Curse of Strahd

Dearly Beloved

“Ladies! How YOU doin’?” Marek intoned in a flirty manner.

The brides of Strahd, though once lovely in life, now held nothing but horror for those that beheld them. Perhaps for Marek, the promise of unlife realized, there were worse thigns than undead females that looked voluptuous even brimming with evil. Ulfrik unsheathed the Sunsword, spilling pure sunlight into the darkened crypt. The brides reeled and hissed with fury, their pure white skin already starting to bubble and sear. In a rage, one of the brides, a tall female with a curious mask made from bone, leaped through the air and fastened herself onto Vilnius, knocking him down. She grabbed his head with a steely grip and drove her face into his exposed neck as he screamed with fear. Her fangs sunk into his neck and a massive gout of blood spewed forth, painting the nearby wall. Vilnius’s hands shot up in pain and he gave a single cry of agony. And then… nothing. He was dead. These vampires were not simple spawns. They were old, powerful, and immensely cruel. “As one! NOWWW!” Ulfrik cried and the group launched into a coordinated attack against the three vampires. While Van Richten and Emil cornered one bride, Ulfrik faced off against another, a tall, red haired female with a soiled purple gown and black eyes. She hissed as the sunlight enclosed her, and her once pale skin began to blacken and burn. Ulfrik slashed and spun, wounding the redhaired female and then, slamming her against the wall with a powerful body check, speared her through the chest. Then he swiveled and decapitated her. The dark skinned female was next to go. While Van Richten swiped at her with his newly acquired shortsword, Mahel and Emil skewered her with their sword and spear, allowing Marek to blast her with a chill touch. The undead foe could not withstand such an attack and turned to ash before them, a look of peace on her face. Last but not least was the masked vampire bride. She was lithe and agile, leaping around the room and lashing out with her claws and fangs. The group encircled her, leaving her no room to run, and their combined numbers and might utterly overwhelmed her. Ulfrik dodged a ragged claw attack, ducked under and lanced out with the sunsword, eviscerating the masked foe. The mask slowly slipped off as she turned to ash, revealing the top portion of her face had been scarred and burned long ago, and yet it remained in her undead state. Ulfrik felt a tinge of pity. Mahel backed away from the remains of these creatures, and plastered herself against one of the three statues. And then… she was in a different place. She was surrounded by low, bricked in walls, and the ceiling… was moving. She slowly glanced up and saw that the ceiling was covered with a blanket of bats. Thousands of bats. Wary of these creatures, she slowly moved to a nearby stairwell where she heard a set of boots coming down in her direction. The figure turned visible – it was Kasimir Velikov! He glanced at a gem he held in his palm, which was pulsing with a purple glow.

“Kasimir!” Mahel whisper-shouted, causing Velikov to jump in fright. “What are you doing down here?”

“Looking for my sister,” he returned. “This gem says she’s down here.” Mahel glanced at the glowing gem, which seemed to glow brighter as Velikov walked deeper into the catacombs. It worked as some kind of divining rod, showing the way to his sister’s tomb. Velikov and Mahel approached a tomb with the name “Patrina Velikovna – Bride”, the door fastened shut. Velikov pried open the door, and using the brightly glowing gem, looked inside. A spectral apparition lashed out of the open doorway, throwing Velikov tumbling along the fog enshrouded floor! A banshee! Knowing full well what form Velikov’s sister had become in her undeath, Mahel knew that she had to distract it somehow. She cast mirror image on herself and started to gesture wildly. The troubled spirit locked its eyes on one of the images and started to float aggressively towards her. Mahel, fearing for her life, saw the female elf’s corpse still ensconced in the tomb and knew what had to be done. She screamed at the sprawling form of the dusk elf. “Velikov! Do it! Raise her! Now!” Velikov lifted himself up, and sprinted towards the open door of the tomb as the banshee prepared to scream with anguish and fury….

Hearing Mahel’s voice (and upon looking, not finding Mahel in the room), the group immediately halted their brief respite and raised the lever to open the portcullis. After a short search, they found the source of the yelling: Mahel. And nearby, sitting on the ground, Kasimir Velikov. But not as they remembered. Kasimir’s flesh looked desiccated, almost see-through. Something horrible had happened to him here in this castle. And finally, a new figure – an elven woman looking longingly at her dusky skin.

“Alive. I’m… I’m alive,” she whispered.

“Patrina,” Velikov murmured. “I brought you back, dearest sister.”

Patrina’s face was a mask of hatred as she stared at him. “My little brother. Kasimir the Lesser. How apt that you were the one to bring me back to the world of the living, since it was you and your followers that killed me!” She slapped him across the face and spat upon him.

“What?” Mahel stammered. “What do you mean?”

Patrina was furious with self-righteousness. “This impudent dusk elf couldn’t stand the fact that I fell in love with the dark lord himself and saw our existence together as an affront to our race. So he and his followers took it upon themselves to stone me to death.”

“For which our entire race suffered the loss of all of its females at the hand of Strahd and his chamberlain, Rahadin,” Velikov croaked.

Patrina crossed her arms and looked at the withered form of her brother. “If you were not the only family I have left, you would be ashes under my boot. Blast! Where’s my book! You would think you would have buried it with me.” Velikov looked distraught and humiliated. Patrina, on the other hand, wasted no time. She started to root through her tomb, presumably for her spellbook. Mahel, always eager to help a fellow female elf, produced Mordenkainen’s spellbook and handed it over to her. “Splendid,” Patrina said sweetly and smiled.

Marek, meanwhile was bored to tears. He saw a nearby crypt with the words “Pidlwick – Fool of Dorfiya” and grimaced. He thought, ugh, that horrid creature. If I had spit, it would be on him. Next to that crypt, he saw another one with an open door, which was mysteriously inscribed with, “PASS NOT THESE PORTALS YE FOOLISH MORTALS.” Marek, knowing himself to be no longer mortal, walked inside… and found himself teleported back to Strahd’s crypt. He wandered over to the coffin, opened it (to find Strahd not inside) and inscribed “Marek was here” in the soil that lined the vampire’s resting place. Then he walked back to the group, looking oddly bemused.

Moving slowly through the crypts, they heard the sounds of voices coming from the north… and stumbled upon a most unholy wedding ceremony. White marble steps descended to a tomb that had a vaulted ceiling thirty feet overhead. A stillness – a calm amid the storm – was here. In the center of the tomb, a white marble slab supported an intricately inlaid coffin. Chiseled into the slab was a name: Sergei von Zarovich. To the north, behind the coffin, were three alcoves. A beautifully carved statue stood in each alcove – a stunning young man flanked by two angels – looking as polished and new as the day each was placed there. An iron lever protruded from the south wall, west of the tomb’s entrance. Standing in front of the slab on which the coffin was placed were three figures: Ireena, looking weak and pale, her clothes bedraggled and her face without emotion under matted and bloodied auburn hair; Strahd himself, who stood beside her, holding Ireena proudly (yet tenderly) by the hand; and between them, the Baron of Vallaki, who held some kind of book with a nervous look on his sweaty pink face. Strahd slowly turned to the party and smiled.

“Look at you, with your soft faces all in a row like sheep at a butcher’s. Tatyana is mine. She has always been mine. You try to protect her from me, because you fear her destiny, a destiny that you work to deny her from, but which leaves you trembling with a sense of inadequacy. It is your fear that makes you weak. You shall fail. You think me powerless with your totems and your trinkets. These serve only to keep me at bay, to keep me from killing all of you in the blink of an eye. You think you can kill me? HAHAH! I, who commanded nations hundreds of years before you were born? I laugh at all of you. You and your typical mortal inadequacies. Ulfrik, with your puerile wish to be nothing more than a ravenous beast. Pitiful. Mahel, who trusts not those who care for you, and yet shows pity for those same weak, helpless mortal souls. They are naught but insects, crawling in my earth. Marek. You showed promise. You chose the dark path, as I did long ago. But for what? Greatness? Knowledge? Power? Hah! You know nothing of true power! And my old friend, Van Richten, with your so-called faith. Your faith could not save your family. Your faith could not save…. her.”

As he said this, Ezmerelda D’Avenir appeared from behind Strahd and walked beside him. But she was not as before. She was pale, with long sharp fangs which poked out from under her top lip. Her eyes, once warm and brown, now glowed red. However, her face showed sadness and sorrow. Van Richten began to shake with grief and fury. Strahd, paying him no heed, continued.

“Fools, all of you. No matter what happens in this infinitesimal speck of time, know that I will always be. None have stood against me and lived. Long after you are forgotten dust, I shall still walk this plane and rule over it! And you, you think to kill me, who Death himself could not overtake? I am the Ancient. I am the land!”

As he screamed this furious statement, massive cracks broke through the ancient stone walls of the castle. First one, then two, then thousands of bats poured forth through the wall, heavily obscuring everything in the room. Even the light of the Sunsword was diminished from the intensity of their numbers. Patrina and Marek began to cast spells to ward off these vats, but found that the area in which they stood had some sort of anti-magic ward as their spells seemed ineffective. Clearly, the lord of Barovia wanted this fight on his terms, not theirs. Strahd gestured, then vanished amid the swarms of bats. From behind him, Marek’s shadow stretched and lengthened, then fully detached from the lich’s form, rising up to its full height as Marek turned to face it…

Van Richten saw Ezmerelda stalking towards them and shouted, “Ezmerelda! No you must resist!” Ezmerelda, with a look of sorrow on her face, simply said, “I’m sorry,” and unsheathed her magical rapier and handaxe. In response, Van Richten cast Protection from Evil on Ulfrik, who unrepentant, struck out at Ezmerelda. Ezmerelda blocked the sunsword with her own weapon, and sunk her sword into Ulfrik, draining his life with her sword. At the same time, the shadow latched onto Marek and started draining his (albeit undead) strength. Mahel, seeing that something drastic had to be done, ran into the crypt and charmed Ireena and the Baron, hoping to have them run from this place of horror and death. And that’s when she felt the eyes of the Count on her from above…

A cold hand, as strong as steel and invisible, swatted Mahel away with immense strength. Mahel flew across the room and smashed into the wall, bleeding heavily from her head. Her unconsciousness clear, the charm effect dissipated. Ulfrik found his second wind and continued to defend himself against the relentless attacks of his former ally. Velikov rushed into the tomb and cast ice storm to hopefully get rid of many of the swarming bats. The spell’s cold eruptions turned Strahd visible for a second, but unfortunately the balls of hail slammed into Mahel’s unconscious body, further pushing her towards the waiting arms of death. Strahd grabbed the werewolf Emil and with preternatural strength, lifted him off the ground. The invisible vampire lord clearly readied to bite him and drain his life essence. Patrina, however, was a woman scorned. She had seen that she had been replaced by another, and her blazing rage against her former lover was real. She cast disintegrate on Strahd’s invisible form, which connected with a horrific ripping noise, blasting him with greenish energy which sizzled. She then cast a globe of Invulnerability on herself and smirked. Van Richten used his shortsword to dissipate Marek’s shadowy foe, in that Marek found his own shadow re-attached to his body.

Mahel’s vision clouded, and she started to see a bright light, leading her away from this place of torment, a place where her clan would accept her and love her again… and then, when she was almost released, the looming face of Strahd appeared before her, and the light was extinguished. She heard his low, soothing voice, purr to her, “Flesh of my flesh. Blood of my blood. Kin of my kin. Death of my death. My bountiful wine press. My bride. This life is no longer than the space between two heart beats, I give you eternity. Come into the night, the darkness.” With that, he tore at his wrist with his fangs, and forced the ensuing blood down her throat – using this as a way to both revive her and charm her. Mahel’s elven will had been successfully overpowered by the evil of Strahd. In her mind, she heard his voice, telling her to kill… Ulfrik.

Marek cast spirit guardians, and the torrent of spiritual energy felled even more bats. Their tiny corpses covered the floor, and the air began to clear. Patrina began to machine-gun Strahd with magic missiles as she attempted to defend himself with his long black cloak. Ezmerelda, turned away from Ulfrik and grabbed the prone body of the werewolf Emil. Hoisting his feral form off the floor, she simply said, “I’m so sorry,” and drove her sword through his eye. Marek grimaced but felt no sorrow at the loss of his companion. Ulfrik felt the loss of his lycanthropic brethren, and hastened to end this foul fiend’s unlife. She was no longer Ezmerelda, she was the enemy!

Mahel rose from the floor, the taste of Strahd’s blood still fresh on her lips. Kill Ulfrik, she thought. Yes. She took Al out from under her tunic and cast her last contagion spell through him as she heaved him at Ulfrik. Ulfrik dived out of the way as Albreth hit the wall, a greenish mist dissipating from the skeletal creature.

Van Richten dodged the still invisble Strahd’s attack and wheeled around to slice at the vampire’s form with his magic shortsword given to him by Marek. Strahd slammed him with his iron fist and Van Richten fell. Strahd’s voice echoed through the room. “And now, old man, you will die. Ezmerelda, please dispatch of him.” Ezmerelda stood over Van Richten, her rapier at her old mentor’s throat as he weeped before her. “I cannot,” she cried, and a single bloody tear fell from her face. Ulfrik took this opportunity to step forward and impales her on the sunsword. Ezmerelda had a final look of peace then turned to ash. And then, at that moment, the bats cleared and the sunsword flickered into sunlight. And Strahd appeared, hissing and burning.

Ulfrik swung with all his remaining might at the newly revealed (and very pissed) Strahd, the sunlight streaming from the sword hissing into his flesh. Strahd grabbed Ulfrik by the throat, hoisted him up and swatted him down. The blow was too much – Ulfrik fell unconscious, bleeding drastically. The sunsword fell to the floor and the sunlight went out like a lamp. Albreth grabbed it, and shoved it down his gullet. Strahd screamed, “You will all drown in blood!” Marek stepped forwards, reveaing the Holy Symbol of Ravenkind. Calmly he said, “Not today.” He slammed the crystal embedded in of the symbol against the wall. Only, it didn’t break. Strahd laughed evilly and closed in on Marek, his fangs exposed. Marek jumped up and crashed down on the amulet, shattering it. Sunlight streamed from the broken holy symbol. Strahd screamed with anger and fear and fled from the room, turning into a greenish mist. Marek sighed with relief, saying, “I’ll get you next time, my friend.” Then he turned to Ireena. Wordlessly, he cast his chill touch spell on her, killing her instantly. Ireena collapsed, but seemed finally at peace, free from the horrors of this realm. Throughout the castle, the insane fury of Strahd could be felt. “NOOOOOOOOOO!!!” Hearing a voice that rattled the very walls of the Pillarstone of Ravenloft itself, the Baron ran shrieking from the room.

Van Richten, heavily wounded, chased his quarry through the catacombs, as did Patrina. Mahel hid in a nearby crypt, still hearing the commands of her master to protect him. She saw a nearby crypt: “Artank Swilovich: Friend and member of the Barovian Wine Distillers Guild.” This was as good a place to hide this blasted weapon as any. As she opened the crypt door, she was greeted by the faint smell of wine. A skeleton draped in rags lay atop a marble slab in the center of the crypt. Heaped around it, covering the entire floor, were thousands of empty wine bottles. She took the sunsword and hid it in the wine crypt. Marek quickly found her and asked if she had the sword. Mahel, still under Strahd’s influence, lied and said that she hid it in a crypt to the west. Marek saw through her lie and calculated where the sword hilt would be. He opened the nearby crypt and shed a non-existent tear for all the wine wasted. With an audible sigh, he grabbed the sword and ran to the south, chasing after the vampire lord.

