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 2
I was ready to leave, however the memory of Asher’s body swaying from the noose resurfaced like a bloated corpse. The other two thanked Madam Eva and stood to leave. I rose as well but examined a dreamweaver dangling from a support beam to give them time to exit. Once they were gone I returned my gaze to the crone on the floor. It didn’t surprise me that she was already staring at me with her beady eyes.
‘What do you make of a duplicate body hanging from the gallows?’
‘Oh!’ she said excitedly. ‘You saw a friend did you? Who was it?’
‘Not a friend. The half-elf.’
Madam Eva released a cackle that made my muscles clench. ‘Looks like Strahd has chosen a favourite.’
I’d heard enough. I thought it wise to keep my opinions to myself so I thanked Madam Eva and left the tent. As I made my way to the edge of the camp I heard a harsh whisper to my left. A Vistani man waved me over eagerly to behind one of the carriages. I sighed then walked over to see what he wanted.
‘Traveller,’ he said with both urgency and secrecy. ‘I hear you wish to leave these lands. For that I cannot blame you. You must be careful though, for nobody can leave Barovia. See the mist that blankets everything?’ I nodded. ‘It will choke you if you travel too deep into it. Our secret,’ he gestured to himself and the rest of the Vistani around the camp, ‘is our wine. We drink special wine that protects us from the mist’s embrace. If returning home is what you seek, I can sell you some.’ He presented me with a wineskin. ‘Fifty gold pieces and it’s yours.’
I raised an eyebrow at him. ‘It’s not a very good secret if you tell it to every traveller who comes to your camp.’ I turned to leave without waiting for his response. The Vistani. What peculiar folk.
I made for a brisk return to Barovia village. I had no intent of meeting whatever creatures of the night Ismark referred to. The sun was already getting low. After about a half hour of walking I reached the crossroads of the gallows. The body was still swaying from its rope.
Further on ahead I could see silhouettes of differing height well past this point. If Asher and the dwarf had passed this, they may not have bothered to examine it. Some sick kind of curiosity boiled up inside me. I adjusted my quiver and satchel strap and detoured to the gallows.
The platform was elevated to roughly four feet with a small set of stairs leading onto it. There was no lever mechanism or trapdoor, simply an elongated crossbeam for the condemned to be pushed off the front of the platform. The body that hung there was, to the best of my senses, Asher’s. I know of magical trickery, but the likeness was uncanny.
I wanted to swing the body around so I could see the face better but a knot formed in my stomach. I reached out a hand, pausing before I touched the skin of the arm. I raised it up and grabbed the body by cloth on its shoulder.
Almost as soon as I made contact, the clothes began to rot away with incredible speed. The flesh dissolved after it, revealing grey muscle mass and bone which shrank away to dust. I couldn’t help but cry out at the suddenness of it. All that was left was the noose, gently swinging in the wind.
I dismounted from the gallows and dashed across the grass to the road. I didn’t slow until I felt packed earth beneath my feet. I set my sights on the two silhouettes in the distance and pelted towards them without looking back.
Eventually I closed enough distance that I could guarantee it was Asher and the dwarf. I wish he would return to whatever mountain cave he crawled from. He follows like a stray dog. I slowed my pace as not to catch them and risked a look over my shoulder.
I was far enough away that I couldn’t see the gallows any longer. The bare road stretched off into the hills from which I’d come. In checking the sun’s height I noticed a dark shape in the sky above me. Once I focused on it I recognised it to be a raven. It was drifting through the air at a slow pace, enough so that it wasn’t gaining much ground on me. Almost like it was watching us on the road. Perhaps the Vistani witch had changed her form to spy on us.
Barovia village was visible in the distance. Keeping my pace, it only took a further twenty minutes to reach it. The decrepit buildings against the failing sunlight made for a gloomy sight. The sooner I can leave this place the better.
I tailed Asher and the dwarf back toward Ismark’s manor. The building may have once been grand but the boarded up windows and overgrown grounds made it look as though it had not been inhabited in years. The only thing that gave any indication of life was a bedraggled looking horse tethered at a small stable and the meek flickering of candlelight from between the boards of an upstairs window.
The raven from the road flittered down to land atop the manor. I scooped up a handful of pebbles from the footpath and tossed one at the bird.
‘Begone witch,’ I called after it, my pebble skipping off a tile next to it. The raven gave a muted caw and hopped to the side away from where my stone had landed. I raised my arm to toss a second.
‘What are you doing?’
I turned to see a middle-aged Barovian staring at me incredulously.
‘Let the bird alone,’ she said. ‘Ravens are good omens.’
‘The pest was following me. My apologies.’ I didn’t realise the people of Barovia thought of anything as “good.”
Feeling somewhat sheepish after my social rebuking, I followed the trail up to Ismark’s house. I could hear voices coming from inside. After a quick rap on the door, it opened.
