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PROLOGUE

Warren Tessier and Anja Mohren were both residents of Waterdeep, but they had little else in common.  Warren was the third-born son of Eyvette and Johan of the noble house Tessier, and spent much of his young life learning the bardic arts and travelling Faerun.  He lived a life of luxury and leisure until the age of 22, when the Tessier estate was burnt to the ground by Waterdeep rivals, killing all of the Tessier family but Warren. 

Anja had similarly tragic circumstances, but none of the comforts Warren enjoyed growing up.  She was born on the Moonshae Isles to a fisherman and a lycanthrope, her mother Katja.  While her parents had done much to protect themselves from Katja’s monthly transformations, she broke free from her shackles one night during a full moon and slaughtered Anja’s father; the little girl only survived by hiding in a locked cabinet.  Katja inevitably reverted to her human state and realized what she had done; to protect Anja, she took her to three witches living in the Misty Forest to seek their aid.  In exchange for one of Anja’s fingers, they agreed to raise the young girl and teach her witchcraft; it was the last Anja saw of her mother, who couldn’t bear the risk of harming the most important person in her life.

When she reached adulthood, Anja put her witchcraft to both community and commercial use by opening up a potions shop in Waterdeep.  It was there that Warren and Anja first met, and were quickly joined by two young children in desperate need of help.

DEATH HOUSE

            Before Warren and Anja could conduct business, two children, a brother and sister, burst into the shop.  They introduced themselves as Thornboldt and Rosavalda Durst, and that their family’s mansion at the edge of Waterdeep had been invaded by a monster.  They fled their home in search of aid and feared the worst for their parents, Gustav and Elisabeth.  For their own reasons, Warren and Anja acceded to their request and made their way to the outskirts of town, to the Gustav Manor.

            The Gustav’s wealth was evident: each room was elaborately decorated with expensive furniture and art, which frequently depicted wolves and deer.  As the group inspected the house, Anja and Warren noticed that the artwork was more grisly than it initially appeared: rather than tranquil forest scenes, the art depicted wolves mauling and eviscerating deer, but not eating them.  In each image, a large bat hovered nearby.

            While examining these disturbing images, Anja and Warren realized that the Durst children were no longer with them.  They tried to leave the house to search for the siblings, but it was no use: the door would not open.  Indeed, the knob could not even be turned.  The windows, too, were immovable.  The pair resolved to search the rest of the house for the Gustavs and the “monster” the children feared.  As they made their way through the house, they discovered a the Gustav library, which contained numerous books on the occult and vampirism.  A large desk also held the personal effects of Mr. Gustav, which included their families insignias (a wolf, for the Gustav family, and a deer, for his wife’s maiden family).  They also found a mysterious deed to a property with a windmill, but it described lands the two had never heard of.

As they inspected the library further, they discovered a secret corridor that hid a terrible truth: Mr. Gustav worshipped a powerful being known as “Strahd von Zarovich,” who had spurned his entreaties for recognition and greater power.  Instead, this Strahd rebuffed him and told him that only a proper “sacrifice” would gain his attention.

            It was obvious to Anja and Warren that their lives and the safety of the Gustav children were in jeopardy.  They ransacked the house and ultimately found the children, but realized that they were too late: Thornboldt and Rosavalda had been dead for some time, and it was their ghosts who had wandered into town seeking aid for their mother against their father, the “monster” who had invaded their home.

            With no other option, Anja and Warren followed the children into the basement of the mansion where they believed their father was hiding.  But once again, they were too late: they arrived in a crypt where Mr. Gustav stood over the body of his slain wife, his knife still dripping with her blood as he called out to his “master.”  Anja and Warren quickly engaged him in battle and brought him to the brink of death before offering him mercy: however, Mr. Gustav had no intention of being punished for his crimes.  Instead, with a fleeting moment of realization flashing across his face, Mr. Gustav screamed, “My sacrifice to you!” before plunging his knife into his chest.  As he lay dying, ominous laughter filled the chamber. 

Before Anja and Warren could make sense of what had transpired, the very foundations around them shook violently.  The pair fled the basement up into the main floor of the house, which was filling with smoke.  Wretched black air poured from the walls and the ceiling above began to tear apart.  They ultimately escaped into the dark night, trying to find their way back to Waterdeep through the acrid air that surrounded them even outside the home.

  The two scrambled about in the smoke for several hours before realizing the truth: it was no longer smoke, but a thick mist, that enveloped them.  Moreover, they had stumbled about for hours without coming across any living creature or familiar surroundings.  Anja and Warren, strangers only hours before, had only each other to rely upon.  The two finally accepted they were lost and trapped under strange circumstances and took time to rest.  They also shared more of their background with one another and tried to make sense of the macabre events of the past few hours.  They resolved to rest and gather their strength, neither giving voice to their unshakable feeling that they were being watched.

BAROVIA

            When Anja and Warren woke the next morning, the mist had dissipated somewhat.  However, they were no less lost than before: they could see that they were in a dense forest, but it was not one Warren had ever encountered in his travels; Anja could not detect any familiar scents from the vegetation or nearby wildlife.  They began their search anew and travelled, without direction, for hours. 

Just as their frustration threatened to boil over, the two reached the forest’s edge and spied a town in the distance.  It was no settlement either recognized, but they were simply happy to see signs of life.  They raced towards the village, looking behind only to confirm that the mist did not follow and stayed lingered at the edge of the woods.

Their relief was short-lived.  Upon entering through the gate, Anja and Warren learned they were in the Village of Barovia, which neither had heard of; likewise, no villager seemed to have ever heard of Waterdeep, despite its renown and fame throughout all of Faerun.  Indeed, Barovia could not have been more removed from the riches and intrigue of Waterdeep: the village was little more than a morose outpost of a rugged hinterland, where the scattered townspeople averted eye contact and clutched their bleak rags tight when they encountered Anja and Warren.  Some were even outright rude: the owner of Bildraith’s Mercantile tried to swindle the two out of what little money they had on them in exchange for basic provisions; however, the only payment he received was a noxious scent created by Anja’s prestidigitation, which caused an expulsion of vomit and excrement from Bildraith that was as violent as his temper.

The two found somewhat more friendly company at the Blood of the Vine Tavern.  Though mostly empty, Anja and Warren encountered three vibrantly dressed women who identified themselves as Vistani.  Though unwilling to offer help, the mysterious women mentioned a woman named Madam Eva who lived to the west of town that could be of assistance (if she deemed them worthy). 

As Anja and Warren rested in the bar to consider their plight, Warren realized that another patron, a handsome man of his age, was desperately trying to catch their attention (but desperately attempting to appear nonchalant).  At Warren’s invitation, the young man joined them and introduced himself as Ismark Kolyanovich, son of the Burgomeister.  (With his curious title, incessantly earnest attitude and guileless demeanor, Anja and Warren noted, soto vocce, his uncanny resemblance to the “Whopper Jr.,” the famed delicacy of Waterdeep that was unassuming yet damnably loveable.)

Whopper Jr. wasted no time in making his interest known: he was looking for help with protecting his adopted sister, Ireena Kolyana, who his parents had taken in when they found they infant girl in a nearby forest.  When pressed for details, Whopper Jr.’s demeanor changed and his voice dropped to a whisper: he alerted them that his sister was a target of “the Devil,” a man named Strahd von Zarovich.  Upon hearing this strange name again, they demanded that Whopper Jr. tell them more.  However, he could only offer little, save that Strahd had always ruled over these lands and that the people were essentially cattle before him.  He ruled from Castle Ravenloft, an immense fortress that straddled the mountaintops on the horizon of Barovia.  He lived through the ages, terrorizing the isolated villages of the region and killing as his whims suited him.  It was rumored that beasts of all manner served him and that only the Vistani escaped his brutality.  Though all information about him was considered suspect, all people agreed on one important fact: there was no escape from Strahd or his lands.

