It’s only after Obryn finishes his third sausage that the group suddenly realise they don’t know exactly where the werewolf den is. They have a vague idea that it’s somewhere behind Krezk, to the northwest of the forest where they met a mad mage who was arguing vehemently with a tree, but they’re not sure that’s enough. Gathering themselves together and stacking the breakfast things, they decide that it might be an idea to ask around the town in case anybody else might be a bit more clued in as to its whereabouts.
They find Anna Krezkov, the burgomaster’s wife, in the garden with Vasilka, teaching the flesh golem to plant carrots. She says that there’s a man called Radu in town who has boasted about knowing the location of the den but, after finding him, the adventurers discover that he’s nothing but a blowhard. He puffs out his chest and tells them that he was an integral part of a hunting party led by Torrell, but it quickly becomes clear that he’s more of a coward than a hero.
Devlin tries to intimidate him into accompanying them, but the slightly creepy grin he offers only serves to confuse the already quivering Radu. They let him go, and he scarpers immediately.
“What now?” says Devlin, looking up and down the main street through the town for other potential intimidatees.
The others scratch their heads, thinking.
“Well,” replies Siri, “we know that the den is somewhere to the north of the town, so we could always stop off at Kazan’s tower to see if we can find Ezmerelda? As a monster hunter she might know its location, and we could always sleep there tonight and then attack the den at first light.”
“We might be able to find out how her trap for Strahd worked too,” Nordan nods and, all in agreement, the group head out through the southern gates of Krezk and into the wilderness beyond.
After a couple of hours, they encounter an odd sight; a half-dressed couple by the side of the road, bending over as if they’re looking at something.
“Oi,” yells Devlin as he strides towards them. “Are you werewolves?”
Their ensuing surprise attack on him and their transformation into their hybrid form confirms that yes, yes they are.
The adventurers manage to kill the female werewolf, while Devlin levitates the male one twenty feet into the air so that they can question him about the den. This doesn’t sit too well with Siri and Drusilla, both of whom just want to kill the evil beast and be done with it, but Nordan and Thia have a plan to feed him some of the wolfsbane tincture and remove his curse, turning him back into a human. Devlin brings the werewolf down to the ground and Nordan shoves the tincture down its throat, but it proves deadly to the creature.
“Huh.” Nordan pulls a face, looking at the now-human body. “I guess there are some werewolves you can’t cure?”
The old tower on the lake, with its green causeway and rickety structure, hasn’t changed since they last saw it, and Ezmerelda’s purple wagon is sitting in front of it. It looks scraped and battered, so Siri fixes it up a little bit while the others call up to the monster hunter. There’s no answer. They do the magical dance that’s required to open the door, then use the lift to ascend to the top where they find Ezmerelda laying on the bed, covered in bandages and scrapes.
“You are not the quietest people,” she grumbles, wincing as she turns towards them.
As Thia and Siri tend to her wounds, she explains to them that she did set the trap, but that Strahd fled like a coward. She made her way down to Argynvostholt, hoping that she could hide there and recover, but the revenants attacked her and chased her out.
“Didn’t you tell them that you were an enemy of Strahd?” Devlin enquires. “They probably wouldn’t have come after you, then.”
Ezmerelda rolls her eyes and shakes her head. “You have to be as zealous about your hatred of Strahd as they are,” she says. “If they don’t believe that you are, they will not allow you to be in their company.”
Nordan walks across and sits beside her on the bed.
“We were attacked by werewolves on the road,” he says. “We tried giving one some wolfsbane but it killed him. However, these could change even though it was daytime – is that something you know about?”
Ezmerelda chuckles, a little bit sarcastically.
“Werewolves can change whenever they want to. It’s only during the full moon when they have no choice. You cannot turn those who were born into the curse back to human, and you should not think of them as human, for they are not. The longer they carry the werewolf curse, the more evil they become.”
The monster hunter gives them directions to find the werewolf den, but when they wake bright and early the next morning, Ezmerelda is gone and so is her wagon. Undeterred, the group set off anyway, using the woods and underbrush as cover, and with the information they’ve acquired, it’s not long before they spot a cave that resembles a wolf’s mouth, complete with teeth-like rocks around the entrance.
Obryn is eager for some action, so Devlin turns him invisible and the dwarf sets off to explore the area. He climbs up to a platform eighty feet above the cave mouth and finds a doused campfire surrounded by a twenty-foot ring of stones, each one spattered with blood and surrounded by gnawed bones. Climbing back down, he stealthily examines the cave and sees two feral-looking females guarding it at a point where it splits into two tunnels. The inside is lit by torches held in sconces along the walls, and the sound of a badly-played flute drifts from deep inside. The notes are painfully discordant. As the females begin to sniff the air suspiciously, Obryn realises he hasn’t bathed in a while and makes a hasty exit, returning to the rest of the group to relay what he has seen.
The adventurers formulate a plan. They decide that most of them will hide around the entrance to the cave while Siri runs across the front of it, to try to lure the two guards out into a surprise attack. Siri does so a couple of times but the guards don’t move, so she walks just inside the cave entrance instead. The guards immediately attack her without giving her the opportunity to run back out to her friends, so all the planning was a huge waste of time.
