The Witch Nichang- Chapter 3
Aunt Ling, from then on, I called her Master.
I was still a little worried about following her because I knew it was a fit of pique that she was willing to take me in. So, I was being prudent throughout the journey, afraid that she might regret and abandon me. By that time, I didn’t know how to cope with this immense world.
Only later, after getting along with her for some time, I realized I was worrying too much.
Master was stubborn, someone with an unyielding personality. Taking me in might be an act of impulse, but once she’d accepted me as her disciple, she would treat me as one. She took me along everywhere, traveling from place to place without having a fixed abode and a roof over our heads. However, she would set aside two or four hours every day for training, guiding me from Post-standing and leg stretching to qi circulation and meditation. She taught me everything at length, even repeating all the minor details.
I’d always kept her advice in mind, besides I was mature and knew the boundaries, so I always put in extra effort when practicing, hoping it could make up for my lack of talent. I daren’t slack off even when I was free. I’d go collect water when she rests, prepare the meal when she hunts. I was coping just fine here. Instead, I vaguely felt like I’d returned to the days of being a backpacker, so sometimes, I’d forget about the boundaries and crossed the line. As a result, I’d aroused her suspicions before, but she couldn’t figure out anything, so she ended up attributing all these to me being a child from the mountain.
For a whole year, I’d followed her to many places, but we often stayed in the wild where there weren’t many people around, rarely stopping in busy downtowns. This had given me a vague feeling that she might be hiding from something, but I could only guess in my head.
At other times, she was sparing of words, except for the four hours when she was teaching me, and she mentioned nothing about herself.
She never told me what I was learning, and I never asked her either.
She never told me her full name, and I never asked her either.
Finally, one day, on the summit of mountainous Mount Hua that was surrounded by ranges of hills, she gazed into the mountain valley pervaded by clouds and mist with her hands behind for a good while, and said to me: “Let’s settle down here.”
I nodded in accord.
We’d sought a few places and finally found a safe place at the mountainside. It was a secluded, less populated place, and it happened that there was an ancient cave that was rather deep and hidden. The view from the cave entrance was spectacular. Master was pleased with this place. She carved some rocks into stone stools and tables with her sword. Then, she flew over to carve down three words on the cliff wall—Yellow Dragon cave.
This was the first time I’d seen her wielding her sword, and it was also the first time I’d seen someone cutting through stones like mud—a scene I once thought was ridiculous presented itself before my eyes, leaving me speechless in astonishment. It turned out that I’d acknowledged a true master as a teacher.
After that, we headed down the mountain to get some food, bedding and buy some utensils and winter clothes. Finally, we found a place to settle down before winter.
On the day we settled down, she asked me to kneel before her. Looking at her serious expression, I did as she told me with respect. After a long silence, she began to speak with great solemnity.
Since then, I learned that her name was Ling Muhua. She created her martial arts by integrating the strengths of a hundred different schools of martial arts. So, there was no need to trace the origin of her martial arts. Now, the reason for settling down here was to refine her martial arts, take her skills to the next level, and create a unique school of swordsmanship that was unrivaled in this world.
“Xian’er.” She called me: “Because of this, I won’t be supervising you as I did before, but fortunately, you’ve always been diligent, conscientious, and intelligent. Your natural endowment is average, but as the saying goes, the fastest horse can’t reach ten steps in one leap, yet an ordinary horse can gallop a great distance by continuous trotting. Since you’ve come under my wing, you ought not to disappoint me, do you understand?”
By that time, I’d been practicing for more than a year, but I was still at the beginner level. Thanks to the exam-orientated education, I could recite anything fluently as long as it was something that required memorization, such as the incantations and the sword gestures, and I could also replicate the exact moves from memory. I think I’d left a false impression of being brilliant, making her have hope for me. But she was a grandmaster, after all; I couldn’t hide the truth of my slow progress on meditation and Qi circulation, and thus, prompted this encouragement.
