‘The Shado-Pan have now put the spirits of this place to rest. Finally, they have peace. But I am afraid our journey into this cursed land has only just begun. We will head out shortly, but we need someone to go ahead and inform Lord Taran Zhu that we are now joining him. Keliera, you are the only person here without duties – go ahead to the Gao-Ran Battlefront and tell him of what has happened in the upper Steppes.’
I followed the main road around the Serpent’s Spine and southwest out of Palewind, where the road faltered slightly among the dark groves, until I saw Shado-Pan guards at the base of another immense tree. I passed under the main boughs, finding myself in a hilltop camp of Shado-Pan war tents. The hot spores of the tree above made me feel feverish and dazed until I found Taran Zhu again, confronting the leader of the encampment, Gao-Ran.
‘Where are the northern sentries? I didn’t spot a single one of your men until we reached camp. You grow lax, Gao-Ran.’
‘With all due respect, Lord, we have not grown lax. We are stretched thin. We are beset on all fronts, my men are worked to the bone, and I have not a single warrior to spare. Lord Zhu, the mantid have not been seen in these numbers since the swarm more than 90 years ago. My men are going days without sleep just to hold the line. Perhaps we should pull back to the wall? If the full force of the mantid come, we can confidently hold them there.’
‘No, we will not be pulling back. It’s many years yet before the mantid birth their next swarm, and I will not see the Townlong Steppes given to them freely. I had come to seek strong pandaren to hunt the Sha of Hatred, but we will step in here and help you fortify the barricades first.’ Taran addressed the silent pandaren to his right. ‘Taoshi, go north and make sure there are no mantid on our flank. I will see to the defenses.’
‘At once, Lord Zhu.’ The pandaren dashed off, leaving no trail in her wake and disappearing into the darkness.
‘The men will be glad to have you with us, Lord Zhu.’
‘I’ve gone too long without visiting the front, Gao-ran – your long efforts are appreciated.’ Taran turned to me. ‘Welcome to the front, Keliera – what news do you bring from Longying?’
‘We have had successes, but at great costs. Fire Camp Osul no longer has any power, but Lin was killed by Jung Duk before we could save him. Suna was taken by the Sha of Hatred not long after – and, under possession, caused the death of all the civilians in Palewind Village. Though the Sha’s influence is gone, Suna is dead too. The Sumprushes have been all but destroyed – the yaungol have drained, killed and forced back into the mists every mistlurker there. But the yaungol are no longer advancing north.’
Taran bowed his head in silence for Suna and Lin. ‘Grave indeed. I wish there was more we could have done to save Lin, and Suna, but in war we must protect as many lives as possible – there is no room for putting people above others, because in the end they are all people. I had worried that the Sha of Hatred would corrupt the yaungol – and it appears I have been proven right. But for now, this battlefront takes priority.
Something is causing the mantid to swarm, centuries earlier than anticipated and in greater numbers than the minor swarms that alert us to an approaching major one. We were taken by such surprise that they almost took the whole of the Serpent’s Spine in the Valley – and they are threatening to push out into all of Townlong – with the yaungol invading, that is the last thing we need.
This battle has been undermanned and unsupplied for too long thanks to my absence in Kun-Lai. We cannot pick up the Sha’s trail until we get things here back in order, otherwise the Steppes will be overwhelmed. Taoshi is my best agent, and I have sent her north to find where the mantid are getting through, and plug the gaps in our defenses. Until Ban’s reinforcements arrive, that is the best we can do – go north of the front and help Taoshi uncover why the mantid are rumoured to have gotten through.’
I proceeded to the western exit of the camp, where I was met by the local healer, Septi.
‘Ah, a new face! It is good for morale to know that we have not been forgotten or abandoned. If you are heading north, could I make a request? Near the Dampsoil Burrow, violet citron flowers are abundant – I need those to make antidotes for the mantid poison, which chews through skin and infects blood, leading to a slow painful death if left untreated. The sooner you get it, the less pain our soldiers will have to suffer through.’
