Northern Plains was still fresh within his head as if they were spelt out before him right now. That was the unyielding war spirit of Grand Xia.
"From this moment on we part with blood and bone, should the heavens take pity on us, may we turn into warrior spirits after death, and protect the lands of Grand Xia forever more."