The Witch Nichang– Chapter 75
Journey at Dusk
I was going to hurry back after taking a look, as I had spent too much time searching for this place. The sunset here was a magnificent sight to behold, but once the last glimmer of daylight faded, it would be too late to go back.
That was my plan before Lian’er showed up. Now, with her by my side, I no longer had to worry about staying out too late.
With her by my side, my heart was always at peace no matter where we went.
Since she said that she wanted to find out for herself, she hadn’t asked any more questions. It made things easier for me, and since we were here, I took her down the hill and walked toward the cliff in the glow of the sunset.
As we got closer, we noticed that several monks were living at the bottom of the cliff. Although their clothes were ragged and they looked emaciated, their faces exuded the unwavering determination of devout Buddhists.
When they learned that we had come specifically to visit the Buddha cave, the monks were a little surprised, but they were calm about it. The wood carvings and clay sculptures in this unknown cave were still worthless. It wouldn’t attract thieves who coveted them, so they had nothing to worry about. They handed us a torch and said, “Feel free to look around, and remember the way out.” Then they went back to their business.
I was a little hesitant when I first took the torch, fearing that I might damage the objects in the cave. But then I thought that since it would be a long time before it became an attraction, there was no need to worry about such things. The desire to explore eventually overcame my concerns, and I lit the fuel-soaked tip of the torch. Illuminated by its light, I entered the deep, dark labyrinth of caves with Lian’er.
Entering the dimly lit cave was like stepping into another world. Everywhere the torchlight touched, from the walls to the ceiling, it reflected a dazzling array of colors and graceful lines. We looked as we walked along. Each drawing told a story. I didn’t know much about the stories, but I couldn’t resist the urge to share them with Lian’er.
Since she made that statement, I somehow felt like I had gotten off easy and had let go of a lot of baggage. I was less careful with my words, no more deliberate silences or evasions. Looking at those drawings of various imaginary worlds, I talked softly to Lian’er about those strange myths and legends, playing the pipa behind the back, the transformation of Avalokiteshvara, clothes growing out of trees and so on.
Neither of us believed in ghosts or gods. I told it as a story, and she listened to it as a story. The storyteller told a coherent story, and the listener asked no questions. We both enjoyed it. Lian’er was particularly interested in the Flying Apsara paintings. At first, she compared them to qinggong, but later when she found out they were celestial beings, she stopped saying that.
We explored the cave for some time until the flame of the torch began to die down, and we made our way back out of the cave. It was already dark by then. Only a faint glow of the sunset remained on the horizon. Our rare moment of indulgence and willfulness had come to an end.
After leaving some money for the monks, we were going to leave. As I looked up at the towering cliff one last time, a sudden impulse took hold of me. I jumped up to the highest point I could reach, clung to the cliff wall, drew the short sword at my waist, and carved a few small words. Then I dropped down and smiled at Lian’er. We didn’t speak and flew into the air with qinggong, making our way back home.
I wasn’t sure if all that happened today meant anything to her, but for me, something had changed.
I wondered if those little word carvings would survive after a few centuries. If they did, I wondered who would see them and whether they would mistake these three words for tourist vandalism.
Three words that made up a simple message.
I am here.
The person beside me didn’t ask much about what I was doing. Even though we were dashing at full speed, Lian’er’s smile remained as carefree as ever. In the dim twilight, as some of her hair that had escaped the grip of the golden hair ring fluttered in the wind, she seemed more alive and captivating than any of the flying goddesses we had just seen in the murals.
I stole a glance at her from time to time, not only because she looked gorgeous, but also to think about the way she acted today. Lian’er was somewhat different from before. She didn’t get angry or question me for going off on my own, and even went exploring with me. She showed an almost indulgent…tolerance.
Yes, tolerance. I never thought that one day I would associate that word with the wild and unruly person in front of me. And even more surprisingly, it was I who was being tolerated.
So did it mean anything? I dare not think about it any further.
Up until now, I had always had hope on the one hand, but on the other hand, I had been afraid of hoping too much, for fear of reading too much into her actions.
