“Such terrible sacrilege.”
Uther stalked discontentedly through the once-grand Chapel of Ravenkind, occasionally examining a piece of ancient detritus or giving melancholy glances to his bootprints in the dust behind him. The chapel rose around him to a vaulted ceiling some fifty feet above him, the remains of shattered stained-glass windows open to the dreary eastern sky. The pews that occuped the sixty by thirty foot space were all but scattered in disarray, and everything was choked in a thick later of dust.
Having left them to their own devices, Strahd had closed the ornate double doors that were in the western wall opposite an elaborate stone alter. And above the alter sat a beautiful silver icon, the symbol of the Knights of the Raven.
“This was once a seat of great religious power.” Uther shook his head in disgust at the Count’s lack of dedication to upkeeping the centre of power for his former enemies. “Just look at the detail on the windows! They must’ve been amazing.”
“Those fragments you’re stepping on, you mean?” replied Malakai.
The paladin scoffed, but stepped to the side nonetheless. “Strahd obviously never comes here. Little wonder why.”
Irked by his companion’s indifference to the ravages of time upon the ancient chapel, Uther strode over to where the elven cleric was crouched over a skeletal corpse, sprawled across the side and top of the alter, one bony arm reaching in vain for the icon atop the alter. “Just what are you doing, Malakai?”
The cleric poked experimentally at the dry flesh that clung to the deceased’s bony features.“I’m examining the corpse for any identifying features or a cause of death,” he replied casually, as if this were patently obvious to all but the most dense of observers.
Uther pressed on regardless. “In Pelor’s name, why?”
“Because,” continued the cleric patiently, “his death may hold some clue as to any dangers we may face in here.” He cautiously poked at the ribcage through the figure’s plate armour. “After all, we have a whole night to spend in here if we wish to become true Knights of the Raven.”
At the mention of the holy order, Uther’s eyes lit up and his stance stiffened noticeably. “Of course. We wouldn’t want to jeopardise our in-ordination into so noble an order.”
“Indeed. Nor our access to the abilities granted to said order,” muttered Malakai as he stripped the corpse of its belongings and dragged it to the side of the chapel, out of the way. The cleric scanned the jumble of clothing, armour and items stripped from the corpse.
They both turned at the sound of the chapel’s doors opening behind them, jumping to their feet with hands hovering by their weapons. The newcomers, however, were their companions, led by a over-laden Cyrus.
The deferential butler set the many plates down in an unused corner. “If that will be all, sirs?” he asked politely, and without another word quietly took his leave of them.
“I thought it to be danerous to be seperated, my friends,” explained Haradrim once Cyrus was out of earshot. ‘With you down here and the rest of us seperated by a hundred-off feet of stone, we would be hard pressed to offer assistance if you needed it."
“Nonsense,” sniffed Malakai. "What makes you think we’d even need assistance?"
A dark scowl clouded Huge’s face. “Wit’ that kinda talk, you will,” he growled.
Uther stepped in, placing a placating hand on Huge’s arm. “Perhaps you can aid us in securing the chapel, Huge,” he offered.
The barbarian grunted in terse acknowledgment and stalked off to inspect the two stairwells either side of the chapel’s main doors. Malakai rolled his eyes in disdain.
“This is to be a holy ceremony conducted in a place of reverence. We have enough work ahead of us making this place suitable for such an occasion,” he noted sotto voce to Uther. He took a small vial of holy water from his pack and flicked some through the chapel, the sound of water fizzing as it touched the sullied chapel floor punctuating his observation. “Must we really tend to the ego of that godless axe-swinger as well?”
No, we’d obviously be better off tending to yours," snapped Uther. “Or perhaps you’d prefer to -” Uther caught himself in mid-sentence, suddenly realising the venom with which he was about to address his companion. He stirred and bowed his head in supplication. “Forgive me Malakai, I lost myself. I fear our surroundings got the better of me.”
“I can see that,” replied Malakai, raising an eyebrow. “I’d wager a night spent in rest and contemplation would benefit you beyond initiation into the Knights of the Raven.”
