The Village of Barovia
528: Powerful heroes assault Castle Ravenloft, confront Strahd, and are never seen again.
Sir Buranek Petrescu
Cleric of Kelemvor
In 1983, the adventure module Ravenloft was released. In the years that followed it spawned not only a sequel but an entire campaign setting.
In 2013, thirty years later, we returned to our roots. The Master of Ravenloft is having guests for dinner. And you are eternally invited.
Across many lands, in different eras—from Theah to Aebir-Toril to across the wilderlands that will someday grow to be the Core of the Lands of Mists—a scene plays out many times:
To a seasoned adventurer such as yourself, this is but another dull tavern in another dull town in some nameless province. It is but another passage of time between the challenges of true adventuring. Such is the doldrum of existence —waiting for another opportunity.
Outside the Inn, a fog lies over the town this evening, draping everything in its clammy grasp. The damp cobbled street shines as the light of street lanterns dances across the slick stones. The cold fog chills the bones and shivers the soul of anyone outside.
Yet inside these tavern walls the food is hearty and the ale is warm and frothy. A fire blazes in the hearth and the tavern is alive with the tumbling voices of country folk.
Suddenly, a hush falls over the tavern. Even the flagons of ale seem to silence themselves. The tavern door swings open. Framed by the lamp-lit fog, a form strides into the room. His heavy, booted footfalls and the jingle of his coins shatter the silence. His brightly colored clothes are draped in loose folds about him and his hat hangs askew, hiding his eyes in shadows.
Without hesitation, he walks directly up to your table and stands proudly in a wide stance with folded arms.
His accented voice speaks, "I have been sent to you to deliver this messagel If you be creatures of honor, you will come to my master's aid at first light. It is not advisable to travel the Svalich woods at night!" He pulls from his tunic a sealed letter, addressed to all of you in beautiful flowing script. He drops the letter on the table. "Take the west road from here some five hours march down through the Svalich woods. There you will find my master in Barovia."
Amid the continued silent stares of the patronage, the gypsy strides to the bar and says to the wary barkeeper, "Fill the glasses, one and all. Their throats are obviously parched." He drops a purse heavy with gold on the bar. With that, he leaves.
The babble of tavern voices resumes, although somewhat subdued. The letter is lying before you. Dated yesterday, the ink is still not dry and the parchment is crisp. The seal is of a crest you don't recognize:
Certainly, other letters were received. Many, even most, were discarded. But not all. Those who followed the gypsy’s instructions found themselves on a strange, mist-shrouded road. It bore them to an autumnal forest where they found no traffic, no sign of civilization, until the next evening, when the lights of a roadside tavern illuminated the fog and gloom…
Day One: The County of Barovia
The following day, one by one, a band of outlanders arrives at a roadside inn a few hours outside the village of Barovia. One is a native Barovian cavalier, while the others have traveled from far and wide. From a Waterdhavian priest of Kelemvor Lionsbane to a monk also from the Forgotten Realms to a woman from the swashbuckling world of Theah to a maddened druid who speaks of traveling eras out of order—They meet at the bar, and then take their repast at a table in the taproom.
Aside from the barkeeper, Vlad, and his daughter, these travelers are alone in the inn. No one disturbs them as they puzzle at the strange nature of the gypsy and his invitation. They discuss the need to travel into Barovia, for either monetary reward or to safeguard this poor “Ireena’s” passage into the afterlife. The cavalier, Sir Buranek, warns of a vistana—a gypsy—named Madame Eva and the choking fog that surrounds the village of Barovia.
The travelers spend the early hours of the evening getting to know one another, speaking of everything from differences in magic and technology to religion, slavery, and literacy. As the hour grows late, the innkeeper sends his daughter to bed and makes himself available to the travelers.
Soon after, the travelers go to their separate rooms. With no one else at the inn, there is space for each to sleep alone. As they part, Margeaux asks for a bit of meat from Fritzi’s stew. When Fritzi asks why, Margeaux reveals that she has a snowy white owl, which she bought two weeks ago from a trader. She reveals that she speaks with the owl, and that the owl does not have a name because he has not revealed it yet to Margeaux.
They sit up after the others retire for the evening, and Margeaux shows Fritzi the tricks that her owl has learned.
Day Two: The Village of Barovia
The travelers gather in the morning. They use the time that Margeaux stated that she normally rises as a time to gather together.
The innkeeper, Vlad, has prepared breakfast for them.
When the travelers find that Orlan slept outside, several are surprised. Orlan replies that he finds it more comfortable sleeping outside, to which Margeaux responds with a somewhat unusual statement, revealing of her life in one of the Realms’ esoteric monasteries.
“Comfort is not really the goal when sleeping.”
“What is the purpose then?”
