Previously: The Emptiness
"What are you doing here, Ken-Ken?" Hadakha
hissed at the dripping hozen.
"Ken-Ken on important quest! Gonna find Hidden Master,
continue training!" he said, drawing himself up proudly. Then he
deflated, looking back at the miserable village. "Something bad
happen here, though. Villagers all sad and sulky, 'cept innkeep. He
just a jerk. Chase me out!"
"What happened, do you know?"
"Nah, nobody talk to me. Nobody do nothin', really. Just sit
there, or walk around for no reason."
"There is definitely something very wrong about this place,
Ken-Ken. It's unnatural."
"Yes! Ken-Ken made camp not far from here, to keep watch. You
should come, Senpai. It not safe to stay in village overnight,
Ken-Ken think." He motioned for Hadakha to follow, but the
tauren frowned in worry.
"My friends are coming. I need to stop them from entering the
village until we figure out what is going on..."
"You mean those friends?" Ken-Ken pointed at the inn,
where Weipon was trying to unobtrusively support Akabeko as she
dragged herself wearily up the stairs into the light. Hadakha watched
helplessly as they disappeared inside. The hozen eyed him warily,
then licked his lips. "It too late now, Senpai. We should not go
there, might get caught in nasty sickness too. Come." With a
sigh, Hadakha followed his companion into the rainforest.
They made their way to the small camp that Ken-Ken had set up not
far from the village. While they settled in for the night, Ken-Ken
regaled him with the story of how he and his fellow students began
their quest to find the Hidden Master. Hadakha listened with half an
ear, thinking about what he could do to fix whatever was wrong with
the villagers. Eventually, they slept.
The next morning was as dreary and damp as the previous evening,
and during their brief breakfast he quizzed Ken-Ken on what he had
learned so far. The information was, sadly, very unhelpful, and he
only asked his companion for suggestions out of habit rather than a
sense of expectation of useful advice. So the response he got was a
"Ken-Ken have plenty ideas! Was going to start with old hozen
medicine for the sads. Always work! Wanna help?"
"Uh, sure, ok. What do we need?"
"You go get honey from nib-stabber nests. Ken-Ken can take
care of rest. Meet back here in couple of hours."
"Alright. I'll see you then."
It didn't take long for him to find the hives, as the buzzing was
much louder than from similar places in Azeroth. The part that took
time was finding something to carry the combs in once he realised he
had nothing useful on him. Hunting around, he eventually found some
broad, thick leaves that would keep off the rain when folded over.
Job done, he headed back to the camp and waited patiently for Ken-Ken
He heard the hozen coming long before he saw him. Muttering loudly
to himself, Ken-Ken pushed through the brush around the camp and
nodded at Hadakha as he dumped some dead fish and what looked to be
some sort of moss onto the ground.
"Okay! Now we need panda. You wanna take medicine to them, or
bring them to us?"
"Well, I'd like to minimise our exposure to whatever is in
the village, so I think it would be best if we brought a pandaren out
into the forest."
Ken-Ken nodded sagely. "Good thinking. You get panda out here
while Ken-Ken make medicine?"
"I can do that. I'll come and get you when I have someone..."
He watched for a moment as Ken-Ken happily sorted through his
ingredients, then took off towards the village. He spent some time
observing the inhabitants, until finally he caught sight of a pair of
pandaren making their way along the muddy paths. The way they moved
showed more purpose and energy than anything he'd seen so far, and
they were obviously conversing as they went. As they approached a
once-brightly-painted house with what appeared to be a sign over the
door, he caught a glimpse of a face as one turned to the other. It
definitely looked like Weipon...where was Akabeko? She must still be
at the inn. He hoped it was through choice, and not due to illness
that she was still indoors. Druids tended to avoid being confined
inside buildings all day if they could help it, so if she hadn't left
the inn since her arrival then it didn't bode well.
All the more reason to help Ken-Ken get this medicine working as
quickly as possible. Even as he thought it, his attention was drawn
to a haggard-looking pandaren wearing a motley assortment of armour,
some of it almost falling off and all of it muddy and ill-cared for.
The guard had dropped his weapon and was plodding out into the
forest, listlessly pushing through the undergrowth. He had his
Stalking the guard was easy. He paid no attention to his
surroundings, simply taking the path of least resistance and making
his way vaguely south, in the direction of the Krasarang jungle. At
first curious as to where he was going, Hadakha soon grew bored with
the monotonous pace. But he still had the problem of how to get the
pandaren back to the camp. He'd been in situations like this before,
staking out villages that had become plagued by sickness, and the
first rule he'd learned was: don't expose yourself to the contagion.
No physical contact with the inhabitants, and ideally no proximity
either. You can't help them if you are struck down as well.
Of course, that was when he could send for assistance from the
Council, when his role was primarily that of an observer. Here, he
had no help to call upon – the only druids he knew of were already
here, the Horde forces had been scattered at the battle in the Jade
Forest, and he had very little understanding of the local geography.
