"I'm really sorry, Wei," Akabeko croaked, plucking at the blanket haphazardly arranged across her legs. "Whatever this is, it's not getting better very fast."
Weipon sighed in sympathy. The tauren looked terrible: her typically thin face was even more gaunt, and her fur looked dry and brittle. The wounds she had sustained at the Jade Temple were still unusually fresh, marring her face further with shiny pink skin and white scars. "Don't worry about it, really," the pandaren repeated, reaching for the doorknob. "I'll just add asking around for useful medicines to my list of things to do today." She grinned, hoping to elicit a response, but received little more than a weak twitch in return.
Akabeko was awkwardly burrowing into the pandaren-shaped bed when Weipon shut the door to their room and headed towards the inn's common room. She hesitated on the stairs, replaying the days on the road that had brought them to this point.
Initially, the pair had been in good spirits and had whiled away the time working on Akabeko's Pandaren, an endeavor so hilarious that even Fu had eventually come around. The farther they traveled, however, the more Akabeko complained of inexplicable weakness, fatigue, and pain unrelated to so many hours spent in the saddle. When they had finally reached the small village on the edge of Zhu Province, the tauren had barely enough energy to drag herself into a bed at the inn. Initially, she had tried to accompany Weipon in investigating the sha-stricken town, but after mere hours she had retired, complaining of aches, chills, and exhaustion. Since being seen back to bed, Akabeko had remained there, drifting in and out of consciousness, Fu tucked protectively against her side.
Having lost the first day to taking care of Akabeko, Weipon was now more determined to get her investigation underway. She noted that the innkeeper was up and about this morning, but given his brusque, unpleasant attitude the day before, Weipon opted to simply nod at him on her way out.
On the inn's porch, a slight pandaren woman peered disdainfully at Weipon as she closed the door. She seemed surprised by what she saw, however, and her expression cleared into one of curiosity.
"Don't tell me you're still feeling chipper enough to be up and about?" she asked, more hopeful than incredulous.
Weipon blinked, already suspecting that a lot of questions were about to be answered. "I feel perfectly fine, but my friend has been complaining of a strange sickness. She's too weak to get out of bed."
The pandaren nodded, then stood in order to scrutinize Weipon more closely. "Most everyone in the town's come down with something, although some cases are worse than others." She leaned forward conspiratorially, nodding in the direction of the inn's common room. "I don't think Rude Sho's got it, though; he's always grumpy."
"When you say 'something'..." Weipon prompted.
The pandaren shrugged in frustration. "They say they're too tired, or sad, or fed up. They say everything is pointless and there's no reason to get out of bed. No one wants to go to work, let alone take care of themselves."
Weipon hummed. That didn't seem quite like what was affecting Akabeko, and besides, she had become ill well before coming to the village. And yet...she tucked the thought away for the moment. "As one of the only other active folks up and about, I should introduce myself. My name is Weipon Silkbrush."
"Mei Barrelbottom." They exchanged bows.
"So how long has this been going on?" Weipon asked, taking the seat across from Mei on the inn's porch.
Mei sighed loudly. "At first it wasn't this depression at all. A few weeks ago, the lakes outside of town abruptly dried up and left behind horrible monsters in their wake. Then, one by one, people stopped going out, going to work, making plans..." She shook her head. "There were even a few people who, who..." Mei made an aborted gesture with her hands, her face twisted in a grimace.
"I see," Weipon interrupted gently. "And since then? It's just continued like this?"
"There're only a few of us who are still able to take care of the town. We've thought a lot about what could have caused it and what we should do about it, but the truth is we're busy enough taking care of the town as it is. Some of those affected feel well enough to help out once in a while, but they don't do much."
Weipon gazed out over the porch railing, taking in the lifeless town. It appeared even the sun had forsaken it, hidden away behind dark, pendulous clouds. She considered Mei's words. "So, the pandaren affected do sometimes feel well enough to go about their normal lives? Do you suppose your healer might be able to help me find some medicine for my friend?"
Mei stood. "It's worth a try. Let's go and see if she's there now."
The walk through the town was made no more cheerful by the presence of a companion. Here and there they passed guards, some wearing only half of their armor, and all sporting deep scowls. The healer's home was painted with welcoming orange, yellow, and green, but even that had been leeched into dullness by the oppressive atmosphere choking the village.
