Last month James and I played Ravenloft II. What’s that, you ask? Well, after the success of the original Ravenloft, the writer was asked to catch lightning in a bottle again, and produced the bizarre sequel which brings Strahd von Zarovich back… or is it really him? James and I would joke about it over the years as something that sounded sort of hacky, but then we saw it was available on Drive Thru RPG as print on demand, so we bought it. James had a read and decided not only did this actually fit weirdly well with where Dirwin was going… but he really wanted to do it! So after years of us treating it like a joke, like how Doctor Who always meets the Master no matter how dead he seemed last time we saw him, we did it!
In the end, our findings were this. This campaign would probably only be playable in a very slim set of circumstances (which Dirwin just happened to meet). Also we got really nice Mary Shelleyesque vibes from the whole thing, and then we REALLY started shipping Dirwin and good guy Strahd as a thing. It was one of the best roleplaying experiences we’ve had because it was actually super gothy and romantic. Now I mean really, that stuff is DM-player insert stuff, but the writer of Ravenloft II has done a good job at setting up the atmosphere. We also inserted the module Howls in the Night in the middle, which also had a great atmosphere too!
Here is the playlist we listened to for the campaign. Sorry the journal is all in one big lot, but I didn’t get around to transcribing it until recently. Life has gotten a wee bit busy!
Is it a dream? I find myself back at the chapel. You know which one. But this time Esmerelda doesn’t intervene. This time, Donavich doesn’t intercede. Euphrates is the first to die, caged in by the animated pews and lecterns. Marja is impaled, and Word too, thrown onto a fallen candelabra. Godfrey tries to hold him off, but when he dies too, there are no more resurrections.
I go into croc form. He catches me. Ireena is watching. She’s smiling.
He bites me.
Then I wake. I feel so unbearably weak. A woman’s voice: ‘Dr Irving?’
I open my eyes. Is that Toledo? No, it’s a human woman. Or did I manage to change to change her form already? No, this is a serving maid, says her name is Tallie. She calls me Dr Irving again.
Donavich walks into the room. No, not Donavich. He says his name is Dr d’Honaire, and he is my colleague. Stephen, he calls me. We are psychologists at this sanatorium by the sea.
I asked what happened, and he says I came in from a thunderstorm, raving, and I‘ve been unconscious for near on a week. Where did I come from, I ask. The house of my friend, Strahd von Zarovich, he says. The house on Gryphon Hill.
I stiffen, trying to hide my reaction. Another Donavich here, another Strahd? Then Marja’s double walks into the room. Not quite, she’s human too, and called Mary. She’s not afraid to speak her mind, berating me for galavanting in thunderstorms and getting sick. I ask her if she has a canine companion. She is surprised, but answers in the affirmative. What’s his name, I ask, holding my breath. Lex, she says. I want to laugh, or cry. What is going on?
She permits me a walk outside, though I am chilly and sweaty at the same time, and still horribly weak. Then I see past the ruse for a moment. Razorleaf, the city bending above me impossibly. It passes. A patient called Cyrus starts raving about the master coming. Of course he is. The name Strahd rings in my ears still. What did he mean, my friend?
I nearly faint, so Mary… Marja… Mary takes me back to my room and insists I rest. I ask her, did Dr d’Honaire have a son? Did he die? She confirms it. Again, I feel such dread.
Inside the room, my room, so they call it, in my sanatorium, I search for answers. Does Sigil really exist? Who am I? I try writing Dirwin by carving it into the underside of the wooden desk in the room. It blurs before my eyes and it reads Irving.
What does it all mean? Where am I? There is glass in the windows… in every window! I’ve never seen such extravagance before.
A letter on my desk… Irving’s desk. I recognise the writing. I read it.
My dear friend, Please hasten to meet me when you have recovered. I too have been ill after that night when we last met. We must discuss what happened, and try to solve the mystery of the house on Gryphon Hill! With utmost regard, Strahd von Zarovich
What does it all mean? How can this be happening? On my desk I find two items I’ve had my whole life, since my childhood with Grandfather Croc. Two wooden toy soldiers. But now I notice something about them that I’ve somehow never realised. They’re two opposing pawns from a game. How did I not see this before?
I had a good sleep. Breakfast with d’Honaire. He admits he heard me raving in my week long stupor, and offers me mesmerism to try and unfold the mysteries of my memory loss. I take him up on the offer. He is surprised. Apparently before this I was dismissive of his interest in hypnotism. I apologise for that.
