Previously: An Opportunity Missed
Akabeko watched in horror as the towering creature began to feed, gathering into itself inky shadows from the corpse-strewn battlefield. The bodies shrank, skin drying and stretching tight across bones, hair and teeth withering and falling away. Even though she was still alive, Akabeko felt as if something within her were being tugged. She swallowed, willing away the nauseating sensation in her belly, and tried to calm Weipon.
The pandaren was inconsolable and refused to lift her head, lest she see any more of the broken serpent statue. However, her interest was roused when Akabeko shook her suddenly, pointing far across the field at a lithe fuchsia shape that had just taken to the air.
The cloud serpent sped through the air, and from its back a tiny figure was releasing handfuls of...something over the blackened ground. Although it resembled a farmer sowing seeds, the tiny objects fell like gunfire into the soil, gleaming in what dim light there was. Where they touched, the blackness seemed to lessen, and the creature itself shrieked, huddling in on itself as if injured. While this was a heartening development, Akabeko was dismayed to see clusters of smaller shadowy figures oozing out of the ground.
Weipon moaned, swaying weakly against Akabeko, who held her still and gave her a firm shake. "Wei, come on. Those things are hurting people, and we can help." As she spoke, the pair watched one of the rippling shadows pounce on an injured soldier, its foglike body soaking up his agonized scream, and leave behind a drained husk.
Veteran though she was, the sight still disturbed Akabeko. She could tell that Weipon was having a similar time, although the monk's eyes returned to the shattered remnants of the statue as much as they took in the monsters' grotesque feasting. Visibly, she pulled herself together, then nodded at Akabeko. "We...we should help them." She stepped to the edge of the hill and peered cautiously over the side.
"I can make that jump in lion form, but I don't know if I can carry you down as well..." Akabeko began, but Weipon interrupted her with a shake of her head.
"I can make the jump fine," she said with a wry grin. "I'm bouncy."
Suiting actions to words, Akabeko leapt from the cliff, transforming as she fell and landing with a soft whump on all fours. Seconds later, Weipon joined her with considerably more noise on impact. Remaining a lion, Akabeko stalked towards the dark, dry earth stretching out before them, nose wrinkling in disgust at its harsh, sour odor.
Checking to see that Weipon was following, she charged into a pack of the smaller monsters, relieved to see that her claws and teeth could find purchase on their shadowy skin. It tore apart under her paws like rotted meat, exploding into putrid gobs and stringy sinew between her jaws. Slashing through two in quick succession, she paused to roar in disgust, whipping her head around in frustration. Beside her, Weipon was finishing off her own cluster of monsters, flinging her hands down to free herself of sticky black clumps of smoldering flesh.
Ever-efficient, Akabeko loped off towards another pack of the creatures. Weipon kept pace easily, musing grimly as they ran, "Aka, these things are the same sort of monster that came from General Nazgrim. They're the things that pandaren warned us about, the things that come from our bad feelings."
Before she could reply, they had reached the next group of monsters, which were converging on a corpse. Akabeko ran, snarling, into the fray, no less disgusted by the wet squelch of the shadow flesh this time around. She heard Weipon give a stomach-clenching shout and turned in time to see her viciously pummeling a trio of creatures into featureless pulp. Underneath that stomach-churning unpleasant sound she heard something else: a weak cry of distress.
Akabeko peered closely at the corpse, jerking back into her upright form as she realized it wasn't a corpse, but a forsaken! "Easy does it," she soothed, hauling the bruised woman to a sitting position. With the ground so tortured, reaching for her healing spells was akin to attempting to drink from an empty waterskin. A pathetic trickle of power flowed through her, draining away as quickly as it came. She snarled in irritation, hating to feel so disconnected.
From several paces away, Weipon called out. "Aka, I think I found what that cloud serpent was dropping." She knelt to dig one of the metal objects out of the dusty earth, holding it up to reveal a brass bell, small enough to balance on the tip of her finger. "It feels...nice," she murmured quietly, then gave it an experimental shake. The resulting peal was clear and calming, and the clapper continued to chime shivery echoes well after Weipon stilled her hand.
The effect was immediate and astounding. Akabeko felt much of her exhaustion from the all-night dash fade away, and the forsaken seemed to rally from where she leaned heavily against Akabeko's arm. The stinking corpses of the monsters dissolved, leaving behind a sulfurous pile of ashes that blew away inconsequentially on the breeze.
"You gotta find Nazgrim," the forsaken grated out, clambering heavily to her feet. She brushed away Akabeko's steadying hands. "I can make it from here. Just get the General; bring him to the Temple. He should be front and center in the battlefield..." As one, they turned to look at the center, where the hulking behemoth still brooded over the broken statue. "I'll grab anyone alive on my way," the forsaken continued, extracting twin daggers from her belt. She nodded at them, confident her orders would be followed, and limped away.
Weipon was regarding the monster with naked horror. "This is the thing that comes from our bad emotions," she repeated, finally returning her gaze to Akabeko's. "This is why that pandaren warned us. The hatred in the two armies must have been so much. He told us not to bring war because this would happen."
Uncomfortable, Akabeko broke the stare to scan the sky for signs of the fuchsia cloud serpent. She hadn't wanted to bring war to Pandaria; hadn't wanted to do much of anything for a very long while, and she was just so tired. "Look," she replied, only half-intending to change the subject. "When that guy drops those bells, the big guy seems to flinch."
