It takes De-you a few minutes to recover from the effects of the smoke. His heart is beating, and he’s able to breathe, but the fog between him and reality is too strong. So he sits there for as long as it takes. Mao may be back in one piece, but he lost a lot of blood, and his face is as pale as the dead that attacked them. As pale as the master of the dead whose face is still burned into De-you’s memory.
It’s the danger of his return that is the biggest concern when De-you finally get back to his feet. The way out is mostly clear now, but he will have to carry Mao, and it will be hard to keep watch for any agents of Mo Gu Dao. It won’t be easy going. But nothing about their--friendship? Partnership? De-you decides on apprenticeship-- is easy. For one brief moment, he considers dragging Mao out, but he doesn’t like the idea of backing into whatever might be lurking down the tunnel.
So he ends up hoisting Mao up onto his back. He has to tie Mao’s hands together in order to secure him, but he manages it in the end. De-you tries not to think about how much blood is underfoot now, instead of inside Mao’s body. “You owe me,” De-you says into the dimly lit tunnel.
They’d been running down it before, but he can only go at a fast walk now, making sure his footing is steady and checking over his shoulder every couple of minutes for zombies or Lian Hwa-Qing.
Them. Yes, it was still two of them, he thought, as he could feel Mao’s breath against the back of his neck, warm and reassuring. But his hands, which flopped against De-you’s chest, were now cold. “If you die on me, I’ll kill you,” De-you says out loud and imagines Mao returning a quip about dying down here. Something like, If you leave me in this filthy tunnel, I will make sure to come back as a zombie and bite you.
The thought of that makes the situation not so bad, he thinks. So he answers his own thoughts out loud, “You’d make a bad zombie. You’d be too heavy to move.”
You’d make an even lousier one. You’d probably fall apart before finishing your attack, skinny bastard.
Mao probably wouldn’t say that. He’s too uptight to use the word “bastard.” If only he was awake enough for decent conversation. “Haven’t I told you before? I am an individual with unsurpassed and exceptional abilities. I would be the world’s best zombie.”
De-you imagines (hopes) that the hitch in Mao’s breathing is a laugh. The power to pass out whenever you walk past a lit cigarette is a pretty bad one.
"What do you have? The power to order servants around?”
It’s a good power isn’t it?
Well, yes it is, but De-you won’t admit it. The power of money and influence is actually a pretty good one. Though not a rare one, so Mao’s abilities can’t compare to his own. He can feel his arms shaking and he has to move Mao around again to avoid dropping him. That would be bad for both of them, as Mao’s tied hands could strangle De-you as he went down. When he’s fishing bodies from the river, he can fly, but this feels like labor. Carrying Mao is different than it was underwater. Abruptly, he remembers his first encounter with Mao in the river and it feels like it happened a hundred years ago.
The most frustrating part is that he can actually see outside if he looks to the left. There isn’t much out there except the walls surrounding the hospital, and some weedy grounds. In front of him, though, there is nothing but tunnel crusted in old vines and settled dust. Still, he shifts Mao on his back and continues on.
De-you has to change the script a little bit. Entice himself into moving faster, to covering more distance. “I’m saving your life, young master,” he says. “I hope you are thinking of showering me with rewards.”
Of course, Little River God! You are my senior and I will make sure to reward you with lots of money and food.
Well, that won’t do. Too cheery.
What do you think I am, a fountain made of money?
“I want the best dinner for 3 weeks at my choice of restaurant. And also your bed at the temple.” He’s already claimed that bed once or twice when he was feeling too restless to sleep in his own room. He suspects Mao would be kind of mad that he had used it, but it’s funny to see Mao get angry, so he does it anyway.
I can do the dinners, but not the bed. That’s mine!
“You never sleep there anymore!” De-you has to stop for a minute to gather his breath, but he can see a bend in the tunnel that may lead out. It’s still empty here, so he’s pretty sure that they haven’t been followed. Getting around the bend will make him feel better, given there’s nothing on the other side that tries to attack them.
It’s still mine. Mao’s imagined voice in his head is sulky. What if I want to come back?
He wants that. He wants Mao to come back, he wants Master Guo to come back, too. He wants the halls to ring with the sound of footsteps, to argue over who was going to cook dinner, to show off his skills in the water. He wants to be an apprentice again, with Ying harping on him and Mao trying to outdo him and all the other perks that came with a full life. He doesn’t feel right in the temple by himself with the big stone head in the middle of the courtyard and only his own voice to keep him company. He didn’t think he had it in him to miss Mao’s constant, albeit annoying, presence. But he does. He misses it even now, and that’s why he’s pretending Mao can talk to him even when the scent of his blood, and the sight of his pale face is still on De-you’s mind.
De-you picks up his pace again, turning down the tunnel. It’s darker down there, with no light, and the floor starts a downward slope.
There’s the smell of rot down here, but it’s river-rot, not the scent of dead bodies. The hospital must have a back entrance that goes out to the river for delivery or fast transportation of those injured on ships. There are no lights, so De-you has to navigate with the dim natural light behind them as the only source of illumination. He wishes he had some kind of weapon down here. Anything to stop a zombie. He doesn’t know kind of weapon would work, though, short of a bomb. As much as he doesn’t want to admit it, he doesn’t know how to make one. Even Mao needed a room full of chemicals to be effective. He wishes for Ying’s annoying presence and her lightning-quick kicks. But what really bothers him is the idea of Lian Hwa-Qing returning.
Lian Hwa-Qing’s voice had been soft, but his movements decisive. He’d talked around issues, hinting at things hidden in shadow. He’d spoken like a gentleman, but gutted Mao like a fisherman slicing through a fish’s belly. Mao isn’t a fish. De-you isn’t sure he wants to meet Lian Hwa-Qing again, even outside of this place. “We meet at last,” is not a comforting thought.
“How deep do you think this goes?” De-you says out loud, half thinking about the tunnel and half about Mo Gu Dao.
All the way. Mao’s imaginary voice says.
The tunnel keeps going down, until the light behind him does nothing to illuminate his path forward.
“Do you think we’ll make it?”
This time, there is no answer, not even in his head.
The silence is deafening, but he keeps moving forward until the tunnel floor starts to slope upwards. There’s loose scree on the floor, and he has to be careful about his footing. After a few minutes of walking carefully he can see a faint light. It’s still dark, but as it gets lighter, he can smell the river even more strongly than before. De-you can’t tell anymore if Mao is still breathing, but he’ll be damned if he doesn’t do his best to get him back to his home. Even if it is his friend’s body without his friend inside it. So he keeps going.
Hopefully, they will be in an area that he can get help, because his legs are starting to shake and his fingers are turning cold as they grip Mao’s legs tightly. He’ll leave bruises, he thinks, and then tries not to think about what it means if he doesn’t leave bruises.
But suddenly they surface from the tunnel into an area behind tall reeds. Sure enough, there is a little dock meant for transportation of goods or patients. Over to his left, there are a few steps that lead to a low gate and beyond that, a little road. It’s small, but there are a few people that are walking on it.
“Are we friends, Ding Mao?” he asks, out of breath.
Mao’s warm breath against his neck is his answer.
De-you decides he is going to take that as a yes. And after he finds out if Mao will live, he is going to make sure that Mo Gu Dao have no reason to come after his friends. Any of them. He has to be the master now, with Master Guo gone. He has to be the one to solve this, to take the lead, to distract attention away from soft people like Mao and innocent people like Ying. He’s going to grow as hard and solitary as a turtle. He’ll be alone from now on, just like he is under the river when fishing for the dead. Alone, yes, but he will be protecting them. No one else is going to get hurt.
Or so he hopes.