Ulfrik was dying, for possibly the last time. In his death throes, he saw his brother, running through the forest. He was happy to call him Little Wolf no longer – he could now be called Great Wolf. But now was not his time. He must fight! The tattoo on his skin that told him of his fate burned away and wakened Ulfrik from his torpor. Ulfrik roared and changed into a massive blue-furred werewolf! Growling, he bounded after Strahd…

Strahd’s mist floated into his coffin and the heavy portcullis slams down. Safe at last, the vampire would need only to regenerate his strength and call forth his children – then they would be doomed. Van Richten and Patrina reached Strahd’s crypt and tried to wrench it open, but the portcullis was either too heavy, or magically sealed. Mahel unsheathed her daggers. She would die to defend her master… as would anyone would would assail him! Marek remembered the crypt teleporter – and ran again inside to find himself back in the crypt of Strahd, and alone. He swiftly ran over to Strahd’s coffin, lifted it up and with delight cast inflict wounds on the near-destroyed form of Strahd. From behind the bars of the portcullis, Patrina and Van Richten watched as Strahd faced his final judgement.

Strahd couldn’t hide his surprise as death took him into the black abyss. Surprise turned to rage, and the Pillarstone of Ravenloft trembled with fury, shaking dust from the ceiling of the vampire’s tomb. The shudders abated as Strahd’s burning hatred melts away, replaced at last with relief. The dark orbs of his eyes withered and sunk into his skull as his corpse deteriorated. In a matter of moments, only bones, dust, and noble garb remained. Strahd von Zarovich, the dark lord of Barovia, was dead and gone.

Mahel (now freed from Strahd’s charm), Marek, Ulfrik, Van Richten and Patrina left Castle Ravenloft and stood looking out towards the eastern sky. Through the chilly morning mists, the land of Barovia was visible far below. There was peacefulness here. Rest had come to the valley for the first time anyone could remember. A light flashed before them with a calm white glow. Slowly the ghostly form of Ireena Kolyana appeared – she seemed at peace, her countenance untouched by evil. Behind them, another soft white light glowed out of nothingness. Wheeling around, they saw a stately figure in shining armor and a flapping cape. His countenance showed great strength of will, yet the forcefulness of his presence was tempered by his calm, sad eyes. His features were those of Strahd, yet subtly different. His voice was calm and peaceful as he spoke. “My name is Sergei von Zarovich.” He turned to lreena. “Tatyana, the time is at hand to rest. Come, my love and wife.” He stretched forth his hand. lreena Kolyana’s questioning eyes suddenly opened with recognition and knowledge. Forgotten memories rushed back to her. “Sergei!” she cried, springing to him with the grace of a doe. They embraced. lreena turned and said, “I am lreena Kolyana, but in my past I was Sergei’s beloved Tatyana. Through these many centuries we have played out the tragedy of our lives. Now, with our deepest gratitude to you, that tragedy is over. It is time for joy to begin again.” Shimmering light surrounded lreena and Sergei. Hand in hand, they walked east toward the edge of the overlook. Their feet did not touch the ground as they treaded a path beyond this mortal world. Their invisible road took them beyond the eastern precipice, their glow illuminating and thinning the clouds above Barovia. The clouds suddenly broke open, letting shafts of glorious sunlight flood through. In the valley below, the strange fog dissolved. The sun rose for the first time in centuries. All over Barovia, the fog that surrounded the land thinned, and it no longer harmed those who passed through it. The bats, wolves, and dire wolves of Barovia would soon lose their supernatural link to Strahd upon his destruction and become ordinary beasts, destined to be hunted down or driven to the farthest reaches of the Svalich Woods. Mahel and Ulfrik stand atop the precipice with Marek, Van Richten and Patrina. Mahel closed her eyes, and felt the warmth of the sun on her upturned face. In a sullen tone, Marek said, “I am glad for your enjoyment of the sun. I wish its rays still held warmth for me.”

The dark clouds that loomed over the valley for centuries soon gave way to pure sunshine, shocking the Barovians out of their despair. The Barovians took the sunlight as a sign that the evil in their land had been purged. Those who had souls left the valley, while those without souls faded into nothingness as they took their first steps beyond the edge of Strahd’s former domain.

Upon his death, Strahd’s vampire spawn were freed from his control, and each sought a new destiny. Escher, in particular, left the realm, in search of new experiences and a way to become a vampire lord himself.

Van Richten was overcome with sadness that Ezmerelda had died and that death is left in his wake wherever he had fought evil. He Barovia for places unknown, to live out his remaining days in solitude. Evil yet to fight but seems that with this loss, his fervor has finally waned.

Patrina thanked the party for bringing her brother to justice and to help her exact revenge on Strahd. With a withering glance at Marek, she left for the slopes of Mount Ghakis. Weeks later, Marek would hear rumors of a new power rising in the ancient Amber Temple, one who had plundered arcane knowledge from that place in preparation to become Barovia’s new master…

Marek ruled what remained in Barovia with an undead iron fist. The lich said he would give every living soul in the region time to leave or face his reign of terror. He stated that he sought to destroy this realm. Barovia’s destruction would become a testament to his god Tenebrous and starting with the castle, he would destroy it, stone by stone. Mahel was appalled and thinks of the children who live in the towns and villages nearby. VR: Souless will disappate. Marek uses a sending spell to Mahel, “I promise no harm will befall the innocent if i can spare them, but I will allow no more suffering in this land.” Mahel does not find this comforting. she’s going to inform the vistani of the danger and plead for them to stop him. Vistani have no desire to be fealty to another lord. Now that the mists have subsided, and fearing that the Barovians might kill them for being spies and collaborators, the Vistani pack up their wagons and leave the valley with great haste. The Barovians are happy to see them go. Mahel, unsure if the curse of the werewolf is still with her, joins them. Albreth, the spell over the lands broken, enjoys flesh and skin for the first time in many weeks. Overjoyed. Ulfrik returns to Zuleika and tells her of her husband’s noble death fighting Strhad. She is sad, but honored to know how her husband died and asks for his help in reforming the Children of Mother Night. He agrees.

All over Barovia, things changed but things stayed the same. In Krezk, the Burgomaster resisted the rule of the new darklord and asked for assistance from the Abbot, who together began to form a resistance to the rule of the Lich. Their army was a motley one, made up of creations that the mad Abbot had constructed over the years – flesh golems and mongrelfolk, as well conscripts from the town. In Vallaki citizens hear news of the death of Izek Strazni and the guards abandon their posts, take their families with them and leave Barovia to the east. The Baron was powerless to stop them. The Baroness, knowing that their power had all been spent, became morose and sullen. She was the first to go. She was found dead at afternoon tea, her body cold and, some said, completely drained of blood. The Baron’s son, Victor Vallakovich, was found hanged from the roof of the Burgomaster’s mansion a day later. Only the Baron himself remained. As the citizens realized that the Baron held no real power, they began to stream out of the city for the lands beyond. The Baron, terrified, knew that whoever had killed his wife and son would come for him as well. “Come back, citizens!” He cried. “All is now well! All is now well!” he yelled madly from atop the roof of his mansion, a crazed look in his eyes. That night, a horrid scream was heard coming from his bedroom. The door was found locked from the inside, and his servants could not open it. By the time they bashed their way into the room, a scene of horror was what they beheld. The Baron hung from the ceiling by iron chains, skinned to the bone, his dark red blood coating the walls. And on the walls carved by some kind of animal claw, was one word: “Ireena.”
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EPILOGUE

Far to the west, a wall of mist still undulated. This misty curtain obscured a faraway white fortress on a hill above a great city. The ancient folk called the mist the Whispering Wall, for within it they could hear the whisper of voices from the past and the future. They believed that an ancient god gave up his divinity to preserve the world from destruction and that his last exhalation as a god produced this mist. Within it were all his memories of the world and all his visions of its possible futures, and with proper preparation, a seeker could go on a vision quest within it. Some students of the arcane contend that the Dark Powers took a bit of that fog and twisted it to create the mists of Barovia, and that perhaps Strahd’s domain is just a dark memory in the Whispering Wall.

Towards the Whispering Wall, a lone figure in a disheveled black cloak walked, holding a bag of soil. And from that soil, a single black-barked branch sprung. A branch with dark red sap.

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Out of the Frying Pan

Mahel and Ulfrik carefully looped the rope around the stone gargoyle. To their amazement, it didn’t animate. They heard an enormous boom and watched as the nearby tower fell to pieces. With a crash of lightning, they saw the enormous visage of Strahd appearing out of the clouds. Van Richten said a strange word, under his breath, “Gottinhimmel.” The enormous illusion of Strahd’s face roared like some sort of horrible demon, then disappeared into the clouds. Someone had very much pissed him off. Only one person they knew could possibly do that: Marek. Ulfrik proceeded to tie off the line, and Mahel traversed down the side of the keep. They landed on the stone walkway below and looked into the room through the tall open window…

As the image of Strahd’s anger dissipated into the storm, Marek stepped onto the bridge that spanned 20 feet from the crumbled tower to the nearby roof. Emil reverted back to his human form and grabbed a broken halberd to use as a spear. Seeing that they needed a rest and that the rain would not abate, the four determined to take a respite. Marek kicked one of the shattered pieces of Murderbot down the enormous shaft then hocked a loogie at it, watching it fall.

A sweet yet pungent smell of decay filled the room into which Mahel, Ulfrik and Van Richten stepped, in the center of which stood a long oak table. A blanket of dust covered the tabletop and its fine china and silverware. In the center of the table, a large, tiered cake leaned heavily to one side. The once white frosting had turned green with age. Cobwebs hung like dusty lace down every side of the cake. A single doll figure of a well-dressed woman adorned the crest of the cake. Suspended above was a web-shrouded chandelier of forged iron. An arched window in the south wall was draped with heavy curtains. Resting in a wooden stand by the window was a dusty lute, and standing quietly in the southwest corner was a tall harp shrouded in cobwebs. Ulfrik went in, followed by Mahel and Van Richten. Mahel saw a figurine in the dust – a cake topper of a young man. Mahel pocketed it. Van Richten looked at the cake and saw no male cake topper. Wide eyed, he began to scan the floor, asking if anyone had seen a small figurine. Bewildered by Van Richten’s attitude, Mahel said she had it. Van Richten screamed to drop it! At that instant, the cake exploded and something enormous, something invisible inside the cake roared and viciously attacked them. Van Richten freaked out and ran out of the room. Ulfrik started to fight off the invisible foe while Mahel hid behind the outside wall. Van Richten immediately came back in to the room, and with all his might, tried to hold the door shut. He seemed even more scared than he was originally. The door began to splinter as it started to break down. As the invisible creature was deftly defeated by Ulfrik, the door broke down. In the doorway, the Imposing figure of Izek Strazni stood, axe in hand. “You!” Mahel shouted, “Why are you here?” Izek grinned, a murderous gleam in his eye. “I’m here to give away the bride. If my sister’s going to be married, I’m going to be the person to do it. We are blood after all. And like the Count says, ‘Blood is thicker than water.’ In return for killing you, Strahd says he’s going to give me my real arm back and then make me burgomaster.” Mahel rolled her eyes. Like that would ever happen, she thought. Ulfrik tensed up, ready to finally dispatch this terrifying foe. He lunged at Izek, but he dodged and swung his massive axe at Van Richten, slashing the older man across his back. Ulfrik quickly interposed and heaved the scholar across the room over the aged table. Standing toe to toe, Ulfrik was a tad bit shorter than Izek, and no less massive. Ulfrik grabbed Izek’s wicked looking axe, attempting to wrest it from him. In return, Izek opened his clawed palm and a bloom of fire erupted out at him, singing Ulfrik’s blue-tinged skin. Mahel, seeing Ulfrik’s dire need for asistance, ran in and jabbed hard at Izek with her rapier and dagger and then quickly darted out again. Izek looked down at the wound and gripped his hand hard to it, lest he bleed out. His face became a mask of rage and pain and in a moment, his axe lit aflame. Swinging with furious anger, Izek laid into Ulfrik, sending the big man sprawling. Mahel dashed in again, and with a battle cry, swiped at Izek’s midsection, slashing with all her might. Izek looked down. His guts had fallen out of his torso and lay hanging like pink ropes. “But…” Izek stammered. “I was going to be burgomaster…” Izek crumbled to the ground. Wasting no time, Mahel made sure that this time, the captain of the guard was truly dead. She unsheathed her dagger, and with a few swift strokes, hewed his arm and head off. Even Van Richten was a little appalled by this bloody act of vengeance.

Finally freed from the threat of Izek Strazni, the three focused on trying to find Marek. The tower which they saw fall was in the northeastern quadrant of the Castle. Searching in the nearby room. Albreth checked it out to find a tub full of blood. As he did so, a blood-drenched creature exploded out of the tub and attached to the ceiling, cackling maniacally. Blood poured off its pale flesh, bony limbs, and stringy hair as it scuttled away. “Nope. Nope. Full. Of. Nope,” Mahel intoned, and then closed the door to this clearly haunted bathroom. They opened another door to what looked like a study. A blazing hearth fire filled this room with rolling waves of red and amber light. The walls were lined with ancient books and tomes, their leather covers well oiled and preserved through careful use. All seemed in order here. The stone floor was concealed beneath a thick, luxurious rug. In the center of the room was a large, low table, waxed and polished to a mirrored finish. Even the poker in its stand next to the blazing fireplace was polished. Large, overstuffed divans and couches were arranged about the room. Two chairs of burgundy-colored wood with padded leather seats and back cushions faced the hearth. A huge painting hung over the mantelpiece in a heavy, gilded frame. The rolling firelight illuminated the carefully rendered portrait. It was an exact likeness of lreena Kolyana. “I see now why Strahd wanted Ireena,” Ulfrik grumbled. The three took the time to rest on the nearby couches and bandage their wounds….

