The Witch Nichang– Chapter 43
Down the Mountain
The way it ended was completely different from how I imagined it. It all went well, but vaguely, the sense of relief that came when all things were settled was lacking as if everything was merely pushed back to the unforeseeable future.
Perhaps it was this that brought forth a strange state of mind in me, so strange that I didn’t even understand it myself, just desperately trying to grasp the whiff of strangeness, and in turn, trying to trace its root. The appearance of Honghua Guimu compelled me to believe in the existence of the story. A layer of fog seemed to have lifted off the hazy future, but more fog was shrouded on top, unsettling me.
A wisp of inexplicable panic was lingering in me, and I didn’t know why.
I was caught in my own frustration. By the time I came to myself, there was a voice speaking beside my ears.
“How are you, Xian’er? Feeling better?” Master had returned to my side at some point. Now a hand was resting on my wrist, seemingly checking my pulses, but it also felt like a comfort. It was comforting to have a warm hand on the skin.
I quickly gathered myself, raised my head, and summoned up a smile at where the voice came from. “I’m fine. Feeling much better…” Before I finished, I felt a light flick on my forehead.
“Do you know how bad your smile looks like now? Be honest.”
The familiar voice sounded irritated but with a hint of relief that came with solving a difficult problem, sounding like a reproach but also a joke.
I pursed my lips as I rubbed my forehead. The truth was, I didn’t feel much pain just now. For one, I grew numb to it as time passed, and second, I was distracted by all the thoughts going on in my head. It was after I was reminded that I turned my attention to my body again. I had gotten quite used to the burning sensation in my lungs. It didn’t feel as intolerable as before, but I still felt weak. I tried to move, but I accidentally stretched a part of my back, and a sharp twinge of pain ensued.
Though I managed to stifle a groan, the arm around my waist still tightened, and a concerned voice sounded at the same time. “What? What’s wrong?”
The voice belonged to Master, but the arm around my waist belonged to Lian’er. The dark didn’t seem like a hindrance to them. They could easily capture every single movement of mine, even a frown.
I couldn’t hide it, so I had to tell the truth. I said, smiling wryly. “Nothing. Just that I took a hit on my back earlier. I didn’t feel anything before, but now it’s starting to hurt.”
A pair of hands were placed on my shoulders. They were Master’s. From the look of it, it seemed like she wanted to flip me over and check my injury but to no avail. The arm around my waist was still holding tight. It wasn’t until Master said in the dark, “Lian’er, let go of your hand, quick! Your sister’s injury is on the back. This posture isn’t going to help!” that she started to let loose.
Away from the warm embrace, feeling the familiar presence going away, I couldn’t help but feel a little empty. I reached for her hand without realizing it, but it was in vain because it was dark in front of me. From the rustling of footsteps, I knew that presence had backed up a few steps, still staying silent, as if she was angry.
Perhaps it wasn’t as simple as being angry.
Just as I was about to say something, I felt a sudden sharp pain in my back. Master was pressing on the injury. The force she applied was light and careful, but even the slightest movement would cause immense pain, not to mention pressing it without warning. I couldn’t take it, and a groan slipped out. The words gathered in my brain vanished without a trace.
Fortunately, I was never a fragile person. My mind was fairly strong, at least I could endure hardships. Otherwise, it would be too much with all I had gone through tonight.
“Maybe there’s a fracture. That woman actually did it on a junior.” As if talking to herself, Master’s voice was tinged with anger, and the next moment, I felt my body was lifted, and my legs were off the ground. I was taken into her arms like a child.
“Master?” My body stiffened. I wasn’t a child, after all. I couldn’t be brazen about this, so I said with embarrassment, “Mas…master, don’t, let me down. I can walk by myself. It’s not like…”
“You’re hurt on your back. It could be serious. Don’t take it lightly.” Perhaps because of the dark, she didn’t notice my embarrassment. Only gravity was left in her voice. “Besides, you were poisoned earlier. Although it is cured now, it’s better to be careful…” Then she paused as if pondering for a second, and finally said with resolution, “Let’s go. I’ll take you down the mountain.”
“Down the mountain?” Before I said something, a questioning voice came, full of surprise. “Why take the long way? Why not go back to the cave instead of going down the mountain?”
“There aren’t many supplies in the cave, and we lack the necessary medication. It’s not helpful with the treatment. It’s better to go to the town down the mountain.”
Master kept her feet moving while explaining. She had lightened her body with qi as she was speaking. I could see nothing but hear the wind beside my ears getting louder. Being held in the arms like this, the darkness had blocked out everything. The embarrassment slowly dissolved, but in a trance, I felt as if I was back to the beginning. That time I was young, wandering around with her. Sometimes when the time was tight, she would carry me in her arms like this and hurried on. If my memory serves me right, that chilly night was the last time I was being held like this since we settled in Mount Hua.
