Townlong Steppes Part 4: Tai Ho’s Investigation and the Sha of Hatred

The next morning, I met with a reinvigorated Taran Zhu.

‘I’m heading west with Taoshi to gather the strongest I can find to fight the Sha of Hatred. I would like you to come with me.’

Given my involvement so far, I agreed, and mounted on a provided tiger while Taran and Taoshi said their goodbyes to Gao-ran.

‘We’ve done all we can here. Farewell, Gao-ran. I will send more troops as soon as I am able.’

‘Appreciated, Lord Zhu. Good luck in your hunt.’

‘Come. Let us go.’ We rode out of the encampment, along the western road.

‘We will need more veteran Shado-Pan among us before we can fight the Sha of Hatred. I had hoped that those I brought here would be enough, but what happened to Lin and Suna has taught me that I cannot overestimate the abilities of my best against the Sha. We’ll stop at the encampments along the way-‘

A great chill passed over us, and we felt hate at our fingertips.

‘Did you feel that?’ Taoshi murmured.

‘Yes. The Sha of Hatred has been through here.’ We had arrived at the first camp in Dusklight Hollow, where a single initiate tended to a camp. ‘You, initiate. Where are the troops?’

‘Lord Zhu! They are down at the bridge, holding off a mantid attack force, sir.’

‘Taoshi, Keliera, help these men get their camp in order. I’ll assess the state of the bridge.’

‘Of course, Lord Zhu.’ With that, we dismounted and Taran rode off.

‘Right, let’s get this taken care of so we can get down to the bridge. These scorpions are infested with sha.’ Taoshi gestured to a pile of dead scorpions around the camp, oozing corruption. ‘It seems to have driven them out of their hole and into our camp, seething at invaders in their territory. We need to clear them out and secure the camp.’ As we ewre about to set off, the initiate, Pao-Me, addressed us.

‘I was dispatched to camp to gather pitch-tipped arrows for our archers at the bridge, and when I came back I found… this. I trained with most of these pandaren… I wasn’t prepared for this. Still, the archers need our help. If you find any arrows, bring them to me.’

We proceeded into the destroyed camp, infested with scorpions bent on destroying the entire place. Unfortunately, no troops had made it, and we ferried back as many corpses as we could to be given proper rites. The scorpions were crazed and quickly cleared out, and we did find many salvageable arrows. It was a terrible tragedy, however – and the second put to Hatred’s name.

‘At least what’s left of the place will be safer now.’ Taoshi sighed as we sifted through the wreckage. ‘I can handle the rest of this, Keliera. You take those arrows and get down to the bridge.’

Dusklight Bridge was a path into the mantid homeland, formed from the hollowed-out trunk of a fallen Kypari tree – the base of which had been the Shado-Pan camp in Dusklight Hollow. I met with Taran and Lao-Chin on the main road, which was the site of a frenzied battle between mantid attackers and Shado-Pan defenders. Lao-Chin addressed me.

‘Welcome to the mess. Taran Zhu told me of what became of my camp. I would have stopped it if I could, but the attacks from the bridge have not let up. Thank you for the arrows – my archers will make good use of them.’

Taran took over. ‘The mantid coming over the bridge have thick carapaces that shrug off most of our attacks. They have a weakness though: fire. Lao-Chin’s men brought kegs to the battlefield for exactly this purpose. Kick the kegs into groups of mantid, and Lao-Chin’s archers will light them up. They should be easy to finish off from there.’

I and Lao-Chin kicked kegs into the field, drenching the mantid in ale, and burning them up with arrows. Soon, the tide of battle began to turn in our favour.

‘The added benefit is that the mantid will leave with broken morale after seeing their brethren burn to death. A grim tactic, but many lives will be spared if they stop pressing our lines.’

Lao-Chin stretched. ‘Now, we must push them across the bridge. Follow my lead. Lord Zhu, we’ll return shortly. Come!’ We rode through the mantid lines, pushing back wave after wave until we reached the end of the bridge – the border of the Steppes with the mantid lands. Lao’s brew imbued us with added power, and soon we were fighting waves of mantid on their home turf, until the largest mantid in the region attacked and fell.

