Today we deep dive into the past and present of the D&D setting Ravenloft! Enjoy! https://www.spreaker.com/episode/40238726
Coming to you live from that holiday we kept promising ourselves 😀
Well, to be honest, it has only been a holiday in some ways. We keep working hard as always. But we’ve made a lot of progress. James has reached 75,000 words for his Tirenia campaign setting, and is taking a break from that to make a Quick Start Guide in time for Armageddon Expo Auckland.
This week I got my Bitsy finished, as you can see in the last blog post. Then I spent three days working hard on new scenes for Prince of Cats. This is to address one piece of feedback I got on a Steam review, saying they wished there was more to the romance plots. So I’ve added more depth into each of the minor marriageable options.
Also happening this week with Prince of Cats… I’ve got voice actors recording away! Exciting times. Everyone who owns the game already can look forward to getting these new romance plots and voice acting in a free update. But there is still more to come… watch this space!
Today I’ll start rework on the code of the demo of Her Jentle Hi-ness. I’ve got more plots to add in, and more depth to add to the mechanics. Later tonight we’ll record our podcast episode. Since we’re on holiday we’re going to make it easy on ourselves and just talk about something we know already and don’t need to do too much research into, and that is the Ravenloft campaign setting: its history, its different domains, and then a deep dive into Curse of Strahd. See you there!
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.
Argynvostholt, 4AM – those remaining of my team rose from their sleep. Kasimir set out to learn the spell fireball. Marja sent Animal Messenger as many times as she could as a ritual, to the towns, to our allies, to any she could find who would join the fight for the survival of the realm. Radovan and Ismark went through our copious amount of treasure and dished out the most useful items, potions and scrolls. I, however, went hunting for the sabre toothed tiger that Van Richten had trained to kill Vistani.
With the spell Locate Creature, and in the form of a raven, it took little time at all to find the beast as I flew over Berez, but more importantly, I noticed I was being signalled by the standing stones there. It was my fey benefactors. They explained to me that I had to end Strahd by midnight or the realm would slip into the Shadowfell, taking everyone with it. I realised that Esmerelda had gone to her doom with false knowledge: she thought there needed to be a dark lord to replace Strahd, and had thought to become that being. With that knowledge, I spoke to the tiger, who thankfully decided to ally himself with us. He invited me to ride him, and we realised that already, the distance between Berez and Agynvostholt was negligible.
We arrived back in time for me to help Marja send off her Animal Messengers with the message for everyone to meet us at Bonegrinder. The tiger, who we dubbed Euphrates, was wary and respectful of Marja’s wolf Word. I spoke with everyone to gauge their energy. Radovan was terrified but with me all the way. Ismark was angry that Ireena had been captured and eager to begin. Kasimir was eager to get the crypt and save his sister. Marja was eager for it all to begin, for this is what she had been here for all along.
6AM – a service for Donavich in the courtyard of Argynvostholt. I put his ashes into Radovan’s care and we all spoke a few words. I talked about everything he had overcome to be with us, like his son’s death, and his addiction. Radovan talked about his kindness. Ismark talked about what he used to be like before I came to Barovia. Marja talked about his strength of faith. Then we set off to rescue Kasimir’s sister.
In the form of birds we flew through the gathering storm, buffeted by the wind and the rain. We saw below us on the road a trashed Vistani caravan and the body of Madame Eva, exsanguinated. Looked as if Esmerelda had gotten her revenge. We continued on and spied the massing troops of undead and unholy in the courtyards of the castle, so we avoided those and went through the hole in the roof by the library and from there down to the crypt. The halls were eerily quiet and we progressed without harassment. We went to the crypt and Kasimir’s skin went more and more corpselike as he used his new power to raise his dead sister. The two of them reunited, we all left and returned to Bonegrinder to meet the assembled forces of good. Marja, Kasimir, his sister Petrina and I all went to rest and recover while Ismark and Radovan organised the people arriving with the help of Lanna the minotaur and Father Petrovich from Vallaki.
4PM – that afternoon I rose to the bad news: Kasimir had been killed by his sister, who had fled to rejoin Strahd. We were bitterly sad but had to carry on with our duties. The Martikovs had arrived by the end, so I gave Davien the gem Champagne du Stomp, and he gave me a tearful hug.
8PM – Godfrey and the assembled forces of Argynvostholt arrive to aid us, and the general for the army is chosen – Radovan, of all people!
9PM – we march. Radovan manages to hit one of the guardian dragons of the castle right in the eye, starting off the battle with a grand gesture of defiance. Blinski saves his life with a thrown toy, and Gertruda managed to save Davien’s life too. Everyone was here for the final battle. While he leads the army, Godfrey, Ismark, Marja, Euphrates, Word and I snuck in via the highest tower to the chapel. Before we went in we summoned Daylight on myself, Marja and Godfrey before Strahd could dispel it.
We headed down the stairs to find Strahd at the altar, Ireena laid out on it, and all his elite guards waiting to attack. Strahd ignored us while Godfrey opened with turn unholy, which made many of our enemies turn and run from us. But Strahd still threw spell cancelling effects at us. Animated armour and chapel pews attacked us, along with a vrock, wraiths, rats and vampire spawn, one of which we recognised as Petrina. As Strahd bite into Ireena’s throat, Esmerelda leapt from the balcony and impaled him on Kahzan’s staff. He missed her with disintegrate, but still she realised he was too powerful and she was fighting a losing battle. So she broke the staff.
Taking the full blast, she disintegrated. Strahd took a hard hit, Ireena rolled off the altar, and all enemies attacking us, besides the vrock, fell down inert from the blast. We took damage too, but not enough to down us. Our potions of invulnerability had really paid off. Godfrey smote the vrock down. Strahd cast a fireball which downed half of us. Then, as I felt unconsciousness flow up to meet me, suddenly I heard a voice and felt a presence. Donavich told me to stand, and I and the others found ourselves standing, reinvigorated. We all converged upon Strahd to slay him, and finally the holy symbol I had taken from Donavich’s body began to burn with the brightness of the sun. Suddenly, he was mist.
He flowed down into the floor and we ran down the stairs to the crypt. I flew in the form of a raven, and left the others behind in my haste. I realised where he was going: the crypt that had a teleport trap on it which Godfrey had fallen into. I flew right past that to arrive in Strahd’s crypt.
The man himself was there, still, eyes open, in the coffin. I walked forward and with stake and mallet, drove the wood into his heart. He screamed. He cried. He begged. All the while, my hammer pounded, steady. The one who had caused such pain and death, he who was so above us mere mortals, was pathetic and desperate at the last.
When it was over he was dust.
Naturally the party was the next day. It lasted for nearly a week, and I don’t remember all of it, except the sunlight was bright and the realm was reconnected. I definitely remember Marja and I using the spell Awaken on Word and Euphrates. They weren’t very impressed with us, as they didn’t think talking was a very impressive activity. Also, Marja and I called down an earthquake on the mountain to hide the Amber Temple.
