Strahd stood errect and eyes blazing at the head of the table, his previous hospitality gone as he stared openly at the young woman hiding behind a phalanx of defenders.
A thin smile crept across Uther’s face. He edged forward, keeping his sword levelled at the vampire. “So, Strahd,” he said. “We have something you want, it seems.”
“Not so,” scoffed Strahd, not breaking his gaze with Ireena. “She is mine, and always has been. Ireena! Come to me,” he commanded, his hand outstretched.
Ireena, however, only moved further back towards the doors, her hands clenched in a white-knuckled grim around her sword. Doubt passed over Strahd’s face.
“Yours, is she,” mocked Malakai. “I think not.”
“Ah, Malakai?” said Haradrim quietly. “Could you perhaps not mock the vampire lord? I’d like to get out of here alive, my friend.”
“Ireena! What do you say to this?” asked Strahd. “Surely you will stay here, with me? Stay!” Once again Strahd reached out for Ireena, his tone more a command than a request.
Ireena, however, was no longer his to command – and was no longer even in the room. With speed no suggested by his bulky frame, Huge lifted Ireena onto his shoulder, threw open the dining hall door and dashed out into the corridor. He pounded down the hallway, speeding past dumbfounded zombie servants, the sound of magic crackling through the air behind him.
The barbarian paid it no need, instead focussing on the dimly lit way ahead of him. He barreled through into the great entryway, barely able to note the shadows shifing in the eaves above him as he turned into the archway guarded by the stone dragons.
He paused for a moment before the castle guardians, sizing up the great beasts that were just stirring into life. The sound of Ireena panting heavily on his shoulder reminded the half-orc that combat with these creatures would not end well. Then came an inhuman cry from the dining hall and Huge glimped his companions come crashing out of the dining hall moments before the castle was plumged into unnatural darkness.
Huge’s senses immediately lept into action, feeling for anything that might help him navigate his way past the dragons. He felt his trusty axe gripped firm in his palm, Ireena’s weight shifting on his shoulder, the soft scraping of the metal plates on her armour, a grinding of stone from above him and before him, footsteps and chanting behind him.
Feeling the seconds slipping by, Huge focussed on the dragons before him, watching their slight movements as he waited for an opening –
– there! Muscles tensed in his powerful legs and Huge shot forward, diving past the deadly snapping jaws and the swiping claws like a hawk diving between the trees, making for the relative safety of the castle courtyard.
The sound of battle followed him as he bolted outside. Skidding to a halt, Huge set Ireena on the ground behind a low wall and risked a look back inside the castle. A faint pool of light spilled outside from the torches just inside the castle doors, and beyond that Huge could just make out the dim, bobbing light that came from Uther’s magically lit helm. Through the doors into the great entryway he could just make out the shapes of the twin stone dragons looming over his friends, Grul, Tanya and Vampensh mere blobs of shadow surrounded by aggressors.
Digging around in his pack, Huge extracted a thin potion vial and handed it to Ireena.
“Invisibility,” he explained. “Drink it. I’m goin’ back for t’ rest of ’em.” He reseated his grip on his axe and, without another word, charged back into the fray.
Back inside the castle, Malakai had his own set of problems. Strahd had forced his will upon the cleric, and now had control over him. Even as he stood in the doorway of the dining hall, Malakai could feel Strahd’s indominable presence in his mind, dormant but undeniably powerful.
Yet Strahd himself seemed barely aware of the fact. Poised with Uther in the dining hall’s doorway and ready to flee, Malakai could percieve the vampire’s agitated form stalking anxiously, impotently even, through the room.
“What’s gone wrong? It didn’t work, it always works… Don’t understand… No!”
“By the Preserver,” murmured Malakai as he watched Strahd argue with himself with increasing vehemence, “the vampire lord is gods-touched.” Casting a glance through the room, he saw his companions in peril, divided and surrounded by Strahd’s minions. Gathering his wits, the elf decided that only one very unusual gamble might yet save them.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Haradrim cast a wary eye over their new surroundings, watching for anything out of the ordinary. Two of his companions, Uther and Malakai, had followed Strahd to the Chapel of Ravenloft, whilst a butler named Cyrus had led the remainder up through the castle’s myriad of hallways and staircases to a lounge and adjoining bedchamber.
The lounge was a large chamber comprising largely of a low-beamed ceiling and a long curved wall. Bookcases lined a second wall shared by the bedchamber next door, next to which sat a cluster of faded and overstuffed armchairs.
“I do not like this, my friends,” muttered the rogue as he gazed skeptically around the room. “Seperating the party is never wise. Who knows what has become of our companions?”
“Oh I assure you, your friends are quite safe with the master,” wheedled Cyrus as he bustled around the room flicking away accumulated dust.
“Yes Haradrim, I’m sure they are,” echoed Vampensh pointedly. “Cyrus,” he continued, “I seem to’ve lost my bearings on the way up. Where are we, exactly?”
“Sir and his companions currently reside in the south-east tower of Castle Ravenloft.” He gestured out one of the elaborate lead-glass windows. Outside, the roof of the castle keep glistened dimly in the rain. “We are currently some one hundred feet about ground level in the chambers the master reserves for his most valued guests,” he continued in a thin reedy tone. “No small number of persons of note have resided in these very chambers, and the tower itself has a long and varied history. Shall I tell you of it?”
