At the inn, Van Richten and Aike took a seat on the floor alongside Mahel to take a much needed rest. Aike cocked his head at Mahel, still not saying anything. Sighing, Mahel shook her head, then closed her eyes and began to breathe deeply to begin her healing trance….
And then, it happened. A waking dream. So realistic and so horrifying that Mahel could not even wake herself up to tell herself that this was only a dream. Horror embraced her heart in a cold grip….
And then Mahel woke in a dripping sweat.
Shocked and shivering with fright from her nightmarish experience, she thought to herself, “Dreaming! What? I don’t dream, unless I want to…” As if to confirm she was still dreaming or awake, she glanced over and saw the outstretched form of Aike next to her, his back to her, and motionless.
Relieved, she turned around to speak to Van Richten. He was on the ground, violently twitching, his mouth foaming, and staring wide eyed at something on the ceiling…..
Mahel slowly looked up… to see a creature fashioned from nightmare. Suspended from the ceiling was a truly awful sight – a thick tangle of discolored entrails clinging to a humanoid skeleton’s ribcage and winding upward through a distended skeletal upper body to loll from an open jaw like a clawed tongue.
Mahel screamed at the top of her lungs, and her blood froze in her veins. Immediately, she attempted to escape through the nearest possible exit where the creature could not chase her — the cold and empty fireplace and up through the chimney. Trying to clamber up the slick soot-filled flue, and finding no purchase on the slick walls, Mahel cowered in the small opening as the creature detached itself from the ceiling and lurched towards her. Avoiding the creature’s razor taloned hands, she slid around the thing over to Van Richten, who was still frozen in paralysis. Assessing that the situation was untenable unless she survived, she quickly checked Van Richten for anything that she could use to defend herself, and found nothing of import. Looking into the wide eyes of Van Richten, she whispered, “I’m sorry,” and ran out the double door at top speed, stopping only to hide under the front steps. The creature pursued, attempted to track her, and due to Mahel’s ability to expertly hide herself, slowly lumbered back inside. Shortly, from inside the inn, Mahel heard footsteps coming down from the upstairs rooms to the taproom… then nothing. Closing her eyes, she prayed that the creature would leave the Martikov family in peace and at least be quick if it decided to dispatch Aike and Van Richten. In pure survival mode now, Mahel sped to the nearby wood shed where she made a makeshift trap from rope and blocks of wood in case the creature decided to hunt her, then fell fully asleep with one hand on the rope…
Meanwhile… in the Wachterhaus…
At the exact same time as Mahel, each of the PCs separately had a daunting, fully awake dreamlike vision that shook them to their core, the relentless realism of what they experienced challenging each of them to retain their sanity. Ismark, also seemingly affected by some psychic distress, let go of the maid, who fell weeping to the floor. They immediately began to check in with each other, determining if the dream that they all seemingly shared was a trick of the house, or of one another… Marek and Leowen started to argue about how to find this “Fiona” woman and what to do about her. Marek, clearly shaken by the nightmare that he had just experienced, stated that he wanted to leave this house immediately – there was “bad juju” all over the place and things did not bode well here. Sneering, Leowen called him a coward and said that if they wanted to get Van Richten, they still needed to find and kill Fiona and her daughter, and take their heads. The maid, hearing this horrifying statement, fainted clear away. “Well,” Leowen sighed. “There goes that.” Ismark, desolated by his recent loss of control, sat on the nearby chaise-lounge, and began to stare into the fire.
