Vallaki suddenly seems to have become a very dark place, and not just because of the constant cloud cover and mist.
The adventurers know that they must do something to try to save the captive townsfolk, so Siri tries to locate them by concentrating her thoughts on the apron the blacksmith was wearing. She senses it over to the northeast of the town, and Obryn, Devlin and Thia race off towards the Wachterhaus, which seems the most obvious place in that direction, in order to scope it out. Meanwhile, Haldar and Siri run around to the barn to implore the ravens for their help and, although many of them seem disinterested, three do cock their heads and appear to listen before taking flight out of the hayloft.
When the two catch back up to their friends, they find them crouched in a meadow behind the house, formulating a plan as they observe the Wachterguard on their patrols.
“They need to take them from here to the square,” whispers Obryn, drawing on his military experience. “So we should set up an ambush for them on that street over there. There are buildings that we can hide behind, and that will give us element of surprise.”
As he talks, Siri tries to locate the blacksmith’s apron again, but now finds that it’s moving away from them, towards the square.
“They’re already on the move,” she says urgently. “Quick…”
Running towards the street, they see a prison cart trundling away from them and realise that it’s too late for them to set up an ambush. Devlin formulates another plan on the fly, and by the time they arrive in the square to see the cart pulling up behind the now-finished guillotine, he’s got something that he thinks could work.
Noticing that Lady Wachter is standing haughtily on a platform at the front of the square, the sorcerer casts Darkness and a black sphere materialises, obscuring him and his fellow adventurers from sight. Then he casts the illusion of Strahd’s voice and speaks:
“I have arrived, and this celebration will abide by MY rules! You will give the prisoners to me so that I may do with them as I please!”
The burgomaster’s expression is simultaneously annoyed and amused.
“And who might you be?” she scoffs.
Devlin makes the voice of the illusion louder.
“Who might I BE? I am Count Strahd von Zarovich, Lord and Master of this land, and YOU WILL NOT DISRESPECT ME!”
Lady Wachter’s voice sounds shaky when she next speaks, although none of the friends can see her through Devlin’ darkness spell.
“Y-y-yes, my Lord,” she says. “Release the prisoners!”
They all hear the sound of forced footsteps walking towards the dark sphere, and Thia and Haldar quickly reach out to grab the arms of the captives, Urwin and Danika Martikov, whispering to them not to be afraid. However, the blacksmith is not with them.
“I said ALL THE PRISONERS!” hollers Devlin’s illusion, but this time there’s a chuckle from Lady Wachter.
“In all the years I have been your servant you have never deigned to meet with me,” she hisses. “So now I give my allegiance and my land to another! Orcas, accept this sacrifice!”
The loud, sickening slide and thud of the guillotine reaches their ears, and the group know that they are too late to save the poor blacksmith. Although they cannot see from inside the magical darkness, the man’s blood flows from the platform into runes that have been carved into flagstones, runes that now flare with arcane energy, and on each of the platforms in the corners of the square, guards shriek in pain and start to change. As each of them grows taller, their faces darken beneath menacing black hoods, and their robes become tough armour. The cries fade away, and four demonic members of the Doomguard stand in their place with weapons ready.
Devlin, realising that the sounds he’s hearing probably indicate that it’s all gone a bit pear-shaped, shoots a fireball from the darkness to the spot where he knows Lady Wachter was standing, and her cackling laugh is cut short as she is instantly incinerated. Thia deploys her spiritual weapon as Obryn rampages from the cover of the dark sphere and heads straight towards the guards in the centre of the square, roaring and waving his axe. Haldar steps out of the sphere, fires a couple of arrows and then steps back into the shadows, while Siri follows Obryn as she casts a blessing. As the battle continues, Devlin dispels the magical darkness and then hastes both Siri and Obryn who start to do some serious damage to the Wachterguard, but the Doomguard watch impassively, waiting for their moment to strike, even though Drusilla manages to knock one of them prone.
The Wachterguard put up a good fight but, one by one, they succumb to the adventurers’ attacks. The Doomguard, however, are seriously tough bastards so when a huge flock of ravens arrive to join in the fight, the friends are very grateful for their assistance.
Meanwhile, Haldar has been studying the magical, glowing runes carved into the flagstones of the town square, and he wonders if they are animating the Doomguard in some way. Running over to the nearest one, he raises his swords and smashes them down onto the rune, obliterating it and dispersing the magic in a flash of purple energy. Behind him, one of the members of the Doomguard shrieks and crumples to the floor before dissolving into nothing.
“Destroy the runes!” yells Haldar to the others, whereby Drusilla and Siri manage to smash another one, watching as the second Doomguard is vanquished.
Five minutes later, the adventurers stand breathless as the dust settles over a now silent town square, smashed in places and littered with the bodies of the Wachterguard. From above there’s a sudden flurry of wings as the ravens descend, but on touching the ground they all assume human form, much to the surprise of the group as they had no idea that Wereravens even existed. Urwin steps forward, his expression tense.
