Hadakha studied the next student as the stout pandaren hurried nervously to the centre of the circle. Bowing, he took up his fighting stance as Hadakha flowed into lionform. He was too tense, Hadakha thought, which made it easy to decide on an opening move. As one with Master Stonefist's shout of "Begin!", he sprang at the poor student, who predictably swept his arms up to block and parry. But this was not a punch or kick, a limb or weapon to be deflected or stopped by mere angles. This was a several-hundred-kilogram missile of muscle and sinew, a claw- and tooth-tipped mass of fury that bore the unfortunate pandaren to the ground. A mere second later Hadakha had his jaws firmly locked on the throat of his opponent. After a couple more frozen seconds, Master Stonefist called the end of the bout.
"Thus we see the dangers of immobility on the battlefield." he announced to his students as the fighters returned to the centre and bowed. "You will not always fight sharp blades, long spears or heavy fists, which you can turn and block. As our friends from beyond the mists are showing us, foes can take many forms. How will you deflect a ball of pure fire? How will you block lightning itself? How will you stop a flying lion or charging bear? You must learn to be where it is not. At all times be ready to move, in any direction. Tomorrow we begin that training." With that he turned and walked off. Hastily the students assembled and bowed to his retreating back, before dispersing.
Hadakha made his way back to the rooms he shared with Jiang and some other Horde survivors who had found their way to Tian Monastery over the past couple of weeks. The tale some of them had told of the disastrous attack on the Alliance base was eerily familiar, especially when they mentioned the strange energy monsters and that mysterious figure on a cloud serpent who had shown up to save General Nazgrim from these 'Sha'. Despite close questioning, none of them could remember seeing Akabeko after the airship went down. One did recall seeing a huge, griffon-sized stormcrow near the crashing vessel, however, which just raised more questions than it answered.
The rooms were empty, so he brought out the notes he'd made as a result of the nightly discussions he had with High Elder Cloudfall. Spending an hour or so reviewing the scrolls, he used a spare one to compose a summary of them for his superiors, making sure to highlight his findings about the sha. By the time he finished, Jiang and the others were trickling in from the various chores and training they'd been doing as payment for their keep. He nodded at their greetings, flashing a smile at Jiang, who insisted on sleeping close to him even here. She was as voluble as ever, but since she had hundreds of other people to talk to now, it didn't bother him to have her lie down next to him and talk herself softly to sleep at night. In truth, her demanding daily regimen left her exhausted, and as he usually slept in lionform, it didn't take long for her to fall asleep when he stretched out alongside her after dinner with the High Elder, her back nestled up to his flank.
Speaking of dinner, it was time to attend the High Elder. Taking the scroll with him, he made his way to a small patio overlooking the rocky cliffs of the coast. He glanced around to be sure nobody was watching, then summoned the spectral stormcrow to take the scroll to Moonglade. Watching it speed away over the blue ocean into the twilight, he turned and walked to High Elder Cloudfall's chambers. To his surprise there was an additional guest present, introduced as Lorewalker Cho. The new pandaren studied him intently, nodding to himself with undisguised interest. After a light meal they took tea and talked more about the similarities and differences between their cultures. Cho had many questions, especially about the history of the tauren and the Horde, and Hadakha did his best to relate as much as he could. Strangely, Cho seemed very interested in tauren songs, and Hadakha asked him why.
"Well, it may surprise you to know that you aren't the first tauren I have encountered, Hadakha." the lorewalker explained. "Actually, you are the first one I have met and talked to...but I have been hearing stories about other 'yaungol that aren't yaungol'. I am always travelling, as you know, and my wanderings have taken me through many villages and towns that are abuzz with tales of strangers from beyond the mists." He frowned. "Much of the talk was of the attempts by these strangers to recruit soldiers for the Alliance. Or was it the Horde?. One or the other. You know that Pandaren are unlikely to get involved in this conflict between your nations, don't you?" he finished severely.
"I have been getting that idea," Hadakha replied with a faint smile. "Your culture is remarkably peaceful, I have to admit. But...what does this have to do with tauren songs?"
"Oh, yes, of course. I tend to wander in my thoughts as well as on my feet!" Cho laughed loudly. "I was in Dawn's Blossom recently and heard of a wonderful performance by a tauren there, the tavern patrons loved it! She stopped very suddenly, though...is that a custom among your people?"
