Cast of Characters
Brigid the Badass Barbarian by Heather Thornton
Ramona Briars the Small & Mighty Paladin by Candace Reagan
Zyrella the Firebrand Sorcerer by Cindy Ferkenhoff
Danu the Mercurial Druid of the Moon by Amanda Little
Urdes the Fire-hearted Monk by Jenna Ashler
And Shiva Stoneheart, the Iron Gnome by Brooke Santos (absent)
Note: I am working on a campaign guide for Curse of Strahd Redux which functions as a sequel and reimagining to Curse of Strahd. This summary definitely contains spoilers for both. The treatment of the Tarokka deck is more robust in Curse of Strahd Redux than in the original, so please consider this. If you are interested in more information on the campaign guide, please leave a comment!
~ ~ ~
They splashed to the surface of the pool in Krezk, well, all except Danu who surfaced slowly, leisurely. The water washed away the blood from their battle below, though bruises and welts remained. Shiva, her armor's various crevices held onto the water stubbornly and as she walked away from the others it seemed to come down in sudden spurts. At the pool's edge, she clenched her fists and relaxed, still wanting to feel that staff in her hand. Patiently, she began loosening the straps of her plate armor and opened up her pack full of cloths and oils with which to tend to her inheritance.
Ramona looked to the sloped-roof gazebo close to the water's edge. A woman of long, wavy black hair sat before the shrine at the gazebo's center, a simple meal, wine skin spread about her as she knelt. Her finely crafted rapier and a handaxe, its polished edge catching the light of the overcast sky as it refracted off of the pool, sending motes of light along the gazebo's roof. As the woman turned to them, a streak of silver hair fell and swung gently along the left of her face.
"I wouldn't mind crossing swords with her," Ramona said as her companions squeezed the pool water from their clothes.
"Hail, foreigners. Would you join me? You look in need of a rest," she said, turning to them. She set out a dark silk cloth before her.
"That's for sure," Brigid replied and approached, having quickly dried her meager bits of clothing. As Brigid approached, she could see the high cheekbones and strong nose of the woman, a notable similarity to the dismembered men at the center of the fishfolk village.
The others sat around the cloth and array of food, save Shiva who had taken up shelter beneath a walnut tree a shout's distance away. The cloth was a square in shape, less than the length of an arm, black but with a silver thread sewn through its edge in the shapes of leaves, vines, and berries. She smoothed it with her hands and began shuffling a deck of cards as she looked from Ramona to Brigid, then to Danu, then Zyrella, and finally to Urdes.
"I am Ezmeralda d'Avenir. And you all have been making names for yourselves since your arrival."
"Have we? Well, that is one of our habits," Zyrella retorted with a bit of spice on her tongue.
"I thought I might offer some guidance. My people, the Vistani, we have a practice, the Tarokka," the cards pattered as she shuffled them, then whispered as they arched and slid together, "it can highlight how the path can fork, and how it can circle back. Perhaps it would aid you all."
They looked between each other, nodding eagerly.
Ezmeralda spread the cards in a smooth arc before her. "Each of you, choose a card, then a second. Reveal them before you. Be warned: While you have walked to Barovia together, bonds are tested here, the shadows are deep, and those ties may unravel."
"Aw, homesick but brightly shining," Ezmeralda said as Zyrella's long fingers, lined faintly with the red scales of her draconic heritage, plucked the first card: A woman wearing a laurel of... bone? And in her hands a pentagram of stars. "She seeks the Conjurer. Find the nurturing seed and those who serve the Twilit realm will offer their mischievous aid in exchange. Or," a noble woman in plate armor wielding a bastard sword, "the Avenger. Seek the house of the winged warrior who fell and rests. His death brought about a birth."
The Twilit Court, Zyrella thought, and even here they have come. The Fey...
"And now, the waterborn out of her element," turning to Danu who turned her first card, a woman with a scar blinding her eye, "the Soldier. A woman of silver hair and scarred face peers over the high wall. Her shield and her blade would protect the realm if they could." Danu's heart faltered a beat: Kristianna, the Night Captain? Would she walk with us? With me?. Ezmeralda waited patiently as color faded from Danu's cerulean cheeks, then flipped the second: A rotund nobleman speaking to a goateed scoundrel, curved dagger tucked behind him. "The Traitor: A woman born to feathers flies with bats. She would offer her service to maintain her secret." Born to feathers? Perhaps of the Raven?
