2. Morgan and James

This is a continuation of Morgan’s story. It shows insight into Tombsville, and the people he travels with. 


 

It was midsummer in Tombsville. That meant there were flowers, a bustling center market square, and a bit of an undead issue. This problem with the walking dead happened every summer. Warm weather meant the dead-touched corpses could move freely again, and would gravitate towards the living in their instinctual desire for destruction.

Tombsville was a fairly small town, but it had a fearsome reputation. It was still very influenced by the near-do-well’s that founded the city several centuries earlier. The proximity to the ancient and endlessly sprawling cemetery that was its namesake gave the populous a macabre sense of humor. The local inhabitants often decorated with tombstones from the surrounding graves, or even skulls and bones from the deceased. Anything from the cemetery was fair game.

What really set Tombsville’s celebrations apart from any other city’s, was the midsummer’s Dead Walk celebration. Every midsummer’s eve, the town watch would parade some of the mindless undead down the center avenue of the city, through the market place, and back out the other side. They would then be herded into an awaiting livestock pen where anyone could, for a price, shoot fireworks at the shambling corpses, until midnight. At the stroke of midnight the dead would be spectacularly set afire. No other city in the world could brag about an event like this. No other city in the world wanted to, either, but that didn’t stop Tombsville.

A historian might tell you the Dead Walk was a celebratory representation of how Tombsville was founded against the hordes of undead. However, a more realistic denizen of the town might honestly say it was fun to set fire to the shambling dead once in a while, as a way to get back at the blighters for being a constant pain in everyone’s collective ass.

Morgan loved the Dead Walk. It was by far, his favorite holiday. He was always one of the first in line, to purchase some of the explosives. He also usually brought some of his own, manufactured lovingly by his teammate, The Smith.

The Smith created the best explosives in the vicinity, and his work was much sought after. The giant explosives expert might not be interested in this kind of display on his own, but he was more than happy to work as a “consultant” for the city for the event, and help make sure all the fire works were reasonably safe. Reasonably safe by Tombsville standards might not be acceptable in another town, though.

Morgan was a short man, with shaggy short brown hair that was greying at the temples. He was rarely clean shaven, and the level of stubble would often indicate the number of days he’d been binge drinking. He was usually clean and better put together when he worked as a sword for hire, for Loren, but there had been no work for weeks. This meant he was a bit unwashed, and was dressed more or less like an unemployed bum.

The crowd was swelling the the sides of the center street, and there was little room left. However, there was an area on the side of the road, with a great view, that had nobody standing in it. Morgan could see James in the center of that space. James’ dead-touched features stood out. Tombsville might be where necromancers came from, but most folks didn’t want to get too close to them.

James was a tall gaunt man. His hair might have been black originally, but being dead-touched had washed it out to a faded gray. His eyes no longer had color in the irises, as those, too, had darkened to a very dark faded grey along with his pupils. His skin had no color in it at all. He wasn’t a pale human tone, but it was as if his white skin was stretched over graying ashes from a fireplace. He looked to be in his mid twenties, but everyone knew James was centuries older. He just didn’t have the exuberance of spirit a man in his twenties should have. He also had a reputation for settling disputes with cruel finality. For these reasons, the denizens of Tombsville were especially careful around James.

Morgan slipped in besides James because it would be far easier to see while in James’ wake, without folks towering over Morgan’s much shorter stature. He patted James when he got close, and smiled.

“Perfect! I always get trampled when I don’t stand next to you.” Morgan said, and clapped the excessively thin man on the arm.

James smiles down at Morgan and said, “I’m glad everyone else’s discomfort is useful for you.” His words were sharp, but they were softened by a genuine smile.

“Fuck ‘em. If they can’t accept a bit of dead-touch here and there. I mean, we’re celebrating the dead here, and folks want to be freaked out by a necromancer? This is Tombsville, and they’re cowards,” Morgan said, raising his voice at the end. He glared around at the folks near him, looking to see if anyone wanted to argue with him. He swayed on his feet a bit.

“Shhh. Don’t start a fight. Some of us don’t have anything to prove,” James admonished. However, he patted Morgan’s shoulder, and said, “You can watch the parade next to me. If you want. I can maybe put you on my shoulders?” James smirked at the suggestion.

Morgan rolled his eyes, and said, “You’re just trying to take my dignity.” He gave James an indignant look.

“Oh no. Give you a few beers, and dignity isn’t a word that I’d use with you,” James said laughing at the short man’s antics.

Morgan laughed with him, and then asked, “You hate this Dead Walk thing. Why are you here?”

“Gable, the mayor, asked me personally to safe guard it. Last year some of his shamblers got a hold of a drunken idiot,” James said, and gave Morgan a stern look. “No word on who exactly that was, though.”

“This was enough that Gable sent some very large men to come tremble in my front room, and request my presence. Turns out, I’m being paid really well, and getting access to a few artifacts in Tombsville’s official secret vault.” He shrugged, “So here I am. On duty, in case of drunken idiot.”

“I might have been that idiot,” Morgan said, and pulled a flask out, and took a big swig. His human features were tanned by the summer sun, and his eyes showed he had clearly started drinking before the event. He was dressed in a simple worn out white tunic, which did little to conceal the tattoos, runes, and scars under it.

He wore no obvious weapons, as this wasn’t a work event. He had lived in Tombsville long enough that the town guard knew him on sight. They had a long standing tradition of making sure Morgan wasn’t armed when he was drinking. He did keep his knives in his boots, but that was just practicality for a man that had spent so many years as a blade for hire.

In contrast, James was wearing an old style black tunic in the summer sun. Heat and cold didn’t effect him much, so in the heat of the day, he remained at ease. The tunic was trimmed with golden thread, and had the effect of making his gaunt pale form stand out even more. He wore black pants, and tall formal riding boots. The effect was military, but of one nobody had seen in a long time. He wore no weapons, but did carry a well worn dark leather satchel over his shoulder.

“So why are you all dressed up?” Morgan asked. He reached out to finger the fine silk of the tunic. It was a level of finery most people never saw in Tombsville.

“It’s what I own. Most of my clothes are getting a bit ratty. I forget to replace them. I’m waiting for the tailor to finish up some new ones for me this week. Why? Too much?” James asked, with a smile.

“Were you in a military or a mercenary unit besides working for Loren? The tunic looks like a uniform. It’s not a lowly one, either.” Morgan said thoughtfully.

“Something like that. It’s not really important anymore,” James said, waving away the question.

James then motioned to the parade route, and said, “I think they are starting, I can feel the dead moving.”

With that, Morgan grabbed James by the arm, and dragged him to the front of the crowd forcing a space for himself right upfront on the the parade route. The space the crowd gave to James afforded Morgan the best view he’d ever had for a Dead Walk.

“You should do this every year so I get a better view,” Morgan said excitedly, while patting James on the shoulder without looking. His eyes were pealed for the oncoming parade.

The garish procession came slowly into view. There were men and women on the sides with clubs, used judiciously to keep the dead moving along. When one of the shamblers would lunge at the crowd, these guards would smack it until it moved. Occasionally one of those men or women would have the same pallor, and gaunt features in common with James. James was much farther along in his dead-touched transformation than the dead-touched guides wrangling the parade walkers.

Every time a staggering mindless corpse would lunge at the crowd, the crowd would scream in delight. It was a fine line between being entertained and being eaten. As the undead were herded through the crowd, occasionally rotten fruit was hurled back at them. A small band played at the back of the rotting procession, making a parody of the march.

The necromancers working the Dead Walk, were well on their way in their craft, but unlike James, they mostly stuck to the world of the living. James had long ago abandoned living in the confines of the walled city. He preferred to live out in the cemetery that Tombsville was named for. The undead didn’t bother the dead-touched, so it worked out well for him.

One of the shambling dead caught Morgan’s eye. He was shambling over towards their side of the road, and despite his caved in skull, still managed a leering facsimile of a smile. He was wearing a tunic remarkably similar to James. It was far worse for wear, and ripped, but the stitching was a similar golden color.

“James? That one is wearing your shirt. Maybe you should consider an update in your wardrobe,” Morgan said with a laugh.

James eyes narrowed, and he stepped past Morgan into the street, and raised his hand. Several sparks danced around his fingers, and the undead man turned and fell in besides James.

“Wait for me! I want to be in the parade too!” Morgan yelled, and hopped over the small divider, and stepped in with James. “What’s this all about?” Morgan had a huge smile.

“I don’t know yet, Morgan. Enjoy the parade,” James said calmly, but his brows were furrowed.

As the shambling horde was herded to it’s eventual destination, James broke off with his new pet in tow. He took up a watchful position on a small platform looking over the livestock pen the dead had been herded into. The extra space the crowd gave James now that he had his own shambling nightmare was massive in comparison to before.

Morgan lined up, and shot some of his fireworks at the shambling dead, and handed out some fireworks to some of the local kids that couldn’t afford to buy their own. He eventually found his way back up on the platform with James and his motionless corpse sidekick.

“So, keeping your new friend?” Morgan asked, before ducking to the side of James that wasn’t being occupied by a walking rotting pile of flesh.

“I need to check some things out. You should be happy. Nobody is up here with us, and we can have the platform to ourselves,” James said. The dead thing next to him stood quietly, almost like a statue under James’ control.

James continued with a smile, “If I had known you were going to give half of those fireworks away, I would have pitched in some money. You’re getting soft, you know.”

“Eh. I do it every year. I was one of those kids once, you know,” Morgan said, and then took a swig from his flask again. “Does it bother you that they just light them all on fire?”

“No. I’m not one of them. I’m alive, for the most part. They aren’t thinking creatures, and left to their own devices would kill anyone they could stumble over,” James explained. He might be talking to Morgan, but his face looked distant, like he had other things on his mind.

After several announcements by official looking people, the band struck up again, and people of importance threw the first of the larger, area effect, incendiary devices into the pen. It took no time for the undead to start dancing about on fire.

Whoever had picked out the music this year had been inspired to play a fast pace dance number, creating the illusion that the flailing undead were dancing in the fire. Nobody had ever accused Tombsville of being a good or decent place, but they did have a sense of humor.

After the festivities, Morgan and James said their goodbyes. James left town, with his new pet, and Morgan went to the bars to meet up with a promising young man he fancied.

********

A few weeks later, during a brunch meeting at the Lady Rose Inn, Morgan and James were seated at a large table with their comrades. Besides Morgan and James, there was The Smith, the famed pyrotechnics purveyor. Loren the elven head of the small band of swords for hire was also present. The biggest man in the group was a half orc named Axe.

Loren had called a general meeting to let them know if he had any job leads. While the crew had downtime, he usually met with them once a week over Sunday brunch, at his own expense. It allowed him to make sure his men were ready to work, and out of trouble.

Loren sat at the head of the table, as usual. He was dressed casually, in the elven style. His brown shirt was made of fabrics more common to Dallingshal, the elven lands. As usual, his long blond hair was pulled back, and the brown leather of the eyepatch, over his left eye, looked well worn, but clean. It’s surface was covered in elven floral patterns.

Axe, the half orc, was shirtless in the summer heat, showing his rather impressive musculature. He was broad, and at just over seven feet tall, he dwarfed everyone else at the table, and made Morgan look almost childlike. His short black hair was coarse, and stood up, and the lighter greenish grey was visible at his temples. His greenish complexion was deeper with his summer tan. He’d been staying out with The Smith and his family, and helping with some of the farm chores in the summer sun. He grinned over his tusks, and looked more relaxed than usual. Axe tended to wear pragmatic clothing and boots.

Next to Axe sat The Smith, and even though he was a giant among men, he looked almost short next to Axe. He had a full head of grey hair, with a couple of braids down the side, and a full grey beard to match. His tanned skin, and calloused hands rested easily around his tankard of beer. His clothing was simple, and if you didn’t know any better, you might mistake him for a farmer dressed that way.

“I am hiring two new members,” Loren was saying. “They come as a pair. One is a fighter, and one is a thief. We don’t have much call for sneaking around and breaking into things, but she’s a damn good bowman when she’s not plying her other skills.” Praise from him in regards to archery meant a lot. At one point in his history, he’d been one of the most prestigious archery teachers in Dallingshal.

“Is this because everyone here is so damn old?” Morgan asked, and then ducked before The Smith could throw anything at him. Morgan had a long standing tradition of poking fun at Smith’s age.

Axe said with a smirk, “With that grey in your hair, you aren’t young anymore either, Morgan, so yes, we are all old, with the exception of James and Loren.” Then he chuckled as Morgan put on a look of mock outrage, and touched his greying temples.

“Actually,” The Smith spoke up, “It is because I’m old. I’m going to stop traveling with the crew. I’ll still make your pop-bang’s, but after that last trip to the Badlands, my wife is right. I’m too old to keep up. That run out of there almost killed me. I spent a week in bed when I got home.” He ran a calloused hand through his beard, and shook his head.

“But I’m going to miss you!” Morgan said  in shock, “How do we know the new folks will be able to fill your shoes?” Morgan looked completely surprised by what The Smith was saying.

“I take it back, you whine like you are kid,” Axe said, and tossed a spoon at Morgan, who batted it out of the air laughing.

“They’ll be here this evening. I wanted a chance to talk to everyone first before I introduced them to you,” Loren said.

Loren continued, “We’re going through a slow patch, but I have some possible work coming up in a couple of months. I can toss a retainer at everyone to keep them open for work, though.”

Loren was good at keeping the crews financial situation in the black. He took care of his crew in the slow periods when there was no work. He kept the crews money sorted out, and had contingencies for disaster.

“Actually,” James interrupted, “I might have some work. . . “ He let the sentence trail off, and looked at his teammates quietly.

Loren looked surprised, and asked, “You have an employer for us?”

“No.” James answered, “I’d be the employer. I have some concerns I need to lay to rest, and I’d like to hire the crew to accompany me deep into the tombs.” James furrowed his brows, as if he wasn’t sure how to proceed.

“Why?” Axe interrupted, with a look of pain on his face. “The dead don’t even attack you when you go into the cemetery.” Axe leaned back in his chair, and looked annoyed at the thought of going into the deep tombs.

“Something from my past came up during the Dead Walk. A man from my old command was among the walking dead. His body was deep in the cemetery. It was one of mine a long time ago, and I made it so he would only seek me out if something had disturbed my holdings there,” James explained. “I just want to make sure of a few things, and go out there.”

“How much help do you need, and how much are you willing to pay?” Loren asked. He looked thoughtful. “I don’t think anyone here would charge you full price. You’re family to everyone here.”

“Except me. I don’t want to deal with any more undead this year,” Axe said with an exasperated look. He had leaned forward to look at everyone else closely, “I can’t imagine any way this will go down where I don’t end up bitten.” Axe looked irritated, and like he might just get up and leave the table entirely.

“Run like a rabbit, Axe,” Morgan taunted. There was an anger under the light hearted taunt. “I’m willing. Plus it will be a good starter mission for the new people. Let them get to know our Tombsville the way we do.” Morgan had grin on his face.

“Shut up, Morgan,” The big half-orc said with a growl around his tusks. “You know how I feel about these things.”

