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

Repercussions - Part 2

“Hold him! Godsdamnit, hold him steady!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

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

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

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

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

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

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Vampensh, a fireball would be appreciated.”

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

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

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

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

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

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Repercussions - Part 1

Exerpt from the journal of Uther Lightbringer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Journal entry concludes here

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

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Intermission

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Makalai shrugged. “Does that answer your question?”

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

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

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

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


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

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A Treacherous Hive of Scum and Villainy

First light saw the adventurers on the road again, intent on discovering the whereabouts of Madam Eva and gaining what insight they could into the darkness that hung in a pall over Borovia. Much to Uther’s vieled dismay, Sir Urik refused to accompany the party any further, stating that it was his solemn duty to guard the crossroads at which they found him.

And so the party trekked on through the wilderness, the ever-present mists clinging to them like a damp shroud. The vegetation surrounded them almost entirely, the knotted tree branches clawing at the invisible sky like bony fingers from a grave. They travelled largely in silence, their hampered vision and experience with daywalking vampires raising their sense of paranoia.

Hours passed. Suddenly, Haradrim pricked up his ears and looked around.

“My friends, I percieve a noise.”

Huge, who rode at the head of the party, cocked his own ear. “So do I. It’s music, up ahead.”

The group picked up the pace, trotting towards the slowly growing sound of an instrument being plucked in the middle distance. As the music grew louder, the mists and trees began to clear, revealing the open yet stormy skies above. As one, the party drew a breath of relief, the lifing mists seeming to take with it the sense of dread that they had carried all morning. The six travellers surveyed the clearing now before them.

It was obviously a gypsy encampment. A cluster of brightly coloured wagons and tents encircled a large central fireplace, with merry flags fluttering in the faint breeze. The sound of children giggling as they practiced their grifting and filching on each other carried over the merry twang of some localised string instrument being played by a halfling who sang a bawdy song near the campfire.

Uther cocked his head and looked disgusted. “By the gods,” he muttered, “the filth these folk call humour. Honestly, badgers don’t even like jam.”

Huge waved his hand at the paladin. “This ain’t the straight and narrow, shiny,” he admonised. “Best if you leave the talking to someone else this time.”

“Like someone with a more casual approach to law and order,” snickered Haradrim.

As the party approached the campsite, the assembled gypsies seemed to go quiet all at once. They stared at the adventures with a mix of suspicion, open hositlity and, in the case of one busty woman who eyed Uther, arousal. Mothers bustled their children off into the tents and the men drew from merrilly coloured scabbards decidedly less merry swords.

Huge held up his hands in supplication. “We mean no harm, little folk,” he announced as he motioned for the rest of the party to lower their own weapons. “We’re just ‘venturers – ”

”- holy crusaders,” muttered Uther.

”- mercenaries -”

”- opportunists -”

”- who’re passing through. Nothin’ to get all worried about.”

A man with a particularly grim looking sword – and particularly absurd looking hat – stepped forward.

The assembled gypsies eyed him impassively, as if waiting for some unseen signal. The signal came in the form of a man who emerged from a large tent to the rear of the encampment. He approached the party.

“Madam Eva will see you now. She has been expecting you.” He walked off towards the tent without a backward glance, the party dismounting and following, with various degrees of hesitation and reluctance, behind.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

“You have come seeking answers, I see.”

The companions gazed at the being before them with equal measure of awe and horror. The voluminous folds of the camp’s biggest tent served not only the obvious purpose of inspiring awe in visitors, but also the very practical purpose of housing the camp’s largest inhabitant. Bathed in shafts of mulitcoloured light sat before them the biggest woman any of them had ever seen. Dressed in a garish array of shawls, petticoats and clinking jewellery, she sat perched behind table that was dwarfed by her size. She leaned forward and leered.

“By the gods…” murmured Haradrim. “Anyone ever had their fortune read by a gelatinous cube before?”

“She’s not evil, at least,” said Uther. “Though when surrounded by so many who are, it is cold comfort.”

The woman beckoned them over to her. “I am Madam Eva, and you have been seeking me for some time.” Her ancient face cracked into a wide, lecherous grin. “So shall we dispense with the pleasantries? You see, I’m all out of tea and biscuits.” Eva leaned back and cackled at her joke, her enourmous bulk quivering with each guffaw.

Vampensh stepped forward and attempted to address the gypsy leader. “Seer, we have come seeking knowledge of – ”

Eva waved him quiet. “I know why you are here, little mageling.” Vampensh stiffened at the barb, but said nothing. “Questions, questions. About the zombies, perhaps?” She shifted her gaze, eyeing each of the party members. “A holy symbol, yes? Of Strahd – the devil himself? And a great weapon…”

Eva drew from mysterious fold of her dress a deck of tarot cards and began shuffling them slowly and methodically. As she did this, the nodded to her assistant standing in the doorway of the tent, who worked his way around the room lighting a series of foul-smelling candles. The collection of small flames danced in their peripheral vision and sent shadows writhing across Madam Eva’s face. She leaned forward, suddenly losing the ribald humour she possessed just moments before. The cards danced hypnotically in her hands as if of their own accord.

