Previously: A Shadow Rises
A horn sounded across the temple grounds, drawing Weipon's attention from questioning another gaggle of monks. Their brief conversation finished, they turned to continue their survey of the area for more tiny sha, and Weipon shook her head.
"They haven't seen him."
Akabeko nodded, frowning. "Did you hear that trumpet? Does that mean what I think it does?"
"I think we're out of time," Weipon agreed. "If we want to go into the Temple, we will have to go back there now, without Hadakha."
Unable to hide her frustration, Akabeko turned and made for the Temple. Weipon followed, quietly glad that her friend was willing to help with this. Perhaps she realized how important the task was to the pandaren, or perhaps she felt responsible, in her own way.
Cho was standing near the monks assembled, waiting patiently compared to the agitation radiating from the other pandaren. He caught Akabeko's eye and raised an eyebrow inquisitively. Find him? She shook her head briefly, lips pulling downward. No.
Weipon recognized many of the monks from her earlier training, and she quickly went to stand beside them, exchanging tight smiles as they formed small ranks. Akabeko made to follow, but one of the trainers held out a hand.
"Oh no you don't. It was you fools that got us into this mess. I won't have you bringing even greater offense to the Temple by coming inside with us."
Although she couldn't understand the words, Akabeko clearly got the message. She shot a pained glance at Weipon, then looked back to the trainer. "Please," she said, calling on her meager Pandaren. "Please. I will help."
The trainer regarded the tauren scornfully. Weipon spoke, "She is a healer, and dedicated to cleansing this taint from the Temple. Both she and another foreigner were responsible for clearing the battlefield."
"After being the ones to cause the problem in the first place," the trainer responded, not breaking her scrutiny of Akabeko. But the lines around her mouth softened, and her gaze grew contemplative, measuring. "We don't have time to waste on this. She may come, so long as she works twice as hard to prove herself." Spinning, the trainer strode to the head of the gathered assault group, conferring with the other leaders.
"Open the gates!" shouted the another trainer, motioning ahead of himself. "We're going in!"
They marched forward as one, and Akabeko glanced around before joining Weipon. "Thanks," she whispered, falling in step at the edge of the row.
Inside the temple proper, they were assaulted by the sour stench of sha, seemingly radiating off the very stones. Some of the pandaren groaned, holding their stomachs as the foul odor struck them. By now used to the disgusting scent, Weipon merely wrinkled her nose and tried to breathe evenly through her mouth.
An unsettling slithering noise from down the hall drew their attention. "Serpent trainers, ahead!" a trainer called, directing the monks and their young cloud serpents into the murky darkness.
There was a high-pitched shriek, followed by sounds of a struggle, and then the hallway noticeably brightened as the sha's influence receded and their corpses dissolved into mold. The serpents returned to their companions, looking ferociously pleased.
The leaders divided the pandaren into teams in order to split up and traverse the temple faster. Weipon pulled Akabeko into a group with Peng and a handful of monks she had met during training. They stood clustered together while the serpent trainers were assigned groups, and then the same instructor from before joined them, glancing pointedly at the druid.
"We are going directly to the main hall. The other teams will meet us there if they finish flushing out the other wings. Be on your guard."
They advanced into the wide training ground, now filled with corpses being feasted upon by clusters of sha. Someone near the front gave a strangled cry, alerting the sha to their presence, and in the next moment they were swarmed by shadowy monsters with seeking mouths.
Now adjusted to the unpleasant work, Weipon stepped forward, flanked closely by Akabeko, and waded into the fray, punching and kicking at the sha in her way. She noticed her friends hesitantly falling in beside her, drawing courage from her. At first, they shied away from not only the sha, but Akabeko as well, clearly cautious of her feral-looking form. However, the longer she fought, pouncing from foe to foe, the more they eagerly followed her lead, picking off any stragglers she missed.
Weipon lost track of time as they put down sha after malignant sha. She concentrated on her form, on her strikes, on the movement of her comrades in their dangerous waltz with the shadowy monsters, anything to distance herself from the vile task of pulling the creatures from the quickly-rotting corpses of fallen pandaren. At some point, she realized that there were no more shadows for her questing fists to fight and came out of her trance, blinking slowly and taking in the equally exhausted pandaren around her.
