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 feeble and frail, like the voice of an old man .
"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 .
Well . Shit .
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 . "