“These cards will fortell the future of your quest in this country. The shadows grow longer with every passing day, the rot burrowing deeper into the hearts and souls of those who abide here. Ask your questions, and heed well the answers.”

Vampensh licked his lips nervously. In his head, he assured himself that divination was a school of magic just like any other, and could be traced, controlled and held accountable, yet the truth was that the few truly powerful diviners he had met had all unnerved him. Wild-eyed sages barely tethered to reality whose minds wandered the musty passages of time dragging up relics from Boccob only knew where, all who seemed to chuckle at some privately-held joke whenever he ended up before one. Eva, too, seemed no exception, for her piercing eye took in everyone assembled before her as if she were committing to memory a particularly difficult spell.

He collected himself and attempted to gather some bearing of authortity. “We seek the location of the holy symbol of Ravenkind.”

She held the deck out to the mage. “Cut the deck.” As he did so, she closed her eyes and touched her fingers to the cards, drawing a purple card with a figure kneeling, holding aloft a holy symbol.

“This symbol is a powerful force for good and protection against the forces of darkness.” She turned a card, and then another, arranging them on the table. “Seek it in the heart of the wilds, far from human hands.” Eva tapped the topmost card. “This card speaks of the wildness of nature. The symbol is deep in the woods, perhaps guarded by a fey spirit. The holiness of this item waits for hands of holiness to touch it once more, but that is not enough to bring it’s power back to life.”

“And the Sun Sword?” asked Uther. “What of its location?”

Eva touched the cards again, drawing from the deck a card displaying an armoured figure holding a great weapon. “What you seek is a blade of light, a weapon for vengeance. Seek it where the river flows into the land.” She looked at Uther’s blank expression and rolled her eyes. “This card speaks of elemental forces mingling together.”

“Ivlis marsh!” exclaimed Grul.

Eva nodded. “Yes, the marsh downriver of here. Yet the sword’s light sleeps. Like the Symbol of Ravenkind, it too must be awakened. Like the Symbol, this is for you to determine.”

Malakai pushed his way forward, addressing the crone. “What of the foul zombies that plague this area? We thought defeating Danovich would stem their putrid flow, yet it has not. What is their exact cause, that we may defeat it?”

The gypsy fingered the cards, drawing a snarling dracolich from the deck. “Death walks the streets of Borovia. Death leads to death, all stemming from a first death.” Another card turned. “You must put an end to the blasphemy of the death that refused to die, but that will not stop the plague. The lord of the castle is the source of all.” Another card. “The village church is desecrated by the first blasphemy. The castle is ruled by the greater one.”

“Strahd’s evil influence is at work in many ways here,” mused Malakai. “I shall be pleased when I condemn that living corpse to the abyss.”

“Madam Eva, we are told of Strahd’s Tome, a diary of sorts, that tells of Strahd’s pact with the land. Can you tell us of its location?” asked Vampensh.

Eva consulted the cards again, this time drawing a card with a female druid printed on it. “The tome you seek holds knowledge of the ancient and knowledge of the land. Though it is a mockery of all that is holy, the tome lies in a place of holiness.”

“We did not see it in Danovich’s church,” mused Malakai, “though we searched it thoroughly. Perhaps the card refers to the chapel in Castle Ravenloft, where Sir Urik said you had to spend the night in prayer.” He motioned to Uther, who nodded his agreement.

“If you find the tome of Strahd and delve into its secrets, you will discover the source of the lord’s strength,” continued Eva. “If you read it carefully you may also discover how to rob him of that strength.”

She tuned another card and examined its esoteric significance. “The tome will speak of the three wilderness fanes from which Strahd draws much of his dark power.” She looked up and chuckled maliciously. “Your quest is doomed.”

The party looked at her incredulously. “Doomed? What do you mean, witch?” demanded Huge.

“You must find the three defiled places described in the tome. At each fane you must kill its dread guardian and place the body inside. At this you will never succeed.” Eva chuckled again, and made a subtle sign to the guard by the door. “Your time here is up. You will go now.”

Eva waved the bewildered party towards the door and sat back, seemingly exhausted by the effort of divination, or perhaps simply weary of life under Strahd’s iron influence. As they reached the doorway, Eva called out once more.

“I will tell you this before you leave, for what good it will do you. He who dwells in Castle Ravenloft is a powerful man whose enemy is light and whose powers are beyond mortality. You will seek him in the castle, and though he might find you many times, you will find him only once.” She turned two last cards and thurst a bony finger towards them. “You will find him where the light lies dead, slain by his own darkness. Grief haunts the lord of the castle, grief for the brother he slew. Seek his brother’s tomb in the deepest recesses of the castle. Yet be warned! There is a very bad influence in this place. The powers of death will strip away your protections.”

She sat back and turned away. “Now go. There is nothing more I can tell you.”

As the party filed out of the tent, Eva sighed and tucked the cards away into a fold of her dress. Reaching deeper still into the hidden recesses of her attire, her fingers touched something warm and metallic. Withdrawing it, she examined the old, battered holy symbol in the flickering candlelight. “I grow tired of these games Strahd,” she murmured. “Perhaps there is strength enough in them to challenge even you.”

