"No," says Izek. "No more troubling the Baron with your adventures. He is a busy man today. But I will tell you, this house was unclean, it is known. The vampire cannot enter where it is not invited."
"And do you think I have not seen your kind before? Aliens. I know you look at the world differently because you come from a light and easy place. It is not so in Barovia. Choices are harder. You think you are heroes today, but you will be dead soon, and Vallaki will stay to suffer the Devil's wrath for this destruction of one of his favorites. Unless ... he sees that we do not support you."
Strazni chews his lip in thought before speaking again. "This is what you will do: Take this thing and go." His monstrous arm points back at Faria, now entirely wrapped in the canvas tarp. "Do not leave it within sight of the town. Then, never return here. See if they like you at Barovia village or Krezk instead. Slay their monsters and bring the wrath on their heads."
"The other way is I must demonstrate for the Devil you are not our champions. You will not like it. Heads on spikes, eyes pecked by ravens." He hefts his axe. The four guards tense and take more ready stances, looking back and forth between Izek Strazni and the four of you.
Moire stands there, eyes narrow, spine stiff as she reflexively steels herself for confrontation. Then the teachings of Ilmater whisper through her mind once more. Forgiveness and grace are most precious when they are the hardest to give. Izek isn't a likeable man but neither, she judges, is he a wicked man. Every conversation, every interaction in this land has reinforced that visitors are common and they all perish. Just as she and her friends had already perished once.
Izek's point is well-meant; the villagers have to think of themselves because they're the ones left behind when their heroes die.
"Vampires are known to bend the mind, Izek. To say nothing of forcing an invitation by capturing and threatening a family member while they were out. Show compassion for that family. Like you, they have to stay here."
Moire steps past the man and the guards, her hands down by her sides, plainly making no aggressive movement. Instead she stares at the canvas-covered corpse and sighs. With bent head, she nods once and turns back to face the men. "You're right, Izek." A faint smile crosses her pale face, framed by long black hair. "You do have to stay. You may not think much of foreigners but these travelers here wish no harm upon you or your people. I'm a Paladin of Ilmater, Izek. He stands for you. For Vallaki, for Barovia, for all of you, for he is a God of the poor and the oppressed. That makes him your God whether you pray to him or not. And that makes all of you people I'm sworn to protect. If the best way I can protect you is to leave, that's what I'll do."
Moire bends and, despite her bloodied body, she hefts the vampire's corpse over her shoulders. "You have my word that if business draws us back to Vallaki, we'll wait at the gates and deal with you or the Baron directly rather than risk your people. In the meantime, may the Devil pass you over and search for us instead. And be content that at least one of his monsters will trouble you no more."
And on that note, she sets out towards the north end of town and the gate leading out. Unspoken is her invitation for her friends to follow.
Syvis was tense during the whole exchange -- for once she was grateful Otrev had his cage, were she holding the small bird herself, she might have injured him, gripping the cage as tightly as she was, waiting to see how things would go. A confused expression crossed her face at the implication of being the "trickster" before realizing it referred to the man she had seen them part with that morning.
Each swing of the monstrous arm, even in typical gestures caused her to flinch slightly, though her eyes narrowed at the implied threat. If the pack was to fight, she'd stand her ground. Her old territory seemed so far away now, the more this figure listed names the more it seemed to prove it, she might as well stay true to the lessons she had learned from Alphas and Betas through the generations. Though, she couldn't help but chuckle internally ... once more she was exiled from a place.
Slowly standing, the wood elf moved to follow Moire, casting a glance back towards the guards, her arms still filled by the large birdcage. Stepping next to the woman she muttered, "If they assume to live by sacrificing the weak, they'll soon learn how weak they truly are." Her amber eyes focused ahead, "You cannot tame a predator by playing by its rules ... you only encourage it. Soon enough then this village will return to nature ... I only hope I'm no longer in this strange place to witness it."
