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.”

Curse of Strahd – 7 – Cleaning up at the Wizard of Wines

In which the party aims to send wine flowing freely through Barovia, but perhaps not entirely without ulterior motives.

“You do make a fine horse, Fitzworth.” Ismark says, with a wink. Ireena appears beside him with a smile. “And a friendly one too. Thanks for the ride.” Fitzworth’s eyes shoot from one to the other and he looks uncertain, but then Fillegan appears by his elbow. “It really was quite a useful disguise. I am not sure how else we might have left the town, if it wasn’t for that.” “Oh. Well, uh, thanks.” the tall gnome says. “I was glad to help. But I am even more glad that we have been able to deal a blow to these self-styled druids and their evil ways. Surely you agree that we should tear this evil out by the root, and go to Yester Hill as soon as possible.” The three that stand around him exchange glances. “It sure seems very important to you.” Ismark says. Ireena keeps her eyes away from Fitzworth, but gives a small nod. “They seem like the more attractive enemy to fight, don’t they?” Fillegan jabs Fitzworth in the thigh. “Just tell me who to stab, friend and that’s what I’ll do. Everyone on every dock on the Sword Coast knows that I’m the one you want beside you in a fight.” This makes Fitz laugh a little. “Then be beside me next time, alright? Especially when I let the wolf come out.”

Grismar has picked up the bottom half of a broken bottle of wine and is straining what remains inside it into his water skin. He seems to be humming to himself. Suddenly he looks around. noticing large piles of twigs and ash and charcoal. “What did you all get up to in here? Did you get in a fight with a tumbleweed? Huh.” He shrugs to himself and then looks around for another bottle that may still contain some wine.

In the other corner of the winery’s large space, another discussion is going on. “You forget yourself. I don’t serve your goddess. There is no reason for me to be bound by your rules.” Sumu doesn’t meet the mage’s eyes. “W-well. No. It’s not like that. I- I mean… Look. I don’t want to tell you what to do. You could have taken that gold, right? But the family would have asked. And you might have told them that the druids took it and that we never found it. And… and if it was just you, you would have gotten away with it. But if one of them so much as looks at me… they’ll know. It just didn’t seem…”

Kurwin’s low voice cuts through the chatter. “Gratitude is more valuable than gold. And gratitude we’ll win a-plenty here.” Chand snorts “Based on what the merchants charge when last we checked, I doubt your claim.” Ismark comes walking over. “Kurwin has the right of it. When people say the valley runs on these wines, it is barely an exaggeration. Restoring the Martakovs to their home and business gets us more than just the thanks of a well-to-do family. If we play this right, we could use both the restoration of the wine trade and the wine itself to get the ear of certain folk. You heard it yourself when Krezk’s burgomaster told us to chase down a shipment of wine for him.”

Chand shifts his weight to lean on his new staff and gives Ismark a thoughtful look. “Hm. Not to mention that we find ourselves with a rather large quantity of poisoned wine. Useless to the wine sellers, of course, but perhaps not to us.” Fitzworth has approached to hear this last remark. “Oh, yes, very useful. Maybe we can simply poison the evil fake druids! It would be a very fitting punishment.”
“I’m more interested in what that one druid was looking for in that cabinet.” All eyes move down some distance, to where Fillegan has now joined the group. “And that locket was interesting too. Was it just a forebear, you think? Or someone more… interesting?”

Ireena pulls on Kurwin’s arm. “Can you talk to the ravens? They may be our best and fastest chance to get word to the Martakovs in Vallaki, to let them know the family is alright.” The ranger nods. “First, a word with the people here, I think. They should be able to answer some questions.”

Curse of Strahd – 6 – Reading the Tarokka in Krezk

In which the group gains an extra player (who takes up Ismark) and the party gets their fortunes told after deciding that the monastery in Krezk is perhaps not the most fitting place to leave Ireena.

For some time after Ezmeralda has picked up her cards and abandoned the room in the Abbey’s hospital wing, the party sits in silence, pondering what they just learned. “So. Now what?” Grismar asks as he shakes the last drop of wine out of his water skin and into his mouth.

“Get out of town, I reckon.” Fillegan says. “Ideally without being seen. We’ve not made any friends here, spelling the Burgomaster and running past the guards the way we did.” Chand smiles. “That’ll be easy to remedy once we visit the Wizards of Wine. I am sure no one will stay angry long when they’re presented with a cask or two of a good vintage. The challenge is to ensure that our dwarven companion does not drink it all, before we deliver the goods. Then again, there is that fascinating mansion associated with the order of knights hat we could visit. I expect we could learn interesting things there.”

