Mahel and Marek ran to catch up with Ismark, Ireena, Leowen and Ulfrik, as the cart rolled slowly into town. The Vistani and Bogan were still inside, although the old man had ceased to moan in pain and lay quiet. The vistani bandit Alek was gagged and sat shrouded under a large cloak.
As the party entered the village proper, they immediately heard joyful sounds of singing and laughter. In the gloom of Barovia, it seemed such revelry could not exist, but now, without a doubt, the sounds of a lively taproom full of rowdy singing emanated from the town ahead. The sounds originated from a dilapidated, three-story inn near the heart of Aracos. Warm light spilled from its glasspaned windows and the party could see and hear people dancing, cheering, and clapping as they sung along with a raucous tavern song. Thinking it best to check on Bogan, Marek climbed into the back and saw that the old man was still as the grave, his eyes open and not moving. Checking for a pulse, Marek was saddened when he found none. The old man had passed. Ismark and Ireena bowed their heads respectfully although they hardly knew the man. The party disembarked the wagon and looking towards a more positive atmosphere began to enter the tavern. Turning to the Vistani, Ireena suggested that they let him go back to his people. Despite Leowen’s suggestion that they terminate his life, Mahel agreed that he be set free. Ungagging him and freeing him from his restraints, Leowen sent him fleeing him into the woods. Giving each other a stern look, Mahel and Leowen joined their companions inside. The sign hanging at a jaunty angle proclaimed this to be “The Mangy Mongrel.”
Remarkably, the entire taproom was full of celebrating patrons. There was no one without at least a smile on their face, and most were singing along to a bard’s song. The bard sat on a small stool, on a stage tucked into the corner of the room. His clothing was old and worn, and his brown, shaggy hair unkempt, but he had a smile on his weary face and a warmth in his gaze. This had to be Tarin.
Marek introduced himself to Pesha the bartender and to Tarin, and inquired about Bogan whilst getting himself properly soused. Leowen sulked in the corner and Ulfrik took a seat at a nearby table. Ismark and Ireena paid for the party’s room and board, then retired to their quarters, exhausted from the day’s long travel. Mahel stole outside to look around, determining something suspicious was going on with all this joviality. She spied a large bank of fog slowly encroaching on the town. Seeing as nothing good ever came with the Mists, she quickly went back inside and attempted to inform the party and rouse Ismark and Ireena. But the door to the guest rooms was held fast by an unknown power….
At that moment a sudden coldness swept across the bar. The merriment ended abruptly. The bard stopped singing and all eyes turned towards the doorway where a dark shape loomed. The innkeeper Pesha rushed to the door. “Welcome,” he squeaked as he bent forward, fawning, “please come in, milord.” No sooner were the words were out of his mouth than a powerful figure strode into the taproom wearing a high-collared red tunic decorated with a pattern of swirling lines that served to set off the egg-sized ruby upon the clasp of his black, silk cape. His pearly-white skin contrasted starkly with long black hair that formed a heavy widow’s peak on his forehead. He smiled, revealing long fangs. The lord of Barovia, Strahd von Zarovich, had arrived. The tavern went deadly silent. Strahd casually surveyed the room, seeming to make a mental note of every face he saw, especially noting those of Ulfrik and Mahel, giving them a polite nod as he did. The vampire dispassionately scanned each face, until his eyes fell upon Tarin, sitting quietly on his stool on the stage. Almost imperceptibly, Strahd took a single step forward, his tongue sliding slowly across his bottom lip, and his eyes glinting with desire. “Don’t let me interrupt,” he said, and settled into a seat to watch the performance. After an uncomfortable silence, Tarin began his performance anew, but there was a discernible change in its tone. Before Strahd’s arrival, the music was loud, raucous, and playful. Now it was quiet, filled with emotion and sorrow. Tarin intoned a lament for a woman now long dead. His dirge began slowly and rose in intensity as it spoke of a love stolen, murder most foul, and finally betrayal and death. As he finished, the entire room hung on his closing note. When it finished, Tarin looked up, seemingly as surprised as the rest at what he just played.
