They Paved Paradise (And Put Up A Monsterous Monlithic Sacrifice To Their Demonic Gods)

Introspection

Uther stood in the mouth of the cave, looking out into the inky blackness of the Svalich Woods. He always found watch duty to be a little disquieting; when the banter of your companions fades with the setting sun, a man has naught but his soul for company. For a young paladin sworn to upholding justice and valour no matter the cost, extended periods of time alone can be testing.

Which is why he tried to hide his relief when he heard footsteps behind him.

Uther turned to see Tanya climbing out of the cave, silhouetted by the dim firelight. He nodded, noting her stoop and sunken shoulders. “How are you?”

Tanya gave a lopsided grin. “Aren’t you a follower of Heironeous? Shouldn’t you be dropping more ‘fair maidens’ into your greetings?”

The paladin returned the smile. “Truly, you understand the chivalrous life of a disciple of Heironeous better than most.” Tanya chuckled. “But I suspect you can do without the fancy epithets at the moment. Besdies, chivalry comes in many forms.”

He inclined his head, inviting her over to the cave mouth. The pair stood in silence for a moment, hearing nothing but the crackling of the fire and the soft sleeping of their companions.

“It’s been a tough couple of days for you, hasn’t it?” he asked. “The death of your former mentor, your brother’s passing, your parents. And now to learn that your former burgomeister planned to cut the country off from the outside world, condemning the whole town to death?” He shook his head. “Truly, had it been me, I confess that I do not know if my faith is that strong.”

Tanya set her jaw, and blinked hard. After a few minutes of silence, she said, “strength is all I have – all I have left, that is. Growing up with this – ” she waved an arm at the silent trees ” – I had to be strong. For my father, for Preston. When Danovich fell, I had to be stronger still, just to keep going. And for a while there, I thought I was doing okay.

“But then you folk arrive, bringing the first rays of hope anyone has seen in years, and I have to be stronger again.”

“For what? Pride? I assure you that you need not feel you have to prove your strength of character.”

Tanya shook her head sadly. “It’s not my pride. I need strength just to survive.”

Uther smiled reassuringly. “Well we are here now. Strahd is a powerful being, but we will defeat him yet.”

“Tell that to the restless spirits in the graveyard,” snapped Tanya. “You saw them all yourself! You think they didn’t say the same thing? That they didn’t storm the castle with hearts full of valour and eyes ablaze?” She turned to Uther, and he noticed the tears glistening in her eyes. “What if you fail too?”

It was not the first time, but Uther suddenly became keenly aware of how much was riding on this quest. Here before him was the true victim of Strahd’s evil. Not the dead adventurers, who willingly faced their own demise. Not even Ireena, whose nights were plagued by the vampire lord. No, it was these people whom Strahd had simply used and cast aside in the pursuit of his desires, the pawns in his play for ever-more power.

He placed a hand on Tanya’s shoulder. “You speak truly. We may fail. Despite our manoeuverings, Strahd may yet defeat us.

“But we all must go to our eternal reward sometime. And to fall in the opposing of foulest evil is the noblest death anyone can achieve. Tanya, simply by seeking us out, by coming with us despite your lack of experience you already show courage and valour that no-one knowing your youth and upbringing could possibly have asked for.

“Whatever fate the gods have in store for us, take heart in knowing that you stand among the bravest souls I have ever had the privilege to know.”

He drew the Sun Sword and offered it to her, the blue light casting dim shadows across the cave floor. “Perhaps when the time comes, it will be you who destroys the dark one who has cheated death for so long.”

Tanya held the weapon tentitively, eyeing Uther with skepticism. “I don’t even know how to swing this thing you know. Preston was the one who had aspirations of swordsmanship.”

“Well,” chuckled Uther, “you may not have to. After all, my magical companion does seem to have taken a shine to you.”

“Vampensh? You think he’d teach me?”

“I don’t doubt it. I think he likes the idea of having a protegee.” He winked conspiratorially. “Pride, as you know, can be a powerful motivator.”

The pair shared a quiet chuckle in the darkness.

Fending off a yawn, Tanya handed the sword back to Uther. “I should get some rest. But thankyou, Uther Lightbringer, for listening. My brother was lucky to have you as a mentor, even if it was only for a short time. It made him happy, and that doesn’t happen very often around here. With your guidance, he would have made a great paladin.”

She waved goodnight, and walked back into the cave.

Uther nodded sadly, his head bowed. “He would have.” He straightened, staring out into the inky black night. “He would have.”

From inside the cave as she drifted off to sleep, Tanya could just make out Uther’s trembling words.

“The first Analect of Heironeous: protect and defend the innocent…”

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Kolyan's Plea

Hail to thee of might a valour:

I, a lowly servant of the township of Borovia, send honour to thee. We plead for thy desperately needed assistance within our community.
The love of my life, Ireena Kolyana, has been afflicted by an evil so deadly that even the good people of the town cannot protect her. She languishes from her wound and I would have her saved from this menace. But I fear the only cure lies within the dreaded walls of the castle, where none may enter without risking their lives.
I fear our only hope is the invocation of powerful holy magic that surrounds Borovia. Though this magic will contain and eventually weaken the dread lord of the castle, it will undoubtedly doom all who reside here to suffering and death at the hands of the master of the castle.
Know that I do not make this plea lightly. Our lives are forfeit, so I beg your to complete this invocation and save all those outside our fair country from the darkess that resides here, lest it spread and comdemn countless other lives.
There is much wealth in this community. Should you be successful in this, you may be able to return one day and claim it for yourselves. But please, act quickly, lest you too suffer our fate!

Kolyan Indirovich,
Burgomeister of Borovia

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Smitten and Smiting

“What’s she doin’ with us?”

Huge looked over his shoulder at Tanya, who rode near the rear of the party, talking quietly with Vampensh and Grul. He wore an incredulous expression, and would have said so had he known what the word meant. He turned to Uther who, as usual, rode at the head of the column with him.

“I mean, I bash heads, right?” He slapped a fist into his palm. “You chop heads, holy boy makes th’ zombies run off, Vamp can make big ol’ fireballs, and even the weirdo can turn into a bear when ‘e thinks to. So why are we lettin’ some skinny skreyja follow us?”

“You must feel quite strongly about this Huge,” replied Uther. “I don’t think I’ve heard you say so much at one time before.”

Huge frowned, his orcish heritage showing in his churlish countenance and dominant lower incisors. “I jus’ don’t get it is all. She should be home, with ‘er father. Time like this, a man needs ‘is kin ‘round ‘im.” Huge gazed off into the middle distance, momentarily lost in memory.

