“Within the bowels of these elements,
Where we are tortured and remain forever.
Hell hath no limits, nor is circumscribed
In one self place, for where we are is hell,
And where hell is must we ever be.
And, to conclude, when all the world dissolves,
And every creature shall be purified,
All places shall be hell that is not heaven.”
—Christopher Marlowe, The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus
The Sixth Morning in Barovia
-The Outlanders had passed the night in Kresk, at the home of the Burgomaster, Dmitri Kreskov, and his wife, Anna. Ezmerelda d’Avenir had no desire to be seen by the Kreskites and preferred to bed down in a grove withing the walls. Liveth and Percy kept her company.
-Rurik, curiously, awoke refreshed, having suffered no nightmares that night. Sydney checked the dreambook to be sure he was telling the truth.
-After breakfast, the party set off toward Ezmerelda’s wagon, which was parked on a small island on Lake Baratok, in the shadow of an old wizard’s tower (The Tower of Khazan).
-As they traveled, the Outlanders grilled the Vistana for information about her past and purpose, but many of her answers were incomplete or cryptic:
-Ezmerelda was not a native of Barovia but was from a similar “prison-realm” called Darkon…“inasmuch as a Vistana is from anywhere.”
-She came to Barovia seeking her mentor, a powerful vampire hunter called Van Richten, when she heard he planned to go after Strahd.
-Ezmerelda had fallen out with Van Richten years earlier, but didn’t want to miss her chance at a hunt this big.
-Evidence led her to the Tower of Khazan, but as she never saw Van Richten enter or exit the tower, she left her wagon behind and set off to find him.
-Of course she can ride into and out of Barovia, or wherever, as she wills. Such is the gift of Vistani blood. She doesn’t know how Van Richten got here, as he’s not a Vistana.
-Along the path to Lake Baratok, the group saw some footprints leading toward their destination from the east, but those abruptly left the trail and disappeared into the Svalich Woods.
-Upon reaching the lake, they were met by a causeway leading to the island, upon which rested the old tower and Ezmerelda’s vardo, as promised.
-Putting no stock into Arrigal’s fairy tale about Khazan’s Tower electrocuting all who tried to enter, Sydney touched the door and was immediately electrocuted as the entire structure was sheathed in lightning! Luckily, the ratcatcher was as nimble as she was intrepid, and she took only minor damage before tumbling clear.
-Alistair sought the secret to opening the tower and stopping the lightning. As he did so, Ezmerelda slipped through a secret hatch beneath her wagon and opened the back door from within.
-The party saw that the vardo had been rigged to explode upon intrusion, with a hundred vials of Alchemist’s Fire hanging like festive decorations across the ceiling. So much propellant would clearly disintegrate the wagon and its contents, which proved to be worth a small fortune.
-As Ezmerelda stocked the group with all manner of vampire-hunting supplies, as well as an annotated map of Barovia and a stolen page from Van Richten’s journal, Alistair worked out an odd glyph on the door, which proved to be a series of instructions for an odd dance. The warlock performed the necessary motions and spoke the name “Khazan”, heeding Madame Eva’s reading: “Let the Wizard’s name and servant guide you to that which you seek.”
-Upon entering the Tower, the group encountered four eight-foot clay statues which proved to be golems installed for the purpose of raising and lowering an elevator to the fourth floor.
-Arriving at the top of the tower, the Outlanders came to a room in which Van Richten had recently stayed. A suit of armour in the room proved to be another of Khazan’s toys, and also proved quite deferential to Sydney’s interrogation. He told her that Van Richten had indeed been there, wasn’t anymore, and that Khazan had been gone for a long time.
-A desk in the room had its drawers turned out as though it had been hastily emptied. Its presumptive contents were found in a woodstove across the room: remnants of Van Richten’s journal and other documents which had been burned.
-At the foot of the bed was a small chest which gave off a strong lavendar fragrance, opening it, Sydney discovered a grisly scene: a disembodied head, magically embalmed, with obvious Vistani features. Ezmerelda shrugged and said, oddly, “Van Richten doesn’t much like the Vistani.”
-Before they could glean much else, Orin, watching at the window, discovered that three humanoids were sidling up the path toward the causeway outside. The Outlanders crammed onto the elevator. Before she could join them, though Sydney was stopped, gently, by Khazan’s animated armour, who then revealed a secret compartment behind it, containing the Tome of Strahd, as Madame Eva hasd prophesied! She took it and joined the others, and they descended as fast as the clunky clay golems would allow.
