Episode 15: The Broken Heart

Stepping out of Strahd’s black carriage, the adventurers stand in front of an ornate set of doors marking the entrance to the huge gothic structure that looms out of the murkiness in front of them.

Deciding that they should just go in as they’ve been invited, they gingerly push them open and then step into a foyer with pillars, a domed ceiling, and eight gargoyles staring down at them. An impressive piece of music being played on a pipe organ can be heard off to their right but, as they’re contemplating their next move, Rahadin appears on the main staircase, descending to meet them.

“I’m glad to see that you have arrived safely,” he says, barely disguising a sneer. “The master awaits you in the dining hall. Please follow me.”

Devlin taps him on the shoulder and grins toothlessly.

“Will there be any soup?” he asks the dusk elf.

Rahadin gives him a knowing look and seems as if he’s about to say something condescending, but he collects himself before speaking.

“I can see to it that soup will be made available. Now, please come with me.”

He leads them towards the sound of the organ music, opening another pair of doors and waving his hand forward to usher them inside before closing the doors behind them again. The room is magnificent; crystal chandeliers hang from the ceiling, a large table in the centre of the room bears delicious-smelling food and wine, and places are set for each of them with fine china and silver cutlery. At the far end of the room, a figure wearing a black cloak is playing the pipe organ in a masterful fashion, but he ends the piece and stands to greet them when they enter. It is Count Strahd himself.

“Welcome to Castle Ravenloft,” he says. “Please, be seated, enjoy the fine food that has been prepared for you, and feel free to explore my home for a period of twenty-four hours without fear of being attacked by its inhabitants.” He smiles dangerously. “However, after that time, you will no longer be welcome here.”

Strahd gives a loud and menacing laugh, then vanishes as if he were a light being turned off. As the group look on in horror, a cold wind whips through the room dousing all the flames and plunging it into darkness and, from around the castle, they hear the sound of countless doors slamming shut, followed by the crash of the portcullis. They have a sneaking suspicion that they are now trapped.

A little shaken, Thia relights the candles so that there’s a little bit of light, at least. Siri sits down at the table.

“Seems a shame to let all this food go to waste,” she says with a shrug.

“Do you think that’s wise?” replies Haldar, taking a walk around the room and examining the walls. Siri nods, helping herself to some roast beef.

“Strahd is a narcissist who wants to be entertained by our deaths,” she answers. “If he poisons us as soon as we get here, he wouldn’t be able to gloat about a satisfactory victory.”

The food is really good and, while Siri continues to chow down, the others fill their pockets with some of it to take with them. The only one who’s disappointed is Apple Pie, because the table appears to be sadly lacking in sweet pastries of any sort, despite her sniffing all the way along it. Thia tries to tempt her with an apple, but she turns her nose up at it.

Afterwards, Haldar waves the wand of secrets around the room and is surprised when it highlights a secret door behind the organ. Siri’s exceedingly awful playing of it does nothing, but soon they find that some of the pegs, keys and pedals pushed in the right order allow the instrument to slide forward from the wall, revealing a doorway. Behind it is a small room filled with mirrors of all sizes, from ceiling-height to little hand mirrors. Clearly the vampire does not wish to be reminded that he has no reflection.

Leading away from this room is a passage that passes an archer post, but the adventurers decide that they should probably concentrate on one of the things they need to find, rather than just randomly wander the building. As Nordan, Rolan and Emil are most likely locked in the dungeons, they decide to search for the third Wizard of Wines gem instead.

Obryn turns to face them all. He draws himself up to his full height, although that’s only about five feet, and puts on a stern expression.

“Right. we need to remember our objective and not let anything side-track us,” he says, the soldier in him coming to the fore. “We head for the gem, and we don’t lose our focus.” He turns to Thia, Haldar and Devlin.