Though despondent at hearing this, Anja and Warren struck a bargain with Whopper Jr.: they would assist him in escorting Ireena to the village of Krezk, east of the nearby village of Vallaki in the hopes that its remote distance from Castle Ravenloft would protect her from Strahd’s reach.  In exchange, Whopper Jr. vowed that he would do everything he could to return them to Waterdeep.  With their pact sealed, the unlikely trio agreed to meet at the Burgomeister’s mansion that evening to plot their escape with Ireena. 

            Anja and Warren made preparations for the long journey before them as evening began to settle in.  They perused the town and discovered nothing but despair.  They were especially troubled by their meeting with “Mad Mary,” a woman who wailed constantly for her missing daughter, Gertruda.  The daughter had vanished the week before, leaving only her malformed doll (which bore a frayed tag declaring, “Is No Fun, Is No Blinsky!”)  The adventurers were unable to learn more from her neighbors, save that Gertruda was an exceptional beauty with a passing resemblance to Ireena, though she was far more rebellious.

They eventually made their way towards the Burgomeister Mansion but came across a curious site: a hunched-over crone delivering pastries door-to-door along the dimly lit streets.  They thought nothing of it at first until they saw the villager’s payment for the pastries: their own children.  Anja and Warren could not tolerate this barbarism: they immediately accosted the crone and freed the child.  They interrogated her, but she only claimed to be a simple woman who made pastries at a nearby windmill; when Warren made an off-hand remark to Anja about the similarities between the windmill the crone described and the deed they had discovered at the Gustav manor, the old woman changed.  Violently.  Her back straightened and she grew to double her size, and her wrinkled skin changed to a reptilian hue of green.  She was no ordinary human, but a night hag.  She revealed herself as Morgantha, who fed off the dreams villagers had after consuming her pastries.  Unfortunately for her, she also revealed that the villager’s children were not only her payment, but special ingredient ground into the pastries.  Warren and Anja immediately assaulted the night hag in retribution for the countless children she had murdered.  She kept the two at bay throughout the fight, all the while demanding that the two hand over the deed to the windmill.  When it became clear the two would not relent, she cried out for her “sisters” and plane-shifted away.

            Their apparent victory did nothing to placate the two, who resolved to track down the night hag and end her infanticide.  In the meantime, they returned to their quest and arrived at the Burgomeister Mansion.  However, Ireena was not entirely agreeable with her brother’s plan: instead, she outright refused and was brusque towards her would-be rescuers.  She revealed that Strahd had been pursuing her relentlessly and had fed on her blood the night before.  When Anja and Warren asked why he had not simply taken her, given his legendary strength and power, she only shrugged.  Her guess was that he wanted to seduce her and for Ireena to join him willingly.  She recoiled at the thought and finally agreed to join her brother and his strange new friends.

            The group agreed to wait until morning to leave when it would hopefully be safer.  All throughout the night there were howls in the distance and scratching noises against the outside of the building.  Though they slept little, they survived unscathed.  Their respite did not last long, however: as the group made their way outside of town, they were immediately halted by bandits.  Instead of money, they only demanded they hand over Ireena.  True to Anja and Warren’s word, they did not hesitate in protecting her.  Though the group was momentarily fazed when the bandits were revealed to be lycanthropes, they were no match for the strengthening band of heroes.  And though she had no compunction about killing when it meant saving herself, Anja did regret being forced to slay creatures of her own kind.  Nonetheless, the party pushed onwards towards Krezk, where Whopper Jr. assured them would offer safety to Ireena.

VISTANI CAMP

            The group made commendable progress westwards, with one strange interruption.  As they rested one evening, their slumber was interrupted by a surprise attack by a wild man wearing dirty, but brightly colored robes of every color imaginable.  He was apparently a mage and casted meager spells against the group, but he seemed more focused on ranting and running into nearby trees.  The group quickly dispatched the mage, with no answers as to his unprovoked attacked.  Ever the collector of oddities, Anja disrobed his rainbow raiments and the party continued on with their rest.

            The following day was considerably more uneventful, at least until nightfall.  As the sun neared the horizon, baleful singing could be heard in the distance.  The four came upon a settlement of wagons surrounding a large bonfire, where a lively celebration was underway.  The colorful clothes made it clear these were Vistani.  Remembering the advice of the women at the Blood of the Vine, the group made their way into the interior and inquired about a Madame Eva.  They were ushered towards a wagon at the edge of the caravan, where an ancient woman was expecting them.

            The kind, but mysterious, woman made it clear that she had some sort of extraordinary power.  She revealed that she knew who each of them were and the purpose of the journey.  She also knew of the great and terrible power that pursued them.  The party could sense that there was just as much that she did not reveal, though they did not necessarily detect any ill will towards them.  Though she declined to intervene directly and offer them aid, she nonetheless offered to divine the mysteries of their fates through the Tarroka.  The reading revealed                       

the Priest: this card told of history, with ancient knowledge to better understand the enemy.  Madame Eva told them to look within a decrepit lighthouse for answers.                       

the Evoker: this card told of a powerful force for good and protection, a holy symbol of great hope.  Madame Eva told them to investigate the crypt of a “wizard ordinaire.”                       

the Charlatain: this card told of a weapon of vengeance, a sword of sunlight.  Madame Eva told them they would find what they seek in “the castle, amid the ruins of a place of supplication.”                       

the Beast: this card told of an ally against the darkness.  Madame Eva told them there is a werewolf of immense hatred against Strahd who could be useful to their goals.                       

the Executioner:  this card told of their enemy and pursuer, whose powers are beyond mortality.  Madame Eva gasped as she flipped the Tarroka card, exclaiming that she saw a vision of a dark figure on a castle balcony, looking down upon them with a twisted smile.

The divination had sapped Madame Eva’s strength and she bid the party to leave her.  The group left her having received critical information but had even more questions than before.  At the insistence of the Vistani, they cast aside their worries for the evening and did their best to join the merriment.  Though Anja’s bestial mannerisms were greatly enjoyed by the vagabonds, Warren’s aloof manner was less appreciated (and his coin purse was relieved of its weight for his perceived insults.)  Though the group was left with far differing impressions of their temporary hosts, they altogether received much-needed rest and progressed on their journey the following morning.

OLD BONEGRINDER

            After a night of revelry with the Vistani, the party were on their way westwards and spotted a stone structure in the distance on a low hill.  As they got closer, the dilapidated form of a windmill came into view.  Then, they heard the sounds of cartwheels approaching.  They immediately hid in the nearby overgrowth and watched as a familiar figure passed by: Morgantha, in her human guise, wheeling her cart of pastries east towards Barovia.  Anja and Warren agreed that a slight detour was necessary: they commanded the Kolyanoviches to accompany them to the windmill to destroy the night hag’s sinister operations.

            As they approached the windmill, a raven’s incessant cawing distracted the group. However, it was the druidic Anja who realized they were hearing no ordinary bird: it was a wereraven, warning them that death awaited anyone who entered the windmill, “Old Bonegrinder.”  Anja perfunctorily told the bird that their own safety was not their primary concern.  With that, the group advanced until they reached the outer curtilage of the property.  After a short discussion, they agreed it would be best for the native Barovians to hide in the nearby thicket: Whopper Jr. agreed to this solemn task heartily, and even took umbrage when Warren warned him that constant vigilance would be necessary to keep Ireena safe.  His words were sincere, for night would soon fall.

            Anja and Warren began their silent trespass onto the property that was rightfully theirs through possession of the deed taken from the Gustav residence.  For reconnaissance, Anja shape-changed into a giant spider and scaled the exterior of the building.  Though the few windows were encrusted with filth, it was clear that there were two night hags inside, one on the second floor and the other in the attic.  Anja rejoined with Warren and the two formed a stratagem: they would strike at the coven one-by-one, and pray that the element of surprise would tip the scales in their favor against their powerful but unsuspecting foes.

