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Chapter 26: The Final Confrontation
Come the grey dawn, the heroes set out down the trail from Argynvostholt. They returned to Krezk and the abbey, letting the guards know that their business was there alone. Going up the trail and to the gates, they were escorted once again by the monstrous Otto Belview to the main building and there to meet with the Abbot. His creation, Vasilika, had come very far indeed and was playing the harp when they entered. They confided with the Abbot that the time had come for them to confront Strahd von Zarovich, and that they would be taking the simulacrum of Mordenkainen with them. While the Abbot disapproved, stating that such action would only result in their deaths, he did not stand in their way. Without his blessing, they left the Abbey of St. Markovia for the last time.

As the morning gave way to afternoon, the heroes made their way past the two river crossroads and bypassed Vallaki, heading over the pass, and reaching Barovia at last. They met with Ismark, told him of their plans, and went to Father Donavich, letting him know the hour had come. The old priest gathered up his staff and a jack of leather and metal plates, and set out with them come the following morning.

As the clouds rolled overhead, the heroes found themselves finally heading up the ill-used road to Castle Ravenloft. No black coach awaited them past the upper gates, though they spotted wolves shadowing them along the moors. Finally they reached the castle. The drawbridge was down and the front doors stood open. Verity entered first, past the statues of the dragons in the foyer and the gargoyles in the entry hall. They did not react to her presence, but seemed to leer down in silence. The heroes opted to head up the great flight of stairs to the left of the entry.

Twin staircases led up from a landing at the top of the great stair. Suits of plate armor stood there, silent sentries that clutched dragon-headed maces. They led up to a reception hall, where a throne-like chair sat on a dais, its back to the dual entries. A stained glass window on one side had the image of a knight with a dragon crest. As the heroes entered, Verity moved over and sat in the chair, contemplating what she would do when they found Strahd.


The stained glass window was more than mere decoration. It held a deadly opponent.

That was a mistake. The stained glass knight in the window came to life, stepped off it, and attacked! The two suits of armor trod up the landing as well, swinging their maces. The fight that followed was brief but fierce. Caxius and Evan blasted away with bolts of fire and force, and Zahar rained arrows on all, as Cira and Donavich engaged the stained glass golem. Lupin and Volta charged the suits of armor, one to a stair, as Shokk moved in on the creature of glass. It slashed away with a sword of razor-sharp leaded glass and unleashed a burst of blinding light as Cira hit it with her shining sword. It focused the light into a brilliant spray of colors, that burned, froze, and dazed the heroes. But they shook off the effect. In short order, the golem had been shattered and the suits of armor blasted apart by mighty blows from axe, sword, and fist.

Taking a moment to catch their breath, the heroes made their way back around to the spiral stairs next to the dining hall on the lower level. They ascended them, up two levels, to the small banquet hall where they had found the wedding cake of Tatyana and Strahd's brother Sergei. What they had not counted on were two monstrous creatures, much like spiders with men's torsos, heads, and arms, crafted out of spare body parts stripped of skin and with blades grafted into their limbs. They pounced and slashed with their horrible blades, but the heroes felled them quickly. They recalled the chambers ahead to the west, but had never gone to the door to the north. If their map of the castle was correct, this would likely be where they study was. And where Strahd waited for them.


Strahd awaited them.

The heroes were not wrong. The door opened on a lavish study, lined with shelves of leather-bound books. It was carpeted, and a heavy table stood in its center. Couches sat near the bookcases, and large, overstuffed chairs upholstered in burgundy leather sat before a massive fireplace hearth on the east wall. A figure rose from one chair. It was Strahd von Zarovich. He downed a crystal goblet of some red substance and smiled. "So, you have come at last. Have you reconsidered my offer, as your friend did?" He gestured to the other chair, where Kyne Darkblade sat.

"Our answer is the same as last time." Shokk replied. "Never."

"Then you will die!" Strahd growled, and the fight was on. He moved with unearthly quickness, striking with his blade and withdrawing before they could react. He blasted the heroes with a ball of eldritch flame but their defenses let them withstand the inferno. Cira moved in, sunlight spilling from the Holy Symbol of Ravenkind, but Rahadin slipped from beneath the table and slashed at her, driving her back with his poison blade. Even as that happened, papers and scrolls flew from shelves and tables, forming a large man-shaped figure like a mummy, though arcane symbols flared on its tightly-wrapped pages. It clawed at Shokk, Volta, and Verity as they moved in. Evan, Zahar, and Caxius fired from the other room, peppering the count and his servants with arcane spells, as did the faux Mordenkainen and Donavich the priest.

As Strahd slashed with his blade and tore at Volta and Verity with claw and fang, he animated the furniture in the room and sent it crashing into the heroes. Kyne danced around them, summoning darkness and vanishing from sight as he stabbed and retreated time and again. Rahadin was a blur with his poison blade.

But the heroes were far from helpless. Cira and Volta cut away at the scroll golem as Verity paralyzed Rahadin with a spell and a song. Zahar filled him with arrows, ending his life. Shokk finally came face to face with Strahd, and struck him with three mighty blows, his sword flaring with radiant fire each time. Strahd snarled, his blade flicking away, piercing the paladin's defenses time and again. Shokk was barely on his feet and everyone else wounded. Volta had fallen twice and was barely on her feet. Strahd moved as a blur across the room, snatched Verity, and drug her through the far doors into the bedchamber where he'd kept Gertruda. He tore at her throat with his fangs, lapping up her lifeblood.

But Cira stepped in, using a prayer to the Morninglord to revitalize the warrior-bard. As Shokk moved in, Verity stood up with the thighbone of St. Markovia in hand. She swung the holy mace with all her might. "I've had enough of you!" Her blow shattered the mace, driving the bony shard into Strahd's heart. He screamed and dissolved into a mist, which swirled past their feet with the swiftness of the wind and back through the vent in fireplace. A blast of cold from Evan finished off the treacherous Kyne, and Volta had cut the paper golem to shreds.

With their foes defeated, the heroes extinguished the flames and stepped into the massive hearth. Cira found a loose brick, pulled on it, and opened a secret door into a hidden treasury. But there was no sign of the mist there. She found a crack in the far wall, near the floor. Grabbing an iron torch cresset there, she pulled open another secret door. It led into a web-choked hall that ended in bronze-sheathed double doors. Making their way carefully down the hall, tearing the webs away, they opened the far doors and found themselves in the castle's belfry. Nearly at a loss, Cira and Lupin carefully searched until they found a crack in the floor on the north side of the room. Another loose brick was pushed in, and a latch released, opening into a larger secret treasury. Inside was a tower of iron, fully 20 feet across and 30 feet high.

Volta remembered the iron key that the ravens had dropped for her weeks ago, and tried it on the door. Sure enough, it opened. Inside they found heaps of gold coins and treasure...and a single, black coffin. A blow from Volta's axe revealed Strahd, lying in state. With an oath, Cira stepped ahead, drawing a flask of holy water as Zahar put a shaft of ash wood straight through the vampire's heart. Shokk took his head with a blow, and Cira sprinkled the water on his remains. The vampire crumbled to ash. It was over.


Strangely enough, Strahd had a look of peace in his eyes just before Shokk's blade fell.

Outside, the clouds broke and the sun came out, the dark skies lit up as the sun neared the horizon. Night was coming, but for the first time, it was a night without terror. The heroes rang the bell, and it pealed gloriously through the valley beyond. They looted the treasury, finding an enchanted helm, shield, and rod, and managed to shrink the iron tower back into the cube from which it sprang. Their sacks overflowing with gems, jewels, and gold, they made their way down the mountain and back to Barovia.

Come the dawn, they saw the wagons of the Vistani rolling through town. They had others with them as well - Rudolph van Richten and Ezmerelda! The two said their good-byes. Van Richten was leaving, seeking evil elsewhere, while Ezmerelda said she would remain to protect this place, lest Strahd someday return. Madame Eva told them their time here was done. The Vistani were departing and would show them the way. Would Strahd return? She did not know. Did evil ever truly die? If he did, she and her kin would return. But the heroes had brought hope to this land, and that was something sorely needed.

They followed as the mists cleared, and they found themselves on the forest road back to the river and Daggerford. They had returned to the Realms, and to what fate they knew not. But adventure beckoned, and they would answer it's call once more.


The sun had finally risen, and the road beckoned them once more...
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Chapter 25: A Beacon in the Dark
The heroes fled down the road leading to Castle Ravenloft, reaching the upper gates as the sun dipped below the horizon. The sky was overcast and dark, lit only by flashes of lightning and the eerie blue balefire which danced among the gorse and heather lining the steep road. They found Strahd's black coach awaiting them. The silent coachman pointed to them with his driver's whip and the doors to the coach opened. The heroes declined to get in.

With a crack of his whip, the black horses burst into blue flame, consumed until there was nothing left but fiery skeletons drawing the black coach. It charged the heroes, attempting to run them down as the coachman gestured with his whip. A cold chill ran down the heroes' spines as it charged, but they fought back. Cira and Lupin managed to dodge the coach's wheels but Shokk, Volta, and Verity weren't so lucky. Zahar kept well back, and he peppered both driver and horses with arrows. Evan had vanished, along with the dragon's skull, protecting the precious relic. In the end, despite the half-orc barbarian nearly being run down, a blow from Volta's axe shattered the hip of one skeletal horse, sundered the front wheel of the coach, and sent the whole thing into a tumble. It vanished amidst a spray of churned up mud and earth, and the thunder of its wheels was replaced by the roll of the storm overhead.


Because I could not stop for death, he kindly stopped for me...

Barely pausing to catch their breath, the heroes made their way down the road towards Vallaki. They did not pass unmolested. Cira, Evan and Lupin provided light as best they could, but this became a beacon in the night. The group heard the flap of leathery wings overhead, and saw two giant bats descend, accompanied by swarms of normal-sized bats, all with shining eyes and glinting fangs. The two monstrous ones were mounted by warriors in the mail and livery of Strahd's household guard. Like the rest they had seen, these warriors were already dead, their withered flesh clinging tight to iron-hard bones. They brought bows to bear, but the heroes were ready with missiles of their own. Zahar proved to be as good a marksman as he claimed, and his arrows brought one down in a hurry. Verity used a favorite spell to create a pattern of hypnotic, swirling lights that lit up the darkness and brought the huge bats crashing to earth. Volta, Shokk, Lupin and Cira were quick to capitalize on the fallen wights, and brought them low in a hurry.


Giant bats descended from the night sky.

Stopping only long enough to grab the skull, the heroes pressed on to Vallaki. Some honeyed words from Verity got them through the front gates and across town, with the heroes only pausing long enough to bind their wounds and catch their breath. They continued past the Luna River crossroads, running into a shambling horde of zombies along the way! These unnamed dead, victims of tragedies along the road, were no doubt animated by Strahd's necromancy from afar. But Cira called on the holy power of the Morninglord and blasted them all to ashes and dust.

With hardly a pause, the heroes made their way up the long, forested road to Argynvostholt, the seat of the Order of the Silver Dragon. They would return the dragon's skull to its crypt, as they had promised the dead knights who still lingered in the ruined manor. But their way was not clear just yet. Several sets of lambent eyes shone out of the darkness ahead as they reached the front of the ruin. Dire wolves. What meager light came from the moon and the night sky was eclipsed as a shadowy, draconic form flew overhead. It was a dragon of shadow, a living darkness, no doubt called up from the pits of night by Strahd's foul wizardry. A figure sat atop it - a vampire, from the gleam of his eyes and sharp teeth - in dark robes. One of the devil Strahd's dark servants, sent to stop them.


