[Create New User]
Iron & Blood Storylines
Iron & Blood
Beneath the heat-blasted helmet, the charred flesh that was the death knight's face stretched into a smile. A waft of fetid breath escaped as he opened his mouth, and from somewhere deep within his unholy body a hiss of air escaped as laughter. Throughout Nedragaard Keep, the ranks of the undead stopped and cringed in fright. Nothing they had ever heard, in life or unlife, was as haunting as their lord's hollow laughter.
Lord Soth, his orange eyes glowing through the slits of his helm, took measure of the decayed ruins of his throne room. Where once the room was decorated with ornate tapestries and intricate mahogany furniture, there now stood tattered rags and rotten husks. The sounds of the court minstrels and revelers had long since faded, only to be replaced by the keening wail of banshees. His honor guard, once a band of fierce and noble knights of Solamnia, were now mindless skeletal warriors.
Soth's smile faded. Nedragaard bore little resemblence to the keeps and castles of his days as the fiercest warrior in the knighthood of Solamnia, or even, for that matter, to Dargaard, his old keep in the land of Krynn, where the death knight committed unspeakable horrors. Now, he ruled a duchy of shadows in the Realm of Ravenloft. How long had he been trapped in this infernal land of mists? How long had he hoped for release?
And all because of the accursed Strahd von Zarovich. How long had he waited for the opportunity to drive a stake into the dark heart of the vampire king? He wished he could drive it deep with his own gauntleted hands, but the curse that trapped him within the realm of Ravenloft also prevented him from leaving the borders of his own domain. Ever since Strahd had used his old seneschal, the ghost Caradoc, to lure him into the Misty Borders, where Soth became trapped within his own domain, the death knight had longed to kill the preening vampire king.
No matter. At last, he had found the means to avenge himself on that count. Strahd had known one weakness, his love for the human girl Tatyana. She was his eternal folly. Some said that it was over his love for this girl that the vampire made a pact with unknown devils, a pact for which he slew his own brother, that caused the rift to open between the worlds and form the realm of Ravenloft. And now, Soth's spies reported that the girl's latest incarnation had once again returned to the lands. With that, Strahd von Zarovich would be his at last.
At the mere thought, the smile returned to Soth's face. His orange eyes glowed like burning embers. With a voice as cold as his undead heart, Soth spoke, "Bring them."
Azrael, the dwarven werebeast who served as Soth's new seneschal, scurried from the room. In a moment, the dwarf returned, leading a force of evil warriors the likes of which the world of Ravenloft, teeming with nightmarish creatures, had never seen.
Even Soth, once the favorite of the dark goddess Takhisis, had to admire the collection of fiends his agents had turned up. Eight warriors of chaos, unique and remarkable in their abilities, stood before him: Urgo, the powerful gargoyle with the hide of stone; Ardrus, the skeletal warrior, who was far more dangerous and cunning than the undead knights who guarded Soth; Sasha, the ferocious werewolf, Nym Pymplee, the goblin warrior with the deadly flashing blades; Balthazaar, the merciless headsman who could sever heads with one clean stroke; Kaurik, the warlord who hid behind a mask made from the skins of his victims; Balok, the viscious black knight; and Stellerex, the dark wizard whose arcane might was rivaled by only a select few within the realm of Ravenloft.
"My minions," Soth began. He could see the warriors bristle at this reminder of the power that Soth held over them. He smiled beneath his helmet. "I have a simple task for you to perform. Succeed, and I shall grant you your freedom."
Stellerex answered for the assembled warriors. "A simple task for our freedom, Lord Soth? Surely you do not believe us to be fools."
"No," the death knight replied. "I have no need for fools in my service>" He folded his armed behind him and turned his back on the assemblage for just a moment -- long enough for them to think of treachery, but not nearly long enough for them to carry through with it. "However, the task I set before you is simple enough. It's execution, however, is another matter. I want you to kill Strahd von Zarovich."
"The vampire lord?" Stellerex remarked. His voice was cool, but Soth could detect a note of apprehension hidden underneath the surface. "Many have tried. All have failed."
"Ah, but never has a band of assassins such as yourselves been assembled. Attack in force, and one... perhaps several... of you will surely be able to rid Ravenloft of such a being. Once again, your reward is simple -- freedom."
The band of evil warriors stirred, looking into each other's faces. Some relished the challenge, while others wrestled with the question of Soth's trustworthiness. It did not matter. They would comply. They had little choice in the matter.
"We shall kill the vampire," Stellerex swore. "We shall gain release from the yoke of your servitude."
