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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 23: The Crypts of Castle Ravenloft
The heroes had returned to Barovia village following Kyne's betrayal in the dungeons beneath Castle Ravenloft. Ismark Kolyanovich had put them up for the night, and when dawn came, they decided on a course of action. The Sunsword had been lost to them, and with no other clues to go on, Evan came up with the suggestion that they visit Madam Eva and have their fortunes told once more. Lacking any other clear course, the rest of the group agreed. Shortly after breaking their fast the heroes made their way along the road out of town towards the Vistani encampment at Tser Pool. The Vistani had not moved on, and though they were initially wary, they remembered the heroes and greeted them cautiously but warmly. After an exchange of gifts, they were led to Madam Eva's tent.

"Welcome again," the old woman said as they entered. "You have come to have your fortunes told, yes? I will give you three answers. One for the question you came to ask, one for the question you did not come to ask, and one for the question you did not know to ask." Although confused, the heroes paid the price of one gold coin and Evan stepped forward to draw the cards. The gnome wizard drew the 6 of Glyphs - the Anarchist. "The treasure you seek is in a hall of bones on a table of bones." He next drew the Seer. "Your foe awaits you in a place of warmth, wisdom, and despair." Finally, Evan drew the Broken One. "A man of faith, whose sanity hangs by a thread. He will be your greatest ally...now. There is another with him you need. One eye, one hand." With that, she told them that the best repayment would be to give Strahd peace and lay him to rest at long last. The heroes thanked her and left, pondering her reading.


The heroes had questions, and Madam Eva had answers...

They came to the conclusion that the "hall of bones" could only be an ossuary, likely found beneath a cathedral or castle. As they had found nothing of the sort in the Amber Temple or the Abbey of St. Markovia, they realized it had to be beneath Castle Ravenloft. Second, they determined a place of warmth would have a hearth, and wisdom indicated books, and finally that place would also have to be in the castle. Thus, they would likely find Strahd in his study. Finally, the broken man of faith could only be Father Donavich, whose son Doru had become a vampire. They visited him at the church of the Morninglord in Barovia, and he agreed to accompany them to the castle when they were ready to confront Strahd. "Not for revenge. But for justice." And more importantly, there was one there with him, a man with dusky skin and pale hair. He wore a patch over one eye, and one hand was gloved with an archer's gauntlet. He was Zahar, an archer with a knack for magic, and a hunter of werewolves. Both Caxius and Shokk had met him what seemed like months ago when they set out from Daggerford to investigate werewolves in the Misty Forest. He'd been lost in the woods for days he'd said, only to find himself...here. With the duo vouching for him (and with him having nowhere else to go) Zahar decided fighting a vampire lord and finding a way out of this land sounded like productive uses of his time.

With that, the heroes made their way back up the road to the castle of Strahd von Zarovich. They ran into a group of hunters along the way, shortly after finding wolf tracks and a hidden bundle of clothes in the mud near the gallows at the Tser crossroads. This same group had suggested campsites to them in the past, and with a short detour, Volta determined it would be an excellent place to be ambushed. Werewolves, they surmised. Well, time to deal with them later.

The black coach was waiting for them as they reached the western Gates of Ravenloft. The mute driver gestured as the coach's doors opened. Without word, the heroes climbed in or clambered on the runners, and took the ride up to the castle. The coach clattered across the drawbridge and onto the cobbled courtyard. The doors of the castle stood open, the light of torches spilling out. The heroes made their way inside, past the entry hall, and to the spiral stair that down to the flooded dungeon far below. They made their through the torture chamber, up onto the balcony, and to the room with the strange, stone brazier.


The black coach awaited them. Strahd knew they were coming, and was seemingly unconcerned.

There were seven slots around it, and a verse detailing seven locales around the land. Seven stones, each a different color, rested in small depressions around the edge of the brazier. The large hourglass above was filled with black sand that did not run down to the bottom. Using his arcane talents, Evan identified the brazier as a teleportation device. One of the colored stones could be cast into the white flame burning without heat in its center. The flame would change color, the sand run down, and a teleportation circle open. After a minute, the circle would close and the stone roll back up to its starting position. They determined some of the likely locales - the Amber Temple, the Abbey of St. Markovia, the castle's highest tower - but declined to try any at the moment.