One of the instructors surveyed the carnage in the courtyard with a pained expression. "We will return to put this to rights after we have dealt with the Sha. For now, we will continue into the main building." He turned to stride into the building, but pulled up short when a pandaren stepped from the shadows along the walls.
Liu Flameheart's typically stern face was contorted into a fearsome scowl, her fur lifeless and shot through with sudden and premature gray. She looked at the gathered group without recognition, features drawing deeper into a sneer. "Your forces are weak," she bit out, leaping forward to strike at the nearest monk.
With a shout, the battle began. It became quickly apparent that the cloud serpents would not fight the very priestess that had trained and cared for them, and their monk partners found themselves herded back by the agitated serpents. Where they reluctantly gave way, more monks stepped in to meet Liu's rapid, unceasing attacks.
Despite being one against many, the Sha's influence over Liu made her a terrifying and formidable foe. In the blink of an eye, she took out an entire swath of opponents, jabbing at vulnerable throats, shattering wrists and knees, turning weapons against their wielders. Weipon could see Akabeko moving in and out of the fray, dodging and weaving amongst the upright crush of bodies surrounding Liu. The Sha-controlled priestess was evidently confused by the ostensibly wild creature stalking her from behind the other pandaren. It provided the perfect opportunity: she stumbled, falling to one knee, and was immediately set upon by the three closest pandaren.
They brought Liu to her knees, and Weipon felt sudden terror claw its way up her throat. Until now they had merely been fighting to defend themselves, but what would they do to their former comrade?
"The cycle must continue, the Jade Serpent must be reborn!" Liu announced, unseeing gaze sweeping across those around her.
Before anyone could respond, the area around Liu was bathed in gentle, calming light as Yu'lon's misty apparition wavered into existence. The Jade Serpent coiled her sending around her priestess, cutting her off from the monks and pinning her arms and legs into stillness. Liu's mouth hung open slackly, her eyes unfocused.
Yu'lon nudged her ghostly nose against the pandaren's forehead, sniffing audibly. "Be free of doubt, priestess," she murmured. With a whuffling sound, she exhaled softly against Liu's forehead, breathing color back into her ashen features. As suddenly as it had come, the sending dissipated, sending out a tiny burst of rejuvenating green dust. Liu crumpled bonelessly to the floor.
The same monks from before darted in, this time to check the priestess's condition. She lay limply on the floor, her breathing labored and shallow. The young cloud serpents complicated matters by rushing back in to sniff and nip at their injured master, preventing monk healers from getting close to assess her injuries.
Without warning, the cloud serpents darted back in surprise, revealing an unusual purple glow threading its way around Liu's body. The monks began to mutter in concern, but Weipon's eyes were drawn immediately to Akabeko, who was standing at the edge of the group, concentrating intently. Weipon limped gingerly over to her friend, not bothering to disguise her curiosity now that the druid's attention was elsewhere. She hadn't yet had the opportunity to simply watch while Akabeko performed her unusual healing.
It didn't seem to be going easily, however. Akabeko's fists clenched and unclenched, fingers crooking this way and that as if she were attempting to navigate some puzzle. Her brows drew together and she let out a low growl of frustration. Unconsciously, from under her tunic she fished out a brittle-looking seashell and rubbed it between two enormous fingers.
By now, it was evident that the druid was attempting to heal Liu but was having difficulty. Belatedly, Weipon remembered the little bell she still had tucked away in a belt pouch and brought it out, mentally berating herself for not thinking to use it sooner. She let it chime in Akabeko's direction, drawing the attention of the other monks.
At the same time, Akabeko inhaled sharply, eyes widening as the calming sound had its effect. She cast several spells in quick succession, face composed and movements economical. When she became still, there came a quiet groaning from within the group of monks as Liu Flameheart came to her senses.
The monks began to cheer, gathering around the druid as well as their exhausted but sha-free priestess. Weipon saw one of the trainers clap Akabeko on the shoulder, and she giggled when some of the cloud serpents showed their appreciation by nuzzling at the tauren's face and neck. She could hear the monks' praise, and although it was clear Akabeko didn't understand much of it, she nodded politely and smiled at each person.
