Before we left, Master Ge went back to the entrance of the room and tested the bronze doors without much resolve. I followed him with my flashlight and watched him give the doors a firm push. He shook his head and walked back to us. "I thought we could send the two of you back up to safety." He nodded to You Xiaoqing who was leaning heavily against Zhou Tong.
Zhou Tong gave the door his own try, leaning You Xiaoqing against me and putting his shoulder into it. We watched him from afar without much hope. "I think there's something blocking it from the other side." He called to us. "Maybe it's a dragon stone."
"A what?" Master Ge hollered back.
"Dragon stone!" Zhou Tong called as he walked back to us. "They're sometimes used to close off tombs. Though… I guess this place isn't a tomb huh?"
"It sure feels like one." I said. Zhou Tong gave me a look that said he felt the same.
We readied ourselves once more and looked to the black snake. Its large yellow eyes glowed in the darkness. A tongue darted out in a silent conversation and it slithered silently down the path ahead of us. You Xiaoqing once again clutched the tiny green snake in her curled palm. Walking side by side in the long dark corridor ahead, we followed after the snake.
Our lights confirmed the path by filling in two sets of footprints leading into the black. Hou-faced candlesticks jutted from the walls, giving me a brief sense of déjà vu. After what felt like hours, we came across huge stone door. It was the deep green of the stones inlaid in the floor and ceiling. Craning our necks to see, our headlamps and flashlights traced the outside of the eight-meter door. It was wide enough for three tractors to enter side by side. In the center of the enormous door was another depiction of Hou. The dragon inside its mouth was much more distinct in this epic rendition.
The combination of Hou's staring eyes and the teeth sinking deeply into the dragon's head gave me a sour feeling.
The large snake that was guiding us curled at the foot of the door where the footsteps disappeared.
"Think they're in there?" Zhou Tong asked no one in particular.
Master Ge turned to the snake, "Is Gui Yuanzi behind this door?"
The snake's tongue darted out in answer and Master Ge nodded to us. The two men put their shoulders to the door and gave a combined push. Nothing happened.
"Let me look around," Zhou Tong told Master Ge, "Maybe there's a switch or something."
He knelt down at the crack that separated the doors and Master Liu's voice suddenly appeared, "Is that you Lao Ge?"
Master Ge rushed to the crack, "Yes it's me, Liu Chunan! What's happened?"
Master Liu's muffled voice returned, "I'm fine. Press the fourth green brick on the wall to your left."
"What?" Zhou Tong interrupted.
"Quiet!" Came a frustrated Master Liu. "Listen carefully! There's a side room with a desk! A black box is sitting there. Inside is a brown pill. Give it Xiao Yong. Hurry! I've only got a minute."
Zhou Tong dashed to the left wall. Master Ge pressed his face against the door, saying "Liu Chunan, where is Gui Yuanzi?"
"He's disappeared." The muffled voice came back. "I've run into another problem though. Never you mind. After Xiao Yong takes the pill, have the snake lead you out of here. There's no need for all of you to stay."
Master Ge opened his mouth to protest, but Master Liu went on as if reading his mind, "I know what you're going to say Lao Ge so don't bother! Just listen to me! This is my task. I'll find you when it's done."
The silence that fell between them was palpable. Master Ge's face was twisted into an expression of distaste. "Be safe my friend." He said quietly and turned away from the door.
Zhou Tong gave a cry of success and a piece of the wall slid away revealing a dusty dank room. "Come on!" He motioned to me. I sat You Xiaoqing gently on the floor and went to him.
"It's just as he said!" Zhou Tong told me with a smile. He shined his light into the room to reveal a desk with a black box atop it. There was a small stove to the right of it.
Master Ge joined us in the narrow doorway. "Go on," Master Ge said to me, "Liu Chunan left it for you. Take it."
I thought of the last box we'd found and the bloody doll inside. Hesitating, I took a small step inside the room.
"Come on!" Zhou Tong said peering into the box. "If you don't eat it, I will!"
Zhou Tong turned to Master Ge, "How are we going to help Master Liu?"
Master Ge shook his head and said, "Gui Yuanzi is gone. Something else is going on. We've been taken off the case I'm afraid." He looked like he just taken a large bite of raw ginger. His lips puckered in a frown and the wrinkles on his forehead were pulled down so far I was afraid they might stay there.
Zhou Tong said, "But shouldn't we do something?"
Master Ge only frowned more deeply. It was almost amusing to watch his face try to keep up. "No, I can't say I understand it, but this is Liu Chunan's wish."
Zhou Tong looked puzzled, but was quiet.
While they spoke, I walked forward and peered into the black box. I moved carefully as to not disturb whatever might be waiting for me. Inside was a small brownish black ball. "It looks, well…" I started.
"Hairy." Zhou Tong finished.
Before I could hesitate any longer, Master Ge walked across the small room. He picked up the bushy brown black ball, pinched my cheeks with the other hand and dropped it into my surprised mouth. I gagged immediately, but he put his hand over my mouth and forced me to chew.
A hot itching feeling cascaded from the back of my tongue to my chest. I started to cough into Master Ge's hand immediately.
