I, Strahd: The War Against Azalin Chapter One

445 Barovian Calendar, Barovia

The sun had set only moments before, but the door to the village hospice was already closed fast and locked for the night. I gave it hardly a thought and putting boot to wood kicked it open with a stunning crash. One or two people of the dozen there yelped with terror as they all came to their feet, turning to face me as I strode in. A few unconsciously made holy signs against me, but true faith is now a rare thing in Barovia, so I felt little or nothing of it.

"Where is she?" I demanded.

They were already white-faced from my sudden appearance, for no one ventures out after dark here, and anyone who does is exactly the sort one would not wish to encounter. It was obvious no one wished to encounter me as my gaze swept over them.

"If-if you please, your lordship - " began one of the men, shaking from head to toe as he came hesitantly forward, hands out in a placating manner.

This did not bode well. "I do not please. Where is she?"

His eyes rolled up in his head, and he fainted right at my feet.

With some disgust, for cowards have ever revolted me, I fixed my gaze on an older woman behind him. "Where?"

Tears rolled down her cheeks. She left off wringing her hands and pointed, trembling, at a curtained alcove at the far end of the long low building that served as a communal shelter for the homeless in the village.

Tears. Gods and shadows together, please - not again!

Five long steps and I was there, throwing the curtain back, staring down at what was left of her.

Behind me some gasped; others sobbed, not in grief for her, certainly, but in fear of what I would do to them.

For the moment I could do nothing, think nothing, as the all-too-familiar agony washed over and through me once more. I stood unable to move for a very long time, staring at her sweet face, her sweet lovely face in the final repose that only the truly dead know.

In this life she had been known as Alina, an orphan raised with others in the village. Her true name, though she had not known it - not known it until I had come along and begun my courtship of her - was Tatyana. Finding her alive again had been my greatest joy, awakening her hidden memories of her past life my greatest pleasure.

I had fallen in love with her almost a hundred years ago when I had walked free and breathing in the sunlight. She had been betrothed to my younger brother Sergei, and thought herself in love with him until the night of their wedding, the night when I had bargained away all that I had, all that I was, so that I might have her for my own.

That night my brother had died by my hand, his blood running like living fire in my veins. That night I had gone to her and touched her with true passion, given her a glimpse of what real love could be, but in her inexperience the intensity of it had frightened her, and she had retreated into the safe memory of Sergei.

She had run away. Some have said it was from me, because of what I had become, but she had gone mad with grief from Sergei's death and threw herself from the castle balcony which overlooked the valley below. It had been full of mist. I had watched it silently swallow her frail white-clad form and wished for death to swiftly visit me as well.

But despite the best efforts of my enemies I had not died. I had survived while they perished. I had survived to exist, but not to live. Never again to live.

Not until decades later when I recognized the face and form of my Tatyana born once more into the world did a semblance of life returned to my soul.

She was then a village orphan adopted by a lecherous burgomaster looking to make her his wife; they had called her Marina, but I had known her true identity.

Before I could take her away to her rightful place at my side, the bastard had murdered her. With my bare hands I had executed him. Far too quickly, but I'd been too incensed to think clearly else I would have given him a full measure back of the pain he'd given to me.

My hope for ever having happiness dead, I had returned to my cold castle, and continued existing -  until years later when Alina had appeared.

I found her again by accident while making an inspection round of Barovia in the guise of Lord Vasili von Hoist. My own name was ever too much for the locals.

Lord Vasili was a man to be feared, but his lesser rank did not paralyze them with terror as did the vastly greater presence of the actual lord of Barovia.

Alina had been one of the serving girls at a welcoming supper in my honor, hosted by the burgomaster and his wife. Such social rituals are occasionally a necessary evil for people of rank. I suffered through them as a means of getting to know those who collected my taxes, to make sure they were being honest about it. I was ever careful to claim a digestive upset and did not partake of the food. Alina, not knowing any better, had come by to ask if I wanted wine.

One word of her soft voice, the briefest glimpse of her face, and I knew.

After that I had little memory of the rest of the evening, just a vague idea that I'd scandalized them all by insisting Alina sit next to me and plying her with the choicest delicacies their table had to offer. The burgomaster's wife had been plainly outraged, but had not dared say a word. Perhaps she'd expected me to take the girl away for some base trysting later, but I was as the perfect gentleman and parted company with but a chaste kiss on the back of Alina's slender hand. She'd been quite overwhelmed by this unexpected attention from a lord, but at the same time shyly interested.