They turned their attention to the stairs leading up from this room, and took the middle path. It led to a fog-shrouded, narrow corridor with a pit trap that Shokk barely avoided falling down thanks to Volta's reflexes and strong grip. The polished marble shaft led down at an angle, likely back to the flooded dungeon Evan thought. Zahar made his way forward, carefully blocking the pit's lid closed with a spike after it reset. Edging down the narrow passage, the heroes found it ended in a blank stone door with no handle or hinge. Volta pushed it open, and discovered that they had exited into the crypts beneath the castle. Once again, fog crept up to their shins and they could feel the squish of filth beneath their boots. Thousands of bats clung to the ceiling overhead.

Without any other prospects, the heroes began to search the crypts. They passed a few by, opening the likely prospects. They found the crypt of Saint Markovia herself, where bones animated into a giant skeleton with long, bony claws and a handful of skeleton warriors. These foes were quickly smashed, and the only thing remaining was a decorated thighbone on the marble slab. A spirit, that of the blessed saint herself, appeared and bid them use her body as a weapon. The thighbone was magic, enchanted to strike like a mace that would disrupt the undead with its holy power. Verity took the weapon, and the bard had a determined look on her face.

Another crypt opened into a shaft that dropped 40 feet into a vault filled with coffins. The group descended, finding that the dozen plus coffins were occupied - by wights! But Verity's quick thinking led her to dazzle the wights with a hypnotic pattern of lights, giving Evan time enough to surround them with a wall of fire. The wights that weren't consumed by flame were cut down in swift order, their life-stealing touch no match for enchanted steel and silver arrows.

They went on, finding some minor treasures in one crypt, and a harness of wood, leather, and metal in another that appeared to be some sort of flying machine - along with a musket pistol, smoke powder, and plenty of silver bullets! Volta took the contraption, while Evan took the gun. They found another crypt, that of King Triosky, and a swarm of skeletal body parts flew out and attacked! Two skeletal warriors with four arms rose, as did the skeleton on the bier. It had a three-faced helm with three skulls beneath! This dreaded skull lord and his undead minions fought hard, and Volta nearly fell as several of the heroes were wounded badly. But Caxius used his magic wand to change one of the skeletal warriors into a bunny rabbit and absconded with the tiny beast! With these foes defeated, they found the skull lord's plate armor was enchanted to provide resistance to the cold touch of necrotic magic.


The Skull Lord, King Triosky, was not amused at being roused.

They made their way back to a small side chamber, blocked by a portcullis. Shokk was able to raise the gate, and they found a larger tomb with a coffin on a large, marble slab. Three statues stood in niches along the far wall - two angels flanking a young warrior in shining mail. This was the tomb of Strahd's brother, Sergei von Zarovich. His body was perfectly preserved in his coffin, and his shining half-plate looked new. Cira could tell it was theirs to take, that Sergei was at peace with Ireena's (or Tatyana's, as it were) passage beyond the misty borders of this dark land. This was a place of peace. The heroes chose to rest here for a short time, then press on to find the ossuary and take the Sunsword back...
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Chapter 22: Betrayal
The heroes opted for another course of action. Time, they felt, was pressing in on them. A return to Castle Ravenloft was in order. Apart from a brief and unsuccessful ambush by a group of hillfolk barbarians - the leader of which was bald and strangely pale - the way to Strahd's home was clear of obstruction. No black carriage awaited them at the Gates of Ravenloft this time, and they saw strange, ghostly figures in the mist and rain off the road. When the heroes arrived at the castle, they found the drawbridge down and the gates open wide.

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

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


Emil Toranescu before...

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


...and after.

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

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

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


The boneclaws had terribly long claws...

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


The necromancer's handiwork.

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

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

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

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


RATS!

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

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

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

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


The innocent and unfortunate Gertruda.

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

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


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

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

They returned to the village of Barovia, joined later by Kyne, who had hidden. They rested, determined that they would first head to Vallaki, then perhaps to Krezk, and gather supplies and reinforcements. They were not done with Strahd. Nor, they knew, was Strahd done with them...
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Chapter 20: Dinner With the Count
After a restful night in Vallaki, the heroes opted to head to Krezk to meet with the Abbot of the Abbey of St. Markovia. Along the road, as the heavy rain turned into wet snow, they saw a skeletal horseman plodding down the trail. The clop and rattle of the bony horse, the jingle of his rusted mail - all mournful sounds they had heard before. They stood aside to let this mute horror, this sign of Strahd's merciless wrath, pass in peace. It was not to be. A cold light burned in the skull's empty eye-sockets and the figure brought up its rusted lance. A raspy voice echoed from the hollow skull. "I will have my sword!" It was Vladimir Horngaard, his spirit now possessing this undead thing!

