Author: Slopaw (Page 1 of 9)

This is Slopaw.

The Witch Nichang- Chapter 81 Sand

The Witch Nichang– Chapter 81


In the desert, water is equivalent to life, whether for animals, plants, or humans.

Although our supplies were ample and were split into two, nearly half of our supplies were depleted on the fourth day. Now, apart from the little that was in our pouch, the rest was all in the two wooden barrels secured onto the frame. That was something we absolutely couldn’t afford to lose!

In the realm of sand and dust where no light could penetrate, I fixed my gaze on a distant speck of color. I didn’t dare to blink my eyes even when they were dry, afraid that the little trace would vanish in the chaos in the blink of an eye. The wind carrying sand and rocks was wreaking havoc everywhere. The wind remained as fierce as ever. Several tens of pounds was nothing to it. I watched as the wind carried the barrel further away. I nearly lost sight of them a few times with the sand obscuring my vision, let alone chasing after it and getting a hold on it. 

After chasing after it for a while, I was getting more anxious. While I hadn’t paid much attention to where I was heading, it was clear that I was straying farther from the group. If I continued like this, I would probably lose my sense of direction even if I managed to retrieve our stuff, and once I was lost in the desert alone, not only would I put myself in danger, the group would probably not be able to wait for me. Then the pursuit would become a futile endeavor. 

I couldn’t stop; I couldn’t afford to stop. The only way left was… I steeled myself, channeled my qi, and jumped with qi, trying to lighten myself amidst the raging sandstorm and moving with the wind, hoping that I could make it quick. 

It wasn’t that I hadn’t considered doing this before, but it was too risky. It was like transforming myself into a leaf in the midst of a tempest. Besides, channeling qi required steady breathing which was almost impossible in this sandy weather. 

That was why, each time after I closed some distance, I would lose my balance and get tumbled to the ground by the wind, but there was no time to worry about that. When I fell, I would fumble to my feet and continue. I couldn’t care less about my parched throat, gritty eyes, and sand-caked clothes. The body would ignore these minor discomforts when pushed to its limit. 

After repeating this cycle for a few times, I gradually got the hang of it. The time I could hold my qi was getting longer each time. There were a few times that I almost caught up to it, and right then, the heavens seemed to have a change of heart. The brown barrel that was rolling in the sand haze came to a halt, as if it had fallen into a sand pit. 

I saw it despite my stinging eyes, and I was elated. Almost out of breath, I pushed on and dashed for the barrel. When my feet touched the ground, before standing firm, I bent down to grab it. 

When I stepped and grabbed, I came to realize that the heavens weren’t having a change of heart but pulled an even greater prank on me. 

The sand beneath my feet was loose and strangely soft, as if what I stepped on wasn’t sand but something semi-liquid. My feet sank, and the sand was up to my shins. I froze, instinctively trying to pull my leg up. As I lifted my right leg, instead of pulling it out, I found my left leg sinking even deeper, the sand now up to my knees!

There was a mild and peculiar suction gripping my legs. A thought dawned on me with a chill—quicksand!

I faintly recalled an old desert veteran mentioning this term. He said that there were swamps that could ensnare people, but no quicksand could do that. If it existed, the odds of encountering it were even lower than hitting the jackpot. Well, it was an unusual way to die. I had no regrets.

Yet here I was, undoubtedly hitting the “jackpot.” Maybe the times were different, and the odds of encountering such a phenomenon were different. Even as I felt my legs gradually being consumed by the quicksand, I had the mind to think about that. Then I concluded that: How could I possibly die without regrets?

There were too many regrets that come with a sudden death.  

I racked my brain for any knowledge that could help me get out of this situation. I vaguely remembered the survival tips about swamps and frozen lakes. Applying that knowledge, I kept still. However, I didn’t realize the danger soon enough as I landed. The force of my landing and gravity had me sinking deeper. I had been knee deep in the quicksand in an instant and missed the best window of escape. 

And the sinking continued, slowly but surely at a visible pace. I could feel my body being swallowed inch by inch. It didn’t help even if I spread my arms out to increase my surface area. Every way I could think of failed. The sinking persisted slowly but steadily, almost in a gentle and methodical manner.

Closing my eyes, strangely, I wasn’t afraid, just slightly nauseous. The huge pressure enveloping me was so strong that it felt like I was being swallowed by a python. 

There was no frantic flailing that quickened the descent. This process was excruciatingly long without any way to escape, making it even agonizing. 

When the loose sand was up to my waist, the sinking seemed to have slowly come to a halt. The pressure around me was so strong that I couldn’t feel the suction anymore. I was no longer sinking. Instead, I felt like I was trapped in a plaster made of sand, and now the plaster was solidifying, so my body was suspended, the sand constricting on me so tightly that I felt my blood struggling to flow. 

Despite the situation, one would think it offered a glimmer of hope. After all, as long as I didn’t continue sinking, I wouldn’t be buried by the sand. Unfortunately, the presence of the all-encompassing sandstorm made itself glaringly obvious at this moment. 

This scouring sandstorm hadn’t stopped even for a moment. If it had helped in leading up to this, it was now adding fuel to the fire, or more accurately, it was adding sand to an already sandy situation. 

The fierce wind swept up vast amounts of dust and sand from the ground, and my immobilized body was like a natural windbreak. The sand piled up around me like snowdrifts in no time. Every time I tried to push it away, no matter how careful I was, I would sink a little deeper, yet I had to do it. 

After repeating this for a few times, only the area above my chest wasn’t in the sand. If things continued like this, it wouldn’t be long before I was either swallowed by the quicksand or be buried by the sandstorm. It seemed like both situations led to the same end. 

Coming to terms with this, my heart remained calm, perhaps because the situation was unfolding at an extremely slow pace, so my heart didn’t sense the urgency. What concerned me the most now was the water problem. 

Looking back, it was right within arm’s reach. It hadn’t sunk because it was lighter than the human body, but it was mostly buried by the sandstorm by now. If I was going to die because of this, I didn’t want to die in vain. With that thought in mind, even though I couldn’t move much, I continued to clear the sand, exposing it from the sand. However, I hesitated, unable to decide. Should I continue to clear away the sand, making it easier for Lian’er and the others to find it later, or should I let it be buried to prevent Lian’er from accidentally falling into this deadly trap? 

Lian’er… I couldn’t let her fall into this deadly trap… But what if she couldn’t find water? What then… 

But then again, she should be able to get out of this desert, shouldn’t she? She’s different from others. She’s Lian Nichang. She’s the Jade Rakshasa. Fate might hurt her, but it would also protect her. Thinking this way, I should be grateful for the existence of fate. And if she couldn’t find me in the end, would she be sad… 

I was thinking too much, my thoughts too scattered. My head was starting to hurt, perhaps because of the sandstorm, or perhaps because of a lack of oxygen. Tiny grains of sand filled the gaps around my body with each breath, and the pressure on my chest was getting stronger. I could only breathe in small and shallow breaths, feeling like a fish pulled out of the water, struggling helplessly. 
So, is this another path that leads to the same end? My mind came to a complete stop as I thought hazily.

The Witch Nichang- Chapter 80 Wind

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.

The Witch Nichang- Chapter 79 Unsure

The Witch Nichang– Chapter 79


How do you know that person?

Know? Know who? These words came into my ears and spun around in my head before I fully grasped what they meant.

What Lian’er said wasn’t that hard to understand. What made me hesitate was why she asked that question. If I wasn’t overthinking, it sounded like… I blinked, trying to sort out the whirlwind of thoughts in my head while stalling for time by asking, “What?” to see her response. 

Lian’er let out a humph and said, raising her brows, “You just sang a song praising her, and now you don’t remember?” Her expression turned serious, and the warmth in her smile faded away. 

Anyone who knew her would understand that this was a sign of her getting angry. I didn’t dare to ignore it. With no time to sort out the jumble of thoughts in my head, I forced a smile and replied honestly, “I know no one called Alamuhan. I only know the song, and I heard it back then from somewhere else. There’s no way I know her.”

“Really? Back then?” Lian’er rarely doubted me, but this time she just didn’t believe me, or at least she seemed rather skeptical. Her bright eyes narrowed a little, looking at me sideways, and she said, “That song clearly comes from this area. How could you have heard it in the Central Plains? Don’t think I don’t know, and don’t try to bluff me. That won’t do.”

She wasn’t as easily convinced as she had been when she was little. I scratched my face awkwardly and explained with an apologetic smile, “Really, a few years ago, when I was away from Mount Hua, I heard it from… a wandering physician. He stayed in our village for a few days when he was passing through. He usually just took care of his patients, but when he got drunk, he liked to sing some random songs. Maybe he’d been to the Western Regions before. I just happened to remember some songs after listening to him so many times.”

It had been a while since I last lied off the cuff. I had no other choice this time. I couldn’t tell her that I learned it from some TV show, could I? I spoke without turning a hair. She heard it, and it probably made sense to her, so she lightened up quite a bit and even gave a slight nod. I saw that and thought that I had gotten away with it. I was about to sort out the thoughts that I had swept aside earlier when suddenly, I heard her voice again, “Then… how about singing another one for me?”

“Huh?” This time I was truly caught off guard and stood there frozen. 

“I’m asking you to sing another one for me,” the girl in front of me repeated, this time with a commanding tone, as if she were one of those old men in the tavern asking for a song. Even her mischievous smile was similar to theirs. “You said you remembered some songs. If so, it shouldn’t be difficult to sing another one, right? Or you’re just trying to bluff me? If that’s the case, I won’t let you get away so easily.”

I was left speechless, choking on my words. Seriously… she wasn’t as easily convinced as she was when she was little…

Standing among the sand dunes, the wind had picked up at some point, carrying with it the distant echoes of drums and revelry. Looking back, the few heaps of fires stood out in the dark. The shadows of people mingled together by the fire, engrossed in mirth and laughter, oblivious to the trouble they had inadvertently caused me.

Because of the interruption of this thought, I drifted off for a moment, and Lian’er caught this brief moment of silence. She seemed to have misunderstood it because her expression immediately changed, and she said angrily, “So? You can’t? So you were actually just playing me for a fool!”

She startled me, and I thought to myself, shit. I quickly turned to look at her and tried to explain, “No, Lian’er. It’s just that… I’m not familiar with those songs. I can’t just sing whenever I want. Earlier, I remembered that song because of the music they were playing. You have to give me some time to remember it, right?”

“Then how come you could sing right away when that little girl asked you to, but you have to think when I ask you? Hmph… ” She didn’t throw a fit but flung her hand, turned her head away, and ignored me.

Since a moment ago, I wasn’t sure what she was thinking and what her actions meant anymore. Is it merely out of curiosity that she asked that question? Or is it because she cares? If that’s the reason, what is it that she cares about? Is it the person praised in the song? But judging by her last sentence, it seems to be directed at the little girl…

Apart from that, what is even more important is where this strange concern comes from? Is it from her competitive nature? Or is it…

I didn’t dare to dream, but there was a glimmer of hope, and it had become a bother. These days, I truly experienced its joy and sorrow. If… if this was what they called “jealousy,” then even if it was an unintentional act on her part, even if it could be interpreted in many different ways, it was enough for me to secretly rejoice in it. 

Under the influence of this train of thought, a smile crept up my lips. Meanwhile, beside me, Lian’er was still sulking, her slightly pouty face as adorable as ever in the moonlight. My mood brightened, and I said cheerfully, “Alright, I remember a song. Lian’er, do you really want to hear?” As expected, she gave me a glare, as if I was saying the obvious. 

So, I took a deep breath of the night air. Next to my ears were the distant sounds of the musical instruments. With the faint music, I slowly breathed out the air that I had taken in and with it came the melody of a lighthearted and bouncy song.

This time, it was still a Xinjiang folk song, once familiar to most people in another era. My lips sang while my eyes looked intently at the person beside me. Lian’er didn’t look at me, her head turned to the side, sulking, but she was listening. She looked fine during the first line, but as I sang the second line, praising the beauty of women, a hint of displeasure flickered in her eyes, which were looking elsewhere. 