‘Nice work. I knew you would be the right choice for this job. Make your way back to Taran Zhu – I will join you shortly.’

Back on the other side, the mantid had all fled, and Taran and Taoshi awaited.

‘I take it you were successful at the bridge.’

‘We were. It was a stunning battle!’

‘You are to join us in our hunt for the Sha of Hatred then, Lao-Chin. Your men here should be able to hold the bridge and repair the camp on their own.’

‘Of course. My staff is yours, Lord Zhu.’

‘The mantid aren’t likely to return soon after a beating like that, so you are free to join us in the hunt. Let’s move westward, to Rensai’s Watchpost. The crossroads are not far, and we can seek out our last member there.’

‘Is it to be Hawkmaster Nurong, then?’

‘Yes. We’ll need his expertise with a crossbow when the final battle comes.’

‘My men speak highly of this Nurong – it will be good to finally meet him.’ We came into the crossroads of Rensai’s Watchpost, and met with its leader, the titular Rensai Oakhide.

‘Good to see you well, Rensai. We’re here for Hawkmaster Nurong. Where can we find him?’

Rensai bowed before Taran. ‘Well met, Lord Zhu. He’s with the rest of my men, holding the line at Farwatch Overlook.’

‘Farwatch Overlook? I’ve heard no reports of mantid in the chasm below.’

‘No, not the chasm. Fliers. In numbers like we’ve never seen.’

Taran Zhu paused for a moment in shock. ‘Taoshi, the Sha of Hatred is close. Find it and report back to me.’

‘At once, Lord Zhu.’ Taoshi ran off into the wilds.

‘We must help at Farwatch Overlook if we are to have Hawkmaster Nurong with us. Our final confrontation approaches swiftly. We are close. I feel the unnatural hatred surging. It’s a testament to the training of the Shado-Pan that the forces here have not been corurpted by its influence. Here-‘ Taran withdrew a carefully wrapped pack from his bags, ‘take these crossbow bolts to Hawkmaster Nurong at the Overlook southwest of here. He is praised among all the Wukao for being a flawless shot. His efforts are credited with holding the line here for many months. Hopefully you can judge for yourself. He may be the final person we need.’

‘And if you get the chance, mage, all my men are focused on bringing down the fliers clearing the chasm – we need more clearing out the grounded ones that don’t fall into the chasm.’

The Overlook was under heavy siege from those same mantid when I reached it, and I quickly began disposing of them. The air filled with smoke from siege explosions coming from the other side of the chasm. As I fought my way through, I saw the extent of the mantid invasion. Hundreds flew across the chasm every minute, and at least a third were not brought down before they had cleared it. Across the chasm, the dark blue trees of the mantid lands were barely visible behind the swarms.

‘Up here! I could use a hand!’ I looked towards the source of the voice, seeing Hawkmaster Nurong on the edge of the chasm, armed with crossbow and cannon. I scrambled up, handing him the bolts sent from Taran.

‘Another wave of fliers approaches, and there’s a lot of movement on the other side of the canyon – I think something big is coming. Here, use my cannon and lend a hand. There’ll be no shortage of targets.’ He took the bolts and handed me a cannon. ‘They approach!’

The sky darkened as thousands of mantid began to fly across, and I shot the hand-cannon as fast as it would allow at the great cloud. Hundreds fell into the canyon below, and I added my own fire when the cannon needed reloading. Soon, we began to win.

‘What… What is that thing? Is it really trying to fly across?’

A great mantid colossus, bright orange in colour, lifted off the ground and slowly began to fly across. Though mighty, it was not fast, and we destroyed its wings, sending it tumbling into the chasm.

‘Let’s get down there and finish it off! I’m pretty sure that big bug survived the fall.’ We jumped into the canyon, slowed by the wings of Nurong’s owl, and soon found ourselves in combat with the large bug.

