Something was wrong. None of this felt right.
It was the scent. The scent was wrong.
"There, there…" A soft palm patted the back of his head. "Everything's going to be okay. You're safe now, Brother Li."
What…? Brother Li?
Li Yundong jerked backwards as though he was burned, causing the back of his head to smash into the wood of the wagon.
The woman in her arms wasn't Su Chan.
It was Meiduo.
Li Yundong scrambled to his feet and fought down the waves of disappointment coursing through him.
Meiduo was staring up at him with confused eyes. "Is… Is everything alright, Brother Li?"
"S- Sorry!" he mumbled lamely. Then, he pushed past Meiduo and ran off before he embarrassed himself further.
"Brother Li! Wait!"
Li Yundong ignored the voice and kept running. Most of the pilgrims were still asleep, so he guessed it was still pretty late… or early, depending on how you look at it. He ran and ran until he reached a small brook nearby. Crouching down beside the brook, he buried his face into his palms.
God damn it. He had got to get his shit together. How was he supposed to pass the Zhuji phase if his head was so messed up?
But that dream…
It was so vivid.
What was this? PTSD? Shit.
It hit him then that he hadn't really had the chance to properly deal with the trauma he'd experienced that night at Shengyuan Hotel. He was thrown into training immediately after the incident and didn't have time to make peace with the twins' deaths.
He reached down and dipped his hands into the brook, then splashed some water onto his face. The brook water felt cool and crisp against his cheeks. A few more splashes later, the fog in his mind began to clear as alertness seeped in.
God knows he needed a clear head after this. He had one more chance. Just one. He couldn't afford to f*ck things up now; there was just too much at stake.
Footfalls sounded behind him. He wiped his face and turned around abruptly.
Meiduo was walking up towards him timidly, and she appeared to be hiding something behind her back.
"B- Brother Li…"
Li Yundong sighed and rose to his feet. "Listen. I'm sorry about just now. That was inappropriate." He squared his shoulders and looked her in the eye. "It won't happen again."
Something flickered inside Meiduo's eyes. She shuffled a few steps closer and peered up at him from under her lashes. "W- Were you having a nightmare?"
"Yeah," Li Yundong answered, then sighed.
It was the most horrifying dream he'd ever had.
He shook his head to block out the mental images of Su Chan lying in a pool of blood.
"Um… Then are you okay?"
"I'm fine." He smiled. "Thanks for asking."
Li Yundong glanced around a few times, then looked up at the sky. "What time is it?"
"It's nearly dawn."
Dawn, huh? It seemed like he slept for quite a while after he dozed off on the wagon. He even skipped dinner. Great, now he sounded like his little princess chipmunk.
Li Yundong tore his gaze away from the sky. "Wait. Why are you up at this hour?" He paused in thought, then regarded Meiduo carefully. "Did you sleep at all?"
Meiduo shifted on the spot, seeming shy and sheepish all of a sudden. Then, she shook her head slowly.
Li Yundong frowned. "What? Why? Why didn't you sleep?" Li Yundong paused in thought again. "Was I too loud when I was… you know… having a nightmare?"
Meiduo's looked up sharply and shook her head earnestly. Seconds later, she pulled her hands out from behind a back to reveal a pair of cloth shoes.
"F- For you…" Meiduo held out the shoes timidly.
Li Yundong stared at the shoes for a few seconds, then it all clicked. The thread. The needles. The sewing equipment. It all made sense now.
Li Yundong's gaze snapped to Meiduo. "Y- You stayed up all night to make this?"
Meiduo nodded shyly.
Oh shit. Even someone like him, who was obtuse 90% of the time, could see what this gesture meant.
Meiduo might have developed feelings for him, feelings that he could never return.
Li Yundong must have been quiet for a long time because Meiduo suddenly launched into a nervous ramble. "U- Um… Why don't you try them on! Here! I'll help you put them on!"
The meaning behind Meiduo's words struck Li Yundong, jolting him out of his thoughts. Alarm coursed through him, filling his chest.
"Wait, no!" He raised his palms when he saw that Meiduo was about to bend down to help him put the shoes on. Meiduo stilled her movements and straightened herself. Confusion swirled inside her eyes.
Shit. Should he refuse to accept the shoes? But wouldn't that be too harsh? The girl had spent the whole night making it, for f*ck's sake. What the heck was he supposed to do here?
Once again, Li Yundong cursed his lack of dating experience.
Li Yundong cleared his throat. "U- Uh… I mean I can do it on my own."
