Kasimir rises slowly, grasping Hircus' hand for support. "How long has it been?" he asks himself. "My life now is so sparse—I spend much of my time in meditation—years go by like weeks." He walks over to one of the memento-filled shelves and finds a long leather wallet. "It must have been nearly three-hundred years ago." he murmurs as he picks it up. He returns to Ina's side and presses the object into her hands. Something clinks inside. "You left these with me," Kasimir says. The wallet's leather has dried with age. Ina can feel several slim metal implements inside, picks, probes, snippers. Her name is carved on the front in elven characters.
"Oh good, Ina's back again," Tegan comments from over in the vestibule. He shuts the front door and comes back to join you in the living room. His head is tilted a bit to one side as he gives Hircus a significant look. One of Kasimir's two companions moves to a position with a better view of Tegan.
As Kasimir listens to Hircus and Moire's accounts, Ina can see many thoughts register in his eyes: confusion, curiosity, realization, disappointment, hope. "I see the puzzle begin to assemble," he says when he finally speaks. "The last time we saw you, Inawenys, you were headed west, to the walled village of Krezk. There was something there you wished to ... investigate. It was to be a trip of a day or two, but you never returned to us. Months later we heard that you had perished fighting alongside Saint Markovia's zealots in their hopeless campaign to destroy Count Strahd von Zarovich and free Barovia from the told you left. How can it be? I know can it been that tyrants been you are born her yes where years when that dark mausoleum. And in the remains, a place the my suspicious place the remain, looking the miracles. There you about, Inawenys, a place far interred for yes a wondrous has when you are again, looking the say that tyrants be? I hand. We grieved and now of dark mausoleum. And now here again, looking the remains, when you are collected in that I know of oppressive. They say the remains."
Everything Kasimir says after "Count Strahd von Zarovich" is a meaningless jumble of syllables. That name kicks open a door in your mind that cannot be shut again. This is the man called the Lord of This Land, the Devil, Sachramenadies, the Powdered Lover. You have met him before, and it did not end well.
Still recovering from her vision of the three-hundred-years-past fireside conversation with Kasimir, Ina suffers no further visceral associations with the Count. Tegan's reaction is uncertain; "Ohhhh," his voice trails out as he crouches against a decorative column.
For Moire and Hircus, the recollections go far deeper.
The Paladin of Ilmater is nearly floored by a jolt of adrenaline as the elf's abode transforms into a gloomy round chamber. Bats screech and beat their wings on the other side of a trapdoor overhead. He is here, Strahd, his pale eyes staring at Moire from the other side of a shimmering barrier redolent of arcane magic. The Count is wounded. He favors his left leg and a gash across his cheek oozes fresh blood. He could almost be said to look uncertain.
Moire's outstretched hand holds a sword whose blade is pure sunlight, achingly beautiful and full of promise. In its warm glow, at the edge of her vision, she is aware of a young woman with dark hair, in embossed with a rising sun, who lies unconscious, or worse, on the floor nearby.
The mystic barrier vanishes, and Strahd speaks softly, "Please, Moire, extinguish Sergei's blade. Its sight pains me." The request suddenly seems quite reasonable, and Moire hears herself say the words Vi sula tasarak. The bright, burning blade fades, leaving thin sheet of crystal in its place.
In an instant, Strahd leaps forward and grasps the extinguished blade. Blood streams from his closed fist as the charm is broken and Moire struggles with him for the weapon. In the darkness, the gash on his cheek begins to close of its own volition. The vampire lord utters magic words of his own, and the crystal blade shatters into countless fragments. Suddenly, unanchored, Moire reels backwards, collapsing to the floor near the other woman. The sword's platinum hilt drops from her hand. Strahd gives no quarter, casting another spell while standing over the fallen paladin. Dark tendrils sprout from the floor and bind her there.
"Oh Moire," the Count says, with insincere disappointment, "Markovia has taught you the worship of the Morninglord, but somewhere along the way you have neglected the Broken God's rites. We shall remedy that in the dungeons below."
