Somewhere outside the little town, behind a not-so-tall sand dune, was one of the closest dunes to the Viper’s stronghold. There would be no hiding spot if they moved forward.
Here, Ta and the others waited as they watched the little town for activity.
Earlier, they had noticed a flood of sand just outside the town. It was through that they realized that Shao Xuan had already found the targets and was ready to transport them out. That was the signal they had agreed on earlier.
The flood of sand was produced by Sapphire, who was waiting with them over there. Hovering above in the sky far away, Chacha began moving towards the small town as soon as it noticed the sand flow.
If Chacha was too close to the team, they’d risk being exposed. Hence, Chacha had been moving freely ever since they entered the desert. It kept its distance away from the formation, but not too far away so that Shao Xuan could find it in time.
After the five Gongjia family members were tossed out by Shao Xuan, they were quickly brought away by a swooping Chacha. As they exited the town, Chacha did not bring them towards Gongjia Ren and the others were. Instead, he flew towards another direction. It was after they lost the Vipers that Chacha would revert back to the original path and reunite them with Gongjia Ren.
Gongjia Ren explained the Flaming Horn tribe situation to the five people. Though his five comrades’ mental conditions weren’t the best, at least they were still alive with all limbs intact. With sufficient rest and sustenance, the five comrades would definitely be able to recover well. Gongjia Ren felt relieved. The Flaming Horn tribe was more powerful than he anticipated and there was no fault in their choice. If they could leave safely this time, Gongjia Ren would help the Flaming Horn tribe weld weapons to repay their assistance in the rescue.
Now that the captives were rescued, their worries were gone. Even if they were met with the desert robbers again, the people of the Flaming Horn tribe had nothing to fear now. So, they waited for Shao Xuan’s return.
However, after a moment’s worth of waiting, there was already commotion at the small city. Shao Xuan wasn’t out yet nor had he sent out a distress signal.
“What do we do?” Tuo looked at Ta. “Do we head over?” Though there were beetles over there. After all, the Vipers were a crowd and Shao Xuan alone might not be able to defend himself if he was surrounded. Everything was prone to mishaps.
“No, we should continue waiting.” Ta raised an arm to stop him. They hadn’t received any distress signal from Shao Xuan and something seemed to be wrong over there in the small town. Shao Xuan had made it clear that he’d send out signals if anything had changed. Since Shao Xuan didn’t do anything, they would continue to wait over there. After all these years, Ta was also aware that Shao Xuan was no longer the confused kid that followed the team at its tail. Shao Xuan had plans for appropriate actions and there wasn’t much for them to do. All they needed to do was to stick to the plan.
“Keep an eye on your surroundings.” Ta reminded everyone. They were in an area where the desert robbers thrive, there was a dire need to be cautious at all times.
On the other end, inside the small Viper city.
In front of everyone’s eyes, a gigantic blue beetle emerged from under the sand. The yellow sand slipped off its blue carapace with a hissing noise.
Though Sapphire’s height could only be considered medium-sized among the many desert beasts, its overall shape was a slightly flattened oval that looked like a huge inverted spoon. There was just not enough open space to accommodate its body.
Following the emergence of this gigantic beetle, the low sand houses on the ground began to collapse noisily. The woven doors made out of desert vines let out a fragile creak with every strand broken throughout the process.
It took no time for the surrounding crowd to disperse away from the giant beetle that came out of nowhere. Something just felt so wrong about it.
Typically, the appearance of desert beasts in the area was rare. After all, there were more and more desert robber settlements here. There would be fewer desert beasts in a place with more people unless the beast were more powerful. Sapphire’s surprising emergence had been classified as the latter kind of beast in everyone’s mind.
Initially, Yiken had plans to spare a quick glance behind before returning his attention on Black Sand. He wanted to attack Black Sand when the man was distracted, best if he could snatch the sword in his grip over. However, Yiken definitely wasn’t expecting to see such a sight as soon as he whipped a head around. He was so shocked that he forgot about his plan to assault Black Sand altogether.
Regardless of the Vipers or the Blue Beetles, everyone had their eyes glued on the totemic patterns drawn on the latter. They studied the beetle drawn and then reverted their gaze on the newly-appeared beetle. Everyone was astonished.
The Vipers exclaimed, “The totem is real!”
The Blue Beetles cried, “The totem is real?”
Though every desert robber team would have their own pattern, it was merely just a wish or a kind of branding. No one had ever taken it as something real. There was no concept of religion so how were they going to simply place their beliefs in a pattern?
Just like the Vipers- If they ever met that kind of snake in the desert, the first thing that would cross their mind would be to kill the venomous snake. If a gigantic venomous viper were to appear before their eyes, they certainly would’ve soiled their garments.
That was the present mood of the Blue Beetles.
