Penitence

The Dinner Parties

Evening of the third day in Barovia

With little choice other than to obey the stipulations of Lady Wachter's dinner invitation, the damned shed their weapons and armor and traveled together to the lady's manor, known as Wachterhaus. There, they were greeted through a panel in the front door by a maid, who opened the door and allowed them to step inside. From the outside,it was evident that Wachterhaus had once been a fine structure—perhaps even finer than the baron's—but it was now in a state of decay, being claimed by vines that crawled their way up all sides of the weathered building. Upon stepping inside, however, one was surrounded by furnishings rivalling—and in many ways surpassing—the baron's.

Fiona Wachter herself was a tall, gaunt, and austere woman, at least in appearance. As she greeted her guests, it became clear that she was a woman of fine manners and a very congenial host. She invited them to sit with her by the fire while dinner was prepared and spoke at length with them about their histories before finding themselves in Barovia. Once dinner was served, however, discussion turned to politics. The damned learned about the lady of the house, as well, discovering that her husband had passed away years ago and that one of her dearest desires was to see her profligate sons take after the noble and virtuous man that her husband had been.

Once dinner was served, however, the conversation turned to politics, as it always does. The lady's disapproval of the baron reflected the newcomers', and she spoke at length about her particular concern with his governance of Vallaki. The baron's endless festivals, she said, spread false hope, leading some to expect escape when none is possible, and thereby wasted time and valuable resources on a useless endeavor. Worse, this "defiant thrashing about" could only agitate the Devil (or, as Lady Wachter called him, "the Master"), which could put the townsfolk at risk. However, she considered the Master not a tyrant, but more of a negligent landlord: the right people needed to act as mediators between the people and the Master in order to supplicate him and earn his favor rather than his ire.

Emil suddenly stormed out of the house at the mere implication, but the rest of the party stayed behind to discuss this with the lady. While various opinions were offered, none in the group were willing to entertain the notion that the Devil could—or should—be negotiated with. Lazlo attempted to illustrate the dangers of passive collaboration with the unrighteous through a theatrical analogy, but the lady's opinion was resolute and unmoving: the baron was a madman, and Vallaki risked reprisal from the Master as long as the baron flagrantly defied his rule.

During this intense discussion, which made its way back to the parlor, Puck slipped away to explore the house. She stepped into another room off the combined parlor and dining room and discovered another comfortable den that apparently shared the fireplace with the parlor. There, a familiar-looking man—Ernst Larnak, who had been shadowing the newcomers after their arrival in Vallaki—sat near the fire. He seemed shocked and quickly ushered Puck out of the room.

While the rest argued with Lady Wachter, Emil went to the baron's manor and, thinking back to Yaroslava's description of the house, attempted to scale the wall and climb into the window nearest the room in which Udo was held captive. Though he was seen skulking around by a peasant, he scaled the wall and passed through an empty bedroom before finding the locked closet, from which a man's frail voice begged for help when called to. A stirring from the nearby room sent Emil darting back through the window, uncertain whether—and to what degree—he was noticed.

The party reassembled at the Blue Water Inn, where Irina and Ismark had been dining with Rictavios and listening to his stories. Rictavios's uncanny lightheartedness seemed to be having an effect on Irina, a different side of whom was beginning to show the longer she spent time away from the village of Barovia. However, the party had a grave discussion about the future of Vallaki, uncertain whether to support the baron, the lady, or to to say to hell to both of them. Emil in particular desired to free Udo by any means necessary, and the rest of the party began to consider that deposing the baron could end up being the best outcome for Vallaki. Not wanting to lose their safe harbor, Irina and Ismark made an offer: they would petition the baron for Udo's freedom in order to avoid violence. It was agreed that they would do so the following day, and the party would decide what to do pending the outcome.

As the group dispersed to their own distractions, Yaroslava slipped into the baron's manor to retrieve her arms and some traveling supplies. She gave an excuse for the maid and the gate guards and traveled on her own for hours through the Svalich Woods back east towards the mountains. The silent woods offered no challenge to her lonely march towards her evening summons. Reaching the crossroads in the mountain path, she found a driverless black carriage pulled by two black horses that seemed to be waiting for her. The door swung open for her and carried her through the dark pass and over a great drawbridge into the massive fortress standing at the edge of the cliff.

A heavy rain began to fall, and she sought shelter inside the open double doors as lightning illuminated the night sky. Passing through the antechambers of Castle Ravenloft, she began to hear organ thundering through the halls, and a dark, swarthy man descended a staircase to welcome her. It was the castle chamberlain, Rahadin, and he guided her towards the dining room, from which the organ music echoed. Yaroslava recoiled as she drew close to the man and suddenly heard a cacophany of screams assailing her mind. Rahadin apologized for disturbing her and said that he no longer heard them.

Yaroslava was left alone in the doorway of the dining room and saw a table set for two with an opulent meal, beyond which a cloaked figure hammered away at an organ whose pipes stretched up to the ceiling and roared with thunderous music. Masses of entwined, marble bodies decorated the instrument, those at the bottom and along the pipes reaching up towards the sky, while those carved into the top reached below. The music suddenly stopped as the figure rose and turned to her—a tall, imperious figure who reached out with long, aristocratic fingers and spoke:

"I am Strahd von Zarovich. Welcome to Castle Ravenloft."