His companion raised an eyebrow, but said nothing. Casting a wary eye over the trail before them, Uther spotted numerous wolf tracks crossing the path ahead of them. As if on cue, a wolf howled in the middle distance, and was quickly followed by three others, each seeming closer than the last. Uther frowned and leaned over his mount, patting its neck as its ears pricked up anxiously.

Behind them, there was a rush of air and a heavy thump. Turning in his saddle, Uther saw a great brown bear standing next to Grul’s now-riderless horse.

“Feeling nervous, Grul?” teased Uther.

Grul simply growled in reply and padded to the head of the column. The party traveled on, Tanya telling them what she knew of the road ahead – of Lysaga Hill, the Tser Falls and the mad dwarf that resided there. All the while the baying of wolves grew louder and more frequent, and the travellers drew their column closer together, should the unseen carnivores attempt to attack stragglers.

The sound of rustling ahead caused their eyes to snap up. In front of them was a pair of elves, bows drawn, eyeing them cooly.

“What evil do you bring here?” one of them asked.

Sharing a skeptical look with his friends, Uther drew the Sun Sword, but held it low and lose – a gesture of wariness, as opposed to aggression. “We come seeking the Amulet of Ravenkind.”

“Ah.” At some hidden gesture, the elves fired. As the arrows streaked towards the party, however, Malakai snapped his hand up and invoked the power of his ring, conjuring a wall of wind that deflected both arrows. He turned at the sound of Vampensh shouting behind him.

Vampensh saw them too. “Flanks! Ready weapons!”

Uther brought his sword up just in time to deflect a vampire spawn and wolf lunging at him. The Sun Sword glowed brightly in his hand, eager to destroy the pair of vampire spawn that revealed themselves.

It never got the chance. Drawing on divine power, Malakai blasted the spwan with positive energy, vapourising them. The pair of wolves growled and lunged forward, but to no avail. The first was peppered with arrows from Haradrim, the second slammed into the ground by Grul’s massive bear paw and run through by Malakai’s sword.

The elves fled, with the party in hot pursuit.

“Thanks for your help there, Huge,” shouted Uther sarcastically as their mounts thundered along the trail.

“Yeah,” grinned the half-orc. “You guys were great.”

“I don’t know why our enemies bother with such subterfuge,” Haradrim grumbled. “What good does it do them?”

“Well, it’s not like any of them live to tell the tale,” replied Vampensh as he struggled to control his galloping steed.

They soon came to a break in the woods where a huge rocky outcrop rose up from the forest floor. The mouth of a cave, about 25 feet across was barely visible through a thick copse of trees before them. A low growl reverberated off the rocks as a group of wolves and armed elves revealed themselves, spread out across the base of the rocks.

With a sudden blur, violence broke out in the forest. Vampensh doubled over his steed as arrows peppered him. He and Hardrim answered in kind, sending flaming arrows and rays of magical fire blasting back at their attackers.

Tanya looked on in shock at the sudden change in her escorts – from jovial companions to deadly exponents of lethal force. To her left she saw Uther and Malaki on horseback, an elf pinned against the rocks, while Grul was busy mauling another elf on her right. Before her, Vampensh and Haradrim harrassed whoever they could see with magic and arrows alike. The scene was of ostensibly barely controlled chaos, with the sound of metal ringing, fire blasting and screams ringing in the air.

Sitting atop Grul’s horse with little more than a small wooden shield to protect her, Tanya felt more exposed than she had ever felt before. I’ve faced wolves, zombies, ghosts before, she thought to herself, but then, I’ve always been able to run away before.

She glanced to her right to see Vampensh shout in pain as a pair of arrows hit him. Most of the force was absorbed by the magical armour that shimmered as the arrows found their mark, yet they still drew blood. Anger flared in the mage’s eyes as he tossed the ammunition to the ground.

He gave a curt nod to his escort. “Excuse me a moment.” With a cry, he urged his horse into the melee, necrotic magic already flaring in his outstretched palm.

Tanya watched him go with amazement. What have I gotten myself into?

The bear Grul padded up next to the horse. He grinned, revealing a set of blood-soaked teeth, and turned back towards the fray, watching for any enemy that might break through to the rear. Tanya gave a nervous pat to her mount, who, already distressed by the noise that surrounded them, was anxiously eyeing the bloodied 1,800 pound brown bear that stood growling next to it. She peered through the trees that blocked her view into the cave, and tried to position her horse so she could see better.

Suddenly a soft female voice pierced the cacaphony. “Stop! No more!”

Although she couldn’t see directly what happened, Tanya saw and heard the immediate effects of the newcomer. Huge, who was the first to see the voice’s owner, immediately rocked back in his saddle, rubbing his eyes. Immediately after, the remaning elves – who had previously been well and truly on the back foot – began to fight back with renewed vigour.

Haradrim’s voice carried above the din. “Damn! My friends, my arrows don’t seem to be effective any more!”

Grul moved forward to see the mouth of the cave and, growling loudly, suddenly dropped to the ground, stunned. Shifting so she too could see what the druid saw, Tanya gasped in astonishment as she glimpsed this new aggressor. Standing in the mouth of easily the most beautiful woman Tanya had ever seen. Scantily clad and wielding a quarterstaff, she and an elf were defending themselves against Huge and Vampensh. In between them was a slender white monolith that seemed to glow with the ebb and flow of the battle around it.

Although the defenders looked heavily outclassed, the barbarian and the mage both appeared to be battling the dazzling effects of the woman’s very presence. It took a huge force of will for Hueg to finally dispatch the elven attacker before him, despite the fact that the elf was reeling from Vampensh infecting him with blinding sickness.

By this point the female, having seen the tide of battle turn against her, had made good her escape into the bowels of the cave, taking with her the modicum of protection her presence offered her allies. Once they were quickly dispatched, the party regrouped by the mouth of the cave, Grul retaking his natural form.

“What are you doing, Vampensh?” asked Malakai, who was watching the mage study the column in the cave mouth with equal parts bemusement and condescension.

“Examining it, of course,” he replied as he poured over the monolith. He gave the object an experimental prod with the end of his quarterstaff, and was rewarded with a brilliant flash of light that near knocked him to the ground.

Uther sighed and helped him to his feet. “Enough playing. We still have work to do here.”

The group made their way cautiously into the cave. Uther cast a spell of light, and in the illumination they could just make out the large outcropping immediately before them that seemed to divide the otherwise large but shallow cave.

Vampensh whispered a few words of power and gave Tanya a touch on the shoulder. “Protective spell,” he explained. “You may need it.”