In the end it might mean that he needed to investigate the village up
close, but for now he had to minimise risk to himself. He was a
little concerned that Ken-Ken had apparently been into the village
already, but there was nothing to be done about that now. He'd just
have to keep a sharp eye on the hozen for any symptoms of illness.
The guard had stopped. At first Hadakha thought he'd run out of
steam – a few times now, he'd slowly come to a stop for no apparent
reason, before gathering his willpower and forcing himself onward –
but that notion was quickly dispelled when he heard a low, menacing
purr from the other side of the guard. Silently he stalked around to
get a better view, only to see a pair of lithe, inky-black feline
shapes emerge from the underbrush, spreading out to flank the hapless
guard. Rather than try to flee, though, the guard slumped to his
knees, sighing in a mixture of resignation and relief. Was this why
he'd come out here? The thought stunned Hadakha.
But only for a moment. He had to act fast if he was going to save
this pandaren and get him back to Ken-Ken. Muttering a spell, he
called on the trees to bind one of the panthers in place. As the
roots snaked out of the ground to entangle the legs of the big cat,
he shifted into bear form and charged the other one with a roar. It
shrank back, as if to turn and run, but then yowled in rage and flung
itself at him. He slapped it out of the air, neck snapping loudly as
it pinwheeled away. The other cat, maddened enough to break free of
the roots, also came at him in a spitting, snarling frenzy, and he
only barely managed to protect his eyes from the assault.
He did receive a few minor cuts through his thick hide before
finally pinning the panther down and crushing the life from it. As it
died, he caught a faint whuff of decay on its final exhalation. It
was a stench he recognised, from the Temple of the Jade Serpent.
Shifting to heal himself, he glanced over at the guard while he
inspected the bodies. The pandaren was still on his knees, eyes
closed, waiting. He didn't appear injured, which was good. Hadakha
turned his attention back to the panthers. It was odd enough that
they hunted together, but he'd never even heard of a cat like this
attacking a bear over twice it's size! If the sha were involved,
however, it could explain the aberrant behaviour. The fur did look
quite brittle and dry...
Suspicion flashed into his mind. He looked sharply back at the
guard, still slumped in the mud. Warily, he slowly approached the
figure, ready to leap away in an instant. It had been difficult to
tell until now, due to the gloom, the rain, and the mud crusting up
his fur, but now Hadakha knew what to look for, he could see the
telltale grey tinge to the previously white patches of the guard's
hide. So. Probably not a disease then. He prodded the guard's
"Hey. Get up."
The pandaren opened his eyes and gazed around blankly. He focused
on the tauren standing before him, and closed his eyes again.
Finally, sighing in resignation, he dragged himself to his feet.
Hadakha waved in the direction of their camp.
"This way. We're going to get you some help."
The guard stared dully at him for a while, then shrugged and
turned towards the direction shown. They trudged through the forest
in silence, Hadakha discovering early on that his questions would not
even be acknowledged. Finally they made it to the camp. Ken-Ken
jumped up eagerly when they appeared. "Yes! Good! You come to
the right hozen! Got your cure here. Drink up!" He thrust a bowl
of sludge at the pandaren, who made no move to take it.
"Come on, mopesy! This always work!" Finally the guard
reached out and lifted the bowl to his mouth, baring his fangs a
little at the smell. Then, in one swift motion, he threw his head
back and poured the contents down his throat. All three stood there
in expectant silence, awaiting the results, which manifested rapidly.
Dropping the bowl, the guard clutched his belly.
"Wha-....what did you do to me?" he rasped painfully,
before a loud gurgle sounded from his stomach and he began to stagger
towards the bushes. Hadakha made to assist him, but his hozen
companion signaled him to wait, and – somewhat doubtfully – he
restrained himself. They could hear the pandaren moaning as he
crashed through the brush, and although the sounds of distress didn't
get too distant, Hadakha was not convinced that Ken-Ken's plan was
working as intended.
He eyed the hozen. "What did you just give him, Ken-Ken?"
"Medicine for the spooky-dooks!"
"Dooks get scared sometimes, don't wanna come out. This get's
'em out! Pandaren gonna be happy for sure!"
Hadakha's eyes widened as he pieced together just what the hozen
meant. "You mean..."
The hozen drew himself up proudly and nodded. "Yup! Like ol'
Gramma used to say: can't throw if can't go!"
Hadakha massaged his brow. "Oh dear. Ohhhh dear. Just- just
go and bring him back, Ken-Ken. Somehow I don't think he's going to
Ken-Ken scowled at him. "Always work! No chance he still be a
mopey-dope now!" But he went off to follow the moaning
regardless, leaving Hadakha to ponder their next move. He was still
considering the implications of a sha presence when the hozen
returned, all but dragging a reluctant guard behind him.
"Huh. Didn't work." he grunted sourly. "But,"
he brightened "Ken-Ken got 'nother idea!"
"Please, not another medicine..." the pandaren said
wearily. Hadakha looked at his companion with a sceptical eye.
