Chapter 36: Captive
Cai Wenchang slowly came to his senses. First thing he felt was a splitting headache, then an attack of severe dizziness and some vague pain.
He groaned softly and slowly managed to open his eyes. He couldn’t see anything but darkness. He also felt warm; it no longer felt like freezing winter.
“What happened?” he said softly. “What is this place?”
He shook his head as if to knock the pain and dizziness away. Big mistake. His head hurt worse and he was dizzier. He groaned again.
I’m hurt, he thought.
He tried to get up. Shit. What’s this? His arms and legs weren’t responding. His hands had been tied behind his back, his feet tied snugly at the ankles. No wonder they felt numb.
His throat was dry. He swallowed, his saliva bitter and salty. He tried to wriggle around, but he was numb and achy all over. He knew he had been beaten severely.
He was wide-awake now, memories of that old beggar hitting him coming to him one by one. He clenched his teeth spitefully. There was no enmity between me and that son of a bitch, he thought. I was trying to save him. Why did he repay my kindness with hatred and trick me? The jianghu is cruel and treacherous and daunting. You can’t trust anyone. Death could come at any moment. Good intentions will just get you killed. Son of a bitch, I’ll find that bastard and stab him a hundred times.
He struggled to sit up. Once he was up he was delighted to find that his hands and feet had been tied separately, not bound together with one rope, and his acupoints had not been blocked. The thought of escape suddenly entered his mind.
The stone floor he was on was not very smooth. He rolled to the right for about ten feet before he came to an ice-cold stone wall. He started rubbing his hands patiently against the wall at the wrist, gradually adding pressure on the ox-tendon rope, but very carefully so as not to chafe his flesh.
Whoever tied him was quite good at it. Not only did it loop around his neck, his wrists had been tied with five knots. In other words, he couldn’t move his arms out very far without strangling himself, and with five knots it was no use just breaking one. He’d have to cut through them all in order to be freed.
He had rubbed through three knots when he heard faint footsteps coming off the stone floor. Alarmed, he sped up until the back of his hands were numb, followed by bone-piercing pain. He knew he had rubbed his hands raw.
All his effort would soon be for nothing. He was so hurried he was about to spit blood. The footsteps were closing in, and it was not just one person.
Thoughts raced through his mind. They didn’t block my acupoints, only tied my hands and feet, so they must not think I’m that important, and judging by my skill they probably think I can be of use to them. Why don’t I wait and see what’s up?
He quickly rolled back to his original position, half-lying with his eyes closed, waiting still and quiet for whatever would happen next. He looked like he was still unconscious.
A rustling of chains, then torchlight appeared as a person pushed open a heavy iron door, the footsteps drawing nearer.
He was half-lying. He opened his eyes a crack and saw two pairs of leather straight-seamed boots and the cuffs of black cloth lantern pants and the ends of two sabre scabbards. He couldn’t see anything farther up, but he heard the hissing of the torches and knew they were holding cotton-twine tung oil torches.
One of them reached a foot out and jabbed him in the left shoulder, setting him flat on his back. He said in a gruff voice, “Hey! This guy’s sleeping like a dead pig, like an innocent baby.”
The other man laughed. “Brother Li, you’re so sarcastic.”
“What did I say that was sarcastic?”
“He was beaten pretty good, nearly half to death, and fainted. He’s not sleeping. See! His face is bloody, he’s not far from death. You call that sleeping?”
“It’s so cold out, why don’t we douse him with water to wake him up. Since he’s supposed to be of great use we can’t let him stay like this. Otherwise, if he doesn’t die he’ll at least be crippled. We should be merciful and wake him up.”
“No way, Brother Li. We’re only supposed to guard him; everything else is none of our business. It’s almost light out. Someone will be along to get him soon. No need for us to stick our noses in it. It’s not our business whether he lives or dies. Watch him carefully, I’m leaving. Someone will probably be along at the top of the fifth watch to make the rounds of the dungeon. Don’t get careless. Make sure he doesn’t escape.”
Footsteps again as the two guards left. They talked amongst themselves as the iron door closed once again and the room returned to darkness.
Wenchang listened quietly for a long time, then rolled back to the wall. It took him quite some time to rub through the ox-tendon rope. Hands now free, he heaved a sigh of relief and untied his feet and stretched briefly. After a long while the numbness finally went away, but he still ached.
His concealed weapons and dagger were still in their sheaths. Odd. They hadn’t been discovered and his travel bag was still here too. Nothing had been taken. The only thing missing from him was the five ingots of gold and silver he had stolen from that Northwest Armed Escort Agency man.
“Strange. How could those guys be so careless? Did they just throw me in here without searching me?” He was confused, mumbling to himself.
He didn’t have time to ponder it. He had to get out of this cursed dungeon. He felt his way in the direction the two guards had come, feeling the ice-cold walls. He took two corners and then saw a dim yellow lamplight ahead.
He darted back in the shadows and sized up the situation. It was an iron door, the bars thick as a wine cup. A huge lock was fastened with iron rings attached to the iron bars, and a thick chain had been fastened around the bottom of the gatepost.
