Previously: A Tea Party
The Jade Serpent leveled Akabeko with a critical stare. Understand that the deception was necessary. We are not accustomed to your people.
"I don't imagine you get many tauren out this way," Akabeko joked weakly. The Serpent's eyes merely narrowed in thought. Akabeko shifted uncomfortably.
As you already know, soon I will retire for my long-awaited rest. I have watched over the people of the Jade Forest for a very long time, and they are ill-prepared for life without my constant presence.
Akabeko dimly felt her conscious narrowing to a tiny point, vision filling with the sight of herself reflected in the Jade Serpent's enormous eyes. How is it that I can understand her, anyway? she wondered idly.
We are communicating on a level much more profound than mere speech, came the unexpected response. Akabeko sensed, rather than saw, the Serpent's wry grin. She sobered quickly, however, with her next words. I cannot see far enough ahead to say what role you will play in Pandaria's future. What I can see is that wounds you thought too deep and terrible to mend can be healed, in time. The very nature of the land will not allow you to simply bury your hurts while you are here. You will address them, or they will consume and destroy you.
Throat constricting, Akabeko willed herself to meet the Serpent's gaze impassively. She wasn't burying her problems, she was just setting them aside-
There will be a reckoning, the Serpent said sadly. But you will pass through it, even if carried solely by pure stubbornness. Before Akabeko could gather her wits enough to respond, the Serpent was withdrawing from her mind, leaving behind a confusing jumble of hope and dread. Thank you for letting me learn more about your people, Akabeko Runetotem.
Once again, Akabeko was aware of herself, standing beside Weipon, who looked just as surprised. With a jaunty nod, the Jade Serpent turned and went into the temple, already drawing a small crowd of monks and worshipers clamoring for attention.
"That was freaky," Akabeko said, blowing out a breath.
Weipon shook her head mutely. She opened her mouth to reply and was interrupted by a pandaren in clothes dusty from traveling.
"You! Tauren!" he cried, running over to them. He was waving a sealed scroll and saying things too rapidly for Akabeko's tired mind to process.
She accepted the scroll, letting Weipon deal with the stranger while she unfurled the message. "Yikes," she muttered, scanning the very...frank language. The messenger gone, Weipon was now peering over her shoulder, lips moving as she silently read the missive.
"So he wants us to return to the Horde camp?" Weipon summarized, brow furrowed. "But I don't understand the use of this word..." she pointed to a particularly coarse turn of phrase in the first line. "I've never heard the term 'Quit fu-'"
"I'll explain it on the way," Akabeko interrupted. "Suffice it to say: he wants us to hurry. We need to get over there right away.":
They said their farewells to the temple priests and monks who had helped them, gathered their belongings, and were on their way in short order. Looking at the woefully inaccurate map that was included with the missive, Akabeko was pleased to note that in addition to the list of towns converted to Horde sympathy, she and Weipon could also provide proper maps for the general.
Showing the map to the flight master at the temple was enough to get two kites rigged to fly them to Grookin Hill, a hozen settlement the Horde had appropriated. Flying a direct path, above the trees, saved them several hours of tedious travel, although Fu spent the entire ride barking frantically.
When they touched down, a harried-looking secretary ran to fetch the general, who sent for them to meet him in his tent. The secretary took their things to be stored in their tent among the other soldiers and ushered the pair inside where General Nazgrim waited.
"Throm-ka," he greeted gruffly, setting down a handful of reports. "I hope you've got good news for me. You're the last ambassadors I sent out to return. I've literally gathered and trained an army in the time you've been gone!"
For the first time since they had been traveling together, Akabeko took the lead in the interaction. She summarized their trek through the Forest, noting which settlements were for, or at least open to Horde involvement. Finally, she presented him with the pandaren-drawn map, which earned a grudgingly appreciative grunt.
"All right, I suppose I won't need to have you flogged for taking your sweet time obeying my orders. Good work." He threaded his fingers together and leaned forward over his makeshift desk. "Here's the deal: we've got an army of mostly-sentient hozen ready to go to war for us, and I plan to use them. In just a few days we'll be ready to take out those sorry sons-of-harpies and secure Pandaria for the Warchief's Horde!" Then, leaning back contemplatively, he continued, "To be perfectly honest, you two had some of the best results. I'm loath to send you to the front lines to die alongside the idiot monkey-men when I could have you doing better work elsewhere. At this point, we don't need much in the way of translating." He rubbed the furrowed skin above his nose, thinking aloud. "How about you go scout the area around that big serpent statue? We need intel on the Alliance movement."
Nodding decisively to himself, he stood. Akabeko and Weipon rose with him, saluting. He dismissed them with a wave, adding, "And for the love of the spirits, don't you dare be late to report this time!"
Akabeko grinned cheekily. "When you talk like that, sir, I can't help but think you really do like us."
Nazgrim snorted. "Get out before I change my mind," he said, flapping a hand at them.
They spent the night bedded down in the midst of Nazgrim's troops. Weipon commented on the hozen's presence, but Akabeko was too tired to do more than nod along with what the pandaren was saying. She slept uneasily, turning over what the Jade Serpent had told her again and again.
When she awoke the next morning, Weipon had packed her things and left to investigate the Horde encampment. She returned as Akabeko was cleaning up her breakfast, looking troubled.
"It seems wrong to use the hozen to fight the Horde's battle," she said abruptly, filling the entrance to the tent.
