Valley of the Horde

Thrown into the midst of the Stonetalon conflict, a mismatched group struggles to reach a friendly Horde settlement before injury, the furious Kaldorei or anything else hidden in the mountains manages to finish them off. Deals with the patchwork nature of the Horde: its wide range of species and racial mindsets; its attitudes toward war; and the changes wrought by the separate reigns of Thrall and Garrosh as warchief.

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1. Chapter One

VALLEY OF THE HORDE

 

 

Chapter One

 

In its own, grumpy sort of way, Orgrimmar buckled down for rain. In the Valley of Honour, heroes drew up their cloaks; soldiers pulled on their helms; and merchants dragged hides cluttered with wares to safety beneath awnings emblazoned with the symbol of the Horde. The skyward scowls were largely unanimous, but as he passed through the city, the troll Dakavo noticed no-one thought to actually hide from the rain. They cared too much for business and war preparations. Even as the black clouds overhead released their first warning drizzle, no-one relented in their back-and-forth passage between auction house and armoursmith, mailbox and bank.

 

Dakavo found the bustle almost soothing. Beneath the scowls, people were sure of their purpose and eager to get on with the rest of their day. As he side-stepped a kodo gleaming in new steel armour fresh from the smithy, he wondered if it was possible to absorb that sort of eagerness and certainty through proximity. Judging from the unrelenting lump in the pit of his stomach, he guessed not.

 

No, happy anticipation was not something he would experience today, so he might as well enjoy the moment. Braziers hissed as drizzle turned to shower, and the troll tipped back his head. He wore muted brown leathers and no cloak; the rain soaked his green dreadlocks and tickled as it slid across his scalp and down the back of his neck.

 

Around him, the bands of red, orange, yellow and brown in the walls of the gorge darkened and Garrosh’s bladed fortifications gleamed in the wet. The dry ground – the nice, strong, solid ground – gave deep, quiet cracks beneath him, and the dust began to stick to the sides of his feet. Strolling up a wooden ramp and onto the creaking disk the goblins called a lift, Dakavo made no effort to brush it off. Taking a little of Azeroth with him sounded like a good idea.

 

The mechanism in the wall began to click and whirr, and the lift lurched upward. Dakavo crouched at its centre. As the platform eclipsed the door, he slipped temporarily into darkness, with only the less-than-comforting question of where the goblin engineer who made this thing had put the dynamite. If there was something he had learned shortly after the Bilgewater Cartel set up shop near the Darkspear’s section of Orgrimmar, it was that there would always be dynamite.

 

Then the light at the top of the lift hit his face and he admitted, begrudgingly, that he was still in one piece. As his head rose into open air, he spied hooves, a woven kilt of leather and vines, fingerless hide gloves, a tight-fitting harness over white fur and dense musculature, and finally the short snout, brown eyes and tapered horns of Tahuni Whitewing. With one shoulder against the thick struts that supported the canopy over the lift, her arms crossed loosely over her chest, the tauren looked well at ease despite the storm and the order of the day.

 

‘Ah,’ she said as Dakavo stepped off the lift and onto the boardwalk, ‘and I’d started to think you wouldn’t show.’

 

The troll pulled back his upper lip and gave a roll of his eyes. ‘Wi’ de clouds and all, I were t’inkin’ mebbe de transport woul’ call dis fool t’ing off.’

 

Tahuni clapped his shoulder as he passed, and Dakavo’s bones rang with the impact.

 

‘Goblins don’t stop for the weather, Dak.’

 

‘Dat’s from profoun’ lack o’knowledge, though, Tahu, ya know dat.’

 

‘Sounds like an excuse.’

 

‘It is! An’ a good one a’dat!’

 

She gave him a knowing glance as they started up the tower staircase, but he heard no further comment from her. Each of the tauren’s hoof beats rang against the metal slats beneath them. Dakavo’s fingers were in his ears within the first three steps.

 

The roar of the wind refused to be muted, however, along with the groans of the zeppelin itself. Before they’d even stepped out onto the platform, Dakavo had a picture of the machine in his head: its hull splintered and held together with misplaced iron rivets, its gas envelope a patchwork quilt of goblin undergarments painted with a lopsided Horde emblem.

