A dark figure approaches on a steed of Fire and Smoke, of shiny black hair; its mane, hooves, and tail ablaze. Ireena stands in shock at the sudden explosion of lightning, standing over the pool where her ostensible former husband and lover Sergei’s face once shone; we realize, too late, that Sergei may in fact have been the same Sergei who was mentioned in Madame Eva’s tent at the turning of the 5th card, the Broken Man. Strahd, we believe, envied the most his brother, who we suppose is this same Sergei. Ireena calls for Sergei desperately. Corrina tries to oust her from her stupor, but to no avail. She remains unresponsive, Corinna struggling to pull her away, until Mondross and Elmer join in. We drag her to cover in the trees nearby the pool, and spread out in as tactical a fashion as we can, caught off guard as we are.
Strahd, for indeed it is he atop the Night-Mare, lands by the pool and alights gracefully. He is dressed nobly, as if to welcome a Queen. Elmer takes the lead and starts walking towards the pool, calling out to the Vampire as he goes. Strahd ignores him, examines his handiwork in the pool, and is nonplussed by whatever it is he sees in the water. He turns to meet Elmer as he approaches, parlaying all the while, and interrupts, speaking to all of us.
“It appears I owe you my gratitude. Please, do not cower, come forth.” Elmer holds his hand out and introduces himself for the umpteenth time, and Strahd, as if he finally recognizes Elmer’s presence, greets him.
“Ah, Elmer Von Doot, we meet again. The appropriate greeting for your Lord would be a kneel.” Elmer complies, smiling and giving his most gracious kneel.
“Why do you still travel with this group when you could be so much more? Come with me, and not just for dinner. Come to my castle, and rule by my side.”
As the group begins to protest, Elmer turns and, with permission from Strahd, begins proselytizing to the group the virtues of working for such a man. Among such virtues he posits that in such a position of power we may influence Strahd to take pity on the common folk and create one day a week where they may be merry, he suggests calling in “Sunday.” Of course, he says, every other day would still be Strahd’s domain, and he begins listing off “Strahderday,…”
Olana, thinking herself concealed, casts Tasha’s Hideous Laughter upon Elmer in an attempt to break him from Strahd’s influence, at the least physically. He falls to the ground laughing, and Strahd turns to glare directly at Olana’s hiding place, shaking his head in disappointment.
“This is what I speak of, Elmer, these piteous creatures are beneath you.” He takes a moment to look at Elmer writhing with laughter on the floor, and around at each of us.
“And to whom do I owe my gratitude for saving my dear Tatyana?” Ignoring his question, Corinna asks if Ireena is the wife of his brother, Sergei. His placid face betrays naught to her, but Mondross recognizes the smallest and subtlest of cringes at the mention, as if she had struck him.
“Hrm. She will be my bride,” and looking at Ireena, calls “come with me!” Corinna attempts to negotiate for a trade of Ireena for Elmer, but Strahd takes little notice, and speaks almost to himself. “Yes, the pool… Eva warned me there was a way, and that you all would lead me to it…”
Ireena, crying, stands and begins walking towards Strahd. It is unclear whether she does so by his command, or simply out of defeat. Mondross and Corinna attempt to stop her, but she is strong. They slow her enough for Mondross to cast Calm Emotions upon her (and, incidentally, Elmer), and she stops. He tries to rouse her from her trance, and she seems more responsive than before, yet still distraught. We hear a growling behind us and turn to see a pack of wolves encircling us, nearly 15 in total. They stand, awaiting orders from their Master.
“I thought you owed us your gratitude?” Corinna asks Strahd, motioning to the wolves.
“Ah, yes, of course. Join me, for dinner.”
“We still have some obligations we need to take care of.”
“Then I will give you a choice” Strahd says, “Keep either Ireena or Elmer. The other comes with me.” At the mention of his name, Elmer finally stops his fitful laughter. He rises and appeals again to us, saying he thinks Strahd’s castle is the “Dizzying Heights” that Eva’s card referred to, and that he might be able to discover its secrets should he go with Strahd. Though it is overcast, Elmer’s Shadow creeps towards Ireena, greedy arms outstretched and ready to grasp her, but it retreats when we notice it.
