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From Beyond - Dark Fantasy (Short Story)

Updated: Jul 28, 2023

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The group sat around the embers of their campfire. The light licked feebly up the moss-encrusted stonework ruins that surrounded them. A spit of meagre strips of meat hung over the flames, the scent of herbs nearly strong enough to cover that of decay. For the moment every member of the group ignored the rest, each caught in some night-time ritual to stave off the fear that threatened to drag them to madness.

A man covered in plate, his helm off and at his side, knelt in prayer. A cloaked figure sitting at the edges of the light carefully cleaned the barrel of a black powder pistol. Turning the spit with their dinner hanging from it was a woman dressed in white robes that had been stained by their venture, the open-eyed symbol of a religious sect embossed across her chest.

From the dark, came the sound of footsteps. Hands went to weapons as the three were shaken from their introspection. “It’s just me” came the deep voice of the scholar that led their party. He walked into the firelight, his boots disturbing the dust that lay on the floor. His dark shirt and pants served to hide him in the darkness. He carried a book in one hand and held the strap of a satchel with the other. The others relaxed slightly.

“Did you find the way forward?” asked the armored man, kneeling to continue his supplication. “I believe I did, though I avoided straying too far. I would prefer not to meet any of the residents of this place alone. Still, we’re close. We may find what we seek tomorrow” the scholar answered, sitting at the fire. “Johanna” he greeted the woman across from him with a nod. “Marek” she returned with a smile.

“Lucius, Bea, the food is ready” Johanna called quietly to the others a few minutes later. The group gathered around as the priestess distributed their meal. Subdued conversation began as they ate. The scholar opened his pack and pulled out a tube coated in wax to protect it from the elements. He unrolled a series of maps, letters, and reports on an upturned box nearby. Marek began to review their progress as he ate. He did so every night, much to Bea’s chagrin, to make sure he missed nothing.

Their quest began at the onset of winter. Cold had begun blowing from the north, freezing lakes and rivers as it came. They had journeyed for the better part of the winter months through the frosted countryside. They spent as little time as possible sheltered in the abandoned villages along the way. Marek and Bea would have preferred avoiding them entirely for safety’s sake, but with the heavy snows it had become impossible.

Originally Marek and Bea had been sent to observe. Along the way they had encountered Johanna and Lucius. Originally the two had been missionaries. Marek had convinced them to help, and so they had followed. As they drew closer to what the Order thought was the source of things, evidence of the spreading corruption was plain to see. Eldritch symbols carved into walls. The frozen corpses of things that were not quite human, and not quite beast. Shrines raised to some dark god from beyond the stars. Lucius and Johanna had wanted to destroy all of it. Marek insisted they leave them alone, to avoid drawing unwanted attention from whatever lurked in the dark.

Finally, they had arrived at the Estate of Count Irving Page. Nestled at the foot of a mountain, the land the Count governed was rich in mineral wealth and opportunities for logging. They found nothing but emptiness and remnants of the Count’s insane depravity. It was then that Johanna and Lucius had understood. The group picked their way into the estate and had been exploring it since.

Marek shifted away from the letters and documentation on the estate and turned his attention to one of his maps. It had been ingrained in him to take no chances with the powers arrayed against them, and he was glad for it. Whatever the estate had once been, however it had once been arranged, it was now something entirely different.

They had been in here for days, or perhaps longer. Whatever had warped the space within the grounds of the estate seemed to also disturb the regular passage of time. Marek sighed, and shifted, trying to dispel the knot of tension in his chest.

The Scholar shook his head and traced their path on his map with a finger. He had marked where they had encountered resistance. Animated corpses picked clean by scavengers and time. Chimeric creatures held together by unnatural forces. They had prevailed thus far. Marek hoped their luck held.

The scholar carefully placed his documents back into their protective case. The previous day had been… difficult. An encounter with a particularly monstrous beast had left scars and delayed them for hours. They were running out of time. They needed to reach the center of this distorted hellscape and… Marek took a deep breath to steady himself. Impatience would get them all killed.

