SoN (3): The Witch’s Dance (4)

The witch put on the mask and then got up, still chanting faintly. His voice reverberated in the small hut, the sound low and a little rough around the edges, maybe even husky.

He slowly stepped toward the tub, each movement resonating with an intangible energy that made Zhan Cheng feel trepidation. His heart raced faster with each tap of the witch’s feet and he actually broke out in cold sweat.

Zhan Cheng kept his gaze trained on that mask, hoping that it would have some kind of effect on the ghost inside of him. Clearly, the witch wouldn’t do anything needlessly. So either this mask was able to help with banishing this ghost or it was something that could protect the witch.

Considering that he had said that just being who he was could keep him safe from the ghost, it was probably the former. Thus, if it helped at all, he would continue to look. He personally would’ve felt calmer if he was able to see Gongliang Ye’s somewhat familiar face but he still wanted to do as much as he could and maybe being this agitated was a good thing after all.

The witch finally reached the edge of the tub. He bent down and picked up the herbs that he had prepared, lighting them on fire, and then circled around the tub, waving with one hand so that the smoke traveled toward Zhan Cheng’s figure while he continued to chant silently.

Zhan Cheng started to feel unwell as if the next moment, he would throw up the little he had eaten. He gulped, trying to keep his composure. In any case, Gongliang Ye had already warned him that it could hurt. This kind of discomfort was nothing.

When Gongliang Ye reached the front of the tub again he carefully put down the burning herbs in a small earthen bowl, continuing to wave for a moment before he turned around and instead picked up a small drum. His fingers flew over the animal hide on top, adding to the rhythm of the chant that was slowly growing louder.

Zhan Cheng reached up and grabbed the rim of the tub, trying to stabilize himself. Inside of him, he felt like he could actually feel the ghost for the first time. It seemed to be going on a rampage, trying to hide away from what was going on outside or trying to find a way to break out.

He felt it collide with his forehead and closed his eyes, pressing them tightly together. A faint sound came over his lips but he bit down, not wanting to disturb Gongliang Ye in what he was doing.

The witch made another round, his clothes carrying the faint scent of the smoke from the herbs. Zhan Cheng took a deep breath, hoping that it would make things go faster. And indeed, the ghost did not seem to like this kind of smell.

It roared in his head, a mixture of anger and pain. Zhan Cheng took another deep breath and tightened his grip on the tub. There was a faint crack but he didn’t have the luxury of paying any more attention to it. The ghost started to howl and finally threw itself against his forehead, trying to break out.

Just like the witch had said, pain burst out from the place that the ghost was attacking. It was like a headache but one that would send pain throughout his whole body, making him shiver in its wake.

He made another faint sound before he had wrested himself back under control but the ghost already tried again. Zhan Cheng’s forehead felt as if it would split open the next moment. The skin turned hot and his whole body started to feel feverish.

He gritted his teeth, his nails digging into the wood, and then also stemmed his feet against the other side of the tub, arching his back and trying to somehow alleviate the pain.

The smell of the herb seemed unbearable. He wanted to groan but had to remind himself that he couldn’t disturb the witch. He bore the suffering in silence until the ghost finally made yet another attempt. It pushed against his forehead with more strength, making it feel as if his skin split, opening up a crack so that the ghost could slip out.

The pain left his body at once, making Zhan Cheng sink deeper into the water, completely without power. He still forced himself to crack his eyes open though.

He had never dared to look at this ghost. He had seen a vague image before but now, things were different. He didn’t know if it was because they were in the witch’s hut or because of what Gongliang Ye had been doing but this time, he actually saw a clear image of the ghost.

It was a man in his thirties or maybe his early forties. He was tall and thin with sharp facial features and a serious look on his face. His eyes seemed to be burning with hatred as he looked at Gongliang Ye and he once again started to scream the same things that Zhan Cheng had heard him yell at night.

With the mask covering his face, it was impossible to say what the witch was thinking. He just continued to drum with his fingers, his mouth moving continuously, uttering those same syllables while the smoke from the herbs wafted in the air, starting to swirl around him.

