Episode 14: Boons, Banes and Betrayal

“I call to you, Llolth, to COME AND CLAIM YOUR PRIZE!”

Drusilla’s starry eyes sparkle as she joyfully speaks the words, but suddenly her expression changes to one of shock and fear, for the creature that emerges through the portal is not the spider goddess at all. Whilst the enormous legs are most certainly that of an arachnid, the face of this monstrosity has multiple tentacles sprouting from it that flail hungrily around the room as it hauls itself from the hole in the floor.

“No!” she cries in terror, scuttling backwards and out of its reach. “I will not let you take me back!”

Two of the tentacles lash forward and hit Siri, dealing her such massive damage that she’s knocked unconscious straight away, but Thia manages to heal her from across the room before setting up a Guardian of Faith to try and keep the beast at bay. Devlin grabs Obryn’s shoulder and casts Dimension Door to take them both directly to the sarcophagus that granted Drusilla her power, whereupon the barbarian sets about smashing it in the hope that it will take the drider’s power away and close the portal. Meanwhile, back in the great hall, Haldar turns to Drusilla with a frown on his elven face.

“Close the portal. NOW!”

“I don’t know how!” she cries forlornly, shrinking further back against the wall and then yelping in pain as the ranger’s arrows bury themselves in her spidery body. She fires a spell back at him in self-defence, but the pain of her injuries causes her to shoot wide.

Back on her feet thanks to Thia, Siri lops off one of the creature’s tentacles as it pulls itself further out of the portal, but it smacks her unconscious again with another that wraps around her and picks her up, lifting her into the air. Thia shoots healing energy towards her once more, but yet another tentacle knocks the cleric off her feet in return and then hurls her against the back wall. Back at the sarcophagus, Obryn raises his war-axe and brings it down on the block of amber, smashing it to smithereens, then tries to charge the locked door so that he and Devlin can escape the vault. The door doesn’t give, even when Devlin tries to firebolt it.

As Haldar and Drusilla continue to battle each other, Obryn finally manages to bust the doors open and the two of them speed back to great hall to see the horrendous creature almost completely out of the hole in the floor and waving Siri around like a flag. Devlin casts a fireball at its enormous body, but then suddenly the portal seems to judder and start to shrink. The creature wails in anger as it’s pulled backwards towards the hole and Siri, now conscious again, slices at the tentacle that’s holding her. She drops to the ground, closely followed by the severed tentacle, but as the monster struggles for purchase it wraps one tentacle around the unconscious body of Thia and one around Devlin, dragging them both with it across the stone floor. Drusilla’s expression changes to one of conflicted horror, but then she gathers herself, steps forward and casts blight on the tentacle holding Devlin. It withers and blackens, releasing the sorcerer who drops to the floor, safe from the threat of being pulled into the portal and lost forever. As the second tentacle passes Siri, she lashes out at it with her sword and the monster releases Thia just before its body is pulled back into the portal, which snaps shut behind it as if it were never there.

Silence falls in the temple. Panting with exertion, everyone turns to look at Drusilla, who’s been badly injured by Haldar’s attacks on her. The drider backs away from them with a look of fear and then turns to run, but Obryn is ready and he strikes her with lethal ferocity, severing the spider half of her body from the drow half with a hefty swing of his axe.

After receiving some healing from Siri and slowly getting back to her feet, Thia wanders over to Drusilla’s body and regards her sadly.

“She didn’t have to die,” she whispers.

Haldar walks forward to join her.

“She tried to kill us,” he says, matter-of-factly. “And she lied to us all. If we’d kept her alive, she would have just betrayed us again.”

“Perhaps,” replies Thia. “If we could wait here until tomorrow, maybe I could use a spell to speak with her to find out why she did this. Although… I probably only need part of her if we really do need to head off today.”

Obryn steps forward, raises his axe and lops off her head.

“There you go,” he says.

