The Divorcee is a Wicked Black Belly Chapter 105: The State of A Broken Hear
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"Take twenty steps forward. Then move to your left this time. The wall is on that side. Call me back when you've found it. Over."
When they reached the twentieth step, An Ning stopped and waited for Ban Chao, who by this time, was wheezing and coughing badly.
"I don't know. I felt dizzy all of a sudden and wanted to empty my stomach. Now I feel like I'm having flu or something."
"Must be something you ate before we left," An Ning said, feeling his damp forehead.
"Maybe. Come on, he said move to the left, right?"
"Here, hold on to me. I don't want you to fall."
Clutching at each other clumsily, the two of them moved left with extended hands. It wasn't long before the barrier barred their way.
"Strange," said Ban Chao. "It doesn't feel like jello anymore. Feels like stone."
"Rough pitted stone. Okay, let me call Nian Zhen."
The headphones crackled before she could turn it on.
"Memories of our marriage?" Nian Zhen again asked, surprising An Ning.
"What? Yes," An Ning agreed absent-mindedly. "We're at the left wall now. What do we do next?
"Follow it with your hands for about thirty minutes. Be careful with the stones. They can be a bit rough."
"Okay. Will do. Over."
The stones started to get rougher after they've walked for about five minutes. And Ban Chao's coughing was getting worst. He was almost bent double as the coughs racked his body.
"We'd better stop and rest for a bit. I'm getting worried about that cough. Are you in pain or anything?"
Ban Chao's face in the faint blue light looked sallow. His sunken eyes looked dead, the eyebags heavy and dark.
"Ban Chao, I think we'd better go back," An Ning said, making her decision after looking at his wan face with a worried frown. "I don't want to take the chance of moving forward and endangering your health like this."
Ban Chao tried to speak but the coughs again wracked his thin body.
"Come on, I'll take you back."
An Ning had memorized the way back and had no trouble finding the entrance. It hadn't been long since they left anyway, so the way back was not as difficult as she had first thought. She was almost carrying Ban Chao by this time. He had nearly keeled over and would have fallen on his face if she hadn't caught him.
An Ning was almost flying in her haste as she rushed through the tunnel, breaking through the entrance in one long jump with Ban Chao on her back. Her reappearance almost scared Kang Jun out of his wits so that he screamed, turning people's heads his way in alarm.
An Ning strode to a lounge chair and laid Ban Chao on it. Ban Chao was so pale and shivering so badly at the same time he almost looked like an eskimo suffering from ague.
"What's wrong with him?" Nian Zhen asked, taking Ban Chao's pulse.
"Get a doctor," An Ning ordered, looking at the people in the room. "Now!"
Kari scrambled away, opening the door and sprinting outside.
"What happened in there, An Ning?" Hank asked.
"I don't know. We were on the left side walking towards the second turn when he started to get sick. I thought it was just something he ate before we left. But it got worse and he started wheezing and coughing and large chunks of phlegm started oozing out of his mouth. Ever had this experience before when you were in there, Nian Zhen?"
Nian Zhen looked at her searchingly, his eyes deep and penetrating.
"The last time somebody went through the entrance, Indian's body almost got fried. Mine, too. We can only get through as a spirit," he said.
"But Ban Chao is not a spirit," An Ning frowned. "Neither were Gu Sheng and I when we entered the tunnel. What could have gotten wrong this time?"
"You said you started seeing hallucinations of our old life together?"
"That never happened before," Nian Zhen said, knitting his brows. "Nothing unusual happened when I was there the last time. Must be something in Ban Chao's system that's incompatible with the air in the tunnel or something."
"I didn't smell anything strange," An Ning said. "Must be the abrupt change in temperature. It was freezing when we entered and then the temperature plunged to about ninety in a matter of minutes."
The door opened and Kari came in with somebody who at one glance looked like a doctor. The man was tall with an ascetic face. Without a word being said, he immediately strode towards the chair where the shivering Ban Chao was lying down and extended a white hand to feel his brow.
Ban Chao flinched and tried to open his eyes. The doctor turned him over and tried to open his collar to check his throat but Ban Chao by then had fully opened his eyes, his gaze falling on the doctor, fully aware and round with alarm. He pulled the doctor's hand from his neck with a cry, twisting away as if the doctor was about to hurt him.
The doctor frowned and again put his hand on Ban Chao's collar. Ban Chao tried to twist away, almost falling off the chair in his struggles.
"Ban Chao, stop struggling! He's here to help you," Nian Zhen said, stepping forward and trying to hold Ban Chao's hands.
