In the morning they left the entourage behind, taking only one pack horse to carry Yang's many necessities and a mule for the monk to ride. There was much moaning and crying among the servants, which Yang knew was all an act, but which he humored for his own pleasure. He and the monk continued alone.
They needed no protection, the monk had assured him, because like the fabled Hsuan Tsang, who had journeyed to India for the scriptures, they were under the divine protection of the Buddha. And the monk would draw on his own powers if the need arose.
The monk was taciturn, but Yang today was excited by the prospect of learning Buddhist magic, and when he learned that the monk had been to Tibet, he asked question after question. "Which is the easiest to learn?" he asked. "I have heard that in Tibet one of the first spells is the spell of psychic heat that allows a man to sleep in a cave with no blanket, even in the middle of a blizzard. Is it true that they can dry a dozen sheets soaked in icy water in winter just by the power of their thoughts?"
"It is true," said the monk.
"Is it true that they have a way of running that takes them a hundred li in a matter of minutes? And leaving no footprints even upon muddy ground? And that they may simply project a ghost double of themselves to send a message to a faraway town?"
"It is true."
"Which will I learn first? What would you recommend?"
"I could not tell you, young Master. I am only to be your tutor for the sutras."
"But surely, you can teach me a little magic. Isn't that part of a monk's training? Can you push your palm against solid stone and leave the print of your hand? I have heard that great monks can do that. Have you learned how?"
"No, I have not."
"Have you seen it?"
"I have not. But I have heard of such feats."
"And what about levitation? Have you seen levitation?"
"I have not."
"Then you must be a lowly monk and your temple must be unremarkable," said Yang. "Tell me, monk, are you an arhat? Are you enlightened?"
"I am not," said the monk. "It is what I aspire to. And yet were I to reach the gates of Nirvana, I would come back to this world to help others reach it before me. That is the vow of our order."
"How foolish," said Yang. "What a foolish vow. That would be like a starving man finally reaching the banquet table and then allowing everyone else to eat first. Utter foolishness."
"We strive to achieve enlightenment — to end the cycle of birth and rebirth in a world of suffering. Not merely for ourselves, but for all beings in the world."
"I see that as a great waste of one's life, monk. First, the world is not all suffering. My life is full of enjoyment. Do you enjoy yourself?"
"The cause of enjoyment is also the cause of suffering. And the self is an illusion."
Yang laughed. "The self is an illusion?" He pinched himself and let out a mock cry of pain. "Enjoyment and suffering of the same cause? You Buddhists are an interesting lot."
"In time you will understand."
"I'm sure I will," said Yang. He laughed again.
They had arrived at an ancient gravesite — a dolmen made of two giant stones supporting a cracked slab like a table above them. Around the dolmen was a ring of smaller stones partially buried in the earth. Yang could make out the ashes and stones of an old fire pit and the debris of many camps.
"What is this place?" he asked.
The monk touched his prayer beads and made a gesture whose meaning Yang did not know. "It is a bad place," he said. "There are demons here who prey on passers by. Let us move on without disturbing them."
"I'm tired," said Yang. "And I see that many people have stopped here. It is clearly not dangerous. Don't you Buddhists consider the old religions mere superstition?"
"Let us go a little father until we leave these woods," said the monk. "Then we may rest where it is safe."
Yang wheeled his horse impatiently. "Fine. And how much farther?"
Before the monk could answer, there came a loud shout from the hillside, then the thunder of hoofbeats. Yang turned and saw a dozen horses galloping toward them — small horses of the barbarian breed. "Bandits!" he cried.
"Do not run!" called the monk. "They want only your money, but if you try to escape they will hunt you down for sport!"
Yang considered the monk's words. He looked at the old man in his coarse gray robe and then at his own embroidered silks, the old man's wooden beads and his own gold and silver. He saw the bandits riding down the hillside on their fast ponies, their unruly clothes, their shaggy beards and pockmarked faces. Their leader wore a fur hat of the horse clans and sported a red scar that split his face diagonally from brow to chin. Yang could almost smell the stench of his filthy furs. He looked at the monk to catch his eye, and then, with a flick of his whip, Yang wheeled his mount and galloped off down the trail, knowing the barbarian ponies could never catch his racehorse. He rode mercilessly, better than he imagined he could, his fear giving him strength and speed. He whipped his horse until his arm hung limp from exhaustion and he rode on still, spurring and spurring until the horse collapsed beneath him and he tumbled to the ground.
He did not know where he was or how long he had been riding. There was an eerie silence around him — except for the wet, rasping gasps of the horse. Its mouth was spewing bloody spittle and it stared at him with its frightened, terribly wide eyes, trying vainly to raise itself from the ground.
Yang dusted off his clothes. He was not injured. But the horse had broken one of its front legs and the bone protruded like a large sliver of birch wood. It sickened him. He knew that the proper thing to do was to kill the horse, but he could not bear it — not the gruesomeness, not the inconvenience. That was for a servant — or a butcher. And the wolves will be here to finish him off, he thought. They will smell the blood and come here. Let them be distracted by the horse. The thought of wolves frightened Yang. Quickly, he took the saddle blanket and his saddle pack, and he made his way into the darkening woods. Behind him he could hear the plaintive sounds of the horse — pathetic, disgusting. A little later, as clouds blackened the horizon, he heard the first wolf's howl.