Joachim grinned widely as he spied the half-elf and the dwarf slowly ascending the ramp, lit by the morning sun. Loping beside the two was a great northern timber wolf, whose fur was as black as coal. And then he forced the grin from his face and frowned at the trio. “Here now! Don’t you two be thinking you be showing after the battle is over—again!—and sharing in the free ale the rest of us have earned!”
The wolf growled in a menacing tone, and Joachim stared at the creature as the hackles on the back of its coat rose and it bared its teeth, snarling at the barbarian.
“Shush, Howl,” said the half-elf ranger as he lowered the hood of his travelling cloak. “It is only Joachim the Braggart, after all.”
The dwarf beside him snorted as he shouldered the war axe that he carried and spat on the ground. “Aye, Erestan, and be-like he’s gonna tell us that he single-handedly defeated an entire army, just before we arrived.”
“Nay, my good dwarven friend, it was not alone that I slew the dead that walked and an evil rabid wolf-man, but our boon companions who aided in that task: sneaky Nath’anatel, sweet Katherine, and our very own witchling Mordecai.”
Three townsfolk stood at the gate with Joachim, and now one of them frowned and stepped forward, his halberd extended. “GIT!” he yelled, prodding at the wolf with his weapon.
The wolf barked twice and backed up, crouching low and growling deep within his chest.
“I think it would serve ye, best, lad, to stop poking that stick at my friend’s pet,” Joachim drawled.
“Companion,” said Erestan.
The barbarian shrugged. “Whatever you want to call that mangy cur. But you really need to leave the puppy alone, lad.”
“I’m not to be letting another hell-wolf into the town, not after that first one tore out poor Liam’s throat,” the guard said as he took another step forward.
Joachim sighed and stepped up to stand right beside the guard. “And I suppose that ye won’t listen to reason then, and pay attention to what your betters have to say on the subject. Will ye or won't ye?”
“The beast can stay outside in the forest—or decorate the mantle of me fireplace. Ye words will make no difference.”
Then the barbarian grinned. “I was so hoping you would say that, lad; I get tired of trying to talk our way through these little problems life presents.”
The guard stopped and turned to look at Joachim just as the Northman slammed an elbow covered in heavy mail and leather into his nose and mouth, knocking him to ground. The wolf sat down and began to pant with his tongue extended as Joachim bent down and lifted up the halberd.
“You see, that hell-wolf there might be a mangy cur and a man-eating beast,” he said as he snapped the weapon in two across his knee, “but it is my friend’s pet . . .”
“Whatever. And I don’t particularly like,” as he broke the two halves of the weapon in two again, “when people draw weapons on any of those that travel with me: be it man, elf, dwarf, priestess, beast, or witch. Or a mangy cur from Hell.”
“Yah broah mah nas!” the guard screamed through the blood rushing down his face.
“Aye. Either of you two have a problem with that?” Joachim casually asked the remaining town guards. Both of them quickly shook their heads. “Ah, well, perhaps next time then. And as for you, lad,” he said at the young man still lying on the ground. “Next time when I tell you to put your weapon down, you might want to consider doing so while you still have a weapon—and before you lose what’s left of your good looks.” He dropped the broken pieces of the polearm on the guard and waved one hand towards the gate. “Everyone else is meeting with the mayor of Chelas down at the tavern. Come on, I’ll show ye the way.”
The dwarf chuckled. “Same old Joachim, do ye know the meaning of subtlety, lad?”
“Aye, Zephraim, I know the meaning of it, but why waste time with talking? That boy will never forget what happened here today and he’ll think twice before he talks back to me again, won’t he? And anyways, I asked him if he was willing to be talked out of it, and he said no.”
“That ye did, Joachim, that ye did,” laughed the grizzled dwarf as he followed the barbarian down the street, with the wolf and Erestan bringing up the rear.
