On the fourteenth day of his life, Kil'ruk earned the empress's favor.
Kil'ruk and the rest of the flock were dropping rounds over the battlements, hovering safely out of range of any attackers. The gnawing feeling of uselessness continued to eat away at Kil'ruk's mind, yet he obeyed the empress's command and rained poison on the lesser creatures.
His net was only partially empty when strange sounds rang out—crackling, then a deep, stuttering rattle, like a giant tree trunk snapping in half in a storm's gale.
Kil'ruk's first reaction was confusion. He had never heard such an odd sound before. An instant later, startled cries of pain and surprise filled the air. Five flyers to the north tumbled from the sky, chunks of flesh and wing falling beside them. The other mantid clicked and chattered, alarmed. Archers? Perhaps with improved bows? There had been little threat from them in previous raids.
After a moment of searching the ground, Kil'ruk spotted an odd shape on the edge of the mogu encampment behind the Wall. From his perspective, it first looked like a honeycomb, but as he looked closer, Kil'ruk realized it was a collection of tubes, stacked together in a round bundle as tall as a mogu. White smoke drifted from its openings.
They had placed the bundle of tubes on wheels and aimed it directly at the mantid flock.
Slaves scurried around the front of the honeycomb, shoving handfuls of pebbles into the tubes.
More crackling filled the air.
Kil'ruk understood just in time.
Xuexing fed arcane power into the back of the weapon in one violent burst.
The sound of the blast drowned out all other noises, the concussive force a hammer's blow to his chest. White smoke clouded his vision. He could dimly see several pandaren slaves lying still on the ground in front of the huatang. Dead, most likely. Xuexing hadn't waited for them to move out of the way.
It would teach the others to move faster.
As the smoke wafted away, the effects of the weapon became clear. The first shot had been slightly wide, killing only a few of the flyers on the north edge of the flock, but the second shot had hit dead center. Dozens of mantid flyers fell toward the ground. Some fell in pieces. Xuexing even spotted one still clinging to its net, its wings motionless. Maybe three or four flyers in the entire flock had escaped unharmed, and they had the sense to turn and flee back to their lands, out of Xuexing's reach.
"Reload!" Xuexing bellowed. The slaves shoveled more pebbles and small rocks into the tubes, tightly packing them in. Xuexing carefully began gathering more energy to fire again. A third shot was probably unnecessary, but why take chances? This weapon worked better than he had dreamed.
The skies above this section of the Serpent's Spine had been cleared in two volleys. Just two. I will have to thank the Zandalari for this, he thought. The trolls' command of the arcane was primitive compared to the mogu's, but observing their techniques had driven Xuexing's own thoughts in unexpected directions.
Who else among the mogu would have imagined that tiny rocks, even propelled to incredible speeds with arcane energy, could cause such damage?
The screams of the wounded came from all sides. Nearly the entire flock had been shredded. Rocks and pebbles had torn through dozens and dozens of flyers, punching holes through their carapaces. They fell, out of control.
Kil'ruk fell with them, but he was not out of control. He was not dying.
He was diving. Like the hawk.
The moment before the honeycomb fired, Kil'ruk had hugged the net close to his chest and tucked his wings behind his body. The rounds in his net had shielded him from the worst of the weapon's blast. The rest of the pebbles had whistled through the air around him.
The wind rushed by wonderfully fast. As Kil'ruk descended, his heart soared. The mogu hadn't fired a third shot. They must have thought the flyers were all dead.
It was time to show them their error. "Can you see me, Empress?" Kil'ruk whispered. The shock of the attack had made him forget her song, but now he could hear her again, singing softly and commanding the swarmborn onward. Was there a note of sorrow in her melody? Had she seen what the mogu's new weapon had done?
Kil'ruk let go of the net. It seemed to float away slowly. He slightly spread his wings, catching just a bit of the rushing air. It hurt. It threatened to tear his wings clean off. This would be a far, far longer dive than any he had previously attempted. Perhaps he would fall two hundred paces. Perhaps two hundred and fifty.
"Empress, watch me."
"They're all dead!" Xuexing called. With a careful twist of his wrist and a relaxation of his will, the arcane energy he had gathered safely fizzled away. "We're moving north!"
North meant the Gate of the Setting Sun and the biggest concentration of mantid. First he would wipe out any flyers still aloft there, and then he would—
A shadow fell over Xuexing. He barely had time to look up before an ear-shattering screech of mantid fury descended upon him.
Kil'ruk landed with his feet in the mogu's stomach. He tried to stab the creature through its chest with his forelegs, but the impact was extraordinarily violent; the mogu went sprawling and Kil'ruk was thrown off, skidding through the mud and rolling to a stop against the flimsy cloth walls of a slave's tent.
A calm thought swam into Kil'ruk's head. I need to practice landing.
