Learning A Bit More Every Time We Draw Blood

Vampire spawn are nothing to laugh at at level three. I’m once again finding I need to re-adjust my expectations for Barovia, and I’m beginning to understand how deadly this early campaign really can be. When we entered Barovia a year and a half ago with the players I’d gotten to known over two years of Out of the Abyss, they were packing some serious firepower. Between the fact that we were starting with six player characters, and the fact that most of them were fairly well optimized builds designed for packing a serious punch (Especially with our Sharpshooting Monster Slayer Ranger and the Scorlock blasting away, they had no issue burning through the undead’s hitpoints), those first few sessions of Curse of Strahd were a little less harrowing than all the stories had prepared me for.

I found I was not really challenging them until they found themselves in a place they had no business being just yet, and were met with the harsh reality of sandbox campaign books run by a DM still wet behind the ears— diving headlong into a region they had no business being at just yet, and losing two PCs as a result. One accepted the uncertain offer, the other did not. And once again, ss all of this happened before, all of this will happen again. This time, right out of the gate I’ve found myself with two dead PCs within two sessions.

Death House Lives Up To Its Name

It’s actually been three sessions since I updated on Curse of Strahd, two of which finished out Death House. I ran with the updated/alternative Death House I mentioned in my last post, and I think it worked really well. The updated story basically makes Walter (the infant son the nursemaid cares for upstairs) part of the shambling mound in the dungeon, giving the party a shortcut if they choose to fight the monster— when the shambling mound uses engulf, the restrained player has a chance to see Walter, and if they sever his connection to the mound, it collapses, and they no longer need to fight it.

Session two covered the rest of the house (basically level three and attic, plus part of the basement), including some fun RP when our fighter was possessed by the bossy twelve-year-old ghost girl. Between sessions two and three, we found our fourth player, and we rounded out the party with a monk. The player asked if she could be from Barovia, and I said there wasn’t really a great fit for her in Barovia, but we dove into some of the 2e and 3/3.5e Ravenloft source books, and dropped her monastery in Darkon. I gave her some vague references to van Richten and Ezmerelda I’ll hook into later (she doesn’t know either by name), and she gave me 2.5 pages of backstory to work with, including a love-interest NPC she’s looking for who has some vague history with Barovia and/or Strahd too. I’m still figuring out exactly what I’ll do with her, but I’ll figure something out.

I gave her a variation on “creeping mists” once again, another of the dreams I’d used in the past, but this time she woke up in the father’s (otherwise empty) coffin of Death House’s family crypt. The rest of the party heard her pounding and shouting, and introductions were made. Eventually, they made their way through he rest of the catacombs, refused to sacrifice anyone on the bloody alter, and shambling Walter attacked.

Once the shambling mound was defeated, the party still had to get out, and since they skipped out on the room with the trap door, took the long way all the way back to attic of the House. I’ve seen a lot of DMs complain about the last act of Death House, the house coming to life and trying to kill everyone with noxious fumes and slashing scythe blades, but I love it, especially as the shambling mound feels like it should be the “end of dungeon boss and now we get treasure” moment, and instead everything goes to hell. By the time they reached the front porch, three we unconscious and rolling death saves. The rogue landed a natural 20 and popped back up gasping for breath, and was able to stabilize her companion. The monk was not so lucky.

Death’s Dark Vignettes

The DM’s Guide for Curse of Strahd’s Adventurer League season includes an alternative to faction charity resurrection for Ravenloft— a deal with the dark powers where the character gets to return to life— at a cost. I used these last time I ran, and it was the craziest, most exciting thing to happen in the early game, when Sumu, the poor cleric, took a lighting bolt between the shoulder blades at Yester Hill (aforementioned “victim of the sandbox” session). She was dead and gone, until she wasn’t. Sumu awoke with a second face on the back of her head, a malevolent Edward Mordake whispering horrible things to her and the rest of the party ad nausium. The DM’s guide has a few options (I think four or six  on the table) but there’s an additional full d20 list to work from too.

