Haradrim shook his head and tried to get his bearings. As the mind-affecting compulsion of the fog cleared, he realised that he had stopped right in front of a large stone structure that sat on the edge of the road. Turning in his saddle, he realised that it was a short tower that made up one half of a gatehouse that crossed the path before him.
“Have you any idea where we are, my friends?” he asked Vampensh and Grul, who stood in the middle of the road next to him.
“Where we are?” The mage gave a harsh snort and pointed up between the gates. “Do you need a hint?”
Haradrim manoeuvered his horse around the gatehouse and stared across the ravine behind it. An ancient drawbridge spanned the misty chasm that fell to unknown depths into the valley below. The rogue moved his gaze upwards, taking in the gatehouse and portcullis on the opposite side, the one discernable feature of a mighty castle wall that clung to the clifface opposite him.
And above it, silhouetted in the perpetual fog, rose the ancient stones of Castle Ravenloft.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
The party gathered at the gates of the castle, casting cautious glances across the drawbridge. Malakai squared his shoulders and stared up at the imposing bulk of the castle.
“Let’s go,” he said simply. “We have work to do.”
Huge gathered the horses and tied them to his own warhorse, knowing the intelligent animal would lead the others to the relative safety of the village. Then he and Uther stepped out onto the drawbridge.
The ancient structure proved to be as dangerous as it looked; only a few steps onto it and Uther’s heavily armoured foot proved too much weight for the rotten wood to bear and he stepped right through it. Even as he extricated himself from it, Malakai sneered at the paladin’s clumsiness, only to almost fall himself.
As the other party members worked their way ginerly across the drawbridge, Huge and Malakai reached the other side of the drawbridge. The barbarian, hearing an odd squelching sound, looked up.
“Ah, uskit’r,” he swore as a gob of green slime dropped from the portcullis above him. As the ooze hit him, it hissed and worked its way down through the chinks in his armour. “Get it off!” he shouted to Malakai. As Huge grimaced and hurled pieces of armour from his body, the cleric drew a short dagger and quickly set to work, scraping the ooze from his companion’s blistering skin.
Once Huge’s affliction was dealt with and the party regrouped on the other side of the drawbridge they were able to turn their attention to the courtyard and their first proper look at Castle Ravenloft.
They stood in a large courtyard, swathed in thick fog. The sole source of illumation came from a pair of torches set either side of the keep’s main doors, guttering feebly in a perpetual drizzle. The courtyard, once designed to be a wide and welcoming place, was now a desolate expanse of weather-worm flagstones boredered by imposing walls. Looming above them, as if the structure itself sought to dominate their will, was the keep of Castle Ravenloft. In the past, this castle had been the seat of power in Borovia and for all its intimidating bulk was still a place that bustled with the constant activity of courtiers, tradesmen and servants. Now the wind whistled through the multi-storied edifice, giving voice to the ghosts of happier times long past. The castle was home now only to damned and the dead, its terrible reach keeping the land wreathed in permanent shadow. Turrets stretching high into the air were illuminated by periodic flashes of lighting that gave semblance of life to the gargoyles that leered hideously from the walls above.
A lingering scent of wet stone, moss and decay hung in the air, rolling over the intrepid adventurers and creeping insidiously through the chinks in their armour.
Vampensh shivered as the water trickled down his neck. He gestured to the open doors of the keep, through which a pale warm light spilled outside. “Let’s get inside; looks like we’re expected.”
Uther nodded, and looked around. “Where’s Haradrim?”
A shadow peeled away from the wall behind him and tapped the shocked paladin on the shoulder. “Right here, daisy-chain.” He gave a wan grin to match Uther’s questioning look. “Force of habit,” he explained, and approached Ireena, who was staring at the castle’s bulk.
“Strahd will no doubt wish to take you from us,” he said, rifling in his pack. “Best if we disguise you.” He and Huge gathered together what items they could and covered Ireena’s face in a deep cowl, hoping the disguise and the fact that she was, ostensibly, free of Strahd’s influence, would keep the vampire from recognising her.
Malakai drew a hooded lantern from his pack. “Come, we’re wasting time.”
He strode across the threshold and into the keep, followed closely by his companions. The small entry chamber in which they found themselves was bare, save for a pair of coiled stone dragons that flanked the double-doors opposite them. The statues held what appeared to be flaming torches in their mouths, casting unusually dim light towards the courtyard doorway.
Haradrim took one look at the statues and frowned. “It’s a trap.”
Vampensh held a magical gem to his eye and inspected the statues from a distance. “Not so much a trap as an ambush.” He pocketed the gem and turned to his companions. “Those aren’t statues; they’re alive.”
“And evil to boot,” added Uther.
As none of them were keen to start a fight with a pair of stone dragons, the party dallied in the entryway, considering their options. One option, however, was soon thrust upon them.
