The ground was soft beneath Suen’s golden paws: soft and churned to mud by thirty-five pairs of pandaren feet trekking one way at dawn and the other at dusk.
To her left lay their encampment. Mismatched tents and temporary huts huddled amongst the bamboo in an area sheltered by the hillside. The shoots grew tall and closely packed together, lifting their fronds far overhead in a web of foliage that held in the darkness.
Suen bit back a grumble of irritation at the prospect of squinting through the shadows and let her head swing to the right. The muddiest ground stretched out some distance away, where several slabs of solid stone hunkered in the moonlight. Stooped low to disguise her tall, distinctive frame, she prowled down the slope toward the build site.
It was filthy. The soil was sludge, and woven mats caked with mud did little to protect a few racks of tools from the sky or the grit. As for the build itself, a deep trench had been bored into the ground. From it rose a wall of stone blocks, each enormous in its own right but stacked up no higher than her knee.
Suen tapped the nearest block with her foot. It seemed strong, at least, but the whole construction was only ten metres long. Was this all they could achieve in two weeks? And where were the guards? The fortifications?
Her attention lifted to the vast Kypari trees far out west, where the mogu lumber teams had yet to reach. The mantid hid out there somewhere, nesting for the night. Although most of their warriors were busy shredding those mogu who had fled west from Lei Shen’s army down in Krasarang, it was arrogant to assume none of the mantid workers or patrollers left behind would spot the pandaren toiling out here.
The slaves would be discovered long before this ‘Serpent’s Spine’ reached completion. Although she had heard the project referred to as an impending masterpiece of defensive architecture, she saw nothing to suggest the Spine was anything more than a place for mogu advisors to sacrifice troublesome individuals.
Lu’Lin, it seemed, had been right. The woman Suen had come to see was here to die.
Her face ever locked in expressionless stone, Suen stalked back toward the camp, her green eyes flashing irritation. Her head had started to ache. She ground one stone knuckle to her temple, for all the good that would do, and stepped into the bamboo thicket.
The silver-laced gloom of night turned to true, featureless darkness in the shade of the trees. Hollow wooden stems clacked together all around her in the steady breeze, loud enough to deafen her to the sound of any approaching threat. This was her sister’s element, not Suen’s. Disquieted, she raised one hand and fire leapt to life between her chiselled claws. By its flickering yellow light she picked out a sagging, bedraggled-looking tent and knelt down to peel aside the flap.
The pandaren crouched on the other side jumped and stumbled back, his paws thrust out toward her, placating.
‘Please,’ he yelped. His voice broke on that word alone.
‘I am not here to hurt you,’ said Suen, inspecting him.
He had the deflated look of all new slaves. Old paunch had wasted away and wiry muscle had yet to set in to replace it. His pelt was so choked with dust she couldn’t make out his coloration, but his fur was rust red from his wrists to his paws and his calves to his feet. Burst blisters on the pads of his hands explained that well enough. The blood was still wet in the gullies between each finger.
Although she squinted long and hard at his face, which soon began to tremble, the truth was undeniable: she did not recognise this man.
‘Where is Xi Feng?’
Her voice was hard and blank. He looked up at her, mute. She let an edge of mogu impatience creep into her tone.
‘I know she’s here. Tell me which tent.’
‘I-’ His throat sealed off. He swallowed, cringing further back against the far wall with every passing second of silence. ‘I don’t know; I don’t know everyone here; I don’t know anyone at all,’ he blurted at last, those bloodied paws held high again.
‘Who will? You must at least know who is in charge.’
‘I-’ Another of his choked starts. The dithering movements of his eyes were enough to give his knowledge away; it was only a matter of convincing him to speak it aloud.
‘I will not harm them either. Harming anyone is not my intent.’
The pandaren man stared at her, and then at the fireball in her hand. She glanced at it and back to him.
‘Please. Can you see in the dark, pandaren?’
He hesitated. His next step back took him nowhere: his foot slipped down the taut canvas of the tent wall and came to a halt back where it had started. He stared for a moment at the ground between them, his eyes gleaming and his body shaking.
‘Aren’t you,’ he said, his voice catching again, ‘one of the Thunder King’s men?’
‘So you are blind, even by firelight. I see.’
Her hand darted forward and snagged him by the front of his shirt. The man bleated and threads snapped, but the garment held. Suen gave him a light shake.
‘I am no man, I am not Lei Shen’s, and you are wasting my time. Who? Where? Tell me now.’
‘Xi Zan,’ he yelped. ‘Xi Zan. He sleeps in the house at the middle of the camp. The biggest there. It won’t be hard to find.’
‘Xi Zan,’ Suen echoed. She stood still as she absorbed the familiar syllables, before gently setting her informant back on his feet. ‘Good. I will look.’ She started out of the tent, then paused and lifted the front flap once more. ‘Thank you,’ she said.
