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Prologue

Orc Private Tur-uck was having a bad day. It had started by being left in the camp to guard the baggage and had only gotten worse when the humans counterattacked and took the portals. He slammed his shield into the human pussy and drove him back, striking hard with his broad, curved sword. The blow slipped past the human's defenses and blood flew from a deep gash that gaped like a bloody grin. Then the orc stabbed back in a blinding reverse and drove the sword into the human's throat, ripping it out in a welter of gore.


"The doors!" Sub-leader Grath bellowed. "Forget the humans! Get the doors up!"


Tur-uck sheathed his sword and dropped his shield, sliding his fingers under the edge of the fallen doorway. The portals, until the humans had taken them, had been spilling out the victorious hordes of the Masters. None could stop the Horde; it was victorious in every battle. Except, a quiet voice suggested, this one. The humans had appeared from their own doorways and were knocking down the doors of the Masters, and the Horde, blindly obeying orders, was dashing out of the camp, leaving it to the human invaders.


The doorway was heavy and the attack had cost Grath's group many lives. Lives were nothing; they were to be spilled for the Masters. But they had barely enough to lift the portal to the level of Grath's knees, much less set it back upright. It was heavy metal with a concrete base and no matter how they struggled they could not get it more than a meter off the ground.


Tur-uck suddenly let go and dropped to his hands and knees, scuttling under the doorway.


"Come back here, you coward!" Grath shouted, his voice made guttural by the Changes to his throat and the large canine tusks in his mouth.


"I'm going to get help!" Tur-uck shouted, but he knew he was too late. Already more of the humans were charging Grath's remaining orcs and from the far side there would be no way to raise the doorway.


Tur-uck jumped upward, exiting the portal near its top and falling through the air without a cry to thump to the ground on the far side. His ears were immediately assaulted by the blessed sound of thousands of orcs, angrily balked by the fallen doorways. One of them kicked him as he rolled across the ground, but that was more in the way of a greeting than in anger. It was simple courtesy to kick someone when they were down.


"You!" one of the Lesser Masters shouted, striding forward and waving back the orcs that were gathered around the mirrorlike portal. "Where did you come from? What in the hell is happening?"


"Master!" Tur-uck groveled, rolling to his hands and knees and bowing his head. "The humans have taken the portals and tipped them over! We tried to right them but we were about to be overwhelmed. I returned to bring word, Master!"


"How the hell did that happen?" the Lesser Master shouted.


"What the hell is happening?" another voice bellowed and the orcs fell silent, falling to their knees and bowing as a True Master approached.


"Lord Chansa," the Lesser Master said, bowing so that his robes swished back and forth nervously. "This one has returned through the portal. He says that the humans have taken the camp on the far side and are turning the portals face down. We can't push through that."


"Damn!" Chansa shouted. "Damn and damn and damn again!"


Chansa Mulengela was a huge "natural" human. He was nearly three meters tall, broad and thick in proportion, designed right at the limits of what a normal human could support. Huge, dark and fearsome, he appeared like nothing but a human juggernaut, especially when, as now, he let loose his volcanic temper.


Tur-uck had assumed the full prostration, nose in the dirt, arms and legs spread, as the True Master approached. At the sight of the Master's anger, many of the gathered orcs had followed his example.


"You!" Chansa said, tapping him on the side. "Get up. Tell me what you know."


"Master!" Tur-uck said, almost overjoyed to be actually addressed by a Master but well aware that it might be the last conversation he ever had on earth. He stumbled to his knees and bowed his head, hands clasped in front of him. "I was part of Sub-leader Grath's group. We were assigned to provide internal security to the southeast portion of the camp. The camp was attacked by dragons as the portals opened. We reacted to the landed dragons then saw many human soldiers pouring out of other portals. They were pushing the portals of the Masters over so we went to stop them. There were only four on the portal that we attacked, but they killed eight of my leader's group. We took the portal and the remainder of us tried to raise it, but it was too heavy. So I came through to bring word. Master, spare me!"


"Stand up, orc," Chansa growled. "Let me look at you. Did your sub-leader order you to return?"


"No, Master," Tur-uck admitted, getting to his feet and standing to attention. The build of his body did not permit him to stand fully erect and his long arms dangled almost to his bowed knees. "He ordered me not to return."


"So, why did you?" Chansa asked, mildly.


"I . . ." Tur-uck started to reply then stopped. "Masters needed to know. There was not time to explain, Master. I beg your forgiveness! I was not fleeing battle, Master! I am brave and willing to die. My life is yours, Master! But the Masters needed to be told!"


"My God," Chansa muttered. "Celine finally screwed up and produced an orc with initiative."


Tur-uck didn't know what that meant so he remained mute.


"Did you challenge Sub-leader Grath for his position?" Chansa asked, walking around the orc and looking him up and down. "You are a prime specimen. You might have won."


"I did not, Master," Tur-uck admitted.


"Why not?" Chansa asked.


"Sub-leader Grath was a good leader, Master," Tur-uck said, nodding in nervousness. "He kept us fed and told us of good ways to fight, to kill the humans. I . . . I did not wish to challenge him until he had taught me all I might learn from him."


"And one with patience?" Chansa laughed. "So all the portals are down?"


"They appear to be, Marshal," the Lesser Master interjected.


"I wasn't talking to you," Chansa snapped. "Orc, what is your name?"


"Tur-uck, Master."


"All the portals are down, Tur-uck?"


"Yes, Master," the orc admitted. "The west side was commanded by a Greater Dragon and none could defeat her. Many human soldiers had also attacked and there appeared to be an attack on the south gate. Most of the Horde had left by the north gate by the time I came through."


"The human soldiers, you fought them?"


"Yes, Master."


"How was their armor marked? Their shields?"


"The shields were marked with words and a sword, Master," Tur-uck said. "I do not know the words. Their armor had a device of an eagle, here," he said, indicating the left breast.


"Blood Lords," Chansa snarled. "Very well. Tur-uck, you are made a sub-leader as of now. Of course, you must fight to retain your position, but you have it. Good job coming back; I'm willing to accept that it was not for lack of courage."


With that the True Master strode away and Tur-uck sagged in relief.


"I would have had your head off for disobeying orders," the Lesser Master snarled.


"I live to serve, Master," Tur-uck said, falling to hands and knees. "My neck is yours to strike."


"Get up," the Lesser Master said. "Your life is Marshal Chansa's to take and his decisions I don't question. I'll assign you a sub-group. Don't fisk up or I will have your head."


"Yes, Master," Sub-leader Tur-uck replied, rising to his feet and admitting that maybe he wasn't having such a bad day after all.


 


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Framed