View
An Unexpected Ally

The man knelt at the crossroads, his arm resting on the pommel of the wicked longsword that was thrust into the ground before him. At first glance, an observer might think he was meditating, or lost in prayer. In fact, this was only partially true.

“I am merciful, as the sun’s mercy shines upon me. I am strong, as the sun is strong. I am the light…”

He leaned heavily on the sword, his long black hair falling in limp lengths across his haggard face. Something in his peripheral vision catches his attention and he stands swiftly, his large frame held errect as much by pride as anything else. The man’s eyes sweep across the crossroads, picking out the familiar details in the dim light of the rising moon. The rotting gallows, the signpost, the scattering of gravestones in the middle of which he spotted movement again.

A group of dark wavering shadows poured across the ancient stones, their humanoid forms bearing down on him with murderous intent. The man touches the raven symbol hanging at his neck and draws his sword. With a cry, he charges at the nearest shadow, blade held high.

He bears down on the shadow with increasing speed. The shadow reaches out an incorporeal limb that shimmers with necrotic energy. Just as it is about to make contact, a black blur speeds past it, interruping its attack. The man takes immediate advantage of the shadow’s distraction and lets fly with a vicious swing that parts the shadow. It screeches and falls back.

The blur flutters above the man and comes to land on his shoulder, reavealing itself to be a raven. “Good work Hurrn,” says the man, stroking its jet-black plumage. The raven caws sofly, eyeing the approaching shadows with intelligence above its species.

“I know,” replies the man wearily. “These nights are long – too long. And our allies are far.” The man grips his sword tight, eyes blazing with determination. “Yet if we go to meet our end this eve, it shall be with courage and valour.” He straightens, seeming to shake off the fatigue through sheer force of will. “Know ye this, shadows!” he shouts at the approaching undead. “The Knights of the Raven do not wait for death to find them!”

With a powerful cry he leaps into the cluster of shadows, his blade flashing in strong, practiced strokes. He backs against the low stone wall of the graveyard, seeking to use the environment to his advantage. Yet he knows it is for naught; despite his skill and valour, he is at last outmatched. Leaping over the wall, he takes a stance in the middle of the crossroads, sword, shield and raven ready. The shadows approach with a slow, inexorable gait, their arms outstretched to take him in their deadly embrace.

They do not make it that far, however.

From behind them comes the sound of a chant. The man dimly registers it as a prayer spoken in elven. A powerful light overcomes the man and his attackers. The kngiht feels a sense of warmth and peace flow through him. The shadows, though, find it less pleasant.

They screech in agony as the light envelops them, instantly destroying their undead forms.

The knight blinks, taking in the group of newcomers. A motley bunch if ever there was, he thinks. Capable warriors, though, judging by their dress and armaments. The one closest to him steps forward, lowering the holy symbol of Correlon he had held before him. He looks satisfied, mused the knight. Yet overzealousness rarely did injustice to one sworn to destroy the undead. The man says a silent prayer of thanks and moves towards the group, hand extended.

“Well met, strangers! My thanks for your assistance. These nights are long and I fear I may have perished were it not for your assistance. I am Sir Urik, Knight of the Raven.”

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

“Tell me, Sir Urik, what exactly is a Knight of the Raven?” asked Uther as the party gathered around Urik’s campsite some time later. Unsurprisingly, the two paladins had gotten on fantastically, to the point where their conversation threatened to exclude their companions.

“We are a holy order of knights sworn to seek out and destroy the undead wherever we find it. We are the light that shines in darkness.” He smiled and stroked Hurrn with an air of melancholy. “Although in these dark times, our light is little more than that of a distant star. Our numbers have been greatly lessened. Yet we go on nonetheless, for what is life for a servant of the light who does not serve? No, better to rot in the darkest dungeon than to abandon one’s calling.” Urik nodded at the paladin that sat across from him, eyes gleaming with rightous fire. “You might consider joining our ranks, good Sir Lightbringer. You have strenth and valour, and you have already embraced Pelor’s light.”

“I’m honoured by your offer, Sir Urik. I will give it serious consideration,” replied the paladin. Noticing the bored and distracted gazes of his allies, Uther swung the conversation to more practical matters. “Sir Urik, you have been defending Borovia for some time now. What can you tell us of the vampires here, and of Strahd specifically?”

“There is much to tell. And as sleep is impossible with the constant threat of attack, we might as well pass the night doing something practical. Let me tell you what I know.”

The party listened intently as Urik described what he knew of vampire strengths and weaknesses, including the dark pact Strahd had made with the land, confirming the existance of three fanes thought to be the source of the vampire lord’s dark power, although their exact location he did not know. He spoke too of the legendary Sun Sword, an artifact thought to have the power to defeat Strahd.

“My druidic masters have spoken of a demon that is being raised here, thought to rival Strahd for power,” Grul posited once Urik had concluded his tale. “Do you know of any such occurence?”

“Aye, I have heard of such a thing. It is rumoured that there is a coven of witches that seek to overthrow the dread vampire by raising a demon. These witches are led by one called Baba Zelenna. Sadly, I know nothing else of their plans.”

