Cast of Characters
Brigid the Badass Barbarian by Heather Thornton
Ramona Briars the Small & Mighty Paladin by Candace Reagan
Zyrella the Passed Out Firebrand Sorcerer by Cindy Ferkenhoff
Danu the Mercurial Druid of the Moon by Amanda Little
And Urdes the Exhausted Monk by Allixandra Ashler (absent)
The snow fell around them. A wall of gray stone stood three storeys before them. The trail of wolf's blood had vanished. The moon shone brightly on them as clouds, fringed in silver, sent snow gentling around them. The forest was a hundred yards or more behind them down a lightly tiered hillside.
And Zyrella stood and stretched, feline and tall, while Urdes, no longer burdened with her elf compatriot knelt on the snowy hillside. Brigid backed up, her few wounds scabbed and brow glistening in sweat, and she saw what... a manor house high above the walls looking down on them. A high tower standing some thirty feet above the plateau on which it stood. And the walls wrapped around in long, straight stretches. To the south were the dual towers of a gatehouse. Danu, scanned the woodline behind her, smelled the air, and realized that they must have ascended some thousands of feet from the high road between Chrom and Aurum; no small feat for a mad hunt in the night. The air was crisp and thin and chill, but there was a hint of rotting pine wafting in from the woods. Ramona, having seen her friends take in the setting, and with a quiet nod between them, led the others to the gatehouse to the south.
They were met by the twang of a crossbow cocking, though unfired, above them. A skullcapped head poked out, the weapon aiming past them... for now. Ramona stepped forward, "Hail, we seem to have lost our way. My companions and I were hunting a wolf after it attacked our caravan and now... well we seek shelter. Would we find that here?"
Some murmuring within, carrying easily in the clear night air. An owl hooted and something larger than that cut the air, but from where they could not tell. "Krezk is known for shelter and safety, but you must suffer our tests before entering. Do you agree?"
With little other option, they agreed. The snug door cut into the gate rustled as beams were moved from the other side and opened, a trick of the light hiding it from easy view. A gray-haired woman with weathered, chapped skin in studded leathers met them.
"Greetings. I am Kristianna. To enter, I would test you. There are things that look like men and women and I have been charged with the nightwatch to keep us safe. Who would be first?" As she spoke, she brandished a simple iron dagger, and behind her three fellow guard pointed pikes, their points sharp and silvered just over her shoulder and filling the small entrance.
Ramona stepped forward, Kristianna knelt and offered her unarmed hand. Ramona offered her own and Kristianna looked the small, sturdy woman in the eye as she grasped Ramona by the wrist, firmly but not tightly. Looking Ramona in the eye, the guards shifting as their chainmail chimed as muffled bells. Kristianna cut Ramona on the flesh below the thumb, her blue eyes watching Ramona all the while. A moment passed, and Kristianna looked to the hand, a half-inch cut bleeding onto the snow below.
"Now grasp the blade of one of my guards."
Confused, perhaps, but compliant, Ramona raised her other hand. "No," Kristianna said, "your other." Ramona did so. And again, a quiet moment climbed. The owl hooted. The silence that followed worried the air. "Good. You may enter."
Kristianna stood as Brigid approached, perhaps a little too closely for the woman's comfort. She saw the tattoos of the bear along Brigid's chest and shoulders, the salt of her sweat cutting along them like lightning. Brigid complied, though the knife had to be pressed a little more intensely against her calloused hand. "Good," she said, "And as your friend."
Danu, Zyrella, and finally Urdes complied with this "test," or ritual, or whatever it was. With the encounter on the road, this was an odd moment.
The first cock crowed as they entered. The night was still weighty as the clouds moved in, hushing the lowering light of the moon.
"You may eat with us, though we ask for a silver from each. We have no tavern here, though some homes are empty if you wish to stay." Kristianna gestured to a low cookfire, a pair of rough wooden bunch, and a simple table set with a mostly picked clean rabbit, cut but browning apples, roasted parsnips, shelled walnuts, torn dark bread, and a hunt of white goat cheese. The crumbs seemed little worth the silver.
Brigid gestured to her pair of wood axes around her hips and the glass axe slung over her back, "If we might dine, I would hunt for you, bring back something more... Substantial in return." The guards eyed her, saw the prowess etched on her body.
