"Tegan! It is good to see you again lad. I knew you would be fine, I did. I didn't doubt you for a minute." Hircus laughs and slaps the man on the back. "Well, maybe for a minute. I am curious to hear about this new friend of yours, Oblio and what you might have said to lead him to the gallows. I am also interested in the local politics, but let's cut to chase here friend." The cleric's face hardens, "What did you learn at the castle? What can you tell us of Strahd? Maybe less that we can tell you."
Tegan return's Hircus' warm salutation, but hesitates at the questions about Oblio. " "Hrmmmmm ... I don't know, old man. I'd normally tell you everything, but I'm just a little worried the four of you might march right along in his footsteps if I did. No, you're better off not knowing. Just find a nice empty house here to hole up in for tonight and then carry on with whatever else it was you were going to do."
"Oh, that," Tegan says with a downward glance when Hircus asks about the castle. "It seemed like it would be easy enough to get in, but that drawbridge is not up to Waterdeep standards. Put my foot through a board and almost went all the way down. Tried shouting across for the doorman, but no luck. So we circled around but couldn't find a way. Then I saw something—it's hard, isn't it, not knowing what's going to give you a dose of the Barovia Vapors? Bless Tymora for Van here; I think he steered me away from wandering off the precipice."
"So here we are in beautiful Barovia Village with another day gone by." Tegan flops down on the couch, his gray robes bunching up beneath his chin. "I think I've got an angle now with that Hanzi. He and his sisters have some sway here, and some contacts at the castle. But what did you learn? Out with it, you cagey old goat!"
Tegan continues briefly explaining his whereabouts since he left the party a day ago, but Hircus only hears Tegan's dodging. The big man nods along until his friend flops down on the couch. Hircus moves toward the couch, stomps a foot on the Tegan's robes to pin him to the couch and leans in. "What I've learned? I have learned to spare little confidence for those you meet in Barovia. I have learned that we... Moire, Ina, you and me were returned here for good reason, and I don't think that a simple parley with the Vistani King is the answer. If you have more information to share with the group, spill it lad. My patience for evasiveness has worn thin." Hircus leans in even closer locking eyes with Tegan.
Tegan stares up at Hircus, his brow furrowed in puzzlement, with a hint of growing annoyance. Then a faint quivering smile breaks at the corner of his mouth and he bursts out laughing. "Okay, okay, if you insist," he says. "Have a seat, at least." He grips Hircus' hand and tries to pull him down onto the tatterdemalion sofa, but doesn't have enough leverage from his position to force the larger man off his feet. He lets go, reclines again, and tells the tale.
"So, the local Priest Donavich's his son took off about a year ago to join someone called the Mad Mage who was raising a little army against Strahd. Sound familiar? The Wizard ended hurled over a waterfall by our illustrious vampire lord and everyone else was killed, or worse. Donavich's son was apparently in the worse cateogry; he came back home to his father as some sort of monstrosity that hungers for flesh and blood. Donavich keeps him locked up in the undercroft, where he barks and cries at all hours. Church attendance has fallen off a bit since then, as you might imagine."
"Oblio had it in his head to do something bloody about this abominable boy, and, in the interest of good conversation, I might have said some things he took to indicate we'd join him in that endeavor. I didn't think he was serious. Van and I were fast asleep here when the priest raised the alarm and all of these villagers, his flock I suppose, rushed up there and cornered poor Oblio. Soon after they took him down the road for a hanging. That's the short and long of it."
When Tegan finishes his story Hircus steps back and straightens up. The cleric folds his arms across his chest and slowly glances around the room, first at his current companions and then he pauses to lock eyes with the toad. "Do you have anything to add Vanwandir? I know you do enjoy telling stories."
The bat clambers to the back of the sofa, from which it flits over to a nearby empty bookcase and addresses Hircus' question. "Ah, I discern the accusatory insinuation in your look, Lonely Teeth. And I am certain you four would have acted differently than we did. You would, no doubt, have joined Lemon Pony in the murder of that poor misshapen lad, all in the name of clearing this land of abominations. With your added muscle and bloodlust, the endeavor would likely have been a success too. But that is not our way. We hold to other principles. To whit:
"We greeted Lemon Pony and listened to his tale—Empathy. We related the sad story of what became of those other fools he used to travel with—Honesty. We commiserated with his loss and, for a moment, humored his scheme of bold action against the priest's degenerate son—Compassion. However, we did not go through with that fell deed against the boy who had become something strange and different—Tolerance. Finally, we said good night to Lemon Pony, trusting he too would do the right thing—Trust. Consider these ideals, Lonely Teeth, and one day you too may better yourself."
Satisfied with his homily, the tiny bat nods his head and vanishes. At the other end of the couch, Ina is crouching next to Tegan, and the two of them are exchanging whispers. Hircus, Moire and Syvis must have been so captivated by Vanwandir's speech that they didn't notice the side conversation until now. Tegan looks over, flips his hands up, rolls his eyes and says, "Van," in reference to the familiar's antics.
