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The Vast Desert Chapter 5


Chapter 5 – Desert Landscape


They finally reached the desert.

This was a small town at the edge of the desert. Standing at the door of this only inn in the small town, one could cast one’s gaze on the boundless desert.

Altogether the small town only had thirty houses. Amidst the piercing sandstorm, after going through many years of hardships, their only priced possession was a well.

Ji Bingyan bought more than a dozen big sheepskin bags of fresh water, which were more expensive than wine, and then he also sold several travel-weary horses to the small town’s inhabitants, at the cheaper price than selling pigs. But the large carriage, he set it on fire – it was his beloved possession, but since he could not take it, he destroyed it. He absolutely did not want to leave his beloved possession in someone else’s hands.

Hu Tiehua could not help asking, “I understand why you destroyed the big carriage; but I don’t understand why you sold the horses. Even if you are stingy, I don’t think you’d covet these several taels of silver?”

Ji Bingyan replied, “If I bring these several horses into the desert, in less than three days, they would die of exhaustion.”

“In that case,” Hu Tiehua said, “Why not simply let them go? By nature, horses know their way, perhaps they could walk home on their own.”

“They definitely won’t find their way home,” Ji Bingyan replied.

“Why?” Hu Tiehua asked.

Ji Bingyan replied, “Because not only on this stretch of road robbers are going on the rampage, there are too many hungry people all year long. If I let them go, if they don’t fall into the hands of the bandits, it’s hard to avoid them falling into other people’s belly.”

Hu Tiehua asked, “Do you think the people in this small town would treat them well?”

“That’s right,” Ji Bingyan replied, “These people are frugal and good and honest; they also take a very good care of their horses, they will definitely raise the horses until they are fat.”

There was a hint of cynicism at the corners of his mouth. And then he went on, “This way, by the time they are selling the horses, they would get a good price. And those who are willing to pay good price in buying a horse will definitely not buy them for food.”

Hu Tiehua asked, “Since that’s the case, why not simply give the horses as a present to them?”

Ji Bingyan responded indifferently, “When people buy something, they will always cherish it more. If it was given by others, unavoidable they would regard it more lightly.”

Hu Tiehua was silent for half a day. Heaving a sigh, he said, “I never expected that you are giving this much consideration toward these horses. It seems that you have changed a little.”

Laughing coldly, Ji Bingyan said, “You think it was my idea?”

Ji Bingyan was stunned. “Not your idea, then whose idea?” he asked.

Actually, he did not need Ji Bingyan to answer this question, because this moment he already saw Shi Tuo’s cold-and-detached, ugly, as-if-it-was-carved-using-coarse-stone – face.

Unexpectedly, this moment, this face, which was rough like it was carved – was showing some emotion, as if he was grieving that he was about to part with his close friends. And the neigh of those horses also faintly resembled a sigh.

Now, Chu Liuxiang, Hu Tiehua and Ji Bingyan, were dressed no different than ordinary itinerant traders, traveling merchants. Shi Tuo, however, changed into a Mongolian attire. He tied a large piece of white cloth on the top of his head, but it was not to block the sun, rather, it was to cover up his face.

As for Xiao Pan? He could wear any attire, and you could drop him anywhere among the crowd, he would not stick up like a sore thumb.

They entered the desert when it was nearly dusk.

At this time, although the sun had dropped, and the heat from the desert had evaporated, yet it was hot enough that they wished they could strip naked.

Yet before long, the heat disappeared, followed by the arrival of biting-cold air. The wind blowing on their face felt like a blade. Hu Tiehua really wished he could hide his entire body behind the camel’s hump. He was sitting on the camel, but it swayed and fluttered like he was on a boat.

Chu Liuxiang, Ji Bingyan and Xiao Pan also rode the camels; seeing how Hu Tiehua was sitting on the camel, they nearly could not help laughing out loud.

Anybody sitting on a camel could not possibly look good. Only Shi Tuo was still walking step by step behind the camel, on the desert, on the plain, on the marsh, in the cold, in the heat … Nothing seemed to affect this man the least bit.

