Penitence

The Face Behind the Mask

Night of the second day in Barovia

As the light began to fade from the sky, the company dispersed to different corners of Vallaki. Puck left the safety of the walls to search for any connection to her patron, but she felt only a disturbing emptiness in the wilderness around her: a dark mirror of the lively woodlands to which she was accustomed. Mao-Ying and Lazlo went to the Blue Water Inn to try to unwind from the full day of travel. Yaroslava spent the evening with her new employer, and Emil walked to the church while deflecting both the unwelcoming stares of the villagers and the mocking taunts coming from within his own mind.

Having earned the baroness's confidence with her flattery and poise, Yaroslava learned that there was a reason why the baron moved within his own home wearing a breastplate and rapier: he feared the interference of a rivaling noble family in town, the Wachters, and suspected that Lady Fiona Wachter may have been behind the disappearance of his servants. "I would rather serve the devil than a madman," the lady Wachter had been known to say.

Coincidentally, two reveling figures entered the inn as Puck was returning from her foray into the wilderness: two young men of noble stock, Karl and Nikolai Wachter. Far from the cold reception that most locals gave to the damned, Karl and Nikolai were enthralled with the novelty of the strangers and implored them to share stories of their daring adventures while they drank the night away. By the end of the evening, the Wachter brothers were so charmed by their new drinking companions—in particular the charming Lazlo and the mysterious Puck—that they let them in on a secret: during the upcoming festival, they intended to break into the carnival wagon owned by Rictavios, which they had long been fascinated by but never had a chance to investigate. Mao-Ying, though enjoying their company up to this point, expressed his disappointment with their malicious pranks by throwing his weight around.

All was not well in Vallaki that night, however, as each group learned that the town's obsession with festivities was of a magnitude higher than anyone had suspected. The town had endured one festival a week for the past several years, all part of the baron's plan to lift Vallaki from Hell by making everyone in town feel joy so that they could return to God's warm embrace. Not all shared the baron's conviction, though few dared to express their discontent.

Those who did found their voices unwelcome. Those willing to share information with the heroes revealed that those who speak up openly against the festivities are punished: some were in the stocks now for just such a reason. Emil, who had been welcomed into the church for an evening sermon by the priest, Lucian Petrov, learned from a grieving woman named Willemina Rikalova that her son, Udo Lukovich, had been taken away to the baron's manor, and she prayed nightly for the Morninglord to intercede on his behalf. Udo, who believed that the festivals only distracted the people from the penitence they needed to feel for their ancestors' transgression, had apparently caused a disruption at the previous week's festival. Yaroslava learned from the other servants that the baron sometimes brings malcontents to his manor to "purge them of their evil." Not all of them leave.

Another disturbing secret was revealed in the silence of Vallaki's church. Father Lucian, who assured his nightly congregation that they were safe in the church through the protection of St. Andral (after whom the church was named), revealed to Emil that the church was in danger: the bones of St. Andral, which had been housed in the reliquary beneath the altar, had been stolen. He believed that the relics blessed the church and prevented evil from entering, so without the bones, the crowds of parents and children were in as much danger as anyone on the streets at night. The priest had never told anyone of the bones except for Yeska, the altar boy, who sheepishly admitted to telling someone else but would not say whom. Lucian suspected that it was Milivoj, a young man who helped him tend the grounds and dig graves, but he has not approached the boy because Milivoj is easily angered. Lucian asked Emil to recover the relics so that the people could truly be safe.

While dining with her hosts, Yaroslava was introduced to the baron's most trusted servant and enforcer, Izek Strazni: a giant of a man whose quiet demeanor enhanced the cold menace that radiated from his expression. As Izek removed his cloak to sit at the table, Yaroslava was horrified to see that the man's massive right arm was monstrously deformed, with leathery red hide barbed with spines that led down to long, clawed fingers. Despite his fiendish appearance, the Vallakovs treated Izek like an adored member of the family. Baron Vallakov boasted of how he took in Izek as an orphan and how pleased he was to have had the man's faithful service for all of these years.

