Danu was the first to approach the Giant Elk and being to speak with him. The scene was tense and only through attempts to communicate, displays of magic, and physical prowess where the creature was wrangled to a halt, did he reveal himself as the mage Mordenkainen. In doing so, a red dragon dove from the sky to make off with him! The battle was tense, but once brought to the ground, our Damsels had no trouble with the creature. Zyrella, notably, attempted to speak with the dragon, but he spoke that he served another master. With the killing blow, she expressed her displeasure.
Mordenkainen led the wounded and winded up toward the peak of Mount Baratok, but diverted in the snowy landscape toward a cave opening. With a few gestures and odd materials, a door emerged in shimmering white and blue, within was a mansion where they rested and, after that, trained. Ramona took to the crossbow and with several illustrated guides, took to it with even more gusto than usual and was gifted a simple hand crossbow from Mordenkainen's largess. Shiva dove deep into the library and learned a great many things from the massive tomes and elegant writing, spending hour upon hour reading up on history, religion, and nature, hoping to put more than her brawn to work. Zyrella was eager to enjoy the finer things of Mordenkainen's magical home, slinking off with books of the Feylands and wine. Brigid, continued her weapon mastery in the training hall, staying late with her handaxes in long bouts of throwing, swinging, and climbing. Danu and Mordenkainen took massive bestiaries out of the mansion and began flipping through them, exploring different forms that she might use to gain an edge of the malignant evils of Barovia. Eventually, she settled on some peculiar creature from the land of Chult of Faerûn. After long meditation, Mordenkainen and Urdes spoke as they walked a long hall lined with various treasures from Mordenkainen's travels. Unfortunately, most were facsimiles as originals were claimed by his order of adventurers he'd left behind to pursue the powerful Strahd. Unsure of what to provide the increasingly powerful and patient Urdes, he came to a pair of polished agates, he tapped the two together and a small flame burned within for a long moment. He handed one to Urdes and explained that in a moment of need, he could be reached and even summoned with a particular phrase, which he wrote and secreted to her.
When they left, they were one fewer. Brigid had stepped into the mountainous wastes, clouds overhead. Her bootprints could be seen leading to the northwest, deeper into the mountains and, also, into the thick clouds that exuded a sense of gray fatigue. Once Brigid had forced Urdes to stay with the group, but none were able to keep Brigid when her fury took her. Wherever that might lead...
A Trap Lay Waiting
Upon leaving the Mad Mage, who while intelligent was still troubled, they came upon a small bundle wrapped in the brilliant cloth that they recognized from Berez: The Lysage, the Woman Wrapped in Diamonds. And within... a raven! Clearly dead with its neck neatly snapped! Then the ravens began calling all around them in and around the copses of pine trees! They moved to them, finding more ravens bound in chains or jailed in traps! And a mysterious figure fired at them from the trees, moving with shadow and speed!
Snakes leapt at the ravens and then at the Damsels as they attempted to free them, though they were little match for their swiftness. In one of the copses of trees, thorns sprung out from the pine, trying to slow the movement and lash at faces! But it was Shiva, springing in her suit with her powerful boots from tree to tree landed, rather inverted, toe-to-face with their tormentor! A man of black beard and red garb wearing a badge of the same shimmering fabric, a badge of the Lysaga! The fight continued, but seeing he was bested, the trapper blinked invisible, leaving the combat in eerie silence...
The ravens, in their gratitude, guided the Damsels safely down the mountain. Though they always stayed close in case of other threats.
A Puss in Boots & The Innocent
The hike down from Mount Baratok was easier with the ravens' assistance. One raven cawed just an arrow stuck to a tree before Urdes, who dodged in with an eye towards its source: sturdy green and brown leathers, a longbow, and a distinctly feline face. Urdes gave chase, ready to wrangle the archer. With a rough détente, Moon-on-Horizon, weary from days of overland travel in a strange land, calmed with the company of the Damsels of Distress, and gave guidance on the quickest way to the peculiar, grim little village in the shadow of Castle Ravenloft.
Well-rested, they pushed hard, stopping only at old gallows setup at a crossroads south of the high bridge of the Tser Falls. Something about it garnered Shiva's attention and with some aggressive whittling in the light, pattering rain, it came free. She handed the rough, gallows' wood to Urdes, "Can you work at this for me? There's magic in it." And sure enough, both Shiva and Urdes could see the faint outline of a wand in the wood, reaching upward.
The Blood of the Vine tavern in the Village of Barovia was modest and the party joined and entertained some of the townsfolk therein. They met Burgomeister Ismark and visited with his wife, Minodora, all the while hearing stories of their daughter Isolde who came in hours after the party, hauling a young deer on her shoulders, a pair of arrows still in it. She offered it to the tavernkeeper, who began happily dressing it immediately. Isolde, Ramona could tell, was the well-loved innocent of her card reading!
