Changbagela's heart sank when Danba answered his request with a head shake.
"No! Absolutely not! The Mahamudra Tantra is such an important scripture to us Tibetan Buddhists! And you want to give the original copy to an outsider? Are you out of your mind?" Danba glared at him. "And you call this borrowing?! This is giving the book away for free!!"
Annoyance flared inside Changbagela. "Have you forgotten the promise you made to me last time, Danba?" He raised his brows. "You promised to give me a full copy of the Mahamudra Tantra." Then, he smirked. "Whom I give it to afterwards is my choice."
Danba shook his head again. "Absolutely not. The Mahamudra Tantra is the Kathok Monastery's treasure, Changbagela. You can't just give it away to an outsider!"
Changbagela laughed. "What do you take me for, eh, Danba? An idiot?"
Danba narrowed his eyes. "What's that supposed to mean?"
Changbagela rolled his eyes. "I'm not blind, pal. I know you've been printing out copies of the Mahamudra Tantra and then selling those copies to tourists as souvenirs. Souvenirs! How's that any different?"
Silence spread between them. Changbagela felt a twinge of satisfaction when he saw the redness coloring the tip of Danba's ears.
"Come on. Those doesn't count!"
Changbagela's brows rose to his hairline. "I don't see how they don't count."
"Because those are—" Danba stopped talking and glanced around a few times. Then, he lowered his voice to a whisper. "Those are incomplete copies with all of the scripture's secrets removed."
Changbagela sighed in frustration. "Have you been listening to what I said?" He shot Danba an exasperated look. "I'm telling you, man. This guy isn't normal! He's extraordinary! He isn't just some... some... outsider. If anything, he's better than every single one of us combined." Changbagela reached forward and grabbed Danba's shoulders. "He's the living reincarnation of Mahakala, the great Dharma Protector and Lord of Justice. I'm sure of it, my friend."
More silence ensued.
Changbagela shook Danba's shoulders. "Come on, pal. That scripture won't be wasted on him. Trust me."
A moment later, Danba sighed. "Fine. Wait here."
Changbagela couldn't help the grin that spread over his face. "That's right, buddy! I knew you'd see sense!"
Danba returned minutes later with a book as thick as a human thumb. "There."
Changbagela took the proffered book and flipped over a few pages. Anger rose inside him. "Our friendship ends today, Danba!" He tossed the book to the ground.
"What!" Danba grabbed Changbagela's arms. "What on earth are you—"
Changbagela glared at his friend. "That's one of those bogus copies you sell to tourists!" He jabbed a finger at the ground. "You think I'm an idiot?"
Changbagela turned away and marched towards the door. Seconds later, he was stilled by a hand on his shoulder.
"Alright, alright. Calm down my friend... Here it is."
Changbagela turned around and saw Danba pulling out a much thicker book.
This one was worn around the edges, and the front cover looked a bit yellowish. He reached out and snatched the book from Danba's hands, then flipped it open.
Joy surged through him. "Now that's more like it..." He snapped the book shut and placed it under his armpit.
Danba sighed. "Now can we go see this Mahakala reincarnation you keep telling me about?"
Danba followed Changbagela out of his personal living quarters. Admittedly, his desire to see this so-called Living Buddha had waned substantially. The fact that Kathok Monastery had practically been robbed of its only copy of Mahamudra Tantra had ruined Danba's mood for anything else. Why did he make that stupid promise to his friend in the first place? Maybe this is all Buddha's will, a small voice inside Danba's head added. Danba trudged along behind Changbagela as Changbagela led him through a series of hallways and turns. Danba had to admit that something about Changbagela seemed different. It was like his friend's vitality was renewed.
For as long as Danba remembered, Changbagela's body had always been frail and weak. Now, he was walking around with a spring in his steps. And he was fast, so much so that Danba had to jog to even keep up with him.
"Hey, Changbagela! Wait up!" Danba yelled.
"Tsk! Come on, my friend. Keep up!" Changbagela yelled back.
