Chapter 23

The wizard could see Zwain and Leopold exit from the city and enter into the forest from the window of his office. It was way up in one of the castle towers and provided a clear view of the whole town. Finnegan stepped back to one of his walls and pressed in a stone, revealing a secret pathway. He lit a torch and followed the spiral staircase that led him down into the castle sewers.

The sewers were a part of a network of secret exits built to have multiple escape routes for the King. Finnegan didn’t care too much for them, the smell always lingered on his clothes for days following any visit to the dank and dark place.

He kicked out at a couple of rats that scurried over his feet as they ran about the floor scavenging for food. The wizard shivered at the though of their diseased claws coming anywhere near his skin.

He was happy when he came to the ladder that would lead him right up into the market. He knew he had to move fast if he didn’t want to lose their trail. Finnegan pushed aside the iron grate as he climbed up into the street. He didn’t even bother with replacing the grate and hurried his way towards the exit of the city.

A young man with a round face, wearing a grey cloak and missing his right arm stepped in front of Finnegan and began to ask, “Excuse me, but I was wondering–”

“Sorry, I don’t have time to deal with you lepers,” said Finnegan, cutting off the individual and brushing past him as briskly as his feet could carry him.

From behind him he could hear the puzzlement in the voice of the young man, “Leper? The fuck?” and rolled his eyes at the calloused way that today’s youth seemed to throw about those curse words.

Finally he made it out of the city and into the forest. He saw them make their way down the southeast path, so Finnegan hustled his pace and started down that path as well. After twenty minutes or so he finally came upon Zwain and Leopold.

Zwain was now telling Leopold about another many named Christopher Leg. From the distance that Finnegan followed, he was unable to pick up the majority of the story, so he didn’t pay it any heed.

Finnegan trailed behind them for the next hour or so and once they had exited the forest that surrounded Steveston, he knew where they were heading; back to the encampment. Finnegan veered off of the their course and assumed his own, sticking closely to the perimeter of the forest.

A short while later he came up to the foothills of another nearby mountain. This one did not contain a hidden cave entrance. This entrance was exposed and littered with various animals skulls–including human skulls–to ward off anyone who was less than the bravest. Finnegan didn’t even slow his step as he kicked his way past the bones making little white puffs of dust twirling around his ankles.

The Orcs never fully trusted the wizard, but with the air of arrogance he carried himself with they sure had respected him. Finnegan walked past the various members of what was temporarily Bartleby’s clan. Bartleby was by his own tent with sheets and maps laid out over a table; a level of sophistication that Unklar never dared to possess. Bartleby drew on the maps, marking places where there was the heaviest caravan traffic. He did not notice the wizard approach his table.

Finnegan place his hands firmly on the table and stated, “Bartleby, I have a request for you.”

Bartleby stopped what he was doing and looked up at the wizard. “Oh yeah? What be that?”

“First, I want to know, did you burn down the encampment like I asked you to?”

“Yes, fire burn good. We stomp rest into itty bitty pieces. So what request? We ready to attack?”

“No, not yet. Not as Leopold and his guards are still around. Which is why I have come here. It would seem that Leopold and Zwain are heading back to that encampment. Probably to look for some sort of evidence, but as to why, I know not. I just don’t want any damning proof to be found that I was involved. That could… complicate things.”

“So why that me problem?” asked Bartleby, folding his arms together in front of his chest.

“No, no problem for you, but if you want glory for the Orcs, then they will need to be taken care of. Just make sure you bring Zwain to my lab… Alive.”

“Bring Zwain-man to lab. Me understand.”

“Good, I shall expect you this evening. See you then, Bartleby.”

*          *          *

Bartleby was unable to get  any help from help of his clan. They still did not believe in him enough to follow his orders just yet. He managed to keep enough order for them to not go charging into Steveston, but even that was holding on by a thread. So instead, Bartleby made his way to the encampment on his own to bring this Zwain-man to the wizard.

His long stride carried him there in half the time it would have taken the average human; so it made for a brisk travel time. He spotted a three-pack of humans following one of the side roads in his same general direction. They were all wearing grey cloaks, but none were the Zwain-man. Bartleby made a big loop around them and continued to his destination.

He spotted them in the late afternoon sun. Leopold-man rarely left the town in anything but full armour, but here he was just wearing his leathers. He and the Zwain-man were hunched over some of the burnt rubble of the tents. Bartleby ducked behind some boulders to listen to them, as well as plan his attack.

“And look at these iron nails that were used to pin the canvas of the tent to the wooden poles. That the King’s insignia imprinted on the head of the nail, ” said Leopold-man.

“So it is just as we figured,” responded Zwain-man, “Who else would have access to these supplies, plus want to set you and your guards up for a suicide mission?”

Bartleby peeked a little further out from the boulder. Both of their backs were to him, staring out at the camp. With a level of stealth that no Orc could ever hope to dream about, Bartleby crept up behind the both of them.

He froze when the Leopold-man turned to the Zwain-man and said, “But Finnegan has been in service of the King ever since his rise into power, he fought valiantly beside King Stephen in the great war not ten years ago.”

Now the Zwain-man turned to face the Leopold-man. Bartleby panicked and rushed forward so that they did not have a chance to prepare for his attack. Bartleby’s roar interrupted the Zwain-man before he had the chance to even speak. The orc raised both of his fists into the air, the Leopold-man panicked and was unable to get his sword out in time.

Bartleby brought both of his fists down on top of their heads. The Leopold-man crumpled on the spot, hitting the dirt like a sack of potatoes. Bartleby caught the Zwain-man in his arms and hoisted him over his shoulder before running off for the foothills and Finnegan’s lab.

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Chapter 22

Leopold lead Zwain down the cobblestone path of the courtyard. Rather than have Zwain stay at some inn, it was agreed that he could stay in Leopold’s quarters while assisting Finnegan in recreating the portals. This would be no problem for Zwain except that this place lacked the technology required to pull it off. Plus he was not fond of working any more closely with the wizard.

“Here we are, Sir Zwain,” said Leopold as he pushed open the door causing the hinges to creak.

The place was quite modest for a castle quarters. No tapestries hung on the walls. A few little sculptures could be spotted on the fireplace mantle, a couple of books on the shelves and barely any furniture. Leopold was out patrolling quite often and had no need to decorate his home since it was merely a place to sleep.

