I never really remember what it’s like to wake up. I only know that I wake up, still with a hole punched through my chest, still with the eerie inner silence that marks the absence of a heartbeat, of blood rushing through my veins. My vision is clouded, dreamlike, as I make my way toward my party. Things only come into focus when I descend a staircase and see Mal waving his arms around, no doubt freaking out about what to do next.
They turn and look at me, all growing noticeably more pale. I smile, give a little wave, and simply say, “Hello again.”
I pick up my equipment from my own splattered remains, Arianna motioning toward me with disbelief and suspicion. After a couple questions, they’ve accepted my identity. I am Cheinne. Still.
Then we’re off to search for the dragon’s skull. Down seems a good direction to look, since going back up would probably put us face-to-face with Strahd and whatever new dangers he’d place in our way to protect that crystal heart.
It isn’t long before we come upon the elf who guided us through the house when we first arrived. He sits at his desk, scribbling something on parchment. When we make ourselves known, he looks up and delivers a tight smile. With careful, deliberate movements, he puts away his quill and tells us he’s been waiting for us. He stands, slowly, and reaches out for his scimitar.
Then, with a shriek, he rushes toward us.
Lasers light up the room, lightning flashes, the sound of flesh ripping makes my stomach turn. When we get close to him, a wailing sounds in our heads. The screaming, moaning, feral pain of the people who’ve been cut down by this monster.
It takes some time, more time than some of us would have liked, but we do defeat him. Out of breath, and with some blood lost, we search the room.
I snatch up his key ring. Good thing, too, since a hidden keyhole in the wall presents itself to us. One of the keys fits, and a staircase is revealed behind the door. Crypts are downward. It seems obvious to go down. But we decide to explore the rest of this floor first.
Luck seems to be on our side. In the very next room, a hall decorated from floor to ceiling with bone stretches out before us. A bone table with bone chairs sits under a bone chandelier and a ceiling embellished with all different sorts of patterns of bone. And there, in the far corner, hanging over a doorway, is the dragon skull.
It’s heavy. 250 lbs of bone is a bit too much for most of us. Paak carries it with ease, but we are interrupted by a small, insignificant looking man with twitchy movements and nervous eyes. His name is Cyrus.
We can’t tell if he’s friend or foe. He is clearly loyal to Strahd, but seems all too willing to give us whatever we might need to escape this fortress. Even offers to lead us out himself. Hesitant, we follow. I manage to convince him to give me a mysterious white key that hangs around his neck.
We follow him behind yet another secret door and, just as it seems we might make it out with ease, each side of the hallway is blocked off and gas fills the room. One by one, my companions drop to the floor in a deep sleep, all except for Paak and me. Then the room moves.
We can tell we’re shooting upward, but can’t quite see anything. Paak notices a trapdoor on the ceiling. We both climb through and find ourselves in an elevator shaft. Darkness cloaks everything above us. We have no idea how high we’ll climb or how long it will take before we arrive. We have no idea what will be waiting for us when we get up there. We both agree we don’t want to find out.
Paak takes out his ax and swings at one of the chains pulling us up. Nothing happens. I work at another chain with my tools, unscrewing the anchors that bind them to the room. It comes undone and the elevator jerks, putting me slightly off balance.
Another great swing from his ax and Paak breaks through his chain. It whips upward as the elevator swings violently toward the wall, off balance. It strikes the stone and gets wedged there, bringing us to an abrupt stop.
A small victory. Another chain strains against the tension and a link begins to bend open.
We have to get everyone out, and quickly.
One by one we slap people awake. Mal and Watts wake up, though the effort makes the compartment slip against the stone. We try to move slowly, so as not to disrupt the box more. Arianna won’t wake up, so Paak carries her. Both Mal and Watts make it to the landing a mere five feet below. Paak jumps off with Arianna, making me promise to go back for Cyrus.
I stare through the trap door at his crumpled body. Was this a coincidence? Or did he lead us to a trap?
If there’s one thing I have learned in this world — there are no coincidences. I leap to the landing on my own, leaving Cyrus to his fate.
Which, it turns out, was plummeting down the elevator shaft, crashing to the bottom.
Through the door behind us, the impenetrable tower loomed over us, wiping away all thought of Cyrus.
After a foolish attempt to climb the tower without assistance, Mal grabs my piton, ties it to a rope, and anchors it on the battlements. He easily climbs up and opens the door from the inside.
Treasure beyond anything I have ever seen awaits us. I line my pockets with gold. Finally, something worth this mess.