The Witch Nichang– Chapter 38
A Dark Night
I wasn’t a smart person. The so-called plan couldn’t be simpler. It wasn’t even a strategy.
I never tried to be clever and think about slipping away halfway. My obedience and submission on the road were only to exchange for a chance tonight. I just wanted to go up the mountain alone before the red flower dame.
For one, I could avoid giving away the location of Yellow Dragon Cave by doing so so that I didn’t have to worry. Second, it was because I was worried. I worried that things might not be as simple as the fine dame had said. Although she said it was a duel, and the story she told was tied in with what I knew, I couldn’t believe her entirely before checking with Master. After all, regarding jianghu affairs, you wouldn’t know what was in other people’s minds.
That is why I want to tell Master and confirm it with her first. If what she said is true, and Master feels it isn’t a big deal, I will come right back to her and look for another spot for the duel. If that is the case, that can’t be better. It will also be a win-win I’m hoping for, and everyone will be happy. But if things are different from what she said, or Master thinks it is too risky, then…
I don’t know. Maybe I would have to be selfish for once.
On the other hand, I’m pushing my luck. After spending time with the red flower dame on the road, I feel she has integrity, though her temper is peculiar and unpredictable. Maybe she was just trying to scare me with her threat of harming the villagers. She might not actually do it. This is just wishful thinking used to comfort myself, or I might be right, but ultimately, I can’t hide my selfishness.
If I have to choose between my neighbors or my close ones, I will face it. I‘m just afraid I ended up losing both even after thinking up all the ideas and choosing to be a bad guy.
At this moment, I didn’t feel safe, although the bellboy promised that the incense could make people sleep through the night. The red flower dame was a seasoned master in jianghu, after all. She was too mysterious. I didn’t think it could be solved that easily. I was afraid she would wake up early and catch up to me in no time.
That was why I groped my way up the mountain, afraid to even light a torch.
Even so, I still felt uneasy. The dark was as heavy as a curtain. I could see nothing beyond a few steps, which made the air seem even more gloomy and eerie. Sometimes when there was a slight movement behind me or when I heard insects or birds, it made me nervous and paranoid, feeling as if someone was tailing me.
Because of these doubts, I was anxious to the point I felt like I was about to be torn, part of me wanted to run straight to Yellow Dragon Cave; the other part was afraid that someone was approaching in the dark. It wouldn’t be that bad if it was just me getting caught. What I was afraid of was being followed, leading the bad guy to the house, and causing more harm than good.
The anxiety was overwhelming, and finally, I was too on edge. It was too much, so I stopped.
Alone in the wild, it was as dark as ink around. I listened, and I could only hear wind swishing between the trees, sounding like whimpers. After standing still, my breathing slowed down, and my heart settled down. I stayed in silence for a while, then I shook my head and chuckled, scoffing at myself for actually having a taste of imaginary fears.
But were they imaginary fears? I couldn’t go on unless this worry was dispelled, or maybe…
After thinking for a while, I went on in a different direction.
This time, I was heading west. I sprinted for some distance as I groped along. Even though my sight was limited, I could recognize the rough location based on my experience. When I felt I got far enough, I slowed down, parting the grass and searching as I walked around, making a faint but rather high-pitched whistle.
It was a call but not for humans, a call that the little Lian’er once forced me to learn. She said I wouldn’t be qualified as her buddy if I didn’t know how to do it, so I had no choice but to learn it. I never thought it would come in handy now.
As expected, a high-pitched response came from the dark after a few whistles. After a while, two big fellows sprang out of the grass.
When my eyes met with their fierce and wary eyes, I was a little nervous. After all, I wasn’t Lian’er. There weren’t many ways I could communicate with them. Besides, I had been away for two years. Even if I was treated as a stranger, there was no surprise. Fortunately, I wasn’t afraid of animals, so I could stand their surveying eyes.
After being sniffed for a few rounds, one of them finally came near, sniffed my hand, and nudged my hand with its nose. I slowly crouched down and petted it with that hand. As soon as its tongue licked my hand, I knew I was accepted.
I was surprised because it had been two years, but they still remembered my scent. Although I was glad, even touched, I didn’t understand why.
Anyhow, this was already beyond my expectation.
After calming the two big wolves and letting them stay at the side, I moved three steps away, took out a flame stick, and ignited it. With the dim glow, I tore off a piece of my hem and flattened it out. Then I brought my index finger to my mouth and bit down.
