Author's Note: After a long and tortuous hiatus, Chapter 19 is here at last! First update since 2014 (gulp)... I apologize for the very lengthy delay. I picked up yet another project (The Separation! Roronoa Zoro in the Land of Mists) but I sadly left this Shado-Pan story gathering dust for some time.
In any case...here's Chapter 19.
To esteemed Taran Zhu
Action Report – Day Twelve
Our pursuit of the Sha of Anger continues. We are now twelve days into our hunt, but we are drawing upon our foe at last.
The Sha of Anger destroyed a small village of mountain hozen. Happened upon their bodies at first light yesterday morning. The corpses seethed with Sha essences. Omnia were able to purify several bodies, which were then laid to rest. Village in complete ruins. Suspect Sha turned them against one another.
Our chase indicates the Sha has drawn dangerously close to Binan Village. Hope to intercept by evening at best…morning at worst. Sent word to fortify Binan, but couldn't split force. Too close now.
One of my scouts fell in a pothole and suffered a badly sprained ankle. Healing now, but likely unable to fight for when we do catch up. Some things cannot be changed, though.
Whether this fight against the Sha of Anger claims my life or not, I would like you to know that it has been my honor to serve you, Taran Zhu, and I have no regrets. If my life should be claimed, inform my older brother of my passing…and that I wish him only the best.
Your faithful servant,
MORNING OF THE TWENTY-FIRST DAY
The birdsong of Krasarang's mighty trees was what woke Yalia Sagewhisper. The small squad of Shado-Pan had managed a blistering pace since their departure the afternoon before, crossing the Valley of Four Wins and only stopping to leave behind their tigers once pure darkness had settled and the stars shown up to dance over the Valley. Yalia thought of her riding tiger and sighed resignedly. The Shado-Pan had been forced to leave the tigers under the watch of one of their sentinels in the Valley before making the crossing. The untrustworthy terrain of Krasarang was horribly unsuitable for the heavy treads of their tigers, and if they got stuck in the morass of the swamp, well… Yalia shuddered at that less than encouraging thought.
For now…it was time to wake up. This day looked to be a hot one, which was entirely normal for Krasarang. Already steam was beginning to rise as what little dew there was began to evaporate. She looked about the small camp to see Taoshi and Tenwu sitting down not too far away, both munching away at a small breakfast of sorts.
Taoshi smiled pleasantly as Yalia stood from her small sleeping roll. "Master Sagewhisper. Did you sleep well?"
Yalia nodded and joined the two Wu Kao. "It was a pleasant night…but it did get a tad too hot for my taste."
Taoshi merely nodded in acknowledgment, taking another bite. "Would you care for a spring roll, Master?"
Yalia smiled very slightly. "Of course." Tenwu offered a small plate with an excellent-looking spring roll to her, and Yalia inclined her head. "Thank you, Tenwu."
"It was short notice for the cook." Tenwu muttered between mouthfuls. "But it's quite good…even a day later."
"Food has to last." Yalia murmured in agreement. "Or else it is not worth savoring." The venerable master of the Omnia discipline looked about. "Where are Jansho and Li-Hua?" Either her eyes had deceived her, or they had been reduced to three. Tenwu pointed up, and Yalia at once rolled her eyes. "If this is some sort of a jest, Tenwu…"
Tenwu pointed upwards insistently. Yalia at last followed the pointing finger up into the tree. She saw the dangling legs of Li-Hua Zhuo, who waved back down. "Master Sagewhisper."
"Li-Hua." Yalia greeted. "And Jansho?"
Jansho seemed to appear as though out of nowhere on the edge of the camp, within Yalia's field of vision but clearly having used stealth. I wonder why? Yalia thought. "I am here, Master Sagewhisper." Jansho stated.
"I see." Yalia drew in a long breath. "You scouted the situation?"