“To strengthen yourself for the coming day.”
“I do that through sleeping.”
“I do that through sleeping comfortably.”
Each of the male travelers arrived astride a horse, from Andrew’s black stallion to Sir Buranek’s high-stepping, proud destrier. Fritzi arranges to ride with Andrew, while Margeaux eschews a ride, preferring to keep up on foot, which she manages tirelessly. The five travelers set out for the nearby village of Barovia. This morning, they also meet Orlan’s other companion, aside from his horse: A mountain lion, Malikier. The lion, while clearly beloved of Orlan, is also clearly still a wild animal. It eyes up the other two horses—and the other humans—as potential meals. When Margeaux is concerned by this, Orlan responds casually, with no concern.
While riding, Fritzi sees a harp pin on Andrew’s cloak. She asks and learns that it is the symbol of a group of like-minded heroes who seek to better the lands by battling evil. She reveals that she, too, works for an organization that seeks to better the world through knowledge. She says that her people battle the Vatacine Church, and specifically the Inquisition, which destroys knowledge.
“I feel comfortable telling you this because I don’t know whether I’m going to see my home again.”
After a short distance, the travelers veer off down a road that Vlad indicated. Five hours pass after this point.
Black pools of water stand like dark mirrors about the muddy roadway. Thick, cold mists spread a pallor over the road. Giant tree trunks stand on both sides of the road, their branches clawing into the mists. In every direction the mists grow thicker and the forest grows more oppressive.
Then, after five hours’ travel, they find the gates that mark the limits of Barovia village. Jutting from the impenetrable woods on both sides of the road, high stone buttresses loom up gray in the fog. Huge iron gates hang on the stonework. Dew clings with cold tenacity to the rusted bars. Two statues of armed guardians silently flank the gate. Their heads, missing from their shoulders, now lie among the weeds at their feet. They greet the travelers only with silence.
As the travelers approach within 50 feet, the gates open, screeching as they move. This concerns Fritzi more than others. Coming from lands much more rich with magic, Andrew and Margeaux take this display in stride.
The gates close behind the travelers after they pass through. They are now certain that they have traveled deep enough into the fog that Sir Buranek warned them about that their only way to see their homes again is through Madame Eva and her vistani.
Towering trees, whose tops are lost in heavy gray mist, block out all save a death-gray light. The tree trunks almost touch.
The thick, damp undergrowth presses in along the sides of the road, making it impossible even to see one another at all times. The woods have the silence of a forgotten grave, yet exude the feeling of an unsounded scream.
Orlan senses that the wilds here are hungrier than normal. Even a normal wolf will come at the travelers without fear.
The travelers continue on, perhaps for another half hour, maybe longer. Finally, tall shapes loom out of the dense fog that surrounds everything. The muddy ground underfoot gives way to slick, wet cobblestones. The tall shapes become recognizable as the dwellings of the village of Barovia. The windows of each house stare out from pools of black nothingness. No sound cuts the silence except for a single mournful sobbing diat echoes through the streets from a distance.
The travelers press on for the town circle. In the center of town they spot two inhabited buildings for the first time.
On the left, sparse light from one building spills out from behind drawn heavy curtains. A sign over the door creaks on its hinges, proclaiming this "Bildrath's Mercantile." On their opposite side a single shaft of light thrusts into the main square, its brightness like a solid pillar in the heavy fog. Above the gaping doorway, a sign hangs precariously askew proclaiming this the "Blood on the Vine Tavern."
Further, from this vantage, the travelers determine that the crying they heard earlier is emanating from the road to the south. The sounds echo from within the fog, reverberating and distorting.
Andrew suggests investigating the crying.
Margeaux and Fritzi suggest going into the tavern to gather some information first.
The others agree, and Andrew relents for the moment. As one of his companions states, the crying sound could be a trap. Learning a bit more about it from the locals could save all their lives.
As Fritzi passes the sign, she inspects it closely. She sees that the sign originally read, "Blood of the Vine," but the "F" has been scratched over with an "N."
This once finely appointed tavern has grown shoddy over the years. A blazing fire in the hearth gives scant warmth to the few huddled souls within. The silence here is broken only by the occasional sip of watery wine. Arik, the barkeeper, is behind the bar. Three gypsies are at a table on the left. Another man sits alone, mysteriously in shadows to the right.
Mindlessly, Arik cleans glasses, one after the other. When they are all clean, he starts over. When Andrew speaks to him, he takes the cleric’s order for a drink in a dull, hollow voice. After serving the drink, he returns to cleaning glasses. Arik ignores all questions, though Andrew’s attempts to converse seem to confuse and mildly frustrate him.
