The rolls of canvas over the archway tickled Pebble's hair as he passed the threshold. Inside, orange spires danced with ebony shadows and the smell of burning charcoal met intruders like a sentry. Pebble took one more deep breathe, then stood at attention, waiting to be called.
Six stately figures ringed a square-topped table in the center of the tent. Some stroked tussled beards or matted fur. Others pressed and twisted their hands, massaging their tired sinews. In the center, one lone individual was dragging his fingers along a parchment, wrestling with the mysteries he found in the craggly lines that made a map.
At last, Thrall looked up. Pebble thought he noticed a sign of recognition in the Warchief's eyes, but soon it sank beneath a somber brow.
“Come in, Pebble. Stand easy.”
“Yes, master.” Pebble tried to relax his chest muscles, but still found himself uncomfortably rigid.
“Is this the exploding fellow, or the catapult-maker?” asked a creaky voice somewhere in the darkness.
“No, Drek'thar,” said another, younger voice. Pebble could just make out Naz'grel, the Captain of the Guard, arms folded into his chest, studying him with an impatient expression. “They'll be in later. This is the sailor.”
“A sailor!” The old orc snorted unpleasantly. “Haven't we all had enough of the sea?”
“Maybe we have.” A heavy troll voice split the gloom. Pebble peered to the back of the tent and saw Vol'jin, the Darkspear chief, leaning carelessly back in his chair. “But the Kul Tiras haven't. Their supply ships arrive daily, and they raid the coast where they please. We have to spread our lines thin as swamp reeds to guard against ambushes.”
A slow groan seemed to come from the center of the Earth, but Pebble traced it to a figure sitting beside Vol'jin. “A sad fact, I agree,” said Cairne Bloodhoof, chieftan of the taurens, “but a fact nonetheless. Proudmoore and his cursed followers are sea peoples, and we are not.”
“Perhaps,” said a voice Pebble had never heard before. A strange face appeared next to Thrall's shoulder. The top was covered by a mask. The chin that jutted forward was similar to an orc's, but darker and broader. The stranger was taller even than Pebble. “Let's hear what this warrior has to say.”
“Don't get your hopes up, Rexxar.” Naz'grel shook his head with a sneer. “There's a reason you don't recognize this wretch. He was the pilot for our fleet when we first came to Kalimdor. Many noble souls lay on the reefs of the Great Sea because of him.”
“It was a difficult task,” Thrall said sternly. “Pebble was not dishonored by what happened.”
“Maybe not,” said Naz'grel. “But he did not win any honor by it, either. Where's he been ever since? Lives like a hermit, so they say. Sulks over his failure. It's clear he blames himself, so I'm not inclined to argue with him. Like as not, he's only here because the Warchief called for warriors, then he'll slink back away, just as he did after the Battle of Mount Hyjal.”
“A hermit and a warrior?” Rexxar smiled under his mask. “I like him already. Speak up, then. What's your plan to break this stalemate?”
Pebble tried to clear his throat, but the phlegm tumbled clumsily down his mouth until he finally had to cough, then swallow. “Masters,” he addressed them gravely. “Give me workers and I will build a shipyard, then two warships, then enough transports to ferry a landing party up to the Kul Tiras base.”
Drek'thar guffawed. “I can see far, but I can't see to the end of the Alliance fleet. Proudmoore will swallow your ships without a belch.”
“He won't, master.” Much to his own surprise, Pebble did not stammer as he corrected the oldest, wisest orc in the Horde. “Admiral Proudmoore is a great sailor, but he's an arrogant man. He doesn't believe we would dare attack him by sea. He's planned for a land assault, and all his defenses are vulnerable because of it.”
Thrall cut off anyone who thought of objecting. “Explain.”
Pebble felt a knot in his stomach, as if he was going into battle. “Last night, my friend Yo'jin and I took soundings off Tidefury Cove under cover of darkness. It's a good harbor, but it's very shallow. Proudmoore can't bring his big battleships in to support the beach defenses.”
“Even if that's true, he can still bring in his smaller vessels,” said Rexxar. “They'll rip your ships apart like a wolf pack.”
“Not if we keep between the mainland and the rocky island, the one with all the turtles on it.” Pebble felt his feet bringing him closer inside the circle. “The channel is very narrow there. They can't fit more than two frigates into the opening. If they challenge us, it'll have to be on even terms. I've designed a new type of sloop that's sleek and fast. It'll be a tough fight, but worth it. Proudmoore hasn't even fortified his base from the seaward side. An attack there will send him reeling.”
