Inawenys has never known such deep trance. As her eyes twitch and come back into focus, her head is fuzzy, her joints stiff and achy, her back damp and chilled by the dewy grass that has soaked through her clothes. How long has she been meditating here? Is this what it's like for humans, dwarves and the rest when they wake from sleep?
The grass stretches all around her, for as far is she can see. It's quite dark here, though countless stars adorn the clear sky above, and lazy fireflies careen about, buffeted by the occasional breeze. One pale blue star in particular shines brighter than the rest, like an uncut, polished aquamarine. Seen with Inawenys' darkvision, everything else here is black and gray.
Three other people, human, lie in the grass nearby, dressed in simple traveling clothes like what Inawenys herself wears. Their eyes are closed and their chests swell and sink with the slow, regular movements of sleeping humans. She knows these three—Moire, Hircus and Tegen—quite well, she feels. The details of their personalities and lives drift through her mind. But, if asked, she'd be unable to say how she met them, or recall any shared experiences. It's almost as if each is a character in a different story she's heard over and over again.
Despite the damp and chill, it's quiet here, peaceful even, though there is something strange and foreboding about that pale star, like a distant, mournful cry carried on the wind.
CHAPTER 1: THE ELEMENTALIST Here you are, exhausted and dazed, among the shrubs and briers. All around, mighty, vine-bound trees stretch up into the fog. The ground is damp and as the cascade of water shaken loose by your descent tapers off, you can hear songbirds and the occasional spatter of rain.
You're all a bit scraped up from the slow fall through the pine branches. Everyone except Moire still has soot from the imps' breath streaked on their faces and clotted in their hair. You're all parched and ravenously hungry.
Based on the burnt odor in the air and the smouldering tree stump nearby, lightning must have struck recently. The rest of the tree stretches out for maybe fifty feet along the ground where it toppled over. The largest of you could maybe reach your arms three-quarters of the way around that trunk.
Most out of place is the dead woman who stands chest-deep in a water-filled hole near the jagged stump. Her head is burnt; her face and torso are coated with gray mud. A wooden staff juts out of the hole next to her, and one of her open hands holds a small, mud-encrusted object. A filthy backpack is on the ground within her reach.
The guard who moved the gate aside for you informs Moire that the Festival of the Blazing Sun will take place tomorrow evening. "The parade starts at St. Andral's," he advises, pointing to the nearby church spire. He hands Moire a rolled-up Festival of the Blazing Sun flyer from a leather case at his hip.
With the way open before you, and the promise of rest and whatever safety the palisade offers, you can finally exhale. The Bluewater Inn can't be far—good news for Moire and Tegan, whose necks and shoulders are growing stiff from carrying the wolves. There's probably still an hour or two of daylight left, but, glancing in your direction, the people on the stoop take their business inside, and those tending the cart lead the donkey around the corner, giving you free run of the street.
Vandwandir crawls out of Moire's pack to rest himself, unseen at the back of her neck. His wings brush against loose strands of her hair and a tiny claw grips her earlobe, into which he whispers, "Did I hear we're going to the inn with the waterfall? If you're worried about the gifts from Stump Slab, Hairy Golem and my old master being recognized, that's one place we should definitely avoid, especially if the ones I call 'Deadbeat Gargoyle' and 'Cold Memory' are still there. In perhaps the strangest of all this land's insults to natural law, the latter was an especial admirer of the Golem."
"If I may suggest, a more discrete course would be to continue to the far end of town. There are merchants just inside the gate there with whom Stump Slab traded goods before. My assessment is that even if they recognize your inherited possessions, they won't care one whit. I wager they'll give you something for these beasts—do we really have time to track down a couple of chiseling hunters? After that, we find a convenient house for you to spend the night in. Based on the paucity of locals, I wager at least half of these hovels are abandoned. In the morning we can be off to petition the lord of this land at his castle, which can't be more than a half-day's easy hike from here."
Though Hircus' suggestion is intended for Vanwandir's ears, the tiny familiar is nowhere to be seen. He's either made himself again, or is hiding somewhere in Tegan's belongings. Tegan, however, catches Hircus' meaning and, nodding, says, "Yes, always one of my favorite sayings," as he appears to brush something off his shoulder. He grins and winks at Hircus.
The front door of the house opens into a vestibule of sorts, with a heavy curtain drawn across its width. Putting a hand on Ina's shoulder, the older elf draws the curtain aside and ushers her into the main room, with Hircus, Moire and Tegan close behind. The two middle-aged elves enter last and shut the front door behind.
The house extends beneath the hill a good deal more than was evident from outside; There are no windows in the sitting room, but candles and a low fire in the hearth provide light. The place is well-packed with worn but comfortable-looking furniture, wall hangings, rugs, small portraits of elves and humans, shelves lined with all manner of keepsake and trinket. The smell of cedar masks a faint damp, musty odor.
"I cannot believe it's really you," your host says again, stopping to turn and face Ina. "We had heard you were lost to us." He reaches out to embrace her, but then stops when he sees that her eyes are frozen in a distant stare, and she is wavering in place. He grasps her by the shoulders and puts his face close to hers. "Inawenys, what is it? It's me, Kasimir!"
This room is overwhelmingly familiar to Ina, although many, many details have changed—pictures and trinkets added, moved, gone. The furniture is the same, though with a century or two of additional wear.
She vividly sees the house as it once was, herself sitting in one of the big chairs near the fireplace, sipping a sweet, mouth-numbing tea made from cloves. Kasimir is seated across from her. The two of them are speaking in the Vistani language—he has been teaching it to her. He is much younger, a middle-aged elf himself. His long dark hair is back over his shoulders, exposing the scars where the tips of his ears have been cut off.
They have been discussing Vistani words for different animals and monsters, when Kasimir gets up, pours himself another cup of tea and changes the subject.
"I wonder, little sister, have you thought any more on what I told you about the Temple? I know it is a bitter pill to have been tricked to Barovia with promises of riches to plunder. But while there may be no way home for you, there are treasures here still, and worth more than gold. By all means, use that old abbey in Krezk to get your hands and feet back in practice—bring me back a trinket for my collections. But when you are ready, let's talk about the Temple again. That is the place, I think, where we will find the real treasures, and many secrets too."
"Now," he says, sitting down again,"let's discuss these Vistani words for the parts of an ox."
To the eyes of Moire, Hircus and the others in the room, Ina is lost in a daydream, unresponsive. "What is wrong with her? Can you help her?" the aged elf asks them.