After Andrew mentions Ireena, the man in the corner begins to rise. Fritzi has crossed to him at approximately the same time, and they begin to speak together. The man introduces himself as Ismark the Lesser, son of Kolyan Indrirovich, the burgomaster of Barovia. Ismark eagerly looks at the letter Fritzi shows him, and he handily dismisses it as not his father’s handwriting. Who wrote it, he cannot say, but he is adamant that his father did not send the letter. When he learns that the travelers each received their letters just three days ago, when the ink was still fresh, he reveals that his father died ten days ago.
When the travelers ask about Ireena, Ismark’s face darkens. He glances to the gypsies, and then he asks the travelers to accompany him outside. He briefly explains that there are too many ears in the inn, and then he leads the travelers south from the Blood of the Vine, to his father’s house.
A weary-looking mansion squats behind a rusting iron fence. The iron gates are twisted and torn. The right gate lies cast aside while the left swings crazily in the wind. The stuttering squeal and clang of the gate repeats with mindless precision.
Weeds choke the grounds and press with menace upon the house itself. Yet, against the walls, the growth has been trodden under to form a path all about the domain. Heavy claw markings have stripped the once-beautiful finish of the walls. Great black blottings tell of the fires that have assailed the walls. Not a pane nor shard of glass stands in any window. All the windows are barred with heavy planking, each plank marked with stains of evil omen.
Ismark explains that his sister is inside. He unlocks the door and leads the way inside.
The interior of the house is well furnished, although the fixtures show sign of considerable wear. Obvious oddities are the boarded-up windows and the overuse of holy symbols in every room. The Burgomaster is in a side drawing room — dead. He is lying in a room that is dark, despite the candles burning in his honor. The stench in the house is horrible.
Ismark glances only briefly in the direction of his father’s form. He leads the way into a larger living room, where Ireena greets him with a warm embrace. She then greets the travelers and receives their introductions.
Ireena is a sweet but troubled woman. Although she may at first appear mild, she has a strong will and a good arm. By no means a hapless victim, she will aid the party as best she can in saving herself. Ireena informs the party that each night, wolves and other, terrible creatures attacked the house. The Burgomaster's heart could not stand the constant assault and he died a natural death. Strangely, since his death, the wolves have not attacked the house. The Burgomaster has been dead for nearly 10 days, but no one from the town has been brave enough to help Ismark take him out for burial.
When the heroes ask about whether either Ireena or Ismark has been injured, Ireena touches the scarf she wears around her neck. She says that she has been bitten twice by the creature. She says that the creature is the Devil Strahd, and she reveals a fact that the people of the domain of Barovia have not surmised. Strahd himself is the vampire that plagues the village. Sir Buranek is stunned by the horrific revelation.
Ireena explains that the bites have created a connection between her and the vampire. This connection, she says, is the reason she must accompany the travelers into Castle Ravenloft. Through this connection, she occasionally sees glimpses of what the Count sees. The most vivid vision, she says, is: “I see a stone woman, sleeping. A statue on its back. The sun rests on her breast. I sense that it is a powerful force for good and protection against the Count. She is there. If you are there, the powers of good are with you.”
Andrew promises Ismark that he will help bury Kolyan Indrirovich in the morning. Ismark says that the village priest is unlikely to officiate, as all of the man’s attention is required to keep the village church from crumbling against the nightly attacks. However, Ismark also says that the priest may know something valuable that could aid the travelers if they go to Castle Ravenloft to confront the Count.
With a few hours till sunset, Andrew asks whether they might speak with the village priest tonight.
Leaving Ireena with Orlan and Sir Buranek, Ismark leads Andrew, Margeaux and Fritzi to the church and Father Donavich.
Atop a slight rise, against the very roots of the castle's pillarstone, stands a gray, sagging edifice of stone and wood. This church has weathered the assaults of evil for centuries on end and is worn and weary. The bell tower hangs to one side, its sweet tone long silenced. Flickering light shines through holes burned through the roof shingles. The rafters strain feebly against their load.
The church is 50 feet wide by 120 feet long. Its interior is a shambles, with overturned and broken benches littering the dusty floor. At a claw-scarred altar toward the far end is the priest.
Ismark leaves the three travelers as they enter the temple. He does not look back, trusting them to find their way back to the village when they are done here.
Danovich is exhausted and a bit drunk. He speaks with the travelers with confidence, though he is clearly exhausted from his endless nightly travails. Only nightly prayers have kept the church a place of cleanly sacredness in Barovia.
Danovich reveals that there is a book in the library of Ravenloft that might be able to help destroy the Devil Strahd. It is well known from ancient times that Strahd I kept meticulous notes on all that he did or said. Perhaps some weakness of Strahd IV may be found there.
