The Witch Nichang– Chapter 86
In the Cave
Sometimes, I don’t know what I am to her and what place I have in her heart. Perhaps I am both family and a friend to her, but there’s certainly no concept of seniority and the corresponding respect that usually comes with it. Even so, I thought I’d at least be some kind of a sister to her, but I have never thought that one day she would be ruffling my hair, smiling and treating me like a child.
So how does Lian’er see me?
Her aggravatingly amusing behavior left me bewildered once more. Normally, I would have pondered over it, but this time, I didn’t have the luxury to do so. Growing up, I had always treated Lian’er with compassion and reason. If reason was on her side, there was basically nothing I could do about her. In the end, all I could do was watch her white figure slowly descending into the uncertain depths of the cave.
Before that, I had fashioned a torch with dried branches and reeds found on the ground, lit it up, and gave it to her. Perhaps because it was small, it wasn’t good enough for her. She rolled her eyes and said she didn’t need it. I wasn’t in the mood to get around her, so I said seriously, “It’s not for you to light your way. If the torch goes out without any wind after you enter the cave, you must turn back immediately even if there’s nectar or holy well in front of you. Bear that in mind!”
It was something I had to warn her, for her safety, but at the same time, I was worried about how to explain it to her. To my surprise, Lian’er didn’t ask more questions after that. She just looked at the torch, then at me, and said, raising an eyebrow, “Where did you learn this from?” When she saw me nod, she smiled blithely and took the torch. Without saying anything more, she bent down and went into the cave.
She descended into the cave without making a sound. Even a stone would have made some noise rolling down. There was only a small soft glow quietly illuminating the narrow walls around. Everywhere it passed, the darkness temporarily gave way and reunited as the light faded, and eventually, cut it off from my sight.
As the thick veil of darkness sealed off everything around, I felt a sense of being engulfed. I patted my face and told myself to stay calm, then sat down crossed-leg amidst the reeds by the cave, counting seconds and watching them tick away. Waiting infinitely was a torture.
As I counted in my mind, my hands were idly plucking at the dried reeds. The soft snap of each reed was the only sound aside from my breath. The surrounding was quiet, not even the sound of wind could be heard, no insects chirping in the grass. Save for the twinkling stars in the night sky, everything in the world seemed to have frozen in time.
As the time passed, I lost track of my counting. I messed it up. Is it nine hundred and sixty-five or six hundred and ninety-five? Had it been ten minutes or fifteen minutes? I was cold and thirsty. I had spare clothes in my bag in case my clothes were torn, but the fur coat that was buried in the sand was my only coat. I hadn’t felt cold before while I was moving. Now that I had stopped, the chill began to seep into my bones.
Sitting with my arms folded, a sudden wave of panic swept over me. It was only when I was alone in this vast world that I clearly realized that I was in the heart of the boundless desert. With the horizon out of sight, only panic was left in me.
This world to me was nothing more than a vast desert. Initially, I was looking for an oasis to take shelter in, but without knowing, I had redefined the very notion of an oasis.
Life goes on. When I heard the sudden news of Master’s passing, I was gutted, but the feeling faded eventually. If anything happened to Lian’er, I…
I kneaded my forehead, trying to stop myself from spiraling. It was just torturing myself to think about the worst case scenario at moments like this. It was best to keep those thoughts away. Exhaling, I stood up, wanted to move around to warm up my body. I didn’t dare to stray too far, just pacing back and forth near the cave entrance, keeping a close eye on any movement inside.
I touched my water pouch a few times, but I decided not to drink from it. If we could find water, there would be no rush. If we couldn’t find water, all the more reason not to rush.
Compared to whether we can find water, what I was looking forward to now was to see Lian’er leap out of the cave, or at least heard some noise from her. But reality seemed to go against my hope. The more anxiously I waited, the more I didn’t hear anything. When my thoughts scrambled, I stopped counting the seconds. Even so, it must have been almost twenty minutes by now.
Unable to sit still anymore, I returned to the sandstone wall and crouched down. Taking a deep breath, I shouted into the black hole, “Lian’er—” My voice echoed down. I listened closely, but there was no response, so I tried again, “Lian’er, don’t force it. If you couldn’t find it, come back up. It’s not like this is the only way. There’s no need to risk it!”
A moment after I shouted that, I finally heard the long-awaited response, or more precisely, some noise. But that nearly scared the soul out of me because it was faint but clearly a scream! It made me jump reflexively, but then I immediately crouched down again, lying prone at the edge of the entrance, shouting what happened into the cave at the top of my lungs. I remembered the last time I heard a sound like this was on that snowy night when I first met her. She was intimidated by Master when she let out a terror-filled shriek like this!
No matter how loudly I shouted, there was no response from inside. It felt as if something was lurking in the dark, waiting for prey to come close.
When I didn’t receive a response, I turned around, anxiously grabbing a handful of dried reeds and hastily coiling them in my hand. Before I could make anything out of it, I threw them aside. Without any preparations, I turned and threw myself into the unknown darkness.
If there was something that even Lian’er couldn’t handle, then any preparation would be useless. I might as well get buried in the pit with her!
Stepping into the dark with this determined thought, I didn’t care to be careful, almost half-falling down the cave. This erosional passage turned out to be narrower and steeper than I thought. The slope beneath my feet was akin to a slide with a rough surface, and the ceiling was less than half a meter from my head. Occasionally, there were one or two stalactites grazing my head and bumping my arms that were over my head.
