Previously: Lost Temple
Weipon was startled out of a fitful sleep by frantic banging on the door. She disentangled herself clumsily from the sheets and stumbled to to door, only to find Mei pacing frantically on the other side. Weipon stepped outside and shut the door behind her.
"Mei, what's the matter?"
The other pandaren wasted no time. "Yi-mo's missing! I woke up this morning and he was gone. He left a note, but all it says is 'don't come after me.' Like I'm just going to let him go!"
"Oh dear. I guess now is a bad time to mention that I went down to the lake yesterday but didn't find any sha..." Weipon muttered, wiping her bleary eyes. Mei's expression fell further, and Weipon realized why she had come to the inn. "Right, give me just a moment." She gestured awkwardly to her rumpled self. "I'll go looking for him too."
Relieved, Mei nodded. "I'm going to look around on the south side of the village. The guards that actually feel like getting out of bed tend to go that way. Maybe one of them saw him..."
"Good idea," Weipon agreed. "I'll check the northern border of the town. If neither of us finds anything, I'l try looking in the woods."
Mei gulped. "I hope he didn't go into the woods..."
"I'm sure he didn't," Weipon reassured her. "We'll find him."
Weipon dressed quickly, vainly choosing dry clothes that would soon be ruined by her permanently-damp cloak. Before she left, she looked over at Akabeko to check on her.
"Aka..." she murmured, not entirely sure what to say.
The tauren looked even more wretched than she had the previous day. Weipon gritted her jaw to keep from gasping. She did let out a tiny gasp when, unexpectedly, the tauren's gaze slid to her face.
"I..." she began weakly. "I think I might be in trouble, Wei."
The monk nodded mutely, suspicions confirmed. Fu let out a plaintive whine. Weipon finally found her voice and gently placed a hand on the tauren's shoulder. "Yeah. We'll figure it out."
Akabeko's gaze once again turned inward, and Weipon went out into the rain.
A passable tracker, Weipon was able to pick out a great many animal trails just outside of the town. She was confused by the erratic, shambling nature of the tracks until she recalled what Mei had said about the town's malaise affecting the wildlife. Finally, she picked up a different trail and followed it eagerly, hoping to find Yi-mo quickly and get back to the important work of curing the villagers.
The trail led her to a small encampment that had her pull up short of entering. There's no way Yi-mo would have come out here and built this, she thought, quietly circling the camp. There was a small tent and a doused cooking fire, and a variety of cleaned animal parts strewn about the ground. For the moment, she couldn't detect any signs of life around the camp. She lingered, torn between wanting to investigate and wanting to find Yi-mo. In the end, she reluctantly left the camp, resolving to return once Yi-mo was safe. There was no telling what might happen to him once night fell.
Time was hard to gauge with the sun so hidden behind the thunderous clouds, but it was some time before Weipon found another trail that was fresh enough to be Yi-mo's. The plodding tracks led away from the village, far enough that the clouds thinned, allowing watery sunlight to slip through. Near the edge of a sudden rise to bluffs, she found a male pandaren sprawled pathetically on the ground.
He didn't react when she approached him cautiously.
"...Yi-mo?" Weipon said unnecessarily. "Your aunt has been looking for you."
Still face down, he groaned, "Go away."
Weipon blinked. She hadn't thought it would be easy, but something about his demeanor seemed different from the other forlorn pandaren she had seen in the village.
"I'll just tell you that I'm not going away. In fact, I'm going to bring you back to the village and we are going to cure everyone."
Yi-mo gave no sign of having heard her. Briefly, a ray of sunlight made it's way to the ground, played across her face, and winked out. It heartened her but appeared to have no effect on the younger pandaren. He turned his head slightly to peer at her.
"Are you still here? Go away and leave me to die already. Tell my aunt that it's better this way."
Compassion, Weipon thought. I'll just have to dig deep. She settled down beside him, intending to talk him into returning with her. "You should know, Yi-mo, that whatever it is that's troubling you is only temporary. Your aunt and I are working hard on a way to make it stop. Once we do that, you'll feel right as rain." She winced at her unintentional wording.
She glanced at his unresponsive form, unconsciously comparing it with Akabeko's teary face. They were in trouble if Weipon didn't figure something out soon. She had thought she had something with searching for the sha, but with none of the monsters in sight, she was beginning to fear that there would be no solution aside from simply fleeing the village.
Lost in thought, she almost didn't notice the shadow that was gradually growing over them until its owner announced itself with a screech. Diving out of the way, Weipon managed to turn and kick a spark of energy at the massive plainshawk angling towards Yi-mo.