Fitzworth clears his throat. “You overlook the most obvious matter. The abbott here plays fast and loose with nature’s laws. We can’t just let him continue to build and breed mongrelfolk. Between this abbey and Yester Hill, this area needs to learn that nature is a force to be reckoned with!”

Sumu looks alarmed “I – I do believe you’re oversimplifying things. It’s not like the abbott is acting out of evil intent, Fitzworth. He is aiming to help people in need. To give them what they want.” Fitzworth’s jaw muscles twitch. “That doesn’t mean he should be able to take liberties like this! He is creating monsters! Don’t they always say that the road to ruin is paved with good intentions? Where do you think making monsters and pacifying Strahd will lead!” Sumu squares her skinny shoulders and faces the druid. “Then what d-do you intend to do, Fitzworth Tinkertonk Tiddlywink, Druid of the Treewhistle Gnomes and Guardian of Hobbleknot. D-do you intend to stop him? To punish him? By what right? And by what means? Does he cause suffering? Or does he relieve it? Do you believe that you are capable of judgment where others are not? Because we will not execute a holy man just because you find his flock off-putting!” She takes a deep breath and sounds much calmer when she continues. “Besides, problems of the church should be solved by the church, and neither you nor I serve the Morning Lord. It isn’t our place.”

“Talk to the priest then.” The room goes quiet after Kurwin’s words. “The one in Vallaki. Or the one in Barovia. Whichever. We must focus on Ireena… Tatjana. She is the key.”

“So you believe what the Vistani woman told us?” Fillegan asks Kurwin. “You think she is to be trusted?” “Reckon so.” Kurwin says. “Anyone who hunts undead is on my side. If she and this Doctor Richter hunt Strahd, then so much the better.” Chand nods “Her powers of sight certainly speak in her favor. She was ignorant of what we learned about Ireena’s identity when we saw Cresk’s fountain, but her reading of the cards seemed to point to it anyway, and it was already obvious that something at gallows’ hill bears investigating.” He arches an eyebrow at Sumu, who looks away quickly.

Fillegan holds up a finger. “Let us get this straight. The first card referred to the mansion of the dragon knights. Something to do with history. The second card: we find hope at the crossroads of life and death, which may be that place with the gallows, yes? Third: a weapon, for which we must search for a skeleton of a warrior, watched over by gargoyles. Fourth,” The little rogue nods to Ireena “That’s you. Evil’s bride. You’re staying with us, love. Like it or no. Fifth. He – Strahd, I take it – haunts the tomb of who he envies the most. Should we assume… Sergej?” Another nod at Ireena “Her late betrothed? Murdered by Strahd?”

Grismar rummages through his backpack, and blurts out. “Did we not also promise somewhat to that priestly fellow in the funny town with all the festivals?” Sumu nods “Complaints of graverobbery, I seem to recall. He had a suspect too.”

Fitzworth snorts loudly “Will any of you spare a single thought for Vasilka? Hand-built and destined for the cold clutches of the heinous figure which seems to be everyone’s favorite enemy? What do we do about her?” Chand puts a hand on Fitzworth’s shoulder. “Fights on many fronts are seldom won, they say in Halruaa. We must choose our battles wisely. Between your designs on the druids of Yester Hill and your concerns over the children of Vallaki, as well as all the other matters at hand, perhaps resolution of the creature’s fate as a sop for Strahd must wait a while. Like Kurwin said, perhaps the church itself will offer an outcome.”

“I shall speak a word to Father Lucien when we return to Vallaki.” Sumu offers. “But before we set out, I should probably beg the abbott for a bottle of sacramental wine, to tide Grismar over until we reach the winery.” The dwarf gives her a purple-stained grin, and closes his pack. ‘What’re we waiting for, then? Let’s go!”

Curse of Strahd – 5 – All in a Day’s Work

In which the party keeps up their forced march to Krezk, and Sumu admits to seeing things she shouldn’t.

Vallaki’s gates close behind us. Chand and Fillegan appear to exchange some banter with a guard, who calls after us “Yeah, but only IF you come back at all.” His colleague laughs uproariously, and Grismar chuckles too.

We walk with minimal conversation, all the while keeping a mistrustful distance from the edges of the road. “Let’s keep an eye out for wolves,” we tell each other , but “let’s not be found by strange disappearing things with tails and large paws” we quietly think. Or maybe it’s just me who thinks that. I’m unnerved anyway: hearing faint echoes of my mother’s voice since we left that strange apparition on those gallows that stand in the road between here and the town of Barovia. ‘You mustn’t make a sound! And don’t move! Not even a finger!’ It is no surprise that the nightmares left me feel shaky and nauseous this morning. I shake my head to myself. As Lliira teaches us: the day’s best start is gladness of heart. I let go of the key under my shirt, lift my head and try for a hopeful smile. The fog is not so bad, after all, and breakfast was quite tasty.

