Clearly, Leowen had lost yet another of her special powers. She looked ever more concerned. Outside, Mahel walked closer to the source of the voice in her head, growing ever louder as she neared an ancient pile of stones. Within, she found an ancient spear inside which she was able to deem as a magic, if somewhat questionable in nature, weapon. Grinning, she rejoined her compatriots exiting from the rope trick. Together, they moved south towards the copse of dead trees. There, in the core of the clearing, was a huge, misshapen tree. Blood oozed like sap from its twisted, blackened trunk. Clearly this was a Gulthias tree. Embedded in the tree was a shiny battleaxe, beneath which lay a humanoid skeleton. Scattered around the base of this tree were dozens of blighted plant creatures, all destroyed. The power of the broken Gulthias staff had decimated these evil monsters as well as it had Wintersplinter. The party knew this to be the tree from Madam Eva‘s reading and also knew that it was the source of the blights terrifying this land. It had to be destroyed. Taking a few hours, and using their magical weapons (including their newly found magic axe), the PCs set to work chopping apart its limbs. Ismark, in particular, screamed with fury as he hewed the massive trunk into flinders. Clearly, he was enraged by the loss of his sister. The work was tiresome, and they spattered themselves with the tree’s blood, so that by the end, it looked as though they had been working in an abattoir. Using their brute strength, they uprooted the tree’s massive roots, which shrieked with pain as they were unearthed. As the ground was tilled with the tree’s demise, a leather wrapped item came up out of the ground. Uncovering it, it turned out to be a weather worn, dilapidated book. Opening it, they found that the years had taken their toll — only a few pages were legible. Aloud, the group read the tome.
The Tome suggested that Strahd’s early life was that of a mighty warrior, but that he grew old before he could find love. It also intimated that Strahd’s evil grew from his ego and his greed for Tatyana. It was also clear that Strahd was made a vampire from some sort of pact with “Death” itself, and that he killed his brother Sergei to seal that pact, who was Tatyana’s true love. Tatyana, in grief, jumped off the cliffs of Castle Ravenloft and was never seen again. The words implied that the sun could hurt him, as would Sergei’s weapon, the Sunsword. Strahd made his home in the crypts beneath the castle in order to keep safe from those who would dare defy him.
Marek and Leowen copied the relevant pages to their own personal tomes. Satisfied with their deeds for the day, the group walked back to the Wizard of Wines. Once there, they gave back the magical seed gem to Davian Martikov who was extremely pleased. Mahel carefully informed the Martikovs about their nephews, and their looks turned from joy to shock. Davian and his son immediately readied to travel to Vallaki, and asked the PCs if they wanted a ride if they were going in that direction. The party happily agreed, as the final artifact from Madam Eva’s reading was in the sunken town of Berez, miles to the west. The Martikovs dropped them off at the Luna River Crossroads, where the five compatriots walked slowly down the marshy road in the thick, insect infested air. Flies buzzed in the dim daylight, and Ismark started to itch and cough. Perhaps some nearby belladonna was causing this allergic reaction? After some searching, they found the herb, to which Ismark had a severe coughing fit. Hives started to appear on his skin as he neared the plant. Steeling himself, he bravely grabbed it and shoved the whole thing in his mouth. After a few seconds, Ismark screamed in pain, his eyes rolled in his head, and he frothed at mouth. Staggering, he finally collapsed. Marek checked to see if the reaction had been too severe and might have killed him. “Still breathing,” Marek said with a grin. Clearly, he could be of no further help until he recovered, but at least his lycanthropic transformation would be subdued temporarily. The PCs hid him in the nearby moss of the swamp, then walked on, southwards.
