A crack of thunder ricocheted around the town of Vallaki creating the sound of a deep, dark laughter as it reverberated off of the ramshackle buildings and around the town square. Whatever passes for the heavens in the dark, downtrodden land opened up in a heavy downpour as a cold rain fell on the swathe of people that had congregated around Father Lucien’s moment of madness. Being ushered away by Ireena he made one final foreboding premonition; “This is a sign! A sign from the devil himself! If the bones aren’t returned we’re doomed. He’ll come for us all.”
The father’s words were met with a chorus of concerned whispering from the townsfolk which was quickly quashed by Vargas who proclaimed that the first round of drinks at the Blue Water Inn would be on him. As well as an assurance that his usual rhetoric “all would be well” would infact come to pass.
Our intrepid heroes spent some time talking to the target of Father Lucien’s suspicions, Milivoj the orphan grave digger. Milivoj, a young man of about 17 years said that the father had suspected he was the one who had stolen the bones due to his shovel being found by the hidden storage in the floor of the church. Milivoj swore he had nothing to do with the theft and explained how his tool shed was open to all with no door to protect his tools let alone a lock. Not only that but Milivoj also explained that he was unaware where the bones were even buried and had gone so far as to say he doubted their existence entirely.
Entering the church the party found a group of townsfolk crowding Ireena while she desperately attempted to calm them. Each of them wanting answers regarding their safety and the disappearance of the bones. Answers that the young woman didn’t have. Vertiginus stepped in, steeped in a holy aura he addressed the crowd in the way that only a man of faith could, and immediately calmed the baying mass of people with reassurances and warming words. The crowd parted and seemed, albeit momentarily, relaxed. The group immediately set to questioning anyone and everyone they could while examining the scene of the crime – a few prised wooden floorboards with a recessed silk lined cavity below. Grom, reluctant to enter any building made of stone began examining the exterior of the church where Milivoj stored his tools. The makeshift wooden lean-to had no semblance of security at all but there were a set of small footprints leading away from the shed and into the rear entrance of the church. Tracing these it was clear to see that there were made by someone small in stature but lead right over to the hidey-hole.
As the crowd of worshippers huddled together in silent prayer, two orphan boys – Yeska (Milivoj’s younger brother) and his friend Herman, fetched water and bread to hand out for them to eat. The group noted that the boys’ shoes appeared to be out of place from the rest of their garb. They were clean, almost to the point of being shiny unlike their day clothes which were stained and dirty. It wasn’t before long that the group approached the boys and asked them a few questions, Rhogar taking this opportunity to exploit his size of the young children to scare them into answering his questions. The boys lead the group to a small dormitory like room where a few of the orphans in Father Lucien’s care slept, it was here that D’Lyla employed her natural abilities to go unseen to pry into the cupboards and wardrobes and it was here where she found two pairs of freshly soiled, small sized boots caked in mud and sodden from the rain. The boys eventually caved to the group and admitted that it was indeed them that stole the bones but didn’t mean to cause any harm in doing so. They explained that they were approached by Henrik the coffin maker who offered them twenty coins for the retrieval of the bones and knew exactly where they were located. The boys, who had been looked after by Father Lucien for as long a they could remember wanted to deposit the coins anonymously into the church collection box – a way of giving back for the years of care that’s been offered them. They explained how the older orphans help around the church with repairs and jobs like Milivoj and the tremendous amount of guilt they felt by not being able to do the same.
The boys, through sobbing and tears explained where Henrik’s shop was located and told the group how they were afraid of him. They also didn’t want Father Lucien to know that they were the culprits as they feared being put on the streets and costing Milivoj his job and home too. Reluctantly, the young boys agreed to show the adventurers where Henrik’s shop was located but wanted to go no further. Zook, seizing the opportunity to do so persuaded the boys to hand the coins to him – much to the disapproval of his companions. Despite saying he wanted to use the money to buy the bones back from Henrik the group doubted his credibility.
The coffin shop sported a large iron sign shaped like a coffin which swang on a pair of hooks menacingly. The building itself was two storeys high but gave the impression that a strong wind might be all it took to blow the entire thing to the ground. Every window and door was covered with an iron grate and shuttered from the inside. If the group hadn’t known better they would have assumed that this was just another of the many abandoned, tomb-like buildings in Barovia.