“Again with the Sir,” sighed Zwain, “Leopold how many times will I have to tell you not to be so formal.”

“My pardon, Zwain. Also I must apologize for my words the other day. Now that I have had time to reflect upon them, it was wrong of me to misjudge your words the other day. After this morning, I can clearly state that I am in agreement with your assessment. Being creator of the rules doesn’t make the man exempt from them.”

“He seemed really eager to not have me released. Was it really his suggestion to allow for the appeal?”

“Yes, it was he that suggested the King give you a chance to prove that you could not create the portal again.”

“It just does not make any sense. If he was truly threatened by my wizardry, then why even give me the opportunity to have a chance to be free.”

“Mayhaps he had other reasons for wanting to see you play your guitar once again.”

Zwain stopped, thinking back to what Finnegan was doing while he was playing. That focus of his eyes as Zwain’s fingers danced over the guitar’s strings. “You might be on to something there, Leopold. He does want to know how to make the portals, but doesn’t want to share in researching it. He must have his own agenda then.”

“What could he possibly be planning then?”

“That’s what we need to figure out, but first, I want to look around the town. This is all new to me and I want to check things out. This place is awesome!” Zwain entered into the spare bedroom that was to be his and laid his guitar up against the wall before leaving the home with Leopold.

“So the day we met, what were you doing at the Orc encampment?”

“We received word that the Orc Chieftain, Unklar, had set up a camp not to far out from the castle and that they were attacking caravans to prevent us from receiving supplies. I was ordered to grab our most elite guard and go scout out this camp in the early morning. Orcs usually raid at night, so we would’ve had the upper hand on that bunch.”

“You mean six guys would have had no problems handling a couple of dozen orcs and a whole shitload of their dogs?”

“That was not the report Finnegan gave us. He claimed that Unklar had formed a small band of raiders. Three, maybe four at the outset. Also, they usually only bring a couple of dogs alongside them on these little ventures. Are you sure that is what you saw?”

“From my perspective, I opened up a portal that unleashed a raging horde of monsters onto a group of people who wanted nothing more than enjoy the music of my band. They also killed my best friend. A horror like that burns in the back of your mind. There is just no way there was only a few of them. Also, why would the chief of the Orcs be part of this random raiding party.”

“I always just assumed they were that dumb. Unklar would have been more than capable of doing things by himself if he needed to. It truly was a great feat for you to have taken him down as you did. I do hope that you join up with us in the guard. After you’ve solved the portal situation, of course.”

“Oh I’m not helping out that wizard.”

“But the King–”

“The King, and apparently even yourself, can’t see what is going on here. Finnegan is plotting something. How can you not question the information he provided to you and your scouting party? The orcs were in place to kill you all. All the best guards of the King, dead from some misinformation.”

Leopold got lost in his own thoughts and fell silent as Zwain and him walk past the wall, entering into Steveston. The place was busy with the hustle and bustle of the afternoon market. Peasants looking to undercut the merchants, and merchants trying to oversell their wares. There was men and women huddled up in the corners of buildings, homeless and dirty. A man in a tattered, grey cloak limped around from person to person asking them questions that Zwain was unable to hear.

“Are you certain about Finnegan?” asked Leopold, sidestepping to the right to avoid a fresh pile of horse shit.

“Every time something not quite right has shown up, his name has always seemed to follow. I think it is a safe bet.”

Leopold straightened up and turned to head back to the castle. “We must warn King Stephen at once!”

Zwain grabbed him by the arm to stop him. “Hey, we can’t just go in there an accuse one of his top advisors right to his face. Finnegan will definitely have excuses prepped for just that sort of thing.”

“But if the wizard is planning some sort of treasonous act against our King, then surely it is my responsibility to stop him. I am the captain of the guard.”

“Sure, but let’s find something more concrete than a hunch.”

“Con… what?”

“Shit, right. Probably not a whole lot of cement in this time, is there?”

“Zwain, you say the oddest of things.”

“What I mean is that we need to find evidence more damning towards the wizard. Now I’m thinking that we had back to that camp and look around and see what Unklar was up to just before I let him into my world.”

“You say world, as if you consider yourself not from our Earth.”

“It’s a long story.”

“Well, it is a decent walk back out to that place. Mayhaps you could impart me with enough of it to help you make sense to me.”

Zwain laughed and clapped Leopold on the shoulder, “Back when I was young, my father started up an orphanage…”

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Chapter 21

The morning sun shone through the eastern windows of the massive throne room. The room was decorated with various tapestries and carpets, all laid out in perfect symmetry; a sign of power and stability. In the middle of the floor, against the back wall, sat a small set of stairs that lead up the throne that King Stephen sat upon.

Stephen was dressed in his most regal leathers, as is the custom whenever he held court. To his left stood Sir Leopold, captain of his guard and heir to the throne. To his right stood the wizard Finnegan, who was his strategic supervisor on most matters. Both were anticipating this morning’s first assignment, the appeal of Sir Zwain of the Flock of Cows.

The guard was not gentle on his handling of Zwain, shoving him forward with a rough push that almost knocked Zwain to the ground. Zwain was able to catch his balance, and wanted to knock the man back and see how he liked it, but controlled himself. He would do best not to screw up any possible chances of getting released.

The guard and Zwain stopped at the foot of the stairs and declared, “Now presenting Sir Zwain of the Flock of Cows to our Lord Majesty Stephen, King of Astarathe.”

“Please stop with the formalities. I’m no sir, and A Flock of Cows is not a place.”

King Stephen stroked his chin and eyed Zwain.

“I would concur, Master Zwain, this Flock of Cows would be a silly name for a land. Besides, cows are more of a herd in these parts.”

Finnegan stepped forward and said, “Your majesty, do not engage the indulgences of this trespassing wizard.”

“Oh please, I am no wizard. Yes I opened the portal but I explained that it was the music of my guitar that really opened it. Not any kind of actual spell. Outside of that I am no different than you, Your Grace,” said Zwain careful to make sure his formalities were in order.

Finnegan knew his moment was here. From behind his back he presented The Axe, shiny and cleaned of any blood from the battle with the orcs. “Would you, my good Sir, be willing to perform your demonstration once again?”

“I thought my appeal was going to give me a chance to plead my case to the contrary of the accusations that were laid before me. This is just the same bullshit as before.”

With this Sir Leopold stepped forward, “You would do well to watch your tongue in front of our Lord. Do not curse as such in front of his ears.”

