Let’s follow him, And by the way let us recount our dreams.
Demetrius, A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Reaching the end of Act II, the party was once in need of a little direction. It was time to get them down to the Amber Temple. The dark vestiges entombed there were looking forward to a new collection of playthings. I picked one of the dark gifts I thought might appeal to each character, and had that vestige who offered it reach out. Some of them shared their dreams with each other. Others played their cards closer to their chest. I was worried everyone would be too good. Instead, the Amber Temple did exactly what it was supposed to do: divide the party, sow seeds of mistrust, and spur into action the only inter-party violence I’ve condoned at my table as a DM.
The following narratives were obviously much more closely tailored to the characters I’d gotten to know than their dreams from the start of the campaign. Some of it was working with what the players haven given me “under the table”, others simply feeding into how they’d been behaving and decisions they’d made over months of play. Hopefully these can offer more than enough inspiration to tell your own stories. The Dark Gifts Dialogue Compendium over at Elven Tower was a great inspiration for finding the voice of each of the Amber Temple’s vestiges, and I used most of the read-aloud text there when the party finally made it into the vaults.
You hear a voice whispering in your right ear, “Chand…” “Chand Starmaraster…”, suddenly more forcefully, “WAKE!”
Your eyes fly open. The camp is covered in mist, the fire burning low. Is this even where you fell asleep? Something seems off. You look around. The bedrolls around you are empty. Where’s Fillagin? Samael? Wasn’t Ismark supposed to be on watch?
Kneeling by the fire poking at the coals is a slim figure. His? Her? Its… Its cowl pulled forward and casting deep shadows on its face in the dying firelight. It sits back after a moment as the fire flares back to life. In the dim light you now recognize the features of a young woman, but her eyes… those eyes are impossibly old. “Come, Starmaraster, sit with me.” Something about her… This woman radiates power, ancient power you can barely fathom.
“They call me The Kingmaker,” she continues, “but I don’t think that’s what you’re looking for. You made a deal, a deal in a moment of weakness and despair, a deal you regret and fear, but know this: you can be safe here.” She motions to the fog creeping across the ground, swirling and dancing in the darkness on the edges of the firelight. “Nothing gets in or out of these mists without our knowledge and consent. So yes, I heard every word of the deal you struck with that hideous beast, but know his power here pales compared to ours. To mine. I could have cut him off mid-sentence, left both of you screaming in the darkness, such is the power of the mists of Barovia. I can share some of that power with you, give you the influence and aura of a king, the art and eloquence to set your terms the next time he reaches out to you, or you to him. Here within the mists, you needn’t fear that overgrown lizard when you feel true power.
“Follow the dusk elf, seek me out within the temple, although,” she laughs, a truly terrifying sound, “you had best beware the spider’s friends.” Without another word, she rises and strolls into the mists, swallowed by the shadows just beyond the fire. You sit by the fire for a moment, and before you know it, your eyelids feel heavier and heavier, as sleep overtakes you again.
You duck through the crowd, trying to put as much space between you and the guards rounding the corner. You push your way through a baker’s stall, grabbing a hot biscuit as you go. It burns your fingers, but you toss it in your mouth with a laugh, it’s delicious. Around another corner, sliding nimbly between the legs of a very surprised matron, to the delightful laughs of the children accompanying you. You give them a wink without slowing down, and smile when you hear one of them shout “I think he went that way!”, pointing in the opposite direction.
You duck into the nearest shop— a tailor’s! The cloak you grabbed on your way out the back door is several sizes too big, but will do in a pinch. Another ally, another turn, and another, and you’re crouched behind a pile of crates and barrels to catch your breath. You listen carefully to the sounds of the city around you, but it appears you’ve lost anyone on your tail. With a grin, you slip the merchant’s pouch into your pocket, brush the crumbs from your face, slowing your breathing and calming your heartbeat.
Suddenly there is a rustle, a whisper of fabric, and what you initially mistook to be a pile of rags materializes into a figure, a wizened old man who nonetheless has a sharp clarity in his eyes. He moves with surprising agility, sidling up next to with a small grin. “That was impressive work, Fillagin, truly impressive.” How did this man know your name? How much had he seen? “Oh don’t worry, I won’t be turning you in.” he says.
“You’ve shown an aptitude for putting your gift to work, but I can offer you gifts far beyond your limited magic, perhaps even enough to make that cocky sorcerer you travel with jealous.” He grins even wider. You notice the few teeth he’s not missing are likely almost entirely made of gold. “Follow the dusk elf to Mount Ghakis. When you get to my door, ask for Thangob. You’ll be let right in. I’ll be waiting.”
