Journal Posts

Tag: escape_from_peril

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 4: The Abbey of St. Markovia
The heroes set out from the Wizard of Wines just past dawn. Davian Martikov thanked them for their aid, and had another request. Three green stones, each the size and shape of a pine cone but lit with inner light, had been stolen. They were magic seeds, he said, and the pagan hillfolk's bloody-handed priests had taken them. He had overheard (though he did not say how) that one had been taken south to Yester Hill and one south and east to the ruins of Berez, a flooded village along the Luna River. The last he supposed had gone north somewhere.

The heroes promised to aid them, and set out. Along the road, they met another traveler, Lupin by name. He was a monk and a companion of Caxius and Shokk who had been separated from them in the Misty Forest. Wandering for a few days, he had finally located his companions in this strange land. He was a rough-looking man with long sideburns, and wore simple traveler's clothes with a short, slender blade at his side. He was one of the shifting kind, with the blood of werewolves in his veins. He greeted his companions, and they filled him in on the situation, what with Ireena, Strahd von Zarovich, and their promise to aid her and defeat the land's vampire lord. He seemed to accept this with relative calm.

The heroes reached the walls of Krezk by noon, and were let inside and escorted to the burgomaster's cottage. The village was not much more than cottages surrounded by misty woods inside a heavy stone curtain wall. The burgomaster, Dmitri Krezkov, thanked them for bringing the wine and asked for their aid with his son. The young man had died only a few days ago, and he was the elderly burgomaster's last child and only heir. He wished to visit the Abbey and talk with Abbot, who was rumored to have supernatural powers, including the ability to restore the dead to life. The heroes agreed to talk with the holy man, and made their way up the switchback trail to the Abbey of St. Markovia. Along the way, Ireena seemed to hear someone calling her in the distance, but chalked it up to her fatigue and trepidation.

A low wall circled the abbey, and the iron gate was unlocked. The heroes were greeted by two short figures in rough, homespun robes. One was a hunched man with a wolfish snout and ear, a beast-like leg that ended in a lion's paw, and a donkey's tail. The other was a woman with tufts of wolfish fur, scales, and cat-like eyes. Evan recognized them as mongrelfolk. The male chuckled and simpered, introducing himself as Otto Belview, one of the Belview family as was his cousin Zygfrek (the female). They had all come to the abbey to be healed. He kindly offered to escort the heroes to the abbey proper and the Abbot. They made their way past a graveyard on one side and a garden on the other, both overlooking a four-hundred foot drop to the village below.

Otto and Zygfrek Belview. Twisted members of a twisted family. Perhaps it was best the abbey was walled...

The abbey itself had two wings, joined by a high-walled courtyard. The gates opened easily, and the guards they saw atop the wall were no more than straw mannequins wearing rusty mail and blunted spears. A stunted woman with bat- and spider-like features was chained to a post in the courtyard, and stone coops (no doubt once holding fowl) were along the walls. The heroes could hear shouting, hooting, and screaming from all of them. "Family members," Otto chuckled apologetically. "They are...unwell. Locked up for their own safety." He led the heroes into a great hall, where sweet viola music wafted down from a belfry overhead. A woman, auburn-haired, pale-skinned and beautiful, wearing a tattered red dress, sat at a long table. A beautiful blonde man in simple monk's robes was walking down a stair on one side of the great hall and towards the table when the heroes entered. "We have guests, your holiness," Otto told him.

They realized the Abbot was not a mortal man. Nor was he sane.

This was the Abbot, and he introduced himself and Vasilika, the strangely silent woman. He was instructing her, he said, and invited the heroes to join him for an early supper. They agreed and sat with the Abbot, explaining the situation with Ireena. The Abbot gladly offered to provide her with shelter. Both Shokk and Cira noticed the woman had scars along her joints, wrists, neck, and so on, all covered by make-up. She jerky movements and gestures and grunted sounds that might have been the start of words. They quickly realized this woman had not been born...she had been made from the parts of dead women.

When confronted - politely of course - the Abbot responded that yes, he had used surgical and alchemical techniques to make Vasilika. He had done much the same to the Belview family. They had suffered the double stigma of inbreeding and a family-wide exposure to leprosy, and he had removed mortified and corrupted flesh, replacing it at their insistence with the pure flesh of beasts. Shokk, fearing the worst, used his ability to sense supernatural forces upon the Abbot. He learned that he was no demon or fiend, but rather a celestial - an angel that had taken a mortal guise! He shared that carefully with his companions, and they gently asked where the Abbot had gained such knowledge.