The group manages to kill the two werewolves, and four dire wolves that emerge from the tunnel are all immediately incinerated by one of Devlin’s huge fireballs. Another werewolf appears from the same tunnel, growling as he knocks Thia over and bites Nordan.
“You fucker,” shouts Nordan, and promptly kills him with a blow of his rite-infused sword. In death, the werewolf reverts to his human form, that of an elderly man, but Nordan suspects that he is once again afflicted with the werewolf curse from the bite.
They make their way up the left-hand passageway where two more werewolves await them, one with stunningly white hair. Devlin conjures his shadow hound, Flaming Spear, and sets him on one of them – the hound leaps at the werewolf and lays into her as Thia wields her spiritual weapon, while Siri smacks the white-haired creature. Obryn finishes her off with his strange war-axe that seems to suck some of the life from her and, as she dies, she bares her teeth in a snarl.
“Kiril will skin you alive.”
The cave is much quieter now, and the group take the opportunity to have a scout around. Towards the back they see a curtain that looks to be made of human skin, and when Obryn and Devlin investigate what’s behind it, they discover a small passageway that slopes upwards and leads to a secret door. Beyond that is the platform with the ring of stones, which they realise could be a fighting arena given that there’s so much blood there.
As they return to the rest of the gang, Nordan hears voices coming from another passageway that leads downwards into the darkness. Siri and Drusilla decide to stand watch at the top of it, Devlin positions himself halfway down it in case he needs to relay messages, and Nordan, Thia and Obryn sneak down into the room beyond. It’s quite a frightening sight. Dimly lit by the torches, they see a row of six rough, wooden cages. Four contain sobbing children, and Thia claps her hand to mouth, both terrified and relieved to see her twin daughters, Mara and Olga, inside one of them – she hasn’t seen them since they were taken by her father, Rolen Galonodel, after he became a werewolf and joined a raid on their village, and she begins to cry. One of the other cages holds a woman who is hugging her knees and turned away from them. At the back of the room, kneeling in front of a shrine to Mother Night that has offerings at its base, is a woman. She gets up as she hears them enter and turns towards them.
“This is either the end or the answer to my prayers.”
Obryn immediately advances on her, pulling out his war-axe and beating the handle against his hand, threateningly. But the woman doesn’t take too well to this – she turns into a hybrid werewolf, grabs the nearest child and holds him up, her claws at his throat. Devlin darts in from the corridor and stands between Obryn and the woman, trying to persuade the dwarf to stop, while Nordan also yells at him from behind. The barbarian peers around Devlin, draws himself up to his full height of five feet (including his mohican) and snarls at the werewolf.
“You hurt one of those kids and I’ll split your frickin’ skull.”
She pauses for a moment with a frightened look in her eyes, then drops the child back into his cage and becomes human again.
“Why are you here?” she enquires shakily.
Obryn sheathes his axe. “We have an agreement with the burgomaster of Krezk to clear this den,” he replies.
“My name is Zuleika Touranescu,” she replies. “My mate is Emil Touranescu, have you seen him? He has brownish skin, piercing eyes and a hairless head…”
They all shake their heads silently, and she sighs.
“There was a falling out between Emil and the pack leader, Kiril Stoyanovich, who is loyal to Strahd. Emil wanted to turn all the children to increase our pack numbers, but Kiril wanted them to fight each other in the arena and then turn the winner. Both Emil and I considered this barbaric. Kiril left the den, and then returned later with a pack of dire wolves to enforce his leadership. That night, Emil disappeared.”
Thia steps forward, still clearly upset, and addresses the werewolf.
“My father, his name is Rolen Galonodel,” she whispers. “Do you know him?”
“The elf? He disappeared at the same time as Emil. I fear their fate was the same.” She straightens up and looks them all in the eye. “I have a proposition for you. If you kill Kiril, I will take over as pack leader and I will release our prisoners to you. If you find Emil and return him to me, I will break the pack’s allegiance to Strahd and we will no longer hunt humans, only animals. Do we have an agreement?”
“We’ll help you to kill Kiril, and we’ll try to find Emil for you,” replies Nordan. “Where is Kiril now?”
Zuleika looks up towards the passageway.
“He’s out hunting,” she says. “But he will return soon. Wait by the pool, and I will let you know when he returns. It would be best if we were all waiting by the cave mouth for him. If he gets inside these tunnels it will be much more difficult to fight him.” She looks thoughtful for a moment. “I think if we can kill Kiril, though, I may be able to persuade the others to join me.”
The pool is indeed beautiful and restful, with a shaft of light piercing the gloom through a crack in the roof of the cave, and the group takes the opportunity to rest, eat and bathe. As the time draws near, Siri takes out the small bottle of violet-scented liquid she’s been carrying around, a liquid they’ve discovered that only werewolves and those of a canine heritage can smell. She dabs it on each of her friends’ foreheads.
“Maybe this will hide our scent from Kiril and give us the element of surprise,” she says softly.