Kil'ruk fought off his daze and leaped to his feet. He was surrounded by lesser creatures, but his dramatic arrival had unnerved them. The pandaren and even the saurok instinctively shrunk back in surprise.
A dead pandaren lay at Kil'ruk's feet. Strange wounds—perhaps killed by the honeycomb. Friendly fire. A chipped sword lay next to the creature. Foul, cheap steel. Pathetic. Kil'ruk scooped it up anyway. For a moment, the weight was unfamiliar and ungainly in his hand.
Then Kil'ruk remembered the hawk, its talons, how naturally it had snatched its prey. Now I have a talon.
Suddenly the sword was like an extension of his body. It felt no stranger in his hand than his wings did on his back.
Kil'ruk heard a deafening explosion on the battlements. He and the lesser creatures flinched. Oh yes. My net. It had still carried plenty of rounds when Kil'ruk had released it while falling. Upon hitting the top of the battlements, they had burst all at once. A cloud of poison and acid expanded rapidly. At least it would keep the Wall's defenders occupied for a time.
Kil'ruk let his wings propel him into the mass of lesser creatures near the honeycomb. His new talon drew blood almost immediately.
It was madness. Mantid flyers never fought hand to hand on the ground. Nysis bellowed an order to his fellow saurok: encircle and attack. Even the best mantid fighters would fall eventually to that tactic. If the pandaren slaves were smart, they would get out of the way. If not—
The crazed flyer leaped onto a fleeing pandaren and tore into his midsection with its forelegs. Nysis charged in, swinging his steel blade, but the mantid's wings buzzed and the creature lifted out of reach.
It dropped down and eviscerated another saurok with a swipe that almost looked casual. Then it rose back into the air. Encircling wasn't going to work. It has wings. The thought was ice in Nysis's mind. If they couldn't encircle it, what could they do? The mantid bent over a dying saurok, and Nysis lunged with a strike against its unarmed side.
To his surprise, his sword thrust was blocked by steel. The mantid had picked up a second blade, the dying saurok's sword.
The flyer whirled and slashed with both swords. Nysis managed to parry only one. A deep fang of mortal injury blazed in his chest. The mantid spun away and leaped toward new opponents, shouting something odd, something about an "empress."
Nysis toppled to the ground and felt his life's warmth joining the cold mud.
This isn't happening. Xuexing flung another molten blast, missing again. This can't be happening. The other mogu in the vicinity staggered away, his thigh opened to the bone. It's only one mantid! The flyer lifted into the air as Xuexing set the ground beneath it on fire.
This was no time for finesse. Xuexing crouched and cupped his hands, gathering every ounce of power he dared, heedless of his proximity to the new huatang. It was sensitive. It could react badly to excess energy, but that was a problem for later. For now—
Xuexing stared in surprise at the steel protruding from his chest. The mantid had thrown one of its swords. This isn't happening, his mind wailed. He collapsed on all fours.
No. He would not let this mantid survive. Xuexing continued to gather power even as darkness crept around the edges of his vision. Crackling energy seemed to infuse the very air around him.
He lifted a shaky, weakening hand toward the flyer.
Crackling sounds rose from everywhere, uncontrolled and untempered. The expression on the dying mogu's face told Kil'ruk everything he needed to know. The flyer strained into the air without a second thought.
The mogu lifted its hand toward Kil'ruk with its last breath, but just before it could unleash the spell, the final bit of life left its body. The creature went limp. The energy it had gathered suddenly rushed out in all directions.
The honeycomb quivered and shook, then disappeared amid a shimmering shockwave of pure light. Kil'ruk kept climbing into the sky until the echoes of the explosion faded away.
Far below, he could see the edge of the mogu encampment burning. Nearby tents and defenders alike had been torn apart by the blast. Even the rear face of the Serpent's Spine seemed singed. Whatever that foul weapon had been, it was unstable. Prone to utter disaster for those who tried to use it. Kil'ruk would remember that if he saw another.
As he flew back to the ambersmith, he realized that something had changed. The empress was singing a new song.
Behold our might, the empress was saying. Behold our strong. See the smoke rise from the lesser creatures' camp. Their new weapon is gone, destroyed by a single one of my favored.
"Empress?" Kil'ruk breathed. "Empress, were you watching?" His antennae curled in ecstasy. The empress was singing of him. My favored.
The swarmborn on the ground stared up as he flew past. Flocks of flyers surrounded him and followed him home. Behold my wrath, striking from on high, the empress sang. Behold my death, descending from above. Behold the Wind-Reaver.
The flock repeated her words in awe. "Wind-Reaver."
"Empress," Kil'ruk said. She had seen him.
As Kil'ruk approached Klaxxi'vess, he spotted a hawk circling near one of the kypari trees.
It was the same hawk he had seen days earlier.
Kil'ruk flew toward it. The bird saw him coming and dove.
Hawk, Kil'ruk thought a few minutes later, tastes delicious.