‘Its shell is cracked in the back! I’ll distract it – you hit it where it hurts!’ I charged up a huge pyroblast, and sent it hurtling at the crack. The beast roared in pain, and collapsed, defeated.

‘If Lord Zhu was asking for me, we’d better not keep him waiting. Let’s go.’ We hurried back out of the canyon, and rode through the Overlook and back to Rensai’s Watchpost. Upon our arrival, Nurong bowed before Lord Zhu.

‘Welcome, Nurong. Good to have you with us.’ Lao-Chin bowed in turn.

‘It appears that all my troops today have the spirit of a Shado-Pan. Taoshi has yet to report in, however. I have heard reports of a disturbance north at the Shado-Pan Garrison. While we wait, would you care to investigate it? I will send my swiftest messenger for you as soon as we are ready.’

The Shado-Pan Garrison was the last waypoint before the Temple of the Black Ox, Niuzao. I met with Tai Ho there.

‘Ah, good, someone sent from Taran Zhu at last! The Shado-Pan wishes to know why the mantid are attacking so violently. We have suspicions, but we cannot be sure. Furthermore, we do not want the mantid to know that we are investigating them. That’s where you come in – I need you to kill mantid at Kri’vess, in the north, while I lurk behind in the shadows, searching for clues they carry. We also need to set them back – every day they make more munitions for their armies.’ Tai Ho handed me some explosives. ‘But I need to keep a low profile.’

I headed north, unable to see Tai Ho, which I suppose was a good thing. I made my way past the Underbough of Kri’vess, coming to the north side of the great Kypari tree. I fought up to the top, and Tai Ho came out of the shadows on occasion to investigate.

‘The colour is just… leaving their bodies. They have definitely been affected by the sha.’ As we began to destroy their supplies and weapons, Tai Ho found other clues. ‘This one is huge – a breeding male! This means the mantid queen must be involved, somehow. And this one is covered in scars – old scars. Scars created by pandaren weapons.’

Eventually, Tai Ho made a discovery. ‘Here it is! This is what we’ve been looking for! Yak hair!’ He held it up. I was completely confused. ‘Meet me back at camp. We have much to discuss.’ He disappeared, and still confused, I went back to camp.

‘The abundance of yak hair on that mantid’s body suggests one thing – it came from Niuzao Temple. Our journey will continue westwards, mage. Niuzao, the Black Ox, rests in the temple to the west. He may know why the mantid are attacking. He may know far more than that, in fact. I will rendezvous with you there. Our investigation isn’t nearly over yet.’

I headed across the grand bridge to the Temple, a dedication to the Celestial in its design as the three I had seen before had been. Across the bridge, on the main body of the island housing the temple, I met a young pandaren named Ku-Mo.

‘I came here to visit my dad at the temple. As soon as I got here, I saw the most terrifying thing I’d ever seen. It was a mantid, walking right past me, carrying my father’s crossbow. Something’s happened to my dad! We’ve got to find out what it is, but we’ll need to get his crossbow back first! I saw the mantid heading west, behind the temple.’

I headed in the direction given, and past a ruined wall I found a huge mantid with two smaller ones. They were incredibly strong, and I had to utilise all my arsenal to defeat them, but I obtained the crossbow and hurried back to Ku-Mo.

‘Yeah, this is dad’s. Let’s head on over to the temple. They’ll know what- what happened to him.’ We hurried into the temple courtyard – mantid were attacking the temple sentinels, and chunks of the walls had been destroyed. We met the commander, Qipan, at the top of the main steps to the building housing Niuzao.

‘Yes, the boy’s father – Sentinel Ku-Yao – has gone missing. He could be in any number of places… we have no shortage of enemies these days. You’re free to look around if you wish. Start by looking for his yak, or asking Sentinel Yalo what he knows.’

Tai Hao had arrived before me, and was with two sentinels, Ogo the Elder and Ogo the Younger.

