Leza's cousin emerged from behind the buzao tree. "The Lotus don't understand, do they?"
"It's not their fault."
"What should we do?" Nala asked as she approached the railing.
"We…" Dezco said. "I'm placing you in charge of the shrine."
"What?" Nala gaped at him, perplexed. "For how long?"
Dezco gave the Chi-Ji statue one last look. "Permanently."
It was nearing dawn when Dezco set out from the shrine with Redhorn and Cloudhoof snug in their baskets. The farewell with Nala had been tearful, but in the end she'd understood. She was a Sunwalker, and she knew that in all things there was only one true path, one right decision.
What could be a truer path than keeping family safe? Keeping family together?
Nala's concerns stemmed more from her desire to accompany Dezco and look after the children, but he needed her at the shrine. He couldn't imagine anyone else keeping the place from falling apart. Like Leza, Nala always knew when to be firm and when to be flexible. She was a born leader.
Apart from that, Dezco wanted to distance himself from his comrades as much as possible. This was his choice, and his alone. He didn't know how the Golden Lotus would react, or more importantly, the Red Crane. The last thing he wanted was to imperil the Horde's place in the vale. This land, despite recent events, still meant something for the future of his people.
Dezco felt ashamed leaving Mokimo in the dark, but there was nothing for it. A clean break, even though it pained the tauren, was for the best. It would make it easier for the Lotus to get on with their lives.
The tauren made good time through the morning hours. He stayed off the main roads, working his way through the northern foothills. He estimated that before nightfall he would reach the Gate of the August Celestials, which led out of the vale.
Around noon, he stopped at the base of a small hill and set his children on the ground. He pulled out a skin of herbs and yak milk that Nala had taught him how to brew. She'd assured him that the drink would keep his sons healthy until he reached Mulgore and found a tauren female to nurse them correctly. She hadn't, however, warned him how much the younglings would hate the brew. After one sip, both of them began to cry, refusing to take any more.
"It's not that bad," Dezco grumbled. He took a gulp of the mixture. The thick, unbearably bitter drink made him cough uncontrollably. Redhorn's and Cloudhoof's cries quickly turned to laughter.
"It's not wise to disrespect your elders like that, little ones," Dezco growled playfully.
Dezco was about to try the nursing again when the ground started to shake. Three yak-driven carts roared over the hilltop, overloaded with pandaren. The yaks snorted, their mouths frothed with saliva.
"Mogu!" one of the passengers screamed as the carts raced past Dezco. "At the gate!"
Impossible. Dezco scrambled to lift his children into their baskets. He slowly climbed the hill, shield raised high. At the top, a gust of wind washed over him, heavy with the smell of smoke and battle.
Far ahead he saw the Gate of the August Celestials. Fires burned everywhere. An army of dark-blue-skinned Shao-Tien swarmed around the vale's entrance. Clusters of lightly armored shapes—the Golden Lotus—rushed toward the advancing mogu. Cannon fire cracked through the vale like thunder. An entire group of Lotus defenders vanished in a torrent of fire and blood. The rest of the order's warriors made a hasty retreat, the mogu following at their heels and slaughtering stragglers.
Dezco cursed under his breath. His path was blocked. He turned and descended the hill, weighing his options. The tauren had heard of another gate far to the west, but he wasn't sure if it was open. Perhaps, though, he could find a way through… a secret mountain pass or tunnel known to the locals.
The only thing he knew for certain was that he couldn't return to the shrine. He wasn't a part of that place anymore, not now, after he'd made his choice. Hold to your choice. Stay strong, he told himself.
One of the refugees was waiting for him at the base of the hill. He was an old pandaren with a long, wispy beard that trailed off his chin. "Nothing for you that way but death," he said.
"So it seems. Where are you bound?" Dezco asked.
"Mistfall. Many of us have been separated from our families. We've heard that some of them might be there. I'm looking for my grandchildren. Where do the winds blow you?"
Dezco mulled over what little he knew about Mistfall Village. The small refugee camp was tucked near the southwestern side of the vale. From there, Dezco could learn news of the other gate. And if that way was blocked too, at least the journey would buy him time away from the shrine. Perhaps even enough time for the Lotus to rout the Shao-Tien and retake the Gate of the August Celestials.
If they had the strength to do so, he wondered grimly.
"Mistfall," Dezco said.
Dezco and the refugees cut through the vale's eastern half, putting the twin mountains that rose from the center of the region between them and the mogu front. The presence of injured and elderly pandaren slowed the journey to a snail's pace, but Dezco didn't mind. He enjoyed his time with his children, keeping to himself most of the way. His only real concern was running into members of the Lotus, but he saw no sign of the order.
Just before nightfall on the second day, the caravan approached the vale's southern edge and the mountain pass that would take them to Mistfall Village. The sacred pools shimmered in the fading sunlight to the south, east, and west. So close to the waters, the air seemed to hum with an odd, almost tangible power. Dezco was admiring the distant pools when the caravan ground to a halt.
"Something ahead!" a shout went out from the front of the refugees.
Dezco moved through the other travelers from his place at the rear of the caravan, fighting off fatigue. He'd barely slept during the journey. The refugees had good hearts, but they lacked military training. The tauren didn't trust them enough to leave his children unguarded for even a few hours at night.
A group of refugees was standing close to the lead cart, deep in discussion. In the distance, Dezco spied a large campfire burning near the mouth of the pass, effectively blocking the path.
"Any idea who it is?" he asked the gathered pandaren.
"We've sent someone out to look," a young refugee dressed in ratty clothes replied. He waved his paw at the others standing nearby. "Some of them think it's the mogu. But they wouldn't make a fire out in the open like that."