He replied it had come from a traveling scholar and alchemist named Vasili von Holtz, who had actually been Strahd himself in disguise. The Abbot, who had come here to end Strahd's evil, realized the vampire lord was bound to this land. He could not truly die here, nor could his curse end by death. Learning of Strahd's misery, he realized only happiness would end his suffering and the suffering of the land's people. To that end, he crafted a bride for Strahd in the image of his lost love, intending her immortal frame to keep the undying vampire company and happy for all time. He only needed one thing - a bridal gown. The heroes agreed to help him find one, with the condition he would restore the burgomaster's son to life. He agreed, promising them two more lives as well. He also said quarters would be prepared for Ireena, but she hesitated, saying she would think the matter over.

Verity had asked about the music, and she and Caxius were escorted up to the belfry by the Abbot. A man with two heads was there, playing a viola. One head was small, like a toddler, and had hide almost like a crocodile along one side. One hand was replaced by a crustacean's claw, and both feet and legs were like those of a bear. He was introduced as Clovis Belview, and stated he drank heavily (as evidenced by many empty wine bottles) and played sweet music to keep his other head asleep. He'd heard them below, and wished he could help them fight the vile Strahd! Caxius did mention something about Madame Eva's card reading saying a musician with two faces would help them against the dark lord...

Clovis Belview's music was as beautiful as he was twisted and grotesque. A good soul inside a monstrous shell...

The heroes descended the mountainside, and Ireena again heard someone calling her voice. Concerned, the heroes encouraged her to follow the sound. She wound her way through the trees in the village, to a small pond on its far end. A small gazebo and shrine stood next to the crystal-clear waters. As she approached, she heard a voice calling her. The heroes heard it too! "Tatyana! Come to me my love!" They saw the reflection of a handsome young man in royal finery in the water, looking up at her, his hand extended. It extended out of the water!

"Sergei!" Ireena said, "Sergei, my love! I remember. We were to be wed! Yes, I am Tatyana! I will come to you!" A couple of the heroes tried to hold her back, but Cira sensed something wonderful was happening. She stopped them with her magic, and Ireena reached out - and was pulled into the water! They saw her now, in a beautiful wedding dress, embracing and kissing the man with such passion and love that it made their hearts soar. Light emanated from the water and she smiled at the heroes in thanks and joy. In a flash, they were gone. They knew that Ireena, who had been Tatyana reborn, had found safety and happiness. But the sky grew dark, the thunder rolled, and a voice seemed to cry, "You have taken her from me!" Lightning struck the water, setting the gazebo afire, and nearly killing a couple of the heroes. Strahd had seen...had known...and doubtless wanted revenge on them!

Dazed, the heroes helped put out the fire and let the burgomaster know what happened. He knew that none in Krezk had skill enough with needle and thread to craft such a gown, and time grew short. His wife, Anna Krezkova, agreed to take a few men and trade goods to Vallaki, to see if they could find such a gown. The heroes agreed to escort her the next morning. They made the trip in a few hours, and were greeted suspiciously by the guards. As one tried to slip off, Kyne followed her and knocked her out. The heroes returned to the Blue Water Inn, and finally met the carnival master Rictavio, a gentleman in finery with a leather overcoat, gray hair, and spectacles. They also drank with the Wachter brothers, Karl and Nikolai. As they did, Volta and Kyne escorted the lady of Krezk to a dressmaker's shop. She did not have the coin required, and the seamstress could not deliver the dress in such short order. She suggested they speak with Lydia Petrovnka, the Baroness Vallakovich, as her wedding dress was said to be spectacular, and as a good-hearted woman she might not refuse an entreaty for aid.

Volta and Kyne escorted Anna Krezkova to the Baron's estate, and were let in by a suspicious maid. The entry hall was crammed with bundles of twigs, and they were led shortly to a dining hall. A tall, older but still beautiful woman was speaking with several other women over tea and cakes, and introductions were made. The Baroness Vallakovich was happy to speak with Anna about the dress, after being convinced a "fortuitous marriage, one that would bring great joy to Krezk," was in the offing. As Volta and Kyne waited in a small parlor near the main entrance, Izek Strazni - the Baron's henchman - spotted them! Kyne's quick talking and Volta's steely gaze prevented an immediate bloodbath, and Baron Vargas Vallakovich was summoned. He was a stocky man, with a gray pompadour and deep-set, suspicious eyes. He had not been informed about Izek's actions, and was convinced by Kyne's silver tongue that the heroes were only helping a stray girl. Oh, and they had promised to bring back wine for the festival of the Blazing Sun on the morrow. Mollified, the suspicious Baron let them go.

