1. Morgan

This is an original story, with original characters. I wrote the story, and Morgan, to reflect my experiences as a transgender man. That is to say, I know there are other ways to experience being transgender, and other ways to express that. I wanted to write about a man that was comfortable with himself, and could be every bit a hero or villain as the cis gendered men in the genre, and be fully accepted for who and what he is. 

Feedback is always welcome. Please feel free to share. If you could give me a link back, I’d appreciate it. 

This is the first draft.

There is an explicit sex scene. Be warned. 


 

Morgan walked into the Lady Rose Inn with this comrades. He was the shortest of the travel worn men. He shared in the grime and travel dirt with the rest of his fellows, though. He was clearly human, with tanned skin, and several weeks worth of stubble growing on his chin. His unkempt brown hair hung on his head, with the slightest grey coming in at the temples. His eyes belied his worn appearance, and were bright blue and showed his good humor.

“So, I call the first bath,” Morgan said, while smacking the largest of the men on the back. Morgan smirked at the resounding thud of the contact.

The man he hit stood head and shoulders above everyone else, and was even taller to Morgan. He was a half-orc from beyond the mountains of Hargrove’s kingdom. Like all members of the Orcish race, the giant was tall, broad, and with a greenish tinge to his skin. He also had tusk-like teeth that protruded from his mouth, that occasionally made it hard to understand his speech. His name was Axe in these human dominated lands.

“Not unless you plan to fight me for it, little man,” Axe said, and just shook his head. Then he leaned down, and smiled a toothy, tusk filled, smile at Morgan. They faced each other eye to eye for a moment.

Morgan reached up and flicked the big man’s tusk with his fingers, and said, “I bet Rose will let me go first.”

“Or. . . you could go get your stuff at the apothecary, and let me have first dibs on the bath,” Axe responded. “These long limbs could really use the soak, and I’ll make sure you get the second one before James does whatever it is he does to defile the soaking tub.” As Axe said this, his dark eyes flicked forward to the dirtiest of the humans in the company.

Morgan smiled, and said, “Alright, but only if you promise to beat anyone that tries to cut in front of me.”

“You have my word, little man,” The half-Orc said solemnly. Only his eyes betrayed his amusement.

Morgan turned to go back out onto the busy street, and could hear James complain, “Wait? I defile the tub?!”

The foot traffic was heavy with mothers leading children, and carrying baskets of goods. It was market day in the city of Tombsville. A town named for the giant old world cemetery that it was situated next to. Rumors were that the cemeteries were from the old age, when kings flew the skies, and changed the geography of the land on a whim.

The current township had been founded by less then reputable folks that made a living on plundering the dead for monetary gain. As the years had worn on, actual families had settled, and it was now a thriving stop on the trade routes. Most of the closest tombs had been plundered, and Tombsville was known for it’s rather macabre humor about the situation. There were rumors of deeper treasures, but at this late date, that was all drunken stories from old men seeking a refill for their cup.

Tombsville served as a meeting hub for those men and women interested in the odd job here and there. Morgan’s crew, led by an elven man named Loren, had just come back from work guarding the caravan of a minor noble’s daughter as she traveled back to her home, after she had left her husband. It had been spectacularly gossip worthy.

Morgan trudged down to the apothecary, and walked in the familiar doorway. The interior smelled of herbs, warmth, and spicy smells from far away. At the counter was an older human man, and his elven apprentice. He was as old, tanned, and wizened, as she was young, smooth, and pale. Morgan went to stand politely, waiting his turn.

“Ahh, you were gone longer than you expected, eh?” the herbalist asked, when Morgan reached the counter.

“Yes, Mr. Farley. I was gone a month longer than I expected. I was out in the wilderness the whole time, too.” Morgan looked a bit unhappy, then shrugged. “What can I do. A job’s a job.”

The old man took Morgan’s face in his hands, and studied it. The old man’s hands were warm and leathery, and had the ephemeral smell of his work. “You’ll be fine. You might have a bit of a mood here and there going back on your med regime, but you’re fine.” He let Morgan go with a small pat to the cheek.

“Yeah,” Morgan said, “I wasn’t too worried. It’s not like I’m new at this or anything.” Then he pulled a leather pouch out, and said, “The good news is I can pay in full both my tab from before, and my current bill.”

The pale blond elven girl laughed musically, and pipped in, “So you’re rich now, are you?”

“No, no. Just doing well this time. Better to pay ahead when I can, for when I’m not doing well.” Morgan said with a laugh.

He left the apothecary with a smile on his face, and made his way back to the Lady Rose. As he threaded his way to the bar, he caught sight of the Inn’s owner, and caught her eye.

“Do I have a room yet?” He asked, and “If not, can I bunk with Axe? He doesn’t snore.”

“You’ll be in with Axe, then,” The older women said. “He’s in the bath now, but said you were to be next, or at least not let James in before you. . . What that boy does to himself, I’ll never know. . . “ she said, shaking her head.

Rose was old enough to call Morgan her son, or maybe her grandson if he was to be uncharitable. Her dark hair was more gray than black, and her brown eyes were sharp, and picked up every detail before her. She ran her inn as more than just a hotel for travelers, but also knew all the business to be had in Tombsville, and beyond. If you needed anything, Rose was the woman to talk to. Her business sense was shrewd, and it paid to be on her good side.

When Morgan was a teen, it was Rose that took him in, and set him right. She was the one that introduced him to Loren, when he’d never even seen an elf in person before. She’d smelled the small town runaway that he was, and helped him to find his place in the world. She was a mother to him, in her own way.

“I’ll just toss my stuff up there then, and get some dinner, I guess.” he said. “Um, did Loren and The Smith leave already?” he asked while looking around the room.

“Yeah, Loren said he’d be back later. I’m thinking it’s got to do with that business you were on recently. Never work for nobles. It’s always a hassle.” Rose said with feeling. “You wouldn’t believe what I had to go through to get my cut for it. As if I’m running a visitor’s center here? Do I just help folks get in touch with able bodied fighters for free, do I?” Her brown eyes crackled with her irritation, and Morgan had to laugh at anyone so unaware as to think they could cross her in her own city.

Morgan eventually found himself at a table with hot goat stew in front of him, and a strong dark beer to wash it down. He watched the folks in the inn, each to their own table.

A tall, gaunt human sat next to him. He looked to be about 25, but his behavior sometimes led Morgan to believe he was much older. Nobody knew for sure exactly what his age was. His hair had the look of black linen left too long in the sun. It had a washed out look to it. His eyes were dark black, but seemed to carry that same washed out quality as well. In general, he gave the impression of something wavering on the cusp of being past due. It was a quality that all necromancers had. You couldn’t work the arts of death without being a bit dead yourself, they said.

“Seriously, Morgan? I have to wait for you to bathe before I get a turn?” James said.

“If Loren can sell me as a ‘safe for women’ option for work, then we can make you wait until after I’m done.” Morgan said. He smiled, but his eyes showed his annoyance.

James snorted and said, “Could we pretend he was saying you preferred the company of large stinky men? It’s also hilarious that he implied you had eunuch like qualities. You hop beds more than anyone I know.” His eyes brightened for a minute as he laughed.

“Yeah, yeah. Let’s pretend that’s what he told her noble highness, and let’s pretend she wasn’t fascinated with my unusual qualities for the entire trip.” Morgan said, “About the bath thing? When I bath after you, I smell like cemetery dirt. That is not a winning combination for me and anyone I’m trying to hop into bed with. Let’s pretend you want to go last because you can soak in there for longer?” Morgan said, pointing with his spoon.

“Fine,” James said with a softening smile, “We’ll both pretend that. I can’t help what necromancy does to me, and you can’t help having a short man’s complex about your masculinity.”

The conversation drifted and they enjoyed each other’s company until Axe made his way out to the table. Morgan was able to get into the bathing room easily, with no arguments from James.

Morgan put his clean set of clothing on the side table, and pulled out his apothecary bag. He set up his medication in short order, and injected it. Some folks might have considered that a badge of toughness, but to Morgan, it was just life. He then slid out of his dirty travel clothes, and slid naked into the hot water.

Morgan’s body bore the scars of multiple ill thought out actions. He was quick to swing his fists, and not as fast to duck. He was tattooed, and had more exotic scars in the shape of runes. His flat chest bore scars of medical procedures that he had gotten done down in the high city of Scottsdale. In all, his body told a story of repeated refusals to give up.

Nothing was quite so glorious as being neck deep in a tub of hot water, soaking and scrubbing the dirt away, Morgan decided. There were benefits to being the shortest, it made soaking tubs an amazing experience.

He made sure not to take too long because he knew James was waiting, and had more reason to want to be clean than he did. James was actually the cleanest person he knew. His necromancy meant he was likely to smell of fresh earth when clean, but given time, it got . . . worse.

Most folks wouldn’t share a table with a necromancer of his obvious power. Most Necromancers were born to it, but were fine if they only dabbled in the craft. However, when they got more dedicated, it changed them physically. Once that step was taken, there was no going back. Everyone knew what you were capable of. James was one of the best, so he was one of the most obvious. When James walked down a crowded street, folks gave way. He always had a bubble of space nobody was willing to invade. He was definitely dark in his humor, but underneath it all, he was a good man.

By the time Morgan got back out, the table had gained two more members. Morgan nodded to the tall elf, as he sat down.

Loren was slender, and had a quiet demeanor. Sometimes folks took that to mean he wasn’t dangerous, and that was a mistake. He was probably one of the most deadly creatures Morgan had ever met. His long blond hair was pulled back, and his most prominent feature was the eye patch he wore over his left eye. His dress style was very traditionally elven, with a penchant for natural greens and browns.

Loren used to be the top bowman for the royal archers at Dallingshal. He was a minor noble in his own right, and was having an affair with a woman way above his pay grade. That ended when her husband put out his left eye. The angry spouse didn’t survive the attempt, but the politics involved meant Loren had to flee Dallingshal. Additionally, he might still be an amazing archer, he was no longer the top archer in Dallingshal because of that lost eye.

By the time Morgan met him, Loren had a helluva reputation for getting things done, and had an talent for finding unusual assets for his team. They had worked together for over a decade, and despite the length of time, Morgan sometimes felt he didn’t know Loren at all. That was how it was between elves and humans, though.

The other man at the table was a massive human with a giant beard to match. He went by the name Smith, or The Smith. He was an able gunnery man. His love was all things that exploded. If you wanted a man that understood everything from the mundane gunpowder cannons, to the most esoteric magical ignition devices, Smith was it. He was also a monster in a fight, and great for intimidation, because of his stature.

Smith pulled up a chair for Morgan, and then bellowed to one of Rose’s servers to bring a beer. He was loud enough to silence the entire inn for a few seconds.

Axe broke the stunned silence by saying, “And people are afraid of Orcs. . . “ The inn erupted in laughter, and everyone went back to their business.