 

As he stepped out of the stairwell onto the open air platform, he found quite a different ship moored up and waiting, but wasn’t particularly comforted. The ship’s gondola was polished and near seamless, the deck thronged with busy goblin crew members, milling around the legs of two tired-looking orc guards in full armour. Thick, knotted rope ran from solid iron fixtures up and over the bulging sides of a giant silk envelope, patched in places, yes, but with more silk rather than pants. It bore a thick leather cap at the front to protect it, and long fins at the back.

 

The whole damn thing rolled in the wind. Not a full barrel roll, not even a pendulum swing: it moved with the determined heave of an angry raptor unused to the saddle. It pitched and strained against the ropes anchoring it to the dock, its hull groaning with each bump against the tower. The sides of the balloon itself undulated like a fish’s fin, like the roll of the sea, with each passing gust. The zeppelin looked alive in the storm.

 

Dakavo knew better than to tangle with a beast that wild. He reached up for Whitewing’s shoulder.

 

‘Tahu, ya t’ink ya seen enough?’

 

She glanced back at him with a flash of irritation in her eyes. ‘We’re boarding.’

 

In the past, Whitewing had made a point of treating master and apprentice as equals, but apparently she rated her will over his today. She strode forward and greeted the captain with a low duck of her head, plaited mane blown every which way by the gale, before Dakavo could make any further comment. A few seconds fretting on the platform and he caved; the captain had fixed him with a critical eye, and he didn’t want to be the yellow-bellied troll who weakened the Darkspear’s reputation.

 

‘I’m wit’ Whitewing,’ he told the captain, a broad-faced goblin with olive skin and a heavily embroidered jacket probably made for a blood elf.

 

The man elbowed the goblin woman next to him in the ribs. She wore a sleeveless shirt in red and orange, her arms decorated from elbow to wrist in thick gold bands. The look she gave the captain was one of pure aggravation.

 

‘What?’

 

‘Rikkit, baby,’ said the captain with a gold-toothed smirk, ‘show this fine fella below deck. And find him a bucket.’

 

She rolled her eyes. ‘Sure thing, Lek. Didja learn to steer without me?’ When the captain snorted at her, she turned her blue-green gaze to Dakavo. ‘C’mon, bigfoot, I don’t got all day.’

 

As she waddled for the nearest doorway he trailed after her, tripping over his own feet with every heave of the deck. Ducking through the low doorframe, he found himself in a wooden stairwell. On her toes, Rikkit peered over the railing at an empty iron hook on the wall.

 

‘Huh. Bucket’s already down there,’ she said. ‘Get after it – go on, scat. I was serious about the captain not knowing how to steer.’

 

‘Hey.’ He grabbed her shoulder as she went to push past him, and earned a venomous look for the contact. ‘Ya sure ya can fly in dis weather?’

 

‘Flying’s easier in this weather, trust me. Wind like this wants our ship in the air. I mean, steering, okay, steering gets shaky, but we can deal. Put your head in the bucket and let us do the rest.’

 

 He stumbled down the stairs with an increasing sense of apathy. Death, it seemed, was a certainty at this point. Why bother worrying?

 

‘More meat for the storm!’

 

The voice reached him as he stepped down from the stairs into an open room below deck. A flash of white too pure to be Tahuni’s coat caught his eye, and he found himself looking at a muscular young orc woman with a broad grin. Her hair, shaved back into a single central plume, was thick with pure white chalk dust. She must have been in here for a while, he surmised, to have completely avoided the rain: her leather harness and loincloth, too, were dry. They were also the only clothes she’d bothered to wear. What with that and her position on an overturned crate, legs set wide, he could see an awful lot of bright green skin.

 

‘Kazra Mangleshot, of the Warsong clan,’ she said, grinning so wide her lips stretched around her fangs. A knock-eared coyote curled at her feet beat the floorboards with its stumpy tail, sharing her humour. ‘You ready to ride this out, Darkspear?’

 

‘Not sure ‘bout dat.’ He ducked to pass a low beam overhead. ‘T’inkin’ dat first t’ing ya said, ‘bout da meat, were more like it.’