“Rabbit, rabbit, rabbit,” Morgan continue to taunt. “James has been there for us, every time. He’s been family to you. You can’t just say he’s not family. You’ve got no honor if you aren’t willing to be there for him, now.” Morgan had dropped the smile, and was staring Axe down. He might be the smallest man at the table, but a pissed off half orc wasn’t even on the short list of things that could shut him up.

Axe, with more speed than his size would indicate, reached across the table to grab at Morgan with a snarl. Morgan had been waiting for this, and jumped back from the table mouthing the word rabbit, once again. His hands went up, ready to swing.

Just as the big orc lunged across the table again, Loren said loudly and forcefully, “Enough.” His words had an immediate effect. “Go walk it off, both of you. Don’t come back until you can both be civil.” Years under Loren’s command had created a trust in his orders, so even when they weren’t on the job, the men responded.

The elf then turned his eye to James, and said, “Let’s discuss this some more without the kids acting up.” He shot one more warning look at Axe and Morgan, before settling back into his chair, and his glass of wine.

Both Morgan and Axe walked out the door. Axe grumbled at Morgan the whole way under his breath, and clenched his fists. An orc’s honor was important, and to outright question it was dangerous. Axe had always held with his orcish lineage, more so then some full orcs. Even if Axe considered Morgan close to him, he might decide to settle the issue traditionally. An orcish honor duel was dangerous for someone as human as Morgan was.

Morgan didn’t touch the big orc, but walked quietly, and carefully behind him out the door. Axe was his best friend, but he wasn’t above pushing the big man’s buttons. Axe always acted like James was an untouchable monster. It pissed Morgan off. James was one of the best men he knew, and for Axe to throw a fit about helping him out, when James had never ever asked for anything from any of them before, was absolute bullshit. Even worse, to deny James any sort of kinship was an insult.

When the two men walked out on the street, Axe rounded on Morgan, and tried to grab him, “What the fuck, Morgan. You know that’s an insult that I won’t joke about,” he snarled. When Morgan ducked, and danced backwards, Axe advanced.

“I wasn’t joking. James has saved our lives so many times, and he finally asks for one thing, and you balk?” Morgan spit back, keeping out of big Orc’s arm reach. Their size difference was huge. Morgan danced backwards to keep out of Axe’s hands. The fight was only fair if Morgan was free to move around Axe.

Morgan then made a misstep when he stepped backwards and caught a part of the Inn’s stairs, and stumbled. He found Axe’s big hand on his shirt. “Shit,” Morgan exclaimed, and then kicked as hard as he could as he was hoisted into the air for Axe to scream at him some more.

It devolved into Morgan and Axe yelling at each other, and trading some haphazard blows. Axe was big, and far stronger than Morgan, but Morgan was tenacious. This wasn’t the first time the two had come to a screaming argument, complete with traded blows. They might be best friends, but the volatility of their personalities sometimes came to a head with spectacular dysfunction.

The water that hit them was lukewarm, and shocked them both into silence. They both turned to see where it came from, and Axe dropped Morgan back onto his feet.

Standing in front of the Lady Rose Inn, was Rose herself. She was a motherly looking woman with plump curves, and more grey than black in her hair. Her eyes were furious, and she was holding an empty mop bucket. She had been yelling something, but it had been lost in the screaming and posturing of the two men.

“There’s more of that if you two idiots don’t knock it off,” Rose said with the conviction of someone that wasn’t used to being argued with. Her face was red with anger, and her words hit a shrill note of concern.

“You,” she said pointing at Morgan, “what the hell were you thinking? Axe is an honorable man.”

Morgan responded, “I know that. I expect him to help James with the rest of us because he’s honorable. I just wanted to remind him.” Morgan then looked sheepishly at his feet. Rose was the closest thing he had to a mother, and he hated to make her angry.

“And you!” Rose said pointing at Axe, “Morgan is less than half your size. What the hell were you thinking? I have children that have more sense than either of you.” She sputtered for a minute more looking for words, than whirled her skirts, and stormed back into the inn.

Axe looked down at the arm he had been holding Morgan with, and said, “I suppose I shouldn’t tell her that between us, I’m the one that’s bleeding. . . “ He then examined his forearm, and said, “I can’t believe you bit me. Why do you always bite?”

“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have impinged your honor,” Morgan said while looking down at the potato peelings, and dirty water running down his shirt. He reached up and picked some of the peelings off and flicked them to the road.

Axe reached over and patted the short human on the head, “Me too. I shouldn’t man handle you. I know you hate that.” His anger was gone, and he regarded the short human with some affection.

“More like orc handled. I don’t know any human that can yank me up into the air like that. I didn’t mean to bite you. I kind of panicked,” Morgan said sheepishly.

Morgan pressed on, “Are you coming to help James or not? He seemed really odd at the Dead Walk. He took that shambler home with him.” Morgan looked very concerned.

“Yeah. Fine. I’ll come. I hate the undead. Every single time I go out there, something escapes it’s grave to try and take me back with it,” Axe said, and shook his head in disgust.

The Smith came out onto the street, and said, “Rose says both of you are out until tonight, and go get cleaned up somewhere else. She’s spitting mad, but I think it’s because you,” he said to Axe, “Picked up Morgan. You know how she feels about the boy. He’s practically her son.” The Smith looked at Morgan and Axe both with the same look he took with his own children when they misbehaved.

Morgan laughed, and pointed at Axe, “I told you she liked me better than you.”

Axe smiled around his tusks, and said, “Yeah, maybe, but that’s only because you are in constant need of mothering. Some of us are adults.”

“Come on, we’ll go get cleaned up at the Rotten Skull, down the street,” the orc said, and started steering Morgan in the right direction. “It’s an orcish place, so don’t be a idiot in there, because even Rose won’t be able to save your human ass.” He then laughed.

******

That evening, Morgan and Axe wound their way back through the darkened streets of Tombsville, towards the Lady Rose Inn. They were a bit wobbly on their feet, and Axe was “helping” Morgan stay upright. This amounted to the big half-orc holding Morgan by the scruff of the neck, and walking him almost like a marionette down the cobbled street.

“Either she will love you, or she won’t,” Morgan said to Axe, “If she’s not into orcs, then you are way better off without her. It sucks, but it’s true. You don’t want to be with someone that can’t accept who you are.” He drunkenly explained, “I’ve learned this the hard way.”

“I’ve just never been with a human before. I mean, I really like her, but she’s human, you know?” Axe said while leaning down towards Morgan’s face for emphasis. “I know logically there’s not that much difference, but what if she’s too human? You know?” He looked drunkenly thoughtful.

“Too human? What does that even mean? You’re half human. You were the one that said orcs and humans were closely related, and all that happy get along crap,” Morgan said. He reached up to swat at the orc’s face, and only landed a few fingertips across  the big half-orc’s tusks.

“Do you have to hit everything? Where you raised by wild dogs?” Axe said indignantly, while moving the much shorter human to arm’s length, while laughing.

They arrived at the Lady Rose Inn, and after some wrangling, got into the door. After they managed to get into the door, they laughed at the absurdity of their situation.

Rose took one look at them, and sighed with exasperation. “No more booze for you two tonight, because I’m not having you fight again. Be happy I’m letting you back in at all.” Then she turned her chair around and ignored them in favor of the rough looking woman in front of her. Information sales were important to Rose, but not enough so that she couldn’t spare a glare for both Axe and Morgan.

“She might like you more than me, but that means you’ll catch hell more than I will,” Axe said with a snort, and walked Morgan to Loren’s table, and sat the short man in a chair before taking one besides him. The Smith had long gone home, and James and Loren didn’t remark upon the two’s absence. They all ate a late dinner, and settled into small talk.

The evening passed, and the dinner crowd faded away, leaving only a few tables with occupants. The Inn might be run down, but it was well lit and spotlessly clean. Rose ran a tight ship, and refused to believe that the Lady Rose Inn was any less worthy of care and cleaning than the richest manner house in town.

The first floor was where the bar, kitchen, and tables were at. There were two small rooms to one side that used to be storage closets. They were just big enough for a small table. Their appeal was their closed doors, and the magical charms that kept the rooms confidential. The Inn was the only place in Tombsville that sported such precautions.

The second floor had 11 rooms for rent. Five of which had two or more beds, and five where single occupant rooms with varying levels of size and comfort. The last room was the largest, and wasn’t for rent. It was where Rose lived. It was rare that anybody saw the inside of that room, as she was a very private person.

During the weekdays, the Inn was quiet in general. However, when there was business to be had, the tables would swell. There was no place like the Lady Rose Inn, because no other bar or Inn had Rose.

If you wanted information, a referral to the right mercenary, or an assassin, Rose was the woman to talk too. She knew more about the black markets across the trade routes than anyone else alive. She might currently take the guise of a motherly innkeeper, but in her time, she rode with some of the meanest and scariest mercenaries around. She liked to say the Inn was her retirement, but she never really retired. She just changed professions to being an information broker. Nothing got in or out of Tombsville without her knowing. Hell, if it ran the trade routes, she probably knew something about it.

It was in the quiet hours of the evening that two women entered the Inn. They were quiet and confident as they stepped inside, and made their way over to Loren’s table. These weren’t farm girls, out in the big world for the first time. These women were professionals. You could tell by the weapons they wore, and the confidence they walked with.

The slightly shorter of the two woman had her long hair done up in braids, tight to her head. She carried a bow amongst her gear, and dressed in various shades of black leather. She had a deep hood on her jacket, but it was thrown back. Her dress style was the professional calling card of a breaking and entering specialist. Her dark human skin, and golden amber eyes were beautiful by any standards, but she downplayed her beauty in favor of professionalism. She looked to be about 25 years old.

The woman next to her, obviously her older sister, had the same dark curly hair, but cut short and left natural and free to create a halo around her head. She was dressed pragmatically in less showy clothing. A sword hung comfortably on her hip, and she wore a knife in her boot. She was slightly taller than her sister, and moved with power and strength.

As they made their way to the table, Loren stood up, and welcomed them, “Ladies, please come have a beer, and we’ll discuss a possible job we’ve been hired for.” The elf smiled charmingly, and motioned to the empty chairs.

“Everyone else, this is Sealy, “ he said as he motioned to the thief with the braids, “And this is Ansi.” He then motioned to the short haired fighter. Loren then sat in his chair, and smiled expectantly at his crew.

“What’s your experience?” asked Morgan, as the two women sat down. Loren’s smile faded slightly, and he took a deep slow breath.

Sealy looked Morgan in the eyes, and answered, “My sister and I served in the 5th Coalition Regiment sent to Barclay Island. After the slaughter, we mustered out, and served in various free lance jobs over the last few years.” Despite her youth, her golden amber eyes were hard.

“Almost nobody lived through that,” Morgan said indelicately. “I heard they set you guys up. An inside job.” He was still pretty obviously drunk, but he managed to keep the slurring to a minimum.

Axe lightly whacked Morgan on the back of the head, “What my friend means to say, is that the rumor was that nobody survived.”

“Not many,” Ansi replied. Her smile diminished a fraction, and she said, “Are you suggesting we are being untruthful about it?” Her hand rested easily on her sword hilt, but her muscles were taut and ready to spring.

“It’s a fair question,” Morgan said with a shrug. “You are both incredibly young, and the 5th has a history of being jackasses about women, so yeah.” He stared at them unrepentantly.

Axe watched the pair closely, and said, “He’s right. Morgan was turned down for the 5th because of their . . . gender policies, back in the day.” Axe looked to Morgan to see if that admission was going to be a problem.

“Colonel Mastiffson is a syphilitic dick face,” Morgan said helpfully with a drunken smile.

James reached out, and put a hand on Morgans, and leaned over and said, “Your dignity seems to be missing again.” He was smirking, but he didn’t move his hand.

“Mastiffson retired before we signed on,” Ansi replied. “I don’t see how his impractical views on women soldiers has anything to do with you.” She made a derisive face at Morgan.

Morgan rolled his eyes, and said to Axe, “Should I just tattoo this truth to my face, or do I have to sing this song every time I meet someone new?” Then he turned to the sisters and said drunkenly, “I used to look like a woman, back in the day. The 5th were the first unit I tried to join when I left home. Mastiffson didn’t like women, or men like me.”

Sealy, nudged her sister, and whispered a word in a different dialect at her, then shrugged at Morgan, “I’ve met men like you, Morgan, and your right. Mastiffson was a dick, and would have never hired us on if he’d been there.”

Sealy settled into her chair, with the creak of black leather, and said, “When we were teenagers, our family’s homestead was burnt down by raiders. We were the only survivors, and needed a way to support ourselves. The 5th was recruiting nearby. Colonel Drapper had just been promoted, and was recruiting non-humans, women, and others that the old Colonel would have denied.” She looked relaxed in posture, but her amber eyes were sharp.

Ansi ran a hand through her short curly hair, and nodded, picking up the tale, “We did really well, and were eventually promoted to his personal guard. That’s why we survived Barclay Island. Only a few dozen soldiers survived, and it was mostly Colonel Drapper’s personal guard, and those close by when it all went down. “ She stopped and drank deeply from her beer mug.

“Want to see the Regimental markings?” Sealy asked reaching up to pull her leather coat open. Coalition regiments marked their troops with tattoos that helped identify the dead. It was usually done over the heart to make it less likely to lose if an arm was lost in battle. It also made desertion harder. She then pulled open her dark tunic, and revealed a 5th Coalition Regiment tattoo above her stays.

Loren finally stepped in, and said, “You’ll all have to get along. Morgan, that means you. James? No dead jokes.”

“Why didn’t you tell Axe to behave?” Morgan asked indignantly, and waved his hand in the half-orcs direction.

“Because Axe only acts like an ass when you are involved,” Loren said. His normally reserved expression held just the slightest smile, and anyone that didn’t look carefully would have missed it.

“Now,” Loren said, “We do have a job after all. James has some personal work to be done.” The elf then rolled out an incomplete map of the wider Tombsville cemetery area, and explained where they would be going.

“If you give me a quill, I’ll fill in some of that. It might be little outdated though,” James offered.

Loren passed him over an calligraphy pen, and James made some very precise markings on the map, “We are obviously in town, here,” he said pointing to Tombsville on the map. “However, I need to get here,” he said, pointing to a blank area in the very interior of the forsaken cemetery.

“What’s that deep in the dead lands?” Axe asked suspiciously, he was careful not to expand on that thought, though.

“It’s where I was left for dead, and became a necromancer,” James said flatly without looking up. His dark hair was down around his face as he bent over the map, making it impossible to read his expression.

This admission left the table rather quiet. Morgan perked up, and even Loren looked interested.

“I don’t understand how that works,” Ansi said as she sipped her beer. “We don’t have necromancers were we’re from.” She shared a look with her sister, and shrugged.

James looked at the sisters and said, “Necromancers are close enough to the dead lands that some of us are born dead-touched. However some of us have near death experiences, and gain it that way. What we have in common, is we have a natural ability to learn necromancy. We can control and raise the dead. To my knowledge, I am the first necromancer to survive to this age. I’ve met nobody older than myself, and I was here when Tombsville was settled. We don’t age like humans do. We just get more and more dead-touched as we get older. You can refuse to do necromancy at all, and hold it off, but we all succumb in the end.” James didn’t usually discuss this aspect of his life, so the collected crew was drawn into his explanations.