What I got in return for this seemingly cool move was a pang of excruciating pain. I was gasping and hissing in pain. It was better to use a knife, I concluded to myself. But I daren’t rest my hands. I started to scribble with the oozing blood, jotting down the things that happened with the red flower dame as succinctly as possible. But I omitted the fact I was being threatened and wrote at the end that she was waiting at an inn in the town now, that Master didn’t have to worry, and it was up to her to decide whether to come.
I was relieved when I was done. I snuffed out the flame stick, patched up my finger, and then picked up the torn cloth, blowing it gently, so that the blood on it could dry faster. If I could come up with this idea earlier, I wouldn’t have to suffer the pain. Unfortunately, I only thought of this on my feet under the pressure of various concerns after I came up the mountain. I had it coming.
Ten years with Lian’er. I am well aware of her routine. I know she will come to visit the wolves in a day or two. If she sees this torn cloth, she will pass it to Master. Then I won’t have to make the trip myself. I can return to the inn now. If I’m lucky, the red flower dame won’t notice a thing. Otherwise, I can avoid the worry of being followed. It was a much better idea than the one I had earlier.
It was funny how people had to be forced. I had been thinking throughout the journey. And perhaps because I missed them, all I was thinking about was how I could meet them. That was why the ideas I could think of before weren’t as good as this one when I was desperate.
I was mocking myself. When the torn cloth was almost dry, I wrapped it with leaves, went over, and was about to attach it to one of the wolves’ bodies.
Two steps in, the two wolves stood up almost simultaneously, the fur on their back bristling and growls coming from their throat!
I was startled. At first, I thought it was directed at me, but we were getting along well just now, so it made no sense. Then I thought, was it that the blood on my hand had aroused their animal nature? But then I realized it wasn’t me they were growling at, but something behind me!
Alarmed, I wheeled around and went into guard. I was looking around, but the surrounding remained silent. Maybe because of the presence of large animals, even the chirping of insects and birds disappeared at some point, only the darkness suffused like a tangible matter, thickening over time.
It was as if there was nothing, only the wolves kept growling. They kept turning and clawing at the ground, getting more and more anxious.
Seeing them like this, I pondered for a moment before I stood up and called out in the direction at which the growling was directed. “Ma’am, since you’ve been found out, it’s better to come out. You can hide from me but not these unwelcoming animals. There’s no point in hiding anymore, isn’t it?”
As soon as I finished, a cold snort came from the dark. It was a little farther away. I could only see a shadow figure leaped off a tree, and then there came the familiar, ghastly voice. “Humph, unwelcoming? If not for the sudden change in wind direction, putting me from the upwind to the downwind, how could these two beasts detect my presence?”
After finishing her words, she sauntered close. Only then, I could see the red flower. My heart thudded. I felt something wasn’t right. Whether it was her attitude or words, she was too calm. She looked too nonchalant. It didn’t seem like…
Repressing the premonition, I cupped my fist and went straight to the point. “May I ask…when did you notice I was gone? And when did you catch up to me?”
Then I heard the answer I most dreaded.
Her laughter was sinister. “Catch up to you? Do you really think you can get rid of this old lady with that childish trick? That cheap stuff? Even if I was asleep, its scent would wake me up too. Say, when did I notice? Do I even need to come after you?”
Her words made my heart sink even more. I had thought she might wake up early and come after me, but I had never doubted whether she had passed out because I had experienced the potency of the incense myself. A thought gradually surfaced, bringing along an ominous feeling. I clenched my teeth and continued. “In that case, I wonder if you were hard on the two in the inn? And what did you do to them?”
I changed my mind. I couldn’t say she had caught up to me, so other things no longer mattered now, except the two who helped me. I hoped…
During this tormenting wait, a roar of laughter came from her. After she was done laughing, I heard her deriding voice. “What do you think will happen to them? You have to pay the price if you dare to mess with me. It’s just two lives.”
The surrounding air suddenly turned cold.
I didn’t know how I felt and how I should feel right now. I only knew after a moment of silence, the woman started to chuckle in the dark again.
She was laughing with delight, as if she found it fun. “Hey, what a surprise. I thought you’re an urbane and gentle person. I never thought you would have murderous intent. Hahaha, interesting, interesting.”
Murderous intent? Maybe.
I didn’t know what murderous intent looked like. I only knew I had too much coldness in me. That coldness froze as it crawled along my body, even my breath seemed to come with frost, yet there was a swell of restless heat burning in my heart. Suppressed under the coldness, it was bubbling and seemed to be ready to spurt out at any moment.