Sitting upright, Marek heard a voice in his head – a message from Mahel. He was surprised in that he did not know that she had the ability to send messages of this kind. The message was: “In basement. Come quickly.” Marek gathered his compatriots and decided to go down the stairs. Although the stairs were sturdy they were quite slippery from the outside rain and threatened to send Marek tumbling hundreds of feet to a crushing doom. Vilnius cast fly on Marek to allow him better vantage to what was below. Marek flew down to the basement stairs and saw a small passageway choked with dust and four alcoves. Emil grabbed some nearby dusty rags to cover his nakedness. Marek listened at each door, checked for traps and then, of course, demanded Vilnius open the door (as a precautionary measure, of course) which he gladly did for his “master.” Vilnius opened the nearby door to an area with ten dusty alcoves. But they were not alone. As soon as Marek wandered halfway in, the bones of those unfortunate adventurers before him hidden in the alcove animated and attacked! Several attacked Vilnius, slashing with rusty iron scimitars, but their attacks had no effect on Emil’s lycanthropic immunities. While Marek turtled behind his sturdy shield, Vilnius cast ice storm and wiped out the majority of the undead fiends. Emil trashed three with his spear and Marek used his new chill touch ability to utterly destroy the last one. Vilnius hobbled over to Marek, bleeding heavily from several wounds. Marek hissed at him, “Vilnius! I told you to stop being a target!” Sorrowfully, Vilnius whimpered, “I’m sorry, master!” Emil huffed and rolled his eyes. The unlikely trio wandered more through the castle, into a room constructed entirely of bones with a very familiar looking dragon skull – a skull of a silver dragon. Marek smiled. So this what what that fool Haavik was looking for. Well, it may still have some use to me, later, he thought. Suddenly, a floating candelabra appeared out of nowhere, startling Vilnius, and floated past them and up the stairs. Perhaps an invisible spy, Marek thought. Or was this place even more haunted than was previously thought? Vilnius opened another door to what at first Marek thought was a laboratory. But it wasn’t. A horrible odor of decay filled this steaming hot room. A huge pot bubbled over a blazing fire pit in the center of the room, its green, muddy contents churning. The far wall was lined with pegs, hanging from which were numerous large cooking implements-some of which could easily double as implements of torture. Marek went over to inspect the cauldron, and immediately, three zombies, their skins boiled off showing nothing but reddened flesh and bone, leaped out out the filthy boiling water and attacked. The trio returned the attacks in kind, but at first, even their strongest attacks didn’t destroy these undead monstrosities. Each time the zombies were felled, they got back up and continued to swat their rotten fists at them. Even Vilnius was brought low by a haphazard attack. Emil, having quite enough of these lifeless foes, used his makeshift spear and pinned a zombie to the wall through its head. Another zombie, weakened by magic attacks, was subsequently decapitated by Emil and the last experienced a fire bolt through its head by a bleeding though conscious Vilnius. Regaining their strength yet again, the trio walked east to a what seemed to be a wine cellar. Marek felt suddenly sad at the thought of never tasting the joyful fruit of the vine ever again. This area proved to have no exit, so they walked back to the ossuary and Vilnius opened the last door. In the room adjoining, Neferon was there, behind a sturdy table with dozens of papers and a large accounts book. At first, the arcanaloth didn’t recognize Marek in his “evolved” form. But then, his golden eyes narrowed and he hissed at the gnome lich, “Youuuuu!” Marek grinned, ready to end this being once and for all….

Meanwhile, in the study, Mahel received a message from Marek saying, “In basement. Come quickly." The nearby stairs going down spiraled down to a landing. Mahel heard through the wall a set of voices. It was Marek… and other voices, not as familar. Then she heard a hissing growl: “Youuuuu,” followed by the sounds what seemed like a fight. Clearly marek was in trouble and was on the other side of that wall. She started looking for a way to get through the wall to get to Marek.

The battle had commenced. Neferon was a crafty and powerful foe and his spellcraft was strong as well. He cast banishment on Marek, who blurred temporarily out the plane into a vast darkness, but was quickly brought back when Emil’s attack on the arcanaloth broke his concentration. In retaliation, the fiend cast a vicious chain lightning bolt which dropped Vilnius into unconsciousness. Emil was smoking and Marek, even in his advanced state of undeath was almost taken out. A thunderous boom accompanying this spell rattled the nearby walls. Mahel steadied herself and saw loose masonry falling out of the all onto the stone floor. Taking a cue from this, she and Ulfrik frantically began to kick holes in the wall in order to break through. With a crash, they broke through to the awful bone ossuary. Disgusted and amazed, they turned north to see the action and, for the first time, what Marek had become. As one for the first time in over two weeks, the three heroes joined forces and fought off the arcanaloth that they last saw in the Amber Temple. Eventually, with the full team working as one and with their erstwhile companions’ assistance, they overcame and killed the arcanaloth. With a slump, the fiend fell to the floor and quickly dissipated into a puddle of ichor. Panting with exertion, the group took the opportunity to revive their team to full health and rest in the fiend’s room. After a time and somewhat awkward introductions, they had to decide what was next. The goal was clear – to confront Strahd in his brother’s crypt as per Madam Eva’s Tarokka reading, over a month ago. But how? Clearly, Strahd had the advantage and had lured all the heroes down to the basement for some unknown plan. Uncaring as to Strahd’s plan, Marek began to search around and eventually discovered a secret door leading to a staircase. Carefully, the party traversed the stairs down to the dungeon. A sickly mist filled the stairway ahead, then coalesced into the form of the vampire Strahd, his eyes burning red with anger. “You have worn out your welcome,” he said. “Whatever gods you believe in cannot save you now!” The party, surprised, nevertheless launched into a coordinated attack on the vampire lord… that passed right through him. “It’s just an illusion,” Ulfrik shouted. The illusory vampire chuckled and melted away like a wax doll in a bonfire, leaving no trace behind. “Now he’s just fucking with us,” said Mahel. The group walked quietly down the steps… back to the brazier room which Emil, Vilnius and Marek knew well. This time, however, they chose the yellow gem and sent Albreth through to make sure that it was somewhat safe. They followed. When they emerged, they found themselves in a dank crypt. Black marble steps descended to a dark tomb that had a vaulted ceiling thirty feet overhead. The essence of evil permeated the very air, along with the smell of freshly turned earth. Settled into the dirt on the floor was a shining black coffin of finely waxed wood. The coffin’s fittings were of brilliant brass, and the lid was closed. South of the coffin were three gloomy alcoves. An iron lever protruded from the north wall, east of the tomb’s entrance As they stared, the earth moved north of the coffin, and three vampire spawn “brides” in soiled gowns and wearing dirt-encrusted jewelry exhumed themselves from the earth. Hissing with evil, they attacked….

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Shattered Hearts

Baba Lysaga glared at Ulfrik with mix of hatred and pure glee. Her revenge, it seemed, was nigh. She had convened her coven and was readying to kill off the old man. It was merely a bonus that Ulfrik and his companions had fallen into her trap. Baba, although powerful, still bore the scars of their last battle – the left side of her face was scarred and burned, and her clothing was charred and smelled of ash and the coppery smell of dried blood. Ulfrik unsheathed the Sunsword, and the hags shrieked in horror. They immediately began to cast rays of frost and enfeeblement at Ulfrik. Muttering a curse, Lysaga blasted Ulfrik with blight, a beam of necrotic energy, which caused Ulfrik’s blue flesh to wither and blacken. Finding his second wind after the initial attack, Ulfrik concentrated his attacks on Lysaga, summoning the strength of both his cursed lycanthropic alter-ego as well as his inner wolf spirit. With a mighty slash, Ulfrik struck Lysaga and she fled through the doorway, leaping down the nearby trap door. Well, that was easy, Mahel thought. Mahel charmed one of the hags, who interceded on their behalf and then cast sleep on some of her previous allies. Using the confusion, Mahel hid close to the nearby wall, shooting a few arrows at available targets with eerie precision, and then allowing Ulfrik to wreak his vengeance. As she clung to the wall, she heard the mewling sounds of the cats from the next room. Normally I like cats, she thought, but I get the feeling those things are not just normal cats. One of the cats trotted in from the ruined room and stared straight at her, giving a loud hiss in her direction. “Shoo!” Mahel said. “Scat!” The cat bounded into the room where Ulfrik was fighting the hags. Mahel grinned. That grin, however, was interrupted when she saw a figure floating through the nearby door from downstairs. It was Baba. She was back. “Uhhh, Hi,” Mahel chimed. Baba grimaced and began to cast a spell. Thinking quickly, Mahel grabbed Albreth and cast the first of three contagion spells through him to her as she launched him like a javelin straight at her. But Lysaga dodged. Albreth clattered against the wall, shaking his skeletal head as the spell dissipated. “Sorry,” Mahel intoned. Mahel quickly opened the door and then shut it behind her, slamming the door on the nearby cat’s tail. A loud screech emanated from the cat, followed by hissing noises, which allowed Mahel a small moment of victory. Baba began to bash her way through the door was blasts of magic, but the sturdy iron door held firm. “Al” however, wasn’t out yet. He communicated psychically to Mahel to charge him with contagion again. She did so, and with a screech, Albreth launched himself at her. The greenish energy passed from him into her, and Lysaga began to bleed from every possible orifice, screaming with the pain of the diseased. As Ulfik finished off the fourth hag, a loud buzzing sound could be heard near the door. Swarms of angry insects flew under the crack, summoned by Baba’s magic. They stung and bit at Mahel and Ulfrik who furiously swatted at them. With a flash of magical force, the door fell from its frame. Baba Lysaga stood in the doorway, bleeding and furious. Cackling with insanity, Lysaga cast a fireball, incinerating the swarms of insects and the remaining hags, and quite badly burning Ulfrik and Mahel. Amazed that the two could withstand such an attack, Baba began to ready perhaps an even more deadly spell. Ulfrik wasn’t ready to die again. Not here. Not now. With a roaring leap, he slashed out at Lysaga, striking her three times, stunning her with the fury of his attacks. Ulfrik then swiveled around to plunge the sword through her heart. As she lay dying, Baba Lysaga croaked out one word with a look of piteous sadness on her now disfigured and bloody visage: “Strahhhhhd.” She then lay still as stone, her dead eyes staring at the dark clouds seen through the nearby windows. She was dead. Ulfrik panted with exertion while Mahel scuttled over to Van Richten to determine his condition. Although the old man was bound by magic, he was quite clearly also unconscious. Bruised and battered, the two carried Van Richten from the room, and discussed where in this house of horrors they should venture next…

Marek stared down the dark staircase and listened intently as the faint sound of a heartbeat echoed through the air. In the silent hour that had followed, Marek had taken in his surroundings. He and those who he had acquainted himself with, Vilnius and Emil Toranescu, were sequestered in the highest peak of the castle, hopefully hidden from any potential dangers that the Castle might hide. The rain and thunder howled outside, and the eerie thump-thumping of the heart (the same one from his dreams, no less) gave him a semblance of what he might have felt in his mortal life as fear. He no longer needed to sleep, so he glanced around the room, observing for anything that might seem out of place. A creak in the rafters brought his attention skyward. Was something on the roof? Or, inside the roof… Standing up from his prone position on the floor, he focused his vision on the place where the noise emanated. In the pitch blackness, he could see nothing, but a moment later, a flash of lightning from outside illuminated a shadowy figure moving slowly among the wooden beams. Fearing nothing that would hide from him and his compatriots, Marek called out to it, readying a spell in case of an ambush. The thing in the rafters leaped down – a small, spindly man not much larger than a child, or than Marek himself. But this was definitely no child. The creature was made of metal and leather, the sound of tiny gears and clacking of metal belying its true nature – a construct. Although it was clear that the creature could understand common, it could not read, write, or most importantly, speak, which made communicating slightly difficult. However, Marek was able to interpret its hand and body language enough to determine that it seemed friendly, and that Strahd seemed not to be its master. Unarmed, the thing didn’t seem dangerous, and it seemed to want to offer its services as a guide to whatever the castle was to confront them. Waking his companions, and satisfied that the small jester-like construct would be of use, Marek allowed it to join the party, hopefully to bring them through the castle somewhat safely. It ushered them down the stairs. Something about this thing made him wary. As they descended the stairs the sound of the heartbeat grew louder and louder. As Marek stepped onto the spiral staircase, a reddish light flared below, then settled into a dull, pulsing red glow. Looking down, Marek now saw the full immensity of this tower. The spiral staircase circled up the tower’s full height, over 150 feet down to the main floor. The tower, sixty feet wide at its base, became narrower as it climbed to the peak. Just below them, at the pinnacle of the hollow tower, a large crystal heart pulsated with red light….

Mahel and Ulfrik retreated downstairs to the study, where they shut closed and barred the doors and bandaged their wounds. Mahel forcefully woke Van Richten from his stupor, who was happily surprised to see Marek and Ulfrik alive and gave them his gratitude for saving him. Mahel remarked that they had come to his tower looking for him and that it was ransacked and abandoned. Van Richten nodded and said that Lysaga’s whole coven had come to her rescue and then captured him, while Ezmerelda had escaped out the window of the tower. Her whereabouts were currently unknown. Settling in for a rest, Mahel and Ulfrik did their best to stave off the cold and darkness outside as well as the gathering fear that something was lurking just behind the door. In the middle of their rest, a woman’s scratchy voice could be heard calling out a name: “Grizzlegut! Grizzlegut, where are you? A pox on you…” Mahel waited for the voice to go away, then slowly opened the door. At the foot of the door was a faceless doll in a wedding dress that had yellowed and frayed with age. Mahel, creeped out yet again by the abundance of off-putting toys in her collection, nevertheless placed the doll in her pack. She noted, however, that this doll was different from the rest – it had no tag indicating that it was the work of Gadof Blinsky… They had to get out of here. Mahel woke Ulfrik and Van Richten, having formulated a plan to get to the other tower to where Marek had messaged he was. Opening the nearby window, she sent Albreth along the slippery wet roof to view what rooms were below them. She then tied off a rope and sidled along the roof, but her grip slipped and she slid down the eaves of the roof to the joinder 30 feet below, slamming her legs into the shingles to slow her descent. Ulfrik yelled, “Mahel! Are you alright?” As she looked up at her compatriots, she saw another figure standing atop the highest point of the castle’s high roof, staring at her – a pale figure in a long cape with a high collar. Seemingly uninterested in the pouring rain, Strahd stared at the four, a smirk clearly visible on his cruel face. A flash of lightning later… and he was gone. I’m going to kill that fucking guy, Mahel promised to herself. A rope was lowered down to her from Van Richten, and she clambered slowly over to the edge of the roof. Walking to its edge, she saw 30 feet beneath her, a crumbling walkway. She used mage hand to unlock the tall window below her, and saw a cobweb encrusted room with a long table. In the middle of the table was what looked like a wedding cake… Moving slowly over to the nearby gargoyle, she prayed that this thing of stone would not animate and attempt to kill her. She moved closer and looped the rope around its neck….

Marek knew what he had to do. This crystal heart was clearly a construct of evil and needed to be destroyed. He cast his newly found power, chill touch on the heart, and black veins of necrotic energy appeared on the heart’s crystalline structure. What Marek didn’t see, however, were mounted on the walls along the section of staircase nearest the heart – ten halberds embedded in the walls. Upon Marek’s attack, the halberds flew off the walls and attacked him! Luckily, Marek’s shield interposed itself between almost all of the attacks from the halberds, allowing him to cast Spirit Guardians – a whirling torrent of ghostly attackers which blasted out from Marek, tearing and slashing at the halberds. Emil immediately grew and shifted form into a massive hybrid-form werewolf who lashed out with fang and claw at the attacking animated objects. Vilnius ran away screaming, and then cast mage armor on himself to avoid any potential danger. “Oh, no! Master, look!” Vilnius pointed at the nearby walkway as four bedraggled and be-sodden figures dropped from the outside wall. Their bloodstained mouths and long claws revealed themselves as vampires, and they joined in the fray. Dressed in the vestments and armor of warriors and powerful spellcasters, these vampire spawn were most likely former adventurers whom Strahd defeated long ago. Clearly, Strahd did not want this structure touched. As the vampires leaped at the party, the construct suddenly turned and retracted a small club from a compartment in his back. Then, turning to Vilnius, he opened his mouth. A puff of air shot from the construct’s mouth and a green dart flew into Vilnius’s neck. “Aagh!” Vilnius clutched at his neck and pulled the dart out, greenish fluid leaking from the tip of the dark. Marek took a moment to look at the construct as if to say, “Why…” Then, Marek yelled at Vilnius,“Kill the doll!” Vilnius screamed in white-hot anger and cast magic missile. A stream of purplish force bullets machine-gunned into the form of the construct. Only the construct’s little jester hat was left intact as the spell pulverized it. “Well done,” Marek hollered, and Vilnius gave him a sheepish grin.