‘Bless, you are all here,’ sighed Ismark with relief. As he claimed, Mary, Enib, Asher and the dwarf were all in the lobby of the manor. There was another woman; one wearing light plate and a sword on her hip. She turned her head to look at me as I entered and I caught sight of a pair of tiny puncture marks on her neck.
Ismark watched us lock eyes and brought us together. ‘Miss Hughes, this is my sister, Ireena.’
I extended a hand which she took passively. ‘You may call me Scarlet. I appreciate your hospitality in letting my seek shelter here.’
Ireena maintained my gaze but with a strange intensity. She had auburn eyes to match her long hair. She was roughly five-foot-eight and had the same wiry build as myself. Her complexion was concerningly pale which I suspected had something to do with the wounds on her neck. She wore a high collar but it did little to conceal them at this distance. She caught me staring and turned away.
Vampires were common in stories for children; monsters of the night that prey on the innocent. I know of their signs as much as any other person. I wanted to believe they were simply campfire stories but such disregard for the unnatural will put one in trouble. I’d rather respect the possibility of their existence than deny it and be woefully wrong later. Enib saved me having to speak up.
‘There’s no point being shy about it miss,’ she said tapping two fingers on her own neck. ‘If you’re being preyed upon then speak up. There are enough of us here. We might be able to help.’
Ireena turned to Ismark and murmured something inaudible. The pleading in her eyes was clear as day. This woman was terrified.
‘Ireena is being targeted by Strahd himself,’ said Ismark morbidly without looking away from his sister. ‘He has come upon her twice already. I fear if he attacks again it will be the last time I see her.’
‘We’ll do something about that,’ said Enib with stern conviction. ‘I’ve yet to meet this Strahd fellow but he seems most disagreeable.’
Ismark took a moment to recover from Enib’s response. ‘There is another matter.’ He led us out of the lobby into the living room. A grey-skinned man of seniority sat rigidly in an armchair. His eyes were gently closed and his head lay loosely against his shoulder.
‘Our father,’ said Ismark, gesturing to the man in the seat, ‘passed last night. We’ve had a lot to cope with and I’ll admit I’m struggling to manage it all. Regrettably that is why you found me at Blood of the Vine at the bottom of a glass. We must bury him tonight before sundown. The dead in Barovia are a lot more restless than other places and I think it best for him and all of us that he is laid to rest as soon as possible.’
‘Let us not delay then,’ said Enib sharply. ‘There is much to be done.’
Enib’s efficiency was effective. It only took a minute or so for Ireena and Ismark to collect what they needed for the burial. We took the body out to the stable where there was a small cart for us to lay it in. Enib strung the cart to the weedy horse which bobbed its head placidly.
‘Come now Lancelot,’ she said to the horse as she stroked its mane. ‘Time to put those muscles to use.’
‘Lancelot?’ I asked as we walked the horse towards the main gate.
‘Yes,’ replied Enib curtly. ‘I purchased him from those Vistani folk. They had some barbaric name for him so I changed it to something more appropriate for a creature of his class.’
‘I thought this was Ismark’s horse,’ I said looking at the shrivelled beast. It wheezed as the road began a steady incline towards the churchyard. ‘I was mistaken. How befitting indeed.’ Lancelot coughed.
We reached the churchyard soon enough. The sun was low enough that the shadow of Ravenloft castle consumed the entire township. The church itself was barely standing. A crooked steeple loomed precariously over the main body of the structure. There were gaping holes in the ceiling and flimsy barricades across each of the windows. The doors hung open on loose hinges.
Enib steered Lancelot around to the graveyard while the rest of us entered the church. The inside matched the outside for state of repair. Crooked pews lined either side of the interior, strewn from clear lack of use. Some had even been broken down to support the barricades from the inside. Eerie whispering echoed off the walls and at the end of the church kneeling before a stone altar was a stout, robed figure.
We edged forward cautiously. Ismark pushed past me and walked hurriedly up to the altar. The figure only ceased its praying when Ismark addressed it directly.
‘Father Donavich!’ he said urgently. ‘We have a matter that needs resolving immediately.’
The priest rose to his feet. Five-foot-seven, broad shoulders, aggressively retreating hairline. Despite his wide frame his face was hollow, like someone who has lost a lot of weight over a short period of time. His eyes were deep red sockets that yearned for sleep.
‘Our father Kolyan passed last night. His heart must have given up in his sleep. We need to bury him tonight while there-’
‘FATHER! I’M STARVING!!!’
Everyone looked around, bewildered. The horrid shrieking echoed around the crumbling church. Its source was somewhere beneath us.
‘LET ME OUT, FATHER!’
Donavich looked upon us with the eyes of a man clinging to his last strands of sanity.
‘My son…’ he choked out.
