Legend had it that the first hozen had come to Shen-zin Su as the servants of the priests and scholars who had initially coaxed the four ancient elemental spirits to bring their blessings to the great turtle.* As far as Kaoling knew, however, hozen were nothing but a nuisance. She couldn’t understand how anyone, let alone a great thinker, could have willingly brought them to the Wandering Isle. She suspected that, like the virmen, the first hozen had really been stowaways. Still, she was glad to be doing something, helping Ji roust the hozen from Wu-Song Village while they waited for Aysa to finish meditating about Huo.
They’d sent the hozen scampering off, whimpering, helped the villagers gather and re-organize scattered belongings, and were starting to get a little bored when at last a messenger approached. Kaoling felt her expression turning to a scowl as she recognized her roommate.
“Master Cloudsinger has spoken with Master Li Fei,” Koralyra said primly, “and she has learned that Huo is weakened and requires fuel and fanning.”
Ji smacked his forehead with the palm of his hand. “Of course,” he said, “it’s so simple and obvious! Why didn’t I think of that already?” He shook his head and continued, “Quickly, friends” — he waved a paw at both of them — “with all the strange weather lately, it shouldn’t be hard to find some dry roots and twigs in the dogwood thicket just west of here. As for the fanning, well, if it can punch you, you can punch it back, and it won’t slip through your grasp. We ought to be able to invoke a minor air spirit at the shrine in the thicket.”
When Koralyra began gathering the kindling, Kaoling raced to the shrine. The gentle breeze kicked up into a brisk wind that whipped her hair as she battled the air spirit. She used mostly spells, but was delighted to find that she could, as Ji had said, strike the animate cloud with her quaking palm. As she forced it into her bag, she felt like the defeated mist was continually slipping from her paws. Amazingly, once she got it in, it stayed there, puffing the bag up into a fat little balloon that surely would have floated away had it not also been laden with books, her fan, and a little something for lunch.
The monk at the entrance to Huo’s cavern shrine bowed nervously. “Huo has not been well, and that has put him into a temper,” he warned, pointing at the jets of fire blossoming randomly from the floor of the tunnel leading deeper into the shrine.
“Excellent, an obstacle course to keep us on our toes!” said Ji, darting immediately into the tunnel. Kaoling promptly followed. She and Ji had more than enough time to catch their breath by the pool in the next cavern before Koralyra finally emerged from the firestorm, carrying the kindling.
“What took you so long?” Kaoling demanded.
“I had to meditate and center myself to see clearly the path through the fire,” the other girl replied with irritating calm.
“Well, then, let’s not keep Huo waiting,” said Ji, bounding up the stairs to the next room. The spirit of Master Li Fei awaited them there, standing by a shallow pool surrounded by smoldering braziers.
“You,” the ghostly Master said after several long minutes, tipping his staff toward Kaoling, “yes, I think it should be you. You should be the one to face the challenge. You have much energy and enthusiasm. Huo likes that. But do you also have the equilibrium and endurance to weather his caprices?”
He instructed her to take a brand from the brightly burning brazier at his side and light the braziers in the other corners of the chamber. As she lit the braziers and smelled the different herbs and woods within each one, Kaoling felt invigorated and refreshed.
Even as a ghost, Master Li Fei was a formidable opponent. Ji — and even Koralyra — several times attempted to join the fight, but every time, the spectral Master had held up a warning paw and sent them back to the stairs to wait.
“You earned the right to proceed,” said Master Li Fei at last, as Kaoling stood panting in the middle of the pool, not caring that she was thoroughly soaked. “Huo lies beyond. May your offerings soothe and strengthen him.”
Huo was a tiny spark in the darkness of the uppermost cavern of the shrine. Kaoling thought she heard him growling as she approached, and her shadow flickered frighteningly on the rough cavern walls. Not knowing quite what to say to the ancient fire spirit, Kaoling simply tossed one of the dry pieces of dogwood at him and released a puff of the captive breeze from her bag. Huo crackled as he devoured the wood, and he seemed to grow larger. Encouraged, Kaoling tossed him the rest of the wood, alternating with puffs of breeze. Huo grew larger and his crackling became more and more like laughter with each piece.
