Finding ourselves in the Vistani camp at Tser Pool, some miles from Barovia, I digested the information we’d obtained from Madame Eva. The gypsy fortune-teller was undoubtedly the one who the cards had been pointing me towards ever since their recovery two days prior.
Around the fire, a half-dozen men were frying up sausages and sharing pulls from an unlabeled bottle. The six of us, some heavily armed and armored, ambled up, and some pleasant smalltalk ensued. In response to a question, the gypsies began to call for a story—some form of cultural tit for tat, or maybe just to get an idea of who we were. DIscussing the walk into the mists resulted in a silent chorus of nods, and the wolf attack on the hill stirred up some minor level of acceptance. The bottle was passed to us, and the group appeared open to further questioning, but I couldn’t help but notice a group of the Vistani watching us from afar, their eyes narrowed in suspicion.
Ireena, cloaked and armored and helmeted, stood quietly, trying to keep attention from herself.
Aramek, one of the Vistani, proved less closed-lipped than his fellows, and provided leads on the location where we might find the wolf den discussed in our fortune. The Wizards of Wine Winery was also discussed, the place apparently being contested between two factions: druids (working for Strahd) and ravens. Or maybe crows. He would not explain about his evil-eyed brethren who continued to watch us from across the camp, but I could see he was conflicted. When he made an excuse to leave the circle near the fire, I followed, telepathically reaching out and explaining what was happening as my thoughts invaded his head. Pleased by the now-familiar look of startlement that crossed his features, I “listened” as he mentally communicated the things he did not feel free to say aloud; namely, that the watchers were in fact agents of Strahd.
By the time I got back from the private discussion, trouble was brewing. A man was pointing his finger in Eli’s face, accusing him of something or another. Oona, who had been flitting about the camp invisibly, explained the situation—the open backpack, Eli’s approach and the subsequent accusations as the bag was grabbed protectively. Praising the sinister fairy’s quick thinking, I pocketed the letter she had grabbed from Eli as he’d hidden it behind his back.
The gypsy was building up steam as I approached, that strange kind of aggression that occurs when one is hiding something and fearful of being found out. A quick suggestion to the man that Eli was telling the truth was enough to de-escalate things, and as his friends muttered at the sudden evaporation of his righteous indignation, we quietly exited town. We went back the way we came as if returning to Barovia, hoping to confuse spies and complicate any pursuit.
During the course of our visit, Ireena had attracted some attention, but at least hadn’t been unmasked. The letter Eli had recovered at great personal risk was a missive from Strahd, demanding the location and/or capture of each of us, along with the woman Ireena who he’d recently been obsessing over. Despite the ruse, it was apparent that the gypsies were not fools and would put the extra member of our party and the description of the woman together as one and the same.
Half a mile from the encampment, we cut through the forest, looking to hook up with the path on the other side and head northwest without being observed. The immense, looming castle in the distance made the feeling of being watched omnipresent, but with luck the vampiric overlord of this region was either asleep or occupied.
The woods began to shift and shake as we strode through, and soon figures began to coalesce out of the vegetation. Comprised of thorns and other plants, the humanoid shapes were apparently hostile and quickly laid low. Their wounds oozed a thick, sticky sap that proved to burn well, and a few limbs were bundled up for future use.
Emerging onto the road that ran along the opposite side of the forest now between us and the Tser Pool encampment, we headed north, and soon were subjected to the dark presence of Strahd’s castle on our right. A magnificent bridge, an amazing marvel of engineering so out of place with the local architecture we’d so far seen, spanned across the river downstream of the Tser Pool. A few miles further, we were confronted with a massive stone wall, two huge gates dozens of feet high barring the path forward. The walls looked ancient, and looking left and right we could see they had begun to crumble further out. The doors swung wide open, however, and with a communal shrug we decided to pass straight through—a task we succeeded at completing, even if the gates swung shut behind us with a certain level of ominousness.
As the day waned, a windmill the Vistani had identified as the Bonegrinder appeared off in the west. Approaching, sharp-eyed members of the group spotted several crows hanging around the area, one of them nursing a recent arrow injury. Oona rushed forward to engage them, first with a request for parley, and then resorting to crude language and name-calling. The birds chased her back to the group of us, pulling up suddenly when I telepathically asked for their attention.