Marek looked over at Lucius. The man, once a soldier, had joined the Congregation of Saint Celeste after his life had been saved by Johanna’s ministrations. Now a holy warrior, he fought the abominations they had encountered thus far with a valor that had faded into grim determination. Lucius adjusted one of his greaves and gave Marek a tight nod. Lucius would take first watch.

The scholar stood to help Johanna stow their cookware. The young blonde-haired woman was a priestess quickly rising in the ranks of her Congregation. The ease with which she channeled divine power was matched only by the near maniacal fervor she showed for dispelling whatever madness the Count had called forth. She had been the easier of the two missionaries to convince to join their mission.

Bea, who had finished cleaning her pistols, now pre-made cartridges with ball and powder for easy use when she needed them. Abandoned as a child, the Order had taken her in as a servant. She proved her skill at an early age entirely by accident, when she was forced to defend herself and a slightly older member of the Order from a robber. Since then, the Order had trained her to be a lethal assassin. Marek was glad for her presence, now more than ever.

Each of the group unrolled a sleeping bag and checked their equipment one last time. The had been attacked overnight once, early in the time spent in this place, and sought to be prepared in case it happened again. Bea fell asleep nearly immediately. Johanna lay awake for longer, whispering prayers. Marek sunk into a haunted sleep that was interrupted only two hours later by a shout of warning from Lucius.

Marek’s eyes shot open, and he rolled to his feet. The soldier was locked in combat against two of the skeletal monsters that roamed the halls of the mansion. He caught the edge of a broken blade on his shield and whirled the head of a flail into one of his assailants. Metal met bone with a sharp crack.

Marek reached into his satchel to grab his own weapon. The sharp bang of the assassin’s pistol rent the air, and the skull of one of the attacking undead shattered. Bea kicked the rest of the corpse onto the floor as Lucius pummeled his own opponent into dust.

Attracted by the sounds of battle, something else approached in the darkness. A menacing slithering made itself heard in the silence after the rush of combat. The priestess, eyes aglow with a divine power, recited a protective verse from the holy book in her hands. Soft golden light suffused the bodies of all four present, invigorating them. Moments later the creature was upon them.

It was so fast Marek got only the impression of scales and claws. He lashed out with the enchanted dagger clutched in his fist and felt vital fluid spurt onto his skin. A scream that rattled the scholar’s brain rent the air, and he fell to the ground wracked by convulsions. Lucius, ever the protector, threw himself at the thing that was attacking them. Flail met flesh with the sound of tearing. The creature twisted, pinning Johanna to the wall with its tail as it reared back to attack Lucius.

As the monster prepared to strike, they all saw it in the light from the scattered embers of their fire. Green scales covered a body wider than a man’s arm span across. The top third of the creature was the upper body of a person. No, not a person, the stitched-together remains of many. Its arms had two joints, each bent a different way. Its hands were larger than Lucius’s head, and the fingers were tipped by claws as long as a forearm.

Johanna screamed as her ribs cracked under the pressure from the thing’s tail. It dashed towards Lucius but was interrupted by a point-blank blast from Bea’s pistol. Johanna fell to the ground and crawled towards Marek to render aid, oblivious to her own suffering. On the opposite side of the beast, Lucius readied himself. Bea’s shot had torn a hole the size of a fist in the center of the monster’s chest, but still it came for her and the soldier.

Johanna channeled her divine magic and prayed over Marek, calming his convulsions and letting him get his bearings. The beast launched its coiled body at the two other combatants. Lucius caught one set of claws on his shield. Before the other set could tear him to ribbons, Bea intercepted it with a rapier. Taken aback, the monster paused for the barest moment. Taking advantage of its surprise, Lucius leapt into the breach and pummeled the thing with his flail until it stopped moving.

Silence reigned, broken only by Lucius’s heavy breathing and Johanna’s prayers. The group gathered up their things and moved on. Sleep would not come again this night. They might as well draw closer to their objective. Johanna and Marek treated their party’s wounds as they walked, the priestess with divine magic and the scholar with poultices and potions. Bea held a torch aloft a short way ahead of the rest, keeping a sharp eye for any more company.