 

Kazra wasn’t the only one using a makeshift stool. Crates and a shield in the shape of the Horde crest lined the tapering walls of the room, supporting the weight of an orc in an Orgrimmar tabard, a glum-faced Forsaken apothecary and a Sindorei blood knight, whose frail ears stuck out sideways with displeasure. Only at the very prow of the ship did he find his teacher, perched on an overturned wooden bucket next to the largest tauren woman he had ever seen.

 

He admitted outright that it might have been the armour. While the other passengers largely seemed to be in their civilian clothes, or at least their supple underarmour, in Kazra’s case, Tahu’s companion sat on a splintering crate in full battle steel. Huge plates of metal encased her broad thighs and chest; gauntlets with bladed knuckles reached from colossal three-fingered hands to her elbows; and pauldrons bigger than Dakavo’s torso bore ram’s head carvings. Beside her rested a giant helm with huge curving horns.

 

‘And here’s the troll himself,’ said Tahu, smiling over at Dakavo as though she hadn’t just lured him into an airborne death trap.

 

The other woman’s head swung in his direction. Her nose was longer than Tahuni’s, with sharper, sweeping lines from high brow to flared nostril, but her eyes were the same dark brown. With both sets of those eyes on him, he really couldn’t lock up like this. He staggered toward them and attempted to doctor it into a swagger, with minimal success.

 

‘Ya both ready t’get off dis damn t’ing, den?’

 

‘Get off?’ The new tauren’s voice was far deeper than Whitewing’s – unsurprising, really, considering the difference of girth. She gave a low snort. ‘Another one squalling about the weather, eh?’

 

‘The clouds are not happy, Nokawe,’ said Whitewing. ‘We could wait it out.’

 

The other tauren – Nokawe – shook her head. ‘They wouldn’t fly if it wasn’t safe, Tahu.’

 

‘Ya know dese be goblins, right?’ said Dakavo. He squatted near them and instantly regretted it: as tauren with seats, his companions were now a good three feet up and staring down at him with those identical eyes.

 

‘Goblins, yes.’ Nokawe nodded.

 

‘Da fellas who t’ink wearin’ dynamite in dere pants be a good idea?’

 

‘Predictable goblins.’ Nokawe gave him an aloof, teasing look, the sort Tahuni took on just before a long druidic lecture she knew he’d dislike, and Dakavo wondered fleetingly if the women were related. ‘There are only two types. The kind oblivious to death, and the kind that care about it if it affects them.’ She indicated the deck above them with a shake of her head, and he noticed her long horns had steel tips. ‘I asked the pilot who she would save in a crash. After some evasive blabbering on her part, I told her the answer wouldn’t affect the amount I was willing to pay for travel.’

 

‘An’ she said what?’

 

‘She would save herself, the rest of us be damned.’ Nokawe smirked.

 

Dakavo glowered. ‘Somehow, I’s not feelin’ better ‘bout dis by dat.’

 

‘It was a useful answer.’ She turned her head to fix him with one eye. ‘Means she’s the sort that values her life, at least enough to prioritise it. I don’t believe she would go up in this storm if it was likely to kill her.’

 

‘An’ if we do crash, we know she’s gonna let us burn.’

 

‘So we know better than to rely on her.’

 

The tauren sounded completely serious, though the slight crinkling around her eyes suggested mischief. Dakavo scowled from her to Tahuni, who looked a little less self-satisfied.

 

‘We can’t convince you, then, Noka?’

 

Nokawe shook her head. ‘This is my first leave in years. I’m not wasting it waiting for more ships and less storms, Tahu. At this time of year, I might even heal before I get home.’

 

‘Heal?’ Dakavo cocked a brow.

 

‘Ruined shoulder.’

 

He frowned at both arms, too thickly encased in metal to reveal a thing. ‘Shouldja be wearin’ armour over dat sorta injury?’

 

Her ears flicked. ‘Would you rather I use my injured arm to carry it all? Trust me, druid, it is easier this way.’

 

‘Well den, at least let me heal it for ya-’

 

‘Dakavo,’ said Tahuni, ‘Noka’s leave only lasts until she’s healed up.’ She gave the larger woman a sideways glance. ‘Though I’m not sure how she stopped the healers on the front from dealing with her.’

