World of Warcraft: Wolfheart

NORTHREND

Twin rows of straining, green-skinned warriors tugged on taut, broad ropes as they dragged a colossal wheeled cage slowly up the wide ramp leading into the last of the ships. Despite Northrend’s eternal winter, the muscular orcs sweated heavily from effort. Their broad-jawed faces contorted with each new heave of the ropes.

Guards stood alongside the ramp, torches in one hand, ready weapons in the other. With steely brown eyes they watched not the workers but rather the great covered cage. The cube-shaped structure towered over them, its outer covering consisting of a great tarp sewn from goatskin. There were no gaps in the tarp, no hint from the container as to just what the cargo was.

But there was a clue, revealed simply in the fact that the orcs themselves maneuvered the cargo. Desolate as the port was, it did have work animals such as the horned, reptilian kodo beasts, strong creatures more than capable of taking the places of the struggling orcs. There was even a trio of mammoths, generally used for transporting several riders at once. Yet, not only were those animals excluded from the effort, but they had been moved decidedly far from the vicinity of the docks. Even there, they stirred anxiously, the kodo beasts flaring their nostrils and the mammoths waving their trunks as all the animals stared in the direction of the ships.

With a tremendous howl, the winds abruptly picked up to storm strength. Weather in Northrend had only one consistent factor . . . that it was foul. But there were many levels of foul, and the docks shook as the waters of the cold sea suddenly churned with great waves. Ship hulls groaned as every vessel rocked hard.

From deep within some of the ships, there came horrendous roars and banging. On deck, crewmembers rushed to the hatches leading down to the holds. Stern veteran mariners and warriors looked anxious.

The last ship also rocked . . . and the gangplank twisted. It dipped to one side, spilling several startled guards and throwing the workers into a tangle.

The cage shifted. At the last moment, the orcs on the teetering ramp kept the container from falling. However, no sooner had they managed that than it began to shake from within. A roar identical to those emanating from the ships but much deeper echoed through the dank port. Something within began pulling at the tarp.

Guards rushed up from the port. Those still astride the gangplank fought desperately to maintain their balance. One failed, instead tumbling into the chill waters between the dock and the ship.

From the shoreline, the fleet captain—a one-eyed veteran mariner called Briln, whose body bore numerous intricate tattoos marking his journeys—raced toward the side of the gangplank and shouted, “Get that cage straightened! Don’t let it fall! Get those weapons ready! Where’s the powder? If that cage is damaged—”

The cage beneath the tangled tarp rattled. The dim illumination of the wind-blown torches was insufficient to reveal what was happening, but the nerve-scraping wrenching of metal gave Briln enough warning.

“Spears up front! Hurry, you offal! The right side of the cage!”

Two guards either more impetuous or more foolish than the rest moved in closer. From his angle, Briln could not make out everything that happened next, but he saw enough.

The foremost orc prodded the cage with his spear. The next instant, something snagged his weapon and tugged both it and him through a tear in the tarp.

As that happened, the second orc instinctively lunged forward to aid his vanishing comrade.

Something thick darted through the tear.

The orc was too slow to realize his danger. He was plucked