Download full image
I

He floated alone. Time meant nothing. Finally, the sound of her music rippled through the stillness.

Swarm the Wall, the empress sang. The strong will return. The weak will not.

Kil'ruk opened his eyes for the first time.

***

Smoke and dust shrouded the eastern horizon. Only the faint outline of the Wall, the Serpent's Spine, was visible through the brume. Echoes of war hung in the air, the joyous cries of the young mantid and the screams of the dying blending into the distinctive harmony of clashing blades and rending flesh.

The new cycle had truly and gloriously begun.

A group of elder mantid watched from a hill to the west.

"The swarmborn seem healthy, vibrant. The empress nurtured them well," said one. None disagreed. They had all observed the young mantid stampeding toward the Wall mere minutes after entering the world, unable to think of anything but slaughtering the lesser creatures. "Their enthusiasm will prove useful should the mogu continue to provoke us. Nothing tempers ambition more than the fear of oblivion."

The other elders wordlessly clicked and chattered. It was the sound of agreement but not of commitment. There was no need to make a decision just yet.

For now, the Klaxxi would simply watch. Events were progressing as expected.

***

A lone mogu, clothed in ornate, precisely tailored robes, stepped into the large tent and coldly eyed the slaves scurrying around the odd collection of polished, hollow white tubes. With a loud, scornful voice, he pronounced, "You told Warlord Gurthan your weapons would be ready by now. He is disappointed in your failure."

The sixteen slaves—mostly pandaren, though there were a few jinyu—went still with fear. Far in the back of the tent, a bulky figure slowly stood up, face shrouded in shadow. He leaned forward. The edge of his jaw caught the glow of a flickering brazier. Despite the hostile words from the visitor, the larger mogu's expression was forbiddingly calm.

"If Warlord Gurthan were disappointed in me, he would have told me himself, Hixin," said Taskmaster Xuexing.

"Perhaps you are unaware of recent events. The mantid are attacking," Hixin said blandly, as though it were possible to miss the horrific sound of the fighting to the west. "Warlord Gurthan has more important matters to attend to than a delinquent arcanist and the misuse of a few slaves."

Delinquent? Xuexing kept a firm grasp on his temper. Hixin was by far the slipperiest of Warlord Gurthan's advisors. He never provoked someone without a reason. No doubt he wished to carry tales of Xuexing's rage back to the warlord. If he can't respond calmly even to simple criticism, Warlord, Hixin would undoubtedly say, can he really be trusted with critical duties?

It was no secret that Xuexing had the warlord's confidence in almost all areas of the arcane. Even the Zandalari sought his counsel and advice. Hixin would need to discredit him before supplanting him. He seeks to ascend by stepping on my head.

"The huatang will be ready when it is ready," Xuexing said. "And when it's ready, I'll tell Warlord Gurthan myself."

"Should I tell him to expect a working weapon in days? Weeks? Months? The insects will not wait," Hixin said in the same bland, political voice. He ran his finger absently along the rim of a strange, ornate urn sitting on a table next to him.

"Tell him whatever you like," Xuexing said.

"I suppose I have to inform the warlord you don't have an answer."

"Do not test me, advisor."

***

Go together. Swarm the Wall. The empress's words filled their minds. She gave them purpose. Her desires were their desires, and they did not hesitate to obey.

Without her, the mantid were nothing.

The strong will return. The weak will not, she said.

Kil'ruk and dozens of other flyers rose into the air and went east again. It was their third trip to the Wall, or perhaps their fourth. Kil'ruk hadn't really kept count. All he cared about was her voice, urging him onward. He had craved battle from his first moment of life. His instincts took care of the rest. His antennae twitched restlessly. His forelegs remained tucked up beneath his abdomen, settling easily against his carapace. Even the act of keeping his four transparent wings buzzing together behind his back was as natural as breathing.

The lesser creatures must die, she sang to them all. Sweep them away.

From so high in the air, the ground itself seemed to writhe with her wrath. Thousands upon thousands of mantid pushed east without thought toward the lesser creatures and their pathetic obstacle. Even though their Wall jutted into the sky, the empress had ordered it to fall. So it would.

They call it the Serpent's Spine, the empress had sneered. Break it.

On the ground, the swarmborn charged the Wall, attempting to climb its sheer face. Already piles of broken carapaces were growing at the base of the Spine. The climb was exhausting and dangerous, and the few mantid who managed to reach the top found themselves alone against scores of defenders. They did not survive long.

Kil'ruk and the other flyers hovered high above the Wall's battlements, far out of range of any archers. Each of the mantid carried a net filled to bursting with strange nuggets that leaked wisps of vile smoke. An ambersmith with a missing eye had called them rounds. "Decorate their heads with these," he had hissed while shoving nets into his forelegs' grasp.

The flyers plucked the rounds from their nets and let them fall. They burst open in sprays of poison and acid, showering nearby defenders. The lesser creatures scurried around for a few moments, shouting in pain and confusion, but the poison soon dispersed in the wind. The defenders retook their positions at the Wall's edge and sent more arrows and rocks against the mantid climbers.

Kil'ruk continued to drop rounds. It was oddly unsatisfying. He wanted to see the lesser creatures' agony up close. He wanted to paint the battlements with their blood. Dropping bombs from so high felt too clean, too detached, and not terribly useful.

When the flock ran out of rounds, they flew back to the ambersmith. The other flyers chattered happily along the way. Kil'ruk brooded in silence. The ambersmith had more nets waiting in the shade of a kypari tree sapling.

For two days and nights, they repeated the same actions: fly to the Wall, drop rounds from the sky, go back for more nets, over and over.

By the second night of the cycle, most of Kil'ruk's flock had curled up from exhaustion underneath some of the larger kypari trees. Kil'ruk merely took another net of rounds and flew on without them.

The Wall still stood. The empress's enemies still lived. How could he rest?

He didn't succumb to fatigue until the sun rose on the fourth day.

Death From Above

Amazon, Kindle, Kindle Fire, the Amazon Kindle logo and the Kindle Fire logo are trademarks of Amazon.com, Inc. or its affiliates.