As the last of the sun’s warmth dissapeared below the horizon, a voice came out of the shadows beyond the dragons. “Come, guests, why do you dally so? Surely it cannot take so long to clean the mud from your boots! Come inside, all is prepared.”
A tall man appeared in the doorway, smiling benificently at them. The finery of his dress stood in start contrast to the decay of the castle around him. His raven black hair, streaked with occasional grey, was held back in a curiously archaic style, and his skin was gaunt and pale, revealing sunken cheekbones, a regal nose and dark eyes that glittered with a hypnotic, animal intelligence.
He stepped lightly toward them and bowed deeply, as if greeting honoured guests. “I am Count Strahd von Zarovich – but you knew that already, did you not?” He smiled again, revealing a set of perfectly white, utterly normal teeth. “Please follow me, we have much to discuss.”
He turned, his cape swirling theatrically around him, and made for the doorway with the unbroken stride of one accustomed to having his commands followed completely and immediately.
Grul stood fast, his face displaying open suspicion. “What do the mice have to discuss with the cat?”
Uther displayed even less tolerance, whipping the Sun Sword from its scabbard and levelling the brilliantly glowing blade at Strahd’s back. “Hold – enough of these games, Strahd.”
The man turned, calmly eyeing the sword before him. “Ah, you have the Sun Sword – excellent.”
Huge also pressed his suspicion. “And if we go wi’ you, what of these here dragons?” he asked.
Strahd chuckled casually, as if laughing at a child’s fear of the dark. “You are my guests, my friend, they will not harm you. They are fierce indeed, for in these times it is prudent for one to employ whatever protective measures one can. But they obey my every command, you may rest assured of that.”
“Y’ don’t have that problem with Kavan,” muttered the barbarian.
Strahd inclined his head apologetically. “Indeed, I fear I have to rebuke Kavan on a daily basis. But enough idle chat, pray join me for dinner.”
The Count led the reluctant group between the twin motionless stone dragons and into the room beyond. As they passed through the great dark chamber, they saw a pair of great bronze doors set in the wall opposite them, a dark staircase dissapearing upwards to their left and a hallway to the right. Flanking the walls were a series of columns that stretched up to a vaulted ceiling some forty feet above them. Four gargoyles peered, unseeing, down from their perches above the floor.
Strahd strode through the room and turned right down the hallway and right again, where a pair of zombies – ostensibly dressed as butlers – opened the doors and revealed the dining hall beyond. The Count strode through the room and went immediately to the head of the dining table, beckoning the hesitant group inside.
Malakai cast a wary eye over the room. A dusty chanelier swung gently overhead as a chill breeze penetrated the room, the chandelier’s light pale and cold. All around him the cleric saw the trappings of what was amost stereotypical of a vampire lord: a once gay hall lost to rot and the ravages of age; faded and torn tapestries on the walls, fine china speckled with signs of age, food as tasteless as the very vampire who served it. Truly, this room – like the rest of the castle – was as dead as the man who inhabited it.
He sniffed with disdain and slowly sat at the table, along with the rest of his companions. The zombie butlers shuffled awkwardly around them, moving cutlery and pouring what appeared to be wine. Looking across, Malakai saw Uther alter the glamour on his armour, making appear as a parody of Strahd’s own vestments. Sniggering quietly, he cast a baleful look over the food before him, and began quietly incanting a prayer to purify food.
“Come now,” interrupted Strahd. “No need for that, my friend. I assure you you will find no foul play here.”
The cleric looked calmly at him. “My kind have little trust for the undead,” he said simply.
Strahd waved a hand benificently. “Then go about your business.”
Huge poked suspiciously at his food. “What do you require of us?” he asked slowly, as if having to carefully form each word before uttering it.
“You have done my bidding already, my bulkly friend,” laughed Strahd.
Huge frowned, thinking. “Cherna.. Chernom…”
“Chernovog, yes – the demon lord.”
“But what about them fanes?” pressed the barbarian. “Din’t that harm you, when we broke ‘em?”
Strahd smiled, nodding. “You are indeed perceptive. I love this land, so much so that I formed a bond between it and myself. In breaking it, it’s true that in doing so you servered from me protections that shielded me from my enemies. But with those enemies now defeated, such protections are no longer required.”
“More like severed like a leech from a limb,” countered Grul sarcastically.
“A not entirely incorrect analogy,” shrugged the Count. “Contrary to rumour, the witches were acting entirely on their own behalf. They sought to usurp me by summonong a demon lord to challenge my power. In doing so, they attracted all manner of beasts, many of which you yourselves encountered in your travels in my domain. Alas, I have yet been able to banish entirely such undesirables.”
