The cawing echoes of vultures sweeps across the dusty plains like a wave, mimicking the breeze as it ripples across the grass. Little disturbs the wildlife in these parts, but a crackling fire illuminates the dusk – revealing four adventurers, cloaked in linens and relishing the warmth of the humble campfire.
Roscoe Fernbough – a short, stout fellow – dexterously uses a flint to light his pipe. His eyes shift from side to side, hands never more than a matter of inches from the deadly bladed kamas hitched to his belt. Hugh Mann – a taller, though equally shifty creature – sits on a stump further from the group. Almost motionless and gazing into the darkness, grafting an unsettling eye shape into the stump beside him with his prize blade.
“Ace” – more slender than the others, sharp-eared – still cloaked but somehow warmer in outlook than the others. Could it be the whisky? Shaxx – huge, lumbering – stands tall beside the fire, casting a stern glance across proceedings from beneath his single-horned helmet. The fire feels good on his ankles.
Shautha Bloodfist (henceforth “Sharon”) emerges from the darkness, the fifth and final of the bunch, and launches the sticks of timber from her arms and onto the dying fire. The roar of the flames sounds odd and unnatural, as if something is making the air heavy.
A shout. Hugh alerts the party to a clawing black mist approaching from the east.
Another shout. Ace looses a bolt of light westward, fading after sixty feet, but not before revealing a group of marauding dark creatures. They howl as they close the gap towards the campfire.
Accosted by darkness on all sides, the party haphazardly finds their feet and engages, landing heavy blows on their assailants. The mist is unrelenting, however, and the darkness overcomes them.
Raindrops rattle off the wooden outhouse like rocks off a mountainside. Skin soaked, the party awakens to a setting most different than the one they just left. Unsure of their predicament, but certain that their equipment has gone awry, they trudge onwards. Despite their exhaustion, it is clear to all – even the barely educated Goliath – that the cold will soon overcome them all.
An outline of a house emerges from the treeline. Cautious at first, the party knows it needs shelter. The house is enormous – a manor of some repute, for sure – but looks dilapidated despite its grandeur. Windows lack the shine of a lived-in noble’s home, and the bricks and mortar have seen better days. On the front steps of the house, past the gated exterior, are two children – Rose and Thorn. They are fraught with despair, desperate for aid in finding their parents. They are quick to divulge that their parents have put their younger brother – Walter – in a room on the upper floors of the house. When asked where their parents have gone, the two siblings wail with fear.
A monster under the house.
Uncertain about their predicament, struggling to trust the words of two suspicious children, the party agrees that they need equipment. A trip to the stables shows the extent of the decay that afflicts the house. More in their favor, the party finds equipment used by the farmhands and stable boys – perfect to fashion into weapons.
The servants quarters are a needless distraction. Onwards into the house.
The house is grand, walled with rich mahogany and gold veneers. Chandeliers and nepotistic paintings of the Durst family lineage stare down at the adventurers. Deeper into the house, the party finds a room. Quick investigation – animal skins, crossbows, chests and cabinets – this is a hunting room. Strange, eerie echoes can be heard through the walls, just beyond earshot. Best not to linger.
On a balcony above, the party plots the way to rescue the wayward child. After ascending the spiral staircase, Roscoe gazes back down at the room below. Why are the stuffed wolves assembled at the bottom? Before he can echo his concerns in the minds of his comrades, the Goliath takes a liking to the dusty suit of armor beside him. Unfortunately, the armor likes him too.
A short battle, drawn to a close as the suit of armor careens off the edge of the balcony with the party in tow. A low center of gravity keeps Roscoe safe and sound, but the armor shatters on contact with the hunting room floor. Shaxx bemoans his loss, and promptly rips off the heads of the stuffed wolves. No more being tailed, pun intended.
As Ace, Hugh, and Sharon ascend further into the maison, Shaxx remains behind to aid the disgruntled Roscoe. After all, he had just fallen off of a twenty foot balcony, y’know?
With caution, a door is opened at the end of the hallway. The three enter to the room and freeze – someone stands before them, turned away. It’s a specter. She holds a baby in her arms.
Her flesh detaches from her face like rotten meat as she turns her gaze upon them. Ace preaches diplomacy – why antagonize the spirit? A bolt of pure white light thunders through the doorway, incinerating a hole in the floating creature’s chest. Shaxx gazes on valiantly from down the hallway.
Pissed, the specter claws frantically across the Goliath’s chest, and screeches. She disappears into a wall nearby.