“I was killed when my military unit took a shortcut through the cemetery. We weren’t from around here, and I thought we could make up some time chasing our quarry. We had no idea the dead could rise in there. I was attacked, and left for dead. I awoke a short time later. I was a battle mage before, but I could control the dead after. My unit did not survive the cemetery, or the dead.” he explained.

“The shambler I took back with me from the Dead Walk was a member of my old unit,” he said. “I set up some orders pre-arranged that it should find me if my burial site was disturbed. I want to go check things out. There are things there that I wouldn’t want to fall into the hands of anyone else,” James explained calmly.

“For pay, I’ve buried some things there. There is a lot of gold coins for officer pay, and the like. I’m not sure how much else has survived the time, but it’s in a sepulcher there. We can split the loot, if you come with me to check on things,” he finished.

“I’m still not sure why you need us,” Axe said. “The dead don’t attack you, so why the muscle?” He sat back in his chair with his forearms crossed over his chest.

“I’m worried about another necromancer or mage,” James said simply.

Axe made a noise of frustration, “This. This right here. I’ll go, but I hate shamblers, thinkers, rotters, and especially the ones that look like kids.” He then got up to go use the john.

Morgan looked at the sisters conspiratorially, and said, “That last one is James’ fault. . . “ Then Morgan began snickering.

Loren broke in, “We’ll leave tomorrow morning. The pay will be good, and if we’re lucky, it’s just travel, and normal dead. Nothing like that job in the Badlands a few months back.” He looked calm, as usual.

*********************

Everyone assembled in The Lady Rose Inn the next morning. As the company ate various breakfast items, Morgan just sat at the table looking bleary eyed. Instead of breakfast, he had a small wrapped pack for lunch that Rose had made especially for him. She knew the man well, in that he’d be too hungover to eat when he got up, but would be starving by lunch. The best he could muster was his hot tea.

As the group started out the door, Rose appeared. She was freshly bathed and her hair was still damp. As usual, she was bright eyed in the early hour. She caught Morgan by the arm as he walked to the door.

“Be careful this time, and don’t get hit. You don’t need any more scars,” she said to Morgan. She smoothed his hair down, and hugged him close.

Morgan rolled his eyes, and said, “Rose. You worry after me every time I go out.” He let her hug him close, though, and said, “But I’ll be careful. I promise.”

“You’re still my baby,” She said with a smile, and kissed the top of Morgans head. “I didn’t save your from the gutter so you could die in the cemetery.”

“You do realize I was grown when you ‘saved’ me? Right?” Morgan said with a smile. “I was 16 years old. Not much of a kid, either.”

“Are you kidding? You hadn’t even gone through your change yet when I met you. That right there makes you one of the kids. You are the youngest of all my kids, though, no matter how you want to slice it,” she said, and hugged him tight again. “Don’t be stupid. Don’t start fights with Axe, or the new women. Be careful of James,” Rose said cryptically before letting him go.

Morgan furrowed his brows, and asked, “Be careful of James? What now?” He was too hungover to make sense of the comment.

“It’s nothing. Just a hunch. I’m just an old worried woman,” Rose said, brushing off the comment with a smile. Her eyes were worried though, “I’d just feel better if you were guarding another rude noble woman. They are annoying, but less likely to get you killed.”

“Don’t worry, Rose. I always come out on top,” Morgan reassured her. Then he gave her one last hug before jogging out the door to catch up with everyone else. He didn’t turn around to see her give him an exasperated look, that turned worried.

As they headed out past the city walls, the scenery faded from well kept buildings, to poverty filled shanties. Those with money lived within the walls of the city proper. Those without lived as close to the walls as they could. The farther from the walls of the city, the worse it was.

As the road dwindled, and changed from paving bricks to muddy ruts, the group made small talk. Most of it was centered on what to expect in the cemetery because Ansi and Sealy were new to the the area. Loren’s crew waffled between serious advice, and ridiculous jokes.

Being that it was summer and there were more dead to encounter, by evening the first of the shambling dead made an appearance to the crew. It was a dark haired lady with a darker complexion in faded colored robes. Her eyes were long missing, and her hands ended at stumpy finger bones, likely worn down when she clawed her way out of the earth.

Morgan was the first to run up with his sword drawn, and quickly swung. He smoothly sliced her head from her shoulders, and she slumped motionless to the ground, and he said, “That should buy us some time.” He looked back at Ansi, and winked flirtatiously.

“The problem with shamblers isn’t that they are smart, or fast. It’s that they don’t stop, even when you cut them into pieces,” he explained to the newcomers. “Oh, and you can’t become one by being bitten, but it will mean when you die, you’re more likely to get back up.” He was standing with one foot on the undead woman’s back, while she continued to wiggle.

“If Tombsville has been here close to a century, and you all cremate your dead, then how are there any shamblers left in proximity to town?” Ansi asked. She was normally a woman that could handle anything, but watching the dead woman twitch under Morgan’s foot was obviously a bit unsettling to her. She made no move to get any closer.

Morgan shrugged, and said, “You’d think so, right? Ask James, he’s the necromancer. The dead never stop coming.” Then he stepped off of the wiggling corpse to kick the chattering head back to where it’s body was.

James motioned Morgan away from the corpse, and said, “You’re just playing with it. Let me do my job.” Then he motioned with his hands, and fire erupted in a ball, which he threw at the corpse and it started to writhe again. It’s chattering mouth opened in a silent scream as the flames burnt it quickly to ash, leaving nothing but a scorched bit of earth to mark it’s passage.

James then looked at Ansi, and said, “The cemetery is from the old age, when the sky kings controlled the world. The surface you see, filled with tombs, doesn’t begin to tell you the story. The dead tombs are layered downward so far I can’t even feel the end of it. As the seasons shift, so does the earth. Sometimes celestial gates open or shut. I doubt Tombsville will ever see an end to it.” He then shrugged, and continued onwards.

Sealy sought out her sisters eyes from under her leather hood, and asked the mercenaries with some worry, “Is Tombsville safe?”

“No.” Axe said bluntly. “The bloody dead are a constant problem. Worse than cockroaches. You have to cremate everything you kill that’s bigger than a bug. Butchers use necromantic charms to keep their wares from wiggling on the cutting board.” The big man had a look of pure disgust on his face, and shook his head.

Axe’s dark green eyes told the story of his frustration with Tombsville’s dead problem when he said, “I don’t eat a lot of meat here. I tend to save that for when we are out of range of the cemeteries pull. Other people,” he nodded to Morgan, “Could care less.”

Both Ansi and Sealy looked at each other, and shared Axe’s look of disgust. Ansi in particular looked almost as green as Axe’s skin tone. Sealy reached up with her leather clad hand, and rubbed her taller sisters back, and shared a look of sympathy.

“Although,” Morgan said to the sisters, “we have the only socialized funerary system in the world. If you die in Tombsville, you will be cremated, and your remains will either be shipped home, or put to rest in the local plot. We’re very good at taking care of our own dead. It’s cheaper to do that, than let things get out of hand, I guess.” His blue eyes danced in amusement at the obvious discomfort these details where causing the new members of the crew.

Loren gave both Axe and Morgan a look, and spoke up, “Tombsville is very safe. It’s on the edge of the cemetery, and only a relatively small number of undead come to it. Every few years we get a wave of them, but the protections in place are really good. All necromancers that live in Tombsville are a part of the reserve guard, and are expected to help if that happens. The walls never fall these days, but maybe that’s because we have so many of our own dead-touched to fight them off now.” He offered a smile.

Sealy readjusted her leather belt with it’s knives, “But how are necromancers born? It’s got to be something to do with the cemetery? Why would anyone have kids here if they knew it could happen?” She wrinkled her nose in disapproval.

James looked at her pensively, and said, “You don’t have to be a baby to be reborn a necromancer. I was an adult. The cemetery made me into it’s image. Besides, even I don’t know how bad it’s going to be. Necromancy is a long slow crawl towards undeath. Even Loren won’t be alive when I get to that point.” James then laughed darkly.

Morgan said with a smile as he marched up the trail, “You’ll just get paler, and prettier, James.”

James turned and smiled down at Morgan, “Thank you Morgan. I can always count on you to see things positively.”

************

The crew continued their march, until they found an abandoned tomb they could use for shelter for the night. It was fairly big, and empty inside. It had a missing door, and the bricks were a bit crumbly, but it would at least allow the men and women to put their backs up against some walls while they slept.

James set to work putting up sturdy wards to keep the dead redirected away from those members alive enough to attract notice. He murmured deep intonations, and laid down sparkling  red lines of magic that faded from view as he moved.

Axe was pulling out food, and handing it to Morgan to cook for dinner. Loren set out his bedroll and laid on it to looked at his maps.

“So I guess, you do all your own cooking?” Ansi asked, as her sister laid out their own bedrolls. She was fairly tall for a woman. Even Sealy, being shorter than Ansi, was tall, and that left Morgan the shortest one in the crew.

“Yeah. Why? Do you get stuck with it a lot because you’re a woman?” Morgan asked as he carefully put the rabbit on the spit, over the fire. As the rabbit turned, a dark rune could be seen branded into it’s flank. Presumably to keep it from wiggling in undeath as it cooked.

Ansi nodded, and said, “You’d be amazed. It’s often assumed my sister and I will cook, clean, and look after the wounded. You know, when we are not being propositioned.” She shared a look with her sister, who just rolled her eyes.

“No offense. I like my cooking, and I prefer Axe to look at my wounds. Also, I prefer men to women most of the time. Nothing about either of your histories seems like it makes for good healing skills, either,” Morgan said while he put the pot with the rest of the stew on the fire. “Although, I mostly just make stews, and travel foods. Nothing fancy.” He motioned to the fire to make his point.

“Nope. No healing.” Sealy said with finality, while drawing her black hood up around her ears. “And certainly no cooking.” She wrinkled her nose at the last part.

Ansi laughed, and said, “Yeah, you don’t want her,” she motioned to her sister, “even touching you, if you are hurt. She’ll just make it more painful. That’s her gift.”

Ansi laughed, and ran her hand through her short hair, and continued,”Between the two of us, I can cook. Sealy only makes burnt promises. She’s much better with a bow, knife, or scouting. Not domestic things.” She continued to laugh as her sister made a face at her.

Everyone settled in for the night. Loren’s crew relaxed, trusting in James’ magic to keep the dead out. Even Axe had enough faith in the necromancer to kick back with his bowl of stew.

The newcomers, however, didn’t find the skills of their dead-touched comrade quite so comforting when the night deepened, and the dead could be heard shambling by outside the structure they were bunking in.

The next few days passed the same. As Loren’s crew traveled deeper into the cemetery their encounters with the dead increased, and they had to be more and more careful. However, Ansi and Sealy earned the respect from everyone by being professionally capable, despite their disgust at the rotting walking dead.

Sealy lived up to Loren’s praise by being every bit as good with her bow as Loren promised. Ansi, now that she was familiar with the dead, took point with Morgan, and worked with him side by side when needed. She didn’t flinch from the foul smelling reality that fighting the walking dead brought to bear, but she was still very uncomfortable with it. She didn’t match Morgan’s nonchalance when he’d kick wiggling bits back into a pile for James to burn.

The group had settled for the evening, and everyone was sitting on their bedrolls eating. There was less shambling footsteps than usual. It was actually possible for everyone relax. James took first watch, with Axe taking second, and everyone settled in to sleep next to the embers of the fire. They had found themselves a nice large crypt to camp in this time, which had enough room for everyone to stretch out comfortably in their bedrolls.

Morgan woke up to the yelling. He was startled, but grabbed his sword, and was upright before he could make sense of anything. He wasn’t the only one, though, as Ansi was up next to him just as fast. Her short dark curly hair stood on end, and unlike Morgan, she had been sleeping in her boots, pants, and undershirt. Morgan was in his skivvies because he’d been too warm in the summer air.

Axe was yelling, “James, your wards are down! The wards are down!” He was using his orcish bulk to hold the entrance to the crypt. James was kneeling to the side, behind him, working on something magical. It was glowing light blue, and seemed to be dancing in his hands.

As Morgan closed the distance, fire erupted over Axe, and threw him backwards. The big half orc didn’t even manage a cry of pain. Instead he just landed at the back of the crypt, overtop of their supplies as limp as a pile of wet laundry.

Morgan and Ansi worked in tandem, closing the gap in the defenses, and holding off the influx of shambling undead. A dozen or so mindless corpses were seeking to invade their sanctuary. They worked well together, with Morgan pushing forward, and Ansi’s longer reach able to work around him.

“There’s a smart one out there. A lich, I think,” James hollered, while he readjusted his magic to account for the new variable. The magic he worked took on an edge of fire. He wasn’t looking up, but instead concentrating on getting their wards back up.

“How many?” Loren yelled to James, while stringing his bow. Even half awake, he had his bow strung, and ready before James could respond. His one good eye lining up the shots, and carefully taking aim around Morgan and Ansi.

‘I think there are 11 shamblers, and one lich. The lich won’t cooperate, so I’m going to have to destroy it. Pity. . . “ James said with a shake of his head.

“What do you need?” Loren asked James, letting an arrow fly. It hit one of the shamblers in the eye socket, running straight through it’s skull, and pinning it to the doorframe of the crypt. It was still reaching with it’s arms, but couldn’t advance any further.

“I need to get out there, so clear the mindless ones out of my way,” James said. He then stood up, with his spells prepped. He held his magic visibly in his hands, at the ready.

Sealy had silently taken up a position on the side of Loren where he wore the eyepatch, and fired an arrow past her sisters ear, to sink into one of the shamblers. The shambler, batted at the arrow embedded in it’s throat, but kept it’s forward momentum.

Morgan yelled, “Ansi, push outwards, now!” He then put his shoulder down, and pushed the bodies in front of him. He was a small man, but a determined one. His bare feet dug into the cemetery’s earthy ground, and he managed to shove hard enough to get half out the door, before sliding sideways, free of the crypt. He then set about hacking the things down with abandon.

It wasn’t long before Ansi had followed him, fighting her way outside into the fray. She backed up next to Morgan, providing support.

“What now?” Ansi yelled to Morgan, as she swung her sword with a flourish, decapitating a round middle aged man that was missing not only his shirt, but half of the skin on his chest.

“We act as bait so James can get closer to the lich. Even a lich will have problems controlling it’s shamblers with fresh breathing people so close. Just keep the shamblers between you and the direction that fireball came from!” Morgan said, as he danced backwards with his short sword, dodging a lunging dead woman.

“That’s the plan?!” Ansi yelled back. “That’s a shit plan!” She swung her sword, beheading Morgan’s assailant, and turned to another of the creatures.

Morgan, despite being in his short clothes, was holding his own. He managed to sever a thin elven corpse in half with a couple of blows, and then kicked it over. His bare foot hit the creatures abdomen, and squished into it, before it toppled.

“Either that, or we hack them into wiggly bits, and put them in the fire afterwards,” Morgan yelled back.