"Nope! We gonna have some FUN! Okay, need to do some
woodwork, but if Senpai can get some teeth, we can make do with stuff
we got here. Try and get big teeth, like panther ones!"
"Ken-Ken, if this is another-"
"No no, this go way WAY back, to ancient times. Hozen still
do this sometimes. Mostly at parties..."
"It works! Senpai will see! Just need those teeth for final
"...Fine. I'll be back soon." He stabbed a finger at the
pandaren. "Keep an eye on him!"
Ken-Ken nodded absently as Hadakha left, sorting through the store
of semi-dry wood they had collected that morning for the campfire. He
made his way back to where the corpses of the panthers lay, and an
hour later he had a collection of teeth for his trouble. When he
returned, he found Ken-Ken with a mask in front of him, tongue
sticking out the side of his mouth while he drew lines and shapes in
charcoal on the wood. He placed the bundle of teeth next to the hozen
and sat back to watch the rest of the assembly, curiosity failing to
overcome the sense of futility for the endeavour.
Finally, satisfied with his handiwork, Ken-Ken held up the mask.
"Nobody can be sad when they wearin' a mask like this!" he
declared. He waggled it in front of his face, laughing. "Okay
mopey-dope, time to test this FUN MACHINE!"
With visible trepidation, the pandaren allowed Ken-Ken to fix the
mask in place. They all waited for something to happen, to no avail.
"Maybe dance around a bit." Ken-Ken suggested. "Try
havin' fun!" All the guard could manage was a vague shuffle from
foot to foot, to the hozen's disappointment. He sighed. "Maybe
only works for hozen," he said, "'cause hozen know how to –
woah, that weird."
The mask had started smoking. The guard reached up, trying to
remove it, but it wouldn't budge. It seemed melded to his face. The
smoking increased, and the pandaren became more and more agitated,
desperately trying to claw the mask off. Just as Hadakha decided to
step in and do something – anything – the smoke blackened and
thickened, pooling on the ground in front of them as the guard
abruptly stopped struggling.
The oily smoke rose up, coalescing into a familiar shape. That
rotten stench he remembered from the Jade Forest assailed him as the
sha took form. Ken-Ken jumped back in dismay. "What the ook is
Hadakha grimaced. "Sha." He shifted into lionform,
preparing to pounce on the sha once it solidified. Neither of them
paid any attention to the guard crumpling to the ground as the sha
exited his body. Sensing his moment, Hadakha leapt at the black
shape, but with surprising speed it slithered out of his reach and
bore down on Ken-Ken.
The hozen yipped in terror and dodged around, more concerned with
keeping the sinuous tendrils from reaching him than landing any
counterattacks. Hadakha tore into it from behind, ripping chunks out
of the body and twisting away from the claws that turned on him.
Ken-Ken, seeing the damage Hadakha was doing, regained his composure
and began pummeling the sha himself. Under their combined onslaught,
the sha was quickly dealt with, and they took a moment to centre
themselves again before checking on the guard.
When several minutes of attempts to wake him did not work, Hadakha
brought him close to the campfire and covered him well. Then he
turned to Ken-Ken. "This is what is wrong with the villagers. We
have to find some help – this is too big for us alone." He
bent down and picked up the mask. It was charred and warped, the
silly face twisted into a horrific visage now. "Clearly we can't
use this again. Can you make more? We'll need plenty if we want to
help these people."
The hozen looked down at the unconcious pandaren and nodded
sombrely. "Just need panther teeth once these used up. No
problem. What you gonna do, Senpai?"
"I was on my way to the Temple of the Red Crane before we
stopped here. I'm thinking that the monks there will be able to help
us. I'm not sure how long it'll take to get there and back, so just
make as many masks as you can until then, ok?" Barely waiting
for Ken-Ken's assent, he turned and flowed into lionform, trotting
out into the wilderness.
* * *
Despair threatened to well up in him as he approached the edge of
the Krasarang jungle, heading back to Zhu and the suddenly much
larger, much more dangerous task before him. The journey to the
Temple of the Red Crane had been uneventful, if arduous. It had taken
only an hour for him to give up on ground travel and take to the air,
even if it was merely skimming the canopy for a few hundred yards at
a time before ducking back undercover. He wasn't about to take any
chances with cloud serpents on this mission. Even so, it had taken
the rest of the day and all night to reach the Temple.
It was with dismay that he looked down on the abandoned complex,
the only movement that of sha as they defiled the once-holy ground.
He spent most of the morning in careful reconnaissance, hoping to
discover a bastion of resistance or a rescue party somewhere, but it
was not to be. After a short rest, he started back empty-handed.
Now, after another journey through the night and morning, he
pushed down the despair, the doubt, the hopelessness at the mission
in front of him. He couldn't afford to travel back to the Jade
Forest, there was no time to spare here. It was up to him and
Shouts from ahead spurred him into greater speed. It sounded like
battle. He burst into the clearing, ready to pounce on whatever
needed pouncing. Either the sha-possessed villagers had decided to
eliminate the threat that Ken-Ken posed, or he'd found -
Next: The Masks