Sound echoed in the halls. The skittering of rats, and worse. Something dripping. The creak of wood. It left them all on edge. Spiderwebs crisscrossed the decrepit furniture abandoned by those that had once occupied the estate. Windows occasionally graced the walls, though there was nothing through them but a pitch black. Lucius swore he saw something through them, once. Something like a writhing mass of formless appendages, grasping violently at the emptiness.

Despite their wariness and the unnatural surroundings, they made good time. Marek guided them, with Bea leading, through the ancient halls. As he had said before their short attempt at sleep, Marek had found something. A passage had been hidden in the walls. Marek had found it entirely by accident, when his satchel had caught on something. His materials had spilled onto the ground and upon bending down to collect them he found a switch tucked behind a fallen, rotted-out, beam. After pressing the switch Marek heard metal scrape against metal and felt a rumble in the floor as the wall ahead of him sunk into the floor to reveal a staircase downwards.

As they approached the passage, Lucius’s mouth curled up in disgust. The scent of rotting meat assaulted them from wherever the stairs led. The soldier motioned for the torch, and Bea handed it to him wordlessly. He took the steps down slowly, holding the torch aloft. The rest of the group followed, and as they descended Marek observed unearthly symbols scratched into the stone walls. They were close now. Soon the truth would reveal itself. Marek hoped they all survived the experience.

They took the stairs as quickly as they dared, not wanting to get caught by surprise in the narrow space. After what felt like too long they arrived at the end of their descent. They found themselves in a cellar of sorts. Or, at least, it had once been a cellar. Rust-red splotches, unmistakably dried blood, were scattered throughout the large square room. Shelves with small barrels rose along the walls. Some of the barrels were tapped with spigots and dripped a liquid that smelled faintly of mold. Darkness kept them from seeing much, however, and they decided to risk more light.

Marek, Bea, and Johanna each lit a torch from Lucius’s. At the sudden increase in illumination they heard the chattering and squeaking of disturbed vermin. The group froze in place, hands reaching for weapons. When nothing else reached for them from the dark corners of the cellar or the door set into the wall to their right they prepared to examine the room more closely.

Their investigation began at a stone statue shaped like two curving intertwined tentacles on the far side of the room. In front of the statue on what was a pedestal, perhaps an altar of some sort, lay a book bound in red-dyed leather. Gold lettering decorated its surface in a script that none of those present could begin to understand. Johanna reached for it, a glint of curiosity in her eyes. Marek watched her carefully as she picked up the book and opened it to an arbitrary page. The text within was as illegible as that on the embossed cover, and Johanna handed the book off to Marek for safe keeping.

While Johanna and Marek sought information, their two companions were more interested in things of a more material nature. Bea and Lucius looped around the edges of the room, eye resting on the scratches and gouges on the stone walls, as well as the wet jelly-like substance surrounding the damage. Bea and Lucius shared a worried glance. Whatever had done that to the walls was still down here. They had found no evidence of anything like this up above.

“Marek” Bea called, and when the scholar looked at her with an inquisitive expression she gestured to the walls. Marek looked where she pointed and frowned. “what is it?” Johanna asked. “The bodily fluids of some abomination” Lucius answered grimly, his grip tightening on the torch. “Agreed. Look at how it eats into the stone” Marek added with macabre fascination.

“Is whatever did this what we came to kill?” Lucius questioned, scraping some of the jelly off the wall with his dagger. The metal began to smoke nearly immediately, and the soldier flicked it off. “Let me put it this way” Marek began. “If not, we have to kill whatever brought it here” the Scholar answered turning back towards the door. Lucius and the others nodded their agreement.

The group slowly approached the rotting wooden door. Lucius gripped the knob and turned it to find it locked. His brow furrowed for a moment, before he gestured for the others to give him space. Bea took a step to the side and aimed her pistol. Johanna and Marek gave the two more physically oriented members of their group a wide berth. The priestess spoke soft verses of warding, eyes closed to better focus. Marek held his dagger at the ready, prepared to use it to assist the others.

Lucius braced on one leg and kicked the door, shattering the weakened wood around the lock and forcing it open. The door clattered against the stone wall of the room beyond with a loud crack. From somewhere in the darkness beyond came a keening moan, raising the hair on the necks of the four living that heard it. It reverberated for only moments before cutting off abruptly. The party paused, waiting for whatever had made the sound to reveal itself. One minute. Three. Ten. Nothing came. They passed into the room.