As the travelers ask for more information, they get Danovich talking on the subject of Ismark’s sister. Ireena Kolyana, Danovich says, was not the natural daughter of Kolyan Indirovich. Although Ireena never knew, Old Kolyan found her one day at the edge of the Svalich Woods near the Pillarstone of Ravenloft. She was but a girl then and seemed to have no memory of her past. Old Kolyan adopted her as though she were one of his own and loved her dearly.
Ireena does not remember her early past. She does not know how she came to Barovia nor where she came from. Ismark was a mere boy the night Kolyan brought her home; he knows of her adoption but no details of her birth.
Finally, prying for more information, the travelers learn of one other thing from Danovich. He speaks of a holy symbol of the Morninglord, a device bearing the “old face” of the sun god. Danovich says that Most High Priest Kir of the Church of Delios crafted the holy symbol some two hundred years ago, after he foresaw that a terrible curse would soon befall Barovia. Not long after, the Mists settled around the domain, and choked the village of Barovia.
The holy symbol, Danovich says, has powerful properties against the undead, particularly against those who fear the light of the sun. When Andrew asks how to trigger its powers, Danovich says that it must be boldly presented by a man of faith. He warns Andrew that, based on his dark garb and skeletal holy symbol, it may be wise for someone other than he to wield the holy symbol if the travelers should locate it.
“I wonder what happened two hundred years ago. The priest makes the holy symbol, and then right afterward the fog shows up.”
The travelers thank Danovich for his help. Danovich laments that he will see them again soon. It is the fate of those who confront the count to rise again each night from the cemetery as ghosts. Each night, these spirits rally at the church and march along the road Castle Ravenloft. There they storm the castle again, and fail to defeat the Count just as they did in life.
Taking this in stride, the three travelers depart, bound for the burgomaster’s home. As they walk back into town, they continue to discuss what they have learned.
“If it is a vampire, then they’ve all been vampires.”
While Andrew, Fritzi, and Margeaux are at the church, Orlan and Buranek watch Ireena.
Orlan sees how exhausted Ireena is, and he gives her a goodberry. The enchanted berry makes a positive impression, overcoming her initial distrust of the gruff, muttering druid, and she wishes Orlan well. Oddly, Orlan replies that he has already seen what is coming, and that day is coming again. This causes Buranek to urge the druid to let Ireena sleep. Ireena says that she is sleepy, after the goodberry.
When the group reunites, they share what they have learned. Fritzi shares what Donavich revealed. Orlan reveals that Ireena described the vampire as wearing a blood-red amulet. She says that he has come as a wolf, a bat, and as the fog itself. When he bites her, though, he takes the form of a man.
Buranek sets up a watch schedule.
Orlan sleeps in the carriage house, again sleeping near his animal companions. In the night, he is awakened by the horses and the lion, all concerned by creatures prowling the grounds around them. Orlan moves to the window and peers outside. At first he glimpses the shape of a large wolf skulking past. He continues to scan, though, and he finds himself gazing into the eyes of the Count von Zarovich. For a moment, Orlan feels himself being drawn to the Count. He feels his own will slipping away, replaced by a desire to serve Count Strahd. Then the druid’s own will reasserts itself.
Strahd dissolves into the fog.
Inside the manor house, Fritzi ends her watch shift uneventfully. She wakes Andrew and settles in to get some sleep.
Day Two: The Village of Barovia
Sunrise thins the mists over the village of Barovia. The sun refracts in the ever-present fog, turning the sky into a great white glare. In what passes for daylight, Andrew sees that the grounds surrounding the manor house are covered in fresh wolf prints.
He checks on Ireena, who spent the night under guard by Sir Buranek. She is asleep, and unharmed.
Without disturbing Ireena, Andrew leaves her room and makes his way to the drawing room. He dresses the burgomaster’s body for burial.
The travelers gather in the morning, around the time Margeaux stated that she normally rises.
Orlan explains what happened in the carriage house the night before. He says that he resisted the Count’s will, and relies on his animal companion’s presence as proof that he was not dominated. Orlan also confirms that the Count wears a blood-red stone, as Ireena said.
Ismark comes soon after for the burial.
A lonely procession follows. The travelers and Ismark bear the burgomaster’s coffin north through the village of Barovia to the church. They pass Mad Mary’s house, from which weak, tired pleas continue to emanate. They pass the mercantile and the Blood of the Vine, but at no point does a villager join the procession.
At the church, Andrew asks for an hour to pray for consecration. He places holy symbols of Kelemvor Lionsbane at the four corners of the family plot. At each corner he prays with incense that he has produced from pockets and pouches about his person.
During the ceremony Orlan digs the grave with Ismark.
Near the end of hour, Fritzi wakes Father Donavich. They come out together.