With all due haste, the heroes left as soon as Anna had secured the Baroness Lydia's dress, much to the Baron's chagrin. Returning to the inn, they gathered up their gear and headed back to Krezk as fast as they could. They were ambushed on the road by a group of hillfolk, berserkers clad in fur, clay, and hides, and a great champion wearing a bearskin. It was a tough battle, and the hillfolk were slain to a man. Apparently, they had taken great offense at the heroes' slaying of their pagan priests, and had begun to track them.

But the heroes reached Krezk shortly before nightfall, and escorted the burgomaster, the dress, and his dead son up to the Abbey of St. Markovia. The Abbot was greatly pleased (and more so, as Volta had some other items of clothing for Vaslilika) and set about his work. He glowed with unearthly power as he touched the young man's dead body and bid him to rise. With a start, life returned to the young man! Herr Krezkov was grateful, but he, his son, and his men departed swiftly. The heroes thanked the Abbot, and left shortly thereafter, once they explained that their friend was now safe. They had some choices to make about where they would go next. More importantly, they had definitely drawn Strahd's attention....
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Chapter 2: The Road to Vallaki
The day before leaving Barovia, the heroes had an interesting encounter in the street. An old woman was going door to door with a peddler's cart, selling fresh hand-sized pies to desperate-looking villagers. Shokk and Caxius approached her, asking what she was selling. "Dream pies, yes. Old Morgantha is selling dream pies! Would you like one? It's one gold coin..." The duo agreed and took them. They were delicious, full of rich mince and smelling like lavender and sun-ripened peaches. Their hearts will full of joy, their spirits lifted with every bite.

Cira and Kyne were suspicious, and Volta and Evan a bit uneasy. Kyne sneaked up behind her, while Volta checked the cart. There among the pies was a bundle, a burlap sack...that was wiggling and let out a stifled cry. It was child, a little boy, bound up. Volta snatched up the child as the others drew weapons and readied to attack. Morgantha tried to run and got a knife in her back for her trouble. She...changed. Her skin darkened to purple-black, her nails growing long and sharp, her eyes glowing lambent yellow orange. She was a night hag! She ripped and tore at the heroes, cackling and howling. But they wounded her grievously and she faded, becoming ethereal. "I will see you my your dreams!"

Old Morgantha said she would see them...soon.

Volta returned the boy to his parents, who were ashamed but seemed consumed by their lust for the delicious pies. She scolded them, patting her axe in warning. The heroes and Ireena set off shortly after the funeral the next dawn, and made their way up the road to the northwest, past the gallows at the crossroads and up the side of the mountain to Tser Falls. Crossing the bridge, they met a group of Barovia's hill-folk, wild men clad in furs and painted with clay, wielding stone axes. They made a superstitious gesture and crept back off the trail. Ireena said they had been here a long time, before Strahd had conquered the valley with his armies, and remained hidden in small mountain villages led by priests worshiping pagan gods. They mostly avoided groups, but lone travelers might run into them to their dismay.

As they made their way up the fog-shrouded road, they heard the clop of hooves on muddy ground and the clack of bones. A skeleton clad in rusted mail rode up on a skeletal horse, its empty eyes and grinning skull fixed. Deciding to take no chances, the heroes attacked, inviting instant retaliation from the rider. It charged, using its lance, but they shattered both skeletons in short order, leaving naught but bones which Volta scattered to the sides of the road.

They had started late in the morning, and the sun was nearing the horizon. Up ahead, to the west, they saw a path lead off to a windmill standing on a small hill overlooking the Svalich Woods beyond. It was identical to the windmill on the crest of the Durst family, and Kyne realized he'd found the deed to it in the hidden room off the library. "I will make it mine," he said, "we should explore it, and rest there for the night." The heroes made their way up the path, and as they approached, saw it's white, plastered walls had chipped and peeled, revealing gray brick and stone beneath. The vanes were half-rotted, and the landings that spiraled up the outside were broken. A raven above the door squawked at them, dancing about, then flew off cawing. But the door was closed, and smoke came from somewhere inside. Shokk and Cira made their way in, finding a brick oven aglow with flames, a mill-wheel, tables covered with baking implements, and barrels of strange slime in one corner. A stair wound up the inside. A small cart stood off to one side.