 

‘Lots of thrashing,’ said Nokawe, grinning. She turned that grin to Dakavo. ‘I’ll use the same against you if I have to.’

 

Eyeing her tree-trunk limbs and steel-edged hooves, he raised his hands in surrender. ‘Don’t worry ‘bout me. We jus’ gotta get off dis t’ing before it goes, me an’ Tahu.’

 

But Tahuni was shaking her head. ‘If Nokawe stays, so do we.’

 

‘You’re too late to leave, anyway,’ said the Horde guard behind him. She was pale skinned and heavy set, with a much broader, older body than Kazra’s and noticeable lines around her eyes. ‘They’re casting off right now.’

 

On cue, the engines at the back of the zeppelin gave a sudden, thunderous splutter. A steadier, still deafening whir set in after that, metal parts grating together until the slow chug of the propeller blades started up outside, cutting through the wind and rain. Rikkit shouted something indistinguishable overhead and, with a lurch that threw Dakavo onto his side, the ship set out over Orgrimmar.

 

On the floor, he stared up at the vibrating wooden planks in the walls. ‘Well, dat’s us damned.’

 

‘Don’t be so pessimistic, boy!’

 

Propping himself up with one hand, Dakavo turned to find the goblin captain – Lek, Rikkit had called him – on the lowest step of the stairs, gold grin blazing. That jacket was definitely elf-intended: all black and red silk with a phoenix embroidered across the lapels. Even bunched up and stitched at the hem and hips, the coat trailed on the ground behind him.

 

‘We’re running brilliantly, as you would expect from the finest of the Bilgewater Cartel, and any naysayers are welcome to come up on deck and see glory for themselves.’

 

The zeppelin gave a sudden lurch and Lek grabbed quickly for the railing, grin never failing.

 

‘I be fine down here, t’ank ya,’ said Dakavo, turning back to the tauren and muttering under his breath, ‘until we crash and burn, dat is.’

 

‘We’ll be fine,’ said Tahu, though he didn’t miss the teacherly tone to her voice – the one she turned to when she wasn’t quite convinced.

 

‘Then enjoy the ride,’ said Lek, turning smartly on his heel and disappearing back upstairs.

 

Nokawe merely tilted back her head, leaning against the wall and shutting her eyes, hooves crossed at the ankles. Within a minute she was snoring.

 

‘Can’t even get ta sleep dat fast in my own bed,’ Dakavo called to Tahu over the increasing growl of the propeller.

 

‘Noka doesn’t mind danger,’ she shouted back. ‘Never has.’

 

He went to enquire further, but by that point the engines and the wind had reached a pitch that drowned out all speech. A quick glance around found the tabard-wearing guard sitting with her arms crossed and shoulders hunched, busily chewing something he was willing to bet she’d bought from his part of town. Like Nokawe, the apothecary appeared utterly unphased by his surroundings, but Kazra sat doubled over on her box. It took him a moment to realise she had her arms around the coyote, rubbing its snout comfortingly as its eyes rolled and teeth flashed.

 

Lurching and jolting with the roll of the zeppelin, Dakavo closed his eyes and tried to recall the transformation into a bat. Back on the Echo Isles he’d failed completely at every sort of shape shifting, but since his lessons with Whitewing he’d managed that particular form once or twice. The real work was in hollowing out his own bones as he changed; on two occasions he’d managed to look the part, only to plummet from a first storey window with wings too heavy to lift. The worst he’d suffered from those drops was a nasty bruise on his hip: if he fell from the zeppelin, he was going to have to do a lot better.

 

A warm, furred, slightly shaky hand grasped his upper arm and Dakavo opened his eyes. Tahuni smiled down at him.

 

‘We’ll be fine,’ she mouthed.

 

He rolled his eyes. ‘I know dat.’

 

She shook her head, disbelieving, and he gave her his best sneer. It softened into a grin as he felt the knot in the pit of his stomach unravelling; with her ears flat and her tail coiled tight around her ankles, it was clear Whitewing was as uncomfortable as he was, and somehow that cheered him. Companionship in suffering, he supposed. That or sweet sadism.