As I dashed on unconsciously, I turned my head to look at her and lowered my head, lost in thought. Nothing would jump in front of us on the desert road anyway. I let myself sink into my thoughts. But I became so absorbed that I almost screamed when I was suddenly yanked to a stop.
There was no one else who would grab me. My first reaction was to look up at Lian’er in confusion. She looked ahead with a smile, though it was cold and even had a hint of hostility.
It turned out that something could actually jump in front of us on the desert road when I looked ahead as I followed her smiling gaze.
Several people were standing under the darkening sky. While it was nothing unusual to see people on the road, what was alarming was their menacing looks and the weapons in their hands.
“Hey…” One of the knife-wielding men looked over, then turned to another, and said, “Wasn’t there only a foreign boy? Why is there another woman?” He lowered his voice as he spoke, as if he thought that we couldn’t hear him.
“I don’t—don’t know. So what if there’s another woman? We can take care of them together. They’re staying at the best inn in town, and just look at their clothes, we might have a big one here!” The one being asked stammered in a similarly low voice, but it was all for nothing.
Looking at them and listening to their conversation, it was hard not to know what they were planning. Standing still, I smiled wryly and shook my head. Lian’er crossed her arms, as if she was enjoying the show, and waited calmly for them. After a while, when she saw that they were still whispering to each other, she called out impatiently, “Hey guys, are you guys selling knives or are you bandits? Hurry up, you’re wasting time.”
As soon as she said that, the group of bandits straightened up and strode in front of us like a pack of wolves, brandishing their machetes. One of them glared at us and said, “You little brat! Stop trying to act tough! It’s good that you know we’re bandits. Want us to hurry up? Then just come with us! And tell the old man who came with you to hand over all the silver and goods, or else… hmph! Don’t think you can scare us with that one stick! Look at how slender your wrist is. Laozi has been in jianghu for years!”
This “Laozi” who had been in jianghu for years looked menacing enough. From their conversation, it seemed that they had been watching us for a long time, probably since we checked in at the inn. It confirmed what Old Tie had told us about being careful.
Lian’er waited patiently for them to finish, then she looked at me, the corners of her lips curled innocently, and asked, “What should we do?” I thought for a moment and replied with a smile, “Whatever works, as long as no one dies.”
“Hmph, smart choice!” When they overheard our conversation, they seemed to have misunderstood us. That “Laozi” raised his machete smugly and said, “Even though we’ve got blood on our hands, we’re only after your money. As long as you obey us, we won’t hurt you!”
Lian’er and I exchanged a look. I laughed and turned around. She stepped forward with a smile and spoke calmly, “Mr. Bandit ‘Laozi,’ it seems that you’ve misunderstood us. When she said ‘no one dies,’ she was talking to me so that I wouldn’t kill you!”
As the last word landed, the look on her face changed from that of a young lady to that of Jade Rakshasa.
The Rakshasa was breathtakingly beautiful, with the power to bewitch humans, and fed on human flesh and blood. She could fly or walk, with terrifying speed. Even the gods would find her difficult to subdue.
As I watched her play with them like a cat with a mouse, I couldn’t help but think that her nickname described her well. Then I remembered that when she first encountered a group of half-baked “outlaws” on Mount Hua, she had toyed with them just like this. It was just a minor episode back then that left no trace, but who knew that its impact would far exceed my expectations.
If it hadn’t been for that incident, would Lian’er have come down the mountain alone and chosen to be an outlaw?
Despite these thoughts, I kept my eyes on them this time to avoid having a machete fly at me like before. I watched the fight with my hands behind my back. It was as chaotic as expected with people running around in panic. Lian’er only toyed with them for a short while and seemed to have grown bored. She then shouted, “Hmph, how do you have the balls to show off with such petty skills? How can you even be bandits? Don’t you know you’re messing with the queen of bandits!”
With a shout from this little queen, these burly men were thrown several feet away, their faces bruised and swollen, and their right pinky fingers severed. Knowing their limitations and not wanting to risk their lives, they scrambled to their feet and ran.
