Townsfolk stood, mouths agape, staring at the bloody scene in the middle of the street. Looks of confusion, fear and anger spread across the sea of faces as the initial shock of the assault was overcome by the realization of what had occurred.
Apparently, Vallaki had just gotten a lot more interesting.
+ I mentally suggested, catching Lor’s eye and nodding to the corpse. “Things are going to be different,” I said aloud, bullshitting for time and stepping aside as the elf savagely hewed at the thick, malformed demon arm of the man we’d murdered in broad daylight. I noted with approval my companions kept the four disarmed guardsmen covered and in control.
With a primal roar, Lor finished his grisly work and held the trophy aloft, the fiendish limb dripping ichor upon the flagstones. The reaction was once again mixed; some of the plebs looking terrified of either us or the consequences of Demon-arm’s death, others staring at us with frank hatred and revulsion, as if we’d invaded their dinner party and shat right in the middle of their table. Some, though, had a look of the most hesitant, tentative hope, and that was enough for me. Something to build on, at least.
I knew at least some people would be happy to see the end of the man with the demon arm. Some kind of dark, enforcer-type figure. “There’s a new sheriff in town,” I projected, and the people began to break up warily—although not necessarily from my proclamation.
At the same time, there was a shout from up the street, and a group of guards turned pale at the sight that was revealed to them through the parting cluster of residents. Their hands went to their swords, but a moment later they were fleeing back the way they’d come.
+ Eli noticed, and with some mental coordination we split apart, determined to prevent further escalation. The rogue, dashing through the now-open streets, wove a spell and the fleeing guards dropped to the ground unconscious. As he, Talia and Solveig dragged the limp bodies into an alley, Lor caught the lurking spy, manhandling him despite a stream of protests.
Disarming the guards and reedy-voiced spy, we carried out a discussion in the alleyway, away from prying eyes. The man who’d been watching identified himself as Ernst, a servant of an important woman in town by the name of Lady Wachter. The guards, at least the ones who were conscious and understanding of their predicament, were unable to contain outbursts at the man’s story, stating in no uncertain terms that Lady Wachter was a foul villainess and a scourge to the town. Ernst, for his part, was unimpressed by their repeated threats, and smirked when Lor had to threaten to smack some heads together. He explained that the Lady wanted to meet our group, and had sent him to extend an invitation.
The guards were, of course, pro-Baron. They claimed that the Baron’s rules (and punishments) were designed to make everyone happy. Not just satisfied; he wanted everyone ecstatically happy, seeing this as the only way to break free from this strange realm’s impenetrable fog of hopelessness. One of the three, however, looked unconvinced, and some telepathic thought sharing revealed that the Baron had all kinds of wild ideas, none of which seemed to work. He was of the opinion that only a few shared his own thinking, however, quashing a tentative plan I’d been considering for insurrection.
We let the guards go. They seemed decent enough fellows, and they would serve as testament to our prowess and mercy. At this point, I was thinking that, should the Baron disappear, the town would still need a group of protectors from the more mundane dangers of this realm—dangers attested to by the numerous wolf heads we’d seen displayed coming into Vallaki.
Ernst, slimy weasel that he was, revealed an intriguing offer. He proposed, for two hundred gold, to show us where the woman lived, and get us into the building. It seemed like he was offering to set up his mistress, and despite the misgivings of Solveig about his trustworthiness and Lor about the expense, I took him up on the offer. I explained that I knew the nature of mercenary work, and implied that we’d be able to exceed whatever payment his benefactor might give him for offering us up. To seal the deal, I drew his gaze back to Lor’s discarded trophy arm, then met his eye for an uncomfortably long time before letting him go.
I was gripped by a moment of annoyance as I looked around, not seeing Ireena or the children. Then I remember we’d left them back at the windmill, and pondered the fallible transience of our recollections of the past.
We made our way through the alleys, trying to avoid drawing attention as we joined the were-ravens at the pub they’d decided to wait at. I was perplexed by the nods we received from some dark-haired men, realizing later that they were actually our friends the were-ravens, adopting a human guise I’d not known they were capable of. We were led upstairs, and entered into a long discussion with an older gentleman who also seemed to be one of the lycanthropes. He gave us further information about what was going on in town—the Baron’s insane festivals, and the Lady Wachter’s connection with “him,” Strahd. He also filled us in on the old crow we were supposed to go meet, and the trouble the were-crows had with the druids who’d taken over the Winery.
Due to some understandable grumbling about not needing to fix every problem in the land, I decided to lay it all out. We knew Strahd was exerting near-total control over the land we found ourselves in… a strange, foreign realm that was totally unknown to the civilized people of Faerun. Presumably connected to the mysterious mist that enveloped us during our journey through the woods we were supposed to be in. Trapped here, we seemed to have inherited a destiny of sorts, the Fates showing us a path to victory against the great evil that, so far, has been content to merely toy with us.
One reason for helping these people was to build up support—dozens of incorporeal knights summoned to Strahd’s keep notwithstanding—is that numbers often play an integral role in the usurpation of power from a fear-based tyrant. It’s possible the citizenry, properly led and motivated, could prove useful in some fashion, whether military or otherwise.
The main reason, however, is that—even should we win—it’s possible we’ll may remain stuck within this perpetually-overcast land. Without enough people around to do the grunt work, cutting trees and growing things, we’d be living in the woods hunting dinner. Not my ideal vision of the future.
It’s not unlikely that Strahd himself has realized this truth, and keeps enough people alive to populate his realm, with a particular taste in beautiful women, possibly his favorite food. But it’s hard to judge the mysterious overlord’s rationality. Of course there is the real danger is that, trying to organize the citizenry or improve their lives will draw his ire in a much stronger reaction to any perceived defiance against him. To me, the risk seems better than doing nothing.