The ball of energy exploded in the plainshawk's face, sending sparks of green and orange skittering across its feathers. With a frustrated screech, it flapped its powerful wings in an attempt to regain altitude. Over the din, Weipon could hear Yi-mo shouting, but when she focused on his words, she felt a spike of annoyance.
"Come on, bird! Finish it!" Yi-mo cried. "Put me out of my misery already! I won't put up a fight!"
Weipon sent a shock of electricity up to the plainshawk to further discourage it from attempting to attack again. She was surprised when Yi-mo rolled over.
"What did you do that for?" he whined, watching the plainshawk fly away in defeat. "That would have made things so much quicker."
"I told you that I wasn't going to leave you here to die," Weipon retorted irritably. With a sudden flash of inspiration, she added, "If you're not going to go back to the village on your own, then I'll make you go!"
She crouched down at his side and dug her fingers underneath him, lifting his massive girth and rolling him over with a grunt. He went bonelessly, although that didn't stop him from protesting.
"Stop that! I came out here to die in peace!"
Weipon rolled him again, already regretting the repetitive motion. "If you-don't-like-it," she gritted out, rolling him with each word, "get-up-and-fight-me." She gave him another nudge, getting two full rotations out of it. Yi-mo reacted with an eloquent moan.
Halfway to the village and Weipon's arms and legs were quivering with the continued effort. She paused, sitting down to catch her breath, and was shocked when Yi-mo began to pathetically drag himself back towards the bluffs. Infuriated, she leaped to her feet, grabbed his ankles, and began to drag him in the opposite direction. He protested, but made no move to escape.
Ignoring his complaints, Weipon couldn't stop herself from berating him. "As much as I'm for people doing what they want, I can't sit by and let you die. Not when I know this isn't really you talking." Her heel hit a rock, and she stumbled backwards and onto her rear. Yi-mo glared balefully at her as she picked herself up and resumed her task. "I don't know how, but we are going to find a way to stop this." She sucked in air, torn between sobbing and screaming, and gave a particularly vicious tug at his foot. "You'll be back to normal, because I'm running out of options, and I don't know how to take care of myself in this place, let alone a full-grown tauren, and you were supposed to be the one who knew what to do and would teach me..."
Weipon pressed her hands to her eyes, chest heaving with effort, and was mercifully interrupted by Mei's sudden cry. Without realizing it, she had finally made it back to the village.
Weipon stepped away, allowing Mei to tearfully embrace her protesting nephew. Half-listening to Mei half-heartedly berate the younger pandaren for being so foolish, Weipon got herself back under control. For a moment, she had felt icy fingers of panic stealing up over her good humor. Now that she suspected the sha's influence on the town, she was terrified of succumbing to it.
Hands grasped her forearms, bringing her out of her thoughts. "Thank you, Weipon," Mei said. "I was so afraid that something would happen to him..." She released Weipon to haul Yi-mo to his feet. "Let's get you home, grumpy," she told him fondly.
"I'm just going to go check on something," Weipon said to their retreating backs. Squaring her shoulders, she retraced her earlier steps to the camp, on the lookout for its inhabitants.
The camp had evidently been visited in her absence; the animals parts she had seen previously were gathered more purposefully, arranged next to what appeared to be a stack of wooden ovals and - strangely - a pile of charred chunks from the fire.
She crept forward, eyeing the campground warily for signs of its owner. Up close, she could see that the wooden ovals were being made into masks, sketched faces sporting goofy grins and embellished with panther teeth. A small collection of finished masks were drying in haphazard rows by the banked fire.
Engrossed in the strange art project, Weipon failed to notice the camp's owner returning until he was stepping into the clearing. The sudden sound of off-key singing roused Weipon, but her well-trained reflexes allowed her to react quickly, and she darted across the camp, preparing to engage him in combat.
The hozen, evidently not expecting intruders, let out a high-pitched battlecry, dropped his materials, and put up his fists. Sizing her up, he asked, "You sad panda too? Come to get cure for the sads?"
That immediately intrigued Weipon, who relaxed her aggressive stance and held up her hands placatingly. "A cure? What kind of cure?"
The hozen peered at her for a moment, then dropped his defensive fists as well. "You...Senpai Hadakha's friend? Ken-Ken saw you with other tauren."
"Hadakha? Yes, I know him. We are in the same guild. How do you know him? Who are you?"
"Ken-Ken Senpai's hozen friend. We trained together at Tian Monastery, then meet here when Ken-Ken looking for hidden master. Hidden master not here, but there are lots of sad pandas! Already find cure, but now Ken-Ken has to make it for every single panda! Take way too much time." Having decided that Weipon was not a threat, the hozen began to gather his dropped materials and bring them to be sorted into the piles at his work area.
