The Witch Nichang– Chapter 49
The day dawned after a night of turmoil, and a morning glow started to light the sky.
I mingled among the group, moving along the mountain path together with the bandits, carriages, and horses. Lian’er was far ahead at the front, and I could only catch a glimpse of her. Meanwhile, the troop of ladies who came with her was scattered around the group, as if watching us while escorting us.
After moving along like this for a while, we gradually deviated from the main path, heading straight toward a branch of the Daba mountains, Mount Dingjun. We were heading up from the foothill following the trail. When we were almost halfway up the mountain, I saw flags fluttering between the cliffs, lookouts on guard, fences and walls surrounding the hill, appearing just like a stronghold in the mountain.
As I looked around while walking, I heard people talking beside me. It caught my attention, so I slowed down and listened. Geng Shaonan from Wudang was trying to get some information from the senior escort. He was asking softly, “Sir, you’ve been an escort in the northwest region for a long time. Who’s this Jade Rakshasa?”
“This Jade Rakshasa has just appeared in the last two years. Only her peers heard of her real name, Lian Nichang. No one knows where she came from, let alone where she’d learned her impressive martial arts!” The old escort looked around carefully before whispering to him, “I heard she defeated eighteen bandits with her palms and sword when she first came out two years ago. When she was fighting with the bandits, Li Erfu, the Wulin veteran in Shaanxi, was watching, and he said afterward that Lian Nichang’s sword and palm techniques were different from all the other schools of martial arts in Wulin, and that they were the most vicious and strange techniques he had seen in his life. He also said, in less than ten years, the world’s best master will yield to this girl! ”
His words were hasty and quick, as if he was afraid anyone would hear it. I was walking ahead silently. I had mixed feelings about it when I heard it. If what the person said was true, that meant Lian’er went down the mountain a year—not even a year—after I left for the second time. I couldn’t believe I had to hear it from an outsider to know what she had done in the past two years. How could I not…
Frustration was boiling inside me. I regretted wasting too much time. I had gone according to my own plan and had been putting this aside for so long, thinking I could rest easy having her promise as a guarantee. I should have known fate always has its way. It was never something that could be controlled.
Maybe deep down in me, I still couldn’t treat my Lian’er as “Lian Nichang.” The future seemed so far away.
But in just one night, the far-away future suddenly strode in front of me.
It wasn’t until I heard a clarion call that I came around and gathered myself. Looking up, I realized we had arrived at the stronghold. A group of female bandits came out from the entrance to greet us. They were holding weapons and standing proudly on both sides. The women in the north already looked rather masculine. With training, they looked even stronger, looking both fit and graceful.
I was a little surprised. I knew that Lian’er would rule over a mountain. What I had seen along the way proved that too, but I didn’t remember it being a gallant army of ladies.
Shortly after we entered the stronghold, someone led us to the side room. As for where the bandits and those carriages and luggage had gone, I had no idea. The sun was already up by that time, and everyone seemed exhausted after a night of ruckus. Since it was heavily guarded outside with guards posted at the periphery, I didn’t try to do anything, and just listened in on surrounding conversations. It wasn’t until the afternoon that two ladies came in and called us, “Our chief invites you to a feast!”
Sentries were everywhere in the stronghold. When we entered, there were a few tables in the hall, and there were people already seated before us. They were all men. The outlaws with us earlier were among them, except that they were all silent now, appearing nervous. Meanwhile, the ladies on duty serving wine and food held their heads high, looking at them pridefully, radiating glamor. In contrast, they made an interesting scene.
At the end of the hall, in the main seat on the stage, there sat a high-spirited young lady. Who else if not the little daredevil.
I lowered my head and pushed my hat down the moment I saw her, trying to hide in the crowd and keep a low profile. Not that I didn’t want to see her, but the circumstance wasn’t right. Besides, I wanted to hear what these people thought of her if I could.
Human minds are unpredictable, so this was a rare chance to listen to what they were thinking. They would never have thought that someone who regarded Jade Rakshasa as her family was sitting next to them when they were gossiping.