Leowen and Ulfrik started to search the house for a way down to the basement. Marek’s keen eyes noticed a secret door in the nearby closet. Ulfrik pushed it open to reveal a stone staircase going down to a dark root cellar with a dirt floor. Arriving at a stone platform halfway down to the cellar, they took note of the cold, damp space. Two ascending flights of stone steps enclosed by wooden railings stood across from one another. Tracks in the earth led from one staircase to the other, and other trails went from both staircases to the center of the bare west wall. Four neatly made cots were set in a row against the south wall. Seeing that the footprints were clearly going across the floor to the stone wall, there was almost certainly a secret door hidden there. Ulfrik hopped down to the dirt floor and Marek followed shortly after. Ulfrik shoved the false door open to reveal yet another room. Flickering candles in iron holders filled this room with light and shadows. A large black pentagram was inscribed on the stone floor. At each point of the pentagram rested a wooden chair. Seated in four of the five chairs were men and women in black robes with hoods: a young man with the face of an angel; a balding hulk of a man; a squat, middle-aged woman; and a taller, younger woman with an unsettling glare, all of whom upon seeing the intrusion, rose to confront the PCs. At the same time, the dirt floor began to shift and move. Out of the shifting mounds of sand and earth rose eight desiccated skeletal remains, who unsheathed rusty swords and moved to attack.
Leowen, using her tactical skills to reveal a potential choke point in the oncoming combat, yelled to her compatriots to retreat to the corner of the room. Marek cast Sanctuary and then moved, dodging and weaving around the skeletons’ swords into the corner of the cellar on Leowen’s command. Ismark jumped over the stair railing and started swinging his long sword around at the undead foes to distract them and give his peers time to get into place. The skeletons swung their chipped and pitted blades, which bit into Ismark but did not cause severe harm. The cultists, with grimaces of hatred, cast necrotic powers at Ulfrik standing in the doorway. Immediately he was held by invisible bands of power, after which the cultists blasted him down with necrotic force. Urged by Leowen, Ismark grabbed Ulfrik’s now unconscious form and moved swiftly through the slashing swords of his undead opponents to the far side of the room, while Leowen began to cast an eldritch incantation. Centering her spell on the far side of the secret door, Leowen cast Hunger of Hadar, which created a doorway into the dark between the stars, a region infested with unknown horrors, manifesting as a bubble of pure arcane darkness and cold around her foes. While Leowen kept her concentration focused on maintaining the void engulfing the attackers, Marek swiftly cast Cure Wounds, bringing Ulfrik back to consciousness. From inside the cultists’ room, a high pitched female voice screamed in pain and anger. At the same time, the imp, which had harassed them shortly before, materialized in the corner of the cellar and attacked Ulfrik with its poisonous stinger tail. Leowen shot at it with her eldritch blasts, deciding offhand to knocking it unconscious instead of destroying it outright. It slumped motionless in the corner of the room. She grabbed it and stuffed it into her bag for some unknown purpose. The cultists wailed in torment and pain while the skeletons fell apart, one by one, inside the barrier of dark magic. Clambering out of the bubble appeared a tall, grey haired woman with a severe look. Her body was covered with frozen slime, her fine gown partially burned away by acid. Fiona Wachter – it had to be. She gave the PCs an intense look of hatred, then slipped up the stairs to the secret stone door.
Finishing up the cultists and skeletons in the cellar, the PCs bashed in the locked door to the outside, then tracked Fiona (using Ulfrik’s strangely enhanced sense of smell) up to the second floor. Reaching the second floor landing, Marek opened a door to reveal a young man, completely passed out (perhaps from drink?) on a finely made bed. Closing the door quietly, Marek passed the locked door that Ulfrik and Ismark had found before — scratching noises were heard inside and a timid female voice calling out plaintively to be let go, calling herself “Little Kitty.” Reaching the door to the south, Ulfrik opened it quickly to reveal a grand bedroom. Across from the door, a fire sputtered and struggled for life. Above the hearth hung a framed family portrait: a noble father and mother, their two young sons, and a baby daughter in the father’s arms. The sons, one of them a younger rendition of the sleeping young man in the other room, were smiling in a way that suggested mischief; the parents, the woman clearly the one who ran from them in the cellar, posing like uncrowned royalty. Fine wood paneling covered the walls of the room. To the north, a wide, canopied bed lay pinned between matching end tables with oil lamps. Stretched out on one side of the bed was a man dressed in black, his eyes each covered with a copper piece. He bore a striking resemblance to the father figure in the painting, albeit somewhat older. Next to the bed, kneeling and panting for breath, was Fiona Wachter.