 

Slowly, easing his way across the bucking planks, he crept to the wall and settled back against it. With his long ears against the wood, he could hear the rain battering the other side, but he did his best to ignore it. He didn’t have to like flying. He simply had to endure it. Doing his best to think of the sea breeze, warm sand and the rasp of palm trees, Dakavo closed his eyes and pretended he wasn’t on the verge of throwing up.

 

When he opened his eyes again, it was to a mountainous movement on his left and the shrill sound of goblin voices overhead.

 

‘Pull up, pull up right this minute-’

 

‘No way, no way, we’re too high, come on, descend-’

 

‘I knew it! I knew you couldn’t steer without me! Is there anyone on this whole ship with a clue?’

 

Nokawe stood beside him, brows low and ears wide open, the tips of her horns grating against the ceiling. Across from them, Tahu stared up at her.

 

‘What is it?’

 

Nokawe grunted. ‘Not good.’

 

She snatched up her helm and rammed it on her head, ducking to make room for its tall steel horns. In her right hand she clenched an axe her bulk had concealed completely before.

 

‘Grekka?’

 

She glanced to the guard in the tabard, who gave a curt nod. Nostrils flaring, Nokawe strode for the stairs. The orc followed on her heels, sword and shield in hand.

 

‘Some kinda fight?’ Dakavo blinked groggily at Tahu, whose gaze was fixed on the stairwell.

 

‘I’m not sure,’ she said. ‘We shouldn’t follow. We shouldn’t crowd them-’

 

Even as the words trailed out of her mouth she stood up, hefting her staff. Dakavo heaved himself up beside her.

 

‘We can be discrete, cha?’

 

Her head bobbed in agreement. Together they made their way for the steps, passing the apathetic apothecary and Kazra with her coyote.

 

‘Hey,’ said the young orc. ‘Bring back news.’

 

Dakavo nodded and they ascended the stairs.

 

On deck, the goblins seethed. With an imp at her side, Rikkit quarrelled with Captain Lek in the middle of the chaos, hands wild in mid-argument. Their underlings raced from rope to rope, tightening knots, undoing knots, dropping sandbags, heaving sandbags back on deck and ducking around Nokawe and Grekka, who both stood to one side, staring out.

 

They were inside a cloud. Grey walls of mist pressed in on either side of the zeppelin, so dense the ship’s own wings were shrouded in the gloom. Water plastered Dakavo’s face and everything around him like fine rain, slicking the deck and darkening the silk envelope overhead. The wind seemed to have died down; there was no sign of the static that might precede a lightning storm, but from the distance came a thunderous crack and rumble, sounding at even intervals.

 

Lek and Rikkit seemed to come to an agreement after the fourth booming retort from the mist.

 

‘Lek, I’m gonna turn us about,’ she said, just as he shouted to their crew, ‘Turn about! Now. Now!’

 

Tahuni started out onto the deck toward Nokawe, one hand outstretched. ‘Noka! What’s happening?’

 

Just as the warrior turned around to answer, the cloud cleared. One instant Nokawe stood out against a grey backdrop; the next, she was dwarfed by a colossal outcropping of orange rock, directly in front of the zeppelin and closing fast.

 

‘Knew dis sorta t’ing would happen,’ said Dakavo stupidly, as the knife-sharp inclines of the Stonetalon mountains loomed ahead.

 

‘Up right now!’ Lek bellowed, as though they had a hope in hell.

 

‘On it!’ Rikkit screeched.

 

From the ship’s helm green flames soared: the goblin seared the air with fel fire from one outstretched palm. She wrenched on the zeppelin controls with the other. The sudden updraft raced around everyone on deck, buffeting the envelope overhead. Like an eagle on a thermal, the dirigible soared upward.

 

The gondola lurched at the sudden change, throwing its occupants to the deck: Dakavo’s knees cracked against the boards and Tahu sprawled onto her side ahead of him. A massive axe slid past them, through a gap in the railing and over the side; Nokawe too was down, struggling to prop herself up with what he realised must be her injured arm. With one hand locked around a metal fastening, Grekka grasped the giant tauren’s mane, her fingers catching in the knots of Nokawe’s braids.

