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Tuesday, July 3, 2018

"Curse of Strahd", Episode 2

Our heroes are confronted with Count Strahd von Zarovich, who has ridden up in a black carriage and stepped out to address the group. His shadow toys with theirs as the Count plays the kind host. As he speaks, one by one, his keen eye falls on each of the four adventurers, even the arcane trickster hiding by the roadside. His gaze lingers longest on the gigantic young man - the barbarian folk hero - whose muscular frame is coupled with a charming innocence and, presumably, a pliable will.

Strahd presents his one rule: his beloved Tatyana is not to be touched. The adventurers, normally prone to sassy backtalk, take the opportunity to pump the vampire lord for information: "how are we to recognize your beloved and avoid her?" Rhapsodic, Strahd enumerates her beauty, while his gold-gowned consort in the carriage shifts uncomfortably, clearly distressed. The adventurers ask about the missing children, and Strahd admits knowing nothing. The group manages to connect the crest on Strahd's carriage to the crest on the liveries of the zombies they had just killed and pulled to the side of the road, and mentally prepare for the consequences of killing what must be some of Strahd's guards.

But the hammer never falls. Strahd bids them adieu and steps back into his carriage; the dour elf driving the carriage coaxes the horses around the party and swings the carriage back onto the road before heading back towards town. A raven alights on a nearby branch, and the trickster, resentful of authority, and assuming the raven to be an eye of Strahd's, looses an arrow in its direction, hitting the mark squarely. The wounded raven flies off, the arrow sticking awkwardly through its torso, and the adventurers mentally prepare for that, too, to become a problem for them later.

The adventurers, having survived the encounter, continue towards what they hope is a town. Soon the four espy a stranger rider coming their way, threading in and out of the treeline. This skeletal rider on a skeletal horse looks for a way out of the mist, its soul doomed forever to remain in Ravenloft. The Kelemvorite priest knows better than to wait for such an undead abomination to attack, and waits until it is in range to strike. A small black book falls out of the horses's pack as the pair continue to thread through the treeline. The priest, his foe in range, lands the first blow with a scythe of pure faith guided by his will. The storm sorcerer and the barbarian engage as well, and the rider is quickly defeated. The barbarian hopes to maybe tame the skeletal horse, but the priest is not sparing any undead today, and it, too, falls under the party's might and magic. The trickster, having snuck over to the dropped book, picks it up, opening its pages to find the rantings of a trapped soul, which quickly begin evaporating from the pages until the book is entirely blank.

The group continues onward, finding a dead body by the side of the road, torn by wolves: they are able to establish that it is not Tatyana based on Strahd's eloquent description. They remove a satin choker with a brass butterfly pendant: the only real clue as to her identity. The group, weary from having traveled all night, nevertheless bury the poor woman, leaving her pendant on a stick marking her grave (which the trickster swipes as soon as they start to leave). They continue on as the night slowly gives way to an overcast dawn.

They eventually reach the massive wall and gate into Barovia proper, fifty-foot walls buttressed by gigantic statues depicting knights in armor, their heads fallen into the weeds and roots below. The gate, rusty and dew-pocked, opens at their approach, and closes fast behind them as they continue through the tight, choking forest. A sharp stench of something dead beckons from the forest, but the crew is in no mood to chase down trouble, so they continue on, heedless of the dire warning that the dead body would have borne them. As the forest breaks into grasslands, a crystal river glitters a mile to the south, so the adventurers stride to its shores to refresh themselves and refill their waterskins. They hike back to the road and continue to a fog-shrouded village: Brovia.

As they reach the town's outer limits, they hear the crying of a woman from a nearby house. Suddenly, a broken arrow falls from the sky, as a familiar raven flies overhead and alights on a nearby rooftop, eyeing the group. As the trickster picks up his arrow, soaked with dried blood, the raven spreads its wings and taps the roof to make it clear that it knew what it was doing. The cleric, trained in some basic wizardry, magically mends the arrow, which the trickster returns to his quiver. Unsure what to do about the raven, they continue into town, to find the barricaded house from which the woman's crying is pouring. They let themselves in and find a commoner upstairs, cradling an uncomely doll and bemoaning her lost daughter, Gertruda. The group approaches gently and asks her what is the matter, and she explains that she had locked her daughter up in the house for years to protect her from that devil, Strahd, but innocent Gertruda broke out last week, and hasn't been seen since. Mary, the grieving mother, knows the devil has been whispering to her daughter through the boarded windows. The group manages to establish that Gertrude, too, is not a match for the Tatyana that Strahd described, and eventually leave the woman to her grief. The folk hero is the last to leave, conflicted about whether to comfort her or leave to save the missing children from his hometown.

The raven more or less leads the group to the center of town, as the morning-lit square begins to fill with Barovia's taciturn and glum villagers, starting their day. Slack-jawed, unexpressive, and somber, the villagers stop to stare at the newcomers, their clothing a muted tragedy of earthtones. One solitary baker out delivering bread – wearing a rich red vest, in stark contrast to the other villagers – gives them a friendly wave as he continues to his deliveries. Though the cleric knows of the Vistani and their language, he is unable to ascertain by sight whether the solitary cheerful fellow is one of that family. The raven beckons them to a tavern, The Blood on the Thorn, and they enter.

Immediately, they take in the measure of this once well-appointed tavern, now in disarray as of years of neglect. A silent, stocky barkeep solemnly polishes glasses; a trio of Vistani keep to themselves at a table, while a green-clad blonde fellow beckons the group of newcomers over to his table. Buying them a round of wine, the man introduces himself as Ismark the Lesser, then inadvertently alludes to his father's recent death. Having bought a round for the group, Ismark asks for their help with a problem: his adopted sister Ireena is in danger, and they may be able to help. The cleric immediately agrees, followed eventually by the rest of the group.

After finishing their wine, and a small breakfast of beet soup and bread, the four newcomers join Ismark and head to the mansion of Ismark Kolyanovich, their father, the deceased burgomaster of the town. The gate is barely hanging, the fence is torn and twisted, and the overgrown and neglected yard is matted and trampled at the base of the house, where hundreds of human and wolf tracks tell of a house constantly under siege, as do the myriad burn marks on the walls and the barricaded windows, from which shines not one single pane of glass. Ismark calls to Ireena to open the barricaded door, and after some deliberation, she does. The group sees a tan woman, hazel of eye, with curly raven hair, matching Strahd's description of Tatyana, and as she leans out the door to check for danger, they espy two small pricks at the base of her neck.

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