If it had been before, Hu Tiehua would have been tempted to ask, “Why don’t you ride the camel too?” But now he did not need to ask. He already knew that Shi Tuo would definitely not ride on any donkey, horse, or camel. Because to him, they were his friends.

The night grew deeper, the cold hair grew heavier.

Xiao Pan was so cold that he did not stop shivering sitting on the hump of the camel. Ji Bingyan had just found a place where they could take shelter from the wind. He built a tent behind a sand dune, and lit up a fire.

A pot of hot dishes was being cooked on the fire. They sat surrounding the fire, drinking wine, sniffing the aroma of pepper, chili, green onion, ginger and beef and goat meat mixed together.

It was then that Ji Bingyan felt much more comfortable. But Shi Tuo was still sitting far away on the side.

Under the illumination of the bright starlight of the desert, not only his face looked even colder, even uglier, there was also a peculiar look.

It seemed that he was feeling very inferior, but also seemed to be very arrogant, as if he did not dare to come over and enjoy the pleasantries with Hu Tiehua and the others, but it also felt like he disdained to associate with them.

The more open the space, the quieter the moment. That kind of expression on his face also became more obvious. As he sat in the boundless desert, in the frigid and quiet night, unexpectedly he looked like an exiled emperor, silently enduring the deep loneliness, pain, and humiliation!

Even Chu Liuxiang could not help feeling curious about this mysterious figure’s past, but he was unable to guess the load in this mysterious figure’s mind.

But Chu Liuxiang did not want to ask Ji Bingyan at all.

Because he knew that Ji Bingyan definitely would not say anything.

In the evening, they all returned to their tents to sleep. But Shi Tuo only wrapped himself with a blanket and slept by a camel’s side, looking up at the starlight in the sky.

Chu Liuxiang did not know whether he actually slept or not, but he knew that he would rather sleep by the camel than being together with anybody else.

Naturally Hu Tiehua also noticed this. But unlike Chu Liuxiang, sometimes he was unable to keep the questions in his heart. He could only endure it for half a day. In the end he still asked it out, “Why doesn’t he come in to be with us?”

Ji Bingyan replied, “Just because he looks down on us.”

Hu Tiehua jumped up and angrily asked, “Whom does he despise?”

“He despises everybody,” Ji Bingyan replied.

Stunned, Hu Tiehua asked, “He despises even you?”

Ji Bingyan laughed indifferently and said, “Precisely. He despises even me.”

Hu Tiehua said, “Since he despises you, why does he work for you?”

Ji Bingyan replied coldly, “When you do something for others, it’s not necessarily because you look up to him, is it?”

He seemed to be sighing. After that, he went on, “Right now he is working for me, just because he feels that he owes me. When he feels that he no longer owes me anything, even if I kneel down and beg him, he will not stay.”

Hu Tiehua stared blankly at him again. He got up and poured a large bowl of wine and drank it up; he just wanted to fall asleep quickly, but he was always thinking about that strange face.

“Who the hell is this man? Who the hell did that to him that he became like this?”

Naturally he was unable to understand. He had no choice but to sigh and quietly mumbled to himself, “In this ghost place, the days are really rather unbearable.”

Ji Bingyan seemed to have fallen asleep, but this moment he suddenly spoke coldly, “Now you also feel the days are unbearable? The really unbearable days have not yet begun!”

Ever since the first time Hu Tiehua jumped into the brook behind his house to swim when he was little, he had always liked the sun. From then on, as long as it was a sunny day, he could not help taking off his clothes to bask in the sun. At the edge of Yangzijiang [old name for Changjiang, especially lower reaches around Yangzhou], at the top of Huanghe Lou [Yellow Crane Tower in Wuhan City, built in 223, burnt down in 1884, rebuilt in 1985], at Qingcheng, at Luofu, under the shade of Mount Hua, on the top of Mount Tai, he had seen all kinds and sorts of sun.