Malakai watched Strahd carefully, mentally weighing his responses so far. As best as he could tell, the vampire – for there was no doubt that he was a vampire – was being truthful to them. Or at least, he had not told any direct falsehoods. Yet for all his charm and flair, he was still a vamipire, and thus an unholy creature that deserved no less than to be condemned to the hells.
Uther evidently felt the same way. Having spent the last few minutes tapping impatiently at the table, he interrupted the conversation, directly confronting Strahd. “Enough double-talk Strahd. Regardless of your intentions, you know exactly what ours are. You must be destroyed.”
Strahd placed his hands on the table and leaned across to the paladin. “Yours is a fools errand then, young one,” he said quietly. “I would convice you otherwise. You cannot defeat me.”
There was a crash as Uther stood suddenly, tossing his chair backwards. He whipped the Sun Sword smootly from its scabbard and levelled it at the vampire. “My blade says otherwise, creature.”
Strahd laughed loudly. “Such fine posturing! But it is for naught; that fine weapon that you so clumsily wield is far beyond your capability to control. You come into my home seeking, what – vengeance? I suggest you eat what is laid before you, my young squire, as vengeance is a dish served only by me.”
“My god has condemned you,” said the paladin slowly as the glamour on his armour reversed back to show the symbol of the Knights of the Raven. “Your pretty words are wasted on me.”
“In more ways than one,” smiled Strahd confidently. “I confess,” he continued more casually, “that your preception of me has, for the past two hundred years, been entirely accurate. You find me now a changed man. Pray, do not seek violence here.”
“Our cause is eternal, Strahd,” Uther said firmly. “Your death is inevitable.”
“Our cause?” asked Strahd. “Oh you mean the Knights of the Raven. Sadly, there is but one left of that ancient order – and he is not here. His quest died with him.” He smiled as Uther flushed red and sat heavily, glowering at the vampire.
“Count von Zarovich,” said Vampensh from the other end of the table. “You surely haven’t invited us in here for idly chat; what do you want from us?”
“Dear boy, by defeating those witches you have already done more than I could ask of you. I plan to reward you for your efforts and to announce a day of celebration in your honour.” Strahd raised his glass in salute.
“You waste your breath, vampire,” growled Uther indignantly. “You know my kind would never negotiate with you. This will end in your death.”
Strahd rolled his eyes, as one would with an impatient toddler. “Then it would be a sad loss. Come now,” he said, addressing the rest of the party. “Tomorrow you may feel differently. For the moment, please relax and find yourselves accommodated as honoured guests. I have guestrooms already prepared.”
“This is a place o’ power,” rumbled Huge. “What if the castle tries to take control o’ my friends?”
“My friend, this castle is as inert now as when it was constructed. I assure you – the power here resides not in the castle, but the man who inhabits it. Please, won’t you stay the night?”
“I will not stay,” announced Uther firmly as he stood up, the rest of his companions standing with him. A momentary look of doubt passed across the paladin’s face. “I will, however, ask you one thing: where is the Chapel of Ravenkind?”
Strahd smiled, noting Uther’s desire and playing on it. “Why it is here in the castle! Stay this night, and I shall take you to it first thing tomorrow.”
Uther shook his head. “I’ll not stay in this evil place – nor shall any of my friends.”
“Stay,” countered Strahd, a dark look passing over his face. “Your safety is assured should you stay – but once you leave my castle, I can no longer guarantee your safety.”
“You openly threaten us now?”
“Certainly not, my passionate young friend,” rebuked Strahd as he raised his goblet to his lips and drank deeply. “But suffice it to say that there are consequences for those who refuse my hospitality.”
He signaled a zombie butler, who shuffled over and refilled the goblet with a thick, red daught. Inhaling the drink’s aroma, Strahd sighed in satisfaction and sipped at it. “Ah, a delicious drop. What vintage is this?” he asked the zombie. It groaned coaresly, to which Strahd laughed lightly and nodded. “Of course – three day old paladin.”
Ireena gasped quietly, and Strahd shot a suspicious glance at the cowled figure sitting across from him. “So you do not wish for me to take you to the chapel?” he asked slowly as he examined the one member of the group whom he had not yet properly looked at.
“I will not,” replied Uther. “Not until we have laid you to your rest.” He strode to the door, his companions gathering next to him.
“Don’t think we won’t be back, though,” Huge rumbled. “I’ve still got a score t’ settle wit’ you, Kavan,” he said with the confidence of a man who has just laid a surprise ace on the table. Strahd gave him a blank look as the half-orc put his arm around Ireena’s shoulder. “Let’s go. You first, Ireena.”
There was a pregnant pause as the copper piece dropped. Then sudden fire blazed in Strahd’s eyes and he lept from the table, sending chairs and crockery crashing to the ground.
Huge slapped his forehead. “Ah, uskit’r.”