In the corridor outside, I see Ismark. No, his name is Bath Kleinen. He’s an orderly. But I can see in his eyes he knows more. I try to question him, ask him if he’s dreamed of other worlds too. He avoids my questioning.
I tell Mary I’m going for a constitutional, and may I borrow her dog. She permits me. Lex is a lovely robust wolfhound, but too dull to be Word in another guise. I try to speak to him, but he just tips his head to the side. We walk around town, and I get acquainted with the harbour town of Mordentshire.
I see people in the town who look like people I know. I swear I see Dandy and Kazi, but they’re human-sized, and married, and running a bookstore. I buy some books there about local history, geography and peerage. I go down to the wharf, hoping not to see a familiar lobster there. By the river there’s a mill that’s not working, and a black cat and a little girl walking away. In the market, the spitting image of Nanny Ethel sells grain and calls herself Ray. She tells me she’s worried about her friend, the smith’s wife Aida. I go to visit, and she tells me the problem is her husband, who never leaves the upstairs rooms and has boarded up all the windows.
I go up to investigate. Lex is growling. Alwin, the smith, sits in the dark. Tells me he’s fine, tells me to leave. I try to keep him talking, but eventually he stands, takes his hammer up, and lashes out at me. ‘You are the author of all this, are you not, Doctor?’ I leave, not ready yet to cause a scene and bring my full powers to bear. Can I still bring my full powers to bear? I tell Aida to leave the house and live with other family for the time being.
I look for the church, just north of town according to the map in the book I have, but it is a smoldering ruin. The priest in his cottage refuses to see me. Blames me? Blames me and Strahd?
I return to the sanitarium to prepare for lunch, and find a letter inviting me to Heather House for lunch with Strahd and the Weathermay family. Full of trepidation, I begin the short journey south to the top of the cliffs. On the way I see squirrels in the trees. I try to speak to one. Is it stopping and talking back? It seems almost to do so, but not quite.
I reach the house, knowing already some of the faces to expect. I did not expect Ezmerelda, or now Mistress Ardent, now a servant in this grand house. She ushers me in to the dining room, where yes, there is Ireena, or Tatiana, or rather Virigina Weathermay. There is Lord Weathermay, with the face of the mayor of the village of Barovia. And there, now coming to embrace me, now embracing me with warm, alive arms, Strahd von Zarovich himself, smiling.
Genuinely, warmly smiling. This is a friend. I can feel no other feeling on seeing him now. Is it possible I have managed to call, from somewhere in the infinite planes, another version of Strahd who I can redeem to the side of good? Perhaps a Strahd who needs no redemption of mine? Or is this some folly of my brain, perhaps a last long hallucination as I die some unexpected death? I almost welcome it, the chance to rewrite one of my greatest failures.
We sit down to lunch. Virginia is pale. She is ill. I dread to think why. I know why. But Strahd is surely not the cause. They are engaged now. Can this Strahd be finally about to achieve his Tatiana for good? But will he, if what I suspect is making her ill is in fact true?
When we have some time after lunch to speak privately, I find Strahd as confused as myself as to the events of the last week. He too had a dream, he says, that he was watching some hideous version of himself ruling over a land that feared him, and he had to watch with disgust and dread this facsimile of himself consuming the life of the populace, and fighting a version of me dressed in lizard hides. I tell him I too had this dream, that I was this Dirwin. That I still think I am Dirwin, and Dr Stephen Irving is the unreal one. I ask him what he remembers, and it would seem he belongs in this world, unlike me. He recalls something more than I do of the night we both fell ill, and that is this: we fled the house on Gryphon Hill, having done something, or unlocked something, far more terrible than our minds could handle. I think it highly wise to invite him to the hypnotism tonight with Dr d’Honaire. I read the books I bought as I await the evening’s diversions.
We arrive in the smoking room and Dr d’Honaire is there in the darkness, his pendulum at the ready. He is eager to begin.
He puts us both into a relaxed state, one where we should, he says, be more suggestible. “Where are you?” he asks. Before I know it, I am speaking.
“I am floating above the ground. Fog slowly spins me across the moors. The stars no longer burn in the sky, though somehow they should. There is a castle… or a building… its jaws open to devour me! I scream as I look down its throat filled with lightning and death! I am devoured, yet alive. I cannot see… the lightning again flashes. The room is alive with power. I see where I am…”
“What do you see?”
Strahd’s mouth opens as mine is stilled. “I stand before my own grave.”
“Please describe this place,” the doctor urges.
“Towering steel holds the world in place,” I continue. “Lightning pierces my soul and tears me in twain. I see myself twice. One, dark and terrible, the other, light and powerless. Good people mill about me, yet their ways are strange. I search for the circle whose eyes sees the truth of men’s souls…”
“Where is it? Where is this circle?”