Hadakha perked up. "She? What was her name; did you hear?"
Cho shook his head. "I'm sorry, nobody mentioned a name. Anyway, I thought that since we Pandaren also keep a lot of our history and culture recorded in song, it would be useful to compare them with your people's songs to find common ground. Would you be willing to help me out with that, my friend?"
Hadakha sat very still, deep in thought. This was the only lead he'd had in all this time, and he was fairly certain that he'd learned most of what the High Elder could teach him about this land. It was time to move again. He looked at Cho intently. "I'm sorry, I have to go to Dawn's Blossom immediately. That tauren might be the person I've been searching for." Turning to the High Elder, he bowed from his seat. "High Elder Cloudfall, I thank you for your hospitality over these last weeks. I have enjoyed our conversations immensely, and I hope that you have learned enough about my people to regard them as future friends. I will not forget the time I have spent here. Please remember me well."
The High Elder nodded solemnly. "It is a sad day, my friend, but if you must leave, then go with our blessing. You have more than fulfilled your agreement to help train my students, and for that you have our gratitude. I will arrange for provisions to be supplied to you in the morning. When do you intend to depart?"
"At dawn, High Elder." Hadakha turned back to Cho. "Lorewalker, would you come with me? You know the people there; surely it will be easier to find my friend with your help."
Cho looked at him slyly. "I am sure it would, Hadakha. And I can't learn anything from you if I stay behind...so! I will accompany you, on the understanding that you will satisfy my curiosity! Agreed?"
Hadakha nodded distractedly. "Agreed." He looked questioningly at High Elder Cloudfall, who nodded with a smile. "I had better go and prepare, then. Goodnight, High Elder. Goodnight, Lorewalker."
He felt a rush of energy as he walked back to his quarters. Finally, some progress! All he had to do was high-tail it down to Dawn's Blossom, pick up the trail again and -
He stopped as he caught sight of Jiang. Damn. He couldn't take her with him. She was safe now, she could get back to a Horde camp or stay here...he sighed. This would not be easy. He hated dealing with tears. Well, it had to be done. Here goes......
Jiang looked up and smiled as he approached and sat down beside her. "Jiang," he started without preamble, "I have to leave. Tomorrow. At dawn."
Her smiled faded, and as he'd expected, her eyes misted up. Suddenly she flung her arms around him. "Oh, Mr. Hadakha, I'm going to miss you!" she sobbed.
"I know, Jiang, but you can't – what?" He lifted her off him so he could look into her face. "Miss me?! You mean, you don't want to come with me?" She stared at his astonishment, then broke into uncontrollable giggles.
"No need to be so shocked, Mr. Hadakha! I like it here. I am learning to defend myself, and the people are really nice. I want to stay as long as I can." She shook her head. "I know you have to go look for your friend, and I've been dreading having to tell you that you'd have to go alone. Who will look after you?"
Now it was his turn to laugh. "Oh, I think I am able to look after myself, Jiang. Besides, I will have Lorewalker Cho as my companion," he added when she looked doubtful. "Well, I'm glad that you have found a place here. Let's get some sleep so you can see me off tomorrow, eh?"
High Elder Cloudfall, his assistant, and Jiang said their farewells at the monastery gates as the sun began to brighten the sky. Slinging their packs over their shoulders, the two travelers set out into the forest. The path wound its way through the trees as they talked, until finally they came to a fork. Cho started down one path, then checked himself thoughtfully. Glancing at Hadakha, he turned back and took the other path instead. Suspicion flared in him, but when he asked where they were going, Cho waved the question away, calling it a "minor detour". Grinding his teeth, Hadakha had no choice but to follow.
Just before midday they crested a rise and Cho called a stop. "That is what I wanted to show you," he said, indicating a massive fresco, partially covered in moss and vines. "It is called the Emperor's Omen. Let us eat, and I will tell you the story." They sat and studied the fresco as Cho outlined the history behind it. "So as you can see, there seems to be a message, but since we haven't cleared off the final part yet, we just don't know what the Emperor's prediction was." He frowned worriedly. "I have been hearing many things about you foreigners, and your warlike ways" he admitted, "and it disturbs me that you may be bringing your conflicts to our land. The Emperor warns that war will have strong consequences...I just hope that we can avoid it."
