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The Vast Desert Chapter 8

CSI

Chapter 8 – Barren Oasis

Hu Tiehua was even more confused, “That’s right,” he said, “But …”

He had not finished speaking, Ji Bingyan already came to a dead body’s side – Peng Yihu’s clothes have been picked clean; how could there be any Star of Happiness on his naked body?

But Ji Bingyan already squatted down. Using his finger he lightly scratched Peng Yihu’s shoulder. Under the flickering starlight, unexpectedly there was a flash of brilliant rays on his shoulder. And then, a precious stone, about the size of a pigeon egg, burst forth from the skin and flesh on Peng Yihu’s shoulder and fell into Ji Bingyan’s hands.

Seeing this, everybody could not help but was stunned.

Although there were countless stars in the sky, but the brilliance of this Star of Happiness on earth seemed to make the stars in the sky turned pale. Even Ji Bingyan could not help but was emotionally moved; he said, “Such a beautiful diamond; no wonder there are so many people willing to stake everything for you.”

The man in black pounced over like a hungry dog and snatched the Star of Happiness away from Ji Bingyan’s hand …

Unexpectedly it was as if Ji Bingyan was in a daze; he was staring blankly at the man snatching this thing away from his hands. The man in black practically never thought that it would be this easy; he was so happy that he nearly forgot to close his mouth.

Hu Tiehua was surprised and angry at the same time. But before he exploded, he heard Ji Bingyan said, “The Star of Happiness is already in your hands, what about the water?”

The man in black threw his head back and howled with laughter, “Daye Men [your masters] went out to work, why would we bring water? If you want water, go find it yourself. Daye Men not killing you now, we are already very polite to you.”

While laughing, he waved his hand to signal his men; unexpectedly, along with his group of men in black, he roared away with wild laughter, while Hu Tiehua’s belly practically exploded with anger.

He wanted to make his move, but Chu Liuxiang pulled him back. He wanted to run after them, but Ji Bingyan stopped him. He really did not understand; how could these two old friends of his suddenly become this gutless?

Chu Liuxiang and Ji Bingyan only watched these men swaggering off; unexpectedly they did not show the slightest sign of anger.

Hu Tiehua could not bear it anymore; he laughed coldly and loudly said, “Ridiculous! Really ridiculous! The grand Chu Xiang Shuai [fragrant commander, Chu Liuxiang’s nickname], unexpectedly today turned into a gutless man [orig. guts as small as a mouse’s]. Ridiculous! Really ridiculous! Ji Bingyan, who thinks he is smart, today he also fell into other people’s trick.”

Ji Bingyan unhurriedly said, “Who fell into other people’s trick?”

Hu Tiehua laughed coldly and said, “I already saw it, they practically did not have any water bag at all.”

Ji Bingyan did not pay him any attention, he simply turned to Chu Liuxiang and said, “Traveling in the desert, only two things that one cannot be without. The first is water, the second is camel. Lacking these two things, life will be difficult to keep; right?”

“That’s right,” Chu Liuxiang replied with a smile.

Ji Bingyan said, “But those men, not only they did not bring any water, but they also came on foot, which shows that the place they live must not be far from here; right?”

“Exactly,” Chu Liuxiang replied.

Ji Bingyan said, “After obtaining what they were looking for, they must be too busy to worry about us; they simply have to hurry up to go back and to report their merit; right?”

This time, without waiting for Chu Liuxiang to reply, Hu Tiehua already roared in laughter and said, “That’s right. We only need to follow them, we can storm directly into their old nest, rather than waiting for those fiends to come back to look for us. It’s better for us to go after them first … right?”

Chu Liuxiang smiled and said, “That’s right. This is called gaining the initiative by striking first.”

Hu Tiehua sprang up and said, “Since that’s the case, what are we waiting for?”

Ji Bingyan spoke slowly, “In the desert, we can’t follow somebody’s trail too closely. Anyway, they are not going to escape.”

He listened to the wind, smiled, and said, “If you are in a hurry, you can go now.”

It was only a little over half a sichen from their original location. There were several wooden cabins, which were originally the guard station of the garrison soldiers patrolling the border in the past, but now unexpectedly it has turned into the gathering place of the Lulin [lit. green forest, i.e. criminal world] despots.

