Li Li's Travel Journal

Part 10 of 11
Entry Ten: The Townlong Steppes

I'd heard a legend once that the Serpent's Spine was made from billions of stones.

Yes. Billions.

At the time, I thought it was just crazy talk. But when I finally stood on the great wall and saw how big it was, I started to believe the story. The Serpent's Spine stretched to the south like a giant winding snake, so far that I couldn't see where it ended. The top was wide enough that you could've driven a few carts side by side and still had room for a fat pandaren like Uncle Chen to walk between them. Some parts of the barrier were newly rebuilt, the stones flat and precisely cut. Other areas were rough and craggy, weathered by the elements and covered in gouges from past battles.

Being at the Serpent's Spine was a dream come true, especially after all the time I'd spent getting there. Based on detailed instructions from Uncle Chen, the grummle messenger Fishtail had led me to one of the wall's guard towers way out in Kun-Lai. Once we finally made it to the wall, I understood why we'd taken such a roundabout route.

Uncle Chen had arranged an escort to meet me there… a member of the Shado-pan!

The fellow's name was Min. For generations, his mysterious order had stood watch on the Serpent's Spine, protecting Pandaria from nasties like the mantid. He dressed like most of the other Shado-pan I'd seen: lightly armored, with a wide hat tilted low over his eyes and a scarf wrapped around his face. He didn't talk much, but the stuff he did tell me was pretty interesting. Min said that every stone on the wall had a story: tales of where Shado-pan guardians had fended off attackers, sometimes sacrificing their own lives to uphold their sacred duty.

It started raining as we made our way south. Instead of forming into big puddles, the water traveled through grooves in the stonework and then cascaded off the sides of the wall like thousands of tiny waterfalls. I was admiring the barricade's architecture when I noticed something odd about Min. He always seemed to keep his eyes fixed to the west, as if doing so was second nature for him. The land in that direction was known as the Townlong Steppes, a place of open, grassy hills and rocky outcroppings. Here and there, huge trees (called kypari) towered into the sky. Some of them looked as tall as the Serpent's Spine.

Townlong was a rugged land inhabited by rugged folk: the yaungol. Min told me that in years past, you could gaze out from the wall and see giant groups of the shaggy nomads roaming the hills. Now, the area looked deserted. Vultures hovered in the air, flying over the smoldering wreckage of yaungol camps.

War had come and gone in Townlong. It all started when the mantid had invaded the region, causing the yaungol to flee into Kun-Lai and begin destroying pandaren villages. The sha had also influenced the brutes, making them more violent than usual. Eventually, the pandaren and their allies had defeated the yaungol.

"I harbor no hate for yaungol," Min said. "The Shado-pan do only what we must to protect Pandaria. Emotion plays no part in our actions. We train to keep our feelings in check so that they do not control us. But take heart, little one. Those nomads are survivors. Their culture will endure. Most of all, I hope that they learn from these events."

Min didn't say anything else during the rest of our journey, which was fine by me. I had a lot to think about. I'd wanted the yaungol to be punished for the terrible things they'd done in Kun-Lai, but after what I'd seen in Townlong, I didn't know how to feel. Should I be happy or sad?

By the time we reached the guard tower where Uncle Chen was supposed to meet us, the rain had stopped and the clouds had parted. The good weather lifted my spirits... until I noticed my uncle wasn't there. The Shado-pan guards who usually stood watch at the tower were gone too.

Before I could ask Min where everyone was, the mantid attacked.

The bugs had been waiting for us, clinging to the outer part of the Serpent's Spine. Dozens of them suddenly leapt over the side and circled us. They clustered to the north, south, and east, cutting off our escape and forcing me and Min against the edge of the wall overlooking Townlong. I'd fought the mantid back in the Valley of the Four Winds, but that didn't make seeing them again any easier. Their weird antennae, mandibles, and parchment-thin wings made my skin crawl.

Min cut through a few of the bugs with his spear. He stabbed, parried, and dodged as if he knew what the mantid were going to do before they did it. I jumped forward to help, but he held me back.

"We have secret caches of supplies hidden near the guard towers," he said calmly, even as he twirled his spear and knocked away a group of mantid approaching his flank. "Look for a stone with a snarling tiger carved into it. The Shado-pan emblem. Move it aside and take the rope from within."

I found one of those blocks near his feet and pried it up with my staff. Beneath the stone was a wide chamber filled with bags of dried food and a thick rope. As Min held off the mantid, he ordered me to tie the line around his waist and then throw the other end over the side of the wall.

After that, he told me to climb down.

I was a little freaked out. Descending the colossal Serpent's Spine was one thing, but doing it while my anchor was fighting a small army of mantid was another. Also, what would I find when I got to the ground? I remembered the cryptic message Uncle Chen had written to me: And Li Li, whatever happens, do not go to the other side of the wall! It is extremely dangerous there.

More than all that, leaving Min behind felt wrong. But what else could I do? He was a Shado-pan and a monk of the highest order. He knew what he was doing, and if I wanted to earn his respect, I had to follow his lead.

So, I climbed. The whole way down I could hear the clash of Min's spear against mantid swords and armor. I kept hoping he would peer over the side and tell me the battle was finished. He didn't.

As I neared the ground, the line suddenly went slack. Someone had cut the rope. I fell and landed in a thorny bush growing alongside the Serpent's Spine. I stayed there without moving, fearing the worst. I breathed a sigh of relief when Min finally poked his head over the wall and started yelling.

The distance between us made it almost impossible to hear what he was saying. From what I could tell, he'd killed the mantid, but the last one had sliced through the rope. Min kept pointing south and flailing his arms like he was trying to explain something else to me. He was a great monk (one of the best I'd ever seen), but he couldn't perform a gesture to save his life. All I knew was that staying put would be a bad idea. With the rope cut, there was no way back up the wall. If the mantid had attacked there, more of the bugs were probably creeping around, just waiting to launch another ambush.

Townlong seemed a lot more dangerous from the ground. The grass was oddly cold to the touch. The clear sky had disappeared behind a layer of dark clouds. Thunder boomed overhead. All the hills and giant boulders in the area were perfect hiding spots for beasts that might want to eat me.

But Uncle Chen was my biggest concern. Where was he? Why hadn't he shown up? He wouldn't have forgotten. The thought that the mantid had done something to him crossed my mind, but I knew he was too tough for the bugs. He would've smashed them to pieces with one paw tied behind his back (or, more likely, holding a mug of ale).

I decided to head south for the Dread Wastes and try to find the Sunset Brewgarden on my own. I was guessing that the folks there would know what had happened to Uncle Chen, or where he'd gone.

It was a long shot, but from where I stood, that was the only option I had left.