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Part One Jian She never liked the ocean. It was the constant rocking of the ship, that feeling her feet were never on solid ground, that caused her to spend the night of the day long voyage bent over the stern of the ship. It wasn't much of a ship, really, more like an oversized canoe. Nothing like the ship she had taken from Pandaria to Stormwind. That one at least felt like it wouldn't tip over at the slightest hint of a wave. However, those were slow and loud, this was swift and nearly invisible at night. Stealth and surprise were trademarks of the Shado-Pan, and something they would need if this mission was to be a success. Having purged herself of what little dinner she was able to stomach, telling the other Shado-Pan she'd eaten too much for lunch – none of them questioning their superior -, she turned and slumped against the gunwale. Her armor clanked against itself noisily, earning her a reproachful glare from Xin, the appointed lookout and only other person awake on the boat. She gave him an apologetic look, to which he nodded and went back to staring quietly over the bow. Letting her head roll lazily to the left she could just barely make out two other sleek black shapes gliding silently through the water beside her. The furthest away was commanded by Master Sagewhisper, and the central one by Lord Zhu himself. Master Snowdrift and Nurong were left behind to tend to Shado-Pan operations on the mainland. Each of the three ships was crewed by twelve, all highly trained warriors and handpicked for this mission, bringing the total number to thirty-six. Thirty-seven. She turned her eyes front, running down the rank of sleeping Pandaren in the center of the boat. Ten slept with large red scarves wrapped around their face and neck, protecting them from the cold ocean spray. They were dressed in warm blue wool tunics concealing a coat of plates beneath, black lacquered lamellar over top, and large conical hats made from sturdy wood and built around an iron skeleton. Even the scarves they wore were lined with small overlapping ghost iron plates. Each one of them slept with a pike, spear, sword, axe, or mace at their side and some slept under shields. The eleventh was not so fortunate. You should not be here, Lien. But it could be no other way. Lord Zhu was less than pleased when Qiu had returned with an apprentice, even less pleased when he discovered how old she was. “She is too old. She will not learn. You have killed her, Jian.” Tradition was tradition, however, and an apprentice must follow her master everywhere. To learn from experience, or die. It is not fair. Not fair to Lien. Most spend their entire apprenticeship walking the walls at night and fetching food for their masters, maybe baring witness to one mantid scout buzzing by before quickly falling to the ground, pierced with a dozen arrows. Qiu shook her head and stood with a quiver, partially from the motion of the boat, and partially because she's overdue for another glance over the railing.
Whatever mistakes I have made, she is here now. Serpent make her wise so that she may survive, she is already more bullheaded than the Ox. She crept silently to the bow of the boat, stepping lightly over the Pandaren on the way, careful not to wake them. Xin acknowledged her presence with a slight nod of his head as she came to stand beside him, watching the small island in the distance slowly grow, and the occasional flash of lightning arcing between two spires of the immense fortress. It will be a long night, and a longer day to come. Part Two Lien "Get your armor and your travelling gear. We are leaving." That had been the only warning Lien had been given. The young Pandaren warrior had been practicing with the wooden blade that was her 'allowance' as she saw it, slowly improving the focus of her strikes day after day - when her mind hadn't been wandering, of course. Determination, boredom and irritation warred with one another in Lien's mind constantly. The almost desperate need to prove herself as an able fighter to her mentor did battle with her frustration at not being allowed her own blade, while simultaneously fighting back urges to find something more challenging than a construct of wood and straw. Nevertheless, Lien did as she was bidden, and uncharacteristically did not waste too much time getting ready. Sparing only a disgusted sigh (for the thousandth time) at the long wooden blade she'd since placed in a corner of her quarters, she quickly donned her armor. The armor hadn't seen any real combat, and still had the shine one would expect from a new suit, though she had been using it a lot recently. Having finally realized that she was unable to keep to an efficient method of mobile fighting, Lien had gotten rid of the leather lamellar armor she had favored, in exchange for a functional set of plate. It took her several minutes