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 Two in Barovia
I had to use my sword as a prop to keep myself from toppling. The relief was overwhelming. I summoned the last of my strength to sheath my blade and called to the others. My voice sounded like tearing paper. Ismark was already awake and Donavich had to wake Mary. It was probably the first sleep she’d had since her daughter was taken.
I staggered past Enib on the stairs. I needed to see the sun. Asher and the dwarf were already working to remove the barricade at the door. Asher gave me a solemn nod as I stepped outside. Over the horizon, above the trees and distant hills, a pale sun rose. It held none of the reds and oranges of the sun I knew from home but I felt its warmth flow through me like a river. To my exhausted eyes, I had never seen something so beautiful.
As relief rolled through my muscles I began to feel the weight of my individual limbs as if all the blood in my body had sunk to my hands and feet. Every part of me throbbed with a cold ache. I staggered to the nearest tombstone and planted my rear on top of it. The gargling of a nearby bird drew my eyes from the skyline.
Several stones away a dishevelled looking raven hopped closer. It eyed me cautiously with a strange intensity. It’s feathered were mattered and I could see a dark liquid on the tip of its beak. I squinted curiously at it and it cawed softly.
‘I apologise for throwing stones at you,’ I murmured. The bird grumbled but hopped closer. I extended a hand and after a brief moment’s hesitation, it flapped onto my finger. I searched my inner pocket and withdrew a ration biscuit from within. After crumbling a portion off the corner, I offered it to the bird who began pecking at it enthusiastically.
‘What a curious place,’ I said, more to myself than anything in particular.
A loud grating of wood on stone came from within the church. The door opened fully and the others filed out steadily. Ismark was hugging Ireena and Mary was supporting Donavich.
‘What is your plan now?’ Donavich wheezed.
There was an uncomfortable silence as everyone looked at each other for an answer. ‘We can’t do this every night,’ said Enib eventually.
‘Agreed,’ I croaked.
‘There is a rumour,’ spoke up Ismark. We all looked at him with what would have been eagerness if anyone had the energy to express it. ‘Some people believe the town of Valaki has sanctuary. Proper protection against Strahd. Ireena cannot stay in Barovia village any longer. We,’ he gestured to himself and Ireena, ‘will travel there today.’
Ireena gazed at her brother for a long while. ‘Anywhere is better than here,’ she murmured. Ismark gave her a forlorn nod.
‘Then we’ll go to Valaki,’ said Asher, rubbing his eyes. It’s not like we had any other plans, right?’ He looked around the group. Enib seemed to agree. The dwarf shuffled uncomfortably but kept quiet. If I could reach Valaki and get a proper night’s rest, I would be able to clear my head and figure out my next move on how to get home.
Donavich cleared his throat nervously. ‘Do… do you think you could take my son to Valaki? If they have true holy magic there, perhaps a greater servant of the Morning Lord, they might be able to help my Doru?’
Enib looked to Donavich, to the church where Doru lay gagged and bound, then to the sun. ‘Will you be staying here?’
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Someone must stay for the people of Barovia village.’
‘Strahd will follow us if we take the girl away,’ said a gravelly voice from just above the tombstones. It was the dwarf. ‘He will not waste his time on the village.’
‘Isn’t that a relief,’ I replied flatly.
‘Take my manor,’ said Ismark to Donavich. ‘If Strahd’s shadows can penetrate even a place of sanctity, at least hide somewhere with walls that will stand. Look after Mary. I will return as soon as I am able.’
‘What should we do about the boy?’ asked Asher. ‘We can’t take him out under the sun.’
‘Is there a canvas for this cart?’ asked Enib.
‘No,’ said Ireena. The cart lacked any fittings for one anyway.
‘Do you have a burial shroud?’ I asked Donavich.
‘Not one that’ll cover the whole cart,’ he replied.
‘It doesn’t need to. Do you have one?’
He nodded and shuffled off to the shed and returned with a creamy sheet. I brushed the rest of the crumbs off my hands for the raven and took the shroud. Gathering what little energy I had left, I marched back into the church.
‘Isn’t that a bit morbid?’ Donavich called after me.
‘This whole situation is morbid,’ I said over my shoulder. I laid the shroud on the floor next to Doru’s prone body. His eyes rolled wildly as I knelt next to him.