Some was as fierce as the dragon-bearded husband; some was as gentle as the yellow flower [fig. young virgin] maiden. Some was vast and hazy, grey and dark, like the old man’s eyes, but some was gorgeous and flamboyant, like the young girl’s countenance.

But he had never seen the sun like this.

Although it was the same sun, but when this sun reached the desert, it suddenly became ruthless and cruel, as if it wanted to burn the entire desert in its light.

The sun was shining in such a way that Hu Tiehua did not even want to drink wine; he was only hoping that the sun would set faster – when a drunkard no longer wish to drink wine, it must be so unbearable that he wanted to die.

There was no wind. Not even a whiff of breeze. There was not the slightest bit of sound either. Under the scorching sun, all living organisms have entered some kind of comatose state.

Hu Tiehua practically could not help wanting to jump onto the hump of the camel and roar.

Right this moment, there was a groan, which no one knew where it came from.

Although the groan was very faint, but in the deathly stillness of the desert, it was clearer than if someone was talking right by his ear.

Chu Liuxiang, Ji Bingyan, Hu Tiehua, all straightened up their back. Hu Tiehua opened his eyes wide. “Did you hear that?” he asked.

“Hmm!” Chu Liuxiang responded.

“What did you hear?” Hu Tiehua asked.

“There are people around here,” Chu Liuxiang replied.

“That’s right!” Hu Tiehua said, “There is someone, but it’s someone who is about to die.”

“How do you know?” Ji Bingyan coldly asked.

Smiling bitterly, Hu Tiehua replied, “Although I do not like killing people, but the sound of groaning when someone is dying, I have heard a lot. In my opinion, this person is either about to die of heatstroke, of about to die of thirst.”

Just then, another groan was heard. This time Hu Tiehua heard the groan came from behind the sand dune to their left. He immediately jumped off the camel and said, “The man is over there; let us take a look.”

Ji Bingyan said, “Someone who is about to die, what’s good there is to look at?”

“What’s good to look at?” Hu Tiehua cried out, “You know there’s someone about to die, aren’t you going to save him?”

Ji Bingyan slowly said, “I have already told you: in the desert, you might come across several dozen dying men every day. If you want to save their lives, then you need not mind anything else.”

Shocked, Hu Tiehua said, “You … Could it be that you are Jian Si Bu Jiu?” [Seeing Death Without Helping, also ‘The One who Ignores the Dying’ in Jin Yong’s Heavenly Sword and Dragon Saber.]

Ji Bingyan coldly said, “Are we coming here to save lives?”

Hu Tiehua cried out again, “Is your heart so hard?”

Ji Bingyan said, “In this kind of place, only the heartless will survive. When you are about to die, there will never be anybody coming to save you, just because if someone was giving part of his water to you, he himself will die of thirst.”

Chu Liuxiang smiled and said, “But currently, don’t we have more than enough water?”

Ji Bingyan said, “There’s also some kind of people in the desert that if you save him, when his strength recovers, he would kill you instead, to rob your food, your water, and your beast to escape.”

Chu Liuxiang laughed and said, “With the three of us, who on earth can kill us?”

Hu Tiehua loudly echoed, “That’s right, who can kill us?”

Glaring at Ji Bingyan, he said, “It looks like not only your heart grew more and more cruel, your guts grew more and more smaller. When one has too much money, I am afraid he would become like this.”

Ji Bingyan’s countenance remained icy-cold, but he no longer speak.

Hu Tiehua said, “I don’t care if you are not going to save people, I simply must go.”

Chu Liuxiang smiled and said, “If you want to go, we all will go, right?”

Naturally his last question was addressed to Ji Bingyan.

Ji Bingyan was silent for half a day, as if he was sighing. Thereupon the entire group was turning to the left.

The sand dune on the left was not big at all; turning around the sand dune, they saw two men. But as soon as they saw these two men, Chu Liuxiang and Hu Tiehua’s heart turned cold.

