Where All Roads LeadTweet to @Brainlessmunkey
It is the 76th year in the Third Age, and the sister continents of Toramand and Ushazan are divided by jagged terrain, wild seas, and a myriad of political powers. Chief among them is the Idravalli Empire of Toramand. Under the unwavering leadership of their emperor, the nation quickly rose to prominence and power at the fall of the Second Age as it slowly spread to encompass the surrounding societies of the region. Through war and trade, their borders grew and came to envelope most of the continent; however, this came to an eventual halt. During the great wars that bridged these two eras, their emperor ascended to the status of a god tasked with defending Eibellion against the horrors of the outer realms.
In his absence, most are left to their own devices. You live as you did before, and the Ordo Administorum takes but a humble tithe of what you produce and earn. You follow its laws, worship its god, and bow before your respective leadership. In return, citizens are protected from the chaotic horrors and scattered evils that stalk the edges of civilization. Tensions brew beneath the watch of the Inquisition, every temple is government owned and run, and worship outside the approved idolatry is met with imprisonment and cries of heresy. The forced annexation of Sembal at the northern coast has many common folks on edge.
Our story, however, begins much smaller and much simpler. Here in the Southern Reaches of the Idravalli Empire and its border with Barovia, far beyond the shadows cast by the Heavenly Peaks, are the crooked and overgrown roads connecting these two lands. Pinned between sharp mountain peaks and the roaring Southern Sea, this is a road traveled by few. The first flakes of snow have long since fallen, and a bitter chill greets all who cross these barren lands.
Here in this most unusual place, a handful of wandering destinies slowly begin to intersect. We begin in the late hours of the afternoon, as the sun begins to set over the western hills. A single wagon lead by two oxen slowly cuts through the ice and snow. A young man and his wife nestle against each other for warmth, looking for a place to rest for the evening. Their entire shared life resides in the ramshackle wooden cart they bought with their last coppers, joined by a most unusual character- a half-elf half-asleep, eyes covered by a ripped and torn book of the arcane arts, with an empty bottle in hand.
The Way Back Home
Thaelen Melrose has been riding with Adrian and Elena Sorina for the past few weeks. They provide him with basic provisions and ask few questions. Thaelen provides them with the promise of protection. As they cut their way through the countryside, they eventually encounter a stranger wandering the wilderness. Adrian and Elena offer to give the tall, ghastly, slender human in pinstripe robes a ride as far as Grezjit, and he offers to tell them the good news of his generous benefactor. He gleefully agrees and joins Thaelen in the back of the cart. Thaelen offers him a swig from a clearly empty bottle before once again falling asleep.
After another hour travelling, the cart becomes stuck, but none of the occupants are strong enough to push it free. Eventually, a passer-by, in the form of a hulking half-orc in mix-matched attire gives them a hefty shove, in exchange for a ride. He is quiet, but does offer everyone his identity: Krug. The strange human looks on expectantly, but nobody asks him about his name.
As the night settles in, the party looks for a place to rest and comes across the campfire of a quiet elf wandering in solitude. His pale complexion and hair almost blend in perfectly with the surroundings, as does his rough and tumble attire. After a brief exchange, the eventually agree to pool their food and warmth for the evening. Elena, tired from the journey and her pregnancy, begins to rest while Adrian ties up their oxen and lash down their cart for the evening. The rest of the party shares a drink while watching.
After a brief meal of stale bread, local berries, and a roast squirrel, they decide to call it a night and Krug takes first watch.
After thoroughly inspecting the back of his eyelids, he is awoken by an enormous wolf-like entity biting into his ankle. It appears to be a large, obsidian like mask that coalesces nearby shadows into the form of a hound. His howl awakens everyone, and the party fights the Shadow Mastiff. A quick flurry of blows puts the beast down, with our elven friend delivering the last blow. A quick flourish of his blade cracks the mask in two, and dissipates the shadows clinging to it. Adrian and Elena cower behind their wagon for the next few minutes.
Krug ties the mask to his back as his party inspects it. Through their collective knowledge of the arcane, they know these entities are summoned as servants from the Shadowfell. While easy to conjure, they can be difficult to control for novices, and most end up wandering of their own accord. The elf, who finally introduces himself as Tlareg, believes it is the work of a witch he is hunting. Thaelen believes it is more likely an arcane mishap. Their human companion continues to remain nameless.
After resting they eventually set-out in the morning, but not before Thaelen pokes Krug with Mage Hand for amusement. By noon, they’ve reached Grezjit, a very small farming community of approximately 40 people. Elena’s uncle owns the Rounded Antlers Inn and she has offered them a few free nights of hospitality and meals as compensation for aiding their family in their travels out of the Empire. Mikhail, the Inn’s proprietor, pays them additional 12 gold and points to a small job board maintained by the Belgrave Consortium for additional work.