“There is evil here,” murmured Uther. He closed his eyes, trying to focus his senses. “That way,” he pointed down the back of the cave. Motioning for Huge to join him, he waved the others to the left side of the outcrop, while he and Huge went right.

As each group rounded the cave, they all saw their enemy, standing in a shallow pool waiting for them. A smile crept across her face and at once the party were overcome with her extrodinary beauty.

“My…” whispered Haradrim in awe. “How wonderful…”

“Shake it off!” shouted Grul as he loosed a pair of arrows at the woman. “It’s a trick, she’s a fey spirit!”

Malakai shook his head, managing to free himself of the female’s devastating beauty. “Enough, creature – you stand in our way!” With a guesture of power, he called upon Corellon’s divine strength. With a deep roar, a gout of flame appeared above the pool and blasted downwards.

With a shriek of surprise, horror and fury, the nymph was doused in flame and abruptly incinerated. Malakai, having expended one of his most powerful abilities, took a deep breath and nodded in satisfaction.

The party searched the rest of the cavern, but found no other visible threats. With the nymph defeated, it seemed, her werewolf allies would trouble them no longer. In the pool they were able to discover a few items of value, including, finally, the fabled Amulet of Ravenkind.

Malakai quivered as he closed his hand around the medallion. “It is powerful, I can feel it. Though I know not what it does, it pulses with divine energy.” He slipped the amulet around his neck.

His satisfaction was short-lived, though. “My friends!” called Hardrim from the back of the cave. “You should see this.”

They gathered around the rogue’s discovery – a half-mauled body and clutched in its fist was a letter sealed with an ornate ‘B’.

“That seal,” said Vampensh as he examined it, “it is the symbol of Kolyan Indirovich, the former burgomeister.” He opened the letted and looked it over, drawing from his pack the original, forged letter they had receieved. “This one is different, the handwriting matches the samples we saw at the Kolyana mansion.” He looked up, ashen faced. “And I think perhaps you should read it, Tanya,” he said.

Loot
Weapons Armour Items Other
Javelin of lightning (x2) Amulet of Ravenkind Mantle of Second Chances Potion Cure Moderate Wounds (x2)
.. .. .. Potion of Haste

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Footsteps in the Forest

The sun rose slowly over Ivlis Marsh, as if the feeble beams of sunlight were loathe to even pick their way through Borovia’s ever-present mists. As was often the case, Huge was the first to rise, and was partway through his morning workout by the time the rest of the party were preparing themselves for the day.

Having finished memorising his spells for the day, Vampensh closed and packed away his spellbook, savouring the tendrils of power that coursed through his mind. He mentally touched the arcane power that even now was flowing through him and smiled in satisfaction, knowing that each day he practiced his craft enabled him to command the forces around him with even greater ability. The mage clicked a finger and chuckled as raw magic flared briefly in his palm.

Standing, he addressed his half-orc companion. “So, did you actually wake us last night, or did I dream it? I could’ve sworn I saw you facing off with some distant shadow, but I can’t be sure. Boccob knows this oppressive country has been playing merry hell on my focus.”

Huge nodded. “Saw Kavan the Grim in the trees, actin’ like ‘e wanted me to belt ‘im.” He grunted as he spoke through a set of sit-ups. “Only I gave ‘im one of these ones-” He lifted his hand in an obscene gesture. “-and he nicked off again.”

“Of course he did,” interjected Malakai. “That’s because he knew what’d happen if I got involved.” He touched the symbol of Corellon at his neck and mouthed a silent ‘boom’.

Huge gave a dismissive wave. “No offence, skinny, but he knows I owe him a kicking.” He drove his fist into his palm for effect.

“Regardless of what you pair believe, I owe that filthy marauder a debt of pain,” Uther said through gritted teeth. He tapped his armour that still bore the symbol of the Knights of the Raven. “A holy knight, a dedicated hunter, and an innocent boy. Make no mistake, they were all calculated strikes against my honour. And now that we have the Sun Sword, I will take a deep pleasure from driving that holy blade into his lifeless heart.”

The party broke camp and picked their way back to the edge of the swamp where their horses were still, thankfully, tethered. They mounted and set off north along the track towards the Svalich Woods, still arguing over who had the greatest right to destroy Kavan, as much to pass the time as any real fight over rights to the kill.

Soon the woods loomed ahead of them, the mists once again sending thick tendrils through the enormous tree trunks before them.

“It’s quiet,” observed Grul. “There’s no animal sounds at all. No birds, no insects…”

“Please,” Haradrim grumbled. “As if the rest of this bloody country wasn’t out to get us. Frankly, I’m surprised the trees themselves haven’t uprooted themselves and started grabbing at us.”

They rode in silence for time, following the same path that they took the previous time they had traversed the woods. As before, it led them to a dark part of the woods where the road diverted around a huge pale tree. On seeing it, Uther held up his hand and called a halt.

“There is evil here. Ahead somewhere.”

“The wraith,” noted Malakai, pointing to the tree. “It was hiding in there the last time we were here. Gods blasted thing got away before I could destroy it.”

“But not this time.” Uther drew the Sun Sword, whose glow had seemingly brightened in the dim forest. He dismounted and approached the tree slowly, purposefully. “Suffer no evil, no matter what form it takes” he muttered, quoting from the Analects of Heironeous.

The paladin circled around the tree, stopping in front of a large hollow in the trunk. He gave a nod to Malakai, who raised a wall of wind that encircled the tree. “Come, wraith!” he shouted. “Too long have you evaded oblivion – face me if you dare!”

Steely eyed, Uther peered into the inky blackness inside the tree. With no response to his challenge, he knew that stronger methods would be needed to provoke the undead monster that lurked just out of sight. Keeping one hand firmly on his sword, he reached into his pack and withdrew a vial of pale liquid.

“If you will not come of your own volition,” he said grimly, unstopping the vial, “then perhaps you need encouragement.” With a firm flick of his wrist, Uther sent the vial spinning into the hollow.

There was a smash of breaking glass, and a furious hiss. The wraith came hurtling out of the tree hollow, its red eyes burning bright with rage. Sweeping towards the paladin, it stretched out an incorporeal limp and swiped at him.

Uther dodged backwards away from the wraith’s energy-draining touch. “Taste the wrath of Pelor, foul creature!” He brought his sword down in a vicious arc that hummed with the power of his deity. It struck the wraith, which shrank back in pain, howling madly. The paladin turned his blade and drove it forward and up, thrusting it squarely into the ghostly form’s hidden face.