            The two crept through the front door and were immediately confirmed the vile enterprise of “Old Bonegrinder”: the skeletal remains of children littered the floor, cast off from the slowly turning mill at the center that pulverized the small bones into a fine powder.  Any doubt about what they had to do was no more.  The two crept upstairs and sprung their attack on the first prey: Offalia Wormwiggle.  With a masterful casting of Silence, Anja and Warren ensured that the remaining night hag would not be alerted to their presence.  Though the two were able to catch Offalia unaware, she nonetheless put up a strong resistance.  There were several moments through the harried battle when the duo were unsure that they would persevere, but with a desperate use of Warren’s Bardic Inspiration, the foul creature fell. 

            The party was exhausted from their feat, but there was still much work ahead of them: another night hag awaited judgment.  With little time to spare, they resolved to bring the fight out into the open to gain more maneuverability against their foe.  They made their way outside where the night sky was illuminated only by dim stars.  Their more refined skills were exhausted, and so they resolved to use brute force.  They shouted out to the remaining night hag to join them in battle and to attempt vengeance for the sister they had just slain.  Within moments, a horrid figure burst through the highest window and landed before them.  The wretched creature announced herself as Bella Sunbane, and she wasted no time in launching her assault.  Anja and Warren were no less ruthless: Warren’s rapier lanced repeatedly into her fetid skin, and Anja used her native wolf form to teach the hag the pain of ground bones.  Against all odds, the heroes were again successful.  Though disappointed that they could not destroy the coven entirely with Morgantha still at large, they were nonetheless satisfied that great good had been accomplished.

            There were material benefits to their heroism as well: hidden within Bella’s rags was a smooth stone that Anja determined was a hearthstone, though the two could not glean more.  The two reentered the windmill and gave its now-empty confines a more thorough inspection, which yielded invaluable treasure.  Just as the Tarokka had promised, hidden in the attic of the windmill was a source of ancient knowledge about their enemy: the Tome of Strahd.

            The two wasted no time in reading its contents.  The Tome was none other than the personal journal of their enemy; the two realized that its possession by Morgantha was even more testament to the danger she posed.  As they read through the dusty pages, they discovered several important facts that were apparently unknown to the general populace of Barovia:

·         Strahd was once a mortal man whose family ruled over these lands

·         He was born into the royal house of Zarovich, the son of King Barov and Queen Ravenna

·         He was the older brother of Sergei, whom he feared his father favored

·         King Barov’s favoritism towards Sergei was rumored to have begun with this son’s discovery of a “sword of light,” which had the power to vanquish evil (however, Strahd had never seen any evidence that the weapon truly exists.) 

·         Strahd was in love with a Barovian villager named Tatyana, and he was determined to wed her

·         However, Tatyana was in love with Sergei, and King Barov gave them his blessing to marry

·         Strahd travelled his lands in search of great power and through some means made a pact with the “Dark Powers”

·         On the day of Tatyana’s wedding to Sergei, Strahd slew his brother.  In despair, Tatyana flung herself from the castle balcony to her death

·         At the orders of the King, the castle guards killed Strahd.  At that moment, his pact with the Dark Gods was sealed and he immediately rose from the dead as a vampire and in their servitude.  In gratitude to his new masters, Strahd slew every servant and guard in the castle.  He saved his father for last and drained his life for favoring Sergei.  In despair, Queen Ravenna leapt from the very balcony from which Tatyana had fallen, and met the same fate.

·         In honor of the only family he had loved, Strahd rechristened the family castle as Ravenloft after his mother, where he rules to this day.

·         Strahd’s obsession is finding Tatyana, who he is convinced has been reborn and walks amongst his lands once more.

At least part of their recent mysteries had been solved: given Strahd’s apparent obsession with Ireena, it seemed clear that he believed her to be the reincarnation of his beloved Tatyana.

Anja and Warren teetered on the edge of collapse.  They were physically and mystically exhausted from their battles with the hag coven, and the magnitude of their challenge waiting in Ravenloft bore down on them.  They agreed to keep this knowledge to themselves for the time being to avoid further upsetting Whopper Jr. and Ireena.  Suddenly realizing how much time had passed since they had left the Kolyanoviches, the two rushed back to their companions.

They feared hearing the sounds of struggle as they approached their hidden encampment, but heard loud snoring instead.  They came upon Whopper Jr., fast asleep by a dying fire.  Warren immediately jostled him awake and harangued him for his foolishness.  Whopper Jr. insisted everything was fine until Warren asked where Ireena was: the brother realized she was nowhere to be seen.  After a quick search of their surroundings, they found Ireena staring off into the woods.  However, something was wrong: she was in a stupor, and she only responded in languid speech that she had just been conversing with a wonderful man.  Anja inspected her neck and found two fresh bite marks.

The adventurers berated Whopper Jr., though he was distraught and emotional enough at his failure without their admonitions.  He vowed that his guard would not lapse again and thanked Anja and Warren for their vigilance.  His admiration of them swelled, and with a beating of his chest, swore that he would do all in his power to be just like them.  With a shared knowing glance, Warren and Anja did not put much stock in his new endeavor.

VALLAKI

            On the following morning, the party continued their march westward.  Though their ultimate destination was the remote village of Krezk, Warren advised that they would first pass through the Village of Vallaki.  It was the largest of the region’s villages and Warren was optimistic that his position as the son of Barovia’s Burgomeister would ensure him a warm and generous welcome by the Vallaki Burgomeister, Baron Vargas Vallakovich.  Anja and Warren immediately cautioned Whopper Jr.: it was obvious to them (but, concerningly, not to Whopper Jr.) that Strahd’s reach was expansive and dangerous; therefore, there would be little safety in announcing their true identities at the first opportunity.  However, Whopper Jr. dismissed their concerns and assured them that things would work out, and that he could prove his value to their quest.

            The journey to Vallaki was long and arduous, but the group arrived just as night was falling.  Though the town guards were at first reluctant to allow passage to the outsiders, they were ultimately permitted entry to the village.  Vallaki was a stark change from Barovia: a dense fortified wooden wall encircled the village, which was manned by dozens of armed villagers.  There also seemed to be some sort of festival underway: villagers paraded through the streets carrying pikes speared through wolf heads while chanting “All is well!”  However, their demeanor was not convincing that anything was well.  After some inquiries, the party learned that the Baron held weekly festivals such as this because he believed that the populace’s happiness, whether real or contrived, kept Strahd at bay.

            Not knowing who to trust, the party reconnoitered.  Through their investigations, they met many noteworthy villagers:

·         Rictavio: this half-elf ringmaster was in Vallaki with his travelling circus and pet tiger.  His tall tales did little to impress the adventurers, but he was endearing nonetheless.

·         Szoldar and Yevgeni: these brothers were hunters and guides.  They were responsible for supplying Vallaki with the wolf heads for the festival, which they readily acknowledged were from both true wolves and lycanthropes.  They did nothing to hide their suspicion of Anja, which she returned in kind.

·         Wachter Brothers: these boisterous twins are the sons of Lady Wachter, a political opponent of the Baron.  Though their carefree attitude made for affable company, their immaturity made them wholly reliant on their mother who was an unabashed advocate for Strahd’s rule.  Their drinking prowess was unmatched and undiscriminating (making them easy targets for Anja’s prank of masking her urine in their beer steins).

·         Blinsky: this lovable toymaker was a welcome respite from the drab journey.  While he remembered Gertruda’s toy the adventurers found in Barovia, he was unable to offer any assistance regarding her whereabouts.  Though he is harmless, Blinsky had an unsettling reaction when he met Ireena.  Though he refused to explain his behavior and attempted to play off his demeanor, she clearly had a profound effect on him.