I headed out of the camp, and north towards Dampsoil Burrow – the location of what appeared to be another massacre, this time on yaungol refugees headed from Palewind. Mantid were swarming all over, and I found Taoshi some way back from the edge, hidden by a tree.
‘You look capable. Taran knows to send me the best. I like that. Those are mantid scouts down there – Gao-ran’s Battlefront is meant to keep them out of eastern Townlong Steppes. If we allow them any further north, we may lose the foothold we’ve achieved. Let’s go clear them out.’
Taoshi vanished into the shadows, jumping out to ambush mantid I engaged. We were faster than they and brought them down easily, but they were armed with mines, and we were forced to make guerrilla strikes before they could fight back. Fortunately, there were not many mantid nearby, and we took them all out in quick time.
‘Deadly efficiency. That’s what I like to see. Meet me at the eastern entrance to the blockade. We need to find the hole in the defenses – and plug it.’
I gathered a bagful of violet citron before heading back to the front. Septi quickly took the flowers and began making an antitode.
‘Mixed properly, the pollen from these flowers can eat away at the poison without doing any lasting damage to the body otherwise. These are in very good condition. Thank you!’
After cleaning up and having some lunch, I met Taoshi in Shallowstep Pass, the eastern edge of Townlong bordering the mantid homelands, along with a lookout named Mao.
‘This is where they’re getting through – the eastern pass. This path is the gap in the defenses – mantid are sneaking past the scouts and getting around the barricade. If we do not cut them off soon, we will be surrounded.
Normally, it only takes a few scouts to hold this path. Most of the territory is in sight of the wall – the archers would devastate any mantid force attempting to pass through. But they are all occupied with the siege on the gate. Here.’ Taoshi handed me a flare. ‘This will help you expose any scentlayers sneaking through the eastern pass. Kill them. If they are allowed to lay a trail, they might be able to lead the swarms further into the Steppes.
Furthermore, the scouts holding back the mantid have been on shift for 2 days straight, and all the traps we usually have set have gone off! No wonder the mantid are getting through. Go reset the traps and order the scouts back. I’ll arrange a new shift to be deployed immediately.’
I made my way into the pass, re-arming traps and using flares to blind mantid that were not caught by them. Quickly, the mantid numbers dropped, and I made my way through to the scouts – Wei-Chin, Long, Ying and Jai-Gan. When I reached Jai-Gan, I could see right into the mantid wastes – and I was scared.
Huge legions of mantid in numbers higher than I had seen yet were arrayed along dark and twisted woods, catapults firing at the front. Insectlike war wagons relayed more and more troops. The mantid swarm, it seemed, was far more than a mindless consuming swarm – it was organised, intelligent and efficient. The gap appeared to be plugged, however, and I hurried back through the Pass before I drew attention to myself.
Taoshi was surrounded by mantid corpses when I returned. ‘There are more getting through than I thought. I may need to stay here and clean up until the scouts arrive. They should be here shortly, but they may need backup. Report back in to Taran – he should still be in the main camp with Gao-ran.’
I made my way back into the front, and cleaned up before meeting Taran again.
‘It appears I put the right people on the job. We haven’t seen any more mantid getting through. We need reinforcements at the southern front, now. Gao-ran’s men need help.’ I headed back out, but bumped into Septi again at the exit to the front.
‘Oh, hello again! With our men on the southern front fighting to the point of exhaustion, many have been exposed to the mantid poison. If you can, please take these bandages treated with the salve you helped me make earlier, and go get our men on their feet so they can get to safety. And, if you are able – do not risk your life if you cannot obtain any – please try and get me some of the mantid limbs for study of the poison – perhaps we can finder faster antidotes.’
I hurried out into the front. The mantid came endlessly, and I went through hundreds before I had a single pause for breath. Their limbs were easier to obtain than I had thought, but hard to keep – poison oozed endlessly from tiny holes in their carapaces, and the mantid used the limbs of their fallen as new weapons. I had to fight even more just to get far enough in to heal the injured, and I was forced back quickly. This was only just more than a losing battle – and the worrying thought was that the mantid had yet to turn their full forces upon us. Ahead of me, the blue and pink sky of Townlong darkened with smoke. The mantid here were the strongest mantid I had seen in all of Pandaria – and yet, they were comparatively weak.