Fitzworth catches up with me. He looks much better since Father Lucien ministered to him. “You agree with me, though, right?”, he says. I give him a puzzled look. He smacks his head with his fist. “Of course! No. I mean… Yes. I mean… I am sorry.” Another smack. “I mean to say: you’ll come with me, right, when we go to Yester Hill? To restore balance to the woods there?” I try to give him an encouraging smile and I nod. It must mean a lot to him, to bring it up again, after all that happened in Vallaki. He continues “And also help me do something about the… the cruelty that the burgomaster of that creepy town perpetrates upon children.” I nod again.

A gravelly sound comes from the cloaked and hooded Kurwin, who goes ahead. “Seems to me, we’ve got a lot more work here than we bargained for, between the strange creatures sneaking through towns and the monstrous cronies of a local lord.” Chand finds this amusing. “Come now.” he says, as he nods to Ismark and Ireena “All we need to do is deliver these two to their monastery, do a little tour of that doubtlessly delightful winery run by the Martakovs from the Blue Water Inn to see where that next shipment is, and stop by that old windmill on our way back to Barovia. Thats it!” He shrugs eloquently. Grismar, who convinced our friendly innkeeper Danika to fill up his waterskin with wine, almost chokes on his drink. “Ye’d let the people of Vallaki continue to live under this repugnant regime of forced merriment? And ye’d let this Strahd figure keep all these people trapped here in this landlocked hellhole full of pea soup fog?” “Worse yet!” Fillegan adds “You think we can just walk out of here if and when we please?”

An awkward silence falls over the group. Ireena pulls up the hood of her cloak.

“Well, and… Well. I really think we should stop the corrupting magic of the trees near Yester Hill. It is clearly making people suffer.” Fitzworth says, just as the silence started to feel natural again.

I swallow. It needs to be said. “W-what puzzles me is that none of you seem to want to know what that poor hanged corpse was pointing at.” Apparently, this was not a wise thing to say, for now everybody stares at me. A fiery heat begins to rise from my toes. Chand narrows his eyes. “What do you mean, pointing at?” The heat has now reached my throat. “The – the corpse. On those gallows. That we saw, yesterday. It was pointing.” “It wasn’t pointing. It was dead. Not undead. Dead. It was quiet. It did not point!” Kurwin sounds very sure of himself as he says this. I am now probably the shade of a ripe wispberry, and I feel like I am steaming.

My boots are scuffed. I should polish them.

It isn’t smart to inadvertently admit to seeing things others may not have seen. Best to ask a question. “What d-did the corpse look like to you?” The silence lasts too long. “I – I thought it might look different to all of us.” The silence continues.

Eventually Chand says “I think you should tell us what it looked like to you.” I just make it to the side of the road before I throw up my breakfast. Too bad. It really was quite tasty.

Curse of Strahd – 4 – A Burgomaster’s Burial

In which the party decides what their most important errand is, and gets a first taste of Barovian wine.

“Nu-uh. I’m not going anywhere. Certainly not to a funeral.” says Grismar from the bench on which he’s seated. “Neither am I,” Fillegan adds. “You can keep your squabbling women and your disappearing daughters and mysterious pastries and your dearly departed. I need a break. And a drink. And some company that appreciates the same.” He lifts his glass to Grismar, then resolutely turns away from the rest of the party.

Kurwin shrugs and turns for the door, where Ismark Indirovich, son of late burgomaster Kolyan Indirovich, brother of Ireena waits impatiently. The others follow him outside. Before the door closes, they can hear Grismar calling “If that letter asking us for help was forged, why would you even want to be here?”

The day passes and night comes and goes. Neither Grismar nor Fillegan have left their table by the hearth or their wine glasses for longer than required to let out what was taken in. But Barovian wines are strong, so now they sleep, heads on their arms, under the glinting eye of the Vistani barkeep. He does not seem to mind the snoring.

A skeletal hand opens the door to the tavern. The hand is soon followed by Chand, who, unlike those who come in after him, looks like he’s taken the time to groom himself, and may even have had the services of a looking glass. When the sorceror stands next to his sleeping companions, he clears his throat. Fillegan shoots bold upright. “Right away, capt’n!” He blinks. “Oh. It’s you. Did you bury him, then?” Chand nods. “So we can go now?” Fillegan asks, looking hopeful.