Here, their torches barely illuminated the space around each of them, as if something was hungrily devouring their light. As the others made to check the room, Marek leaned against the wall. Eyes bloodshot from adrenaline and exhaustion, the scholar opened the book Johanna had given him. His eyes widened as he realized it was in a language he understood. A long forgotten tongue, once spoken by a people the Order knew only as the Ash’ai. Marek’s mind wandered in contemplation briefly before he reigned it in and began to read.

Lucius, torch held in front of him, walked along the walls. He searched carefully for more evidence of whatever beast it seemed they were hunting. His eyes threatened to close from his fatigue, but he forced them open. This room was different from the last in more ways than just the bookshelves. There was no other way out, but that was impossible. They had all heard the sound coming from somewhere beyond it. And so Lucius investigated as best he could.

Johanna and Bea both checked the shelves. Most were bare of any books, but not all. They found treatises on astronomy and mathematics. Dissertations on the nature of the soul and the afterlife. The two women pulled all manner of esoteric text from the bookshelves but found nothing that would lead them forward. No hidden switch as Marek had found in the halls above, no secret passage unveiled as they disturbed the books.

An hour passed, and then two. Still they found nothing. Lucius sighed, his armor clanking against itself as he stretched. Johanna had opted to meditate, seeking divine inspiration for how to continue. Bea stood to one side watching over Marek, who had become so engrossed in the book that he barely heard Lucius speak.

“Perhaps it is for the best that we return to the previous room and rest. It only has two entrances, one of which is hidden from above” The soldier suggested, the length of time he had been awake clearly weighing heavily on him. Johanna opened her eyes and nodded, her exhaustion plain on her face as well. Bea tapped Marek on the shoulder, and his eyes rose from the book as if in a daze. “Yes, we should avoid encountering the monster we seek without being so weary we can barely stand” the Scholar said after taking a moment to collect himself.

The party retreated to the previous room, and began to prepare for the night. This time they would do their best to ensure they weren’t disturbed. Lucius took a wood axe and cut apart some of the bookshelves, using the planking and some old nails scattered along the floor to board up the door to what the group had taken to calling “the library”. Bea went up the stairs and closed the hidden passage they had come through on the way down. Johanna carefully lit a fire with more of the scavenged wood, while Marek dove once more into his reading.

“Anything interesting?” Bea asked Marek as she lay her pack on the floor near the fireplace. “Hmm? Yes” he answered, looking up quickly. “This contains a set of occult religious texts. It describes a group of ancient, undying beings of immense power that dwell in some other plane” Marek explained, flipping through a few pages. “It also describes how to call on their power” he added darkly. “This just gets better, doesn’t it?” Bea snorted, sarcasm thick in her voice. “Keep reading, we need any edge we can get. I’ll help with the food” the Assassin told her companion.

Bea moved to Johanna, who nodded in appreciation at her assistance. Lucius tended to the fire while the two women prepared a thin stew from their limited rations. Along with the food, they boiled some water for an herbal infusion Johanna swore would help them sleep restfully and wake prepared for the coming horrors. Still immersed in his work, Marek didn’t even look up as Bea put a bowl of the stew in front of him. The scholar ate mechanically, tuning out the conversation that surrounded him.

“I’ll take first watch this time” Bea said, and Lucius nodded gratefully. He ran a hand through is grimy hair. “I haven’t been this unwashed since my last campaign. Hopefully we live long enough for me to bathe” he said, and the others laughed. The soldier and the Priestess lay down their sleeping rolls next to each other and fell asleep quickly.

Two hours later, Bea hummed a tune as she kept watch. She glanced over at Marek, who was still reading. “You should rest” Bea chided him. Marek shrugged and looked up at her, the whites of his eyes almost entirely red from lack of sleep. “Anything that helps us down here is worth it” he answered. Bea frowned, and shook her head. “If you collapse in the middle of a fight because you were too tired, and we get killed, I’m going to find you in whatever afterlife we end up in and I’m going to kill you myself” the Assassin told him.

