Our party, as it stands:
Camillus of Aegeia, gladiator/warrior blessed by Gold Saint Leo
Zekros, child-sorcerer raised in the midst of the Great Forest
Serena, barbarian raised to be a Paladin of Thor, on a mission from the All-Father himself
Clark Steivesen, Cleric of Terian
Ashlyn, Lightbringer Paladin of Myrionar
Poplock Duckweed, Toad Acquisitions and Access Specialist.
(note: in addition to Camillus, Poplock Duckweed had also been taken down; he was in the same circle as Camillus and came back, but -- due to his particular personality and the phlegmatic disposition of toads, he was much less affected than the Aegeian warrior by the passage toward death and back)
(it should also be noted that as the party is somewhat higher level, and becoming significantly larger than the standard "four-person" party, I am having to adjust the power level of adversaries they encounter)
Camillus, pale-faced and weak, led the party back to the square without a word. Entering the Blood of the Vine tavern, he went straight to the bar and ordered a strong drink -- not even caring what, exactly, it was. The others tried to talk with him, but he was almost... not there.
Inside, his mind kept replaying that terrible sequence of events, and how his impulsive choice had nearly doomed the party. In all his years as a warrior he had never really come close to death. Oh, there had certainly been wounds, injuries that sent pain rocketing through the body, leaving it shaking and sick, cuts that without the aid of Athena would have produced horrific scars or even crippled him for life... but never had he even come close to spiralling down into the final darkness, to find out whether Lord Hades judged him for Elysium or Hades, to face the three-headed Hound of Hell. He knew that miracles came seldom outside of his native Aegeia, and that here the gods were even more bound than elsewhere. He had been more fortunate than he deserved.
The rest of the party simply waited, finally realizing that whatever was gnawing at the Aegeian warrior was something only he could deal with. Zekros got lunch, but spent his time watching Camillus with worried eyes. Ashlyn sat next to him quietly, while Clark simply prayed his thanks to Terian that, whatever Camillus may have suffered, at least he was returned to them.
Finally -- it may have been an hour, or two -- Serena stood up from her table, walked over to Camillus, and said -- almost gently, especially for the barbarian warrior she essentially was -- "Listen, Two-blades, that girl is still off in her mansion to the south, alone. And they say she has the Holy Symbol. How long you sitting here?"
For a moment, Camillus said nothing. Then he slammed the tankard down and stood. "Right. You all didn't call me back to sit here. Enough." He turned to the others. "I think I'll be all right now. Let's... just not do that again."
"Next time," Zekros said, with not a little of a child's triumph behind the concern, "you'll LISTEN when I say we should look for a different way in!"
"Indeed I shall." Camillus agreed.
The party, now (mostly) restored to their usual spirits, took the south road, heading for the Burgomaster's residence, where Ireena Kolyana was keeping vigil over her father's body, or so they had been told, with the Holy Symbol of Ravenkind in her hands. A small band of zombies and what they now knew to be ghasts tried to stop them, but were utterly inadequate to the purpose. There was also a short pause as they heard sobbing from a nearby building, which proved to be a stubborn, apparently half-mad woman named Mary whose daughter had vanished -- taken, Mary thought, by Strahd himself. She refused to leave the house, convinced somehow that her daughter might come back and would be lost without her. As her barricades seemed reasonably strong and the party was naturally reducing the number of assailants, they decided to leave her there rather than try to drag her to the inn by main force.
Approaching the Burgomaster's house, they found it beseiged by a mob of zombies, ghasts, and magically-empowered skeletons, with some of the monstrous maggots as well, all trying to break through the solid door. For once, the group appeared to have the element of surprise on their side, and Zekros opened the hostilities spectacularly, dropping a mighty fireball directly on the center of the group attempting to break into the house -- perfectly targeted, such that it barely singed the doors but destroyed or badly damaged the core of the seige group.
This was the signal for the others to act; Camillus, seeing two glowing-eyed skeletal creatures which he recognized all too well, sprinted towards that. Ashlyn headed directly for the center of the remaining mob. In a matter of moments, it was over.
It did not take long to convince Ireena to let them in, although they discovered when they entered that the resourceful girl had set up deadfall traps in all entryways which she could trigger if she found that new visitors were not what they had seemed. Once they convinced her that they were indeed adventurers, trying to help the town, she lowered her guard, allowing them to see clearly her exhaustion and worry.
