The Witch Nichang– Chapter 82
A sharp, lingering, and penetrating sound…
Is it…a hawk? The sight of a hawk soaring high in the sky. Such a desolate scene…
I felt heavy and groggy. Amid the grogginess, my organs seemed to function just fine. I heard something, and my mind came to a conclusion without thinking, then after a while, I belatedly quashed it.
I opened my eyes and blinked a few times. My first thought was that my line of sight was so low, as if I was lying prone on the ground. The sand lay just inches from my face, each grain clearly visible. I could even smell the scent of scorched earth coming from the sand.
Inhaling the scent, I took a few labored breaths before slowly coming back to my senses.
Because I hadn’t been moving, my outstretched arms had been buried in the sand. The sand had piled up to my chest and my collarbone. I wondered, unable to figure it out whether I was more like a prisoner in chains or a plant rooted in the ground?
I was trying to distract myself with these thoughts, keeping myself from struggling which I nearly did a moment ago.
I didn’t want to die, but if death were inevitable, I could only throw in the towel and hope to meet it with composure and dignity. Going through a struggling and ungainly death once was more than enough.
As my thoughts wandered, that sound came again with the wind, a whistling sound that was sharp and resonant. Then it reminded me that it was my curiosity about the whistling sound that had brought me back to consciousness.
When I listened closely after I was awake, it became clear that it wasn’t the cry of a hawk because the sound wasn’t coming from the sky but from the ground, from the other side of the desert separated by the hazy sandstorm. It was a whistle coming from a human, distant and lasting, effortlessly piercing through the raging wind—a feat no ordinary person could do.
I remembered I had heard this whistle not long ago in the sandstorm at Bai Long Dui. At that time, it was Lian’er who had blown it to reach Old Tie.
So now, hearing this sound again, was it trying to reach me?
Still, I dared not make any hasty movement. I strained my eyes to look in the direction of the sound. The whistle was getting closer, and finally, when a white figure emerged from the gloomy chaos, my heartbeat, which had remained calm and steady since I got into danger, started to race. Each thud of my heart was palpable under restraint.
She was searching for me, and this realization filled me with comfort and even joy. While I understood that Lian’er wouldn’t leave me behind, understanding was one thing, and witnessing her appear amidst the swirling sands was another.
The turbulence was strong, and the wind was constantly shifting. I hadn’t even hoped that she could head in the same direction, yet she did.
However, even with her exceptional tracking skills, it seemed like she had reached her limit at this point. I saw the white figure veer left and right in the midst of the sandstorm, as if lost and confused, unsure which direction to go.
With it was the time between each whistle getting shorter, carrying a subtle sense of urgency.
So should I respond?
The answer should have been a no-brainer, but I…hesitated at the last minute.
Yes, without a doubt, Lian’er would see me if I responded, and that precious glimmer of hope might have a chance to shine.
But along with that glimmer of hope came a myriad of possibilities that I absolutely didn’t wish to face, like letting Lian’er watch someone she cared about engulfed by the sand, or even worse… dragging her along with me!
Looking at the mound of sand slowly piling up to my neck, and thinking about the kid’s reckless nature, I had every reason to believe that, in this moment where there was hardly enough time to turn back and get the tools, the probabilities of those two ends coming true were far greater than the faint glimmer of hope.
What to do? I don’t want to die, and I certainly don’t want to drag someone with me, especially that someone is the person you care about the most.
I’m not a saint. Just when you almost give up, a spark of hope appears, and no one would give that up easily; I’m not a psycho either. Persisting when you know it will lead you to ruin, dragging the one you love most with you to their demise.
So, what should I do?
I wanted to answer her call; I wanted to live, but I ended up watching the white figure without a word. Sometimes, silence itself was a choice.
When the figure headed in the wrong direction and vanished into the darkness, the temptation dissipated with it. Looking in the direction she disappeared, I smiled with relief, and then I gazed at the dimming sky, quietly awaiting the inevitable end.
I’m sorry, Lian’er, the protagonist of your story… was never me.
A faint vermilion hue colored the dim sky, and the wind seemed to have slowed. Sunlight filtered through the upper layer of drifting sand, casting a subdued glow, to be obstructed by the lower layer of turbulent sand, painting this chaotic expanse with an uneven, reddish-brown hue.