‘Be still,’ I hissed and rolled him onto the shroud. I tucked the cloth under his shoulder and hip and rolled him further. His legs wriggled as I did so, so I slapped his face through the shroud. It was like backhanding a rock. ‘Still!’
Enib knelt next to me and applied her weight to his knees, straightening the vampire spawn’s legs. Together, we managed to wrap him up like an unconventional mummy. I tied the excess cloth above his head in a knot, Enib doing the same below his ankles.
As I squatted to lift the bundle of vampire, I felt a tap on my shoulder. I looked up to see Asher with the dwarf.
‘We got this,’ he grinned. ‘You get started on your rest.’
I gave him a curt nod and headed straight for the cart. To tell the truth I was relieved. I’m doubtful I would have gotten more the ten feet and he saved me having to ask for help.
Enib tended to Lancelot at the front of the cart as I climbed aboard. I remember very little of the next few minutes. I must have fallen asleep as soon as my head hit my bedroll.
I certainly remember waking up though.
It was like being wrenched upward through a deep black ocean to the repeated sound of squawking like some kind of deranged siren. I wanted to open my eyes but the felt leaden. A dull pain thudded into my shoulder and forced me awake. I opened my eyes only to be blinded by daylight. With my arm shielding my face, I sat up.
‘Get up! Get up! Get up!’ yelled Asher over some ungodly shrieking. I shook my head to clear it but the shrieking remained. I peered over my arm to see a dark mass of shapes spiralling all around us. Asher was standing above me with his handaxe drawn. My shoulder ached where he had kicked me.
All around us was the cacophony of combat. I scrabbled to my feet, drawing my longsword as I did so. A black shape sailed madly through the air towards my head. Before I could raise my blade, Asher swung with his axe and clove the shape in two. Half a large bat thumped into my chest leaving a grim stain. The other half sailed over the edge of the cart.
‘Thanks,’ I breathed.
The cart had stopped on some kind of rope bridge that connected the two sides of a large crevasse. Hundreds of feet below us raged a grey river. The shrieking I could hear was from a tornado of large bats that were swooping and dive-bombing our caravan.
Ahead of me Ireena swatted at bats with her sword with Ismark ducking behind her, arms shielding his face and neck. Enib was beside Lancelot, fending off bats that assaulted her horse. I could hear Asher and the dwarf in the melee behind me.
Predicting the bats’ movements was like trying to see the wind. Although their swarm had form, their attacks were sporadic and nigh-impossible to predict. Every time I readied myself for one direction I’d be flanked or side-swiped from another. My leather withstood all but the worst of their scratching and biting until one caught me under my ponytail.
The sting of it was more irritating than painful but I felt it latch on like a weasel. I reached back and tore it from my skin with a grunt and ran the writhing mass of hair and skin up the edge of my blade. Another took a dive at me but I clipped it early, sending it tumbling into the crevasse.
Despite Enib’s defence, Lancelot was becoming distressed. The weight behind his rearing rocked the bridge in a perilous manner. I widened my stance and nearly tripped over Doru’s prone body. The rocking was making Ireena and Enib’s fight no easier.
‘I can clear them,’ grumbled the dwarf behind me. I turned to see him raising his palm, fingers rolling. He began muttering something under his breath and the air darkened around him, electricity arcing between his fingers.
‘NO!’ roared Asher with a fury I didn’t know he had. ‘Are you mad?! You’ll kill us all!’ He gestured extravagantly to the bridge beneath our feet.
Whatever the dwarf’s plan was, Asher’s reaction was enough for me not to hang around to find out. I turned back to the others and pointed my sword towards the other side.
‘Run!’ I yelled but Ireena and Ismark were already on their way, heads under their arms. Enib wasn’t far behind. She tugged on Lancelot’s reigns and he gladly followed. I fell to one knee as the wagon bounced its way across the remainder of the bridge.
Several bats took the opportunity to tangle themselves in my hair and scratch at my scalp. I grabbed one, crushing its windpipe with my thumb. Pain tore through the side of my head as another tried to remove a chunk from my ear.
A sharp thump from beneath the wagon told me we’d made it to the other side. I tossed my sword over the side and rolled off the back, deliberating landing on the bat with my shoulder. It made a surprisingly satisfying crunch under my weight and released my ear, squealing shrilly.