·         Izek Strazni: the adventurers did their best to avoid this imposing man.  The hulking villager was the Baron’s right-hand man, which was also a cruel pun: though Izek was human, which right arm was crimson red and barbed with spines, ending in a clawed hand with talons for fingers.  The villagers were terrified of him, and the adventurers did their best to avoid his notice.

·         The Old Crow: while the adventurers did not meet the man referred to as the “Old Crow,” he was the subject of much speculation.  He is supposedly a legendary wizard from a foreign land who battled Strahd in close combat (in Castle Ravenloft, no less).  His daring and prowess were significant and he was able to hold his own against Strahd for some time.  However, he was ultimately no match the power of the Devil and was sent hurtling over the battlements into the waterfalls surrounding the dread fortress.  Various townsfolk have claimed to spy the powerful wizard in the surrounding mountainside and even in their dreams, but this is generally disregarded as nonsense by the public.

Aside from the villagers, the adventurers discovered powerful allies as well.  The owners of the local tavern, the Blue Water Inn, were Urwin and Danika Martikov.  In secret, they were the wereraven leaders of the Keepers of the Feather, a secret society pledged against the evil might of Strahd.  They made it immediately clear that no subterfuge was necessary: they had a son named Brahm, who was the wereraven Anja and Warren had encountered at Old Bonegrinder.  Brahm had rushed to tell his parents of their bravery, as well as his particular concern for the beautiful woman in their company.  All agreed that their shared foe was of immeasurable power and that success was unlikely.  The Martikovs also expressed doubt in Whopper Jr.’s plan to find safety in Krezk, but they respected his will.  They offered refuge at the Inn for the night so a plan could be formulated, which the adventurers gladly accepted.

However, their rest was short-lived.  Their slumber was interrupted by Strahd himself, who beckoned to Tatyana from outside their window.  The group awoke and immediately prepared for battle, but Warren had had enough.  His frustration manifested in a powerful Vicious Mockery that rattled Strahd to whatever remained of his soul, and the ancient vampire immediately set fire to the roof of the Blue Water Inn and fled.  This brazen act immediately summoned the town guards, who were quick to put out the fire and blame it on a lightning strike (despite the lack of a single cloud in the night sky.)  The more severe damage was to the adventurer’s alliance with the Martikovs: Urwin immediately cast out the group and blamed them for putting his family in danger.  He could not be persuaded to see past his fear, and the party was forced to seek sanctuary at St. Andral’s Church, a quaint chapel at the edge of town.

At St. Andral’s Church, the adventurers found a true welcoming.  The church was led by Father Lucian Petrovich, and housed a scant dozen villagers from the terrors both outside and within Vallaki.  Though Father Petrovich welcomed them straightaway, he could sense that the adventurers were in danger.  In desperation, Anja and Warren told them about Ireena and Strahd’s pursuit.  Rather than cast them out, Father Petrovich promised to provide support.  However, he warned them that the church’s relic, the Bones of St. Andral, had recently been stolen.  Moreover, these Bones were the sole protection the church had against the intrusion of evil.  Anja and Warren, though exhausted, agreed to help.  Using Anja’s keen sense of smell, they eventually tracked the bones to a nearby home.  In the attic, they made a terrifying discovery: a slumbering vampire spawn.  Their anger and frayed nerves from the day’s events took hold, and the duo unleashed upon the sleeping blood-drinker a beat down that few, living or undead, have borne witness to.  The vampire spawn had little opportunity to defend himself, exclaiming only “Why?  Why?!” before being destroyed.  For their efforts, the pair was rewarded with the Bones of St. Andral hidden in a nearby alcove.  They returned to church and collapsed in exhaustion, but grateful to be alive nonetheless.

Anja and Warren awoke the next day, refreshed and determined to get their journey back on the right track.  However, Whopper Jr. had awoken before them with the same mission.  While in the middle of updating them on his “big news,” they were interrupted by the arrival of the town guards.  Under armed escort, they were taken to the manse of the Baron.  En route, Whopper Jr. told them there was no need to worry: at dawn, he had introduced himself to the Baron as the son of Barovia’s Burgomeister.  Warren and Anja silently wondered if the guards would prevent their ambush of Whopper Jr. on the street for his stupidity.  Before they could act, however, they arrived at the beautiful home of Vallaki’s ruler.

The house was swarming with activity.  Apparently preparations were underway for the next festival, “The Feast of the Sun.”  The event would conclude with a massive bonfire, so the Baron had instructed his people to gather massive amounts of kindling for the project.  His wife, the Baroness was in charge of ensuring only the most beautiful wood was used, and her hallways were filled with all sizes of branches for her inspection.  She received her guests with great enthusiasm, especially Warren “of the Great House Tessier;” she was visibly perturbed by Anja’s boorish behavior, but they quickly recovered by assuring their host that she was simply a new servant who was untrained in the ways of gentility.  With a knowing sigh, the Baroness was sure she had found true peers.  The Baron was less enthusiastic.  Though he maintained a thin veneer of civility, he made veiled threats to the group for disturbing the peace.  They made inquiries about Izek, which the Baron seemed to delight in sharing: as a child, Izek and his sister had gotten lost in the woods and were attacked by a direwolf.  He lost his arm and his sister was presumed dead.  Izek’s grief turned to cruelty, which gained the notice of the Baron, who fostered the young man’s violence and put it to a “proper application” in civil service.  On his eighteenth birthday, Izek awoke to find that his missing limb had regrown, without explanation, into the monstrosity he now brandished.  While the Baron gladly shared these details, he was far more reticent regarding Strahd: he forbade any reference to “the Devil,” who he claimed simply did not exist and had no business within his happy village.  As he made clear to them, “All is well!”

The Baroness could not have agreed more and insisted that the adventurers join her family for dinner, with the guests to include her husband, their son Viktor (the Baronet), and Ilya Krezkov, the son of the Burgomeister of Kreszk, who was visiting from the nearby village on “important business.”  Though the adventurers were loathe ingratiate themselves with the Baron, they acceded for the opportunity to meet Ilya and determine what level of support they could expect in Kreszk.

 Before the dinner, the group meandered about town and pondered their options.  A chance encounter led them to Lady Wachter, who made her political aspirations clear: she wanted the Baron overthrown so she could install herself as the ruler of Vallaki.  Though Anja and Warren had no doubt she was evil and in league with their enemy, they recognized that there was only so much they could accomplish during their brief stay.  Therefore, they reluctantly told Lady Wachter they would not interfere with her plans (though she had certainly made powerful enemies in them.)

The adventurers arrived for their dinner, with Warren and Whopper Jr. dressed in finery and Anja playing her role as their servant.  However, the manse was in barely contained chaos.  The Baron’s servants were missing and they were clueless as to how to dress themselves.  The Baron commanded Izek to go out and find the missing servants, as well as the Baronet, who had gone missing as well.  The adventurers offered to assist in the search, but the Baron and Baroness sharply rebuffed them; moreover, they were instructed to remain in the dining room until the family finished preparing for dinner.  Though they agreed to the demands, Anja and Warren could not resist the temptation to gather information.  While instructing Whopper Jr. to remain as lookout and play dumb to any inquiries (a task he assured them he could accomplish), Anja and Warren surreptitiously investigated the house. 

As the two were beginning to expect throughout this dangerous journey, there were many unsettling discoveries awaiting them.  In Izek’s room, they discovered dozens upon dozens of Blinsky dolls bearing an exact resemblance of a woman all too familiar to them: Ireena.  Anja was even more disgusted when her keen senses revealed that the dolls had been used to slake the impure desires of the monstrous Izek.  The two also deduced the horrible probability that Ireena, the adopted sister of Whopper Jr., was very likely the biological sister of Izek who had gone missing and been presumed dead during their sojourn into the forest as children.

