Jiang Ling rested for a night at the inn.
The next morning, Shangguan Qing knocked on her door. 

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“Here, change into these.” Shangguan Qing carried a set of clothing and placed it on the table. 

“What is this?” Jiang Ling did not know Shangguan Qing’s intent. 

“We’ve already investigated this area, but didn’t find any suspicious points.
We decided to head further west to check it out.” Shangguan Qing sat down beside the table and took a sip of tea, “We’re going to dress up as a trade caravan and take a look at a few markets between the Yumen Pass and Xiyu.
From what we know now, the majority of trade caravans that only make it so far as Zhangye haven’t heard anything of people falling ill, but those who return from outside of the Pass have more or less had someone fall ill.
People who receive treatment in time are also not contagious.”

Jiang Ling shook out the clothing; it was a man’s dark brown robe.
Jiang Ling’s expression turned odd. 

Shangguan Qing did not pay attention to her and continued: “If it is a febrile disease, I’m afraid that we’ll need to stop people coming from Xiyu.
If it isn’t a febrile disease, and if it’s an intentional act of provocation by the Manichaens, then that’s a different kind of situation.”

Shangguan Qing grabbed the robes and said, “I picked one out specifically for your measurements.
We’ll dress as men when we go out to make the journey more convenient.”

Jiang Ling, after all, had limited experience in Jianghu.
This time she would learn much with Shangguan Qing. 

Jiang Ling changed her clothing.
She removed her loose ponytail, combed her hair carefully, then secured her hair back on top of her head with a wooden hair stick.
Shangguan Qing saw that Jiang Ling had put on the clothing and had come to her room, and her eyes lit up, “I never expected that when A Ling dressed as a man, while you may look a bit skinny, you may well be called a man of striking appearance.”

This was the first time Jiang Ling had worn men’s clothing.
Because of Shangguan Qing’s exaggerated praise, Jiang Ling’s cheeks heated up a little. 

“If you were a man, marrying you would be good.
None of these Longxi men are pretty and charming.
They’re all big and stalwart, not as fair as you are.”

Jiang Ling’s face went pale with fright from Shangguan Qing’s off-the-mark words, “Th-that’s impossible.”

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“I was just making a joke and you’re that scared? Do you have someone you like?” Shangguan Qing looked at Jiang Ling wickedly. 

“No.” Jiang Ling denied, “I was just startled.” She had grown up on the mountain, and she had never contemplated these things.

Shangguan Qing stopped teasing Jiang Ling.
She pulled a length of red silk out of her bundle and put it on Jiang Ling, “The sandy winds beyond the Pass are even more severe than here.
Once we get there, use this as a face covering.”

As she spoke, she wrapped the scarf to cover most of Jiang Ling’s face, revealing a pair of bright, fawn-like eyes.
Shangguan Qing was very satisfied. 

The travelers dressed as a trade caravan.
They prepared sufficient supplies and even invited an old man from Xiyu to act as their guide, who would bring the ‘trade caravan’ to Xiyu to purchase precious gemstones.
Shen Xiuqi was the first brother, Shangguan Qing the second, and Jiang Ling the third and youngest brother. 

The group went through the Yumen Pass, and what entered their eyes was vast stretches of yellow sand as far as the eye could see.
The guide used some rough central plains language to speak as they went northwest for one day.
They would use special stop points for trade caravans, which had water supplies. 

And so, the group ventured through the vast desert to seek their objective.
The sun was, as expected, far more blistering than even the hottest day on Minghe Mountain.
The wind whipped sand into their faces, stinging Jiang Ling’s eyes. 

The disciples of the Yueluo Sect experienced these kinds of weather conditions continuously throughout the year and had grown up with them, so they were long accustomed.
Jiang Ling was truly out of sorts, but she was not some delicate person.
Since she had decided to go with Shangguan Qing to investigate the febrile disease, she would not cower now.
She fiercely resisted these difficulties. 

As the sun sank below the sand dunes, the group finally arrived at the stop point the guide had mentioned.
It was a tiny oasis, only large enough for a few people to support a few well-keepers, who were guarding the water source.
As the traveling trade caravans passed by, these well-keepers would give them water for a substantial fee. 

The sky had already grown dark, and the temperature dropped.
The group made a campfire to warm themselves. 

Shen Xiuqi again asked the guide about the particulars of Xiyu.
The guide said that, starting from this stop point, if one walked further west without any diversion, then in three days, one would arrive at a small town of Xiyu.
Many trade caravans would take this route so they could purchase precious gems.
The guide chattered endlessly about inanities like which gemstones were better than the others and which ones were not worth the cost.
The guide believed that they were an actual trade caravan looking to purchase gems as part of a business enterprise. 

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“A Ling, how do you feel? Have you gotten used to everything?” Shangguan Qing thought that Jiang Ling did not look too well. 

“Mm, I’m fine.
It’s my first time coming to a place like this, so I’m just not acclimated yet.” Shifu’s words had indeed been correct.
Xiyu’s environment was truly adverse; the vicious sun seemed to want to melt people on the spot.
The sand-laden wind made everyone eat a mouthful of sand as they went. 

“Here.” Shangguan Qing handed Jiang Ling a slice of ginseng, “Place it in your mouth and you’ll feel much better.
I was doing this before, too.” 

Jiang Ling put the ginseng in her mouth, and sure enough, after some time had passed by, she felt much better.
This friend of hers, Shangguan Qing, took care of her meticulously. 

Jiang Ling was truly too tired.
She wrapped herself in a woolen blanket and went to sleep. 

The night deepened.
The campfire crackled as everyone lay on their sides sleeping peacefully, with only two disciples to keep watch as they clutched their swords.
The oasis was utterly tranquil. 

