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Tag: level_up

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 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 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 6: Argynvostholt
The heroes left St. Andral's Church early the next morning. Father Lucian told them that things had been quiet since his sermon last night, but they had best leave early to avoid any conflicts. What townsfolk were up at the early hour hastily changed direction as the heroes passed. The gate guards let them through with no protest, though their mute, sullen faces gave them suspicious glares. By the time the sun had risen behind the dark clouds, they were headed west on the Old Svalich Road. They made their way to the switchback trail that led southeast to the so-called haunted mansion they had heard of without incident. Rumor had it that an order of knights led by a dragon had once called it home, and the reading given to them by Madam Eva said that a powerful weapon against Strahd would be found in the house of the dragon.

The trail led steeply upward, through mist-shrouded woods. The heroes as it turned out, were not here alone. Four of the wild hillfolk jumped out from hiding. Their skins were covered with clay and bits of brush, and they caught the heroes by surprise. They roared a savage battle cry, and attacked with their stone-bladed axes. The berserkers were fierce foes, but the heroes made a swift end of them. After cleaning up and tending to their wounds, they reached the abandoned chateau.

The statue stood like a mute sentinel.

The mansion's southern third had collapsed, and the rest of the massive stone edifice was in bad repair. As they approached the flagstone steps up to the main doors, they circled a huge statue of a silver dragon on a stone perch. There was no sign of life or traps in the carved stone, but as they reached the top of the steps, its mouth opened and a blast of cold air made their hair stand on end. There were no other surprises, and the heroes entered the great mansion. A single word was carved above the door, on the stone lintel: ARGYNVOSTHOLT.

Beyond the door was a great hall, with a massive stair leading up to a second-story balcony running along both sides of the hall. Doors led off of each side, six in all. As Caxius, Evan, Shokk, Verity, and Volta went to the north side of the hall, Cira and Lupin went south. The first group found an abandoned suite, a few tower rooms, and a kitchen in bad repair. The second group found a nest of giant spiders, each nearly the size of a pony! They rushed back to help their comrades, and it was close thing. Thick webs, like gray ropes, clung to Cira and Lupin, and a few painful, swollen bites could be seen on their flesh. But magic and steel slew the last of the fell beasts.

With trepidation, the heroes made their way back through a ruined dining hall, and to a small chapel beyond. Doors with large, stained glass windows led into the place. A broken window along one of the chapel's sides let fog spill in from the small graveyard on the north side of the manor house. A trio of figures in rusty mail knelt before the altar of the Morninglord.

[I]The revenant knights of the Silver Dragon were angered by the heroes' intrusion...[/I]

They rose and turned as the heroes entered, and one spoke with a voice that was cold, sepulchral, and hollow as an open tomb. "You do not belong here. You will die for this trespass!" The trio moved forward with rusty blades, and the heroes barely withstood their onslaught. Cira recognized them as revenants, and knew that they were in trouble. Lupin rained blows on one, which it shrugged off with ease, it's dead flesh knitting shut where he had stabbed the undead warrior. Shokk and Volta hewed at them with their axes, but the trio refused to fall easily. Cira and Evan blasted them with radiant light, while Verity rained down crossbow bolts and fiery spells and Kyne darted in and out, his silver daggers flashing.

One by one, the revenants fell, burning thanks to Evan and Verity. As their corpses smoldered, Cira tended to the serious wounds that Lupin, Volta, and Shokk had all taken. They decided to bandage up, clear the ground floor, and rest. A brief exploration of the chapel's balcony and a couple of rooms on the upper floor revealed nothing - except a bust, cloaked in illusion, that appeared to be Kyne's severed head! Caxius led a small group outside to search the mist-shrouded cemetery and the large, marble mausoleum outside. They slid its stone door open, and the hollow crypt was empty. A couplet in draconic was carved into one wall, and Caxius used his dark-given gifts to translate it. Apparently, this was the resting place of the silver dragon Argynvost. The same silver dragon that apparently founded this order of knights. Its bones were not present, and this worried the heroes.

Savid, the dusk elf scout. He had seen much in his four centuries, but even he was scared of what lay in these walls.

