Penitence

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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