‘I’M STARVING, FATHER!’
‘My son was taken away,’ Donavich continued. ‘He was taken by the night. He returned to me not four days ago. But he is not as he was. I locked him in the basement to keep him safe while I pray to the Morning Lord. I can only hope he hears my prayers and rids my son of this curse.’
Enib stepped past us to join the priest at the altar. ‘Look,’ she said. ‘We need your help to deliver this body to the next world. If we help you with your son, will you assist us?’
Donavich looked up at her with a heavy brow. ‘What will you do?’
‘That depends,’ she said. ‘Can you take us to him?’
Donavich shook his head slowly. ‘I had to lock him in the basement.’ He pointed to a small antechamber on the eastern side of the building. We followed his direction to a trapdoor that rested in floor. A thick iron padlock held it shut.
As if to answer our presence, the creature in the basement screamed again.
‘How did you trap it?’ I asked without taking my eyes off the trapdoor. The wood was worn and splintering slightly.
‘I had to use myself as bait,’ answered Donavich heavily. ‘He’s free to roam down there.’
‘As long as he’s down there we can deal with him later. I think we should proceed with the burial,’ said Enib. Her look and tone made it clear this wasn’t a suggestion.
‘Y-yes,’ agreed Donavich.
With the priest in tow we left the church for the nearby graveyard. We found a small storage shed which held a number of shovels. Asher, the dwarf and I took one each and met the others at clear space in the yard. Mary refused to leave the shelter of the church. I couldn't blame her.
‘Here?’ I asked Donavich who nodded. I marked out the grave in the dirt with the edge of my shovel and began churning earth. Enib and Ireena left to collect a coffin while Ismark wrapped his father in a burial shroud. Donavich began to read.
It didn’t take long for my palms to start blistering. The shaft of the shovel was rough and I was digging as rapidly as I could. The other two were making good progress but the grave was messy. Whenever I struck the edged too heavily more dirt would pour into the hole I’d just made. My shoulders began to ache but I gritted my teeth and pushed through.
Donavich pressed on through the service. Kolyan was laid within his coffin and the other three stood by as Asher, the dwarf and I worked. There was no room in the grave to for them help so Enib kept to sweeping dirt away from the edge while Ismark and Ireena looked on with watery eyes.
Sweat began to dribble down my forehead. I used the back of my sleeve to wipe it out of my eyes and caught sight of the mist as I did so. Enib had seen it too. On the outskirts of graveyard the godforsaken mist had begun to creep through the fence. It swirled menacingly around the tombstones, slowly edging towards us. Within its folds I thought I saw a shape slip out of focus.
I blinked and forced my arms to keep their pace. If there’s one thing dwarves are good for, it’s digging holes. He’d managed to keep up with Asher and I and we had a grave about two-and-a-half deep.
The sun was no longer visible from our position in the churchyard. The mist crept closer and closer still. I risked another look into the mist and wished I hadn’t. The silhouettes of wolves were visibly prowling between the gravestones. Donavich began to falter in his pace.
I stared at the dirt. Dig! I screamed in my head. Dig! Dig! Dig goddammit! Three feet, nearly four.
Donavich stammered through the passage he was on, his hands visibly trembling. He repeated the same sentence three times, failing to reach the end of it every time.
‘Goodness,’ scolded Enib.
He swallowed and looked up at her. ‘It-it-it’s hard to do it w-with him watching.’ Donavich’s eyes flicked to the mist and back to Enib like a cornered animal. We all dared a look into the crawling vapour.
Within the creeping whiteness stood a shadow the size of a man. It walked forward, one slow step at a time. It would have been no more than thirty feet away.
‘That’s enough!’ cried Ismark as Enib snatched Donavich’s prayer book from his hands. Asher, the dwarf and I scrabbled out of the grave while Ireena and Ismark lowered the coffin in. It landed heavily onto the dirt below.
Enib read the final passage out defiantly against the approaching shadow. The growling of the wolves was audible now. We kicked as much dirt as we could into the grave and patted it down rapidly. The mist tickled the edge of the grave as we smacked at it with our shovels. Enib tore through the last words of the sending with a rising pitch that matched my rising heartbeat.
‘Everyone to the church, NOW!’ I roared as soon as Enib was finished. I dropped my shovel in the grass as we scrabbled for the door without looking back. The chill in the air was like needles against the back of my neck.
‘You are not welcome!’ I cried over my shoulder as we passed the threshold of the church’s entrance. Mary slammed the doors after Asher, who was the last in. His eyes were wide with terror.
‘I felt him,’ he whispered between breaths. ‘I felt him behind me. He was right there.’
Ismark and Ireena rammed a couple of pews up against the doors. I almost leapt out of my skin as something slammed up against them from outside. The blow was heavy but the doors held. Scratching and growling could be heard from the other side.
