Authors: Michael A. Stackpole
ol’jin might not have been wholly clear about who he was, but he certainly knew who he was not. He forced himself out of his sickbed by degrees. He would ease back the covers, deliberately folding them neatly when he desperately wanted to throw them off, and then he’d swing his legs out.
The first touch of cool stone on his feet surprised him, but he drew strength from the sensation. He let it override the pain in his legs and the tight tugging of scars and stitching. Holding on to the bedpost, he pulled himself upright.
On the sixth attempt he made it. The fourth had popped stitches on his stomach. He refused to acknowledge that fact and waved away the monks attracted by the darkening stain on his tunic. He thought he would have to apologize to Tyrathan for making him work harder, but he asked the monks to set the tunic aside.
He did that after lying down again. He’d gotten to his feet and stood for what seemed like forever. Sunlight through the window had not shifted a bug’s width along the floor, providing him a true measure of time, but he had been upright. That was a victory.
Once the monks had closed the wound again and rebandaged it, Vol’jin asked for a basin of water and a brush. He took the tunic and, as best as he was able, scrubbed at the bloodstain. It proved
tenacious, but he was determined to get it out even though his muscles burned with exertion.
Tyrathan waited until Vol’jin’s motions had slowed enough that the water had stilled, and then the man took the tunic from him. “You are most kind, Vol’jin, for accepting my burden. I shall hang this out to dry.”
Vol’jin wished to protest, since he could still see the stain’s dark outline, but he remained silent. In an instant he saw the balance of Huojin and Tushui reestablished. He had been impulsive, and Tyrathan had been thoughtful, intervening at a time and in a way that cost neither of them dignity. It silently acknowledged effort and intent, achieving the desired end without ego or a need for victory.
The next day, Vol’jin made it to his feet by the third attempt and refused to lie back down until the sunbeam’s edge had moved a thumb’s length past a seam in the block floor. The day after, it took him that long to walk from one end of the bed to the other and back. By week’s end he actually walked to the window and peered down into a courtyard.
Pandaren monks arrayed in straight ranks dominated the center. They worked through exercises, shadowboxing with blinding speed. Trolls were not strangers to unarmed combat, but since they were ganglier, their techniques did not match the discipline and control the monks displayed. Around the edges, at various points, other monks fought with swords and spears, polearms and bows. A single blow with just a stick would have humbled a Stormwind warrior shut up in a steel carapace. Were it not for the flash of sunlight off razored edges, Vol’jin doubted he would have followed much of the blurred weapons’ work.
And then there, on the steps, Chen Stormstout swept snow. Two steps above, Lord Taran Zhu did the same.
Vol’jin leaned on the window’s casement.
What be the odds that I would see the monastery’s lord doing a menial task?
He considered that
he had become a creature of habit, always getting up at the same time.
That be changing
But this meant that Taran Zhu not only knew what Vol’jin had been doing but also had anticipated the time he would reach the window. Vol’jin had no doubt that were he to ask Chen how often Taran Zhu swept snow, he would discover it was only that day, only at that time. The troll glanced to the side to see a number of monks ignoring him, which meant they were watching his reaction but did not want to be detected.
Not five minutes after he lay back down did Chen come to visit, bearing a small bowl of a frothy liquid. “It was good to see you up, my friend. I’ve wanted to bring you this for days, but Lord Taran Zhu had prohibited it. He thought it would be too strong for you. I told him it would take a lot more than that to kill you. I mean, you are here, right? So you get first taste. Well, aside from me.” Chen smiled. “I had to make sure it actually wouldn’t kill you, after all.”
Vol’jin lifted the bowl and sniffed. The brew had a tang to it, and a woody sense. He sipped and found it neither sweet nor bitter, but full and rich. It tasted the way the jungle smelled after a rain as steam rose from vegetation and brought everything together. It reminded him of the Echo Isles, and that realization almost closed his throat.
He forced himself to swallow, then nodded as it burned down to his belly. “Very good.”
“Thank you.” Chen glanced toward the floor. “The day we got here you were not looking very good. The journey had been hard. We were told we’d bury you on the mountain. But I whispered in your ear—the good one, not the one Li Li helped sew up—that if you made it, I’d have something special waiting for you. I’d tucked into the corner of a satchel some spices, a few flowers, from your home. To remember it all by. And so I used them to make you an ale. I call it ‘Get Well.’ ”
“Your credit, my recovery.”
The pandaren looked up. “It was a small batch, Vol’jin. Your recovery will take longer.”
“I will recover.”
“Which is why I’ve begun a new brew called ‘Celebration.’ ”
• • •
Whether it was Chen’s brew or Vol’jin’s troll constitution, the clean mountain air or the therapies to which the monks subjected him—or all of them combined—within a handful of weeks Vol’jin progressed admirably. Each day, when standing in rank with the monks, he would bow to their teacher, then glance up at the window from which he’d watched them. Scarcely would he have believed he would join them, and yet now he felt so much better that he could scarcely remember who he’d been at the window.
The monks, who accepted him without comment or great solicitude, referred to him as Vol’jian. Somehow that rolled more easily off their tongues, but he knew it was not that alone. Chen explained that “jian” had a number of meanings, all centered around greatness. At first, the monks used it to describe his clumsy oafishness, but then it came to mark the speed with which he learned.
Were they not eager teachers, he would have been contemptuous of their disrespect. He was a shadow hunter. Great though the monks’ skills were, not a single one of them could imagine what it had taken for him to become a shadow hunter. The monks fought to embody balance, but to be a shadow hunter was to master chaos.
