Cast of Characters Brigid the Badass Barbarian by Heather Thornton (absent for E08) 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 Flamehearted Monk by Jenna Ashler (absent for E09) And Shiva Stoneheart, the Iron Gnome by Brooke Santos (absent)
~ ~ ~
Cold, alpine air swept in over the trellised hills, rustling the leaves of the vines. Three large, insect-like corpses lay in pieces around the upended campfire between the Schoolhouse and the Winery House of the Wizard of the Wines. Urdes and Danu rummaged about getting out glands from the creatures while Stefania and Dag tried to harangue he children back toward bed. A band of watchers came in from their hidden tower in the woods to search for trails and check for a second group of attackers; Brigid joined them quickly spotting an already collapsed tunnel with its mound of fresh dirt while Zyrella and Ramona spied the other, the entrance leading below with a musky air scent rising from them.
"You want to go in?" Zyrella asked.
"Do you?" Ramona retorted. Behind them Urdes pulled something winding and soft out of one of the carcasses with a squelch.
"Not without her," Zyrella hinted with her chin toward Brigid who stood shoulders above the guards she was accompanying in the patrol of the land. "Mind if I," Zyrella flicked her fingers down the tunnel, a small wave of flame cresting off of her nail, refracted in her fine, subdermal scales.
"Go right ahead."
Zyrella reared her arm back as if to throw a ball across a field, aimed, and loosed a missile of fire down the tunnel. The dirt gave way to stone after twenty feet and the red glow revealed the opening of the caverns below before crashing into the wall sending cobbles tumbling below.
"I think more of that, yes," Ramona added, as Zyrella fired two, three, a dozen more flames below, her arms pinwheeling like a dancer and her cloak and hair rising up in a tumult behind her.
Urdes and Danu approached, their unshod feet soundless on the damp, uneven grasses. Ramona turned to them with a smile that only halflings can manage as the blasts continued to light and recede down the tunnel. Urdes nodded back, her lips curling as if saying, A good time, I see.
"I've got a project in the Schoolhouse. Hoping to keep them safe if you need me," Urdes explained as the final stretch of earth and stone fell into place with a low thahrumff below. Zyrella turned, her eyes still glowing with firelight and thin rivulets of sweat ran along her forehead like small rubies as she caught her breath.
"We'll see what else we can poke around and figure out. Maybe they'll be more talkative now that we've killed some bugs," Ramona added, spotting Dag and a few of the others milling about the House, stumbling as if having woken from bad dreams.
"That felt good," Zyrella said, wearing the first smile the others had seen on her since the night before their departure from Chrom.
~ ~ ~
"We teach the kids crafts here, let them dabble and learn. There are needs for handicrafts like basket-weaving and leatherworking, as well as glassblowing in the House," Stefania explained to Urdes from within the large, main floor room of the School. As well as the open kitchen, a half dozen other work stations lined the walls and the center floor included neat piles of reading primers, slates, and worn chalk.
Urdes approached the worn work table with high, curled edges that jutted out in the shapes of ravens' beaks. Between the beaks were suspended bundles of herbs and flowers. Her hands, strong and lean but faintly lined, ran over the plants and she leaned in to smell a bundle of flowers she gentled toward her: it hinted of lemon.
"These'll do. Put water on to boil for me. As well as any hard alcohol you might have, bring it," Urdes stated to Stefania, who was surprised to find she was already moving as commanded. At first, Urdes moved slowly, meditatively between the bundles, her hands calm as they shucked flower petals into a mortar, others she smudged with her innate flame before dowsing in a few drops of water. And then her gestures accelerated, her moves more confident. She plucked three vials from below the workstation where they hung to dry and cut into one of the strange organs from the creature outside and squeezed something from it, its smell robust and sulfurous.
Four of the children had settled on to the quietly creaking stairs leading up to the bedrooms, watching Urdes move with growing speed and certainty. The candlelight gave her arms a dream-like blur as if the air and herself were one and the same. Stefania, in a moment, dashed about as an aid and then suddenly was still as Urdes's movement moved even faster, creating a bewildering whir of activity. Just so, the wind of the sealed room rustled around her like a storm, but from where?
And so she worked.