The earliest bunch of Blue Beetles who had experienced everything when they fled knew exactly why Yiken and the elders of the desert robber team had decided to take such a name. When the situation with Rock Hill City broke out back then, they fled. If it wasn’t for the blue beetle that scared away the pursuing soldiers, they would’ve been hacked to death long ago. Plus, the blue beetle had even brought them many wonderful things. That was the dawn of the rise of the ‘Blue Beetle’ desert robbers.
Those who had joined them, later on, had actually heard about it from the other members. Only a handful were willing to believe it. Some felt like it was either a made-up story or pure luck. But now… If those who had retold the story of the blue beetle were here, they would’ve been screaming at the top of their lungs- “You lied to us! Didn’t you say that the beetle was only about the height of a human? What the heck is this?!”
Thinking back to Black Sand’s provocation, everyone from the Blue Beetle felt that Yiken had summoned this out for help. They ignored the absurdity of the situation, gazed at Yiken with overflowing respect as they regained their spirits. Turns out the leader still had one more trick up his sleeve. Not only did he summon a gigantic blue beetle, but it was also bigger than the one in the legend!
On the other hand, the Vipers were horrified. No one had expected the Blue Beetles to be prepared! Even Black Sand too thought the same.
Yiken, who was equally surprised, could mutter nothing. “...”
Of course, Yiken would’ve noticed the way everyone else was looking at him. He was shocked to the core and terrified. He wasn’t the one who summoned this! Though he had encountered a big blue beetle in the past, it was nowhere as huge as this! He didn’t dare think that if this was just a coincidental appearance. If the giant beetle attacked everyone, would the Blue Beetles have to change their totem soon?
The appearance of the blue beetle brought great turbulence to the initial tension. The stiff icy atmosphere felt almost as if it was dropped into boiling water and began to crack. The sudden turn of events brought the same emotions to everyone as well.
In the midst of emotional turmoil, the giant blue beetle’s body was finally fully exposed. Its shovel-like head turned slightly as it swept its surroundings, gaze pausing on Yiken for a few seconds.
Yiken’s heart clenched. He was clearer about the truth than anyone else, the man geared that the giant beetle would attack them.
But soon, Yiken noticed that the beetle turned away to stare at Black Sand, who was still brandishing his sword.
Other than the rustling of sand, it was utter silence. Everyone was waiting for the giant beetle’s response. Despite linking the similarities between the Blue Beetle desert robbers’ pattern and the giant beetle, everyone still held a hint of suspicion.
Next, the giant blue beetle began to move.
It raised its forelimbs that resembled long-handled sickles and slammed it down hard on the sand with a posture different from when it was hunting for sand lizards. This time, its forelimbs were stretched out wider and struck the sand like a bolt of violent black lightning.
The burst of air was like an invisible flying arrow. From the place of impact, it shot forward unidirectionally. Where it passed, the sand would be pushed to both sides.
Yiken stood still with the knowledge that he wasn’t the receiving end of this attack. He turned around to look at where Black Sand stood, understanding that the man was the true target of this gigantic blue beetle.
It was this strike that allowed Yiken to exhale in relief.
Thank goodness the giant beetle wasn’t going to attack him.
When the giant beetle appeared, Black Sand was already tensed up in anticipation of an assault. The moment it lifted its claw, the man was already ready to dodge the arrow-like air current.
The air current hit the stone house behind Black Sand with a loud bang. The house shook and sand, rock chips and rocks began whizzing down. Fortunately, Black Sand had put in a lot of effort in the construction of this house. It was able to withstand the blow but if more were to come, there was no guarantee.
Black Sand still loved his mansion very much. He did not wish to continue the fight here. The man gritted his teeth and stepped towards the other side quickly.
Sapphire too shared the intention. After all, Shao Xuan was still in the house. It regretted its blow as soon as it was tossed out. No one paid mind to how its antennae shook several times.
It had committed a mistake in the past, almost devouring Shao Xuan’s target. This was why Sapphire willed to contribute something for redemption. Hence, it would now work harder and focus solely on the target. Anyone else would be ignored.
With vehement force, it moved its six long legs and began to chase after Black Sand. The sand lifted up by the process hit everyone’s skin painfully.
Yiken didn’t bother to chase after Black Sand at this point. He let everyone from the Blue Beetle clear out a path and noticed that some smaller beetles were crawling out from the sand. He quickly called, “Don’t attack the beetles on the ground! Avoid them! Avoid them all!”
The Blue Beetles were obedient. One of the Vipers drove their stone spear into a beetle and soon two, three… tens and even more beetles swarmed over to him.
The man panicked. He screamed as he clenched the spear tighter, continuing to stab the beetles around him. Weirdly, the more he stabbed, the more beetles appeared. All the surrounding beetles began to gather around him and soon, just like a small mountain, it lifted the man. The man was buried by insects to the point where one could not see his head and eyes. In the beginning, his spear waving motions could still be seen and his piercing screams could still be heard. Soon, following an increase of beetles, nothing else could be seen and his screams were getting softer and softer.