As for Hircus, he suddenly finds himself in his full armor, with Tegan nearby. The two of them are in a large library full of musty old tomes. Warmth still radiates from a large hearth where embers glow in the ashes. A panel at the back of the hearth is open, revealing some kind of secret passage. A large portrait of a beautiful human woman with auburn hair hangs over the mantel.
"Hircus, you should go back and join the others," Tegan says. "I have business here. There is someone I wait for." Before the cleric can respond. A door opens and a middle-aged man with a neatly-trimmed beard enters. His eyes grow wide when he sees Tegan, who rushes him at once. "Too late, Jorten!" Tegan hisses. "I have come for you in the name of all the meek, defenseless creatures."
"You're mad! All this over that mutt!" Jorten sputters as Tegan's hands close around his throat.
And then Count Strahd enters as well, not through any door, but simply emerging like a ghost from one of the walls. He works a spell that causes Tegan to drop to the floor, paralyzed. Jorten massages his injured throat as he gives Tegan a swift kick in the ribs.
"Gentlemen," says Strahd, raising an ornate goblet, "you have become separated from your comrades, who even now violate Ravenloft's other chambers. I am only one man. How am I to entertain my many guests if they will not congregate?"
The raised goblet mesmerizes Hircus. He is suddenly parched, trembling with dehydration. He falls to one knee with dark spots dancing before his eyes. The last thing he hears is Tegan's voice, rueful. "Hircus, you should have let me go alone."
To the others in the room, Moire shows symptoms of dissociation similar to those just experienced by Ina, though she recovers more quickly. But as Hircus retreats from his vision, that maddening thirst dogs him. The sensation is terrible. Every thought is pushed aside by his body's cry for water.
The effects of Strahd's name is not lost on Kasimir. "It happened again, just now, didn't it?" he asks. "You have remembered something more. Oh, this is worrisome. I have more to tell, but can you bear to hear it?"
Moire at last comes to her senses and can only nod at Kasimir. Her hand trembles with the weight of a mighty sword, now shattered. "Vi sula tasarak," she whispers. Then shakes her head again, finally forcing the memories back into the cabinet of her mind, adding them to her growing collection of curiosities still unconnected. "Alas for Sergei's blade, now lost," she murmurs softly. "Alas for Markovia, also lost."
"More to tell," she finally says, eyes focusing on Kasimir's face. "Yes. Yes, we can bear it. I fear we must. Some purpose has drawn us back, back to a place we still barely remember, to a cause that doomed us when we were mightier than we are now. Forsaken as we are, the need of the people is yet great. If we are to have any chance of saving them, or you, or ourselves, we must know all we can."
"Wat...", but the word chokes Hircus before it is fully formed. The thirst is the topmost thought in the cleric's mind. His eyes scan the room and near to him is a green bottle on a table. He lunges for the bottle, but vertigo overtakes him as he realizes he is no longer on one knee, but somehow standing. The disorientation becomes prophecy as Hircus stumbles forward toward the bottle and lands on his knees clutching the table with two hands. The bottle spills and the contents of the bottle empty onto the floor. He then spies a bucket and ladle by the fireplace and crawls toward it, first he tries to satiate the thirst with ladles full of water, but it is too slow. With two hands Hircus pours the bucket of water in his mouth and swallows all that he can until the bucket is emptied down his throat and on the floor around him.
Ina watches with wide-eyed concern at Hircus' desperation and moves as if to stop him. "Oh Hircus. Do you have a cloth?" she directs the questions to the other elves in the room and gently replaces the ladle and bucket. She looks to Moire, then, her eyes widening as memories click together.
"I was...headed to a temple. Perhaps the very same where I remembered meeting you, Moire." She blushes, "I thought perhaps I was looking to steal something from there? Though if I left my kit with you, Kasimir... Ah, Moire is right. We are dangerously scarce on information...anything you can tell us will help in the long run, my friend." Ina caresses the swirls of her name in the old leather, searching the eyes of the elf.