The former commander of the Order of the Silver Dragon charged Shokk, whose armor narrowly turned aside the lance. In an instant, the group fell on the dead knight and his skeletal horse, and they both fell under a flurry of blows and shattering spells. "I will be back..." the voice cried hollowly, fading off into an eerie echo.


This skeletal rider was no harmless phantom.

The rest of the trail was clear, and the heroes headed straight to the abbey. They climbed up the old switchback trail that led out of the village and up to the cliff where the abbey stood. Otto Belview greeted them in his cheery yet mildly insane way, escorting them through the gates of the main building. The courtyard was quiet, and it appeared that his cousin had finally broken her chain and flown off. They had briefly conversed with one of the guards, and learned the bells of the abbey tolled at odd intervals, both day and night. As they were escorted into the main hall, they saw the Abbot there with his creation, Vasilika, and the simulacrum of the archmage Mordenkainen that Evan had created with magic wrought from a scroll found in the Amber Temple.

The Abbot greeted them, and they remarked on how fast Vasilika's education was progressing. The heroes told him of their difficulty with the night hag, Morgantha, and the Abbot was hard pressed to grant them any aid. He had been barred from the other realms, or so he said, and could do no more than offer them shelter. The simulacrum of Mordenkainen offered a solution. It had an enchantment that could grant the recipient true seeing, enough to see things not of this world. If the heroes could use this spell when one of their number fell into a nightmare, they could see the hag as she hovered near her victim. A charm to dispel magic would be enough to bring her forth. The charm around her neck, it explained, was the key to her power to fade into the ether. If that were taken, she would be vulnerable and could be slain.

The heroes agreed to stay the night, and enacted their plan. Cira waited patiently with the simulacrum as the others slept, and when Verity began to writhe and moan in the throes of a nightmare, she cast her spell. The hag appeared! With a furious snarl, she began to leap at Cira while she clutched for the small pendant around her neck. But Kyne was faster, and snatched it away. Morgantha howled with fury and unleashed her claws and spells, but she fell to Volta's axe and Shokk's sword. She was slain, and her body faded back into the nothing of dreams.


Morgantha had haunted their dreams for the last time.

Freed of her dogged haunting, the heroes thanked the Abbot come the morning and left. They opted to head back to Castle Ravenloft, taking advantage of what hours of daylight they had left. They arrived a few hours before sundown, in the midst of a storm. The black coach was waiting for them past the gates of Ravenloft, and the heroes chose to ride to the castle. The coach stopped in the courtyard, and they stepped out. The doors to the castle remained open, and the heroes entered cautiously. The foyer had four dragon statues, one perched in each corner, and the inner doors led to a vast, octagonal hall. Stairs to the north led up, a door to the east led back, and a hall to the south led to more stairs and another door. They could hear the thunderous, mournful tunes of an organ being played from behind that last set of doors.

A dusky-skinned elf with black hair wearing the rich garb of a castellan came down the stairs. "The master," he said in solemn tones, "is expecting you. He would like you to join him for dinner." Though Shokk and Cira prepared to walk off, Caxius turned with a smile and approached the double doors. Worrying for their friend, the rest of the group went with him. Beyond, there was a large dining hall, the huge table laid with a great feast. Across the room, playing the organ, was a dark-haired figure in black and red clothes. It was none other than Strahd von Zarovich himself. He turned as they entered.


Rahadin, the Count's chamberlain.

"Welcome, my friends. I am glad you accepted my invitation. Rahadin," he nodded to the elf, "you may leave us." With a nod, the elf closed the doors behind the heroes. Caxius and a couple of others dug into the feast, while Shokk, Cira, and Verity watched. "We do not need to be enemies," the Count exclaimed, "if fact, I can send you home, provided you agree to serve me for a time first." Questions came, suspicions were raised, and though Kyne felt the offer a fair one, the rest refused point-blank. "Foolish," Strahd chided. "Very foolish. You may stay the night to think on your refusal, but I warn the castle is not...safe." With a booming laugh from the vampire lord, the chandeliers overhead went out as a great rush of cold wind swept the dining hall. The tapers re-ignited, and Strahd was gone. The heroes could hear the doors of the castle booming shut. They might be trapped...