“While we attack from the front,” Thrall commented, studying his map again. “Sound strategy.”
“If our boats don't bash one another to pieces before they reach the enemy,” Naz'grel yawned. “It's too big a risk.”
Thrall turned to Rexxar. “You'll be leading the attack. What do you think?”
The strange creature rubbed his chin. At last, he spread both arms in the air, resigning himself to a distasteful decision. “Even if it is a fool's errand, Proudmoore won't be able to risk his rear. He'll have to siphon off soldiers to defend it. If this orc reaches the beaches, we'll crack their defenses like an egg. If he fails, we'll have a better chance in the frontal assault.”
“You'll still have to find someone to lead this sorry bunch,” Naz'grel spat. “None of my officers will do it.”
“We'd be honored to command the ships, Warchief,” Pebble practically shouted. “My friend and I.”
Vol'jin hissed. “His friend is half insane. He was raised by a family of fisherfolk who lived on their boats. I'll wager than Yo'jin never stepped on dry land until he'd seen twenty summers.”
“It's a job for sailors, master,” Pebble said with an iron tone. “Yo'jin and I are the only ones you have.”
The assembly was stunned by this outburst, but Rexxar was not easily distracted. “Very well,” he said. “There's a shaman who's been accompanying me on my travels. Another hermit. Ma'grek's his name. He'll command the warriors who make the landing.”
“It's settled then,” Thrall said confidently, then grew a smile unlike his usual grimace. “Who knows? Maybe at the end of this battle, we'll have the beginnings of our own Horde Navy.”
Amidst much laughter and back-slapping, Pebble grit his tusks.
The Seawolf's crew crouched along a rocky hilltop, arrayed in two lines stacked in a semicircle. Pebble stood at the center, staring, with everyone else, at the jet black ribbon of trees. The howling had stopped just a few feet beyond the visible brush. Now the twilight had come and gone, and everyone in the company knew something was about to begin.
Cicadas argued in the night air, but there was no other sound. Twice a low rumbling laughter arose from the left flank, where Yo'jin had command. Pebble wished the irascible troll would quit his joking, but he knew his friend's clever jibes had a way of calming his warriors, so he said nothing. Ma'grek, by contrast, stood still and oddly serene on the right flank. If not for the staff and shield held at the ready in his hands, he would have looked like a picket on an ordinary night's guard duty.
Pebble lifted his head and cried into the nearby treetops. To preserve the company's night vision, he had ordered that no torches be lit. The solitary orange dots that struck up over their heads cast a fiery glow. Orsha's archers had readied their burning arrows. Pebble imagined their bows trembling in their hands.
Fifteen shooting flames traced an arc in the night. They did not touch the earth, but lodged into tree trunks, where their fires crackled into bands of flickering light. The crew of the Seawolf strained their eyes, but could see nothing but the twisting wood and drooping vines of the jungle.
“For crying out loud!” called Pebble. “Swallow us up, or go away! Your sloth offends us!”
Even the cicadas hushed. The still tropical air bathed them like a flood.
When the first thoughts of rest were forming in the warriors heads, the howl came again. It was perfect in it's shrill obscenity, splitting the indifferent night with it's hungry rage.
“For the Horde!” cried Pebble. “Lok tar Ogar!”
Through their legs, they felt the pulsing of hundreds of footfalls. Howls were met by howls as the nameless things hurled themselves toward the lines of warriors.
The patches of light made by the searing arrows gave way to an ocean of shadow. Pebble could just discern thick pairs of shoulders topped by sharp-pointed horns.
Orsha's first true volley hissed in the branches above. Pebble listened for the telltale sound of tumbling wounded warriors, but heard none.
The fastest of the attackers broke over the crew like a wave over a seawall. The first line checked them with shields and polearms, the enemy's gnashing teeth and dull axes slashing at mostly empty air. The second line made the counterattack. Blades of every description flew in killing blows any place there was an opening, pushing back against the endless stream of horrors.
“It can't be,” Pebble said to himself as a metal and wood vessel fell at his feet. The horns were not part of the attackers as he had supposed, but ornaments on broad helmets of a familiar design. Pebble's amazement slowed the progress of his sword, but only a little. He thrust the thick blade forwards and up, prying the head of one of the things from it's very shoulders. Catching it with his free hand, Pebble held it into the dim light and studied it quickly.
