The ride through the early morning mists down to the winery is thankfully uneventful, and the group arrive there in good spirits, happy that they’ll be helping the place to produce better wines again. They’re met at the front door by Darian Martikov, who favours them with one of his best scowls.
“I hope you’re here to deliver another of my gems,” he grumbles irritably, then watches as Devlin produce the stone from beneath his cloak with a fancy flourish. He almost smiles but manages to suppress it at the last moment.
“Well about time. I will take it to the green one so that it can be placed back in position in the vineyards.”
Seeing that the elderly man isn’t walking too well, Siri offers to take it for him, but he snaps at her and totters off to find Lohrakna.
Adrian, Darian’s son, appears and shows them into the house where a nice breakfast is being set out for them, along with a bottle of Red Dragon Crush – a much better wine than the Purple Grapemash No.3 which is all the winery has been able to produce with just the one gem available to them. While gratefully enjoying the food, the adventurers chat about what they want to do next. Drusilla tells them that she still wants to visit the Amber Temple as Rahadin had told her that it was the place where Strahd obtained his power and, while the others agree, they think it might be a better idea to first find the mad mage in the hope of getting him on their side.
On the journey northwards from the winery, a cunning plan is formulated. Deciding that the best way to deal with a powerful mage is to incapacitate him to the point where he can’t cast any spells, they devise a way to sneak up before hitting him with a bunch of tactics designed to hold him, silence him and find out what’s wrong with him. Once that’s done, they reckon that they might be able to help him.
Trotting on, though, their attention is suddenly drawn to a very odd waterfall not far from the side of the road. From a small crack behind the rushing curtain of water, there appears to be another waterfall; one of flowing shadows sliding down the rock face to the ground below. Ever curious, Siri goes over to look more closely and immediately wishes she hadn’t, because all she can sense is evil. Black demonic-looking creatures with six red eyes and mouths filled with pointed teeth emerge from the bushes and tall grasses, chittering in high-pitched voices as they pounce towards the shocked adventurers. One creates a sphere of darkness that engulfs everyone except Haldar and Drusilla, while a second leaps at Thia and latches onto her with its fangs, slowly draining her life-force away. Siri and Lightning blindly battle two more together as a team, and then Devlin manages to take out the Natterling that cast the darkness, shielding his eyes and squinting as the light of day engulfs them once more.
Nearby, Obryn is jumped by yet another bold Natterling that manages to get its teeth into him and start feeding, but he swats it off with a few choice profanities. Thia, however, now has two of them attached to her, so Siri runs over and pulls one of the beasts off her shoulder, throwing it aside where Haldar promptly shoots a well-placed arrow straight through its head. The trouble is that by the time all the Natterlings are dead, the Cleric is not looking well at all. Unable to heal her much at all despite trying their best, the friends instead help her onto her horse and head north to the wizard’s tower on Lake Baratok where they know they’ll be fairly safe under its magical protection. Nevertheless, as Thia is helped to the only bed in the tower so that she can rest and recover, they still take watches just in case.
In the middle of the night, while Siri is on watch, she hears a familiar sound from the pile of equipment and packs they’ve stacked in the corner of the room; a muffled nattering. She uses her divine sense but can’t feel anything evil. If anything, she feels a kind of muted good from the hiding creature. She tiptoes over to where the barbarian is sleeping and pokes him.
He grumbles a bit at the finger-prodding, but then answers sleepily.
“I think one of those natterling things hitched a ride back here with us…” replies Siri in a hushed voice.
“And you want me to boot it?” Obryn perks up a bit and his eyes glitter dimly in the darkness.
Siri cocks her head.
“Maybe, but I think we should try and catch it first. It doesn’t feel like the others did.”
After a few failed attempts, the two manage to corral the creature into Siri’s alms box but it doesn’t seem as if it wants to attack them. Quite the contrary, it cowers in the corner of the box and when the paladin pokes a hotdog in, it waits until her fingers are out of the way before devouring it ferociously.
In the morning, after checking on Thia and finding that she is feeling much better, Siri shows the natterling to the others and explains how different it is compared to the ones that jumped them the previous day. Devlin detects an aura of transformation magic around it and Drusilla tries to dispel it, but it’s too powerful for her. However, Thia tries with the highest magic she can muster and manages to negate the spell that has been cast on the unfortunate creature. As they watch, its oily black façade seems to crack and shimmer, a long neck and tail extend out, and beautiful purple butterfly wings emerge from its back. In less than a minute, a joyous little Faerie Dragon is fluttering around them at high speed, clearly grateful to be herself again. Drusilla swats her away but Haldar offers her an apple, and she alights on his shoulder to enjoy the tasty treat before disappearing inside his coat, clearly intending to stay with her new friends.
