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."
Anli stepped off the edge of the spire. Koak made no movement toward her and was unsurprised when she reemerged on the back of her serpent. "You told me once that chains are more effective than choices. Well, you've tried putting your serpent in chains. Perhaps it's time you tried giving it a choice."
Koak watched as Anli flew away, wondering if he would ever do the same. She disappeared into the mists, and Koak was left alone with his serpent. The fog coalesced around him, blinding him to the rest of the world, but he knew that a foot in front of him, the ground fell away into a perilous drop just like the one that haunted his dreams. He felt as though he had been falling all his life. And he was done with it. Anli wanted him to give his serpent a choice? Then he would give it one hell of a choice.
"Serpent," Koak called. It occurred to him that he still hadn't given it a name. The serpent looked up and met his eyes. It saw what he intended to do, and it began to open its mouth in protest. He did not give it the chance.
Koak stepped off the edge of the spire and into oblivion.
In an instant he was plummeting headlong through cloud and fog toward the invisible beach below, his nightmare transformed into frightening reality. My serpent will not save me, Koak thought suddenly. This is how I die.
He heard a familiar screech from above and looked up to see a long and twisting shadow diving toward him. His serpent emerged from the mists and raced to his side. It had made its choice.
Koak had never been happier to be so wrong. But as the serpent approached, he realized with a sense of doom that there was no saddle or reins with which he could gain purchase on its scaly skin. Panic sunk its claws deep into Koak's heart. He reached desperately for the serpent, frantically grasping at it.
The serpent roared and craned its neck, meeting his gaze and holding it. When Koak looked into its eyes, he expected to see fear or doubt or despair. But he did not.
What he saw was strength.
Koak relaxed his grip and relinquished control. The serpent quickly swooped below him and caught him squarely upon a bend in its back. Koak instinctually read its movements and wrapped his arms around its body at the moment of impact, as the serpent had wrapped its body around his arm so many times in its youth.
With a roar that shook the heavens and echoed across the sea, the serpent pulled straight up with all of its might. Koak felt a spray of water on his face as they skimmed against the waves, and then they were climbing skyward as the fog lifted like a velvet curtain, the ocean and the coast and then the spires and the bridge and then all of the Jade Forest falling away and shrinking below them. Koak laughed, half in elation and half in disbelief.
His serpent had not allowed him to fall.
"Thank you," Koak called as he smiled at it. The serpent looked back at him, and Koak could swear he saw it smirking.
They broke through the clouds and into the brilliant light of the sun. The serpent pulled into a loop, and even without reins or a saddle, Koak remained astride it. He held on tight as they soared across the sky, free and strong and as fast as lightning. The serpent's scales caught a beam of sunlight and shone brightly like polished metal.
"Steel," Koak said without thinking. The serpent craned its neck to look at him again. "Your name is Steel."
The serpent roared in hearty approval. They dove under the clouds with blinding speed, Koak whooping and hollering into the wind. Koak was flying—no, they were flying, together, forged as one. It was like nothing Koak had ever imagined, and it was everything he had always hoped it would be.
Steel carried him from the eastern coast, and as they passed over the Arboretum, Koak saw the Order of the Cloud Serpent's members assembled by their open pens, waving to him with broad smiles on their faces. Ace was raising his paw high into the air as if Koak's triumph was his own, and Anli was beaming with a teacher's pride.
"You owe me a race, Koak!" Ace called up to him.
Koak laughed. "And you'll get it!" he shouted. "But first there is something I must do!"
Steel continued onward, over the treetops of the Arboretum and the roofs of Dawn's Blossom, toward the Vale of Eternal Blossoms and the Shrine of Two Moons. Koak had come to a decision of his own. His people needed him—not the Dragonmaw, but the Horde.
The Order of the Cloud Serpent had taught Koak a valuable lesson. True loyalty can never be enforced; it can only be earned. He had raised and nurtured his serpent, cared for and confided in it, and in return it had saved his life. The Horde had done the same for him: they had taken him in and given him a family when he was orphaned and alone, and now Koak would stand beside them against Hellscream and the Dragonmaw alike.
Doing so would forever mark Koak as an outcast from his clan. But the Horde was born of outcasts and rebels, homeless refugees with no one to depend on but each other. Together, they had built a home for themselves: Orgrimmar.
Together, they would take it back.
"For the Horde!" Koak exclaimed. He remembered now the meaning of those words. To fight for the Horde was to fight for one's brothers and sisters, to fold the strength of one into the strength of many and create a bond that could never be broken.
That was the true strength of the Horde—the strength of steel.