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The Song, Chapter 0 - Dark Fantasy

Updated: Aug 4, 2023

A new project thats been in the works for quite some time. In it, we follow the group that formed in the short story "From Beyond" (which you can find here on the site!) on a new journey. Enjoy!


The three companions sat around the embers of their campfire. The northern wind, funneled into a gale by the mountain pass, broke against the small carriage to which they had their backs. A small black pot sat suspended above the dying flames, and from it came the scent of scalded coffee. To the side, just close enough to the fire to stay warm was a plate of scrambled eggs and vegetables, most of which was gone. Some distance away, they had tied their one horse.

The first of the three was clearly a scholar. Small reading glasses rested on the bridge of his nose, the brass of the frames bright against his dark skin, and a large tome lay open on his lap. Another was a priestess. Her white habit, emblazoned with the golden open-eyed symbol of her religious sect, seemed to refuse the ash that tried to taint its color. The last was a paladin. The silvery pieces of armor that he wasn’t already wearing were arrayed neatly on a large piece of cloth next to him, waiting their turn to be strapped into place.

“I hope we weren’t overly delayed in our arrival.” mused the scholar as he reached out to grab the pot and refill his coffee. “It has only been two weeks.” The priestess reassured him, her voice soft “I know, Johanna, but…” Marek began and then sighed, brow knotted in worry. He put the mug to his lips and drank the coffee as quickly as he dared. The bitter brew came with a pleasant warmth, but he barely felt it.

“Give us the details again, it’ll serve both to distract you and make sure we’ve not missed anything.” The Paladin suggested, gaze still fixed on his task. Johanna turned to face him, a small smile of thanks on her face. “A good plan, Lucius.” she agreed with a nod, before looking back at the scholar. “Will you, Marek?” she asked gently. Marek’s grip tightened on the tome in his lap for a moment, his body tensing before he forced it to relax.

“Yes, of course,” Marek finally answered. “Give me a moment.” he said, closing the tome and carefully placing it back in his large satchel only to retrieve a leather-bound journal. Marek brushed his hand across the intricate symbol embossed on the cover. A circular chain surrounding a flame. He pulled at the ribbon that served as a page marker and began to read.

“Some months ago claims of strange happenings at the town of Eastwall reached the Order’s ears. Shortly after, it was decided that the reports held enough merit to warrant more research. Given that the effects indicated what was most likely to be a low-risk situation, they sent a Junior Investigator. He vanished.” Marek paused, looking up from his journal.

Johanna watched his face intently, waiting for Marek to continue. Lucius, who had finished putting on his armor, looked up at the sky. He looked pensive, as if mulling over options. After another few seconds, the Paladin began to speak. “For the past decade, tensions have been building up along the border between the Calissian Republic and the Vyrman Empire. A short time before the first rumors, the Empire laid claim to Eastwall and occupied the town. Are we certain the Junior’s disappearance isn’t related to the ongoing occupation?” Lucius asked, his eyes still watching the clouds as if they held the answer to his question.

Marek nodded, turning past a page that held a sketched map of the region and then another that was covered in notes regarding skirmishes between the Republic and the Empire. He began to read, and then spoke again. “The Order responded to the disappearance by sending a Senior Investigator and her Shadow. Given your familiarity with Bea and myself you are both aware that most challenges can be circumvented by the talents of such a pair. It was expected, at least, that they would send news regarding the state of the town. They also failed to report. Thus, it was left to us.” Marek finished. He closed the journal and put it away.

They sat in silence for a few moments before Lucius stood. “Onwards then. Bea awaits a scant few hours away, unscathed I am sure, and I would like to sleep in a bed tonight.” He extended a hand to Johanna, who took it with a grateful smile. Marek followed their example, and the three were soon busying themselves with taking down their camp.

Less than a half hour later, Lucius sat in the driver’s seat of their carriage. With a shake of the reins their horse began to pull them forward. Once they were on the move Marek wiggled a small key of an orange-red metal out from a pocket tucked inside the hem of his cloak. He looked at Johanna with a conspiratorial smile. “Will you do the honors?” he asked, and she smiled widely, taking the key from his outstretched hand.