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Dark Dreams and Black Water
An offer is made, and a favor is earned

The third day in Barovia

Though small, Kasimir Velikov's cottage felt comfortable and quaint with its folk decorations. However, Kasimir had not slept well in his own home for many months due to dark dreams—visions—sent to him by his sister, Patrina Velikova. Centuries ago, when the Curse of Strahd befell the land, Kasimir and Patrina lived among their clan: Kasimir their leader, and Patrina the clan's witch. However, Patrina sought to become the Devil's consort. As an act of punishment, but perhaps also mercy, Kasimir ordered her stoned to death. This provoked the Devil's wrath against the dusk elves and Kasimir in particular. Since then, and for reasons unknown, Kasimir has been reborn into the clan generation after generation, though still bearing the disfigurement that the Devil's henchman caused him. Months ago, he began to have dreams that he believed were visions sent by Patrina's tormented soul, which was penitent after years of torment over her betrayal of her people. She sent him visions of a "temple of amber" high up in the mountains to the south, near Mount Ghakis. She said that there was great power hidden there, including the power to return her to life.

Kasimir knew what the damned sought—as they always did—and promised to help them defy the Devil by revealing to them hidden knowledge that would help them defeat him. However, he would only reveal this knowledge if they helped him journey into the depths of the Amber Temple and find the secret that would help him restore his sister to life.

While in the Athinganoi camp, the damned sought out their leaders, two brothers named Luvash and Arrigal. Luvash was in the middle of brutally whipping a young Athinganos named Alexei, who had been the only sober one watching over the camp when Luvash's daughter, Arabelle, went missing. Arrigal restrained his brother to keep him from killing the young man. When he noticed the strangers' presence, Luvash's demeanor suddenly changed to that of a gracious host, and he welcome the strangers but was regretful that they had little wine to offer due to a delay in their delivery from the winery. He offered the strangers treasure—and his immense gratitude—if they could find his daughter, or at least get them some more wine.

Convincing Luvash to let Alexei work with them to find Arabelle, the party went to the edge of the camp, where Arabelle had last been seen a little over a day ago, having vanished as the Athinganoi's revelry carried early into the morning. Knowing about where to look, and despite the passage of time since the girl's disappearance, Mao-Ying easily picked up some tracks missed by the other search parties. Passing into the forest, they seemed to indicate a larger figure dragging a smaller one and then dragging an object alongside. They continued through the trees and then crossed the road west from Vallaki and back into the dark, silent woods, eventually exiting the woods again onto the shores of Lake Zarovich.

On the black waters of the lake, which reflected the dark clouds above like a monstrous mirror, a lone figure sat slouched over in a tiny rowboat. Observing the figure for a few minutes to determine if the man was living or dead, in his right mind or perhaps ensorcelled, they saw him pull up a sack from the bottom of his boat. Rushing to two other rowboats on the shore, they rowed as quickly as they could as the man dropped the sack into the water.

Before the sack could sink into the lake's abyssal depths, Lazlo threw off his leather jerkin and dove in like a falcon striking through the sky to grab a dove in its talons. Mao-Ying helped him back into the boat as the weight of the sack pulled toward the void, and they opened the sack to reveal a young girl whose raven-black hair was matted like seaweed over the alabaster skin of her face. Emil rushed over to resuscitate her, and the holy light that channeled from his fingertips made the girl's eyelids flutter open to reveal silvery pools.

The man in the boat, who met the description of Bluto Krogarov, the missing patron from the Blue Water Inn, sat in his boat and offered no resistance as he was hauled ungracefully back to shore. Though Arabelle was shaken and dazed, the kindness of her saviors calmed her enough to explain what had happened: Bluto appeared unexpectedly from the woods and grabbed her, stuffing her into a sack and muttering nonsense about fish, the lake, spirits—and "sacrifice." Unwilling to take Bluto to the Athinganoi camp after seeing Luvash's treatment of Alexei, they left him in the care of Irina and Ismark at the Blue Water Inn until they could interrogate him later.

Luvash was overjoyed at the return of his daughter and showered her with affection, thanking the strangers for going out of their way to save his girl's life. As promised, he and Arrigal unlocked their "treasure wagon" and let the party choose one container: they chose a wooden chest, which was heavy with aged electrum coins bearing the profile of an imperious figure with sharp features.

Though it meant drinking up the last of their wine, the Athinganoi held a celebration for Arabelle's heroes. Mao-Ying and Lazlo helped the Athinganos musicians and impressed them with their energy and skill. Inspired by the raucous music, a group of young Athinganos men begged Puck to dance with them and swooped her up into a lively whirlwind of swinging and twirling. Emil preferred to get away from the noise and returned to the church to help with the daily chores and glower at Milivoj, who glowered right back. Yaroslava stayed but remained on the sidelines of the revelry in order to watch the sky so that they did not stay past the time needed to prepare for their dinner with Lady Wachter.

The damned said goodbye to the grateful Athinganoi and returned to Vallaki to prepare for their dinner, not knowing what to expect…

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Fateful Encounters
Boys, dolls, and elves

Morning of the third day in Barovia.

A knock came at the door to the party's room at the Blue Water Inn. Ernst appeared with some information for Lazlo: someone very important wished to meet with the damned, and it was none other than Lady Wachter herself wishing to dine with them at her manor. When the group reconvened in the mid-morning, they discussed this along with the investigation into the disappearance of St. Andral's relics.