The ensuing battle was grisly; the halberds hacked and hewed at the three compatriots, but finally succumbed to Marek’s spells and Emil’s attacks. Vilnius provided magical support from the stairs above, avoiding the sight of the vampiric attackers who were able to regenerate their wounds over time as well as leech the very lifeforce from their victims with their attacks. As Marek dodged and weaved from the onslaught of vampires, he secretly wished that someone with a Sunsword was around! Ulfrik, now would be a good time to show up…. Over time, the vampires were slowly worn down as Emil’s claws and bites tore chunks of undead flesh from their bones. One of the vampires lunged at Emil, and he sidestepped, watching as the vampire fell hundreds of feet to its demise. When the last of the undead menace was eradicated, Marek took a step back to view the carnage, as Emil growled with exertion. Turning to Vilnius, he ordered, “Vilnius, use your power to make me fly.” Vilnius obeyed and cast fly on Marek. Marek hovered over to the crystalline heart, and placed both hands on its smooth surface. Summoning forth a power he had never known until now, he drew from the heart its life energy, and siphoned it into his being. He could feel the vast dark energy of this creation flow into his body, and it felt glorious. Marek cried out, “Oh, the power, the power. I can taste it. THE SOUL IS MINE!!” At that, the crystalline heart shattered, and shards of glass flew in every direction. Sheltered in a shield of magic, Vilnius and Emil were not harmed. And Marek felt nothing as the razor sharp glass could not pierce his cold dead flesh. As the heart exploded, the tower began to rumble and shake. Huge chunks of stone and masonry fell from the tower walls, crashing with huge booms hundreds of feet below. Marek, Emil, and Vilnius quickly exited the tower via the nearby walkway, where they huddled in the cold rain as the tower, massively damaged by the explosion of the heart, stood like a broken ruin against the night sky.

And then, the storm clouds darkened. A huge pale visage appeared, as if constructed from the very storm itself. Strahd had come. And he was not amused.

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As the rain pelted down, Marek defiantly shouted at the top of his lungs, “YOU’RE NEXT, STRAHD!”

View
Upstairs, Downstairs

Strahd smirked as he lay his eyes on the forms of Mahek and Ulfrik, still dripping wet from the driving rain outside. Seemingly either unimpressed or uncaring about the light from the Sunsword that Ulfrik held, Strahd stood and ushered them inside to the warmth and comfort of the wedding feast. Many places were set at the table, laden with steaming, sumptuous food, of which Strahd remarked that he would not partake. Ulfrik, although ready for anything that the vampire lord might throw at them, graciously and warily put away his sword and walked down to the waiting seats. Mahel, on the other hand, politely excused herself from the room, and began to wander towards the staircase, hoping that Ulfrik would be able to stall the Count long enough for her to find Ireena and get out of the castle. “So….” grumbled Ulfrik, clearly uncomfortable. “What shall we talk about?” Strahd flashed a toothy smile…

Mahel slipped quietly down the winding staircase, the fluttering torch nearby guiding her deeper into the gloom. She padded through a cold damp corridor, noting that a portion of the floors and ceiling did not match up to the rest of the masonry. Sensing a potential trap, Mahel unbuckled a dagger from its sheath and flicked it at the floor. Instantly, a set of spiked portcullis bars sprang out of the ceiling and embedded into the floor, sealing that portion of the room off. Then, with a grinding of huge gears and stone, the floor began to rise upwards, out of sight. Some sort of elevator, Mahel thought. Waiting, she found that the elevator did not descend. Damn, my dagger! She grimaced and moved towards the nearby door….

Ulfrik began to study Strahd intently, looking for a potential opening in which he could attack. But something was wrong – he couldn’t put his finger on it. Then, he realized at once – this was an illusion! As he stood, the illusion of Strahd disappeared with a great gust of wind that blew out all the candles and torches in the dining room. In the vast darkness, Ulfrik heard the slamming of great wooden and metal doors, trailing far into the distance, and then a great grinding of chains and a slam of a massive wooden drawbridge. We’re sealed in, he thought. This whole thing was a trap. I knew it. Drawing the Sunsword again, he set off to find Mahel and hopefully his other companions, and defeat the evil ravaging this land once and for all. Walking down to the level below, he found Mahel slowly opening a large iron door. Mahel inquired what had happened. Ulfrik told her of the illusion and Strahd’s mocking laughter that had followed. He was playing games with them like a cat plays with its prey. They stepped through the door into a hall standing in deadly silence. Heavy beams supported a sagging, ten-foot-high ceiling. Fog clung to the floor, obscuring everything that lay less than three feet above it. A giant shadow lurched across the ceiling as a dark figure shuffled purposefully down the corridor. Mahel boldly stepped towards the figure and saw, to her horror, a hunched figure, the left side his face covered with lizard scales, and with the ears of a panther. His left foot was a duck’s webbed foot, and his arms had patches of black dog fur. The creature, a mongrelfolk like those encountered at the the Abbey of Saint Markovia, muttered that his name was Cyrus Belview, and that he was intent on bringing the two “to their room in the tower.” Cyrus had a loop of twine around his neck, hanging from which was an iron key and a decorative wooden pendant fitted with a varnished human eyeball. Suspecting that the crazy mongrelfolk was nothing more than a servant of Strahd and even could hasten their wanderings to bring them to where Strahd was, they followed him back down to the elevator room. Cyrus activated a hidden switch that brought the elevator back down to the basement, and then stepped inside, beckoning them to follow. Mahel and Ulfrik cautiously walked onto the stone plate, and Cyrus stomped on the pressure plate, causing the metal portcullis to spring out and enclose them as the massive cube of stone slowly rose to a higher floor. Cyrus suddenly took a huge intake of air, and held his breath. What’s that all about, Ulfrik wondered. And that’s when they heard it. A hissing noise, coming from above. An escaping of air… or of gas. Desperate, Mahel looked around for some way of escaping this trapped enclosure. She found a trap door in the ceiling, but climbing up, saw that she would be crushed by the stone ceiling that the elevator ascended to. She clambered down, and closed her eyes, hoping that her elven resistance would be enough to prevent whatever ill effect this gaseous substance would cause. And to her amazement, it was. Ulfrik, however, was not so lucky. His vision swam, and in an instant, he toppled to the floor of the elevator, unconscious. The elevator slowed to a stop and the bars receded with a snap into the ceiling. Humming to himself, Cyrus began to drag Ulfrik up a set of stairs towards a nearby doorway. Mahel followed after, noting an exuberantly lavish rug on the floor and a framed portrait of a handsome, well-dressed man with a serene yet penetrating gaze. The face looked familiar…
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Cyrus dragged Ulfrik’s unconscious form into the nearby room and retired back to the elevator. A youthful, pale man lay on a nearby couch who introduced himself as Escher, a dashing vampire spawn to whom Strahd had showed favor in the past. In conversation, Escher displayed wit with a hint of melancholy. Beneath his arch mood was a dread that Strahd was growing bored of him. Escher expressed that he was feeling somewhat neglected of late and had retreated here until Strahd’s mood improved. Ireena, after all, he intoned, was just another plaything in a long line of Strahd’s playthings. Their conversation was interrupted by the sound, far beneath them, of the drawbridge being lowered. Someone else was entering the castle. Escher excused himself and floated out out the window, landing like a cat on the roof of the keep, offering reading materials before he left. The books offered to Mahel and Ulfrik as they rested in the study included Embalming: The Lost Art, Life Among the Undead: Learning to Cope, Castle Building 101, and Goats of the Balinok Mountains. That last one, Mahel decided, she wouldn’t touch with a 10 foot pole. Mahel put down the books and forcefully jostled Ulfrik awake from his stupefied condition. Exploring the room, she found a nearby closet and a bedroom replete with amenities and a warm comfortable looking bed. This must be the guest quarters, she thought. Too bad we’re not staying long. She opened the door to the outside corridor as a dark shape loomed behind her…

Down in the basement, Marek picked the lock of the nearby cell door and waded towards the nearby door to the south. As he did, he heard a whump, whump, whump sound as the door began to buckle. Someone, or something, was breaking through that door. Marek readied a spell and dipped under the surface of the water. BLAM! The heavy iron door fell off it hinges and fell into the water with a great splash. Standing in its place was the young man who he had rescued from imprisonment, and just behind him, cowering in fear, was Vilnius. Strong, Marek thought. Very strong. Marek rose to the surface and rejoined his erstwhile companions, moving westward through the dungeons, gingerly stepping to avoid any other traps. They stepped into a large square room, festooned with hooked chains suspended from the ceiling, and horrifying machines of torture: racks, iron maidens, cages with barbed iron bars, all rusted from years of exposure to the dank murky water here in the flooded dungeon below the castle. As Marek waded further in, he noticed that there was a balcony to the northern side of the room, high above, where sat two empty chairs facing towards the grim display of horrors. And then, the mirror-like waters of the room began to churn. From the depths arose six bloated corpses, their clothes tattered and rotten, their flesh scarred and bones broken, all shambling towards them with the relentless gait of the tortured undead.
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The young man turned and ran for the downed door to the cell block. Coward, Marek intoned. Why fight them when they can become your servants? Marek then attempted to use his newfound powers to control one of these zombified undead, and, to his great joy – it worked! He now had full control over one creature (which he dubbed “Stinky”) and commanded it to defend him against its decaying brethren. He did not have long, however, as Vilnius shrieked and cast a fireball on the group of zombies, blowing many of them into their component limbs and body parts, and sending a huge rumble echoing throughout the castle. Unfortunately, Stinky was destroyed as well. “You fool!” Marek exclaimed, turning his burning red eyes on Vilnius. Vilnius shrunk away from Marek’s diminutive skeletal form, cowering in fear and supplication. The remaining zombies attacked Vilnius, clawing and biting him. While Marek used his new chill touch ability to create a ghostly, skeletal hand to swat down two zombies with the piercing chill of the grave, the young man returned to the fray with a large iron bar, with which he proceeded to impale a zombie through its head. Still twitching, the undead creature fell with a plop into the water. Vilnius, a panting with exertion, fell to his knees in the filthy water. “You did well,” Marek said as he strode through the muck towards the young man. “I didn’t catch your name.”
“Emil,” the young man said with a grin. " Emil Toranescu." Emil, Marek and Vilnius scaled the wall to the double thrones presiding over the torture chamber and opened the door behind it, exposing a strange sight. The square room rose to a twenty-foot-tall flat ceiling. A stone brazier burned fiercely in the center of the room, but its tall white flame produced no heat. The rim of the brazier was carved with seven cup-shaped indentations spaced evenly around the circumference. Within each indentation was a spherical stone, twice the diameter of a human eyeball and made of a colored crystal. No two stones were the same color. Overhead, a wood-framed hourglass as tall and wide as a dwarf hung ten feet above the brazier, suspended from the ceiling by thick iron chains. All the sand was stuck in the upper portion of the hourglass, seemingly unable to run down into the bottom. Written in glowing script on the base of the hourglass was a verse in Common:

Cast a stone into the fire
Violet leads to the mountain spire
Orange to the castle’s peak
Red if lore is what you seek
Green to where the coffin hides
Indigo to the master’s bride
Blue to ancient magic womb
Yellow to the master s tomb

Two nine-foot-tall iron statues of knights on horseback, poised to charge with swords drawn, stood in deep alcoves facing each other, the brazier sitting between them. Marek stood in thought, contemplating what this riddle meant. Then, decisively, he drew the indigo stone from its cup and tossed it into the fire. The fire blazed a purplish color. Wasting no time, he stepped through the fire… into a hallway, dank and foul smelling, with chattering, screaming, and whispering all about him. Marek recognized the stench at once: mongrelfolk. He was back at the Abbey, among the insane and tortured souls produced by the Abbot’s dark experiments. Damn, he thought, I didn’t mean it to take me to that bride, remembering that the Abbot had fashioned a flesh golem named Vasilka to be wed to Strahd. The portal still blazed behind him, as the sands of the hourglass fell swiftly in the brazier room back in the castle. This was definitely not the right place to be. He rose from the filth-encrusted floor as a grunt from down the hall garnered his attention. A massive nine-foot abomination of flesh and bone thundered towards him, snarling and slobbering through a face made from the skin, bone, and muscle of many lost souls. Marek jumped through the indigo portal as the sands ran out, and it closed behind him. The indigo stone re-appeared in the cup and the sands once again took their place at the top of the hourglass. “Nope,” Marek said with a grimace. “Not that one.” Without batting a non-existent eyelash, Marek grabbed the orange stone, and threw it into the fire. “Vilnius,” Marek grumbled. “Go through.” Vilnius eagerly hopped into the portal, and Marek nodded to Emil. “You next.” Emil cast a side-eyed glance at Marek, then stepped through. Marek clasped his skeletal fingers together, and stepped towards the orange light of the fire…

Mahel couldn’t breathe. Someone or something had wrapped a huge cloth over her entire body and was suffocating her with it. Ulfrik, hearing the commotion, ran to the door and saw that Mahel was rolled up inside the fancy rug, which seemed alive and intent on smothering her. With a swift set of slashes from the Sunsword, the ensorcereled rug was hewn into pieces, and Mahel fell gasping onto the stone tiles. And that’s when the portrait behind them reached out from the very surface of the canvas, and began to cast a whirling spell of hypnotic colors. Shielding his eyes from the wildly mesmeric pattern, intending to drive them mad, Ulfrik lanced out with his sword and Mahel impaled the visage of Strahd with her magic spear. The painting, torn and tattered, finally fell to the stone with a clattering of wood and paper. Whatever life it had been imbued with was now gone. Rising from her somewhat undignified position on the floor, Mahel led Ulfrik upstairs to the floor above, and opened a door to a room filled with refuse and shattered furniture. Torn and broken couches lay in heaps, haphazardly strewn about. Deep claw marks covered the hardwood furniture, and the once lush upholstery had been sliced to shreds. From the dark shadows amid the rubble, three pairs of green eyes stared back at them. Mahel stood transfixed, unable to see what those things were. “Whoever you are,” Mahel boldly stated, “You need to go away!” The returning sound of hissing and mewling cats made Mahel sigh with relief. It was just a bunch of cats. Ulfrik stared at his surroundings. Could cats have done all this? They passed by the cats into the adjoining room, one filled with tables weighed down by stacks of glass jars and bottles, all of them bearing labels of different names, all horrid: “Eye of Newt,” “Hair of Bat,” “Snail Hearts,” and “Frog’s Breath.” Clearly, they had intruded on a hag’s laboratory. A putrid smell wafted out from underneath a nearby door frame. Mahel crept up to it and gently and quietly opened the door. Inside, green-glowing wisps of steam bubbled up from a fat, black cauldron in the center of this dark, oppressive room. Surrounding the cauldron were seven tall wooden stools. And in the corner on the floor, magically held captive, was Rudolph Van Richten. Ulfrik ran in to release him from his magical bonds, and as he did so, the forms of seven hags appeared in the room, all with wicked looks on their withered visages. And in their midst, standing tall above them, was their leader, a visibly pissed off Baba Lysaga.… Mahel only had time to say, “Oh fuck,” before she received a message from an old acquaintance….

