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

Goin' to the Chapel

“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.”

“Mmm, yes.”

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.

Loot

Weapons Armour Items Other
+1 Unholy mace +1 Full plate Icon of Ravenkind Strahd’s journal excerpt
.. .. Periapt of Wisdom +2 ..
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Convenient Exposition

Strahd stood errect and eyes blazing at the head of the table, his previous hospitality gone as he stared openly at the young woman hiding behind a phalanx of defenders.

A thin smile crept across Uther’s face. He edged forward, keeping his sword levelled at the vampire. “So, Strahd,” he said. “We have something you want, it seems.”

“Not so,” scoffed Strahd, not breaking his gaze with Ireena. “She is mine, and always has been. Ireena! Come to me,” he commanded, his hand outstretched.

Ireena, however, only moved further back towards the doors, her hands clenched in a white-knuckled grim around her sword. Doubt passed over Strahd’s face.

“Yours, is she,” mocked Malakai. “I think not.”

“Ah, Malakai?” said Haradrim quietly. “Could you perhaps not mock the vampire lord? I’d like to get out of here alive, my friend.”


“Ireena! What do you say to this?” asked Strahd. “Surely you will stay here, with me? Stay!” Once again Strahd reached out for Ireena, his tone more a command than a request.

Ireena, however, was no longer his to command – and was no longer even in the room. With speed no suggested by his bulky frame, Huge lifted Ireena onto his shoulder, threw open the dining hall door and dashed out into the corridor. He pounded down the hallway, speeding past dumbfounded zombie servants, the sound of magic crackling through the air behind him.

The barbarian paid it no need, instead focussing on the dimly lit way ahead of him. He barreled through into the great entryway, barely able to note the shadows shifing in the eaves above him as he turned into the archway guarded by the stone dragons.

He paused for a moment before the castle guardians, sizing up the great beasts that were just stirring into life. The sound of Ireena panting heavily on his shoulder reminded the half-orc that combat with these creatures would not end well. Then came an inhuman cry from the dining hall and Huge glimped his companions come crashing out of the dining hall moments before the castle was plumged into unnatural darkness.

Huge’s senses immediately lept into action, feeling for anything that might help him navigate his way past the dragons. He felt his trusty axe gripped firm in his palm, Ireena’s weight shifting on his shoulder, the soft scraping of the metal plates on her armour, a grinding of stone from above him and before him, footsteps and chanting behind him.

Feeling the seconds slipping by, Huge focussed on the dragons before him, watching their slight movements as he waited for an opening –

– there! Muscles tensed in his powerful legs and Huge shot forward, diving past the deadly snapping jaws and the swiping claws like a hawk diving between the trees, making for the relative safety of the castle courtyard.

The sound of battle followed him as he bolted outside. Skidding to a halt, Huge set Ireena on the ground behind a low wall and risked a look back inside the castle. A faint pool of light spilled outside from the torches just inside the castle doors, and beyond that Huge could just make out the dim, bobbing light that came from Uther’s magically lit helm. Through the doors into the great entryway he could just make out the shapes of the twin stone dragons looming over his friends, Grul, Tanya and Vampensh mere blobs of shadow surrounded by aggressors.

Digging around in his pack, Huge extracted a thin potion vial and handed it to Ireena.

“Invisibility,” he explained. “Drink it. I’m goin’ back for t’ rest of ’em.” He reseated his grip on his axe and, without another word, charged back into the fray.

Back inside the castle, Malakai had his own set of problems. Strahd had forced his will upon the cleric, and now had control over him. Even as he stood in the doorway of the dining hall, Malakai could feel Strahd’s indominable presence in his mind, dormant but undeniably powerful.

Yet Strahd himself seemed barely aware of the fact. Poised with Uther in the dining hall’s doorway and ready to flee, Malakai could percieve the vampire’s agitated form stalking anxiously, impotently even, through the room.

“What’s gone wrong? It didn’t work, it always works… Don’t understand… No!”

“By the Preserver,” murmured Malakai as he watched Strahd argue with himself with increasing vehemence, “the vampire lord is gods-touched.” Casting a glance through the room, he saw his companions in peril, divided and surrounded by Strahd’s minions. Gathering his wits, the elf decided that only one very unusual gamble might yet save them.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Haradrim cast a wary eye over their new surroundings, watching for anything out of the ordinary. Two of his companions, Uther and Malakai, had followed Strahd to the Chapel of Ravenloft, whilst a butler named Cyrus had led the remainder up through the castle’s myriad of hallways and staircases to a lounge and adjoining bedchamber.


The lounge was a large chamber comprising largely of a low-beamed ceiling and a long curved wall. Bookcases lined a second wall shared by the bedchamber next door, next to which sat a cluster of faded and overstuffed armchairs.

“I do not like this, my friends,” muttered the rogue as he gazed skeptically around the room. “Seperating the party is never wise. Who knows what has become of our companions?”

