Nick Nichols

Clojure Developer and Dungeon Master

The House of Strahd

Thaelen informs the rest of Krug ‘n’ Krew that they’re not the only party interested in the fate of Barovia. His compatriots are dismissive of Dalzos’s invitation, and focus their thoughts back on the imminent dinner at Castle Ravensloft. They decide to head back to Brasov before the weather turns for the worst. Feeling exhausted and slowly losing their concept of time, the party calls it an early night.

The next morning, Thaelen is awoken by the sounds of scratching beneath the floorboards. In his fast and loose manner, he decides to pull back a few of the floorboards and finds a litter of newborn mice. After a brief moment of consideration, he ensures that no future infestation will occur through a judicious use of his boot. He drags himself downstairs, shows the bartender his bloodied boot, and asks if he can get paid for his services. Disgusted, the dwarf agrees, and throws Thaelen at least two days’ worth of drinking money- if he’ll clean his boots before wandering around the bar any more.

As Thaelen completes the task, the rest of the party agrees that their collective coffers are running dry. For the remainder of the day, the party completes several odd jobs around town- repairing an old shed, clearing a few walkways of snow, and helping hauls goods into a store. In return, they manage to recoup the costs of their travels and then some.

Eventually, they all return to their home base, and decide to spend an evening sober in preparation of their big day. Unfortunately, they are not granted restful sleep. Howling gales of wind send shutters crashing against the windows. Strange lights in the distance plague Krug and Jack with feared memories of their meeting with Cortessio. Warped dreams and nightmares disrupt those who manage to shut their eyes.

The group sleeps late into the morning. A few hours behind what they had intended, the rush back to Edderson’s Clothiers to retrieve their order. As they approach, they see the elf watch them from between the blinds. He slams the door open, shoves their orders in their hands, and begins hurrying back into his business. Thaelen, suspicious of all who breathe, shouts, “Hey hey hey hey hey, we gotta check and make sure we got everything first.”

The elf shouts over his shoulder, “I’ve made sure that you do so your visit may be as short as possible.” Satisfied with the answer, the party rushes back to begin preparing for the evening. They take turns bathing and getting dressed, and ensure Bemril’s attire is suitable for a servant as well. Dressed to the nines, the party climbs back in their cart and head towards their dinner.

The road leads out of town and winds up the soft face of the hill upon which Castle Ravensloft stands. As they approach the outer gate, it swings open and Krug ‘n’ Krew see the parked carts of their fellow dinner guests. A few servants rush out to help Bemril tie up the animals and offer him a chance to stay in their quarters until dinner has finished. One of Strahd’s assistants personally takes the portrait back to the castle to inspect. The rest of the party is reacquainted with the elderly gnome that had granted them this audience. He rushes them indoors and leads them down a lavish corridor of marble and at the rear of the line of guests for that evening’s celebration.

The booming voice of one of Strahd’s aides rings through the castle, “Now announcing the Lord and Lady Mazyr and Elma Kovel.” A pair of older, red tieflings steps forward arm-in-arm and walk into the dining hall.

There is a moment of silence before the next guest is called, “Master of the Hunt Dorek Tuzla followed by the Lady Zoya Szolnok.” The party watches a mountain of a goliath, eclipsing even Six and Krug, steps forward leading on a far shorter human companion. Of all the guests, Dorek is the least formally dressed; however, an impressive pelt of a past quarry stops most from saying, or even thinking, about questioning the stylistic decision.

“Now seating The Lord and Lady Andrei and Nadia Lauciene.” A human couple steps forward and saunters through the door, knowing exactly how good they look.

The party now stands at the door of Strahd’s dining room. A long, elegant ebony table is beautifully decorated with fine linens, pristine silverware, and flickering candles. The walls a filled with deep violet drapes spaced between paintings of the former lords and ladies of the land. A large fireplace crackles behind the tall, vacant seat at the head of the table.

In an uncharacteristically loud voice, the gnome calls out, “The distinguished guests of honor: Tlareg, Krug, Misha, Six, Thaelen Melrose, and Jack Skelet.” The party enters to smiles and nods to their accomplishment, and stand ready to be seated in the center seats on either side of the table. A moment of refined silence passes before the gnome calls out for one final time, “Finally, our sovereign lord: Count Adrianus Vladimir Tepes Enderson Strahd.”

A tall, stern, human man powerfully strides into the room. His face sharp, gaunt, and carrying the wisdom and intelligence of the ages. A slight silver sheen runs through his hair, but, despite the signs of his age, he carries a youthful vigor in his step. His garb speaks of sophistication, with deep purple offset by vibrant red patterns. Around his neck he wears an amulet of a raven’s skull- a symbol of his title and nobility. As he sits, maintaining his stoic silence, the servants hop to life, and begin serving the first course.