As clear wine gurgles out of the tipped-over green bottle, one of Kasimir's companions darts over to right it. But Hircus is already causing greater spillage over by the fireplace. Water from the bucket seeps through gaps in the floorboards, soaks the ancient rug and hisses as it meets the flames in the hearth.
The great gulps have left Hircus bloated and distended, but only when his belly will accept nothing further does his thirst let up in the slightest. He can feel it creeping back already, even as cramps course through his abdomen. The inherited chain mail presses painfully on his extended gut.
With the frenzy of Hircus' quest for water and Ina and Moire's reactions dying down, Kasimir scans the shelves and finds a hand-sized statuette of a black owl. When the furor has ceased, and Hircus is calm once more, Kasimir speaks to Moire. "You say 'Alas for Markovia' as if she had just passed and was not some figure from history. This only strengthens my suspicions. It is said Saint Markovia fancied herself a championof the Morninglord, though she knew him by another name." He turns the owl over to reveal a circular symbol stamped on its base. It is instantly recognizable as the abstract sunrise seen on the dark-haired woman's armor in Hircus and Moire's past visions. Ina recognizes it too, from the tattoo she spotted behind Moire's ear yesterday.
Putting the owl back down, so that the symbol is concealed once moire, Kasimir speaks to Ina. "You left those things with me for safekeeping. You had other, similar tools with you, but I always assumed these had a special sentimental significance."
"The past, the past," the old elf murmurs, closing his eyes in reverie. The fire pops and sputters. "Ina's youth, these lost memories, your strange fits and visions... There is a place I told you about, Ina, a very old place high in the mountains, not the abbey you left us for. It is a place of amber halls, great riches and secrets, power too. We talked about going there, the two of us together." A wave of nostalgia and disappointments seems to wash over him. "I think you went, but without me. I wonder, does the name Zhudun mean anything?"
Moire stares at Hircus with an expression of horror.
When his fit seems over, the Paladin rises awkwardly, wanting to help but plainly having not the faintest idea how to. Instead, she ends up looking at ornamental owl and peers at the symbol at the base. "Lathander," she names it, and smiles. "A very respectable God. While my patron is Ilmater, I would be honored to fight beside a servant of Lathander. As I evidently was. As I evidently did. I remember Markovia, you see. Not as a saint but as a woman I stood with." Moire's appealing face tightens momentarily in concentration. "Not...many specifics, mind you. But I remember her in person."
"As for Zhudun..." The Paladin sighs and kneels to help Hircus back into a chair, so he can be as comfortable as possible at least. "That was the power invoked by a woman who woke us a day or so ago. A woman who wore her shape like I wear this shirt. I don't know what she really was. But she implied we'd made a bargain with her power at some point in the past, a bargain we'd already paid the price for. Our return is this power making good on those terms, whatever they were. None of us have any memory of that, though."
Moire's gaze drifts to Ina. The elf had named Zhudun the 'corpse star' at one point. Perhaps the elf knew more?
"Oh, Torm's great gluttonous feast! My guts feel as if they might split me in two." Hircus places a hand on Moire's as she helps him into a chair. He wallows in his own predicament for a moment before catching Moire's mention of Zhudun. The cleric turns to Kasimir, "You know of this place? Zhudun. What can you tell us about it?" attempting to lean forward on the chair, but his sloshing insides preventing that maneuver. He sits back with a wince.
"It's the same as your tattoo, Moire." Ina notes quietly to her friend, gesturing at the symbol on the statuette. She chews her lip, scraping her hair back from her face. "We awoke in some sort of glade, this dreaded 'Corpse Star' gleaming down on us. Vague recollections of the idea of 'trapped in amber'?" Ina looks ernestly at Kasimir, "I can only apologise, my friend, I have been known to make...rash... decisions in my time. I can't say it would surprise me that I took off, especially if this place was as fantastical as you say. I can't do much but insist I'm trying to make amends now. Something clearly went very wrong last time."
"I don't have a tattoo," Moire says absently, still drawn to the statue. Then she shifts her attention to Ina and frowns slightly. "Well, I mean I do. On my arms, my shoulder and my right leg but not of the Morninglord. Lathander isn't the kind of God I would have followed, in the days when I collected tattoos."
