Sharp snow blew over me from the mountains as I made my way down the Shado-Li Basin towards the Ox Gate. The sky turned a rich blue as I made my way through, passing the Serpent’s Spine into the Mantid territories. I entered the dark green plains of Townlong, which were bordered by rocky white cliffs.
This part of Townlong was still mainly yaungol-inhabited, and it took half an hour of sneaking around before I found the Shado-Pan encampment – they had taken over Longying Outpost, a village formerly of yaungol inhabitation. Around a bonfire, Taran Zhu held a council of war with Suna, Ban, and Taoshi and Yalia Sagewhisper, two Shado-Pan who I had not met before. Battles still happened over the borders, but this was the largest show of strength from the Shado-Pan I had seen outside of the Monastery. They meant business.
‘Welcome to Townlong Steppes. If you insist on wandering in the darkest places of Pandaria then far be it from me to not put you to good use.’ Taran Zhu bowed before me.
I was part of the discussion held later that morning, led by Suna.
‘Lord Taran, our foothold here is secure. We should take the first opportunity to attack.’
‘I disagree. We cannot underestimate the yaungol’s strength, or risk an attack en masse.’ Ban countered Suna’s argument.
‘We already have them on the defensive. Even as we speak, their numbers weaken.’
‘As do ours. Do you not see the number of our injured? Do you forget how many have been taken prisoner?’
‘I do not! YOU are the one who forgets my husband is one of the captives!’
Taran Zhu silenced the growing argument. ‘Settle down, you two! We have much to do, and getting Lin out alive is one of our top priorities. With the Sha of Hatred loose in the Steppes, divisions between members is the last thing we need. The yaungol are still desperate to remove our presence. We will need to go down to the front and drive them back before we can plan further. Mage, I know your marks of battle well. Go aid the troops.’
Directly across from Longying Outpost was Fire Camp Osul, where the yaungol attackers upon the Ox Gate had come from. Huge ballistas shot at us from it, and yaungol duelled with Shado-Pan all along the main road. I hurried down the hill and began to take out the yaungol attackers with fire and frost. The battle was deadlocked, and my aid meant that slowly we began to push the yaungol back from the perimeter, and take care of the wounded.
Despite this minor success, we remained outnumbered – those visible in Fire Camp Osul could easily push us back if they sent all their troops over. We would have to be content that they preferred to besiege us from afar. The perimeter marginally secured, I returned to the war council.
‘Good. You are as capable as our other soldiers. Forgive me, but while the others vouched for you, I had not seen you in combat against the yaungol myself. I hope to rely on your talents in the times to come. As soon as our reinforcements arrive, we will begin to push south.’ Taran addressed us all. ‘On the mesa to the west are the elite troops of Osul – its Sharphorns. We will let them know that we are unafraid of their threats and that we are aware of their weaknesses. The yaungol weakness here is the supply line. They do not have one. All of Osul’s food comes from its captive beasts – and mushan and yaks are easily disturbed. Finally, Osul uses highly-flammable, ever-burning pitch to ruin the homes of their enemies and coat their weapons in fire. We will obtain it, and show the yaungol that when you play with fire, you can get burned. I would accompany you, but a situation in the south requires my immediate attention. Ban, you are in charge for the duration of the mission here.’
Several of us split up and headed towards the outskirts of the Fire Camp, where the Sharphorns guarded the way. They were much stronger than the troops that assaulted the border, and it took longer to bring them down. While the others made ground and took the brewed pitch, I snuck into the herding grounds, opening gates and making sudden noises. Soon, the whole lower tier was filled with terrified, stampeding mushan and yaks, and I hurried up the mesa where we were to rendezvous. Ban and Suna were already there, and the others arrived shortly after.
‘We should attack them now, Ban, while their eyes are set upon the gates of Kun-Lai. Have you forgotten how they are holding my husband prisoner? Time is running out!’ She turned to me. ‘I hope you showed those cretins no mercy.’
As we recuperated, Ban spoke to me.
‘Suna and I do not always agree, but I respect her opinion. She wishes to save her husband, and that is a noble cause.’ I reported my success with freeing the beasts. ‘Hoho! I saw those animals trailing dust from up here. The yaungol are probably still wondering what happened.’
We spent noon carefully securing the pitch on the mesa. ‘The yaungol are not content merely to defeat their enemies. No, they would rather destroy and decimate them. This is very fresh. Good job, all. We will use these against them. We will cover our explosives with the pitch and use them to destroy their ballista spearthrowers, which are still tearing through our defenses. We’ll give the yaungol a taste of their own medicine.’