The wraith screeched loudly, the cry reverberating in Uther’s ears. It swirled and writhed about, trying ineffectually to escape the Sun Sword’s bite. Uther drove the sword deep into it, impaling the lifeless aggressor on the brightly glowing blue blade. With one last defiant cry, the wraith dissapated, condemned to whatever hell awaited it.

Uther nodded in grim satisfaction and sheathed the sword, walking through the fading wind wall back to his companions.

“Finely done,” congratulated Malakai. “With that formidable weapon, your ability to purge the undead may yet meet my own.”

“With the wraith sent back to whatever void spawned it, perhaps, by Pelor’s grace, some semblance of life may yet return to this part of the forest.” Uther looked past his companions to the trail behind him. “Although, I confess I didn’t expect it to return quite so fast.”

He gestured behind them, where they saw Tanya approaching cautiously. Caught in their collective gaze, she licked her lips and attempted to draw herself up into the confident young woman she had appeared to be when they first met her.

“I’m coming with you,” she said simply. “He killed my brother; I want revenge.”

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Aquatic Adventures - The Second Wildernes Fane

Haradrim struggled through the fetid water of the swamp, doing his best to keep his valuables well above the waterline.

“Have I mentioned just how much I hate Borovia?” he asked, as much to the world in general as the companions who made their own slow way through the murky waters. “Can’t get the drop on anyone, ‘cause they’re all dead already, all the living folk are poor as church mice, and now this filthy excuse for greenery. Do you know how long it took me to get these boots right for sneaking?”

“We are not here for petty gain, Haradrim,” intoned Uther. “We have a holy crusade that we have yet to complete.”

“Was it holy before the boy was killed?”

Uther whirled around – no mean feat when half submerged in water – and bore down angrily on the caustic rogue. “Choose your next words carefully,” he growled.

Haradrim simply rolled his eyes and kept moving. “All I’m saying, my friend, is that while you may be content to simply lurch about the contryside saving damsels, I would prefer our expedition to more profitable. What do we have to show for our efforts so far? A couple of cufflinks and a shiny cup.” He gritted his teeth and tugged at his bogged foot.

“Relax,” said Huge from ahead of them. “We’ve got a whole castle to raid yet.”

Vampensh nodded in agreement. “Yeah, think of this as laying the groundwork for our big heist.”

Before Haradrim could reply, Grul returned from scouting ahead. He trapised lightly over the uneven terrain as if the miles of mud that surrounded them were no more an impediment to movement than a cobblestone path. “Our destination lies up ahead,” he said simply.

Sure enough, they soon saw the ruined walls of some lost civilisation lying some sixty feet ahead of them, seperated by a large tract of murky water.

“See,” said Grul pointing to a large square stone column on the island across the water, “that monolith lies inside a runic circle that is almost identical to the one we found at the Vistani encampment. I cannot see any enemies nearby, though they would be likely concealed by the water and the pair of grandmother willows.”

“Enemies like those, you mean?” Malakai pointed at a series of ripples in the water where the group could just make out the pale flesh of some snake-like aquatic being. A collective shudder went through the party – the only thing worse than an enemy you knew was there but couldn’t see was one you could only partially see.

The ominous white shapes slipped almost invisibly though the water towards the still partially-submerged party. Uther drew his two-handed sword and fastened his gaze on the island opposite them.

“I’ll clear out the island. You guys deal with these foul beings. Catch up with me when you can.” With a broad smile he activated a magical ring and stepped up onto the water’s surface and beat a hasty path towards the white monolith opposite them. The rest of the party began working their way warily through the water.

Their progress became steadily slower as they heaved their way through the unexpectedly deep bog, while the white shapes circled closer and closer. One of them suddenly reared out of the water, a pale eyeless head writhing and twisting, revealing a hideous sucker-like mouth. It made a beeline through the water towards the party, who were still a good fifty feet from dry ground.

“Blood eels!” shouted Grul as four more eels revealed themselves and hissed agressively. “Get out of the water!”

Malakai reacted first, activating his own magical ring and stepping out onto the air well above the water. Vampensh followed suit, drawing a wand from his belt. He pointed it and Huge and spoke a word of power, causing the half-orc to lift out of the water. He reached out a hand and grasped Huge’s own outstretched palm, swinging up onto Huge’s back as he levitated out of the water.

From his vantage point on the island, Uther saw Haradrim and Grul still struggling in the water, attempting to hold their own against the five blood eels who, finding themselves with only two targets to chose from, surged through the water towards the rouge and the druid. Hearing a shout from above, Uther saw Huge readying a trident with a rope tied to it. The barbarian hurled the weapon at Uther, who, correctly interpreting his friend’s intention, caught it easily and planted it firmly in the soft dirt at his feet. Now anchored, Huge began hauling himself and the mage on his back towards the island. Malakai was making his own way to the island, the magic in his ring allowing his to stride quickly and easily through the air to his destinaion.

Grul knew he was in trouble. He swung his weapon in wide acrs, trying to fend off the three blood eels that harried him from the water. They splashed about in the water, hissing through their hideous mouths as they searched for an opening. Grul, too, was searching – for an exit. He cast his mind about, looking for a means of escape. In a desperate move, he summonded the forces of nature about him, transforming himself into an aquatic snake.

Unfortunately, this provided his antagonists with just the opening they needed. An eel shot forward and dug its teeth into the polymorphed druid. He druid cried out in pain as the eel’s razor teeth savaged him, tearing the flesh and digging in.

He stumbled backwards in the water, desperately trying to keep his head above the water. Through the water that foamed and frothed around him, he could just make out Haradrim to his left, also a victim of the eels. On the island, he could just make out his companions defending themselves against some hideous humanoid that had appeared from behind the runic circle. He then lost sight of them, his body sagging beneath him as the eel hungrily sucked the blood from his body.

He felt his body return to normal as he lost the strength to maintain the magic sustaining his changed form. Dazed from the terrible loss of blood, Grul cried out hoarsely before loosing his footing and collapsing into the water. As darkness overcame him, he could make out the sound of the eels savagely attacking his prone form.

Time passed. For Grul, lost in a sea of velvety nothingness, time had little meaning indeed. All he knew was the quiet throb of his heartbeat slowing in his ears, and he realised that he would soon return to nature. With mute acceptance, he waited for the end.

It did not come.

Instead, light blazed in his eyes, pain flared in his body and Grul looked up to see, to his horror, that he had been revived by the party’s smug, self-satisfied cleric. Licking his cracked lips, he attempted to speak.

“Wht h’ppnd?” He tried to look around him, but the pain that wracked his body was so intense that he thought both he and Malakai were flying.

The elf smiled down at his kinsman benevolently. “You almost died, brother. I had to come rescue you.”