Calling on his power over nature it was Grom who found a way inside, his body twisting and contorting as he took the form of a forest spider. Sneaking around the building’s interior he found nothing immediately out of what he expected to find. Empty wooden coffins, a workshop, tables and chairs and a sleeping area – everything as it should be minus the person who clearly lived there. It was the final room that Grom entered which struck him as odd and as he broke open one of the downstairs windows to allow his companions in they agreed. 4 Large wooden crates made of dark wood and labelled “JUNK” had recently found their way into the coffin makers shop. Deep, freshly made score and scratch marks from the entry of the room to the crates final resting place suggested they held something heavy.
Whilst all of this was unfolding the call of the Blue Water Inn was just too much for Zook to ignore any longer. The gnome abandoned his mission and entered the warmth of the inn where a crowd of people were still busily drinking Urwin’s best stock. Rictavio greeted Zook from afar as he entered but Urwin himself however seemed preoccupied and confided in Zook that he was worried about his family’s vineyard and winery. He’d received news from a member of his Wereraven order that things had grown bleak and the winery was now overrun with enemies. Speaking for his allies, Zook agreed that they’d investigate the trouble and do all they could to help. Distracted however but his old drinking pals, the Wachter brothers called Zook over where the trio shared a few drinks before discussing their upcoming plan for the festival. Keeping the voices down due to Izek being sat in the corner the threesome eventually agreed to travel to the town’s stockyard where the Wachter brothers said it’d be far easier to show Zook their plan than tell Zook their plan.
With curiosity getting the better of them it was Rhogar who first opened one of the crates. His heart pumped the cold blood through his Draconian veins fast as his scaled hand reached toward the crate’s lid, gentle prying it from it’s resting place. A cloud of sawdust rose up to greet him and he resisted coughing and probably for the best as from within the cloud of dust a pair of bright red eyes looked back at him in greeting as a grey skinned, gangly vampire spawn rose up from the box with a hiss as it clung to the ceiling with large, talon-like claws. The other crates almost immediately had their lids flung open by their own undead occupants as the group suddenly found themselves surrounded by four of the foul, blood sucking creatures. The battle that followed was a hard fought affair with the group each feeling the power and wrath of these evil beings but the heroes prevailed and as all seemed lost for the spawn they bolted toward the window and set to dive out – through the bars and all. Two of them were slain in the process but the third one managed to make his escape across the rooftops of Vallaki and off into the night.
Over in the stockyard the Wachter brothers and Zook climbed atop a brightly painted wagon, the words on the side read ‘Rictavio’s Carnival of Wonders’ and the wagon shook and bowed as something clearly large moved around inside. “Look! Watch this!” said Nikolai as he lowered the body of a chicken whose neck he’d snapped moments ago into a small hatch in the roof of this wagon. A soft ‘thump’ was heard as it hit the floor inside was followed by a few seconds of silence before the whole wagon creaked and shook and the chicken was torn apart by whatever was within. The Wachter brothers laughed maniacally as they told Zook that their plan was to release the creature into the festival crowd – a large enough distraction for the group to do Fiona Wachter’s bidding of killing Izek. Zook mimicked their laughter but quickly returned to his group to alert of them of the gruesome plan and found them healing their wounds on the way to the tavern.
Not best pleased to see him initially, the group grilled Zook on his absence during their investigation and battle with the vampire spawn but Zook was quickly able to divert their focus onto the plan of the Wachter brothers. Agreeing to have Grom examine the beast in the morning the group entered the tavern where they were met by Szoldar and Yevgeni. The wolf hunters thanked them again for helping save their lives against the werewolf attack and by way of a thankyou offered to silver the weapons of the group which would help them in their battles with the many enemies they’ll find in Barovia. Taking them up on their offer the group handed the wolf hunters their weapons and a bag of coins and then approached Izek who had been drinking alone for what must have been hours by now. Whether it was the excessive alcohol or an unusually good mood Izek opened up to the group about his time with Fiona Wacther, his relationship with Vargas, how he came to find himself in Barovia and the strange gift that Fiona gave him using dark and forbidden magicks. He explained how her book club is not what it seems and any ideas they have about her husband should be investigated in full – whilst not asking about the dolls specifically the group did mention Ireena’s name which Izek had zero knowledge of.
