Curse of Strahd

Session 7
Village of Villaki

Exploring the rest of the Old Bonegrinder turned up six pieces of cheap jewelry stuffed in a moldy straw mattress. The domed attic was filled with old machinery, and the mangled, gnawed-upon body of Grosk the half-orc gladiator was somewhat strewn about the place. From the top of the windmill’s hill they could see a ring of four squat megaliths at the forest’s edge, ravens wheeling in the air above them.

The two children were Freek and Myrtle, from Vallaki. They told the adventurers that their parents had sold them to the hags in exchange for dream pastries. They did not want to go back to their parents.

“We could try to find someone else in Vallaki to take care of them,” Ismark suggested.

“Perhaps,” said Malenthor. “Let’s go.”

“It’s two hours’ walk to Vallaki,” Ismark added. “One, if we hurry. We should get there before the sun goes down.”

“Should we wait for ‘mother’ to come home?” asked Balthazar. “Those psychobitches did mention someone with authority over them.”

“We’ll come back for her,” suggested the monk.

“Wouldn’t it be a good idea to remove the rot from the source?” asked Lillian.

Malenthor gestured toward the children. “Later.”

Balthazar shrugged. “Either way works for me. We run into good times no matter what we do in this crazy world.”

“Well, I mean this windmill is yours,” said the sorcerer. “Wouldn’t you prefer it to be vacant of … sinister mothers trying to cook children in a pie?”

“I’m not going to become a miller, Lillian,” said Malenthor.

“I don’t know, there could be potential rental business here. But no one is going to rent out a people-pâtissier.”

While they bantered, Balthazar found a piece of parchment and started scribbling big letters on it. It read, “Hey. Bitch. This place is under new management. We will be back to gut you. Get the hell out and don’t come back.”

“Ok. That should do it,” he said once he’d completed his work. “Let’s get these kids on the road.”

The Old Svalich Road meandered into a valley watched over by dark, brooding mountains to the north and south. The woods receded, revealing a sullen mountain burg surrounded by a wooden palisade. Thick fog pressed up against this wall, as though looking for a way inside, hoping to catch the town aslumber. The dirt road ended at a set of sturdy iron gates with a pair of shadowy figures standing behind them. Planted in the ground and flanking the road outside the gates were a half-dozen pikes with wolves’ heads impaled on them.

Daylight was beginning to fade as they approached the gate. Two human guards stood just inside, cradling pikes. They peered at the travelers as they approached. “Greetings,” the woman said, businesslike, her accent just a bit different from that you heard in the village of Barovia. “What’s your business in Vallaki?”

“Come for the festival?” the man said, snickering until the woman glared him down.

“Sightseeing of course,” said Balthazar. “This place is a wonderland of new experiences. These wolf heads are a very nice touch. They say ’we’re hardcore’, without being over the top.” Lillian looked long and blankly at the dragonborn. Ismark laughed.

“We kill them and kill them,” the female guard said, “but they just keep coming.”

“So, what my friend means is, we’re looking to trade, do business,” said Lillian, stepping forward. “We’ve been known to do some extermination ourselves for a price.”

“Or for free,” said the priest jovially. “Kicking ass is payment in itself, you know.”

“Monastery,” said Malenthor. Lillian facepalmed.

“Oh, yeah … that too! We need to go to the monastery,” said Balthazar.

Ireena nodded. “The Abbey of St. Markovia, in Krezk.” Balthazar pointed at her and touches his nose.

The female guard nodded. “All right, then. Enter, and behave yourselves in our town.”

Balthazar scoffed playfully. “Pretty sure the last time I behaved I was a pup. But don’t worry, darlin’. I’m very good at misbehaving” He added a wink and walked on.

She did not appreciate the levity. Certainly not as much as Ismark did. Balthazar leaned over to the man and said, “She’ll come around. They always do.”

“You’ll probably be looking for the inn,” the male guard said as they entered the gate. “Just follow the road to the center of town and it’s on the right, the Blue Water Inn. Can’t miss it.”

“Thank you very much,” said Lillian.

They passed a stockyard and a handful of residences and lesser shops before arriving at the inn. Gray smoke issued from the chimney of the large, two story wooden building with a stone foundation and sagging tile roof, upon which several ravens had perched. A painted wooden sign hanging above the main entrance depicted a blue waterfall.

“Hopefully this place doesn’t end up being completely horrifying,” said Balthazar, sauntering inside.

“I thought you liked horrifying…” said Malenthor.

“Oh you know me so well. Busted,” chortled the dragonborn. Lillian sighed.

Damp cloaks hung from pegs in the entrance portico. The tavern was packed with tables and chairs, with narrow paths meandering between them. A bar stretched along one wall, under a balcony that could be reached by a wooden staircase that hugged the north wall. Another balcony overhung an entrance to the east. All the windows were fitted with thick shutters and crossbars. Lanterns hanging above the bar and resting on the tables bathed the room in dull orange light and cast shadows upon the walls, most of which were adorned with wolf heads mounted on wooden plaques.

A pretty middle-aged woman tended the bar while a colorfully dressed half-elf’s story held the attention of three or four of the six locals gathered. Everything fell quiet as the party entered. Balthazar headed over to the bar, completely used to getting strange looks when he entered a crowded room. Lillian walked with him and smiled at the barmaid. “Hello, may I get a round for my friends and I? Have you any wine?”

The woman paused for a moment at the paired monsters standing before her but found her smile again in short order. “Um, certainly. Call me Danika. I have pints of Purple Grapemash No. 3, or Red Dragon Crush.”

“Red Dragon Crush, please!” Ismark said, suddenly appearing next to Balthazar. “That’s the better one,” he stage-whispered to the dragonborn.

“Is it? Thank you, sir.” He then leaned over to the barmaid and said, “I’ll take one of everything. Two of the Red Dragon though.”

“Is that the better one?” Lillian asked Danika.

“Indeed it is,” she said, increasingly more at ease. “And this stock is dear.” She counted out glasses and started to pout. “Our latest delivery from the Wizard of Wines is long overdue.”

“Two milks,” Malenthor ordered, pointing at the children with two fingers of one hand.

“Are you hungry?” asked the barmaid. “I have hot beet soup and fresh bread. Or my husband could cook you up a wolf steak.”

Balthazar’s eyes lit up. “Wolf steak! Sounds excellent.”

“No shortage of that around these parts,” she said, a bit apologetically.

“Beet soup please, if you will,” said Lillian, licking her lips. Then she asked, “Long overdue delivery? As in they haven’t met their end of the contract?”

“That’s right,” Danika said as she distributed the cups. “Are you lot the adventurous sort?” she asked, dropping her voice.

“Sort of, I’m definitely in the business of contract management,” said the sorcerer. Then she pointed at Balthazar. “He is definitely the adventurer type.”

“If you ain’t pushing the limit, you might as well stop breathing,” said the dragonborn with a big, toothy grin.

Danika nodded. “If you’re willing to find out what’s holding up my shipment, I’ll offer you free room and board. Just go to the winery and bring my wine to me.”

Balthazar leaned over to Malenthor. “Maybe she could keep an eye on the rugrats too.”

“Yes, perhaps they can help around the kitchen or cleaning the dining room,” suggested Lillian.

“I do have two, myself,” said Danika, beaming with pride.

“We rescued them from the hags at the Bonegrinder,” Malenthor confided.

“Least I can do. Wine is the only thing keeping this town from falling apart, the Devil take the Burgomaster’s damned festivals.”

“We’d love to help you with the wine delivery,” said Balthazar. “Lillian can work out the details with you. But tell me more about this festival. You are the second person in town to mention it.”

“We’ve endured at least one festival a week for the past several years. Some folks think it keeps the Devil Strahd at bay, but I don’t agree. Mostly it’s just a dismal affair. But you didn’t hear it from me. Speaking ill of the festival is a good way to be labeled in league with Strahd and thrown in the stocks or … or worse.”

“Wait, what does this festival entail?” asked Lillian.

“He changes the theme every time. Last time it was the Wolf’s Head Jamboree. In three days it’s the Festival of the Blazing Sun.”

“Ok. Seems like the fun would wear out after a while,” said the priest.

“Sounds excessive,” agreed Lillian.

“You have no idea,” said Danika.

“So room and board. How big are your beds?” asked Balthazar. “I need a really big bed. It’s the tail … has a mind of its own when I’m asleep. Flops around everywhere.”

The barmaid grinned, now fully won over by the adventurers. “I think we can accommodate you all, yes.”

Lillian smirked and gestured to Balthazar. “Careful around this guy.” Danika smiled at that.

The half-elven man appeared at the bar, next to Lillian. “Danika, my usual if you please?” Malenthor gave the man a brief sidelong glance, and the tiefling cocked an eyebrow.

As the barmaid wanders off for a moment, the man nodded his head. “Rictavio, at your service.”

“Malenthor,” returned the drow. “Charmed, I’m sure.”

“You are, as I am, ‘not from around here,’ I see.”

“Hello, my friend,” said Balthazar, introducing himself. “And I try really hard to fit in, really. Just never works out. Probably the scales.”

“True,” said the drow.

“That’s an understatement,” said the sorcerer, offering her hand in greeting. “Lillian.” Rictavio kissed the outstretched hand smoothly. The tiefling was taken aback for a moment but did not pull away. “Well, a gentleman,” she said, glancing self-consciously at the tiny scales on the back of her hand.

“I do hope you’ll be here when I return, Lillian. I promised to bring some food to my portly friend across the street, and his monkey. Well, my monkey.”

Danika appeared with a couple of apples and a wolf steak. “That monkey was the worst thing to ever happen to my place.”

“I’m sure I’ll be able to make myself avail … Wait, monkey?”

“Yes, Piccolo,” said Rictavio. “I had to give him away to the destitute toymaker.”

Ismark’s eyes lit up. “Gadof Blinsky, the toymaker?”

“Curiouser and curiouser…” Lillian muttered.

Rictavio nodded and bundled his foodstuffs. “I shall return forthwith. If you’ve come in search of your heritage, I suspect we will have much to talk about.” He grinned and headed for the door.

View
Session 6
The Bonegrinder

After the raven flew away, the party noted that the arms of the windmill were deathly still. They could not be sure if the slight breeze at their backs would be enough to turn it or not.

“Charming. Shall we?” said Malenthor.

“Might as well see what’s to be seen. Let’s do it,” said Balthazar, striding forward.

“Hrm, it looks like it’s going to need a dusting…” Lillian said sarcastically.

The ground floor had been converted into a makeshift kitchen, but the room was filthy. Baskets and old dishware were piled everywhere. Adding to the clutter was a peddler’s cart, a chicken coop, a heavy wooden trunk, and a pretty wooden cabinet with flowers painted on its doors. In addition to the clucking of the chickens, they heard toads croaking. The chicken coop contained three chickens, a rooster, and a few laid eggs.

The sweet smell of pastries blended horridly with a stench that burned their nostrils. The awful odor came out of an open, upright barrel in the center of the room. Warmth issued from a brick oven against one wall, and a crumbling staircase ascended the wall across from it. Shrieks and cackles from somewhere higher up caused the old mill to shudder.

Malenthor glanced at the stairs, then headed over toward the trunk. It had tiny holes bored into its lid, and the monk decided to leave it be, heading toward the cabinet instead. It contained wooden bowls full of herbs and baking ingredients, including flour, sugar, and several gourds of powdered bone. Hanging on the inside of the cabinet doors were a dozen locks of hair. Amid various concoctions were three small, labeled containers. “Youth,” “Laughter,” and “Mother’s Milk.”

Balthazar was fascinated by the stinky barrel, which held glistening, greenish-black liquid. “This actually smells kind of like the street fare in Mulhorand,” said the dragonborn. “I think it’s demon ichor.”

“Oh, remind me not to eat in Mulhorand,” Lillian said testily. “Demon ichor, locks of hair, youth, laughter, mother’s milk … and cookie recipes. This sounds like one hell of a grandma’s house.”

“Let’s go meet her, shall we?” Balthazar said enthusiastically.

Malenthor glanced upward at the latest bout of cackling. “Surely.”

“Hey grandma, come out and say hi!” Balthazar yelled up to the top of the windmill. Lillian facepalmed.

They ascended. The dirt-caked windows allowed very little light to enter the eight-foot-high chamber, most of which was taken up by a large millstone connected to a wooden gear shaft that rose through the ceiling in the center of the room. A stone staircase continued up, toward the sound of loud cackling.

“Lady and Gentleman, I give you the Bonegrinder,” said the dragonborn. Malenthor nodded at him.

Lillian and Balthazar failed to notice the pair of ugly young women who suddenly appeared among the party! They wore silk shawls and gowns of stitched flesh. Long needles stuck out of their tangled mops of black hair. “Come for a pastry?” one of them hissed in Malenthor’s ear.

“Perhaps,” he said, doing his best to appear nonplussed.

“Our mother uses only the finest ingredients,” the other said from behind Lillian, who jumped about a foot away. “One gold piece each.”

“Pricey. Worth it?” asked the drow.

“The best dreams you’ve ever had,” said the woman beside him.

The sorcerer recovered herself and said, “I’m sorry, did you just offer us pastry? For a gold? Are they made of silks and jewels or something?”

“Ancient Barovian secret,” said the hag near Lillian.

The tiefling cringed away a little. “Yeah, you see, has it been approved by the local culinary guild?” That set the sisters to cackling.

“Is your mother above?” asked Malenthor.

“She’s out selling her wares,” replied the one.

“Yes, she … isn’t beholden to any guilds,” commented the other.

Lillian looks efficiently creeped out by their general appearance but tries very hard to be polite because … of their appearance.

The monk continued to ply the sisters with questions. “I see. You live here? Have you been here long?”

“Long enough,” said the one.

“And we’ve answered your questions long enough. Are you here to buy?” asked the other.

“The pastries?” asked Lillian.

“Yes, my pretty. The pastries.”

“Mincemeat,” said the one.

“What do you think?” asked Balthazar. “I say there’s no such thing as a bad new experience.”

Lillian shook her head. “I don’t believe I will be partaking.”

Malenthor handed the hag beside him a gold coin. “Very well. Show me your wares.”

She grinned, showing what may have never been a full collection of teeth. “Follow me.” She headed toward the down stairs. Malenthor followed.

“Lillian… don’t be prudish. Live a little,” said Balthazar, following the drow.

Lillian scrunched her face as she brought up the rear. “I’ll take a look at said wares and decide after.”

Malenthor’s hag shuffled over to the brick oven and fetched a pie from inside. “Perfect!” she announced. “I told you, Offalia.” The other hag stuck her tongue out at the first one. It was home to a lot of pustules.

The hag passed the pie to Malenthor. It was hot, but not too hot to eat. And it smelled lovely.

“Thank you,” he said, considering the pastry before taking a bite.

While the drow considered, Lillian elbowed Balthazar in the ribs to get his attention. “Yes?” he asked.

The tiefling whispered to him in Draconic. “I heard crying above the room we were just in.”

“Oh? Let’s go check that out, then,” he replied in the same tongue.

Malenthor’s eyes widened in surprise. “Gods’ blood. This is very good,” he declared. He finished his pie off in two quick bites.

“We told you,” the hag said, sickly sweet. She provided a second pie to Balthazar. The dragonborn swallowed the pastry whole. Lillian shuddered at the sight.

The pastries made the men feel sleepy. Very sleepy. They both managed to shake it off, though. “They’re strong, Bella,” Offalia said to her sister.

“Hey… that thing packed a punch,” said Balthazar turning toward the stairs.

“Slow down there,” Offalia told him.

“One sec, beautiful, I’ll be right back,” he said. Ireena paled and Lillian turned green at the words.

Balthazar trudged up to the third floor to find a thick wooden gear shaft in the center of the cramped, circular room. In a rotting wooden closet were three crates, stacked one atop another, with small doors set into them. Next to the closet was a heap of discarded clothing. A ladder climbed to a wooden trapdoor in the nine-foot-high ceiling. A moldy bed with a tattered canopy stood nearby.

Balthazar breaks open one of the crates. Each was three feet square. The top one was empty, but the middle and lower ones each contained a captive child. The outward-facing side of each crate was fitted with a small door that had an iron latch and iron hinges. It could be unlatched and opened easily from the outside. The kids’ cages were full of crumbs. They pulled away from the front of the crates at the sight of the monster.

The dragonborn priest sighed. “Of course it had to be children.” He turned to head back down the stairs with his hammer drawn. Offalia suddenly appeared in front of him, blocking his path.