There was a flash of light below them, and the wet screech of the blood eels. Grul slowly twisted his body to see that he was indeed floating with Malakai above the swamp. He caught a glimpse of Vampensh kneeling with his hand in the water, Huge and Uther taking pot-shots at the eel still latched on Grul’s bloodied leg.

Malakai frowned briefly and muttered a quick incantation, blasting the eel with magical fire. He nodded as the pale worm writhed and fell to earth, flailing in its death throes before sinking to the bottom of the swamp.

The pair returned to the rest of the party who, having defeated the hag and the remaining blood eels, were considering their next move. The Drowned Lady’s grotesque body lay at their feet, her mouth sagging open in a gross rictus of mad humour.

Vampensh nudged her bloodied body with his foot. “Well, I guess we should get burying her now, right?”

“Not yet. She may yet be able to provide answers.” Malakai steeped forward and kneeled over the hag’s head and, waving his holy symbol in an intricate arc over her head, channeled Corellon’s divine power into the Drowned Lady’s ravaged corpse. Her eyes snapped open and a shudder passed through her body. With a smile of satisfaction, the cleric addressed the corpse before him.

“Guardian of the Swamp Fane, we seek the location of the last remaining fane guardian. Where is she?”

The corpse’s lips quivered open, a trickle of blood spilling out over her jaw. “My sister resides at Lysaga Hill.”

Malakai nodded and spoke again. “We are told that the Sun Sword can be found in this swamp. Where is it?”

“It is here.”

Huge snorted. “She’s a great help, isn’t she?”

Malakai shrugged, indifferent. “The spell has it’s limitations, yes.” He turned back to the hag. “Where specifically?”

“It is here.”

Ignoring the muffled sniggering behind him, Malakai pressed on. “And the vampire Strahd von Zarovich – how do we kill him?”

“I know not.”

The magic expended, the Drowned Lady’s sighed quietly and went slack, her head losing the rigidity bestowed by the spell and lolling off to the side, exposing a deep gash in her neck.

Vampensh stood up and cracked his knuckles. “Now can we bury her?”

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Fifteen minutes and some rapid digging later found Uther standing knee deep in a pit next to the stone column in the middle of the runic circle, filthy and sweaty but wearing a satisfied grin nonetheless. In his hand he held a long sword that glowed with a dim blue light.

“We have it,” he murmured reverentially. “By the blessings of the Shining One, the fabled Sun Sword is now ours.” He kneeled and intoned a prayer to Pelor, the sword thrust in the dirt beside him.

Huge grasped the weapon and, pulling it free, gave it an experimental swing. The glassteel blade hissed through the air, trailing a faint blue light. “Feels good.”

Uther stood and peeled the sword from Huge’s grasp. “Of course it does. This holy weapon was forged for the express purpose of destroying the undead. And so it will again. Without it, our crusade, for all its nobility and just cause, would no doubt meet the same fate as those whom we saw in the village graveyard.”

“Do not forget, paladin, we have yet to activate the weapon,” reminded Malakai. “Until then its true power will be locked away from our grasp.”

“Hey guys, I found something else.” Huge climbed out of the hole they had dug, holding a small reliquary box in his hands. On the top were embossed a series of angelic figures, their eyes coated in a thick red substance.

“The same as we found at the Forest Fane,” observed Haradrim. “What’s inside?”

Huge opened the body and reached inside, holding up a small, yellowed object. “A tooth. I’d know know one o’ them anywhere.” He grinned and jiggled his necklace of similarly shaped yellowing objects.

Malakai took the tooth and examined it. “Another holy relic. I wonder what their purpose is?”

The rogue sniffed, dismissing his companion’s idle musing. “Who cares? Let’s just bury the wench here and get out of this gods forsaken hole.”

Working together, the party made quick work of the burial, heaving the body unceremoniously into a shallow grave in the middle of the runic circle. As before, there was an immediate hush around them and they felt the ambient hum of power in the area seep away.

Their objective acomplished, they claimed the Ioun Stone hidden at the top of the stone monolith at their prize and, as the sun sunk below the horizon, made camp for the night.

Loot
Weapons Armour Items Other
.. .. Ioun Stone ..

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Repercussions - Part 2

“Hold him! Godsdamnit, hold him steady!”

Ordinarily Huge would have a sharp retort for anyone who thought he could critise his iron grip, especially weedy, pious elven clerics, but this time he just grunted and shifted his weight to better brace against the vampire spawn that slavered and squirmed against him. Not out of any particular respect for the speaker – friend though he was – but for the ashen-faced man who stood in front of him.

“Son…” Thordor reached out to caress the pale figure that struggled like a rabid animal in Huge and Uther’s grip, and was rewarded by a snarl and snapping teeth. He pulled his hand back in horror, stepping backwards into the cleric behind him.

“Thordor, you must do this,” said Malakai gently. “What was once your son is now an unholy abomination. Steel your heart, and deliver the blow.”

The man nodded and took the silvered longsword the cleric offered him. The party watched silently as Thordor slowly raised his arm. “Forgive me…”

The arm came down in heavy blow, the blade driving deep into Preston’s chest. He screeched in agony, thick blood running in rivulets down the silver weapon. Thordor raised the weapon again to finish him off, but the howling figure that was his son caused him to hesitate. He dropped to his knees and sobbed, tears running silently down his face as the sword dropped from his hands. Putting his head in his hands, he tried to block out the sound of his undead son, the horrifying sound rending his soul worse than any physical blow.

Malakai quickly stepped foward and grasped the fallen weapon. With a practiced arc he thrust the blade deep into Preston’s struggling form, barely missing the heart. Blood now oozed from the badly wounded vampire spawn, pooling in the straw at their feet.

“Baphomet’s balls, at this rate we’ll have the whole town watching us botch this!” exclaimed Vampensh. Speaking a quick word of power he extended his hand and immediately rays of eldritch fire lept from it. They struck the weakened Preston, who was immediately engulfed in flame. One last gurgle escaped from his scorched lips, and he went limp.

Huge eased the body to the ground and went to Thordor, helping the big man up and out of the room. As soon as he was gone, Malakai strode to the body and, muttering a quick prayer to Corellon, severed the head. He nodded with grim satisfaction. “He will be plagued no longer by the taint of undeath.”

In the silence following Preston’s execution, the group became aware of the murmuring of the crowd just outside the barn.

“I don’t like this my friends,” said Haradrim, glancing at the shuttered windows. “They know of Preston’s death – and violent undeath. One wrong move here and they’ll turn on us, turf us out of town.”

“Agreed,” replied Vampensh. “To attempt to sneak out of town now would be tantamout to suicide. But maybe we can work this to our advantage.”

