The breakfast table is huge and laid out with such a feast that it would put Hogwarts to shame. Seated around it are six adventurers and one archmage, all enjoying its sumptuous bounty as they chat about their plans to visit the Amber Temple that day. However Devlin, who has been thinking about spells that can bring people back to life, changes the subject by turning on the charm to Mordenkainen.
“My friend,” he says with a huge smile on his face. “We have been wondering where we can find diamonds in this land so that we can have a backup plan should any of us die in the fight with Strahd. Would you happen to have any here in your mansion? We would be very willing to trade, of course, but we would need at least 300 golds-worth.”
The archmage considers this for a moment but is quite taken by the sorcerer’s charm.
“I will have Valefaxorus look to see what he can find,” he replies. “I’m sure there must be some around here.”
“And I wonder if I might make use of your extensive library?” Haldar pipes up, between mouthfuls of food. Mordenkainen turns to the ranger.
“Not the Greater Library,” he answers. “The books in there are far too dangerous. But you may access the Lesser Library if you are looking for general spells. When you are ready, you may ask Valefaxorus to unlock it for you.”
Having remembered a little more of his ordeal, Mordenkainen tells them that, after he was defeated by Strahd, he ran to the woods and mind-blanked himself so that the vampire would not be able to detect his thoughts, but this left him vulnerable and paranoid. He is feeling much better this morning, though, and before he takes his leave from the adventurers so that he can start work on transcribing a new spell book, he gives them a sending stone so that they can contact him when they’re ready to face the vampire.
Once he’s gone, Siri sidles up to Valefaxorus to ask a question.
“Excuse me, sir, but is this real food, given that this is a magical mansion? Would it be safe for me to eat something that’s poisonous to me?”
The man smiles.
“Yes, the food is real, but this is a place of refuge and protection. As such, no harm can come to you while you are here. You could throw yourself from that balcony over there and walk away without even a bruise.”
Devlin and Obryn swap mischievous looks and immediately race up the stairs, where Obryn chucks the sorcerer over the bannister.
“Did that hurt?” the barbarian yells down.
“No!” replies Devlin. “Hang on, I’ll come back up there and throw you!”
Haldar rolls his eyes and walks over to ask Valefaxorus if he can open the library for him.
“Yes, of course. I will show…”
As he’s talking, Obryn falls face first onto the floor in front of them.
“Did that hurt?” yells Devlin.
“Noooo!” says the dwarf happily, standing up and brushing himself off before running up the stairs again.
“As I was saying,” Valefaxorus sighs, turning back to Haldar. “I will show you where it is. Please follow me.”
The Lesser Library is still huge, and Haldar peers through the open doorway in awe at the number of books that have been stacked on the miriad of shelves. Valefaxorus whips the breakfast pastry out of the ranger’s hand as he steps forward and tells him that no food is permitted in the Library. Haldar just nods silently and walks reverently inside, the door closing behind him.
Lunchtime rolls around. As Siri is trying wine, grapes, chocolate, blue cheese and everything else that would normally make her sick, Obryn and Devlin have resorted to other tactics.
“Kick me in the crotch!” Obryn goads, widening his stance for easier access. Devlin goes to kick him but stumbles and, realising that Apple Pie has tied his bootlaces together, bends over to untie them, whereupon Obryn takes the opportunity to kick him right up the backside.
“Did that hurt?” grins the dwarf.
Downstairs, Thia picks up a plate and puts various foods on it.
“I’ll take this to Haldar,” she says to Siri. “He must be getting hungry and I’m betting that he won’t want to leave to get food.”
The cleric knocks on the door of the Lesser Library, and the ranger answers after a short wait, looking wild-eyed and excited as he stands in the doorway.
“There are so many spells here!” he says, taking the plate gratefully and munching on a sandwich. “Come and look!”
Thia does so but when they open the books, the pages are now all blank. Valefaxorus appears around the side of the doorway.
“I did say no food in the Library,” he says.