"Aye, that should do," Kristianna retorted. She served them with spiced wine, the bits clove strong at the night's end. "You should meet with Donya and Waltar Janek. They do the hunting around here. I myself stay within the walls if I can."
They ate and spoke, sharing their tale and learning bits of the land from the weary guards. Wolves accosted the village, and there were other things in the night. Krezk was safe, its many cold-hardened fruit and nut trees fed them, the villagers maintained gardens of herbs and root vegetables, chickens and goats were common. And the Abbot maintained a small farm outside the Abbey, though that was generally for feeding his charges.
Kristianna, a hardened guard and de facto captain for Krezk, hadn't seen travelers in some time, though traders from Vallaki often visited. And the ruler of the land? That would be Count Strahd von Zarovich, though he had been more absent for years now. When Kristianna was in her thirties, strangers, like yourselves, came to Barovia from abroad. They raised steel and magic against Strahd and he was defeated. For a brief time, the light shone and the land seemed safe, but after a month or two, the winter set in, the trees of the wood grew thicker, and the land darker. The Devil Strahd, as she took to calling him was not seen as often, riding his black mare through his land.
As for more history than that, Kristianna was much for book learning. Perhaps they might meet with Burgomaster Dmitri Krezkov and his wife Anna. They know the history better. Or the Abbot, who has lived a long life and knows many things.
Ramona, stepping away from the fire for a moment was approached by one of the guards, Grigor. "Be cautious about the Abbot. My neighbor's daughter fell ill, pneumonia I think, and he treated her with his sacrament." Ramona pressed, and Grigor added, "She's well now, but I don't like it much. He's offered it to others and they seem well, healthy even, but it is a strange thing. I haven't seen the sacrament myself. Dev Dimiski, Nimira's father, he says it was like a hard cake like a biscuit. If you wish to meet them, go down the left fork, four houses down," Grigor pointed, but shielded the view from the others around the fire.
The sky lightened and the sleepy berg woke. Attention to the gardens and goats, the fog melted low, though lingered around the gate. Kristianna welcomed the change of the guards and said her adieux as Donya and Waltar Janek approached. Donya, a compact woman with a brown braid and a few shy freckles carried long skinning knives around her belt and a shortbow over her shoulder while Waltar carried a handful of hunting traps and his own long hunting bow, each with a quiver of arrows.
"Happy to have additional hunters," Waltar said, "but do not hunt alone. Even in the day there are things one does not wish to meet alone. And do not head to the north."
The early hours of the morning passed in the pine woods. Brigid took to a tree and climbed about, smelling the air, listening to the crackle of twigs. Danu did the same below, though it was Brigid's axe that found a mark: a wild hog that had grown to several hundred pounds, its tusks jutting. And there were a few rabbits to be nabbed as well. Danu, however, spied a pair of ravens high overhead. With a whisper and then a caw, she called to them. Together they swooped down and on a second descent, one lingered on a high branch.
"Cuh caw, traveler. Your wingspeech is clear," the resting raven said.
"What can you tell me of this land?" Danu cackled back, to the accustomed bemusement of her comrades.
"The skies around the castle are dangerous for featherfolk," the bird said in its coarse, throaty way. Its keen eyes lingered, loaded with meaning.
He had said "featherfolk" not "wingfolk," Danu considered. Overhead the partner cawed, "Clear," below as swooped about.
"And to the north a pack hunts. They have taken my featherfriend to the Raven Queen, cuh caw!" and Danu could heard mourning in his voice. "The winery to the south is good to us. Kind folk there." Winery, Danu thought, that will interest my friends and I.
Danu continued to speak while Zyrella, having lost interest in the bird brained Genasi, poked around the scene as Brigid and Ramona skinned a rabbit. A hollowed tree caught her elvish eyes and within... a burlap bundle. A poke with a stick inspired to response, so she took it out and inspected it. Clothes in rusty red and earthen brown, common by any standard but... abandoned.
Brigid tossed one of the rabbits to Danu, who while not much for the kill herself set it before the raven. The raven called, "Clear?" up to his companion who responded in kind, "Food-fresh," the conversationalist retorted. His companion joined and the two ate.