~ ~ ~
"Dag, do you know anything of why my friends and I are here?" Zyrella asked as she poked at the glass furnace in the corner of the narrow shop attached to the House. Ramona had helped herself to a glass of wine from one of the many abandoned bottles nearby while several freshly made bottles hung along wooden pegs. She peered into them as each swirled faintly with its own imperfections.
"Can't say I do, Miss" Dag swept ash from around the furnace and out toward the door. Stairs lead below to the cellar, its chilliness felt even in this place of flame. "We get travelers and we try to keep safe. I have plenty to keep busy with here," said by a man clearly trying to make work for himself.
"Tell him about Ezmeralda and the cards," Ramona hinted.
"Aw, what did Miss d'Avenir tell you? We don't partake in the divination here, but I know she's a strong, sharp woman."
"She said, 'She seeks the Conjurer. Find the nurturing seed and those who serve the Twilit realm will offer their mischievous aid in exchange-"
And below came a cacophonous belch and the grinding of a spinning bottle.
The three looked to each other as Danu stepped in.
"That wouldn't have been you, by chance?" Dag asked of Danu.
"Not a chance," Ramona said, as Zyrella turned and descended the steps, her hand dancing with flame. The cellar's floor was obscured by thick, chill fog that churned about and as she turned the corner, Zyrella could see that it was a long, two-lobed earthen room, each room with a center shelf of wine bottles as well as at least a dozen wine barrels. A spinning bottle ground to a stop in the mist, its mouth pointing toward the shelf; a rust brown suit could be seen in the gaps of a figure half the size of Ramona.
"Show yourself," Zyrella said, as Ramona and Danu descended after her.
"I mean no 'arm, lass, just came down to wet me whistle," said the little man in a lilting, sing-song accent as he turned about. While small, he sported an impeccable, even scholastic jacket and on his head sat a green derby hat of green moss. A pipe stuck out from his jacket pocket. "Dee name is Wee Johnson McCullough. Wouldn't be from the Moonshae Isles, would ye?"
"No, we came most recently from Chrom."
"Orrera, ey? Traveled a bit have ye? Well then come in and join me for a drink! Your friends could come and sit wid us too if they like," he said raising an open bottle of wine and swirling it about. They came in and sat around, clearing away the several empty bottles on the earthen floor. Overhead they could hear the creaks of wooden planks.
"Do you plan to reimburse our hosts for their wine?" Zyrella asked.
"Oh! Well, I don't have much in the way of coin, ye see."
"Perhaps you could work for them," Danu suggested.
"Not much of a tradesman meself."
"What are you good at?" Ramona prodded, obviously losing patience already.
"I suppose I'm a bit of an entertainer. Would you like tah hear me sing?" The three nodded to each other and then to him. He cleared his throat, stretched his arms up and arcing his back looking all the world like a tabby cat in the process.
And he sang. He sang of vast green hills, of cheery summer clouds, of the church bell ringing over yon and the lasses dancing in the street to a fiddle player. Wee Johnson sang of the pixie wilds where wee folk made wine in flower blossoms and rode dandelions through the air. He sang of the great Seelie Court of the Fey and the beautiful courtesans and royalty, of a young man who had lost his love at sea and gone to them to seek her in their depths and how they gave him three draughts, one for him to dive, one for her to rise, and one for him to drink afore coming ashore. But when she came to land she drank his by mistake, leaving him stranded in the brine. Now she goes to the sea every morn and night to see her love again.
And when his song had ended, he turned his hat over to them for gratuity. Zyrella flipped in a shiny gold coin, then Danu, and finally Ramona, who lingered holding her coin for a spell before tossing it in. Wee Johnson walked toward the steps with a spring.
"Good sir and host, I understand I owe you for me stay and your generosity!" He hollered up and tossed the coins upward. The broom clattered on the wood as Dag fumbled to catch the coins.
"That'll do alright, I think," Dag said. "And your friend Urdes is done in the School," Dag added as Urdes stepped down the stairs.
"Oh, Miss, you have missed my song. Goodee that we have wine still," Wee Johnson said, pouring Urdes a glass from a bottle he plucked from the shelf.
"Quite generous, it seems," Urdes said, carrying a vial of still robust smelling potion. A single yellow flower with a black streak was suspended in the bottle. "I've made up a repellant for them. They should be able to make more. Help keep those bugs away. And some for us if we need it."
"Remind me not to let your friend here provide the drink," Wee Johnson added as they rejoined the others.
