I woke up in the dark with a headache. As I filtered through my memories, I realized both were caused by being hung upside-down in a spider’s cocoon. I remembered watching Pak go down under a pile of spiders. Before I could think of how to get him out, one of them had webbed me and the rest had pounced.
In hindsight, none of this should have surprised me. We hadn’t exactly been the most circumspect group, and it was bound to catch up to us. But that was cold comfort to me as I was waiting to become a spider’s dinner. I was always more interested in history rather than the natural sciences, but I still found the situation appropriate. What was this except the strong eating the weak, the fundamental rule of nature? As humans we like to put on airs about how we’ve escaped that cycle, but it’s always waiting for us just beyond the edge of the campfire.
The chilling realization of my fate began to set in. For all I knew, the rest of the group was hanging alongside me, each waiting their turn. There would be no eleventh-hour rescue, no heroic charge against all odds. We’d had our chance. But I still wanted to press on. In spite of all the failures, I wanted to continue to live. Perhaps that was why Strahd had summoned me. He knew I would dance till the bitter end. While it pained me to give him the satisfaction, that was simply another bitter pill to swallow in my road to survival, and the least of them at that. The much more difficult step was to reach within myself to the festering, hungry disease I had contracted on the road out of Vellaki when those shapeshifters had waylaid us. I had felt it strengthening my body, coursing through my veins, but I had managed to hold it in check, reluctant to relinquish control. That reluctance was a luxury I could no longer afford.
I removed the walls I had built so carefully around it and let it run free through my veins. My skin stretched and split. My heartbeat quickened. With a single thrash I broke free of the webs. When I landed I was vaguely aware of Pak beside me. But I was more acutely aware of the spiders around me. The skittering bastards who had sought to feed on my flesh. I lashed out with claws and teeth, tearing into them. I fought recklessly, charging each new foe until it dropped, but they eventually overwhelmed me once again.
I came to with my companions around me. Mal had returned to rescue us in spite of his constant protests. And even more oddly, Cheinne was there. It only took one look to realize she must have come to a similar conclusion as I had: life, no matter how tenuous, is worth any cost.
The party recuperated and explored the rest of the manor.
In the throne room we found a colossal armored dreadnaught. The shining sword across his back seemed to be the one from the Vistani woman’s prophecy, but the huge blade across his knees and his aggressive manner dissuaded us.
We also came across a council of undead in one of the rooms, who told us of how Strahd’s army came to tear down their order and curse their hall. They slew the dragon Argonvoss and took his body away. We theorized that if we could get his body back, the curse on the hall would be lifted and we could claim the sword. Without any leads on the body, however, we found ourselves at loose ends.
While we continued our exploration, we saw a cart draw up to the manor and unload a coffin before peeing on it and then leaving. When we went to investigate it, we found that its make matched those we had seen in Vellaki at the coffin-maker’s house before finding the saint’s bones. And what was more, the coffin had Mal’s name on it. But inside was a swarm of bats. Ravenloft continues to be as inviting and friendly as ever.
Without any further leads on Argonvoss’ body, we decided to take up Strahd’s invitation rather than risk his displeasure. We were also hoping he would become talkative over dinner and tell us something of the silver dragon’s fate.
On our way to the castle we were lured off the road by a will ’o the wisp and led to a crumbling tower full of zombies. We managed to dispatch most of them, with Arianna putting a number to flight. As we were fighting, however, we heard a loud explosion outside. When we went to check on it we found a Vistani woman who had apparently vaporized a large portion of the undead host.
She identified herself as a vampire hunter named Esmerelda, the apprentice of the man we’d met in Vellaki who joked about feeding steaks to his horse. She was also the owner of the cart we found in front of the wizard’s tower before triggering its explosive trap. We decided to keep that detail to ourselves. We offered to get her into Castle Ravenloft to let her have a go at Strahd and she agreed to accompany us. She seems very driven, but isn’t much for conversation.
We arrived at the castle without further incident, the huge doors opening before us. Esmerelda took off on her own at once, and we were greeted by a servant who showed us to the dining room.
We ate the food, reasoning that if Strahd wanted us dead he had many more opportunities than poisoning a dinner. It was the best meal I’d had since coming to this accursed place, and I felt ready to match wits with our captor when he appeared. But he was unfortunately tight-lipped about Argonvoss, and when we asked why he had brought us here he simply vanished, locking us in the castle.
We found a secret passageway behind an organ and followed it to the battlements, where we fought an animated suit of armor. It was a tough foe, but Pak managed to push it off the battlements. Nothing was likely to survive a drop like that.
We continued to explore the battlements, looking into the castle’s windows as we went. We saw a number of strange rooms. A ballroom with a tilted cake; a woman calmly reading in bed who waved excitedly to us. We eventually made our way back into the castle proper and began exploring more. We came across a hall filled with statues of nobles frozen in terrified poses who seemed to change their pose as the lightning flashed across them. We also found a study full of books. Most of them were unremarkable, though; hardly the kind of fare I was expecting from someone with such seemingly eccentric tastes as Strahd.
The girl’s bedroom was nearby; Cheinne went to talk to her, but before long she left for dinner. Cheinne followed her downstairs, but came back shaken and unwilling to talk about what she had seen. Given our experiences here so far, nobody was willing to press her.
We also found a secret passage into a room apparently filled with treasure. But when Mal went to investigate he was paralyzed by some kind of gas trap. We sent Cheinne in after him, who was fortunately unaffected by the poison. She also found another secret passage filled with spiderwebs through the first secret room. Secrets within secrets. It suits Strahd.
We investigated the webbed hallway and emerged in a belfry similarly covered. Recalling our unfortunate encounter in the manor, we burned the webs and let that sort out the spiders. Afterwards, I went to ring the bell and narrowly avoided it falling on me. But at least my curiosity was satisfied.
Through the belfry there was a huge vault with an impenetrable adamantine fortress inside of it. We circled around, but couldn’t make head or tail of it. Having hit a dead end, we went back to the study to regroup.
We decided to keep exploring the battlements, and came across a yet taller tower which we began to make our way up. At the top of the tower was a huge red crystal that pulsed in a steady rhythm. We quickly deduced that this was the heart of the castle, another element of the Vistani prophecy. Out of curiosity, we began to attack it, but the castle began to shake as we did so. Arianna and Pak fell all the way down the tower. Cheinne and I continued up the stairs while Mal stayed adamantly on the landing.
Halberds came to life to defend the heart but I managed to dispel the magic controlling them, sending them plummeting down the tower after our companions. But in the fighting Cheinne fell as well. I got close enough to the door to hear Strahd ordering someone to stop the people attacking the heart. I planned to turn invisible and hang off the edge of the stairs to approach Strahd once his lackies passed, but as I lowered myself my grip slipped and I began to plummet towards the ground.