His hunger for knowledge and his quick competence at little things prompted them to throw more and more complex techniques at him. As his strength increased and his body slowly regained its ability to heal from cuts and bruises, the only thing that limited him was his lack of endurance. Vol’jin wanted to put it down to the thin mountain air, but shortness of breath was not limiting the man.
Other things did limit Tyrathan. He still limped, though not
nearly as much as he had before. He used a cane and often trained with monks who fought with sticks. Vol’jin noticed that in the midst of sparring, the limp would disappear. Only at the end, after Tyrathan had caught his breath and became aware of himself again, would it return.
The man also watched the monks training at archery. One would have to be blind to not see how much he wished to be shooting. He would measure the monks, watch them shoot, his head dipping when one failed, a smile sparking when one split an arrow already embedded in the target.
Now that he was well enough to be training, Vol’jin moved to a small, austere cell on the monastery’s eastern side. Its simplicity of appointments—a sleeping mat, a low table, a basin and pitcher, as well as two pegs for the hanging of clothes—was doubtless meant to discourage distraction. Its bareness would make it easier for the monks to gather themselves and find peace.
Vol’jin found it reminiscent of Durotar—though considerably colder. Dwelling in it provided no real hardship. He placed his bed where the first light of dawn would waken him. He’d go off to do chores as the others did, then have a simple breakfast before the morning’s exercises. He noted that his rations included more meat than the monks consumed, which made sense considering the status of his recovery.
Morning, midday, and evening all fell into that same pattern: chores, food, and exercises. For Vol’jin, the exercises revolved around strength and flexibility, learning about combat and his physical limitations. In the afternoon, he got more individual instruction, again with a rotating band of monks because the majority of them attended classes. They rejoined the physical exercise in the evening, though this consisted mostly of stretching, preparatory to getting a good night’s rest.
The monks taught him well. He’d watched them shatter up to a dozen boards with a single punch. Vol’jin had looked forward to
trying that because he knew he could do it. But when it came time for him to try the exercise, Lord Taran Zhu took over. In place of boards had been arranged an inch-thick slab of stone.
Do you mock me?
Vol’jin studied the monk’s face but read no deception. That didn’t mean there wasn’t any there, but the pandaren’s impassive expression could have masked anything. “You be wanting me to break stone. Others break wood.”
“Others do not believe they can shatter wood. You do.” Taran Zhu pointed to a spot a finger’s length beyond the stone slab. “Place your doubt here. Strike through to it.”
Vol’jin forced away the thought because it was a distraction. He wanted to ignore it, but instead, he did as the monk had instructed. He visualized doubt as a shimmering blue-black ball spitting sparks. He let it float through the stone to hover behind it.
Then Vol’jin set himself, drew in a deep breath, and exhaled sharply. He drove his fist forward, pulverizing the stone. He continued through, smashing that ball of doubt. He could have sworn that he’d not felt the impact until he’d hit the ball. The stone had been as nothing, even though he brushed its dust from his pelt.
Taran Zhu bowed to him respectfully.
Vol’jin returned the gesture, holding it longer than before.
The other monks bowed as their lord withdrew, then bowed to Vol’jin. Vol’jin returned their bows and noticed, thereafter, that their emphasis on “jian” had changed again.
• • •
It was not until later that evening, as he sat alone in his cell, the stone cool against his back, that Vol’jin allowed himself to understand at least some of what he had learned. His hand had not swollen or stiffened, yet he could still feel his fist crushing doubt. He flexed his hand, watching it work, happy he was fully reconnected to it.
Taran Zhu was right to make doubt a target. Doubt destroyed
souls. What thinking creature, when entertaining doubt about success, could undertake any action? To doubt that he could punch through stone was to acknowledge that his hand could break, his bones could splinter, his flesh could tear, and his blood could flow. And if he dwelt on that outcome, could there be any but that outcome? That ending would be his target; therefore he would succeed and hit that target. Whereas, if his target was to destroy doubt and he hit that target, then would anything be impossible?
Zalazane returned to his mind, not as a vision but as a series of memories. Doubt had destroyed his soul. The two of them had grown up together, best friends. Because Sen’jin, the Darkspear leader, was his father, Vol’jin had always been considered first between them, but not in his own mind. And Zalazane had known that; they’d spoken of it often, laughing at the ignorance of those who thought of one as hero and the other as benighted companion. Even as Vol’jin concentrated on becoming a shadow hunter, Zalazane became a witch doctor under Master Gadrin. Sen’jin himself had encouraged Zalazane, and there had been those among the Darkspears who thought Zalazane was being trained to lead after Sen’jin, while Vol’jin was destined for greater things.
But even in that people were fooled, for the both of them believed in Sen’jin’s dream of a homeland for the Darkspears. A place where they could thrive without fear, without enemies preying upon them. And even Sen’jin’s death at the webbed hands of murlocs could not kill that dream.
Somewhere, at some time, doubt wormed its way into Zalazane’s soul. Perhaps it was knowing that Sen’jin, a powerful witch doctor, could die so easily. It could have been hearing just one too many times that Vol’jin was the hero and he was the companion. It could have been something that Vol’jin couldn’t even guess at, but whatever it was, it caused Zalazane to savagely lunge for power.
That power made him insane. Zalazane enslaved most of the Darkspears, turning them into mindless minions. Vol’jin escaped
with some, then returned with his Horde allies to free the Echo Isles. He’d led the forces that killed Zalazane, felt his blood splash, heard him breathe his last. He liked to think, in that last moment, in the last spark he’d seen in Zalazane’s eyes, that his old friend had returned to sanity and was pleased to be free.
So, I think, it be with Garrosh
. Exalted because he was his father’s son but hardly revered for himself or his actions, Garrosh was feared by many. He had learned that fear was an effective lash with which to keep subordinates in line. But not all of them cringed at the whipcrack.