Nothing happened after the feast started, but I doubted many would be in the mood to enjoy the nice wine and nice food. Of course, I was no exception. I peeked up at her from time to time while listening to the people around whispering. It was after finding she had barely touched her wine that I could put my mind at ease.
After a few rounds of wine, the little daredevil in the main seat finally stood up. She waved her hand and called, “Bring me the gift for Mr. Wang!” Then the ladies brought her five golden plates covered with red cloth. When the cloth was lifted, the old man beside me shrieked, and I looked at the plate. There were bloody heads on the plate!
Luckily, I was far away from it. I looked down and closed my eyes, rubbing the bridge of my nose. I considered myself to be quite adaptable, and I knew how the world was in this era, so I didn’t make a big deal of it when I saw her take other people’s lives earlier, but this was…
As I closed my eyes, an escort beside me quavered, “Hey, those three on the right…aren’t they the imperial guards that showed up at the inn last night? How come…”
“Right. Like I said before, those three imperial guards must have been coming for Wang Zhaoxi. See, that kid came a long way to give Jada Rakshasa a gift, and in return, she killed those imperial guards who followed him. I must be right…”
I was even more worried now that I heard that. I knew what imperial guards meant even if I was bad at history. It was certain that when the outlaws took over the mountain for themselves, they would become the enemy of the officials,, but it was out of my expectation that Lian’er actually went to this extent. I remembered in the future, she would have a longstanding conflict with the orthodox sects of jianghu, but looking at the situation now, would she clash with the Ming government too?
My temple started to throb just at the thought of it.
While I was having a headache because of her over here, the person herself didn’t seem to be bothered. She was passionately introducing Wang Zhaoxi to the other outlaws over there, and it turned out he was one of them too. His father was the chief of the outlaws in Northern Shaanxi. He was here this time to rope in new forces and build connections. Outlaws had a clear division of territories among themselves, which was why he wasn’t afraid to travel alone with the treasure. Who would have thought other than the attention of the imperial guards, it also caught the attention of the unwitting bandits.
When I heard what happened, I frowned but said nothing. Geng Shaonan, who was close to me, looked displeased. He must have been unable to stand the fact that he was being used as a shield. This guy was prideful and carried the reputation of Wudang, so he was particularly sensitive to these matters, in my opinion. Somehow, I had this uneasy feeling.
Who knew the more I worried about something, the more someone was going to mess around with that something.
Lian’er was talking with a cup in her hand over there, smiling as she toasted to all the men. As they stood up in response to her toast, she glanced this way and called a girl over. After whispering something to her, the girl brought four people from the side door.
I had a bad feeling when I saw their outfits. A look of consternation appeared on Geng Shaonan’s face when he saw them after looking up. He leaped to his feet when Jade Rakshasa was walking over with them, smiling.
“Brothers, why are you all here?” He asked.
I heard what he said, loud and clear. It almost made my head hurt so much that I had to hold on to the table. Even though she doesn’t know what will happen, does this kid have something against me? Then it occurred to me that the dead red-faced old man once said someone had captured the four people Wudang sent out. Could this someone be…
What crossed my mind should have crossed Geng Shaonan’s mind too. His face looked even graver, but Lian’er turned a blind eye to it and told the four men to sit down. She took the wine cup and greeted them with a smile and said, “Sit here. Let me have the chance to get to know the masters from Wudang.”
There were too many interpretations to this so-called “get to know.” Besides, Lian’er was smiling like this. The more I looked at her, the more I felt things weren’t looking good, but Geng Shaonan seemed to be oblivious to it. His grave face started to lighten when he saw the smile on the young lady’s face. After that, warm wine was served, and they were chatting. Perhaps he was tipsy—I didn’t know what he was thinking—but he even started to space out in front of Lian’er.
I saw everything, and I was getting exasperated on the inside. I almost started to hate this man for being too insensitive. His martial brothers clearly seemed to have their worries and were holding back. Two of them were smiling wryly, but he didn’t even realize it. Even if he was drunk, it was still bad.
Who knew it could get worse? After sitting like this for a while, this man was high on alcohol, and words popped out of his mouth.