After retrieving the treasure they had shared with Drusilla, sliding her rings off her fingers and taking a short rest to recover, they head to the other side of the Temple, just to make sure they haven’t missed anything. Emerging into a corridor similar to the one opposite, they see another two amber doors, two regular doors, and a pile of rubble that blocks the corridor to the north. Siri and Thia attempt to clear a path through it, but it soon becomes obvious that it’s not going to budge because the huge blocks of stone are firmly jammed in place. Devlin and Haldar open one of the normal doors and find an old bedchamber beyond. The furniture is falling apart and the magical sigils inscribed upon the walls, which may once have been a form of protection, have long since faded. Gingerly opening the second door they find themselves in another bedroom, only this one has an occupant. A huge man-shaped construct made of darkened wood stands unmoving in the centre of the room, its head touching the ten-foot-high ceiling. Cobwebs drape from it across the pieces of collapsed and decrepit furniture which haven’t yet completely succumbed to the ravages of time. Devlin pulls out the amulet he took from Vilnius, the wizard’s apprentice, and its vibration at his touch indicates to him that this may a shield guardian that he can control. He clears his throat.

“Activate!” he commands, in an authoritative tone.

Nothing happens, and the hulking figure is as still as ever. Devlin tries again.

“Step forward!”

There’s a sudden scraping sound and, slowly, the huge helmed head raises as the shield guardian takes a creaking step forward. Devlin grins.

“Walk towards me!” he shouts, backing up into the corridor as it stomps purposefully towards him. He commands it to clear the rubble but, although it tries, the stones are too jammed into place for even this enormous being to shift.

Leaving it where it is for the moment, Devlin checks the other two amber doors and finds more sarcophagi, listening to the offerings of power from each one. Obryn, Haldar and Thia are all vehemently against accepting any of them (although the one that offers flight is still tempting to Thia), but Siri, ever curious, is intrigued that there may be another room beyond the rock fall. She borrows the wand of secrets from Haldar and, telling her companions that she will be back in a while, races upstairs to the corridor above so that she can see if there’s a way to access it from above. Although they’d previously defeated the flameskulls that had originally inhabited the corridor, more have taken their place so she does her best to dodge through them, slamming the doors closed behind her as she reaches the stone balcony at the end. One of the skulls is a bit tricky, though. Conjuring Mage Hand, it opens them up again, so she darts through the door of the room she’s trying to reach, shuts it, and then leans against it while waving the wand of secrets in the hope that it will reveal a secret exit. It does.

Downstairs, Haldar is perturbed by the bangs of magic spells being fired and the slamming of multiple doors, so he rallies the others to go to Siri’s aid. Devlin levitates up to the stone balcony at the far end of the corridor where two of the flameskulls immediately turn to look at him, but he has the jump on them seeing as he’s just floated up out of the darkness. He shoots off a firebolt and one skull is incinerated, falling to the floor in a pile of ash. Hearing this, Siri cracks open the door and firebolts the skull that is trying to mage hand the door open, squealing as the flames spring from her hands. It also smashes to the floor. By this time, the rest of the party have arrived and Haldar quickly puts an end to the last flameskull with a Toll of the Dead spell. The door cracks open again and the sheepish face of Siri peeks out, smiling awkwardly.

“Siri, what the hell?” Haldar says in a chastising tone.

“I found a secret passage,” the paladin replies, opening the door fully to allow her friends to enter the room. “It’s over there!”

She points with the wand and then hands it back to Haldar, who walks briskly over to the area and feels around the walls, pulling open a door to reveal a set of stone steps leading downwards behind it. They all sneak through and, at the bottom of the staircase, they find themselves in front of three more amber sarcophagi. Haldar listens to each one, relating their offers to his companions.

Both Devlin and Siri, contrary to their companions, are very tempted to accept some of these offerings, figuring that if they can gain an edge against Strahd it will be worth whatever the payment may be. Much to Haldar’s chagrin, Siri touches one that proclaims itself to be Zantras the Kingmaker and immediately feels more charismatic, if a little uncomfortable. She cocks her head.

“I do think that there may be a danger associated with accepting these gifts,” she says, thoughtfully. “There is still great evil here so I would say that if anyone else wants to try, let me bless you first, and I’ll stand with you while you go through it.”

Devlin ears prick up.

“Come with me,” he says.

The sorcerer leads them back to the sarcophagus of Seriach, the Hell Hound Whisperer, which he touches and accepts. He turns around and grins.