“Sir Leopold, that is quite alright. We have all stepped in our share of bullshit in our own days. The path of the throne is not so clean as to deny people the right to speak their minds freely.”

“Yeah but–”

“It is far worse for you to outright contradict your King, Sir Leopold, than it would be to casual curse in his presence. Is that correct, your Majesty?” asked Finnegan, with a smug grin on his face.

“That is enough out of the both of you. Am I not kind and just? Must I punish for first time offenses? Is that any way to keep the hearts of my people warm towards me? Leopold, thank you for defending my honour, but I am more than capable of letting a fucking curse word fall upon my own ears.”

Leopold winced at hearing such a harsh word emanate from this King’s lips.

“As for you, Finnegan. While I do value your opinion, you would do well to mind your tongue. Stop slandering other individuals for your own gain. That is a far faster way to move backwards rather than forwards.”

Finnegan’s sly grin snapped away in an instant, he darted his eyes to the floor and snarled in contempt.

“As for you, Master Zwain, should you prove yourself incapable of producing a portal in this here throne chamber, then I will no longer have any reason to detain you.”

“But my Lord,” interjected Finnegan, “What about–”

“These are my lands, Finnegan. I can see into this man’s eyes. I’ve had my dungeon guards also keeping watch on him. Nothing in his behaviour indicates he is any sort of threat, let along a wizard. I am thankful that you changed your mind on this appealing process, Finnegan, for it gave me a second chance to look upon this stranger and reassess my opinion of him.”

“Yeah but that was only to–”

“If you would please, Lord Finnegan, present Master Zwain with his guitar so that he may show us once again the process at which opened the portal to our lands.”

Angry and disgusted, Finnegan walked down the stairs to Zwain. The guard had already removed his shackles and Zwain held and arm out to once again hold The Axe in his grasp. Instead of simply handing it over Finnegan thrusted it into Zwain’s chest almost knocking him on his ass.

“Lord Finnegan! If you would be so kind as to not treat our guests with such force, I would greatly appreciate it. Mayhaps you need to relearn your place in this court. Then would you know that acting like a child on a tantrum is not in your best interest.”

The King missed the look of hatred that Finnegan shot his way. In his own mind, Finnegan felt compelled to rush his plans. Maybe let the orcs rush the town, see how much damage they could do. He could get lucky and the “good” King Stephen would join in the battle, only to lose his own life. That was a lot to hope for. There were a lot of skilled guards around. The best of whom were to be killed by Unklar at his fake orc encampment. Those men still stood at the sides of this throne room, and their captain still had his place at the King’s side. No, the orcs would still lose that battle, and there was not another beastly race of creatures strong enough to execute this plan, while being dumb enough to not know they are being played. No, Finnegan would need to continue as planned. It had to look like the orcs did this of their own accord. That was the only way the Kings of the other kingdoms would accept his ascendance to the throne.

Zwain played the note sequence, but it was the same flat metal twanging as before. It barely even sounded like music. Zwain knew there was no way this would even come close to opening the portal. It needed that specific tone, the one he played that night, or the one the ship made before it flung him out and into the portal.

“I am sorry Your Grace. Like I said, without the proper equipment, my guitar will never come close to creating the sound necessary for a portal to open. I would do better using a guitar from your own time.”

“Our own time?” asked Finnegan, now more curious than ever.

“I mean, your own lands. Do you have an acoustic guitar, my Lord?”

King Stephen tapped Sir Leopold on the shoulder and pointed him to the back of the room. There was a minstrel sitting, eating his breakfast while waiting for His Grace to call upon him for some entertainment. Leopold started briskly walking across the throne room.

“You there, minstrel? Yes. We have need of your lute, if you would be so kind as to let us borrow it for the time being.”

“Sure thing, m’Lord,” said the minstrel as he also rushed across the floor to meet Leopold somewhere in the middle. Once Leopold received the lute he brought it over to Zwain. Leopold traded the lute for The Axe and Zwain held the instrument, scanning it to familiarize himself with it.

Zwain threw the strap over his shoulders and took his usually power stance, resting the base of the guitar on his knee. He plunked away at a few of the strings to get a better feel of the sound this instrument would make. Once he felt he knew the proper chords he started playing. Instead of simply just playing the guitar solo, Zwain played The Boy in its entirety. If anything could increase the chance of this work, Zwain thought it would be this.

King Stephen leaned forward, he was completely enthralled by this tale of a tale of a boy who lost his life at the hands of his own very hero. It was a sad tale, but a tale that promised a much happier future. A future where evil is done away with. Zwain’s music seemed to transform the throne room and King Stephen was transported to a world of barren, scorched rock; a wasteland. Was this place scorched by a dragon? The King was completely absorbed in the magic of the music. No minstrel or bard had ever caught his imagination in this fashion.

Zwain got to the guitar solo and plucked the strings to get as much volume as he could. Finnegan stepped forward greedily anticipating the rift that this could very well create, but everything remained the same and Zwain finished out the song. Finnegan scowled in disappointment. The song made him feel so sure that it was going to work this time. To top it all off, he did play the correct notes back in his cave. His keen memory had not betrayed him after all, and now this man might end up free as a result of his own lack of confidence. He needed to find a way to keep Zwain in the dungeon.

“Your Grace, how do we not know he is simply playing the wrong notes to fool us into believing he is not a true wizard. Mayhaps he is choosing not to open the portal for us.”

The King snapped out of the fugue state the song had put him in and looked at his wizard in a puzzled manner. Even Leopold brought his hands to his chin in deep thought about this accusation.

Zwain raised his right hand to grab King Stephen’s attention. “I can explain, Your Grace, if you don’t mind.”

“Oh don’t listen to him. If he is a true wizard he would say anything to get you to come over to his way of thinking,” said Finnegan attempting to cast Zwain’s request out of the King’s mind.

Instead, Zwain retorted with, “Hm, it would seem I’m not the only one–”

“You will shut your mouth when you are in the court of the King, or we shall have you hanged for contempt of our Lord. Just because you are not of these lands does not mean that you have the right–”

“Enough, Lord Finnegan! As ruler of these lands I determine what is or isn’t contempt. So step back and mind your place, or else you make yourself the subject of these exact accusations your present.”

Finnegan bit his lip and took two steps back, with a sulking look in his eyes. Leopold also took a step back in fright of the rage his King unleashed onto the wizard. King Stephen was emboldened this morning.