"The warrior, I see you're suddenly the seer," she said to Ramona, who turned her cards over at once: A girl before a window wearing white in complicated braids with... drops along her collarbone and a man encircled by a halo, his hand raised in lecture or in supplication, "The Innocent and the Priest." Ezmeralda met Ramona's sharp eyes for a long moment, "A woman of auburn hair stalks the eastern woods. Fierce, but loved, she may prove queen yet," the final word carrying in the suddenly quiet gazebo. The statue of the saint overlooking them surrounded by flowers and fruit in offering. "And I see a star of platinum streaked with blood, its light turned to darkness as it hangs in a forsaken chapel. It again may burn brightly."
A breeze came down from off the snowy peaks to the northeast ruffling the edge of the diviner's cloth. Ezmeralda's eyes, a red-tinged brown, looked peered into Ramona's.
She turned to Brigid, a smile twitching at the edge of her mouth. "A fierce warrior with a wildheart," Brigid snapped down the first card, "she seeks a saint who brought a treasure from afar and has forgotten it sits behind the sun." A man in clothes, head balding, carrying a tankard in one hand and the wine barrel in the other. Brigid looked to Ramona whose eyes turned upward, to the Abbey that looked down upon them. Without realizing it, Brigid's hand had shifted to the worn edge of the second card and revealed it. She turned back to Ezmeralda with a start, "The Mercenary," a guard bedecked in three blades on his breastplate, a sword being pulled from over his shoulder, "The man who seeks knowledge in the forbidden palace will bargain generously, though his offers are open to all."
Shiva appeared, hauling her armor behind her and setting it just outside the circle. She reached for a hunk of rye bread and tore from it. Brigid leaned into her, "Draw cards. Two of 'em." Shiva looked at the sturdy woman. Strange place she'd found herself in, that's for sure. With a shrug, she pulled two cards and flipped them before her.
"A slighted sage," Ezmeralda said, eyeing Shiva, who suddenly stopped chewing, "seeking a bounty of knowledge, perhaps you will find it," a hooded woman pilfering a bag of coin from a back pocket, "with the Thief: That which hanged the scoundrel may yet be darkly blessed; or with the," a gaudily dressed man counting coin, perhaps even the same as the back-turned figure, "the Tax Collector: The prohibitive Vistani queen may lower herself to become a noble bride, though to what end?"
They watched the diviner and felt her words. As she looked at the Tax Collector, muscles twitched in her cheek and along her eyes. There are those that turn cards and stare into crystal balls, but then there are those whose power is not in the speaking, but in the being spoken through.
"And of course, the everburning flame, she seeks her path," Urdes, kneeling before the circle patiently revealed her first card, a man screaming as he was reflected in a shattered mirror, "The Broken One reveals an ally who awaits you along Mount Baratok. His mind is fractured but his magic is fiercely strong." Urdes waited, her hand hesitating over the final card. Was there more to the omen? Do my muscles betray me? she though as the quiet moment lingered. As she touched the card, a chill shot along her finger and up her arm. Ezmeralda started, a stone catching in her throat as she looked to the card and then to Urdes: A man, terribly aged in the clothing of a high noble, a headdress of horns and a star sitting upon a thrown. "Darkness swirls beneath us, rising as a flood… Seek the tyrant, for he may be your ally against a greater evil!"
~ ~ ~
A raven circled overhead and a bough snapped from just over the village walls. An old man coughed. A child sang a nonsense song. The water of the pool lapped against the smoothed pebbles of the shore. Seven women sat in a circle surrounding a square cloth on which sat a broken arc of cards. A dozen lay upturned around them. Between them were bits of bread, dried meat, and fruit.
Without looking, Ezmeralda reached into her worn leather bag and pulled a wineskin. She uncorked it and drank from it, passing it first to Zyrella, who drank too, and passed it along. It was nearly empty when it returned.