Over the time, several different things came to pass. Blinski told me and Radovan of his plan to build toys of such a great scale they would need an entire park to themselves. The Martikovs departed, returning with all three gems to the Wizard of Wines. The Vistani, carrying the cautionary tales of Esmerelda and Madame Eva, moved on. The dusk elves who were left went with them. Ismark was elected burgomeister of Barovia, and in that village the church became the church of St Donavich. The wolves of the realm were dumb animals again, and the barbarian tribes have decided to try and either civilise, or to open up trade negotiations. Radovan was probably the most respected thirteen year old who has ever existed. I don’t think he’ll be king of the realm though, seeing as there’s no castle anymore, and everyone agrees they don’t want a monarch again.
Speaking of the realm, it is connected to the Prime Material again, but I don’t think we’re in Faerun anymore. This means I can’t get the children of Daggerford back, and I have lost Matilda my mule, as well as all my friends on that plane. But we can only move forward…
… Most of us, at least. For Ireena never really belonged here, and Sergei came to retrieve his bride. They walked off into the air, over the cliff beyond the ruins of the castle, and vanished into the sunlight.
I retired at one point to the crypt of King Barov and Queen Ravenia, the only place I knew none of my companions could follow me into, guarded as it was. There I sat for a time, thinking on those who had died. I mourned for Kasimir, who had wanted nothing but to set right the wrong he had done and save his sister. I mourned for Van Richten, whose writing had been a great help to me, despite his tragic flaws. I mourned for Esmerelda, now that I had time to feel sad rather than angry. She thought she was doing the right thing, and she didn’t realise we were there for her, she didn’t have to do it all alone. But she had been far too hurt to do that.
I mourned for Ireena, though she was in heaven and happy. Mostly I mourned for what might have been between us, in that brief time before she realised her true identity and fate. I mourned for Donavich. Though he was sainted now and would never be forgotten, I remembered him as a fat, jolly, and very flawed fanatic friend who stood by me even when we disagreed. Already the iconography of his church was forgetting the truth, lionising the man and creating a dim image of the truth. I mourned a little for Godfrey too, for though he was at peace now, he and all his order, I appreciated his help and sense of humour.
Finally, I mourned for a man who had tried, in his own way, to be my friend. I had tried to save him, I had tried to find a way for us to co-exist. Was there every any hope? Or was this always the way it would turn out, in all possible worlds? If I had tried just a little harder, could I have saved the soul of Strahd von Zarovich?
Some questions have no answers. But Marja, Word, Euphrates and I have agreed to journey together and seek the answers to the ones that remain. The biggest question left, the cause of all of this, we shall seek along the roads and in the darkest reaches of the world:
Who is Tenebrus?
Here ends the diary of Dirwin, slayer of Strahd, he who wears the pelt of Sangxor, the man who is both raven and the crocodile…
Day Forty-Nine Continued
As we flew to the Amber Temple Kasimir told me of the reason why he needed to go to the temple. It turned out that he wanted to seek the power to bring her back from the dead. She had been a lover of Strahd’s, and when the dusk elves killed her for this, Strahd killed every female dusk elf. Wracked with guilt, Kasimir wanted to return her to the world. I told him I wanted to help him get there, but paying the price for the power would be his choice.
In the lead up to the temple we were nearly buffeted off our mounts by the mighty wings of an enormous roc. Greatly hurt by this bird, but still alive, we rested in a cave near the Amber Temple. While we rested I talked with Esmerelda and tried to get a gauge on what she was planning to do regarding Rictavio. She wouldn’t give me a straight answer. But she did try and pin down what my intentions were. She said Madame Eva had told her that we couldn’t win, that the land would die if we tried to kill Strahd, or we’d just fail outright and he’d come back. I told her I couldn’t believe that until I’d tried.
Exploring the territory, we saw Rictavio’s wagon and the main entrance to the temple, but we decided to take a secret entrance we found through a fissure. Through there we ran into a tribe of barbarians, but I held up my hands and told them we weren’t here for them. I think they were more intimidated by the hide of the demon goat Sangxor which I wore on my shoulders. So they let us carry on through the temple. We explored the eerily silent halls until we found a wizard called Vilnius hiding in a lecture hall. He asked us to help him find his master’s remains in the hall, so we took him with us. Next, we ran into a golem that attacked us, but there was only the one, so we were able to overcome it.
The next room and statue however proved far more deadly. We went onto a balcony and from the great, deep hood of the statue in the central chamber, a fireball came out and burnt us all badly, killing Vilnius. We hid in a side room and made our plan. I flew through an arrow slit in the wall in the form of a raven and landed inside the hood to find a wizard sitting in there! But as I tried to question him, he teleported away.
So I returned to the team and we made our new plan. Because there were further arrow slits along the west wall through which fire bolts were being shot, we needed a distraction. So Esmerelda threw out a bunch of illusions from the deck of illusions Pidlwick gave us (she got a goblin, kobold, incubus and an ogre, but she decided to use the cloud giant and a bunch of bandits). While these illusions provided a distraction, my summoned pixies turned my party into birds, and Esmerelda flew invisibly, and we all met in the hood of the statue, guarded by its magical darkness. The trick worked, and then Esmerelda cast Mordenkainen’s Private Sanctum on the hood, with all the wards turned on against being heard or seen, and no teleporting out… but the ability to teleport in was allowed.
We waited in there and the wizard teleported back after an hour. We tried in many different ways to interrogate him magically, but he seemed to be immune to all of this. We soon found out why, as he attacked: he was a demon! He fled, and teleported away once outside of the hood. We decided to wait in the hood for him or a replacement to return, and return he did, with six flaming skulls. Marja threw out illusions ( a troll and an ogre mage) to distract them and I summoned ravens which got quickly exploded by all six fireballs. Somehow we miraculously survived this onslaught, and Esmerelda cast a magical shield up to deflect all magic spells thrown at us. It was very, very tough, but on our last legs we managed to destroy the skulls with ranged attacks, and the demon, bound to protect the temple, could not help but attack us until he died. We got a spellbook, a cloak of many things, and some treasure for our troubles. But we needed to rest in that hood for a good few hours after that.
When we finally found Vilnius’s master’s corpse, he was long dead, but Kasimir picked up his wizard staff. In the next few rooms we uncovered a scale model of Castle Ravenloft, a tome of understanding, a green copper ewer of renewing wine (protected by spectres), an evil statue that almost bewitched us all, and a room for of skulls. Behind that we found an amnesiac lich. Rather than attacking, I restored his memory. His name was Exethanter, and we were able to convince him that we were not invading his temple but trying to repel other invaders. He gave us passwords for the locked doors, and we kept exploring. He also told us what this place was: the prison or crypt for dead gods. The last place we visited on the upper level was a library with every single spell in it. We sighed wistfully and left…
Downstairs was when we began to find the dead gods, and their amber-sheathed forms whispered promises. But each of their promises came with prices we were not willing to pay. So we continued exploring, fighting witches and their brooms, a death slaad, poltergeists, and golem that was a twin of the first one upstairs. From the copious treasue piles we took only eight statues of saints and a children’s book for the orphanage.