Ansi continued to whirl, and strike, hacking off bits of her opponents. She was an amazing fighter, with incredible skill. She wasn’t used to fighting shambling undead, though. They didn’t dodge, or try to avoid her blade. They just walked into it. She glanced at Morgan to see he wasn’t doing much more than using his short sword like a machete to hack down anything that got near him.

Ansi then felt the pressure on her shoulder, as arms wrapped around her waist. She danced forward, dragging the thing with her. The pressure on her shoulder became pain. She swung her elbow around, and tried to dislodge the thing. She stepped back into it, and jammed the heavy pommel of her sword upward into it’s rotting face. This was enough force to rip the corpse off of her shoulder. It’s bite never loosened though, as it’s face was forced backwards, causing a chunk of flesh to be ripped off as it was dislodged.

She then turned, and started swinging her sword at it in a panic. “Shit! Fuck! Shit! Shit!” Ansi screamed. Her voice took on a higher pitch with her panic. Gone was her skill and technique. All that was left was her panicked hacking at the thing that had bitten her.

A burst of flame exploded around them. It was stopped by pale blue electric walls, but the heat was palpable. The lich had thrown another explosive spell at them, but James’ wards had stopped it from causing harm.

James stepped out into the night, and circled behind the fighting at the mouth of the crypt. He left the fight to the fighters, and silently picked his way across the graves, until his quarry was in view. James moved with quiet purpose and confidence. In this world there was little that could threaten him.

The liche was tall and thin, and most likely male. It’s body was desiccated, and dried out, so it had been a lich for some time. It was so dried out, it looked almost like a skeleton, with leather wrapped over its bones. It stood half behind a tall toppled set of bricks. It wasn’t looking at James. It’s attention was taken by it’s flock of shambling dead, and the human fighters they were attacking.

James smiled, and licked his lips. He then pulled out some of his old battle magic. He said a few intonations, and threw his hands up, like he was conducting an orchestra. The effect was immediate. The lich jerked, and twitched, as it’s arms and legs were pulled in different directions.

James smiled darkly, and moved his hands slowly apart. As he did so, the lich’s limbs were stretched, and pulled. It’s right arm gave first, with a loud pop. The rest of it’s limbs followed suit, leaving the thing wriggling in the dirt next to a tall headstone.

James closed the distance quickly, and said softly, “It wasn’t very smart to target those under my protection.” His dark eyes glittered with malice.

He then reached down, and touched the lich on the chest, “I’ve been working on something new that I saw recently,” and black shadowy smoke surrounded the lich. James had replicated the smoky terror the badlands undead had carried with them. The liche arched it’s back, and spasmed.

“I guess a lich can feel fear after all,” James said to the thing that writhed beneath him. He lost himself for several minutes letting the lich jerk in panic before him. Finally, the yelling from his comrades fighting the shamblers caught his attention, and he made one final set of hand motions. The lich was then pulled into a thousand pieces, and each piece caught fire as it hit the ground in an explosion of light.

“Help! James! Ansi’s panicking!” Morgan yelled into the night. He was drawing off as many of the things as he could. Corpses didn’t bleed, but depending on their state, could still have plenty of grotesque viscera that could splash. Morgan was half covered in something that looked unspeakable, and smelled undoubtedly worse.

Loren moved outside with his sword, hacked at the remaining shamblers, trying to get to the the short haired woman. He then barked an order at Ansi to get it together. This seemed to help, as she snapped back, and started fighting the things off of herself.

Sealy made no noise at all, instead she had her hood up, and was wading in towards her sister. Her leather thieves outfit was of good use against the biting dead. Her face was one of grim determination, as she effectively slashed her way towards her sister, using her knives.

James smiled, and flicked his arm up, and shouted out in a deep baritone command. His voice carried over the fray, and the dead stopped moving immediately. His control of the undead was immediate, and complete.

The rest of the crew continued to hack at the dead, until James yelled in his normal voice, “You’ll want to stand back!” He waited several minutes until everyone calmed down, and backed up before flicking his hand, and intoning the spell. The dead started catching on fire immediately, and started writhing, before being burnt to ash.

“Why the hell didn’t you do that first!” Ansi yelled at James. Her short hair stood in messy spikes, and gore streaked her clothing. She was barreling at the dead-touched necromancer, when Sealy caught her by the arm, and yanked her back.

“Don’t attack a necromancer, you idiot,” Sealy hissed, and held on to Ansi’s arm. She then put herself between them, and Ansi finally stopped.

James just regarded the woman calmly, “I can’t burn shamblers that are warded by the lich that owns them. They are provided protections. I could fight for control, but it’s easier and faster to kill the lich.” He stood very still, and just watched to see what Ansi was going to do. His head was half cocked, and all his attention was on the tall fighter.

“I got bit by one of them!” Ansi snarled, pointing to her shoulder wound, which was bleeding profusely.

“Learn your craft better, and dodge,” James said, and turned to go back into the crypt without another word.

“That’s all you have to say?!” Ansi yelled at his back, and lunged just enough that Sealy had to put both hands on Ansi’s chest, keeping her from pursuing the necromancer.

“I’m going to see if Axe is dead or alive. Your love bite isn’t my top priority,” James said over his shoulder, as he stepped back inside. His tone was acidic, and final.

Loren followed James inside as well. His normally unreadable face looked concerned.

“James gets really snarky if you yell at him, and he’ll never get mad. He’ll just push your buttons,” Morgan said. He closed the distance, and handed his sword to Sealy. “Here, you hold this, and I’ll take a look at your sisters’ bite.” He was a mess, but his hands were still relatively clean.

Ansi shook her head, her face red with anger. “What’s the point of a necromancer, if they can’t keep this from happening?” She asked, but she had stopped trying to move forward, and instead was looking down at her bleeding shoulder. Her anger masked her fear.

Morgan pulled her down to his level, and gingerly moved the bloodied undershirt, “He’s the best there is. Really. Nobody can go into the cemetery without a guide. The fact that we spend most nights sleeping, means he’s good at his job. Liche’s are hard. They’re hateful, smart, and always like to keep a flock of shamblers around. If it wasn’t for James, the liche would have had it’s shamblers take us down, and then it would have feasted on us while we were still alive. Liche’s do terrible torturous things to the living before killing them off completely.”

He carefully pealed bits of shirt out of the wound, and hissed when he saw the bite. “Well, that’s going to leave a mark. We’ll get you cleaned up, and see how bad it is. Those bastards never let go if they get a good bite in.” He then sought out Ansi’s eyes, and continued, “Your going to be alright. Just a bit of a scar.” Morgan’s touch was gentle, and he let go and motioned her to follow him into the crypt.

In the crypt, James and Loren were leaning over Axe. James chanted some deep words, and blue energy swirled around Axe’s burnt form. Axe’s whole body jerked, and he grimaced. The wounds to his body healed, but Axe groaned around clenched teeth, and clenched his hands into fists from the pain.

“This is why we don’t like James to heal us. It hurts like your soul is on fire,” Morgan whispered. “Give Axe a few minutes to get himself together, and he’ll fix your shoulder. He’s good at that. I’ll just help clean it up first.”

As they sat down, and everyone started putting the camp back together, Loren spoke up, “Actually Morgan, go clean up, I’ll start on her wound. I’d prefer not to smell whatever it is you are covered in, if you don’t mind.” The blond elf was closing the distance with a small pile of bandages, and a pot of salve.

Morgan shrugged and said with a smile, “Yeah, that would probably be more helpful.” and headed out to wash up in the nearby creek. James slipped out with him, to reset his wards, and make sure nothing else staggered it’s way into camp.

Inside the crypt, Ansi looked panicked. “So what’s this going to mean. When I die, I’ll come back like one of those things?” Ansi asked Loren. Her face was tight with concern. It was a common concern for those not from Tombsville.

“Maybe. Nothing is for sure. It could all be old wives tales. The more magic in you, the more you’ll risk it. Nobody is sure about it, really,” Loren explained. He helped Ansi peal her shirt off, and winced at the depth of the bite. “This will require a bit of Orcish hedge magic, or you’ll not be able to use that arm to fight anytime soon.” The elf carefully and confidently pulled bits of cloth, and debris out of the wound, and started rinsing it off. He then put a clean cloth over it, and held it to the wound tightly, applying pressure to stem the bleeding.

“I bet you’re wishing you didn’t hire me after I panicked like that,” Ansi said with embarrassment, but looked calmer. She didn’t look at Loren when she said it, instead keeping her gold eyes down at her boots.

Axe had made his way over to them by this point, “No. I still panic when I’m surrounded. The best fighters out there lose it a little with these things. Every time you think you’ve seen it all, it always get’s worse.” Axe reached over, and took over gently for Loren.

“I’m scared about being bit, though,” Ansi said with worry.  Sealy still said nothing, but sat next to her sister, holding Ansi’s hand tightly.

“This is a tough bite, but look here,” Axe said, while pulling his baggy pant leg up to his thigh. On his green toned leg were a half dozen small bites. They must have been deep, because the scars were still clear despite being years old.

“How?” Sealy asked with her eyes wide from under her leather hood. The bites were clearly human, and tiny.

“I walked into James “work room” when he wasn’t home. The little bastards got me good before I got back outside the ward to the room. I’d heard them, and thought it was James working in there,” Axe explained. “You bet your ass, I screamed like a little kid when that happened. You can’t fault yourself. I’ve seen veterans with more experience than you simply crumple when they face the cemetery. You did well. You followed orders, and you got through it.” He smiled around his tusks, and nodded encouragingly at her.

“Some fighters just can’t deal with it at all. Moving dead are just unnatural,” Loren offered, “You did very well.”

Axe then pulled some herbs out of his bag, and pressed them into the wound, and sang a bit of an orcish tune. There was no visible sign anything happened, but Ansi looked more relaxed, and her breathing became less labored. She eventually sighed with relief, because the pain had ceased.

“I think all of us, except The Smith, have bites somewhere. Morgan’s is on his ass from being drunk at a Dead Walk recently.” Axe paused, then said, “Don’t ask him about it, because he will show you in great detail.” Then he laughed.

He then pulled the cloth away, and the the wound looked like it had been healing for a couple months, “There we go. You’ll owe the orcish shrine in town an offering when we get back, but you should be good to go.” He then rose, to go sort out the supplies he had landed on.

Ansi moved her arm experimentally, and looked pleased at the healed wound. “Wow. I didn’t know you were a cleric.” She looked shocked, and continued, “I thought clerics were really rare?”

“Most people don’t know I am a cleric. I like it that way,” the big man said with a smile, and then put an index finger over his lips to make a shushing motion.

Ansi thought for a few moments and asked while moving her arm around experimentally to see how healed it was, “Did Morgan panic about the dead when he saw them first?”

“Um. . . no. If I recall, he had no issues, but then again, Morgan is crazy. There’s a reason he does this for a living, and acts like a kid despite his greying hair. You’ll see when you’ve been around for a while. You can put your back to Morgan in a fight and trust it, but when things aren’t so dire, he doesn’t do so well,” Axe explained. “Downtime is his worst enemy. He can’t function if he’s not working. He’s a good man, though.”

Sealy spoke up from inside her hood and asked, “Why do the dead try to kill everything that’s living? Does anyone know?” Ansi might look more relaxed, and comfortable, but Sealy was still concerned.

Loren gave an inscrutably elven look, and said, “Nobody is really sure. James once said it was because they only possess enough life to hunger for more, and in their basic capacity, they feel alive when they take a life. That they are the very essence of hunger and vengeance. I don’t know if that’s just his interpretation, though.”

“There are just some things in this world the ancients should have left alone. This is what they wrought, and what we inherited from them,” Axe said with a shrug. “Some things just are. The sun, the rain, and dead that want to rip you apart until you become one of them.”

Sealy pulled her hood back, and her braids were fuzzy, and half falling out. She nodded her head, and responded, “Hmmm. I guess we’ve just never been to any of the ancient sites close enough to have to think about it.” She then reached up, and started re-braiding the worst offenders, to return them back to tidy rows.

Loren stood up, and patted Ansi on her good shoulder, and nodded at Sealy, “You both did well, especially since you are new to the cemetery. I’m proud of you both.” He then walked over and started to put their gear back in order.

************

Outside, Morgan was waist deep in the nearby creek, while James watched his back from the shore. There was a waning half moon in the sky, and the land was silent again. A large misshapen tree spread it’s branches over the creek, and thick moss covered everything. There was a convenient perch for Morgan on a half submerged headstone covered with so much moss you could almost imagine it was an idyllic swimming spot in a more wholesome territory.

“It can be beautiful out here if you don’t have to worry about being ripped apart and chewed on,” Morgan said to James, while using a thick bar of soap to scrub some of the noxious effluvia off of his body. The running stream was cool and clear, and carried the bits of clotted dead blood and fleshy bits down stream away from Morgan.

“It is. Most people are too alive to see it, though,” James said quietly. He was preoccupied, as he had been since they started this job.

Morgan looked up at James, and took in a deep breath, and paused. James wasn’t the most forthcoming, but he finally opened his mouth to ask, “So being dead-touched, like you are, doesn’t mean you are going to be one of those eyeless monsters from the badlands eventually, will it?” Morgan kept washing, but he was watching James for his response. Their last job had shown the group more about the ancients, and their horrific undead. The outcome had been gruesome.

James looked at Morgan for several long minutes, and snorted, “Morgan, I like you, and am always surprised when your idiocy lets you notice something that everyone else misses. Each one of those things that attacked us in the Badlands was deeply magically capable like I am. Not like our magic is now, but they held it in their bodies, in their very existence.”

Morgan said nothing, but let James lapse into silence for a few minutes. Only the sound of the creek, and Morgan’s washing could be heard. Morgan pondered his underthings, and snorted, and tossed them aside. No amount of scrubbing was going to make them any less stained with dead body drippings.

Finally James continued, “I don’t think they were human to begin with, but I think whatever makes us dead-touched changed them too, the same way it’s changing me. I think a human mage is effected to the degree of their magical talents. Same disease, but different species. A necromancers abilities grow with time, along with our physical changes.”

James then reached up, and pulled his shaggy black hair back from his face, and took his own deep breath before speaking, “I don’t see out of these eyes anymore, Morgan. I lost human sight close to 50 years ago. I still feel the world around me, and ‘see’, but not like you do. I don’t think those things ever had eyes to begin with, but whatever it is that corrupted them, is working it’s magic on me. I think eventually, I’ll be a washed out caricature of a human being.” James let his hair fall back down around his face, and stood silent again.

“You’ll always be James,” Morgan said pensively, “You are a good man, dead touched or not.” He then hopped up onto the part of the headstone that was above the water line, and started to look at the bottoms of his feet for cuts and scrapes.

“The problem with that is ‘James’ was never a good man to begin with,” James said quietly, before changing the subject, “Are you bleeding? Did you get bit too?”

“Um, I think I got scraped on the back by some boney fingers, but nothing big. I’ve had worse,” Morgan said, with a shrug, and started to walk back towards the crypt.

James stepped down to the edge of the water, and said, “Come let me see, then. You have a habit of hiding your injuries.” He then stood expectantly blocking the path, so Morgan had to let him see.

Morgan rolled his eyes in the moonlight, and said, “Everyone wants to be my mother, lately.” However, he then carefully picked his way over to James, and turned his back to be looked at.