“Oh I assure you, your friends are quite safe with the master,” wheedled Cyrus as he bustled around the room flicking away accumulated dust.

“Yes Haradrim, I’m sure they are,” echoed Vampensh pointedly. “Cyrus,” he continued, “I seem to’ve lost my bearings on the way up. Where are we, exactly?”

“Sir and his companions currently reside in the south-east tower of Castle Ravenloft.” He gestured out one of the elaborate lead-glass windows. Outside, the roof of the castle keep glistened dimly in the rain. “We are currently some one hundred feet about ground level in the chambers the master reserves for his most valued guests,” he continued in a thin reedy tone. “No small number of persons of note have resided in these very chambers, and the tower itself has a long and varied history. Shall I tell you of it?”

“No, no,” Vampensh interjected. “The current level of detail is quite sufficient, thankyou.”

Haradrim peered out the windows into the gloom. “Where is the chapel from here?”

“The Chapel of Ravenkind is in the easternmost part of the keep proper,” Cyrus expained. “It is beyond the great entryway, where the master greeted you. It can be accessed from the chapel balcony on the level below us, although the balcony itself is reserved for the master and his lady.” The butler allowed himself a small smile of satisfaction at his detailed description, as if expecting praise.

“Lady?” asked Vampensh. “The master – that is, Strahd – he has a lady?”

“No,” corrected the butler. “The master, sadly, has not yet found her. But the balcony is reserved for her, nonetheless.”

Vampensh shook of a sense of foreboding and couged awkwardly. “So Cyrus, how long have you known Strahd?”

“Count Strahd von Zarovich,” replied the butler pointedly, “has been my master for as long as I can recall. My family came with the master’s when they came to Borovia, many years ago.”

“That long, truly? No doubt given the length of your service to the Count you must know of his family? His brother, perhaps?”

Cyrus shook his head vigorously and waved the mage into silence. “Speak not of his brother, good sir. It is a matter we of the castle do not mention out of respect for the master’s heartache.”

Seeing the enquiring looks of his master’s guests, Cyrus sighed and began elaborating. “The master grieves still for his long lost love, Tatyana. She was engaged to be wed to the master’s brother, Seregei.” A dark cloud passed over Cryus’ face as he recalled the details of the matter. “Enamoured of Tatyana’s youth and beauty, the master struck down his brother in a fit of rage and jealousy.”

Huge snorted his derision. “Don’t think killin’ yer brother’d be the best way to win t’ girl.”

“Please sir, make no mistake; the master loved his brother deeply. However, he loved Tatyana more – indeed, more than was wise to. He still does, and he grieves for her still.” The gaunt butler shook his head and shuffled to the door. “But enough of this idle chatter. I shall fetch your dinner and return post-haste. Please make yourselves comfortable.”

Taking his leave of them, Cyrus quitely exited the room and dissapeared down the stairs, his footsteps echoing up the circular stairwell. Vampensh shut the door and leaned heavily on it.

“Well that was educational.”

“Maybe so my friend, but our host’s hospitality concerns me anyway. Especially now that we’re seperated from those of us most proficient in dealing with the undead,” muttered Haradrim as he poked warily around the rooms.

“I guess,” shrugged Huge. “But we had t’ get Ireena here out’ve harms way, else Strahd would’ve nabbed her quick.” He indicated towards Ireena, who was perched on the end of the bed, lost in thought.

“Yes yes, it is fortunate that Malakai noticed Strahd’s strange behaviour and capitalised on it. One wouldn’t expect so powerful a being to be so easily swayed.”

“What did ‘e say anyhow? I couldn’t hear, bein’ outside an’ all.”

“I didn’t hear exactly,” admitted Haradrim. “I was occupied with the pair of guards attempting to flank me. It sounded like he just shouted at the vampire that we were being attacked and to call his pets off. What happened after that I can’t say.”

“Well whatever happened,” suggested Tanya quietly, “it must’ve worked, because we’re here in the guest room, and not dead.” She paused, recalling the fight and its aftermath. “He looked different, did you notice?”

“There was something strange about him,” agreed Vampensh “Although what it portends – if indeed we’re interpreting it correctly – is anyone’s guess.”

“Maybe he’s lost it? Y’know, gone a bit mad?” Huge suggested.

“No, he could have… could he?” mused Haradrim.

“It’s actually very possible.” Grul stood up from the floor where he was meditating and dusted himself off. “Power corrupts, and Strahd has lived longer than any of you humans are meant to. Existence in violation of nature’s laws will always come with consequences.”

The group paused, considering the ramifications of facing a vampire who was not only ancient, cunning and powerful, but also utterly unhinged.

“Well, it doesn’t help us now,” Huge observed. “We’re still seperated. Besides, even if we wanted to get back to ‘em, how’d we do it? It’s a big castle.”