Grul nodded as he contemplated this new information. He turned at the sound of a wolf howling in the middle distance, interrupted by a low moan, and shuddered. “You will yet know nature’s fury, Strahd,” he muttered. “I promise you that.” He cracked knuckles and, like the rest of his companions, contemplated the sleepless night ahead of him as he wished for the sun to rise.

Loot
Weapons Armour Items Other
.. .. .. Alchemical vampire repellent

View
(Not So) Happy Trails

“So, Kavan the Grim, eh?” said Malakai as the group rode out of town for the second time that day. “Now I’ll know his name before I blast him back into the oblivion he crawled out of.”

“You had best not underestimate our opponent, Malakai,” reminded Haradrim. “You will recall that it was a vampire that almost got the best of our strongest fighter – ”

Uther snorted derisively, but said nothing.

” – and did it in broad daylight, my friend.”

“I care not for whatever dark magic sustains him; by Corellon’s hand I will see him burned, staked and buried.”

“You say that, but pluckin’ a different lute when ‘e wraps those fangs around your neck,” Huge rumbled. He hawked and spat, absently fingering the faded wound on his neck. “Then I’ll get the last laugh when my axe splits his skull.”

“Do not lose sight of our objective here, friends,” reminded Uther. Kavan is but the symptom of a larger problem. Strahd’s shadow is yet cast across this land.”

Grul pulled a face. “You needn’t remind me. I feel his taint everywhere; his evil twists all.” His gaze flicked across the stunted and warped undergrowth around him. “His death will do much for cleansing the evil that lurks in every shadow. And speaking of shadows…”

Grul pointed ahead, where the outskirts of the Svalich Woods were visible through the mist. The group urged their mounts onwards towards the thick forest. It rose up quickly to meet them, and as the party trotted forward the trail thinned, replaced by ancient trees and thick undergrowth. Grul rode, his eyes half closed as he sniffed at the air, tracking and identifying the many scents that laced the air. Less canny to the ways of the forest, the rest of the group contented themselves with scanning the undergrowth and the path ahead for threats, the reins of their mounts kept in the firm grip of someone who expects trouble, but knows not from what quarter.

Although it was only mid-afternoon, the sun was almost entirely blocked by the treetops. Haradrim’s experienced eye passed across every shadow, scanning each with a deep suspicion born of a lifetime of largely misanthropic behaviour. After almost half an hour’s worth of tense, uninterrupted travel, he called a halt. He pointed ahead of them where a huge, ancient tree grew, splitting the trail. Its knarled branches hung across the path, casting long shadows around it that criss-crossed its pale trunk. The air around them was still; the baying of wolves floated in from what seemed like miles away.

“What do you make of it?” he asked Uther as the paladin rode up beside him.

“There is evil here,” he replied. “I cannot yet discern from where, though.”

“It’s a white oak,” called Grul softly from the rear. “It is natural, and not uncommon in this region. This one has no doubt seen many moons. Yet I too feel a disturbance here, something unnatural.”

Huge cocked his ear and grunted. “Witches or hags, come out!” he called. His voice seemed to be swallowed by the trees. Yet from behind the tree a slight figure stepped out. He cast a suspicious glance across the party mounted before him.

“What evil do you bring to this forest?” Noting the confusion on Huge’s face, he spoke again, in Common. “What evil do you bring to this forest?”

The two elves in the party pricked up their ears at the sound of their native tongue and moved forward to take in the figure before them. Grul replied first.

“We seek the being known as Madam Eva. She has as yet eluded us, as a leaf in the wayward breeze.”

The elf frowned. As the party looked closer, they could discern that he wore only simple leather armour, but had a fierce looking bow that was trained right on them. His face was streaked with dirty and he had a slightly haggard look about him. “She is not here. Now leave.”

Grul frowned as the party attempted to interrogate the elf. He was confident, arrogant even, for someone outnumbered six to one. The elf was obviously familiar with the area and, although he knew of the villager’s problems with the undead, cared not for their wellbeing. He glanced around, marking the motion of a pair of shadows that moved to flank them.

Between Grul and Malakai’s growing sense of unease and the elf’s hostility, the party soon became aware of the fact that not only was the elf not going to be helpful, but that he was actually a threat. From the front, Huge subtly telegraphed his intention to charge the elf and the party readied themselves.

With a roar, Huge spurred his horse forward, his axe held high and ready. The elf responded with lightning rapidity, loosing a pair of arrows at the charging barbarian. Although they missed, Huge didn’t even get close to his prey. His horse bucked at some unknown threat and refused to move forwards. The reason became quickly apparent: Malakai summoned forth the power of his deity and blasted the elf with holy energy. The elf didn’t flinch, but a deadly shadow screeched in fury and dropped from its hiding place in the tree, and, much to the elf’s chagrin, fled into the forest before Malakai’s power. The cleric gave silent thanks to Correlon.

“Wraith!” he called to the rest of the party. “Steel yourselves; it will be back.”

A pair of wolf-like creatures burst from their hiding places and attacked the party’s flank. As Huge closed the distance on the elf and made to grab him, the lithe figure cried out and transformed into a wolf before Huge’s very eyes.