“You wouldn’t survive if we didn’t look after you,” James said, with a small smile. He touched Morgan’s back where he’d taken a couple of deeper slashes from the dead as they had frantically scrabbled to grab at him. “I’ll fix this, hold still,” James said, as he intoned a few words, and weaved some magic over Morgan.

“Noooooo!” Morgan yelped, and twisted to get out of James’ reach, splashing back into the water. This just caused James to start laughing through his spell, and the blue healing spell James employed brightened with his laughter.

“Oooouch! Damnit, James! Oowwww!” Morgan yelled, but he eventually stopped moving. He turned to glower at James from the center of the creek.

The spell ran it’s course, and James broke out laughing in earnest, “You look like a dog that didn’t want a bath!” James then giggled, as Morgan stomped out of the creek, naked, and wet.

Morgan stomped into the crypt, and grabbed his clothing by his bedroll. He ignored Ansi and Sealy as they tried pointedly not to look at his unusual anatomical features. He ignored James even harder as James came in giggling after him.

Axe looked over at Morgan, “What’s this about?” He then reached over to drag Morgan closer to look him over. The big man easily turned Morgan around and studied him for wounds.

“Hey! Orc handling. Remember?” Morgan said, and tried to hop into his pants while Axe looked to see if he was bleeding. Mostly Morgan had to wait until Axe was satisfied that he wasn’t hiding a wound, before he could get back into his pants. This meant Morgan’s white skin was on full display, punctuated by scars, runes, and tattoos.

“James healed me, already. He’s apparently taking your job today,” Morgan said with irritation.

Axe chuckled, and said, “Was that what all that noise was about, little man?” He still looked Morgan over, as Morgan continued to try to get back into his clothes. Eventually Morgan swatted Axe’s big greenish hands away.

Once mostly dressed, Morgan looked at Axe closely, “How about you? Are you okay? I thought you were dead for sure.” Morgan grabbed at Axe’s head, and looked him in the eyes with deep concern. “Don’t every fucking do that again.”

“I’ll try my best,” Axe said, then palmed Morgan’s head briefly before saying, “The Smith isn’t here to cluck over us this time, so I guess your going to do that now? If so, go look at Ansi, she had a pretty deep bite.” Axe then gave Morgan a push towards the newest members of the crew.

Morgan then checked on Ansi and Sealy, and then warmed up their breakfast. It was early, but the sun would be up shortly, and none of them were getting any more sleep, anyways. It was far better to just get ready to continue onwards, and take advantage of the sunlight.

************

The crew picked their way carefully into the deep heart of the ancient cemetery. They were closing in on the location James had indicated, and slowed their progress. It was time for care to be taken in their approach in case James’ fears were realized, and there was another mage or necromancer nearby.

James was heading to an exceptionally large above ground vault surrounded by a short wall. It looked like, once upon a time, the courtyard might have contained gardens and statues. One corner had been blown out, though, and there were deep holes rent in the earth, as if explosions had blown up some of the statuary, and landed inside the wall. Whatever had happened there, it had happened a very long time ago and the low creeping foliage of the cemetery had covered it in mossy greenery.

James crouched with Loren and the crew and explained, “I need to make sure some things I left there are secure. Inside the vault in the middle, is a staircase downwards. I hid some artifacts deep down in the tunnels, and I think they should be retrieved. The gold is with the artifacts.” He looked distinctly unsettled at being there.

Loren asked, “Is there anything we should know before going in?” He was studying James carefully as if he was seeing him for the first time.

“There might be another necromancer or mage there. I’m not sure. I’m not really sure what we’ll find, to be honest, but it’s not safe for those artifacts to be left here any longer,” James said. He cocked his head like he was listening, and then shook his head before offering, “There are shamblers there, but I don’t feel any smart ones. So there’s that bit of good news.”

Loren motioned to Sealy, “I want you to circle around the front, and see what you can find.” Then he said, “Morgan and Ansi? You two take point, and we’ll follow you down to James’ vault.”

Axe looked relieved to be traveling with Loren, and not out confronting the undead directly. He took up a protective position over the elf, with his weapon drawn and ready.

It didn’t take long for Morgan and Ansi to run into movement. Three shamblers started towards them as they reached the wall to the grounds. The dead were all wearing tattered versions of James’ black tunic. The threading wasn’t as ornate and rich, but it was unmistakably a uniform from the same military unit. The shamblers headed straight at the two fighters.

Ansi was prepared this time, and jumped ahead of Morgan, and used her sword to hack the first of them into pieces. There was an emotional component to her actions that had been missing before. Her face was curled into a look of pure hatred, as she hacked her undead opponent to the ground.

Morgan took note of her newfound vehemence, and stepped around her to the second target, beheading it, and moving on to the third while she worked out some of her frustration on the first. He smiled proudly at her and nodded, when she stopped to look up at him.

When Loren and James came up to the wiggling corpses, James knelt down next to the things. James’ face wore a mask of disgust, and he sneered, “So we meet again, and again you prove a disappointment Lt. Carwin.”

“You were in the same military unit with these guys?” Morgan asked, while nudging a still wiggling bit of shambler with his boot.

“Yes.” James said with angry finality, before setting the corpses on fire, and striding off, heedless of the rest of the crew. He had lit them on fire so quickly, Morgan had to jump to get out of the way.

“Shit. . . I didn’t know he could be angry,” Axe said. “Should we go after him? Considering he’s the reason more shamblers aren’t converging on us?” Axe looked to Loren for answers.

Loren was still watching James closely, but he nodded for Morgan to head in James’ direction. When Ansi started to follow, Loren put a hand on her shoulder to stop her, and said, “No. James knowns Morgan well. He’s only just met you. Let’s not press him today.”

Morgan jogged after James and walked with him silently until they arrived at the wall to the courtyard. James’ face was a mask of barely contained rage. They both stopped at the wall, and used it as cover to look into the courtyard.

“I’m sorry you had to come back to where you died,” Morgan said. He stood next to James, looking into the courtyard at the back of the building. “It must bring back some terrible memories.”

James said nothing, and didn’t look back at Morgan for several long minutes. Then he said without looking, “I thought I would feel nothing, but that’s apparently not true. I’m as angry as the day I walked out of the catacombs underneath the vault, after being left for dead.” His fists were clenched, and held to his sides. Some small magical sparks radiated outward from them as evidence of his rage.

“You have friends that would never do that to you, now,” Morgan offered sincerely. He watched the gaunt man’s rage, and reached out to touch James, but thought better of it.

“Are you sure?” James said without looking up. He didn’t see the hurt look spread across Morgan’s face at the barb, but continued to seethe at his past.

Sealy was picking her way carefully and silently back to Loren and Ansi. Her dark leather clothing blended well in the afternoon’s long shadows. She walked to Loren, pulled her hood back, and said, “There is someone there. I counted three mage lights at the entrance to the vault, and a circle laid out around some packs and gear. It looks like they’ve been here for a while, too.”

James turned back to the approaching group and said to Sealy, “That’s because it would take an exceptional mage to find what I hid there, so it would take them awhile. I would like to know how they knew where to look, though.” He was under control now, but his eyes were cold and furious.

“Soooo. . . onward then?” Morgan asked uncertainly, as he climbed up and over the short wall. He landed quietly and then turned to look expectantly at the rest. He had his sword out and ready.

James nodded, and let the crew take their familiar formation, as they advanced. It took little time for them to circle around to the front of the large vault, and see what Sealy had reported about the entrance.

James knelt down next to the magic circle that glowed orange in the lengthening shadows of the day, and contemplated it for a second before saying, “I think it looks like the Carvingsforth magic tradition. That’s in the first province, and too far away for the mage to be here by accident. It’s not exactly high magic, either. No mage would graduate from any current university and still casts at this crap level. We should be careful either way, though. Hedge mages can still be a problem.”

Almost like a dog, James sniffed the area, and half crawled forwards into the courtyard. He looked far less human in his movements than usual. He paused, sniffed a few more times, and said, “There is a dead-touched guide here. One of the stronger ones from Tombsville. Eloa, I think her name is.” He then rocked back onto his heels, and stood upright again in one fluid motion.

His behavior left Ansi silent and anxious. Her sister just watched James carefully from under her hood, giving no sign anything was amiss. Axe, however, rested his hand on his weapon, and looked nervous, but resolute.

“Soooo. . . should we go down and tell them they are digging up someone’s property?” Morgan asked. Although he was asking James, his eyes sought out Loren. Loren was the groups strategic mind. James might be the one with the job, but Loren was the one that made all the calls.

Loren nodded again and said, “Let’s take this calm and easy. Nobody get too eager here because we don’t know what we are walking into. Maybe we can reason with them.” He then nodded to Morgan and Ansi to start into the large building.

The building was tall enough to be two stories, but only had the one large room inside. It was pale, and constructed of stones or bricks that looked more like they had been grown instead of being formed. The entire construction was oddly without any sharp corners.

The pair of doors to the large pale building were massive and ornate. One of the giant stone doors was laying sideways outside the building, where it had landed, half buried where it had been forcibly thrown. The other door was closed, and showed ornate engravings of constellations.

As they stepped inside, wide columns held up the roof. There were several stone benches, and a center dais on one wall, reminiscent of a church. There were large open windows with no glass that ran down two sides. One corner was blown outwards, leaving an opening big enough for vines to grow in to the interior.

The most striking feature of the interior of the building was that several bodies, little more than decaying bones and sinew, were pinned to the walls with steal spears. They all wore tattered black tunics with gold thread. Some of them had multiple spears forcing the bodies to hang with arms spread wide. Not all of the bodies were whole, and the pale stones behind them were scorched.

Up by the dais several still chattering undead skulls were spiked on spears to stand as a grizzly guard. They were the only things left in the building that still moved, as the bodies speared to the wall were well and truly dead.

“What happened here?” Axe asked in the uneasy silence, as they all stared. Tombs abounded in the cemetery and the dead, moving or not, did as well. This was a place of torture, though. The bodies had clearly been staked out, and made an example of in a gruesome fashion. Even liche’s didn’t do this.

“I did. I had forgotten,” James said grimly, and headed directly to the stairs in the middle of the room, that led downwards. He stomped ahead as if he could leave behind not only the room, but what he had done in it.

His revelation left the rest of the crew to look to each other in uncertainty. Axe especially looked unhappy. Morgan patted the half-orc on the arm in reassurance.

Loren’s elven eye swept the place, and he asked, “These were your troops? Your men and women.” He didn’t move, and neither did anyone else.

“They were my killers,” James snarled back without pausing as he stalked to the stairs in the center of the floor.

“You didn’t say you led your old unit, and you certainly failed to mention they killed you because you were a psychopath,” Axe blurted out. He was eyeing the extent of the torturous deaths that surrounded them.

“You didn’t ask,” James spit back at Axe, and continued onward without waiting to see if Loren and the rest of the crew were following.

Loren nodded to Morgan to keep up with James, and the rest of the crew carefully followed James to the stairs in the center of the building.

Like the rest of the building, the stairs looked like they had been poured and molded into shape without any sharp corners. They had an organic curve to their shape that modern construction lacked. The stairs themselves were slightly too large for comfort for the average human or elven form. Morgan found himself hopping down them one or two at a time due to his short legs.

They didn’t have to light any torches or candles because the path was already lit with the ethereal mage lights that hung floating in the air and evenly spaced on the way downwards. It was clear the area was inhabited by the living. The dead didn’t need lighting.

“This stairwell leads to a celestial gate, eventually,” James offered, in a somewhat kinder voice. “I remember that now. I would have warned you earlier if I remembered.”

He paused for a few minutes, and his face worked as if he was trying to make the words come forth, “That time for me was difficult, and filled with agonizing pain. I remember it only in bits and pieces. It took me years to come to my senses.”

Axe sighed, “A celestial gate? Do you remember what it’s combination was? Are we near to it’s opening, because even Morgan’s mocking can’t make me go near a celestial gate that’s opening.” The half-orc had balked, and looked frustrated. His words were evenly said, but he looked close to turning around and leaving.

“No. It won’t be open. It was open when I died, so it’s not it’s anniversary right now,” James said quietly. “You are in no danger from it, I think.”

“I doubt the scavengers here would be here still if it was open,” Loren stated. He strode forth, after James, down the steps leaving Axe to shake his head, and hopping to keep up.

“Whats a gate?” Ansi asked. She was walking carefully down the large stairs, with her hand on her longsword. Her amber eyes wore a look of concern.

“It’s another gift from the ancients,” James said. “Nobody is quite sure. They open and close on a predetermined schedule when the stars are aligned with their combination. They have the constellations that mark the date of this carved into the top most metal ledger board above them. The metal of their frames is too strong to dent, and they can’t be destroyed. Mages call it celestial metal. It’s light blue, and has it’s own glow. They are harmless when closed, but can cause mutations, death, and raise the dead when they are open.” He spoke clearly, but his mind was distracted as he relived the events that brought him here.

James then paused, turned to look at the young fighter, and motion to himself with a grimace, “See exhibit A.” Then he laughed a dark haunted chuckle.

The group followed the large stairs downwards until they were deep underground. Eventually they reached the bottom, where the stairs opened up to a fairly large chamber. It looked like this chamber was being used to camp in, as supplies were laid out and there were several bed rolls. Ethereal mage lights were floating in the corners lighting the whole room. By the state of the room, it looked like the occupants had been here for quite a while.

They were met by a slender elven woman, with the same pale washed out skin and eyes that all dead-touched people had. If she hadn’t been dead-touched she would have been a darker skinned elf, with dark brown eyes and gold flecked curly hair. As it stood, she was a pale caricature of one of the elves from Dallingshal. She was wearing the deep rich greens and browns in the style of the elven peoples. Much plainer than Loren’s usual fair, but still obviously elven.

“What brings you here?” she asked James directly. She ignored the rest of the group completely, as if the only person worth her concern was the crew’s necromancer. In the world of necromancy, this wasn’t altogether untrue. The dead-touched tended to regard each other as kin, regardless of their background. They tended to stick together politically in Tombsville, and work things out with each other. Their population was very small and insular.

“I could ask you the same thing. Eloa?” James asked, making an effort to remain calm. “This is where I died, and this is mine. I left wards that should have made that clear to you.” He took a deep breath, and let it out slowly.

Eloa searched James face, and made a passing motion with her right hand. A faint glow washed over James, and her face took on a look of concern and fear, “I. . . I didn’t realize it was you. It was so old, I just assumed that the dead-touched mage had already passed. If I had known, I wouldn’t have let Parrish in.”

As James just watched her in silence, she bowed her head, and intoned a few elven phrases of apology before saying, “I will tell Mr. Parish that his excavation is at an end, and I am done. If he choses to stay, he can deal with you, without me. I truly didn’t know you had lived that long.”

James relaxed and reached over to the woman’s shoulder, and said, “I will return a favor to you. I am in your debt.” Some of the anger seemed to recede.

Eloa looked at the rest of the crew for the first time, and said, “If you will all follow me, I will take you to Mr. Parrish. He’s the one paying for this expedition.” Then she turned and quietly led the group deeper into the catacombs.