Marek landed on the cold stone floor of a circular room. Nearby were Vilnius and Emil, as well as a wood-framed bed fitted with leather restraints. At the foot of the bed rested a closed iron chest, its lid sculpted
with an emblem familiar to Marek – the emblem of the family Zarovich that was prominently displayed on his carriage. A wooden ladder led up to a trapdoor in the ceiling. Thin streams of water dripped through the trapdoor’s rotting wood, forming a puddle around the base of the ladder. Emil climbed the ladder and opened the trap door to a gale force wind and a peal of thunder. The night sky showed a dark thunderclouds overhead, and gouts of rain were streaming through the open trapdoor. Emil looked around, then ascended the tower roof. It wasn’t long before the sound of hundreds if not thousands of fluttering wings could be heard. Emil jumped hastily down the ladder, shutting the door behind him, as a flood of scratching, hissing and shrieking could be heard on the other side. Emil, for the first time since Marek had met him, looked terrified. I guess everyone’s got something they’re afraid of, Marek thought. Heh, wait til Strahd gets a load of me…. Walking over to the iron chest, he unlocked the iron chest with his now pitted dagger in which a bejeweled golden crown was laid. Perfect, Marek thought. A crown fit for a king. As he gently placed the crown on his head, Emil and Vilnius settled in a rest. They’d had enough excitement for now. He thought that now was a good as any a time — he might as well message Mahel.

“Still Found Magic Stones, Teleported to “Castle’s Peak”, Made friends, Vilnius and Emil. Taking rest to heal and prepare. Are you well? This is fun."

Mahel’s reply came almost immediately.

“In castle, too. On upper floors, past alchemy lab. Emil important, keep alive. Lots of bad guys. Oh fuck, Baba Lysaga and Friends.”

If Marek still had lips, he would have grimaced. That spiteful hag was still alive, he thought. And then he heard it. Or rather, felt it. Beneath him. A rhythmic pulsating under the floorboards of the tower, beating, dully.

Although Marek no longer had a living body, he recognized the sound well enough. It was the beating of an enormous heart.

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Welcome to Castle Ravenloft

The thing that was once Marek Spindlepin lifted itself from the red marble floor. It no longer breathed, and the cold no longer hampered it. It wriggled out of its fur-lined clothing like a snake sheds its skin, revealing a skeletal frame only barely covered with a thin layer of muscle and desiccated flesh that clung in ragged patches. Looking around, the skeletal being gazed longingly at its form, unaware (or uncaring) of the horror that it would emit on living beings. All feelings not of self-preservation, greed or hunger for power were stricken from its mind. And it felt… good. Marek… that was my name. Yes…. it thought. It looked down at the rest of the pitiful accoutrements of good that it had surrounded itself with. Those will have to go, it thought. Power. All that remains is power. With a terrifying ease, Marek opened the stone wall and glided through the hole. Looking to the side of the corridor, it saw the sleeping form of a human, horribly burned on one side of his face, and shivering violently in the stark cold of the temple. That must be Vilnius. He may still be of use, Marek thought. He returned to the Amber Sarcophagi in which resided the Vestige of Tenebrous and, touching it, made supplication to his new god. Although Tenebrous did not take form in his consciousness, from deep within the amber rock, a feeling of contentment emanated. Tenebrous was pleased with his new servant…

On his way to the entrance of the temple, Marek heard a powerful thrumming sound from behind one of the doors nearby. Not one to run into a potentially dangerous situation without first knowing more, Marek decided to wake the sleeping Vilnius and enlist his servitude in return for escape. After all, he thought, Vilnius (and his pet quasit) is a weak willed fool, and could be useful as fodder for whatever eldritch horrors still reside here. Vilnius, eager to be led from the temple, gladly accepted Marek’s offer based on their previous agreement. Vilnius opened the door and exposed a swirling whirlpool of energy in the shape of an door. Clearly, this was a portal — to where, he had no idea, but it was clearly a way out. “Go through,” Marek instructed Vilnius. Begrudgingly, Vilnius scampered through the portal and vanished. Marek then messaged him to see if he survived the passage. “I’m all wet,” came the whining response. “But I’m alive.” If he had breath to sigh, he would have spent it. Insipid fool, he thought. Marek stepped through the portal…

Mahel, Ulfrik, Velikov and Ismark awoke to a cold, gloomy day in the town of Krezk. Their rests had been adequate, and although the mists, ever-present in this land, had chilled them to the bone as they exited their abodes, the hope instilled in their beings gave them a vigor that they hadn’t felt for many weeks. It was time. Time to meet up with Marek, and finish what they had been brought into so long ago. It was time to confront Strahd and to stop the unholy union of him and his bride-to-be, Ireena. They could only hope it wasn’t already too late. Well, Mahel thought sardonically, we’d better get dressed up if we’re going to a wedding. She made her way to a nearby tailor’s shop, and bargained with the tailor for alterations to a purplish dress that she had obtained earlier that day (along with accompanying male formal attire) from the burgomaster and his wife, Anna Krezkova. Anna was distraught and the Burgomaster asked Mahel ask a favor to relieve her of her sorrow. So, Mahel did what she knew would work – she hid outside and then cast Hideous Laughter on her, causing her to erupt in laughter. In return, the burgomaster gave Mahel several old suits that no longer fit him. Once she had calmed down from her laughing fit, Anna Krezkova felt relieved of her malaise, and similarly donated an old dress to Mahel. Mahel asked the tailor to take it in (Mahel was shorter than the lanky Anna Krezkova) and for the extra material to be made into a smaller dress – for a diminutive friend of hers… The tailor, knowing of the group’s deeds obtaining wine and bringing it to the town, charged Mahel nothing in services (Krezk was a commune and did not believe in the use of money for service) but only that he would have the work finished before the end of the day. Mahel walked the path to the ruins of the Shrine of the White Sun, where the Morninglord and Saint Markovia were once worshipped. Now, due to Strahd’s power, it was nothing more than flinders and blackened ruin. The once pristine waters of the nearby pool in which Sergei, the spirit of Strahd’s murdered brother, had apparated, were now covered with a greenish film and the waters were dank and foul. Now alone, she thought despairingly that much of what had happened in recent weeks might have been her fault – in her fear of a trap, she had stopped Ireena from reuniting with Sergei’s spirit, who seemed to have been resident in the once holy waters of this pool. Sadly, she reached down to dip her fingers in the water, and cast message. She hoped that she might contact whatever was left of the spirit of Sergei – perhaps he could offer a glimmer of hope in the dark days ahead. Unfortunately, there was no response…

(Camera pans down to the dark water, jump cut to:)

Marek landed with a splash in deep murky water which receded over his head. It was a good thing that Marek no longer drew breath or he would be drowning. His red eyes glowed under the surface of the water, and he now saw that he was in a small stone walled cell, barred with bands of iron, filled with five feet of dank water. He floated to the surface and saw that his cellmate, Vilnius, was tugging on the bars, to no avail. Their cell faced another cell across a flooded hallway, and there seemed to be more cells attached to theirs to their immediate left. A mold-covered ceiling hung three feet above the still, black water that filled this dungeon corridor. Shackled to the back wall of their cell was an emaciated figure in a blue robe, its spindly arms spread wide and its head tilted forward. Long, gray hair hung down in front of the dead man’s face. Wonderful, Marek thought. Out of the frying pan… Vilnius let loose his quasit, who flitted down to the other end of the hallway, but then once out of sight, gave a horrifying shriek. A crunching, slobbering sound could be heard. Something was in the cells with them. “Hello…?” Vilnius croaked in fear. A gruff, throaty male voice responded, “Who’s there?” Marek began to converse with this person, who turned out to be a prisoner at the other end of the cell block. Marek said that he would free him, on the condition that he would help them escape. Vilnius misty stepped out from the cell, and Marek (after many attempts) picked the lock to his cell with a spare dagger. Wading through the water, he saw a horrifying sight (at least for most mortals): pounded into the roof of the cell was a rusted iron pulley, strung through which was a rope tied to one of the crossbeams of the barred cell door. Dangling upside down from the pulley was a man, flabby and stout of build, in tight-fitting leather armor. His boots were bound with rope just below the pulley, his fleshy hands tied behind his back, and his head underwater. He wasn’t moving. Clearly this man was tortured and then drowned – a terrible way to die. Marek waded down to the prisoner’s cell. He was an almost-starved young human male with dusky brown skin, struggling to keep his teeth from chattering, his clothes shredded, and soaked from head to toe. He claimed to be a resident of Vallaki who was chased by dire wolves to the castle. Marek used his dagger and once again picked the lock on the prisoner’s cell. Once freed, the three of them waded up the hall and forced open the door to the prison block. “Where is here?” Vilnius asked the young man as the door opened with a sloshing groan. The door opened into an arched hallway filled with black, still water. The water’s surface was like dark, mirrored glass, disturbed only occasionally by the “thwick” of a drop falling from the ceiling. Twenty feet ahead, arched doorways led downward from each side of the hallway. In the arched doorway ahead, an iron door stood closed and partially submerged. The answer was obvious even before the young man answered him. “You’re in the dungeons of Castle Ravenloft,” the man said with a throaty cough. Vilnius gave a whimper and a low moan. Marek, meanwhile, curious of his surroundings, waded through the hallway of water, stepping gingerly on its slimy stone walkway. It was difficult to see here – so much dirt, detritus and filth was floating in the murky water. He took a tentative step, and an explosion of air and water flew up around him. Marek suddenly disappeared, leaving only a slowly dissipating swirl in the water. Vilnius and the young man stared in disbelief. Marek’s vision cleared after a moment, and he surfaced. He found himself transported to behind the bars of yet another cell. If I still had eyes, he thought, I’d be rolling them now. He got to work picking the lock of his new cell. Then, something behind him in the cell started to glow….

Back in Krezk, Mahel got her dress (and Marek’s) and the formal attire fitted for the boys. Coming back to the town square, Mahel said to Ulfrik that she had to wait for Marek down at Luna Lake, as she had promised. Ulfrik argued that they could not afford any detours; it was time to go the castle – they had to confront Strahd, Marek or no Marek. A little boy, one of those who was rescued from the werewolf den, ran up to Ulfrik and said that something strange was at the main gate: a black carriage. Mahel was insistent that she would not be drawn into a trap and that she had to wait for Marek to make sure he was still OK. At Velikov and Ismark’s urging, however, she convalesced that she would run along side to make sure they’d reach the crossroads, where she could then disembark and meet Marek south at Luna Lake. Boarding the carriage, they said goodbye to the burgomaster and his wife (and her newly adopted children), and it took off, Velikov inside, Ulfrik at the driver’s seat, and Ismark jogging behind Mahel, trying to keep up as best he could. Once the carriage reached the Raven River Crossroads, Ulfrik pulled on the reins, trying to stop the carriage — but the horses wouldn’t stop. Mahel freaked out, and shot one of the horses with her shortbow, which, dying and falling in a ditch alongside the road, took the other horse attached to it down, and caused it to break both its front legs. The still living horse began to shriek in agony. Mahel grimaced and put it out of its misery with a dagger to the throat. The carriage was now halfway in a ditch, with two dead horses attached to it. The group began to argue loudly about what to do next as the skies above them began to darken. Even Mahel got frustrated and started to yell to the heavens, perhaps to the powers that be, perhaps to Strahd himself. Then, almost as if in return, a voice that sounded just like Marek messaged Mahel in her head, saying, "Not at Luna Lake. Now in Castle Ravenloft. Come soon." This spurred Mahel to re-evaluate her direction to the Castle, brought there by carriage or no. Velikov attempted to get out of the conveyance but the doors of the carriage wouldn’t open – Velikov was now locked inside. Then, they heard a noise. An awful noise. The four slowly turned to the source of the noise: the horses. Bones cracked and sinews creaked as the horses (now zombified) slowly got up out of the ditch, and soundlessly began to assume their position back on the road to draw the carriage once again. Completely freaked out, but knowing a good thing when they saw it, Mahel and Ulfrik jumped on the carriage’s top (Ismark clinging to the rear) and it took off like a rocket, the zombie horses racing towards Vallaki. The guards at the western gate of Vallaki recognized Strahd’s carriage right away and immediately opened the gates. The carriage raced through town, passersby remarking in fear as to who was unlucky enough to be inside, some outright screaming and running away. The carriage reached the eastern gate, which was similarly opened and it streaked past, the horses racing along hairpin turns and high escarpments to the Gates of Barovia which were ominously open. The carriage passed through and instead of veering south, it took the cobblestone road east towards the Castle, as the dark grey sky above deepened into a torrent of wind and rain. Lightning struck around them as a hulking grey shape appeared on the horizon – the Castle itself. The carriage raced at breakneck speed towards the castle entrance but the drawbridge was up! A 1000 foot drop loomed nearer and nearer, the party terrified, and Ulfrik readied himself to jump. At the absolute last second, the massive wood and steel drawbridge fell with a thud and the carriage drove across, passing under a huge stone archway that connected to 80 foot walls into the inner courtyard. The carriage slowed as it reached the main courtyard, the rain pelting down. Ulfrik and Mahel disembarked, and Velikov opened the door to the carriage. Ismark, however, was nowhere to be seen. Did he fall off the back? Where did he go and when? The noise of clopping hoofprints echoed through the entryway as the carriage exited, leaving the three in the pouring rain. The main doors to the castle were open, inviting them inside with the warm orange glow of torch light. Trying to keep herself (and her new dress) from getting soaked, Mahel ran to the safety of the open doors, through which the sound of organ music, haunting and despondent, could be heard from somewhere inside the castle. Ulfrik and Velikov followed, passing through ancient wooden doors into a vast cobwebbed hall with stone gargoyles peering at them from high above. The music was louder now. Mahel suggested to Velikov that he go find his sister. Velikov cast invisibility on himself and puttered off down a nearby stairwell. Ulfrik unsheathed the Sunsword, shining brilliant light amidst the darkness and dust, and moved closer to the room where the organ music was seemingly coming from. Then, he opened the door…

Three enormous crystal chandeliers brilliantly illuminated this magnificent chamber. Pillars of stone stood against dull white marble walls, supporting the ceiling. In the center of the room, a long, heavy table was covered with a fine white satin cloth. The table was laden with many delectable foods: roasted beast basted in a savory sauce, roots and herbs of every taste, and sweet fruits and vegetables. Places were set for each member of the party with fine, delicate china and silver. At each place was a crystal goblet filled with an amber liquid with a delicate, tantalizing fragrance. At the center of the far west wall, between floor-to-ceiling mirrors, stood a massive organ. Its pipes blared out a thunderous melody that spoke in its tone of greatness and despair. Seated at the organ, facing away from Mahel and Ulfrik, a single caped figure pounded the keys in raptured ecstasy. At their approach, the figure suddenly stopped, and as a deep silence fell upon the dining hall, as it slowly turned towards them….

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Hour of the Wolf

Marek knew not why these spirits were attacking him and found them to be little more than a distraction to his work. After all, he had his own spiritual guardians that would obey his commands. His snapped his fingers, and misty humanoid shapes began to encircle his body, clawing at his foes, tearing them ghostly limb from limb. In a matter of seconds, it was over. Dusting himself off from their ectoplasmic remnants, Marek finished the final touches of his phylactery and then set it aside. He looked over at his makeshift alchemy set and the eldritch, vile ingredients that were required to make the potion that would transform him into a lich. The work… the work… He wiped a hand from his sopping brow and realized that barricading himself in a room with no ventilation had made the air rather thin. He would have to do something about that. And that’s when he heard it – a tapping sound coming from outside the chamber. A steady, insistent tapping. Marek ignored it and focused on the task at hand. Drawing forth a long glass cylinder extrusion with a sharp needle, he began to extract his first ingredient: his own blood….