“The Keepers of the Feather have been kept a secret for far too long,” he says. “We will now run Vallaki, with Baron Vallakovich as the Burgomaster in name only, and take more of a hand in keeping the town safe and secure from now on.”
The adventurers nod in approval as he continues.
“Until everything has been arranged, we will close Vallaki to all outsiders including yourselves. I would suggest that you leave immediately, just in case Strahd does decide to pay us a visit.”
Devlin shakes his hand.
“I understand, my friend,” he replies. “And we apologise for the events that we set in motion here, and the deaths that resulted from it.”
Urwin gives him a nod and they part ways with the Martikovs, happy that Vallaki now has a fair and just government, but a little sad at the grief and mayhem they have brought to their friends.
Rain begins to fall over the land of Barovia. After gathering up their belongings, the adventurers find their mounts and head out of Vallaki’s west gate, which is closed, locked and barred securely behind them by the Wereravens. Deciding to head for Berez where they know they will find one of the gems that was stolen from the Wizard of Wines, and possibly a treasure that will help them in their battle against Strahd, they turn the horses off the Old Svalich road and down the marshy path towards the long-abandoned village. They camp down for the night in the driest spot they can find and sit around the campfire, airing their worries about what has happened to the witch who lives there, Baba Lysaga. It’s possible that the assassin sent by Siri has done his work, making things a lot easier for the group, but this is not a guarantee. All sleep well except for Siri, who spends the night praying to Vulodin in an act of repentance for allowing herself to be consumed by selfishness, evil and the lust for power.
When the morning comes, the band of heroes sneak into the flooded village of Berez for their second visit, hoping it will go a lot better than their first. This time, Haldar casts Pass Without Trace on them all and, as they stealth through the blankets of fog, stagnating water pools and dilapidated buildings, they feel that this is a much safer plan compared to their last attempt of just piling straight into the middle of town, shouting at each other. The scarecrows are still here, but they don’t turn to look at them as they pass. Baba Lysaga’s hut is missing entirely, although they can see something moving through the mists further downriver.
Heading for the ruins of the manor house, which clearly used to be the largest building in the village, they notice that the fences of one of the animal pens in the back yard has been smashed and broken. Inside the pen lays a huge bone which looks as if it has been thrown through the fence, so Thia goes to take a closer look.
“It’s a giant skull,” she calls back to them as she inspects it. “It’s weird though, it has a seat carved out of the bone, and there’s…there’s a wizened corpse in it.”
“Does it look like anyone we know?” replies Haldar, trying to keep his voice low.
Thia shakes her head.
“No… it looks ancient. The skin is thin and pulled taut across the skull, and it has an expression of abject terror on its face. I think it might be Baba Lysaga. Maybe that assassin actually succeeded?”
Curious, Thia reaches out to touch the skull, but as she does so it crumbles into dust. There’s a sudden rustling from behind the group and they spin around. Staring in at them through the empty windows of the building and from behind its broken, collapsing fences are all the scarecrows.
The scarecrows don’t prove too much of a problem for the adventurers; the trouble is that not long after the fight starts, Baba Lysaga’s hut comes stomping towards them out of the fog, drawn by the sound of the ruckus. It swings one of its huge root legs at the group and smashes Siri and Obryn quite badly, so Devlin tries to dispel its magic. It doesn’t work. Drusilla tries as well, and she manages to stop the hut dead in its tracks; it stands unmoving amongst them, seemingly dead. With the last of the scarecrows dispatched, Haldar turns his attention towards it, leaps up onto one of its legs with an acrobatic flourish and dives through the doorway, just as the hut creaks, groans, and then comes back to life. It immediately launches an attack on Siri, knocking her out, so Obryn roars and beats at its leg with his war-axe, raining blow after blow on it until Drusilla dispels its magic again.
Inside, Haldar is exploring. The room he finds himself in isn’t that large, but it contains an array of strange items; a bathtub streaked with blood, a large chest, and a happy-looking baby laying in a crib that stands atop floorboards tinged with an ethereal green glow. The ranger smashes the boards and is relieved to see that the glow is coming from a large, green gem stashed in a makeshift cavity in the floor, a gem which he recognises as the second stone stolen from the Wizard of Wines. He reaches for it…
After healing Siri, Thia bounds through the door of the hut too, but as she does so the hut begins to move again and both she and Haldar are thrown across the room. The ranger slams into the chest and is hit on the head by a large jug that topples off a shelf, but he shrugs off the pain and scrambles back to the cavity to grab the gem. As he reaches into the hole, its edges become teeth that try to snap on his arm, but he deftly avoids them and pulls out the glowing treasure, holding it up in triumph.
“YES!” he yells.