These two men practically did not resemble human beings anymore, but like sheep being skewered above the fire, and were about to be charred. They were butt-naked and were nailed to the ground. Their wrists, their ankles, and their foreheads were tied with cowhide. The cowhide was originally moist, but after being dried by the sun, it became tighter and tighter, until it dug into their flesh.

The skin on their entire body has been burnt by the sun, their lips were cracked, their eyes were half-closed half-open, the blacks and the whites of their eyes were no longer distinct, just like grey, dusky holes.

It was only then did Hu Tiehua understand how Shi Tuo’s eyes turned blind – just like these two men, Shi Tuo’s eyes were scorched by the sun.

Although Shi Tuo could not see, he could hear, but when he got here, his whole body trembled. He seemed to have some mysterious sense that could feel the current ominous happening, as well as the impending bad omen.

The cowhide was picked and snapped, Chu Liuxiang and Hu Tiehua used felt blanket to wrap these two men. And using silk dipped in water, they let them gently suck the water. Only then did they start to tremble. “Water … Water …” they moaned.

As soon as they could make a sound, they kept shouting and pleading.

But Chu Liuxiang knew that if he let them to drink freely, they might immediately die.

Hu Tiehua sighed; he spoke gently, “Friends, don’t worry, we have lots of water here; you can drink as much as you want.”

The dying man opened his eyes with blank expression; he still moaned, “Water …”

Hu Tiehua laughed and said, “You don’t believe me?” He stood up, patted the sheepskin bag on the camel’s back, and then said, “You see, it’s all water here.”

Ji Bingyan suddenly spoke sternly, “Who tied you here? What crime have you committed?”

The dying man doing his utmost to shake his head; he said, “No … not … it’s the robbers.”

Shrugging his shoulders, Hu Tiehua said, “Robbers? Where?”

The dying man struggled hard to raise his hand to point to the distance, he also desperately grabbed his hair, while his face was twisting with fear, his body was trembling more violently.

Ji Bingyan spoke in stern voice, “As far as I know, there’s no trace of any robbers nearby; are you lying?”

The two men shook their heads together; they seemed to have tears in their eyes.

Hu Tiehua shouted, “They have been miserable to such degree, why do you have to force them like this? So what if they lied? There’s not even a piece of cloth on their bodies; don’t tell me that they can still hurt us.”

Ji Bingyan no longer said anything.

Just because Hu Tiehua was right. Not only these two men did not have a cun of steel on their body, they were completely naked. Even if they were not injured, there was nothing on them that could make Ji Bingyan feel uneasy.

Hu Tiehua turned to look at Chu Liuxiang; he asked, “Now, can we let them drink some more water?”

Muttering to himself irresolutely, Chu Liuxiang nodded his head and said, “Not too much.”

As he spoke, he walked over toward the water bag. But before the remark was finished, unexpectedly the two dying men suddenly sprang up like rabbits. Their hands, which were originally grabbing their heads, also suddenly waved as fast as lightning. Each man’s hand shot more than a dozen streaks of black light; the momentum was more pressing than lightning.

Surprisingly, these were the kind of secret projectiles that were usually shot out of the spring-loaded crossbow cylinder.

Turned out the secret projectiles were hidden in their hair.

As soon as their hands swung out, Chu Liuxiang, Hu Tiehua, and Ji Bingyan also immediately flew out like swallows. Even though it was beyond their expectation, with the speed of their movement and reaction, there would be very few secret projectiles that could injure them.

Who would have imagined that the secret projectiles were actually not shot at them, but at the water bags?

With a series of ‘Pop! Pop!’ noise, several dozen of streams of water shot out like arrows from the sheepskin bags.

Those two ‘dying men’ also flew out.

Hu Tiehua’s anger exploded; he shouted angrily, “B@stard! You want to run?”

He pounced on them almost faster than Chu Liuxiang.

But Ji Bingyan did not go after the men. He turned around to rescue the water bags. He knew that under Chu Liuxiang and Hu Tiehua’s hands, there has never been anybody able to escape.

