Skullport Shakedown: An Unlikely Cast of Characters

Volo,

You’ll notice we haven’t reported back within the implicitly assumed time frame for your little fetch quest. If you read this and it’s still invisible, we weren’t dead yet a sun’s and moon’s rise ago. At the time of writing we’re not yet topside, but plan to be soon when I get over having my brain leak out of my ears (stop laughing, you fiend – I swear there is a perceivable difference in my performance). “Send” me if you want to adjust scope based on this report, otherwise I’ll see you at Halfway’s soon to wrap up. Do you need an overview of expenses?

Your trinket caught the interest of the magpie-eyed Zhents and has been in their possession roughly since the moment we set foot down here. This by means of a noxious feller of the brain-eating persuasion. Name’s Roxy. He’s been making meals of some of the citizens. Possible opportunity for a clever person to gain a conduit for information down here (see “Frankie” of Skull square), plus perhaps an entry for your next book, should you care to do away with the tentacled parasite. Happy to retry ourselves, if properly compensated but we’d need more firepower and significant hazard pay. Roxy seems remarkbly resistent to both banishment and appeals to morality. The latter is not a surprise. Consider figuring out how he was compelled to act- maybe the Zhents can be moved to get rid of him if he’s lost his use. Likely lower risk and cleaner than extending our contract to include assassination – it’ s not our forte.

Other persons of interest:

Goblin operator of a boxing ring / gambling den called the Batroost, name of Grubbus Pipsnout. Can possibly provide dumb muscle where needed, and has a hand in the local gambling scene (where said Roxy, apparently, had been cleaning out the house). The aunties were willing to pay lil shorty for his information, but my estimation is that he’d not be a hard nut to crack for a minor business advantage. Possibly another good source of intel. Provided the gold to pay for purchase of said trinket.

Madcap necromancer in Deadman’s Corner who makes zombies to have an audience for her conversations with herself. Cheap buy, but picky on payment type. Called Laurel Stillwater. Has a sister? Apparently willing to hold onto sums of gold without much instruction and then hand them off to whoever. Could send a runner by once a week just to ask for the petty cash, I guess.

A victim of Roxy. Orc. Mugrub, or somesuch. Not herself particularly interesting, but she’s the link where Roxy broke his clever little chain of diversion. Mugrub picked up the gold from Zombies-R-Us and went to purchase the trinket from Thimblewines, which Roxy then presumably took off of her when he had her brain for a snack. Tentacle hickies gave him away. Wonder if he tried to hide her murder by killing others, or if hels just hungry a lot.

Crystallene, operator of Thimblewines and an overall delight. Unsure if she knew we would come for the key or if the pickup by Mugrub was what she expected. Did she even know what she had? She knew to sell well, so she must’ve been aware of something. Wonder if she fences other wares, as making a living off of mechanical cockroaches and painted eggs seems unlikely.

Found both guide and initial contact to be performing within parameters. Consider a sweep of the travel route as the slavers and their pet snakes were pesky and you almost lost Gwenson, (who you apparently pay upfront). Asathra is wasted on that inn. Girl is too clever for her own good – that little puzzle of hers almost reduced cuz Damien to tears and drove auntie Elissa to drink.

The Skulls are a pesky lot with not a single sane thought still between them. Please advise on a clothier, as I do think I’d look dashing in a bow tie.

Faithfully,

Tio

Ps. Unicorn from C3 to E4.

Skullport Shakedown: introducing Din and Elissa

20 years ago:

One of the benefits of being all sneaky-sneak is that if someone is after the same mark you are, you hear them coming.
Din had quietly walked over the roofs of the townhouses of this block until she reached the middle house, climbed down to the top window at the back- making sure to not make a single sound with her light halfling step – and then carefully slid the window open and slipped inside. If she didn’t close the window, she’d probably be able to sneak out the same way after she got her hands on the ring. The merchant who owned the house, and technically owned the magic item Din was after – at least for a few more minutes – was away and all the staff were in bed. This should be an easy job, even on her own.
Easy until the owner, an older human man, came bustling in, unexpectedly returning from his travels. The staff rushed out to welcome him home, confused and asking if anything was wrong, but the merchant shrugged them off and sent them back to bed. Then, he walked up the stairs to his chambers – the very same ones Din was hidden in. ‘Fuck fuck fuck’ Din whispered to herself, but then got very quiet. Something sounded off. The sound of the merchant walking up the stairs was wrong. If she didn’t move and held her breath, Din could hear a soft clop-clopping sound instead of the soft thump of shoes on the stairs.
As soon as probably-not-the-merchant stepped into the room and closed the door, Din stepped behind them and pressed her dagger into their back. “I know you are not him. Get out, I’m on a job and I was here first”. Din heard a tinkling laugh filled with genuine joy in response, before the not-merchant whisked around and knocked the dagger out of her hand with their staff. At the same time the tip of the staff sprouted a bunch of daisies. The owner of the staff seemed nearly as surprised as Din at this. “Oooh, flowers, how very romantic, you shouldn’t have!” said Din as she stepped back and grabbed her rapier. The not-merchant laughed again and dropped their human form. Suddenly Din saw a female satyr before her, with a flowery staff in one hand, a sickle in the other, and a wickedly beautiful smile. Well, that explained the clop-clopping sound at least.
“Listen,” said the satyr “I don’t want to fight someone who looks this confident with a rapier. How about we share the loot and leave quietly so we don’t get caught?” Din felt the familiar tingle of magic at the base of their skull, trying to lure her into a false sense of security. Ohhh, this lady was dangerous… With a shake of her head Din resisted the magic, but that gave the satyr just enough time to hit her once with her staff. Ouch. Out of reflex Din tried to jump out of the way and hit a bookshelf. A few books fell, loudly, and stirring noises came from the other floors. Both women froze and waited until all was quiet.
Then Din moved into the satyr’s space, pushed her up against the wall, and held the point of her rapier to the other’s throat. Why did the satyr not stop smiling while she tilted her neck up, Din though. It was distracting. “We’re both going to get killed if we keep fighting. All I’m interested in is the ring, you can have any other loot. But no more hitting or creepy magic or stupid flowers, ok satyr lady? I just want to grab the ring and get out.” The satyr nodded and somehow widened their smile to something just beyond genuine. “Sure, I don’t care about a silly ring, I am just picking up something for Lady Titania. And you can call me Elissa.” After a hesitant nod, Din stepped back, grabbed her dagger off the floor and put her rapier away.
As Elissa rummaged through stacks of papers, Din quickly picked the locks and disassembled the traps of the heavy desk’s drawers, and opened the box the ring was in. It was beautifully inlaid with gems in a flower pattern. “Ohhh, that is pretty. I’ve changed my mind, I want it” said Elissa from just over Din’s shoulder, startling Din enough to nearly drop the ring “What does it do?”. “None of your business” answered Din. “Oh really? Do you want me to hit you with my staff again?” “Yes, because I’m soo scared of some flowers…” Quietly bickering Elissa and Din climb out of the window and up to the roof. Elissa sighs as she looks at the sliver of moon. “I really want that pretty ring though, but you have my word that I won’t use magic to get it. So how about some ale?”
A few years later, Din used that very same ring to propose to Elissa with. She always gets her way in the end.