Hircus watched as Izek crossed the meadow and approached their resting spot. Now that he stands here with them Hircus views the Baron's man as just that. Izek is a man with concern for his town and rightfully so. Just a moment ago I was ready to run from Vallaki and leave our mess for these people to deal with. Moire has once again proven she is the leader of this group with her level head and read of our predicament.I must strive to be more like Moire.
Hircus returns to the moment taking his own advice and listening to the conversation between the paladin and Izek. He also takes in the appearance of the guards that Izek has chosen to surround him. This lot wouldn't stand a chance in a real fight. The cleric eyes the city guard with a critical frown.
The harsh words from Syvis surprise Hircus and he turns to watch the elf determining that it was only a parting jab. He then moves to help Moire carry their burden. "It seems we are always carrying a carcass one place or another in Barovia."
As Moire speaks of Ilmater's ways, Izek Strazni nods and grunts, as one might do at the rantings of a lunatic one is anxious to be rid of, while gesturing with his monstrous arm to coax her along. So long as the paladin accompanies her talk with continued movement towards the shrouded vampire, Izek does not protest the homily.
The surface of the canvas aounrd Faria is already dappled with spots from the rain. The body isn't terribly heavy, but added to everything Moire already has on her person, including Syvis' bulky animal trap, she's moving considerably slower. Hircus' assistance will certainly speed the trip to the North Gate.
Izek dismisses the two guards who attended the corpse and then, with the remaining four, escorts your group through the stretch of meadow to the north, staying away from the road itself. Looking back at the house in the distance, Ina spies a small pale figure in one of the rear upstairs windows: Claude, with his hand against the glass. Otrev comments how lately the scenery outside has been changing far more frequently than it usually does.
As you walk through the grass among small, sparse trees, you catch glimpses between the houses to your right of the north-south road, while the palisade around the town bends closer to your left. Izek points out to his underlings a group of three people standing in the road, engrossed in conversation. Two of the guards peel off from your procession and approach the people in the street, who, noticing them, split apart and go separate ways. The guards pursue one member of the trio, but you've moved on before you can see any more.
The North gate is watched over by two familiar guards. One is the skinny man who was protecting the giant wooden sphere earlier. The other, a woman, is familiar to everyone but Syvis as someone seen on the streets this morning. They stand at greater attention when they see Izek.
Through the open gate, the road stretches out across a meadow that slopes gently down to the north, before becoming mired in fog a quarter mile away. The woods are about a thousand feet to either side of the road. By way of farewell, Izek only nods silently and stands, watching your departure.
Ina stands attentive but alert, sizing up Izek and his men as Moire converses with the former. For a moment she's transported to a previous life, where she would watch such conversations with practiced ease, considering how best to part rich people with their money. This...in theory, was simpler, but morally much more difficult; she was used to dealing with some horrible, even evil people, but Vallaki...
She sighs. These are good people. It would be ridiculous to think they could stay here after this; Izek was right. Heroes always leave. Hadn't they probably fancied themselves as heroes some centuries before? They too - though unwittingly - had left.
Ina follows Moire, dipping her head apologetically to Strazni and the guards as she passes. Hopefully we can shelter at the winery or somewhere close, she thinks absently, glancing up to catch Claude at the window. Poor boy. She gives a small wave and a sad smile, bringing her hand to her mouth, cotton already twisted to send a short message before continuing: Be careful, Claude.
Once the party clears the village proper, Moire turns to her companions. Though somber from their ejection, there's an underlying determination that hasn't bent in the least from their time in Barovia.
"Faria may be dead but the work of her hands remains. The fisherman, Pullo was it? He remains at large, though whether he is in league with her or another victim remains to be seen. I'm not an expert tracker. But we did learn he frequents the lake. Short of catching his scent, I think it's a good direction to go. If we can return to the Vistani with something accomplished, their girl saved or at least her kidnapper dealt with, we may sleep soundly knowing we've done some good in an evil land. And possibly sleep soundly from being put up on something more comfortable than the hard ground."
