Previously: The Art of War
They had been traveling through a thick, cool mist for several hours, although Akabeko had been hiding belowdecks to avoid the odd tingling sensation of it swimming around her face. Plus, it made her mane dewy. The journey had been uneventful, and she had spent most of it doing chores or chatting with Weipon as they toured the airship. Of her guildmates, Katza was also among the crew, but seeing as Akabeko was still in hot water with the forsaken, she had wisely avoided her. Hadakha had sadly been placed on another of the initial assault ships.
The mystery of Weipon's barking backpack had been solved, in the form of a strange little dog the pandaren called Fu. She had also played her string instrument, the hard-to-pronounce sanxian, and told Akabeko about her many compositions. All the songs were in pandaren, but Akabeko could appreciate the instrument's twang and Weipon's husky alto.
Suddenly, she heard shouts from above, a current of sound that raced through the corridors to alert those aboard. The distant sound of cannon fire was immediately followed by a cry outside her door.
"Alliance ship sighted! Begin aerial assault!"
Akabeko stumbled from her bunk into the hallway, leaving the book she had been reading forgotten on the floor. Others were emerging from their rooms, and together the group rushed to defend the ship. General Nazgrim's voice carried down to them from the main deck, shouting orders that were relayed by ship officers. Akabeko strode to one of the cannons along the weapon deck and began to load ammo for the troll who was firing the gun.
"I'm so glad I found you! What's going on?" Weipon appeared beside her, looking around in anxious confusion.
Akabeko hefted another cannonball and answered without turning, "An alliance ship was spotted. We're trying to kill them before they kill us." This was punctuated by a spectacular crash further down the ship, causing the deck to shiver.
Without being directed, Weipon grabbed a cannonball and loaded it into the cannon. "Well, let's definitely make sure it's not us!"
Another impact rocked the airship, but this was followed by a massive explosion and panicked shouts. The ship spun sickeningly to the side, sending Akabeko into Weipon into the wall. Akabeko's stomach flipped uncomfortably as the ship began to descend rapidly. "Oohh, this is just fantastic," Akabeko said, gritting her teeth as the ship shuddered and scudded through the air towards a likely unforgiving landing.
Weipon looked sharply at her. "Aka, how can you say that at a time like this? There's nothing fantastic about crashing!" She clambered to her feet, standing unsteadily on the rocking floor.
"Okay, consider that your first lesson in sarcasm. You won't like Orcish if you don't understand the sarcasm. When I said it was fantastic, my tone of voice indicated that I meant the opposite of fantastic."
Weipon's following question was interrupted by shouts of "Land, ho!" from above. This was followed by General Nazgrim bellowing for the engineers to coast them into something soft, and for soldiers to prepare for a crash landing.
Akabeko motioned for Weipon to follow her and headed for their bunks. "In the event of a crash landing, we may want parachutes. And supplies."
They separated to quickly grab their gear. Weipon had donned her armor, leather like Akabeko's, but of a shape and design so unusual that the tauren couldn't help but stare.
"Do you not like my helm?" the pandaren asked, noticing her scrutiny.
"No, it's just...unusual. I like the horns, though. Nice touch."
Weipon wrinkled her nose. "That's not sarcasm, is it?"
This elicited a laugh. "No, I meant that. That was my sincere voice." Akabeko led the way back to the gun deck, weaving through the thickening crowd as soldiers returned for their belongings. "Also, and I mean this in the nicest possible way, it's possible that your dog and your sanxian will not survive the crash. Some of the soldiers may not even make it."
Standing on the gun deck, Weipon looked out into the rapidly approaching treetops. "That's war," she said somberly.
At the last moment, Akabeko realized that had not been sarcasm and refrained from complimenting her new friend on such deadpan delivery.
Over the ship's crackling intercom, an engineer announced, "Prepare for impact! Reaching tree line in 3...2..."
The rasping sound of hundreds of branches catching and scraping along the sides of the ship was deafening. Soldiers clustered around the edge of the deck, anxiously awaiting a safe moment to jump free. Then, the ship suddenly and unexpectedly stopped moving. There was an awkward silence while the crew waited for something terrible to happen. General Nazgrim's barking laughter cut through the moment, and then there were loud calls for rope, and soldiers began to rappel into the forest.
"Well, that's a relief!" Weipon exclaimed, sharing a pleased look with Akabeko.
A nearby tattoo of gunfire sent the soldiers into panic anew. "Give them cover!" General Nazgrim roared.
Akabeko jumped on a nearby turret gun, peered into the sight, and opened fire. "Of course they would have gyrocopters," she grumbled. "Wei, could you cover ammo for me?" She looked away from the sight in order to point at where a stack of magazines waited beside the gun. Across the deck, something exploded, and then Weipon was gone, knocked screaming from the deck.
Oddly calm, Akabeko ran to where Weipon had been thrown from the ship and jumped after her without hesitation, transforming into a stormcrow and diving after the falling pandaren. The combination of danger-fueled adrenaline and the joy of her many forms was exhilarating, and she felt her heart swell. She screeched in sheer pleasure as she finally reached her friend, reaching out to grasp her in an enormous talon... Wait, what? Weipon fit comfortably in the crook of one golden talon. Akabeko must have been larger than a wyvern, even the ones in the wild! She squawked in confusion, flapped haphazardly, then regained her coordination and coasted to the ground. She gently released the stunned Weipon to the grassy forest floor, then glided to a perch nearby to further assess herself.
Stormcrow was a form that Akabeko had mastered late in her training, but she knew it as intimately as she knew her other forms. All of them were her own body, and she could not recall a time when her stormcrow body was as big as a horse. Tentatively, she spread her wings, watching in fascination as the tips extended several meters away from her. Her talons absently kneaded the branch where she was perched, accidentally snapping the bark and sending Akabeko plummeting to the ground. She expected to coast gracefully to Weipon, but her wings were gripped with intense, shooting pain from shoulder to tip, and she instinctively curled them back against herself. Now, not only was she falling, but she could also feel herself shrinking, and that wasn't right, because all of her bodies were one body, and being one was the same as being another, and she wasn't supposed to feel her body change... She smashed into the dirt beside Weipon.
She woke to Weipon gently shaking one shoulder and something nuzzling the other. "That had better be Fu," she croaked without opening her eyes. That earned an energetic bark in response. "How long was I out?"
"Only a few moments," Weipon said, helping the tauren sit up. "My druid history is a little rusty, but I don't think I've ever heard of a stormcrow as big as the one I just saw. Although it was incredible how you changed back!"
Akabeko looked at her wing - no, her hand, it was definitely a hand now, and tried to transform back into a stormcrow. Nothing happened. (Not again.) She looked at Weipon, the picture of serenity. "No, stormcrows are not supposed to be that big. That was definitely not normal."
"That crash landing went pretty well," Weipon said, grinning. She waited, watching her friend's face, then frowned. "Aka, that was supposed to be sarcasm."
Next: The Sha Manifests