Surprising Ismark, Donavich officiates. He eulogizes the dead burgomaster, speaking of strength and compassion and perseverance and sacrifice. Kolyan Indrirovich was a good man, a testament to the teachings of the Morninglord.
Kolyan Indrirovich is buried.
After the service, Orlan gives a pouch of goodberries to Donavich.
When Ismark learns of Ireena’s intention to travel with the heroes to Castle Ravenloft, he says that he will go with her. Ireena convinces her brother otherwise, though. She indicates Sir Buranek, who has vowed to lay down his life to protect her. Orlan and the others indicate that they will keep Ireena safe, as well. The final argument, though, is Ireena’s. She indicates that Ismark is burgomaster now. There is no other to take his place. He cannot leave the villagers, frightened and downtrodden as they are, without a leader.
Ismark relents. He leaves his sister with the travelers, stalking back into Barovia.
The time has come to leave, and travel to Castle Ravenloft.
On the way out of town, though, the decision is made to stop at Bildrath’s Mercantile. The man does not negotiate, and his prices are steep. He is the only trader to work with Madame Eva and her vistani, and so he can command whatever prices he wants. The travelers purchase a lantern, three flasks of oil and a crate of torches for the price of a large cart and a team of horses. Andrews attempts at persuasion, intimidation and guilt all fall on deaf ears.
Leaving town, Ireena experiences another flash, seeing through the eyes of the vampire who bit her. She says, “I see a place of tranquility. A harbor for the mighty and powerful. There is wisdom, warmth—and despair. There are books. History is stored there—knowledge of the ancient that might help you defeat him.”
Margeaux asks about exits, windows, special items. Fritzi helps, gently prodding for more information. There is a book, Ireena says. The Count may be writing in it. A journal.
After the vision passes, Fritzi points out it is daytime. Ireena is confident that the Count was in his study even now. She suggests that he may be concerned after finding Orlan in the carriage house.
The travelers make their way south and west from the village. They cross a stone bridge. The river Ivlis flows as clear as a blue winter sky through the valley. The road wends deeper into the valley.
As evening draws near, Ireena points out the old vistani encampment. It is a place of natural shelter, and the travelers make their camp there. Buranek takes first watch alone.
He spots a frightened woman, wandering through the Svalich Wood in a nightgown. She is crying and confused. Sir Buranek does his best to help the woman reach the traveler’s camp. Orlan, using his abilities as a druid, brings her the last few yards, past the thorns and brambles. The woman is pale and shaking, but the heroes cannot determine whether she is alive or—as most of the suspect—undead.
The girl is confused. She says that all she remembers is falling asleep. Then she woke in the forest, and she does not know where she is or how she got here.
Andrew offers the woman a drink. She takes it gratefully, but then perishes when the drink turns out to be holy water.
Fritzi senses that the girl’s statements of falling asleep and waking in the forest were entirely true. The girl did not know that she had become a vampire. Her death from holy water was not just surprising to her—She had no comprehension of what was happening.
“Steel my heart, for even innocence appears to be evil.”
Fritzi stays up with Ireena. She noticed the horrified look in Ireena’s eyes when the vampiress stood revealed. The realization that such a fate could await her became undeniable in that moment. Fritzi speaks with Ireena, consoling her, but the revelation that comes out of their brief conversation is not what Fritzi expects: “I see his eyes in my sleep,” Ireena says. “They are full of fire, passion. I have never seen a man of such intensity. Until I wake, I cannot help but be drawn to him. Even after I wake sometimes, I have to wonder how a man of such devotion could be wholly bad.”
Fritzi cares for Ireena as she lies down in her bedroll and slowly drifts off to sleep.
Ireena says that Strahd would do anything for her, just as her father did. She asks, “Would it be better to live my life with a man who does not love me, or live forever with a man would do anything for me?”
In the morning, the travelers continue west along the road. Fritzi shares the previous night’s conversation with her new companions, all except for Sir Buranek, who shares his saddle with Ireena. Orlan and Margeaux agree with Ireena that their best option is to champion Sir Buranek for Ireena. If she can see that there is another man, a minor noble like her, who is worthy of her attentions, then perhaps they can lay the groundwork to overcome the Count’s schemes. To their surprise, they see that Sir Buranek also seems to be taking a shine to Ireena. Before the three can attempt any matchmaking, Sir Buranek and Ireena begin to strike up a genuine friendship.
Suddenly, the road splits into the forbidding Svalich woods. The northern fork slants up slightly to the north while the southern fork slants slightly downward. Dense fog obscures the travlers’ vision. A cold autumn wind whistles down the northern lane, cutting icily through their clothing. Dead brown leaves rush about. There is no sound other than the wind and leaves.