 

The crag dropped down and away beneath the zeppelin’s prow. For a second, Dakavo dared to hope they had soared clean over it, but then came the deafening crack of rock against the ship’s polished belly. Wood splintered. The ship lurched, pitched forward until the deck stood near-vertical, with the pitted, rock-strewn mountainside huge before them. Dakavo slid toward the drop, groping for a handhold, for a spell: how did transformation work, again? A clear mind, he needed a clear mind, but the vast expanse of jagged stone eons below engorged every thought. One of the armoured guards slammed, bellowing, into the railing at the prow, grabbed for a rope binding just out of reach, and dropped.

 

Dakavo’s shoulder ground into something solid. Something warm; something stable: Tahuni Whitewing, her close-cropped tauren pelt grown long and shaggy, her short muzzle broad and filled with long teeth. As a horned lioness, she clung to the deck with wicked claws. Dakavo wove his fingers into her fur and held on.

 

The zeppelin lurched again, pitching further forward for a dizzying half-second in which the passengers lifted away from the deck. Open air gaped between them and the ground. A goblin crewman lost his grip on a door frame, flew past Dakavo and Tahuni and smacked into two of his workmates, huddled together against the railing. They fell, just as a colossal crack sounded from the lower decks and the zeppelin broke free. The whole ship swung wildly as it righted itself, propellers clanging noisily against whatever wreck of wood and oil they’d left impaled on the mountainside. Two of the goblin crewmen caught Captain Lek by the arms as he stumbled over the railing and pulled him back on board.

 

‘Babe!’ he shouted up to the helm, where Dakavo spied Rikkit clinging onto the wheel, her imp tangled thoroughly in her hair. ‘You are the bomb!’ Brushing his saviours aside, he raced for the steps leading up to her, coat tails flapping behind him. ‘Bold! Brilliant! Best!’

 

Tahuni transformed beside Dakavo as he looked about. Her muscles shifted and shrank right against his skin as he took in a few more goblin crew members disentangling themselves from ropes, the other armoured guard clinging blank-eyed to the cabin doorway and Nokawe sprawled out on her side, both arms locked around the railing. Grekka still had one hand in the tauren’s mane, but relaxed her grip on hair and rope alike as she eased herself back down onto the deck.

 

Something enormous careened through the air just above her head.

 

Her reactions were quick, but the duck was superfluous: the dark shape never would have hit her. Instead, it crashed through the row of ropes securing the silk envelope to the right side of the gondola so quickly each snap was nigh instantaneous.

 

Dakavo didn’t see what it was, or where it went. The deck dropped again, to the side this time, and the orc woman he’d been watching simply pitched backward over the railing, her eyes wide in surprise. Unlike the guard, Grekka made no sound, simply gaped and disappeared. The shriek that came seconds after could have been hers, but it folded so seamlessly into the sudden pandemonium on deck that Dakavo would never be sure.

 

‘Somebody stop it!’ Lek’s voice, screeching.

 

The gas envelope overhead rippled and started a slow roll to one side without the constricting pressure of the ropes keeping it in place. Seemingly without thought, Nokawe leapt in a flash of tempered steel. The fingers of her heavy gauntlet snapped shut around a thick knot just before it lashed up and out of reach. It hauled her into the air.

 

‘Let go!’

 

It was a pointless thing to say, but Dakavo shouted it anyway. Let go, and plummet with the rest of us.

 

‘Let go! Dat t’ing lifted the lot of us, da whole damn boat, ya can’t stop it!’

 

A sinuous mass of green exploded into being beside him. He leapt aside and his head jerked around in time to see Tahuni channelling all her strength into one of her seed pouches, open and seething in her extended palm. Roots unfurled like riled snakes, as thick around as one of Nokawe’s massive thighs, and in an instant Tahu was on her knees under the weight. She dropped the pouch onto the deck and the roots dug into the floor, forcing wooden planks aside in their quest for purchase. Others rose into the air, reaching up toward the escaping envelope. He saw Nokawe grab hold of one, wrapping it around her injured forearm. For a moment it coiled beneath her, before its trunk thickened enough to bear her weight. She shot out of sight above the rippling silk. Rikkit raced past him, green fire in her hands, and leant over the side where the ropes were still intact.

 

‘Down here!’ she screeched, waving her burning palms. ‘Bring them here!’

