FifthColumn's Curse of Strahd

Canto the Fifth

Splinters

Fear is unnatural. Lightning and thunder are unnatural. Pain, death, reality, these are all unnatural. We can’t bear these things as they are. We know too much. So we resort to repression, compromise and disguise. This is how we survive the universe. This is the natural language of the species. —Don DeLillo, White Noise

The fourth morning in Barovia:
-At dawn, the party wasted no time preparing to leave Vallaki, but they weren’t early enough: Izek Strazni, the burgomaster’s hulking lieutenant with his monstrous dragon-hand, was already at the church doors, speaking in hushed tones with Father Lucian. He indicated the Outlanders with a gesture of his claw and waved them outside, while Father Lucian could only offer an apologetic expression as they passed.
-Izek, backed up by twelve (!) town guards with halberds, told them in few gravelly words that they were to surrender their weapons and accompany him to the burgomaster’s mansion for questioning regarding the theft and property-damage at Henrik Van der Voort‘s shop. The Outlanders’ protestations fell on deaf ears until Alistair finally overcame his reticence to use his fey-charms. Ensorcelled, Izek directed them to leave town directly and warned them that the Burgomaster would not look kindly upon their return. The Outlanders saw no reason to argue and hastened beyond the stockade toward Kresk.
-On the road, Liveth surprised everyone by tripping a rusted wolf trap that hadn’t even been well-hidden, but leapt clear as it snapped shut. The group was not expecting a trap in the middle of the main thoroughfare but pressed on.
-Later they approached a broken signpost which, when righted, pointed the way to Kresk and Tsolenka Pass (Southwest) Lake Baratok (Northwest), Vallaki and Ravenloft (Northeast), and Berez (Southeast). “Tsolenka Pass” and “Berez” were both unfamiliar to them.
-Near the crossroads, they were set upon by six fearless wolves. Beyond trading a few dangerous blows with Percy, they posed little threat but it was notably disconcerting that the group had now been attacked by wolves twice in Barovian “daylight”.
-A few miles beyond where they left the carcasses of the wolves, the Outlanders came upon a hirsute and chatty fur trapper…and certainly a werewolf, everyone assumed. He sized up their weapons indiscreetly while he cheerfully warned them about the various horrors of the forest, and Sydney quickly displayed her silver dagger and informed him that they were not afraid of wolves and such. He quickly took his leave, but not before telling them not to expect much from Kresk, as “they don’t let nobody in…they ain’t gonna start today.”
-As they approached Kresk, the temperature dropped precipitously, and light, fresh snowfall could be seen through the thickening fog. The party smelled sick-sweet pipe smoke just before two young male Vistani stumbled out of the woods, stoned and drunk out of their gourds. They offered to serve as guides for 100 Denarii apiece, and the Outlanders considered it briefly, until they realized exactly how close they were to their destination. The youths also attempted to sell them “mist potions” as Luvash had, but the Outlanders demonstrated they were no mere tourists before moving on.
-Over four hours after leaving Vallaki, the party finally spotted the walls of Kresk atop a nearby hill, and the unmistakable [[Abbey of St. Markovia]] looming further above. This town had 20-foot-tall buttressed stone walls rather than a wooden palisade like Vallaki. They stated their business dutifully to the watchmen, who called for the burgomaster, Baron Kreskov.
-A short, dark, bald, and bearded man rather resembling a dwarf, Baron Kreskov told them in a manicured voice that it was not his lot to allow strangers into Kresk, as the people’s safety was his only concern. However, he asked them what sounded like his standard interview: “How many wolves have you killed? How many people have you killed? Why?”
-Satisfied, apparently with their answers, he explained that Kresk relied on the outside world for nothing but wine and that(much like the Vistani and the Blue Water Inn) the Wizard of Wines had not delivered the expected shipment. If they could deliver the missing shipment, he would be bound by gentleman’s decorum to open the gates to them reciprocally.
-Ever-cautious Rurik, who had probably never agreed to anything without reservation in his life, accepted this quest on behalf of the group without a shadow of reservation, equivocation, hesitation, abrogation, or regard for self-preservation. The Outlanders set off for the Wizard of Wines, to the southeast.
-As they walked, the weather warmed somewhat and the snows gave way to cold drizzle and mud. Without warning, Percy took off at a tear and stopped at a spot not far from the road. Investigating, Liveth discovered that the panther had led her to a large, black iron birdcage on the ground. Inside were three dead ravens in various states of decomposition, and, as the party watched, a fourth raven flew in as though compelled and perched within. Aethelred cast a spell to speak with the bird, who seemed nihilistically resigned to stay in the cage, and when he was removed, he expressed a dull wish to go back in. Alistair blasted the cage with eldritch force, destroying it, and the raven was immediately freed from whatever had compelled it thus. He explained to Aethelred that a crone he called Baba Lysaga hated ravens and had made it her mission to eradicate them. He conjectured that this cage was a device of her making. He did not know where she could be found. The group thanked him and moved on.