The shadow dragon descended out of the night sky, seeking the dragon's skull and the heroes' deaths.

Exhausted and embattled, the heroes fought against the dire wolves and Strahd's fell servants. The shadow dragon flew in, it's breath a lance of lambent purple flame, searing and rotting flesh. Its wings, claws, tail, and bite tore at them, notably Caxius and Zahar, whose attacks seemed to cause it the most pain. The vampire warlock blasted them with fire and lances of force, but Cira blasted him back with radiant bolts of holy light. In the end, sword and spell laid the dragon low, and its shadow flickered into the dark as the vampire riding it crumbled to dust.

With the way clear, the heroes made their way into the mausoleum behind the manor house and placed the skull to rest. As they did, a beacon of silver light lit in the topmost tower of the great house, shooting skyward. They felt new hope surge into their breasts. As they made their way back into the main hall, Sir Godfrey Gwilym descended the steps. "You have laid my brethren to rest, even Vladimir Horngaard, whose sword you," he nodded to Shokk, "carry. With our master laid to rest, we can rest as well. What arms we had are yours. Seek them in the vault upstairs." With that, he crumbled to dust leaving only his armor behind. Among them they found a scythe-like polearm and a longbow, both enchanted, a shield that could warn its bearer of impending harm, and a breastplate of spell-forged steel. Re-armed and armored, the heroes rested until dawn. With hope in their hearts, they would make their way back to the castle soon enough - and put and end to Strahd!
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Chapter 24: The Hall of Bones
The heroes ascended the steps from Sergei von Zarovich's tomb and resumed their exploration of the crypts beneath Castle Ravenloft. They found a few empty crypts and a couple of traps, one where Volta nearly fell thirty or so feet into a spike-filled pit, and one where Shokk did fall, plunging through an illusory floor into a room filled with ghouls. They found a crypt of king's counselor, whose skull answered a few questions for them. They found the crypts of General Kroval "Mad Dog" Grislek, where a sword wraith and a trio of hell hounds awaited any foolish enough to move the slab aside. They found the crypt of King Droston the Hellborn, and faced tar devils and a clever imp. They also found a crypt with a warning carved above one of its two arches. Caxius stepped in...and the tiefling warlock found himself elsewhere.


General "Mad Dog" Grislek and his hounds of hell.

Caxius had appeared in a tomb, one with black earth covering the floor and a polished coffin of ebony and silver at its center. Three small niches stood to one side, and steps led out the other. As the tiefling touched the coffin, the earth pushed aside in the niches and three beautiful vampires emerged - the brides of Strahd! But Cira, Verity, and Volta stepped through afterwards, and the three living women fought against a trio of dead ones. Shokk figured out where the sounds of combat had come from, and ran that way just behind Evan. Both of them reached a corner leading to the portcullis blocking the entry to the tomb...and vanished! They reappeared in coffins, at the bottom of a shaft beneath one crypt they had already explored and cleared. The dead, charred bodies of wights lay scattered about, and the two were able to climb up out of the place and back into the crypts.

Meanwhile, the vampire brides were momentarily stunned by Cira's presentation of the Holy Symbol of Ravenkind. Gaining the upper hand, the heroes quickly dispatched the unholy trio. Realizing they had found Strahd's tomb, Cira dumped holy water on the earth filling the coffin and said prayers over it. This place would no longer be a sanctuary for the vampire lord. Verity took the jewelry of the dead vampire brides - another thorn to prick Strahd's pride. They found that one of the archways teleported them back to the empty crypt that led Caxius here in the first place, and set about checking the rest of the crypts. They found the crypt of Strahd's steed - a nightmare - but with a word of power and a gesture, Evan banished it back to the infernal realms from which it came.


The brides of Strahd...

That said, the heroes used the knowledge gained from the skull and their map of the castle to find the ossuary. They went up the stairs at the west end of the crypt, exiting on the level with the wine cellar. They made their way to the double doors at the west end of that fog-carpeted hall, and opened them cautiously. The room beyond was covered in bones, everything from digits to thighbones to skulls, set in elaborate patterns in the walls, floor, and ceiling. A table and chairs crafted of bones stood in the center of the long, wide chamber, and most importantly (and impressively) a dragon's skull hung over the door they had just entered! Further, Evan saw something in a vessel crafted from bones on the table - the hilt of a sword! The Sunsword was here!

Ignoring the other doors leading out of the room, Shokk and Volta began trying to take the dragon's skull down. Evan, Verity, and Cira moved further into the room, while Zahar kept watch. Four great pyramidal piles of skulls and bones were here, one to each corner of the room. With a sudden clacking and clattering, the piles rushed together, forming a massive heap of bones moving as one! Great limbs of bones and skulls unfurled from the massive thing as it rolled forward on skulls. It brought limbs as big as tree branches down with bone-shattering force, scattering the heroes and rolling over the top of them in a wave of crushing, scraping, and piercing bones.


The thing was a necronaut, a juggernaut formed from the bones of the dead, and it nearly stopped the heroes' quest once and for all.

But the heroes fought back, Shokk and Volta rushing in with sweeping blades as Verity struck with the blessed thighbone of St. Markovia. Cira cast holy light at the thing, and Evan blasted it with fire and force. Zahar conjured arrows of shadow to distract the monstrous undead thing, and Caxius blasted away with bolts of eldritch force. Though battered, bruised, and nearly crushed beneath the weight of the thing, the heroes scattered the bones about the room, ending the creature's unholy animation.

With the skull in hand, they made their way back up the spiral steps - only to be stopped by a stone wall in the middle of the steps! But Cira called upon a prayer to the elements, and shaped a hole in the wall big enough for them to pass through. They continued up into the great hall, and ran for the doors. Gargoyles began to come to life, and the dragon statues in the foyer animated, breathing gouts of flame! But scorched or no, the heroes ran for the castle gates. It seemed Strahd wished them to stay, but they refused his hospitality.

Regrouping on the road to Castle Ravenloft, the heroes had the great silver dragon's skull at last! And they had recovered the Sunsword. Their next stop: Argynvostholt!
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Chapter 22: Betrayal
The heroes opted for another course of action. Time, they felt, was pressing in on them. A return to Castle Ravenloft was in order. Apart from a brief and unsuccessful ambush by a group of hillfolk barbarians - the leader of which was bald and strangely pale - the way to Strahd's home was clear of obstruction. No black carriage awaited them at the Gates of Ravenloft this time, and they saw strange, ghostly figures in the mist and rain off the road. When the heroes arrived at the castle, they found the drawbridge down and the gates open wide.

Making their way in through the entry hall, they turned down the small corridor by the dining hall where they had dinner with the count, and this time descended the small, spiral staircase. They hoped to reach the crypts and find either Strahd's coffin or more weapons to use against the vampire monarch. They passed the corridor where the elevator trap had nearly led them to their doom, and found themselves in a passage flooded to chest height. It had doors to either side halfway down its 50-foot length, and ended in an open archway.

As Shokk, Volta, and Cira made their way down the corridor, the half-orc paladin and the human cleric found traps the hard way. Their was an upward explosion of air from beneath the surface of the water, and both were sucked down into trapdoors - only to disappear! Momentarily disoriented, they found themselves submerged in cells on the same side of a small corridor. There were more cells on the other side, their iron bars slightly rusted but surprisingly solid. Shokk managed to force the door on his cell, but Cira could not. A rotted corpse hung in the bars of her cell.


Emil Toranescu before...

Meanwhile, Volta had edged around the submerged pit, and forced the door on the south side of the hall. It revealed a small corridor, fronted on both sides by iron barred cells. A quick shout greeted her. "Who is there? Can you free me?!" A tall, bald, dark-skinned man was in a cell just to the left of the door, and he introduced himself as Emil Toranescu. He said he'd been imprisoned here after stumbling into the castle.


...and after.

As that happened, Kyne made his way carefully ahead, avoiding the pits and looking for trapdoors. He found one the hard way, and materialized underwater in a cell at the end of the south hall. He shouted for aid, and Volta began to wade towards him. Caxius was doing likewise on the other side of the main corridor, and also disappeared, ending up in a cell directly across from Cira. Shokk had forced the bars on his cell, shattering the lock, and waded across the flooded hall to Caxius. Cira had used magic to re-shape the very stones of the castle, exiting through a tunnel beneath the bars of her cell into that same side corridor.

They discovered they were not alone. A strange, opalescent ooze with broken bones grinding about inside it slurped along the ceiling of the south corridor, just bypassing Kyne as it moved towards Volta. She had remembered where she had heard the name Toranescu before: Zuleika Toranescu, the female werewolf who had thought her husband slain by Strahd - this must be him! "I know who your wife is!" She replied. But this triggered a dire change in the man. He began to transform into a werewolf himself! As Caxius rose in his watery cell, a massive figure of bone, sinew, and long, razor-sharp claws rose out of the water behind him. Another rose in a cell near the entry to the north hall, which had been forced by Cira.

A brief but intense battle was fought in the two dungeon halls. Emil tore his cell open, even as Volta and Kyne managed to blast the ooze to bits. Cira called upon holy guardian spirits as Shokk brought his sword and Caxius his scythe to bear on the boneclaws. They found scattered coins underwater in one cell, and a glow in another revealed a further treasure - a longsword, it's bright steel blade shining in the dark. This crusader's sword had a spirit within, and its ever-sharp blade cast a brilliant radiance. Cira took the blade as her own, and it somehow seemed right.


The boneclaws had terribly long claws...

The heroes made their way into the next chamber after catching their breath. It was a flooded torture chamber, overlooked by a balcony on the north wall. A red curtain covered an entry at the rear of the balcony. As the heroes made their way around the half-buried implements of torture, a voice chuckled above. It was a woman wearing pale leather, leather made from human skin, and a hooded, crimson cloak. "I see Strahd has guests. Good. I've been looking for more subjects in my experiments." Rotting corpses rose from the water and shambled forward, half a dozen of them. Two hulking figures with mottled and patched gray skin and long, clawed hands came forward as well, each nearly twice the height of a man - golems, stitched together from dead flesh.


The necromancer's handiwork.

As Cira raised the holy symbol of Ravenkind, forcing some of the zombies back, Volta surged forward through the waist-deep water and attacked one of the dead flesh constructs. Caxius grabbed Shokk, and both reappeared on the balcony, but not before the female necromancer had blasted the party with a chill wind, nearly freezing the surface of the water as well as their flesh. They raced through the curtain and found her on the other side of an odd, stone brazier burning with silver flame. Iron statues of horsemen stood on either side of the small room in alcoves, and as the half-orc paladin moved through, they began to move!

It was a terrible fight on two fronts as Verity, Volta, Kyne, and Cira battled the flesh golems and zombies below, while Shokk and Caxius were horribly outmatched by these iron golems and the female necromancer above. Although Shokk managed to slay the evil woman with his magic blade, both he and Caxius were nearly laid low. Cira managed to call upon her holy power to fortify and heal her comrades, but against all odds and all reason - Kyne turned on the rest of his friends! Using the powers granted him in the Amber Temple, the rogue-turned-warlock blasted them with cold, threw out necromantic curses, and nearly laid his comrades low.