Soth watched as his minions exited his throne room. In the coming hours they would prepare for battle, and then they would be gone, free to cross the borders of Soth's domain and into Barovia. They had little chance of succeeding, of course. Strahd was too powerful... too cunning... to allow them to do so. Perhaps at this time, with his attention diverted by the return of the girl, Strahd would prove to be vulnerable. Should the eight warriors prove incapable of defeating Strahd, he held in reserve two even greater opponents for the vampire. In a materpiece of trickery, he had been able to bind into his servitude two viscious demons who had been foolish enough to travel to Soth's domain. He was reluctant to use these demons without cause, as his spies had reported that Strahd had actually managed to acquire oaths of protection from two powerful avatars. However, should his warriors fail, the demons would prove necessary in ensuring Strahd's destruction.
No matter. While Strahd was busy fighting off his assassins, Soth would be busy tracking down the girl, Tatyana. Her incarnations appeared only once every few centuries. Soth would make sure he got to her first. Strahd would lose his beloved once again -- in the cold embrace of a death knight.
"The mists are getting bad." Erland muttered. The elven archer tightened his grip on his bow. "I've never seen anything like it."
He turned to face his companions. Through the cursed fog, he could barely distinguish the outlines of his seven fellows: Torgo, the one armed dwarf; Luthor the paladin; Darius, the gladiator; Xenobia, the woman warrior; Ignatius Max, the halfling thief; Shinesta the outcast elven princess; and Red Cloud, the tribal Shaman. The eight of them had been traveling the road to Waterdeep after successfully slaying the ancient dragon Blackheart and plundering its treasure. The night had been clear and the road well lit by a full moon when the mists sprung up seemingly from the very ground itself. Soon thereafter, they had lost all trace of the road to Waterdeep.
"We'd better link ourselves together," Shinesta suggested. "Before long, we won't be able to see our hands at the ends of our arms, let alone each other."
"Strap ourselves together?" the one-armed dwarf cautioned in a gruff voice. "More like trap ourselves together. This mist, it isn't natural. Something's behind it, and we're bound to find out what before too long."
"Would you rather we wandered off away from each other?" Luthor argued. "If there is something out there, it could pick us off one by one. I'd rather take our chances as a group."
The thief, Ignatius Max, pulled a rope from his pack. The eight looped the rope through their belts and tied themselves together. The fog grew thick and dense as wood smoke. For minutes, maybe hours, they wandered, losing all track of time and the world around them. When it seemed as if they had surely entered the Abyss itself, the fog began to abate.
"It's lifting," Erland spoke. It was the first sound they had heard since they had entered the fog. The silence did not last long. As the mists parted, revealing an old forest at the base of craggy hills, a wolf's howl shattered the stillness of the night. Another howl followed, and soon the sounds of a chorus of wolves filled the air.
Quickly, the band of heroes untied the rope that linked them together. With a flawless precision attained through years of experience fighting side by side, the group formed a tight-knit defensive circle. The wolves surrounded them. The heroes waited for the attack, but it never came. After a time, they slowly began to explore the land around them. The wolves followed, always keeping at a steady distance, coming no nearer nor drifting any farther away.
"Why don't they attack" Xenobia asked.
"They watch us," Red cloud said simply. "For what, or whom, I do not know."
The forest gave way to a clearing. Where grass should have grown, there were only weeds. The soil was rocky and barren, not a fit place for life to bloom. The group marched on, the wolves constantly trailing.
"Where are we?" Darius asked.
"Far from Waterdeep, of that I am sure," Luthor answered.
"I shall attempt to divine that information," Red Cloud remarked. The shaman grasped the totem around his neck, the symbol of his idety Manitou, the great spirit, and attempted to commune with hig god. A look of befuddlement crossed his face, followed by an espression of greater concern. "I... I am unable to make contact... I do not sense Manitou's presence anywhere in this land."
"Aye, I feel the absence too," Luthor added. "We have been cut off from the gods themselves."
Xenobia pointed at the night sky. Where before they had walked under the light of a full moon, they now stood staring at a sliver of crescent mood. The stars in the sky were unrecognizable to any of the band of eight.
"I don't believe we are on Faerun anymore," Xenobia voiced aloud the thoughts of all eight.
The group of heroes moved forward cautiously, ever conscious of the pack of wolves that circled them at a distance. From time to time one of the wolves would bay at the moon, and set the whole lot of them into a baleful chorus.
After a time they stumbled across a fork in what appeared to be a well-traveled road. One branch led higher into the craggy hills. Far in the distance, they could see a bleak castle perched on the side of a mountain. The other branch wove its way into a valley below.
