A hawk rode the afternoon breeze high above the ground, hunting in solitude. Nearly every other beast in mantid lands had fled the moment the cycle had begun. Only a few baby virmen, too young to keep up with the mass exodus, remained in their warrens, shivering at the sounds of battle in the distance. One of the tiny creatures poked its head above the ground, sniffing at the air, hoping for the scent of food.
The hawk spotted it. It folded its wings close to its body and arced downward. Only an instant before hitting the ground, the hawk spread its wings wide, slashing at the air. There was a great flurry of motion, and then it swooped upward, a wriggling baby virmen caught in its talons. With a firm squeeze, the hawk stilled the virmen for good.
The hawk wheeled back toward its nest high in a kypari tree. Suddenly, it changed course, angling wide around a lone mantid flyer hovering nearby.
The hawk regarded it with wary eyes, but when it became clear the flyer wasn't preparing to attack, the bird screeched angrily at the delay and winged off. The absence of easy prey had left it hungry.
That lone mantid, Kil'ruk, simply watched it go with an astonished look.
"A hawk," said the elder mantid known as Klaxxi'va Pok. "This mantid is fascinated with it. Obsessed, perhaps. He constantly attempts to imitate it."
"Diving from the sky is impossible for us," the other objected. He had wings. Klaxxi'va Pok did not. "Those of us blessed with flight can hover. We dart nimbly from place to place. That is our advantage. This swarmborn is suicidal. The strain of halting a dive from so high will rip his wings straight off his back."
"As I said, he practices constantly," said Klaxxi'va Pok. "Yesterday, he could manage a drop of ten strides. This morning, fifteen."
"That is hardly useful, only—"
"This afternoon, twenty-five strides," Klaxxi'va Pok finished.
The other elder mantid went silent. His forelegs rubbed together in contemplation. Recovering from an uncontrolled fall of twenty-five strides was the limit of even highly skilled mantid flyers. "So he's becoming stronger?"
"It appears so," Klaxxi'va Pok said.
"In more ways than you may realize," Pok added. "It has barely been a week. The swarmborn are still fragile and terribly immature. They are totally dependent on the empress's voice, and she has said nothing about such strange tactics."
The other mantid slowly clacked his mandibles together in understanding. "He is acting on his own initiative. He is putting aside her desires. Promising, from one so young." His antennae twitched lightly, and a rasping chuckle escaped his mouth. "It has been three cycles since a paragon has emerged from the swarmborn. Perhaps this one will earn a second name soon."
"Perhaps," Klaxxi'va Pok said. "Or perhaps he will simply be another who dies before reaching his potential."
"Indeed. That is how the cycle works, after all."
Yong comforted himself with a simple thought. It will all be over soon.
The savage beatings of the last few hours had left the pandaren slave almost completely blind, only able to make out vague shapes and shadows. Two mogu guards dragged him into bright sunlight and chained him to a tall post. He couldn't tell if they were the same ones he had attacked yesterday.
I hope I hurt them, he thought tiredly. It had been a pitiful gesture, one he knew would mean his death, and yet he didn't regret it even for an instant. They cannot have my obedience anymore. They do not deserve it.
"We're going to try something new on you," one of the mogu said. "Xuexing, you may fire when ready."
Yong was too exhausted to be truly fearful, but he was certainly curious. He blinked hard and tried to make sense of the shape in front of him.
Odd. It looked as if the mogu were going to execute him with a big white honeycomb.
The last thing Yong heard before he died was the sound of crackling arcane energy.
Sunset on the ninth day came and went. By sunrise, Kil'ruk could manage a drop of fifty strides. He wasn't satisfied; the hawk had dived at least a hundred. Still, he could feel his wings growing stronger, the sinews along his back toughening.
The ambersmith had changed locations in the night, placing his nets on the slopes outside of Klaxxi'vess, the home of the mantid's cultural council. When Kil'ruk returned from the Wall, he lingered, mesmerized by the sight of the amber architecture at the top of the hill. He was forbidden to enter, of course. To enter the Klaxxi's realm without an invitation was death.
Not for the first time Kil'ruk wondered why the Klaxxi were so rarely seen. The mantid treated the council with respect, but few of the swarmborn had spotted its members outside of the boundaries of their home. None of the Klaxxi had ever been seen joining the fight. In the midst of a glorious, ongoing battle, the council seemed useless.