(Three seconds before…)

Downstairs, Bella spoke to her sister. “Go and see to the dragonborn. I’ll keep these entertained.” As Offalia vanished, the remaining hag said, “I guess our secret’s out.”

The hags shed their mortal guises, somehow becoming even uglier. Offalia simply lunged at Balthazar, but he fended off her slashing claws. Bella threw a black beam of enervating energy at Malenthor, the magic striking him in the chest and sapping his strength. Ireena drew her longsword and pushed her way through the kitchen toward Bella, but couldn’t find much room to maneuver in the close quarters.

Feeling weakened, Malenthor pulled his spear and spun it in a kata he learned early in his training, relying on his manual dexterity to make up for what he lacked in physical might. Despite his maneuver, his weakness slowed him enough for the hag to evade both his thrust, and striking foot.

“Come here, princess,” said Balthazar. “I need to help you with that ugly problem by introducing your face to my hammer.” He brought the heavy weapon forward and bloodied Offalia’s nose, but she looked more surprised and angry than hurt.

“I’m so through with you and your sister,” said Lillian, pointing her hands and firing a trio of scorching rays at Bella. Only one of the rays found its target, but the hag shrieked as her stitched-flesh gown burned off, revealing things no one was ever meant to see.

“Any idea what these things are?” Malenthor asked the sorcerer. No one replied.

Ismark drew longsword and shortsword, climbing up on a table to hack at Bella from above. He was a whirling dervish of blades, getting three hits in on her. The hag definitely seems resistant to his mundane weapons. Bella decided that Ismark was the greater threat, and lunged at him with steely claws, but he weathered the frenzied assault.

Offalia’s claws strike sparks against the warpriest’s armor again, and Ireena carved a gash alongside Bella’s side. Having noted the hag’s resistance to Ismark’s blades, Malenthor drops the spear and drew the silver blade, hoping it would make a difference. She dodged the sword, so he punched her in the head. At the sight of the silver blade, Bella’s bloodshot eyes focused on the monk once more.

Balthazar tried to position himself opposite the stairway down from the hag and prayed to Stromaus for a thunderwave. His battle prayer caught her right the midsection and she rolled all the way down the stairs to the ground floor.

“Oh, oh you too, you disgusting thing,” said Lillian to the other hag entering the room. She then spread her fingers and evoked a twinned chromatic orb, sending a ball of of thunder at each of the hags. Ismark slashed at Bella, covering her with several minor gouges.

Deciding that their prey was too strong, Bella cried out to Offalia. “Let’s get the Hells out of here!” A moment later, the two hags vanished from sight.

View
Session 5
The Reading

Ismark answered the dragonborn. “It’s ‘Mad Mary’ Bogoescu. Her daughter, Gertruda, ran away last week and hasn’t been seen since.” The party accepted the information, then continued on their way.

They crossed the River Ivlis, which flowed as clearly as a blue winter sky through the valley, and the road brought them down to the crossroads. An old wooden gallows creaked in a chill wind that blew down from the high ground to the west. A frayed length of rope danced from its beam. The well-worn road split there, and a signpost opposite the gallows pointed off in three directions: BAROVIA VILLAGE to the east, TSER POOL to the northwest, and RAVENLOFT/VALLAKI to the southwest.

The northwest fork slanted down and disappeared into the trees, while the southwest fork clung to an upward slope. Across from the gallows, a low wall, crumbling in places, partially enclosed a small plot of graves shrouded in fog. It had rained here not long ago, leaving the ground muddy.

“Which way to the monastery?” Malenthor asks the siblings. Ismark pointed to the southwest; Ireena seemed uncertain.

Lillian pulled out the overland map she had found in Death House. While she perused it, Balthazar looked around, noting muddy boot prints leading off to the northwest. To his eyes, they seemed to belong to a tall, large humanoid, whose left foot was turned strongly inward. He remembered that Grosk walked that way.

“Hey! These footprints look familiar,” said the dragonborn. “It looks like we weren’t the only one’s pulled into this crazy place.”

“Oh?” asked Malenthor. “Signs of Grosk?”

“Where?” Lillian almost dropped the map as she came over to see what he had found.

Balthazar looked between his companions. “Damn right! Honestly all this other madness is much more interesting to me, but what do you two think? Chase Grosk or head to the monastery directly?”

“If the lreena and Ismark do not mind a detour,” said the drow.

“She must have gone to see the Vistani,” Ismark said, indicating the direction of the prints.

“The Vistani?”

“Gypsies in service of the devil Strahd,” Ireena said. “They’re the only ones allowed to leave the valley.”

“They aren’t so bad,” Ismark said.

“You only say that because they let you win at cards in their damned tavern.”

Ismark shook his head. “I don’t mind a detour, no. Besides, I’ve never met Madam Eva, their leader.”

“Why would Grosk seek out gypsies?” Malenthor wondered aloud.

“Madam Eva could tell her future…”

“Oh. Well, maybe that.”

“Or to ‘ask’ them to take her out of the valley,” Lillian suggested. The monk nodded.

“Madam Eva, eh?” said Balthazar. “I’ve heard gypsy women are very exotic. Let’s go there.”

Ireena nodded in agreement, and the group started down the path. Before they got too far, they heard a creaking noise behind them, coming from the gallows. Where there was nothing before now hung a lifeless, gray body. The breeze turned the hanged figure slowly, so that it could fix its dead eyes upon the travelers.

“That’s … odd,” said Malenthor.

“You ain’t lying,” agreed Balthazar, walking over to get a better look. The drow followed, morbidly fascinated. As they drew nearer, the smell was … potent.

The dragonborn saw an unfamiliar Barovian man. “Awful stench for a body that just appeared there. Anyone recognize him?”

Malenthor gave Balthazar a puzzled look. “Do you not see the resemblance?” He gestured between the body and himself.

“Resemblance to who? Just looks like some villager to me.”

“Truly? Interesting. What manner of specter is this, to appear differently to different people?”

Balthazar walked up on the gallows and got in the body’s face to get the best look possible. “Looks nothing like you,” he decided.

“Balthazar’s right,” Lillian said. “Are you feeling all right, Malenthor?”

Malenthor cocked his head to one side, a slightly bemused expression on his face. “I wonder,” he said. Then the corpse rapidly melted away into nothingness, and the monk shrugged helplessly.

Balthazar looked toward the Barovian siblings. “Things like this happen often?”

Ismark nodded. “More often than not, it seems. We can’t let it spook us, though. Can we?” Is he trying to reassure? Or looking for reassurance himself?

“Too right,” said Malenthor.

The dragonborn snorted. “Are you kidding? This place is fascinating! A little gruesome, but I have a feeling that I definitely won’t get bored.”

* * *

They returned to the path to the Vistani camp and arrived at the Tser Pool about thirty minutes later. The road they traveled gradually disappeared and was replaced by a twisted, muddy path through the trees. Deep ruts in the earth were evidence of the comings and goings of wagons. The canopy of mist and branches suddenly gave way to black clouds boiling far above. There was a clearing next to a river that widened to form a small lake several hundred feet across. Five colorful round tents, each ten feet in diameter, were pitched outside a ring of four barrel-topped wagons. A much larger tent stood near the shore of the lake, its sagging form lit from within. Near this tent, eight unbridled horses drank from the river. The mournful strains of an accordion clashed with the singing of several brightly clad figures around a bonfire. A footpath continued beyond this encampment, meandering north between the river and the forest’s edge.

“Do they like visitors?” asked Balthazar. “I mean, they are going to like me. But they might not know that yet.”

Ismark smirked at the dragonborn’s confidence. “As long as we come in peace and show respect, they’ll welcome us.”

“Excellent.” He strode boldly into the camp.

There were about a dozen Vistani around the fire, telling stories and guzzling wine. “Ha-hey!” one of them called as he saw the party approaching, hoisting up a flask of wine. “Come and join us!” Ismark did not need to be asked twice; he swiftly found a place among them.

Malenthor smiled politely. “In vino, veritas,” he said.

“So true, Malenthor,” Balthazar said sagely. “Also, they have wine! I like you guys already!” he called out. The monk took a seat, as well. Lillian and Ireena followed with varying levels of caution.

“I was JUST about to tell the story of the mad mage,” said the man who welcomed the group, passing Balthazar his flask. A beautiful young Vistani woman handed one to Malenthor before wheeling off to dance. “Would you care to hear it?”

“Absolutely!” said Balthazar.

“Excellent!” He finished his drink and was immediately handed another. “A mighty wizard came to this land over a year ago. I remember him like it was yesterday. He stood exactly where you’re standing. A very charismatic man, he was. He thought he could rally the people of Barovia against the devil Strahd. He stirred them with thoughts of revolt and bore them to the castle en masse.”

“Father didn’t want to get involved,” Ireena said in an undertone to her companions. “Wouldn’t let us get involved.”

The Vistani man continued. “When the vampire appeared, most of the wizard’s peasant army fled in terror. A few stood their ground and were never seen again. The wizard and the vampire cast spells at each other. Their battle flew from the courtyards of Ravenloft to a precipice overlooking the falls. I saw the battle with my own eyes. Thunder shook the mountainside, and great rocks tumbled down upon the wizard, yet by his magic he survived. Lightning from the heavens struck the wizard, and again he stood his ground. But when the devil Strahd fell upon him, the wizard’s magic couldn’t save him. I saw him thrown a thousand feet to his death. I climbed down to the river to search for the wizard’s body, to see if, you know, he had anything of value, but the River lvlis had already spirited him away.”

“That story gets bigger every time you tell it,” an older man said.

“So? Maybe next time there’ll be two wizards! But for now, I starve! We should feast! Strangers, have you eaten?”

Balthazar shook his head. “Not in a while. Your hospitality is greatly appreciated.”

Lillian, severely understated, said “I could eat.”

The others nodded in agreement, and a feast ensued, during which the party was regaled with a great deal of Vistani Lore. Once everyone was sated, the storyteller said, “It was fated that you would visit our humble camp. Madam Eva foretold your coming. She awaits you.” He pointed to the largest tent.

Balthazar’s eyes widened curiously. “Well I’m glad someone knew we would be here today. ‘Cause I sure didn’t.”

“Then I won’t keep her waiting.” Lillian, who had already cleaned herself up, got to her feet. Her companions, including the burgomaster’s children, followed suit.

Magic flames cast a reddish glow over the interior of the large tent, revealing a low table covered in a red velvet cloth. Glints of light seemed to flash from a crystal ball on the table as a hunched figure peered into its depths. As the crone spoke, her voice crackled like dry weeds. “At last you have arrived!” Cackling laughter burst like mad lightning from her withered lips. “In all my years, no one has ever left Death House alive. You are … interesting. Please, come in, come in.”

“We very nearly didn’t,” Malenthor admitted.

“A pleasure, Madam,” said the dragonborn. “And you know about that crazy house? That was a hell of a thing.”

“Very little takes place in this valley that escapes my notice, Norixius Balthazar,” said Madam Eva.

“Show-off,” Lillian said, sotto voce.

Malenthor mouthed, “Norixius?”

“I know. Awesome, right?” said the dragonborn.

Very little, Lillian Ixilla. Your coming was twice foretold.” Before the tiefling could ask what that meant, the crone said, “And you are also welcome here, Malenthor the Whisper.” The monk inclined his head in respect.

“Please, sit. Sit and we’ll cast the Tarokka!”

Balthazar mouthed “the Whisper?” Malenthor offered a small smile to the dragonborn as he took a seat.

“Don’t worry, Ismark … Ireena,” said Eva, acknowledging the siblings. “There may be no place at my table now, but your fates and theirs are bound.” She had two decks of cards, one taller than the other. She dealt them in a cross pattern.

“Let us begin with the first. This card tells of history. Knowledge of the ancient will help you better understand your enemy.” She turned the card over, revealing the Anarchist, a Six of Glyphs. “I see walls of bones, a chandelier of bones, and a table of bones – all that remains of enemies long forgotten.” The siblings exchanged a thoroughly puzzled glance.

“Now, the second. This card tells of a powerful force for good and protection, a holy symbol of great hope.” She pointed to the card closest to the party and beckoned Balthazar to turn it over. Doing so revealed the Healer, the Three of Glyphs. "Look to the west. Find a pool blessed by the light of the white sun.

“This third card is a card of power and strength. It tells of a weapon of vengeance, a sword of sunlight.”
She asked Malenthor to turn it, and he did, revealing the Conjurer, the Nine of Stars. “I see a dead village, drowned by a river, ruled by one who has brought great evil into the world.”

“This fourth card sheds light on one who will help you greatly in the battle against darkness.”
She had Lillian turn the card, revealing the Ghost. Eva grinned at the tiefling. “Of course.” Malenthor quirked an eyebrow expectantly. “I see a fallen paladin of a fallen order of knights. He lingers like a ghost in the long abandoned lair that you were destined to visit.”

Lillian leaned forward. “What? What do you-”

“Your enemy is a creature of darkness! Whose powers are beyond mortality! This card will lead you to him!” Eva turned the last card herself, revealing the Tempter. “I see a secret place – a vault of temptation hidden behind a woman of great beauty. The evil awaits atop his tower of treasure. So ends the casting.”

“Wow,” said Balthazar.

“I do not envy you the task before you,” said the old gypsy woman. Malenthor glanced at his companions uncertainly before returning his attention to the crone.

“And that’s all going to make sense at some point before we are done here,” said the dragonborn. “I can’t wait to say ‘Remember when that amazing Vistani woman called this?’”

Eva grinned. “Fortunately, I’ll see that, too. You will never leave the valley unless you destroy Strahd.”

“He can be destroyed, then?” asked Malenthor.

Eva nodded and shrugged at the same time. It was kind of unsettling. “For a time, at least.”

“Sure!” said Balthazar. “He’s scary, I get that. But high and mighty people ruling with an iron fist are there for one reason. To be knocked off their perch.” He looked up. “Stronmaus you have given me a righteous task, indeed. If we succeed, we are epic heroes. If we fail, we go out in a blaze of glory. What else can you ask for?”

Lillian steadfastly refused to answer Balthazar’s rhetorical question.

Malenthor shrugged. “Very well. Eva, did you also read for another recently? A half-orc woman called Grosk?”

She wagged her finger. “She did not ask nicely. Zoltan sent her away. I think she’s bound for the Bonegrinder now.”

“The Bonegrinder?” asked Balthazar.

“His windmill.” Eva aimed a thumb at Malenthor. The monk gesture at himself, puzzled.

Seeing the drow’s reaction, Eva turned to Lillian. “Did you miss that?”

“Miss what?” asked the tiefling. She opened her pack and, since it’s so organized, quickly found the deed. Which had Malenthor’s name on it, where it previously had those of Rose and Thorn Durst.

“Huh,” said the monk.

“Thaaat’s not what it said before,” Lillian said.

“So, you see my name as well?” said Malenthor. Balthazar nodded.

“Ghostly gratitude!” Eva cackled.

The monk glanced at Eva, considering. “It was a small act of kindness. No more.” He shrugged.

Lillian looked at the map. “It is on the way to Vallaki…”

“Our next destination then,” said Balthazar.

“I guess I should check in on my property.” Malenthor smiled lazily. Then he stood and bowed at the waist toward the old gypsy woman. “Thank you, Madam Eva.”

Mother Night watch over you,” she said.

“And you,” he replied. She grinned broadly.

* * *

They took their leave of the Vistani camp a short while later and made their way back to the crossroads. On the road, Balthazar said, “I bet that Madam Eva was quite the popular one in her day. Mysterious as hell and hella powerful.”

“I think she had an … understanding with my father,” Ireena said.

“Oh?” said Malenthor.

“But I don’t really know for sure. We never had any trouble with the Vistani, anyway.”

“They seemed … pleasant enough.”

“With your father?” said Balthazar. “I don’t know… maybe your great-grandfather.”

Ireena paused, then gasped and blushes. “Not that sort of understanding!” She laughed, thoroughly embarrassed. Malenthor shook his head, bemused at Balthazar’s crassness. The dragonborn just grinned.

About an hour after they left the crossroads, the group spied something in the brush along the road.
It was a wooden puzzle box, six inches on a side and carved with silhouettes of leering clown faces. The box rattled when shaken. Carved on the bottom in tiny letters was the legend: “Is No Fun, Is No Blinsky!”

“A Blinsky toy!” Ismark said, with a bit of wistfulness for his youth.

“A what?” asked Malenthor.