Back downstairs, we talked with a pair of men who were renowned wolf hunters, and either Talia or Eli were pressured into eating their wolf steaks, which looked disgusting and undercooked. There was also a half-elf, some kind of bard explorer, who made it clear he was disgusted by the idea of eating the wolf meat but as we left he was seen accepting a plate with the very thing. Possibly for someone he was hiding or something, but at the moment there were bigger fish to fry.
We approached the Burgomeister’s building openly, striding down the street without pause even as we were confronted by a large mob of pitchfork and tool wielding peasants. From the steps leading to the Burgomeister’s door, several of the uniformed guards stood, their own words forgotten as they caught sight of the six of us. It must have been a magnificent sight.
“Get them! For the Baron-”
The mob shuffled forward, uncertainty washing across it like a cold wave as we stared back defiantly. With the guards’ encouragement, many of the people hardened themselves, moving forward in a brave, suicidally-reckless and ill-conceived attack. It may have been my imagination, but it seemed Solveig began inching forward, eager for the slaughter to begin.
Envisioning the proper sigil, a crack of thunder pealed above our heads, startling the advance in its tracks. Lor, who’d been casually dragging the demon arm, held it up and dropped it, allowing the moment to sink in before drawing the massive glass greatsword from over his shoulder in a flashy and dangerous maneuver—at least for Talia, who was forced to dodge sideways to avoid the blade’s sweeping arc.
“There’s nothing to see here,” I explained to the mob, “Go home.”
And, luckily for everyone involved, they did.
As the mob slunk away, the guards seemed caught between pissing themselves and charging, but the moment was broken by a voice calling from an upstairs window, none other than Baron Vargas Vallakovich, Burgomeister of Valloki.
We were invited into the Baron’s house, met his wife and her terrified ladies-in-waiting… and his pair of large, slobbery dogs. Filthy creatures. Long story short, he was quite insane, and believed that enforcing happiness would somehow free the realm of Strahd, or something like that. The wolf hunt, and an upcoming event heralding the breaking of the overcast and a glimpse of the sun, were designed to inspire hope and happiness in his people. Lady Wachter was a problem for him, and he had the presence of mind to try and hire us to deal with her, explaining she was a minion of Strahd—who he clearly fought against.
He lamented the loss of someone named Izek, who I eventually realized was the demon-armed man we’d cut down in the street. Inquiry into this strange fellow revealed that he was probably responsible for the “disappearances” suffered by the townsfolk who were brought to the Baron’s house.
Insurrection and rebellion often require strange bedfellows indeed, and we left with varied opinions about the crazed ruler. The main positive being that he was not allied with Strahd, unlike Lady Wachter.
Making our way to the pre-arranged location, Ernst appeared to escort us to his mistress’s house. He provided us with a map of the building, expecting two hundred fifty gold rather than the agreed-upon sum from before. Lor was all for making the weasley servant shorter by a head, but I gave him the money, hoping he’d come through now and possibly come in handy later. The map was good, and we quickly located areas of interest and strategized a quick plan.
Ernst got us into the building under the pretense of a meeting with Lady Wachter. The woman presented herself as a powerful person with a long and powerful lineage, and there were several guests in attendance with her, including three sons. She knew we’d met with the mayor, and hinted that something dark was planned by Strahd for the upcoming daylight-themed festival. She went on to inquire if we’d like to work for her instead of the mad Baron, and allowed us to break off to discuss the offer. Once in the other room, we telepathically made ready, and once we’d re-entered the main room, the weapons came out.
Laughing arrogantly, Lady Wachter called down a pillar of flame within the room, engulfing Lor, Blaze and Solveig. Escaping the conflagration, I ordered Oona to engage Attack Pattern Magma, and the vampiric sprite tossed the beautiful red crystal we’d so recently acquired. As the impossible shapes I drew in the air tore into the fabric of what made the woman real, the room erupted in heat as a ten foot being of shimmering flame burst onto the scene, lashing out at our target and causing her skin to blister and burn as she was lit aflame.
Terrible spells were unleashed in the battle, and another crackling wave of fire washed over the front line. Solveig’s outline blurred, for a moment her devilish horns growing and taking on an altogether more sinister aspect, but even the infernal power she called upon was not enough to overcome the pillar of flame’s power. The spinning blades of Blaze and the sweeping cuts of Solveig abruptly stopped, the pair laid low and things looking grim.
Talia used her divine magic to silence the area, preventing further spellcasting as Lor and the Fire Elemental continued to assault the magic-using noblewoman. The sons and other participants were lost in the mix, some taken down by Talia’s earlier radiant attack, others wounded and bleeding from the blades of Blaze and Lor, another on fire from the elemental.
While the rest were engaged with Lady Wachter, Eli drew the wrath of her familiar, the invisible imp that was quickly discovered and kept from the main battle, and more importantly Oona. Finding the small, darting target with arrow after arrow, the rogue was still stabbed multiple times by the creature’s scorpion tail before defeating the familiar and sending its spirit back to hell.
Lady Wachter, in a last, desperate attempt to flee, was cut down by fire and blade, collapsing in a lifeless heap of charred flesh. Seeing Blaze’s predicament, I leapt over the still-prone body of Solveig, administering a potion to the nearly-dead warrior. As Lor and Eli finished off the remainder, Solveig was revived by Talia’s magic, and soon the manor was silent.
We caught our breath, going through the valuables upstairs before descending into the basement. In a secret ritual room, we confronted and slew a half-dozen chanting cultists, finishing our second household purge within three days.
The Baron was pleased, and signed away the deed to the property in our name in addition to a few hundred gold in blood-money.
We then proceeded out of town, picking up the road and heading to the Wizards of Wine Winery.