When the Second Corruption came and the Hellbourne swarmed over the Sang-La Mountains again, the villagers in the far valleys were prepared. The endless tomb fields were a constant reminder of what had happened the first time the daemons fell upon them, as were the stories passed from elder to newborn.
Every man, woman and child knew what to do. The fastest were messengers, sent to spread word of the invasion to the next village, and the next. They did their job well—those who were not intercepted by winged daemons or creatures using dark magic to travel in unnatural ways.
The strongest and fiercest were guardians. They knew to gather armor and weapons and stand at the edge of the village, waiting.
“You will be the only resistance between our homes and the Hellbourne,” the elders told these warriors. “The sole resistance. The daemons will spill down the mountains, a rancid gift from the men and beasts who dwell beyond the peaks, killing one another, themselves, the very world we all share. And when the Hellbourne arrive at the edge of our our village they will falter, for before them we will place the fodder.”
Fodder, those villagers neither fast nor fierce who would offer no advantage when the daemons attacked.
The elders said, “The monsters can’t help themselves. When they come upon our village and see the fodder kneeling in the dirt before them, they will be compelled to feed upon the helpless. Warriors, when that happens, that is when you strike.”
And so it was when the Hellbourne attacked young Lin’s village, her father gathered his tiny sleeping child in his arms and carried her toward the wall of guardians. He did not wake her, in the hope she would pass into the next life without seeing the horrors about to take place. Carrying her was also faster; Lin’s stunted legs would not allow her to keep up, and whenever she hurried out of excitement, she fell.
Lin’s pet panda Zhen Zhen bumbled along at his heels, craning his neck to make sure Lin was nearby and safe. The panda cub had emerged from the bamboo forest the day Lin was born, and after dozens of attempts to shoo him away the family grew exasperated and allowed the stubborn animal to stay by her side. It had not left since, and Lin’s father hoped it had the survival instinct to run once the Hellbourne arrived.
As he passed between the guardians he was careful to keep Lin’s tender skin from touching the sharp blades and cold armor. Her skin had alway been sensitive, breaking out in furry hives he and his wife would trim and conceal from the rest of the village, lest they think her a yaomo, a daemon.
He knelt next to Lin’s mother, the ground already shaking from the incoming hordes, which were hidden by the thick bamboo forest between the village and the eastern slopes of the Sang-La Mountains. To his left, his own mother and father bowed their heads and prayed for quick deaths.
Lin’s father held hands with his wife, forming a basket to support their child’s misshapen head. His family believed Lin’s legs would catch up eventually, that her head would become somewhat normal, if not attractive. Most villagers, the elders in particular, whispered the child would forever be a burden and may even be touched by evil.
Those elders were now hidden in the tunnels under the village, where they would remain until the threat was gone so they could ensure the traditions of their people would endure.
It is a shame, her father thought, that his beautiful daughter would not have the chance to prove them wrong.
The first Hellbourne burst through the fringe of bamboo. It was a hideous thing, larger than a wild boar with slaver spraying from its gaping maw, eyes widening at the rows of unarmed fodder kneeling in the mud. Lin’s father heard the guardians behind him checking their armor, tamping their spears against the ground and offering encouragement to each other. He’d known all of them since youth, though none spoke to him now.
The daemon seemed to be on a straight line toward him, and Lin’s father could no longer hold back the terror. Lin opened her eyes and smiled. He tried to smile back and could not, for his chin trembled too much. Zhen Zhen sensed the fear and began to growl, his hide and whiskers bristling. Lin reached to comfort her precious cub and saw the look on her father’s face, the tears on her mother’s cheeks.
Despite her father’s effort to keep her eyes on him, Lin turned her head and saw the Hellbourne thundering closer. Her father began to shush and comfort her, his voice shaking as he anticipated her first wail of fear. But Lin did not cry. His tiny daughter tensed and a low rumbling came from within her. After a few shocked moments, he realized she was growling along with Zhen Zhen.
She turned over in his arms and tried to break free of his grip. He held her tighter and gave a shout of surprise when claws dug into his flesh. Lin sprang free and ran toward the charging Hellbourne in her uneven gait, Zhen Zhen at her side. Her father called for her and lunged to his feet to give chase, yet his legs turned to stone beneath him as he watched black and white fur spring from Lin’s arms and back.
She grew taller with each step and her legs straightened, thick muscle and clawed feet driving her forward. Zhen Zhen also grew, his head and teeth and paws twice the size they had been moments earlier.
Lin’s grandmother and grandfather and the villagers around them stopped praying. The guardians were silent and still. They all watched Lin’s oddly-shaped head grow black, furry ears, and they gasped when she roared in the face of the Hellbourne and attacked. Zhen Zhen tore at the daemon with tooth and claw and the bear-like creature that had been Lin slashed at its steaming hide. Within seconds the daemon was a simmering carcass, its dark blood boiling into the mud.
Lin turned to her family and smiled, panting. She scratched Zhen Zhen between his ears with claws as big as her father’s finger.
“Send that monster away!” a voice called.
One of the elders had emerged from the tunnels and now pointed a knobby finger at Lin and Zhen Zhen.
“There are daemons among us! Drive them away!”
The guardians hesitated, then waded through the kneeling villagers and lowered their spears as they approached the strange girl and her bear. Zhen Zhen stepped forward and showed his enlarged teeth. Lin tugged his fur toward the bamboo forest, knowing he was no match for the dozens of spear points.
The forest shook as more Hellbourne approached, and the guardians exchanged worried looks. They hurried to either drive her into the bamboo or finish her and the bear quickly so they could return to their stations.
Lin peered between the spears and guardians and caught a glimpse of her father, still frozen and stunned by what his daughter had become. It was the last she saw of him before she pulled Zhen Zhen into the forest and ran, the bamboo shoots blurred by tears.
Lin stopped running when she heard the screams from the village. Her grandparents’ prayers had been answered; they died quickly, along with everyone else Lin had ever known.