“It will take ye four or five days a horseback to reach the Old Svalich Gates in the foothills of the Rakers,” the Mayor said as he traced out a winding road through the forest on Mordecai’s map. “Perhaps two or three days more on foot, for the road is not fit for fast travel. We don’t be after getting much trade with Barovia these days, and the folks there mostly keep to themselves. The whole valley be cursed, lad; are ye certain that you and yours wish to travel there?”
Mordecai nodded a somber face. “Aye, it may not be the smartest thing we’ve ever been after doing, Lord Mayor, but what lies in that valley may not stay in that valley. As we witnessed last night. And your town is not the only one that rests in the deep of the Timberway.”
The old man looked down at the wooden floorboards, and nodded. “I was hoping that would be your answer, but I must admit, I am feeling guilty at sending you to what may be certain death.”
“Death visits us all, in the fullness of time, elder,” whispered Katherine. “The Stern Lady spares nothing in the end, and cowering will not stop her if it is your appointed hour.”
“Besides,” continued Mordecai, “we have probably faced worse odds and come through. Probably.”
“In that case, may the blessing of all the Gods and Goddesses travel with you. I have asked Master Ivan to prepare several packs for the journey, with fresh food for the first days and dried rations for the rest. The smithy stands ready to repair any of your armor or weapons that require such, as well. We haven’t many merchants, but those in the township are willing to supply you with such as you may need.”
The elf shook his head. “I think we are already prepared better than Chelas could provide in arms and armor and general supplies, though the food is quite welcome. You have our thanks.”
“When will you be leaving?”
“As soon as the last of our companions arrive and have had a chance to shake away the dust and weariness of their trek,” Mordecai answered, just as the door opened and Joachim stepped inside.
“Look at what just dragged themselves into town! Reminds me of a joke I once heard about a half-elf, a dwarf, and a witch who walk into a pub . . .”
Mordecai and Nath’anatel laughed, and in one voice answered, “spit it out, ye bastard!”
Zephraim chuckled, as Joachim looked glum. “Lad, ye need to learn another joke. We’ve all heard that one a hundred times if we have heard it once. The big fella filled us in on the walk over to here: undead and werewolves, huh? Well, we are game, right Erestan?”
“Aye,” the ranger answered as he scratched his wolf behind one ear. “When do we leave?”
“If you are prepared, then, we can head out right now,” answered Mordecai.
The dwarf stared, and he began to frown. “You do mean after a tankard or three, I hope? There’s plenty of food in them there woods, but precious little ale or mead!”
The group laughed, and Mordecai shook his head. “Just three then, Zephraim. I’ll see to the steeds while you test Master Ivan’s kegs.”
Five days later, the adventurers arrived at last at the Gates of Barovia. The weather had not proven ideal for travel, with thick clouds, cold winds, and bitter rain dogging their heels the entire way. The road had turned into a morass two days earlier, and the five horses and one pony on which the companions rode were caked in thick mud to their hocks. But now they were finally here, on the outskirts of the village they were seeking.
To either side of the road there stood a granite pillar, topped with a fearsome statue of a gargoyle. And to the pillars were attached a pair of wrought iron gates, covered in a patina of rust. The gates stood open, and beyond the road wound through a dense primordial forest, dark from the intertwined branches that blocked out what little sunlight passed through the clouds.
“Well, at least the rain has stopped,” said Joachim as he rested his horse for a moment.
“Aye,” answered Mordecai, who gently patted the neck of his own steed, calming the beast who seemed spooked. “But I don’t like the look of this thickening mist—and the sun is soon to set.”
“Listen,” whispered the ranger as his wolf companion whined. “There are no bird cries, no animal calls; the forest is afraid. Howl senses it too, as do the horses.”
The dwarf shivered for a moment and then shook himself. “Bah! Cheap tricks meant to frighten away strangers. I say we press on; the village is just a mile from the gates by the map.” But he drew his waraxe and held it ready in one hand.
The six companions began forward, but the horses and pony refused to pass through the gates. As one, they began to grow more and more nervous, stamping and bucking and backing away. Finally, each of the adventurers recognized that the beasts simply would not proceed any further, and they dismounted. As soon as grips on the reins were released the horses (and pony) began to run back down the road towards Chelas.