The rest of the night passed amiably, as they drank away the dust of their travels.

The rest of the week was filled with reunited friends and lazy mornings, as Morgan enjoyed his time off. Loren’s crew had been paid well on that last job, and he was hoping to get a month of lazy mornings.

The Smith had left town to go back to his families homestead, a day outside the town’s border, and James had gone into the large cemetery that Tombsville was next to. This was normal for a necromancy who wanted to build on their craft, and probably more comfortable for a man that nobody in town wanted to get too close to.

That left Loren, Axe, and Morgan at the inn. Morgan and Axe reached an amiable agreement to share a room, if Morgan promised to keep his antics down to a minimum. Loren, like always, took the biggest room available, and kept his pointed ears open for more work for himself and his men.

Morgan’s hope for a long lazy month wasn’t to be. He woke up to an unforgiving dawn, with Axe leaned over him. Morgan reached out and popped Axe in the side of the head, before he was even aware he was moving. Axe grabbed the much smaller human fist, and held it for a moment to give Morgan a chance to wake up all the way, and avoid getting hit again.

“Shit, sorry. Can I have my hand back?” Morgan croaked out. His mind was still spinning from all the drinking from the night before.

Axe snickered, and let go of his fist, and said, “You hit like a human, and Loren says he needs to talk to us both.” He then lightly rapped his knuckles on Morgans forehead before turning to leave.

Morgan just groaned, and set about getting himself out of the bed clothes. He fought valiantly against them, and eventually found himself up and mostly dressed. Enough to go downstairs, at least. His bare feet carried him down the cold floor boards to the main room in the inn. The fire was going, and it would have been warm enough, if he’d had sense enough to put on his boots, and an over shirt. Instead, here he was in his pants, a light under tunic, and barefoot.

As Morgan tucked his bare feet up on the chair, he looked blearily across at Loren. Loren the elf was awake, and not hungover. The elf was clean, well dressed, and cheerful. Morgan decided he hated everything about Loren this morning, and glowered at the table in general.

It took a few minutes of discussion between Axe and Loren before Morgan woke enough to make out what was going on.

“So we start out in five days?” Axe was asking, “And it’s an escort out across the wilds?” When Loren nodded over his tea, Axe continued, “This isn’t even a full convoy, but three people that want to go into the wilds for what?”

Loren shrugged, and said, “They paid me extra not to ask. They wanted a crew with a necromancer, and muscle, so that’s us. I don’t know what they want all the way out there, but the money’s good, and it doesn’t seem like too much of a headache.”

Morgan finally spoke up, “Yeah, that’s what you said about the last job, and I got to babysit little miss ‘can I get down your pants’ for weeks on end.”

Loren smiled under his blond hair, and said, “This time, you aren’t the selling point, Morgan.” Loren then chuckled, “It’s James. They really want a necromancer. I think they want someone to be raised when we get there. James said he was okay with that kind of work, so that gave us the job ahead of the others who would do it for less.”

“What I need is for one of you to go get The Smith, and one of you to go get James”, Loren added.

Before he’d even stopped speaking Axe broke in, “I’ll get The Smith. I’m not going into the cemetery. I hate that place. I have to fight something off every single time.”

Loren looked at Morgan, who just shrugged and said, “Who knew Orcish folk were rabbits. Enjoy your long boring walk to The Smiths. You have to eat one of the meat rolls his lady makes. Those are amazing. Bring one back for me.”

“Just because I can fight, doesn’t mean I want to. You’re getting old enough you should have learned that by now,” Axe said back with a smile.

Loren smiled and said, “Good. I’ll tell our new employers we’re good to go, and see you boys back here when you get back.”

Morgan grumbled but got up, and went back upstairs to get his gear, and left Axe and Loren to their civilized breakfast banter.

An hour later he found his way down the stairs again, when Rose came up and pressed a breakfast scone into his hands.

“Take a moment to eat. I swear I have teenagers that take care of themselves better than you do,” Rose said while fluttering around him. “Why didn’t you make the Orc take the cemetery? Do you have to prove yourself that badly?”

Morgan tried to brush off her concern, “Axe is afraid of the dead. It’s an Orc thing. Apparently they scream like children when confronted with undead squirmy things. Also, he loves Smith’s kids. Dead things don’t bother me too much, though.”

“Well, eat, and have some tea before you go, anyways,” Rose said. She put her hands on Morgan’s shoulders and physically steered him to a barstool where a hot cup of tea was waiting. Morgan’s mood improved as he sat and chatted with Rose over his breakfast. His mood always improved when Rose mothered him.

When Morgan’s booted feet found themselves on the road outside the inn, he was smiling in the crisp morning air. He had his dark wool winter coat wrapped firmly around himself, and a thick hat on his head. His pack was light, with just a bedroll, and the basics. He had to travel light to make room for the short sword on his hip, the knives in his boots, and the bow strapped to his pack.

Morgan was a man who liked weapons. Younger men, who came from noble families, might favor flashy weapons with inlays that drew attention. Morgan, however, was middle aged and pragmatic by nature. Since he made his living with his weapons, their function was far more important than form. He favored weapons built for use. His weapons were plain, and utilitarian, to reflect this.

His sword was well worn. He’d had it for a decade, and cared for it with zeal, but nothing about it drew the eye. He was not a tall man, so a short sword fit his build well. It also fit his style. Morgan liked to get right up into his opponent’s space. He was good at it, and tended to startle enemies who were fooled by his small stature.

His boot knives were long standing friends to him, and although they spent most of their time hidden in the sheaths built into his knee high boots, whenever he’d needed them, they were ready. He wasn’t especially good at throwing them, but they tended to be missed on cursory searches, and he was just as good with two knives as he was with a sword.

His bow was a bit atypical for a human. He’d learned archery from Loren, and favored an elven short bow. He would never be half the shot Loren was, even with only one eye. However, for a human, he was considered a good bowman. He still wouldn’t want to go up against a squad of elven archers, but nobody did.

Morgan was good at his craft because he was constantly working to improve his skills. He had picked up his first sword at the age of 14, and now, at the age of 35, he’d never stopped. Despite his occasional drunken binges, he could usually be found practicing in the quiet hours of the morning. He was sure if he got soft, and gave it up, that’s when someone else’s blade would find itself between his ribs. Of the entire crew, he was the one that could be found most dedicated to his craft. The rest had size, strength, or their race working for them.

As the cold sun shined down, Morgan wound his way to the edge of Tombsville. The cramped street gave way to smaller one-family homes, then to shanty shacks, until it was just a dirt track through the barren frozen country.

Unlike most natural places, this empty landscape was dotted with stone outcroppings, crumbling from the weight of time. These were the first of many tombstones. Nobody was sure why the old races wanted to build a cemetery that was larger than most modern cities, but they did. Like any architecture from those times, there was little sense to be made out of it.

Some of the ancient architecture included a notable bridge in Stilton that led the traveler into the sky and then stopped abruptly, and another in Port Moresby that led under the sea, only to end in a wall of ocean at the bottom. There were one or two large ancient cities that were known, each massive in scale, but barren of all life. It’s said that one couldn’t even grow the most weed-like grasses there.

These ancient spaces always drew treasure hunters and power seekers. It was said that if you spent too much time in these lost spaces, you could find powerful items. Some seekers were just a little nutty, but some were outright dangerous. If there was anything the gossipy old housewives were right about, it was that the Ancients were power mad, and dangerous. Dabbling in the old corners in the world for too long was a sure way to shorten your life.

The cemetery outside of Tombsville was no different. It was massive, and filled with incongruous architecture that made little sense to the modern eye. Tombs of multiple dead vied with single ornate internments.

The road to the cemetery, itself was empty because nobody but scavengers or necromancers usually went there. That’s because one had to be on one’s guard to enter the cemetery. It wasn’t for the faint of heart.

Something about the cemetery brought the dead back to life. Most were mindless shambling monsters, but occasionally, something smarter clawed it’s way back to the surface. It was the smart ones you had to be careful off. The mindless shamblers could be dangerous if you were injured, or cornered, but the sentient dead were downright nasty all the time.

Tombsville was situated far enough away, that the town guard had only a few stragglers to deal with. It was close enough that a small number of it’s populace were born to necromancy on a regular basis. Nowhere else in the world could you find necromancers, because they were all born locally.

Morgan walked lightly past the crumbling grave markers. The road itself dwindled quickly to a path. As he progressed, he walked slower, and listened more. It took him half the day, to get to a branch in the path. Morgan took the lesser used of the two, and headed deeper into the tombs.

All said and done, the trip took until late afternoon, and was quiet. It usually was during the day. It was nighttime when the cemetery got dicey. The dead tended to be inactive in the sun, but woe be to someone in the wrong place when it went down.

The path led to a large tomb, with a robust iron gate. Morgan clanged the gate a few times, and called out, “James? You in there?” Then he kept an eye on his surroundings in case something else decided to answer him.

After a few minutes, James walked up to the other side of the gate. James was shirtless in the chill air. His pale skin had that same washed out quality that his hair and eyes exhibited. Except here, in his own environment, James appeared other than human. Up close, he was visibly gaunt, with ribs that protruded from thin skin. His eyes were wide, often unblinking, and his washed out pupils were larger than a human would find natural.

“I thought we had a few weeks?” James said, while holding the gate open for Morgan with a long thin arm.

“Loren got an escort job, and this time the selling point was you. They wanted a necromancer to raise someone. Hopefully it’s not as annoying as that last job was for me,” Morgan offered, as he ducked under James’ arm to walk into the crypt.

As Morgan entered the room he asked, “There’s nothing down here that I should be worried about, is there?”

“No. I turned the last of them loose last night,” James responded with a shrug.

“Oh good. Catch and release. Lovely,” Morgan said sarcastically. “There’s a reason Axe won’t come out here you know.”

James laughed and said, “That was a mistake, and I already apologized. I’ve learned to do things differently since then.”

Morgan laughed and said, “Yeah, he’s not going to let that go, ever.” Both men snickered as they walked inside.

The inside of the large crypt had been converted to living space, and was actually well furnished. Rugs hung on the walls, and were plush on the floor. There was a large table in the center of the main room, with a prominent fireplace in the corner.

Two doorways led off, closed with dark tapestries. Morgan knew one led to James’ “working space” and the other led to the bedroom. Even Morgan’s bravado dimmed at the thought of entering a necromancer’s workshop. He preferred to stay in the less macabre areas of his coworkers living space. Morgan might be in a business where he killed, but playing with their parts, and bring them back was well outside his comfort zone.

“So, I’m gonna head back early tomorrow morning, but we aren’t leaving for a few days, if you need more time,” Morgan said.