The cabin was already extremely old, there were several windows that could not be closed. Inside, there was already lantern light, presumably there was somebody remained in the cabin all along.

Chu Liuxiang and the others stopped behind three withered trees about ten zhang away outside the cabin. They saw those men in black went in with cheers and howls of laughter. But as soon as they entered, their laughter came to a standstill.

From the open window, they could see that the men’s expression suddenly became very deferential; everybody hung his head low, no one dared to speak.

Hu Tiehua happily said, “Looking at their appearance, their boss must be inside.”

“Hmm!” Ji Bingyan responded.

Hu Tiehua said, “Let’s rush in now; we want to see who exactly is that fiend.”

Frowning, Ji Bingyan said, “Wait a minute.”

“What are we waiting for?” Hu Tiehua asked.

Ji Bingyan spoke in heavy voice, “Something’s not right.”

Hu Tiehua said, “This is your idea, and now you think something’s wrong?”

Ji Bingyan slowly said, “It was only when I saw this cabin that I feel something’s not right. Just think, with that fiend’s prestige, how could he live in such a dilapidated cabin?”

Hu Tiehua was stunned. Before he had any chance to speak, suddenly from inside the cabin came out a burst of mellow music, the melody locked the soul, making the listeners wished that they were dead.

The music abruptly rose up. Those men who were standing respectfully with head hung low, suddenly their bodies twisted, as if they wanted to dance to this soul-locking music.

But all of a sudden they all fell down.

The soul-locking music continued, but the sound was getting lower and lower.

After a very long time, the men who fell down still did not stand up.

Listening to the music, Hu Tiehua felt his heart racing, his face flushed, but he kept watching with shock and bewilderment. “What’s going on?” he croaked.

Ji Bingyan’s face trembled, but he did not speak.

Chu Liuxiang’s countenance suddenly changed. “Not good!” he blurted out.

Before his shout vanished, he already flew toward the cabin.

How could Hu Tiehua be willing to wait? He also flew over. Chu Liuxiang was outside the window looking in, but Hu Tiehua already kicked the door and shouted loudly, “Don’t you want to …”

He only spoke three words [trust me, the original only has three characters], his voice choked in his throat.

There was no one inside the house.

To be precise, there was no one alive in the room.

Just now, there were over twenty big men wearing black, but this moment they all fell dead on the floor.

Their bodies were twisted, but there was some kind of hard-to-describe radiance on their faces. They died completely without any pain; not only that, they all seemed to be very happy to die.

Hu Tiehua stared blankly for a long time. Finally he heaved a long, long sigh and said, “Crazy … these people are crazy …”

Stomping his foot, Chu Liuxiang said, “I should have thought that they would kill themselves.”

There was practically nothing inside the old, dilapidated room, except for an unusually large shrine. There was the revered Buddha image inside the shrine, making the house looked even more secretive.

The wind blew the yellow curtain in front of the shrine. Hu Tiehua could not help shuddering, “But why did they kill themselves?” he blurted out.

Chu Liuxiang sighed and said, “That fiend must have guessed that their track has been discovered by us; because he was afraid we might continue following their track, he forced them to die.”

Hu Tiehua asked, “But since they were forced to kill themselves, why did they die so happy?”

Unexpectedly there seemed to be some hint of dread in Chu Liuxiang’s eyes; he muttered, “There must be a mysterious reason behind this. Perhaps that locking-soul deadly music …”

He had not finished speaking, suddenly they heard Xiao Pan scream outside the house, calling out, “Shi Tuo went mad … Shi Tuo went mad …”

The cry was brimming with fear. In this merciless desert, inside the isolated and dilapidated cabin, with dead bodies scattered everywhere, suddenly hearing such cry, it really made people’s hair stand on its end.

Hu Tiehua was startled. Together with Chu Liuxiang and Ji Bingyan, they rushed out only to see Xiao Pan’s face twisting, cold sweats drenching his head, while his mouth did not stop crying out, “Shi Tuo went mad.”

Ji Bingyan gave him a slap with the back of his hand; he spoke sternly, “You can’t go mad. Speak up, what is it?”