“You would capitalise on an innocent boy’s death??” Uther snapped.

“In a manner of speaking yes,” said the mage. He waved the disbelieving paladin silent as he explained. “Look, these people see death every day, and more often now that we’re here. Preston’s demise was tragic, true, yet perhaps a public funeral would serve as both a symbolic gesture and a practical one. Moreover, it would provide you with an opportunity to address the townsfolk, assuage their hatred and direct it at he who truly deserves it. We need to make sure that this event ignites their fury, rather than plunging them into a pit of despair.”

Uther stroked his chin as he pondered Vampensh’s logic. “I see your point, though it strikes me as moonlight masquerading as sunlight. And I cannot say the boy is not derserving of a fitting rememberance.” He turned to Malakai. “What do you think?”

The elf nodded as he wiped his silver blade clean. “There has been much death here, and precious little of it honourable or celebrated appropriately. Their graveyard is a shambles of unrest.” He paused as he considered Danovich and the horrific blaspheme that was his son. “Perhaps it is time they learned to treat death with dignity, rather than fear.”

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

With Grul’s ability to shape wood, the party were able to fashion a coffin for Preston’s remains. With Thordor, Maria and Tanya’s grieving forms in tow, the six exited the barn and made their way through the early morning sun to the graveyard at the north end of town. Much of the townsfolk followed, perhaps out of respect, perhaps out of curiosity.

Malakai consecrated a grave and the body was interred in the first funeral the townsfolk had seen in a long time. While the church had once had Danovich’s unholy taint seeming from it, it now bore silent witness to the internment of Strahd’s latest victim.

Uther stepped to the front of the assembled crowd, the glamour on his armour making him appear shining and resplendent in the sun’s weak rays. Forcing the guilt deep inside himself, he drew himself up and addressed the people before him.

“Good people of Borovia, I stand before you as a man humbled. But humbled not by despair, though it clenches my soul. Nor by evil, though it’s taint writhes in every shadow.

“No, I am humbled by a boy whom I had the privilege of knowing for less than a week, yet whose spirit inspired me more than any celestial being. A boy who showed courage, honour and valliance when all around him was naught but darkness, death and dispair. Let me tell you of him…”

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

The next morning found the party resting by the edges of the Ivlis Marsh. Vampensh, Haradrim and Grul stood by the roadside peering in through the mists.

“So the sun sword is in there huh?” asked Grul.

Vampensh nodded. “That’s what Madam Eva said.”

Haradrim sniffed at the air and pulled a face. “Fantastic. I hope we can find the trinket quick and get out quicker. I need solid ground beneath my feet – something swamps have precious little of.” He jumped lightly in the turf to prove his point, the ground squelching beneath his weight. “Besides, if we don’t deal with this Strahd character soon, we’ll run out of allies to bury.”

The rogue nodded at Uther, who stood apart from them, his face a mask of melancholy. Grul chuckled quietly. “And with the exception of the blacksmith, not a one of them can lift a sword.”

As if on cue, Uther came striding over. “We’ll set out now. It will be slow going as there’s no path I can make out, and we need to cover as much ground as we can before sundown.”

They set out, picking a path through the mangroves and fetid water towards the only obvious landmark – some crumbling ruins wreathed in mist. Grul traipsed lightly ahead of them, scouting the way. He was obviously in his element; his practiced feet found rocks, roots and similar footfalls where his companions found only stagnant pools and mud up to their ankles.

Presently, they came to what looked like a shallow river. The ruins were before them on the other side, but Grul held them back.

“Look, there is a cloud of dangerous insects hovering above the water, as if they were guarding the passage. They look like gnats, but there is something unusual about them.” His nostrils flared, testing the air currents. “I also detect the scent of blood. We should be careful.”

“Well, whatever they are, they’re blocking our path,” said Malakai firmly. “And I’m not taking chances on walking through them. Stand back.”

Activating his magical ring, Malakai summoned a fierce blast of wind that buffeted right through the main swarm. Knocked back, but not dispersed, he followed it up with a circular wind wall that encased most of the bugs. The ominous drone they made earlier rose to a high-pitched buzz of irritation.

“Vampensh, a fireball would be appreciated.”

“Happily,” replied the mage, already part-way through the spell.

He flung them tiny golden seed to the wind wall, which Malakai dropped just briefly enough to allow the seed to pass. It erupted suddenly and magnificently, the winds carrying and funneling the flames in a massive firey gout that incinerated more than a handful of bugs. Vampensh’s satisfied smile was interrupted by Grul.

“In the water, watch out!” He summoned magical fire of his own and hunkered behind his shield.

The waters parted to reveal a leafy mass surging out of the swamp. As it rose, a series of vines whipped out and lashed towards the nearest target, Huge, who fended them off with his axe. As the bugs rose up and over their windy prison, Huge and Uther engaged the shambling mound, hacking at whatever part of its body seemed to have the most mass. The waters behind the mound become a churning sea of white water as Malakai summoned a shark which immediately surged forward and drove into the party’s acquatic aggressor.

Having the element of surprise stripped from it early, the shambling mound was quickly overcome by Uther and Huge’s continued attacks. Soon the fetid swamp waters became riddled with chunks of the mound, which slipped beneath the waters. The approaching swarm, too, was dispersed by Grul and Vampensh’s continuing firey blasts; the party soon found themselves alone once again among the quiet chirping of the swamp’s less agressive inhabitants.

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Repercussions - Part 1

Exerpt from the journal of Uther Lightbringer

The 17th Analect states: “Walk the path of light, that others might follow you; oppose those who walk the path of darkness.”

Gods of valour and light, I confess that the time I spend in this valley of shadow doth truly test me. So many have perished, drawn into the darkness here, innocents and champions of light both. I wonder, in my heart of hearts, whether I too will succumb to the evil that festers in the heart of so many here in Borovia. I must strive to keep the Analects of Heironeous in my heart, and to let Pelor’s light guide my path.

My soul is heavy this day; the blood of innocents is on my hands and, though I would not openly admit it, I find less solace in prayer than I ordinarily do.

We have dealt the vampire lord Strahd a heavy blow – destroying the guardian of the first wilderness fane has no doubt hurt him sorely. Yet his vengeance was swift, calculated and brutal. Riding back from Eva’s encampment we reached the crossroads guarded by the noble Sir Urik. Or rather, once guarded by Sir Urik.