Skullport Shakedown: Trade Secrets

Eleasis 23, Waterdeep, Dock Ward, The Hanging Lantern

The earliest hint of dawn light falls through the small basement window, filtered through dirt and cobwebs.

The kitchen is still too dark for fine needle work, so a moonlight-haired half-elf in sheer robes lights a squat, four-wicked candle. A steady dripping splishes onto the cracked, glazed tiles in front of her satin slippers.

She sighs.“You’re lucky you arrived when you did. Had you come sooner, you would have had to wait.” Tio frowns. “ A busy night? Tonight? I hadn’t thought it likely.” She nods. “An inland trade delegation.” Tio pulls a single shoulder up. “Guess they’re not here on sheep’s trade” She smiles. “Rough gems. And silver ore. Second grade.” “Will you tell Maradan of the jewelers then? You see her regularly.” “Probably. But first things first. You’re bleeding all over Polly’s floors.”

She reaches over and picks at the kerchief knotted around Tio’s upper arm. “Most people would go to a temple for this sort of thing.” Another one-shouldered shrug from the tiefling. “I prefer going to the seamstresses.” She gives him a look, then moves to kick him playfully. “Hey! Kicking a man when he is down, isn’t that against your religion, or something?” “If you cared about my religion, you should have gone to see a cleric after all.” He sighs, defeated. “Fine. Sorry.” As she unwraps the kerchief, the dripping speeds up. “That looks ugly. Why’d you let yourself get stabbed, dumbass.” “I know Hesper. No need to rub it in.” He slides over a small leather envelope. “Here, it should have needles pre-threaded.” “Did you even clean this before you tied your snotrag around it?” A third one-shouldered shrug. Hesper presses her lips together and moves her fingers in the gesture of a familiar cantrip before flicking open the envelope and picking up a curved needle.

Some time later they sit at a corner of the table, floor and silk slippers cleaned of blood, and a bottle of rum between them. Hesper’s face is more relaxed, and Tio’s a lot less grey. “You planning to spend the night?” “If Polly lets me.” “Hm. We’ve got a new girl, so no empty rooms. But we can share?” “That’d be nice. Old time’s sake, and all.” Hesper snorts at her friend. “Old times. You’re a baby, Tee. Shut your mouth.”

He gives her a smile over his glass. “Got you something, though.” He fishes around in a pocket awkwardly with his left hand before closing his fist on something and holding the closed fist out to her. She opens her hand underneath his and feels a cool weight drop into it. At first sight, it’s a smooth ring, completely unmarked. “Diamond on the inside. Casts Revivify when the wearer needs it.” She narrows her eyes at him. “Never in a hundred years could you afford that.” He shakes his head. “Was a smuggler who could, though. She didn’t deserve to have it.” “You’re kidding.” “Wish I was. If it was just contraband, I’d have let it slide. But you know what the laws are like down south, and she was shipping people. Not even just prisoners either.” “Fuck.” “Yeah.”

“Are you sure you want to take more jobs from this new patron of yours? You landed here for two out of three. He throws you at dangerous people.” Tio looks down at the table. “It’s better than the jobs for the gambling halls. That’s squeezing people with problems for gold they don’t have.” “You almost sound like an altruist.” He gives her a lopsided smile. “Pay is better. Equipment too. And that ring really has a clever enchantment. It doesn’t go off if you lose the finger it’s on.” “Okay, still not an altruist then.” “Well, I did give you that ring.” Hesper shakes her head, blows out the candle and grabs her friend by the uninjured arm. “Time for bed.”

Early that afternoon, as the Lantern’s staff stumbles out of bed and assembles over platters of hotcakes, cream and preserves, Hesper presses on. “You keep taking jobs like this, you need access to a real healer. This’ll scar and get stiff. You’re more likely to get injured again.” “Hesp, I swear, none of those god-botherers want to be seen anywhere near hellspawn like me. You know how it is.” “Bullshit, Tee, you’re bigoted.” “You can’t be a bigot about other people’s opinions.” “You know what I mean.”

From across the long trestle table, kohl-rimmed dwarven eyes stare at the tiefling and his friend. “My brother Damien would help you, as long as you didn’t, like, sacrifice to Asmodeus in front of him.” Tio arches an eyebrow. “Graz’zt, actually. Great-great-grandmother was a daughter of his.” Now Hesper really does kick him. He winces. “The little shit means to say he’s interested, and would like to know where to find your brother. Don’t believe him if he ever tells you that this ancestor was a princess, either. All tieflings claim a “princess” as their evil ancestor. Pretentious twerps, the lot.” Tio rolls his eyes. “Sure. Whatever she says. I’m Tio. Pleased to meet you, new girl.” “It’s Ingfrid. And my brother Damien lives at the sanctuary of Chauntea.” “Hm.” “You should go see him.”