Gadof Blinsky, the toymaker of Vallaki. He’s the best. I had a werewolf doll he made when I was a boy.” His eyes lit up. “Maybe I can track him down when we get there!”

Balthazar shook the box again. “There is something inside. We have to get it open.”

“Let me see it,” said Lillian. She fiddled with it briefly but quickly grew frustrated. “I’ll try to open it when we take a break.”

“Oh c’mon Lil!” the dragonborn complained. “It’s going to drive me nuts until we find out what’s in there!”

“I could try?” Malenthor offered.

“There’s no chance that could be for children,” Ireena opined as the monk spent the better part of five minutes trying to open it, to no avail. He shrugged, handing it back to the sorcerer.

“Watching you fail has shown me what to do,” Lillian said, a little too brightly. Malenthor smiled at her, but not with his eyes. Another five minutes later, she managed to get the box open. It was empty.

“This was worth our time,” said Malenthor.

“That … doesn’t make any sense,” said Ismark. “What was making the rattle?”

“Does it still rattle?” asked Balthazar.

Lillian slid it closed, and shook it. It rattled again. “Gods damn it” she hissed.

“Charming. Shall we be on our way?” suggested Malenthor.

“You do know how to open it again, right?” asked Balthazar.

“I do,” the tiefling said, keeping the reply from being a snap. It was a bit big to fit into her carefully planned backpack, so she carried the puzzle box under one arm as the group continued. About an hour later, they arrived at Tser Falls.

They had followed the dirt road as it clung to the side of a mountain and ended before an arching bridge of mold-encrusted stone that spanned a natural chasm. Gargoyles cloaked in black moss perched on the corners of the bridge, their frowns weatherworn. On the mountainous side of the bridge, a waterfall spilled into a misty pool nearly a thousand feet below. The pool fed a river that meandered into the fog-shrouded pines that blanket the valley. The bridge was slick with moisture but appeared safe to cross.

“That is one hell of a waterfall!” said Balthazar.

“Quite,” agreed Malenthor.

The road continued north into the mountains. Half an hour later, they arrived at another crossroads. Even there, in the mountains, the forest and the fog were inescapable. Ahead, the dirt road split in two, widening toward the east. There they saw patches of cobblestone, suggesting that the eastern branch had once been an important thoroughfare.

“East toward Strahd’s castle,” said the drow. “Our eventual goal. But not today.”

“Agreed,” said Balthazar. “According to Eva we have several other things to do before we walk into that castle.”

“And miles to go before we sleep.”

They headed west. Ahead, jutting from the impenetrable woods on both sides of the road, were high stone buttresses looming gray in the fog. Huge iron gates hung on the stonework. Dew clung with cold tenacity to the rusted bars. Two headless statues of armed guardians flanked the gate, their heads lying among the weeds at their feet. They greeted the travelers only with silence.

About forty-five minutes later, they reached the road that led to the windmill. It started to drizzle, and Lillian covered her head. The Old Svalich Road transitioned from being a winding path through the Balinok Mountains to a lazy trail that hugged the mountainside as it descended into a fog-filled valley. In the heart of the valley they saw a walled town near the shores of a great mountain lake, its waters dark and still. A branch in the road led west to a promontory, atop which was perched a dilapidated stone windmill, its warped wooden vanes stripped bare.

“It’s a fixer upper,” said Malenthor.

“Let’s go meet the Bonegrinder, shall we?” said Balthazar. “Or maybe the windmill grinds bone. Or maybe it’s just the name of the windmill. Can’t wait to find out?”

“Any sign of Grosk?” the drow asked.

The dragonborn took a look around, spotting the faint remains of familiar turned-in footprints, headed down toward the mill. “Yep, she’s there all right.” That seemed to be good enough for Lillian, who started striding toward the windmill. Malenthor nodded, following in the sorcerer’s wake, and the others trailed behind them.

The onion-domed edifice leaned forward and to one side, as though trying to turn away from the stormy gray sky. They saw gray brick walls and dirt-covered windows on the upper floors. A decrepit wooden platform encircled the windmill above a flimsy doorway leading to the building’s interior. Perched on a wooden beam above the door was a raven. It hopped about and squawked at the group, seemingly agitated. The travelers got the distinct impression that the bird was trying to warn them.

Having delivered its message, it took wing and flew off toward Vallaki, the town in the valley below.

View
Session 4
Three Funerals

Free from the confines of Death House, the adventurers found themselves back in the strange village. It was day – or seemed to be – very little light made it through the clouds, and no sound cut the silence except for mournful sobbing that echoed through the streets from somewhere to the west.

“Well, that was ten kinds of terrible,” said Lillian, cradling the toy chest containing the remains of the Durst children.

Malenthor let out a long sigh. “Tavern?”

Lillian gestured to the bones, addressing Balthazar. “You are the holy one. What do we do with these?”

“They need buried,” said the priest. “Preferably in their own tombs, but at the least it should be some kind of hallowed ground. Cemetery, tomb, pyramid. Something.”

“I don’t think that house is anything like ’hallowed,” said Malenthor. “They’ll know where a church is at the tavern.”

“Yes, you’re right,” said Lillian, fidgeting uncomfortably.

“I’m not so sure we are even out of danger,” said Balthazar. “This whole town could be cursed.”

“Well as long as we don’t know where here is, that is a good thing to keep in mind.”

Malenthor shrugged. “Perhaps they’re used to this sort of thing.”

The dark elf led the way toward the town square. Lillian hefted the toy chest of bones and followed her companions underneath watchful eyes hidden in darkened windows. The sobbing grew steadily louder as they neared the center of the village.

“I wonder where everyone is,” said the monk. “You’d think someone would be about.”

“Well, that sobbing is hopefully coming from someone… " said Lillian.

HELLLOOOOO?” Balthazar called out. “ANYONE HERE???”

Only silence replied to the dragonborn, and Malenthor heaved another long sigh.

When they reached the town square, they could see the mercantile shop and tavern from the previous night. A large house sat at the end of the southern street, and they saw a rundown temple to the northwest. The sobbing was coming from a building just south of the mercantile.

Balthazar briefly looked that direction then back to the northwest. “Temple first? Might be a way to properly care for the bones.” The others agreed and the dragonborn took point, bound for the church.

A gray, sagging edifice of stone and wood stood atop a slight rise, against the roots of the pillar stone that supported a vast, dark castle. The church had obviously weathered the assaults of evil for centuries on end and was worn and weary. A bell tower rose toward the back, and flickering light shined through holes in the shingled roof. The rafters strained feebly against their load.

“Oh, they could use some repairs…” said Lillian.

“You should broker the contract,” said Malenthor.

“By the looks of it, they couldn’t afford me.” She glanced back at him with a wry smile. The monk did not return the smile.

“It’s a church. They always have money,” said Balthazar as if announcing that water was wet. “Or maybe that’s just Mulhorand. They respect their priests there in … hmm … different ways than they do here.”

As they drew near the building, they saw that the heavy wooden doors were covered with claw marks and scarred by fire. “Gods below,” swore Malenthor. He tried the doors, which opened to reveal a ten-foot-wide, twenty-foot long hall leading to a brightly lit chapel. The hall was unlit and reeked of mildew. Four doors, two on each side of the hall, led to adjacent chambers. The chapel ahead was strewn with debris, and they heard a soft voice from within reciting a prayer. Suddenly, the prayer was blotted out by an inhuman scream that came from beneath the wooden floor.

Lillian set the chest down at the base of the steps. “This place is terrible!” she whispered.

Malenthor nodded. “And I thought Westgate was bad.”

“Might as well see what this is all about,” said Balthazar, proceeding down the hall and into the chapter.

“Crap,” the tiefling said under her breath.

The chapel was a shambles, with overturned and broken pews littering the dusty floor. Dozens of candles mounted in candlesticks and candelabras lit every dusty corner in a fervent attempt to rid the chapel of shadows. At the far end of the church sat a claw-scarred altar, behind which knelt a priest in soiled vestments. Next to him hung a long, thick rope that stretched up into the bell tower.

“Oy! A fellow man of the cloth,” said Balthazar. “Are you breathin’ or are you just another undead hassle?”

The man looked up with a start, then double-started at the sight of the hulking draconian priest. “Ah!” he exclaimed. “A devil?!”

“Oh thank goodness you are still living,” said Lillian, drawing the man’s startled gaze.

“Devils! Plural!” Despite his apparent fright, he did not get to his feet. He was clearly exhausted.

Ignoring the outburst, the dragonborn said, “The name’s Balthazar, Cleric of Stronmaus. Can we help in some way? Maybe with the wailing below?”

The man peered up at Balthazar, regaining a measure of composure. “I am called Donavich. Did the devil Strahd send you?” His voice was hoarse and weak.

“I don’t think so. If he did, he didn’t tell us beforehand. Who is Strahd?”

He seemed fractionally appeased by this answer, though his expression was still dubious. “You have come here from beyond the valley.” It was more statement than question.

“Indeed,” said Malenthor. “We were walking the streets of another city until we found ourselves in this village.”

Donavich nodded. “Strahd is the lord of this valley, an ancient and powerful vampire. He lives in Castle Ravenloft, on the cliff above.” He painfully regained his feet. “He brings outsiders from time to time, for reasons only he can fathom – like he did with the mad mage.”

“What is it we can call this place?” asked Lillian.

“You stand in the church of the Morninglord,” said Donavich. “Though he has not answered any prayers since time out of mind.”

“I hate to ask, but what is that horrible noise underneath?”

As if on cue another shriek tore up from beneath the floor. Donavich shook his head. “That is what is left of my son, Doru.” Lillian stared, wide-eyed.

“I’m sorry sir,” said Balthazar solemnly. “That’s not something a father should have to experience. How long?”

“Last year, when the mad mage came.”

“Mad mage?” Malenthor prompted.

Donavich nodded. “He came from a faraway land. He led some of the villagers in a revolt and stormed the castle. The wizard died by Strahd’s hand … and so did my son, who returned as a vampire’s spawn. I managed to trap him in the undercroft, where he remains to this day.”

“Who are you talking to?” the voice under the floor screamed, startling the tiefling. “Their blood smells … different.”

HEY! DORU! GIVE YOU FATHER SOME PEACE AND QUIET ONCE IN WHILE! YOU’VE BEEN BUSTING HIS BALLS FOR OVER A YEAR NOW AND WHERE HAS THAT GOTTEN YOU?”

“I can smell your blood!” Doru replied.

“It’s good stuff right? Dragonborn blood is the best!” Though he still seemed boisterous … his companions could tell that there was a bit less confidence backing it up than before the encounter in the dungeon of the Durst House.

Lillian cursed in Infernal, then shook herself and asked Donavich, “A vampire spawn?”

“Yes. Not as strong or as dangerous as a vampire at full strength.” The old man sighed. “I’ve prayed day and night to protect the church, and hoping that the gods will tell me how to save my son without destroying him!”

“Is such a thing possible?” asked Malenthor.

Tears appeared in Donavich’s eyes. “I don’t know.”

Lillian turns to the dragonborn. “Is there a way to do this?”

Balthazar shrugged. “I’ve heard tales … myths mostly in Mulhorand. It might be possible, but I don’t know a specific ritual.”

Donavich looked at the cleric of Stronmaus with something like hope. “Help me. And help Ireena, if you can.”

“Who is Ireena?” asked Malenthor.

“The burgomaster’s – the late burgomaster’s daughter,” Donavich said. “Strahd has taken an … interest in her.”

“Is she also a vampire spawn?”

“No. Not yet, anyway.”

“Hm.”

“She needs to be taken far from here. As far from the Count as possible! The Abbey of Saint Markovia, in Krezk, is a bastion of good. Failing that, the fortified town of Vallaki.”

“I have never heard of these places.”

“Me either,” said Balthazar, retrieving the map he had taken from the Durst House. “Are they somewhere on this?” Donavich nodded and marked the locations.

“We have the bones of Rose & Thorn Durst,” said Malenthor. “We would like to bury them so they may be at peace.”

“Bones from the Durst House? You were inside, and you escaped?” said the old priest.

“Barely. Lorghoth still dwells below. And his ghostly chorus.” Donavich did not appear to recognize the name.

“Some beast summoned by the deceased homeowners and their cultist brethren,” the monk clarified. “The children were an … unforeseen casualty. Apparently.”

“The place was a house of horror,” said Lillian.

“So I’ve heard,” said Donavich. “A place of stinking evil. Even when it’s burned to the ground, it comes back.”

“It comes back when burned?” The dark elf’s tone was as close to incredulous as his companions had heard from him.

“Yes.” Donavich grinned impishly. Malenthor shook his head, at a loss.

“How long ago did the family pass?” asked Lillian.

“Before I was born. Before my father was born, even. But burying the bones you’ve brought in consecrated ground would certainly let them rest.”

“Well, that’s something,” said the monk.

“I hate to sound rude, but how do we leave wherever here is?” said the sorcerer.

“If you mean the valley, Miss…?” Donavich prompted.

“Miss Lillian, I apologize. This town is known as? Which is within the province or territory of?”

“This is the village of Barovia, in the valley of Barovia. And leaving is impossible. Anyone who attempts to leave the land of Barovia begins to choke on the fog. Those who don’t turn back perish.”

“Oh, lovely,” said the tiefling.

“As long as we’re digging graves, though, perhaps it’s time we finally bury the burgomaster, too,” Donavich said thoughtfully.

“…How long has he been dead?” asked Malenthor.

“Three days.”

“Ah.” Clearly he had expected it to be much longer.

“Yes, let’s bury … the burgomaster, as well,” said Lillian.

“You’ll find him and his daughter in the mansion south of here.” Donavich seemed to catch himself. “Well. His adopted daughter. She doesn’t know it, though,” he added quickly.

“Wait, no one has gathered the body?”

“The villagers are too afraid of her to help.”

“She doesn’t know her father is dead? In her house?”

“Of course she knows that. She’s not crazy, and neither am I.” The last part was nothing like reassuring.

“Why are they afraid of her?” asked Malenthor. “Because of Strahd’s interest?”

“Yes. He’s bitten her twice.”

“It takes more than once?”

Donavich nodded. “He has yet to turn her, Morninglord be praised.” He drew a circle around his heart with shaking fingers.

“I see,” said the monk. “Well. We might as well?” He looked between his companions.

“I will stay here and make preparations,” Donavich announced.

When the adventurers were back outside, Balthazar looked up to the sky and said “You squirrely bastard! I knew you weren’t going to make things easy and boring, but this?”

They headed south to the late burgomaster’s estate. A weary-looking mansion squatted behind a rusting iron fence. The iron gates were twisted and torn; the right gate lay cast aside, while the left swung lazily in the wind. The stuttering squeal and clang of the gate repeated with mindless precision. Weeds choked the grounds and pressed with menace upon the house itself. Yet, against the walls, the growth had been tramped down to create a path all about the domain. Heavy claw markings had stripped the once-beautiful finish of the walls. Great black marks told of the fires that had assailed the mansion. Not a pane nor a shard of glass stood in any window. All the windows were barred with planks, each one marked with stains of evil omen.

“What are we in the middle of,” said Malenthor.

“One of the hells,” suggested Lillian.

The monk pointed out trampled weeds all around the mansion, as well as scores of paw prints and human footprints. “Popular girl, anyway,” he said.

“Would she even answer if we knocked?” Balthazar wondered aloud. The monk shrugged, and the dragonborn added, “Or maybe her newly zombified father can come to the door.” Lillian knocked.

“Go away!” a woman exclaimed from inside, steel in her voice.

“Oh! Dear, we’re here to help with your father,” said the sorcerer.

“More lies, from the devil Strahd’s mouth to your lips.”

Balthazar looked at his companions and said under his breath, “Honestly, to humans we probably really do look like we were sent from hell.” Malenthor nodded.

Lillian shushed them and called through the door. “We’ve been sent by the priest to collect your father for proper and holy burial. We are aware the town folk haven’t offered help, and that in itself is a tragedy. We are here to offer just that.”

They heard a series of locks and bars disengaging on the other side of the door, then it opened to reveal a striking young woman with auburn hair. Her breath caught in her throat at the sight of the adventurers. Her hand rested on the hilt of her longsword, but it’s still sheathed. She seemed to force herself to ask, “Who are you?”

“Hello, I am Lillian, and these are my allies Malenthor and Balthazar,” said the tiefling, gesturing to each of her companions in turn. “Pleased to make your acquaintance,” she added, offering her hand in greeting.