Lian’er was proud, but what she didn’t realize was that I was looking into her eyes as I sang that line. 

I couldn’t tell her that I had seen far more beauties of women than she could imagine. Among those with all kinds of appearances, some might be able to match up to her, but none of them possessed an air similar to hers. It was the vitality and wildness in her, an invisible radiance. Anyone who had seen her could never take their eyes off again. 

But what truly captivated me wasn’t any of those things. 

It wasn’t those things; I couldn’t quite explain what was. All I knew was that I could no longer take my eyes off. 

It felt like a lot of thoughts were going through my mind at that moment, but it was just a fleeting thought in my mind. My lips continued to sing the song, almost a subconscious act separate from my thoughts.

“If you were to get married, don’t marry someone else, marry me”—With nothing else in my eyes, I didn’t know what expression I was wearing or how my voice sounded when I sang that line, but I saw that she suddenly turned her head around and looked straight at me. 

My heart skipped, and my voice choked. I forgot how the song was supposed to go, so I closed my mouth and looked at her. 

The distant bustle kept on, but here the air fell into silence. Only the gentle breeze and the bright moon remained, the night sky soft as water. 

After a while, Lian’er tilted her head and said, “The lyrics are so weird. Good that you didn’t sing this earlier. People would have laughed if they heard it. You’re wearing women’s clothes tonight, not Hu clothes. Not appropriate.”

I smiled lightheartedly and asked, “If I wore men’s clothes, would you think it’s appropriate?”

She raised her head, pondered for a moment, and finally said, “No, it still wouldn’t be appropriate.”

After that, we didn’t continue the conversation. I steered it in a different direction, engaging in random chatter for a while before convincing her to go back to the shack to rest. 

What would happen if I mustered the courage to continue? Sometimes, when I think back, I can’t help but feel a sense of regret for not doing so. 

But I was glad that I didn’t, for I would soon understand the true meaning behind her words. 

Though the gathering lasted late into the night, the caravan made up of four camels and five people set off at dawn as scheduled. 

Before we left, the friendly locals provided us with ample supplies. The experienced and sturdy camels led the way with light loads, while water and provisions were evenly distributed between the two camels in the middle, and the last camel carried our luggage. 

Things were meticulously arranged because the journey ahead would be the most treacherous part. Even the most experienced local guide wouldn’t dare to take it lightly. 

That was a vast stretch of desert with no end in sight.

The Witch Nichang- Chapter 78 Song

The Witch Nichang– Chapter 78


While I was drinking the medicine… um, tea, the three of us stood there and talked about what happened during the time I was out. Old Tie did most of the talking because he was quite pleased with himself for making a wise decision. That was why he was a little more talkative. 

“You know, it’s because they were familiar with this area and could speak the local dialect that I decided to hire them!”

When the old man got to the exciting part, he clapped his hands together with a pop as if he had sealed a deal, “This place is too remote. If you don’t speak the local dialect, it’s difficult to get anything done. Even if someone is willing to help you, they will only go so far. They wouldn’t have let us stay in their houses like they did now.” 

Because he was proud of himself, Old Tie was rambling a little, but it was still understandable. This place wasn’t just anywhere in the desert; it was the Lop Nur that the guides kept talking about over the past few days, a lake located between the Gobi Desert and the Great Desert. In a sense, it was like a wonderland on earth. 

Once we left Bai Long Dui, we weren’t that far away from this place, and I had been unconscious. They were worried about me although my pulse was normal, so after discussing among themselves, they decided to travel overnight. After traveling almost all night, they finally arrived here before dawn. Thanks to our guides’ familiarity with the locals, we received their friendly help and were able to get a good rest.  

When the old man was almost done with his exciting story, I was almost done with my tea. 

Since I had never heard of such a place, I had always been curious about this legendary place. Now that I was standing at the door, and the view was just outside, I couldn’t wait to see it. I tilted my head back and downed the last gulp of the strong tea, then said hurriedly, “Let’s go and have a look!” Without even putting down the bowl, I swiftly maneuvered around the towering figure of the old man and stepped out of the door. 

When I stepped out of the door, the first thing that came into view was a dazzling yolk-yellow sun. By that time, twilight had set in. The setting sun was on the horizon, reflecting off the shimmering ripples of the water. 

To say the water was rippling would be inaccurate, for the water was very calm, so calm that it looked more like a mirror reflecting the clear sky. The ripples were caused by a large flock of wild ducks playing on the water. Further away, there were other waterfowl circling over the water from time to time, letting out crisp chirps. Looking into the distance, the sky and the water merged into one, like the horizon of the sea.

The guides said that this was Big Lake or Peacock Sea. I thought at first that the former name was closer to reality, but who knew the latter was a more vivid description of it. 

I gazed at the view in front of me for a while before turning my head to look around. The house sat by the water, about ten steps away from the shallow waters. Around it were a few similar buildings. All of them were simple low shacks mostly made out of mud bricks and branches, surrounded by a fence made of thin branches. 

The sand dunes around these shacks were covered with red willows and reeds, with numerous tall poplar trees of varying shapes, like a barrier that protected this place and isolated it from the desolation beyond into two different worlds. 

“How is it? Surprised? Haha.” There were footsteps rustling behind me, and the person in the house came out with me. Old Tie guffawed and said, “Even I was surprised when I first saw it. Who would have thought that there could be such a gem in the barren Gobi Desert! This must be what a hidden paradise looks like!”

“What did those two guides call this place?” I asked without looking back, gazing at the view in front of me. Then the old man replied, “Uh, I think it’s called Lop… Lop Nur? The local dialect is difficult to pronounce, and I don’t know what it means. Why do you ask?”

Lop Nur… Lop… Nur…

I silently repeated it a couple of times, and suddenly, something dawned on me. It all became clear to me. It was hard to describe the feeling. I pressed my lips together and chuckled softly to myself.

“What? Do you know this place too?” Lian’er walked up from behind, turned her head to the side, and looked at me.

“No, I don’t know this place.” Smiling, I shook my head and said, “The place I know is a dried-up salt lake, the Sea of Death with no one within a thousand miles. It’s called Lop Nor, not Lop Nur.”

This place had plenty of clean water and dry firewood for boiling water. It was great news for people who had been traveling through the desert for days, especially for women. When I woke up, Lian’er had obviously just taken a bath. I didn’t know what she had thought of. Seeing that I was feeling better, she abruptly changed the subject and hurried me. 

“Who cares if it’s called Lop or whatnot. You go wash up first,” she said as she took the tea bowl from me and pushed me towards another shack. “There’s still hot water so hurry up! Food should be ready when you’re done.”

As she pushed me forward, it occurred to me that when I woke up… I turned around to ask her as I let her push me forward, “By the way, Lian’er, was it you who changed my clothes while I was asleep?”

She wouldn’t just let someone else do it for me. I was pretty sure of that. 

The response I got was a grunt. It seemed like Lian’er couldn’t even be bothered to give me a direct answer. She replied, “The Hu clothes have been covered in sand and dust for several days. I couldn’t stand it even if you could. How could I sleep with someone who’s dirty?” With that, she pushed me into the shack. 

Although what she said was true, as a lady, it felt a bit uncomfortable to hear someone saying that you were dirty, especially when that someone was… Just as I was about to say something, the door creaked shut in front of me. I knew that Lian’er didn’t mean what she said. I sighed and smiled, then turned around to look at the house. 

Inside, it was still a small room, with simple wooden frames and a simple barrel filled with clear water with a simple ladle floating on top. In a scorching hot place, the heat dissipated slowly, so the water was still warm. The temperature was pleasant. It was just that… the walls were riddled with gaps. I couldn’t help but frown at it. Just then, a voice came from outside, “Hurry up! I’ll wait for you outside.”

Her tone was impatient, but it was her unique way of expression. Smiling, I wanted to ask who had been on the lookout for her but thought better of it. 

If I asked, she would probably give me an haughty answer like “How could I have not noticed if someone was sneaking around.” I could imagine her saying that. 

When a person had something to be proud of, being proud of it was a straightforward way to express it, although this kind of frankness often went against the social norms, was disliked by most people, and some even condemned it as evil. 

But I didn’t know when it started. Everything Lian’er said and did was right and… adorable, at least in my eyes. 

The sun was setting while I was taking a bath. After a relaxing hot bath, the moon and stars were already hanging high in the sky. When I walked outside, a cool breeze was blowing. In the distance, several piles of poplar tree branches were lit into bonfires by the water. A group of people were sitting around the fire, talking and laughing. The wind carried wafts of fragrant smell over, stirring my appetite. 

“You took so long.” Lian’er was leaning lazily against a poplar tree, her hand idly fiddling with a yellowish twig. She hadn’t said anything earlier to hurry me, but now that she saw me, she felt the need to complain. Then she walked over to me and said with a smile, “Come on, let’s go eat.” Without another word, she took my hand and headed towards the bonfire.

As we approached the bonfire, the noise grew louder and the smell stronger. Skewers of fatty fish were crackling over the fire. About ten plainly dressed men, women, and children sat around the fire chatting away with the old man and the two guides. From their high cheekbones, deep eyes, and their slightly curly hair, it was obvious that they were people of a different ethnicity. They were no doubt the local natives. 

Fortunately, Lian’er had gotten used to seeing them travel all this way, even more so for me. As soon as they saw us, they waved and called out to us enthusiastically. Although we couldn’t quite communicate with words, their smiles and body language were expressive. 

So we joined in, enjoying the food and drinks together. The fish were caught from the lake, crispy on the outside and tender on the inside. They were fresh and tasty. We drank some of the good wine that we had brought as a gift. For these locals who rarely went out, it was a nice gift. They were more than happy to share their joy and the good stuff with their guests. 

After days of arduous traveling, we were finally able to have a freshly made hot meal. Everyone was happy. The guides were getting along with the locals, and even Lian’er had a lazy and contented smile on her face. Old Tie challenged the others to a drink, enjoying himself to the fullest.

The moon was soft, and the wind was gentle as we chatted over drinks.

Our stomachs were full of food and drink, but we still hadn’t had enough. Those who could sing or dance had put down their plates, picked up their musical instruments, and began singing and dancing around the bonfire. The ethnic groups of the western regions had a unique style of art, from musical instruments to dances. It had a special charm. As the strings were strummed, and the drums trembled, cheerful rhythms flowed out like water. Others joined in with singing and dancing as the performance reached its climax. They were natural-born singers and dancers. The atmosphere was filled with excitement and joy. 

As the atmosphere reached its peak, a girl of about ten suddenly came out of the crowd and pattered over here. She must have figured out who the easy target was because she timidly glanced at Lian’er before grabbing my arm and pulling me toward the center. Then with a joyful expression, she blabbered some words.

She was loud, but no matter how loud she was, I couldn’t understand a thing she said. While I was confused, with a smile on my face, a guide who was chatting animatedly with the locals chimed in. He laughed and shouted, “The girl wants you to sing a song or dance. Dear guest, everyone is having fun now. Do you really want to turn her down now? She will think that the guest is not happy.”

The crowd erupted into a chorus of cheers at his call, even Old Tie had joined in the cheering. I was caught in the middle of the clamor. I knew that they wouldn’t let me go if I didn’t perform something and I also felt that I shouldn’t shy away from this. As I was thinking, the music that the instruments were playing triggered a memory. I cleared my throat and began to sing a well-known Xinjiang folk song:

What does Alamuhan look like? Neither fat nor thin.

What does Alamuhan look like? Neither fat nor thin.

Her brows curved like crescent moons,

Her waist like weeping willows,

Her lips speak of love untold,

And her eyes can send shivers down your spine.

Where does Alamuhan live? Three hundred and sixty miles west of Turpan.

Where does Alamuhan live? Three hundred and sixty miles west of Turpan.

I only vaguely remembered the lyrics and melody, but luckily the melody was simple and the lyrics were repetitive. I could improvise any parts that I couldn’t remember. It wasn’t too difficult. The point was that this song matched well with the instruments. Although I sang in Chinese, which the locals didn’t understand, the response was still great when I finished. It even stirred up a louder round of cheers than before. 

