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.
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.”
“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.
“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?”