With a weary smile, the Paladin adjusts the burden across her shoulders. "Ina, Syvis, I don't know the rites or practices of your people. How would you see to fallen friend?"
As they continued, Syvis smiled faintly at Otrev's commentary of his ever shifting view from the cage. Pausing at hearing her name she turned her gaze on the wrapped body the two healers carried.
Glancing at Ina for a second she turned back, "... I cannot speak for most elves. My grove and my circle viewed things differently: those that died, their corpse should be returned to the earth. Spirits do not linger in their shells unless cruel magic is used." Studying their burden, "However ... for the corpse of a vampire, I'm unsure what should be done. The dead are not my domain." Syvis tapped the heavy cage, "Nature is."
Leaving the town of Vallaki behind them on the road finally allows Hircus to consider their predicament. He goes over the morning's events in his head. Their simple plan to locate the Vistani girl has created a chain of events that sees them now banished from the town walls and walking into the wilderness. I wonder what awaits us on the road?
Realizing that they carry the motionless body of a vampire in there arms he realizes that Faria's body must be dealt with before they can continue much further. The conversation has continued around him and as he mentally catches up pays attention to Moire and Syvis he realizes their minds are on the same path.
"It is gruesome rite that we must undertake. We could sit and watch the corpse as it slowly becomes food for worms, but we don't have that time." Hircus lowers his head and he recites, "If we want the vampire, without a doubt and in a hurry, to be rendered unquestionably dead we will need to follow Torm's laws on the matter. We must remove it's head then set fire to the creature." The cleric waits a moment for anyone to react then continues hastily, "This may not be what a follower of Ilmater would ordain, but in the absence of time and means we can't allow our work to be for nothing. I say we choose a spot on the road to the lake where we can discretely render the body to ash."
With Moire and Hircus carrying the wrapped body between them, it's less than ten minutes before the spiked palisade of Vallaki is lost in the fog behind you, while the dirt road ahead likewise disappears into mist. Through the ongoing light rain, a damp breeze brushes against your faces. The treeline to the left, which has been running parallel to the road, retreats until all that can be seen in that direction is more rolling field and fog. The treeline on the over side continues parallel to the road as far ahead ahead as you can see.
With the tensions of the past few hours dying down a bit, everyone except Syvis, who ate earlier this morning, realizes that they are growing peckish. A bite to eat wouldn't be unwelcome.
Once the party of four has walked far enough down the road that Vallaki is no longer visible through the fog, Hircus indicates for Moire to stop. "I think we have gone far enough bearing this penance load. Being the cleric here, I entitled to dictate those terms." He gives a half-hearted smile at that then tugs the corpse off of Moire's shoulders and takes the full burden on himself. "Moire, give me your axe. I will do what needs done so we can move forward with peace of mind." The burly cleric then steps off the road and goes a short way into the woods, just enough to be out of view of any passersby.
Hircus kneels and places the body of the vampire in the needles beneath a broad pine. He raises both hands above his head and reaches toward the sky. In his right hand he holds Moire's axe.
"Torm! I am your divine rod. I wield the power of your righteousness.
Here on the ground before me lies the shell of Faria, one of your champions.
Her spirit has long since fled this vile hull, but she continued on after death.
I beseech you to guide my hand as I ensure the evil will not revive her again."
With the final word Hircus brings the axe down on the vampire's neck once, twice and more until the head rolls free. The cleric then moves about the area gathering branches and arms full of soft pine needles to cover up his dismemberment.
Once satisfied he walks back to the road and rejoins his friends and hands the axe back to Moire. "It is done. Nature will see to the rest. Syvis can attest to that."
While Hircus busied himself dealing with the dead vampire, Syvis busied herself with spending the time foraging, having noticed the faint rumble of hunger echo among the group. Setting Otrev's bird cage down she worked -- some of the berries and plants seemed familiar yet off somehow, perhaps a different path of growth and evolution down the line compared to what she was used to. Returning mostly with what she figured would be food the others would be okay with in one hand, the other carried various squirming grubs, the dirt still on her hands as she placed them in Otrev's food tin.
