Aysa and Ji were still entrenched in a heated argument when Weipon presented Da Feng to Master Shang Xi. Master Shang conveyed both Da Feng and the squabbling duo to Elder Shaopai, then quietly asked Weipon to accompany him to the Western Grove.
"Walk slowly, please," he said with a chuckle. "I'm not as spry as I once was."
Weipon deliberately slowed her naturally fast pace. "Of course, Master."
He shuffled along, one hand clasped firmly around his staff. "Once those two stop arguing, Elder Shaopai will tell them what to do when the spirits agree to work together. For now, I need a little rest after all of that excitement."
Weipon had been to the Western Grove to visit the staff of her great-grandmother. She nodded to the Guardian of the Elders, who responded with an impassive stare. Beyond the gates, she was overwhelmed by the permanently humid air and mossy, earthy scent.
"I want you to go with Ji and Aysa when they speak with Shen Zin Su. I trained all three of you, and I want three good minds set on doing whatever he needs." He turned down one of the dirt paths weaving through the trees, seemingly looking for something. "I trust all three of you. I know you will do what is right, do whatever it takes..." his eyes alighted on something off the path, and he trailed off. "Ahh, here it is." He thumped his staff matter-of-factly into the soft earth. Then, slowly, painstakingly, he lowered himself to the ground and let out a great sigh. "That's enough walking for me. Would you do me a favor, Weipon?"
"Of course, Master Shang," she replied immediately.
"I have need of some of the ritual charms that others have offered in this wood. Would you bring me a few?" At her confused expression, he laughed. "Don't worry, it's not too disrespectful to take them from other staves. And besides, who would complain? They're all dead!"
Weipon nodded and left him sitting contentedly among the trees. The misty silence of the grove was almost oppressive, and she caught herself walking as silently as possible. She considered seeking out her great-grandmother's staff, then abandoned the idea when she remembered how large and twisting the grove was.
Shortly, she came upon a small altar hidden against the rocky cliff-side that marked the boundary of the grove. It was surrounded by a thick cluster of staves, and both altar and staves were covered with charms. Feeling guilty, she took some incense from the provisions box, lit it, and said a brief prayer. Then, she poked gingerly through the charms, looking for the most interesting ones.
Some of them were ancient, faded with time and practically fused to wherever they were placed by moss and mold. Others had not withstood the elements, and heavy rain and wind had torn or broken them beyond recognition. Weipon chose a delicate turtle statuette, painted features barely visible on the worn stone, a long strand of colored beads, and a single strand from a cluster of paper swans.
When she returned to Master Shang with her charms, she was shocked to note how...faded he appeared. How old was he, anyway? Why had she never noticed it before?
"Ahh, rest feels good," he murmured. "The burdens of life have become a great weight after so many years." He opened his eyes and peered at the things she carried. "Look at these. Wonderful!" He gestured for her to sit beside him.
She obeyed, swallowing an uncomfortable lump in her throat.
"Sit for a few moments and listen to an old man's words," he said, smiling kindly.
"I always have time to listen to wise Master Shang," she said fiercely, wanting to believe that such conversations would endure.
He smiled, but it did not quite reach his eyes. "You are truly one of my greatest students. I have very high hopes for you."
"Master Shang," she interrupted, suddenly terrified. "Even if you don't come with us to speak to Shen Zin Su, we will need your help to-" she cut off as he raised a hand.
He wrinkled his nose and huffed out a breath. "For three thousand years, we have passed the knowledge of our people down. Elder to youth, master to student. I have done my best to prepare you by giving you all of the knowledge you will need to make good decisions. Every elder reaches the day when they must pass on and plant their stave with the staves of their ancestors."
Weipon felt something painful bloom in her chest.
"Today is the day when my staff joins these woods," he continued, holding her gaze. Then, glancing away almost shyly, he added, "Now, I am selfishly asking you to simply sit with me and keep me company until..."
"Oh," she breathed, tears filling her eyes. Then, grasping at her manners, "I would be honored to keep you company, Master Shang." Her voice trembled with the effort to speak above a whisper.
He nodded, took a deliberate look around the grove, and closed his eyes. "Weipon, our people have lived their whole lives on this great turtle, Shen Zin Su, but not in hundreds of years has anyone spoken to him."
She watched, wide-eyed but unable to look away, as her teacher murmured softly to himself.
"With the help of the elements, you will break the silence," he said slowly. "You will speak to him." His voice faded in and out, and his words slurred together as if in sleep. "You retrieved the spirits and brought them here. You are to go with them...speak to the great Shen Zin Su...do what must be done...save our people..."
Everything was still. Everything was quiet. The universe was motionless.
"You've come far, my young student. I see within you a great hero. I leave the fate of this land..."
Master Shang Xi's voice grew dimmer as his body became transparent, finally dissipating into tiny lights that reflected off of the mist in the grove.
Weipon released the breath she didn't realize she had been holding with a great woosh, then sucked in a shaky lungful of air. She blinked, and unshed tears left traitorous tracks in the fur of her cheeks. Businesslike, she arranged the charms she had collected on Master Shang's staff, then bowed and said a prayer for his spirit.
She stood and began to retrace her steps to the gate, willing her trembling legs to carry her. At the main path, a pleased shout made her look up, although she could not wipe the dazed expression from her face.
Ji and Aysa were waiting farther down the path, deeper into the wood rather than at the entrance. "Ms. Silkbrush! Where's Master Shang?" Ji called, waving her over. Still shell-shocked, Weipon mechanically made her way to them.
Aysa jabbed Ji in the ribs. "They were in the Wood of Staves, where do you think he is?" She gave Weipon a sympathetic glance.
"Awww, let a guy hope, will ya?" He clapped a comforting hand on Weipon's shoulder. "Just remember: we're doing this for his sake, too." He placed a handkerchief in one slack hand, then gently took her other arm and led her to their destination.