26 March 2013

The Heart of the Forest

Previously: A Meeting of Minds

Weipon quietly noted that when the mayor's gift had run out, Akabeko had replaced it with another bottle acquired from a wine seller in the market. Still, as hard as Weipon looked, she had to admit that the addition of alcohol to the druid's breakfast had not made her less alert.

She yawned, jaw creaking and eyes watering. The sun was barely above the horizon, filtering weakly through the trees, but if they intended to reach the Jade Temple by the afternoon they would have to travel quickly and far. Although it wasn't an actual city, the temple grounds were wide and populated with supplicants and warriors alike. Weipon hoped that they could find those sympathetic to the Horde there.

Akabeko belched, earning a startled yip from Fu. She glanced at Weipon and was rewarded with an answering burp. Both women chuckled, and the time passed with a friendly quiet.

The road to the temple was wide and well-traveled, and as the morning wore on they began to pass travelers with bags, farmers toting carts, and leather-armored patrols from the temple. Weipon peered at each curiously, hoping to gauge the friendliness of the atmosphere as they neared the temple grounds.

Suddenly, the trees gave way to a wide valley, at the center of which was an enormous column. A massive jade serpent gripped a towering stone pillar, body wrapped sinuously around the pillar, carved eyes turned to survey the surrounding area. Beside her, Weipon heard Akabeko gasp.

From the edge of the valley, they could see tiny figures bustling around the base of the column, pushing carts of jade through the well-manicured garden of the valley floor. The statue itself was appeared to be crawling with pandaren-shaped ants hanging from ropes that allowed them to work on the carving in midair.

"I think we found the temple," Akabeko joked, eyes huge as she took in the impressive sight.

Weipon was similarly moved, although her reaction was not only to the sheer scope of the statue, but also the very image of the serpent. The pandaren of the Wandering Isle worshiped Shen Zin Su and the spirits of the elements, but Weipon had still been raised on stories of the four gods of Pandaria. Stories about the Jade Serpent had always delighted her as a child, and seeing the statue before her was a sudden and powerful reminder that the Serpent was a real creature. She exhaled slowly, dragging her eyes away from those of the statue's and making an effort to take in the rest of the valley.

"Actually, I think the temple is a little farther," she joked back weakly, gesturing to the spires flying long banners further beyond the valley. They moved their mounts to follow the path circling the valley. The direct sunlight was a surprising comfort, and the wind swept across the grass, bringing earthy scents and the sounds of metalworking to the pair.

The great gate leading to the temple had the both of them gaping. Beyond the invitingly open doors rose the colorful, gilded towers of the temple. The hubbub inside matched the crowds streaming in and out of the gates, barely sparing a glance for the two gawking out-of-towners. With an excited grin, Weipon nudged her mount through the gates, weaving through the crowd.

She followed the path leading directly into the temple, hoping they might find someone in charge there. At the great stone bridge, she and Akabeko dismounted, then continued on foot. Closer to the temple, there were less common folk and more pandaren that had the look of monks and priests. Weipon eyed the monks with interest, unconsciously sizing them up.

The main building of the temple was massive; doors at both back and front had been thrown open to allow in more light. The approaching path had a huge stone bowl for incense offerings. Weipon dug out a handful of silver, tossed it in the offering box, and grabbed a set of incense for herself and Akabeko.

"You light it on the flame in the middle," she instructed, demonstrating. "Then, stick it into the sand." Finding a free spot, she pushed her bundle of incense into the ash filling the bowl. "Then, you put the smoke on."

Akabeko blinked. "What?"

Weipon demonstrated, using her hands to pull smoke from the bowl and pour it over her head. "The incense smoke, you put it on yourself. Like this." Akabeko imitated her, using her long fingers to waft smoke up and over her horns. One of her ears flicked endearingly. Weipon pressed her lips together to keep from grinning.

"Doesn't that thing ever get too full of incense?" the tauren asked as the continued into the temple.