"You sang of the Seelie Court," Zyrella said, "do you know of them?"
"Aye, aye. That's how I ended up here, you might say."
"I seek them here, in this dreary place. Could you say how you came here?"
"Of course, Lass! I was out on ole Fiddler's Green as it were and minded me own business when I saw a woman, oh! what a beauty! And no offense to you and your friends," Wee Johnson turned to Danu as if only just seeing her, "who are all very fine upon the eyes"-Urdes scoffed-"but even through the fog afar she shone like a light upon a lake. Bright and silvery and--"
"Hey!" Danu shouted as she shoved Wee Johnson away, who had come close and set his small hand on her head with a small pair of fine shears. "You were trying to steal my hair!"
"Oh! My infinite apologies, darling! It is so silvery and fine! Not seen the like commonly! I dinn't mean no harm by it!" Wee Johnson flushed and Ramona stood, her rapier singing as she began to pull it from its sheathe. "No, no business like that!" Wee Johnson hopped away. "I'll keep me hands where ye can see them like a good churchboy I will."
"Where were you getting at?" Zyrella said, the charm of his song long since faded.
"Oh yes! Well I learned her name was Elsinore from her entourage. A great many folk and carriages followed her and she got into one but her beauty and light still shone through. So I followed, dazed as I was, and we traveled into a mist unlike any I'd seen in the lands about Fiddler's Green. And then my feet started hurting and I realized we'd been traveling for some time and were well and out of the Feywilds. Having walked like that me nose picked up the smell of wine and I traveled the southern road here. Thought I might make my stay for a bit."
[GM's Note: The timeline between the arrival and Wee Johnson's consumption of the wine doesn't quite make sense, I know.]
"Do you know more?" Ramona asked, twiddling with the crystal on the hilt of her blade.
"The others took the road east, so no, my apologies. I was quite thirsty."
"I think we should keep him for Brigid," Zyrella whispered to Ramona. "She likes 'em small."
"He touches my hair again I'll drown him," Danu's hair danced about as she said it.
"He touches me at all I'll stab him," Ramona added.
"Sounds like a deal," Zyrella said.
"What sounds like a deal?" Wee Johnson asked, finishing his glass.
~ ~ ~
They set off with Stefania coaching a pair of mares pulling the cart toward Vallaki late that morning. Brigid, having patrolled through the morning, slept in the back with barrels of wine while Wee Johnson was inside the topmost, empty barrel. The others marched ahead and to the sides, wary of dangers. Danu, as a large wolf, sniffed the air for unseen enemies.
The road branched several times, the road deterioriating to trail within a short stretch from the Old Svalich Road. It was well into afternoon when Danu smelled a bit of copper and oil in the air. She turned and spotted a small cloth bundle near the road, partially swallowed in mud. She nudged it with her nose and Ramona approached it to see something inside the bundle start back at Danu's snout. Ramona pulled her sword and poked, and it started again. She lifted the cloth, Danu ready to strike, to reveal a small metallic spider within. Curious, Ramona lifted it to her and saw several small toggles along its side which, when touched, inspired the automaton to move suddenly, if briefly.
Though Ramona did not have much time to tinker as Danu growled and looked down the road: Two acrobats dressed in yellow and green harlequin outfits tumbled about the road ahead of a brightly colored carriage. Ramona held her hand out to Stefania, who halted the cart at some distance, while Zyrella and Urdes approached.
"Well met, friends!" Said one of the two tumblers who stopped long enough to make it clear that they were elves. "I am Tumble and that is my twin Weed. We travel to Krezk to offer our entertainment to that village. Have you heard tell of the Cirque des Étoiles in Vallaki?"
"Friend elf," Zyrella responded as Ramona took up next to her, "we have not. Are you wary of dangers along the road?"
"No, no. We are bring fortune and have had no trouble on the road.
Ramona lowered her eyes and whispered a prayer to herself and she felt an air of truth radiate out from her. Tumble looked to her, scowling, as Weed approached with a tumble and smiled. "We ourselves can be troublesome when need be!" with which Weed began juggling a trio of keen knives overhead. Tumble turned with a shock to Weed, his scowl deepening.
Meanwhile, Urdes and Danu moved toward the carriage from the wood's edge. It was green and purple with bright accents of yellow. Gaudy, but well-made with carvings of vine and blossom. They moved toward the carriage's door and over their shoulders they could hear the others.