The crows changed, transforming into a hybrid form of man and bird. The wounded werecrow was angry about being shot by us earlier that day, but I convinced him it was a misunderstanding, and soon we began to barter.
The crows wanted us to follow them to the brewery, presumably to meet their leader. This was convenient, as he seemed to be one that was named, or at least hinted at, in the Fortune we’d been given. We were of a mind to cleanse the Bonegrinder of its hag presence, as it was reported to be a place the fell creatures made their foully addictive meat pies. Following that, we had our escort Ireena to drop off in the next town.
The crows were not happy as we made ready to invade the windmill. Ireena was not happy with the thought of being left with the crows. I explained the situation to our new feathered friends, going so far as to point out that they would be able to discharge their duties quicker and more effectively if they accompanied us into the hags’ lair. The one we’d shot demurred, but two of the others had a sparkle of interest illuminate their dead black bird eyes, and decided to join us for the fight. Ireena opted to join us rather than waiting safely outside.
With four stories of working windmill towering above us, we noted lights on in the upper floors before knocking on the door. A slat opened, a hideous woman’s face staring down at us and asking our business. I explained that we were representatives of Strahd and we needed to speak with the hags immediately. The ancient and hideous crone who answered the door was not entirely convinced, hemming and hawing until Lor shouldered his way forward and threatened the woman in no uncertain terms about what would happen if Strahd’s orders weren’t obeyed. The door opened, revealing a room with four separate fireplaces and a massive stone wheel in the center, spun by wooden axle that disappeared into the ceiling.
I had assumed the crone was one of the hags, asking her about the reported sister. Her eyes narrowed, and suddenly was shouting that we didn’t know anything and therefore were not representatives of Strahd. I didn’t argue her logic as Blaze and Lor dashed into the room, quickly cutting down the crone mid-cry as the rest of our poured into the structure which, at this point, was empty save for the smoke rising from the four ovens spread along the walls.
Three or four more women of similar decreptitude as the first emerged and fell in quick succession, their evil magics no match for the luminous energy of Talia or the hewing cuts of Solveig’s glaive and Lor’s new, glassy greatsword. The werecrows fought with tenacity, their beaks and blades adding their contribution to the slaughter. Eli’s arrows found the eye of at least one of our attackers, and soon the only sounds were the crackling fires and the slow grinding of the massive millstone in the center.
The ovens contained batches of the wicked pies, which we ignored for the moment.
As we approached the stairs, a glyph along the ceiling began to glow, and from the millstone, several forms began to coalesce, pulling themselves out from the grinder and lurching forward. The melted-looking creatures were identified as a minor hellspawn, and Lor leapt down the stairway to keep them off the group. Aided by arrows and magic, several of the creatures were destroyed, but always to be replaced by more. The savage elf made a fighting withdrawal upstairs, where we proceeded to block the doorway with heavy objects.
Upstairs, we were beseeched by the sound of two terrified voices. Two children of indeterminate age were locked in some kind of cage, similar barred devices standing empty in the room. We freed them, and tasked Ireena with staying with them while we cleared the top floors. Curiously, she showed concern for the kids but was adamant that she would not be taking charge of them. Blaze convinced her to trade swords, taking her silver weapon in place of standard steel.
Up another flight of stairs, we emerged in a large, circular room. Three beds were placed along the outer rim, and two attractive women stared at us with wide, innocent eyes. After some conversation with the women, claiming to be victims of the hags and desperate to be rescued, I ordered Oona to “get a feel” for one of the women with her special fairy touch. Despite being unable to see my invisible familiar’s position, I knew something was terribly wrong when one of the women spun around, clawing at the air with a hand that had suddenly become a wicked set of claws. “Oops,” she taunted, the shredded form of Oona becoming visible before hitting the ground and disappearing in a puff of magic dust.
The two hags revealed themselves, lashing out with spells that seemed to have little effect upon my companions. The room went quiet as Talia enveloped it in a bubble of magical silence, and I watched the frenzied chopping of the Lor’s glass greatsword and the silver glint of Blaze’s twin blades cut into the creatures. Eli’s bow twanged from outside the soundless zone, adding his arrows to my eldritch ballistic sigils.
As one of the hags fell, the other rushed at Eli, who sidestepped and retreated with practiced skill. I cursed the remaining hag for destroying my fairy, and informed her of the fact that we’d killed her mother the previous night. There wasn’t really enough time to let it sink in and make a real impression, but it was better than nothing. She died, I hope, in the nadir of despair, realizing that everything she’d worked for, everyone she cared for, and everything she hoped for her future was now utterly destroyed. Assuming hags are capable of such feelings in the first place.
