Chapter 12; Rotten Luck

<Near the ruins of Argynvostholt…>

In the shadow of the ruined manse, the Gentlemen Bastards break down their camp and travel to the valley east of Mount Ghakis. They find a disused road and follow this tangled trail for nearly a mile. There is occasionally a sound of metal striking metal in the forest ahead. In a clearing, they spy smoke in the air and two wagons resting in the glade. Near one of the wagons,  a woman is working at an anvil – the cause of the striking sound. 

Galinndan's elven ears detect the slightest shift in the woods around them, he turns to discover a wood elf with a bow and arrow trained on him. A moment's hesitation. Then recognition. He is face-to-face with another of his tribe, a Woodsinger elf. 

The elf lowers his bow and kneels before Galinndan. The party introduce themselves and learn that his name is Landingan, one of the few other surviving members of the Woodsinger tribe. Landingan invites them to rest at his camp, where his partner (the lady dragonborn) displays several sets of armor for sale. Galinndan and Elyadra each purchase a set of studded leather armor (Elyadra obnoxiously paying with hundreds of copper coins). When Landingan noticed his man-made bow, he vowed to craft Galinndan a truly exceptional, elven-made bow. He set to work on it right away, and apologized that it may take up to 2 days. 

When the party asks what they could expect to find up the road, they are warned that the haunted ruins of Berez lie ahead. This drowned village is now ruled over by Baba Lysaga, an evil witch that is not to be trifled with. Elyadra, Galinndan, Grimm and Winston leave the supply cart at this camp and set off in the direction of Berez.

The trail hugs the Luna River for several miles. The dirt and grass soon turn to marsh as the trail dissolves into spongy earth pockmarked with strands of tall reeds and pools of stagnant water. A thick shroud of fog covers all. Scattered throughout the marsh are old peasant cottages, their walls covered with black mildew, their roofs mostly caved in. These decrepit dwellings seem to hunker down in the mire, as though they have long since given up on escaping the thick mud. Everywhere they look, black clouds of flies dart about, hungry for blood. 

The Gentleman Bastards meet the ghost of Lazlo Ulrich, Berez's last burgomaster. Long after the souls of his friends and family have been reborn, he has lingered in undeath for nearly 200 years. He warns them there is nothing for the living here. When they ask why he remains, he recounts his tale.

Over 100 years ago, a peasant girl named Marina lived in the village of Berez. The vampire Strahd first met Marina on the shore of the nearby Luna River, Marina bore a striking resemblance to Strahd's beloved Tatyana, both in appearance and manner, and she became Strahd's obsession. He seduced her in the dead of night and feasted on her blood, but before she could be turned into a vampire, the burgomaster of Berez, Lazlo Ulrich, with the aid of a local priest named Brother Grigor, killed Marina to save her soul from damnation. Enraged, Strahd slew the two men, then used his power over the land to swell the river, flooding the village and forcing the residents to flee. Later, the marsh crept in, preventing the villagers from returning. "For it was my soul that has been damned." Lazlo explains, "Never to find redemption, never to find rest."

The burgomaster leads them to a small shrine that has nearly been lost to the swamp. A statue of Marina has been erected here – her resemblance to Ireena is uncanny. The burgomaster becomes lost in sorrow, and is unresponsive until he finally disappears. 

The Gentleman Bastards find a small manor just across the river. The quaint house looks so out of place here. They knock at the door and are greeted by a butler. "We were not expecting visitors, Queen Gayla will be pleased to meet you." He invites them into the manor's cozy foyer; bringing them warm towels and hot tea. They warm themselves near a large brazier. Occasionally the party can hear the cry of a baby, followed by shushes of gentle, motherly tones. After a few moments, the lady of the house makes an entrance.

She introduces herself as Queen Gayla Abbas and apologizes that she only has a moment to speak with them. For her baby boy has just gotten to sleep and she is in need of rest. Overhearing a salacious comment in reference to her from Elyadra, Queen Gayla blushes and lowers her eyes. 

Time seems to stop for all but the two of them. While the others are frozen in time, Queen Gayla raises her head and meets Elyadra's eyes. Elyadra becomes the victim of a geas spell. Gayla magically commands her to leave the swamp and the village of Berez and never return, or her body itself will begin to decay. Time resumes. The spell sinks in and Elyadra seems to be the only one aware of the lapse. She decides its time for them to go. Right now. When Queen Gayla excuses herself, Elyadra tells the others, "We're leaving."

