After slaying the abomination that had attacked us deep within Durst Manor, the six of us combed through the house, taking stock and possession of any valuables and ensuring there were no more lurking surprises. Eli began and ended his search in the wine cellar, while the others found an assortment of weapons, luxury items and a magical cloak. There was also a deed to the manor, a deed to a windmill, a one-third stake ownership of a business called the Wizards of Wine, and a strange and beautiful deck of cards. The deed to the home, oddly, made it seem as if the place was within a town called Barovia, but there was no other building to be seen.
Examining the library once again, I found the sigil-marked book that had drawn my attention. Perusing the strange pages and their awesome images that hinted at tantalizing secrets from beyond the stars, I quickly lost track of time, and jolted awake to realize morning had arrived.
Shaking off the haunting dreamscape of tentacles and grotesque, eerie sounds that still played within my head, I could feel the power hidden behind the stars, the Great Old Ones calling out to the emptiness with their terrible wisdom, awaiting the time when the stars would once again be in alignment. As Blaze worked his way through the long martial exercises he insisted upon completing each morning, I set about drawing the symbol that remained etched into my memory, the precise geometry of the sign becoming increasingly clear.
As the stick of incense filled the room with its cloying scent, I drew the final aspect of the Elder Sign, reaching out into the depths to summon a fey spirit, binding it into solid form and bending it to my will.
Something went slightly wrong. The strange, overcast oppressiveness of our environment was underscored by the ever-present feeling of strangeness. With her supernatural sense of moral decrepitude, paladin Solveig had determined everything around us to be, in some way, evil. Perhaps that was why—
“What is that?!?” Blaze spat, hands on his swords and staring at my new companion with fear and disgust. Taking a second look beyond the strange, ghostly pallor and glowing red eyes that had made the sprite seem exotic, I noticed some irregularities. The leathery, dragon-like (or perhaps demon-like?) wings, the fearsome expression, and the two tiny, jutting canines gave her a rather intimidating appearance.
I did my best to explain, rambling on about the book and the stars, unable to fully communicate the sublime truths that had been made known to me. I tried to reassure the high elven warrior about my new familiar, but her periodic hissing and nasty faces didn’t help alleviate his doubts. In the end, I commanded her to go invisible and fly around above us, looking out for danger as we traveled.
Refreshed after our battles of the previous day, we left the Manor, Eli somewhat worse for wear and easing the pain of his hangover with what would become a day-long drinking binge. Heading out, we found no sign of the two mercenaries we’d left on the road to the manor, but ample evidence of wolf activity. The two were not necessarily related.
I demonstrated my other new talent, close range telepathy, with the others, thinking aloud (as it were) about ways in which it could come in handy. A little time spent using this interesting new tool of communication helped get rid of the unease my mental voice had caused.
Deciding to head down the road, we came upon a gated path. Entering, we quickly detected a strong odor of decay, and exploring the forest resulted in finding a dead body. A note calling for help in a foreign-sounding town was recovered before we began to hear the call of wolves, a mile off and reminiscent of the first night up on the hill. We immediately began looking around for a defendable position, eventually deciding to head back to the gate we’d just passed. As we stepped back onto the road, the woods went silent, the wolves no longer baying in the distance.
Evidence of several huge beasts and numerous more typically-sized lupines had been found in abundance during our trip down the road. We decided to try our luck and picked a direction, hoping it would lead to the town we’d learned of in the dead man’s note. As we began our journey, the deck of cards we’d acquired began to grow warm, and I informed the others of this event.
Miles later, we were both unmolested and convinced that wherever we were, it was not anywhere near the forest we’d originally entered. There were mountains, but they were completely different, and the oak and aspen forest had transformed into pine and fir. It was perplexing.
Which is why, when we came upon a farming village, I was excited to get some answers. Some observation proved the town to be, for lack of a better word, dead. Nothing was moving around, and some of the buildings had a damaged look to them.
We heard noises from a home as we entered the area, and upon investigation found the former family in the upper level, undead and unfriendly. Lor kicked the door down, swinging his greatsword in rage as Talia dashed into a room filled with the things. Her armor glinted in the flash of radiant light that washed through the room, searing the monsters with divine energy. Solveig hewed into the creatures and Blaze danced into the thick of melee, twin blades flashing and lopping of various limbs. The creatures were relentless, however, and two screaming undead babies crawled across the ceiling, one dropping onto me, biting with its hideous baby face. Channeling infernal fire into the creature, I watched it burn to cinders as Talia was assaulted by the remaining undead. Standing firm, the cleric of Mystra fought the creatures back, and with help from the others gave the family their final rest.
After burning the bodies, we had determined there was nothing else to be had, and certainly no evidence of human life. Lor was in favor of burning everything, but we left it standing to be repopulated once again.