Verity almost fled, her resolve almost destroyed. But she could not - no, WOULD not - let this betrayal stand. With a word and a charm, she froze Kyne in his tracks and brought out the razor-sharp magic axe they had taken from Izek Strazni weeks ago, and brought Kyne low with a pair of deadly slashes. But this was not the end of him. The water bubbled and roiled, and a new, dragon-like humanoid rose. But the bard could see it in the creature's eyes - this was Kyne, returned to life! He grabbed the sword from his old body's hands, snatched the pouch from the corpse's belt, and dove under the water to disappear. Meanwhile, the other heroes had rallied and defeated the iron golems despite nearly being slain by Kyne's treachery.

Hurt, shocked, and seeking answers, the heroes withdrew. They ran headlong for the gates of Castle Ravenloft and headed for Barovia. Maybe they would find answers. Why had Kyne betrayed them? What had happened to the fabulous Sunsword? How could they defeat Strahd?!
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Chapter 21: The Towers of Ravenloft
The heroes continued up the spiral stairs that had brought them to the office of the king's accountant. The next landing led into a short hall with two alcoves flanking an ornate steel door. As Shokk approached the door he saw two dark man-shaped figures, one standing in either alcove. With a gleam of red eyes, both figures collapsed into a swarm of rats! The rats surged forward and down the stair, biting at everyone. Shokk and Volta swept the swarms with their two-handed weapons while they stomped and smashed themselves and dozens of rats into the walls. Kyne swung about with the sunsword, incinerating rats by the score, while Caxius, Cira, and Verity used magic to blast and burn the rats away.


RATS!

With the vermin cleared out, they entered what appeared to be a dining room set for some sort of reception. A large, moldy, green-tinged wedding cake stood atop the table, listing precariously to one side. The small wooden image of a bride sat atop the cake, while the groom lay upon the floor, covered in dust. A harp stood in one corner, while a lute was on a table in the other corner. Verity investigated the lute, and found it remarkably clean and in tune - and enchanted! She played the harp, and a spectral figure materialized, that of a dwarfish man in the livery of jester. "I was Pidlwick the fool," the phantom said, "and my treasure lies in the tower above. I died falling down the stairs...." As the figure faded, Volta picked up the figure of the groom and put it back atop the cake.

That was a mistake. As the half-orc barbarian did so, the window to the battlements - where Shokk was standing - blew open in a cold draft of air. Verity and Volta both felt a chill close around their hearts. There was a presence there, an invisible presence! Verity cast a spell that rained fey flames down on the area, surrounding two invisible forms in flickering, spectral fire. One appeared to be a man, the other a woman, their phantasmal features contorted in fear and rage. With blows from enchanted blades and spells, the two spirits were dispelled.

Leaving through a door across from the one they had entered by, the heroes entered a bath chamber with an adjoining walk-in closet or dressing room. As Volta, Shokk, Caxius, and Verity went into the closet, Kyne and Cira went to investigate the tub...which was filled with blood. As Kyne approached, the liquid exploded upward and a figure shot up to the ceiling. It was a woman, nude, her pale skin and long, dark hair drenched with blood and her features distorted. Her hair reached down to lash at Kyne, wrap around him, and pull him to the ceiling where she raked at him with long nails and reached to kiss him, filling his mouth (but fortunately not his lungs) with blood. A hail of steel and spells greeted this foe, and she was brought low in moments. The horrid apparition and the blood vanished. The heroes grabbed a few capes from the closet to replace their own rain-soaked garb and went through a set of double doors on their right.

The room beyond was large, clean, opulently furnished...and occupied. A figure rose from a canopied bed along the far wall. It was a young woman with dark hair and wide, innocent eyes. "Who are you?" She asked, "Did Strahd send you?" The young woman, barely little more than girl, introduced herself as Gertruda. With a start, Cira realized this was the daughter of Mad Mary, who had wept so bitterly after her daughter back in the village of Barovia. The young lady was reluctant to trust the heroes and did not wish to leave. "Strahd has been very kind to me. He treats me like a woman, not a little girl. I won't go with you!" That changed when Caxius enchanted her with a simple spell. The heroes had decided - they must leave with her and now!


The innocent and unfortunate Gertruda.

They made their way back to a window and climbed out on to the parapet surrounding the upper floor of the castle. Making their way around to the side that faced the gates, they tied ropes together, secured them to a battlement, and prepared to climb down. Kyne was down first, with Shokk right behind. The burly half-orc paladin carried the girl. That is when things went horribly awry.

A cold wind flashed past Shokk, and Gertruda was lifted off his back and carried to the top of a corner tower, 40 feet up off the walkway. A dark figure stood there. Strahd! He sneered down at the heroes. "You cannot take what is mine!" He snarled, and with savage fury he tore the girl's throat out with his fangs and flung her body from the tower to the courtyard 120 feet below. He then hurled a fireball into the party, the explosion burning away Shokk's rope, and the paladin narrowly avoided a plunge 80 feet to the courtyard when he grabbed the nearest crenelation. The battle was joined, though the heroes were hard pressed. Caxius grabbed Volta, and the two vanished, reappearing next to Strahd. With a bit of magic, Shokk joined them. Verity enchanted Cira, allowing the cleric to fly closer, the Holy Symbol of Ravenkind burning with bright sunlight.


Strahd joined them in battle atop the towers of Castle Ravenloft. Things did not go well for the heroes...

But their spells and blades were not enough. Shokk was thrown from the tower, and only his supernatural vitality enabled him to survive. Volta was horribly wounded, and Cira was brought low by Strahd's bite. If she had survived that, the fall to the courtyard was her death. Verity was nearly dead, and Kyne had fled over the wall, hiding from the dark lord. But Strahd had enough for now. "Flee with your lives! Know that I am your master!" Perhaps the sunlight and the wounding dealt by Volta's magical greataxe had taken their toll; perhaps not. Shokk used a prayer and managed to restore life to Cira, whose soul had not quite fled. But the heroes fled for now, managing to lower the drawbridge and regroup outside the walls of Castle Ravenloft.

They returned to the village of Barovia, joined later by Kyne, who had hidden. They rested, determined that they would first head to Vallaki, then perhaps to Krezk, and gather supplies and reinforcements. They were not done with Strahd. Nor, they knew, was Strahd done with them...
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Chapter 19: A Light in the Darkness
The heroes rested again, trying to digest what they had learned in Castle Ravenloft. Again, Shokk was tormented by nightmares and unable to rest. They realized this was the work of Morgantha, the night hage, who had escaped justice at the Bonegrinder. They cast a spell of protection on Shokk, who was able to rest during the day as the others made preparations. They went to the trading post, but found its owner Bildrath as canny and greedy as ever he was. They still managed to purchase a few vials and began preparing holy water for their war against Strahd. Ismark had mentioned some strange lights that had been seen south of Barovia village, and wondered if the hag was responsible. Seeing no other immediate alternative to finding her, the heroes decided to investigate.

They crossed the Ivlis River near dusk, and quickly saw the woods had taken on a strange aspect. The trees and undergrowth were lush and appeared overripe, and there was the smell of ash and rot in the air. A strange, phosphorescent glow was just visible in the dark of the woods. The area was quiet, as if all animal life had vanished. The heroes latched on to a weedy trail and found a small farmhouse. It belonged to Andrej and Lavinia Moldovar and their farmhands. A couple of mangy looking mastiffs were tied up outside, and the farmhands and Andrej had an unhealthy look. He nevertheless invited the heroes inside and offered them a meal and a place to stay, as it was growing dark.

The heroes asked Andrej about the strange lights and what had happened to the plants and animals. He told them a strange light had fallen from the sky many days ago, and ever since his plants had begun to grow. It had fallen near an old well on his property. He also warned the heroes they should not go there, and to ware the woods for there were wolves. The heroes talked of retiring to his barn for the evening, but Verity let slip they would go to check the well first thing. This was apparently the wrong thing to say, as one of the farmhands flew into a berserk fury and charged her with an axe! The dogs went wild, and Andrej came out, two axes in hand. "Leave the well alone!" It turned out Lavinia was one of the Barovian witches, and she turned her spells on them from the back door of their hovel. The fight was brief but bloody, and the farmhands, the dogs, Andrej, and his wife all crumbled to ash with a spark of strangely-colored flame as they died. Something had happened to them.

And it happened to Shokk and Volta. They had become listless, and unwilling to leave the area. Fortunately the well was close by, and the heroes made their way to it through the overgrown woods. A strange color, one they could not identify, glowed like witchfire around the trees and from the boarded-up well. As they drew closer to it, Shokk, Volta, Cira, and Caxius approached the well and knocked the boards off. A strange illumination washed up the shaft, and Verity and Caxius felt drained and weak afterwards. It turned out they were not alone. Cira saw a form moving through the woods, and a massive, malformed wolf charged out and attacked!


[I]The strange color rose from the well in a cloud of unearthly radiance.[/I]

As the heroes turned to battle it, the color rose from the well in an unearthly cloud. It was alive. A diabolical intelligence, non-corporeal, and with a touch that was deadly. It crept up behind Cira, and its touch disintegrated her cloak. She would have died herself had she not side-stepped at the right moment. Caught between the two foes, Volta and Shokk concentrated on the wolf as Cira and Caxius tore at the cloud of color with magic, using radiance and force to disperse its essence. In a matter of moments, both were destroyed, and the threat had passed. The heroes made their way back to the village to rest.

Shokk slept fine. Cira had terrible nightmares that night, and felt as if she hadn't rested at all. The night hag was back. With little recourse, they chose to set out for Vallaki and speak with Father Lucian at St. Andal's Church. Perhaps they could get some help there. They had a strange encounter on the road - a swarm of red-winged butterflies flew up around them at the bridge crossing the Tser Falls. Butterflies with stinging, poisonous bites as it turned out. They were joined by a dark figure swooping down out of the clouds, a monstrosity of skulls, bones, and flesh shaped to look like a monstrous, winged insect. No doubt a creation of Stahd! This deadly, flying wing tore at the heroes with razor-edged bones as its gaze withered their souls. but once again Cira's heaven-sent radiance proved the undead fiend's undoing.

Licking their wounds, the heroes pressed on to Vallaki. They met with Father Lucian, who had no spells or miracles to take them to the ethereal realm where the night hag could haunt their dreams. But he could offer them sanctuary in the blessed walls of St. Andral's church. The heroes opted to rest there overnight, planning their next move...
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Chapter 17: Return to the Bonegrinder
The heroes had begun their descent down Tsolenka Pass, the treasures looted from the Amber Temple in tow in an old, bronze chariot they had found there. The wood, stone, and iron construct Caxius had found and assumed control of hauled the loot, while Evan and the tiefling warlock rode in the vehicle. Nearing the bridge which spanned a wide gorge plunging fully 500 feet to the river below, they saw the shadow of giant wings overhead. It was a monstrous vulture, bigger than a farmhouse! Verity had heard a couple of drunken Barovians tell a tale of a great titan, who stole the secret of fire from Morninglord, and been chained to Mount Baratok to have his heart torn out by a great vulture every night at dusk. The bard didn't know if the tale were true, but the huge beast was real enough.

It swooped down, and would've sliced Kyne in half with its beak if the pale, mask-wearing rogue had been a whit slower. Merely slashed, he staggered back as Volta and Shokk were swept up by its talons. Thinking fast, Verity used a charm to create a pattern of shifting lights in the vulture's path. Hypnotically enthralled, the great bird's flight stalled and it crashed into the opposite wall of the gorge and then plunged into the river below, Shokk and Volta in tow. The two half-orc warriors managed to let the great beast take the brunt of the impact, and dodging its talons as it attempted to take wing, cut it down with axe and greatsword. Caxius used his magical gifts to jaunt down to them, then grant Shokk the ability to scale the cliff like a spider, hauling he and Volta up thanks to his great strength.