Sumu aims a watery smile in his direction and shakes her head “E-even if there was nothing for us to do here, it seems that just leaving is n-not an option.” Fillegan deflates a little, but rallies,“So, then what?”

Fitzworth drops himself onto the bench next to Grismar, whose snoring continues without interruption. “We take Ireena to an abbey some distance away. It turns out that this Strahd fellow has an eye on her and she isn’t safe here. Then, we’ll take things from there.” Fillegan thinks this over for a few seconds, yawning and stretching and rubbing the sleep out of his eyes. “Why didn’t you just do that yesterday?” “Because there were other things we had to do.” Chand seems to be speaking with a bit more emphasis than usual. “Such as burying the late burgomaster, and finding out precisely what the village priest was hiding in the church basement. It would have been so very nice if you had been there to help.”

Fillegan eyes the sorceror for a moment, then decides to ignore his tone. “Should we get going, then?” Fitzworth hems and haws a bit. “I was sort of hoping for breakfast. I have the appetite of a direwolf!”

Kurwin, who has kept a position by the door of the inn, shrugs. “We should use what little daylight we have. However, eating here may let the dwarf wake up as well, and he’s a useful sort.”

Curse of Strahd – 3 – A Break in the Fog

In which the party reflects upon what they found in that eerie house, much to Grismar’s edification.

The party stands in the yard of the old brick house, coughing and wheezing steamy breath into the frosty air. Black smoke belches out of the chimneys, contrasted against a bright sky. Grismar blinks the sun out of his eyes and examines the gashes in his cloak. “That… went fast.” “For you, maybe.” Fillegan responds. “We’ve actually been busy.” “Really? Even after that shambling mound?”

The rogue nods. “Kurwin came to look for us when we were still downstairs. He had a run-in with some ghouls. We bloody well tripped over ourselves. Half of us were trying to get him to come down to us while the rest of us tried to to rush upstairs at the same time. Once we dispatched the ghoulies, we checked up on Gustav’s tomb, which was empty. Ran into a bunch of shady figures as well, which seemed to feel attached to Chand’s new shiny toy… Hey, who was that statue of, anyway?”

Chand appears not to hear the question, being focused instead on a fine-looking rope hanging over his shoulder. It twitches every now and then as he speaks to it. Fitzworth spits a glob of black slime into the grass. “Then there was a mimic. Tricked me into thinking he was a door. Very toothy fellow, that. Almost bit my whiskers off. Oh, and more ghouls.”

“Found the owners of this damned place too.” Kurwin adds. “They had all sorts of fascinating goods hidden away.” Sumu blows into her hands.” But why seal themselves into the walls? I’ve only heard of such treatment for ascetic martyrs and saints. And even then only in the less… ah… pleasant holy orders. Maybe it was punishment? Something to do with that letter we found?”

Kurwin looks thoughful. “Maybe. Shelter first, debate later.” Grismar cheers up at those words. “Great idea! Someplace warm. With a big fireplace and a well-stocked bar. Before we all freeze solid out here.” Sumu, teeth chattering, nods in agreement. Fillegan slides past her and starts walking ahead, whistling tunelessly. Fitzworth looks over his shoulder, gives an exaggerated wink at Chand, and says: “You coming too, wizard?” The sorceror, now having convinced the rope to tie itself in knots, pointedly ignores the druid, but joins the group anyway.

Curse of Strahd – 2 – A House of Death

In which the party continues their search of the unusual house.

We’re all up and awake in minutes, with the exception of Kurwin, who remains asleep, and Fillegan who says he’s up, but appears somnambulant for now. No one is reporting strange dreams, which is good I suppose. There not being any real breakfast, the attic seems a logical place to go next.

We climb the stairs behind the mirror with some level of anticipation, only to find a padlocked door. After some convincing, Fillegan wakes up enough to pick the lock. The door swings open and… well… it’s not what we expected. Who padlocks a children’s bedroom? And then who would lock those wee ones in there to die? Someone did. I pull some blankets from the beds and wrap their brittle remains up with a promise to take care of them as soon as we can. In the mean time, Chand concerns himself with a wonderfully well-crafted doll house, and Grismar dives into the toy chest. It’s nice to see adults willing to indulge a little whimsy in the face of such a grim situation.

Apparently, the children don’t share my view, for Rose and Thorn appear in ethereal forms as soon as Grismar picks up a toy, and they seem quite appalled. Not used to sharing, I guess. They complain, again, of parents long since gone, and of being afraid and not wanting to be left alone. Thorn even panics to the point of trying to occupy Grismar’s body, which isn’t very well received. Some of my companions almost lose their temper. Luckily, a few calming words do what anger couldn’t, and the little boy is convinced to stay with his sister in their room for the duration. We’re all spooked, but give them promises of our aid.