The Old Bonegrinder, as it was known locally.

Outside, Caxius, Kyne, Volta, Evan, and Verity saw a figure lumbering through the woods. He was huge - nearly 8 feet tall - and his head was covered by a burlap hood with crude eye-holes. He drug a large cord of wood behind him, and carried a massive axe over one shoulder. He grunted with surprise at seeing them, and began to move forward, letting out a guttural string of muffled sounds which might have been words, but could not be understood by any there. Inside, Shokk leaned over one of the barrels, looking down in...and a clawed hand on a wiry arm covered with gray-green skin shot up and tried to grab him!

A fight on two fronts began. The half-orc paladin jumped back, but knocked the barrel over, and as it spilled, four wretched creatures with hunched backs, drooping ears, snout-like faces, and long, clawed arms crawled out. They began to claw and bite at everything in reach. Outside, the heroes laid into the brute as he slapped Caxius aside and clipped Kyne with his axe, wounding the rogue. But several daggers and a heavy blow of Volta's axe brought the brute down. Inside, the heroes cut down the demonic dretches as more spilled out. A voice from above cried out, "Nephew, is that you? Did you come back with wood for the fire? Mother Morgantha has more pies to bake!" Another voice agreed, and the heroes realized there were hags there - perhaps a covey!

A dretch, hungry and stupid, but vicious.

An old woman with a face like a wrinkled apple came down. She chided Cira, "Tut-tut, you shouldn't be here. But maybe you should stay anyway...for dinner!" With that, she swelled and grew into a 7-foot tall hag with blue skin and long, black claws. Another hag was coming down the stair behind her, and Cira was raked through her mail by the hag's talons and nearly fell. The heroes retreated, and Cira through a flask of alchemist's fire into the barrels, setting them alight. The hags howled, and ran to beat out the flames as the heroes ran into the woods.

They saw ravens flying around a ring of standing stones and ran there. The heroes hid and the ravens flew off, cawing and fluttering around the brush. The heroes heard the hags searching for them, but it appeared the ravens drew them off. Cira and the others found strange carvings on the stone, like a city under four different seasons, and the teeth of children buried at the base of one. She realized they were sacrifices to an unseelie fey lord, and blessed the now-desecrated stones. The heroes rested quietly, and the night passed...but not without incident.

Caxius and Shokk were on watch, and the tiefling warlock saw a lantern in the woods. It began to move off, and he and the half-orc paladin opted to follow it. It led to a ruined house, about 10 minutes' walk away. As the heroes moved in to take a look, the ground erupted in several places and rotting corpses rose up to attack! Fighting off a hoard of zombies, many of which refused to attack the warlock thanks to his pact with the lords of the dead, the light reappeared behind him. It was a will-o'-the-wisp, and though it sought to shock him, the warlocks enchanted blade and defensive spells sent it fleeing into the night. They cut down the rest of the zombies, and made their way back, only letting their companions know what happened come the morning.

Early the next day they cut through the woods and made their way up the road to Vallaki. The town guards were a bit suspicious, and the wolf heads on pikes nearby made the heroes a bit guarded, but they proved they were friendly and were let into town. They were advised that the Wolf's Head Jamboree had ended last week, and in three days' time the Festival of the Blazing Sun would begin. There were many festivals in Vallaki the guards said, usually one a week for the last several years. All were ordered by the town's burgomaster, Baron Vargas Vallakovich, and happiness was mandatory.

The heroes made their way in, past a great stockyard where a colorful carnival wagon was parked. Remembering Madame Eva's prognostication, they stopped to inquire, but the carnival master, one Rictavio, wasn't there. The heroes were directed to the Blue Water Inn on the other side of town, and made their way there. The innkeeper, Urwin Martikov, his wife Dannika, and their sons Brom and Bray were happy to have more guests apart from the carnival master, and rooms were prepared for them upstairs. Volta and Ireena took a bath while the others ate and drank. A pair of young nobles, Karl and Nikolai Wachter, sons of a Lady Fiona Wachter the heroes would learn, came in around noon. They were friendly and talkative, and drank quite heavily. They talked of a haunted mansion to the southwest where a dragon was said to live, of the Abbey of St. Markovia, of a mad wizard said to be seen on the shores of Lake Zarovich to the north, and of the Baron and his mad festivals. They said their sister was to be wed to his son, but the wedding was called off as she was in fragile health after an...incident...with the Baron's son, Victor Vallakovich.