Ban Chao's scream and struggles were getting frantic. An Ning frowned and moved towards them. The doctor had by this time became impatient and pulled at Ban Chao's collar with a loud rip. The front of the robe became undone, the white cotton underneath which hid the white and plump chest exposed.
Ban Chao cried hysterically, tears streaming down his face as his struggles weakened and finally stopped. He fell back on the chair exhausted and breathing hard.
All of them looked at each other in total astonishment. Kang Jun opened his mouth and let out a horrified gasp. Then he hurriedly turned away, a creeping tide of red suffusing his face. Gu Sheng was surprised but not alarmed. Nian Zhen and the doctor seemed to have been turned into a couple of petrified stones. Kari was opening and closing her mouth. A twitch had started throbbing in Hank's left eye. After a slight pause of surprise, An Ning took over and covered the crying Ban Chao with her cloak.
"Better take her indoors," she said, with a slight grin. "I'm sure she's going to be fine."
After a slight hesitation, Kang Jun carefully lifted Ban Chao in his arms and walked to the door, followed by Gu Sheng and the doctor. The door closed. The four of them gave each other a strained smile still tinged with shock.
"Well, I'd better get back there and resume my search," An Ning said with a laugh. "Another day, another drama in Chengdi, I guess. Oh well, I'd better go then."
"You can't!" Nian Zhen's voice was loud. An Ning looked at him in surprise. "We don't have an idea yet what happened to Ban Chao. Maybe it's a bug or something which could affect you next if you stay out there for long."
"It's not a bug, a virus or anything," An Ning scoffed. "We've talked about this. I'm still going."
"An Ning, listen to me," Nian Zhen pleaded. "You said something about hallucinations. What if that's one of the signs of a symptom? It got Ban Chao in another way and it's going to get you this way. Please, wait a day or two. I promise I'll check it out and make sure it's safe before you get back into it again."
"You don't have to. I already know where they are," An Ning announced simply.
They all goggled at her, stupefied.
"What?" Hank was the first to recover from his shock. "How?"
"The tunnel told me."
Again, shocked silence greeted her announcement.
"The tunnel told you?" Nian Zhen said, looking dazed. "How? It doesn't talk."
"Obviously it doesn't talk but it still told me where to look."
"Look, I don't have time to argue with you or even talk to you. I need to go," An Ning said then walked to the entrance without another word.
"An Ning!" Nian Zhen said, grabbing her arm. "What happened in there? What did you see?" he said urgently.
An Ning stopped and looked at him with something like curious consideration.
"Our past. The life we had. Han. Valerie."
Nian Zhen paled and something like fear crossed his handsome face.
"You know," he said, with an anguished sob. "I know you know. Tell me. Please..."
"Yes, I know."
Nian Zhen turned away with a pained cry. An Ning looked at his curved back. Somehow it hurt her to see him like this. The proud tilt of his head that somewhat reminded her of Cas. The curve of his lips that somehow echoed the same curve on Lux's beautiful smile. He was not the same young man she grew up with. Neither did he look like the same man she had married but somehow this new version of him encapsulated all the qualities of the old and new Richard. This body and spirit contained all his vulnerabilities, all his regrets, all his dreams and hopes even his pain and the guilt he carried.
The physical body after all cannot make up a new reality. Cannot make up a new set of dreams. As long as it was tethered to the same old soul that hurt and want and desire, it can't pretty much do anything but shed tears.
An Ning hesitated but in the end finally allowed her arm to touch his.
"Let's talk about this later after I get back," she said, then gasped as Nian Zhen turned around, pulled her to him and his lips found hers.
It was not the same greedy and urgent passion that he always uses to make her his. There was no urgency this time, no passionate longing to imprint his body on hers. His kiss was tentative, a little scared, his uncertainty apparent in the trembling of his arms that enfolded her body gently against his. And like the first time they met on this world, An Ning could taste the salt of bitter tears on his mouth.
When they parted, An Ning turned around and entered the time tunnel without looking back. Nian Zhen gazed after her departing back with a pained longing he didn't even bother to hide. Embarrassed by his intensity, his two companions turned around and kept themselves busy watching the slow beeping on the monitors.
This time, the tunnel seemed infused with a lighter shade of blue than when An Ning first entered. The fog also seemed lighter, less denser and somewhat cooler than before. She walked forward, her eyes seeing the secrets it carried. The time tunnel was not actually a tunnel but the exact replica of Li Sheung's maze. Like the maze, it was tightly compact, the walls dense, the turns sharper and steep.