The ambersmith broke Kil'ruk's reverie. "Is something troubling you, swarmborn?"
Many things. Kil'ruk asked the question that had weighed heavily on his mind for a full day. "What of the lesser creatures?"
"What do you mean?"
How can a hawk possibly fly better than I? I am one of the empress's chosen, Kil'ruk didn't say. He felt shame over his own inability; he had no desire to reveal it to anyone else. He asked another question. "I see different creatures fighting against us on the Wall. Different shapes. Different sizes. Different beings. Why are they working together?"
The ambersmith chittered with amusement. "Together? The saurok and the pandaren are both enslaved by the mogu. They have no choice but to fight us."
Saurok? Pandaren? Kil'ruk did not know these names. He had never bothered to think of the defenders as anything other than lesser creatures. The ambersmith was happy to explain. "The skilled, scaled fighters are called saurok. The creatures with the fur and the thick bellies are called pandaren."
The ambersmith spoke at length about the mogu and how they had harnessed the usurpers' power to establish their empire in millennia past, empowering themselves and subjugating others. Much of the mogu's greatest work would not have been completed but for the strength of their conquered slaves.
When Kil'ruk asked how the slaves learned to fight, the ambersmith laughed again. "The saurok were born to kill. They have not yet found any other purpose. The pandaren, well," he said, "they are forbidden to hold weapons at all until they find themselves on their Wall, facing us."
Kil'ruk's forelegs twitched with disbelief. "The mogu send untrained creatures to battle? They could not possibly be so foolish."
"It is truth, swarmborn," the ambersmith said. "The mogu starve rebellion in its infancy. Any pandaren who show signs of dissent are sent to the Wall as punishment. Thus the strongest among them are here to face us. But they are here only to die."
Kil'ruk hadn't known the mogu had such a rich sense of humor. He laughed until his antennae hurt.
A young pandaren boy poured a fresh cup of tea. A few errant drops splashed to the floor, and he squeaked in fear. Xuexing ignored him and sipped the tea politely.
"I was pleased to see the successful demonstration of the huatang. Warlord Gurthan wishes you to use it in battle immediately," Hixin said.
"Tell Warlord Gurthan," Xuexing said, his words rumbling through the tent, "that I wish to personally and privately discuss how he would like to use the huatang."
"There is no need," Hixin said. The advisor handed over a tightly rolled parchment—an official Clan Gurthan order, sealed by magic. Xuexing took it and examined it, suspicious.
"What is this?"
Hixin took a small sip of tea. "The will of Warlord Gurthan."
Xuexing carefully eyed the other mogu. It was inconceivable that Warlord Gurthan would use this political creature as an intermediary, yet the seal felt genuine. He conjured up a small amount of magic and unsealed the parchment. It contained a short message.
Display your potential by nightfall. Do not disappoint me again.
Xuexing said nothing. Only the distant sound of battle and the shallow, frightened breaths of the pandaren slave kneeling in one of the tent's corners could be heard.
The huatang had been tested only once. On a slave. It was untested in battle. The slightest imbalance in the flow of energy could disrupt it. A large imbalance could be catastrophic.
Battle has a way of introducing imbalances, Xuexing thought grimly.
Not that he would admit that to the bottom-feeder sitting across from him. Xuexing drained his cup. "So be it. Tell the warlord the skies will belong to him soon." He stood up to leave. "Thanks for the tea."
He didn't bother to take the parchment with him. Hixin watched him go, not allowing himself to smile until Xuexing had disappeared from view.
"Dispose of this," Hixin told the slave, handing him the parchment.
"I want a blade," Kil'ruk said.
The ambersmith looked puzzled. "Why?"
"I need talons."
"I have seen how the mantid fight on the ground with blades," Kil'ruk said. "I wish to join them."
"You are a flyer," the ambersmith said. "You are not meant for that."
"The wingless cannot reach the battlements," Kil'ruk said. "The climb is too dangerous. There are piles of mantid dead all along the base of the Wall. I have wings. I can drop onto their battlements from above."
"You are not meant for that," the ambersmith repeated, more confused than ever. "You can still sense the empress's will, can you not? She tells you to remain in the air."
"I will be her talons," Kil'ruk mumbled.
"I don't understand."
"Then we are done talking."
By sundown on the tenth night, Kil'ruk could survive a dive of seventy-five strides.