Through the last portal we found the Amber Vault, in which the worst of the gods were kept… and a bleeding, dying Rictavio. We rushed to heal him, and Strahd swooped down. He already had taken the pact with the dead gods and looked much changed. We went to our routine for fighting him, with Donavich casting Daylight… which Strahd countered! Then he cast Disintegrate on Donavich, and my most loyal companion was forever reduced to dust. Filled with rage and despair I lifted the holy symbol from his remains, but its power failed for me. Once Godfrey was downed too, Strahd lifted Ireena into his arms, the sunsword slipping from her hand. Then, just when we thought things couldn’t get any worse, Esmerelda murdered Rictavio and took on her the pact of the vampire. She teleported out, leaving us all shocked.
Kasimir forged forward to meet his goal, and took upon him the gift of Zudun the corpse star, which was the ability to raise the long dead. But his skin took on a corpse-like appearance.
We turned to the last of the amber crypts as it spoke to us. It was Tenebrus, the one who had made Strahd in the beginning, and had remade him now. It laughed at our despair as it rose out of its crypt…
It had never been trapped at all.
We left the temple to see the edges of the realm falling away. The world, it appeared, was ending. When Strahd marries Ireena and then murders her at midnight tomorrow night, the realm will end and he will be free to ascend to greater, darker power.
Day Forty-Seven Continued
After lunch and a rest, we left the church and went to Death House. It had regrown since I last cut it down to size, all the way back on my first day here in Barovia. When we got there, ready to exorcise the place, Donavich had a crisis of faith. He told us all he had used a spell to ask a question of his god and received no answer in return. We tried our best to bolster his faith. Ireena told him that she would be dead if not for him. Radovan said much the same, as we had rescued him in the first place too. I told him that if he can’t believe in his god, he should believe in the good that we had done for so many people since we started our journey. Marja said the gods were probably fake anyway. Esmerelda, a bit more tactfully, said that on her journeys she had even met clerics who didn’t have gods.
As worried as I was that our ministrations were going nowhere, Donavich rallied and a great shaft of light connected the holy symbol of Sergei in his hands with the sun in the sky. Suddenly, Death House wrenched itself up off its foundations and spewed forth wraiths and spectres. The fight was tough, as Death House was able to start sucking the very souls out of half of our party. But Donavich with his renewed will controlled the battlefield with the power of the holy symbol, terrifying and weakening our enemies. With several great blasts of power, Death House was no more – for good this time!
I raised the luck blade above my head and spoke the wish that came to me, not quite consciously at first – that every innocent who died in Death House be brought back to life as they were. Suddenly not just Ismark, not just the two children, but about fifty other people stumbled out of the wreckage. Many adventurers, most of only common ability, had stumbled in there like fish drawn into the maw of an angler fish. Ireena ran to Ismark, and we all had a happy reunion, though I was worried about the sudden surge in homeless skilled people in this tiny village. With quick thinking we corralled them, got them clothing, found a leader amongst them (Lanna Es-Drelig, a seven-foot tall minotauress) and told them to behave themselves.
Esmerelda, Marja and I returned to Argynvostholt for the night, leaving the native members of our party in Barovia to organise the newcomers.
In the early light we flew to Krezk to visit the orphans. We installed the thighbone of St Markovia in the abbey to hallow it, as much as we needed it as a weapon. Then we went to the rose-covered grave of Tasha Petrovna, and inserted her holy symbol in the identically shaped indentation in her gravestone. Suddenly the gravestone crumbled to dust under a ray of sunlight, and a ring of regeneration was revealed. Truly, a useful treasure to find!
We stopped over at the tower of Kahzan, knowing as we did now that the man used his own name as a password for secret things. In the bedroom at the top of the tower, our quest met with success: the suit of armour was animated when I proclaimed “Kahzan! His name was power!”. We took it back to the abbey to watch over the children, telling a trusted adult there how to activate it.
We stopped in Argynvostholt to pick up Godfrey, who was once again in a different body. Then we went to Barovia and picked up the remainder of our team. Things seemed to be well organised there, so we left, flying up to the Castle, a far shorter distance by kookaburra than by foot! We started in the crypt, to retrieve Godfrey’s gear and the remains of Blinski. In order to do so we had to destroy 29 wights and a full 200 skeletons who lived in that particular crypt. We did this cheaply, with Esmerelda and Donavich chucking fireballs in the centre of the pit. With that done, we retrieved the leftover gear and the remains of Blinski.
We approached the great staircase in the middle of the crypt where we met with a band of six vampire spawn. Though their bites were vicious, we dispatched them. We found the staircase blocked off, except for a small hole that a gaseous form of a vampire might seep through. Feeling like this might be an important retreat of Strahd’s, Marja and I assessed the situation and decided that we could clear the ruined masonry. It took us a full two hours, but we did. During that time we met a band of four adventurers, some of the ones we rescued from Death House yesterday. We told them to stick behind us and we would get them out.
Heading up, we found the chapel. Adrenaline rushed through me and I nearly turned and fled, but we realised there was no need to panic. Strahd was not there. Esmerelda was greatly confused. Madame Eva’s predictions were never wrong, she said. It was worrying, but I figured we should be grateful for now. He wasn’t here now, but maybe next time.
In the chapel, we found the holy symbol of Ravenkind, an icon of great power, which Godfrey now bears. Also we found a mace of terror, which Donavich now wields as he had given the Blood Spear to Ismark. There was a bloodstain on the ground, such as might never wash out even after 400 years. We had a feeling we knew what might have happened here, or at least Ireena had a feeling she knew. Up in the balcony over the chapel were two zombies, but otherwise the room was empty.
Heading now through the main corridor of the chapel we returned to the main hall of the castle and met with a little cat. Though it was vicious, I calmed it and asked it where we could find two things we were looking for. Of Mary’s daughter (a young woman Strahd had stolen from the village of Barovia, OOC: yes this quest has been going a long time, I know!) it knew nothing, but it told us the clockwork man was at the top of a tall tower. So we started climbing the towers we knew of. Off of one, we stumbled into a library with a living man within! His name was Lief. He was Strahd’s accountant, and he had been chained to the desk. We freed him, and found the key to some of the chests in that room. We took some two thousand gold worth of treasure, and left. We ran into more vicious cats, though they did not attack. The top of this tower was the bridge we were familiar with, and we stopped there to let off Lief and the adventurers, flying them down to the village by way of kookaburras.