We discovered his defiled body dangling from the gallows, the shadowy minions of Strahd lurking in the darkness of the graveyard nearby. He was slain in the few hours between us dealing with the wilderness fane and returning to the crossroads. Malakai used his arts to return some semblance of life to his body, allowing us to glean some little information regarding about his death. But short of learning that it was Strahd’s minion, Kavan the Grim who robbed the noble paladin of his life, the spell provided us with little other useful information. Truly, the casual indifference that our cleric sometimes displays towards the barriers of life and death makes me wonder if it is he who is most likely to fall. After all, the noblest paladin makes the deadliest blackguard.

I was determined to give the knight a noble internment, but Vampensh and Haradrim suggested instead a cremation to prevent his body becoming fouled by the taint of undeath. I confess that, in my grief, I almost resisted the idea of burning his body like a side of beef in some dockside tavern but I relented nonetheless, the wisdom of the action overriding my reservations. To their credit, my companions gave the knight a worthy sendoff, Malakai using his knowledge of religions to emulate the funery pyre employed by the barbarian tribes of the northern wastes.

Sir Urik’s possessions were divided amongst myself, Malakai and Huge. This was a dispiriting and almost mercenary act, but I take comfort from the knowledge that we might use his equipment to defeat those who slew him.

Once we scattered the knight’s ashes to the wind, we made our way back to the town. Hurrn, Urik’s former raven companion, seems to have taken to following me – no doubt to remind me of my obligation to take up the mantle of Knight of the Raven and avenge his former master. For the moment, though, the bird is a melancholy reminder of the consequences our actions have in this place.

We made it back to the town impeded only by some scattered zombies and vargouilles, hardly a concerted effort. On arriving back at the town center we were quickly challenged by the newly formed town militia. Their swift reaction to our approach, and the only scattered resistance we encountered in the town proper indicated the effort that Ismark has put into the defence of his home. I am glad that I was able to convince the drunkard son of the former burgomeister to replace his tankard with a sword and it speaks well of his character; it is no easy task for a man so broken by evil to once again walk the path of light.

Yet Strahd’s reach is long, and his vengeance has touched many of our former allies. The Seargent-at-Arms of the town’s new militia delivered the grim news that Ashlyn the Lightbringer was another recently slain by Kavan’s bloodthirsty marauding. She too was given a noble sendoff and her equipment pressed into our crusade. Thordor’s children had been present in the aftermath of the attack and described Ashlyn’s killer: Kavan. It seems the inhuman daywalker had been busy in the hours following our discovery of the wilderness fane.

Although the blacksmith and his wife were asleep – for it was just gone the dead of night when we arrived back at the village – Preston and Tanya were not, and once again allowed us to rest in the family’s barn. Preston even volunteered to assist with the watch – and in my fatigued state I regret that I made the grave error of allowing him to do so unassisted.

Ah, would that I had placed more value on the boy’s actual abilities than the strength of his spirit. I know that, save for a single error in judgement he would have gone on to be a fine paladin. Sadly, instead of delivering a speech to welcome him into the ranks of the holy, I delivered his eulogy instead.

Preston’s demise weighs heavily on my shoulders. True, the loss of Ashlyn and Sir Urik is grave indeed, but they were trained combatants nonetheless and therefore had at least some chance of defeating their agressors. Preston though, had his life plucked from him with no more resistance than an apple falling from a tree.

Journal entry concludes here

Loot
Weapons Armour Items Other
+1 Silvered longsword +1 Full plate Cloak of Charisma +2 Potion of Cure Moderate Wounds
+1 Longsword +1 Heavy steel shield Amulet of Natural Armour +1 Oil of Bless Weapon
.. +1 Full plate (female) .. Scroll of Remove Curse
.. +1 Heavy steel shield .. ..

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Intermission

All who heard, good at heart and dark creatures of the night alike cringed at the bitterness in the unholy wail that carried through the forests and hills of Borovia.

Standing over a reading desk in the dusty library, the vampire lord Strahd struggled to recompose himself. At his feet lay thousands of glittering crystal shards from the chalice hurled there just moments before. His hands hung in tight fists by his side, the fury of his sudden and totally uncommon impotence slowly boiling over; already he felt the power once provided by the wilderness fane fading.

Drawing himself up to his almost regal height, Strahd breathed out – an utterly unncessary action in a vampire, but a habit that countless years had yet to suppress – and forced himself calm.

“It matters little,” he said to himself. “I need them strong if they are to do my bidding.” His eyes narrowed as he considered his long-term plan for the mortals who even now wandered through his lands like boys with wooden swords and dreams of glory. Those dreams would die soon enough…

He turned to the lithe female standing by his side. “Sasha,” he commanded, “seek the tainted one. Inform him they will soon arrive.”

The black-haired beauty before him bowed. “Very well, master.”

Strahd considered Sasha’s feminine form as it transformed into mistbefore his eyes. “When this is done find something dear to them.” A wicked smile crept across his thin ancient lips. “Give them a reason to grieve.”

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Huge, Medium, and Large (The First Wilderness Fane)

Huge stepped out of the tent and stretched his bulky arms. Well that was boring, he thought to himself. But we know more about these magical thingys now, I guess, so that’s good.

He cracked his neck and gazed around the campsite – and then did a double-take.

“Uhh, where is everyone?” he asked his companions.

They looked past Huge’s bulk to the campsite. Once filled with gypsy men and women, now there were just a few scattered around the campfire. Huge scratched his head and sniffed at the air. “I don’t like it. Feels wrong.”

From the rear of the party came a sharp cry. They whirled around to see Grul clutching at a wound in his side, a member of the Vistani standing next to him with a bloody blade. In seconds, the party had drawn levelled their weapons at the attacker.

“Boy, did you ever make a mistake,” growled Grul through gritted teeth.

Huge grabbed the man by his lapel and lifted him clean off the ground. Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted more Vistani coming out from behind tents and caravans, their bows aimed at the adventurers.

“No surprises for guessing what that signal Madam Eva made earlier was,” observed Haradrim.

Huge nodded, and tossed the squirming man into the ground. “You lot’ve got one chance to back off,” he shouted. ” ‘fore I tear you into bloody chunks.”

The assembled Vistani merely grinned maliciously and drew back their bowstrings, loosing a volley at the adventurers.

“That tears it!” Huge hefted his axe and charged at the group of sword-weilding gypsies next to them. With a mighty roar, he leapt among them, his axe swinging in a vicious arc. From just behind him he heard the sound of battle being joined as Malakai and Vampensh blasted their opponents with magical forces. Huge paid them no heed, instead focusing his strength into his attacks. The two men before him were torn asunder, the axe cleaving through their lightly armoured flesh, rending it bloody from their bones. The barbarian smiled grimly at the sight of the blood bubbling from their lifeless lips.