Now, the same trainer that had ordered Akabeko to leave stepped forward, half-supporting a weak-but-alert Liu. She nodded at the tauren, adding, "It seems you did have something worth contributing. Thank you." Akabeko bowed graciously, and Weipon was secretly pleased that at least some of her cultural training had stuck.
The pace picked up again as the instructors rallied the remaining able-bodied troops. They had to leave many of the monks behind due to wounds taken at the hands of either the sha or Liu, and the body count was already regrettably high. Those well enough to press on gathered again to venture deeper into the temple, leaving behind their weakened comrades to rest.
Weipon took the opportunity to attach the bell to her belt, hoping that it would continue to jingle while she fought. Peng noticed this from his place beside her and nodded at the bell with a questioning look. "It's something from Lorewalker Cho," she told him quietly. "I don't know what's special about it, but it seems to weaken the sha. I wish I had thought to use it earlier!"
Before he could respond, the massive doors to the large hall they were in slammed shut, and out of the darkness rose an even inkier black shape, crackling white as if shot through with lightning. The Sha of Doubt towered over them, smaller than it had been on the battlefield but still oppressively large for the room. The doors to the hall shook violently as something slammed against them from outside.
"You're too weak to follow me in here, my jade jailor," the Sha rumbled sweetly. Its breath stank of dead and rotting things, compounding with the fetid stench rolling off its putrid body. From beyond the doors came the answering cry, a mind-numbing, blood-curdling roar that for all its power could not open the doors. The Sha of Doubt extended two shadowy arms, comically long and jointed in too many places. "Die or surrender," he told the pandaren. "You cannot defeat me."
Undaunted, the monks attacked as one. They surrounded the Sha, pummeling its slimy flesh. The bell on Weipon's belt chirped merrily, making the Sha quiver and flinch. It half-turned towards her, one milky white eye regarding her with concern.
"Very well. See how effortlessly you become unraveled."
All at once, the Sha and all of the other monks disappeared, and Weipon was face to face with...herself? This Weipon appeared as Liu had, face pinched, fur dull and gray, and most importantly, incredibly hostile.
"Well, if it isn't the little cub who left her Mama and Papa behind," the sha sneered, launching into a series of punches. "Too weak-minded to make your own decisions, you let those Horde strangers talk you into abandoning the most important people in the world to you."
Weipon barely dodged a kick aimed at her head, only fast enough to defend, never able to attack. Had she done that? She had felt so confident when she left...
"And now," Weipon continued, this time landing a kick, "now you're letting some foreigner you just met boss you around! What a disgrace!" She swept out a leg, knocking her opponent down fast enough to pin her. "And instead of fighting back, you just let all that anger boil up inside..." She pressed their noses together, breath ghosting over her opponent's lips. "Let it get the best of you..."
Was that true? It was true, wasn't it? She had lost control, behaved like a mindless animal in front of her peers. The monk's struggles weakened as she retreated into her own thoughts. But wasn't there a reason for her anger? And she had learned something that day, an important lesson.
"That's right," Weipon continued with a mocking smile. "You're angry at the orders you're getting; you don't like them but you're too weak to argue, to disobey."
The monk strained weakly, nose wrinkling at the disgusting odor that washed over her with Weipon's cruel words. She stank of...of sha. Sha! The Sha of Doubt, which was taking over the Temple!
"No!" Weipon shouted, bucking her hips up against her sha-copy, unseating her and sending out a reassuring peal of the bell. She wrestled with the sha-copy, flipping her into a pin of her own. "I didn't abandon my parents; I believed in going to explore the world; I can and will master my emotions!" Her hands closed around the abomination's throat. "I will not let the Horde make me compromise my morals," she added fiercely.
Rather than fight back, the sha-copy snatched at her belt, grabbing at the bell even as it blistered and blackened her unnatural flesh. Before Weipon could stop her, she crushed the tiny bell in her fist, sending up a great gout of smoke and the scent of charred meat. "If you won't go quietly, so be it," she said snidely, and promptly disappeared.