Xiao Pan was shocked by the slap, before he came to his senses and spoke in trembling voice, “After you entered the house, I could not help wanting to come in to take a look as well. I was afraid to leave Shi Tuo alone in here; I was really worried about him, so I pulled him to come inside together.”

Ji Bingyan spoke with a cold laugh, “You are worried about him? I think you wanted to pull him along to strengthen your courage, right?”

Xiao Pan lowered his head; he continued haltingly, “Who would have thought … Who would have thought that Shi Tuo had just reached the front of the house, it was as if he saw a ghost; he turned around and ran away. He seemed to be so frightened. Although I did not see anything, he scared me so much that I could not help screaming.”

Someone who had eyes did not see anything, what could a blind man possibly see that frightened him so much?

But this moment Chu Liuxiang and the others already had no time to investigate this matter further. Xiao Pan had not even finished speaking, they were already running after in the direction Shi Tuo was running.

The wind was howling, the sand was rolling.

The night in the desert has begun to show its terrifying power.

They finally saw the silhouette of Shi Tuo stumbling and rushing wildly.

What kind of miserable sight, what kind of mysterious scene to behold – to make someone who could not hear anything, someone who could not see anything, in this merciless sandstorm, running away for dear life in the dreadful depth of the night?

Chu Liuxiang and Ji Bingyan flew on either side of him, they caught him from both sides, but he was like a wounded beast; he broke free and rushed forward again.

Unexpectedly, in his panic, his strength grew so much than even Chu Liuxiang was unable to hold him down. Hu Tiehua pounced from behind and wrapped his arms around his waist. The two unexpectedly fell to the ground together. Ji Bingyan rushed over and pressed down on his shoulders.

At first Shi Tuo was still struggling, until Ji Bingyan gripped his hands hard, only then did he gradually calm down, but he was still panting like a wild beast.

Hu Tiehua called out loudly, “Quickly ask him, what exactly did he find?”

Under the starlight, they saw Shi Tuo’s rough-like-stone face was full of sweat, full of extreme fear. This kind of face, forget about Xiao Pan catching sight of it and was terrified, even when Hu Tiehua saw it, he could not stop the chill from creeping up from the bottom of his heart.

It was half a day later that Ji Bingyan looked up and said, “I have asked him, but he would not say anything.”

Chu Liuxiang’s eyes were fixed on a dark distance, he spoke slowly, “Is it possible that he has some kind of strange senses, and has sensed that the fiend who harmed him was inside the cabin?”

Hu Tiehua said, “But there’s practically no living being inside the cabin … there’s practically nothing inside the cabin, even if that fiend wanted to hide, it was simply impossible.”

Chu Liuxiang spoke word-by-word, “You really think there’s nothing inside the cabin?”

Hu Tiehua replied, “Other than a few broken tables and chairs, there’s only that shrine.”

Chu Liuxiang asked, “Did you see the object of worship inside the shrine?”

Hu Tiehua replied, “It seems to be a very big stone statue of Guanyin Shan Sa [virtuous Bodhisattva of Compassion/Goddess of Mercy/Avalokiteśvara].”

His voice was suddenly choked again, his entire body tensed up as if he had just suddenly beaten by a whip.

And then, as if he had turned mad, he ran back into the cabin.

The situation inside the cabin was still the same. The wind was still blowing on the faded yellow curtain.

But the shrine was empty.

Unexpectedly the stone statue of Bodhisattva has disappeared.

Beads of sweats larger than soybeans were dripping from Hu Tiehua’s head. He stared blankly for a long time before suddenly realized that there was an iron cooking pot on the wooden table, which was not there before.

The pot was still steaming, emitting burst after burst of meat aroma.

Unexpectedly there was a piece of note pressed under the pot:

Gentlemen have come making light of traveling a thousand li, Qie [I, your servant (deprecatory self-reference for women)] should have cleaned the goblet in order to wait on noble guests. How can one help that the subordinates are stubborn and obstreperous, unexpectedly regarding extraordinary people using ordinary eyes? This, Qie will have to live with. Sincerely I prepared meat stew just to express Qie’s modest and remorseful heart, to somewhat wash away various gentlemen’s dust from the long journey, hoping that various gentlemen will have a fortunate journey. The person of the shrine pays her hundred humble respects.