Understanding flashed inside Meiduo's eyes. She beamed and handed him the shoes. Li Yundong smiled and took the shoes with both hands. "Thank you," he said, then crouched down to put them on.
God. This was awkward.
The softness enveloping his feet felt foreign to him. Wow. So this was what wearing shoes felt like. He had honestly forgotten after one whole month walking around barefoot.
Li Yundong looked up from the shoes and saw Meiduo staring down at him. Anticipation shone in her eyes.
"Do they fit?"
Li Yundong nodded and rose to his feet. He jumped on the spot a few times, then smiled at Meiduo. "Yep. I think they fit perfectly. And they feel comfortable too." Li Yundong held Meiduo's gaze. "Thank you. You don't really have to do that."
Meiduo grinned. "Oh. I wanted to! I mean… You saved Changbagela's life. It's… It's the least I can do…"
Li Yundong regarded Meiduo's expression. Was that all? Gratitude? God, he sure hoped so. Because friendship was only thing he could give this girl. His heart already belonged to someone else.
Regardless, he had to maintain his distance and keep things professional between them. Not that he hadn't been keeping things professional, but just… you know. Extra precautions were necessary, especially after knowing that Meiduo had stayed up the whole night to make him a pair of shoes…
Li Yundong cleared his throat.
"When will we set off again? What did Changbagela say?"
"After breakfast," Meiduo answered in a heartbeat.
An awkward silence spread between them. Meiduo looked like she wanted to say something else, but couldn't get the words out.
He had to say something. Preferably in the next few seconds.
"H-Hey, Meiduo. Can you read Sanskrit?" he blurted out the first thing that came to mind.
Meiduo brightened up instantly, much to his relief.
"Oh, yes I can!" Meiduo jumped slightly. "I'm pretty good at it actually!"
Li Yundong couldn't help but smiled at the girl's enthusiasm. "Well, then I need your help."
Li Yundong chuckled wryly. "You know that book Changbagela gave me?"
A look of recognition formed on Meiduo's face. "Oh. Was it written in Sanskrit?"
Li Yundong nodded. "Part of it, yeah." He shook his head. "Some parts were written in Tibetan I think."
"So you need me to translate it for you?"
Li Yundong nodded. "Yeah." He paused to look around their camp. Changbagela and the others were still fast asleep. "I mean we have time until breakfast, right?"
Meiduo nodded. "Mm-hmm!"
Li Yundong smiled. "Right! Shall we get started?"
"Oh my God!" Meiduo exclaimed, startling Li Yundong so much that he nearly dropped his water bottle.
"Something wrong?" He stowed the bottle into his backpack.
Meiduo was staring slack-jawed at the book. Seconds later, she looked up sharply.
"T- This is the Mahamudra Tantra!" she hissed. "I can't believe Changbagela gave you the original copy!"
Li Yundong frowned. "What, is that like a sacred text or something?"
Meiduo stared at him like he was nuts. "Are you kidding? This is the Kathok Monastery's treasure!"
"What!" Li Yundong hissed. "Then you must give it back to Changbagela. I can't accept something like this. It's too much!"
Meiduo seemed to balk at the idea. "But he already gave it to you."
Li Yundong shook his head. "Return it," he said firmly. "The text belongs to the temple. I have no right to take it."
Meiduo shook her head. "But it was a gift!"
Li Yundong thought for a moment. "Okay. How about you translate the whole thing for me, and I'll try to memorize its contents. That way, you can return the book to the temple after this since I won't be needing it anymore. Deal?"
Meiduo gave him a skeptical look. "Memorize the whole book?"
Li Yundong smirked. "I have a good memory." Oh, you have no idea, he added silently.
Meiduo sighed. "Fine. I'll translate it for you." She paused for a second. "You know what, I might as well just read the book to you."
Li Yundong smiled, then hopped onto the wagon and sat beside Meiduo.
"I'm all ears."
Apparently, the term mudra refers to a symbolic hand gesture or hand sign used in Buddhism. And, as Meiduo had kindly told him before she began translating the words from the text, the Mahamudra Tantra was all about mudras.
Li Yundong wasn't an expert in Sanskrit or anything, but even he could tell that maha meant great. After all, maharajah meant a great ruler.
The book was divided into three scrolls, the first of which was titled Ganga Mudra. In the Ganga Mudra, the author expounded on the three major classifications of mudras: the Truth mudras; the Emptiness mudras; and the Enlightenment mudras.
By the time Meiduo got to the end of the first scroll, Li Yundong realized, much to his dismay, that its content was pretty similar to that of the Canon of the Yellow Thearch. He was hoping for a book that contained some hidden secrets in Cultivation, not a bunch of articles whose contents he'd read and mastered from a book that he could literally buy from Xinhua Bookstore for all of fifty yuan.
