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

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 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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