Emil brought Milivoj and Yeska to the inn, where Emil and Lazlo could try very different approaches to getting information from them in the empty taproom. Milivoj was insistent, despite Emil's pressuring interrogation, that he had not known about the bones and had nothing to do with their disappearance. Before long, he stormed out of the inn. Meanwhile, while Yeska had little information to give to Lazlo, this line of questioning was definitive: Yeska said that he told Milivoj about the bones, and no one else. Lazlo left to catch up with Emil, who had followed Milivoj out into the street.

They found Milivoj at the graveyard, fuming as he began his day's work. Despite Lazlo's attempts to reason with him, Milivoj's temper boiled over, and he refused to speak any further, indignant that the work that he does in order to support his younger siblings was being interrupted. Lazlo even attempted to magically charm him, but the spell failed to take hold; fortunately, he was able to pass off the strange gesture and babbling as a form of blessing.

Working inside the church with Father Lucian, Emil investigated the reliquary and keenly deduced that the floorboards had been pried up with a flat, wide instrument, not like a prybar but more like a shovel. In addition, there were traces on the floorboards and in the hidden shrine of soil among the dust. Determined to get a confession out of Milivoj, Emil decided to apply pressure to the young man's weakness and asked the priest for the location of Milivoj's house where he and his siblings live. The priest recognized the man's intentions and refused to give the location, telling Emil that he would no longer be welcome if he threatened Milivoj's young siblings.

While Emil investigated the church, Puck and Emil explored the town square and found several people—men, women, even children—in the stocks with false donkey heads placed over their own. Lazlo attempted to get some water from the well to the prisoners, but Izek appeared on patrol flanked by two guards and stopped him. Though Lazlo insisted that he was only trying to give succor to the prisoners and not release them, Izek demanded that he replace the donkey heads and never meddle with the prisoners again, and he threw his weight around to emphasize that this was no joke.

Back at the Blue Water Inn, Irina mused over something unusual that Yaroslava had said to her that morning. She could never have guessed that Yaroslava had stumbled into a terrifying connection with a predatory entity… While helping the baroness prepare early that morning, Yaroslava once again noticed something odd about the tall mirror in the room. While inspecting the mirror, she acted on a hunch and asked the lady, who was preoccupied with her own morning routine, "What do you think of Strahd?"

A moment later, a ripple appeared in the surface of the mirror, like an underwater creature breaching the surface. Then, Yaroslava's reflection disappeared, and she found herself staring into the piercing gaze of a tall, black-cloaked figure who beckoned with the curl of a slender finger as his lips parted and a voice came from the mirror: "Join me tonight…" The man's figure disappeared and was replaced briefly by the image of Castle Ravenloft standing atop its pinnacle rock. Thought initially stunned by the sudden appearance, she found herself  looking forward to such a polite invitation.

With the investigation into the relics temporarily stalled, the party decided to go to the athinganoi camp to seek an audience with the "dusk elves." On their way out of town, however, they followed Ismark on a detour into Blinsky's toy shop, as he wanted to find a gift for Irina to cheer her up.

When they entered, they found the shop attended by a gloomy, heavyset man in a moth-eaten jester's costume. Once he noticed their arrival, however, his demeanor changed instantly as he launched into a prepared greeting, pleased to finally have customers other than the baron, who paid him a small stipend each month to make decorations for the festivals. The party discovered why the man, who introduced himself as Gadof Blinsky, had no business: while obviously talented, especially with clockwork mechanisms, his aesthetic was eerie, even macabre. Blinsky explained that he wanted to give people an opportunity to take the things that normally terrified them—swarms of bats, hungry wolves, and even death itself—and instead experience them in a safe, playful manner. He had yet to convince any of the townsfolk of the merits of this.

Irina suddenly stiffened as she took a doll from a shelf and stared incredulously at its painted white skin and long, auburn hair. Blinsky gasped as he noticed Irina, as though he instantly recognized her. He explained that the baron's henchman, Izek Strazni, had been extorting him to create a doll every month to an exact specification. While Blinsky felt that each doll he made got closer and closer to Izek's description, he felt that he did not truly grasp the details until he saw Irina. True enough, the doll that Irina held in her hands held an uncanny resemblance to the young woman.

Since Blinsky worked with clockwork mechanisms, Emil asked the man for a gear to fix his clockwork dancer. Blinsky was happy to oblige, and after a short bit of tinkering, the tiny dancer was spinning slowly and filling the room with a light, pleasant melody—but something in its tune disturbed Emil. Blinsky explained that he considered himself a student of the ancient master, Fereidones, who perfected the art of clockwork. It is said that Fereidones's masterpiece was a clockwork man, which was said to have made its way to Castle Ravenloft.

Thoroughly disturbed by much of what they experienced in Blinsky's toy shop, the party left, with Emil fighting a voice in the back of his mind, Lazlo stuffing into his pack a ventriloquist's dummy said to be carved in the likeness of the devil Strahd, and Yaroslava hugging a stuffed, black felt cat that Ismark bought for her.

