Lin and Zhen Zhen tracked the feathered man to the edge of the bamboo forest, where they faced the Sang-La Mountains, the peaks disappearing into mist. The man was far above Lin and Zhen Zhen, climbing higher along narrow paths cutting back and forth across the rocky slopes. He seemed in a hurry and did not look back.
Lin took a deep breath. The forest had been their home, their sanctuary, and she put a hand on Zhen Zhen’s back to steady herself as they stepped from its refuge onto the loose rocks at the base of the mountains. As they climbed Lin feared they were making a terrible mistake. The stone was cold and hard against her hands and feet, a drastic change from the soft blanket of bamboo fronds and moss within her forest.
The higher they went, the worse it became. The wind turned icy and seemed intent on plucking them off the face of the mountain. When they slept, Zhen Zhen curled around Lin to keep her warm. On the sixth day—or the seventh, they had lost count—a storm rolled upon them with a suddenness and ferocity Lin had never witnessed, a whipping of cold white flakes that stung and melted to form a hard, slippery substance. She and Zhen Zhen had to use their claws to keep from tumbling to their deaths. They sought shelter in a small crevice, and Lin was certain when they emerged the man with the feathers would be long gone.
But he was not. The storm broke and weak sunlight filtered through the clouds, and when Lin gazed toward the peaks she saw a speck disappear into the mist. She and Zhen Zhen hurried to gain ground; they knew another storm like the previous would be their end.
After two more days of climbing they struggled over a jagged ledge and found themselves surrounded by the mist they’d been reaching for. The ground felt level and smooth. No scents were carried in the vapor, and no tracks of the feathered man could be found. Lin and Zhen Zhen crept forward, testing each step, fearing the next would find nothing but air.
A small orange glow appeared ahead, at first the size of the tiny fireflies Lin had watched Zhen Zhen try to catch as a cub. As she and her bear moved forward the light grew and became a flickering torch, one of dozens arranged in a gentle arc. Lin and Zhen Zhen stepped between two of the torches and the mist vanished. It churned behind them, held back by some invisible force that rose from the torches all the way to the sky, blue and cloudless. The sun shone upon them and the two beings standing, waiting, at the bottom of a stone stairway that led to a massive temple built into the mountain.
The feathered man was there. He stood with his bamboo staff, smiling at Lin and Zhen Zhen. The other was a huge panda bear on two legs. He wore sandals and loose pants, a tunic and belt with a headband circling his forehead. He also held a staff, much larger than the feathered man’s.
“I told you she’d find it,” the feathered man said.
“Finding is one thing,” the large panda monk replied. “Staying is another.”
He approached Lin and allowed Zhen Zhen to sniff his paw. When Zhen Zhen approved, the monk scratched his ears and said to Lin, “You have survived many years, many trials, on your own. Would you continue on that path, or choose to join those who stand together against the rising darkness?”
Lin found her voice. “You speak of the Hellbourne?”
“But what if I…what if I am one of them?”
The panda monk was taken aback. “You think yourself a daemon?”
“I have been accused of it. Banished for it.”
The panda monk set a massive paw on her shoulder. “Child, look around you. This is a sacred place, unknown and unavailable to the Hellbourne. If you were tainted, you would have walked off the cliff ten paces ago. You are not cursed, or daemon. You are blessed.”
Lin collapsed in relief, buried her face in Zhen Zhen’s fur and released the years of shame and guilt she had carried.
When she rose, the panda monk turned and showed her the staircase into the temple. “As I said, you two have done very well with your skills to this point. Now, are you prepared to fulfill your ultimate potential?”
“Yes,” Lin said. She and Zhen Zhen walked with him and the feathered man up the steps, and the Legion gained a fierce new ally.