The party reunites, searching the room for clues. They find a chest, which Hugh expertly opens. A cloth resides in the chest, laying over a humanoid figure. Rattled, the party preaches caution. Irritated, the Goliath preaches poking. A swift jab with the end of his stick reawakens the spirit. She claws out again at the party, landing blows here and there.
As quickly as she appeared, she is now gone. Blade and fist too much for her to handle, even in undeath.
Further investigation reveals a mirror on the dresser. The specter’s visage reveals itself once more, baby in arms. She motions for silence once again as she presses her rotting finger against her lips. A smirk, and then she’s gone. The party hears a click, and the secret passage behind the dresser is revealed.
A rest is needed. A quick search reveals a room, windowless. Horrid nightmares accost the party – whispers, screams, visions of death and decay – but the rest serves its purpose.
Vigor renewed, the party heads on. Discussing their unsettling dreams, the party finds a room with the door ajar. Heading in, they see familiar faces – Rose and Thorn. More concerning, they seem to be floating each above a pile of bones. It becomes apparent that these bones are their own.
The children seem unable to divulge more than earlier but – facing their predicament head on – seem more keen to help. Sharon takes a liking to Rose in her attempts to protect her brother, and the feeling is mutual. Rose reaches out like a lost child, grasping for a warm soul. They bond. They are now one.
The search for Walter is forfeit, the search for the parents is paramount. A unanimous decision brings the party back to the hidden door, luckily sans specter this time.
The descent into madness begins.
Time seems fluid, unnatural. A low, monotonous chanting fills the ears of the party, and the stench of death is overwhelming. Flayed skin decorates the ashen grey walls. The winding halls drag the party further in.
Rose remains silent.
The first room houses four beds, and four chests. Those brave enough to open the boxes find logbooks, documentation of horrific torture and experiments. A “how-to” of skinning prisoners. Cuts against the grain yield more screams, but surprisingly less bleeding, did you know? Roscoe is certain he sees Hugh pocket a particularly graphic looking page, but says no more.
Further down the rabbit hole. The passages all seem familiar, indistinguishable from each other. Stairs descend further into hell, but the chanting maintains its pace. Ace critiques their rhythm. Amateurs.
A reliquary. Spaces in the walls, large enough to harbor items. The party takes a moment to inspect these treasures.
An angelic feather, a drop of blood hanging from the end of the quill as it floats of its own accord. A wooden figurine of a knight with the emblem of a rose across his cuirass sits on the west wall. Severed raven talons are scattered and falling from its spot.
A small chunk of amber resin sits alone on a pedestal in the middle of the room. Roscoe farts as he touches it, communicating its innate evil to the rest of the party.
Next to the skeletal remains of a dragon egg lies a journal. Shaxx approaches it. Trepidation. To both his surprise and his horror, his name adorns the front of the book. Opening the leather-bound journal reveals a cataloged history of his life so far. The final pages chill him to the core – “Shaxx turns around to see…”
Shaxx spins around in terror. It’s Hugh. The rogue raises his eyebrow and walks away, and Shaxx sees the ink fall from the pages. It seemed to have been written in blood.
Coming to terms with the fact that the last nightmare-less sleep the party will ever have is far behind them, a screech from down the hall brings them back to reality. Find the Dursts, escape this prison of ghosts and flesh.
A portcullis guards the way. The Goliath summons a most holy bout of strength to send it into the rafters above. The party continues on, narrowly evading a trapped plank of wood. The party is on edge – these bastard cultists are defending something. What is it? And why won’t they stop that incessant chanting?
The next room seems to have an air of finality about it.
Tall, hooded figures surround the outer walls, raised up on ledges out of reach. They gaze down dispassionately at the new arrivals. An altar awaits the party in the middle. Shaxx throws a stone at one of the eldritch figures, revealing it as incorporeal. Ace says he could have landed that stone between the eyes.
Rose whispers to Sharon that she’s terrified. Sharon denies her own fear, but Rose can sense it.
On closer inspection, materialized out of thin air, a white bundle of cloth appears on the altar. So too does a dagger – well crafted, according to the party rogue – and adorned with fresh blood that appears not to drip. The figures urge us to sacrifice the child. The party suggests not. Shaxx grabs the baby and shuns the demands. The chanting ceases.
Perhaps some persuasion is required.