“I could attempt to commmunicate with them magically,” mused Vampensh, browsing idly through the bookcase. “Except I haven’t got that cantrip prepared today, sadly.”

“I do,” Haradrim exclaimed, patting his pockets with sudden vigour. He drew a short piece of copper wire from one of his many pouches and ran it through his fingers, quietly intoning the spell’s verbal component.

A gentle susurrous ruffled his clothes and the rogue’s eyes glazed over as the minor magic felt its way through the castle to its recipient. A few seconds passed before he blinked and pocketed the wire. “It’s no use, I can not reach them.”

Grul cocked his head to the side. “Perhaps a more direct approach…”

The sound of footsteps from the staircase drifted up to them, preceeding a heavily laden Cyrus. The wiry butler somehow manoeuvred himself and the stack of trays he was carrying through the door to the lounge.

“I’ve brought your supper, sirs – and ladies, of course,” he corrected himself with a self-deprecating chuckle.

“Excellent,” replied Haradrim quickly. “Kindly lead us to the chapel, so we might dine with our companions.”

The butler looked bemused. “Pardon, sir? The… chapel?” He cast a crestfallen look at the stack of trays in his arms and the steep, dark staircase behind him. Then his accustomed servitude re-established itself. “Very well,” he said, masking a heavy sigh. “Kindly follow me, if you will. Watch your feet, these stairs can be quite treacherous…”

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Dinner with the Devil

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.

“Ireena!”

Huge slapped his forehead. “Ah, uskit’r.”

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Further Misadventures with Kavan and the Mind Fog

The group rode in relative silence the next day. Their destination lurked in their minds like silt in a pool and their victories, though seeminly prodigious, seemed to pale whenever they considered what was to come next.

“It would be wise, my dear, if we escorted you back to the village,” Malakai was explaing to the stony-faced Tanya. “Our quest will henceforth be leading us directly into the maw of the beast, as it were. You would be safest returned to your family.”

“So that’s it then?” asked Tanya angrily. “Forget that I’ve as much right, if not more, to see Strahd suffer, you’re just going to get rid of me?” She punctuacted her response with fierce gesticulations, forcing Vampensh, whom she rode with, to work harder to keep his horse in check.

Although she was ostensibly replying to Malakai’s reasoned explanation, her vehement reply seemed more directed at Uther, who rode ahead of them. He looked apologetic, but said nothing.

“I’m afraid that’s best, yes. Though I don’t doubt your resolve, your sword arm leaves much to be desired.” Malakai smiled, his face awash in condescention masked by concern.

He was about to continue when Huge called a warning from the head of the column. He pointed down the track to a distant figure, wreathed in mist. They rode forward, the mists closing around the approaching person as if deliberately seeking to frustrate their efforts to identify the stranger.

As the distance between them closed, Uther spurred his horse and turned it, blocking the track ahead of them. “Halt,” he called into the mist, feeling for the familiar presence of evil. “Identify yourself, stranger.”

A slender figure on horseback trotted out of the mists. “I am no stranger,” came the familair, confident reply. The figure threw back a hood. “It is I, Ireena Kolyana. I ride to Castle Ravenloft, to seek its master.” She drew a shining blade from her waist, levelling it at them. “I would have words with him, and you will not stop me.”

“Nor shall we, and indeed welcome your company” replied Malakai. “But before we do…” He reached for the holy symbol at his neck and focussed his divine power on Ireena, sending forth a blast of positive energy that would have sent any number of Strahd’s undead thralls scarpering.

Ireena, however, didn’t even flinch. She remained stoic even as Vampensh cast a powerful abjuration on her, seeking to banish any unseen magical compulsions she might be under.

“I apologise if we seem brusque,” said the mage as he completed the casting. “These are dangerous times, and we must take no chances.”

Ireena nodded and sheathed her blade. “I understand.”

Abruptly, the mists around them closed, and the party suddenly felt the fearful effects of the mind-affecting fog pressing in on them.

“Gods, not again,” muttered Vampensh as he felt the familiar prickling of fear looming in his mind. Awash in the magical effect, he, Haradrim, and Grul succumbed to fear and bolted blindly down the road.

Uther spurred his horse after his fleeing comrades. “I’ll catch them and meet you soon,” he shouted to Malakai and Huge, who had just noticed someone else approaching them through the mist.

“Barabarian!” called a coase, familiar voice. “Is this not our time?” The mists swirled and revealed Kavan’s muscular bulk. He grinned maliciously and hefted a huge sword.

Huge drew his own weapon. “It’s always time.” He pulled his collar down, revealing the bite marks from his last encounter with the daywalking vampire. “I owe you a debt of pain.”

Kavan roared and charged at Huge, who smoothly drew his trident and set it in the ground against the charging vampire. Kavan barreled into him, the slam instantly draining Huge of his energy. He held fast though, near impaling Kavan on his trident. The vampire growled and stumbled sideways, clutching at his torso – so he never saw Malakai coming.