“Cleric, you’re the most observant of us, so you keep an eye out for anything. Ranger, you’re good at investigating things, so you take on that role. And sorcerer, you’re the most charismatic of us, so if we need to talk our way out of anything, you take the lead on that. All good?”

Devlin nods and turns to walk away.

“Yes, although the name’s Devlin,” he grumbles playfully. “We’re good friends, I would have thought you’d have remembered that by now!”

Concentrating for a moment, Thia casts a spell to locate the gem and feels it to their northwest and at quite a height above them. Using her sense as a guide, the adventurers head back to the entrance hall and open the doors to the east, navigating a long hallway full of old statues all with plaques too deteriorated to read. At the end of the hall, they push open another set of doors and find themselves inside a chapel dedicated to the Morninglord, but it’s not been used for a very long time. The stained-glass windows are broken and boarded up in places, the wooden benches are disintegrating and scattered around, and everything is coated with a thick layer of dust. At the back, between angelic reliefs on the walls, they see an altar with a silver statue standing on it, and across the altar lays a cloaked man, a black mace at his feet. Devlin detects magic from the statue, the mace and, strangely, a floating silver platter that has appeared to one side of them. He lifts the lid on it and sees a bunch of mouldy scones, so he gingerly picks one up with his mage hand. Siri and Thia run over to see if the slumped man needs healing or help, but when the Cleric examines him it becomes clear that he’s already dead and has been for a while. Haldar can’t find any indication as to who he might be, so, with Obryn urging them on, Thia picks up the mace and Siri takes the statue. However, holding it makes the paladin feel uncomfortable, so she puts it straight into her pack.

Taking another door that looks as if it would take them in the direction of the gem, they run up a small set of stairs and emerge onto a balcony that overlooks the chapel. There, two more figures are slumped in a pair of ornate thrones. Not wanting to disturb them or incur their possible wrath, the band of adventurers sneak past and open a door behind them that leads into another hallway, this one with a long carpet and paintings on the walls, but the moment they close the door behind them, there’s a moan and the squeak of a bat. Suddenly, a figure swoops out of the darkness at the far end of the hall and flies straight towards them, its arms outstretched, in face contorted with rage and its cape billowing behind it. Haldar immediately pulls out his bow and fires three arrows, but although the arrows stick into their target, the creature’s expression and posture remain unchanged. Siri is suspicious about this but can’t tell what the problem might be. Thia casts Turn Undead but, again, it has no effect. It’s only when Obryn smashes it to the floor that everything becomes clear – it’s just a wooden facsimile of a vampire attached to a rail, and the moan was the wind whistling through a cracked window above them.

The paladin pulls off its arm and sticks it in her pack, wondering if she can sharpen the elbow end into a stake and thinking about how funny it would look sticking out of Strahd’s chest.

The door at the end leads them to a corridor with an inanimate skeleton posed at each end of it, but Obryn isn’t hanging about. He marches straight across to another door on the opposite side, opens it and his friends follow him into a huge, dim, cobweb-draped room with a throne at one end that faces away from them.

“No, no, no,” whispers Siri, her voice panicked. “We need to leave! The card-reading said that ‘the beast sits on his throne’ and we aren’t ready yet…”

As if in response to her concerns, a hand holding a glass of wine appears on the arm of the throne, and Strahd’s voice echoes across the room.

“You’re early. Well, as long as my sister has given you the correct information, that is.”

“Madame Eva is Strahd’s sister?” whispers Nordan, piecing together the clues.

His conclusion makes sense; Strahd’s invitation said that he brought them to Barovia, but it was Madame Eva, the Vistani seer, who provided the reason for them to come, the wagon that brought them here and gave them the Tarokka reading that set them on their path. She was doing the vampire’s bidding, it seems.

“Over here,” says Obryn gruffly, holding open another door, herding the adventurers through and then closing it behind them.

They’re now in a much smaller room. The walls are covered with shelves and bookcases which are filled with dusty scrolls and books, while in the corner a man sits atop a stool next to a rope-pull, writing on a long piece of parchment. He looks up and addresses them grumpily.

