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…
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.
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.