Verity wasn't sure if Strahd was playing a welcome...or a funeral dirge.

They began to explore the area, and found a secret panel behind the organ, which slid forward when one of the pedals was pressed. Shokk moved into a defensive redoubt behind, made his way to one of the castle's corner towers, and followed a cobweb-choked hall to a spiral stair leading up. The rest followed, and they climbed to a small room on the next floor. A white-haired balding man sat chained to a desk in a crowded room, ledgers, books, scrolls, and parchments cluttering every surface and the shelves behind him. He introduced himself as Lief Lipsiege, the count's accountant, and asked for naught save a bit of dinner. When Volta raised her axe to sever his chain, he misunderstood and shrieked with terror. A group of undead warriors and two undead sorcerers, all wights, entered from the stair up and wordlessly moved to attack the heroes. The battle was brief but intense, and the accountant unharmed. In gratitude, he gave them keys to the chests in the room and they took several hundred gold and silver coins and a strange book for themselves. There was another set of stairs that led up and out, the stairwell they had come up, which continued up, and another door that led deeper into the castle. Which way would they go...?
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Chapter 18: The House of Strahd
Having rescued a pair of small children, a boy and a girl, from cages in the hag's lair, the heroes decided to head on to Barovia village to find a place for them. They hadn't seen Ismark Kolyanovich for weeks either, and decided it was time to inform him of his sister's fate. But their passage was not unnoticed. They passed through the upper Gates of Ravenloft, in the shadow of the massive castle itself. A black coach, drawn by two black horses, awaited them. The driver was as silent and still as a phantom, and the doors to the carriage sprung open as the heroes neared. Volta, Verity, and Kyne entered the carriage as Evan and Lupin hustled the children down the road to safety. Caxius, Cira and Shokk balked at entering the eerie vehicle, and in an instant, the situation turned deadly.

The doors to the carriage slammed shut, trapping the trio inside. The horses seemed to burst into unearthly blue-purple flames and burn down to skeletons. The death coach charged Shokk and Cira, overrunning the pair and nearly trampling them fatally. The coachman lashed at Caxius, while Verity, Volta, and Kyne felt a deathly chill sap their very life-force. Verity forced the door open and jumped out, and was clipped and sent sprawling as a result. Kyne called on the gifts he had gotten at the Amber Temple, and blasted the coach from the inside with lightning and cold while Volta hacked away with her axe. Shokk swiped at it as it thundered by, and Caxius and Cira launched spells at the grim coach.


Strahd sent his coach for the heroes. They declined the offer.

Cira realized this black coach was not so much a vehicle and three creatures as it was a dark spirit, a single entity, no doubt sent by Strahd. With radiant light from her divine spells and the mighty hewing strokes of Shokk's blade, they managed to drive the thing off. It became no more substantial than smoke, thundering off back towards Castle Ravenloft. Badly hurt, the heroes forced their way down the road, recovering their strength as they hurried. Apart from a few hunters on the road, they had no challenges as they entered Barovia village.

Ismark was overjoyed to see them, and took the news of his sister's apparent rebirth and escape from Strahd's dark reach in stride. He put the heroes up for the night, giving them time to plot their next move. Shokk had terrible dreams that night, dreams of falling, and felt no better rested on the morrow. Despite his fatigue, he, Verity, Volta, Caxius, Cira, and Kyne set out to visit Castle Ravenloft. They figured that the time had come to find the bones of the silver dragon said to lay beneath the castle, and to learn more about their ultimate enemy.

The road to the castle was quiet, though the overcast skies grew into a storm by the time they reached the drawbridge. It passed over a sheer drop more than 1,000 feet high and led into the walls of the great castle. Castle Ravenloft was built atop a giant stone plinth, and overlooked the entirety of the valley to the east. Although the doors to the great central keep were open, the heroes made their way through the courtyard and along the side of the mighty castle. The inner walls were as high as the outer - nearly 80 feet - and were pierced by an iron portcullis. With a little might and magic, the gate was opened and the heroes circled the upper chapel and made their way to an overlook. Beneath the stone balcony, they could see windows carved into the rock more than 150 feet below. Using a climbing kit and some minor magic, Kyne secured three ropes together, anchored them around a gargoyle, and made his way down the face of the cliff to the windows.