Last year I came across this excellent Reddit thread with options and ideas for presenting this offer to the player. I’ve used the scenario  presented by the original author twice, and sketched out a couple more inspired by the scenarios given as well as my own ideas. Here, the monk took the offer, and returned with a humpback— and disadvantage on DEX ability checks and saving throws. I’m not going to lie, I felt a little bad about that at first (since it’s a core attribute of being a monk in the first place), but I’m really excited to see where this goes for the character since it happened so early on.

Ismark and Ireena

Getting on to this week’s session, the party found an abandoned house to crawl into and tend their wounds (oh, did I mention we’re rolling with the DMG’s Lingering Injuries table?), spent the night, and set out in the morning again. I think I might need to readjust my dreams and nightmare d100 list, if only because I’m no longer trying to keep the small army that was last year’s campaign at full strength all the time. They made it to the Blood of the Vine Inn, learned they were in Barovia (whatever that means), and met Ismark and the Vistani bar owners.

I won’t detail everything with meeting Ismark and Ireena (I should be posting session by session if I want to dive into moment to moment recaps), but I want to move on to the church, so suffice to say, the party met them, who A. needed help transporting and burying their dead father, and B. need someone to travel with them on the road if they are to go to Vallaki. Now the party doesn’t know where Vallaki is, but they are headed east to fine Madam Eva, so they agreed.

What They Did In the Shadows…

Which leads us to the church basement and the party’s first encounter with a vampire (spawn) in Ravenloft. The party had just hit level three upon surviving (well, technically) Death House. Hit points! Class Archetypes! Second level spells! And now they were thrown against a single, very hungry vampire spawn in the basement, the son of the village priest.

This was the instance that cemented for me that this trip through Barovia is going to be a very different experience than the last time I ran it. I find I’m entering scenarios with the confidence of having dealt with it once before, but I need to keep that in check as well— this is still brand new for everyone else at the table, and what was a fairly straightforward (if long) fight for one party ended up being a different story this time around.

One major mistake on my part that ended up working in the party’s favor was that I completely forgot to consider weapon resistance for the Vampire Spawn. Their weapon attacks should have been dealing half as much damage, which would have been killer when you account for the vampire’s regeneration, as the monk and fighter were the only ones dealing any significant damage. What was already a bit of a drawn-out slugfest could have easily turned south if the Vampire had twice as many chances to draw blood.

There’s always a dangerous game of what-if I play post-session when looking at how everything played out.  I’m curious if I’d kept the resistance, would they have given up and fled faster (seeing how futile their attacks were), would they have come up with other tactics? If we hadn’t jumped into combat at the end of the night, would they have made different choices with more time to the combat (I was fairly pushy about making choices and keeping combat moving since I knew we had pushed passed time). And finally, most importantly— should I have ended combat the way I did?

And Another One Down…

We were a half hour past our usual cut off time.  DC Metro does not run all night, and people needed to get going. The cleric had gone down and was rolling death saves, but the vampire was on his last legs. I finally said “Ok, you’re able to finally kill the Vampire, Charrick [the cleric], go ahead and roll three death saves to see how this plays out.” Already at one success and one failure, it was a close one— and when the dice landed, Charrick had expired. I don’t think the player himself was upset, but the rest of the party was beating themselves up knowing the could or should have tried to stabilize him before this all happened. We called it a night, and I followed up by email the next day.

I sent Charrick’s player another offer from the dark powers (once again inspired by the vignettes link above), but he ultimately decided against it. This cleric wouldn’t take the offer, and we spent the rest of the week discussing where we’ll go from here. I’m looking forward to his next character (I’ll have to write up this party at some point soon), and he’ll play Ismark and Ireena until I find the time and place to introduce our latest victim of the mists. I’m also looking forward to when the PC’s see their companion spirit rise from the graveyard in the March of the Dead, the nightly procession of Adventurers who fell victim to Ravenloft, as they spend the night at the church.

Ever Forward

I’m not sure I have any particular conclusion for final point to follow up on the last 1700 words or so, other than every game for us is another chance to learn from past mistakes, as well as make new ones. This is D&D, PCs Die. Ravenloft is an especially deadly place, but also a really exciting setting where Death truly doesn’t need to be the end, and as this latest group will eventually learn, might not even be the worst outcome…

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.