The only thoughts running inside Li Yundong's mind at that moment were: run; flee for your life.
So he did.
He leaped to the side, not caring where the golden apparition was. His knees scraped against something rough when they hit the ground.
Then, he scrambled to his feet and ran.
The temple. He had to get to the temple.
He channeled more Qi into his legs and pumped his legs harder.
Somehow, the strange feeling inside his chest had spread to his entire body. Some kind of invisible force or pressure was squeezing his body from all sides. It was as though something was trying to flatten him and forcibly fit him into some kind of two-dimensional flatland.
What the f*ck is this shit?
Li Yundong gasped, and before he knew it, his knees hit the ground again. This time, he couldn't even get up.
He gasped for air and started to crawl his way towards the temple. His eyes darted around their sockets, scanning the area for more threats.
He didn't see the golden apparition anywhere. Was it gone?
Come on... Move... Move!
He reached forward to grab hold of something. Anything.
Something tickled his palm. He opened his eyes and realized that he had just grabbed a fistful of grass. Damn it. He wasn't even facing the right direction. He pulled back his hand and re-oriented himself on the ground.
Don't give up... Don't you dare give up!
Li Yundong growled and mobilized more Qi from his lower Dantian.
The pressure squeezing against his body grew stronger the moment he did that.
Su Chan... Think of Su Chan...
Li Yundong fought back against the pressure with everything he got. Alas, it seemed like the more he struggled, the stronger the pressure grew.
"Damn it!" He slammed his palms against the ground and tried to push himself up.
Suddenly, he heard a whisper.
"Do not harbor hostile intentions..."
The voice sounded weird, almost like a hiss.
"Malevolence fuels its power. Rein in your Qi, young man."
Li Yundong gave up the struggle right then and guided his Qi back to his lower Dantian. The effect was almost instantaneous—the pressure vanished and he felt like he could breathe again.
Li Yundong rose to his feet and scanned his surroundings. The temple lay about thirty meters ahead. Trees lined both sides of the inclined path. He didn't see any old man around. Nor did he see the golden apparition of the arhat.
He sighed in relief.
He wondered who gave him the tip just now.
Li Yundong shook his head and forged on. Better get inside that temple before the attacker returns…
He made it to the temple in a couple of minutes.
He stood in front of the temple and studied its facade for a while. The temple was quiet and peaceful, almost idyllic. Beside the temple were shops selling incense, food, and drinks. Li Yundong directed his gaze to another corner and saw several hoses scattered around. Beyond the hoses were several water faucets.
Seems like a good place to rest and stay overnight…
He approached the steps leading up to the temple and lowered his backpack onto one of the steps. Then, he sat down to take a much-needed break.
It was almost nightfall by the time Meiduo and her fellow pilgrims arrived at Kathok Monastery. Light from the temple pierced through the darkness of their surroundings, illuminating their path. Meiduo smiled at the metaphorical significance: the path towards enlightenment.
The smell of incense greeted Meiduo as they approached the temple's facade. Wisps of white smoke swirled around them. The rhythmic sounds of Tibetan drums drifted from inside the temple with chants of mantras forming a soothing background noise. Meiduo closed her eyes and spent a brief moment to soak it all in. This was home.
The head of Kathok Monastery was a close acquaintance of Changabela. After Changbagela exchanged a few pleasantries with the head, the rest of the pilgrims went about their own business. Everyone seemed tired and weary after the long journey. Some sat on the stairs, chatting with their companions. Others picked a spot and lay down on the ground to get some shut-eye. Meiduo scanned the crowd for Changbagela. She found him sitting on one of the steps, staring up into the sky with both hands hugging his knees. Meiduo walked over and sat down beside him. The moon shone down at them from the clear sky.
After a while, Changbagela broke the comfortable silence. "Meiduo..."
She turned to regard the old man. "Yes, Changbagela?"
"Are you angry at me for yelling at you in front of the others?"
Meiduo shook her head. "No, Changbagela. I think you were right in everything you said. I shouldn't judge a person's worth by their appearance." She sighed. "Looks like I still have a long way to go towards enlightenment."
Changbagela said nothing after that and kept staring at the sky.
Minutes later, Meiduo detected movement from the corner of her eyes. She turned and squinted through the darkness. She caught a glimpse of dark, shaggy, shoulder-length hair spread across a set of broad shoulders. The man disappeared around the corner a split second later. Meiduo sprang to her feet. "I- It's him!"
Changbagela stared up at her. "What?"
Meiduo reached down and pulled Changbagela's arm. "He's here! The Han Chinese who saved your life!"
Meiduo tugged Changbagela's arm until he was up on his feet.
"Where? Where is he!"
Meiduo pointed at the corner of the temple. "I saw him rounding that corner!" she said, then began to pull Changbagela in that direction. "Come on, Changbagela! Let's go!"
They rounded the corner in record time and walked on for a few more seconds. Meiduo helped Changbagela stepped over a bunch of tangled hoses, then continued forward. They reached another corner, by which time they could hear the sound of running water. Maybe he was taking a drink—
Meiduo blushed the moment she and Changbagela walked around the corner. The Han Chinese was completely naked as he stood in front of the faucet. Under the moonlight, the sharp planes of the man's muscular back gleamed at them. Meiduo blushed even harder and turned away.
Changbagela patted her shoulders and said, "Let's give him some privacy."
Meiduo fought down the burn in her cheeks and nodded meekly.
After that, the two of them retreated around the corner and waited. A while later, the sound of the water stopped. Meiduo shared a glance with Changbagela.
Changbagela shook his head gently. "Not yet," he whispered. "He still needs to get dressed."
Meiduo flushed again. It seemed like her common sense had left her tonight.
