Previously: The Despair
Padding through the Temple gates, with the salty sea breeze at his back, Hadakha paused as a high-pitched voice called out from the bridge.
He veered towards the cub sitting on the wide ledge, and his eyes narrowed as he approached. This child looked familiar. She stared at him solemnly as he sat in front of her and shifted into his natural form.
"We thank you for your actions, tauren. It is good to learn that not all those from beyond the mists are bent on destruction." He dipped his head in acknowledgment, but the cub frowned sternly.
"However, the Sha have been released, and not just here in the Jade Forest. My rebirth has been delayed, and I must conserve my energy. The days ahead are full of turmoil and struggle. We cannot afford to waste our strength on fighting each other."
"I understand, Ancient One. The druids of the Cenarion Circle have long been above the factional warfare that brought your statue to ruin. Unfortunately, we only have a limited amount of influence over the leaders of the Alliance and the Horde."
"Then, if you wish to help us save our homes, our families, our very lives, you must act with courage and wisdom, tauren."
"My reports will urge my superiors to increase their efforts to rein in the hostilities that are plaguing our peoples. Other than that, until I learn more about the Sha and how to fight them, I am afraid that I can do little to prevent more outbreaks of war here."
"You underestimate yourself. There are few survivors of this battle, and those who did have been sent far away. The fate of Pandaria lies elsewhere now."
"I agree. I believe the Shado-Pan hold at least some of the answers I need, and I intend to find them. For the moment, though, I think my friends need me. You sent Akabeko and Weipon on a mission, I heard. Might I know what that was?"
"Indeed. They are making their way into the Krasarang Wilds to the south, to visit the Temple of the Red Crane. They will stop at Zhu. It will test their characters in ways that could change them forever."
Hadakha frowned. "You sent them into danger?"
"There is danger everywhere now, tauren. You have seen this."
"That is true, but...when I slept, yesterday after the battle...I dreamt of Akabeko. There was something wrong with her. And today I learned that her wounds would not heal. She is a powerful healer! Something bad is happening to her, I know it is. Why would you not help her?"
"What Akabeko suffers is nothing I can help with, tauren. She must face this herself. Her friends can give her support, nothing else. Until she comes to terms with her inner darkness, she will remain -"
The cub stared at him for a long moment before answering. "Troubled."
He pondered that for a while. Finally he said "Then I will have to give her as much help as I can. I should catch up with them by nightfall if I leave now..."
"The best way you can help is to understand her troubles. To do that you need to observe. Her pain runs deep, and only careful attention will allow you to discover it."
"My thanks, Ancient One. I hope that your encounters with the Horde will fare better in the future." He stood as the cub nodded.
"Your people will play a central part in the future of this land, for good or for ill. And as you affect the land, the land shall also affect you. Be aware of this, always."
He shifted into lionform, dipped his horns to the cub, then turned and loped across the bridge into the valley.
* * *
It took longer than he'd expected to catch up to Akabeko and Weipon. He finally found them thanks to the fire they'd made...and Weipon's unusual stringed instrument sending sharp, clear notes into the darkness.
Mindful of the cub's warning, he settled in where he could observe the camp, and studied the two companions intently. Weipon sat tall, composed, her eyes closed as she lost herself in her music. Opposite her, Akabeko slouched on a log and stared into the flames listlessly. The contrast was shockingly different from what he remembered of their time in Orgrimmar. Eventually, Weipon finished her playing and packed away her instrument, said something to Akabeko – probably a good night – and lay down to sleep. As soon as she did so, Akabeko automatically reached for her pack and produced a bottle. He watched as his friend spent the next few hours drinking herself into unconsciousness.
The pattern continued over the following days. At first the two women seemed to get along like he'd always known, except for the covert drinking while Weipon slept. But as the days passed he noticed less and less conversation between them, and while Weipon looked more worried, Akabeko just looked...worn out. She spent most of the time silent, staring into the distance, and moved slowly and carefully, as if in pain. Yet he did not once see her cast any healing spells on herself. It baffled him. Perhaps the Red Crane could help her? If what the cub had said was true, then maybe Chi-Ji was her best hope. They just had to get past this Zhu place quickly.
As they approached the village near the border of the jungle, the weather turned nasty and wet. But something about the area felt strange to him. His hackles seemed to be permanently raised, but he couldn't detect any reason why. Was it something to do with the village? He decided to scout ahead to check it out.
He spent an hour creeping around the outskirts, observing the activity within and trying to pinpoint the source of his unease. The village was very subdued for this time of day – people should be returning to their homes to eat. The clouds had not broken at all, but he was confident in his sense of time, despite the early darkness. Yet there were only a couple of lonely pandaren trudging wearily through the mud between houses. Hardly any lights were shining in windows...were the villagers somewhere else?
Deeply unsatisfied, he made one last circuit of the village to get to the main road back towards Weipon and Akabeko. Halfway round and he spied a figure in the mud. It looked like a pandaren man, just...sitting there in the rain. The dark fur had hidden him before, Hadakha had only spotted him because he was now silhouetted against the lights in the inn. How long had he been there? What was wrong with this place?
He froze as a squelch sounded behind him. The rain eased a little, bringing the scent of hozen to his nostrils. Instantly he dodged right, then spun around and launched himself in the direction of the sound. He heard a yip of surprise as he burst through the foliage, but the hozen threw itself onto its back and pushed up with its legs, helping him sail over the creature harmlessly. He slid around, ready to charge back in, and the hozen was back on its feet, ready to meet him. The way it stood gave him pause...then, to his amazement, its eyes widened and it snapped to attention, bowing quickly. “Senpai! Please forgive me, I did not recognise you!”
He studied it for several seconds before recognition dawned. Then he shifted out of lionform to greet the newcomer.
Next: The Emptiness