Chapter 7: Jade Marrow Dragonhorn
When the sun had nearly reached noon the old freak swallowed a nine-cycle pill and gave three more to Little Wenchang to swallow. He tied a long rope to a dead tree, the other end around Little Wenchang's waist, and went to the edge of the pond, a stern look on his face. "Child, my life is in your hands today. I have this odd feeling I've staked on you, gambling that you can help me recapture my remaining years. I hope you will win this huge gamble for me, that I only have one chance at. Today is the tenth day of the tenth month. My fate lies two hundred feet under the water. You must help me win back my life. I will reward you greatly."
Little Wenchang listened blankly, no longer butting in. The old freak continued. "The water pressure is heavy two hundred feet down. No one dares go down there and throw his life away. There are many master swimmers, but there are very few who can dive two hundred feet. I taught you ultimate breathing and gave you those miraculous nine-cycle pills to help you. Add to that your natural gifts and willpower, you will definitely be able to do it. About a hundred sixty feet below the most protruding cliff face is that huge white stone you saw yesterday. About forty feet farther down there's a large cavity; the strong current there will definitely suck you in."
The old freak took out a leather bracer with a dagger inserted in a sleeve on the top. He tied it on Little Wenchang's left arm. "The rope can be hung taut over the coral-like stuff growing on the rocks so that you don't get sucked into the pit. Then just swim down to the inner wall and use the luminous pearl to look for two strange horn-shaped plants. They glitter like jade and are soft and slightly warm. Use the dagger and cut them off below the ring-shaped section of the root, then ascend as fast as you can and you'll have succeeded."
Little Wenchang was surprised. "Huh! How did you know Black Dragon Pond had that kind of plant?"
"I learned about it in a secret Daoist text."
"What's this strange plant called?"
"Jade Marrow Dragonhorn. It can draw out any poison in the world."
"Any other uses…"
"Don't ask so many questions. I need two stalks to be able to draw out this rare poison."
Little Wenchang walked toward the water. "I'll try to get below the white rock…"
"Don't try. You must get below it. Remember, you can only succeed. You're not allowed to fail. You don't want to see this old and ailing man die for nothing before you, do you? Child."
"I'll do everything I can not to disappoint you," Little Wenchang answered, then waded out to the middle of the pond. The old freak threw the withered tree in the pond where it floated on the water, circling before finally spinning in the center of the pond.
Little Wenchang swam to the cliff face, regulated his breathing a bit, then took a deep breath and plunged below the surface like a fish.
He had already dove a hundred sixty feet many times so he went straight down. Around his neck hung the bag made from fish scales from which the luminous pearl cast its dim white light, illuminating ten feet in front of him. It was really handy.
The violent current pulled him in, but he was used to the flow of the water, sticking close to the cliff wall as he struggled down hard against the eddy.
A hundred sixty feet down he saw the white rock below. He scurried toward it. Suddenly, a strong suction channel yanked him to the side. It was bitter cold, throwing his qi and blood into disorder. There was a deafening roar in his ears, then dead quiet. He was pulled ten feet out, but he swam back with all his might, trying to get out of the powerful suction. He struggled briefly, but he was beginning to panic as he swallowed three gulps of water.
A giddy feeling came over him and he felt unable to take it. He cursed to himself and pushed off against the cliff with all his strength and ascended.
He came to the surface and clung to a corner of a rock on the shore, panting. He felt a warm liquid in his nose and mouth. He touched his nose and saw it was blood. He couldn't take the heavy water pressure.
From the far shore came the anxious call of the old freak. "Child, what's the matter?"
"Uncle, I can't do it, the current is too strong and unstable. My nose and mouth are bleeding."
"No, you have to bear it. Stay close to the cliff when you go down and don't stick your arms and legs out too far. Come here and take three more nine-cycle pills so you can better withstand the pressure."
This time down Little Wenchang didn't dare get careless. He stuck close to a fissure in the side of the white rock and descended, this time avoiding the violent suction of the eddy.
Below was all reflective white rocks, jagged and bizarre-shaped, like countless legendary animals crouched in waiting. Some rare old multicolored grasses reached out from cracks in the rocks, swaying in the current as several strange snakelike fish shuttled back and forth, fleeing at the side of the pearl light.
There was no sound. Dead quiet. It was a tranquil underwater world, and he had no idea how much further down it went.
He reached the cave opening and the suction grew more and more violent. If he wasn't careful he would be hauled under by the eddy.
Sure enough, at the mouth of the cave were many strange coral-like shrubs, shining with radiant white light. He was very anxious and quickly took the rope around his waist and made a loop and hung it over some of the branches. His hand was jolted as the suction pulled the rope taut.
He pressed close to the mouth of the cave with all his strength and wrapped the rope hastily around the strange branches, then slipped down into the cave. As soon as he was in the cave the suction vanished.
He didn't know how deep the cave went, but the white pearl light reflected off the white jade-like rock, making it look like a creamy white luminous pearl. Beyond that it was so dark he couldn't see his fingers if he extended his hand. It was shocking. He felt dizzy but he fought against it. It was too dangerous.
