/ Language: English / Genre:sf_fantasy, / Series: Ravenloft

I Strahd The War against Azalin

P. Elrod


P. N. Elrod

I, Strahd, The War against Azalin

PROLOGUE

736 Barovian Calendar, Mordentshire, Mordent

"Goodness me, Dr. Van Richten, another one of those dark books? How do you manage to sleep at night?"

Dr. Rudolph van Richten smiled gently at Mrs. Heywood and made a self-deprecating shrug by way of a reply.

"I'm sure it can't be healthy for you," she continued, but smiled as she wrote out their respective receipts for his purchase, one for him, one for her records. She had a careful round hand and took pride that every letter and number should be easy to discern. It also took a bit of time, but on slow days such as this it gave her ample opportunity to gossip with her customers. Dr. Van Richten was a particular favorite with her, and she always made a point of bestowing a little extra effort upon him. Sometimes he would share the most amazing stories of his many journeys in the world, which were very welcome, since she had not seen much of it after setting up her modest book business in Mordentshire some twenty-five years ago.

Just as she was about to ask if he had any future plans for travel, a man pushed through her shop door setting the little bell above to ringing. "Welcome, sir," she said. "If you need help, you've only to ask."

He merely grunted in response. Both Van Richten and Mrs. Heywood made a study of the newcomer, who was rather a surprise.

Dr. Van Richten was typical of most of her clientele, a scholarly sort, well-mannered, more interested in older, esoteric books in languages she had never heard than in anything new. This other fellow was big and loutish looking, dressed for a long journey rather than the paved streets of a city. His clothes were of thick wool and leather, worn and travel-stained. He carried dust-caked leather saddlebags over one shoulder, and they looked heavy. He turned suddenly, surprising them in their stare. There was a haunted, guarded look in his red-rimmed ice-blue eyes.

"You buy books?" he demanded of Mrs. Heywood.

"That's what the sign out front says."

He grunted again, then proceeded to browse among the shelves in the corner farthest from her front counter.

The widow Heywood's book shop, (New and Vintage Tomes for the Discerning Reader-Buy and Sell) tucked away on its seedy, but still respectable street, was not the sort to command attention from the city's more refined shoppers, though those who knew of it often came by. Off the main thoroughfare, its leaded diamond-shaped front windows lent it a closed appearance, but the door was always open to anyone curious enough to bother giving it a push. Not many like this rough-looking stranger had ever bothered. He was as out of place as a plow horse at a racing meet.

Still watching the new man, Van Richten responded to her comment. "How can the search for knowledge be detrimental to one's health?" he asked. "I sit by a nice fire in the winter as comfortable as can be or an open window in the summer to take the air, and do a bit of reading between calls from patients."

She smiled and waggled her quill pen at him in a teasing manner. "Don't try fooling me, sir. Everyone's seen how you'll shut your practice down at a moment's notice or less, then off you go with a bang for months at a time to who knows where, coming back all worn and wasted. I'm the only one who's observed that some of your mysterious trips happen right after you've bought a book from me."

He chuckled. "Not true, I was in the other week and took home several of your excellent volumes, and here I am still."

"Ah, but those were all about herbs and healing, not one of these dark books-like this one." She nodded at the small edition that lay on the counter between them. It was about legends and lore, containing stories about nasty creatures and other things Mrs. Heywood would rather not think about.

"Hardly dark, my dear lady, in fact, it has rather a pretty cover." The book was distinctive indeed, with its pale tan leather wrapping. The title, in lettering that was not native to Mordent, was stamped into it with real gold leaf, though time and use had caused much of it to be worn away.

"Roses are also pretty, but famous for their thorns," she wryly reminded him. "And some of these books don't half give me nightmares."

"Only because you're sensitive to the magical energy some of them have obviously been exposed to. You don't actually have to be in a fire for your clothes to smell of wood smoke."

"Magic!" she said, and gave a little ladylike shudder.

"Nothing to be afraid of. It's just another tool, like a hammer. You only have to know how to correctly use it so as not to hurt yourself or others."

"Then I'll leave that for other people, thank you very much. I want no truck with magical books."

"You likely won't. True magical tomes are extremely rare and almost always traded exclusively between those who have trained in their use."

"There's a relief. I just wish I wasn't as sensitive to it like as you say."

"It's annoying, but it won't hurt you. For you it's about the same as for people who get a rash from eating strawberries. Besides, because of your reaction you've often been able to separate ordinary books from the extraordinary, have you not?"

"Indeed, and they fetch ever so much more coin. If it weren't for them I'd have lost my shop and gone to the poor home years ago."

"So there's a 'silver' lining to that cloud, so to speak."

She chuckled and nodded at this, then sobered, cocking her head entreatingly. "But my nightmares…?"

"You read the books don't you? I suggest you break off doing that."

"Oh, but I can't! Otherwise how will I tell who might find it of interest? There's many that I've sent your way for knowing what they were about."

"True, and I do appreciate it. Perhaps-if your nightmares persist-you can come by and I'll fix you up with a nice herbal tea you can take at bedtime. I'd also suggest you not read these kinds of stories just before retiring."

The other customer, who was presently giving hard study to some housekeeping books, cleared his throat. He made it sound impatient.

Van Richten leaned close to whisper, "I'm not sure I care for the look of that fellow. Do you want me to stay?"

Mrs. Heywood considered the offer, then shook her head. "I shall be fine, I know his sort, and they're harmless to me."

"Harmless!"

"Indeed. He's got books to sell and is shy about it."

"Why should he be shy?"

"Because the poor man probably can't read."

"Oh, dear."

"So you run along and-"

"If you're sure?"

"Thank you for your concern, but I'll be fine." She made shooing motions.

Dr. Van Richten, his own purchase tucked in the pocket of his coat, reluctantly took his leave.

The other man had apparently been waiting for this, but made no immediate move toward the front counter. Mrs. Heywood patiently picked up her latest knitting project, a striped scarf, and prepared to work on it until he was ready to talk to her. It was all part of the game of buying and selling. Neither party dared show too much eagerness lest it adversely effect the price of the product. Mrs. Heywood was very good player.

The man finally replaced the book he had been pretending to flip through-he had been holding it upside down until finding a page with pictures on it-and made his way to her front counter.

She gave him her cheeriest smile. "Yes, good sir, how may I help you?"

He dropped the leather saddlebags onto the counter, sending up a cloud of dust.

"You must do a lot of traveling," she said, trying hard not to sneeze.

"How d'ya know that?" he demanded suspiciously.

Oh, dear, he's not too terribly bright, is he? she thought, covering the thought with a bigger smile as she put the knitting to one side. "Only because you have the air of a man of the world, of someone who's been away to interesting places." To judge by the aroma coming from his clothing, his recent travels had not taken him near any bath houses or laundries.

"Int'restin' is the word for it, all right," he growled. "I seen plenty."

"Indeed? I suppose when one travels one also collects souvenirs-" she gave the saddlebag a significant look, hoping he would take the opening.

"Eh?"

"Mementos of one's trip… to remind one of the places one's been."

"You don't talk half funny, lady. Who's this 'one' yer on about?"

"I was just speaking figuratively."

"Eh?"

She put on a brave smile and nodded at the saddlebags. "You asked if I buy books. Might I inquire as to whether you have any you wish to sell?" She mentally crossed her fingers, hoping that the words "buy" and "sell" had made an impression upon him. Apparently so, for he fixed her with a gap-toothed grin.

"I might, I just might 'ave somethin'."

"Indeed? May I see?" She made no move toward the bag, not wanting to dirty her fingers. She also had the impression that if she had tried, he'd have grabbed it away.

He gave her a long, piercing stare, then broke away from the counter to look out the windows. The street that she had watched day in and out for the last quarter century was still very much in place, lined with other small shops and their customers, as ordinary as it could possibly be.

He snarled at the sight like a restive bear, then rounded on her. " 'Ow much you give for a book?"

She couldn't believe he'd said anything so simplistic, but covered her disbelief with another smile. "That all depends on the book."

"What d'ya mean?"

"Different books fetch different prices, same as anything else."

"Oh, yeah?" He didn't sound convinced.

"I'll put it this way: you'd pay more for a trained horse in its prime than for an elderly pony, now, wouldn't you?"

"'Less I could steal it 'nstead," he said with a laugh. Mrs. Heywood did not join him in his fit of merriment, and he shut it off quick. "What I mean-that is-"

"You have a book to sell?" she kindly prompted.

"Right, tha's it. I found it. It don't belong to no one but me. That is, I found it when my gran passed on, very sad I was."

"My condolences. Perhaps if you'd let me see it I can judge whether it might be of interest to my customers."

"Yeah, right, comin' up." He opened the bag and drew forth from his collection of battered camp gear a fair sized cloth-covered bundle tied up with string. Laying the rectangular shape on the counter before her, he cut the string with his belt knife and pulled the cloth wrapping away, revealing a thick volume. But even before that happened Mrs. Heywood felt a distinct chill closing over her.

Another dark book. She looked at it, her heart beating very fast, then took a deep steadying breath to try to quell her nerves.

Its leather cover had once been red in color, but age had deepened it to a rusty brown. You could only judge the original shade by bits of it trapped in the cracks of its spine.

Like dried blood, she thought, and firmly suppressed the shudder that wanted to take her.

"Well?" he asked. "Bet that's worth a lot. Bet you never seen nothin' like it."

"I can't say that I have." She put forth a cautious finger and lifted the cover to read the title. She studied it for a very long time, biting her lower lip before giving the man a sharp look. "Where did you really get this?"

"I said my gramp-I mean gran-died and-"

"Save it for someone else, laddie," she said, her voice low and quick. "When it comes down to it, I don't care how you got it, but I do want to know where. The more you can tell me, the better."

"For the price you'll give me?"

"Maybe, but it has to be the truth."

He grimaced. "Well, I was up away in Barovia y'see-"

"Barovia!" She caught her breath and her heart gave a leap. "That far?"

"Oh, aye, I was doin' a bit of guard work for one of the nobles there, had himself a nice little castle until he-well, I'll just say he wasn't so good at keeping up with his taxes and he fetched up on the wrong end of a spear when his liege lord was settlin' their differences in the accountin'."

"Oh, my."

"Fair gave me a turn when one minute he's going all la-de-da an' puttin' on airs with the other nobles, and the next thing y'know, his head's on a pike with a real surprised expression fixed to his face. When that happened I says to myself, 'Milos, it's time move on, an' the quicker the better.'"

"But where did the book-"

"I'm gettin' to that. The truth is, I never got my last bit of pay. So instead of waitin' for his survivors-not sure if there were any, come to think of it-to set things to right, I thought it best to just take my pay in goods an' leave."

"I see."

"A lot of the other fellows did the same," he said in a defensive tone.

"Go on."

"The pickin's was slim, an' about all that was left was some trinkets and this here book. I've sold the trinkets since, but this book has me flummoxed. I asked around, an' someone said you'd give me a fair price."

"They told you correctly. I will give you a very fair price, but I'll have to study it first."

"Study it?"

"My dear man, you don't buy a horse without checking its teeth, do you?"

"I suppose not," he reluctantly admitted. "But-"

"And I assure you that the contents of this book are not like a tankard of ale to be gone with the drinking. A good book generally becomes more valuable after it's been read."

Milos gave a mighty frown as if having trouble digesting her information. "How valuable?"

"I can tell you that after I'm done."

"All right," he said after considerable grimacing, which was apparently an aid to his thought processes. "Read it then." He stood back and crossed his arms, waiting.

"This will take awhile. Perhaps several hours."

"I thought maybe I could watch you read, an' maybe see how to do it myself."

"That is a very admirable aspiration, but unhappily one doesn't learn reading in that manner. Were it true, I'd have many more customers."

"Oh." He seemed quite let down.

"But I've a suggestion for you on how to pass the time. There is a very reasonable victuals shop at the end of the street. Many-er-gentlemen in a similar line of work as yourself gather there to socialize. Perhaps you might even hear of another noble needing to fill a vacancy in his guards."

"Oh, well, that's fair kind of you to mention it, ma'am. An' now that it's been mentioned I am feeling pretty hollow on the inside. But I shouldn't like to leave my property behind."

"Goodness me, what am I going to do with it? Run away?"

Milos eventually admitted that it wasn't a likely action for her to take. "You'll keep good care of it?"

"The best," she promised.

He finally removed his saddlebags from her counter and left, not without a few backward glances-and nearly bowled over Dr. Van Richten who was coming into the shop again.

"Excuse me!" said Van Richten, giving the appearance of being flustered by their near collision.

Milos grunted with mild disgust and left the shop, shutting the door behind him with more force than was probably necessary. The moment he was out of sight Mrs. Heywood whisked out a dusting cloth and put it to swift use. Her workplace in order again, she now faced Van Richten squarely. She realized, much to her consternation, that he had his back to her. He was peering out the window, apparently following the progress of her latest customer.

"Forgive me, Mrs. Heywood, but I seem to have forgotten my receipt," he said abstractedly, not turning around.

"Humph."

Van Richten straightened after a moment. "Is there something amiss?"

She shook her head at his show of innocence. "I know very well that you left it on purpose to have an excuse to return."

He produced a rueful smile in response. "Indeed, I did. Guilty as charged, good lady. It's only that I had a feeling I should see what he was up to."

"Smelling wood smoke, were you?"

"You might say that." He looked at the book on her counter as a starving man might at a fresh loaf of bread. He started to reach for it, but checked himself. "May I?"

Sensing a quick turnover sale in the air, she nodded. "Of course."

He spun the book sideways, allowing them both to study the title. The lettering was very ornate and old, of a style that had been in brief use in Barovia some fifty years earlier, brief because it was so ornate as to be nearly impossible to read. Van Richten opened the cover. The inside script, on a different kind of paper, was much more legible, with lines of firm black ink marching across the pages. Not from a printer's press, but real handwriting. Its style was of a quite unique sort and very puzzling to her.

There were unbound pages as well. The paper was very thin and fine, as was the nib of the pen used, but, the handwriting was the same. It was as though the writer had put those in after the binding, and at first glance they did seem to be addendums to the main text. Van Richten read aloud the first of them from the very front of the book:

I, Strahd of Barovia, well aware that certain events of my reign have been erroneously recorded as "history," do hearby set down an exact record concerning my war with Azalin of Darkon. Many versions of what happened exist, and all are inaccurate over one point or another, but this is the one true accounting of…

He stopped and swallowed, having gone very pale.

"What is it, Doctor?" she demanded, shaken at his reaction. He was always so cheerful and confident, and to see him like this was most alarming.

He took command of himself and tapped a finger lightly against the page. There was an earnest light in his eyes. "I should like to hear your professional opinion about this book's characteristics."

Slightly taken aback, she nonetheless rose to the occasion. "Well, for a start, the penmanship looks to be from a period some four centuries past, yet I would judge the paper to be not more than a hundred and fifty years old."

"Yes, yes, please go on."

She held the book up in such a way as to let light shine behind a single page. "There, see that? I'm right on the dating. It's a Barovian paper maker's watermark from that time."

"How would you account for the combination of these elements?"

"It seems obvious that someone's taken an old Barovian diary and slapped a new cover on it about fifty years ago. But the puzzle is how anyone who learned to write some four centuries past was able to put that writing on such relatively new paper."

"You've an idea, though?"

"A disappointing one, sir."

"Which is-?"

"This book is a forgery."

Instead of disappointed, Van Richten looked, if anything, quite taken with the prospect. He was all but quivering, like a hunting dog catching a scent. "A forgery?"

"So it would seem, but why would anyone bother to forge a diary? And do such a clumsy job of it? Even an apprentice bookseller would be able to spot this one."

"Perhaps it was meant to draw attention," he murmured.

"But whose attention?"

"Who, indeed?"

She shot him an annoyed look, disliking it when people answered a question with a question, then studied the pages again. "The language is an old one, I find the phrasing rather hard to follow. Whoever did the forging made a thorough job of it, but they botched it on the age of the paper."

"Perhaps," he said, sounding abstracted again.

"What do you know that I don't?" she demanded.

"Um?" He broke away from reading the text and blinked at her.

"You know something about this book, don't you?"

"Not really, but I should very much like to find out more. Might I borrow it for the day and look it over? I'll bring it back first thing in the morning. I can promise you right now that I want to buy it, I just don't have the coin with me."

Now this was very atypical behavior even for the quietly eccentric doctor. "It's not that I don't trust you, sir, but I can hardly allow you to take it from the shop. It was left with me in good faith, and until I buy it from that man I can hardly sell it to you."

"Oh, yes, of course," he said, his initial excitement visibly dampened.

"Besides, I have to look it over to set a fair price on it…" but she could see he wasn't really listening. "Doctor?"

"Perhaps you'll allow me to read it here, then?"

"Here? The whole thing?"

"I should be very quiet."

"I don't doubt it, but why are you in such a hurry?"

He gave her his self-depreciating shrug again. "Call it the passion of a collector, madam."

She didn't believe that one, but was willing to let him get away with it. "Well, the truth be told, I want to have a read of it as well, and you seem to have a better command of the old language than I do. What if I closed the shop up for the rest of the day and you read this book to me? That way we both get what we want."

"I have serious reservations that you would want to hear what is in this tome. It could give you more nightmares."

"In which case I shall avail myself of some of your herbal teas," she smoothly returned.

"You'll lose the afternoon's business," he stated, sounding hopeful.

"It's always slow during this day of the week. I'll likely lose nothing. I'm determined to know what is in this mystery volume."

Van Richten finally sighed and nodded. "Very well, but afterwards please refrain from telling me that you weren't warned."

"Warned against what? A few nightmares? I think I can survive them. Now if you would be so kind as to move those two chairs to the table over there, I'll lock up so we won't be disturbed."

Van Richten obliged her request while she took a brass key from her apron pocket and secured the shop door. She then closed the curtains and bustled into the rear of the premises for a moment, returning more slowly. She carried a large, beautifully carved crystal lamp and gently placed it in the center of the table.

"My dear departed mother's prized possession," she explained, when Van Richten offered a compliment on it. "One cannot be too careful in this neighborhood, so I always keep it in the back. It gives a very good bright light, though, some trick of the way the crystal was fashioned."

"Excellent," he said. "If this book is indeed about grim topics, then it is not one to be read amongst the shadows."

Mrs. Heywood paused as she worked to coax a flame from her tinderbox. She didn't like his ominous tone, but refused to let herself be discouraged. She got the lamp lit, adjusted the height of the flame, and sat next to him. "What sort of grim topics?"

"There's but one way to find out," he said, and turned to the first page.

PART I

THE LORD Of BAROVIA

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.

End of excerpt.

CHAPTER TWO

Winter Solstice Night, 469 Barovian Calendar, Barovia

All others mark the death of the year in midsummer, when the longest day passes and the slow slide of ever-shortening days ends in midwinter when they celebrate the return of the light. Not so for me. The death of the year occurs when the longest night is done, giving me less and less time to walk in its protecting shadows.

Not that a shortage of time was a burden-eternity was before me, it seemed, but broken up into such brief increments between the sun's setting and rising that I greatly resented having to stop my studies to retreat to my crypt every few hours. Those studies consumed me completely, like the fever that had taken Tatyana nearly a quarter-century ago.

Because of it no book in my library was unread, and many I pored over again and again for weeks at a time, particularly the ones on magic. I catalogued their various ideas, trying to index everything into a recognizable pattern that could be exploited to help me escape my prison.

One portion of the pattern had to do with the occasional trespassers who entered the country at irregular intervals. As the newcomers were universally a bad lot, I used to kill them as I found them, but I'd since learned the wisdom of taking them alive so that I might closely question my prisoners on their lives beyond the Mists, trying to build a picture of the lands and peoples there. This was oftentimes easier said than done. Occasionally such trespassers spoke a similar tongue to my own-often startlingly similar-and communication was relatively easy. Other times trespassers had languages so unintelligible that I was forced to cast an appropriate spell in order to communicate even the most basic questions. By these interrogations I learned of many wonders, adding each piece of information to my index, though some of it was contradictory.

Two prisoners had arrived separately at different times, but-and this had not happened before-they were apparently from the same country. They each claimed it to be the same year as time was reckoned there, but each acknowledged a completely different liege lord ruling the place. By this I could deduce that there might be far more worlds out there than I had ever imagined, perhaps piled on top of one another in some manner that left them unaware of their nearly identical neighbors. It was intriguing to think on, though I was not quite ready to believe it yet, not until I obtained more proof than the word of two argumentative murderers, but perhaps there were multiple worlds beyond my borders. I wanted to reach those worlds, break through the Mists to the other side. Perhaps if these other worlds did indeed exist, then it was not inconceivable that in one of those worlds my dear Tatyana yet lived. The Barovia I knew had come about because of my own violent acts, the imprisoning Mists rising high and spreading far from its center at Castle Ravenloft. How then was I to reverse it and escape? Commit something unutterably altruistic and self-sacrificing and hope for the best?

I doubted it would be that simple.

Magical books were far too few, though, and none, save one, appeared to have any information in regard to my plight. The exception was the book Alek Gwilym, my long dead second-in-command, brought me that final year before everything changed. He had never approved of my studies in the Art, probably a wise foresight of his since it had later indirectly led to his death at my hands.

In that book I'd finally found what I had been searching so long for: A Spell For Obtaining the Heart's Desire. Ideal-except I wasn't far enough along in my studies to be able to read it. That had come to me when Death, summoned by my anger, frustration, and despair, made its visitation and offer, and we sealed our hellish pact. I'd gotten everything I'd wanted, but each desire had its own terrible price.

Age ceased to be a problem for me-though I often had to feed off gutter leavings and luckless peasants to stay alive. Sergei ceased to be my rival-after I had murdered him with the blade of a Ba'al Verzi assassin. And Tatyana became mine-for a few moments of bliss until she…

It is indeed true that one should be very careful with one's wishes, as they are likely to manifest themselves in a most unpleasant manner.

Since then I hadn't opened that particular book.

Common sense told me it was now no different from any of the other magic books in my possession; it had only been used as a tool to lure me into this velvet-barred cage. I was a prisoner with nothing left to offer Death. Possibly I did have one thing of value to bargain with: myself, my life, or the emptiness that was my life. I was reluctant to ask, lest I end up in a worse situation than the one I presently endured.

Was I afraid? I would be a fool not to be.

But this night, the longest in the turning of the year, when powers are afoot and endings and beginnings are all one, with trembling fingers, I carefully opened the book that had started it all. And as before, I flung it across the room with a roar of frustration.

It was unreadable. Useless. Every single page in it had gone black.

Somewhere behind me I heard that damned thing laughing as it had on the night of our bargain. I did not bother to turn, knowing there would be nothing to see. There never was. Death was very good at hiding its face from me.

Midnight drew closer, not the midnight which was marked by any clock, but the true midpoint of the year, the true turning when its wheel is precisely half in one direction and half in another. I launched from my study, consumed by rage and stepped through my bedchamber windows to the courtyard overlook, wrapped in my thickest cloak against the cruel mountain air. The night was still, holding its breath for the next movement in the turn of the year's wheel.

The shoulders of Mount Ghakis were also cloaked, but they were white, not black. There might be a fresh snowfall before morning, further obscuring the road to the castle. It was part of the castle's defenses, helping unwelcome visitors to maintain their distance.

The most formidable of the castle's defenses was the thick ring of poisonous fog surrounding not only its base, but also the underlying village of Barovia as well. No person drawing air could tolerate it for very long upon entering its choking grip, which remained in place, day or night, a significant discouragement to anyone. No one could get through without my express permission and invitation or the antidote-something I fashioned soon after its appearance. Should the unlikely happen and they enter, they would find themselves at the mercies of my various guardians throughout the castle. I could trust them to keep invaders occupied until nightfall when I would have a chance to assess the situation myself.

I turned from the fog drifting around the outside base of the curtain wall and spread my cloaked arms wide, assuming the shape of a bat and taking to the cold heavy air to make a wide circle of the castle. Below me lurked the ring of fog a dozen feet or more high around the base, making the castle seem to float in the clouds. Veering from it, I struck out over the wide pale valley. The snowfall there was smooth, boasting no human trails except for the Old Svalich Road, which was also unmarred by human tread. A dark, thick ribbon marked the River Ivlis. Ice ran along its banks, but not in the center where the flow was still strong.

I had a restless feeling I needed to be someplace, but no clear idea on just where that place might be. I am not often given to such, but this time it kept growing stronger, especially the closer I got to the river. I shifted to the left, toward the lead gray plain that was the Tser Pool, frozen like the river at the edges but not in the middle. The flow of water from the Tser Falls above was too great to allow it.

Still flying, I crossed the river just below the pool- free flowing water is an anathema to me only if I am in direct contact with it-and worked my way along over a dense patch of forest until it was broken up by a narrow road that branched off from the Svalich. Just as it approached the pool, it ceased to be a road at all and devolved into a barely visible trail roughly paralleling the pool. On the right, a bluff of land rose sharply up from the valley floor, the beginnings of this spur of Mount Ghakis. On the left, a wide clearing bordered the pool.

I coasted low and came to land in the field, timing my transformation so my booted feet sank first into the untouched snow as I stretched to fill out my man's form again.

Silence enveloped me as I wrapped my cloak about my body. I knew the deep silence of my crypt, and the lack of sound within my own mind when completely concentrating on some task. This was the windless silence of a winter forest, as though the trees themselves held their breath. No bird stirred in the still air; even the lap of water from the pool was hushed as if it feared to disturb the dead, lifeless air of the night.

The compulsion that drew me seemed strongest here. I looked about very carefully, but saw nothing out of the ordinary. Trees, snow, water… and mist. It was very fine at first, but gathering strength even as I watched, growing thicker until a white roiling wall blocked off all sign of the trail.

Midnight, or nearly so.

Then the silence finally broke. I heard the jingling of a bridle, the muffled clop of a horse's hooves in the snow. It came from the direction of the Mists. Rooted in place by this, I eagerly watched to see what would happen. Was I to finally witness one of the invaders entering my land? Might I be able to dart through their portal while it was still open?

Louder came the hoof beats, cantering. Was the rider mad? He must have been so to be going so fast in that white murk. Louder. Faster. A full gallop. Unconscious of the gesture, I reached for my sword. It was not there, of course. I hadn't felt the need to wear one for decades, but old habits linger long.

He was nearly upon me. I stepped out of his way, to the right toward the woods, and barely in time. A dapple gray horse burst out of the Mists, breath smoking, hooves throwing up clods of snow, the rider hooting and shouting like a lunatic as he guided the animal in a great circle about the clearing before reining in. He stopped only a few yards away, facing me. His horse, catching my scent, reared and whinnied in frightened protest, but he snapped a command in a language I did not know and his mount settled again, clearly unhappy with its ears flat to its head, but under control.

The rider, a young man with the face of a cocky devil, regarded me a moment with eyes as black and hard as cut onyx, then nodded.

"Hail, Strahd, Lord of Barovia!" he called.

I was quite thoroughly dumbfounded, but had the self-control not to show it. "Hail, Vistana," I called in return, for that was what he was, a sight I had not beheld in many, many years.

The gypsies-or Vistani as they are called-used to camp here when I first took up my reign. They had vanished with the war that had brought me to Barovia, then slowly began to return when things were at peace. I was never too comfortable about them, since it was their custom to give allegiance to no one but their own tribe. They wandered free, using my roads without paying tax for their upkeep, a source of minor irritation for me. As a soldier, I well understood the occasional appeal of an itinerant life, but could not grasp how anyone would voluntarily embrace its rigors.

The Vistani had no reason to love me because of a past incident when I'd imprisoned one of their own for thievery and spying. Before I had a chance to teach the skulker a proper lesson he had somehow escaped from my dungeon. Strange in itself, but I soon discovered he and all his people had disappeared completely from Barovia. Vanished into the Mists, so the peasants had told me. That had been long ago, even by my reckoning of time.

"I am Bartolome, Lord Strahd," he said, sketching a bow from his saddle as his horse danced uneasily in place.

Still fairly stunned by his appearance and the fact he knew me, I merely gave a brief, regal nod by way of acknowledgment.

"On behalf of my tribe, I beg permission from you that we may camp here as we have of old."

I looked up and noted that it was now true midnight. I had been drawn to this spot and at this time and now knew the reason. "Permission is granted, Bartolome. Bring your people in. Strahd von Zarovich welcomes them."

"Hai!" he shouted, and kicked his horse, charging headlong back into the Mists.

From deep in the white haze I heard the approach of the creaking wheels of their vardos, the small, brightly painted wagons with arched roofs that served as homes for the Vistani. Did the great wheel of the year make such a sound in its endless turnings?

Unexpectedly a flock of tiny gray and white birds shot clear first, cheeping and piping excitedly away as though it were nesting season. They darted past, swooped and swirled into the trees, disappearing, leaving behind only their song. I knew them to be vista-chiri and had not seen them in Barovia since the Vistani last traveled my roads.

Ringing bits, the clop of hooves, unidentifiable rattlings, and voices, many, many voices, women calling, the high-pitched cries of children, the gruff rumbles of the men, all drifted toward me, growing louder as they came near.

The first of the vardos emerged, two strong-looking horses cutting a path through the snow. Bartolome rode next to them and kept them calm as they passed me.

Then one after another they came, a great train of a dozen wagons, the largest grouping of Vistani I'd ever seen in a single gathering before. The vardos differed in color, and many had symbols painted on them. As I studied further, I noticed that some symbols decorated a few vardos while the symbols upon other wagons were completely different. A joining of two or more caravans perhaps? I could not as yet see any harm in allowing them entry, though I didn't wholly trust them. Many were thieves and charlatans yet, in general, they were considerably better company than previous intruders. Furthermore, from Bartolome's words I assumed that they were intentionally entering my realm rather than stumbling in unknowingly as had previous visitors.

As the final vardo rumbled through, the Mists completely dissipated. On the ground, the trail left by their wheels began in the middle of pristine snow, coming out of nowhere. Whatever power they used to get here I wanted to know about.

The last of them plodded along to its place in the circle they made. Those which I took to be of differing caravans camped next to one another, though all mingled freely and shared in the work. I posted myself just within it and watched as they made their preparations for settling in. Older children and youths scattered to pick up fallen wood from the forest and the men somehow managed to get the damp stuff to burn. The women brought forth their cooking pots and for the next hour domestic necessities prevailed as food was prepared and the livestock fed and bedded down.

Despite Bartolome asking permission I knew that his question in regard to their staying had been a formality only. With or without my consent they would have camped here regardless. A few of them shot me dark, uneasy looks that I endured without offense. Let them study and know the rarely seen face of the lord of Barovia; let them all learn my features and beware.

The evening meal done, the men threw more wood on the fires until the flames leapt high. Someone put bow to fiddle and tried a few experimental notes to make sure it was in tune, then struck off with a song I thought I recognized. I have no small amount of musical talent myself, though I had no reason to make music for many decades and was decidedly rusty. The song was almost familiar, but in places the notes were quite different and the rhythm became a constantly changing thing with no apparent pattern to it.

A drum was brought in to aid the fiddle, then more stringed instruments of strange design. Several of the young women stood to dance to the music, long full skirts gilded by the firelight. Their tambourines, streaming bright ribbons, kept time as they were shaken high in the air or slapped against a hand or a rounded hip. But this was no simple dance to entertain; I was conscious that spell work was afoot.

You could see it if you knew where to look. Specks of power swirled around the dancers like cinders rising high from the fires. It was of a quite different kind of magic than I was used to; they seemed to rely less on exotic ingredients and verbal commands than to draw what they needed from themselves and the land about them. Perhaps that was why they needed to move from place to place so often, giving their campsite a chance to lie fallow and replenish itself while they were gone.

I wondered what purpose they had planned for their spell, but nothing obvious revealed itself. Bartolome moved among them, smiling, a word here and there to each, sometimes stopping to listen with serious attention to some child barely old enough to speak. Undistracted, I watched the dance, straining all my senses to fathom out the nature of the magic involved, and its ultimate purpose, but with indifferent success.

"Sometimes no purpose is desired; the weaving of it is all that there is," a woman said behind me.

I managed not to start and whirl in surprise. Given what I have become, it is nearly impossible for anyone to draw so close to me without my being aware of it, so I was quite unprepared. She must have used some kind of spell to make her way over the unbroken snow in such utter silence. That or I was focused on the dancing to the point of folly.

"You've nothing to fear from us, Lord Strahd," she said as I turned.

"I am delighted to hear it," I responded dryly.

"I hope we may think the same of you."

"One is always allowed to hope."

She was not very tall, and that was as much of her as I could discern-which was not normal for me. I should have been able to see details of her face and dress, but all were obscured by her cloak and the shadows trapped in its folds. Whatever spellwork she employed was subtle; I had no sense of it, even this close.

"My name is Eva," she said, her voice dry with the hoarseness of great age.

A strong instinct within told me to be polite with this one, so I acknowledged her with a slight bow from the waist. I did not bother to introduce myself, as she most likely knew as well as had Bartolome.

"We must talk, Lord Strahd. Come to my vardo when the dance is done."

"Why not now?"

She gestured at the circle of people, and I turned to regard them. "See how they draw out the power?" Indeed, that had been the object of my intense study. "Allow them to finish."

When I turned back to inform her that I was not in the habit of waiting upon others, it was with no small reaction of unsettlement I saw that she was no longer standing there.

I had enough knowledge of Vistani ways to understand that their magic, though different from mine, was no less potent in its force and effect. I would be well advised to go slowly and with great caution until I learned more of what this Eva wanted. She would want something, no doubt of it.

***

From Azalin's private commentary notebooks, contd. 543 Barovian Calendar, Barovia

Here at least Von Zarovich does not miss the importance of the entry of this Vistani tribe at the exact moment of the winter solstice. The indications are that the Vistani are aware and able to take advantage of the vast shiftings of energy that occur at such times twice yearly. It is clear that they used these forces to make their entry. Von Zarovich had some forewarning of their coming, though, and he has not fully explained that point to my satisfaction. Perhaps it is true he did not understand why he was drawn to that particular spot at that point in time, but to trust his word on this would be foolish. Though for the most part he cleaves to a private code of honor, he lies on occasion, when it suits him to do so, but I can see no advantage for him to lie here about so minor a point. It may then not be so minor as he pretends.

The Vistani, unlike other types of humans, are somehow able to pierce the Mists in a manner that even I have yet to fathom. Von Zarovich has forbidden me from experimenting on them, which severely hampers my researches. He expects results, yet foolishly denies me the tools required, otherwise I might be able to determine what it is about them, either as individuals or as a people, that enables them to transcend the limitations imposed upon all others. This limitation he has imposed has to do with his honor, or so he informs me, but I have another theory to account for it, which I will relate in my final conclusion at the end of this observation.

What I have been able to find out is that Vistani are inherently magical, some possessing more talent than others, while some have no talent at all. The females of the tribes seem to be more powerful than the males and are granted great respect for this. For example, females often exhibit talents in the ways of precognition, but rarely do they pursue the development of their gift in any established and disciplined schooling. It is haphazard at best, and loosely based on a type of apprenticeship training. The pattern repeats for all other talents mental and magical they possess, leaving them at the mercy of outside forces rather than in control of them. This is a major weakness in their culture, which is fortunate. Should they ever organize themselves, they might prove to be a formidable force.

Von Zarovich often complains about their parasitic nature, yet he does nothing about it. He appears to be in awe of them, probably because of their inherent talent for spellwork. This is something that might also be exploited in a minor way. I say minor, for it is unlikely the Vistani as a whole could be corrupted and turned against him. They have little interest in material wealth beyond the needs of the moment. They owe no allegiance to any lord, have no real value for gold except as an adornment, and they are free of any desire for a permanent home (that I am aware of) and the responsibilities involved to maintain it. Wandering from place to place, never stopping more than a night or two in any one spot, makes them difficult to bribe.

One exploitable weakness that they do possess is a strong sense of familial devotion to one another, but as indicated by Von Zarovich, the taking of hostages may not be a viable ploy. The one prisoner whom he had managed to confine later escaped and apparently inspired all the rest of the tribes to vacate Barovia as well, rather than initiate vengeance for their insult. Certainly if a single Vistana is able to free himself from the dungeons of Castle Ravenloft without Von Zarovich being any wiser until after the fact, then any one of their tribes would be powerful enough to invade the place and dispose of their common threat altogether. This may be why Strahd is reluctant to treat them the same as any of his other subjects: he fears them.

End of excerpt.

CHAPTER THREE

Strahd's Narrative Continues

The music and dance finally ended, and I could assume whatever spell they had woven was in place to their satisfaction. Certainly it was not anything that could be construed as a protection against me, for I walked unimpeded within their circle of wagons.

The Vistani were, of course, aware of me. I had been fairly well ignored while they had made their camp, but never entirely dismissed. Now they reacted to my presence: mothers called for their children, clutching them protectively close to their skirts; the men, young and old, stood to face me. No one reached for any kind of weapon, but they were on guard all the same. Perhaps they thought I had come to play the landlord at last and demand the rent. Unless I got some satisfactory answers to my questions that would be the smallest of their worries.

They parted for Bartolome when he approached. He stepped forward, a tense smile on his devil-handsome face, and made a sweeping bow.

"Welcome to our camp. Lord Strahd. Madam Eva is expecting you," he said, putting a tone of respect into each syllable.

I nodded at him and with a grand gesture, he led off, escorting me to her vardo.

She was well-to-do in Vistani terms. The wagon was very elaborate with colorful paint, carvings, gilt trim, and even boasted several small windows. Each diamond-shaped pane had a flower etched into it. I could see candlelight flickering garishly through the red curtains inside.

The rest of the camp followed us here, making a half-circle around the vardo. They stood at a deferential distance, but looked on with concentrated interest as I approached the back of the conveyance. Bartolome knocked on the door there.

It opened and a woman emerged, the small wide figure who had appeared before to me, only this time the concealing shadows were gone. Bartolome and another man hastened forward to help her down the steps. She turned to face me, a no-nonsense expression stamped on her wrinkled features, the look in her dark eyes sharp enough to draw blood.

"Madam Eva, this is Lord Strahd von Zarovich," said Bartolome.

"I know who he is, child," she murmured with her blurred and raspy voice. Her face was round and wrinkled like a peeled apple left to dry by a fire. She treated me to a top-to-toe appraisal as she pulled her faded shawl about her shoulders. Her manner of dress was the same as the other women with its layers and varied hues of red and yellow, but overall it had more black to it.

Conscious that showing respect for the aged of the tribes, particularly for the women, would achieve more for me here than imperious demands, I chose to give her a deep, courtly bow.

"Welcome to Barovia, Madam Eva."

She laughed once. No one joined her. Fortunate, that, for I was not in a mood for levity. I wondered where this was going to lead. It was not as though she could invite me to sit down to tea.

A chuckle this time, which gave me to think that like others of her tribe she might possess a gift for hearing the thoughts of others. I would have to guard myself against this one.

"Come." She snapped out the command as only one of the sergeants in my army of old could do and made to climb the narrow steps back into the vardo. Again Bartolome and his friend helped, then stood out of the way as I followed her.

Within, the walls slanted out slightly from the floor, giving a bare illusion of space, but it was still very small and cramped to me. Madam Eva could comfortably stand up in it, but I could not and remained stooped over to keep from banging my head on the crossbeams. She indicated a low cushioned stool for me. I waited until she seated herself in a chair, all but lost in pillows and coverlets, then pulled the ends of my cloak close and perched on the cushion. My knees stuck out a bit, but it was unavoidable.

Two fat candles with broad holders to catch the wax were set in wall sconces on either side of her chair. Dangerous to have open flames here in this unsteady structure; it creaked and shifted with our every move, but she must have been used to taking care with them. The wavering light played over her ancient features, carving deeper shadows into her sagging skin. I could not guess how old she must be, but I had the feeling that were my true age to suddenly catch up with me, then I might have the same look about me and certainly the same sense of power. She fairly glowed with it, though she must have taken some effort to keep it restrained, else there would not have been room for the both of us in here.

The place smelled of magic, though I saw nothing overt, no obvious equipage such as I employed myself. Dangling from the crossbeams by different colored threads were bunches of drying herbs, some of the healing variety. I recognized many, observing one notable gap in the inventory.

"No garlic?" I asked, raising one eyebrow.

She bestowed an approving smile on me. "I wish my guests to be at ease."