Even Mordecai’s fine stallion could not be convinced to pass, although he did not flee. “Zephraim, do you still have that bottomless bag of yours?”
“Aye,” the dwarf answered.
“Well, let’s save the tack at least,” the warlock continued, as he began to unstrap the saddle and remove the rest of the livery. The dwarf placed each item within a normal seeming bag as Mordecai pulled them off the horse and placed them onto the ground. Finally, he patted the big red horse once more on the side of the neck. “Take care of yourself, Red.”
The stallion snorted once, and then twice. He cantered back a few steps and then rose on his hind legs and snorted; then he turned and shot down the slope like the hordes of the Abyss itself were in pursuit.
“Hellfire and damnation!” the dwarf suddenly exclaimed.
With a ringing of steel, the rest of the companions spun around and drew weapons, but saw nothing except the dwarf pacing and muttering curses.
“Zephraim, what has upset you so?” Katherine asked.
“The pony—that bloody damned pony! It was carrying all of the spare ale!”
Past the old gate, the mist thickened into a heavy fog that clung low against the ground and the ancient oaks that lined the road. Mordecai felt a shiver run through his body at the chill, a most unnatural and unwholesome cold that seeped deep within his bones. He tightened his grip on the mace that he held in one hand and glanced at his companions. They too felt it.
The continued their slow walk, straining their eyes to see through the thick coils of vapor. But then the mist suddenly lifted, revealing a deep valley before them, filled with ancient forest. Dark clouds covered the sky, diluting the rapidly decreasing light; but even so, no illumination glowed at the windows of the village below. On the far side of the valley, a waterfall fell from the top of the sheer cliff-face, slashing down into a lake at the base. A long and treacherous road ran back and forth along the cliff face, before vanishing into a tunnel. Mordecai nodded to himself. That road must circle around and lead to the brooding castle that perched on a granite spur that hung over the valley, connected to the cliff top by a narrow draw-bridge.
The fortress brooded over the valley, rather.
“By Moradin’s Beard,” whispered Zephraim. “If the walls of that fortress be manned, it could not be taken with less than a thousand men—or a hundred dwarves.”
“And yet, not a single guard walks the battlements, friend Dwarf,” replied Nath’anatel. “But its name of the Raven’s Loft was well chosen, for the black-winged Stormcrows nest there in great number.”
Joachim snorted, and laid his mighty two-handed sword across one shoulder. “I’ll trust your sight, Nat, but even without defenders, that’s some cliff face to scale by rope. If that drawbridge can be raised, it’ll be the devil’s own work getting in, defended or not.”
“We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” Mordecai said with a smile, causing Erestan to groan in pain at the deliberate pun. “In the meantime, friends, I suggest we get to the village before the light fails completely.”
“And ye say my jokes are bad,” Joachim muttered as he lifted his sword once more and trotted down the road.
Clearly, something was afoot in the village when the weary travelers finally arrived. Scores of townsfolk were gathered in the square, and each carried a burning torch lifted high. Some held pitchforks as well. And in their center a man stood upon a crate, and bombastically addressed the crowd, whipping them into a fervor.
“Brings back memories,” sighed the dwarf, but he carefully adjusted his shield and drew his axe.
Mordecai spotted a man that shook his head, walked away from the crowd with two others in tow, and moved towards him. “Ho, there. What is the cause for this, friend?”
“Are ye blind, strangers? They mean to burn the girl as a witch, to put an end to these cursed times and make the creature on the ‘Loft sleep once more. No part of it, I or mine will be; there comes no good of fighting evil with evil, I say.”
“Why do they blame her?” Katherine asked.
“Irena is different, priestess,” the peasant answered. “Our burgomeister, Dmitri Kolyana, adopted her as his own daughter after she was found in the woods as an infant. And strange things happen around her. Now, Andre has gone missing, and many other of our folk. And the burgomeister himself has vanished. The fools think that the creature will be sated with her death, that she is cause of our misery. I shan’t be here when they throw her living body on the pyre. Now, I must return home, strangers, good night.”