As they cleared the lower floor, they found an elf with dusky skin and dark hair hiding in a wine storage room. He introduced himself as Savid, and said he'd come here searching for a Vistani girl who'd gone missing from the camp outside Vallaki. He and his people had come to the valley of Barovia centuries ago. Strahd had conquered their homeland, and they were among the few that remained. They were forced to serve the Vistani. He had been wounded, and the heroes patched him up. He revealed that the dragon had indeed founded this knightly order, the Order of the Silver Dragon, and that they had fallen in battle with Strahd. The dark lord himself had slain the silver dragon. Its ghost was said to haunt these ruins. The heroes and their new friend made their way back to one of the tower rooms, barred the door, and rested fitfully until night fall. The rest of Argynvystholt awaited....

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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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Prologue: An Invitation/Death House
A company of six stalwart adventurers sat in the River Shining Tavern in the town of Daggersford. They had been a scant few adventures together - fighting bandits along the Trade Way south, goblins in the Ardeep Forest, and even escorting a caravan north to Waterdeep. They had been fast friends since a young age, and planned to seek fortune, glory, and (for some) redemption, together for years yet to come.

There was Rundoki Wrathblade, a dwarven paladin of Tyr, seeking a measure of justice for himself and those he had wronged in the past. He and another rough youth, a pale human rogue of tainted blood named Kyne Darkblade, had come up together. Kyne had turned from darker pursuits to seeking down criminals for coin. Through Rundoki's religious studies he had met Cira Sundance, a young priestess of Lathander from the Morninglow Tower. She had been friends for quite some time with the bard and adventuress Tiberas Starkiller, a half-elven lass whose tales and songs thrilled patrons in Daggerford and beyond. They had made an unlikely friend in Volta, a young half-orc woman raised by woodcutters to the east of town. She had become a local hero after killing a group of bandits that had slain the granddaughter of Daggerford's ruler, Lady Morwen Daggerford. Despite her rough appearance, she loved her fancy long coat and would whittle toys for the local children. And the most unlikely friend was Evan Timers, nicknamed "the Pants-Plunderer," a gnome and would-be wizard, trickster, and scholar of sorts.

The River Shining Tavern was warm and cozy, but the night was dark...and full of terrors.

They discussed their next venture over cold ale and a warm fire as dark clouds and rain made for a cold night outside. A stranger came into the tavern, a dark-haired man dressed in bright silks under a traveler's cloak. Gold winked from a single earring and off rings on his fingers. He approached the group and offered them a sealed letter. "I have come seeking help for a small town, east of here, on the borders of the forest. You look like the sort that might find such work...attractive?" He spoke with a strange accent, though there was neither menace or pleading in his voice. "Leave on the morrow if you wish to reply," he said, "and follow the trail east into the woods. Coin will be offered for your help, among other rewards. I will take my leave of you, for the chill of the night is on me, and I have miles yet to go ere I rest." Evan was able to identify him as one of the Vistani, mysterious travelers and traders who appeared now and again along the Sword Coast, apparently from somewhere to the south.

With that, the group looked at the letter. It was a missive from the Burgomaster of a small town named Barovia, a town that none of the companions were familiar with. It said that a great evil had fallen on their town, and the burgomaster's own adopted daughter was imperiled by it - a vampire! It was decided. They would leave come the morning.

The heroes set out east, into the highlands and the Misty Forest beyond, following the trail the mysterious messenger had indicated. The morning fog had only thickened as they traveled, and by midday, they were lost. The heroes managed to find a new trail, one that appeared to head west, back to the coast. Volta tried to head east, cutting a trail of her own, but her breath seemed to be caught in her throat. The cold mist was choking her! It appeared there was no other way to go. As they traveled, the heroes realized the very forest around them had changed and the trail rose instead of fell. Evan surmised they had gone through a crossing - a place where the barrier between worlds was thin. They could have crossed into the Feywild...or the Shadowfell.

Following the path, Volta found a dead body off the side of the road. It was a man, badly mauled by wolves, and he carried a letter. This too was from the Burgomaster, one Kolyan Indirovich. But instead of pleading for his adopted daughter Ireena, he urged those who received the missive to call upon holy men and seal up the ways to his land. For it was cursed, and ruled by a vampire named Strahd von Zarovich. There was no other way now. Feeling trapped by the mist and the dark trees, the heroes nevertheless pressed on. They reached a pair of massive gates, marking the entry to this land. As they passed through the great iron portals flanked by headless statues, the gates slammed shut behind them, like the doom-laden toll of a great, black bell.

The gates of Barovia, which slammed behind the heroes like the door of a tomb shutting for the last time.