James nodded, and moved to the fireplace to start a fire. “I’ll be back in a couple of days, then.” As he stacked some wood up, he waved his hand across the wood, and sparks ignited in it’s wake. “I’ll have it human-warm in here in no time. Don’t worry. I won’t freeze you out. I should probably eat something, too. You want some rabbit stew?”

Morgan nodded as he sat his pack down. James was a good host, but if there was anywhere you could tell he wasn’t all human, this was it. James didn’t bother with heat, and other human comforts when he was alone. Morgan had gotten used to that, though, and as long as nothing else was shambling around the place, he was comfortable with James.

They spent the evening in the warm glow of the fire, telling jokes, and drinking some of James’ wine. When dawn came, Morgan set out with first light to make his way back to Tombsville. The trip was quiet, but the dead weren’t a big fan of winter’s frozen weather anymore than Morgan was.

In three days time, the motley crew found themselves in the Lady Rose shortly after dawn. Axe and Loren were talking about something or other in the local gossip circuits that might be helpful for future work. The Smith sat awake and smiling over his tea. James was leaned over Morgan’s shorter frame, and trying to communicate to the still bleary eyed human attempting to shovel his oats and cream into his face.

The door to the inn opened in a swirl of icy air, and three well clothed humans entered. Bits of snow swirled in as they blustered in, and shut the door with a resounding bang. Their entrance silenced Loren’s crew at the table, as the men eyed the newcomers carefully.

The first was very obviously the muscle of the group. He was showy, and had showy weapons. His boots didn’t have much wear and tear, and the large broadsword on his hip had improbable gems studded into it’s sheath. His long dark hair was pulled back with an expensive silver bangle. He couldn’t have been more than 25 years old.

The second body to enter was a woman with a well worn face in her mid twenties. Her blue eyes were clear, and she stared boldly back at the table of adventurers. Her cloak was a thick, well made blue brocade fabric from the high cities.

The last man through the door was in his 50’s, with short greying hair. His clothing was more travel worn, and simple in nature. His boots were worn, and his face looked like it had a rocky relationship with a razor.

Loren stood up quickly, and walked over to the trio, and nodded to them, “I’d like you to meet my crew.” and he pointed to each man in order, as he explained, “This is The Smith, the best gunner you could find. Next is Axe, known for his tactics. Then there is Morgan, what he doesn’t have in size, he makes up for in ferocity. Lastly, there is James, the necromancer you were looking for.” Loren’s smile was the same one he used with clients everywhere. He was the epitome of professional unreadability in these circumstances.

“Boys, I’d like to introduce you to our new clients,” he went on to say, “This is Antonio Meridday, youngest son of the Merriday Mining baron in the Hargrove Mountains.” He pointed to the well dressed, well armed younger man.

“The lovely lady is Scarlet Jax, freelance mage,” Loren said, while flourishing towards the woman in the group.

“The last of our clients is Tom White. Companion to Ms. Jax,” Loren said with a slightly flatter tone.

Morgan’s ears picked up at the last note in Loren’s tone. He didn’t shift his smile, but he looked over the last man with more care. Loren was damn near imperceptible for most, but after over a decade with the elf, Morgan knew the cues to look for. Loren didn’t approve of Mr. Tom White for some reason or other. Maybe Axe or Smith would know, Morgan thought.

“So, is this the necromancer? James, was it?” Scarlet said, while making a b-line to James.

Morgan shared a look of sympathy with James, before letting James put on his public smile, and make small talk. The next hour was a strategy meeting in which they said niceties, plotted their route, and ate breakfast.

They would be on foot, as usual. Horses were fine for normal folks, but between James and Axe it was more complicated. Also, horses were expensive to own and maintain. Unless you were a farmer, or a noble, there was no real use for them in general to Loren and his crew. Where they were going the terrain was too questionable to favor more than a sturdy donkey, anyways.

It was in short order that the crew was out on the street heading away from Tombsville.

“So what was it you did again?” Antonio asked Morgan as they followed the road out of town. His height, like most men, towered over Morgan’s more modest stature.

“Why? Wondering if you should have paid less now that you’ve seen me?” Morgan replied.

Antonio’s face showed surprise, and he said, “No. It was just the elf wasn’t too clear. . .” The words trailed off into silence.

Morgan let the silence hang until it became uncomfortable before saying, “I kill things. If they are already dead, I make them deader. You know, muscle. Every group needs that.” Morgan didn’t want a repeat of the last mission, and kept his words curt.

For Antonio’s part, he kept his face politely neutral, “I see.” before looking for his compatriots ahead of him.

The rest of the day went by without incident. By that evening, they found a likely camping site, and Loren’s crew set about making camp, and deciding watches.

“I don’t care what watch I have. I’m sober, and my bed is empty.” Morgan groused, while he laid out his bedroll.

“Then have middle watch,” Axe said. “Us old men like our sleep. . . with or without people in our beds.” The half-orc snickered.

Morgan shrugged, and bent over the campfire, to tend to some dinner. He felt Antonio’s eyes on him, and he ignored it. Either the younger man was looking to fix Morgan’s empty bed situation, or he was still concerned about Morgan’s stature. Either way, Morgan ignored it, and dished up some quick food for everyone.

The night passed without incident, and the group started off again the next morning. The next several days passed in that vein, with nothing more than light conversation.

On the fifth evening, as they were starting to look for a place to camp for the night, Axe leaned down and picked up a stone off the path. Then he threw it at Morgan. It was a a small gesture, but Morgan made no indication he noticed. Instead he walked up past Loren, bumping him lightly, before passing the three clients. Once Morgan was in the front, he kept pace to keep it that way.

Morgan nonchalantly rested his hand on the sheath of his sword, and scanned the area. The group was walking through a deep path between several rocky ridges. This was going to be an ambush. Axe was never one to be wrong.

Axe dropped back, letting the group move out of sight, before moving off the path, and into the rocky terrain. For such a big man, his feet moved silently, and once off the path, he was nearly invisible in the scenery. Most folks didn’t understand how capable Orcs were in the wild. Axe was no exception.

Loren pulled his bow around, and strung it with care, while nodding to The Smith. That was all it took for the giant human to reach into his pack, and pull out a massive blunderbuss, and start loading it. The Smith continued discussing his wife’s cooking as if nothing had changed.

James nodded to Loren, and stepped between the elf and The Smith. He mumbled under his breath, and made a few motions with his hands in preparation for any magic he might have to cast.

To her credit, Scarlet Jax, was the only member of her group to catch that anything was amiss. Her eyes grew wide with alarm, and she reached out to Antonio, squeezing his hand.

A large yelling roar came from the direction Axe went in, and a human body went flying down the rocky embankment, to land at Morgan’s feet.

Without missing a step, Morgan drew his short sword in a smooth motion, and slit the man’s throat.

“You all might want to stick near Loren and Smith,” Morgan called back to Scarlet, Antonio, and Tom. Then he turned towards the crashing noise and yell, “How many, Axe?!”

Six heavily armed humans exploded down the side of the embankment. One of them didn’t make it far, as the half-orc grabbed him. The sound of human bones being shattered was heard over the rest of the noise.

Morgan took up a stance, and let the other five men come at him. He watched as Loren’s bow picked off the two at the back of the pack with clear kill shots.

When the first of the bandits got close enough, Morgan swung into action. His fighting style was self taught, but effective and vicious. He ducked under the bandits swing, driving his short sword into the larger man’s guts. He twisted, and ripped the sword back out, and danced to the side, letting the bandit hit the ground.

The second bandit was slighter in stature, and was trying to skid to a stop, possible having second thoughts. Morgan took two quick strides, and drove his sword home, knocking the cheap rusted sword the bandit was carrying, to the ground.

Morgan kept his momentum, moving towards the last bandit standing. As he started swinging his sword, an arrow flew past his cheek, sinking deep into the bandits eye.

“Thanks!” Morgan called behind him, and turned to look at the terrain around him, to see if any more threats were forthcoming. It was a tense few minutes before Axe reappeared, and called the all clear.

Morgan turned to look over the second bandit he killed, and pulled the wraps away from their face to reveal a girl not more than 16 years old. “Damn. . . “ he said softly to himself.

He leaned down and rifled her pockets and came up with a few coppers, and a lump of moldy bread for his trouble.

“Is this normal for the area?” Scarlet asked. She looked disturbed, but her voice was calm.

“Yes. When people are hungry, they get desperate.” Loren answered.

Antonio moved up to where Morgan was standing, and asked, “Were you upset you killed a woman?” His voice betrayed the slightest shake, and his eyes were still wide.

“No. . . Women can fight just as well as men. She’s just a girl, though. A hungry one that took up with bandits hoping for more to eat,” Morgan responded. He continued to look down at the girl for several more minutes before saying, “I’ll get some wood. They deserve to be laid to rest.”

Axe called out, “There’s some dead trees up here. Get the axe from Smith, and come up.”

“Wait, you’re going to waste our time with this?” Scarlet asked. “We are on a timeline.” She reached up and retied her long light brown hair into a bun on the top of her head.

James answered her with, “We have to. We are still far to close to Tombsville to leave corpses anywhere. It’s highly possible they will just get back up and follow us.” His tone was even, but he turned his face before his irritation showed. “Also, it’s the decent thing to do.”

It didn’t take long for Axe and Morgan to collect enough wood to burn the bodies. Loren’s whole crew helped stack the wood, and move the bodies. There was a reverence in how they took to their work. The bodies were laid out carefully, and respectfully.

Once done, Loren turned to James, “It’s all you, now. Let them ascend to their gods.”

James unwrapped himself from his thick coat, and stood in a thin shirt in the biting wind. He stood for a few minutes with his shaggy hair blowing across his face. Then he spread his arms wide, and started chanting.

His voice was deeper than his body would have indicated. The rhythm of his words raised the hairs on the back of everyone’s neck. He leaned his head back, eyes closed, raising his voice into the night.

Loren’s crew stood respectfully behind James as he intoned his magic.

Antonio slipped into line next to Morgan and asked, “What’s he doing?”

Morgan whispered, “He’s giving them a prayer to the death gods, in hopes they come back to the world next time in a better situation. Where their poverty and desperation don’t lead them to ruin again.” Morgan’s face was drawn, and serious.

Antonio’s face was surprised, and he shifted weight from foot to foot anxiously. His families money had afforded him enough insulation from the world that the idea that people could be driven by hunger to attack such an obviously armed crew had never occurred to him.

The ritual concluded, and James waved his arms dramatically, and the funeral bier ignited.

Scarlet and Tom were seated on the rocks behind the standing men, and were caught off guard by the sudden conflagration. They had been whispering back and forth during the service, but were shocked into silence.

The fire went from a normal mortal fire, to a white hot fire that seared bone and flesh to ash within minutes. It consumed all the fuel it had, and extinguishing itself. All that was left was a few crackling embers, and ash where the bier stood.

Everyone stood in the darkness for a few minutes before Loren quietly said, “Okay boys. Let’s get some food, and some sleep.”