In a lateral crevice across the stone wall about eight feet away grew two clumps of strange deerhorn-shaped grass, four stalks in all, glittering and radiant, about eight inches long. They looked like they had been carved from white jade. The stalks were about one inch in diameter and four inches apart, growing in opposition to each other, so that at first glance they looked like a pair of white jade deer horns.
He reached out and touched one. It really was soft and slightly warm.
By now he was exhausted and nearly unable to hold his breath. His ears ached and his arms and legs felt sore and weak. He felt the blood vessels in his muscles were about to burst. In the dim white light he saw his skin was turning light red and his eyes were about to collapse under the pressure.
He didn't waste any more time thinking but drew his dagger. Once out of the sheath a pallid light gleamed. The dagger was only eight inches long; its eerie, cold glint was chilling.
He held it close to the jade-marrow dragonhorn, just under the ringed section of the stalk and lopped it off with the blade. He grabbed two dragonhorn stalks and sheathed the dagger. He had no more energy to cut the other two stalks, so he ascended.
Floating back on the surface, he was unable to move. He held onto the rock wall, his left hand grasping tightly the two dragonhorn stalks.
"Child, what's the matter?" the old freak asked urgently from the shore.
He didn't have the energy to respond. He just held the stalks up weakly.
"Heavens! I'm saved!" The old freak leaned back against the rock and cried out happily.
Little Wenchang lay weakly on a rock, half his body still in the water as he used his ultimate breathing technique to regulate his breathing. He felt this was the only way to drive away his fatigue and relieve his dizziness and suffocating feeling.
He found blood oozing from every orifice on his face and his skin was raw and red. Not only was he bleeding, his muscles were bruised purple.
"Get over here quick, child, hurry…" The old freak's voice was urgent.
He waited until his fatigue had dissipated before he untied the rope and swam to shore. As soon as he stepped foot on the riverbank the old freak shot his right hand out and grabbed the dragonhorn stalks. His left hand suddenly whacked down toward the top of Little Wenchang's head, the old freak's eyes once again making his blood turn cold.
He was tired from treading water, but he still reacted quickly. The old freak's scary look made him feel suffocated and terrified. The palm was about to connect when he jerked his head to the side and the palm crashed down on his right shoulder like a large hammer. He cried out and fell back.
At almost the same time the old freak kicked.
He instinctively rolled into the water because of the bank's sharp slope, narrowly avoiding the old freak's foot.
He half sank, half floated in the pond. "You son of a bitch," he shouted. "You vicious, you…"
The old freak laughed wildly, then urgently wolfed down the two dragonhorn stalks. "If you don't die and later perfect your ultimate breathing, one day you could hold sway over the world. Then what about me? Haha! If I'm alive, how can I let you live? You were hit just now by my Ill Wind Palm. You're dead for sure. You don't have the energy to escape Black Dragon Pond's current. Before long your corpse will be feeding the tortoises. Haha! You thought I was a good man? That I would be willing to hand down a rare art to you? You were really reckless. Haha! I can't bear to watch you drown so I'll be on my way. Thank you, child. Don't forget that my surname is Wu. When you get to King Yama, tell him all about me. Hahahaha…"
The old freak walked off, laughing madly.
But Little Wenchang had not drowned after a short time. The old freak had forgotten that his Ill Wind Palm lacked power due to the rare poison afflicting him. Also, Little Wenchang had regulated his breathing while resting on the rock earlier. It was what people of the martial fraternity called breath regulation exercise, and he already possessed a lot of resistance. And he had taken three more nine-cycle pills after the first time he had tried to dive down, which had added to his resistance. Add to that the fact that the old freak had not hit him in a vital area, so he was not badly injured.
The right side of his body felt numb and useless, and he was freezing. He floated and sank in turns to the center of the pond, but he didn't have the energy to get away from the current.
The sun was slanting toward the west, the noon warmth gone.
But he was not fated to die. Just before he went under he happened to float to the dead tree floating on the water with the rope tied to it. Using his last ounce of strength he forced his right arm to wrap around it.
The dead tree trunk floated in the middle of the pond, turning in circles.
He forced himself to endure the pain as he quietly used his Darkheaven Breath Refining to regulate his breathing. He felt the miraculous effects of the breathing technique. It not only eased the pain in his body, it also cleared up his dizziness. He diligently regulated his breathing in peace. He didn't know it was called qi circulation, he just knew it eased the pain.
As he regulated his breathing his mind was racing.
I risked my life to find that dragonhorn to save that old freak's life. He was saved, so why did he want me dead?
Were there really such terrible people in the world?
What did "hold sway over the world" mean?
What practical use did ultimate breathing have?
I just about died trying to save a dying man. Should I not trust strangers?
Was the world just full of people who didn't care about the lives of others?
This string of questions confused him greatly. His little brain just couldn't explain it.
Once the sun has set he had enough strength to swim out of the current. He gritted his teeth and swam toward shore. He put on his clothes listlessly and walked on in the afterglow of the setting sun with a heavy heart, step by step toward Cai Family Village.