Field Journal of Scarlet Hughes: A Long Night

Disclaimer: The following narrative depicts events, characters and locations that feature in the 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons campaign Curse of Strahd. I do not own the rights to Curse of Strahd or Dungeons & Dragons, which are the property of © Wizards of the Coast 2016. Despite references to this material, the focus of the narrative is the development of Scarlet Hughes;  a character of my own design. At best this can be considered fan-fiction. Curse of Strahd has provided my friends and I with hours of fun with plenty more to come. Please support the official release.

Day One in Barovia - Part 3

‘If Strahd is after you then we need to get you into the basement,’ I said to Ireena. She nodded faintly with her jaw clenched. ‘In fact we should really get all of you into the basement. This place looks like it can barely stand.’

‘Stahd is a vampire, so to speak?’ asked Enib as she massaged the wound out of Asher’s chest.

‘So to speak,’ replied Ireena. ‘But he is much more than that.’

‘We’ll he seems susceptible to vampiric weaknesses, or at least one of them.’ Enib pointed at the doors. ‘If he is so strong I very much doubt he would be kept at bay by a simple barricade such as that. But if he is affected by conventional restraints, even to a degree, that gives us a starting point for how we might survive the night.’

Ismark’s expression came the closest to hopeful I’d seen since I met him, which is to say he looked only moderately depressed. ‘What do you propose we do?’

‘Firstly, Scarlet is right; we need to get you all into the basement. Especially you Ireena.’

‘We who can fight can stay up here,’ said Asher brightly. Whatever fear the man felt he had tucked away.

‘We’ll need to stop Stahd from being able to reach you with his manipulation magic,’ continued Enib, ‘and we can’t risk you inviting him in so we’ll have to bind and gag you, Ireena. I apologise for the primitive method but it’s the best we can do with what we’ve got.’

‘No, no. It’s okay,’ assured Ireena. ‘I understand.’

‘If you say Strahd is more than a vampire, it might pay to blind and deafen her too,’ added Asher. ‘We don’t know how much Strahd has to do to work his magic.’

‘Very astute,’ replied Enib as she pulled bandages out from a medicine kit in her bag.

‘We can fashion earplugs from wax,’ offered Asher as he pointed to the candles around the altar. Ireena’s expression faltered slightly but she stood steady.

‘Another good idea,’ I said. ‘I have sealing wax in my bag. It’ll be easier to shape. Come. Let us leave before something finds its way inside.’

I removed a torch from its holster on my backpack and scraped a tindertwig across the heel of my boot to light it. I led the descent into the basement, keeping the torch high. Donavich claimed only his son was down here but given the circumstances it was hard not to be on edge.

The basement empty for the most part. A small table lay on its side in one corner and there was shelving along the northern and eastern walls. Shards of a broken jar caught the light of my torch, twinkling gently in the darkness. I moved to the centre of the room and beckoned the others down once I was confident it was safe. My uniform had a small officer’s cloak, which served more as a neck-scarf than a proper traveller’s cloak, but it was enough to wrap my hands in and sweep the broken glass into a corner.

The others crept into the basement with the same caution I did. The tension of knowing Strahd could be outside trying to find his way in was maddening. Even down here I could still hear the wolves. The fear was very evident on Ireena’s face. In spite of this she offered up her hands to be bound.

‘If you think it best?’ she asked everyone.

‘It’s the best we can do,’ replied Enib as Asher removed a coil of rope from his travel pack.

I located the bar of wax I used for sealing documents and held in close to my torch. I kneaded it between my fingers as it warmed until it was soft enough.

‘It’ll probably be more comfortable if you do this yourself,’ I said, offering Ireena the wax. She nodded and took it, pulling the formless lump of blue wax into two pieces and plugging her ears with them. Once she was finished she offered up her hands once again and Asher began to bind them. As he did so, Enib started to wrap the bandages around Ireena’s head.

‘No need to be afraid,’ muttered Enib softly as she finished the blindfold and placed her hands on Ireena’s shoulders. Whether or not she could hear Enib, Ireena took a deep breath. I took Ireena’s wrist and led her to the wall. She pressed her palms against the stone and lowered herself into a seated position. Once she was safely grounded I used the excess rope to bind her ankles together. As I finished I placed my hand on her knee and gave it a gentle squeeze. She was trembling.