When the Han Chinese man didn't show after twenty minutes, Meiduo began to worry. Surely it wouldn't take that long to get dressed.
Had the man left?
Meiduo shot a worried glance at Changbagela, whose lips were moving as he spun a prayer bead in his right hand.
Meiduo shifted forward and shook Changbagela's knee.
Changbagela opened his eyes a second later. "Hmm?"
"Shall we take a look? It's been nearly twenty minutes."
Changbagela got to his feet. "Sure."
They walked around the corner again.
Relief coursed through Meiduo when she saw that the young man was still there.
However, her relief was short-lived.
Something strange was happening. Something really, really strange. Like supernatural.
The young Han Chinese appeared to be meditating. Dust and leaves spiraled around him as though he was the center of a tornado. Then, something even stranger happened. A jet of white, gas-like substance shot out from his mouth. The white jet travelled forward for over ten meters before it ran into a huge rock and vanished in a puff of white smoke.
All of a sudden, the young man sprang to his feet and cocked his fist back. A split second later, the air in front of him exploded in a soundless clap. The ground trembled under Meiduo's feet as some kind of shockwave shot out from the man's fist. The ground shook again when the shockwave slammed into the giant rock ten meters away, releasing a muffled crack.
Meiduo turned sideways to look at Changbagela.
Changbagela wasn't looking at her, but she could tell that the old man was in shock.
When Meiduo looked to the front again, the young man was nowhere to be seen.
Meiduo turned to Changbagela. "Hey, where did he—"
Changbagela was already making his way towards the rock.
Meiduo hurried after Changbagela.
Seconds later, they were both staring at a deep imprint of a fist buried several inches deep into the rock.
"Mahakala..." Changbagela mumbled.
Meiduo turned her head sharply. She gaped at Changbagela, too stunned to speak.
Changbagela closed his eyes and pressed his palms together. "Amitabha... We have just encountered the living reincarnation of Mahakala. The great Dharma Protector. The Defender of the Law. The Lord of Justice."
Meiduo shook herself out of her stupor right then.
Mahakala. One of the most powerful gods known in Tibetan Buddhism. The god with three faces and six arms...
Before Meiduo could open her mouth to speak, a cold voice sounded behind her.
"What are you two planning? Why were you following me?"
Li Yundong stared at startled faces of the young girl and the old man. He had heard their whispers with Eryue while he was washing himself earlier and had decided to confront them.
The girl was still in shock when the old monk recovered his composure.
"Well?" Li Yundong said sternly. "State your purpose! Why were you following me!"
Suddenly, the old monk lowered himself to the ground and prostrated himself before Li Yundong.
Alarm coursed through Li Yundong. "Hey! What the—"
"Hail, great Lord of Justice, Mahakala!" said the old monk. "I thank you for saving my life!"
Li Yundong moved forward and quickly pulled the old man to his feet. "Please rise, old sir. This isn't necessary."
The old monk grabbed Li Yundong's hands. "Thank you, my lord."
Li Yundong smiled. "You don't have to thank me, sir. Any decent human being would've done something to help."
"But still... My lord—"
"I prefer Li Yundong, thanks."
The old monk stared at him for a few awkward moments.
"You have my utmost gratitude, then, Mr. Li."
Then, the old man nudged the girl with his elbow.
"Meiduo!" he hissed. "What are you standing around for? Say something!"
The girl's eyes cleared a little.
She stepped forward and gave Li Yundong a bow.
"I am terribly sorry for the way I've treated you today," she said shyly. "I shouldn't have yelled at you. And I should've at least tried to properly thank you after you brought Changbagela back to life."
Li Yundong nodded. "You're welcome."
Changbagela stroked his long, white beard. "If you don't mind me asking, Mr. Li, are you here for a vacation? Or are you here for some other purpose?"
Li Yundong regarded the old man warily. What should he tell them? After a moment of thought, he decided to answer with the truth but keep his answer vague.
"This trip is part of my training."
"I see, I see!" Changbagela said pensively. Suddenly, Changbagela beamed at Li Yundong. "Well, I'm leading a group of people on a pilgrimage to the summit. You can join our group if you like?"
Li Yundong rubbed the back of his neck. "Well... I'd like to, but you see... I'm kinda in a hurry... And you guys... Well…"
Kowtowing once every three steps didn't exactly fit the definition of "hurry" no matter how he looked at it.
"Come on… You don't actually think we have to perform the kowtow ritual for the whole journey, do you?" Changbagela said as though he'd read Li Yundong's mind.
When Li Yundong didn't answer, Changbagela laughed and waved his hand casually. "We don't actually have to do that. The ritual is only necessary when we are near the foot of the holy mountain." Changbagela laughed harder. "Come on, the whole journey is more than 100 kilometers long! Most of us would die of head traumas if we kowtowed all the way up."
Li Yundong burst into laughter.
"Am I right, Meiduo?" Changbagela nudged the girl again.
"Yep! Yep!" Meiduo nodded with zest. "Changbagela is right. Besides, we could use some protection."
Li Yundong raised a brow. "Protection? From what?"
Meiduo stared at Li Yundong as though he'd grown three heads. "Wolves, of course!"
Meiduo nodded again. "Mm-hmm! This mountain is filled with them!"
Li Yundong tried his best not to gape.
Wolves. He'd been running around in a mountain full of wolves, and he hadn't a single f*cking clue.
Li Yundong cleared his throat. "Umm… That's… that's good to know."
"Like I said, you can protect us from wolves," Meiduo said. "And in return, we can be your guide towards the summit. It is very easy to get lost as you go further along this path."
Li Yundong studied the pair for a moment. Should he accept the offer? Or was this too big of a risk?
Argh. Screw it.
Li Yundong sighed. "Fine."