Winston recognizes that Elyadra is acting strangely and is highly suspect of this so called queen. After briefly sneaking around the adjacent servants' quarters, Winston passed through the foyer and exits the manor. When alone, he contacts Van Richten via the ring of mind shielding. He asks if the monster-hunter has ever visited this area or encountered it's inhabitants. Van Richten says, "But, you're standing in a swamp." At this, Winston realizes that this place is not what it seems. Its some kind of illusion. He wills himself to disbelieve what he's seeing, and for a moment the manor seems to fade away. This reveals a simple hut nearby, resting on the stump of a once great tree. He can see it for only a moment before the illusion forces its way back into existence. 

Elyadra leads Winston and the others away from the manor, across the river, and through the ruins. Winston calls for them to hold up. He wants to try something. He faces the manor and musters his will to disbelieve the illusion and finds it easier to do the second time. Beyond this glamored facade, he spots the hut. He faces it, closes his eyes, and begins to walk forward – one hand outstretched to feel for the wall of the hut. He blindly walks forward. His hand touches something hot, he pulls his fingers back and sucks at the burn that he finds there.

Impossibly, he finds himself in the foyer again. He has inadvertently touched the brazier that burns there. Inexplicably, Elyadra is with him - none to happy with being back in the manor. The others are nowhere to be found. To their horror, they're sharing the room with a huge, winged, two-headed monster! One head resembles a horned ram, the other a dragon. It comes at them aggressively; with snapping jaws and fiery breath. The gunslinger and rogue put up a hell of a struggle, but are quickly overpowered. When Elyadra is knocked down, she finds herself struggling to keep her head out of water. The manor is gone, she's in the swamp, the monster is gone, there are people nearby. Her consciousness fades. Winston, distracted by this desperate battle, rightly begins to suspect this to be another illusion. When he manages to perceive his true surroundings, Winston finds that his gun is pointed at Galinndan. There's no monster – they've been fighting one another! No doubt Grimm and Galinndan must see he and Elyadra as some similarly ferocious beast. The look in their eyes is equal parts fear and wrath. Winston reaches for Galinndan and tries to convince him that its not real.

Meanwhile, Galinndan and Grimm stand in the manor's foyer, facing off with a horrific ettin - a two-headed ogrekin. The beast grabs at Galinndan and speaks in Winston's voice: "Its me! This is some kind of trick!" When Galinndan and Grimm lower their weapons, the illusory manor fades from existence. They're standing in waist-deep swamp water. They rescue Elyadra before she sinks beneath the mire; Grimm administers a potion of healing. They wade over to a muddy bank, collapse there and rest.

When Elyadra feels they are at a safe distance, she looks back toward the manor and tells the others to burn it. "Burn it to the ground." Instantly, she is doubled over by a sharp pain. The queen's geas was ignored and Elyadra suffers its nasty effects. Grimm doesn't hesitate, he launches a fire bolt against the hut's exterior. The hut groans in response, the stump upon which it rests pulls itself from the sodden earth! It charges toward them like a titanic spider!

Gayla Abbas steps out onto the hut's small porch with an expression of twisted hatred on her beautiful face. "How dare you! HOW DARE YOU!!" In a matter of seconds her voice and face begin to change, aging by centuries. The Gentlemen Bastards find themselves cowering before the great and terrible Baba Lysaga and her creeping hut. Grimm draws forth an enormous amount of arcane power; conjuring elemental fire. He twin-casts fireballs into Baba Lysaga's face before retreating behind his fellow Bastards. In response, the hut lashes out with its roots. Winston takes a hit and keeps his feet, Galinndan is struck down. Baba Lysaga points one long, grotesque digit toward Elyadra and whispers, "I warned you…" She casts finger of death, slaying Elyadra outright. Winston heroically leaps onto the hut's root system and ascends to the door above. Elyadra's body rises from the black water, enslaved to Baba Lysaga by some fell necromancy. 

