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Li Li returned to the present, away from her guilt, and she realized that she had automatically taken the path toward the Great Library. She gazed at the elegant temple that housed it, and her spirits lifted. The library had always been her place of refuge, where she could go to lose herself in the pages of a book or letter, and doing just that was precisely what she needed right now. She eagerly trotted through the open front doors.
Inside, the comforting, familiar scent of ink and parchment put her at ease. Li Li pulled a thick atlas and a stack of wrinkled, dog-eared letters from the shelves and plopped into an overstuffed chair. Setting the scrolls onto the nearby reading table, she let the book in her lap fall open at random.
The Swamp of Sorrows sprawled across the page, illustrated in elegant green and brown inks. The map was ancient and Li Li knew it practically by heart, having long since copied most of it, and many others, into her personal journal at home. Li Li leaned across the reading table, rifling through the papers she'd left there until she found what she sought.
The letter from Chen detailed his exploration of the land that had formerly been the southern region of the Swamp of Sorrows, now called the Blasted Lands. In recent times, foul magic had seeped through a rift between worlds and withered the lush growth, leaving only barren red earth in its wake. The text explained that the rift had been opened by an immensely powerful mage named Medivh, who had help from orcs on the other world. The letter did not elaborate on the topic beyond that, and the library held no other mention of the Blasted Lands or Medivh. He must have been born long after the point when Li Li's fellows on Shen-zin Su had abandoned their legacy of daring exploration. Li Li wondered what a modern map of the swamp would look like. Chen's letters were several years outdated, and his return had meant that there wouldn't be any more updates from the outside world.
Halfheartedly Li Li leafed through the letters again, but their words no longer enticed her. They remained static, the ink slowly fading on the fixed records of what Chen had once seen. Li Li knew that beyond their isolated life on the Wandering Isle, the world was still changing without them.
She scowled as she stuffed everything back onto the shelves. It felt as though she'd been starved, then sat in front of a banquet only to have it whisked away from beneath her after the first bite. The world was so much bigger and more beautiful than any words or maps could convey, and she had barely scratched its surface. There was nothing for her here on Shen-zin Su.
"Tonight we have a real treat! Spinach and carrot soup with chicken stock, steamed spiced fish, and rice, of course," Chon Po announced cheerfully to Li Li, Shisai, and Chen as he set dinner on the table. "Tell me how the soup is especially; it's a new recipe."
"It sounds delicious, Po," Chen said. "Thanks for inviting me over."
Chon Po beamed proudly at his dinner creations and took his seat at the table. "Did you all enjoy the day?" he asked. "The weather was beautiful. I wish I could have made it to the picnic."
"We know you're busy, Papa," Shisai answered, serving himself a pile of fish. "It was a lot of fun, though!"
"It was okay." Li Li shrugged.
Shisai rolled his eyes. "You're just mad that no one wanted to hear your stories," he teased. "Chen's are better anyway, aren't they, Uncle Chen?"
"Err..." Chen stammered, helping himself to some soup. Li Li glared at her brother as she aggressively shoveled rice into her mouth.
"Uncle Chen told us about the time he nearly killed the great beastmaster Rexxar!" Shisai continued, ignoring both Chen's and Li Li's discomfort.
"What?" Chon Po's eyebrows arched up almost into his hairline. "That seems like an unnecessarily violent thing to tell children, Chen."
"Um, well, that's kind of blowing it out of proportion, Po." Chen scratched the back of his head. "That's the point of the story, actually. What happened is that he drank some of my beer, and it was so strong he accused me of trying to kill him!" He laughed awkwardly. "See? It's, uh, it's funny..."
Chon Po remained stony-faced.
"But that's not how it ended!" Shisai insisted. "Didn't you two go on to Theramore to fight Admiral Proudmoore and—"
"That's enough!" Chon Po interrupted his son. He turned an angry gaze to his brother. "You have to think about the kind of example you're setting, Chen! Look at what happened to Li Li when all she had to go on were letters!"
"Nothing happened to me, Papa," Li Li muttered. "I'm right here, you know. And I can hear you."