Strahd speaks up again. “In the warm heart of love’s rest does the eye remain secure.”
“What is happening about you now?”
This time Strahd speaks for a while. “Then, from among the familiar faces of strangers comes the Great One… darkness within darkness, death beyond death. My life falls from me as he drinks it with unquenched thirst. His crimson lips stretch wide in a snarl of evil delight. His voice, the thunder of the crackling lightning…”
“What does he say?” d’Honaire almost shouts, his left hand white, gripping the end of the arm of the chair.
This time words erupt from my mouth. “Robbed! Cheated! The life which was mine by right, stolen from me by the Law Above! I spurn that law! I shall have my life back! I defy the gods!”
“What do you do?”
I continue, “I wrest myself from his grasp and seek to flee the chamber. The doors have all shifted and gone away. A book calls to me and offers me life. The lightning freezes the dark and I stumble in the darkness towards a shining book…”
“Where do you find this book?”
“Atop an altar formed of a griffin,” I reply.
“What does the book say?”
Strahd speaks, “The book tells a tragic tale of defiance in the face of divine justice. Yet something of its wisdom is incomplete and I know I must search further. I climb up a well of tangled thorns. I weaken and slow, though the top is neat. Now I see a figure in the opening above… it reaches for me…”
“Can you describe it? Describe the figure!”
I nearly scream in reply, “It is the Dark One himself! His hands seize me. My life again begins to slip from my soul.”
“By all that’s great!” d’Honaire exclaims, then gathers himself. “What do you do?”
I answer, “I run! I run without moving. My steps are mired in the soft ground and move in unreal motion. I stumble to the edge of a crevice. Friends, whose faces are filled with loathing and hate, stare up at me. A circled band hangs before me. I reach for it and the inscription burns…”
“Read it! What does the inscription say?”
Strahd replies, “Soft as the pillow of love’s rest shall my healing give hope to those forsaken.”
d’Honaire mops his brow, and continues, “What do you do with the Ring?”
“The ring blazes with brilliant light,” Strahd murmurs, “the torn book in my hands mends itself and now I can see where lies the terrible truth of this land. I cannot speak it! Yet I know where next I must go to find the truth…”
“Where is this Truth?”
“In the folds of love’s arms,” Strahd responds, “Yet I cannot reach the key! The darkness falls about me… I smother… I am dying…”
“What do you do with the Truth?”
This time I speak. “I flee down twisting halls as the light from the dying torches fails. The darkness behind me, pursuing me… devouring me! There! Ahead lies the key!”
“Where is this Key to the Truth?”
The two of us speak in concert, “Where all began… though cannot end.”
We are all exhausted by the experience. I want to speak more but Strahd must return to Heather House, and d’Honaire is worried, seems almost frightened of me now. So I retire to bed now, haunted and unsatisfied.
Walking the grounds this morning, I hear a scream. I run towards it. A man, back contorted, throws off Mary. I wrestle him to the ground (I seem to still have that talent of Dirwin’s!). “Thieves!” he screams at my face. “Murderers! Where are the children?” I realise that this is no mere madness. He is really yelling at me. What did Strahd and I do?
As the orderlies take him away to be sedated, I ask Mary if she is all right, and then I ask her where I came from on that stormy night. She says I stumbled in from the east. Above us to the east looms Gryphon Hill. Could it have been there?
I ask Mary further questions. Yes, she has noticed a personality change in the orderly Bath Kleinen. In fact, she has noticed other people’s personalities that have changed, and she gives me a list of names that I might follow up on later. But for now, I must lunch at Heather House.
Alas! Virginia has taken a turn for the worst! She is more pale, more listless than yesterday. I speak quietly with Strahd about it being signs of the Creature we know as Vampire. We agree to look further into this later today, and go down to the market to see what is happening there with the list of names I have… and perhaps to buy some garlic if we can find it. We take Lex with us.
But in the market we are interrupted by the ringing of bells. The mayor calls a meeting in the market square. There has been a killing in the moors, not an unusual occurrence at night, but this time the death happened in the day. The legendary moorhounds have grown bolder! The mayor gathers all able men, a body fifty strong, and Strahd and I commit ourselves to the cause, unwilling to shirk our communal duty.
We march northeast out of town to find the body of a shepherd and all his flock, throats torn out. Beside the body we see a mud and straw doll of a hound, but then an ill wind kicks up and blows it to pieces.
