All one could see was sand drifting along rolling sand dunes.
Yellow sand was everywhere. There was no green, not even a single desert plant, the kind that could withstand even the harshest of climates.
A dishevelled man struggled to climb up a sand dune. He was a tall, young man with broad shoulders and a muscular body, his rippling biceps tightening as he dragged a simple stone hammer. This hammer had been haphazardly thrown together with whatever available, it bore zero patterns or shape, literally just a stone and a stone handle tied together with a sturdy vine from the desert and some fabric.
His exposed arms were crisscrossed with scabbed wounds, sand and dust mixed with clotted blood. Pain shot through his body with every step but he was already used to it and had gradually begun to ignore it.
Not far behind were a few equally dishevelled people with dirty faces. Their clothes were so dirty their original colours were indistinguishable, their lips pale from dehydration, eyes glazed as they followed him robotically. If they had a choice, they would choose not to breathe because the air was both too hot and too dry, bringing with it death and hopelessness.
“Ren, do you see anything in front?” asked an older man, his voice slow and hoarse. He struggled to force every word out.
The man who had reached the top of the dune supported himself with his stone hammer, leaning heavily as he looked far into the horizon. He used to carry a sword, the best weapon he had made in his life because blacksmiths loved carrying their best work as a proof of their ability. Unfortunately, his best work would attract danger so now all he could carry was a stone hammer that no one would look twice at.
After hearing the question, Gongjia Ren shook his head and continued walking, dragging his hammer behind.
The older man’s eyes went from hopeful to hopelessness.
They had been walking for seventeen days now. Had he ever suffered like this in his long life? They had never endured hardship like that before. In King City, people would rush to bring them gifts with a mere mention of their names, and they were served daily by slaves. All they had to think about was blacksmithing work and nothing else. Now all that was left was regret.
They regretted not learning more life skills, not supporting the right people and not picking a different life path. Would their lives be better if they had done all that differently?
Ten people had left together but one had been killed by an arrow that came from nowhere. Thank goodness Gongjia Ren was alert enough to lead everyone to shelter or there would have been more casualties.
However, they realised the path ahead would be even more arduous after stepping into the desert. They had avoided the people who wanted to kill them, avoided Rock Hill City but the desert itself was dangerous. Two of the nine people were dragged away by desert beasts as food, one betrayed them and took Gongjia Heng’s sword. That person was probably going to seek protection from the desert robbers using his sword as proof.
There were still small groups scattered across the desert, some made of slaves, others of slave masters. Distracted, Rock Hill City ignored them, giving these sparse groups a chance to catch their breath. While they would never provoke Rock Hill City, they targeted others in the desert.
During the seventeen days, they had seen many bodies buried in the sand. No one knew who these dead people were or which side of the ocean they were from. Halfway during their journey, they even had to bury themselves to hide from a gang of robbers.
Only six of them remained now.
“If only we can find a source of water.” A person a little younger than Gongjia Ren licked his cracked lips. When he saw that morale was low, he took a deep breath and forced a smile, comforting them, “Everything will get better soon, at least we’re still alive.”
“Aaah---” One of them let out an agonising groan, tossing the rock he had been using as a weapon aside. Due to starvation, dehydration and the various obstacles, even though he wanted to let out a scream to vent his frustration, all he could get out was a groan that sounded like a tired sigh. “If we have to walk in this place any longer, I’d rather die! Die!”
He had just spoken when something felt off in the ground. The hairs on his neck stood up. Although they were inexperienced in this environment, they had gotten more cautious of their surroundings after so many days.
“Careful!” yelled Gongjia Ren.
The other person stepped back instinctively but a sand lizard shot out of the sand, biting his leg and dragging him into the sand.
The rest had no time for surprise, hurriedly grabbing the upper half of his body. One of their two mates who had been eaten was also dragged into the ground like that.
Although the sand lizard had no teeth, its jaws were powerful. The more the victim struggled and kicked, the tighter it bit, tugging backwards to snatch its prey.
The victim screamed in pain, this time not like the previous tired sigh but in agony because he felt like he was going to be torn into two!
A hammer struck the sand lizard’s head that was above the sand. It sounded like a collision between two hard objects.
A scale the size of a palm on the lizard’s head fell from the impact, blood gushed out and it let go in shock.
The man ignored the pain on his calf and scrambled back, looking for the rock he tossed away. They had no weapons so they had been using beast bones, human bones and rocks for self defense.
Everyone else threw rocks at the lizard’s head or stabbed it with sharpened bones. When the sand lizard realised the threat and changed its mind, a ‘whoosh’ came and it was struck by the hammer again in the eye.
The sand lizard let out a cry that sounded like grinding rocks, its head falling sideways. Everyone rushed forward to strike and stab the weak points in its head.
After the initial threat, they had realised that this was food. Food was hard to come by here!
Bloodlust shone in their eyes.
The group dragged the sand lizard out of the sand by force while attacking it. It then died when half its body was finally out of the sand.
Gongjia Ren collapsed sitting on the ground, panting heavily. He had struck it with his hammer three times then spent almost all his strength dragging it out.
Not just him, everyone else collapsed, lacking the strength even to stand.
However, a recently dead sand lizard would attract other animals if not dealt with immediately. They had no time for rest.
Gongjia Ren crawled over and drank a mouthful of blood flowing from its wound. He didn’t know if it was poisonous but he had no choice.
The blood was thick and smelled pungent, mixed with grains of sand. Ignoring that, everyone crawled to the dead lizard and licked its flesh like desert animals. All for survival.
The sound of rolling sand.
They all looked around cautiously. Then, their pupils constricted and faces turned white.
One, two, three, four… Five! Five sand lizards dug out of the sand, surrounding them.
They had used up all their strength fighting one and while they had drunk a bit of blood, there had been no time for recovery. And there were five here!
I’m done for!
That was their only thought.
“Wh-wh-what… what now?” shuddered one of them. His face was smeared with blood and the wind brought with it sand grains that stuck to his face. His features were no longer distinguishable, all that was left was a pair of terrified eyes.
What else could they do? Either await death or fight to their death. Those were the only two options.
Run? Did they have the strength to outrun sand lizards?
Gongjia Ren closed his eyes, clutching to his stone hammer. There was no escape. Then again, they already had no escape at King City, Gongjia Heng was the one who showed them a path to survival here. Unfortunately, all Gongjia Heng’s efforts would go down the drain because they wouldn’t get out of the desert alive.
Might as well fight now!
His eyes sprung open, staring at the approaching lizards. He stood up, dragging the hammer behind him, and wiped the bloodstains around his eyes to focus his vision.
The people sprawled around the dead sand lizard also wiped their faces when they saw him, picking up bones and rocks. Although they knew these were useless against so many lizards, they had no choice. It was better than nothing and could kill themselves if there was no hope left.
When the lizards approached, Gongjia Ren charged in front, his gaze firm with resolution as he let out a hoarse roar.
The lizard turned and ran away.
Gongjia Ren, who had just raised his hammer: “...”
Everyone else: “...”
The lizards, who had previously surrounded them, were running for their lives.
Sand blasted out of a spot in the ground, throwing one of the lizards into the air, finally tumbling a few times on the ground.
Something burst out of the sand, glittering blue under the hot sun.
“That’s… that’s a huge bug!”