I couldn’t handle this kind of overwhelmingly direct enthusiasm from the crowd, but as a guest, I had to smile and nod along, my eyes instinctively looking for someone, only to be surprised to find that she was no longer in her original spot. 

With no time left for pleasantries, I politely declined the guide’s invitation for another song and squeezed my way through the crowd to get to Old Tie. He was holding a wine bowl, stumbling his way back from where Lian’er had been. 

“Old man, where’s Lian’er? Where did she go? Did you see her?” I grabbed his arm and asked loudly, the sound of the music now becoming a bit of a nuisance. 

Fortunately, although his face was red from drinking, his eyes were still clear. When he heard my question, he let out a hearty laugh and said, “You are asking about Jadey? Haha, she was here just now. I wanted to challenge her to a drink, but she refused to drink no matter what. When I pushed her too far, she just turned and left. Such a stubborn child. Ha! But I like it!”

I didn’t have time for the old man who was already slurring his words. It didn’t seem like he had anything important to say, so I headed in the direction he had mentioned. Lian’er could be a little unpredictable. From what he said, it sounded like she wasn’t in a good mood. I didn’t know exactly what the old man had said to her, or if he had done something to upset her. 

Although this was an oasis, once we left the poplar forest, we would be in the Gobi Desert. That worried me.

Not far ahead was a large expanse of sand dunes. The only difference between here and the sand dunes outside of the forest was that this place was covered with red willows and other low shrubs that I couldn’t recognize. It seemed vibrant and full of life. 

Lian’er stood among the sand dunes, looking up at the moon or perhaps the stars. The hue of white was obvious in the dark. I had seen her from a distance, which was reassuring. I walked over and stood beside her, asking, “What’s wrong? What are you doing being so far away from everyone?”

Even when Lian’er was angry, she wouldn’t take her anger out on anyone. She turned to look at me and replied with a frown, “It’s too noisy. It was fun at first, but it gets annoying after a while. Godfather even asked me to have a drink with him. I don’t like it, so it’s better for me to leave.”

“If so, I’ll stay with you,” I nodded and took her hand. “Let them have their fun. We can go to bed early. We might be on the road again tomorrow. We should rest. Let’s go.”

With that, I grabbed her and turned around to leave, but to my surprise, she didn’t move a step. 

“Are you okay? How can you still feel like sleeping after such a long sleep?” A familiar voice asked beside me. I turned around and saw Lian’er looking at me seriously. Because of the moonlight, her eyelashes cast a faint shadow under her eyelids. 

My heart warmed, and I chuckled, “This time, it’s to make up for the lack of sleep I had a few days ago. Besides, even if I can’t sleep, I can keep you company.”

“Hm, that’s true…” Her bright eyes flickered for a moment, and then she nodded. “You can talk to me or hum a song. Your songs may sound strange but you sing well.”

As she spoke, her expression remained serious and calm, her lips curving slightly upward out of habit. Then, seemingly curious, she threw out a question, “By the way, how did you know the person named Alamuhan?”

The Witch Nichang- Chapter 77 As She Said

The Witch Nichang– Chapter 77

As She Said

Lian’er had a bad temper. She had gotten angry at me many times since she was a child. The way she vented her anger had changed as she grew older, from direct attacks when she was a child to verbal attacks, and recently, she had been giving me the silent treatment quite often. Regardless of how she vented, I could still handle it, so I wasn’t that afraid of making her angry. 

But I was afraid of making her worry. 

Unlike most of the time when her emotions were straightforward, Lian’er tended to bottle up her feelings when she was worried, as if she didn’t know how to express them, like the last time I got hurt. She didn’t say anything, but I could tell that it had bothered her.

Her expression then was similar to the one now. 

“Lian’er…cough… ” Although I wanted to reassure her, it wasn’t exactly an ideal situation to talk. As soon as I opened my mouth, I choked on my own blood and the sand dust that gushed into my mouth. I turned my head to the side and coughed, trying to block the wind with one hand and stop the bleeding with the other, and at the same time, I wanted to get to her quickly, so I found myself in a difficult situation. Everything was a mess.

But in the next moment, the raging wind died down a little because someone had stood in front of me, her clothes flapping in the wind.

I could barely open my eyes because of the wind, but even so, I knew who was standing in front of me. I didn’t care about blocking the wind. With one hand pressing on my bleeding nose, I grabbed the person in front of me with the other hand and said loudly, “It’s okay! It’s just that the air has been too dry and hot these past few days, and I’m a little overheated. Don’t worry about it!”

The howling of the wind was so loud that it almost drowned out my shouts. After that, I squinted, but I couldn’t see her expression, nor did I get any response. There was nothing I could do at the moment, so I had to focus on the important thing first. I turned her around with a jerk and freed my hand that was stopping the bleeding to point in the direction where I had found the old path, gesturing for her to look into the distance. 

As soon as I moved my hand away from my nose, the blood came gushing out again, and even tilting my head back didn’t help. Maybe because of the sandstorm, this time happened to be the worst of all the times it had happened. I was annoyed with myself and even blamed my body a little, but there was nothing else I could do, except to put pressure on my nose again to stop the bleeding. Just as I was about to pull my hand back, someone pressed down on the side where my nose was bleeding before I did.

“Lower your head.” I was patted on the back, then I heard Lian’er voice. We were close to each other, so her voice was moderate, “Tilting your head back will only make your blood flow backwards. Since there’s heat in the blood, it’s better not to swallow it.”

I lowered my head slightly as she said, and then she whistled. The sharp whistle managed to break through the wind and traveled beyond. After a while, a tall figure came over against the wind. His voice came before his body. He called out, “What’s wrong? Have you found…” He was in front of us before he finished, but he stopped abruptly, and his voice changed to a strange tone, “Huh? What’s going on here? What are you doing, lowering your head like that, Zhu’er? And why do you need someone to hold you? Are you hurt?” 

I couldn’t answer him or shake my head, so I just waved my hand. Lian’er took over and said “She’s feeling a little sick. I want to take her back to the camel and let her rest. We’ve found the path. Godfather, you can help us navigate the way together with the guides.”

When the old man heard that we had found the way, he was so happy that he forgot about everything else and kept asking where it was. Since I couldn’t speak, I pointed in the direction I had shown Lian’er earlier. The old man strode over before I had even put my hand down, and at that moment, I felt an arm tighten around my waist. Before I could react, I was lifted up and brought to the ground.

Lian’er brought me down from a high place. Although her movements were gentle, the fact that she didn’t warn me showed that she was angry. I stumbled a bit before steadying myself, but I didn’t say much else.

The posture of looking down with my nose covered while being supported looked strange. When I braced against the wind and sand and returned to the caravan, I could feel the surprised gazes of the guides on me, and it was also uncomfortable to be held like this. When we reached our camel, I couldn’t help but put my hand on Lian’er’s fingers, which were pressing against the side of my nose. I looked up, shook my head slightly, and said softly, “I’m fine, Lian’er. Try letting go of your hand? The bleeding should have stopped by now. Don’t worry.”

She shot me a look but didn’t seem to be against it, allowing me to hold her hand, tug it a little, and gently pull it away. Probably because she had kept pressure on it for a while, it didn’t bleed again this time. I let out a long sigh of relief. Rubbing the bridge of my nose, I wanted to say something, but the people at the front of the caravan were urging us on.

“Lian’er…” I only had time for a word, so I pleaded, “Don’t get angry just yet, okay? We have to get out of here first. Let’s get on the camel first, shall we?” After that, I looked at her, afraid that she would throw a fit regardless of time and place. Given her willful personality, it wouldn’t matter to her even if there was an army charging at us, let alone a sandstorm.

Our eyes met just for a brief moment. Who would have thought that she just blinked, nodded readily, and said, “Okay.”

Lian’er reached for the saddle as she replied, her expression and behavior seeming normal. I was relieved, but she didn’t get on the camel after holding onto the edge of the saddle. Instead, she turned back to look at me after she had steadied the camel. Familiar words came out of her mouth, “You go first and sit in front.”

Startled, I looked to the girl beside me and saw that she was also looking at me with a slight curl on her lip. Her expression was one of knowing, but her pupils were slightly narrowed in a way that allowed no question. 

Coughing awkwardly for a few times, I looked away and got on the camel as she said without a word of protest. 

The group set off again into the strong wind, this time with a clearer sense of direction. Old Tie led us from high above while the two guides expertly maneuvered the camels forward against the wind. Everything was going smoothly, so much so that there was nothing left for the two passengers on the last camel to do. 

But I couldn’t let my guard down, nervously keeping an eye on them. Lian’er pulled a Persian rug out of the luggage behind our camel’s hump. With a wave of her hand, she covered me and herself under the rug. 

I didn’t notice what she was doing at first, so all I felt was that everything around me suddenly went dark, and I found myself in a small dark space, the endless desert blocked from my sight. The gusting air suddenly stopped, and even the sharp whistling of the wind weakened immediately, sounding somewhat muffled.

“Rest if you’re tired.” A familiar voice rang out in the darkness. Because the whistling wind was muffled, Lian’er’s voice sounded especially clear, “Godfather and I are here. What are you trying to prove by acting tough? Stop trying to act tough in front of me.” Even though her tone wasn’t exactly friendly, I felt a hand reach over to my waist, and with a wrap and a pull, I was pulled back against her, just like what I had been doing to her these days. Even the gentle movements were perfectly imitated.

I took a deep breath and slowly closed my eyes. 

I didn’t do what she said because I wanted to please her or because I didn’t want to push her away. It was because I was exhausted. The small space had kept out the raging wind and dust. It felt quiet and safe here. My strained nerves gradually relaxed in the dark. She was right. I was trying to act tough. 

I was aware that I wasn’t the same person I used to be, and I knew my own body, but over the past few days of travel, I had been comparing myself to the past me, both consciously and unconsciously, trying to force the standards from back then on this body. When I realized that I couldn’t meet those standards, I got frustrated and pushed myself too hard. That was why my body couldn’t take it anymore.

At this moment, my agitated dignity finally calmed down. I stopped pushing myself. The fatigue that had been building up hit me all at once. Drowsily, I leaned all my weight on the person behind me and closed my eyes heavily. 

The danger wasn’t over yet. The sandstorm was still raging outside, and I, enclosed in this small space, fell into a dreamless sleep. 

When I woke up from the sleep, it felt like a world away. It wasn’t an exaggeration. As I stretched lazily and sat up slowly, I felt a sense of disorientation as if a lifetime had passed. 

Where was the…desert, sand, dust, and camels? 

I was no longer swaying. I stamped my foot; it was solid ground. When I looked up, there was no desert. Around me were walls made out of mud and a roof made out of thatch. Yes, I was in an ordinary room. The thing that creaked under me when I moved, though unstable, was undoubtedly a bed. 

But that wasn’t the main point. The main point was that I had changed into different clothes. The men’s Hu clothes were gone, and my body felt fresh. I supposed someone had wiped me down. But who? 

Who is it? Where is this place? What happened!

A sudden panic arose. I quickly rolled over and sprang to my feet. The room wasn’t big. A few steps and I was in front of the old wooden door. As I reached out to push the door, it suddenly opened outward by itself. A tall figure came in and almost ran into me head-on!

“Hey! Be careful!” The person was quite strong. He only shook a little after the bump and was standing firm again. He even reached out to help me. “Hey, how come you’re so reckless and clumsy right after waking up? That’s not like you! It’s not a big deal that you bump into me, but if you fall down because of it, I’m afraid Jadey would blame me until hell freezes over!”

It calmed me down a lot to hear his sonorous voice. As expected, when I looked up, I saw Old Tie. My heart, which had been hanging in suspense, was finally released. While feeling embarrassed about my loss of composure, my doubt remained. When I regained my composure, I asked confusedly, “Old man, what’s this place? How come everything has changed after I woke up from a sleep? Where’s the caravan? Where’s Lian’er?”

“A sleep? Zhu’er, that’s a long sleep!” Old Tie stroked his short beard and said, “You’ve been sleeping since we left Bai Long Dui yesterday afternoon. You slept from day to night and then from night to day, and it’s almost evening now. You’ve been sleeping for nearly 24 hours! If your pulse hadn’t been normal and we hadn’t arrived at a place where we could rest, Jadey and I would have been worried sick about you!”