"As best I could in fifteen minutes." Jansho gestured to Tenwu. "With some help from Tenwu, of course." Li-Hua suddenly dropped to the ground from the tree limb that she'd chosen as a vantage point, and sat down next to Yalia.
"I must have slept a long while, then." Yalia muttered to herself. Tenwu handed her another plate with a spring roll; she gave this to Li-Hua, who promptly devoured it. "Have you an idea as to the outlying area?"
Jansho nodded. "We're south of the river but not by much. I heard some shouting and voices to the southeast, as well as what looked like a barrier of sorts." The hefty Pandaren male sighed and walked over to the camp, joining the other three who were seated. "I didn't see any tracks of mogu, though, and they're the only ones who had things like that lying about."
Yalia met Jansho's eyes and let loose a quick breath. "Troublesome. Any sightings of the outsiders?"
Jansho gestured in the negative. "No, but chances are they came to Krasarang from the northeast."
Tenwu's eyebrows furrowed. "Jansho, what makes you say that?"
Jansho seemed to gather his thoughts. "The outsiders were in the Jade Forest, and the most expedient route is not the way that we took. You should remember that we came from Kun-Lai across the Valley of the Four Winds, Tenwu."
Yalia did not disagree with that assessment. "An excellent analysis, Jansho." She stated. "As for the matter of barriers…" Yalia paused and looked about.
Li-Hua spoke now. "I'm not certain as to what's going on here, but from what I remember, the mogu left behind a number of traps in their ruined fortresses and the like. If anyone tripped them, well…" Her dark brow furrowed with thought. "They'd be stuck either outside or inside the barrier. And then the mogu will likely come about to investigate it."
Yalia's hands tensed into fists at that idea. If someone who wasn't prepared for the mogu got snared by one of the barrier traps, it would take a substantial amount of effort to free them. She had magical techniques that most mogu couldn't imagine…but Yalia was just one Pandaren, powerful though she might be. Fortunately, the Shado-Pan who had followed her lead since they had left Kun-Lai were formidable. Li-Hua was a formidable stormbringer, one of Gu's finest, and Yalia knew quite well that Taoshi, Tenwu, and Jansho hadn't gotten here by being fools…quite the contrary. Nurong would have been proud of their chemistry, were he here to witness it.
But he is not. Focus on what is. Yalia remonstrated herself. "Stay sharp, and keep your guard up at all times." Yalia advised. "The swamps are dangerous enough without the traps the mogu concealed in them." The others agreed with a series of nods. "For now…we'll break camp, and head to wherever that barrier was. Jansho, you'll take point. Li-Hua, with me; Tenwu, Taoshi…" She looked to the younger assassins. "Stay under stealth and watch our backs."
It was but the work of a few minutes for the five Shado-Pan to clear away their makeshift campsite. When they had finished, there was no indication that they had ever been there.
Yalia felt a hand go towards her weapon when Jansho held up a hand for them to halt. Taoshi and Tenwu were still right behind her and Li-Hua…but there was something that gave her great unease. After a few more steps down this long winding path and nothing bad happening at that point, Yalia reflected that it was almost certainly the trees. They seemed twisted; a malignance at work here that she could not put her finger on…but yet Yalia knew it was still there. Just because you can't see something doesn't make it any less deadly. Our assassins are proof of that.
Yalia Sagewhisper relaxed and let loose a long, quiet breath. Driving a clawtip into the palm of her left hand, she felt her pulse, her chi, and got her bearings. These trees were twisted by age and wreathed by thick vines, some of which reached for the sun and extended small buds. Flowers sprang from those that had managed a good hold about their supporting trees. But there was ugliness as well. High above, hornet nests carried hundreds of the scavengers who buzzed about the forest, looking for prey items. The tiny reddish-purple ants that occasionally meandered over the path had a nasty bite that Li-Hua and Jansho had warned would cause incredible soreness and itching. Therefore Yalia had made certain to keep her feet well clear of them.