That night, Yaroslava spoke with the cook and the maid in their share quarters to try to learn more about Izek. The cook—an older man—recalled clearly Izek's story: As a boy, Izek lived with his parents and sister. One morning, the children were taken by their father and uncle out fishing on Lake Zarovich. On their way home, a dire wolf attack Izek and tore off his right arm. Izek's father rushed him home while his uncle distracted the beast. His sister ran and hid in the woods and was never seen again, presumably having fallen prey to the very wolves from which she tried to flee. Izek survived his injury, but folk say his parents succumbed to their grief not long after, having lost their daughter and being left with a crippled son. With no parental guidance, the boy was an easy victim to mean-spirited children in the town who mocked him mercilessly over his dead family and his infirmity. While a quiet child, Izek had also always been a large boy, and one day he snapped and began to kill his tormentors and dispose of their bodies. The baron's guards caught him in the act one day, however, and brought him to the baron to face justice, their serial child killer having been found. No one could say what possessed him to do so, but the Baron pardoned Izek and made him his ward, using the boy's size and reputation to keep order in the town. One morning, Izek came downstairs with his new arm, and he had always insisted that he had no idea from whence it came. Aside from having a monstrous appearance, Izek's hand could also summon fire with the snap of a finger: ever since, he has used the flames to put the fear of the devil in every Vallakian.

Undeterred by what she had seen and heard of the baron's henchman, she resolved to unearth more of the baron's secrets. After the other servants had fallen asleep, she crept up to the second floor to the locked room where she believed that the baron's most recent prisoner, Udo Lukovich, was being kept. Guided by only a dim candle, she slipped through the shadows of the silent hallway, holding her breath with each gently creaking step of a floorboard. The silence was broken when she suddenly fell to the floor with a thud, tripped on a loose floorboard outside of Izek's room. As quickly and quietly as possible, she moved to the end of the hallway and tried the door past Izek's room and the baron's library—only to find it locked.

Suddenly, the door to Izek's room creaked open as the light of a candle cast shadows in the hallway. Yaroslava quickly snuffed out the flame of her own candle before the hulking form of Izek Strazni appeared in the flickering light, which cast harsh shadows on the taut muscles of his shirtless torso and his nightmarish arm. There was one other room in that hallway in the shadows between the two of them, and it was Yaroslava's only chance to hide—miraculously, it was unlocked, and in the near blackness of the room she felt a bed under which she crawled as she heard Izek's heavy footsteps make a slow march down the hallway. From her hiding place, Yaroslava could see a soft light beneath the door as the footsteps stopped in front of it. The sound of the doorknob turning stopped her heart. As she shifted to watch Izek's feet move past the bed, the floor creaked softly beneath her. She reached for the rapier she had brought with her as Izek stopped and lowered his candle, but before she could draw it, his mighty arm thrust into her hiding place and dragged her out into the open.

"You should not be here," he intoned in a low growl.

In the darkness, the black pools of Izek's eyes glinted slightly along with the flickering candlelight, but Yaroslava's quick wit worked to salvage some way out of the situation. "I could not sleep," she replied.

"You ran from me."

"You startled me."

"Does my appearance frighten you?" His voice was low and restrained, each syllable filling the air like the resonating sound of his footsteps.

Yaroslava apologized for the interruption and asked to be permitted to return to her room. Izek escorted her with a firm grip on her, but at her insistence that the baroness would hear of any mistreatment towards her, Izek released his grip and allowed her to walk ahead on her own.

Mercifully, the rest of Yaroslava's night was undisturbed. Mao-Ying, however, dreamed of an encounter on a mountainside in the midst of a snowstorm, staring down a giant, six-horned goat that suddenly charged at him, sending him flying back over the cliff and waking with a start. Emil slept restlessly, and while he could not remember why, he recalled the voice of an old man crying, "What are you doing?! No!" As the haze of sleep receded from everyone's minds, the mundane familiarity of their accommodations was overwhelmed by the recognition that their time in Barovia had not been merely a nightmare.

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Pechorin

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