"This is a kind of magic called Shen Yuan. It's filled with anima." Master Ge told me with a smile that looked more like a grimace. "This little bit of magic will cure those eyes of yours. You might even live a decade or so longer."
My eyes widened above his hand. I was trying to swallow, cough, and breathe at the same time. The itching deepened, seeming to plant itself and grow from my stomach outwards. Sensing that it was almost through, Master Ge removed his hand. I doubled over and coughed a series of harsh barks at the floor. Looking up at Master Ge through watery eyes, I told him in a husky voice, "This doesn't feel like a cure!" I reached up to my neck where the itching began to crescendo.
He smiled down at me, "That's because it came from Gui Yuanzi's body. This type of magic can only be made from a魃, a 'bah'. It's poison."
I gaped at him in horror, but the old man only smiled.
"What?" I asked in a hoarse creak.
"Oh you worry too much." The smile widened, "Liu Chunan must've ripped a piece off the zombie and rushed to make this for you. You should be grateful!" He chuckled.
"Why are you laughing?" I cried through the swollen itching mess that was now my throat. "Master Liu poisoned me!" Fear began to outweigh shock and my eyes filled with tears.
The old man only laughed again. He reached lazily into the pocket of his wet suit and pulled out a small leather pouch. From it, Master Ge brought out a bright yellow pill that resembled a large skittle. "I'm sure your godfather knew I'd have at least one of these on me." He offered the pill towards me. "Go on, it'll counteract the poison. You're lucky I'm here."
I snatched the pill from his hand and swallowed it. I expected a lemony tart flavor from the yellow color and was pleasantly surprised by the cooling aloe taste that flowed down the back of my throat. A chill, not unlike the one from the snakeskin, began to creep down into my body, following the same route as the poison.
After a moment of the itching heat battling the crawling cool in my body, I was disappointed to find that my throat was still hot and full of daggers. "It didn't work, do you have another one?" I asked in my new frog voice.
He raised an eyebrow at me, "This isn't cold medicine, boy! Wait a few hours, you'll feel better in time."
He stepped past me, gave the little room a quick once over, and then turned to Zhou Tong standing just outside the door. "There's nothing out here. I suppose we'd better follow orders." Zhou Tong nodded and walked back to You Xiaqing.
Master Ge and I followed suit. Reaching the center of the grand door, Master Ge once again turned to the snake spirit. "Can you guide us out of here?"
The forked tongue danced in reply and the large snake uncurled, moving back the way we came. Zhou Tong lifted You Xiaoqing and we followed. Twenty or thirty minutes later we were back in the cage room, but this time the snake veered to the far corner. I was fascinated to watch it disappear into the place where the walls met. Upon closer inspection, I found that it was an illusion. There was an entrance there that looked so much like the two walls that we hadn't been able to see the gap.
"Fantastic!" Zhou Tong whispered as he walked through it. "I wonder how many of these we passed without knowing!"
We entered another corridor that twisted in an ongoing spiral. What could have been an hour later, I heard the sound of water trickling downwards.
"Is it the well?" I called to Master Ge.
"It very well might be." He replied. The snake led us on.
Coming to a courtyard of sorts, the snake spirit reached the far wall and curled in on itself. It's glowing yellow eyes turned to Master Ge and the tongue once again danced outwards.
"Thank you." He told the large spirit. "You have been a great help, though I do not wish to cross paths with you again." He bowed deeply to the snake. Its large head mirrored the gesture. Master Ge turned to us, "We can follow this path just a bit further and come to the water. From there we must swim. The snakes will stay here, as this is their place." His eyes locked onto You Xiaoqing.
The small green snake curled around her thumb and raised its head to her. A tiny red tongue darted out as if bidding goodbye.
Master Ge lowered his voice to a gentle fatherly tone, "It needs to stay here to grow strong." He told You Xioaqing. "Liu Chunan promised to help them and he will."
You Xiaoqing's eyes filled with tears. She held her hand and the small luminous snake to her face. "Won't you come with me?" She asked.
The snake made a circle with its body, raised its head, and then shook it from side to side.
I moved close to You Xiaoqing to comfort her, "Xiao Qing, it's helping you. You'll become a snake too if it stays with you."
She let loose a sob and the tears streamed down her face, "I want to be a snake! If it means staying with you I want to be a snake!" She told the small reptile.
Master Ge went on his fatherly tone, "Sweet one, your parents would be so sad if you were a snake. They miss you dearly."
She didn't respond, but pulled in hitching breaths.
He went on, "Even though you can't be together, you'll always be friends."
"Can I ever come back to see it? " She asked.
Master Ge shook his head. "These spirits are a kind of monster. They're not like us. We can't invite monsters into our worlds, nor they us."
You Xiaoqing continued to cry, but she slowly lowered her hand to the floor. The tiny green snake gave her finger a final squeeze and then slithered to the great black snake.
Master Ge breathed a sigh, "That's a good girl, let's go."
You Xiaoqing walked backwards away from the snake spirits. "I'll never forget you." She cried to them. "We'll always be friends!"
The little green snake nodded its head up and down as the walked away.