"Criick I am called," the first raven said to Danu between gulps of meat. "And my featherfriend is Ohrrah. Be wary, traveler, and you may share my name with other ravenkind, but not with walkingkind." Danu nodded and thanked them while Zyrella called her near, Brigid and Ramona having come to inspect the burlap bundle.
"Birdbrain, still have any of that wolf scent from last night?" Zyrella asked.
Danu leaned in, "It has the smell of the pack from last night. Another like the werewolf, perhaps."
"And there's the den up north," Ramona added.
"And the ravens are keeping watch for those on the ground," Danu reported. "I could follow it, but the scent will not hold for much more than a day."
Zyrella stowed it. Perhaps they would hunt, but not now.
They met again with Donya and Waltar, returning with a mountain goat slung over Waltar's shoulders, wounds around its hoof and blood from the back of the head. Donya carried a string of rabbits as well. They both admired Brigid hauling the hog.
"This will be a reason to bring the village together!" Donya said, still quiet but with appreciation. "Perhaps a festival tonight. You can meet others."
Walter looked to Donya, speaking without words between them. "Aye Donya," Waltar said, "And if you seek rations for the road, you can come to us. We have little else, but we will restock you in times of need."
Once inside the gate, the guards hurrahed with surprise at the large kill and word spread, as it does in small towns, just before the party who set off along the left fork for the fourth house on the left. The village with active around them. Mostly families with youths and grown children but unmarried. A few houses stood empty, but all had farm work to do or repairs to homes.
Nimira, a girl of sixteen with rosy cheeks dirty blonde hair lay on the bench besides the wood and masonry home. Two baskets of roots vegetables sat to one her side and the loose earth still lay about the garden plot. Her father, Dev was out front attending to damaged shutters.
"Hail," Dev said, "You've been a blessing on Krezk, I understand. Kindness isn't common in Barovia. Thank you."
They greeted in kind, Brigid proud of her hunting. They spoke of the day's work and thin strands of sunlight caught the light snow on the ground.
Ramona hid herself around the corner, easy enough with a halfling's stature, and knelt briefly in prayer and guidance. She stood and walked toward Nimira, but her prayer was answered as her eyes took in thin strands of... purple like fine roots around the upturned soil. And Nimira before her, her skin seemed run through with fine ash vines like that in the soil. Rather than speak with the girl, she took in the scene. A passerby strode with tools slung over his shoulder, but the same ash grey was beneath his skin, as well. Not of them... but in them somehow.
Ramona had not seen such a thing, but on a hunch she scurried over to the others and said, "Thank you, we look forward to seeing you at the festival this evening! But we must away!" Ramona took Brigid's hand and set off, cutting through a yard across the way toward the tower.
"I'm seeing something," Ramona said. "Strangeness. There's something here and I think it is time to meet this Abbott." It took several minutes to ascend the switchback up to the Abbey and they were somewhat winded when they entered the unbarred gates. In the courtyard and to their right were several graves, the stone looking worn and old, a sunburst pattern etched into them. As they moved toward the entrance wall they spotted the small farm to their left. Brigid knocked with the large, simple iron knocker and was greeted by the squeak of worn wood just inside.
"Yes yes, one moment," A man's voice called, clearly aged but not infirm. The Abbot opened the doors to them: a man in a simple friar's cloak with a hood met them, his eyes a piercing blue and shocks of grey in his thick hair. His clean shaved face was defined and handsome, his eyes and the corners of his mouth gently etched but alert and sharp.
Ramona heard the faint ringing of bells and she could see that the man's eyes shone from within as if with a beautiful white light.
"Guests! Have you come to receive the Sacrament?" the Abbott greeted.
"We understand," Zyrella said, "that you have treated people and that you are a learned man. My friends and I have come to speak with you."
"Oh, yes, of course. Come in to the hall with me. I have been cleaning from the morning meal, so apologies for the mess." He lead them into the courtyard where they saw chicken coops line the far wall. The single structure was, in fact, two stone buildings connected by a curtain wall. The building to the left was obvious some sort of dormitory while they approached the hall, a bell tower climbing above them.
"Let me pour you all some tea," he said as they sat at the large table in the hall. A harp played overhead, suffusing the room with music as light came through a dozen tall windows around them. Pewter dishes were stacked at one end.
