First light saw the adventurers on the road again, intent on discovering the whereabouts of Madam Eva and gaining what insight they could into the darkness that hung in a pall over Borovia. Much to Uther’s vieled dismay, Sir Urik refused to accompany the party any further, stating that it was his solemn duty to guard the crossroads at which they found him.
And so the party trekked on through the wilderness, the ever-present mists clinging to them like a damp shroud. The vegetation surrounded them almost entirely, the knotted tree branches clawing at the invisible sky like bony fingers from a grave. They travelled largely in silence, their hampered vision and experience with daywalking vampires raising their sense of paranoia.
Hours passed. Suddenly, Haradrim pricked up his ears and looked around.
“My friends, I percieve a noise.”
Huge, who rode at the head of the party, cocked his own ear. “So do I. It’s music, up ahead.”
The group picked up the pace, trotting towards the slowly growing sound of an instrument being plucked in the middle distance. As the music grew louder, the mists and trees began to clear, revealing the open yet stormy skies above. As one, the party drew a breath of relief, the lifing mists seeming to take with it the sense of dread that they had carried all morning. The six travellers surveyed the clearing now before them.
It was obviously a gypsy encampment. A cluster of brightly coloured wagons and tents encircled a large central fireplace, with merry flags fluttering in the faint breeze. The sound of children giggling as they practiced their grifting and filching on each other carried over the merry twang of some localised string instrument being played by a halfling who sang a bawdy song near the campfire.
Uther cocked his head and looked disgusted. “By the gods,” he muttered, “the filth these folk call humour. Honestly, badgers don’t even like jam.”
Huge waved his hand at the paladin. “This ain’t the straight and narrow, shiny,” he admonised. “Best if you leave the talking to someone else this time.”
“Like someone with a more casual approach to law and order,” snickered Haradrim.
As the party approached the campsite, the assembled gypsies seemed to go quiet all at once. They stared at the adventures with a mix of suspicion, open hositlity and, in the case of one busty woman who eyed Uther, arousal. Mothers bustled their children off into the tents and the men drew from merrilly coloured scabbards decidedly less merry swords.
Huge held up his hands in supplication. “We mean no harm, little folk,” he announced as he motioned for the rest of the party to lower their own weapons. “We’re just ‘venturers – ”
”- holy crusaders,” muttered Uther.
”- mercenaries -”
”- opportunists -”
”- who’re passing through. Nothin’ to get all worried about.”
A man with a particularly grim looking sword – and particularly absurd looking hat – stepped forward.
The assembled gypsies eyed him impassively, as if waiting for some unseen signal. The signal came in the form of a man who emerged from a large tent to the rear of the encampment. He approached the party.
“Madam Eva will see you now. She has been expecting you.” He walked off towards the tent without a backward glance, the party dismounting and following, with various degrees of hesitation and reluctance, behind.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
“You have come seeking answers, I see.”
The companions gazed at the being before them with equal measure of awe and horror. The voluminous folds of the camp’s biggest tent served not only the obvious purpose of inspiring awe in visitors, but also the very practical purpose of housing the camp’s largest inhabitant. Bathed in shafts of mulitcoloured light sat before them the biggest woman any of them had ever seen. Dressed in a garish array of shawls, petticoats and clinking jewellery, she sat perched behind table that was dwarfed by her size. She leaned forward and leered.
“By the gods…” murmured Haradrim. “Anyone ever had their fortune read by a gelatinous cube before?”
“She’s not evil, at least,” said Uther. “Though when surrounded by so many who are, it is cold comfort.”
The woman beckoned them over to her. “I am Madam Eva, and you have been seeking me for some time.” Her ancient face cracked into a wide, lecherous grin. “So shall we dispense with the pleasantries? You see, I’m all out of tea and biscuits.” Eva leaned back and cackled at her joke, her enourmous bulk quivering with each guffaw.
Vampensh stepped forward and attempted to address the gypsy leader. “Seer, we have come seeking knowledge of – ”
Eva waved him quiet. “I know why you are here, little mageling.” Vampensh stiffened at the barb, but said nothing. “Questions, questions. About the zombies, perhaps?” She shifted her gaze, eyeing each of the party members. “A holy symbol, yes? Of Strahd – the devil himself? And a great weapon…”
Eva drew from mysterious fold of her dress a deck of tarot cards and began shuffling them slowly and methodically. As she did this, the nodded to her assistant standing in the doorway of the tent, who worked his way around the room lighting a series of foul-smelling candles. The collection of small flames danced in their peripheral vision and sent shadows writhing across Madam Eva’s face. She leaned forward, suddenly losing the ribald humour she possessed just moments before. The cards danced hypnotically in her hands as if of their own accord.
“These cards will fortell the future of your quest in this country. The shadows grow longer with every passing day, the rot burrowing deeper into the hearts and souls of those who abide here. Ask your questions, and heed well the answers.”