She was a clever one, though she had underestimated me. While others who shared my nature might be weakened by the stench of garlic, I was immune to it. How good to know Eva could make an error.

"Tell me," she continued, "do they still call you 'the devil Strahd' hereabouts?"

"A man in my position is always the target of a certain amount of censure. I usually ignore it."

"It is what we called you those years ago before we left."

"Indeed."

"You know why we left, too."

"One of your men broke my laws."

"He was a foolish youth."

"Surely a redundancy of statement, madam. But it happened, as you said, years ago."

"Vistani have long memories, and to imprison one-"

"Rightfully imprisoned," I broke in, forgetting my manners. "The whelp was a spy and guilty of trespass and theft. I will not tolerate such in my land-then, now, or ever. It is my law."

That stopped conversation for a time as she digested this. Vistani, with their communal lives, have a decided difficulty in respecting the concept of private ownership of property. In their own minds they see themselves as only 'borrowing' any given item that catches the eye, something they practice on a daily basis within their tribes. They do not generally understand why other people make such a fuss when something of theirs goes missing.

"So if one of my people should again break this law…?"

"Then he or she will be punished for it. I strongly suggest that to avoid any unpleasantries you make this very clear to your people."

"I will speak to them of it, but I can promise nothing."

"Assure them that I take my duties very seriously. If Vistani memories are so long, then the whelp who escaped might have shared some recounting of his experiences in my dungeon."

"It is a song we sing around the fire after the children are asleep. The adults find it dark enough."

"If you think that dark, then let me remind you that the prisoner got away before his punishment had even begun."

"Aye, he got away." Her eyes glinted with amusement.

I fixed her with a look. "It will not happen again. I am not so careless as I once was."

She glowered, gave a snort, and nodded. "So the Vistani do not borrow in Barovia, in exchange for…?"

"Oh, I see-I am to pay you not to steal?" I let the sarcasm sink in for a few seconds. "Unacceptable, madam."

"All right. If we do not steal, we ask only to be able to wander free and unmolested while we are here. We have things to sell, amusements to offer your people they can get from no one else."

"And money to collect from it."

"That is the usual custom of things."

"My people do not have much in the way of coin, and you are inviting me to let you carry what there is of it away with you."

"Only a few coppers here and there-"

"Which add up. What you offer in the way of entertainment and goods is subject to taxation here."

"Taxation!" she nearly shouted.

"Only a few coppers here and there."

"We are a free people, we never pay taxes!"

"Until now. That is the price for using my roads and camping on my land. That is my law. In my land the law is obeyed. Those who break it must answer to my justice."

"You mean death?" she said wryly.

"Such is the penalty in my land."

"Except for Strahd von Zarovich."

"Indeed. I am the exception. Here I am the law. I am the land. Think on that before you make demands on my patience."

"We yet could leave as we came. You could not stop us."

"Probably not, but my guess is that you came here for a reason, a very strong one, that makes staying here a necessity. Else why come in the harsh winter?"

She settled back, the appraising expression back on her face. I had struck a resounding chord with her and we both knew it.

"From what do you run that makes Barovia seem such a haven?"

She lifted her hands and let them drop in her lap. "From what do we always run? The hatred of outsiders and their cruelties. Since hate and cruelty are everywhere, we must keep moving, ever moving."

"How?"

"In our vardos, as you see."

"I mean how do you travel the Mists?"

A slow smile crept over her features. "You would like to know that, would you not?"

"You would not find me ungrateful, either in the way of favors or money."

"Some things have no price. You must be born with the knowledge."

"So the secret of crossing the Mists is to be a Vistana?"

"In part. If you desire to leave Barovia using that road, then I cannot help you. It is barred, and you must find another path. We could not take you even if we wanted to do so."

I chose to ignore that last statement. "If you can cross the Mists, there must be a way to-"

"There is none, not for you. Accept it."

She had just overstepped herself. My temper flared bright at this insufferable command, and I let my undiminished gaze burn on her for a full minute. She withstood it, but I could scent the first tendril of fear invading the thick atmosphere of the vardo and heard her heart pounding very fast.

"No," I finally whispered.

She cringed and flinched as though I had bellowed the word, holding her hands tightly together. They still trembled.

I pulled back some of what I had released. It was the raw power of the darkness within me. Keeping it in check was nearly second nature now, but once loosed, control was a bit harder to maintain.

When I thought her able to listen again, I said, "You may be as certain of this as the sun sets. My remaining forever in Barovia is something I will never accept."

She gulped and nodded.

"Now… will you help me?"

She tried to resume her original composure, but it was too late for that. I had seen her fear. Her voice shook as she answered. "I would if I could, Lord Strahd, but it is beyond my power or that of any Vistana."

"Then I see no point in continuing this conversation." I made to leave. "I will see to it that an officer of the exchequer is sent to determine your tax-"

"Wait, Lord Strahd!" She put up her hand, a reaching gesture, almost pleading. "There are other ways we might benefit one another."

I sank back on the cushioned stool. "What ways?"

"We are a poor people, and when money is scarce, then do we trade. Instead of paying taxes while here, we could be in your service."

"A vague term, madam." Having her whole tribe up to the castle twice a week to clean the place was something I categorically refused to visualize. "What do you have in mind?"

"You cannot be everywhere in Barovia at once. Let us be your eyes and ears. We can let you know all that goes on in your land, day and night. No stranger will pass your borders unmarked ever again."

My turn to think things over. I already had a network of eyes and ears in place throughout the land, but their primary duty was to keep me abreast of the politickings and feuds between the various boyars and burgomasters. It would be convenient to have other kinds of informants available, particularly in regard to finding fresh interlopers in the country. "How am I to trust your people to diligently carry out such a task?"

"Given the choice of doing this service and paying taxes, we would gladly prefer to be your most willing servants."

"It is not unknown for a Vistana to change the truth to his or her advantage. I would need accurate reports, anything less than absolute truth, and the person delivering the news would be… most unhappy."

She chuckled. "They would always tell the truth to you; they would not dare otherwise, I can promise this."

"You would have to set up a means of getting information to me."

"Messengers can run to your castle if it's important."

"They will not be able to enter."

"Yes, I was told of the wall of poison fog. Have you a way past it for us?"

"And leave myself vulnerable to attack? I think not."

"You have nothing to fear from the Vistani. You are Strahd. You are the land. Destroy you and the land dies, or so goes the old saying. Is it not true?"

I wasn't all that certain myself and had little intent at the moment to debate the point. "It is true."

"Destroy you and we destroy ourselves as well. Besides, our magic may be strong, but it's not the kind that can fight one such as yourself. That is for others to try."

"What others?"

"You have many enemies, Lord Strahd, but none here now who can defeat you."

None here… now. "If I give you an antidote to the fog, will you promise to keep the secret of it?"

"Yes, but not for long. I am old. I would have to pass it on to others, but Vistani only. We would never share the making of it with outsiders."

"A time might come when your people would give the antidote to my enemies."

She laughed softly. "We might sell it to fools-but only after warning you first. You would never be caught unaware."

It was a balance of risks. Should they pass the antidote to someone who could kill me while I lay vulnerable during the day, all was lost. However, I had sufficient guards and traps throughout the castle to keep even the most determined interloper busy for hours until sunset. Place that against the information the Vistani could bring me, and the risk might be justified. Reason said no, but instinct said yes.

I finally nodded. "But be warned yourself: if the Vistani ever betray me, I can change the poison of the fog so the antidote no longer works. I can also summon the new poison to flood right into your camp and kill the lot of you. None would escape. No one, not one child, not even the vista-chiri birds."

Her old eyes went wide.

"That is my promise to you and yours, Madam Eva. Are you willing to trust your people with such a responsibility? The least of them could bring death to you all."

A lengthy silence. Her heartbeat was steady now, calmer. "You will ever be safe then, Lord Strahd-at least so far as we Vistani are concerned."

I held her gaze once more, sensing no lie in her words. Her words. Whether her promise applied to all her people remained to be seen. For the moment I could dismiss the possibility of betrayal, but not forever.

"Very well. I have one other task for all the Vistani to seek to accomplish."

"Escape." She spoke it as a statement, not a question, again evidence of her ability to hear my thoughts. "Your escape from the Mists."

"Just so," I said. "Others who are not of Vistani blood have made their way through the Mists into Barovia. By accident it would seem, but I do not believe in accidents any more."

"Neither do I. All things have a purpose."

"The Vistani-so long as they roam and no matter what lands they roam, mine or elsewhere beyond the Mists-have but one purpose for me and must not rest until it is fulfilled. Should any Vistana discover a way out of Barovia that I might use, I want to know of it."

She readily nodded. "You have my word."

"Too easily given, madam. It is a great task I have set before you."

"Often the greater the task, the easier it is to give promise. If we find such a path as you hope for, then we have nothing to lose by informing you of it and much to gain."

"I am thinking you believe it to be impossible, therefore you agree so swiftly."

"What does it matter to you how quickly I agree, so long as I choose to agree?"

"Madam, you have no choice in the matter. Your people finding a path out for me is conditional to their freedom within my lands. All who enter must know this and treat it as they would all my other laws. Can you guarantee that?"

"It will become the same to us as the air we breathe-for one small boon."

Bargaining, always bargaining for one thing or another, it was as much a part of them as their own skin. "What boon?"

"I ask only that the Lord Strahd does not… harm the Vistani."

I began to frown. She knew far too much.

She made a deprecatory gesture. "Our blood is rich with our past, but there is not enough of it. Our people are few, and our children too precious to lose. Death is too common a companion on our road."

"Your point?"

"Have you not other springs to drink from? The more of us you allow to live, the more eyes and ears you have searching for your escape."

Again I looked hard upon her, for the sating of my appetite was no light matter to me. "So long as my laws are obeyed."

"It shall be so."

I eased my gaze. "So be it, then."

"It is done." She fell silent, waiting, apparently the bargaining was concluded. For her.

"I now have a question. What was the purpose of the dance? You asked me to wait until it was done, so do not dismiss it as unimportant."

"It is part of Vistani magic and very important. When we were clear of the Mists, we knew Barovia could trap us, as you are trapped. We sensed the danger of forgetting ourselves and the lives and lands we've known outside your borders; it is part of the nature of this land for people to lose the past they once had."

"So I have noticed."

As the years passed and new generations appeared to supplant the old, I observed that the very memories of my people altered. Before they had gradually died off, the old soldiers who had served with me knew that they had come in as part of a conquering army, but were vague on exactly where they had originated from and what it had been like. Their descendants listened to their war stories and knew that a larger world lay beyond the Mists, but they were singularly incurious about it. For them, all that was the whole world was Barovia and nothing else. I was the only one who now saw clearly-much too clearly at times-and remembered what had once been.

I had always harbored a determination on finding a way out, of discovering a passage through the Mists as had these Vistani. By doing so perhaps then I could completely break the land free of the imprisoning spell, or at the very least break free of the spell myself. Certainly over time I had applied every scrap of knowledge and skill in the magical arts that I knew to achieve this, reaping only failure again and again.

This might have now begun to change though. The arrival of Madam Eva and her little train of vagabonds seemed an unlikely source of freshened hope for me, but after so many years of a stalemate I would welcome them and allow them unheard of freedoms-so long as they could provide knowledge in turn.

"Such forgetting does not happen with you," she said. "You remember things your people do not. Your memory is protected. We would create that protection for ourselves."

"It sounds a most difficult task."

Madam Eva shook her head. "Pah, 'tis already done."

"I should like to know how."

"It is in our songs, in our dances and music. It fills us through and through, strengthening us."

"You drew the power from the land itself, did you not? What is the construction behind that?"

She shrugged. "It is what we do, like walking. Do you explain to a child how to place his feet? No. He does it himself with some guidance."

"And one must be Vistani to accomplish this casting?"

"So far as I know."

I had a strong feeling that the gleaning of knowledge would not at all be an easy thing. "Another question: why did you come here at this of all times?"

"We always travel, no matter the season."

"Madam Eva, I believe you understand my meaning. Answer me."

She said nothing for quite a long while. I could hear the very burning of the candles flames as they consumed the wax. "You may not believe."

"I have learned to believe in many things of late."

Another shrug. "Very well. We had to come at this turning of the wheel, to give warning that important changes are afoot, Strahd of Barovia."

"What changes?"

"For you, for Barovia, other places."

"What changes?"

"I can only tell you what the cards have told me." Tied to her belt was a small silk bag, which she now opened. She drew out a deck of cards, the like of which I had not seen before, but instantly recognized.

"A tarokka deck," I said.

I'd heard all kinds of rumors about their power of foretelling the future. It was said that only the bravest dared to ask for a reading from them. Sometimes they gave only hints on several possible futures, other times they told of exact and unchangeable events. It takes courage-or blind foolishness-to dare to see what lies ahead on one's path.

Each card had a picture on it, symbolizing many different aspects of life and death. The decks were such that only the person who had made them could use them. Flashing brilliant colors in the candlelight- green, gold, blue, red-they seemed to spark with light of their own as Madam Eva nervously shuffled them.

"You know how they work?" she asked.

"Yes."

In theory. I had several treatises on them in my library, written by people who had devoted whole lifetimes to their study, but that is not the same as seeing them. I had never tried to create a deck for myself, for the universal warning in each book stated that it was not a job for dilettantes. Though I was hardly inexperienced, my focus was in another direction, so I had left well enough alone.

"You are going to give me a reading?"

"It is something you need to know. Before we even thought of crossing the Mists I had a falling of the cards such as I had never seen. Disaster and doom await all unless… you are the key, Strahd von Zarovich."

"To what?"

"I cannot be over-clear, for it might bring about the disaster you must prevent."

I understood her reasoning, how such things worked. By its nature I had to respect the limits imposed, but it still chafed. "Then what can you tell me?"

"Here-" she placed a small table between us, and gave the cards to me. They felt very heavy and hot in my hands. "Shuffle them, then turn the top card up and place it in the center."

I did so. It was the card known as "The Darklord," showing a twisted bestial figure on a throne. The colors were somber purples, blacks, and greens.

She frowned at it and looked at me. "This represents you, the ruler of Barovia."

"Not very flattering," I commented.

"Shuffle, then turn up the next card, and put it below the Darklord."

This one was "The Beast," with the silhouette of what looked to be a wolf in human garb howling against a bilious full moon.

"Here is your past; it indicates great passion and great violence."

No surprises there. I shuffled and turned up the next card. "The Necromancer?" I asked. The picture fairly leaped out, a figure in magical robes, its face hooded and too dark to see; before it were eight graves whose skeletal occupants were rising up at its command from the clinging earth.

She licked her lips. "This is in your future. In this position to the rest it means someone who will oppose you. Someone with unimagined power and black knowledge, very dangerous. Shuffle again."

The next card was "The Warrior," which she told me to place above the Darklord. The figure was completely covered in blood red armor and held a silver broadsword before it.

"This is also your future."

An icy claw closed fast around my heart, twisting it. "War," I murmured.

"Such as even you have never known before. The Warrior represents a facet of yourself, your place in what is to come."

I dealt out another card, placing it to the right of the Darklord.

"And these are your allies against the Necromancer."

It was "The Mercenary," showing four soldiers raising their swords in salute to each other over a chest of gold.

"Tell me the meaning of it all."

"It is as you see. There is a dangerous wizard coming who will challenge you, try to destroy you, and you will oppose him with all your might. But it won't be enough, you must seek help from others to survive."

"I fight alone, now."

She sneered. "Turn the next card to see the folly of that."

I did so. It was "The Horseman," showing a robed skeleton, brandishing a scythe raised high, riding a skeletal horse through an endless graveyard. The silvers and blacks were so harsh I could hardly look at them. In no uncertain terms it was a death card.

"Do not let your pride destroy you and everything else," she said.

"What happens if I seek help?"

She gestured, and I turned the top card. It was of a young woman on a horse, nearly obscured by fog. "The Mists, a future which is unknown, but it is yet a future-far better than the Horseman."

I stared long at the images before me, committing them to memory. Tonight I would find the books on the subject and compare what they had to say with Madam Eva's interpretation. I had a sinking feeling hers was going to be the correct one.

"When is this to happen?"

She spread her hands. "Soon. More than a day, but less than a century."

"You call that soon?"

"As you mark the time. And it could be at any point in between. You must prepare."

"How will I know this necromancer?"

"You will know."

I had other questions, how he would come, where, and again when, but she only shook her head in defeat. The cards could be infuriatingly vague on such points. "Can you tell me nothing else?"

"Only to ask that you do not ignore this warning." She swept the cards together, shuffled, and breathed upon them, then put them away into the silk bag. She was utterly serious, and that alone was enough to disturb me, let alone the results of the reading. "The others in the camp do not know of this yet, so say nothing of it. I will tell them when the time is right. It will become as much a part of us as our music."

I thought that one over. "And you came from so far way to tell me of this?"

"Upon you all else depends. For the Vistani-for all the people of Barovia-it is better to have 'the devil Strahd' than this necromancer who is death and worse than death. Understand and believe that, and perhaps we may all have a chance to live… even you."

Against that, I could, and would, offer no argument.

PART II: AZALIN

CHAPTER FOUR

542 Barovian Calendar, Barovia

Mid-summer solstice was more than a week away, but many of the burgomasters had chosen not to wait and sent their annual tax early. The collection structure I had instituted nearly two centuries ago after my change was still efficiently working. Working so efficiently, in fact, that I rarely paid attention to the process, having other means of filling my time than counting money. So long as my boyars and burgomasters were honest-those who were not had their heads removed-the taxes were regularly stored by my exchequer officers in a special stone house in the village of Barovia until need arose to put them to use.

Such a need was about to occur; I was planning to embark on a new series of magical researches and the equipment and supplies would be costly. At the same time I would deal with the necessary evil of approving certain expenditures submitted to Castle Ravenloft by the boyars over the last few months. Hopefully, this night's work would leave me free and in peace to work uninterrupted for the next year or so unless some more worthy distraction offered itself.

So it was that I took myself down to the village where some officers of my exchequer waited to arrange things to my satisfaction. This was a rare event, my coming openly to the village, and because of it there was more post-sunset activity than I had expected. Lights showed in many windows, some people even lingered on the streets to talk-albeit close to their doorways-an unheard of thing, but here perhaps they felt a bit safer, ironically because of my presence. With Lord Strahd himself around who would dare to harm them once darkness had fallen?

Who indeed? I thought as I approached the door to the Blood o' the Vine inn and entered. A profound silence fell over the common room. They all stood to bow or curtsy, murmuring "Welcome, my lord" with varying degrees of sincerity. With this formality out of the way I went straight to the work table set up for my officers to use and began a cursory inspection of the papers awaiting my approval.

I bestowed a grant to the village of Immol to help their mining operations and authorized the building of a new public hospice in Krezk. Barovia's population was richer by a thousand more than last year, I was pleased to note. Perhaps one of their number was my Tatyana reborn, though by my reckoning she was likely already in Barovia. If the pattern held true, she was even now in some farm or village location yet unknown to me, flowering into middle adolescence. In another four or five years I would begin looking for her in earnest.

The initial stack of paper was nearly exhausted, but before I could get to the rest there was a commotion at the door of the inn. Someone outside incessantly pounded on the door, their demanding shouts muffled by its thick, solid timber. It was already barred and bolted, though, and as relatively lax as things were in the village, the hour was late enough. The door would not be opened to let anyone in until the sun was well up.

On the other hand, the pounding and shouts were annoying. I instructed the innkeeper to make an exception and admit the visitor. With a gulp, he reluctantly obeyed. Everyone held a collective breath. Why they were fearful was a mystery. They already had me inside with them; what greater danger could be without?

The innkeeper swung the door open and in stepped a young Vistana man. He looked much like the late Bartolome had been in his youth-same eyes, same impudent way of carrying himself, and for all I knew he could have been the fellow's grandson. This new specimen identified me right away and instantly came over, dropped to one knee, and presented his complements to "the wise Lord Strahd."

"What is it?" I asked.

By way of reply, he stood and drew from his sash a slightly crumpled letter. I noted with puzzlement the wax seal bore the crest of Baron Latos, who lived some miles west of here over the mountain. The color of the wax was blue, not red, indicating it was not from the Baron himself, but rather his wife. I broke it open and saw by the salutation that she did have business with me.

My Lord Strahd,

I regret to infringe upon my lord's most valuable time, but a matter has arisen of which I fear you would wish to be informed.

Late yesterday afternoon a stranger appeared at our gate demanding shelter for the night. As he was well spoken and well dressed we gave him audience, though I was very afraid of him for reasons I could not then understand. He introduced himself as Azalin and had a very superior manner about him, refusing our offers of food and drink. As night fell, he and my good husband retired to the study to talk, since he had expressed an interest in our books.

Not an hour had passed when there came much shouting and a crash, but I could not gain entry and my calls went unheeded within. Soon after, the stranger emerged and left our house, walking out without a word. He had an ebony box with him that the baron uses to hold things special to him. I hurried in to my husband and found him fast asleep on the floor and a number of our magic books burning in the fireplace. His hands were burned, but he seemed otherwise unharmed. When I asked him what had happened he had no memory of the incident. Indeed, he had no memory at all of the entire evening from the coming of this Azalin person. My poor Cazi is starting to think we are all mad as we keep insisting this happened while he is just as convinced it did not.

I have concluded that our strange visitor is a master of the Art, and it is well known that you ever wish to be notified of newcomers to Barovia, particularly of this sort. I am very anxious over this as I fear he may return and do worse than make us forget the passage of one evening.

Please, please as you are our lord and protector would you advise me what to do?

Your faithful servant, Zorah, Baroness Latos

I knew the Baroness rather well; Zorah was a careful, long-thinking woman, not given to being ruled by her emotions, and though the tone of the letter was by all other judgments restrained, for one such as herself it bordered on the edge of hysteria. It had been hastily written, with many mistakes and blots where the ink had gotten away from her, and the usual careful flourish of her signature was spiked and shaky.

In regard to her husband, for all of her other intellectual virtues, Zorah was inexplicably devoted to him. He was adequate at his public duties, but otherwise unremarkable. If a mage of any skill had visited their house her 'poor Cazi' would be very much out of his depth. No wonder she was upset.

"How came this to you?" I asked the Vistana. No need to inquire how he knew where to find me. His people had an uncanny knack for keeping track of my whereabouts.

He bowed again. "A trusted servant of the lady gave it to my fourth cousin by marriage, who then gave it to my uncle, who passed it to my third cousin, who gave it to-"

I held up a hand. "Enough. Was there anything else to this message?"

"None from the lady Zorah." He stressed the final word.

"From anyone else then?"

"Madam Ilka-the letter happened to pass through her camp and-"

"What about her?" I asked sharply. I had kept an ear open to the rumors of the movements and doings of the Vistani. This Madam Ilka seemed to be Eva's chosen successor, though if rumor was true, Eva herself still seemed to be lingering about. This of course was impossible since she had already been ancient at our meeting many years ago. I therefore discounted such rumors as typical Vistani superstition.

The young man paused, his dark gaze flickering briefly at the others around us. All ears in the common room were canted in our direction, everyone listening intently. I wondered how much of this any of them should hear and decided to trust the Vistana's discretion, indicating he should continue.

"She said to say 'remember the warning Madam Eva gave you.'"

"I see."

I kept an outwardly calm appearance, but inside, the image of the necromancer and the garish graveyard painted upon Eva's cards came fresh to my mind, and my mouth went dust dry. No longer was I in the tavern but perched on a padded stool in a Vistana vardo with the heavy scent of drying herbs about me.

The memory of Eva's tarokka card reading over seventy years ago sprang to my inner eye as though taking place again before me. The Necromancer card with its ominous colors and dark meaning-was it about to become real?

She had warned me to prepare, and I had done just that, building up my defenses and bolstering my own skills by constant study and practice of the Art. In the times since then mages had appeared in Barovia out of the Mists, I made their acquaintance, sized them up, cultivated them even, to determine if they were the promised threat or not. If any dared to challenge me, I found it easy enough to deal with them, taking as spoils of war their spell books and whatever else useful they had to add to my knowledge. All these intruders proved to be false alarms, though; none had been worthy of Eva's warning.

I had no way of knowing if this new one was any different, but never before had the Vistani seen fit to remind me of the reading. Be that as it may, I would still never be so complacent as to sit idle while any self-serving mage ran rough over my lands and people. Turning the sheet over, I noted only the address to myself penned in Zorah's hand, but in her haste she had evidently forgotten to place a date on it.

"How long has it been in transit?" I asked the young man.

"Since but this morning, Lord Strahd. We Vistani can move like a mountain storm if the need is great."

"And you knew the need was great?"

He spread his hands. "Alas, Lord Strahd, I cannot read, so I do not know what important thing the paper says, but the lady gave us silver enough to understand a delay would not be welcome."

Taking that as a broad hint, for I always paid well for interesting news to ever ensure its timely arrival, I tossed him a gold coin from my vest pocket. He was just beginning to babble a profuse thanks as I hurried out the door.

If I do say so, my acquired abilities make it possible for me to move faster than a mountain storm, or even faster than Vistani gossip when necessary. Wings spread and straining against the thin air, I worked my way steadily west. The wind was not in my favor, and it took nearly an hour to skirt the massive shoulder of Mount Ghakis before turning south to the vale between two of its spurs where nestled the estates of Baron Latos. The Latos estates were considerably smaller than they had been in the early years of my reign, due mostly to an inept and presumptuous ancestor of the current baron who had sought to curry favors with me. He had been disappointed. Much of the surrounding land was poor and not given to farming or herding, but one of Cazimir's nearer ancestors had possessed the wit to try planting a vineyard on the hillsides and the family's fortune had been secured for generations.

The current baron fancied himself a scholar and we had a common interest in books but little else, so my visits here, though not unheard of, were infrequent. Latos had accomplished one incredibly clever achievement in his otherwise bland life and that was to marry Zorah Buchvold. My informants in the social circles of the boyars reported a general reaction of surprise at her acceptance of the plump and sometimes fussy Cazimir Latos. He seemed a most unlikely sort for her, but where he was concerned her blind spot was firmly in place and she doted on him. A rumour had floated about some years past that the baron had fathered an illegitimate child with the wife of a minor landholder. But the rumours had died-or been hushed up-and I had deemed them unimportant anyway. To be fair, he did treat Zorah with great kindness and devotion, probably being too phlegmatic in temperament to get up to any mischief. He just was not the sort to offend anyone. Fine qualities for some people, but not always desirable for someone in a position of responsibility. He was good at tending his vineyards, but much of the smooth workings of his place in Barovia's governmental structure could be credited to his cannier wife.

I coasted swiftly along over foothills dotted with the lengthy system of frameworks that supported the vines. The fast-maturing dark red grapes native to Barovia were still pale green, but their growth seemed lush. It looked to be an excellent crop this year. I darted over them, then came to a landscaped hill near the top of which stood their home. It was fairly new, a century old or so, partly cut into the hillside. A retaining wall ran along the outer perimeter, giving it the look of a fortress. If it came down to a true war the household would indeed be able to defend itself for a short time, though that had never been tested. As things were reckoned in Barovia, there was no war or opportunities for such. I had seen to that.

If my boyars and other nobles had squabbles, they long ago learned to settle them without force of arms. The one occasion in Barovia's history after my change when a clash occurred was the absolute last.

It had begun as a property dispute that should have remained a minor hearing of arguments in a village court. The matter might have ended there, but the losing party in the case had given open challenge to the victor in the street. A fight had ensued, blood had been spilled, and vengeance had been required. One assassination of house members and their allies after another had taken place until things escalated to the point of each side raising an army.

I'd been concerned with other matters that year, though my spies within each household had been sending regular reports up the Svalich Road to Castle Ravenloft, so I was well aware of what was going on. The reports for both sides included the observation that my lack of interference in the business had been taken as tacit approval. An unwise assumption, for it had been simple insufficiency of interest on my part until they began to gather troops. According to my law, only I am permitted to raise and keep an army.

On the night before their initial battle I had soared over the camps, noting the numbers, the placement of their sentries, and other small details. Both sides had possessed a few hundred troops each, not a lot compared to the standards of the past, but enough to thoroughly disrupt the peace I'd established.

I had begun disrupting things myself by landing and calling up phalanx after phalanx of rats from out of the wilderness to overrun each side. Instead of getting their rest, the soldiers were up all night raising an unholy row over the rodent invasion. This, combined with an unexpected rain and hail storm which lasted 'several hours, left their morale floundering in the mud with them.

My spies had told me that the miniature armies finally lost all heart for conflict when in the bleary-eyed morning they had discovered the bodies of their respective leaders impaled and dying on tall stakes facing each other across what was to have been the battlefield. My crest had also been on each stake to let them know who was responsible for interrupting the conflict.

Everyone had wisely heeded my warning and departed for home. Since that time peace had been relatively constant in Barovia. There were still squabbles between the boyars, but they kept them quiet. Anything that drew my attention was likely to draw my fatal annoyance.

I landed just beyond the ten foot high walls surrounding the Latos house and allowed my form to fill itself out. The iron entry gate was locked for the night, as the rest of the place would be. For the sake of appearance I rang the bell, then as a mist I slipped between the bars, resumed solidity, and strode briskly up the stone walkway to the main door. I did not expect anyone to answer the ringing bell; night visitors in Barovia tend to be unpleasant and best left outside until morning. Much to my surprise, the big iron-studded door was pulled open, and I beheld the still excellent figure of Zorah herself standing there holding a candelabra high in one hand.

The wind extinguished some of the candles, but enough light remained that she could see who had arrived.

"Lord Strahd, I thought that it would be you," she said with a strange mixture of relief and fear in her tone. She seemed to be not at all startled at this sudden appearance of the Lord of Barovia himself on her front step, but neither did she seem pleased. She would not look me in the face and her voice trembled as she said, "Be welcome to our home, my lord."

"Your crisis is still with you?" I asked.

"The man has not come back, but my poor Cazi- oh, my manners-come in, my lord, and I will tell you everything."

She carried herself like a queen-albeit a very frightened queen-as she hesitantly took my arm and swept us both inside the house. A servant shut the door against the darkness while others scattered to their tasks.

The years had been good to Zorah, all forty-five of them, and though her dark hair was now shot through with many strands of gray, they suited her well. She took me into one of the front parlors.

"Would my lord care for some refreshment?" she asked, after inviting me to sit on one of her delicate chairs.

She was observing the social protocols, but there was a great deal of tension whirling about her like a snow devil. Each of her movements was a little too fast, a little too forceful. She was obviously afraid, but only partly of me, which seemed strange.

"Come now, Baroness, what has happened?" I asked brusquely.

She dropped her gaze and her shoulders slumped for some moments. I feared she might break down to tears, but fortunately she collected herself and spared us that minor embarrassment.

She sat up straight again to look me in the eye. "It is as I wrote you, my lord-you did receive my note?-of course, you must have. I've been most distracted by this and poor Cazi doesn't make it any better. I fear he is under some terrible enchantment and there may be worse to come. Had I known the result of letting that horrid man in the house I would never have allowed it."

"Chances are he would have gained entry with or without your permission if he is a mage as you suspect."

"He must be. Who else could do as he's done?"

She appeared outwardly calm, as was instilled in her by her breeding, but I could clearly hear her inner agitation in the swift thump of her heart. That in turn inspired certain powerful urgings within me, but this was not the time or place to indulge the sating of my appetite.

I leaned back in my chair, elbows on its arms, fingers steepled, and looked at her. "Now, tell me ail that has happened. Leave out nothing," I instructed, and listened for a quarter hour as she created a more detailed picture of the last evening's events. No new point presented itself, but she more fully described this Azalin person and her reaction to him.

"He's tall as you are tall, but very thin, and has a hawkish look to his face. It's not an ugly face, but there's nothing at all pleasant to his expression, and his eyes… I'm not sure how to say it. They seemed to glint red and yet be cold as winter at the same time. What bothered me most was that there was a kind of darkness around him, like a shadow, but without any real shadow. It was nothing you could see, only feel inside when he drew close enough. All I wanted to do was run away, but I dared not. Cazi was also afraid, but we'd already granted the man permission to come inside and it was too late."

Many times during her talk she referred to the instinctual fear this Azalin had inspired in her, and I noted how she would even yet jump at the least noise.

"How fares the baron?" I asked.

"Well enough, but still with no memory of this visitation. He is in a fit of temper because of the books that were burned. They've been in the family for generations and are-were-quite valuable."

"Only to a collector of curiosities, I assure you."

Not the first time had I mentioned that point. On my infrequent visits of state to the manor I had occasionally chided Cazimir about the worthlessness of his precious tomes, only to have the baron-with vast courtesy- discount it. The Latos magic books were little more than sad remnants of what must have once been a prized hoard on the Thaumaturgic Arts. His proud ancestors, for reasons best known to themselves, had "improved" the originals by recopying and rebinding them on a regular basis, thus destroying the integrity of the spells and formulae. They were rather dangerous now, but since none in the family had the least talent in the Art, it was safe enough to leave things as they were. The disposal of minor family heirlooms was beneath my notice unless there was a real threat involved. The books had harmlessly occupied shelf space in the baron's library for decades-until this Azalin saw fit to burn them.

"What about the ebony box that he carried out?"

She shook her head. "It's not particularly valuable but has been in the family for generations. Cazi thinks it's just been misplaced, is quite unconcerned about it, and won't believe me when I tell him otherwise."

"You have no idea why this man should take it? Was there anything missing from the study, something small enough to fit into the box?"

"I don't think so or Cazi would have noticed and complained about it-unless he was made to forget-but one of the servants would have-unless they've been made to-" She caught herself before she carried things too far. "Forgive me, my lord, I am just that upset about things. I'm not used to feeling like this and I don't like it."

She certainly must be upset to think I would even be remotely interested in this confidence, though her sudden vulnerability appealed strongly to me. It made the blood run fast in her veins. I restrained myself and kept firmly focused on the matter at hand. Next I would need to interview her spouse. Although I had never found Cazimir to be more than a fastidious little fool, I had not forgotten his ancestor's presumptuous ambition. Treachery had seldom been a danger since Barovia's isolation. But if a mage of substantial power had indeed entered my realm, one could not be too careful.

"Where is the baron, Zorah?"

"In his study, my lord. He doesn't know I've asked you to come."

"Not to worry, I am sure he won't mind." then took myself away to the baron's study. The servants made themselves scarce as I passed through the hall. She either had them very well trained or they were naturally cautious. Or both. I tapped twice against the study door and went in before Latos could answer.

"Zorah, I said I was busy and-" he began rather peevishly, then seemed to come very close to swallowing his tongue when he caught sight of me. He was a round-faced, round-bodied man, with a nervous manner about him, at least when he was with me. Very informally attired in a yellow and green dressing robe, all of his fingers were lightly bandaged, and from across the room I could scent the herbs of a healing salve on the air.

He and another man who worked as his chief scribe were at a long table that served as a desk, and scattered over it were the sooty remains of the burned books, pieces of them anyway. A pile of clean paper was on the left, several quills were at ready, and another stack of paper-written upon-was on the right. Both men quickly stood, Latos nearly toppling a pot of ink. His scribe made a hasty and fortunately accurate grab before it went over.

"Lord Strahd?" said Latos, quite flabbergasted. He made an awkward bow. "It-it is an honor, but how come you here? There is nothing amiss with the tax collection I hope; my records are-"

I raised a hand to calm and quiet him. "I came in regard to a recent incident that has come to my attention. Vandalism to your library, was it not?"

"Indeed it was, my lord, and it is most kind of you to even be concerned with what must be such a minor thing to you."

"Sometimes the minutiae of life are the most important." I gave a pointed look to the scribe and another to Latos, who quickly made a gesture of dismissal. The fellow all but bolted for the door, still holding the ink pot.

Latos was for plying me with food and drink, ever his own way of seeking comfort, but I politely dismissed any for myself. He was very fidgety and anxious to please, but had always been so from childhood. This occasionally made it difficult to discern if he was trying to hide something or just being himself.

I let my gaze fix on his bandages. He folded his injured hands close to his chest, a defensive movement, as though he was ashamed of them.

"Tell me what happened," I ordered.

He did so, weaving a dramatic tale of coming in for an after dinner nap as was his custom only to be awakened by his agitated wife and find to his dismay that his fine books were burned and so were his hands. He was of the opinion that someone had tossed the collection in the fire and he had tried to retrieve them, then fainted from the pain, which had addled his memory.

"The servants claim to know nothing, and they've been with us for years and years, but perhaps one of them suddenly went mad. It makes more sense than this tale of a stranger coming to the gate as they and my dear wife keep insisting. What think you, my lord?"

I made no immediate answer. He sounded truthful, though there were some problems with his story. One does not simply pass out from pain. The ordeal of it might send a body into a faint, but not pain itself, else the criminals in my dungeons would never be awake long enough to appreciate their punishments. I put it down to either the enchantment Zorah feared or his own penchant for the dramatic and nodded at the table. "What are you doing here?"

"I hope to salvage some of what was lost. A few volumes survived nearly intact. I was having the pages re-copied and it's very difficult. The language is strange, almost gibberish, but my scribe is being careful about it."

So he was no better than his ancestors when it came to literary mutilation. I thought it best not to tell him that what he was trying to preserve was gibberish now indeed.

"Why did you have a fire in the room to start with? It's summer."

"Sometimes I like a bit of toasted bread, butter, and honey, and if I wait on the servants to bring any from the kitchen it's all soggy and spoiled, so I make it here myself." He drew my attention to a little cabinet with glass doors that did duty as a pantry. Inside I could see a loaf of bread and other edibles. "I-I get a little hungry between meals, you understand."

Far better than he could dare imagine. "Come, Latos, sit down a moment." I waved him toward a comfortable chair. He eased into it, mightily puzzled and somewhat fearful, which did not last long once the force of my full influence was upon him. "Now, you will tell me everything that happened from the moment the stranger called Azalin appeared."

"Stranger?"

His eyes had a far away look to them and he began to sweat, so I knew he was under my control. However, he made no immediate reply, only shook his head, wincing as though in pain. I studied him with senses other than my sight and understood the problem: some sort of a minor constraining spell had been placed on him. I knew of several types but had never bothered to memorize any because of my own innate ability made it seem unnecessary. Fortunately, I knew how to negate the effect and did so, repeating my question about Azalin.

Latos promptly launched into a recitation similar to his wife's. The stranger called himself Azalin and said he was from a place called Oerth. He was new to Barovia and mentioned an incident he had stumbled into regarding the assault of a young servant girl by four men, one of whom was the scion of a noble house in Berez. The baron seemed to hesitate and stumble over this last statement, trying not to continue, but the force of my will forced it from him.

"Azalin interrupted their crime, allowing the girl to get away, then questioned the men before he sent them running off into the night after relieving them of all their clothes."

"Did he?" One man against four. Interesting. "That is all this Azalin did?"

"They were bruised and quite humiliated."

"A light enough punishment considering what they were about."

My views on obeying the law were well known to all of Barovia. I pushed that aside for the moment and told Latos to continue.

"It is from them that he found out about my books, for he was very interested in magic and everyone in the area knows about the collection. He wanted to know everything about Barovia. He acted as though he'd never before heard of it."

I let my control over him slip somewhat. Hypnosis is excellent for obtaining matter-of-fact information, but often important details are left out. The dam had been sufficiently breached so Latos was in a most verbose mood. One of the details he now included was the frequent mention of the inexplicable cold fear Azalin inspired in everyone. When the man asked about his magic books, timid Latos had not dared to turn him down.

"There was something very horrid about him, unnatural, as though it would be all the same to him to either walk past without noticing you or skin you alive. I showed him my books, and he looked at each, but his reaction was most insulting. He grew very angry and threw them around like they were nothing, then ordered me-me in my own house, under my own roof!-to be silent. I was in deadly fear for my life and those around me and tried to think of something, anything, that might appease him. He wanted magic books, and I had one other new addition to the house collection."

"Indeed?" I arched an eyebrow.

His cloth-wrapped hands shot up, palms outward with the fingers visibly trembling. "You must believe me, Lord Strahd, it was intended to be a gift to you as soon as I'd had it cleaned."

"Very kind of you to think of me," I said dryly. He was something of a fool, but so far as I knew he had always been a honest one, so I took it as a truthful statement. For now. "How did it come to you?"