The next time Tio shows up to see Hesper, he speaks of a new friend. And he didn’t bleed all over Polly’s old store room.

Skullport Shakedown: Moving Pieces

Flamerule 1 (Founder’s Day), Waterdeep, Halfway Inn, Brother’s Barkeeper Charity Chess Tournament

A carefully manicured hand with glassy nails moved to the earth level of the dragon chess board and nudged a white warrior piece forward. “So, how are the book sales these days?”

The human wizard smiled at his opponent and moved a black basilisk piece on the lower level. “Not bad, really. There was that… unfortunate happenstance at the docks some time back, which caused a modest increase in demand.”

A soft chuckle and another white warrior slides gently forward. “One orc’s death is another orc’s breath, I do suppose.”

He cocks an eyebrow as the black sylph finds a new home on the upper level of the board. “That’s a more poetic translation than I usually hear. Not a common proverb either. Do you count the orcs among your friends?”

A smile reveals slightly pointed teeth. “There are many orcs. Certainly a few would consider me such.” A third white warrior moves. “One caravan master told me that whenever she and I go out on the town, she has a very wicked time.” Bright red eyes crinkle at the pun.

Volothamp considers his options. The tiefling who drew lots against him doesn’t seem overly concerned with the moves he had made thus far, and he had preferred a standard opening sequence. Maybe he could pull off the Stone Thief’s Mate. It would be a quick way out. He positions the black dwarf in preparation. No alarm shows on the face at the other side of the table. An amateur then, most likely. “Wicked, no less.” he says, “That’s something, from those who drink fermented warg’s milk with their morning porridge.”

They pick up the pace of their play. White Oliphant. Second black Basilisk. White unicorn. Volothamp makes his penultimate move, nudging the black Sylph forward again, face neutral.

His opponent’s head dips, tipping a dark curl forward from behind a slim, pale antler. “Fermented warg’s milk…” he shudders. “Personally I prefer southern brandy. Even the product of our beloved local Chauntea sanctuary, which is probably just distilled novice sweat, is vastly superior to that.” Eyes still down, the tiefling lifts his hand towards the middle board, then pauses, sending a pupilless glance up from under curls and eyebrows. “That said. A drink?” He pulls out the Paladin piece and drops it to the lower board, beckoning over one of the ale boys with his free hand.

Time to recalculate. The Paladin’s Counter wasn’t the strongest response to his manoeuvre, but it was a clever one. Effective. Profoundly noncommittal in response to his own decisiveness. Held until the last possible moment, too. He stretched in his seat. This could yet be an interesting game.

Two glasses of brandy later, with the game’s end a decently engaging victory, Volo finds himself lingering at the bar to await the drawings for the third round of the tournament. The slight tiefling leans back beside him, a booted leg stretched out into the walkway. “Shame to find such a strong opponent this early on. I could have used the prize money.”

The wizard smiles. “This is where I might offer to keep an ear to the ground for any interesting opportunities. However, knowing neither your name nor your trade, I am afraid you have me at a disadvantage. Yourself too, perhaps, if it turns out we could be of use to one another.”

The tiefling extends a hand. “Tio. Sometimes I work with local guilds to follow up on accounts. See if things can’t be resolved… harmoniously. Beyond that, well, it is said that I like to entertain.”

Journey to Fate’s Doorstep: the second gem

Dear Jonathan,

How many letters have I written to you like this? One for every week. Twelve letters. This one will be a little different, sweetheart.

As I write this, the world around me is cloudy, eerie, misty. Not that much different from how I have felt most of this time, but now it isn’t just me. Everyone I am with feels it too. They seem used to it, even more than I am, though perhaps for different reasons. We’re inside a holy place, they say, though it looks like army barracks to me. You would have loved to see this place, little soldier.

It was perhaps an hour ago that I was inside the greenhouse. Your father had told me it was best if I stayed there for the duration of the meeting he had called, but his new companions, marked with the black hand of Bane struck me as untrustworthy. Evil. I made myself invisible and watched as they performed a ritual that made my blood run cold. They struck among their own. A young man, black of hair and pale of skin, like from the southern coast. I cannot describe the effects properly, but everyone there transformed before my eyes into something I barely recognized. I am not sure what language was spoken during the ritual, but surely nothing of our faith would ever translate as “Draig tgo Bain-iise”. My own house turned inside out, corrupted and changed in ways that I cannot explain. Worse, it seemed to spread. Rapidly.

While your father and his men were in the throes of completion of whatever it was they wrought, I snuck among them and took the dagger. That probably seems strange to you, baby, but if I had had the time to teach you my craft you would know that much power of any ritual remains within the instrument with which it is performed. I ran, then. Back to the greenhouse. Back to you and to the place where I pray. Where your father used to pray with me. He must have stopped, some time in these last tear-stained weeks. I don’t recall that he did. I so recall feeling angry with him. Deserted by him. Feeling like he left you as well as me.

One of the creeds of our faith is “From death, life”. It seemed to me then, as I ran back towards your resting place, that what your father could do, so I could do. If Luther claimed a stranger’s life and damned my house, why could I not claim a life and bless my sanctuary? The fog withdrew, little man. For the first time in a long time, things were absolutely clear. It didn’t hurt as much as I thought it would. Not as much as birthing you did, and the goal was much the same.