Outside, a dim lamp had been fixed to a socket on the stone wall. He could see the walls were constructed of huge blocks of granite, topped with thick stone beams supporting a large slab of stone. Heavens! It was a subterranean world.
In the dim yellow light a man wearing a black turban, dressed all in black with a sheepskin overcoat and wearing a sabre at the waist, reclined on a stone bench taking a nap.
Wenchang used the shadow of the wall for cover as he carefully made his way to the edge of the gate. He concealed himself on the right and thought about how to break out.
He had his concealed weapons on him so it would be easy to kill the guard, but he still had no way to open the iron door. He was sure he wouldn’t be able to twist and break the thick iron bars because they were crossed laterally with three other bars. There was no way he could bend those. The key was with the guard, so it would be hopeless unless he could kill the guard when he was within arm’s reach.
He thought briefly, then cleared his throat and coughed.
The guard jumped up and walked toward the gate.
Wenchang was palming a throwing knife. He kept saying to himself, “Heaven, make him come a little closer, a little closer, a little closer…”
But the guard stopped ten feet or so from the gate and stared into the cell.
Wenchang was anxious. If the guy didn’t come closer then what good would it do to kill him? Finally, he clenched his teeth and threw the knife at the wall behind him.
It dinged and shot sparks.
The guard was stunned, not sure what he had just seen. He turned and ran.
Shit! he cursed to himself. I overreached.
But the man had just went to take down a lantern. He went over to the gate and set the lantern to the side and fished the key out and grabbed the big lock.
Wenchang was elated. He could hear the man breathing on the other side as he fiddled with the lock. All he had to do was reach out and grab him. But he didn’t want to be too hasty. He decided to wait until the man opened the cell and entered before he struck.
He waited, but there was no sound of the lock opening. His heart leapt; he pressed to the side and took a peek outside.
Perfect, they were facing each other. The man was hesitating, both hands grasping the huge lock as he peered inside the cell.
“Eh…” The man suddenly saw a pair of eyes come into view and he yelped.
Now was his chance, no time to hesitate. Wenchang darted closer and raised his left hand while his other flung a throwing knife into the man’s throat. Then he reached with his right and grabbed the man’s shoulder and pulled him close as hard as he could, pulling the man up tight against the bars, nearly shattering his neck.
He waited until the man expired, then picked up the key from the floor and reached around and opened the lock and pulled the chains around the gatepost off and hopped out of the cell. He took the lantern and put the man in the cell, collected his throwing knives, and shut the iron door and began looking for a way out. He headed down the corridor.
The corridor wound to the left, then broke right, rooms dotted on either side. Some were clean, yet some reeked and were piled with filthy objects.
The corridor forked several times, the elevation rising and falling. He didn’t know whether he should go right or left. This place was too big, like an underground maze.
He found a tunnel heading upward and he raised his lantern and followed it. He didn’t know why, but all along he had the feeling someone was following him. He was struck with a sense of dread. He instinctively knew there was someone behind him, ruthlessly watching his every move. He turned and looked, focusing his gaze as he searched, but he saw no one.
There were stone steps thirty feet away. He climbed to the top and an odd stench assailed him, making him want to throw up. He had to hold his breath as he continued.
Weird. He hadn’t seen anyone this whole time, nor any other lights. He walked twenty feet until the path broke to the right. He mustered up his courage and turned the corner.
Heavens! A cold chill ran down his spine. He was at the edge of a deep circular pit. It went a hundred feet down and the walls were so smooth not even a gecko could climb it. Around him were four stone carvings, and off to the side a wooden frame with a pulley attached, a large rope affixed to it, the other end tied to a wooden frame. From the large rope hanged a corpse, swaying rhythmically, the lower half missing.
The corpse was hanging about ten feet from the bottom of the pit which seemed to be clean. Countless white bones littered the bottom, and sixteen wolves lay scattered around them, sleeping. They had clearly just fed. Only two paced back and forth.
They saw the lanternlight and all the wolves sprang up. They were restless, their howls deafening. Several leapt and bit at the hanging corpse. They seemed to be well-practiced. They leapt and bit a chunk of flesh, then pushed off with their paws, ripping the flesh off. The corpse continually swayed, making it difficult for another to grab it. But the wolves jumped ceaselessly, rising and falling, biting a chunk of flesh and then retreating to a corner to enjoy it. Those that missed howled and tried again, but there were not many chances. The first to attack was awarded the treat.
Wenchang’s blood ran cold. He gritted his teeth. “Those sons of bitches are so vicious, not a trace of humanity. Dying like that is too cruel. It likely took more than a day for him to die. Must have been tortured with fear and praying for death.”
There was a small door next to the pit. Couldn’t go through there; it was likely the door to let the wolves in. He was forced to go back down the stone steps and find another way out.
He heard the desolate howls of the wolves and ran, his blood seething, though his heart was stone cold.
He soon found another path that led upward. This corridor was clean and dry; it looked like people passed through here often. He heightened his vigilance and quietly ran along.