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Not a Tale of Romance

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By the time Ren had found the tea amidst the myriad colored canisters of dried herbs and remedies stored in the back of the large tent Mei Fan had already brought in bowls of fresh snow, setting one to melt beside the brazier and wrapping layers of snow inside layers of bandages to place over her patient’s head and neck. “Yes, that’s the one,” she said when he brought the metal jar to her. “Just dust it straight into the water along with a pinch of the ground root.”

Ren filled the largest of the brewing pots with already melted water from the keg kept inside the tent, placing it atop the brazier and stirring up the fire. He was just stirring the tea into the steaming water when Mei Fan joined him, supporting Feng who was weaving a bit as he walked like a drunkard, or as though the endless stream of the chi was still flowing through and over him like a river current.

Ren hastily ladled out two cups and passed them over. Feng took both, draining one and handing it back immediately. Mei Fan fussed softly, getting her mate situated on one of the scattered pillows before going back to check on Jun. Ren busied himself ladling up more cups for Feng, who only slowed after the fourth, pressing the heated ceramic curve of the cup between his squinted eyes, ears held at stiff angles out from his head.

He was no healer or assistant, but Ren was more than familiar with the look - on himself or others - of a splitting headache, usually the remnant of the night before. He got up, fetching a length of bandage and some of the half melted snow Mei Fan had brought in, soaking the loose woven cloth in it and draping it over Feng’s neck when he returned to the fire. The older healer grunted softly in gratitude, dragging the cold cloth up around his ears. “Hard work,” he huffed, draining the dregs of his tea and holding it out for another refill, “when you’re not sure what goes where.”

“He’ll be alright, though?” Ren asked, refilling the other male’s cup and then filling three more and lining them up as Mei Fan returned with Jun, who was stumbling and all but collapsed onto a cushion by the fire. Mei Fan pushed a cup into her niece’s hand, steadying it until Jun could gulp it down and reach for the next; the younger female’s eyes were closed, ears low, and even from across the brazier Ren could see how pale and dry her nose looked, eyes and mouth pinched around the edges. He filled the cups as Mei Fan handed them back to him, adding more water to the pot though he doubted it would have enough time to warm or steep before the healers drank it.

It took the rest of the first pot and half of the second before Jun sighed, sitting up a little easier and running her claws through the disheveled plaits of her hair. “He’s not breathing blood,” she said, sounding pleased, “and if we can keep him from jostling his ribs, or his lungs from filling in fluid, he should be well enough given time.”

“He was better than I thought when we first dug him out,” Feng snorted. “Lucky spawn of a vermin.”

“It was an avalanche, then?” Ren asked, curious. “And no other survivors?”

Feng glanced sideways at his mate. Mei Fan huffed, ears flicking back, and Feng grimaced. “No avalanche,” he said after a moment, the words growled. “Just damned fool outsiders. The Shado-Pan warned us, they did, straight from Lord Zhu himself, but I didn’t think…” he shook his head, giving Ren an apologetic nod. “No offense, Lorewalker. But… you’ve been there, haven’t you? Can you tell us about them?”

All three of them turned to him, even Jun’s ears cocked in an exhausted but attentive angle. Ren sat back on a cushion, threading his fingers together over his stomach; the telltale twiddling and tapping of his hands when he was nervous was a habit he’d never overcome, but could disguise if he kept his hands clasped or occupied. “He’s a ‘human’,” he told them, the Common word rolling a little awkwardly through his mouth after months spent speaking and thinking in nothing but Pandaren. “Their empire is based in the Eastern Kingdoms; they are allies with several other races and their Alliance holds most of that continent.”

Feng nodded slowly, repeating the Common words under his own breath a few times to familiarize himself with them. “And these humans, this Alliance,” he asked, frowning, “they are in the habit of destroying what is not theirs? Or of provoking violence?”

Ren winced slightly, ears flicking back. He had, for a brief time, served the Alliance; had, over the years, continued to work with them when the occasion warranted. “Sometimes,” he allowed, sighing. “I will not say they are blameless, but they usually do not destroy without reason or attack without cause.” He grimaced, glancing at the bandage wrapped figure on the furs. The damage, to his eyes, still looked more like falling impact than weapons. “Was there a battle?”