Very hesitantly, the young woman reached out to shake Lillian’s hand. There was strength there. “I am Ireena Kolyana.” Balthazar’s jaw hung open just enough for his tongue to start to slide out the side of his mouth. He caught it quickly and stopped staring.

“Pleased to meet you Miss Kolyana,” Lillian repeated. “May we call you Ireena?”

She pulled herself together. “Of course. Please, come inside.”

The interior of the mansion was well furnished, yet the fixtures show signs of great wear. Noticeable oddities were the boarded-up windows and the presence of holy symbols in every room. The burgomaster was in a side drawing room on the floor, lying in a simple wooden coffin surrounded by wilting flowers and a faint odor of decay.

“My brother and I made the coffin ourselves,” Ireena said, seemingly out of a need to have something to say.

“Is your brother about?” asked Malenthor.

“He’s at the tavern, I’m sure.”

“Donavich said the people fear you because of Strahd. Is your brother afraid, too?”

“No,” she said, her tone a little harsh. She schooled herself and added more softly, “He has learned to fight, but some monsters cannot be fought with steel alone.”

Malenthor nodded. “So we have seen.”

Balthazar moved over to the body and checked its condition. To the cleric’s eyes, the old man appeared to have died of natural causes: heart attack, perhaps. He began performing a few basic rites, throwing the occasional thunderclap in.

“We’re sorry for your situation,” said Lillian. “As I said, we are here to help. Can you tell us more about Strahd or this place in general? As you may notice, we aren’t from here.”

“Perhaps. I can’t tell you much about the Count, I am sad to say. Our encounters are … fuzzy memories for me. He has a charming power. But I recall the blazing hunger in his eyes, as clearly as I can recall anything.

“His wolves and … other terrible creatures attacked the house night after night, for weeks. Papa’s heart couldn’t take any more.” Ireena swallowed a moment of grief. “But, since then, the house has not come under attack.”

“How long do you mean to keep him here?” Malenthor asked gently.

“If you’re willing to help me bury him, then my answer is ‘no longer.’” She managed a little smile, and the monk nodded.

“That, we can do. And much, much more, darlin’,” said Balthazar. “It’s about time this town got a wake-up call. Too much stagnation. Too much … fear. I mean, you can taste it in the air it’s so palpable. Nothing left unchanged ever gets any better.”

“You’re right.” Ireena seemed surprised to hear herself saying it.

Balthazar smiled at her courage. “There’s fire in you. I’m impressed.”

That brought her smile up to full volume. “I will not let him take me,” she declared. Lillian smiles at her enthusiasm.

“The priest suggested you leave town,” said Malenthor. “To an abbey or … farther.”

“You are my best hope – my only hope. I will go with you, once my father is in the ground.”

“Let’s not waste any more time then,” said Balthazar. He picked up one end of the casket and waits for someone else to take the other. Lillian obliged, picking up the other end. “Thanks, Lilly,” the dragonborn said, experimenting with the nickname.

Lillian shifted with the weight. “Sure … Bal…”

“So strong,” Ireena said. “Come, then. Let us begin.”

They left the mansion and walked the coffin up the street.

As they came near the tavern, Balthazar asked, “Should we stop to collect your brother? He has a stake in this as well.” Ireena nodded and ducked inside for a couple of minutes.

She reappeared with a young, blond man who reacted to the sight of the three of you with brief alarm. He still had a bottle of wine in one hand. “I’m glad I hung on to this,” he said.

“Wise,” said Malenthor.

Balthazar chuckled. “At least this town still has booze. It’s not a total loss. Any others that would want to be a part of this?”

Ismark shook his head. “But let me say that my sister and I are VERY grateful for your aid.”

“Please forgive Ismark,” Ireena said. “He loves to speak for me.”

“Are you not grateful, then?” the monk asked, without guile.

“Of course I am. But I’d rather say so myself.” She gives Ismark a look.

The funeral procession got underway again. Malenthor offered the young man his hand, and casually solicited a nip off the bottle. Ismark offered him the bottle. The label read: “Wizard of Wines: Purple Grapemash No. 3”

“When in Barovia,” said the drow. Malenthor sipped and withheld a wince.

“Wine is the lifeblood of Barovia,” Ismark said, patting the drow on the back. “For some, it’s the only reason to keep living!”

“Well knock one back for me,” said Balthazar. “And let’s work on finding a few more reasons.”

Ismark nodded, adding, “This is their worst wine, though.”

The monk inclined his head, chuckling and handing back the bottle. “Next time, we’ll drink ‘Number 2’.”

“Why drink the worst wine though?” Lillian wanted to know.

“Because I can afford more of it,” Ismark replied, as though the answer was obvious.

Lillian she turned away to hide a blush. “Oh…. Well then.”

They reached the church and carried the coffin around the building to the cemetery. A fence of wrought iron with a rusty gate enclosed a rectangular plot of land behind the dilapidated temple building. Tightly packed gravestones shrouded by fog bore the names of souls long passed. All seemed quiet except for Donavich, who had managed to turn about three shovelfuls of dirt.

Balthazar looked over to the siblings. “Did we mention this were a group ceremony? We have some children to lay to rest as well.”

Ireena and Ismark accepted the revelation with quiet grace, too grateful for the help to offer complaint. They managed to round up enough shovels to give everyone a chance to help dig.

While that’s going on, Ismark asked, “Did my sister talk to you about escorting her out of the village?”

“Donavich suggested it,” said Malenthor. “She said she would come with us.”

“I’m right here, you know,” Ireena grumbled.

“We have been informed that it would be the safest venture,” Lillian said to Ireena, trying to keep the grave dirt off of her skirt.

Ismark nodded at Lillian. “I know it’s a gamble, but I’ve heard that Vallaki is well-defended. I feel that she’d be beyond the view of Castle Ravenloft and beyond the reach of Strahd there.”

“Will…” the tiefling began, before finding she needed to clear her throat. “Will you be coming with us to escort her?” Malenthor quirked an eyebrow at the question but held his tongue.

“If that’s your wish.” Ismark did nothing to hide his grin. “I know these lands well, and I have been training with weapons most of my adult life, in the hope that I might confront and kill the Count someday. I will gladly accompany you as long as we’re taking Ireena someplace safe.”

Lillian looked back down at the dirt again. “Excellent, I think that would be best. Yes.”

“Good, then,” said Malenthor. “We could use someone with the lay of the land.”

By mid-morning, they had three graves of workable size. Donavich offered prayers during the burial, asking the Morninglord to deliver the souls from Barovia. Balthazar assisted how he could, but was respectful of the other religion’s ways. Ireena held her tears back; Ismark did not. Malenthor placed a supportive hand on Ismark’s shoulder, and the gesture seemed to reassure him. The siblings seemed relieved when the ceremony was finished. Lillian slumped, as well.

Ismark stretched out his muscles as they left the graveyard behind. “Nothing like a long, hard morning of digging to get one all nice and limber for a long, hard day of walking.”

“Will you need to gather anything before we depart?” Malenthor asked.

“I don’t think so. Ireena?” His sister shook her head in the negative.

“Every step will become lighter as you put some distance. See? Change is coming! And it’s awesome!” The cleric of Stronmaus evoked a thunderclap.

They bid farewell to Donavich and made their way out of town. Once they had put some distance from the village, Balthazar said, “Hey … I wonder who was doing all that sobbing?”

View
Session 3
Death House, Part 3

“What is that $#%@?!” Lillian demanded, cursing in Infernal. She focused on the ring on her finger and a blue-white orb flew from her fingertips toward the creature. The beast fairly crackled as its stony flesh froze under the spell’s assault. The frenzied grick lunged at Malenthor, but the monk easily evaded the creature and counterattacked with his spear. The stony hide resisted the mundane weapon, which the monk then used like a pole to vault up and kick the beast. Sensing the charging cleric, he made room for Balthazar. Chips of stone flew everywhere as the dragonborn brought the hammer crashing down on the beast’s head, killing it. The chanting continued to fill the otherwise silent room.

“Wow. That was horrifying,” said Lillian, nudging a tentacle with her toe.

“What was that thing?” asked Malenthor, noting that the alcove was otherwise empty.

“Dunno,” said Balthazar. “Glad you ducked out of the way there. Those face tentacle things wanted to have their way with you.”

Malenthor nodded. “You’re not wrong.”

Lillian looked at Balthazar sideways. “Well…. Shall we continue the search for that horrid chanting?”

“Ladies first!” said the dragonborn. “Especially ones that fire coldfire when things pop out at them.” The drow mouthed “fire coldfire” quietly and questioningly.

“I’m pretty sure firing things means I’m more adept at being at range,” the tiefling retorted haughtily. “Feel free to stand in front, my scaly companion.”

“Fine…. I’m just sayin’ I worry about your male companions,” said Balthazar. “Things that pop out at you are in for a world of hurt.”

Lillian blushed a rosy color and looked stunned for a moment. “I … I’ve never….” She started fidgeting.

Malenthor shook his head and gestured toward the eastern exit. The passage linked up with the spiral staircase upward. To the north and south of the corridor between the dining room and the exit, they found a foursome of stone slabs. The northwest slab was etched with the name “Rosavalda Durst.” Northeast was “Thornboldt Hurst.” Southwest said “Elisabeth Durst.” Southeast was “Gustav Durst.” It appeared that the slabs could be moved with some effort.

“In Great Mulhorand, the remains of the dead are taken very seriously,” the cleric lectured. “Much of the job of the priesthood is to prepare bodies and entomb them. Stories say that if the remains are not properly entombed, the spirits will turn evil.”

“This family was … well prepared for their demise, it would seem,” said Malenthor. “Except, of course, at the end. I’ve little enough interest in graverobbing. Shall we seek out the chanting?”

“Yes!” said Lillian, a little too emphatically.

Balthazar frowned. “Here we have their tombs, but their remains were never placed here. Maybe we should perform the rites for Rose and Thorn.” Malenthor nodded absently, melancholy settling across his face.

“Yes, I agree,” said the tiefling, finally calming down after Balthazar’s racy comment.

“Let’s find what remains of the parents and lay them all to rest together,” suggested the monk. “Hopefully, they weren’t eaten.”

“I figure the parents are part of what’s chanting down here,” said Balthazar.

“Fair guess.”

“Whether they are still ‘alive’ or not remains to be seen.” With that, the dragonborn opened Thorn and Rose’s tombs to see what might already be inside and what he might have to find for the rites. Each of the two crypts contained only an empty coffin atop a stone bier. The cleric nodded, satisfied. “Once we make this place safe we can return with their remains.”

They returned to the kitchen and exited down a western corridor. As you approach a four-way intersection, the chanting seemed noticeably louder to the north. When Balthazar stepped into the middle, a dead man clawed his way out of the dirt before him and attacked!

Lillian cursed in Infernal again and directed a ray of frost at the ghoul. Its arm froze solid, and the undead spared a moment to snarl at its own appendage. Balthazar swung his hammer down on the ghoul’s frozen arm, striking it soundly. Stymied by the hammerblow, the ghoul lunged at the dragonborn with its claws, but only scraped armor.

Malenthor advanced into the intersection and off to the side, trying to stab the ghoul around the corner. The spear caught the creature right in the chest, spilling dusty guts into the dirt, but it didn’t fall. Then the monk pulled back the spear, drawing the creature forward a step, and heel stomped it in the knee. The ghoul’s leg snapped out from under it with a violent crack, and the creature collapsed, its necrotic energy spent.

“Hm,” said the drow, leading the way south into another chamber, festooned with moldy skeletons that hung from rusty shackles against the walls. A wide alcove in the south wall contained a painted wooden statue carved in the likeness of a gaunt, pale-faced man wearing a voluminous black cloak, his pale left hand resting on the head of a wolf that stood next to him. In his right hand he held a smoky-gray crystal orb. The chanting seemed to be coming from an exit to the west.

Malenthor approached the statues, and Balthazar moved into the room on his heels, expecting trouble. Lillian moved to inspect the skeletons, which appeared to simply be harmless, if macabre, decor. Examining the statue’s face, the monk noted that whoever carved it had infused its expression with arrogance. Then he reached for the orb, and found it cool to the touch. That fact that was quickly suppressed when shadows emerged from the statues to flank the drow!

“Look out Malenthor!” cried Lillian, chanting quickly and gesturing at the nearest shadow. It didn’t seem overly injured by the icy ray, and the sorcerer backed into the nearby corner. Her target followed her, reaching out with wispy fingers that the tiefling handily evaded. The monk was not so quick enough to avoid the other shadow’s grasping claws, and felt his life bleed from his body along with a great portion of his strength. Balthazar repositioned and breathed lightning through the shadows. The bolt of electricity harmed them, but not as much as the priest had expected it to.

Malenthor blinked in pain, gritted his teeth, and spun his spear to wind up before the thrust! Despite his waning strength, the maneuver destroyed a large portion of the shadowstuff making up the undead spirit. Not wanting to lose any momentum, the monk followed his spear attack up with a headbutt and what would be a gut-punch on a humanoid. Even in his diminished state, Malenthor could feel that his attacks were weakening the shadow. Yet it did not return to death.

Lillian cursed again and cast another frosty ray at the shadow threatening her, blasting away another portion of its essence. The tiefling narrowly dodged the cold hands of her shadow a second time, but Malenthor did not fare as well. The dark elf’s eyes widened, and he fell to the floor, his spear clattering beside him.

Balthazar steps up to cover the monk, and the shadow dispersed in a cloud of darkness as the cleric’s hammer tore through it. Lillian muttered again and flings more cold at the shade. “Go down go down go down!” she cried. The rays of frost chipped away at the shadow, but the monster kept coming, finally connecting with its draining touch. The cleric displayed his symbol of Stronmaus and commanded the shadow to leave his presence, with thunder in his voice. The gloom of the dungeon emboldened the shadow, which did not flee, but Balthazar had gotten its attention.

Frustrated with everything being terrible the sorcerer began speaking in Infernal, focusing hard on the shade and launching a burning orb of white fire at the unliving monster. Her spell connected, and the shadow burned from the center out like a dry piece of paper, filling the air with a hideous shriek as it faded into nothingness.

Lillian paused for a second before hissing, “Malenthor!” The drow did not respond.

Balthazar leaned down and healed the monk with strange ritual. Malenthor’s eyes fluttered open as he regained consciousness. He winced as he struggled to get to a sitting position. “I may … need a minute,” he wheezed.

“Fuckin’ undead,” said the dragonborn. “Almost had you there.”

Lillian let out a heavy sigh. “I’m relieved you’re up again. I agree with taking a breather.”

“Maybe we should take a few hours,” said Balthazar. “I’m damn near tapped out.” After a beat he added, “Dibs on the master bed.” His companions each gave him a sideways glance. “What? If something does happen, it will be spectacular!”

“I doubt anything spectacular will occur in bed here,” said Lillian.

“Riddle me this: What do you get after you are die in a creepy bed in some spectacular way?” said Balthazar.

“Apparently not proper grammar,” said the tiefling.

Ignoring her, the cleric answered himself. “A high five from the big guy upstairs, that’s what! Stronmaus appreciates epic departures.”

“So you’re saying as long as you don’t die in your sleep.”

Malenthor said, “I should be fine in a few minutes, but if you have tapped your reserves, I will defer to your judgment.”

Lillian looked over at him. “I’m not fully tapped out, but my reserves are waning.”

“Let’s take a breather. Whatever is down here can wait,” said Balthazar.

The party trudged back up the stairs, then back down the other stairs to the servant’s quarters to rest. Once there Lillian went to work with the rags she had taken from the pantry, using cantrips to make a nice clean space.

“It’s just a little dust, Lillian,” said Balthazar. “After an afternoon of lethal combat I’m surprised you’d be afraid of it.”

“I’m not afraid of the dust, I just find it unpleasant. To add to that, there is no need to sleep and rest in filth, so I choose not to. You may enjoy napping in the dust made of the remains of a dozen dead but I’ll rest upon a clean sheet in clean clothes.” She snapped her fingers, and the lamp came to life. “Would you like me to clean your space as well?”

“Heh. Our first night together and you already want to clean my space? I like it, doll, but that might make Malenthor feel a little uncomfortable.” He looked up and noticed the dark elf was not in the room.

* * *

Malenthor loitered in the hall on the second floor. He called out to the child ghosts, but received no answer. Malenthor sighed, his chin drooping to his chest. Then he returned to the harpsichord and sat listlessly on the bench. After a moment, he reached into a pocket for a small pipe and a water-tight skin. He opened the skin and packed a pinch of Lotus into the bowl. Then he lit the result and inhaled through the stem. Relief flooded him almost immediately.