Unlike the original copy, however, the tunnel was a living organism that shape-shifts according to temperature. The walls became denser and harder with heat, then somewhat lighter and more flexible with the cold. The walls also collapsed according to its whims. And the pockets of tunnels that Nian Zhen mentioned appear with each collapsing wall, ready to catch anyone unaware who travels it on foot.
The tunnel was vast. It was like a separate universe created by some forgotten deity using strings and twine and mud and stone. And as An Ning went deeper into the interior, the silence became denser but not oppressive. There was a soothing feel to it that makes one not feel tiredness or hunger. As if bodily functions did not exist inside its weightless sphere. But it sucked you in. The soothing calmness penetrating the bones.
An Ning walked forward and a wall beside her collapsed. It happened so suddenly. One second the wall was there then it was replaced by a yawning emptiness surrounded by dripping water and the blue-gray light of the fog. An Ning hesitated, her eyes glued to the opening. She seemed to see movement in there and mountains and rivers. Suddenly, she saw the face of Yi Hai like a closeup on a TV monitor, looking through her without knowing she was there. She could see the frown on his brow. He seemed to have lost weight and his eyes were sunken pools of despair.
An Ning lifted her foot intending to she didn't know what but Yi Hai's image vanished. It was again replaced by a solid wall of stone, white and glowing. She carried on forward. Up ahead was another wall that turns to the right. This part of the tunnel seemed different. She could hear whispers, groans and soft giggles. When she made the turn, she wasn't surprised to see ghostly shadows of what probably were the spirits who passed through this entrance. The spirits it seemed left imprints of themselves on this part of the tunnel, as if even the loss of their physical bodies was not enough to make them stop polluting any space they passed through.
The next turn was even more of a downer. This part of the wall seemed to be unfinished, not connected to the rest of the massive complex. But An Ning plowed through, her hands on the walls, which felt hard and rough. Her hands were bleeding when she finally found it, a lever on which she pulled at with one hard flex of her arm.
Nothing happened when the door was revealed. It was just a simple door, with an ordinary knob for an opening. But her heart suddenly beat faster, as if she had difficulty breathing. An Ning took a deep breath and pushed the knob open.
Inside was another world. Vast expanse of desert. Rocks the size of boulders. A small stream running down a mountainside. Sand and dust and in the middle was a patch of green and a waterfall and trees. And in the middle of the green patch was a canary yellow classic Volkswagen bus retrofitted as Hippolyta's time machine. Where did she even find the car? An Ning thought, amused.
The yellow Volkswagen bus looked incongruous sitting in the middle of the desert, its windows and doors opened. So, the big circular thing in her cave house was not actually the time machine but a portal for the time machine. But how could the magus gene power this little thing and create the time tunnel? Such a massive energy would have incinerated this small vehicle but apparently, Hippolyta did something to it to make it not only withstand the magus gene's energy and force but actually thrive in it as well.
While An Ning stood frozen on the same spot, six people emerged from a cave she hadn't seen because she had been too awed and shocked upon seeing the yellow bus.
But An Ning's eyes only focused on the two people who were walking behind Ceres, their heads closed together, their young voices raised in argument. Pollux seemed to be taller and Castor broader around the shoulders. She had been gone for nearly a year now. When did her young kids started to grow up without her? When did they assume this aura of maturity that hadn't been there when she was with them?
An Ning felt tears run down her face, her shoulders shaking with her silent sobs. Their father's selfishness had again robbed her of something precious, lost forever in the entanglement of time they were currently caught up in.
An Ning's knees wobbled and she abruptly sat down, her sobs getting frantic and more uncontrollable. The people on the prairie seemed not to notice until the red ribbon tying An Ning's hair loosened and flew some distance with the wind until it landed red as blood on the open window of the yellow bus.
The six people looked at it it confused and perplexed. Castor walked over to the vehicle and pulled the ribbon out. It was silk and embroidered with the seal of her majesty, the empress of Yuqui.
Pollux looked around with a cry that turned into a loud sob when she spotted the sprawled figure on the sand. She dashed forward, followed by Castor who leaped behind her with a cry, their two figures racing to meet that bright spot still sitting and sobbing on the sand. An Ning's legs refused to move. She would have fallen in a dead faint if she hadn't bitten her lip until it bled, her heart so heavy and full she wanted to scream and shout.
Instead, she could only clutched tightly at the two sets of arms that reached out to her with greed and desperation. Pollux shoved her head on An Ning's waist as she fell down, whimpering on her lap. Castor's long arms enfolded both of them in a tight embrace, his shoulders shuddering with his tears.
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