The giant vulture swooped down, its wings like the shadow of death falling over the party....

The group opted to return to Kresk, and spoke briefly with the burgomaster and rest for the night. They decided to forgo confronting the Abbot, despite the reading they had received from Madame Eva a couple of weeks ago, feeling that Clovin Belview was not yet needed. They headed back towards Vallaki, and were ambushed by a group of Vistani cutthroats led by none other than Arrigal! The sly assassin had some endgame in mind as he tried to kill Kyne and steal the glowing blade the rogue carried. But the group turned the tables and dispatched the Vistani once and for all.

The road to Vallaki was clear after that, and the heroes rested there only briefly before pressing on to the Bonegrinder, the old windmill that Kyne had found the deed to long ago. The home of the hags who had been grinding up children for their dream pies. And the heroes had come back to end their evil. The way was fraught with some peril, as they were attacked by a pack of ghostly wolves. But the heroes made it there with little delay.

The place was as decrepit as they remembered, through there were now three goats outside, munching contentedly on the pale grass. The heroes were cautious, but were still caught off-guard as an eight-foot-tall figure stepped out of the woods unseen and nearly took Verity down with a swipe of his axe! It was the "nephew" the heroes had fought - and killed - before. As that happened, Caxius approached one of the goats, which promptly charged him. As it did, it transformed into a goat-headed, hunched humanoid that pulled a long, heavy branch off a nearby tree. The two others transformed, and battle was joined on all sides. In the end a blow from Volta's axe hooked the sack-like hood covering "nephew's" face, revealing a monstrous zombie, lips and eyes stitched together, an instant before that same axe took its head from its shoulders. The three demons fell as well, and the heroes moved into the mill.


The Bonegrinder....

They were caught off guard as a blast of lightning ripped through them, and a hag with warty green skin appeared. Another, more than 7 feet tall herself, appeared behind Shokk as he went up the stairs and grabbed him with iron-hard arms. The last, familiar for her dark purple skin and horrid features, appeared from nowhere and blasted the group with more dark magic. The coven of hags had made their presence known, and the heroes were in trouble. But they swiftly turned the tides! Shokk even managed to leap out a second story window and tackle Morgantha as she flew outside the tower! With her two daughters slain, she vanished, vowing revenge. The heroes opted to head to the standing stones nearby, and rested the night there.

Of course, the night did not pass quietly, as they were attacked by a single revenant - the head of the Order of the Silver Dragon had come back for his sword. Of course he now wore the body of a teenage girl, clad in scraps of rusty mail and wielding a notched and rusted greatsword nearly as big as his new frame. But Shokk met the dead thing head on, and managed to drop him low once more. But it was only a matter of time before he came back...
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Chapter 15: The Amber Temple, Part 2
The heroes pressed on, making their way to the next sealed amber door. Although Kyne was unable to disable the enchantments sealing the portal, Volta and Shokk had enough muscle to breach the door. Beyond, another small chamber with a blue, marble floor held three large, amber sarcophagi in niches. Evan lit the room with a burst of fire which, strangely enough, caused Kyne to flinch back as if the rogue was now afraid of fire. Perhaps the bargains he had made with the vestiges in the amber sarcophagi had more of an effect than he let on.

There were other horrors here as well - strange, thin humanoids clad in organic armor sculpted from black resin. They crawled down the walls and attacked from surprise, slashing at the heroes with ribbon-like blades and blasting at them with spells. But the heroes rallied and fought back, and soon the armored figures were all dead. They rotted away quickly, leaving only the crumbling black resin of their arms and armor behind. Kyne, Verity, and Caxius investigated each sarcophagus, and Kyne took more and more power into himself. Each bargain left him with a new and even more horrible sign of the unholy power that he had taken into himself. The others began to look on him with suspicion...and fear.


Kaorti, once human, now monstrous things from the Far Realm.

As they exited into the hall, the heroes heard cackling voices. "What have we here? Others come to loot the Amber Temple? Thieves, vagabonds, and rascals?" A trio of women with green, warty skin, long, sharp nails, and all wearing ragged, dark robes and carrying - of all things - brooms, entered the hall from another room. A trio of witches, no doubt here for arcane lore. The heroes wasted little time with words, as the three witches tried to hex them. Blades and spells made short work of the witches and their animated brooms, and the heroes searched the two remaining rooms on that side of the hall. All they found was a massive construct, fully 10 feet tall, in one of the side rooms. It was crafted of wood and iron, and could no doubt move, but was not animate. Caxius saw a sigil crafted on the back of its helmet-like head, and made note of it. Perhaps they could find something about it in another room.

As they crossed the great hall and made their way into the west passage, the heroes chose to ignore the double doors at the far end and the near end of the chamber. One of the far sets of doors had been breached, though the other two were still sealed. Time enough to explore more later. As they entered the west hall, Caxius and Shokk saw a strange radiance emanating down the passage, reflecting off the amber-glazed walls. Rounding the corner into the hall running parallel to the main chamber, they saw a small, humanoid figure levitating in front of a breached vault door on the north end of the passage. It turned to face them. It had hair like flowing silver flame, purple-black skin that shone with points of radiance like stars, and its eyes and mouth glowed with fiery radiance. It looked at them, whispering words in some alien tongue. But its intent was clear, and it was as if they could hear its voice in their minds. It said, "Die!"


The shining child was a waif of the outer darkness. It had not come to play.

Shining beams of radiant fire lanced at the pair, and with a wave of its hand, the creature created a wall of shimmering, rainbow colors that cut the corridor in half. It passed back through the wall as the others rushed in. They narrowly avoided being blinded by the shimmering curtain of light, and saw the small creature pass back and forth through it, lancing about with beams of star-fire and a touch that seared like the sun. Evan realized it had created a Prismatic Wall with the barest of efforts, but the gnome wizard knew that certain spells could bring it down. He, Caxius, Kyne, Verity, and Cira hammered at it with spell after spell, and color after color vanished. Volta and Shokk absorbed hits from the creature as best they could, with Volta's axe slashing it time and again, causing drops of burning blood to fall as the enchantment on the blade wounded the small aberration. In the end, the wall collapsed, and without its protection, the two half-orcs' blades and Verity's hand crossbow made short work of the creature.

The heroes moved to explore the breached vault, and found that one of the sarcophagi had been destroyed by some unimaginable force. An eye opened in the air, and tentacles reached out of nothingness to grab at them, but arrows, spells, and blades quickly forced whatever hid in the empty air to withdraw, seeming vanishing back into the outer dark. More sarcophagi, more pacts...and more suspicion. More rooms were explored, with nothing of value found. Yet another vault was found, one filled with one-eyed, hunched, humanoids - nothics - that were defeated in short order. More sarcophagi, more pacts. Kyne appeared less and less human. More rooms. Whatever scholars or wizards ran this temple, they had left little behind, and it had been long ago by the state of the place. Making their way back upstairs, the heroes confronted the wizard's apprentice, Vilnius, about his master's staff. Evan decided he was keeping it, and threats were made. Vilnius shrugged off a charm spell cast at him by Caxius, and opted to act! It cost him his life, as though he had esacped with a simple Misty Step spell and blasted the party with a Lightning Bolt, Caxius caught up and paralyzed him with a Hold Person enchantment. There was nothing magical about Verity's crossbow bolt to the back of his head, but it ended the fight pretty quickly. Remaining upstairs for the nonce, the heroes rested and and healed before making their way downstairs.


The Eye of Fear and Flame harrowed the party with fear. And flame. And hell hounds.

The heroes found another vault, with a robed skeleton inside. It cackled, urging Kyne to commit dark deeds, and when he refused, it raised its head. One eye socket held a ruby, the other a black sapphire. It blasted the party with fire and fear, and summoned hell hounds to do its bidding. The heroes faced a tough battle with this one, barely prevailing as the thing fell to a well-placed bolt.

The heroes made their way back upstairs, finding an old laboratory of some sort. Evan was able to reconstitute a handful of potions. Another room held a scale model of a castle, one Volta recognized as Castle Ravenloft! With foresight aplenty, the heroes made a map of the castle, which would likely be handy when they chose to confront Strahd. A few rooms yet remained. The heroes pressed on, looking for more knowledge and weapons to help with their impending battle against Strahd....
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Chapter 14: The Amber Temple
The night passed, and when the heroes awoke, they found wolf tracks in the snow around their magical shelter. "I'll follow them for a bit, and make sure that nothing is lying in wait for us," Lupin told the rest, and the ranger took off. The rest of the heroes descended the narrow stair in the cliff face into the cold darkness of the Amber Temple. They passed arrow slits set in the walls and exited the steps onto a huge balcony overlooking a vast, dark chamber. Caxius could see a 40-foot high statue of a hooded, robed figure at the far end. Amber-sheathed double doors stood to either end of the balcony, the set on the east side ajar. Steps led down from either side of the balcony north to the floor of the vast chamber.

The heroes opted to explore the door to the east, and beyond found a chamber with doors leading off to the north and a 10-foot diameter hole in the floor on the chamber's far side. Caxius and Shokk went over to examine it, and the tiefling warlock saw a single, huge eye staring back up at him - along with ten smaller eyes! He drew back, shouting, "Something is below!" As he did, the heroes readied and saw a massive, spherical form rise into the room. It had an armored hide, a maw full of sharp teeth, a single central eye, and ten smaller eyes on stalks - a beholder!


The heroes found that terror had eyes only for them in the Amber Temple.

The aberration unleashed rays that cracked and disintegrated stone, instilled terror and froze the body and mind, and half a dozen other horrible things. A beam of anti-magic swept out from the central eye, and Cira, Evan, and Caxius could feel their magical powers vanish under its cold touch. But Volta, Shokk, and Cira stood shoulder-to-shoulder around the gaping hole, striking with axe and sword, as Kyne and Verity stood back and launched missiles at the beholder. Though wounded by its eye rays, the heroes managed to triumph as the beholder did not have the space to maneuver out of their reach.

The massive corpse fell below, into a chamber tiled with red marble. But the heroes decided to wait, and check the chambers above first. Quite by accident, Shokk and Caxius found a secret chamber to the south of that room as they tried securing a rope to a torch sconce, only for it to turn out to be the handle of secret door! They found a small room beyond with many small holes in the walls, each designed to store scrolls. Evan and Verity joined them in searching, and they found three enchanted parchments.

Volta had gone through the doors leading north however, and found a hall with a cracked floor. Doors stood ajar at the far end, and doors to the east halfway up opened into a small auditorium of some sort, with red marble benches on tiers that led down to small floor surmounted by an obsidian lectern and a massive square of slate hanging on the far wall. The half-orc barbarian sensed movement behind the lectern and called out, and a man with singed garments and badly-healing burns on one side of his face and scalp came out. He was nervous, and worried about the thing outside. After she told him they had slain the beholder, he shuddered and said, "no, the thing that cracked the floor!"

Just then, the doors on the far end opened and an amber statue with the head of a jackal stomped out, the stone floor cracking even more beneath its massive weight. With a cry of alarm, she charged the amber golem with her axe and the rest rushed in to hack, shoot at, and blast the construct. Though it pounded at Volta, Cira, and Shokk with massive fists, it fell beneath their combined blows and spells.


Inside the Amber Temple.

