Beyond the Sang-La Mountains 1: The Forest Prayer

Lin and Zhen Zhen did not return to the village. The bamboo forest was now their home, and for years they survived by hunting, living off the land, and hiding from the packs of daemons roaming the wilderness.

They hid from humans as well, the ragged strings of refugees fleeing into the Sang-La Mountains seeking the legendary warrior monks for protection. Lin and Zhen Zhen watched them file past from hiding places, anxious to make contact but fearful of what the humans would do; had word spread of the she-bear child and her overprotective pet? Did they think her one of the Hellbourne?

Was she?

Zhen Zhen would whine softly, knowing Lin felt great sadness that she could not walk among the humans. Yet there were times when Lin felt normal. She examined her body and found no black or white fur, and when she drank from puddles and streams a young woman rippled in her reflection.

But when it was time to hunt, or the rancid stench of a daemon tainted the wind, Lin blossomed with great strength and courage, her fears and timidity forgotten. Only when the hunt was complete or the threat gone would she notice the fur and claws had returned, and with that realization came shame and embarrassment. Zhen Zhen would nuzzle Lin’s face to wipe the tears, but still they fell.

One evening Lin caught the scent of a human in her bamboo forest. Zhen Zhen’s nose twitched as well, and as they prepared to move further into the dense foliage Lin paused, for there was something beneath the human smell, something within. She and Zhen Zhen crept toward the source, which turned out to be a lone man sitting next to a small fire beneath a canopy of bamboo fronds. He was dressed in robes, his long dark hair tied back with a leather strap. A bamboo staff lay on the ground next to him.

When he began to speak, Lin and Zhen Zhen almost fled. But he was only praying aloud, as her parents and grandparents had before…before everything ended.

The man lifted his face to the sky and said, “Hail the flower in the forest. Thank you to the sun for rising today, and showing me the path that brings me closer to the Shào Temple, my home. Thank you to the Shào Temple for guiding me along the path of life, when all I knew was loneliness and fear. And thank you for the gift of the Xingyi, for which I was first angry, and now strive to be worthy.”

The man untied his hair then, and shook loose the dark strands that unfurled into thick, dark feathers like those Lin had seen on the eagles soaring above the Sang-La Mountains. She covered her mouth to keep the gasp from reaching his ears, yet he shifted slightly toward her hiding place, a smile touching his lips.

He turned back to the fire and said, “Hail, the flower in the forest.”

Lin and Zhen Zhen crawled away from the campsite. When they were far enough away, Lin scratched her bear’s ears with excitement.

“We are going to find the Shào Temple, Zhen Zhen. We are going to find the truth about what we are.”

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