“Now, Master Zwain, please make your case for me.”

“When I came through the portal, I left my friends in danger. These orcs had come through and started attacking innocent people. They even killed one of my best friends. The situation was getting worse when the Chief Orc knocked me through the portal, causing it to close, dooming them to their fate.”

Finnegan stepped forward once more, “What does this have to do with–”

“Finnegan, your tongue… Mind it! Go on, Master Zwain.”

“I want nothing more than to return to my home, to find out their fates. To save them if that is possible. So I wanted the portal to open. Even if that proved that I was some sort of wizard. At least I’d have a chance to find out. Also, I have never denied making the portal in the first place,” Zwain said staring long and hard at Finnegan, “Why would I lie when it came to trying?”

Finnegan’s eyes widened in rage. He wished to rush this man and beat him senseless, but he held his ground; not wanting to incur the King’s new found wrath. King Stephen used to be much more complacent before meeting this Zwain.

“Master Zwain, I have looked into your eyes as you’ve said your piece. Your tale feels true, or at the very least true to yourself. That song is a work of magic, but you are no wizard. We need magical storytellers and song writers in this world. People to captivate others and either make them forget the hard times around, or embolden them enough to change things for themselves. You have a wonderful gift and to lock you away in the dungeon would be to deny this world of a thing of pure beauty. I am sorry for your companions. We will do everything in our power to help you find out what became of them. I assume Finnegan has already been curious about the portals, since they seem to be of a power that is outside his grasp.” Finnegan looked over at the King, insulted at the accusation. “Maybe together you two can figure this out. In the meantime you are free to wander about my kingdom at your leisure.”

Zwain took a bow, practically kissing the floor and said, “Thank you, Your Grace. I am forever in your debt.”

“With talent like yours, Master Zwain, I do not think it will take long for you to repay it. Court is adjourned.”

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Chapter 20

The grey sky gave him a good excuse to leave the confines of the castle. He told Stephen, King of Astarathe, that he would look into this sudden patch of gloomy days and vow to try and bring out the sun once again.

Although Finnegan the wizard had other plans in mind. These plans took place in a cave that was not so far from the camp that Zwain, this apparent other wizard, entered into this realm through a portal. Finnegan had conjured up countless spells, could even make things levitate for short distances; but the ability to open up a rift and pass through it? No one had such power. No one that Finnegan knew of, anyhow.

That’s what gave credence to the story behind this Zwain character. his clothes were odd, his speech was odd. This Zwain was not from around here. The craftsmanship of his instrument was unlike anything Finnegan has ever seen before.

Zwain had demonstrated the method at which he came to open the portal. He played the part of the solo that triggered it to open, but it was flat, dull and music-less. No portal had opened. Before the trial Finnegan had administered truth dust into the man’s lungs. As unlikely as he was to be from another time and place, a person capable of overpowering that dust was even less likely. So Finnegan took the guitar after having Zwain condemned to the dungeon for the rest of his life.

Finnegan was happy about the King’s “compromise”. To save face, Finnegan needed to ask for the head of the supposed wizard, but didn’t want to lose a potential specimen. To learn this portal ability would make Finnegan the most powerful wizard in the world, never mind just the realm.

He approached a sheer cliff face and scanned his surroundings, making sure no one had followed him. When he was sure he was alone, Finnegan performed a ritual: he snapped the fingers on both his hands, brought them down with a slap onto his knees and finished it off by clapping them together. The surface of the rock wall slid over to the right, revealing a deep, dark cave. Finnegan entered and gave a quick snap of his fingers. One by one the torches along the wall light up with a bright orange fire. This trickery was one that he did not share with the rest of the realm, he feared the crowds it would bring if the people know about it.

Finnegan continued down the path until he came to a wide room. In here was various assortments of tables, flasks, vials and chemicals. Not all magic could be done with the snap of a finger, some required potions and alchemy. A lot of the King’s fortune was really just lead before Finnegan changed it all into gold.

Sitting alone on a table in the center of the room was Zwain’s guitar. Every couple of days for the last fortnight, Finnegan had been coming out here and examining this wondrous thing. He tried playing those same notes Zwain played for the king, but still nothing happened. Zwain had made mention that volume was a factor. That when he did it, he had a bunch of what he called speakers to amplify the guitar loud enough to open the portal.

On the last couple of visits, Finnegan was working in a little alcove of the corner of his cave. He kept polishing crystals, and placing them a varying distances from each other. Then he would speak, making the crystals vibrate; amplifying his voice even louder as it escaped out into the rest of the cave. He tied a piece of fabric to a stick ten feet out in front and gauged how much it waved in the sound. Then he would keep tweaking the crystals hoping to increase the volume enough to make this portal instrument work.

Finnegan had finished a new alignment for the crystals when there came a pounding way back at the entrance to his cave. As a test, hoping the sound waves carried far enough down, Finnegan stood in the center of the alcove, and did the opening ritual once again. The fabric flag fluttered as though a gentle wind passed through it. Finnegan paused, thinking that the sounds never made it all the way back to the entrance, but then he felt a slight rumbling, followed by the panting and wheezing of his visitor.

Finnegan rolled his eyes as he walked to the center of the room, “What is it now, Bartleby?”

A hulking green creature jogged around the corner and stopped, breathing heavily. Bartleby was small for an orc, but still massive when compared to a human. He was also the smartest out of all the orcs, having to use his brains to survive since his size could not withstand the strength of his brethren. When Unklar was chief, Bartleby was the translator used to communicate deals with the wizard. Now that Unklar was dead, Bartleby started assuming the roll of the chief. The rest of the orcs may not have cared for this, but the promises the wizard had made were worth waiting until the mission was done before someone else tried to claim the right by force. In the meantime, Bartleby got to keep his head on his shoulders, so long as he kept talking to Finnegan.

Finnegan scowled at his visitor, the creature was still struggling to catch his breath. “Well? I don’t have all afternoon. I’m supposed to be making the sun come out. Even if the King doesn’t remember how quick that job is, surely someone else on his council will. So make it quick.”

“Bartleby sorry, Finnegan-man. Me just wondering about payment. Others be getting restless. Want payment now.”

“Bartleby, Bartleby, Bartleby. I told you. Payment comes once all is complete. When I sit upon the throne that our dear Stephen currently sits, then I shall give your clan all the riches it has earned. Now, with the loss of Unklar, and his entire squad, there is a bit of a setback, but I’m currently working on getting around that. I am nearly there, but your interruption is costing me time.”