Beyond the northernmost doors, they found a half-collapsed room and a door that led west onto a balcony overlooking the vast hall and the statue, the floor of which was 30 feet below. Shokk and Caxius tied off a rope and readied to climb down, when a voice boomed out from the statue. "WHO HAS COME TO THE AMBER TEMPLE? WHAT DO YOU SEEK HERE? WHAT WILL YOU PROVIDE IN OBEISANCE FOR KNOWLEDGE?" Evan and Cira had made their way back around to the steps leading down, Verity remained in the hall to the east of the main floor, looking down through an arrow slit, and Volta had moved out onto the balcony as Shokk and Caxius climbed down.

"Uh, how about some scrolls?" The half-orc paladin suggested. Caxius meanwhile used his devil's sight to scan the face of the statue, and saw past the magical darkness that shrouded the interior of the hood. A pair of eye slits led into a small chamber in the statue's head, and he saw a figure looking back. Numbing pain shot through his mind as he resisted a spell that would have left him a drooling idiot, and he shouted "We are under attack!"

As Caxius grabbed Shokk and magically teleported inside the statue's head, a pair of lights appeared in arrow slits on the far side of the hall, in what had to be another corridor overlooking the main temple floor. A pair of flaming skulls looked down, and began to blast at Cira, Volta, and Evan with spells of force and flame. The gnome wizard launched a fireball spell back at them, placing it through the arrow slit with ease, only to realize they were immune to fire! Caxius and Shokk meanwhile found an old man with rose-tinted spectacles wearing robes in the small chamber atop the statue. He visibly quailed as they appeared, and introduced himself as Heinreich Stott ,and said he was simply guarding the Amber Temple as he sought knowledge of his own. "I simply wanted some supplies," he said morosely. He escorted them down a spiral stair that led down to a secret door in the base of the statue at the rear. And when they got there, he cast a spell on Shokk that caused the paladin's armor to begin heating up, slammed the door behind them, and locked it!


"Heinrich Stott" was not a harmless old man after all...

The battle raged out front, and the "harmless old man" appeared back in the statue's head. Volta tried to climb in the eye slit as Evan cast a spell that would paralyze a humanoid...only for it to fail! "He's not human!" Evan yelled, and the figure wavered and re-appeared on the floor of the main temple hall. He was an orange-furred humanoid with a fox's head, horns, clawed hands, and the same robes and rosy spectacles. "He's a fiend!" The gnome wizard yelled. The flameskulls, meanwhile, rained down fireballs and magic missiles on the party as arrows and eldritch blasts struck at them. Cira, Volta, and Shokk charged at the arcanaloth fiend, but he vanished again, appearing on the balcony overhead as he blasted them with a chain lightning spell. Evan had cast a haste spell on Shokk however, and the armored half-orc nimbly sped up the rope, hopped onto the balcony, and cut the fiend down with three rapid smites from his enchanted greatsword. The flameskulls followed after, as Verity shattered them with well-placed crossbow bolts.

Pausing for a short rest, and remembering the apprentice wizard - Vilinius - had told them his master perished in the far hall, burned to death by flaming skulls, they went up to investigate. Unfortunately they found a band of hillfolk barbarians camped in the room on the west side of the balcony. They were gathering up their supplies to leave, and a quick and bloody fight broke out. It was cut dramatically short by one of Evan's fireball spells, and Volta's bloodthirsty greataxe.

In the hall beyond, they found a pair of skeletons that rose up and burst into flames, hurling fire and clawing at them with burning talons. But the heroes cut them down in short order, and found the body of the wizard who had perished there, lying in a charred heap near the door. His spellbook was burned to crumbling ash, but a blue crystal staff underneath him radiated power. Evan identified in as a Staff of Frost, and Caxius claimed it, "For now." He said evenly. "I am sure we will give it back to this apprentice when we have defeated Strahd." A curious look in his eye gave something of a lie to his words...

The heroes made their way back to the side chamber where they had dispatched the beholder, and climbed down into a red-tiled room set with three alcoves and a door on the north side of the wall. All were carved from amber. As Kyne examined one of the sarcophagi, a voice in his mind offered him power, in the name of Fekre, Queen of Poxes. The others had offers as well, and he and Caxius took the voices on their promise of power. Strange signs appeared on their faces and in their voices, marking them as tools of these forgotten entities, vestiges of power. Kyne was able to undo the enchantment holding the door shut, at least temporarily, and they made their way into the hall beyond, where more doors like this one beckoned...
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Chapter 13: Tsolenka Pass
The heroes prepared to bed down for the night in the Abbey of St. Markovia. The Abbot told them the only place available would be the old hospital wing, on the other side of the courtyard. "I am afraid we have scant other accommodations. Be cautious, for darkness lingers there. And please, do not harm any of the Belview family. They are much like children to me." With those warnings, the group made its way into the other part of the abbey.

They heard mad laughter, cries, and shouts from down a long hall leading off an entry chamber. Stairs led up to second level, but Volta saw a large form shuffling down the hall. Hopefully, she tossed a wooden ball with a bell inside bounding down the darkened corridor. A large, patchwork form of mismatched body parts stitched together and given monstrous life shamble down the hall, grunting unintelligibly. It became agitated, and moved forward, fists raised in anger. Shokk moved to intercede as Volta, Caxius, and Kyne raced back across the courtyard to get the Abbot. Cira attempted to cow the brute as Evan hid and Verity headed up the stairs to make sure they weren't caught in an ambush. As that happened, nearly a dozen starving mongrelfolk charged out of one of the cells down the hall, all clutching sharpened bones and rocks. These members of the Belview family were hungry, and looked at the heroes like meat had just been put on the menu.


Maddened screams and laughter echoed down the dark halls of the sanitorium in St. Markovia's Abbey.

Evan created an illusion of the Abbot as Shokk, Lupin, and Cira cowed the mongrelfolk and pushed the flesh golem back. The rest arrived with the Abbot in tow, and with eyes flashing celestial fire and shadowy wings spreading out behind him, he told the inhabitants of the sanitarium to behave. They shuffled off, returning to their rooms. He apologized to the heroes, and thanked them for showing discretion. With that, the heroes headed upstairs. They found an old office with one door that led to a hospital ward, and another that led to a parapet around the courtyard. Shokk, Caxius, and Lupin explored the hospital, only to be attacked shadows of the dead. Enchanted blades and ki-focused strikes made short work of them. They explored a trio of rooms beyond, finding nothing, though Lupin saw a raven land on the sill of a window overlooking the abbey's garden. It cawed and flew off, to land on a scarecrow below.

As he and Volta went back downstairs and outside to investigate the scarecrow, Cira and Verity prepared the room for a rest while Caxius, Evan, and Shokk found another room on the same building accessed by a door from the parapet. They found old, half-rotting bunks inside, and Caxius found a dagger at his throat as a woman stepped out of the shadows! She was a Vistani woman in riding leathers, armed with sword, axe, and dagger. She also had a cunningly crafted wooden leg. After asking them a few, serious questions and learning the heroes were opposed to Strahd, she introduced herself as Ezmerelda d'Avenir, a monster hunter.

Meanwhile Volta and Lupin had found, of all things, a russet-colored bag stuffed into the guts of the scarecrow. The shifter monk reached inside and found a furry lump that, when he pulled it forth, rapidly grew into a bear! Volta used her primal empathy to intuit the bear was friendly and would obey Lupin's commands. Overjoyed, he rode it back to the Abbey. Once there, introduction were made. Verity remembered the werewolves that attacked outside the tower by Lake Baratok spoke of a huntress, and Ezmerelda confirmed it was her. Indeed, she had lost her lower leg to those same werewolves years before. They also learned the wagon was hers, and that she knew the tower's owner - Rudolph van Richten - though she hadn't seen him in years. After learning he was in Vallaki, she told the heroes she would travel there, though they were more than welcome to ride with her.


Ezmerelda d'Avenir was easily as dangerous as she was beautiful. Which is saying a lot.

The heroes had other plans, though. They talked with the Abbot the following morning about having Cyrus Belview accompany them as Madame Eva's Tarokka reading showed that a two-headed musician would be their greatest ally against Strahd. He refused flatly, becoming somewhat angry. "As I said, I view them as my children. I would not have any of the Belviews ride into danger! I will give Strahd what he needs, and his threat will be ended. Do not ask again!" Cautiously, the heroes left the Abbey of St. Markovia, determined to head to the Amber Temple for more answers about Strahd and the Abbot. Ezmerelda went with them as far as the Raven River Crossroads, and said a temporary farewell. The heroes headed south, up the side of the mountain, to Tsolenka Pass and the Amber Temple beyond. Apart from a band of peasants hunting late in the afternoon, they found little until the reached the pass.

Snow had begun to fall, and the road had become a ribbon clinging to a ledge along a great cliff. A sheer drop-off was to the other side, and the way treacherous at times. They came to a thirty-foot high black wall pierced by a single portcullis blocking the road. A curtain of green flame burned across the far side, past the iron portcullis, and huge statues of vulture-like demons stood atop the two gate towers. Beyond, they saw a single white tower surmounted by several large, gold statues along the side of the road, overlooking the valley beyond. As Kyne approached the portcullis, it opened of its own accord. With a bold leap, he jumped through the wall of green flame, only to be horribly burned!

As he recovered on the other side, Caxius used magic to vanish and re-appear atop the gate tower. He had thought to tie a rope for the others, but the statues began to move, stone cracking and sloughing off, revealing horrid demons! They screeched and attacked, diving at the heroes even as they unleashed foul, necromantic magics and a palpable aura of fear. But the heroes fought back, blade, bolt, and spell felling the two demons, returning them to lifeless stone. Evan dispelled the magical wall of flame, and the heroes made their way through. They explored the white tower, and found eight large statues of warrior-maidens, each plated in gold, at its top. Along with what appeared to be the skeletal remains of these maidens, hidden under the snow. The cold wind blew and the snow shaped into spectral maidens which tore at them with cold claws. But Cira's holy symbol and Volta's enchanted axe made short work of them.

After resting a moment and warming themselves as best they could, the heroes made their way forward. They found a great, black stone bridge arching over a gorge which plunged into mist. Far, far below they could hear the rush of the river. Approaching the near side, they saw a rider atop a black horse with burning eyes move forward out of the late afternoon shadows to the center of the bride. He was armored, carried a longsword in one hand and a whip seemingly made from a human spine in the other. And he had no head.


Shokk issued a challenge to the headless horseman, only to have it met with a near-lethal response.

"It's a dullahan!" Cira shouted. Shokk and Volta moved forward to challenge him, only to be ridden down! The half-orc paladin was caught by the dullahan's whip and nearly dragged off the bridge. As Volta followed, a dozen heads came sailing out of the darkness, flying as if borne by wings. They were the severed heads of men and women, all the dullahan's victims, and they were terrible to behold. They flew at the rest of the heroes, apart from a trio that flew at Volta and Shokk, keeping them from advancing. They screamed horribly, bit and butted, and fixed the heroes with cold, deadly stares or burning eyes full of hate manifesting as flame.

The battle was epic, with Shokk and Volta pulled down, ridden down, slashed at, and trampled time and again. But the two half-orcs rose time and again, greataxe and greatsword slashing away at flying heads, undead rider, and phantom steed. The dullahan unleashed deadly magics and fought like a demon, though with Cira and Evan's spells of light and flame, he was given pause long enough for the blades to do their work. Evan ended him with a consuming blast of flame, what was left of his body blasted off the bridge to fall into the mists below.

