The Witch Nichang– Chapter 85
Beneath the starry sky, a chiseled sand ridge spanned into the distance, disappearing into the endless night.
Walking through the desert, you could choose not to go in a straight path, but it was crucial to stay on the sand ridge, preferably the ridge of the tallest sand dune because only by standing on the highest point could you overlook the whole terrain and find your direction.
I shared this little tip with Lian’er before we set off, and she nodded and said, “Mm, I thought so too.”
Lian’er wasn’t someone who would go along with others for the sake of it. If she said so, she genuinely thought so. For most people, knowledge came from experience, but for her, it seemed to come from her innate intuition, perhaps she was what they called a gifted person. I was used to it, so I just smiled and didn’t say much more.
Old Tie had wanted to come with us. His neigong was powerful. Although his qinggong wasn’t as good as Lian’er’s, it wouldn’t necessarily be worse than mine. He didn’t insist in the end, probably because before we set off, I had whispered to him, “Please keep an eye on the caravan.”
Old Tie might be willing to risk his life waiting for us, but the same couldn’t be said for those guides. Besides, Lian’er had terrified them earlier. If anything happened, who knew if they would take the camels and flee? It’s always wise to be cautious, and I had always followed this principle almost instinctively.
After that, it was a night-long journey.
For most people, climbing up the steep crests of sand dunes over and over was an incredibly strenuous task. Fortunately, it wasn’t so much of a challenge for the two of us. The qinggong I had put in hours to practice when I was young came in handy tonight. With all my effort, I managed to keep up with her.
Lian’er and I sped through the desert in tandem. To be safe, we maintained a distance of about ten feet between us and only came closer to talk when we stopped to determine our direction. It was easy to lose your way in the desert, so we made these stops every so often.
Without any navigation tools, our orientation relied solely on my limited knowledge. Fortunately, my past experiences were still fresh in my mind. The desert night sky was full of stars. It wasn’t difficult to find a reliable anchor point. Combined with the information I got from the guides, it wasn’t too difficult to make sound choices.
As for Lian’er, she couldn’t explain the reasoning behind her choices, but when we cross-checked our choices, hers often aligned closely with mine. Even when there were discrepancies sometimes, they were minuscule.
Whenever this happened, she would insist I listen to her, and as long as there wasn’t any major problem, I would go along with her.
But as the saying goes, “a minor detail can make a world of difference.” Despite Lian’er’s confidence, no one could be sure they were absolutely right.
“Lian’er, could you—cough—wait a moment?”
When we reached the end of yet another sinuous blade-like sand ridge, I tilted my head and let out a cough. I stopped after giving her a heads-up. Except for the brief pauses to reorient ourselves, we had been traversing the desert for more than four hours without stopping. Now, the moon hung high in the sky, and the night was deep, so I said, “Judging by the distance we’ve covered, we should be… close to our destination, right? We can’t just keep going ahead blindly.” After saying that, I gasped out a few muffled coughs. The night was cold in the desert. Even though my body was steaming and not feeling cold thanks to running through the desert, the cold air that I breathed in made my throat scratchy.
“Yeah, you’re right.” Compared to my breathless self, the girl a few steps ahead was in an entirely different state. After answering me, she leaped to the ridge’s highest point in a few jumps and looked around before coming back down and said, “All I see around here is sand, nothing else, but there’s a taller sand dune not far away. We can head over there to get a better look.”
I was catching my breath, so I couldn’t respond right away. I just nodded after looking in the direction she was pointing. Then I straightened up my back and when I was about to say “let’s go,” she continued, “Before that, let’s take a break. Tired.”
Tired? I lifted my head in confusion, but I saw Lian’er had already sat down and was reaching for her water pouch at her waist. How could she be tired? She didn’t seem to be out of breath. Unless…
When I realized what she was doing, I smiled knowingly, walked over, and sat down beside her.
Tired indeed. She wasn’t referring to herself when she said that.
I chuckled, but Lian’er paid me no mind and started gulping down her water. After a few hearty swigs, she wiped her mouth with the back of her hand and held out her pouch in front of me, “Drink up.” Well, that was straightforward.