The cleric strode towards the bleeding vampire, his holy symbol glowing with divine power. “So you’re the famous Kavan the Grim?” He reached out a hand, channeling the pent up divine energy into the outstretched limb. “I have a message for your master.”

A ray of powerful light lept from his palm and lanced into the wounded vampire. Engulfed in the searing beam, Kavan howled in pain. He doubled over, his hair dangling lank over his contorted face, fangs bared in open defiance of the two defenders. “We’ll finish this later,” he growled.

With a dull whoosh, he faded into a cloud of gas a dissapeared into the mist.

“Run all you want!” shouted Huge after him. “I’ll ‘ave your teeth on m’ necklace yet, coward!”

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Intermission


With the blighted relic destroyed and the final fane deactivated, clearing out the remainder of the cave was a relatively simple matter. The few remaining evil creatures lurking in the shadows were quickly rooted out by Uther’s ability to sense evil and dispatched by the party.

The cave’s last malevolent inhabitants killed, the group of adventurers cleared a space near the cave’s exit and set camp for the night.

“There’s certainly a familiarity being down here, isn’t there my friends,” joked Haradrim as he cast a protective ward over the trapdoor some fifty feet above them. “Squatting underground in some dank cave, with naught but the moss for company. And sleeping on rock will be a change from sleeping in dirt.” He unfurled his bedroll on a likely patch of ground. “I only wish there was such a thing as a pillow tree.”

“Nature will provide, as she always does,” replied Grul. He summoned a fragment of power to warp the wood of the trapdoor, effectively locking and jamming it against intruders. Nodding with satisfaction, he immediately found the softest place to rest and lay down.

Huge came over to where Vampensh was talking quietly with Tanya over his spellbook.

“Hey Vampensh, you wanna give me a couple bits o’ parchment?”

“I don’t see why not.” The young mage looked quizzical, but handed over a sheaf.

Silently making his way back to his bedroll, Huge set the papers down and, with the slow, methodical approach of someone undertaking an unfamiliar task, began to write.


~ ~ ~ ~ ~


To my old companyn Perrin,

After a long time since leavin our last group of adventuras and you too of corse I thought I woold send ya a quick note to let ya know what I bine doin.

Trainin with dem fighters was good and I even learnt ta rite pretty good. They also taght me a great fighting trick so now I can kill more fellas in one smack (means more teef for mi necklace).

So I met up with some uvver (I don’t fink I spellt that write) adventuras a bit different to the last lot, witch I will tell you about.

Theres a fancy boy fighter – ar paladin I mean. Hes a bit goody good and has all these rules and stuff but can fight good sometimes and seems to always know when somfin bad is just around the corner. He sometimes makes imself a bit fancy and smells like flowers half the time witch is weerd coz I dont fink goblins care much wot you smell like. He fixes me up sometimes if I get urt.

Thers another goddy good fella too but even dogh he has a huge bag of swords he aint much good with them. I seen him drop em pretty often too. But he does have some weerd power over zombies and stuff like that. He just waves is hand and they cruble away or just run off. Hes also good at fixing me up if I get urt. I get urt a lot coz none of de others can fight reel good so I do lotsa fightin.

I have a funny friend who reminds a bit of dat rogue fella I killed by mistake once. You remember Garrik I fink is name was. Anyhow this fella is all a bit of a nature boy a bit like me. He gets on good with animals and trees – yeah thats right trees. He can turn imself ito all sortsa animals when he wants but I fink his favrit is a shark. He fixes me up when I get urt sometimes too.

Weev gotta fief fella wiff us in the group but he aint just a fief he can use that weirdo magic stuff too. As you know I don’t like magic much but if it helps us out I can let em do it. Some of their stuff helps me smash stuff easy too so im getting to aprec apprek like some of the stuff they do. Eez pretty good with da bow too dis fella – nelly as good as me.

And last derz a really big time magic fella. He can do lotsa spells that really hurt the uverrs that we are fightin though I fink I could just smash em with my axe. Dis fella don’t fight real good but he is funny and it makes me lagh watchin im ridin a orse coz he looks like hes gunna fall off any minit. When the fightin gets goin he likes ta stand behind me all da time. He tells me its so he can use magic to make me fight betta but I reckon he just hides.

The godly boy likes a good ale and so does the rogue. The paladin has a beer sometimes and the magic fella and tree fella can have one every now and den. They aint up to it dogh coz they can only handle a cuppla drinks before day start bein silly. They aint like dat dwarf runi – he could keep up wiv me.

Oh I ment to tell ya I got bit by this fing the uvver day – a vampire I fink the godly fella called it. Deez marks on my neck wont go away and I keep wakin up after havin some funny vizson in my sleep.

Anyway my writn is pretty good now and I might send ya anover note soon.

Datz it for now.

