On Sunday nights, a group of friends and I gather to play Dungeons & Dragons. This is the chronicle of their tale. (This post contains spoilers to “Curse of Strahd”)
Cairie, Krossa, Malis, Khurz, and Fletcher all leave Vallaki with Ezmerelda and Rudolph van Richten by the west gate, passing by a few townsfolk who work with grim faces as they remove the decapitated heads from pikes leading up to the town’s palisade. One man in his late 60s glances at them all as they pass, trying to inspire feelings of shame with his disapproving gaze. Nearly 2 hours later, they reach the Luna River Crossroads, where a sign reading “BEREZ” points down the southeastern path.
About an hour down this thinning dirt road, with no other company but the thick trees to the right and the rushing Luna River to the party’s left, the already overcast sky grows darker, the clouds taking on a deeper gray. Eventually the trees to the right curve away, and the base of a mountain spur takes its place. With more mountains rising on the other side of the Luna River, the party finds themselves traveling in a narrow valley, and feeling as isolated as they were while heading up the Tsolenka Pass…maybe now even more so.
Another several hours of walking pass…and they begin to wonder if Berez even exists at all, when they notice something just off the road in the distance, maybe 500 feet ahead. It looks like it could be a small group of people, just a handful of them, standing on the side of the dirt road.
They continue forward, down the only road they know of that leads to the sunken village of Berez. The river races along to their left. The wind whistles by, sending cold shivers up their spines. After about fifteen minutes, they notice something. The figures by the road have not come any closer in the time they’ve spent walking toward them.
Confused, Fletcher attempts to reorient himself, using his dark-gifted truesight to see ahead, but the whole, strange situation has his so frustrated that he can’t really see straight. Khurz attempts to dispel magic on the ground, thinking that maybe some kind of magic might be hindering their progress. But the spell fizzles and blows dirt up into his eyes.
The rest of the group seems convinced that there is magic involved. First, Fletcher uses his dark gift of scrying to see ahead at who or what the figures are. He peers ahead and sees that there are six scarecrows standing by the road.
Then, wanting to see a higher vantage point will reveal anything about any magic that may be present, or to escape the magic’s range, Fletcher uses his spider-climb ability to run several hundred feet straight up the mountain side to their right, then looks ahead at where the group of figures should be…but they’re gone. He cannot see them. Looking back down at the party, he sees the scarecrows are standing directly in front of them.
Fletcher yells down what he sees, and so the others begin to arm themselves, preparing for danger. Krossa starts inching forward, swinging his hammers out in front of him like a blind man. Fletcher starts running back down to join them. After a few inches, Krossa breaks through the spell, and the six scarecrows immediately appear around them all. Their blank heads all turn around suddenly to reveal the six heads of the party, dead and rotting – van Richten excluded. The scarecrows all leap forward and attack!
Each scarecrow attempts to attack the adventurer whose face it resembles, which means that Fletcher’s scarecrow just hops harmlessly up to the mountain and waits there for him. The others split off and attack. Malis uses her fire spells to deal massive damage, while Khurz calls down sacred flames. Krossa crushes one under his hammer blow. Eventually, all of the scarecrows are defeated, and Fletcher rejoins them on the ground.
Fletcher, ready to go, starts jogging forward down the road, when there’s a loud CRACK of thunder, and they suddenly find themselves knee-deep in murky, stinking water. Gone is the dirt road. Gone are the mountains pressing on either side. Gone is the chilly wind. A punishing, pouring rain beats down through the sky and bog trees that they see all around them. The fat drops splashing into the water raise a constant noise that is difficult to hear above. But the rain cannot diminish the thick fog that blankets the swamp in all directions. Visibility is near impossible past fifteen feet in any direction. A dry cackle wafts over the hot, humid air as the group tries to get their bearings.
The sound of the rain mixes with chirping insects, squelching frogs, screeching cicadas, and the maddening buzzing of flies fills the air. The cacophony is as oppressive as the humid dampness that causes sweat to roll down their skin beneath their clothing. Every few seconds, a fly zeroes in on their ears, the buzz of its wings growing until they instinctively swat at it with their hand.
They slosh forward through the difficult terrain, the knee-high water (or thigh-high for Krossa), which seems to almost push back against them as they move. They can’t see anything, and have no idea where they’re going. But, eventually, they see a shape in the fog ahead, and they hear the gentle sloshing of water. The shape begins to take form – the form of a person moving through the swamp water.
The form emerges from the fog, into their visible range, and they see… Danika Martikov, Urwin’s wife. She wears a revealing black gown, and her hair is loose and messy from the humidity. She grins, her teeth looking a lot more yellow than before.
She speaks, saying, “Welcome to Berez. I am Baba Lysaga, and I have an offer for you…”
After a moment, the party says sure, go ahead.
She says that if they leave this place, and never come back, then they will find the Martikov children alive. Only Cairie, Khurz, and van Richten recognize Danika, who was one of the caretakers at the Blue Water Inn. But everyone knows that, when they returned to Vallaki and spoke with Urwin, the man had said that his wife and children had been missing for some time, and he did know where they had gone.