‘Your Shado-Pan associate has spoken with us. Yes, Niuzao knows why the mantid are attacking. But he is not ready to tell you. Not yet. Niuzao owns a statuette which he values greatly – a small icon, in his image, sculpted by one of his long-since fallen sentinels. This statuette was recently stolen by the Sra’thik mantid, and taken to their encampment north of here. Bring it back, and Niuzao will give you the answers you seek.

‘We will find it. Meet me at the Sra’thik Incursion, Keliera.’

A little ways along, a grummle named Bluesaddle was trying to replace his ‘defective’ yak.

‘This is a defective yak. Try to pet it.’ I attempted so, and it bucked me into the air. ‘Now try to feed it.’ I did so, and it knocked it away.

‘I don’t think you understand how the yak temple works.’ Said the yak-keeper, Krama, interrupting any other demonstrations. ‘Try to understand, grummle. This is a temple to Niuzao, the Black Ox. We are servants to him, and keepers of this temple. We do not “replace yaks.”‘

‘I see. Can I at least get mine serviced? He won’t even take a rider.’ I attempted so, and was thrown halfway down the steps.

‘Cousin Bluesaddle, you are too persistent. And you are being mean to the elf.’

‘My case is made. This yak is very bad. We will not leave the temple until you fix or replace him.’

‘Fine. There are plenty of wild yaks near the lake to the north. You can “replace” your yak with one of those.’

‘See, Cousin Bag-of-Rocks? Persistence pays off.’

‘But… we could have found wild yaks back in Kun-Lai…’

The grummles walked off, and I continued my search around the temple for evidence of Ku-Yao – finding his yak on one terrace, along with a Lorewalker Scroll.

‘The Emperor’s Burden – Part 5

It was at this location ten thousand years ago that Shaohao, the Last Emperor of Pandaria, defeated the Sha of Fear and imprisoned it within the land.

From the Book of Burdens, Chapter 14:

“Although purged of doubt and despair, Shaohao was still overcome by fear. He sought the counsel of the Black Ox, the spirit of bravery and fortitude, who lived in the steppes beyond the wall.

The Black Ox, Red Crane, Emperor and Monkey King discussed the nature of fear at great length, until at last the Monkey King was inspired to act. A mask of fear was created, terrifying to behold. With trembling hands, the Emperor donned the horrific mask, so as to draw forth his own fears…”

The battle against the Sha of Fear lasted a week and a day, during which time legend has it that the sun never rose. When the Sha was at last defeated and imprisoned in the earth, Emperor Shaohao was forever changed, for he no longer felt his own fears. He became a creature of courage.’

I continued through the temple, finding Ku-Yao’s abandoned bedroll and shield in the barracks, but no evidence he was nearby. I returned to Ku-Mao.

‘No shield, no crossbow, no yak… something bad has happened to dad. Thanks for your help. I’m going to keep looking for my dad.’

I headed out into the fields to meet Tai Ho, and came across the grummles Bluesaddle and Bag-of-Rocks by a lake in the fields.

‘I can’t find a single good yak here. ALL the yaks are bad! Some are too stinky, others too fight-y, others just scared. You try find a good yak!’ I took a lasso and began pulling the nearby yaks to camp. The first was too mean, the second too smelly, the third too angry, the fourth too stabby, the fifth too mean and angry, the sixth too smelly and stabby… and the yaungol nearby did not make getting the yaks any easier. The seventh was too angry and stabby, and I must have brought every yak in the fields back to the grummles deemed one acceptable. Too mean and too smelly, too angry and smelly, too mean and stabby, too mean, smelly and angry… Finally, I found one that was just right.

‘Well, well! A good yak! Tell you what, I take this good yak, and you can have bad yak!’ I was unsure what to do with a yak, so I insisted they set it free or donate it to the temple, and moved on. Soon, I reached the Sra’thik Incursion, and Tai Ho fell in step behind me, searching again.

‘Strange, this one carried a few pieces of polished stone. Hopefully they came from the statuette. We can only hope.’ We cleared the area, but there were more mantid than we could hope to take out on our own. ‘Look, another stone – and it matches the markings on the others we found. I think we’re getting somewhere.’