Hurt and half-exhausted, the heroes made their way up the mountain pass. They reached a great cliff face, carved to resemble the entrance to a temple. Six great niches were carved there, three to each side of steps that led down into the cliff. In each stood a twenty-foot high statue of a hooded, robed monk, hands clasped as if in prayer, faces covered, all carved from a single, massive block of amber. The Amber Temple. Evan used one of his enchantments to conjure a magical shelter and the heroes rested there as night fell, waiting until near dawn to enter the strange and terrible temple.
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Chapter 12: That Which Lies Beneath
After a cold night in the dilapidated house of Vasili von Holtz, at first light the heroes made their way to the trap door in the kitchen pantry. The stone steps did not descend into a cellar, but rather a stone-walled laboratory. The walls were lined with narrow wooden tables crowded with glass and copper instrumentation, jars of powders and strange fluids, and parts and pieces of animals...and other things...that had been dried or pickled. A thaumaturgic circle scribed in some slightly luminescent blue paint took up the center of the floor. A single door led off the room.


Only evil lay beneath this sign etched on the floor...

The heroes were careful to avoid disturbing the circle, and made their way into the chamber beyond. It was a long hall, lined with several iron-barred cages. They could see vaguely humanoid forms in the four cages, all whimpering and crawling in their own filth. One had spider-like facial features and a hunched, pale body covered in mottled scales. One of its hands had skin like that of an amphibian, complete with sucker-tipped webbed fingers, the other covered in wolf-like fur. The others were just as monstrous, obscene perversions of life that were the result of transformative surgery that had broken them in body and mind.

Ignoring the mewling wretches for the moment, Shokk, Kyne, Cira, Caxius and Volta made their way forward while Verity, Evan, and Lupin lagged behind. They entered a second door, one that led to another lab of some sort. Tables crowded around the periphery of the room, many covered with books and elaborate alchemical equipment. One large table was covered in old blood stains and surgical equipment. A large iron cage sat along the far wall, containing what looked like a heap of rags. A large jar sat on one table, a brain floating inside, suspended by some eerie, unidentified fluid. As Shokk approached, a voice echoed in his mind and the minds of his companions.

"Who is there? Who are you? Where is Balthazar?!" Taken aback for a moment, Shokk asked who was speaking. It was the brain - the brain of none other than Vasili von Holtz! He explained that Strahd had come to him many years ago, learning and sharing various secrets with the reclusive alchemist. But Strahd had disposed of him, removing von Holtz's brain and preserving it following the alchemist's own notes, as some sort of cruel jest.


Vasili von Holtz, in the flesh, as it were...

Cira had made her way to the cage, pulling back what was actually a ragged blanket from the cage's occupant - a massive humanoid of patchwork parts, moving and blinking in mute desperation and and mindless despair. "And what is this...abomination?" The priestess asked, her face stern.

"Balthazar has attempted to craft me a new body. Where is he? Why has he not come with you?!" The heroes' excuses grew thin, and they could feel a powerful will probing their thoughts. "You lie!" The brain screamed in their minds. "You have slain him! Now I will take one of your bodies!" With that, the brain of Vasili von Holtz unleashed a blast of psychic energy that sent the heroes reeling. Shokk was on him in an instant, but even his greatsword was not enough to shatter the armored jar holding the alchemist's brain. Psychic feedback seared the half-orc paladin as he struck.

As the others moved in, they saw the alchemical equipment move and twist, pulling together to form a pair of large, vaguely humanoid forms composed of brass and steel frames with articulated joints. Strange fluids ran through pipes and tubes along their limbs, and the brains of animals in jars seemed to command their movement. These mechanical golems lurched forward, attacking Volta, Shokk, and Cira. Cira meanwhile chained the cage with the flesh golem intended to be von Holtz's new body as it began to below with berserk intensity. Caxius filled the room with a hungry, cold darkness but the brain of von Holtz vanished.


The alchemical golems were formidable, but ultimately fragile, foes.

In short order, the heroes blasted the two alchemical constructs with spells, hacked at them with blades, and tore them to pieces. The brain in a jar had appeared in the other room however, and managed to use its psychic powers to break the arcane circle on the floor. Von Holtz's raspy laughter echoed in their minds. "I called this thing up from the depths of time, using its substance to grow, to command, and to transform flesh. Now it will be free, and none of you will survive!" Shokk's greatsword brought an end to von Holtz once and for all, as a mighty blow shattered the jar and left his once magnificent brain a splattered ruin of pulpy flesh.

But time was running out. Cira smashed the chain holding the flesh golem caged, while Verity and Caxius smashed open the cells holding the mongrelfolk created by von Holtz's new apprentice. Ushering the miserable creatures ahead of them, they raced up the stairs and narrowly avoided being crushed by the alchemist's house as it fell. The basement's floor cracked and a slimy horror issued forth. It was massive, nearly as big as the house had been, and its substance glistened like an oil slick. Mouths, eyes, and grasping and tearing pseudopods formed along its surface as a horrid, gibbering or reedy trilling issued from a thousand throats. The heroes fled, retaining what composure they had, as the bulk of the monstrous shoggoth made its way to the shores of Lake Zarovich, disappearing beneath the black water.


The shoggoth pushed up from below, smashing the house from beneath, then made its way to the lake and disappeared beneath the surface.

"Well, they probably won't get any fish anymore now," Shokk quipped as the heroes made their way from the ruined house. They rested for a short time, away from the shore of Lake Zarovich, and made their way up into the surrounding hills near the base of Mount Baratok. They had seen flashes of lightning unrelated to the storm up there, and had decided to at least investigate before heading back to Vallaki.

As they made their way up past the treeline and over the mist, the heroes encountered a ragged looking, balding man with a long, disheveled, black beard in tattered robes. "You!" He shouted. "Assassins! He sent you to finish me off, didn't he!" Despite their protestations of innocence, the obviously mad old man raised his hands towards the heroes and lightning flickered between his fingers. Before they could react, he disappeared and reappeared nearby. A huge, glowing sword faced Shokk and a boulder bounded down the hill towards Evan. The rest of the group, moving in close formation along a path leading up the hill, was blasted by a series of lightning bolts that leaped between them.

The man, obviously a powerful magic-user, was not an easy foe. He blasted the heroes with fire, lightning, and thunder, shrugging off blows with wards and twisting spells back around on their casters. But in the end, he was subdued by Shokk, Volta, and the rest working together. They bound him, hand and foot, and gagged him. While Cira tried to cure him, his madness was beyond what the priestess could cure. She sighed. "Only one is strong enough to cure his madness: the abbot." Resigned to help him, the heroes carried him down the hills and along the lake, through the woods, and back up the trail to Krezk. After a brief talk with the burgomaster, they made their way back up to the Abbey of St. Markovia. Greeted at the gates once more by Otto Belview, the heroes were escorted to the abbot's presence. He agreed to restore the old man, and allowed both he and the heroes to stay overnight and rest in the abbey.


Yup. It was freaking MORDENKAINEN!

The old man turned out to be none other than the legendary archmage Mordenkainen! He had come to this land months ago to defeat Strahd, only to fail and be cast down. Most thought this mad mage had perished after his battle with Strahd von Zarovich atop the battlements of Castle Ravenloft, but he had survived the long plummet over the Tser Falls, broken in mind as well as body. He'd been hiding in the mountains, using what spells he had prepared. Mordenkainen thanked them for their aid, and vowed to help them escape this land once he'd recovered his spellbook and his staff. In the meantime, he gave them all a charm of protection, inked invisibly onto their skin. Though it seemed that he would not ally himself with the heroes permanently, Evan convinced Mordenkainen to let the heroes create a simulacrum of him to aid in their battle with Strahd. With one ally thus at hand, they sought to gain the aid of the ally prophesied in Madame Eva's Tarokka reading - the two-headed man, playing his music. None other than the mongrel-man Clovin Belview! Now to convince him to leave the abbey with them...

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Chapter 10: Return to Vallaki
The heroes awaited the return of the pack's leader, Kiril Stoyanovich, at the werewolf den in the low mountains east of Lake Baratok. Zuleika Toranescu, the female werewolf seeking revenge against the pack's leader, waited with them. Her husband had been drug off to Castle Ravenloft at the pack leader's command, and she feared he was dead. She told the group that Kiril and the rest of the pack were on the hunt, and would return near nightfall. So they set an ambush in the cave mouth and waited.

A short time later, they saw a pack of nearly twenty wolves approaching! A bit under half started walking upright as they approached, and one was fully as large as a dire wolf. On his hind legs, he was as big as an ogre! This was Kiril, the leader of the pack. As he approached, his ears went back and he sniffed the air, growled, and began to speak. "Blood! I smell blood. And man-flesh. Come out!" With a roar, Zuleika charged out, and the battle was on! It was a fierce and furious struggle, and Evan decided to open the hostilities with a fireball spell detonated amidst the charging pack. The normal wolves died, incinerated by the blast, and even the werewolves were burned badly.


The werewolf pack returned, and they had caught the scent of blood...

The leader of the pack fared much better, darting in and out with unbelievable speed, tearing and biting at Shokk and Lupin. Volta, Kyne, Cira and Caxius moved forward into the fray, slashing and striking at werewolves and felling them with blade and spell. The pack leader was hurt badly by Shokk's enchanted greatsword and darted past the half-orc paladin, running deeper into the cave. The heroes finished off the remaining werewolves and followed him, Zuleika leading the way. They found a winding staircase tunnel behind a hide curtain that led to a ledge high atop the bluff. A circle of standing stones was there, and as Shokk and Lupin moved out, they were attacked from above! Kiril had healed rapidly, his wounds nearly gone thanks to his supernatural vitality, and he tore at them with fang and claw. But Shokk was ready, and with two mighty blows, he cut the werewolf lord down. It was over.

Zuleika left them, saying her revenge was complete and that they would not see her again. The heroes rested overnight, wary of attack, but the dawn came and they were off. Kyne had not slept well, and did not feel rested. He'd had nightmares all night, dreams of being chased by wolves. Cira and Evan confirmed his fears - he had indeed been cursed by the treasure he'd taken.

But despite his lack of rest, the other heroes were good to go. They took the children in the cave with them and made their way along the curve of the hills to Krezk. Though a pack of starving wolves fell on them, the heroes managed to kill the beasts and get the children safely to the small, mountain town. The burgomaster was glad to take them in, and after the heroes ate a hearty lunch of stew and bread, they set out for the Wizard of Wines Winery.

They arrived and were greeted by the Martikovs with open arms, for the heroes had brought the last of the Seeds of Life back home. With further thanks, the heroes took a gift of wine and made their way back to Vallaki to start taking care of unfinished business. Along the way, they stopped by the shores of Lake Zarovich and saw a small boat and a man trying to catch fish. They saw the bearded man put down his pole and pull up a small bundle wrapped in ropes - a bundle the size of a child that moved and wriggled! Rowing quickly out while shouting warnings, the heroes saw the man dump the bundle into the lake. Shokk and Cira were closest, and the big half-orc jumped in despite his mail and caught the bundle. Cira hauled him up, and they found that the bundle was a girl of about seven, dark haired and dark eyed, and most likely one of the Vistani. Caxius and Kyne questioned the man, named Bluto, and he said he'd taken the girl because "the Vistani are good luck, and the fish weren't biting." But when he still wasn't able to catch any fish, he was going to sacrifice her to the lake! Caxius paralyzed him with a spell to keep him calm, but Shokk had heard enough. He pitched the man overboard despite Cira's attempt to stop him, and let him drown.