Next up, a small bedroom that seems to belong to no one in particular, but is occupied by a doll that, if seen from the corner of one’s eye, scowls and jeers. It’s probably just nerves, but I give it a good whack with my staff just to feel better.

The next opened door reveals a large room full of stored and covered furniture. Most seems innocuous, but a blanket chest contains a long-dead body. Fitzworth looks it up and down and declares the cause of death to be violent – likely multiple stab wounds. Perhaps a ritual?

Chand, in the mean time, seems more interested in a blank piece of wall. He prods and pokes, then stands back and looks like a cat that got the cream as a wall panel slowly turns and reveals a staircase going down. Before descending, we open the last door that stands off of the landing. Another spare bedroom and another doll, but nothing that requires immediate action on our part.

Once down the several levels of stairs, it seems we have finally reached the basement that the children kept mentioning. It contains the family crypt, and has labeled coffins for both Rose and Thorn. Their remains are quickly retrieved and we inter them with a short prayer: “Lliira, Lady of Joy, please share your peace with those whose fear made them cling to things that should have been let go. Please give comfort and companionship to those who were lonely and abandoned and afraid. Please extend sweet warmth and joyous light where until now there was cold that chills abandoned bones and fog that blocks sight of that which truly matters.”

I feel a rush of draft and a breath of ‘thank you’ in my ear. Looking at my companions, I deduce I may have been the only one to hear that, so silence probably serves best. I don’t think hearing voices no one else hears is necessarily a good thing, even if they are polite.

We move our attention to the other side of the crypt, where two more coffins stand, labeled for Gustav and Elizabeth, (this refers to the Master and Mistress of the house). Remembering the remains in the store room in the attic, we decide to see if Elizabeth’s coffin is yet empty. It isn’t. It is with some regret that we determine the absence of a body and note an infestation of centipedes. With great personal horror I must add that while swift action traps part of the swarm by replacing the lid on the coffin, the other half seems intent on relocating to my robes, perhaps for food, warmth or some other unknown benefit.

Luckily, my companions do not stand idly by as I lose my composure. They quickly help me divest myself of the horrid little creatures. I can but hope my (undoubtedly quite lively) capers were amusing to them. This last maneuver leaves us all feeling like we’re slowly getting a grip on this place, and we all feel somewhat fortified. Well, all of us, perhaps excepting Chand, who reaches for an unusual-looking necklace and speaks a few words in a harsh-sounding language. I am not sure what to make of this.

We decide to leave the other coffin be, and continue on until we enter a room with a rough wooden table, where the floor is strewn with humanoid bones. We examine them, but other than that they appear to have been chewed on, we learn little. Next, we enter a room that seems to form a central courtyard; bedrooms lie off of it in all directions. While none appears recently slept in, there are personal belongings in several rooms, or so we discover after Fillegan and his lock picks and Grismar and his axe make short work of several locked chests. We even find a most curious purse, which appears to have a most horrifying effect on Grismar (he gobbles down on a number of cobwebs out of shock). It is distressing to see the cheerful fellow so shaken – luckily he regains himself swiftly, although not before Fitzworth has volunteered to pack him a few more cobwebs for the road.

We retrace our steps until we turn an unexplored corner, following the sound of chanting. Here, Grismar discovers a fault within the floor – a large hole, covered over with flimsy boards and canvas, and with a set of horrific spikes at the bottom. None of us react swiftly enough to prevent his fall, and he seems somewhat bruised after his rendez-vous with the ground. Luckily, he is swiftly returned to solid ground, and I manage to restore him somewhat.

This hallway takes us to an even lower level, where we find a room with numerous niches, each containing an unusual and unsettling object. Sometimes they are body parts such as skulls, other times they seem much like the tools of a priests’ trade, except vile and corrupted. The chanting is now much louder. A hallway leads off of the room into a number of alcoves equipped with shackles. Here, we notice even more remains, with one wearing a gold ring (a wedding ring?), but our examination is brief, for then we notice a draft that points us towards a hidden door.

We enter a most gloomy room, containing an altar in the middle of a ceremonial pond, of sorts, as well as a pile of sticks and twigs and other organic matters in an alcove off to the side. There is a wheel that operates a portcullis opening up onto the room with the objects mentioned before, but activating it seems to have no effect. That is, until brave Grismar wades into the pool and climbs the central dais.