Huge

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Redemption

They stood in the dim light of the cave, their faces smeared with blood, soot and dirt. The battle with the demon lord Chernovog and his witch coven had gone quickly – almost suspiciously so – yet the demon lord’s aspect was banished and the witches were dead, their bodies strewn about the ruins some fifty feet above their heads.

“So this is it then,” observed Uther, taking in the runic circle before them. “The Mountain Fane, and last of Strahd’s links to the land.”

Tanya shivered as she eyed the ancient runes. “Have they all looked so… wrong?”

Uther considered the powerful magic site before him. Although he’d never noticed it before, the runes seemed to shift subtly as he looked at them, giving him a distinct sense of unease.

“The girl is correct,” noted Malakai, missing Tanya’s baleful glare. “These were once places of great holy power. Strahd’s corruptive influence is evident to anyone with even a slight appreciation of such things.”

Huge sucked at a tooth and scratched himself. “So, are we gonna bury this thing or what?” He poked at the body of Baba Zelenna that lay in a twisted pile of limbs at Malakai’s feet. “Only it stinks of dead in ‘ere.”

The party got to work, digging in the loose dirt inside the fane. At the bottom of the pit they found a small reliquary, of similar dimensions and appearance to the two they had discovered at the previous two fanes. They dumped the hag’s body unceremoniously in the freshly dug grave and covered her.

As before there was no obvious result, but a subtle change in the air marked the sudden absence of power that once permeated the cave. Abruptly, the runestone in the centre of the circle cracked and flaked, revealing a small stone that glowed scarlet and blue.

“Ah, of course,” said Vampensh as he reached for the glowing spherical stone. “Another of these ioun stones.” He pocketed the small magical artifact and handed the one he already had to Uther. “Here, you’ll have more use for this one than me. This new one feel much more appropriate. I can already feel my mind expanding.”

“Look at this, my friends,” called Malakai. He squatted on the ground, the reliquaries from the three fanes in front of him. The devas, solars and planetars engraved on the lids seemed to writhe with malevolent intent, the tiny drops of blood in their eyes quivering and glowing slightly. Malakai pushed the containers around, observing the results. “See, if they get closer together they agitate futher.”

“Uh, Malakai? Are you sure you should be doing that?” asked Haradrim hesitantly. “The hairs on the back of my neck are standing up, and you know what that means.”

“I’m doubt your professional experience extends to items of religious significance,” dismissed Malakai. “Acute as it may be. Now, lets see what happens when I push them together.”

The three reliquaries hummed with power and abruptly snapped open, their once-holy contents floating of their own accord towards each other.

The party members standing closest to Malakai took an almost subconscious step back from the distracted cleric, hands gripping their weapons a little tighter.

The saintly artifacts danced in the air, spinning closer together as a low hum filled the air. Haradrim rolled his eyes.

“I knew this couldn’t end well,” he muttered, and cast mirror image on himself.

The artifacts hummed louder and spun faster, glowing with a sickly energy. With an abrupt flash they combined, animating into a shambling humanoid creature before them. The blighted relic stood up in the light of Grul’s glowing rock. It appeared to be little more than a shifting mass of teeth and bone with a single eye staring out of what passed for a head.

The relic expelled a terrible breath that enveloped the party. As soon as it hit them, they reeled with shock, overcome by unholy sickness. Uther and Malakai were especially badly effected by the unholy breath, doubled over and dry heaving in its wake.

Vampensh retaliated first, extending a finger and blasting the blighted relic with a ray of necrotic energy. It stumbled but responded quickly, shrugging off a swipe from Malakai’s silver sword and disrupting Grul’s evocation.

Huge grinned, wondering which of the relic’s many teeth he’d add to his necklace. With a cry he swung his axe down, the wide blade biting deep into the creature’s torso. It gave an inhuman snarl, its eye narrowing on its attacker, and lashed out at Huge with a limb bristling with razor sharp bone. The half-orc staggered backwards, staggered by the vicious attack.

A pair of firey rays struck the blighted relic from behind, only to be absorbed into it’s barely singed bulk.

Vampensh looked at his hands in momentary confusion. “This thing can take whatever I can conjure!” he said in horror. He waved Tanya back to the short drop they had climbed down from. “You’d better get out of here.”

“Concurred!” replied Malakai as he thrust his blade ineffectually at the creature.

“My own efforts – hells!,” added Grul as he summoned a pair of diminuative fire elementals, only to see one get swept away moments later.

Huge grunted as the relic lashed out with a devastating blow. “Do I have t’ do everything?” he shouted as he parried the relic’s flailing limbs. “Where’s Uther and his shiny sword?”

“He’s down,” Vampensh called back as rushed to the aid of the violently ill paladin. He drew a pair of potions from his back and uncorked them, pouring the contents down Uther’s throat.