I have had enough of feeling powerless against these ill omens. Part of me is saying I am not Dirwin, I don’t have the abilities I have earned over the years, but part of me insists I am, I am! So I dig deep in myself and reach out to communicate with the elemental spirit of the land around me. It works! I am connected, I am myself again. I sense the presence of undead , many down in the village, and one here in the crowd, disguised as Kidar Kleinen, Bath’s brother, a town guard. I reach out to feel the lay of the land around me and sense a large house to the southeast. Coming out of my trance, I learn it is Wescote Manor.
Strahd rises from examining the body of the deceased to report what he knows of Wescote Manor. Folks say that one hundred years ago there was a marriage arranged between Ann Campbell, a maiden of a rival family, and Burton Wescote, the heir of the Wescote family. He was eager for it, but she was not, so much so that she tried to run away the night before the wedding. Burton’s brother tried to stop her, and she killed him and fled into the moors. Burton gave chase with his dogs. No one knows what happened in the bog, except that Burton said he chased her until she began to sink into the bog, and she refused his help and died. The Campbells left Mordentshire, and the Wescotes began to die off one by one in mysterious circumstances. Something happened to the dogs too, but it is unclear what. All that is known is that howls and reports of moorhounds abound, and they are known to rip the entrails out of shepherds and other victims they find on the moors at night.
And now during the day too, it seems. We are organised by the mayor into groups to search the moors. I finagle Strahd and myself into the same group as Kidar and three other men, to keep an eye on him. We begin to walk the moors in a line, methodically. Once we are well out of earshot of the other groups of men, Lex begins to whine, and then the moorhounds attack out of nowhere!
They are made of mud and straw and their eyes burn with unholy fire, and their teeth… well, their teeth rip to piece our companions. Strahd, Lex and myself manage to survive. I examine Kidar, but he just seems a normal man now. How strange. I tell Strahd of my awakening into my powers as Dirwin now, and I prove it by transforming into a raven, and by talking to Lex (who is a good boy, but definitely not Word). Using another of my powers, I feel the safe path through the boggy moors to Wescote Manor, so we begin heading there.
Howls resound again and we begin to run, until Strahd becomes trapped in a bit of boggy mud and starts sinking. I draw all the moisture out of the ground into a muddy sphere, and Strahd is able to clamber out of the remains of the now dry mud.We hear a scream ahead, and running to the source, find an old man about to become victim to the moorhounds. We attack them, and I use the sphere of muddy water, which seems quite efficient at whirling them to pieces.
The man is Douglas Michaels, a servant at the manor, and he leads us there. He advises us to not panic when we meet his master, for it is Burton Wescote himself, who has never aged a day due to the curse laid on him by Ann Campbell. We find the manor house semi-ruined, certain rooms in the front given over to decay and attacks from the hounds, while the rest of the house has been defended. The grounds are still nice though. Using mending on Strahd’s part, and druidcraft on mine, we brush each other down and prepare to see the master of the house.
Sir Burton Wescote greets us amiably. He is still indeed a young man. His staff, however, were all aged. There is a room we aren’t allowed to enter in the ground floor, but Douglas tells us it contains the ruins of the wedding presents!
Over dinner, Sir Burton explains to us that after Ann killed his brother and ran off into the night, he sent his dogs and ran after her to try to stop her from running into any dangerous spots. He saw her sink and tried to save her. The dogs all died, and the kennels are in despair. I notice in the dining room there seems to be a missing portrait, and I wonder if there is a reason for that.
After dinner, in the guest room, Strahd and I check in with each other’s impressions. I talk to Lex, and he seems fine with Burton, so he’s not undead I suppose. I confer with nature around me, and it is confirmed. So what is going on? Strahd theorizes that the tableau of a ruined wedding downstairs suggests that a symbolic wedding may need to take place. We settle in for the night.
At 3am, Lex whines and wakes us, followed by a knock on our door from Burton, who asks us to behold the nightly phenomenon. Outside, we see an apparition of a woman being chased by dogs! But what is chasing them? We are sent back to bed, but I tell Strahd I will learn more, and I fly out as a giant owl, and he rides on my back.
Below us we see the moor hounds baying around the bog where the apparition of the woman is now sinking, and we see the other person in the apparition is Sir Burton! But I fly too low, and a moorhound attacks! I manage to escape its jaws, and we fly straight back to the house. Discussing what little we saw in the safety of the house, we both admit we did not see enough to know if Wescote was telling the truth about trying to save her.