-Outside, the party encountered three trappers who claimed to have been attracted by the lightning which had limned the tower and was visible for miles around. They attempted to shake down the adventurers for whatever treasures they had looted from the wizard’s tower. the Outlanders were disinclined to be robbed, however, and summoned steel and spell to defend themselves!
-Two of the three trappers morphed into lupine hybrid forms, surprising no one. The third, named Kiril and ostensibly the leader, attempted to fend off attacks from the party until three dire wolves joined him from across the causeway.
-Liveth seemed eager to test her new divine gifts of the Morninglord, launching holy flame far closer to the extremely explosive vardo than anyone was comfortable with.
-As the Outlanders and their new ally quickly gained the upper hand, the leader, Kiril, tried to flee as the wolves covered his retreat. Unfortunately for him, Sydney had already sunk a few recently-acquired silvered crossbow bolts into him and was not keen to lose them, so she doggedly shot him down with the support of her compatriots.
-Having cut down the three werewolves as well as the three dire wolves, the party hastened to depart the island before more assailants arrived. Ezmerelda climbed onto the driver’s board of her vardo and spoke: “Drovash”. Two quasi-real horses appeared , already tethered to the wagon, and the group was off.
-Heading south toward Yester Hill, where the wereravens believed the first of their magic gem-seeds could be found, the group encountered an animated scarecrow with knives for fingers, a gut stuffed with dead ravens, and an evil rictus which glared at them. Five more scarecrows lurched toward then through the dark wood.
-The party found the macabre constructs to be surprisingly resilient, and they imparted a supernatural fear ability that terrified and bewildered sturdy Rurik in spite of himself. Still they managed to put the foul things down and be on their way, but not before Liveth and Orin had both tempted fate by casting flame spells very near the volatile bomb-wagon again.
-As they passed the branching path that led west to the Wizard of Wines, a large unkindness of ravens overtook them from the northeast. One of the birds landed, hopped into the wood and whistled in a non-avian way for the Outlanders’ attention. Investigating, they found a Barovian woman modestly hiding her nudity behind some shrubbery.
-“Things have gotten bad in Vallaki,” she explained. “Vampire spawn stalk the streets, causing no end of trouble for the citizens. They’re leaning on Father Lucian to turn out the woman you left in the care of the church. He’s resisted, but he can’t hold out much longer.” Having delivered her message, the woman transformed back into a raven and was off.
-Trooping onward, intent on arriving at Yester Hill with plenty of daylight remaining, the party recognized their destination from miles away: a bald, man-made mound stretched 400 feet above the surrounding forest. It was ringed with hundreds of ten-foot-high stone cairns, and at its crest, a massive, 20-foot ring of boulders, periodically being struck by lightning, as well as a sickly copse surrounding a massive, twisted tree. Even from a long distance, they could see that the ring of monoliths contained a 50-foot tall wicker effigy of a caped humanoid. To the immediate west of the hill, the Mists of Barovia stretched high into the sky like a thick curtain.
-The group parked the wagon and approached the hill on foot. Orin strapped makeshift bandolier of Elzmerelda’s Alchemist’s Fire over his shoulder. Rurik heard a low deep voice that no one else heard. It beckoned him toward one of the stone cairns, with the promise of a mighty chieftain’s spear with which a worthy warrior could rule the land. The mercenary felt no compunction to resist and dug up the savage but vicious-looking implement where it lay upon the moldy bones of long-dead king Kavan. He felt its power as soon as he touched the weapon, and knew it was meant only for him.
-As they walked up the side of the hill toward the copse of trees, hoping to find the Martikovs’ gem-seed, Liveth espied what appeared to be a meteor streaking overhead. Drawing the spyglass she’s elected from Ezmerelda’s stash, the elf investigated and could hardly believe what she saw: a horse, black as night, galloped through the sky, with a humanoid rider upon its back. The horse, it should be noted, was on fire.
-The Outlanders resolved to do what they came to do and be gone quickly. As they approached the grove, they quickly determined that the tree at its heart was the Gulthias Tree about which Aethelred had told them. They also determined that a gleaming axe was embedded in the trunk, beneath which lay the skelatal remains of some would be lumberjack, and at least a half-dozen needle blights patrolled the grove. They moved toward the tree cautiously, but the blights remained passive. Finally, Alistair brandished the Gulthias Staff recovered at the winery, and snapped it in half, creating an unholy scream which carried on the wind for hundreds of feet. The blights they could see, as well as dozens which had remained hidden among the shrubs, suddenly stiffened, withered and died. The Gulthias tree however, seemed unaffected.