Vampensh licked his lips nervously. In his head, he assured himself that divination was a school of magic just like any other, and could be traced, controlled and held accountable, yet the truth was that the few truly powerful diviners he had met had all unnerved him. Wild-eyed sages barely tethered to reality whose minds wandered the musty passages of time dragging up relics from Boccob only knew where, all who seemed to chuckle at some privately-held joke whenever he ended up before one. Eva, too, seemed no exception, for her piercing eye took in everyone assembled before her as if she were committing to memory a particularly difficult spell.
He collected himself and attempted to gather some bearing of authortity. “We seek the location of the holy symbol of Ravenkind.”
She held the deck out to the mage. “Cut the deck.” As he did so, she closed her eyes and touched her fingers to the cards, drawing a purple card with a figure kneeling, holding aloft a holy symbol.
“This symbol is a powerful force for good and protection against the forces of darkness.” She turned a card, and then another, arranging them on the table. “Seek it in the heart of the wilds, far from human hands.” Eva tapped the topmost card. “This card speaks of the wildness of nature. The symbol is deep in the woods, perhaps guarded by a fey spirit. The holiness of this item waits for hands of holiness to touch it once more, but that is not enough to bring it’s power back to life.”
“And the Sun Sword?” asked Uther. “What of its location?”
Eva touched the cards again, drawing from the deck a card displaying an armoured figure holding a great weapon. “What you seek is a blade of light, a weapon for vengeance. Seek it where the river flows into the land.” She looked at Uther’s blank expression and rolled her eyes. “This card speaks of elemental forces mingling together.”
“Ivlis marsh!” exclaimed Grul.
Eva nodded. “Yes, the marsh downriver of here. Yet the sword’s light sleeps. Like the Symbol of Ravenkind, it too must be awakened. Like the Symbol, this is for you to determine.”
Malakai pushed his way forward, addressing the crone. “What of the foul zombies that plague this area? We thought defeating Danovich would stem their putrid flow, yet it has not. What is their exact cause, that we may defeat it?”
The gypsy fingered the cards, drawing a snarling dracolich from the deck. “Death walks the streets of Borovia. Death leads to death, all stemming from a first death.” Another card turned. “You must put an end to the blasphemy of the death that refused to die, but that will not stop the plague. The lord of the castle is the source of all.” Another card. “The village church is desecrated by the first blasphemy. The castle is ruled by the greater one.”
“Strahd’s evil influence is at work in many ways here,” mused Malakai. “I shall be pleased when I condemn that living corpse to the abyss.”
“Madam Eva, we are told of Strahd’s Tome, a diary of sorts, that tells of Strahd’s pact with the land. Can you tell us of its location?” asked Vampensh.
Eva consulted the cards again, this time drawing a card with a female druid printed on it. “The tome you seek holds knowledge of the ancient and knowledge of the land. Though it is a mockery of all that is holy, the tome lies in a place of holiness.”
“We did not see it in Danovich’s church,” mused Malakai, “though we searched it thoroughly. Perhaps the card refers to the chapel in Castle Ravenloft, where Sir Urik said you had to spend the night in prayer.” He motioned to Uther, who nodded his agreement.
“If you find the tome of Strahd and delve into its secrets, you will discover the source of the lord’s strength,” continued Eva. “If you read it carefully you may also discover how to rob him of that strength.”
She tuned another card and examined its esoteric significance. “The tome will speak of the three wilderness fanes from which Strahd draws much of his dark power.” She looked up and chuckled maliciously. “Your quest is doomed.”
The party looked at her incredulously. “Doomed? What do you mean, witch?” demanded Huge.
“You must find the three defiled places described in the tome. At each fane you must kill its dread guardian and place the body inside. At this you will never succeed.” Eva chuckled again, and made a subtle sign to the guard by the door. “Your time here is up. You will go now.”
Eva waved the bewildered party towards the door and sat back, seemingly exhausted by the effort of divination, or perhaps simply weary of life under Strahd’s iron influence. As they reached the doorway, Eva called out once more.
“I will tell you this before you leave, for what good it will do you. He who dwells in Castle Ravenloft is a powerful man whose enemy is light and whose powers are beyond mortality. You will seek him in the castle, and though he might find you many times, you will find him only once.” She turned two last cards and thurst a bony finger towards them. “You will find him where the light lies dead, slain by his own darkness. Grief haunts the lord of the castle, grief for the brother he slew. Seek his brother’s tomb in the deepest recesses of the castle. Yet be warned! There is a very bad influence in this place. The powers of death will strip away your protections.”
She sat back and turned away. “Now go. There is nothing more I can tell you.”
As the party filed out of the tent, Eva sighed and tucked the cards away into a fold of her dress. Reaching deeper still into the hidden recesses of her attire, her fingers touched something warm and metallic. Withdrawing it, she examined the old, battered holy symbol in the flickering candlelight. “I grow tired of these games Strahd,” she murmured. “Perhaps there is strength enough in them to challenge even you.”