Anja and Warren pressed onward.  In the attic of manse, they discovered the terrible truth of the servants’ disappearance: the Baronet had been practicing magic through the study of mysterious tomes.  His focus was teleportation glyphs.  Such magic was inherently complex, but the Baronet was attempting teleportation typically reserved for mages of the highest renown: plane-shifting.  He must have known that his amateurish efforts would be doomed to fail because he used his parents’ servants as unwitting experiments.  Unsurprisingly, the glyph he created failed with catastrophic results: rather than be teleported, the servants had disintegrated instantly.  Though he was a patent failure in teleportation, the Baronet had apparently mastered invisibility: while the duo were searching the glyph, they realized that the Baronet was watching them.  Before they could react, he escaped the attic and fled the house.  The two had no choice but to return to the dining room and feign ignorance as to the devious acts within the Baron’s home.

They were joined in short order by the Baron and Baroness, who were ruffled by the absence of their son and servants but nonetheless put on a good show for their guests.  Just as the Baron was lamenting the tardiness of Ilya, he was interrupted by a knocking at the door.  At the harried insistence of the Baroness, Warren’s “servant” was sent to fetch whomever was at the front door.  Anja was greeted by a handsome and jovial young man who introduced himself as Ilya; he also carried with him a cask of wine, which he proclaimed was “Kreszk’s finest.”  At Ilya’s request, Anja invited him inside.

Brief introductions were made at the dinner table, but talk soon turned serious.  Ilya advised his dinner companions that Strahd posed a great threat to them all and that a plan of attack should be made.  While the Baron would not even consider the proposal, Anja, Warren, and Whopper Jr. were both relieved and intrigued.  It seemed that they had finally found an ally to rely upon.  Though they wished to talk more, the Baron halted any further discussion.  He insisted that Strahd was just the invention of the meek and that his city was impregnable.  Ilya commended this observation and suggested a toast with a sampling of the wine he’d brought.  Anja obliged in opening the cask for them all, but made a horrifying discovery: the barrel was full of a deep crimson wine submerging a man bearing the exact likeness of Ilya Krezkov.  The “Ilya” who had proposed the toast erupted in laughter as Anja recoiled: with a clap of his hands, his illusion dissipated and Strahd was revealed.  He mocked their weakness and pathetic attempts to seek refuge within his domain.  He was particularly insulted by the Baron’s arrogance and decided that immediate retribution was necessary: with a clap of his hands, swarms of bats and wolves burst through the windows.  The adventurers immediately fled, leaving the Baron and Baronness to their fate.  In the yard of the manse, they found all of the town’s guard in a stupor, staring blankly and unreactive.  As they raced away, the manse became engulfed in flames.  Dozens of bats erupted from the house and gave chase to the adventurers, and the trio barely made it within the doors of the church before the animals overcame them.  But rather than cross the threshold of the church, the beasts were seemingly repelled and could not advance on their prey.  It seemed the Bones of St. Andral had offered the protection promised by the Father.  Given the volatile situation, the adventurers agreed that it would be best for them to act unaware of the evening’s events.  They also agreed that an expeditious escape from Vallaki was likely necessary.

The next morning began as the preceding at the church, with the arrival of armed guards seeking Anja and Warren.  However, these guards wore uniforms bearing the crest of Lady Wachter, not the Baron.  They were escorted to the burnt remains of the Baron’s manse, where several townspeople had gathered.  After determining that they would not cause trouble for Lady Wachter, Anja and Warren were released.  The guards announced that the Baron and Baroness were under the “protection” of Lady Wachter and that both Izek and the Baronet were to be arrested for suspicion of arson; however, neither could be located.  With that, the crowd was ordered to disperse.  Anja and Warren surreptitiously investigated the smoking shell of the Baron’s home, but the fire’s destruction had been thorough.  Though they found nothing of interest, they took proactive measures in the event Izek came looking for his sister: they carved a message in Izek’s bedroom wall that would lead him to believe that Strahd had destroyed his home (and precious dolls) and was in possession of the beautiful woman he obsessed over.

Their work concluded, the adventurers agreed they should make haste out of town.  Back at the church, they were surprised to find Ireena engrossed in an intimate conversation with Brahm Martikov.  He had apparently come as an emissary on behalf of his family, who wished to make amends for their rashes actions in throwing out the adventurers.  Anja and Warren were understandably reluctant.  The adventurers proposed that they take responsibility for Ireena and monitor her safety at the church.  At overhearing this, the typically reserved Ireena erupted.  She was tired of being a burden on the group, but also of being treated as a child who had no input into her fate.  It was then that Anja had a daring idea, but one she knew could not be discussed in front of Whopper Jr.  She asked Ireena’s brother if they could depend on him to fulfill the monumental task of acquiring fresh clothes and disguises so they could sneak out of town, which he assured he would accomplish.  Though secretly doubtful, Warren agreed that he was their pillar of resolve.

While Whopper Jr. tended to his busywork, the adventurers gathered at the Blue Water Inn with Ireena and the Martikovs.  Urwin and Danika professed their apologies face-to-face, which Anja and Warren accepted only reluctantly (and mostly out of necessity).  To help alleviate any ill will, the Martikovs offered to have four wereravens disguised as the adventurers leave Vallaki towards the east to throw off any pursuers who might be tracking them.  The adventurers agreed that this would be the best course of action and decided to leave town as soon as possible.  However, there was still the matter of Ireena: because she had no means to defend herself and was at constant risk of attack, Anja proposed that she become a wereraven.

The gathering was shocked at this proposal.  Urwin immediately warned of the dangers of turning someone into a wereraven, even willingly, which could result in death.  However, this did not seem to faze Ireena: she reasoned that her life was in constant risk regardless and she was willing to do whatever it took to resist Strahd’s might.  She had two conditions: her brother could not be told, for he would never allow it; second, she insisted that it be Brahm who turned her.  Brahm blushed slightly, but readily accepted.  With their agreement set, the party agreed that their welcome in Vallaki had been worn out.

As they exited the Inn, they were greeted by a wagon speeding away towards the western gate, driven by an exotic Vistani woman.  When Anja and Warren asked the Martikovs about her, they had little information to offer: she had arrived in town that morning seeking a man named “Van Richten.”  When they told her that their only guest, the half-elf Rictavio, had quickly left town that morning, she quickly gathered her things to apparently continue on her journey.  As the dust settled from her wagon, the adventurers spied a torn page from a journal that she had left behind: it bore the name “Van Richten” and was a detailed entry on the strengths and weaknesses of night hags.

With little time to investigate further, the party, with Brahm in tow, gathered at the Church of St. Andral to prepare for their exit.  They were soon joined by Whopper Jr., who, to the accolades and surprise of all, succeeding in his daring mission of acquiring dyes and plainclothes from local merchants.  With renewed resolve, but tempered expectations about success, the travelers made their way out of Vallaki west towards Kreszk.

ESCAPE FROM VALLAKI

            Once the adventurers had traveled some distance away from Vallaki, some of the tension that had been building up seemed to dissipate.  It also did not escape their notice (except perhaps Whopper Jr.’s) that Ireena and Brahm maintained a close and hushed conversation.  An occasional laugh could even be heard from time to time, a first for this journey.

            But their reprieve did not last.  Anja was the first to detect the lingering stench of smoke in the air from the road ahead.  They proceeded cautiously until they came upon a burnt caravan.  Though the flames had died out, the fire must have been recent because glowing embers still scorched the canvass.  Strewn about the wagons were the bodies of what appeared to be Vistani.  Their brightly colored clothes had been pierced and slashed by some weapon, and no one appeared to have been spared: men, women, and children were all among the dead.  There was no other evidence of what had transpired, except for another journal page along the road similar to the one found at the Blue Water Inn.  It appeared to be another extract from Van Richten’s writings, thought this page’s focus was on the strengths and weaknesses of vampires, as well as their alliances with the Vistani.  While there were no further clues as to the author’s purpose, it was clear from his writing that he bore a deep hatred for both.