She shuffles toward Grimm, baring her teeth and nails like an animal. Grimm casts darkness and retreats further into the swamp. Winston pushes into the hut past Baba Lysaga. The center of the one room abode is occupied by an antique crib. There's a baby inside: a handsome, dark-haired tot with a defined widow's peak. Under the crib, a dim green light shines from below the floorboards. Baba Lysaga pleads, "Don't touch him! He's my boy, my Strahd. I'm his true mother!" Winston reaches into the crib and his hands pass through the child. Another illusion, it fades away. Baba Lysaga begs, "Put him down! Please!" Winston looks down at his empty hands. She thinks the baby is real. That its in his hands. He threatens her by pantomiming throwing the child from the hut, causing her to squeal hysterically. He demands that she let them leave the swamp in peace. Instead, she begins to mutter the words of a spell. Winston immediately throws the "child" from the porch. Baba Lysaga shrieks and steers the hut downward, crashing into the water. Winston retrieves a silver bomb from his pack and throws it behind him as he dives out the door. The concussive force causes a glowing green gem to be expelled from the living stump beneath the hut. The hut falls lifelessly into the swamp. Baba Lysaga lies defeated in the muck, clutching at a child that only she can see. She looks at Winston.

Time seems to stop for all but the two of them. While the others are frozen in time, Baba Lysaga stares into Winston's eyes. Winston becomes the victim of a geas spell. Baba Lysaga magically compels him to kill each of the other party members. If the sunrises without one of his allies in the ground or if he tries to tell them of this spell, his body will begin to decay. Time resumes. The spell sinks in and Winston seems to be the only one aware of the lapse.

Baba Lysaga seems to disintegrate before their eyes, she transforms into a cloud of black flies. Grimm won't let her get away, he casts shatter. The flies appear to have all been destroyed, but they can't be sure. The swamp goes quiet around them, save for the zombie that attacks them relentlessly. With some struggle, Winston gets her hog-tied. Galinndan locates the green gemstone, it matches the one that Davian Martikov had described to them.

A search of the ruined hut yields a chest containing: a vial of silvery liquid, a simple stone, a pouch of magic sling bullets, two spell scrolls (revivify and mass cure wounds) and four crawling claws! Winston makes quick work of those with his revolver. Grimm examines the scrolls and uses one to cast revivify on the zombie. Elyadra's life is restored. She's unsure if her geas had been lifted in death. Regardless, they make their way out of Berez, returning to Landingan's camp for rest. 

In the morning, Winston is wakened by intense cramps. They leave him drained of strength and stamina – the price for ignoring Baba Lysaga's instructions. When he's able to travel, the group sets off for Vallaki – save for Galinndan who has an appointment today in Krezk. For the Abbot of St. Markovia has invited him to be in attendance when he presents Strahd with a gift.

Elyadra, Grimm and Winston return to Vallaki. Elyadra visits Wachterhaus to claim the reward for Izek Strazni's head. She finds a distraught Lady Wachter, who explains that her daughter, Stella, has gone missing. Elyadra promises to return her home safely. She's given thanks and a bag full of electrum coins. Each is marked with a dread reminder: the profiled visage of Strahd von Zarovich. 

Winston seeks out a tailor. He commissions the construction of a parachute, offering the tailor double if it could be completed in 24 hours. He meets Grimm and Elyadra at the Blue Water Inn. Winston has an idea for a new type of explosive, he can't seem to get the idea out of his head. With Grimm's help, he spends several hours tinkering. Elyadra makes arrangements with them to meet up again in Krezk before she departs. 

Elyadra heads west to the Wizard of Wines Winery to turn the green gemstone over to Davian Martikov. She's warmly welcomed and offered lunch. There's a twinkle in his eye when Davian thanks her for the gem and he vows to get wine flowing in Barovia again. She takes the meal in a private dining room. When they are alone, the cat climbs out of Elyadra's backpack. It shapeshifts into Stella Wachter. As they share a meal, its obvious that Stella has developed a sort of hero worship of Elyadra. Elyadra offers the girl a suit of leather armor that she had just replaced. Stella tries it on; its a little snug, but comfortable. She beams with pleasure before getting embarrassed and turning back into a cat.

Galinndan reaches the walled town of Krezk after several hours of travel. The road and surrounding woods were preternaturally quiet. Its as if the land of Barovia is holding its breath, waiting for something terrible to happen. He is not allowed entry right away, the guards summon Baron Krezkov. After being seen in the company of a werewolf last time he was in town, Galinndan has to do some persuading to be allowed in. Baron Krezkov acquiesces, but requires him to be accompanied by an armed escort. Galinndan heads directly up the hill to the abbey, two guards with pikes hurry after. They go only as far as the abbey gate, where they vow to wait for Galinndan to return. The wood elf sneaks into the abbey grounds.