I clambered to my feet and recollected my weapon beside the wagon. The swarm was starting to thin. With Enib and Ireena covering my flank, and I theirs, we were able to keep any others that dove on us at bay. Asher dashed the last of the bridge, slinging shadowy magic similar to the sword he’d summoned to deal with the shadow last night. It was unnerving to watch but its effectiveness was undeniable.
The dwarf abandoned whatever he’d been planning on doing and charged across the bridge behind Asher. So it seemed he could wield magic too, and something Asher recognised. I did not get the impression they knew each other prior to our meeting with Stanimeer so perhaps there is some consistency between what people can do with the unnatural. I tried not to think of it.
The deaths of their kin were enough to cause the bats to flee. I stood, panting, bracing my sword with both arms. The right side of my neck was slick with blood and I could feel the bottom of my ponytail sticking to my neck.
‘Let me tend to that,’ said Enib and moved to my right. She slid two fingers behind my shredded ear and her thumb pressed against the wound. What initially stung rapidly numbed as a warm sensation spread through my head, beginning with my ear and ending at my neck and the top of my scalp. I flinched more out of surprise than the initial pain. With Asher, Enib and the dwarf all being magic-users, it was hard not to feel isolated. Well, more so than I already did.
‘Let’s hurry before they come back,’ said Ismark, tugging on a shredded sleeve. ‘Going at the rate we have been, I don’t think we’ll make it to Valaki before nightfall.’
‘So we need to keep an eye open for shelter,’ replied Enib matter-of-factly.
‘That’s just it,’ continued Ismark with an uncomfortable tone. ‘There is a place we can get to only a couple of hours out from Valaki. It’s an abandoned flour mill. Kids call it the “bone-grinder.”’
Enib’s expression went flat. ‘Charming.’
‘We should be able to make it with some sun to spare. Trying for the full distance today is too risky.’
‘We’ll give it a go,’ I said. ‘And let’s pray it is simply abandoned.’
We resumed our journey as a unit. There was too much adrenaline lingering in my body to go back to sleep. Plus, last night made me appreciate the sunlight, even if it was through a thick overcast. The others took turns to nap in the cart while we travelled. We had a small stop for lunch and let Lancelot feed to regain some of his strength.
The trip to Valaki was primarily through foothills with light wooding on either side of the road. The hills obscured any vision past a half-mile. I’d trained myself to keep an eye open for potential bandit lookouts or gauntlets in the path. The bends in the road made me nervous, particularly in the late afternoon when my previous night began to take its toll. To make matters worse, a steady drizzle began to fall.
Eventually, sodden and miserable we rounded a hill that revealed a tall structure in the distance. Its walls were stacked pale stones and it had some kind of weathered wooden ceiling. Protruding from the front of the structure were three tattered windmill sails, the forth of which was missing, offsetting the rest. I looked around the group to see weary smiles. The sky was beginning to orange so I focused this boost in moral into marching energy.
‘I would like to scout out the mill before we arrive, in case it is inhabited.’
The dwarf had spoken. He talked with a curious certainty.
‘You’ve done well to keep up thus far with legs as short as yours,’ I said, shaking my head. ‘If we wait for you to scout ahead we’ll be swallowed by the night.
The dwarf simply replied with a dismissive grunt that could have been a laugh or could have been a cough. In either case it was an offensive sound. He slowed to a halt, stretched and bent over as if to touch his toes. As his hands neared the ground, his form elongated, producing one of the strangest sounds I have ever heard. His muscles groaned and his bones creaked as they warped to beastly proportions. What were animal furs and leather padding melted into hair and flesh. When the dwarf lifted his head, I was looking at a rather impressive horse.
‘Hrmmmm,’ said Enib with mild approval.
‘I’ll come with you,’ offered Asher. The dwarf/horse looked at him momentarily the lowered its head. Asher grabbed a handful of its mane and straddled its back. ‘We’ll report back when we know what’s going on. If we get into trouble we’ll… you’ll probably know.’
I gave him what I hoped was a quizzical look which probably came across as dire. ‘And if there is trouble there?’ I asked Ismark as we watched the two ride off.
‘Then we pray it’s kinder trouble than what awaits in the night.’
