Penitence

Fortunes Told in the Mist

The long road to Vallaki

Groggily, Yaroslava followed Irina to the hallway window. From the other side of town, by the church, an uncanny green glow arose, and multiple shapes emerged: humanoid figures of men and women who seemed to glide across the ground. Each of the ghostly forms was caparisoned for battle. Irina called this the "March of the Dead." Local legend says that these were the spirits of those strangers who faced against the Devil and lost, and their fate was to endlessly repeat their doomed march on the Devil's fortress for all of eternity. Nobody knew what happened to them after they reached Castle Ravenloft, but they returned again each night to repeat it.

When Irina turned away towards her chambers, Yaroslava saw a mark on the young woman's neck, dimly illuminated by the glow of her lamp: two small, but vivid, puncture marks. When asked about them, Irina grew pale but explained their origin: when the Devil visited her, she had no memory of the visits except for the hunger burning in his eyes, and no evidence except for the bite marks on her neck. Barovian lore held that the Devil turned his victims into his corrupted spawn by draining their blood, as he had done with Doru.

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The night before, the children of the late Kolyan Indirovich tried to make their foreign guests at home. Though a reserved pair, they took particular interest in Yaroslava's experience in a noble court. Irina was enamored with the stories of great feasts and festive galas, and she recited some of her favorite poems, which Yaroslava did not recognize but noticed that they had a classical quality. Yaroslava attempted to endear herself to her host by reciting some contemporary romantic poetry; Ismark admitted that he was not a poet himself, but he appreciated the art. Ismark, for his part, was more interested in the martial prowess of the giant. He asked Emil whether the giant fought for him, but Emil explained that Mao-Ying fought for himself.

-

Before dawn, the inhabitants of the beleaguered manor awoke and began to carry the coffin of Kolyan Indirovich to his final resting place through the still-dark streets of the village, to where Father Donavich awaited in the cemetery. There, the grim-faced priest stood next to another coffin. Mercifully, the shadows of Barovia did nothing but watch the proceedings as light began to chase them away.

The funeral proceeded largely the same as a normal Lyubomiran funeral, although with many particular references to the light of dawn and some additional rites that may have been archaic customs preserved in this village that had been frozen in time. Moreover, the priest made a number of exhortations to the Morning Lord that Emil felt bordered the line between heresy and a very strong, but innocuous, veneration of this particular patron saint. Irina and Ismark asked their guests to leave without them while they stayed to say their final goodbyes to their father. Though she was only his adopted daughter, it was evident that Irina was strongly affected by Kolyan Indirovich's death.

As they made their way through the village, whose streets were filling with morning mist, the heroes heard the clatter of wooden cart wheels on the cobblestone. A hunched figure in a drab cloak went from door to door, knocking and waiting for a response. When they approached, the figure seemed to notice and turn down another street to avoid them. Catching up to the cart, they found that it was lined with pastries and pulled by an elderly, heavyset woman. She answered their questions in circles, only saying that her name was Morgantha and that she lived outside of town and made the trip every day to bring sweet treats to the poor people of Barovia. She then offered each a pastry, which they all took and which Mao-Ying hastily consumed (after giving one to Lae'boo as a reward for his obedience). Unbeknownst to the others, a warm, uplifting sensation quickly spread throughout Mao-Ying's body as he fell into a stupor in which he imagined that he was back among his clan being lauded as a hero. Yaroslava pretended to eat hers but only provoked the old woman's irascibility. Meanwhile, Emil opened his senses to sense what sort of danger this woman might pose: his nose was suddenly assaulted by a pungent stench, and he saw black smoke rising from the old woman's form. He knew not the exact nature of the being before him, only that she was a dark, supernatural force. Cracking open the pastry, however, it appeared by all accounts to be a normal mincemeat pie with a sweet smell and a flaky crust.

The old woman made to leave, but Emil imposed herself in her path at every turn. When it was evident that she would reveal nothing further, he overturned her cart, spilling the pies onto the cobblestone. While her assailant was occupied with removing a cart wheel, the old woman bolted with unexpected speed down the street. Yaroslava ran after her but could not close the gap, and, turning down an alleyway that the old woman had entered only moments before, found no trace of her.

After regrouping at the posadnik's manor, there was one more issue to resolve before they could depart: Pamphilos's fate. Pamphilos begged the Lyubomirans to convince the giant to show mercy, but Mao-Ying refused to allow the criminal to travel and fight alongside him. Yaroslava asked Ismark what punishments, aside from execution, are used in Barovia, and he explained that banishment is used in extreme cases, although it is a given that the banished party will die to the wolves and other terrors that prowl the wilderness. Yaroslava insisted that Ismark order Pamphilos to be banished, but Ismark had no concern for how the pagan stranger dealt with his problems and only asked that the execution be carried out away from the manor grounds. Yaroslava was not pleased and felt that Ismark was proving himself to be a weak ruler, unable to protect his subjects and unwilling to enforce the law of his land on outsiders residing within it.

The party took Morgantha's cart and purchased a sickly mule from a villager to haul their belongings as they made the long trip to Vallaki. They reached a crossroads that led through the forest and up the mountainside to Vallaki or down a gentle incline towards the Tser Pool. A lonely gallows and an overgrown cemetery waited at the crossroads, as though a warning; Ismark said it had never been used in his lifetime. Before continuing to Vallaki, the party wished to meet with the supposed athinganoi seer, Madame Eva, whom the proprietors of the tavern had recommended to them, so they took the trail towards the river.