I was speechless after listening to what the old man had said. I was stunned for a while before remembering to respond. As I was about to speak, a voice came from behind the old man, “You’re the one who is worried sick, Godfather. Don’t drag me into this! There were times when she had a high fever as a child and slept longer than this. I’m not worried at all!”

With that voice came someone we were all familiar with. Lian’er walked in with her usual smile. She had changed into a fresh set of clothes, her hair still damp, her hand holding an old clay bowl. She casually handed the bowl over to me after looking at me and said, “You’re awake? Then drink this.”

“What’s this?” I asked, but I had already taken the bowl. The liquid in the bowl was almost dark brown, with dried leaves floating on it. It looked like tea, but when I took a sniff, it had a pungent smell of dried grass. “It’s tea, made from a wild hemp plant that grows around here. It’s a little salty, but it’s not bad,” Old Tie explained when he heard my question. 

Since the old man had said so, I stopped worrying about it, and I was a little thirsty too. Although I still had questions, I decided to drink it first, so I took a big gulp, but it made me frown.

“So bitter…” After all, she had brought it to me herself. I couldn’t spit it out no matter how bad it tasted. Besides, the tea was good for me. I forced it down. Chuckling bitterly, I complained to the girl in front of me, “Lian’er…isn’t this a little too strong?”

“Don’t even think about not drinking it.” Lian’er glared at me. “It’s to cool down your body!”

There was nothing else I could say but to finish every last drop.

The Witch Nichang- Chapter 76 Journey

The Witch Nichang– Chapter 76


The real journey began when we left the last oasis in the Gobi Desert that could serve as a rest stop.

The first day was easy. The vegetation grew thinner as we moved further away from the city. To the right, the sand dunes stretched to the horizon, and to the left, the desert grew more and more barren and vast, eventually becoming an endless expanse of nothingness. Even the occasional scattering of shrubs seemed lifeless. Only the watchtowers of the ancient Great Wall in the distance offered some comfort.

The dust wasn’t too bad today. The wind wasn’t as strong as when we passed through Guazhou a few days ago. The sky above us was blue, clear enough to be considered nice weather. Lian’er’s good mood continued after we left the city. She had dismounted a few times to dash freely across the boundless desert. Since we were heading in a general direction, she could keep going until the end of the horizon before she stopped and turned around, smiling and waiting with her hands behind her back for the slow-moving caravan to catch up. The two guides looked at her with awe and admiration.

The first time she did it, I just smiled and watched from the camel’s back. Since my qinggong wasn’t as good as hers, I didn’t feel like joining her, but it bothered me to see her standing alone on the distant horizon, so I jumped off the camel and went over to wait with her. That way I could talk to her so that she wouldn’t be lonely. 

I wondered if I was spoiling her. After that, she always took me with her as if it was a given, and after a few rounds, that day ended up being the most physically exhausting day for me. 

Because of the fatigue that followed, I didn’t have much energy left to tell Lian’er stories about Yumen Pass as we passed by the old site. I just looked at the rammed-wall city standing alone in the desolate desert on the camel’s back. Its remaining walls looked no different than they did a few centuries later.

Further north, there was a shallow pond, with reeds growing around it. There were even wild camels looming in the distance, adding a touch of life to the barren desert. We spent the night there. 

And the real torture had just begun that night. 

It was the same endless desert and sand dunes for the next few days. The dark brown desert and the barren sand dunes, it was a vast expanse of nothingness, not even a single bird to be seen, let alone a human being. It was always bleak when you looked ahead. Beyond bleakness, it was still bleakness. The excitement had long worn off, traveling in the desert with no end in sight, even the jingling of the camel bells sounded extremely dull.

On the other hand, the presence of saline-alkali became more and more obvious. Because of it, we couldn’t get excited too soon even when we occasionally came across a small oasis in the lifeless desert under the guidance of experienced guides. Even with shrubs and reeds growing around it, the pool of water might not be enough to replenish the caravan’s water supply. 

In situations where water and food were limited, Lian’er had adapted to the situation much better than I had expected. She had a resilience that matched her pride, with a touch of wildness. In some ways, she had a greater tolerance for boredom and adversity than I did. I, on the other hand, hadn’t quite gotten used to the harsh condition. 

Yes, I had been on similar journeys before, but with the help of tools. What we had to endure then was nothing like this. 

The only comfort after a day’s travel was the fire we built at night. When I gazed into the sky, the stars in the desert sky were so low that they seemed to be within reach.

A few boring days had passed. As we moved on, steep mounds started to appear in the desert. At first they stood alone, but as our journey continued, there were more and more of these otherworldly landscapes. They stood tall under the scorching heat of the desert like little islands in a sea of sand, each with its own unique shape, clustered together to form an impressive spectacle.

I wasn’t sure if others knew about it, but I knew that it was the Yardang Landforms and that this was the first time Lian’er had seen such wonders. She didn’t say it, but there was a different spark to her eyes. 

Sensing that, I thought it was a great opportunity. I pulled myself together and asked the girl leaning against me if she wanted to go higher and see the view from above. The suggestion seemed to suit her perfectly. Lian’er arched her brows and nodded excitedly. She eagerly grabbed my hand and jumped down from the camel’s back. After informing Old Tie, she headed for the highest mound.

The majesty of the Yardang Landforms could only be truly appreciated from above.

The sun was setting at the moment in the Gobi Desert. The sky closer to us was blue, but the sky above the horizon in the distance was as red as a fire. The mounds stretched far and wide, standing tall in the vast and boundless desert, either scattered around or clustered together. Like a blade, the orange sun carved out the outlines of the mounds, making them even more exquisite and beautiful. 

Facing the sun, I looked down from the top of the high mound with Lian’er. She was lost in the view before her. Her smile seemed to be a part of this magnificent painting, complementing and blending in with the view.

And I watched her in silence before looking down at my feet after a while. At the base of the jagged rock lay the tawny sand. The long shadows that Yardang cast on the ground formed shapes that looked like claws. The intense black of the shadows was even more eerie than the mounds themselves, making me feel slightly dizzy. 

As I continued to stare at them in the evening breeze, I felt as if the sky had begun to spin. I took two steps back and moved slightly further away from the edge, then slowly felt my way down and sat down cross-legged. Feeling a slight itch in my nose, I had an idea what was going on. When I touched my nose, I saw a viscous crimson on my hand.

Fortunately, there wasn’t a lot of blood, and I was facing upwind. I just had to rub the blood off on the gravel, and then pinch my nose and pretend to look at the vast sky for a while, and everything would be fine.

Fortunately, the few times this had happened before, I had managed to take care of it quietly and no one had noticed. At times like this, it was better not to worry people unnecessarily as much as possible. 

But it was only a matter of time before someone noticed it, since we spent most of our time together.

I was hoping to hide it until we reached the Lop Nur that the guides kept talking about. It was said to be a vast and misty lake, surrounded by lush forests, with water deep enough to drive boats. There were even indigenous people living there, and it was the only resting place in the boundless desert. Once we got there, I could catch my breath.

Unfortunately, things didn’t always go as planned. 

That day, we arrived at another destination that the guides had mentioned earlier—Bai Long Dui (White Dragon Mounds). I chuckled when I first heard the name back in the days, and it turned out that it had been the same name for centuries. 

Bai Long Dui consisted mostly of earth mounds, similar to the Yardang Landforms, except that it was mainly composed of sand gravel, gypsum, and saline alkali, which gave it its grayish color, reflecting glints of silver light under the sun, like scales, hence the name of this vast Yardang landform, White Dragon, given by people in the past. I vaguely remembered someone had told me this, but who? And when? I couldn’t remember. 

This was the Gobi Desert, but it wasn’t just the Gobi Desert. A thin layer of white can be seen everywhere on the yellowish brown ground, like frost on the ground but it was actually alkaline salt. The white alkaline salt had formed a fragile salt crust on the surface of the ground. Once broken through, the ground underneath felt like mud. Even the camels sank a little when they walked on it, making a crunching sound like stepping on snow. With every step they took, their hooves came out covered with salt and mud, making their steps extremely heavy and slow.

It was easy to imagine what this place would be like if a strong wind happened to sweep through here. 

The wind seemed to come out of nowhere like a phantom wind, sweeping the area in an instant and swirling between the countless mounds with its eerie howl that sounded like the wailing of ghosts. That was not all; the wind, carrying grains of sand and salt, came at us relentlessly, so much so that we could hardly open our eyes or even breathe. 

But our experienced guides didn’t stop. They shouted and told us to get out of here. Then they spurred the camels on as fast as they could, stopping only occasionally to look around as if searching for something. Old Tie couldn’t wait any longer and went to ask them. Then he came back and told us, blocking the wind with his hand, that once the wind started kicking up here, it wouldn’t stop for days, so we had to take the old route. What was called “the old route” was just a north-south trail that had been beaten out over the years. As long as we could find that route, we could easily get through Bai Long Dui. Otherwise, it was hard to say how we would fare. 

Since it had come to this, everyone did their best to find the route. The three of us jumped onto the nearby mounds, each looking in a different direction while braving the sand-carrying wind, trying to find the route. 

Visibility was extremely poor. Sand and dust shrouded the world like a tawny blizzard. I stood downwind, cupping my hand at the side of my eyes, trying to block off some of the wind and dust. Only then could I open my eyes and see.

Our search didn’t go well at first. The guides were moving forward in a general direction, and we were following close behind on the mounds, afraid that we would lose them if we weren’t careful. We looked around while keeping our eyes on the caravan. Being hit in the face and body by tiny grains that I had no idea whether they were sand or salt, my eyes and throat became so dry that it started to hurt. 

Anyone would know that it wasn’t the time to care about such things. Enduring the pain, I kept on looking. From time to time, I would look back to make sure Lian’er was safe somewhere before I continued searching. 

Finally, our hard work paid off. Just as I was about to give up, a faint trail appeared in the middle of the sandstorm, like a thin thread winding along the yellow ground in the distance, fading in and out of sight. Overjoyed, I shouted, put my hand down, and turned to call the others, but suddenly, I felt a warm wetness dripping onto the back of my hand.

I looked down without thinking, and as expected, I saw drops of crimson red. I didn’t care and just wiped it off, thinking to take care of it quickly, but when I looked up, my eyes met another.

Lian’er wasn’t far away from me, and she had good hearing. She must have heard the shout just now. 

Looking into her simmering eyes, I knew it was too late to turn around and hide it, so I forced a stiff smile, knowing that my smile was probably drier than the Gobi Desert.

The Witch Nichang- Chapter 75 Journey at Dusk

The Witch Nichang– Chapter 75

Journey at Dusk

I was going to hurry back after taking a look, as I had spent too much time searching for this place. The sunset here was a magnificent sight to behold, but once the last glimmer of daylight faded, it would be too late to go back.

That was my plan before Lian’er showed up. Now, with her by my side, I no longer had to worry about staying out too late.

With her by my side, my heart was always at peace no matter where we went. 

Since she said that she wanted to find out for herself, she hadn’t asked any more questions. It made things easier for me, and since we were here, I took her down the hill and walked toward the cliff in the glow of the sunset.

As we got closer, we noticed that several monks were living at the bottom of the cliff. Although their clothes were ragged and they looked emaciated, their faces exuded the unwavering determination of devout Buddhists.

When they learned that we had come specifically to visit the Buddha cave, the monks were a little surprised, but they were calm about it. The wood carvings and clay sculptures in this unknown cave were still worthless. It wouldn’t attract thieves who coveted them, so they had nothing to worry about. They handed us a torch and said, “Feel free to look around, and remember the way out.” Then they went back to their business.

I was a little hesitant when I first took the torch, fearing that I might damage the objects in the cave. But then I thought that since it would be a long time before it became an attraction, there was no need to worry about such things. The desire to explore eventually overcame my concerns, and I lit the fuel-soaked tip of the torch. Illuminated by its light, I entered the deep, dark labyrinth of caves with Lian’er.