That was enough of a lesson, but I saw that Lian’er was still holding on to one of them. That person had dropped his weapon. Lian’er didn’t draw her sword, but trapped him with her palm strikes and kicks, preventing him from escaping.
By the look of the sky, it was already late. It was fine to let her fool around for a while longer, but once the sky got completely dark, the temperature would drop rapidly, and it would be a nuisance to rush back. I took a step forward, about to tell her to stop, but I noticed that amidst the flurry of punches and kicks, there seemed to be some semblance of martial skill in the way the man moved. The man who called himself “Laozi” wasn’t entirely bluffing.
Of course, the so-called “semblance of skill” was only because his opponent was holding back. After exchanging about ten moves with him, Lian’er suddenly let out a laugh, and her hand quickened. Even I had a hard time keeping up with her speed, let alone anyone else. The man screamed in pain before he could run away and collapsed to the ground, unable to move.
“Speak! What’s your relationship with Jin Duyi?” I thought that would be the end of it, so I walked over to Lian’er. Before I could take the second step, she stepped on the man and questioned him in a harsh tone, “Where is that cowardly old turtle hiding?”
The man was startled when he heard that, then he scurried over, trembling, and said, “Spare… spare me! I don’t know what you’re talking about!” He looked frightened, but unfortunately, he couldn’t hide the cunning look in his eyes as they darted around.
“How do you know he’s with the sword manual thief, Jin Duyi?” I didn’t believe him, but just to be careful, I asked Lian’er. Lian’er didn’t waste any words and stepped on the man’s right hand. When he screamed in pain, she showed me his hand and said, “Look at his palm, especially the color of his palm.”
I looked down and carefully examined the man’s hand with the last bit of the dim light. I noticed that there was something strange about his hand, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. At that moment, Lian’er explained, “I’ve heard about this in the years I’ve been in jianghu. I’ve asked Godfather about it later. It’s a characteristic of Yin Feng Du Sha Zhang. But he is still an amateur. He’s only learned a little of the skill. Still, he must be connected to that cowardly old turtle!”
After explaining, she snorted and smiled at the man before saying, “You can try to talk your way out of this. I have plenty of ways to deal with someone like you!”
I had seen how Lian’er dealt with people like them. The “Laozi” didn’t last for long before he confessed everything. It turned out that he was the mediocre one among the many disciples of Jin Duyi. Jin Duyi was taking in disciples from all over the Western Regions for money and power. He didn’t put in much effort into teaching them. Only a few of his disciples were exceptional, but they were all evil. They paid to learn the skill. Once they learned it, they wanted to get their money back. So most of them became bandits, robbing houses and wreaking havoc.
When we asked him about the most important thing—the whereabouts of Jin Duyi, he claimed not to know. When we pushed harder, he finally confessed that while he didn’t know where Jin Duyi was now, he had seen his nephew pass through here a month ago. He was probably on his way back to his old lair near Turpan. That person was also a trusted confidant of Jin Duyi, so he might know his whereabouts.
After the interrogation, Lian’er initially wanted to finish him off, but I convinced her otherwise, so she decided to sever his hand tendon and destroy his martial arts, sparing his life.
By the time we finished, it was already late at night. Thanks to Lian’er’s excellent night vision, we didn’t get lost on our way back to the inn. Old Tie was anxiously waiting for us at the inn. He was furious at first, but when Lian’er complacently told him the information she had learned on the way back, his anger turned to joy. Everyone became even more determined to leave for the Western Regions the next day.
As we swayed with the camel and passed through the almost non-existent city gate of Shazhou after leaving early in the next morning, I didn’t turn back, but Lian’er did, and I had no idea what the look on her face meant when she turned back.
“Do you like it here?” I whispered close to Lian’er’s ear.
She pressed her lips together without giving a clear answer and said, “Will come back again if that’s possible.”
It wasn’t until later that it suddenly occurred to me that she had forgotten to include the subject in that sentence—we.
 It’s a cocky or arrogant way to refer to oneself, which basically means I, your father in a condescending way.