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.