"I... I apologize. The cards are powerful and they can be draining on me. I, I can do what I can do offer more guidance, but even their meaning can allude me."
"I saw some people, you're called the Vistani?" Brigid asked, Ezmeralda nodded. "Well, if they're with you, you're going to be short a hand or two."
Shiva snorted and coughed. Urdes patted her on the back hard. The others concealed smirks.
"I'm sorry, I don't understand," Ezmeralda replied.
"Below, in the caverns, well," Brigid fumbled, looking in every direction except to Ezmeralda, "there were a few other Vistani. They'd been captured by some fish-people and sacrificed to a shrine down there. We tore the place up, but the men, their hands had been cut off."
"Oh," Ezmeralda looked down. "I see. They know the dangers. I... I do not often walk with Arabelle any longer. Not for some time. i have heard they take the caverns as short cuts. Once my people were safe anywhere we went in Barovia. Now, well, it seems that Strahd's protection is no longer as powerful as it once was. They knew the risks."
"Can you tell me more of this, the Avenger? A winged warrior?" Zyrella asked.
"My apologies. I know the land well," she reached into her back for a scroll case and removed its lid before laying a worn parchment map before them, "but I do not know all its secrets."
"What do you know of the winery to the south?" Danu asked as she recalled the featherfolk the day before.
"The Martikovs. They are good folk. A half day from here by the road. They are the source of the river of wine that flows through Barovia."
Brigid adds, "Wine seems abundant here. I've never known a land so-"
"Grey?" Ezmeralda ventured with a smirk.
"Yes," Brigid added, feeling the tension of her jest fade. "How do they keep the grapes? A particularly hardy stock?"
"The gardens and farms grow hardy vegetables, but you're right. They have a means, a family secret I suppose, for growing their grapes as they do. I'm thankful for it, but perhaps if you were to gain their trust they would tell you. Know that you're likely to sleep beneath the clouds, though. They have a full house."
The ravens' names would be a start, Danu mused.
Urdes reached her hand forward, "You were alarmed at seeing my reading. Why?"
"You have drawn to of the High Court. Powerful cards. Powerful meanings. And the Darklord... That is troubling." She looked long at the cards before Urdes then up to Urdes's lean features. "There's a man, some call him mad and I myself have sought him. He ranges the hills and woods around Mount Baratok. The Hedgemage is powerful and elusive. If you seek him, I trust you will have better fortune than myself."
"What else of this land do you know?" Danu inquired.
"I've lived most of my life here. We Vistani, we have free passage. There's an old story for that, perhaps for another day." She looked between them and then to their cards. "You could travel to the Martikov's vineyard by nightfall. If you plan to head east, then to Vallaki," she gestured to the largest of the bergs on her map, near the center, "where you can find shelter. The protection of the Martikovs includes the Blue Water Inn there. They often have errands and needs to tend to if you have the time. The road between Vallaki and Barovia is steep and winding. Give yourselves most of a day to get there. And," she looked again at the Darklord card staring at her, "you'll be in the shadow of Castle Ravenloft. Strahd's gaze will be ever on you."
Brigid leaned over to Ramona, "You might wanna make amends with the Abbot before we leave. If he's as you and she suggests, he may be able to help us."
Ramona grunted. "I suppose I could." Ramona gestured with her chin to Urdes who continued to ponder her cards. "She seems rather... focused."
"I'll keep an eye on her," Brigid responded as she stood. "You can head to the Abbey."
"I have to go," Danu said, pulling her things into a bundle and tossing them into her pack. "Thank you," she bowed slightly to Ezmeralda, "It is good to have some guidance here in this strange land." Danu had already stepped away, a deep blue rising to her cheeks as she walked toward the front gate.
~ ~ ~
Some minutes later Urdes and Brigid were in the cottage where they'd stayed the night. Urdes had sat for a time in meditation, but had stood with ardent focus. Brigid, seeing the look of a woman with fire beneath her feet, moved to her back and sat plumb on it.
"Move," Urdes stated, a statement more than a command.
Brigid shook her head. "We're together in this. Stronger that way."
"And what of this Broken One on the mountain?"
"What of him? Emerald over there couldn't find her, why do you think you can?"
"I can. I can feel it."