We continued the fight, and soon found more stones. ‘If I didn’t know any better, I’d say this was a stone ox tail. All that’s left now is the head. And it can’t have gotten far.’ Sure enough, we found it on the next mantid we killed. ‘A perfect fit, too. We’ve performed Niuzao’s errand – now back to the real investigation.’

We met back up with Ogo the Younger in the temple. ‘Niuzao will be pleased. Despite his size, our patron is a beast of grace and compassion. He treasured this icon, just as he treasures each of his followers.’ Ogo’s father spoke next. ‘Come here. Our secret can remain hidden no longer. It is with a heavy heart that I confirm your suspicions. The mantid are indeed under the sway of the Sha of Fear. It was OUR sworn duty to confine that creature beneath the temple. Unfortunately, our vigil faltered, our defenses buckled, and the Sha escaped. It is with the mantid now. See for yourself – the mantid burrowed into the western side of the island.’

‘I will meet you in the catacombs.’ Tai Ho bowed to me and dashed off. As I headed west, I saw the devastation wrought upon the Temple grounds – the entire southwestern island had been destroyed by mantid, who had begun fast construction of their own forts, as well as a bridge across of pure amber. They were busy doing the same to the western island in the archipeligo. I headed down the path to the catacombs, marked by mantid banners.

‘This isn’t pretty. Let’s go inside. You fight through and I will give peace to the sentinels sent here by the temple.’

We cleared our way through the minor sha infesting the tunnels, as Tai Ho gave last rites and a position of sleep to the sentinels claimed by fear. As we made our way through, the minor sha conjured up great terrors in our minds, but we mastered them, knowing that they were illusions. Soon, we came to a crossroads.

‘Up or down?’ Tai Ho asked.

‘Down. The Sha was under the ground – it makes sense for it to be there.’ We headed into the Ghastly Confines, marked by a thin tunnel. Fear overcame us.

‘Can you feel that? This must be where the Sha of Fear was held.’ Before us, a large sha stretched out, the remnant of the fear that had been here so long – a shadow.

‘Stay calm, focus on your goal – not your fears!’ Tai Ho yelled, and we were plunged into darkness as the Shadow utilised the common fears to mortals. I fought through, as did Tai Ho, and it took all our strength but the shadow fell before us.

‘Let me make this clear… that creature was NOT the Sha of Fear. Simply a shadow… a fraction of that sha’s true power. No, the Sha of Fear is with the mantid now. The elders need to be informed immediately. Return to Taran Zhu, and I will handle the rest.’ We headed out of the cave and back to the Temple for rest. Upon our arrival, Niuzao bowed.

‘You have driven the mantid out of my home, and I am thankful. But much yet remains. When this war in the Steppes is over, you must go into the heart of the Dread Wastes, the corrupted mantid lands. You must find their leaders, and stop their war effort. Only then will the Sha of Fear be vulnerable.’

With the Black Ox’s blessing, I hurried back through the Garrison and to Rensai’s Watchpost, where Taran awaited me.

‘What news do you have from the Garrison?’ I quickly went through everything I knew.

‘Then… it all falls into place. The Sha of Fear escaped and took over the mantid, and forced the yaungol north in fear of the mantid. The yaungol were possessed by hatred, anger and violence, and then fought into Kun-Lai, enabling their freedom. Every death in this war has not been down to yaungol, but to sha. That is the greatest tragedy of all – but it may get worse if we do not stop the sha and the mantid soon. Taoshi has already set up a spyglass on the ridge edge so that we may see what she has uncovered. Go take a look.’

Taoshi accompanied me to her spyglass, and I looked through as she directed.

‘I located the Sha of Hatred inside this mantid structure, underneath a kypari tree. It must have been drawn to a powerful host. To get in, we will need specially tuned crystals from the mantid leaders in the area. I located them at the three beacons you can see around the tree. Kill them, take the crystals. Should be simple enough.’ We returned to Taran.

