Tea with the Laughing Fiend by Todd Stewart

“Where in Pharasma’s name…?”

The man abruptly opened his eyes and reached for the sword at his hip, pausing only to wince and instead reach back to caress his head. His gloved fingers came back with flecks of dried blood on the leather and a few still scarlet congealed droplets of the same. He blinked and exhaled, gradually remembering what had happened, though it didn’t exactly answer the “where” question looming in the forefront of his mind.

Rubbing his forehead wearily, Darius recalled the magical portal carried by one of his fellows. Random gateways were dangerous and generally inadvisable to invoke in haste, and sometimes they were more than a little rough on travelers. Still, it was probably better than the alternative. He was alive, after all.

Introspection faded, and for the first time he glanced around and took in his present surroundings. Thin sunlight filtered down through the forest canopy overhead, and a stand of oddly shaped, reed-like trees swayed back and forth in a gentle, cool breeze. Their long, thin leaves trailed from equally slender branches, rustling with an almost calming susurrus. Beyond their whisper and his own breathing, not a sound was to be heard.

Darius tentatively stood, and once again winced, rubbing his head. The fact that he was only bruised rather than skewered through by a Taldan pike was good evidence that their pursuers had not followed them through the Well. But it didn’t explain where his companions were, or whether they had also managed to escape with their lives. It was possible that the cursed portal had scattered them about whatever world or plane this was, or even to entirely different planes. The former was certainly preferable to the latter. It was also possible that he was simply the first to awaken.

A knight of the Iron Talons, a halfling wizard, a priestess of Desna, a pompous but talented elven bard, and himself. He rubbed his eyes as he imagined their reactions to awakening in a strangely silent, alien forest. None of them were precisely acclimated to handling themselves in the; travel through a well mapped forest was the full extent that the rest of his party were comfortable with. For all their skill and prowess as adventurers, they’d be like lost little children if they were thrown into the middle of nature’s bosom without their bearings. As a ranger, and a skilled one, Darius had to smile, but he also worried for them if they were split apart by any real distance.

Darius sighed and set himself to the task of tracking, hoping that his friends had more sense than to wander too far from where the portal had dumped them. As if in ambivalent response to his worry, the wind quietly set the forest canopy to trembling. There was an oddly sterile quality to the motion. For all its strange beauty, the eerie silence was off-putting.

The forest floor was littered with the typical debris of leaves, grasses and brush, though none of the foliage was remotely familiar. Darius was less concerned with that than the fact that it was undisturbed; there were no footsteps leading away, nor depressions to suggest that any others had arrived, nor that anyone else had approached. There were no signs of disturbance at all, as if neither insect nor bird nor human had intruded into what might well have been best described as a verdant necropolis.

Struck by an unsettled feeling, he blinked and remembered something he should have tried much sooner. Darius paused and concentrated, drawing on an inner reservoir of faith, willing his senses to extend into the metaphysical, a unique ability normally reserved for paladins. Normally it would have taken him only a few moments to sense the presence of any ambient or nearby sources of evil, and then a few moments more to determine their strength and their nature.

Nothing happened.

“The hell?” Darius blinked and repeated the attempt, only to end it seconds later to the same result. It wasn’t that the attempt had failed; it had simply never worked. It was quite possible that magic could nullify his power -it had done so in the past- and the nature of a place could do the same; especially if he was cut off from access to his divine patron. The failure left him with the distinct feeling that something had noticed the attempt.

Initially with the utmost caution and stealth, Darius made his way through the forest. The minutes passed, and edged closer to an hour with no evidence of anything stirring except the trees. Gradually his wariness faded to apathy. The trees and the gentle wind presented no threat to keep him alert. Outside of loneliness and nagging worry, tedium was the worst of it all.

An hour later, the forest’s homogeneity ended. Breaking through the forest’s edge, Darius paused and fixed his gaze forward. Perhaps a half mile distant, rising above seemingly abandoned fields, stood a small, ornate keep constructed in a style Darius had never encountered. A dozen fluted stone spires and crenellated towers stood solidly upon a hill, standing a cold and distant watch over the serene, hushed estate of some unseen lord. No flags flew from its ramparts, and while the gate stood open and the drawbridge was lowered, no guards were on watch. Like its vassal forests, the castle was beautiful yet oddly sterile.

Darius realized that despite the castle’s height, he’d never once seen it from within the forest. He should have been able to do so for quite some distance through any break in the canopy cover. There’s something there, he thought. At least it’s a landmark.

With practiced ease, Darius made his way towards the keep, keeping himself hidden in the brush and tall grass that grew in the fallow fields. The castle would be a good elevated vantage point from which to look for his companions, even if there was no one home to give him a better clue. The soil was rich, but it clearly hadn’t been worked in a very long time. Except for a broken plow half buried and left from some bygone planting season, the entire area seemed utterly abandoned. Yet there were no skeletons of fallen soldiers, no crossbow bolts rusting in the overgrown furrows, and no other signs to betray an army’s passage in recent history.

Finally breaking cover and stepping out onto the main road with a cautious hand on his sword, Darius approached the keep’s outer gatehouse. An elaborate structure of dark stone flanked by ornamental reliefs of off-white marble, it seemed more like a work of art than a functional gatehouse. It might be the first stand of defense for the lord of a land that hadn’t seen war in generations. Still, Darius took his time, prepared for an ambush that never came, wary of defenders that failed to materialize. The outer gate and guardhouse were abandoned.

Darius gazed into the guard post’s interior. There a dozen or more men would have rested when not on active duty at the gate or marching on patrol. While neither man nor beast were to be found, the place was fit to welcome them. Darius stared at a quartet of half-eaten bowls of food sitting on the nearest table. The food was still warm, and a bit of burning pipe-fill still smoldered on the floor. It was as if something had spirited away every living thing and simply left a glass-caged diorama in its passing. Yet not a man to be found.

Spooked, he left the gatehouse and warily crossed the drawbridge towards the keep proper. Thirty feet underfoot, the darkened waters of the moat showed no signs of fish or frogs or any other living thing. To Darius’s relief, neither did it contain the swollen, rotting bodies of the castle’s inhabitants, as he had half expected. Only his distant, distorted reflection gazed back at him.

“Greetings! Is there anyone about?” Darius shouted, his voice echoing from the looming ramparts, the arrow slits to either side, and through the open entryway into the keep’s interior.

The silence was profound. Once again he felt eyes upon him, but this time it was not just rattled nerves. High above, something looked down and whispered, talking to itself more than its approaching guest.

“About time you showed up.” It chuckled and gave a wry smile. “So paranoid though. It’s just you and me little mortal, nobody else. Well, technically not if you wanted to consider all of the others. They don’t count however, all of their innumerable wretched lot.”

Tea with the Laughing Fiend continues in Part 2