Morgan set about getting food in the pot, while Axe and Smith stoked the cooking fire for it. Loren and James set out the bedrolls. When it was all said and done, they had food to eat fairly quickly, and were in front of a much more earthly fire.

Morgan found Antonio sitting next to him, instead of his own companions. “Do you ever get used to it? Being on guard all the time, and having to kill?” The younger man asked.

Morgan looked up from his bowl to see that Antonio might be in his mid twenties, but his life had been soft, and had sheltered him. Antonio’s brown eyes were still wide, and filled with concern.

“Here. . . “ Morgan said, and reached into his coat to pull out a flask of whisky. Then he handed the flask over. “Take a swig. It’ll warm you up.” He watched as Antonio unscrewed the flask, took a swig, and then made a face.

Morgan chuckled a bit, and said, “You do get used to living this way. It becomes habit. There’s a price to that habit though. Rarely do you live a quiet life with family. You know you will be one of those bodies on the trail some day. You hope the people that kill you are respectful enough to make sure you rest in peace, after they loot your corpse.”

Morgan took the flask back, and took a swig of his own, and continued, “But you don’t get used to seeing a kids face when the dust settles. If you are a good man, then that will always bother you.”

“That makes sense,” Antonio said.

“It’s just a different way of living,” Morgan finished, and he passed the flask back, and smiled. “Have you had to fight before?”

“Um, no. I’ve never had to do what you do. . . “ Antonio said. He took a swig, and winced. His brown eyes were less worried, though.

“How much have you worked with that spangled pig sticker on your hip?” Morgan pressed, and pointed to Antonio’s expensive weapon.

“I had a tutor teach me when I was younger. I’ve been in a couple of duals, not to the death, though,” the younger man answered. “I’ve never seen anyone fight like you, though. What style is that?” His brown eyes looked at puzzled.

Morgan laughed, and took his flask back, “No style. I learned to fight by swinging a sword, and letting anybody I worked with help me learn more. Why? Want to spar tomorrow morning?” Morgan smiled wide.

“Sure. I’d like that. I’ve never seen anyone fight like you before.” Antonio said.

That morning, Morgan made sure to get up when dawns icy fingers first roused him, instead of burrowing deeper into his blankets. If he was quick, he’d have an hour or so before they were ready to leave.

He carefully, and quietly, packed up, and set his things to the side so they’d be easy to grab when the group left. Then he quietly knelt next to the younger man, and tapped his shoulder carefully.

Antonio blearily opened his eyes, and spent a few seconds focusing on Morgan’s face. Antonio’s dark brown eyes squinted, and then he opened his mouth to speak.

“Shhhh,” Morgan cautioned, then whispered, “Grab your sword, and let’s go over the rise so we don’t wake every one up.”

Antonio was quick to organize himself, and follow Morgan up the path a bit until it was just them, and the icy morning sun cresting the horizon.

Morgan explained, “Let’s keep this safe. I just want to see how you were taught. I’ve had no formal teaching, but I have a lot of experience, so keep that in mind, and try not to take my head off.” His blue eyes were bright, and he smiled.

For the next hour the two men danced back and forth. Morgan was able to best Antonio in general, but once the younger man was more comfortable he had a few tricks to get past Morgan’s guard. Morgan’s response was to aggressively push Antonio backwards to keep him from employing his skill to his finest ability.

At the end, they both sat on the rocks, and breathed heavily into the icy air.

“That was a lot different from any of my tutors,” Antonio said. “You don’t block your left leg as well as you should, but I still couldn’t take advantage of it like I wanted. I didn’t expect you to be that good, being self taught.”

Morgan laughed, “You are pretty good, but you hesitate too much. I can tell you have a lot of classical training, but haven’t really had to use it. Tell you what, you show me some of your fancy training, and I’ll show you how we do it down here in the trenches.”

“I’d like that. I’d like to get better,” Antonio said. “It’s definitely a deal.”

The rest of the group rejoined them shortly. Axe tossed Morgan his pack, and they continued towards their destination.

The next several days went the same way, with Morgan and Antonio practicing in the early hours before the rest of the crew got up.

Eventually during one of these morning practices, Morgan asked, “So, I know I’m not supposed to ask, but what’s the deal here? What are we doing with this job?” Morgan suspected Scarlet or Mr. Tom White would have shut him up, but Antonio might be more amenable to the questions.

“Scarlet is a genius. She’s been digging up some information on the Ancients. She thinks she knows of this site where they might have buried one of their own. Her uncle, Mr. White, is a scholar who has worked in some of the Ancient cities. They think if they can get a Necromancer to raise the Ancient, then they can get information on some very lucrative sites. I’m the financial backer, of course,” Antonio explained. He seemed proud of his role in all of this.

Morgan narrowed his eyebrows and asked, “How did you meet Scarlet, and her alleged uncle?” He tried to keep his tone from sounding as bad as it did in his head.

“Scarlet met me at a theater event. We love all the same plays, and have read all the same classics. It’s like we were long lost friends, when we met,” Antonio said with a smile.

Morgan shook his head ever so slightly, and said, “I bet it was just like that. Are they paying for any of this?”

“No. Scarlet’s family lost their money because her father took on too many politically divisive endeavors. I don’t mind, though. This is my first real adventure out of the city, so I wanted to be a part of it.” Antonio’s face was all smiles.

“I’m glad you’re enjoying the trip, then,” Morgan said, and kept the rest of his thoughts to himself.

That evening, they started into some of the worst lands anyone could travel through. They were called the Badlands by most, and worse by those that lived nearby. Most of the main travel trade routes went around the Badlands.

Nobody lived directly in these lands. It was a blighted landscape where trees grew in crooked twisted parodies of themselves. There wasn’t much in the way of fresh water, and game was near nonexistent.

The lands most remarkable feature was the occasional half circle mound of rubble and rock. Each was as round as the moon, and packed tightly with different shapes and colors of rock to create a patchwork half orb about 20 feet across. Nothing natural grew on them. Any of the small lizards, or birds, that did live in the Badlands, lived between these rock hills.

There were fairy tales that if you stayed too long out here you could go mad, and come back raving. That the rock mounds were graves to mark an unknown giant race, or that they were failed magics from Elven hands. It was whispered that the land here poisoned everyone it touched.

Popular gossip said worse about Tombsville, though, which is why Scarlet’s little band of treasure seekers had to go so far to get a crew that would be willing to go into the Badlands at all. Nobody local to the Badlands would take the job. Lucky for Scarlet, Loren’s crew didn’t put much stock in fairy tales.

Everyone slowed to a stop as the road turned away their destination. It was only midmorning.

The Smith spoke up and said, “We didn’t come all this way for nothing did we?” as he turned to look at Scarlet.

“Just a moment. I want to check my notes,” The woman said. She then pulled her pack off, and set it on the ground before digging out a small book. She took her time.

Axe stepped up to the very edge of the road, and squinted his eyes as he surveyed the land. He started shaking his head. He pursed his lips around his tusks in disapproval.

Mr. White looked at Axe, and said, “I suppose orcs are a bit superstitious about things like this.”

Axe pointedly ignored the shabbily dressed man, and called out to Loren, “We need to camp here for the night. I need today to get some last minute hunting in so we have some venison to keep us.”

Loren nodded, and said, “Fine. Do what you need to. I don’t want to run our rations down too far in there.”

“Sooo. . . we get a rest day, and start tomorrow morning?” Morgan asked.

“Sure, help me set up camp, and then you are on your own,” Loren responded. Then he went to set up camp in a small grove of twisted trees. Morgan smiled, and headed over to help.

Eventually Axe brought back a decent sized buck, and set about preparing it. The Smith lent a hand in the preparations, and they started cooking it up, and salting it. Then James lent a bit of magical hand waving to speed the process along.

Scarlet had eventually found her notes, and was sitting by the fire, drinking a cup of tea, and Mr. White was sitting next to her, and was conferring with a map.

Morgan found a shadow fall over him, while he was sitting on his bedroll. He looked up to see Antonio’s smiling face.

“Did you want to go practice? I think there’s a stream down the way with a clearing?” Antonio asked. He seemed a bit nervous.

“Sure. I can do that,” Morgan said. He glanced at Scarlet and her sidekick to see if that might be the problem. Either way, the nice looking young man was worried, and wanted to see Morgan alone. Morgan was a sucker for pretty young men in distress.

To his surprise, when they got to the clearing, Antonio really did want to practice. They hit it hard and heavy for about an hour, until Morgan found Antonio standing behind him correcting his stance.

Antonio had his long strong arms around Morgan, from behind, and was helping him hold his sword in a better stance.

Morgan felt Antonio’s breath shift across his ear, and suddenly he stop talking for a moment.

“So, Axe seems to think you sleep with men sometimes. Is that true?” Antonio asked. His lips were so close that they brushed across Morgan’s ear.

“Oh. . . OH! Um. . . We should probably talk about that,” Morgan said, and pulled away so he could turn and face Antonio.

Antonio’s face fell, and he started saying, “Oh, I’m sorry. I thought. I . . . If you aren’t interested in men, or me. I’m sorry. . . “ Then he started to turn and go.

Morgan reached out and grabbed his arm, pulling him back, “I do sleep with men, probably more than I seek out women. However, I’m a complicated man. I’m not like most other men physically, and I don’t want to sleep with anyone that isn’t comfortable with that.” Morgan’s eyes took on a look he’d worn many times before. It was never easy to interpret how this conversation was going to turn out. He usually preferred to have this conversation partially drunk, as a result.

Antonio’s brows knit, and he stood with Morgan’s hand on his arm. The silence between them was strained, and Antonio asked, “Is this something like James? Necromancy? or Tombsville?” He studied Morgan carefully, possibly looking for any sign of being dead-touched.

Morgan dropped his hand, and started laughing, and said, “Well, no. Not like that. That might make this easier. I’m not a necromancer, and I’m not one of Tombstones questionably alive denizens.”

Morgan’s blue eyes lit up with amusement. His unshaved face with it’s light stubble broke into a smile. Then he sighed, and said, “I was born looking like a girl. I lived as a girl until my late teens. I still have girl-like parts in my pants. Anyone I sleep with has to accept that.”

The younger man said, “Hmmm,” and then studied Morgan even more closely. “You don’t look like you could ever be taken for a girl. Not even on your most well shaved day.”

“Surprise. . .” Morgan said mirthlessly. He hated this very second. He’d done this time and again, but it never got easier.

“Is this common to Tombsville?” Antonio asked, trying to put some logic on it.

“No. People like me are rare no matter where you go, “ Morgan answered. “I don’t keep it a secret, but it doesn’t always come up, either.” He watched the younger man carefully to see how this was going to shake out.

“So you are a hermaphrodite?” Antonio asked.