Suna took address for our next main aims, however. ‘The main thrust of the yaungol army is just ahead of us. They are preparing to attack the villages of Kun-Lai in a vast sweep. If we strike now we can cut down the Osul, their core. Every soldier you strike down is a life saved in the other provinces. The Marauders possess the keys to the cages of the prisoners. Their freedom is of paramount importance. If we make a decisive strike, the prisoners will feel the brunt of their anger. It is imperative that they are freed before that happens.’
We fought our way into the main grounds of Osul, where we split up again, each searching in different directions for prisoners to free and ballistas to destroy. On my own journey, I found a strange sight – a yaungol strung in chains to two beacons. He was clearly near his end.
‘What are you doing in chains, yaungol?’
‘What is there to say, stranger? I fought Jung Duk and lost. I was the fool to believe that he would fight fairly. Now my own brothers have turned against me, and here I am, speaking to our enemies. If you have come for Osul blood… hunt down the three that betrayed Katak. Urang, who poisoned my drink, Ku-Tong, who bent my spear, and Battat, whose dagger slipped into my side when my victory was assured. Then I may die in peace.’
I fought my way through to the east side of the camp, freeing Longying troops as I went, and in the easternmost section, we found to our dismay the corpse of Lin, still growing cold.
‘NOOO!’ Suna burst into tears upon the sight, rushing to him in the midst of battle. ‘Lin, heart of my heart! No, please, NO! It cannot be!’ Suna began to sob violently, pulling Lin’s hand to her face. ‘If only I had come sooner! If only Taran and Ban had listened to me! My sweet darling… sleep now.. be at peace.’ Suna wiped her tears away and stood up, giving Lin one last kiss on the head. ‘Your killers will not go unpunished. I will see to that.’
In a nearby hut I found and killed Ku-Tong, and further up the southern mesa I found Urang and Battang. All three champions of Osul died. It began to rain, and I worried. It felt like the same kind of twisting rain I had encountered before – the weather in Pandaria seemed to mirror anxiety and disheartenment. I found a Lorewalker Scroll in the bushes of the camp, battered but still intact.
Only the strongest, most courageous, most resilient of yaungol may lead the tribes. These traits are of the highest qualities in yaungol society and are expected of all yaungol leaders.
However, with the constant threat of the mantid to the south, the yaungol cannot afford to lose a single warrior in an internal struggle for power.
A surprisingly civilised solution to this problem has been put into place. When a dispute arises between two yaungol, a banner is placed between them. They then fight one another with blunted weapons until one yields or passes out.
Similarly, new leaders are chosen in ritual combat: a yaungol who aspires to take the place of chief must place his family banner and fight any who would challenge his authority.’
I made my way back to Katak the Defeated, who was close to his last breath. ‘It pleases me to know those cowards died at your hands. Perhaps now, this burning tide in my heart will ebb.’ He showed no further wish to speak with me, so I returned to the rendezvous point. Suna was quietly crying on her own, and would not speak with anyone either. Ban congratulated the rest of us… on what had been a mostly successful venture.
‘War is a word that has not been spoken with seriousness in Pandaria for a long time. Now, we must all fight to defend and restore peace. The yaungol have no choice but to face us now that their siege weapons have been destroyed. I feel I am deeply sorry for the loss of the courageous Lin, but we must think of every soldier in this army. Each life is precious and must be valued equally – we risk to lose too much if we gamble the lives of many to save the life of one. Osul should not be able to recover from these losses, but many of our troops have been returned. Hopefully, Suna will forgive me in time.’
For much of the afternoon we rested, with occasional forays into the fire camp to beat back any retributory yaungol. Suna, however, was much angrier.
‘THIS. IS. WAR.
I will have the heads of everyone who took my Lin from me! EVERYONE! We will start with Jung Duk, the Osul leader. We will place our banner in his camp and give him no choice but to face us. No mercy.’
Our troops assembled in the courtyard we controlled, and placed our banner high in its centre. Soon, Jung Duk charged down from his leader’s tent.
‘WHO DARES CHALLENGE ME?’
‘Not running this time, Jung Duk?’ From his incarceration, Katak taunted the chief as he engaged us in battle. We were fast and powerful, dodging his blades and infuriating him.
‘Where are your lackeys, great chief? They cannot help you this time!’
‘Shut up, Katak!’ With his anger, Jung Duk swung faster and less accurately, and we gained an advantage. Soon, he was outmatched and outpowered.
‘Deceit is no match for true strength! They are more powerful than Osul now.’