Across the room Ismark was speaking softly to Mary. She removed her shawl and folded it into a tight bundle. She then placed in on the floor and lay down next to it, using it as a pillow. Ismark crossed the room and took a seat next to his sister, stroking her shoulder with the back of his hand.

I stood to join the others. ‘I’m not comfortable leaving everyone down here without a guard. I will stay and keep watch, all night if I have to.’

‘Fair enough,’ said Asher. ‘I’m happy to stay upstairs with the vampire boy. Someone definitely has to look out for him.’ The dwarf nodded.

‘I’ll do so as well,’ agreed Enib. ‘Are you okay being locked in the basement for the night? If Strahd’s manipulation is not restrained to his physical presence and he manages to control one of you in the basement to free Ireena, at least the trapdoor will make a decent obstacle to keep you from wandering.’

‘That’s fine,’ I said pulling at my neck-chain. From it dangled a small signal whistle. ‘If something goes wrong I’ll blow on this.’

‘You’ll stay up all night?’ asked Asher.

I slung my satchel off my shoulder and dug around in it until I located a small hourglass. ‘It should be seven of these until sunrise. I’ve done full night watches before. I’ll be fine.’ What I didn’t admit was that I was scared enough I doubted I would be able to sleep, even if I wanted to.

‘The three of us should be enough to watch over Donavich’s son,’ said Enib, looking around the basement. ‘Speaking of which… where is Donavich?’

I checked over both shoulders but the priest was nowhere to be seen. When I looked back to Enib she was already dashing up the stairs behind Asher and the dwarf. I followed them to the base of the stairs with my hand on my sword hilt.

‘No, no, no, no, no, no, no.’ I heard Asher cry, almost apologetically. ‘He has to stay tied up Mr Priest. It’s for his own good.’

Shortly after Asher and Enib reappeared at the top of the stairs, ushering Donavich into the basement. His expression was heavy and his eyes stared ahead blindly. He was mumbling softly to himself.

I extended a hand when he reached the bottom of the stairs. He shuffled past without seeing it so I took his elbow gently and guided him to the wall between Mary and Ismark.

‘How did it happen?’ I asked him, not really expecting an answer. To my surprise he blinked and looked me in the eye.

‘Doru?’ he breathed.

‘That is your son?’

‘My son, my son.’ Donavich’s lip trembled. ‘There was a rebellion, soldier. Those who were able rose up to fight Strahd’s tyranny. They gathered below the cliffs of Ravenloft and marched up to its dark gates. I do not know what happened at the castle, but those that came back at all were changed. My son, Doru was one of those who stood against the dark lord. And know he shares in Strahd’s curse. He is not himself. I have prayed to the Morning Lord ever since he returned to me to try and fix this ailment for there is little more I can do.’

‘What you can do is rest,’ I murmured gently and squeezed his shoulder. ‘Let us make it through the night and we can plan what to do next under the sun’s protection.’

‘Yes,’ he wheezed and rubbed his eyes.

I straightened up and stretched my back. What was this land? At least I was beginning to understand the melancholy of its people better. It wasn’t just Strahd’s dictatorship and malcontent that left them broken. They had tried to make a change but were defeated. All that remained was hopelessness.

I looked down at my sword and after a moment’s thought, drew it. ‘Ismark. Have you been trained in swordsmanship?’

He looked up. ‘Ah… a little. Ireena taught me how to hold a blade but the swords in our manor are little more than ornamental. Ireena’s is the only one made for proper use.’

‘Come then,’ I beckoned, moving to the centre of the room and planting the torch to one side. ‘She’s hardly capable of using it at the moment. We’ll run through some drills. It will help pass the time.’

‘C-certainly,’ replied Ismark hesitantly. He picked up Ireena’s sword and unsheathed it.

‘Don’t worry,’ I said as lightly as I could manage. ‘I’m not going to cut you. Not unless you fail to parry.’

Ismark paused and gave me a sidelong glance.

‘A bad attempt at a joke,’ I waved him over. ‘Come.’

Ismark’s grip was good. Ireena had taught him proper form, judging by the way he held his feet. These qualities are important to know but unless your opponent is a statue, you also need to know how to swing your blade properly.

‘Try to strike me,’ I encouraged. ‘Half speed if you’re not confident.’