"I have the high card, harlequin," Ramona said with a smirk. "Now, who travels with you?" Ramona asked, seeing her prayer's purchase on Weed.
Weed, still juggling his knives, said, "That would be Elsinore the Springborne, who serves the Queen Sarastra."
And as if in introduction, the door to the carriage opened. As if with a blinding flash of light, Danu and Urdes were blinded.
A voice like a summery breeze, like water over stone asked of the monk and wolf, "Who comes to my door on the road?"
"Um, pardon, milady," Urdes stuttered, "we were curious of the carriage."
Danu whimpered, but she was away. No longer in Barovia. She was swept up in that voice like water. She followed that sound of water back, back through time when her mentor of the green was teaching her.
Don't will yourself to change, he had said in his voice like earth. Do not make yourself something else. Be it. Feel how it feels, see how it sees. The river flowed gently into the ocean, the fresh and salt swirling about in nearly invisible curlicues. A hawk peered from a tree overhead, a fieldmouse dove through the tall grass, a turtle dawdled on a log, a snake slithered along the water's edge, fish darted just beneath the surface. Danu felt the water flow like her own blood and the wind shifted, carrying the smell of a thousand creatures, large and small. The sun almost blinded her as it shifted along the water. She stepped into the water, feeling it carry her, her fingers spread wide and it tickled at her. Her hand brushed a stone.
Then she was in the water, floating, being carried by it all around her. In her paw she held the stone and the light was in her eyes like fireworks. She twirled as a current caught her, so much smaller than she had been. And then she felt another furry hand reach out for her and hold her, preventing her from getting lost in the flow. She felt his voice in that paw. It would take you from yourself. Just as you must feel it, feel yourself. By doing both you will know the wild shape. Hold both in your mind just so.
The two otters held hands as the unquiet current shifted them about. And they were like that for long minutes before swimming back to the water's edge.
The sound of Tumble slapping Weed with an open hand brought Danu back. Tumble hissed, "Why would you just tell them that?" All the while, Weed continued to juggle and step about.
"Well, they asked, didn't they?"
Ramona and Zyrella left the bickering twins, seeing their friends wavering, Urdes's hands out, fingers splayed, as if trying to take in as much in as she could. And as they approached, a woman in long white dress, wide sleeves hanging like wings, stepped from the carriage. Long black hair lay over her shoulders in a perfect fall that reached near to her calves. She turned to see the others as she set a hand on Danu, petting her lupine form.
"Good girl, I see."
"Hey there," Ramona called out, crossing her fingers for good fortune, "those are ours."
"They are? They're both rather handsome." Urdes reddened as she tried to track Elsinore's voice.
As Elsinore turned, Zyrella could see her in full: not tall, but grand; not brawny, but strong; not simply fair, but like a dream to look upon. Elsinore's eyes were unusually large and seemed to dance with light and her hair and clothes had a suggestive energy, as if flowing from within. She was Fey, through and through, and strong. Zyrella put a hand on Ramona's shoulder and squeezed. This was a time for caution.
"Yeah, and who are you? Why are you on the road?" Ramona's arch tone carried confidence that took the others, including Elsinore, by surprise.
"I am the Springborn who serves her Queen," the right edge of Elsinore's lip tightened for just a moment. Zyrella could see the anger burning there. "We go to Krezk to meet with the burgomaster."
"I thought I might bring the Cirque des Étoiles to them. This place was nigh joyless when we arrived."
"Not myself, but the Cirque, yes."
Danu approached, her nose twitching with the lingering smell of water and life, a green that would grow forever in the strange seasons of the Feywilds. And now Zyrella could sense it to, those rolling hills Wee Johnson sang of. It had taken her several years to become used to how quickly the plants grew and flowered and died when she came to the human kingdoms. Zyrella, with a hint of pity, looked to Danu, who could not know that the magic of the Feywilds was not the same as the life that grew from soil and sunlight, that eventually, in that place, Danu would become a beast or a servant and forget what it was to be a protector of the wilds.
"Do you know the way home?" Zyrella asked, her words plaintive and pained.