Suen was well aware of the pandaren following her through camp. Four metres tall and wrought from stone, she was hardly stealthy herself, but he tripped, stumbled and cried out when his injured paws made unwanted contact with forest floor debris. Even the wind through the bamboo failed to drown him out.
It might be smart to shut him up. There were thirty pandaren in this camp and she had reason to suspect she knew the sort of people some of them were, even if this one terrified man went against her expectations. They were rebellious. If they were woken and alerted to her presence, they might get it into their heads that numbers alone could swing the odds against her. Correcting this belief would not help the Serpent’s Spine and, even if she doubted the project’s viability, part of her did want the damn thing built.
‘Hush,’ she hissed.
Killing him was out of the question. The pandaren lived in groups dedicated to one another’s wellbeing; they wouldn’t help her if she’d killed one of them. Besides which, killing slaves had never appealed to her. There was no challenge to it.
Fortuitously, the verbal warning proved to be enough. His blundering disappeared beneath the forest sounds, and she couldn’t be sure he was following her at all.
He had been right, as well. The house was not difficult to pick out from the more rickety huts and tents. It was large enough to have several rooms, its roof was solidly constructed from bamboo, its windows were blocked by blinds, and it seemed to squat on a bed of planks that made a kind of raised porch.
Suen knelt before it and considered the challenge posed by its front door. The handle was too delicate for her giant paws, and the frame too restrictive to allow more than her head and shoulders through. Carefully she reached out and rapped the sturdy wood with the back of one claw.
No-one let her in. Focused intently on the house, she picked up the harried tread of paws moving to the furthest room. The occupants’ breath came in nervous heaves.
‘Come and speak,’ said Suen, ‘or I will take your walls and your roof and you can live like the others.’
‘And if we come out, will you let us live at all?’
This voice was male. Not only did she recognise it, it sent a pang right through her. Her claws grated across her chest as she tried and failed to process the twinge below the surface. Suen was solid stone; there was nothing inside her that could move.
‘Yes,’ she said.
‘Forgive me if I cannot trust mogu words.’
‘What choice do you have?’
This inquiry earned her a moment’s silence, broken by the padding of paws. The handle turned and the front door opened. Xi Zan stepped out onto the porch in threadbare cloth shirt and leggings, looking up at her through thick brows drawn low.
‘On those words your empire was founded.’
His voice was deep, stern and angrier than she had ever heard it, but in a new, strained way. His body, too, differed from the form she had seen many times before in her mind’s eye. He was still broad and immensely muscular, his fur parted by the scars that proclaimed him more warrior than worker, but he was thinner and his eyes were sunken in dusty sockets. His dark hair was streaked with grey.
‘It is not my empire, and I am not here to discuss it,’ said Suen. ‘I am here because I know you when we have never met. I am looking for Xi Feng.’
Confusion had opened Zan’s expression, but that name slammed it shut. He glared up at Suen.
‘My wife is not here.’
‘I have read the records, Xi Zan. She was sent to the Stair, and everyone at the Stair came here,’ said Suen, her eyes narrowing.
‘Not Xi Feng.’
‘Then where is she?’
He stared at her, silent, his strong arms folded over his chest. His pose and expression would have been impenetrable, had Suen been less accustomed to searching the eyes for emotion. She saw him struggle to keep his gaze distant and calm.
‘You don’t know,’ she said.
She sat down properly, folding her legs, and rested her paws on her knees. Now, thanks to the porch and a slight slope in his favour, they were almost level. Zan could look into her face directly, and she could see all the way into the house through the open front door. Another pandaren stood a short way inside: female, but too small to be Xi Feng. There was something familiar, however, about the bold pattern of black and white over her face.
‘What is it you want from her?’ asked Zan, the weariness in his eyes manifesting in his voice.
‘Only to talk.’
‘But why?’ His claws raked through his hair. ‘She is no threat to you anymore. Her legs were broken; she cannot fight.’
‘You don’t know where she is, but you speak as though you know she is alive. How is that?’
Zan gave her a long-suffering look. ‘Because there is no knowledge left anywhere that can sustain us; all pandaren can do is hope.’
The set of his brow wavered; his shoulders sloped and caved inward; and his paws lifted to cover his face. Suen had never seen someone come apart like this before. First came a wave of distaste, but it was followed closely by that uncomfortable, insistent pang in her chest. She reached out and grasped his shoulder lightly between two fingers and thumb. Touch was a conduit: his grief surged through her and suddenly the hand on his shoulder was as much support for her as for him.
‘I dream about her,’ she said, ‘about both of you. I am sure that she is still alive. We just have to find out where.’
‘What do you need me to do,’ said Zan through his paws, his voice low and broken.
Suen withdrew her hand and waited until he could look her in the eye again.
‘I need you to tell me all you know.’