            Eager to continue on their journey, the adventurers pressed onwards. By nightfall, they made camp in a forest clearing near the road.  Ireena proposed that Whopper Jr. rest first, which he gladly agreed to.  Once they confirmed he was in a deep slumber, the other adventurers crept away to put their plan into motion.  Going a short distance away, Ireena and Brahm agreed to commence with her transformation.  Before he could begin, they were quickly joined by another raven who swooped to the ground; he transformed into a human and quickly ushered Brahm to the side for a private conversation.  Brahm was clearly upset by the discussion.  The wereraven pushed something into his hands and transformed once again, leaving the adventurers just as quickly as he had arrived.

            Brahm reluctantly showed the adventurers what had been delivered: four blood-stained feathers, one for each of his allies who had masqueraded as the adventurers and been slain by Strahd after exiting Vallaki to the east.  With no time to waste, he took Ireena and confirmed she wanted to go forward.  She did not hesitate.

            Nor did he.  His head took the form of a raven and he began to peck violently at Ireena’s throat.  Nothing seemed to happen at first except for the obvious pain it caused her.  After a few minutes of the constant attack, it seemed she would faint.  But her body suddenly convulsed and Brahm stopped his assault.  Ireena lurched forward on the ground and shook uncontrollably.  She began to wretch and heave as indigo feathers sprung out from her delicate skin.  The transformation was complete.

            Brahm cradled the young woman in his arms and tried to sooth her.  As she relaxed, the feathers receded and she appeared as her normal self.  As she tilted her head upwards to kiss Brahm, the air crackled and lightning struck near the pair.

            At the edge of the clearing was a horse of flame, ridden by Strahd von Zarovich.  He howled in fury at the sight before him and dismounted.  Warren and Anja took quick action to stop him, but they were no match: he first dispatched Anja with a Command spell that forced her away from battle, then followed with a Charm spell against Warren that made him a passive observer.  Brahm realized that they were hopelessly outmatched and fled to gather reinforcements.  With a wave of his hand, Strahd conjured a swarm of bats to give chase.  In the meantime, his focus was on Ireena: he cradled her, much as his rival for her affections had done moments before.  He inspected her neck and realized what had transpired.  Even charmed, Warren could see the obvious disgust flash across Strahd’s face.  He apologized that his machinations had allowed her to be “sullied” but he promised her he would return “Tatyana” to her pure self.  He transformed into a giant bat and left the clearing, heading in the direction Brahm had fled.

            The effects of Strahd’s spells wore off just as Whopper Jr. began to wake.  When he realized what had transpired, he was understandably furious.  Like Ireena, he was tired of Anja and Warren treating him like a child and cutting him out of important decisions, especially when it came to his sister.  Anja and Warren were not in the mood to be chastised, however: they reminded Whopper Jr. of his many lapses in judgment that had almost led to his sister’s death, and that their respect would have to be earned, not given indiscriminately.  Whopper Jr. was sufficiently reproached.  Though his ego had taken a significant deflation, he made a new commitment to aiding the party.  Ireena expressed her faith in his ability to do so, and assured him that she only wanted to be of more use.  The group relocated their shelter for the night and did their best to recover, though all were concerned about what fate had befallen their ally Brahm.

VAN RICHTEN’S TOWER

            Anja and Warren woke early the next morning to gather their supplies and mobilize as quickly as possible.  To their pleasant surprise, Whopper Jr. had already awoken and completed the task for them.  He gently woke his sister, and they readied to continue their journey.  Whopper Jr. advised them that Kreszk was at least another two days’ journey ahead, and that they should be circumspect once they arrived.  While Anja and Warren had already come to this conclusion on their own, they were relieved that the near-disaster from the day before had matured him somewhat.

            As they made their way west, the party noticed a crumbling tower alongside the road, with a large lake behind it on the north side.  Neither Ireena or Warren had any recollection of a tower there, but this was also the farthest either had traveled in their lives.  As they progressed, Anja and Warren recognized a wagon stationed in front: it was the same wagon that the Vistani woman had driven off in from the Blue Water Inn.  Given the mysterious clues on vampires they had discovered so far in the lost journal pages, the adventurers decided to investigate.

            The tower was, charitably, in a state of disrepair.  The disjointed stone hung out at precarious angles and it seemed a strong wind could topple it at any moment.  Were it not for the wagon outside, they would have assumed it was completely abandoned.  Before examining the interior, Warren and Anja searched the wagon.  It did not take long to ascertain that neither the wagon, nor the Vistani woman, were in any way ordinary.  The wagon was rigged with a powerful explosive that would have killed any interloper who tripped a hidden wire.  The interior compartments also held numerous flasks of holy water and silver weapons.  Also inside was another journal page of Van Richten, this one focusing on the Lord Strahd himself.  With the exception of the Tome of Strahd itself, this information was likely the only detailed knowledge available in the Devil’s realm.

            Their curiosity was admittedly piqued and Anja and Warren decided to investigate the tower itself.  As they approached the entrance, they realized that it was not a miracle that held the tower together, but magic.  The door was bound with a magical glyph that barred entry. After taking a few moments to puzzle out the passcode, Warren suddenly performed a ritual dance that matched the abstract design on the glyph (a dance made famous by the indigenous Kak Tuu Arr people he’d encountered in his travels as a younger man.)  The door vanished, and the group hurried inside.

            Once within, the adventurers immediately encountered the Vistani woman they had unknowingly been following.  She apparently did not appreciate the company and drew her sword.  After a tense discussion, they acknowledged that none were enemies.  At least yet.  She introduced herself as Ezmerelda d’Avenir and told them that she had been hunting a man named Van Richten for years for his indiscriminate crimes against her people.  She also sought the end of Strahd, who she believed had enslaved the Vistani into unquestioning servitude.  When Anja and Warren explained their mission, she commended their courage but made it clear she put no faith in their success.  Disagreements aside, they proceeded to the apex of the tower to see what secrets it held. 

            After solving more magical puzzles at each floor, the adventurers and Ezmerelda reached their destination.  And they were not alone: waiting for them was Rictavio, the half-elf they’d encountered in Vallaki, though Ezmerelda hissed the name “Van Richten” at his sight.  The elder man did not hesitate it acknowledging the truth: he was the legendary vampire hunter Van Richten; with a nod to Ezmerelda, he also admitted that he was the callous murderer of scores of Vistani.

            Ezmerelda needed no prompting.  She drew her sword and challenged Van Richten to a duel.  But he made no move to defend himself.  When they realized the Vistani woman had no compunction about killing an unarmed man, Anja and Warren intervened to stop her.  They conceded that she was justified in her hatred of the half-elf but implored her to recognize the aid he could offer in helping them defeat Strahd.  However, Van Richten surprisingly objected.  He went to the fireplace where the ashes of freshly burnt paper lay.  One of the surviving pages revealed that it was what remained of his journal.  The adventurers quickly read it and learned of the tragic events that guided Van Richten’s mission.

                        As a young doctor in Darkon, Van Richten and his young wife Ingrid had a son named Erasmus.  The two loved their son dearly, and so were devastated when the 14-year-old boy was abducted by Vistani.  He hunted them down and tortured information from them: they revealed Erasmus had been sold to a powerful vampire named Baron Metus.  He then set out to rescue his son, only to discover he was too late: Baron Metus had turned his son into a vampire as well.  Van Richten engaged the elder vampire and battle and with his rage quickly destroyed him.  Erasmus hated what he had been turned into and begged his father to destroy him so his soul would be saved.  Van Richten reluctantly obliged.  That day, Van Richten hunted down the Vistani clan that had stolen his child and slew every last one.  As he stood over the last surviving woman, whose child he had just dispatched, the Vistani placed a curse upon him: wheresoever he walked in life, he would bring about the ruin of any he attempted to aid.  Without hesitation, he killed the last of that Vistani clan.  He dedicated his life to hunting the other clans down, and also eradicating the vampire menace.