In the forest north of Lake Baratok, Mahel, Ulfrik and Kasimir Velikov tracked the howling to a nearby clearing. Mahel scouted ahead and, in the light of the full moon, saw five figures – four men and a woman, standing in silence, their clothes patched and tattered. Mahel noticed that Ismark was one of them. He was face to face with the hulking form of Kiril Stoyanovich; clearly the battle for leadership of the clan had not yet begun. Velikov and Ulfrik stayed back, motioning to Mahel to move up and hear if anything was being said. Ulfrik took a step gently forwards, and stepped on a rather dry patch of twigs, snapping under his weight. The sound alerted Kiril and his pack, who, angered that their private matter was being spied upon, stepped up to confront Ulfrik and Velikov. Mahel, attempting to stay far from such conflict, began to creep slowly out of sight. Ulfrik goaded Kiril to the point of bestial rage, at which point Kiril and his followers shifted into their hybrid forms and pounced. Velikov, seeing that the main threat would come from Kiril, cast hold person on him, and a spiral of purplish energy wrapped around the werewolf, restraining him and sending him to the ground. Ismark looked confused as to why he could not transform into his wolf form to defend himself, even in the light of the full moon, and began to panic. Wide eyed, he realized he had no weapons, and bolted away. Mahel sighed, checked on her compatriots, then raced after him. Ulfrik faced off against the female, a pale-haired werewolf, and proceeded to wear her down with vicious blows from his weapon, finally severing her head. It fell at his feet, unchanged from its fearsome visage. From behind him, Ulfrik heard a savage roar of rage and pain from Kiril. Kiril burst from his magical bonds, and lunged for Ulfrik. Clearly this pale werewolf meant something to him – perhaps she was his mate? Ulfrik fended off the attacks from the three remaining werewolves, but was horribly clawed and then bit in the process. As the werewolf’s jaws clamped down on his arm, Ulfrik smiled. He could feel the surge of warmth coursing through his veins: a familiar feeling. He was sure to get back his lycanthropic abilities now… if he survived. Velikov pelted the evil shapechangers with fire and arcane magic. He then cast an Ice Storm on the creatures, which withered their strength with an onslaught of magical cold. Mahel stopped Ismark, attempted to calm him down, then ushered him back to the battle. She unsheathed her rapier, and lunged at the closest werewolf, attempting to finish it off. But she realized too late that her rapier was not silver or magical and so reconsidered. She charged up her shocking hands spell and gripped a werewolf from behind, electrocuting it. The smell of burnt fur permeated the area, which mixed with Mahel’s still pungent aroma, was quite sickening. Another werewolf nearby turned and deeply bit her arm, drawing blood. “Ah shit,” Mahel intoned, realizing that she might as well now be infected by their vile disease. Ulfrik, seeing that Kiril was wounded and wheezing with effort, turned the full fury of the Sunsword on him, and then kicked his feet out from under him. With a spin, he plunged his sword to the hilt though the monster’s heart, then withdrew it and hacked off his head. As he did so, Mahel reached out to the werewolf that bit her and grabbed it by the head, shocking it to death. Ismark, viewing the carnage, muttered, “Sorry I couldn’t help. It seems like I can’t change anymore.” The three others, panting with exertion, looked at him with a mixture of shock and confusion.

In the Amber Temple, Marek needed fresh air. The tapping on the wall had long since stopped, but his lack of air would prove to be somewhat debilitating if he didn’t do something about it, and soon. He bore a hole in the stone ceiling, and freezing cold water streamed down on him, clearly run off from the snow that tumbled down from the avalanche days before. The air is so cold, why wouldn’t the water have frozen? he thought. Gasping from the shocking deluge, he used stone shape to cover up the hole, then bore another golf ball sized hole in the stone that he had fashioned to wall himself in. When he did, he saw a bloodshot eye staring back at him. “Hello,” a very human voice croaked to him through the hole. The man on the other side of the wall was named Vilnius and he was very much insane. He said that he “talked to voices” and they all were inside the temple. Attempting to extricate himself from the conversation, Marek attempted to trick Vilnius into thinking that he wasn’t really there, either; that he was one of the voices that Vilnius was hearing. He wasn’t sure if Vilnius bought it. He seemed a poor tormented soul, a recluse who had made the temple his home after some horrible event. Vilnius admitted that he was burned rather badly – the “green flames” had incinerated his master and driven him into hiding. Clearly Vilnius was speaking about the flameskulls. Marek said that he needed to be left alone – that he was working on something that would free them both and allow them to leave this place. Vilnius seemed energized by this statement. “Promise me that you’ll free me from this place,” he whimpered. “Trust me,” Marek said, darkly. “Once I have what I want, you will be freed.” He then filled up the hole and continued his work.

In the forest, the PCs healed their wounds and attended to Ismark. Ismark inquired about Leowen (sadly dead, burst into flames) and Marek (up at the Amber Temple, to become a lich). He seemed somewhat horrified by these turns of events but was happy that Mahel and Ulfrik, at least, were still alive and well. He also was somewhat mystified by the change in Ulfrik’s skin and the change in Mahel’s…. scent. The two explained the “gifts” of the dark powers at the temple, and that it was a place that they wished to never return. They also noted that even though they had found the meadow saffron, it was unused, as Ismark had escaped from the Martikovs before they could make an antidote to the Belladonna. Why had he not changed to a werewolf, he inquired, when he needed it most? The full moon, at least, should have been an impetus if he could not change by himself. Intrigued, Mahel asked Ismark about the events of the last few days. Ismark had indeed woken from his coma, transformed and left the Wizard of Wines. He found that he had little control over his wolf form when he had changed. His natural form was that of a man, and he was not a pureborn lycanthrope. One of the benefits of being a pure lycanthrope was that they could change at will and control themselves in their hybrid and wolf forms. An effect of being pureborn was that they would not change back to a human form when they died. That, at least, made sense to Ulfrik now, seeing the wolf heads littered around him. Ismark’s proclivity was to prowl back to those that changed him – Kiril’s clan in the werewolf den. There, he entered and found that there were children held captive by the evil werewolf. He challenged Kiril to leadership of the clan in order to save these children, and was escorted out to the forest. That is where they had found him, about to start the ritualistic combat. Mahel asked, “Did you eat or drink anything when you were at the cave?” Ismark replied, “They served me some wine and some sort of stew.” Mahel, with her knowledge of medicinal potions, surmised that Kiril had played foul and induced some sort of substance in Ismark’s food that would stop the lycanthropic change. It was good luck that they had arrived when they did – Ismark would have been slaughtered had he remained in his human form. But now, all of them except Velikov were infected with lycanthropy. After three days, it would become permanent if they did nothing to cure themselves…

Ismark further described his encounters with the werewolf clan of Barovia which called themselves the Children of Mother Night, as they all worshipped that mysterious deity. Recently, a rift formed in the clan when another werewolf, Emil Toranescu, questioned the treatment of children kidnapped by the pack to be changed into werewolves. KiriI forced them to fight each other to the death until only one child was left standing. The winner would then be turned into a werewolf, ensuring what Kiril called “the strength and purity of the pack.” Emil instead called for keeping all the children alive and turning them into werewolves, thus increasing the pack’s size. Emil said that a larger pack would ensure the werewolves’ survival, whereas Kiril saw a larger pack as too difficult to control and feed. Kiril and Emil were at each other’s throats over this and it led to the brink of outright conflict. Then, mysteriously, KiriI disappeared, causing the other werewolves to wonder whether he had fled in fear, or was killed. When Kiril returned, he had allied with Strahd, who gave him several dozen dire wolves as his own private enforcers. The dire wolves escorted Emil back to Castle Ravenloft to face punishment, and·he was never seen again. Kiril reestablished his dominance, but his ideas and tactics didn’t sit well with the pack’s older members such as Skennis, and they certainly didn’t please Emil’s mate, Zuleika Toranescu.

The four trudged back through the forest in order to see if something could be done to save the children from a horrifying fate. As they entered the cave, they noticed that most of the werewolves had gone, seemingly on hunts of their own, and few, if any of them, knew as to the fate of their erstwhile leader. They moved slowly and carefully into the torch lit cave, following Ismark’s lead. Rough-hewn stairs led down to a bizarre sight: wide-eyed children behind wooden bars staring in terrified silence. The cave held six wooden cages, their lids held shut with heavy rocks. Two of the cages were empty, and each of the others held a pair of frightened children. A crude wooden statue stood between the cages. It bore the rough likeness of a wolf-headed woman draped in garlands of vines and night flowers. Piled around the statue’s base was an incredible amount of treasure. A woman in shredded clothes knelt before the statue. Behind the statue, two maggot-ridden corpses hung from iron shackles bolted to the wall.

The woman was Zuleika Toranescu and she was charged by Kiril to guard the children until he returned from his challenge from Ismark. Now, however, Kiril would never return. Technically, Ismark had challenged the werewolf’s leader and although he had not bested him in combat, it was not clear as to who was to lead the Children of Mother Night. Zuleika related that she was distraught, praying to Mother Night for the release of her husband – she was unsure if he was dead at the hands of Strahd or was held captive, and she implored the PCs to find out. Mahel and Ulfrik said that they would do so, but that she had to release the children into their custody. It was at this time that a raven flapped into the damp musty cave, and transformed into an old woman — clearly a wereraven. She introduced herself as Muriel Vinshaw and stated that she was a member of Keepers of the Feather. She said that time was short — other werewolves would soon be returning to the cave, and that she had been keeping her eyes on the PCs since their venture to Berez (she was the shadowy figure across the river warning them not to encroach upon Baba Lysaga’s property). She said that the children would find suitable homes in the nearby town of Krezk – it was certainly a better choice than Vallaki and woe betide them if they were to find their life in the doomed town of Barovia, so close to the vampire lord himself. Krezk was the only true safe haven for them, and she would make sure that they would find safe passage there, if they were to move quickly. Agreeing that this was the best choice, Zuleika freed the children upon Mahel and Ulfrik’s agreement to investigate Castle Ravenloft for her husband, and escorted them out. The children were a scared, wide-eyed lot – none of them had been turned to lycanthropy, but they had seen horrors in that cave that had frightened them far beyond any of their years should be. As they exited the cave, they heard the sounds of hundreds of ravens flapping and squawking in the early dawn air. The mists were starting to rise from the ground, mixed with early morning dew, casting a grey haze through the morning sky. The children trudged on, past the abandoned tower, along the Old Svalich Road
(Mahel and Ulfrik attempted to cheer the children up with a makeshift puppet show, to no avail) and up the winding, rime encrusted road to Krezk. Once outside the gates, they contacted the burgomaster and were greeted warmly (called “the saviors of Krezk” due to their delivery of the wine to the town). The children were escorted to the burgomaster’s wife, who, now childless, seemed somewhat comforted at the arrival of youth and hope to the town. Setting themselves to work to obtain room and board for the night, the PCs grew worrisome as there was only one place left to go: Castle Ravenloft itself. Hopefully Marek had finished whatever business was required of him…

The last day bloomed with a futile paleness as the light of the sun, filtered through the dank mist and clouds reached the Amber Temple. Inside, Marek sweated profusely. He was so close to completion… any moment now, and the potion that would grant him the power he so desired would be complete. A quantity of a particular salt made from the tears of children was the key catalyst; Marek mixed it with the other ingredients and watched them boil and smoke. The last drop of the tincture filtered through his devices, and a viscous purple droplet fell into a beaker, turning the reddish mixture already there to a dull black serum. Was it done? Had he completed his work? Or was this all for nothing? His phylactery hanging around his neck, glowing with a dull orange gleam, he reached out and took hold of the glass phial that held his destiny. His fingers were slippery from nerves and exertion, but he knew that it was now or never. Summoning up all the courage he had, he pressed the phial to his lips, and swallowed the vile potion in two gulps. It began working almost immediately: the taste was beyond awful – it burned his throat as it went down, and caused him to hack and cough. A grinding tore at his bones, and he was racked with deadly nausea. His vision blurred, and when it cleared, his skin and flesh began to fall from his bones as if they were putty, causing the most intense pain he had ever felt. He screamed with agony and clawed at his eye sockets as his vision went red – his eyeballs turned to jelly and oozed out from his eye sockets. He collapsed to the ground and ceased breathing. His heart stopped, and would not beat again.

And then, Marek, The Dying Star rose from the floor, a grin spread across his skeletal visage…

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Ulfrik and Mahel's Excellent Adventure

The giant goat stood on the bridge, its mouth full of a pink flower which it seemed to enjoy chewing on immensely. Its eyes were glazed over with the soporific effects of the medicinal herb. Ulfrik, seeing that this herb was most likely the one needed to bring Ismark out from his coma, launched himself at the goat, and in response, it bolted for the other side of the crumbling bridge. Ulfrik unbuckled his two hand axes and threw them with unmatched accuracy, landing hits on the flank of the massive creature. Mahel nocked an arrow and shot it in the shoulder, hopefully slowing it as it reached the other side. Kasimir Velikov raced after the goat, preparing whatever spell he could to stop this massive thing from escaping. The chase continued down the mountain until the goat reached the wall of green flame that they had encountered earlier that week. The goat, bleeding from several wounds, sped up, preparing to leap over the 30 foot stone edifice, bypassing the flaming obstacle. Velikov reached out and with a word, summoned a 50 foot wall of stone in front of the goat, and the creature skidded to a halt. The goat turned around and, cornered and in an act of desperation, charged to head-butt the party off the sheer face of the cliff. Mahel withdrew her rapier, and dodging nimbly out of the way of the initial attack, skewered the creature between its shoulder blades. The goat’s eyes rolled upwards and with a sad bleat, the goat collapsed in a heap. Wasting no time, Mahel began to skin and gut the huge creature in an effort to obtain its flavorful goat meat.

Meanwhile, back at Amber Temple, Marek turned slowly to see the imposing figure of Strahd standing before him. The vampire lord had clearly been in waiting and although Marek had enclosed himself in the chamber with the three Amber Sarcophagi, Strahd had found a way inside. Strahd calmly conversed with Marek, knowing that he desired eldritch power and expressing a request to make Marek his successor. All Marek had to do was to bring Rudolph Van Richten to his castle so that he could… “talk” with him. Strahd complimented Marek by saying that he was the most crafty of his peers, and that he would be a fine ruler of Barovia, if he would be willing to accept this deal. Marek considered it for a moment, and then, raising his hand, cast sunlight causing the vampire lord to shrink away, his pale skin starting to hiss and smoke. Strahd walked boldly into the spell, grabbed Marek and lifted him off the ground, baring his fangs. “I will give you one last chance,” he hissed. Marek, undeterred, presented The Holy Symbol of Ravenkind and attempted to paralyze the arch-villain. Strahd reacted violently, and transformed into a greenish mist, flowing out through a small hole in the temple wall. Satisfied, Marek used stone shape to smooth out the wall, so that nothing could get in… or out.

Although the herb in the dead goat’s mouth was indeed Meadow Saffron, it was chewed away and covered with a gooey saliva, most likely making it unusable. However, Velikov’s spell to locate a patch of this herb seemed to indicate that it was nearby. Searching at the base of a nearby tree, they were able to uproot and find a hefty bunch of the flowers, which they sealed away for freshness in their packs. Knowing that Marek had made his choice to stay at the Amber Temple, Ulfrik and Mahel decided that they should return to The Wizard of Wines and hopefully revive Ismark. They clambered on top of the carriage, and it moved along the road to the wall of green flame. Ulfrik closed his eyes and held his breath, hoping to weather the burning obstacle. Lit aflame, he tumbled from the carriage attempting to roll the flames out. As the carriage drove through the barricade, a portcullis rose and then dropped down, trapping Ulfrik inside. As Mahel attempted to stop the carriage, Ulfrik strained against the bars, finally strong-arming them up and running through the snow to catch up. Reaching the carriage, he leaped inside, his clothes smoking. “Well, at least it doesn’t smell so bad anymore,” Velikov said. Mahel gave him a scathing glare.