This was Pandaria, yes, but it was a side of Pandaria that Yalia Sagewhisper had not seen before. Kun-Lai's fishing villages and years of salt spray, storm, and seasickness had been her childhood…not trudging through the narrow paths of the swamps of Krasarang, which was always, always too hot for her comfort.
Yet Pandaren endured here, as they did elsewhere. Li-Hua still wore her robes, though the stormbringer had shed her long gloves that went almost all the way back to her elbows, choosing instead a much less restrictive (and much less clingy) glove that ended at her wrist. Li-Hua exchanged a glance with Yalia, the untrustworthy sunlight of the deep jungle playing across her dark features. A single streak of black covered both of Li-Hua's eyes and the bridge of her nose, and the rest of her fur was rather dark. How can Li-Hua stand this place? Yalia wondered. I suppose she must be more adaptable than I am… Or more used to it.
Jansho sniffed and whispered back to her, "Movement. A hundred feet ahead, maybe more."
Yalia listened for it…and heard voices. "I told you we went the wrong way, Cloudwalker!" A strange voice snapped from between the towering trees ahead. "You said, 'follow Kang Bramblestaff's trail', and we followed that trail! And now look at us! We're lost." The disgusted note did not carry any Pandaren accent that Yalia knew of.
"How was I supposed to know that he was just as lost as we were, Malcolm?" This voice was very clearly Pandaren, and very likely this 'Cloudwalker' that the first had spoken of.
Ahead of her and some ten steps down the path, Jansho Ghsotpaw held up his hand in a tight fist for them to stop. The thickly-built Wu Kao rogue turned back and smiled. "I know these two."
"Outsiders?" Yalia asked in a low voice that would not carry too far.
Jansho nodded at once. "Lord Zhu and I met them in the Jade Forest. Perhaps they might have some answers as to what is going on in this place."
The assassin's shoulders were still ready, bristling… Perhaps he sensed the darkness about them. It was still morning, though the weather bore the promise of later rain not too far off. The atmosphere grew muggier still as they proceeded.
The path wound about two gigantic trees, both crowned with small buds. Then Yalia saw the outsiders for the first time. The first was likely the 'human' from Jansho's reports and from Taran's analysis. The human had skin the color of freshly poured kafa, and curly black hair trailed down to their neck. Their robes would have been blue ordinarily, but they appeared to carry no small amount of mud near the legs; a result of trekking through swampy terrain, no doubt. The human turned, dark brown eyes flickering with recognition; very likely, remembering Jansho.
The Pandaren who accompanied the human was a fairly stocky male, about the same height and weight as Jansho but with a bushy reddish-brown beard framing his face. Simple reddish-orange eyespots framed steel-gray eyes, and there was a bearing of both irritability and resignation in those eyes. But thatlook soon faded and a smile wreathed the Pandaren as he, too, recognized Jansho. "Jansho Ghostpaw!" Yalia recognized the accent as that of a denizen the Wandering Isle, not that of a Krasarang native. "Perhaps you and your friends can, eh…help us." At that, the Pandaren sighed and shot a glance at his human companion.
"Lost, are we?" Jansho smiled. "Color me surprised."
"Remember, we're the strangers in a strange land." The human's voice was actually quite pleasant to listen to. "Are these your fellow Shado-Pan, Jansho?" The human's voice was quite respectful, at least, in Yalia's estimation…
Jansho nodded, then looked to Yalia and froze momentarily…pondering what he had to say. "They are, but much like when we met in the Jade Forest, I'm not in charge. I'm just along for the ride." He smiled abashedly and gestured to Yalia. "Master Sagewhisper, these fine fellows are Malcolm Burnside and Kuang Cloudwalker. I witnessed both of them in action firsthand in the Jade Forest. Both of them are with the Alliance."
Yalia nodded very slightly. Obviously 'Malcolm' was the human, whereas Kuang was the Pandaren. "I see." Her eyebrows furrowed…something about Malcolm reminded her greatly of Snow Blossoms, and when Yalia pondered it a moment, she realized that their mannerisms and posture was quite similar...even though the two had likely never met. "Malcolm, are you a frost mage?" She asked Malcolm directly.