“Oh. You must be the latest group of adventurers. Never mind, you’ll be dead in 24 hours.”

“Hello!” says Thia, happily ignoring his comment. “What are you doing?”

He sighs impatiently.

“What does it look like I’m doing? I’m tending to the master’s accounts! I keep track of his treasure, his taxes, the tithes that are due, all monies earned by the people of Barovia, everything. And I am very busy.”

“But do you want to do this?” asks Siri, he head cocked in confusion. “Can you leave?”

He holds his arm up, showing a manacle on his wrist attached to a chain. Siri walks over to try to break it off for him, but he puts his hand over it preventing her from doing so and goes back to his work. Thia tries to ask his name. He sighs theatrically and motions as if he’s going to tug on the rope-pull that’s hanging from the ceiling, so she throws up her hands in frustration.

“Fine, we’re leaving,” she says, flinging open the door on the back wall.

Heading up a spiral staircase to the floor above brings them to a large iron door sculpted with vines and, when they push it open, they find themselves in a banquet room of some sort. A big table with fine linens bears a wedding feast, but not a recent one. The cake at one end may once have been a fine sight to see, but it’s now green with mould and only the bride stands on the top of it, the groom is missing. Thia finds him under the table and gently puts him back into place, although he does kind of lean to one side given that the cake is so rotten.

To the north and west are more doors leading from this room. Obryn and Devlin try the northern one and see a warm and comfy room with a lit fire, luxurious armchairs and furnishings, and shelves filled with books along each of the walls. Above the fireplace is a portrait of a lady who looks exactly like Ireena Kolyana, only the small plaque underneath it reads ‘Tatyana’.

Thia and Haldar don’t have quite as much luck. Opening the door to the west, they see a sumptuous bathroom, but when Haldar moves closer he realises that the bathtub is filled with blood. There’s a sudden shriek, and an indeterminate figure rises out of it and begins to advance on them, dripping blood across the tiled floor as it moves. The two swap a look of panic and both leg it out of the room, slamming the door and panting, just as the scratching of fingers, or at least finger bones, can be heard coming from the other side of it.

“Don’t go in that bathroom!” Haldar yells to Siri, who’s looking at some ancient musical instruments standing in the corner of the banquet room.

“Why, what did you do in there?” she asks him, cheekily.

Turning back to the harp and the lute that she was admiring, Siri picks up the lute and plays a little tune on it, this time nowhere near as badly as she played the pipe organ downstairs. Suddenly, the ghost of a little man wearing a jester’s hat appears and bows to her.

“You play a lovely tune!” he says.

“Thank you!” replies Siri, blushing slightly. “And who might you be?”

“Piddlewick’s the name!” His voice is jolly and cheerful, and the paladin can’t help but smile.

“And are you a bard, sir Piddlewick?”

He lowers his head.

“I was once. Now my remains lie in a tomb below.” He perks up again. “But should you find it, there is something in there that might be of value to someone as talented as yourself!”

Siri smiles again.

“Thank you, sir,” she replies. “I will keep an eye out for it!”

And, with that, he grins and bows before turning and walking away, fading into nothing when he reaches the wall.

Devlin walks through the northern door back into the banquet room just in time to see Siri putting the lute on her back.

“Oh, bloody hell,” he whispers to himself before addressing his friends, anticipating the many practice sessions he’s going to have to endure from now on. “Hey, there’s a study here with another door that seems like it might lead towards the gem we’ve been searching for. Ready to go?”

Walking through the door and to the end of another dark corridor, they weigh up their options. To their left the corridor continues past statues that look as if they’re screaming every time the lightning flashes, along with a pack of disembodied hands that scuttle up to them but then just sit and wait, clearly obeying Strahd’s command to leave the party free to roam the castle for 24 hours. To their right is another door. They take the door. Stepping through it, they emerge into an enormous tower with a rail-less staircase winding around the inside of it, leaving the centre clear. At the top, high above them, a large crystal emits an unsettling red glow that pulses like a heartbeat. Each time it does, the tower booms and shakes, and the group have a hard time trying not to lose their footing as they clamber up the stairs.