Strange apparitions soon surround us, but seem disinclined to do harm, sticking instead with a most monotonous and dreary song praising some Lordoth the Decayer. After some time, it becomes self-evident that something needs to happen, but none of us have any real idea what. On a hunch, I try to operate the wheel that controls the portcullis. This changes the dreadful chanting to an even worse text – the apparitions now insist ‘One must die’ in equally repetitive fashion. Chand feels that this was idiotic of me, and tells me so in no uncertain terms. I attempt a quip at him, but determine to take the matter into consideration at a later time, because at that very moment, the trash heap in the alcove seems to heave and shudder with sudden animation and then it appears before us as a most alien and hostile agglomeration of vegetation.

Fitzworth now springs into action, changing into a most ferocious direwolf shape that growls and snarls and snaps and bites. Filligan pulls his bowstring taut and lets off repeatedly, Grismar whips out his axe and Chand finds a safe corner from which to sling some spells. The battle takes a while, and Grismar, not quite recovered from his tumble into the pit begins to look pale. I fortify him with a quick spell and eventually convince myself to enter the fight up close. Just as I ready my first blow, the noxious weed sinks back into the inanimate pile of trash whence it came.

We breathe a sigh of relief.

Curse of Strahd – 1 – Once Upon a Time in a Tavern

In which the party meets, gets a strange letter and sets out on a misty road.

With not a penny to my name, I’d entered the inn, hoping that the group of other stragglers would distract from me not ordering anything. They could buy me time to stand by the fire and warm my bones. Last night’s evil dream had kept me shivering all day. Clutching an empty mead-glass left by another patron as if it were mine, I glance around the table where I had slipped into a seat.

At my right elbow, a pair of amber eyes catches mine. “Which deity do you serve?” “Ll-Lliira.” I mutter, before realizing that someone who is that handsome and that well-dressed will surely not be talking to me. I try for a welcoming smile to gloss over the moment, but feel my face flushing with embarrassment. I look to my left to see who this foreigner was talking to, but see only a wide-brimmed hat and a pulled-up scarf and nothing more than little glints of eyes in between. A well-worn leather book lies between their elbows.

Across from me, a jovial-looking dwarf elbows an elf in the ribs. “You? A gnome?” he bellows “Yeah, you’re a gnome and my great-auntie sails a threemaster through the sands of Anaurouch, alright!” The elf looks at the dwarf with a remarkably mild expression. “I do admit I am somewhat vertically overendowed. But for all intents and purposes, yes, a gnome. Fitzworth Tiddlywink of Treewhistle. Pleased to meet you.” The elf…ah.. tall gnome extends a hand to the dwarf, who shakes it as if he were trying to pump water. “Grismar. Of the Stoneburner clan. Much pleased, yes, much pleased to find myself in company again. Since my hunting partner was killed by some foul undead, it’s been lonely out there.” He jabs a thumb over his shoulder, towards the door. The figure to my left sits up a little straighter and makes an almost imperceptible nod to that statement.

A piercing screech draws everyone’s eyes to the corner of the table where no one had yet taken a seat. I startle. A barstool slides into the empty spot, and a stout, ruddy-cheeked halfling gets on the level with the surface of the table. He holds a wine glass as big as his head. “Evening, evening, landlubbers. Fillegan is here to share a glass with you. How do you all find yourselves tonight?” Grismar extends his beer stein to halfling’s glass for a violent mid-air clash. Fitzworth gives a cheery nod, and the man to my right gives a hearty smile, displaying an orderly set of immaculate teeth. I bob my head a little, then startle as the man to my left speaks. “Well met, halfling. Name’s Kurwin. What’s yours?” “Fillegan. With double ll. I am of the hin, and I come from the sea, but have come ashore in the hopes of fortune and comfort.” Kurwin clears his throat with the sound of moving gravel. “Good luck, halfling.”

By now, Grismar has poured the contents of his stein down his throat and slams it back on the table. “What about you then,” he asks, as he points at my amber-eyed neighbor with one hand and beckons a tavern girl with the other. “you’re not from this town or the next!” The man gives a brief laugh and shakes his head, causing a lock of hair to almost, but not quite, fall into his eyes. “Certainly not this town or the next. I have come north from Halruaa. My name is Chand.” He turns towards the tavern girl who responded to Grismar’s waving and says “A round for the table, if you don’t mind.” I can see the girl’s pupils dilate from here, but she takes stock of our drinks all the same.

That leaves me. And as if everyone at the table has suddenly realized the same, they turn. Lliira help me. I straighten my back a little, pin a smile in place and try to sound normal. “Uhhh.. I.. I’m Sumu. I’m here because I was asked to come… By the abbess… Because I serve Lliira… And uh…” Lliira delivers me, be she thanked, for the tavern girl puts a full glass of mead in front of me and holds out her hand for the empty one I still have a white-knuckled grip on. I hand it to her and use the movement to shield my face a little.

