Siri yells out to the others, who come rushing down the stairs and out of the tower doorway as she points frantically across the causeway.
“Strahd’s taken Nordan!” she yelps frantically, hopping from foot to foot. “What do we do?”
Devlin frowns, then examines the tracks in the dirt and frowns some more.
“It looks like Nordan left under his own volition,” he says, thoughtfully. “He walked over here to where the carriage tracks are, stopped, and then someone else walked up to meet him. Was this where you saw Strahd?”
Siri nods, following the direction of his pointing finger.
“Then it looks like he walked around to the back of the carriage where there was a small scuffle with a couple more people,” Devlin continues, turning to stare at the wagon tracks as they disappear off into the distance.
“What does that mean?” says Thia. “Did he go willingly?”
“Maybe he was charmed?” replies Siri.
Their ruminations are brought to an abrupt end by a figure, clad in furs and holding a staff, who appears around the side of the tower, a figure they recognise as the man they’d met in the forest who had pointed them towards the werewolf den.
“The Summerwild has summoned you.” he says quietly. “He has been watching. Bring the children.”
Given that he had turned into a wolf when he’d left them the last time they met, the group are understandably cautious, but Devlin takes the lead and is keen to go him. After a while the rest of the group reluctantly agree, but Siri conjures her undead celestial elk, Lightning, and charges him with guarding the children, just in case.
“Follow,” says the man. “I will take you to the Summerwild.” He’s a strange one, and although everyone is suspicious that he could be a werewolf, he doesn’t seem to act like one. He calls each of the adventurers by a name other than their own – Devlin is ‘Moon Child’; Siri is ‘Wolf Knight’; Obryn is ‘Orcs Bane’; Thia is ‘Bright Mother’; Nordan is ‘The Vengeful One’ and Drusilla is ‘Spiderkin’. He tells them that his name is Brogan, and that Strahd, whom he calls ‘Black Heart’, keeps many of his enemies close so it’s likely that he has taken Nordan to Castle Ravenloft. The adventurers all gulp in unison.
Brogan leads them to a cave hidden within the cleft of a hill, resetting a trap that Nordan had stumbled over previously and set off. His brow furrows slightly.
“The Summerwild will not have eaten,” he says. “He will be hungry.”
The adventurers all gulp again, suddenly wondering if they’re walking into a trap where they’re about to become a rather nice dinner for this mysterious entity. Nevertheless, they are slightly cheered by the fact that they can hear birds singing around them, something that’s more or less unheard of in the dismal land of Barovia, and they follow Brogan into the cave with a little hope in their hearts.
Campfire light flickers warmly across the back wall of the cavern, and a shadow in the shape of a dog appears against the rock; it mimes a few barks, then turns into a bird that flaps its elegant wings before transforming into a horse. Brogan stops a little way inside the entrance and motions for them to continue before turning to stand guard, his eyes fixed on the rolling landscape beyond. Four adventurers, two companions, seven children and an undead elk all make their way into the large cavern, and all are greeted by a strange sight. Seated on logs around the campfire are ten more children of different ages. Opposite them, an elf with deep-copper-coloured hair, pale skin and clothing in shades of forest green is making shadow puppets on the wall to try to distract the children from thinking about the horrors they’ve experienced. He turns and drops his hands as he sees them enter, then beams broadly.
“Hello! Hello! Do come in, how lovely to see you!”
Most of the adventurers are caught off guard by this jolly fellow, but Thia steps forward to greet him.
“Hello!” she says. “Who are you, and where did you get all these children?”
The stranger stands up, waving to the new youngsters and motioning for them to sit down with his group. Some of the children appear to recognise each other, but all of them are clearly still disturbed and upset. Lightning moves behind them, remaining on protection duty.
“Oh my, that’s an unusual creature,” the man says, eyeing the skeletal elk before turning back to the group. “I’m Haldar, and these ten lovely young’uns were rescued from another werewolf den further to the east. I’m hoping we can get them all to safety?”
“Oh, I like this man,” she says, prompting the elf to laugh heartily. “how did you get here, my friend?”
Haldar’s expression changes to one of sadness.
“I came to this land with a party of adventurers,” he replies softly, “but they’re all gone now. They were killed rescuing the children.” He gathers up his belongings; a grey cloak, two beautiful elven short swords, and a longbow which he slings across his back, then starts to usher the children and get them ready to leave. As he does so, the adventurers excitedly tell him about what has happened to them since they arrived in Barovia, and he relates to them how he was almost killed by a vampire. He’s concerned when they tell him about Nordan, though, because the Blood Hunter is a friend of his.