‘I don’t pray much,’ I said absent-mindedly. Ismark gave me a sidelong glance and pulled his coat tighter over his shoulders.
'Curse this rain.'
After another forty or so minutes of walking, the road led to a ring of waystones. Each stood about the height of a man and was made of a polished grey rock I didn’t recognise. Leaning against one of them, covered in blood and filth way Asher. His clothes were shredded and stained and the dwarf was nursing an open wound on his arm.
‘What the hell happened?’ I asked, stomping through the mud to him.
Asher scrunched up his face. ‘The mill wasn’t abandoned. There are a couple of crones there. Witches I believe. They had dark magic and monstrous claws.’ He pointed to his bloody clothing.
‘They attacked on sight?’ asked Enib, drawing her longsword.
‘No,’ said the dwarf. ‘Bandages?’ He extended a hand towards Enib who scowled at him but removed her medical kit from her backpack, careful not to let too much rain in.
‘What happened then?’ I asked again impatiently.
‘We were investigating the mill,’ said Asher between laboured breathes. ‘As I said, it’s been inhabited by witches. The windows had been reinforced and there was furniture inside. I found a couple of potions in the cupboard.’ He patted his backpack with his free hand. ‘There was a barrel in the middle of the room with some weird liquid in it. I had a closer look and a lesser demon came out of it.’
I stiffened at that. I’d encountered a lesser demon before. It slew two of my men. I carried their deadlocks in my pack wherever I went.
‘The demonspawn went down pretty easy,’ Asher continued, ‘but the ruckus brought the witches down from the upper floors. There were only two of them and I tried talking them into letting us stay but there were stressing out over the loss of their demon. Given how weak it was I tried to overpower them but they were a lot stronger than they looked.’
‘You attacked them?’
This was all too much. The rain, the exhaustion from travelling and the night before, the stress of being in a foreign place against my will. I feared my mind would break. I punched the rock mere inches from Asher’s head.
‘You IMBECILE!’ I roared. ‘We’re as good as dead if we spend the night outside and you just ensured that the only place that might shelter us is now hostile. You were supposed to report back! I should execute you right here and offer your body as payment for the night.’
I felt a light pressure grip my shoulder. ‘Calm yourself Scarlet,’ said Enib sternly. ‘Things aren’t as bad as they seem.’
I threw her hand off me. ‘Don’t lecture me. I will not let this man’s idiocy condemn us all.’
‘Yes,’ replied Enib in the same tone. ‘This man. I have experience in adjusting people’s appearances. I can make him another man for the night. The dwarf too. They won’t know it’s the same people.’
‘That’s your concern then.’ I stepped away from Asher, glaring at him. ‘I’m getting the rest of us to Valaki.’ I gestured for Ireena and Ismark to follow me.
‘What about Doru?’ asked Ismark. ‘I’d rather not have to answer questions about a body in a blanket.’
‘He’s dead isn’t he? As a vampire?’
Ismark nodded hesitantly.
‘Then he doesn’t need to breath,’ I said over my shoulder. ‘They can bury him here once they’re done with their make-up. The dead belong in the ground anyway. We’ll collect him in the morning… if we make it to morning.’
I began trudging up the hill to the mill, Ismark and Ireena in tow. The tower loomed above us ominously in the twilight, casting a crooked shadow on the path leading to it. Candlelight flickered through the windows of the lower floor. I approached the door and took in a deep breath to calm myself. I knocked.
‘Back for more eh?’ croaked a shrill voice from within. ‘You really are as stupid as you look.’
‘Foolish enough to get caught out in the rain,’ I called back with as much innocence as I could muster.
‘Oh!’ The witch’s tone softened, albeit only slightly. A moment later the door opened ajar and a milky grey eye peered out. ‘What do you want?’
‘We’re escorting our lord to Valaki,’ I said, patting the hilt of my sword and nodding towards Ismark. Ireena mirror my motions. ‘We ran into trouble on the road and now we won’t be able to reach our destination by nightfall. Would we be able to spend the night under your roof? Even if it means sleeping on the floor?’
The witch shut the door and started mumbling. A second voice muttered back and they began what sounded like a heated discussion. Eventually the door opened ajar again.
‘You won’t be any trouble.’
‘None whatsoever ma’am,’ Ireena replied. We’re on a contract to keep this man alive. Starting something is the last thing we want to do. We’ll happily pay for your accommodation.’