“Miss Lian’s martial art is exceptional. I wonder who your teacher is? If I have the chance, I’d like to learn from you. It’d be my honor. But what a shame, like leaves and flowers, although they come from the same plant, they’re different. Like tangerine and trifoliate orange, one tastes sweet, another sour. I’m afraid we won’t have the chance to meet again.”
His fellow brothers said in a panic that he was drunk. His words sounded like a compliment on the surface, but they implied pity and condescension, suggesting that Lian’er or our teacher was the sour orange, different from his orthodox sect! And he was still shaking his head and stressed, “I’m not drunk. Who says I’m drunk!”
I couldn’t stand him anymore. I slammed my cup down and glared straight up at him. Then I saw Lian’er standing up, still smiling, but her eyes had turned cold. She looked down and said something. Geng Shaonan’s face lit up. Ignoring the look on his fellows’ faces, he got up and left through the side door with Lian’er.
Shortly after they left, a person came and asked the few Wudang pupils to follow.
At this point, the hall was bustling with people drinking and mingling. These people had seen and been through things, after all. After the initial tension and apprehension, they started to let their guard down when they saw nothing was happening. The group of escorts was afraid to look around, so no one in the hall noticed this tiny episode, not until Wang Zhaoxi, who gave the gift, got out from the throng of outlaws and saw a few people were missing over here. His face froze. He grabbed a lady on duty and asked a few questions. Then his face changed, and he hurried out.
Because of the tight security, I was having trouble getting out, and it wasn’t a good idea to force my way out either, so when I saw that, I immediately went to him. Without saying much, I cut straight to the chase, “Brother Wang, I’ll go with you.”
He was surprised at first when he heard it, then he seemed to remember something, and he quickly nodded. Without further ado, he asked the lady on duty to lead the way. The three of us went out and hurried away.
It was still early in the day. We went down the mountainside and into the valley surrounded by the twin peaks. From afar, I saw a few female sentries and the Wudang pupils standing among the rocks at the col. Geng Shaonan was standing in the middle, clueless about what was happening. He went out alone with Lian’er just now, probably thinking he would have some good time with her. Who knew these people came. Now he was looking bemused.
Wang Zhaoxi shouted and picked up the pace, rushing towards the valley. I had a rough idea what Lian’er was going to do, so I slowed down instead.
Before Wang Zhaoxi could get there, a familiar figure emerged from the rocks. Different from what she wore at the feast, she had changed into a simple outfit, her hair tied up with a golden band, a long sword strapped to her waist, looking ever so elegant and radiant.
Geng Shaonan was confused. He went forward, cupped his fist, and spoke. He looked normal at first, but just a few sentences in, his face had changed a few times and even the Wudang pupils had stood up. Although I couldn’t hear them, I could tell what they were saying wasn’t pleasant.
From just now…no, earlier than that, Lian’er wanted to “get close” to them. I didn’t know why. Personally, I didn’t want her to mess around too much with Wudang, but after what he said, I hoped this uppity guy would be taught some lessons.
Master was always prideful. How could her disciples let other people look down on our martial art, mouthing off and talking nonsense!
When I got closer to the crowd, I heard Lian’er say aloud, “How generous of you. Why would I make it difficult for you? I heard Wudang’s swordsmanship was unparalleled in the world. I would very much like to see that!”
What she said sounded fine just by itself, but maybe because Lian’er had said something mean before, Geng Shaonan flared up and shouted, “Oh, so you want to try me out? I’d rather die a man than be humiliated. I would never disgrace Wudang’s reputation even if I were to take a few stabs from you and have my limbs broken!” Wang Zhaoxi was standing beside him, unable to stop him.
The answer was exactly what she wanted to hear. Lian’er said, chuckling, “Well, better watch out. I’m going to make the first move.”
I found an inconspicuous high ground and jumped onto it, looking at the scene. Lian’er unsheathed her sword and gave a light thrust. The move was very slow. It seemed like a child’s play to the eye of ordinary people. Geng Shaonan wasn’t sure if it was a feint. He lifted his sword to block. Who knew with a flick of her wrist, the tip of the sword was at his throat.
“That move didn’t work. Try again.” Lian’er didn’t actually intend to stab him. She just chuckled and sneered at him, like playing with a monkey.