“Others not listen to Bartleby no more. Say they’ll wipe out castle right now.”

“You need to keep them at bay. If they go now, they will just beat their heads against the castle walls. Not enough of you will survive to try again later. So we need to wait until the moment is right. With Leopold still alive, the moment currently isn’t right.”

“Leopold-man King’s cousin?”

“That he is. The only heir that is currently alive. How else could anyone that stupid get on the King’s council. Unklar was supposed to take him out before all of this portal business. It was a good thing this Zwain came when he did. He provided enough of a distraction so that Leopold could not tell that Unklar’s camp was made from materials stolen from the castle. I wasn’t counting on the bastard surviving the encounter so I didn’t think to keep those elements concealed. That’s what I get for rushing this whole thing.”

“So what new plan?”

Finnegan walked over to Zwain’s guitar and held it up to the orc, “This! With this we can open a portal to let you and the rest of your clan just walk into Steveston as if the walls weren’t even there, allowing you to wipe out every human soul in that place. With the exception of yours truly. Then with all the King’s council out of the way, and no more heirs to claim the throne, I shall sit upon it and rule all of Astarathe.”

“Sounds pretty easy.”

“Precisely! So simple, even an orc can pull it off. And I don’t mean just you, dear, smart Bartleby. I mean even a walking boulder like Unklar, with barely enough brains to shit.”

“You no speak bad of chief. He great orc.”

“Oh, he was, Bartleby. Now it is your time to shine. The orc who made the lives of all orcs worth living. The orc who made them equal to mankind in the eyes of the King. Lord Bartleby, Steward of the Orcs.”

Bartleby`s cheeks flushed a dark purple. He was the only orc smart enough to know he was being flattered, but not smart enough to know his buttons were being pushed by Finnegan. In a way, Finnegan was happy that Unklar was dead. This orc is much easier to control.

“Now run along, Bartleby, and keep your clan together. I’m not far off now, so make sure you are ready to move out at a moment’s notice.”

Bartleby nodded and trotted off back towards to the cave entrance. Finnegan walked back to the alcove, now equipped with the guitar. He heard a loud “Ow!” as Bartleby failed to notice that the door was closed. Finnegan rolled his eyes at the stupidity of these beasts and performed the opening ritual.

“Danks, ” travelled down the pathway from Bartleby and then the orc was gone.

Finnegan played the guitar and this time the crystals hummed out a melodic tune that sounded remarkably close to an actual amp, if only Finnegan knew what that sounded like.The fabric even fluttered in the sound waves, but still nothing happened. Finnegan tried again, slamming his thumb down on the strings trying to make it as loud as possible and once more there was nothing.

“I wonder if I’m remembering the notes correctly,” muttered Finnegan. “I need to get Zwain to play them for me once more, and pay closer attention to them. Now how to do with without drawing extra suspicion.”

Finnegan remembered Leopold mentioning Zwain’s request for an appeal. Finnegan has heard the term before. Other lands used it to describe someone asking to be tried once more for the crimes they committed. Sometimes the King`s sentence could be overturned. Finnegan knew that Zwain could not prove one way or the other that he was guilty or innocent, so the wizard could very well have complete control over the man’s fate as he rotted in that dungeon.

With a sly grin growing on his sharp pointed face, Finnegan said, “Well now, Master Zwain, let’s give this appeal process of yours a try.”

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Chapter 19

The cell stank of the shit and piss of the last two weeks. A fortnight as one of the guards so gallantly put it. Zwain nestled himself as close to the shoebox of a window as possible, hoping to get a breeze of fresh air to pass through his nostrils. Through it he could hear the hodgepodge of sounds as the people went to market on this dull and grey day.

There were some other men in the other cells of King Stephen’s dungeon. Pickpockets and other thieves, alongside trespassers and various other small time crimes. Zwain considered himself lucky to at least be paired off with these folks. Especially since Leopold told him that the punishment for his crime was death. Death that Stephen’s head wizard, Finnegan, called for the minute Leopold finished recounting the story. An indefinite amount of time in the dungeons was the King’s compromise to the pleas of his two most trusted advisors.

Zwain remembered the way that Finnegan spoke to King Stephen. The way the words slipped out of his mouth like snakes slithering along the ground. He questioned the position this man was given and how anyone could not see how manipulative he could be.

The latch at the main entrance lifted and the big oak door swung open as one of the guards allowed Sir Leopold to enter. Leopold was dressed head to toe in the leathers of his casual wear. Not as protective as his steel armour, but better than cotton, in case he needed to keep the peace around the town. He walked straight up to Zwain’s cell and said, “Good afternoon, Sir Zwain of the Flock of Cows.”

“Please, Leopold, it’s just Zwain. I am no sir. Not even my father was sir. Also, that is a hell of a mouthful to say every time you meet me.”

“I apologize, si–Zwain. I’m not used to such non-noble customs.”

“No need to apologize. Just relax. No need to flower up the English language. This isn’t Shakespeare.”

“I know not of whom you speak. Is he a front man, such as yourself.”

“In some ways. Anyhow, so what about my appeal?”

“Appeal?”

Zwain sighed, “We went over this. It’s a chance for me to plea my case to King Stephen once again and get me the hell out of here. It’s starting to stink really bad.”

“Oh right. The King is not used to such an unusual request. Finnegan has suggested that he leave it alone, that you’ll stop asking for it eventually, and live out your days here in the dungeon.”

“Oh great. And I’ll starve to death on some bread and water. Maybe the contents of my own shit bucket will get me sick long before that. Zwain gave a cynical chuckle, “I might actually experience an Oregon Trail death right here. Oh would ‘Sir’ Lexington would just be getting a kick out of this.”

“Ah, is he a Knight from your homeland?”

“Never mind. He matters not– doesn’t matter. Sheesh, I’m starting to pick up the lingo around here. You know, I don’t trust Finnegan, he’s slimy. I think King Stephen would do well to not trust him at every word.”

“Alas, I would all but agree with you, but the King is his own man and he makes the decision as to whom his advisors are. I am merely just honoured to even be considered amongst them. I trust not that snake as far as I can toss my sword, but I would not go against the King in his beliefs.”