“Look,” cried Uther as he pointed to a large bulk that emerged from the main tent and made for the edge of camp. “Eva has cast some spell, and she’s making a run for it!”

Huge’s head snapped up and he spied Eva’s bulk hustling away from them. From behind him, he heard the sound of Vampensh casting a spell and felt a magical lightness flow through him, making him feel like he could run forever. He glanced behind him.

“Go,” said the mage as he pocketed the used scroll. “Catch her, we’ll cover you.”

The barbarian didn’t need to be told twice. With the transmutation flowing through his limbs, Huge gripped his weapon and chased down the fleeing diviner. The ground sped past his under his feet and he barreled into Eva with a grunt. The two grappled fiercely, Eva writhing underneath Huge’s iron grip.

“Get off me, you filthy half-caste!” The seer’s visage seemed to be in flux as the glamour that disguised her strained under Huge’s proximity. Her wrinkled and haggard face bowed and writhed, and hideous new features came into being with her every twist and turn. With a cry, Eva thrust back against Huge’s attack, summoning some supernatural strength and pinning him with her enormous bulk. A low moan floated in from the middle distance, and Huge began to feel the ground shake underneath him.

Eva grinned evilly and leaned in close, her horrible breath making Huge gasp for air. “You hear that,” she asked through blackened teeth. “That’s the sound of your doom, little orcling.” She cackled madly, digging her filthy claws into Huge’s wrists.

Huge twisted his head towards the approaching rumbling sound. The trees that bordered on the encampment quivered with the sound of enormous footfalls. In the distance, Huge picked out the sound of whole swathes of forest being knocked aside. In the light of the afternoon sun, he fancied he could see the silhouette of a huge head thrusting up from the treeline.

“What in the hells..?” With a desperate punch, Huge knocked Eva off him and dropped his knee across her chest. The woman gasped and writhed underneath his bulk, bile bubbling from her cracked lips. The barbarian simply grunted and brought his palm down into Eva’s jaw, knocking her senseless and popping a large pustule that had formed on her jawline. Taking advantage of Eva’s temporarily stunned state, he reached down and wrenched one of the many magical-looking amulets from around her neck.

All around him Huge could hear the familiar cacaphony of combat. In the corner of his vision he saw Grul flinging fire at the remaining archers while Malakai stood some ten feet in the air, blasting gypsies with magic of his own.

“Kill my men all you want, you fleshy fool,” hissed Eva through a mouthful of blood. “Oorogh will be here soon, and he’ll grind you into a bloody paste!”

As if on cue, a hill giant burst through the treeline, roaring mightily at the sight of his mistress being attacked. Flanking him were a pair of club-wielding ogres who scurried around the giant’s feet, searching to targets. Huge grimaced and shouted to his companions. “Quick, cover me!”

As he wrestled with his opponent, Huge heard the sound of Grul casting a spell, and shortly after became aware of a thick mist that closed around him.

“Very clever,” hissed Eva. “But it won’t stop my giant from breaking your friends – aaarhg!”

She turned and saw Malakai standing next to her, just finishing the spell he was casting. Eva grimaced and seemed to slow for a second before screeching her defiance and shaking the spell off. “Pitiful zealot! I’ll finish you off next!”

Through the fog the three combatants could see the flash of magic being thrown about and the sound of metal on metal. One sound suddenly rose above the rest, and they heard the mage cry out in agony followed by the giant’s roar. A look of concern passed across Huge’s face, and Eva noticed it.

“Aww, sounds like your fragile little mageling got crushed under a giant club.” She grinned maliciously. “What a pity.”

There was a sound of rushing magic and a deep boom. A low moan echoed over the hills and through the fog Huge could see a large shape rushing into the shape of a giant. The giant grunted as it fell under the weight of this new aggressor. Huge grinned toothily at Eva. “And it sounds like your giant has a rough new playmate.”

Eva screeched in rage and attacked Huge with renewed fervor. Hands flailing and grasping, the pair faced off whilst around them the air crackled and flashed with magical energy. Huge’s muscles bulged as he blocked Eva’s vicious swipes, bringing his strength to bear against her own unnatural energy. Between attempts to pin Huge and defending herself against magical attacks from the cleric behind her, Eva obviously had her hands full. Huge glared into her eyes, which shined with fury.

Yet the fight took its toll. Slowly but surely Huge managed to get the enormous diviner onto the ground. And although she still resisted him, her attacks were losing their strength.

She knows it’s over, thought Huge. With every minion that falls, the fight goes out of her a little more. As if on cue, a bloody groan and heavy thump signalled the demise of the last of the giant’s entourage. With one last exertion, Huge dropped Eva to the ground and drove his fist into her face.

She groaned and her body went limp. Huge sat up and breathed a heavy sigh of relief. He wiped a trail of sweat off his forehead and twisted around. Although the dense fog still flowed around him, he could still clearly hear the sounds of his companions making short work of their remaining opponents.

He climbed to his feet, shouldering his axe and peering through the mists. Malakai slid up next to him. “Are you alright?”

Huge nodded, brushing dirt and Eva’s bodily fluids from his skin. “Fine. But are they?” He indicated through the fog, where the giant still wrestled with the dinosaur Grul had summoned. As he looked on, though, the giant was enveloped in crackling black negative energy and seconds later Uther charged at the weakened giant and drove his blade into it. The giant cried out in pain and slumped heavily to the ground.

Makalai shrugged. “Does that answer your question?”

With Eva dealt with, her remaining henchmen were easily dispatched. Huge stood over Eva with the rest of the party while they discussed what to do with her.

“Well it’s obvious, isn’t it? If she’s one of the hags that guards the wilderness fanes, then we need to kill her,” sai Vampenshi. “All the better to sap some of Strahd’s dark powers from him.”

The rest of the party murmured their assent, yet no-one moved. With Madam Eva trussed up and unconscious at their feet many of them – Uther and Malakai especially – were reluctant to strip her of her life in cold blood.

“Alright,” said Huge. “Let’s have a look at this fane thing and figure out our next move from there.”


Loot
Weapons Armour Items
+2 Composite shortbow m/w Chain shirt Amulet of health
m/w Scimitar m/w Buckler Ioun Stone
.. .. Potion of cure serious wounds (x2)
.. .. Potion of cure light wounds
.. .. Potion of mage armour
.. .. Potion of remove curse
.. .. Potion of sanctuary
.. .. Potion of shield of faith +3 (x2)
.. .. Elixer of hiding (x2)
.. .. Elixer of sneaking (x2)
.. .. Wand of Hold Person (5 charges)

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A Treacherous Hive of Scum and Villainy

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.”

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