"My many times removed great-grandfather allowed an obscure religious order to build a monastery on the estate. It's been abandoned for at least a century, and I thought we could convert the buildings into another winery. The book was discovered during the cleaning and brought to my attention. I knew right away it must be magical and intended it for you, but it was covered with filth, in very poor condition. I was going to have it restored before presenting it to you as a surprise gift."

Doubtless had he gotten the chance to clean the volume, he would have destroyed anything useful that might have been in it, and my surprise would not have been of the sort to please either of us.

He continued. "Forgive me, but with this terrible man all thoughts of that went right from my head. All I could hope was that the book would appease him and that he would take it and go."

"What did he do?"

"He took it and went."

I restrained a sigh. Latos shiverd in reaction and quickly continued, "B-but first he muttered something over it-a spell, perhaps? It made my head hurt to hear the words."

A spell most certainly. Sometimes a casting had that effect on people sensitive to magic.

"He put it in my special keepsake box, ebony with a very fine bit of carving on it, and then he waved, like this-" Latos made a broad sweep with one arm toward the fireplace. "That's when all my precious books went flying into the flames. I tried to get them out, but…" he trailed off, holding his bandaged fingers up in a helpless gesture, like a mournful, abandoned puppy begging for table scraps. Perhaps that was his appeal to Zorah. "Then he gave me such a look, such a terrible look with those cold dead eyes that I thought he was going to kill me right on the spot. He waved again, and that's the last thing I remember until waking in my wife's arms."

I paced once around the room and back, senses straining, searching, probing-but could detect nothing useful but the aftermath of the simple spells committed against Latos and his books. Any trace of the mage himself was not to be found.

"What's to be done, my lord?" Latos asked, after a moment.

"First, you will complete the work he began."

"My lord?"

"Finish burning the books."

"But-"

"Their presence is what attracted him in the first place. If any remain, then might they not bring in even worse visitors?"

"Oh!" Latos shot the sooty volumes a fearful look. "I'd never thought of that."

"Get rid of them, even the copies which you have begun, but you will tell your friends-all of them, baron-that you gave them to me for safe-keeping. That way, should any other such 'visitors' come calling again, they may come to me." I did not want any of the locals getting ideas about burning any magical books they might find.

He chewed his lip, clearly unhappy, but nodded. "Immediately, my lord. As you command."

"I also want the name of the ringleader of the assault on the girl."

Latos, whose color had slowly begun to return, went white again and his jaw began to tremble. "B-but he's been punished, my lord."

"Not enough."

"But he's of noble blood."

"Which is no excuse for any crime." Noble or peasant, my justice was the same for all. This policy was not popular with the upper classes, but I had not taken up the rule of the land to be loved. Besides, the blood of the high tastes just the same as the low. "As for this thief Azalin, I will see to him."

"Thief?"

"He took your book and box away without permission or payment. You know my views on that sort of thing."

"Indeed, all of Barovia knows, my lord."

"Except, apparently, for Azalin."

***

The name I had gotten from Latos led me straight to the town of Berez. It was a bit farther west and south on the Luna river and held no happy memory for me. Not far from here I had encountered the first reincarnation of my Tatyana-and lost her.

I resolutely pushed that pain from my heart as I circled high over the town square, locating the domicile of the current baron. Because of my unhappy associations with the place I rarely visited this area, perhaps once for each succeeding generation. It was probably a mistake else the new scion of the family would have known better respect for my laws.

It took but a moment to ascertain the heir's sleeping quarters and slip through the cracks in the window casing. I reformed in silence and cautiously looked and listened about the room. The boy-bordering close upon manhood-was sprawled in a tangle of bedclothes, mouth open, and the sour smell of wine hung on his breath as he snored. He looked too innocent to be capable of anything vile, but I am myself a prime example of deceptive appearances.

I found a tinder box and lit a candle so that he could see me. He had one moment to transform from sluggish awareness to horrified full awakening, then I had him frozen to my will like a bird with a snake. I questioned him closely about his encounter with Azalin and learned that so far as he knew, the mage was still at the abandoned burgomaster's house just east of town. It was of some concern to the baron his father, and he had sent notice of the intrusion to me. Zorah's message via the Vistani had simply reached me first.

The boy had also been terrified of this newcomer, giving a vivid account of the incident, of how he and his three large armed friends had been no match for this single man. He had thrown them around like toys, then very nearly strangled them all, using only muttered words and a few gestures. I added each detail to my meager knowledge to build a better picture of what I would be facing. The man seemed to be a mage of considerable power who had no qualms about showing it off. The four louts had first understood nothing of the mage's language, but he had muttered what seemed an incantation and was perfectly understandable thereafter. The youth's description showed this Azalin to be arrogant in manner and speech, with little patience for fools.

We had, it seemed, much in common.

When it was clear that I had exhausted the store of information this specimen had to offer I liberated enough blood from his veins to ensure he would never again break my laws. Doubtless the discovery of the body would cause some consternation in the morning, but it was for the best. The thought of dealing with this dolt were he to inherit the barony was already irksome. This was one easy way to spare myself future annoyance.

I eased out the window again, going from mist to the form of a bat in seconds. The wind had the scent of rain upon it that grew stronger the farther east I went until the sky finally did open up to drench me. No dramatic peals of thunder, no strokes of lightning, simply a steady soaking downpour which the farmers so loved. The wind was with me now, and it was not long before I reached my goal. Apart from Azalin, I knew what awaited me there, a re-acquaintance with old pain and profound grief.

Of all the houses in all the towns in all of Barovia, why did he have to come to this one? Here it was that Tatyana, named Marina then, had been adopted into the home of Berez's skinflint burgomaster. His daughter in name and servant in reality, but he had harbored plans to take her for his wife, or so she had confessed to me. She was not particularly enamored of the idea, but it was beyond her power to avoid such a fate. Not, however, beyond mine.

I'd begun the process to make her like myself so that she need never serve anyone ever again, but I had underestimated the fear and ignorance of those around her. Too late had I arrived and was unable to save her from a brutal death at the hands of her would-be husband. I had served him an equally brutal punishment, though it was too quickly over. The whole sorry episode still haunted me, the memory bitter in my heart, as cutting as winter sleet. Losing Tatyana once had been terrible enough, but twice…

Of course, I had no idea at the time that she might return in twenty years or so. Not that it was much of a comfort. Had I acted more quickly, done something, anything different, then might she now be at my side and thus spared life after unfulfilled life, spared one terrible death after another? That was unknown, but the thought ever after bedeviled me.

Again, I had to push such frettings from my mind as I closed upon the old manor house. Distractions were dangerous; I needed to focus on what lay ahead rather than the sorrows of the past.

Closer I flew until the building's hulking shape at last loomed out of the gray curtains of rain. I could not at first take in what I saw and I paused, apprehensive. Where I had expected a decayed ruin there was now a formidable structure, restored to pristine newness. How powerful was he to be able to remake the whole place in so short a time?

The answer presented itself the longer I studied the outer structure and finally understood it to be an illusion. A most perfect and believable one, more than sufficient to awe anyone with no experience in the Art. I had to know what to look for to break past the fallacy. Beneath it was the house as it really was, a dead and decayed corpse falling in upon itself.

I tried peering through the broken and gaping windows but saw no sign of light. He was asleep, gone, or like myself, able to do without ordinary illumination. I did not care for the latter choice. Moving in close to see better and perhaps escape the rain, I found a suitable window to make my entry and hurried forward-

And was just as quickly rebuffed.

It felt like someone had taken a massive club, set it on fire, and used it to strike me out of mid-air. I tumbled once, righted myself, and got control barely in time to avoid hitting a tree. The shock of the strike hurtled me into man-form again, staggering for balance and blinking hard to clear my suddenly clouded vision.

I rubbed my eyes and glared at the house until fully recovered. Of course he would have powerful protections and other wards surrounding the place, and I'd blundered into them like some raw apprentice. I vowed not to underestimate this one again.

The rain began to slacken, but my cloak was soaked through. Generally I ignored such weather, but this stuff seemed uncannily cold, particularly for this time of year. There was also a nearly palpable feeling of horror starting to settle heavily upon my shoulders. I knew fear well enough, though I was more used to inspiring it in others than feeling it myself, but only rarely did this kind of full blown dread inflict itself upon me. The last time had been that hellish night when I had made my pact with Death and sealed myself inside the Mists. This was very like it, fundamental and all-consuming, like a child's primal fear of darkness.

Then I recalled the reaction of others to Azalin and knew him to be nearby. This was either part of his nature or a spell he had in constant effect around him. But I was not a child to be frightened, nor even an ordinary man to give in to such intimidation.

As the rain swept along its way and silence descended on the area, I waited and watched and listened. No night animals were on the move. I took that to mean they had cleared out completely. The only sound was the slow drip of water from the trees and the decaying house. I stretched my other senses, but felt nothing new for them to touch upon except the protection thrown around the building.

The air grew thick as a mist began rising from the ground. The conditions were not right for it, but in Barovia the mist looks after itself. It confounded my vision, for as I stared through one of the broken windows, I saw a man's figure within, but it was shadowy, without detail.

"You are the one they call Strahd von Zarovich."

The strange harsh voice stabbed into both my mind and ears at once, sending an icy frisson of fear fluttering against my spine. I was unprepared for its loudness or the chill, but strove hard not to flinch and even succeeded. For an instant I wondered if it was the voice of the thing that had tempted me into my bargain nearly two centuries past, but only for an instant. The voice from that time would have no need to confirm my identity.

"You are the one who calls himself Azalin?" I returned, looking warily about me, before turning again toward the house. Sometimes a break would occur in the mist and I would see the figure through the window, shapeless in a dark cloak and bareheaded.

"Azalin is what some here have chosen to call me."

No one in Barovia would have given him that appellation. It had come with him from the outside. "But it is not your name?" Names are important and have much power if properly used.

"As some call you Count, some call me Azalin."

"A title, then," I murmured to myself. It was not from any language I knew, nor indeed from any I had ever heard. Without having to probe too deeply, I could sense the spell he was using in order for us to communicate.

When he spoke no further, I took a few steps forward, close enough to encounter the barrier he had set up. My larger, human body registered its effect differently than before. Now it was a decided prickling, like invisible needles striking at random over my form, mild now, but increasing in intensity the closer I got. It was uncomfortable, but bearable. I stopped in the middle of it, unwilling to retreat as it gave me a tenuous tie to him. I could learn things about him in this way, things that my other senses could not begin to comprehend. At the same time, though, he could increase his knowledge about me as well. I had to be careful how I balanced it all.

"What is it you wish of me. Von Zarovich?" The voice sounded bored and testy.

I held back my flare of temper at this casual address of me as though I were his subordinate. The man was arrogant, meaning he was either as powerful as Latos said, or a fool. I did not think he was a fool but rather thought he was testing things. Two could play at that.

"At the moment I desire only to speak. I take an interest in my subjects."

He took on a condescending, disdainful tone. "You see me as your subject, then?"

Actually, I could not see him at all; the figure faded completely from my view, hidden by the rising mist.

"All in Barovia are my subjects," I said evenly.

"So I have been told. But not all subjects are given the honor of a personal audience with their master."

"Few of my subjects capture my interest. Those who appear out of nowhere, however, are an exception."

"And what leads you to believe that of me? Are you so well acquainted with everyone in your kingdom that you know when even a single stranger enters?"

"There are fewer arrivals than you might imagine. And I am indeed acquainted with everyone possessing powers such as yours."

"And are there many?"

Certainly he already knew the answer to that. "Very few, I would imagine, though without knowing the precise nature and extent of your powers, I have no way of being positive."

Presenting myself as being in the more vulnerable position would likely make him feel confident in dealing with me. Not an especially difficult task, he sounded like he had quite a store of self-assurance, though that could be all bluff.

The voice laughed. "Their number is doubtless exceedingly small, else they would not long be your subjects."

"There is more to my rule than sorcery."

"I would be the last to deny it. The willingness to use one's power is at least of equal importance."

As if to prove this statement, the needle-like prickling increased all over. I withstood it without so much as a wince, having known far worse. He was trying to play, like a child teasing another in order to provoke a reaction. He would have to do better than that with me. As for him using his power on others… "I was told of your treatment of the ones you… ejected… from this house."

"And you do not approve?"

"On the contrary, I doubt that I would have been as merciful. I have little tolerance for those who take what is neither rightfully theirs nor freely given." My tone was such as to indicate I was not referring to the assault on the girl. I was hoping he would bring up the subject of the book he had taken.

"Even if the object in question is taken from those who are not worthy of its possession?" Right. He'd picked up on the hint fast enough and shifted to a different topic entirely.

"And who is to be the judge of another's worthiness?"

"He who is worthy. Yourself, for example."

"And yourself?"

"I will not deny it."

What a high opinion he cherished of himself. He also emphasized the point by increasing the pain of the needles and keeping it at that level. Some of them seemed to burn right into my flesh and remain there. It was a hellish distraction. Best to end the game-playing now before he did something we would both regret. "It is time we spoke face-to-face."

"I think not." He sounded bored again and there was a finality to his words.

The needles blazed, not a mere dozen, but hundreds, thousands of them. I staggered back, biting off a cry as the pain shot through me. Distance did not mitigate its force, indeed, it was on the increase. An ordinary man would have been dead by now. Instinct took over, and I retreated into mist-form, blending with that which lay all about me on the ground. The pain did not follow me there and instantly ceased.

I had to take a moment to collect myself, both physically and emotionally. No one, absolutely no one in over two hundred years had ever had the insolence or unmitigated arrogance to speak to me like that, then dismiss me like some dull-witted servant.

I was absolutely furious. For a moment I could not think at all, so consumed was I by sheer rage. My initial reaction was to call back the rain clouds, stir them up, and send a few blasts of lightning dancing throughout the house. Indeed, I was halfway through the initial stages of the spell before I caught myself and pulled the power back in. It was not out of any mercy, but rather my instinct operating again. It told me that such an impetuous action would be a very bad idea.

After some moments I was calm enough to deal with things in a more rational manner. Before I gave in to natural urge and killed this insufferable bastard, I wanted to know more about him. If he proved to be stronger and more skilled in the Art, and thus immune to anything I could perpetrate, I would have more to deal with than just being shrugged off like an annoying stingfly.

Perhaps this Azalin had but a few spells and only happened to be very good with them, bolstering himself the rest of the time with a supreme show of confidence.

That was my hope, but I doubted things would prove to be so simple. The obvious fact was that he was extremely powerful in the Art, knew how to use it, and had little regard for the consequences of his actions. A highly dangerous combination.

I was not about to let him intimidate me, though. I was still lord of the land with all its strength at my back and a substantial knowledge of magic to draw upon. I had woven a number of deep protections about my person and Castle Ravenloft that would be difficult for even a skilled practitioner in the Art to breach. Difficult, I reminded myself, but not impossible. Caution was required.

Still holding to the mist, I eased forward until I encountered the outer layer of his spell. It was new to me, but not impenetrable. I could have likely dissipated it, but that would require effort better saved for other things, as well as alert him to my coming. I went through the barrier with hardly any resistance at all.

Cold. An unfamiliar sensation in this form, but the chill was not something even remotely physical. It was the sort to affect the mind rather than the body, permeating the heart and whatever it was I had left that served as a soul. Part of his defenses. I ignored it and pressed through it and the front gates of the house.

Re-forming just enough to see, I found I possessed two views at once, illusion and reality layered upon each other. In illusion the iron bars were new and locked, in reality, fallen and rusting in the mud.

The same went for the once massive front door. As I floated into the entry hall I seemed to pass right through the thick slab of oak, but at the same time it was flat on the floor, covered with debris.

A third layer of illusion assailed me inside, and it was wholly from my own mind: the sight of the cringing, murderous burgomaster and next to him Tatyana in the humble clothes of a serving maid. They were ghosts, but only in my memory. I was unprepared for the strength of the memories, but long practice helped me to push them away. I could spare no attention for the past now and needed my every thought trained upon the hazardous present.

The more I concentrated, the more clearly could I see what was reality, and after a few moments I shattered the last blocks.

Around me the dank ruin emerged from the illusion, the counterfeit manor abruptly melting away. After surveying the wreckage, I almost wanted the illusion back, then dismissed the dream. There was work to do yet.

Gradually, I assumed full solidity, ready to forsake it should the pain return, but nothing untoward happened. I took a look about me and found no immediate threat in the dismal hall, beyond the insistent cold.

Ahead, in the very room where I had met Tatyana again, I heard a distinct scraping sound, perhaps a chair or table being dragged along the warped flooring.

No light. What illumination there was came from the windows, and they were choked with the pale mist seeping in. It was more than sufficient for my use. I let myself go mist-like again, holding to a nearly transparent form, but with little substance, and floated forward, my boots an inch or so above the floor, utterly silent.

His back was to me as he stood over a rickety table, at first little more than a tall man-shape in a black velvet cloak with blood-red fur lining showing at the collar and edges. The style was definitely not Barovian, but its blatant richness and severity was decidedly meant to intimidate lesser souls. The heavy material was wrong for this time of year, as though he had come from a colder climate.

He partially turned, presenting his profile; I recognized him at once from Zorah's description, the lean face, dark hair, and hawkish features. I could not yet see his eyes. His gaze was fixed on the tattered pages of a crumbling book lying on the table top. An ebony box bearing the Latos crest lay on the floor in one corner as if impatiently flung there. No mystery remained as to what he had carried away in it now.

Thief, I thought. For all his powers he was no better than some greedy cutpurse on market day. The magic book-and it was magical, I could feel it even at this distance-would be mine soon, as it should have been.

He turned his back again, leaning on the table with one hand and flipping the pages with another, reading in near-total darkness. I sensed he had placed some preservation spell on it to keep it from further deterioration, else the near-ruined paper would surely have cracked away to dust under his handling.

I took that moment to fill out into solidity again.

Cold. Very cold it was in here with him.

A scent of dust in the air, very strong, filled my head as I silently inhaled. Not unexpected in these surroundings, but this had the additional sour taint of decay, as if something had crawled in and died, but the odor seemed to come from the man before me, not the house.

Then I noticed the silence. Like that of a grave in here. What was missing?

His heartbeat.

I could not detect the least muffled thump of life from his chest, nor was he breathing. Was he an illusion as well? But no, his hands created sound while turning the pages, thin creaking whispers they were as his fingertips brushed the paper, like that of a spider scuttling over the sheets.

He was not like me, so said my instincts, yet there was something very unnatural about him, something otherworldly in a sense beyond his outlander origins. Until I found out precisely who-and what-I was dealing with, I would have to be very careful with this one.

"I see you have made the acquaintance of Baron Latos," I said loudly, stepping into the room.

He gave a singularly gratifying start and jump and whirled around, his forbidding features converted to the comedic by his complete and utter surprise. He recovered himself nearly as fast, first to a defensive posture, then relaxing when I made no move against him. He straightened, settling his cloak into place. I noticed that for all his proximity to the filthy table there was not the least speck of dust marring his fine black velvet clothes. Another illusion, then, and one that was far superior to that which he had cast on the house.

There was no hiding his eyes, though. As Zorah promised they held more than just a glint of crimson, not a reflection, but the result of some cold fire burning within. His focus fell hard upon me.

"I see I underestimated you, Strahd," he said warily.

"It is a common mistake."

His reaction to my entrance improved my humor to the point where I took no exception to his use of my given name. No purpose would be served to let him think such a trifle could annoy me.

"Now that we are speaking face-to-face, as you wished-" slight emphasis on the 'you' "-perhaps you would be willing to answer some questions."

Some of my satisfaction dimmed. A fine thing it is, he steals, trespasses, is insufferably rude, then wants to conduct an interrogation of me. I smiled and said, "If you would be willing to do the same."

"Of course. What would you wish first to know?"

I had already decided to ask a question of which I already knew the answer. "How did you come to Barovia? Was it the Mists that brought you?"

"You know of the Mists, then?"

Of course I do, but then you are not sure of that yet, are you? I thought. "I know of them. For two centuries they have surrounded my land and held it hostage, held its people and myself prisoners. What do you know of them?"

"Far less than you, apparently. I entered what I thought were morning mists waiting to be burned away by the sun, but when they cleared, it was night. And I was here, in a land so distant it is unknown in my own, as mine is unknown in yours." Whatever was beneath the illusion shrugged, a very human gesture. "I have come to suspect your land of being on a different plane of existence. Are you familiar with the concept?"

He knew of things I had suspected for a very long time but had hardly dared to think on. Perhaps he would share his information if I could but draw him out.

"I have heard mages speak of it, but none have offered evidence to bolster their words."

He nodded. "It is the same on Oerth. I have feigned similar knowledge, admitting only to myself that it was wildest speculation."

Feigned? With his powers why should he bother lying to anyone? And why be honest with me unless he felt himself safe? I hoped for as much, though I could not count on him underestimating me a second time.

"Such candor is rare. Does it extend to other matters? Your reasons for establishing yourself here, for example, in the remnants of this particular manor house?"

"It is of significance then?"

I was curious to find out if he had been attracted to the house because of the terrible things that happened here so long ago. It might give me a clue as to what he was. "I will perhaps know that when I know your reasons."

Another shrug. "It was the first structure I came upon after my puzzling arrival. And my need for shelter is not great." He gestured at the place falling down around his illusionary ears.

"The Mists deposited you nearby?"

"Quite nearby. I was able to detect the presence of those four fools and their victim." He paused, probably waiting for me to ask him to elaborate on the story, but I merely nodded for him to continue. "I intended merely to question them, but the situation I found upon entering demanded my actions. But tell me, of what significance is this place to you?

Damn, but he was quick. I must have revealed something of my inner feelings. The problem with not projecting an illusion of oneself is that others can read your face if you let your guard down. This Azalin apparently possessed a talent for that, or he had picked up on the negative reverberations still echoing in the place and made an accurate guess. Or worse, he had picked up on my very thoughts. I would tell the truth then.

"One very dear to me was… slaughtered here many years ago. It has not been occupied since that time. I am surprised that, beneath the illusion, much of the structure still stands."

A brief pause from him as he digested that little tidbit. "You can see the truth beneath illusions, then?" His tone indicated he did not care much for that idea.

"In many cases." I paused a moment as well and thought it best to be truthful again. "The one you wrap so tightly about yourself, however, is, as yet, beyond my abilities."

As yet.

The face he presented so convincingly showed surprise. "You would not wish to be privy to my reality. I often wish that I were not."

Interesting comment, that. Why would he be so displeased with his "reality" as he put it? Perhaps he was disfigured in some way. People can be very vain. "You are more than a mage, then?" More than human?

"And less," he said cryptically. The words had the same finality as before when he had dismissed me. I would leave the subject for later.

"And your plans?" My gaze focused for an instant upon his stolen book. It all but glowed with power to my eyes.

"My only desire is to return to my own land." On that he sounded entirely truthful. Harsh as his voice was-unless it was also illusion-he could not keep out the determination and… longing? It seemed too soft an emotion for him.

"And if you cannot? I trust you would not then try to steal mine." By his manner alone I could infer that he had held a position of power in his land of Oerth. He might want to recreate that here.

"I would not steal what is another's." Ever so slight emphasis on the word 'steal.' And a lie, considering the matter of the book.

"But to challenge that other? Is that acceptable in your eyes?"

"To challenge openly is always honorable. That is not, however, currently my intent."

Currently. I noted that word. Barovia was small, but all I had. I nodded. "I see. But in the future?"

"Whatever happens, it will be dictated by circumstance and necessity."

An answer such as I would make myself. "You do not rule it out, then?"

"I rule out nothing. Nor, I imagine, do you."

I gave him a thin smile. "It would be the height of foolishness to do so."

"As it would be for me."

If I could only see past his illusion, somehow gain a hint of what was beneath, I could plan how best to deal with him, for deal with him I would. My initial assessment of him on a personal basis was anything but complimentary, but he had knowledge and skills I could find a use for, so I could ignore the revulsion he aroused in me.

Though I hadn't faced it in many a year I recognized his kind of arrogance; it was backed up by true power, dangerous power. I could not control him, but perhaps I could talk him into controlling himself.

I am not modest to the point of downplaying my own powers and talents; they are considerable, but I am well aware of my limits. This Azalin, whoever and whatever he was, was superior to me on many important levels-I had sensed that much-but he had yet to realize it. I could play on that point to my advantage.

I had limits, but if there is one thing which I have learned as both a soldier and politician it is the art of the successful bluff.

"Well, Azalin, until circumstance and necessity raise their ugly heads, I will bid you welcome to Barovia."

"As a subject?" There was a decided sneer attached to that query.

"As my honored guest."

He gave me a long contemplative look, full of caution, but I could tell he was interested. "There are sacred customs in my land regarding host and guest associations."

"It is likely they are similar to the ones here."

"Which are?"

"The host promises to defend and nurture his guest. The guest promises to honor his host and keep the peace and law of his house."

"I can protect myself."

"Are you so sure of that? There are dangers in Barovia of which you have no knowledge. I do."

"Yourself being the chief amongst them?"

I spread my hands, smiling. He shifted slightly at the movement as if to react to an attack. "I will not deny it," I said, repeating back his own words. "However, if you are my guest then I am obligated to protect you."

"So long as I keep your peace and law."

"Not a difficult task, I assure you."

"You would accept my word?"

"I would, since the consequences of your breaking it would be… unfortunate."

"Might you elaborate on that?"

"You are intelligent enough to imagine for yourself what you might do to me were our positions reversed and I attempted to violate your laws." Excellent word, that: 'attempted.' I could almost see him turning it over in his mind. Certainly he must now be as curious about me as I was of him and wanting to learn more. "I think you can see the advantage of cooperation over conflict. The latter would be a great waste."

"I would not want my place as your guest to hinder in any manner my efforts to return home."

"On the contrary, it would be my delight to aid you in the process. If you can escape this 'plane of existence' as you call it, then I, if not all of Barovia, could be set free as well."

"You would help me?"

"We would help each other. I can provide you with the resources and equipment to allow you to begin work without delay. Give me your word to keep the law, and you may avail yourself of my own library of magical volumes. Then you need not be reduced to barrel scrapings such as this." I indicated the priceless book with well judged contempt, not too much, not too little.

He made an ugly, mirthless sound, but I was certain it was a laugh. A bitter one. "And am I to trust you to keep your word?"

"Mutual trust for us is an absolute necessity for mutual survival so long as you are here, otherwise neither of us will break free. I would keep my word. Anything less would be dishonorable."

"And you trust me to keep mine?"

"Just so. I think you would prefer to search for a return path through the Mists without the distraction of constantly having to look over your shoulder."

I would be there, anyway, but then he would know that and could be confident that I wouldn't put a knife in to his back-purely in the figurative sense, mind you. It was my expectation that any normal weapon would have little effect on him.

"You would work with me on this escape?"

"Yes."

"I would want to set down additional rules before agreeing to this."

I gave a gracious nod. Anything he could come up with would only be for his own self-protection and likely have little consequence against me. I was quite serious about my duties as host. Getting him to accept that fact would effectively place him under my rule and once there, I could play on that point to my best advantage for as long as necessary.

Most people pace around or let their gaze wander as an aid to thought. He continued to look steadily at me with those strangely cold red eyes. It might have disconcerted a lesser being, but I had faced the personification of Death itself and survived. At this point, Azalin inspired no fear in me.

"Very well," he said.

I strove not to let my satisfaction show, but in those two words he had just delivered himself to my tender care.

"You have my sworn word to abide by your laws for so long as I am here-and so long as you return in kind."

"I swear to return in kind."

"The chances are," he added, as if to discount the profound importance of what he had just done, "that this is but a temporary situation."

On that I could offer no comment.

***

From Azalin's private commentary notebooks, contd.

542 Barovian Calendar, Barovia

One's hindsight is always clear, and after but a month in the company of Von Zarovich mine confirms to me what my inner voice had urged on the first night of our meeting: that I should have killed him then.

Certainly I am more than capable of doing it, but curiosity and caution stayed my hand then. I knew nothing about him, and the fact that he had survived the otherwise lethal force of the first spell I had flung at him was enough to school me against additional assaults.

He was-so it seemed-coolly unconcerned toward me, something I am not used to; since the moment when I initiated my own change the reaction of mortals in my presence is ever that of fear. I had grown so accustomed to seeing it that its sudden lack drew my instant attention. If he was not as other men, what then was he?

Since he had thrown off my attack and seemed immune to fear I had two choices before me: that he was a mage of deadly power equal to or greater than myself, or that he was some sort of supernatural creature. It did not seem likely he could be both, for talent like mine is rare, and I had to purposely effect my own supernatural change. I can account for my deficiency of perception by the fact that I had many distractions that night and could not bestow my full consideration equally upon each. I only realized the possibility of the combination after it was too late to do anything about it. By then I was bound by my own oath to his laws.

I see now that he had bluffed his way through the whole business. He has magical power, but it is nothing to compare with mine. He must have known that, yet played expertly upon my need for aid, maneuvering me into a position with his sly bargaining so that I was forced to put myself at his mercy.

I could feel the fool, but at that point his act was as complete as one of my own illusions, so there is little purpose in self-reproach. I take pride in being able to know when anyone lies to me, but Von Zarovich proved to be the one exception capable of immunity to that ability. The why of it eluded me until I came to reside in his castle while he made improvements to the manor house which I have chosen to reside in for the duration of my stay.

That he was not human in the normal, mortal sense was soon obvious, but the exact nature of his difference was not immediately apparent, but easy enough to discern with time. He took pains to conceal the pointed tips of his ears, but beyond that-at least while in my company-bothered to do little else. Of course, once I was in regular contact with him his undead nature became quite conspicuous: the lack of mirrors, the dusk-to-dawn hours and so forth-not that I was particularly disturbed by any of it. My own nature was such that he would be disappointed by the contents of my veins, so I was safe enough from that feeble threat.

What most concerned me was the extent of his magical knowledge. Should he prove to be superior in talent to me, then I would have to be most careful in my dealings. Our first weeks together might be construed as laughable to those indulging in grim amusements as we oh-so-cautiously fenced around one another, each imparting as little information to the other as possible, while at the same time trying to extract it. This was in spite of our noble pact.

He acted wisely in entrapping me into promising to abide by the laws regarding host and guest. By the time I knew his true limits it was too late to do anything about him. I will be honor-bound by my word. Though I may break it in an open challenge, I am not yet in a position to do so. I am yet a stranger in his land and he my only "friend." I use the word as a form of contempt. He is in actuality a necessary evil I must endure until such time as I can effect an escape.

That is what is foremost in my mind, to return to my own land and deal with the traitors who pursued me into that damned mist in the first place. I judge that I can put up with Von Zarovich for whatever length of time it takes to effect the spell; it should not be long, but one impediment worries me.

I have discovered a truly devastating obstacle: I am unable to learn new magic.

It has to be the single most unpleasant surprise I have faced in the last century, and I refuse to accept its permanency. Not a day goes by that I do not attempt to break the barrier that prevents me from learning even the simplest of new spells. Thus far it remains intact. Until and unless I can breach it I will have to preserve the peace between myself and Von Zarovich, since he has no such limitation.

What an intolerable situation this is. For he is ever eager to exploit my fund of knowledge, yet I am unable to improve my own concerning the practical application of a spell. I must be very careful never to allow him to suspect this weakness of mine, lest he gain greater power over me. How this will affect the swiftness of my escape I do not as yet know. Until then I can make no move against Von Zarovich, for I need him to cast spells I cannot learn for myself.

The other secret I must preserve is that of my own true nature.

Mortals and uncanny night creatures alike have a universal revulsion to what I am. It is an instinctual thing that goes beyond all reason with them and the usual reaction is to attempt to destroy me-which has yet to happen. Von Zarovich might be able to countenance the truth, but it is not my intention to test him. To that end I have very carefully cast a spell upon him, preventing him from determining what is beneath my concealing illusion. It is a much subtler version of one I took care to employ on my own servitors; anything more and he would notice the spell. Thus far there has been no change in his manner to indicate that he is aware of the spell on him or my secret.

He may harbor curiosity about my peculiarities but hopefully will never be able to answer his questions. The core of the spell has to do with preventing his mind from making certain key connections. The danger for me is if he accidentally stumbles upon the answer, but now that I have the free run of his library I have been taking steps to prevent such an event from happening.

I am spared from the necessity of additional castings on those around him, since his dealings with living mortals are infrequent. His castle servitors, guards and the like, are already dead and altogether mindless, being one of his best lines of defense against an ordinary attack. He takes advantage of the fact that people who can think are so frightened by those who cannot-the dead.

I, of course, am the exception to that.

End of Excerpt

CHAPTER FIVE

543 Barovian Calendar, Barovia

The passage of a single year may be swift or slow for me depending on the focus of my attention. When waiting upon some important occasion, such as the return of my Tatyana, time seems to nearly stop. When working on research that might lead to my escape, I forget about it altogether and blink in surprise to find it is again mid-summer.

The passage of this past year has been paradoxically both swift and slow, which has been due entirely to the presence of my "guest," Azalin. Though stimulating company, to say the least, he is rather like having a tame bear about the castle… an amusing novelty-until it decides to turn on you.

We spent the initial weeks of our new partnership exchanging information, both magical and otherwise, though we were as yet both very cautious in what we shared, neither desiring to give advantage to the other. Furthermore, we used these initial discussions to begin to learn one another's native tongue so that the use of spells would no longer be necessary to converse. The use of spell work to communicate soon became altogether unnecessary for us.

The solstice was nearly upon us again. Tonight, as the year turned from season to season, Azalin would call upon the resulting fluxing energies to lend power to the spell we would attempt. Of course, a lot of preparation had gone into this.

***

542 Barovian Calendar, Barovia

In that dank and crumbling manor house Azalin and I settled on the generalities of just how we were to work together to engineer his return home and my possible escape. The latter was not very important to him, I could immediately see that, so it would be up to me to not let him forget it in his haste to leave.

It had been many years since I had to actually stoop to negotiating with another, but his power was such that I dared not press him too strongly against his will lest he decide to press forward with the open challenge he had mentioned. All things between us had to be carefully balanced, so I had to hurriedly scrape the rust off my bargaining skills in order to rise to the need at hand. I did rather well for someone with virtually no position of strength. The art of the bluff is not to be underestimated.

I also believe that it had been long since he had to do the same, else he would have come out ahead on some points. He was cautious and patient, but perhaps too much so; there is a time and place for such, but one must know when the moment is right to decisively strike. Even now, he may end up waiting too long and fall behind.

Each moment I spent with him added to my knowledge of his idiosyncrasies, all of which would be useful to me as a strategist should open conflict come about. If I could prevent it I would, but now was not the time.

Despite my instinct to kill him and be done with the threat, reason told me that he was my best chance to escape. His knowledge-so he informed me, and so I later discovered-of the Art was indeed profound. I could learn much from him and intended to do just that. Dangerous as he was, the risk was worth it if it could expand my own knowledge.

To make this a relatively safe and viable undertaking, I found I had many other duties to suddenly perform, such as apprising the nobles in the immediate area of the manor house about its new tenant. This task I assigned to Zorah. I deemed her intricate social circle within the boyars to be the best way to deliver instructions to the local nobles. She was an important figure to the various families, making her a most useful tool to manipulate the twisted workings of Barovian politics. Besides, she seemed rather grateful to me for having handled the situation with Azalin and my efforts to keep him at a safe distance from her own home.

The locals would know only that Azalin had arrived in the land by a traveling spell that went awry, and it was my express order that he be left strictly alone for as long as he was here. The story I gave was mostly the truth, that Azalin was an extremely dangerous sorcerer, easily offended. Zorah's own experience with him would bear that out.

On the surface this policy was to keep the nobles from endangering themselves by encounters with Azalin's quirks of temper. In reality, I did not want him making allies of any disaffected members of Barovia's nobility. The idea of their using Azalin as a figurehead, his magical talents as a weapon, and rebelling against me was one of the first possible dangers I'd thought of, and denying him the opportunity seemed the best solution. Perhaps it might even avert the war Madam Eva had warned me about.

My boyars could be a fractious lot. I had held full control of them for nearly two hundred years, and except for that one attempt at civil war that I'd foiled, things had been relatively peaceful. Sometimes there would be the odd assassination or two happening between rival houses, but when those occurred I arbitrated things back to normal when necessary. If the death was justified, I let things stand. If not, then the perpetrators were issued an invitation to come inspect my dungeons at Castle Ravenloft. The more intelligent ones always elected to kill themselves outright, their relatives tendering regrets to me. The rest would either try to hide (which was quite useless) or bolt away to take their chances in the Mists. Then would I set my wolves to track them down first and dispose of the problem. As I have said, I had not established my rule in order to be loved.

Taking into account that I as yet knew little about Azalin, I sensed he was also used to being in a position of power. If I picked up on that quality, then so would others, and they might try appealing to him for help against the devil Strahd, thinking Azalin would be an improvement as their leader. All their lives they'd known no other sovereign but me, so they had no one to compare with me, else they might find my guidance more agreeable. There is much difference between contention with one cautious wolf versus a rampaging bear.

I had some allies but many enemies. Until now the latter had no recourse but to endure my law as best they could, having no power to oppose me. But if they took it into their heads to win Azalin over to fight me, all could be lost. My instincts told me I wasn't yet ready to face him.

There was also the reverse to think on, that once he made their acquaintance, Azalin might use the boyars against me-even those who were unquestionably loyal. He was a powerful enough mage to do so. True, he was presently only interested in returning home, but should that prove to be an impossibility, what then? The open challenge he had mentioned? I deemed it best to keep everyone apart and work to get rid of him as soon possible.

My next sojourn after the Latos estate was to the Vistani camp next to the Tser Pool. The vardos looked much like the ones I had seen decades ago, same bright paints and carved trim; their occupants also seemed unchanged. Remarkably so considering that two generations had passed since I had made the pact with Madam Eva.

Over the years our agreement had proved to be a wise and mutually beneficial arrangement. The Vistani had ever kept me apprised of people and events in the country-though in the case of Azalin they had not done so well. I had, in turn, protected them from undue harassment and had refrained from taxing them. Their messengers regularly crossed the poisonous fog barrier to leave missives at Castle Ravenloft. By now every one of them knew the antidote for the fog, but so far they had kept that secret well within the tribe. As Eva had promised, they occasionally sold it to anyone foolish enough to want to enter the castle without my permission. The outcome of such transactions never failed but to enrich the Vistani pockets… and my larder cells.

I landed in the woods just outside the camp, having counted eight of their wagons pulled in a circle around several fires. Music drifted to me on the still air-there is always music at a Vistani gathering-and the smell of cooking. There was no snow on the ground, but otherwise things were much as they had been at our first meeting.

The Vistani are not as shy about being out after dark as most Barovians, but they are far more sensitive to the world around them. Even as I settled my cloak back into place I noticed mothers scurrying to gather their children and the men standing to look in my direction. The music stopped.

Rarely did I bother to show myself to such a large group. Usually my dealings were with a single messenger such as the one resembling Bartolome who had come to me the previous night. I saw him again now, striding forward to stop a respectful distance away to execute a sweeping bow.

"We give welcome to the wise Lord Strahd," he said in response to my nod. "Madam Ilka is expecting you."

I was hardly startled by that bit of news. It would be an extraordinary night indeed if I ever surprised a Vistana seer.

He led me to a vardo similar to Eva's but with little birds etched into the glass panes of its windows instead of flowers. He reached high and opened the door, motioning me up the steep wooden steps to the shadows within.

The interior was cramped as they all were, but she'd made good use of the space. Along with bunches of herbs, lanterns hung from the ceiling crossbars. Their glass was tinted pink, lending a soft glow to everything. I dare say it made even me look less pale. The bed was neatly folded up against one wall and a shelf let down from another to serve as a temporary table. Ilka sat behind it, her watchful gaze on me. I was immediately struck by the startling similarity she bore to her predecessor, the same round, wizened face-if decidedly more wrinkled-the same short, wide figure. Most startling were the eyes. Her eyes were exactly the same as Eva's, the same dark, penetrating gaze. Had I not know better, I would have sworn that Eva herself sat before me.

"Welcome to you, Lord Strahd," she said, not budging from her chair. As she must have been well past eighty, I assumed it was not meant as a slight and found a seat for myself. She looked frail, but her voice was yet strong, and the light in her eyes fierce.

"Thank you. I received your message about remembering Madam Eva's warning. Was there anything you can add to it?"

"You wish a reading?"