The ever-present hooting of the imprisoned mongrelmen is down to a dull roar. He finds the Abbot on the roof. He's waiting patiently at the parapet, staring off into the east. Galinndan remains hidden. Within an hour, they spot a shape in the fog. Strahd approaches, astride his black, flying horse. He's not alone in the saddle. Galinndan recognizes the woman sitting behind Strahd as Ireena Kolyana – but she looks different. She had always been so warm and full of life, now there's an unnatural coldness to her. The Abbot is also surprised to see the woman, but only hesitates for a moment. He begins by thanking Strahd for agreeing to the meeting. He immediately calls for Vasilka to come out to meet her king. From the abbey doorway, Vasilka meekly steps forward. She's stunning at first sight, but something about her isn't quite right. Its obvious that she was built by a man rather than by Nature. Her impossible figure, her big eyes, her pouty lips - all built to please the eye rather than to resemble an actual woman. She's dressed in the fine, white gown which Galinndan had delivered to the Abbot days before. Strahd looks at her in blatant disgust. The Abbot sees this and begins to describe how he has spared no expense and finely crafted every exquisite detail, but stumbles on his words. Strahd cuts him off, "This disgusts me. You offend me with this abomination. I should strike you down for this!" His anger rises with every word. Until, Ireena places a cold, white hand upon his shoulder. The wrath in him is immediately stilled, he cocks his head to fondly rest on the back of her hand. Ireena whispers something to him that the others can't hear. Strahd straightens in the saddle, giving the Abbot one final infuriated look. Then he jerks the reins and leaves without another word. 

The Abbot watches them go and stares after them for several minutes as Galinndan continues to spy from his hiding place. The Abbot suddenly turns on Vasilka, "You are disgusting, aren't you? After all the work I've done, you are such a disappointment!" She just looks back at him with those empty eyes. The Abbot fetches a whip that is used to keep the mongrelfolk in line. He brandishes it before her. "Your fault, its obviously your fault!" He lashes out at her. Rather than drawing blood, the whip tears the tediously stitched seams of her flesh. He lashes out again and again. Vasilka falls, arms raised in a gesture of surrender. Yet, she's eerily silent. Galinndan does not come to her aid. Spittle flies from the Abbot's sick grin with each strike. He whips her again and again without showing sign of relenting. Suddenly there's a loud crack! The whip has wrapped around Vasilka's forearm. She yanks it from the Abbot, taking him by complete surprise, ripping it from his grasp. In a matter of seconds, she rips the man to pieces. She tears off the arms that created her – the same arms that abused her. The Abbot screams as he watches her bite into the severed arm. Those perfectly straight, white teeth chew into his flesh. He makes a gurgling sound with all that blood in throat. She tosses the arm aside. He's still alive when she starts to rip open his ribcage to eat his heart. 

And Galinndan just continues to watch, frozen in abject terror. Vasilka rises from the Abbot's ravaged body and walks toward the former hospital wing of the abbey. This wing is now a prison for the Abbot's other creations. Clovin Belview, the cruel mongrelman responsible for feeding the prisoners, steps in front of her defiantly. Before he can say a word, she rips out his throat – his extra baby head begins to wail. The hundreds of mongrelfolk begin to cheer and to beg Vasilka for food, for water, for freedom. Without breaking stride, she crosses to the end of the hall. She throws the lever that disengages the cell's locks. A horde of stinking, ravenous monsters surges out.

They consume Clovin's body in seconds, then they finish the remains of the Abbot. A group of them burst through the abbey gate, others simply climb over. The two guards that had accompanied Galinndan are likewise killed and consumed. The crazed and abused mongrelfolk of St. Markovia's abbey descend on the town of Krezk. They tear vegetables from gardens, they take food from the tables and very hands of the townsfolk. When the guards ineffectually try to quell the rebellion, the mightier of the mongrels destroy them. Eat them. Then seek out more human flesh. Galinndan looks on as pandemonium breaks out in the town of Krezk.

Chapter 12; Rotten Luck

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