"I truly wish you'd try leaving your cage Otrev -- if I made something smaller, would you be interested in it? Still a home of your own, but less bulky and easier to transport," she murmured to the bird, leaving his cage door open for the moment.
Handing the other offerings to Moire and Ina she explained they were edible, and while far from filling, it would help prevent the wolf of hunger from gnawing at their guts. The wood elf blinked a few times before realizing what she'd said, "Sorry ... that's how the older wolves would convince pups to eat grubs until the hunters got back ... however, you are not pups, and I am not an elder wolf."
Hearing the return of the cleric the druid collected her things, "I hope at least -- nature here may not be the same as I'm used to." She looked at Moire, "The ... fisherman you mentioned earlier? That was his home, yes? I have learned his scent, provided we don't wait too long and it changes too much, or the memory fades. If I'm allowed to rest, I could attempt to track him in a more fitting form," she brought her fingers together with a small gap, "... instead of a tiny ant. If the lake is a favored place of his then hopefully, even if I cannot become a wolf, I can help track him using more typical methods."
Moire waits with Ina while Hircus sees to the body and Syvis forages for something to eat. She takes the opportunity to find a place to settle down in within the treeline parallel to the road. The brief break after the fight with the vampire hadn't done much to offset her exhaustion and Moire takes advantage of the break in action to rebind her wounds.
When the Cleric and Druid return, Paladin surveys their surroundings and sighs. "We really could use a map of Barovia. Perhaps the Vistani might share theirs, if we're able to help find their missing girl by seeing to this fisherman. It seems to me Pullo remains outside the reach of Vallaki, so our banishment there won't necessarily keep him from justice. I'll admit, I'm not much of a tracker. My life before serving as a Paladin was spent on a ship. Following the horizon, pursuing a ship and intercepting it, aye I could advise there but following people overland...?"
Resting against a tree trunk, Moire sweeps a tangled length of black hair out of her face and smiles faintly. "Sounds like all of us could use a rest after this day's difficult work. Thank you for what you found, Syvis. It's accepted in the spirit it's given. Let us know when you're ready and we can be after this man. If we can have something to report back to the Vistani by nightfall, I'd rather camp among them, or among the elves, than out here."
Ina shrugs at the question of dealing with death. "We had a family crypt, I presume a priest of sorts would have said some fine words...no offense." She shoots Hircus an embarrassed smile, "I was only allowed to attend such events when I was much younger. Poor aunt Saredia, not sure she ever recovered..." Ina clears her throat and stops talking to let others with more useful anecdotes or information to take over.
Whil she and Moire wait in a comfortable silence for the others to finish, Ina takes the chance to really consider the situation they found themselves in, mentally weighing up the pros and cons of potential allies. She busies her hands either by helping Moire with her bandages, if the other woman lets her, then retying her braid, fingers snagging damp hair.
She smiles broadly and gratefully accepts Syvis' offering, munching while they begin to discuss plans.
"We can't go back until we know for sure what happened to the girl," she agrees, "Perhaps if this lake is well-frequented there may be some sort of shelter there where we can sit and catch our breath?" A glance at Moire's state makes her reconsider, "But here works too. It'd be foolish to spend the night outside of a settlement if we can help it, though. As attuned to nature as you might be, Syvis, I think you'd be reluctant, too."
Although Otrev understands the words Syvis speaks, he seems entirely unable to grasp the abstract concept of this hypothetical other cage somewhere out there in the world. Instead, he returns to the theme of the local scenery, the trees and open land. "This is very much like the old style from many years ago. It almost reminds me of the place called 'Where I Used to Be'. I wonder how long I was in 'Recent Habitation.'" And people think being able to talk to animals is just a straightforward affair. Proper nouns never go well.