to change into the heavy armor by herself, but she managed without complaint and finished off her preparations by donning a heavy traveling cloak and collecting a bag of trail rations. Her mentor had said little during the journey. But then, she doesn't say much unless it's to correct me anyway, Lien mused to herself darkly. Through a portal, then atop a pair of rumbling tigers that the Shado-Pan apparently used as mounts. Through mountains and snow, and eventually into rolling hills. This had been the first time the young Pandaren had been past the forests of her ancestral homeland, but refused to let her mind wander too much, anticipation rising as it eventually dawned on her where they were going. The outpost was bustling with activity, numerous Shado-Pan warriors, all clad in the same distinctive armor milling about. Unlike the Human soldiers I've seen though, they move quickly, quietly and efficiently. Even *I* can tell that much. I have to prove myself to these people... Lien thought, doing her best to stay out of the way while Jian made her way over to talk to one of the more important-looking ones overseeing the large group. Lien noted a shadow fall over her a scant few seconds after she had seated herself out of the way on a small hill off to the side. Looking over her shoulder...and quite some ways up...she found herself face to face with a very, VERY big Pandaren, wearing the same outfit as the rest, but this one had a large pike
strapped across his back and his stance gave him the manner of one used to being obeyed. This ShadoPan simply stared at her appraising for a few long moments before moving away without a word. Watching him go, Lien suppressed a shiver. No words had been spoken, but his gaze had made her extremely uncomfortable. Three groups were created, and each made their way to a small boat. Lien herself was not assigned to a group, but a 'come along' gesture from her mentor had her trudging along behind the Shado-Pan contingent trying not to draw attention to herself. As she boarded the boat, she was stopped by Jian with a touch on her shoulder. Seemingly from nowhere, her mentor had produced her old weapon, the flamberge she favored. And it was held out to her to take. Hesitating for a long moment, Lien nodded and gingerly took hold of the sword, gripping it tightly as the familiar weight of a real weapon came back to her. Feeling more confident now, she took her place in the boat. Boat travel turned out to be a serious disappointment compared to traveling on the back of mighty Shen-zin Su. The Shado-Pan boat, such as it was, was small, cramped and there was no space to do much more than slump against one side or the other and stare at the ocean. Boredom had caught up with Lien and had her fast asleep before she realized it. Dreaming away the tingle of unease that had been stirred earlier in the day. In her dreams, she did battle with a legion of imaginary Mogu and won single-handed. And she did not care. Part Three Jian They were almost there. The colossal spires of the citadel were silhouetted by the moon and cast long shadows over the water, which the three small boats used to their advantage. Two had already disappeared, splitting off to land on separate areas of the island. Jian tied her hair up and fit her helmet snugly over her head, twisting it into place. She walked the length of the ship, tapping each Pandaren on the shoulder as she passed to wake them. Lien earned an extra tap. Quickly the Shado-Pan sprung to their feet, grabbing their weapons and kneeling at attention. Thirteen pairs of eyes looked to Jian for orders. Is this how Lord Zhu feels every day? She spoke quietly and clearly, “I will take it that you have all figured out where we are going?” There was a murmur of acknowledgment. “The Zandalari have stolen the body of Lei Shen and have managed to revive him. He has taken refuge at his old strongho-” Another murmur, this one more of dismay and anger. As Jian began to speak again silence immediately fell over the group, “-hold, the Isle of Thunder. We will be landing on the eastern coast and clearing a beach head for the Alliance fleet that will land tomorrow. Master Sagewhisper will be doing the same on the western coast for the horde. Lord Zhu will be traveling through the middle with the Wu Kao in search of a way into the palace. Once we have cleared an area for the Alliance to land, we will make our way to the center of the island, meet up with Sagewhisper, and proceed then seek out Lord Zhu. Are there any questions?” Her eyes surveyed the group slowly. One of the Blackguard raised a hand, “Will we be going quietly or loud?” “Quietly until we are discovered. We do not know how many trolls are on the island, but we can safely assume more than twe- thirteen.” Several of the Shado-Pan turn their heads to look at Lien. Another hand shot up, this one covered in red fur and shaking slightly. Lien.