Orlan finds tracks from a carriage along the south road even as Andrew suggests taking the north road. When Ireena confirms that the Count has a sleek black carriage, drawn by twin black stallions, the travelers decide to follow the carriage tracks, as the Count’s carriage would most likely take travelers to and from the castle.
Hours later they cross a crumbling stone bridge spanning a mountain pass some thousand feet above the source of the River Ivlis. Margeaux goes first, then assures her companions that the bridge is much sturdier than it appears.
Once again the travelers continue down the fog-shrouded road, dead leaves crackling along their track. The road splits in two. The dirt road continues to the northwest while a wide road leads east into the heart of the dense forest. Patches of cobblestone show up through the east road, telling that it was once a great road. To the right side of the fork stands a large carriage with two horses. Both horses are black as pitch. The horses snort violent puffs of steamy breath into the chill air. The carriage door swings open silently.
Fritzi and Margeaux climb into the carriage. Ireena asks to continue to ride with Sir Buranek, who is glad to have her.
Day Two: Castle Ravenloft
After passing through the craggy peaks of the Balinoks, the road takes a sudden turn to the east and the startling awesome presence of Ravenloft itself towers before the travelers. The carriage comes to a stop just in front of twin guardhouses of turreted stone, broken from years of use and exposure. Beyond these, a 50-foot-wide precipice gapes between the Balinok cliffs and the walls of Ravenloft, a chasm of dizzying depth that disappears into the fog-shrouded distance far below. The lowered drawbridge of old shorn-up wood beams hangs precariously between them and the arched entrance to the courtyard. The chains of the drawbridge creak in the wind, their rust-eaten iron straining with the weight. From atop the high strong walls, stone gargoyles seem to stare at them from their hollow sockets and grin hideously. A rotting wooden portcullis, green with growth, hangs in the entry tunnel. Beyond this, the main doors of Ravenloft stand open. A rich warm light spills from them into the courtyard. Torches flutter sadly in sconces on both sides of the open doors.
The drawbridge creaks and groans under any weight. The travelers leave their steeds and the mountain lion behind.
Again, Margeaux crosses first, but this time she warns them of many of the weakest spots on the drawbridge. She marks these with chalk. As the others cross the drawbridge in ones and twos, a patch of green slime hanging over the entry tunnel drops down in front of Andrew. It globs down several feet in front of him, a slow-moving flow that he easily avoids. The priest produces one of the travelers’ flasks of oil, and burns the slime before it can pose a threat.
After they are all gathered on the far side, the reality of what they are doing settles upon Ireena. In that moment she links again with Count Strahd. She relates the vision that she experiences: “I see a fallen prince. His brother. He’s there. The Count! He spends his hours here among the dead. His shadow spreads across the place. You fight under his influence if you face him there, but when you are prepared to face him, he will be there.”
Thick cold fog swirls around in this darkened courtyard. Sporadic flashes of lightning lance the angry clouds overhead.
Thunder pounds the courtyard. A light drizzle begins to fall. Ahead, torch flames flutter in the wind on each side of the keep's open main doors. Warm light spills from those open doors into the courtyard. Doors in the gate towers on each side of the tunnel entrance are shut against the rain. A howling wind rushes through the courtyard. The dark towers of the keep loom above in the mists. Flickering lights shine from a short round tower on the south east side of the keep.
The travelers scan the courtyard but make their way through the cold drizzle to the warmth of the grand entry. They note the lit windows, placing them in their minds for when the chance comes to climb towards them.
The ornate massive doors hang open. Fluttering torches cast dim yellow flickers of light from the entry way. Twenty feet into the castle, a second set of doors stands closed. Overhead, in the entryway, four statues of dragons glare down, their eyes flickering in the torchlight.
Fritzi checks the entrance for traps, finding none. As she draws near the inner doors, intending to do the same, they swing open of their own volition. The sounds of organ music flow out.
Cobwebs hang from dust-covered columns of this great hall, illuminated by torches fluttering in iron sconces. The dust and webs cast strange, moving shadows across the faces of stone gargoyles squatting motionlessly on the rim of the domed ceiling. Cracked and faded ceiling frescoes are covered by centuries of decay. Two doors of bronze stand closed to the east. To the north, a wide staircase climbs into darkness. All the while, sad and majestic organ tones float about the travelers from a lit hallway to the south.