Outside the Dusk Gate, a few farm cottages lined a road that led into the dark woods to the west, and another, smaller path led south into a clearing, in the middle of which rose a small, green hill. The hill was topped by a great tent circled by barrel-topped wagons like those seen in Madam Eva's camp. At the base of the hill were tiny cottages, each of which guarded by a cloaked figure. Seeking direction, the group spoke approached one and found him to be a man whose slight stature contrasted with his swarthy skin, dark hair, and sullen demeanor. The guard explained that his clan, whom the locals call "dusk elves," lived there with the athinganoi. The athinganoi up in the camp were currently in disarray, as the daughter of one of the leaders had gone missing. Consequently, most of his people, who still passed down the skill of hunting and tracking, were out with the athinganoi scouring the woods for the missing girl. However, the leader of the dusk elves, Kasimir Velikov, was still in the camp.

Kasimir's cottage was guarded by two of his people, and at the party's request one of the guards went inside to inform him of their arrival. A minute later, another man wrapped in a cloak emerged, scrutinizing the party. As he introduced himself, he lowered the hood of his cloak, revealing garish scars where his ears used to be. "I am Kasimir Velikov, leader of my clan. Why have you come?"

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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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Beyond the Devil's Sight
The first day in Vallaki

The company of the damned followed the main street of Vallaki, relatively idyllic in its evident tranquility, towards the manor of the town's posadnik, Baron Vargas Vallakov. The eaves of many of the buildings were festooned with the remnants of some sort of festival decorations. On the way to the manor, they passed a tavern called the Blue Water Inn, and at that very moment two unusual individuals—and evidently not locals—stepped out from it: a man, drearily-dressed like a Barovian but with the demeanor of someone unaware of his current situation, and a sylph-like waif of a young woman.   The party learned that these two had ended up in Barovia under similar circumstances and stepped into the inn to discuss things further.

They found the inn an unusually warm and inviting place and rented a private room where they could speak without unknown eyes and ears upon them. The two new strangers introduced themselves as Lazlo and Efa—or, as she preferred to be known, "Puck." Ismark explained the dire situation to them but also detailed his rationale for why he believes that the strangers could possibly return to the world of the living intact:

"You may think me mad or too full of pride for thinking that we can escape this prison, but hear me out… The priests say that we are living the punishment of our ancestors' sin. Some say that, one day, Barovia will be returned to the world, our debt repaid. Some believe that we shall never repay this transgression—these folk have lost themselves in hopeless despair. Not I. How could any god worth worshipping be so cruel?  So it must be possible for Barovians to return to the world of the living.

"We know that the athinganoi travel the Devil's lands freely as easily as passing through a gate—but who controls this gate? The Devil! He opens the gate for the athinganoi and keeps it closed for all else. The athinganoi even cross between his realm and the world of the living. How is that possible? It means that it must be possible for the living to enter the realm of the dead, so why should the dead not be able to enter the realm of the living?

"It is not such a ludicrous idea. So many damned souls have been brought to the Devil's realm, just like you. They fought against him and failed, and now their souls are doomed to repeat their doomed march to his castle night after night. But when they were brought here, they had some kind of life—and you prove this. You have a body that bleeds like any Barovian's. So if we can find the door to this prison, maybe you can leave, too! If the devil can be defeated, maybe even death itself can be."

Though it seemed an impossible task, they had already been given glimpses into a future in which escape was in their grasp through the words of the old seer, Madame Yeva. Deeming each other trustworthy enough, the two groups joined together.

Perhaps lending weight to Ismark's argument, there was another foreign guest in the inn: a carnival ringmaster from the Four Corners named Rictavios, who had traveled the land far and wide. He had been staying at the inn for a month at that point, sharing tales of faraway lands and foreign curiosities to entertain the despairing locals. According to his tale, he had—following some rumors—traveled through caverns far beneath the Kingdom of Earth and found a shadowy, mystical portal. Knowing that a life without risk was not worth living, he returned with his horse and wagon and traveled through… Though he realized that he was now as trapped as anyone else, he suggested that, perhaps, a higher calling had brought him to Barovia. Despite Rictavios's assurance of their authenticity, Yaroslava felt that his stories were highly dubious.

Before the strangers could leave, the inn's owner, Davian Martikov, made an offer to them. Seeing that they were highly armed, he asked them to check on why the recent wine shipment was so substantially delayed. In return, he offered free room and board if they could return with the shipment. And as long as they were looking around, he asked them to keep an eye out for his best customer, Bluto Krogarov, who had not visited in a week or more.

Before the group reached the manor, Yaroslava noticed a man who seemed to have been following them since they arrived. She informed Mao-Ying so that he could keep an eye out, and the giant walked directly toward where the man had been spotted. Cornered, the man revealed that his name was Ernst, and that he kept an eye on any strangers coming into town, since they always bring trouble with them. Seeing an opportunity, Lazlo paid Ernst a small sum as incentive to come to them if he saw anything unusual, and he let the man on his way.

The baron's home was, in relative terms, abuzz with activity, as peasants came by delivering bundles of twigs. The party was invited inside and led to a den, where the baron would meet with them. On their way in, they saw the foyer and hallway filled with bundles of twigs, and the dining room was filled with women of various ages working with different craft projects in their laps in between stuffing their faces with cake. Lazlo sensed something amiss and cast a spell to make himself invisible so that he could investigate.