“I can summon and control two hell hounds!” he says. “How awesome is that?”

“But what price have you paid?” questions Haldar, raising an eyebrow. “You can bet that there’ll be one, and you two are accepting these things all over the place.”

Devlin looks thoughtful.

“You know, there’s another one I’m tempted by,” he replies.

Haldar throws his hands up in frustration and turns his back on the sorcerer.

“Well, I won’t help you.”

Siri sidles up to him.

“I will, if that’s what you want?” she says and, after a brief moment’s consideration, Devlin leads them both off to the sarcophagus of Dalvernar, He of the Many Teeth, who offers the power to live many lives. The others follow them reluctantly, just to see what happens. At first, all seems fine. Then there’s a tiny noise, like something hitting the floor. When Devlin looks down, he sees that it’s one of his teeth.

“Well, that’s odd,” he says, but as he speaks, another tooth falls out. Then another. In less than a minute, all of the sorcerer’s teeth are scattered around his feet, and his smile looks a lot more gummy. He scoops them up and puts them in his pocket, thinking that he might find a way to make some dentures out of them in the future. Haldar sighs.

“Can we leave now?”

Walking back out into the great hall, they find that the Temple is still shrouded in silence. No more fireballs or lightning bolts are launched at them, and no attacks come from the corridors above them. They are, however, surprised to see that they are no longer alone, because a humanoid is kneeling in front of the large statue at the far end, seemingly in prayer. He stands when he hears their footfalls, bows to the statue and, as he approaches them, they can see that the figure is a dusk elf, clad in black studded-leather armour. Rahadin, Strahd’s right-hand-man, regards them with a contemptuous look.

“What are you doing here?” Haldar asks, eyeing him suspiciously.

Rahadin smiles, but there is nothing friendly about his expression.

“I come here occasionally to petition the gods to release my master from their influence,” he replies. “I have great love and respect for him and want to see him freed from the pain he suffers.”

“We could kill him if that would release him?” queries Devlin in his ever-charismatic way.

The dusk elf sneers.

“I want to see him released, not dead,” he growls.

“And what of the Barovian girl?” says Obryn, stepping forward. “Does he want to free her too? Or is he still going to insist that she becomes his bride?”

“Love brought him to ruin,” Rahadin says, turning towards the dwarf and swirling his cloak around him. “If you know where she is, I would strongly suggest that you bring her to the castle and hand her over to him.”

He reaches into a pouch and pulls out a folded piece of paper bearing a wax seal. “I must give you this invitation. My master expects you at the castle. Do enjoy your trip back down the mountain.”

Opening the note, they read:

“My friends, know that it is I who have brought you to this land, my home, and know that I alone can release you from it. I bid you dine at my castle so that we can meet in civilised surroundings. Your passage here will be a safe one. I await your arrival. Your host, Strahd von Zarovich.”

Once Rahadin has left, the adventurers discuss what to do about the Temple. Siri and Devlin want to leave it intact in case they have need of it, but they’re outvoted by Thia, Obryn and Haldar, who are all for destroying it. While they’re arguing, Siri sneaks off to the sarcophagus of Great Taar Haak, the Five-Headed Destroyer to accept the gift of strength and, when she returns, she sees that Devlin is commanding the shield guardian to destroy all the remaining amber sarcophagi. It stomps off through one of the large doors like a construct on a mission, whereupon its thundering footfalls are replaced by the sounds of crashing fists and shattering amber.

The freezing wind whips around the band of adventurers as they take the small, winding path back down from the peak of Mount Gakis, but their journey is uneventful until they reach the bridge that spans the gorge, the bridge where they’d previously seen Strahd mounted on his nightmare steed. As they step onto the aging flagstones, a large winged shadow is cast across them and, looking up in fear, they see a huge roc circling above them. It folds back its wings and starts to dive.

“Run!” yells Obryn, and he, Thia and Haldar start racing towards the cover of the tower at the far end of the bridge. But Devlin and Siri are cut off as the bird swoops down, attacking Devlin with its vicious beak and then snatching Siri in one of its claws. The sorcerer shoots a firebolt at it, cooking one of its thighs perfectly, and it releases Siri with a squawk of pain and anger. Wheeling around in the air, the bird fixes its blazing red eyes on the one who hurt it.