“Yes, Lien?” Lein spoke slowly, sounding timid for once, “Am I supposed to follow you and fight or stay out of the way?” This remark was greeted with a less than positive reaction from the other Shado-Pan, several of them looking back at Jian disapprovingly. You should not be here, Lien. “You will fight. If you play coward and sit in the back while the rest of us struggle, I will execute you myself.” She fought to keep her voice neutral and not cold, but the fierce glare sent back from Lien did not make that easy. She didn't mean it, she didn't want to do it, but it was expected of her. “If I am not around for whatever reason, do exactly what the others tell you, without question and quickly.” She checks over her shoulder at the quickly growing island. “We will arrive within the next twenty minutes. Make yourselves ready.” The Shado-Pan immediately begin to check each others armor and weapons, silently going over every strap and latch. Jian makes her way over to Lien, preforming the same tasks on her. She leans in close to whisper into her ear, “You did say you wanted a fight. Stay near me, do what you are told, and you will survive.” She gives Lien two pats on the back, signifying she's ready. Part Four Lien The young warrior's nap was broken as she felt someone tapping on her shoulder. It took a surprisingly short amount of time for Lien to bring herself about to consciousness. For the first time in her life, she was decidedly nervous. A bleary-eyed glance over the side of the boat at the imposing fortress slowly getting closer and closer did nothing to reassure her. Do they really expect me to fight with them? I'm not even worthy of being an initiate...and Master even said that I was as much a danger to myself as others... Rubbing her eyes fiercely she brought herself to a kneeling position with the others - she badly wanted to stretch, as plate armor was hardly famous for it's comfort levels for sleeping in. She decided against it for now, listening as Jian explained the mission and the plan. And swallowed nervously, unable to keep her paws steady. The Pandaren's physical strength was good, that she had no doubt of. But to go against Zandalari and the Thunder King's forces? She would be sorely outclassed. Her overconfident attitude had been wearing down of late, and this was just another blow to her ego. So it was that she raised her still-trembling arm and asked it plainly. Was she to stay out of the way, or fight? The response was like a whip being cracked across the side of her face. Fight and die, or die anyway? What kind of choice is that? she thought bitterly, glaring daggers at her mentor. It was a reasonable question to have asked, by her reckoning. Lien did not understand the wave of negativity it provoked from the others. Numbly, she began to make herself ready for battle...such as it was. Stiffly, she got to her feet and began to check her gear. Which, since it consisted of armor and a blade, didn't take her long. She stiffened with surprise as Jian began to help her with the task, though the surprise quickly turned to barely restrained anger. Her paws began to shake again, but not from nervousness this time. She clenched both tightly shut to suppress it, though doubted her mentor would have missed it. The warrior listened in sullen silence to the extra instructions, tossed her head angrily, and once the fussing over her gear was finished, stared gloomily out over the side of the boat, at the ever-closing sight of the great citadel that was no longer quite so distant.
Part Five Jian Twelve pairs of paws splashed into the shallow water and dragged the small boat to shore, then into a grove a trees. One followed behind to erase the long groove left by the keel. Jian pointed to three Wu Kao, handpicked by Master Nurong as his best scouts. They jogged over noiselessly and joined her under the branches of a small tree. “Before we can proceed, we must know what we are to be facing.” She broke off a twig and began to draw a simple map in the sand. “I want each of you to take a different direction, you - go to the camp north of here, you - scout the walled hill to the west, and you - the mountains to the east. Be back before dawn.” The three nodded, saluted, and dashed off into the night. She turned to find that the rest of her party had just finished covering their craft with leaves and twigs, further obscuring it from view. She approached them to give her next series of orders, “We will create a perimeter until the scouts return. Groups of two, do not attack unless spotted, but if you are we do not take prisoners. Lien, you will be with me.” **** It was nearly an hour before the scouts returned, the three of them finding Jian and not the other way around. She did not like it when she was snuck upon. The first scout bowed and gave his report, “The camp to the north is swarming with trolls. There are hundreds, if not thousands. We could not defeat them with the combined might of the Shado-Pan here.” He kneels and traces a crude map into the dirt with a claw. “The village itself is back off the shore, but there are