Entering the dimly lit cave was like stepping into another world. Everywhere the torchlight touched, from the walls to the ceiling, it reflected a dazzling array of colors and graceful lines. We looked as we walked along. Each drawing told a story. I didn’t know much about the stories, but I couldn’t resist the urge to share them with Lian’er.

Since she made that statement, I somehow felt like I had gotten off easy and had let go of a lot of baggage. I was less careful with my words, no more deliberate silences or evasions. Looking at those drawings of various imaginary worlds, I talked softly to Lian’er about those strange myths and legends, playing the pipa behind the back, the transformation of Avalokiteshvara, clothes growing out of trees and so on.

Neither of us believed in ghosts or gods. I told it as a story, and she listened to it as a story. The storyteller told a coherent story, and the listener asked no questions. We both enjoyed it. Lian’er was particularly interested in the Flying Apsara paintings. At first, she compared them to qinggong, but later when she found out they were celestial beings, she stopped saying that.

We explored the cave for some time until the flame of the torch began to die down, and we made our way back out of the cave. It was already dark by then. Only a faint glow of the sunset remained on the horizon. Our rare moment of indulgence and willfulness had come to an end.

After leaving some money for the monks, we were going to leave. As I looked up at the towering cliff one last time, a sudden impulse took hold of me. I jumped up to the highest point I could reach, clung to the cliff wall, drew the short sword at my waist, and carved a few small words. Then I dropped down and smiled at Lian’er. We didn’t speak and flew into the air with qinggong, making our way back home.

I wasn’t sure if all that happened today meant anything to her, but for me, something had changed. 

I wondered if those little word carvings would survive after a few centuries. If they did, I wondered who would see them and whether they would mistake these three words for tourist vandalism.

Three words that made up a simple message.

I am here.

The person beside me didn’t ask much about what I was doing. Even though we were dashing at full speed, Lian’er’s smile remained as carefree as ever. In the dim twilight, as some of her hair that had escaped the grip of the golden hair ring fluttered in the wind, she seemed more alive and captivating than any of the flying goddesses we had just seen in the murals.

I stole a glance at her from time to time, not only because she looked gorgeous, but also to think about the way she acted today. Lian’er was somewhat different from before. She didn’t get angry or question me for going off on my own, and even went exploring with me. She showed an almost indulgent…tolerance.

Yes, tolerance. I never thought that one day I would associate that word with the wild and unruly person in front of me. And even more surprisingly, it was I who was being tolerated.

So did it mean anything? I dare not think about it any further.

Up until now, I had always had hope on the one hand, but on the other hand, I had been afraid of hoping too much, for fear of reading too much into her actions.

As I dashed on unconsciously, I turned my head to look at her and lowered my head, lost in thought. Nothing would jump in front of us on the desert road anyway. I let myself sink into my thoughts. But I became so absorbed that I almost screamed when I was suddenly yanked to a stop.

There was no one else who would grab me. My first reaction was to look up at Lian’er in confusion. She looked ahead with a smile, though it was cold and even had a hint of hostility.

It turned out that something could actually jump in front of us on the desert road when I looked ahead as I followed her smiling gaze.

Several people were standing under the darkening sky. While it was nothing unusual to see people on the road, what was alarming was their menacing looks and the weapons in their hands.

“Hey…” One of the knife-wielding men looked over, then turned to another, and said, “Wasn’t there only a foreign boy? Why is there another woman?” He lowered his voice as he spoke, as if he thought that we couldn’t hear him.

“I don’t—don’t know. So what if there’s another woman? We can take care of them together. They’re staying at the best inn in town, and just look at their clothes, we might have a big one here!” The one being asked stammered in a similarly low voice, but it was all for nothing.

Looking at them and listening to their conversation, it was hard not to know what they were planning. Standing still, I smiled wryly and shook my head. Lian’er crossed her arms, as if she was enjoying the show, and waited calmly for them. After a while, when she saw that they were still whispering to each other, she called out impatiently, “Hey guys, are you guys selling knives or are you bandits? Hurry up, you’re wasting time.”

As soon as she said that, the group of bandits straightened up and strode in front of us like a pack of wolves, brandishing their machetes. One of them glared at us and said, “You little brat! Stop trying to act tough! It’s good that you know we’re bandits. Want us to hurry up? Then just come with us! And tell the old man who came with you to hand over all the silver and goods, or else… hmph! Don’t think you can scare us with that one stick! Look at how slender your wrist is. Laozi[1] has been in jianghu for years!”

This “Laozi” who had been in jianghu for years looked menacing enough. From their conversation, it seemed that they had been watching us for a long time, probably since we checked in at the inn. It confirmed what Old Tie had told us about being careful.

Lian’er waited patiently for them to finish, then she looked at me, the corners of her lips curled innocently, and asked, “What should we do?” I thought for a moment and replied with a smile, “Whatever works, as long as no one dies.”

“Hmph, smart choice!” When they overheard our conversation, they seemed to have misunderstood us. That “Laozi” raised his machete smugly and said, “Even though we’ve got blood on our hands, we’re only after your money. As long as you obey us, we won’t hurt you!”

Lian’er and I exchanged a look. I laughed and turned around. She stepped forward with a smile and spoke calmly, “Mr. Bandit ‘Laozi,’ it seems that you’ve misunderstood us. When she said ‘no one dies,’ she was talking to me so that I wouldn’t kill you!”

As the last word landed, the look on her face changed from that of a young lady to that of Jade Rakshasa. 

The Rakshasa was breathtakingly beautiful, with the power to bewitch humans, and fed on human flesh and blood. She could fly or walk, with terrifying speed. Even the gods would find her difficult to subdue.

As I watched her play with them like a cat with a mouse, I couldn’t help but think that her nickname described her well. Then I remembered that when she first encountered a group of half-baked “outlaws” on Mount Hua, she had toyed with them just like this. It was just a minor episode back then that left no trace, but who knew that its impact would far exceed my expectations.

If it hadn’t been for that incident, would Lian’er have come down the mountain alone and chosen to be an outlaw?

Despite these thoughts, I kept my eyes on them this time to avoid having a machete fly at me like before. I watched the fight with my hands behind my back. It was as chaotic as expected with people running around in panic. Lian’er only toyed with them for a short while and seemed to have grown bored. She then shouted, “Hmph, how do you have the balls to show off with such petty skills? How can you even be bandits? Don’t you know you’re messing with the queen of bandits!”

With a shout from this little queen, these burly men were thrown several feet away, their faces bruised and swollen, and their right pinky fingers severed. Knowing their limitations and not wanting to risk their lives, they scrambled to their feet and ran.

That was enough of a lesson, but I saw that Lian’er was still holding on to one of them. That person had dropped his weapon. Lian’er didn’t draw her sword, but trapped him with her palm strikes and kicks, preventing him from escaping.

By the look of the sky, it was already late. It was fine to let her fool around for a while longer, but once the sky got completely dark, the temperature would drop rapidly, and it would be a nuisance to rush back. I took a step forward, about to tell her to stop, but I noticed that amidst the flurry of punches and kicks, there seemed to be some semblance of martial skill in the way the man moved. The man who called himself “Laozi” wasn’t entirely bluffing.

Of course, the so-called “semblance of skill” was only because his opponent was holding back. After exchanging about ten moves with him, Lian’er suddenly let out a laugh, and her hand quickened. Even I had a hard time keeping up with her speed, let alone anyone else. The man screamed in pain before he could run away and collapsed to the ground, unable to move.

“Speak! What’s your relationship with Jin Duyi?” I thought that would be the end of it, so I walked over to Lian’er. Before I could take the second step, she stepped on the man and questioned him in a harsh tone, “Where is that cowardly old turtle hiding?”

The man was startled when he heard that, then he scurried over, trembling, and said, “Spare… spare me! I don’t know what you’re talking about!” He looked frightened, but unfortunately, he couldn’t hide the cunning look in his eyes as they darted around.

“How do you know he’s with the sword manual thief, Jin Duyi?” I didn’t believe him, but just to be careful, I asked Lian’er. Lian’er didn’t waste any words and stepped on the man’s right hand. When he screamed in pain, she showed me his hand and said, “Look at his palm, especially the color of his palm.”

I looked down and carefully examined the man’s hand with the last bit of the dim light. I noticed that there was something strange about his hand, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. At that moment, Lian’er explained, “I’ve heard about this in the years I’ve been in jianghu. I’ve asked Godfather about it later. It’s a characteristic of Yin Feng Du Sha Zhang. But he is still an amateur. He’s only learned a little of the skill. Still, he must be connected to that cowardly old turtle!”

After explaining, she snorted and smiled at the man before saying, “You can try to talk your way out of this. I have plenty of ways to deal with someone like you!”

I had seen how Lian’er dealt with people like them. The “Laozi” didn’t last for long before he confessed everything. It turned out that he was the mediocre one among the many disciples of Jin Duyi. Jin Duyi was taking in disciples from all over the Western Regions for money and power. He didn’t put in much effort into teaching them. Only a few of his disciples were exceptional, but they were all evil. They paid to learn the skill. Once they learned it, they wanted to get their money back. So most of them became bandits, robbing houses and wreaking havoc.

When we asked him about the most important thing—the whereabouts of Jin Duyi, he claimed not to know. When we pushed harder, he finally confessed that while he didn’t know where Jin Duyi was now, he had seen his nephew pass through here a month ago. He was probably on his way back to his old lair near Turpan. That person was also a trusted confidant of Jin Duyi, so he might know his whereabouts.

After the interrogation, Lian’er initially wanted to finish him off, but I convinced her otherwise, so she decided to sever his hand tendon and destroy his martial arts, sparing his life.

By the time we finished, it was already late at night. Thanks to Lian’er’s excellent night vision, we didn’t get lost on our way back to the inn. Old Tie was anxiously waiting for us at the inn. He was furious at first, but when Lian’er complacently told him the information she had learned on the way back, his anger turned to joy. Everyone became even more determined to leave for the Western Regions the next day.

As we swayed with the camel and passed through the almost non-existent city gate of Shazhou after leaving early in the next morning, I didn’t turn back, but Lian’er did, and I had no idea what the look on her face meant when she turned back.

“Do you like it here?” I whispered close to Lian’er’s ear.

She pressed her lips together without giving a clear answer and said, “Will come back again if that’s possible.”

It wasn’t until later that it suddenly occurred to me that she had forgotten to include the subject in that sentence—we.

[1] It’s a cocky or arrogant way to refer to oneself, which basically means I, your father in a condescending way.

The Witch Nichang- Chapter 74 Old Place

The Witch Nichang– Chapter 74

Old Place

Just moments ago, I was thinking about how I couldn’t remember the last time I felt this relaxed. 

Then I heard her say, “You haven’t been this happy since the year we celebrated Master’s birthday.”

It was strange to hear someone close to you mention something about yourself that you couldn’t quite remember, especially when that someone was a person you cared about the most who usually acted like she didn’t care about anything at all. 

It was so strange that, for a moment, I couldn’t tell whether I was more moved or panicked.

I shouldn’t panic at all. Lian’er wasn’t “other people.” She remembered things about me and cared more about me than I expected. That was a pleasant surprise for me. Things were different now. The time when I was afraid of being understood was long gone. Now, I hoped she could understand… understand my feelings, didn’t I?

If I couldn’t convey this feeling, then the act of treating Zhuo as a rival and the bet I made with myself would be meaningless.

This had been one of my biggest concerns lately.

When it came to relationships, every bit of progress made was obvious and gratifying when starting from zero. The footprints left behind were apparent, and they helped us to determine where to take the next step, but this didn’t apply to me and Lian’er. We were too close and intimate. We were so used to relying on each other that it made it difficult to know how to take the next step.

I had to admit, when I came to think about it, I lacked…this kind of experience.

And now, just when I was at my wit’s end, to my surprise, she brought up a topic that I thought would never be mentioned again. The truth was since our reunion, this topic had never been brought up as it involved an unpleasant and prolonged separation.