We went across the bridge to the next tower, the one we had defeated the heart in, and at the top of that tower we found nothing but many swarms of bats who attacked us. Leaving that tower, we found ourselves in the library again. We decided to explore this floor more, and thank goodness we did, for in Strahd’s bedroom we ran into Gertruda, Mary’s daughter! She was a damn fool, and wanted to stay with the ‘nice handsome man’, but I spoke to her simply, and told her that people were coming to attack the castle and we didn’t want her to get hurt when that happened, so we would return her to her mother. That convinced her, so I summoned pixies, and these enchanted her, both into flight, and by their mere existence (which was partly the idea), and we watched her fly out of the window down towards the village.
In the same floor we found a room with a four hundred year old wedding cake. How ridiculously sad is this Strahd? Within this room was a magical lute, and when I played it, lo and behold, the ghost of its original owner appeared! It was Pidlwick, the fool. He told us to come down to his crypt and receive another treasure. We agreed heartily, though we set out to finish our quest to find the clockwork man first.
We soon regretted this. Finally we found him, all the way up in the top of the tower above the chapel. He hid in the rafters until I coaxed him down, telling him that we would take him to a place where there were children to play with. Thank goodness he revealed his true form then and there, because as we all filed out, he pushed Godfrey to his death! We killed the clockwork man after that. Even if our plans for Blinski worked, the toymaker did not need to meet this monstrous creature and create copies of him!
We ended our foray into the castle that day in Pidlwick’s crypt, where we found a deck of illusions. That being done, we fled the eerily empty castle for Vallaki. Foolish perhaps, to head there when we were so hated, but we had a purpose: to heal the young Lady Wachter, the one who had been driven mad by Victor Vallakovich. We could do this because of a spell I had recently learned. We healed her mind, and spoke to her of all that had passed. When we told her that she was the heir to the throne, she balked, and told us she wanted nothing of that, just a quiet life with her cats. Not a bad idea, that. We returned to Argynvostholt for the night.
In the morning we tried another spell I had been thinking of, and it worked, though unexpectedly. I managed to bring Blinski back to life, but changed. He was now a white-skinned dragonborn. But inside, he was definitely the same morbidly humorous toymaker. We returned him to Vallaki, where he took up again in his shop, with Piccolo the monkey.
It was time, we decided, to tell Kasimir of his sister’s demise and escort him to the Amber Temple. We left town only to find the Vistani camp had been trashed. Despairing, we searched and found the bodies of many Vistani, but we ran into Kasimir alive and well. I vowed to bring back Arabella, the young Vistana who we had once saved from drowning, but it would have to wait until I had my energy back. We looked through the wreckage, and Kasimir pointed out that our assumption was wrong, Strahd had not been the one to attack the camp. The markings were of a large cat attack.
A large cat…
We knew someone who had kept a large cat… fed it with meat… guarded it secretly…
I always knew I should have made more of an effort to free the thing… but foolishly, I trusted him…
We were all shocked, but none more so than Esmerelda. She, his student, but also a Vistana. She perhaps hadn’t realised how much he hated her people. Had he hated her, all the while teaching her how to survive?
We were shaken. But we knew where he was, we had wagon tracks leading up through the Tsolenka Pass the other day. Now there was one more reason to go to the Amber Temple.
Ricktavio. Rudolph Van Richten.
(OOC note: Yes, we are breaking far from canon here. Would the ‘real’ Van Richten commit such an atrocity? Who can say? But in our campaign, this is what has happened. Gasp! The betrayal 😦 )
Day Forty Seven
Landing this time on the tower we flew off from yesterday, we went down the tower. We had a few small encounters – one with an enchanted painting and carpet, another with a zombie cut in two, whose upper body attacked us, and his legs then followed. We realised that this tower staircase was the one that went all the way down to the half-submerged dungeon. Good, we thought, knowing it was not far from here to the corridor we suspected the crypt lay beyond. After a brief skirmish with hags, we found our suspicions to be correct.
The crypt was truly massive. We had to wade through deep guano laid down by myriad bats that loomed like a moving ceiling. Thirty-two great pillars lined the centre of the room in eight rows, and we soon realised these were crypts. Overtaken by curiosity, we determined to open as many as we could.
The first few were by and large uninteresting (beyond morbid curiosity in the dead) and we were not there to rob graves so we ignored any treasure that would not help us in our cause. In the third tomb we uncovered we were met by a crazed ghost of the inhabitant, a fat man wearing fake wings. But for the most part he, and any other being we encountered down here, were minor work for the faith of Donavich. The next crypt was of a vintnet and bore one of the greatest treasures possible, one we never dared to hope we’d find: the gemstone Champagne du Stomp. It is impossible that he could have stolen it from the vineyard, but looking at the plethora of wine bottles in that tomb he must have stolen it after death in his quest for more wine. Now we must find the Martikovs and return this.
The next crypt bore another great treasure, for it was the crypt of the one and only St Markovia. Her skeleton was disintegrated upon the slab, but for one bone: the thigh bone. Her spirit spoke to us and told Donavich to take the bone and use it for holy purpose. We discovered that it makes an effective mace against the undead, as at the next tomb the vengeful ghost possessed the gargoyle statues around us and attacked. The bone made quick work of him.
One minor crypt that was interesting to us was Piddlewick – Donavich and Ireena recalled that there was a young man in Barovia called Piddlewick. But we found nothing important there. The next crypt to bear fruit was the crypt of Tasha Petrovna, a priest. With her blessing and instruction we took her symbol: we are to use it at her grave in Krezk, which we will know by the ever growing roses there. Some great treasure lies there.
Next we saw some interesting things in some Kings’ tombs: in that of Troiski, a three faced helm, and in that of Catski, a strange assortment of items he invented. But in that same row we saw a familiar name: KAHZAN. Surely this was the wizard of the tower? We entered his tomb and I read the name on the stone aloud, pronouncing it proudly: “Kahzan, his name was power!” Little did I imagine the effect this would have! A magical staff of great power appeared above the begemmed skull of this former lich. Those of us with magical talent cast spells to discern its nature and to try and dispel any traps. Ireena grabbed it first and was zapped terribly. While we were distracted by her hurt, Radovan noticed it was slowly fading from existence and he jumped on it before it could fully vanish. Luckily, Ireena had used up all of the trap’s power, as Radovan managed to grab it unscathed. Esmerelda now bears the staff, and it truly great, with powerful magics hidden within.
The next few rows of crypts brought a bitter taste to our mouths, for it was here we found some brides of Strahd. We fought one, poor Sasha Ivliskova, and ended her torment. She seemed as if she had been abandoned by her selfish master. We saw the name of another bride on a crypt: Petrina Valikovna. We recalled Valikovna was the name of Kasimir the dusk elf. We decided to ask him about this relative of his first before breaking in. As if we weren’t disgusted enough already, we saw later in the row he had written Ireena’s name upon one of the crypts and labelled her as wife. The presumption! Marja and I used strong vines to obliterate the name. We laughed at the next familiar name though: mine! Dirwin, for he meddled too much. We laughed and laughed, and when the others began to move on I paused behind to mark my territory as an animal would.