 

            The adventurers, even Ezmerelda, was shaken by these revelations.  Van Richten assured them that the Vistani curse was quite real, which was why he could not help them—for any aid he offered would surely guarantee their failure.  To broker the impasse, Anja and Warren offered a solution: the adventurers and Van Richten would operate on parallel paths to defeat Strahd; once that had been accomplished, Ezmerelda and the elder vampire hunter would settle whatever score remained, with no interference from them.  Van Richten seemed resigned but amenable; Ezmerelda said nothing, which they gathered meant begrudging acceptance. 

            With no ceremony, Van Richten left the adventurers for parts unknown.  They sat in the tower apex for some time in a stunned reverie until the silence was punctuated by howling from outside.  Anja immediately looked out the window and detected that the sounds were coming from across the lake.  She sensed that the sounds were coming from her kind, werewolves, but there was no way to determine whether they meant harm.  In the abundance of caution, they decided to continue on their journey.

            Before exiting, Ezmerelda insisted they ransack Van Richten’s room for any useful information.  Though they did not find anything of monetary worth, a discovery in the half-elf’s desk proved invaluable: it was the architectural designs of a place called the “Amber Temple.”  The papers with the drawings indicated that they made been made by a lich named Exantheter who had built both the very tower they were in as well as the Amber Temple.  Deciding that the information could be useful in the fight against Strahd, the adventurers kept the drawings and returned to the road, together with Ezmerelda as their reluctant companion.

KRESZK

            En route to Kreszk, Ezmerelda was consistently cold towards the other adventurers, though she proved her worth in fending off various brigands and beasts along the way.  While she began to develop some measure of respect towards Anja and Warren, she was alternately amused and intrigued by Whopper Jr.’s antics.  He was characteristically oblivious, and his focus was solely on their upcoming destination: the Village of Kreszk.

            The village was carved into the mountainside and fortified similarly to Vallaki.  One significant difference was an imposing Abbey looming over the village on its north side.  As they approached, the guards at the gatehouse ordered them to stop.  Before the adventurers could ask for entry, they were instructed that no outsiders would be allowed inside, no exceptions.  However, when Warren protested that they had traveled all the way from Vallaki, the guards grew silent; the garrison leader asked if they knew of the events at the Baron’s house, which the adventurers cautiously admitted to.  Without further discussion, the gates were opened and they were allowed inside.

            Once within the confines of the village, they learned that another traveler from Vallaki had immediately preceded them: a clergyman who had transported the body of Ilya Krezkov back to his parents, Dmitri and Anna.  As they ventured farther into town, they were greeted by the wailing of grieving parents.  They arrived at the burgomeister’s house, where Dmitri and Anna huddled over their dead son, sobbing.  The adventurers offered their condolences, but the parents were inconsolable.  Because of the dire situation, they attempted to broach the subject of Strahd’s approach, but Dmitri brusquely cut them off.  He cared only for grieving.  His sobs suddenly halted and he ordered one of his guards to fetch the Abbot from the Abbey the adventurers had seen from the road.  When Anja asked one of the guards what was happening, he would only say that the Abbot could perform miracles.  Warren and Anja were more than skeptical, having learned that blind trust was a deadly weakness in this world.

            Shortly thereafter, they were joined by the Abbot, a graceful man with long hair and clean white robes.  Anna immediately begged the Abbot to resurrect her son, which he assured her he could do.  He kneeled and placed his hands other Ilya’s body and after a deep breath, Ilya’s eyes suddenly flew open.  The Abbot stood and bowed to the stunned onlookers, then left just as he came.  Dmitri and Anna immediately fell upon Ilya and sobbed at the miracle; however, Ilya did not seem himself.  He started to hyperventilate and scream uncontrollably.  They tried to calm him, but to no avail.  Instead, he began to bite himself and tear at his skin.  Ezmerelda intervened and cast a sleep spell on him, then worked with Anna to take him to a separate room.

            Dmitri was devastated, and it was Whopper Jr. who offered solace.  He identified himself as the fellow son of a burgomeister and pledged to do what he could to help Ilya.  Dmitri seemed genuinely relieved and told the group they would have their protection while in the village walls.  He told them that there was an abandoned house at the edge of town that belonged to the Kainen brothers, which they could use as a residence.

            Anja and Warren left Ezmerelda, Ireena, and Whopper Jr. to tend to the Krezkov family to search out their new home.  The Kainen residence was… different.  The interior was in complete disarray and the walls were painted in all sorts of colors without design or symmetry.  It was almost unlike anything they had seen before, with the exception of the robe that had belonged to the mage who’d attacked them at the beginning of their journey.  Upon further inspection of the premises, they found books of magic that indicated that at least one of the Kainen brothers had been a mage.  When they investigated behind the house, they found an unnaturally clear pool of water: when Anja performed an arcane inspection, she learned that some variation of the Greater Restoration spell had been applied to it.  They dipped the mages robes into the water, but there was no visible effect.

            Back inside the house, Warren and Anja performed a closer inspection.  When investigating the floorboards, they discovered a trapdoor that led to a hidden chamber beneath the house.  Anja scurried down to explore and discovered a sarcophagus in the shape of a mage hold a plain staff.  Making a connection between the sarcophagus and the mage of… questionable talents that they had so readily defeated near Barovia, Anja surmised that this could be the “Wizard Ordinaire” divined by their Tarokka reading.  Unfortunately, her enthusiasm overtook her and she recklessly opened the sarcophagus.  Because she had failed to search for traps, a cleverly hidden device sprung that released dozens of asps into the room.  Fortunately, the asps were normal snakes and in no way magical; thus, they had died of starvation long ago.  Anja then claimed the treasure within: the Amulet of Ravenkind.

            After returning to Warren above, they were soon joined by Ezmerelda.  She updated them on Ilya: there was no change, and it was obvious that the resurrection spell that had been used was either ineptly cast or maliciously used.  Warren and Anja decided (and Ezmerelda, in an uncharacteristic moment agreed) that the Abbott should be questioned. 

            The trio made the trek towards the Abbey, from which strange sounds emanated.  They were somewhat animalistic, but it was nothing they had heard before (not even Anja).  When they investigated, they discovered why: the Abbott was overrun with mongrelfolk, humanoids who had been twisted by arcane magic into strange quasi-animal forms.  Though sentient, these tragic creatures had little intelligence and operated on basic emotions alone. 

            Anja and Warren were enraged by these monstrosities and the evil that had created them.  In a moment of righteous zeal, which no amount of reasoning from Ezmerelda could dissuade, not even remotely, they agreed that the Abbott must be destroyed.  With no discussion.

            As they burst into the main chapel of the Abbey, the sight before them did nothing to change their mind.  The Abbot was dancing with “Vasilka,” who the man declared would be offered as a bride to Strahd.  However, as they got closer the adventurers realized that “Vasilka” was a flesh golem sewn together from scavenged body parts.  The Abbot seemed to appreciate their interest and asked if they would fetch him a bridal gown for the blushing beauty, for which he would greatly reward them.

Whatever restraint had remained in Warren and Anja, whatever caution they could have clung to, was irrevocably extinguished by an evil they could not dare to countenance.  They attacked.  Ezmerelda, meanwhile, fled.

The stakes of the battle escalated almost instantly.  In attacking the Abbot, the adventurers quickly realized that the creature was actually a disguised deva, an angelic-looking being of immense power.  They turned their attention to Vasilka: after deploying an arsenal of minor spells, they discovered Vasilka was especially weak to fire.  Anja focused her indignity, her rage, her annoyance at Ezmerelda, and manifested a fireball that rocketed Vasilka out a nearby window.  The velocity and trajectory of the incendiary fell creature was like a new son before the populace, which many took as a divine sign that godly judgment was coming.