 

Nokawe swung back into view right over the goblin’s head. Her supporting root was woven tightly around the injured arm. With the other, she reached up and snagged a handful of trailing feelers, pulling them down and forcing them to wind themselves around the ship’s railing. Wood splintered at either end of the impromptu root canopy. Rails gave way, roots buckled, the envelope writhed overhead: fearless, Nokawe swung lower over the side and directed Tahuni’s creations through the very side of the gondola.

 

Dakavo felt more than heard every impact of the roots as they punched through the ship’s flanks. Everything seemed to buckle. Together, the two tauren women had destroyed the very structure of the dirigible. The deck dipped in places and arched in others, folding in on itself. He didn’t want to imagine what might be going on below deck, but the crunch of shattered wood shoved to the fore an image of the little room he’d just occupied, scrunching up like used parchment, punctured on both sides by giant roots. And then he remembered the people they had left behind.

 

Dakavo turned, blundering over shifting boards, and raced back to the stairwell. The other passengers were still down there: Kazra and her coyote, the apothecary and the knight. Not that the world would miss a Forsaken and an elf, he thought instinctively, only for his stomach to turn at the notion of more death.

 

Still, he only had one name.

 

‘Kazra!’ he shouted into the splintered underbelly of the zeppelin.

 

The stairs were ruined. The crag must have struck just beneath the bottom steps, because the rocky ground flashed by through a gap where wooden planks should have been. Azeroth seemed far too close. Had they really fallen so low? He risked a look upward, where the roots were tightening around their precious balloon. A strip of silk flapped in the wake of escaping air.

 

‘That you, Darkspear?’

 

Dakavo’s head snapped around at the voice, and he squinted down the stairs. There: at the bottom, leaning out over the gap. Her white mohican was strewn with dust and shards of wood. Blood drizzled from a gash in her oiled scalp.

 

He swallowed. Kazra Mangleshot had guts, standing so close to that hole. Now that he could see her, he made out the splintered end of the board that supported her weight. Though he hoped he was imagining things, it looked like it bobbed with every shake of the propeller.

 

‘Sure is,’ he shouted down, finding his voice to be remarkably steady, all things considered.

 

‘Good.’ She ducked out of sight, then reappeared a breath later with the coyote in her arms. It was shivering, ears laid back against its head, tail tucked up against its belly, and Kazra held it like a baby, on its back with its paws curled up against her chest. ‘Take Vrik,’ she called up to Dakavo, hefting the creature higher in her arms. ‘He’s a bloody coward. Can’t take a bit of rampant growth or broken beams or nothing.’

 

‘What ‘bout you?’

 

‘I’m coming too, but I can’t make a jump like that with my arms full of wuss, can I!’ She hoisted the coyote higher, stretching out her arms over her head toward him. ‘Hurry up! This place is a wreck!’

 

Dakavo’s long ears twitched as that odd hissing intensified up above him. Is that a bloody leak? he heard Lek bellow.

 

‘Da whole place is a wreck,’ he called down to Kazra as he made his first step down toward her. ‘I’m tellin’ ya, we’s not long for dese skies.’

 

‘Can’t be as bad as down here.’ Now that he was closer to her, edging his way over splintered stairs, Dakavo could see the tremors in her arms and the glimmer to her eyes, though her grin was fixed and determined. ‘Dunno what you druids were messing at up there, but you got mister Sin’dorei good and proper with them roots.’

 

Now that she mentioned it, he could make out the sharp tang of blood rising from the dust below. Bracing himself against the wall, he pointedly ignored the ground rushing past below.

 

‘I can’t reach any further,’ said Kazra.

 

‘Dat’s okay. I got long enough arms, I be t’inkin’.’

 

Hoping, more like, but it seemed luck, or biology, was for this fleeting moment on his side. He stretched out toward her, one three-fingered hand closing around the scruff of the terrified coyote’s neck. The other clamped against the creature’s ribcage.

 

‘Got ‘im.’

 

‘Alright. Vrik’ha, no biting.’

 

She pushed the coyote across into Dakavo’s arms and he fell back against the wall, grasping the thing to his chest. While it had feigned calm with its companion, it thrashed as soon as it was out of her arms, gouging Dakavo’s chin with its claws. He snatched for its legs, and it growled and snapped its teeth.