Weipon hurried to join him, looking closely at the masks now that they appeared to have a specific use. "So you found a cure? What is it? What's hurting the pandaren?"
Ken-Ken picked up a hunk of charcoal and began to doodle a lopsided winking face onto a mask. "Slow down, panda! Most pandaren not so hasty as you. These happy masks make the sads come out of the pandas. But then, the sads like to fight, and Ken-Ken not so good at butt-punching. Can't go help more pandas until Senpai come back."
"What do you mean by 'the sads'?" Weipon prompted.
Ken-Ken added comically long eyelashes to the mask and giggled at his handiwork. "Well, Senpai called the sads sha, but Ken-Ken never seen them before. Didn't recognize them! Really scary dookers."
A cold calmness settled over Weipon. By all accounts, this was good news. The source of the malady that plagued the village had been discovered, and better yet, there was a cure of some sort. Her mind flashed first to the towering monster that had destroyed the serpent statue, then to the creature that attacked her while wearing her own face, then to Akabeko passively allowing herself to be pummeled, and finally to the same Akabeko, cowering pathetically under her covers. The sha were terrifying, and although Weipon was eager to drive them from the town, the thought of fighting them again unnerved her.
Gathering her thoughts, she tried to make herself useful. "Can I help you make the masks? How do they work, anyway?"
Ken-Ken pointed to what appeared to be a pot of sticky adhesive. "Take sticky gum and put funny teeth in the masks. They add elegance, really pull mask together." He gestured to a charred, twisted lump some ways away. "Don't touch, but that mask made sha come out. That plus Ken-Ken's special medicine, sad panda cleaned inside and out!"
Weipon scooted closer to inspect the lump. It had once been one of the wooden masks, but the smiling features had been twisted into a fearsome grimace, and the wood was warped unnaturally. It certainly looked like the work of the sha.
Obediently, she seated herself beside Ken-Ken and began to affix teeth to the silly grins decorating the masks. Ken-Ken continued to decorate his masks, chuckling to himself as the wacky expressions came to life.
"So, other tauren, she got the spooky dooks? If so, Ken-Ken know just the thing."
"I thought that she was sick, but I think she might be infected with the sha as well. Although I guess the only way to confirm that is to give her a mask?"
Ken-Ken nodded. "Guess so. Probably better to have mask than special hozen medicine. Not so easy on the stomach. But very effective!"
Weipon was beginning to suspect what the effect of the medicine was and pointedly did not ask any more about it. "So where is Hadakha now, anyway? Wasn't he here with you?"
"Senpai went to get help from monks at Temple of Red Crane. When they get back, we can start butt-punching sha! Then everybody happy again!"
They continued to work, and the pile of finished masks grew. Although they could not see the sunset, when Ken-Ken began to build up the fire, Weipon knew she should be getting back to Akabeko. She expressed this to Ken-Ken, who offered to walk her back to the inn.
"Don't worry about it," she told him. "I can take care of myself. I'll be back tomorrow after sunrise to help you finish them."
"Sure thing! Ken-Ken nearly have enough for whole village!"
She left him, still hunched over the pile of masks, and returned to the inn. Akabeko had disappeared under her blankets, and Fu was curled desolately in the corner. Neither acknowledged Weipon when she let herself into the room and prepared for bed. She slept uneasily, both excited at the prospect of finally making progress on the sha infestation and balking at the very idea.
Still ignored by her roommates, Weipon descended to the common room the following morning and was not at all surprised to see that it was once again drizzling, just hard enough to be troublesome. She donned her cloak and went to meet Ken-Ken, who she found still asleep in his tent, twitching lightly.
"Ken-Ken," she muttered, not unkindly, and gave him a nudge.
"Not in the dooker..." he slurred, rolling over. "Okay, maybe a little."
"Wake up!" Weipon repeated, jumping back when he awoke, exploding from the tent and landing awkwardly on the dirt.
The hozen saw that it was Weipon and stood quickly, dusting himself off. "Good morning," he said politely. "Ken-Ken finished all of the masks, stayed up really late drawing and gluing! Very impressive stuff, not to peel own banana."
"You're finished?" Weipon asked, looking around the camp. The hozen had gathered the completed masks into several large sacks, waiting to be brought to the village and put to good use. "In that case, should we bring them to the village and get started?"
Ken-Ken frowned uncertainly. "Ken-Ken not sure he could fight the sads all by his onesies. Does Weipon have any butt-punching experience?"