In the next row we met two advisors of the king before Strahd, one of which was Stefan Gregorovich (perhaps an ancestor of Radovan?). Both skulls were enchanted so the men could give advice after death, but there was little they knew, so we chatted with them and asked their opinions. We fought spiders and bats, and came upon a crypt guarded by frosty lichens that had a terrible, biting cold. But it was in there that we found the greatest treasure of all, so I had to brave it in the form of a great bear. Even in that form, my final few steps were as a man, crawling out in great pain from the cold. But I had found a treasure even greater than Champagne du Stomp. It took an identify spell from Esmerelda to realise this, for on the outside it looked like a normal blade. It was a lucky blade, but instead of using it for its purpose, we could consume it to use its ultimate power: the spell Wish. I handed it to Ireena and let her know: now we can return to Death House and rescue her brother Ismark. Such has been my wish since the first day I entered this forsaken realm.
We continued, finding trapped crypts, one filled with ghouls which gave us a tough battle. But finally we came to the crypt labelled General Kroval “Mad Dog” Grizlek. Warily, we entered. Within we found it protected by six hell hounds and the wraith of the General himself. It was a tough fight, but we were determined and won the day. Within the sarcophagus was the knowledge we knew from prophesy to seek: the journal of Strahd von Zarovich.
Perhaps too confidently, we strode forward to more adventure, for in the southernmost large crypt, Godfrey perished in a trap. We avoided the place and bitterly regretted it, but knew we would see Godfrey again in the morning, in some new form. Instead we went to the greater eastern crypt. I was the only one who could pass through the magical gates guarding this one. I went in alone to find a crypt with windows overlooking the village of Barovia, and two almighty tombs: the good king and queen, mother and father of Strahd. I left their resting place and returned to the others. We returned to the north wall and the final crypt there. It was indeed the crypt of Sergei, the brother of Strahd. Within it was safe, and we took with his blessing his holy symbol of great power. With this, Donavich informed me, we could not only end Strahd, but this very day we could destroy the house of death which was still consuming Ismark’s soul.
With this goal in mind, we fled the castle, took to the air and flew the short distance to Barovia. We rested in the church for a moment, as the skirmishes within the castle had taken up quite a lot of our energy. We waited and planned our assault against Death House, and read aloud from the journal of our enemy.
We were woken by the sound of our traps and glyphs being triggered. We quickly got dressed and armed ourselves, and Strahd’s zombies and ghouls were upon us. We managed to control our territory and keep them completely away from us with ravens and ranged attacks. Marja summoned up all the willpower she could and we heard the distant rumble of thunder as she called lightning to strike the ground above us, where she couldn’t even see, to carve us out an exit route. But we wouldn’t end up needing it: we spotted Strahd like some hideous spider climbing the ceiling. He wasn’t expecting what happened next: Donavich blasted him with a orb of pure daylight.
We were hopeful that this was our chance. He did manage to rally a little, as he got a hold of Radovan’s psyche and made the boy shoot Donavich (though he was hard-pressed to injure that mountain of a man). Marja broke him out of the spell and he burst into tears. But then he steeled himself, and drew out the stake we had finished making only a few hours prior. He loaded it in his crossbow, and I couldn’t have asked for a better shot (OOC note: best time ever to CRITICAL!) as he stuck it right through Strahd’s chest. For a moment we thought we had him! We blasted him with spells and all the fight we could muster, but sadly the magic stake faded to dust and he managed to escape from the tunnels he had earlier invaded.
It was a dark time for us. He had broken our spirits pretty badly, especially when we realised he had zombified Blinski, Ireena’s father Ismark the Greater, and our two hunter friends from Vallaki. We fled to Vallaki and took down the crucified body of the new burgomeister. We begged the priest for shelter for the night but were met with a closed door, so we slept instead in the office of the stockyard. In the morning people were throwing fruit outside. I yelled at them to get lost and then we would. Once they left, we flew on giant kookaburras with Castle Ravenloft in our sights. But a quick detour: Radovan wanted to go home. So we dropped him off in Barovia and told him we’d visit him tonight to make sure he was okay. He was tearful. I didn’t want to drag it on any longer than that.
Spirits low, we crept into Ravenloft via a lower courtyard open to the sky. We went in through a door to a room with a guest book, and ran into a mongrelman who shuffled ahead of us and insisted we come to the guest rooms. We ignored him and explored the corridors of this wing of the castle. After a few creepy rooms, we found the creepiest of them all: the bone room. Peeking in, we were sure that this room, bedecked with bones as furniture and decor, would house the skull of Argynvost, and we were right! It was above the door. We fought a zombie here but we didn’t stay to fight more. We went back out to the courtyard where we ran into Radovan leading a small mob! He had felt guilty after we had left so he brought his parents and their friends with their pitchforks to help us. We thanked them all and told them to go home and wait for a signal for us one day when it was time to attack, but for now we had to return the skull. We asked Radovan if he wanted to join us again and see this thing through. He agreed, though he told me tearfully that he was going back to his parents after all this was over. We flew straight to Argynvostholt.
This turned out to be the best possible thing that could happen. As we replaced the dragon’s skull in the mausoleum the whole air of the place grew lighter. The revenants faded away in the light of the silver beacon that grew above the tower, making all of our hearts take courage. What’s more, the morbidly humourous Godfrey finally joined us, taking his boyfriend’s armour now that his vengeful spirit is calmed.
Waking today, we had all had pleasant dreams and felt much lighter than before. We wasted no time in getting back to Ravenloft and carrying on from where we left off, this time with the aid of our revenant paladin.
We went past the bone hall today and went on to the office of Rahadin, the dusk elf. There was no parleying with him, though Kasimir had led us to expect that would be the case. Even with demonic aid, we were too powerful for Strahd’s lieutenant. But we had to rest after that encounter. We locked the door and rested. We nearly had a witch creep in on us looking for her pet cat, but Esmerelda’s quick thinking and prestidigitation (making a cat’s meow from far off) saved us from being found.
Down the secret stairs from Rahadin’s room we tripped a trap and a illusory Strahd came into view, though of course we didn’t realise it was an illusion until we attacked. But past that was a room with seven cups of stones and a white fire in the middle. The text around the brazier suggested that the thing was a teleporter.
I was very keen to use it but others were a little frightened. So instead we explored further corridors off that room. We found a grim looking arena of torture to the south. To the north, we found a corridor and then Godfrey and I fell down a chute. After checking out the bottom I flew back up to the others and told them to come down too. We were stuck inside a half submerged prison cell. We managed to get the door open with group effort and explored the other cells. We found a magic sword in one. Through the doors to the south we heard a man crying out from help and when we found him I realised who he was: Emile, the mate of the werewolf Zuleika. I mentioned Zuleika to him and told him we had been looking for him, if only to reassure him we could be trusted. We broke him out and looked for an exit.
