Our heroes returned to Vallaki and prepared for their expedition to the Amber Temple.
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
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.
Ireena Kolyana (a human warrior, daughter of the Burgomaster of Barovia, Twice-Bitten reincarnation of Strahd's unrequited love, Tatyana) - upgraded as a sidekick.
Muriel Vinshaw (a member of the Keepers of the Feather, travelling with the party to repay them for rescuing her), a wereraven upgraded to a sidekick (yes, I know that breaks rules as she started at CR2 but frankly I don't care)!
All characters and sidekicks are level 8.
15th December, 6 days to the Solstice.
The party swiftly gathered supplied and two mules to carry them up into the mountains to the south. Setting off, their first stop was the Vistani camp, where Kelwarin met with Kasimir Velikov and convinced him to guide them to the Amber Temple. Kasimir didn't really need much persuading - despite Kel's eloquence about the opportunity to have retribution and the opportunity to end the nightmare that Barovia faced - and it was noticeable that he didn't bother with all the cold weather gear that the rest of the party had. He packed some supplies, his spell book and set out out light footed with the party on the road to the west.
Travelling on the path, Ser Alys spotted an animal snare that had been laid into the road, narrowly missing being pulled from the ground by it. Soon after, she noticed a group of four men waiting in ambush on the road. They cockily stepped out and asked the party to pay the toll, a silver piece each. and after some banter were rewarded with a payout for their cheek. Kasimir had words, and they were persuaded to help the party dig a hole at the crossroads to bury Baba Lysaga's blackened heart. As it was lowered into the ground, Ser Adon said words over it
May your heart stay forever hidden. Should your spirit come here, may it wander forever, lost and powerless, as harmless as a light breeze. May the Morninglord and Kelemvor see that you rest forever and more.
The earth was stamped down, and trees blazed so they could find the heart if they ever needed to again. The Vistani highwaymen's leader, Tarek, warned them that they'd seen the spoor of at least two of the Devil's spawn, and that the evil in Barovia seemed to be on the move. Ser Adon was convinced that it was his retainers that they faced and this was Strahd's revenge for their defiance.
As they came clear of the woods and reached the first foothills of the mountains ahead, the sun was momentarily obscured by the flight of a huge bird. Most of the party saw it as a shadow, but Kel and Ireena saw it for what it was, a giant Roc. Muriel, Kasimir and Ireena discussed it, mentioning that the old stories said that it was the familiar of the Seeker, one of the three fanes.
They turned into the pass on a switchback, realising that there was a risk that they'd loose the heartening sight of the beacon of Argynvost and the cheer that it brought. The next four hours passed with no more discomfort than increasingly bitter cold (it was heading below freezing), more snow and an increasingly biting wind. They reached part of the pass where the road was above Luna Lake, lying frozen far below. There was a smell of woodsmoke, so Muriel modestly stripped from her armour and clothes with Ireena's help and transformed into a raven. She flew to search for the cause of the smoke, not realising how much her black feathers showed against the snow.
The smoke came from a fire which had gone out, beside a shredded leather tent. The whole party investigated; there was evidence of a fight, with an adult and teen facing off against one or two creatures on foot, with what looked like vicious claws. Was this a lycanthrope or a vampire spawn? Quickly, Gaddock found the path and headed down, despite his dislike of children.He quickly a trail plunging down towards the lake. Yomping ahead, Ser Adon and Gaddock rushed downhill, calling the rest of the party, Kasimir stayed with the mules but everyone else headed down to frozen lake. As they reached the bottom, they found fully drained body of a woman hanging over a tree-branch. They suspected that this was the child's mother, but thoughts of further investigation were halted when they realised that there was a cry for help coming from one of the closest islands.
They made it across, gingerly, as the ice was not as solid as it first looked and there was a very real risk of falling in. Gaddock and Adon pressed on, not waiting for the others. They soon saw a boy, perhaps ten to twelve years of age, climbing out on a branch over the lake away from the feral vampire that was threatening it. A second vampire was feasting on a younger girl, red headed and limp in its arms. Gaddock responded by casting a spell to temporarily blast the creature out of this Demi-plane. He'd planned to grab the girl as she fell from its grasp, as the spell could only take one creature. Unfortunately she went with him which could only mean one thing; she had lost enough blood to die. Thwarted, he reversed the spell bringing the creature back. Instantly, he lifted it into the air with a levitation spell; it hung there struggling ineffectually as Kel and Gaddock slowly burned the creature to death with fire bolts, and Ireena peppered it with arrows, not missing a single shot. Kelwarin finished the creature off with sustained witch bolt, slowly destroying the creature in agony. It was converted into ashes, giving a desperate wail as it died.
Adon started after the other one on the tree, which dropped perilously towards the ice as weight shifted. Alys counterbalanced the tree and Adon laid into the creature with Deva's redemption. Three strikes later and it was destroyed completely, consumed by the radiant holy fire on the blade. Adon forcefully indicated to the child to come down and comforted him. Ireena and Muriel helped with their limited understanding of the dialect that the child spoke. The boy broke the end off his short spear and grizzly staked his sister through the heart before indicating to Alys to take her head off. Ser Adon respectfully recovered the mother, and the act was repeated. They buried them together in a grave on the island, a lonely but peaceful spot. As they headed back, Ser Adon wondered if the vampire spawn had been his retainers; he didn't think so, but he fully expected to encounter them because Strahd seemed to have a penchant for nasty revenge against those who thwarted him.
