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Koak didn't know what to say or think. He watched in silence as the saddle slipped off the serpent's back and came crashing to the ground, breaking and splintering into a hundred different pieces.

The serpent turned away and skulked out across the sea. Koak rose shakily to his feet. The crowd had seen it all. His shame was sudden and complete, and his anger did its best to eclipse it.

"What did you expect?" he asked them. "What did you expect?! I am a Dragonmaw orc! This is our way! This is who I am!"

As he looked out over the crowd, he caught a glimpse of graying hair and youthful eyes. Anli stood quietly among the spectators, those bright eyes now filled with sadness.

We all choose who we will be.

The pandaren left him then, and not a word was spoken. They trudged down the hill in silence, Koak's failure shrouding the finish line like a pall. Ace hung back for a moment, but Anli placed a paw on his shoulder and shook her head. Then they too were gone, and Koak was alone.

He turned toward the sea, in the direction to which the serpent had fled. He knew where it was headed, because he knew from his own tortured experiences that there was one place where all creatures went when their worlds had crumbled and their hearts had shattered.

His serpent was going home.

***

A sudden squall had darkened the skies of the Jade Forest and sent sheets of rain pounding into the sea. Night had fallen in the hours since the serpent had left him, and Koak fought to control his shivering body as the rainfall soaked through his clothes. He had found the raft where he had hidden it months before, left miraculously untouched by enterprising thieves and the elements. Koak had never paid much homage to those elements, and as the raft reached the island's coast, he wondered whether they had been waiting for the perfect opportunity to punish him for his insolence.

Beset by the forces of wind and water, Koak took his old crutch in hand and trudged across the muddy beach toward solid ground, tracing his own footsteps from the fateful night he had found the egg. A short time later, he came upon the site where he knew he would find the serpent.

The nest of stone was shattered and broken, as it had been the night Koak had stumbled across it, though no trace remained of the serpent's mother. Koak's serpent sat coiled at the nest's center, its mane drooping with the weight of rainwater. When it saw Koak approach, it hissed at him and retreated to the rear of the nest. The sight broke Koak's heart and filled him with renewed shame.

"I have not come to harm you!" Koak shouted over the sound of the pouring rain, and he meant it. He held his arms out at his sides as he slowly made his way to the nest.

The serpent wailed at him and rose into the air. It swooped past him, landing on an outcropping high above, and continued to watch him with obvious suspicion. Koak threw his arms up in exasperation, sending droplets of rain spraying around him.

"Even now?" he huffed. "Even when I come to you, my pride discarded, to plead for your forgiveness? Even now you resist?" He plopped down on the opposite side of the nest as his crutch fell, clattering against the rocks. "Why must you always be so willful? You answer every command with defiance, simply because you can. Even now, when I have braved this wretched storm in search of you! A true Dragonmaw orc would never tolerate this! A true Dragonmaw..." But he trailed off, his fervor doused by the downpour and his own insurmountable doubt.

"A true Dragonmaw," he croaked. "As if I knew anything about that. I am no 'Dragonmaw orc.' And I never will be."

He said it barely louder than a whisper, and it hung onerously between them in the falling rain. Koak suddenly felt very tired. The skin of his soaked hands had pruned, and his hair was matted flat against his head. He sighed heavily, breathing a lifetime of anguish into the cold night air, and closed his eyes as the rain ran down his brow and beard.

"I grew up in an internment camp," Koak said into the silence, "but I was born in Grim Batol. My father used to tell me that I would one day ride on the back of a great dragon—that the Dragonmaw would rule the skies, and the rest of the world would soon follow."

He swallowed the lump that had formed in his throat. "That was before those same dragons rose up and burned the clan alive. We lost control, and we were too weak to regain it.

"The humans found me afterward and placed me in chains, because I lacked the strength to escape with the rest of my clan. My slavery did not end until Thrall brought the camp's walls crashing down, just as the red dragonflight had done to the Dragonmaw. That is the way of the world, you see. With strength comes freedom; with weakness comes servitude.

"Now the Dragonmaw belong to Hellscream," he said, and the admission crushed his heart. "They depend on him for vital resources and military support. To defy him is to be destroyed. You cannot see the chains, but they are there nonetheless. Until they too are broken, we are Hellscream's to command. And after all these years, I am still searching for one thing: the strength to regain control."

The Strength of Steel

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