Chapter 4 | Shadow and Light

Hoben enjoyed the cool mist on his face, aware that something sinister likely lurked within its depths, but felt entirely unaffected by that notion. The fog cleared as he stepped into it, and closed behind him, enclosing him in a wraithlike embrace.

The barbarian and the ranger emerged into view, hands readied on their weapons. Hoben reached for the rapier on his belt, the ornate knuckle guard covering his fingers as he slid his hand onto the handle.

Hoben sucked in his breath, listening intently. The forest was silent around them. The party exchanged glances.

Hoben heard the raven before he saw it, the rustling of its wings interrupting the stillness. It appeared out of the mist like an angular void in movement, starkly black against the muted landscape, and perched itself on a low branch. Hoben watched as the warlock’s eyes widened at the sight of it — she approached it, reached out a tentative finger, and lightly stroked its beak. The bird and the woman stared at each other.

A moment passed in suspended silence as they considered one another. The bird broke away first, and flew back into the gray. Amira’s face darkened, but the look disappeared as soon as it came.

Wordlessly, the party continued down the path, following the lead of the dragonborn.

Hoben supposed he should feel frightened, but he wasn’t exactly sure what it felt like to be afraid. He knew sorrow, and passion, and amusement, and delight, but fear eluded him. For how else does a halfling survive and thrive in a world that towers over him, danger constantly lurking above and around him?

Instead, he felt the formations of a song within him. The sight of misty tendrils and the spindly branches of the looming trees sounded like a softly plucked E string in his mind. A duet, perhaps, if he could find the right accompaniment. The tension between shadow and light, corporeal and ethereal, would be a lovely musical conversation between string and wind instruments, for that was like the forest itself — knotted, corded trees enveloped in this eerie, eidolic air.

He wondered if any of his new companions were musicians. He enjoyed the thought of the dragonborn breathing an icy note into a flute, or the paladin strumming a lyre cradled in his lap. Ruh Ruh would likely take to a drum, enjoying the steady rhythm created by his own beating. And Phaedrus would appreciate the artistry of a rustic, wood-carved dulcimer. Amira would most certainly be drawn toward a moody viol.

Akra stopped short as another sight appeared in the fog like a mirage, and Hoben nearly ran into the back of her knees. A gate flanked by two stone buttresses came into view. The stone was cracked and stained after constant buffeting of the damp wind.

There was nowhere to go but forward, and they proceeded cautiously toward it, and still the mist followed.

Dew clung with tenacity to the rusted bars, which swung open as they approached. Liam narrowed his eyes at the headless statues. Hoben was sure the statues were once impressive and intimidating before neglect and the elements forced them to crumble.

Run Ruh wrinkled his nose, catching onto a scent a half second before the rest of them. Hoben grimaced. It smelled like death and decay, wet earth mixed with rotting flesh. The barbarian led them toward the source. A corpse lay shredded and torn just beyond the gate.

Everyone’s hands flew to their nearest weapon.

Hoben looked at the corpse with pity. He heard the paladin mutter a prayer next to him. Phaedrus scrutinized their surroundings, and crouched to the ground, running a finger over paw prints surrounding the corpse. He pinched the dirt within his fingers, and brought it to his nose.

“It’s dirt,” Phaedrus said, with confidence. Liam glanced at him, the corners of his mouth twitching. Hoben wasn’t sure what the ranger implied with his cryptic revelation.

Amira looked to Ruh Ruh, and pointed to the ground. “Do you recognize these prints? They look wolf-like.”

Run Ruh shook his head with vigor. Hoben sensed he was defensive about the question. “Doesn’t look familiar to me,” the dwarf answered with a huff.

Akra knelt down, and plucked a note from the corpse. She glanced at it for a moment, squinting at the neat script, before passing it to Amira.

The warlock read it aloud.

Hail thee of might and valor,

At this, Amira glanced around, and cocked an eyebrow, before continuing.

I, the Burgomaster of Barovia, send you honor — with despair. My adopted daughter, the fair Ireena Kolyana — at this, Hoben’s interest piqued, as it often did when he heard about “fair women,” although the name Ireena made his gut clench in mild guilt, thinking about the Countess — has been these past nights bitten by a vampire. For over four hundred years, this creature has drained the life blood of my people. Now, my dear Ireena languishes and died from an unholy wound caused by this vile least. He has become too powerful to conquer.

So I say to you, give us up for dead and encircle this land with the symbols of good. Let holy men call upon this power that the devil may be contained within the walls of weeping Borovia. Leave our sorrows to our graves, and save the world from this evil fate of ours.

There is much wealth entrapped in this community. Hoben’s ears twitched again. Return for your reward after we are all departed for a better life.

Kolyan Indirovich, Burgomaster

Hoben assumed by the perforated commoner clothing that the corpse was not Kolyan Indirovich himself. A squire, perhaps? Poor sap.

“So wherever we are includes — vampires, and some sort of feral wolf?” Liam said, and the bard couldn’t tell if the paladin’s face displayed annoyance, or skepticism, or determination. Liam looked up into the dismal sky, and sighed.

Beyond the gate was the shadowy outline of Barovia, a hamlet submerged in the phantasmal cloud that permeated everything around them. It was a village that contained fair daughters, and wealth, and fodder for songs and stories. And danger, to be sure, but that didn’t phase the halfling.

Hoben feared nothing but unfulfilled adventure.

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