Elmer volunteers for the mission he created, and goes to Strahd. The team is at a loss for what to do; lose Ireena, the woman we’ve kept safe for so long, or certainly lose Elmer, our friend. He mounts the Hellsteed, and Strahd mounts behind him. Corinna tries to block their exit and tell Strahd to take Ireena, but he ignores her pleas and begins flying away.
Struck by the sudden realization of what was happening, and the consequences of a world without Elmer, Olana sprints forth as Strahd ascends, and using Misty Step teleports between Strahd and Elmer in an attempt to grapple the latter off of the horse. Elmer holds fast, and Strahd tries to swat Olana off the horse.
Below, Elgian tries, in vain, to get Ireena to the pool to reunite her with her lover. Corinna attempts to attack Strahd with a bolt of flame, but it bounces harmlessly off his shoulder. Olana casts an explosive spell behind the horse in an attempt to dislodge either Strahd or herself and Elmer, but to little effect. In response, Strahd grasps Olana and suddenly drains her of her vitality, leaving her unconscious. Elmer, realizing his chance, calls forth the Lord of Morning Lathander’s light onto Strahd, casting Daylight. A beacon springs forth from Strahd’s clothing. He is startled, but the light does not otherwise faze him. Ada and Corinna shoot arrows at Strahd, but they bounce off his back. Mondross and Elgian still try to get Ireena to the pool, but she resists, still stuck in despair.
Strahd finally finds himself bored of his charges, and pushes Elmer and the unconscious Olana off his mount. We fall, and Elmer lands heavily, letting out a startled grunt. Olana seems to take the fall much better and is silent. Elmer heals Olana, all the while cursing Lathander for the God’s betrayal of him, for his light did nothing but annoy the Vampire Lord. Strahd circles on his horse above, and his wolves do nothing as the scene plays out.
Mondross and Elgian finally get Ireena to the pool, and Mondross jumps in to seek the light that formerly graced the waters; he finds the pool dark and murky. Corinna tries to push Ireena in, but Ireena repels the assault. Elgian shoulders her in, in a desperate attempt to undo what we did when we separated the two lovers, and she falls in ungracefully. This wakes her somewhat from her stupor, but still she simply begins climbing out of the pool. Strahd lands next to her, and offers his hand. She takes it, and mounts the horse. Without a word the horse begins to fly away, and the wolves slink back into their woodland asylum. We hear Strahd’s ethereal invitation again, “join me for dinner at my castle soon, you are always welcome…” as the image of the flame-wreathed couple disappears into the mists and clouds.
The silence which follows is reflected on the faces of the Company. Those by the pool sit forlornly, some staring into space, others at the water where Ireena’s redemption lay, not moments ago. Olana, drained and bloodied from the fall, slowly and methodically labors to clear the statue of Lathander of detritus, and rights it with Mondross’ help. She begins to pray, ignoring Elmer as he urinates on the statue, calling Lathander the sorts of names normally reserved for sordid lovers, and neglectful family. He rants about the Morning’s betrayal, and asks why his Lord would ignore his pleas for sunlight so.
Mondross ponders the encounter and realized that something magical must have kept Strahd safe from the assaults they levied against him. Elmer, in understandable frustration, ponders quitting the life of the adventurer and starting a bakery. The suggestion is thrown about that now that Ireena is in Strahd’s possession, we might recruit Izaak to our cause. After a long while, the group stirs and mournfully heads towards their original destination, the Abbey on the hill.
They walk through the town, and ascend the switchback road approaching the abbey. The air cools, and the walk is steep. Emerging through the mists they find the abbey, a light dusting of snow covering the area. The graveyard overhangs the ridge, and below we can see hints of the town, 400 feet below. We approach the gates to the Abbey, and call out. Two creatures emerge from the guard-posts abreast the gate, they are strange amalgams of humans and other creatures, not sewn together but fused. The ear of a cat, the hand of a monkey, the wing of a bat. We ask to see the Abbot, and they lead us inside. They introduce themselves as Siegfried and Otto. The guards at the battlements of the curtain walls appear from afar as men, but as we approach we realize they are but scarecrows, equipped with mail hauberks and spears, cowls covering their nonexistent faces. The group approaches the Abbey proper, screams filling the air from sheds nearby, emanating other chimeric creatures, surely. We spy a copper placard with the inscription:
“The Abbey of Saint Markovia”