Crouching atop empty air, Weipon fell the few inches to the ground and landed painfully on her knees. She whipped around, taking in the sight of each of her comrades fighting their own demons. Others were overcoming their own doubts, but she could also see bodies of those who had not.
Nearby, she could see Akabeko, on her knees and staring resolutely at the ground. Before her stood her sha-copy, laughing as she brought a fist crashing down against her skull. Akabeko staggered, righted herself, and waited for the next blow. The sha-copy's knuckles were split and ragged, and Weipon could smell the foul black blood from where she was.
Letting out a furious cry, she propelled herself into the tauren-shaped sha, channeling all of her remaining strength into wiping it from existence. It looked at her in obvious annoyance and said, in perfect Pandaren, "You are entirely too much trouble," before ramming one blade-shaped shadowy appendage into her gut.
Losing all semblance of tauren features, the shadow retreated, flowing to rejoin the Sha of Doubt's quivering mass. It sneered at the remaining pandaren, its grotesque mouth a too-wide gash in its face that glowed bright white.
Weipon stopped watching, although she was dimly aware of the sounds of fighting and the overwhelming presence of something ancient and benevolent hovering just outside the doors. Her hands skittered over the hole in her tunic, where the shadow-stuff had punched through the leather of her chestpiece and sliced neatly into the soft flesh beneath. Blood seeped unendingly from the wound, and it reeked as if infected. She knew she should press against it, staunch the flow, but it hurt so much to even touch...!
Tears blurred her vision and her breaths became shallow pants. As panic began to set in, however, a face swam before her eyes.
"Wei. Wei! Weipon!" Then, unexpectedly, in Pandaren, "Weipon, look at me!"
She concentrated until the face came into focus. Akabeko looked inflated, cheeks and lips split from being beaten, nasty bruises puffing up along her jaw.
"There you are," she continued in Orcish, hands covering Weipon's to press them firmly against the wound. "You got your happy bell on you?" When this earned little more than a panicked gasp, she shook her head. "All right, that's not terrible. We made it this far without one, right?" While Akabeko talked, Weipon could feel a faint, warm tingling around the wound. "This is hardly the worst thing I've ever seen," she continued, all bravado. "I've got it all under control; don't you worry."
Weipon gave a tiny shriek as the pain spiked. The scent of decaying flesh thickened, prickling across her skin as it spread up her ribcage, down to her hips.
Akabeko's face contorted, and she laughed bitterly. "Just like riding a plainstrider; you do it once, you never forget how," she muttered. The warmth under her hands increased to a light tickle. "Come on," the druid continued, mostly to herself. "If you can't even do this, what good are you anyway? She got you this far; you owe her twice that." She groaned, a long, bitter wail, and squeezed her hands around Weipon's.
Briefly, Akabeko's eyes glazed over blue, and the sensation at Weipon's middle increased to a comforting pulse of heat that thrummed through her body.
She could feel the very unpleasant moment when her skin knit itself back together, followed by an itch that crawled its way across her skin as the infected flesh returned to normal. Weipon clumsily pulled up her shirt, running her fingers over the space where a hole had been opened into her guts. Now there was only smooth, unbroken skin and healthy fur.
Akabeko sat back with a great sigh. Breathing heavily, she absently brushed a handful of clinging vines and leaves from her forearms. She looked at Weipon and smiled wryly, revealing a freshly-chipped tooth. "Let's never do that again," she suggested, and helped Weipon to her feet.
Sometime after defeating the sha doppelgangers, the monks had managed to open the doors for Yu'lon and defeat the weakened Sha. They were taking stock of their losses when Akabeko and Weipon rejoined them, and Weipon gratefully accepted a reassuring hug from Peng. He looked haunted, as did many of the other pandaren who were clearly still dwelling on whatever doubts their sha-copies had thrown at them. Weipon glanced at Akabeko, recalling the brutal scene she had witnessed, but the tauren's face was a careful mask.
The Sha is not completely gone, but merely imprisoned once again, Yu'lon said solemnly. Without my rebirth, I am too weak now to do more to contain it. She shut her enormous, liquid eyes in apology. I thank you for your service, my loyal followers.
The pandaren smiled wearily at each other, pleased that for the time being their beloved Temple and its beloved deity were safe.
Next: A Dream