The girl, Araballe, was the one they heard had been taken from the Vistani camp outside Vallaki. They returned to the town, and were let in despite suspicious (and fearful) looks. Kyne stopped by the Church of St. Andral and spoke with Father Lucian Petrovich about getting the curse removed. The old priest was happy to help, grateful still for the return of the saint's bones, and told him to come back come the dawn. He had also noticed a man following the group, and trailed him unseen to a run-down manor house, a squat, brooding thing near the center of town.

The heroes made their way to the Blue Water Inn, and took rooms. They cleaned the girl up and met with Rictavio, the carnival master, asking him about the strange, old tower east of town. He eyed them suspiciously, but they assured him they shared the goal of ending Strahd's reign over this dark land. He then revealed himself as none other than Rudolph van Richten, a vampire hunter of some repute. He told the heroes that he had something for them, and to meet them back at the inn come nightfall.


Rudolph van Richten, vampire hunter, when not in his guise as the carnival master, Rictavio.

The heroes then made their way to the Vistani camp shortly before dark. Savid was with them, and pointed to a hilltop south of town. The hill was ringed by small huts built into the hillside, each with elaborately carved wooden lintels and rooftops. "My people, the dusk elves, live here. We are bound to serve the Vistani. It is a long tale, but if you wish, my people's leader can tell you more. His name is Kasimir Velikov. Come get me when you are ready to leave." With that, he left them for the time being.

The heroes made their way to the hilltop, which was circled by barrel-topped wagons, tents, and strands of horses staked out for the night. A huge pavilion stood at its center, and as the heroes approached they could hear the crack of a whip and a cry of pain! They entered, finding several Vistani men drinking while one was tied to the tent's center pole. A large man with a thick beard was whipping him with one hand while drinking with the other, and a slender man with a trim beard stood nearby, chuckling. Shokk and Volta interrupted them, presenting the girl. The larger man was the Vistani headman, Luvash by name, and the slender man was his brother, Arrigal. He was Arabelle's father, and he was overjoyed at her return. He quickly forgot his whip, and Arrigal saw the young man cut down. It turned out his name was Alexei, and he'd been on watch when the girl had disappeared.


The Vistani camp was lively, and no one challenged the heroes when they arrived.

Despite the circumstances, Luvash asked the heroes to join him for food and drinks, and they accepted, supping with the Vistani. Luvash was crude and, to all appearances, a violent man, but he did love his daughter. He thanked the heroes and let them pick out a treasure from a locked wagon in the Vistani camp - a jewelry box as it turned out, with a few, precious trinkets inside. Arrigal asked them many questions as they drank, and seemed fascinated the sword with no blade that Kyne carried.

Upon their return to the inn, van Richten a.k.a. Rictavio, met with the heroes. He presented Cira with a small, platinum disk shaped like a stylized sun set with a bright, red stone. This, he explained, was the Holy Symbol of Ravenkind, a powerful item crafted by priests of the Morninglord. He said he would help them as best he could in defeating Strahd von Zarovich once and for all.

The night went by quietly...at first. Kyne, still restless, clambered up into the rafters of the inn after everyone else had gone to sleep. Late, come the hour of the wolf, a figure crept in through the second story door and made its way room to room, looking for something. Kyne barely heard something as the floor of the balcony below him creaked. He dropped down, but not quietly enough as the figure whirled to face him. It was Arrigal of the Vistani! He lunged at Kyne, stabbing with one hand as he grabbed for the hilt of the Sunsword! He tried to wrest it away from Kyne, but to no avail. Arrigal fled into the night as Kyne sounded the alarm, but though the pale-skinned hero chased him, he lost the wily Vistani in the dark. Kyne made his way back to the Vistani camp, confronting Luvash in his tent after waking the large man with a blade to his throat. He warned him that any attempts to come after him or his friends would be a death sentence for Luvash - and his daughter! Luvash growled that he was not his brother's keeper, and he knew nothing of what had transpired. He told Kyne that he would forgive this once, as he owed his daughter's life to him and his friends, but that should he see Kyne again, he would have his head.

Come the dawn, Kyne returned to the Church of St. Andral and had the curse upon him removed by Father Petrovich's prayers. He returned to the inn, and he and the rest of the heroes were greeted by some of the Baroness's soldiers. Apparently, they had been summoned to meet with her...
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Chapter 8: Yester Hill
Leaving the ruins of Berez early the following morning, the heroes split into two groups. Kyne and Shokk opted to head back to Vallaki to see if they could find any rumors about where the third Seed of Life could be found, while the rest chose to scout Yester Hill. Savid told them they could take the trail north again, follow the road west to the Raven River Crossroads, and then head south, past the Wizard of Wines. Alternately, they could go south along the Luna River and skirt the north shore of the lake, then follow the river west to reach Yester Hill. That would take roughly half the time. The rest of the group agreed that was a better course of action and set off.


The old cabin was barely more than a ruin on the swampy shores of Luna Lake.

The rain was heavy and mist rose from the forest floor and the river, half-obscuring a rough trail that led to the north shore of Luna Lake. They could not see the far side, and Savid said it was more than a mile across. Making their way along the shore, Lupin spotted a green glow through the trees ahead. A black iron lantern hung in the trees, a fat, black candle inside lit with an eerie green flame. It stood near a ruined dock or landing of some sort, and an overgrown trail led back to a ruined cabin. Quick investigation turned up four long-ago rotted bodies inside. Cira's quick examination of the corpses revealed they had died of disease. Caxius called upon the gifts given him by the spirits of the dead, and the warlock called back one of the men's spirits to answer his questions. The man revealed they had died of a sickness called mortasheen, that they had gone to the far side of the lake where none were supposed to go, and that "the rider" had come among them, spreading disease.

With no further answers to be had, they left. They did not get far before a splashing behind them revealed something monstrous coming up out of the lake. It appeared as a skinless man riding a skinless horse, black blood oozing through its veins with a yellow membrane draped across it. But the man and the horse were one. And it wielded a rusty iron longsword. Three corpses shambled out of the reeds and marshy ground of the shore, and crashed into the heroes, vomiting leeches all over them. Evan recognized it as a nuckalavee, a fey monstrosity that spread foulness and disease, yet avenged polluted waters. But that knowledge did little to help, and it reared, trampled the heroes, and blasted them with a foul, toxic breath.


The nuckalavee brought death in its wake.

The battle against the nuckalavee was fierce, and several of the heroes fell. But Cira called upon the divine power given her by the Morninglord and protected and healed her friends even as she blasted the thing with radiant power. Volta, nearly felled by the creature, managed to bring her battle-axe around in a mighty arc, severing its man torso from its horse back, killing the thing. The shambling, putrid corpses were cut and burned down, the supernatural leeches within them dying. The heroes were hurt, and pulled back out of the rain to rest in the woods for a short time.

Though hurt, they pressed on. A short while later, they reached the bottom of Yester Hill. Mist surrounded the high hill, and cairns of black rock dotted it on all sides. A ring of black rock surrounded the top, and lightning struck down at it, time and again, from roiling clouds overhead. The mists to the west were thick and ominous, and the heroes circled to the east, until they found a trail that led up to the top. The way was not easy, as a pack of more than dozen wolves charged them silently from the forest, but they were quickly beaten back. It was an ill omen.


The summit of Yester Hill.

A great circle of dead grass was inside the ring of black stones, which was pierced on one side by an opening at the head of the trail. A massive wicker statue of a man in cloak stood across from the entry, on the far side of the ring. As Verity, Volta, and Caxius made their way towards the wicker form, shallow graves all around the inside of the circle burst open. Men clad in skins and thick clay, some with animal headdresses and designs in dried blood on their hides, rose and cried out in fury. The hillfolk were here, and the heroes had trespassed on their sacred place. Volta and Lupin rushed in to attack, and Evan wasted no time blasting them with a fireball spell, one that ignited the huge wicker statue.

The lead shaman of the hillfolk called down lightning to blast the heroes, and as he did, one bolt struck the wicker man. The huge, flaming construct began to move, striking at the heroes with massive, burning fists. It reacted without thought, even grabbing at the barbaric warriors around it, and one was thrown into a cage in the thing's chest where he began to burn.


The fiery shadow of the wicker man fell across them...

As the savage battle raged, Evan felt a cold chill and could not move! Something rode down out of the sky - a man in dark clothes and a cloak atop a black steed with a fiery mane and flaming hooves.

It was Strahd von Zarovich.

He grabbed the gnome wizard, flying with him as he taunted the heroes. He had been called by the sacrifice of the pagan hillfolk, who worshiped him as a dark god or a servant of Mother Night. As Volta and Lupin burned their hands cutting down the wicker man - which had taken its toll on all of them - Verity, Savid, and Cira rained fire down on Strahd and his mount. He contemptuously threw Evan from his steed's back after clutching at him with cold, powerful hands. But Evan had recovered from the cold which paralyzed his limbs, and floated back down to earth after casting a minor spell. Strahd cursed and fled for now, his mount grievously wounded.

The remaining hillfolk had fallen or fled, and the wicker man was no more. Searching its remains, the heroes found a green, glowing stone - one of the Seeds of Life! Volta also heard something below, to the west, and through the mists she saw a white city on a hill, shining beneath the sun. A spirit called to her through the mists, that of a barbarian warlord of old. He told her the city was a vision to torment Strahd, that of his long-lost home to which he could never return. He told her that he was impressed by her ferocity in battle, and that she could have his axe. The half-orc barbarian unearthed a greataxe from the cairn the spirit stood in front of, a magic axe that dripped blood.


Strahd had come. It would not be the last time.

The heroes opted to leave, lest the hillfolk return. They traveled the few miles to the Wizard of Wines, where they were greeted by the Martikovs. They were grateful for the return of two of the Seeds of Life, and put the heroes up for the night after tending to their hurts. Refreshed, the heroes prepared to leave at dawn.
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Chapter 7: Berez
After sleeping in the ruined barracks tower off the kitchen of the great manor, Argynvostholt, the heroes woke a few hours after nightfall. After once again exploring the cemetery - and finding naught but a few graves that had been opened months ago - the group made their way upstairs. Circling back around to the great hall balcony, they made their way down a side corridor. Volta and Lupin had reached a door at the end of a hall, and triggered some sort of trap. Kyne and Verity had been at another door, and Cira, Caxius, Evan, Shokk and their new ally Savid had been just off the balcony. A wall of stone sealed off the hall, and phantom warriors, wielding ghostly blades, emerged from closed doors and passed through walls, attacking the group.

It was a close battle, and their phantom swords passed through armor and flesh alike, leaving terrible bruises and lingering cold. But Evan dispelled the magical wall, and blades, spells, and holy invocations managed to disperse the hateful spirits. The heroes found a small, wooden coffer with four potions, all which would protect the imbiber from harm. With these in hand, they made their way up spiral stairs at the end of the balcony to the mansion's third floor.


Phantom warriors emerged from the walls, ready to slay all who lived and intruded on the fallen manse.

They found a large room, hung with faded war banners and dominated by a large table. Six skeletal knights sat at the table, and one addressed them. He gave his name as Sir Godfrey Gwilim. He and the other knights of the Order of the Silver Dragon had fallen into corruption, seeking only revenge against Strahd von Zarovich. But their commander, Lord Vladimir Horngaard, had forbidden them to act. He promised that should the commander relent, or should the dragon Argynvostholt's spirit be laid to rest and the great beacon in the main tower re-lit, that he would aid them in their fight against Strahd. Only returning Argynvost's skull to his tomb could re-light the beacon, and the skull had been taken by Strahd...to Castle Ravenloft.