Margeaux leads the way. She spies upon the chamber beyond through the keyhole. This is a magnificent 40-foot-square room, brilliantly lit by three massive crystal chandeliers. Pillars of stone stand against dull white marble walls, supporting the ceiling. In the center of the room, a long, heavy table stands covered with a fine white satin cloth. The table is laden with delectable foods of every type: roasted beast basted in a savory sauce, roots and herbs of every taste, and sweet fruits and vegetables. Places are set for each of the travelers with fine delicate china and silver. At each place there is a crystal goblet filled with an amber liquid whose delicate fragrance tantalizes their senses. At the center of the far west wall, between floor-to-ceiling length mirrors, stands a massive organ. Its pipes blare out a thunderous melody that offers in its tone greatness and despair. Seated before the keys, its back toward them, a single caped figure pounds the keys in raptured ecstasy. The figure suddenly stops and a deep silence falls over the dining hall. The figure slowly turns toward them.
When Strahd entreats the travelers to meet with him, the heroes relent somewhat. Sir Buranek remains in the grand hall with Ireena, who is not ready to face the Count yet.
They speak for a few minutes, and the travelers do their best to point out that Strahd is responsible for the death of Ireena’s father. Though he did not kill the man personally, his wolves and undead were responsible for the stress that ended his life. Strahd converses for several minutes, calling out to Ireena more than once, before he throws his hands wide and vanishes.
The moment the figure disappears, a fierce, bone-chilling wind rises up and roars through the hall. The travelers hear the screech of ancient hinges and the solid thud of many heavy doors slamming shut, one after another, into the distance. They also hear the portcullis clang shut, and the tired groan of the aged drawbridge pulling up.
The travelers reunite. They locate a spiral stairwell that both rises and descends through the castle. This stairway is lit by fluttering torches in iron sconces. A chilly wind rushes down die circling stairway, seeming to kill the very heat of the torches.
They climb to the next floor of the castle. At the landing, they enter a chamber that is occupied.
Dusty scrolls and tomes line the walls of this room and are scattered across the floor. In the center of all this clutter stands a huge accountant's desk. A figure crouches atop a tall stool, scratching a seemingly endless scroll of paper with a dry quill pen. A rope hangs next to the creature from a hole in the ceiling.
The figure is Lief Lipsiege, an accountant. He is chained to the desk. Under no circumstances will he voluntarily leave this room. Lief seems prepared to pull the rope when he feels threatened, but the travelers are careful not to press him.
Lief keeps all the books for Strahd, recording his riches and conquests. Lief has been here longer than he can remember. He is grumpy because the Count does not allow him to know about all of the treasures. Still, Lief found out where one of the treasures lies. Lief will. When Fritzi treats him with kindness, bringing him a plate of food from the banquet arranged in the dining hall below, he draws a map showing exact location of the Holy Symbol of Ravenloft.
The travelers thank Lief, and then leave him, climbing to the top of the stairwell that brought them to his door.
At the top, they find themselves in a short, distinctive corridor. A door of delicately engraved steel stands at the west end of this dark hallway. Intricate details still stand out clearly on the door's surface. The door seems to almost shine with a light of its own, untouched by time. Yet, on each side of this door there is an alcove filled with a darkness that shames the night. A figure stands like a shadow within each alcove, still as the cliffs of Balinok.
When Andrew steps into the hall, the wraiths emerge. Within their inky forms are the idealized shapes of warriors in honorary armor, wielding halberds. A brief battle is joined. The travelers wear down one of the wraiths, but the other grows more powerful in this time, feeding on the stolen life energy of Andrew. When Margeaux and Fritzi move forward during the battle, they see that corpses lie propped in each alcove, each still clutching his halberd and garbed in rusted, ceremonial armor.
Fritzi grabs the rusted, unwieldy halberd. In doing so, she attracts the wrath of the ghost who had been content to grow fat on Andrew’s life energy. It touches her once, strengthening itself as it weakens her. With a single stroke, she slays the remaining wraith.
The travelers take a moment to catch their breaths. Orlan prays for restoration for Fritzi, restoring the life force that she lost when the wraith attacked her.
During this time, Ireena experiences another vision. “I see a carefully hidden place of worldly wealth. Beyond a blazing fire. There is a weapon of light here. A weapon of vengeance, from a time before the Mists settled over this valley.”
She repeats that Strahd is there now. She is seeing what he is doing right now.
The travelers continue past the guard alcoves. Beyond is the dining hall of the count.
Dust fills the travelers’ lungs. The musty smell of death and decay swirls around them. Before them, a long table of polished oak lies beneath a blanket of dust. The rotting table cloth lies tattered beneath dusty china plates and stained silverware. In the center of the table, a large, tiered cake leans heavily to one side. The once white frosting has turned green with age. Cobwebs drape like dusty lace down every side. A single doll figure of a well-dressed woman adorns the crest of the cake under thick layers of dust. A window in the south wall is draped with heavy curtains.
The travelers spend little time here. The sight appalls them all, notably Margeaux. She surmises that Strahd lost a wife two hundred years ago, and he has been madly attempting to replace her all these years.