"Oh," Elsinore said, stepping to the white horses of her carriage and patting one to move ahead. The coach obliged with a light gesture. "That is the plan, my dear." Elsinore looked to Zyrella, whose beauty, while significant, had become damp and sodden in this place; she looked, next to Elsinore, like a child playing at being a woman, silly and pitiable. "That is the plan." She said as she followed after her gradually moving carriage.
In high elvish, Zyrella asked, "Would I join you?"
Danu, still following, suddenly an obedient hound.
"You would, though not today."
"And my friends?"
Elsinore, deigning her hand to pet Danu, who gave a satisfying hind quarters waggle, "They might walk beside the carriage. You and I, well, we do not walk." She said, stepping gingerly onto the platform before the door.
"Adieux, travelers," she said, returning to the common tongue, "It was not quite a pleasure. The next will likely be more entertaining."
They watched as the colorful carriage continued westward past a befuddled Stefania. As the carriage disappeared behind a bend of trees, something shifted in the cart as a great belch sounded.
"What'd I miss?" Brigid said, sitting up and sleepily scratching at her braid.
Inside the tall wooden walls of Vallaki, Old Svalich Road became a market street of stalls. Zyrella approached a basketweaver who spoke effusively of the Cirque des Étoiles that had come to town weeks before. The old Burgomaster Vallakovich has taken a holiday from his neverending barrage of festivals and the basketweaver had every intention of bringing her children and husband to the big show in three days. Smaller acts did happen in the meantime, but they were more expensive to bring the kids, too, so she saved for the weekend events. With her thanks, Zyrella returned to the others as they strolled through town toward the Blue Water Inn.
The houses looked recently repainted in bright colors, but as Shiva approached, she could see that much of it was already peeling from the walls. Ramona was approached by a young boy brandishing a carved stick as a sword, eager for a duel. She was saved by a girl dashing about and rolling on the ground as if she were some sort of acrobat. Danu, back in her humanoid form, noted the stylized waterfall sign hanging from the Blue Water Inn.
Urwin and Danika, a sturdy but aged couple, came out and embraced Stefania. Urwin was thin after what seemed a life of sturdy and hardy work; his shoulders still broad but his eyes low as if sleepless. Danika, a few years younger, moved with confidence grace and the fortitude of a younger woman. Her hair, black with a streak of gray, was in a high, tight bun that spilled down, which seemed to complement Urwin's gray beard with a few bolts of black. As they brought the cart around the side and emptied it into the kitchen, their son Brom in his late twenties helped and watched with kind eyes on his wife, Zondra, who appeared expectant.
Ramona, her hair having been dyed back at the Vineyard a hue matching the Greenfeather charms, asked of Urwin, "Stefania, she gave me this. She said you might help us."
"Ah, I will, I will, but there is too much to do yet. Supper first, then afterward." And so they busied themselves as diners came into the tavern from their day's work. Stairs led to a balcony and several doors overhead while an opposite balcony led to a door to the outside; the guest quarters, able to avoid the business of the tavern when need be and head straight to the private rooms. For their trouble, they could use the shared room offering eight beds.
Enjoying a meal to themselves, Zyrella noticed a figure wearing a long cloak of midnight blue with finely sewn constellations along its hem. High elvish ears escaped the hood and Zyrella took that as suggestion enough.
"Good evening, friend," she said in elvish, seeing a fine featured, fair-skinned elf opposite her.
"You don't look familiar. Have you come to see the cirque?" they spoke quietly, even hushed, but not as a whisper. They spoke confidently and clearly. Zyrella noticed the untouched wine glass.
"Not exactly, but I believe it is part of our visit. What do you think of the local wine?"
"Hmm... I tend to bring my own," they said, pouring the glass into a passing empty soup bowl. They fished from the folds of their cloak a golden-hued bottle. A brightly colored label read, "Siren's Elfen Mead," with a moonlit image of the elf before her. Filling it, she slid the glass to Zyrella. "I'm Cyrene."
"Zyrella," she responded, raising the glass in toast. It was a light, effervescent mead and, upon even the first step, she could feel a tingling in her toes. And Zyrella watched as two patrons approached Cyrene with empty glasses.
"Not selling, friends. You'll have to go to the show. You know that." They walked away, downtrodden. "You'll find Jiminy's Whiskey there, too, if that fancies you." She added, reaching for the single glass between them. Slipping back into elvish, "It is good to drink with a fellow elf now and again. So much less bother."