Thia senses the gem they’re looking for at the highest level of the tower; the trouble is that the Wizard of Wines gem is green while the big one above them is red, so Devlin levitates up to take a closer look. The booming sound at this range is tremendous and he covers his ears, but he can see that the inside of the red crystal looks like a pumping heart, contracting and relaxing in rhythm with the noise and pulsing light. He casts Dispel Magic on it but, while it feels like he’s disrupted something, there’s no change that he can see and the booming sound continues. He can, however, sense magic emanating from the walls around the crystal heart.

“Thia!” he yells down to the Cleric while pointing at the wall. “Cast Dispel Magic up here!”

She can’t quite see what he’s pointing to but does as he asks, although again there doesn’t seem to be any change.

By this time, the others have managed to scramble up the staircase to where Devlin is floating, and they can see that there are eight halberds hanging on the wall around it in a protective circle. As the booming heartbeat threatens to burst their eardrums, Siri gathers her courage and launches a firebolt at the red crystal. It isn’t a good idea. The moment the fire hits the polished surface, the halberds spring to life and inhuman cries echo from below as three vampire spawn begin to climb the walls of the tower towards them.

“Oh blimey, Siri!” yells Thia, pulling out her mace.

They all concentrate their fire on the heart, each hit sending cracks along it like breaking ice until it explodes into crimson shards and falls to the base of the tower, hundreds of feet below. But the halberds are still attacking them, and now the vampire spawn have reached them too. In a flash of inspiration, Devlin casts Minor Image and causes the voice of Strahd to thunder from the tower’s rafters.

“Stop! These creatures have been granted free-run of my castle for 24 hours! You will NOT attack them!”

One of the group of spawn stops, looking confused, but the others ignore the voice and lash out at Siri and Haldar. The ranger runs past them all, heading further up the staircase with the aim of finding the last Wizard of Wines gem, while Obryn rages at the creatures and Thia conjures a Guardian of Faith on the stairs to try to give them some protection. Suddenly, the voice of the real Strahd echoes through the tower.

“Your invitation has been rescinded,” he says with fury in his voice. “You may no longer pass safely through my castle!”

The vampire spawn hear this and the one who was hesitating renews its attack but, after a ferocious battle, the adventurers are ultimately triumphant, if rather battered and bruised. They make their way up the staircase to join Haldar, but Siri, very low on health and not wanting to set off a trap that might finish her, sits on the staircase just below the room’s entrance to cast Identify on the mace and statue that they found in the chapel.

The others find Haldar examining a chest that sits against the back wall of the room.

“I think the gem must be in here,” he says. “It seems like the perfect place to hide something, don’t you think?”

Pulling a pen from his pack he tries to improvise a lockpick, but his attempts are thwarted when a needle shoots from the lock and stabs his finger. He jumps back in shock and looks at his hand, observing dark tendrils of poison permeating his skin from the initial puncture wound.

“Bugger,” he says. “Wait, didn’t one of us find a bunch of keys somewhere?”

“I did,” calls Siri from the steps below, and a ring of ten keys fly up through the opening and land on the stone floor at Devlin’s feet. He picks them up, carefully trying each one in the lock, and when the ninth one turns with a click, the sorcerer conjures his mage hand to open the chest to make sure he doesn’t get poisoned as well. The lid lifts and the needle jabs out, but the incorporeal mage hand is unaffected. Haldar peers inside, then gleefully takes the green gem from the cushion that it’s sitting on inside.

“Yes!” he shouts, waving it above his head for everyone to see.

Obryn grins too.

“Perhaps now the winery can finally make some decent ale,” he says with hope in his voice.