The hut shudders, twitches and then stops moving, as if its heart has just been removed. Then Devlin appears in the doorway, grinning.
“Can I help?” he asks.
“You could check out that baby,” Haldar says, pointing to the crib. “I think we probably need to get it out of here, don’t you?”
Devlin stands in the centre of the room and casts Detect Magic just to make sure there’s nothing fishy that may be protecting the crib, but instead he senses illusion magic from the baby, and abjuration magic from the chest to his right.
“The child isn’t real,” he says, turning back towards Haldar to see the ranger’s fingers closing on the lid of the chest, about to pry it open. “And don’t touch that!”
The sorcerer strides over and casts Dispel Magic, and a purple glyph flares briefly before disappearing.
“Thanks for that,” says Haldar gratefully, and he opens the chest to reveal a few interesting items which he pockets to share out later. However, there’s no sign of the book they’re looking for that might help them to defeat Strahd.
“Hey, guys? You might want to come down here…”
Siri’s anxious voice echoes up to the hut and the three make their way outside, climbing carefully down the root legs of the hut to join her and Obryn. Standing in front of them is the ghost of a giant, and he doesn’t look best pleased.
“SO, STRAHD HAS SENT MORE OF HIS MINIONS TO INVADE MY HOME? BEGONE, I BESEECH YOU!”
Devlin steps forward, aware that his reading from Madame Eva told him that one of the treasures would be found here.
“We are not minions of Strahd,” he says, with respect. “It was foretold that we should come here to find something that can help us to defeat him.”
The ghost breathes a huge, deep sigh.
“THERE IS NOTHING HERE THAT CAN DEFEAT THE DEVIL,” he replies despondently.
“Please,” Devlin says, standing his ground and remembering the dream he had of himself in Berez. “I believe this item is a book. It’s large, with metal clasps and an emblem on the front. Have you seen it?”
The ghost pauses for a second, then nods his huge head before pointing to the left of the mansion.
“TRAVEL WEST. TWO HUNDRED PACES FROM THE MANSION LIES A MONUMENT AND THE TREASURE YOU SEEK. NOW BEGONE!”
“Thank you,” Devlin answers, and the adventurers turn and set off into the mists.
After some searching, they eventually find a raised plot of land that lies untouched by the swampy waters. Atop it is a life-sized stone statue of a girl laying on her back and clutching a rose to her chest and, although her features are weatherworn, she bears a striking resemblance to their friend, Ireena. At the monument’s base is an epitaph.
‘Marina, taken by the mists.’
“This must be it,” Haldar says thoughtfully, and goes to examine it with Obryn. They find a loose stone at the bottom and Devlin casts Detect Magic on it, sensing abjuration magic, but it’s too late, as the ranger and the barbarian have already yanked the stone out. There’s a loud boom of thunder, and the two of them are thrown backwards and knocked prone.
“Ow,” groans Obryn, rubbing his head as he watches Devlin walk over and reach into the hole that the stone has left. The sorcerer pulls out a box wrapped carefully in leather, and on opening it he finds a book that he recognises from his dream, a book with metal clasps and an emblem on the cover. Unfortunately, it seems to be written in a language he can’t understand so he stashes it in his pack to study later.
Anxious to be sleeping somewhere that isn’t soggy, damp and possibly leech-ridden, the adventurers head back to the Old Svalich road on their horses, and it’s not until they reach it that they make camp in the woods nearby. During his watch, Devlin has the urge to get out the book and see if there’s anything he can make sense of, so he sits cross-legged next to the fire and gently turns the ancient pages. To his surprise, he finds one page written in the common language but as he reads the first line, he’s interrupted by a rather miffed Haldar.
“Just what do you think you’re doing?” the ranger enquires. “You’re supposed to be keeping watch!”
“Err…” stutters Devlin. “I just wanted to have a look at it, in case, you know, there’s anything important in it.”
“And you thought your watch was the best time to do that? Give it to me.” Devlin protests, but Haldar snatches the book off him and stuffs it into his pack. “You can have it back in the morning. Now, keep a look out!”
Devlin is up early the next morning and hounding Haldar for his book back. As they eat breakfast, the sorcerer studies it and finds that it’s the infamous Tome of Strahd, the diary of the master vampire himself, and the section in the common language details his love for a girl called Tatyana. However, she was betrothed to his brother, Sergei, whom Strahd hated for being so youthful, so he killed the man and used his blood to become immortal. When Tatyana discovered that Sergei was dead, she flung herself from the top of Castle Ravenloft and the vampire lost his love forever. Or so it would seem. The adventurers remember the monument to Marina, the grave of Tasha Petrovna in the grounds of the Abbey, and his obsession with Ireena Kolyana. When the group had pulled Ireena away from the pool in Krezk where she saw the vision of the handsome in the water, she had called him Sergei.
Could it be that Tatyana has been reincarnated a number of times, and that Strahd still pursues her?