As they passed rows of stone coffins, most had been pried open, and their contents dumped on the floor. The only evidence of the undead inhabitants of those coffins were the scorch marks on the floor. The corridor was filled with funerary debris.

Eloa’s quiet footsteps took them to a small central chamber where a mousy looking man with an unkempt beard and shaggy hair, wearing glasses, was encouraging two larger men to break open another coffin. He was holding a small journal, and wore an expression of absolute exasperation.

“It has to be in one of these. The Prince hid it here, and where else is there to hide it?” He asked rhetorically. He was a human of about 50 years, with greying hair, and was looking at a chart of the catacombs in the journal. He was going over which tombs they hadn’t pried open yet. He was wearing plain work clothes, and carried a leather satchel.

“There’s only three of these left, so if what you’re looking for isn’t there, then I don’t know what to tell you Mr. Parish,” one of the men said, with a hint of annoyance. He shared a look with the other man prying open the coffin.

The workers looked rough, and wore a mercenary coat of arms on the back of their coats. They wore their weapons close at hand, and noticed Loren’s crew approaching faster than their bookish employer did. They were quickly on their guard.

Loren took the lead easily, and approached the men, “I’m Loren, from Tombsville, and this is my crew. We are under contract to deliver the owner of this space here, since it’s being tampered with. Is Terry around?” He looked relaxed, but his hand was rested almost casually on his sword hilt.

“You know Terry?” one of the men asked, “Yeah, I’ll get her.” He looked relieved not to have to pry open another coffin with an angry wiggling occupant inside.

The other mercenary took up a professional guard position next to the bookish Mr. Parrish, who had been barking orders a few moments earlier.

“What’s this about? Eloa? I hired you to keep people out, not lead them in,” Mr. Parrish said, his annoyance growing.

“That was before I knew who this space belonged to. I am quitting, and if you want I’ll take you back to Tombsville, but I won’t be staying here anymore. We don’t betray our own,” She explained. Her tone was quiet, but firm. There was no argument to be had.

“Nobody owns this. It’s an abandoned cemetery,” Mr. Parrish intoned with all the condescension of a bored school teacher. Then his eyes scanned the crew, and landed on James. His mouth fell open, and exclaimed, “By the old gods, this can’t be true! I’ve seen paintings of you.” Parrish stepped a few feet forward to get a better look, and his guard moved along with him.

James stepped up next to Loren, and said simply, “It is true. This is my place. You have no right to disturb it. Pack up, and go please.” His words were even and calm, but his eyes were dark and angry.

“Do you know who you are traveling with?” Mr. Parrish asked Loren, with venom in his voice. “That is James Ruffalo, heir to the Ruffalo kingdom. The last kingdom to rule before the Coalition of Provinces was created. The tyrant king.” He pointed at James with a vicious motion to underline his point.

“Whatever his past, he’s one of my men, now, and has served with me for 75 years. He says this is his place, and you are desecrating it,” Loren said smoothly. He had moved himself slightly in front of James, as if James was still a lord who had hired Loren’s crew for protection.

“Did he tell you why he didn’t want this place searched?” Parrish snarled. “He was collecting artifacts for his coronation. Every artifact he collected came at the price of lives and genocide. He died hunting for The Giver’s Phoenix. He hunted the religion of The Giver to extinction, trying to find it.” His voice was accusatory.

“That is true.” James said. “I forced my troops to cross the cemetery because our quarry was desperate enough to think they might lose me here. My troops then turned on me, and killed me. It was an unfortunate place for their betrayal, because I didn’t die,” He stared at the man for a second before continuing, “But I would know how you came to know these things?”

Parrish smirked, and was more than happy to explain, “I was an archivist at the University of Thaumaturgical Development. I was in charge of the section archiving works in regards to the First Provinces oldest history, and Carvingsforth was the seat of the old Ruffalo kingdom that preceded it. Your lordship’s horrors were chronicles that were well written of, but one Private Sonlee was especially prolific in his letters to his wife. He chronicled every artifact you procured, and every measure you used to take them. You were every bit the monster your father was.”

Parrish continued to tell the group the story as if he was lecturing a student in the library in which he had been employed, “He wrote that your pursuit of The Giver’s Phoenix was the last straw and they killed you, in his last messenger bird home. He told his wife he’d be coming home, and the kingdom was free of King Ruffalo’s heir. The tyrants would fall, and he was proud to be a part of that.” Parrish stopped, and said with condescension, “I guess they didn’t do the job they should have.”

The mercenary had come back in the telling of Parrish’s story, and was standing with his commanding officer, presumably the tall broad woman named Terry.

She, like Axe, was a half Orc. However, unlike Axe, she wore strictly human clothing and weapons. Her skin was lighter toned than Axe, and not quite as green. She was taller than most humans and elves, and very broad and curvy. She only had one tusk, barely poking up on the left side of her mouth. She had a wide smile, and long thick black hair. She was watching the interchange with interest.

James broke Parrish’s reveries to say, “Sonlee? That figures. He’s the one speared to the wall upstairs. He led the troops in their insurrection.” James then smiled a smile filled with cold fury and continued, “Don’t worry. Nobody suffered too long. I was new to my gifts then.”

James then stepped forward, “And regardless of my pedigree or personal history, this place is mine. I laid down ownership of it centuries ago, and closed it with some pretty serious wards. How long did it take you to crack those? Days? If you were any type of mage, you’d know they were pinned to my existence. They would have evaporated if I was actually dead.”

“Over a month and a half,” Terry said from the sidelines, with a confident voice and humor in her dark green eyes. She then looked to Parrish, “So what now. Looks like Daddy came home and found you in his best wine. You’re paid up, so I guess I have to ask what your plan is? However, I’d like to point out, you can double my costs if you want me to fight Loren’s crew. They don’t often lose.”

Terry then nodded to Loren, and smiled, “Been a while elf.” Her eyes twinkled with her amusement at finding the elf here.

Parrish’s face turned red, and he flapped is mouth open and closed a couple times while everyone waited. He then said, “You!” Stabbing a finger at Terry, “Are paid to do what I want, so yes, defend my holdings. The Coalition does not recognize spell ward markers for ownership. That stopped working when Ruffalo was still an heir to a kingdom.”

James cut in, “Technically, I was never refuted as an heir. I chose to stay in the cemetery, and not go back. That means, if Carvingsforth still has the same laws on record, I still have a legitimate claim to my throne, if I wanted it.”

“Whatever,” Parrish said in exasperation. “Terry, I want you to escort these people off my dig site.”

“I don’t suppose you are willing to go away, and concede the space to the librarian?” Terry asked. She reached up and smoothed her long hair back out of her face. Her tone was light, but her eyes were quick to scan Loren’s group. She rested her eyes on James for a few seconds, before smiling at Loren again.

“You know I can’t do that, Terry,” Loren said. Like her, his tone was light, but his eyes were scanning her and the passageway behind her looking for the number of men she might have to back her up. Right now, they were still deciding if they wanted to fight, or find a better solution.

“I feel honor bound to inform you, Terry, that I am quitting. I am leaving now, and if you want a way back to the city, you better round up your men,” Eloa broke in quietly. She had James mannerisms, in that she stood stock still, and it was easy to forget she was there.

“That’s true? Your out of here?” Terry asked the elven necromancer, then she looked back to her employer, “That’s not going to work. I am not going to spend the next week and a half fighting every blasted corpse in this place just to get back to civilization. You can’t safeguard my men, and quiet honestly, I’ve already lost two good men to this place. I won’t stay if we don’t have a dead-touched guide to get us back out.” She turned her gaze directly to Mr. Parrish, and waited.

“You can’t quit. I paid you!” Parrish yelled. Once gain, his face was red, and he was beyond shocked at this turn of events.

“You paid us with the promise of a guide. If you recall, I said there would be no deal if there wasn’t a guide to take us. Not to mention for what you promised would only be a six week job. We’ve extended our timeline, and you promised us a share in the treasure as additional compensation. Now it looks like that treasure has an owner who isn’t known for his forgiveness.” Terry cut in. Her voice was louder than Parrish, and had the effect of drowning him out.

“Also, I hate to fight Loren for something so stupid. We’ve been here for weeks. You’ve found nothing, and you got two of my men killed. I have to tell their family, and you can’t even afford to pay their death payment. That will come out of my pay,” she said with finality.

Parrish made a grand dismissive gesture, and said, “Fine. Go. All of you are useless anyways. I don’t need you. I can take care of my own holdings.” Then he turned on his heal and strode deeper into the catacombs.

“Well, that’s that.” Terry said, and turned to the men next to her and said, “Go get everyone. We are done with this. It’s been a disaster since day one. We were hired to escort him here, not take the place from hostiles.”

She then turned to Eloa, “Meet you up top in ten.”

Loren spoke up, “I’m sorry it went down this way.” He looked genuinely unhappy at the turn of events. He did offer, “Perhaps back in town I can make it up to you with a drink?”

“Don’t be sorry. That man is crazy. I’m still not convinced there is any treasure here, and my men died due to his own incompetence. He’s not the mage he says he is. He’s some janky backwoods hedge wizard. The only thing he’s good for is setting traps, so watch out for that. Plus he’s rude and demanding,” Terry said. She was looking down the corridors where her men and women were filing out. She nodded to them, as they passed.

“I’ll take you up on the drink, though. You know where to find me. It’s been too long,” Terry said, with another wink, and a bit of a smirk.

Loren smiled briefly, and nodded, “I promise, when I get back from this.”

When Terry had left, Morgan piped up from the back, “You and Terry? Wow.”

Axe smirked, and said, “You have no idea. You were in the high city, over in Scottsdale a few years back when that went down. I didn’t know Loren could drink like that.”

Loren turned, and gave them both a look and said, “We’re still on the job. The hedge mage is a trap artist, so don’t let your guard down just because Terry and the guide left.”

“Want me to do a sweep?” Sealy asked. She patted her braids, and pulled on a pair of leather gloves. I can’t find all magical traps, but I’m well educated in what to look for. Perhaps if James and I worked together?” She looked a little unsure at James, assessing his mood.

James nodded to her, and simply said, “Fine.” Then he went back to standing so still it was hard to tell if he was alive at all. This place was bringing out the worst of his inhuman mannerisms.

“Okay, then. We’ll stay here, but you and James go back to the stairway, and sweep down to us. I want a clear path out of here, just in case,” Then Loren turned to James and said, “What about the librarian? Want him captured and expelled with Terry before she leaves?”

James just nodded, and turned to go with Sealy back to the entrance.

It took a bit of time for the James and Sealy to get back, and Morgan asked, “Is that true? Did James do all of those things, and kill those men upstairs like that?”

Ansi furrowed her brows at Morgan, and asked him, “He said he did.” She looked Morgan up and down as if she was deciding whether or not he was an idiot. “Why would you question it?”

“I just can’t see it. I’ve known James since Rose took me in when I was 16. He was my first friend in Tombsville. I literally had nobody else. My own family had disowned me. I had been turned down for work up and down the trade routes until I hit Tombsville. James gave me some clothes, and made sure I had enough coin to eat. He even told me where to find an apothecary that could help me with my medicine.” Morgan explained. “I’ve seen every kind of insult whispered at him because he’s dead-touched. He’s never once lost his temper. I just can’t see it.” Morgan looked flabbergasted at the revelation, and flapped his arms helplessly.

Axe smiled at Morgan, and said, “Now I know why you defend him so much. You have a lot of honor yourself, little man. By the time I came to work for Loren, you guys were already close.” Axe then patted the short human on the shoulder in reassurance.

Loren shook his head, and said, “A lot can change in 500 years. He’s been here since before Tombsville existed. Whatever happened here, he was the first of the dead-touched. He wasn’t the last, though. I think James is right, and this man shouldn’t be digging into it. If whatever happened here can create the dead-touched, it’s not safe to play with.” He was scanning the quiet corridors that Parrish had walked down.

Eventually Sealy and James came back. Neither of them made a sound, and crept up on the group quietly enough to startle Axe, who was holding rear guard.

“There were some traps laid. They seem to be an amalgamation of traditional physical traps, and magical traps and triggers. Between the two of us, we can probably disarm them,” She said confidently. “It just might take a bit of time to make sure we don’t set any of them off.”

James just looked coldly angry about the situation, and said nothing.

“Okay then, James, lets work outward in. You know the layout, so lets clear the area so nothing can get behind us in here. Is it small enough for us to do that in quick order?” Loren asked. His voice was confident.

“Yes. There are only a couple of branches before the celestial gate. We can sweep through it fairly quickly. There is another large room that the gate is in, so I suspect he’s set up shop in there. Only an idiot would set up shop next to a celestial gate,” James said with derision.

“Is there something going on lately?” Axe asked. “This is the second old man that seems obsessed with the ancients. Is it us? Are we cursed to keep dealing with this? What the hell is going on?” He shrugged, and looked to Loren.

“It’s not us. Every century or so, it’s as if the old remnants of civilization call to those that can hear it. Usually it’s humans that get tangled up in it. We are in such a time period. It’s good for jobs, but dangerous,” Loren explained. He then said a phrase in elvish, and smiled, “I don’t think any other race has a name for it. It translates loosely into The Calling. We elves usually just stay out of the way when this happens, and bar entry to the ancient sites on our lands until it passes.”

James nodded, and said, “I had wondered. My education said nothing about it, but humans don’t live long enough to see patterns that form over centuries. I’ve seen this madness run it’s course several times now.” He looked down the corridor as if reassessing Parrish.

“Well aren’t we the lucky ones,” Axe said grimly, and proceeded to look even more annoyed.

“We are. The celestial gate could be opening, but it’s not slated to open for another 5 years or so,” James said back.

The crew then started to advance slowly and carefully. The main group took up guard positions in the central corridor, while Sealy and James silently disappeared down the side corridors to clear them of danger. The place wasn’t terribly large, but the number of traps was enough to make it slower than anyone would have liked. Loren was adamant that things needed to be safe in case they had to fall back. His focus on safe retreat was why he rarely lost men.

Eventually, they reached a large open archway. Sealy held a hand out for everyone to stop. She and James knelt down by it. James did some very basic intonations, and some silver lines gleamed in the shadows. Sealy then unrolled her tools, and deftly started clipping wires. When it was all clear, she motioned the rest of the crew foreword.

“She’s well worth her pay,” Morgan said to Ansi. “I take back my misgivings about you two. I was wrong.” He then smiled up at Ansi with a huge grin.

“Thank you?” Ansi said, and following Axe’s previous lead, pushed Morgan on the shoulder causing him to grin even more.

James and Sealy then stepped into the gate chamber, with the rest of the crew following.

It was a large ornately carved room. The ceiling and walls were a tableau of the celestial bodies that circled the world. These stars were in motion, swirling about the room. However, to the observant eye, there were too many stars present. The effect was grand and realistic, if dizzying.

The room itself was a hexagon with rounded edges, and directly against the back wall was a glowing thick frame of the celestial gate. Unlike the rest of the construction, it was angular, and had stark corners. It was set into the back wall. The blue celestial metal glowed faintly, and seemed to spawn blue sparks that drifted like dandelion seeds around it. Imprinted into it’s top ledger board was a set of constellations. The gate was currently not active, and instead bracketed a plain aged grey bit of wall in the background.