Yet the deva remained, and a grueling battle ensued that nearly brought an end to the adventurers.  There were several moments when defeat seem assured, but it was Warren’s bardic use of faerie fire that turned the tide in their favor and weakened the creature of unfathomable power.  Anja ultimately struck the killing blow and ended the menace that had committed such atrocities (for reasons that remain unknown).

Before Anja and Warren could even exult in their hard-earned victory, Ezmerelda burst into the Abbey, breathless and carrying a wedding dress.  She explained that she had raced to the Krezkovs to find one in an attempt to appease the Abbott.  With the danger passed, she wasted no time in excoriating Warren and Anja.  She accused them of recklessness and stupidity and that they had gambled with her life without bothering to consult her.  They countered that they were under no obligation to her (as she so frequently reminded them) and that she had abandoned them at the first opportunity.  The argument was relentless and it was clear that no side was willing to recognize the validity of the other.  They returned to the village below, certain only that more trouble awaited given the commotion in the Abbey.

Upon returning to the Kainen house, they found a welcome (and rare) surprise: their ally Brahm, who was being tightly held by Ireena and cheered by Whopper Jr.  However, he could not fully return the gesture as a bandaged stump hung from where his right arm should have been. 

He quickly updated them on what had happened after their encounter with Strahd: after trying to escape, he was overrun by Strahd’s swarm of bats and eventually, Strahd himself in his giant bat form.  The vampire lord violently ripped off Brahm’s wing, which sent him plummeting to the ground.  His pursuers must have assumed he had perished because they did not follow farther.  Brahm took in his strange surroundings, which appeared to be a fetid swamp that had overtaken the ruins of a village.  He could hear chanting in the distance, and after some difficult maneuvering crawled towards the sound.  He discovered Morgantha, the night hag.  Her chanting was mostly incomprehensible, but Brohm could discover “hearthstone” and “Strahd” repeated over and over.  Anja and Warren did not understand the connection, but Brohm explained that a hearthstone has incomparable healing properties, even over types of lycanthropy.  Therefore, he assumed Strahd was seeking a way to “cure” Ireena and had enlisted the aid of Morgantha.

Brohm barely escaped the swamp with his life and called out to his wereraven brethren to save him.  Though he would never be able to fly again, the Keepers of the Feather mended him enough that he was able to travel by carriage to Krezk and warn his friends.  On top of his encounter with Morgantha, his father’s network of spies had heard rumors that Strahd was amassing an army of creatures to address the threat to his “Tatyana,” including a large pack of werewolves in a nearby den.

Though the odds against them were higher than ever, Anja and Warren by this time were nothing if not comrades-at-arms.  Without having to say so, they knew the path before them.  Unfortunately, some in their party were not as synchronous.  First was Whopper Jr.: with a downtrodden expression, the humble Ismark stated his desire to stay behind in Krezk to help care for Ilya, even though he professed that his absence would be a profound loss to Anja and Warren.  Ezmerelda flat-out refused to join them based on their recent experiences and desired to stay with Whopper Jr. (hinting loudly that she had been entranced by his carnal prowess.)  Ireena herself was torn between not wanting to leave her brother and her desire to confront her destiny.

After significant back-and-forth (and devious machinations by Anja, Warren, and Ezmerelda), it was “agreed” that Whopper Jr. and Ezmerelda would stay, while Ireena would join the adventurers.  Though Ireena felt sincere loss at the parting, many were glad that their paths were diverging. 

Though they had hoped Krezk would be their salvation, it was obvious that Strahd’s evil encompassed every stretch of his lands.  Tired of being on the defensive, the adventurers set out to confront the ultimate evil.

WEREWOLVES’ DEN

Their first order of business was to deprive Strahd of any additional minions that might thwart their progress.  Thus, they made their way towards the nearby Werewolves’ Den.

The den was a rocky subterranean enclave set in the forest.  Though Anja could detect numerous scents near the entrance, it appeared unguarded.  As they investigated further, they heard chanting and war cries from within the depths.  Overcome by curiosity, they entered a cavernous crescent-shaped room where a war party of werewolves had gathered.  At the head of this war party was an immense throne of bone, on which sat Katja, Anja’s mother.  By scent alone, the two immediately recognized each other and a joyous reunion came underway.  Katja explained that she had been trapped by the mists when feeling Moonshae and had been transported here.  She also revealed the terrible truth that she had been forced into Strahd’s service as a broodmare, and that she had produced countless werewolves over the years who were pressed into his service.  Anja realized that not only had she regained her mother, but also countless siblings.  She also had to grapple with the sudden guilt that some of the werewolves they had killed on their journey were likely family.

When the adventurers asked why the war party had gathered, Katja explained that they were going to raid Vallaki for retribution for all of the wolves Szoldar and Yevgeni and killed, and that they would not rest until every last Vallaki citizen was dead.  Though Anja understood Katja’s desire for vengeance, she explained the inner dynamics of Vallaki and what had led to the slaughter.  Katja listened to reason and agreed to a targeted strike instead: the werewolves would eliminate the hunter-brothers, as well as Lady Wachter.  With the authoritative government overthrown, they would work with the Martikovs to stabilize the village and overthrow Strahd.

Though Anja and Katja desperately wanted to stay together, they understood that their paths in the immediate future had to remain separate.  Though Katja could not join them, she enlisted the aid of another of her daughters, Freja, to join the adventurers.  After an all-too-brief evening together where mother and daughter were rejoined, the adventurers returned on their journey towards Berez, the swampy land where Morgantha crafted a new hearthstone in earnest.

BEREZ

            Morgantha got that stank booty STOMPED!  Stomped all kinds of dead.  Unfortunately, Strahd showed up with a kidnapped Whopper Jr. (thus making him the Hamburglar?) and invited the group to join him at Castle Ravenloft for his wedding to Tatyana.  The adventurers, by this point, rolled their eyes and muttered a collective “of course.”  Without voicing any concern about what might have befallen Ezmerelda, they proceeded to the Amber Temple because it sounded cool.

THE AMBER TEMPLE

            And indeed, the Amber Temple was cool.  For the most part.  Mordenkainen (THE Mordenkainen) is living there and killed Exantheter, who was trying to escape the Domain of Dread by becoming a demilich.  Mordy was a little cuckoo after his fight with Strahd (he’s the Old Crow), but the adventurers healed him with his brother’s purified cloak (thus, Morden Kainen).  But he’s too PTSD’d too help, so he wishes you well and chills in his magnificent pocket dimension.

            Not wanting their world renown for murderness to be lessened, the party comes across that little shit, the Baronet.  He brags about killing the servant and how it was worth it because he finally created an operational teleportation glyph.  You nod and agree how nice that is, then slit his throat unceremoniously.  On further inspection, you realize that the glyph is a one-way ticket to Ravenloft, so you earmark that for future use.

            You go back to exploring and encounter some Amber Sarcophagi.  And just like The Mummy, they’re enticing even though you know it’s bad for you.  The sarcophagi house vestiges of the Dark Powers, which gave Strahd his powers. Somehow, this is not an adequate warning.  Anja and Warren race around playing duck-duck-goose with the sarcophagi, which does some neat things and lots of really messed up things.           

Anja                       

Good Stuff

                        Contagion spell (3x max)

                        Lightning bolt (3x max)

                        Instant Reincarnation (3x max)

                        HP+30                       

Not-so-good Stuff

                        You smell like shit (redundant)

                        You get that Bells Palsy

                        Gummy Grandma

                        Covered head-to-toe in black oily fur           

Warren           

Good Stuff

            Charisma+4

            Cone of Cold spell (7x max)

            Permanent “ring of warmth” attributes           

Not-so-good Stuff

                        You won’t take no for an answer

                        You’re afraid of fire (redundant)

            Realizing that you really do “win some, lose some” in all realms of existence.  You make your way back to the Baronet’s teleportation glyph, taking care to step over his still-fresh corpse.