The Holy Symbol had vanished in the last few nights; it had previously stopped working for either Ireena or her brother. Her father had died -- slain by poison, she suspected by Strahd or his servants -- just shortly before the zombies began to walk. It seemed that her vigil was preventing him from rising, but she didn't know how long she could sustain this.
The sympathy of the group, and the presence of a near-child, got her to admit that she had a more personal fear; she had had dreams of Strahd pursuing her, calling her by another name: "Tatyana", but perhaps they were more than dreams, because she found marks on her neck. Twice had he visited this way.
This deeply concerned Clark and Ashlyn, whose knowledge of the undead allowed them to recognize not only that this indicated a vampire, but that in many cases three successive bites would bind the victim to the vampire, perhaps even beginning their transformation to a lesser vampire in the control of the first. Ireena was horrified by the thought, but her heart told her that this was a very great possibility. Yet how could the third visit be prevented?
The party suggested that they move her, and her father's remains, to the center of town, where she would be better protected, but Ireena felt she had a working shrine here and that moving her father risked his rising. Clark, after careful thought, proposed that he attempt -- with the help of the other two holy members of the party -- to use a circle and the power of Terian, Thor, and Myrionar to purify Ireena and thus effectively "set the clock back". He didn't know if it would work, but he was sure in his faith that Terian, called the Light in the Darkness, would not easily permit the corruption of such a clearly good and true girl.
Ireena consented and the circle was prepared. When activated, the blaze of blue-white holy light filled the entire room with a blinding intensity, and suddenly Clark found himself fighting for his life, perhaps his soul and that of Ireena, as something seething and dark erupted from within the girl. Against that he placed his faith and will, and abruptly he felt something shatter, a dark binding that had lain hidden and unsuspected within the girl.
But the deeper hold of the Great Vampire was not to be broken so easily, and indeed this action drew his notice. Clark tried, but was unable to hide himself from the now-focused attention of Count Strahd von Zarovich -- a being whose true form the Priest of Terian could now vaguely discern, and which filled him with fear. At the same time, however, Strahd found he could not gain any control over Clark Steivesen, not against his faith and will as bound into the circle. "But I see you now, little priest, and you are in my dominions. For this offense you -- and your friends, who I cannot quite see, but do indeed sense -- shall pay most dearly. One day that which you sought to destroy will become my gift and curse to you, and you will serve another master."
Yet, as the power faded away, Clark knew that he had achieved a great victory; Ireena had -- unbeknownst to herself or any others -- already been under Strahd's sway. He could have used her at any time as his eyes, ears, or even a betraying sword. But now, though there was still the dreadful threat of her being transformed to a vampire, she was no longer a danger to her own allies.
Ireena had felt that darkness dissipate, felt a clarity restored to her mind. This demonstration convinced her to agree to the party's proposal, on two conditions: "First, that the Holy Man Clark will put one of his circles around my father when we reach the center of town, so that he will not rise. And second," she drew forth an ancient but keen sword, "that you bring me with you. My soul will be lost if he comes to me a third time, and I have nothing to stop him with. He has killed my father and seeks me; so I will travel with you, and bring my battle to him."
Camillus and the others had no objection; it was clearly her right and honor to choose to seek an end to what had happened to her and to her people. So -- carrying the body of Kolyan -- the party, now with Ireena, set out.
Nothing opposed them on the way back, and Ireena's brother Ismark was surprised and pleased to see that the party had managed to win her cooperation. He agreed to sit vigil over his father's body, after a discussion, while the party went onward.
As to the next move, the party was heavily divided. It seemed clear that the source of the immediate danger -- the walking dead -- almost certainly was the church. Yet Strahd and other forces were just as clearly at work, and might be the true ultimate cause of all the misery. After considerable debate, the party decided it was time to consult Madame Eva, soothsayer and seer, of whom all seemed to speak highly (in terms of her power, if not of her person). The party had rested overnight in the mansion, so they were well-rested and ready to travel.
Leaving the town was somewhat easier said than done. Minor scattered bands of zombies, ghasts, and other creatures attempted to slow them, but it was not until they had passed onto the first stretch of forested road, with a single isolated nearby farmhouse, that the forces ranged against them made a serious effort. Perhaps Strahd had already begun to call forth other forces, or possibly whatever waited in the church was dimly aware of their presence. However it was, a considerable force of zombies, ghasts, deathlocks (the magic-using zombie creatures), and two immense zombies (either large ogres or small giants) ambushed them as they passed the house.