"Yeah, and I can feel your incense on my ass. Doesn't mean I want to burn it."
Urdes tumbled around Brigid and pulled at her bag, but Brigid would not budge. She looked at the bag, then to the door, wondering for a moment if she might go alone. She walked to the door, her bare feet leaving ash on the wooden floor.
Urdes turned to Brigid and raised her hands in fists, save her middle fingers which were lined with fire. Her teeth gritted as she turned for the door, shoved it aside, and began ascending after Ramona and Zyrella who had begun the climb back to the Abbey.
Brigid threw Urdes's pack over her shoulder, smiled her cockeyed smile, and followed Urdes's fleet footsteps.
~ ~ ~
"I've been told that you would use your shield to protect this land," Danu said in Kristianna's shuddered cottage. Danu had woken Kristianna who went for her blade and then stood in her shift. The sliver of light had come in and as Kristianna had walked toward Danu, the scar along her face caught it.
Now they sat at the top of the stairs, the smell of leftover stew having filled the slender house. A goat bleeted outside.
"Aye. I've always been good with a blade and bow. But," she raised her gaze to Danu's, her long gray hair fell along her shoulders, no longer in its tight military braids, "my place is here. It always has been."
"If this place were safe, if you knew your people here were protected, would you walk with us? Would you walk with me?" Danu's hand moved to cover Kristianna's, which was calloused and cold chapped, but warm and strong.
"If I knew Krezk was safe, I would offer my shield and my spear."
A mountain wind blew against the house and it creaked around them.
"Then I will ensure Krezk is safe," Danu said with a certainty that surprised her.
Kristianna moved her hand over Danu's. "The man at the old monastery. He has kept those... those things safe since before I was a girl..."
"The Abbot," Danu said, standing, her hand slipping from between Kristianna's, "he can keep this place safe." Danu stepped down the stairs which whined underfoot and looked back. "My friends and I will speak with him. Many paths lay before us and he seems to be along many of them."
Kristianna nodded, Danu turned and strode away. As the door opened, Kristianna responded, "And I would join you on that path were I to choose."
~ ~ ~
Zyrella shook the iron gates of the Abbey with Ramona and Shiva just behind her.
"Come back for more theatre, have you?" the Abbot said as he walked into view.
"We think you might be able to aid us," Zyrella said.
"I offer abundant aid, but I prefer those with honest tongues," his gaze turned to Ramona, her blue hair flicking in the mountain air like a rough sea.
Zyrella leaned toward her friend, "Ramona, he wants you to apologize."
"For what?!" the halfling retorted.
"You were rather... dramatic on your last visit," the Abbot added.
Ramona turned to the Abbot, the worn iron bars between them. She stared at the tall, handsome man. She thought of the light she had seen shine when she first saw him, just as her prayer faded. This man, this angel, whatever he was, he had something to help her, to help her friends. He was powerful and whatever this thing was, it too would be powerful.
She said between gritted teeth, "I suppose I might have been more forthcoming on my last visit. You didn't know that there is something in your well that is making your water, and hence your tea, all weird and purple."
A swirl of snow fluttered into the air and was carried over the wall of the Abbey which sprinkled down around them. The Abbot lowered his hood and looked between them, his strong and fair features gleamed. Just behind Zyrella and Ramona, Urdes came on her speedy legs.
"I suppose that is the best I might expect," the Abbot said, stepping toward the gate. He turned to Zyrella, "I expect honesty from you and your friends."
The Abbot's hand went to the gate latch and opened it.
"So what might I offer," Brigid and Danu joined them, both huffing from the final leg, "you and your... troupe?"
They walked into the courtyard, led by Zyrella. The chickens pecked at the snow as if it were seed. One of the Belviews wrapped at the window overhead.
"Would you protect the village?" Danu asked between breaths.
"Protect the village? My hands are full with the Belviews as it is. And your friend does not seem to approve of my caretaking, besides."
"So if we got you some help, from the villagers, to help with the Belviews? Would you extend your protection to all of Krezk?" Danu asked, moving toward the great hall. "Sorry, but I could use a seat."
"And a drink," Brigid added.