BAM! Your eyes fly open, you sit bolt upright in your chair, shaken. “Ismark Kolyanovich, did you fall asleep?” The tudor towers over you, face full of rage, as the adrenaline courses through your bloodstream. “Stand up! Clearly then blessed Saint Markova’s poetry is not engaging enough for you, instead, you will recite for me the dates of our first Lord Strahd von Zarovich’s reign and the reigns of his successors through the current century.” You stand up quickly, racking your brain to try and recall the first year of Strahd I’s reign. When did his army finally conquer this little valley? Was it 345? 348?
A familiar whisper begins in the back of your head. “Ismark the Lesser,” it says mockingly, “Never will live up to his father, now will he?” A new voice chimes in, “perhaps we can help the boy?”
“Yes!” Another one pipes up excitedly.
“Is he strong enough?” a third intones, before a fourth counters, “We will make him strong enough!” The voices begin speaking over each other, sometimes finishing each others phrases, sometimes speaking in unison, somehow merging to become a single consciousness speaking in chorus.
“Yes, Great Taar Haak can give you the strength you need, the strength to rise from your father’s shadow and take what is yours. All you need is the strength of will to accept our gift. Can you do that, Ismark Kolyanovich? With our gift, you will be strong enough to protect Ireena Kolyana from anything that might seek to hurt her. We promise you. Seek us in the vault of Harkotha. Beware the invisible guardian. We will await you.”
“Life, death, what does it mean, really?” The abbot slams the dusty tome shut, the noise echoing though the still library. Sunlight streams down from the stained-glass window above you, breaking into facets of silver and gold light as it filters through the image of a skeletal arm balancing a set of scales. “Our duty in this church is to send the souls of the dead on to our lord and master, the Lord of the Dead and final Judge of the Damned.” He begins pacing among the rows between the tables before you, sometimes addressing the air, sometimes the other acolytes, more and more though, he seems to be addressing you directly. “Our canons damn the practice of necromancy, and ask us to question even the magics of resurrection and restoration that the priests of so-called “life” will practice. But there is one magic our lord himself is known to have practiced at least once, perhaps even smiled favorably on among his followers, and that is the art of reincarnation.”
“Yes, What if the soul were to return, at the price of losing a body? The elf returns a man, suffers the prejudices he never knew in his former life, sees the world through new eyes, and in doing so gains a better understanding of the suffering around him. This understanding is a gift from our lord, and not one to be taken lightly.” The abbot is now addressing you directly. “Samael Mortis. Would you take that gift, were it offered to you? The guarantee of living another life?” The abbot’s face has begun to shift and boil in front of you, taking on an elf’s eyes, a halflings lips, a human’s brow, each for a second or two before shifting away again. “Find me,” he whispers, “Follow the dusk elf and find me.” He grins at you, revealing rows of razor-sharp teeth. The grin grows wider, splitting open impossibly wide revealing more and more teeth before you. “Dahlver-Nar awaits you.”
You are bounding through the forest, clearing shrubs and boulders with ease. Your massive form rockets over the damp earth, muscles rippling beneath your fur. The deer is not far, and bleeding. You will eat well tonight. Saliva glistens on your fangs as your approach the clearing.
There he is, 200 yards across the clearing. The sight gives you another burst of speed. 100 yards to go. Fifty. Suddenly out of the trees burst two figures on four legs. More wolves. You weren’t looking to share this evening. One readies to pounce, but the other stops, seems as if he’s about to— what? Howl? Growl? With a roar, a sudden gout of flame bursts from his jaws. The deer screams, but the other wolf is quick with a second bite. You can smell the flesh of the deer searing beneath the beasts fangs. What are these things?
“Ok girls, heel!” A voice suddenly calls from the trees. “You won’t deny Fitzworth his meal this evening, will you?” The wolves draw away from the carcass, circling back to stand on either side of a man who has stepped out of the trees to your right. “It’s alright Fitzworth Tinkertonk Tiddlywink, the deer is yours. They will not touch it. Magnificent creatures, aren’t they?” He wears the dress of a trapper or hunter, a longbow slung over his shoulder and a deadly-looking dagger at his belt. “I am Seriach, and my friends here,” he says motioning to the hounds alongside him, “could be your friends. I could even teach you to channel your transformations in order to run with them for a limited time. Follow the dusk elf. Seek me out with Vaund and Norganas.”
Never breaking their gaze with you, all three creatures withdraw into the shadows until they are consumed by the darkness, leaving you to enjoy the beast in front of you.
By the time the party made their way down the mountain, one of their number was dead at the hands of another, who had since disappeared into the darkness. One had grown a third eye, another great skeletal wings. Evil had infiltrated their ranks, unknown to the rest of the party…