‘Yes you will,’ crooned the witch. ‘Twenty gold. Each.’
‘We’ll be no trouble,’ Ireena assured. ‘No harm will come to us. No harm will come to you or your things.’
‘No harm,’ echoed the witch and extended a gnarled hand through the gap in the doorway.
‘I’ll cover this,’ I said as I dug into my belt pouch. ‘You can simply increase my wage when we get to Valaki.’ I gave Ismark a wink. He seemed relieved. I don’t think he or Ireena had any significant money on them.
Once I’d parted with my coins the witch opened the door. She was a hag through-and-through, as was her colleague.
‘Rules,’ said the second witch, pacing and counting on her fingers. ‘No coming upstairs. No eating our eats or drinking our drinks. Stay away from the cupboards and the pots on the shelves. You may lie by the fire and tend to it but no using it to cook.’
‘I’ll see to it that we all behave,’ said Ismark.
‘Right,’ said the first witch. ‘Right.’
The witches hobbled up the rounded stairway on the wall up a floor, slamming the trapdoor shut as they went. I looked around the room as I made my way to the fire. There was a large cupboard where Asher supposedly took the potions from. Based on the witches’ demeanour, I suspected they hadn’t noticed they were missing anything. Along the walls at eye level were shelves lined with jars. Some contained preservative liquid hosting a variety of small reptiles and what looked like a malformed bird chick. A large black stain was splashed across the floor from where Asher must have encountered the demon. I consciously gave it a wide berth.
We each removed our boots and laid them out next to the fire. I also removed my shoulder cloak and gloves, but I’d be sleeping in my armour tonight. I filtered through my pack and laid out any other items that needed to dry. Thankfully my journal was bundled up near the bottom.
It wasn’t long after we’d finished setting up for the night that a knock sounded at the door. The arrival of the others was received with emphatic cursing from upstairs. The trapdoor opened up shortly afterwards.
‘You let one lot in and the whole damn countryside comes to visit,’ muttered the witch as she descended the stairs. ‘I hope you lot are comfy,’ she snapped at us before opening the door ajar. ‘What do you want?’
‘We’re travelling performers seeking a place to stay the night,’ said Enib from the other side off the door.
‘We’ll I hope you earn enough from your performances. It’s twenty gold a head to stay the night. Come on, let’s see it then.’ The witch seemed fed up by the interruptions. Lucky for us it made her careless. There was an exchange of coins and the witch opened the door, reciting the rules again as she climbed back up the stairs.
Following the witch in was Enib, the dwarf, albeit with ginger hair and significantly more formal clothing, and what looked like Asher if he were thirty years older and had a bear for a father. Not a bad effort, considering the weather outside and the time pressure. Regardless, I was still mad with Asher and the dwarf’s recklessness. It would be easy to pretend to be disassociated with them for the evening.
Upstairs I could hear the witches arguing. I prayed they wouldn’t change their minds and kick us all out. I was doubtful how much of a fight I’d be able to put up if things came to that. A simple dinner of trail rations gave me enough energy to cheer up a little, especially once my clothes began to dry out. I tried to sleep as soon as I was able; the more hours I got in the better in case we were forced to evacuate. Given my state, it did not take long to drift off.
Sometime that evening - it was hard to tell, it was so dark - the creaking of the front door woke me. My hand gripped the handle of my sword by instinct but I refrained from making any other movement. Instead I watched, ready to jump to my feet if the need arose.
In the doorway a tall tattered silhouette stood with its arms grappling a sack. Whatever was inside the sack struggled madly and made a high-pitched child-like moaning. The figure took a few steps inside and looked around.
‘What the hell is all this?’ It croaked under its breath.
The figure navigated its way through the bodies on the floor to the stairway and climbed up to the trapdoor. It gripped the struggling sack under one arm, opening the trapdoor with the other, and disappeared to the upper storey.
My heart was pounding wildly in my chest. I was ninety percent certain I’d just witness the final motions of a child abduction. As heartless as it sounds; this was not my problem. My current objective was to get Ireena and Ismark to Valaki in one piece, preferably with myself in a similar condition. I was in no state to crusade through Barovia, rescuing every lost child. However, if I make it through the night, I promised myself, I will certainly remember this place.