Ismark nodded and raised his sword arm and brought it down towards me in a smooth arc. The man had surprising grace. I raised my blade, matching his pace until its edge came in contact with his. There was a light chink as the metal collided. I pushed with my sword and he retracted his into a second swing.

Again, I raised my arms to parry his attack. Our swords struck together once more, the ring of the metal echoing quietly in the basement. I only thought of it after we started but it was probably a good thing Ismark was going slowly. It would likely make the others upstairs nervous if they heard what sounded like a fight coming from the basement. Also, Mary appeared to be asleep and Donavich didn’t look far behind.

Ismark and I continued to spar quietly. His knowledge of form extended into his strikes, albeit it was hard to test how effective he actually was going at half speed. What was important was that he was distracted. His expression of mourning had been replaced by one of mild concentration, although it could have just been indifference. It was hard to tell with the man.

At first I didn’t notice it but only when someone spoke again from upstairs did I realise they had grown fairly quiet. I could not tell through the trapdoor who was speaking but they sounded more precise or urgent, much more so than the droning mumble we could hear from them before. I raised my fist to halt Ismark.

I focused on the trapdoor as I tried to hear what the others were saying. As I looked I noticed some kind of movement around the wood. I scooped up the torch from the floor and lifted it high to get a better look.

Seeping through the gaps in the planks was the thick, heavy mist from outside. It sunk through the air like a sickly blanket and started to collect on the first step. As more mist bled into the basement, it started to overflow onto the second step, then the third. There was something about the way it flowed that made it look as though it had a destination it was trying to reach. There was something in its movements that came across as insidious.

I sheathed my sword and gripped the whistle through my shirt. Every time the mist took another step, it reached over the lip of stone as if it had claws made of smoke. It also drifted over the edges of the stairs and collected on the floor as well. Although I kick myself in hindsight for doing so, I instinctively retreated a couple of steps.

As I brought the torch with me, Ismark and my shadows were cast on the wall next to the staircase. Despite the flickering torchlight, I could make out our separate shapes quite distinctly. The mist finally reached the bottom step and as it did so, I watched my own shadow draw its blade and thrust it through the neck of Ismark’s.

I cried out as I watched his shadow fall to its knees and crumple into a dark mass where the wall met the floor. Pulled my eyes away to look at a startled Ismark who was still standing a couple of feet from me, supposedly unharmed. As I looked back at my shadow, it peeled itself from the wall like thin black paper and took a step towards me. With twisted irony, my retreating step reflected its approach. As it moved it gathered darkness from around the room, filling its form out until I was looking at a pitch black version of myself.

Ismark followed my gaze until he saw the shadow creature and recoiled. He managed to trip over Ireena’s legs and she released a muffled cry into her gag. I tugged at the whistle through my shirt until I managed to get a hold of myself long enough to reach into my collar and pull it out.

The shadow raised it dark sword and stuck down at me. I instinctively tried to block with the shaft of my torch but the shadow blade passed straight through the wood, slicing across my chest. Rather than the hot pain I was expecting, a bitter cold that burned just the same tore across my skin and winded me as the chill constricted my lungs. My muscles contracted violently and when I placed the whistle in my mouth I could not summon the breath to blow anything above a feeble whine. The shadow swung at me again but I managed to duck under it. With a little more warmth in my chest I was able to give the whistle a solid blast, which was emphasised my Mary and Donavich’s screams as they were violently awoken.

I drew my sword, turning the motion into an uppercut that caught the shadow on its left side. The blade passed straight through the creature with no noticeable effect. The shadow retaliated and out of instinct I tried to parry with my sword. Once again, the shadow’s weapon passed straight through my defense. This time the shadow cut through my sword arm, its icy touch reducing it to a limp piece of meat. My sword clattered to the floor.

Above me I could hear the rattle of the lock being tugged. I tried batting at the shadow with my torch. It seemed to recoil slightly from the flame being swung through it, but not enough to stave it off. I focused on what little energy I had left into dodging its onslaught.

The trapdoor slammed open and Asher came charging down the stairs. As he ran I saw a mass of dark energy gather around his hand and take the form of a sword. He raised it above his head with two hands and clove the shadow in twain. The two halves burst into black vapour that returned to the natural darkness of the basement.