After all these years, Lian’er still remembered how I felt at that time. Her sensitivity and memory were unexpected. No matter how sensitive she was, she could only know how I felt, but not why I felt that way. 

So… should I make it clear?

My mind was reminding me what I was supposed to say in such a situation. Even if I decided not to make it clear, I could drop some hints, like why things started to change from then on and what kind of feelings led to that change. But maybe it was all too sudden. I moved my lips, but I just stared at her and couldn’t react other than being shocked.

And the girl in my arms didn’t give me much time to gather my thoughts either. 

Lian’er said what she wanted to say and just looked at me casually. She seemed a little serious, but then she suddenly started giggling. After giggling for a while, she said, “Why are you so nervous? It’s good to be happy. I like it. Although the tune you hummed is a little strange, it sounds nice. Hum it again.” With that, she turned around, back to sitting like before, leaning against me as if nothing had happened. 

This topic came and went like that. Everything seemed so casual that I didn’t even have time to sort it out. I closed my mouth and smiled bitterly, swallowing the words that I hadn’t had a chance to say. To the sound of the camel bell, I hummed the melody I had hummed earlier for her, as she asked for. 

Looking at the vast expanse of the clear sky, nothing seemed to matter. Now, far away from the hustle and bustle, there was still plenty of time. 

At noon, we rested under a large tree. Where there were trees, there was always water, so a lot of bushes grew around it. The midday sun was blazing, making the shade under the tree seem unusually cool. A cool wind breezed past. The camels lying in the shade were also resting, chewing blithely on the wet beans the guide was feeding them, and Lian’er was watching them keenly with a smile. Her disgust from earlier was nowhere to be seen. 

I leaned against the trunk, taking a nap. Occasionally when I opened my eyes to look,  I felt that the world was so vast. My eyes had nowhere to land but on one person.

Having avoided the fiercest midday sun, we continued on our journey without much conversation. The wind was kicking up, and the temperature plummeted after sunset. We picked up the pace to cover more distance. I could see that the shadows of the plants along the way were getting denser and denser. Then we spotted a few scattered houses in the desert, vaguely resembling a town, but they looked dilapidated and deserted. 

While I was wondering, Old Tie turned around and announced loudly that this was the place where we would rest for the night. It used to be the border trading post in Guazhou before it was abandoned, but now only a small number of people remained, relying solely on business with the passing travelers to make a living. It couldn’t even be called a village. This place was a transport hub that spanned the past and the present, an oasis in the Gobi Desert, but at some point in history, it looked like this. There was no trace of the melon village that I remembered in the scene before us. I stood there in the darkness of night and looked around, a feeling of lostness sweeping over me. 

But the feeling was only temporary. Our stay here was very short. We just settled down for the night, and as soon as dawn broke, we were on our way again. We only rested for less than six hours, but fortunately, as people who practiced martial arts, we had the energy to spare. Looking at the ruins in the dim light of dawn, I had no desire to look back one last time. 

But Lian’er calmed my nerves. I thought we would have gone through a lot of trouble to getting back on the camel, but she either got used to it or forgot about it. She jumped on the camel without any hesitation. It made me realize that I had been worrying too much. 

Still, as we swayed with the sound of the camel bells, I couldn’t help but wonder if our next destination, our last rest stop, would be as dilapidated as the one in Guazhou?

The last rest stop, Dunhuang.

This place was…special to me. It made a strong impression on me. If we thought of my experience in the two lifetimes as a butterfly effect, then the first flap of the wings that set everything in motion happened here. 

I was young back then. Faced with a new beginning in life and the last trip with my old friends who were to go our separate ways, we headed west and landed in this place, where we experienced the bleakness of a faraway place, the magnificence of nature’s creations, and the grandeur of history. It cleansed my anxious mind and sowed the seed for my love of travel later.

So when I knew that we were going to pass by this place, I felt an inexplicable joy, as if I were revisiting an old place. I even thought of taking Lina’er to see the Crescent Moon Spring and climb the Mingsha Mountain during our free time while we were there and let her experience how it felt like to be in the timeless Mingsha and Crescent Moon, a whole new world of mountains and water, hoping to pass on to her the joy I had experienced before. 

However, reality was always different from the imagination. When I actually set foot on the place, I realized that it wasn’t exactly what I thought it would be. 

After crossing the brownish desert, more and more greenery started to appear. As the day grew darker, we finally arrived at this “old place” that I had been looking forward to. It was better than Guazhou, at least it looked like a normal town and didn’t seem all that desolate. There were only a few people walking listlessly on the street, giving off a feeling of lifelessness. 

“Aside from the elderly, women, and children who couldn’t leave their hometown behind, the rest stayed behind mostly for money, to do business, or to work as guides. Otherwise, who would want to stay in a deserted town? I heard that the town has been affected by the war recently, and there are fewer merchants. We must be careful.” Old Tie reminded us when we stopped at the inn as he jumped down from his mount, turned to us, and pointed his whip in the direction of the street. Then, with a grin, he added nonchalantly, “But then again, who are the three of us afraid of? Anyone who chooses to stay in a place like this has to have some wits about them. We don’t have to worry about it too much.” With that, he laughed and took the camel to the stable behind the inn together with the guides.

I realized this only after being reminded. A spark of spirit lit up in the dull eyes of those listless townspeople only when they looked at us, the visitors. In the spark was hope, flattery, and even greed. 

Their gaze was too direct, and their intent was obvious. It made me uncomfortable. I couldn’t help but frown, but at that moment, I felt a warm touch on my left hand. Even in the scorching heat, Lian’er’s hand was dry and soft. It was nice to hold. Standing next to me, she turned to look at me before slowly scanning the surroundings. I was half a step behind her, so I couldn’t see her face, but I saw that wherever her eyes had been, people who had been looking at us quickly looked away. Some who weren’t as bold even walked away. 

Lian’er seemed quite pleased with the result. After looking around the place, she lifted her chin and gave a disdainful snort before taking my hand and walking towards the inn.

As the old man had said, the people here had some wits about them. Even though I was the one dressed as a man, Lian’er in her usual clothes was more intimidating. It couldn’t be that she had a sword at her waist, right? The fact was plain to see, and there was nothing that I could say. I laughed self-mockingly and let her take me through the door.

For the next two days, we hardly left the inn. First, the sandstorms were too strong, and second, there wasn’t much to do outside. We left everything to Old Tie to deal with. The rest of the journey was too risky for the two local guides, so they were only willing to go so far with us. The camels were still ours to ride since we had paid the deposit. We only had to find a suitable replacement for the guide. Many people here made a living as guides, but we had to be careful when choosing our guide since we didn’t know where they were from and our lives were at stake. 

I felt bad seeing the old man come back covered in dust every day, so I would ask for the innkeeper’s permission to use the kitchen and prepare two nice meals as a token of appreciation and also to take care of our bodies in preparation for the hardships ahead.

But the longer we stayed and the more we interacted with the locals, the more a certain idea began to stir in my mind. 

On the third day, just before noon, Old Tie returned with two men, an old man and a young man. He happily pointed to them and said that they would be our next guides. He said that we would leave before dawn the next day, as usual. At that moment, the thought in my mind grew so strong that I couldn’t hold it back. 

I wanted to go to a place. I wanted to go to a place before we left. 

There was no reason, I just wanted to see.

Since it had been decided that we were leaving the next day, there was no room for hesitation. Without thinking twice, I immediately got up from the table, informed the person at the door, and walked out. This confused the old man, and he shouted, “Hey, where are you going by yourself? Why isn’t Jadey with you?”

I spun around and replied, “She just went into the room, probably taking a bath or resting now. Don’t disturb her. I’m going somewhere, and I’ll be back before sundown, don’t worry.” Afraid that the old man would ask more questions, I stepped out of the inn as I said that.

It wasn’t because I was hiding anything that I was afraid of being questioned, but because this impulse of mine was hard to explain. Besides, if the conversation dragged on for too long, I was afraid that the one in the room would come out.

I didn’t want to bring her along on this trip.

I could share everything with Lian’er. Zhuxian was willing to share everything with Lian’er. It was just that this impulse didn’t belong to Zhuxian. 

I was running alone on the wide dirt road. Fortunately, I didn’t have to worry too much because I was wearing men’s clothes. Sometimes when I came across some looks that made me feel uncomfortable, I would show off my qinggong a little. It would speed up my pace, and at the same time, act as a warning or intimidation to any potential threats. After all, strength was more useful than anything else in this lawless melting pot.

It was in the southwest. Although this place was a deserted and unknown place at the moment, at least the locals knew about it. I got a rough idea of the route from talking to the innkeeper over the past two days. Whenever I got a little lost, all I had to do was ask the people living next to the mud wall, and they could usually point me in the right direction.

It wasn’t too far. At least, a half-marathon distance was relatively easy for me now, but stopping now and then took more time than expected, so much so that the sun began to set.

As dusk fell, I finally arrived at the destination of this trip at the foot of the eastern side of Mingsha Mountain. 

Not far away stood a towering sandstone cliff, with row upon row of caves carved into its surface at various heights. From a distance, it looked like a majestic palace with a unique style. This place was known by the locals as the Thousand Buddha Caves. I remembered that it also had another name, the Mogao Caves.

Looking at it, it was as if I could hear the story told by the tour guide back then. She said that a Buddhist monk from the Former Qin Dynasty had once traveled to this very place and saw that golden light emanating from the Mingsha Mountain, as if there were a thousand Buddhas, so it inspired him to start digging, and later, he continued to carve and build, and eventually, it became this sacred site. 

It was at that moment the sun was setting. The setting sun was golden and so was the yellow sand, so it seemed as if the whole world was coated in gold. As I stood in the midst of the golden glow, the story of Gandharva dancing in the light appeared before my eyes, pure, magnificent, and indescribable.

Even more indescribable was my feeling.

Before I reached this place, I wasn’t sure why I felt so compelled to come here. It was a vague feeling that I couldn’t explain stirring inside me. And now, I felt as if a weight had been lifted off my chest when I saw the sandstone cliff. It was a feeling that came from the deepest part of my heart.

Here it stood, desolate and forgotten, yet still standing tall. It had weathered a thousand years of wind and sand. A few centuries later, the world would one day be shocked by its presence.

I met it twice, once hundreds of years later, and once hundreds of years ago. The time gap between the two encounters was unimaginable, yet here it was, and here I was. All of it…was real.

I stood there for a long time, feeling my eyes grow warmer. It was an inexplicable feeling that had been building up since the beginning of this lifetime, and it finally found release in this moment. I didn’t try to stop it, nor did I want to. I just stood there looking, feeling my cheeks gradually become moist and then slowly dry in the wind.

There was nothing else around, only the sound of the wind and the presence of the cliff. It would take a very, very long time for this place to become lively again.

Suddenly, there seemed to be another sound in the evening breeze. It was extremely faint, muffled by the sand. What made me notice this other presence was a slender shadow on the ground, stretched out by the setting sun.

When I turned around and saw her, my face was still wet.

Lian’er stepped towards me. Like everything else in this place, she was tinted with a soft golden hue. Under the effects of light and shadow, her already exquisite features seemed even more profound, even imbued with a touch of maturity.

Or perhaps she had matured more than I had realized, because when she came to me, she didn’t blame me for going alone without telling her. In fact, she showed no sign of anger on her face and just looked at me with piercing eyes, her face as calm as still water.

Under her unwavering gaze, I remembered that she might have seen everything that had just happened. Embarrassment flared up in me. I quickly wiped my face and attempted to explain, but at that moment, I found myself at a loss for words. Lian’er was too calm. It threw me off. I could only wait for her to speak first.

But as soon as she spoke, it felt surreal.

“There’s something bothering you. I know it.” The girl stared at me intently, her voice unusually calm. As if she was stating a fact, “It’s okay even if you don’t want to tell me. I’ll figure it out myself.”

I had heard that before, years ago. A girl had said that. She said, “Are you dreaming again? What are you afraid of?” She then said, “There’s something inside you that you’re afraid of. I know it. It’s okay if you don’t want to tell me. I’ll figure it out myself.”

At that time, hearing those words filled me with fear, the fear of being understood, of being scrutinized, of being seen through.