As the carriage descended from the peak of Mount Ghakis into the less chilly but no less misty lowlands, the horses driving the carriage seemed resistant to being driven in any particular direction; it was clear that they, like much of this land, were controlled by the dark power of Strahd himself. However, the carriage was clearly able to halt if they were not present onboard. Exiting the carriage at the Raven River Crossroads, the three made the walk along the Old Svalich Road to the familiar and welcome sight of the winery. There, they once more met with Davian Martikov, who ushered them inside to meet with Davian’s son Adrian. Adrian sadly admitted that Ismark had torn free of his bonds and escaped the winery two days ago, running into the forest to the north when pursued. Adrian also noted that although the lycanthropy had seemingly taken full effect and that the belladonna had worn off, there still was a semblance of Ismark’s personality present in his monstrous form, as he did not attack the young children of the Martikov family when he broke free. As night was falling, Adrian advised Ulfrik that he and his companions should stay at the winery until morning where they could resume their tracking, assuming that there was anything left to track…

That night, Marek further barricaded himself inside the amber chamber, but was able to see through small cracks in the amber that spectral figures were floating through the far hallway to a door not yet opened by him or his peers. He messaged to Mahel, “Visited by Strahd, made offer to rule Barovia if I delivered you and Van Richten to his wedding. Strahd is slightly more tanned now. Still working…”

In the morning, Mahel, Ulfrik and Velikov left the winery and tracked Ismark through the forest north. They reached the Raven River, and finding that the tracks crossed it, decided to ford the swiftly running river. Ulfrik swam across and Velikov polymorphed into a bear and waded across, but Mahel had a tough time swimming and, much to her chagrin, had to be hauled across with a length of rope.

Further on that day, Ismark’s trail went cold in the forest, so they moved east to Lake Zarovich. They sidled around the lake and activated the door to Van Richten’s tower through the “dance.” Opening the door, Ulfrik called up… to no response. Ascending in the elevator to the top floor, Ulfrik found that Van Richten’s living quarters were completely ransacked. Tables and wardrobes were overturned, beds were ripped to shreds and there was no sign of either Van Richten or Ezmerelda.

Across at the edge of the lake, Mahel saw three humanoid figures watching them. It was too far for Mahel to make out any discerning features, and when the figures disappeared up a nearby promontory, the group decided to follow them. Velikov turned them into fish, and they swam quickly across the lake. Reaching the other side, above the tree line, carved into the side of a rocky mountain spur, was a wide, torchlit cave that looked like the gaping maw of a great wolf. From somewhere deep inside was heard the echoing sounds of a flute. Some of the notes were discordant — painfully so.

Mahel stealthily climbed up the rock face, and inside the somewhat brightly lit cave, standing
on a five-foot-high ledge, were two feral-looking women wearing shredded clothing and
clutching spears. Mahel reported this to her companions, and with Velikov’s assistance they were both able to cast hold person spells on the guards. One by one, Mahel clambered inside (hoping her scent would not give her away — although the cave smelled awful in and of itself), grabbed them, tied them up, and brought them outside. Mahel then used disguise self to appear like one of them and walked back inside. Further in, a five-foot-high stone ledge overlooked a larger portion of the large cave, which had a smoldering campfire at the far west end. The floor was covered with gnawed bones – and for good reason: nine wolves and an old man, tending to them, were here. The old man was the one playing the flute. It was clear that this was a cave belonging to a clan of werewolves. Mahel called the old man over, and then cast charm person and ushered him outside. Ulfrik immediately restrained him with rope, just as he did the two other guards. Mahel and Ulfrik questioned the old man, named Skennis, about Ismark, and learned that he had arrived earlier that week. Brimming with power from his newfound abilities, Ismark had challenged the clan leader, Kiril Stoyanovich, and the two had left to fight for “alpha” status somewhere in the woods.

They also learned that Skennis was the father of the one of the werewolves killed by them in defending Mordenkainen, and that the flute was his son’s. Regretfully, they remarked that they had no choice but to defend themselves, and that if he so wanted, the dark powers imprisoned within the Amber Temple could bring his son back to him… for a price. Skennis considered this, and agreed that he be of no further trouble to them if they let him go in peace. Ulfrik released his bonds, and Skennis limped away. They now had a new direction in which to search for Ismark – somewhere in the nearby forests of Barovia. The three doubled back down the hill just as night began to fall and the clouds parted. As they reached the shores of Lake Zarovich, they heard a solitary howl from the forests to the north east. Then another joined in, echoing it. After a minute, there were more than five distinct howls coming from all around them. The moon, exiting from behind a dark cloud back, shone with a dull gleam. And it was full…
.
.
.
.
.
Far away, Marek, still in his fully barricaded room, was putting the final touches on his newly fashioned phylactery. One by one, the “spirits” that he had been communicating to seemed to grow darker and more malevolent in their conversations, especially when Marek told them to leave him alone or he’d drain their power to fuel his phylactery. Looking up, Marek realized that the shadowy figures were now surrounding him. He hesitated, unsure of what to do. Quicker than thought, the spirits leaped at him with screams of anger and vengeance…

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An Invitation to Corruption

Although there was no real way to determine the time of day, the party woke after what they assumed to be a night’s rest. All seemed to be ready to leave the temple… except Marek. Quietly and without showing any ill will, Marek stated that he wanted to stay, but only until he had “finished his work.” “What work?” Ulfrik questioned. "Work that will ensure that we will have the power to overthrow the evil enshrouding this land, " Marek answered. “Power that will ensure that he is destroyed.”

The others, especially Mahel, argued against staying – and they had to stay together, they were stronger now that they had all the artifacts and also with the “dark gifts” that the powers had granted them. Marek cryptically retorted that the power granted him was beyond measure, and would require some time to come to full realization. With it, Strahd would surely perish. Haavich admitted that although the temple seemed safe, there were other… things that inhabited it (or invaded it) that would prove to be quite dangerous. Mahel stated quite clearly that Strahd most likely knew where they were and would send his forces to destroy them if they didn’t leave. Marek said it was worth the risk; that he could bar himself inside and that he needed to spend the next couple weeks finishing his work.

In frustration, Mahel walked through the secret doors to Omar‘s chamber to see him lying on the floor, apparently sleeping. “Sleeping?” she said to herself. "The undead don’t sleep…" She poked at his skeletal frame. No response.

“Hello? Are you awake?” Omar’s eye sockets, before filled with a reddish gleam, were now black holes, devoid of any life. She tapped his skull, and instantly, it crumbled to dust.

“Shit! Guys!” Mahel called out. The others entered, and were shocked to see that their powerful guide had been destroyed by a yet undetermined force.

“You see!” Mahel yelled at Marek. “Even Omar isn’t safe, and this is his home!” Marek shrugged. “Maybe it was just his time to finally die. We don’t know that someone killed him.” Mahel stared at Marek, shaking with frustration. Marek surveyed Omar’s study, smiling at the ancient tomes of knowledge festooning the small, cramped space. “Yes. This will do nicely.” Ulfrik stood in front of Marek and pointed his finger in his pale face. “What exactly are you going to be… working on?” Marek looked at him and cocked an eyebrow. “Immortality,” he chimed. Ulfrik looked at Marek, then at Haavich. Neither of them knew what he was talking about.

Mahel growled with frustration, then left Omar’s study down the secret stairs to the main area. Pale sunlight filtered in through the main opening to the south. She took in a sigh of cold air and sat down next to the massive black statue. A sound coming from the entrance quickened her pulse. Hiding behind the statue, she peered out and saw someone slowly entering the temple. A figure in a woolen cloak and hood. As the figure descended into the area, it took off its hood, showing that it was a male elf with a broad scar across his forehead. He paused, looking around. His breath made small clouds of steam in the freezing cold. She sent Albreth to the others to alert them of the visitor.

Mahel called out, “What are you doing here?”

The elf called out that he was there to deliver a message to the group. An invitation. Slowly moving towards the figure, Mahel went to take it. As Mahel approached this elf, a screaming of thousands of voices could be heard… from inside her head. She gripped her ears as if drown them out and glanced over at the elf, who seemed not to notice this deafening din. Instinctively, she backed away, and as she did, the screaming in her head faded away.

She glanced at the letter. It read:

invitation.png

The postscript continues:

As an invited guest for my wedding, no harm shall come to you if you come with no ill intention. Please attire yourselves appropriately for our most joyous occasion.

-S

“So, you’re a servant of Strahd,” she said, doing her best to hide the note of suspicion in her voice. “Yes,” the elf said, “he is the great power that rules this land. I would give my life for his.” Mahel nodded and started to move slowly away from this figure. Under his cloak, she caught a glimmer of steel – this servant of Strahd was certainly prepared for a fight. A grinding of stone behind her signaled that someone was coming from the secret staircase. She breathed a sigh of relief as Ulfrik, Marek, Haavich, and Velikov walked to her side. As they did, the elf’s eyes widened as they fastened upon Velikov.

“Well, I see you’re moving up in the world, Velikov,” the elf said with a sarcastic sneer.

Velikov’s face became a mask of pain and rage. “You,” he growled, and his hands became tight fists.

“You know each other?” Mahel asked.
“Of course. He is the demon who… who KILLED MY PEOPLE! He is Rahadin! "
What?" Mahel’s hand dropped to her rapier.
The elf dropped his cloak, showing a pair of razor sharp scimitars. “Ah, a disappointing an end for you, Velikov,” Rahadin hissed. “The mongrel shall die like the rest of his race.”

Velikov launched himself at Rahadin, who kicked him and slashed at him with blinding speed, causing him grievous wounds. The party joined in to defend their ally, and found that this elf was a dangerous foe. Coming close to him was nigh impossible as the screams of those thousands of foes he had met and killed over countless years filled their heads as they fought. However, beaten and bloody, the party defeated Rahadin, who cursed them in elvish before his head was severed, rolling across the frozen floor.

Recovering from the fight, it was clear that Strahd not only knew where they were, but actually had intentions to wed Ireena and requested their presence at his castle. Marek stated that this was clearly a trap, and that the best thing for them to do was to stay here and wait until he had completed his work.

Disheartened by Marek’s insistence, Mahel walked slowly towards the entrance, her head in her hands. That’s when she felt it. In the floor. A deep low rumbling. She dropped to the floor, feeling for the noise. It was getting louder. Then the rest of the party felt it. The walls of the temple started to shake, cracked amber and powdered frost dropping from the ceiling.

“No.” Mahel ran for the entrance, an idea of what was happening blooming in her head. As she ran up the corridor to the outside world, she saw standing a figure dressed in purple robes – from afar it looked like the old man, Heinrich Stolt. Except that this was no man. As she neared him, she saw that his head was that of a jackal. And he was casting some sort of spell… at the mountain above, causing an avalanche! What manner of creature was this?

“Avalanche! Run!!” Mahel yelled at the group inside. Mahel ran past the creature, and struck at him with her rapier. The creature nimbly dodged out of the way and cursed at her in a language she did not know. Ulfrik’s hound lunged at the creature, breathing fire and snapping at him. Ulfrik and Haavich joined in slashing and blasting him, but this was a powerful creature of evil. The snow started to rain down from high above, a wave of ice and snow, slowly descending in a thunderous roar.

The creature, realizing he’d be overcome in a trial of strength, cast fear on Ulfrik, making him run screaming back into the temple. In his mind, Ulfrik saw his brother’s capture, trial and bloody execution, a memory from childhood which he’d been unable to face the dread reality of. The jackal-headed humanoid then ran down the mountain, casting teleport to gain more ground from the doomed crew. Mahel and Velikov took shelter from the oncoming storm of snow. Dr. Haavich, realizing that there would be but one chance to save those inside from being buried forever inside the temple, put on a shield of fire around him and attempted to usher Marek and Ulfrik to safety. But it was too late. With a sickening thud, thousands of pounds of snow and ice came sliding from above onto the face of the temple, burying the main entranceway and pushing dozens of feet of snow into the main hall. Mahel and Velikov were luckily far from the landslide of snow, but Haavich and Ulfrik’s hellhound were completely buried in a 60 foot mountain of snow and ice. Mahel sent Albreth to find him, but Albreth could not. Velikov even cast locate object to try to find Haavich, but said that he was nowhere to be found, even with the use of his spell. Ulfrik and Marek, meanwhile, were trapped inside, and began the arduous process of digging themselves out.

Marek said, “I can create a tunnel for us to use to escape, but it is going to take several days. I’m going to make some tea.” He left to Omar’s study, where he brewed a cup and began poring over arcane texts.

As the day wore on, Mahel found a side entrance near to where the barbarians were encamped inside. Finding that they were able to reunite with their lost companions, they related that Haavich was gone. Ulfrik hung his head in sadness. “He was a noble soul. He tried to save us.”

Marek nodded and handed Ulfrik a warm cup. “I’m afraidI have to get back to crafting my phylactery.”

PHYLACTERY?” Mahel yelled, causing echoes to reverberate around the dark chamber. “WHAT POWER DIDTHEYGIVE YOU?” Marek looked calmly at her and said that the Dark Powers gave him the potential to transform himself into a lich. Horrified, the party backed away from the diminutive cleric. “It’s for the best,” Marek uttered, attempting to get them to see his point of view.

The sound of clopping hooves and wood could be heard down the road. A carriage arrived outside in the driving snow – a carriage with no driver. Black horses, their breath steaming, standing in the snow… awaiting them. On the inside of the carriage was a crest. Ulfrik recognized it as the same crest from the letter that brought him and his original companions to Barovia. It was also the crest on the invitation that they had most recently received. Their ride to Castle Ravenloft had come.

All the party, (except Marek) wanted to immediately leave the temple to find the antidote to the belladonna poison and save Ismark. But it was getting dark. Travel in the dark in these lands was most certainly not advised. The group retired back to Omar’s study. The tension in the air was thick as the group settled into a fitful sleep.

In the morning, the plan was made. Ulfrik, Mahel and Velkiov would go in search of the meadow safforn and a cure to Ismark’s malaise, and then they could determine if there would be enough time for Marek’s arcane experimentation with lichdom, as distasteful as it might sound.

Velikov went Inside the carriage, Mahel climbed on one of the two horses, and Ulfrik sat at the driver’s seat. Bidding a farewell to Marek, Ulfrik spurred the horses, and the carriage set down the mountain side. After an hour, the ride brought them back to the bridge on the Tsolenka Pass and abruptly, the horses stopped. The giant goat was standing in the middle of the bridge with a fistful of Meadow Saffron in its mouth, chewing lazily.

“NO!” Ulfrik leaped off the carriage, sword in hand….
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Marek shuffled back to Omar’s room and plopped himself at his desk. He waved away the cobwebs, lit a candle, and began to read a nearby set of scrolls, written in ancient penmanship. The hairs on the back of Marek’s neck suddenly stood on end. He turned quickly to look behind him. Nothing. Not even a cool draft. He was sure he’d walled up the space appropriately…

He slowly turned back to the scroll…

A pale hand, its nails sharpened to fine points, and showing a magnificent ruby ring on one finger, slowly gripped his shoulder from behind. Marek was frozen with icy fear. A deep familiar voice with a rich Barovian accent intoned, “Hello, Marek.”

