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Koak took a slow, deep breath and exhaled until his lungs burned for air. He looked to the skies, to the storm clouds, and into the falling rain. He was crying now, the tears coming forth as freely as the night his clan was destroyed, and a part of him wanted to believe that their spirits were weeping with him.

He heard a scratching sound above him and saw the serpent crawling down the face of the spire to meet him. It came to rest at his side, coiling around itself in protection against the wind and rain. Koak reached over, cautiously, to place his hand on the serpent's head and gently stroke its mane. The serpent tensed for the briefest moment, then relaxed.

They sat quietly together, waiting for the storm to pass as they had done for the first five days of the serpent's life. When the rain had stopped and the wind had died and Koak could see the reflection of the moons on the surface of the sea, the serpent was slumbering peacefully, small puffs of smoke rising from its nostrils.

Koak wrapped his arm around the serpent, closed his eyes, and fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.

***

Koak had always appreciated the morning after a night of heavy showers. He found solace in the crisp air and sparkling foliage that followed a downpour, in the way the land was refreshed and renewed. He awoke to gray skies and the scent of rain, and the early morning fog was so thick it seemed the entire world was shrouded within a cloud. Koak was surprised, but unfazed, when Elder Anli emerged from the mists like a ghost in a dream.

"It was simple enough to find you," the old pandaren explained. She started on a narrow, winding path up the side of the spire and beckoned for them to follow. Both Koak and the serpent did so, though Koak suspected the serpent only came because of Anli.

"Most serpents make their home on Windward Isle," Anli continued, "but some of them—the headstrong few who prize their independence and solitude—roost on the lone spires surrounding the island."

"And you thought my serpent must take after its mother," said Koak.

Anli smiled. "Or perhaps its rider."

Koak immediately felt chagrined. "I am not its rider. That has been made unmistakably clear."

"So why pursue it all this way?" she asked.

Koak looked to the sky, remembering the Alliance gunship that had shot him down and the search party that never came. "Hellscream abandoned me on this island," he answered. "I will not do the same to my serpent."

"You seem to dislike this Hellscream fellow," Anli observed.

Koak thought at length about how to respond. "The Horde is his army," he said at last, "but we are not his people." It was treason to say so, but only Anli was there to hear him. "Garrosh demands loyalty, but to him that just means dying at his command. He doesn't know what loyalty is. Thrall inspired loyalty. What Garrosh wants is obedience."

Anli nodded in understanding. "The two are not always the same."

Koak glanced at his serpent. "No," he conceded, "I suppose they are not."

They continued in silence, and in time they reached the summit of the spire. The mountainous peaks and verdant coastline he had espied from the top of the Windspire Bridge long ago were obscured by the oceanic fog. A light drizzle had begun to fall, its droplets as cool as mist on Koak's shoulders and chest.

"When you first came to us," said Anli, "it was because you heard that we were great warriors. And when you saw how we treated our serpents with affection, you thought the tales were false.

"And yet when I asked you the difference between steel and iron," she continued, "you told me that steel was the stronger of the two."

"Yes, I remember," Koak responded, slightly confused. "What is your point?"

Anli strolled to the edge of the spire, peering into the impenetrable mists. "You balk at the act of caring, Koak, but the strongest steel is forged through love. A smith folds it with the utmost care, hundreds upon hundreds of times. Such is the Order of the Cloud Serpent. We are the smiths, and the serpents are our steel."

Anli gestured for him to join her. As he came up to her side, she placed a paw on his chest and looked him in the eye.

"But with iron," she said to him, "a smith heats and hammers the metal, forcing it into the shape he or she wants it to be. When it cools, it becomes blackened and brittle. And though it may seem strong for a time, it will break when you need it the most. Do you understand, Koak?"

It hurt him to hear it, but Koak knew it was the truth. Such were the Dragonmaw, and their bitter bond between orc and dragon. "I do understand," he said as he glanced at the serpent, lounging silently behind them, "but what happens when the smith makes a mistake?"

"Then he must correct it," she replied, "while the metal is still hot."

The Strength of Steel

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