Hours of travel later, we came to a good-sized town. We made our way into what we later learned was called Barovia, drawing stares and in some cases fright and hatred from the few townsfolk we encountered. Trying to smooth things over, we made some inquiries and found out elves were disliked and uncommon in the region, that the Burgermeister who had written the note we’d found was actually dead, that the town was dangerous and there was an evil overlord responsible for the people’s suffering, someone they regarded with uniform dread, living in the shadow of his castle north of the village. Many of the townsfolk seemed listless and slow, even moreso that one would expect from oppressed peasants.
There was also an exact duplicate of the Durst Manor, the building we’d woken up in that morning, dozens of miles away. It was decidedly odd.
Making our way down the main street, we came to an open air market, and I silently and psychically tasked everyone with going around and spending some money in an attempt to ease the tension. As Blaze purchased carrots, I talked to a woman selling bread, one of the few people who seemed alive and fully in possession of herself. After some questions, she confided that the people were suffering from some affliction caused by… meat pies. Or sweet pies. Some kind of food that an old woman sold door to door. “Don’t eat them,” she warned.
Just to be sure, I found a little boy who’d I’d noticed playing in the street, his demeanor indicating someone not affected by the malaise of the other townsfolk, and sure enough he did not eat any of the sweet pies. His father, however, was an avid consumer, but there was never enough to share.
Blood of (on?) the Vine was a location we were directed to, and it proved to be a tavern. Aside from some tired and wan-looking folks enjoying a mid-afternoon drink, there was a trio of brightly clad women working at getting drunk at one table and a man with a big sword at a booth near the back who looked like he had already gotten there..
I approached the youngish man, mostly because he was walking around with a weapon. It was clear he had been drinking heavily. A few minutes later, I was drinking for free and learning about the town. The guy’s name was Ismark “the Lesser”, and his conversation revolved around him being distraught by his father’s recent death. I was about to write him off after his third attempt to repeat his sob story, but one of my companion’s voices pointed out that he was the son of the former Burgermeister.
Feeling a bit slow, I considered our options, the deed to that big house burning in my pocket. I’d read about this kind of thing before; how hard could it be?
Friends in High Places and Power Behind the Throne being two of the doctrines I prefer most, I held a quick mental conversation with the others, explaining the plan. Blaze was chatting with the three brightly-clad young women, Eli was leaning up at the bar, and the others lurked about the room.
I set about convincing Ismark that he should become the next Burgermeister of the town, both because the people need a leader and in honor of his father. He looked baffled and reluctant, claiming that he wanted nothing of the sort. Well, he wanted to bury and honor his father, of course, but not the leadership part. I gently suggested that, deep down, he knew I was right and the people of the town needed someone in charge.
The suggestion inspired him. Ismark stood, wobbling, eager to get started. “First we have to bury my father,” he kept staying, obviously an important issue to him, something I didn’t think about much at the time. He was quickly introduced to Talia, Solveig, Lor and Eli—Blaze still engaged in conversation with the three young women.
Eli was tasked with following Ismark back to his home, former and hopefully future, the Burgermeister’s place, while the rest of us reconvened and headed toward the lonely-looking church that lay atop a hill in the northeast corner of town. As we discussed our findings from the tavern, our eyes were drawn to the jagged range of mountains to the north, and a massive cliff a mile or so away. Atop the cliff, the clear outline of a massive and forbidding castle loomed over the countryside, emanating a sinister feeling in part created by the terrified tones in which the townsfolk referred to the place and its inhabitant.
Blaze had gotten some useful information from the three increasingly drunk ladies he’d been talking with. For one thing, Ismark the Lesser was looked upon as something of a joke, and his reputation had not been improved during the seven days since his father’s untimely demise, having allowed or been unable to prevent the corpse from rotting in its former abode. In addition, the town relied on the Wizards of Wine for supply of alcohol, something that was quickly running out. The winery in question was late in its latest delivery. Finally, the old woman selling the sweet meat pies was known to take collateral for the pies, and people traded her valuable possessions, and even children, in return for her product.
Solidifying our previous intentions towards the evil old woman, we made our way to the church, Talia being eager to see what passed for faith in this town. Recognizing the sunburst symbol of Lathander, the cleric knocked, but it was some time before a voice inside answered. Talking our way inside, we came upon a broken priest, overwrought with guilt. We were able to determine that the man’s son had been “changed” by the local tyrant, Strahd, and that the priest had fed the monstrosity it had become… by throwing him some lady he snatched off the street.
Solveig was justly angered by this act of cowardice and betrayal, but I tried to convince her to reserve judgement… or at least punishment, for the time being. The man kept his son locked belowground, and Lor and the priest silently moved a bed from its spot over a trap door. Upon opening, a voice within basement called out for food, that it was hungry. The priest convinced his son to come up, claiming more victims were there for the taking, and a massive gang-up had the creature surrounded and battered until he disappeared into a puff of mist.