We had a bunch of false starts on the road to exit, with Godfrey triggering multiple chute traps that led to different prison cells. We managed to break him out of all but the final one, so he slit his own throat – the idea being that his spirit will find another corpse to occupy. It was a grim prospect but he did it cheerfully. Despite us all being disturbed, we had to carry on. We walked west and found the terrible arena from before so we went there and triggered the revival of a crowd of zombies. They didn’t last long, happily. We found ourselves back in the teleporter room and on a whim decided to go to the violet location, “mountain spire”.
We found ourselves in an ancient tower in a stormy, snowy pass. Esmerelda informed us it was the Tsolenka Pass. At some point during this time Emile slipped away from us. Hopefully he finds Zuleika. Meanwhile, we went to the top of the tower, where we were met by elemental ice maidens who attacked us. After that, at the bottom of the tower we met the demon goat Sangzor! But he was easy prey for us too. However, the last thing we encountered that day was not easy prey at all. We reached a great gate with green fire dancing in the portal. It was guarded by four stone demons. We gave up and were about to fly away on my four kookaburras, but that attempt to circumvent them the statues sprung to life! The fight was truly brutal as they had many attacks that could poison or paralyze us. But, as always, our teamwork won out. As we left to return to Argynvostholt, we worried about this road… for it is the road up to the Amber Temple, the one we will have to take again surely. What kind of road has these defences? What kind of temple gives sentient evil to a mountain goat?
But another gift was given that night. I felt my power grow stronger and visitors from the fey lands beyond the mortal veil came to me in a vision. They gifted me with new spells, such as the ability to shoot a magic bolt at range, to understand foreign languages, and more importantly the ability to summon fey creatures to my aid. This seemed to convince Marja moreso than before that I am a good ally for her and her environmental cause.
Also, Godfrey found his way back to Argynvostholt… in the body of Blinski. We obviously weren’t happy about this, but what can we do? It’s not like we can be party to his death a third time…
On our third consecutive raid we decided to use the teleporter straight away and go to red for “lore”. Sadly this was not the shortcut we hoped it would be (we were looking for Mad Dog’s Crypt in the hopes we’d find the promise knowledge prophesied within), but instead we found ourselves in Strahd’s library. This was not bad, as I had been there before and so I knew where we were! Going out into the hall we went into one of the great tower staircases of the castle. Little did we know this was the best possible result we could ask for. Above us hung a great, magical heart. We realised what it must be: a regenerative source of Strahd’s health. We attacked.
It tried all it could to throw us off the stairs with earthquakes and magical halberds, but we got to the top (flying aid from kookaburras and my hybrid form was needed to save people from falling to their deaths!) and we cut the heart to ribbons. But as we basked in our triumph (or rather, Ireena wiped copious amounts of thick blood off her) eight vampiric servitors came up after us. That was a tough fight, but we held out against him.
Out the top of the tower we saw open sky and decided to head home for the day as we were badly hurt after the attack of the vampires. But first we had to fend off some undead soldiers. This wasn’t hard, especially when we used gravity as our ally. This time instead of kookaburras I summoned my new pixie friends. Eight of them were enough to polymorph each of my companions into birds. You can’t really request specifics from pixies though, so our higgeldy-piggeldy army made of flamingos, parrots, and me the raven, flew back home with pixie riders.
Everything’s going well. Too well. We had better hurry up, because if we take too much longer, Strahd will strike out against us and destroy more innocent lives to hurt us.
But he will not stop us.
We left for the tower we suspected Ricktavio was inhabiting. When we arrived, we found Esmerelda’s wagon. She climbed underneath it – the only non-trapped entrance – and brought us out several weapons and potions that will help us in our cause.
Then we turned our attentions to the tower. It had a magic door on it, and being foolhardy, I went straight up and touched it. We got blown back by a strike of lightning. Esmerelda tried mage hand, poking it to no avail. Then I realised the pattern. There were lines pointing to stick figures. I followed the line and did each action shown by the stick figures. The door opened thankfully.
Inside the place was pretty well trashed. There were four clay golems which pulled the elevator up the middle of the tower. We were a little wary of them at first, but they never attacked. The first three levels were empty and dangerously rotted. But the fourth level was safe and looked recently inhabited. We found a page of text from Ricktavio, and learned something hideous about his past. He had attacked the Vistani tribe who took his son and sold him to a vampire, using an army of zombies. After this he was victim to a Vistani curse. We also found an embalmed Vistana’s head in a chest. Ultimately we only learned things we didn’t want to learn by visiting that tower, but the day was very early, so we decided it was time to attack the ruins of Berez and rescue the gem of Red Dragon Crush.
The weather and the landscape got darker and swampier as we got closer to the ruins. We saw a pulsing light, but it was across a wide river, so we decided to investigate that later. Instead we made our way carefully through the village ruins until we saw the first scarecrow. We set ourselves up with some cover and started firing lightning and fire at it, with a crowd of my summoned ravens as a beacon for more scarecrows to come into our line of fire. In this way, despite the mist and rain, we dealt with seven scarecrows in total without taking a single wound.
We waited a few minutes to make sure no more were coming, and then we saw a dark shape moving swiftly towards us. We were on guard, but it was only a wereraven. Her name was Muriel and she was the one trying to signal us. We had no idea there were allies in this forsaken place. She led us around, showing us the ruins of the town. There was a chapel, just a shell of the former building, and a manor. As I snuck up the hill to use the spyglass I alone encountered a spectre of a man. He was not hostile though, and moaned to me of the death of his daughter Marina, by the hand of Strahd. He directed me to look to where the town center once was, to see the statue of her.
At once I whistled for the others. Upon seeing Ireena the ghost cried out “Marina, you’re alive!” and faded out, finally at rest. Much disturbed, we looked at the statue. Tatiana, Marina… it would appear that Ireena is someone who returns after death. It would appear she is the punishment of Strahd.
Moving on, Muriel showed us across the river to the standing stones she had been signalling us from. After a few moments’ meditation we learned some of the purpose of the stones. They would be a good place for magic item creation, and they were warded against magical scrying. But they also had images of animals on the rocks. So I decided to change into animal form, and as a great white bear, I felt power surge through me. It was time to attack.
Back across the river, from a long distance we spied the odd, spider-legged tree hut of the witch. We could even dimly spy her through the open door cooing at a cradle. There were two cages full of ravens before the door, and Esmerelda turned Radovan invisible so he could go up and pick the locks on them. Muriel whispered to the birds not to draw attention to us. Radovan managed to get one cage open, but not the other, and he and Muriel tried to pull it open to no avail. We decided the time was past ripe. We had to attack.