My initial intention hadn’t changed. I didn’t have lofty ambitions and wish to become a master. However, I had to accept her expectations of me, as I knew how much she’d given me.
After that, Master started to go into closed-door meditation often.
In the cave’s deepest end, a small chamber had been carved out for her. The chamber space wasn’t huge. Outside the entrance, two boulders are placed side by side, making it seem inconspicuous, even when noticed, one couldn’t move them easily. She gained insights into her martial arts in that room, only got out after at least ten days to a month to get some fresh air and see the progress of what I’d learned. Occasionally, she would go hunting for some food and then leave it to me to clean up. Maybe it’d become a habit after a year. She didn’t seem to think there was anything off with leaving these chores to a child. But I was glad that she was not suspicious, then I could take care of everything with no worries.
Days passed by; Entering the winter, the snow started to fall in Mount Hua.
At first, I could still enjoy the beautiful and majestic snowy landscape with great interest, but the snow gradually turned from light to heavy. Finally, in the deep mid-winter, heavy snowfall soared for three days and three nights. The freezing wind destroyed the trees, the heavy frosts formed into ice, the stream froze, and the snow was knee-deep, covering Mount Hua in snow.
I didn’t expect there to be heavy snowfall. It’d caught us off guard. Luckily, the path from the cave entrance was torturous; plus, I’d crafted two walls using branches and hides, which had played the role of shielding us from the wind and the cold. There were winter clothes in the cave, and the food supplies were sufficient too. Sometimes, when it was too cold, we could get two pieces of charcoal from the outer cave and start a fire to keep warm—I daren’t start a fire inside the cave too often, and Master also thought it was unnecessary, though our considerations were different.
Even so, there was still some drudgery to do, such as plowing the snow and breaking some ice for water.
I wrapped myself in thick layers of clothes and then picked up a wood bucket before making my way through the snowy forest. From a distance, I looked like a downsized clumsy bear. Master always said that martial artists could circulate their Qi to keep out the cold. Unfortunately, her disciple had failed her as I was still trembling cold even when I’d wrapped myself into a bear. It didn’t snow on this day, but the wind was blowing. It was piercing cold when the snow fell from the branches onto my neck.
I managed to reach the stream, but the water had already frozen solid. I walked to the center, channeled some qi, lifted the drill rod, and pounded the ice several times. Then, the ice broke into pieces, and I’d fill the bucket with the ice pieces, bringing it back to keep in reserve in case of need. This was the routine I’d carry out every few days. For now, this was the most demanding task for me.
Finally, the bucket was full. I straightened up, flopped down onto the ice, and decided to take a break first.
It was exhausting, but my heart was at peace.
It was very serene out here. Looking around, everywhere was covered in snow. The trees and rocks were beautiful, like sculptures carved out of ice or jade. Besides, this place was at the bottom of the valley. There was almost no wind here. Once I stopped pounding, this place was tranquil as if the time had frozen. Only the sound of breathing was signaling my existence.
But gradually, as my breathing slowed down, I seemed to hear something else.
At first, I thought I’d heard it wrong as auditory hallucinations often occurred in a hushed environment. It could be the sound of snow shifting or rocks falling, and even the sound of branches cracking because of the unbearable weight of the snow. Either would create a strange echo within the hollow valley.
But something was off!
I sprang up from the ground, clenching the drill rod in one hand while drawing out the short sword at my waist that Master gave me with another hand. I searched through the surrounding slowly and warily, paying attention to every single detail. The sound was sporadic. When it sounded, it was faint and short, yet rhythmic, like a soft drum—it sounded clearly like the footsteps of animals!
On the right-hand side, there seemed to be something moving in the snowy forest. I wasn’t sure but daren’t go to check it out without thinking it through.
There was a faint unpleasant smell of beasts in the air, or it was just an illusion, but I could feel something was eyeing me from the forest end.
The time was ticking away, not before too long, my limbs had slowly become numb in this harsh cold. I didn’t know how long this situation would last. I was a little anxious, pondering whether I should confront it without fear, or it was just a false alarm.