Malcolm at once tucked a hand to his slim stomach and bowed. "I am, Master Sagewhisper." Again, Malcolm's voice was respectful. A good sign, to be certain.
A very slight tap on Yalia's shoulder indicated that either Taoshi or Tenwu wanted to gain her attention. "Yes?" Yalia murmured, then smiled apologetically. "Sorry. I'm afraid there are more of us than you see."
Kuang's beard bobbed up and down. "Having seen Jansho and Taran Zhu in action…that, I can believe." Kuang relaxed slightly in his posture, and Yalia reciprocated…
But then the invisible Tenwu spoke quickly and in a low tone into Yalia's ear, which caused her to stiffen slightly, even with her many years of training. She made a note to talk to Tenwu about this later. "We crossed some outsider tracks about a hundred meters back. Only realized it now. Want me to check it out?"
Yalia shook her head. "No. But you can show yourself if you feel like it."
At that, Tenwu sighed and reappeared at her right side. "Thanks. That was getting a little exhausting."
"What have we here?" Kuang murmured aloud. "I didn't realize you could all do that…" The Pandaren from the Wandering Isle inclined his head in respect. "I do not mean to offend, Yalia Sagewhisper."
Yalia waved a hand to indicate that no harm had been done. "If we're going to be entirely honest here…" She snapped her fingers. "Taoshi?"
The third Wu Kao rogue appeared at Yalia's left side. "I am here, Master Sagewhisper. And I am ready." Taoshi regarded both of the outsiders from the Alliance with some uncertainty.
Yalia now inclined her head. "Now that you can see us…are there any others from your 'Alliance' here?" The Omnia master relaxed both arms. If these two intended to deceive the Shado-Pan, well…she could summon a powerful blast of chi in a split-second.
At that, Malcolm responded in the negative. "Not that I know of. And unless Kuang knows something that I don't…" Yalia's caution was not necessary…at least, not at this moment.
Kuang responded lightly, "There's no end to the things I know that he doesn't…"
Malcolm rolled his eyes. "We're the only people from the Alliance in this area. Unless someone's been trailing us. And if they have, I really do pity them."
Yalia quashed the grin that threatened to come across her face. "If you don't mind me asking, what are you doing here?" Li-Hua remained stonily silent the entire time…almost as quiet as the rogues.
Kuang Cloudwalker poked at Malcolm with one hand in a jesting fashion, but the human mage twisted away. "Let's see here…we met up with Chen Stormstout the day before yesterday, then met some friends from Tian, and then we followed one of them here." The burly Pandaren shrugged. "They were looking for someone called 'the Hidden Master'. Said something about learning some special techniques that Tian couldn't teach them."
Taoshi spoke now. "And what do you think of that?"
Kuang laughed aloud. "Kang must be looking in the wrong place. I've seen nothing but ants, insect tracks, and tree limbs."
Jansho cut in at that moment. "The first time we heard your voices, you said something about looking for 'Kang Bramblestaff's trail'. I'm guessing they're supposed to be your guide?"
Malcolm nodded in agreement. "Correct, but we probably followed the wrong trail at some point in the last half-mile." The human sighed resignedly, "Then again, Kang took off like a rocket…"
"I'm not the most fleet-footed monk out there, Malcolm." Kuang muttered. "You knew that when you decided to go with me."
Yalia cut in. "So you're looking for Kang Bramblestaff, yes? And then you'll be on your way?"
"We're looking for someone else."
Yalia held a hand to her forehead as both of them spoke at once. "Who are you looking for?" Her tone was so direct that both Kuang and Malcolm stiffened at once.
"Anduin Wrynn of the Alliance might have come this way." Malcolm stated after a moment, answering her question.