“We don’t know,” Feng admitted, slumping. The healer leaned forward to fill his cup again, cradling it between his hands as he breathed the steam. “The signal came from Emperor’s Reach. I thought… well, the structure is ancient, and not all that sound, difficult to reach, and you know how the adventurous will climb up there sometimes, but…”

He broke off, shaking his head. Jun stirred a little, her claws picking at the fringe of the woven blanket Mei Fan had draped over her. “Sha,” she said softly, and the word, in her quiet breath, raised the fur across Ren’s neck in a prickling rush. “There were bodies… I don’t know what type, larger than this one, all dead, and they reeked of Sha. The smell was so thick I thought I would choke.”

“You could feel it,” Mei Fan interjected, shuddering, her fur on end and expression sour. “Like rancid, congealed oil. We signaled the Shado-Pan - something will have to be done with the bodies, or the Sha will linger who knows how long.”

“That one,” Feng said, indicating the male they had rescued, “was under rubble, half crushed.” He lowered his ears, looking pained. “It looked to be a great bell, from one of the Temples, maybe, though I don’t know which one. I’m sorry, Lorewalker, but it was brought down, shattered. We dug him out from the pieces.”

It took Ren several minutes, his mind automatically hunting down references in the hundreds of facts he had learned in order to sit his Lorewalker examination, the histories of each temple and any particulars about their grounds and bells. Nothing remarkable, for the most part, and no reason for anyone to have hauled such an artifact up to the terrace, unless…

When the pieces connected, a whispered scrap of news that had been circulating when he had left the Vale to come to Kun-Lai, Ren felt a cold chill shudder down his spine and into his gut. Hissing softly through his teeth, he tugged at his own cheek braids, pulling the tail of his hair over his shoulder to twist it fretfully through his hands. Surely not, but… if it was… “Terrible,” he managed, and it was - the deaths, the Sha… he had seen the Alliance and the Horde clash before, and what was left behind in the wake of it, but it seemed ten times as real, here, in his ancestral homeland, as it had out in the greater world. But the inclusion of a destroyed bell, the rumors of the unearthing of the Divine Bell… “I’ll need to send word to the Seat of Knowledge," he managed, throat dry. "They will want to know, and can coordinate with the Shado-Pan to secure the area.”

Jun made a face, grimacing. “You’ll need to do it now, if you’re doing it,” she said. “It was shaky coming back from the Reach; there won’t be any kites going anywhere for the next few days.”

Ren blinked at her blankly and Mei Fan snorted. “Lowlander,” she said, as though it explained everything. “It’s going to snow.”

“But it was clear earlier…” Ren said, ears flicking back. “I thought the caravan might make it through.”

All three of them were grinning now, Feng shaking his head in amusement. “No, not for another ten day, if that. Snow tonight, tomorrow, maybe more. Reng-Yu’s hawk might be able to get through, but don’t expect a return message for a few days. Mei Fan’s right - can’t you smell it?”

Ren’s baffled look sent Jun into peals of laughter that tapered off into a dry throated cough. He quickly refilled her cup and Mei Fan thumped her niece on the back a few times as Jun drank it down. “Sorry,” she managed when she could. “I’m sorry, Ren, it’s just…”

Ren shrugged good naturedly. “I’m a lowlander,” he agreed. It was true enough, no matter how the words were split; the Dai-Lo valley nestled low against the edge of the great Turtle shell, and even the highest peaks on Shen-Zin Su were a far cry from the towering eternally snow capped monsters that crowned Kun-Lai. The snowstorms that were, to him, freak occurrences that descended at random over the mountains, were things he had learned the community he was staying with predicted with the same ease that he could have told if it would rain on the morrow when he had been a cub on the farm.

If they were looking at another double handful of days of being snowed in, though… Ren chewed at the inside of his cheek, then pushed himself up. “Let me just go talk to Reng-Yu,” he said, dipping an apologetic bow. “The Lorewalkers will want to know about this, and might be able to shed some light on any news of the outlanders desecrating a Temple.”

Or on which faction, the Alliance or the Horde, had been in possession of the Divine Bell. If it *was* the Bell, and not just *a* bell. Ren grit his teeth, tugging at his braids in distraction as he ducked through the doubled flap of the tent door, emerging out into the rapidly fading sunset. The cold was heavier than it had been, biting at his ears and nose and sitting painfully dry in his lungs; Ren shivered, hugging his arms to his sides, and cast a wary eye up at the flat, cloud heavy sky above as he hurried up the little path that wound through the squat, round tent huts to the one set higher on the ridge and used by the community look-out.