In the morning Wescote is nowhere to be found, and the maid Gabrielle tells us this is always the case in the morning. She also tells us that others have tried to end the curse and have failed, and all of them have been taken by the bog. I am quietly confident we won’t suffer the same fate. Asking further about Burton’s morning ritual, she says he always walks out on the bog, so once she has gone, I tell Strahd I will go and spy on our host, and leave in raven form.
I get a bad feeling as I fly over the bog. I see something happening in the same spot where we were attacked last night, so I move closer. There is an open grave, and a corpse just standing there. I move closer yet, and it beckons to me. It is Ann Campbell! I land and transform before her, and she seems to reconstitute, almost coming to life before me.
She tells me her version of events. That she didn’t kill the brother, that Wescote pursued her with ill intent and laughed as she sank into the bog. Bring him here, she asks me. She decays before me, leaving me alone with my thoughts. I believe neither of them is lying to me, but what can that mean?
Back at the manor, Strahd and I explore, since Burton still hasn’t shown himself. We visit boarded up rooms and basements and ballrooms and such, finding only that everything is frozen as if waiting for the wedding to happen, and the missing portrait is just a normal, completely mundane portrait of Burton. Perhaps he took it down as he didn’t want to look at his own face, never changing.
There is only one place in the house we have not been yet, and that is a locked study where we assume Burton must surely be. So we pick the lock and go in to find him lying on a chaise, groaning. He is ill, there is a bucket beside him for his sick. He doesn’t notice us, so wracked by some stomach illness is he. Over the fireplace is a portrait of Ann, and the words of the curse she laid on him. It all becomes clear now. “Bog take you and keep you.” The bog water keeps him alive.
We announce ourselves, and he is slightly angry, but too sick to care. We call him out on it: he’s been drinking bog water. Why? The curse, of course. The bog is keeping him alive, as much as it’s making him sick. I tell him that Ann told me to bring him to her, and he decides that is what we shall do, tonight.
When the appointed hour comes, all three of us go out together. Ann and Burton face each other after all these years, and Strahd and I try to negotiate between them. I tell them that they have both told me their events, but neither of them seems to be lying. This can only mean one thing: so much time has passed, and emotions were so high that night, that there is no real objective truth anymore. Ann was a young woman, terrified of an unwanted marriage, in the house of her enemies, and finally, dying in a most horrible fashion. Burton had just lost his brother, not knowing where the guilt truly lay. Both of them were suffering under heightened emotions, and interpreted events differently from each other. The two of them seem to accept this, and both finally seem to get some bit of peace from this.
And that is when the Moorhound attacks! The greatest of the beasts, it tears Burton’s throat out before we could stop it, but then we put it down for good. It is the last vestige of the curse. Ann holds Burton’s body as he dies, and both of them fade from view. We return to the house to tell the servants what has occured, and gain some much needed sleep.
We return to Mordent with the servants, who are bringing an assemblage of furniture and goods to sell from the manor. Strahd is in high spirits. We have ended one curse, so perhaps we can end more without too much cost.
Tragedy! We reach Heather House to find it in full mourning. All our hopes are dashed. Virginia is dead!
I try to steady my friend in his grief by announcing that I have ways of revivifying the body and spirit, and I can bring her back, though her form may change. On this thin thread of hope, we send Mistress Ardent shopping for reagents and unguents I require.
With permission from Lord Byron I reveal on Virginia’s neck the bitemarks of the Creature. It is confirmed. The Creature himself is here. I look at my friend. I am so sure it is not him. Aren’t I?
The answer is in Gryphon Hill, Strahd tells me, and so we head up there. The wind fights us as we fly there, with me in giant owl form, Strahd riding, Lex in my huge talons. But we make it. We hear sounds from within the castle-like mansion, with its four corner towers pointing up into the sky. At the door, the griffins guarding it turn on us! Except they don’t. It’s an hallucination that only I can see. Why doesn’t the hallucination trap affect Strahd, and just me? Is it because he is the one renting the house?
As he tries to open the door, the knocker attacks him, trying to eat his hand, which dispels that notion of mine. With a wave of his free hand, he siphons the magical energy out, and his hand is released.
The first few rooms we go into are bare and ransacked looking. At the rear of the study, double doors open onto a brick wall. How strange. In the dining room, we find the table set! But for whom? I feel eyes following me from a painting, and pointing that out makes them run away. So, there must be a corridor behind there. We explore further the open rooms, since we do not yet know how to get through the wall.