Marek blinked and then chuckled to himself, seeing the sense in her words. “You’re right” he said, putting the book down. “A sight for the ages. Marek admitting someone else is right” Bea joked, and Marek shook his head to keep the Assassin from seeing the smile on his face. “Go. I’ll wake Johanna in another hour and get some sleep myself” Bea said, returning to her duties as watchman.

Hours later, they sat around the rekindled fire and broke their fast. Their time asleep, as they no longer had any notion of day or night, was of acceptable quality. Lucius and Bea ate in silence while Johanna and Marek discussed the book they had found. Marek sighed as Johanna came to the same conclusions he had.

The Count, for no other would have had the resources coupled with the amount of sheer insanity required to attempt the ritual, had called some star-spawned horror to their world. With it had come the twisting of the natural and magical laws that governed their reality. The theory explained everything except how to banish the thing once it was summoned. Marek hoped the answer would be found if he continued to study the esoteric literature. While the others resumed their search for a path forward, he continued his research.

Lucius, driven by some unknown impulse, began to tap the sturdy wooden haft of his flail against the wall. Within an hour, he had found something. Part of the wall sounded different as he struck it. He called the others over and showed them his discovery. “Another hidden passage then” Johanna said. “How does it open, I wonder” Bea voiced the question. Lucius struck it again, listening for the sound. He looked over at Johanna. After a moment’s hesitation, the priestess nodded and began to chant.

“We haven’t found the mechanism yet. We likely won’t. Our supplies run low. We have no time for waiting” the Soldier told the others as Johanna wove divine magic into his body, arms, and armor. Lucius took a few steps back to give himself room. He took a deep breath. So long as Johanna maintained concentration, his newfound strength would hold. He hoped it was enough. “So we open it like this” He said before he began to run.

A battle cry tore itself from Lucius’s lips as he slammed his shield into the wall. For an instant it appeared to hold, and then the thin stone crumpled under the fury of his charge. Shards of masonry pinged off his armor, and a cloud of grey-white dust erupted into the air. Johanna stopped channeling her power and stood as Lucius stepped back out of the passage, breathing heavily. “Impressive” Marek told the two of them. “Our quarry certainly heard that, but now we may actually find it. Well done” Bea added.

After a moment’s respite to allow Johanna and Lucius to collect themselves after their feat, the four entered the now destroyed entryway. They passed into a dark, narrow, hallway. The walls were so close together it that if Lucius wasn’t perfectly centered his pauldrons scraped the stone. The air seemed to become thicker as they advanced, permeated by a wet and cloying malodor. Beads of sweat ran down Marek’s brow as the humidity and temperature both increased. The scholar found himself wondering how the Soldier was faring underneath his plate armor.

Continuing on for what felt like hours, they eventually found the reason for their discomfort. It began with thin tendrils of sinew running along the walls and floor. As they advanced, the tendrils thickened. Eventually they were entirely encased on all sides by a flesh that pulsed delicately, as if some titanic heart was pumping blood through the muscle. Whatever conversation they had been sharing ceased. A chill creeped into all four of them, despite the heat.

With every step, their feet sunk into the soft thing beneath them. Lucius had a permanent scowl of disgust on his face, and Johanna was whispered supplications of purification. Even Bea and Marek, who were more experienced with the occult than the other two, had trouble. The very nature of this place was distressing, as if the very fact that it existed grated against their conscious minds.

Finally, like the throat of a beast opening into the stomach, the hallway flared outward into a cavernous room. Suspended by thick veins in the center of the room was a misshapen lump made of the same material as the walls it thumped in time with the pulsing of the walls. The group stared at it, awed. They had found it. The center of the corruption creeping across the north. With each beat, the air around the hunters thrummed. Lucius smiled in triumph.

“It seems we’ve found what we came for” the Soldier began stepping forward as he spun his flail. “Let us kill it, and end this” he finished. “Wait” Bea called, eyes frantically searching the cavern, which had no obvious exits. “What? Our quarry lies defenseless” Lucius asked, gesturing in disbelief. Suddenly, Johanna understood what Bea meant. “Where is the thing that damaged the walls in the previous room?” The priestess asked.

