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Koak was utterly confused. Where were the warriors of legend?

"Ah, we have a visitor!" called a kind voice from behind him.

Koak turned to see an elderly pandaren emerging from the gazebo, her hair and fur going gray with age but her eyes alight with youth. With her were several more pandaren, each of them accompanied by a cloud serpent of a different color. She stepped forward and bowed.

"Welcome to our home, traveler," she said with a smile. "I am Elder Anli, and we are the Order of the Cloud Serpent."

"Are you all right?" asked one of the pandaren with her. "You don't look so good."

"Oh, and who is this little one?" chirped another in a cheery voice.

The hatchling retreated behind Koak's leg, shielding itself from the eyes of the onlookers. Koak shifted to the side and brought the hatchling into view, shaking the fog of bewilderment from his mind as the pandaren cooed and fawned over the infant.

"He's yours," he replied, offering his end of the rope to Anli. "And I am not all right. I am injured, and I require transport to the nearest Horde outpost. If you could provide it, I would be in your debt."

Anli watched him thoughtfully before shaking her head. "I'm afraid that will not be possible."

"You do not wish to involve yourselves in our conflict." Koak fought to keep his tone free of scorn and to push the image of the hatchling's maimed mother from his mind. "If you carried me to Dawn's Blossom instead—"

"No," Anli interrupted. "I mean you cannot leave this serpent with us and depart."

Koak frowned. "What exactly are you saying, pandaren?"

"It seems to be quite attached to you," she replied calmly. "I take it you must have been the one to hatch it. And so you must be the one to raise it."

She took a step toward him, closing his hand around the rope and pressing it back against his chest. The members of the order were watching him, stroking the scales of their serpents as if they were pets. Koak regarded them with unmasked disappointment. They were supposed to be great warriors; he saw nothing here but a nursery. And he would take no part in it.

"I don't think so," he said dismissively.

Koak dropped the rope on the ground and turned to leave, but he made it only a few steps before a sudden pain jolted through his leg. Bracing himself against his crutch, Koak fell to one knee and cursed his injuries. He felt someone tugging at his wrist.

"If you will not take me to Dawn's Blossom..." Koak trailed off when he turned his head and saw not a pandaren at his side but the hatchling. It had curled its tiny tail around his wrist and was pulling him back toward the others, an imploring look in its eyes.

It didn't want him to leave either.

Koak watched as a pair of riders streaked across the clouds above them, spiraling into serpentine twists and turns, executing death-defying maneuvers with casual ease as they raced against each other. The Order of the Cloud Serpent was not made of the fighters Koak had expected, but there was no denying that its members could fly.

Something inside Koak shifted. When next he looked upon the hatchling, he saw not a burden but an opportunity: a chance, at last, to become a true Dragonmaw orc, to train his own war mount, to ride it into battle, and to conquer the skies. Let the others prepare their serpents for a life of peace and playtime. He would prepare his for war.

"Very well," he said, as much to his hatchling as to Anli. He took the serpent in his hands and lifted it above his head, the sun gleaming off its crimson scales, as red as the dragons his clan used to command.

I will make the Dragonmaw proud, Koak pledged.

I will make my serpent obey.

***

The first week of training did not proceed as Koak had hoped. The serpent proved to be willful and stubborn, certainly more so than any other hatchling under the order's care. It seemed determined to chew and devour everything except precisely what Koak was trying to feed it, and whenever Koak attempted to call it to heel, it chose instead to chase its fellow hatchlings with its snapping jaws. The serpent was quick and agile, and Koak's mangled leg continued to hinder him, leaving him little recourse but to bark at the hatchling until his face was red and the order's students eyed him with concern and amusement. Yet his leg was healing, thanks to the ministrations of the pandaren, and it occurred to Koak that any order that sought to ride such raucous beasts must be well practiced in the mending of broken bones.

On his eighth day with the order, as the sun rose over the peaks of the spires out to sea, Koak found his hatchling's pen conspicuously empty. Anli was standing at the fence post with a warm smile.

"It seems my hatchling has an early start on the day's mischief," Koak grumbled.

"Oh, not at all," Anli explained. "Jenova will be in charge of your serpent's care for today. Please, take a walk with me."

The Strength of Steel

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