There are mice in the kitchen infesting the food which seems to have been recently put out, for it is only beginning to rot. They are reluctant to talk to me, as Strahd smells like a predator to them. He asks me what they are saying, and I am careful to obscure that I fear he may be my good friend at day and the Creature at night (yet how can that be? He has been with me this whole time, including at night!). I manage to convince one to trust me, then he tells me that the secret corridor is through the fireplace, and that the house is full of people you can see but not smell – ghosts, and perhaps other undead I suppose. Then a little compatriot of his sums up the courage to speak, and says that she saw Strahd drink the blood of one of her family. I hide what she says from Strahd. Surely there must be another explanation?
We spend some time looking in the fireplace, where Strahd finds the catch to open the secret door. We find the secret corridor there, and it runs the length of the north wall of the house. There is a stairwell down, which we take. There is an odd slime which we test before walking through, but it seems harmless.
At the end of the long corridor, we open the door into an alchemy laboratory. We see signs in there that Strahd was working here, and perhaps I was too. There are diagrams, showing the workings of a massive machine. What is it supposed to do?
As we read, I come to a horrific realisation. I look on my forearm for the long-healed scar of bitemarks of my brother crocodile when I grew up with the crocs and wrestled them for play… and it isn’t there. What is happening? In my moment of existential confusion, I smell the well-inhabited scent of Sigil. Where am I really?
My delirium is broken by something falling from the ceiling and wrapping around Strahd, suffocating him. We kill it, and in the adrenaline, my confusion is gone. Strahd and I go to open the very large doors in the eastern wall.
We have found the room behind the bricked up doorway, for it takes up an entire quarter of the house, the whole southeastern corner, even up to the roof, where a glass dome is cracked, letting the weather in. Wire, ropes, beams hang jaggedly into an absence – something should be here. Our experiment. Where is it? What was it?
We find in the wreckage a rod of glowing crystal. We know we need this. Why? What is it for? The words come to our lips. The Apparatus. This rod powers it. ‘Where it all began,’ Strahd mouths. ‘Though cannot end,’ I answer.
Lightning strikes into the room. It would have struck the Apparatus, if it was there. The lightning enlightens the darkest recesses of my mind. I have an inkling of what happened here. Strahd and I entered the machine. Strahd, with the intent to rid himself of all evil in his soul, all the dreams that haunted him of bloodshed and bloodlust. But that evil had to go somewhere. So the Creature was born. Something more akin to the Strahd I knew before, in Barovia, the monster I ended. So is what was left behind a purely good Strahd? He seems a normal man to me, as much as I admire his good qualities too.
And what of me, when I stepped in the machine? But it wasn’t me. It was Dr Stephen Irving. Where did he go? How did I come here?
I take the two wooden pawns from my pocket. One white, one black. This is one of my oldest memories. Could it be that I was created? Created for this very purpose, to be locked in this eternal war of good against evil?
Coming out of my existential dread, we uncover more secrets of the room, such as the door out, which is disguised from the other side to look like the servants’ entrance to the kitchen, and a ladder up to a corridor that connects with a secret door on the first floor. Then we backtracked through the lab to find further rooms to the north. Within the next room, we find and kill a vampiress. There are two coffins however, so there is one more vampire we must find.
In the next room we meet a long dead corpse. As he begins to rise, I get seized by the odd urge to be friendly and help him up by the hand. He takes my hand and does not attack. As he is a mummy, communicating with him is hard and slow, but he manages to convey that he is Bath Kleinen! Taking pity on him, I change his shape to that of a cat so he can move faster and come with us. What we’ll do to help him, I don’t know… but presumably whoever is in his body right now is the mummy, and he has somehow been body-swapped with that person.
Searching further, we find a secret prison, in which a few other body-swapped people are trapped. One mummy attacks us and is quickly dispatched, but two other monsters are townsfolk. We take them back to the reception room, though we the shade Gaston with us, since he can move fast.
Upstairs, we find a man soaking wet from the rain. He introduces himself as Ali Esterbridge, and says he has been squatting here. We take pity on him and invite him down to the kitchen, but he pushes me down the stairs and attacks! He is a vampire. It occurs to me, as we wrestle with him and eventually finally end him, that all the monsters here avoid hurting Strahd. Why is that?
Hurt badly from the fight, we decide to return to the sanitorium for the night, bringing the body-swap victims with us. In the sky, the massive face of the Creature, formed out of cloud and lightning, tries to bite me with lightning teeth! But I manage to twist out of the way, and we make it back to the sanitorium.
There, Mary tells me she’ll take care of the victims, and that we must go up to Heather House, as the ingredients for the ritual have been gathered! So we go there. I am too fatigued to do the spell tonight, so we go to bed, and I pray that the staff of the house listen to what I told them as to how to treat the body of Virginia…
I am awoken after midnight by Lex growling. I cannot move. Why can I not move?