Everyone settles down near the road as best they can among the damp earth and grass. A fallen tree trunk makes for a better seat than the rain-spattered soil. Just being off one's feet is a relief at this point. After about a half hour rubbing sore muscles, checking equipment or just meditating, the rain actually stops, and the fog starts to thin out a bit. This provides an opportunity to actually wring out some of your soaked clothing. Once it's clear the shower won't start again soon, birds and small mammals start arriving. Some have unkind words for Otrev, but he just turns his beak up in response.
After an hour has passed, you're all feeling a bit refreshed, if not entirely relaxed. The fog has retreated enough that you can see where the road north dips down to a rocky beach a little over a quarter mile away. There is actually a small, dark structure of some kind there, maybe a crude shack.
"It depends on what sort of nest can be made," the druid replied simply to Ina's statement. "It also depends on what creatures are around ... in unfamiliar territory I'd rather not be easy prey while I slept. The lone wolf dies."
Sitting and resting with her eyes half closed, taking in the sounds of the area around them, Syvis opened one a little more, looking at the small bird: "Were you raised in the wild? I thought maybe that man who had you before had hatched you?" She paused before adding, "Do you know how old you are?" The druid glared at a few of the animals making crude comments to her avian friend.
Finishing her meditation, the wood elf stretched, "Ah ... the spirits are back with me, and my energy is returned. I am ready to continue when you all are, hopefully we make some progress in your hunt."
Hircus spends the majority of the time in prayer, but only those that knew him well would realize it. He inspects the many links of his chainmail hauberk, each ring becomes a reflection or a resolution or an intention. He pulls a green shoot from a nearby birch tree and chews the end until it until the end becomes a brush then he scrubs his teeth clean. Using the same twig the cleric cleans the detailed metal work of his appropriated war hammer.
Standing and looking down the road he sees the rocky beach in the distance. "Not far now." he says with renewed vigor, "Maybe we will find this Pullo and maybe he will thank us for cleaning his home." The cleric squints his eyes to see more clearly. "Maybe he just took that Vistani girl fishing." then more quietly, "and maybe Strahd will throw us a party with brandy and half cakes made with ripe yellow peaches."
"I like the way you think, my friend," Moire says with an affectionate grin towards Hircus.
Rising to her feet, rested if not restored, the Paladin gathers up any stray gear she set down and once more takes up Syvis' trap. "That hut looks promising but there could be many such structures, belong to many fisherman. It's Pullo we need to find. Can we try to pick up his scent?"
"Oh! Before we go! I nealy forgot." Hircus reaches into his pack. "Lest you thought our good deed went unpaid. We have two dried fish! Moire, you have the other." The cleric pulls a fish from his bag and hands a half to Syvis. With a sheepish smile he tears into his dried fish.
Taking the offered fish, Syvis bowed her head slightly in thanks, "I appreciate this, Hircus." Standing she tucked the dried fish away for later, "As said before my form only lasts an hour -- I can try to pick up a scent now, or wait until we're closer, perhaps as an elf I can start tracking and if it becomes difficult, then I let the wolf take over instead."
The druid messed with the wolf tooth necklace she had, "I don't know how familiar you are with druids, but when we borrow the forms of creatures, we keep our senses. Do not be afraid -- if for some reason I do begin to harm you all ... for this place has me on edge considering what we fought not long ago, if I'm injured enough, my form will break and I'll return."
Looking back towards the town and recalling the wolves on pikes, "... I also hope if any attempt to attack me to make yet more ... examples, you'll stay their hand."
Moire accepts the fish with a nod of the head and soft praise. She then splits her fish in half as well and shares it with Ina, giving them something to snack on as they consider their next steps. She listens to Syvis' suggestions and nods again, slowly, thoughtfully.
"A good suggestion," she says to the elven Druid. "We have a structure in sight. We might as well investigate it and exhaust our leads before we ask you to use your finite powers for an edge. If nothing else, we might as well get the walking done before we cut into that hour of time."
Smiling appreciatively, Moire places a hand on Syivs' shoulder and squeezes gently. "You've proven yourself our friend, Syvis. We welcome your help. You can depend on us to keep you from harm."