Parrish was in the room waiting for them. He had an empty coffin set up as a desk which he had been working from. His mage lights glowed softly, but visually desecrated the overall effect of the stars in the room. Around the desk was a sleeping roll, and a few packs and boxes filled with random gear.

“Don’t push your luck, tyrant. If you don’t leave, I’ll finish what your men started 500 years ago!” Parrish shrilled. He had just been standing there waiting, listening to Loren’s crew the whole time. He was holding a small journal, and was smiling like a mad man who had already won.

“I am going to ask you one last time. Please pack up, and go. This place is not yours to desecrate,” James said coldly, and advanced into the room. He was clearly utilizing all his self control to maintain his calm demeanor.

Parrish then shouted out several intonations, and made a grand hand waving motion towards the gate. His hands glowed with orange glowing embers that shot towards the gate. The effect was instant, as the celestial gate exploded in blue embers, that danced into the room.

A look of shock passed James face, and he shouted to Loren, “Get out of the room! Get back!” He then turned and shoved Sealy backwards towards Loren with force.

Parrish started laughing manically for a few moments, breaking only to continue his spell. He had a crazed look in his eyes, and seemed hell bent on opening the ancient gate.

Loren caught Sealy around the waist with one arm, and backed out of the room. He collided with Morgan and Ansi, and shoved backwards. It took Axe, to yank both the fighters backwards, to clear the way for Loren and pull Sealy back.

“What’s happening?!” Morgan yelled, trying to see over everyone else. He let Axe pull him backwards, but was bouncing on his toes to try and see what went wrong.

James then started intoning in his heavy baritone spell casting voice, and held his hand palm out at the door to the room. A red wall of glowing lattice built itself in the doorway. When it was built, James shouted, “Don’t come in the room while the gate is open!”

All the while Parrish continued to cackle with mad laughter, and chant intermittently. Parrish didn’t bother to duck or hide from the opening celestial gate. He stood assured of his safety, and James’ impending doom.

When James was satisfied his ward had blocked the rest of Loren’s crew out of the room, he turned to Parrish and snarled, “You are a complete fool. I’ve been here when the gate was open before, and it did not kill me then, and it won’t kill me now.” Then he strode angrily towards the librarian.

The Celestial Gate, meanwhile, continued to explode in blue dancing embers. Whatever spell Parrish had used, had activated it out of sequence. It was growing brighter, and the embers were weaving a wavy cloud of light into the previously empty doorway.

Before James could get to Parrish, the gate finished opening, and a rush of wind entered the room with a pop of pressure. All of Parrish’s mage lights went out, leaving the room darker. The only illumination came from the gate itself and the ever moving constellations on the walls. The papers on Parrish’s makeshift desk blew around him, and the librarian had stopped his spell to stare wildly at the gate.

“You can’t live through this twice Ruffalo!” Parrish yelled with certainty. In the half light of the room, Parrish had taken on a manic expression of confidence.

“You want to make a bet?” James shouted again. He continued to advance on Parrish, until he grabbed the man by his jacket, and yanked the journal out of his hands.

“I did capture the Giver’s Phoenix before my men and women murdered me,” James snarled, and reached down with his other hand to pull down his shirt collar. He made a dismissive motion with that hand, dropping the illusion, to show embedded in the flesh covering his sternum was a metallic golden bird of flame. It’s wingspan was only a few inches, but it moved like molten sun.

“I can’t die!” James shouted into Parrish’s face. “I’ve already been to the other side of the gate, and come back. This artifact should have never been through that gate, because now we have dead-touched people. I can’t figure out why that happened, but I know with certainty there is nothing the Ancients built here that can kill me,” James had lifted the shorter man up by his shirt, and was shouting with enough anger that his black eyes widened sightlessly, and spittle flew.

Parrish seemed to realize his predicament, and started to struggle. However, he wasn’t a match for James’ experience and anger. It took little effort for James to shove the man backwards, towards the gate.

“You want to learn about the ancients? You hear their call?” James snarled. His sightless black eyes were open wide, and gave his face a less than human effect. “Then go to them! Except, unlike me, what they do to you won’t be blunted in it’s effect. Nor will you survive it.”

James then dragged the struggling librarian to the gate, and shoved him through. As Parrish started to pass through the gate, pale unearthly hands reached out around him. Parrish started screaming a high keening scream, as the hands dragged him into the gate. Everywhere the arms touched, his skin pealed back, leaving bloody ragged tissue.

James watched as Parrish was dragged in, and said, “You were nothing in life, and you are nothing in death.” He kept watching until the reaching hands felt outside the gates surface again, and started to attempt their exit.

James then started intoning another spell, and wrapped a second ward in front of the celestial gate to keep what was in there from entering the mundane world. Those reaching hands pushed against his ward, but couldn’t get through.

“Can you close it?” Loren shouted over the wind at James. He was still outside the room, held back by the thin red ward lines that safeguarded the path.

“Screw that! Can you get out?” Morgan shouted. His voice was tinged with fear, and concern. He was trying to claw his way to the ward, and Axe had him firmly around the waist. Morgan was struggling so hard to get to James, that Axe had his hands full just trying to keep him safe.

James yelled, “Just go up top, I have to see what he’s done, and see how to fix it. I think it would be best if you were farther away. The gate will call the dead to this location now. We should secure this building before they come.”

Loren nodded, and turned and said, “Everyone out. If James can fix it, he will. Out, now!”

Sealy and Ansi were already moving back towards the stairs, and Loren reached out, and tried to help help grab Morgan, who wasn’t ready to leave yet.

“Fuck no! I’m not leaving him!” Morgan shouted, and started shoving and swinging. “Just let go of me!” He was fighting hard with Axe, who was dragging the smaller man backwards.

“Morgan, don’t make me carry you out!” Axe snarled, and yanked him backwards with all his strength, pulling Morgan up into the air. He might have strength and size over Morgan, but Morgan moved and twisted like an angry cat.

Inside the celestial gate room, James picked up Parrish’s journal, and calmly flipped it open. The wind from the portal had been cut off with James’ ward, but papers and tools were already scattered around the floor. Morgan could still be heard screaming from the corridors, fading in the distance.

James read the passages that the hedge mage had used, and snorted in derision. He then scanned the area, and strode to the books where they had fallen on the floor. He knelt down, and dug through the tomes until he found a slender booklet bound in a cover of faded grey tapestry.

“The Giver’s parables. I see we meet again, as well,” James said to himself, and flipped open the pages. “This is possibly the only item of worth that charlatan had in his possession.”

The tiny bound booklet contained the missives handed out to humanity by The Giver. As James flipped through the booklet, he hissed, “I’ll be damned.” The pages had opened up to a black and white inked picture of The Giver. To James, the form was all too familiar.

The Giver was the same type of creature that Loren’s crew had faced in the Badlands earlier that year. It’s form was similar to a man’s, but too tall and thin. It’s arms and legs looked too long, and it’s fingers were spidery and extended into hooked nails. Unlike the creatures from the Badlands, The Giver was shaded to appear to have a living skin tone. The Badlands only contained undead washed out parodies of this creature.

Like the monsters in the Badlands, the worst of it was The Giver had no facial features to speak of with the exception of it’s lipless maw, studded with random short round teeth. The artist had captured the horror of that eyeless face in all it’s glory.

“What the hell are you?” James asked the page in shock, before flipping onward until he found what he was looking for.

“Looks like our librarian didn’t speak the dialect as well as he thought,” James said smugly to himself. “I might have hunted these blasphemous fools to extinction, but at least I took the time to learn everything I could about them and the language they used.”

James then turned back to face the gate. Pale white hands pushed into the red net that separated reality from the gate born nightmares. Occasionally one pushed with enough power to bend the fragile threads of magic outwards. Even worse, the occasional malformed face pressed forward, mashing it’s features into his ward, and shoving to get through. It was all soundless, which added a level of unreal horror to the scene.

“I remember all of you, when you dragged me into the gate, as I lay bleeding on the floor. I saw what you do  on the other side, and it is a nightmare without comparison. You rip and shred and tear at all things living, and when you can’t get that, you do it to each other. You exist to cause endless torment to everything you touch,” James said to the nightmares from the gate. His dark eyes were cold and calculating, but when one of the creatures pushed hard he flinched.

“This can’t stay open. This world has long since been lost to you. You are no longer allowed here, and according to The Giver, your ravenous undeath is a curse for trespassing beyond the bounds of earthly knowledge,” James said. “I would tend to agree.”

He then pulled a small knife out of the sheath on his belt, and bared his left forearm. Then, without pause, drove the blade into the back of his arm deeply, causing pale blood to well out. Not getting as much blood as he felt necessary, he dug the knife in deeper.

James said to himself, “It takes the blood of your ancient race to take ownership of the celestial gate, and considering my precarious physical existence, I suspect my blood will count. If nothing else, this will confirm some of my suspicions.” He smiled grimly at the admission.

Then he used his right hand to paint his pale sluggish blood over the constellation on the ledger board above the gate. He was careful to keep back from the grasping hands that reached through at him.

Then, he stood, bleeding, both hands covered in his own blood, and started the incantation. Unlike the librarian, James voice echoed into the room with depth and confidence. There was a grandeur in James’ magic that could not be replicated by a third rate hedge mage employed as a librarian at a college.

He expanded his arms suddenly, splattering drops of blood across the walls, and blue embers exploded from his fingertips matching the blue embers that floated around the gate. The gate stopped spinning, and started to dim. No sound came out, but the grasping hands started to claw at James’ ward in desperation. In that eery silence, the gate just ceased to glow, and once again went dark, taking it’s damned occupants with it. Another pop sounded as the air pressure once again shifted with the closing of the gate.

No longer was there a celestial constellation across the top of the ledger board, instead a scrawling text was in it’s place. It was a written claim of ownership, in an old dead language, conferring it’s power to James.

“That won’t work forever, but it’s a start,” James said. He had no idea how long he’d been working this magic, but he was exhausted. He felt the toll on his body, and fell to his knees, before blacking out.

*************************

Axe had Morgan in the air, under his arm. Despite this, Morgan was snarling insults, and struggling. Loren and Ansi had taken Morgans weapons, but Axe wasn’t taking any chances. The big half orc wasn’t letting Morgan reach for anything.

“If nothing else, this gives me a whole new appreciation for how difficult Morgan can be once he gets something into his head,” Axe said grimly to Loren, while hanging on to the short angry man.

“You fucking left him! He’s down there!” Morgan shouted. He kicked hard, catching Loren in the shoulder, sending him backwards.

Ansi caught Loren, and grabbed at Morgan’s foot, causing him to snarl incoherently. She held on tight, and looked to Loren in confusion.

“Is this normal?” Sealy asked, and moved towards Morgans head. She had her hood down, and looked concerned over Morgan’s outburst.

“I’ve never seen him lose it like this before, but I’ve heard it happens. He’s too small to be a berserker, but damned if that stops him,” Axe said, while trying to keep a hold of the small man.

“Once he lost it during a drunken binge when Rose got attacked by an assassin. He killed the assassin, and we couldn’t drag him off the corpse. He was worse before he took his weekly shots,” Loren said, and waded in again to grab the flailing foot Morgan still had free.

Sealy then quickly grabbed Morgan by the hair, and yanked his head so he was face to face with her before saying, “We aren’t leaving James. This is just us falling back to figure out how to help him. We are wasting our time dealing with you, when we could be trying to figure out how to get James out of there.” Her amber eyes sought out Morgan’s blue eyes, and seemed to reach him.

Morgan slowly went limp, and shuddered. He didn’t say anything, but laid limp in Axe’s arms, letting the big man hold him.

Axe looked askance at Loren, suspicious of the sudden surrender. He then put a big hand on Morgan’s back, and rubbed it, like he was holding a child. He looked even more shocked when Morgan didn’t complain about it.

Loren nodded a couple of times, then said, “Okay, we need to get James out of there. Sealy? Run up and see if Terry and Eloa are still up there close by somewhere. Tell them I need Eloa to help get James out of a bind. Go fast. They need to be warned about the gate opening, and the incoming undead.”

With that, Sealy nodded, and turned and sprinted up the stairs to the surface. Her leather hood bounced as she pulled out her bow, and a fire arrow. If she could send that ahead, she might be able to catch the attention of the mercenaries faster than she could run.

Loren then turned to Ansi, and said, “Go up to the surface, and guard the entrance. We don’t need any surprises.”

The elf then said to Axe, “You go with her. See if we can secure the building in any way. I didn’t like all those open windows, and one of the doors was down completely.”

Axe then made a face, and nodded down to Morgan, who was still in his arms, “Are you sure?”

“Yes. Morgan, I want you here with me. We are going to wait here, until Eloa gets back, and we spring James, okay?” Loren said. His voice was stern, like he was giving normal orders, but he was looking at Axe, and nodding him on.

Axe gently put Morgan back on his feet, and Morgan turned and looked at Loren, “I’m not leaving here without James. I don’t care what he did 500 years ago.” Morgan then held his hand out to Loren, for his sword.

“Keep it together Morgan, we aren’t abandoning him,” Loren said, and passed over Morgans’ short sword.

Morgan nodded, and said, “I’ll try to. I’m sorry I lost it.” His normal joking demeanor was gone. His face was grim, and he stood his ground without moving.

************

An hour later, Eloa came running down the stairs with Ansi and Sealy.

Ansi breathlessly exclaimed, “Terry and her crew are up top with Axe. Terry says she has our backs, but doesn’t have a mage on hand if Eloa is down here with us. She’ll help keep the area clear so we can get James out. The whole area is a nightmare with shamblers and worse crawling out of the ground. It looks like someone kicked an ants nest up there.”

“That’s because the gate is open,” Loren said, and then he turned to Eloa, “I need you to bust James’ ward so we can pull him out. The gate had been opened, but I don’t know if it’s safe. James ordered us out for our own protection.” Loren looked to the elven necromancer for answers.

“I can try break his ward. He’s a helluva lot bigger in the magic department than any of the rest of us, but I’ll do my best,” Eloa said breathlessly.

She then paused, and sniffed the air, and cocked her head before saying, “I can’t feel much of the gate. I know it’s open, but James must have muted it’s effect. It should be safe to be near it as long as that holds.” She then headed down the corridor to the gate room in a whirl of fabric.

“Take Morgan with you, but send him back the gate opens again and it’s too dangerous for him,” Loren said to Eloa’s back.

Then Loren turned to Morgan and said, “And if she says come back, you do it. That’s an order.”

Morgan sighed, and said, “Yes, Loren. . . I’m sorry I lost it. I’ll keep it together.” Morgan looked embarrassed, but fell into step with Eloa as she headed down the corridor.

By the time Morgan and Eloa got to the warded door to the the Gate room, James was standing in front of the gate casting the blood driven spell that would close it.

What Eloa and Morgan could see, that James seemed unaware of, was the inky blackness that was drifting out of the base of the gate, trailing across the floor, and wrapping up James’ legs.

“No no no NO!” Morgan yelled into the ward to James’ unyielding back. “James, you’re disappearing like the Badlands dead! You have to stop!” He then slammed his fist against the ward.