To his amazement, an orc skull with empty sockets stared back at him. “Undead!” the captain called to his crew. “Forget their guts! Take away their limbs, then hack them to as many pieces as you can manage!”
The skull in his hand tried to bite him, but he punted it into the forest with his boot. For an experiment, Pebble brought his broadsword down on a nearby attacker, splitting it's helmet in two and clearing a swathe down to the orc ghost's spine. The skeletal trunk just kept coming.
“Orsha!” cried Pebble as he leveraged his blade into the attacker's collar bone until the ribcage popped into two pieces. “Come down! Your arrows are no use here!”
Shimmying on vines to slow their fall, the archers leapt into the melee with axe and knife. They plugged the holes that formed as members of the crew fell to infernal hands. The center was in a desperate state. The undead orcs seemed to replace themselves from a bottomless well of shrieking skeletons. Pebble shored up the gaps in the lines as fast as he could, but it was clear they would not hold for long.
“Close formation!” he commanded. “Begin the withdraw!”
As Orsha drew up beside Pebble, Yo'jin and Ma'grek led their lines backward until the flanks met. The whole crew was in a tight circle, stumbling and crashing into each other, but supporting one another's attacks and sealing their backs in an unbroken wall of armor and muscle. In the center, Pebble and the rest of the officers shouted and pushed, trying as best they could to keep order. Sometimes they marched slowly over the uneven rocky ground in the direction of the Seawolf. Sometimes they stopped to close the gaps that inevitably broke in the circle. Haltingly, clumsily they made their way until they felt sand and shells beneath their feet again.
The crew was taking no more casualties, but their arms were getting heavier and their cries of challenge were now accompanied by frothy white streams of spittle. Though falling by the dozens, the undead orcs found fresh recruits from the darkness. Pebble knew they'd be overrun if the battle kept on this way.
Ma'grek's bright blue bolts were flashing against the night sky. The bones of screaming undead warriors singed into nothing, carpeting the ground with a thick layer of ash. Even with his victories, the shaman looked ready to flee. “This is worse than I feared,” he cried when Pebble was close enough to hear. “I sense there is some great evil at the root of this.”
“There'll be time to talk about that later,” Pebble rumbled. “Your magic is our best weapon right now. Use it to cut a hole to the Seawolf. It's just a dash across the beach. Take Orsha's team and move as fast you can. Yo'jin and I will follow in the rear.”
Ma'grek's eyes were filled with blue flame, but Pebble could still read his expression. “Don't argue,” the captain growled. “Go!” He left his second mate to organize his party, charging to the far end of the circle.
The undead were close to breaching the lines of warriors. Crossing his old dagger against his new cutlass, Yo'jin make a crude pair of shears and began cutting down the legs of howling skeletons. The ghost orcs kept up their racket, but instead of attacking, they could only flail their stumps. “This is inconvenient,” the troll muttered.
Orsha was having less success adapting her tactics. The huntress used two axes when arrows failed her, but the short weapons allowed the skeletons to get closer than she would have liked. “We'll be overrun if this keeps. . .”
“Go with Ma'grek!” Pebble called, joining the fray. “Follow the blue lights.”
“The Seawolf's no shelter from this!” Orsha answered. “These demons will hack a hole in the hull as if it were made of butter.”
“Obey your captain!” Pebble snapped. Reluctantly, Orsha rallied her team. She conferred with Ma'grek, addressing him with only a little of her customary disgust.
Yo'jin's light blades were getting chipped and dulled by frequent clashes with the undead's battle axes. “Do you know how I'm coping with the prospect of almost certain doom, captain?”
Pebble shredded two skeletons with one swipe of his sword. “I can't wait to hear.”
“I'm thinking of my dock,” said Yo'jin, parrying another blow. “My nice, quiet dock and all it's fish and sunshine and. . .” with a deft counterstroke, he sheered off a skeleton's hand and kicked it's axe across the ground, “and, to my admittedly imperfect recollection, not one flesh-hungry ghoul.”
“I admit,” said Pebble, caving in a bony face with the butt of his broadsword. “That sounds pretty good about now.”