Naturally these two men could not escape either.

Before they even ran more than ten zhang away, they already felt a gust of strong wind attacking their neck. They wanted to turn around to face the attack, but even before they turned their heads around, they already fell down. They did not even see the opponent’s hands.

Striding over the one of the men’s body like he was riding a horse, Hu Tiehua continuously slapping his face and angrily shouted, “I saved you, you harmed me in return? Why? Why?”

The man did not answer, he could never answer. By the time Hu Tiehua grabbed and pulled him from the ground, his neck, like a rice straw, has been snapped into two pieces.

The other man was still falling to the ground. Chu Liuxiang did not make any move to hit him at all, he merely stood in front of him, calmly and quietly looking at him; he did not even ask any question.

When the man heard the sound of his companion’s neck snapped, he curled his body into a ball, while his mouth screamed as if he went crazy, hissing, “Just kill me! It doesn’t matter; you won’t live long anyway. I am going to wait for you at the gates of hell [orig. devil/ghost gate pass] to settle this account with you.”

Chu Liuxiang’s eyes did not even blink; he slowly said, “I definitely will not kill you, as long as you tell me who sent you?”

The man suddenly burst into frenzy laughter and said, “You want to know who sent me here? Are you going to look for him?”

“Precisely to look for him,” Chu Liuxiang replied, “You think it is funny?”

The man laughed until he had tears in his eyes; gasping for breath, he said, “Naturally it is very funny. Anybody who has not gone mad can’t possibly want to look for him, unless this man is already tired of living.”

This moment Hu Tiehua already rushed over; he roared, “Was it Zha Muge’s son who sent you?”

The man laughed and said, “Zha Muge? What kind of thing is Zha Muge? He is not even worthy to carry his, the Senior’s whip.”

Knitting his brows, Chu Liuxiang said, “If not Zha Muge then who?”

The man said, “Don’t worry, when you are about to die, you will naturally meet him, the Senior … I bet you that you won’t live past five days.”

Hu Tiehua shouted angrily, “I bet you, if you don’t tell the truth, you won’t even live past five sichen.”

Unexpectedly the man laughed again and said, “I did not want to live another five sichen anyway.”

Stumped, Hu Tiehua could not help staring blankly. “You are not afraid to die?” he asked.

The man laughed aloud and said, “Why would I be afraid of death? To be able to die for him, the Senior, I am simply happier than anything else.” Suddenly his laughter died down, but some kind of strange glow burst forth from his eyes.

Emotionally moved, Chu Liuxiang said, “Not good, this man hid poison in his mouth to kill himself.”

When Hu Tiehua picked him up, he immediately realized that this man was no longer breathing.

Only after a very long time did Hu Tiehua put him down. Turning his head toward Chu Liuxiang, he said, “Have you seen anybody not afraid of death like this?”

“No,” Chu Liuxiang replied.

Hu Tiehua said, “I also know that there are a lot of people when they are caught by the enemy, they might kill themselves by taking poison, but those were due to they had no choice, yet this man was very happy to die.”

Chu Liuxiang sighed, but did not speak, only because he could not help recalling Wuhua, who killed himself by taking poison. As soon as he remembered Wuhua, he could not help sighing.

Hu Tiehua also sighed and said, “I think there must be something wrong with this man’s head; otherwise …”

He suddenly saw Ji Bingyan. Stroking his nose, he stopped talking.

Ji Bingyan simply looked down on the corpses on the ground; he practically did not look at Hu Tiehua at all.

Hu Tiehua managed to restrain himself for a long time. Trying to end the awkward silence, he muttered, “Their secret projectiles were hidden inside their hair; this moment I could think about it. But clearly they had been scorched by the sun that their skin burnt and their flesh burst open, they were half dead and not alive at all, how could they have the strength to do it?”

Ji Bingyan’s face did not show any expression. He slowly stooped down to pick up the hair on the corpse’s head and gave it a shake. Immediately there was something like a skin miraculously fell off, revealing the sleek and smooth skin inside.

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