Strahd is at the window, and beyond it, Virginia hovers, her mouth and front drenched in blood. She calls to Strahd to join her. He starts to open the window. I manage to flick a pebble from my pocket at the back of his head. A lucky strike! The spell is broken, and he retreats from the window in fear! Virginia leaves to join her master.
We flee the house as quickly as we can, heading for the safety of the sanitorium. But inside, it is a massacre. Everyone is dead, even Mary, even the shade Gaston is gone. We go to leave, but outside the whole village has gathered with torches, lead by Mistress Ardent. They blame us for the massacre and the vampirism. I turn into an owl and get us out of there as soon as I can. As we ascend, to my despair, I see the mayor is a grown-up Radovan.
By a circuitous route we come back to the empty Wescote Manor. We doubt the servants will be back, as it seems like the body-swapping is to near completion, so they will probably stay in the town, possessed, serving the Creature. So we make this our home base, and venture out to finish searching Gryphon Hill for whatever answers we can find. I still tell Strahd we will save Virginia. I hope he believes me. I hope I believe me.
Back in Gryphon Hill, the monsters we meet are all townspeople now, and we usher them to follow us and return to the relative safety of Wescote Manor – all except one, the ghost of an ancient inhabitant of this house, with a tragic backstory, who we cannot convince, and so are forced to end. Again and again, I am assaulted by visions and hallucinations and delirium, but we keep going. Within the bedroom Strahd finds his diaries and notes, and we confirm our suspicions. The notes speak of driving evil from the soul of man, specifically, his own sense of repressed evil.
In the closet we make an amazing discovery. An extremely expensive ruby… and we know what it is almost without having to detect the magic auras around it. It is a scrying stone. ‘Oh no,’ I say, ‘We have been discovered! Let us leave at once.’ Shutting the door to the closet, I roll my eyes, and keep searching.
We find more secret corridors, and the way up to the roof, with more body-swapped townspeople. Up in the north tower, we find a footlocker full of Strahd’s notes, one of which shows us a diagram of the Apparatus, and another which says it had been taken to his own grave. We remember that was in the hypnotism now, and I ask if he has a grave. He has a place reserved for him in the Weathermays’ mausoleum! So now we know where we must storm, and most likely where the Creature will be.
We find four gargoyles who are townspeople at the west tower, nothing in the south tower, and are attacked by a swarm of sturges in the east tower. Only the central tower remains. Inside, we feel relief. It is a holy, consecrated room. Unfortunately the floor is weak, but we manage to make it over carefully to the altar. There is a holy symbol and a book. Strahd tries to jimmy open a locked box, and he vanishes. I panic, and cast Locate Creature, but he is only down in the small graveyard behind the house. I fly him back up to the tower, and we examine the contents of the trapped box. There is a jewelled chalice and a stick of incense.
We’re not sure what any of this means, but we come up with a plan. Tomorrow we will return here, steal the ruby in the day when the Creature cannot move, and use it to awaken Lex into full sentience, so that he might help us avenge his mistress. The holy ground should protect us. We leave for now, taking all the bodyswap victims to Wescote Manor with us.
Early after the sun rises we fly to Gryphon Hill, straight into to the central tower. There, Strahd paces anxiously while I work the ritual.
It goes much differently from what I expect. Rather than awakening Lex, I am drawn deep within myself, into my skin, into the blood and viscera, where it loses all meaning, then becomes clear again, little planets orbiting within me, far far down. I realise that I am a part of everything, but we are all of us everything. I can feel the planes within me, and then I can sense something of the truth. This is not the shadowfell after all! There is something awry in Beastlands, there is something awry in the Beastlands in me.
My downwards motion slows, then stops, and I see a figure before me. ‘Um… hey,’ comes the voice of my old friend Merka. ‘So, ugh, I guess I’m your spirit guide, or something.’ He gives me three truths. One, he says to me one path leads to many paths, leads to many paths. I say that’s a tree, and he’s pleased that I understand.
He tells me that the disorder I can sense in the Beastlands is in me too. I have been divided. I have created this place. The idea astounds me. How can I grasp it? If I have created this place, why is everything going so wrong?
Finally, as I begin to fade back to reality, he tells me that I was not created for any purpose, except by myself. I’m the one who created me, through the choices I have made.
As I fade back, I am engulfed by the rainbow. I hear a dry and raspy sound. I instantly think of a snake. I feel terror and euphoria at once. It’s like the feeling I always expected to feel in the presence of a god. Is this rainbow my god?