A well-dressed woman moved about the room, discussing—almost to herself—decorations and costumes for an upcoming festival. The women at the table seemed to lack any life in their eyes or interest in their work. Lazlo made a distraction to lift a piece of cake, but there were too many eyes in the room not to notice a pastry rising into the air. One of the women cried out in surprise, and Lazlo stuffed the cake into a pouch and ran from the room as he begin to think that the cake was, perhaps, less sinister than previously suspected.

The baron made his entrance just as Lazlo resituated himself. A man of no great height but barrel-chested and with a confidently self-assured demeanor, he greeted his guests flanked by two large, gray mastiffs. While he was not pleased with the reverence showed by all of his guests, the more decorous ones were able to smooth things over enough for him to sit and talk with them for a while, as the stuffed head of a great brown bear hung on the wall behind him. He assured them that they would be safe in Vallaki as long as they did not serve the devil Strahd.

It was the first time that the strangers heard this name pass through the lips of a Barovian: "Strahd." Ismark jumped to his feet, wild-eyed, and cried, "You speak the Devil's name?! It summons him!" Annoyed, the Baron explained that they did not fear to speak this name in Vallaki so long as it was said with due disgust, and Vallaki seemed to be none the worse for it.

To everyone's surprise, the baron seemed in high spirits, assuring them repeatedly that "all will be well!" He explained that Vallaki is safe under his guidance, and that the people even enjoy regularly festivals to celebrate their peace and security. More than simply providing entertainment, these festivals served a greater purpose: the baron explained his belief that, if the people of Vallaki all learned to feel joy again, God's grace would return to them and save them from their prison. Until that time, the strangers were welcome to stay in Vallaki as long as they caused no trouble and followed the laws.

Though Vallaki was safe, he reminded them to stay within the walls. Their butler and lady-in-waiting had recently gone missing, and since the guard could find no trace of them within the walls, he supposed that they must have left and fallen victim to the devil's minions. Seeing an opportunity, Yaroslava spoke with the baron one-on-one as the party was escorted out, explaining that she had served a noble lady in life and would be happy to offer services. The baroness, Lydia Vallakova—whom Lazlo had seen in the dining room—met with Yaroslava and was delighted by the courtier's charm and grace. She offered Yaroslava a place to stay in return for her assistance and companionship.

Having now met the posadnik and earning his blessing to stay within the walls of his town, the party dispersed into the town as light of day began to subside. Despite all of the assurances from the baron and her brother, Irina still seemed fretful, as though she felt eyes upon her wherever she walked…

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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.

-

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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A Cold, Unwelcoming Place

Yaroslava awoke with a scream, but she was no longer alone. Emil, Mao-Ying, and Lae'boo were nearby, and all were sound in their bedrolls with their possessions and bodily integrity intact. Pamphilos, however, was gone. They found themselves in an unfamiliar forest of evergreens, with an unseasonal chill in the air. Though they knew not how they had arrived here, each had a vivid recollection of his final memory: being separated from the others and attacked—fear and sudden agony, then darkness. Mercifully, these memories began to fade like that of a nightmare after waking, but it got them no closer to an explanation.

A vague light came from behind the thick curtain of clouds in the sky, but while a mist clung to the branches and trunks of the surrounding trees, it did not advance upon the group as it had the night before. Traveling through the wood, they came across a dirt trail that cut through the wood. Following it for several hours, they came upon a massive stone wall between the hills flanking the road. Set in the wall was a great gate of iron bars, on either side of which stood headless stone sentries. As the group approached, the gate creaked open with a slow, agonized groan. On the other side awaited a ghastly sight: a skeletal rider upon a no less skeletal steed. Clad in the unrecognizably tattered tabard of some ancient house, it moved with some unknown animating force down the road at the opening of the gate. While it appeared to move around the group when they stood in its way, they destroyed the blasphemous revenant, making sure that the bones were as still and silent as they should be.

It was several more hours before they came within sight of a decrepit-looking village. The village surely looked abandoned, but a long, wailing cry that emerged from the fog insisted otherwise. Carefully, though moved toward the source of the lamentation, seeing that all of the windows and many of the doors of the village were boarded up. The truth of the matter was that the village was inhabited and even had some level of commerce, but the frightened, emaciated peasants who dwelt there spoke little that made sense. Oddly, they all spoke in the Old Church dialect, and their clothing and writing were reminiscent of the forgotten times of the Holy Empire. The heroes met a woman driven mad with grief, Marya, whose wails carried through the village streets because her daughter, Gertruda, had been taken by "the Devil," and she implored the strangers to rescue her before harm befell her. A tight-lipped shopkeeper and his simpleton nephew spoke of attacks on the village by the Devil's minions, especially against the house of the posadnik, the village's governor. 

When the mists parted briefly, far above the village, at the apex of a cliffside, one could see the impossibly high walls of some foreboding citadel. There, the villagers said, resided the Devil, the feared and hated ruler of this land.

Exploring the village, the heroes found a gathering of villagers, but little more life than they had encountered previously. The drearily-dressed villagers, huddled together over their tables, stared fixedly and unwelcomingly at the strangers. Three women in the taproom gave them a decidedly warmer welcome: three athinganoi women, sisters whose inscrutable eyes glimmered with excitement at the sight of the strangers. These athinganoi—evidently the owners of the tavern—welcomed them to the village of Barovia, which shared the name of the valley in which it is located. The sisters were strangely tight-lipped about certain subjects—in particular, more details about where they were and how they got there—but recommended that they seek out the wisdom of an athinganos seer, Madam Eva, who could pierce the mist of the future and who resided just outside of town.