Johanna leaned over, running her hand along the small gap between the side of her seat and the body of the carriage. After a brief moment she found a small indentation in the wood’s well-polished surface, and tugged on it to pull open the cover that concealed a lock.

Johanna fit the key into the lock smoothly and felt the metal begin to warm. Once it had stopped, she turned the key and a small click sounded. A compartment hidden within her seat slid open to reveal a small chest, which she took and handed to Marek. “Always so fun!” Johanna said, almost giddily, and Marek couldn’t help but laugh.

Johanna’s smile had only brightened in the past minute, and Marek found his spirits lifting. Over time, both Johanna and Lucius had come to enjoy the more covert aspects of working with Marek and Bea, much to Marek’s satisfaction. He looked down at the chest that was now in his lap and began to wiggle yet another hidden key out of another hidden pocket. It briefly caught on the fabric and Marek cursed under his breath, much to Johanna’s amusement. Once he had it free, it was only another few moments before the chest was open.

Within it lay a stack of various documents. Marek reached a hand out to Johanna, who wordlessly gave him two thick identification cards, both hers and Lucius’, each stamped with the seal of the Republic. Marek added his own to the two and placed them at the bottom of the stack of documents. He thumbed through the well-organized stack and selected another series of cards. “Here.” he said, handing two of them to Johanna and keeping another two for himself.

“As planned, I will be posing as an investigator for the Empire that seeks to address the rumored problems in Eastwall. I have you as a medical expert, with Lucius and Bea as our guards.” He explained, more for his own benefit. Finally, he took a small, waxed tube out of the chest and placed it into a pocket at his cloak’s breast. “This,” he said, patting the tube through the fabric, “is an imperial decree sanctioning our actions.”

Johanna shook her head. “The Order’s connections never cease to surprise me.” she commented, looking out at the passing scenery. “I suppose you forge them when you spend centuries excising corruption” Marek responded as he closed the chest and began to reverse the process that had revealed it. “After all that is exactly how we met some years ago, isn’t it?” he asked, and Johanna gave him a cold smile tinged with grim satisfaction. “There is little more gratifying than finally finding your calling.” she answered, and Marek laughed. “True enough.”

Four hours later they felt the carriage slow down. “And there she is” Lucius called from the driver’s seat. Marek quickly stood, nearly knocking his head into the wooden roof. He waited impatiently, and the moment he felt they had slowed enough he threw open the door and jumped out. To the side of the road, standing next to a sack of what Marek knew were supplies, was a short-haired woman in a cloak mottled with dark grays and blues.

“Bea!” Marek waved as relief filled him. He jogged forward to meet her. “Marek.” she said quietly and raised a hand in greeting before bracing herself for the inevitable. Marek crashed into her, and the taller man pulled her into a tight hug. Once upon a time, embarrassment would have colored Bea’s face. Now she tried, and failed, to hide a smile.

Marek barely registered that the carriage’s clatter had ceased and that its door had been opened as he pulled away from the brief embrace and began to look Bea over. “Are you well? Did you encounter any problems?” he asked, and she shook her head. “I had no contact, as you can see” she answered, pulling away, spreading her arms, and turning in a circle to show her untouched clothing. As she finished, Lucius and Johanna approached.

“Ho, Bea.” Lucius greeted her, extending his arm. “Ho, Lucius.” she responded, tapping her wrist against his. Lucius had a smile on his face. As the more martially inclined of the group the two had built a friendship on deep respect and become a deadly duo.

“Marek spent the past few weeks beside himself with worry.” Johanna said as Lucius stepped aside to allow the Priestess to approach. “It must have been challenging.” Bea answered with a glance at Marek, who had the self-awareness to look embarrassed, though only for a moment. “It is good to see you unharmed” the Priestess smiled, pulling Bea into a short hug. “likewise, Johanna.” As the two women split apart and Marek seemed poised to check Bea for more injuries, Lucius coughed into his hand. “Pardon the interruption, but we should keep moving while Bea informs us of what she has discovered.”