The blighted relic snarled and whirled, easily fending off hesitant attacks from Malakai and Grul. The remaining fire elemental gibbered madly and hurled itself ineffectually at the monsterous creature. The relic turned and batted it away with a vicious swipe.

In that brief moment, Huge saw his chance. With a loud cry he lashed out with his greataxe, the wide horizontal sweep whistling through the air and lancing through what passed for the blighted relic’s neck. As its head dropped to the ground, the relic’s body quivered and staggered forward.

For a moment, it looked like the decapitated creature would actually retaliate; Huge held his axe tightly watched warily.

The perverse being swayed and finally dropped to the ground, exploding into a shower of dust and bone fragments at it fell. As the detritus rained to the floor, the party felt a change in the air, as if a great sickness had been lifted from the area. As theh last of the blighted relic dissapated into the ground, they could just make out a faint sigh of relief on the edge of hearing.

Huge breathed out slowly and sank to the ground. “I dunno ‘bout you fellas,” he said slowly, “but I’m stuffed.”

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Somewhere in the pits of hell, Baba Zelenna toiled in agony. The emerald fires that engulfed so much of the plane were now far beyond simply being an anathema to the hag’s tortured soul. The very sight of their hideous green light sent her into spasms of revulsion – when the plane’s demon lord wasn’t occupied inflicting all manner of flesh-rending horrors upon her.

She knew so much torture. The Green God Chernovog saw to that personally, ensuring that Baba Zelenna suffered agony after agony for her abject failure to her former master. Time had little meaning to her down here, it was just pain followed by pain. Sometimes less, sometimes more, but always present.

Now the demon lord himself loomed over her, a twisted smile of satisfaction on his dark writhing features as his minions once again wracked her body with suffering. Her body was torn and ragged from his ministrations, her flesh hanging loosely from broken limbs, blood bubbling from the innumerable slices and punctures that perforated her face and torso.

Chernovog hissed with pleasure and leaned forward, lightly brushing Baba Zelenna with a shadowy limb. She winced as her wounds healed and her shattered limbs fused and reformed. The Green God’s thoughts wormed through her mind like rot through wood.

I hope you are enjoying my hospitality. I do so enjoy your company. He leaned in closer, firey eyes piercing every part of Baba Zelenna’s mind. And we have so. Much. To discuss…

Chernovog leaned back and laughed deeply before reaching out and sending a thousand razor sharp vines shooting towards her body. Baba Zelenna shut her eyes and looked away, waiting for the horrible impact of the demon’s attack.

It never came.

As she opened her eyes, Baba Zelenna saw the fires of Cherovog’s home plane burning bright with his fury, the demon lord himself broadcasting his fury, hurling fire, ash and dark magics at some unseen foe.

NO! The hag is mine by right! Her soul belongs here, clenched in my fist!

Although she knew she should be afraid, Baba Zelenna felt nothing but peace, warmth and comfort. A soft glow crept over her vision, and the hellish pit before her began to fade and retreat.

The hag was yours, demon. That shell, however, is now shed; the child beneath is mine. I claimed her, and her sisters, long ago…

Memory, long since lost to the ravages of time and corruption, flared in Baba Zelanna’s mind. Images of a young girl, devoted to her god, bound to a place of power, bound to the land. A calling. A promise.

She looked down at her body, watching as her hag-like form peeled and crumbled away a cheap paint, revealing her true form – human, pink and serene.

You cannot take her – she is sworn to me, vengeance is my right! She will feel my power, my decay yet!

Chernovog’s rage seemed a lifetime away, barely a whisper in her ear. She looked upwards and saw her sisters, once twisted and corrupted as she was, now smiling and serene as they flanked a being of familar warmth and grace.

Return to me, lost one. Return to nature’s embrace.

Baba Zelenna reached upwards, feeling a gentle breeze buoying her upwards. Her cracked lips parted, and were immediately wetted with cool, refreshing moisture.

“My… my god…”

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

View
Best Laid Plans

The past week had not gone easy for Baba Zelenna. That damned devil Strahd had been increasingly nosy, his minions prowling constantly around the ruined tower that Zelenna called home, as if they knew what she had planned. At first, Baba Zelenna had not given it much thought; the Count’s paranoia waxed and waned, and the caller in darkness seemed capable of deterring most of the vampire’s lesser spawn.

Yet recent events had proved this theory wrong. There was obviously someone new in Borovia, and this someone – or someones – were a threat to Strahd. Ordinarily this would be a welcome development for the twisted green hag Zelenna, something to draw Strahd’s attention away from her. But then they had gone and started doing things, changing things, and for whatever reason Strahd had, instead simply eviscerating them, tried to toy with them, to draw the encounter out.

And then they had killed Eva. And following that, Chauntyn. Now both of her sisters were dead, their fanes defiled by their killer’s horrible zealotry. Even now Baba Zelenna could feel the strange void once occupied by the dark power flowing from the wilderness fanes.