His catlike face smiling broadly, Huo danced about Kaoling as she returned triumphantly to where the others had been waiting.
*see Pearl of Pandaria page 2
“Lyra, darling!” said Nai-nai, wiping her hands on her apron as she came around from behind the counter of the family stall at the Dai-Lo market. “I didn’t expect to see you home from the Academy so soon. What’s wrong?”
“Nothing’s wrong, Nai-nai,” Koralyra said, giving her grandmother a hug. “Or at least, nothing’s wrong with me. Something has been wrong with Shen-zin Su lately, you know, and Master Shang Xi has sent us” — she waved her hand at the small group of monks and other students from the Academy who had come with her — “to bring Wugou back to the Temple so that he can help us find out what it is.”
“Ah, yes,” Nai-nai sighed worriedly. “Wugou has not been well. He fell into a deep sleep when the ground shook, just before Shen-zin Su began to carry us into harsher climates.” She gestured toward the recess gong in the center of the market. Wugou lay snuggled up against the decorative retaining wall around the gong. Kora suddenly realized that the unfamiliar sound she’d been hearing was the gentle snoring of the ancient earth spirit. Nai-nai continued, “Since then, the land has been drying out, and fewer and fewer of the seeds we plant actually sprout. We are in for hard times if Wugou and Shen-zin Su do not recover.”
Though she was shocked by this news, Kora kept her expression as composed as she could manage. Wugou had been a constant presence during her cubhood, sedately rumbling hither and thither among the fields and crops. She and her siblings, cousins, and friends had made a game of trying to corral him in the center of a field as they attended to their chores of watering and weeding, but somehow, as slow and placid as Wugou always seemed, they had never succeeded. Indeed, it had been she who had reminded Master Shang Xi that Wugou dwelt at Dai-Lo.
As she watched the impatient monk buffeting Wugou in a most disrespectful — and futile — attempt to wake him, Kora wondered again why Master Shang Xi had sent Master Firepaw to Dai-Lo, and Master Cloudsinger to the Singing Pools, instead of the other way ’round. Surely there must be a better way to rouse Wugou. Kora sat down, settling into a meditative posture, and began pondering….
The shadows had shifted direction when the resonating clangor of the recess gong and the sound of Nai-nai laughing brought Kora back to full awareness of the world around her, still without a best solution to the problem.
“Silly monk,” chuckled Nai-nai, shaking her head, “if he’d thought to ask, we would have told him that we’ve been ringing that gong three times a day just like we always do for weeks without waking Wugou.”
A delivery cart rattled into town, carrying Master Cloudsinger and the others who had gone with her to the Singing Pools. Bobbling along behind it was… Shu? It seemed that they been successful in contacting the ancient water spirit. Master Cloudsinger conversed briefly with Master Firepaw, then Master Firepaw clapped his hands together with an air of great excitement and indicated that one of the students who had come with Master Cloudsinger should go do something. The girl nodded and started in the direction Master Firepaw had pointed. Then she hesitated and turned, and, with a sinking feeling, Koralyra recognized her rival.
“Come with me to speak to Shu,” Kaoling demanded, imperiously thrusting out a paw as if to help Kora up from her meditative pose. Kora ignored the proffered paw and raised a questioning eyebrow. Kaoling rolled her eyes. “Ji thinks Shu can help us wake up Wugou,” she explained.
Still ignoring Kaoling’s outstretched hand, Kora rose gracefully to her feet. The two girls walked to the pond, where Shu was coaxing the water to spurt up into geysers.
“Shu!” Kaoling called, “Wugou is asleep and will not waken. Will you come blast him?”
Kora barely restrained a gasp. How impertinent! But the water spirit just burbled and darted to the other side of the pond.