As he smoked, a different sort of weakness gripped the dark elf. A familiar one. A comfort. He ran his fingers through exercises to keep them limber just for the sensation of feeling the blood flowing through each small vessel in his hands.

A few moments later the dark elf stood and searched the music room for some manner of wind instrument. He found a discarded pan flute under one of the chairs. Smiling, he picked it up, dusted it off, and blew a scale just to check the key. It sounded properly pitched, or close enough. He played the first verse of a melancholy ballad. Satisfied, he smiled again and pocketed the instrument. He sighed as he stood and made his way back to his companions.

* * *

Lillian’s eyes narrowed at the dragonborn. “I am not some harlot for you to be making lewd insinuations toward, thank you.” With that, she continued making her bed, mending a rip in the sheet.

“I get you are all prim and proper. It’s a good look for you. But you need to step out of that nice, comfortable routine you have there. Do something that surprises you. You only learn if you step off a cliff every once in a while. Sure, it doesn’t have to be getting your world turned upside down by your virile dragonborn partner … but do something.”

Lillian stopped mending and glanced back to Balthazar. “Don’t presume to know whether I’ve leaped or not. I have had many chances to dive into change, sometimes I have taken the jump and others I have not.”

She turned, fully facing the dragonborn. “So you think I should leap into your virile arms this night eh? That is your suggestion?” She played at the opening in the front of her blouse before snapping back around.

Malenthor blinked as he walked in the door. “I can … I can come back,” he said.

Lillian chuckled. “No, there will be no dirtying of sheets tonight.” She said, smiling. “I was merely giving a little bit back to our forward friend here.”

“No, stick around, Malenthor,” said Balthazar. “We’re stuck with each other now. Might as well get to know each other better.” The dragonborn noticed the pipe sticking out of the drow’s pocket. “What do you have there … and do you have enough to share?”

“Lotus. From our friends, the Zhengs. It … helps me relax.”

“You’ve done well seeming very relaxed Malenthor,” said Lillian.

“Maybe I should hold off tonight. I get a little crazy when I indulge.” The dragonborn grinned.

“Huh, I’d never thought I would see you back down from anything, Balthazar,” said the tiefling. She finally finished preparing the bed to her satisfaction and began to rummage in her satchel, pulling out a game of some sort. “Anyone for Dragonchess?”

“You’re on!” said Balthazar.

“Excellent. Malenthor, would you care to play against me when I win?”

“Ha! Fiery tonight. Good for you,” said Balthazar.

“No. Thank you,” said the monk. He pulled some extra clothes out of one of the trunks and lay them on the floor next to the south wall. Then he sat on the pile and slipped into trance.

The others played a game of Dragonchess, and all of the tension bled out of Lillian. Then she won and Balthazar said, “It’s official…. The tiefling cheats…. Ha!”

“Yes, yes we are,” she said coldly. “Cheats and monsters and not worthy of being associated with other humans or elves or whatever. I think I wish to read a book now and sleep.”

“Ha! The tiefling calls out the dragonborn for being racist. And I found a sore spot. I do apologize, and freely admit that not every tiefling I have met fits that description … probably.”

Struggling to regain a more polite tone, Lillian said, “Thank you for the game, Balthazar.” Then she lay down beside the lamp with one of the history books from the library.

* * *

The rest of the night had passed without incident. Those who dream had troubled dreams. Though the details were lost, the feeling of dread took some time to shake. The party took the circuitous route back to the dungeon and continued their exploration of the place.

They came to a chamber where a chandelier was suspended above a table in the middle of the room. Two high-backed chairs flanked the table, which had an empty clay jug and two clay flagons atop it. Iron candlesticks stood in two corners, their candles long since melted away.

Moving on, they came to a room containing a large wood-framed bed with a rotted feather mattress, a wardrobe containing several old robes, a pair of iron candlesticks, and an open crate containing thirty torches and a leather sack with fifteen candles inside it. At the foot of the bed was an unlocked wooden footlocker, and Malenthor moved to inspect it. Before he could, a rotted humanoid in tattered black robes crashed into the room from a cavity behind the eastern wall, lunging at you. Another rotted humanoid fell to the floor beside it.

The monk tried something new, whipping the silver shortsword from its sheath and stabbing for the thing’s chest. The creature recoiled as the blade pierced its torso. A small smile crossed the drow’s lips as he spun and kicked, aiming for its head. The skull audibly cracked with the force of the blow; one of its eyes popped out and dangled uselessly by the nerve. Through years of cleric training, Balthazar knew to just bash this thing’s head in. The ghast was staggered by the force of the blow. Lillian stuck with what she knew and lanced the undead with a ray of frost. The spell caught it right in the face, freezing its remaining eye solid.

Malenthor had hurt it most, so the ghast raked him with its claws. The monk staggered from the pain, but he managed to keep his feet and stabbed it through the heart. He followed up with an upward snap-kick followed by a descending axe kick. The first knocked the ghast’s head clean off its body. As the grisly orb started to descend, his second kick crushed it back down into the neck cavity. “Ow,” said the dark elf, sitting heavily on the rotten feather mattress.

“Well … played?” said Balthazar, clearly impressed.

“Hopefully, this silver sword continues to be effective against the undead.”

“It did seem to do the trick. The whole ‘punt its head across the room’ thing seemed effective as well. Do that.”

“That was indeed impressive,” said Lillian. Malenthor exhaled through his nose amusedly.

“I especially like when that dangling eyeball smacked against the back wall and exploded. Didn’t think I’d see something like that when I woke up today,” said the dragonborn.

Malenthor shrugged. “I’m just glad it didn’t scratch me a second time. That hurt.”

“What doesn’t savagely maul you and then feed off your marrow makes you stronger. That’s what I always say.”

“That’s … more specific than the saying I’ve heard.”

“Something like that, sure,” said Lillian, shaking her head.

Closer examination of the bodies led the adventurers to believe that they had been the Durst parents. Searching the footlocker turned up a folded cloak, a small wooden coffer containing four potions, a chain shirt, a flask of alchemist’s fire, a bullseye lantern, a set of thieves’ tools, and a spellbook with a yellow leather cover. While the rested, they determined that the cloak was enchanted with protective magic. The cleric and sorcerer both agreed that Malenthor should take it.

Returning to the tunnels, they found a staircase leading down. It was obvious that the ghostly chants were coming from somewhere below, so they descended to a large chamber. The ghostly chant filled the room, and a dozen or more voices kept repeating: “He is the Ancient. He is the Land.” Assorted relics filled the niches along the walls. The southernmost tunnel sloped down at a twenty-degree angle into murky water and ended at a rusty portcullis. The relics included:

  • A small, mummified, yellow hand (goblin’s) with sharp claws on a loop of rope
  • A knife carved from a human bone
  • A dagger with a rat’s skull set into the pommel
  • An 8-inch-diameter varnished orb made from a nothic’s eye
  • An aspergillum carved from bone
  • A folded cloak made from stitched ghoul skin
  • A desiccated frog lashed to a stick
  • A bag full of bat guano
  • A hag’s severed finger
  • A six-inch-tall wooden figurine of a mummy, its arms crossed over its chest
  • An iron pendant adorned with a devil’s face
  • The shrunken, shriveled head of a halfling
  • A small wooden coffer containing a dire wolf’s withered tongue

They left the ghoulish collection alone and entered a passage to the north. Rusty shackles lined the alcoves of the next chamber. There was one human skeleton still shackled there, clad in a tattered black robe. They found a gold ring on one of its bony fingers. Then, searching the cells, they discovered a secret door in the south wall opposite of the skeleton’s alcove. They opened it and stepped through.

The chanting stopped as they peered into the forty-foot-square room. The smooth masonry walls provided excellent acoustics. Featureless stone pillars supported the ceiling, and a breach in the west wall led to a dark cave heaped with refuse. Murky water covered most of the floor. Stairs led up to dry stone ledges that hugged the walls. In the middle of the room, more stairs rose to form an octagonal dais that also rose above the water. Rusty chains with shackles dangled from the ceiling directly above a stone altar mounted on the dais. The altar was carved with hideous depictions of grasping ghouls and was stained with dry blood. Half embedded in the east wall was a wooden wheel connected to hidden chains and mechanisms.

“Yeah,” said Balthazar. “Whatever the fuck this is, it’s going to be epic.”

“Yes … Epic,” said Lillian. “Just try to stay alive to tell about your glory.”

Malenthor made his way along the northern ledge to the east, heading for the wooden wheel. The freezing water turned out to only be two feet deep, so he waded across and placed his hands on the handles, turning the wheel. The portcullis rose when he did so. This accomplished, he crossed to the dais, and Balthazar met him there. Lillian braced herself for whatever terrible thing might happen.

When the men reached the top of the dais, the chanting began again as thirteen dark apparitions appeared on the ledges overlooking the room, many of them flanking the sorcerer. Each one resembled a black-robed figure holding a torch, but the torch’s fire was black and seemed to draw light into it. Where one would expect to see faces were voids. “One must die!” they chanted, over and over. “One must die! One must die!”

“Okay….” said Balthazar. “One of you come over here, and I’ll be happy to oblige.” The figures did not interrupt the chant to reply to the dragonborn. Lillian whispered an Infernal curse word, and Malenthor readied his blade, casting his eyes around at the various figures.

“One must die! One must die!” came the chant.

“Lillian, to us,” the monk advised. The sorcerer nodded and began to make her way to the shared pedestal. The three adventurers gathered before the bloodstained altar.

“Well this is a fine mess…” the tiefling whispered. “I think they want a live sacrifice … or face their anger. I don’t feel like trying to bargain with the undead.”

“This is getting boring. Let’s stir things up,” said Balthazar, heading for the steps up to the northern ledge again.

“One must die! One must die!” came the chant as the dragonborn crossed.

“Do you think it will count if he gets himself killed?” Malenthor asked Lillian.

Out of the corner of her mouth she responded, “Well, we may find out if he keeps this up.”

Once in position, Balthazar spat lightning at the apparitions. It passed through them with no effect, and the dragonborn sighed.

“Hm,” said Malenthor. He went to inspect the refuse pit.

“One must die! One must die!”

“Hm,” he repeated. “This pile is alive.”

“Wait, what?” said Lillian.

The monk backed away, returning to the dais. “Perhaps we should just … go.”

“Oh, no!” said Balthazar. “We didn’t go through all this just to leave. You promised the creepy munchkins that you’d kill the monster in the basement.”

“I’m not sure we can,” said Malenthor, sounding earnest.

“Is this thing the monster in the basement? You said alive … What is it?” asked Lillian.

“Some sort of rotting plant … thing?” said the drow.

The chant trailed off, then began again, but the words had changed. “Lorghoth the Decayer, we awaken thee!” The pile of refuse rose up in the form of a rotting heap of plant matter half again as tall as a human, tapering into a faceless head at its top.

“We may be out of time,” said Malenthor.

“Oooh … Lorghoth the Decayer!” said Balthazar. “Sounds promising. Well COME ON THEN!” He barked a quick blessing and readied his hammer.

Lillian cursed. Not wanting to be the sacrifice, she focused on the diamond in her new ring and launched an orb of blazing fire at the thing called Lorghoth. The flames did not find much to burn in the creature’s massive, wet form. The sorcerer hurt it, but not badly. Malenthor wasn’t too keen to approach the mound, so he pulled and threw a dart in one smooth motion. Unfortunately, the missile stuck harmlessly in the verge. Balthazar moved to within 10 feet of the creature and then cast thunderwave, sending a surge of power slamming into the plant creature.

Lorghoth took notice and lurched forward to attack Balthazar. The monstrosity’s tendrils slammed into the dragonborn, entangling him in their thorny embrace. In response, Balthazar rebuked the monster with more thunder, calling upon Stronmaus to strengthen his retaliatory spell. Dead vegetation flew in all directions, but Lorghoth barely seemed diminished as it attempted to engulf the cleric.

The chant changed once more. “The end comes! Death, be praised!”

“Well, let’s try something different…” said Lillian. She lobbed an orb of thunder at Lorghoth, and the beast turned its eyeless head toward the sorcerer. “Shit,” she said, her curse slipping into Common.

Malenthor reluctantly rushed forward, hoping to help free the dragonborn from the creature’s grasping tendrils. He made himself a distractive nuisance, pulling at vines and prodding with his spear before retreating back to the dais. “We must go, Balthazar,” said the monk. “This creature is beyond us.” Begrudgingly, the dragonborn pried himself away from the plant thing with a burst of strength and a dreadful ripping sound. The party proceeded to run with Lorghoth shuffling after and the echoes of the chant ringing around them. “The end comes! Death, be praised!”

“That was unexpected,” said the monk as they ran. “Tomorrow you can do more unexpected things. There’s a lesson there somewhere.”

Balthazar made a sour face. “It didn’t eat my marrow … just licked it a bit. So there’s that.”

Panting, Lillian cried, “What the hell is this damn place!?”

“Cursed, surely,” said Malenthor.

“Not a fan of any of this.”

“True victory may be impossible. We have to learn more about this land.”

“Learn more as in how to get out of here?”

“It’s Lorghoth’s summer home apparently,” said Balthazar. “That thing needs to die … a lot.”

The creature pursued them all the way back to the dungeon entrance, but did not chase you up the staircase to the attic. As they emerged in the room with all of the covered furniture, they found it full of loathsome black smoke. The door leading out into the hall had been … replaced by the slashing blade of a scythe.

“Godsdammit!” Lillian cursed in Common again, as she became more flustered.

Pushing through the smoke to the window on the west wall showed that it had been bricked up.

“Any thoughts?” asked Malenthor, noticing that the interior walls appeared rotted and brittle. He applied his spear to the problem, which pierced the wall easily. Then he followed it through, releasing a swarm of rats that rained down upon him as he crashed through the wall. Lillian followed the drow, then smashed through the wall of the children’s room to gather their bones.

With the skeletons gathered, the adventurers made their way down the stairs and through the twisted hellscape of Durst House, finally emerging into the sunlit streets of the village of Barovia. The mists had receded, and everything seemed oddly calm.

View
Session 2
Death House, Part 2

With the immediate danger over, the adventurers took in the dusty balcony at the top of the red marble staircase. Oil lamps were mounted on the oak-paneled walls, which were carved with woodland scenes of trees, falling leaves, and tiny critters. Malenthor looked more closely at the carvings, expecting more of the macabre. In the paneling, the drow found hidden images of tiny corpses hanging from the trees and worms bursting up from the ground. He shook his head ruefully. “I don’t know what I expected.”

“This place is nuts. I like it!” said Balthazar. “The unexpected is always the way to go.”

“Always?” asked the monk.

“Well, sure. Who the hell wants boring and predictable?”

Malenthor shrugged. “Those who wish to live longer, perhaps.”

“I guess. If that’s your thing.” Balthazar gave the drow a “What’s his deal?” kind of look.

“All I really mean is that ‘always’ doing the unexpected may not be the best idea.”

“But how do you know, really? If you always do the predictable, you will never get a new result!”

Malenthor smiled at the dragonborn. “You spoke in absolutes. I suggested moderation.”

“Caution, perhaps,” Lillian said, studying the carved panels herself. “There is a secret door here,” she added, placing her hand upon the wall and giving a little push. The door opened easily to reveal a cobweb-filled wooden staircase leading up.

“Oh, nice find!” said Balthazar. “Do we want to clear this floor, or head on up?”

“This floor, I think,” said the monk. “The wayward parents may require a lesson.” Lillian nodded in agreement.

“Can’t argue with that. And maybe they can tell us where we are.”

Malenthor nodded. “Indeed.”

Several doors exited the balcony, and the adventurers selected the nearest to their left to investigate first. Dust and cobwebs shrouded an elegantly appointed bedroom. Double doors with panes of stained glass graced the north wall. The chamber contained a large bed, two end tables, and an empty wardrobe. Mounted on the wall next to the wardrobe was a full-length mirror with an ornate wooden frame carved to look like ivy and berries. It seemed a bit colder there than it had been on the balcony.

Balthazar led the way in, moving to inspect the fancy double doors. He found eyeballs among the berries, and wasted no time in pushing the large doors open. They opened out to an external balcony overlooking the front of the house – or would have, if the mists had not closed in so closely around the Durst’s home. The dragonborn moved to the next room, reaching for the door adjacent to the double doors. He stopped when the room suddenly grew even colder. The adventurers all looked over their shoulders to see a terrified, skeletally thin young woman manifest and attack!