I had paid court to her for a week at the humble hospice, very proper, and with a watchful chaperone at hand. Of course, I had always made sure to put that chaperone into a soothing slumber for the duration of my visits and thus could I freely speak with Alina - or Tatyana as I began to call her during these private moments.

Gradually, with some hypnotic prompting from me, she had begun to remember who she had been. I was the happiest of all creatures for that week. My love had come back to me and nothing would take her away. I felt alive, invincible, and all things were made possible again.

But men in love are ever fools with their assumptions.

When I woke this night the sense of her presence within me was gone. True, it was but a tenuous thing, for I hadn't dared to partake of her blood lest some idiot harm her as the last time. Our link was more of the sort all lovers share, and as consciousness returned to me with the departure of the sun I was instantly aware something was horribly wrong.

Leaving one of my daylight sanctuaries - a sturdy box hidden beneath the earth in the village cemetery -  I had rushed to the hospice to find out what had happened, half in hope and half in dread of what I would find.

All my glorious expectations, all my optimism for the future lay dead before me.

Dust and ashes.

The older woman hesitantly came near. I finally looked up at her.

"How?" I asked. My voice was hardly more than a whisper.

"She woke this morning with a fever, lord. I'm the healer for the village, and they called me right away, knowing you would wish it."

"A fever?"

"It did not seem too serious; I gave her my usual herbs for such things, but there was no improvement by noon. I questioned her whether she'd eaten anything to upset her or had been bitten by an insect. Sometimes when the stingflies are bad they can bring on a mild sickness, but this was like nothing I'd ever seen before."

"Go on."

"She worsened as the afternoon wore on, became delirious. I sent several of the lads up the mountain to bring down ice to cool her, but nothing helped. She slipped away about an hour ago. I am sorry."

I closed my eyes a moment to deal with the latest wave of pain. "Did-did she say anything about me?"

"No. She said the name Sergei a few times, but we don't know who he is. No one here is called that."

Another wave. Worse than before.

I mastered it after a time, but knew I would have to leave soon before the real reaction took me.

But I would not leave alone.

No one made a single protest as I gathered her limp form to my breast and carried her out into the night.

I inhaled as I walked steadily from the village, scenting a charnel house taint to the air. It seemed to grow thicker, more noxious the farther I went, but breathing was not a necessity for me any more. I pressed on, holding her gently in my arms.

High above, black clouds began to gather, roiling and restless as if in response to my inner torment. They blotted out the dying moon, erased the stars. None of their light reached the ground, but I continued regardless, unimpeded by such mundane limits. I walked on, climbing, taking a thin path up the mountain that towered over the village, perhaps the same one used by the lads to bring back ice for her.

All for naught.

Though the storm above kept building, no wind touched us. Here below was silence. When I paused once to look back, I saw why.

Mist. Thick, featureless and altogether unnatural. It was also climbing up the mountain, gradually, but would soon overtake us.

I hurried forward, upward, until my arms and legs burned with the constant effort of it.

The air began to change. The death stench started to clear away, replaced by the clean smell of mountain air and snow. Wind touched my face, plucking at my cloak and the trailing hem of her night dress.

Faster, higher until I had to make my own path up the rocky face.

Snow, first a thin dusting, then more and more until it was nearly to my knees.

I would not let it slow me and fought its clinging grip.

I was blind to ail things. My feet chose their own path. Breath sawed in and out of my lungs, not from any exertion but from my effort not to weep. I had shed too many tears already. No more, no more ever again.

Then I came to a place where I could climb no farther. It looked like a great knife had sheered away this part of the mountain, leaving it exposed to all the harsh elements. Around us the growing storm whipped up snow devils that spun and crashed against the rocks to be born anew in a fresh gust of wind. We were nowhere near the summit, but high enough for me. I stood at the cliff edge looking out into the thick Mists below.

The valley here was completely engulfed by their pale touch. All was as calm below as the heavens were riot above. Tatyana and I were exactly between their forces.

Lightning streaked the sky. The shifting light seemed to animate her face, make her appear alive again. It was but a cruel mockery, and I could hold my sorrow in no longer.

My voice echoed off the cold stones as I shrieked my anguish to the wild skies.

I screamed and howled like an animal, wordless roars of pure grief as the reaction overwhelmed me. This was what I could not reveal to the village. My sorrows were my own and with me would stay until I could somehow find a way to end them.

When the last cry shuddered out of me, I looked into the rising Mists. They were coming for her, as they had done before. We had not much time left. I kissed Tatyana's chill lips, then eased her down until her feet dragged upon the ground, and I supported her weight with an arm around her waist.

We would not wait for the Mists to come, but hurry to meet them and hopefully the final oblivion.

Whatever is out there that hears, grant me this death!