Once more, she's struck by the paradox of recollection. These are her friends and she knows of them as well as she knows them. Presumably, they remember that she'd been a pirate before setting up the cutlass for a Paladin's oath. But Moire couldn't remember ever telling them, how it felt to confess the truth of her past to them, how they'd reacted to it.
Nor did she understand why Ina thought she had a tattoo of another God on her. At last, the Paladin's eyes focus more intently on her elven friend. "What tattoo do you mean?"
"I could get a tattoo..." Ina mumbles to herself, smirking as Moire talks about hers. She frowns, giving Moire an odd look. "You're not..." She taps herself on the neck, indicating the location of the tattoo, watching the other woman with confusion.
Moire taps her neck in the indicated spot, glances as if she can actually see it only to smirk at herself. Because obviously.
"I have a tattoo here? How long has it been there? And you say it's the same as Lathander's mark?" The Paladin looks like she doesn't believe it. Because of course she doesn't. Why would a Paladin of Ilmater wear the symbol of another God on her body, however worthy?
Ina fidgets awkwardly and shrugs. "Um, well, yeah. And maybe 300 years?" She laughs lightly and pulls a dagger out, checking to see if it's reflective enough for her friend to see for herself before handing it over.
Moire rubs the alleged tattoo, looks between Ina, Hircus and lifts an eyebrow at Tegan before finally settling her gaze on Kasimir. "Perhaps you'd better tell us what you know about Zhudun, and why our situation reminded you of him."
What is going on here?
Kasimir sees what Ina is proposing with the flat of her blade and instead offers two hand mirrors from his collection of curios. Trying to align these to see behind her own ear while holding her hair aside makes Moire a little queasy, but she's eventually able to get a view of the tattoo. After the initial surprise, it seems quite proper there. Though she still has no memory of how it got there, its sight brings about a warm feeling associated with Aurica Markovia.
While Moire fiddles with the mirrors, Kasimir speaks to your questions. "Like everything in that secret temple, Zhudun is a most mysterious and ancient being, far older than any of us, older than Strahd himself. Zhudun plays free with the orders of life, death, memory and time. That is all I know of Zhudun."
"You say you died and now return centuries later, your memories confused, and you know the name Zhudun? I say you have been to the Temple. Some say it is the source of Strahd's strength, and must therefore be the key to his undoing. No wonder then, that allies of Saint Markovia would seek out its secrets. But it is a place of darkness and danger too, not a place the Morninglord would want unsealed. It is the true seat of power in this land, for it stood before this place was called Barovia, before it was locked in mists."
"If you have been to the Temple as I think, surely there are answers there for you still.If you have forgotten the way there, I still know it, though in all these years I never once braved the journey.If you will take me there with you this time, I will show you how to get there. I grow old, but it is not too late."
"However," he says, "If you seek answers closer by, and the rest of you really lived in the time of Saint Markovia, there is another who might know you from those days." He leans in and lowers his voice. "There is a woman among the Vistani; she lives in their other camp, east of Vallaki, on the far side of the hills. You could get there in half a day. She is called Madame Eva. Though a Vistana, a human, she is old, so very old. I don't know how, but she has lived the years of an elf."
"The Vistani do not speak of Eva's long life, and I warn you, do not ask them about it. It would represent a grave affront. But, if you are courteous, and if she did meet one of you in the past, maybe she will have secrets to share. She is considered a sage and many find counsel in her tent."
Moire is more disturbed than she can admit to, finding a tattoo she doesn't remember on her skin. That it's Lathander is a cold comfort. Even with missing memories, what could have happened to make her take another God's symbol on her body?
Who had Markovia been to her?
The elf's revelations are equally disturbing. If Zhudun is the source of their enemy's power, why would it bring them back now? Or at all? Why return life to people who would surely set themselves against its favored champion here? What kind of game was this God playing?