A gate at the far end of the room groans open. A most hellish sound of moisture and the scraping of bone resonates from the chamber beyond. From out of view, a monstrosity constructed of flesh and bone, hearts and lungs, tissue and rib cages shudders into view. The walls start to shake, but it is not the creature that is causing it. The house itself is rejecting the party’s heresy.
Turning tail, the exhausted adventurers retreat from the demonic construct that seems to be almost gliding across the stone towards them.
The portcullis grunts as the quaking of the foundations seeks to free it from the rafters, but Shaxx can’t quiet a proud smirk as they rush through. Did they not see how I launched it skyward with the force of Tyr himself?
Spiders emerge from the walls like a plague, and a splintering crash opens the wall to the left. The arachnid matriarch rounds the corner, but Ace is too quick. The craft of magic frightens the beast, and it scuttles away.
Through luck divine or otherwise, the party finds itself at the spiral staircase which began the descent into madness. Ascending is much more difficult with some steps missing and a dead baby in tow. Breathless, the orc unceremoniously knocks over the dresser as the group emerge into the room where they first met the specter.
To their surprise, however, they are asked to be silent.
Shocked, the party sees a woman giving birth on a bed at the far end of the room. She seems deep into labor, Hugh’s uncertified (but otherwise legitimate) medical advice suggests. Worse still, the hallway which leads to the balcony and their freedom has turned into a spectacle – saw blades descend from seemingly nowhere. Ace notes the frantic nature of the blades mimicking the erratic nature of the soon-to-be mother’s contractions.
No time to waste!
As the contractions fall into a lull, the entourage are able to jimmy their way through the deadly hallway and onto the balcony. At this point, paintings are falling from their adorned places on the walls, and the dust and decay that covered everything instead cakes the air itself. Breathing is becoming harder. Glass shatters with every step. The house is heaving, rejecting a foreign entity.
Most descend the stairs with great haste. Hugh and Roscoe acrobatically vault the balcony. Shaxx scoffs. Freedom is almost in sight as the mahogany doors of the hunting room are battered aside, revealing a new but horrifying predicament.
The front door is being boarded up by bricks.
Whereas before the house seemed to wish to expel them, a change of heart wishes them locked within its haunted walls forever.
Panic breaks out. Each individual members storms forward to pull the bricks away, but with each blink several more bricks latch themselves onto the door. Shaxx braces himself and barrels into a softer part of the wall next to the door.
The air is fresh. The mist that hung heavy on the air outside is gone.
The party gallops frantically to escape through the gate. Sharon gasps in surprise. Rose does not want to lose her host, a sentiment which so offends Shaxx’s sensibilities. Hugh and Roscoe sleight the baby’s swaddled corpse from the Goliath’s hands in tandem as Ace looses a whimsical force from his fingertips to part the final gate.
Shaxx brandishes his mark of Tyr as a sign of banishment to the spirit. Nothing.
Plan B takes form – grabbing Sharon by the arm, the Goliath – through sheer force of will – tosses the orc with all his might towards the gate. Sharon looses a squeal as she feels Rose ripped from her very soul, damned to remain within the walls of the crumbling house.
A second of pure silence – so coveted after the horrors of the day, it appears to last forever – and then the house implodes. Everything drawn inwards like a dying star, before retching with such vigor that the party are knocked off their feet.
Roscoe, Hugh, Sharon, and Ace. They rise slowly to witness the destruction in their wake. Yet, there is nothing. And also, no Shaxx.
To the left. A figure. The Goliath’s motionless corpse rests atop the grass. The smell of morning dew on the grass is cut with the familiar smell of melting flesh. To everyone’s surprise, Shaxx’s seemingly immovable helmet lays on the ground beside him. His eyes aren’t there anymore. Did he ever have eyes to begin with?
He rises. Hugh asks him what happened. Shaxx is silent, and puts his helmet back on.
The pregnant moment of silence is broken by Ace cracking his knuckles, and motioning for his comrades to follow him down an emergent path. The mist has dissipated fully, and the sun seems to be rising. Nobody comments on the beauty of the sunrise.
A picnic basket sits several paces down the path, next to a sign.
“Death House – Don’t Talk To The Children!”
The basket sticks out like a sore thumb, neatly packaged with a plaid blanket underneath it. Inside, to much relief, is the party’s missing equipment.
A note, too.
I regret your loss, I truly do. But surely now you must see the futility of your efforts. I offer you a simple trade:
Release Tatyana to me, and I will see that you are left in peace.
Your dread lord and master,
Strahd von Zarovich