They saw the toys Volta had given Brom and Bray, and also spoke of toymaker's shop. Volta had joined them by then, and the half-orc barbarian seemed fascinated by that. She, Kyne, Shokk, and Ireena went to the market square while the others rested. They saw a few men, women, and children in stocks wearing plaster donkey heads - punished for being "disrespectful" during the last festival, they found out - while others drew water from a great fountain. They saw a couple of town guards led by a large man with a bald head wearing light armor and a heavy, fur-lined cloak that he concealed his left arm beneath. An axe was slung over his shoulder. This was Izek Strazni, the brothers had told them, the Baron's right-hand man. He exchanged a few suspicious words with the two half-orcs, but was distracted by Ireena. He gave her an intense look - one of familiarity perhaps - and left shortly thereafter.

The trio moved on to the toy shop, Blinsky Toys, which had a sign in the window reading, "Is No Blinsky, Is No Fun!" The labels on the Durst children's toys were explained, at least. Blinksy was a jovial man with a trim beard, a large waist, and a friendly disposition. he wore a purple and green jester's cap and a monkey rode on his shoulder. A gift, he stated, from a carnival man named Rictavio, who asked for a doll dressed like a Vistani. His toys say the least (including a carousel of wolves chasing frightened children, a mock gallows, and a vampire ventriloquist dummy), not the least of which was a doll that looked just like Ireena! It was a special order he said, for the the Baron's man, Izek.

Blinsky was friendly but very disturbed...

Concerned, the heroes made their way back to the inn and met up with their fellows to head to the stockyard. But Izek and a dozen town guards met them, and demanded they turn the girl over for questioning. They refused, and Caxius turned her invisible, bluffing that he had teleported Ireena away to safety. A fight broke out, and the heroes nearly fell. Izek was wounded, and they discovered during the fight that his left arm was not that of a man. It was a green, scaly thing covered with barbs and long claws. A devil's arm. Both sides withdrew, and the heroes met back up with Ireena and fled. They headed west on the road, stopping late and setting camp off the trail. They might have worn out their welcome in Vallaki, and now thought they might have to head to the Abbey straight away. Who could tell what the dawn would bring, let alone the night...
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Prologue: Death House, Part 2
The heroes worked their way through the cramped tunnels beneath the Durst house in Barovia. It felt like crawling through a grave. The earth was cold and damp, and the wood sagged with rot. They found an open chamber ahead, and Kyne scouted it, searching around a long, low table with bones scattered about it. He opened a half-rotten door to what must be a pantry, only to have a worm-like horror, so pale as to be luminescent, crawl out. It was like a large grave-worm, and its black mandibles were surrounded by wriggling tentacles. Volta and Rundoki got in close, their great weapons hampered by the tight quarters. But with aid from Cira's holy flames and blasts of magical energy from Evan, they quickly cut the thing down. They found that the bones in this crude dining hall were human bones...bones that had been gnawed on.

Working their way through the tunnels, they found a large chamber, its roof supported by many timber posts. A well was at its center, and small bedchambers surrounded it. Kyne sneaked ahead and saw a couple of dark figures covered with spines crawling on the ceiling. The group, warned ahead of time, moved in. A pair of spined devils attacked as they entered, though they were quickly dispatched by magic and heavy blows of Rundoki's sword and Volta's axe. They found scant treasures in the bunks, but no signs that it had been inhabited any time recently. Working around a dining hall and back through the crypts, they worked their way onward, through the damp, dark earth. An eerie chanting could be heard, echoing through the claustrophobic passages.

Kyne remained ahead, and heard scrabbling in the cold earth to either side of him. The packed soil of the tunnel exploded upward as four hungry ghouls rose, surrounding the rogue. He nearly fell to their cold, tearing claws and broken, yellow teeth, but Cira's holy command drove a couple back as the rest moved in to dispatch them. After a few bandages and muttered prayers of healing, the group found a crude shrine at the end of a passage. A rough statue was there, one of a man in a black cloak clutching a shadowy orb of polished glass. As Volta yanked it from the statue's hand, the shadows in the room animated and began to attack with icy touches that froze their very blood. But sword and spell again prevailed, driving them back into the darkness.