"I think before we seek out the Temple, we should consult with this sage you mentioned," Moire says to Kasimir, finally giving voice to her thoughts. "She may remember us, as you say. What's more, the one who brought us back wore an old woman's face and told us to seek out that face to learn more of these cards, cards which had some kind of mystic significance to our return. This Madame Eva sounds like she's worth half a day of our time. What do you say, my friends?" she asks her companions.
Hircus feels behind his ear absently wondering what mark Barovia might have left on him. With a good amount of effort the cleric stands and steadies himself holding his back and stomach. "I agree, Moire. We must at least know what we may be walking into at the temple. If it truly is the source of power the locals believe it to be."
"Our intention for coming to this place was to meet the Vistani and decide for ourselves if they were truly..." he pauses and looks toward the door, "devils, which is how some in Vallaki rank them. I am inclined to believe that we each travel alone down our road. When we meet another traveler we will not know what brought them to this crossroad unless we travel down the road they came." Hircus wrinkles up his face and gives a little shake of his head as if to admit that his analogy was less than service ready. With a short chuckle he continues, "I am sure that you take my meaning."
Turning to Kasimir, "If we would travel to the East camp how can we improve our chances of meeting this Eva?"
Ina twists the ends of her hair, mulling over Kasimir's words. "Half a day's travel is naught compared to knowing more about this Zhudun before we visit this Temple." She smirks, "There were days when I'd have leapt at the chance to rifle through such a place on a whim, but this...I want to meet this Madame Eva, first." She glances at the entrance and pulls the loose thread from her pocket, hurriedly whispering a message to Kasimir. "Are we in danger here? Who resides in the tent?"
"Wine," Kasimir answers Hircus' question about securing a meeting with Madame Eva. "The people of Barovia consider it a sort of life's blood to soothe their perpetual grief, and though the Vistani don't suffer the bleak outlook of the Barovians, they value their wine just the same."
"From what we hear, the vineyard that usually brings wine to Vallaki and the other settlements has not made their expected shipments. Expect emotions to be fraught in the towns and villages. The Vistani have their ways of procuring small quantities elsewhere, but I'm sure they would welcome a barrel or two from the winery, if you can manage it somehow."
Turning to Ina, he says, "The Vistani who live here are our friends, but the relationship over the years has been complicated. They are also loyal to the Count. I'll say it frankly: This generation is not up to the standard of their forebears. In Eva's day they were a noble people. Many still are, don't get me wrong. But they enjoy a comfort here that leads some to dissipation and callousness."
"Their current leaders, the brothers Luvash and Arrigal, are violent, impulsive men. You should not talk to them about Count van Zarovich, the Temple or your muddled pasts. Let them think you were traveling somewhere far away, became lost in eldritch mists and found yourself here in Barovia. It will go easier that way."
There's a knock on Kasimir's front door. "Kasimir, are you in? We need your help!" The voice is urgent, with the same accent as Luca and Lala, the Vistani met on the road yesterday. The younger elves look to Kasimir, who nods. The elf with the longbow makes his way to the door.
With your hosts thus distracted, Tegan leans over and mutters to Hircus, Ina and Moire, "Van says some kind of trouble up on the hill: One man whipping another, accusations, argument."
Motioning to the younger elf to wait a moment, Kasimir places a hand on the curtain that separates the vestibule from the main part of his home. "What do you think," he asks the four of you, "be seen now or shall I draw the curtain and your presence will be unknown for the time being?"
"Good advice," Moire says, nodding agreeably to Kasimir. "Though obtaining that wine may prove a challenge, given we woke with nothing and have scarcely acquired more. Still, we may have skills and services we can exchange for wine. I'm sure something can be worked out."
Ever the optimist. Even when her inner cynic, the pirate, constantly found reasons to question or doubt. But then, being a Paladin wasn't the calling for her that it was for others. In her temple studies, in her training, Moire found that many of her fellow candidates had life-long aspirations of holy service. For them, there had never been doubt, never been anything to question. But for Moire, faith in Ilmater was an antidote to doubt, an answer to questions her life course had asked. In the end, she could only hope Ilmater would find her service as worthy as theirs.