This was a far more serious combat. The deathlock's spells stunned several of the party momentarily, and the hulking zombies were vastly more dangerous and capable than the ordinary. Camillus was battered to his knees by the first impact, while the second giant zombie smashed Zekros with a blow so powerful that he nearly went unconscious instantly.
The Light of Terian damaged and held off a large number of the zombies, giving the others a chance to regroup. Still the situation was desperate, for the massive zombies had great reach and seemed to be terrifyingly effective with their clubs. (Game Note: These giant zombies were even more effective than I intended, as they were rolling incredibly well -- of six attacks, four were critical hits). Camillus engaged the giant against him, cutting deeply multiple times, but it kept swinging. Zekros unleashed lightning against his own opponent, for things were too close-crowded to risk a fireball. Several hard-fought rounds ended with their opponents defeated, but Camillus hurt as bad as ever he'd been in the ring, Zekros and Serena wobbling near death, and all the others hurt more or less badly.
Taking advantage of the nearby house, the party elected to rest and recover there, barricading it against possible attack.
The next morning the party continued their travels. These were uneventful until they reached a crossroads, marked with a gallows near a graveyard, and saw a lone man charging into battle with a mob of smoke-like forms. The party ran to the man's aid, recognizing that the smoky creatures were some new form of undead, and Clark's faith was proven when he paused and commanded the creatures return to the graves from whence they had come. Blue-white light blazed from the sidewise-eight holy symbol of Terian, and when it cleared... none were left.
"Well met indeed, my friends." the stranger said. "For years untold there have been no such blessed as yourselves in Barovia, that could banish the unnatural with the light of their faith; such have ever been hunted and destroyed by the Devil Strahd," he made a momentary winglike sign with his hands, as if to ward off evil, "ere they could reach such heights. I am Sir Urik of the Raven, last -- I fear -- of the Knights of the Raven."
Serena's head came up. "Knights of the Raven? Founded by those who forged the Holy Symbol of Ravenkind, yes?"
Urik was surprised. "It is even so, yet -- begging your pardon -- I wonder that any other than one of my people would know that."
The red-haired barbarian Paladin drew herself up with a smile. "Serena one of the Chosen of Thor, and sent here by old One-Eye to find that symbol, which is of his own Ravens. Told me all about it."
Urik bowed deeply. "Then I am doubly blessed this day, for the fact that the All-Father has sent someone here renews my faith that we are not entirely forgotten."
It emerged that Urik had been fighting a one-man war to reduce the numbers of evil in Barovia for years, one he knew was doomed to failure, but he had refused to give up the war until he fell. Understanding the party's suspicion about a stranger met in the wilderness, he made no objection to Clark placing him in a circle and examining him closely. Now sure that Urik was what he claimed to be, the party explained their mission.
Urik said he would gladly join them in their overall quest, but that it was unwise for him to accompany them to Madame Eva's: "The old seer and I have had... words in the past, and not pleasant ones. I think my presence would hinder, not help."
The party agreed to meet Urik at his camp, slightly to the south, on their way back from the Vistani camp where Madame Eva was, and continued on. Nothing further impeded them, and soon they reached the camp. After the Vistani asked the party's business, they were led to Madame Eva's imposing wagon.
It was immediately evident why Eva's wagon was the largest in the entire camp; Madame Eva was an immense woman, larger than any of the party, indeed probably twice the mass of any of them, and something over seven feet in height. She listened to the party's words, answering cryptically for some time. Clark took the lead after a while, for he had been trained in negotiations and diplomacy for many years. The earnest, straightforward approach of the Priest of Terian seemed to appeal to Madame Eva, along with the impulsive and energetic interjections from the child-mage Zekros. What truly gained her attention, however, was the clear announcement that the party intended to hunt down and destroy Strahd, if he was truly the source of the evil in this isolated country.
This seemed to decide her, and she immediately invited the group to seat themselves about her table, and offered to answer any questions they might have.
The party, not being fools, immediately sat and carefully and methodically asked the seer questions relevant to their quests, which she answered with shrouded, yet -- with thought -- clearly understandable interpretations of the tarot cards that sped softly and accurately to the velvet covering of the table. The location of the Sunsword was divined to be somewhere in the eastern swamp, while the Holy Symbol of Ravenkind was in a place where travelers rest. In a burst of inspiration, Zekros said, "But... your people are travellers, and you're here. So this is a place where travellers rest!"