Abruptly all eyes turned to Strahd as the legs of his chair scraped across the floor. He stood and in a few long strides was at the stage, holding Tarin aloft with one powerful hand on the bard’s neck. The vampire’s eyes bore into Tarin and then he jerked him forward and sunk his fangs into Tarin’s neck. An audible gasp swept across the room and all eyes watched as Strahd von Zarovich feasted upon the blood of Tarin Nightingale. Then the moment was broken, Strahd dropped Tarin, collapsing into a heap. Strahd spun around and said, “Kill the others.” At his words, the windows shattered and the doors banged open as bats, rats, and a trio of massive, hellish dogs burst into the taproom.
Starting with the commoners running for their lives, the demonic hounds, bats, and rats overwhelmed and feasted on the flesh of the living. The PCs, some of whom had encountered this evil force before, were shocked that Strahd would make such a public appearance and act with such uncommon behavior. Marek became quickly surrounded, yet deftly dodged the attacks of Strahd’s minions. Mahel avoided the melee entirely and stealthily attempted to reach Ireena and Ismark before Strahd did. She quickly sussed out which room they were in and messaged the sleepy Ismark to flee. Strahd strode with confidence to the blocked door and with a wave of his hand, charmed Ulfrik, commanding him to sit in the nearest chair, negating his potential threat. He then removed the charm from the door and strode into the hallway. Not knowing that elves have a natural resistance to charm, Strahd attempted to use his powers against Mahel but was thwarted. Mahel commanded Al to climb up Strahd’s cape and stuff himself into his gaping fanged maw. The little animal dove into Strahd’s mouth, who was unprepared for such a tiny creature. The lower half of Al’s body twisted and writhed in Strahd’s fanged jaw as he struggled to remove him. Finally, with a sickening crunch of bones, Strahd clamped down on Al with horrible force, scattering his remains through the hall.
Meanwhile Leowen, seeing that this was a potentially untenable situation, fled out out the nearest window while the dazed and bleeding Tarin trailed behind. A hellhound noticed their escape and lunged at them though the smashed window. Tarin succumbed to his wounds and fell unconscious face down in the mud while Leowen swiftly destroyed her demonic attacker. She then turned her attention to redirecting the flames spat from the hellhounds and fanning them into a blaze in the midst of the taproom. Marek, surrounded and with waning health, misty stepped to the hallway and ran to assist Mahel with his holy powers against the indomitable form of Strahd. Finding that he could move while in the chair, Ulfrik hopped in his seat while trying to attract the attention of the hellhound. Baiting it into an attack, Ulfrik was able to finally break out of Strahd’s spell. He then ran down the hall igniting the Sunsword and slashing with fury at Strahd. But the vampire had a trick up his sleeve – he had surrounded himself with a globe of impenetrable magic while casting a sleep spell on Ireena and Ismark. But the fury of the sunsword would not be denied. Acting as if an unknown force had entered his body, Ulfrik swung with all his might, screaming “Brother, now you will die!!!” The Sunsword smashed through the force shield, making Strahd vulnerable. However, Strahd’s was successful in enchanting Ireena to sleep and then transformed her into a rat. He altered his form to a great winged bat and took the polymorphed Ireena and flew out the window, smashing it to shards. Thinking quickly, Mahel took a chance and stabbed at Ireena with her rapier. The enchantment was dispelled and Ireena’s unconscious form fell on Mahel while Strahd flew away in a seething fury. Dispatching the final remaining minions, the party regrouped in the hall. Exhausted yet still alive, the unconscious bodies of Ireena and Tarin lying in the hall. Pesha was still there, attempting to douse the flames amidst the carnage in the taproom. “Coward,” Marek spat at Leowen, and looked at her angrily. Leowen flew at him in a fury, her eyes glowing with disgust. Ismark, revived, jumped in and held them apart.
A small, ghostly figure suddenly appeared, drifting through the solid wood floor as easily as one would move through air. It was a girl perhaps 4 years old, with a sickly pallor to her skin, wearing tattered clothing. That she was a ghost could not be missed, for her body was transparent. “Hello,” she said in a sweet voice, “I’m Talaitha.”