“Werewolf!” Huge shouted back at the party. “He’s a werewolf!”

“Yes, and so’re his friends!” called back Haradrim as he loose a pair of arrows at the snarling form that was keeping Uther occupied.

The party grappled with the slavering werewolf pack, slowly gaining the upper hand through sword and scorcery over their unnatural ferocity. At last, Malakai was able to magically blind the pack leader and Huge punched the diabled elf into submission. Pinning him to the ground, the party gathered to interrogate the werewolf-elf properly. Their attention entirely focussed on the prisoner, the hippogriff that landed heavily next to them caused some brief consternation.

“What in the name of – oh, it’s just Grul,” exclaimed Uther. “Where did you get to? Again?”

“The forest desired my presence elsewhere,” replied the druid after he had transformed back into an elf. “I will explain later.”

The party, having interrogated the elven werewolf and discovering that he had a surplus of disdain but precious little useful information, agreed to let him go free in exchange for him leading the party to his supply cache. Although Grul noted that his path through the forest earlier had taken him to a supply cache in a different direction, their prisoner insisted that his camp was the only location of magical items in the area.

Once they had raided the werewolf elf’s stash and set him free, albeit blinded, Grul led the party off in the opposite direction, explaining that he had been led to another weapons cache earlier.

“It happened whilst we were dispatching those abberations. You recall the dire wolf that we came across when we first entered Borovia? He appeared in the bushes, insisting that I follow him. He claimed that he knew the location of a stash of silver weaponry.”

“And you followed him? While we were fighting?” Huge looked incredulous.

“I must heed the call of the wild.” Grul shrugged, indifferent. “In this case, the call was a siren song; I was ambushed by a group of vampires and their spawn. The one who attacked me claimed to be Madam Eva…” Grul trailed off, scatched his head and looked momentarily confused. “But that’s not true, is it?”

“The werewolf assured us this was not the case,” replied Uther. “She may not be an ally, but it appears that she is not in league with the vampire.”

“We should be wary nonetheless, my friends. We do not know whether the enemy of our enemy is yet our friend. Or if she is indeed his ally.” Haradrim spoke in murmured tones, his eyes scanning the undergrowth.

“So you wandered off, following some wild beast off into the undergrowth where it led you into a vampire’s trap,” said Vampensh, deadpan.

“Nature’s call can be many things – sweet as birdsong or coarse as a rabid wolverine.” Grul pushed through the undergrowth into the clearing where he was ambushed. “Regardless, their attempts to return me to the earth proved fruitless. And now we have further armaments against our enemies.”

Grul reached into a knot of roots and removed a nondescript sack that clinked as he passed it into Haradrim’s eager hands. As the entryman peered into the sack, however, his enthusiasm waned somewhat.

“Fruitless is right, druid.” Haradrim drew from the sack one of the items contained therein – a rusted blade that was long since corroded beyond any usefulness. “All this tracking through the mud and grime, for nothing.” He sighed, exasperated. “What I wouldn’t steal to feel cobblestones under my feet again.”

“We should keep moving,” said Uther. It’ll be dark soon, and we have much ground to cover before we can rest. Let’s get back to the road and ride on.”

Loot
Weapons Armour Items Other
.. .. .. Potion of cure moderate wounds
.. .. .. Potion of greater magic fang +2
.. .. .. Potion of haste

View
Shadows and Light - Part 3

Having spent the night in Thordor’s barn, the group rised at first light to plan their next move. Thordor was able to outline the major landmark’s in Borovia’s lanndscape, providing the party with numerous possible locations of Madam Eva and the Vistani.

“The Tser Pool is a good starting place,” said the blacksmith, pointing on the map he had sketched for the group. “There’s also Ivlis Marsh and Lysaga Hill, where the Vistani have been seen in the past. They’re a fair ways away, but I’ve tended to the horses you came in on, so they’ll do you fine.”

The adventurers decided on Ivlis Marsh as their first destination, it being the closest of the three landmarks. They set out on horseback, with the exception of Grul, who flew a short distance overhead on the back of an enormous bat, causing shivers of discomfort to run through the assembled populace of the village as great beast flapped it’s leathery wings before them.

They had been travelling on the path for a little over an hour, the sun shining dimly through the perpetual cloud cover overhead.

Grul came down to the ground in a flurry of leather and fur. “There’s someone on the bridge ahead,” he told them. Nasty looking, too.”

Huge walked a short distance ahead of them, peering down the track. “I see him.”

As soon as he made this obvervation, the stranger addressed him, calling out in a deep rasp. “Come, barbarian. We have business.”

Huge glanced back at his companions, shrugged, and moved towards the stranger. Although he was obviously heavily armed in chainmail with a huge two-handed sword, it wasn’t readily apparent he meant them any harm. Indeed, anyone who wandered the lands of Borovia without some means of self-defence was asking to be torn to shreds by any number of dangerous beasts. As Huge approached, though, he saw the man smile with murderous intent.