Rather than facing death and judgment (and in stupid, desperate maternal hopes, a reunion with you, darling), I blinked and faced a quartet of strangers looking most fierce. A dwarf in heavy armor, extended a hand to me, called himself Mordrock, servant of Kelemvor, and demanded the dagger, now the carrier of power of two lifeblood rituals. A human man, bristling with knives called upon a power and healed me, but it seemed weakened. Holding them for men of Bane, I swore that they must leave; that their ritual had not been able to corrupt this sacred space. It shows the selfishness of our fears for in that moment, I knew for certain they would not do what cruel and evil men do to women they find after their victories. Though I am not fully sure of their morality as yet, I am glad not to have to write you of that particular fate, and find that it gives me faith in their intent. There were more attempts at healing, but it took a most powerful spell before they managed to restore me. You would be much awed by these men, Johnny. They wield awesome powers and their stories tell of fighting Tiamat and demon lords!

One of them, a bald-headed human called Royce, carries a blade that spreads real sunlight far and wide. I wonder if he knows of the significance of such weapons in our faith, but I consider it a beacon of hope even if he does not. He serves a god of war, which seems a strange calling for a dawnbringer’s weapon. They tell me that 26 years have passed since your father’s ritual. Since, supposedly, my death. Twenty six years, twelve weeks and three days since yours. I think that was yesterday.

To find such men here must mean that the evil Luther caused is greater than I could imagine. In the hopes of aiding them I retrieve my staff from the sanctuary, and explain to them my suspicions surrounding the nature of what has befallen our house. Based on my instincts as a mage, I ventured to think that killing the vessel for the ritual might be a way to defeat the curse. With those words I condemn your father, though to what fate I do not know. You can blame me later, my heart. We set out together, though one of the four barely speaks and travels far ahead. This half orc, Nong, wields an instrument of the vilest evil, though his companions ensure me that this is only out of the greatest need and that his heart is not as corrupted as the tool he uses. I will take them at their word, though his gaze makes my blood run cold.

The house itself is alien and strange now. Directions seem meaningless and the gallery of ancestors was entirely upside down. The man with the knives, who goes by Naismith, explained to me the various hazards that they had encountered in making their way to the garden. It makes no sense to me. Luther’s captain of the guard an undead menace to be killed over and over again. Strange vegetation that attempts to strangle and devour. It is madness. Then again, what isn’t. Maybe I am still dying. Dreaming. Maybe you will be here soon to find me and explain all this to me. Idle hope is another sign of madness.

After a perilous traverse of the hallways and stairways, we encounter a statue unknown to me. When approached it provides a perspective where it presents its sword as a walkway to be climbed. At the top, a skull is summoned from the statue’s throat. Naismith eventually places the gem from the ritual dagger and another gem into the eye sockets of the skull, much to the eerie amusement of his companion Nong.

This unlocks a door. We pass through, though the half orc stays behind. We enter a room where I see a small skeleton covered in decades worth of dust and the outline of a man curled protectively around it. My breath stalls. Has Luther taken your remains? Has he guarded them? What has grief done to him if this is how he looks for solace?

As I approach to try to determine if this is really you and really him, the room changes. It expands. An altar appears, as do wraith-like beings in each dimension of the room. Strange black armored beings too and then your father, my husband. Luther the bright-eyed. Luther the harpist. A gentle man. He looks aged. Both how I imagined him long after you would have given us a grandchild and also very much not. Yes his hair is long and free and his crown sits atop his head with gravity and grace but his eyes are wild and mad and his clothes are torn and perhaps unchanged since yesterday twenty-six years ago. This is the man I love. This is not the man I love. It is. It is not. It is, but not like this. And if it is… Should I not do what love demands and put an end to his suffering? He’s done enough of it all these years. I blink away the pointless tears. He could not let you lie in peace. I will do what he could not. He is so much stronger than I am, but this I will do. I will buy you a quiet grave, little one. Don’t worry. I am here now.

He points at me. Says the words I have avoided even thinking. He blames me for your death. Isn’t it always a mother’s fault? Should not a mother’s love always keep her child safe from harm and disease? If he is right, where did I err? This is a familiar maelstrom and on instinct I feel the lie behind what he just said. It is not my fault that you were not returned to him. No fair, good, trustworthy power would ever promise such a thing to a mourning father. I decide to take a chance. Conjure up an image of you, my hand protectively on your shoulder. I tell him that he is wrong. That you are safe with me. I have his interest for a moment, but it is not enough. In some way he manages to change the orientation of the room, upending us all. And with that, we fight.

Though fierce and of legendary repute, the campaigners are overmatched by the restless dead, and I am of little help. My spells seem not to do nearly as much damage as I expect them to, and we are held back by having to find ways to adjust to the revolving room while Luther’s lieutenants swarm us. The godsworn do their best to heal us over again as we take fell damage from the swords and spells of the undead occupiers, but in the end we are outclassed. I am not sure who falls after I do, but after a moment we awaken in this strange misty place that Royce says is a temple to Tempus, the god he serves. We are in the plane ethereal and can look out into the dining room of our home. We regroup with rest and meditation, then come together to plan.

Based on what we saw during the fight, the way to harm Luther is through the wraith-like beings that house in each aspect of the room. We have taken out some of them, but still more remain. I wonder if those aspects with the remaining wraiths relate somehow to how he twists the room about and around.

The heroes and I sit in council for a long time and try to come up with a plan. Lathander willing, it is enough.

I must go now, baby. We need to return to this fight and do better.

Don’t forget – we love you.

A thousand kisses,

Judith

Curse of Strahd 12 – The Cold Light of Morning

In which the party’s druid Fitzworth writes a few words of wisdom after the sudden disappearance of Sumu after the fight against Strahd and his minions at the church in Vallaki. In which the group loses their regular scribe as Sumu’s player leaves the group.

Sumu is gone. Umus, too, but that makes me less sad.