Septi remained more optimistic than I. ‘You have my deepest appreciation – many of our warriors owe their lives to you today. I hope to find a permanent counter to the mantid poison so that our men won’t be afflicted in the first place. It may take some time to piece together, but it will give us a significant advantage here. I have already managed to formulate a cure that can be cast with spells – I feel that we are not far from a total vaccine.’
Taran joined us as the sky grew darker with the approach of night. ‘I watched you on the field. Your skills in magic are respectable. The men know that you know how to fight, and fight alongside them.
We do not use ground troops for larger swarms, and this is fast approaching that level. We use dragon cannons from up here, but they are already low on ammo from the sudden surge in mantid numbers, and deliveries will take several days. The cannoneers here have improvised explosives from globe seeds down in the western ridge. We dispatched initiates to recover some several hours ago, but they have yet to report back. The front is steady for now – could you go and see what is keeping them, and bring some back yourself? I know that you are more than capable.’
I washed the mantid gunk off myself and then set out, my magic guiding my way. The western ridges were guarded by Shado-Pan, and soon I found myself in the uncharted Ambermarshes. Not far along the path down, I spotted the two initiates sent to retrieve the explosive globes – Feng and Chao.
‘We can’t catch any that come close. Kill any you can get your hands on, and watch out for your things – the buggers steal anything that isn’t tied down.’ Feng continued to guard the way, while Chao looked out over the swamps.
‘Uh, this is really embarassing… but I set down my sword for, like, ONE SECOND, and a big sprite sprung out of nowhere while I was gathering orbs and snatched it. He took it down the western gap. I can’t go back to camp without my sword! Losing your weapon is a sure-fire way to get kicked out of the Shado-Pan! Please, try and get my sword back.’
I hurried down into the murky depths of the Ambermarsh. Blackened, twisted bushes held thin orange globes – the volatile orbs I had been entrusted with collecting. I carefully gathered as many as I could, fighting through the native sprites – who seemed unusually agitated – covered in nettles and quills and fighting back in nasty ways not native to sprites.
Eventually I came to the bottom of the Ambermarsh canyon, where the sprite leader, Needlebottom, was busy… chopping down a tree? This all seemed alien behaviour to sprites. However, he had the sword of Initiate Chao, and I brought him down quickly. I brought the thankful Chao his sword, and bid the initiates good night as I hurried back to the camp. Taoshi, Taran and Gao-ran were gathered at the front of the camp, overlooking the battle.
‘Ah, back faster than we anticipated. And you brought the seeds! It’s good that I can count on my troops. The mantid numbers have been increasing since you left for the cleft. Let’s put these to good use. Go and man one of the cannons. Let none through.’
I took the volatile orbs and distributed them amongst the cannoneers before activating one myself. As if on cue, a huge swarm of mantid came racing over the front, driving back the defenders. The cannons fired again and again, fire raining down on the mantid until the ground shook and they all lay dead.
The ground continued to shake. Had we caused an earthquake?
Suddenly, a great gyreworm covered in amber shot out of the ground. The mantid must have been readying it to wipe out the camp – fortunately we’d disturbed it. Taoshi ran to my side.
‘Looks like we have our work cut out for us. That thing is huge, and the Shado-Pan holding the battlefront were never trained for something like this… Let’s get down there and take it out.’
We charged the great worm, Norvakess, and it screeched, a terrifying resonating chord. ‘It can use sound! Get behind the barricades!’ The worm caused great trembling sonic fields to appear in the air, and every so often would dive beneath ground while waves of mantid assaulted the front. After long toil, as midnight approached, the worm fell.
‘Good work. There’s little more we can do here. Let’s meet up with Lord Zhu.’
Eager for rest, we headed back up towards the main camp, where Taran awaited. ‘You are coming with me. I’ve never seen pandaren handle themselves on a battlefield like that. I need a strong mage when we fight the Sha of Hatred. We will head west tomorrow. But for now, get some sleep.’
That night, silence fell on the front as the mantid reeled back – fought by the pandaren properly for the first time in years.