Even worse, the void was starting to change, a slow trickle of positive energy seeping out from under the black tar of darkness that once fuelled her power and desire. And now, gods curse it, she was beginning to have doubts, as if the very shoud of darkness that covered this godsforsaken hamlet was threatening to peel away.

Yes, these last few weeks had been fraying her nerves like a cat with a lute. Well not after tonight. After years of preperation, Baba Zelenna was finally ready to make her play, and give that festering, arrogant bloodsucker a run for his money. And after that…

Oh yes. Tonight, under the new moon, Chernovog would arise from the deepest pit of Hell and lay waste to this pathetic little patch of dirt and the useless cattle that populated it. And now, as Baba Zelenna and her coven took their positions within the ruined stones of Ecaterina’s once-holy tower, she could almost taste the anticipation.

Baba Zelenna took her position in the sacred star formed by her witches and joined her dark power with theirs, focussing it in the unearthly green fire that grew in the centre of the star. Out of the corner of her eye, she could just make out the shadowy form of Chernovog’s prime material aspect. Although her dark lord was still physically bound to his home plane, the very presence of his ghostly aspect was powerful enough to inspire fear and awe Zelenna’s dark heart.

The fire roared as the coven chanted in unison, the green flames even now growing higher and higher as they channeled the Green God’s dark energy. Chernovog’s own aspect seemed to pulse with power, his viciously clawed limbs flexing with barely contained impatience.

Baba Zelenna’s head snapped around at the sound of breaking branches. In the shadowy scrub beyond the ruins she saw a mighty brown bear standing above the bushes. As she watched, the bear grew larger, its enormous bulk looming like a giant.

The bear roared, the deafaning sound reverberating through the tower’s stones, and hurled a glowing rock right into the middle of the coven. Baba Zelenna had just enough presence of mind to turn herself invisible and duck behind a block before the stone landed.

Then all hell broke loose.

A pack of adventurers appeared out of nowhere, barreling down on her coven with their swords and scorcery and sending her witches scrambling to react. Everywhere Baba Zelenna looked, there was blood and chaos – a meddling elven cleric bristling with swords, an abnormally huge half-orc who roared with delight as he cleaved through her witches, a shadowy figure at the back peppering them with arrows, and in the middle of it all, an obscenely large bear wading through her sacred cicle and pawing ferociously at Chernovog’s infuriated aspect.

A tall figure, his armour shining in the light of the damned glowing rock, caught her eye. Although blood and screams filled the air, Zelenna had no trouble picking out the golden-haired, chiselled festures of a paladin. But it was what was on his armour that caught her eye.

No! she screamed in her mind as she caught a glimpse of the familiar raven insignia. It can’t be – they’re all dead! The paladin shouldered his bow and drew a sword that glowed blue with holy power. Baba Zelenna reeled in shock as she recognised the mighty weapon, long thought lost forever. By the Dark One, the Knight of the Raven – he has the Sun Sword, just as was foretold! Then that means…

She scanned the rest of the adventurers as they cleaved though her witches and saw – yes there! – the cleric bearing the Amulet of Ravenkind. And although the firey jewel at its centre was still inert, the fact that they had both the amulet and the sword meant it was only a matter of time before they were activated.

Her attention was drawn back to Chernovog’s aspect, who was raking fiendishly at the half-orc and his giant pet bear. Even as the Green God fought his aggressors, he was yet able to turn his gaze upon her, his furious thoughts pounding mercilessly at her head.

Fool mortal! Your failure will cost you dearly – I will see you again, in hell! With a roar, the god’s aspect shimmered and faded under the onslaught, taking with it the dark energy that fuelled the mighty green bonfire.

As the putrid light faded, Zelenna became aware of another presence behind her. Turning her gaze, she percieved a thin human, seemingly invisible at the rear of the ruins. He was busily incanting abjurative magic, stripping her remaining witches of their powers. A dark cloud passed across Baba Zelenna’s horrible – although invisible – countenance.

Little mageling, if you think your pitiful spells will hide you from me, you are mistaken, she thought. You will be the first to taste my wrath!

Scurrying over to the wizard, she reached out a withered arm, breaking her invisibility and revealing her disguised face.

“Help meee,” she croaked out in her best helpless old crone voice as her fingers brushed his arm.

The mage looked surprised, but only long enough for him to realise that this person’s touch had sapped his strength.

He groaned and sagged under the sudden weight of his burden. “That,” he wheezed, “was the worse… bluff… I’ve seen yet…” He looked up and grinned at his attacker. “Behind you…”

Baba Zelenna frowned – this wasn’t the reaction she’d expected. It was then she became aware of heavy footsteps behind her.

She turned slowly. Silhouetted in the light of the glowing rock was the bulk of a seventy-foot tall bear. Baba Zelenna’s face dropped, just as the bear roared and pulled her into a powerful grab. She tried to wrestle her way out of the bear’s hairy grasp, to no avail – it simply growled, the deep rumblings reverberating through the hag’s body, and held tighter.