Another patron, a young and handsome man with hair that was strikingly white before his years, beckoned them to join him and share a bottle of wine. "Do you believe that man can kill the Devil?" was the first thing that he asked. He introduced himself as Ismark Kolyanovich, son of the posadnik, Kolyan Indirovich, and he seemed excited to meet strangers, although he gave his condolences for their circumstances.

"You… know not where you are, do you?" he asked in response to their confusion. "Barovia—this village, and the land around it… is in Hell. And if you are here, then that means…"

The heroes were stunned by the revelation—the attack the night before—their sudden appearance here—the warning words of Tyddyn's presbyter about salvation… Emil hardened his heart at the revelation as a voice whispered "Home…" in his mind, keeping himself afloat over the crashing waves of truth around him. Yaroslava felt her heart race and her mind swim as this man stoically explained such a harsh, final truth and found herself suddenly fixated on him. Mao-Ying, with no other explanation for the situation, suddenly found himself in the afterlife of a god that was not his own and became preoccupied with ensuring that his material possessions were in order as a way of coping with the incredible realization.

Ismark promised to help them deal with their new situation in return for help in return. He brought them to his family home, which was marked with evidence of relentless attacks by the Devil's minions over the past several weeks, which suddenly stopped the night after the death of his father, the posadnik, whose elderly body could no longer resist the endless strain placed upon him. At the manor, Ismark introduced the heroes to his adopted sister, Irina Kolyanovna, who was a young and regally composed woman with long, auburn hair. 

The siblings explained that, many generations ago, Barovians were simple, God-fearing folk who were protected by the archangels Eirian—the Morninglord—and Bogdana—Mother Night. However, the Barovian ancestors committed some heinous affront to God that was so unforgivable that Mother Night, once their protector, cast the land of Barovia into Hell. Now, the sun no longer shines, and the Morninglord no longer intercedes on their behalf; while the presence of Mother Night can be felt during the night, it is a cold, distant presence. The Devil who now rules over them is a punishment for this forgotten sin, and Barovians have been suffering his punishment ever since. What's more, once or twice a generation, damned souls are delivered to Barovia to suffer the same torment at the Devil's hands as do the Barovians.

Recently, the Devil had set his sights on Irina, and he has come to her in person on two previous occasions. While these visits are only a hazy memory to her, they have left an undeniable mark on Irina: two puncture wounds despoil her alabaster neck, clear evidence of the Devil's designs on her. The Devil is known to drain the blood of victims and turn them into unholy servants who bend to his will. Enraged, Ismark has been looking for any way to protect his sister and intends to take her to the town of Vallaki, which lies beyond the mountains, but the roads are fraught with danger. Worse, the posadnik's children had been unable to deliver the man's body to the church on the far side of the village for a proper burial because the Devil's eyes are always on Barovia, but Irina has refused to go anywhere while her father's corpse lingered in their home. The appearance of the strangers changed all of this.

The heroes, accompanied by Ismark, visited the church to speak to its priest, Father Donavich. The church had clearly been suffering attacks of its own for a long time, and more disturbingly, the inhuman cries of a suffering young man howled from beneath the floorboards. Exploring the side rooms, they found chambers containing a mixture of Lyubomiran holy symbols and other icons of an unfamiliar origin depicting a sunburst. Behind the final door was the most shocking discovery: Pamphilos, haggard but conscious, on his knees with his hands manacled and chained to the wall.

Finding the priest in a state of evident delirium at the church's altar, the heroes demanded answers. Through the man's mad sobbing, they gathered that the source of the pleading cries from the basement was Donavich's son, Doru, who recently reappeared after going missing one year ago. Doru had, along with a small group of other villagers, accompanied another stranger who arrived in Barovia alone—a wizard who rallied the villagers to destroy the Devil. Upon reaching the castle, most of the villagers immediately fled at the sight of the beast, but Doru never returned… until now. But he was different—changed—hungry. Donavich had been praying night and day for the intercession of the Morninglord to save his son, who had been turned into the Devil's spawn. That morning, he received an answer in the form of Pamphilos, bound and chained in the other room. Donavich felt strongly, however, that it was not Eirian, the Morninglord, but Bogdana, Mother Night, who answered his prayers, offering him a way to sustain his son…

Donavich begged the strangers not to kill his son. However, by appealing to the man's faith and inner convictions, they were able to make him see that his son was no longer his son, and that he could not allow himself to commit a vile act of murder in order to sustain the creature that his son had become. A revelatory look came upon the aging man's face, and he saw the intercession of the Morninglord at work in the words of the strangers. While Mother Night had tested his faith, the Morninglord had brought him the answer. He brought the party into the room with the trap door, whose key he had thrown away in a fit of despair. The heroes ripped the rotted door open and descended with Ismark and the priest into the dark undercroft…

There, clinging to the shadows of the large, earthen room, was an emaciated human figure who looked more like a feral, but frightened dog. Doru begged his father not to let the strangers harm him, but Donavich, mustering the strength of his resolution, told Doru that this must be done to put his soul to rest. Despite his waifish appearance, the young man possessed an inhuman strength and resilience and fought rabidly for his continued existence. Climbing the walls of the undercroft like a spider, he nearly reached the trapdoor but was finally struck down before he could escape.