Jung Duk fell. ‘More than filth like you deserved. ‘Katak spat on his former ally, before breathing his last as well.
Ban surveyed the carnage with a sigh. ‘Our work here is done. Let us return to Longying and await word from Taran Zhu.’
Ban spoke to me on the way back. ‘Jung Duk is dead at last. Suna’s hands are bloodier than the rest now, but hundreds, maybe even thousands lost their lives due to Jung Duk’s violent aggression. They are not here to witness his demise, but they owe you deep gratitude, as they do to all who fight here in their name and memory.’
However, messengers awaited us with grave news when we returned. ‘What? Suna has already gone?!’ Ban frowned in deliberation. ‘We cannot allow her to venture into dangerous territory alone. I will lead a caravan with soldiers east to find her. Whether she finds the source of yaungol aggression or not, I will not let her go to her own death just because she wishes to avenge Lin.’
We set off in the mushan-driven caravan further into the Steppes, through the dark green plains and through the twisted red-blossomed trees. Ban, Yalia and another warrior named Xiao Tu accompanied me and the caravan. As we travelled, Yalia would glance in Ban’s direction every so often.
‘Ban, you look worried.’
‘Yes, well… it’s not like Suna to run off by herself.’
‘She must be torn by grief over her husband’s death.’
‘She blames me, you know.’
‘That may be, but it was no one’s fault.’
‘I should have taken the risk and sent the order to attack.’
‘You did what you thought was best. No commander has the foresight to see the future.’
‘But now… She hates me.’
‘You swore the Shado-Pan blood oath together, did you not? You are bound together by powers far stronger than hatred. She cannot hate you. At least not forever.’
‘I hope so, Yalia.’
Xiao Tu spoke up. ‘Look! Suna’s tracks lead into the village!’ The mushan led us into a yaungol village, filled with corpses being eaten by hyenas. Yalia covered her mouth.
‘Ugh, what is this stench?’
‘It looks like the site of… a massacre.’ Xiao Tu murmured in horror. Every villager had to be dead.
‘It’s too quiet. We should check this out.’ Ban muttered.
Yalia protested. ‘But this place reeks of death!’
‘We stop here. Everyone out!’
‘In this place? Are… are you sure?’ Xiao muttered.
‘Yes. Suna’s tracks stop here. We won’t leave until we find her.’ The caravan stopped and we disembarked in the centre of the village.
‘This was Palewind Village… before this atrocity. Something killed everyone here. Now only carrion creatures live amongst the wreckage. But we cannot leave until we locate Suna. She must be around.
Even our enemies deserve peace. We cannot let their bodies rot – it will only taint the land further. Cremate all that you find, so that they may be given a proper end. And eradicate the hyenas feasting on them. They will only spread disease and though unfortunate, it is for the best.’
Yalia addressed us. ‘There are yaungol totems all over this village. If we can obtain some, their magic may give us information as to what darkness happened here – and how it can be lifted.’
Xiao spoke quickly to Ban as I prepared to journey into the rest of the village. ‘Keliera, Ban has asked me to investigate the smoke trails coming from the east, west, northwest and south ends of the villages. They are not simple bonfires.’
I and Xiao proceeded through the ruined village, burning corpses and killing hyenas and vultures where we found them. There were many intact totems around – whatever had killed here had only killed the yaungol, but barely done damage to the village structures. In the west, we found a large pit of lit oil, filled to the brim with yaungol corpses.
‘From what I can tell, there were no sides. Why would the yaungol kill each other in a free-for-all?’
We headed north, coming across a Lorewalker Scroll in an abandoned hut.
‘Trapped in a Strange Land
The origins of the yaungol are unclear. The earliest historical record of the race dates back to the time of the mogu emperor Qiang the Merciless. His scholars describe nomadic tribes of “intelligent bovine hunters” who roamed “expansive hunting grounds beyond the western reaches of the empire.”
It is thought that several tribes of these hunters were trapped in Pandaria when the continent was separated from the mainland during the Sundering.
Imprisoned in the dangerous Townlong Steppes, the hardy yaungol were forced to adapt, weaponising local supplies of oil and developing their own aggressive culture.
Few races can stand toe-to-toe against the mantid in open ground. For this reason alone, the yaungol survivors are to be feared and respected.’
By the scroll we found a huge cache of destroyed food, and more piled-up corpses.
‘They fought over their food supplies. It looks like rather than sharing their food, someone destroyed it all. Why would they do that?’