In essence, both the Canon and the first scroll of the Mahamudra Tantra were about the fundamentals of Cultivation, only that they were told from two different perspectives. The Canon approached Cultivation from a medical perspective, whereas the Mahamudra Tantra expounded the basics of Cultivation through Buddhist principles and practices.
As it turned out, they were just two sides of the same coin.
The second scroll contained a vivid and interesting account on the origins of om mani padme hum, a six-syllable Sanskrit mantra that Buddhists chant as a form of prayer. Disappointment coursed through Li Yundong when Meiduo told him that she had reached the end of the second scroll. None of what he heard so far was beneficial to his training. All he got was a bunch of history lessons.
A sliver of light from the east betokened the coming of dawn. Some pilgrims were starting to rouse from their sleep.
"Is everything alright, Brother Li?"
Li Yundong smiled. "Nah. I'm fine. Just thinking about the contents." He nodded at the book.
"Shall I read the third scroll to you?"
Would there be a point?
"Sure," he said nonetheless.
Meiduo flipped to the next page, then suddenly looked up from the page. "Um… Brother Li, there's nothing else to read."
She showed him the book and flipped through the remaining pages from the third scroll. The pages were filled with diagrams of mudras (hand signs). Below each diagram was a bilingual—Sanskrit and Tibetan—caption. Perhaps the names of those hand signs?
One unique hand sign caught his eye. The diagram showed a right hand forming a fist with the fingers wrapped around the left index finger.
"What's this sign?" Li Yundong pointed at the diagram.
"Oh. That's one of Mahavairocana's hand sign. The Intelligent Fist."
"Yes," Meiduo said. "He's one of the five Primordial, or as we Buddhist call it, Dhyani Buddhas."
"Well, what does that mean?"
"Primordial Buddhas are celestial buddhas who are self-born. They've existed since the beginning of time."
Li Yundong still didn't quite get it, but he nodded anyway. He dropped his gaze back onto the page and pointed at another diagram. "What about this one?"
The diagram showed two hands pressed together with each pinky bent inwards until they touched the palms.
"Oh! That's one of Divyadundubhi Meghanirghosa's hand signs!"
Li Yundong looked up from the page and stared at Meiduo.
Meiduo smiled and did a—rather poor—imitation of the hand sign. "We call him the Buddha of the Heavenly Drums!"
Li Yundong smiled politely and returned his eyes to the page.
Moments later, he held out his palm for the book. "May I?"
Meiduo smiled and handed the Mahamudra Tantra to him.
Li Yundong flipped through the pages of the third scroll. Each page was filled with little diagrams of hand signs and captions. Could it be that the real secrets of the text lay within these hand signs?
Li Yundong flipped back to the first page of the third scroll, then placed the book down on the wagon.
After that he got into a meditative stance.
"What are you doing, Brother Li?"
Li Yundong glanced at Meiduo, who was looking at him strangely. He smiled. "Learning, of course!"
Then, he began to perform each of the hand signs successively.
When he got to the third page, he realized that he had a real knack for this; the hand signs came to him almost naturally. It was just like how he could copy and execute a martial arts technique only after watching it once.
Perhaps it had to do with the Renyuan Jindan.
But still, there was something mysterious about these signs. Like they held some kind of unknown power.
Then again, maybe he was just deluded. After all, he'd been performing over a hundred hand signs so far and nothing happened.
Near the end of the book, he spotted a short line written in Sanskrit.
"Meiduo…" Li Yundong turned the book around. "What does this say?"
Meiduo craned her neck forward and stared at the page. "Oh. That's a Buddhist mantra!"
Li Yundong frowned. "Which mantra?" He had a pretty good idea which mantra it was, but he just wanted to make sure.
"The om mani padme hum."
Hah! I knew it!
Li Yundong smiled and took the book from Meiduo. He might have just figured out how the hand signs worked. Perhaps the effect would only come when the signs were performed in tandem with the mantras.
Whispers and footsteps sounded around them as more pilgrims roused from their slumber. Li Yundong glanced at the page again. Now he just had to commit all the hand signs and the mantras to memory. Thanks to the Lianqi phase, he could do that easily.
Li Yundong glanced at Meiduo and patted the spot beside him. "Come here for a sec."
Meiduo climbed over and sat down beside him.
"Read out the mantras for me while I memorize the diagrams."
Meiduo stared at him in shock. "Y-You can do that? Memorize all of them?"
Li Yundong smirked. "I guess we'll see."