The party arranged themselves in defensive formation, just in case, and then called out in various languages, “Hello! We mean you no harm!”
From the trees came a halting response in mangled Undercommon, “Who are you? You bring fire!”
“We are travelers, looking for a place to rest. Do you have a village?”
A flurry of excited whispering rippled through the trees, eventually culminating in a response, “You seek to harm village! You are servants of the Rider brought from the other world!”
“No we are not servants of the Rider,” Scratchy called out, and then in a burst of inspiration added, “We are here to kill the Rider!”
“The Rider cannot be killed!”
“Yes, yes he can!” Scratchy hoped that whoever this rider was, both of his statements were true.
There was more excited whispering in the trees, and after extended negotiations the creatures agreed to bring the party to their village on the conditions that they not harm it and that they share some of their food. The party gladly agreed, and after a short walk they found themselves being brought to the creatures’ homes.
The village itself was not particularly unusual: it was a collection of small huts constructed from the wood of the forest. The inhabitants, however, were another matter entirely. The Khaei, as they called themselves, were humanoids standing just a little under four feet tall. They were hairless with oddly twisting limbs and an awkward, shambling gait, but the strangest thing about them was the way the edges of their bodies sometimes seemed to trail away into mist and shadow. Theodora surmised they were permanently under the effects of a Blur spell, but it was unclear whether that was the only thing going on with them.
Once the party was settled in, the talk naturally turned to their hosts.
“They asked me who the giants were,” Scratchy began, “heh heh, they understand! This group is me and a bunch of giants!”
“I’m not !” protested Zelcor.
“What do you suppose this rider is? Milacent wondered.
“The master of this world, apparently. He lives in the keep, and the Khaei are terrified of him.”
“Doesn’t mean much,” Helanda, “They’re terrified of everything.”
“They said the Rider sometimes left to go to the ‘other world’, but when I asked them how often they just said ‘once every three krels’. Does anyone know how long a ‘krel’ is?”
“They live in a world with no days and no seasons,” Theodora replied. “Whatever they use to measure time, it won’t mean anything to us. But there is something …”
“There’s an old Varisian legend of a dark horseman, a rider with no head who appears periodically and searches out one specific victim to decapitate. No one knows where he comes from, but a pocket dimension that he’s the ruler of would certainly be a possibility.”
“And how often does he appear in Varisia?”
“Once a year.”
“Once a year!” Zelcor laughed, “So a month from now they’ll be saying ‘Hey, you said you would kill the rider but all you do is sit around the village!”
“We’re not going to wait for him to leave,” Scratchy said, “we’ll go into the keep and kill him, like I said, and then we’ll take his shard.”
Zelcor suddenly turned serious. “But if he’s the master of this place, doesn’t that make him a god here?”
“Maybe,” replied Theodora, “but not all gods are equal. We’ll see tomorrow how he fares against the power of Nethys.”
Once the party was rested up and healed they dined on a meal of alien rat-thing that the Khaei had prepared in honor of their guests. ‘Dined’ in the sense that Scratchy wolfed it down while everyone else took tiny bites until they could dispose of it surreptitiously. With that unpleasant business finished, they headed off toward the keep they had seen before.
Approaching it from a different angle, the keep looked even more physically impossible than it had the first time. Only the first part, near the entry doors, rested on any kind of reasonable foundation. The rest was cantilevered out over open space, and in any logical world would have fallen over long ago. There was, however, one part of it that made sense: a cylindrical tower that rose up beside the entryway. It ascended forty feet before ending it a jagged edge, as if the top had been broken off. Scratchy decided to investigate that part first; they might be able to use it as an alternate entry into the building, and if there was something in there they’d be better off dealing with it before they entered the main structure.
Zelcor started things off by casting a Message spell on Scratchy, allowing the party to hear the goblin’s whispered messages. Then they hid in the trees at the spell’s maximum range while Scratchy went off in the darkness, and waited.
They had been in this position many times before, everybody waiting while Scratchy went up and scouted, but waiting in the Dark Forest was particularly unnerving. The forest wasn’t a quiet one: every now and then there was a screech or bark out in the distance, suggesting that things far worse than the Khaei dwelt here. There was also the fact that no one knew what dangers awaited in the keep, just that whatever was there was likely to be some kind of horrid magical abomination. As such, it was almost a relief when they heard Scratchy’s voice whisper, “Wyverns.”
The party readied their weapons. Wyverns were unfriendly creatures, but relatively normal ones. They were fairly susceptible to shooting and stabbing, and didn’t do nasty things like turn party members against one another. They were large and powerful, true, but could be dealt with straightforwardly.
The battle began with the twang of Scratchy’s bow firing an arrow into their nest. Three wyverns immediately launched into the air above the tower and began circling, looking for the source of the attack. Scratchy, however, was too well hidden. He continued to fire, severely wounding one of the circling beasts. They swooped down to the treetops were Scratchy was, passing directly over his position without detecting him. What they did see, unfortunately, was the rest of the party.
Zelcor and Theodora held up their hands and unleashed a torrent of magical energy at the wyverns, bringing down the one Scratchy had wounded. One of its comrades swooped down, and with an enormous claw tried to grab Zelcor and carry him away. For its trouble it was met with Milacent and Helanda’s blades. Screeching in pain, it dropped Zelcor and lifted up again into the sky. A moment later the third wyvern swooped down and tried to grab the other small target it saw: Zelcor’s riding dog.
“No! Not that dog too!” Zelcor wailed, but he needn’t have worried. Milacent turned and stabbed at the attacker as it was swooping past, slashing it even as the dog dodged out of its grasp. There were now two somewhat wounded wyverns circling above, and Zelcor got his revenge by subjecting both of them to a ball of fire. One came crashing down to the ground, and the last wyvern, now bleeding and in flames, circled around for its last desperate attack. It swooped low and tried to carry off Zelcor again, and this time almost succeeded, but the nest of blades it had to pass through to accomplish the attack was too much, and it soon crashed to the ground dead.
First blood to us, thought Helanda, I hope the rest of it is like this.