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Darth Paul
Posted by the GM
Curse of Strahd
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" 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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Darth Paul
Posted by the GM
Curse of Strahd
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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Darth Paul
Posted by the GM
Curse of Strahd
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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Darth Paul
Posted by the GM
Curse of Strahd
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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Darth Paul
Posted by the GM
Curse of Strahd
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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