As the Abbot poured for Ramona, she could see the steam was laced with the violet hue from the garden! She started while holding the teacup, spilling her tea onto the wooden table just has her divination. "Oh, apologies," Ramona said in an high, singsongy voice, "it was just too hot!"
"No problem at all, let me go grab a cloth to wipe it up," the Abbot said, stepping off to the far end.
"Don't drink the tea," she whispered, "It has the strangeness in it."
The Abbot returned, dabbing away before taking a seat opposite them.
"You have come with questions. I do hope I have answers."
"What do you do here?" asked Danu.
"I made my home here some time ago. I'm a religious man by nature and this was once a place of worship. When I came though, it was shunned by the villagers and had fallen to corruption. There was, well, I think of them as family now, but they were... sick and I tended to them. You can hear Clovin playing for us now. Other Belviews live in the other building."
"And the sacrament?" Brigid stated as much as asked.
"Well, I come from a distant city of light and of song. I came with the belief that this city might be all place, might grow in each of us. And so I came and showed compassion. I did what I could to heal the Belviews and provide for the townspeople. I believe we each of us have this city within us, it simply needs to be nurtured, to grow. And then all the world would be a resplendent song, each of us a note, a harmony all the world over."
"Mister," Brigid said suddenly, slamming her handaxe blade against the table, "I don't want anything growing inside me. What do you do here?"
The Abbot smiled and set his hand on the blunt of Brigid's axe. While lightly freckled, it was strong and firm as he pressed on the axe. "Traveler," his voice suddenly lowering, "this is not a place of violence."
A wind swept in from an upstairs window, rippling the curtains and sending shadows dancing through the room. The harp had hushed.
Brigid grit her teeth and pulled her axe as the Abbot shifted his weight just so. "Nor is it a place of theft," he said with a smile. The others laughed uncomfortably as the curtains smoothed. A window whined overhead.
"And the Belviews, you take care of them?" Zyrella inquired, hoping to cut the silence.
"Yes, of course. We were just in for our morning meal," he opened his arms, indicating the room. "Do you wish to meet them?"
"I would," Ramona said, pushing herself from the table and, notably, away from the untouched tea.
"Come then, I'll introduce you to Clovin. He is entertaining Vasilka at the moment as well." They ascended the spiraling staircases in the corner. The other set of stairs climbed higher into the bell tower while this ended in a shadow, simple room. "Clovin, we have guests who would like to meet you and Vasilka."
"Oh," a rough brogue responded, "one minute sir." Glass rang as it was clambered together overhead and heavy footfalls traced a circuit overhead. A chair squealed. "Come up sir. The room could use a-dustin', but she's good for now."
The Abbot took the remaining stairs to the room some thirty feet square, a few dirty windows let in murky light, a straw mattress in the corner failed to conceal a dozen empty wine bottles stowed there. The smell of stale wine and fur made the room ripe, but was hinted with... the smell of lilies. A man stood shy of five feet near the center of the room next to a beautiful harp as tall as he. From his head grew two stunted goat's horns through his curly mess of unruly hair. A massive mole grew from off his shoulder near his neck that seemed to have... a face of small indentations? And while one foot seemed shorter than the other, he half-hid one arm that ended in a massive red claw like that of a crab or lobster.
And to his right sitting at a low table with music notes sat a woman of beautiful porcelain skin, her red hair waxed and tied into a high bun. Even sitting it was clear she was at least six feet tall, even more so when compared to the diminutive Clovin. She wore a roughly made dress made from what could have been an old tablecloth. She smiled stiffly as she looked at the feet of her guests. A thin, long-healed scar seemed to trace the line along the neck of her dress.
"Good to meet you ladies," Clovin said, stifling a hiccup. "I do, uh, hope you'a been enjoyin' ma performance."
Looks of confusion and shock passed between Ramona, Zyrella, and Danu, but Brigid stepped forward, almost barreling over Clovin as she said, "Good to meet another red head!" and embraced the woman.
Danu noticed the Abbot's body tense as he slowly raised a hand and said, "Friend, Vasilka. These are friends." Who raised a taut arm to pat on Brigid's back. "Vasilka and I have been working on our dancing. She's a good student but a little stiff. Clovin is ever so patient when he plays for us." To this both Vasilka, still being hugged by Brigid, and Clovin smiled shyly.
