The Battle of Yester Hill was dramatic and brutal, with fireballs and daring, even bloodthirsty, combat. We rejoin our brave heroes in the light rain and as the storm rumbles on...
Our dramatis personae:
Ser Adon de Rouge of House Starbright (a half-orc Paladin, from a knightly background, with two human retainers and a priest), played by Paul (dr_mitch). Lawful Good. Married to Ser Alys.
Kelwarin (Kel) (a half-elf Sorceror flush with the powers of wild magic, an outlander), played by Graham (First Age). Chaotic Good.
Gaddock Teeg (a halfling wizard and former prizefighter), played by Alex (Doggetay), Neutral Good
Ireena Kolyana (a human warrior, daughter of the Burgomaster of Barovia, Twice-Bitten reincarnation of Strahd's unrequited love, Tatyana) - upgraded as a sidekick.
Alexei the Vistana (a young human expert, sent to pay off his debt to the party by his Vistani elders after they rescued Arabelle from certain death when Alexei lost her in town. A late teenager who is so taken by Ireena and the excitement of the adventure that he's forgotten he planned to be sulky and surly for his 13 moon exile) - upgraded as a sidekick.
Keeping the home fires burning:
Ser Alys de Adon-Rouge of House Starbright (a half-orc Fighter with a soldier background, currently the leader of the town militia of Daggerford), played by Tom (Guvnor). Lawful Neutral. Imagine a slightly greener take on Grace Jones... Married to Ser Adon.
All characters are presently 5th level, including the sidekicks.
27th November (ctd)
As Ser Adon strode back over to the rest of the party, a strange silence descended over the summit of the hill, only interrupted by the crack of lightning and rumble of thunder. Regrouping, Ser Adon and Ireena treated their injuries before the group as a whole turned towards the fifty-foot tall statue. Illuminated by flashes of light against the darkened stormy skies, they soon realised that it was modelled after the devil Strahd himself. Ser Adon couldn't detect anything wrong about the statue, although there was a faint taint of evil in the distance to the west and south. Checking for magic, Gaddock realised that there was something at the heart of the statue, perhaps the vinestone that they were seeking. After calling out and checking for signs of life, Kel set the statue ablaze.
Swiftly, it ignited burning against the skies, reflecting orange in the clouds. The storm seemed to be dying out. As the statue collapsed, the vinestone tumbled from its chest. Once it was cooled, Gaddock secured it. After a short discussion, they decided to investigate the grove to the south. This copse of dead trees contained a hideous looking dark monstrosity of a tree in the centre. It appeared to be made of the same kind of blood-weeping dark wood as the Gulthias staff that they'd taken from the Forest Folk druid at the Wizard of Vines. They entered into the circle of trees, and then Alexei pulled them up short. He spotted several of the needle throwing blights that they had battled at the vineyard. They appeared to be dormant, concealed in the trees.
As a group, they circled around and headed back in from the northeastern path. Suspicious, Ser Adon reached out his feelings and detected many sources of evil; the large tree itself and then many of the bushes around. The Gulthias tree had dark, wet wood, with branches stretching out perhaps 30 feet from the central bloodied trunk. Looking carefully, Ser Adon realised that the other sources of evil were more of the blights they'd encountered. These looked dormant, with little to distinguish them from the rest of the trees they rested in. Deciding discretion was the better part of valour, the party started to retreat. Someone stood on a dead branch, breaking it. They froze and watched with horror as the blights quivered and twisted towards them, a clicking, rustling noise echoing through the copse. The branches of the Gulthias tree twitched, and then all went quiet. The party breathed a sigh of relief and headed back out.
A discussion ensued, and they weighed the merits of heading down the hill to camp out or to check out the other source of evil to the west. Alexei went to scout and came back quickly, horrified. "He's here, with a woman and a huge black horse with flames coming out of its nostrils". Strahd. Here and with the party tired and with most spells spent. They prepared to flee, only to see the talk, suave and attractive Count striding across to meet them. "Wait, I've been dying to meet you... a truce perhaps? I'd like to meet these strangers who I've heard so much about."