As quickly as Asher’s weapon had appeared, it evaporated. A blade of shadow for a creature of shadow. It seemed there was a lot more to Asher than I originally thought. What kind of a person wields dark magic as a sword? I’m not too sure I want that answered. Regardless, the man vanquished the creature and I owed him my thanks.

Behind him rushed in the dwarf. He brought his hands together in front of his face and whispered something between his thumbs. When he opened his palms a heavy gust of wind roared through the basement. It scooped up the mist and pushed it out the trapdoor. The dwarf took steady steps to the upper floor, maintaining the gust as he went. Asher gave me a quick nod and followed him up. There was more to these travellers than they originally let on.

Once they were gone and the trapdoor was shut again I could hear Ireena’s whimpering. I staggered to the wall next to her and slid down it. I then joined Ismark in stroking her shoulders. Once she realised there was more than one person in the basement with her she ceased making noise, although she couldn’t quite stop shuddering.

My own shadow had tried to kill me. Nowhere, not a single place in the world was safe for me. I realised then that it was not Ireena trembling but my own shaking hands. The fear I felt was the deepest I’d known; a fear I had only ever encountered once before. It was primal and cold, and made my whole body convulse whenever I tried to comprehend it in its entirety.

My heart nearly ceased from shock when the bell tolled midnight. Six more hours to go. The hourglass would need flipping in about seven to nine minutes. It was going to be a long night.

I spent the majority of the next hour staring into the torch flame, hoping that if I focused enough on the light then I wouldn’t see any unnatural movements in the shadows around me. The flickering of the fire meant they moved regardless and I kept seeing shapeless figures in the darkness on the edges of my vision. I want to report that as a sentry, I confronted every shadowy illusion but in reality I reacted to most by leaning closer to the flame and praying to whatever gods would listen.

Second turn of the hourglass was the worst. As the others started to fall asleep, loneliness crept in like the sinister mist. I sat there in the darkness inside my small circle of torchlight with the shadows nipping at the edges of my sanity. I was a long way from home.

Every other second I checked that no more mist was creeping through the door. I dreaded each moment in case I would see its smoky white fingers slipping between the wooden planks. When I looked down at Ireena next to me, the shadow she cast against the wall was far too obvious. As I watched I could have sworn its hands shifted despite Ireena keeping hers still, but whenever I blinked they were as they should be.

If I moved to the opposite corner I would be directly under the trapdoor and where the mist had fallen. If I moved to the left I would be just as close to Mary and Donavich; too far right and I would be sitting in broken glass. Sitting in the centre of the room would expose too many flanks. My jaw ached from clenching my teeth so hard.

Slowly the sand exchanged chambers and the time for the third turn came. I was still too nervous to feel tired but my patience was certainly exhausting itself. The torch was getting low as well. Soon I would have to keep it upright to keep it from going out. It didn’t take long for me to convince myself that it was better to light another torch early than to risk letting the other one go out first. If the entire room went dark I feared I would lose my mind.

The fourth turn came eventually. Much like before, I only noticed the quiet from upstairs once it was broken. Based on the scratching I kept hearing I think the wolves returned. At least I hope they were wolves. I know how to kill a wolf.

Fifth turn. My lids were growing heavier and heavier. Whatever phantoms I was seeing from fear were replaced by those of sleepless delirium. Or that’s what I wanted to believe. I cannot say for certain if we were the only ones down there. But if there were more shadows, they would have struck by then, right? In my current state I wouldn’t have been able to defend myself, let alone four other people.

A strange sound caused my heart to skip a beat. Somewhere outside came a squawk followed by a brief canine whimper. I didn’t know what to make of it but it sounded close. After that I heard nothing else.

Sixth turn. I can barely remember what happened here. When I try to recall what I was thinking or doing, all I can pull together is a string of blurry shapes and fading orange firelight. The one thing I do remember is gripping my whistle brought some comfort.

I was pulled from my daze by the rattling of the trapdoor lock. I stood and drew my sword, edging towards the staircase. If Strahd or another vampire had found their way in, there was little I could do. I could barely keep my sword tip above the stone. My mouth was dry as I waited for the trapdoor to open.

As it did, the silhouette of a woman blocked a faint grey light that poured into the basement. ‘It’s morning,’ said Enib wearily.