The person of the shrine?

Who the hell was this person of the shrine?

When Hu Tiehua turned his head back, he saw Chu Liuxiang and Ji Bingyan’s four eyes were fixed on the piece of paper in his hand as well, as if they had seen a deity.

Half a day later, Chu Liuxiang finally smiled wryly and said, “You and I, our track has been discovered.”

Hu Tiehua sighed and said, “But who is this person of the shrine? We did not know even the least bit of a shadow.”

Chu Liuxiang’s eyes were fixed on the already empty shrine; he spoke heavily, word-by-word, “It’s the Stone Guanyin.”

Hu Tiehua jerked upright, “Stone Guanyin?” he blurted out, “Are you talking about the publicly known figure in Jianghu of the past, the most beautiful, the most vicious, the most ruthless, but with the highest martial art skill – woman?”

Forcing a smile, Chu Liuxiang replied, “Other than her, who could build such an elaborate secret projectile? Who else has such brilliant disguising skill? Furthermore, who else could come up with such a brilliant malicious scheme?”

Ji Bingyan slowly continued, “Other than her, who else could focus the essence and restrain the qi to transform the body into wood and stone, and disguise herself as a stone Bodhisattva, and hide from all of our eyes.”

Hu Tiehua was stunned. Although he had not seen the Stone Guanyin, but he had heard all kinds of legend concerning her in Jianghu, and every single one of them nearly made the chill creeps up from the bottom of his foot to the back of his neck.

The aroma of the meat stew was getting thicker, floating above the rich broth was a layer of pearlescent steam halo. This was what they needed the most.

Hu Tiehua suddenly laughed aloud and said, “The legend in Jianghu is indeed not wrong. This Stone Guanyin is indeed a goblin that harms people. She did not leave anything, but she left a pot of meat stew, so that we can only look at it drooling, but do not dare to move.”

Suddenly a yellow dog scampered in from outside the house; it jumped onto the table and dipped its head in the pot, lapped the soup, even bit a large piece of spare ribs.

Hu Tiehua laughed and cursed, “Have you turned mad from hunger? Aren’t you afraid of being poisoned to death?”

He picked the dog up from the table, but the dog was still biting and nibbling, even swallowing a piece of meat into its belly.

Hu Tiehua, Chu Liuxiang and Ji Bingyan, three men’s six eyes were staring at the dog. But after the time needed to drink two or three cups of tea later, Ji Bingyan opened up the dog’s eyelid to examine it, he also examined the dog’s tongue, and said slowly, “There’s no poison in the soup.”

Hu Tiehua slapped the table hard and shouted, “That goblin that harms people has predicted accurately that we would not dare to drink the soup, so she sent a dog to annoy us. Unexpectedly she wanted us to drink the leftover soup after the dog ate it.”

Ji Bingyan spoke indifferently, “Could it be that the soup that the dog drank, people cannot drink?”

His eyes were on Chu Liuxiang; Chu Liuxiang has not spoken yet, Hu Tiehua already picked up the iron pot and threw it out the window, shouting, “We will definitely not going to drink the soup left over by the dog. Even if we starve to death, we won’t be humiliated like this.”

Ji Bingyan sighed. He spoke with a cold laugh, “If I can go back alive, I must erect a monument for you [orig. memorial arch in honor of a chaste widow], engraved with eight big characters: ‘starving to death is small matter, losing face is big matter’.”

Hu Tiehua roared in laughter, “If I can go back alive, I will … I will …”

He wanted to find some smart-alecky remark to get back at Ji Bingyan, but momentarily he could not think of anything. Ji Bingyan already laughed coldly and said, “A man with a black bear [i.e. coward] temper like you, I am afraid it would be very difficult to come back alive.”

Hu Tiehua laughed and said, “Now that will …”

He had not finished, suddenly they heard a scream from outside the cabin. The three rushed out together, only to see Xiao Pan, who was outside to watch over Shi Tuo, was already rolling on the ground. The meat pot was beside him, he even had some minced meat in his mouth, but his fair-skinned face has turned purple, swelling and twisting, while his mouth continuously screamed, “Meat … poison …”

Turned out while staying outside, he heard that the soup was not poisonous, seeing the meat pot was flying outside, he picked the less than half a pot of soup remaining and drank it in one breath.