Jiang Ling was awoken by a gust of frigid wind.
She blinked and looked toward the sky.
The moon was resting on high.
She stood up and walked a few paces away to shake herself out a little. 

Nighttime in the desert was frighteningly cold.
Without the warmth of a fire, Jiang Ling thought she might freeze to death here.
She rubbed her hands together.
The curtain of night shrouded the sandy desert, with no signs of vitality. 

All was still, forebodingly so.
Jiang Ling felt an aversion to the cold; it had been still that night, as well. 

Jiang Ling gathered her spiritual consciousness and looked around.
Everything was quiet, but she sensed a growing oppressiveness drawing closer, one that kept warning her of danger!

She sprinted over to Shangguan Qing and Shen Xiuqi and woke them to make them increase their vigilance. 

Shangguan Qing rubbed her eyes and looked up, “A Ling, where’s the danger, there’s no one here but us.”

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Shen Xiuqi did not say anything.
He raised his sword and walked over to a few shidi and woke them, raising their guards. 

Upon seeing this, Shangguan Qing likewise raised her red-tasseled spear. 

That oppressive sensation drew closer and closer until even Shangguan Qing felt it.
They all held their breaths tensely. 

“Who goes there? If you are a friend, please show yourself immediately!” Shen Xiuqi called out firmly, the powerful shout reverberating through the desert. 

Their surroundings remained still and quiet, and that oppressive feeling also seemed to disappear.
The group looked at each other and waited a bit longer to be sure there was no danger.
They finally released a sigh of relief and put down their weapons, preparing to rest some more. 

Jiang Ling still felt that there was something wrong, so she continued to stare closely out into the desert. 

Suddenly, the flat stretch of sand rippled. 

“The ground!” Jiang Ling yelled.
The others had not yet reacted when, from out of the sand, ten or so masked sand bandits leapt up, blades in hand and bows on their backs. 

“Sand bandits!” The guide saw that they were sand bandits and jumped on his own horse and galloped away without a single backwards glance.
The sand bandits knew that he was just a common guide, so they did not bother with him.
Their big catch was the caravan’s goods.
The well-keepers did not so much as panic; they stood up silently and stood behind those sand bandits. 

So they were accomplices. 

Shen Xiuqi bit the inside of his cheek, his temper flaring as he raised his blade, wanting to cut down those thieving sand bandits.
When he advanced, a net appeared beneath his feet.
Just as he was going to be swallowed up, Shen Xiuqi moved the tip of his blade downward, slicing the net into several pieces, and escaped. 

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The sand bandits had originally thought that they were an ordinary trade caravan with only a few people and wanted to simply rob them.
They did not expect that each and every one of them would be so skilled in the martial arts. 

“A Ling, wait on my horse.
It knows the way and can take you back.
You don’t have internal force, so in a moment, look for an opportunity to flee.” Shangguan Qing knew of Jiang Ling’s difficulties, and she had promised her before that should she encounter danger, she could protect her.
So, she planned to give her own horse to Jiang Ling. 

“No need, I’m fine now.
This group of sand bandits should not be a problem.”

“Really?” Shangguan Qing was pleasantly surprised. 

The sand bandits took advantage of the opening their conversation presented.
They notched arrows in their bows and released, the arrows falling onto the group like rain.
Their archery skills were superb, with their arrows never failing to meet their targets.
Arrow after arrow flew toward their chests. 

Jiang Ling was sharp-eyed.
She brandished Qian Shui in one hand and stopped the arrows shot at her one after the other, but some disciples were still wounded and slumped to the ground.  

Shangguan Qing saw her shidi fall to the ground and her brow creased.
She dug the tip of her red-tasseled spear into the sand, and with some force, flung the net out of the sand onto a sand bandit.
That sand bandit raised their weapon and split the net, but just as they did so, Shangguan Qing had already brought her spear down on the sand bandit’s head, hurling them two zhang[1] away, where they did not rise. 

Jiang Ling had disarmed the two sand bandits beside her and smacked them with the flat side of her blade, making them spit out a mouthful of blood and retreat two steps. 

Shen Xiuqi, who was even more skilled and strong, wielded his sword, the air churning with the movement of his blade as he sliced the sand bandit leader’s weapon in two.
The sand bandit leader was forced back a few steps. 

The other disciples who were not injured also put up a resistance.
The sand bandits were pushed back and gathered together in one area.
Jiang Ling raised her sword and went to advance, intending to force the bandits to retreat in the face of their overwhelming difficulties. 

From beneath the mask, where Jiang Ling could not see, the bandit’s lips curved slightly upward, a biting chill in their eyes. 

Suddenly, she saw the sand bandit leader wave their hand, and a bolt of lightning flashed.
As soon as that lightning bolt struck the ground, the entire area around them exploded.
Layer upon layer of sand burst into the air, forcing the group to squeeze their eyes shut. 

“A Qing, don’t move around!” Just as she heard Shen Xiuqi’s shout, Shangguan Qing felt another lightning bolt strike not too far from her, and the shaking of the ground made everyone stumble back a few steps.
Jiang Ling had just landed when all of the hairs on her body shot up, and she felt a chill run down her back.
She subconsciously leapt forward; a lightning bolt exploded behind her.
Jiang Ling’s back was scorched, and she was thrown forward several zhang from the blast.
As the lightning bolts rained down, Jiang Ling’s ears kept ringing; she could not hear what was happening in the surrounding area clearly.
She wanted to stand up, but she felt like a thousand jin[2] weight was pressing down onto her back, making her unable to move.
Her consciousness gradually started to drift away, and she sank into a deep, unconscious state.

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