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Amber Window Shopping

The Amber Golem thundered towards them, as the witches on their brooms zoomed past in terror. Omar shuffled forwards as the group prepared to run. He held out a skeletal hand, and the golem stopped in its tracks. Relieved, the group again set about their business of investigating the amber vaults. Marek was inside the ruined vault, and besides a fine sheen of amber dust on his clothes, seemed fine. Mahel walked to a nearby sarcophagus and touched it. In her mind, she was on a vast mirror-like lake, surrounded by fog in all directions. When she looked down at her reflection, she saw staring back at her an inverted version of herself, which was actually the goddess, Fekre. After conversing with Fekre, she agreed to obtain her “dark gift” if it promised not to alter her physical appearance. The vestige, admitting that it was unable to lie, agreed. A dark hand rose from the surface of the water. Mahel bent down to grasp it…. Mahel awoke from communing with this spirit, finding that she now had the power to cast the powerful contagion spell, but had paid the price of now reeking of filth. “Fuck you, Fekre,” she grumbled.

Finding another vault with an arcane lock, Marek dispelled the lock and Omar used his power over the Amber Golem to smash the doors after Ulfrik was unable to open it. Ulfrik went in to the vault, and seeking his own gift, touched several amber sarcophagi. He communed with the Vestige of Savnok, the Inscrutible an ancient god who he played cards with (and lost). He then communed with the flying horror, the Vestige of Tarakamedes, the Grave Wyrm who promised him the gift of flight. Unsure as to what the price to be paid for this gift would be, he declined. He also had a somewhat brief and flirty encounter with Vestige of Shami-Amourae, The Lady of Delights, an ancient succubus-like goddess. None of these gods had what he desired, so he left them empty-handed.

While Mahel went on her own (as usual) back to the amber vault in the northern section of the temple, the remaining four investigated a catacomb of amber coffins, bereft of any sign of life. Ulfrik got a super-spoopy vibe, and ushered the others to leave in a hurry.

Finding yet another vault, Marek disenchanted the door, and they made their way inside. Marek, unable to control himself, touched another Amber Sarcophagi and accepted another dark gift – a gift that came with a dark price – the blood in his veins turned to pitch black. Although his peers seemed troubled by Marek’s increasingly disturbing countenance, Marek stayed mum on the matter. Ulfrik also reached out to commune with the other dark gods in this room, finding first that he spoke with the illusive Vestige of Vaund the Evasive, and then finally meeting and accepting the gift of the Vestige of Seriach, the Hell Hound Whisperer. This gift was the ability to understand Infernal and also to summon two hell hounds to fight at his side, but only once. What the price to be paid for that would be, he did not know…

They reached a stairwell and continued up to a long corridor. The walls of this twenty-foot-wide, seventy-foot-long arched corridor were sheathed in amber. The southern half of the hall was scorched by fire, and a charred corpse lay on the floor, under a burned fur cloak. Several amber doors led from this hall, and three arrow slits were cut into the east wall. Clearly this was where the group of Flameskulls launched their attacks. Marek found a Staff of Frost on the charred corpse (most likely a previous victim of the floating evils), and although it was clearly a wizard’s implement, he fought viciously over it with Dr. Haavik. Marek’s thirst for magic seemed unquenchable and getting worse. Ulfrik furtively opened the door to the south, and came face to snout with a dire wolf!

The wolf was the “pet” of a group of mountain berserkers, led by a female dressed in studded leather armor. After a battle that ended up with the berserkers decimated by the powers of the intrepid adventurers as well as their undead compatriot, Ulfrik took the somewhat charred and tattered armor from the female, intent on giving it to Mahel, something for which she’d been looking for a long time. The five, beaten and battered, retired to Omar’s study (finding Mahel, trancing on top of a bookshelf) where they wrapped themselves in their furs, and did their best to rest and recuperate. Clearly they needed to complete their investigation of the temple; powers that could help them in their fight against Strahd still remained undiscovered. And Dr. Haavik still had not found the skull of the silver dragon Argynvost, if it was even here. As the lights were snuffed out one by one by Omar on his way back to his study, only one light remained: a candle held by Dr. Haavik. Just before he blew it out, he said silently to himself, “I’m coming, Master.”

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Deals with the Darkness

“You could have anything you wanted, just as long as you could pay for it. If you couldn’t pay, or refused to pay, you would remain needful for ever.” — Stephen King, Needful Things

Peering over the gilded staircase at the dark room below, the four stalwart adventurers each thought it best to go down as a group. All except Mahel, who, independent as ever, determined that she would be better suited with her expert bow skills from afar in case things went awry. She stayed crouched atop the landing, arrow nocked and Albreth poised as a lookout.

The three descended into darkness, with the light of the sunsword shining as a beacon amidst the amber light emanating from the three huge blocks of amber sanctioned in each side of the room. They were humongous, as were the blocks of amber that Marek saw when he used the arcane eye to scout out the temple hours before. Upon closer inspection, each block of amber was invested with some kind of black mark, no bigger than a foot or so long, in its midst. The whispers grew stronger as the three walked towards the amber blocks, skirting around the six dusty crates placed around the room’s circumference. Marek reached out his hand to touch one of the crates, and it violently exploded showering the area with rotten wood, dust, soil, and other debris. Then another crate exploded. Then another. Soon, all of the crates had burst from within, and in their places were bedraggled, emaciated humanoid figures, covered with soil and dried blood. Fresh blood stained their mouths, which opened with a hiss to show a row of razor sharp fangs…. vampires!

Striding confidently into battle, Ulfrik slashed with holy fury with the sunsword, decimating one vampire while Marek held forth his holy symbol and attempted to turn them. “Flee, foul creatures, from the power I possess!” His holy symbol shone with a bright blue light and the vampires, struck with fear, recoiled and ran to the far corners of the room, one fleeing up the stairs while Mahel took pot shots with her bow at the fiends that she could see from her vantage point.

Haavich loosed a radiant fireball at three of the remaining five vampires, which set them ablaze with a golden flame. They wailed in pain with a high pitched scream that sounded less human than some sort of rabid animal. Marek grabbed a piece of wood from a nearby broken crate, and using his knowledge of the undead, impaled one of them through its chest. The creature gurgled, black blood spewing forth from the gaping chest wound and spraying Marek from head to toe. It then collapsed and the body turned to dust. Ulfrik lunged with his blazing sword and struck the head from another vampire, the body also disintegrating before him. He turned to see one of the last two vampires heading up the stairs. The clothes from these creatures looked familiar to him – they looked like uniforms of mercenaries from near his home. These creatures were once men and women, adventurers like him and his compatriots, who had clearly succumbed to the evil of Strahd and his followers. This knowledge galvanized Ulfrik and he sprinted up the stairs, tripping his pursued quarry and cutting its legs out from under it. With a final blow, Ulfrik lanced the sunsword through the monster’s eye, and the creature turned to an oily grey dust.

Mahel moved around the staircase to where she could see the final vampire and nocked an arrow. As she did, a draft from between the bookcases blew through the room, tousling her hair. Someone had just opened a door that they’d not noticed before, and was entering the room. She released her arrow, then scuttled into the corner to hide in the shadows as the final vampire charged up the stairs. A bright blue beam of energy flashed out from the dark doorway between the bookcases, immolating the vampire immediately. A figure slowly stepped out, surveying the area and walking to the pile of dust that was once the undead foe. Seizing her opportunity, Mahel stepped out and ensnared this person with a hold person spell. Bands of purple energy wrapped around the humanoid figure, who dropped to the rug with a thump. Turning him over, she saw that it was an elf with dark skin and elf-like though mutilated ears – a dusk elf! She tied a rope around him, removed any spell components that she could find on his person, then released the spell so that he speak. He groaned, not knowing what happened or who this person was. Ulfrik came up and the two began to speak to him. He introduced himself as Kasimir Velikov – someone who Leowen had met at the Vistani camp a week ago, but who had never met any of her compatriots.

Mahel, recognizing the name from Leowen’s journal, questioned Kasimir about who he was, and what he was doing in the temple. He said that he was in the temple to find a way to bring his sister, one of the many females of his race killed in a mass genocide by Strahd, back from the grave. He said that there was power in the temple that could perform this task, and that he was dedicated to finding it.

Marek, intrigued but repelled by the evil emanations within the blocks of amber, decided to cast Dispel Evil on one. It was as if he was trying to move a mountain with his hand. The spell had no effect. Perhaps there was a way to commune with it and discover its secrets. He touched it. Immediately, he was in contact, psychically, with a power unlike any he had ever experienced. It was a voice in his head, ancient beyond belief and filled with power beyond comprehension – the remains of a god. A god, trapped in amber. Seeing into Marek’s soul, it saw his innate need for magical knowledge. If Marek was willing to pay the price, this vestige, which called itself Tenebrous, would offer him great magical power. Marek hungrily agreed. At once, knowledge flooded into Marek’s mind – arcane eldritch knowledge – on how to become a lich. Marek’s clerical nature rejected this abomination, but was soon overwhelmed with Marek’s innate desire for knowledge. Dark circles formed around Marek’s eyes and his face darkened, as the price of this knowledge was paid.

Haavich and Ulfrik attempted to wrest Marek away from the amber block, but even with Ulfrik’s great strength, the two could not. Marek was affixed to it by a great force, like iron filings to a magnet. Ulfrik determined that perhaps the only way to get Marek away was to touch a separate one and determine if it could be somehow destroyed.He reached out and placed his hand on the amber block… and a lithe female voice spoke to him in his mind. She, was the remains of a goddess of the undead, a Queen of Vampires from eons past and worlds away. She was the goddess Zura, and she had to power to bestow the gift of the vampyr. Ulfrik was unimpressed. His desires were for abilities of a different sort. He refused the gift, and his hand was freed from the amber surface.

Upstairs, Mahel untied Velikov, wary but trusting his intentions. He descended into the pit where Marek and Ulfrik were communing with these evil gods, trapped in amber sarcophagi. Wordlessly, moving past the inquisitive Dr. Haavich, Velikov moved to the eastern amber block, one which neither Marek nor Ulfrik had touched. He withdrew from a hidden pocket within his robe a small piece of cloth which enclosed something glittering and metal… The Holy Symbol of Ravenkind! Mahel and Haavich, taken with surprise at this, began to angrily inquire as to why he had taken the amulet and what he intended to do with it. Velikov said that he was sorry for stealing it, and that he needed it, not only for protection, but to use it to bargain with the god known as Zhudun. He touched the amber block, and he, like Marek, was suddenly frozen in a trance. Mahel grabbed at the amulet but it would not come out of Velikov’s grip.

Marek, newly imbued with dark knowledge, slipped away from the smooth cold amber as the amoeba-like organism undulated within the block, as if alive. He turned, and saw Velikov with his amulet! Filled with anger the likes of which he had never known, Marek charged at the dusk elf, intent on reclaiming what was his. Haavich stepped in between them, attempting to prevent any additional violence between potential allies. The amulet’s crystal suddenly flashed with a brilliant blue light, temporarily blinding all within the room, and Velikov stumbled backwards from the amber block. “It is done,” he said. Marek screamed with rage and pulled a dagger from his belt taking two stabs at Velikov which sunk deep into his thighs. Mahel withdrew her rapier and with the flat of the blade, swung at Marek in order to knock him unconscious. Something evil had gotten into Marek and needed to be removed, like poison from a wound. Ducking under Mahel’s blade, Marek readied another strike. The dusk elf panted with exertion and then, finally, cast polymorph on the gnome, turning him to a frog.

The danger temporarily removed, Mahel took the frog that was Marek and excused herself. She ran upstairs, slipped down the secret staircase to the main hall, and heaved the frog as far as she could, closing the secret door behind her. Dusting off her hands, she felt satisfied that this would buy them some time. “He’ll be fine,” she told herself, as she walked back to rejoin her remaining compatriots.

Haavich was bandaging up Velikov’s wounds when Mahel returned. Velikov explained that the amulet’s power was only reduced, not removed, as part of the power he now had been bestowed. As they watched, Velikov’s skin withered and shrunk, giving him the appearance of a gaunt undead creature. Haavich stared at him in horror, knowing for certain that this visage could repel even the most stalwart ally. Ulfrik, meanwhile, was peering through two large cracks in the southern wall, unsure of what he could see. Mahel sent Albreth to scout inside, only to see that the room was festooned with piles and piles of treasure! Overjoyed, Albreth dove headfirst into a pile as Mahel squeezed inside to have a look… then froze as she saw looming above her, moving towards Albreth, a 10 foot tall hawk-headed statue made of amber. She slowly moved backwards as Albreth’s head popped out of the pile of coins. As the massive amber foot came down on Albreth’s tiny weasel skeleton, all that could be heard was, “Aww shit, not again —” CRUNCH. Mahel sighed.

Determining that the best way out of this room was not around the massive ten foot guardian, the group moved back upstairs where Velikov offered to introduce them to someone he’d met in his exploration here – someone who had been in the temple much longer than anyone or anything else, perhaps even the creator of the temple itself. Intrigued, the group agreed. Velikov walked back through the secret door from which he’d come, and then opened another secret door to a brightly lit room. It was filled with ornate furniture, exquisite rugs and tapestries, and decorative statuary. Everywhere were lit candelabras atop small tables. The beauty of the decor was undone, however, by thick dust and cobwebs. Standing in the center of the room was a decrepit figure clad in tattered robes. As his head turned towards them, they saw with horror that what looked at them was the grinning visage of a skull. Its eye sockets were black holes, and at the center of each glowed a single pinprick of red light. In a sepulchral croak, the figure spoke. “Do I know you?”

Velikov introduced the three, and the undead creature, not hostile (or able to remember its name) for some odd reason, warmly welcomed them to its domicile. Calling him “Omar,” Mahel asked him what he was doing here in the temple. Omar related that he was so old, he had a hard time remembering many things. When the subject turned to the evil gods, trapped in the sarcophagi, Omar told them that he only remembered that there were many, many vestiges imprisoned here, and that he was only able to recall a smattering of their names.

He counted them off — “Fekre, Queen of Foxes.. or was it poxes? Oh well, never mind. Then there is Zrin-Hala, the Howling Storm, and Sykane, the Soul Hungerer. Wonderful names, eh? What their powers are, who knows?” Mahel related that she preferred to have a god offer her a gift that wouldn’t make her into a horrific monster. Ulfrik chuckled. Omar related that each “amber vault” was locked with an arcane lock with a magical password, and that he could only remember one of those passwords: Shalx.

They inquired as to where more of these amber sarcophagi were. Omar offered to show them. Together, they walked through the cavernous cold chambers of the temple, until they reached a long hallway. At the end of the hallway, three cloaked figures were attempting to open an amber door. They hissed and spat at each other as they argued, ancient crones rather reminiscent of Baba Lysaga or Morgantha: a coven of hags.

As the hags turned to the party, they screeched, their blackened teeth rotting in their gums. They moved their arms to prepare a spell… and the entire wall behind them exploded in a haze of amber dust and debris. In its place was the jackal-headed golem, not only missing an arm but blackened from impacts all over its body and half its face missing. The crones screamed in fear. In retaliation, the golem reached out with its remaining hand, grasped a crone by her wizened face and proceeded to thrust her head against a nearby wall, cracking it like an egg. A bloody smear was all that was left of the hag. The remaining two hags leapt onto their brooms and sped towards the party as the golem came lumbering after them, and straight towards the PCs, Omar, and Velikov.

“Oh shit,” Ulfrik said.

In the wrecked room that once housed the amber golem, Marek dusted himself off from the fall he’d taken after the golem knocked the nearby wall and ceiling down. He looked around through the rubble and noticed that there were three more amber sarcophagi surrounding him, each with a small black substance that moved, ever so slightly, from within the crystalline housing. A smile slowly spread across his face….

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