Siri pops up through the opening in the floor, holding the mace and the statue.

“I think I know what these are,” she says, simultaneously reaching her hand out and curing Haldar of his poisoning. “This is a Mace of Terror – it requires attunement, but it can give enemies a good fright!”

She hands it to Thia who replaces her own mace with it, then holds up the silver statue which resembles a monk in prayer.

“And this is the Icon of Ravenloft,” she continues. “It also needs attunement, but it can cast Augury, Cure Wounds, and enhance any Turn Undead effects. Haldar, would you like it?”

Haldar raises his eyebrows.

“Don’t you want to use it?”

Siri sighs.

“I don’t know why but it makes me feel uncomfortable, so I probably shouldn’t attune to it. Besides, I can already cast Cure Wounds, so it might be handy if someone else has that?”

Haldar nods and accepts the statue, and the group settle down to take a rest overnight in the room, arranging watches since the paladin has put an end to their welcome.

While Haldar and Thia attune to their new items, Devlin picks up the Tome of Strahd and concentrates on it for a while. He deciphers a new passage, where Strahd talks about how the wizard, Kazan, had granted profane life to his armour and given it the blessing of one of the dark powers from the Temple.

“I think that may have been the suit of armour we destroyed,” he says, thoughtfully. “The one that attacked us when we first entered Kazan’s Tower, and which pointed us to the Holy Symbol of Ravenkind.”

The storm moves in and intensifies overnight; thunderclaps reverberate through the tower, and lightning flashes periodically illuminate the room where the adventurers are sleeping and meditating. During Siri’s watch, she sees an elderly witch creeping up the stairs, undeterred by Thia’s Guardian of Faith which still protects the area. She cackles when she sees the paladin, points at her, and then starts shuffling quickly back the way she came, so Siri, fearing that she will bring reinforcements, dispatches her with an immediate attack.

The next day, after gathering their belongings, performing their morning rituals and examining the witch’s charred body, they travel back down the tower staircase and then down a further set of stairs to the basement, finding old, long-abandoned beds, and a room full of the bones of beings who appear to have been the victims of incredible violence. But on opening another door, they see a wood-panelled room that is in perfect order, with a large desk in the middle of it and Barovian crests on the walls. It’s nice, apart from the fact that Rahadin turns towards them as they enter, frowns and then stands to face them.

“I am surprised you are not dead yet,” he taunts, regarding them as if they’re something he just trod in.

Obryn steps forward, the dwarf harbouring a particular dislike for the man.

“Let me tell you about my people,” he says. “There are more male dwarves than female, and those males who don’t get married turn instead to creative endeavours. Those things they create are more precious to them than children so, when one is stolen, they employ tunnel rats like me to retrieve them.” He takes a step toward the dusk elf with a menacing expression. “One time, I was torturing a drow and had a dwarven cleric blow a gust of wind into his ears so hard that it blew out his eardrums. I could do that to you, right now.”

The barbarian looks over at Devlin, who nods vehemently.

“Oh yeah, he’s a total bad-ass. He’ll do it.”

Unfortunately, Rahadin isn’t intimidated in the slightest. In one swift movement, he slams the door behind them, trapping them inside and then launches an attack on them, helped by a strange, ghostly shadow being that appears in front of the group. It cuts Devlin, Thia and Haldar off, while Obryn and Siri run straight at Rahadin with their weapons clenched in their fists. Haldar tries to swipe at the shadow with his sword but it just goes straight through it, so he drops the weapon in favour of his bow. Thia’s spiritual weapon and Devlin’s fire spells cause some damage, but the shadow being is extremely hard to hit, especially after Rahadin causes all of them to hear the screams of the thousands of people he’s killed. Incensed at the cacophony of pain and suffering from those who have died at the hands of the dusk elf, Siri hits him with her Divine Smite while Obryn smashes him with his war-axe, but Rahadin just staggers and retaliates with his own attacks. It takes them a while to knock him unconscious, and by that time Haldar has managed to incapacitate the shadow being by casting Tasha’s Hideous Laughter on it. However, the creature’s laugh is the most unsettling thing they’ve heard in a long time, and the priority becomes getting away from it as fast as possible.