As they approached the center of the misty swamp, several edifices of note showed out of the many sunken and destroyed buildings. A broken down and clearly abandoned mansion stood to the southwest, as did a tall hut fashioned from mud, wood, and roots. There was a flash of light across the nearby river. Someone was attempting to signal them… but friend or foe? As the river was too wide to ford without some kind of boat, Marek sent Sir Milton back and forth delivering messages until Mahel had the idea to simply message the person. They determined the figure to be an older woman, who warned them to stay away from the evil scarecrows and the hag who lived in the hut near by. Suspicious of who this person was (perhaps the hag herself, tricking them), and unwilling to cross the swampy river, the group began to debate on what to do next. Marek thought that this was a ruse and intended to walk to the hut and directly confront whoever or whatever was inside. Mahel quietly separated herself from the group, and avoiding a spooky looking (though not moving) scarecrow, crept around to the mansion beyond the hut. Ulfrik suggested against going directly to the hut, and attempted to stop Marek from doing so, though the gnome was too wiry and fast for brawny Ulfrik. Leowen, meanwhile, was acting oddly and chuckled and scoffed at the group’s situation. Mahel moved to the mansion and found that there was a herd of goats trapped in a fenced in area, with skulls topping the fence posts. No gate was to be found and the fence went up at least forty feet. Shrugging, she moved towards the ruins of the mansion, and brought out Albreth to scout inside. Returning after only a few minutes, Al said that he saw a creature with his guts spilling out, roaming through the abandoned halls of the mansion – clearly some kind of spectral entity. Choosing to leave the undead fighting work to the others, Mahel moved across to the garden outside. Albreth slinked into the nearby bushes, then Mahel heard him shriek, “HOLY FFFFF….” A snake, its thickness the circumference of her thigh, raised its head above the high grass and gave a long hiss. In its mouth was Albreth, which then proceeded to shake his bony carcass to and fro. As it did so, three others from different parts of the garden lifted their heads up out of the grass, their eyes fixed on Mahel. “Shit,” Mahel peeped. As one, the reptiles lunged at her throat….
Marek walked bravely up to the door of the hut. Beneath the doorway, floating in mid-air upside-down, was the hollowed-out skull of a giant. Flanking the hut’s doorway were two iron cages that dangled like hideous ornaments from the eaves. Scores of ravens were trapped in each one. They squawked and fluttered their wings excitedly as the PCs approached. Seeing that these creatures, usually aligned with the forces of good in this realm, were entrapped, Ulfrik attempted to pry open the bars with a crowbar. Marginally successful, the ravens flapped out of their cages and lighted on the hut’s roof. Leowen couldn’t contain her giggling. “Hello? Is anyone there?” Marek spoke in a loud voice. A bitter, hoarse cackling came from inside. Mark cleared his throat. “Ahem… we have word that you have a gem that belongs to some friends of ours… and…” The door opened with a creak. Before them was a horrifying old woman, her fingernails almost as long as her bony fingers, her skin a putrid shade of pale green, her wrinkled visage showing her worn away teeth and receding gums. “Begone,” she screeched, with an insane gleam in her yellow eyes. “None shall disturb my son’s works! My son shall rule this land forever!” With that, she shoved past the three and jumped with amazing speed into the giant’s skull, which levitated off the ground! With that, the witch leveled her clawed hands at the party and began to cast dark magics from behind the protection of the skull. The party got the idea that they should destroy the skull first, but they soon found that it was as thick as the hill giant from whose head it was cut.
Mahel, meanwhile, awoke a few minutes after being knocked out by the attacks of the giant snakes, Albreth on her chest fanning her awake. “Get up! There’s some crazy shit going on over by the hut!” Mahel knew that she was in no shape to run to the assistance of her companions, and chose instead to run from the snake-infested garden to a nearby hilltop and hid behind a conspicuous statue where she could get a better vantage point and decide on her next move. She was badly wounded and felt dizzy. She would be of no help to them in this state.