I woke up and found a note from her which I will share later, but she is gone. Yesterday, it seemed that she might have found some of her family among the bodies and maybe that had something to do with it. I also noticed that she left something with Samael, but that is his story to tell or not tell.

But the last 36 hours have been hard.

The priest had repeatedly asked us to recover some bones (likely the remains of the patron saint of the church) and return them to their resting place, because their presence protected the church and possibly the entire town. We put it off to get involved in the political machinations of the Burgomaster and his rivals, the Wacher family.

As a result, the church was personally attacked by Strahd and six vampires (and also a set of animate pews… but that’s neither here nor there).

While we killed the six and drove Strahd back, the priest, his acolyte and much of the congregation at evening mass was slaughtered. Also, there’s a hole in the roof of the church.

We recovered the bones and found that the mastermind behind this plan to steal the bones – and the man who who also smuggled six vampires into town – is Vassily Von Holst. He’s a human male of medium height, clean shaven with black hair. Based on his clothing, he is possible noble. We didn’t see him, but we got his description.

Some members of the town who, frankly, owe a debt, will be working to restore the church and possibly take up vocational duties.

The Burgomaster, who was also brother-in-law to the late priest, will help.

We killed Izek Strazni, the Burgomaster’s right hand man (the one with the monstrous… right hand), but have set up the Wachter family to take the fall. It was Fiona Wachter who asked us to take out Strasni, so she could launch a coup. There will be a parade tomorrow and shit is likely to go down.

Also, the Martakov family of were-ravens seem ready to help, but not yet openly. Either one of them or, possibly, Ireena, could be installed as the new burgomaster. I see the reason behind installing Ireena, but am unsure as long as we know Strahd seeks her.

I got a little heated yesterday and I, at least, am ready to cleanse the earth of evil, though I’m also cooling down a bit. Ismark is seeming ready to take on the mantle of power to which his blood entitles him. Chand is seeming downright moral and is notably protective of children. Sumu was always our moral compass, but now she’s gone. I don’t know what’s up with Samael, but our sailor friend has a serious drinking problem and we might need to consider an intervention and a restoration spell to cure him of the disease or moral failing (not sure how everyone comes down on this issue) of addiction.

Curse of Strahd – 11 – A Fire in the Night

In which the party fails to realize the significance of missing bones and gets embroiled in local politics more than they would like to.

It is the night’s darkest hour. Midnight has come and gone, taking with it its vicious bats and hysterical screaming, leaving behind the bitter dregs: tired adventurers and piles of rubble in the church yard.

Fillegan sits at a table in the Blue Water Inn, looking crumpled and miserable. Every now and then he pulls out a handkerchief and hacks a loogie into it. After the third time, Ireena moves her chair a little further away, causing Ismark to give her a stern glance. “I am trying to bandage this cut, sister. Sit still.” She huffs a little, but stops moving. “Shouldn’t you be keeping an eye on other things, brother? Like the mayor’s mansion? You seemed so keen on it before.” Ismark scowls.”Irinka, it’s hardly fair of you to lay all that at my feet. Yes, I think you would make a better burgomaster than whoever has the job know, and I certainly trust you over Fiona Wachter. But if I had known… If any of us had known the danger that the town was in…” Ireena sighs. “You’re right. Sorry. I’m just angry.” Ismark smiles begrudgingly, then ruffles her hair. “Me too.”

Chand and Fitzworth arrive at the table carrying wine for everyone. Fillegan turns towards them and grins cheerfully. With a voice like a rasp he says “So, what did you light on fire? It lit up the bedroom and woke me up, and neither Ismark nor Ireena has seen fit to tell me what wind we’re sailing with, here.” Fitzworth sits down, takes a deep draught of wine, wipes his mouth on his sleeve, then says: “Nothing burned. Well, the bodies did, but you wouldn’t have seen that. You may have seen Sumu, who used that little trinket we picked up a while back. It’s quite spectacular, the amount of light that thing gives off.”

Fitzworth gulps more wine. “What happened is that Father Lucien is dead, as is his altar boy. They were torn apart by Strahd.” Fillegan turns pale. “Strahd was here? He attacked the priest?” He sounds incredulous and looks at everyone in turn. Ireena frowns and rubs her forehead. Ismark picks at a fraying edge on the bandage he just tied off. Fitzworth stares into his wine with chagrin and Chand grips his cup like he wants to throttle it. “We could’ve prevented it.” Chand says, after a strained pause. “We could have… should have… marched straight down to that coffin maker and wrenched those bones out of his damned hands. Instead, a bit of wine and conversation distracted…” “You mean,” Fitzworth interrupts “a bit of wine and conversation, a cheap magic trick and an offer to assassinate someone and hand the burgomaster’s seat to that overly-perfumed old biddy and her good-for-nothing drunkard sons.” Chand chuckles at Fitzworth’s unflattering description. “You better make sure she does not hear you say that.”

Fillegan’s stares wide-eyed. “We’re going to assassinate the burgomaster? And that caused Strahd to come and kill the priest?”

“Not quite,” Chand says “Remember, when we first entered Vallaki, the priest at the temple asked us for help. Something to do with grave robbery. In our hurry to get to Krezk, we ignored his pleas. When we returned here, we asked the priest to take in the children we had found in the windmill. The priest then insisted that the church would not be safe without these bones, so we took some time to ask questions of he boy he suspected of the theft. The culprit admitted straight away, but we chose to keep our dinner invitation with Lady Wachter rather than chase down the man who ordered the boy to steal the bones. It seems this may have allowed a way for Strahd to attack the church.”

The little sailor nods. “And the assassination?” Ismark looks up. “Lady Wachter takes issue with the way the town is run. She’s asked for our assistance in ensuring that the Burgomaster’s right-hand man – that fellow with the misshapen arm – is not a concern when she allows her sons to move on the Burgomaster himself.” Fillegan makes a mouth like he bit into a lemon. “We’re going to let them do that?” “I proposed otherwise,” Ismark responds, “as you might have gathered from my sister’s words. Perhaps we can foil the Wachters and let my sister assume control of the town.” “And place her not just under scrutiny of Strahd, but in direct opposition of a powerful family that makes no bones about their service to him? I thought you cared for the lass, Ismark.” Chand’s tone is light when he says this, but the look he sends to the fighter is not.