That night, I was in Master’s arms, and Lian’er was in my arms, an adult and two kids, rushing our way to Yellow Dragon Cave against the northern wind.
Right, where’s Lian’er? Where is she now? Is she silently following behind us? Or she has gone back by herself in a fit of pique?
I was worrying about her but didn’t have the strength to look back. I couldn’t see her, anyway. Even my senses weren’t working well. Too many things happened tonight. It’s hard not to feel exhausted and overwhelmed, and the arms were a feeling of comfort I had been missing. Before that, I had been holding on, and now, the drowsiness was coming back, and it seemed like I no longer had the reasons to resist it.
Right as I was about to surrender, I caught sight of the glimmering light at the mountain foot. Unlike the dazzling light common to that world, there were always only one or two spots of light in the dark night here, distant and dim, embedded in the heavy darkness of this world, insignificant but warm nonetheless.
Suddenly, a memory flashed through my mind, and I got a chill. I shook my head and struggled a little to regain some consciousness. I tugged at Master’s lapel and stumbled over my words, “Mas…master, go…to the first…inn by the…town entrance and save…”
I didn’t have much control over my worn-out body anymore. My tongue was getting stiff, and my words were slurry. I guessed Master didn’t understand the last part, so she asked, “Mm? What’s with the inn?”
I bit my lips, forcing myself to stay awake and focused.
“The first inn…by the town entrance. The backyard of…the one with lanterns hanging in front of the door. There are two…people who have helped me before.”
People who had helped me before, innocent people, people who Honghua Guimu said she had killed.
I once thought what she said must be true because there was absolutely no need to rile me up with this lie. She had nothing to gain by making me go mad. Not to mention, that woman’s temper was eccentric and random. It wasn’t such an odd thing even if she took the lives of two people who had offended her.
But after I calmed down, especially after seeing her chivalry in her battle with Master, I had to admit I had my doubts again.
There were all kinds of distractions before. I had no time to think it through. The lights at the mountain foot reminded me again now that I saw them. A sense of urgency couldn’t help but emerge. I just wanted to confirm it soon. Even if what that woman said was real, maybe they could still be saved.
Master might not have fully understood my feelings, but she didn’t question me either. She didn’t ask any more questions when she heard what I said. Instead, she patted my head and said, “Got it. Shut up and rest.”
So I kept my mouth shut. Although I could hardly say I was resting, traveling like this itself was a kind of rest. But it wasn’t a good time to let myself fall asleep, so I had to bite my lips now and then to hold on to the last bit of consciousness. Like this, we went on for a while more, and finally, came close to the town. The distant lanterns in the dark were getting closer and closer.
Before I could tell Master the way to the backyard, I saw people looming in front of the door under the hanging dim light.
“You…” I thought I could shout, but as I opened my mouth, I realized I couldn’t take a breath. Instead, it would cause a twinge on my back, choking back my words.
Meanwhile, Master picked up her pace and landed steadily in front of the door.
The sudden appearance scared the people at the door off the ground. When they took a closer look with the swaying light, their face immediately turned into a look of shock. “My goodness! Miss Zhu! Y—you’re back! Are you alright?”
The one yelling was the bellboy, and next to him was the big dark-skinned man whose gloomy face remained.
“Are you guys…fine? I heard Honghua…” The truth was right in front of me. I had my doubts before, but still, I was surprised.
“Aiya, Miss Zhu! That’s our question! It scared the hell out of us!” The bellboy got more worked up when he heard me say the word Honghua, and more words were spouting out of him. “That woman jumped down from a tree as soon as you left! At first, she said she was going to kill us, then she said she would let us live seeing that we are still a man of honor, but she said she wouldn‘t let you go. Then she was gone after that. My brother and I were worried about you all night at the door! How are you? You didn’t run into her, did you?”
“I did. But she said to me that…that she…killed…”
I was in a hurry to speak, so I couldn’t smooth out the breath that was stuck in me.
But Master probably understood what I wanted to say. She butted in, “Honghua Guimu is like that, vicious with her words but not an evil person. She won’t kill innocent people.” She said it with a bit of tease in her voice, and at the same time, she stroked my back, some heat seeping into my body little by little. “So this is what you stubborn kid is worried about. Fooled by her, huh?”
I saw her as soon as I turned around. Now there was finally some light around. Though dim, I could finally see that face. Even the faint smile on her lips was visible, bristling with nostalgic familiarity.
Like an idiot, my eyes fixed at the smile for a while before they moved on and swept around, hoping to see the other person I missed as much, to see the familiar face, even if she was pouting in anger.
In the end, I didn’t get a chance.
After that, I somehow sank deeply into slumber, just like that.
What a long night it was.