The party gathered with Ismark's family where they would stay the night, learning that Minodora was displeased by her daughter's many forays into the wilderness, sometimes blaming Ismark that he trained her with weapons at such a young age. However, it was so that Isolde would be prepared, or at least more prepared, than Ismark's adoptive sister Ireena would be, who was slain a generation passed.
Trouble Comes A-Clomping
With some rest the party was awoken, Urdes first among them, but the clomping of hooves outside. Upon investigation, Shiva easily saw the scorched hoofprints leading from the north, south beyond town. Even in the dim light they could see a low, orange-red ember in the distance to the south. Instead, they followed the path north.
Whatever it was, it had come into town on the west side, just within the rough, spiked walls that kept out the wolves, or most of them. It had gone further north, toward a church, within which they could see several lights between tightly pulled windows. They poked around the grounds, felling some dim-witted walking dead, and coming across a bouquet of flowers left for Ireena Kolyana, Ismark's sister and Isolde's aunt, before being encouraged within the church. There they find the militia, huddled with a dwarven cleric with a holy symbol of a scale resting on a warhammer: Tyr. The church itself was clearly setup for the Morning Lord with its sunrise iconography. Vigdor, it seemed, had taken to Barovia as it was want for a priest when he came. Now he blesses the weapons of the militia--his "boys," though the women present don't relish the terminology--who take care of the rabble and beasts that get inside the walls. However, the Devil Strahd rode in on his steed of black hide and fire, and they took shelter within the hallowed walls.
With a moment of conversation, Vigdor blesses the blades of Ramona and of Shiva before they set off again in the night. As they leave, the ember flies overhead directly toward the looming Castle Ravenloft, something in its high, centermost tower glowing in the cloudy night.
No Howling Matter
Isolde had requested that the party aid her in routing a band of werewolves north of Barovia that had set up a den. She could point the way, but it was clear that Minodora was not supposed to be in the know. Instead, the party left for the camp of Vistani to the west, hoping to learn more from the matronly Madam Eva. Upon arrival, the camp was in ruins, the fog coming off of the Tser Pool concealing bodies of Vistani and feral looking humans. In the largest tent, they came upon an exhausted woman, ready to throw spells and curses at them, who was relieved for the aid.
It appeared the wolves had gotten here in the night.
Madam Eva explained that her people had been taken by the werewolves and she had been able to protect herself while others fell around her. Danu in wolf form had not trouble following the smell of old wine and blood to the cliff wall beneath Castle Ravenloft. Moon-on-Horizon had run to recruit Isolde, who was eager to relieve her village of this threat. After dealing with the front guard through subterfuge and quick combat, Moon-on-Horizon summoned a cloud of shadows that softened their light and their footfalls as they entered.
First, a room littered with bones overseen by a man in an alcove above the room who seemed engaged in snoring more than guarding. Circumventing the room as much as possible, an obvious rough alarm system, they came to sleeping wolves, true wolves. With blades drawn, Danu parlayed that they leave. Begrudgingly, the alpha obliged, expressing displeasure than the other guards had so failed their pack. The werewolves had setup in odd, curvilinear architecture, obviously of no humanoid creation as its entrances were large and fluid in design. Moving quietly, they circled one building and came to the holding cells where the Vistani were kept. As Zyrella attempted to break the lock, the werewolves struck!
A dozen werewolves emerged from the nearby building or were engaged within, lashing out with claw and spear and answered with sword, flame, and fang. Isolde led the Vistani to freedom, setting on the guard in vengeful frenzy as he attempted to summon skeletons to his aid. The maws of the wolves bit hard and left an acidic, toxic musk in the air. Urdes, who took the brunt of the attacks, felt the burn of some poison from the werewolves' bite. The Alpha, a dark-skinned man named Emil, emerged from a separate building with a primitive but cruel obsidian blade in hand and more female werewolves.
Ramona, mustering all her intense intimidation, drew one of the female werewolves away who led her toward a shrine in the north of the village. A shrine of some serpentine, icthyoid creature. "The snake-thing," she whispered, allowing the werewolf to escape. Meanwhile Urdes approached the somewhat cowed Emil, but it was not long before Zyrella's flame wall encircled Emil and his consorts. In the flaming fray, Urdes was bitten by the powerful Emil and another fled to another building in the village where a dark-skinned woman patiently lay a healing hand on one of the consorts, though it did not keep her from her demise in the melée, which in flame and staff, ended Emil as well. When Urdes entered, though the woman, with maternal grace, said that Urdes may come to great power if she chose to. She then strode from the building into the depths of the caverns. Shiva leaned down to pick up Emil's peculiar blade of black glass lashed to a central wooden paddle.
Finally, the nursery of young werewolves stirred, their elderly caretaker trying to protect the cubs (in human forms) from adventurers. With some stirring, half of the dozen walked behind the elderly werewolf woman, who was then attacked by Urdes, who was eager to protect them all. As the caretaker fell, the adventurers made off with six cubs, children, volunteering to return to the villages of home.