The black beetles came like a tide, wrapping the man in its wave. When the black wave gradually receded, only a skeleton with tattered garments remained.
Even those with suspicions were broken by this sight. No one was sure who started it but one of the Vipers began to scream, “Insect swarm!”
Like a scoop of water thrown into a flaming pot filled with oil, it exploded instantly.
“The swarm is coming!”
The Vipers couldn’t be bothered with the Blue Beetles now. All the insect swarms they had encountered in the desert would most often avoid them from a distance or even right away. No one had ever imagined that they’d meet an insect swarm here in their stronghold. No, it was brought here by the Blue Beetles!
The Blue Beetles were actually capable of triggering insect tides?!
This knowledge was more than enough to instil more fear in the Vipers.
“Make them leave!” The Vipers began shouting at Yiken.
Unfortunately, the leader of the Vipers was busy running away from the giant beetle and everyone here was no match for Yiken. Should they surround him and attack? But… there was still so many beetles around them and all were capable of devouring humans!
To run or not to run?
They watched Yiken slashed every single Viper around and how the killed comrades were quickly swallowed by the beetles on the ground.
Some of the Blue Beetles were bitten too but without needing a word from Yiken, they had begun gathering around Yiken. Everyone, including the support waiting outside the small town and people who had rushed over after hearing the commotion, too mirrored their actions and went near Yiken.
Yiken stared at the dense mass of black beetles on the ground, heart seized with panic. He wasn’t one of those elders. The elders believed in the signs and had faith that the beetle would bring them a chance to live again. However, Yiken had always been sceptical about it. The man merely took the elder’s advice during the discussion for a name and pattern when the team needed some kind of spiritual pillar. Yiken really had no clue about these bugs at all.
Noticing everyone coming closer, Yiken had no choice but to take charge.
“Everyone, do not attack the beetles on the ground!” Yiken reminded again.
One of them who felt a bite on the calf had to diminish his urge to slash the beetle. Hearing the warning, he could only gingerly shake away the beetle on his leg.
Inexplicably, after the beetles had taken a few steps towards them, it began to dash away. The beetles did not continue coming towards them.
Ah, this was useful!
One of the Blue Beetle members turned around to look at Yiken. “Sir... Were you the one who summoned them?”
A legendary desert disaster actually making peace with them and helping them out?
This must be a miracle!
They decided that they must reflect when they return. Otherwise, what would they do if they got devoured by the insect tide in the future?
Yiken shared the sentiment but the doubt persisted. They used to be slaves. They had seen many and experienced many. He refused to believe everything unfolding before them just like that.
Not far away, a loud noise came ringing. The giant blue beetle was fighting Black Sand but no one knew what the situation was.
“Wait for me here. I’m going to go check on the situation over there,” said Yiken, ready to jump onto the roof of the sandstone house behind. Before his feet could even leave the ground, someone grabbed onto him.
“No, no, no! Sir, I’m coming with you!” The person grabbing onto Yiken’s arm was frantic.
“Yeah, Sir. We’re coming with you!” The others in their proximity quickly joined in.
“No need for that. I can do this alone. Wait for me here…”
Before Yiken could finish, the others began to howl desperately. They held onto Yiken tight. “No! Sir, you can’t leave us here!” They continued to scream and shout, almost as if Yiken stepping away would result in the whole bunch getting eaten.
Indeed, that was the reality. As soon as Yiken distanced away, those maniacal beetles lost in blood lust would begin attacking everyone. Yiken was the only exception safe from their attacks.
Yiken leapt onto the roof. Following that, the little beetles pacing around shrank their radius and began closing in.
Noticing that, the people below waved at Yiken frantically. “Sir! Save us!” Some quickly leapt onto the roof as well.
Yiken jumped off the roof and the approaching beetles began to disperse outwards.
The Blue Beetles weren’t the only witness to the scene, it did not go unnoticed by a large part of the Vipers as well.
Those beetles refused to eat Yiken and even seemed like they were purposefully avoiding him. Realizing that, some of the Vipers began to weigh their choices. Survival was the most important thing after all.
One of the Viper dashed towards Yiken. He ran and shouted, “I’ll join you! I’ll join the Blue Beetle!”
That was the first and then came the second, third…
Though they worried that betrayal would anger Black Sand, survival still held the highest priority. Those who belonged to the Blue Beetle would be safe from the insect tide. Plus, no one knew if Black Sand would come out of this unscathed. The gigantic beetle was evidently not an easy opponent.
Seeing more and more Vipers expressing their desire to join the Blue Beetle, the Blue Beetle members themselves glued their attention on Yiken. They were anticipating his decision. They were aware that the Vipers were forced by the insect swarm into doing this. However, this wasn’t entirely detrimental to the Blue Beetle, at least it was beneficial to their current situation. Loyalty wasn’t important, it had always been a competition of numbers among the desert robbers.