“No. . . No. Let’s not do that. I’m a man. I just have some party parts down here,” Morgan said, motioning to his pants.

“I sleep with both men and women, so would that be a benefit to my cause?” Antonio asked. The young man seemed to recover his grace quickly, and just raised his eyebrow. “Is this why you don’t take hints too well?”

“I just assume I’m not the kind of man ‘normal’ folks would sleep with. I do have lovers, but they are well aware of who and what I am. Tombsville isn’t that big, so it’s pretty well known.” Morgan said.

Then Morgan shifted gears, and closed the distance between them, “So if you are still interested after that, I’d be happy show you how it works.” Morgan reached up to the taller man, and pulled his head down to his own.

Their lips met with sparks. Antonio slid his hands down Morgan’s back, while Morgan twined his fingers into the younger mans long hair.

When they broke for air, Morgan smiled and said, “So you want me to lay down a blanket so we can do this right, or you want something quick and dirty as we lean up against the rocks here?”

Antonio’s tanned hand came up to brush across Morgan’s cheek, and he said, “I brought a blanket. I’ve been trying to get the courage up for days. You’re a little intimidating, you know?” He then motioned to the pack sitting by the rocks.

“Me? I’m a short, dirty, mercenary. I don’t even smell that great right now. You’re way above my pay scale with your rich long hair, and nice smelling soaps.” Morgan said with a laugh, while leading the taller man to the aforementioned pack.

Morgan knelt down to pull the bundled apart, and said gleefully, “Blankets, and goodies. Someone has done this before.” Then he took charge and laid out a blanket, and kicked his boots off before laying down on it in the chilly air. “Don’t worry, we’ll warm up quickly enough.”

Antonio pulled off his shirt, revealing smooth tan skin. His silver hair bangle, loosened already by Morgan’s hands, fell, allowing his dark hair to fall down around his face.

Morgans blue eyes looked at the younger man’s chest hungrily, and said, “That’s a tough act to follow, but I’m game.” He then pulled his shirt up over his head. His pale scarred skin was in contrast to the younger man, but he looked just as confident. He reached a hand up to Antonio, and pulled Antonio down to him, on the blanket.

Antonio ran his hands over Morgan’s scars, and said, “How did you survive to your age with all of this?” And then lowered his lips to run his tongue over the scars he was admiring.

“Sheer dumb luck, my friend,” Morgan said with a laugh, and arched his back, trying to get more skin to those magical lips. Morgan sighed deeply as he felt that tongue trace a path down his stomach to his pants.

He reached down to Antonio, and asked, “Are you sure?” His blue eyes studied Antonio’s face. Morgan wasn’t nervous, but he wanted to make sure this wasn’t something Antonio might decide was a problem half way through.

“You can’t tell me you have a present for me, and not let me unwrap the present.” Antonio responded, then kept his eyes on Morgan, and with a smile, leaned down to tug at the short man’s pants with his teeth. “I doubt there is anything under here I can’t handle. I won’t think you’re less of a man, either. You out-man most of the men I grew up around.”

Morgan smiled, and then reached down to start undoing his belt, “I’ll show you mine, but you have to show me yours. None of this one sided business. I don’t want to be a circus act, here.” He continued to undo his belt anyways.

Antonio smiled widely, and reached down to pull his own pants down. The chilly sun showed off is rock hard body in every detail. His stomach was hard, and a trail of dark hair snaked downwards towards his hard cock. Without any modesty, he knelt on the edge of the blanket, and said, “Like it?” motioning to his naked body.

Morgan laughed and said, “Wow. You are definitely pretty,” and pulled his own pants off, and let his scarred body speak for itself. He watched Antonio’s reaction, and was pleased to see the pretty rich man didn’t even flinch. That was the test Antonio had to pass for Morgan to continue.

Morgan reached his calloused hand out, and pulled Antonio down to him again, and both men laughed as they fell on the blanket. This time Morgan took charge, and rolled Antonio onto his back. Then he leaned down, and kissed Antonio’s lips, savoring the flavor. Just feeling those lips was enough to make butterflies dance in Morgan’s stomach, and make him long for more.

He slowly trailed his lips and tongue down Antonio’s darker smooth skin. Morgan lingered on the younger man’s left nippled, sucking in hard. He watched as Antonio sucked in his breath, and half lidded his eyes. Then he traced his way to the right nipple, so it wouldn’t feel left out, but upped the ante by nipping ever so lightly at the sensitive skin with his teeth.

“Here, let me. . . “ Antonio tried to say, while reaching towards Morgan. He didn’t get far as Morgan laughed and batted his hand back.

“No no no. You don’t get to be this beautiful, and not let me savor the moment, please,” Morgan said, and continued to lick down that brown smooth flawless skin until he felt Antonio’s stomach jump under his tongue. “Just relax. There’ll be time for that.”

Morgan continued to lick, suck, and nibble downwards until his hot breath blew onto Antonio’s hard cock. The younger man arched his back, and let out a small moan. Morgan tenderly let his tongue caress the head of Antonio’s cock, barely making contact. This caused more moans to escape the young man’s lips, and he gripped a handful of blanket in his hands. Morgan continued to tease, keeping his lips and tongue lightly dancing, until Antonio started pushing his hard cock upwards towards Morgan’s face.

“Don’t be a tease!” Antonio gasped, arching his back in the sun. The chill of the air was long forgotten.

Morgan’s blue eyes were filled with lust, as he slowly opened his lips, and sucked Antonio’s hard cock into his mouth. He kept his blue eyes fixed on Antonio, who’s eyes were firmly closed, as he arched back into the blanket, and moaned.

This continued on for several minutes with only Antonio’s quiet moans breaking the silence. His body shuddered, and tightened, until he came. Eventually, Morgan pulled his lips off that flawlessly beautiful cock, and crawled back up over Antonio.

If Morgan had any doubt about Antonio’s acceptance, it was shattered when he felt Antonio reach up, and forcefully pull his head down to lock lips with him. They kissed passionately for several minutes until Antonio pulled away.

“How does this work now with you?” Antonio asked, as his hands ran over Morgan’s body. The younger man trailed his hands down Morgan’s body, reaching between Morgan’s thighs. Antonio watched as Morgan sucked in his breath the closer the hands got. “Let me see what I can do for you. I really want to return the favor,” Antonio pleaded.

Morgan flopped on his back, and said, “Okay then. I’m game.”

Antonio immediately pulled Morgan’s smaller frame to him, and started licking the inside of Morgan’s right thigh. He trailed his lips upwards to the patch of curly hair at the top of Morgan’s legs. He stopped and gingerly parted Morgan’s dark brown hair, and blew on Morgan’s skin.

With a laugh, Antonio said, “I guess you do stand up and say hello, don’t you? But how does it feel to you?” Then he lowered his lips to Morgan, sucking Morgan’s erection into his mouth, and then gently flicked his tongue across the tip. Unlike a woman’s anatomy, what would have been a clit was instead a cock of it’s own, standing and straining to be touched. Much smaller than Antonio’s member, but every bit as erect.

Morgan shuddered, and a moan escaped his lips, as he felt Antonio’s tongue work its magic. Ever flick of Antonio’s tongue caused Morgan to jerk and arch his back. He felt like lightening was racing up his spine with every touch. He looked down briefly to see Antonio’s brown eyes watching his every reaction.

Antonio’s efforts continued until Morgan reached down to grasp Antonio’s hand. He arched up, moaning, and then started to shudder. The more he bucked, and twitched, the more persistent Antonio’s lips were.

All too soon, Morgan’s blue eyes grew sightless as his body arched in one final motion, accompanied with gasping moans. Then he collapsed on the blanket, panting, and dazed.

“That was amazing! I love how the slightest touch makes you dance like a puppet!” Antonio said, as he crawled up over Morgan, and then planted his lips to Morgan’s again.

“MMmmmmm” was the noise Morgan made into Antonio’s mouth. He pulled Antonio’s lanky form down on top of him, and continued to breath heavily. Morgan pulled the blanket around them, and they laid together for a while making jokes, and laughing.

Eventually the two men got dressed, and packed everything back up before heading back to camp.

As they walked along the path back to the campsite, the sun was low on the horizon, and threatening to disappear. Antonio didn’t notice the extremely tall form in the shadows, as he walked by. Morgan not only noticed, but also noticed the disapproving look the extremely tall shadow had.

“Just a second, Antonio, I forgot something. I’ll be right there,” Morgan said, while brushing his hand across the other man’s back. Then with a laugh he headed back towards the disapproving shadow.

In a hushed whisper he asked, “How long have you been there?”

Axe stepped out into the dusky light just enough to be seen, and said, “Long enough to see you are no longer abiding by the ‘don’t fuck people who pay us’ rule.” Axe curled his lip in annoyance.

“Yeah? That rule? The one that Loren said didn’t matter when he tried to set me up as a freak show for that woman we transported in the last job? The one where I told him I was unhappy being outed to some random woman as a psuedo-eunich for her pleasure? That rule?” Morgan hissed.

“I’m not saying that was right, Morgan. I told Loren as much. However, that doesn’t mean you should act like a teenage boy, and rebel by sleeping with the very next guy who gives us a job,” Axe explained. His voice had softened, and was more patient now. “Also, this is a stupid area to let down your guard. I was just watching out over you two, to make sure nothing bad happened. You could have waited until we got into town again.”

Morgan opened his mouth to angrily respond, but shut it again. After a few seconds he opened his mouth a second time, and said, “Okay, that’s a good point, and you’re right on that. I’ll be more safety conscious in the future.”

“If it helps any, I doubt Loren is going to say anything about this. He already got an earful about the last job from the rest of us. He’s an elf. They don’t apologize, but he’ll probably just decide he doesn’t see this. You know how they get,” Axe said. Then he clapped Morgan on the shoulder, and said, “Go catch up to him. He’s too young for you, and definitely too pretty.” Then Axe laughed loudly, breaking the silence around them.

Morgan smiled devilishly, and said, “Yeah, he is too young and too pretty for me, but I’m not complaining.” Then he chuckled and jogged back towards Antonio.

When Morgan reached camp he braced for an argument. It’s impossible to keep that kind of secret in such a small group. It was especially hard when Antonio was acting all goofy, and wanted to hang on Morgan just a little bit now.

James caught Morgan’s eye, and smirked. The Smith rolled his eyes, and fixed Morgan with a look that Morgan was sure got used on Smith’s misbehaving kids. Antonio’s people didn’t seem to notice, or just didn’t care. True to Axe’s prediction, Loren just ignored the situation completely.

By the time dinner was over, and everyone went to bed, nobody really remarked on Antonio’s decision to sleep next to Morgan, instead of closer to the fire.

The next morning, things went smoothly. Morgan and Antonio continued to get up early and practice, maybe this time with a little more incentive now.

By the time breakfast was finished, the group were ready to start off into the badlands.