Kuang nodded. "Anduin probably did, yes." The burly Pandaren held a hand to his head and pondered for a moment. After a moment, he nodded, removed that hand, and then explained, "This was…a while back. Anduin and I met in the Jade Forest and encountered some legend about the Vale of Eternal Blossoms. Then he used some sort of mind control technique and took off with two Pandaren he met." Kuang snapped his fingers. "The Whitepaws, that's who they were! Ren and Lina."
At that, Yalia Sagewhisper felt as though the entire world had just been reduced to a pinprick. So that was why they were here. Not these two, of course; Yalia had no reason to doubt their testimony, but the Alliance had found some sort of anecdotal evidence that the Vale of Eternal Blossoms existed. Such a name would no doubt intrigue their prince, so this Alliance prince was looking for it. And others would look for him. Where this Anduin led…others would very likely follow.
Yalia cleared her throat, and then spoke. "An interesting set of coincidences, to be certain. But what makes you think Anduin would look here for this…" The Omnia master winced, knowing full well what she was doing. "This 'Vale'?" At that, Taoshi shot her a glance, but Yalia's expression convinced the Wu Kao to drop her unvoiced challenge. Taoshi knew what it was as well…but kept her mouth shut. Thankfully.
Kuang and Malcolm shrugged as one. "I don't know." Kuang admitted.
"He's not foolish, that's for certain." Malcolm observed, holding a hand to his chin. The glittering whites of his teeth flashed in the low light and against the dark of his skin as Malcolm spoke, "Chances are that the Pandaren guides he met told him who to talk to…and then he continued looking for clues."
"Looking for evidence as to whether the Vale is real or not..." Taoshi murmured. "I think I understand."
Kuang inclined his head slightly and addressed Yalia. "Master Sagewhisper, I had the honor of fighting alongside Taran Zhu and Jansho earlier. I gather that you must be here for some important reason that we do not know, and that you might not be able…or willing to speak of it to us." Yalia nodded, and Kuang continued. "With that in mind, why are you here?"
Yalia took a long breath. Clearing the air was more important, wasn't it? Honesty would get both her Shado-Pan and these two Alliance forces on their way, not deception. "We've heard reports about outsiders coming into these swamps recently." She spoke simply and shrugged when she had finished. "Two outsiders might be considered a group by some, but our scouts weren't talking about you. Have you only just arrived?"
Both Malcolm and Kuang nodded immediately, the motion of their heads reminding Yalia of some of the baby falcons that Hawkmaster Nurong trained. She had to keep from smiling at the memory. "I don't know about Kuang, but the less time we spend here, the better." Malcolm said coldly, swatting at his arm a moment later. "Yowch!"
Kuang's fingers shot forth in a swift motion and he grabbed the offending insect out of the air with two clawtips. "Maybe the Alliance should look into capturing some of the hornets." He muttered, squashing the buzzing bee a moment later. "Well...we have another Pandaren to catch up with, and from the sound of things, you have a pretty big group of us outsiders to find." Kuang chuckled. "Shall we combine our efforts?"
Yalia's eyes narrowed. "We shall see. I would not recommend wandering about this place unless you have your wits about you." The venerable Omnia master gestured to the swamps. "Unless you like being lost, of course."
Kuang and Malcolm agreed very quickly that they did not. Jansho took the lead once again, chuckling at the turn of events. Taoshi and Tenwu melted into the shadows, keeping an eye out for any trouble…outsider or otherwise. The human at her left, Kuang and Li-Hua at her right, Yalia Sagewhisper followed Jansho Ghostpaw into the winding forests of Krasarang.
The small trail that Jansho followed led to yet another. After about two miles of passing through small , where the path they were on met another running from the northeast. In that clearing lay a burly male Pandaren, his hands clutched tightly at his chest in death, two arrows having transfixed him. Yalia's eyes narrowed as they approached the body. "Celestials…" Tenwu murmured under the scarf, keeping that remark low…to himself.