I leaped for both of us, launching as far out from the cliff as I could.

Rush of wind.

Pale gray nothingness enveloped everything.

We turned and tumbled. I held fast to her, praying to I knew not what for swift obliteration and its peace. I ceased to know up from down with my eyes, could only sense it by our fall. Any second and all would be finished.

For both. Please, let it be for us both.

But even as I held to her she began to drift away. I closed my arms more tightly, but it was like trying to embrace the Mists themselves. All sensation of touching her fled from my reaching fingers.

Obliteration. Peace.

It seemed to come. For an instant.

As the last of her faded from me I seemed to fade from myself. My body seemed to dissolve away, as did hers. No harsh impact with the sudden ground to blot me out, just an easing into a soft cocoon of unconcern, not unlike my daylight trances.

As with all illusions of contentment it could not last, and I eventually, with the greatest reluctance, woke from it.

The stars were visible, bright hard points piercing the clear mountain air, unwinking and merciless. I lay sprawled on my back staring at them for a very long time, not daring to think, for then would come memory and with memory would return thoughts of her. I was not ready for that yet.

The mountain's sheer face loomed high over me, snow dusting its stony shoulders, the soft shadows of thick fir trees at its feet. I was on a clear patch of soft, loamy ground surrounded by more trees.

Gone was all evidence of the storm above and the Mists below. Gone was the dying moon. It had changed to a new one while I had been... wherever I had been.

Certainly not lying in the open for a week so the morning sun could burn me to nothing. The Mists - Death's tool - must have prevented that. It was the likely explanation for how I could still be alive. There might be others that I was yet unaware of; whatever had saved me from my folly would certainly be ever shy about revealing itself. To do so might grant me the chance to actually fight back.

Gone also was all trace of Tatyana.

I still lived - if one could call it that - could still grieve, and despite the horrific fall, my body was quite well and whole. The dark forces to which I had sold myself nearly a century past would not allow anything so simple as physical pain to distract me from the unbearable ache within my heart. As for death... well, that was the First thing that had been taken away, trapping me here forever.

I, Strahd von Zarovich, the great lord of Barovia, was also its prisoner.


After much procrastination, I finally got to my feet and began walking away from the village toward Castle Ravenloft. The burdens of the present, of what had gone wrong and how to avoid the same errors in the future, I would only consider much later in the sanctuary of my study with the soothing company of my books about me and Tatyana's portrait to look upon. She would come again, I was sure.

My studies in the Art were such that I understood there were always patterns to events and this one would repeat itself... must repeat itself.

A turn to the south and I was nearing the meager line that was the road. It was overgrown with grass in some places for lack of regular use. People tended to keep to their own villages and towns or places of shelter that could be reached within a day's walking or riding. I was the sole exception to that rule.

From the position of the moon and stars I had many hours of travel ahead before the dawn. True, I could have taken to the air and on swift wings flown straight to my castle in a fraction of the time, but I wanted to hold to my man's form and walk. I was in no particular hurry, and held the hope that the physical effort might numb me from thinking too much on recent events.

I also hungered.

I had supped lightly during my time in the village, taking pains not to kill anyone while Lord Vasili was a guest, keeping my normal hunting activities as unobtrusive as possible lest it indirectly invite some fool to harm Tatyana, as had happened before. But I had not fed deeply in a very long time and the constant raw ache of it had to be eased - and soon.

There was a shepherd's croft not too far away. If the spring lambing was still going on he would not have moved his flock up into the foothills yet, and I might find myself in luck.

A mile's trek over the rolling turf of this lowland area and I heard the sheep in his care, their bleating constant and mournful. Half a mile on from the top of a gentle rise I saw them, milling nervously about the low stone circle of their fold. As the soft wind was against me, I knew they were not reacting specifically to my presence and wondered what had them so agitated.

Inhaling, I picked up the unmistakable scent of blood.

Animal blood to be sure, and as useless to me for nourishment as salt water is to quench any other man's thirst, but it did initiate in me a number of intense reactions. I had to stop a moment and get myself under control. A successful hunter does not barge recklessly in on his prey lest he risk losing it. I managed to calm myself enough to be able to study what lay ahead; the only sign of my inner anticipation was my corner teeth, which stubbornly refused to return to their normal length.

The croft was a modest stone structure, hardly large enough to be a minor shed within the curtain wall of my castle, but apparently sufficient for one shepherd's use. The shutters on the small window I saw from this side were wide open, an unheard-of thing to do at night in Barovia. Had the fellow gone mad? I made a wide circle to get around front, using the sheepfold as cover. The little croft's door was also open and two men stood by the threshold, smoking their short-stemmed pipes and talking in a most unconcerned way. They did not look to be shepherds from their gear or their manner.