Suddenly I noticed the deck of tarokka cards in her hands. They had not been there an instant before. Very talented, she was, like her mentor. I nodded, and she gave the cards to me to shuffle. I made a thorough job of it, taking my time, admitting to myself that I was reluctant to see what message they had in store for me. They were her own deck and felt different from Eva's, just as heavy, but cold. The more I shuffled, the colder they got.

"Put one card in the center," she said.

I did so. It was The Darklord.

Just as I feared. If I'd still possessed a beating heart, it would have lurched and begun pounding with dread anticipation. I looked to Ilka for a clue on what was to come, but not one of the many lines on her face shifted. Fighting the feeling of dread, I managed to carry out the rest of the pattern of shuffling and placing the top cards on their designated places.

Next came The Beast, The Necromancer, The Warrior, and The Mercenary cards. The reading was identical in every way to the one Eva had given me over seventy years ago.

When it comes to the Vistani and their skill at knowing the future, I do not believe in chance or coincidence. A chill from the cards worked its way up my hands, seeped into my chest and settled there. It was only by great force of will that I managed not to openly shiver.

"The Necromancer has come," said Ilka, echoing my exact fear. "I have had dark dreams of this for the last few nights. Dreams of fire and sword, of things of darkness stalking the land, killing, and the dead rising up to kill others in turn."

Imprecise pictures from her inner mind such as anyone with a morbid imagination might have. I needed something more specific. "Did your dreams tell you aught else?"

"Only that which the cards have shown you here."

"What is to be done?" I had taken all the precautions I could think of for the moment, but was very much open to suggestions.

"Shuffle the cards. But the answer will be vague for so vague a question-and no, you cannot ask a new one."

Deciding to swallow my annoyance at her presumptuous tone, I obeyed her. I turned over the card on top. It was blank.

"What is this?" I demanded. "Why do you have such a card in this deck?"

She stared and shook her head; the sound of her heart's rapid beating seeming to fill every nook of the vardo. "I-l do not understand. There should be no such card here at all."

"You did not make this one?"

"No, Lord Strahd." She pressed far back in her chair, as if trying to distance herself from the table. This was clearly a great surprise to her.

I wanted to back away as well, but settled for merely placing the remainder of the icy deck between us.

"There is magic afoot, then. This was meant as a message to me. What is its meaning?"

"There can be only one: that things beyond your present knowledge are taking shape that have a bearing on what you will face."

"To help or to hinder me?"

She shrugged.

"Not too terribly useful, then."

"It could also be a card of waiting. That certain things must come to pass before you can take action against your enemy."

"Wait for how long?"

"The cards cannot reckon the time as we understand it. You ask what I cannot answer, Lord Strahd. Perhaps you already have the answers and you need not look to the cards at all."

"Then let us hope I find them soon or else all of Barovia will suffer, including the Vistani."

"Because of the war that's to come?"

"Indeed. You have reminded me of Eva's warning; was there nothing more?"

"You must study your enemy, and more importantly, you must not underestimate him."

"Every good general knows and does that."

"And you must trust in your friends."

"I have none."

"Yet they are there all the same. The animals of the wood, the wind and the rain, the very earth of Barovia itself."

"And the Vistani?"

"We will help all we can, Lord Strahd-in our own way. But we are not sword-fighters."

I was well aware of that.

"But we can watch all things for you, even the Necromancer."

"Only from a safe distance. He is a danger to any who attract his notice. His powers are such that he can kill ordinary men without much effort or thought."

"As I saw in the dreams. He tried to kill you with the fiery needles, but the mist carried you away."

It was part of their magic to rely on dreams. Not nearly as efficient or controlled as my own practice of the Art, but no less powerful. I could trust in it even if I hadn't experienced the immediate proof of it last night.

"That is what happened. Any Vistani approaching him will not be so fortunate. Why was I not told of his coming by your people first?"

"None of our tribe were camped in that wood. The scouts said there was no game to be found there so they moved elsewhere. I saw him in my dreams, though, not clearly, for he has cloaked himself too well. I did not understand their import until the lady's message was brought to our camp along with the servant's gossip of a stranger to her house, then I knew the time of the Necromancer had finally come."

"I would rather that he left, and quickly. Can your people take this Necromancer through the Mists and back to his own land?"

"No more than we could take you."

Well, I had to ask.

"Will he find his own way back?"

"With the white card's influence in the reading the answer is both yes and no."

"How can that be?"

She spread her hands, canting her head to one side. She did not know. Going to the Vistani to find out about the future could be a very frustrating experience, which is why I had always previously avoided it. I was coming to the conclusion I should leave now and let things look after themselves.

"There is perhaps one other way I might help you now," she said. She collected the cards and put them away, then from her skirt pocket drew forth a small pouch. It was so heavily embroidered that the fabric beneath the decoration was hardly visible. She opened the loose knot on the drawstrings and reached in, taking out a carved wooden ring, placing it between us on the table. Next she brought out a crystal ball. It was as large as an apple and clear as mountain water, quite perfect. She set it upon the ring base.

I remained quiet, allowing her to concentrate while she stared into it. After a few moments the crystal became cloudy, its center going white and roiling like the border Mists.

"Do you see it?" she whispered.

I pressed my own gaze hard upon the ball, seeing nothing more than mist at first, then a tiny picture faded in and out so quickly I was not sure if I had only imagined it.

"Keep looking," she ordered.

I put all my focus into it. The picture returned, and held long enough for me to perceive what it was. "Iron gates," I said.

They were familiar, being the entry to the manor house Azalin had taken over. The view in the crystal moved forward through them, then up to the huge oak door of the house itself. I seemed to pass through without it opening and stood in an elegant hallway. This was not the place as it was, nor even the illusion Azalin had cast.

"Is this what will be in the future?" I asked.

"Perhaps."

I traveled down the hall to a vast round chamber, thick-walled with a round window set in the center of the roof. A full moon shone down, bathing the circular room with a cold blue light. The light formed a sphere in the center of some apparatus I did not recognize. The sphere grew brighter and brighter until I could not bear it and had to turn away. When I looked back the image was gone and the light fading from the crystal. The mist folded over it, then the ball became clear again.

Ilka put a trembling hand to her brow. I waited until she seemed recovered then asked, "What is the meaning?"

She gave a little laugh. "That is the peril of seeing the future. It has no meaning until it has become the past."

"But this is something that will happen?"

"Probably, since the image was so clear. Sometimes, when there are too many uncertainties over a specific event the outcome is fogged, or there can be several outcomes to confuse you. Beware of them. Trust the future only after it has happened."

"Which isn't much help to me, for by the time it has happened we might all be destroyed."

"But the present is where you must be. In the present will this war be won… or lost. Prepare, watch, and wait."

"I would do that anyway."

"But this time you will have this to aid you." She picked up the ball and pressed it into my hands. It felt heavy and cool.

I could have offered a polite protest, but it would have been inappropriate here; this was too magnificent a gesture. "You are sure?"

"I am old, Lord Strahd, I must soon pass it to someone. To use it tires me more than you can imagine, but you have much more power than I ever had even in my youth. You will be able to use it to see many things and protect Barovia. But be warned: the future is often changeable, and the past can be made into a lie by wishes of what might have been. The uncorrupted present is best, for then it will show you only the truth of what is happening. It is also much less draining."

"How do I see the present?"

"Look hard into the crystal and think of a place you wish to see."

Placing the ball back on its pedestal I concentrated and was surprised how swiftly a view of Castle Ravenloft appeared in its depths. The image was small but very detailed, every stone visible. I leaned closer.

"No need for that," she said above me. "Now that the image is fixed in your mind just shut your eyes."

I did so; the view remained clear in my mind and grew larger until I seemed to be there. When I desired to move toward the castle my view did just that. I fairly flew toward it. In I came past the overlook, swooped up the chapel wall, then down and around to the front to my very room. I passed through the locked windows and went straight to my library. No candles were lit, but I could see everything perfectly, and knew it was the present. All was as I had left it the night before when I had gone to visit the village.

Pulling back, I opened my eyes and had to blink as a wave of dizziness washed over me.

"You will get used to that," said Ilka as I pinched the bridge of my nose.

"It is truly amazing. Will I be able to travel anywhere in Barovia with this?"

"Only in your mind. And you cannot see into a place you're not familiar with, however, you may begin in a known place and travel to the unknown from that point. Or you may think of a person you wish to see and his image will come to you along with wherever they might be."

I had to test this out and immediately thought of Azalin, recalling his form and then focusing on the ball. In a few moments I seemed to be hovering several feet above him as he sat at a table in the manor house studying the baron's book. Though too far away to see which page he was on, it was obvious he was trying to memorize whatever spell was before him. Often had I done the same myself, spending hours poring over the volumes in my library.

I moved closer, but with much caution. He was very engrossed, then abruptly looked up, his eyes glowing red, and I was sure he could see me. Then his gaze went to one side and the other, quite missing me. He closed the book and stood, his posture all alert. His lips began to form words, and I could hear them, actually hear them. They were magical in origin and I recognized them despite the fact he placed the accents differently from the ones I knew. It was a location spell- and my cue to leave. I pulled back and opened my eyes, shaking the image from my mind.

Dizziness, but not so bad as before.

"Can he follow me here?"

"Who?"

"I was watching the Necromancer and he sensed me then attempted to find me."

"No. He won't know it was you unless you tell him."

"I could hear him speak. If I'd stayed would I have been able to talk to him?"

"Yes-but to do both will tire even you overmuch if you do it all the time, it requires much effort. Listening is easier, but also tiring. You will learn to select when it is right to listen as well as look."

"Can all people sense when I am watching them?"

"Those who are perceptive will notice. But there's little they can do about it. A word of advice-do not abuse this privilege. Some things are meant to be private."

"Madam, I am not accustomed to peering through bedroom windows and am not likely to do so."

Her face crinkled and she chuckled softly. "I am glad to hear it. This is not an entertainment, but a weapon. Use it wisely and do not allow him near it."

"You have my solemn word as a Von Zarovich." While I lived-and I took that concept very seriously indeed-Azalin would never know about her gift to me.

***

From Azalin's private commentary notebooks, contd.

What a barbaric place Barovia is, backward and fearful. I can hardly fathom how Von Zarovich is able to bear to stand residing here, much less get anything done in regard to his Art. Perhaps it is a silent testament to his stubbornness that he has accomplished even this much in terms of establishing and holding his rule here.

The great castle Von Zarovich seems so proud of is hardly more than a primitive pile of stones pretending to be a fortress. It is most inconveniently located on a spire standing next to one of the country's mountains, connected only by a drawbridge in poor repair. Formidable, but nearly impossible to get to except by a single winding road. I can already anticipate that the transport of supplies for my needs is going to be an infuriatingly slow process.

The castle's isolation may be good for fighting off an invading army but works against it in times of peace. My own fortress in Oerth was in the center of all things, my power alone being more than enough to defend its walls. Strahd apparently lacks that and must rely on such basic means to preserve his safety.

He has adequate defenses, but why he would even bother to defend the hulk is a mystery to me. He would be better served to simply knock the lot flat and begin again, but I doubt he has the resources to achieve such improvements.

He claims that it has been in a minor decline for the last two hundred years-a clue to his actual age there-but if this is his idea of minor I should be interested to know what a major setback is to him.

His own rooms are fairly comfortable and in order, but the so-called "guest suite" he ushered me into is hardly fit for one of my station. Perhaps he hopes I will remove myself from Barovia that much faster. There is nothing that would give me greater pleasure, but that would hold true with or without his slights.

Apparently Castle Ravenloft is the best the whole miserable land has to offer, and if so, then it is hardly worth my notice-unless he is lying to me again. That is something I intend to investigate if my experimentation does not prove to be immediately successful and I am stranded here for a time. I shall have to strengthen my position with the creation and recruitment of allies. This should not be overly difficult if Latos is any example. He and others like him can be controlled easily enough.

I believe Von Zarovich rules by fear and playing upon whatever old loyalties still exist by tradition (and force) between himself and his boyars. My interrogation of Latos and his woman seemed to confirm this. Though they were reluctant to say anything against Von Zarovich, it seemed obvious to me that he is not a kind-weak-lord, being more feared than loved. I shall have to determine just how deep that fear runs and make plans to exploit it should the need arise.

Miserable as this parcel of stones and mud is, assuming the rule of Barovia is a distinct likelihood in my future.

End of excerpt.

CHAPTER SIX

542 Barovian Calendar, Barovia

Azalin elected to make the manor house his home for the duration of his stay, a decision I met with mixed feelings. On the one hand it was a place of sorrow for me, on the other, I could not have picked a better location in which to put him. It was little more than an hour's flight from Castle Ravenloft, yet nearly half a day's journey for him by horseback along the twisting roads of the mountain-when the weather was good.

I liked the disproportion. He'd be close enough to watch, but far enough away that I could feel moderately secure in the castle from immediate danger. I would set up so many magical defenses that even if he tried a spell for disappearing from one place to appear in another he would not find it a great success.

Years before I had devised an invisible buffering wall around the castle for just that purpose to foil other, lesser mages who had had grievances with me. When any of them tried to effect an entry into the keep, the force of their spell reflected off the buffer wall, sending them elsewhere. I heard one was lucky and ended up in Krezk on the far western border; another landed in isolated Immol. A third had the very bad fortune to reappear in the cave den of some of my mountain wolves. I only discovered this incident by accident when I happened to use that cave for daytime shelter once and found the remains of his shredded clothing and distinctive jewelry amongst the gnawed bones. My four-legged children had made quite a thorough celebration of their unexpected feast.

But for all that, I still felt only moderately secure. Azalin was cut from a different bolt of cloth than the other mages I'd faced. He would be far away in the manor, yet not nearly far enough. That would only happen by getting him out of Barovia entirely.

Because of its past tragedy the house had enjoyed an evil reputation for a very long time and most of the locals-barring that one idiot scion and his three henchmen-avoided it. The town council of Berez had never needed to approve of any new construction within a mile of the grounds, for its people found other sites more appealing. I was glad of this, wanting to keep Azalin as removed from the Barovians as was possible.

The edicts I unofficially passed down to them through Zorah Latos would make an impression, but whether it would last I did not know. Ambition can cause people to be incorrigibly half-witted at times. Sooner or later someone might put me to the test, and I would have either another addition to my larder or a head on a pike, depending on the state of my temper at the time. I could also have a political problem as well depending on the importance of the transgressor. I would just have to wait and see and let things work themselves out in my favor as they usually did.

Massive repairs to the house were required, of course. Azalin made it very clear that if he was to have any success at all in finding an escape for us he would need a properly equipped working area, or laboratory as he called it, an unfamiliar word to me, though the root word of "labor" helped to clarify its meaning.

He made no secret of his opinion that my own chambers in Castle Ravenloft were wholly inadequate to the task. If his purpose was to annoy me he did not succeed. I came to expect the worst from him at all times, therefore he was hard-pressed to surprise me with such petty complaints. Besides, I had the idea that much of his criticism was derived from some deeply hidden pang of inadequacy within. Caviling away on this point or that was probably how he made himself feel better, irksome for me to listen to, but if that was part of the price of my freedom, then so be it.

The one thing he could not find fault with was my library. In two centuries I'd amassed a respectable number of books on the Art, many of which he'd never heard, so the flow of disparaging comment stopped the moment he entered the room. His silence as he surveyed the ranks of volumes was compliment enough.

Out of necessity I gave him the run of the library. He needed all the knowledge at my disposal to help him understand the nature of the magic (or whatever it was) that brought him to Barovia. His initial interest had to do with how the Mists had come about in the beginning, though I was loath to give him the full and true story. I referred him to the public record of that night for the time being, hoping its dry wordage would encourage him to seek information from actual observation of the Mists rather than simply reading about them. It was more preferable to me that he should- with his current superior ability in the Art-devise an escape without having to know the sad business of my Tatyana's death.

There were a few select tomes he did not come into contact with, which I hid elsewhere in the castle-like the book with the black pages Alek Gwilym had brought. Just because the thing was no longer forthcoming with information for me did not mean it would be the same for another. I was not about to take the chance. I also denied him the knowledge of the existence of my private journals. Though they contained many important details on Barovia's history and my own magical observations, they were my personal records, holding thoughts sacred to myself that I would share with no one. Not that he noticed any of this or was ever given a hint of a chance to do so.

With a portion of the recently collected taxes to finance the project, I arranged for the hiring of workers to begin massive repairs to the manor house. Azalin had some very specific changes to make to the structure, including the complete gutting of one wing and the use of its foundation to support a large circular tower.

The shape of it was not lost on me; the image I'd seen in Ilka's crystal ball was yet fresh in my mind. I wondered just how far in the future that event might be.

Azalin required that the tower be massively reinforced, and I first thought it was also meant to serve as a keep until a talk with the engineers and master builders cleared my suspicions. The stress points in the construction were designed to withstand force from within and keep it contained rather than assaults from without. I either had taken on an insane dreamer as a guest or he was indeed some sort of genius when it came to applied spell work.

The short summer months progressed, and the future rapidly became the present as the walls went up, course by course. By the end of autumn the tower was finished, other outside repairs were complete, the roof solid, and the walls intact. Interior modifications could proceed when the winter weather abated enough to allow the carpenters to travel. Azalin supervised much of the work himself, and I made frequent visits, presenting him with many questions about the dimensions and purpose of his design.

"The exact placement of the stones in this pattern is necessary to maintain the integrity and power of the spells," he said rather haughtily, as if I should know this fact. "Your own facilities lack this; I'm surprised you've accomplished as much as you have."

"It is not as though any of it is especially difficult for me," I murmured.

"Because the spells you have are not especially difficult."

"They tend toward action, not reaction, as would seem to be your intent with this project."

"The reaction we'll achieve here will be greater than any you've known before."

"One would hope so, considering the effort involved."

To this he gave out with a snort bordering on contempt, this implication being that what I viewed as effort, he thought of as trivial. Fortunately-and far too often-I practiced the habit of shrugging off my personal reactions to his slights, for it would seem a shame to begin a war based solely on my losing patience with his bad manners.

He had overlooked-or rather left out-the fact that my kind of spell work was quite different from his own, relying less on props and cumbersome constructions and more on verbal commands to summon and manipulate power. Not that he lacked in knowledge of that particular school, this was only his grating boorishness showing.

Most of the time he was not such trying company, which was fortunate when winter set in, effectively restricting him within the castle walls as the snow drifts smothered the mountain roads for weeks at a time. Then would he-in keeping with our pact-impart to me detailed instruction in the Art. I was glad to have had the wisdom to persuade him to abide by the sacred custom of host and guest else things might have gone badly for me. In a very short while I came to see his magical skills were vastly superior to mine. Without our agreement I would have come to a swift end, for he was of a type to be bold enough to take advantage of a convenient opportunity. The rule of Barovia-and my subsequent removal as a threat-must have certainly tempted him.

Beyond that, though, he was an excellent teacher and I became his apt student. Once past personal animosities and entrenched in the intricacies of the Art he was a transformed personality. There we found common ground based on a fascination for the successful weaving of spells. My self-taught ways had barely been adequate to the task, now did I begin to truly fulfill my potential. After a few months under his tutelage I tripled my learning, taking myself to new heights I hadn't dreamed myself capable of reaching before.

All my waking time I devoted to the practice and perfection of what he imparted, discovering as I mastered each new casting that my proficiency over the spells I already knew increased by that much more in effectiveness and surety. So far did I pursue my knowledge that more and more I delved into the realms of devising and developing new magicks. They were often based on the spells learned from him, but carrying them a few steps beyond what he gave me. He was not adverse to this and watched my work closely, but was strangely reluctant to experiment as well, even with those that he designed himself. He would pass the experiment to me to run for him.

"Why not test it yourself?" I once asked when he gave me a sheet of fine vellum, the new spell he had composed inscribed on it in gold lettering. I was to follow its instruction and see if it succeeded.

"Is it too complicated for you to learn?" he snapped back.

"Hardly, but I have never heard of any master of the Art who was so willing to give his work to another to try."

In all the dissertations in the treatises I'd read and according to the few people I'd spoken with on the subject, such deference was comparable to having someone substitute for you on your wedding night. Most spell-casters are bluntly penurious about sharing their secrets with any but their chosen apprentices and even then are careful over how much they are willing to bestow when it comes to new castings, but Azalin seemed unconcerned with such restraints.

"I am busy enough with other projects," he said. "I have taken it this far, now it is your turn to convey it to completion or to failure. Execute the spell and then report to me the results, but until then bother me not with your idle questions."

Indeed, he was extremely busy laying the groundwork for our escape, so I pushed my puzzlement and annoyance aside for the moment. After all, I too had better ways to spend my nights than to ponder all his eccentricities. As long as his peculiarities did not seem to be a threat to our balance of power I was content to hold my questions for a more propitious occasion, though more often than not I simply forgot to raise them again.

When not instructing me he spent nearly all of his time in the library poring over my books. I was uncomfortable about it, but it was necessary and one sure way of keeping an eye on him and discovering his areas of interest. I couldn't help feeling I was arming him with knowledge he could use against me, but at this point I was the only one who knew of the possibility of a future conflict. He, as yet, did not. I hardly need mention that no hint of this ever came to his ears from my lips, and I could trust the Vistani to keep quiet about it.

Over the dark winter months I studied Azalin as he studied the books. Certainly he must have returned the favor, for he was very interested in the history of Barovia and my place within it. When he wasn't in one of his superior moods, he would ply me with questions about this point or that, always the ones not covered in the official history of Barovia, which I filled in as best as memory would allow. He was particularly interested in the blood-letting ceremony I'd performed to take possession of Castle Ravenloft along with the rest of the country.

"It is a very ancient custom," I told him in response to a question he put to me on the subject one especially chill evening.

Though unable to feel the cold, I had a great blaze going in the library fireplace to take the damp from the air, as well as add to the lighting of the chamber. We worked on opposite sides of my vast study table on the preparation of a future magical experiment. Each of us had pen, ink, and parchment at hand to make notes, and between us lay a formidable collection of bottles and jars containing an assortment of rare ingredients necessary to the spell Azalin had in mind to try.

Outside an utterly freezing wind blew steadily and strongly through the towers and battlements of the castle. I was thankful not to have to be abroad on wing or afoot in search of food, having supped in the dungeons already. Azalin was not given to any form of socializing or making idle questions for the sake of conversation, so I assumed he had some hidden purpose of his own in trying to draw me out on this and cautiously played along.

"The ritual has been modified and gentled over the centuries," I continued. "In the dim times before history was properly recorded the ceremony was said to be a much more… strenuous… observance."

"Most things were," he observed. "Our progenitors often went to great lengths to portray themselves as being an improvement over the previous order."

"That is the way of things, but only if they were vain enough to bother."

"Not so much vanity as an easier means of placating the rabble. If the new ruler is viewed as being better than what came before, then maintaining control over them is one less concern for him to deal with."

"Particularly if it's the truth. Was that the case with your own rule?"

"Mine was-is-a hereditary office, but it was true. I was looked on as a savior to the land-indeed, as an extension of the land itself. I brought order and the word of my law to the chaos I found, winning the favorable acclaim of everyone there."

"Not everyone if you were forced to flee into the Mists."

I absolutely could not resist throwing that imaginary gauntlet on the floor between us. He'd told me very little about the exact circumstances that compelled him to blindly run into the Mists seeking refuge and finding entrapment, but I knew enough to be able to prod him about it-and perhaps by his reaction learn more. That he was unpopular with at least some portion of his people I had no doubt; his personality was not such as to inspire unconditional love and loyalty even from the most simple-minded of traditionalists.

"Those traitors were an aberration," he said, all righteous disdain.

"Yet their numbers must have been great for them to dare to challenge you."

"Numbers are no match for sheer foolishness of intent. The greater the fools the greater their delusion they could truly harm me. Had I but a few more moments of time to plan a course of action, things would have gone quite differently for me. In order to gain that time I had to seek concealment in the Mists… and you know the rest."

"One's enemies are rarely accommodating to one's needs. Had they been planning this assault against you for long?"

Before answering he took time to write something onto his top sheet of parchment. "They did not precisely confide to me the workings of their plans."

"You must have had some hint. Usurping a throne, no matter how minor, is not a light task."

"I didn't rule some petty principality," he snarled. He gave a slight lift to his chin, a sneer curling the edge of his mouth, and if I read the meaning aright the implication was that Barovia was just such a place.

I held my face in a blandly amused expression, which seemed to annoy him. Barovia might be small compared to what he had left behind, but at the moment it was the only place around, which made it the center of all existence for us both.

"If any hint of their intent had come to me earlier, I would have dealt with it then," he added, but there was a defensive tone-albeit a highly suppressed one-in his harsh voice. I had, it seemed, stung a tender spot.

"No doubt," I said. "Happily such problems don't plague me here. I can count on the loyalty of my subjects."

"Even the ones in your dungeons?"

"They forsook any privilege of my protection when they broke my law, but their crimes have to do with murder and thievery and the like, not treason. Treason is not unknown here, but it's very rare. I haven't seen a case of it in some two hundred years."

"Then you are a most fortunate ruler, that, or your people have no spirit to them."

To this blatant insult I simply smiled-or rather showed my teeth. "They have spirit enough, their blood is hearty with the very life of the land beneath them."

"And if my reading on the subject is correct, then you are yourself part of the land?"

"What do you mean?"

"The possession ceremony?" he prompted. "Does it mean they feed as much from you as you do from them?"

"Only in a philosophical sense, and I have no desire to put much effort into such musings. The ceremony was for the sake of symbol only. The meaning is to indicate that by binding my blood to the land, I willingly defend it from all invaders."

"Yes, I have seen how you have dealt with past intruders. I suppose I should count myself fortunate you did not attempt the same policy with me." Emphasis on the word "attempt." Hardly subtle of him.

"Those others were the same as the filth in my dungeons, deserving of their fate."

"But I was an exception."

"Because you chose not to violate my laws and wisely sought my protection."

Here followed a long silence on his part. I glanced up at him from tipping some spider dust into a small measuring spoon. Azalin's face was quite unreadable, yet the impression I got had to do with strongly repressed anger. The only obvious sign of his inner agitation was the way his gloved fingers clenched a bottle full of rat's blood as though to break it. With me suddenly looking on he immediately relaxed his grip and kept quite still, but he could not hide the searing fire in his red glazed eyes. Another tender spot stung.

I pretended not to notice, though it was a solid confirmation to me of something I'd long surmised, based upon how my own reaction would be were our positions reversed. I was thankful that they were not, for he would not have been so kind a host to me.

"But you were asking me about the origins of the ceremony were you not?" He made no reply. I continued. "That in which I engaged was much more restrained than past efforts, if one is to believe the early historians and earlier legends. In very ancient times a new ruler was expected to provide a much greater blood sacrifice to mark the occasion."

"Such as?" he asked after a moment, having apparently mastered himself.

"Oh, animals large and small, anything from birds to bullocks; the number varied, it all varied according to the specific culture involved or the whim of the ascending monarch. I suppose it made it convenient to the cooks, providing them with the necessary supplies of meat for a celebratory feast afterwards."

"So long as the animal in question was edible. How did human bloodletting come into it?"

"Of that I have no knowledge, but again it depended on the culture involved. Some forms were no more than that: form, involving only a symbolic sacrifice and some play-acting. Others were much more graphic, requiring the actual taking of a life."

"Not the life of the ruler."

"Sometimes that was done."

"You jest!" Anger of a different sort from him now, and for once not aimed at me. Refreshing, that.

"It was understandably uncommon, but not unheard of. If the priests of that ruler's faith were up to the task, then they would be able to resuscitate the corpse soon after. If life was restored, then it was seen as a sign from the gods that the right person was on the throne."

His hands were steady as he poured dried beetles into a large mortar and began grinding them into dust with a pestle, but there was an abstracted air about him. It would have been interesting to find out what he was really thinking about beyond the needs of his work.

"Foolishness," he finally grunted.

"One may assume that those whose faith was somewhat questionable were careful to either make sure the priests were wholly loyal, or willing to do some pretending themselves by faking the ceremony. It was from this I rather suspect the custom grew of turning it into an act rather a genuine sacrifice."

"I would have abolished such mummery altogether."

"For you are accustomed to more enlightened behavior. Others' ancestors were often raised in a brutal world and had to abide by its brutal decrees."

"Which may be changed if one is strong enough to the task."

"Not without difficulty. The broad fact is that the bulk of the population of any one country is likely to be undereducated in anything new, therefore they cling most determinedly to the little they do know, for the unfamiliar is a threat, and the familiar-no matter how absurd we may see it to be-is their greatest comfort."

"To bow before the pressure of the ignorant is weakness."

"Not bow, employ it to one's own ends. Hence my willingness to proceed with the ceremony when I took up my rule. It was a trivial thing to me after all. A moment's stinging from the knife cut, the reciting of a few words, then a healer to knit the skin together again. But the impact of this upon the common folk was all important. To them it meant I was bound to the land as their protector for all of my life."

"But would you have been willing to sacrifice your life for the sake of possessing the land as they did of old, trusting the priests to bring you back?"

"Of course I'd have done so." Back then I would have. Now that ploy might be more difficult to carry out.

He seemed mightily surprised. "You would have been mad then!"

"Hardly. I was on the battlefield each day and subject to the same peril of sudden death as any in my army. At any time I could have been killed in the struggle to obtain the rule of Barovia, and perhaps the priests could not have brought me back-but that threat did not deter me from my goal. I would have done no less in facing the feeble requirements of political protocol."

"Your determination must have been very great."

"It still is. The land is mine." I thought he might want to debate that point, but he eschewed the opening for a slight turning in the topic.

"So though much mitigated from past barbarities of custom the cutting of your wrist and letting the blood flow onto the earth was a powerful symbol."

"Indeed, or else it would not be part of the ritual." My court at that time had been very concerned with such trivialities. Now nearly all of it was forgotten.

"Symbol is the very heart of spell work," he continued, now as if instructing a slow student, and stating that which was as familiar to me as my own skin. "Had you been casting a spell at the time it would have effectively bound you to the land."

"I was bound already by word and deed; no magic was necessary. It was but a formality, something to give work to the scribes."

"There is more to it than that. In all your time here you must surely have noticed how the weather reacts to your state of mind."

I dismissed the idea with a wave. "Mere coincidence. I rather think it is the other way around, the same as for most people."

In actuality, he did have a point. I'd long noticed how the weather often reflected my strongest emotions with storms, clear skies, or biting winds. The Mists, of course, were quite something else again. Perhaps I could have admitted to it, but I had good reason to always lead him into underestimating me.

"What about this second ceremony, though?" he asked.

"Second ceremony?"

"The one performed with the Ba'al Verzi knife."

"Where did you read of that?" That incident was not in the official record. I pretended to search the table for something, hoping my reaction was casual.

"I found it in the appendices of two different histories. One was a mere reference; the other had a more detailed account of how you foiled an assassination plot against you, but not before being wounded by the culprit's knife, then repeating the ritual words as you bled."

"He wounded me slightly with only a scratch along my ribs." Damned historians, they never do get things right.

"And the repeating of the words?"

That had been my antic humor getting the better of me. The witnesses to what had happened in the castle garden had been so wide of eye and in awe that I had given in to temptation and shocked them even more.

"What happened?" he pressed.

"I took possession of the knife-no others were willing to touch it. A moment later I cut myself on the hand by accident, forgetting how sharp the blade was."

"By accident? I do not believe in them, not when it comes to magic."

"Believe as you like." I was growing irritated at the direction he was taking.

"But it was a magical knife, and you spoke the ritual words. Perhaps far back in the darks of time they were truly magical in origin-"

"I did, and I see where you wish to go with this and concede the possibility of a connection. I think it most unlikely, though. Why should it even interest you?"

"Because if your tie to the land is too strong, then you may never be able to escape Barovia."

I met this statement with a long silence and a stony face. What is his game? was my first thought. Was he trying to prepare me for a future failure in this proposed escape? If he broke free of this plane and left me behind… I would not be able to do a damned thing to stop him. Not unless I watched him much more closely than I was already.

"Of course, there may be ways around such a tie," he added.

"If it exists."

"I have no doubt that it does. I'm thinking that if you have any valedictory ritual that we can employ, it might serve to negate the tie you established at the time, freeing you to escape."

I had a mental picture of him holding out a carrot with his right hand, and the instant I took it I would then discover the stunning effect of the stick hidden in his left. Such a ritual as he conjectured existed, but to initiate it was not a light matter.

As though hearing my very thoughts he went on. "In fact, a severance might be absolutely necessary for our success."

And weaken my hold on the land. All those questions about the country and its history made great sense if they were part of his first step toward supplanting me. But even if he had no ambition to take my place… how could I truly sever myself from Barovia? I longed to leave it and be free, but not forever. Tatyana was here. I could never abandon her, and should I perform such a separation ceremony it might also end any hope of my finding her again.

"I shall investigate the idea," I said, trying to sound indifferent. And I would, exhaustively, before making so irrevocable a decision.

"Excellent." He sounded most pleased with himself, which did nothing to negate my distrust of him.

"But I promise nothing."

He made a slight gesture of dismissal as though to belie the importance of the subject. "Now about this other incident concerning your brother and his bride-"

"A family tragedy that I would prefer not to go into," I said shortly, growing tired of his delving.

His gaunt face gave away nothing, but his mouth did twitch. He knew he had finally stung me in turn.

He repeated the dismissive gesture. "Perhaps another time, then. The night is passing and we should be at work."

So saying, he focused himself upon the task before him, blending diverse items together and noting down the details. The smugness fairly dripped from him. Yes, he'd gotten to me, but anything to do with Tatyana was none of his damned business.

He was just as closed-mouthed about his personal past, though ever eager to recount his endless magical exploits and triumphs, sometimes in exhaustive detail. He claimed to have destroyed many less knowledgeable mages, defending his actions by saying it was their own fault. They lacked his experience and talent, but were full of self-delusion about their powers, attempting to challenge him when they should have known better than to try. I took this as a not too terribly subtle warning to take care not to repeat their mistake.

He had nothing to worry about on that account, for I would not be so foolish as to attempt an open attack against him, being wise enough to seek other means should they become necessary.

He could be quite the bore about his adventures unless I could sidetrack him into topics more to my liking. Perhaps he lacked social skills, but he could also discuss magical theory for hours, which I had to admit I enjoyed greatly. Though insufferably conceited he did know his Art. I learned much from him. The work was anything but easy, but I kept at it. With a war looming I would need formidable defenses to survive.

Gradually, under the terms of our agreement, he taught me many of the spells he knew. Like my sharing of the library, it was a necessary evil, since the process of the research and work ahead required we have an equality of knowledge. Though snappish and overbearing, he was fairly cooperative at parting with his secrets (those he chose to share), all of which I carefully recorded away in my own spell books. We both came to think-even take for granted-his sojourn in Barovia was but a temporary inconvenience, and he would be gone to distant lands soon enough, so it seemed safe for the time being.

In regard to the exchange of information I did wonder about his own studies. Though he was always at my books, like the new spells he developed, he showed little interest in trying the spells contained in them-at least while I was awake. Perhaps he wasn't far enough along in his training to master them yet, but that was most unlikely in light of the complicated ones I learned from him. His fluency in the language of spell work was profound, so there was some other reason why he abstained from adding to his store, for most practitioners are positively greedy about adding to their repertoire.

Again I held back from directly asking him about this apparent eccentricity, though I wanted to know. Something, some instinct, always kept the question unspoken on my lips. At worst all he could really do was refuse to answer, but then I'd want to know the why of that refusal and so on. The time would eventually come, though, when I would ask and he would have to respond or lose face-in his case a most serious matter. His pride was vast.

My questions to him about the land "Oerth" from which he had come were legion, and those I had no trouble putting to him, nor was he stingy with answers. Setting aside his contempt for the people he'd ruled along with other slanted judgments, it sounded very similar to the world I'd known before the Mists had come to Barovia, though his native language was so remarkably different as to convince us both that they were from entirely different planes of existence. However, separate as they were, both lay somewhere beyond the Mists, all we had to do was create a passage back to one and surely the other could be reached using similar means.

If I could trust him.

If we could trust each other.

Once away from Barovia and the restrictions of our pact, it would be every mage for himself and me more than most. In his position I would take the common sense approach of killing me just to prevent me from being a future threat. Barring that, one finds a foolproof way of controlling an enemy to keep him out of mischief.

When you know a man's weakness you can better dominate him. I had to acknowledge that I possessed many of those: being dormant during the day the chief amongst my physical limitations. I also had to admit that my love for Tatyana was a major weakness, hence my reluctance to inform Azalin of the full story concerning her. Knowledge is power and this was one fragment I wanted to keep from him for as long as possible lest he find a way of using it against me.

But to turn the tables I found that he did not seem to suffer from normal, mortal vices. While I was awake I never once saw him eat or drink, never heard him express interest in carnal joys, or even take a moment's pleasure in music or the savage beauty of a starlit sky. He was wholly consumed by his work, and I had to admit his powers of concentration were formidable when the mood was upon him.

Again I never heard the beat of his heart, and he reserved breathing for the purposes of speech only. Although I soon grew used to it, the chill he exuded was always with him, along with the occasional scent of death. The latter was only in evidence during those times when his attention was focused on some serious study. Other than that, the illusion he cast so tightly about his true form never wavered.

He was not human-at least not anymore-of that I was sure, but since he was so adamant about preserving the outer trappings of his human appearance I assumed he had a strong reason for doing so. Something he'd said during our first meeting gave me to think it was a physical disfigurement. I continued to refrain from questioning him directly on the point. An unwise omission? I thought not, sensing that it would have been more foolish to inquire; though the desire to do so sometimes lightly nagged at me, I decided to keep silent. Sooner or later, I sensed the answer would eventually come, either from him when he was ready to speak of it or from my own researches. For now it was a mere detail and did not seem to be of any real importance to me.

One point did stand out: he had a remarkable affinity for controlling the dead. Upon first entering the castle gates he immediately observed my skeletal guards on perpetual watch. Usually even the hardiest visitors are always vulnerable to a moment of revulsion and fear, but Azalin merely inspected them up close and asked about the animation spells I'd used.

He called them "zombies," yet another unfamiliar word to me, and was able to order them about as easily as I did. He was careful to restrict them to small harmless tasks of fetching and carrying, nothing more. This might have disturbed me but for the fact that the whole basis of the magic governing them had to do with protecting their maker. Even Azalin would not be able to turn them against me; they'd turn on each other before that happened, so I felt moderately safe.

It was an interesting oddity, like the gloves he constantly wore. Those were real, not illusion like the rest of his garments, for they became soiled with use while his always rich clothing remained clean and unworn. When his gloves were off, which was rare, his movements were more careful and slower, otherwise he tended to drop things. When that happened it never failed to put him into a foul mood.

His idiosyncrasies were piling up in my mind and they began to gnaw at me. The many clues must mean something important, but for all my musings I hadn't yet made the right connection between them. I could have gotten impatient about it, but let it rest for the time being. When it was ready my inner mind would hand me the right answer.

Since he never seemed to sleep he had much more time available than I, always keeping busy with the preparations for his experimental area, or laboratory. He needed a lot of specialized equipment and most of it had to be built from scratch. The craft guilds had an unexpected improvement in business during the winter months, sending workers up the Svalich road to the village of Barovia to ply their trade when the weather allowed. Some of them were required to stay at the castle, so exacting was the labor which Azalin demanded from them.

He had the glass blowers at their task nearly all the time, often personally overseeing their work as they turned his unfamiliar designs on paper into reality. Each finished piece was carefully checked; the least flaw and he would send it flying. The breakage did not bother me; I was content to be silent and observe the workings of his temper. From this I learned that he did not lead people so much as drive them.

Having some familiarity with the workings of shepherds and their flocks, it struck me as a poor way of dealing with his servants. A shepherd may drive his sheep before him, but given the chance they will panic and scatter in a dozen directions unless his herding dogs keep them together. From this I thought he might have ruled his own land in a similar manner, issuing orders and trusting his human dogs to carry them out.

He had none here, so it was quite educational to see how he dealt with straying sheep.

One young fellow in particular caught the brunt of his temper more often than the others. He really shouldn't have been apprenticed to the guild in the first place since he obviously had little talent for the craft. None of the senior journeymen trusted him with any of the truly delicate work and certainly not the masters, but the man was pathetically anxious to please, and contrariwise, he was the most ill-equipped to do so.