Rising to her full height, Fiona stood imperiously before the PCs and challenged their actions. Marek checked on the man in the bed. Clearly, the man was dead, but it seemed as if he was not dead for long. The man, it turned out, was Nikolai Wachter, Fiona’s husband, and had actually been dead for three years. Clearly, his appearance had been maintained by some sort of necromancy. Fiona lovingly stroked the man’s dead visage and then embraced the corpse, much to the discomfort and revulsion of the party. The party began to argue about how they should kill her, and the woman laughingly challenged them to do it. She spoke to the machinations of the Baron, whose son had seemingly caused Fiona’s daughter to go mad. The Baron’s political ambitions, coupled with his corrupt self-preservation skills, were the only rationale the PCs had been employed, and it seemed that Fiona’s exclamations concerning the trustworthiness of the Vallakian noble were anything but flattering. “End it then,” Fiona exclaimed. “Allow me to reunite with my husband at last.” Without a second thought, Leowen lit Fiona’s clothing on fire with Prestidigitation and used Control Flame to immolate the woman. Fiona began to cackle and scream as her flesh began to roast. Appalled at this ghastly affair, Ulfrik pulled out his greatsword and in an act of mercy, swung at the woman’s neck. The blade stuck halfway in, as gouts of blood spurted out, coating Ulfrik in a slick crimson spray. Fiona’s laugh turned to a gurgling croak as Ulfrik pulled out the sword and prepped for a second swing. This time, the blade severed Fiona’s neck with a squish-snap, and the head rolled across the floor, painting it with blood. A door behind Marek snapped open and another young man, looking very much like the other young man in the painting, stared open mouthed at the carnage before him. He screamed, “NO… Mother!” Then turning his face to the corridor to the north, the young man yelled, “Stella, stay inside! Don’t come out! Karl, RUN!” Footsteps emanated from the room to the north, as well as the sound of a window opening and slamming shut. The man, clearly frightened out of his mind, backed away and huddled in the corner in a fetal position. Marek shook his head and shut the door. What was done had to be done. But the Baron did not want the head of just Fiona Wachter. He wanted the insane daughter’s head as well. Marek, knowing that the daughter had clearly undergone a mental break of sorts, exclaimed before any further carnage was had, that he refused to have anything to do with killing the daughter. Leowen, clearly feeling less sympathetic, walked towards the hallway towards the locked room with the girl inside. Ulfrik looked over at Marek, and his feelings of pity joined with those of the gnome. He blocked Leowen in the doorway. “No more,” he said quietly. With a look of frustration, Leowen huffed and said, “Fine.” Searching the room for the family’s valuables, she found a locked chest which, when unlocked by a nearby hidden key, was found to be filled with old bones. “Bah. Nothing.” She took Fiona’s head off the floor, and cauterizing the stump, stuffed it inside her bag next to the unconscious imp.
Moving quickly to the nearby cat-filled library, the group found a secret door behind a bookshelf — which housed a small locked iron chest. The key taken from the cat was used to open this receptacle, which contained:
- A silk bag filled to the brim with 180 ep coins with the visage of Strahd
- A leather bag containing 110gp
- an old wooden pipe, perhaps an heirloom, hereby dubbed the WachterPipe
- 5 scrolls, seemingly deeds for parcels of land issued to the Wachters by Strahd four centuries ago
- A book, called The Grimoire of the Four Quarters, by someone named “Devostas.”
- A leatherbound case, inside of which was an unbound manuscript called, “The Devil We Know, by Lady Fiona Wachter.” The manuscript was a set of poetic verses that seemed to support worshiping devils for the purposes of happiness and health.