“Good work, Grul,” said a voice to her side. Turning, she just made out the shining, arrogant figure of the Knight. There was a blue flash as he levelled his sword, his face a mask of grim determination. “Let us finish this.”

As the Sun Sword lanced through her flesh, a thousand curses bubbled in Baba Zelenna’s pain-addled mind. She opened her mouth to scream her agony, releasing a gout of blood and bile. Her vision began to get hazy and unfocused and all she could make out was the enormous arms encircling her and the symbol of the raven dancing in front of her.

The last, tiny part of her mind that still functioned seemed to float, disconnected, from her body’s gory demise. So this is how it ends, she mused.

Time seemed to slow, and the red-soaked world before her faded. The last thing she saw was the hulking from of the bear’s keeper, lost in a bloody rage as he bore down on her crippled form, his greataxe held high. And then, the once-powerful green hag Baba Zelenna died.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Blackness.

But not release.

The darkness that enveloped her swirled and started to dissapate, revealing patches of light.

Firelight. Green firelight.

A rasping chuckle and a voice that pounded mercilessly. Now you are mine, Baba Zelenna.

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Prelude to the Summoning

It took the group the better part of the day to ride to Lysaga Hill. By the time they arrived, the sun was already caressing the horizon, providing just enough illumination to silhouette the crumbling ruins of a forgotten tower.

“I’ll never know,” grumbled Vampensh from the back, “why people let these buildings just sit here and rot. Don’t they know that derelict buildings are to ghosts and goblins what an alley is to drunkard?”

Travelling at the head of the column as usual, Huge cast a backward glance at the surly mage. The day’s travel had not been kind to the mage, and he looked haggard and sore, wincing with every tiny jolt. The fact that Tanya rode with him and he was still attempting to bear himself up with a modicum of dignity only leant further humour to the sight.

Huge chuckled, the gravelly rumbling punctuating the otherwise quiet twilight. “Let ‘em come. I’ve not seen an’thing that don’t scream when m’ axe cleaves it.”

“There’s a first time for everything Huge,” said Uther, pointing to a pool of shadows some hundred feet ahead of them.

As they watched, a strange gaseous form billowed out of the ground within the shadows ahead of them. Vaguely humanoid faces floated about in the eerily glowing form, coalescing into a hiedous mass of spirits, a sea of tormented faces silently screaming in undying torment.

“By the light…” A shiver flashed through Uther, and held held his reins in a white-knuckled grip.

Vampensh was the first to react. As the others dismounted from their anxiously whinnying horses, he pulled Tanya behind him, raising a wall of magical force around himself. “Stay behind me.”

Tanya turned as Grul touched her lightly on the shoulder, imbuing her with a similar protective spell. “You, uh, might need it,” he said.

Huge hefted his axe and warily eyed the roiling mass of spirits that floated slowly, inexorably, closer. He raised his weapon in challenge, but before he could move to attack, he suddenly dropped to his knees, clutching his head.

Uther rushed to his side. “What is it?”

The barbarian shoved him aside, beads of sweat forming on his brow. “Yes…” he muttered.

He brought his axe around in a wide arc and almost too late Uther realised he was swinging it towards his own neck.

“Huge, stop!” cried the paladin. The outburst was, fortunately, just enough to distract Huge as he swung, and the blow glanced heavily off his armour. He staggered backwards.

Malakai watched in horror as his companion attempted to behead himself. “What manner of creature is this?” He turned at the sound of moaning behind him, and saw Haradrim crying out.

The rogue’s eyes were bulging in terror and he shivered, wracked with debilitating pain.

Turning back to his foe, Malakai saw the ghostly creature retract a limb that was pointed at the rogue, and turn its attention to him. With hardly a second thought, Malakai brought his hands up in a series of quick somatic gestures, and he focused Corellon’s divine power through the holy symbol at his neck. Once again a searing flash burst into being above the spirit, driving down in a column of flame.

The thing screeched, a grating noise that felt like pinpricks in the mind. To his right, Malakai saw Grul performing the same series of gestures he had, and once again the spirt barely evaded being enveloped in a column of divine flame.

“Whatever it is,” shouted Vampensh above the thing’s screech, “it doesn’t like fire.” He quickly drew spell components from his pouch and uttered a few syllables of power. He pointed at the creature, and a glowing bead leapt from his finger, flying unneringly towards its target.

It struck and exploded with a dull roar into a massive fireball that blasted their foe. It screeched loudly and, with one last defiant howl, was incinerated.

They helped the stricken Haradrim to his feet and regrouped.

“Look,” said Grul pointing to the sky. “The new moon is upon us.”

Vampensh nodded. “That means the summoning is tonight.”

Grul shivered with anticipation. “My masters foresaw this, and I must stand against it. I need to prepare.”

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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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