Leaving Haldar to plead with the man about being allowed to continue his research, Thia wanders off to look at the artworks adorning the walls around the mansion. She sees lots of paintings of landscapes depicting strange worlds that she’s never seen before, and many paintings of a group of eight important-looking men. Meanwhile, Obryn and Devlin have joined Siri at the table, and all are amazed at the fact that whatever food they think of appears in front of them. Devlin mentions the burgomaster, and suddenly a fried, circular piece of beef in a bun appears. Siri tastes it and proclaims it delicious.
“Hey, I want a piece o’ that…’ the sorcerer says, and a baguette covered in tomato sauce, melted cheese and mushrooms materialises on the table, which he picks up and takes a bite of, nodding in approval.
Lunchtime becomes dinnertime, and still Haldar is ensconced in the Lesser Library. Siri takes herself off to an empty room to pray to Vulodin while Obryn sharpens his war-axe. Devlin sits quietly and studies the Tome of Strahd again, finding a new passage that he can decipher. In it, Strahd talks about how souls are not being reborn, and that children in Barovia are being born hollow. These people still live and grow, but they are dour and fearful, and not at all nourishing to the vampire, so he has taken some children in order to study them. As he closes the book and sets it back down again there’s still no sign of Haldar, but Mordenkainen does appear, looking weary. They talk for a while about Castle Ravenloft, and the archmage’s expression becomes concerned when he hears they are going to travel to the Amber Temple.
“Approach it cautiously, not foolishly,” he warns.
It’s only when the adventurers wake in the morning, well-rested after another wonderful night’s sleep in their rooms, that they see Haldar stumbling out of the Lesser Library, exhausted but happy. They have a quick breakfast, eager to be on their way, and Valefaxorus gives them a diamond whilst apologising for Mordenkainen’s absence. Siri, Thia and Haldar each leave an obsidian stone with him in payment for the gem, and the group step through the magical doorway, back to the streets of Krezk. The door disappears behind them.
Time in the mansion doesn’t seem to have quite matched the time in Krezk, and they realise that it’s not quite 4am and still pretty dark. They’ve only walked a few steps before they see something fluttering towards them. Siri tries to grab it but misses, and it drops to the floor at their feet – it’s a very injured raven, and as it lands it transforms back into Katerina Ivanova of the Keepers of the Feather. She looks up at them, her face terrified.
“He’s here. He knows about the amulet of non-detection, and he’s come for her.” Her voice is filled with urgency, even as Siri and Thia attempt to heal her. “He knows you’re here too. He killed my brothers and he only let me live so I could come and find you!”
The adventurers know that she’s talking about Ireena, who was given an amulet by Danika Martikov in order to hide her from Strahd’s eyes.
“We have to go and help her!” cries Thia, but Katerina grabs her arm.
“You’ll be walking into a trap,” she hisses. “He knows you’re coming!”
Devlin considers what she’s said, thinking hard and turning to his friends.
“So, we should just leave her and continue on to the Amber Temple, then?”
Katerina becomes exasperated.
“He’s going to kill her!” she shouts, but the adventurers, confused by her conflicting statements, are undecided about what they need to do. She gives them a look of utter disgust, then transforms back into a raven and flies off towards Vallaki. Not wanting to walk into Strahd’s trap but deciding that they should definitely try to save Ireena, the friends set off down the road towards the girl’s house, feeling the weight of trepidation on their shoulders.
The door of the home is standing open as they approach and there’s an ominous dark figure on the threshold. Ireena stands in front of him, gazing up into his face and, as they watch in horror, Strahd turns to give them a vicious smile before slamming the door behind him. There’s movement from the four trees that stand in the courtyard and a vampire spawn jumps down from each of them, snarling and hissing as the friends jump to a defensive stance. Siri lights up the sunsword and attacks the nearest one as Devlin fires chromatic orbs at two of them at once. Obryn charges over to the one that Siri is fighting and gives it a whack with his war-axe. Haldar pulls out his bow, magically charges his arrows and fires at another of the creatures while Thia holds up the Holy Symbol of Ravenkind and casts Hold Vampire on as many as she can reach. The bell in the town square chimes.
“Get inside the house!” Siri yells at Obryn as one of the vampire spawn shrinks from the sunlight her sword is producing, and the dwarf charges across the courtyard to the door, splintering it into pieces with his shoulder. In the room in front of him, Strahd turns angrily from the girl, growls at the barbarian and leaps forward to attack him. Siri skids through the broken door and across the tiled floor, taking up a position between the vampire and Ireena, her sword blazing. Strahd spins around and hisses.