“There’s got to be a way to make the King see the man for who he is. I saw it the moment the man opened his mouth. Also, he was clearly threatened by me. That’s why he was so opposed to your decision. How many other wizards are in these parts?”

“Well, none. All others that we’ve caught were killed on the spot for the unsanctioned used of magic. That is the King’s law. Magic gives too much power to invading armies should they try and storm these walls. It would take naught but one of these wizards to be captured and fooled into helping the enemies of our King.”

“So let me guess, Finnegan came up with the law?”

“T’was instituted before my time, but as I have heard, indeed it is he that introduced the law to the King. What has that got to do with anything?”

“When we first met, you said there was one thing about wizards. Do you remember?”

“Yes. I said that wizards are all cunning and will try to outwit us with their words.”

Zwain took a step back from the bars and lifted his hand in a presenting gesture, “You see?”

“I’m afraid that I do not. Finnegan has been here long before me, he would have simply no reason to treat the rest of us like that. In fact it was he that warned us of the cunning of other wizards.”

“That’s the simplest lie to make. Surely the one who makes the rules is the only one exempt from them, correct?”

“That should not be the case, but it would seem…” Leopold drifted off, deep in thought. Zwain held his tongue. It always meant more when people completed the thought journey for themselves.

“Wait a minute, Sir Zwain. You are trying to outwit me into doing your bidding, are you not? You want nothing more than to escape this prison, and I am but a mere pawn in your scheme.”

“Yeah, but–”

“I am sorry, Sir Zwain, but you will not fool this knight. I aim to prove myself worthy to be King Stephen’s heir and trusted advisor. I warn you not to try this again. Good day, sir.”

With one swift spin on his heel, Sir Leopold spun around and strutted out the door that he entered. The guard pulled the door shut and latched it closed. Zwain stepped back from the bars and slumped on the tiny stool they had provided for him.

“A bit daft, in’nt he?” asked a voice from the far end of the dungeon.

“Pardon?” asked Zwain as he lifted his gaze in the direction of the voice.

“Sof’ in thee ‘ead. His ‘eart’s in th’ right place, but barely ’nuff brains t’ swing ‘is sword. Noice try, though.”

“He’ll come around. You’re right, he is a bit slow, but I could see the inner workings of his thoughts. Something was ticking there.”

Zwain looked out at the grey sky and hoped that it wouldn’t take too long for Leopold to come around.

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Chapter 18

The Chief stared down at Zwain. Its massive chest heaved with each breath, full of rage and anger. Drool and snot clung to the front if its face like a gooey membrane. The feathers of its headdress were tattered and falling out.

It let out a massive roar as it charged forward at Zwain.

Zwain ducked and dodged to the left, narrowly escaping the pounding fists of the monster. The earth shook as its fists made small craters in the brown dirt. Zwain spun around and smashed The Axe into its right forearm. A loud crack pierced his ears as the arm bent halfway between the elbow and the wrist. The monster rose up clutching its arm, the lower half dangling like a heavy piece of rubber.

It lunged for Zwain again, this time Zwain ducked beneath the reaching hand and swung The Axe for its shins. The guitar struck the shin with a loud thud, but there was no bone cracking this time. Zwain rolled to the side before the beast could trample him. He popped up to his feet, turned to swing his guitar at the beast once again and was hit square in the chest by the broken arm of the monster. Shattered bones pushed their way out of its skin as dark red blood ran down its arms in little streams. The Chief let out roar of pain.

Zwain saw an opening and rushed in. He focused on the head of the monster and cocked the guitar back for a killing blow. The monster stepped back to dodge, but Zwain adjusted his swing and connected with the monster’s ribcage. The Chief staggered back, clutching its shattered ribs with its one good arm.

Zwain charged again at the staggering monster. The Chief caught his footing, and reached forward to grab Zwain by his head. Zwain ducked, spun and connected his guitar on the broken arm. The Chief let loose a guttural yell that caught Zwain off guard. Before he could even think of his next attack, a mighty green foot caught him in his chest sending Zwain flying into the side of one of the tents. The tent collapsed all around him and Zwain struggled to free himself from its tangles.

The ground shook as the monster stomped its way over to Zwain. It stopped just a few feet away and stood there, glaring down at him; its eyes on fire with intimidation. The Chief took one deep breath, grabbed the wrist of the broken arm and yanked it off. It kept its eyes locked on Zwain as the sinew of muscles popped. It sucked in one deep breath, curled back its lips and let loose a roar that blew Zwain’s hair back. The rotten smell of its breath made Zwain gag as he finally freed himself from the tent.

The Chief lunged forward with new found speed and ferocity. Zwain barely manage to roll off to the side to dodge it. The beast spun around in the blink of an eye and charged at Zwain once again. Its eyes glowed red like two burning suns in its sockets. Zwain dropped to his knees and swung his guitar into the monster’s left ankle causing it to lose its balance and tumble into another one of the tents.

Zwain rushed at the Chief with his guitar high above his head. He leapt into the air and swung the guitar in a huge sweeping arc. The guitar stopped just inches from the face of the beast, held back by a massive green hand that Zwain never even saw move. The hand grabbed his wrist and Zwain was hoisted into the air as the Chief stood up.

Being this close to the monster’s mouth made the putrid breath far worse than before. Yellow rotten teeth lined its dark red gums. The red glow of its stare intensified. Zwain flailed his body, trying to escape, but the beast’s grip was too strong. Zwain managed to swing himself up enough to plant the heel of left foot into its face. Then he started stomping down on the thing’s nose. Left foot, right foot. The bloody stump of its missing arm reached up to stop him, forgetting that it lacked the rest of itself. Zwain kept kicking forward with as much force on his heels as his legs could muster.

The Chief dropped him and Zwain hit the ground; rolling out of the way of a kicking green foot. He spotted his guitar a little ways to his left and dashed for it. The monster roared and gave chase, the earth shaking with each step. Zwain grabbed the guitar and, with no time to pick a target, swung it upwards as the beast leapt over him.

There was no bone crunching cracks or snaps, just the soft fleshy thud of the guitar hitting the beast where both of its legs met. It let out a squeal so high pitched that Zwain thought it was coming out of another creature. Zwain stood up and watched as the Chief’s knees knocked together and it keeled over in the dirt. It made no attempt to escape from Zwain as he approached. It just laid in the dirty holding its testicles, sobbing in pain.

Zwain hoisted the guitar high above his head, ready to deal the finishing blow–

“That’ll do, wizard. We can take it from here.”