Their clothing was not typical of traditional Barovian style. Where they should have been clad in long white shirts with sheepskin vests, their full trousers tucked into low boots, these two were in short leather jerkins and what looked to be trunk hose, something I had only seen as drawings in history books. Their boots were so high as to come up over their knees and trimmed in metal disks on the sides. Everything about them was foreign, from the kind of swords they carried to the way they braided their thick pale hair into tufts that stood out all over their heads.

And above all they were not afraid of the night.

My ears were sharp enough to hear their conversation, but it was difficult to follow due to their strange dialect. A few words here and there sounded familiar, if strangely spoken, but I could put no meaning to them. I could have easily cast a spell enabling me to understand them, but deemed it unimportant for the time. Once captured, I could question them at my leisure. One of them made a jest of some sort and the other laughed rather unpleasantly. This apparently inspired them to action, for they pushed away from the door and strolled around to the far side of the croft, where I perceived the glow of a substantial fire.

At fifty feet I was sufficiently distanced from their limited night sight as to be invisible, and clad, as usual, head-to-toe in black. The only thing white about me was my face, so I concealed most of it by pulling my cloak up and left the shelter of the fold - the sheep were even more restive for my close presence - paralleling the men.

It was a large cooking fire for a large group of men; I counted fifteen. All seemed to be from the same tribe or country by their strange dress and speech, and all were fit and of an age for most armies. Their horses were tethered fairly close, but fortunately had not yet caught my scent, else they might have alerted their masters.

The smell of blood came from the slaughter of perhaps a half dozen spring lambs, whose dressed carcasses were presently being roasted on spits over the fire. My interest in such provender ended nearly a century ago, but it struck me as being foolishly wasteful. Two or three lambs at the most should have sufficed them all for the evening's meal.

Then I saw the shepherd.

Two long poles imbedded in the earth with a cross-piece on top normally served as a slaughtering area for the sheep. The idea was to throw a rope over the crosspiece and lift the sheep carcass up, making it easier to clean and carve.

These interlopers had tied a rope around the shepherd's ankles, and he was presently hanging upside down from the framework like one of his sheep.

Occasionally someone would give him a kick and set him to swinging, which was a source of great hilarity to them. As his hands were lashed tight to his sides, he could not prevent himself from bumping into the support posts.

A raiding party, but from no land I recognized. Brigands, thieves, and probably worse who had somehow crossed through the misty boundary of my prison and entered Barovia. I never welcomed such ilk troubling my land and its people, but in this case I would make an exception.

As there was no reason why I should not get some pleasure out of this hunt, I stepped several yards farther back into the darkness and summoned the unique power within me that would alter my very form. The shape I chose was that of a wolf, albeit an unnaturally large one, with a smoke black coat of thick fur magically replacing my clothing. Though magic was certainly involved it was of a different sort than the arcane Art I practiced, for this was an ability innate with me and my changed condition, requiring no study, only a concentration of desire.

The dark transformation complete, I took a moment to give my mind a chance to adjust to the alteration of my senses. Hearing and smell were the most dramatically effected, the latter improving more than a hundredfold over what I knew in human form. I became aware of the contrast between old winter turf and the fresh spring growth between my paws, and that there was a burrow of rabbits nearby. One of them had just been along here in the last few minutes, closely followed by a grass weasel.

My hearing was very focused depending where I swiveled my ears. I could concentrate on any two directions at once, before and behind, if I chose. I heard the men very clearly, picking out each of their voices as that of an individual rather than as a muddle of low sound, from the grumbling rasp of the group's apparent leader to the querulous snivel of the youngest ranking youth.

Elsewhere I picked up on the muttering of their horses, hobbled for the night and grazing in peace, and the rustle of that grass weasel who was now sniffing at the rabbits' hole.

I padded cautiously around toward the sheepfold, knowing my scent would send them mad. They set up a panicked row, and a few jumped the low stone barrier and fled, leaving the others to restlessly mill about bleating with terror. It was enough to draw the attention of the men. Their leader sent someone to take a look.

Slung across their backs many of them had very strangely shaped bows, exotic curved things, short, and with arrows that looked too long to use. I harbored no doubt that they were quite deadly, though. The man who stepped clear of the others to investigate was thus armed. He brought his bow around and nocked an arrow into place almost faster than I could follow. In this form my eyesight was somewhat distorted and rather washed out of all color, but otherwise excellent.