It would be better for the caravan if the wind had eased up, wouldn’t it? I thought hazily for a moment as I looked at the flickering sky, my chin feeling the sand piling up. I looked away from the sky and shook my head. Before everything was over, I took one last look in the direction where Lian’er had disappeared.
That look was meant only as a farewell.
But my heart clenched at the sight!
My view cleared a little, so I could see a few yards away. The white figure that had gone in another direction had turned back at some point, and this time, she seemed resolute in her movement, heading straight in my direction!
Was it because of the changing weather? Or had she realized something? I didn’t know, and I didn’t have the time to find out. This wasn’t what I was worried about. I was almost terrified out of my wits by her speed. Having no time to think, I wriggled and yanked off the scarf covering my face, then I gave the loudest shout I could manage, “Stop! Don’t come any closer—!”
These five words had used up all the air in my lungs, and I sank a bit further into the sand, almost getting it into my mouth, but there was no time to worry about that. I saw that she lurched as my words echoed. She seemed to have shrunk. I felt a bloodcurdling chill wash over me in the scorching sand.
Fortunately, she only sank a little before springing back onto the ground.
Seeing her feet landing on solid ground, my racing pulse calmed down a bit. I felt immensely relieved that I had shouted in time. I figured she only stepped on the edge of the quicksand. That was why she could get out of it so easily. Otherwise… I simply couldn’t imagine her trapped in the quicksand.
It was more than enough for one person to be in such a predicament.
I was several yards away from her, and we were surrounded by the swirling sand. We could hardly see each other’s faces, and we couldn’t hear each other clearly either amidst the howling wind.
The shout had been my last-ditch attempt, and the price I paid for it was the sand reaching up to my mouth. My mouth was too close to the ground, and without a face cover, every breath stirred up grains of sand. Breathing became difficult. I would be delusional to hope to say something. So, all I could do was watch her from afar, wearing a resigned smile.
The worst-case scenario probably wasn’t going to happen, but it was still cruel. At least, the last thing she saw wouldn’t be my panicked face.
I thought that this was the last time we were going to see each other, so every second mattered, but when I was looking at her, I felt that it was too excruciating. Perhaps I should end it quickly.
It wasn’t hard to end it. A little bit of struggling would bury me. If that was tormenting, I still had enough strength to end myself with a palm strike.
At this stage, there was no point dragging it out. Summoning my resolve, I was about to close my eyes when I saw that she took a step back from the edge of the quicksand and thrust her sword that had never left her side into the sand. The blade went more than half a foot into the sand, standing tall under the sky. Amid the swirling sand, it looked like a…sign.
What was she going to do? Doubt crossed my mind, but in the next moment, I saw the white figure taking off.
Unable to speak, unable to move, I couldn’t do anything but watch her ride the wind and dash over, coming closer and becoming clearer. Lian’er was no fool. She held nature in reverence and saw death as a natural course. It was one thing to be ignorant, but a person who knew the might of the quicksand would never have done this foolish act of sending themselves to death, or so I thought.
But I was wrong.
Even the last thread of wishful thought was shattered as she landed beside me, gracefully and delicately. But no matter how delicate her landing, the disturbance it caused was enough to bury me. My body was sucked into the sand in an instant. Darkness shrouded my vision, noises filled my ears, and an immense pressure pressed in from all directions. It felt like drowning but dry and warm.
There was no fear. The only feeling I had was regret that this moment had come too late.
My lungs held little air to begin with, and the intense pressure seemed to squeeze out the remaining air in me. Death was so close, but there was a surge of strength that forcefully dragged me out of it!
The pressure above my neck suddenly disappeared, followed by the shoulders, and the familiar sound of the desert wind whistled in my ears again. The dense and confined space was no more, and now, there was something soft and familiar by my side.
But it wasn’t something to be rejoiced in. I went into a fit of coughing. When I could catch my breath, I fumbled for her clothes before I opened my eyes. I grabbed onto it and croaked, “Go back! It’s none of your business if I die! What are you doing here? Go back!”
I didn’t get any response. I opened my burning eyes, and in my blurred vision, I saw frost settling on her face, her expression fuming.
When she saw my eyes open, her tightly pressed lips finally parted. She gave an icy smile first and then said, “I’ll get your body back even if you die. If I can’t get your body, I’ll chop off your head and bring it back. So tell me, why am I here?”