One evening Azalin finally lost all patience with him and lashed out, sending him tumbling across the snow patched courtyard, screaming. It must have been the spell I had encountered on that first night; if so, then he had every reason to scream if he felt the impact of a thousand fiery needles lodging in his fragile flesh. He rolled and shrieked, thrashing and slapping himself.

The other workers halted, aghast and helpless at the sight of their comrade enveloped head-to-toe with miniature lightning bolts. I happened to be on the walkway overlooking the courtyard when I heard the row. Instinctively I threw out a negating spell, interrupting the flow of force between the man and Azalin. The backwash of his own power caught him by complete surprise; it spun back upon him like a tide of fire and sent him staggering. He recovered very swiftly and whirled to glare up at the source of the interference.

"You dare!" he snarled, eyes glowing like the windows of hell. No need to ask if he was furious, it was obvious in every line of his illusionary body.

A bad moment for us both to be seen arguing before the hired help. Normally I cared nothing for their good opinion of me, but with the threat of a future war I thought it best to reinforce the idea that I was still their lord and protector. Like the Vistani, they were better off with me than this outland Necromancer, and it would not hurt for them to remember that fact. If a war came I would need willing fighters, not reluctant conscripts.

"If you are having a problem with labor relations," I called down to Azalin in my blandest tone, "I think it would be best if you brought it first to my attention and let me sort it out. Your work is far too important for you to have to deal with such minor concerns."

He was clever enough to see I was apparently trying to be diplomatic and allow him to save face. He scowled mightily, but finally nodded and swept from the courtyard. The other workers rushed over to see to their fallen friend, who was sluggishly beginning to move again.

"Guildmaster!"

One of the older men looked up at me, his face very pale. "Yes, my lord?"

"Do you see any future for that one in your craft?"

"H-he just needs a bit of experience. Th-there's no harm in the-"

"The truth, guildmaster," I grated.

He dropped his gaze in shame and fear. "No, my lord."

"Here, then," I tossed a few gold coins down. "Consider his apprenticeship paid up and help him find something honest for which he does have a talent. The only thing worse than an idle worker is one who is incompetent."

The astonished guildmaster readily accepted my offer and took my suggestion to heart. Very wise of him. He and his guild also later took their tale to the nearest tavern. As I'd hoped, the story of the incident spread and grew out of proportion to what had actually happened. By the time the common folk had finished with it, they had me bodily throwing myself between a humble, inoffensive peasant and a terrible sorcerer. According to the growing myth, I took the blazing force of his evil spell myself and nobly suffered for it. Fortunately I was strong enough to shrug it off, then soundly thrash the mage to teach him to mind his manners. He then had to apologize to the peasant and begged him to accept a chest of gold in amends for his rudeness.

Quite gratifying, that. However fictional and absurd, I was glad of this boon to my popular image with the common folk; of course, only the most foolish of my subjects actually believed the story, but the fact that it was being told and becoming part of the local lore was something of a victory for me, and all before the start of the conflict. If anything happened, I wanted them firmly on my part of the field.

They were simple enough to manipulate with Azalin's unknowing help, for he apparently had but one way of handling people: terrify them to near-immobility-not the best course to take when you want them to do something right the first time. Consequently he endured a lot of unnecessary frustration. A more genteel mediator-myself-was often required just to get the work done. Again, a help to my cause.

When Azalin wasn't breathing-figuratively speaking of course-down their necks, the guilds accomplished their jobs well enough. In comparison I was an easier taskmaster, but they knew I had no tolerance for shirkers-or fraud as a few unlucky souls discovered. One would think they would know better, but occasionally some fool would either cheat on his work or have the temerity to attempt to cheat me. It was usually something small and subtle, such as the man who charged the price of a hundred bricks and delivered only seventy-five. Such things did not escape my exchequer officers who were responsible for arrests. On those occasions I took it upon myself to determine absolute guilt or innocence, an easy task with hypnosis. For me it was the same as any other thievery and the transgressor became intimately acquainted with the brickwork of my dungeons-for the brief period he survived, anyway.

Stories about this were also mainstays of the taverns, but one cannot always direct everything to one's advantage.

***

543 Barovian Calendar

By the time the spring thaw was well advanced, the manor house was ready for Azalin. It was a relief to us both. With each passing week the castle seemed to get smaller for us, particularly the laboratory. I had many experiments in progress, testing and practicing the spells I'd learned, and his own work vied for space with my own. On one memorable night the magical energies became too intense to be contained when his concentration wavered in a casting. A tendril of the power lashed out, noisily connected and combined with my work, and when the smoke dispersed I discovered a man-sized hole in the wall. The stone work hadn't been destroyed so much as melted. Neither of us had been too terribly pleased over that incident.

The job of moving him out was larger than I'd anticipated. For someone who had arrived with just the clothes on his back he'd accumulated an astonishing amount of equipment in the relatively short space of a few months, much of it very fragile. Safe overland shipping of the glass work was possible, but we both elected to magically transfer it to the house. My barrier wall only functioned in one direction to keep things from entering, so it was no problem to me to get things out.

The job fell to me to do all the translocation work, giving me the idea that this was yet another spell Azalin did not know and wasn't going to bother learning. The impression which he continued to give was that he was too busy, which was nonsense to me. When the fever to know is inside you, nothing prevents you from seeking and learning more. That same fever possessed Azalin, but he never seemed to give in to it.

Once more was I tempted to ask the why behind his eschewment of new spells, but I was in a hurry to convey him from the castle and the summer nights were short. I had to save my energies for the transferrals, not waste them plying him with questions he was obviously too occupied to address. Later, I promised myself. When the time was right… later.

The process took longer than expected, for I had to rest between each casting, but eventually the last of it was out of Castle Ravenloft, including Azalin himself. As a courtesy-and to get him out faster-I saved him the long trip by land around the mountain and sent him along with the final shipment. With his permission, of course.

The instant he was gone I hurriedly took myself off the premises and set into motion a series of detection and cleansing spells I'd stored away just for this moment. They spun and hurled through every crack and corner of Castle Ravenloft, their purpose to find any hidden magical traps Azalin might have devised. During one of his interminable stories he mentioned doing that to an enemy once, and there was no reason to think he wouldn't repeat the ploy.

As his style of magic was different from mine I'd designed the spells to react specifically to it. I was surprised, perhaps even a little disappointed, when nothing turned up. I thought he would at least have some sort of scrying contrivance in place, but then he would anticipate that I would be looking for problems. He wouldn't be so foolish as to leave anything obvious lying about. It would have to be the hard way, then, requiring me to go over the entire castle inch by inch to make sure it was clean and secure.

In the meanwhile, until I was satisfied that all was safe, I would take my daytime rest not in my crypt beneath the castle as usual, but in a small cave I'd carved into an inaccessible crevice on the wind-blasted north face of Mount Ghakis. The wards and traps I'd placed there were the equal of those around my crypt, but with the added advantage that Azalin had never been near it. Not even the mountain goats went that high up. I could only reach it myself in bat or mist form. Perhaps he knew about it, for I suspected he had some kind of Sight magic which he had not deigned to share, but with the protections I had in place he would be hard-pressed to take effective action against me without being there in person. Somehow the picture of him in mountain climbing gear precariously dangling from a rope, his illusionary robes flapping up around his ears in the wind while trying to cast a spell, wasn't one I thought I would ever witness in reality.

After a week of thorough searching I decided the grounds, castle, and even the spiky outcrop of the mountain it stood upon were safe and clear and moved back in. I also reinforced the area against intrusion, casting fresh new spells over the old and making sure my servitors were completely unpoisoned by Azalin's influence.

Throughout all this I kept an eye on the manor house by means of the crystal ball Ilka had given to me, being careful not to bring myself too close to Azalin's immediate presence. More than once he started and looked around, causing me to retreat. When not dodging him, I was able to get a good view of the progress he made with his laboratory.

Impressive was the best word to describe it. The ranks of glass works, when properly lodged in their carved wooden holders along the curving walls of the tower made sense to me now. When filled with certain fluids and linked by a mile or so of twisted copper wire he had ordered from the mines of Immol, they would amplify the energies we would summon. The round shape of the structure would confine the power into a concentrated form large enough for us to walk into. The problem with working in my own laboratory, he said, was the opening created would be far too small to use, no more than a hand span. Not a hardship for me, since I could slip through in the form of a bat, but I kept that snippet of news to myself, knowing it would only annoy him. There were other ways of doing that.

When they'd done all they could do, he dismissed the few remaining workers and finished the final setting up himself-not that he deigned to shift anything or so much as hold a paintbrush in his gloved hands. He employed spell work. Furnishings darted about the rooms like birds as he directed them to their designated places. By merely pointing his finger he traced sigils in silver fire along every square foot of wall space in the laboratory, each sign meant to amplify and focus the power we would raise. When illuminated by candles or magical light they shimmered, sending bright reflections into every comer of the room.

When it was done the place was indeed impressive, and I held a certain amount of envy for it. When once he was gone I planned to take it over. Though I hoped to be gone as well, I did not intend to leave permanently. My main hope and desire was not to abandon Barovia altogether, but reunite it with the plane from which it had become separated. The arrival of Azalin had brought home the hard fact that Barovia was yet very provincial and further progress on many levels of development was all but stagnated by its utter isolation. Locked away in this pocket of the Mists it might die for want of external stimulus and trade. And if Barovia died, then how long would I be able to linger, futilely trying to feed upon its rotting corpse?

***

From Azalin's private commentary notebooks, contd.

Free at last, at least of the frustrating, stultifying atmosphere of Castle Ravenloft. It has been nearly a year since my arrival and long past time for me to leave it and Barovia behind.

I had initially considered taking over the land from Von Zarovich, but only, only on condition that it could somehow be shifted from this small pocket of a plane to the larger one where I originated. To trade my rule there for rule here would be demeaning for one of my capabilities. One would as soon ask a hawk to trade the free flight of his hunting range for the mastership of a cage. To make an annexation of that cage into the hawk's larger territory is quite something else again.

Toward that end I have tried to secretly establish some form of regular contact with members of the Barovian nobility, beginning with Baron Latos, who seemed most obligingly tractable to my influence. This proved to be a waste of time. Von Zarovich, I discovered, had already imparted strict instructions against anyone contacting me, and as is in my own land, his word is law in Barovia-the whole of the law that no one dares to violate lest they end in his infamous dungeons. While I can agree with the reasoning behind this policy, it has proved damnably inconvenient to my purposes.

His nobles fear him, and their fear could be something I might be able to turn to my advantage but for the fact they fear me even more. I know not exactly what he said to them, but they avoid me whenever possible and it's left an immutable impression that even I would be reluctant to try changing as it would be ail too obvious to Strahd. I could do it, but forcing them all, one by one, to rally to my banner would consume much time, and Von Zarovich would notice and stop things long before I could make any significant progress.

Far better that I focus on the primary work toward an escape, then worry later about how to take over his office if it is still something I wish to pursue. The best way to do that-when the time comes-is to simply assassinate him. He has the nobility so firmly under his hand that they wouldn't know what to do with themselves without him. A strong leader stepping into his place would likely be well received, so far as I can determine. None here have the courage to even think of challenging his authority.

As an alternative I have thought of using the peasantry, but they too have little inclination to change. They have a vast distrust of strangers, and it is widely known by now that I am from outside of Barovia. Like the nobles, they fear me, so the only power in their numbers would seem to be that of complete inertia. Von Zarovich has also taken it upon himself to circulate wild stories about me meant to increase their uneasiness. It would seem that where I am concerned he is loath to allow me even the most unlikely of openings. Perhaps, should the occasion demand, I might find a use for a single, easily led individual within their ranks. Much more simple than trying to convert an unwilling-and unskilled-army to do my bidding. For that I can just re-animate a few thousand corpses. Barovia certainly has no lack of these, thanks to the lord of this miserable land.

As for his precious Vistani, I've had no contact with them whatsoever, though I am often aware of their close presence watching me. I've since amended my opinion that he fears them. When conversation touches upon them, he seems to see himself as a condescending patron rather than the Vistani as manipulated pawns. However, I suspect that both qualities are in operation at once in their interactions together. It hardly matters to me, since it is not likely I can make allies of them to oppose him. Should things come to a conflict I shall just have to count them as being with the enemy and deal with them as such.

Von Zarovich knows nothing of these musings, or if he does, then he is better at bluffing and lying than is humanly or inhumanly possible. I have observed him in every phase of mood and know that I would recognize any false note he might care to strike with me. When it comes to it, he isn't that much different from the rabble he rules, much as he would like to think otherwise. It only takes a bit more effort on my part to keep my deceptions in place, but he can be fooled and misled the same as the rest.

Though rife with weaknesses he would nonetheless make a formidable opponent should we have a falling out. Our agreement still holds and must continue as such until I can effect my escape.

So far the spell I cast to prevent him from seeing beneath my outer illusion appears to be working. Often when we're busy at certain types of new spell work a puzzled expression passes across his face, and I can almost hear the slow grinding of his thoughts as the questions come to him. He tries to hide it, doubtless wishing to conceal this vulnerability from me. Many times I have observed him drawing breath to voice a query, but never has he actually been able to bring himself to make it thanks to the spell's influence. I am almost moved to laughter for his futile strivings to put the facts together, but I sensibly maintain self-control.

I should not underestimate him, for his grasp of magic is dangerously quick and firm. Over the last few months he has all but soaked in every scrap of knowledge I have been willing to share. I have kept some things from him, lest he outstrip me in those areas, but his progress, compared to my own training in the Art, has been terrifyingly fast. In this short space of time he has learned and mastered what took me many, many decades to perfect.

How he enjoys to lord it over me, too. He is very aware of his genius and is often insufferable, always finding petty amusement for himself by trying to pick away at me. In Oerth, some rulers actually paid for this to be done to them by having a foppishly dressed fool in their court. I never bothered with such idleness, but I am forced to endure it now-was forced to endure it. Since I am now in my own house, I shan't have to suffer his company as often as before.

I must always remember that no spell seems too complicated for him, and his development and command over them is truly astonishing. This is a decided threat and my only way to guard against him turning the skills I have imparted back upon me is to always conduct myself as still being his superior in the Art. So long as he thinks he can learn more from me, then he'll not be too inclined to make a nuisance of himself. In truth I am still more skilled and powerful, yet I keenly feel the disadvantage of not being able to take in new spells. He has no such limits, having become accomplished at the design and invention of new castings and the boldness to put them to use.

Perhaps it was a mistake to teach him so much, but for an escape to be successful we both must have an equal sharing of knowledge in certain areas, so it could not be helped. I have taken steps to build certain protections into the structure to prevent him from spying on me without my knowledge, though. I am certain he has some sort of scrying spell or device and have often felt his presence peering over my shoulder. He does not peer too closely, I think, for fear that I would discover his game. Too late for that. He is found out, but I let him continue for now. Knowing in what he is interested will help me to defend against him in the future should it be necessary.

I can now find little fault in the manor house. My initial complaints I weeded out during its reconstruction. It is small compared to what I was used to in Oerth, but will serve well enough here. The laboratory is what is most important about the place and despite the primitive conditions here it is the equal of any I have used in the past. The only complaint I can make is the length of time it took to construct it in the first place. The limits of Barovia's resources, skilled workers, the miserable weather-all seemed to conspire to keep me trapped in Castle Ravenloft throughout the whole of the winter. Von Zarovich was also too soft on his workers; whenever I endeavored to press them to greater speed and productivity he would undermine what little authority I had over them. This would never have happened had I been in complete charge of the project. I would have had them at labor day and night and damn the weather and weariness; the undertaking would have been finished in a quarter of the time.

Though it was a struggle I held back my temper, partly because of our agreement and partly because I still need Von Zarovich to cast the spells which I cannot learn. But I did not squander the extra time, and used it to enrich my mind by plundering his library. It is amazing to me that he's been able to amass such a quantity of books given his situation. They also serve as another reason to annex Barovia into my rule once I have returned to my own land. I should not care to leave behind so excellent a collection to molder to nothing once their owner is no more.

End of excerpt.

***

543 Barovian Calendar, Barovia

Mid-summer arrived again and Azalin announced that he was finally ready to execute his escape spell.

He had been busy for months with the preparations. These last stages were quite complicated and so extended my magical abilities in certain areas that with constant practice what had once been difficult now became second nature to me. It was a different style of spell work than what I had grown used to, requiring new mental disciplines and a great deal of stamina. Had I been an ordinary man the drills alone would have exhausted me to the point of collapse. The local peasantry bore the brunt of my proportionate increase in hunger since my dungeon supplies were rather thin just then. I'd been so busy with the project that neglecting my duties of keeping the law had become the norm.

As for Azalin, his work had taken an experimental turn, combining my travel spell-the one I had used to deliver him to the house from the castle-with a summoning one in his store. I say experimental because the mixing of spells is a dangerous practice. The least glimmer of incompatibility could be disastrous-such as that incident with the hole melted through the rock wall-and I would be the one in the line of fire. Though he was a master of such a difficult Art, it would be up to me to actually execute. Again he did not learn the spell himself, but insisted that I be the one to cast it.

"The timing is delicate; this task should be yours," I said as he made a last check of the wiring and fluid levels in the glass containers.

"I shall be occupied holding and sustaining the energies."

"I can do that just as well, more easily."

"Is the work too much for you, then?"

"Not at all, but I am thinking that it is rather too much for you." I was very curious why he hadn't bothered to school himself in the new conjuration as it would have been safer for each of us to be fluent with it.

He continued as though he had not heard me.

"You have no answer for that?"

"For what?" he snapped. "If you want to have another theoretical discussion I shall be pleased to accommodate you, but not just now. The solstice takes place in less than an hour and I have no time to waste. You should be preparing yourself for the effort as well."

"I am as prepared as I shall ever be."

"Then leave me to the tasks I have left to do."

Thus did he continue to not give an answer to that little mystery. Perhaps his passage through the Mists had robbed him of the ability to learn new magic. If so, then he would not be anxious to share that vulnerability with a potential antagonist. Would the same prove true for me once I crossed the barrier? It was a risk, but one I was willing to take. No mage ever has enough spells to learn; it's like an addiction to wine, but I had such a number of them at hand that I thought I could be content for a time so long as it meant escape.

The crucial hour passed and all was finally to his satisfaction; we had only to wait until the moon was right. We could see it through the round glass window he'd placed in the tower roof high above. Each of its round panes had been shaped and specially polished to amplify the light. As soon as the moon was exactly centered we would call on and focus the flowing energies of the solstice, then he would assume control allowing me to open the portal; if all went well we could push our way through it to the plane of Oerth and finally be free.

The center of the chamber's vast floor was interrupted by a low circular wall, quite similar to a crofter's sheep pen in construction. Only instead of flat native stones piled untidily upon one another, this was a smooth work of art. He'd had the pottery guild at it all winter turning out one identical white ceramic cube after another, thousands of them. Then it was up to the masonry guild, using a special mortar which Azalin had conjured, to lay them in their courses with mathematical precision. The finished circle stood waist high, a dozen feet across, and the wall was a foot thick. He said it would hold strong against the force of any magical energy, shaping it into a form we could readily control and exploit.

I hoped he was right. The power of the solstice was very great. I had used it in the past with much success, but never on so large a project. It is one thing to enjoy a gentle summer rain safe indoors, quite another to survive the unchecked force of a lightning storm on the exposed face of a mountain.

Azalin took his position on the eastern compass point of the circle, and I stood ready on the west, our mutual gaze hard upon the window above. The moon was nearly right.

"Now," he whispered. "Begin now!"

I obliged, muttering with him the words of power, drawing down the first thread-like flow of energy sieving through the glass panes. The tendrils, unseen by normal eyes, reached toward us both, and I felt mine start to entwine about me. Arms extended, I directed it into the circle. My eyes were shut, yet clear in my mind I could see the whole room, see the thin, pale lines of moonlight rushing along my limbs in obedience to my will. A dozen feet away Azalin did the same.

Our voices grew louder, drawing more silver-blue light from the window. The room hummed with the sound of the building power. I began to tremble uncontrollably as the stuff surged through me, not from fear, but from the utter exhilaration of it. It was like being seized by battle-fever-beyond fear, remorse, or even anger-all that matters is the singing joy of sheer destruction. There is no beginning, no ending, only the crimson blaze of the present.

As the moon reached its centering, we had to shout to be heard above the roaring light. It fairly gushed through the window, filling the circle we stood over, then overfilling, but the light rose up, holding to a whirling cylindrical shape. As it spun, small sparks were thrown off to be caught and passed swiftly along the glass and copper constructs. The crackling snap of the tiny lightnings added to the din; I could barely hear myself shrieking out the final words.

Azalin continued with his incantation; I could just see his lips moving through the glare. He made several broad gestures and waited, but nothing happened. He repeated the gestures, and slowly the cylinder began to reform itself, the top retreating from the window, the base from the floor. It continued to quickly turn in midair, but the direction altered as the energy compressed, first going diagonally, then vertically. After a few worrisome moments, the cylinder gradually took on the shape of a perfect glowing sphere.

I had anticipated this, having seen it before in Ilka's crystal ball. The vision had left out the monumental noise. The vibration of it went through my body to gnaw at my very bones. I wanted to retreat but held fast, arms still outstretched, directing more power into the thing.

His voice cracking with the effort, Azalin screamed at me to start the next phase of the spell as he took over the effort of holding the light in a stable form.

Shouting the words, I instantly sensed the change. The sphere bulged out, doubling its circumference until it extended beyond the boundary of the containing walls. I felt the heat of it as it swelled toward me, inches from my face. Azalin's voice rose above the din, and through the glare I saw him make a specific gesture of control.

It didn't work. He repeated it twice more and the sphere started to shrink, the brightness increasing.

I tried to penetrate the glare with my mind's eye, looking at it in the same way as I looked into the crystal. For an instant I caught a glimpse of green and gold. I concentrated and finally saw a true image of what lay beyond, a sight I had not seen in two centuries, a fair green land bathed in summer sunlight. Past the rolling fields rose mountains, a long range of peaks totally unfamiliar to me.

"Open it!" Azalin ordered.

I heard him more in my mind than with my ears and quickly launched into the final phase of the spell. The image rippled and held, growing larger until it was life-sized, and then I knew it was now a true doorway-and open.

To daylight.

I could survive it if I had to; there were trees present where I might find temporary shelter. If necessary I could bury myself in the ground before the burns became too severe. While unconscious I'd be at Azalin's mercy, though. A risk I'd just have to take.

He shouted something, but I could no longer hear clearly; the roar managed to increase that much more and took on a teeth rattling high-pitched yowl. I called out the last of the incantation and saw Azalin hoist himself up on the edge of the circle. Through the vision in the sphere I could dimly see him standing on the wall.

I felt the control weaken as his attention wavered. The whole chamber rumbled with it as though the earth itself shrugged.

The green land faded, went suddenly hazy. The door was still open; I knew it to be open.

Azalin set himself, then leaped toward it. Toward… mist. The Mists. The Mists were flooding the bright sphere.

His momentum suddenly ceased; he hung in the core of the sphere like a fly in a web, slowly turning and tumbling out of control.

The sphere began to grow and became too bright to look at. The noise went beyond hearing, beyond bearing. I made one last effort to hold it together, knowing it would be useless; things were quite outside my control. The future as revealed by Ilka's crystal was about to become the past. My last spell exhausted, I dropped and dove for cover against the outer wall of the circle an instant before the blast ripped through the chamber.

The force of it rushed over me, slammed into the sigil-covered walls and ricocheted in a hundred directions at once. The glass containers were the first to go, their liquid contents shooting up in noisome fountains just before they shattered. Shards flew everywhere like arrows; I covered my head with my arms and braced against the thousand bites of lancing pain where I was struck. But that wasn't nearly as bad as the fireball.

I didn't know what it was at the time. It came too fast to comprehend. I heard a terrible deep booming above, like a huge hammer beating insanely upon a giant's drum. The sound was such that I thought my head would burst from it. I cowered and tried to turn into mist to escape it, but my body stubbornly held to its man-form. The energies tearing through the room must have disrupted my shape-changing ability. The vast, now out of control forces pressed me down against the hard floor as though to crush me to pulp, then atop that pressure came a wave of searing heat. It could not have lasted more than a second, but years might have passed in my perception of things.

Then silence. Absolute silence. I was sure that I had gone deaf.

When I finally dared to open my eyes to the present reality and move, the stillness was almost palpable, the air a thick, milky fog which rolled lazily about me. It was not the Mists of the borders, though, but rather steam rising from the escaped liquids where the last of them boiled away on the stone floor. With some relief I found that I could hear their bubbling hiss. My normal hearing was unaffected; it was my sense for magic that had been overburdened from the excess stimulation. My head rang from it, but I seemed otherwise unharmed. The many cuts I'd taken from the flying glass were healing, and I'd been spared from the horror of the fire by a special protective ring I always wore. As for the rest of the place…

To describe the room as a shambles would have been a dreadful understatement The only thing standing was the round wall and the tower itself, all the rest was so smashed as to be past recognition. Anything that was wood was charred nearly to dust, broken splinters of glass were melted where they lay. The sigils were no longer bright silver, but tarnished blacker than midnight to match the smoke-painted walls. Above, the round window was gone, the lead that had held the vanished panes of glass in place still hot and dripping into the stone circle.

I shakily sat up and looked around for Azalin. He hadn't made it through the opening. He hadn't made it at all.

His body lay near the west wall where the energies must have flung him like a leaf in a windstorm. His clothing was torn and shredded, but that was the least of the damage. The explosion had apparently sucked the life right from him, leaving behind a desiccated husk. He most resembled one of my skeletal servers, but with only slightly more flesh clinging to his bones. I saw the pattern of his ribcage, the outlines of his shrunken heart and lungs, the knobs of his joints. His face was the worst, his hawk-like features shriveled and dried, lips drawn back from the teeth with death's universal grin, the flesh on his skull cracked like old parchment dotted with matted tufts of sparse hair. The stench of full blown decay filled the room, overpowering all others.

There was no bringing him back. What few priests remained in Barovia had no power to restore life to the dead, and I had no spells that would help him. It would seem I would only have another servitor to add to my palace guard.

Damnation. So much work and for nothing. What had gone wrong? The Mists. It must have been the damned Mists.

Ever and always the source of my woes, the filthy stuff must have intervened and totally disrupted the workings of the spell. Azalin had advised me to perform a severance ceremony, but I'd chosen not to do so. I held to the idea that if I went through the portal, then Barovia would be dragged along as well in order to rejoin its original plane-if it had indeed even been the original plane. I had long suspected that many alternate realities existed, some varying greatly and some astonishingly similar. Azalin had met my theory of bringing Barovia with me with hearty contempt, but he was willing to allow me my way, having thought that at least he would be able to leave unhindered. Perhaps the world we had seen was so dissimilar to Barovia that they had somehow repelled one another. Perhaps I should not have been so stubborn. Damnation a thousand times over, I snarled to myself, furious, but weary right to my soul.

I would have to start again. Tired as I was now, I knew I would make another attempt. Azalin had done a monumental job of research, laying groundwork I could use, only I would first have to trace through each step to find out exactly what had gone wrong. It might take months, even years without his help, but so be it, somehow I would-

My disappointed and angry musings were interrupted when I heard a stirring from the direction of Azalin's body and turned to see what it was. My eyes widened and the hair on my neck rose.

It was moving-the wretched, decaying thing was moving. I sat frozen still as stone from the shock and waited for him to start screaming, for he would have to be in unthinkable agony from what had happened to his body. No sound came from him, though, only the spidery scrabblings of his hands brushing the stone flags, and the scrape of his exposed bones. His movements were feeble, groggy, as mine had been a few moments earlier.

Then the air about his withered body shimmered. The flesh clinging to his face filled out, became whole and healthy again. His features restored themselves back into their usual lines, though his eyes were shut. The skeletal body swelled to normalcy; the torn and dusty rags knitted themselves together, became rich velvets and furs once more, the leather of his belt and boots returned to looking new and supple.

Appearance only. This was illusion, the one he so carefully and constantly maintained, and now I understood why. The realization of what I was watching slowly began to dawn upon me.

Azalin was a lich, a thrice-damned lien.

My first overpowering impulse was to destroy the thing. It was a threat far greater than any I had ever faced before, but I knew I was not even remotely prepared to attempt such a task. Had I been fully versed with my most powerful spells and weapons I might have had a chance against him, perhaps. But he was rapidly regaining full consciousness, and my next action would likely dictate whether I lived or died. My second impulse was for immediate self-preservation. I quietly lay back down and shut my eyes.

It was the hardest thing I'd ever done, to lie there apparently stunned while not ten feet away what was now my worst enemy stirred itself.

CHAPTER SEVEN

I had to make a conscious effort to remain absolutely still. Keeping every muscle utterly relaxed under the present circumstances required an astonishing amount of willpower when every instinct screamed at me to move. It was a true battle between reflex and resolution, and though precious instinct had saved me often in the past, this time I must not give in to basic impulse.

I managed to hold quite still, inspired by the knowledge that if Azalin found out my deception he would instantly understand that I'd discovered his great secret. And that would be very bad for me.

I heard more sounds from his area of the chamber, the brush of his bones against the stone floor, a ghostly groan. Whether it was an expression of physical or mental distress, I couldn't tell. Could such creatures feel bodily pain in the same sense as other beings? Never before having encountered such a powerful being, I did not know.

After a few moments, I stirred and moaned and let my eyes flutter open in what I hoped would seem a normal manner. Now did I allow myself to look around, doing my best to recreate my initial reaction to the destruction, being careful not to overplay things. When my gaze fell upon Azalin, he was already getting to his feet.

His illusion was firmly in place; he looked the same as ever, except for his gloves, which were gone. Probably torn or burned from his withered hands when-

Stop that right now.

If I started making mental comparisons between the illusion and what I knew to be reality, it would affect my behavior and be a giveaway to him. In all our time together, in all the recollections he'd passed to me, he hadn't once dropped the least hint of his true self, and quite wisely. Had I known, I would never have given him my shelter and protection and would have done my utmost to destroy him.

Perhaps I wasn't animate in the same way as others, but I did retain a spark of true passion within me, and that made me a closer, more willing ally to the living than to this creature. Final death could still ultimately claim one such as myself, but a lich was already dead, a collection of bones existent by the foulest kind of dark magic and its own monumental determination to dwell beyond its normal span of years.

While I still supped with pleasure from life's table, still held my place as a predator in the workings of the world, not so for a lich, who had given up all such pleasures, embracing and at the same time defying death itself for continuance, empty continuance. The cold revulsion Azalin inspired in all who came near him was quite justified.

With all my contact with him I had grown used to that kind of cold, successfully ignoring it. The reaction I had now was not aversion to his physical form so much as the fact that when it came to magic, he as a lich was more than powerful enough to challenge me and win. Indeed, the only thing holding him back from such conquest must have been our bargain, the necessity of our having to work together. That could change, though. It might have changed already with this catastrophic failure. I had to play this out very carefully and not provide him with the least suspicion that his secret was no more, that I had realized my terrible vulnerability to him. His pretense must continue.

Barovia was little enough, but all I had. It was also my only hope of seeing Tatyana live again. To save her, to save that which was mine, I would do anything, even take on the perilous task of trying to destroy Azalin.

But I dared not surrender to that impulse just yet. This was not the time. Even had I been rested and ready for just such a confrontation, i still would have been hard pressed to overcome a being with Azalin's power.

I stood-my limbs surprisingly steady after what I'd been through and what I was currently dealing with- and surveyed the damaged chamber with him. To continue the pretense that I was still ignorant of the truth I had to react as I would normally, which would be easy enough to emulate, for it was already boiling up inside.

I fastened him with a stony gaze, trying to suppress my rising rage. "What went wrong?" I whispered.

His eyes glowed red, untouched by the fading moonlight coming down from the shattered window. "I don't know yet."

"You must have some idea."

"As you must also."

"What do you mean?"

"I told you to make a severance with the land."

"You cannot blame this disaster on such a flimsy detail."

"You are the one who chose to blind himself to the facts, so yes, I may place the blame for it upon you. I said your tie to the land was too strong to be broken, and this more than proves me correct."

"It wasn't meant to be broken; the breakage was to be the barrier that separates Barovia from its original plane. That was clearly understood."

"By you alone, I gave you fair warning of the foolishness of that theory."

"You said you would compensate."

"I said I would try. I guaranteed nothing."

"Ever the lament for those who fail. All this time wasted, all this effort for naught!"

"Not completely." He turned slightly from me, looking over the remains of his precious laboratory as though nothing were amiss. "Even negative knowledge can be useful."

I choked, not needing to falsify my reaction to his apparent serenity. With the passing of my initial shock it was easy enough for me to fall back into what had become our usual pattern of argument. At this point, had I still been ignorant of his secret, I wouldn't have been able to endure another instant of his company.

Drawing back upon myself-this time unimpeded by the turbulent flux of magicks-I initiated the change and a moment later was airborne, strong wings beating the thick air, lifting me toward the hole blasted into the roof. Part of me half expected that he would try attack while I was in this small and somewhat more vulnerable form, but in my mind I was confident that he was still unaware of my realization. He'd seen me in a temper on several occasions and was used to my leaving in a sudden manner. Such displays weren't likely to affect him. In the past, peering into my crystal, I'd seen him simply continue with whatever he had been doing before the disruption. Presumably that would happen again now, and he would busy himself trying to work out what had gone wrong. I could assume that he would be glad I'd left so that he could freely concentrate on the problem.

The proof of this was his lack of action against me during the next ten seconds. I was tense all the same until I had cleared the gaping hole. I easily avoided the twists of hot lead framing, and broke away into the clean night air. Now did I purposely exhale, purging my lungs of that pervasive death stench. It seemed to cling to me even in this form, inspiring me to fly faster to escape it. The keen mountain wind flowing from Mount Baratak helped to pare it away.

Swiftly following my black moon-shadow on the ground far below, I arrowed straight for Castle Ravenloft. The land climbed to meet me as I left the manor house in the valley behind. At this point it's easier to go around this high spur of Baratak than over it, but I was in no mood for sparing myself and skimmed dangerously close to its rocky shoulder to save time.

The winds at this elevation are often hazardous and unpredictable, but now they seemed in accord to my will and propelled me forward until I was dizzy from the speed. I rode them like a small raft on wild rapids, but I was in control, keeping upright and holding direction. In less than half the regular time it usually took to travel the distance, I reached the castle and swelled to human form, my feet touching down lightly on the walkway outside my bedroom. I looked back, illogically on guard against pursuit, but nothing marred the moon-bathed sky for miles in any direction.

It meant little. I was far from safe.

I pushed through the outer doors and swept through my otherwise unused bedroom to the inner door leading right to my library and glared at the ranks of book-covered shelves. They were less orderly than I liked since Azalin always plucked them down for use with abandon and rarely returned any back into place, but certain tomes were untouched. I found the one I wanted, dusty and ignored, seized it, and flipped it open, heedless of the stress on its cracking pages.

The chapter I sought was some three quarters of the way through, marked by a distinctive illustration of a creature that closely resembled what I'd just seen in the shambles of the laboratory. I couldn't find it, though, and went over the pages twice before thinking I had picked up the wrong volume. I checked the title. It was correct, matching the one in my memory. This was the right book; it had a whole section devoted to the lore surrounding liches-a section that appeared to be missing.

I carefully examined the spine and binding, but found no crude cutting away of pages. He had made a careful job of it. The contents had been purged, even the page numbers matched up. If I hadn't known it should have been there, not been purposely looking for it, I would never have noticed the alteration. Quite seamless.

Surveying all the other books of my collection I could take it for granted that they had also been subjected to a similar expurgation. He must have begun the process from his very first day here. Angered, I started to fling this one across the room, but caught myself just in time and carefully slid it back into place. I summoned a miniature dust devil to swirl over it and its neighbors so all would appear to be undisturbed. Azalin must get absolutely no clue from me that I'd found him out.

Should he suspect, he would probably take quick and deadly action to try to kill me. I might survive, might even destroy him instead, but I was in desperate need of preparation to guarantee it.

I needed to know more. There was but one other unlikely source of information left to me in the castle. I quit the library and sought my daylight sanctuary in the crypts far below. Here, in one of the most secure refuges I had ever constructed, I kept certain important spell and magical books hidden from him, along with my personal journal. So far as I knew he had no idea of their existence. If this lot had been tampered with…

I'll deal with it then.

My crypt, where I most often sheltered from the sun during the day, was the best defended chamber in the whole of the castle. There I had rigged countless traps and protections, many designed specifically to hold against the kind of intense magic of which Azalin was capable of summoning. I spent months perfecting and charging them with lethal power. The idea was to delay and drain him, using up precious daylight time, and I had put in enough to last through the longest mid-summer had to offer. But those spells were not designed with a determined assault from a lich in mind. I would have to correct that.

Once in the crypt I went straight to the concealed alcove built into the base holding the sarcophagus and muttered the words that would open it. Thin lines appeared in the unmarked marble and widened to the point where I could grasp the stone plate and pull it to one side.

All was as I had left it, the books, the journals; the crystal ball in its velvet casing was elsewhere. I seized one of the books, a rare reference volume, and searched it page by page. My memory of the contents was fairly clear, though I hadn't opened it in several decades. I was sure there was some mention about liches within.

No more. It was as clean as the library collection. The same went for the rest of them, except the one Alek Qwilym had brought me, for its pages were still black.

Azalin had been remarkably thorough with the others, though. And I could assume he had managed to read my private journals.

The rage flooding through me at this violation was too great for the stone chamber to hold. I surged into the larger, outer crypt to give proper vent to it, roaring and smashing things with abandon. It was some time before I came to myself again and could survey the situation with a somewhat cooler head.

Yes, he had purged the books, and yes, he had invaded the record of my innermost thoughts. I'd have done precisely the same thing given the chance. He knew all there was to know about me-but only up to this point. I could plan around that, compensate for it, and do it in such a way as to continue a pretense of my ignorance. Not too very difficult. I'd had centuries of practice at dissembling; this would be but an extension of that useful skill. I had but to give him what he expected to see. As for my enemy…

My knowledge of liches was now limited to what I could recall from casual reading. I had never made an especial study of the creatures, thinking it most unlikely I would ever encounter one. They tended to stay in one spot once they initiated the hideous spell work to bring about the awful change they desired. Once done it could never be revoked, and they would continue on, dead and yet not dead, but in a manner far removed from my own form of existence. I still took sustenance from the living, sometimes killing to maintain my life as everyone else, but a lich was sustained itself by magic, by the kind of foul necromancy so filthy and black as to make my own dark deeds seem celestial by comparison.

All the little clues, his lack of breathing and heartbeat, his never eating, the abnormal, biting cold of his mere presence, the burning red glow of his eyes-they should have told me the truth far sooner than this. Had I been so wrapped up in the preparation for escape that I had overlooked their importance?

Not likely. No. Impossible. I knew how my own mind worked and this sort of mistake was quite out of the ordinary for it. The only explanation was that Azalin had cast a very subtle spell upon me, one that prevented me from seeing what was now painfully obvious. Only when the aftermath of our explosive escape attempt had stripped him of all guise and spell work had the truth finally dawned. His cleansing of the books had been to prevent me from stumbling accidentally upon the subject which would likely have negated his spell. The more I considered it, the more obvious it became. It was the only way I could account for such a tremendous lapse of perception on my part.

In some twisted way I could take it as a compliment. He must view me as being a real danger to him once I found him out. Certainly I did have lethal means at hand to use against him, possessing any number of captured magical weapons that might do the job, except for those with auras that repelled me as well.

If it came down to a fight, he was my superior in many areas of magic, and I was all too vulnerable to supernatural injury from him-especially during the day. On the other hand, were we to engage in face-to-face physical combat, I could destroy him. Or at least his outer body. An important detail I recalled about liches had to do with them placing their life-force in some object or container for safekeeping. If their bodies were disposed of they could use it to magically transfer themselves into another vessel, a corpse being the preferred receptacle.

There were plenty of those in Castle Ravenloft. But Azalin would not be like my mindless servitors with no will but my own. He would be capable of thinking and acting for himself.