The archer worked his way around the sheepfold, peering impotently into the darkness. It would take some time before his eyes adjusted and even then would be nowhere nearly as good as mine.

I made a yipping sound and whined a bit, hoping to be taken for a herding dog.

The man visibly relaxed, calling back the news to his friends, and if I correctly understood through his dialect, his intent was to add me to their night's provender. Dog meat, it would seem, was a favorite delicacy to them, and he got the leader's wholehearted approval for his quest.

Now that was something decidedly different: me ending up as someone's supper.

What a pity to disappoint them.

He whistled in a friendly way, and I encouraged him with yips, small barks, and whines, luring him from his friends until the croft was concealed from sight by a small rise in the land. In this way I hoped any sound would not be carried back to them.

Not that I intended to make much of it.

He grew impatient with my canine game and his friendly calls were acquiring an edge in their tone. I was impatient, as well, for he was not the only one who hungered, but I had to be cautious. The arrow was, after all, a wooden shaft - suitable substitute for a stake. As much as I desired death at times, my preference was to meet it on my own terms and not at the hands of some dishonorable thief.

When he started down the rise I caused myself to change once more, this time taking the form of a low-lying ground mist. A common enough thing, but the weather conditions were wrong for it. I was counting on him being too occupied with finding the dog to notice right away.

It worked. The fool walked right though my amorphous form. As soon as he had passed, I rose up from the ground, assuming my natural shape again.

I was on him before he could turn, seizing him from behind, lifting his feet clear of the earth. One arm snaked around his chest; my other hand clamped his jaw shut like a vice and pulled his head to one side, exposing his neck. The nectar within was gloriously sweet and warm as I discovered when my teeth tore through his skin, opening the vein beneath. His struggles did not last very long, for I was famished.

It was the best feeding I'd enjoyed in many a month, and I felt much refreshed.

There is nothing quite like the hot, red power of living blood for me. The closest comparison might be during my days of command in battle, when the fever of the fight was upon me. How my own blood would sing in response to the sheer joy of killing, but that was as nothing to what seized me now when I let myself lose control and truly feed.

Ecstasy for me, and death for him.

I had to take care not to indulge my appetite too often. If I allowed myself, I would sup this way every night, and the temptation to do so was ever there, but it was by necessity a pleasure in which I only rarely partook. Giving in to that temptation too regularly would be disastrous; Barovia's population was not all that large. I would feed well for a few years, but not for hundreds. Better to always endure a measure of self-restraint than live to regret its lack.

Sated for the moment, my next move now would be to find a way of taking as many of his friends alive as possible. Not from any motives of mercy - make no mistake, they were all dead from the moment they invaded my land with their thieving ways. I despise thieves. I wanted them alive to serve me later. With so many of them they might last for years in my dungeons, sparing me for a time from constantly having to leave the castle to hunt afar for food.

I drew my victim's sword from its highly decorated scabbard and checked the sharpness of the edge. Like a razor. Well and good. It spared me from putting too much effort into it when I brought the blade down fast and severed his head.

There was not much blood - little wonder at that - just a little oozing easily sopped up by the grass. Taking the dripping head by the braided hair, I strode in a wide circle around the croft to see how things were faring at the cooking fire.

Their feast was apparently ready, the leader already sitting down to his roasted lamb. I assumed he was such since he was older and a bit wider than the rest, wearing a large number of gold medals and necklaces. An ornate painted baton swung from his waist. He also had the loudest voice, and the others showed a certain deference to him.

Putting down the severed head, I resumed wolf form and settled in the grass to wait. They fulfilled my expectations soon, calling into the empty night for their scout to return, but it was only at the end of their meal that they thought to send anyone out to find him. Two men took it upon themselves to go look.

Putting all four sturdy legs to good use I loped back to where I'd left the body so as to be there to greet them. I ambushed them in much the same way, assuming a mist form, until they were past me, then taking them out from behind. A sharp crack with a fist against each of their skulls just behind the ear was sufficient to render them tractable, and I took myself back to await their friends' next move.

After a quarter hour two more were dispatched, both calling loudly. They were more on guard; one had his bow ready to shoot, the other his sword out - not that either weapon proved to be of significant benefit in their defense.

Five down, ten to go. When enough time passed for them to become nervous, they sent another party to go look. Suspicions were high, and six of them went together, taking along brands from the fire to light their way. The new moon had set, and the land around was ominously black. The thin starlight was not much help to their dull vision.

They followed the scant trail the others left until they came upon the bodies.

None of their friends could be roused, which alarmed them, but they became positively incensed upon discovering the headless corpse. The uproar was not unexpectedly loud and full of much fury, and they proceeded to go off in all directions trying to find the perpetrator. Only two had the intelligence to stay together and futilely called to the others to do the same.