###

Samael slides his hand down Dusk’s leg. “No real heat here.” he says hoarsely. “Legs and hooves all seem fine. She certainly doesn’t have colic or anything of the sort.” From the other side of the big warhorse, Sumu responds “No, but s-she seems a little out of sorts, right? I’m not imagining that?” “No, you’re not. But did it warrant dragging me out to the stable in the dead of night? You don’t seem that concerned.”

Dusk snorts, as if to underline the point. “True.” Sumu says “I… well, there is something else. I’d hoped to talk.” This time, it’s Samael who snorts, then coughs a little. “Why talk to me, sister? We’ve barely met.” “It’s maybe s-something that… I mean… They’re not god-sworn, like you or I. Can we talk under the seal, Samael?” The paladin thinks for a second. “We can, if you need to.”

Sumu sinks down onto a bale of straw, and Samael does the same. “You’ll recall that we dug up those graves underneath the gallows?” Samael nods. “Dirty business, if you ask me.” “You’ll also recall that we… f-found something there – a holy symbol – and that I have carried it since.” Another nod. “I had reason to use it tonight. It worked, b-but not willingly. Not like I think it should.” Sumu reaches up to untie the ribbon that’s kept her hair tied and shakes her head.

Samael looks at her. “Why would that be? Is it…” He nods at the back of Sumu’s head where Umus, now free, begins to mutter to herself. It sounds as depraved as ever. “Maybe. I t-think so. The amulet seems determined to only serve those to fight for good and dedicate their lives to a divine force. That leaves precious few people capable of wielding it, and if it deems me unworthy…” “What do you intend to do?” Sumu shakes her head. “I was hoping you had any ideas. Beyond prayer, I mean.” Samael laughs, then coughs. “I am a champion of Kelemvor who is the Judge of the Damned, sister. Redemption may not be entirely within his remit.”

Their conversation continues while Dusk picks at her hay. Once the big mare falls asleep, the two get up to join their fellows at their drink.

Curse of Strahd – 10 – Crusty Business at Old Bonegrinder

In which the party deals with a coven of hags, reflects upon the truthfulness of Vistani fortune-telling and deals with the consequences of Barovia’s unusually vivid nightmares.

Large, warm muscles shift under him. It smells vaguely of hay and mammal. Someone… tousles his hair? Chand jerks awake, startling Dusk, who had turned her head to her flank to nuzzle him. Annoyed with his sudden movement, she stamps a hoof. At that moment, two high-pitched voices begin shrieking.

Chand lets himself slide down the flank of the horse and turns around in time to see two small figures run back into a familiar-looking windmill. A huge direwolf with a cracked window frame around his neck stares after them, more puzzled than hungry. “Ho, Fitz, they’re scared of you, I think.” Fillegan’s voice comes from above, where Chand now notices a direwolf-sized hole in the wooden wall. Looking back down, a crumpled body lies between Fitzworth’s front paws.

Ismark’s voice comes from within the mill “Wake up now! Hey, come on. Wake up! Let’s get you some fresh air.” He comes outside, a barely conscious Ireena hanging in his arms with a blissful smile. He carries her a short distance away and kneels beside her, looking worried.

Next, Sumu appears in the door frame, two children peeking out from behind her. “It’s just Fitz, “ she says to them “He’s not really a wolf. Just wait. He’s really quite nice.” The children eye her for a moment, but don’t seem convinced.

“Look out below!” Fillegan calls out as he hangs his grappling hook on a sturdy rafter and slides down the rope, only occasionally pushing off from the side of the windmill. He lands next to Fitzworth, then turns towards the door, where the children still stand and stare. He gives them an exaggerated wink and say “Here, I’ll prove it – nothing to be afraid of.” With that, he takes off his sailor’s cap, turns to Fitz and says “ Kind Sir Wolfworth, would you please open your mouth? Nice and wide, that’s the spirit!” Fitz, looking as confused as his wolf’s face will allow, opens his mouth. In response to Fillegan’s gesturing, he then lowers his snout, until Fillegan’s entire head fits between his jaws. Neither of them moves for a number of seconds. The children stare open-mouthed. Then, a large glob of wolf drool falls on top of Fillegan’s head. The little rogue makes a disgusted face. “The only dangerous thing here is your breath, Fitz. Do direwolves not brush their teeth?” Only then does he pull his head out from between the wolf’s teeth, and takes a bow in the direction of the children. They now look from Fitzworth to Fillegan to Sumu, evidently not feeling very secure with any of them.

The scene is interrupted when Samael appears behind Sumu and the children, carrying a large bundle. As the small cleric and the children step aside with alacrity, Chand sees a hand sticking out of the many layers of fraying fabric. Its fingers are bony, and the nails impossibly long. Strange stains and discolorations of the flesh are visible – this person worked with strange substances and processes. Potion-brewing, perhaps?

Before he can get a closer look, Samael has placed the body on the ground, next to the one that Fitzworth still stands over. The bear-sized wolf nimbly moves aside.

At the appearance of her rider, Dusk whinnies, drawing the eyes of the group with her enthusiasm. Samael smiles at the mare and casually tosses a bit of dried apple into the grass in front of her. Fitz wags his tail. Sumu gives a sheepish wave to Chand, then bends down towards the two children. “There is someone I think you should meet. He’s a friend of mine, sort of. Come on.” With that, she walks towards him. The children follow. “H-Hi Chand,” says, while biting on a thumb nail. “We found t-these little ones inside of that windmill. Someone had unsavory plans w-with them.” From behind Sumu, Umus pipes up, “Savory plans, more like. Ahahaha!” The children go wide-eyed with terror, as Sumu claps her hands over the back of her head. “Umus! Be quiet!”