Back at the hut, Baba Lysaga flew high above the three. She summoned four swarms of insects which flew at them, buzzing angrily. She also called for her animated scarecrows, which lurched slowly towards them through the swamp. The freed ravens joined in the fight, pecking and swiping at the insects. Lysaga ignored the birds, blasting instead at the PCs with wicked spells, cackling madly. One of these spells, a horrific incantation known as Finger of Death, shot from Baba Lysaga’s taloned finger and lanced with dark force through Leowen, immediately dropping her unconscious to the ground. Marek gasped and ran to her aid, seeing that many of his offensive spells were being countered by Lysaga’s more powerful skills. He gave what help he could to revive Leowen, then tucked tail and ran south. While Ulfrik fended off the swarms of insects, Lysaga floated down and cast a powerful charm spell on him: Geas. Unable to resist, he succumbed. The hag began to stroke Ulfrik’s muscled shoulders, and purred in his ears: “That sunblade… such a nasssty thing. You should give it to me…..” Deep in his soul, Ulfrik knew that he was being compelled to do something that was very much a bad thing… Ulfrik bent his entire will to resist, and threw the hilt with all his might at the fleeing form of Marek, in the hopes that he would keep it free from the clutches of the evil hag. But the consequences of this decision under the enchantment were severe – Ulfrik gasped and screamed as his head was ripped with psychic damage. Still, he gritted his teeth and slashed with his heavy weapon at the already weakened flying skull. Lysaga, seeing that her vehicle was badly damaged, quickly retreated back inside her hut and quickly shut the door. A deep groaning and grumbling shook the swamp as the hut itself began to move! This gargantuan edifice burst its roots and branches from the tethers of the swamp and swung them in fury at the PCs. Leowen cast her Evard’s Black Tentacles , which was partially successful in restraining it for a moment… but only for a moment. Tearing free from the magical force, the hut shambled towards Ulfrik and reared back with a massive root-like tendril. It slammed Ulfrik in the ribs with a tremendous force, sending him flying. Landing with a crunch, blood began to spout from his lips. Marek turned, saw Ulfrik downed on the field, then spotted the Sunsword hilt and quickly pocketed it. In the hopes of distracting the lumbering behemoth, he shot a searing blast of radiant energy but seemed to be somewhat ineffective… “Gods,” he thought, his eyes brimming with tears. “What do I do?”
Out of the mist stepped two figures. A tall woman with a bandanna walking with an unusual gait; and a short, thin man with a heavy apparatus of steel and bronze strapped to his back. The man snapped his fingers, and the woman next to him produced a flint and steel. Pulling from his harness what seemed to be some sort of hose like contraption with a cannon-like muzzle, the woman flicked the flint in front of it…. and a gout of green flame erupted out of the nozzle towards the house. In the light of the flame, their face were revealed: Ezmerelda D’Avenir and Rudolph Van Richten! The hut was lit ablaze with this sticky substance, and began to thrash about. Inside, horrible screams of woe could be heard as presumably the inhabitant of the hut was being broiled alive. Their suspicions were confirmed as Lysaga herself plummeted out of the hut, ablaze with green flame, rolling through the muck in an attempt to douse herself. Her flesh was seared and smoking, and Van Richten moved in for the kill. “No!” Ezmerelda intoned. “We need her alive!” Van Richten curtly nodded and carefully hooked the flame gun muzzle onto a metal holder on his massive backpack. The white hot tip of the contraption began to cool to a light orange, still smoking with intense heat. Ezmerelda moved over to the hag, still moaning and rolling in the swamp. Leowen pointed her hand to blast her with an eldritch blast…. but nothing happened. She looked quizzically and her fingers, then gave a sad chuckle. With a single swift stomp to the head from Ezmerelda’s mechanical leg, the evil witch stopped moving. The hut ceased its thrashing as the animate force keeping it in such a state was silenced.
Marek raced to Ulfrik, but it was too late. His eyes were glazed open and his bones were clearly broken in dozens of places, causing massive internal hemorrhaging. Leowen continued to gaze at her hands, with a mixed look of amazement and sadness. Then, she slowly Leowen took her cloak off, and began to remove all her material possessions and neatly pile them up next to her. Last of all, Leowen placed her journal on the top of the pile. Then she started to argue with herself – one sentence crying and pleading, the other sad and hopeless. Then with a look of true sadness, one which the PCs had never truly witnessed on Leowen’s face, Leowen exploded in blue and black flames, screaming in agony. “NOOOOOOOOO!” Marek wailed. Mahel peeked out from behind a rock where she had crept, witnessing these final moments. It felt as though something was stuck in her chest and her eyes stung. She reached up and felt… tears. And they wouldn’t stop.