They were opaque with caked on dirt, but he cleverly began to quietly remove the sections of stained glass in preparation of opening them. He quickly realized that he would have to cut an opening big enough to climb through, as the windows were fixed. Kyne also saw that it was some sort of tomb set in the rock beneath the castle. Finally, he saw only too late five black, spectral figures emerge from the stone around him and attack. Wraiths! Only his vampiric heritage saved him from instant death at their touch. Kyne quickly ignited the shining blade of the Sunsword and dove through the opening into the tomb. Caxius saw what was happening and grabbed Verity, using his magic to teleport them both inside. Cira and Shokk started to climb down the rope, hand over hand, to reach their comrades. The blade of sunlight along with Verity's magical pipes proved too much for the wraiths, who fled into the darkness. Shokk nearly slipped coming down the rope, but made his way after Cira into the tomb.


Castle Ravenloft stood like a brooding titan.

The heroes found they were in the catacombs beneath the castle, and that this was the tomb of Queen Ravenovia and King Baranov, Strahd's parents. A curtain of blue light sealed the crypt, and it was quickly determined that only Cira could pass back and forth through the wall of light. Everyone else was stuck in the upper catacombs. Realizing there was no other way out, the heroes began to explore the catacombs beneath Castle Ravenloft.

The catacombs were cramped, the floor thick with mist and a squishy substance that proved to be bat guano, based on the literally thousands of bats perched overhead. They opened several tombs, finding a vampire bride of Strahd's, along with a banshee, a body covered in gold, and a tomb with Kyne's name! The place was horrid and dank and they finally found the stairs out. Making their way up, they stopped at the next level. The corridor they found was thick with fog, and a short figure was slumping down their way. He was not quite five feet tall, broad shouldered, and had animal-like features. He was Cyrus Belview, a member of the same family experimented on by the Abbot, and Strahd's manservant. He offered to show the heroes the way out, one that would allow them to bypass the main hall.

Foolishly, they accepted.


Strahd's portrait was as evil as the vampire lord himself.

He led them to a side corridor, and gestured for them to enter. As the heroes made their way down, a pair of steel shutters slammed shut to either side of them. That section of the corridor became an elevator and flooded with gas that nearly rendered them unconscious. It shot up 300 feet in a matter of seconds, and ended at a simple landing. There were two statues, a portrait of Strahd, a rug in front of a door, and spiral steps to either side, one going up, one going down. It turned out the rug, the statues, and even the portrait were guardian constructs. The heroes dealt with them swiftly and surely, made their way down the steps, found the main hall, and retreated from the castle. Strahd's mocking laughter could be heard in the storm....
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Tags: Milestone , Recap
Chapter 16: The Amber Temple, Part 3
Leaving Evan behind to continue his experiments in the alchemist's lab, the heroes made their way along the upper west hall to the double doors at the end. Inside, they found a plain dining hall with a large table set with an enormous feast! They could smell roast meat, fresh vegetables, warm bread, piping hot gravy, and good, strong wine. Cira, Shokk, and Volta moved in as Verity, Caxius, and Kyne slowly examined the room. Cira saw a tarnished copper ewer on the table as Shokk dug in to the food, which tasted as delicious as it smelled. Cira quickly realized the food was but an illusion, as the wine did not cleanse her palate. Only the copper ewer was real. As she reached to grab for it, the food vanished. Eight specters, literal ghosts at feast. passed through the wall. With a raise of the Holy Symbol of Ravenkind, Cira blasted them all from existence.

Making their way downstairs, the heroes examined the two sets of double doors leading off the main hall by the great statue. The first set had been sundered, and only an empty hall with shattered weapons, crushed bones, and rent armor remained. As they entered, Shokk, Verity, and Volta were attacked by an invisible force. Poltergeists, legacies of long-forgotten adventurers, as it turned out were responsible, but enchanted steel and spells put a quick end to them all. In the second vault, the heroes found treasure - mounds of it - when the amber doors were breached by Shokk. He also found a beating from some invisible force, but Cira dispelled the enchantment and revealed a large, amber statue of an armored man with the head of a hawk. Despite the blows it rained down, the heroes fought back and shattered it to bits.


Vampire spawn awaited in the great vault. No doubt Strahd had been here, and prepared for any who sought to find his secrets.