The guitar froze in place and Zwain glanced over his shoulder. A group of about 6 men, all covered head to toe in metal approached him.

“Wizard?” asked Zwain as he turned to meet these newcomers.

The leader of the pack drew and arrow from his quiver.”We were approaching this camp when we saw that portal open,” he said as he let the arrow fly, hitting the chief in the back of the skull. “None of the orcs in this area would have the capabilities to do such a feat. Not even Chief Unklar here and he was damned near the smartest of this camp. Hell, not even our own wizard, Lord Finnegan, is capable of opening portals”

“Who are you? Where am I? Orcs?”

“What do you mean, where am I? Do you not know the lands of Stephen, our King?”

Zwain could only shake his head.

“Of course not. You must not be from around here, not with that ridiculous getup you’re wearing. Well then, you would not presently know that the use of unsanctioned magic in these parts is also punishable by immediate death.”

Zwain clutched the guitar, ready to strike. If it came to blows, he was going to fight his way out. He wanted to get back to the field and make sure that his friends were safe.

“Easy. Easy. We witnessed your tussle with Unklar. I have to say that it was most impressive. Especially after he turned into a berserker. Even the most skilled warriors are usually killed on the first charge of a berserked orc.”

“Well, matters of life and death do tend end up in my favour.”

“Indeed.”

“So what happens now?”

“Well, my men have arrows trained on you at this moment, so don’t try any magical funny business.”

“You don’t have worry, that portal was a one time thing and I don’t have any other spells up my sleeve.”

“Sure, and goblins make great farm animals. You wizards are the most cunning and sly people around. It’s your hubris; that you think you can out wit the rest of us.”

“Not at all. When I made that portal it required a lot of…” Zwain didn’t know how to put it. This place seemed lacking in the technology department. “… ingredients? I had to rush through when I saw these… orcs? Coming through to my lands and didn’t have time to grab any more. I assure you I can’t open another portal.”

“Well that’s all for the better. Now, if you could come with me, I might be able to make a case for you with our good King. Your unique fighting style against Unklar might prove useful. I fear dark times may be upon us. Now, come along. Don’t make me have to tie you up.”

Zwain approached the pack of knights, they let him pass and then followed in tow. The lead knight removed his helmet and rested it on the pommel of his saddle. “The name is Sir Leopold. Lead knight and heir to the throne. And you are?”

“Zwain, lead singer for A Flock of Cows, ” said Zwain taking a deep bow. It was the kind of smart-ass remark that he knew Duece would’ve loved.

“Well, Sir Zwain of the Flock of Cows, allow me to be the first to welcome you to Astarathe.”

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Chapter 17

The blurry vision made it seem like there was five times as many stars in the sky. His right hand ache and tingled. He tried clenching his fist, hoping to pump blood through, to see if the tingling sensation would go away. He glanced over and saw his hand remaining stationary, yet it felt clenched tightly into a fist. His eyes traced down the arm for a bit and finally spotted what was wrong. His arm was no longer attached to his body.

“Man, that’ll just about do it,” Tony thought and laughed at the ridiculousness of this whole situation. The laughing morphed into a bloody coughing fit, and Tony clutched his belly for fear of his guts falling out. He raised his left hand and watched the blood slowly work its way down his fingers, dripping onto the tattered remains of his shirt.

Tony looked up at the stars again, his fuzzy vision enhancing the already beautiful night sky. A weird bubble passed overhead distorting the image of the stars, almost imperceptible. Tony recalled all the UFO sightings in those bullshit newspapers at the grocery store. After witnessing the portal, Tony could believe almost anything.

His thoughts returned to the last few minutes, which began to feel like hours. He remembered seeing Duece push Mandy out of the way; the way his arm tumbled through the air once it had been severed; the sudden rush of adrenaline and rage as Zwain yelled and charged forward with Tony two steps behind, joining in the war cry.

Then a sharp pain on his back as claws dug right into his shoulder blades, pinning him face first to the ground. Tony scrambled to roll and face the creature. He managed to knock the creature back, but lost his grip on his guitar neck causing it to land a few feet from him. The blood and drool dripped from the hound’s snarling maw as it lunged for Tony’s throat. Tony managed to get his right arm up in time, catching the beast’s jaws with his forearm, only to have the jaws crush his bones into hundreds of pieces. Tony cried out in pain.

With lightning quick reflexes, the beast shot its front paws forward catching Tony up by his collar bone. With a sharp pull, it dragged its steak knife claws down his entire torso before digging in just below his belly button. One its paws were planted, the beast gave one quick tug with its head and immediately tore Tony’s arm free from his body, causing a torrent of blood to rain down on his burning chest wounds.

Tony let loose a loud high pitched shriek of pain, startling the beast enough for him to instinctively grab the neck of his guitar and drive it up into the belly of the hound, making sure to twist as it pierced the thing’s flesh. It slumped over dead and Tony rolled fully on his back; blood running from his wounds, struggling to remain conscious.

“At least I got the fucker…” Tony said to himself as he continued to star up at the stars, hoping to see the bubble again.

A shadow blocked his view of the heavens. Tony’s vision cleared enough to see a white mane of hair and those shitty visor sunglasses. “I thought I told you those look like shit, man, ” Tony chuckled out loud, his mouth filling with blood.

“Shut up, dude,” said Zwain as he used his own guitar strap to slow the bleeding from Tony’s arm.  “Shut up and hold still. I’ll save you.”

“Man, those fuckers sure have some bite. Took my arm clean off.”

Mandy approached to two of them, holding her guitar and watching for other potential attackers. Not that she’d be able to see them that well with her makeup in her eyes. She frantically wiped the tears hoping to clear her vision of its current red hue.

“How is he?” she asked Zwain.

“Not good. That thing shredded him down his entire front. He’s losing a lot of blood.”

Tony’s head swayed back and forth as he lifted it from the ground, his speech slurring like he was drugged up. “Dude, Zwain, man? I saw something… way up, man… Way up in the stars, dude–”

“Shhh, conserve your energy. We’re getting you out of here.”

“It was, man… It.. was a UFO. Mind blowing, dude…,” laughed Tony, more blooding spewing from his lips.

“Now you’re the one freaking, man. You should’ve taken your own advice about the acid,” Zwain chuckled, surprised he made a joke at a time like this. Tony laughed even harder, then winced in pain.