Suddenly, Zuleika appears in the doorway.
“It’s time,” she frowns.
The adventurers make their way quietly to the mouth of the cave, and all but Thia hide behind the teeth-like stones and watch as Kiril, six other werewolves and four dire wolves approach. He growls at her on seeing Thia standing beside her.
“Zuleika, whos is this? What have you done?”
The woman doesn’t answer; instead she throws herself at Kiril and attacks him, locking herself in battle with him. All hell breaks loose. Thia kills one werewolf with her poison spray, then Nordan raises it as a puppet and has it attack another. Devlin casts haste on Obryn, who goes berserk and smashes down a couple more. Drusilla launches firebolts galore.
Snapping and snarling, Zuleika and Kiril are still fighting tooth and claw, but Zuleika is clearly not faring well. Siri, remembering what they’d been told in the cave, sneaks around the side of the battle, almost unnoticed, blesses her sword and then launches herself at the pack leader, utilising the most powerful bad-ass smite she can muster and taking his shocked head clean off. Zuleika falls to the floor, quite badly injured, but calls out to the others.
“Stop! I am pack leader now, you will obey me!”
Three of the remaining werewolves stand down, but one roars and turns back to his attack on Devlin. He doesn’t last long against the sorceror’s second hound of ill omen, Shadow.
Zuleika orders one of the pack members to fetch the prisoners, and he returns with the children and the woman they had seen in the last cage – it’s Ireena, the friend they’ve been searching for. She’s happy to see them, but a little confused when they tell her that Ismark is alive and waiting for her in Krezk, mainly because she was there when he died and doesn’t know that the adventurers have resurrected him. However, before they can elaborate, the moon appears from behind a cloud and Nordan suddenly realises that he definitely does have the werewolf curse again. He quickly drinks a wolfsbane tincture and Thia administers a spell to remove his curse, then moves on to test the others with a silver dagger. She jumps about two feet into the air when Devlin howls loudly as a joke, but suddenly his howl is echoed by one of the children, who also begins to snarl and change. Zuleika appears from behind them and grabs him, clearly struggling to hold back her own transformation.
“Go!” she gasps. “This one was planted to kill the children after you leave, I will take him!”
The group don’t need to be told twice.
Exhausted, they all make it back to Kazan’s tower and herd the children and Ireena inside, feeling safe and protected by the building’s magic for the night. However, Siri wakes late at night to the sound of thudding footsteps circling the tower. She picks up her sword and cautiously opens the door, stepping out into the moonlight. Above the top of the tower, staring down at her are two piercing blue eyes. As her vision becomes accustomed to the dark, she sees that the eyes belong to an enormous wolf, whereupon she drops her sword and falls to her knees, her head bowed.
“Lord,” she whispers.
Her god, Vulodin, gazes down at her.
“What troubles you, pup?” His voice is quiet, yet deep and resonant.
Siri thinks for a moment, struggling to find the right words.
“Lord, I am finding it hard to tell what is good and what is not in this land,” she whispers. “I worry that I will do the wrong thing.”
“Hmmm…” he replies. “Do you know why I call you ‘pup’?”
“Because I am inexperienced?”
“Because you are a child. You must stop doing the things that you feel will give you power, and instead keep doing the small things that make a difference. You have returned the burgomaster’s son to him and made his family stronger. You have returned the bones of St.Andral to the church and in doing so prevented an attack on Vallaki. You have saved these children, and each of their lives will now touch others.”
Siri bows her head further.
“Lord, I did not do these things alone; I could not have achieved any of this without my friends.”
Vulodin gives a soft, throaty chuckle.
“And they could not have achieved it without you, pup. Together you are strong, together you are more than the sum of your parts. Do you know what happens to those who let power consume them?”
The paladin thinks for a moment, then whispers “The revenants?”
“Yes,” the god replies. “They have become bitter and consumed by rage. Strahd has taken something from them, something that must be returned for them to know peace. When you are given the sword, hold the hilt and let it fill your mind. Do you understand?”
“Yes, Lord,” Siri replies and, as she looks up, she sees that the gigantic wolf is gone. The eyes are now just two moonlit gaps in the clouds, and the shape of the wolf is nothing more than the clouds themselves, slowly drifting apart across the sky. She stays outside for another hour, meditating on the wisdom she has been given, then returns to the tower to sleep.
When morning comes though, the group awaken to a nasty surprise; Nordan is nowhere to be found. Siri casts a spell to locate his double-bladed scimitar and senses it just outside the tower, so the friends go to the door and peer out. They’re struck not only by the chilling sight of a very familiar black carriage, but also by the fact that Nordan is being held by three men towards the back of it. As they gasp in horror and leave the tower , the imposing and terrifying figure of the vampire Count Strahd von Zarovich steps forward, smiling but with no hint of humour.
“You take one of mine,” he says, “and I take one of yours.”
He gestures to the men and they bundle Nordan into the back of the carriage, which takes off at high speed across the causeway before the group can even react.
Laughing, Strahd steps back into the shadows and disappears…