Behind the statue, they found cracks in the wall that led into another large chamber. Volta, Verity, and Shokk began to squeeze their way through, and found a large vault with a black, marble floor and three enormous blocks of amber in niches. A half a dozen rotted crates were scattered about, and a gold marble stair with a black railing on the far end of the room spiraled upwards. The huge blocks were crude sarcophagi, but the trio found the room was inhabited. As Volta crossed by one of crates, it sundered from within - as did the rest! Vampires, all clad like adventurers from some far-off land, jumped on the heroes. Kyne slipped in the chamber, the Sunsword flashing with lighting-fast jabs. Caxius slipped in, blasting about with eldritch force, while Cira came behind, sunlight flashing forth from the Holy Symbol of Ravenkind. The sunlight, Volta's axe, and Shokk's blade did the heavy lifting, and soon the vampire spawn were all dust.

They examined the three amber blocks, and Kyne found they each contained vestiges as well. One offered the dark gift of the Vampyr, and Kyne had no doubt this is where Strahd had made his dark bargain centuries ago. He received another gift, from Zhudun, the Corpse Star, which enabled him to raise the dead - once - at the cost of appearing like one dead himself. With their curiosity satisfied, the heroes made their way up the stairs. They found a great library, lined with black marble bookcases. The books were all blank, but the arcane casters among the party realized they would reveal their text when the proper command words were spoken. They also found a pair of secret doors. One to the south led to steps that emerged on the floor of the main hall, behind the great statue.

The other led into a small, dusty chamber. But further examination revealed a second door leading west into an opulent bedchamber, albeit one that was dusty and festooned with cobwebs. A figure in rich but tattered robes stood there, and turned as the door opened. It was a skeleton, its eye sockets blazing with pinpoints of red light. A lich! "Who are you?" It asked in a puzzled voice, "and why are you here?" Caxius introduced them, to which it replied. "Ah, I am...well, I don't remember who I am." An amnesiac lich. Cira, feeling bold, cast a Greater Restoration spell from the scroll they had found earlier, and the undead wizard's memory was restored in full. He introduced himself as Exethanter, and said he was there learning knowledge. He knew the heroes were after it as well, and said there was one book in the library they did not need a password to read. A quick search turned it up - the Tome of Strahd! A quick read revealed much of the dark lord's history, and the heroes felt better prepared to face the vampire.


Exethanter was terrifying yet quite well-mannered for an undead wizard.

The lich revealed there was one more vault, which could be found off the second balcony above the great hall. The heroes made their way, finding a secret door at the rear of the small shrine there, and went downstairs to what appeared to be the far end of the collapsed hall to the east. A single vault was there, already open, with three amber sarcophagi in it. As Shokk entered, a figure appeared - a gray-skinned toad-like humanoid in armor carrying a wicked sword. A death slaad, Kyne realized! It was a tough foe, but the heroes cut it down swiftly. The vestiges trapped here offered great strength, resilience, and true sight, but most of the heroes declined their bargains.

Resting briefly, the heroes opted to leave the Amber Temple. As they made their way down to Tsolenka Pass, Kyne stumbled across a ring in the trail. Fascinated, he picked it up. It was gold, with the two-headed raven sigil in onyx as the stone. Putting it on, he was almost overwhelmed by a strange presence. Verity identified the ring, revealing it to be the component of a Magic Jar spell. It was none other than Strahd, attempting to possess him! He tossed the ring aside, but swore he heard a snarl of rage on the wind. Then, as the heroes neared the bridge across the pass, they heard the flap of wings in the dark, cloudy skies overhead....
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Chapter 14: The Amber Temple
The night passed, and when the heroes awoke, they found wolf tracks in the snow around their magical shelter. "I'll follow them for a bit, and make sure that nothing is lying in wait for us," Lupin told the rest, and the ranger took off. The rest of the heroes descended the narrow stair in the cliff face into the cold darkness of the Amber Temple. They passed arrow slits set in the walls and exited the steps onto a huge balcony overlooking a vast, dark chamber. Caxius could see a 40-foot high statue of a hooded, robed figure at the far end. Amber-sheathed double doors stood to either end of the balcony, the set on the east side ajar. Steps led down from either side of the balcony north to the floor of the vast chamber.

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


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

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

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

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

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


Inside the Amber Temple.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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


Yup. It was freaking MORDENKAINEN!