-The party set to work chopping and burning at the ancient tree, even as Liveth confirmed that the flying, burning horse and rider had landed amidst the monoliths adjacent to the grove. She saw that multiple bipedal creatures in blue-grey mud from head to toe had risen from divots in the earth and begun gesticulating and genuflecting between the rider and the wicker man.
-The Gulthias Tree was not easily killed. It’s spongy, rotten bark oozed blood and seemed to deter even fire damage. The axe which had been found in its belly proved especially effective against it, but still it was slow going. Even as the Outlanders toiled to fell the wicked tree, the mud-covered humanoids had multiplied to six in number and had organized their motions and chants into a primitive ritual of some sort. The dark rider and his flaming steed merely observed, impassive.
-The party gradually came to the conclusion that the savage men must not be allowed to complete their rite. However, they feared the prowess of the strange rider, and their fears were justified. As they got closer, they recognized his face from each electrum coin they’d acquired in Barovia: the face of Lord Strahd Von Zarovich himself!
-Half of the Outlanders resolved to complete the tedious work of felling the Gulthias tree while others set off toward the ritual in progress. As the tree finally began to fall, two of the wildmen, one with a staff, the other with a greataxe, split off to investigate the sudden clangor. Orin released a powerful Fireball which decimated the remaining assembled druids and berserkers and set the huge effigy alight. Still, Strahd watched, merely amused by the commotion.
-As the party moved in and intently destroyed the wicker man and its wardens, Rurik made eye contact with the vampire and, in a split-second decision, saluted…before brandishing the Blood Spear of Kavan and obliterating the penultimate berserker with a practiced martial maneuver.
-Lord Strahd returned the salute with a look of satisfaction. He dismounted the flaming stallion, said something imperceptible to the last living wildman who then ran at full bolt away from the battle. Then Strahd locked eyes with Rurik once more.
-Rurik, in a panic, attempted to barter his party’s welfare for Ireena’s location in Vallaki. Strahd smiled, and coolly responded that he knew all about Vallaki. He asked if the Outlanders had received his invitation and said that he hoped they wouldn’t spurn it. All the while, Rurik could feel the creature clawing at his psyche. He could see the vampire’s shadow stretching toward him, claws extended, even as Strahd stood still before him, fingers steepled. He fought to maintain control and held his ground. The warrior answered simply that they had the invitation.
-Strahd then said that he hoped to see then the following evening in Vallaki for the burgomaster’s Festival of the Blazing Sun…it would be a spectacle not to be missed, he promised with a velvet grin.
-Finally, he told them that the “Old Crow’s Seed,” the gem they sought, would be found in the smouldering heap that had been the wicker man. His “misguided children,” he claimed, aimed to use its power to their own ends, and would have, had the Outlanders not thwarted them.
-He bade them recover their treasure and leave him to Yester Hill.
-Meanwhile, Ezmerelda had dived for cover outside the stone circle as soon as she recognized Strahd. The Outlanders, puzzled by her sudden loss of resolve, asked why she hadn’t on the attack. She responded that the timing was not of her choosing, that Strahd still held the advantage; they wondered if the Vistana’s bluster had all been for show.
-Having recovered the gem-seed, the party withdrew. As they did so, however, Alistair and Orin considered the sheer reach of the Gulthias Tree’s root system and wondered if the Tree would eventually grow back to produce more Blights. Orin packed the stump with his bandolier of Alchemist’s Fire, and detonated it from a distance with magic.
-Looking back to the circle of monoliths, it appeared Strahd had not even perceived the sky-high explosion. Instead, he stared, rapt, toward the west, where they could see in the thick mists, a mirage, as tangible as it was illusory, of a glittering, welcoming valley, a bright castle and flowing banners, in all ways the opposite of the forbidding Castle Ravenloft.
-As they walked down the hill, some of the Outlanders wondered about the confusing things they had seen:
-What had the wildmen planned to accomplish with their ritual?
-Why had Strahd simply allowed them to walk away from him?
-Was Ezmerelda d’Avenir nothing more than a sham?
-Why was Orin casting such obviously unsubtle spells today, unlike any Bard they’d known?
They’d have plenty of time to wonder as they made their way back to Davian with the precious gem-seed.