Weipon blinked. "I, uh, I'm trained in various styles of martial arts. And I've fought sha before." The hozen remained visibly skeptical. "Aka and I fought with Hadakha at the Temple of the Jade Serpent, when it was attacked by an army of small sha under the direction of an even greater Sha. There was, um, lots of butt-punching."
He still looked unconvinced. "If Weipon and Ken-Ken can't fight the sads, no other pandaren going to help out. Too busy fighting their own sads."
"Look, why don't we try it out on just one of the villagers? If you can nearly kill a sha, and I can completely kill a sha, we should be able to handle one between the two of us." Without waiting for his response, she grabbed two of the bags of masks and marched purposefully out of the camp. From behind her came Ken-Ken's reluctant squeak, followed by a sigh of defeat and the rustling of the remaining bags being gathered.
On the edge of the village, they watched one of the few guards out and about pace slowly on the path outside of the inn.
"You sure about this?" Ken-Ken asked, eyes wide in apprehension.
"I'm doing it," Weipon replied with forced confidence. She was eager to see how the masks worked. "You said that Hadakha successfully killed the sha that the mask summoned before, right?" Weipon confirmed, hoping that if he had managed it fine, she wouldn't have a problem.
Weipon approached the guard cautiously, holding a mask in her hand out like an offering. "Good morning, friend," she began, only knowing she had caught the pandaren's attention by the answering flick of her ears. "Don't be alarmed, but I've brought something that should make you feel better." Before the pandaren could react or object, Weipon carefully fitted the mask over her face, then stepped back and watched in horror as if fused itself to the unsuspecting woman, siphoning the soul-draining sha from her into a gruesome puddle of rank-smelling goo.
Ken-Ken squealed and scampered away before visibly steeling himself and loping back to her. "Sorry, Weipon! Too spooky for this dooky! Ken-Ken do his best!"
They went to work on the sha, Weipon keeping its attention focused on her while Ken-Ken attacked from behind. Fighting this sha was somehow different from the ones she had encountered back at the Jade Temple. Although its putrid, oily flesh felt the same, the sensations it inspired upon contact were different. Along with the constant, repulsive disgust she felt with every direct exposure to the shadow skin, she also felt drained, tired, melancholy. She stoically ignored these sensations and was relieved to feel them evaporate when the sha finally collapsed into a smoking pile of scraps.
"Good job, Weipon," Ken-Ken said seriously, flinging sha muck from his fists in disgust. "Sads not so spooky that time."
Breathing hard, Weipon stepped some feet away from the corpse and knelt to compose herself. She glanced up and was surprised to find herself staring into Mei's horrified face.
"Wei, what...what happened here?" Her eyes went from Weipon to the sha husk to the cured pandaren, who was now slumped weakly against the inn steps. "What's going on?"
Weipon gestured to the shadow slowly seeping into the damp ground. "This is the source of the village's misery. We found a way to expel the sha from the pandaren. The only problem is that they have to be fought and killed, so it might take a while." She stepped carefully around the blackened remains to check on the hopefully-healthy pandaren.
"She just need rest," the hozen said helpfully. "Other panda before only need good sleep and big meal. Ken-Ken help him go home yesterday."
"Hmm," Weipon said, glancing at Mei to gauge her reaction. The other woman seemed to be upset, eyes returning constantly to the sha remnants, but Weipon knew her steely resolve. "Mei, could you possibly see that the pandaren we cure are cared for?"
Nodding, Mei moved to help the other pandaren up from her steps and into the inn's common room. Weipon pointed down the path.
"We're going to head this way. I'll try to wait for you to let you know who needs help next."
She motioned for Ken-Ken to follow her, and he shouldered his bag.
They had successfully exorcised another three villagers when things got hairy. As Weipon was handling the fourth summoned sha, a surprisingly energetic pandaren who had plodded by looked into the bag Ken-Ken had abandoned while they dealt with the creatures. Weipon watched out of the corner of her eye as he dreamily brought a mask to his face, jerking when it practically leaped from his hand onto its target. Thinking quickly, Weipon moved to intercept this newly summoned sha, twisting to keep both focused on her. The combined soporific effect was too much, and she began to shout in time with her blows, hoping to banish the compulsion to simply lay down and sleep.
As the sha dropped, the second quickly following the first, Weipon stepped back in time to see a large bird coast to a stop farther up the path. It landed gracefully, then flowed upwards into a tauren-shaped silhouette.
She sat down, huffing out a laugh in relief. "Hadakha. I am so glad to see you."