Following Lief’s map, they enter the next chamber. From here, they are to descend a spiral stairwell all the way to the crypt beneath Castle Ravenloft. The moment they enter the room, though, they realize that they have found something at least as important as the holy symbol of Ravenloft.
A blazing hearth fire fills this room with rolling waves of red and amber light. The walls are lined with ancient books and tomes, their leather covers well-oiled and preserved through careful use. All is in order here. The stone floor is hidden beneath a luxurious rug of a deep-patterned weave. A large, low table sits in the center of the room, waxed and polished to a mirrored finish. Even the poker next to the blazing fireplace is polished. Large, overstuffed divans and couches stand in order about the room. Two luxurious chairs face the hearth. A huge painting hangs over the mantlepiece in a heavy, gilded frame.
The rolling light of the fire illuminates the carefully rendered painting. It is an exact likeness of the Burgomaster's daughter, Ireena Kolyana. Though the painting is obviously centuries old, the likeness is unmistakable.
Ireena is horrified, and confused. The travelers console her, assuring her that she is here, now, and that she is not the woman in that picture. They point out that daughters and mothers often look very much alike when they are of the same age. Portraits like this capture the resemblance in a way life never can.
At the same time the travelers have this conversation, they are realizing two other facts.
First, Ireena saw Strahd pass through the secret door at the back of the hearth in this chamber just a few minute ago. Count Strahd von Zarovich is in the secret passage beyond that hearth at this very moment.
At the same time, the journal they sought is right here before them. As the others turn to discussing how they should proceed, Fritzi sits down with the tome. The book is bound in a thick black leather cover with brass hinges and fastenings. She easily picks the lock keeping it sealed. The pages are of parchment and very brittle.
Fritzi dons a pair of special gloves. With great care, and the skills of a member of the Invisible College, she begins to peruse the shorthand of the pages within the journal. By the time the others are finished speaking, Fritzi has cracked the code of Strahd’s shorthand. She shares what she has found:
I am The Ancient, I am The Land. My beginnings are lost in the darkness of the past. I was the warrior, I was good and just. I thundered across the land like the wrath of a just god, but the war years and the killing years wore down my soul as the wind wears stone into sand.
All goodness slipped from my life; I found my youth and strength gone and all I had left was death. My army settled in the valley of Barovia and took power over the people in the name of a just god, but with none of a god's grace or justice.
I called for my family, long unseated from their ancient thrones, and brought them here to settle in the castle Ravenloft.
They came with a younger brother of mine, Sergei. He was handsome and youthful. I hated him for both.
From the families of the valley, one spirit shone above all others. A rare beauty, who was called "perfection," "joy," and "treasure." Her name was Tatyana and I longed for her to be mine.
I loved her with all my heart. I loved her for her youth. I loved her for her joy. But she spurned me! "Old One" was my name to her — "elder" and "brother" also. Her heart went to Sergei. They were betrothed. The date was set.
With words she called me "brother," but when I looked into her eyes they reflected another name — "death." It was the death of the aged that she saw in me. She loved her youth and enjoyed i t But I had squandered mine.
The death she saw in me turned her from me. And so I came to hate death, my death. My hate is very strong; I would not be called "death" so soon.
I made a pact with death, a pact of blood. On the day of the wedding, I killed Sergei, my brother. My pact was sealed with his blood.
I found Tatyana weeping in the garden east of the Chapel.
She fled from me. She would not let me explain, and a great anger swelled within me. She had to understand the pact I made for her. I pursued her. Finally, in despair, she flung herself from the walls of Ravenloft and I watched everything I ever wanted fall from my grasp forever.
It was a thousand feet through the mists. No trace of her was ever found. Not even I know her final fate.
Arrows from the castle guards pierced me to my soul, but I did not die. Nor did I live. I became undead, forever.
I have studied much since then. "Vampyr" is my new name.
I still lust for life and youth, and I curse the living that took them from me. Even the sun is against me. It is the sun and light I fear the most. But little else can harm me now. Even a stake through my heart does not kill me, though it holds me from movement. But the sword, that cursed sword that Sergei brought! I must dispose of that awful tool! I fear and hate it as much as the sun.
I have often hunted for Tatyana. I have even felt her within my grasp, but she escapes. She taunts me! She taunts me! What will it take to bend her love to me?
I now reside far below Ravenloft. I live among the dead and sleep beneath the very stones of this hollow castle of despair. I shall seal shut the walls of the stairs that none may disturb me.
As Fritzi finishes reading the Tome of Strahd, the heroes hear a horrifying click. The secret door has been triggered from the far side of the hearth. As they watch, the flames gutter. The back wall of the hearth swings open. Beyond stands Strahd von Zarovich himself, eyes widening and lips quivering with rage at the intrusion they have perpetrated.