Mahel slowly climbed into the hole above, using her darkvision to spot any potential attackers. Van Richten trailed her up the stairs. In the small crawl space of the attic, two darkly feathered figures sat in circular constructs of straw and refuse. Mahel slowly sneaked up and poked the nearest one. It awoke, and spoke, groggily, in the voice of Urwin Martikov. Mahel, realizing that Urwin was indeed some kind of crow-person, warned against speaking too loudly as there was a creature on the prowl, presumably still in the house. Urwin shifted back to human form (completely nude) and awoke his wife, also in hybrid form. Van Richten, noticing that the Martikovs did not recognize him without his disguise, reintroduced himself as Rictavio. Mahel quietly explained to the wereravens that their children were under a dark enchantment. The Martikovs, rushing downstairs and seeing their children in suspended animation, were clearly distraught. Seeing their agony, Mahel immediately felt a great sadness and pity for the Martikovs, and Van Richten (for what seemed like personal reasons) swore that he would do anything he could to help free their children.
At the Wachterhaus, Marek, Leowen, Ulfrik and Ismark completed their search of the house, appropriating some of their finest valuables, and leaving the mad Stella Wachter behind locked in her room, directly opposite to the Baron’s request. Marek, finding a half full barrel of the Wizard of Wines vintage “Red Dragon Crush,” decided that it would be best in his possession, and rolled it out of the house with a gleeful smile. Ulfrik, who was tired of the awful place, stood outside with a sulking, shaken Ismark. Leowen sauntered out of the house, clearly with her own agenda, and began to head back down the road to the Burgomaster’s Mansion with Fiona’s head in her bag. Ulfrik and Ismark broke away from the other two and decided to go back to the Blue Water Inn in the hopes that they would meet up with the Martikovs and perhaps Aike and Mahel. Arriving at the inn, Ulfrik and Ismark found Mahel and much to their surprise, Van Richten. Mahel brought Ulfrik upstairs and told him about Van Richten’s rescue, Aike’s sad demise, the awful creature that was stalking them in Aike’s remains, and the current state of the Martikov family. Ulfrik checked out the kids and with his enhanced sense of smell, noticed an ammonia smell coming from the attic. Van Richten informed Ulfrik as well that it seemed that these pods were a clear example of a lesser known and often derided school of evil magic known as Biomancy and that it was impossible to cut or rip the children out of the pods without killing them.
Leowen and Marek reached the outskirts of the Baron’s mansion — and saw from a distance, Izek Strazni, very much alive, and with over two dozen Vallakian guards at his disposal and command. Realizing that an encounter with Izek would be deadly, Leowen suggested to Marek that they go around to the front door. When they did so, they found five heavily armed guards. Leowen stepped up to the silent, imposing guardsmen, and asked to see the Baron. The guards replied that he was busy and was seeing no one. Leowen said that this was urgent business, and that she personally needed to speak to the Baron. Feeling a certain tension, the guard went inside and after a time, brought out the Baroness. Leowen attempted to telepathically message the Baroness to intimidate her to allow them entrance, but… something… inside Leowen flared up and frightened the Baroness so much that she freaked out, calling her a “witch.” Frustrated, Leowen shot two eldritch blasts in the air in an attempt to frighten the guards but it backfired — the already spooked guards moved towards her, threatening her with pikes. She put up her hands in a gesture of surrender. Marek looked at Leowen with wide eyes. “Leowen….” Thinking quickly, she slowly took out Fiona Wachter’s head, tossed it at the guards. Taking one look at it, they screamed with a mixture of surprise and frantic joy, then began to fight over it. Leowen, pleased with herself yet exasperated, started to walk back to the inn, Marek following (taking a quick swig of wine to suppress his waning sense of panic.)
Marek and Leowen walked through the bustling main road to meet back at the inn, and like Ismark and Ulfrik, were rather shocked to find that Van Richten was freed. All the danger that they had overcome, all the descruction that they had caused, was for nothing — they had gone on a mildly lucrative wild goose chase. Putting their frustration behind them, they needed to plan how to overcome their ever-mounting list of problems and concerns and how to tackle them. Van Richten, as always, proved to be a font of knowledge, as he spoke to each one of their current predicaments: the children, Ireena’s safety and ties to Strahd, their lycanthropic afflictions, rescuing Mordenkainen’s book, and of course, the remaining artifacts needed to defeat Strahd.
Regarding the fate of the children in the biomantic pods, it was determined that the creature that performed this evil act was some sort of undead that resembled a morhg, but not quite, since morhgs did not have the ability to generate pods in order to extract the life essence from their victims. The behavior of this thing was also bizarre — it seemed to only prey on certain types of humanoids, as it did not encase Van Richten after paralyzing him and actually waited for Mahel to leave her trance before leaping at her. Why? And how and when did that worm-like organ get into Aike in the first place? Morhgs seemingly acted as thralls to greater undead (perhaps Strahd?) or necromancers/biomancers. Perhaps the Abbot was behind this — after all he created the horrifying mongrelfolk that ran amok at his asylum. Van Richten disagreed – although the Abbot was perhaps powerful and a gifted fleshcrafter, he would not willingly create a creature as evil as the one that they experienced.
After hearing about the encounter at the hallowed pool in Krezk, Van Richten became fascinated by the concept of Ireena’s previous incarnation of Tatyana. Knowing little else but that Strahd desired her in the same way that he desired Tatyana, it was clear to Van Richten that she was the key to defeating Strahd – she was his true weakness and could be used to lure him to his doom, should the PCs wish to do so. Ismark, hearing this callous talk, became enraged about using his sister as bait, and grabbing Van Richten and lifting him off his feet, began to slaver and snarl. It took several of the group to try to calm him down. Clearly Ismark was starting to showcase his oncoming transformation.