From the other end of the bridge, spells and arrows fire into the beast, and Obryn, seeing that his friends are in danger, charges towards it while it’s still within his reach. He lands a blow on it as it pecks at Devlin again and it lifts off into the sky on huge wings to circle above them. They run for the safety of the tower, hiding behind it and out of sight of the bird, and Haldar casts Pass Without Trace on them all to see if they can sneak away without being spotted. Unfortunately, with a Cleric and a Paladin clad in jingling chainmail, the roc looks as if it notices the two and begins to dive again from its vantage point high in the sky. Devlin quickly casts a fog cloud to envelop Thia and hide her, but the bird swoops down and grabs Siri in its claws, its strong wings beating the air as it attempts to fly away with her. It’s already risen to one hundred feet by the time the sorcerer can conjure a firebolt, but his spell hits the roc’s leg and Siri slips from its talons, dropping back down towards the ground. She lands hard on the hillside with a sickening thud, and lays there unmoving.

When Haldar shoots the bird with a couple of well-aimed arrows, it finally decides that it’s had enough and its massive shape recedes back towards the peaks of Mount Gakis. Thia quickly heals Siri and, worried that it may come back, they head off at speed towards the guard tower next to the gates, knowing that this will be a fairly safe place to spend the night.

As the evening draws in, Thia takes Drusilla’s head from her bag and gently unwraps it to cast Speak with Dead, feeling sorry for the drider and wanting her to have the chance to share her last words. As the spell takes hold, Drusilla’s eyes flicker open, although they still appear to be glazed and unseeing.

“Drusilla, why did you do what you did?” Thia questions softly, cradling the drow’s head.

“It was necessary,” whispers Drusilla. “I fell from favour with Llolth and needed to find a way to get back into her good graces.”

“Can you still help us to defeat Strahd?” Thia continues. “Do you know his weaknesses?”

Drusilla’s eyes close briefly and she speaks again, her voice straining with the effort.

“He is vulnerable to sunlight, holy water, running water, and a stake to the heart.”

With tears in her eyes, Thia asks a final question.

“What do you need from us, Drusilla?”

“I died in the service of Llolth, and my soul belongs to her,” the drider says softly. “But I have saved the Scion of Eilistraaee, so perhaps she will accept me now.” With that, her eyes close and the lips fall silent, lifeless once more. Devlin reaches out a hand.

“Let me bury her according to the rites of Eilistraaee,” he says quietly.

Siri pulls out her alms box and ritual incense.

“I’ll help you.”

The next morning, Lightning meets them with the horses, and they spend the day travelling towards Castle Ravenloft, stopping to spend the night at Kazan’s tower where they find Ezmerelda. She listens politely to the tales of their exploits but doesn’t seem very interested. Still, she permits them to stay.

While Siri is arm-wrestling Obryn and teasing him about her new-found strength, Devlin reads more of the Tome of Strahd, finding another passage he can decipher. It reads:

“I know I am not mad. I am seeing familiar faces reborn. Something in the mist is trapping them. Perhaps the dark powers are taunting me with the hope that my Tatyana might return.”

Ezmerelda leaves early the next morning, telling them that she has a mission so might see them at the castle, and the band of adventurers are not far behind her, wanting to make the most of the daylight to travel. They persuade the guards of Vallaki to let them pass through the town, which is still on lockdown following the incidents that enabled the Keepers of the Feather to take over. They spend another uneventful night camped by the side of the road close to the windmill called Old Bonecrusher, but when they try to explore it the following morning, a raven warns them off. Finally, they arrive at the fork in the road that winds into dark, storm-clouded peaks upon which looms an imposing gothic structure with high walls, spires and towers; Castle Ravenloft.

A black carriage sits waiting at the crossroads, its doors open. Siri is all for getting into it and riding up to the castle in style because, after all, they’ve been invited. Her friends are more hesitant, but she manages to persuade them that it’s for the best and, leaving Lightning to guard their horses once more, they set off on the final leg of their journey towards Castle Ravenloft, Count Strahd, and whatever fate may have in store for them there…

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