Because she was so surprised, we managed to get the witch with Esmerelda’s lightning bolt, Donavich’s fireball, and Marja struck her hut with lightning a few times before she could even react. My ravens flew inside to start harrying her. Muriel climbed up the cage and started whacking at the chain to release it. The witch, nearly dead before she could even retaliate, fled in a speeding, flying chariot made of a giant’s skull, but as she did she awoke the terrible treehut.
But it was to no avail for her. She and the hut had taken far too much damage. He harried the hut until it fell, and we had time for one last pot shot against the witch. Donavich took it with a fireball, and faith guided his hand, for the witch had decided to trick us a fly off in a different direction, but not well enough to trick our wily priest.
Within the hut we managed to salvage many treasures (though we were attacked by four undead hands as we opened a chest, but Donavich swiftly dealt with them). There was magic ammunition, spell scrolls, potions, a stone of good luck and a hideous flute of most mournful tone. Most importantly we found Red Dragon Crush. I asked Muriel to tell Davien Martikov that I was ready. She flew off, telling me to meet them at the standing stones at midnight.
Also we saw what had been in the cradle all along: it was a baby version of Strahd. Could it be that she was his nurse? Or his mother? Either way, we were both happy to have dealt with this monstrous ally of his, and also kind of creeped out to be looking down on this innocent illusion of the fiend we intend to destroy.
We waited, camping at the stones. We were attacked by bats, agents no doubt of Strahd, but otherwise it was a quiet night. At midnight, Muriel, Davien, and one other joined us. I handed Red Dragon Crush over and we exchanged words, to the effect of he hopes that I am the one to take on Strahd. A wereraven landed on my exposed wrist and pecked my artery.
The change will take tomorrow night at midnight, under the light of the full moon. We returned home to our lair, where I spent a restless night as my body began the hidden changes.
We started a quiet day which would see us facing no unanticipated enemies on the road for once. We went into Vallaki and received no special attention for doing so. Blinski had completed the toy castle and it was so impressive that I couldn’t help myself, I commissioned another toy from him. I told him of yesterday’s moving witch hut, and he was excited to get started on that. We also went to the coffinmaker to ask what the coffin was all about. He said he had been paid a great amount to make and deliver the coffin by a man called Vasily Von Holtz. Why does that name sound familiar? Before we left town we went and saw the priest and asked how everything was going. Everything seemed fine. Hans and Katarina are working for him now, which is nice.
Next we stopped in Krezk to deliver the toy castle, a gift basket of food, and to check on everyone. The abbey has been given over to renovation for a new orphanage. No mongrelmen have been spotted, though there were some suspected sightings.
We walked to the tower to pick up Esmerelda’s wagon and slowly returned to Vallaki, where we left the wagon in the stockyard. Then we returned to our lair.
The night was spent in imbuing the unfinished stake with magic from all sides up at the standing stones behind the mill. It was midnight when we finished, and as the magic filled the stake, I felt myself finally taken hold of by the blood of the raven. I transformed fully, my throat letting out a loud, piercing cry. I flew to join the flock in the trees, and they welcomed me to the night.
We rose at dawn and packed as much as we could onto the wagon. We returned Hans and Katarina to Vallaki and picked up the wedding dress from the seamstresses. Then we continued to Krezk. All ten of our orphans (Myrtle and Freek, our original orphans, and our would-be werewolves, Magda, Vladislav, Boris, Lavinia, Anton, Ivana, Fatima, and Sergei) our mule Bruce and the wagon, Copernicus the goat, 10 chickens, and all of the toys I had bought for the children, all came to live in this sleepy commune. After delivering the children safely, Donavich took some time out to ward the gates while Ireena and I tried to find the source of the mysterious voice she hears every time we come to Krezk.
All together again at lunch time we decided to go up and deliver the wedding dress ourselves and scope out this Abbot fellow. We went up the hill to the fortified abbey and were greeted at the gates by two shambling figures of mongrelmen, made up of different parts of animals. What the heck was the Abbot up to? They led us through and we found more mongrel men, including one in chains who, when we tried speaking with her, bit Ireena and tried to lap up her blood! We were most disturbed, but then we were called in to meet the Abbot.
He was every bit as beautiful and composed as the last time we had seen him, and greeted us serenely. With him was a beautiful young woman, and I congratulated him on his bride. Oh no, he said, I was mistaken. He was not the groom. Who was, I then asked. Has he not told you, asked the Abbot. A dread fell over me. This quiet young girl was to marry Strahd? I took a closer look at her and that was when I noticed the smallest, most delicate stitchmarks on her wrist. No, no just her wrist. Her whole body. I complemented the Abbot on his workmanship and he tried to pretend I was imagining things. Giving an odd look at Ireena, he led us all in for lunch.
Ireena, Radovan and I tucked into the stew, stupidly. Donavich was the only one to push it aside, and when I noticed, I stopped too, and pushed Ireena’s away from her. It was too late: Radovan slumped in his chair. Oh dear, the Abbot said, I had hoped you would not guess and eat up all the stew so it would knock you out until Strahd arrived. He had guessed at Ireena’s identity and was going to give her to Strahd instead! Instantly we rose to the fight, as groggy as we were. It was to be a difficult fight, we realised, as he stood and revealed his true angelic form! We fought as hard as we could, but in the end he managed to grab the sleeping Radovan and force us to surrender.
He had made several mistakes. One of them was leaving us alone, unharried, for an hour in his dungeons, as it meant we could refresh some of our spent energy should it come to a fight again. The other mistake we had no idea about until our rescuer arrived at the door. Turns out the werewolves north of Krezk had long been aware of the mongrelmen and one had informed Zuleika of our capture. She came to rescue us while her pack created a distraction at the other end of the abbey. I turned into the form of a great prehistoric bear and bashed through the door. There was no time to retrieve our confiscated weapons; Zuleika insisted we follow her at speed to the portal.
The portal! I wasn’t sure I was ready to leave, but to get everyone with me to safety was a tempting idea. We raced down the hill to a placid pool with a gazebo beside it. To our horror, we spotted a red and black dot on the horizon, moving incredibly fast. Strahd. We increased our pace.
As we reached the pool suddenly a vision took a hold of not just Ireena this time, but all of us. Sergei, she cried out. Tatiana, a man’s voice called to her, and a watery hand reached for her. Strahd slammed between them and stared into Ireena’s eyes. She fell into his arms. Dirwin, you have betrayed me, came the dark indictment from the creature of the night. As we raced to attack, he shrugged off our blows, and walked steadily towards the pool. He threw a fireball which burned us all greatly, including Ireena, who looked near death. He carried her into the pool.