* * * * *

Huang had drawn the evening watch, a dark shadow on the look-out platform where his sable fur rendered him almost invisible. Tall and intimidating in looks, Huang’s temperament was anything but, and he was happy to describe the signal that had alerted them that morning as “a stream of light” that had arched out over the peaks. “A spell of some sort, I’d wager,” Huang told him. “Outland magic, mark my word. Is it true the one they brought back is as bald as a Jinyu?”

“Skin, not scales,” Ren corrected, to Huang’s ears-back amazement. He hastily described the need to get a message out and Huang huffed and swung himself down from the look-out perch to go get his mate.

Reng-Yu emerged from the hut several minutes later, yawning. The hawkmaster was as thin and grumpy as Huang was large and amiable, the mates like mirror opposites of each other. “Terrible time for it,” he growled, and left Ren at the stone paved entrance to the hut as he dug out quill and ink and the tiny slips of parchment a hawk could carry, returning to thrust the lot into Ren’s hands. “Lorewalker business, though, none of mine. My girls will get through, but don’t be expecting a reply any time soon.”

Ren thanked him hastily, quickly jotting the pertinent points of information in his smallest script. ~Emperor’s Reach - battle, human Alliance, Sha presence confirmed. Shado-Pan alerted. Broken bell.~ He underscored the last in emphasis and rolled the little scrap of parchment up tight. “To go to Lorewalker Cho, in the Seat of Knowledge,” he told Reng-Yu, bowing low.

The hawkmaster grumbled but took the message and let Ren follow him out to the small mews built into the rocks. One hawk looked much like any other to Ren’s eye, but Reng-Yu deftly plucked one hooded and sleepy bird from her perch, slipping the rolled message into the holder attached to the hawk’s leg. “She’s the only one that will fly at night,” he told Ren gruffly, “and a quarter of the watch later I would have told you to go hang, Lorewalker or no.”

“Snow,” Ren agreed, just as though he could read the signs. Reng-Yu snorted, waking the hawk with a gentle touch and untying her hood and leather ties as he stepped back outside. Whatever he whispered to the bird was not for Ren’s ears, or for any Pandaren, but the hawk gave a cry when Reng-Yu tossed her into the air, her wings snapping open as she soared upwards.

“At least you know you’re being a damned fool,” the hawkmaster growled. “Ping-yin will get your note through, though, don’t worry - the storm’s coming from the northwest, she’ll race it south and be in the lowlands by tomorrow.”

Ren bowed again, thanking the other male. It would, he hoped, be enough - if it was the Divine Bell, the Lorewalker elders at the Seat would know what to do about it. The wind had picked up, the cold now a sharp snap that hurried his steps down the path, and Ren shook himself all over as he ducked back into the healing tent, his fur fluffed against the chill.

Mei Fan was waiting for him, alone. “I sent them to bed,” she said, handing Ren a bowl of thick stew, the hard grains of the mountains cooked in yak milk and butter with fatty bits of meat and root vegetables floated in the mix. It wasn’t elaborate eating, by any means, but it was warm and filling and Ren took it gratefully, wrapping his hands around the stoneware bowl. “I can wake Feng if his lungs start filling again, but Jun needs some rest.”

“Do you think you’ll need to?” Ren asked, taking a seat near the fire.

“If he was Pandaren, no,” the healer replied promptly, with a disgruntled sniff. “They’ve done the best they can, but it’s not as though we know his race well.” She turned her eyes on Ren, who paused in mid bite and then hastily took another, mistrusting the look in Mei Fan’s calculating gaze. “So… what temperature should he run at? His breathing - too fast? Too slow? How quickly do their hearts beat?”

Ren grimaced to himself, swallowing to clear his mouth, and using the excuse of the food to give himself time as he wracked his memory for answers gleaned from overheard scraps of Alliance field healers. He wasn’t a healer himself but whoever the Alliance man was, whatever had happened on the terrace, he still deserved the best honest attempt to save him that they could offer - that was the Pandaren way, and the unspoken oath that all in the Kun-Lai peaks lived by. Ren, outsider though he might be, could do no less.