three outposts - here, here, and here – that are guarding the beach.” The second scout then took her turn to deliver her report, “The hill to the west is a graveyard, and the mogu have a significant presence in the area. They seem to be bringing their dead back to life." This made Jian uneasy. Fighting the living was one thing, but those who had already fallen.. “I also saw Lord Zhu. He has landed on the beach and is making his way towards the center of the island.” Jian grinned under her helmet, it was reassuring to know that the others had made it. She knew that the did of course, but having someone tell her... “The mountains to the east -” She snapped out of her daydreaming and stared at the scout, “Seem to be held by Saurok. There are thousands. I would suggest we avoid them as they have not allied with Lei Shen if the bones near their fires are any judge.” Jian considered her options for a moment before coming to a decision. “We will ignore the saurok and mogu and focus ourselves on destroying the troll outposts along the beach, those should give the Alliance enough time to get close and land. We will split into three groups and attack each one simultaneously. Each of you gather the rest of us and move into position, we strike at dawn.” After going over a few specifics, the three scouts departed again. Once they were gone she looked up at the sky and took a few deep breaths. In... and out. In... and out. “Are you ready?” She did not look, but she was speaking to Lien. Part Seven Jian Troll skulls are much harder than they look. Though Jian as she tried desperately to free her dagger from between they eyes of one such skull. Finally she liberated it by standing on the creatures face and twisting. She sheathed it back onto her belt and strode over to the rest of her soldiers who
were preforming similar feats with their weapons, or searching for any sort of intelligence. One Blackguard, a hulking fat Pandaren with what could have been mistaken for a tree trunk across his back, bowed before Jian and spoke softly. “All Zandalari scouts have been defeated. We have lost no one.” Jian nodded approvingly, “And have you found anything? I do not have to stress how important a map would be.” “No, Master. We have found nothing of obvious importance.” He said with a shake of his head. “Very well. Gather the rest and assemble on the north side of the camp. We have to meet with the others before replacements come.” Both Pandaren bowed, Jian much less than the Blackguard, and walked past each other. Where are you, Lien? Her question was soon answered as she found Lien on the other side of a rock cleaning her long curved blade, and a dead troll with vicious cuts to his chest nearby. Lien looked no worst for ware, at least not physically. Her armor had a few new dents and the paint was decidedly more chipped than before, but she was unharmed as best as Jian could tell. The sound of Jian's footsteps drew Lien's attention and she paused from cleaned to look up. Her face was passive but her eyes betrayed her. Fear. Jian averted her eyes, surveying the small battlefield in front of her. “Is this the only one?” Lien went back to cleaning, the blade was already polished and free of blood, “No. There's another one on the other side of the rock.” Jian nodded and added awkwardly. “Good. Good.” She paused for several seconds and watched Lien clean the weapon before breaking the silence, “We are moving out in a few minutes. Finish caring for your weapon and meet us on the north side of the camp.” Lien nodded and answered with a disingenuous, “Yes, Master.” Jian opened her mouth to speak but instead simply nodded and turned, walking back to the north side of the camp. Part Nine Jian ~Chaw-tweet! Chaw-tweet!~ Jian motioned for one of the other Shado-Pan, a Wu Kao by the name of Li Chen. He repeated the sounds and moments later the small group was doubled, and then tripled in size. The majority of the Shado-Pan went to meet one another, friends reuniting and giving each other approving gestures and whispered tales of their battle. The two commanders Jian had appointed approached her and bowed. “Report.” The first commander spoke, “We eliminated all Zandalari at the encampment, and managed to find this.” She reached into her tunic and withdrew a folded piece of paper. She unfolded it and spread it out on the ground. “It is a map of the island. We are here-” she gestures to a spot on the southern side just north of a large collection of tents, “And we believe Lord Zhu to be somewhere here.” She points to the central part of the island, an area that looked like a swamp. Jian grinned, “You did well. Any losses?” The commander shook her head, “None, Master.” “Excellent. And you?” Jian turned her attention to the second. “All Zandalari eliminated, but we were unable to find anything of value.” He answered, head still bowed low. Jian raised an eyebrow at his stature, “Any losses?” He bobbed his head solemnly, “One. A Wu Kao by the name of Hon Meijing.” Any noise in the small grove ceased and all heads turned in the direction of Jian and her two lieutenants.