Furious at the huge number of murders Rahadin has committed, Obryn strips him naked to humiliate him and gags him with rope. Siri then hoists him onto her shoulder, making sure to position him carefully and wondering where she can get her armour cleaned, so that they can question him later. Quickly ducking through another door into a stairwell before the shadow being stops laughing, Devlin casts the Light spell on Rahadin’s bare buttcheeks and the resulting glow, as bright as the full moon (sorry), enables them to see in the darkness. Suddenly, Haldar stops and widens his eyes.

“My sword! I left it on the floor in there!”

He cracks open the door again, but there is no horrendous laughter now. Instead, the shadow being is staring straight at him. He shuts the door again.

“Bugger,” he says, before telling his friends not to try and retrieve it. However, Devlin won’t be told, and he uses Dimension Door to teleport into the room, grab the sword, deftly avoid a swipe from the creature and then dart back into the stairwell again. He grins as he hands the weapon to the ranger.

“There you go,” he says.

The stone stairway turns ninety degrees to the left but as they take the steps slowly downward, they see a figure blocking their path; the figure of Count Strahd himself. He glares at them.

“You have worn out your welcome! Whatever gods you believe in cannot save you now.”

Trapped single file on the narrow stairs, the adventurers do what they can. Devlin fires a Chromatic Orb at the vampire, but misses. Obryn rages and tries to charge at him, but trips and tumbles straight past him down the steps, hitting the door at the bottom.

“I meant to do that,” he yells. “It was a flanking tactic!”

Haldar scores a hit with his arrows but, rather than bleed, Strahd confusingly seems to seep red wax instead. Siri drops Rahadin and squeals in fright as her firebolt hits its target. However, even as the vampire is engulfed in the flames, he merely laughs before melting into a wax puddle that disappears through the flagstones of the floor, leaving the adventurers alone once more, save for the strange shadows that Rahadin’s butt is casting on the ceiling.

As Siri hoists the naked dusk elf back onto her shoulder, the rest of the group head through the door at the bottom of the stairway. The room beyond is large and mysterious. A huge hourglass with all the sand stuck in its top half is suspended above a burning brazier with indentations around its rim, each holding a spherical crystal of differing colours. On either side of the brazier is a massive statue of a knight on horseback, and around the rim of the hourglass in glowing script is a verse written in the common tongue.

Cast a stone into the fire: Violet leads to the mountain spire, Orange to the castle’s peak, Red if lore is what you seek, Green to where the coffins hide, Indigo to the master’s bride, Blue to ancient magic’s womb, Yellow to the master’s tomb.

Surmising that this could somehow be a way to travel to certain places, the heroes know that they must first deal with the treacherous dusk elf before continuing on their path. Returning through the doorway to be out of sight of the statues in case they’re stone golems, Siri sets him on the floor and slaps him awake. He glares up at her as he comes around, then looks down at himself when he realises that he’s naked. She shrugs.

“Such a shame that it’s so small,” she says, poking fun at him to try and make him feel inferior. “Must have been difficult going through life with nothing to be proud of.”

He glowers at her, unable to say anything due to the gag in his mouth.

“So,” she continues. “Are you going to help us with information? Or are we going to have to kill you right here?”

Rahadin just stares at her and smiles in answer to each of her questions, clearly not willing to cooperate with them in any way, so Siri gives up and pulls out her sword.

“This is for all the people you’ve murdered,” she whispers, and jams the blade into his stomach. The dark elf is still smiling as he collapses to the flagstones, dead. Just for good measure, Devlin lops his head off.

Thankfully, though, his butt-light still shines brightly.

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