It was only then that he became aware of the fog that had gathered behind him, enveloping his friends and effectively cutting him off from them. With a cry the stranger lept upon the half-orc, grappling him with an uncanny power. He opened his mouth and bared a pair of fangs, trying to wrap them around Huge’s neck.

Shrouded in fog, the rest of the party could only discern from the seemingly distant noises what had happened to Huge. Vampensh could only barely see in front of him as he fought to hold his mental ground against the now-apparent fear effects of the fog. The fog pressed in on him nonetheless, and as the eerie evil forms presented by the fog surrounded him, Vampensh’s defences crumbled and he turned, fleeing in the easiest direction available to him. Above him, the fog had enveloped Grul as well, who, mounted on his giant bat, beat a hasty retreat and quickly dissapeared from sight.

It was only through Malakai’s rapid intervention that the mage was spared Grul’s fate. Summoning his divine magics, he purged the fear from Vampensh’s mind. The slight man nodded his thanks to the elven cleric.

“Right,” he said. “I think we’ve had enough of this.” With his mental faculties returned, Vampensh was able to summon a fierce gust of wind that whipped past him and immediately dispersed the magical fog around them.

The others wasted little time racing to assist their friend, who by that stage was wrestling for his life with his agressor. As they approached, the stranger lept backwards, breaking the grapple, blood dripping from his enlarged canines. He bared them at Huge’s approaching allies.

“Fools!” he hissed. “I’ll tear you all to shreds!”

With a roar, he drew his massive blade and closed in on them. Haradrim reacted first, sending a pair of arrows shooting into the vampire’s chest. Huge drew his own weapon, taking a stance against the enraged vampire who was charging at him.

The vampire, however, never made it. With a dramatic flourish, Vampensh strode forward past his friends and uttered a word of command. The vampire staggered, his mind suddenly assaulted by necromantic energy. The mage stepped closer, his hands outstretched as he manipulated the dark energy flowing into the subdued undead.

“Stop!” he commanded forcefully. “Drop your weapon and lie down!”

The vampire and the mage faced off, the vampire struggling to resist the urge to let his weapon drop from his grasp. He howled in anger, managing to resist the command. With a glare of pure malice, he transformed into a gaseous mist and flew away.

Vampensh dropped to his knees, his brow dripping with sweat. His companions looked at him, while Malakai saw to the wound on Huge’s neck.

Haradrim broke the silence first. “Where’s Grul?”

View
Shadows and Light - Part 2

The seven adventurers – and their unexpected proteges – stared down into the grave, taking in the tunnel whose entrance sat at the base of the excavation.

“Strange, really,” observed Malakai. “A whole graveyard in a zombie-infested village, and only one grave reeks of evil.” He cast a look about the mist-laced cemetary and reflexively touched the intricate silver crescent moon hanging from his neck. “Well, whatever’s down there, they shall soon know of Corellon’s strength.”

The group climbed down into the pit, with Ashlyn offering to stay behind and guard the entrance. Malakai and Huge led the way, lighting a couple of torches as they stepped carefully into the dim tunnel that curved off into the darkness. Huge’s fingers traced their way across the wall of the tunnel, feeling it’s rough-hewn shape and the human detritus embedded in the dirt.

“Ghouls,” he said briefly.

“How does he know it’s ghouls who made this?” Tanya asked Vampensh as they brought up the party’s rear.

“The walls are rough, as if dug by humanoid hands,” explained the mage. “There’s also human remains embedded in the wall,” he continued, pointing at a skull that leered grotesquely from its earthen prison. Tanya shuddered as she passed it. “Don’t worry,” grinned Vampensh reassuringly. “just stick behind me. With a half-dozen adventurers in front of you, you’ll be safe enough. You may even learn something.” The wizard deftly removed a small magical focus from a belt pouch and twirled it briefly in his fingers before replacing it.

“Sure you’ll be safe,” offered Grul from behind them,grinning at the girl’s mounting apprehension. “Unless there’s spiders down here. They love attacking from behind, just ask Malakai. Or dire badgers.”

The party soon found their way to a small cavern. In the middle of the cavern were a small cluster of coffins, all broken beyond repair, save one.

“A coffin,” observed Haradrim wryly. “My friends, I think we all know what’s in there.”

The party nodded their assent and began casting their protective spells in preparation. “This might get ugly, you might need this,” said Vampensh, casting a protective abjuration on his charge. Her brother stood next to her, his back to the wall. His hand held his sword in a white-knuckled grip and his face was pulled taut with anxiety.

Uther eyed the coffin warily. “It reeks of evil,” he said. Turning, he recognised the fear written on Preston’s face. Tossing his hair, he chuckled quietly to ease the strain. “Relax, my young ward. Get ready to watch a real paladin in action.” He nodded to Huge. “Hit it.”

The half-orc let lose a cry and with a terrible crash brought his axe down on the sole intact coffin. The cheap wood exploded in a shower of splinters, but the coffin’s occupant leapt to his feet, apparently unharmed. Huge didn’t miss a beat, and immediately pressed his attack on the apparently unarmed vampire, with Uther following closely behind.

Behind the party, the walls of the cavern suddenly moved, and a group of ghouls climbed out of it. Vampensh and Malakai turned to see Tanya scream in shock, but the experiened cleric quickly called upon the might of his god to send the cowardly undead scarpering back up the tunnel towards the surface.