"They clean it out," Weipon replied absently. The sudden dark hush of the temple fell over them, the cool shadow an abrupt change to the cheery sunlight outside. Everything inside was intricately carved and gilded, but only the closest details were visible through the murky, pungent smoke filling the temple. Here, the temple servants moved about with quiet purpose, politely moving around the worshippers gathered in ones and twos  in the center.

Which, upon closer inspection, was empty. Weipon blinked twice and looked again. The center of the temple, which would normally house a huge statue of the deity surrounded by lavish offerings, was completely empty. No plaques, no special flooring, no brocade-covered tables or barrels of wine. And yet, people were there, prayer beads in hand, kneeling in obvious worship.

She spied a woman wearing an important-looking set of ceremonial armor near one of the smaller shrines at the edge of the temple. "Aka, I'm going to go find out who we should be talking to." Nodding, Akabeko fell in step behind her.

Once again, Weipon repeated her formal introductions of herself, her companion, their greater organization, and the necessary background. The woman she had singled out introduced herself as Liu Flameheart, a Priestess of the Jade Serpent.

Rather than rush right into her recruiting spiel, Weipon couldn't help but comment, "It is a great honor to finally visit the legendary Temple. I have long studied what the pandaren of the Isle believed to be myths we would never ourselves lay eyes on. It is said that there is a faction of monks dedicated to the Jade Serpent..." she trailed off hopefully.

Liu nodded at her armor. "You have the look of a monk." She turned the same critical eye on Akabeko. "Your friend looks like she has seen battle, but I do not think she is a monk."

Half-following, Akabeko pointed to herself and said, "I am a druid," in passable Pandaren. "I fight many times." She opened her arms to emphasize the amount.

"Pandaren!" Liu said with a surprised grin. "I'm impressed!" Then, to Weipon, she added, "And yes, there is such a faction of monks here at the temple. I would be happy to introduce you to them. I'm sure they would have many questions about the techniques of the Wandering Isle." Suddenly, she whistled a short trill, and a tiny russet serpent flew to her side with a responding chirp. In its tiny opalescent claws it clutched a sheaf of parchment and a brush.

Beside her, Weipon heard Akabeko curse and jump, startled. Weipon knew her own eyes must be comically huge.

Smirking at their reactions, Liu turned to a nearby table and hastily scribbled an introduction letter for them using the materials. This she stamped, sealed, and handed to Weipon. To the serpent, she chucked it under the chin and sent it off with a cluck of her tongue.

Speaking of serpents, Weipon remembered. "Liu, where is the Jade Serpent, if I may ask?"

Liu sighed regretfully. "She's rarely in the temple these days. There's much to do with the statue so near completion." Then, biting her lip as if considering her next words, she finally admitted, "Frankly, I wonder if she's getting a bit antsy with the rebirth so near."

Pages of yellowed, oft-handled textbooks whipped through Weipon's mind. "You mean, the statue outside..." She smacked her forehead. "That's the statue Yulon will be reborn into! Could it possibly be so soon?"

"We were hoping for year's end," Liu replied. "There have been problems lately with the mines, but word is that our supply should soon be restored."

Weipon reeled with this new revelation. Her heart swelled with excitement; this was by far the greatest thing that had happened to her since leaving the Wandering Isle. Already her fingers were itching to put ideas to instrument.

"Wei," Akabeko interrupted quietly. "What is that paper we just got?"

Distracted, she replied. "It's an introduction to the monks that train here."

Akabeko raised an eyebrow. "Is that what's causing your goofy grin?"

"It's not -- anyway, it's not just that. I'll tell you when we get outside."

Liu watched this exchange with open fascination. "I myself could never pick up another language, although Jinyuu is quite beautiful to listen to. Wouldn't bother with Hozen, though." Her lips quirked into a smirk. "When you exit the temple, the training ground is to the right, along the water. If you go left, you'll find the town with an inn for your stay."

Bowing deeply, Weipon said her thank yous and left the temple, dredging up the necessary vocabulary to explain everything she had learned to Akabeko. Half of her mind was still on the statue outside the grounds. If she couldn't see Yulon herself, she would just have to get a closer look at the Serpent's jade likeness!

Next: The Visitor to the Temple

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