Knowing an emergency when he sees one, Chand quickly squats down and puts on a beatific smile. “Who wants to hear a story? I know a really good one.” Sumu’s shoulders sag in relief and she turns to walk towards the two corpses that Samael has now straightened out. As Umus catches sight of Chand, she whispers at him “Cracked human thigh bones make a really good broth, you know.” Chand ignores the jibe, even though Umus tries to wink at him. Sumu sighs in defeat, reaches back and begins to braid her hair.

Some time later, the corpses burn in the roaring fire. Samael and Sumu have said their prayers and the children were given food and now lie sleeping under Samael’s spare saddle blanket, next to Ireena, who still dozes and smiles in pastry-induced bliss. Even the bags with live chickens are silent.

Fitz, now having resumed his human shape, has relayed to Chand what the party found inside the windmill: the oven full of meat pies, the haggling witches, the toads and chickens and children, Ireena’s response to a bite of pie, the elixers. Chand grills him on every detail, focusing especially on the disappearance of the older woman. Fillegan keeps rubbing his drooled-on hair, insisting on a hot bath. Conversation strays: what to do with little Freek and Myrtle, who cannot go back to their parents? Is there time to visit the standing stones some ways behind the mill? Are the direwolves getting bolder, now that they’re killing people in the road, and even attacking a group when they’re outnumbered? What else will we do once we’re in Vallaki?

“How long did I sleep?” Chand asks, suddenly, “We have not yet dined with Lady Wachter, have we?” “Oh, no, we have a few hours yet,” Samael responds,“Why?” “Oh, there’s just this little thing that Sumu and I agreed on for a few days. Nothing important.” Chand’s narrowed eyes measure the distance between the mill and Dusk’s tether, which is well over 30 feet, then rest on Sumu. She looks down and bites on another nail. He clears his throat, and raises an eyebrow.

“I-I don’t understand why you want me close by. You were sleeping, anyway.” she murmurs, “Besides, I’d just be another one of those friends in low places you’d then have to -” Chand makes a chopping motion. “Don’t repeat that Vistani nonsense back to me. You can’t possibly think there’s value in anything she said. What fantastical story did she spin for you? Your home is closer than you think? Pah.” Sumu looks up at him, incredulously. “She spoke true! My home is close. She told me where it is.” A deep red color begins to crawl up from her neck. Samael cocks his head. “I didn’t hear her say that. And I listened very carefully.”

“It’s personal! I w-wasn’t going to d-discuss that with all of you standing around,” Sumu says, now beet-red. “I went to see h-her when you were sleeping. I had to know and wh-who else would tell me?” Fillegan jumps up. “You kept a secret? From us?” Sumu nods. “But why? I mean… You can’t be from Barovia. Barovia is not a place you get to leave!” “It’s not entirely unheard of.” Ismark says, thoughtfully. “Although I’m not sure how you would have managed it. You don’t have the look of a Vistana.” Sumu shakes her head. “No, I don’t. I’m n-not sure how you do it. I don’t even know why mama made me leave. She just woke me up one night. She had been c-crying. Papa too. There was screaming. Then she made me put my coat on, gave me this little key she always wore around her neck and made a hidey-hole for me between the crates and sacks in the back of a Vistani cart, telling me not to move or make a sound until they stopped. I tried.”

Huh.” Fitzworth says, after a few seconds. “I did wonder why you were so scared of direwolves.” Sumu gives him a weak smile. “I tried to be quiet for as long as could. But I was about their age,” she nods at the sleeping children “and eventually I really had to pee. So the Vistani found me. Halted the cart, dumped me out and left me there. I tried to follow them, but the fog came in. And the wolves. So I ran blindly for a long time. Ended up in front of some building eventually, which happened to be one of Lliira’s sanctuaries.”

Chand rolls his eyes. “Fascinating, I am sure. I propose we get under way. After all, there is a dinner we have to attend, and we can’t keep Lady Wachter waiting.”

Curse of Strahd – 9 – A Random Encounter

In which the party finds a new ally (Samael, by the player of Kurwin), and gets a deeply intriguing invitation.

It turns out I never did write a summary for this session 🙁

In brief:

The party takes a shipment of wine from the Wizards of Wine to their brother the innkeeper in Vallaki, while promising to request that the brother visit the winery, in the hopes of reconciling with the patriarch.

While on the road, the party meets Samael, who is at that time, beset by undead. When he hears just what the stakes are, he is quick to throw in his lot with the party.

Fitzworth and Ismark receive a dinner invitation from Lady Wachter as they try to leave Vallaki after delivering the wine.

Curse of Strahd – 8 – The Toll of Yester Hill

In which the group makes peace with permanently losing a player (Grismar), and in which the powers of darkness see one character slip through their fingers, but manage to seduce another.

That morning, in the kitchen of the winery, Grismar puts his goblet down on the table. He looks at Davian and says: “I wonder if this one should have been aged a few weeks more.” Adrian puts his fork down just a little too carefully. Elvir, just about to pour himself another drink, pauses, holding the bottle awkwardly in mid-air. Even Sefania, standing at the stove with little Yolanda strapped to her back, pauses her stirring. They all look at their father expectantly. The old man raises his considerable eyebrows. “Oh, you wonder, do you now.” With a move like a bird diving for a worm, Davian snatches the goblet from beside Grismar’s plate and sticks his rather beak-like nose in. He inhales deeply, then frowns even more deeply. He returns Grismar’s drink, then snatches the bottle from his son’s hand and pours a small amount into the brown mug beside his plate. He picks up the mug, making a swirling motion. The kitchen is utterly silent.