‘Our tasks lay before us. We’re close. You should aid the others with their attacks on the leaders of Sik’vess – Taoshi is ambushing Korvexxis in the south, Lao-Chin will face off against Serevex on the north side, and Nurong is preventing the escape of Rothek in the northwest. They will bring the crystals together once the leaders are dead.’

I headed across to Sik’vess, and fought my way up to the nearest platform, in the south. Korvexxis had mastery of mines, but I was able to slow him down and we dodged his attacks with agility until he fell. Taoshi took his crystal and ran off with a ‘good work’. I continued round, killing mantid and freeing imprisoned soldiers. At the northwest side I met Nurong.

‘Go, whenever you’re ready. I’ll cover you.’ I engaged Rothek, and though he could fly, Nurong’s fire kept him low and we destroyed him as well. Around the western side I met Lao-Chin, and we engaged Serevex, the last leader. He called reinforcements, but he fell too. With all three crystals obtained, I headed back to the Watchpost to inform everyone else.

‘We are ready. Good. Our reinforcements have already gone ahead to meet the others. I will see you there.’ Taran bowed and hurried out towards Sik’vess.

‘We are in your debt, elf. You have freed our scouts from certain death – and thanks to you, they have relayed their information to us. You should go rendezvous with the others. The battle with the Sha is close at hand, and I can feel its power growing.’

At the Sik’vess Lair, where a door barred the way into the kypari tree itself, I found Taran, Nurong, Yalia, Ban, Taoshi and Lao-Chin.

‘We are on the doorstep of our final confrontation. Today, we save the yaungol. The end of our hunt is upon us, and we have gathered the strongest the Shado-Pan have to offer. With our combined strength, we will defeat the Sha of Hatred and choke out its influence upon the world. Stay close to one another, and do not let hatred enter your heart. Unity, harmony and love – these are what bind us in these troubled times. This fight will put all of that to the test. Whatever happens, it has been an honour to fight alongside each and every one of you.’

The three with the crystals – Taochi, Nurong and Lao-Chin – proceeded to the door and unlocked it, and we raced down into the chambers of the mantid. In the main room was the Sha of Hatred.

‘Remember your training. As long as you do not give in to hatred, you will make it out alive!’

‘Come, lambs… Come and face your demise!’ The Sha lashed out, and shadows poured into the room, tugging at our minds, trying to get us to hate.

I do not hate.

Trying to get us to turn on each other even as we fought the Sha, as vestiges of our hatred surged out of us and infected mantid came closer.

I do not hate. I do not hate.

‘The hatred inside you drives your hunt for me. You are already mine!’

No! I do not hate! I make friends, I fall in love, I live in unity and harmony. I am one with the pandaren and they are one with me. I do not hate.

‘I do not hate!’ We drove further on, fighting back every vestige of our hatred, knowing each other’s movements and fighting, protecting, healing for each other.

‘Everything that you are is MINE to destroy!’ The Sha roared in its own rage, sending columns of hate shooting out of the floor.

‘This is your moment, Shado-Pan! This is everything that you have trained for!’ Our strikes became more coordinated at Taran’s words, and I felt myself become stronger, faster, and more in tune with the pandaren around me as all hatred left me. I defeated my own hatred.

And we defeated Hatred.

With a primal scream, the Sha fell to pieces, dead on the floor, and the corrupted mantid fell too. The shadows stopped leaking into the room. We had won.

Taran Zhu kneeled upon the floor, in memory of those who had fallen against the Sha in this war. And we knelt too.

Taoshi spoke up. ‘Defeating a Sha… is not an easy thing. It is a miracle that we all came out of this battle unscathed. Taran still blames himself for letting his hatred get the best of him and setting this upon the land. He may take some time to come to terms with it – but he will and he must, or he will become more vulnerable.

We accomplished a great thing this day, a thing that shall not soon be forgotten. And neither shall we, for our parts in it – so we should remember all those that cannot be remembered by history. Thank you, all of you.’

Doubt was defeated, Despair and Violence, Anger and Hatred… Only Fear remained in Pandaria – and I had no doubt that Fear was the most dangerous of them all.

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