It was then that they heard the singing. From a heretofore unseen tunnel leading from the carvern they saw the most beautiful, ethereal being imaginable and felt an almost irrestistable urge to follow her. Grul’s hands immediately dropped to his sides as he stared, entranced.

“She’s wonderful…”

Haradrim shook his head, feeling the enchantment tugging at his senses. If he just concentrated…

“My friend, no!” With the manipulation dispelled, Haradrim saw instead of a beautiful woman a hideous harpy, it’s mottled flesh and bloody hair in stark contrast to the vision he saw just a few seconds before – and Grul was walking right to her. As the others shook the enchantment off, they too saw the harpy for what she really was, just in time to see her dissapear into the tunnel, with Grul, Tanya and Preston in tow.

Malakai started after them, only to hesitate; Uther and Huge were still locked in mortal combat with the vampire. A monk in it’s previous life, the unarmed undead was nonetheless proving a difficult opponent, even for the party’s two frontline fighters’ combined strength. At last, with a mighty heave of his axe, Huge felled the snarling humanoid and hammered a nearby shard of wood cleanly into its chest. Thus defeated, the half-orc wasted no time pounding down the tunnel in pursuit of the harpy, with Vampensh and the rest of the party behind him.

They turned a corner to see the harpy falling upon their entranced companions, raking her hideous claws across them. Pressed into the rear of the cave and surrounded by her victims, the party were unable to close to melee range. Opting instead for ranged combat, the harpy was quickly felled by a volley of flaming missiles from Huge, Vampensh and Haradrim.

With their kidnapper defeated, the dazed three quickly regained their senses and were brought back to health by Uther and Malakai’s curative magics. The party searched the cavern and, having collected what they found, destroyed the coffins in the main cavern to ensure the defeated vampire could not regenerate.

As the group climbed out of the grave, Ashlyn breathed a sigh of relief. “I am glad to see you safe.” She gestured to the collection of freshly killed ghouls that littered the gravesite. “I was concerned that these were just the vanguard of a larger force.”

“It got a little hairy,” admitted Uther. “But by Pelor’s grace we are unharmed. Although a few of us learned the hard way of the hypnotic abilities of a harpy.”

The party finally made it back to the town square in the early hours of the morning. They had spent the better part of the night waiting in the graveyard for the spirits that Preston and Tanya had seen to appear so they could question them. Unsurprisingly, the ethereal beings had not even acknowledged their presence, but Malakai was able to commune magically with the exhumed corpse of one of the bodies in the graveyard. The corpse had given cryptic answers to the group’s inquiries of the spirit’s death and the location and nature of the Sun Sword, but it nevertheless helped to clarify the magical nature of the weapon and it’s power in dealing with the undead.

With the body re-interred, the group returned to the town square, stopping only to deal with a group of wayward zombies and vargouilles.

They returned to see the town square brimming with refugees. Ismark sat off to one side of the square, sagging in his typical drunken stupor over a stool he had somehow dragged from the local inn. In seeing the party approaching, he gave a weak wave.

“Still alive, I see? Wonderful, wonderful. So’re we, for the moment. The minions of Strahd don’t stand a chance against our army of cobblers and farm-boys.” He grinned sarcastically and waved at the uncertain mob who stood warily by the barricades.

Uther ignored his brief diatribe. “We found your sister. She is alive, although she mourns the loss of your father and the Amulet of Ravenkind. We have interred him to spare him becoming one of Strahd’s zombie thralls.”

“Splendid,” muttered Ismark. “then she can spend her her last days defending an empty mansion.”

Huge’s eyes narrowed under his heavy brow. “Are you so eager to lay down your sword?” He leaned in close to Ismark, the many scars lining his face swimming into lurid detail before the intoxicated man’s eyes. “Life belongs to those who fight to keep it.”

Ismark turned away. “Let her fight, for what good it will do her.”

The massive half-orc grunted in disgust and swept the stool out from underneath Ismark, who fell to the ground with a gasp. “Pitiful. Even cursed as she is, she has more spirit in her on her worst day than you would on your best.” He stalked away, pushing through the crowd to Thordor’s home. The rest of the group followed, pausing only to throw a last glance at the man who lay spreadeagled on the ground.

“Cursed? What’s he talking about?”

Uther turned back to Ismark and gave him a sad look. “Strahd has been in her home and drunk of her life’s blood. She doesn’t have long.” He took Ismark by the shoulder. “That’s why it’s so important that you stand up now. These people,” he said gesturing to the tense mob that crowded the square, “they’re cold, they’re scared and they need leadership now more than ever. Your leadership.”

“But I don’t know how,” whispered Ismark. “I’m not anybody’s leader.”

“You are, Ismark. The mantle of leadership is your birthright, bequeathed to you by your father, and his father before him. It must be you, for there is no other.” He pulled Ismark to his feet and clapped him on the shoulder. “Better to face your fear on your feet as a man, then on your knees as a mewling babe.”

Ismark sighed, resigned. “I suppose I could see about getting the town militia together.”