Chu Liuxiang rushed to his side. He had just wanted to examine the influence of the poison on Xiao Pan, but his body was already convulsing; unexpectedly he forfeited his life over this half a pot of meat stew.

In this merciless desert, unexpectedly human’s life was so cheap.

Chu Liuxiang gently closed his eyelids and spoke sadly, “Such a powerful poison, the toxicity is so fierce, unexpectedly there’s no salvation from it.”

Ji Bingyan contemplatively said, “Such a formidable person, unexpectedly she hid the poison pellet inside the dog’s mouth. When the dog drank the soup, the poison pellet fell into the soup pot, the wax seal on the outside melted from the heat, the non-poisonous soup thus turned into a poisonous one.”

Overwhelmed with shock, Hu Tiehua said, “Are you saying that the dog was well-trained by her?”

“Hmm!” Ji Bingyan replied.

Smiling wryly, Chu Liuxiang said, “It looks like thanks to Hu Tiehua’s black bear temper that we did not fall into the Stone Guanyin’s poison scheme?”

The three recalled the ingenuity of this chain of poison scheme, just now it was indeed a life and death crisis, they had escaped danger by a hair’s breath …

Unconsciously all three men felt the palm of their hands were wet with cold sweat.

The next day, there was still no water.

They did not dare to let the remaining water in their body to be evaporated by the sun and turned it into perspiration; thereupon they waited until the sun has set before they started to move.

By this time, Shi Tuo, the mysterious and pitiful man, seemed to have recovered his inexhaustible divine power, while Hu Tiehua and the others seemed to be shrinking.

Even higher martial art skill on earth would be powerless against the force of nature.

As the sun set in the west, from time to time Shi Tuo dropped down to the ground, using his nose to sniff the sand on the ground, he crawled like a fox.

Resisting the urge to lick his already parched lips, Hu Tiehua could not help asking, “What is he doing?”

“He is looking for water source underground,” Ji Bingyan replied.

“Could it be that he can smell it?” Hu Tiehua asked.

Ji Bingyan replied, “When there’s water, there will be the warmth that you can smell.”

Hu Tiehua still wanted to talk, but no one paid him any more attention.

Because not only talking is a waste of energy, it is also a waste of saliva. In their eyes, these two things were almost as precious as life itself.

By the evening, Shi Tuo suddenly dug frantically with all his might into the sand.

Ecstatic, Hu Tiehua said, “There’s water.”

They leaped down the camels at the same time and dug with all kinds of tools they could find. But after working hard for more than a sichen, they were still disappointed.

There was no water.

Laughing bitterly, Hu Tiehua said, “I am afraid his nose is not too effective?”

Ji Bingyan’s countenance remained calm and collected; he did not speak.

Only Shi Tuo was still unwilling to give up; he was still digging.

Suddenly, he jumped up; holding a handful of grain of sand, he gave it to Ji Bingyan.

Ji Bingyan put the sand in his mouth; unexpectedly his face was radiant with joy.

The sand was warm. They kept the sand in their mouth, desperately sucking the water in the sand.

Water, although pitifully small, but to a man who was about to die of thirst, was already enough to save his life. They tried hard to dig; they did everything they could to suck.

In the evening, they slept in this slightly damp excavation in the sand.

Hu Tiehua sucked until his tongue went numb; he could not help cursing, “I practically used up all my strength, unexpectedly I still cannot get a drop of water from this ghost sand. This kind of sucking method, won’t it send a man to his death quicker?”

Ji Bingyan said, “In the desert, being able to find a bit of warm sand every day is already a good luck. Although there’s very little moisture in this sand, but without it, you will not live.”

He was right. On the third day, they could not even find any moist sand, so that they could not even walk. Fortunately by the morning of the fourth day, Shi Tuo found another place where there was more water in the sand.

Ji Bingyan said, “Shi Tuo is following the water vein underground. Looking at the situation here, not far from here, there must be an even bigger water source.”

Thereupon they roused their spirit to move forwards.

Suddenly they saw a cluster of green in the distance. Unexpectedly there was an oasis.

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