Uther soundlessly indicated his agreement and the pair settled themselves on the ground before the altar. Around him, his companions arranged their belongings about themselves, making their own preparations for a long, tense night.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Grul sat against the chapel wall, lost in an meditative Elven trance. A sudden weight on his shoulder caused his eyes to snap open and his hand shot out, immediately grasping a hairy, calloused palm. Eyes adjusting to the dim light, he percieved Huge casually releasing the Elf’s grip on his hand, looking down at him from under his heavy-set features.
The barbarian helped his companion to his feet and cast an indicative glance through the chapel’s doorway. “Zombies,” he explained simply.
Grul nodded and shouldered his pack, his longsword rasping quietly as he drew it and followed Huge through the chapel’s double doors and into the shadowy corridor beyond. They walked softly through the dark corridor, travelling no short distance down its length before finding their targets.
The smell, as always, hit him first. The now familiar smell of putrefaction circled around him like an some irksome relative, crawling insidiously inside Grul’s nostrils making his stomach churn and his vision swim. Next came the noise – the scraping of loose flesh on stone and the low groan of an unnatural hunger never sated. In the darkness he could make out Huge bringing his axe up as he forced down a gag, a cluster of the walking dead now visible in the dim light as they shuffed awkwardly towards them, arms outstretched, skin peeling from the rotting digits that sought to grasp them.
The axe-head flashed in the darkness and found its target in the skull of the lead zombie, sending it reeling sideways. A wet expulsion of air escaped its lips as its head collided with the stone wall. As Grul darted into the fray, the previously monotonous groaning of their adversaries grew to an almost fever pitch as the zombies lashed out at them, barely showing any sign of self-preservation against the pair of warriors facing them.
A sudden cry of alarm sounded from inside the chapel. Grul dodged past a mottled grey arm, casting his hearing to the sound of rushed footsteps from chapel proper some thirty feet to their rear.
“The others are up,” he called to Huge.
The half-orc simply grunted and lashed out viciously with his axe, the blade biting deep into a zombie’s torso. “Then hurry up an’ hit something already so we can get back,” he replied impatiently.
Grul brought his weapon up in a sudden parry, fending away the vicious swipe from a zombie as he fought off the nausea that threatened to immobilise him. To his right, Huge did the same, his face pale as he knocked away blow after blow from the advancing horde of the undead. Behind them the shouts of their companions and the unmistakable beating of enormous leathery wings suggested their companions were faring no better than them. The druid and the barbarian shuffled backwards, forced back to the chapel by their undead attackers.
“This is maddness,” said the exasperated elf. “The castle is full of zombies that can be called off at a moment’s notice, but there’s no-one here to do it!”
“Then maybe we can get that butler guy back here to fix us up,” replied Huge hopefully. He swung his axe around in a wide arc, scattering the shambling corpses before him. “Cyrus!” he called down the dim corridor. “Cyrus, y’ skinny bastard, we need you!”
“I doubt,” said Grul as he swiped ineffectually at a zombie, “that he’ll respond to that summons.”
A terrible screech sounded from behind them. The pair glanced to their rear to catch a glimpse of an enormous, slavering bat and an equally large eagle collide in mid-air, raking each other with fang and claw.
Vampensh stood beneath the melee, his magical gem held up to his eye. “It’s Strahd!” he called in a desperate shout. “The bat is Strahd!”
A zombie, taking advantage of Huge’s distraction, lunged forward and latched onto the barbarian, its distended jaw close enough to his face that Huge could make out the rotting flesh dangling from its gums. Huge swallowed hard, suppressing the sickening smell and drove the butt of his axe into the things abdomen, tearing the skin and sending the zombie stumbling into the wall.
“To the Hells with this,” he grunted. “The vampire is more important than his buddies.”
With a sudden burst of speed the two broke away from the zombies, rushing back down the corridor to the chapel. They charged through the doors just in time to see Malakai thrust an outstretched hand at Strahd that summoned a blast of searing magical light. Enveloped in the conflagration, the enormous bat screeched loudly, tendrils of smoke rising off its heaving flanks. To Malakai’s immediate dismay, however, Strahd beat his wings and advanced on the party, his wounds healing even as he bore down on them.