“So long as it isn’t here, lets take advantage” Lucius said, approaching the monstrous suspended heart. Before he could get any closer they heard an awful ripping sound from the left. The group watched in horror as the flesh-wall of the cavern was torn open by four clawed hands. Something stepped through the shower of black iridescent blood that spurted from the wound.

It stood hunched over, walking on four of its six appendages. The monster’s body was a stitched together amalgamation of animal and human, with a multitude of eyes and mouths placed randomly on its body. It looked like the magnum opus of a demented artist. The party stared, agape. The creature roared its absolute fury and charged, every one of the eyes focused on Lucius.

“Fuck” The soldier yelled, raising his shield and bracing for the impact. The thing struck him and threw him bodily some four meters back, “Lucius!” Johanna cried out, before fixing a look of righteous hatred on the monstrosity. Her eyes glowed a golden hue as she shouted a condemnation, and a blast of light erupted at their foe’s feet. The creature howled in pain with its myriad mouths. Mottled skin charred by the power unleashed against it, the abomination emerged from the pillar of light and made towards them.

Marek ran to safety, opened the occult book, and began to frantically scan the text. He remembered a passage on binding a creature such as this together and hoped that by knowing how it was created he could destroy it. “Not the time to be reading, Marek!” Bea called, diving out of the thing’s way and taking Johanna with her. The monster continued its charge, unable to slow its momentum. It crashed into a fleshy wall and fell over. “Buy me thirty seconds!” he yelled back at her. Bea looked at him for a moment and then nodded.

Before the monster could collect itself Bea loaded her pistol with one of her more potent rounds and fired at its flank. The thing howled again as a hole was blown in its side. Johanna called on her power to heal Lucius, who slowly stood as the broken bone jutting out of his skin slid back into place. He grimaced at the pain but after a breath to steady himself, ran to join the melee. The creature stood, the mouths on its front vomiting green slime. Bea leapt out of the way, some of the stuff getting on her cloak and immediately eating through it.

Lucius approached, blood still seeping from the joints in his armor, hefting his flail. The blow caught the Beast along the chest, shattering one of the screaming mouths. The thing ignored him, and instead leapt at Johanna, slamming her to the ground. The priestess screamed in pain as Lucius crashed into the thing crushing her. It reeled, and Bea fired another shot to knock it away from their fallen comrade. Johanna crawled away from the Monster, one of her legs crushed to a bloody pulp. She muttered a prayer, face white as sheet.

“Any time now, Marek!” Bea called, before one of the Creature’s arms caught her in the side and sent her sprawling with the sound of cracking bone. As if noticing the scholar for the first time, the Abomination loped towards him as quickly as it could. Infused once more by divine power from Johanna, Lucius met it on the way and the two traded blows. Finally, as Lucius was knocked to a knee, Marek found what he was searching for. “I have it!” he said, running to help the Soldier.

The Scholar’s eyes began to glow a dark, shadowy purple as he spoke words in a language none of the others understood. Power ran through Marek’s body, and he infused his dagger with every drop. The knife trembled in his hand as he slammed it into the Monster they fought. The Abomination turned and knocked him away just as the enchanted dagger began to glow. A flash of light illuminated the stitched-together creature from within and it screamed shrilly before it was violently blown apart.

Bea helped Johanna to her feet, the Priestess’s leg not completely healed. Lucius joined the two, taking more of Johanna’s weight than the injured assassin could. “Just the heart left” Marek said, gesturing at it. “If you would please” he told Bea, who nodded. “Gladly” the Assassin answered, pulling a package from her bag. She sliced a hole in the heart that spurt out more of the iridescent black fluid and shoved the package inside as Marek helped Lucius carry Johanna towards their entry point. Bea followed until she judged they were at a safe distance. She turned and fired one final shot at the package. They watched with a grim satisfaction as the Heart was consumed in green flame.

“You said something about an Order” Lucius commented, watching the flames lick at the Heart. “Oh, yes. The Order is always seeking those that can help on its mission” Marek answered. Johanna glanced up at Lucius and nodded. “I believe we’d like to join” the Priestess told him, as they made their way slowly back towards the exit of the estate.


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