“I think he wants us to play with him,” said Kaoling with a mischevious smile. “You go first!” — and she pushed Kora toward the water. Kora stumbled and was surprised to find herself walking on the water instead of floundering in the water. She folded her arms and glared at Kaoling.
“Go on,” Kaoling urged, “stand in the waterspout!” When Kora didn’t move, Kaoling came out onto the water, too, and pushed her toward the patch of water that Shu was churning up. Kora resisted, but finally Kaoling struck her with a quaking palm, and, stunned, she fell over, right into the agitated water. Suddenly, she was flung into the air by a geyser. The view from the top was amazing! As she fell back toward the pond, she heard Shu giggling — and she was laughing, too.
“That was kind of fun,” Kora admitted, after she caught her breath — but Kaoling did not hear her, because she was high in the air on another waterspout.
When Kaoling landed, Shu burbled in a different way and bobbled off toward the market square. The two girls hurried behind him, arriving just in time to see the water spirit summon a powerful jet of water right in the earth spirit’s face. Wugou roared and began chasing Shu all around the market. Master Firepaw laughed a great belly laugh, and Master Cloudsinger smiled.
True to his word, after dealing with Morning Breeze Village’s hozen problem, Ji set the monks and students of the Academy to helping Elder Shaopai rewrite the destroyed defaced scrolls of wisdom. Although this was an honorable task, Kaoling’s mind soon wandered. She sat idly bouncing her toes, barely stifling her giggles as she remembered how she had only with great effort not laughed when the conceited, pompous Jojo Ironbrow had finally met his match in the beautiful jade and bronze tiger pillar that they’d retrieved from the hozen village.
“Do you mind?” a cool voice interrupted her thoughts. Across the table, Koralyra was giving her a steady, disapproving stare. “Writing these scrolls is a form of meditation, you know, and you are disrupting mine. I would thank you to stop fidgeting.”
The sun was setting when Ji finally declared that they had done enough work with the scrolls, for now. He called Kaoling and, to her irritation, Koralyra, to go out to the lake and discover if Aysa’s contemplations had yet revealed anything useful. Aysa raised an eyebrow as they approached her, for for all of Koralyra’s practice and meditation, it was Kaoling who had run nimbly over the taut ropes and arrived first, with dry fur. Meanwhile, Koralyra had stopped mid-path to appreciate the spectacular view of the sunset over the lake, wobbled on the ropes, fallen, and now came panting up second, soaking wet.
“It is often both necessary and admirable,” Aysa said mildly, “to keep one’s eyes and mind fixed on one’s true objectives.”
(A.N. This actually happened while I was leveling these two characters through the Wandering Isle. I got across the ropes on the first try with Kaoling, but with Koralyra, I stopped in the middle to take some screenshots, fell off, and had to try again.)
When at last the huge black cloud serpent curled up in death, Kora thought her fur would never lay flat again. All around, static discharge still crackled from the lightning pools the serpent had spit on the ground as they tried to bring it down with fireworks. It had been a crazy plan, but somehow, it had worked. The fight had been quite exhilarating, and she had to admit that she and Master Cloudsinger — and Master Firepaw and the impetuous Kaoling — had made a terrific team. The ancient spirit of air, Dafeng, fluttered around them all, cooing thanks and relief. Master Cloudsinger knelt in respect at the great beast’s head for several minutes. For all that he had been terrifying Dafeng, Zhao-Ren had been a magnificent — and, as far as Kora knew, a unique — presence among the mountains of the Wandering Isle.
Master Firepaw shifted awkwardly from one foot to the other. Kora wondered if he was thinking about speaking to Master Cloudsinger, as she had suggested — and she was secretly glad that for once in his life, he was choosing to exercise restraint. Beside him, Kaoling suddenly dropped to her knees, too, and Kora was startled to hear her sniffling. Could it be? Obnoxious, thoughtless Kaoling, crying?