“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.
“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.