Balthazar advanced on the spirit and brought the hammer up from his side and through the spectral form. Fortunately, the ghost had enough substance for the metal weapon to harm it. Seeing the cleric’s mundane weapon do some harm to the specter, the drow advanced to attack as well. The spirit side-stepped his spear thrust, and he hesitated to strike the ghost with his foot, but only for a second. He felt the chill of the grave crawl up his leg as he kicked clean through the spirit. He frowned at the unpleasant sensation.

Lillian muttered a quick incantation and gestured toward the specter. Her ray of frost harmed the ghost but not as much as the sorcerer had hoped it would. However, with its essence diminished by the spell, the spirit reached for the tiefling. The life-draining touch caused Lillian to crumple to the floor unconscious and gasping for breath.

Malenthor raised an eyebrow as the tiefling dropped. “Unexpected.” Balthazar sneered and breathed lightning, hoping it would have a greater effect than his hammer. As with the sorcerer’s spell, the spirit’s essence was weakened, but it still persisted. The monk tilted his head to the side, cracking his neck, and redoubling his efforts against the ghost. His spear impaled the spirit, but still it didn’t discorporate, so he spun in place and spin-kicked it the head. As his foot tore through its face, the specter faded away into nothingness. The drow released a breath he hadn’t realized he was holding. “Does she live?” he asked Balthazar of Lillian.

The cleric kneeled beside the fallen sorcerer. “She does. I should be able to bring her around. Nice dancing there.”

“I’m just glad we were able to harm the creature at all. Perhaps we have sufficient control of our ki.”

After a few minutes, Lillian regained consciousness and carefully sat up. “Ugh, what in the planes was that horrid creature?”

“She was a nasty bitch, all right. Damn undead have no place under our sky. Although it occurs to me that we might not even be under the same sky we were yesterday.”

“No, if anything indicated by the books in the library is even remotely accurate, then we are indeed not in a familiar realm.”

“Awesome! I can’t wait to see more of this place.”

“I’m sure that’s true,” said Malenthor.

Lillian shook her head. “You say that. However, I believe before we go traipsing about we should probably solidify our footing within the immediate location first.”

“What does that mean?” the monk asked politely.

“She’s sayin’ she’s scared,” said Balthazar.

Lillian turned a cool gaze on the dragonborn. “What I mean to say is we haven’t gotten our bearings before running into the first house of danger. Therefore, before we make any grand adventuring plans we should probably wrap this up and get our bearings within the immediate locale.” She kept her silver eyes on Balthazar for a moment longer before turning to cast a disarming smile toward Malenthor.

“I see,” the drow said without seeing.

“Understood,” said the cleric. “Tiptoe slowly and daintily.” He then stood and pretended to tiptoe slowly and sneakily into the next room.

The adjoining nursery contained a crib covered with a hanging black shroud. Malenthor eyed the crib uncertainly over Balthazar’s shoulder.

“Ooh! The stillborn might be here,” said the dragonborn.

“Yes. Yes, it might,” said the drow.

“Oh, yes…” said Lillian. She appeared a little uneasy at the thought.

“Two gold pieces says it’s the living dead too,” Balthazar added.

“No bet,” said Malenthor.

Lillian likewise shook her head. “I don’t make bets I see myself losing… handily.”

“Hmmph…. That’s no fun,” Balthazar said as he pulled the shroud away, revealing a tightly wrapped, baby-sized bundle lying in the crib. Without pause, the cleric picked up the bundle and unwrapped it, finding nothing within the blanket.

“Pleasantly unexpected,” said Malenthor. “Perhaps there is something to your philosophy.”

“I definitely didn’t see that coming,” said Balthazar. “Moving on, I guess.”

They returned to the inner balcony and opened the door on the north wall. Dusty shelves lined the walls of the small storage room. A few of the shelves had folded sheets, blankets, and old bars of soap on them. A cobweb-covered broom leaned against the far wall, and as the dragonborn stepped inside, the broom suddenly flew into the air and attacked!

Lillian was mildly startled and stepped away from the room, and gestured toward the lively cleaning implement, narrowly missing it with a ray of frost. Malenthor stepped up and tried to pin the broom to the wall with a spear thrust. When that failed, he kicked it hard enough to send a few splinters flying. Balthazar tried to strike it with his hammer, but the room was too narrow for him to get a good swing on it. Then the broom darted forward, punching the dragonborn in the chest solidly. He growled as thunder exploded through the broom reducing it to matchsticks.

“Mr. Balthazar, you are undoubtedly good at what you do,” said Lillian.

“That’s Stronmaus looking out for me,” said the cleric. “He doesn’t like his priests to be harmed. Speaking of which, I should probably do something about these wounds.” He muttered a prayer and was struck by a bolt of lightning from above, followed by a loud thunder clap. A few moments later, his wounds faded.

“Hm,” said Malenthor. “Remind me to avoid being wounded. That looks … painful.”

“Not at all,” said Balthazar. “It’s a nice jolt to shake off the cobwebs.”

Lillian smirked at the display. “I assure you, it’s harmless.” Malenthor looked skeptical.

With the flying broom neutralized, they searched the storage room, finding only mundane linens and cleaning products. Lillian grabbed a bar of soap and tucked it into her purse along with some of the linen cloths. The drow exchanged a questioning glance with Balthazar while the tiefling raided the closet, and then the three moved on.

The next dark room contained a wooden tub with clawed feet, a small iron stove with a kettle resting atop it, and a barrel under a spigot in the east wall. A cistern on the roof used to collect rainwater, which was borne down a pipe to the spigot; however, the plumbing no longer worked.

“What will be coming to life here…?” Lillian wondered aloud.

“Good question. Ladies first?” Malenthor said with a smile. Balthazar snorted in amusement. Despite the sorcerer’s foreboding, they did not come under attack in the bathroom. The monk turned to consider the double doors, which had dusty panes of stained glass set into them. Designs in the glass resembled windmills. Malenthor knocked twice and waited a moment, but there was no response. Nodding to the others, the drow tried the doors, which swung open with a creak.

The dusty, cobweb-filled master bedroom had burgundy drapes covering the windows. Furnishings included a four-poster bed with embroidered curtains and tattered gossamer veils, a matching pair of empty wardrobes, a vanity with a wood-framed mirror and jewelry box, and a padded chair. A rotting tiger-skin rug lay on the floor in front of the fireplace, which had a dust-covered portrait of Gustav and Elisabeth Durst hanging above it. A web-filled parlor in the southwest corner contained a table and two chairs. Resting on the dusty tablecloth was an empty porcelain bowl and a matching jug. A door facing the foot of the bed had a full-length mirror mounted upon it.

“Be wary,” said Malenthor as the party moved in to investigate. “Another ghost may spring upon us.”

Lillian frowned. “Yes, let’s avoid that circumstance.”

The mirror door opened to reveal an empty, dust-choked closet. Another door in the parlor led to an outside balcony. Then the monk moved to inspect the desk. The jewelry box on the vanity was made of silver with gold filigree. Inside the box he found a gold ring with a tiny diamond, and a thin platinum necklace with a topaz pendant. “Wasted wealth,” the drow lamented.

The tiefling came over to see what he’d found. “Oh, I could use this diamond. Does anyone mind if I take it? Naturally it will count for part of my share of this find?”

“As you like,” said Malenthor.

“I don’t care,” said Balthazar. “I’d only give it away to some lovely anyway.”

“Do you have much luck with the ladies? Or is it men?” The monk’s curiosity sounded genuine.

“Ha! In Mulhorand you never really know. But I have an eye for the ladies. The women in this land are so … juicy.”

“You make them sound like food.”

“Not food, no. But it’s not at all wrong to say I drink up every moment I spend with them.”

Malenthor nodded and changed the subject as their search of the room – and by extension, the floor – turned up nothing further. “I now doubt that the parents live. Which makes me question the nature of the children below.”

“Or the nature of the monster?” said Balthazar.

The question gave the monk pause. “I hadn’t considered that yet.”

“Or the nature of this place even,” added Lillian.

“Illusion?” said Malenthor. “If so, a convincing one.”

“Either way, this place is a fun house of horrors,” said Balthazar. “I can’t wait to see what’s next.”

He led the others back to the hidden stairs, which they ascended to a bare hall choked with dust and cobwebs. They moved to the nearest door and went on inside. The dust-choked room contained a slender bed, a nightstand, a small iron stove, a writing desk with a stool, an empty wardrobe, and a rocking chair. A smiling doll in a lacy yellow dress sat in the northern window box, cobwebs draping it like a wedding veil.

“One of the girls’ rooms, I guess.” Balthazar said as he looked around.

Lillian focused on the doll for a moment and said, “What a pretty-looking doll.” Malenthor eyed the toy askance, and then the tiefling received the same treatment. “I’ll bet the little girl misses it…” the tiefling added, sounding sad.

“You are probably right,” said Balthazar. “Why don’t you return it to her?” He casually picked up the doll and tossed it at Lillian.

She caught it gingerly with both hands and cradles it gently, nothing that it smelled faintly of lavender. “Yeah, I think I will,” she said, gently placing it in her satchel.

“Hm,” said the monk, returning to the hall and crossing to the next visible door. It was locked, but a large iron key hung from a peg right next to the door handle.

“This should be interesting,” said Balthazar, grabbing the key and trying it in the door.

The lock squeaked loudly as the key turned the tumblers into place, and the door opened. The room beyond contained a bricked-up window flanked by two dusty, wood-framed beds sized for children. Closer to the door was a toy chest with windmills painted on its sides and a dollhouse that was a perfect replica of the dreary edifice in which they stood. These furnishings were draped in cobwebs. Lying in the middle of the floor were two small skeletons wearing tattered but familiar clothing. The smaller of the two cradled a stuffed doll that they also recognized.

The tiefling’s expression was absolutely horrified, and she uttered a curse in Infernal. She slowly removed the doll from her satchel with two fingers and gingerly tossed it toward one of the beds before trying to clean her hands on her skirt.

“Oh, thank you Stronmaus,” said Balthazar eagerly. “Thank you for this gift. You never cease to fill my life with fucked up situations, and I will forever thank you for it.”

“Um,” said Malenthor, glancing at the dragonborn with a “check-out-this-motherfucker-here” expression.

“Huh? OH! Yes, terribly horrible what happened to these poor children. I will do my god proud by putting it right.”

“Why are we still here doing this again may I ask?” said Lillian.

“I would like closure,” said the monk.

“Definitely,” agreed Balthazar. “Also I have to see how this ends.”

“Let’s … just find the path to the basement,” said Malenthor.

“There’s a secret door in the attic,” Rose Durst said as she and her brother appeared, floating over their skeletons. They were much more ghostly than the children they had seen outside.

Lillian uttered another curse in Infernal, and Malenthor blinked – as much surprise as he had shown since the party stepped out of the streets of Westgate. “Is this not the attic?” he asked.

Rose nodded and pointed at the dollhouse. “You can see it there.”

The adventurers approached the dollhouse and saw that it was, indeed, a perfect replica of Durst House. They spotted all of the house’s secret doors, including one in room across the hall from the children’s room that led to a spiral staircase descending through the entire house.

Balthazar’s demeanor became slightly more professional, and he bowed to the children before beginning some sort of ritual (or maybe blessing?) on the bones. The ritual itself was incredibly odd and unfamiliar. Thorn hid behind Rose, but watched the dragonborn, fascinated.

Malenthor spared the foreign cleric a brief glance over his shoulder then turns toward the child-ghosts. “I am sorry for your fate. You deserved better.”

“Thank you,” said Rose. “They locked us in here to protect us from the monster in the basement … then they forgot about us.”

Lillian’s shoulders slumped a bit hearing that and turns back to the children. “The monster is still here then?”

The ghost-girl nodded at the tiefling. “Oh, yes.”

“I’m sure you weren’t forgotten, children,” said Lillian, turning back to the model house to look at the path to the secret door.

“If we slay the monster, do you think you can find rest?” asked Malenthor.

Rose looked over at him uncertainly. “Maybe? I don’t know. We’ve been here so long.”

Balthazar finished his ritual. “Either way. You deserve to see this thing get demolished … whatever it is.”

“We shall see,” said the drow, turning to lead the way to the secret stair.

“Please don’t go,” Thorn said as the party started to leave.

Malenthor paused and turned toward the boy, then crouched down to be eye level with the small ghost. “With luck, this will bring you peace, lad. It is the best we can offer, I’m afraid.” Thorn reached out toward the monk, tears in his eyes. Malenthor reached out to embrace the dead boy, uncertain if such a thing was even possible. Even for a drow, it was about the strangest feeling he had ever experienced.

Lillian watched the exchange and felt her stomach go cold and drop into a pit. Rose looked pleadingly at the tiefling for a long moment. “I’m sorry child,” the sorcerer muttered to herself before looking back at her companions. “That.… That is why we’re still here.” Malenthor glances at her briefly, but didn’t say anything.

The adventurers carefully made their way out of the children’s room and over to the storage room that hid the secret stair to the basement. The dusty chamber was packed with old furniture (chairs, coat racks, standing mirrors, dress mannequins, and the like), all draped in dusty white sheets. Near an iron stove, underneath one of the sheets, was an unlocked wooden trunk. The secret door was obvious since they had seen it on the dollhouse.

“And you thought it was bad luck that we were pulled into this place,” said Balthazar. “Knowing now that you just had that experience, could you say that you would rather have just finished the bounty tonight as planned? We grow from stepping outside of our safe place.” Balthazar once again begins to praise Stronmaus.

“Perhaps, but usually we have more say in the matter,” said Malenthor.

“Well, let me answer that after we survive this monster,” said Lillian. The monk nodded at that.

Balthazar opened the trunk, which contained skeletal remains, wrapped in a tattered bedsheet stained with dry blood. They were reminded of the specter they had fought on the third floor of the house. “Murdered,” the cleric said decisively. “Poor woman never had a chance. No wonder she was so pissed off.”

“This is a place of nightmares,” said the tiefling. “How have this town’s folk not come to finish this?”

“Perhaps this is the norm,” said the monk. “We’ve yet to meet the neighbors.”

“Right?” said Balthazar. “I can’t wait to see what’s in the next house.”

“Then where in the hells are we?” Lillian muttered.

The narrow spiral staircase made of creaky wood was contained within a five-foot-wide shaft of mortared stone that started in the attic and descended fifty feet to the dungeon level, passing through the lower levels of the house as it made its descent. Thick cobwebs filled the shaft and reduced visibility in the staircase to five feet.

At the bottom, a narrow tunnel stretched southward before branching east and west. The dungeon level underneath Durst House was carved out of earth, clay, and rock. The tunnels were four feet wide by seven feet high with timber braces at five-foot intervals. They saw centuries-old human footprints in the earthen floor leading every which way. They could hear an eerie, incessant chant echoing throughout, but they couldn’t make out where it was coming from, or what was being said. Balthazar’s cantrip provided the only light.

“Are you sure you can’t see in the dark?” Malenthor asked the dragonborn. “I prefer not to broadcast our approach.”

“I can’t see in the dark, no. But I can douse it and just follow along if you like.”

“Probably best not,” the drow said reluctantly.

“I don’t mind the dark, but having one of us staggering blind is not useful,” Lillian said in a hushed tone.

Off to the south, they found two crypts hewn from the earth. The slabs meant to seal each were propped up and out of the way. The east slab was blank, and the west one had “Walter Durst” engraved on it.

They left the crypts and headed east then north, coming to a larger open chamber, the eight-foot roof supported by wooden beams and cross-braces. A wooden table and four chairs stood at the east end of the room, and to the west were four alcoves containing moldy straw pallets. The party searched the room, but finding nothing of note, crossed through a hall to the north that emptied into another large chamber.

A four-foot-diameter well shaft with a three-foot-high stone lip descended thirty feet to a water-filled cistern. A wooden bucket hung from a rope-and-pulley mechanism bolted to the crossbeams above the well. Five side rooms once served as quarters for senior cultists. Each contained a wood-framed bed with a moldy straw mattress and a wooden chest to hold personal belongings. Each chest was secured with a rusty iron padlock. They spent some time collecting long forgotten coin and valuables, including a silvered shortsword. Malenthor smiled and picks up the sword. “This, I can use,” he said, sheathing the weapon and belting it to his hip.

Balthazar led the others out of the southern exit in the southeast corner. When they came to a three-way junction, he noted a distinct absence of footprints in the corridor to the west. “Footprints stop here,” said the dragonborn. “That doesn’t make any sense.”