 

‘Will ya bloody- will ya stop dat!’

 

There was a thud beside him and there was Kazra, a mithril cuirass and a curved wooden bow clenched in one hand. She arched a brow at Dakavo and covered the coyote’s snout, glaring into its eyes.

 

‘Calm, Vrik.’

 

The coyote gave a low whine.

 

‘Set him down, Darkspear. He’s got good enough legs when there’s no broken stairs involved.’

 

She pushed past them both as Dakavo crouched to free Vrik’ha. The coyote was quick to follow, with Dakavo right behind him. Up top, it was clear the closeness of the ground through the hole in the stairs had been no illusion: they were well beneath the tops of the mountains now, careening uncomfortably close to the cliffside. One of the remaining goblin crewman clung to the underside of the gas envelope, trying to patch a tear with what looked like the captain’s jacket. Tahuni tended to her vines, urging their bark to soften before it did more damage, while Lek and Rikkit manned the helm together, their beady goblin eyes trained dead ahead.

 

‘Lek!’ Nokawe bellowed. The tauren warrior was still hanging over the side by the thickest root, overseeing the ruin of the lower decks to save the gas balloon overhead. ‘We need to land. The bow is giving out!’

 

‘We’re not gonna land, toots,’ Rikkit shouted back.

 

‘Yeah,’ said Lek, ‘it’s gonna be a helluva crash!’

 

‘After all this effort?’ Whitewing turned on them suddenly, fists clenched, and stormed up toward the helm. Dakavo had never seen her so angry. The tendons stood out from her neck; her eyes blazed. She stopped just on the other side of the wooden wheel, glaring down at Lek and Rikkit, who hunkered back. ‘We did all this, and you can’t land the damn thing?’

 

‘Well, no,’ said Lek. ‘There’s no tower.’

 

‘And even if there was,’ said Rikkit, ‘how’d you expect us to see it ‘round your big tauren butt?’

 

Tahu started, eyes wide.

 

‘Yeah, it’s kinda like y’want us to crash quicker, toots,’ said Lek. He gave a casual shrug.

 

The zeppelin struck the cliff face. The rock chewed up the starboard bow as they scraped along it, throwing splintered wood up onto the deck. Nokawe gave a surprised bray at the impact; it knocked her, spinning, out over empty space, before the root pulled tight and hauled her back. She smashed into the side of the ship at just the right height for her head to hit one of the big metal hooks protruding from the railing. Blood splattered from her visor over Dakavo and Kazra: the orc stumbled backward and fell over Vrik’ha, nearly taking Dakavo down with her, but he struggled free and lurched toward the tauren.

 

‘Noka!’

 

Tahu raced down the stairs as the troll grabbed Nokawe’s root and tried to haul both back onto the deck. She was far too heavy, hanging slack by her wrenched arm with blood trailing from her helm and breastplate. He doubted he could have pulled her on board if he was tauren himself. But there was Tahu at his side, beckoning to the plant. It wound a loop around her arm, as though unsure of her will, but a few mumbled words sent it on its way, drawing Nokawe skyward. He grabbed her shoulder as soon as she was within reach and hauled her on deck, but another rumble shot through the zeppelin. Purple light flashed at the helm, where Lek and Rikkit dug in their heels and braced themselves.

 

‘Here it comes!’

 

The other impacts had been nothing compared to this. The lower deck boomed into oblivion, and the broken remnants of the zeppelin skimmed and smashed over the ground, the prow tearing up and showering them with wrecked wood. Dakavo clung to the two tauren women, felt Kazra grasp his ankle. The ship ploughed straight into an enormous boulder, and like that the deck just seemed to stop and drop away: the four of them catapulted into the air, rock and sand and wood and sky and metal blurring together in one surely fatal mass as gravity fought back momentum and Dakavo felt them drop.

 

He also felt feathers push out through the pelt of his teacher. Her whole body thickened, fattened, and vast antlers sprouted from her head just as her nose hardened into a beak. Tahuni Whitewing drew them all atop her moonkin body. When they hit the ground, it was through her bones and muscle. Her ribs gave with a deafening crack, and that was the last sound Dakavo registered before he bounced end over end and crashed into the dirt.

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