Kel quickly cast invisibility over Ireena, telling her to hide down the hill out of sight. They all turned, warily, facing the dark lord of Barovia. A cat and mouse discussion ensued. Count Strahd, all charm, asked after each of the party and then pointedly asked Ser Adon about how he was finding married life. He commented on how he heard that Ser Alys was working wonders in organising Vallaki, but she must be missing her new husband. The conversation moved and Kel asked about who the woman behind was, and Strahd introduced her as one of his brides. Anastrasya. She stepped forward and dropped her hood. They recognised the attractive, sociable woman they'd met at Lady Wachter's house. And yet, she hadn't been detected as undead or evil by Ser Adon.
Lady Anastrasya smiled and said it was nice to meet again, and that she'd told her Lord just how interesting and stimulating they were. In fact, she'd insisted they were worth meeting. Strahd looked up, smiled with the look of a cat that has spotted interesting prey, and invited the party to dinner. When Kel suggested that this may be fatal for them, Strahd looked hurt, and asked what kind of monster they took him for? Apparently, he prides himself as being a gracious host. He promised to send Rahadin over with an invite. He said that if they needed transport, they could just burn the seal and the coach would arrive soon afterwards.
Some more conversation ensued; it became clear that Strahd didn't care at all about the party's slaughter of the Forest Folk. He seemed both amused and bored by their worship, and it appeared - from the conversation with Anastrasya - that their adoration was only accepted as a duty he'd accepted through a deal with the witch Baba Lysaga.
Strahd asked them to walk with him; there was something he wanted them to see, something that was best seen in the last light of the sun. They walked west, looking into the wall of mists, and as the sun dipped and darkness fell, a white-walled city appeared in the distance, in a blue sky, with flags flying bearing the same heraldry they'd seen on the gates of Barovia, the von Zarovitch arms. A tear of blood rolled down his cheek. "Home", he said, "But I guess you can never go back".
After a few moments more discussion, Strahd made his excuses, making it clear that he looked forward to their visit. Anastrasya transformed into a bat in front of them, and flew off, with Strahd calling out that he'd see her when he got home unless she wanted to stop off and see her friends on the way. He then bowed, mounted his nightmare, and cantered across the summit, rising into the sky on flaming hooves, calling out that they should be careful of the wolves in the forests as he couldn't guarantee their behaviour when he wasn't around.
Silence fell, and then they started talking. Clearly, Ireena was just going to be the latest bride, a plaything against the boredom that Strahd faces. Fortunately, she wasn't there to hear what he'd said, but then she appeared and it was clear she had. They all had a feeling that they'd met a very dangerous opponent who didn't act against them because he saw them as some form of entertainment.
They camped in the shelter of the summit, within the stone circle overnight. The remaining fire from the statue kept them warm and warded off the damp.
The next morning found Ser Adon burying the spear where he found it, but something stayed his hand at the last moment. He had dug the hole, but as he was about to place it back in its resting place he remembered how effective it was, how exquisitely balanced and what a joy it was to use. And it wasn't evil, because he'd know, right? He could almost taste the metallic tang of blood as he remembered the battle.
They all set off, arriving back at the Wizard of Wines mid-afternoon. The missing vinestone was restored and a celebratory dinner followed. They knew they'd need to go back and deal with the tree, but it was a time to rest up, reconsider and plan their next move.
Ser Adon knew they'd need to go back, as his dreams became haunted by the spirit of Kavan, who told him he'd made a good start with the faithless, but now he needed to destroy the tree that corrupted the shrine and rededicate it to the Seeker.
A raven flew east towards Vallaki, bearing a message for Ser Alys from her love...
GM Notes: A satisfying end to the season with some good decision by the party not to engage the Gulthias Tree or Strahd in their weakened state. Now they need to decide what their next steps are, and will they accept the invitation to Castle Ravenloft for dinner when it arrives?
This was a key milestone, so they've leveled up to level 6. The campaign will return in September 2021.
28 July 2021