My deliverance is not yet complete, because the tavern door swings open with some force and a man strides through the door. A shiver runs its many feet down my spine. One of them! The scoundrel looks around the tavern, dismissing farmers and woodcutters in turn, then makes it to our table in three smooth steps. He slaps a piece of paper down on the table, then faces the bar and tosses the barkeep a purse that falls heavy with gold. “Keep them all in drinks tonight, friend. Oh, and give some beds to those folken in the back. They need to be on their game tomorrow.” With that, he is out the door as suddenly as he came in.

Chand picks up the paper and begins to read.

Hail to thee of might and valor.

I, a lowly servant of Barovia, send honor to thee. We plead for thy so desperately needed assistance.

The love of my life, Ireena Kolyana, has been afflicted by an evil so deadly that even the good people of our village cannot protect her. She languishes from her wound, and I would have her saved from this menace.

There is much wealth in this community. I offer all that might be had to thee and thy fellows if thou shalt but answer my desperate plea. Come quickly, for her time is at hand! All that I have shall be thine!

Kolyan Indirovich
Burgomaster

We ask each other questions. Who is this person? Why us? What does he mean? Along with what is said, glances fly across the table. The real question is thick in the air. Will you go? How about you? And you? And I? It’s said within the faith that when Lliira wants something for you, she leaves no doubt. While that is often comforting, I catch myself wishing for an out. “Lady Joy, please let me accept what I cannot change.” I mouth, silently. With that short prayer I turn my mind to other matters.

The mead is lovely. Thick and sweet, but citrusy enough not to be cloying. I nurse my third glass. Grismar, now on his twelfth beer, gesticulates his way through a yarn that involves smashing vampire skulls. Previously, Fitzworth talked about the tree his village is named after. At some point, Kurwin opened up his leather book, picked a bit of charcoal out of the band of his hat and sketched a quick likeness of Fillegan who was just then distracted by Chand as they discussed some news of piracy and trade routes. Suddenly, Chand slides his chair back, stretches, and announces he is off to bed. Apparently, he says, there is work to do in the morning.

I’ve got to give it to him: a real bed sounds wonderful just now. The tavern girl points me to a room and takes care to tell me how to lock the door. I nod, smile and stumble over a thanks, then quickly close the door.

Before a single rooster has even crowed, someone knocks on the door. Not too long thereafter, we’re all back into the common room. Some of us are a bit more bright-eyed than others, but that mysterious letter must have gotten to us all, because we find ourselves on the road in no time at all.

The first wisps of fog soon form around our ankles.

###

We approach a gate. It is flanked by two statues, both of which have their heads lying at their feet. Grismar hems and haws a bit, rubs the stone then says “No one’s looked after these for at least 3 centuries.” That is when the gates swing open with the rough sound of rust flaking off ancient hinges. It feels like a pit has opened in my stomach along with that gate, but what is there to do but go through. A thick, old forest crowds around us as we stand in the road. It smells of long-forgotten nightmares.

The gate is not that far behind us when another smell hits us. The source is easily found: a young man, dead, a little distance from the road. In his hand, another letter, almost identical to the one we found last night, although it identifies the evil as a vampire. Kurwin informs us that the young man likely died of a wolf attack and that the size of the prints indicates very sizable wolves indeed.

Before I have recalled the benediction of departure, a howl echoes. One voice. Then a second. I grip my staff tight and see Fitzworth mouth a familiar-looking spell to his club. A third, then a fourth voice joins the eerie chorus. Kurwin is getting noticeably twitchy. Fillegan begins swinging a grappling hook on a rope. A fifth howl starts up and Kurwin shakes his head. “Move, now! Stay on the path and keep walking fast.” No one objects, least of all me.

Some time thereafter the forest falls away from the road, even if the mist stays. As the trees fade, so does the howling. We continue our march at a more relaxed pace, until the road brings us into a village that appears entirely abandoned. We wander down the street that cuts through the middle of the town and see nothing but shuttered windows, until we reach the nice, taller houses in the center of town. There, we are approached by two children in unusual dress. They seem distressed and babble about lost parents, a baby and a nurse, as well as a monster in the basement, which was kept locked up by those same, lost parents. Chand takes an interest, squatting down and even letting the younger child hold his hand. They quickly share that they are called Thorn and Rose, and point out to us the house in which they say they live.

Kurwin fairly vibrates with unease and murmurs about a lack of footprints from the children, but most of the others are curious enough to want to look into the matter. We peek into windows and even send Fillegan up to look in at a higher story, but nothing seems out of place, except that the children seem to be unable to answer any questions about the duration of their parents’ absence or the fate of their baby sibling. I can’t blame them – I’d be scared out of my wits too.