In this absolute silence, suddenly, a long cry pierced through the air.
The cry was deep and distant. After a few waves, it ended with a deep, reverberating sound, shaking off the snow on the branches. When the beast that had been standing against me heard the cry, it retreated as if it’d received an order, running into the forest’s depths without hesitation. It didn’t even care to hide its trail. The snow dust that it’d kicked up when running was rolling and dispersing like boiling water, drifting in the air for a long time before it settled.
Because of the interference of the snow dust, I didn’t see what I’d just encountered, but I was sure I’d heard it.
That was not a cry, it was a wolf howl.
When we first chose the place to settle down in Mount Hua, we deliberately avoided places that wolves and tigers frequented. In these six months, everything had been calm. So now, I was quite shocked to bump into one so sudden near where we lived.
And what was even worse was, in the next few days, I could hear the gloomy howling every night even in the cave.
I was a little uneasy, feared that the wolf pack that night would follow the scent to the cave. Coincidentally, Master was in closed-door meditation these days. Major incidents in my eyes were trivial matters to her, so I couldn’t disturb her; I could only buck up, staying half-awake at night while holding my sword, and monitoring the cave entrance at all times for any movements.
This had lasted for three nights. On the fourth day, Master finally came out of her room. I reported this matter to her at once. She thought for a moment and said calmly: “I suppose it’s the recent heavy snowfall that has caused the beasts to have no place to feed, and they’ve changed their territory out of hunger. We’ll see; if they come too close to Yellow Dragon Cave, I won’t allow them to run rampant here.”
I would rather avoid troubles. After hearing this, I was hoping the wolf pack would walk far away and leave us alone. But at about 9 o’clock that night, instead of ceasing, the howls arose one after another. It felt closer to the cave than it did a few days ago.
Master didn’t say much. She got up from her bed, put on her coat, and went out with her sword.
She didn’t leave a word when she went out, so I’d better stay put. I started a fire, waiting inside the cave with my nerves tensed up. However, after some time, I couldn’t see her coming back. I’d forgotten to keep track of the time before that, so I couldn’t tell how long it’d passed. And hearing that the howls were softer than before, I reckoned that it wasn’t that dangerous. I couldn’t wait any longer, so I took a touch and went out.
It was biting cold outside the cave; now was the time where the temperature was the lowest. Even the snow on the ground glistened with an icy glow under the moonlight. I daren’t go far, only examining the vicinity. As expected, I’d found two wolf carcasses. They were both killed in a single strike, and their eyes were still wide open—it was obviously out of Master’s hand.
There was little bleeding judging by the depth of the wounds. It seemed like Master had dealt with them with ease. I heaved a sigh of relief, wanting to return to the cave.
Just then, a faint sound came from the wind.
I was aghast at first, thinking that the encounter I had when I was breaking the ice to get some water had recurred. I drew out my sword in a hurry with my back against the cliff wall, shined my torch toward the darkness, and was embattled. But nothing happened after a while. Then, I pricked up my ears to listen to the sound in the wind. It didn’t sound like a howl, but rather a child’s cry.
Now, this is getting more strange. In the mountain, with the paths blocked by the heavy snowfall, it is common if a wolf comes. Why would there be a child sobbing?
In an instant, all sorts of strange thoughts surged in my mind, scaring me into a cold sweat.
At that moment, I only wanted to go back as soon as possible. But I couldn’t make myself leave. I might seem weak, but I had an adult soul who had lived for twenty-odd years. I couldn’t just turn a deaf ear to a child crying in the wild.
Gritted my teeth, I’d finally made my decision. Holding up the torch, I walked, step by step, toward the direction where the sound was coming from.
Post-standing(站桩 Zhànzhuāng)- a training method to cultivate the internal martial arts by standing still in a unique posture.
Qi circulation- a technique of controlling Qi (vital energy/force) to flow from the Dantian (energy center) through the meridians and back into the Dantian in a cycle.