When the disturbance occurs, Moire exchanges nods and meaningful looks with Tegan. Then she straightens in her chair before standing as Kasimir offers them options. "Part of me welcomes caution, especially if there are people in this land who still remember us. But it's unlikely they do and first-hand experience with these Vistani could be helpful, especially if we can be of some help to them. We've been on the run since arriving in this land. I'd like to start picking our path. What say you?" she asks her friends.
"Wine, of course!" Hircus laughs and his full belly sloshes causing a bit of a wince to flash on his face. "We have heard of this wine shortage. Our next road seems plain to me as if it were drawn by the righteous right hand of Torm himself. We must visit this winery."
Hircus listens intently to the advice given for how to deal with the Vistani. "The three we met on the road did not seem the type to be in league with such a character as the Count. Ah, but I guess a pig would have the same opinion of a good spirited butcher leading it to slaughter. We will take your advice Kasimir."
When the voices outside the door beckon Kasimir Hircus looks questioningly to the rest of the group. He gives Tegan a nod. At Kasimir's question, Hircus just nods and says, "I am done hiding. We did come here seeking the Vistani and so we shall meet them."
This wine really seems to be important to these people, Ina muses, perhaps we'll have to bite and complete the job that Vanwandir's previous companions were tasked with.
She nods at Kasimir's information, his advice. It's nothing she hadn't assumed already, and she was glad that her knowledge of the Vistani language had filtered back into her mind through her own mental fog. Now if only they could get through the literal fog, as the aforementioned seemed capable of...
Ina blinks out of her thoughts at the knock on the door, looking between her new, human friends and her apparently older elven one. Strange times. She reaches and places her hand over Kasimir's to stop him, the skin contact prompting her into wondering how close they had been in the past. He called me sister, seemed genuinely pained... She wasn't sure how she felt about the possibility of forgetting somebody that close to her. How long had she been in Barovia all those years ago?
The elf coughs, embarrassed about her mind wandering again, and gestures for Kasimir to see to the visitor.
"You're right, It's about time we started being proactive, no?" she nods to her companions, her friends. She ensures Moire's hair covers the tattoo again, muttering to them all, "Whoever we were, we are travelers now; adventurers, glory seekers. Whatever will keep us out of direct danger for the time being."
Before the door is opened, Hircus has a moment of realization concerning the events of the previous few minutes. He is flushed withembarrassed by his compulsion for water and his actions. Looking back across the room Hircus notes the bottle he knocked over and the precious wine that seeps into the floor. Looking back toward Kasimir he realizes it is too late to apologize, but vows to himself that he will make amends with Kasimir at his first opportunity. At the very least he will make it his mission to retrieve a replacement for the spilled wine.
The door of Kasimir's house opens to reveal a young Vistani man. In contrast to his cheery green vest, he's uncomfortably stooped and has angry red welts on his face. Blood is still drying in the gashes across his cheek and nose.
"Alexi," Kasimir says to the man, "You are hurt! What has happened?"
"No, this is no problem," says Alexi, waving off the concern about his injuries, "It's Arabelle. She's gone missing. Nobody's seen her since last night, nor she in the usual children's places. We need your trackers."
"Of course," says Kasimir. "Let me get my walking stick." He comes back into the living area and picks up a staff that leans in the corner.
"Arabelle is Luvash's daughter, just seven," Kasimir explains. "Everyone will be very upset. I need to go help. I won't be long."
"Who's all this?" asks Alexi, pointing at Ina and her companions but addressing Kasimir.
"Visitors, recently arrived through the mists," says Kasimir.
Alexi looks at you with suspicion. "We saw no one."
"The missing girl, you are distracted with worry. It's only reasonable."
"Hmmm," murmurs Alexi, studying everyone as Kasimir and the other two elves finish their preparations.
"Jorik, stay with them in case they need anything," Kasimir says to the elf without the longbow. He nods and remains in the living area while the other three men head for the door.
"I know, I know," Tegan whispers, apparently to no one in particular.