"When did you become an expert on the mogu?" another pandaren challenged. "I've heard that Shao-Tien raiding parties are skulking all over the vale, murdering anyone they find and then disappearing like ghosts. That fire could be a trap to draw us close."
An uneasy silence descended on the group. Dezco's tail lashed back and forth as he tried to subdue his anxiety, telling himself that mogu couldn't have made it this far into the vale.
The scout returned a short time later, waving the caravan forward. "It's safe!"
The pandaren around Dezco sighed in relief, but he remained cautious.
"More refugees?" he yelled to the distant scout. Apart from the mogu, there was another enemy that concerned him: the Alliance. The Horde's rivals had established an embassy at a fortress similar to the Shrine of Two Moons in this corner of the vale. Dezco had formed a bond with one of the Alliance's leaders, Prince Anduin Wrynn. Like the tauren, the young human didn't want conflict. He'd come to the vale driven by the promise of hope and peace. Still, the tauren didn't know how much weight that camaraderie carried. There were just as many warmongering fanatics in the Alliance as there were in the Horde.
"No," the scout replied. Faintly, Dezco could see him smiling. "It's the Golden Lotus!"
"Sit! Eat! Rest!" Mokimo shouted with his arms raised.
A great fire roared behind the hozen. Steam curled up from iron pots hung over the flames. Nearby, Weng the Merciful scooped rice from the cauldrons into smooth wooden bowls etched with carvings of the four celestials. A pandaren who Dezco had never met before unpacked cups from leather travel bags. He was monstrous, dwarfing the tauren in size, and adorned in massive pieces of dark armor. Apart from a brown topknot and beard, his coat was pure white.
The refugees brushed past Dezco and hurried to the fire, famished and exhausted. The tauren's own stomach rumbled as the wind blew the savory smell of warm food toward him, but he held his ground. The presence of the Lotus irritated him. By now, surely they'd learned of his choice. The honorable thing to do would've been to let him go on his way, and live with the ramifications of his decision.
Instead, they had followed him.
"Dezco!" Mokimo waved to him. "Come! You must be starving!"
Dezco flicked his ears and snorted, annoyed by the casual tone. The way Mokimo spoke, it was as if meeting the tauren out in the middle of the vale wasn't a surprise at all.
Without responding, the tauren took a few strides away from the camp and picked out a clear spot of land. Before long he had a fire of his own popping and crackling in the night. He pulled Cloudhoof and Redhorn from their baskets and began nursing them with the yak milk mixture. The feedings had become easier. His little boys were even taking a liking to the drink.
The children had just finished nursing when Mokimo approached Dezco's fire. "I would have come sooner, but the refugees were very hungry," the hozen said. "Thank the celestials you and the cubs are all right. We've been worried." He crouched down and smiled wide for Redhorn and Cloudhoof. The younglings giggled and batted at the long tufts of white fur around the hozen's cheeks.
"You remember Weng." Mokimo gestured back at his two companions, who mingled with the refugees. "And the big one is Rook. He's never been much good at formalities, but he's loyal to a fault. A gentle friend, but also a ferocious enemy. I think you'd like him. Why not join us? There's plenty of room at our—"
"You followed me," Dezco said.
"Well… not exactly," Mokimo replied. "We anticipated where you would travel. What with the Gate of the August Celestials closed off, there are only so many places in the vale to go."
"I've made my choice, Mokimo," Dezco said, his voice firm. "It was wrong of me not to tell you in person. For that I'm sorry. But following me doesn't change anything. My children belong home in Mulgore. Together. This is my decision." He added, "The others at the shrine had nothing to do with it."
"Nala told me. I met with Zhi, and he agreed that if it is your desire to leave, you are free to do so."
Dezco wasn't sure how to react. He'd been expecting some kind of resistance. "Just the other day you spoke of how important my sons were to the future of your order," the tauren said.
"And I was happy. So were all the Lotus. But it's not my decision, is it? That lies with you."
"Then why are you here?"
"Your children have been chosen; they are tied to Chi-Ji, and thus to the vale. The Lotus are sworn to protect this land at all times. Until the day your cubs leave it, we will watch over them. But why you would want to leave is beyond me. I thought being here was why you traveled so far."
"It is… It was." Dezco lowered his head. "If Chi-Ji had asked me to march into the mogu lines alone, I would have honored his request without a second thought. I would have done anything. Anything but this…" He looked up at Mokimo. "This isn't why I came here."
"How do you know?"
"It's not," Dezco said, his anger rising. It dawned on him what was happening: Mokimo was trying to convince him. Zhi had likely sent the hozen and the others to talk him out of leaving.
"I've lost too much already," the tauren continued. "I didn't come here to lose everything. My tribe was promised peace. Hope. We… I haven't found anything I was expecting." The tauren took a breath to calm down. Without even realizing it, he'd lurched to his hooves. Weng, Rook, and the refugees at the other fire were staring at him in silence.
Mokimo remained impassive. "Expectation… a dangerous thing." He poked at the fire with a stray stick. "I expected much when I first joined the Lotus. But as the years wore on, I began to hate this place. Everything was so strange and confusing. I wanted to go home. Well, one day I decided to do just that, but Zhi caught me while I was trying to sneak out of the vale. He didn't scold me, though. He understood. In fact, he promised to take me to see my family. It is rare for a Lotus to leave the vale unless it is for official business. He did me a great honor.
"When the promised day came, we traveled to my village in the misty hills of the Jade Forest. I was scared and excited all at once. I hadn't seen my family in years." Mokimo untied a small teal band from his ponytail and held it out for Dezco to see. It wasn't much to look at: a simple leather strap, aged and worn by time. "This was my mother's. We found it in the ruins of my family's old hut. The entire village had been destroyed. Everyone in it was dead. The hozen tribes often war, you see."
"I'm sorry," Dezco said, ashamed at his outburst.
"Why? If I'd never been chosen, I wouldn't be alive today. We can't predict where life will take us. Better not to fight things beyond your control. The moment you let go of expectation is the moment you are truly free. All we can do is serve the vale and know that wherever the winds blow us, we will have lived our lives for something greater than ourselves. For us, that is enough."
Mokimo rose and dusted himself off. "Come back to the shrine. That's all I ask. Why endanger the cubs out here? Nowhere is safe in the vale now. Nowhere."