Following the mist into the basement, we quickly found the crude casket that served as the vampiric son’s resting place. Staked, beheaded and burnt, the vampire’s threat was ended, but in the horrific prison of the nightspawn we came across several other women’s bodies.
The priest, whose name eludes me, was convinced to help the town as penance for his crimes. Gross, unforgivable crimes—a fact I did not mention to him, but one I am confident my allies understand. Keeping the vampire contained no doubt prevented it from committing many more atrocities against the population, but cold-heartedly feeding a half-dozen helpless people to a monster isn’t a forgivable crime.
At the moment, though, he had uses, and the time afforded him could be used to help redeem his immortal soul, at least within the eyes of his god. We obtained permission to get Ismark’s father buried, and set about quietly burying the priest’s son (basically a bunch of ashes) and victims. Solveig had obtained a shovel and, at long last, unslung it and got to work digging.
We headed back towards the Burgermeister’s house, hearing a lady crying from within a house along the way. Initially assuming the worse, we quickly determined that the woman was crying over her lost sister, or maybe child. Strahd seemed to have taken her, but the young lady apparently left with some gear and of her own volition. Examining her room, Blaze went pale as he stared into the cheap, cracked mirror, swearing he’d seen the image of a well-dressed man looking out at him, lending credence to her story. We were given a doll that belonged to the missing girl, presumably in order to try and lure her back, I guess, and I noticed it was similar to one we’d recovered from the Durst manor.
The Burgermeister’s house was badly damaged. Charred, blackened patches denoted where fire had caught, the windows were smashed out along the first level, while the second’s were boarded up. Eli sat in a splintered chair beside the doorway, nodding off with an empty bottle in one hand.
From inside, we heard raised voices, Ismark the Lesser and his sister Arenia apparently having an argument about us. She, having not met us, was expressing distrust, so I called inside and knocked on the door. She answered from within the house, refusing to open the door until we explained what our little group had accomplished in the past 24 hours. We learned that she had been targeted by Strahd, and was worried he’d soon come to take her. Both brother and sister wanted her out of town, requesting that we escort her to another impossibly-named foreign town (can’t recall the name) some distance to the west.
First things first, though. That is why it is “first” after all. For the next hour, we went about a precisely orchestrated plan. FIrst, word was spread of a ceremony honoring the former Burgermeister (Ismark Senior, I believe). We tracked down a couple of gypsies (vistani?), and after some shrewd haggling I’d bought two barrels of wine for the exorbitant price of 120 gold. Next, it became known that the remembrance would have free drinks on hand so that the mourners could show their respects.
The town began to assemble in the cemetery, the guilt-wracked priest looking nervous and lingering near his church. Ismark, eulogizing from a large crypt, began strong and kept getting stronger, inspiring and rallying the villagers, calling on them to help one another against the darkness, lamenting his father’s passing—a true champion who’d been murdered for defending the citizens, and that he would honor his father by making the town safe… as its new Burgermeister.
Pleased with the results of my telepathic teleprompting, things were nearly where we wanted them when someone cried out, pointing north towards the sinister castle. “He’s coming!” someone screamed, and there was a moment of panic before Ismark ordered everyone to flee to somewhere safe, assuring them that we would deal with the threat.
And what a threat it was. A swarm of fluttering shapes were quickly crossing the distance, a huge cluster of bats, and a larger shape amidst them. As they approached the cemetery, the group of us took shelter in the tomb that had been opened for Ismark Sr’s body.
With a dawning sense of dread, a white-faced man seemed to materialize amidsts the bats, seeming to hover at the edge of the graveyard. I was trying to think of a way of us getting out alive when Solveig strode forward, calling out to the vampiric tyrant. The dread became horror as she confronted him about his deeds and stating in no uncertain terms that his evil needed to be cleansed.
I woke up, the sounds of combat ringing hollowly within the tomb. The delicious nectar that had poured down my throat cut through the worst of the pain, but several bodies were spread out within the room, badly burnt and barely moving.
Outside, Lor was charging into the swarms of bats, while Talia healed Blaze or Solveig. I mentally gave Navi my thanks, the unnerving sprite’s quick thinking and bravery giving me a chance to survive.
Strahd could have finished us off there, but he seemed to be relishing the spectacle. He ensorcelled three of the gravestones dotting the area, which promptly grew arms and legs and came at the barbarian and paladin, both of whom were still flailing against the countless bats. The vampire laughed as he sped off back towards his castle, leaving us to deal with his minions.
Persevering, we were able to take down the bats with blasts of holy energy, Blaze’s firebolts, and the melee efforts of the warriors. Channeling the power of the Great One’s geometry, I was able to destroy one of the threatening animate stones, the other two crumbling soon after under the combined assault of our quintet.