The party is treated to the finest cuisine in all of Barovia, beginning with a crimson bowl of borscht topped with cream. Noting their host’s silence, Krug ‘n’ Krew begin polite conversation with the nobility of Ravensloft. Krug and Thaelen take particular interest in Dorek, and ask him about the prey he has hunted over the years. The goliath is overjoyed, and recounts wrestling an owlbear to the ground in his youth. Awed by the feat, they attempt to earn his favor by offering the services of a hobbit servant. He agrees, and offers to show them his collection of sporting trophies at an unspecified future date. Krug and Thaelen sit in a silent panic, as they slowly remember that Bemril is actually a drow.

As their conversation dwindles, a second course of a simple yet refined cucumber salad is brought out. Jack takes the opportunity to speak with the Lauciene family. After paying his social respects to Strahd’s generosity, he asks for their insight into the state of Barovia. He sits through non-answer after non-answer, and finally presses the subject, “So, I can’t help but wonder about the spirits just past the city gate.”

A bead of sweat rolls down Andrei’s face as he begins stuttering an answer. The party notices as an early silence takes over the room. The count glares from the corner of his eye at the man, and his wife immediately answers for him, “Whatever do you mean dear? You can’t possibly mean those specters from the stories they tell children.”

Recognizing the situation he’s in, Jack backs off and alters course to polite conversation. Thaelen applauds Strahd’s taste in wine, and the tension is cleared enough to resume eating. The remaining courses, steeped in Barovian tradition, include roasted pheasant, braised boar, and napoleonka.

As dinner concludes, the elderly gnome brings the rescued portrait to his lord. The remaining servants leave the room, shut the door, and the faint click of a lock sends chills down the spines of the party. The count stares deeply into the eyes of his long-lost beloved. For the first time in the evening, Strahd’s velvety yet powerful voice is heard, “I suppose it’s overdue that I thank you for this service you’ve done. Ever since poor Tatyana left this world, I have been at a loss. Thank you for returning a piece of her to me.”

The party silently nods, afraid to interrupt their host.

“Now, you all have come to see my lands- this nation I rule over. What is it that you’ve seen? Tell me, what do you think of my Barovia?”

Jack is the first to speak, “It has been a while, but it’s always good coming home.”

Thaelen, as tactfully as he can, continues their response, “It has been good, my lord.”

Sensing their hesitation, the count presses them further, “And have my people treated you with all due dignity and respect?”

Walking the fine line between directness and impoliteness, Jack responds, “Most have, my count. There were a few rebels, but they have been dealt with. The other dangers on the road were a bit more concerning.”

“Of what dangers do you speak?”

Krug, unaware of anything that would constitute as “social minutia” pulls two fragments of the mask of a shadow hound they had faced earlier, “This.”

Strahd turns to face the party, and leans forward, “And why would you consider such creatures to be a danger?”

Jack, in a mild state of confusion respond, “My lord, they’re roaming the countryside, and have attacked us on two occasions.”

“Have they now?”

An uncomfortable silence passes.

“These hounds find themselves drawn to my lands, and you assume an ill intent. Tell me, during these attacks, were you in the presence of those who would do my nation harm?”

Confused, Krug ‘n’ Krew mutter amongst themselves before their slim and spindly spokesman responds, “In one instance, yes. We did not know the others as well, but it is possible.”

“So, you’ve walked alongside the enemies of this land, and have seen the land strike back? Do you believe I am ignorant of the dangers my nation faces? I know of this rebellion, the ever-present threat along the Idravalli border, and the dangers beyond that. Many stand against Barovia as our foes.”

“I… I understand, my lord. You have shown your strength in the past, and I am sure you will again. These lands have been safe because of you.”

“As a child of this nation, will you rise to defend it?”

“Of course, my lord.”

“And your compatriots? Will you stand against the threats our people face?”

Thaelen speaks up, “Yes, we want nothing but good for your people.”

The rest of the guests lean in, examining their potential allies. “This is good to hear. Are you willing to pledge your very souls to Barovia?”

Beads of sweat roll down each of the party members’ faces as they consider Strahd’s words. Misha and Jack feel the faint whispers of their pasts roll through their ears. Thaelen shakes off the memory that drove him from the Empire’s lands. Krug swallows a lump in his throat.

Jack eventually stammers, “I.. I would give anything my lord, but I can’t swear my soul. It has been promised elsewhere.” The rest of Krug ‘n’ Krew mumble quick excuses, as Strahd’s face turns from stern to disappointed.