"Come. We're... friends, after all," the Abbot said as he opened the great hall's doors. Vasilka stood at attention from the table as they entered.
Ramona and Brigid entered and saw above the mantelpiece: A three foot-wide burst pattern in pounded gold in the shape of a rising sun. Even now, with the dim afternoon light of Barovia, it seemed to flicker and shift.
"It sits behind the sun," Brigid said aloud. The Abbot and Urdes turned for a moment to her, but Urdes was quick to speak.
"You've been here for some time, but I'm curious, where is home, Abbot?" Urdes asked, gently guiding him in a narrow circle back toward the door.
"Oh, far from here. A place of light and song. The buildings are tall and beautiful."
"The chickens outside seemed hungry. Might we feed them? You can tell me of home and I could tell you of mine. You are a clearly a learned man and I have a love of theology."
The Abbot turned to Urdes and smiled. "It has been a long time since I've had much in the way of conversation." The Abbot filled a bucket with grain. "I'd like that very much."
Brigid, seeing the distraction, turned to Vasilka. Brigid bowed and extended her hand, "A dance, milady?"
Vasilka's ivory hand reached for Brigid's. Her fingers were chill, but strong, as they took Brigid's. And Brigid, surprising Zyrella, Ramona, and Danu, began to waltz about the room. Overhead strings sang beneath Clovin's dextrous bow.
Danu moved to the mantle where Ramona and Shiva offered footholds and heaved her up. The pounded metal decor was thin, hanging by the wall by a set of nails caught between tendrils of the sun. She poked around it and could see a cubby hidden there.
"Catch," Danu said, shifting the sunrise so that it tumbled into Zyrella's arms below, whose knees buckled as it landed flat on her outstretched arms. In the cubby a shape of hard angles was covered in simple burlap. She pulled away the sackcloth and saw a mace, its head adorned with golden spikes. She took it down and hopped from Ramona's support while Brigid and Vasilka danced.
They examined the weapon for a long moment, the music falling around them as snow. The door squeaked as Urdes and the Abbot returned.
"Ah, it has been good to talk nuance with you. Thank," the Abbot turned, his satisfied smile turning dour. "You come back," he said, moving with alarming speed toward the three, Danu still holding the weighty weapon. The music halted and Brigid took Vasilka into her arms. "You come back and you pilfer from my-"
"Abbot," Ramona said, "is this yours?"
Danu stepped to meet the Abbot, raising her burden to him.
His hand, the muscles rippling and strong, reached for the weapon and grasped it with a familiar certainty. The grip around its base contoured to his hands.
"I... I came here a long time ago. And there were times when I would raise a weapon to defend my home and to protect others." The Abbot raised it from Danu's hands. Ramona considered what a long time might be for a creature like the Abbot. "I saw a path of healing as a path of hope. A long time ago...
"But this place... this place can cloud your thinking. It has clouded mine. I... I can see the mist in my own thoughts, though that does not dismiss it." The Abbot raised the weapon in one hand as it gleamed in gold from the Barovian light. "And that is still my path," he said, setting the mace back on Danu's still uplifted arms. "But perhaps you all may still fight."
The Abbot's clear blue eyes looked to Danu. And all could, for a moment, see the robes and wrinkles fade. Beneath that was a man of alabaster, like a sculpture, young and strong and... eternal, perhaps. When he turned to them, he was still the Abbot.
"Take it. I am not one who swings a hammer except to build a shelter, let alone a weapon such as that." He looked to Danu and said, "Speak with the burgomaster for any who would tend to the Belviews. And," he turned to the others before his gaze fell on Vasilka, "I would make Vasilka a bride to Strahd. An eternal beauty to soothe his soul and weather his storms. A bride requires a dress. Do these things and I will do what I can to protect Krezk as I have protected the Belviews."
And Clovin's music rose again around them.
~ ~ ~
Walking down from the Abbey, Brigid's mind whirred. Even if Vasilka, whose strength and fortitude were clear, were to wear a dress, she would be no bride. She halted as the others walked down the steep path.
"'I do,'" Brigid muttered, "She couldn't say, 'I do.'"
~ ~ ~
Image Credit: Wizards of the Coast, Curse of Strahd