“Ah, yes.” Marek answered, gesturing towards the carriage. “We are perhaps another ten minutes from the checkpoint. Will that be sufficient?” he asked as the four of them began moving. “More than enough. There is little to say” Bea answered, climbing into the seat next to Lucius as Marek and Johanna entered the carriage.

A few seconds later and they were on their way again. “Before I forget. Here.” Bea said, passing another one of the small, waxed tubes through the open window that was between the driver and passenger sections of the carriage. “The full report, in case I missed something.” She added. Marek thanked her, placing it into his satchel. He would review it later. For now, he wanted Bea’s direct impressions of the situation.

Once she had settled back into her seat, Bea took a breath and began to speak. “From a distance the town appears mostly normal, if strained. The people are… apprehensive is perhaps the best word. They look over their shoulders and seem generally restless. The Empire garrison that occupies the town seems much the same, and I witnessed no less than three disagreements turn to physical violence in the previous week.” She told them.

There was a pause as Bea waited for any questions. None were forthcoming. “The town’s physical footprint seems larger than it need be to support the population, with many empty buildings that seem to be avoided. Once, I caught the mayor leaving his mansion in the dead of night, and though he disappeared between buildings from my vantage point, he returned to his residence some two hours later, before dawn. The Commander of the garrison recently increased patrols, and he met with a group of merchants three days ago. I believe these are the most relevant pieces of information.” Bea finished as she pulled out and checked the time on her watch.

There was a minute or two of silence that was broken by Johanna. “The town’s mood could be explained by the stresses of being occupied by a foreign power.” She suggested, and Marek nodded. “Indeed. We will need to be thorough. Beginning with the Mayor is likely to be the simplest option” he said, a hand on his chin. “Thoughts, you two?” he asked through the window.

The discussion continued for a short few minutes before they passed into a part of the road that had been cleared of trees and vegetation on either side. Ahead of them, over the top of the rise on which they found themselves, rose the first crenelations of a fortification. “The checkpoint.” Lucius told them, and the conversation quickly halted as the rest of the wall came into view.

Some ten or twelve meters tall, the wall had been built into the natural chokepoint of the mountain pass. The stonework was the same blue-gray as the mountain itself, and they could see the metal studs that indicated an internal metal framework. Arrowslits were set below the crenelations, and Lucius quickly judged that the position would be remarkably easy to defend. Eastwall was an appropriate name.

In front of the wall’s open portcullis, through which they could see the town in the distance, was a simple line of cavalry spikes attached to a bar. Three guards leaned against either the wall itself or the base of a simple wooden watchtower. Each was in a simple metal breastplate and a decorated helmet, with a tunic and leggings of boiled leather armor. When they noticed the carriage, they advanced to the cavalry spikes, grips visibly tightening on their spears.

Lucius slowed the horse and waited patiently for the guards to approach. As they did, Marek opened the carriage door and stepped out. “Hello, friends” he called, waving them over. Two of the guards stopped near Lucius, who appeared totally unconcerned by their weapons, while the last continued closer to Marek.

“Your business?” the guard asked stiffly, sizing up Marek as if to judge whether he was a threat. “Imperial investigator.” Marek answered smoothly, pulling out the waxed tube that contained the decree naming their group as such. He opened it, and carefully removed the document from within. It was a large rectangle, ornately trimmed in gold with the silver wax of the imperial seal holding a red ribbon into place.

The guard seemed startled for a moment as Marek handed him the decree, and after only a few moments he shouted at the others to move the cavalry spikes while he informed the captain. The guard rolled the paper back up and almost reverently returned it to Marek, who sealed it back in the waxed tube. Then, the guard broke off at a run towards the gate, pulling open a heavy wooden door that was set into the wall past the portcullis.

Lucius watched the two remaining guards struggle for a minute or two before he sighed and stepped off the carriage to help them move the spikes out of the way. While he was doing so, Lucius struck of a conversation asking about any strange events they had heard of, though the guards denied any knowledge beyond what they already knew.

As soon as the three had succeeded in clearing the spikes from the road, the other guard as well as a man with a more ornate breastplate that had a silver tassel hanging from the shoulder came running from the gate. A short conversation later, during which the captain apologized no less than six times for delaying them and Marek managed to acquired exactly no new pieces of information, they were ushered through the portcullis and on towards Eastwall.