The sounds of battle faded behind their backs. Pebble counted to ten inside his head, then called to the warriors who were left. “Follow me!” A rough wedge formed through the undead ranks with Pebble at it's tip. In the distance, Ma'grek's energy blasts marked their path, as if a small, blue sunrise came and went every few seconds. The Seawolf's planks seemed to scowl at them from it's far off resting place.
Pivoting on his heels, Pebble raised his sword over his head and roared a warning to any ghost who hoped for easy prey. The flood of skeleton orcs charged him from every angle. Spinning as quickly as his tall frame could manage, Pebble never let his sword stop moving. The thick steel blade twisted in his wrists, tracing a compass around it's owner, sending pieces of bone and armor in every direction. He kept his momentum until he thought his head would fail, then he kept it just a little more. At last, as dizziness overcame him, Pebble felt himself careening to the earth. Letting himself bounce off the sand, he rolled back onto his feet.
Axes and teeth found homes in Pebble's flesh, but he kept running. Two of the undead orcs clutched at his hair and tried to anchor him so the others could catch up, but Pebble managed to rend their limbs with his sword. The chaotic chase ran on and on until finally the sounds of breaking waves signaled that Pebble was almost home.
Orsha, bleeding from her forearms, had reformed the crew into a half circle around the Seawolf's hull. All of them carried a heavy aspect on their faces, but they cheered Pebble as he breached the line. Once again, the tidal wave of howling undead crashed into the crew, and the frantic dueling continued as if it had never been interrupted.
Ma'grek balanced himself on the ship's railing like a circus performer, hurling tumbling lightning balls into the masses below. The black shapes of the numberless skeleton army filled the beach. If the Seawolf could sail on darkness alone, it would have risen on that tide.
Yo'jin was guiding a handful of warriors up the gangplank, where they sought healing potions or built defenses along the deck. For the first time, Pebble noticed that the whole crew was crowding around that point, waiting to race up to the Seawolf when the time was right.
“Strike the plank!” Pebble called, still panting from his chase across the beach. “Bring it down, Yo'jin! Don't let any more up!”
The crew knew the ship would offer only a little safety, but the beach offered none. “You heard the order,” Yo'jin barked. Pebble hoped he was the only one who saw that the troll was draped in false confidence. As the party filed down, they pulled their collars high or their caps low so the rest of the company wouldn't see how pale they'd become. Like a dying beast, the gangplank hit the sand in a puff of dust. The crew drew their line to plug the holes.
Ma'grek collapsed on the railing. He still gave orders to the few, mostly wounded warriors on the deck, but he was too exhausted for more thunder bolts.
“Orsha!” Pebble cried. “Light your arrow!”
The third mate's face contorted in equal parts confusion and despair.
“Do it! And your archers too!”
The crescent of green and blue flesh bulged inwards where the undead horde was thickest. Arms too tired to strike back anymore clasped nearby shoulders to hold the line. A chorus of pitiful groans echoed off the Seawolf's hull.
Poor flickering tongues licked lamely at a dozen arrowheads.
Pebble shrieked as if addressing the stars behind the clouds. “Thrak! Let fly!”
A strange mewing sound fell on them as, from some unseen perch, unguessed at by any but Pebble, thick tauren muscles uncoiled and pushed a heavy burden into the air. A piece of the sky broke off against the struggling moonlight. Orsha, roused by some battle instinct, sent her fiery bolt into the air. The arrowhead clapped onto a wooden surface and both came tumbling to the earth.
The powder keg shattered when it connected with the ground. Flame and bone shards challenged the masts for height. A swathe of upturned sand stretched where a battalion of ghost warriors once stood.
“Again, Thrak!” Pebble cried. “Don't let them rest!”
Apparently more confident in himself, Thrak shot two more barrels out in quick succession. Multiple arrows lodged their heads into the round planks. Twin plumes of fire tore through the skeleton ranks.
“Push back, now!” Pebble held his sword in weary hands like a quarterstaff, beating back axe after axe. “Rally on me! Follow, you limp-tongued dogs!”
At first, the crew was still. Many of them only stood at all because they leaned on their fellows. But as they watched Pebble claw his way into the flailing skeletons, the fires of the powder blazing over his head, the strongest among them found the will to lurch forward. Soon the crescent became another wedge with Pebble at it's tip.