Geng Shaonan was embarrassed. He roared, and with a sudden dash, he brandished his sword and sent out two moves: first, a thrust to the throat from the side, then a slash to the arms with a turn. They were fast, all in two swishes, but all missed. When he was about to make his third move, his opponent’s sword was already on his spine. Unable to continue his moves, he could only jump into the air. A breeze and a cold glint swept above his head. A lock of his hair was sliced off.
Lian’er humiliated him twice in a row and still couldn’t get enough. Back to the ground, she said, looking down at him, “I told you to watch out. Why didn’t you watch out?” She stood with her sword and said, waving her hand at those beside her, “Fellow masters of Wudang, can you stand seeing your brother being played around like a monkey?”
The few martial brothers standing around couldn‘t. They jumped right into the fight. Lining up four of their swords, they attacked. In the glint of the swords, Lian’er said with a smile, “That’s more like it.” She was fooling them around under the attack of five swords from Wudang, looking relaxed and at ease.
The fight went on like this for some time. Five of them suffered some grazes. They looked like a mess, but there was no turning back now. Lian’er was getting bored after playing around for a while. I thought they had enough of a lesson, but then she spun her wrist and leaped into the air with a frosty look and hooted, “I’ll let you know there’s always someone stronger out there. You cannot just rely on your sect’s prestige!” The cold glint was swooping down from above towards the fingers of the Wudang’s pupils!
Wang Zhaonan jumped and said, “Miss Lian, have mercy!” But there was nothing he could do.
Almost at the same time he shouted, I jumped and dashed toward her!
I had no problem if Lian’er wanted to teach some scoundrel a lesson, but she shouldn’t cut off other people’s limbs on a whim! I didn’t mind her making enemies, but I didn’t want an unforgivable grudge to forge between her and the Wudang sect!
That move was one of the killing moves Master taught us. It was unpredictable and lightning-fast. I couldn’t afford to dawdle. At full tilt, I rushed forward. I managed to reach and hold the thin blade with my two fingers before its cold glint got to the first person, but I didn’t dare to take the full force of it, so I redirected its momentum, veering the blade slightly, only leaving a streak of blood on Geng Shaonan’s and the second person’s finger.
It all happened in a split second. After I countered her move, I had no time to talk. I quickly let go and pulled back, but I wasn’t fast enough. The blade flipped. While the blade got loose, it slid past my palm and left a gash.
The pain in my hand was no big deal. The unfortunate thing was my body was in the air, and I had exhausted my energy while rushing over just now. With that swing, I lost my balance and was sent flying to the ground. It was too late for me to channel my qi. Looking at the jagged rocks below me, I could only close my eyes and accept my fate with a wry smile, hoping I wouldn’t fall too hard.
But the next moment, my body came to a stop. Something suddenly caught hold of my waist. I felt a squeeze, and my body was held against something.
I wheeled my head around. What came into view was a familiar pair of bright eyes. It was too close, so close that I could see my own reflection in them.
A moment–a long time.
Then came a feeling of groundedness as my feet touched the earth.
We stood face to face, speechless for a moment. I was a little flummoxed when I came around. It was then I realized the hat I was wearing had disappeared at some point. My lips moved, wanting to say something like it’s been a while, or I didn’t mean to hide from you, but nothing felt right when I was about to say it. She was still looking at me. In her eyes, there was no surprise. They were just filled with all kinds of emotion.
The feeling of being flummoxed gradually receded. I knew she only needed a sentence from me, and there wasn’t a moment for the past three years that I didn’t want to tell her that.
I held her hand and smiled at her. This young lady. She is Lian’er. She is Lian Nichang. She is Jade Rakshasa. No matter who she is, she is the only person in this world who can make my heart flutter, the only person I want to protect, so…
“I’m back, Lian’er…” Holding her, I said, word by word, in all sincerity, “From now on, I’ll always be there for you. Never to leave you, in weal and woe, till death do us part. How’s that?”
Then her eyes lit up. She lifted her chin proudly and nodded, then she said,
Good news! I have a new editor who will be working on this project with me. Please welcome Khriss!