Continuing through the half-collapsed halls, they found another long hall, its twin windows overlooking the valley beyond, to the west. A high-backed chair sat facing the windows, and in it another armored, skeletal corpse. This was Lord Vladimir Horngaard, and he greeted the heroes coldly. He only wished to inflict pain and torment on Strahd, wishing to leave him alive and in eternal suffering for the pain he and his men had felt. The heroes told him of Ireena, and how she was Tatyana reborn and yet denied to Strahd. But this was not enough. Cira and Caxius saw he clutched a platinum hilt with no blade, toying with it. Remembering Madam Eva's fortune telling, and how a weapon to defeat Strahd could be found in the house of the dragon, the heroes asked if he would turn it over to them. He said...no.

Caxius chided and insulted him for cowardice, as did Lupin, and that enraged the revenant knight. With a yell, he summoned six more phantom warriors, and the heroes met them all in battle. The fight nearly proved deadly, but the group prevailed and Lord Vladimir's body was destroyed. But his spirit was ill at rest, and they feared they would see him again, one way or another. The lord commander's own greatsword was a magical blade, and the hilt was far more than it seemed. Kyne took it in hand, and the sword spoke to him without words. This was the Sunsword, and it formed a blade of pure, burning sunlight in his hands. He knew it hated Strahd, and would do all in its power to stop him.


Lord Vladimir Horngaard.

A quick search of the rest of the third floor yielded little, and the heroes made their way to the top of the mansion. They crossed a small bridge to the beacon tower and destroyed two more phantom warriors. They found where the beacon was, and knew that getting it to re-ignite with its holy light would be a task long in the coming. They rested again, and come the dawn, readied to head out. As they did, they heard a wagon pulling away, down the gravel and mud road to the mansion stronghold. Investigating, the heroes found a coffin with Kyne's name etched on it, leaning against the dragon statue out front. Opening it revealed a swarm of bats, which flew straight at the rogue! He quickly cut them down with his sword of light, and the group continued on.

They decided to head to the ruined village of Berez, on the shores of the Luna River. Davian Martikov had told them one of the Seeds of Life had been taken there, and so the heroes cut overland and down the hill to the shores of the river and the flooded, swampy remains of what was once a town. The mist was thick, but they saw a light across the river among a ring of standing stones. Wading the wide, deep, and rough stream, they reached the menhirs. An older woman with a lantern was there, and she gave her name as Muriel Henshaw. She warned them that the ruins were cursed, and an ancient and powerful witch named Baba Lysaga lived there. It was a dangerous place, and she warned them that they should move on. But she wished them well, and made her way on into the late morning mist.

Despite the warning, the heroes forded the river and circled the ruined cottages. They came across a ruined manor house atop a low hill, as Muriel had told them they could find such. A pen fenced with posts topped with human skulls contained several goats, and an overgrown garden was off to one side. A ghost materialized out of the fog, that of the town's former burgomaster, Lazslo Ulrich. He explained that the town of Berez had been drowned when the river rose at Strahd's command. His own daughter, Marina, had been the mirror image of Strahd's beloved Tatyana, and when he and other villagers had slain her to prevent her from falling under Strahd's evil spell, the dark lord took his vengeance upon them. The heroes explained what had happened to Ireena, who had been both Tatyana and his daughter reborn, but it was not enough to lay him to rest.

After finding his daughter's tomb and making their way back to the heart of the village, they found a small, wooden hut perched atop a large stump with massive roots. Scarecrows stood in the marsh grass atop wooden frames along the path that wound through the swampy ground. A fence topped with human skulls surrounded the hut, and as Lupin hopped the fence, the skulls began to scream! The scarecrows lurched and hopped off their posts, running in to attack. The heroes dispatched them quickly, and made their way to the hut. A huge cauldron stood to one side, and it had apparently been fashioned from a giant's skull. Muriel had told them the old witch had flown around in a magic cauldron, and they could almost believe it...


Baba Lysaga's creeping hut, come to life.

Opening the door, the heroes saw a small hut with bolted-down furniture and a crib with a crying child. A green glow came from the floorboards beneath the crib. As Cira and Volta attempted to enter the hut...it moved. The eight massive roots tore free from the ground, and the whole thing began to move like a massive spider! It stomped forward, crushing Cira, Verity and Lupin beneath it's "feet" as it flung rocks at Evan and Kyne. Volta barely held on, discovering the crib was an illusion. The heroes below hacked at its legs as the half-orc barbarian hacked at the floorboards. Things looked grim, and Verity was down, almost crushed to death beneath the hut's massive wooden legs. But Volta pried up a green stone she found there, one the size and shape of a pinecone, and the hut shuddered, lurched, and collapsed!

The heroes had barely caught their breath (and started to loot a small chest in the hut, one that had been protected by a glyph of warding that let out a blast of thunder) when a figure began moving towards them through the mist. It was a goat, accompanied by a crone with green, leathery skin, long black nails like claws, and stringy white hair bound up in an elaborate weave. This was Baba Lysaga. She chided them for breaking into her hut and trying to steal from her. She explained how she had been the midwife to Strahd's mother, Queen Ravenovia, and Strahd's nursemaid. She had worshiped Mother Night, and said spells and prayers to bind Strahd to darkness and awaken the magic within him. She was his true mother, she said...


Baba Lysaga was going to chide the wayward children who broke into her hut and stole her treasures...

And she attacked. She cast terrible spells, blasts of flame and dark, necrotic energy. She turned into a cloud of flies and back again, disappeared in a mist only to reappear nearby. She deflected attacks and spells, and things looked grim for the heroes. But in the end, a final blow from Volta and a spell from Evan dropped the witch. It had been a near thing, and Shokk and Cira had nearly perished, but the heroes prevailed. They found a wand on the hag, one with the power to change a creature's shape, and a few other treasures and magics in her treasure chest. They opted to find higher ground, in one of the ruined huts, and rest until evening. Surely the dangers of Berez had all been dealt with...?
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Chapter 5: The Festival of the Blazing Sun
The heroes left the Wizard of Wines early the next morning, shortly after a dim sun rose behind dark clouds. They made the journey back as far as the Raven River Crossroads without incident. As they neared the river, they discovered part of the trail had been washed out by the rain. As they prepared to ford the stream, feral eyes gleamed in the half-light of the dark woods. A half dozen dire wolves charged out silently, savagely, and attacked from surprise. The heroes were caught off guard, but fought back and slew most of the beasts. It seemed as if Strahd would have his beasts harry them at every turn.


The Devil Strahd's wolves. It seemed as if they would harry the heroes at every turn.

Apart from a group of Barovian scouts, out hunting for a missing young woman, there were no other incidents of note on the road back to Vallaki. The guards at the gate gladly let them in, and the heroes returned to the Blue Water Inn. Urwin Martikov and his wife Danika were glad to see their safe return, and thanked them for the wine. So did Karl and Nikolai Wachter, who had feared the wine casks would run dry. With two hours to kill before the festival started, Volta, Verity, Evan, and Cira decided to visit St. Andral's Church. The Wachter brothers informed them that the next festival would be the Feast of St. Andral. Cira was interested to learn more about this saint, unknown to her in the Realms. In the meantime, Shokk, Lupin, Kyne, and Caxius headed to the town square to see the preparations for the festival.

The group at the church met a boy named Yeska, who invited them in and introduced them to the priest, Father Lucian Petrovich. Seeing the holy symbol of the Realms' own morninglord, Lathander, on Cira's shield, the priest confided that the church had been robbed three days ago. The only thing taken was its greatest treasure - the hallowed bones of St. Andral himself! The only one he had told was the boy, Yeska, who was afraid after hearing rumors that the "devil" Strahd was riding the night once again. The boy's older brother, Milivoj, who acted as groundskeeper and gravedigger for the church, came in the back, scowling. He told Yeska to help the good Father Lucian, and then went out and back to work.


St. Andral's Church was a refuge, but a dreary one.

Volta tried talking with the young man as she chopped wood for the church, and Cira talked with Yeska. She got the boy to reveal that he had told only one person - his brother - about the bones of St. Andral and that they had been hidden in a crypt below the church's altar. The cleric went to confront Milivoj, and under the ire of her gaze, he revealed he'd been paid to steal them by Henrik van der Voort, the local coffin maker. He'd only done so for enough money to feed his brothers and sisters, as their parents had died years ago. Sympathetic to his plight, Cira did not punish him save to make him promise to apologize to Father Lucian. She rounded up the rest of her companions, and they made their way back to the inn.

The rest had found little, apart from sad decorations and miserable looking villagers. Meeting with their companions at the inn, they all opted to head to the coffin maker's shop to speak with the man. With an hour or so to spare, they figured they would have plenty of time to make the Festival of the Blazing Sun. The shop appeared closed when they arrived, and knocking on the door only produced shouts. "Go away! We are closed! Leave me alone!" When attempts at subterfuge failed, Shokk simply kicked the door down, breaking the bar holding it fast!

Henrik, the coffin maker, collapsed and sobbed, "They made me do it! He came one day. Vasili von Holtz. He made me keep them here. They are upstairs, in the attic..." Shokk and Volta made their way upstairs, while the rest took up position below. The attic storeroom was full of piles of wood and crates. As Shokk approached one, it splintered apart as a hand burst free of it, scattering wood and loose earth. Four more followed, and the barbarian and the paladin found themselves facing five vampire spawn!

The rest rushed upstairs, and a fierce battle raged in the cramped confines of the coffin maker's attic. The undead shrugged off blows that would have split a normal man in twain, almost instantly healing wounds that would have been lethal. Blood was drained, but flashes of radiant light and the hew of axes put an end to the vampires. In the aftermath, they found Saint Andral's bones and Caxius remembered where he'd heard Holtz's name before...the Abbey of St. Markovia! It was no less than Strahd himself in disguise. Henrik revealed the vampire's spawn had terrorized him, and planned to attack the church during the Festival of St. Andral a week from the day.


The vampire spawn were almost feral, and were hungry for blood. It was a close, close thing, but the heroes prevailed.

They quickly returned the bones to a grateful Father Lucian, and the church was once again hallowed ground. They rushed back to the festival, only to be greeted by a procession of sad looking children in drooping flower costumes escorting the mounted Baron Vallakovich, his Lydia, and the Baron's soldiers to the town square. An enormous wicker sun had been raised on a crane, and the Baron rode forth with all solemnity to light it with a fiery brand. But a sudden downpour extinguished his torch, and one of his own guards began to laugh. A gasp ran through the crowd, and the sputtering, red-faced baron immediately demanded the guard be bound and tied behind his horse so that he could drag him through the town, as penalty for his disrespect and mockery.

The heroes intervened. Verity's words did not sway the baron, and though Cira had cast a spell to calm his hostile emotions, the baron's henchmen Izek Strazni took umbrage. "Sorcery! She seeks to charm the baron!" He charged her with his axe, slashing away, and only Cira's mail and shield saved her from death. Evan cast a spell to freeze the devil-armed henchman in place, and he was paralyzed! Kyne, Volta, and Verity made quick work of him, and Lupin charged Baron Vallakovich himself after the stout, angry man had slashed at the cleric, Cira. He tore the nobleman's throat out, and Shokk finished him. "The Baron is dead," he roared. Caxius caused the earth to tremble with a spell, while Verity created an illusory wall of flames. It was too much. The guards broke, the crowd fled, and the square was deserted.


[I]The Baron was dead. Long live the Baroness...?[/I]

In the aftermath, the heroes made their way back to the Blue Water Inn. Change had come to Vallaki, and only the morrow would tell if the change would bode ill for them...
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