Straightening his coat, Van Richten restored his composure and answered the group’s questions regarding lycanthropy, being the resident expert. Van Richten spoke to the difference between the Infected – those who were afflicted with the disease through a bite and who would lose themselves while transformed; and the Born – werewolves who were genetically cursed with the disease and could control the transformation at will. Ulfrik was quite concerned on how, if at all, the Infected could affect any control over their curse. Only with time and painful practice, Van Richten stated, or with suppression of the transformation with special herbs could the Infected hope to have an existence devoid of mindless rage and death. Normally, in other realms, lycanthropy could be cured with remedial divine magic – a remove curse spell. In Barovia, however, something prevented the cursed from being cured through the use of this type of magic – the only thing to cure it magically would be a very powerful spell and user. Perhaps Mordenkainen’s spellbook might hold the key to removing their curse… but how to get back to Mordenkainen’s mansion in time? Van Richten suggested that perhaps there was a teleport spell in the book that if used appropriately, would bring them back to the mansion so Mordenkainen could help to remove the curse. Van Richten spoke more about this special (and if taken incorrectly, poisonous) root used to subdue the lycanthropic change: deadly nightshade, also known as wolfsbane or belladonna. If used, it would painfully subdue the change for a day, but on the next full moon, the infected would need to take more of it, as the infection adjusts itself to the remedy. Belladonna could be found in the roots of gnarled trees in swampy or marshy areas. Another way to potentially remove the curse magically would be to explore the arcane depths of the Amber Temple. Long ago, before Strahd ruled this land, the temple was fashioned as a prison for great, dark powers without shape or form. A group of evil mages wanted to use their vast energies for their own nefarious purposes. Years later, after the temple was lost to legend, Strahd himself found and traveled to the temple and was reborn as a vampire as a reward (or punishment) through the aid of these dark gods. “One thing that this land has taught me,” said Van Richten, “is that dark power can be used for aid, if one is willing to pay the price.”
The PCs then spoke about the artifacts found thus far that would potentially destroy Strahd. Ulfrik said that he had found the Sunsword – a holy sword of sunlight with an emotional (almost personal) connection to revenge against Strahd himself. Van Richten eyed it with reverence and amazement. Leowen also showed Van Richten the Gulthias staff, which he warned Leowen that although it was powerful, she should have a care around powerful evil artifacts. They still had yet to find the remaining two artifacts, potentially at the sunked village of Berez to the south, and the druid encampment at Yester Hill to the west. Van Richten stated that he was determined to assist the party, at least temporarily, to achieve their goals. Admittedly, he was quite interested in these remaining artifacts…
Armed with information provided by Van Richten, the PCs felt it was time to leave Vallaki and travel east to the Tser Falls to retrieve the spell book. Marek ran to the Arasek Stockyard where he purchased several sets of chains and manacles for Ismark’s potential transformation tonight in the light of the full moon. Ulfrik was starving — he wandered into the kitchen and cooked up a large haunch of venison while Mahel investigated around the house for signs of the morhg’s sludge or any wereraven feathers. Leowen, remembering the imp she stowed in the bag, collected a rope and found a nearby storage closet. Wrapping the unconscious demon in a bag and hanging it with rope, she shook him awake. Through the power of her insinuative persuasion, Leowen convinced the imp, named Majesto, to become her new familiar. Majesto’s previous owner was dead; serving her instead would prove…. beneficial. Considering it for a minute, the imp finally flashed a sharp toothed grin and agreed. Releasing her previous familiar from its service, Leowen performed the ritual to bind the imp to her service. Although, perhaps it was more suited to another form for the time being?
Mahel, finding no sign of any additional slime, decided that before leaving Vallaki, she had to make a detour. Striding south, she led the party to Gadof Blinsky‘s toy shop. Marek, seeing the shop’s sign, was delighted with the idea of toys! Ulfrik and Leowen looked knowingly at each other, knowing that Blinsky was not a simple toymaker. Mahel entered the shop and interrupted the rotund Blinsky before he had time to finish his usual sales spiel. Throwing the awful werewolf doll at him, she angrily intoned, “What is the meaning of this?” Blinsky looked at the doll, then her, and then breaking into tears, confessed that it was a gift meant to show his true love for her. Appalled, Mahel sighed heavily, then walked out. Marek, still amazed by the sheer number of weird (and awful) toys splayed through the shop, inquired pleadingly, “Can’t we still get a toy?” as the group yanked him out of the shop.
On the way out, the party stopped to refresh their equipment at the Arasek stockyard. Although the odd proproetors of the stockyard admitted that they sold no armor (much to the dismay of Mahel) Marek was quite disgusted by their asking price of 125 gold for a bag of tobacco for his newfound pipe. “Forget it,” he said under his breath. “I’ll just use leaves.”
As the PCs left Vallaki, they saw the waning light of the sun as filtered through the dark grey clouds starting its descent in the west. The night of the full moon was almost upon them. The eastern gates opened with a rusty shriek as the PCs bid Vallaki a not-so-fond farewell. Behind them, the Parade of Purple was in full swing as a throng of citizens dressed in purple cheered and hooted at the Baron being carried down the main thoroughfare on a gilded palinquin. “The tyrant is dead! All will be well!” shouted the Baron giddily, as he revealed the blood streaked head of Fiona Wachter. “That bastard,” Leowen said. He took all the credit."
As the gates slammed shut, the six travelers walked along the Old Svalich Road towards the pass to the Castle and beyond it, the road down to the Tser Falls. But like much in Barovia, something very wrong became apparent to all of them. As the waning daylight cast faded shadows on the road before them, only five of them could be counted…. Marek’s shadow was gone.