The people came out of hiding, and were soon cheering the turn of events. I had Ismark capitalize on the fervor, and he was unanimously elected as the new Burgermeister. As the cheering continued, my earlier suggestion wore off, and the naked psyche of Ismark the Lesser (following the events, Ismark the Greater) took in everything he’d done in the past eight hours with a look of growing horror. “Why did I do this?” he asked himself at one point, receiving a condescending pat on the shoulder in response.
The festivities continued for some little time, but due to the strange, depressing affliction that so many of the villagers exhibited, it was pretty calm. Ismark, using his newly appointed powers, changed the deed, granting us title of the Durst Manor (and a windmill and 33% stake in Wizards of Wine, I believe).
In light of the affliction, our work was not yet quite done. The old crone who sold the meat pies was due to arrive that very evening, and we were determined to stop her—and hopefully the continuation of this annoying condition exhibited by the townsfolk. The pies were akin to a strong narcotic, at least in terms of its addictive nature and the lengths people were willing to go in order to get their fix. Setting up an ambush on the west side of town where she was known to arrive, we took up positions in alleys and waited.
Around an hour in, something began to happen, but not what we expected. Greenish, spectral figures began to rise up out of the cemetery atop the hill, and we watched them gather and then float away towards Strahd’s castle. Solveig was torn between joining them and destroying them, but in truth none of the rest of us were eager to fight a bunch of incorporeal undead while outnumbered five to one. So instead, we settled in once again, awaiting our true target.
The old hag eventually arrived, pedaling her foul treats. Hideous to behold at even two hundred feet, the sight of the woman made me question how anyone could have eaten something she’d touched. Pushing a cart, she knocked on the first door, and to our surprise traded a pie for a squalling infant.
Blaze began to move up, as did Lor and Solveig. The crone spotted the twin-bladed warrior, calling out to him. I telepathically suggested he pretend to be drunk, and get her to approach. Despite his staggering theatrics, the old woman was not convinced, and began to haggle from where she stood up the street. Blaze continued to approach, negotiating to trade his silver sword for the baby, which refused to shut up. The others continued to creep ahead, and I waited for some time for the first move to be made, but Blaze and the hag kept trying to hash out a deal, so I stepped out and wove the arcane glyph that transferred energy through my target.
Eldritch energy and divine radiance blasted the woman, who revealed her true form, a towering, horned hag even more hideous than her disguise. She dropped the infant, but Blaze deftly dropped one of his blades to catch the child before placing him upon the ground and getting back to the fight. Lor and Solveig joined with greatsword and halberd, while Talia’s mystic assault left the creature open to my arcane assault.
Our terrible foe found her sleep magics were useless against the elven assault that was upon her, and turned to run. With a last, desperate lunge, Blaze stabbed her through with the silver shortsword acquired in the Durst Manor, and with a cut-off scream the hag toppled, her body liquefying into black goo before spontaneously combusting.
Not content to merely destroy the hag, we brought the cart up to the church, the only location in town with a bell. Ringing it incessantly for several minutes, we gathered the town back where they’d celebrated the life and death of Ismark Sr. mere hours before.
We explained what had occurred, anticipating a dangerous period of withdrawal and uncertainty due to the drug-like effects of the pies. Revealing the true, supernatural horror that had been selling them their precious pies, and chastising them for selling their needed possessions and even children to the foul creature, some still expressed concern with when they’d be getting their pie. “The pies are made of people!” I half-lied, but later was told that the meat inside was indeed probably human.
Several people tried to rush the pie cart. Sensing Solveig’s sudden murderous intentions, I telepathically suggested we beat the offenders and have them taken away rather than cutting them down in cold blood. After the drubbing, we set fire to the cart, burning the foul baked goods from existence, and hopefully freeing the souls of any of the children who were probably used for the meat in the pies.
We spent the night in our new home.
The following morning, we picked up Arenia, wished Ismark luck, and headed west. At some point, we noticed a raven flying overhead with suspicious regularity. Stepping off the path into the forest, we tried to get it to come closer to investigate, but it stayed outside most of our ranges. Navi the sprite hit it with a pin-sized arrow but it shrugged it off, but a crossbow bolt or two hit it before it flew off beyond our reach.
We reached the Vistani camp sometime thereafter. Talking with the men who were either guards for the camp or just nosy, I found a lead on our mysterious deck of cards, which coincidentally had been feeling warmer and warmer the closer we’d gotten.
An old gypsy fortune-teller took us into her tent, or maybe wagon. She read the cards for us, five signs that were somehow important to our future.
(I can’t recall what they said; our ally or something was the Raven, which seemed ironic. It was pretty cool though, hopefully Jason can post what the woman said to us.)
There we left off, at the Vistani camp, accompanied by Arenia, sister of the new Burgermeister who we had brought to power, and heading toward another destination where she’d be safer.