Opposite them, Brigid and Wee Johnson sat at the bar drinking from the Grapemash No 3 from the two biggest glasses in the house. Wee Johnson climbed up on Brigid's shoulder, who had been told to be wary of his clippers, and following a whisper the two began to sing:
Way down in Tipperary Where cow plop is thick Where women are young and lads all come quick There lived pretty Charlotte, the girl we adore The pride of dear Éirinn, the scarlet-haired whore It's Charlotte the harlot, the girl we adore The pride of dear Éirinn, the scarlet-haired whore
As they circled round and began to sing it again, many of the men joined in and a few shifted tables about to make space for dancing. A boy was swept into his mother's grasp as she covered his ears from the bawdy tune. There was a stamping of feet as more joined in and then an unpracticed hand began strumming along another tune.
Two boys and a girl ran about, the boys jumping from table to table. From a pocket fell a wooden figure that rolled once it fell. Ramona picked it up and saw that, while mostly wooden, subtle springs and joint work made it tumble. On its calf read, Is No Fun, Is No Blinsky!, finely etched into the wood.
"Toy maker in town," the boy's father explained adding the street name, his hand open for the toy's return. "All the kids love the Cirque and he has been making toys like the performers. There's a woman there, bright eyes and nimble as can be. The boys adore her." Just as he said this he turned just in time to catch one of the boys about to crash into a table full of wine glasses. He scolded the boy and took him by the arm to the table with their mother with they all sat.
Dishes cleared and cups of wine set out, Ramona pulled Urwin aside, "Now, tell me what you know." She gestured to a table with Urdes, Shiva, and Danu.
"As promised, as promised." Urwin sat, Danika kept an eye to the table as she ran about with Brom, who was predominantly serving from the bar. Three others joined them, all wearing the black traveling cloaks with black feather fringe. "So you leant a hand with the Greenfeathers. Good. We stick to Vallaki and Barovia ourselves. Try to offer safe roost and keep an on things as best we can."
"I saw Stefania do... something. She wrote something down and, after a while, burn it. I tried to look at what she wrote, but she wouldn't let me."
"Sounds like business with Stefania, not with me. That doesn't sound like my sister though. Sounds strange." He coughed abruptly, his form shaking with the force before taking a drink.
"Ezmeralda, she told us of a 'house of a winged warrior.' Know anything about that?"
"Hmm... I suppose I do. After the Devil Strahd fell, the others, they rented a carriage from Arasek's Stockyard, where you'll find the Cirque today, and then went along the old road. A light shone there for weeks. I went with the hunters Szoldar and Yevgeni to the old keep there. Argynvost, a knight took up arms there, trained others, they fought Strahd. And lost. They had a dragon motif, but this is ancient history now. When the light faded, my father, Davian, he'd passed. Relief, I think. He thought we'd be safe. Finally."
"And are you?" Urdes asked.
"For the most part, yes. This is the most peaceful we've been. I know wolves attack the vineyard from time to time and we have... scuffles, but there is a minimum of raised feathers most of the time."
"Have you heard of a girl, Isolde, of Barovia?"
"Heard of her? She's all my boy Bray will talk about. He's there now, or halfway between, doing his best to woo her. A businessman he is, trying to make enough money to buy title. Well on his way, too. The Burgomaster's daughter with red hair like her aunt had. I hear she is a spark of girl. Sharp and tough, her father taught her the blade and bow."
Danu asked, "I was told to seek a 'woman born to feathers who flies with bats.' Do you know anything about that?"
The three raven-cloaked figures, a man and two women, started up, one bumping the table hard. They stepped outside quickly.
"Can't say that I do. Sorry to say."
"Will you excuse us?" Ramona said, already rising and walking after Danu who was quick to follow. Urdes gestured to the others who were just somewhat behind.
Outside Ramona said, "Danu turned into a cat. That little smokey one," she pointed to the cat as it circled the building. "Trying to trail them subtly, I guess."
Danu in her feline form stuck to the wall, the lighted windows casting shadows into the yard. Around the back was an attached barn. They'd guided the cart and brown-freckled horses inside prior but hadn't paid it much mind. The doors were chained and padlocked, but she slipped in without issue.