Moire is only too happy to see Tegan rejoin the group, even if the way he speaks suggests it won't last the night. She's neither innocent nor naive enough to miss the distance in his eyes or the calculation in his choice of words. He's plainly chosen to walk another path and, if he seems disinterested in their company, chances are high that it's a path she wouldn't approve of. Yet she can't stop seeing him as a man as confused as she'd been a few days ago. As a man she once fought and died beside so long ago.
While the others speak, the Paladin steps to a window and gazes out into the night, letting their words fill her mind but at least briefly solitary as she weighs each piece of information. The gruff cleric's determination and Tegan's reluctant acquiescence feels like the final part of confirmation for her that they're better off apart. In distance at least. Hopefully not in purpose.
The black-haired woman at last turns back to the group and smiles softly during a lull in the conversation. It doesn't escape her notice that Ina and Tegan have perhaps more in common with each other than either with a Paladin and a Cleric, or the Druid willing to hitch her destiny to theirs.
"Come now, my friends," she says at last to the group. "We've no need for accusations. Indeed, Tegan and Van, you've both given us more than you've received. For my part, I believe the King of this land means to destroy us in his own way, just as he did in ages past. Perhaps we have different ideas of how to beat him at his game but I think we can all agree we're stronger united in purpose." She raises a hand and squeezes her fingers into a fist. "He holds every advantage. He has centuries of experience, he knows this land intimately, and he wields more personal power than perhaps all of us together. Yet there are forces set against him as well, tools we might wield to stop him."
Moire speaks then of all that's occurred since Tegan parted ways, freely offering detail on the vampire Faira, the fisherman, the Vistani girl they rescued and the Vistani reward they received. King Strahd's visit and his invitation/threat that could fall on the group at any hour of this very night. At last, Madame Eva and a (brief) description of the means they might secure a victory after all.
"I've said all of this candidly," the Paladin finishes, giving a significant look to Tegan, Ina and Van more so than to Hircus or Syvis. "Because I believe our very lives might depend on all of us knowing as much as possible. Strahd's reign is fated to be ended by a book, a symbol and a blade, along with the help of an ally. The book almost certainly lies in the hands of Izek in Vallaki; retrieving it will require stealth and much cunning I fear. The symbol is buried with a dead woman, so perhaps learning of this land's cemeteries will help. The sword likely lies in the castle, a trophy placed in an ossuary of bone. Last, there's a warlock who serves the King."
"So here is what I propose:
1. The book is the only location we're pretty certain of. And it's thieves work. Tegan, if you don't have other plans, perhaps you could find it for us. To make better odds, perhaps Ina could work with you. I fear a Paladin and a Cleric will only make a task of subterfuge less successful for our presence.
2. The symbol, we all keep an eye out by checking out any cemetery we come across.
3. As for the sword, it seems to lie in the Castle. And while you're working on an angle for entrance, Tegan, the rest of us may find ourselves there sooner than later by virtue of the King's invitation. When that happens, we'll do what we can to have one of us search the castle for this ossuary while the others keep him entertained.
4. Which leads us to the ally. If this warlock stands with Strahd for the moment, an invitation to the castle may be an excellent way to meet them. I have a feeling that the King is in no hurry to end his little game with us, as long as we're genteel and respectful in how we treat with him. I have some skill at coaxing virtue from the vice-ridden; I'll see if I can get them alone and win them over.
In the event that the King's invitation takes some time to find us, Hircus, Syvis and myself will focus on looking for the symbol...and seeing if perhaps we can find and join forces with this Rudolph van Richten. Should we all live, perhaps we could meet back here in...say, three days time? And if we haven't been snared by the King, the six of us can pool our resources to breech the castle itself."
At last taking a rest from her long speech, the Paladin leans against the back wall of the house, glancing briefly out the window to ensure no one's been eavesdropping. "What say you?" she asks the assembled party.
A tiny incorporeal sigh from somewhere in the room answers Moire's proposed plan, no doubt Vanwandir bemoaning Hairy Golems. Tegan, who has listened with interest, says, "It sounds like a brilliant scheme, but I'm afraid I'm thinking along other lines now and won't be able to help so directly."
"I'll do it," says Ina. "I'll go back to Vallaki and find that book. Can you at least help me work up a disguise, Tegan? I think I can have that Burgomaster eating out of my hand if I just get to him directly without going through Strazni."
Tegan and Ina are working out the details when Moire checks the window again and sees someone walking by outside: a young woman—clearly not a local—with slightly elven features, who seems entirely lost. The woman looks from house to house as if seeking something. With a start Moire realizes that she knows this woman. It's Fianna, the "Woods Witch", another stray who joined Aurica Markovia's band after they reached Barovia.
Vanwandir's sigh is unsurprising. Sadly enough, so is Tegan's polite demurral. She'd felt a real bond and connection to him in their short days together but this independent streak feels...in-character for him. How well had she known him before they'd all perished? Was he uncooperative in those days as well? ...Was he a risk?