Siri, being of a curious nature, uses her divine sense on Brogan and, sensing nothing evil, sidles over and taps him on the shoulder, flashing her best smile.
“So Brogan, are you a werewolf?”
He answers quietly without turning to look at her.
“They are not my kin,” he says. “I defied my kin because when the Black Heart took over, they believed he was the land, and we worshipped the land.”
“You’re a druid?” Siri asks, raising an eyebrow.
“I was once, a long time ago. But as my brethren are now in the service of the Black Heart, I came here to do what I could to protect this place from his influence. There was a tree, I remember, a powerful tree that was also corrupted by the vampire so that he could bury his trophies beneath it to have them corrupted too. Perhaps if this tree was destroyed, my kin would be free of him.”
Movement behind them alerts the two to the fact that everyone else is ready to leave the cave and begin the journey back to the relative safety of Krezk. Haldar places his hand on Brogan’s shoulder.
“Thank you, my friend, for everything” he says gratefully.
The Druid gives him a small nod.
“I will take you to the edge of my territory, but after that you will have to continue alone.”
He leaves the cave, impressively turns into a bear, and then escorts the party of twenty-five back to the road. When they reach it, they wave back to him calling their thanks. He gives them the briefest of acknowledgements, then turns and lumbers back into the cover of the woods.
The road to Krezk is quiet and the huge party travels without disturbance, although Thia does see some large wolf prints that approach the road and then retreat. The alliance forged between the adventurers and the werewolf, Zuleika, appears to be holding, and she has kept her promise to allow the children safe passage. The guards at the southern gates of Krezk are somewhat shocked to see such a large group approaching, but they let them in without question at the sight of so many children. Devlin tells them that they will be going to the blessed pool at the north end of the town and asks them to advise the burgomaster to meet them there.
As they start to walk through the town, curious residents peer from their doorways and windows at the strange spectacle, then leave their houses and follow the group at a short distance, curious but cautious. By the time they reach the pool most of the townsfolk are behind them. Some appear to recognise certain children, but the children themselves are still dazed and unresponsive, and don’t reciprocate. That is, until the adventurers encourage them to drink the blessed waters. It takes a moment but, one by one, the youngsters shake off their stupor and are tearfully reunited with their parents, friends and relatives, cured of the anguish that had been afflicting them. There’s much hugging and happy chatter, even for the children who are not from Krezk, and Thia is absolutely elated when her own children finally recognise her and rush towards her.
Within a few minutes the burgomaster, his wife and his son also arrive at the fountain, although the son is clearly annoyed at having to be there. He’s been tetchy and paranoid ever since the Abbot raised him from the dead following a fatal illness, but after he drinks the water of the pool he’s also restored, whereupon he hugs his tearful mother and father happily. Surrounded by a smiling, laughing, joyful community of people who are giving them grateful thanks, the adventurers’ spirits are lifted by the beautiful scene, and even more so when the burgomaster tells them that they will always be welcome in Krezk. Siri steps forward, holding out the family sword he’d lent her to dispatch the werewolves.
“Your sword, sir,” she says. “It vanquished the pack leader, and I hope it would have made your ancestors proud.”
He takes it and examines it with a smile, then offers it back to her.
“This sword has hung on the wall of the burgomaster’s house for hundreds of years, and I’m somewhat ashamed that it has not been used for so long. You keep it.”
“I couldn’t keep your ancestral sword, sir” Siri replies, holding up her hands.
“Then use it for as long as you need to. Use it in the Krezkov name.” The burgomaster smiles again as she takes it reverently, then turns and heads back into the town, his arm around his family.
As the rest of the townsfolk and children slowly wend their way back to their homes, Siri wanders over to Thia and Ireena, who are standing next to the pool. Ireena leans in to take a drink and then gasps as the image of a young man appears in the rippling water.
“Tatiana!” the image whispers and reaches out his hand towards her.
Ireena seems overcome with joy and reaches her hand out to touch his, but Siri grabs onto her and the image fades back into the water.
“Noooo!” she yells, desperately trying to get back to the man, but when she realises that he’s gone she’s throws herself against the paladin’s chest, crying. “Why did you do that, why?”
She pulls back, punches Siri across the face and then runs off down the road, back into the town…