The shrieking ghouls were still ferocious, but now their mass was hollow in places. The wedge tore through the fray like the prow of a ship. Ma'grek's blue flame flashed again behind their backs. After a few seconds, Pebble turned their progress back towards the Seawolf. Yo'jin had restored the gangplank and organized the rest of the warriors into a fresh line. Pebble's team joined them like a hammer against an anvil.
More skeletons had fallen in a few seconds than in the entire battle on the hill or the flight to the ship. Thrak and Orsha had fallen into a rhythm that sent crashing fireballs into the air every few seconds. The crew had finally lost their fear of the enemy, and with the joy only a warrior can feel, they swung their weapons in arcs as wide as their arms could stretch, crunching piles of bone beneath their feet as they went.
The ocean pulled at Pebble like a desperate lover as he climbed the pylons onto the dock. His pores were giddy with saltwater, save for the streaks on his back where a Kul Tiras marine had struck him. Only a loincloth covered his body now that the fine leather armor he once wore was beneath the bright, tropical waves. The heavy folds would have exhausted Pebble had he'd tried to carry it through his long swim. His return to the shipyard seemed to require a celebratory “whoop,” which startled the few goblins who were in earshot.
“Lower those booms,” Pebble called to the foreman. “The invasion of Theramore depends on this battle. Rexxar, Champion of the Horde is fighting for his life over that horizon. You'll answer to your masters if he dies for lack of ships.”
He did not pause to see how the workers reacted. A makeshift armory stood at the end of the dock. The next leg of his journey would begin there.
“Are you the grunt they call Pebble?”
Two female eyes flashed before him, holding themselves high and defiant. To Pebble's amusement, they also strained obviously against the temptation to fall on his mostly naked body.
“They call me 'Captain' here,” Pebble said, wrapping a bandage around his wounds. “It's not official, but Rexxar allows it.”
A fleeting look of contempt crossed the female's face before she could suppress it. “Naz'grel sent me with these reinforcements,” she said, gesturing to a troop of wolf riders who sat on the shore. “I am Orsha.”
“Glad to have you with us,” said Pebble, already choosing from among a rack of hand weapons. “We've been fighting for hours with no help. Rexxar's been hiring mercenaries from the islands to steel the ranks.”
Orsha became noticeably relieved as he pulled a new jerkin over his torso. “May I ask after the situation at the front?”
“Better than expected,” Pebble said, gauging the balance of a curved polearm. “Proudmoore's learned nothing from Tidefury Cove. For some reason, Old Starchbreeches is keeping his ships dispersed between the islands. The Alliance scum fight like devils, but we can beat them as long as they stay scattered.”
“How are our forces deployed?”
Pebble snapped a belt in place and gathered his new arms. “Their dwarves have artillery everywhere there's dry land, and their ships stay close to the cannon towers, so they can support one another. Our vessels overwhelm the sea powers in detail, then the warriors storm the beaches to clear out the land powers. Rexxar calls it 'island hopping.'”
“Somehow that's not a name that inspires confidence.” Orsha strode beside him along the dock. “I've never heard of this strategy before.”
“This battle is unlike any that's been fought before,” said Pebble. “We don't have many sailors, so we can only stand up a single squadron. When a ship is sunk, every member of the crew has to make their own way back to this shipyard. As soon as possible, we board the next ship to disembark. Here.”
Pebble reached down at a pile of rucksacks and tossed it to her. The canvas sang with jingling glass.
“What is it?”
“Healing potions. Speed elixirs. A few other goodies.” Pebble loaded his own pockets with bottles. “Break them out after your first shipwreck.”
Orsha winced. “First?”
“I've been in seven ships since this battle began,” said Pebble. “Load your warriors on one of the transports. I'll be taking command of one of those cursed juggernauts. Awkward beasts, but they get the job done.”
“I've never been in command of a ship,” Orsha said shyly.
“When we make the passage, stick close to your escort,” said Pebble. “If there's trouble, you'll do fine. It's just like a land battle, when you get the hang of it.”
Breaking into a run, Pebble left her to contemplate her uncertain fate. At the new juggernaut, he vaulted over the railing. The smell of welded metal still filled the air. All over the ship, sailors fresh from the sea were clamoring to their stations, stowing equipment and checking their weapons. Their faces were stretched like masks, etched by the lines of battle after battle. By now, they were confident in their abilities. The preparations had become routine, but still the crew waited patiently on the inevitable inspection of their captain.