With one hand protecting my head, I fumbled with the other hand on the wall to keep my balance. I couldn’t avoid a few scratches and bruises in the pitch-black darkness, but it was nothing serious. Although the steep and narrow passage was treacherous, it was consistent. As I descended, the slope and width of the cave remained pretty much the same. There were occasionally a few winding turns, but I managed to stumble through them.
With my nerves on edge, my sense of time grew hazy, so when the slope leveled out and my feet landed on the flat ground, I wasn’t sure how long it had taken me to get down here, let alone how deep I had fallen into the cave.
The tilting feeling was gone, but the cave still felt narrow. In the dark, the only sound was my own labored breathing. The narrow passage made the sound feel stifled. I knelt on the ground and took out a flame stick to get some light but realized I couldn’t light it. It was because of the high humidity in the air that it wouldn’t light. I could even faintly hear the sound of water.
But where was the water? More importantly, where was she?
I couldn’t see, so I had to rely on my hands. Carefully, I felt my surroundings. As I suspected, it was a very cramped place. There was barely enough room to stand. I could touch every wall around me just by moving around a little.
Stones. The walls were nothing but damp, slippery stones, and what’s more crucial was that, apart from the narrow passage behind me that had led me down, there seemed to be no other way out. This place felt like an enclosed space.
If it weren’t for an object I felt on the ground, I might have thought I missed some fork on my way down. What I found on the ground was a short, slim dry object. Holding it in my hand, I could feel it was short and smelled burnt when I held it up to my nose. This should be… the remains of the torch I had given to Lian’er before she entered the cave.
She had been here, but then what? She couldn’t have vanished into thin air, could she?
Filled with confusion, I once again explored every inch of this space, leaving no stone unturned. This time, I finally felt a small horizontal gap near the edge of the furthest wall. It felt like a crevice, long but rather narrow, barely wide enough for a thin person to squeeze through while lying down. If that person was slightly bigger, there was a risk of getting stuck. But when I cocked my head toward this crevice, I could clearly hear the gurgling sound of water coming from inside.
Despite not knowing what was going on and with all my caution, I couldn’t help but call into the crevice, “Lian’er, are you in there? Can you hear me? Can you answer me?”
At first, there was no response, just the vibrations from my voice. Based on the resonance, it seemed like there was some space on the other side, perhaps even more spacious than where I was. After a couple more calls, I heard a brief faint sound. It was hard to discern, but it was definitely a human voice!
Who else could be here besides myself? My heart leaped with joy, and I was filled with hope. Without saying anything, I lay down and squeezed into the crevice with all my force. The crevice was as tight as I anticipated. I could feel my bones groaning with pain. I had to breathe in and out and relax my body as best as I could to squirm my way through little by little. When my hips had safely squeezed through the crevice, I flipped over and tumbled into the water.
The water wasn’t deep, just a shallow pool. It wouldn’t go over my head even if I was lying flat on the ground. In my haste to get up, I forgot to gauge the space above me. So, I almost bumped my head on a stalactite hanging down from the ceiling before I could stand up straight.
A soft, snorting sound came from the dark, sounding like… a laugh?
“Lian’er?” I widened my eyes in confusion and looked in that direction, “Lian’er, is that you?”
There shouldn’t be anyone else here, and even if there were, in this pitch-black darkness, they couldn’t have seen that embarrassing scene just now, let alone laughed.
I asked but received no answer. In the pitch-black space, there was only the sound of water and breathing.
But it wasn’t just my breathing.
Collecting myself, I lowered my body and walked towards that direction hunching. The ceiling was getting lower. Before long, I had to crawl in the water on my knees and hands, but as I went on, the gurgling sound of water was getting louder. It was the sound of water streaming down and washing against the rock wall. It was the source of this pool of water. And also the source of the other set of breathing.
As I slowly moved closer and reached out, I finally touched a warm presence. She was at the end of the water, half-leaning against the solid rock wall behind her. The gurgling stream flowed down next to her, like a kind of light shower. “Lian’er?” Uncertainly, I called her, but still no response, only the steady sound of her breathing. Since I couldn’t get an answer, I could only find out with my hands.
Considering the limited height in this place, I could only crawl to her while taking care not to squash her. I reached out with caution. Her sword was sitting snugly on her right, undrawn. I flipped her wrist that was in the water. Her pulse was normal. Nothing was bent weirdly. Her waist and abdomen seemed unharmed. Even as I leaned in to sniff, apart from her familiar scent, there was no unusual smell like blood or anything of the sort. The more I examined, the greater my confusion. Carefully, I continued to feel upward, and when I cradled her face and felt around, I froze.
I froze, not because of anything bad. The place my fingers brushed felt smooth, no signs of injury. It’s just…
It’s just… the corners of her lips. She was definitely smiling.
A realization struck me, and I blinked, slowly letting go of her face. I frowned and said, “Lian’er, are you kidding me?” Even as I said that, I was still in disbelief. But the truth was the best answer. The person beneath me suddenly stirred. A splash, and I felt a tug on my back.
In the dark, I couldn’t see her face, but I heard her cheerful voice, tinged with amusement saying, “What? Are you worried?” In that instant, I heaved a sigh of relief. But the moment I let out that sigh, a surge of anger rose.
I wanted to pull away, but a pair of arms tightened on my back. There was no way I could get away. I scowled, and as I was about to speak, the amused voice continued, “Getting mad already? Hmph, now you know how it feels to worry about someone. Doesn’t feel good, huh?”