Two oil lamps cast dim light through the barn and while the lower floor was clear, save the cart and resting horses, the loft was bedecked with over a dozen ravens. And as she watched, she noted three massive human-sized ravens settling in. She could see that the whole loft seemed set aside for these ravens to rest, though these large ones were strange indeed!
Outside Brigid, a little playacting and a little drunk, shook at the door. "Hey! Hey, I wanna see the horsies! Go for a ride." Danu turned to see the stout woman give her a surprisingly subtle wink. "Hey there kitty, can you let me in?" Brigid crooned, leaning down.
Danu hissed, making herself as large as she could.
"Whoa! Fierce little kitty. You protect the horsies and whatever else you got in there." And she turned, beginning to sing again as she ducked around the side.
"Whatever's in there, they're going to think Danu is their friend now," she whispered to the others. "Now watch this!" she exclaimed as quietly as she could. Brigid sat on the ground, her legs bent below her, and began a deep hum. After a moment, her eyes opened now the even dark brown of her ursine totem.
"Ohrrah, it is featherfriend Danu!" one cawed at the other two.
"Got smaller, she did."
"And furrier," said a third
"Still the same," said the first.
"Was that Big Meat friend outside?!" Ohrrah cawed.
Brigid sniggered on the other side, "Oh yeah, Big Meat Brigid."
"Yes, that was Brigid who hunts well. Now," Danu's voice a soothing mew, "what do you all do here?"
"Safe roosting here. Good people. Featherfriends like Danu."
A chorus of agreeable caws from within rang out. Brigid whispered to the others as she interpreted the beast speech.
"Did you know she could do that?" Urdes whispered to Ramona.
"News to me," she replied, shrugging.
"My friends and I we, may go to the south. Are there dangers?"
"Yes," Criick cawed, "the Lysaga is there. Captures wingfolk!"
"Lysaga! Lysaga!" came the cawing chorus.
"What is this Lysaga?"
"Big danger! Takes wingfolk, puts us in cages! Cages!" As the chorus echoed. "She is all bound in rags and glows. She was gone long time but is back now. She's big danger to wingfolk."
"Do you all know your queen, the Raven Queen?"
"Yes, yes," the one called Ohrrah responded. "We serve her."
"When one dies, we carry the soul to safety for the Raven Queen. Some have been caught by the Lysaga while carrying the soul. Very bad. Very bad for the soul. Bad for us."
"Is your Raven Queen amongst you?"
They looked to each other. "Raven Queen speaks in the feather-tongue, but we do not see her. She oversees the living and the dying. The Lysaga breaks the dying. She breaks the living."
"Thank you, feather friends."
~ ~ ~
"I guess I'm not the only one seeing things these days," Ramona said after the complete update. "I'm curious about the toymaker."
"You're curious about a lot of things," Urdes added.
"And the keep to the south," Ramona added, ignoring Urdes.
Eight boisterous men and women danced out of the Blue Water Inn and up the street, singing bawdy songs out of tune and climbing on planters and roof beams. One tumbled about as the children had while two others raised beams like sword and staff, sparring back and forth.
"The girl Isolde and the mage are to the east. As well as the castle," Danu added.
Ramona, determined, set out toward where the father had said the toymaker shop was. Night had set it and many of the shutters were barred, lights burning low or out. The amateur performers clanged and guffawed in the night.
"The big performance of the Cirque is in three days," Zyrella wistfully added, thinking of Elsinore and of Cyrene's mead.
"We could go and come back."
One partier climbed to the second story of a house and leapt down on another, the two crashing with a sharp clatter into a garden pot. At that, a man, at least Brigid's size but grotesquely uneven, came into view. He was followed by two guards, one wielding a torch and the other with a tall pike. A large ax was slung on his back while he hefted a massive hammer.
The adventurers stopped as he pounded the mallet onto the cobblestone street with a low thud. "By the order of the Burgomaster, you will maintain the peace and tranquility of Vallaki," he hollered at the partiers who were approaching with wooden swords and ambling dances. They approached him unaware and the staff-wielder was suddenly struck in his chest by the mallet, knocking him back several feet and onto the ground. "I am Izek Strazni, the constable of Vallaki and you will maintain the peace."
Ramona and Brigid reached for their weapons as they watched. The partiers dropped their items and helped their friend scurry away from the scene, murmured apologies chasing after them.
"What was all that about, buddy," Brigid said, stepping forward.
"Are you with those roustabouts?" He said setting his hammer's head to the ground.