- A letter, a very old parchment, to Lady Lovina Wachter from Vasily van Holtz, thanking her for her loyalty and friendship over the years.
After distributing their plunder, the group back turned to the door in the hall, behind which small scratching noises and a timid mewling voice could still be heard. The greying beams of the sun, hidden behind the ever-present Barovian fog, began to illuminate the sky, heralding the new day ahead….
Meanwhile at that moment back at the Blue Water Inn…
Mahel awoke from her slumber and groggily checked to make sure that she was still alive and that there was nothing in the trap she had fashioned. Hearing no noise from the house, she sneaked inside to find out the fates of those inside. Stealthily working her way to the kitchen she saw with surprise and shock that both Van Richten and Aike had vanished. She moved to the silent taproom, and saw the figure of Van Richten, silently sitting at one of the tables. He waved. “Van Richten?” Saying nothing but motioning to the floors above, he stared at her through bloodshot eyes. Whispering intensely, Mahel said, “Speak! Or I will stab you!” Van Richten looked appalled and said slowly, “Hello.”
Van Richten explained to Mahel that the creature (having no idea what it was) had emerged from Aike’s body as an animated skeleton controlled by a snake-like organ. The fanged “tongue” portion of the creature had paralyzed him as he kept watch, then it suspended itself from the ceiling, taking no further action to kill him. When Mahel awoke and escaped, it seemed to deter the creature greatly, as when it returned from hunting her outside, it moved past Van Richten’s paralyzed form and scooped up Aike’s remains. The creature’s current location was unknown but as he was paralyzed, Van Richten had heard odd noises coming from the taproom and then upstairs. When his paralysis wore off, he moved slowly into the taproom and waited quietly in an attempt to hunt this abomination. Mahel gave Van Richten a rapier and the two moved as quietly as they could upstairs to the Martikovs’ bedrooms…
Urwin and Danika’s bedroom seemed locked, but the childrens room was not. Glancing inside, Van Richten recoiled in disgust, something quite unlike him. “Gods… the children… no.” Mahel advanced past him to look inside. Before she saw anything, the stench of the room, like that of molding fruit and rancid meat, almost overpowered her. She could see that the room was covered with greyish-green slime, strands of it oozing from the walls. Two large semi-transparent sacs were plastered to the walls with a hardened mucus-like fluid, pulsating and dripping with goo. Inside these sacs were the two boys, who had an organic tube-like organ attached to the back of their heads, stretching up to a bulbous muscle-like mass of tissue at the top of each sac. Slicing through the sac, Mahel found that the children were in fact not dead but were clearly under some kind of evil enchantment or sedation. Reaching back into her memory, Mahel remembered a story about a race of foul beings called the Illithid, who used an alien form of magic coupled with organic technology to harvest and feast upon their victims’ brains. This foul necro-organic device seemed most akin to the ones which she saw before her. Van Richten and Mahel began to quietly but intensely discuss. If Aike had come to Vallaki with this evil snake-like organism inside him, then this creature was not just a thrall of Strahd, if it was even controlled by him. It was clearly able to perform some kind of base function, as shown by this sickening sight. And, it had to have infested Aike at some time after they had met up at the Vistani camp outside Aracos. She thought to herself, but when would it have had the opportunity to do so? In the forest outside Vallaki? On the moor outside Vasha’s hut? Or…. that night… in Mordenkainen’s Magnif…. no…. no… that would mean that…. oh, no. She had to tell the others. But where were they?
A low, wet thump from the ceiling above her made her heart skip a beat. Van Richten put his finger to his lips, his eyes wild with fear.
Looking slowly upwards, Mahel saw that there was a small trap door in the ceiling above her with a pull string. She yanked on the string, and a set of wooden stairs tumbled noisily out of the ceiling above her, exposing a dark hole with a rush of stale, damp air…