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.
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.
“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.