Hadakha nodded, unwilling to confess that war had already arrived on Pandaria's shores. They ate in silence, until he noticed a strange light coming from the covered part of the fresco. Tapping Cho's shoulder, he pointed it out, and they gasped as the light suddenly flared, temporarily blinding them. When his sight returned, he heard a low moan come from his companion, and he followed the pandaren's gaze to the fully exposed fresco. It showed a monstrous Sha surrounded in blood and fire, and he felt a chill run through him. Gripped by a sudden sense of urgency, he leapt up, pulling Cho to his feet. He was certain that Akabeko was part of this, somehow. He needed to find her!
"Forget the food, we have to go, now! Cho! We need to get to Dawn's Blossom as soon as we can, so you will have to ride me." He cut off the Lorewalker's confused questioning with a curt gesture. "Steer me in the right direction, take every shortcut you know! Just get us there!" With that he shifted into stagform, waited impatiently while Cho struggled onto his back and buried his hands into the neck fur behind his ears, then sprang into a flat run.
They travelled all day, rested briefly as night settled, then continued on through the night. Hadakha managed to keep the torturous pace up with difficulty. He'd done this kind of flight before, though never with a rider, and the Lorewalker was not exactly light. He found himself avoiding heavier brush, and eventually they stopped for rest more and more frequently. Finally though, as the sun cleared the mountains, they saw the walls of Dawn's Blossom loom up in the distance.
Careening through the streets, Cho steered Hadakha to a big, palatial house, jumping off his back and shouting to a door servant as he strode up the stairs. Staggering back into tauren form, Hadakha followed as quickly as his exhausted limbs could take him. Inside he found Cho speaking urgently to a richly dressed Pandaren while servants scurried about around them. Hadakha collapsed onto a stool, heaving great lungfuls of air while the two conversed in low voices. When he got his breathing back to normal, he caught Cho's attention and the pandaren men came over. "Cho, we need to find my friend. Can you ask him if anyone knows where Akabeko is, or where she went?"
The other pandaren, quickly introduced as Mayor Windfur, shook his head gravely. "I'm afraid that is not our concern at this time, friend. As I have been telling Lorewalker Cho, we have reports of two armies marching toward each other in the valley of Serpent's Heart. They arrived during the night, and our scouts say that they are drawing up battle lines as we speak." His face tightened in anger and fear. "And now Cho tells me the Sha will be unleashed upon the advent of war? Your war?! I warned all of them, the 'ambassadors' trying to absorb us into their nations! Now they will be our ruin!"
Before Hadakha could reply, a runner burst in and spoke rapidly to the mayor. He could only follow about half of the stream of Pandaren, but it seemed that the mayor was wanted on the walls. Beckoning Cho to follow, the mayor strode off without a word, and Hadakha tagged along in discreet silence. They arrived among a growing crowd of townsfolk, each vying for a good place to watch the spectacle unfold in the valley below. There was tension in the air, and more than a few muttered opinions as Hadakha drew suspicious glances. He scanned the sky, but there were no cloud serpents in sight, so he shifted into stormcrow and flew up to the highest rooftop, settling in to watch with his augmented sight.
As he zeroed in on the valley, he saw movement at the head of each line of soldiers. There, the Alliance commander who had wiped out Garrosh'ar Point...and there, General Nazgrim. As if in slow motion, each raised their weapons and charged forward, followed by their native troops. A quick survey showed, thankfully, no sign of Akabeko. Hadakha shook his head at the stupidity and waste represented in the battle below, and closed his eyes, unwilling to watch the senseless slaughter. But then an almighty crack, like a thunderclap, sang through the air, and his eyes flew open, seeking the source. At first he couldn't see anything unusual, then a slight movement caught his attention and he stared in horror as the huge statue of the Jade Serpent at the heart of the valley slowly shifted and began to topple onto the seething mass of combat.
A great cry of shock and grief erupted from the crowd on the walls. Soon that was joined by shouts of fear as giant fissures rent the ground around the base of the ruined statue, spewing pitch-black smoke. The smoke thickened and spread until it covered the battlefield, before rising into the air and obscuring the far end of the valley. Suddenly a piercing screech echoed across the distance, mingling with the screams from the walls, and the smoke dispersed, leaving a shape he had seen too many times these last few weeks.
Next: The Consequence of War
Next: The Consequence of War