The pass ahead of them opened into a large and roughly circular piece of land, surrounded on all sides by the mountain as if someone had flattened a ball of clay with the bottom of a drinking glass. A thick forest began just to their side and continued along the entire left side of the crater, eventually becoming indistinguishable from the forests that climbed the mountain proper. The road ahead curved slightly to the right and then began skirting the forest until it led to the rest of the town.

Within a few minutes they had already passed two outlying homes. One had a drying rack stacked high with herbs as well as an extensive garden, indicating it belonged to the local herbalist. The other had the familiar stink of a tanner’s shop. The homes and buildings quickly grew denser as the road veered away from the forest. Despite the number of buildings, very few people walked along the streets.

“Bea was right. I see fewer people than I might expect. They must have left the town as it was occupied.” Lucius commented, eyes searching the road. “Or they are scared and in their homes.” Johanna offered as an alternative, glancing pensively out the window. “In any case, to the nearest Inn first. Preferably near a tavern so we have an easier time searching for information tomorrow. For today I would like to rest from our travels.” Marek suggested.

Bea snorted “We all know that by ‘rest’ you mean spend the next six hours poring over my report. But yes, I would like to get out of the elements, as comfortable as they have been.” she said, making Lucius and Johanna laugh. Marek shook his head but couldn’t deny Bea’s words. For her part, Bea pointed towards a side street. “There is a small inn in that direction.” She told Lucius, who nodded and guided the horse according to her instructions.

The Inn was, as Bea had put it, small. From the outside it looked like it would have three or four rooms at most, though it had a yard in which they would be able to keep their carriage and stable their horse. The proprietor, a portly man with laugh lines around his eyes greeted them jovially as they entered. The first floor was taken up by two large tables, each with six chairs, a kitchen that was well stocked and smelled of fresh herbs and cured meats, and a small counter.

“Do you have a room available?” Marek asked, and the man gave a great nod. “Yes! Yes! Cheap, as well! Only ten faces a night! I heard a carriage! I assume it’s yours? Please, sit and rest with some lunch while I take care of your horse and bring your belongings up to a room!” he told them quickly, apologizing profusely in his rush to push past them into the street before they even answered.

“I suppose we are, in fact, staying here tonight” Johanna said, laughter coloring her voice. The others, just as amused, agreed. They sat at one of the tables and were approached by a woman who was just as portly as the proprietor. “My, you look hungry! Sausage and vegetable platters for all of you. Lunch is included in your rate.” She said and shuffled away. “They are well matched.” Lucius commented, settling into the chair to await the food and drink. Marek pulled out Bea’s report to read while they waited, and Bea shook her head.

The scent of fried sausage, garlic, and onions began to fill the room, and by the time the woman left the kitchen and placed a large platter with rounds of sausage smothered in caramelized onions and roasted root vegetables on the table, they were all ready to eat. “Wait!” she called, before they could pounce on the food. They looked at her in confusion “You need bread to soak up the juices. And our home-made mead to wash it all down. We’re out of ale.” She told them matter of factly.

The smell of vegetables toasted in herb butter, the spiced sausage, and the sweet onions was nearly too much to bear. They waited impatiently for another minute or two until she returned with four wooden cups, a tall bottle of sweet-smelling mead, and a bowl with a large loaf of fresh bread. “There. The mead is normally extra but it goes well with the sausage.” She said with a smile and walked away.

“I think, for once in my life, I will set the reports aside and focus on my lunch.” Marek said, quickly reaching to claim a piece of the bread. “ah mwacl.” Lucius attempted to joke, but his mouth was already full of sausage and potatoes. “Lucius, manners!” Johanna laughed, and he responded by shoving a piece of bread into his mouth and chewing loudly.

“The food is delicious.” Bea said, picking the carrots away from the portions she put into her mouth. “And the mead is nice and sweet with a hint of sourness.” Marek added. “It appears that we will at least be well fed during our investigation.” Johanna said, reaching for the bottle of mead herself. As Marek had said, today they would rest. Tomorrow, they would begin in earnest.

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