The Witch Nichang– Chapter 80
Smoke in the desert.
There was actually no smoke in the desert. It was the wavering heat rising from the sand under the scorching sun. The twisted light looked like ascending smoke, and at the same time, an invisible wall.
In the Gobi desert, you could occasionally see glimpses of shrubs or rocks of peculiar shapes, but here, there was nothing but sand, sand, and an endless stretch of sand. The clear sky and the golden undulating land, radiant yet quiet, as if frozen in eternity.
We had been traveling in this silence for three days now.
After these three days, I realized that the hardships in the Gobi Desert were almost nothing compared to what we experienced now. Around here, we didn’t even dare to get off the camel and step on the ground during the hours when the sun was at its fiercest because every grain of sand beneath our feet felt as if it had been baked over fire. We could feel it even through the thick soles of our boots.
Water rations were the same as in the Gobi Desert. Each person carried a leather water pouch at their waist. It was enough, but still, our lips and throats always felt parched. As the weather took quite some toll on us, we became less talkative. Most of the time, only the bells of the lead camel and rear camel jingled in concert, echoing through the vast expanse of the sand ocean.
The only interesting moment was when the mirage appeared. As if to compensate for never once showing up in the Gobi Desert, this spectacular sight had been showing up in this area over the past few days, adding a touch of color to this otherwise drab journey.
At first, seeing the mirage could uplift our spirits, but after seeing it many times, it became boring, especially for Lian’er. The thing that she disliked the most was deceit and falsehood, and this natural wonder was both. That was why when she figured it out after her initial confusion, she wasn’t fond of these desert mirages. Whenever she spotted one, she would turn to me and say, “Here comes another imposter.”
On the contrary, the guides were happy to see these. Initially, I thought it was just because they liked it, but I heard them explain later during our rest stops that the appearance of mirage meant there would be no wind. Those who were used to traveling in the desert would rather endure the scorching heat than face the sandstorm. If we could see the mirage every day, we could get through the desert, safe and sound.
I must say that I had no idea whether what he said was true, but as words of experience that passed down through generations, there might be some truth to it.
And soon enough, reality would prove that.
On the fourth day, the mirage had never once appeared, but the weather remained calm, with a clear sky and no sign of wind. Traveling in the desert, the scorching heat was much like the previous days, so none of us thought much about it.
Shortly after noon, as Lian’er and I were leaning against each other on the camel’s back, wrapped in blankets and drifting off to sleep, we suddenly heard a thunderous shout. The shout came with such force that it nearly startled the camels beneath us.
“Blackwind!” The voice shouted, “Blackwind is coming!”
We both jolted awake. Lian’er reacted faster than me. By the time I lifted the blanket and looked out, the first thing I saw was the bewildered expression with her lips pressed together. As she grew older, this expression had rarely appeared on her face these days. My eyes stayed on her a while longer before turning to look where she was looking. And over the horizon, I saw a massive black wall that reached the sky, as if an army of demons were marching.
Of course, it was neither demons or a wall; it was a natural phenomenon, a sandstorm. The locals called it the “blackwind,” but out of habit I still called it a sandstorm.
Whether it was called “blackwind” or “sandstorm,” it was the same wall, rolling over with visible speed. Everywhere it passed, the blue sky and yellow sand were swallowed by darkness, as if being devoured by a monster, vanishing without a trace.
I remained calm at first because I knew that things weren’t as bad as they seemed despite the dark menace. It might not be much more dangerous than the fierce wind we encountered at the Bai Long Dui. Instead of worrying about being swept away by the strong gusts, we should worry about inhaling the sand dust. That was why my first reaction was to take another scarf, wrap it around my face, and tighten it, making sure that it covered my mouth and nose while reminding Lian’er to do the same.
The two guides, however, were terrified. Perhaps there were too many legends and tales about this kind of sandstorm. They were shouting, “Take cover, quick, take cover!” while hastily spurring the camels towards a nearby large sand dune, seemingly wanting to use the sand dune as a natural barrier. We went behind it to shield against the brunt of the storm and give ourselves a break.
But the sandstorm was moving faster than expected. Before we could get behind the sand dune, the wall of darkness was just a few yards away. As it approached closer, its force became even more immense, engulfing the sky in an oppressive darkness. Cries and howls came from the gusts, like the wails of ghosts and the howls of wolves.
The guides wanted to push on, but in just an instant, the wall of wind towered over us, engulfing the entire camel caravan with the force of Mount Tai crashing down.
In the moment when the light around was swallowed up, someone wrapped me in their arms.
It felt completely different to be swathed within the vortex of wind. All I could hear was the piercing howl of the wind, and when I opened my eyes, they felt dry, and it was as dark as night around. I looked up at the person who was shielding me. She wasn’t looking at me but looking around with frowned brows, her eyes as sharp as knives.
It was hard to see anything beyond a few steps, so it was impossible to move any further. After a while, the guides followed the caravan of camels and slowly groped their way towards us. They shouted, “We can’t move forward! Off the camels! Off the camels! Make walls!” Their hoarse voices swayed in the wind.