The peasant motioned at his sons and they hurried off to a nearby home, and then shut and barred the door behind them.
“A fair damsel in distress,” Joachim said stretching, “at least we have not come this far for nothing. How do you want to play this, witchling?”
“A more subtle approach might bear fruit—perhaps they can be reasoned with,” the warlock answered and he began to move towards the center of the square.
From a large home at the edge of the square there came a high-pitched scream, and three men hauled a woman forth, throwing her roughly on the cobblestone steps of her manor.
“THERE!” the instigator shouted wildly. “There is the witch who has cursed our lives, our crops, our fortunes! The changeling who should have died as a babe, but for the ill-thought kindness of our missing burgomeister! SHE is the one who has brought this doom upon us!”
“Vladimir Chenko! What is the meaning of this?” the woman yelled. “You know me! You all know me! Father will skin you alive when he returns if you do this!”
“LISTEN NOT to the devil-spawn in human guise, my friends! She is the cause of our misery! Fix her to the stake, and let us return her to the Abyss in cleansing fire!”
Mordecai stopped as the crowd roared for Irena to burn, their bloodlust raised. It would be useless to try and deter the mob, who where now whipped into a frenzy expecting the girl’s death. He would only be shouted down, or worse, hauled up to the pyre alongside her. But unlike the girl, Mordecai was indeed a warlock of no small power.
He drew upon the anger within his soul and he thrust one hand forward; at his direction a jagged bolt of lightning leapt from his hand to impact the stacked lumber of the pyre with a thunderous CRACK, the explosion knocking the leader of this mob from his crate.
“You know, I rather like this definition of subtlety,” Joachim said with a grin as he drew his sword, advancing right behind Mordecai; Katherine, Nath’anatel, Erestan, Howl, and Zephraim trailing along with weapons drawn—and fangs bared. “Quite a way with words there, Cai. I’ll be remembering it for the next time you get on me for not being subtle.”
“Release the girl,” Mordecai said in a low rumble that resonated throughout the entire square. “No one will be burnt tonight.”
“Another witch! Quickly, grab hiMMMMM!”
The instigator screamed as Mordecai unleashed a second blast of eldritch magic, this time burning in ochre flame, at the feet of the speaker, singing the man, but leaving him alive.
“I AM A WARLOCK, YOU PEASANTS!” he thundered. “CHALLENGE ME AT YOUR PERIL!”
Chenko had clambered back atop the pile of stacked wood, and rested on hand on the stake to maintain his balance. “The demon-spawn cannot kill all of you, you fools! Take him! AIEEEE!”
From the back of the companions, Erestan had nocked an arrow and sent it flying through the crowd; it struck Chenko in the hand and pinned him to the stake.
Katherine strode forward, her holy symbol proudly displayed upon her chest, and the mob paused as they recogonized the rainments of her Church. “The warlock travels not alone, and no spawn of demons he is, good folk, but a slayer of them. Or do you doubt the word of a servant of the Stern Lady?” she asked as she lifted her arms and chanted a short mantra. And the crowd gasped as she grew in stature, doubling her size to nearly eleven feet in height and she began to glow with a fell light.
“DO YOU DOUBT THE RIGHTEOUS FURY OF MY GODDESS?”
The mob broke apart and ran, as Joachim grinned wildly at the enlarged cleric. “I think that yon tremendous cleavage has frightened them into flight, gentle Katherine; I must confess, it is quite intimidating even for ME. And strangely alluring, all the same.”
Zephraim snorted and he clambered up the pile of kindling and yanked free the arrow that pinned Chenko to the stake. “Go home, lad. Be smart now and tend your wound while ye still can.”
The villager tumbled down the stack and took off running like the hounds of hell were at his heels.
“Aye, a definition of subtle that I like, methinks,” said Joachim again as he walked toward the young lady lying on the ground. He frowned as he knelt, and then he turned back to the rest. “She has no wounds upon her, but she is unconscious.”
“Get her inside, Joachim. I fear this night has only just begun,” said Mordecai.