“What is this?” Pebble roared.
The ship was suddenly still. Warriors' hands clenched around sword hilts and machine handles, ready for action. They all knew life and death might follow on their captain's next words.
Hearty, guttural laughter filled the hull, from the hold to the upper decks. A clipped, rasping orc ballad echoed off the juggernaut's rounded steel.
Soon the goblin builders were ready. The clumsy ship plodded through the water, barely keeping upright in the waves. Orsha's transport fell in behind.
Pebble stood on the bridge, wedged between two goblin helmsmen. The ocean lay under his feet, beckoning his weary limbs over the horizon. All around he could hear the buzz of a brave, confident crew, all of them thirsty like desert beasts, ready to slake themselves on victory.
When the sun finally rose over the whispering waves of the South Sea, crabs and gulls were picking through the chalky remains of the ghost army.
“Remember the day we met, Orsha?” Pebble sat cross-legged on the sand, munching on a slice of bread. The rest of the crew was splayed beside him, waiting patiently for Ma'grek to work on them with his healing magics. Everyone was strangely tranquil, considering the last of the gruesome host had been dispatched only an hour before.
Orsha, though still in her light armor, was sunning herself on a fallen log. “That was a good day,” she purred. “I remember leading my riders off the boat, trying to chase down a mortar team before they blew us to the next life. We came through the clearing, and there we saw the dwarves already torn to shreds by this raging, furry monster. I thought that the Burning Legion had returned.”
Pebble chuckled. “Misha was a sight to see.”
“A sight and a half,” Orsha agreed. “Rexxar said he encountered her in Ashenvale, but I never saw a bear that big in all my time there.”
Throwing away a moldy bit of crust, Pebble reached into a bag that had been left by Yo'jin and pulled out a bottle of blue liquid. With a whistle, he tossed it to Ma'grek. The shaman was visibly tired, but he still saluted his captain with the mouth of the bottle before turning it upside down and gulping it empty.
“Of course I remember you taking command of the last sloop.” Orsha sat up and studied Pebble. “I'd seen the spikes along the deck, but I never dreamed they could actually be used to ram an enemy ship. It seems a rash decision when I think of it. I think I'd disobey your orders now if you told me to gather the crew in a transport and leave you alone.”
“Careful,” the captain said sternly. “You know what the punishment will be for disobeying orders in the new Horde Navy?”
Orsha gave him a mocking scowl. “Dragged into the trees and forty slaps to the rump?”
“How'd you guess?” asked Pebble. “Though I shudder at the day I have to do it to Thrak.”
Orsha's laughter had a musical quality that Pebble enjoyed.
“We defeated the greatest navy in the world that day,” he drawled, lowering his head to the sand. “We were proud warriors, bringing honor to ourselves and to the Horde.”
Orsha grinned. “It was your inspiring words, captain. 'Like fighting on the land, when you get used to it.'”
“You were a land-bound wolf tick back then,” said Pebble, prodding her with his foot. “I had to say something to build your confidence.”
“You misremember,” said Orsha. “I was perfectly at ease from my first hour at sea.”
The crew couldn't help overhear, and those who were at the Battle of Theramore laughed at the joke.
“Seriously,” said Pebble. “What happened to us since that day?”
“Thrill of battle, captain,” Orsha said. “Just like being drunk on Pandaren brew. Now we're awake and rubbing away our headaches.”
“Maybe so.” Pebble looked gloomily at the glowing waters of the ocean, still orange from sunrise. “Enough reverie. We have work to do.”
“Why not let the company rest awhile?” said Orsha. “There's still pig meat from yesterday. The repairs to the ship will wait until after lunch.”
Pebble mulled the suggestion, then finally grunted his assent. Resting his neck against an empty leather pouch, he stretched his weary muscles and was ready for a doze when a shadow fell over his face.
Yo'jin stood somberly above him. “I'm doing my best,” Pebble growled. “Your dock is not growing legs. It will not race off to the Barrens to join the gazelle if I rest awhile.”
“My dock is further away then you know, captain.” The skinny troll reached behind his back and pulled forward the orc child from the day before. “This varmint sprang from the hold at sunup. I chased him half a league down the beach before I caught him.”
Orsha hissed between her teeth. “Stupid child! Can't you see the skeletons are all gone.”