“Hmm. So it is. It appears you lack the will necessary to claim power. I will thank you for your sacrifices to Barovia, but the rest of us shall be… retiring for the evening.”

Their senses are overwhelmed by dread, anxiety, and fear, and the party stands, and shuffle out to the courtyard. They find their cart pulled up, and see Bemril standing at attention, ready to swing the door open for them. A strange smile crosses the face of their once unwilling companion. In a voice filled with an unusual calm he recounts the generosity Strahd’s servants had shown him. The rest of the cart shares in silence.

As they return to Brasov, Bemril continues to show uncharacteristic enthusiasm and joy. The still-shaken party feints exhaustion, and tells Bemril that he’s earned himself a better bed. Six and Misha lead Bemril up to their room while the rest of the party uses the opportunity to discuss their plans.

Tlareg, suspicious of the entire situation, asks the rest of the group, “That guy’s not all there, is he?”

Jack, recalling several incidents from his childhood, answers, “Well, there have been rumors of people visiting the count and returning… changed. He is known to be very persuasive.”

Krug, still frightened, stares into his cup while muttering, “I don’t like it.”

“Me neither,” Thaelen agrees, “and I bet that’s what this Tilman guy is looking into. We have to meet up with them tomorrow night and get to the bottom of this.”

The group nods in agreement, but Jack poses a question, “So, what do we do with the drow? I don’t know what happened to him, but he’s a liability.”

Krug lifts up his halberd, “I can fix that.”

Tlareg catches the top of the weapon and pushes it down, “Not so fast there buddy. I’m pretty sure the count will be pissed if we kill one of his boys.”

Jack agrees, “We can’t kill him, because then we’ll be hung as murderers. We can’t run back to the Empire, because then we’ll be hung as spies. We have to play along and be smart. That one guy Thaelen talked to said we’d have to be careful.”

Krug ‘n’ Krew contemplate their options for a minute, before agreeing on a plan. They’ll spend the daylight hours working odd jobs again, this time with Bemril. After the long day of work, Six will convince the drow to call it an early night and then watch him from their room. The rest of the party will then sneak out the windows of their rooms, and sneak through town and towards the remains of the old Castle Ravensloft. From there, they’ll try to make contact with Tilman and discover what has befallen Barovia. With their fates decided, they catch as much sleep as they can.

The next morning goes as planned, and after a long day of work they give Six the sign. “So, Bemril, you put in some good work today. Really helped the people out. How about we go back to our room, enjoy this wine, and call it a night?”

“Oh, I would hate to miss out on whatever we’re doing next. I love seeing what you all end up doing, and how you’re investing yourselves in the people here.”

Thaelen talks through a long yawn, “Sorry buddy, but I’m beat too. I think it’s about time we hit the sack.” The rest of the party agrees, and, one-by-one, head up to their rooms. Bemril eventually agrees, and follows Six to their shared room. Misha, Jack, Thaelen, Tlareg, and Krug wait in silent anticipation for nearly an hour before sneaking out the windows. Thankfully, the large mounds of accumulated snow give a convenient landing zone from the second floor.

Obscured by the darkness, the party slinks and slips through Ravensloft and eventually finds themselves in what used to be Barovia’s capital. Most of the buildings have long since collapsed under the weight of snow and distress of thoroughly burned out foundations. The sorrow and loss is palpable in the air.

The party eventually crosses paths with two humans: a young man with a pristine brown coat, glasses, and salt-and-pepper hair, and a blond woman in red robes bearing an amulet of Nar, the goddess of light. After realizing they’re not alone, the man fumbles around for a slip of paper in his pocket, and reads it off in a confused voice, “Is there a … Johnny Twelve-Fingers in town? He owes me a gold and a copper for a kettle? For the love of the gods what does that even mean?”

Thaelen, recognizing the call, shouts back, “Yeah, he stays out back with the lady and her ladder.”

The pair read over the note, and shrug. Walking forward, he extends a hand, “Greetings! I am Tilman Berner, and I believe you know our mutual associate Werm. He wrote down that whole mess, and ensure that you’ll know what it means.”

“Yeah man. He said you’d have some answers about what’s going on here, and that you knew Dalzos.”

“We’re acquainted, and share a mutual interest for the time being: the safety of our home. He might be paranoid, but he’s right on this one I’m afraid. As a representative of the Belgrave Consortium, it’s our sworn duty to look into such things. I’m afraid for the future of this country and my home. Oh! Forgive my terrible manners, this is Cecilia Baade.”