Axe was the first to step off the roadway, onto the strangely barren earth beyond. The badlands were clearly demarcated by the dearth of life; plant or animal. Everyone else followed suit, as the big half-orc trotted off ahead to check the area.

Scarlet almost whispered, “What are we worried about?” with a tone itself concerned.

Loren answered without looking back, “This territory has a reputation. I’d rather be safe, and check everything.”

On that note, the travelers walked quietly for the next couple of hours. Everyone was on their guard.

Anticlimactically, nothing of note happened at all that first day. It was just eerily silent with the absence of wildlife. Only the dead grey earth passed under their feet, accompanied by the occasional circular rock mound to pass the time.

Not even scavengers could get into the rocky domes. No manner of tool could loosen the stones. Sometimes treasure hunters would come to the outskirts of the badlands, and try to pry open some of those rocky half spheres, but nobody had ever been successful.

The air had a muffled quality. It wasn’t something that could be specifically pointed to, but it was still very real. It was like taking a breath in a sealed room. It was as if the very air itself was stale.

That night, there wasn’t any joking, or big fires to sit by. The stuffy air seemed to suck the normal banter out of the crew. Even Morgan was more serious than usual. It was a subdued night.

The next several days were the same. The crew silently marched onwards, passing bigger and bigger rocky domes. Scarlet and Mr. White conferred in hushed whispers, over Scarlet’s notes and several maps. They kept their own council about where the crew was going, and led Loren’s men through to a rather sizable rocky dome.

Scarlet dropped her pack next to the large sphere, and looked back at everyone else triumphantly, “This is it. All that hard work, and we are here. This is great!” Then she uncharacteristically, swept Antonio up in a hug, and said, “Thank you! Thank you so much!”

While the celebrating was going on, Loren looked to Axe, and said, “Could you go check the area, and make sure we’re alone here?” then he pointed to Morgan, “Hit the area as well. I want to make sure we have a plan in case something goes wrong.”

Then the tall blond elf walked over to where his clients were celebrating, and interrupted them with, “Can I assume we are going to be here for a few days?”

“Oh, Yes. I guess we will be. We can get started right away, however,” Scarlet said. She immediately began digging into her pack for notes.

“I’ll get the area set up,” Mr. White said, and started unwrapping a small bundle from his own pack. He eyes were positively alight with excitement.

“I suppose,” James said, looking to Loren. “We have enough daylight, and if you boys want to set up to protect us, I can sort out what we are going after.”

Morgan left the group to do his own perimeter check, leaving them to chatter about rites, rituals, and things he didn’t understand anyways. His search left him sure there was nothing in the area but grey dirt, and the occasional rock mound.

By the time he came back, James was shaking his head, and Scarlet and Mr. White were arguing with him.

“I can’t raise what isn’t there. I’m telling you there isn’t a dead thing down there that I can feel. There’s something, but nothing I’ve ever dealt with before,” James dark eyes flashed as he spoke, and his normally quite demeanor took on a more menacing tone, “And if you told me you wanted me to raise a what? An ancient, from the last age? I’d have told you that even death has an expiration date.” Then he flapped his arms, before stalking back to his pack.

“I need to figure this out some more, so it’s going to take some time,” James said, over his shoulder before kneeling down next to Smith at the cook fire. The big man reached his hand over and patted James on the back comfortingly as James knelt down.

Morgan noticed Antonio was off to the side, so he stepped up up to Antonio and asked, “What’s going on?”

Antonio whispered back, “James said he doesn’t know if this is a tomb or not. He can’t feel it, and that we should have told him exactly what we were planning. I’ve never seen Scarlet look so mad before. Loren’s been playing peacemaker for the last hour.” Antonio looked distinctly uncomfortable with the conflict.

“If there is something down there to talk to, I’m sure James will figure it out. You can’t rush him, though. He’s kind of immune to being pushed. He just looks young, but he’s probably older than Loren,” Morgan explained reassuringly. “If anybody is capable of doing it, James is. Don’t worry.” Morgan rubbed Antonio’s back while he spoke.

Something about the young man’s distress brought out Morgan’s protective side, but also his amusement. Left to their own devices, with some alcohol added in, just Loren’s crew alone could muster a much bigger screaming match over just about anything. Antonio was sheltered, in Morgan’s view.

Eventually, Scarlet stopped making demands. It’s hard to keep screaming at someone who is implacably still. James just continued to kneel by The Smith, quietly.

To the outside eye, James looked to be unseeing. His dead-like features were more prominent than they normally were. Morgan had seen him do this before. It was some sort of necromantic communing thing. It had an official name, but Morgan could never remember it.

Scarlet, instead, turned to berate Loren, “You promised us a necromancer that could do this.”

Loren turned is calm eye towards the irate woman, “No. I promised you the best necromancer in Tombsville. Which James is. If he can’t do it, there won’t be anyone else that can. That is what you paid for.” Then he switched his eye to Tom White.

Mr. White was standing behind Scarlet with his hands in his coat pockets. He had a more menacing stance than he previously exhibited. Morgan wondered just what the connection between Loren and the old man had been.

The standoff faded, and everyone settled down for the evening. It was tense, but the night passed without incident.

The sun rose across the blighted landscape, and caught James kneeling where he had been the night before. The rest of the band awoke, and went about their business. There was no sparing, or jokes, though, as everyone waited for James to come back.

By midmorning, Tom White was pacing the campsite irritably. Eventually he turned around to snap, “So how long do we have to wait for this dead routine to go on?” He pointed violently at James’ kneeling form. White continued to mutter to himself aggressively, while stalking back and forth.

Tom White hit a fevered pitch, and then yelled, “Wake up, you dead fucking thing!” Then he lunged towards James.

Morgan was the closest, and jumped between White and his target. He slammed his shoulder into White’s ribs, knocking the grey haired man backwards and off his feet. Morgan then stood in front of James protectively.

Tom White stumbled to his feet, and snarled, “I get that the elf has special skills, I get that The Smith is a specialist, and I get that the Orc does that Orc wild man thing. But what exactly do you bring to this little crew? Huh? Your are a short, easily replaceable nobody.”

Before Morgan could react, Loren snapped, “Walk away Morgan. Go scout the area.” The elf’s voice was low and quiet, but the effect on Morgan was immediate. Morgan was turning to leave before Loren was done.

Loren then turned to Tom White, “You’re right. Everyone in my crew is exceptional. I hand picked Morgan for my crew because of his exceptional qualities. That man doesn’t stay down no matter how injured, no matter what the situation, he never ever backs down. Every crew needs someone like that. Now if you don’t mind, I can’t help but think I’ve met you before. Any ideas?” Loren said calmly.

By the time Morgan came back, Mr. White was on the outside of the camp, huddling with Scarlet. They were going over more papers, and maps.

This continued for two more days, until Tom White stood in front of the large mound with Scarlet. In his hands was a metallic square tablet with scripted writing across it.

“We can do this the old way,” Mr. White stated, and then put his hands up, and waved them at the rocks, while speaking in an unknown language. Sparks circled his hands, and glowed red. The sparks moved towards the rocky dome, and spread outwards.

Loren leapt forwards when he saw what was happening, and whistled sharply. He quickly grabbed his weapons, and yelled, “What are you doing?”

Mr. White snarled, “What you should have been doing. Stay back, or get burned.”

Morgan had been sitting next to Antonio listening to the finer points of some play Antonio had seen, when the whistle sounded. In a fluid motion he leapt up to his feet, and had his sword in hand. Antonio was caught off guard, but to his credit was on his feet only a few moments later.

The rocks in the side of the dome started to crumble down. At first, slowly, but then the hole in the wall spread farther, and faster. The rocks crumbled fluidly down the sides revealing a metallic structure that looked like it had been organically grown where it stood. It was smoother, and more refined than any structure anyone in the crew had ever seen.

“Stop them!” came a creaking gasp from James. He was trying to get to his feet, but was stumbling. “They can’t open that!” Then James leapt towards Tom White. It was all happening too fast to stop, though.

Morgan ran at Tom White, with his sparking fiery hands. He had every intention of slicing the old man in half. He never even made it halfway to the old man, when Scarlet turned around, snarled something, and made a hand motion. Morgan found himself propelled backwards with force.

“Scarlet?” Antonio asked. He was standing with his hand on his sword hilt, with a look of utter confusion on his face. Then he leaned down, and offered Morgan a hand, to help pull the shorter man back to his feet.

Loren swore in Elvish, his face contorted in a look of disbelief. “I know you, now. You aren’t Tom White. You’re Danny Jax. You led an expedition to the ancient city of Nor’Alon, on the border of my people’s lands. We lost hundreds of lives when you released a sickness from the city. I should have recognized you earlier, but age took you into obscurity.” Loren then looked at the rest of his crew, “Fall back. Elven deaths aren’t the only ones he’s accountable for. He’s wanted in every land I’ve heard of.”

Loren then snatched his weapons up, and turned to James, “Are they both mages? What are we looking at here?”

James backed up towards the rest of the group, “No. He’s not a mage. He’s full of ancient artifacts and tricks. I can’t be sure about her. She’s nothing I’ve ever seen before. She’s not like a normal mage, though.” His words were careful, and he said quietly, “Get the weapons, and fall back. This is a prison. I couldn’t raise anything, because they aren’t any race I’ve encountered.”

James looked around at the landscape with an expression of extreme dread, “I managed to make contact with a lessor spirit that had passed. We had a communication barrier, but it showed me what this place is. It’s a prison for the Ancients most horrific killers, dissidents, and enemies.”

“So there are undead Ancients already in there? Even at Tombsville, everything is already dead.” The Smith spoke up. He was reaching to his sizable pack, and started pulling out small packages to hand to Axe. “Here, take these and set up a perimeter, my friend, and let’s hope we don’t need it.”

As they pulled back, Scarlet and the unmasked Mr. Jax continued to work on the entrance. Scarlet walked up to the smooth, unbroken metallic walls, and pulled off the glove on her right hand. She then laid her palm on the surface of the structure.

A thin white line ran from her hand upwards, and then broke into two, to trace the shape of a massive doorway. As this happened, Scarlet’s normally blue eyes, glowed white without any pupil or iris. Her long brown hair started to stand up in a halo around her face.

“Antonio, did you know any of this?” Morgan asked. Everyone had heard of Danny Jax, he thought. Hell, Antonio’s city had an incident with him two decades ago.

“Did you know White was the same guy who took those children into the Ancient cities to ‘teach’ them, and came out without a single one? Those were rich kids. Kids from your city! This guy is notorious.” Morgan was hoping Antonio was too young and naive to have seen this coming. It had been obvious something was up, but this was several magnitudes worse than he’d expected.

“No. I just thought they were scholars. I thought those stories were just old wives tales to keep kids from misbehaving,” Antonio said. Then he asked, “What do we do?”