Yalia drew closer to the slain Pandaren and checked for any warmth, but she did not have to wait very long before making a diagnosis. The last of their warmth had faded away.
"Master Sagewhisper, what should we do now?" Li-Hua Zhuo spoke for the first time since the five Shado-Pan met up with Malcolm and Kuang. Kuang seemed surprised by the stormbringer's voice.
Yalia closed her eyes and contemplated the next course of action for the group. A brief visual inspection of the body quickly revealed a package and a small circular package. But who was the package meant for? Deftly removing one end of that package, Yalia removed the contents with a clawtip: a single sheet of paper had been rolled up tightly. Li-Hua stood over Yalia's shoulder as she read the message, which was written quite neatly.
The situation in Zhu's Watch has only grown worse since your last letter. Our usual courier will carry this one to you, but I must put this simply: we are at our wit's end. Most of the watchers are restless, but also unable to sleep. It is as though they are trapped in a nightmare. The rains continue to fall, but there is no substance to them.
You know the legends as well as, if not better than I do. Could this have something to do with the evil spirits spoken of in legends? The one that Chi-Ji is supposed to watch over, according to the Lorewalkers?
I hope this message finds you safely, Koro. Perhaps your reply will have answers to these questions.
Perhaps not. Red Crane watch over your steps, old friend.
Yalia knew by the end of the letter that the foreboding she had felt after arriving in Krasarang was not misplaced. Something was very wrong. Even though the clouds had overtaken them, it seemed as though not a drop of rain could fall. If the weather had a will, it was a spiteful one at that, and Krasarang was suffering. If the spirit of evil referred to a Sha…then Yalia knew quite well what was wrong.
But one must not fly blindly into the darkness…especially in a swamp. Yalia stood to her full height and addressed the five Shado-Pan under her command. "The letter was written from an inhabitant of Zhu's Watch to someone called Koro Mistwalker." Yalia tucked the letter back in its package. "Li-Hua, Jansho…would you know either a 'Mei Barrelbottom' or this 'Koro'?" Yalia stared evenly at the Wu Kao rogue and Stormbringer, both of whom thought over their answers.
Jansho shook his head. "I don't, Master Sagewhisper, although 'Koro' does ring a gong…but only a faint one." He shrugged helplessly.
Li-Hua nodded, but waited until Jansho had finished. "My family is from Zhu's Watch. I know both Mei and Koro…and Mei's family in particular."
Yalia closed her eyes. "Now we have multiple problems, instead of just the one that brought us from Kun-Lai." The Omnia master held a hand to the bridge of her nose for a moment, focusing. When she spoke again, she was decisive. "It sounds as though matters back in Zhu's Watch are quite dire. Those who are supposed to watch the forest seem as though they're trapped in a nightmare, according to the letter." She looked about. "Did you see any of the sentries on the way here?" She addressed this to the entire group. When the entire group shook their heads no, Yalia drew in a long breath. Something had to be done about the situation there as well, but she had only five under her command. Yalia did not think that either Malcolm or Kuang would follow her orders. "Li-Hua, can you make your way to Zhu's Watch?"
"I can, Master." Li-Hua answered. "That path to the northeast will lead almost directly there." The Shado-Pan Stormbringer gestured to the path that the messenger from Zhu's Watch had to have come from.
"Jansho?" Yalia turned to the older rogue, who nodded. "I'm going to leave Tenwu and Taoshi with you. Li-Hua and I will determine what is wrong in Zhu's Watch." Jansho Ghostpaw did not protest, registering these orders with a swift nod. "If you can find the Kang Bramblestaff that our two acquaintances from the Alliance are searching for, that would be good…but keep on your guard." Yalia cautioned.
"I understand, Master Sagewhisper." Jansho nodded again and smiled slightly. "White Tiger watch over you both." He tucked a palm to his fist and bowed.
Yalia Sagewhisper looked to both Kuang and Malcolm. "And you as well."
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