I exchanged a glance with Lian’er. Despite not understanding what he was saying, we followed his instructions and jumped off the camel. Indeed, it felt safer to be on the ground. The camels, despite their massive size, wobbled in the strong wind, adding to our worry.
When the guide saw us get off the camels, he slogged forward to take the camels, but he stopped after a few steps and waved his hand at us, gesturing for us to stay with him. Meanwhile, another guide and Old Tie emerged from the dark, holding the leash to the rest of the camels. Then they worked together against the wind and managed to make the four camels to lie down in each direction, forming a tight square formation. We stayed in the middle of the formation, or more precisely, surrounded by it.
When I saw what they were doing, I finally understood what they meant by making walls. I pulled Lian’er close and crouched down next to the sturdiest camel. The relentless onslaught of sand and wind died down. The others followed suit, seeking refuge behind the temporary shield formed by the towering animals, providing us with a brief respite.
The time we waited for the danger to pass was excruciatingly long.
With the protection provided by the camels’ sturdy bodies, the force of the sandstorm was weakened, but the reminding force was still plentiful to deal with. Fine grains of sand found their way into every crevice. Even though we were prepared for it, it became harder and harder to breathe. Assuming Lian’er felt the same way as I did, I wanted to take her into my arms and shield her. Just as I reached out my hand, the person beside me made the same move before I could, and it was me who ended up in her arms instead.
“I’ve already told you, stop trying to be tough in front of me. Your body is clearly weaker than me,” she lowered her head and said. We were already crouching close to each other, and with her head lowered like this, her voice was right next to my ears. Even the usual assertiveness in her tone was unmistakable.
Letting out a sigh, I didn’t try to argue. I snuggled into her arms and wrapped my arms around her lowered head, so her mouth and nose rested snugly against my nape before I whispered, “This way, we both can cover our mouth and nose.”
Lian’er seemed to have smiled. I couldn’t see it in my position, but I could feel the warmth of her breath against my neck.
After that, we fell silent. It wasn’t the place to talk. We just had to hide in the small space that we created for each other and breathe quietly amidst the raging storm as we waited for the extreme weather to pass.
If we were to say what was the most intimidating part of this weather, it would be its length. A sandstorm might not be as destructive as a tornado, but it lasted longer. It could last for hours, even days, making it nearly impossible to walk. It even changed the surrounding landscape, leaving inexperienced travelers disoriented and lost. If it were to get to that point, it would be a true catastrophe.
Fortunately, we had two experienced guides by our side, so we didn’t have to worry about getting lost. The only problem was when would this storm be over? Time flew in this dark space. The sand started to accumulate against the camels, piling higher and higher. No matter how sturdy the creatures were, they were starting to struggle under the weight. Thankfully, Old Tie was great with his palms. Every time the sand piled too tall, he went out the cover braving the wind and sent a few palms to clear away or knock down the sand piles. After a few rounds, the old man was covered in sand, looking like a dull yellowish sand-man.
I had no idea how much time had passed, but the sandstorm showed no sign of abating; it didn’t even seem to be letting up.
It would be a lie if I said that I wasn’t worried at all, but there was nothing we could do. Humans have always been small and insignificant in the face of nature. Since we were leaving it to fate, there was no need to worry too much. Besides, the formidable Jade Rakshasa wouldn’t be buried in these yellow sands. Once I was sure of that, I felt there was nothing to worry about. I just had to stay in her arms.
However, as if to burst my naive bubble, fate decided to play a little joke on us.
As I lay in her arms, I started to hear something out of the ordinary. It was faint, and it came and went, but it was there.
I didn’t pay much mind to it at first since it was hardly surprising to hear some eerie sounds amidst this howling tempest, but slowly, it caught my attention. It wasn’t just because the sound kept coming, but it sounded… very close, like it was right next to my ears.
Because of this subconscious unease, I started to look for the sound. I started off by looking around, but then my gestures became larger, and finally, it alerted Lian’er. She lifted her head off my neck and said with annoyance, “What’s wrong? Why are you moving about so much?”
I couldn’t answer, or rather, I didn’t have the time to answer because as she lifted her head, I saw the source of the faint sound over her shoulder.
In almost the same instant, the thing that made the sound reached its limit. Amid the howling wind came an insignificant snap, then a snake-like shadow whipped upward, cut through the air, and swooped towards us!
“Watch out!” I was the one who had the clearest view. I quickly gave Lian’er a shove, but I couldn’t get a good shove because of my position. However, Lian’er was no ordinary person. Even without me pushing, she could sense the danger behind her. She got up with my push and even had the time to push me in another direction, getting me out of the danger.
The snake-like shadow struck the ground between us, leaving behind a deep welt. When we took a closer look, it turned out that it wasn’t a whip but a rope used to secure the baggage on the wooden frame that was attached to the camel.
Because we were in a rush earlier, no one had removed the baggage from the camel’s back. Besides, the added weight on the camels was good for withstanding the strong wind, so there was no need to remove it.
But no one had expected that the rope used to secure them would snap, and what was worse, it was the main rope that snapped.
While Lian’er dodged the rope, I watched the strong wind sweep away the now detached wooden frame like a toy. Without a second thought, I immediately got up and chased after it.
Because what it carried was the most vital thing for our journey through the desert—water.