A foolish attempt! The pool exploded in fury, flinging Ireena away from Strahd and he, scorched and hideous beyond recognition, flung not far from the ruins of the gazebo, where Radovan had run to hide. The child, face filled with fear, picked up a burning piece of the structure and rammed it straight into the fiend’s chest. He was paralyzed!
Donavich revived the felled Ireena and ran to help Radovan hold the stake, while I was locked in combat with Strahd’s fell steed. The other three tried their best to hold the fiend down while I battled the beast and manage to extinguish its life and flaming mane. But alas, even as I had that minor triumph, the pinned vampire stared into the eyes of Radovan and willed the boy upward. As soon as the stake was out of his heart, he vanished into mist, which flew over the hills.
It was a failure, yes. But to come so tantalizingly close and live to tell the tale? That was a victory in its own way. At least that’s what the watching crowd seemed to agree on. We were taken back to the burgomeister’s and nursed back to health. I sent four giant kookaburras into the evening light. One to Vallaki, informing the priest and burgomeister there that the name Dirwin was now mud to Strahd, and that they should make efforts to protect themselves against any repercussions for our association. The second to the Martikovs of the winery, informing them of the development and their eminent danger. The third giant kookaburra to the tower east of Krezk, hoping it would find its way to Ricktavio to inform him of the open warfare state between the master and me. And the final giant kookaburra to Marja and Word, informing them that now was the time to return and join Public Enemy Number One.
When we woke it was to find many allies and acquaintances calling on us. First came the Martikovs. They came to say they were moving on and abandoning the winery for now, as they were open allies of mine. Also they told me they believed I would be the one to take Strahd down, and they would help me however they could.
Second came Marja and Word, and thankfully they were ready to pledge fully to our cause. Soon after came the third visitor, and it was a Vistana called Esmerelda, so had found our note intended for Ricktavio. Turns out she is a student of his. She decided to pledge to our cause too, though she seems a little bit more likely to rebel against our group consensus should we come to a disagreement. Fourth came Madame Eva and the Vistani! This was completely unexpected. She spoke to me and told me about the Amber Temple far in the mountains to the south. She said it was the source of Strahd’s power, as well as her own. I also theorize it may have been the source of Izek’s power too. She seemed angry at me when I tried to say that I would try and defeat Strahd without compromising with evil. And finally Zuleika and her pack had come to join us. She was perhaps a little ashamed of running away from the confrontation with Strahd, but I told her I understood and that her rescue had been invaluable to us.
With everyone assembled, Donavich whipped up a crowd with a powerful speech against the Abbot. I could finally understand why he would become a priest. I had seen his faith in action, but now I was finally seeing his public speaking in action. He told them of the mongrelmen and of the flesh golem he had made of the body parts of their dead daughters. He told them that the Abbot was a fallen angel who was happy to compromise with Strahd for convenience. Soon the crowd was whipped up and we went up, Krezk inhabitants, lycanthropes, and my party.
While the small army of ours faced the mongrelmen the Abbot placed in his courtyard, we ran into the abbey to find our confiscated weapons. Unfortunately this was a real struggle for us, as we had to wade through room after room, fighting off mongrels and shadows in our search. In the end we had to bust straight into the dining room where the Abbot and his terrible bride were. Ireena and Radovan slipped away and found the weapons in the room underneath, returning to join the fight upstairs. This time, with our additional allies, we had the angel on the ropes. The hideous bride was a great brute and tore a couple of commoners limb from limb, but we stirred her into such a frenzy that what ended up happening was she dealt the final blow to her creator. But we were able to put her down too.
A well earned rest in Krezk that night as we recovered and made our plans. Tomorrow, to Castle Ravenloft.
What a terrible idea! We left Krezk at dawn and went straight to the Castle. We faced great skirmishes – wolves at the gates harried us, and then wights in the courtyard put a mighty dent in our morale. But the final straw was the four dragon statues in the hallway. We nearly died in there. We ran for it, flying on summoned giant kookaburras all the way back to the windmill. After a short rest there we carried on to our secret lair were we spent a night argumentatively. I had to speak sternly and with conviction to end the bitter conversations. Tomorrow, we take on the Dead Dragon’s Lair.
We arrived at mid morning at Dead Dragon’s Lair or as we later learned to call it, Argynvostholt. The ancient defense of a dragon statue breathed a gentle cooling breeze on us rather than the intended attack. We entered the ruins of the grand old keep.
It was a sad sight within of former glory now crumbled. We went upstairs and in a room found a hearth from which a small, ashy dragon burst. It flew through the rooms and led us to a dark ghostly knight. His name was Vladimir and he stopped us. He spoke in long dead voice of his vow to see Strahd punished… and that he would stop any who tried to end Strahd’s punishment. I argued that Strahd’s punishment was punishing more than just the vampire. The knight did not care. Since neither of us would budge from our moral positions, it was a fight. He called out six of his phantom order and attacked. We prevailed, though it was hard won. We considered stealing his armour and sword, but his spirit would chase us across Barovia if we did, so we decided against it – at least until we put his spirit to rest.
We met two people in here who did not attack us: an injured dusk elf called Savid who had come looking for a missing person. We healed his leg and promised to help him back home once we were done here. Also we met Godfrey, once the lover of Vladimir, the only undead knight who did not attack us. We begged him to join us, sure that he was the ally that Madame Eva had spoken of in her tarroka card reading she gave me. He said he could only do that once the spirits of Argynvostholt were put to rest.
Also we saw a strange sight – a man rushed into the courtyard, and delivered a coffin. We went down to look, and the name on it was “Radovan”. We were all frightened, but to alleviate the mood I pushed Radovan so he almost fell in. But seriously, that’s something to investigate when we get back to Vallaki. Could it be our old friend the coffinmaker?
As we explored more of the complex we fought more spectral knights and phantoms, all of the order of the silver dragon whose likeness covered many surfaces in the form of art. We also saw more illusory dragons in hearths and heard ghostly voices which spun for us a tale. I will tell it plainly, though we learned in bits and pieces from spirits, voices, letters and paintings. This ruin was once the home of the order of the silver dragon Argynvost, who lived and fought amongst his disciples. They fell four hundred years ago when Strahd’s armies descended upon Barovia. His skull was taken and kept in Castle Ravenloft. If we can find it and restore it to this place, three things will happen: the restless dead here will be able to finally settle; Godfrey will join us in our cause; and the light of Argynvost will shine as a beacon over Barovia as a symbol of hope. We were in truth bitterly disappointed that we would have to return to Ravenloft without a powerful ally, in order to earn the trust of that same ally! But we managed to clear the ruin out and map its known rooms.
We returned Savid to his people outside of Vallaki and the leader of the dusk elves, camped with the Vistani on the outskirts there, asked us to take him to Amber Temple when we go. His sister had been killed by Strahd, and he wanted vengeance. Any ally is welcome!
We returned to our lair to rest our very weary bodies. Tomorrow we think we will seek out Ricktavio before we decide what to do next.