“My brother Sergei’s sword!” He looks over her shoulder at Ireena. “My dear, please wait for me upstairs. I will join you momentarily.”
She smiles and nods, walks over the stairs and begins to climb them, just before one of Haldar’s lightning arrows flies through the doorway and hits the vampire. It explodes, burning not only Strahd but also Siri and Obryn, and the monster turns and bares his fangs at the courtyard beyond the empty doorway.
Outside, the battle continues with the vampire spawn. Two of them have been destroyed and Thia has used the Holy Symbol to cast Sunlight, severely restricting the movements of the remaining two. Devlin’s shadow hound is snapping hungrily at the heels of one of them when Strahd bursts through the doorway and swipes at Thia, the source of the painful sunlight. Having dispatched the vampire spawn, Devlin, Thia, Haldar and Drusilla all take the opportunity to have a pop at him, inflicting more damage to the vampire.
Siri, hearing the sound of fighting in the courtyard, runs up the stairs after Ireena and swings her sword at her, injuring her.
“I know you can hear me,” the paladin growls. “Leave, or I’ll kill her.”
Strahd has no intention of leaving. He bursts through the doorway into the centre of the room, fails to dodge an opportunistic strike from Obryn as he passes, and flinches as a tree explodes in a massive fireball outside.
He fixes his gaze on the paladin and points.
“Take your hands off her,” he snarls. Siri is immediately wracked with pain as her veins split and her vitality drains away, and suddenly the vampire is right behind her on the stairs. Despite the agony, she smiles.
Spinning around, she brings the bright sunsword straight down onto him with the most powerful divine smite she can muster.
Strahd’s expression turns from one of anger to one of shock, and he seems to shrink back slightly from the paladin before dissolving into a cloud of mist, a mist that flies through the open doorway, past the rest of the adventurers, and away into the night.
“Noooo!” yells Ireena as Siri struggles to hold onto her. “No, my love, don’t leave me!”
Devlin runs in, quickly dispelling the magic on the girl and ending the vampire’s charm, and she collapses into the paladin’s arms.
“I’m sorry for hitting you,” Siri says, healing her wounds. “Where’s Ismark?”
Ireena looks up with tears in her eyes and shakes her head, whispering that she doesn’t know, so they all go outside to look for him. They find him tied up just off the courtyard, obviously positioned where he can best see what is about to happen to his sister and, when they release him, he runs over to hug her. There’s a sudden flutter of wings and the wereravens arrive, alongside a wooden carriage that bumps across the cobbles towards them. Four of them land and take on their human form, one of which is Katerina. She looks them up and down with a slightly amused look.
“You’re more skilful than I took you for,” she says. “We’ll take Ireena and Ismark to Vallaki where we can give them better protection.”
“We’ll come with you,” says Devlin, watching as the wereravens dish out healing to the injured adventurers. “But Haldar needs to rest and meditate. Maybe he could travel inside the carriage too?”
Katerina nods, and soon they’re on the road to Vallaki; Haldar and Devlin in the carriage with Ireena and Ismark; Thia, Obryn, Siri and Drusilla riding alongside, and the ravens flying above. The only creature they encounter along the way is a skeletal horse with a skeleton rider, a lantern that casts no light held aloft in its curled fingers. When they see it, the coach driver looks down and away from it.
“What is it?” Obryn asks him.
“I don’t know,” the man answers, quietly. “But legend has it that if it points at you, you’ll die in twenty-four hours.”
The barbarian gulps, but the rider seems to pass by as if it hasn’t even noticed them. However, when they turn around to check, it seems to be looking at Drusilla and lowering its hand, although they never actually saw it point at her.
At the crossroads on the Old Svalich road, just outside Vallaki, they’re met by many more wereravens and the adventurers take their leave, knowing that Ireena and Ismark have ample protection from here. As they say their goodbyes, the girl climbs down from the carriage and walks over to Siri.