"And you have other family in the building opposite?" Zyrella asked, her voice quaking as she watched the odd two before her. Ramona and Danu, though eyed the Abbot who looked upon these two with obvious pride.
"Yes. Clovin has a practiced hand at the harp and other instruments," the Abbot hinted at the viol in the corner, "and the others often help in the garden or with the chickens. The villagers aren't particularly sympathetic to the..." he let sentence drop as he looked to Clovin. "We do care for our own, though. Would you like to meet them?"
"I would. Yes." Brigid stammered, eager to put some distance between herself and Vasilka, whose chill skin seemed to linger on her own.
"If it is all the same, the others can upset Vasilka. I would like her to stay with Clovis if that is alright."
"Yes," Brigid, Danu, and Zyrella said at once. Ramona quieted her own words. For now, anyway.
With a few kind words, the Abbot descended the stairs and added once out of earshot, "The villagers come to me for healing and services and I have heard they tell awful rumors about the Belviews. I try to protect them from it. Their family has been through so much and if you see them as I do, you would understand."
The air outside was like a wave crashing into them. The sudden brightness compared to the stone hall washed over them. They had been holding their breath as the harp trailed them out.
Brigid's hands clenched around her axes. Zyrella's lips rehearsed spells. Ramona traced the shiny hilt of her rapier. Danu thought of a dozen questions to ask Criick and Orrah.
At the dormitory door the Abbot stopped. "Please be gentle. They can get worked up." He knocked thrice on the door and said, "We have guests, please be on your best behavior everyone." A rustle of... of many things sounded through the door and quieted. As the door swung open, they all held their breath again.
Brigid spotted massive wings flap once and then settle on the half wall partition in the high ceilinged hall while human eyes peered from a face of mottled pink flesh. Danu's eyes traced the path of a grey and black cat as it scampered toward a figure, her face half a young girl with wispy strands of dark brown hair while half of her face was dominated by four glassy black eyes. The cat leapt into the awaiting arms of the girl, who then stroked the cat gently with a pair of long, dual-jointed fingers that looked, as much as anything, like massive spider legs. A half dozen other figures hid in shadows and under blankets or cloaks.
Danu stepped slowly into the room, whispering in Druidic a blessing for guidance.
The Abbot added, "Be patient with them. Not all can speak easily. And Lyedia," raising his gaze to meet the batwinged form, "please don't alarm the others," he added with harsh gravity.
"I like you cat," Danu said, with the slow intentionality of speaking to a foreigner.
"His name is Egg," she said, her voice starting somewhere in her chest but wavery in the way of any shy youth.
"Are you hurting?"
A look of confusion shivered up her skin. "Braeg hit me once, but I hit him back." Her lips contorted, revealing teeth and mandibles somehow both fitting in her mouth. "He didn't like that." She continued to pet the cat Egg.
Danu leaned in and spoke to what the others heard as a long, overly complicated meow.
"They got plenty o' rats here. Good huntin'," Egg said in response. "The girl, she's nice."
"Are there more upstairs?"
"A few. The one that done hit her, he's upstairs. Gets his own room. Dun' go in there meself."
Turning again to Valentina, "Do you know Vasilka?"
A blush on her cheek, showing through the bit of grime, "Yeah. She's real pretty. We see her at meals. She doesn't eat much. The Abbot, he tries to help her be noble-like."
"Which fork to use on what. The right way to hold a spoon. I hear Clovis playing and they dance upstairs. The Abbot, he's kinda like her father."
"Where's your father, Valentina?"
"Oh, he died. A while ago. But the Abbot, he takes care of all of us."
"He's like your father then, for you too?"
"Yeah," she said in a whisper, then smiled again and looked to the Abbot in the entrance. "I guess that makes Vasilka and I sisters."
"I guess it does."
Valentina's mismatched eyes turned to Danu. "You're real nice, Miss."
"Thank you, Valentina."
Danu turned back to see the others in the doorway, framed by the light outside, and forced a smile.
Image Source: Strahd vs. the Gentlemen Bastards (spoilers for Curse of Strahd!), https://strahdvsthegentlemenbastards.obsidianportal.com/wiki_pages/chapter-12-rotten-luck