Once they'd climbed back up to the top, they found Kasimir waiting for them. They decided to set a camp where the family had fallen, with the boy - Kaldur - staying with the two half-orcs. He'd told them that his mother had taken them hunting to get supplies for the rest of their extended family who had found a shelter by the 'old place'. This was further up the trail. They suspected that this may be the Amber Temple. Gaddock created his magic hut, and they created a shelter for the mules, settling in for a surprisingly comfortable night.
16th December, 5 days to the Solstice.
They rose early after the hut faded away, leaving only a snow-covered tarpaulin and the embers of a fire to keep them warm. The weather had drawn in, and it was snowing more. The wind cut into their ears and found its way to any gaps in their clothing, biting deeply. Kasimir was strangely unaffected, still wearing lightweight clothing. He led them over the edge of a ridge, and ahead they could see a chasm with a gate and lonely tower guarding a bridge over to the other side where the road continued. On their right was a shear drop to the river below, to their left a steep scree covered slope. The gatehouse had two winged gargoyle-like creatures on it, and the tower had several gold statues of knights. There was a portcullis that the boy said would open if you came close enough, but behind it there was a sheet a green flames that you'd have to pass through. The only alternative was to climb up and around. Kaldur said that the winged demons would attack you if you didn't have a stone from the old place; he showed them a polished amber stone, very like the one that Roscoe Tosscobble had on an amulet.
A plan was needed; Kasimir said he could take care of himself; Muriel could fly over like a bird too. Gaddock and Kel conferred and realised that they could use their Dimension Door spells to cross ahead. There was a small copse of snow-covered trees they could open their exit in which would provide cover from the gatehouse. The only problem is that they'd have to leave the mules behind; they stripped off the equipment and supplies and shared it between them, suddenly feeling heavily laden. Muriel transformed into a raven, and Ireena took her clothes and equipment for safe keeping. Kasimir started to lift off the ground and faded from sight.
Surprisingly, the plan worked perfectly. They arrived in the snow-covered copse safely. Ahead was the windswept bridge, with small guard-posts at each end. Gaddock's suggestion of checking them out was rejected; they were just going to run for it across and get clear of this place. Several of them used the shadowdust that they'd got from the Carnival to make themselves invisible.
They all set off, seeing Kasimir appear on the rising path ahead. As they reached the middle of the crossing a huge shadow loomed! The Roc! It swept in, with the buffet from its wings knocking Muriel into the side of the guard-post. She hit the floor hard, transforming back into a broken naked human, lying awkwardly in the snow. The party rushed off the bridge as the Roc swept past and over the tower. The terrifying thing was that aside from the force of wind from its wings, it was nearly soundless, ghosting through the valley. They took cover by the gate-house while Ser Adon laid hands on their companion; she gasped, coming back from death's door. Hastily, Ireena helped Muriel back into her clothes and cold weather clothing. She looked weak and not quite with it. As she staggered to her feet, the Roc swept back around. For a moment they all started to panic, then they realised that it had their mules, one in each claw. It swept past, a force of nature, heading back up towards the heights of the mountain.
The path continued up, and the weather worsened. It's likely that they'd have met their dooms there if it hadn't been for the indomitable nature of Ser Alys. She roped them together, held them tight when Ser Adon slipped and tumbled over the edge, taking Kel and Ireena with him. Battered and hurt, with the blizzard getting worse, they decided to take shelter. Ser Alys found a safe spot, almost sheltered, and Gaddock cast his spell to summon the shelter. They huddled together in the tiny hut as the wind whistled around outside.
I'd wanted this session to feel like the Amber Temple was remote and dangerous to get to. Weather needed to be a threat, and I also made the party roll encounter rolls every hour and used them. The family being attacked was a riff on a build from Dragnacarta, but aligned with our game and with elements of the MandyMod remix I want to use for the Amber Temple. The vampire spawn were a reminder that there is a very real threat, and time is critical.
I loved the way that the party worked their way around the obvious fight route through Tsolenka Pass. I also loved the way that the Roc was a force of nature and suitably terrifying. I was fully prepared to kill Muriel Vinshaw as an example had the dice fell that way, but the damage landed exactly to put her on a death save. Ser Adon's quick action saved them.
Ironically, Ser Alys' skill set meant she had a lot of spotlight time in the session, but her player couldn't join us. No doubt those skills will be important in the next session too.
It was a bit disconcerting that one of the players fell asleep mid-game thanks to a very hard and exhausting day. Initially, I thought they were taking the Mickey about the length of time another player was taking over options in combat, then realised they were genuinely away with the fairies!
We ended with a skill challenge from DragnaCarta, demonstrating the force of nature. The falls and cold did around 20hp to those that slipped; that's nearly half the hit points of the weaker characters, which meant a rest was a sensible option.
Next session will be delayed as I can't game next week (and another player is away), but I look forward to them arriving at the Amber Temple. I must give Jag a yell to agree what happened to Roscoe Tosscobble before that happens.
14 July 2022