Packing up their kit, the adventurers head off into the forest to look for the mad mage. Keeping to their plan, they try to remain stealthy while looking for tracks or any other indications that he’s in the area but, after two hours, all they find are two trees that look as if they were burned quite a while ago. Suddenly, they hear an explosion in the distance and, peeking out from the trees, they spot the mage flinging fireballs into the lake. The trouble is that he sees them too, and darts back into the forest.
“Quick,” says Devlin under his breath. “We need to catch up to him, but we can’t let him know we’re following him!”
After running to the spot where they saw the wizard, they go back into stealth mode and track his footprints up a small deer path until they see him again a short way in front of them. He spins around, and the friends dive for the cover of the bushes, all except for Obryn who’s mind had wandered off somewhere.
“Err, hello,” he says sheepishly, as the mage scowls at him and begins to conjure a fiery orange glow in his hands.
In the undergrowth, the plan is in full swing. Devlin makes Siri and Haldar invisible, and then the ranger casts Pass Without Trace so that they have a better chance of sneaking up on the insane man. Thia casts Entangle on his legs, and Drusilla casts Silence so that he can’t conjure any spells to injure them, and by now the man is tugging at the vines that are rooting him to the spot, looking a bit panicked. He’s even more shocked when Obryn charges at him, and a scarf and rope appear from thin air to gag him and bind his hands. The barbarian restrains him as the gag is tied tight, then he wrestles him to the floor as the vines disappear and sound returns to the area once more. The lynching has been successful, the mage has been hog-tied and silenced before he could even get an attack in, and Siri and Haldar reappear next to him as Devlin drops his Invisibility spell.
“Well, that was easy,” the sorcerer says, his friends nodding in agreement around him. “Now we just need to find out what’s wrong with him!”
Kneeling beside the man, Siri reaches out her hand and touches his bare arm, concentrating on the magic she’s casting. After a minute, she stands up, looking determined.
“He’s got a few spells affecting him,” she says. “Mage Armor, Polymorph and Mind Blank, which might explain why he’s so uncooperative. He probably can’t remember who he is or why he’s here.”
Thia walks over and, looking down at him with her arm outstretched, casts Dispel Magic. For a moment it seems like nothing is happening, but then the mage’s appearance begins to change – his grey, straggly hair disappears to reveal a smooth, bald head; his dishevelled robes turn into much more finely crafted ones, and his face becomes more angular and noble, with a slightly-grown-out goatee. Wide-eyed in confusion, he struggles again, and the group know that they need to get him to the blessed pool in Krezk as fast as possible so that the waters there can cure his madness. Securing him tightly to Lightning’s shoulders with the paladin sitting behind him to make sure that he doesn’t misbehave, they set off at speed through the rain and the falling darkness, bound for the distant commune.
It’s fully dark by the time they reach the locked gates of Krezk, but they are well-known and popular with the townsfolk, and are quickly let in by the guards on duty. They waste no time in getting to the pool, but the question is how to get the mage to drink the water.
“If we take the gag off, he might attack us with spells,” Siri says. “Sooo…”
“So we leave the gag on and just pour water onto it,” replies Devlin triumphantly, manoeuvring the man into a face-up position beside the pool. “He’ll have to swallow at some point!”
As the sorcerer carries out his plan, Obryn sidles up to the others with a concerned look on his face.
“Are we… waterboarding him?” he whispers.
Siri nods, slowly.
“I think we might be?”
As the mage begins to choke, Devlin stops pouring the water onto his face and leans down, looking straight into his eyes. The man’s frightened expression suddenly clears to one of extreme confusion and, on seeing this, Devlin cautiously removes his gag and bindings. Obryn appears at his shoulder, one hand on the hilt of his war-axe.
“Try casting any magic and I’ll split your skull,” he growls.
Shakily, the mage stands and raises one hand towards the barbarian in a gesture of calm.
“I do not mean you any harm, my friend” he says, weakly. “But where am I? What happened? I remember battling with the vampire Strahd, he broke my staff and destroyed my spell book. I think he threw me over the waterfall. How did I get here?”
“We found you in the forest suffering from some sort of madness,” Haldar replies, stepping forward. “We’ve brought you to Krezk, where the water in this pool has restorative properties.”
The mage nods.
“Yes, I can sense that, it feels blessed. I thank you all for what you’ve done to help me.”
Siri looks towards the burgomaster’s house at the other end of the town, shivering a little at the cold breeze.
“We should get you somewhere warm where you can rest for the night,” she says. “Then perhaps, in the morning, we can find a way to get you back to your home?”
The mage gives her a small smile and turns to Obryn.
“May I perform a little magic? I promise it will not be harmful in any way.”
The dwarf nods, and he waves his hands, uttering arcane words under his breath. A large door suddenly appears in front of them, its edges glowing with faint, magical light, and the mage pushes it open, inviting them all inside.