‘HE COMES!’ shrieked Donavich’s son from the basement. ‘HE COMES! HE COMES AGAIN FOR US! THE NIGHT IS HERE!’
We split up to check each of the barricades around the church. The windows weren’t in great condition but with a few adjustments would hold. The scuffing of wolves against the sides of the building could be heard all around. I was so nervous I had to keep wiping my hands on my breeches. My jaw ached from clenching me teeth so hard.
‘LET ME OUT FATHER!’
I looked around at the others. We were all worse for wear. Asher was breathing rapidly and kept rubbing the back of his neck. Enib’s stoic composure was dismantled by nervous jittering. Both Ireena and Donavich looked on the verge of tears. Mary was weeping. Ismark simply sat on one of the pews with his head in his hands, jumping every time something hit the barricades.
Donavich’s son’s screams degraded to distressed wailing. I looked at the priest and rose to my feet. Enib did the same. We met at the trapdoor and were joined shortly afterwards by Asher and the dwarf.
‘It looks like we’re not returning to Ismark’s manor,’ said Enib flatly. ‘Ireena certainly isn’t safe up here. This place is a wreck. We need to use that basement which means we have to deal with that.’
She gave the trapdoor a disdainful look.
‘We need to subdue him somehow so he can’t cause trouble,’ I said sternly as I spied the dwarf thumbing the handle of his Warhammer. ‘We told Donavich we’d help his son if he helped us. That’s what he did so that’s what we’ll do. And we need that basement.’
‘Alright then,’ agreed Enib. ‘Let’s clear some space. Who has rope?’
‘I do,’ I offered as Enib pulled out her own coil.
‘Who’s the strongest here?’ Enib asked the group. I was fit and very able. Swordmanship is part of our training, but my muscles work best for endurance.
‘I’d try to be modest but probably me,’ said Asher with a grin. ‘I used to do a lot of logging back home. Lifting trees is pretty good for the arms and back.’
I used the opportunity to gaze at his arms. Despite being a half-breed, he certainly was an aesthetic man.
‘No argument there,’ responded Enib plainly. ‘Focus on taking his weight and the rest of us can get his limbs. He’ll probably come to us.’ She extended a hand to Donavich. ‘Key.’
The priest came over and removed a thin cord from around his neck, from which dangled a chunky key. He passed it to Enib and retreated a few feet. The rest of us got into position. Enib reached between Asher’s ankles and clicked open the lock.
‘Here we go,’ she breathed and removed it, stepping back afterwards. Asher kicked the trapdoor open and braced himself.
There was an echoed boom as the trapdoor hit the stone floor. Once the sound settled it was completely silent. Somewhere in the darkness came the soft slapping of flesh on stone.
‘Father…?’ whispered the deranged voice from below. I couldn’t see much from my position to the side of the trapdoor but Asher’s muscles tensed and he gritted his teeth. There was a sudden burst of noise from beneath us.
A thin young man with pale, glassy skin and mattered brown haired came barrelling out from the basement on all fours. He hissed like a cat as he launched himself straight into Asher. The man clawed at Asher’s chest while they wrestled. There was a shredding noise and Asher’s shirt was stained red. Rather than cry out, he simply grunted and set his feet. The dwarf tore one of the man’s arms away from Asher’s neck and the man sunk his teeth into his right arm. The dwarf reached for his Warhammer with his free hand.
‘No!’ I cried and tackled at the man’s legs. Asher had him distracted in a hold and I was able to sweep the man off-balance. The dwarf pulled down with his weight and Asher followed through to slam the man hard onto the stone floor. He writhed and screamed but Asher planted his full weight onto the man’s chest, holding his arms at bay. Enib rushed around to the front of the struggle and tugged her rope across the man’s face until it caught in his mouth. She heaved it back like some kind of bizarre reigns, forcing the man’s head away from biting Asher.
I wrestled to keep the man’s legs locked but he got one free and managed to kick me in the chest with the force of a maddened donkey. I didn’t felt any ribs break but the wind was knocked out of me with enough strength to blur my vision. I recoiled, desperately sucking at the air until I could see clearly, then dove back on his legs before he could buck Asher off him. This time I managed to lasso his feet and pulled them together into a bind. As I tied the knot, Asher and the dwarf pulled the man’s arm together and quickly bound them.
The man wriggled violently like a fish on the end of a spear but his bonds held. Asher cautiously removed his weight from the man’s chest and rose to his feet. His shrieks were reduced to muffled moaning through the rope in his mouth. We doubled checked our knots then looped them around and tied them again.
Watching from the pews, Donavich was praying rapidly, his eyes wild. Ireena stood beside Ismark, her sword drawn. Mary sat behind trembling. I walked over to them while Enib checked Asher’s wound. They looked as tired and terrified as I felt. We were in for a long night.