With the issue at the church resolved, Donavich promised to bury the posadnik at dawn the next morning. Mao-Ying said that he would decide on Pamphilos's fate in the morning. The heroes returned to the posadnik's manor and spent the rest of the evening conversing with their hosts. Each of them had a troubled night…

Emil dreamed of sitting alone before a stage on which a woman in an exotic costume danced with fiery grace. He noticed something behind her, and shifting the focus of his attention away from the dancer, he saw a small child, a girl, standing immobile and staring at him. She had the pallor of a corpse.

Mao-Ying dreamed of a cold mountain pass, through which he trudged in a snowstorm. Out of the haze ahead, he could see two knights on horseback charging at him, side by side. From the dark mists behind him, he could hear a low, booming repetition of sound like a staccato rumble of thunder. The sound drew nearer as the knights charged in slow motion. Suddenly, the great talons of an enormous bird of prey appeared through the storm, plucking each knight from his horse and making them disappear into the stormy sky.

Yaroslava was roused from her slumber by Irina. "Come with me," she said. "I wish to show you something…"

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Into the Unknown

"Well? And then what, barkeep?"

"They vanished the same way they appeared in Tyddyn: suddenly and unexpectedly. Went into the heart of that cursed wood and never came back. Shame about that, after everything they did for us, but that forest takes what it will…"

-

The heroes of Tyddyn fought their way bravely through an ambush by craven barghests and hiked for hours into the wood before finding a nest of harpies, who mocked the interlopers. Parlaying with the bird-women, the heroes learned that the priests had indeed died unmercifully by their bloodied talons. What's more, they had not long ago seen Pamphilos traveling alone like a cursed man into the darkest heart of the wood. There, they said, dwelt the "Black Bird," some sort of harpy goddess also known as Kelaino, who ruled the forest and gave the harpies their most baleful songs.

Though the harpies tried to turn the heroes into their next banquet, the heroes resisted the bewitching melodies that the monsters sang and slew them so that they would harm no one else. Amid a pile of human remains and harpy filth, they found the unmistakable remains of several clergymen, Oleg included. The former lover of Yaroslava's stratega had been martyred.

With her task finished, Yaroslava informed the others that she would accompany them no further into the woods. Emil and Mao-Ying, along with Mao-Ying's bear companion, Lae'boo, ventured further into the forest, from which a torpid fog emerged. From the border of their perception, a black, predatory beast pounced upon them, a six-legged monstrosity from whose body, which rippled with muscle, erupted two long, barbed tentacles. Fighting fiercely to defend themselves, they managed to drive the beast away. In time, they came upon a single, ragged tent, in which slept an equally haggard-looking man who was nearly comatose from exhaustion and want of food and water. Mao-Ying recognized him as his quarry, Pamphilos, but the man was too delirious to say anything except some mystifying words about being watched and tormented. Mao-Ying hefted the man over his shoulder, and the group made haste to return to Tyddyn before the sun set.

Meanwhile, the mist had spread so far that it caught up to Yaroslava, who made a quick pace on her own back to civilization, albeit using some of the orienteering techniques picked up from the heathen, Mao-Ying. As the mist surrounded her, though, she began to realize that she was now walking in circles. As she stopped to get a grip on the situation, she became aware that she was not alone as she sensed a disturbance in the air directly behind her.

Turning slowly to face the interloper, she saw a wan, but imposingly regal figure: woman in a long, black gown whose train draped across the moist earth and which was made entirely from black feathers; her bare arms having a pallor reminiscent of the sky in early twilight. She stood almost expectantly with her hands folded over one another, but it was clear that her fingers trailed into sharp nails like the talons of a hawk. The upper half of her face was obscured by what appeared to be a dark mask made of two raven wings that emerged from her temples; covering her eyes, they swept back and up to merge indistinguishably with voluminously feathered black hair that looked like the plumage of a great crow. Her lips were blood red. Yaroslava dared to speak: "Kelaino?"

She did not deign to acknowledge the question and only spoke these inscrutable words: "Such a beautiful tragedy… to watch the burning sun fall into the deep, black sea."

When Yaroslava asked for the meaning of the words, mask of feathers over the entity's eyes drew back to reveal wide, circular eyes with a bright, but sickly yellow iris filling the area around a pitch black pupil. Like the eyes of a raven, they stared intently, but distantly through Yaroslava's. In an instant, her form erupted into a swarm of crows that assailed Yaroslava, pecking and scratching relentlessly. No help came as she screamed into the empty forest and collapsed under the assault, their cacophonous cawing cloying at her mind and their talons clawing at her exposed skin.

Things were little better for Mao-Ying and Emil, who were now realizing that they were hopelessly lost, as every attempt to gain their proper bearings only seemed to lead them fruitlessly back into an impossible loop. Nevertheless, they chose to press on, their dwindling bundle of torches mirroring their diminishing hopes to escape this befuddling fog. While Emil's strength of conviction pushed him through the night, Mao-Ying—despite his great strength—collapsed to the ground. While the giant commanded his bear companion to leave him behind, the loyal creature refused, disobediently staying at his side. Emil nearly stayed standing before the first light of dawn, but exhaustion eventually took him, as well.

