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Their walk was quiet and meandering. Anli led him through the serene splendor of the Arboretum, dappled by sunlight and caressed by a calming breeze, until they eventually arrived at the Windspire Bridge. True to its name, the bridge spanned the distances between several of the natural spires that jutted upward from the ocean far below. Each of its arches was an architectural marvel, a monolith of masonry that seemed to defy gravity and stood stalwart against the buffeting coastal winds. The bridge appeared not unlike a cloud serpent itself, a massive creature carved from wood and stone, snaking out over the Mistveil Sea to watch over the Jade Forest in perpetuity.

Anli waited until they had traversed the majority of the bridge's expanse before she turned to address him.

"Have you named your serpent yet, Koak?" she asked.

"No," Koak answered. "And I will not do so until it has earned one. That is the way of the Dragonmaw."

"We are not the Dragonmaw," Anli replied. "And their ways are not ours."

Koak bristled. "I will do this the Dragonmaw way or not at all. There are no other options."

"This seems to be quite important to you," she remarked.

Koak stopped for a moment, searching for the right words before continuing to walk. "When the Alliance took me prisoner, I was separated from my clan. I had the chance to be reunited with them after the Cataclysm, but I did not take it."

"And why not?" Anli asked.

"I don't expect you to understand," Koak replied, "but I dishonored myself and the Dragonmaw by being placed in chains. How could I possibly face them without first proving myself worthy?"

Koak turned away from Anli, looking north across the sea, in the direction of the Eastern Kingdoms. "I am Dragonmaw in name but not in action. By taming my serpent our way, I can change that, and I can once again be with my people."

"I see," Anli murmured. They had reached the end of the bridge and the ornate shrine that sat atop the farthest and tallest of the spires. Behind them lay a breathtaking vista of the Pandaren coastline and the bridge's winding path over the open sky and water, the golden pagodas of the Temple of the Jade Serpent hazy in the misty distance.

Koak did his best to avert his eyes from the edge of the spire and the long and fatal fall to the sea. His best was not good enough, though he did manage to mask the fear that took root within him.

"The Order of the Cloud Serpent," Anli began as she stared out at the ocean, "was founded thousands of years ago by Jiang, a young girl from Dawn's Blossom. She came across an injured hatchling, named him Lo, and nursed him back to health.

"Back then, the citizens of Pandaria feared cloud serpents. They were seen as violent and aggressive creatures, and even to approach one was to flirt with danger. Everyone thought that Jiang's actions would lead to disaster."

"Taming a monster is no task for a little girl," Koak grunted.

"Ah, but they were wrong," Anli continued. "When the Zandalari attacked the Pandaren Empire, and our armies were fighting a losing battle on a bridge much like this one, Jiang rode in on Lo's back and turned the tide of the entire war. Together, Jiang and Lo struck the batriders from the sky and plucked the trolls from the bridge. Jiang founded the order shortly thereafter, and the sight of a cloud serpent has filled the pandaren with hope ever since."

Koak scoffed. "So now you all follow her example? These serpents are born to hunt and kill. You cannot change the nature of a beast through compassion, no more than you can change the nature of war."

"It is not a question of change, Koak, but of choice." Anli turned to face him. "Cloud serpents are wild and tempestuous by nature and, if mistreated, may still grow to be that way as adults. But a cloud serpent is not bound by its nature, no more than you or I. Jiang didn't force Lo to fight; Lo chose to fight, because Jiang chose to trust him and treat him with compassion. That is why we follow her example. We all choose who we will be."

Koak remained silent for a long moment. Could such a thing really be true? Could a rider, with life and limb on the line, release his reins and trust his mount to do his bidding? It seemed like madness.

"An interesting sentiment," he said at last, "but I still say that chains are more effective than choices."

"Is that so?" Anli pondered quietly.

She stepped backward and plunged off the edge of the spire.

"NO!" Koak bellowed. He sprang forward, the pain in his leg momentarily forgotten. But he was too late. Anli was gone, and all that was left of her was the sound of her laughter dancing on the wind. That confused Koak; Anli hadn't been laughing when she fell.

The Strength of Steel

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