But now…

“You’re not thinking about running away from me again, are you? Don’t forget, you made a promise when you came back!” Lian’er reminded me warily and raised her eyebrows when she saw that I remained silent. She accentuated her tone on the word “promise,” and only then did she seem like a child.

I burst out laughing, the two lingering tears falling from my eyes, but I couldn’t care less. I shook my head and said, “I’m not running away from you. But there’s more than one thing in me. I wonder which one you want to figure out?”

She lifted her chin unapologetically and replied proudly, “All of them!”

“Okay.” I nodded, then I smiled as I looked down and said, “Then, I’ll wait.”

Thawing the Glacier- Chapter 1

Thawing the Glacier- Chapter 1

“How long are you going to stay?”

“I’ll leave before 12. Wait for me”


Carefully avoiding the crowd, Lin Zhiyang stood in the corner where the gifts were stacked and replied to her message on WeChat. 

The nickname she gave to the person she was messaging was a string of numbers—226234. The cold digits matched the person’s profile picture perfectly, a dark blue solid background with a white handwritten “y” in the lower left corner, the initial of her family name. Even her tone in the message lacked warmth.

Still, Lin Zhiyang had read the message many times, imagining her expression when she typed those words and her voice if she was saying it to her in person, although she most likely wouldn’t have any expression, and her voice would be flat. 

Lin Zhiyang was surrounded by colorful and exaggeratedly shaped balloons. Flowers and champagne flooded the hall. Men and women dressed in extravagant clothes were bouncing around the dance floor, exuberant and noisy. 

Fortunately, the villas in the area were far apart and well soundproofed. Otherwise, they would have been reported long ago.

Lin Zhiyang put down her phone, feeling a dull ache from her temples to her toes. As a homebody who could sit at home for days on end, Lin Zhiyang was sure to feel out of place here.

Her college classmate, Ming Xiaojiao, sashayed over, clad in a low-cut dress, her skin fair and her dress tight. It seemed like her towering peaks were going to bounce out of dress. She was known as the “Princess.” But this princess was different from the others; the name was given to her because of her wealthy family, not as a mockery. The Princess was outgoing and generous. She didn’t try to hide her family or use it to boss people around. She made friends everywhere, and everyone loved her.

When Ming Xiaojiao saw Lin Zhiyang’s eyes sweeping over her, she not only didn’t feel embarrassed, but also puffed out her chest and asked proudly, “How’s that? I’m in good shape, right?”

Lin Zhiyang nodded with a smile and replied sincerely, “Not bad”

Ming Xiaoqiao thought her answer was lackluster and clicked her tongue. Then her mood changed, and she excitedly grabbed Lin Zhiyang’s arm and started gossiping, “Tell me, is our famous writer still single?”

Surprised by the question, Lin Zhiyang took a sip of her drink and pretended to be calm, hiding her emotions behind her smile, and lamented ruefully, “Are you trying to set me up again?”

Lin Zhiyang looked charming in the off-the-shoulder dress. Her peach blossom eyes looked like rainbows in the sky as they curved.

To be honest, if Ming Xiaoqiao hadn’t stopped them, all the men and women would have swarmed around Lin Zhiyang with her fatally attractive face. 

Ming Xiaoqiao was very perceptive. She wanted to introduce someone to her, but when she saw the look on Lin Zhiyang’s face, she knew that Lin Zhiyang didn’t like it. So she changed the subject, “I’m just asking to see how you are. It’s been a few years since your last breakup, and you’re still single. You can’t still be hung up on her, right? Lin, just say the word and I can set you up with anyone, male or female.”

Lin Zhiyang chuckled and said, feigning gratitude, “Thank you for your kindness, Princess, but I’m good.” As soon as she finished, the double doors of the hall opened from the outside.

Guests had been coming and going all night. Everyone was busy with their own activities, so no one paid attention to who came in. 

But Lin Zhiyang intuitively turned around, and her eyes were fixed on the person who walked through the door. With her long, wavy hair tied up into a bun, dressed in a black velvet dress with a cinched waist and matching thin high heels, that person looked like she was there for a business meeting in the midst of a flamboyant crowd. 

Her expression seemed even more so. Her face was so impassive, and her eyes were cold and distant.

She seemed to be unaffected by the noise around her, her posture graceful and elegant, looking like a goddess from another world entering the world of monsters. Dazzled by the iridescent lights, she just tilted her head, not even a frown on her brow. Her calm gaze swept over the crowd, and then she walked straight towards Lin Zhiyang and Ming Xiaoqiao.

Lin Zhiyang was a little nervous and took a sip of her drink without thinking.

Ming Xiaoqiao dragged Lin Zhiyang over to meet her and called out to her at the top of her lungs, “Yu Che jiejie[1] is here!”

Yu Che glanced at their intertwined arms. Quickly regaining her composure, she curled her lip and handed over a gift in a delicate gift box. “Happy birthday, Little Princess.”

Ming Xiaoqiao didn’t expect Yu Che to tease her as well. Laughing, she pulled her hand out of Lin Zhiyang’s arm, cheerfully took the gift, and said, “Thank you, jiejie.”

She wasn’t expecting anything special in the box. It was either tea sets, an out-of-print book, or some exquisite jewelry—things that she didn’t lack, but she appreciated the thought. 

Ming Xiaoqiao turned to ask Lin Zhiyang, “Do you remember Yu Che jiejie? I introduced her to you at my birthday party last year.”

“Yeah, I remember.” Lin Zhiyang had been left out of the conversation until now. She straightened up, gave a polite nod, and said reservedly, “Hello, Professor Yu.”

Yu Che was a promising young professor in the Department of Chinese Language and Literature at Huaizhou University and a family friend of Ming Xiaoqiao. 

As for the exact background of her family, Lin Zhiyang had deliberately refrained herself from probing into it. The Ming family was already a prestigious family, and the Yu family seemed to have a higher social status. They weren’t in the same social circle, so Lin Zhiyang had no interest in prying.

Yu Che looked at her, emotion flitting across the corner of her eyes, and she replied politely, “Hello.”

Realizing that Yu Che was silently mocking her pretense, Lin Zhiyang didn’t continue the conversation.

As someone who was out of the loop, Ming Xiaoqiao wasn’t surprised by Yu Che’s reaction. Yu Che had always been like that, distant even to people close to her. It made sense that she wouldn’t be any more friendlier to strangers.

Ming Xiaoqiao knew that she had paid enough respect to her parents by showing up at her birthday party every year.

Lin Zhiyang was bored. She left Ming Xiaoqiao alone with Yu Che and went off to play with her college friends. She rarely went out to have fun, and with her bad luck, she kept losing and ended up taking quite a few shots. 

After an hour, she got a little restless, so she pretended to be sick, holding her forehead and frowning as if she was Daiyu[2] reincarnated. The group that had been messing around earlier started to feel sorry for her and offered to take her somewhere else to rest. She declined their offer and went to the bathroom. 

When she came out of the stall, Yu Che was reapplying her lipstick, bending over in front of the mirror. The color made her complexion look cool and fair, and the bright shade washed away some of the indifference on her face. 

At 5’7″ and with high heels, she exuded an unapproachable air. She lifted her head and casually glanced at Lin Zhiyang.

Lin Zhiyang looked at her graceful figure with drunken eyes and thought, damn, she’s always had a way of seducing people. She looked away, as if to hide it, and nodded politely. She didn’t say anything and went to wash her hands, looking down.

A hint of dissatisfaction flashed in Yu Che’s eyes when Lin Zhiyang didn’t talk to her, and her eyes landed on the slender fingers under the faucet. As if being scorched, she looked away awkwardly. As Lin Zhiyang was about to leave, she said softly, “Take it easy with the drinks.” 

A moment ago, she heard someone say something about “a drunken beauty having her own unique charm.” Then she couldn’t help but follow her. She didn’t like this kind of occasion, but Lin Zhiyang couldn’t leave anytime soon, so she had to stay a little longer. The way those people looked at Lin Zhiyang made Yu Che feel very uncomfortable. It was as if she found out that a group of uninvited guests were planning to sneak into her garden. 

“Okay.” Lin Zhiyang replied with a feathery voice. But just two steps in, she held onto the wall and bent down slightly.

Yu Che hurried over to help her and patted her back. She asked, frowning, “Are you okay?”

Lin Zhiyang was an average drinker. She had gotten a bit carried away while playing games earlier and had ended up drinking too much. Now, the alcohol was starting to hit her.

She felt Yu Che’s breath on her face. Her cold and faint scent soothed her. She said with a smile, “I’m fine. I’ll just need to sit down for a bit.” Then she dodged Yu Che’s hands and walked away, supporting herself with the wall. 

The hand she had dodged hung in the air for a moment before she silently put it down. She thought she might have overreacted. She shouldn’t be too close to her in places like this. 

Yu Che’s eyes caught Lin Zhiyang’s smile. It made her wonder, how could someone look so much like a siren yet have a bright and gentle smile. A perfect combination of innocence and lust. Suddenly, Yu Che didn’t want her to return to the crowd. 

It had been raining a lot in Huai City since the beginning of fall. For a whole week, it had been sunny for half a day and rainy for the rest of the day. The rain continued into the night, as if the white noise had been turned on. It was a natural cure for insomnia. 

It was almost midnight. Lin Zhiyang used being drunk as an excuse to leave Ming Xiaoqiao’s private villa. Ming Xiaoqiao didn’t force her to stay and sent her off. 

Unlike the bustle inside, the night outside was particularly quiet and cold. It sobered Lin Zhiyang up a bit. She took a taxi to the guesthouse. She kept her phone on call, even though the driver was a middle-aged woman.

She arrived at the guest house. Humming a song, she fixed her hair in the elevator, stretched her shoulders, and yawned with abandon. After getting out of the elevator, there was only one unit on the floor. Lin Zhiyang leaned against the door and knocked several times, ending the call as she did so. She heard the even footsteps of the person coming to get the door. 

That person had already removed her makeup. She seemed colder without it. Her long black hair fell over her shoulders, and the long sash of the cyan nightgown cinched at her waist accentuated her beautiful figure. A damp scent wafted over from her, seductive and tantalizing, yet the beauty’s expression was mild. She was still holding the phone. 

“Feeling better?” Yu Che asked in a gentle voice for once. 


“Go wash up.”

Yu Che had already washed herself thoroughly and waited here patiently, listening to the phone the whole time. It was all for a simple intercourse of the flesh and the soul, but she seemed so calm and collected.

Suddenly, Lin Zhiyang wanted to crush the ice on her face so badly and trample on her usual aloofness and reserve. She knew that Yu Che’s body was warm. It warmed up so easily, and her voice wasn’t as cold when she was turned on.

The evil thought was just a flash across her mind. Lin Zhiyang didn’t do anything, a harmless smile still on her face. She took the clothes that Yu Che gave her. Standing by the bathroom’s door, she called, “Yu Che.”

Yu Che was walking towards the desk. She had lectures to prepare. When she heard her voice, she turned around and asked, “What’s wrong?”

Lin Zhiyang fell silent. She didn’t know what was wrong. She just wanted to call her name, wanted to talk to her more. But she didn’t know what to say, what Yu Che wanted to hear or maybe she didn’t want to listen to anything at all. Suddenly, her mood turned sour. She glanced at the clock on the wall. It was late. She shook her head and said, “Nothing. You go ahead and work,” she said as she closed the bathroom’s door. 

Yu Che looked at where she had just looked at—00:53. She thought about what Lin Zhiyang was going to say, then she closed her laptop, put it away in her bag, and decided not to work. 

Lin Zhiyang had rented this guesthouse on a long-term basis. Even though they only came here three or four times a month, she had made the house into a cozy place with the wooden furniture and warm yellow light, the romantic and soothing scented candles, the half-assembled “Frozen” Lego set on the table, the pale green balloon flowers in full bloom in the vase, and a half-read book on the bedside table.

She probably comes here more than once a week. What does she usually do when she’s here?