Zhan Cheng couldn’t help but stare at him, almost forgetting that there was a ghost next to them. He couldn’t help himself. At this moment, with the smoke curling around him, Gongliang Ye really did not look human.

If he had told him right now that he was not just a witch who was half-human and half-spirit but actually a full being of the spirit realm, he would’ve just nodded and agreed that this was a matter of course. He surely seemed as if he was far beyond what a normal human was.

But in Zhan Cheng’s eyes, this was not something to be terrified of. Instead, he felt an overwhelming sense of divinity. Yes, to him, Gongliang Ye was clearly not an evil spirit but a good one as if the gods had sent somebody to help the puny mortals that they might not want to graze with their own presence but still did not want to abandon. And Gongliang Ye was the noble messenger they had chosen for this task.

Without Zhan Cheng noticing, the voice of the ghost turned fainter and fainter just like their appearance also blurred again, and finally, they seemed to be sucked into the swirling smoke, vanishing from the hut.

Gongliang Ye’s chant slowed down and finally came to a halt, with only the sound of the drum still sounding in the house. In the end, the witch even stopped to drum, and just slid his fingers across the animal hide in a circular fashion before he completely stilled.

For a moment, the two of them looked at each other. Then, the witch turned around without a word, going to put down the drum, extinguishing the still burning herbs by placing another bowl on top of the first one, and then went back to the chest, kneeling down with his hands folded in front of him on the ground, and kowtowed three times. He took off the mask and reverentially put it back inside before closing the chest.

Having secured the lid in place, he remained there motionlessly for a moment before he got up and brushed over his robes as if he wanted to get rid of the scent of the herbs. Only then did he turn back to look at Zhan Cheng.

“That ghost has left. They are back in the spirit world and should not come back to haunt you.”

Zhan Cheng opened his mouth but he found that he couldn’t get out a single sound. He wanted to reach up but his arms could not move either.

Gongliang Ye smiled faintly and then went over to the table where they had been sitting before, picking up one of the remaining buns and bringing it over to the tub. Leaning over, he pushed it into Zhan Cheng’s mouth and shook his head at him. “This kind of well-fed, strong man, and you’re out of energy completely after just having a ghost exorcised.

“I’m quite surprised. Or maybe I’m not. But this is why I told you to bring somebody else. How are you going to go back now?” He glanced at the window on the other side of the house and shook his head. “Well, I don’t think that is going to happen today. Just stay here for tonight. You can still go back tomorrow morning. If you don’t mind, that is.” He raised his brows at him, making Zhan Cheng’s mouth turn dry.

He also looked over to the window and suddenly realized that what had seemed like a short amount of time had actually taken several hours. By now, it was already late in the afternoon.

Even if he was able to regain his strength in just a matter of minutes, he would still need until past the curfew to get back to the city and wouldn’t be let in. Not to mention the fact that he really didn’t know if he had the strength. Right now, it was difficult enough to actually chew the bun that Gongliang Ye had given him.

Zhan Cheng made a faint sound that could be interpreted as an agreement and then slowly started to try and chew. He actually had trouble doing so though.

Gongliang Ye faintly shook his head and then went back to the shelf, his bony fingers brushing over the wood. Then, he took out a small vial, pouring some kind of powdery substance into his hands. He put down the vial and came back, starting to rub it over Zhan Cheng’s arms.

Zhan Cheng stared at him, not sure what this was about but after a moment, he actually felt at least a little strength return. He raised his brows in awe and stared at the witch, not quite sure what to do.

Gongliang Ye gave him a look in return. “Don’t stay like that. In any case, I can hardly let you sit in my bathtub for the whole night, can I? You didn’t look like you were going to leave anytime soon if I don’t help you. Now, don’t make a fuss about this.” Saying this, he leaned closer, his hands actually rubbing over Zhan Cheng’s chest down to the point where his body was submerged in the water.

Zhan Cheng felt his ears heat up and his mouth turned even drier, making it impossible to continue chewing.