Akabeko cinched her bag closed with more force than necessary and whirled around. "That's not something you wanna be saying in the middle of this camp," she cautioned, giving Weipon a serious look. She motioned for the monk to grab her belongings, then led the way from the camp before summoning her mount. After several minutes of quietly picking their way through the untamed forest, she continued. "You've already seen enough of the Horde's way of doing business to know that speaking out against policy can go very badly for you."
Unfazed, Weipon replied, "But we have already gotten many towns to join us. Those that favor the Alliance, or don't want to favor either side, will not suddenly join the Horde if we defeat the Alliance here."
"I don't think you fully understand. The Horde will defeat the Alliance, and then they will bend and break each town until it is for the Horde. It's the oldest reason for war: to first prevent the opposing side from gaining any ground, and then snatch up as much as possible land for ourselves."
"It's not their land to take," Weipon said softly.
Feeling suddenly weary, Akabeko said nothing in reply.
They scouted for days, eventually dismissing their mounts to travel less conspicuously as they neared the last known locations of Alliance troops. On the third day they came across the evidence of a large camp, but the tracks were old and they had yet to meet another soul in the endless woods.
Unfurling the map, Akabeko clucked over their current location. "We know the Alliance were coming from the south." Her fingers skittered over the southern coastline, tapping the locations that were rumored to be Alliance-run cities. "If their intel is any good, they'll be heading north hoping to confront the Horde troops. Of course, at the same time, we're heading south in the hopes of getting the jump on them."
From over her shoulder, Weipon stabbed decisively at the map. "If both sides are moving towards the center of the Forest, they will probably meet close to the Temple of the Jade Serpent."
Akabeko jerked at the realization, then quickly put away the map. "If that's the case, we're behind the Alliance front and may even be missing the battle. We have to get back!" She summoned her mount, barely waiting to see if Weipon was following, and took off the way they had come.
They followed the obvious path left by the Alliance army's march, moving much more quickly mounted than they had been on foot. Heeding Nazgrim's order for speed, Akabeko set a difficult pace, allowing them to stop only when their mounts needed to rest. Both kodo and dragon turtle were creatures built for endurance, not speed.
The night was blessedly clear, and they were able to make their way cautiously through the woods by the light of the waning moon. Akabeko was sure they would see campfires well before they blundered into the Alliance camp, and as such continued to push their mounts for more speed. Weipon followed without complaint, although Akabeko could tell that her companion was very nervous to be traveling so noisily in the dead of night.
The sky was lightening to a dim gray when they heard - and smelled - the signs of the Alliance troops. Immediately, Akabeko motioned for Weipon to dismiss her mount and follow her, then transformed into lion form. With her heightened senses, she could pick out the distinct scents of various unwashed Alliance races alongside an unfamiliar fishy scent. She prowled through the trees, guiding Weipon on a safe route that skirted the slowly waking enemy camp.
An unexpected snarl of steep rock ledges sent them on a detour. Unwilling to get any closer to the Alliance forces, Akabeko led them around the other side of the hills, eventually allowing them to mount when she deemed it safe. Her gut told her that the battle would occur soon, and that even if she was too late to warn the troops, she could still fight alongside them. Whether Weipon would be willing to do the same remained to be seen.
Unexpectedly, the haphazard path they had taken around the rocks turned upward, and they found themselves on a low ledge overlooking the clearing where the Jade Serpent's statue was still under construction. To the north, Akabeko saw a dark shadow in the trees that could only be the Horde troops assembled and ready to march. Feeling dread settle in her stomach, she looked to the south, confirming the Alliance troops were already waiting in neat lines.
"How..." she gasped helplessly, frustrated that they hadn't managed to achieve a single thing during their scouting mission. As she watched, a single figure riding a worg darted out ahead of the Horde troops, raising a massive battleaxe and gesturing grandly. Similarly, a human in gleaming plate was rallying the Alliance troops, and from both sides rose a deafening roar of anticipation.
Weipon's hands had flown to her head, tugging at her ears in consternation. "I can't believe this is happening," she moaned, eyes darting between the two armies.
Whipped into a frenzy, both sides charged, shouting battlecries in countless languages and wielding weapons of every possible make. "No no no no," Weipon chanted, shaking her head. The armies met with incredible force, the sounds of ringing metal, dull bodily thuds, and garbled cries sweeping through the valley. Over all this came a sudden resounding crack, making Akabeko flinch as the harsh sound struck her ears. Weipon's hands belatedly flew to her ears. "What was that?" she cried, looking around frantically.
A tiny movement drew Akabeko's eyes upward. "Look," she half-whispered, pointing at the center of the battlefield.
Slowly, almost dreamily, the statue of the Jade Serpent, her deathbed and her hope of rebirth, collapsed into useless fragments. The shattered pieces hit the ground with jarring impact, crushing those too slow or stupid to get out of the way with a sickening crunch. Then, from the statue's remains spread thick black fissures, seeping wetly across the land and leaving behind sickly dry earth. This dead earth cracked, oozing blinding white light, and from the cracks sprang living shadow. It twirled lazily in the air, thickening until Akabeko couldn't see the transfixed expressions of the soldiers below. Finally, with an unearthly screech, the smoke coalesced, and the dark cloud became a twisted, malformed creature, towering over where the statue had been.
Weipon was screaming, shaking her head in disbelief, staring at the charred remains of the Serpent's statue. Unexpectedly, she whirled and threw herself into Akabeko's arms, sobbing incomprehensibly in Pandaren.
Shocked, Akabeko absently patted the monk's back, unable to tear her eyes away from the hideous monster hunched over the armies like a predator preparing to gorge itself on a kill. "Earthmother protect us," she muttered darkly.
Next: An Opportunity Missed