A sudden creaking noise from behind them broke the silence of the stale morning air. Turning towards the noise, they saw a corpse hanging from the gallows, its skin ashen and its neck obviously broken. Yaroslava's heart raced as she recognized it as her own, but to the others it appeared to be that of a total stranger. She turned away to calm herself while Emil investigated the body, cutting it down from the noose to perform the appropriate rites. As soon as the body hit the weathered boards of the gallows, its skin began to melt away in a black ooze that seeped between the wooden planks, its clothing fraying and dissipating into the wind like smoke. It was gone as suddenly as it had appeared.

Cheerful music and the sound of bawdy laughter filled the air as they approached the athinganoi camp. The athinganoi, evidently excited to see strangers, welcomed them and offered them wine while an old storyteller told them of the wizard who attempted to defeat the Devil one year ago: the battle raged onto the mountain bridge far above, and the wizard fell a thousand feet down to the bottom of the Tser falls, leaving no trace. They also warned the heroes of a few things: stay on the road, for dangerous animals and crazed tribals roam the wilderness; never harm a raven, as they carry the souls of the dead; and avoid the windmill along the road (after which they quickly changed the topic).

The seer's tent was dark and dimly illuminated by magical fire as the party entered. "You've suffered a terrible fate, haven't you?" the old crone cackled, and she called each by name, almost taunting them with a reference to a duty that they will now never finish. She offered to read their fortunes using the occult magic of her cards and her crystal ball. The magical flames seemed to subside as the seer dealt the cards, peering into the mists within her crystal ball in order to discern its meaning:

Before flipping over the first card, she spoke, "This card tells of history. Knowledge of the ancient will help you better understand your enemy." She revealed the card of the Beggar. "A wounded dusk elf has what you seek. He will part with the treasure to see his dark dreams fulfilled."

"This card tells of a powerful force for good and protection, a holy symbol of great hope." She drew the card of the Anarchist and gasped as she peered into her crystal ball. Her voice was aghast as she spoke, "I see walls of bones… a chandelier of bones… and a table of bones—all that remains of enemies long forgotten."

"This is a card of power and strength. It tells of a weapon of vengeance: a sword of sunlight." She revealed the card of the Berserker. "Find the Mad Dog's crypt. The treasure lies within, beneath blackened bones."

"This card sheds light on one who will help you greatly in the battle against darkness." She drew the card of the Tempter and paused for a moment as she peered into the orb, as though listening for something. "I hear a wedding bell… or, perhaps, a death knell. It calls thee to a mountainside abbey, wherein you will find a woman who is more than the sum of her parts.

Her hand lingered over the final card. "Your enemy is a creature of darkness, whose powers are beyond mortality. This card will lead you to him!" After drawing the card of the Donjon, she spoke, gravely, "He lurks in a hall of bones, in the dark pits of his castle."

During the reading, hazy figures slowly began to take shape in the shadowy corners of the tent. After the reading of the final card, everyone's vision suddenly focused on the ghastly figures, which now had a distinctly human shape. All else seemed to become hazy and unfocused, as though seen through foggy glass. The figures all spoke in unison, a harmony of dissimilar voices: "We are the ones who fell in defiance of the devil. We were weak, and he fed on what strength we possessed. We give what remains to you." The advanced on the party, their forms dissipating as they approached and filling the heroes with a a suddenly invigorating sensation.

Without further delay, returned to the crossroads and took the road towards Vallaki. The road passed through a dark forest at the foot of the mountain, and the mist settled heavily between the trunks of its trees, but before long the party ascended on a switchback path up the mountainside, leaving behind the village of Barovia lost in the mist. They came upon an ancient stone bridge that crossed a chasm formed eons ago by the path of the river Iblis. To the west roared the Tser falls, which fell a thousand feet below, where nothing could be seen through the fog and the spraying mist of the waterfall. Beyond the bridge, the mountain pass seemed to grow more claustrophobic as they approached another crossroads. To the east, the gnarled husks of long-dead trees lined a cobblestone path. They passed by quickly, Irina and Ismark making signs to ward off evil as they explained that that path led directly to the Devil's lair.

Another great stone wall and iron gate set in the mountain pass, similar to the one that led them into the Barovian valley, allowed them passage to the west. Through the gate, the path continued past a weathered, onion-domed windmill resting on the cliffside, its vanes stripped down to the skeleton. Heeding the warning of the athinganoi, they passed it by. Not far away, they could stand on the cliff and see down into the vast expanse of the Svalich Woods, whose dark green treetops reached up from the heavy fog. In a clearing, a walled settlement stood—Vallaki. Though the road around the woods was long, the party heeded the other warning and dared not leave the trail. They eventually passed by the distant shore of a lake and reached the gates of Vallaki.

The town was protected by its wooden palisade and the iron gate attended by two stern guards. The path toward the gate was lined with the heads of wolves up on pikes. Though the guards were suspicious, they allowed the party entry after Ismark made his plea to speak with the posadnik.

While still gloomy and quiet, there was a certain feeling of life in the town that Barovia certainly did not possess. Here and there, townsfolk walked the streets, going about their business. For now, it seemed, they were safe.

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