Circled by everyone in a protective umbrella, Yiken was hit with a sense of deja vu.
Yiken was more surprised than everyone else.
So this was it!
The protection the elders had always talked… Could it be real?!
As if noticing something, Yiken whipped around violently to look at the sandstone houses. He swept his gaze across a few windows, failing to find anyone inside. The only thing he saw was countless black beetles flooding into the houses through the windows, which discouraged anyone with the thought of hiding inside.
“Sir, what are you looking at?” One of the Blue Beetles asked Yiken.
Yiken shook his head. “Nothing.” He felt like they were being watched but found nothing in his earlier inspection.
Shao Xuan, who was inside the sandstone house, was already moving towards Sapphire.
The sand particles flew up like a geyser. Black Sand held onto his sword tightly and sliced through the rushing sand burst.
The friction between the sand particles and the blade created a piercing noise that felt like sharp shards grazing through his heart. The sound hurt his eardrums.
The meridians in Black Sand’s body swelled. Ever since he broke free from enslavement, his capabilities would increase with every usage of his power in addition to becoming stronger. This was just like how totem warriors would mobilize the power of a totem. However, unlike the totem warriors, though he had seized the power for his own use, it wasn’t absorbed completely. Every usage of those powers was followed with maniacal emotions. Fortunately, Black Sand was always able to control himself without losing his mind.
Despite the residual effects, the increase in capabilities was evident. Black Sand dodged the giant beetle’s long claws and his arm muscles swelled again. His strength continued to rise. Black Sand’s eyes had turned completely blood red and were bulging outwards. It looked like it was about to start bleeding soon. He looked at the gigantic blue mass not far away.
His fists were tightened around the handle and his feet shook the ground. Legs bent and centre of gravity lowered, his bulging vertebrae could be seen on his arched spine. His joints were undulating continuously accompanied by constant crackling sounds. In the next moment, his whole being lunged forward towards the giant beetle like a cannonball. In a symphony of bone and muscle strength along with the power in his body, his sword was swung out with the cry of the wind.
The forelimbs of the giant beetle were raised in an attempt to block his sword with the sand burst. Right at the moment before its sickle-like claws could make contact with the ground, Black Sand’s feet turned abruptly. The motion shovelled up some sand and the twisting force allowed his body to be folded in an instant, flashing past the burst of sand in the nick of time. Black Sand himself was now right beside the giant beetle. He lunged forward with full murderous intent.
Black Sand was fully aware that his own strength was no match against the giant beetle. Yet, he did not wish to give up his territory and run away. He wished to use his sword to slay the giant beetle but every time he attempted to rush forward, the giant beetle’s sand burst would block the man. Hence, he decided to change his strategy.
The giant beetle must be doing this out of fear of his sword!
Black Sand was even more confident now. His current target would be the beetle’s head! Without a head, how would the giant beetle survive? It wasn’t a monster created by Rock Hill!
Hard strengths met with a crisp metallic sound. The force of the movement vibrated along the bone of the hands gripping the sword and Black Sand’s arms bounced apart as a result of the barbaric counter-shock force.
Black Sand’s pupils shrank.
His blow did not go through!
He had targeted the beetle’s head but as the blow was made, it seemed that the beetle too was prepared for this. Using its other two pairs of legs, it spun its body like a top. The head that was originally facing the sword’s tip was switched to its carapace, which was the toughest part of the beetle!
The tip of Black Sand’s blade was only able to leave behind a shallow trace on its carapace!
Blocked away by the counter-shock force, Black Sand was spared no time to do anything before the beetle slammed its carapace into him.
Black Sand was sent flying away. The power within his body was unstable, to begin with. And with this impact, his blood surged. He spurted out a mouthful of blood and a trickle of blood began to seep out of his eyes.
His sneak attack had failed. Added with the insignificant mark on the beetle’s carapace, Black Sand’s confidence wavered.
Sapphire, who had knocked away a person, began stomping its two hind legs. Like an armoured car, it moved its heavy body forward quickly in the desert and pulled up one of its forelimbs like a whip.
Black Sand was still in the air and had yet to make a landing. He had no wings, rendering him unable to avoid the incoming attack. Other than raising his sword in defence, the man was truly left with no other choice.
The jagged forelimbs swept over like a heavy axe, shaking away the air’s barrier and to slam onto the sword vehemently.
The violent force followed along with the fist Black Sand held around the sword’s handle and seized his arm.
After Black Sand’s phalanges were broken, his arm bones let out a crisp noise. Soon, his spine began to crackle loudly as if they could no longer support his body.
And with that assault, Black Sand was slammed into the sandy floor. The rippling sand spread out like water waves.