Another dim recollection concerning their weaknesses had to do with knowing the lich's true name. Azalin was a mere title. He had admitted as much. Even in the times when we had been forced to communicate with spells while we learned one another's language, he had always skirted the issue of the meaning of "Azalin," saying merely that it was a title of respect bestowed upon great rulers. But Azalin could not have been part of his name much less his entire name, and one would need that to deliver any sort of effective controlling spell. He would be very careful to avoid providing me with that kind of a weapon. As for a spell which would effectively control him, I knew several of that type, but whether any of them would affect him with or without the use of his name I couldn't speculate.

I had been deluding myself by comparing him to a pet mountain bear; only this thing's word had held him in check all this time. I was his keeper merely so long as he chose to be kept.

In his first weeks here he'd needed a protector and guide and had held back his hand, but as I paced around the outer crypt there occurred to me other, more solid reasons why he hadn't yet challenged me.

I was his best hope of leaving Barovia. He needed my help in the spell work, since he seemed unable to learn new ones. For that he required my willing cooperation in order to raise my knowledge up to a point where I'd be useful to his endeavors. The problem with that ploy was that now I was powerful enough in my own right that Azalin could not compel me into anything against my will. If he made the attempt and forced things, he would have to kill me, for I would refuse to submit; I was stubborn enough for that.

Then there was my link to the land. Destroying me would destroy Barovia, and by default, Azalin. He had come to believe this as much as any of the Vistani, which had always surprised me, for I was not all that certain I believed it myself, though I had used the legend to my advantage often enough. So what was I to do with this disaster awaiting a time to happen?

I had no doubt that I could keep up my fiction of ignorance about his true nature. It was necessary to my continued safety and our continuing work. Though I could press forward on my own with the research, it would go much faster with his contribution. Because of his labors I had seen a glimpse of another world, and to break through to it I needed him as much as he needed me.

It was an unpleasant and highly delicate balance of power to be sure, based on mutual deception and an archaic sense of teeth-on-edge courtesy, but I could live with it. I had to live with it. For like it or not, he was my only hope of escape.

***

Several nights passed and I heard nothing from him, though I kept an eye on things by means of my crystal. He was busy with repairs to the tower, and it seemed to take the whole of his time and concentration. Well and good, for I had need to make a quiet and unobserved journey from the castle.

Once I had ascertained that Azalin was fully occupied at his tasks, I went to the library and began a special casting. By the time I'd finished, an exact double of myself appeared sitting at my library table poring over a book, lost in study. It was detailed enough to accurately reflect candlelight and even turn pages on a regular basis. The illusion would not stand up to a close inspection, but I was willing to risk that Azalin, with whatever Sight spell he favored, was not likely to do more than just check on my general whereabouts.

The casting in place, I donned a thin gold chain from which hung a special amulet that would completely obscure my presence from the various Sight spells which I had seen him employ. For me to simply disappear was not enough and would rouse his suspicion, hence the necessity of having a double where I might be expected to be found. Azalin was probably too caught up in his repairs to even bother to look, but I had never regretted being overly cautious. When it came to a foe like this lich, there was no such concept.

All things ready and smoothly running, I executed my traveling spell. One instant I was in my library and the next standing just outside the circle of Vistani wagons by the Tser Pool, the night wind warm upon my face.

The air carried the scent of my presence to their mongrel dogs who set up an immediate row in reaction, as did their other animals. The preparations for that evening's meal stopped abruptly. Children fled to their mothers, and the men stood looking about-alert, their hands going to the big knives which they carried in their broad sashes. The focus of their attention eventually came around to me as I emerged from the forest darkness into the firelight.

"Madam Ilka," I said, "take me to her."

There was a slight hesitation on their part. Perhaps I had startled them for once; they certainly acted like it. One of the older men finally gave a short nod and snapped an order to the others. There was no relaxation of their fear, but at least they were no longer frozen in place by it.

I was given a loose escort to Ilka's vardo-nobody wanted to venture too close to me-and one of them knocked on the door, getting a faint reply from within. He opened it and a look of shock crossed his features as I took to the narrow steps and boosted myself inside without further invitation. My errand was more important than observing the ridiculous courtesies surrounding the entry of a gentleman to a lady's boudoir. In the pursuit of the sating of my appetite I'd found countless women in all states and stages of dishabille; they could hold few surprises for me now, and Ilka proved to be no exception. She was seated in her pillow-padded chair as before, the beginnings of a tarokka reading spread in front of her on the table. Once again I was struck at her remarkable resemblance to her predecessor. She looked up, dark eyes flashing mild amusement, and jerked her chin in the direction of a small stool, probably the same one I had used on my previous visit.

"Welcome, Lord Strahd. Sit and take your ease."

I left the door open. The men outside were within earshot, but I cared not. Before the night ended they would all hear of what I wanted from them and their whole tribe throughout Barovia.

I took my seat, and Ilka turned over the next card in her reading. It was the Darklord.

"It seems I've no need to see farther," she said, gathering and shuffling the lot into a neat pile.

"Do you know why I have come?"

"The cards have only hinted, and my dreams have not been so clear. I know it has to do with the Necromancer."

"It does."

She gave me a long look. I heard the fast, light beating of her ancient heart drumming in its cage and I could smell her fear. "Does the war come now?"

"I hope not, for I am not yet prepared."

"But I thought-"

"Were he a mere necromancer then would the war stop before it could ever begin for I would kill him-but he is more than you or I ever expected."

"What is it you say?"

I told her-in detail-and watched all color drain from her face.

The sweet, exciting stink of her fear now filled the cramped vardo. To hear a living heart, to scent the fear driving it, was more than enough to rouse my hunger and tempt me to forget the promise I had made to Madam Eva so very long ago. I struggled to hold myself in check.

Ilka muttered something in her own language and made a warding gesture which seemed to have no effect against me. I plucked out the phrase "protect us" from her soft flow of words. "Such dark creatures are not meant for this world," she said aloud after some moments. "He must be destroyed."

"Indeed, but not until the time is right."

"Is the Lord Strahd afraid of him?"

"Afraid?" I arched on eyebrow. Under different circumstances I might have been angered at her presumption, but considering the subject of our discussion, I let it pass. "I fear no one in my land. But I am wise enough to discern the necessity of caution. One misstep could prove fatal. I certainly intend to kill him, but only in my own time."

She cocked her head to one side. "You have a use for him then?"

"I could desire things to be otherwise, but yes, I do. It is necessary for him to continue with the work we're doing; once it is successfully completed I shall take steps against him. Until then I have need of the Vistani as well."

"We are already your eyes and ears throughout the land."

"In general. What I need are watchers to specifically spy on him. He is in his own house now, miles from the castle. I cannot keep vigil over him as before, especially during the day."

"We dare not come too close to him. He might hear our thoughts and kill us."

"I don't require your people to move into his house, only to watch outside its gates and grounds and tell me of anything unusual that happens. I particularly want news of any who visit him, be they peasant or noble. He may try to make allies; if that happens I need to know of it."

"Better to kill him," she grumbled.

"I am open to suggestion as to how one might be able to kill the dead," I returned dryly. "Perhaps your dreams may reveal his true name to you that I might use it against him. If so, then I should be glad to know the magic as well."

"Alas, Vistani dreams are not like any others, nor our magic."

Which was probably just as well. "You will tell your people what I require of them. Accept only the best and wisest. Those who have gifts for seeing the truth past an illusion must be among them, for this necromancer can conceal much when the need suits him."

"There are few like that in our tribe."

"Find and gather them. They will be rewarded well for this service; you have my word on it." From my waistcoat pocket I drew out a silk bag, loosened the cord, and let the coins within tumble out over the table.

A glint came to her eyes as they all but fed upon the treasure. The Vistani were as fond of the brightness of gold as any magpie.

"Sort it out amongst yourselves how to manage this watch, and see to it that those chosen for duty are subtle about it so that they are not caught. There are fates far worse than merely dying, and the necromancer is familiar with many of them."

"My people may not agree to stand watch."

My sudden rage filled the vardo like a blood-red cloud. She flinched as I fought to hold it in check. When it was under control, I continued, my voice a stinging whisper. "In this they have no choice. Your people may risk death in my service or have it as an utter certainty in his. Are you willing to be the one to break the agreement Madam Eva and I made?"

She licked her lips, and her hand covered the tarokka deck. Muttering again she turned the top card over. It was The Horseman. She stared at it a long moment with a stricken face. The Horseman was feared by all for its portent of calamity and destruction, and usually meant death. Ilka gave a short hopeless laugh, then pushed the cards toward me, her fingers trembling.

I cut the deck and chose. It was easy enough to deduce her questions: What will befall the Vistani if we do nothing? And: What awaits us to follow Lord Strahd?

To answer the last question I placed the card face up between us on the table and waited for her reaction. This time it was The Mist. Not always a good card for its uncertainties, but better than the previous draw.

She made no move, looking at it as though she hadn't seen it before, though the custom was for each Vistana seer to make her own deck.

"Well?" I said, growing impatient.

She briefly bowed her head. "All will be as you command, Lord Strahd. The Vistani will be your faithful servants in this war."

And not beforetime. I touched the amulet on my breast. "Do you know what this is?"

She peered closely at it, then held her hand up, palm out, fingers spread. I felt something lightly touch it. Something that was there and yet not quite real. "It is a charm against prying magic that no one may find you," she pronounced.

"Correct. I have prepared many of these for just this time." From another pocket I drew forth a small leather bag. "Each person who takes up the watch against the Necromancer must wear one of these. They will be hidden from his magical Sight, but they must take care he does not see them in the normal way or it will do them no good."

"We shall be like ghosts," she promised.

"I hope not, for ghosts are the dead and this lich knows their ways."

Again the warding gesture.

"Is all this clear to you? Must I remain to make the rest understand the importance of the task?" I put an ominous tone to this, making it seem like the threat it was.

She caught the hint. "No, Lord Strahd need not trouble himself. I will see to all. But…"

"What?"

"The others will want to know-how long must we keep the watch?"

"A day or a century." I let my fingers brush against the two cards, one the unknown, the other certain disaster.

"For as long as it takes?"

"For as long as it takes."

***

547 Barovian Calendar, Barovia

"The wench will still be there a few days from now. Your presence is required to carry out these duties before I can move on to the next phase of work."

Even after five years Azalin had not tired of testing me, baiting me. I finished settling my cloak into place, not bothering to spare him a look as I secured the fastening at the base of my throat.

"Unless your head is turned enough by mere rumor to risk all chance of escape," he continued.

I had long grown used to his imperious manner and knew when to ignore it. This was one such time.

"What you want done is not beyond your scope; you can accomplish it easily enough."

"My efforts are better concentrated in the preparation for larger things," he said loftily.

"What would that be, running errands best left to your servitors?"

He'd made the trip from his manor house to Castle Ravenloft himself to present another order for new laboratory equipment and supplies. I didn't care much for him coming here, but I was willing to put up with it if it expedited his project.

"I want no more mistakes; that's why I must see to this personally. The previous lot of goods you sent was wholly unsuitable for use."

"Not my fault. The craft guilds constructed things exactly as you ordered."

"They failed," he stated flatly. "If you would let me deal with them directly there would be no more errors."

"And likely no more craft guilds. You have already killed two of their most skilled workers for minor errors that could have been corrected had you given them the chance to do so."

"They were incompetent idiots."

"Because of your lapse it could take decades of training before the next generation comes of age in the expertise required. I remind you that this is not your grand and glorious Oerth with an infinite number of replacements for the casualties of your temper."

"You can spare yourself the effort; I am only too well aware of the limitations of this miserable land."

"Excellent. For a mind such as yours, it should not be much of a challenge to work within those limits. When I get back I will deal with the guilds as before."

"You could be gone for months!"

"Or a single night. I'm sure you can find entertainment enough in my library for that time."

"Entertainment!" he snarled, for he had nothing but disdain for anything smacking of recreation or pleasure. A pity, that, for indulging in some form of recreation might put him in a better humor. However, he fell silent, no doubt thinking of the idea I had raised in him. He could be wonderfully predictable.

Certainly he'd want time to comb through my library again, but while I was away he would probably use the opportunity to avail himself of the chance to go through my now not-so-private journal. I had faithfully kept up making regular entries in it-relegating my true thoughts and observations in another tome which I hid where even he could not find it-but omitting any reference to my discovery of his secret. The pages in this now false journal contained occasional mentions of my curiosity over his reluctance to learn new spells, though not too many, only as would be normal and natural to any given situation. In essence I simply imitated my previous queries, along with the smug notation of a willing patience to wait until the time came for the facts to reveal themselves to my inquisitive mind.

How that would amuse him. It certainly amused me. Now.

"You are still needed here to execute certain important castings," he said in a somewhat more composed tone. Of course, he could not appear to be too eager to see me gone.

"No doubt the boredom of the minor spell work makes it less alluring to you," I said. "But I recall when I had a turn at it last time that you were less than pleased with the results, so you would be wise not to shirk such details. If you looked after them personally then you'll have only yourself to blame when the next experiment goes wrong."

His red eyes glowed all the hotter for his obvious anger, yet the late summer air in my study went icy cold. Our most recent attempt to escape last solstice had been a miserable disappointment, and he'd decided that the fault was mine. He had no real proof on which to base this belief; it was due more to his frustration than anything else.

"We have months yet to prepare for the next try," I continued, "but what I must do now cannot wait."

He snorted in contempt. "If you have not found her by now, you never will."

Again I ignored him. When he was reduced to this level of baiting, I knew I was in the right. He could not wait to get rid of me.

By now he'd learned of how I had lost my Tatyana and about my search to find her again, all the while pretending that it was news to him. Over the course of our talks together I had allowed him to worm the story out of me. My purpose was to reinforce what he'd already read in my journals and to let him know the importance of my occasional absences. He knew that I was ever on the lookout for her return, something he always reacted to with boundless scorn.

Because of his nature, Azalin was bereft of any tender emotion. He could no longer feel love or appreciate a physical pleasure that was not an illusion, making it impossible for him to understand the depth of my own feelings toward that sweet girl. Keeping to my pretense of ignorance, I simply continued blindly on in my quest as I would were he a normal man. It was a risk that this would someday cause him to lose patience with me and give open challenge, but I was willing to take it. So long as Azalin thought himself in the position of superior knowledge about the contents of my journals and still needed me to do the spells he could not cast, he would continue to hold himself back.

During this particular day a Vistana messenger had come to the castle with news of a young woman resembling Tatyana who resided in a village by the southern border not twenty five miles distant. As it was all the way on the other side of Mount Ghakis as well as beyond a spur of Mount Sawtooth, I had a considerable journey ahead of me this night. It had also taken the message several days to reach me, so I dared not tarry longer than necessary lest some misfortune befall her.

It was about the right time for Tatyana's reappearance. Nothing would prevent me from seeking her out, not even if Azalin planned an escape attempt this very night and certainly not for such routine spells as he had in mind. He was only testing to see how much influence he could exert over me. Only as much as I allowed him. And when it came to Tatyana, he had no influence at all.

I had one other investigation to make as well. My daylight rest, normally quite tranquil, had been disturbed by some sort of dream, though that was not quite the word for it. It was more of a feeling, a sudden awareness of an intelligence intruding upon my dozing mind, like hearing someone knocking at a distant door and then entering before I could respond to it. Upon awakening I thought it might have been Azalin but discounted him.

The feeling had a plurality to it and was not all that powerful.

I realized that there was a direction to it as I mulled things over while getting ready to depart. Both the rumor and the "knocking" seemed to come from the same direction. Both would get my full attention.

I swept to the walkway, lifted my arms high, and took to the heavy air without a single backward glance.

***

The village of Hoessla was part of the loose curve of mining communities that dotted the foothills of Mount Sawtooth on the southern border of Barovia, beginning with Immol in the east and ending at Cuzau in the west. Over the years the peasants, under the direction of the local boyars, patiently tunneled into Sawtooth's flanks, drawing forth iron, copper, tin, and more rarely, gold and precious stones.

It took me most of the short summer night to reach Hoessla, which was hardly a mile from the Misty border. Because of the commerce, there were several hostels to serve the merchants and their trains. Going on the information provided by the Vistana I located the largest, the Pick and Ladder Inn, made a discreet entry into its cellars, and spent the day hidden from the sun in the rafters there. When night finally came, I flew out again to resume man-form in a shadow just inside the front gates of the courtyard.

The young fellow whose job was to lock things up for the night was no match for my influence, and he not only forgot all about my startling appearance from the growing darkness, but also the nourishing contribution he made to my well-being. I left him to sleep off his damage in an empty stable stall, displeasing the animals with my presence, but was in and out with the body before they could make enough row to cause notice.

The inn itself was a vast (J-shaped structure. Soft, golden light shone through the futile protection of iron-barred windows, indicating business was excellent tonight. I crossed the courtyard to the sound of fiddle, fife, drum, and some kind of bagpipe. It was Vistani music. Perhaps my informant had been part of the hired entertainment. I pulled open the door.

Doubtless the people inside were expecting the familiar face of the young man, not the figure of a tall, formidable stranger wrapped in a concealing black cloak. The music faltered, the buzz of talk dying as ripples of awareness spread from those nearest the door to the furthest corners of the room. I let my cloak drop open, to reveal well cut, but ordinary clothing, the style identifying me as nobility. The innkeeper, a short, stout man apparently arrested in mid-word to one of his customers by my entry, broke away altogether and hastened toward me, an uncertain expression on his red face.

"Welcome to you, m'lord. How may I be of service?"

I ordered a seat in the common room, ostensibly to listen to the music. The Vistani musicians stared at me, but unlike the rest of the people obviously knew why I was here if they dispatched one of their own to apprise me of the news of Tatyana. The keeper hastened to set a table for me and brought a glass of his best wine.

"Does your lordship desire anything to eat?"

"I've already dined, thank you."

There were some two dozen in the room watching with open curiosity and suspicion. Any stranger coming in after sunset was subject to a certain amount of fear and caution, but when I failed to do anything more sinister than take my chair, they marginally relaxed. The music started up again, a sprightly tune, but few paid much attention to it as the patrons leaned close across their tables to talk. My hearing plucked out enough from the various conversations to inform me that I was the main topic, not that it was much of a surprise. I would have known that from their stares alone.

I let my gaze wander over the room. They were quite the mixed lot, the nomadic Vistani sharing a roof with merchants, two travelers wearing badges marking them as local petty officers of my exchequer, some miners, and a knot of poorly dressed people sitting apart from the rest. They seemed a weary and downtrodden lot, but they were not quite ragged enough to be beggars.

When the Vistani players eased into a slower song, I cocked an eyebrow at the keeper and he instantly came over. "I'm seeking word of a young woman recently come to Hoessla. I understand she is in your employ."

My opening clearly flummoxed him, and he hesitated. "I have several young women in my employ."

"No doubt. This one is very comely with coppery hair, an orphan. I believe her name is Nadia. I assure you my intentions are entirely honorable," I said, fixing my gaze on him.

He blinked and gave a little shake of his head as though dizzy, but became much more cooperative. "Indeed, there is such a girl here, your lordship. She is as you've described."

"I should like to see her. Send her to me. Now."

He nodded and hurried away through a serving door. Moments later he returned with a young woman in tow. Had I possessed a beating heart it would surely have been drumming as they approached. Then came the crashing let down of disappointment. She was lovely; her face and form were similar, but she was not my Tatyana.

I shut my eyes and drew in a long breath, releasing it slowly-not a necessity for me, but old habits die hard and the hope of reuniting with my beloved had, for just a few brief moments, put me in mind of younger days. This was not the first time I had met with failure, nor would it be the last. Punishing the Vistana for this false hope would be pointless and only discourage others from sending information in the future. My search would simply continue.

When I regained control of myself and was able to look again the keeper seemed to be most anxious. The girl was plainly frightened. I managed a reassuring smile, which alarmed her even more, for she shrank back against her master.

I sighed and said with a dismissive gesture, "Thank you, young lady, that will be all."

She did not wait for further encouragement and slipped off to whatever haven she had in the back of the house, leaving the keeper on his own. He managed to resist following her. All attention in the room was on me.

"Have we displeased your lordship?" He was trembling.

"I had hoped she might be someone else. Are there no other orphan girls in Hoessla such as I have described? Perhaps someone who was taken in by a family when she was yet a child?"

"I know of none-"

"Are you sure?" I gave this last query a solid hypnotic nudge. "Search your memory."

His face froze, eyes wide. I provided him a long moment to think, then backed off. When he could speak, he only repeated his earlier denial. "Perhaps if your lordship spoke with the newcomers. They seem to have traveled far and might be able to help. But they're quite hard to understand. I don't know where they're from, but their words are nigh on gibberish." He indicated the poorly dressed group at their tables. Unlike the others in the room, these visitors seemed only curious about me but weren't particularly afraid. That was odd.

My instincts sparked. Another crowd of interlopers from the outside? Perhaps they were the cause of the knocking I had sensed. They looked rather harmless, not the usual run of thieves and murderers.

"Have they a leader? If so-"

The keeper anticipated the rest of my request and bustled over to one of the men. They made a rapid exchange, mostly with the innkeeper pointing hesitantly in my direction, and with a puzzled shrug the man stood and came over. He was a big broad fellow with a sword in a battered scabbard whose workmanship did not originate in Barovia.

My lips twitched, suppressing a smile, and I motioned for him to take the keeper's chair.

He spoke and I was mildly surprised that I could understand some of his speech, though the intonation of his words had a lilting sing-song quality totally alien to Barovia. Though a word here and there was familiar, the rest was indeed gibberish. I feigned that I had not heard him while I cast the appropriate spell which would allow us to communicate more effectively.

"I would first know who I am sitting with, sir, if it is not too much of a liberty," he repeated, his accent strange but cultured and not at all challenging. His gentlemanly demeanor was in vast contrast to his humble clothing and rough face, the look of an outdoorsman, but with the manner of one of my more polished nobles.

"I am Count Vasili von Hoist," I said, searching for a reaction. Most people in Barovia knew the name of Lord Vasili, Strahd's able and slightly less terrifying envoy, almost as well as that of Strahd himself. Though I was now speaking this visitor's native tongue, a few of the nearby merchants overheard the name Vasili and exchanged nervous glances.

This large specimen merely gave a low bow, full of dignity. If he was surprised, it was at my seeming command of his language rather than my name.

"I am Auric, son of Courewsy. It is an honor to meet your lordship."

Then, with a dignity which belied his attire, he lowered himself into the chair opposite me. I bought him a flagon of the house's best beer then commenced the drawing of information from him. It did not take long. He could no more withstand my hypnotic command to speak than others before him. His genteel behavior was explained when I learned he was the son of a retainer in the house of some noble I had never heard of, confirming that he and the others had come from the outside. It was most unlikely any of them would know aught of Tatyana, but I did inquire just in case, getting a negative reply. That cleared, I went on to other points.

"What land are you from?" I asked.

"Forlorn."

"That is its name?"

"Indeed, your lordship."

It seemed an unlikely appellation, but I would deal with it later. "Cinder what circumstances did you come to pass through the Mists?"

"Mists?" he queried back, brow wrinkling.

"To get into Barovia you passed through a thick mist."

"There was no mist." His face was blank now under my pressuring, indication that his mind was wide open to me.

"What do you mean?"

"The weather has been fine and clear," Auric, son of Courewsy said, placid as a sheep.

"But you had to-" I cut myself short, thinking fast. He was telling the truth. They had come in from the outside but had not been delivered here by the Mists. "What brought you into Barovia?"

"We walked."

Ask a foolish question.

"Why did you come to Barovia?" I continued.

"We wished only to escape Forlorn. There are horrors in its forests now. We sought shelter when we saw the mountains."

"What horrors?"

"I know not, but a few weeks ago I found the body of one of my friends, or what was left of it. He'd been torn to bits. I went to others who lived throughout the forest and they spoke of the same thing. People were vanishing. Sometimes we would find a body, or what is left of a body. We gathered ourselves together and departed while we could."

"Who are your people?"

"We have no name. We lived in the forest, apart from each other."

Hermits, then, I'd heard of such eccentrics. It was not a life much favored in Barovia. Solitude was a dangerous practice in its harsh, wolf-infested mountains. Then there were other, more exotic hazards-myself for one.

"Does not gathering into a group defeat the purpose of your isolation?"

"We only came together for safety at the end, and if allowed we'll soon part company again. This land seems more welcoming."

"You have much yet to learn, then."

I questioned Auric closely and at great length under the watch of the others. We were far enough removed so that our low conversation couldn't be heard even when the Vistani weren't playing, so our privacy was complete. This was just as well, for what I learned was something so profoundly disturbing the impact could not have been more alarming than if a second moon suddenly appeared in the sky.

Auric and his companions had not been brought into Barovia from Forlorn by crossing through the Mists; they had simply walked in, unimpeded. If his story were true, then Forlorn itself was physically attached to Barovia. I was literally stunned-something which had not happened in many, many years.

For such to have happened would mean the greatest change to come to this plane since Barovia's appearance in the first place. It was almost beyond belief. I had to know everything about it.

The hermits, though, had not perceived any drastic occurrence of change, merely puzzlement upon noticing a new mountain range rising beyond the Forlorn forests. Their unconcerned reaction to it I attributed to the alteration the land could bring to unaware minds, affecting their very memories. They were certain, though, that something had happened but a few scant weeks ago soon after the summer solstice when people in their population began to disappear.

I wondered if Azalin's latest failed experiment had anything to do with it. Instead of taking us to Oerth, could he have brought a portion of Oerth to us? It seemed unlikely, but perhaps he was indeed as ignorant of Forlorn's existence as I had been. Certainly my tie to the land made me more sensitive to changes, and I hadn't had the least clue of it until my dream. On the other hand, the experiment may have had nothing to do with this, and it was only coincidence of timing. But I'm very reluctant to believe in coincidence.

More information was required, and I wanted Auric along. Freeing him from my influence, I gave him a fair offer to guide me into Forlorn, which he accepted after recovering. We would leave now, I told him. He had no objection to it, which again marked him as an utter stranger to Barovia.

The innkeeper had sufficient scruples to offer a nervous admonition against our leaving. "It is very dangerous to be out after dark," he said, understandably reluctant to open his door.

"What dangers?" I asked, in a good enough mood to twist his rope.

"There are wolves, many, many wolves. They are always after the flocks in the valley, but they have attacked people, too."

"Wolves have never bothered me," I said truthfully.

"But-"

"Unless with your boundless concern for my well-being you wish to accompany us as a guard?"

"Uhhh-ah-er-"

"Then I suggest you see to your customers."

He seized the offered escape and fled, nearly plowing into Auric, who had just made his good-byes to his friends. They had also been anxious over his safety, but not for being out after sunset. They were more worried about him returning to Forlorn than anything else.

"It is not a good place to be, Lord Vasili," Auric said as we departed. Behind us the innkeeper hurriedly shut and locked the main door.

"We will not be without protection," I assured him. "And you are well armed."

"The men who died were also armed, and two were known to be very skilled at fighting. Yet still they died."

We approached the gate, and he removed the crossbar, allowing me through. No one was around to replace it, so I accomplished the act with a word and gesture while on the outside. The thick length of oak dropped accurately into place. Auric watched this with interest.

"You have a talent for magic, Lord Vasili?"

I had been open about it to see his reaction. He was completely unafraid. How refreshing. "I've studied the Art for a few years," I answered obliquely.

"Glad I am to hear it. I don't know what plagues the forest, but I have a feeling that it would fear you and your powers far more than my sword."

"Most things would."

In his role as guide he took the lead by half a pace, striding unafraid through the deserted streets to the edge of town before striking off over an open field. I easily kept up with him.

Ahead, where there should have been a wall of Mists, was a long shallow valley, matching the form of the land as if it had always been there. Last night I had been so focused on finding the inn before sunrise that I hadn't bothered to lift my gaze in this direction, for why should I? The view had been the same featureless barrier for nearly two centuries.

"Is Forlorn large?" I asked as we hiked over the uneven ground. How much easier it was to fly or lope across as a wolf.

"No more than eight miles in width and about eighteen in length. Much of it is covered in forest and by the double peaked mountain in its heart."

"Were you born there?"

"I came from another land."

"What was it called?"

He provided the name of a country unknown to me, along with some of its history. Perhaps it was part of Oerth, I could not say. His family had been well respected retainers, and he had fought for his lord's house in some war but tired of battle and struck off on his own upon his release from service.

"Forlorn suited me for a time," he said rather wistfully. "But things began to change. The skies became more gray, the nights darker and less quiet. Even the trees seemed to shut out the light and make things colder."

"Does Forlorn have a ruler?"

He shrugged. "To the west there's a castle, but it's in ruins; no one goes there. I never ventured close, for it has an evil feel."

"Has it a name?"

"I heard it once; but it's slipped my mind." He seemed quite untroubled by the lapse.

I gave him a sharp look. Auric's memory of his life in Forlorn must be dimming as his mind struggled to harmonize itself with its new plane. I wondered if his memory would clarify once we crossed the border.

Mount Sawtooth's thick shadow crept over us as the moon began to set. The floor of the shallow valley was smooth, but in places rifts had been cut into the land, allowing miners to burrow horizontally into the north face of the valley. We paused by a deserted mine entry. A rather large pack of my four footed children had claimed it for their own and now tumbled forth to greet me, all playful snarls, yips, and hopeful whines for attention.

I resisted the impulse to adapt to their form; Auric was quite alarmed as it was. He started to draw his sword the instant the wolves appeared, but I put a restraining hand on his arm and told him to stand easy. His eyes fairly popped as he watched them fawning over me, tongues lolling and tails tucked low in homage to their master. Even the half-grown pups came forth from the safety of the den to join the pack in their greetings. They crowded Auric as well, sniffing with curiosity, but nothing more. I had already commanded them to leave him quite alone. To his credit, he stood fast and tried not to show fear, and after the first few trepidatious moments even relaxed slightly, though his eyebrows now seemed permanently affixed well up into his hairline.

"Your lordship is a mage of great power," he finally whispered.

"It is just the art of making the right friends," I said lightly. My wolves always put me into a pleasant mood with their uninhibited devotion. "Shall we go on?"

I motioned to the unmarked border only yards away. Less than a quarter mile off began the dark band of Forlorn's forest, rising high to the western peak of its one mountain. With the wolves as our playful escorts we proceeded forward-or at least Auric did. I reached the point where Forlorn and Barovia were seamlessly joined and stopped cold in my tracks.

Auric paused, the wolves milling around him. "Lord Vasili?"

I pushed hard against some barrier I couldn't see but solidly felt. With some annoyance, I backed away and tried again, meeting with the same immutable result. I put my hand out and let it trail along the unseen wall of force for several yards and as high as I could reach until I was satisfied the barrier was consistent. It reminded me of the external pressure I'd once encountered long ago when trying to gain entry to a monastery, but this was far more formidable. Back then I'd been able to summon a protecting spell to allow me passage; now I had the sinking feeling I would need something much more potent to get through this check.

I told Auric to come back by the mine entrance so that I could try some spellwork. He did so without question, and as he crossed in I had a strange recurrence of my dream feeling. I was cognizant on two different levels of his action. Yes, I was there actually watching him, but within my mind I also felt the brush of his consciousness, touched briefly by the presence of another thinking being. As soon as he crossed the feeling ceased, but in its wake was the comprehension that I was aware of his entry into my land. That was what had disturbed me during the day. When he and his friends had quit Forlorn for Barovia, I had noticed. How very fascinating.

I made Auric repeat his entry and exit twice, much to his mystification, and each time felt the same effect. I wondered if I would always have this ability. It could certainly prove useful. I wouldn't have to rely so much on the Vistani to spot strangers for me. Why had I not enjoyed it before when other intruders came out of the Mists? To that I had no ready answer, though it may have had to do with the fact that the Mists bringing others here was but a temporary phenomenon, whereas this joining to Forlorn looked to be more permanent. I had to get across so that I could explore this land myself.

Auric sat cross-legged by the mine and watched me at my magical work. So engrossed was he that he began to absently pet the wolves that lay down near him.

An hour's effort and I was forced to give up, my head ringing from the necessary concentration, and the spells I had tried quite exhausted. They were anything but minor cantrips; I had put all my energy and will into them trying to break through. The last one was my most powerful entry invocation. I'd known it to blast a hole through a three foot thick wall of rock. Here it smashed ineffectively against the border in a shower of green and purple sparks that snaked off like tiny lightnings before finally fading away from the central point of impact. I bowed my head in defeat. Damnation.

The Mists were gone, yet still was I a prisoner.

"No!" I snarled aloud to myself. The wolves growled as if agreeing with my denial.

My captivity was something I'd sworn I would never accept. The answer of escape existed; I simply hadn't discovered it yet. Physically shaking off this latest failure, I rounded on Auric. He saw I had something in mind for him and stood, his face pinched with sudden worry.

"I have a small favor to ask of you," I began, walking swiftly toward him, gathering fresh power with each step.

Before he could respond one way or another, I froze him in place with a word and a stony look. The wolves, sensing something uncanny was afoot, milled around in some confusion, whimpering. From a pocket I drew forth a small amulet on a thin necklace and slipped it over Auric's head. I had intended this magical trinket for Tatyana as a means of looking out for her safety from afar, but it would serve well in this instance. Putting forth my full power I took control of Auric's frail human mind and in turn his body, operating it like a puppet-master. His will was not up to resisting mine at the moment, though he might try struggling later. As proof against that possibility I would require a certain amount of protection and privacy so I could concentrate. The mine presented an answer to both needs.

It seemed wise to arm Auric with a bit of magic so that he could at least survive long enough to be useful. I possessed a number of them, but they were only good if one was skilled at spell casting. I did have a small copper wand, though, prepared so that the utterance of a single word would unleash the powers stored within it. This would work well enough for him should the need arise. I tucked it into one of his pockets.

Leaving the quiescent Auric without, I ducked inside the mine, my eyes quickly adjusting to the pitch blackness there. I picked a careful path, the shaft suddenly widening into a natural chamber, the floor dipping low. Above I heard the familiar squeal and rustle of bats. From the quantity of droppings on the floor I deduced that the greater part of them were out hunting and no doubt would fill the place once they returned. With this in mind I found a convenient alcove out of the line of fire and tucked myself tidily away, lying flat on the cool stone floor, my cloak wrapped about me.

Now did I redouble my concentration, aided by the crystal ball that I clasped between my hands on my chest. I looked closely into its depths, my mind consumed with an image of Auric until I again seemed to stand next to him. That accomplished, I focused upon the amulet.

A few minutes more and I seemed to be inside its amber colored depths… looking out. It was disorientating, being both bodily in the mine yet mentally elsewhere, but it was otherwise harmless to me.

The original intent of the amulet was for Tatyana to wear it and by this link could I see the approach of any threat to her and either help her myself or send some form of protection to her aid. Thus no matter the distance between us, she wouldn't be without a guardian.

In Auric's case I was less a guardian than an observer. The amulet reinforced the impact of my influence over him, but if he truly tried to resist I would have trouble keeping control.

Time to test my limits. I had him step forward, halting just before the border, and put his hand out. It moved freely past the point where earlier I had been blocked. Taking one slow pace and then another, he easily passed over the invisible line that had held me back.

The image in my crystal dimmed somewhat, and I felt my influence over his mind slip. My power beyond the border, such as it was, was limited. The magic of the amulet held fast, though. If not for its boosting link through the crystal I doubted I would have been able to see much at all.

Auric paused, shaking his head. I sensed his resistance and fought to overcome it, sending him soothing reassurances to calm him. It seemed best to compel him to think of this as being nothing more than a harmless dream conjured by his drinking. Happily he accepted the lie and I was able to get him walking again-deeper into Forlorn.

For the first time in ages I was out of Barovia, by proxy only, but free. Perhaps it was the initial start of my path to a more permanent freedom.

With most of the wolf pack bounding at Auric's side (the half-grown pups were left behind with some of the lesser ranking adults as guardians for them and my body) he marched swiftly over the last of the valley to reach the dark of the trees. Mindful of his human-dulled senses, I had him pause while my children forged ahead as scouts into the unknown territory. Barovia was a singularly dangerous place to be up and about after sunset; why should Forlorn be any different? I wanted them to see what threat, if any, it might hold.

The wolves turned up nothing, so heading west, Auric trotted fast along the edge of the woods. On his left the wolves threaded more easily through the shadows under the trees, keeping pace. They were quieter now, as though aware of my wish for silence. He covered nearly a mile in this manner before he had to stop for a brief rest.

As he puffed and blew to catch his breath, I noted a change in the wolves. They snuffled about, excited about something. I had Auric listen hard, but nothing came to him in the quiet night air. He was growing afraid; I felt it welling up in his mind and again had to ease his fears by reminding him he was having only a vivid dream. It would do no harm to see it through. His vulnerable mind again accepted the lie, since anything more exotic was quite beyond his experience.

In keeping with the illusion of a dream, I had him draw his sword and hold it at ready. I almost seemed to feel it myself, the weight comfortable in my grip, bringing forth a rush of memories of old battles. I had been human then, susceptible as any of my soldiers to injury and death. The feeling of heady excitement overwhelmed me a moment; I'd forgotten what it felt like to put everything at casual risk, to once more live on the edge of utter destruction. Though it wasn't really myself in peril, this was the closest I had come to the brink in ages. It was quite exhilarating.

Something of this must have passed through to Auric, for he needed no urging on my part to move forward, walking parallel to the edge of the forest until coming even with the restless wolves again. Most cooperative of him, to be sure.

I had him take a final look around to set his bearings. Far ahead to the west I discerned a featureless pale wall following the lay of the land. At this distance it had to be huge to be seen, rising very high indeed into the sky.

The Mists.

My prison had grown larger, but was still a prison.

The damned stuff must be marking the border of Forlorn now, encompassing the new land. How far did it extend? Was there yet another country joined to Forlorn? Had other lands suddenly attached themselves to Barovia as well?

I suppose I should have foreseen it, but hope tends to block out the negative aspects of a new situation. At some point I would have to school myself to become an unrepentant pessimist, for then I should have to endure only pleasant surprises. With a snort of disgust I pushed the whole business from my mind and had Auric enter the forest, following the wolves.

They were of great help finding a path in the right direction, my children easily sniffing out a thin trail he would never have discovered on his own. The foliage above was so thick as to block out even the strongest noon sun, so the path and all about it lay in a murk black at night. Using his sword like a cane, he kept his free hand on the shoulders of the pack leader to guide himself forward.

The oak trees abruptly opened, and he stood at the outer edge of a clearing no more than twenty paces across, the grassy floor dipping down like a shallow bowl. The oaks formed a too perfect circle, having obviously been planted and carefully tended centuries ago. The youngest of these patriarchs was at least four feet in diameter. Mistletoe twined around the boughs of the trees. In their center was a flat round stone like a table with many horizontal and vertical slashes marking its rim. Runes of some sort perhaps? The perfect circle of oaks. The mistletoe. The stone altar in the center of the grove. All of this tugged at my memory. Something I had seen in my life before coming to Barovia? Something I had read? No. An image of Alek Gwilym suddenly came to mind, our war horses standing upon a stony ridge that overlooked a valley spotted with oak trees. Many years ago it had been, years before my fateful transformation. Looking down into the valley as we had awaited the approach of the enemy's troops on the opposite ridge, he had relayed to me a story he'd heard from his grandfather about an order of priests in his northern homeland who held the oaks as sacred. Derwyds? No. Druids.

A druid's sacred grove. It was probably surrounded by magical protections, though those had proved futile against my wolves. Something else had drawn them here, then. The scent of old blood? Another torn up victim left by the horrors hiding in the forest? Where were the druids?

I could sense a distinct presence which was unknown to me. It reminded me of the residue of some spell or magic, not unlike certain spells I sometimes employed to disguise my presence, yet it was somehow different. Were the druids using some foreign magic to hide themselves? No. I was sure that had that been the case I could still have broken through their protections. This was different. Similar, but different.

The grass was undisturbed; no one had come this way recently to tread it down, but the circle did not look abandoned. Chances were the druids were fast asleep at this late hour safe in some other part of the forest. It did not explain the lingering presence I felt, but since I could see no immediate threat I committed the spot to memory and prepared to leave, with the idea of perhaps returning by means of my crystal to observe from afar later.

The pack leader suddenly began growling. Auric held his breath and listened. Perhaps the druids had set up some kind of magical trip wire that alerted them to the presence of a stranger and were coming after all. It seemed likely, so I had him order the wolves to retreat a few yards. Better that he appear to be a lone and harmless traveler than any kind of threat.