We saw another smoke trail nearby, which led up a hill to a burnt-out hut. Several intact possessions lay nearby.
‘Look, I see some of Suna’s things! She must have made camp here. But where is she?’ We cleared out the rest of the village as we headed south towards the final smoke trail – where another battlefield held the Palewind Chief, and destroyed siege engines.
‘It’s the yaungol chief, slain just like the rest. Seems that he could not keep order in the final fight.’ With much of the village cleared, we headed back to the base camp. As evening drew on, the four of us discussed what we had learnt around the campfire.
‘These totems were indeed used to store and conduct immense magical energies. I believe we can use them to do the same.’
‘We cannot know exactly what happened here, but it is clear that something caused the yaungol to blindly turn against one another.’
‘What sort of power could do that?’
‘If my suspicions are correct,’ Yalia spoke, as she set up totems around us, ‘this place still reels from some sort of lingering darkness. Whatever happened here was not a natural course of events. Even the yaungol are not this brutal, especially against their own kind. We will use the totems to perform a cleansing ritual.’
After placing the totems in a specific circle, Yalia began the ritual, while I, Ban and Xiao activated the three main totems – Kindness, Serenity and Tranquility. Each major totem drew power from two more minor ones and connected to Yalia as she performed the ritual.
Upon its completion, a great power shook the earth around us, and I was gripped into place as a Sha manifestation erupted out of the ground. Where once there was smoke, sha corruption oozed out of the ground, and vengeful spirits rose. The sky blackened.
‘We look upon the true face of hatred! Now it all makes sense. This is the work of the Sha of Hatred. I should have suspected this earlier! The totem’s wards will protect us for now, but many of our people are turning on each other outside of the camp! Take a totem, and use it to drive the sha out of the crazed. Be ready to face the darkness that grips them.’
The Totem of Harmony pulled the Sha manifestations from the crazed Shado-Pan warriors, and as I fought the manifestations of hatred, the Shado-Pan were cleansed, and the effects of hatred on the area reduced. Without giving myself over to hatred, I slowly helped redeem the camp.
‘Thank you. The sha prey upon the weak and the vulnerable. If we are not vigilant, even the strongest of us can succumb to the sha’s dark influence, as the yaungol did.’ Yalia turned to Ban, who nodded. ‘We must put the yaungol spirits to rest. Their hatred is corrupting this land even in death.’
Moving further into the village, I aided the cleansed Shado-Pan in fighting off the hatred of the spirits. With the use of the Totem of Harmony, their hatred was defeated slowly but surely, and as we began to defeat the hatred in the area, the air and earth in the area began to clear.
‘Well done. We cannot bring them retribution, but we can ease their pain and end their rage.’
Ban addressed me as night stretched on. ‘One of our rangers reported seeing Suna up the hill to the northwest. I am relieved she’s safe. I had feared what she’d do in her grief. Will you speak to her on my behalf? Take the Totem with Harmony with her – it may be useful along the way.’
Up the hill I found Suna, meditating in an abandoned yaungol hut, oblivious to the devastation around her.
‘Has Ban sent you to kill me, then? Just like he killed my husband?!’ Suna leapt at me in rage, jabbing and kicking. It was clear that she had been corrupted by hatred, like the rest. I fought back, but her hatred rose, afflicting me, until I remembered the Totem of Harmony and threw it on the ground, cleansing it.
‘Your pitiful rituals are meaningless! I will not be saved!’ Wait, what? That sounded odd, but the Totem of Harmony worked, weakening Suna and cleansing her slowly of hatred as we fought it out. Eventually the hatred within her stopped and she began to sway on the spot, like she was faint.
‘I see now… my hatred… consumed me. Tell Ban… all is… forgiven.’
Suna collapsed on the floor, dead, and the ground shook like an earthquake had hit as shadows formed around her, rising into a massive sha. The Sha of Hatred.
‘Ahahaha…. PITIFUL WEAKLINGS! Even your strongest warriors succumb like lambs to the slaughter! Your turn will come. Hate will turn you against one another until this whole world BURNS.’
The Sha disappeared into the air. With a saddened heart, I took Suna back to camp. No one deserved tragic ends like these. The camp fell silent as I explained what had happened.
‘Suna was possessed… by the Sha of Hatred? No…NO!’ Yalia burst into tears.
‘Despite our differences, she was one of us. Today, the Shado-Pan has lost a dear sister. Her death will not be in vain. I will not rest until the Sha of Hatred is defeated. Suna, I swear this to you.’ Ban stood up, chanting into the heavens as tears streamed down his face as well.