We were sitting quite close to each other, and when she held out the water to me, it nearly touched my lips. I had to lean back slightly to see her eyes over the leather pouch. Then I shook my head and grinned, “It’s okay. I still have plenty left in mine.”
To prove my point, I gave the water pouch at my waist a little shake as I said that. It made a swishing sound that indicated it was still half full. To my surprise, Lian’er arched her brows at the sound, brought the pouch even closer, and quipped, “I know you have plenty left. You haven’t taken a single sip since the black wind started. Of course, you have plenty left. Do you plan on dying of thirst together with that pouch? Drink up!”
I didn’t expect her to be so observant. For a moment, I was speechless. I was a little happy that she was caring for me, so I didn’t turn down her offer and took the water pouch, my lips quietly curling.
The freshwater, carried around for days, had lost its sweetness, but it was the most precious thing right now. I brought the pouch to my lips and took a small sip, wetting my lips. Then I pretended to swallow a few times before moving the pouch away and gave it back to her, smiling.
I wasn’t sure if Lian’er noticed. She didn’t say anything when she took the pouch back and just glanced at me, her expression seemingly changing, but in the end, she just said, “Let’s go and keep looking.” With that, she stood up, twisted the cap tight, and hung it at her waist before striding off.
I felt a sense of relief and quickly got to my feet, following her as we continued our journey.
We set off again after a short break. Our destination was the “taller sand dune” that Lian’er had mentioned. It stood further north, its slope as steep as if sliced by a knife. Especially when viewed from the base, the peak seemed to reach the sky. If anyone were to hike it, they might have to spiral up the slope, otherwise, it would be almost impossible to reach.
Even for martial arts practitioners who know qinggong, this place will separate the good ones from the bad ones. The slope was too steep. As soon as you stepped on it, the sand would either dip or slide. It was difficult to get a solid footing. I had to walk in zigzag to make my way up, but it was less of a hassle for Lian’er. I watched as she leaped effortlessly up the steepest side of the sand dune. In a few leaps, she vanished over the top of the sand dune.
Because of that, by the time I reached the top of the sand ridge, she had already been standing there for quite some time.
Looking at the girl who stood facing in one direction from afar, my heart sank for a moment. I walked silently to her side. Following her gaze, I saw something peculiar at the bottom of the sand dune.
It looked like a sunken pit, oval in shape, medium size. In the bright moonlight, it seemed dark and lifeless. Surrounded by the sun bleached sand, it formed a stark contrast.
There were some black shapeless objects around the edge of the pit, scattered around in the sand. They seemed to be some sort of reeds. There was even a small poplar tree among the things that lay toppled around the pit’s edge. Looking down from here, everything lying peacefully beneath the starry sky, it seemed exceptionally desolate.
Sometimes, what you fear the most becomes a reality. After a moment, I sighed and said, “If this is the small lake that the guide mentioned, it seems like we’ve wasted our time.”
Surprisingly, she shook her head and voiced her disagreement, “I can smell water here.”
After that, Lian’er stomped her foot and launched into the air. Like a shooting star streaking across the sky, she landed by the dark pit in the blink of an eye. I naturally followed her, and going down was far easier than coming up. In just a couple of leaps, I was on the ground.
The pit was about a person deep. The ground around it was firmer than the path we came from, not as loose, even with some small rocks mixed in. I crouched down, grabbed a handful of sand, and rubbed it in my hand. Shaking my head, I said, “It’s dry.”
“Let’s try another spot,” said Lian’er in a low voice. As we moved towards the center, there were more rocks, and the sand was getting grittier. After a while, I crouched down again, cleared away a few small rocks, and grabbed the sand beneath, rubbing it in my hand once more. This time, it felt a little different.
“It’s a bit damp… it might be worth a try,” I turned to Lian’er and said, afraid to get my hopes up too early, then I drew the short sword at my waist. Using it as a shovel, I started digging into the ground.
Although the ground here felt a bit firmer than the other places, it was still mostly sand. It was easy to dig, and the further I dug, the wetter the sand was, and the color of the sand began to darken.
But it seemed like that was it even when I continued to dig.