“That’ll do for starters. Now, I need to see about resting. The night is old, and we have a long way to go tomorrow.”

Loot
Weapons Armour Items
.. +2 Bracers of Defence Milosh’s Wand (wand of missiles, lv5, 45 charges)
.. .. Silver-nibbed pen (20gp)
.. .. x2 gem-studded cufflinks (50gp ea.)

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Shadows and Light - Part 1

The party emerged from the church into the greying afternoon.

“It’ll be dark soon,” observed Haradrim. “We should return to the village to regroup and plan our next move.”

“They’ll no-doubt be glad that we cleansed the church of evil.” Uther smiled in satisfaction, absent-mindedly flicking his golden hair.

“A phyrric victory at best, Uther,” countered Vampensh. “The immediate threat has been defeated, but they’ve lost the one man who was able to stand against the undead. And we don’t even know if this will affect the zombies.”

The group started along the path, scanning the approaching village’s buildings with a wary eye. Steeped in growing shadows, they seemed no less oppressive than they had the previous night.

“We’ll know soon enough,” said Malakai with a grin. He fingered the symbol of Corellon that hung from his neck. “And they’ll know of us soon after.”

“I wish you wouldn’t sound so keen to face off with hordes of those filthy mindless corpses,” muttered Vampensh. “I like a challenge as much as the next man, but I prefer my opponents to be a bit more flammable. Besides, we – what?”

Huge nudged the mage into silence, pointing wordlessly into a particularly deep pool of shadows on the side of the road. “In the bushes. There.” He drew his weapon and stalked off into the bushes as his companions watched wordlessly, hands resting lightly on their weapons.

For a few brief seconds the air was filled with tension, but it was soon broken by a surprised shout followed by Huge’s rumbling chuckle. He emerged from the bushes, prodding a pair of familiar forms before him.

‘You pair!” exclaimed Uther as recognition dawned on his face. “Pelor’s grace, what are you doing out here?” He advanced on Preston and Tanya like an angry parent, the rest of the group trailing behind wearing expressions of mixed amusement and concern. “Of all the hells-forsaken things to do, why would you go wandering about at dusk?”

Preston looked sullen, unsure of how to respond to being rebuked by his new hero. “Aww, come on, we just wanted to see what happened. To Danovich? We weren’t in any danger or nothin’.”

“In danger? You live in a zombie-infested village and you followed us, a group of holy crusaders – ”

”- adventurers,” interjected Huge.

” – mercenaries – ”

” – opportunists – ”

” – into a combat zone! How is that not dangerous?”

Tanya shot Uther a steely glance. “What would you know? We grew up here, we know all the back-roads, all the hideouts, all the danger spots. We can handle ourselves fine.”

“Oh really?” asked the paladin, now on a roll. “And what would you do if an zombie caught you?”

The girl stood her ground. “I wouldn’t know; we’ve not been caught yet.”

Vampensh laughed and gave Uther a nudge. “They’ve got you bang to rights on that one, golden-boy.”

“We know things, too,” insisted Preston. “Like, every night we see spirits coming from the graveyard over there.” He pointed to the cemetary bathed in mist that bordered on the church grounds. “We come out here all the time, and every we see all these ghosts that rise from the graves and fly off towards Castle Ravenloft.

Tanya nodded her agreement. “It’s true. There’s hundreds of them, but they never bother with us.”

“Spirits, you say?” Malakai mused. “It’s not unheard of. I wonder what they’re doing. Have you ever talked to them, interacted with them at all?”

“Nuh uh. We’ve tried, but they don’t talk at all. They just fly off to the castle like we’re not even there.”

“Besdies, everybody knows they’re the restless spirits of folk who tried to defeat Strahd. They keep trying, every night, no matter what you do. They didn’t even notice that time goblin-brains here stepped in front of one and commanded it to stop,” Tanya said, gesturing derisively at her brother. “Just flew right through him.”

“That’s right, I did! I said, by Pelor’s light, I command you halt!” Preston did a fair imitation of what he thought to be an inspiring voice, despite the fact that he was about a decade and two octaves short being able to pull it off.

Uther smiled beneficently and slapped the boy on the back. “Spoken like a true warrior! By the light, we’ll make a paladin of you yet!” he said as Preston regained his balance, his earlier chastising forgotten in the face of percieved heroism.

“So you’ll let us help you? Please, I want to be a knight like you!”

Uther’s smile looked like it threatened to halve his head. “Then we shall make you one! Someone pass me a sword!”

Haradrim silded up to Uther, slipping him a short-sword from his pack. “Uther,” he muttered sotto voce, “do you know what you’re doing? The boy’s not even reached maturity, and you’d have him facing enemies such as ours? My friend, I worry for your judgement.”

“Nonsense!” the paladin rebuked. He laid the sword blade reverentially on Preston’s shoulders and uttered a prayer to Pelor before presenting him with the blade. “I hereby dub you a squire in the service of the Shining One. Be upon your fellows as the sun is unto us. Go forth and do his good works.” Uther laid a hand on Preston, who quivered with awe and solemnity. “Now – lets have a look at that graveyard.”

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