There was one final set of stairs leading to the top level, apparently where the windmill’s fan thingy was built into. Before heading up, Eli expertly opened two chests we’d found in the third floor room, one of which was filled with jewels.
A sound like jangling chains and creaking groans drew ups upstairs to the final room. The spokes of the great gearwheel that attached the rotating external fans and the axle that spun the millstone were enmeshed in chains, dozens which connected the center of the room to the various parts. The chains spun around in a vortex, seeming to pull the great gear rather than the more traditional windmill power source, namely wind.
In the center, a fiendish creature began to communicate with us telepathically, asking for its release. Revealing itself for the devil it was, the abomination tried to convince us to work with it, promising aid and power for turning it loose back upon the world. A brief back and forth ensued, during which I should have been paying more attention for anyone who looked like they were considering such a deal.
As we crossed the glowing mystic circle that served to bind the devil, it expressed elation but was immediately pounded by a combined assault—up until it reached out, and Solveig traitorously unleashed the creature from it’s imminent fate, turning it back loose upon the world in exchange for the promise of the creature’s nebulous aid. To mark this foul pact, the woman’s forehead erupted in two sinister devil-horns, visible confirmation of her corruption.
Saddened and dismayed, the total victory now hollow and stolen, we had the presence of mind to search the building more thoroughly. A slim, twisted wand was recovered, and after spending some time playing with the device it became my new favorite toy. Just holding it gave me this awesome feeling, like nothing could go wrong. Which is silly, since I know that when the stars align and the Great Old Ones awaken, they’ll turn their gaze upon the universe and things will get very wrong indeed—at least from our perspective.
Until then, though… My mood somewhat improved, I noted that several of the others had issues with Solveig’s act… something easily construed as a betrayal. Instead of defeating the creature, she had unleashed it upon the world, free to take action against us if it so chose. I had grave doubts about any deal she might have entered into in the short time between finding the demon and foiling our attempt to destroy it.
With the air of camaraderie suppressed by this latest development, we double checked the mill and prepared to spend the night. At some point, we were awakened by whoever was on watch, and then heard someone knocking on the front door. After a few moments, we looked outside the window, seeing a man in Strahd’s livery, who proceeded to ask us to accompany him back to Strahd’s castle. A carriage stood waiting by the road, and I think Strahd himself could be seen in the distance, though my eyes may have been playing tricks. We turned the offer down, and the man left somewhat disgruntled, possibly muttering some vague threats.
The following day, we made our way up and around the forest separating the mill from the town of Vallaki, Ireena’s destination of choice for a safe new life away from Strahd’s unwanted attention. Entering town, we were once again given stares part fearful and hateful, the elven heritage on display obviously not to the liking of the poor wretches. A man grumbling to himself drew our attention, revealing himself to be a coffin maker, and busy due to some kind of wolf hunt that was resulting in many people’s deaths. Intrigued, we gathered a bit more information, learning of the local Baron and orders for everyone to participate in the dangerous activity.
THe were-crows had hung around, and although increasingly eager to return to the winery I convinced them to stick around while we tried to sort things out with Ireena. Once in town, though, it became apparent that the woman had no plan or even idea about how to proceed. She didn’t know anyone, and based on the state of the villagers it didn’t seem like a very charitable, hospitable or even safe place for her to stay.
We still had two kids along with us that needed to be left somewhere as well.
I was saved from frustration by a strange sight—a big man, flanked by some soldier-types, entered the square and began posting some kind of notice. What caught my eye was the strange, misshapen demon-arm he was sporting. We learned he was some kind of enforcer or right-hand man of the local Baron, who was sounding increasingly dubious in nature. A plan began to coalesce, and I telepathically put it to vote.
Moments later, we were hustling down a side-street, working our way into the village. Finding a likely spot, we set up in alleys flanking the main street, waiting until demon-arm and his goons showed up.
I watched as the blades and arrows of my allies cut down the burly figure, his imposing presence soon little more that a pool of bloody meat laying stretched-out in the street. The four soldiers, seeing the sudden and violent death of their leader, quickly disarmed.
The easy part accomplished, I set about constructing the next phase of the plan.