Jian growled low in her throat, “And you were able to give her last rights?” He bobbed his head a second time, “Yes, Master.” “Very well.” Jian rose to her feet, “You -” She addressed the first commander, “What is your name?” She bowed and answered, “Suen Chu Hua of Wu Kao.” “Wu Kao Suen, you will take the lead and guide us to where you think Lord Zhu is located. Try and keep us away from the trolls and mogu, I do not want another fight.” Suen dipped her head in a quick bow before walking to what would become the front of the group. “Move out. Follow her and stay silent.” Jian whispered her orders to the group. There was a slight rustle as they all stood and started walking. Jian took this opportunity to go to Lien. She leaned to whisper into her ear, “You have not learned to walk silently, but you will have to. Walk in my footsteps. Let your body flow like a river to avoid your armor clattering.” She could tell Lien wanted to say something, but kept it in. Good. Jian though as she turned away to follow the group. She glanced over her shoulder back at Lien trying to walk precisely in her footsteps. I am sorry, Lien. This is unfair, and it is my fault. Part Eleven Jian Suen raised her fist in the air and knelt down. The other twelve Pandaren followed suit, taking cover behind trees. Jian made her way to the front of the line, holding out her hand for Lien to stay put. She knelt beside Suen and looked out over the completely open courtyard in front of them. “The trees stop here. There is no forest to go to unless we walk all the way around.” Suen pointed to the map to show Jian as she whispered. “It would take hours.” Jian balled her fist and looked out over the courtyard. Huge statues of mogu warriors decorated the otherwise empty space and surrounded an ominous pagoda at the center. There we no living mogu to be seen, however. She turned to look at her soldiers and then back at the courtyard. “Then there is no other option, we will have to go through.” She beckoned for the rest of her group to gather around. “We will go one by one with three seconds in between. Follow your leader. Suen, you will again take point.” Suen bowed and stood, taking a ready stance and looking for Jian to give her the command. Jian held up her paw and counted backwards silently with her fingers. Four... Three... Two... One... Suen bolted forward across the courtyard and was nearly halfway to the first row of statues before the second runner, Jian herself, began to pursue. One by one the Shado-Pan darted across to the statues, forming a long line. Suen weaved through the statues at such a pace Jian found it hard to keep track of her. Finally Jian saw Suen stop at the base of one of the larger statues, held up by a pedestal and held her hand back for Jian to stop. Jian obeyed and soon the other eleven Shado-Pan were all crouched low behind statues, all eyes on Suen. Suen gestured to Jian with her hands, looking over the pedestal occasionally and gesturing more. Thr-- Two Mogu. Walking. Walking south. Wait for them to pass. Jian nodded and passed the information in a similar fashion to the rest of the group. What felt like hours passed, but eventually Suen stood and cast another look around the area. She turned to face Jian and gestured that the coast was clear. Jian nodded and after relaying the information to the rest of her group and stood, started to crouch walk to Suen. However, she stopped in her tracks. A loud crack echoed through the field of statues. Jian looked up in horror as the massive stone mogu Suen was taking shelter behind turned its head. There was no time to think before a second and then third quieter crack sounded. The second was the statue's arm freeing itself, and the third was the
sound of bones shattering as a stone mace with the head the size of a mountain yak swung through the air to make contact with Suen's back. The Wu Kao disciple was tossed limply by the blow backwards into one of the other statues where she landed with a thud and crumpled to the ground in a heap. Run. Was the only thing Jian could think, so it was the only order she could give. “To the trees, now!” She shouted and the dozen Pandaren bolted though the rest of the statues. The giant golem swung his hammer at the fleeing creatures, each swipe destroying smaller statues in a shatter of sharp rocks and dust. Jian shielded the slit in her helmet, feeling her gauntlet being hit with dozens of pieces of shrapnel with each swipe as she ran in the direction of the forest, the dust being too thick to see through. She prayed that she would not be the next unlucky victim, or worse, Lien. Part Thirteen Jian She dove into the treeline, the sounds of destruction echoing behind her. She ducked behind a tree and caught her breath, poking her head out to watch. More and more Shado-Pan were escaping the haze of dust and arriving into the forest with her. She let out a sigh of relief as finally she caught glimpse of Lien, lagging behind but uninjured. “Keep moving, deeper into the forest.” Jian ordered as she darted around trees and through bushes, creating an easy path to follow if they were. Finally she held up her hand to stop. She turned and began to count, “Eleven. We have lost two in the courtyard?” Asked Jian to no one inparticular. “One. Hon was killed at the east camp.” Answered someone from the darkness. Jian nodded, “Suen... we will have to return soon to give release her from duty.” There was a solemn murmur of acknowledgment from the group. ((TBC))