Yu Che’s thoughts spun out of control. She mocked herself for imagining things. Lin Zhiyang couldn’t be bringing other women here, could she? Then she thought, why couldn’t she? Considering how often they talked and saw each other, it would be easy for Lin Zhiyang to hide things from her. Or maybe it wasn’t a matter of hiding things from her, but rather Lin Zhiyang thought that there was no need to tell her anything since they weren’t even dating.

Lin Zhiyang had confided in her once when she was drunk. She ruefully expressed that she wanted to be in a relationship, but she didn’t have a girlfriend. At that time, Yu Che, who had to take care of her, had simply replied, “Remember to tell me when you find one.”

As Yu Che listened to the sound of running water in the bathroom, the song that Lin Zhiyang was humming on the phone, “Farewell Nichome” by Miriam Yeung, began to play in Yu Che’s mind. 

Although her singing was off-key, it still sounded beautiful. 

Life is long, and I’m still young.[3]

[1] Jiejie, meaning “older sister,” is used to refer to women who are slightly older than the speaker.
[2] Daiyu is one of the main characters of a classic 18th-century Chinese novel Dream of the Red Chamber. She is known as a beautiful and fragile woman who is prone to occasional melancholy and often used to describe women who are delicate or sickly.
[3] It is a line of lyrics from the song “Farewell Nichome” by Miriam Yeung.

Slopaw’s note:
Hey, I’ve decided to translate this novel as a change of pace from my main project, The Witch Nichang. I’m not sure when I’ll be able to upload the next chapter. If there are a lot of readers who like this story, I might translate it more often. Hope you enjoy it!

The Witch Nichang- Chapter 73 Through the Pass

The Witch Nichang– Chapter 73

Through the Pass

Whether it was a camel or a horse, when two people rode together, the one in the back often took the reins because there was only one pair of stirrups. That way, they could stabilize themselves and also protect the one in front. That was why whenever we saw two people riding together during our journey, it was always the one on the back who took the lead. 

Lian’er learned that on the way. Even though she didn’t have much experience, she undoubtedly understood it. 

I was still wondering why she had given in so easily last night, especially after she left that smirk remark. It turned out she was waiting for me here. 

I didn’t mind where I sat if I was dressed in my usual clothes. After all, this camel was the last in the group. There were always camels ahead of us to lead the way. We didn’t even need to hold the reins. Lian’er, with her limited experience, would still be able to sit tight. As long as she didn’t frighten the camel, there was nothing to worry about. 

It was just… Looking at the black Hu clothes I was wearing, I gave a resigned smile to the girl in front of me and said softly, trying to convince her, “Lian’er, why do you have to sit in the back? Isn’t it better to sit in front? No one will be blocking your sight, and you’ll have a better view…” But she shook her head and said, “It’s not about someone blocking my view. I don’t like that the hump is in front of me. Out of sight, out of mind. You sit in front.”

Her words sounded both genuine and spurious. She said it with such seriousness that I couldn’t argue with her. I saw that everyone around us was busy preparing, so I leaned closer to her and whispered, “But…Lian’er, look at how I’m dressed now… So many people on the street are watching. How can a man be protected by a woman? If we sit like you said, I’m sure we’ll be laughed at…”

“You’re just wearing men’s clothes, not actually a man.” She didn’t seem to care at all and said unapologetically, “Besides, so what if you’re a man? What do I care what others think? I dare them to laugh at us! Anyway, on this trip, either you sit in front or you don’t dress up as a man. Godfather worried too much. If anything happens, I’m here. You don’t have to dress up as a man to intimidate other people.” 

Sure enough, all the beating-around-the-bush was just to say that she didn’t want me to dress up as a man when she couldn’t. 

After thinking about it last night, I understood why Lian’er did that. Once I understood it, it became easy to see. She always wanted to win, liked to be ahead of me in everything. That part of her had been obvious since she was young. She even refused to call me her martial sister. Now that I was dressed in men’s clothes and she was still in women’s clothes, we were a man and a woman in people’s eyes, so it was clear who was in charge. Even though she said that she didn’t care about what people thought, and for most of the time, she really didn’t, when it came to this, I didn’t think she meant what she said. 

Her attitude was clear. It was just a matter of figuring out how to deal with it. If I were to go with what she said, I would have to convince Old Tie. Dealing with one stubborn person was hard enough, but two? It was a real pain in the neck. 

Besides, the clothes fit me well and felt familiar. Personally, I didn’t want to change out of them so soon. 

Now that I had made up my mind, the only question was how to persuade her. I leaned closer to her ear and pleaded fawningly, “Lian’er… You see, we’re about to leave, and the room is paid for. Where am I supposed to change? Let’s go first. There are a lot of people on our way out of the city. Bear with me for a bit. Once we’re in the desert, we can swap. The reason the old man asked me to wear Hu clothes is to avoid attracting too much attention. Why don’t we each take a step back? When we get to a place where no one is around, I’ll sit where you want me to sit, wear what you want me to wear. That way, it’d be easier for me. Okay?”

When dealing with her, you always had to go along with her to get things done. After hearing what I said, the girl’s face brightened up a little, showing signs of giving in, but she continued to be unforgiving with her words and asked with a side-eye, “Do you care so much about how others think?” Seeing me nod repeatedly, she said with a smile, “Alright then, just the part where there were people around. You said so. Once we get into the desert, you’ll listen to me.”

With her consent, this hiccup was resolved for the time being, and I could finally relax. We still had a long way to go before we reached an area where there was no one. At least, not today. 

By the time things were settled on our end, the guide on the other end was getting impatient. Everything that we needed was in place, and we were ready to go. The Gobi Desert was a hot and barren area. The journey through it had to be carefully planned and timed, so there was no room for delay. The old man had already mounted his camel. After rocking for a bit and getting used to the ride, he turned around and told us to hurry.

Without further stalling, I stepped into the stirrup on the side of the kneeling camel, and as soon as my other foot was in another stirrup, I turned to the girl beside me and smiled. Though reluctant, Lian’er didn’t dawdle, and with a jump, she sat firmly in front of me.

When the guide saw that everyone was seated, he ordered the camels to stand up. This was the bumpiest part. When the camels raised their front legs, those on their back would lean back with the momentum. I had experienced this before, but Lian’er hadn’t. Fortunately, I was prepared. I held her as she fell back to keep her stable, so she wouldn’t be thrown forward when the camel tipped us forward as it raised its hind legs.

After the bob was over, the camel below us finally stood up completely. We had a clear view ahead. With a shout from the front and the jingle of camel bells, the journey began. 

We first passed through a street market. The sky was brighter than when we first started out. More people had come out to go about their day. After rocking on the camelback for a while, the street started to get busy. 

I didn’t know if it was because she wasn’t used to riding slowly through the street, or because of her clumsiness at the start of the ride. She wasn’t in a great mood. Lian’er and I were sitting close together. Looking at her stiff back, I found it amusing but also was a little worried. Riding a camel was the same as riding a horse—if you didn’t relax and move with the rhythm of your mount, you would feel very uncomfortable after rocking on it for some time, and worse, you might feel sore from your lower back to your thighs, making it difficult to even walk on flat ground. The desert was different from other places. In other times, we still had carriages when we got tired of riding. Here, we could only spend the entire journey on the back of a camel. There might not even be time to rest. 

Despite knowing that, I couldn’t just say the obvious. After thinking for a moment and going over what I wanted to say, I gently placed my hand on her shoulder and pulled her back. As expected, Lian’er resisted, not only refusing to comply but also turning her head to glance at me, and asked, “What are you doing?” Her tone was slightly hostile, but I was prepared for it. I softened my voice and replied, “Lian’er, sitting like this, we’re at the same height. I can’t see what’s in front of me. Could you lower yourself a little?”

She seemed to like the way I said it, and her budding displeasure dissipated. She said, her face brightening up, “We are both already about the same height. Maybe I’m a little taller than you. We just never compare it. When we have the chance to compare, we’ll know…” As she spoke, she began to relax. I listened to her with a smile as I gently guided her to lean back until she rested comfortably against me and finally let out a secret sigh of relief.

Then we were rocking our way forward. After about ten minutes, the caravan left the crowded area, through the north gate, across the bridge, and arrived at the north bank of a muddy river. The two locals stopped the caravan and said that they needed to pray to the gods for a safe journey as they entered the Western Regions. 

When Old Tie saw that, he jumped off his camel to join in the prayers. Lian’er didn’t care. She never believed in gods and spirits. She probably felt comfortable after relaxing. She didn’t resist this kind of contact and used my body as a cushion. She just sat there and watched. Since she didn’t get up, I couldn’t get up either, so I just sat there and watched with her.

After praying, we continued on our journey. It was mostly desert along the way, with some trees, grass, and low shrubs sparsely scattered around the desert. Occasionally, we came across sand dunes. A few mud houses were scattered on either side. As the sun rose higher, the blazing sunlight was scorching hot. Lian’er seemed listless under her veil. I, on the other hand—I didn’t know whether it was because of the clothes I was wearing or the person in my arms—felt a tinge of excitement swirling within me. 

When a majestic and imposing structure appeared at the end of the barren desert under the vast blue sky, it stoked my excitement. 

“Lian’er, look, Jiayu Pass!” I couldn’t help but shake the person in my arms and point ahead, wanting her to share my excitement, but the girl just sat up slightly and looked at it for a moment before saying, “This is the first great pass that godfather talked about? Hm, it’s pretty tall, but it can’t stop me. There’s nothing special about it…” After saying that, she lost interest. 

She wasn’t interested, so I didn’t force it on her and continued looking by myself. As we drew near, the tall structure became more and more magnificent. As we got closer, there was a market. Many merchants had set up stalls here to do business with travelers passing by. It was a lively scene with all the carriages and horses passing through. 

Unfortunately, we didn’t stay for long. After showing our documents at the pass and having our luggage checked, we rode through the city gates without stopping and began our long journey. 

As I took one last look at the majestic pass that spanned across the Gobi Desert and the fire beacons that seemed to shimmer in the scorching sun, a pang of sadness washed over me, and the lines of a poem came to mind. I recited them softly, “The hundred-foot wall spans the western sky, travelers of a thousand miles halt at its majesty…” The rest of the verse seemed to escape me.

“You’re reciting poems again. It’s so annoying. Don’t disturb my rest…” When I recited a few lines of poetry, there was no applause but a protest from the girl in my arms. I smiled and put what she said behind me, not dwelling on it.

We were still in the Gobi Desert after leaving the Jiayu Pass. If we were to compare the difference between the inside and the outside of the pass, it was more expansive and desolate outside. There was hardly any elevation in the terrain, just a sea of black and brown sand, and the sky was like a huge blue dome. No matter which way we went, we seemed to always be at the center of the dome. With the camel caravan in front of us guiding us, we didn’t have to worry about the direction, not even the time. All we had to do was sway with the camel and listen to the jingling of the camel bells. 

Despite the desolate landscape, the sun was shining, and the wind was blowing. It somehow brought joy to my heart.

I couldn’t remember the last time I had felt so relaxed. I felt an indescribable sense of happiness like a bird flying freely in the vast sky. Throughout the journey, I was full of energy and found the red willow, the camel thorn, and other desert plants in the distance special. I would either point them out to Lian’er or enjoy them myself from afar. 

Amidst the vastness of the clear sky, the boundless expanse of the desert, and the pleasant jingling of the camel bells, it felt as though time and space had ceased to exist. I could hear the soft humming of a song—a tune I had hummed myself, a melody as familiar as yesterday.

“You are humming a strange tune again…” The girl in my arms suddenly spoke, her voice casual, as if it was just a random remark. “But you seem to be quite happy. I haven’t seen you this happy for many years.”

“Oh, really?” Because her tone was so casual, I also responded with a casual answer. I didn’t give it much thought. I even looked around as I spoke. 

However, the response that followed was unexpected. “Yeah.” Lian’er’s tone remained light-hearted, as if we were chatting, “The last time I saw you this happy was when we were young. I remember it.”

As she spoke, she turned to look at me. Under the clear blue sky, her eyes were as clear and transparent as ever, imprinting themselves on my heart. 

“You haven’t been this happy since the year we celebrated Master’s birthday.”

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