“Sir, you have returned! I trust the fight went well with the vampire?”
The adventurers are amazed to find themselves standing in the entrance hallway of a lavish mansion and, as they gaze around in awe, the mage replies to the smartly dressed man in front of him.
“Sadly, Valefaxorus, I don’t believe so. In fact, I think more time has passed than we realise, and had it not been for the kind intervention of my friends here, I may not have returned at all.”
He turns to the group, suddenly looking very weary.
“I must leave you in Valefaxorus’ care for a time, while I go and make myself more presentable. Please, make yourselves at home, and feel free to call on him if there’s anything that you need. I will meet you in an hour.”
Valefaxorus shows them all into the study, a magnificent room decorated with paintings and frescos, shelves of books, and display cases holding various impressive-looking wands, artefacts and strange skulls. While Haldar ogles all the different writings and Obryn finds the drinks cabinet, Siri asks the man exactly where they are. He looks a little surprised but retains his composure as he answers.
“You are in the magnificent mansion of Mordenkainen!”
“You mean… the man we rescued is Mordenkainen himself, the powerful archmage?” Siri responds, her eyes wide.
“But of course,” says Valefaxorus. “Did he not introduce himself to you?”
“No, I think he was a little bit out of it,” the paladin answers with compassion in her voice. “He’d been living in the Svalich Woods with his mind blanked for so long that he probably needs some time to get over that.”
“Indeed,” he replies, quietly.
The Faerie Dragon suddenly darts out of Haldar’s cloak, spies a table laden with food, and promptly buries her head happily into a large apple pie, scattering pastry crumbs all over. Valefaxorus grimaces at this sight, wary of having a small, mischievous, possibly mess-creating creature in the mansion, but Siri chuckles and calls to Haldar.
“Maybe we should call her Apple Pie?”
When their host reappears, he’s looking much more comfortable and relaxed – he’s washed, his beard has been neatly trimmed, and his robes have been changed to clean ones. He greets them warmly and tells them that his memory is slowly returning, so Devlin shows him the Tome of Strahd and asks if he knows what it is. Mordenkainen turns the pages slowly and thoughtfully.
“This book is not magical, but it is very valuable. I think that if you were to study it carefully, you may learn important information that could give you insight into the vampire’s history and vulnerabilities.”
He hands it back to the sorcerer, as Haldar fishes about in his pack.
“What about this one?” he says, handing the Abbot’s book to the mage. Mordenkainen takes it gingerly, regarding its cover with suspicion.
“I sense that this book is extremely dangerous. Where did you get it?”
“From the Abbot’s rooms at the Abbey here in Krezk,” replies Haldar. “He was a bit of an odd duck. A celestial, but quite insane. He’d been experimenting on a family there, turning the poor people into mad mongrelfolk.”
“I think that whoever gave him this book was not trying to help him, rather to corrupt him,” he says, waving his hand across the cover and watching a glyph flare in purple upon it. “This will require extra measures.”
Raising a magical shield in front of his face, the mage opens the book and hideous tentacles immediately spring from its pages, writhing and smashing at the barrier. He is unphased by this, casually turning the pages and reading the text inside before closing it again, with a sigh.
“It is a book for creating flesh golems, but it is lucky you were never tempted to read it. It has powerful magic cast on it, intended to twist the mind of whomever uses it.”
He holds the tome out and points at it, and a thin green ray springs from his finger and disintegrates it instantly.
Both Devlin and Haldar are extremely impressed by this and ask Mordenkainen if he will join them in their quest to destroy Strahd, but the mage shakes his head sadly.
“Strahd has destroyed my staff and spell book, and without those I am a shadow of what I once was,” he says. “I do have another staff, but I fear I would not be of much use to you until I can create a new spell book. This would take quite some time.”
“Well, we will still need to go to Castle Ravenloft,” replies Haldar. “We have promises to keep – we need to find Emil Tourescu of the werewolf clan, Thia’s father, Rolan, and our friend Nordan, all of whom we believe were taken and imprisoned by Strahd. We also need to find the last gem that was stolen from the Wizard of Wines, which we’ve been told is also at the castle.”
“Perhaps the Tarokka card reading we had was wrong,” ponders Devlin.
Mordenkainen’s ears prick up.
“Tarokka card reading?”
“Yes,” replies Devlin. “Madame Eva told us that we should find the Broken One, a man who had made himself forget who he was, and that he would help us in our final battle with the vampire.”
“I have a lot of respect for the Tarokka cards, and for Madame Eva,” the mage says. “For this reason, I will help you in your fight, but I cannot join you until you reach the castle. I need time to prepare my new spell book.”
The adventurers thank him profusely, and he offers them dinner and rooms for the night, which they gratefully accept.
“I will see you at breakfast in the morning,” Mordenkainen says. “Then we can discuss this further.”