During the night, Mao-Ying awoke from his exhaustion to the sound of growls and roars in the black, foggy night that surrounded him. It was no doubt Lae'boo fighting some predatory lurker, but in an instant, the sounds of battle ceased. He looked to the body of Pamphilos, whose outline was barely visible to his bleary eyes, and watched as a barbed tentacle emerged from the inky mist, rolling the mercifully unconscious man's body towards its salivating maw. The sound of rending flesh and cracking bone foretold what would come to him soon after.

Something woke Emil from his exhausted stupor, and he could see the long, black train of a gown trailing the earth before him. With what little strength he had left, he defiantly held up his shield with the holy symbol of his faith emblazoned on its surface. The figure before him spoke with a haunting melancholy: "It will not save you now…"

As the figure glided across the earth away from him, other creatures emerged from the mist: dark, predatory beasts with teeth fit for rending flesh.

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The Heroes of Tyddyn

"Take a seat, pilgrims. I'll pour you some drinks. How was your journey? Safe? I'll tell you who you have to thank for that. Wouldn't you know that Tyddyn's had its very own heroes? And I'm not just talking about Saint Eirian lying in repose under the cathedral. Stay a while, let me tell you the story…"

-

The three of them arrived together by carriage, but what bound them was nothing more than fate: Lady Yaroslava and the itinerant zealot, Emil, arrived from the eastern realms, over by the Heresiocracy: she looking to find her stratega's lost love; and he searching for the light that would burn away the dark shadow cast wherever he walked. Towering over them both was the giant, Mao-Ying, who traveled from a distant land in pursuit of a criminal whose bounty was his honor.

'Round this time, Tyddyn was under siege. Always had a problem with bandits on the road ever since the town grew into a great trading center as more and more pilgrims came to visit the ruins of Saint Eirian, but they were different lately, organized, brutal—an army. The heroes survived a series of attacks 'long the highway and found that their fates intertwined not just with each other, but with Tyddyn: Lady Yaroslava's man, a priest named Oleg, had gone missing recently, and the bandits were suspected; Mao-Ying's bounty, after hanging around town for a while, ended up running with the highwaymen; and Emil promised the presbyter he'd offer help to Tyddyn in exchange for a chance to commune with Eirian's relics.

Hunting bandits weren't the only good thing they done for Tyddyn, neither. You probably passed by Delwyn's farm 'long your way in. Wolves had nearly ate all of his livestock, but these three helped hunt down the pack. Delwyn was so pleased with 'em for saving his farm, he treated 'em just like family. The good lady and the foreigner weren't inclined to mingle with a poor Lyubomiran farmer, but Emil stayed with Delwyn's family every night… probably just as well, since word started gettin' around that there was somethin' strange about the man, that he bargained with the devil for sorcerous powers that he used to terrify his foes.

'Course, people had reason to be skittish 'bout black magic at work in Tyddyn. The guard had been so busy dealing with the bandits, a whole cabal of devil worshippers set up shop in the middle of town! Guard eventually got around to it and held some in stocks in the middle of town: a dark man from the heathen kingdoms and some local no-gooders, talkin' about how Lubomir were evil and the devil were truly sent by God! Can you believe it? They hanged 'em good, don't you worry. We're God-fearing folk, here.

Didn't help, neither, that there was a Pauper Knight, Sir Pajen, they'd helped along the way to Tyddyn, and though he were proper grateful for their aid, he saw Emil's powers and swore he saw the devil in it. He'd get to talking after getting some ale in him, and before you knew it, every laborer in town heard that Emil was some kind of sorceror. Hoo boy, when Emil found out who started these rumors, he came storming in here right cross with Pajen. Thought there'd  be a fight, but the men must've worked something out.

Lot of people forget about this, but there were a time when people in town'd cross the street and make a sign against the evil eye whenever they crossed paths with Emil, so it seemed like the only friend he had was poor Delwyn. He even refused to speak when the demarchos gave him a platform at the celebration, but you know what he did? He called everyone to the craftsmen's square and gave a speech the likes of which I can't do justice. Had the working folk enraptured and the priests casting each other nervous looks, talking about being a warrior of God, a "paladin" like under the Holy Empire, and working wonders like no one ever seen. Saw Pajen in the crowd, I did—threw a dark glance at the spectacle and left Tyddyn that very night.

Now, even with the bandits on the run, that was only half the work done. They still ain't found Oleg or Pamphilos.

They'd found a holy symbol on a harpy that attacked them during their last foray, so they knew they'd need to go deeper into the woods and prepared for a great ordeal. They trained with the town guard, and Lady Yaroslava even won the respect of many who doubted her by humbling a bunch of 'em that ganged up on her. Mao-Ying even trained a wild bear to fight alongside him—some say it was heathen magic, while others say that the giant won the beast's respect through his great strength. Me, I think it was a little of both. And by the time they left, they'd gotten themselves some shiny new arms and armor. Not sure how they got their hands on it, but some say they saw Lady Yaroslava hand over a mighty fine antique instrument to some shady-looking gentleman who was in a real hurry to get his hands on it. I think the lady just carried more wealth on her than she wanted anyone to know about, though. Either way, they left their old gear with that farmer, Delwyn—what a charitable bunch!

During that time, some guardsmen who were clearing out the last bandit camps came back with word of a nest of harpies deep in the wood. With their preparations done, the heroes left to make a final trip into that cursed place…"

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