"What if I am?" Brigid retorted.
A grim smile curled his lips and the torchlight shone on him now as the guards turned to circle them. His right arm hung a foot lower than the left ending in four, sharp digits and was a meaty red. His shoulders and neck were overgrown and muscular as if the fiendish arm seemed to worm its way further into his body. "That would be bad for you."
Brigid, surprising no one, swung hard in to Izek's face, which hit firmly, but might as well have been a glance. His red right hand clenched and smoked as he raised and punched Brigid in the gut and the smell of burning flesh hit the air.
"Your friend," the torchbearer said to Ramona, "she should step down. He means to keep the peace."
The two hulks stared at each other, each eager for more violence.
Danu stepped up, "Friend, I believe the constable was only trying to maintain quiet. Many of the villagers are sleeping." Danu set a hand on Brigid's shoulder, which pulsed and bristled.
Then a screamed called out. A woman. And they ran to her.
They'd get their violence after all.
Zyrella got to the alleyway first. A gaunt, pallid figure leaned over a prone woman, blood on the ground and wall caught the glimmer of moonlight. The darkness felt thick with other dangers.
"Get away from her, you bitch," She said as she raised her hand and sent three beams of red and orange flame at the creature. It tumbled into one, turning to her, while the others blasted the walls and revealed two more figures suspended on the walls ready to feed. They're small black dead eyes staring at her as their mouths opened to an impossible angle, massive tongues lolling out and coming to a point.
Brigid turned the corner and rushed at them. She raised her handaxes and leapt from the left wall to the opposite and landed a blow against the reeking creature. While she landed a blow, it wedged between two ribs and spun out of her hand! "No!" she shouted as it turned from her.
Two others leapt down at her, the first landed a terrible bite on her shoulder sending a spasm of cold down her back that solidified and froze her in place. The second bounded down and bit deep. Big Meat Brigid, she thought to herself as she grit her teeth. Sounds about right.
Others ran along the roof top at full tilt and Ramona aimed and fired, but the shot went wide as another prepared to leap down on Zyrella!
Danu shouted the ancient language of the storm, calling on it to aid them, as an orb of cloud formed overhead and a massive lightning bolt sundered the sky and the monster whose teeth were still in Brigid's shoulder! It leapt to the second as their elongated skeletons revealed themselves in a flash before crumbling to ash!
Zyrella, spying the two still near the victim's prone body, summoned twin orbs of roiling flame and launched them. An orb shattered like glass just inches in front of the one with Brigid's axe in its side, but the other plunged into the torso of the creature before bursting from within, sending viscera and primal fire into the alley!
Brigid fought her own frozen muscles, seeing her attackers dispatched did not give her the strength she needed as her muscles felt leaden within her. The creature with Brigid's ax lodged in between its ribs saw the meal offered by Brigid and charged. As it approached, Brigid sighed, ready for another toothy bite when something... something changed. The rank smell of the creature was nothing compared to the ladylike business that repelled its bite.
From the rooftop, one dove down onto Danu, swiping at her face and breaking her focus on the storm that broke into wisps. The other landed hard on Ramona's shield before being shoved off of her. Ramona took the lower angle to slash an "R" across the figure's torso before spinning and lopping off the monstrosity's head!
Zyrella shot a bolt of fire at the wounded monster near Brigid who stood, spun her axe in her hand, and added, "I'm going to need that back," as she wrenched it from the creature's side while plunging her own into its head. Then, for good measure, she hacked down at the creature which spurted and kicked under her. "No one takes my axes! Not here, not anywhere!"
"I think she's got this," Urdes said as Brigid hollered and spat and swung.
Danu moved past, sticking tightly to the wall, as she closed on the victim. While bloodied and gravely wounded, she lay her hands on the form and felt the bleeding stop and her breathing steady. "Good, good."
"The priest at St. Andral's can look after her," Izek said, finally making it to the scene. "These things, ghasts, they get in once in a while."
"Good that we were here, then," Ramona retorted.
"Or your presence has encouraged them," he said with a cruel smile. "Now try not to cause too much trouble out there," he added before continuing his patrol.
"Seems nice," Urdes and Danu said in unison as Brigid hacked one last time into the viscera that briefly taken her axe.
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Image Credit: Wizards of the Coast, Curse of Strahd