It takes just another five minutes or so to reach the dark, placid waters of Lake Zarovich, a body of unknown size—it certainly stretches out to where the fog obscures your view. The rocky beach continues along the treeline to either side.
The structure seen from back at the resting spot is indeed a ramshackle hut held together by liberal application of driftwood patches. Its door isn't set quite right in the frame; an amateurish latch of rope and wood holds it shut. Three rowboats rest on the beach near the hut. Two are side by side, with the third an armspan away.
Bowing her head to Moire for a moment, the druid followed as the group continued towards the hut by the lake and gently set down Otrev's cage to the side while she worked, glancing over at Hircus when he tapped her and offered a prayer of guidance. Guiding the others to stand slightly away, the wood elf went to work, her bare feet carefully stepping in and around the soft mud, turning back and forth while her eyes searched and mind connected patterns.
Working for about ten minutes she eventually spoke: "Someone walked back and forth, from the hut to the shore a few times." Kneeling down she pointed out the prints with the tip of an arrow, "Heavier here," she then pointed from the boats towards the hut, "Lighter there, the only time."
Standing she moved over to the boats, "Something heavy was placed here -- size of ... a child maybe. But too wide, the ground disturbed, perhaps struggling, tied up. Was carried before, heavier footprints." Pointing towards the boats themselves, "The ground is deeper, a boat is missing, into the water." There's a faint sense that if Syvis had a tail it would be wagging slightly, "Does that help? If they went into the water, a scent trail will not work easily, but I can still try. Do you know if there is land in the water?"
Scratching her head lightly she placed the arrow back into her hip quiver, "I could still try the scent, perhaps the man doubled back elsewhere, or the scent still sits above the water." Syvis looked towards the hut, "We should likely check inside as well."
Ina grimaces at Syvis' findings at the shack. She shivers a little when she looks out over the water. Damned fog. She didn't relish the idea of taking off in a small boat, no sturdy ground beneath her feet... can vampires fly? Or swim? What if we get trapped out there?? Her ears perk up a little at the suggestion of checking the shack first, and she confidently strides over. She's not surprised at the poor security but it wouldn't do to let her guard slip. Peeking through, she surveys the contents; unsurprisingly, there's seemingly nobody in, the smell of mildew tickling her nostrils.
"Not much in there by the looks of things: just nets and the like. Might be something hidden but not sure it's worth searching over trying to catch up with them." Ina shrugs.
Moire's gaze is frozen at the sight of the row boats, of the water, and all the memories they stir up. Then she shakes off the paralysis of the past and strides towards the rowboats.
"Check the hut but do it quickly. We don't know how long he's been gone but if he took the girl on a boat, he's taking her somewhere and probably not coming back with her. The child's only chance may be in a swift pursuit. Syvis, you might as well try the wolf and confirm we're on the right scent here. I don't know how well scent carries across the water but it's our best chance. Oh, and bring back any fabric, canvas, anything soft you find in there."
The Paladin meanwhile beckons the Cleric to help her with a boat. Moire passes a quick inspecting glance inside the hulls of each, just in case they aren't seaworthy (or there's something concealed inside). Then she selects the sturdiest of the three choices and works with Hircus to get it set on the water. While the elves finish up their search of the hut, Moire takes any stray fabric she can find, even cutting off a few strips of her shirt if need be, and wraps the oars. Not around the blades but around the oarlocks, muffling the wood-against-wood rubbing that is half of the noise a rowboat produces.
Once the others return, she holds the rowboat steady with a practiced hand, helping each of her friends to board the craft before shoving off and hopping in. Moire takes up the oars, doublechecks their padding and then begins to skillfully row across the lake, each oar dipping in just right to minimize the risk of splash, of noise. Fog can muffle noise but this isn't the ocean; sound carries just as well but has no waves to compete with.
The last time I rowed a boat this way, children died. Please Ilmater, this time, please let this child live.