One audible swallow later, Davian’s frown has not receded. “Claudio!” he barks. A gangly teenager jumps up out of his chair. “Check the ledger for this batch, and tell me what vats they were from. I believe our guest here may be onto something.” Davian’s grandson speeds out of the kitchen with the offending bottle, and tension leaves the room with him. Sefania cracks another egg into a pan. Elvir gets up to retrieve another bottle from a cabinet.

When the other party members enter the kitchen, they find Grismar and Davian seated opposite of each other with a row of opaque glasses between them. “I wonder where you got that nose, boy.” the Old Crow says. Grismar only shrugs as Davian continues “I wonder too if you don’t have a future as a wine maker. If you wanted one. We could use the extra hands.” Grismar looks pensive as he eyes his friends digging into their omelets.

Less than an hour later, the party, minus Ireena, who complained of worse than normal nightmares, meets in the courtyard between the woodpile and an empty cart. “To Yester Hill it is then. Let these druids see that they are no match for us. Are you coming?” Fitzworth looks at the dwarf with a question in his eyes. Grismar looks torn. Just as Chand opens his mouth, two small boys come tearing around the corner. “Gwismaw, Gwismaw! Look what we found!” They skid to a stop in front of the dwarf and the bigger child pulls an enormous frog out of the pocket of his coat. “We found it in the watew cistewn! Thewe awe so many! Come help us catch them!” And with that, the boys run off again. Grismar looks after them, shrugs eloquently and plunges his axe into the chopping block. “I can’t, Fitz. I need to be here.” With that, he turns and trots off in the direction of the shed, where excited squeals can now be heard.

Just a few hours later, storm clouds pass over the winery. The main force of the storm is a few miles away, but by the sound of it, lightning strikes there every few seconds.

The Martakovs huddle together in the kitchen, which smells of freshly baked bread. Just as it begins to rain, a raven pecks at the window. Sefania lets it in, and tears off a crust from a warm loaf. The raven gobbles this down, then utters a long series of squawks. Grismar strains his ears. He can almost understand it. When he looks to the others, his suspicion is confirmed. Bad tidings indeed. The flock of ravens that went with his friends – all dead. And another, a human, struck down by what the Martikovs say is surely Strahd von Zarovich. And then the raven seemed to lose coherence. More death, but not really, and one person that speaks with two voices. Surely the poor bird was confused, distraught by the loss of members from her flock.

As soon as the rain clears, the dwarf yanks his axe out of the chopping block and starts to pace in the courtyard of the winery. Adrian comes outside and beckons him over. “Leave be. Come back inside. One horse cannot wear two saddles, Grismar, no matter how much it may want to. Like my father, I am sure that your place is here with us. Surely your friends knew what they were up against. And didn’t you hear that most of them still live? The raven said so herself.” Grismar pulls on his beard in distraction. “Most of them, yes, but apparently not all.” Adrian stares at him with a blank look. “Nothing you can do will change this. It is simply what happens to those who stand in his way.” He shakes his head. A loud and angry howling approaches as Sefania enters the courtyard as well, skirts billowing like a ship under full sail. In her arms is an angry, flailing babe – little Yolanda. “Please, Grismar,” she says over the noise, “Can’t you hold her for a moment? Davian and Dag need my help with the labeling machine, and I can’t think straight when she’s like this. I’d ask Ireena, but she says she is not well.” Grismar drops the axe, and extends his arms to receive a tear-stained angry bundle from which two black eyes stare fiercely into his own at. A little arm swings out from the swaddling cloths and yanks on his beard. “Ow!” he says, as he untangles Yolanda’s fingers. As Sefania and her brother retreat into the house, he sits down on the chopping block and clears his throat, then starts in on a song he remembers from a long time ago.

“Cannily, cannily

Hush my lal bairnikie
Divn’t tha cry, my lal pet
Whisht at thy greetin’
Thee should be sleeping
It’s no’ time to waken as yet”

Once Yolanda is quiet, he looks up to scan the path on which his friends left earlier that morning.

Movement in the distance!

With the sleeping child still held against his chest, he starts down the path, towards the slow-moving group that looks both strange and familiar. Why is Fitzworth in his horse form? And what is the bundle slung over his back? He speeds up, taking note of Fillegan’s eyebrows which have apparently been burned away, and Ismark who looks grimmer than ever. Chand has not a hair out of place, of course, but Sumu’s rats’ nest is worse than usual, and she staggers like she’s drunk. Then it hits him. Kurwin. He’s not there. Unless, of course… an angry cry interrupts his frantic stock-taking. He’s squeezed Yolanda and she protests fiercely. He offers her a pinky, which she accepts with alacrity.

By now Grismar is within earshot of the party. Chand seems to be making a point.” Well, yes, obviously we’ll burn the body. But what do we do with his journal? Burning it would seem less than optimal.” Fillegan protests “It was his. He never left it out of his sight. Doing anything else with it would be adding insult to injury.” Fitzworth-as-horse throws his head up and seems to nod. Ismark shakes his head instead. “Kurwin was an accomplished hunter, and much of what he learned of his prey might be in here. I agree with Chand.” A shrill an unfamiliar voice cuts in “Burn it, keep it, what’s it matter! Ashes to ashes, that’s what all of this will come to.” Sumu reaches up behind her head with both hands and pulls her hair back. Once she’s braided it, the new voice sounds considerably more muffled. “That’s so rude! Don’t tell me your order allows its clerics to even be rude. Psh!” In her own voice, Sumu says “I-I can keep it for a while. Not read it, or use it, but keep it with us. Just as a reminder of what’s at stake.”

Ismark notices Grismar first. “Ho friend,” he says, voice raised to cross the distance still between them. “Please tell the house to expect us. Maybe ask your two young frog catchers to gather dry wood and brush for us some distance from the house. I am afraid we have a most unpleasant duty to fulfill.”