The woman smiles and waves, “Good evening. The Allmother’s gaze has also fallen in this direction. We’re hoping to find more answers in the old castle. We need to learn more about Count Strahd and his past.”

The party introduces themselves, and brace themselves for the dangers that lie ahead. Strahd’s old home is mostly intact, but the upper level of the castle is almost entirely destroyed. The gate is little more than charcoal, and gives way with the slightest push. The party raises their weapons as they creep forward, their every footstep echoing out. While ravaged by the years, the castle still holds much of its former elegance and glory and bears an uncanny resemblance to the modern equivalent.

The party focuses their attention to their left, and quickly find themselves in a small parlor. As they walk into the room, Jack notices a pristine rug in the center of the charred floor. He walks forward to investigate it, and is snatched up by the Smothering Rug. Tilman fires his flintlock pistol through the rug, and also Jack. Realizing the danger his friend faces, Krug swings his halberd but faces the same predicament as Tilman. Thaelen quickly hatches a plan and utilizes Magic Missile to pepper the safest openings. The darts just manage to save his ally, and Cecilia rushes over to heal him. “Be careful dear, I can only do this so many times.”

Fully recovered, Jack continues to investigate the room. He eventually finds a small puzzle on a dais, and begins solving it. As the last piece slides into place, they hear the grinding of stone as a the path to a secret rooms opens. They find themselves within an old, hidden study that had been sheltered from the original fire. The old, cobweb laden bookshelves contain tome after tome detailing the known history of the Shadowfel, the rise and fall of the Great Barrier, and the three prime divisions of magic: the elemental, the religious, and the arcane. Thaelen also finds a few spell scrolls and a fine tunic in Krug’s size. Tlareg snatches up a yellow diamond the size of his fist while Tilman, Jack, and Cecilia flip through several of the books and Strahd’s notes.

Determined to learn more, the party continues through several more rooms. During their escapades, Krug begins dancing to a tune that only he seems to be able to hear. Jack discovers a few hidden hallways and peepholes that would have allowed Strahd’s servants to spy on his guests.

Eventually, they make their way down to the castle’s dungeon. In the warden’s office, Jack reads the ledger of prisoners as Thaelen jimmies the lock to the cell rooms. The last entry details a man who had been arrested for murdering children in a few outlying villages. Horrifying and gruesome details underscore the gut-wrenching nature of his crimes. The entry ends with the man’s last words- violent and desperate pleas of “I’m nice! I’m nice! I swear I’m not naughty.” A chill runs down Jack’s spine.

With the cell doors open, Krug ‘n’ Krew proceed deeper and deeper into the jail. The skeletal remains of the inmates continue to serve out their sentences in chains and manacles. The slight shuffling of feet sets the party on guard, as they are attacked by three plagueborne zombies. A burst of magic abilities quickly tears them to shreds. As the party investigates their remains, they discover these poor, unfortunate souls had once been the castle’s guards. Strange runic circles have been tattooed into their flesh, and one carries a large ruby eerily similar to the yellow diamond Tlareg had found. Having exhausted all of the pathways, the party explores the last section of the castle: the upper floor.

As they make their way up the tight spiral staircases, they feel the freezing chill of the winter wind. Most of the rooms and shelter have been destroyed. They conclude the fire must have started nearby, and the bedrooms are now mostly filled with charcoal and snow. One room, which appears to be the master suite, is almost entirely intact. A pristine statue of Lloth and an ancient suit of armor have survived the decades, but most of the other furniture has been lost to time.

Tlareg stares at the statue for a moment, and is puzzled why its eyes have been removed. Jack, recognizing what is happening, takes the gems they have found earlier, and inserts them into the sockets. With the key in place, another secret room is revealed - Strahd’s arcane laboratory. The room is disastrously messy, with maps, ancient texts, and personal notes scattered around; however, they barely notice. Tlareg, Thalen, Jack, and Misha stare with a combination of horror and confusion at a collection of no less than 15 portraits adorning the walls. Each appears to resemble the painting of Tatyana they had found earlier: the same half-smile, the same tight, curly hair, but a different woman. The fifteen women each bear a striking resemblance to one another, to Tatyana, and to Gertruda as well.

A strange chill enters their very bones, and they help Tilman scoop up as many useful looking notes as he can carry. Jack grabs a few magical items, gems, and a potion. Krug, left unattended, continues to stare into the armor Strahd himself had worn into battle against the Idravalli Empire. Struck by his beauty, he raises a single hand and extends it towards the cold metal as his feet forcibly dance beneath him. He does not understand why, but he feels connected to the beautiful craftsmanship before him. As the two connect, the horrifying sounds of twisting metal echo out into the room.

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