On the other hand, I hadn't discounted Auric's story of mangled bodies. I had him walk to the center of the circle, sword ready, ears straining. I could sense no spell work, but that could easily be because my senses were hampered by having to come through Auric.

The forest was preternaturally quiet. If something was moving under the dark boughs, even Auric's dulled hearing should have heard something of their movements. The faint starlight from the opening in the branches above helped me spot occasional stirrings in the undergrowth in all directions. Taking to the center might not have been such a good idea after all. It's one thing to appear vulnerable, and quite another to actually be that way.

I saw the glow of their red eyes first, peering out between the tree trunks. Like Azalin's, their lurid light was from a fire within, not the result of any reflection.

Linked as I was to Auric's mind I felt what he felt. The hair on his neck prickled; his breath froze in his throat as the first of them stepped from the cover of the trees, a twisted figure with a flattened skull and the wide mouth of a frog, full of needle-like teeth. Auric could pick up the death smell clinging to the thing. The stink was from its last meal, the gory evidence of which soaked the rags clothing its rough hide. That must have been what had drawn the wolves in.

Another of the ugly brutes appeared, then another until more than a dozen surrounded him. Some carried bladed weapons, but most were content to rely on their huge clawed hands and teeth. They had once been human, but no longer. Some dark magic or curse had changed them into these deadly, utterly fearless creatures. Never had I seen such creatures, though the Vistani had often whispered of them. Goblyns.

CHAPTER EIGHT

Auric was fortunate that I was present to take charge of things. His initial reaction was to run, which would have soon been the death of him. Instead I fought to hold him in place, calming the panic in his mind with patient reason.

It is only a dream. Give up full control of yourself to me and you will live to wake. Thus did I whisper into his stunned mind.

His reply was faint but affirmative. Perhaps he had no better idea of how to face this dream turned nightmare. It was as well for him that he was so cooperative. So far did he go in giving in to my wish that I almost felt fused to him in a strange way. We were separate beings seeming to share one body and for the moment he was allowing me to fully use it.

The monstrosities were apparently more accustomed to facing a surprised foe paralyzed with terror than a trained warrior ready and willing to attack with the same heartless ferocity of which they were capable. Growling, rolling their eyes, and flashing their teeth might give them the advantage with anyone else, but not with me. I kept worse things in the castle dungeons as pets.

The first moved toward us, taking its time or so it seemed in my reckoning. When the blood rage of battle is on me, my perception of events alters. Auric's body, responding to my urgent influence, stepped forward and used the sword for the purpose for which it was best designed, cutting the goblyn in half at the waist. It took more effort than I'd anticipated, but then Auric was not as strong as I would be were I there. Nonetheless, we didn't pause, and on the return sweep our blade rendered the same grisly service to the next one that dared approach.

The rest had little reaction to the demise of their fellows. From what the Vistani have told me, goblyns are created creatures, subject to the will of their master without much brain of their own. It is both a weakness and a strength; they aren't clever, but that makes them too stupid to retreat. The only way to stop them is to kill them, or if their master calls off the attack himself.

This spun through my mind as we killed two more. It was all the rest would allow as they rushed to close their circle around us. Retreating, we hurriedly leaped over the fresh bodies, reached the edge of the clearing to put our back to a tree, then I had Auric call for the wolves.

My children joyfully darted from their cover, their full throated snarls more than drowning out the cries of our common enemy. While they provided distraction, we waded into the slaughter, stabbing a goblyn and taking its short sword away. A second weapon doubled our effectiveness, but one of them clubbed us and another swiped a claw at our left flank, connecting. Auric felt the impacts but I paid little attention, being too busy keeping him in motion to pause.

Whenever one fell another took its place, but their numbers were finite, and they were hard pressed to deal with both Auric and the wolves. The latter did not seem to hold their interest. A goblyn, being dragged to the ground by three wolves, still futilely tried to reach out for us, even as it was being torn to shreds. We cut our way through two more, but I felt Auric slowing. His body was reaching its physical limit. His breath sawed in painful gasps, and he was losing muscle control. The goblyn with the club got in another strike, this time cracking it solidly down on Auric's left arm. He could not help dropping the blade. The goblyn tried for another strike, and if the wolves had not gone for the thing just in time, we might have come to grief then and there.

There were some five or six left, and Auric was fast nearing exhaustion. It made it more difficult for me to order him about. Our link through my hypnosis and the amulet was beginning to waver. I forced him to use his injured arm to fish out the copper wand, then actually spare a look at his hand to see if the wand was in the grip of his numbed fingers. With his breath almost gone, it was hard to make him speak the necessary words of summoning. I thought he had botched it, but suddenly saw a flare of light as the energies stored in the wand obediently lashed forth, hurling themselves against their targets, engulfing them.

Screams. Earsplitting, twisting, agonized screeches-And then it was all over except for the stink of burned flesh.

Auric fell back against the tree for support, panting like my wolves, who had had the sense to dodge out of the way when they saw the daylight bright glow forming around his left hand. They were quite clear of the area when the blue and purple flames licked out to envelop the remaining goblyns. For a few moments the grove was lighted by the malignant blaze of pure magical power as it ate the damned things to the bone. It burned itself out just as quickly, leaving behind charred corpses and a thick drift of black smoke.

The fire blinded us both for a short time. In the mine I blinked in frustration, until the afterimages of the goblyn's writhing forms finally started to fade from the crystal, and I could make out the shapes of my wolves milling about. None of them seemed to be seriously hurt, which astonished me. If the Vistani rumors of them were correct, goblyns are deadly with their slashing claws, and their usual form of attack is to grasp one's neck and start tearing into your face with their long teeth. They supposedly subsisted on raw flesh and were not above cannibalism, though unwary hermits had apparently been the preferred diet for this mob.

Druids might also be included, if they had allowed themselves to be captured. Auric's fellows were not the only ones inhabiting this forest to judge by this grove. He had made no mention of them, and I had specifically asked if anyone else dwelled in Forlorn. He was honestly ignorant of their presence. That was not too surprising. If the druids were as reclusive a lot as I remembered from Qwilym's tale, they could be as evasive as shadows.

The other mystery was why the goblyns had not been more forceful in their attack. Auric, even with me controlling his moves and with the help of the wolves, was still no match for a dozen of them. If they had really wanted to kill they should have succeeded. Therefore their master desired a prisoner, not a half-eaten carcass, which left the questions of who their master might be and how he'd known to send his servants.

The latter seemed to have a ready answer: perhaps the lord of this tiny country was as aware of intruders entering as I was for my own land. Was he like me, a child of the night? Or perhaps another lich like Azalin? Charming thought. Dare I hope that he was also trapped within his borders? Certainly I could hope, but I would prepare for the worst just in case. Yes, there were decided advantages to being a pessimist.

The castle Auric mentioned seemed as good a place as any to start looking into things, but I wasn't certain where it was. Oh, to be able to transform into a bat for a real view of the forest, not to mention leaving behind the distracting hurts Auric had collected. His arm throbbed mightily, a bruised bone perhaps, and the clawing he had taken burned like fire. He was becoming harder and harder to influence, to convince him that this was an unpleasant dream. He kept shaking his head, saying he wanted to wake up and leave.

A good idea, that. For all I knew a second lot of the disgusting creatures might this moment be on their way to deal with his intrusion. My grip on Auric was weakening by the minute, but I hated having to leave behind the dead goblyns. Portions of them could prove useful as components for certain kinds of spellwork, and the waste was galling. Perhaps I could hire people to cross the border and bring back a body or two. My wolves were making immediate profit from several of them already-as a change from preying on sheep and the occasional shepherd, I supposed.

The more I thought on it the greater my annoyance grew. I might as well get something tangible out of this expedition for all this trouble. Tired as Auric was, he could take at least one of the smaller ones along.

With considerable coaxing I had him pick out a corpse with a straight heart wound and order the wolves to pull it from the grove. I didn't want any protective magic lingering there to interfere with my spell. I told him to raise the wand directly over head and gave him the word to activate its stored travel incantation with the instruction to return himself and his burden to the mine.

He, along with the dead goblyn, appeared just outside the entrance, much to the surprise of the wolves there. I wasn't worried about the wolves left in Forlorn; they could find their way home easily enough. Those that welcomed him now sniffed with fierce curiosity at the goblyn, but through him I ordered them off before they decided to make a meal of it. My complete control over Auric was suddenly back. He was within Barovia again. Not that I had any further use for him.

A wave of weariness swept over him. Damn his weak human body. I relinquished my hold on his mind. The last fleeting glimpse I had through the amulet was the ground rushing up to meet him as he collapsed.

I was Strahd once more, looking through my own eyes. And I was decidedly uncomfortable in this cramped alcove. Something weighed me down as well, lots of somethings. I shifted slightly, stirring them, and they squeaked and chittered nervously, trying to hang onto their new perch. Baffling for a moment, then I understood that hundreds of bats covered me toe-to-chin like a living blanket. It almost made me laugh. Very devoted of them to be sure, trying to keep me warm.

Simply standing up might crush some of them, so I avoided the problem by dissolving into mist form. They were discommoded anyway to tell by their surprised protests as their bed suddenly vanished. As I drifted toward the entry, I sensed them skittering and flapping around the cave chamber on their way back up to the roof.

I continued on until feeling the push of outside air and resumed man-form again at the mine opening. I was grateful to be controlling my own strong body once more, free of Auric's slow reactions and other defects of mortality. The wolves snuffled at Auric's body but left him alone. Apparently any friend of Strahd's was a friend to them. The cubs were playfully crawling on top of him, tongues lolling as if with laughter.

He didn't once stir at their antics nor when I reclaimed my copper wand and the used up amulet. I would just have to create another. As for how Auric would deal with his too vivid dream and mysterious injuries, he was on his own. Lord Vasili had paid him well for services rendered; he wasn't obliged to hang about to answer questions.

This scouting foray had been all too brief and damaging-at least to Auric-but instructive. I knew what had been killing the hermits and would have to turn my crystal in the direction of Forlorn to try to discover who controlled the goblyns. I needed to know whether the things would be crossing the border in the future and be ready for it. If once the damned creatures got into Barovia, they would infest the mountains like roaches in a pantry and there would be no end of trouble-unless I could find a way to control them myself. But I would rather not have to try as it would take time and effort away from my work with Azalin.

Until I knew more I would send word to the boyars about this possible threat. The peasants were good at locking themselves in at night, but even the best stout door and bolts would not be enough against a determined hoard of goblyns. I would have to tell the Vistani and use them as scouts. Border checkpoints would have to be set up, with people to man them. That would give the boyars something constructive to do with their excess energy.

I would have to attempt another traveling spell to get home. Though my body was unfatigued, the last few hours had been quite exhausting mentally. The charge in the wand was gone, so I would have to summon the magic myself. This would fatigue me more, but not as much as having to physically haul that goblyn's damned stinking body over half of Barovia. With a sigh, I ordered the wolves out of the way and began the casting.

***

The effort was worth it; I made quite an entrance sweeping into my study-Azalin was there poring over the books-to drop the dead goblyn on the cold hearth stones.

My guest kept a carefully neutral expression on his illusionary face, but he was definitely surprised. Normally nothing could distract him from his researches, but he stopped everything to come over for a look.

"Making a change in your usual diet?" he inquired, nudging its arm with his booted toe.

"Hardly, but there has been a major change in Barovia."

It never occurred to me to keep this information to myself; it was far too important to our mutual goal. He was reluctant to accept the truth of Forlorn's existence at first, but took the inarguable presence of the goblyn's body as very immediate proof. He knew I never tolerated such vermin in Barovia; I had far superior servants to control whose feeding habits weren't in competition with my own. Once past this initial obstacle of disbelief, he settled into full-blown analysis of the situation.

We talked the remains of the night speculating about Forlorn and its implications to our work, but we couldn't get very far for lack of basic information. At dawn Azalin planned to depart for the new border and study it in person in an effort to answer all the questions we raised.

Upon awakening the next night I immediately sought my crystal ball and checked on Azalin's progress-though not too closely. He was barely halfway along and must have returned to his manor house for pack horses, equipment, and supplies for an extended stay.

Next I focused on the border, tearing high overland from one end to the other hoping to find some useful clue. All that came to my notice was the fact that the Misty edge of my existence was still in place, only now it enclosed Forlorn.

I then let my memory dredge up the sight of the grove that I might go there again. It proved to be something of a struggle, like trying to take a reluctant horse over a difficult hurdle. The more I insisted the more I was met with opposition. I began to fear that like my body, my Sight would not be able to cross the boundaries of Barovia.

I kept at it until my eyes blurred and my head swam with the effort. Just as I was about to give up, the breakthrough came. A bright light flared and died in the crystal, and within its depths the grove was visible but rippling as though it lay at the bottom of a stream. It gradually steadied and grew stronger, and I shut my eyes to allow my inner vision to take me there. Rather than a tiny picture, it seemed that I stood in the midst of the grove and could look about me. The view was imperfect, but better than not being there at all.

Nothing had changed much since the previous night. A few goblyn bodies which had managed to escape the consuming flames still littered the ground, though many had been plundered for food by my wolves and other scavengers. Curiosity satisfied, I rose high over the fly-infested pile until I was above the trees and saw the castle Auric had mentioned. It was but a few miles west by a small lake, and his assessment of it as an evil place looked to be accurate. It was nowhere close to the faded grandeur of my own domicile, but it still possessed a distinct gloominess of aspect that belied its smaller size.

The design was of a style strange to me, for though I could pick out towers and walls, their relation to each other seemed to have nothing to do with the art of defense. Archers' windows were placed in the wrong spots to be of any use, and the battlements, such as they were, appeared to be for decorative purposes only. The curtain wall looked strong enough, but it wouldn't last a week against a determined siege. What sort of lord ruled such a careless collection of stones as this?

I soared in my mind's eye over the useless wall and down into the main courtyard, finding a continuance of the odd architecture but no evidence of occupation. Approaching the main entrance to the castle itself I studied the door lintel, discerning a single word carved into the stone: Tristenoira.

Whether that was the name of the castle or the family that raised it or both was impossible to say. I entered, seeming to float through the door, and looked about the inner hall, seeing only shadows and dusty furnishings. Some faded portraits hung from the walls, again in an unfamiliar artistic style, the clothing of the subjects suggestive of a different cultural source than Barovia's.

A quick sweep through the rest of the place turned up more of the same and no occupants, though that meant nothing. Sight is a useful, but limited sense, showing what is before you, but nothing else. Someone or something controlled the goblyns, but it deigned not to reveal itself. Perhaps on some future night I might find it instructive to hypnotize another man, through an amulet around his neck, and visit this Tristenoira by proxy. There were bound to be impressions that one could gather only by being there, but I could wait for Azalin to finish his investigations.

He initially stayed in various spots along the border, methodically sifting through every imaginable detail and a few others besides, conducting test after magical test. I watched without interfering as he questioned countless frightened locals, not gaining any satisfactory answers to judge by the chronically disgruntled look upon his visage.

After a week of preliminary study he finally crossed over to explore Forlorn. Being asleep, I was unable to follow his daytime exploits, but even in my sleep I was aware of whenever he returned to Barovia. It seemed that my link to the land had grown very profound, indeed, to give me this much sensitivity. If there was a ruler controlling Forlorn-which was likely however shy he was about showing himself-then did he also have this ability? Perhaps so, considering the swiftness of the goblyn attack on Auric.

He must have been more cautious about inflicting the same game upon Azalin, though. The moment I shed my daylight stupor, I brought up his image in the crystal to see how he fared. He had apparently been allowed to wander unscathed through the forests to judge by his unconcerned manner.

Then I saw the movement of shadows within the trees. Azalin must have noticed them at the same time and kicked his horse to a gallop, but another pack of the things were well ahead of him and cut him off.

He fought them with formidable magic, killing many, but he lacked the advantage of wolves for allies. The sheer number of goblyns finally got the better of him for a moment, and he was unhorsed. They ignored the panicked beast and clawed at the fallen rider instead. Again, this attempt to take a prisoner.

Azalin tore free, using a spell to cut a path through the press of bodies and fled on foot barely ahead of their gnashing teeth. I did not think they would be able to destroy him, but it was still a most entertaining display to see. However, it angered me that he was leading the filthy things straight into my land.

As he crossed into Barovia something very interesting occurred. As if in response to my exasperation, a thick white band of fog suddenly swelled out of the clear air, gathered along the invisible line of the border, and rose high. He didn't notice it at first, being too busy running, but he must have heard it when the goblyns rushed into the stuff, for he risked a backward look.

I sensed them coming in, just as I'd sensed Azalin's entry, and as my anger surged so did the fog. It bloomed around them, engulfing them like a tide. They were soon unable to pursue their quarry, having given up that sport for clutching their throats and choking. Before too long they were writhing on the ground coughing out their last bit of life. The few who tried to return to Forlorn did not make it.

Well, well.

Drawing back my view I saw that the whole length of the border at this point was rife with the fog, which was apparently identical to the poisonous vapor that encircled my castle.

And it was-so far as I could observe-very much under my control. When I thought about the stuff retreating, it did so. It grew larger or smaller at my whim.

The chains that tied me to Barovia had grown yet another link, it seemed, but a most useful one for dealing with breathing enemies. A pity it would not have the same effect on Azalin as it would the goblyns, but poison is fairly useless against those who are already dead.

***

Some days after this incident, Azalin finally returned to his manor house with stacks of exhaustive notes and records of all he'd done. If he guessed that I had anything to do with the fog coming to his timely rescue, he made no mention of it. At the same time I pretended to be ignorant of his overland escape, lest it reveal to him my spying with the crystal. Thus out of a sense of mutual self-preservation were we reduced to such games-playing.

I sifted through the information he had gleaned and could offer no further explanation for the bald reality that a new land had appeared in this plane. How and why it had come to be was not something either of us could answer. Perhaps, like me, its ruler had enacted some magical trip wire the nature of which we did not as yet understand, but that was as far we could carry the speculation. Facts were required and there were damned few of them. Even the Vistani had no insights to offer, though they avoided the place more often than not. It had no population to speak of, and the goblyns made a poor audience for their entertainments. The one good point of it all for me was the knowledge I could close the border to anything that breathed.

Azalin's fascination with Forlorn lasted for less than a month, at which time he decided its appearance, I though interesting, was of no real importance to our situation.

"If we can find out how it came here, then we can find out how to take the same road back," I told him, when he made his announcement to abandon his research.

"Were it as simple as that, then I'd have found it by now," he stated.

"You cannot make assumptions. A few weeks' work is nothing-"

"Not when it is on top of the previous years of effort. Backtracking the way here has been the core of my experiments since I arrived and you well know it. This road, as you call it, is a dead end."

"You discount it too quickly."

"I know when a line of study is pointless. Pursue it if you wish, but I have other, more promising areas in which to direct my talents."

I might have thought he was trying to discount Forlorn's importance as a means of preventing me from knowing too much but for his driving desire to quit Barovia and return to his home. He was quite obsessive on the subject, so I could trust that, if nothing else about him. This contention was like hundreds of others, part of our ongoing disagreement over the approach of solving the problem of escape.

So he continued with the line he'd been exploring prior to the interruption and again made lengthy and involved preparations. His next experiment at the following summer equinox failed miserably.

As did the next. And the next.

CHAPTER NINE

575 Barovian Calendar

One winter night I awoke to a decided feeling of unease and knew another great change had taken place. I was unsure what it was at first. It was similar to the feeling I got whenever anyone crossed from Forlorn into Barovia, but it seemed much… larger. I immediately rose and made use of the crystal to see what was amiss.

A few thousand nights of practice had lessened the difficulty I'd initially experienced viewing into this other land, so the concentration required wasn't nearly as severe. I started with the northwest corner of Forlorn closest to the Tristenoira castle and worked my way southeast. It took about an hour to go over the twenty miles of snow-covered ground. None of it showed the least evidence of tracks, goblyn or otherwise.

That left the rest of the land. I had an insistent and growing feeling that whatever had happened was big enough to be noticed from a distance. Sweeping my viewpoint to the topmost peak of Mount Sawtooth, I used it as a base to see most of the southern portions of Barovia. Nothing unusual presented itself, so I shifted to Mount Baratak in the north.

Success. I couldn't take it in right away, thinking that some stray snow cloud blocked my sight of the Mists. But going lower and closer revealed that the Mists in this spot had drawn back an indefinite distance. Another new land was seamlessly connected to Barovia, stretching out along the northwestern border. Through the crystal I could move faster than the fiercest winter gale. I descended into this new land to investigate.

I struck a barrier, invisible but palpable, in resistance a duplicate to what I met whenever crossing into Forlorn. It was another border. Another country.

The land stretched on without sign of the Mists ahead, so I continued forward, taking in the sight of more forests with a few isolated dwellings. Small farms and shepherds dominated. No soldiery.

Lamordia. The name whispered itself right into my mind, an announcement from I knew not where.

I continued eastward, skimming the border of my own land. I moved quickly, not bothering with details for the moment, desiring rather to discover the extent of my new neighbor. Much to my surprise, I passed through yet another invisible barrier.

This new land was considerably larger in size than Forlorn, the chief feature being a mountain so vast and high and sprawling as to dwarf proud Balinok. Indeed, the thing looked to take up an area as large as Barovia itself.

Dipping lower, I brushed over the tree tops to the line of the border, and it was indeed a line. The Barovian forests, where they butted against it, stopped abruptly, along with the snow, though the lay of the land continued unaltered. A hill remained a hill, but trees grew thick on one side, while long grasses and low shrubs covered the other. Much of their growth was pressed in a permanent bend in the direction of the wind, which must have been very strong to be so obvious at this height to me. No trees were in evidence anywhere in this desolation, though the vegetation looked formidable enough to offer concealment for any number of nasty surprises.

I moved closer and followed the edge from one side to the other, about thirty miles of it, and saw no sign of habitation. It looked to be as deserted as Forlorn, but until proven otherwise, I would assume there were hidden dangers here as well. At either end of our borders the imprisoning Mists rose high.

A faint movement on the Barovian side caught my notice, and I focused and swept down upon it. Azalin. With a small pack train.

I wondered how he had found out. Perhaps he'd set up some sort of magical warning against just such an occurrence.

Forced to travel overland, he had to have begun early this morning, which gave me an estimate of when the new land had appeared for he was nearly to the border. He must have taken an ice sled from Vallaki and let the prevailing winds carry him swiftly along the length of Lake Zarovich. Though sometimes dangerous, that would have cut quite a few miles and hours from his trip. Winter travel in Barovia is neither easy nor safe. He would then have to skirt two out-flung spurs of Baratak by toiling through nearly trackless forest. A journey of twenty miles would take nearly the whole day. Even now he was only just making his way along a winding path that would lead to a saddle ridge linking one portion of Baratak to another. Half of it lay in Barovia and half sloped down into the new land.

I put my crystal safely away and made some spell preparations against whatever unknown loomed ahead, then performed the very useful travel casting. By the time Azalin toiled up the summit of the saddle, I was already there and waiting, wrapped snug in my cloak while the night winds tossed drifts of snow around me. He could not feel the cold himself, of course, but the snow was a nuisance to him and his tired animals.

He made no comment about my sudden appearance in his path, but annoyance was in every line of his posture. How much easier it would be for him to use this particular traveling spell, only he was unable to do so. I was always cordial, pretending not to notice his limitation, something that always irked him. One would think after all this time that he'd have accepted the fact and be over the aggravation. I ever kept the advantage by not gifting him with copper wands charged with it, indeed; I acted as though the idea had not even occurred to me.

He dismounted and tied the reins to a tree, then toiled up the last yards to stand a few paces distant, looking down the opposing slope.

"Have you tried crossing into it?" he asked after taking a good look around.

"Yes. I cannot."

"The same as Forlorn," he stated.

"When did you notice this new presence?"

"At dawn. I began riding then."

"Does it look familiar to you?"

"No."

"Any ideas why and how it came to be here?"

He made a throwing away motion with one gloved hand, as if to dismiss me and my questions, his gaze still riveted ahead. Unless I read him wrong, he looked hungry. The sating of appetite would be far more complicated for him than for me. His greedy lust was for knowledge, something not always easily obtained. This plane of existence in this pocket of reality was ever stingy with its secrets.

Our mutual silence lengthened. After all these years we did not have that much to say to each other. We already long knew what things upon which we agreed; the rest usually devolved into pointless bickering about which we were both quite bored. He finally turned back to his horses, going to the pack animal and tugging at the ties of something large and bulky strapped to its back. The cloth-shrouded bundle dropped heavily to the snow in a familiar way. Shroud was an excellent description, for it did cover a body.

Azalin threw back the rough fabric, revealing the ragged form of a man dead for about a month. I dimly recognized the face as belonging to a drunken thief who'd tried to break into a house in Vallaki one night during the last new moon. Unfortunately for him, I'd caught him in mid-invasion and administered my justice accordingly. He'd been very drunk, else he wouldn't have been so foolish as to be out after sunset. So soaked was his blood with cheap wine it had given me a pleasant period of lightheadedness that I hadn't felt in many decades; that was the only reason I recalled his features out of so many thousands of others.

Azalin must have stopped at the Vallaki burial grounds along his way to make a disintemment.

I watched him proceed with the raising ritual. It's a complicated process, but he had honed it to a fine art with much practice and was very quick about it. Not long after, the thing began to ponderously twitch with a parody of life. It sat up with a groan as month old air rushed out its gaping mouth. Considering the appearance of the corpse, I was glad that breathing was no longer a necessity for me.

The dead thief woodenly rose, shedding clumps of snow and earth and trudged toward the border, with Azalin in its wake. He stopped at the edge, but his zombie continued on under his direction, breaking past the last drift of Barovian snow and plodding through the long, wind-blown grasses.

"Wherever this land's origin, it must not have been winter there," I observed.

He did not reply, his concentration focused on the zombie. Its white, sightless eyes were open, and Azalin would be using them to magically see what was within its range of view. He was linked to the thing in a similar manner as I employed when using my crystal ball.

The zombie continued down until it reached a flat valley running between the land saddle and the foot-hills of the huge mountain.

"What do you see?" I asked, for the creature was becoming too distant for me to clearly follow its progress.

Azalin took his time replying. "Nothing of interest," he finally muttered. "Grass and brush. It's very windy."

That I knew already. The pervasive winds did not assault us, though, seeming content to remain on that side of the border. The snow was something else again, making a creeping foray into the new land. If it was winter in Barovia, then it would be winter everywhere else as well.

Azalin abruptly shook his head and dropped back a few steps. I watched him narrowly, for he was not one to exhibit weakness at any time. He recovered and pushed forward until he was right on the border; for all the world he looked like a hungry child peering into a bake shop window.

"What is happening?" I demanded, getting the strong feeling that something was wrong.

He made an unintelligible snarl and continued to stare down the path his zombie had trod in the grass. I also looked long and hard, but even my night vision brought me no sign of his creature.

"I've lost contact with it," he said after a moment. For him to admit any kind of weakness was highly unusual. "I'm going to follow it in."

Here he glanced at me, almost as if to seek permission, but more to get my reaction to his announcement. This was as close as he'd come to a reference to the Forlorn incident. After that unpleasant business with the goblyns, he'd shown no further interest in quitting Barovia for its neighbor, which was of some relief to me. The last thing I wanted was for him to take charge of his own land.

Dare I take the risk once again? Perhaps he would find this place more hospitable and set himself up as its ruler.

On the other hand, my curiosity was as great as his. If something had dealt with his zombie, chances were it might prove as dangerous to Azalin. Quite a cheering thought, that.

The risks for both of us seemed equal at this point.

I shrugged as if unconcerned. "Do as you please."

Without further delay, he stepped forward into the grass, shaking the snow from the hems of his robes. He paused after ten paces, carefully looking and listening. I knew he would be alert to any magic in the air as well as trying to re-establish contact with his servant. Another ten paces and nothing happened.

"Can you see it?" I called after him.

"Not yet."

The wind kicked up to a higher force, and he had to lean into it to keep his balance. It would greatly restrict his ability to hear anything. Ten more paces, fighting the rising wind for each one of them.

"Well?" I shouted.

He made a dismissive waving motion, too occupied trying to stay on his path to answer. The wind howled around him, tearing at his clothing. He struggled mightily against it, and I got the impression he was going to try some spellwork to make the weather more accommodating to exploration. He started to pull a scroll from one of his pockets-

Then Azalin staggered as though struck by a large, invisible fist. The force of it was enough to lift him right from the ground and send him flying high and far. Arms flailing and legs kicking, he arced straight over my head and landed with an audible thud, sprawling gracelessly in the snow, his rich robes in much disarray. I hurried over in time to see the look of vast surprise flashing across his face, but that was soon supplanted by anger as he recovered from the assault.

I looked down at him and tried to hide my amusement at his indignity with bright curiosity. "It seems your presence is not welcome there," I concluded.

"Impossible," he snapped, struggling to his feet. I didn't offer to help.

"Then what else could it be?"

He sneered. "Maybe it was more goblyns."

"It looked more like a backlash effect, which means someone interfered with your hold on that thing. They cut off your control, lured you in, then gave you a bloody nose for your trouble."

I must have been living up to my name, for the devil was certainly in me at that moment. His red eyes flashed on me for an instant, his expression that of pure, naked hatred. I had seen it before and was unimpressed.

To his credit he managed to hold in his temper and not try anything foolish. He smoothed his facial illusion back to its usual lines of disdain and turned from me to the new land.

"Going to make a second try?" I inquired, all interest.

In answer he strode forward and crossed in-by exactly one pace.

"Any sense of another's presence?" I asked after a moment.

He shut his eyes and-evidently straining as if to hear distant sound-shook his head. "There is a… I can't quite…"

Then I heard it-a kind of voiceless whisper, the sort that can only happen when spoken directly into one's mind. I recognized it, having heard something very similar centuries ago when making my bargain with Death.

"Arak," it said.

I saw by Azalin's reaction that he "heard" it, too. He quietly stepped back across the border.

"What is the meaning?" I murmured, staring out over the new land's wind-blasted landscape.

He shook his head. "I think that is the name of this place. Arak."

As he spoke the name the conviction came to me that he was absolutely correct. I grunted a short acknowledgment. We were both too used to the vagaries of the Art to question this strange mental missive. "Do you plan to study this place?"

"Of course I will."

"After the business with Forlorn, I got the impression you were not especially interested."

"Only after I'd exhausted all the other lines of investigation it had to offer. With Arak's appearance, I can now repeat what I have done and compare the two with what I know about Barovia, then see if any useful answers reveal themselves."

"Will you require more laboratory equipment?" When it came to such material supplies, Azalin was a bottomless pit of necessity.

"I'll inform you if I do."

"Have you any initial hypothesis to prove with all this research?"

"It has to do with the conjunction phenomenon."

He'd spoken of his pet theory a few times in the past. He had the idea that our plane occasionally joined itself with others, including the one belonging to the elusive Oerth. In this manner outsiders were able to enter, but the openings must be in one direction only and but temporary in nature. If the gates were a permanent and obvious fixture in the other planes, there would be far more newcomers invading Barovia.

"My thought is that it may be possible for whole sections of lands from outside to be drawn to this plane," he said.

"Why?"

"That remains to be discovered, but it may be for a similar reason why so many bandits and the like are transported here by the Mists. It could be triggered by some harrowing negative event centered around a single powerful individual, a reverse conjunction, if you will."

"On a very large scale. It seems rather much to center around a single person."

"Yet you are here; your isolation generated the night of your brother's wedding."

A reminder I did not welcome. "And what about Forlorn?"

"That worthless creature skulking in the castle apparently collected enough negativity with its pathetic crimes to cause the surrounding lands to break away-or perhaps the Mists came for it."

After several years of poking and prodding, I eventually discovered the existence of Forlorn's reigning lord. "Creature" was as accurate a description as it could hope to have, being an unlikely hybrid. At night it was a ghost and by day one such as myself, its movements limited. By common consent Azalin and I generally ignored the wretch, and it returned the favor.

Azalin continued, "I shall attempt to find the reason behind Arak's appearance here."

I silently wished him luck in that endeavor, for he would certainly need it.

"I am of a mind that other lands may also come to join themselves to Barovia in this plane, like pieces of a table puzzle. Gather enough together and one might understand the whole picture."

"That could take centuries at this rate."

He sniffed. "Neither of us is going anywhere."

"My exact point," I dryly returned.

He deigned not to respond to that, and I took my leave skyward, riding the winds along the new border, going over the ground I had viewed in the crystal. Nothing interesting presented itself. If Azalin's optimism about discovering anything useful paid off, well and good, but I had serious doubts. He'd failed far too often in the past for me to start bolstering myself with hope at this late date. The idea of sharing eternity with his abrasive company was a dismal one, but unless some other change happened besides the bringing of new inmates and property into the prison, it looked to be the future for us both.

My instincts were that the Barovian peasants here would simply accept the continuation of the land into Arak without question, the same as the mining communities in the south had accepted Forlorn. I had sent declarations out to the boyars in the area, advising anyone against crossing that border owing to the danger presented by the goblyns. I did not forbid the activity entirely, only cautioned that they would do it at their own risk. It's been my experience that once any given activity is prohibited it becomes irresistible bait to lure the foolish into trying it. Though it was a way of clearing out the mental deadwood, I preferred to cleave to my own less wasteful methods. I despise the squandering of perfectly good blood.

The recovery and exhibition of additional goblyn bodies over the years proved to be an excellent determent to would-be explorers and emigrants and inspired the boyars to willingly cooperate in the assembling of a loose domestic militia along the border. When the weather permitted they gathered at least once a moon to do battle drills, and the cultivation of sword fighting skills came to be the fashion among the upper class families. Very impressive, though I doubted if any of them could stand more than five minutes in the heat of real combat before running like rabbits.

Still it was good for their morale to let them think they were loyally able to defend Barovia against all threats. When it came down to it, I was the only real defense for the country; these irregulars were little more than a delaying tactic, though they were not informed of that unpleasant reality.

Not knowing what possible danger awaited in Arak, would have to institute the same policy in the north, prepare for the worst, and hope nothing truly serious happened.

Over the next few months, from the comfort of Castle Ravenloft, I oversaw Azalin's efforts to solve the mystery of Arak. I kept my viewing distanced enough so as not to provoke his suspicions, yet I was able to keep fully abreast of his activities. I was not unaware of his hidden ambitions toward seizing Barovia away from me and was glad of this new distraction for him, though the thought of him taking over another land was not at all pleasant. The threat-however undeveloped at this point-existed, though, so I took pains to stay informed and alert.

He made several attempts to explore Arak using his zombies to no effect before finally hiring a party of explorers. They discovered what I'd already found out through my crystal, that the things he had sent had dropped in their tracks the moment they were beyond his sight, as if another force had taken them over and neutralized them. Except for the unburied and rotting bodies, there was no sign of habitation and no explanation of who or what had caused the backlash.

His expedition went missing the following day.

I was asleep, of course, and only got a terse report from him about the incident. He had waited in vain for their return, finally going in himself to see what had happened but found no sign of them. Their trail simply stopped. He found the remains of a long cold campfire, but all evidence of their passage, gear, animals, and all, had vanished. There wasn't even a trace of a footprint left.

Azalin swiftly returned with no idea of what became of his hirelings. This interested me mightily, for aside from this one act the land appeared to be more deserted than Forlorn, lacking even a haunted castle as a sign of a past population.

The exploratory sojourns ended after this, for no other Barovians could be persuaded to take the risk, and he was reluctant to put his own precious person forward. Then there was the fact that he was less interested in identifying the dangers hidden in the long grasses than working out the actual mechanics of Arak's appearance in our plane. This required slow, patient plodding work, for which he was well suited, though he needed my services often enough. I spent much time in his manor house laboratory helping him devise and test new spells, some of them simple but massive, others disastrously overwrought and doomed to failure. We did not always wait until a solstice or even an equinox to engage in experimentation. It now went on more or less constantly-as did the failures.

Time after time the nagging voice of hopelessness flailed my brain, telling me our efforts were futile; we were trapped here together for good. When my spirits were beaten down enough to listen to it, I would work out possible strategies for destroying Azalin. A daunting task, attempting to kill that which was already dead.

When it came to magic he was my superior, but I had the advantage of being able to learn new spells. Certainly his assassination would be one sure way of avoiding the prophesied war. If once he lost all hope of escape and chose to cut his losses and take over Barovia, war would surely come. I'd prepared for it in many subtle ways, but one cannot anticipate everything. If he attacked, he would play upon my daylight helplessness, and no delaying defense within or without my castle would stand long against him.

Even if I chose to violate the laws of hospitality, made the first move, and managed to obliterate his desiccated body, his life-force would only leap to another vessel unless I found a way to trap it. To truly be rid of him I needed to find where he secreted his essence of Self. It wasn't something he would just leave lying about; he'd be quick to notice an intrusion, so I had to tread carefully. I spent weeks at my crystal until my eyes blurred and shoulders cramped and my head seemed ready to split from the effort of concentration. Inch by inch I went over his manor house and the surrounding grounds, always being careful to stay out of his way during my search. But for nothing. I could not find it.

I did manage to locate his secret journal, which was something to celebrate. He had a very well-concealed private chamber he'd dug out in the cellars of the house that he'd wisely neglected to mentioned to me. I knew he had to have such a place since he had cast many spells over the area as proof against my prying about. As I increased my skills in the Art, I was able to get around them for a time and took what advantage I could. The chamber was loaded with protective trips and traps to alert him to both magical and physical intrusion, so I couldn't actually enter the place… his servitors could, though.

On those nights when he was otherwise engaged away from the house, I would distantly control one of his zombies to enter the chamber, take down the book, and flip the pages for me one by one. Azalin had encoded the lot, writing in an unfamiliar lettering, but that did not stop me from faithfully copying down each and every line as I sat miles away in my study.

That done, I set myself to do a bit of translation and after months of slow, patient, plodding work discovered the key to his code. Some of his journal entries were very sprightly in their candid observations. I knew he hated me, but it was quite entertaining to actually see the true depth of it as well as follow his plans for what he would do to me once he had escaped Barovia. I also found his plans for trying to take Barovia for himself. Assassination was foremost in his mind for putting me out of the way, and he had devised a dozen different means to do it. I noted them all and quietly prepared subtle counter-measures against them.

One night, after having supped upon a recent addition to my dungeons, I translated a portion of his journal which sent waves of elation and excitement through me. His name. After all of my prying and spying and listening, I had finally found it. With his own hand he'd betrayed himself. As I was often wont to do in my own journals, Azalin would occasionally muse upon past happenings of his life. In just such a passage I found it: Firan Zal'honan. At last, I had his true name. Now, if I could only find the method of using it against him.

***

579 Barovian Calendar

Come and be ready.

Thus read Azalin's most recent laconic message to me.

Since the appearance of Arak we had gradually taken the route of having less direct contact between us, excepting for those periods of experimentation. It was a basic clash of personalities, and we each recognized the danger. I once had a general under my command like that. He was excellent at his work, but neither of us could abide the presence of the other. We relied on messengers to communicate and managed to accomplish much. I repeated this stratagem with Azalin, and it seemed better for us both.

Though I had spent the ensuing months pursuing every tome of knowledge in my possession for a method to use Azalin's true name against him, I had found nothing. Bordering on desperation, I even asked Madam Ilka's tribe to search for me, be it tribal lore or legends from other lands through which they had traveled. But so far, nothing. Biding my time and content with the knowledge that I at last held the key to Azalin's undoing, I continued my search. If only I could find the proper lock in which I could use the key.

The meaning of his latest missive was clear enough. After nearly forty years of lengthy spellwork, constant sniping back and forth, and outright argument, we were thoroughly sick of each other, but fully understood even the briefest of notes. He had another escape attempt planned and needed my help.

It was still a month before the winter solstice, but some time back he'd indicated that he was following a fresh line of attack, which had my curiosity up. I had come to think that he'd exhausted his choices as he was exhausting my patience. But I duly donned a traveling cape, took to the wide night sky, and sped over the all too tediously familiar route to the manor house. I knew every rock and tree and when feeling particularly bored could fly it with my eyes shut.

