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"No," Koak protested, but he was unable to look away.

He stretched his hand toward the egg. The space between them felt thick and heavy, like the calm before a storm. When he touched it, a stinging shock snaked its way along his arm. Koak could feel the egg trembling beneath his palm subtly at first, but soon it began to shake so forcefully that Koak backed away in apprehension.

All at once the top of the egg exploded, showering Koak with fragments of shattered shell. A bright halo of red smoke billowed out from the fissure and rolled across the ground like a bank of fog. From within arose a glistening newborn cloud serpent with ruby scales and eyes of sapphire, eyes so deep and fluid that looking into them was like trying to mark the bottom of the sea.

The hatchling met Koak's gaze and held it. Koak reached out his hand; the hatchling snaked forward and closed its tiny jaws around the meat of his palm. He did not flinch, bearing the pain until the young serpent came to be at ease, curling its body around his arm.

Koak saw its mother watching them, sorrow written plainly upon her face. She fixed a final look upon Koak, and he withered under her unblinking stare. She closed her eyes, and her body rose and fell with one last labored breath; then she lay still. The hatchling saw her, and from its anguished cries Koak knew it understood what had happened. He watched in stoic silence as the serpent sidled up to its departed mother, longingly nuzzling her and curling up within her shadow.

In the days that followed, Koak struggled to keep himself and the hatchling alive as he waited for a rescue party that he suspected General Nazgrim wouldn't send. And why should he? The life of one orc was of no concern to Hellscream, no more than the life of one dragon would have been a concern to the Dragonmaw. Koak was on his own.

The rain provided them with only limited fresh water, and no matter how many sugar minnows he caught, the serpent's ravenous appetite was never sated. His leg tormented him incessantly, as did the question of what to do with the hatchling.

On the fifth day, the rains stopped. As Koak's hopes of salvation dwindled into dust and the serpent sat shivering in the cold, they spotted two figures in the clearing skies. A pair of cloud serpents, fully grown, flitted effortlessly between the other spires across the sea, each with a pandaren rider astride its back. They circled deftly around the mountain peaks and returned to the cliffs of the Jade Forest with breathtaking speed. A story he had heard weeks ago from one of the natives echoed in Koak's mind.

The Order of the Cloud Serpent.

***

The windswept cliffs of the Jade Forest rose tall and sheer over the Mistveil Sea. Koak and the hatchling had crossed the water in a raft he had cobbled together from the zeppelin's broken hull, and were arduously making their way along a steep and narrow path toward the forest proper. Koak's leg pained him unceasingly, beset by dull aches and sharp pangs. It didn't help that the serpent fought him with every excruciating step, struggling against the frayed length of rope with which Koak had leashed it.

"Calm down," Koak huffed, exhaustion seeping into his voice. "We'll be there soon enough, and then you'll be the order's problem."

The Horde's advance forces had only recently arrived on the shores of Pandaria, but Koak had already heard much of the Order of the Cloud Serpent. Mighty warriors who rode on the backs of the ferocious beasts, the serpent riders were said to swoop into battle as swiftly as the wind itself, striking with the strength of storm and sky. Koak had been harboring a secret desire to meet them, to witness their power and stack it against that of the Dragonmaw.

Of course, there wasn't much Koak knew about the Dragonmaw. He was only a child when the red dragonflight destroyed Grim Batol, and was one of the few too weak to evade capture by the Alliance when the rest of the clan escaped into the Twilight Highlands. What he knew of his clan he had learned from stories recounted by veterans of the Second War, and from the dreams that plagued his restless nights. He had never bent a dragon to his will; the stubborn serpent hatchling he was dragging up the hill was proving to be enough of a handful.

The Order of the Cloud Serpent must be fearsome indeed, Koak pondered, to tame such willful beasts.

When they reached the top, Koak thought for a moment that they had scaled the wrong cliff. He had expected a fortress of steel and iron, a mighty citadel encircled by patrolling serpents adorned in armor and ready for war. What he saw instead were a humble cottage and an airy gazebo, both hewn of simple wood and stone, surrounded by wallows of mud and bales of hay.

"This can't be the right place," he mumbled to himself. But as he led the hatchling around the corner of the cottage and into the area beyond, Koak was greeted with the sight of cloud serpents of every size and color. Some lounged in open pens while being attended with brushes and bags of feed. Others floated calmly beside their companions as they strolled through the grounds on an afternoon walk. A few hatchlings sat coiled and placid in the laps of pandaren meditating peacefully by a tranquil stream.

The Strength of Steel

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