Following her pointing finger, Weipon frowned at the scene. "Is it also getting smaller?"
"Looks like we might be able to get over there without being noticed, if he keeps it up with the bells," Akabeko ventured, watching another arc of bells twirl crazily through the air. Distantly, their reassuring peals carried across the battlefield, echoing deep within the druid. She took a step, already in lion form, and began to pick her way across the ravaged bodies, sniffing this way and that for living flesh.
They moved even more cautiously the closer they got to the giant figure, but by now it seemed to have its full attention on the bells as they rained down, penning it inside an arc of consecrated ground. Now they were dodging roaming packs of the little shadow monsters, the lifeless green hunks of the statue, and the occasional flurry of bells, ringing merrily around them before thunking silent into the earth.
Akabeko came across Nazgrim's bloody form crumpled in the shadow of the statue's great head. She slid to her knees beside him, hands reaching out before she remembered the block on her spells. A single, clear note rang out, and she felt the power well up, stubborn but accessible. Before the note died out, she patched up the most life-threatening of his wounds, sighing sadly when the sound faded away, and with it, her spells. Looking up, she saw that it had been Weipon, still carrying the bell she had picked up before.
The pandaren shrugged sheepishly. "It seemed strange to drop it back in the dust after picking it up."
Nazgrim stirred, feebly turning his head back and forth, but remained unconscious. Akabeko stood, motioning for Weipon to help him up. "I can carry him, but I don't know if I'll be able to carry the both of you..." She shifted into stag form and waited for Weipon to awkwardly arrange the motionless body across her back. There was a tense moment immediately after Weipon vaulted up behind him while Akabeko adjusted to the weight of both a fully grown and armored orc and a pandaren, and then she began to make her way across the field.
So focused was she on the laborious task of carrying both general and comrade, it took several shouts from Weipon to get Akabeko's attention.
"The monster! It's heading towards the temple!" cried the pandaren, shifting on the druid's back in a way that made her spine groan in protest. "It's running away from the bells!"
Akabeko confirmed this for herself, tracking the thing as it flowed on its shadowy, rippling base across the field. She could see that it left behind desiccated, skin-and-bones corpses in its considerable wake.
By the time they reached the gates to the Temple, the survivors gathered there were in a frenzy. From her higher vantage point, Weipon was able to direct Akabeko to where the decimated Horde forces had gathered to deliver the General. Glad to be rid of her dual passengers, Akabeko creaked slowly upright, kneading a knuckle into her lower back with an exaggerated sigh of relief. The forsaken woman they had encountered before was shouting orders in her dry, hoarse voice, organizing and dividing the troops, completely oblivious to the venomous glares directed at her by the pandaren of the Temple.
"Aka, over there," Weipon whispered, nodding her head towards where a gaggle of temple monks were listening intently to a pandaren male. They edged closer, leaving the Horde group to eavesdrop on his story. Weipon's expression went from stunned to horrified, and she muttered in distress along with the gathered crowd. When it seemed he had finished all he had to say, the temple pandaren began to debate furiously amongst themselves, and Weipon turned to translate.
"He says that thing - called a Sha - was seen in a jade picture near the mines. It was created by the, um, king, but not a king," she shook her head, unable to think of the word. "Anyway, the king Shaohao wanted to warn people that the bad feelings from war would become real, just like that other pandaren said. So he made the jade picture as a warning, for them to be peaceful." She tapped at her chin thoughtfully. "Even on the Wandering Isle, we have a lot of sayings about being peaceful, but I never thought..." At Akabeko's resulting expression, she jumped back on track. "He says he's read some information about how to kill the Sha. Now the temple monks are making a rescue party for those who were in the temple when the Sha went inside."
While Weipon was speaking, the pandaren whose words she was translating had edged up behind her, eyes trained intently on Akabeko. "Excuse me," he began, then launched into a string of Pandaren that the tauren couldn't hope to follow. Through it, he gestured continuously to Akabeko, watching her with obvious interest.
"This is Cho. He collects information," Weipon began, not missing Cho's uncomfortable scrutiny of the poor tauren. "He says he knows someone who is looking for you."
Akabeko's eyebrows shot up. "Oh? And who is that?"
She understood Cho perfectly this time. "Hadakha." He continued, saying something that made Weipon gasp, and then she was translating.
"Hadakha was the person riding the cloud serpent and dropping those bells. The cloud serpent is Cho's friend Mishi."
They looked up together, eyes drawn to where the fuchsia cloud serpent was hovering tensely above the temple grounds. There was no rider on her back. "So...where is Had now?"
Weipon relayed this and received an apologetic shrug in response. "He says that he was just here. He should still be close!"
Akabeko glanced at where the monks were still deep in discussion, presumably about their strategy in approaching the temple. "We probably have some time to look for him before these guys are ready to make a move. Shall we?"
Seeing them prepare to leave, Cho burst out with something that made Weipon smile and nod politely, face a carefully agreeable mask. "He wants us to come back after we find Had so he can ask you questions," she told Akabeko quietly once they were lost in the crowd. They shared an aggrieved look.
Next: A Shadow Rises