“If you are all done scurrying around back there, I suggest the necromancer get ready to do his job. We need him to control the Ancient within. That’s what he’s here for, not to raise them.” The old man ordered.

He then explained, “The Ancients had a much more aggressive view of punishment than we do. They felt death was too easy a punishment for their prisoners. Instead, they changed these prisoners into sentient undead, forever aware of their imprisonment, and forever aware of their own rotting state. The ultimate punishment.” He seemed to be pleased to be explaining this to the mercenaries behind him.

“This gives us a unique opportunity to find and talk to Ancients that actually lived and breathed in the old times,” the criminal explained, “And James is, indeed, a powerful necromancer, and if he doesn’t want to lend his skills, I’m more than happy to buy peace with the ancients by sacrificing the rest of you.” Then he turned his head to continue watching Scarlet as she opened the dome’s entrance.

“What do you want us to do, Loren?” Axe asked. He had pulled their gear backwards so everyone had access to their weapons.

“Well, let’s ask our boss, shall we?” Loren said, and then turned to Antonio. All eyes turned to the young man, who continued to stand there dumbstruck by what what going on.

“I . . . I thought we were supposed to be hunting for works of literature, and art, from the last age. Why would that be in a prison?” Antonio turned and asked. His deep brown eyes searched Loren’s crew for a reasonable explanation.

“Nobody keeps art and literature in a prison, kid,” The Smith said sadly. “The safest thing you can do is sit out here with us. No good can come of anyone going into a cell created to hold an undead alien criminal.” Then the big man motioned over to where the rest of Loren’s crew had gathered.

“I got fucking used for my money. That’s why you didn’t believe me when I said Scarlet and I were friends,” Antonio exclaimed with exasperation to Morgan. “I thought it was odd that the people whose adventure I was paying for were less friendly than the men I hired to make that come true. . . I can’t believe I was this dumb.” Antonio’s face was crestfallen. “This isn’t what I was paying for.”

Morgan shared a sympathetic look, and nodded, saying, “It happens to all of us. Don’t even ask how much money I lost on shit that turned out to be less than true.” Morgan held his hand out, and said, “Come over here, and let us keep you safe. I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I’ve never seen James jump like that, and I’ve known him for decades. . . Hell, he didn’t even jump like that when I shot him in the side with an arrow, mostly by accident, one time.”

Antonio smiled weakly, and picked up his pack, and fell in with Loren’s men, as they started back towards more hospitable land. They slowly retraced their steps from several days before.

The Smith broke the silence, and said, “You should have seen how much my wife’s brother bilked me out of before I put my foot down. Every bad business venture you could imagine, and then some.” Then the big man chuckled, as he tried to console Antonio. He went on to say some comforting words, as if he was talking to one of his sons.

The group had settled into a comfortable pace, when about an hour later, there was a resounding cracking noise that split the silent landscape. The skies darkened as a large cloud billowed up from where Scarlet and the elder Danny Jax had entered the large mound.

“James?” Morgan asked. “I can’t fight a dust cloud.” his voice trailed off.

“I don’t know. This is unlike anything I’ve seen. My area of expertise isn’t Ancient landmarks. It’s necromancy, magic, and the undead. This is not exactly what I do. I am guessing I could suggest we move faster?” James said. He was more flustered than usual.

“You heard him, let’s pick up the pace,” Loren said, and started a slow jog.

“Just great. I have short legs!” Morgan yelled, and started jogging.

The men didn’t get far, when they heard the sounds of pursuit. It wasn’t the sound of one set of feet, but of many that disturbed the stale air of the Badlands.

Axe dropped back without being told, and circled around to see what they were up against. Morgan continued to have just enough breath to complain sporadically as he tried to keep up. He was doing a lot better than The Smith, who was old enough that an energetic jog was never on his itinerary. Morgan complained for the both of them, so The Smith could concentrate on moving.

They eventually fell back to two domes that were fairly close together. Morgan stopped just inside a line scratched into the dirt, and held a hand out to Antonio.

“Don’t step outside this line. You won’t like what happens, if you do,” Morgan said to Antonio. Then Morgan took a stance, waiting.

“Do we wait for Axe? What do we do?” Antonio asked. His brown eyes were wide, and he had his hand on his sword hilt, unsure whether to pull the weapon.

“We stand ready to fight because if we lose this, we die,” Morgan said in a flat voice. He never took his eyes off of the path they had come down.

The Smith, even though he was winded, laughed at Morgan, and said, “Let’s not scare the kid too much. I think I’ve prepared a little something that might help.” The giant grizzled man then chuckled again, and reached into his pack.

Loren didn’t say a word, but nodded to James, and then pulled out his bow, and set up his arrows so it would be easy to fire quickly.

James spread his long arms, and started chanting. He then stopped chanting suddenly and said, “That won’t work. . . They aren’t any kind of dead I’ve run into before. They don’t even make sense to me.”

Then James shook his head, causing his washed out black hair to look wild, and said, “I guess we’ll just do some old school battle magic then.” His raised arms began to glow with tendrils of white hot energy snaking out from his hands. “I haven’t done things this way in a long time, I forgot how good it felt.” Then James smiled in a way that made everyone distinctly uncomfortable.

It wasn’t long before Axe’s long strides carried him over the line, where he squared up with Morgan and Antonio. He looked grim, and said, “I count about 20 of the things. I can’t call them men. They are hard to see. They wrap the dark around them in some sort of spell. However, they are tall. Close to my height, but as thin as James. I don’t think it worked out so well for Scarlet and that jackal she was with. I saw blood, but I don’t know if that means they are dead or not.”

Axe then unslung his name sake, a great double headed axe from his back, and swung it a couple of times in front of himself. He stretched it out at arms length between himself and Morgan, and stepped another couple steps to the side, to give himself more room.

It didn’t take but a few moments for the first of the creatures to come into view. True to Axe’s report, they were tall, thin, and hard to focus on. It was almost as if your eyes were drawn to something next to them. The effect made Morgan slightly nauseated.

It threw Morgan off enough that he was startled when The Smith yelled, “Fire in the hole!” and hit the detonator for his first device. It went up with a sharp crack, and a cloud of fire. It caught several of the creatures, taking them down immediately.

From the back came a sharp yelling in a language that hadn’t been heard in the world since before this age started. The group of beings stopped, and then backed up to regroup immediately.

“Not fast enough, boys!” The Smith yelled, while detonating another three devices. The explosions were tightly calculated to where their pursuers had been led. A good handful of the creature went down.

Once on the ground, and rendered dead with a finality that released them from their insanity inducing undeath, the creatures lost their cloak of darkness. What was left was something akin to the men Morgan was used to. They were all extremely tall, and overly thin. Their skin was pale and white, and they had limbs that seemed slightly too long for their bodies. What really made them shocking to look at was a complete lack of facial features, with the exception of an overly large toothy mouth. The teeth weren’t sharp, but rounded. They just stuck out incongruously from the lipless opening in their face.

“I liked it better when I couldn’t see them!” Morgan shouted, but held his place at the line.

As was usual in any conflict, Loren started firing arrows with precision at the center of the creatures at head height. Most of his shots hit true, felling the crew’s attackers.

The Smith then pulled up his blunderbuss, and prepared it’s ammunition. His calloused hands moved with practiced precision that only comes with years of executing the same skills over and over. He raised the weapon, and it cracked loudly expelling smoke around him, but his target veritably exploded into white skinned chunks.

Then it was James turn to do some damage. He made a throwing motion and white lightening flew out of his hands, and enveloped a dark cloaked creature ahead of them. The creature jerked, and shook, and the darkness enveloping it evaporated. Instead it left the creature arched, and spasming, opening that wide mouth in it’s face to silently gnash and scream. Eventually, it slumped, and moved no more.

Most of the creatures backed off, and circled backwards, away from the long range death that Loren’s crew was throwing at them.

Three of the creatures kept on, and ran directly at the line the fighters were holding. Axe swung first, and was surprised that the creature was able to dodge with ease. It swung it’s hand at Axe, and it’s claws opened up the skin on Axe’s arm. The pair ended up grappling.

Morgan having seen this, ran forward, closing the distance, to get up into the dark cloaking his opponent. He felt claws dig into his back, attempting to pull him backwards, as he slammed his sword upwards into the creature. His plan, as always, was to get in, and do as much damage as possible before his opponent knew what was hitting it.

Morgan’s attacker scrabbled to get the short man off of itself. It didn’t do much good, as Morgan repeatedly and viciously slammed his short sword into it’s gut. The creature took multiple wounds, but didn’t stop fighting.

It took Morgan multiple minutes to take his target down, and when he looked up, he noticed that Axe was still tangled up with his target, and Antonio was thrashing under the weight of a swirling cloud of darkness. It was easy to see Axe was finishing off his assailant, but Antonio was struggling.

Morgan took several running steps, and kicked the center of the swirling dark cloud with all his strength. A chattering noise escaped the alien creature, as it flew off of Antonio. Morgan followed it up by slamming his short sword into it’s middle, and then he recoiled as the darkness evaporated leaving the pallid long limbed thing, with a face full of teeth.

“Are you okay?” Morgan said, as he turned to Antonio. The younger man was getting to his feet, and several slashes across his right cheek had opened up his tanned skin and were bleeding profusely.

“What the hell are those things?” Antonio asked. He reached tenderly up to his face, and finding blood, hissed in pain.

“Ancient monsters,” Axe said, as he walked back over to where the line had been. The big half orc had his share of gashes, and as he made his way over to check on Morgan and Antonio, he kicked one of the white creatures away from them.

Axe took Antonio’s head in his hands, and looked at him, before asking Loren, “What’s our plan now? I need to get Morgan and the boy sorted out. I think they are both bleeding.” Then he turned to Morgan, “Aren’t you, Morgan?”

Morgan shook his head, waved the Orc’s question away in response.

“About half of them circled back. I’m not sure we’ve seen the last of them. This is a terrible place to take cover in. The land is too flat,” Loren said, as he worked the problem out verbally. He only ever did that when he was really rattled.

“James, “ Loren asked, “what do you have in the way of barriers? Or invisibility?”

James’ hair was wild, and his shirt was ragged, as if it couldn’t withstand the magic he was pulling into his body. He looked almost feral, as he blinked and came back to himself.

“Um? No. I don’t have anything like that. I can do something else, though. There is a human corpse within my reach. I can run it out as a decoy? I’m not sure if it’s Scarlet or Tom White.” James said.

“Okay, do that,” Loren said, then he turned to Axe, “Can you get everyone up and running? I don’t think we have time for you to really do more than that.”

Then Loren looked at Morgan, “Can you still move?” and when Morgan nodded, he turned to The Smith, and started planning out the groups next move.

Axe set about stopping Antonio’s bleeding wounds, as Morgan started taking stock of what gear was still left. It didn’t take long until everyone was moving again, this time more slowly, and carefully.