Eventually, we enter the house, hoping to locate an adult who serves as guardian to these young ones.

The house is clean and well kept up, and is fair brimming with depictions of windmills. All trim is exquisitely carved, even if close inspection betrays hidden horrors in the at first sight delightful work. We work together to clear the ground floor of the house, and I am a little comforted about my own tightly-wound nerves when Kurwin reflexively aims for a taxidermied wolf, reducing it instantly to fluff. We find no entrance to the basement, however.

Soon, we take the main staircase to an upper level. The stairwell contains a family crest (of a windmill), but also portraits. We spend some time trying to date the painting, but other than the number 647, which may, or may not be a year, we do not find a clue.

The hallway is lined with suits of armor, which are eerie, but otherwise unthreatening. The music room has a harp and harpsichord, which remind me of the ones we have in Mirth’s main concert hall. Chand makes a skeletal hand appear (he himself seems somewhat surprised) and plays a small ditty. If we were not yet convinced the children are not what they seem, Rose’s sudden appearance to play along with Chand’s melody settles the point. Kurwin radiates with a sense of righteousness (not undeserved, I admit) and I decide to one day ask Chand what he was playing. It was a nice melody – good for dancing. It may have to wait until I can talk to him without stammering.

The library is an inviting place, with a desk stocked with although the selection of books seems haphazard. We soon find a fake book and upon bestirring it, we see an entrance to another room appear. Here, the books are quite curious indeed. There is also a chest with an skeleton sticking out of it. We approach it cautiously, and find the old chap is clutching a letter. I don’t recall the exact words, but it is signed by some ‘Strahd von Zarovich’ and seems to gloat at some other man’s misfortune. There is something there about a stillborn child. Is it possible that this is the little brother that the children spoke of? Next, we find deeds to the house, as well as a windmill (no surprise there), as well as a will listing our unsettling youngsters as beneficiaries.

There is another room on this level. Probably servant’s quarters, as it contains some uniforms and is sparse compared to the luxuries of the house.

The next level up catches us by surprise for here all is dusty and riddled with cobwebs. The suit of armor standing in the hallway is a matte black and properly terrifying. As we get closer, the glove releases, bringing it’s weapon hurtling down upon us. The fight is mercifully quick.

We stumble on, quickly finding ourselves in a small store room, where we are assailed by a broom. It is a strange irony that the wolves of this place howl frightfully but easily puff into dust and cotton wool, where empty armor and household articles are fearsome forces. I make mental note to bring this up later, hopefully to humorous result. It turns out that none of my companions are domestically inclined. To a fault, they fail to handle the broom and it takes us embarrassingly long to subdue it.

The main suite upon this floor is gorgeous. It clearly shows it’s age, but the bed looks firm and the mirror is still clear. It showed me nothing out of the ordinary (in as much as my endless rat’s nest of hair counts as ordinary), but it caused Chand to startle and turn away immediately. Not sure what that was about – Lliira knows that admiring one’s own good looks is not an unworthy act. I decide not to remind him of that in the moment.

Fillegan and some of the others have bent themselves over a small box and are ooh-ing and ah-ing. They pull out a very well-wrought necklace, as well as some rings. We then turn our attention to a small door, which we open most carefully. A crib stands covered, with a ghostly appearance bent over it. We barely move before it flies towards us, and we are forced to defend ourselves. Kurwin takes and awful blow, from which he cannot seem to rally. Once the appearance is defeated, we turn our attention to the crib, where a swaddled bundle lies. It is empty, which disturbs us all. Another mirror hangs here, and we soon find that it opens, leading to a staircase.

All our nerves are frayed right now, so we decide to retreat to the bigger suite and take some rest there. I notice no one wants to sleep on the bed, or look in that mirror. I offer to take watch, and spend most of my time in quiet contemplation, until I hear crying coming from the nursery. It seems there is still an echo of suffering there, so I pour a few drops of holy water into the palm of my hand, dip my fingers and fling them into the crib and onto the ground in front. “Lady of Laughter, please bear witness to this great pain and be a balm to it. Please allow wild grief change into calm acceptance and then to glad remembrance. Please take up the one who was so very young – this child of greatest innocence and happiness, and let him always play and be merry with you. Please mend the heart of she who loved so fiercely and protected so fiercely, but whose love was cruelly curtailed and cut off, leaving bitter dregs to tie her down in suffering. Please hold them in warmth and comfort and let them dance with you.”

I’ve managed not to wake up anyone, and I feel a little better.