“No, no,” Vampensh interjected. “The current level of detail is quite sufficient, thankyou.”
Haradrim peered out the windows into the gloom. “Where is the chapel from here?”
“The Chapel of Ravenkind is in the easternmost part of the keep proper,” Cyrus expained. “It is beyond the great entryway, where the master greeted you. It can be accessed from the chapel balcony on the level below us, although the balcony itself is reserved for the master and his lady.” The butler allowed himself a small smile of satisfaction at his detailed description, as if expecting praise.
“Lady?” asked Vampensh. “The master – that is, Strahd – he has a lady?”
“No,” corrected the butler. “The master, sadly, has not yet found her. But the balcony is reserved for her, nonetheless.”
Vampensh shook of a sense of foreboding and couged awkwardly. “So Cyrus, how long have you known Strahd?”
“Count Strahd von Zarovich,” replied the butler pointedly, “has been my master for as long as I can recall. My family came with the master’s when they came to Borovia, many years ago.”
“That long, truly? No doubt given the length of your service to the Count you must know of his family? His brother, perhaps?”
Cyrus shook his head vigorously and waved the mage into silence. “Speak not of his brother, good sir. It is a matter we of the castle do not mention out of respect for the master’s heartache.”
Seeing the enquiring looks of his master’s guests, Cyrus sighed and began elaborating. “The master grieves still for his long lost love, Tatyana. She was engaged to be wed to the master’s brother, Seregei.” A dark cloud passed over Cryus’ face as he recalled the details of the matter. “Enamoured of Tatyana’s youth and beauty, the master struck down his brother in a fit of rage and jealousy.”
Huge snorted his derision. “Don’t think killin’ yer brother’d be the best way to win t’ girl.”
“Please sir, make no mistake; the master loved his brother deeply. However, he loved Tatyana more – indeed, more than was wise to. He still does, and he grieves for her still.” The gaunt butler shook his head and shuffled to the door. “But enough of this idle chatter. I shall fetch your dinner and return post-haste. Please make yourselves comfortable.”
Taking his leave of them, Cyrus quitely exited the room and dissapeared down the stairs, his footsteps echoing up the circular stairwell. Vampensh shut the door and leaned heavily on it.
“Well that was educational.”
“Maybe so my friend, but our host’s hospitality concerns me anyway. Especially now that we’re seperated from those of us most proficient in dealing with the undead,” muttered Haradrim as he poked warily around the rooms.
“I guess,” shrugged Huge. “But we had t’ get Ireena here out’ve harms way, else Strahd would’ve nabbed her quick.” He indicated towards Ireena, who was perched on the end of the bed, lost in thought.
“Yes yes, it is fortunate that Malakai noticed Strahd’s strange behaviour and capitalised on it. One wouldn’t expect so powerful a being to be so easily swayed.”
“What did ‘e say anyhow? I couldn’t hear, bein’ outside an’ all.”
“I didn’t hear exactly,” admitted Haradrim. “I was occupied with the pair of guards attempting to flank me. It sounded like he just shouted at the vampire that we were being attacked and to call his pets off. What happened after that I can’t say.”
“Well whatever happened,” suggested Tanya quietly, “it must’ve worked, because we’re here in the guest room, and not dead.” She paused, recalling the fight and its aftermath. “He looked different, did you notice?”
“There was something strange about him,” agreed Vampensh “Although what it portends – if indeed we’re interpreting it correctly – is anyone’s guess.”
“Maybe he’s lost it? Y’know, gone a bit mad?” Huge suggested.
“No, he could have… could he?” mused Haradrim.
“It’s actually very possible.” Grul stood up from the floor where he was meditating and dusted himself off. “Power corrupts, and Strahd has lived longer than any of you humans are meant to. Existence in violation of nature’s laws will always come with consequences.”
The group paused, considering the ramifications of facing a vampire who was not only ancient, cunning and powerful, but also utterly unhinged.
“Well, it doesn’t help us now,” Huge observed. “We’re still seperated. Besides, even if we wanted to get back to ‘em, how’d we do it? It’s a big castle.”
“I could attempt to commmunicate with them magically,” mused Vampensh, browsing idly through the bookcase. “Except I haven’t got that cantrip prepared today, sadly.”
“I do,” Haradrim exclaimed, patting his pockets with sudden vigour. He drew a short piece of copper wire from one of his many pouches and ran it through his fingers, quietly intoning the spell’s verbal component.
A gentle susurrous ruffled his clothes and the rogue’s eyes glazed over as the minor magic felt its way through the castle to its recipient. A few seconds passed before he blinked and pocketed the wire. “It’s no use, I can not reach them.”
Grul cocked his head to the side. “Perhaps a more direct approach…”
The sound of footsteps from the staircase drifted up to them, preceeding a heavily laden Cyrus. The wiry butler somehow manoeuvred himself and the stack of trays he was carrying through the door to the lounge.
“I’ve brought your supper, sirs – and ladies, of course,” he corrected himself with a self-deprecating chuckle.
“Excellent,” replied Haradrim quickly. “Kindly lead us to the chapel, so we might dine with our companions.”
The butler looked bemused. “Pardon, sir? The… chapel?” He cast a crestfallen look at the stack of trays in his arms and the steep, dark staircase behind him. Then his accustomed servitude re-established itself. “Very well,” he said, masking a heavy sigh. “Kindly follow me, if you will. Watch your feet, these stairs can be quite treacherous…”