It's a poor commander who does not exploit his enemy's weaknesses. I made what effort I could, appearing suddenly from the darkness to knock them senseless one at a time. For this I was able to remain in man form. My clothing hid me well so long as I kept low to the ground and did not move. At night the eye is better at perceiving motion than anything else, and I could hold very, very still if necessary. Once, as I lay flat on the turf, face pressed to the moist ground to hide its revealing whiteness, hands covered by my spread cloak, one of the men actually did stop and stand on my right hand for a time. I was hard pressed to hold in my laughter as he diligently searched about for their common threat.

As soon as he moved, though, I dispatched him to a state of unconsciousness like the rest. The two who kept together proved to be no more trouble than the others. Ten down, five to go.

The remaining ones held close to the fire. They called in vain for their friends to reply. Their leader summarily ordered them into the shepherd's croft. They left the door and shutters open to see out, for all the good it would serve them. One of the younger men in the group pointed toward the shepherd, and I caught the word krothka several times. I overheard some discussion - apparently having to do with whether or not to bring in the krothka "shepherd." This was dismissed by the leader, who seemed to be of the opinion the fellow might act as bait to whatever was outside.

Just to excite things a bit I plucked up some stones and began tossing them in a high arc so they landed with a rousing thump on the slate roof. I did this from many directions, so they could not pinpoint exactly where I was. Then, while they were all looking out the door I came close enough to toss the severed head squarely through the window.

That made for quite a stir.

They finally saw the wisdom of closing the door and shutters and did so lest more repulsive missiles invade their shelter. By then they were worked up into a state where making mistakes is nigh on impossible to avoid. It is amazing what a little darkness and a few thrown stones (and a severed head) from an unknown foe can achieve.

While they were busy debating what was to be done, I hurried around to the fire, borrowed a skinning knife someone had left behind, and cut the hapless shepherd down. He had heard the thumps and thuds of the stones, the constant frightened bleating of the sheep, the nervous horses that had now sensed my presence, and the shouts and wails of his captors. Add in the fact that he was a native Barovian who would rather slice off one of his own fingers than be caught outside after dark, and I had a quite terrified man on my hands. As soon as he saw me looming over him with the knife he set up such a screaming row you would have thought I was killing him instead of saving him. There was no time to explain, nor was it my desire to do so - I simply knocked him out and left him there on the ground until I could return to question him later.

Doubtless his full-throated and heartfelt shrieks, so abruptly silenced, did not improve the morale of the men in the croft. The horses liked it no better; they had snapped their long tether lines and were gradually putting distance between themselves and their luckless masters. That was the deciding factor for two of the men, who broke free, dashing toward the retreating animals.

The men would be much more difficult to catch once they were in the saddle. I headed them off, grabbing one while he was in the process of throwing a leg over his animal's back. As I dragged him down, the horse panicked and squealed as it fell, hampered by the restraints on its legs. The man screamed not unlike the sheep which had finally broken their paralysis and were disappearing into the night. I knocked him out with a quick, sharp blow to the base of his skull.

I heard a shout behind me and turned in time to see the second man. He looked quite mad: wild-eyed, sword out, and ready to chop me in half.

He had the one chance.

The curved blade sliced right through my body, barely meeting any resistance at all. I felt a decided tugging as it ruined my clothes, but nothing more harmful than that. Unfortunately - for him - I am not so vulnerable to sword cuts as I once was.

Where he expected me to fall over in a bloody mess I still stood unharmed, quite dumbfounding him, until I compelled him to take a nap next his friend.

Three remained, huddled in the little croft. Though what had specifically happened to their friends would be beyond their ken, they would understand that whatever prowled here was more than capable of attacking them with the same success. They were trapped in a small and frail shelter against the whole of the night embodied in something that they had not even glimpsed, something that had, in a remarkably short time, disposed of a dozen well armed men. I could not expect them to be anything less than utterly desperate, which might prove troublesome. Desperate men generally do not think clearly, making them unpredictable and considerably more dangerous.

Since my clothing was in shreds thanks to my delayed reaction, I discarded the cloak, outer coat, embroidered vest, and what had once been a very fine black linen shirt. My gold neck chain with the Von Zarovich ruby on its pendant was undamaged. It would take much more than a sword stroke to remove it from my person. My pale torso, still bearing scars I had acquired before my change, would be an easier-to-see target at night, though my personal safety was of little concern to me. I wanted only to make sure the remaining men did not injure themselves when I went for them.