Sighing herself, Moire's gaze out the window for eavesdroppers sharpens instantly. Now she's surprised. The scrutiny had been more reflex than out of a belief that there might actually be someone out there. And yet...
While Tegan and Ina talk, Moire straightens, turns and walks right out the door without a word. The Paladin loops the house until she's reached her window's vantage point and then stands there in the gloom of night, the silhouette of a warrior. Looking in Fianna's direction naturally leads the eye up towards the distant Castle Ravenloft, the fortress' presence revealed only by tiny pinpricks of light from its windows so far away. It has the feeling of an omen, a portent of some kind. And yet...
"Fianna," the Paladin calls out into the night. Sudden excitement fills her for no reason she can put a finger on. "Fianna, it's Moire. Moire Cassiel. Come, this land is no place for a woman to walk alone. Friends you may remember are inside," she adds with a tilt of her head towards the ramshackle building.
Fianna walks through the village with her arms clasped around herself for warmth. Though the rain has stopped, the wind still pierces her clothes and she shivers in the cold night as she thinks regretfully back to the warm cloak she left behind in Jorten's closet. Despite the chill, leaving it behind is probably for the best, she wouldn't want to be a thief, even to such a host as the would-be vampire. As she walks, her eyes roam the village houses for a glimpse of warmth and light, but neither seems to be in attendance.
There is something special about hearing one's name spoken out loud. It cuts through ambient noice like a knife and demands attention in a way no other word would. When she hears Moire calling her name, it is all Fianna can do to keep from tripping in shock. She turns slowly towards the paladin, still hugging herself as memories of her strange past life come back to her. Her eyes meet Moire's and all the reservations and fears she would otherwise have drain out of her. Even in her past life with Markovia's company, she was not close with everyone and was perhaps considered somewhat stand-offish and distant, but not so with Moire. Fianna doesn't have the time or energy to fully sort out the why of it, all she knows now is that she feels as safe with the former pirate as she has felt since before her life was turned on its head. Before her mother died.
She doesn't quite run, but she doesn't quite walk either as she approaches the one house in this cursed place where she may find friends. She doesn't get there, however, instead she spreads her arms and embraces the lone woman who came out in the dark to bring her back into the light. As her arms close around Moire, she feels her burdens lighten and tears form in her eyes as she lowers her guard for the first time in what seems like forever.
The approach and sudden embrace are as welcome as they are unexpected.
Moire's clad in armor (as usual for a Paladin) but her answering embrace is gentle and heartfelt. The somewhat taller woman bends her head, black hair falling forward like a curtain, and she holds the half-elven woman, recognizing grief even if she doesn't know the source. Could it be her mother? Moire frowns at the thought, having had a few days of practice now at recognizing when memory and experience didn't line up. The Paladin's own memories prior to the grove were of Baldur's Gate. It felt like yesterday. The woman in her arms had recently lost her mother and if Moire didn't remember how she knew that, it might stand to reason that it also felt like yesterday for poor Fianna.
"You're safe now," she whispers to the stricken woman in her embrace. "As long as I live, you always will be." A minute more and she gently urges, "Let's get inside, out of the night. This land is dangerous but all of us who've awakened so far are inside. We have quite the story to tell." Moire smiles at Fianna and lightly caresses the back of the half-elf's head, an expression of affection. "I imagine you might too."
"I'm not sure anyone is ever safe in the shadow of that castle," Fianna says, her voice thick with emotion, "but I appreciate the sentiment," she adds with a trace of amusement as well. Fianna lets go of Moire and takes a step back, had the other not been wearing armor she might have held on a little longer, but once the initial burst of emotion has faded, it really isn't very comfortable. "And yes, let's," she answers and gestures for Moire to lead the way. "Who else is there?" She asks once the paladin moves towards the entrance, and with a quick application of magic she clears away the physical signs of her grief. Seeing her as distressed as she really is is not something she will allow everyone to do.
Moire glances up at Castle Ravenloft when Fianna mentions it and her smile fades slightly. But then she looks back to the half-elf's eyes and the smile's back too. The Paladin pauses before the door, giving the witch her chance to 'freshen up', and only raises an eyebrow to suggest she won't open it until Fianna's ready. "Faces you'll probably find familiar, even if you won't remember when you got to know them. Hircus. Tegan. Ina. Also Syvis but I believe she came from the mists the..." Moire frowns slightly as she thinks about it and finally says, "the normal way, if there is such a thing. I'll introduce you...and give you a chance to dry out with the rest of us while we plan."
The Paladin's thoughtful expression deepens. "You've come at a good time but to grave news, I fear. We'll share everything we know, because it affects you as much as it does any of us who once joined with Aurica Markovia."
And on that note, she opens the door to her companions, going first while saying, "I come with a friend. Syvis?" Moire looks for the druid and sweeps a hand back in an introductory gesture. "This is Fianna. She's in the same situation the rest of us are." And then her eyes flick back to the three others she woke with only a few days ago, while reaching up to briefly pat Fianna on the shoulder while ushering her inside. The gesture of solidarity is unmistakable.