Danba raised his gaze and saw that Changbagela was a good ten meters ahead of him. Geez, when did Changbagela become so spry? Perhaps Changbagela's savior really did something to him?
By the time Changbagela and Danba arrived at the monastery's courtyard, Danba was already out of breath.
"Behold... My savior!" Changbagela announced.
A young man with shoulder-length hair stood beside Meiduo. The first thing that struck Danba about the young man was his eyes. Those eyes were razor-sharp, like they could cut through a person's soul. The power and spirit behind those eyes were incredible. Danba didn't think he had seen such potent eyes before, not even among the holy mountain's guardian sentinels. Who on earth is this guy—
Danba's blood ran cold.
Changbagela was gravely mistaken. This man wasn't a Buddhist at all. He was a Cultivator! And most probably one that was looking to steal Buddhist secrets!
Panic coursed through Danba's veins. This was bad. He was about to lose one of the most treasured Buddhist text to a Cultivator! What a disgrace!
"Is everything settled, Changbagela?" Meiduo said, then paused.
Suddenly, Meiduo's eyes were on Danba. "Oh!" The girl bowed to him. "Greetings, Head Danba!"
Danba forced out a smile. "Greetings, Meiduo." He cast a glance towards the young man beside her. "Is he the one who brought Changbagela back to life?"
Changbagela beamed at him. "Indeed, my friend! Indeed!" Changbagela clapped his hands together. "Come! Let me introduce you."
With that, Changbagela stepped forward and pulled the young man's arm. "Li Yundong, this is a very good friend of mine. The Head of Kathok Monastery, Bhante Danba."
The young man gave him a nod. Even though the nod had been polite, Danba could detect a hint of wariness and vigilance in those sharp eyes.
"Danba," Changbagela continued, utterly oblivious to Danba's internal turmoil, "this is the man who saved my life, Li Yundong!"
So it's Zhenren Li, huh? Danba forced out a tight smile and pressed his palms together to perform an Anjali Mudra.
"Namaste," Danba said.
Zhenren Li smiled and bowed slightly at him.
"Now. Let's get right down to business," Changbagela said. Danba tried his best not to wince when Changbagela pulled out the monastery's only original copy of Mahamudra Tantra and then presented it to Zhenren Li.
"Please accept this book as a token of my gratitude, kind sir," Changbagela said.
Zhenren Li stared at the Mahamudra Tantra in Changbagela's hands, though he didn't reach out to take it.
Hope surged through Danba when he saw the hesitant look on Zhenren Li's face.
That's it... That's it... Reject it... Reject it... A Cultivator like you don't need a Buddhist text at all—
"Come on, Brother Li! Just accept the gift!" Meiduo prompted. "You saved Changbagela's life, you know? Changbagela would feel miserable if you refuse to accept this small gift."
Danba nearly fell flat on his butt.
S- Small gift?!
That child had no idea what she was talking about! This was the Mahamudra Tantra, for Buddha's sake!
Zhenren Li took the book hesitantly, then crouched down to put it into his backpack. Danba resisted the urge to snatch the backpack from him.
Not now... Not yet... This isn't the way...
Changbagela clapped his hands together. "Alright then! Bhante Danba has given you permission to stay the night at the monastery. We should all get some rest, don't you think?"
Zhenren Li stood up and gave Danba a nod. "Thank you, sir. That's very kind of you."
Danba pressed his palms together and smiled. Keeping Zhenren Li in the monastery might be a good thing. That way, he could find a way to get the scripture back.
It wouldn't be that hard.
He just needed a bit of extra assistance.
When Danba returned to his quarters, he saw Mima and Puqiong waiting outside his door. The two lamas had just finished their nightly patrol and were now waiting to be debriefed.
"Get me Dorjee Tenzin!" Danba snapped, storming past the two lamas into his living quarters.
After a while, a buff-looking man dressed in a red and orange kasaya strode into his living quarters and bowed to him. "Greetings, Bhante Danba. You wished to see me?"