The croft was sealed shut now, with no glimmer of light from any chink in the door or shutters. The men were crouched in the dark, probably tensed and ready for anything. I crept close, braced myself, and gave the brittle wood a mighty kick, then moved to dodge clear.

I did not get that far. Some tangible - at first I thought it an arrow - but unseen force hurled from the opening and caught me squarely, pinning me in place.

The stale air shot forth from my dormant lungs and my legs turned to water. A vast hand seemed to hold me in place an instant, then slammed me flat to the ground. I lay stunned, both by the force of it and the sheer surprise of anything being powerful enough to affect me.

The brigands were chanting. Their deep voices rose and fell in a strange, oddly rhythmic tongue. The words pounded at me like hammer blows. Some kind of spell... Not a spell... prayer. A plea to one of their alien gods. Whether their deity from beyond the Mists was able to hear them mattered little; their faith alone was strong enough to render me helpless. When swords fail, men turn to their gods, and this lot had the kind of true faith I hadn't faced in a very long time. It battened me down like a hunting hawk, its talons ripping into my shoulders and back. I tried to scrabble free, but was utterly trapped in its grasp.

The leader led the chant, his rasping voice knifing through my skull. I writhed from the pain, the sound alone seemed to burn my flesh. One of the men stepped forward, his sword raised. I saw the faint green glow of magic streaming from its cruel blade. As I had done to his comrade so he would do to me and cut off my head.

Desperate men generally do not think clearly, making them unpredictable and considerably more dangerous. I was desperate enough to blurt out a spell for my defense, the first to pop into my head. Had I been thinking I would have conjured something much less destructive. As it was, a flash of lightning completely obliterated the dark for a long moment and the deafening crack of its passage blotted out the leader's voice. I took that blessed respite to roll clear before the blade came down to deliver me to death.

No need.

By the time my eyes recovered from the flare it was all over except for the smoke, much of which steamed from three charred corpses. I was unharmed, but the three brigands were flat on their backs in three different directions. The leader had been thrown right through the rear wall of the croft.

The bolt had impacted the earth exactly in their midst, leaving a crater a foot deep. The grass was singed away, of course, and the exposed earth had irregular veins of cooling glass running out from the center where the heat had been very great. As for the men... well, the eleven I had would have to suffice for my needs; these fellows were quite beyond any use in the culinary sense. It was probably for the better. The last thing I needed in my dungeons was some wretched holy man working away at me with his foul prayers. I knew his sort: the worse the conditions in which he found himself the greater power he would be able to call forth.

A waste, but not one I would mourn over much. I could still find some use for the dead ones as servants. Once I had recovered a bit and put the proper spells into effect, the whole lot of them could walk themselves to Castle Ravenloft.

The living would be compelled down into the dungeons, and the dead to one of my work areas where I could make a proper and permanent change in them so they would be suitable guards.

Their path of travel would take them right through the village of Barovia at the foot of the castle, a sight to cause the population some little stir. By this would they know their lord was keeping the peace in the land and perhaps be better inspired to maintain it themselves.

I put myself in order and retrieved the lot of them to commence the work, being quite recovered now from the chanting attack. Before another hour passed, they were all under my control and slowly marching west, even the one without the head - he carried that in his lifeless hands - and the three with blackened and cracked skin. By dawn they would all be in their proper places, serving me in such a way as they could never have otherwise hoped - or remotely imagined - to achieve.


An excerpt from the private commentary notebooks of Azalin, salvaged and translated by Lord Strahd after the necromancer's disappearance in the year 579.

543 Barovian Calendar, Barovia Here Von Zarovich exhibits a sampling of his ongoing obsession with the woman Tatyana. She is his blind spot and is certainly something that might be exploited in my intention to supplant him. He has noticed the pattern of her continuing birth, death, and re-birth in his land, so the idea of introducing a false Tatyana at a time inconvenient to him and advantageous to me is worth consideration. The difficulty is finding a substitute convincing enough to deceive him. Though gullible on some points, he is keenly attuned to the workings of magic and sensitive to all manner of spellwork. A simple illusion will not suffice. Something far more subtle is required for such a subterfuge to succeed.

At her loss his wish for his own death, such as it is, should not be given much credence. He acknowledges himself that it is but a temporary, passing state with him. However, it is again a point that may be exploited should the timing be correct. In these short periods he actually allows himself to be vulnerable. An intelligent agent, by taking advantage of the moment, might then dispose of Von Zarovich's troublesome presence altogether.