I return to Strahd. We flee back to Wescote Manor, and I tell him everything that happened. We don’t know how to apply everything to our present situation, but we start making plans for the next day.
The new day dawns, but remains dark. Strahd and I feel there is no safe place to be, so we must keep on moving. To that end, I cast Wind Walk on us, which means for the next several hours we can shift into a very fast moving mist and fly out to places distant. But before leaving the Manor, I try to plane shift out of this dark place, and of course, I cannot.
We fly to the church, still in ruins. Zombies come shambling towards us from the graveyard. They are, of course, townspeople. We calm them and get them to wait in safety. We head towards the priest’s cottage, wanting to finally come to terms with what we did to the church. When we arrive he is actually talking to us, he’s friendly…. Nope! I realise in time that he is a body-swapper, and I restrain him with croc form. Tied up, we interrogate him by holding him next to the holy ground of the church, which makes him burn up if he dares touch it. He answers our questions. The Creature has been using the Apparatus to swap all the townspeople with the monsters of Gryphon Hill, but he’s missing part of it, otherwise he would have done it all much faster. His orders to the body swappers are to lure us in and deliver my good friend Strahd to him. The Apparatus is indeed where we know it to be, at the mausoleum, and so is the Creature, waiting for us.
We tie the priest up in his cottage, and search the surrounding area for more clues the hypnotism suggested to us. We manage to rig up some rudimentary communications with the body-swap victims, and find that the actual priest is one of them, so I ask him what did we do? He clarifies, he only knows instinctively that we did it, he has no proof, but on the night the Apparatus was completed, the church was struck by lightning and burned down. Makes sense.
We head to the church’s mausoleum first, as the priest says Strahd left something in there. We search the tomb of Normal Korval, and find the hidden cache behind his bronze nameplate. There we find a sulphur sphere, which is part of the Apparatus, and more of Strahd’s notes and diary. There we find recorded that the Creature intends to have his ‘life’ back again, by replacing Strahd in his own body, then setting the lynchmob on Strahd inside the Creature’s body.
Outside, the storm intensifies. We know we must go to Heather House, so we do. We see wagons outside the mausoleum of the Weathermays, which clearly brought the Apparatus here. The mausoleum is in great disrepair. We pause in the entrance to embrace, and I tell Strahd that no matter what happens, I’m glad I had this time with him, and he’ll always have a friend in me.
There are several large chambers before us to navigate, with noises of horror coming from deeper within. Lightning strikes the great broken glass domed roof. Statues of beings of all heavenly and hellish planes, frescoes ruined, coffins emptied, then the great room itself… walls and walls and walls of coffins of ancestors, and behold! The Apparatus! Behind it, two thrones, and on them, the Creature, the dark Strahd, and Virginia.
We move closer and the picture resolves into greater detail. The Creature has been staked! He sits paralyzed, trapped at the moment of death. Virginia sits smugly and awaits us. She offers to finish the deed.
What is it she wants, we wish to know. She wants to vampirise my good friend Strahd, and rule forever with him! She doesn’t want to renounce vampirism! She finally knows independence and power this way, rather than the powerless life as a decoration of her father’s, destined to be a decoration for her husband to possess.
But, I argue, the vampire is evil inherently! Even if she wishes to drink only from the blood of animals for now, she may change in time, she may corrupt with age.
Is the vampire inherently evil? She throws that back at me, and I am floored. Is the vampire inherently evil? Strahd looks at me for an answer. I don’t know what to say. What do I say?
I take him by the shoulders. ‘I want it to be true.’ A smile breaks over my face. ‘I want it to be true… and therefore, let it be true! Come, let’s fix the townspeople, then all three of us leave this place. If there’s anywhere a vampire could try to be good, it’s on the planes!’
Virginia is uncertain that I really mean it. ‘But how?’
I think hard. ‘It must be the way I came through… the Apparatus itself will take us there.’ I go to place the crystal rod in the machine, and she drives the stake all the way through the Creature, ending it, and joins us.
I take Strahd’s hand, and Virgina takes his other. I look at my friend once more. Will he be there on the other side, if I created this place? I don’t know. I hope so.
We step in. They vanish, but I feel like somewhere on the infinite planes, perhaps they still exist. If they do, I will find them.
But as for me, where do I return? I can feel it again in the same way my spirit vision showed me… I am leaving my mind. It was all… what, a dream? A vision? A delusion? And why? I must know… The Beastlands… It’s something to do with the Beastlands… I will solve whatever problem is happening there… because it’s what I do.