Gongliang Ye touched his shoulders and neck and then turned away, shaking off the last bit of the powder. “Well, I’ll leave the rest to yourself.”

Zhan Cheng nodded, still completely dumbfounded. He was unable to take his eyes off the witch when the man turned around, going to put away the herbs that were still strewn over the table.

By the time he remembered what he was actually doing, he hurriedly turned away and started to furiously chew on the bun, finally swallowing it. His throat seemed to be burning and he hastily tried to move his body. His arms and chest were alright but when he forced himself to stand up, his legs felt soft as if he wouldn’t be able to stand on them for long. Furthermore, his pants were sticking to his skin, making it uncomfortable to even stand, much less walk.

He cursed under his breath but still made it a point to climb out of the tub, not wanting to make even more trouble for Gongliang Ye. As a result, he almost slumped to the ground, only managing to keep partway upright by clinging to the rim of the tub.

Gongliang Ye glanced at him and sighed, but this time, he didn’t offer any help. “Just sit down if you can’t take it.” In any case, he wasn’t a person that paid much attention to decorum. Having lived alone for so long, he didn’t really care how things were done in polite society. Not to mention that he hadn’t spent that many years among humans in the first place.

Zhan Cheng nodded and then slowly sunk to the ground, leaning his forehead against the tub. He took a few deep breaths, and then couldn’t help but peer over the wood at the witch that had started to cook something again, most likely making dinner. “How come I’m like this and you are already up on your feet again, doing things?” His voice sounded hoarse.

Gongliang Ye looked over his shoulder and smiled faintly. “Oh, believe me, I have expended quite a bit of strength as well but it probably can’t be compared to you. You can’t forget that you’ve been carrying this ghost around for quite some time. You’ve noticed them in the past half a year but they were likely there even earlier.

“That will have sucked some of your strength away but it wouldn’t be that noticeable because you will perceive the strength of the ghost as your own as long as they are inside of you.

“Now, the ghost is gone so you are suddenly hit by the strength drained away over at least half a year. Not to mention that you also had to stand the banishment itself. I guess it should have been quite painful.” His gaze dipped down to Zhan Cheng’s lips that had been bitten bloody and gave a faint hum.

Thinking for a moment, he once again got up and found one of his vials, going over to help him out. He dipped his finger into the liquid inside and then lightly brushed over Zhan Cheng’s lips before he nodded and already left again, not noticing how the human behind him was completely petrified from the touch.

Zhan Cheng’s heart was once again beating madly but this time he really couldn’t say that it was because of the ghost. He lowered his head in shame, feeling that he really had to be a beast to think of things like this. Shouldn’t he just be grateful to Gongliang Ye? The appropriate thought right now would be how to repay him.

Chastising himself for a few moments, he raised his head again. “You didn’t tell me what I owe you.”

Gongliang Ye glanced at him and shook his head. “You don’t owe me anything. In any case, as a witch, I see it as my task to do something like this. I just wanted you to provide those herbs. As for anything else, I don’t need it.”

Zhan Cheng watched him, feeling like the witch had to be joking. “You’re living in this kind of small, rundown hut, with nothing but plain rice to cook, and you are still telling me that you don’t need anything? No money, no food, nothing?”

Gongliang Ye looked into the pot that he was indeed cooking plain rice in and then gave Zhan Cheng a look. “Was there something bad about my rice? In any case, I don’t need much indeed. I’m not human. Why would you expect me to live like one?”

Zhan Cheng might’ve fallen for that but he still remembered that Gongliang Ye had clearly eaten one of the buns before. So it wasn’t that he couldn’t eat the same food as them. Maybe he chose not to, out of whatever reason. And if there was a reason, he was afraid it might be because the witch did not dare to get closer to other humans.

Zhan Cheng pondered silently but he didn’t bring it up again. In any case, if he said something, Gongliang Ye would just refute him and refuse. The better way to go about it was to just bring him something like he had done with the buns. If it was already there, even a man as proud as this witch would probably be able to accept it.

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