At this point in time in the writing Von Zarovich did not completely fathom the nature of the plane of existence into which Barovia had slipped. He refers to the misty boundary enclosing his land without really understanding it. I can only assume that he was so distracted by his emotional ties to the woman that his curiosity was atrophied in some way. Again, her distracting influence on him seems to be encompassing. He has many weaknesses, but this one is the most consistent in his nature.

In his overly colorful, self-aggrandizing narrative, he has made scant reference to the Mists, the single most important element that has to do with our mutual imprisonment.

Some one hundred years prior to this incident, so far as I can discern, he made what he called a "pact with Death" so that he could remove all barriers between himself and this woman, the barriers being a rival for her love (his own brother Sergei) and the annoyance of aging. On the night in question, he was so occupied with the execution of the necessary ritual that he had no inkling of the far reaching consequences of his actions and was completely unaware of them until they had entrenched themselves beyond all chance of removal by his own unassisted hand.

The initial manifestation of his act was the establishment of the Mists themselves. According to the few references he has deigned to share with me (despite their obvious importance to my research) it began in the garden near the castle overlook just prior to the woman flinging herself from its edge. He mentioned that the Mists originally surrounded them moments before while she was having some sort of intense emotional reaction to the death of his brother. We have both come to believe that strong emotions or negative acts may have a powerful connection to the Mists or whatever force may drive or control them - if they are indeed intelligent. From our limited perspective, it is quite impossible to judge either way on the point. Does an insect about to be trod upon consider whether the foot descending upon it is intelligent?

What I can infer with some certainty is that the Mists rose that night - the result of Strahd's murderous lusts - and spread to the borders of Barovia and there remained. No one - himself not excepted - is able to cross through the Mists to leave, and very few are able to enter from the outside.

This sudden isolation of Barovia marks where it entered what I term a demiplane of existence and only under very extraordinary circumstances does anyone slip from the prime plane of the Oerth that I came from and arrive in this one. The brigands he dealt with here are a typical example.

Despite his patchy research habits, Von Zarovich did trouble himself to question the shepherd and shared what he learned with me. The outlanders had come riding through a thick mist which had suddenly arisen shortly before the setting of the moon. Unlike myself, they had been thieves and murderers and were apparently intent on committing more mischief once they got used to their new surroundings.

Von Zarovich backtracked their path and discovered the hoofprints of their horses appearing in the middle of an otherwise empty and unmatched patch of earth, as though they had appeared out of nowhere. He maintained that is very likely what happened, but this is not so, since they obviously came from somewhere.

The shepherd reported the men as being unused to the sight of mountains and they frequently made a type of warding gesture against them. From the description of their clothing, artifacts, and attitudes one might deduce they were from a flat, grassy country, their culture primitive in their devotion to random violence and strong superstitious beliefs. Von Zarovich's vulnerability to religious faith is yet another powerful tool that could be employed against him, but Barovia's isolation has diminished that as a feasible ploy at this time. His adverse reaction is worthy of note, though I find anything to do with religion to be distasteful and can agree with his reactions.

Von Zarovich was quite right to dispose of the invaders, but he should have more closely questioned them. Perhaps he did and has simply not snared that information with me. Not wise, since the smallest detail might be able to aid me in my escape.

He had done some minor research into the nature of the Mists soon after the isolation event. He recounted one occasion of taking the obvious ploy of tying a string to a tree just outside the misty barrier and walking in, trailing the string out behind him, keeping it stretched tight so as to hold a straight path.

He continued to walk, slowly playing out the line until the Mists parted. He discovered that he had emerged but a few yards from his starting point, one end of the string leading in still tied to the tree and taut, the other in his hand coming out of the Mists... and taut.

The fool then said after this entirely minor setback that he gave up in disgust for the greater part of a decade, thus losing valuable research time. He did manage to make up for the lack in some small way by scouring his land for any and all books on magic that might contain even a kernel of usable knowledge on Barovia's unique isolation.

Though that quest did increase the contents of his library, it did not substantially improve his situation. The chief result of his exploration was an extensive familiarity with the geography of his land. Not that this was so difficult a thing to master, for the country is little more than twenty-five leagues in length at its farthest points and but ten leagues in width. He knows every stone and has bolt holes from the ravaging effects of the sun everywhere, another detail not to be underestimated in any plan for his assassination.

In summation, he knows much about his land, but little about the true nature of the Mists that brought him to this pass. His chief concern with newcomers is to question them about the circumstances of their departure point and be satisfied with that information. He then quickly loses interest in them except as nourishment. I wonder if the Mists themselves have anything to do with this other apparent blind spot or if this is one of his childish deceptions.

The newcomers did get in, and if I could understand how that was accomplished, perhaps I could discover a way to get out.

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