“None of this does,” said Lillian.

“Suspicious,” agreed the monk. “Trapped floor, maybe?” Examining the floor, they found a section of rotted wooden planks covered by a thin layer of dirt. “Let’s not go that way,” said Malenthor. “Yet.” Balthazar shrugged and continued south

They came to a room containing a plain wooden table flanked by long benches. Moldy humanoid bones lay strewn on the dirt floor. In the middle of the south wall was a darkened alcove. “How horrible,” said Balthazar. “Leaving their bones all over the floor like that. What slobs.”

“Too soon to become numb to the horror yet,” said Malenthor, approaching the darkened alcove.

When he reached it, a man-sized serpent slithered out of the darkness. It reared up and unfurled four barbed tentacles to reveal its hungry, snapping beak as it lurched at him!

“Nope!” cried Lillian. “NOPE!”

View
Session 1
Death House, Part 1

As the sun faded, mist rolled into the streets of Westgate, and three figures worked their way through those streets toward Big Edna’s Tavern in search of Grosk, the half-orc gladiator who had murdered a friend of theirs, Happy Zheng. The Shou’s brother Smiling Zheng had hired you to get Grosk, alive if possible. But as they turned to leave he had added, “Dead … just as good.” The fog grew thicker as they proceeded about their grim task.

“I love this night,” said Balthazar. “I can already tell it’s going to get good.”

“Hm,” said Malenthor, casting an uncertain glance at the hulking blue dragonborn.

“Hrm,” Lillian echoed the drow, looking across at the others. “Let’s just get it done.”

The mist turned the buildings around them into gray ghosts. They seemed to lose their familiarity, which was disturbing, given how familiar the streets of Westgate had become to the three. The darkening sky swallowed the sun greedily.

“Is this sorcery, do you think?” the dark elf asked the tiefling, gesturing at the rising mists.

“Whatever it is, it’s definitely disconcerting,” said Lillian.

Balthazar sniffed the air. “It doesn’t feel natural,” he said.

The fog swirled around them until they could barely see their hands in front of their faces, let alone each other. Malenthor called upon the magical gifts of his heritage, evoking dancing lights in an attempt to illuminate the street at their feet. It didn’t really help. They pressed forward and finally found a small break in the mist, which only confirmed the dragonborn’s suspicions, as they were no longer in the right part of Westgate. In fact, surrounded by tall houses as dark as tombstones, they were not sure they were in Westgate at all anymore…

Lillian stopped in her tracks, slowly taking in their new surroundings and trying to keep her composure. “What sorcery is this?”

“Hm,” Malenthor repeated.

“Powerful forces at work here,” said Balthazar. “Stronmaus must be laughing at me!” The blue-scaled cleric had a wide grin on his reptilian face, amused by the happenings.

Nestled among the solemn dwellings surrounding them were a handful of closed-up shops. Even the tavern was shut tight. The drow inspected the sign hanging in front of the closed tavern. It hung precariously askew, proclaiming the establishment to be the Blood on the Vine tavern. Malenthor read it aloud for the others.

Lillian frowned. “Well, this isn’t what we were contracted for.”

Balthazar hushed his companions, drawing their attention to the sound of soft whimpering coming from somewhere off to the east. Then the cleric whispered a short prayer, evoking light on his shield, and directed the others towards the sound. The tiefling squinted sternly in the sudden bright light, her silver eyes reflecting the radiance. The drow exchanged a glance with her then followed the dragonborn.

The sound was somewhat muted by the mists but still strong. Glancing back to see the expression on the sorceress’s face, Balthazar said, “It’s okay, Lillian. Changes of plans are just full of fun surprises.”

“Fun for whom…” she replied, mostly to herself, as she peered ahead. She took a breath, straightened her stance, and brushed her gown before setting her pace, her composure gathered for whatever was ahead.

“Perhaps we can find someone who can explain what has happened to bring us here,” suggested Malenthor, noting that the mist seemed to be closing in behind them as they proceeded.

“Great idea,” said the dragonborn. “This place needs some … anything.”

“Indeed,” said the drow.

They turned a corner and saw a pair of children standing in the middle of an otherwise lifeless street. The girl was maybe ten years old, and the boy was about seven. He was weeping and clutching a stuffed doll; she attempted to hush him. Balthazar looked left toward the drow, right towards the pale tiefling, and wondered amusedly which of the three were going to be the least frightening to the children.

Lillian’s face scrunched up at the sight of the children. “Oh, it’s crying…” she whispered, visibly uncomfortable.

“Hello,” Malenthor said gently. “Are you lost, too?”

The girl managed to get the boy to calm down, then looked up at the dark elf. “No, sir,” she said. “We live right there.” She pointed to the house to the east. The tall brick row house had seen better days.

“Why are you still out in the street then?” asked Lillian.

“Because there’s a monster in our house!”

“A monster? What kind of a monster?” Balthazar asked, very interested. Lillian looked concerned for a moment.

“I don’t know,” the girl said. “We’ve only heard its horrible howls.”

“Where are your parents?” asked Malenthor.

“Upstairs, I think. They won’t come down.” The boy hid behind the girl, but peered out at the strangers shyly. “They keep it locked in the basement,” the girl continued. “They’re minding the baby.” There was contempt in her words.

The drow frowned. “A pet monster,” he mused.

“And here we thought we were just going to be killing a low level thug today,” said Balthazar, looking over to Lillian. “See? Fun surprises. Let’s go.”

“Well, it won’t do to have monsters around,” she conceded.

“Indeed,” said Malenthor.

“Thank you,” the girl said. “Thank you! We’ll wait here until we know the monster is gone.”

A wrought-iron gate with hinges on one side and a lock on the other filled the archway of a stone portico. The gate was unlocked, and its rusty hinges shrieked when the gate was opened. Unlit oil lamps hung from the portico ceiling by chains, flanking a set of oaken doors that opened into a grand foyer. The children entered the portico behind the three strangers.

Hanging on the south wall of the foyer was a shield emblazoned with a coat-of-arms – a stylized golden windmill on a red field – flanked by framed portraits of stony-faced aristocrats. Mahogany-framed double doors leading from the foyer to the main hall were set with panes of stained glass. The rooms were free of dust and signs of age. The floorboards and wall panels were well oiled, the drapes and wallpaper hadn’t faded, and the furniture looked new. The mists crawled right up to the gate, and then the front doors slid closed behind them.

“How do we get into the basement, children?” the dark elf asked.

“Through the attic,” said the girl.

“I … see.”

Lillian raised her hand and snapped several times, causing small flames to spring from the lamps.

“Huh … You snap your hands, and the lights come on. That seems marketable,” said Balthazar, soliciting a smile from Malenthor.

“If you can market sorcery, I’ll write up the bills and contracts,” said the tiefling.

A wide hall ran the width of the house, with a black marble fireplace at one end and a sweeping, red marble staircase at the other. Mounted on the wall above the fireplace was a longsword with a windmill cameo worked into the hilt. The wood-paneled walls were ornately sculpted with images of vines, flowers, nymphs, and satyrs. The decorative paneling followed the staircase as it circled upward to the second floor.

“Very nice,” opined the dragonborn. “But begging for some natural sunlight.”

Malenthor inspected the sculptures more closely. “Hm,” he said with a frown, slowly backing away from the wall. “A hidden touch of macabre.”

“Oh yea?” asked Balthazar, stepping closer to see.

The drow nodded, pointing. “Serpents and skulls inconspicuously woven into the design.”

“This place is just crawling with hidden gloom it seems,” said Lillian.

“I’m impressed,” said Balthazar. “Their taste is not what you’d expect. Let’s head upstairs.”

On the second floor, unlit oil lamps were mounted on the walls of an elegant hall. Hanging above the mantelpiece was a wood-framed portrait of a man and woman with their two smiling children, whom the three had seen outside. Cradled in the father’s arms was a swaddled baby, which the mother regarded with a hint of scorn. Standing suits of armor flanked wooden doors in the east and west walls. Each suit of armor clutched a spear and had a visored helm shaped like a wolf’s head. The doors were carved with dancing youths. They could feel a cold draft coming down the stairs from above.

Lillian ignited the lamps to aid Balthazar. He nodded then opened the door right beside the landing. Malenthor frowned but said nothing. The tiefling cleared her throat. “Manners.”

“These people might be in danger,” said the cleric. “I’m less concerned about manners.”

An undecorated bedroom contained a pair of beds with straw-stuffed mattresses. At the foot of each bed was an empty footlocker. Tidy servants’ uniforms hung from hooks in the adjoining closet, and a dumbwaiter in the corner of the west wall had a button on the wall next to it. Seeing nothing of overt interest, Balthazar led the party to the double doors on the east wall.

Red velvet drapes covered the windows of this library. An exquisite mahogany desk and a matching high-back chair faced the entrance and the fireplace, above which hung a framed picture of a windmill perched atop a rocky crag. Situated in corners of the room were two overstuffed chairs. Floor-to-ceiling bookshelves lined the south wall. A rolling wooden ladder allows one to more easily reach the high shelves.

The desk had several items resting atop it: an oil lamp, a jar of ink, a quill pen, a tinderbox, and a letter kit containing a red wax candle, four blank sheets of parchment, and a wooden seal bearing the family’s windmill insignia. The bookshelves held hundreds of tomes covering a range of topics including history, warfare, and alchemy. There were also several shelves containing first-edition collected works of poetry and fiction. Lillian gravitated toward the shelves and took special interest in the titles on the spines.

“So you have an eye for books, eh?” said Balthazar. “That’s the first thing I’ve seen get you excited. I like the tawdry romance books myself. Gooood stuff.”

Lillian choked on a snicker. “Yes, I do enjoy books of all kinds,” she said with a smirk. She then glanced toward the history books to see if she recognized any of the locales mentioned in titles. Not a one looked familiar: Hazlan? Sithicus? Darkon? Not familiar at all. The biographies were equally unfamiliar. Victor Mordenheim, Harkon Lukas, Ivana Boritsi. No names she had ever heard. “Either these are all works of fiction, or we’ve entered a realm that doesn’t share history with our own.”

Frowning in surprise, the tiefling tilted her head to the side when she noted a red-covered book with a blank spine on the southern shelf, which was not a real book. “Curiouser and curiouser,” Lillian said to Balthazar. “This appears to be a mechanism.”

“It’s a button? Oh you have to push it,” said the dragonborn.

“More of a lever? I would prefer to activate it once we are all together so as to be better prepared. Even more curious, I don’t recognize any of the names on these history books.”

“That makes sense. I’m just ready to find out what all this ‘monster’ business is about’

While the other two explored the library, Malenthor had crossed the hall to the other set of doors, knocking briefly before opening them. Within, he found a conservatory. Gossamer drapes covered the windows of the elegantly appointed hall, which had a brass-plated chandelier hanging from the ceiling. Upholstered chairs lined the walls, and stained-glass wall hangings depicted beautiful men, women, and children singing and playing instruments. A harpsichord with a bench rested in the northwest corner. Near the fireplace was a large standing harp. Alabaster figurines of well-dressed dancers adorned the mantelpiece. Morbid curiosity compelled him to more closely inspect the stained glass and the alabaster figurines. He discovered that some of the carvings of the conservatory were of well-dressed skeletons. He wandered to the harpsichord and played a couple of short notes from a tune he’d grown to love.

Balthazar entered the room and said, “Malenthor, let’s keep moving. Lillian found a lever.” The dark elf followed him back to the library, and the tiefling indicated the fake book.

“Are we ready?” she asked, manifesting a floating hand near the lever. When her companions nodded, her mage hand pulled the false book, opening a secret door on the south wall directly behind her.

The secret room contained bookshelves packed with tomes describing fiend-summoning rituals and the necromantic rituals of a cult called the Priests of Osybus. A heavy wooden chest with clawed iron feet stood against the south wall, its lid half-closed. Sticking out of the chest was a skeleton in leather armor. Close inspection revealed that the skeleton belonged to a human who must have triggered a poisoned dart trap. Three darts were stuck in the dead adventurer’s armor and ribcage. The dart-firing mechanism inside the chest no longer functioned. Clutched in the skeleton’s left hand was a letter.

“Who lives in a house and doesn’t know about someone being dead in their secret room?” said Lillian.

Balthazar shrugged. “These people are into demon summoning. I wouldn’t be surprised if they regularly misplace a servant or two.”

Their conversation was interrupted when springs in the secret door started it closing behind them. Malenthor swiftly caught the closing door, propping it open with a stray book.

“Is that a letter?” asked the drow. Balthazar moved the skeleton aside to inspect the chest, handing the parchment to Malenthor. The chest contained three blank books with black leather covers, three spell scrolls, the deed to the house, the deed to a windmill, a map, and a signed will. The will was signed by Gustav and Elisabeth Durst and bequeathed the house, the windmill, and all other family property to Rosavalda and Thornboldt Durst in the event of their parents’ deaths.

While the cleric rifled through the chest’s contents, Malenthor read the letter. After he’d finished reading, the dark elf frowned and handed the letter to Lillian. “Well, I understand the mother’s expression in the portrait now. Whoever this Strahd is, the father seems to have been seeking his favor. In vain.”

“Seeking?” asked Balthazar.

“Oh, this place teems with unfortunate scenarios,” said Lillian as she finished scanning the contents of the letter before passing it back to the cleric.

Balthazar went back over to the portrait in the main entryway, glancing between the painting and the letter. “Does this say stillborn?!” he said, looking more closely at the baby in the portrait. “So the crazy old bastard is keeping his dead baby from another woman. God’s Breath that is messed up.”

“So it would seem,” said Malenthor. “Do you wish to confront the parents?”

The dragonborn nodded. “We need to find these sickos. Let’s head upstairs.”

Climbing the red marble staircase to its full height brought them to a dusty balcony with a suit of black plate armor standing against one wall, dusty and draped in cobwebs. Oil lamps were mounted on the oak-paneled walls, which were carved with woodland scenes of trees, falling leaves, and tiny critters.

“This bodes ill,” said Malenthor.

“Yea. My pecker is doing jumping jacks too,” Balthazar deadpanned.

“Your … what?” said Lillian.

Whatever answer the cleric might have given was preempted when the suit of armor lurched forward to attack! The tiefling started in surprise and started muttering an incantation, pointing at the armor. An arc of frost lanced out from her finger and struck the metal. Hoarfrost caused the suit of armor to grind as it strode inexorably forward.

Balthazar hefted his hammer up and made the armor ring like a bell. The suit of armor rocked back from the heavy blow, then swung both of its mailed fists at the dragonborn. Only one of the gauntlets impacted Balthazar, and when it did a boom of thunder slammed through the armor, rattling its plates together.

Malenthor vaulted the railing to flank the suit of armor with Balthazar, stabbing with his spear. The point scraped along the plates ineffectually, so the drow tried to sweep the leg, frowning in pain as his foot impacted the greave at a bad angle.

Lillian winced in sympathy, and tried to catch the armor with another chill ray, but with her companions engaged, she could not get a clean shot. Balthazar strafed to one side, takes in a deep breath, and breathed lightning at the armor! Sparks coruscated over the suit, but it was still intact enough to attack the dragonborn. The gauntlets clanged hard against the cleric’s shield. While it seemed distracted, the drow jabbed with his spear. Spinning quickly, the armor snatched the shaft of the weapon, so while the arm was held still, Malenthor chopped it in the elbow. The arm tore completely loose, and as the suit leaned forward to dislodge the monk, it simply fell apart around him, its magic undone.

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Prelude: Lillian
The Art of the Deal

The knocking at her door was soft and panicked, startling the Tiefling woman from her reading. Her rose colored lips pursed into a tight frown and her eyes crinkled into silver slits as she uncurled herself and brushed at her evening clothes, taking her time to collect herself. Whoever this was, they weren’t supposed to be here. She straightened and spared a glance at a pair of gloves on the reading table before her frown deepened a little and she headed toward the door.

The rapping occurred again, a little more frantic this time as if it could speed her steps toward the door. This only gave her pause to consider why someone would be on her doorstep at this time of night in such a panic. The pale woman reached the door and slid the peeking slot open harshly and peered out into the dim lamp-light, metalic orbs widening to search for the interrupter of her peace. Down her gaze fell, lower and lower until she was looking at a tousled mop of hair atop some small humanoid’s head. The pools of mercury crinkled tight again as the bedraggled head tilted up and looked into them and the small person squirmed under the effect of an involuntary cold chill.