Making their way forward a few miles, the heroes came across tended fields under overcast skies and a small village. No doubt this was Barovia. Night was fast approaching, and as they thought to seek an inn, the group saw a pair of children in the road ahead. It was a girl of about 10 and a shy boy of about 8. She wore a fine, gray dress and a red cape, and the boy wore a hooded gray coat, both with silver stitching and lined with fine fur. The girl introduced herself as Rosavalda and the boy as her brother, Thornboldt. She also said that there was a monster in her house, and her parents were trapped in a very matter-of-fact manner. Volta, wasting no time with children apparently in danger, followed them back to a narrow four-story home that appeared to be in need of some repair.

"Mama and papa call us Rose and Thorn," the girl said, as the children led Volta and the rest to their house.

The heroes went in past the rusty gate and through the heavy wooden front doors, after no one responded to their knocking. The group made their way in through the foyer to a great hall, one with polished black marble floors, a massive hearth on one end, and on the other a rosy, marble staircase that spiraled upwards. Doors led to a kitchen and pantry, a dining hall, and a den complete with stuffed wolves and some functional crossbows in a locked cabinet. The walls were paneled with carved wood showing forest and pastoral scenes, some with disturbing things hidden in the designs. Seeing no way downstairs, the group tried to ask the children where their parents were...only to find Rose and Thorn had vanished!

Making their way upstairs, the group found a library and a conservatory on the second floor, along with servants' quarters. As Tiberias played the harpsichord she found and Kyne searched the conservatory, the rest investigated the library. Cira found a secret room - complete with books of dark, infernal lore and the skeleton of what had no doubt been a thief slouched over an open chest. As the cleric approached it, the skeleton animated and books flew off the shelves, attacking like a swarm of bats with razor-edged wings! Although Evan was left bloodied and hurt, the group managed to dispatch most of the books and the skeleton without too much injury.

Something was definitely amiss in the house. Some rooms appeared fresh; others overrun with cobwebs and dust. Making their way to the third floor, the group was attacked by a suit of plate armor mounted on a stand at the head of the stairs that animated and tried to kill them! It was quickly dispatched, and they found abandoned bedrooms and a dusty nursery. When Volta entered, seeing that the cradle was occupied by a suspicious bundle, a misty apparition appeared! It was a young woman, possibly a nursemaid, though her eyes were hollow and her face contorted with wrath. She was translucent and gave off a ghostly blue-white light. "Nooo!" She cried, "leave the child alooone!" This horrid specter attacked, and only with Cira's holy fire and Rundoki's sacred blade was the thing finally defeated, dispersing into a silvery mist with a wail. Volta had taken what she believed to be a baby to safety, only to find it was no more than a bundle of blankets.

The wail of the nursemaid's specter chilled them to the bone.

Further searches apparently angered something within the house, as while Volta and Evan found a secret panel in one bedroom, a sheet and a sword in the master bedroom attempted to murder Kyne and Tiberas, while Rundoki and Cira fought an animated broomstick! Dealing with these threats, the group went upstairs, finding a dusty, cobwebbed attic with a room full of furniture on one side, a few cramped bedrooms, and a door closed with a padlock. Kyne was able to slip the lock, and inside they found a room furnished for two children, complete with toys, a dollhouse fashioned as a replica of the house they were in...and the bones of a boy and girl of about 8 and 10. Rose and Thorn appeared, leaving no doubt as to their ghostly nature. "Don't leave us," they implored, but fear had gripped the hearts of the heroes. Rundoki tried to reason with the restless spirits, but as they attempted to possess some of the others, blades and spells were brought to bay. Tiberas was nearly slain, as a ghostly hand passed through the bard's heart, causing it to cease beating for a brief moment. But blades and spells dispersed the ghosts, and their remains were bound up in sheets and taken, with Rundoki, Cira, and Volta hoping they could be laid to rest.

Kyne searched the dollhouse and the toys, finding a strange label on them. "Is no Blinksy, is no fun!" The labels declared. The dollhouse was more interesting, as it showed a secret stair spiraling down from the attic to...something...below. He found a matching secret door in the room with the sheet-covered furnishings, and opened it. They followed a wooden spiral stair down, until it became stone, and then down further into a series of narrow, packed-earth tunnels braced with heavy wooden beams. A series of crypts lay beyond, and they found a pair of unoccupied ones, labeled "Rosavalda Durst" and "Thornboldt Durst." The children's remains were laid to rest with a prayer, and they reappeared briefly, waving goodbye silently (and sadly, it seemed) as they vanished into a silvery mist. Despite the dark and the terrors around them, the heroes felt uplifted for the briefest of moments. With their hearts eased and their nerves steeled, they continued to look for the monster under the house...

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