“Nah, man… I’d never touch that shit… Hey… Zwain, man? It… has been… an honour, dude… You… are the best… man…” He raised his trembling left hand and attempted to form it into a set of horns. “Keep… on… rock…” The hand flopped onto his chest as it sucked in one last breath and stopped. A downpour of tears dribbled onto his unmoving face from Zwain’s cheeks.

“no… No…. NO!!” cried Zwain as he leaned forward onto the lifeless body of his best friend and gave in to huge sobs of sorrow. Mandy fell to her knees and started bawling. She had known Tony her whole life, his summer barbeques being her earliest and fondest memories about the neighbourhood.

Zwain continued to lay there in the patch of moonlight that Tony died in, not giving a fuck about anything anymore. The screams that surrounded him had started to dwindle either because of people escaping, or being killed. Their lives no longer mattered to Zwain. The lives of his friends were in danger or lost or whatever. Zwain knew he had opened the portal. He had killed Tony and now he just wanted to die right there so that no more horror can even happen to those that he loved.

Mandy let out a terrified scream. Zwain lifted his head, expecting one of the huge green beasts to be standing over them, poised to strike. Instead he saw a spaceship; shaped a bit like a bird’s head, only flatter in the face. A big giant windshield took up almost the entire front of the ship with the call letters CST4-L3G written just below it. Tony was right, after all.

The ship lowered to the ground as Zwain grabbed his guitar and stood up to face the machine. Mandy’s scream trailed off into silence. Standing in the middle of the windshield, with his hand pressed up against it, was the man who helped cause all of this terror.

Christopher Leg.

Zwain felt an immediate twinge of hatred at this man who showed him how to open this portal of death. He flashed back to that day in the park, the sincerity in Chris’s eyes as Zwain handed him the guitar. The feeble way he limped after showing Zwain the missing piece of his song puzzle. Was that man capable of dooming all of us?

Chris was pointing rapidly at the portal behind him. Zwain turned and looked, the portal seemed to stare back at him, one big open eye. Monsters were no longer seemed to be piling through, but who knows what else could be on its way.

Zwain turned back to Chris. Chris was repeatedly saying something over and over. Zwain couldn’t hear him, but Chris contorted his mouth in over exaggerated shapes to form the words, making them easy to read.

“Go.”

“Though.”

“The.”

“Portal.”

In a bright flash, Zwain’s memory snapped into place. Chris had mentioned this exact thing back in the park. Zwain was so caught up in what Chris did during the guitar solo that he wasn’t paying full attention when Chris was mentioning that passing through the portal would make it close faster.

He grabbed Mandy by her wrist and ran for the portal, almost yanking her arm out of the socket in the process. She glanced back at the spaceship and Tony’s lifeless body. Then her gaze lifted slightly to see the shed where she hid Duece, she prayed that he would be safe from any more harm.

Zwain continued towards the portal as quickly as he could run. His left arm pumping though the air with the guitar clenched in his fist. Mandy’s wrist was still locked in his right hand, she had now turned forward to help keep pace with his speed.

A bright blue flash fired past with a quick TWANG tearing through the air. What followed was the sound of a giant bubble popping in slow motion, and gooey splatter raining onto the ground. Zwain turned an saw the cloud of red and green particles that used to be one of the monsters.

The shock wave of the blast caused Zwain to lose his grip on Mandy. She lost her footing and tumbled into the dirt. Zwain took a couple of more steps before realizing she had even tripped. He was turning to go help her when one of the hounds pounced on her back. Mandy cried out in pain. Zwain’s vision turned red with blind rage.

“Fuck!” he yelled as he ran back towards her. He swung his guitar hitting the beast square in the side. It flew off Mandy shredding the back of her leather jacket in the process. Not satisfied with just getting the beast off of her, Zwain lept over Mandy and proceed to repeatedly pound the monster dog with his guitar, rendering it unrecognizable.

Blood dripped down his face as he rose up from his brutal assault. Zwain removed his shades, tossing them off to the side, so that he could get a better look at the field. The remaining survivors were now entering the forests on the perimeter, with the huge hulking green beasts hot on their tails.

Another of the monsters exploded into a mist of blood. Zwain looked up to see where the shot came from and let out a cry of surprise. Hundreds of space ships were scattering all over night sky, each one looking similar to Chris’s ship. These ships were taking pot shots at both the green monsters and the helpless survivors. This was an invasion. Chris, the son of a bitch, must have done this on purpose. In all his fury, Zwain didn’t notice the Chief of the green monster approaching from behind.

It was Mandy’s yell that snapped Zwain out of it. He turned and saw the huge, hulking monster stomp its way over to them. Mandy attacked first swinging her guitar at its shins. The guitar shattered into hundreds of pieces, but barely managed to make the creature stumble. It caught its balance then reached out and grabbed Mandy by the neck. She kicked and punched in a desperate attempt to get away.

Zwain charged forward refusing to let another of his friends die this evening. Everything slowed down as he leapt into the air ready to smash The Axe into the face of this fucker. With his heightened adrenaline Zwain was able to perceive all that was around him: People on the field frozen mid run; blue balls of energy slowly streaking across the night; two of the ships caught in an aerial dogfight ballet; Mandy’s eyes widening in terror as she struggled to get air into her lungs; the constricting of the monster’s pupils as he eyed up Zwain.

“Ooomph!” Air exploded out of Zwain’s lungs as the Chief backhanded him in the gut, sending him flying. The Chief dropped Mandy to the ground and turned to give Zwain chase. Mandy landed on the ground, gasping for air.

Zwain continued tumbling through the air, watching the invading spaceships fly across the–bright noon sun. His pupils constricted so fast, you could almost hear them.

He hit the dusty, brown dirt with a thud and rolled to a stop. Zwain gasped and coughed as air finally rushed back into his lung. He rose up to his hands and knees, letting the coughing fit run its course. Out of the corner of his eye he could see the blue light of the portal shrivel up and blink out of existence.

Mandy, Duece and Tony all remained on the other side. Along with whatever remained of the green monsters and their dogs, plus the new threat of… aliens? Only Chris seemed so human, so Zwain didn’t want think so.

After the coughing had subsided, Zwain slowly rose to his feet with his guitar in his hand. A slow, raspy breathing was coming from where the portal used to be. Zwain turned and was met with the snarling mouth and flaring nostrils of the big green Chief.

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