The party stopped at the crossroad. A grisly sight stood before them. Two sharpened stakes, six feet in height, flanked the road. Impaled on each spike was a human body.
Luthor examined the corpses. Peasants, in all liklihood, from th elooks of them. Curiously, there was no sign of blood around the wounds. It was as if they had been drained entirely before being impaled on the spikes.
"What devilry is at work here?" Luthor whispered. "How could we have come to such a world?"
"It's the mists, I'm afraid."
The voice took them all by surprise. Immediately, the eight heroes adopted their fighting stances. They searched the woods around them. The red eyes of the wolves glowered at them in the dark, nothing more.
"What manner of evil spirit are you?" Red Cloud whispered. "Show yourself."
"Forgive me," the voice answered. Where once there was seemingly nothing but a shadow, a well-dressed man stepped forward. With gloved hands, leather boots, starched white shirt, black pants and jacket, and a flowing black cape with red lining, his attire bespoke a man of impeccable taste. "I have forgotten my manners."
Luthor felt the evil radiating from the man like a blow to the head. The paladin stepped forward, double handed sword held before him. "Come no closer, devil."
The man ignored the threat, gliding slowly into the clearing. In the pale moonlight, his skin had the cast of ivory. "Put down your sword, paladin. I have no desire to harm you or your comrades."
Luthor backed away slowly, but kept his defensive posture. The others, following his lead, were wary, relaxing their fighting stances only somewhat.
"Please, allow me to introduce myself. I am Count Strahd von Zarovich," the shadowed man spoke, and then gave a courtly bow. "I thought, perhaps, we might come upon an agreement which might be mutually rewarding."
"That's highly unlikely," Erland scoffed.
"Please. Allow me to finish," the count imposed. His voice held its courtly politeness, but the elven archer could tell that the man was acting hard to restrain himself. Evidently, the count was a man not used to interruptions. "I have recently learned that one of my greatest enemies has sent a group of assassins after me. I want you to prevent them from reaching my castle, by any means necessary."
"Why should we help you?" Luthor argued. "Perhaps they come for you for good reason."
"I am sure you have guessed at my true nature, paladin, and I know you would hold no pity for my demise. But my enemy is a loathsome blight upon mankind, and his assassins are abominations -- a treacherous goblin, a viscious headsman, a warlord who wears the skins of his victims..." Strahd waved his gloved hand and cut his line of conversation short, as if that were unimportant. "But you should listen to me for another reason. I can give you release from this land."
"Then you must be the one who brought us here!" Torgo barked.
"I have no control over the mists. They know no master," Strahd responded.
"Then how do you expect to grant us release from them?" Shinesta asked. The elven princess did nothing to disguise her skepticism.
"There are portals of great magic that are capable of transporting you from this world. I know the location of such a portal."
The heroes absorbed this new information. They glanced from one to another, unsure of how to proceed. It was only moments ago that they were on the road to Waterdeep, and now here they were, in a strange land making bargains with a devil!
"Then why haven't you left this accursed place yourself?" Torgo accused.
"Such is my curse that I cannot leave these lands." Strahd bowed his head slightly, humbly before the group.
"Why should we trust you?" Luthor questioned.
"You shouldn't." Cries of protest rung out from the group. "But as the villagers of nearby Barovia would be sure to tell you, I am a man of my word. Besides, you have very little choice. Many heroes such as yourselves have wandered the land of the mists. Many have died, victims of the beasts that infest these lands. Many others have died, old and broken, having searched their whole lives for a means of exit without ever finding even the slightest clue. Perhaps the elves in your party will survive the test of the centuries and eventually find a way out. Can the rest of you take the chance?"
"I don't like it," Luthor grumbled. "I'd rather place my trust in my steel and my wits than the word of a fiend."
"What choice do we have?" Xenobia argued. "To take up his challenge... or to wander these lands forever?"
The heroes searched each other's faces. One by one they nodded their assent. "Aye, we shall do this task for you. For release from this cursed land," Luthor spoke for the group.
Strahd smiled. Fools. They were noble -- and all the more gullible because of it. To think, he had actually considered resorting to using his mind control on them. But that would have dulled their senses, and made them far less useful as protectors from Soth's minions. Their nobility made this all the more unnecessary. They took their oath to protect him, and would fight that much harder because of it. But Strahd, too, had his sense of honor. He would keep his word. Should these heroes actually succeed in stopping Soth's assassins, he would grant them release from this land. And from all others.