I always thought I was indifferent, not evil but not kind either. When it didn’t concern my interest, I could be kind but not affectionately kind either. I knew I lived in a tumultuous time where life and death were something common. I learned to save myself and not to care too much. When necessary, I was even willing to sacrifice some that were relatively less important to preserve those who I held dear.
If so, I shouldn’t be having murderous intent now, as it wouldn’t help me and could get myself killed instead.
I knew. I knew it well, but the heat and the coldness persisted. There was no use suppressing them. Even the two wolves beside me sensed something, turning from being anxious and defensive to unusually excited. Their claws were scratching the ground, and they were growling. Unable to hold back any longer, they finally roared and launched an attack!
“Stop!” I blurted out, but it was too late. I couldn’t stop them.
“Ha—Your master hasn’t moved yet. It’s not your turn, you bunch of animals!” A roar came from the dark. I tensed up and lunged forward, but I was one step behind. Then I heard their whimpers, causing my blood to boil!
All I saw was that blurry figure when I lunged forward. A blast of wind was coming toward my waist. With what was left of my rationality, I bent down and managed to dodge it, but I kept the same motion and pounced on her with the momentum, ramming into her!
She didn’t seem to expect such a reckless attack, so she took the full blow. She staggered a little before she spat. “Girl, are you crazy?”
I might be. Even I, myself, didn’t expect it. In the dark, it was as if the face of the bellboy was in front of me. It turned out I cared. And the two wolves. If anything happened to them, how could I face Lian’er? They were like family to her!
The shadow figure in front of me was swaying. My eyes were burning. I wrapped my arms around her waist after ramming into her and drove her back with all my might.
There was a voice shouting in my head, this woman, she killed innocent people and wolves. The villagers might suffer the same fate in the future. I was wrong about her. She turned out to be peculiar and wicked. She said it was a duel, but she might want to kill Master next, even Lian’er. I couldn’t let her do that! Never!
I will kill her!
At this moment, my rationality could only stand by and watch. It was as if the one controlling my body wasn’t me. I used all my strength to hold her and drive her back because I still remembered the terrain around here.
While she wasn’t paying attention, she staggered back a few steps. When she looked back, she immediately realized what I was doing and bellowed. “Girl! What’re you doing? Get off me or I won’t have mercy on you!” When she saw I gave no response, she then lifted her dragon-head staff and smashed it down on my back.
I could hear the swoosh of the wind with the strike. How could I not know? Under normal circumstances, I would have retreated and gotten away already, but at this moment, I bore the hit as if blinded by the devil, oblivious to anything else. A grunt left my lips, but I kept on pushing.
It was only a few steps away from the cliff. She must have gotten anxious. She no longer talked to me like she did earlier and instead stabbed her staff into the ground, spreading her legs and sinking her body. Right after that, I felt what I was pushing with my shoulders wasn’t a person but a boulder that weighed a ton. She wouldn’t budge the slightest inch, even when I had used all my strength. We stayed like this for a while, and suddenly I felt her hands tighten around my arms. A powerful force yanked away my arms that were wrapped tightly around her waist, and I heard an abrupt bawl. “Off!” At that moment, my body wasn’t mine anymore. I was sent flying far away.
After rolling several times on the ground, I finally came to a stop on my back, looking at the dark sky. Gasping, I let out a few coughs. When I lifted my hand and rubbed it across my lips, I saw a few streaks of crimson red.
My body screamed with pain. I couldn’t move anymore. My boiling blood slowly cooled down. When my senses regained their clarity, I heard the sonorous and distant howls of the wolves. I turned my head. On the high ground not far away, the two wolves huddled together in the dark were howling with their necks stretched.
They are…still alive…, I thought to myself. A weight was lifted off my heart.
I could feel the grass on the side of my face and hear the insects chirping indistinctly. No matter how fierce a life-and-death battle had happened, in nature, everything was normal. I found it hilarious when this thought popped up in my mind.
Suddenly, a figure landed in front of me. The red flower on her hair stood out in the dark.
“Girl, I didn’t expect you to be like this when you’ve gone crazy. You almost got me killed,” she said eerily, her dragon-head staff pointing at my neck. With just a
little force, she could take my life.
I supposed I didn’t want to die, but at this moment, I felt at peace. I even felt a sense of relief.
Until an icy voice entered my ears from afar, word by word.
“Stay away from her!”
My head was still tilted to the side. If I were to turn my eyes, I could easily see that, not far away, another figure had appeared next to the huddling wolves.
Although I could hardly see it, tears couldn’t help welling up in my eyes because every night I would miss her.
I miss her, miss her, miss her, but I don’t want to see her at this moment.