The door was carelessly left ajar, so Mei knocked politely and nudged it open, calling out, "Excuse us," as they entered. Weipon glanced around the room, jumping when what had appeared to be a pile of rags on the counter moved as the healer raised her head from where it was pillowed on her arms.
"Pardon me," Weipon began, taking in the healer's haggard features. Her graying fur was dry, matted unpleasantly around her eyes, and her ears drooped lifelessly. "We're just looking for some medicine for my friend; she's coughing and feverish."
There was an uncomfortable silence while the healer stared through them. Then, slowly, her eyes slid to one of the shelves, head tilted slightly as she took in the row of jars neatly arranged on the shelf.
The two women exchanged a glance, Mei looking more irritated than worried. She crossed to the shelf. "It's one of these, right?" she said brightly, running her finger along the labels. "Here we go, fever reducer. Cough suppressant." She grabbed two jars from the shelf and brought them to the counter, plunking them down in front of the healer.
For several long moments, the three pandaren quietly regarded the jars, until finally the healer slowly pushed herself back from the counter. Weipon opened her mouth to protest, but the healer simply produced a mortar and pestle from behind her desk and painstakingly began to add ingredients from the jars to be ground into powder. Despite her apparent frailty, she made quick work of concocting the powder before methodically pouring it into a pouch and placing it on the counter. Weipon produced her purse, ready to pay, but the healer simply returned her head to her forearms, ignoring them entirely now that her task was finished.
"I'll just...leave this here," Weipon said unnecessarily, placing several silver coins in reach of the healer's bony fingers. "Thank you."
Although no less gloomy than the healer's shop had been, Weipon was glad to be outside and away from the hopelessness she had seen in the elder pandaren's face. She chanced a look at the sky, still unbroken by the seamless mantle of gray clouds.
"Well, now I know she's still...active," Mei murmured. "I'd better make the rounds, check on the others."
They went together, and Weipon was shocked to see the way the pandaren in the town had wasted away. Most of them they found in their homes, curled up in bed, slumped in chairs, or even collapsed pathetically on the floor. Some of the houses they passed had been marked with prayer beads on the door handles. When Weipon pointed one out, Mei swallowed thickly.
"There's...nobody in that house. He, um. Two days ago we went to check on him and he had. Hurt himself. It was...too bad, too late. We were too late to do anything." Mei's eyes moved past the house, looking vainly into the grasslands that quickly gave way to the tangled forests of the Krasarang Wilds. "Some of the other pandaren just wander into the wilds. If we can stop them before they get away, we bring them back, but we can't catch everybody. Since our guards aren't much help, we don't have any way to go in search of them. It's possible that they'll come back, once we figure out what's wrong but..." She shook herself, tearing her eyes away from the woods. "Well, there are panthers and worse in the wilds. And no one who goes out there is in any shape to defend themselves."
Before Weipon could think of something comforting to say, large raindrops began to patter down around them, rapidly increasing into a steady downpour. "Well, this is great," Weipon muttered darkly, tugging her back under her cloak to protect the medicine pouch tucked inside.
"It rains like this every day, sometimes all day," Mei replied, shouting to be heard over the rain. "I've got to check on my nephew. Why don't I meet you at the inn tomorrow morning?"
Weipon nodded. "Let's do that. Thank you for your help today!"
Cutting their pleasantries short, the two parted to race for their respective shelters. Weipon reached the inn completely soaked, and ignored the innkeeper's scowl as she stood in the entryway removing her waterlogged cloak and boots. She dripped her way up to her quarters, toweling herself off before checking on Akabeko.
As soon as she turned her attention to the tauren, Fu was up and whining, kneading at Akabeko's forearm and yipping plaintively at Weipon.
"Relax, Fu. I've brought some medicine for her," Weipon soothed, stirring the powder into tea and nudging Akabeko to wake her. When the tauren turned over, blinking blearily at the interruption of her sleep, Weipon held out the tea. "I brought something for your cold. How are you feeling?"
Akabeko pushed herself laboriously into a sitting position and accepted the tea gratefully. She drank deeply, finishing the powdered tea and then downing two more glasses of plain water. "Not worse, but not better," she rasped. "Everything hurts."
"Well, hopefully this will help," Weipon said, forcing optimism. "Just keep resting. You'll be fine soon." When Akabeko finally succumbed to sleep, Weipon sat watching the rain. Only the diminishing height of the room's single candle gave any indication when dark afternoon had slipped into darker night.
Next: Catching Up