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Master Sagewhisper bowed, a placid look on her face (which may have been the closest she could come to a smile). She took a step back as Master Nurong joined her in front of the three young pandaren. The one-eyed Shado-pan crossed his arms.

"Initiates, on your feet."

Ten, Pei-Ling, and Heavy Chan stood.

"I am Master Nurong of the Wu Kao discipline. The Wu Kao are scouts, hunters, spies, and assassins. We bring death from the shadows and teach monsters to fear the night.

"You have each taken the first test, and you were marked for your resolve. Look down at your paws, for you bear our sign."

The three initiates looked down and saw the round scars that had just finished healing on their palms. The scars had taken the shape minted upon the coins—the face of a tiger. Ten could see that Heavy Chan was smiling.

Of course. He has three.

Master Nurong continued, "You have each taken the second test, and you were marked for your strength. These scars are more numerous, and I promise that you will join them with countless more if you take up our standard."

Ten felt the bandage at his forehead and nodded solemnly.

"You have defeated an enemy that only our veteran soldiers dare to face. You have witnessed the horror of the sha and felt the creature's dark presence inside of your hearts and minds. And while your courage and strength may have saved your lives, the cost of this battle is greater than you know. There is a reason we do not send untrained warriors against such an enemy.

"From the moment your battle began, you were known and marked by the sha. And once the sha have left their mark upon you, it will never go away. Every encounter you have with them, from this day forward, will be more difficult and more terrifying. The sha know you now. They know your minds, your weaknesses, and your fears."

And Ten realized that truly he did feel fear. Fear like he had never known before. What Master Nurong said was true: he had been marked. Ten suppressed a shiver and looked up at the masters with hurt in his eyes.

Their faces were unreadable. Master Nurong closed his one eye.

"And now I present your third and final test.

"The sha are the collective power of all the fear, hatred, and evil in our land. They are an enemy who will show no mercy and will never tire. They manipulate the mantid and drive the yaungol against our people. As the Shado-pan, it is our sworn duty to destroy the sha. We are the sword and shield against their terror, the last and only line of defense against the evil they would bring to Pandaria.

"If you take the oath of our order, you are willfully choosing to battle the sha again. And again. For the rest of your lives. We shall train you in their destruction, and we shall arm you against their fear, but one thing is assured: it will never go away.

"Your final test is this: take the oath of the Shado-pan. Knowing all that you know, bearing the scars that you bear. Will you stand with us?"

Ten suddenly felt cold, a cold that came from deep inside his bones.

Face the sha again? We… we only barely survived it. And now it knows me? I cannot do that again, cannot stare into fear as it breaks me against the stone floor.

A breeze wound through the terrace, and Ten shivered. The frigid wind of this damn mountain made his ribs hurt. Ten stared down at the small round scar on his paw. He thought of returning to Halfhill, of his home in the alleys.

Life was not so bad there. I survived, didn't I? I did alright as a thief.

A thief.

Whitefeather called from the blue winter sky above. And Ten realized that title no longer fit him. It was simply too small.

One cannot change the seasons.

Ten stood before Master Nurong and grasped his paw.

"I will take the oath and join the Shado-pan, Master Nurong."

Pei-Ling stood beside Ten. Heavy Chan did too.

"I will take the oath, Master Nurong."

"And I."

Master Sagewhisper scowled, stepping forward to put her paw on Master Nurong's broad shoulder.

"But they cannot take the oath to be Shado-pan as a test for worthiness! The oath can only come after the test has been passed. This flies in the face of centuries of tradi—"

"You will not instruct me on my duties, Yalia!"

Master Nurong's powerful words rang throughout the terrace, his voice smoldering in a tone that was not anger but a dangerous warning. Master Sagewhisper stepped back, her face blank.

"Tradition dictates that the Wu Kao master holds the final test. I have done so. These initiates have elected to serve their people, knowing full well what terror awaits them in the coming years. They have shown the courage and strength of spirit that the Shado-pan need in these dark days."

Whitefeather flew into the terrace, alighting on her master's shoulder.

"You have passed the final test, young Shado-pan. You will give your oaths to Lord Taran Zhu at sunset upon the Bridge of Initiation—and, no, it will not drop you into the lake this time."

The two other masters filed out of the terrace with their acolytes behind them. Ten noticed that Master Sagewhisper's eyes refused to meet his. He wondered if her demeanor would always be so dour, and was not looking forward to training under her. But that could be dealt with another day.

Today, I am Shado-pan.

He bowed and followed Pei-Ling and Heavy Chan. They were to move into the dormitory now, and Ten was excited to have a bed of his own, hopefully somewhere near his new friends.

"Ten of the Peppered Scroll, I would speak with you."

He turned to see Master Nurong seated on a stone bench at the end of the terrace. The one-eyed Shado-pan was leaning back against the wall, obviously tired from his journey. Ten approached, head bowed respectfully.

"Yes, Master?"

Master Nurong looked at Ten with a weary eye and held out his paw.

"You have something of mine. I would like it back."

Ten smiled, reaching into his tunic.

"My apologies, Master. One cannot change the seasons… but old habits die hard."

The Trial of the Red Blossoms

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