Just when I was wondering if I hadn’t dug deep enough, Lian’er pulled me up. “Okay,” Lian’er said. “Even if we manage to dig until we get water, what good would that bit of mucky water do? It won’t even make up for all your hard work. Let’s stop.”
“What should we do then?” I asked her, my brows furrowed. Lian’er shook her head, not answering, and started to stroll around. The dried-up lake wasn’t huge. As I followed behind her, I noticed she seemed to be looking for something.
Perhaps because I believe in her keen intuition, I had my hopes up on what she said about smelling water, which was why I started digging earlier. When she stopped me and I saw her searching around, not giving up, I was willing to go along with her even though I didn’t know what she was looking for. We had come this far anyway, what worse could happen to stay for a little longer?
After sauntering about for a while, the girl’s eyes suddenly lit up under the moonlight, then I heard, “Over there!” There was joy in her voice. She took my hand and ran toward that direction.
Over there was a cluster of dried reeds by the lake, lying flat against the sandstone wall that stood about waist-high. They looked no different from the surrounding reeds. I was dragged along, confused. I couldn’t see anything unusual when we got close, not until Lian’er reached out and parted the reeds that I noticed in the bright moonlight, there seemed to be something darker beneath the sprawling, bleached, dried reeds.
Lian’er reached out and plucked one of them. “It’s green. It’s alive.”
Reminded by her words, I bent down and grabbed a handful of the sand, but when I held them in my hand, there wasn’t a single hint of dampness. “Strange…” Unconvinced, I parted the dense reeds myself and touched the sandstone wall behind to find that beneath a thin layer of sand was a hard rock, but when I parted it further, I leaped to my feet and took a step back.
“What’s wrong?” Lian’er was looking elsewhere, but she immediately came to me when she saw me back up, her hand poised to draw her sword.
“No, nothing,” I answered as I smiled and shook my head, getting a grip of myself. I patted her hand which held the sword and bent over to part the dense reeds again. I gestured for her to come and take a look, “It’s just that it startled me a little to see a hole like this so suddenly.”
It was a dark hole at the bottom of the sandstone wall, almost flush to the ground. The opening was quite small, and it was covered by layers of fallen, dried reeds, so it wasn’t visible without clearing them away.
Lian’er didn’t want to get through the reeds, so she drew her sword and cleared the obstructing reeds with a few swipes. Then, she bent over to take a look and said flatly, “This is the right spot. It’s the dampest here. There should be water underneath. I’ll go take a look.”
Lian’er was a decisive person. After saying that, she stood up and lifted her robe, about to jump. I panicked and grabbed her hand, saying, “Hold on, you said you want to go down there?” When she nodded, I held on to her tighter, afraid to let her go. With my other hand, I groped for a rock on the ground and tossed it into the tight hole, which was just wide enough to fit a person.
As the rock dropped into the hole, I could hear the rock rolling down the hole in the dark, falling deeper and deeper, until eventually, there was no sound to be heard.
“Do you still want to go down there?” I asked with a serious face. She nodded and said as if there was nothing wrong, “I’m not a rock. I could move around. There might be water down there. It’s the water that you were trying to find, digging three feet into the ground just now. You can’t be giving up now? Hmm?”
I had to admit, Lian’er had a valid point.
After hesitating for a bit, I clenched my teeth and said as I stood up, “Then, I’ll go. You stay up here and wait for me.”
The circumstances left me with no choice. I had to do it. I didn’t know how deep the hole was going to be, and how dangerous it could be. Instead of waiting and being tortured by my imagination, I might as well go down and check it out myself.
As soon as I said that, Lian’er let out a chuckle. She narrowed her eyes and glanced at me. “You going down? Tell me, how is it better? Is your qinggong better than me? Or are you stronger than me? No way on earth. Besides, it must be pitch-black inside. You wouldn’t be able to see a thing, would you?”
I couldn’t say anything to that, and for the first time in my life, I found myself utterly incapable of arguing against this child.
Right, I forgot again. She wasn’t a child anymore.
Perhaps she reveled in rendering me speechless. Toward the end, Lian’er reached out and ruffled my hair. She smiled and said, “You be good and stay here. Just wait for me to come back.”