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Come the dawn, Kyne returned to the Church of St. Andral and had the curse upon him removed by Father Petrovich's prayers. He returned to the inn, and he and the rest of the heroes were greeted by some of the Baroness's soldiers. Apparently, they had been summoned to meet with her...
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Chapter 9: The Wolves of Lake Baratok
As it turned out, Shokk and Kyne had not gotten far, as the rain had washed out the road headed north from the ruins of Berez. After a cold and wet day fighting off more than few wolves, they managed to hike overland and reach the Wizard of Wines shortly after dark. They supped and rested with their comrades. Come the dawn, they all set out north. Old Davian Martikov had suggested that the last of the Seeds of Life had been taken north by the hillfolk, somewhere north of the lakes.

With aught else to go on the heroes set out. Lupin had gone ahead to scout, and they lost sight of him in the woods. They reached the Raven River crossroads late in the morning, only to find four small children waiting there. They were all wet and shivering, nearly blue with the cold. They could see the banks of the river were swollen with water, and a wrecked wagon was lodged under the bridge on one side, upside-down. "Our mama is trapped in the wagon!" One of the children cried, "She's going to drown!" They were scared for their mother, and unwilling to be left behind, so Caxius and Cira each grabbed one child and Volta grabbed two. They followed Shokk across the bridge. Verity, Evan, and Kyne waited on the other side, suspicious of the raging waters and the surrounding woods.

Shokk reached the wagon and waded into the dark, turbulent waters. A limp figure with long, dark hair spilling out into the water around her lay beneath the surface. As Shokk reached for her, she moved. Her face was pale and dead but her nailed hands and long, wet strands of hair grasped the half-orc paladin and pulled him under! As Shokk struggled with the drowned woman, the children turned now-black eyes on Volta, Cira, and Caxius. "Shh," they said. "It's time for us to be buried." They clawed and bit at the three, impossibly forcing them into the ground, up to their waists.


The drowned maiden had a cold embrace.

Cira raised her holy symbol, and two of the undead children staggered back with jerky movements, unable to approach. But Volta could not get her axe to bear, and Cira was still grabbed. Both were pulled under the cold, dark earth. Shokk continued to struggle against the drowned maiden and pulled her up onto the bank even as her hair choked him, her cold claws raked at him, and her gaze caused him to choke up cold water, struggling to breathe. Verity, Evan, and Kyne launched magic and missiles at their undead foes, though the bridge blocked a few shots. One of the children fell, burned by Evan's spells, its body crumbling away to smoldering ash. Cira burst free of the ground, and used spells and invocations to drive the undead back. Caxius fell, his lungs filled by the maiden's cold gaze, only to rise again thanks to the spirits at his command. Shokk finally cut the maiden down, and her body slid into the dark water and disappeared. They quickly dug up Volta, who was panting for breath but otherwise unharmed.

The heroes rested for a short time, cleaning their scratches, bandaging their wounds, and getting the caked dirt off their clothes. They opted to follow a rough trail north, towards Lake Baratok. Savid, their dusk elf guide, did not know what awaited. They found an old, stone tower at the end of a grassy estuary. A barrel-topped wagon, painted purple, was parked out front. The heroes approached cautiously, and examined the wagon and the tower. The back door of the wagon was locked, and Kyne was certain it was trapped. The tower was old and crumbling, with a scaffold around it part way up. The iron door had no handle, but was set with a copper plate inscribed with stick figures and a diagram of some sort. Shokk touched the door...and was in for quite a shock. Literally, in this case, as a bolt of lightning slammed into the tower and sent him and Caxius reeling. He tried again, only for the lightning to strike a second time. "Stop!" Cira said, and she cautiously moved up to examine the door. She mirrored the poses of the stick figures, following the diagram for their order. The door swung silently open.

Inside, they found an elevator platform lifted by chains and pulleys by four large, clay golems. A few ascended to the top, where they found a furnished chamber and (of all things) the severed head of a Vistani man, preserved and stuffed into a chest! They tossed the head down to Caxius, who was able to ask it a few questions. The man had been killed by the carnival master they had met in Vallaki, Rictavio! He had been a thief and tried to rob the man. He felt that Rictavio was a threat to his people, but he had no real other answers. As the heroes left the tower, Savid saw something running up the estuary - a pack of wolves.

