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The first time I'd ever been afraid—really terrified—was back on the Wandering Isle. I was just a little cub, and I'd gone to the Great Library to read the Book of the Turtle. A few pages in, I spilled a pot of ink onto the parchment. I tried wiping the stains off, but that only made things worse. So I freaked out, stuffed the book into a dusty corner of the library, and hoped it would stay a secret forever.
For the next three days, I lived in terror, sure that I'd get caught. I could barely eat or sleep. I hardly ever left my room. The fear had taken over me like one of the evil forest sprites in Granny Mei's scary stories. At the end of the third day, the library caretakers figured out what I'd done. (Luckily, the book was a copy they kept on hand.) As punishment, my pop forced me to write the "Song of Liu Lang" lyrics a few thousand times, but that didn't bother me much. The worst part had been those three horrible days.
I'd never been that afraid again… until I stepped into the Dread Wastes, homeland of the mantid. I entered the region farther away from the Serpent's Spine than I liked. A huge ravine separated the Townlong Steppes from the Dread Wastes. I'd headed west along the chasm until I'd found a natural bridge—a giant hollowed-out tree trunk—that I could use to cross over.
The Sha of Fear had turned the wastes into a weird mirror image of Townlong. The terrain was the same—grassy hills, rocks, and towering kypari trees—but everything seemed strange and unnatural. A clump of dark clouds twisted in a big angry swirl overhead. The sky around that glowed with a ghostly light. Splotches of white and black sha energy bubbled up all over the ground. They reminded me of the ink stains on the Book of the Turtle. As a matter of fact, every time I breathed or took a step, a chill went up my spine, and I felt as if I was reliving those three days of terror.
I wanted to run. I would've if Uncle Chen hadn't been on my mind. I had to find the Sunset Brewgarden.
The more I focused on the place, the more I calmed down. I kept repeating the name in my head as I made my way to the base of a kypari tree (called Kor'vess, as I later learned). The exposed roots were so big they curved over me like massive archways. Bits of shimmering amber drifted off the branches, floating through the air like lazy fireflies. Here and there I saw vaulted doorways and honeycomb windows built into the kypari's trunk. There was something insect-like about the architecture, and I realized the mantid must've created the structures. The bugs lived inside the trees!
Luckily, I didn't see any mantid around—not any living ones, at least. Bug corpses were everywhere, as if some kind of battle had taken place. Still, I played it safe and kept to the shadows of the kypari roots, looking for clues that would point me in the direction of the brewgarden.
My first break came when I found the remains of a wooden cask. It was definitely pandaren-made. Drops of bright amber surrounded the debris. Then it hit me: were the pandaren who lived in the Dread Wastes hunting for kypari sap? It made sense. The mantid used amber for all sorts of things, from creating weapons to building their homes. I'd even heard that the gooey stuff had healing properties. In other words, it would make the perfect ingredient for a batch of rare ale.
It took me the better part of an hour to spot the brewgarden at another kypari tree near Kor'vess. Pandaren dressed in light armor lumbered around the rugged settlement. Steam spiraled out of cauldrons filled with boiling barley and hops. Globs of sap dripped down from the tree into waiting barrels. All in all, the place had a cozy feel, even if it was a little rough around the edges.
A few steps into the brewgarden, I heard a familiar voice.
"… Shado-pan last saw her heading toward the Dread Wastes," Uncle Chen was saying. I spotted him near the back of the settlement, standing next to three other pandaren.
"Then what are we waiting for?" someone replied. She was an older lady, her hair tied up in two buns. She kicked at a fat pandaren who was snoozing on the ground. "Get up, Big Dan! We can't afford to lose another Stormstout."
"Looking for me?" I interrupted.
All of their heads turned at once. The surprise on Uncle Chen's face was priceless.
"Li Li!" He scooped me up and gave me a big hug. Suddenly all my fear melted away. I started to apologize for leaving the brewery without asking, but Uncle Chen stopped me.
"How could I be angry at you for running off to explore?" he said. "That's what I've done my whole life. I'm just glad you're safe."
Uncle Chen explained why he hadn't met me at the Serpent's Spine. The mantid had attacked spots across the great wall, blocking his way. Once the bugs had been defeated, he'd found the Shado-pan monk Min, who then had told him what'd happened to me. My uncle had just returned to the brewgarden, and he was in the middle of organizing a search party.
A search party full of Stormstouts! Their names were Han, Mama, and Big Dan.
"You made it through Townlong and the Dread Wastes all by yourself?" Han asked me.
"Of course she did!" Mama pinched my cheek. "She's a Stormstout, isn't she?"
Big Dan snorted, sat up, and rubbed his eyes. I got the idea that this much movement was rare for him. He stared at me in silence before finally saying, "She… she looks just like Evie."
Mama, Uncle Chen, and Han nodded and lowered their heads. When I asked who that Evie person was, they led me out of the brewgarden, down to the ravine bordering the Dread Wastes. At the edge of the chasm, a stone memorial had been set into the ground. It was dedicated to Evie.
She'd died while hunting out in the Dread Wastes, killed by the sha or mantid (or maybe a combination of both). Uncle Chen had been the one to find her. I'd never met the girl, but I missed her. If Big Dan said I looked like Evie, did that mean our personalities were the same too? Could we have been good friends, or even something like sisters?
The sha and mantid had ruined any chance of me answering those questions. I was angry, not just about Evie, but about everything I'd seen during my journeys through Pandaria. In one way or another, the sha had stirred up trouble across the entire continent. How many more innocent folks would die like my cousin?
"I'm taking you back to the Valley of the Four Winds," Uncle Chen said. "You should stay there until the sha and the mantid are dealt with. It's not safe to explore a wasteland like this."
"No," I replied. Exploring was the last thing on my mind. "There's a time to explore and there's a time to stand your ground and fight. You wrote that to me in one of your letters. Well, I'm following your advice. I want to stay and help."
I was afraid Uncle Chen would refuse and send me to the valley anyway, but after a few moments a smile tugged at the corners of his chubby face. "Hmph. Spoken like a true wanderer."
With that, we headed back to the brewgarden. There was a lot of planning to do. Maybe I wouldn't be fighting against the sha and the mantid on the front lines, but I'd do whatever I could to help, even if I had to cut bandages or cook meals. I'd make sure that Evie's death meant something… that Buwei and Little Fu could return to their family home and start a new life… and that everyone else I'd met on my travels could live free from the sha's influence.
I'd make sure there was still a Pandaria left to explore when all this was over.
—Li Li Stormstout