The Tieflings voice was monotone and cool “Please state your business.” The gnome looked over her shoulder to the empty street beyond, then back to the icy eyes in the door “I was told you could… h-h-help…” The eyes in the door changed almost imperceptibly from cold scrutiny to irritation “You are in the wrong place and this is not the time, come to my office tomorrow if you wish to discuss assistance with a business transaction.” She interrupted while sliding the cover closed.

Feeling she has said her part the Tiefling managed about two steps back toward her warm hearth, inviting chair and book, before the knocking began again, this time with more haste. The temperature of the room dropped mildly as her ire gathered in a tangible frost around her. She walked pointedly back to the door, the knocking growing more frantic as she reached the portal to her home. She gripped the handle and took a deep breath before steadily opening the door to reprimand the intruder one last time before-

THUNK!

A crossbow bolt sat at an angle in her door just at the position where the small person’s head had been had she not ducked into a squat. Before she could react, the gnome (as she now recognized her) leapt past and into the safe haven of the apartment as another bolt bounced off of the threshold of the doorway and ricocheted inside. There was a tense moment before sense came back to the horned woman and she slammed the door and dropped the latch closed followed by another sudden THUNK!

“Ohhhh… You are Lillian the Red Handed!” the gnome cried out excitedly as she jumped to her feet and proffered a hand toward Lillian who clenched her blood red hands into fists. “Oh, manners, manners, Master Urudu always says to exhibit proper manners toward your host when visiting the confines of their… Is it getting cold in here? Can we move to the hearth to talk about business?” She barely noted (or dismissed altogether) that the tiefling woman’s stance had gone rigid, fists clenched into balls and was staring death at her. The gnome skipped toward the hearth and sat on the stone stoop beside it to get warm.

Lillian took several deep breaths and composed herself once more before gracefully moving back to the living room where she stood, foot tapping, arms crossed, eyes staring down the little person with a glare that caused even the hearth fire to shrink away. The gnome smiled up at her once more “Okay, let’s begin. That out there? That was Geddy’s men. Geddy’s men decided to take the easy way out of this situation by getting Geddy what he wants for him, but I want what I have and what I have is what he wants. Get it?” The gnome looked up at Lillian happily for a moment before looking shocked “OH! I’m Artel the Apprentice Artificer, pleased to meet you! You’re Lillian the Red Handed, I know that already and so do you so now that introductions are out of the way do you get it?”

The scowl on the statuesque tiefling deepened “What is it you want brokered? Why are you here with thugs on your tail hunting for your blood?” The gnome sighed “I told you, Geddy wants what I want despite that I want it and so his men have come to collect but I don’t owe!” Lillian shook her head “So you want me to get you out of this mess because criminals are trying to kill you for what’s yours? That’s pretty cut and dry, go to the guards.” She began walking back toward the barred door to open it and Artel let out a squeal “Okay! Okay wait! Okay so maybe it was Geddy’s and Urudu’s by property ownership but I acquired it in the dig through finders because finders are keepers and all that so I kept but they want…” Lillian didn’t slow down her pace to the door so the gnome spoke faster “it-back-for-themselves-but-they-won’t-even-give-me-any-credit-for-the-find-and-that-doesn’t-do-me-any-good-for-my-career-andI’llpayyou20goldnoquestions!” The hand stopped at the door and Lillian looked over her shoulder at the gnome “That’s the retainer fee, we’ll discuss my final fee after I get rid of these gentlemen.”

The red hands went from the bar on the door to the view-plate and slid it open a bit “You’re boss Geddy wants something that my client has. I have been retained as a diplomat and call an accord with your payer in order to reach a suitable agreement for both parties in order to facilitate peace. Please carry this message to your employer in order to best maintain good reputation as an honest dealer. Inform him to meet at the office of Lillian the Broker at sun-up to work toward an agreement that is mutually beneficial for all sides.” A quiet rabble could be heard by a pair of voices before a shout “You feckin’ wot mate?” Lillian put her hand to her face and shook her head in disbelief before shouting back through the plate “Promise to a cease of hostilities and I will step out to explain further instead of shouting through a door.” There was another pause followed by “Oi a’ite.”

Lillian then grabbed her gloves and gestured for her new bankroll to stay put in the house as she slid the sheathes over her hands and forearms and resettled her spectacles and slowly opened the door and stepped outside. There in the shadows of the poorly lit street shadows stood a pair of men in rugged outfits that belied their natures as roustabouts. One held a crossbow and the other had daggers in his belt and they shifted eagerly as though waiting for a fight. Lillian knew this meant danger but also knew that she had a job to do.

“Ahem, gentlemen.” She began “I, Lillian the Broker, have chosen to take up the contract for Artel the Apprentice Artificer who wishes to parlay with Mr. Geddy on the topic of the object unearthed. This will remain beneficial for all parties should you return to him with the instructions to come to my place of business on the morning to work out a deal.” Crossbow leaned toward daggers and whispered something before daggers muttered under his breath “Nah, s’just un horney-headed git, w’can deal wit it ourselves.” Whether he realized it or not, Lillian watched him clearly in the darkness as he unsheathed a dagger and hefted it to throw as crossbow took a step back. With a sigh and a muttered incantation the dragon blood welled in Lillian and frost bolted from her fingertip and struck the knife in dagger’s hand and spread, painfully up his arm eliciting a surprised cry. “Witch! It dun used hel-magiks on meh! Don’ jus’ stand there Giddeon! Kill er!” Giddeon or crossbow or whomever loaded a bolt and let fly as swiftly as he could, but his nerve was lost and the bolt struck over Lillian’s shoulder.

Another swift muttering later and Giddeon’s ass found the cobblestone road beneath him as the ground became icy and his feet slowed. Daggers took the opportunity of the sorceress attention focused on his friend to redouble his efforts and lunged toward Lillian again, his movement slowed as his muscles stiffened in the preternatural cold. He closed the distance clumsily and swung his knife heavily, the strength drained from him. His sharp blade caught the tiefling’s night-clothes and opened up the shift just beneath her breasts, causing it to droop and reveal a pale belly and under-curves. Lillian gasped in surprise and daggers coughed out a chuckle as he regained his fighting stance, preparing to strike again.

Deciding that enough was enough, the horned woman focused her energy and chanted an incantation, her blood freezing in her veins as she called up a dragon’s cold and released an orb, blue-white in color, at her attacker. Daggers didn’t have long to contemplate what was occurring, aside from the fact that he could do nothing about it. The orb struck him in the chest and frost burned his skin black and blue. His eyes widened in fear as he gasped for air into lungs that crackled and broke like frost crystals under their own movement. He clutched at his chest as his heart slowed, freezing, pumping ice into his veins and eventually stopping dead, unable to beat for the stiffness of it. He collapsed into a curled heap as though trying to warm himself from his core.

Lillian daintily began to remove her gloves for effect and approached Giddeon, holder of the crossbow who was attempting to scuttle along the ground away from her, unable to nock another bolt for how hard his hands were shaking. She revealed her blood-red hands and he shook his head back and forth “Ye are, I’m srry, I told Edgar not ta’. Told im I thot ye were who ye were, I’m srry…” He jerked his gaze down and away from her. Lillian then knelt beside Giddeon and put an icy red hand to his jaw and lifted his eyes to hers. “Now, your boss only has to pay one of you. Carry the message that Edgar tried to commit murder during a peace negotiation to his benefit and was dealt with accordingly. Tell him to meet at the aforementioned place at the aforementioned time for a peaceful negotiation at the hands of Lillian. Collect your… Edgar… and remove yourselves, I’ve no time to deal with discussing your activities with the guards this night and you don’t end up with a watch bounty on your head to go along with the events that transpired.” She released him gently and stood, walking back to her door and stepping around Edgar on her way. She entered her home to see the gnome swiftly moving from the door to the hearth again as she closed the door to the hustled sounds of a body being shouldered and hauled away.

“20 gold for my retainer, right now.” Lillian demanded coldly. The gnome nodded, lips pursed tight. Lillian then realized the state of her attire “1 more gold to replace my night clothes.” Once more the gnome nodded. “50% of what he agrees to pay you, whatever it is.” The gnome didn’t nod. Lillian gave Artel a steely stare “You will only make this worse.” The gnome remained still, lips pursed and a sliver of fear edging in behind her eyes. Lillian holds up her deft red hands and begins counting off on crimson fingertips “You barge into my personal residence uninvited. You attempt to hire me outside of business hours. My door suffers damage from bolts meant for you. I negotiate your safety outside of office hours. I am forced to murder in self-defense on your behalf…” She looks at the gnome sternly “60% now and I’m still being generous, I suggest you take it.” Artel swallows audibly and nods again, a grimace on her face, no more swift words to rattle off. “I’ll draft the papers right now then.” Lillian replies, and goes to gather her things from her table and begins to write up the contract. Tomorrow should prove very profitable indeed.

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Prelude: Malenthor

Westgate, A Year Ago

The back of the wagon had been an uncomfortable place to spend the last thousand miles of the journey from Luskan, but Malenthor was not one to complain. After decades of training, discomfort was a constant companion. Rather, he had been unsure of the Zhentarim’s ability to get him to his destination. However, the Black Network agent had proven true to his word. The dark elf monk climbed out of the covered wagon and took his first look at Westgate.

According to what he’d heard, the port city had been forced to expand when the Sea of Fallen Stars began draining into the Underdark after the Spellplague. The lower water level had caused the shoreline to recede and left the dock area of the city high and dry. The docks had been rebuilt on the new shoreline, and the area had become known as Tidetown. Someone – several Someones – had put some Money into constructing lasting structures to support Trade, the city’s lifeblood.

Wealth was one reason Malenthor had chosen Westgate. The diversity of its peoples was another. Even a drow could be just another face in the crowd. There would certainly be a market for a man of his skillset, particularly if the grip of organized crime was as strong as rumor suggested. He briefly wondered if it would be out of character in the city for him to put up a shingle outside a small rented building announcing his intention: Private Investigator.

He dismissed the notion almost immediately, as it flew in the face of his desired anonymity. He would instead rely on word-of-mouth. He would need to take the pulse of the city and take a few small jobs to establish himself as a new player. In time, if he was successful, his name would find its way into the ears of more powerful men. He thought he had some time before Bregan D’aerthe reached this far East. He hoped he did.

He made his way to the gates of the city proper and passed through them without incident. He’d been directed to a contact within the city to find lodging and so he made his way to the charmingly named Black Eye tavern. No sooner had he entered than he realized it was a place to keep your hands on your coin purse. He sought a dark corner, noting that they were all already occupied. He reluctantly took a seat at the bar, ordered an ale and passed along a marked coin to the swarthy barkeep. The man took the coin, brushed Malenthor with an appraising gaze, and juked his head toward a door leading off of the common room.

In the private room beyond, the drow found a middle-aged half-elf woman seated at a small round table. Her eyebrow quirked as she looked him over, then she indicated the single chair across from her. He sat, waiting for the woman to speak first. She sat silently, staring intently across the table at his dark-skinned face. Perhaps it was a tactic intended to put him off his ease. Malenthor let his mind drift into a meditative state, content to sit for as long as it might take. Perhaps ten minutes later, she broke the silence.

“I’d say you’re a cold one, but your face is so serene.” It was half a complaint, tinged with admiration. “Bonnie Silver,” she added. “You’re in need of a place to stay. How long?”

“A year at least,” Malenthor said in a measured tone.

“A year?” she replied, surprised. “You mean to put down roots, then?”

“Perhaps.”

She tilted her head as she shrugged. “All right. A rental apartment, unless you’re richer than you look.” Her expression as she looked over his simple clothing showed clearly that she doubted it very much.

“A rental,” he agreed.

“I know just the place.”

* * *

A bell above the door jingled as Malenthor entered the office. A matronly dwarf squinted up at him. “You the new tenant Silver sent?” she asked, her voice strained with a worry that the drow didn’t think had anything to do with his dark skin.

“Bonnie Silver told me to ask for Mistress Blossom,” he replied, noting the flowers stitched into her blouse.

“Fine, fine,” she said distractedly, reaching for a ledger and a quill. “First month’s rent?”

The dark elf exchanged a pouch of coin for the leasing contract she slid across the counter for him to consider. While he skimmed it, he casually asked, “May I ask if there are any chores that tenants can be expected to perform?”

Caught off guard by the question, the dwarf snapped, “What, like take out your own rubbish?”

“Of course. And is there anything I can take care of for you?”

She glared up at his face but saw only sincerity, and the flame of her ire died quickly. “It isn’t your problem.”

“Perhaps. But if my landlord is happy, my life is simpler.”

She continued staring at him intently, weighing whether or not she felt like sharing with this stranger. With a sigh, she made her decision. “My son. I expected him to join me for lunch, but I haven’t seen him since this morning. He told me he ran afoul of one of the new Fire Knives lieutenants last night. You’re new in town, so wouldn’t know about those wretched assassins. They are not to be trifled with.”

“I’ve heard of them. Would you like me to try and find your son?”

“What, just like that?”

“If I can bring him home safe, maybe you’d be inclined to reduce my rent.”

Her face expressed comprehension. “Pragmatism, then. Still, defying the Fire Knives is choosing a side in Westgate. You should know that.”

“I understand. What is your son’s name?”

“Henrik.”

* * *

Malenthor started his search at the last place Blossom’s son had been seen, a seedy tavern called Bent Mermaid Inn. “I’m looking for a man,” he said to a group of tough-looking men after buying a round.

“I’ve ‘eard that about elves, mate,” retorted one of the thugs, soliciting laughter from his compatriots.

“Nice one, Joker!” said a big and particularly stupid looking human.

The drow smiled pleasantly, and the laughter died down. Clearly the dark elves’ reputation still counted for something in Westgate. Once they were quiet, Malenthor continued as though there had been no interruption. “A dwarf by the name of Henrik. Do you know him?”

“Aye, we know the piker,” said Joker. “Poor sod’s probably dead by now, or as good as.”

“Why do you say that?”

“He stiffed Emmet, didn’t ‘e, lads.” The other thugs nodded agreement, and one spat on the floor. “Prideful bugger, Em’. New to his colors an’ lookin’ t’prove ‘e’s got a monster cock.” Joker shook his head. “If ol ‘Enrik owed you money, best you just let that debt go. Some of Emmet’s Strikers dragged ‘is ‘airy arse out of ‘ere at ‘alf past ten, I ‘eard.”

“Where would they take him?”

“I ain’t a Knife, right,” Joker retorted crossly. “But I ‘ear rumors, eh. Emmet got ‘isself a warehouse down Tidetown special for wetworks.” The thug winked and drew a line across his throat with a finger.

“I see,” said Malenthor, starting to count out gold coins on the table. “Show me.”

* * *

Evening had arrived while the drow had been about his business in Westgate, and the shadows held him close as he made his way to the warehouse Joker had indicated. He found an open window high on the wall and slipped inside quietly. He began to prowl the pathways between crates until he spotted a lantern in the far corner. It shined on a dwarf who was bruised and bloody, but fortunately still drew breath. Two bored human men stood watch nearby, waiting impatiently for someone to arrive. Malenthor watched them silently for several moments, sizing them up before moving closer.

“What is that?” said one of the guards when the drow’s dancing lights appeared on the far side of the room. “Who’s there?” he demanded, more loudly. When there was no response, but the lights started to move farther away, the man nodded to his companion and they both went to investigate.

“Greetings,” Malenthor said softly to the dwarf from the shadows behind him. “Are you Henrik?” The bound man’s startlement lasted only a moment before he nodded once. “Excellent. Would you like to leave?” Without waiting for an answer to the rhetorical question, the drow’s nimble fingers set to work on the knots.

“Who are you?” Henrik asked.

“Your mother’s new tenant. She was worried about you.”

“Heh,” said the dwarf, a faint smile crossing his blood-caked face. “All right then.”

“Where is the nearest exit?” the drow asked.

“Follow me.”

* * *

Malenthor and Henrik made their way swiftly back to Blossom’s boarding house. The landlord was pleasantly surprised to see her son back again and still alive. Their reunion was of necessity brief, since the dwarf man would have to leave Westgate for a time until the Fire Knives stopped looking for him. He thanked the drow and made his exit, bound for a meeting with Bonnie Silver and through the Zhentarim, safely out of the city.

“You’re a wonder,” Blossom told Malenthor. “I don’t know how you managed it, honestly.”

“I asked politely,” said the drow.

The old dwarf laughed.


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