The wolves surrounded the heroes, and several in the lead...changed. Stood upright. And began to speak. "The huntress," their leader snarled, "where is she?" Although the heroes professed no knowledge of any huntress, the werewolves were on the hunt, and they attacked! It was a savage and bloody battle, though Cira's conjured angelic guardian spirits and the hungry darkness the warlock Caxius produced slowed down the advance of fur and fangs. Evan rolled under the wagon at one point and found a hidden trap door. He crawled inside, only to realize the inside was booby-trapped with a hundred or so flasks of alchemist's fire, which would all be triggered if the back door was opened. He cautiously crawled out after that, blasting away with his cantrips. Volta's axe and Shokk's greatsword took a heavy toll on the wolves, as did Kyne's blade of sunlight. In the end the heroes were victorious, though bloodied, and rested for a while by the tower.


The werewolves were hungry for blood.

With no sign of other inhabitants, the heroes left the wagon alone and headed along the west shore of the lake, making their way north into the dark forested foothills of the mountain beyond. After an hour's walk, Volta came across what she first thought to be a game trail through the woods. It was not, as only wolf tracks could be seen. Intrigued, the heroes followed the trail northwest. Beyond the cold mist and dark trees it led, up past the treeline, to a cave entrance. The cave was framed by a rock overhang which looked eerily like the open jaws of a wolf, complete with rocky fangs. Torchlight glowed from somewhere within.

Kyne sneaked forward, and found a pack of wolves and a man in ragged clothes and a fur vest playing a flute for them. He could hear more movement in the cave but opted to go back and let the group know what he found. They approached cautiously but openly, and Shokk called out to see if any would greet them. The man in the ragged fur vest and two women clad in furs came out. They had been looking, the paladin said, for a lost Vistani child and wondered if they had seen any children. The man let out a rough laugh. "You came for the children, eh? I think not. You won't leave this place. You will only die here, with my teeth at your throat!" With that, they changed, revealing themselves as werewolves.

It was a brief but savage fight, and three more werewolves rushed out to join the fray. But the heroes' skill with steel and spells prevailed, and the werewolves were all slain. All but one. Kyne explored the cave and found a shrine where several children were being held in wooden cages. He also killed what he though was a feral wolf pup, but turned out to be a young werewolf. In the shrine he found a dark-skinned woman kneeling in front of the statue of a wolf-headed female with a crescent moon behind her head, like a halo. Treasure was scattered about the floor in front of the statue, and among the coins and jewels was a green stone that glowed with inner light - the last Seed of Life!

The woman introduced herself as Zuleika, and said the pack's leader, Kiril Stoyanovich, was a dog under Strahd's heel. Her husband had been taken and killed by the vampire at Kiril's behest, and she prayed to Mother Night that he would be returned safe or that she would be given her vengeance. She said the heroes were proof of one prayer being answered, and said she would help them against Kiril. He and the rest of the pack were on the hunt, and would return soon. The heroes bandaged their wounds and rested. They could hear howls in the late afternoon sun, howls that drew closer as the sun neared the horizon and night began to fall.
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Tags: Milestone , Recap
Chapter 8: Yester Hill
Leaving the ruins of Berez early the following morning, the heroes split into two groups. Kyne and Shokk opted to head back to Vallaki to see if they could find any rumors about where the third Seed of Life could be found, while the rest chose to scout Yester Hill. Savid told them they could take the trail north again, follow the road west to the Raven River Crossroads, and then head south, past the Wizard of Wines. Alternately, they could go south along the Luna River and skirt the north shore of the lake, then follow the river west to reach Yester Hill. That would take roughly half the time. The rest of the group agreed that was a better course of action and set off.


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

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

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


The nuckalavee brought death in its wake.

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

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


The summit of Yester Hill.

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

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


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

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

It was Strahd von Zarovich.

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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


Lord Vladimir Horngaard.

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

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

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

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


Baba Lysaga's creeping hut, come to life.

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

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


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

And she attacked. She cast terrible spells, blasts of flame and dark, necrotic energy. She turned into a cloud of flies and back again, disappeared in a mist only to reappear nearby. She deflected attacks and spells, and things looked grim for the heroes. But in the end, a final blow from Volta and a spell from Evan dropped the witch. It had been a near thing, and Shokk and Cira had nearly perished, but the heroes prevailed. They found a wand on the hag, one with the power to change a creature's shape, and a few other treasures and magics in her treasure chest. They opted to find higher ground, in one of the ruined huts, and rest until evening. Surely the dangers of Berez had all been dealt with...?
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