Spurred by the howling of the zombies behind him, Grul turned and slammed the chapel doors. Passing his hand over the once-inert wood, he summoned a spark of power and the wood twisted and warped, sealing shut the ornate portal. The young druid whirled around, keen senses quickly assessing the melee before him.
His companions were striking at Strahd’s enormous form, their ability to mount a coordinated offence hampered by the vampire’s ghastly, intimidating presence. As Grul watched, Uther summoned some heretofore unseen font of courage and dashed forwards, the Sun Sword raised above his head, tendrils of magical enhancement streaming off the glowing blue blade and righteous fire burning in the paladin’s eyes.
Closing to striking distance, he brought the enormous blade down in a devastating strike across Strahd’s hairy flank. The vampire-bat howled in pain, thick blood oozing from the fresh wound. Fury contorted his face and he quickly retaliated, a spear of lightning lancing from his clawed hand and through the paladin, who dropped to his knees.
Capitalising on Strahd’s injury and distraction, Grul dashed to Huge’s side. He passed his hand over the panting half-orc’s axe blade.
“Nature has steeled your weapon,” he said urgently, “now steel yourself and finish this quickly – for all our sakes.”
Hefting the empowered weapon, Huge nodded and, letting loose a loud cry, charged once more into the fray. He bore down on the vampire, whose gigantic bat form was crouched over Uther’s prone form. At the sound of Huge’s approach, it turned and screeched in response. As battle cries reverberated around the ancient chapel the pair clashed; the vampire swiped low with an outstretched claw which Huge nimbly jumped and, with uncanny precision, brought his greataxe down in a wide swing that bypassed Strahd’s defences and buried the blade deep in the vampire’s chest.
A brief quiet descended on the room, punctuated by Huge’s slow breaths and a barely audible squelch as the axe-blade shifted in Strahd’s torso. A look of horror and confusion passed across the vampire’s face as his bat form fell away revealing, briefly, his true form, his pale hands wrapped around the shaft of Huge’s weapon. His mouth parted, as if to cry out, but not a sound escaped his lips before the vampire suddenly disappeared, his body collapsing into cloud of mist and black cloaks.
Utterly spent, the party regrouped and sheathed their weapons and sat on the floor, the exertion and tension generated by the confrontation – and the knowledge that Strahd would soon return – sapping even their will to congratulate each other on a job well done.
The remainder of the night passed, mercifully, without incident. Uther and Malakai completed their mediation within the chapel’s ruined confines and, as the sun’s first rays struggled feebly through the canopy of cloud and the grime on the chapel windows the pair of initiates rose, their induction into the Knights of the Raven complete. Yet their jubilance was sorely muted by their surroundings. Despite the fact that their initiation had brought the lost order back from the brink of extinction the knowledge that even their newfound abilities wouldn’t be enough to stop Strahd weighed heavily on every one of the adventurers.
“My friends, we cannot stay here,” said Haradrim as the party packed their belongings. “The castle’s master is simply too powerful for us.”
Malakai nodded. “Loathe as I am to admit it, you’re right. We would stand a better chance of overcoming the evil in this wretched place once we retire to safer ground and regroup.”
It didn’t take much convincing for the rest of the adventurers to come around to Haradrim and Malakai’s suggestion. Only Uther was truly reluctant to leave Borovia, the daily peril facing the country’s occupants weighing heavily on his newly inordinated conscience. Yet even he had to admit the logic of a tactical retreat. It was, nevertheless, with a heavy heart that he stepped into the shimmering dimensional portal that Vampensh opened up the in chapel’s gloomy interior, leaving behind him Castle Ravenloft and, soon after that, Borovia itself.
|+1 Unholy mace||+1 Full plate||Icon of Ravenkind||Strahd’s journal excerpt|
|..||..||Periapt of Wisdom +2||..|