-Eventually they saw a sign for the vineyard and followed a cart track until they were hailed by an old man in a cloak decorated with a few tiny silver baubles and gems. He waved them off the trail and explained that the Winery had been (and was still being) sacked by blights for unknown reasons. He introduced himself as Davian Martikov and told them that his family had been driven into the woods nearby to hide for over a week and that the creatures had given no indication of leaving.
-The Outlanders quickly surmised that the “Wizard” of Wines mas more of a trademark than an earned honorific, and said they’d look into his blight problem. They followed the trail about a half-mile to a huge vineyard and a large, well-built winery. They made it within 100 feet of the building before dozens of three-foot-tall shrub-creatures scuttled at them through the vines from all directions.
-Rurik marched confidently toward the winery’s veranda, trusting his armour, his sword-arm, and emboldened by the promise of wine. He had little reason to fear, as the plant-things proved as fragile and clumsy as they appeared. Aethelred called down a magical moonbeam to roast them severally with radiant energy, while Alistair used his own magic to send a large group of them to sleep. Sydney drove the Rod of Awareness into the soil, calling forth its abjurative properties before joining Liveth in supporting the fight at range.
-As Rurik was swarmed by blights faster than he could put them down, others spilled past him toward the others. Percy pounced forward to do his part, while the rest continued to apply blade, arrow and spell. The main loading doors of the winery suddenly crashed open and twenty more twig blights sallied forth, urged on by a savage figure covered in blue-grey mud, like the wild mountain-folk Aethelred had spotted near Mount Ghakis.
-The Outlanders marveled at the sheer number of assailants but held their own, and as the little blights fell so readily, there still seemed no cause for immediate concern. Their confidence waned, however as another wild druid arrived, this one with five man-sized needle blights of the type they’d faced near Tser Falls. These creatures were no more expert in combat than the smaller twig blights, but their attack was far more deadly when it landed, launching sharp flechettes at range into the flesh of their foes.
-Before the party could even adjust to this new threat, yet more blights appeared, led by their own druid shepherd: these were sinewy, ropey things and though they numbered only two, they would prove to be by far the most dangerous. One grappled and restrained Rurik while the other summoned slithering tendrils and entangling roots from the soil around it, cutting off aid from the outside.
-While Rurik struggled to free himself and endured an unreasonable volume of attacks from the blights surrounding them, the others were being overrun themselves. Aethelred’s Moonbeam danced about the battlefield to toast blights a few at a time, and the others shot and cast as fast as they were able, but it seemed futile. Percy was savaged and narrowly escaped death by running into the outhouse just as Liveth clambered atop the same building for a better vantage. Aethelred and Alistair were pinned down, and Aethelred shifted into the form of a Brown Bear to fend off their attackers.
-Still, it was only a matter of time before the Outlanders began to fall. The first to succumb was Rurik, who finally fell under the swarming monsters and was trod underfoot, though the creatures mercifully moved on to attack still-vertical targets. One of the druids cast a Thunderwave spell at the swirling melee containing Alistair and Aethelred-as-Bear. The dubious choice cleared the blights off of the two Outlanders, but damaged the warlock and druid enough that a few more blights could bring them down. Sydney deftly dodged, kited about the battlefield and returned fire, but alongside her comrades, blights, and evil druids, she, too eventually fell. Percy, having cowered in the relative safety of the outhouse for too long, found his resolve and pounced back into combat to aid his allies, but was ultimately met with a lethal volley of needles.
-In the end, a few blights and a single druid remained with only Liveth perched atop the outhouse to face them down. Reeling from the loss of her bonded companion Percy, perhaps she despaired. Perhaps it was Sydney’s Rod of Alertness, still planted in the ground and still emanating warm protective radiance, that gave her strength. Whatever the cause, she could see that at least a few of her companions still drew breath and, on swift Elven legs, she made her move: darting across the field she slid next to first Rurik, reviving him with healing magic, and next Sydney, for whom the next ragged breath might have been their last. The three grimly cut down their remaining foes, roused their friends (but for Percy who was beyond saving), and trudged into the Wizard of Wines Winery to learn what the fuck this all had been for.

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