Surprised, Madame Eva looked at the young mage, and suddenly smiled broadly. "And indeed does the child have the right of it. One of my people brought a strange trinket to me only a day or two agone, and now I know what it is." And into the hands of Serena she placed the Holy Symbol.
But the powers of the Sunsword and Holy Symbol were sealed, not to be fully awakened except in some location in Strahd's castle. Further inquiries told them where to find a book that might tell them how to oppose Strahd, and how to weaken him -- possibly. The zombies, they were told, did indeed originate from the Church, and were born from a refusal to accept death. Although, she noted, "all darkness and evil here flows from, and to, the Master of the castle."
Another dark force was attempting to grow in Barovia, one that Strahd saw as a rival; this they also learned. Ashlyn's companions, according to the reading, had fallen under a great shadow, and she held little hope for them. The cards also verified that Strahd sought Ireena, perhaps to be a lady to rule with him.
After a few more questions, the party thanked Madame Eva for her help. Following this, the party had a long and involved debate -- a very difficult debate -- on their next move. After the terrible lethal confrontation in the church, Camillus was very wary of confronting whatever awaited them there -- even though it did appear that the death spell had come from a scroll or something of the sort, there was no telling if that was the only such spell, or if even worse might be on hand for the enemy. Still, attempting to find the Sunsword or other objects and find a way to activate it could take far longer than the town had. It was a difficult decision, but in the end they agreed that they had to end the zombie menace now, and set out for the town. They found Sir Urik, who joined them.
At the bridge over the River Ivlis, an ambush awaited them -- ghouls, deathlocks, zombies, and more of the giant zombies. This time there was no doubt it was a planned ambush, for it was coordinated, catching the party in the middle of the bridge when there was nowhere to escape. But the party had learned from prior encounters, and though this was a hard-fought battle, it was not even close to as painful for the party as the prior one had been; the deathlock leading the group attempted to flee, but could not run fast enough to evade Zekros' magic missiles.
The party debated for a moment whether they should go rest in town or go straight to the church. However, few of their expendable resources had been used in this last battle, and the longer they waited, the more they suspected their adversaries could prepare for them. So straight from the road to the dark church they went.
This time they sent Poplock to scout the building; he returned with news that there was some kind of trapdoor leading down in one of the side rooms (they'd seen the mad priest go down through the hole in the church floor), and that there might be an ambush in the main room. there weren't any good side doors, but this time they carefully opened the front door and stood aside. When no immediate attack came, they looked in. Faint shadows and movement allowed Poplock to verify his guess that at least three creatures waited on each side of the entryway to the main church; Zekros dropped a fireball directly in the center of the entryway, catching everything on both sides in the flame and causing them to drop without even getting off a single attack. The party then moved to the side room and proceeded down the stairs.
Only some of the party had emerged at the base of the stairway when something monstrous shambled forward to attack, a creature utterly different from the others they had encountered, and others as well. The monstrous, twisted, black-fanged thing gave a moaning roar and suddenly charged across the floor, ripping into Camillus. The mad priest cast a spell, shattering Clark's Circle of Protection, and Ashlyn gave a moan of horror as she recognized in two of the zombies her lost companions. Bursts of unbearable sound thundered out, stunning many of the party.
The blasphemous monster was far stronger than they had expected; three times it resisted Clark's Holy Light, taking no damage even though the other zombies and similar creatures around it burned, while taking immense amounts of damage from Camillus without flinching. Zekros hit the mad priest with a fireball, and as the old man went down the monster seemed to become even more enraged and berserk. Clark and Camillus were savaged, while the others fought desperately against the mass of creatures around them. Finally Camillus and Clark together combined efforts and with a shriek the monstrous thing collapsed. As it did so, the other zombies also fell, puppets with their strings cut.
The undead plague was over.
Searching the church for clues revealed a section of a book that reeked of evil, so that Clark could scarcely touch it; Poplock offered to put it in his miniature, yet internally very large, backpack until they decided what to do with it. Clearly this had been what the poor insane priest, driven mad by the loss of his son, had used to try to bring back his child, and thus created that... thing in the cellar. The priest's journal was more revealing; not only did it verify the existence of a notebook or journal of Strahd's, but also revealed the startling fact that Ireena was a foundling of unknown origin, not even the natural child of Kolyan Indirovich.
The session ended with the burial of Kolyan's body, and the reaffirmation of the entire party to stay together until, one way or another, the issue of Strahd had been dealt with -- permanently.
Whew. Even written up very sketchily, that's quite a bit. Three sessions worth.