Download full image

Koak was falling. He tumbled endlessly through countless leagues of clouds and rain, the earth below him forever just beyond his sight. All around him flew the dragons, with scales as red as blood and eyes of molten gold, crimson phantoms in an eternal storm. Koak could feel their seething hatred buffeting his orcish body.

He raised a fist toward the dragons and shouted with the authority of the Dragonmaw clan. "Obey me!" he commanded, but his voice was tainted by fear and doubt.

"NO!" they roared in unison. Their myriad shadows melded into one, larger than the sky itself. Lightning flashed, and Koak caught a glimpse of Grim Batol in the distance, a smoking ruin he had once called home.

"Koak!" someone shouted.

The dragons' breath birthed a conflagration, and the heavens were set ablaze. Koak howled in pain as the storm clouds were burned away and his world was consumed by fire. His descent accelerated, suddenly and without warning, and the unforgiving ground came rushing up to meet him...

"KOAK!"

He awoke abruptly at the point of impact, with the echo of an explosion ringing in his ears. Beneath him was a deck of sanded and polished wood; above him was the bulbous balloon of a goblin zeppelin. The ship itself was a blazing inferno, and its crew was frantically fighting to keep it in the air.

"Abandon ship!" the captain screamed.

Koak rose unsteadily to his feet, blood from an open gash trickling down his brow. "The Alliance..." he said groggily. Looking over the edge of the hull, he saw a retreating gunship vanish into the clouds high above the Jade Forest.

With a squeal of twisting metal, the zeppelin ponderously lurched to its side. Koak scrambled to grab hold of something—anything—as the waters of the Mistveil Sea came into view over the starboard bow. Then another explosion knocked him off his feet and sent him sailing over the edge into the open air, the captain's cries for help dying on the ocean breeze.

***

A light rain was falling and the coastal winds were whispering in his ear when Koak washed ashore. His leg throbbed with relentless pain; it had taken the brunt of the blow when the currents had smashed him against the rocks. As he lay broken and bleeding on the sand, he wondered whether this was what Hellscream had in mind when he ordered them to paint the continent red.

He was on a small island, a single stone spire rising up from the center and into the clouds high above. All around him, pieces of the zeppelin's flaming wreckage trailed away from the shoreline and toward the spire, jetsam that had fallen off during the ship's final descent. The rest of it floated atop the ocean waters, along with the charred corpses of his former crewmates.

For the Horde, he thought bitterly. There was a time when those words had meant something to Koak. The pain in his leg flared as he made to stand.

Leaning on a makeshift crutch, Koak hobbled inland among the ship's scattered remains to search for survivors. Acrid smoke from the ship's ruptured fuel tanks stung his eyes and seared his lungs. He nearly choked on the fumes as he rounded a section of the zeppelin's demolished hull.

Before him loomed a monstrous cloud serpent, its scarlet scales shining wet with blood.

Koak gasped and stumbled backward, his mauled leg giving out beneath him. The serpent was lying in a nest of flattened stone at the base of the spire, its body a patchwork of burns and bruises. It raised its enormous head and stared directly into Koak's eyes.

"Easy..." whispered Koak in his most placating tone. The serpent was thirty feet of solid muscle, with claws so large that they could easily curl around Koak's torso and crush his ribs while the creature's massive jaws tore him in half. But it made no move to attack him, and Koak realized that it was dying. He took in the twisted metal and scorched wood that surrounded the nest.

We did this, he thought. He suddenly felt sick.

Slowly, as if it meant to show him something, the serpent uncoiled itself. In the center of its nest was a single egg the size of Koak's chest, pristine and undamaged, its shell shining like polished garnet. The serpent coddled it gently, her tenderness at odds with her ferocious appearance. She could have escaped her fate but instead had stayed to protect her egg. For some reason, that filled Koak with anger.

"You sacrificed yourself in vain," he growled under his breath. "Your whelp will still die, abandoned and alone." He grimaced as another bolt of pain shot mercilessly through his leg. Blood was flowing from it like a river, staining the soil beneath his feet. And I will likely die with it.

The serpent raised her tail and wrapped it around Koak's wrist, insistently pulling him toward the nest. She crawled to his side and nudged him from behind, and he found himself before the egg.

She wants me to care for it? Me?

The Strength of Steel

Amazon, Kindle, Kindle Fire, the Amazon Kindle logo and the Kindle Fire logo are trademarks of Amazon.com, Inc. or its affiliates.