The morning rolled around and Vertiginus found himself staring again at his prophetic diary which logged another rambling entry of what felt like a description of a lucid dream he’d had during the night. Mentions of something called a Wintersplinter, a talking raven, trees wrapping around people and a tree which bled blood solidifed their plan for the day – the group were going to travel out to the winery as soon as they’d investigated the stockyard.
The stockyard, run by a rotund man with a wispy mustache named Gunther held a few abandoned wagon plus the brightly coloured one sporting Rictavio’s name. Keeping Gunther occupied was an easy affair, the man held zero interest in his job and was glad to be able to sell off a few of the left-over items from people who had never collected them for extortionate prices. Grom set about speaking to the beast in the wagon who he identified as large, carnivorous predator with black stripes and orange fur who introduced itself as Matilda. The beast communicated with short, repetitive sentences, saying it was hungry and missed Rictavio. Grom knew instantly that if this beast was to be set loose in a crowd the damage would be devastating. Explaining this to his allies the group knew they needed to somehow stop this plan from unfolding but right now they had promised Urwin that they’d solve the issues at the winery.
The journey to the winery was uneventful and the group found Davian Martikov, Urwin’s father waiting for them with the rest of the Martikov family by his side – his sons Adrian and Elvir, his daugther Stefania, her husband Dag and their four children; the boys Claudiu, Martin and Viggo and a baby girl named Yolanda. The Martikovs greeted the family with a sense of desperation in their voices. They explained how the druids had been attacking them continually, using their magic to animate their own vines as evil twisted creatures and turn them against the family. The Martikov’s told of how the vineyard was protected from Strahd’s evil by three magical gems that were buried in the earth. The druids sought these gems out, taking one to the nearby Yester Hill, the other to the ruined town of Berez and currently was unaccounted for. The group made their way to the winery buildings where they were stalked by a small army of twisted, plant-like creatures. Setting traps and slinging spells at a few of these seemed to do nothing as another would soon arrive to take it’s place. The building was a large, wide, two storey affair that had seen years of use and seemingly better days. Inside the building the group quickly tracked down a druid who had breached the property and was busily chanting magicks from a room upstairs – not allowing him to finish whatever foul incantation he was chanting D’Lyla took the man down with a single bolt to the forehead. The dirt-caked druid dropped to the ground lifelessly and dropped a black wooden staff on the ground that left a smear of blood wherever it touched.
Seeing this staff as emblem of evil, Vertiginus cast a divinity spell upon it which caused the staff to shatter and break and as it did the dozens of blights that surrounded the building collpased into
piles of dust and twigs. However Vertiginus himself was sent, albeit momentarily into a dream-like state. He saw a hill, he saw the bleeding tree from his dreams, he saw that it had been impaled by an axe and beside it stood a large statue made of straw. Before he could examine anything in this vision any closer he was returned to his consciousness and urged the group to make their way to the hill immediately. Once they arrived they found a hill surrounded by a thick wall of fog and mist, atop this hill stood a 50ft tall statue of Strahd made of straw and twigs. Climbing the hill and avoiding the cairns and burial mounds the group stood beneath this statue noting it was surrounded by a wall of dark rocks that were under constant assault from wayward lightning bolts. Beside this wall stood a small copse of trees where the blackened, bleeding tree from Vertiginus’ dream and visions.
Before anyone in the group could act, Rhogar grabbed a hold of Zook and threw him over the wall – his small body catching the brunt of a lightning bolt as he passed and landed almost unconsciously on the other side. Rushing to his aid, Grom used a spell of healing to recover the Gnome’s wounds as the rest of the party looked on dumbfounded by what was happening. Zook came to and found that he wasn’t alone beyond the wall, another Druid lost in the casting of a spell channelled a dark magic into the abnormally large effigy of Strahd. Without thinking, Zook threw caltrops at the figure – the pain snapping him out of his almost meditative like state. Snarling at Zook, the Druid generated a ball of flame in the palm of his hand and sent it hurling toward the dried straw catching it alight in a huge column of fire.
The group covered their eyes from the suddenly exposure of light from the fire, the Druid cackled and danced before falling to the ground. Burning clumps of straw began to fall and drop around them as something from within the statue began to break free. Something enormous, something living, something evil. The large gnarled shape turned toward Zook and the Druid and raised a knotted fist of wood and vines before swinging it toward them.
“WINTERSPLINTER! WINTERSPLINTER!” screamed the Druid, the fist swinging closer as the fiery straw rained around them on this horrendous hill covered in fog.