The second full moon rose high in the sky, and Ireena and Ismark changed once again. The pain of their transformation was evident as they screamed and howled into the night. But the chains held – the two bestial figures snapped and slathered and strained against their bonds, but they were unable to break them. By the morning, Ireena and Ismark were returned to normal, having caused no one harm.
Leowen had barely awoke when she felt something on her leg. It was Majesto, who appeared invisible, and surprisingly, untethered to her through their bond as a familiar. Majesto told her briefly that she was not his master anymore, that there was no bond any longer between them. She was perturbed by this additional lack of her power. Majesto slowly climbed up her body and gently placed his claws on either side of her face. “I can see…. you,” he said, grinning, then flew off.
As the others prepared for their journey away south, the group had to determine which way to go and where. Although Berez, where Madam Eva had said the holy symbol was, seemed nearer and that the belladonna found nearby could help stave off Ismark and Ireena’s lycanthropy, Yester Hill contained the magic seed gem as well as the tome of knowledge that Madam Eva spoke about. They decided to flip a coin. The coin landed squarely with Strahd’s face facing the ground. So, their path was now clear — they would go past the Wizard of Wines to Yester HIll where the “tome of knowledge” was as well as one of the two missing magic gems that fed the vineyards.
The first question, however, was — where were they? Marek sent Sir Milton to scout out where they were. Above them, Sir Milton saw Lake Zarovich to the south and on its shores, the Village of Aracos, totally destroyed. Saddened but resolute, the group moved through the dark forest towards Van Richten’s tower. Half way through the woods, they encountered a ghostly reminder of the evils of Barovia.
The players heard muffled screams off the trail. Heading in the direction of the screaming revealed a cabin with one door and window. In the window the PCs saw a woman banging on it and screaming for help. Seeing the group she moved in the direction of the door and the door started to shake as though someone was trying to open it but it seemed the door was locked from the inside. She returned to the window and a shadowy figure appeared behind her and her screams grew more desperate. In desperation, Ulfrik kicked down the door to reveal…. an empty old cabin. There was a bed with caked blood in rough sheets and a pot sitting over a small area for fires. Looking inside revealed some bones and moldy water. Hair, same color as the woman’s, was stuck under the lid of the pot.
Dismayed by this frightening encounter, the group left the house. Marek took out the pot containing the human remains, and buried it in the forest nearby. The group thought it best to burn this evil house to the ground, and then, satisfied, continued their travels through the woods. After a few more hours, they exited the forest near Vasha Moldova‘s house and, across Lake Baratok, Van Richten’s tower. Van Richten seemed pleased to finally be back at his base of operations, but seemed miffed that there was a large crater near to his front door. The party explained to him about the explosion and Esmerelda’s wagon. Satisfied, Van Richten walked the causeway to the front door to his tower. He had said that his time here was not over – Strahd still menaced the land, and he had to prevent that. He thanked them for freeing him, and the best of luck in their travels.
A short while later, they reached the bottom of Yester Hill. Mist surrounded the high hill, and cairns of black rock dotted it on all sides. A ring of black rock surrounded the top, and lightning struck down at it, time and again, from roiling clouds overhead. The mists to the west were thick and ominous, and the heroes circled to the east, until they found a trail that led up to the top.
A great circle of dead grass was inside the ring of black stones, which was pierced on one side by an opening at the head of the trail. A massive wicker statue of a man in cloak stood across from the entry, on the far side of the ring. As Ulfrik and Marek made their way towards the wicker form, shallow graves all around the inside of the circle burst open. Men clad in skins and thick clay, some with animal headdresses and designs in dried blood on their hides, rose and cried out in fury. The evil druids were here, and the PCs had trespassed on their sacred place. Ulfrik and Leowen rushed in to attack, and Leowen wasted no time blasting them with her Evard’s Black Tentacles spell, one that temporarily ensnared many of the berserkers accompanying the druids.
The druids of the hillfolk used the very roots and vines to ensnare the heroes, the druids all the time chanting “Winterspinter, Wintersplinter…”
As the savage battle raged, Ulfrik felt a cold chill and heard the whinny of a dark horse! Something rode down out of the sky – a man in dark clothes and a cloak atop a black steed with a fiery mane and flaming hooves.
It was Strahd von Zarovich.
He flew over them on his monstrous nightmare, and landed near Ireena, who was knocked unconscious from a berserker’s greataxe. The pagan hillfolk cowered in reverence as he descended. Although Leowen pushed Strahd and his steed within the ghostly tentacles, his power was too great — he effortlessly freed himself from their grasp. He reached down and with cold, powerful hands grasped Ireena and placed her gently onto his steed’s back. Smirking at the PCs, he spurred his evil steed to flight. But Marek had no intention of leaving Ireena to whatever evil ends Strahd had in mind. A better end for her would be death. He hurled a fireball at Strahd, flying above them, and watched it sail towards him. But at the last moment, Strahd turned in the saddle, made a hand gesture, and the fireball winked out of existence. Sneering with victory, Strahd turned back to the reins, and flew out of sight to the east. At that point, the ritual completed — and Wintersplinter emerged with destructive force from underneath the wicker statue: a massive evil tree blight which groaned and shook with anger. Leowen, thinking quickly, unsheathed her Gulthias staff, ignited it from both ends and swung it against a nearby rock. It shattered and emitted a horrifying screech which made everyone hold their ears in pain. The tree blight screamed once, then crumbled to dust.
But the druids and the berserkers were not done with the PCs yet. They piled on Marek, who put shield spells and portents to keep him from falling to their blows. But the damage was too intense. He was bleeding badly, but he had to do something. With a mournful look in his eye, he turned to his companions and a glowing ball of flame appeared in his hand. Each one screamed that he was crazy, that he shouldn’t do it….
Marek simply said, “Goodbye.”
He slammed his fist into the ground, detonating the fireball. The druids surrounding Marek were decimated, and Marek’s body disappeared in a torrent of flame. The remaining berserkers quickly fell to Ulfrik’s sunblade. Running to the crater that Marek had made with his spell, the PCs saw his blackened body, his red hair singed and mangled. Leowen quickly cast spare the dying, and prayed that any power still left for good in this land was enough to save him. Marek awoke with a startled cough, soot and ash streaming from his clothes and armor. “Did we win?” he croaked.
Searching the tree blight’s remains, Mahel found a green, glowing stone – one of the Seeds from the Wizard of Wines! The lightning stopped and the rain lightened to a drizzle. The PCs turned to the west, and through the mists, they saw a white city on a hill, seemingly made of the very mists themselves…
Further south, just beyond the hill, was a copse of trees, at the center of which was a huge dead oak tree. Could this be the tree that Madam Eva spoke of? Or was it Wintersplinter that she referred to?
After their short respite, Marek cast rope trick, to find a space that they could stay warm and dry in the rain storm. Mahel, preferring not to be in a claustrophobic space, stayed outside to scout around the cairns. It was dark inside the rope trick space, and just large enough to fit the 3 PCs who climbed up inside. Leowen was gifted with devils sight, but that, seemingly with many of her powers, was now gone as well!
“I’m… I’m blind,” she intoned.