During the next two days, there were three more skirmishes, and by the time Loren’s crew found their way back out of the badlands, they were exhausted, out of food, and everyone but James had injuries.

They continued until they found a small cave to take refuge in, and The Smith went out with Axe to set up the last of the devices he had.

Loren looked at Morgan and said, “I think there are only 8 of them left by my count. I’m not sure why they are so determined to pursue us, but let’s hold up here. I’m going to pull Antonio back by us. I’m not sure he’s going to be up to another skirmish this soon. When Axe comes back, I’ll have him patch the boy up. You’re fine, right?” Loren pulled out his last four arrows, and set them up.

“I got it. I’ll hold the entrance with Smith, when he gets back. I got nicked, but it’ll hold until we get through this.” Morgan said, and took his place at the cave’s entrance.

James spoke up softly, “I’m reaching the end of my abilities here. I’ve only got a few more strikes left in me. If you give me a weapon, I can do things the old fashioned way, though.”

Loren pulled his sword off his hip, and tossed it to James, and pulled a very long knife out, and put it next to his arrows, for when he ran out.

When Axe, and The Smith got back, Axe went directly to doctoring Antonio’s wounds.

“Is it a good idea to do this now?” Antonio asked. He looked like he wanted to protest, but his exhaustion was so great, he let Axe half carry him to the back of the cave to start looking him over.

“It’s fine Antonio. You’re in good hands. Just let the scary orc man put you back together. You’ve fought enough to prove yourself.” Morgan said. “Just keep your sword on you, and if any of them get past Axe and I, protect the dainty folks back there.” Morgan snickered, through his exhaustion.

“Dainty? I’m not dainty!” The Smith exclaimed. “I might just be feeling too old for this, though.” He was setting up his blunderbuss, and pulled out a large blade in case things got dicey.

Loren asked Axe, “I was guessing there were 8 left?” He sounded unsure, which was rare for the elf.

Axe nodded, and said, “I think it’s only seven, but one of them is different. I think it’s the one calling all the shots. As far as I can tell it hangs back and rushes the others up. They are all smart, or they are all being controlled better than any undead I’ve ever seen. . . Sorry James.” Axe continued to work on Antonio, carefully putting the boy’s shoulder back together.

Then, it got quiet, and they waited. There wasn’t even the sound of wildlife or insects to be heard. It was as if the creatures had brought the stifling silence of the badlands out to the rest of the world with them.

The silence stretched into the night, and when Axe got done patching up Antonio, he returned to the caves opening to stand guard with Morgan. Antonio fell into an uneasy sleep, and Loren knelt waiting. James just stood like statue. The Smith sat, holding his weapons. As the night closed in, the crew waited in silence.

Morgan heard Axe shift his weight and whistle, and came instantly awake. He looked around and noted the other men in Loren’s crew were similarly ready. Antonio was slumped in the back with The Smith’s coat laid across him.

There was movement from outside the cave, and Morgan didn’t need Axe’s ears to hear their enemies rushing forward. He stood his ground next to Axe, and hoped the men behind them had enough ammunition to pick off anything that would overwhelm their defenses.

Before any of the creatures made it into view, an explosive boom rocked the cave, and Morgan’s eyes were blinded by the suddenly bright light. Right after the first one, a second explosion occurred, taking out some more of the things racing towards the cave.

“That’s all of ‘em. I don’t got any more out there,” The Smith shouted to the group.

Then the first of the creatures threw itself at Morgan. It was all he could do to slice into that shroud of shadow that obscured it’s features. He felt it’s claws slice into his thick coat, as he put it down for good.

“Duck!” Axe yelled, and Morgan dropped without looking. Axe had one of the things by the arm, and was swinging it into the walls of the cave, before slamming it down on the ground. His weapon was on the ground in front of Morgan.

“Here!” Morgan shouted, and kicked the doubled headed battle axe back to his half-Orc comrade. Just then, a pair of arrows flew by him, taking down another creature that was about to attack.

“How many?!” Loren demanded of Axe, from the back, as he prepared his next shot.

“Three, maybe four?” Axe yelled back, as he stepped on the head of his battle axe, causing the handle to raise up within his reach.

James was crouched next to Antonio, who was now awake and trying to get up. James held the sword that Loren had given him with ease, and was the last active line of defense for their employer.

Antonio looked like he wanted to help, but was just too wounded, and exhausted to be much use. He had his sword out just in case, but if things went well, he wouldn’t have to use it.

Another creature went down to the last of Loren’s arrows, and Loren yelled, “Any more?” at the half-orc.

“I can’t hear anything else out there,” Axe yelled back, his voice ringing loud in the sudden silence. All that could be heard was the heavy breathing of the the men that had been fighting only minutes before. Everyone waited, listening, and hoping this was the end of the conflict.

Morgan turned and smiled back at James and Antonio, and saw James’ smile turn to panic. As Morgan turned, sword at the ready, to face what had caused James to panic, the cave was shut into darkness. Then, there was a high pitched shrieking noise that was so loud, it was all Morgan could do not to clap his hands over his ears.

Morgan no longer felt he was in a band of comrades, but isolated and alone with an unknown thing stalking him. He was cognizant of the fact that Axe was to his left, and he should stay out of the big man’s swinging range. He was on the edge of panic.

Morgan forced his unseeing eyes closed, and took a deep breath. He couldn’t block out the shrieking noise, though. He then took several paces forward outside of the cave opening. If he knew Axe, the big man would stay rooted in the spot, and he needed to be out of his way. Instead, he walked forward five paces or more to make sure the half-Orc wouldn’t mistake him for an enemy.

As Morgan advanced, he noticed the noise increased. He decided to continued until it got so loud he was sure his ears must be bleeding from it. Step by step, he advanced, sword outstretched.

Then he felt a blow to his left shoulder, and responded by thrusting his sword forward. He followed that thrust by rushing straight at his attacker. He felt his sword get ripped out of his grasp, but continued to follow up into that terrible blackness filled with noise.

He had a hard time getting his left arm to respond, but managed to reach into his left boot for a knife which he transferred to his right hand. Then he slashed violently forward again, this time upwards, about the head height of the creature. The shrieking sound faltered, so he pushed forward again.

Another blow hit Morgan square in the chest, almost knocking him down. He regained his footing, and leapt forward slashing with his knife again. The screaming terrible noise suddenly cut out, and he followed it up with multiple rapid stabbing motions. Gone was any technique or skill on his part, and only his mad desperate desire to get the abomination before it got him.

He stabbed again and again, when he felt a big hand on the middle of his back. As he turned to slash at it, another big hand caught his arm.

“Shhhhh. It’s dead for good. Open your damn eyes,” Axe said in a low soothing voice. His voice might have been soothing, but his grip on Morgan’s knife hand was firm, just in case.

Morgan jerked his arm to free it once, but then realized it was Axe that had him, and not the shrieking dark thing he’d been fighting. He then opened his eyes, and saw the thing he was on top of. All that was left of it’s head was a pulpy white and grey mess, sprinkled with teeth.

He blinked a few times, and then got off of the thing, and turned to Axe. “Did any of the others get by me?” He asked.

“What others. This was the last one. It was the one in charge, I think,” Axe said. Then he frowned around his tusks, and said, “You are bleeding a lot. Get back in the cave and let James and I look you over. Either that or I carry you.”

“Don’t carry me. I can live with a few wounds, but not without my dignity,” Morgan responded with a wry smile.

When Morgan and Axe made their way into the cave, Loren asked, “Are there anymore?”

“Nope. Morgan went feral on the leader, and it’s not going to get up again. We should burn the bodies tomorrow, though. Just in case,” Axe said. “Morgan is wounded, though. He probably hid how bad it was from the last skirmish too, if I know him.” The half-Orc shook his head, and shared a look with Loren.

“Get him cleaned up, and see how bad it is. Smith and I will guard the entrance. James, when you get rested enough, I’d like you to see what else is out there if you have some spell for that,” Loren said. He then took his sword back from James, and stood guard at the cave’s entrance.

“Let me get the fire going. We could all use it,” James said, and went about the task.

Morgan sat down awkwardly next to Antonio, and smiled at the young man, “I think I might have to give it a few days before the next time we spar.”

“If that’s what you want to call it,” Axe quipped, as he helped Morgan out of his coat and shirt. His smile faded as he saw the deep gashes to Morgan’s shoulder, and chest.

“Sometimes I have to question how you manage to survive,” Axe said with a shake to his head. “You should have told me about the first wound earlier. It’s not too bad, but these recent ones will need sewn up. Lucky you.” Axe then reached into his pack for his medical supplies. His words sounded irritated, but his hands were gentle.

“Is he going to be okay?” Antonio asked. He’d never seen wounds like this on anyone. He wasn’t sure how bad they were, because it all looked like a bloody mess to his eyes.

“He’ll live. He’ll just add a new set of scars to his collection,” Axe said.

The rest of the night went without incident, and the crew took the next few days to gather their gear, burn the dead, and prepare for the journey back to Tombsville. The trip back was slow, and they took care to stop as often as needed.

Two months later, Morgan heard footsteps creep into his room at the Lady Rose Inn that he shared with Axe. The early morning light was just starting to creep into room.

“Did you settle up with Loren, and see James and The Smith off?” Morgan asked. He smiled, and stretched carefully, before reaching over to a bottle he had sitting on the floor next to his bed. He opened it, and took a swig of whiskey and offered it to the other man.

“Yes. I gave Loren a bit extra because I’d be dead right now if it was anyone else, I think. I’m officially no longer your employer,” Antonio said. He pulled his shirt off, showing off his chest. A few fresh pink scars were visible on his face, and unlike the beginning of his adventure, his chest showed a freshly healed wound running down his right arm from the shoulder.

“Then come over here and let me show my appreciation,” Morgan said, and offered him the bottle.

Antonio walked to the bed, and crawled in, and took the bottle from Morgan. After taking a big swig, he made a face. Then he smacked lightly at Morgan, when Morgan laughed at him.

Morgan reached up, and pulled the taller man down to him. He felt Antonio melt into his arms, and make appreciative noises. Morgan marveled at Antonio’s body wrapping around his. At the smooth strength in the younger mans arms. Morgan showed is appreciation by snaking his tongue across Antonio’s lips.

“I wanted to make sure to say goodbye the right way, since I’m heading back home on this afternoon’s coach. It’s expensive, but I think I’ve had enough excitement for now,” Antonio said.

Morgan stopped pressing his lips to Antonio’s skin long enough to say, “So soon? If I ever end up by your side of the world, do I get to visit?”

“Mmmm. Yes. Visit. I think that would be nice,” Antonio said, in between the nips and kisses. “You are always welcome.”

About jellotheocracy

I am a boring old man.
This entry was posted in Fiction, Morgan's Stories and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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