The party discusses their options:
- An oddly lucrative contract for any and all adventurers on a jungle island in the north
- The Ordo Inquisitas offering bounties on any and all heretics
- A missing person case in Ravensloft, the capital of Barovia
- An opportunity to mediate a dispute between a logging company and some local druids
- Guard work for the Ordo Administorum
Realizing they aren’t familiar with the current state of affairs in Barovia, they ask Mikhail for his thoughts. He warns the group that nobody has ever been seen coming back from the first contract, and that it is likely a scam; however, he seems hesitant to discuss local matters. After some coaxing, he reveals things in Barovia have taken a turn for the worse. While Grezjit and his family are alright, strange chills can be felt in the dark. Count Strahd has become reclusive, strange beasts haunt the lands, and a local woman, Gertruda Janovic, has recently fallen very ill after courting a man working for the Count. Krug shows him the mask, and he admits he has seen something similar following Gertruda.
After deliberations over a round of Maltört, a strong dwarven-style ale of international infamy, the group decides to help the people of Barovia. They seek out Gertruda’s home, and knock on the door for several minutes. Krug tries to kick it in, and successfully knocks the snow off of an awning and on to the party. During the ruckus, a young neighbor boy yells at the party to keep it down. They yell at him to figure out why Gertruda hasn’t answered. He yells that her boyfriend came by last night and that’s she’s probably sleeping it off. They yell their thanks.
As they ponder breaking in to her home, she answers the door in a nightgown before immediately fainting. Tlareg catches her and rests her on a small bench in her home. Thaelen rummages through her things, and exchanges the old, uncorked, half-full bottle of wine on her nightstand for his empty bottle. Their nameless companion furiously scribbles something into a large set of notes he carries with him.
After administering a small herbal remedy, Tlareg wakes Gertruda up. They ask a flurry of questions, but she is understandably uncomfortable with the strangers in her home. Thaelen assures her everything will be alright, mostly by casting Charm Person. While entranced, she answers their questions.
Gertruda admits she has recently taken quite ill, and has experienced fainting spells, headaches, and a general malaise. Upon seeing the mask, she confirms the party’s suspicions, and tells them about the Shadow Mastiff that has been seen near Grezjit. When asked about her boyfriend, she explains that Zherulius is a kind soul, but his work in the capital has made his visits irregular. As a trader, he can often only stay for a few hours overnight. The party suspects he is connected to the beasts, but needs to get more information. They ask her to visit them at the Rounded Antlers Inn that evening, and Thaelen asks her to buy drinks. She agrees.
Over the next few hours, the party discusses their plans and begins contemplating how they can find an audience with Count Strahd. As they pass the time, Lise offers to read their fortunes. The nameless human agrees, and she quickly a deck of tarot cards. Tlareg stares on suspiciously and silently. Thaelen drinks heavily. Krug tries his hardest to remember his own name. Eventually she draws the following cards, representing the three phases of life- Past, Present, and Future.
- The Page of Wands - He has a strange enthusiasm and eagerness, and a willingness to learn what most would ignore or fear. While there are some scars from this time, they will heal into something greater.
- The High Priestess - His insight into the souls of others is a source of power rarely shared. While he says little, he knows much. He acts as a benign aide to those in need, if they deserve it.
- The Magician - Studiousness is rewarded, and in the arcane, it can mean nearly limitless power; however, it comes from a temperamental source. Should he falter, he may peak early or far worse.
Tlareg asks Lise about her knowledge of the arcane, but she responds coyly. There is a slight unease, and the party decides to drink it off.
After a few hours, they are joined by Gertruda. She honors her promise to buy drinks, but is shy and quiet. As a group, they discuss the state of things in Barovia, and ask when Zehrulius will return. She admits she doesn’t know, but that he was headed to the town of Trostenwald to the north. Believing Zehrulius is responsible for the hounds, and believing the local magistrate could offer them an audience with Strahd, they commit to a northern journey and set out in the night.
Arriving in Trostenwald, they find a much larger, Bavarian-style town. There are bustling streets, a cavalcade of shops, and several guard posts. They ask a dragonborn guard for directions to the town hall and if the magistrate would be available to meet with them. The guard points to a large central building, but mentions they will have to wait for the magistrate’s vacation to end. He is expected to return within a week. After being referred to a few local inns, Thaelen decides to seek out a local chapter of the Fox’s Cowl, a low-stakes guild of thieves and miscreants. Once again, this is accompanied by a furious scribbling from the man without a name.
Leaving a symbol known to his associates, Thaelen searches the city for any clues or contacts that might lead them to a hideout. They eventually see a response indicating the open streets aren’t safe for business at the moment; however, it does point them to somebody who knows somebody who knows somebody. After establishing contact, they follow a series of coded directions to the back room of the Blood on the Vine tavern on the nearest creek. After greasing a few palms, they are led down a spiral staircase to a secret prohibition storage room turned bar filled with goblins, a few halflings, and at least one kenku. They are greeted by an all-too-friendly triton man lounging in a “mostly” clean chair. A tabaxi stands guard behind him, awaiting the next session.