"Rise," Danba commanded.
Dorjee Tenzin straightened himself and proved why he was Kathok Monastery's guardian sentinel—the man was at least two heads taller than Danba.
"I have a mission for you," Danba began. "The Mahamudra Tantra had fallen into the hands of a Cultivator."
Danba paused to look at Dorjee Tenzin, whose face was as stoic as ever.
"This is a threat to our school and therefore cannot be allowed." He gave Dorjee Tenzin a pointed look. "I want you to retrieve the book."
Dorjee Tenzin's head snapped up. "Are you asking me to commit murder, Bhante Danba?"
Danba shook his head. "No. Of course not. We are Buddhists. We cannot take a man's life. I just want you to retrieve the book. You can talk to him, buy it from him, or even steal it from him. Just don't harm the guy."
Dorjee Tenzin nodded. "Understood."
Dorjee Tenzin turned and headed to the door.
"Wait," Danba said.
Dorjee Tenzin paused at the door and turned back around.
"Make sure to act only when Changbagela and the others aren't around. Changbagela can never know about this, do you hear me?"
Dorjee Tenzin nodded.
"And do not underestimate your opponent," Danba warned. "You might be one of the Eighteen Guardian Sentinels of the holy mountain, but we still have no idea what that man is capable of. And if he can bring Changbagela back to life, it's safe to assume that he's a force to be reckon with." Danba held up a finger. "But of course, the best case scenario is if you can get him to hand over the book willingly."
Dorjee Tenzin frowned. "And if he refuses?"
Danba sighed. "Then you'll have to take it by force."
Dorjee Tenzin nodded.
"But do not kill him, you understand?" Danba said.
The next morning, when Danba woke up and headed to the temple's courtyard to perform his morning ablutions, he saw a large group of lamas gathered around a rock near the faucets.
"Hey, hey!" Danba yelled. "What's this about?"
One of the lamas approached him and bowed. "I think you should come take a look at this, Head Danba." Then, the lama turned back to the crowd and yelled, "The Head is here! Make way! Make way!"
The crowd parted to two side to reveal the tall rock.
Danba felt his knees go weak.
"W- W- Who d- did this!" Danba stammered, staring at the deep—several inches—imprint of a fist buried inside the rock's surface.
"It was fine yesterday evening!" one of the lamas piped in.
"Head Danba," Mima said. "Meiduo, Changbagela, and the Han Chinese were the only ones here last night when I ran into them during my patrol."
"T- The Han Chinese?" Danba stammered.
Zhenren Li. This had to be Zhenren Li's doing!
"Wait! Guys!" one of the lamas yelled. "Meiduo mentioned something last night!"
"Yeah! Tell us, tell us!"
"Ahem. Well, a few of us ran into Meiduo last night. And she told us stories about the Han Chinese. More specifically, she told us the amazing feats he's capable of. Well, Meiduo claimed that the guy could punch a rock from ten meters away. I think she might be referring to this!" The lama pointed at the rock.
The crowd went into an uproar.
"Ten meters away?!!"
"Not even Dorjee Tenzin is capable of that!"
"Guys... Guys... I think we should calm down a bit. Meiduo is a kid. Maybe she exaggerated her claims?"
"Well... She sounded pretty serious when she was talking about it last night."
"Oh, yeah, she was. When I told her I didn't believe her story, she got really mad and stormed off."
"So that's why she looked so mad—"
"Silence!!!" Danba shouted.
Danba took a deep breath. "W- Where's Dorjee Tenzin? Bring him here!"
The lamas looked at each other. "Um... Head Danba... Dorjee Tenzin left the monastery at dawn... He went after Changbagela and the pilgrims..."
Danba's knees buckled right then and he fell flat on his butt. The lamas went into an uproar again.
"What's wrong Head Danba!"
"Are you alright?"
Mima crouched down beside him. "What's the matter Head Danba?"
Danba shook his head. "I might have just sent our guardian sentinel to his death..."