Redhorn and Cloudhoof slept peacefully in two baskets—one at Dezco's back and one at his chest—that he'd made after they were born. The baskets were connected by a length of rope that hung over his shoulders. The whole contraption had been a great boon during his journeys through Pandaria, helping him keep his younglings close and have his shield and mace at the ready. These lands were filled with so many dangers that he'd refused to let his children out of sight even for a short time.
Little good my weapons do me now, he thought as he surveyed the terrace. This late at night, the platform was nearly empty. A few orcs squatted under the buzao tree, sharpening their blades with whetstones in the light of a single lantern. Near the shrine's entrance, blood elves in long flowing robes talked heatedly about the magical properties of the vale. Normally, Dezco would have greeted them, but tonight he passed them by without a word.
"A golden opportunity, if you ask me," he heard one of the orcs whispering to his comrades. "There's power in the vale, yes? That's why we've come. Well, the Alliance is here too. Right now we're both on equal footing. But if we had a member of the Horde in the Lotus…"
"Don't be a fool," someone else replied. "The pup wouldn't be one of us anymore. Horde wouldn't mean a thing to the child. Look at Mokimo. He doesn't act like any hozen we've met. The Lotus took his culture from him. His identity."
Dezco paced out of earshot from the conversation. He'd heard the arguments a hundred times. The day had passed like a dream. No—a nightmare. He only remembered fragments: the Golden Lotus congratulating him and then disappearing just as quickly as they'd come, endless meetings with the other members of the Horde to discuss what had happened, and the constant stream of refugees who wanted to see his children as if they had become sacred objects.
He was glad to be alone now. He'd reached the limits of his patience and had sent his advisors—even Nala—away hours ago. Dezco sighed, frustrated by how the day had started out so well, only to spiral into chaos.
Dezco set his crystal mace and jagged-edged shield against the lacquered wooden railing at the edge of the terrace. Ahead, scattered torchlight and campfires burned against the dark terrain. Five sacred pools glowed with a ghostly blue light in the distance. Mokimo had often spoken of the waters. They were the vale's power: its lifeblood. Perhaps Dezco and his people had been drawn here to protect or use them in some way.
There were six pools in total, but one was hidden from his view, deep within Mogu'shan Palace. Faintly, he made out the facade of the colossal fortress, once the seat of the mogu empire, carved into the vale's eastern mountains.
He'd always thought it odd that the Lotus had never torn down all the statues and edifices of the vale's former rulers. Leaving them up was like giving the mogu a reason to come back. Once, he'd posed that concern to Mokimo, and he had replied, "The mogu believed that the vale served them. The Lotus believe we serve the vale. We leave their statues as a reminder of hubris and vanity."
At the time, Dezco had been taken by the wisdom, but now the words seemed hollow. An excuse for inaction. If the celestials were so powerful, why didn't they scour the mogu invaders? If the vale was a crucible for hope and peace as Leza had thought, why didn't the energies welling up from this land help the Golden Lotus bring a swift end to the war?
Dezco took a long, deep breath. Too many questions. Too many uncertainties.
"It's a beautiful night, isn't it?" someone asked.
The tauren turned as Mokimo slowly approached.
"You're back," Dezco said gruffly. The hozen had disappeared along with the other Lotus after the test, leaving the tauren alone to puzzle out the day's events. Mokimo never seemed to be around when he needed him.
"Just now." The hozen leaned against the railing beside Dezco. "Zhi asked me to accompany him. We met some members of my order who had returned from battle. There are more Shao-Tien entering the vale than we'd expected. I'm glad you weren't there to see the defenders. They were so close to despair… so afraid."
"I'm sorry." Dezco put his frustration aside at the thought of the mogu gaining more victories.
"But when we told them about the Red Crane and your cubs… they changed! One minute, sorrow; the next, joy. One minute, despair; the next, hope!" Mokimo hopped up and down on his short, stout legs.
"They're children," Dezco said. "They wouldn't make a difference in war."
"We Lotus live and die for tomorrow. The Red Crane promised us a future. He wouldn't have come here if he didn't believe we would need a new generation of protectors." Mokimo pulled a small wooden carving from his tunic and set it down on the railing in front of Dezco. "Here. This belonged to one of my order. He was killed yesterday. I can't think of a better way to honor him than giving it to you."
Dezco inspected the object: an intricate carving of the Red Crane. Strange characters in a language he didn't understand spiraled around Chi-Ji's body from feet to beak. It was only a piece of wood, but it unnerved him.
"The words say, Fate is the wind, always changing. Life is the cloud, gone in an instant. The vale is the sky, everlasting. It's an old saying in our order. It reminds us that even in the worst of times, there is hope. That in death, our struggle goes on. I thought you would like it. You often speak of your wife and the dawn she saw ahead."
"Mokimo, you know I want to help you. But I…" he began to say, but stopped short when he saw the look of joy on the hozen's face. He couldn't bring himself to crush Mokimo's dream. He wasn't even sure if the caretaker would understand. The Lotus seemed to think that whether or not Dezco would actually choose wasn't up for debate. It was expected.
"No need to talk about it now," Mokimo said. "I'm not supposed to be here. Zhi told me not to speak with you until you had more time to think and choose. I just wanted to give you the gift. I wanted to thank you." The hozen backed away from the terrace railing. "I'd best go. They'll be looking for me at the pagoda."
Mokimo hurried down the platform's staircase. Dezco lifted the carving of Chi-Ji from the railing. Choose, the celestial's voice boomed in his head. Choose what? he wanted to shout back. The Lotus regarded his children as saviors now. If he refused them and stayed in the vale, he knew he and his sons would be a blight on the land, a constant reminder of a shattered dream.
Dezco set the carving back down and then removed Cloudhoof and Redhorn from their baskets. He hugged them tight in his arms and pictured them in the years to come, learning the ways of the Sunwalkers, assisting him with leading rituals to honor An'she and the Earth Mother, hearing of Leza's bravery in the face of death.
"Leza…" Dezco whispered, wishing she were at his side to help him through this, and wondering what she would've done. Suddenly, he remembered something his wife had said just before she died. My love… whatever happens… you must protect our… our child… She hadn't known that she was giving birth to twins. To Dezco, that made her last wish all the more powerful.
And his choice became clear.
"I will," he said, staring down at his little boys.
"Nala!" Dezco called out, and turned his head. He figured she was lingering nearby in the shadows. Even though he'd sent her away, he knew her too well not to expect that she had followed him.