This causes everyone in the party to second guess their quest for the sunsword. They want to stay and retrieve the item, but they also want to help save Urwin’s two sons. Fletcher’s truesight can see that there is a form beneath what they see of Danika – a hideously ugly creature with hag-like features, but he says nothing. Malis attempts to alter the deal, saying that they will leave if she can see right here and now that the Martikov children are alive.
Danika says that the children aren’t here. But she guarantees that, if the adventurers leave now and never come back, they will find them on their journey. Malis asks where that would be, and Danika responds by saying the boys are where all foreigners to Barovia eventually go to escape. Malis correctly guesses Castle Ravenloft. Malis side-eyes at Fletcher, wanting to know if they should just take her out. Fletcher agrees.
Malis fires a firebolt at Danika, hitting her square in the chest…but it does almost nothing to her. She smiles at Malis, and says that she will regret doing that. Fletcher trudges up to Danika and stabs her with his rapier, but it barely impales her. With that, Danika disappears, entering the Ethereal Plane – which Fletcher can see. He reveals her trickery to the party, saying he can see her, but she’s also gone.
A ray of enfeeblement strikes Khurz the half-orc cleric and saps his strength. Malis finds herself suddenly paralyzed as something successfully casts hold person on her. Ezmerelda turns invisible. A lightning bolt cracks down from the sky, striking Malis right where she stands, immobile, dealing heavy damage to the tiefling. Van Richten wades through the water up to Malis and casts freedom of movement on her, freeing her from the paralysis.
Cairie goes to hide behind a tree, and everyone else prepares to attack. Khurz casts beacon of hope and spiritual weapon, waiting for a chance to strike an enemy. A pair of zombies rise up out of the swamp water. Cairie, Malis, and Krossa attempt to take care of them, even as something attempts to take control of Krossa’s mind. Danika reappears in front of Fletcher, and swipes at him with her claws. Fletcher, in return, casts cone of cold right in her face, but it’s barely effective.
Suddenly, black tentacles spring up out of the water, and successfully hold Ezmerelda and Khurz. Krossa and Fletcher barely get free. Ezmerelda, instead of trying to get free, casts her own lightning bolt at Danika, doing severe damage. Cairie, from behind the tree, casts witch bolt at Danika, successfully connecting a crackling beam of purple energy to her.
Then, everyone feels tremors in the ground, and see the water start to slosh around more and more violently. Then they hear the BOOM BOOM BOOM of something humongous coming their direction. A large hut with root-like legs crashes through the fog, lifts a huge leg up, and slams it down onto Cairie and the tree she hides behind.
The tree crunches beneath its foot, but Cairie uncannily dodges out of the way. Khurz then brings his spiritual greataxe around, turning the rain to steam where it goes, and slams it into Danika’s back, killing her.
Bloodcurdling screams fill the air as two horrible, disgusting women walk out of the fog toward the group, staring at their dead sister. Two hags, wet and bloated, scream at the loss of their third. Then, a shape floats down from above the clouds…a gigantic skull… from within which rises the head of an obscenely old woman with pointed features and disturbingly long fingers.
“You have one last chance to leave this place forever. I am Baba Lysaga…and the children need you!” She scratches her long, hard nails against the bone skull.
Fletcher merely laughs at her, saying they won’t leave.
Baba grins, pointing at Fletcher, saying that the evil has taken root in him, but he will never replace her Strahd. She looks to the others, as if seeking a unanimous decision. She notices Malis and smiles again. She says that “tail of tiefling” is so rare, and she does hope Malis agrees to stay.
The group finally says, no, they will stay and fight. Baba scratches the bone again, saying, “Then your livers will keep me beautiful for centuries!” and she flies the skull back up into the clouds. The hut readjusts its position, and the two hags grin at the party.
They made it!! This is the last big quest piece that the party has before they head for Ravenloft! I am SO excited! This encounter has been nearly a year in waiting, as we all took a long break from this campaign right before this session was supposed to happen. My fault, mainly, but here we are, and here it is – Berez, one of the scariest places in all of Curse of Strahd.
The Amber Temple is highly intimidating, yes, but I feel like with some proper planning, you can easily guide your players through it and avoid a TPK. It’s Berez that I think has the potential to be the scariest thing ever…because I don’t think you should run it as the book tells you to. Baba Lysaga is WAY smart, and she wouldn’t be taken by surprise by a party of adventurers foreign to her land.
She would be ready…and Baba WAS ready for them.
I’m at that crazy DM headspace where I totally want them to win and be triumphant, and be able to say, “YEAH, we did it!” But at the same time, I’m thinking…how? How in the world could they POSSIBLY win this encounter? I heavily modified it, of course, and I made it into what – I think – will be the hardest thing these players have done so far in this campaign.
Good. Because they’re level 10. And I want to remind them of how much danger they’re STILL in, even now. And this is the place to do it. Will they win? Will they die? I gave them ample opportunity to walk away, and avoid this HIGHLY deadly encounter, but they pressed on. Find out how successful they are next time, in “Pain and Death.”
Until then — Well Met!