“Let me go!” the boy cried, beating his free hand against Yo'jin's grip. “We have to be away from here. No time to lose.”
“Shush, child.” Pebble stood up and pulled the boy lightly by the arm. Squatting so they could be eye to eye, he searched for signs of panic or lack of reason. Young as he was, the boy seemed to be in command of his faculties.
“I am Captain Pebble. What's your name?”
“Corda,” said the boy. “Son of Krek'sos.”
“It's a good name,” Pebble said. “Where did you come from?”
“From a goblin ship,” said Corda. “My mother was a mercenary sailor. We lived in Kezan.”
Behind the child, Pebble noticed Ma'grek. His face long and drawn from the magic, the second mate cocked his head, listening keenly.
“How came you to this island?”
“We were shipwrecked, captain,” said Corda. “Our ship was the Maiden's Charm. We were outbound from Steamwheedle Port with a shipment of gold when we struck the rocks.”
“Where is your ship's crew?”
“All dead.” Tears peeled in the corners of Corda's eyes. “Even my mother.”
Pebble released his hold, sensing the boy would not run. “By the ghosts?”
“No,” screamed Corda. “It was the orcs! Live ones, much worse than the ghosts you fought last night.”
Ma'grek turned pale.
“They were waiting on the shore,” Corda said, more calmly. “We were ambushed as we came out of the ocean. The beach was full of fire pits and dark altars and cauldrons where they kept the heads. They slaughtered us one by one.”
Ma'grek could contain himself no longer. “What magics did they use? What spells? What incantations? Think boy!”
“I don't know,” Corda said pitifully. “I did not hear their words. I hid under a pile of seaweed.”
“Did they have talismans!” Ma'grek demanded. “Wands? Rattles? Anything you can remember!”
“There was a blue banner in the center of them all.” Corda's eyes became perfectly round. He stared as if he could see through Pebble, the crew, even the Seawolf's hull. “A moon with lightning, and a shape underneath.”
“Like a wave,” Ma'grek said. No anchors of doubt weighed upon his voice.
Orsha had risen from her log and was scowling at the second mate.
“Yes,” said Corda. “Ever since that night, I've been living off of toads and roots. The blood of my friends gave the orcs terrible powers. When the sun goes down, they come out of their caves on the other side of the island. Any living thing they can catch becomes their victim. Monkeys. Pigs. Birds. It doesn't matter. They feed on them, burn them, torment them. Some they sacrifice like they did my mother. Some they just use to amuse themselves. They're the masters of those skeletons. They make them come and go whenever they please.”
The crew had surrounded them, listening quietly. Pebble studied their worried looks and knew he had to stop Corda's stories.
“Thrak!” he called into the crowd. “Get the boy some meat. A full stomach will calm him down.”
“Grand idea, captain.” The tauren materialized beside him and cheerfully greeted his new charge. “Of course, if you let me take out one of the launch boats, I could see if I could catch him some fresh fish.”
“You're staying with the rest of us,” Pebble said dryly. As casually as possible, he paced away from the crew. The officers instinctively filed in beside him. “What do you know, Ma'grek?”
“I've seen that banner in books the demons carried.” The shaman scratched his goatee. “This island is far from the Tomb of Sargeras, but who knows how the trade winds blow. The orcs the boy saw are warlocks from the Stormreaver clan.”
“Orgrim wiped out all the Stormreavers,” said Orsha. “The warlocks especially.”
“A few must have escaped,” said Ma'grek. “The rituals Corda described are unmistakable. They must be using their own comrades' bones for a ghost army.”
“Why haven't we seen any warlocks?” said Yo'jin. “The skeletons were tough, but they were dumb. Wouldn't they want to lead their army, to make sure it vanquishes us?”
Ma'grek shook his head. “If they sacrificed a whole crew, they must be very powerful. They can always reanimate the ghosts.”
“Then last night was just an experiment,” said Orsha. “The warlocks watched us from afar to learn how we fight. If they come tonight, likely they'll have some new tricks for us.”
“We've just cut the beast's tail,” Yo'jin spat. “The head can still reel on us.”
“What a loathsome wretch it must take to make a warlock,” Orsha said icily. Ma'grek seemed on the verge of answering her, but could only shake his head and look to the ground. “So how do we fight them this time?”
“We don't.” Pebble wrung his hands together. “Gather the crew. We can repair the ship and be off before sunset. No one rests today!”