“I have no idea what he’s doing, but I will see if I can break his ward, so we can help him” Eloa said in a subdued voice. She then knelt down, and started singing to the red net of glowing threads that was keeping them out. Her magic wasn’t the hermetic intonations and mathematic equations of a human mage. Instead, hers was the soft songs of the Dallingshal elven tradition.

As Eloa sang, soft green energy lines that resembled plant like vines, sprang from the floor of the corridor. As her voice grew louder, the vines grew stronger, and started to weave into the taught red wires of James’ magical ward.

Eventually, Eloa’s work spread across the entire door, and she changed her song. She then stood up, and made a grasping motion with her hands, as if she was physically grabbing hold of the green vines that were intertwined in the red ward.

James finished his own spell for control of the gate with a grand intonation, and the gate simply stopped being open any longer. The pop of the gate closing was sudden, and Eloa paused in her spell momentarily. The silence hung in the air for several long seconds, before James fell to the ground.

“James!” Morgan yelled, and lunged forwards again.

Eloa snapped, “Step back if you want him out of there, you idiot!” When Morgan stepped back again, she tossed her curly hair out of her eyes, and snorted, before winding her hands into her magic vines. Then she sang out a shrill song, and yanked with her whole body.

The effect was of Eloa yanking her net of vines out of the doorway, and dragging James’ net of red ward with it. It took considerable work for Eloa’s slight elven form to dislodge the red ward, but she continued to yank and pull until the red glowing wires snapped one by one. Eventually, Eloa was able to yank it all down.

Morgan didn’t wait for the magic to completely evaporate before jumping over it to get to James collapsed body. Morgan skidded to a stop on his knees, to lean over James.

“James. Can you hear me? Don’t worry. I’ll get you out of here,” He said. He then reached up under James’s arms, and started dragging him backwards out of the room. James’s body was so much longer than Morgan, but it wasn’t too heavy to move.

“Eloa! Go get someone to help me!” Morgan shouted over his shoulder. He didn’t stop dragging James’ unconscious form, though. He kept pulling James away from the gate, into the corridors with grim determination.

Footsteps sounded in the corridor, and Morgan felt Loren’s hands reach over him to help pull James out. Between them they easily pulled James back to the relative safety of the empty corridors.

“What happened?” Loren asked Morgan, as they dragged James back to the base of the stairs.

“James closed the gate. It’s because being dead-touched is related to those things in the Badlands. He’s becoming like them. All dead-touched are. He starting to be surrounded by shadow smoke, too,” Morgan said. Morgan’s voice was filled with worry, as he pulled James’ unconscious form. “You don’t think he’ll get the giant toothy eyeless face thing, do you?”

Loren said nothing, as they dragged James back to the bottom of the stairs, once there, they laid James down, and Loren ordered, “Go up and take Axe’s place so he can come look after James. Take Eloa up with you. The dead are relentless up there.”

*******************

By the time James awoke, the place was fully under siege. Axe was leaning over him, doing some sort of Orcish healing magic.

“I thought you were gone for good,” Axe said to James, “I couldn’t even tell if you were partially alive or not. How do you feel?” Axe’s face wore a mask of worry.

Then the half-orc continued, “Morgan was having a fit that you were turning into one of those Badlands monsters, and went on about the smoke around your legs.”

James looked around to see it was only the two of them at the base of the stairs, “I think we have a few centuries before we see how bad that gets.” Then he tried his luck at standing.

“That’s comforting,” Axe responded sarcastically. “If you feel up to it, we could use a few wards. Looks like we are stuck here until the bastards scatter. That gate really woke them up.” Axe held out hand in case James was unsteady on his feet.

“I can do that. Is Eloa still here?” James asked, ignoring Axe’s hand.

“She’s up top. She’s the one that broke your ward to get you out,” Axe explained. “By the way, Morgan bit me for the second time because of you, so you owe me. He lost his shit when he thought we were leaving you.” Axe pointed to his rib cage. “I’m tired of getting bit that the little man. He’s worse than the dead.”

James snickered, and started up the stairs slowly and carefully. “I suppose I’ll take that as a compliment.”

When they reached the top of the stairs, there was a full blown fight in progress. The elven dead-touched guide was running from window to window, redrawing wards as they fell. Both Loren’s crew and Terry’s crew were working in tandem to keep the waves of shamblers out in the windows and doors where the wards kept breaking. Rubble had been piled up to slow the entry through the corner of the room that had been blown out. Whenever a spot was cleared, another area would come under siege.

“I hate celestial gates,” James said grimly, and walked into the room. He dug a few small recognizably human bones out of his leather satchel. Each human bone had intricate glyphs and markings drawn over them.

“Eloa, catch!” James shouted, and tossed her a couple of the artifacts. It only took her a couple of seconds to recognize the items, before jamming the first of them into a window frame. The effect was instant, as a the dead trying to get in, suddenly lost interest, and moved aside.

James and Eloa continued to place the bone artifacts in all the openings for the building. The dead outside lost interest, and started to scatter across the cemetery. For a few long seconds, everyone stood waiting to make sure the magic would hold, and the dead would leave them be.

When it became clear, that they were safe, Terry just slumped to the floor next to a couple of her people, and smiled at Loren who was holding his bow, with an elvish sword ready at hand next to him.

“James!” Morgan yelled when he noticed the necromancer, and ran at James, and wrapped him in a hug. Morgan made no move to let go of the skinny necromancer.

James stood begrudgingly in Morgan’s embrace before asking, “Did you really bite Axe twice over me?”

“Maybe. He’s big, and it’s the only way to get him to back off,” Morgan said. “I’m not sorry.”

Morgan then changed the subject, “I’m so glad you have eyes!” Morgan stopped hugging James to then grab the lanky dead-touched man by the head, and look into his black eyes.”They don’t look any smaller.”

James patiently let Morgan paw at his face, and said, “I think I am not going to be a full Badlands creature. I started as human. However, I need to do some testing, because I suspect anyone with magic might be related to them somehow. Those of us with the talent for magic might be a direct heir to whatever it is that they are. It’s just a theory. It needs tested.” James then shrugged without commitment.

Eventually the assembled mercenaries drew lots for which watch they would take, and everyone settled down. Meals were made, and everyone waited for the dead to disbursed, and it would be safe enough to travel.

******************

It took a week and a half for the shambling biting dead to disperse enough that James and Eloa thought it was safe to lead their living compatriots out of the cemetery. Next summer would be full of excitement for Tombsville when those shamblers started hitting the town walls.

Before they left, James turned to Loren’s crew, and said, “I promised payment, and I meant it. My belongings are still down in the catacombs, and if you will come with me, I’ll give you what your earned.” He extended his gaze to Terry, and said, “You as well. You didn’t have to come back to help us. You could have raced to Tombsville ahead of the wave. I owe you something for that.”

“I thought the librarian had ransacked the place?” Morgan asked, and motioned to the cracked open coffins.

“That librarian was too stupid to be effective, but I guess he got what he wanted in the end,” James responded with a cold smile.

James led them back down to the gate room. The tomes Parrish had carefully carted to this blighted place had been packed up for James’s personal library, but the rest of the mess was strewn across the chamber.

“You hid your stuff in here?” Morgan asked, “I guess that’s one way to make sure folks don’t mess with it. Gates are scary.” He then finished with a whistle.

James walked up to the gate, and then made a small hand motion, and the flat grey backing to the gate began to run like water. Behind it, were several bags and travel cases stacked up against the back of the gate wall.

James reached in, and started pulling it all out, and said, “The thing about the gate is there is a mathematical equation for the displacement this kind of magic can bring. If you know that, you can measure out exactly where the gate ends, and our reality begins, and the gate framing is a lot thicker than that.”

He seemed pleased with how well his hiding place worked, and continued, “I couldn’t replicate the damn stars because they move, so I went for a broken flat grey wall for my illusion. I had no idea it would work this well.”

When he had brought out all the items, the back of the gate was deeper, and had the same moving mural of constellations that the rest of the room had.

James knelt down in the midst of the pile, and pulled out a leather satchel that was cracked and dry with age. He handed it to Loren, and said, “Please divvy this up between us and Terry. I don’t know the current pricing for such things, and I certainly don’t know how to value Raffalian coin in todays market.”

Loren took the satchel and pealed the leather apart, revealing a large number of gold and silver coins. He looked in the bag for a few moments and said, “This is more than we should be getting, James.”

“No. It’s fine. You were all at risk by being so close to a Celestial Gate when it opened, and it’s a slow season for work. I doubt Terry would have taken work with that idiot if she had better prospects,” James explained. “I also don’t want it anymore. It reminds me of something I used to be, and I’m glad I’m no longer that man.”

He then reached for a long slender role of fabric, and unwrapped a short sword. It wasn’t ornate, but it carried a religious emblem of flames around an eye. He looked at it critically for several seconds, before motioning to Morgan.

“Morgan, I want you to have this. It is the Sword of Gherzille. It’s a sword that was held by a paladin to the lost goddess Armeya. My family are direct descendants of the priests in that sect. She’s a goddess of pain and fire, but she was just.”

He smiled at the sword, and then held it out to Morgan, “This sword was used to kill our enemies. It screams when it kills, and ignites abominations in flames. . . Watch out for that, if your opponent gets to close while on fire.” He chuckled.

Morgan took the sword gingerly, and said, “Really? You think I should wield a paladin’s blade? Like from a story?” His blue eyes were wide with wonder, and he held the weapon carefully.

“You are the closest thing I know to being a paladin,” James said before turning to unwrap another long slender item. As he unraveled the deteriorating cloth, he revealed a bow carved out of yellowing bone, still strung with a metallic threaded wire.

“Loren, this should go to you. You are the only person I know, one eye or two, that can live up to this bow’s legacy. It was carved from the bones of the last dragon, and strung with an incorruptible steel cable from the ancient cities. It never needs to be unstrung, and will always be ready,” James explained.

A look of recognition crossed Loren’s face and he murmured, “This is where the Singing Bow went?” he reached forward with sure hands, and took stock of the weapon. “I am honored by the gift.”

Next James picked up a plain small silver flask, and handed it to Axe, “This is for you, our healer. It’s a flask of vitae. Any water you keep in it will take on the healing powers of the flask. They used to be quite common from my understanding. Any mage that looks at it will see the power in it, but they were often made nondescript to prevent theft.”

Axe took the flask and said, “Okay, I’ve never heard of an artifact like this, or any of the rest. I thought this kind of thing were only in children’s stories.”

“The flasks are rare, but some mages still make them, and some are left over from older times,” James said. “I was collecting them for my coronation. It was traditional to give gifts of power when you take the throne, and I was young and thought I’d make my gifts of an impressive magnitude never before seen. I was ambitious at the time.” He swept his hair out of his dark black eyes, and shrugged.

Then he picked a small gold dagger out of the pile, sheathed in brassy gold metal, and said, “Sealy, this will complement your craft. It’s a dagger of torment that I created when I came of age. It’s one of the first magical items I ever crafted. It’s blade is small, but the agony it causes can be very persuasive. If I’ve read you right, your craft runs to the darker side of the business.”

Sealy reached forward with a gloved hand, and took the item, “Are you sure? We’ve just met you.” She watched James carefully.

James said, “I don’t want this artifact anymore. You and your sister have stood by me when men  and women that were sworn to protect me, that I knew from childhood, murdered me. I have no desire to remember the reasons those men and women turned on me.” His face looked haunted as he dug into the pile again to pull open the last item.

“Lastly, Sealy, I think this broadsword might suit you. It’s of Dwarven make. Since that race has dug into the ground, and no longer has any dealings with us sun dwelling races, there won’t be too many of these in around,” James said. “It’s bound with Dwarven runes, and will allow you to keep standing and fighting no matter what your wounds. It was a popular Dwarven rune combination.”

Sealy took the blade wordlessly, and unsheathed it. It was a broad, thick, sword, with deep geometric designs and runes.

Sealy finally looked up to James, and said, “I didn’t think Dwarves were real. How did you know all these secret things?”

“Being the heir to a highly magical family of tyrants had it’s perks,” James said, lightly.

He then turned to Loren, “If it’s okay, when you cut me into the split of the coins? I don’t want any of those,” James asked. “I’m not interested in handling any of that money. Trade it out for modern coin.”

“Of course. I’ll make it happen. Terry and I will sort out the pay for everyone,” Loren said. “I like to keep you in wine, it makes you a nicer necromancer.” Loren gave the faintest smile at James.

**************

It took two full weeks to get back near Tombsville because with so many living, and the recent gate opening they had to take things extra careful. With two dead-touched necromancers to keep the dead off of the travelers, they made the trip with relative ease. When the raw open cemetery turned into a defined footpath, everyone stopped where the side path led to James’ home.

“I think you can make it on your own now. I have a lot to think about, and I think I’ll head home from here. Just send Morgan out with my share, and a couple bottles of that sweet wine from the market,” James said to Loren.

“You sure you don’t want to come celebrate?” Morgan asked. He smiled hopefully up at the necromancer.

“Thank you, but I think I need some time to sort this out,” James reiterated.

“Well, I for one, will drink one in your name, Prince Ruffallo,” Axe said with a smile.

“Please never call me that. I prefer James, and I’d prefer not to have this bandied about town, if you can,” James said.

Terry smiled, and said, “Well, necromancer, I can’t say I promise not to mention it, but I’ll be sure not to shout it in the streets. However, I don’t think I get how you didn’t end up worse for wear with the gate opening.”

“Parrish missed a few details,” James said with a cold smile. He was in a sharing mood, and continued, “I didn’t become dead-touched because the gate opened. I was gutted, and left for dead, and then dragged into the gate. I spent several weeks in the gate, and managed to claw my way back out.”

James had the attention of the collected mercenaries, and pushed on, “But when I got out, only an few hours had passed.”

“How come you didn’t die?” Morgan asked. “I heard the gates melted flesh and bone!”

“I had already found the Givers Phoenix,” James said with a smile. “My men and women decided to wait to commit their crime until after I had taken it, and preformed the necessary rites to make it mine.”

“That doesn’t explain the other dead-touched,” Sealy commented, “You said there were none before this happened to you.”

James nodded to Eloa, and said, “The Givers Phoenix interacted with the gate, and when I went in with it, all the gates across the cemetery opened at the same time. I still don’t know why. The Giver is long since dead, and there are no easy answers. I just don’t know why it happened.”

Morgan then reached out to James, and pulled him into an hug. James, for his part stood and let the short man hug him tightly.

“You know I don’t hug, Morgan, so perhaps you could let go?” James asked eventually, when the hug went on for longer then he felt comfortable with.

Morgan just made a merphing noise into James’s chest, before releasing the tall pale man.

Eloa turned to Terry, and said, “I’ll be going with James. He’s offered to take me as an apprentice, and I accepted.”

“As long as you are available for work when we have it,” Terry told the woman with a smile. She then took Loren by the arm, and said, “But for now, I believe you owe me that drink.”

They parted company, and the mercenaries headed for Tombsville’s ever open fine drinking establishments.The necromancers headed for the quiet solitude of James’ home. The shambling dead might be headed towards Tombsville, but it would take the nightmares months to get there. In the meantime, life would continue as normal.

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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