It was a chilly spring pre-dawn morning. Dew clung to plants, resting in uneven shapes on leaves. Once the sun rises high above the horizon, they would be gone, back to their gaseous state. However, in the stillness of this day, they existed for now. An Zhe smiled as he noticed them, thinking how his own mushroom self loved the moisture. He thought back to the times he would have his own dew resting on his cap. The memory made him feel warm inside, bringing a small smile to his lips.
“What are you doing?” A voice as clear as the lake they just passed by asked. He looked up and from his crouched position, the shadows hid a bit of Lu Feng’s features but didn’t dull his eyes. Those eyes that often reminded him of frost looked like a freshly-thawed pond right now, teeming with life as its inhabitants woke up from hibernation. An Zhe thought he probably shouldn’t tell Lu Feng that he just compared the glint in his eyes to tadpoles and other things that swim and wriggle in water.
“I’m just looking at the dew” An Zhe replied, pointing at the plant he was examining. It looked like the regular Chinese money plant, except aside from the usual bright green leaves, it also sported bright red ones. “The color reminds me of the maple leaf illustration in Dr. Ji’s journal. It’s not a maple, though, right?”
“No, it doesn’t look like it” Lu Feng replied. When he lifted his eyes, they narrowed and sharpened as he scanned every nook and cranny within sight. It was a process An Zhe was familiar with ever since they started looking for the cave where he left An Ze’s bones. Lu Feng kept a light grip on the handle of his gun, fingers tapping intermittently. The habit was something An Zhe picked up as well during their trips. He never got around to asking Lu Feng about it and it didn’t seem like the other noticed that he did it every time he visually scoped out an area. An Zhe figured it might be similar to fidgeting or maybe something that subconsciously calms down the former judge. “There doesn’t seem to be any monster here.”
An Zhe hummed, also realizing this not long ago. “It might be because winter just ended? I’m not sure. This doesn’t happen often in the Abyss but I do remember some lull periods between winter and spring when I was still a mushroom. This must be it.”
“Hmm. Are you cold?”
“Not that much. The coat is good at keeping me warm.”
Lu Feng nodded and pinned his gaze back at him. Under his scrutiny, An Zhe felt a little too aware of himself. He felt something stirring both in his chest and his belly. He wasn’t quite sure how to describe them except they felt like mycelium scrambling to take cover only to find that he was on a vast plain, prey to all the elements. An Zhe quickly whipped his head around, not wanting to get sidetracked again. Whenever the other started looking at him like this, it usually ended up with him covered in bite marks and bruises. He would rather not have that happen today. He knew that if he faltered, Lu Feng wasn’t above pressing him against a tree, the ground or, if he had enough patience, hauling An Zhe back to where they parked the car.
or some reason, he had a really good feeling ever since they passed by the stream. There was something tugging at him to come closer, just a bit more, as if he would find something if he just continued. He tried not to get his hopes up, though. After all, it’s been nearly a year since he and Lu Feng scoured every inch of the Abyss for the cave where he left An Ze. He tried not to despair, too, and think of how his skeleton might be buried by now if the Abyss did shift or if it molded with something else during the distortion.
He knew as well that Lu Feng was skeptical. When they both got in the car that day, An Zhe simply told him to take the straightest path eastward. Honestly, he understood. Unlike the man, he couldn’t boast being gifted with an accurate intuition. Still, he held onto the gut feeling he had. They might just reach a breakthrough today. An Zhe really wanted to see An Ze one last time before he said his actual, final goodbye.
He straightened up, casting another glance at the Chinese money plant with red leaves before trudging forward. Lu Feng immediately followed, his footsteps significantly quieter, probably due to his military training and his familiarity with the Abyss itself. As An Zhe continued moving, he gingerly pushed aside stray branches or overgrown grass that blocked their path. The air was just starting to get warm—the gray sky overhead slowly shifted to accommodate splashes of light blue, lavender, and orange—when Lu Feng murmured, “An Zhe, do you see that? To our right.”
He firmly planted his feet on the ground, narrowly missing the gnarled, exposed root of a tree before he tilted his head upwards. His heartbeat suddenly sped up when he saw what Lu Feng was referring to earlier. There was an opening not too far from them, maybe a ten-minute trek at most. What struck him most was the fact that it looked almost exactly like the cave where An Zhe left An Ze, save for the vines with budding flowers covering the entrance itself. Without thinking, he shot forward, stumbling every so often since he didn’t pay attention where exactly his steps landed on the uneven earth. The chilly wind felt like it was harshly cutting through his skin like icicles as he sped across the remaining few meters. All he could think of was that he had to get there to confirm if it really was the cave, his cave.
The cave seemed to be carved right on the flat side of a hill, almost like a burrow. The ceiling was high and intact, save for a crack on the ground above them that let in a sliver of light at the very back of the cavern. There, propped against the rock wall, was a skeleton with moss and some vines covering it. An Zhe stopped in his tracks, staring at the scene. It felt surreal because now he kept thinking: what if it wasn’t An Ze? What if someone else died in the Abyss, who was also left in a cave, and he only happened to chance upon them?
Lu Feng silently placed his palm on the small of his back. The gesture made him feel a little more braver. If all else failed, he still had Lu Feng. He’d be disappointed but that meant just another day, week, month of searching for An Ze with Lu Feng. It was fine. Life would go on.
As he approached it, he ran various scenarios in his head. The moment he touched the sternum, there was only one left. The flood of memories nearly had him keeling over but it was fine. It only assuaged the worst of his fears. He felt something well up in both his eyes and throat. There was still some dew on the moss, considering the cave was still damp and cool compared to the hotter environment outside. Then, he croaked out, “An Ze. I’m back from… an adventure. I have so much to tell you.”