“I’m sorry for how rude I was to you at the blessed pool that night,” she says. “I can’t really explain it, but it was as if I’d suddenly lost my one true love, and the pain was just too much to bear.”
The paladin bows her head in respect.
“You don’t need to apologise, I completely understand,” she replies, and the pair hug before Ireena climbs back into the carriage.
Ismark thanks them and tells them that if there’s anything he can help them with, he would be glad to. Then he re-joins his sister, and the entourage trundles off down the road towards the town gates, leaving the adventurers to continue their journey towards the Amber Temple, far to the south in the Gakis mountains.
The road, fairly wide at first, starts to narrow as it rises, and as the morning passes the trees give way to scrubland littered only with small bushes and patches of grass. They stop for lunch to rest the horses, but it’s not long before the path becomes so narrow that they must travel in single file, and the animals have difficulty keeping their footing on the frozen, stony ground. Bitter cold bites at them all as they travel still higher and, reluctantly, they concede that they should send the horses back down the mountain with Lightning to guard them, lest the animals expire. They continue on as light snow begins to fall, but it’s difficult going. The path does not seem well travelled at all so, when Thia spots a tower carved into the mountain, they’re relieved to know that their destination should now be fairly close. However, evening is falling and none of them want to risk walking the steep, treacherous path in the dark. Haldar creates a magical tiny hut for them, and the friends gratefully spend the night inside in the warmth, watching the falling snow cover the dome of the refuge, and trying to sleep in the unearthly silence that blankets the mountains.
After meditating for a few hours, Devlin gets out the Tome of Strahd and is able to decipher another short passage. It tells of Strahd’s hatred for the elves because they had stoned his beloved Patrina to death, and of how he will avenge her by killing all the female elves so that the males will never know the comfort of a woman. When he reads this to the rest of the gang in the morning as they eat breakfast, Drusilla surprises them.
“I knew Patrina,” she says. “She wanted to become Strahd’s bride, but the elves stoned her to death because she lusted for power and was putting them all in danger by attracting his attention.”
“Did she look like Ireena, by any chance?” Siri asks.
Drusilla’s brow furrows in thought.
“I do not think so, but it was a long time ago,” she sighs. She doesn’t see Haldar to one side of her, or the expression on his face that shows he suspects she is lying about knowing the woman.
As the adventurers prepare for another few hours hiking, Haldar sits by his brazier and concentrates on acquiring a familiar. As his spell completes, a beautiful fey raven flies out of the swirling snow towards him, landing on his shoulder. He names him Black, short for ‘black as night and twice as dark’. As he’s greeting his new friend, Apple Pie peeks out from his cloak, looking indignant, then flutters over to Thia’s shoulder to stick her tongue out at the ranger before darting inside the cleric’s warm cloak instead.
Though the hike through the snowy conditions is tough, the path eventually brings them to a high wall of black stone, topped with horned vulture statues and with a closed portcullis in the centre. Directly behind this is a wall of green fire, and beyond they can see a white tower replete with golden statues of mighty warriors. Devlin casts Detect Magic, sensing evocation magic from the flame and transmutation magic from the strange avian statues atop the gate, so he dispels the magic on the fire and bravely approaches the portcullis. It raises in front of him. The others follow, but the fire springs back to life so Thia dispels the magic again, enabling them all to make their way quickly and safely through to the other side. The portcullis grinds shut with a clang, and silence reigns once more.
The white tower appears to be a guard post, but the door is tightly locked shut. That is, until Obryn gets to it. He boldly smashes it down and sees that it was barred from the other side, indicating that the occupants were trying to keep something out.
“Maybe we should have knocked?” says Thia as she peers through the doorway, regarding the icy and decrepit room with curiosity.
As they explore, they find that the tower has long been abandoned. The fireplaces are cold and filled with snow, the furniture has collapsed with the years and the stairs that lead upwards are treacherously slippery. Nevertheless, the views from the top are incredible. A frozen lake sprawls hundreds of feet below them, and the pathway continues to a small bridge that crosses an icy chasm. The only worrying thing is that the path across the bridge is blocked by a dark figure astride a black horse with flaming hooves and mane.
Count Strahd von Zarovich slowly turns his head and looks right at them…