Ghouls, hungry for flesh, had surrounded Kyne...

Down another passage from the shrine, the unlucky rogue found a door that was not a was a mimic! He nearly fell after being bitten by the cursed thing, and pulled through it to a small dining room. Rundoki and Volta dispatched the thing with aid from Cira, Evan, and Tiberias. Beyond the dining room was a small bedchamber, and Volta was ambushed there by a pair of ghasts that dug themselves out of shallow holes in the earthen walls, their greedy claws raking her flesh. With holy fire and mighty axe- and sword-blows, they were felled. They had a small bit of treasure, including a fine mail shirt and an old spellbook.

Following the twisting passages, the group doubled back and found stone steps descending further into the darkness. They followed them down into a reliquary chamber of some sort, with many gruesome curious found in niches along its periphery. Two passages led out, one to long-abandoned cells where skeletons still hung from iron chains, and one to a rusty, iron portcullis that blocked off a half-flooded room. Volta and Rundoki were able to raise the heavy iron gate, and Kyne locked it in place.

The room beyond was flooded to a depth of two or three feet, with a low ledge surrounding it. A six-sided dais rose in its center, free of the water. A bloodstained altar was at its center, and iron chains descended from the ceiling, directly over it. The wall across from the entry was broken, and the crack led into a small cave-like hole of some sort. The eerie chanting could be heard even more clearly here, and as the group entered, all went dark. As the light of Cira's magical flame came up, they saw 13 figures in black, hooded robes standing along the ledge. A figure in black with an ornate gold mask carrying a black staff stood on the far side of the altar, across from Kyne, who had ascended the dais.

The figures chanted for a sacrifice, implying that one must submit to death lest they all be slain by...something. Something called Lorgoth the Decayer. The heroes would have none of it! They drew blades and readied to strike. The figures on the ledge vanished, and as Kyne struck at the figure in the mask, his knife-stroke ripped it aside, revealing a red, scaly visage surmounted by horns and a beard that appeared to be composed of hissing snakes! The devil's staff extended a blade, becoming a vicious glaive, and it slashed and struck with snaky beard at both the rogue and the dwarf paladin, then at the half-orc barbarian as she drew in to fight.

The thrust of a blade brought the bearded devil low. But it was not the only horror in the dark temple beneath the Durst house.

As they battled atop the dais, a strange, black ooze flowed in from the crack and drew towards the heroes. They all felt a chill and a psychic miasma in the air, a sense of dread and wrong. Runkoki recognized it at once. It was a slime devil. This must then be Lorgoth the Decayer. He shouted to the others, "It's just an ooze! I will handle this!" Perhaps it was bravery, perhaps foolishness. But it led to his death, all the same. The slime devil struck at the dwarf paladin, and in one blow it shattered his skull and dissolved the front of his body, leaving a gory mess. With a final blow, the bearded devil was struck down, and the heroes fled. Cira had rigged the wheel they found on the inner wall to drop the portcullis, though it barely slowed the slime devil.

They ran from it, reaching a set of hidden steps they had found earlier that led up to the first floor den. But the house was filling with toxic smoke, and phantom blades slashed at them as they passed through every open door. It took two of them to break down the front doors and rush out into the chill, evening air. Smoke and dust billowed out, but the doors to the house slammed shut.

Barovia, as the night mists rolled in.

Numb and alone in the deserted streets, the heroes had lost a friend. There was little else to do but seek shelter for the night. They made their way down the street and found a tavern - the Blood on the Vine (though Cira was sure the "on" had once been "of" before being scratched over). After banging on the door, they were let in. A surly looking bartender, a trio of dark-haired barmaids in silks, and a youngish man with pale, blonde hair and a grim look on his face were the only ones inside. It took some sweet talk and quite a bit of coin to get food and drinks, and one of the barmaids suggested they should try and find someplace to stay ere the night became too dangerous.

As they pondered their next move, the young man introduced himself as Ismark Kolyanovich, the son of the town's former Burgomaster, and inquired as to why outlanders had come to Barovia, especially so late at night. They shared the two letters they had found, and the young man was startled and amazed. "Perhaps this is providence, and the Morninglord has delivered you to aid me and my sister, Ireena. I need to return ere long to her side, for attacks have come at night. My father died only two nights ago, and she has been bitten twice by the devil Strahd! I fear she will not survive a third attempt. Will you come and aid us?" They agreed, and set out as night fell over Barovia.
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