The few changes I noted were with his house, which had undergone yet another renovation to accommodate his needs. Any night now I expected him to demand a larger place to work. For the last decade he'd expressed dissatisfaction, harping on the growing inadequacy of his facilities. I suspected that if he had his unchecked way, he'd encompass all of Barovia if he thought it necessary to his ends.

The tower still stood, though some of the more explosive failures had taken their toll on the integrity of the stonework. Massive logs had been cut and raised at intervals against the stress points to keep the thing from falling outward. We had both reinforced the structure throughout with spells, so we could trust it would hold up to almost anything.

The attached house was a near shambles again, only now Azalin no longer bothered concealing the shortcomings with illusion. The roof on one wing collapsed entirely after the shaking it took in the trembling aftermath of a particularly bad attempt fifteen years ago. He had merely removed his papers and other records to another part of the place, sealed off the walls, and left it to deteriorate. His private chamber below had been spared, so he was still recording things in his journal, which I busily copied whenever the chance presented itself.

I slipped in through a gap in the front doors (they had also suffered damage) and resumed man-form in the entry and listened a moment, determining that Azalin was in his laboratory as usual. A short walk and I was also there, staring at his latest expensive contrivance. It made his first effort look like a child's toy.

The ceramic brick well was still the center of it and one of the only things unchanged from its original construction. There were some similarities with the rest but on a larger, more elaborate scale. The wall was covered to the ceiling with countless racks holding glass vessels, the liquids within linked by hundreds of miles of copper wire. Twisted strands of it an inch thick were now threaded through holes drilled in the wall where they led outside, imbedded into the earth.

The roof was quite gone, partly by damage and partly by design. The stars shone down unimpeded by glass panes and lead framing. He used spell work to keep out the rain and snow through the year.

Two tree trunks, stripped of their bark and carved with thousands of sigils of power, had been erected high over the well and fitted out with a series of pulleys and other tackle. One piece crossed the other, each cut to fit snugly together at their intersection point. Hanging from hooks below the intersection were the bodies of two goblyns harvested from Forlorn. They were upside down with their throats cut, their rank, noisome blood coating the inside of the shallow well.

Floating at the compass points around it were four perfectly round globes about a foot across. They glowed with hot writhing color, evidence of the dangerously suppressed forces within. Touch them the wrong way and they could blow a person to several thousand well-cooked shreds.

Azalin glanced up as I came in. "It's about time," he snapped and bent once more over whatever detail held his attention.

He continued thus for another quarter hour or so, ignoring my presence. Even had I used my travel spell to arrive the moment after getting his note, he'd still have grumbled about my being late. And he still kept me waiting.

I made no comment at this lapse of logic, standing quietly and out of the way as I'd done dozens of times before. Interruption would only prolong our contact. Instead, I stilled my emotions that they might not interfere with whatever was to come, but the powers in the room began to work on my nerves, as they always did. My magical sense was very acute in this place, and the sensation was not often pleasant, especially when there was so much of it stored up ready to be unleashed.

My common sense was not unaffected either. Azalin's current effort was far greater than any previously, and I wondered at his ability to handle it. Was he becoming so desperate for results that he was risking more than was remotely safe? I was reminded of the fable of the braggart, hoping to impress his liege, who tried to ride a bucking horse only to find it turned into a lion when he wasn't looking.

Azalin suddenly finished and glanced up. "There." He pointed, not at my usual spot but to a place halfway between the compass points. I offered no argument and simply went there and stood quiet while he made one more check of something.

I am not meek; such insecurity is not in me. I merely tolerated his orders. When it came down to actualities, I was the true power here. Working with this level of the Art, with spells he could design but not execute, Azalin was like a composer with no hands. He could dictate the notes, but it was up to another to actually play the music. And I was an excellent musician.

"The Holding, followed by the Direction," he ordered. "I'll deal with the rest."

Now this was different. Had he nothing fresh for me to memorize? It could only mean he'd designed this casting around spells he'd already long mastered. I didn't care much for that. His dependence upon me for learning new ones was the chief reason why he had refrained from making an open challenge to my authority. What was he trying to do?

Then I had to set my questions aside. He stepped up onto his own place at the lip of the well, not opposite me, but just to my left, also standing between compass points. He held his arms straight out before him, and after a brief pause he began droning the words of summoning in his harsh voice.

A wind immediately whipped up from nowhere and everywhere, sweeping in an endless circle within the confines of the tower wall. It caused all the glass to rattle, thrummed between the copper wires, and made the bodies of the goblyns sway to and fro. The taut ropes holding them creaked lazily.

The liquids in the glass, light or dark, had been transparent, but now slowly began to turn opaque, as though polluted with mud. The lower ranks began to bubble, releasing a noxious vapor.

Azalin's drone rose to an intricate chant, and at the appropriate instant I joined in half a phrase behind his lead, echoing his intent.

The next rank of glass started to spew out vapor, then the next. The effect rose all the way to the top until pale clouds of it, quite untouched by the now screaming wind, cascaded down to the floor like a fall of fog. Or mist.

What in hell-?

I had to concentrate on the chant, one misplaced word, one falter in the rhythm, and the whole framework could collapse. The wind tore at my cloak, but I held fast, keeping my balance. As the fog pooled on the floor and rose, the wind diminished, then ultimately died away.

Azalin's voice faded, but not from lack of breath; the fog seemed to be absorbing the sound, smothering it in some way. It was soaking up the power of his words as they left his lips, and the same was happening to me. The louder I shouted the more was taken away. I could feel my own reserves of strength being drawn off.

To feed what?

The mist rose higher until it reached the lip of the well, then overflowed into it. It began to coalesce, become thicker, less active.

My throat ached from shouting, yet I could hear nothing of it. I spared a glance at Azalin. He made a gesture to indicate I should break off and start the holding phase of the cast. I gladly did so, though I was deaf to my own words. What effect could they possibly have under these circumstances?

The thickened fog, once white, took on a dark red tinge, threads of it nearly going black as it reacted to the goblyn blood.

I felt the energies stirring, growing restive under my control. Was I to be the braggart on the bucking horse? When would it become a lion?

Azalin's voice, thin and tense, sounded within my head. Direction-force it into the center of the well!

He took over the Holding while I complied, gathering up the fog, compressing it into a globe two yards across. It was turgid with blood, but I could glimpse irregularities in its surface, cracks where lighter shades of red shone through. The globe rose high, apparently drawn to the bodies of the goblyns. Their flesh bubbled where it made contact, turning to liquid that was instantly absorbed into the thing.

I caught a movement from the corner of my eye and dared to look. The bright glowing balls at the compass points were floating toward the well. If they made contact with the one I held there…

And I did not dare break it off.

They loomed close, converging from four directions at once, crashing with agonizing slowness into the central globe. The wash of power from the impact beat through me, threatening to turn my bones to jelly, yet it seemed right in my perception.

Then the glass in the racks started breaking.

The wind returned, as did my hearing. Instead of a strong breeze it ripped through the chamber like a mountain gale. Azalin still chanted his spell, but I only saw his lips move, the wind drowning out his voice. It caught him, lifting him right from his feet and spun him around the room. He thrashed, trying to right himself, to regain control of the forces but things were too far gone for recovery. Then was I caught in it as well.

Up and down ceased to have any meaning as I cartwheeled in midair. I made a grab for the tree trunk cross-piece and stayed my mad ride for a moment.

Gaping down into the well I saw that the globe was now the center of a vortex of whirling light. Azalin, looking strangely frail, was being inexorably drawn into its center. He stopped resisting, perhaps too stunned or knowing the futility of trying. His figure briefly righted itself. He flung his arms upward, shouting something, then the forces firmly snared him and he vanished down into the roiling core.

The shrieking wind seized me next; I lost my grip, spun once, and went diving headfirst straight for the blinding chaos below.

PART III: THE WAR

CHAPTER TEN

Tatyana, my love, run to me!

She instantly responds to my cry. She is as bright as molten silver, racing toward me, arms reaching out. Her face is aglow with such joy as to make my heart burst from the sheer happiness at the sight.

Mist.

Billowing about me. Surrounding me.

Her laughter is like birdsong. I gather her up and raise her high, laughing myself as I had not done in centuries. Her sweet beautiful face smiles down at me, her coppery hair flying in the warm summer sun.

Mist.

Permeating my body. Piercing my soul.

I pull her close, holding her tight so that she will never, ever be taken from me again. I hold her, cherish her, my heart so full of love I can no longer even speak her name.

Mist.

Clouding my mind. Blurring my thoughts.

A smear of white boils up, and a vast force like a giant's hand tears her from my grasp. I scream her name, try to-but I cannot remember… her… name…

Mist.

Dimming my dreams. Stealing my very memories…

***

I woke to the sound of my own pitiful wail of despair. Had someone taken an oaken stave and slammed it between my ribs I could not have been in more agony. I'd had her, my Tatyana-

Until the Mists had come.

I collapsed flat on my back, groaning and damning the world and all its darkness for this pain. It was some time before I was able to push aside the worst of it and notice my surroundings. With no little confusion I realized that I was not in my usual fastness in the crypt beneath Castle Ravenloft, but high above in the aerie I had carved in the north face of Mount Ghakis.

How the devil had I come to be here?

Checking myself over, I saw that my clothes were filthy and torn; my body bore marks of recent woundings, though much was healed.

Then I remembered the mad vortex Azalin had created in his tower. I'd gone right into it, following him down a spinning, dazzling tunnel to… something… some place I'd never seen or imagined. The memory of certain faces went faint and faded even as I strove to put names to them; it was like trying to grasp a dream, the more effort I put forth, the faster it fled. The damnable thing was that I knew it was no dream but a past reality. Without a single inner doubt I knew I had physically been in a place far from Barovia, along with Azalin, and we… we had…

And that was as far as I could take it. The knowledge slyly eluded me. Damnation.

Was this what it was like for the Barovians when their minds changed to echo alterations in the land? Perhaps not, since I was fully aware that something had happened, I just could not recall the specifics-which was infuriating.

And what had become of that bastard Azalin? Probably skulking in his manor house as befuddled as I. One could hope for as much. Maybe he was even more battered than I was. Cheering thought.

I got to my feet, brushing off an unexpected layer of dust and cobwebs. How long had I lain here? The imprint of my body was clear upon the earth, indicating quite a bit of weather had found its way inside. This was only a rough emergency bolt hole, after all, not so elaborate and comfortable as my crypt. Whatever had happened must have been fairly drastic to hurtle me here, for I always kept a contingency spell wrapped closer than skin about my person ready to sweep me to this spot when necessary. Until now there had never been a need. I must have been sorely injured indeed for it to have activated itself.

Had Azalin finally decided to assassinate me?

No memory of that either.

Going to the narrow cleft opening of the cave, I looked out upon the northern marches of Barovia and noticed with a shock that the snow had drastically retreated. Mountain winters are always harsh, beginning early and lingering late, but the pervasive white blanket was nearly gone, replaced by the lushness of fresh green growth.

But… but it had been early winter only last night; now it was spring. A new moon had hung in the sky-this moon was old and waning. Months had passed in but an instant for me.

A near-forgotten feeling began to creep down my spine as the realization began to sink in of how long I had been absent. Worse than knowing this was the realization of exactly what it was that I was feeling: Fear.

What had happened?

I would not allow myself to indulge in this weakness and firmly slammed it down. The only cure for fear was knowledge, which could be had easily enough. Returning to Castle Ravenloft was as good a place as any to begin.

Trying to recall my travel spell-for I was in a hurry-did not work. The intricacies of the words refused to form on my lips, and I could only conclude I had cast it already, even if I could not recall the circumstances. I gave vent to a single snarl of frustration, then initiated the transformation to shrink my body into that of a bat. At least that ability hadn't been forgotten.

I sped around Ghakis and coasted down to my castle which rose unchanged on its spire of rock. The snows here also lingered, but only in the deep places where the shadows never quite lifted. The courtyard, which was subject to a few hours of sun slanting over the curtain wall each day, was quite clear of it and now mud and new grass held sway.

There was a deserted look about the place, though, and as I came closer I saw the small houses and work areas I had set up for the glass blowers and other craft-workers were abandoned, apparently for several months to judge by the deterioration. Most Barovians were in the habit of slapping a coat of new paint on their shelters as soon as the weather permitted after the wear of winter. I saw evidence of this when I circled wide for a look at the village below. Life there was going on as usual, but seemed to have halted in the castle.

Alighting on the walkway outside my bedroom I pushed through the doors, listening. All was quiet, as it should be, as it always was. I made a swift exploration of the main areas of the castle and found nothing amiss. My skeletal servitors stood or paced at their posts, undisturbed. The library was as I'd left it, though because of the protection and preservation spells there it showed no sign of time's passage.

The dungeons, however, were a different matter. Most of the prisoners there had died, a common enough occurrence, for that was why they were there in the first place, but the stink and rot was a bit much even for me, and I had no need to breathe. Only two wretches remained, barely alive in their cells, starving, and quite mad, which defeated the purpose of their incarceration since insanity was a form of escape. I hungered, and in deference to the injuries I'd taken made a feast of them to speed my complete healing.

Their blood was adequate, though I had tasted richer, but one cannot expect much by way of nourishment from half-dead cattle. I would have to restock my larder soon, hopefully with better stock. In the meantime I ordered my servitors to open the cells and clear out all the bodies.

The ones that were still fairly whole I directed to be taken to my work-room for future reanimation.

Revived to some extent, I went back to my room to strip off my rags and dress again, then sought my magical books to refresh my memory on certain important spells. I also found a goodly stack of missives from my various informants among the boyars as well as notes left by the Vistani, reports on all the little intrigues and rumors, reports on the progress of the border militias and their drills, but nothing of real import. Not even fresh newcomers had bothered to cross into Barovia in all this time. Apparently my lengthy absence had had little effect on anything. I wasn't sure whether to be pleased or insulted and finally decided to ignore the whole business for the time being. I had other things to occupy me. Within an hour I was ready to travel and did so.

One moment I was in my study, the next at Azalin's manor house. Or at least the site on which it had once stood.

There was absolutely no sign of the house, not one brick or nail. Before me now was a perfectly scooped out crater some sixty or seventy yards across. The edges were softened by weathering, but not by much. At its deepest point, about thirty feet down, water was gradually pooling. No vegetation encroached within the circle, though growth around the rim was thick and healthy. This was a thoroughly dead area, and would doubtless become the focus of much dread and superstition by the locals once they became aware of it.

I sensed nothing untoward about it, only a strong tremor of negativity along the latent energy lines in the earth, which was likely due to Azalin's nearly forty years of occupation. Other than that, there was absolutely no sign of the house or tower.

Or Azalin.

He was quite incapable of moving anything on this scale; that would involve spellwork which he was unable to grasp. Something else had done this damage-if it was damage. Perhaps the house was elsewhere in Barovia. If so, then I'd have to find it and my missing guest. I cared nothing for his well-being beyond the cheering idea that if he was dead, then a number of problems would be lifted from my shoulders.

"So, you too survived," a harsh voice said from behind me.

I whirled, annoyed with myself for allowing anyone to approach me unnoticed. Perhaps I wasn't fully recovered from whatever had happened in the vortex.

Azalin stood wrapped in the thick shadow of an ancient tree, his hands clasped behind his back. He looked undamaged, but that meant nothing since his entire appearance was an illusion.

"Surprised?" I snapped, unclenching the fists I'd made.

"Not really." There was something odd about his manner. He seemed strangely subdued and distant. Had he suffered a similar loss of memory? I would have given much in that moment to find out, but wasn't about to betray my own lack by asking him.

"What went wrong this time?" I demanded, as I had done far too often over the years.

He did not reply right away. "I don't know," he finally murmured.

What was this? His usual reaction to failure was either cool analysis or a fit of violent temper. This… passiveness was singularly disturbing. Had despair seized him? Or was this resignation? Either or both served only to fuel the blazing anger rising in me.

"You… don't… know." I waited for him to speak again. And waited. Still he remained silent. It was far more infuriating than if he'd fallen into a rage. If I stayed one moment longer I would lose all self-control and do something we'd both regret.

I made the transformation, taking to the skies once more. My last view before quitting the cursed spot was that of Azalin staring into the barren hole where once stood his home.

***

In the ensuing weeks we continued in our studies, searching tomes and scrolls of all sorts, hoping for any hint or clue which would lead us out of our mutual prison. Azalin's efforts seemed halfhearted at best, almost as if he had despaired of ever escaping. If this were indeed true, I knew that matters could soon turn dangerous. If he had resigned himself to remaining within Barovia, he might decide to finally attempt to challenge my rule.

These thoughts were constantly in my mind throughout those days following the failure of our latest escape attempt. I watched him more carefully than ever. After feeding each night and tending to whatever menialities demanded my attention, I spent the remaining hours in which I wasn't burdened with Azalin's company pouring over scrolls and books, searching for clues which would help me to destroy him. The initial elation of discovering his name soon faded to frustration when I couldn't find the means to use it against him. I also made frequent use of my crystal ball to keep careful watch over him.

Thus it was that I was fairly alarmed one evening to discover that I could find no trace of him in all of Barovia. The previous night we had met to search a ruined monastery from which he had detected the resonance of a magical item. The scroll he found turned out to be worthless to our purposes, and we exchanged harsh words before parting. Even if I had angered Azalin enough for him to want to leave the land, he had no better prospects in the few other lands which had recently adjoined themselves to my own. Perhaps someone else had finally disposed of him. If so, it would relieve me of the task but would present problems of its own. Anyone powerful enough to destroy Azalin would present a definite threat to me.

Desiring to discover the truth, I pressed my crystal ball into immediate service. Letting my view soar out high over the land, I began at the site of the manor house and worked my way outward in a wide spiral. Nothing attracted my attention until I swung westward and stopped cold in shock.

The Mists were nowhere along that border.

Questions flooded my mind, the chief being whether or not Azalin had actually succeeded. Had he made it possible for Barovia to rejoin its proper plane?

To that-after my first excitement passed and I was able to think again-I had to admit a reluctant no, for I'd seen the Mists in their usual line along the eastern horizon when I had flown down from Ghakis the previous evening. So what was I looking at, a new land linked to Barovia?

I coasted over the Old Svalich Road as it ran through Krezk, holding my view high. The road had been a dead-end into the Mists and unused except by the Vistani. Now it continued on through a verdant forest, as though it had always done so. I pressed over the border, and excitement returning, saw farms and crofts, houses and other buildings collected together into villages and towns and all appeared to be thriving. No desolation like Arak or desertion like Forlorn, this was a living land with a substantial population.

Following the Svalich to the very end I saw a sizable town sprawled over some chalky cliffs overlooking a harbor-the sea, or a huge lake, with boats at their docks or anchored in the deeper water. Far out on its surface lay the familiar bank of the Mists.

Would the people know what had happened to them, to their land? That was doubtful. If the refugees from Forlorn were any example, the folk in this new place would be unaware of any change or accept that things had always been so. To be certain I would command the Vistani to travel there for me and gather what information they could.

The town was quite closed up for the night. Apparently they either had something to fear in the dark as did most Barovians, or it was the local custom for a folk making their living from the sea. I would have to find someone still up and about, listen in on their conversation, and perhaps find out what they called this land-

Mordent.

The name popped right into my head, clear as a flash of lightning. I have been here.

The memory of it still eluded me, but the feeling was very insistent. I had been here with Azalin. The country was Mordent, and this town was Mordentshire, and there was a house… or was it a tower…?

Gone. Damnation. Whatever the remembrance, it slipped away like quicksilver. Though able to hypnotize nearly anyone and cause him to recall the most minute detail of his life, I couldn't do the same for myself. I hated being aware that I knew something but denied the knowledge; it was like a book whose pages had been glued together.

Disgusted, I went north from the town, hoping to trigger another recollection. I followed the coastline to see just how big Mordent might be. As a matter of course I was on the lookout for anything resembling a castle, or some other kind of fortification, but saw nothing, not even the lowly barracks for a small local militia. They were either very well hidden or did not exist, which struck me as being strange. Was the law here so well observed that law-keepers were unnecessary? As a soldier, I had an ingrained caution about invasion that had survived nearly two centuries of isolation, but a country without armies is not likely to trouble its neighbors. A trusting, if foolish policy.

Continuing northward I passed through the now familiar feeling of a border, leaving Mordent behind. Examining the land, I began to recognize details from previous visits and realized that I had returned to Lamordia. The announcement did not repeat itself; it hadn't done so since my first visit here four years ago.

How many more lands had come into being here? Just how far had Azalin's experiment carried? Was he aware of what it had done or was he genuinely as ignorant as he had seemed? And why was it these lands had come to join themselves to Barovia rather than the other way around? Surely it must be less trouble to drag one small land to Oerth than to have its lands slipping away to this plane.

No answers deigned to present themselves, though.

I pressed on until reaching a second border, then turned eastward. This new country had much less forest, and the people were more thinly spread to judge by the infrequency of houses. Perhaps this was considered to be frontier land, not yet suitable for large settlements. Here there was little more than flat farmland and grazing range and nothing like a real village.

Lots of burial grounds, though. Quite a large number of them. Did the dead here outnumber the living? Chilling thought, that.

I finally came upon a narrow track leading from the Lamordian forests into the flat plains marching north and spied a kind of marker between the lands. It was merely two tall posts and a crosspiece, symbol only, and of no real use as a true gateway, but it did give me another name to think upon.

Darkon.

The ornate letters were carved deep into the weathered crosspiece, which bore no other information. Either by accident or design there were no guards or anything resembling a toll box. When Barovia was still been a part of the rest of the world such things were common enough. Apparently whoever ruled Darkon had no need of such revenues. Here all was deserted, except for another burial ground close by.

I rose and skimmed high, following the demarcation between Lamordia and Darkon to see how far it went. It flowed on and on, until the opposing land ceased to be Lamordia and I looked upon Barovia again. I followed the borderline until I recognized a five mile wide pass between Mount Baratak and the lesser peak of Mount Krezk and Lake Krezk just beyond. The pass had gone nowhere-that is, straight into the Mists-until now. Just like Mordent, Barovia was solidly joined to Darkon.

It took more time and much more travel for the scale of the change to fully register in my mind. Darkon ran on, miles and miles of it, to cover most of Barovia's northern border except a small portion, no more than a league, which was blocked by Arak.

But that couldn't be right. Barovia's boundary with Arak was thirty miles long at least. Arak's most northern mountain peak; had been cut off by the Mists, now its once hidden side descended into Darkon. How could things have shifted so much? The juncture of the lands was such as to alter their very placement in relation to each other. Seamless. Not even the growth of the grass had been disturbed.

How was any of this possible-isolated lands floating in a sea of Mists, silently joining to one another in less than an eyeblink? Or was Azalin wrong about his planes theory and the lands had existed there all along, the Mists somehow concealing and barring one's entry and exit?

My head ached from the effort of concentration, and my neck and shoulders cramped in protest to the hunched posture I'd held for the last several hours. I let the images in the crystal drift and fade along with my unanswerable questions, opened my eyes, and waited for the brief dizziness to pass. These discoveries were fascinating, but there were limits to what even I could do. Ilka had been right about how tiring this could be. And I had not even begun to look for Azalin.

I sat down to it again. This time I focused my thoughts on my missing guest, but I was not immediately rewarded with a vision of him, distant or otherwise. The center of the ball remained stubbornly opaque. Had he found a way to conceal himself? And if so why had he never used it before? Sheer suspicion should have inspired him to do so prior to now.

Or was he destroyed? What a pleasant thought. Very cheering.

Another hour and I was in too much discomfort to continue. I broke off my search to give ease to my pounding head. My limbs felt unnaturally heavy and sluggish, the reason for which presenting itself when I glanced toward my bedroom and saw the pale light of the spring morning seeping through the windows. At that point I wasted no time seeking immediate shelter down in the crypt, taking the precious crystal with me.

I slept. No dream or even the memory of a dream troubled me.

Waking, I had to remind myself that this night would be shorter than the last. It was quite an adjustment to have one's mind set on the lengthening darkness of winter, then to forgo all that for sudden spring. I felt as though a thief had stolen all the time in between. A thief called Azalin. He and his damned experiment.

With the manor house vanished along with its tenant, I had no way of backtracking to find out what had gone wrong. Aside from his journal, I had also duplicated many of his notes, having spent whole weeks doing nothing but copying thousands of pages, a simple if tedious spell. However, I hadn't had the chance to do the same for this latest effort. The major irritant, though, was having the blank spot in my memory in the first place.

I returned to the study, viewed my paper-stacked shelves with a certain amount of contempt, and sat down before the crystal once more.

However delightful it might be to hope Azalin destroyed, I had to know for sure. Though the recollection was heavily shrouded, I was certain on an instinctive level that he was still alive but not in Barovia. He might have been trapped in the Mists, but he was resourceful enough to have found his way clear of them by now.

This time I would spend the night scrying for him within the new countries, covering them foot-by-foot if necessary.

Mordent was the first-and to my mind the most likely-place to start my investigation. We had been there, after all.

Reasoning what I would do were I stranded there, I thought he would either attach himself to whatever lord governed the place, or if circumstances favored, forcibly carve out his own position of absolute power. It wouldn't take him long, not with his magical expertise. The only thing that had held him back from such a move in Barovia was his word and the sacred bond of hospitality we'd agreed to abide by. Unless the same happened in Mordent, he would be hard pressed to conceal himself.

My vision carried me straight to the heart of Mordentshire, drawn into immediate view by what I recalled of my explorations last night. I found what looked to be the intersection of two main thoroughfares, settled in, and shut my eyes, allowing my inner gaze to seem to place me there. Then I added a second layer of vision atop the first as I imagined Azalin's form standing before me. At this point I did not care if he knew about the crystal ball or not; it was more important that I find him.

A quarter of an hour of striving, concentrated effort rewarded me with nothing more than a severe headache, causing me to stop for a brief recovery. Disappointed and annoyed, I waited until the buzzing ache in my brain subsided, then tried again, this time seeking him in Darkon.

I placed myself just within the gate post by the burial ground and attempted the same visualization, casting about in all directions. This time I sensed a decided tug drawing me to the north and followed it.

Followed-I should say I was drawn along like a hooked fish. I sped over the ground faster and faster until all within my Sight blurred. Resistance to this was possible; I found I could pull away if I concentrated hard enough, but chose to see this out to the end. My curiosity was aroused.

I crossed a vast amount of ground. Darkon was much larger than Barovia if one could judge anything by this swift distance. On I went, then perceptively slowed on the approach to a city. A true city-nothing so large existed in Barovia. The protective walls ran high, indication that fortifications were common here, unlike the others.

My vision took me through the main gates, which were not open-I just seemed to pass through them. Above, carved into the lintel in the same letters used at the border marker was the name Il Aluk. I had barely read them when the force drawing me forward pushed itself into a renewed burst of speed, carrying me through the streets too quickly for me to perceive any details other than a rush of shadowy blurs. I didn't care much for this and tried to slow things but with little effect.

Very well, I was to be allowed selected glimpses, nothing more. I would accept it for now but promised myself a reckoning later for this liberty.

A pause. Now was I treated to the sight of a formidable pile of stones, a castle much, much larger and more elaborate than my own. In this I sensed an emerging theme. All things here were grander than anything I had, bigger, better, more powerful. It smacked of a very familiar insecurity.

Passing within the castle walls, things blurred again until I was stopped before two huge doors that parted open in a stately manner, then my vision was teased forward at a walking pace. A long wide approach through a marble lined room flanked by carved marble columns took me to a gigantic throne, and without surprise I looked upon Azalin standing before it with an unmistakable air of proprietorship in his pose.

From the look on his face he was very aware of my presence. I had already assumed he'd been the one to draw me here, showing me things which he wanted me to know about along the way.

My view of him and the room dropped unexpectedly, until I realized he was forcing me (in a way) to bow low before him. I suppose it was too much to expect that he would be past such pettiness. He caused me to remain in that position, possibly thinking, even hoping I would struggle against him.

As the time was right for it, I increased my force of will, allowing me to hear what was going on, taking it for granted that Azalin would be able to pick up on my thoughts as though I were speaking aloud. Magic on this high of a ranking made nearly everything possible.

"Are you quite done feeding your conceit or am I supposed to remain staring at the carpet all night?" I asked, sounding quite thoroughly bored.

"Why do you not fight me?" He was almost purring, quite a feat with that harsh voice of his.

"It is not worth the effort."

He released his restriction on me, and my view expanded to include him again. I would have really preferred the carpet; it was much less overdressed.

"I felt your presence last night, but only faintly," he said. "This time you were much more focused, more easy to control."

Control? Is that what he thought? I had best pay close attention to see if his deeds were an actual reflection of his wishes or mere air.

"I only wanted to find to where you'd withdrawn after your latest failure," I said.

"Not a failure!" he snapped. "I opened the door between this plane and Oerth, breached the barrier of Mists. With impressive results." He gestured wide at the palace surrounding him.

"Yet we are here, prisoners still. I would call that an unequivocal failure."

"I achieved the breach once and shall do so again, for, as you have seen, here I have improved my position considerably."

He seemed most anxious to get a reaction about his new home, which meant he was still impressed with it. For all I knew the whole thing could have been an illusion such as he had wrapped about himself.

"Gilded bars in a cage do not change the fact that it's still cage," I informed him. "We are both trapped here yet, and it looks to remain that way indefinitely unless by some other blunder you accidentally manage to stumble upon a genuine escape."

It was really all too easy to bait him.

He was fairly incoherent for some moments, spitting out this curse or that, listing my innumerable faults against his innumerable injuries, and generally giving vent to all sorts of pent-up resentments. Of course, he could hardly cover nearly forty years of it without finally choking on his own venom. At which point I interrupted again.

"I do have a question to ask: are you trapped within this land as I am within my own?"

He met this with silence, his red gaze burning at me. Answer enough.

"I thought as much."

"You don't think at all, Von Zarovich."

Since he had already been reduced to simplistic, petty jibes I knew my deduction was correct.

"There is one other thing: since you are so pleased with your achievement in enlarging our prison, perhaps you can tell me how much you recall of our sojourn to Mordent. Or should I say how little?"

Again he made no reply

"I see, memory a bit vague then?"

"How much do you recall?" he asked haughtily.

"More than you apparently."

"The incident is unimportant."

I let him hear a brief laugh from me. He did not react outwardly, but I could almost see the spinning of his mind as he wondered how much more I might know than he. When it came to state craft, the art of bluffing is not to be overlooked or underestimated.

"I have more important matters to concern me-such as the rule of Darkon," he stated loftily. He pointed to his chest with a gloved hand. "I am absolute lord here."

"Congratulations, it must be very gratifying."

"All of Darkon acknowledges my lordship without question."

"Are you complaining about the population's lack of intelligence? You will get no sympathy from me."

"Fool! This is my land! Mine! This means the agreement you tricked me into when first I came-"

Tricked?

"-is no longer in effect. Our pact is dissolved. I hereby issue you formal challenge."

"To what?" I knew this was coming but had to make him say it.

"To war."

"That should be amusing. How do you plan to lead an army across a boundary you yourself cannot pass? Or will we just settle for standing within sight of each other and hurl abuse while doing a bit of fist shaking? It might provide for an evening's entertainment, but-"

"I shall send my armies to crush Barovia like an overripe fruit."

"Indeed?"

"I will repay you in full for my forced servitude."

Forced?

"The thousand humiliations I suffered from you, the leash you nearly strangled me with, all those years, all those insults will be accounted for."

"Your time would be better served trying to complete your experiments. Sooner or later you will have to get lucky."

"Oh, I will experiment-on you, Von Zarovich."

"If you kill me, Barovia will cease to exist."

"You flatter yourself."

"Yet you have believed that, else you'd have tried to kill me before."

"There are more lands here now than Barovia, so I care not what happens to your pitiful little patch of mud."

"Those other lands-including yours-are all attached to Barovia. It is at the center of all. If it ceases to be-"

"It will have no effect upon them."

"You don't know that. But we both know as each of these lands appeared they formed themselves to match Barovia's topography where they touched, not the other way around. They are like lichen upon a stone; take the stone away-"

"Spare me the logic, Von Zarovich. Your argument is an insult to my intelligence; you have no evidence upon which to base it."

"It is more substantial than anything you could ever offer in refute."

"You cannot prove a negative."

"Try testing this one and you may continue on just long enough to regret it," I said. "If you kill me, you destroy everything, including your precious Darkon." I had no idea if this was true, extrapolating my link with Barovia to include the other lands that had come to this plane, but there was no harm in making the attempt. "You will ultimately destroy yourself."

His laughter, something I'd rarely ever heard, scrabbled through my mind like bones rolling over a stone floor. "But I won't really kill you, Von Zarovich. You are going to be my slave, as I was yours."

If Azalin thought himself a slave while in Barovia, then he had wildly overlooked the true meaning of the word.

I could point out to him that he had ever been my guest and mention the time and trouble to which I'd gone to see that he received all he wanted for his comfort and work, but I knew he wouldn't listen. Once he had decided on something, he persisted with it-no matter how erroneous his judgment. But then, his arrogance was boundless. When it came to his faults, his pride was quite my favorite; it made him so easy to manipulate.

The prospect of being his slave did trouble me, though, as there was the chance he could achieve such a goal. And I doubted that I would enjoy the same privileged life he had been granted in Barovia. There was one weak point to his threat, however.

"I should be interested in seeing how you could possibly manage to bring me across the border," I murmured.

He snorted. "There may be no need to bother. If it proves immediately impractical, I should be more than content to watch your sufferings from afar."

"Not for very long, I'm sure. It will eventually grate at you that you cannot personally see to whatever inconvenience you wish to heap upon me. Then perhaps you'll realize you still very much need me for the advanced spell work you must do to truly escape."

"Pah! I shall train others for such menial tasks."

"You wouldn't be able to trust them. Once they'd reached so high a degree of training, they would be too much of a threat to you."

"I can command loyalty if need be; you aren't the only one who can inspire it."

"Sycophants always make the worst assistants."

"They will obey me or die."

"Oh, I'm sure that threat will do much to calm them to the point of being able to work without making mistakes. Can you not see how you need someone like me, someone who is not afraid of you-"

"Liar. Even you fear me."

"Now who is flattering himself?" I said lightly, but allowed venom into my voice as I continued. "Do not mistake disgust for fear, Firan Zal'honan. I say again: you still need me to carry out the spell work you are unable to learn… lich."

That struck a nerve. A terrible, almighty sensitive one. Just as I had intended. His face worked, and his gloved hands formed into fists, and had I actually been in the room with him he would have probably leapt upon me then and there. Though it was imagination only, I thought I felt the force of his loathing for me roll out from him in palpable waves.

He straightened to a regal pose and spread his arms wide. His figure shimmered and the illusion he maintained ceased to exist. I saw him in reality for the first time in many decades, and the passage of time had done nothing to improve his looks, quite the contrary.

"Then look upon my true form. Von Zarovich!" he thundered, his voice smashing into my brain like a hammer. I couldn't help shuddering from the physical discomfort and hoped that nothing of my reaction was reaching him lest he take it as a show of weakness. "Look upon me and despair!"

I waited until the paroxysm passed so that my inner voice would be strong again, then put another note of boredom into it. "Except for the gaudy robes-which I also suspect to be illusion-you're still no more than a dressed-up version of one of your own zombies… slightly more cognizant, of course. I'll give you that much, but hardly worth inspiring me to despair."

The last thing I heard was his ear-splitting shriek of fury.

The next thing I knew was coming back to my senses in an unpleasantly familiar way: lying flat on hard stone, every muscle in my body stiff and bruised, and my head in a state best left out of the damage enumeration altogether, since when it came to pain it was beyond anything so trivial as the rest of the list.

I wisely chose not to move for a considerable period until I was certain that my brain was not actually seeping from my ears like wax melting off a candle. That fact ascertained-I felt the area carefully just to be sure-I most cautiously rose to take stock of things.

Happily, I had not been blasted back to my aerie, sparing me another flight home. Whatever he'd done had merely thrown me across the room to slam into an all-too-solid wall-with predictable results upon my person. The agony behind my eyes, though, had more to do with my mental contact with him than anything else. I had pressed him too far-not wise, but quite instructive. He now knew that I had discovered his true name. Though I still had not unearthed the proper method to use it against him, he didn't know that.

My chief concern was for the crystal ball, which fortunately appeared to be unharmed by the lash of magic that had funneled through it. That was of great relief. When I felt strong enough I sat before it once more and focused my mind on the view from Mount Krezk, looking northeast to the pass between it and Mount Baratak. If Azalin sent an army across it would be at this point. He had some small experience as a military commander and though not nearly a match for my own, even he would see this area as the natural doorway into Barovia from Darkon.

All appeared to be clear and quiet in the midnight darkness, at least on my side of the invisible boundary. Not so for the other. I perceived something in motion on the land, but whatever was moving was too far away for me to discern it. Swooping low, I covered the miles in but an instant to let myself seem to stand on the edge of the border. Here I paused, pressing myself forward only gradually, testing for traps or triggers, for any kind of barrier Azalin might have set up to prevent me from crossing. When nothing sprang up for me, I continued on swiftly over the sparse grass.

Rising high to see better, I halted my progress. No need to go farther; I looked down at Azalin's army and felt a thrill of cold fear flutter through me.

Below me was another of Darkon's burial grounds, a village of the dead, but none there now lay at peace. The earth fairly roiled with activity as the bodies lying beneath it struggled and clawed and scrabbled and finally tore free of its embrace. A dozen, a hundred, two hundred and more were busily defying the natural order of things by standing in ragged lines all facing toward Barovia. Once assembled, they began to stalk, stump, or shamble toward the border, neither fast nor slow, but steadily and untiring.

They were not armed, except for those who had been warriors in life and had been buried with their weapons, their only clothing either decayed finery or tattered shrouds over their bones. The most potent weapon, though, was their own fearful appearance. Who has not at least once shivered at suddenly beholding a grinning skull? One might get accustomed to the sight, but this… to see such a dire gathering, so many of them, all upright and marching forward with dread purpose would send the stoutest of souls away screaming in terror.

Azalin had not been making an idle boast when he'd said all in Darkon acknowledged his rule, all did-even the dead.

The war, war such as I had never known, had come at last.

CHAPTER ELEVEN

Strahd's Narrative Continues

I did not have much time. Quickly gathering what I thought I might need, then making the travel casting, I took myself to a place where I could enlist immediate help for what was to come.

The Wachter holdings were closest to the Krezk pass. Fortunate, for they had ever been loyal to the house of Von Zaorovich. This dated back to the very beginning when Victor Wachter had served me well in defending Castle Ravenloft against that thrice-damned Dilisnya traitor. I had released Victor from my service, though he still had served as a boyar in his district. Decades later his daughter Lovina had helped me in delivering my final punishment to the bastard betrayer, and since that point the family had always prospered under my protection. Not that they were perfect, each generation possessed its aberrations, but on the whole they were competent and trustworthy in their duties.

The current head of the family was Yersinia Wachter, the several times great grand-daughter of Lovina. She was in her mid-sixties now, a widow with an uncanny ability to stay even with the complicated ebb and flow of Barovian politics, yet at the same time she managed to keep clear of its attendant parlor battles, scandal, and occasional assassinations. She would eventually pass the rule and responsibility of their district on to her son, Aldrick, and it was to be hoped that for the family's survival he had inherited his mother's diplomatic skills.

Like nearly all Barovians, their custom was to retire early with the sun, so the place was locked fast when I appeared within the high thick walls of their estate. I hurried across the beautifully kept grounds and seized the bell pull for the main entry, setting up a clamor suitable for the emergency.

The results were predictable with the usual fear, puzzlement, and sorting out what exactly was going on. Things went much more swiftly when Aldrick's face appeared at one of the windows and I could shout up to him and identify myself. I could have appeared within the house, but that would have been overdoing things. They were in enough of an uproar at this untoward intrusion of Lord Strahd himself turning up on their doorstep in full battle gear with pressing business.

As I suspected, their memories had altered to match the changes in the land, and they were quite aware of Darkon's presence on their northern borders. Over the months Yersinia had had the foresight to keep a close watch on things and step up the drills for the motley volunteers in the militia under her charge. She had perhaps fifty, mostly the young people from well-to-do families near her estate. They'd been in need of some interesting activity and playing at soldier was the fashion in these fallen days. Inexperienced, completely untested fighters used to the comforts of wealth were my army. They would have to do.

Aldrick, a stolid man in his forties, was responsible for the actual running of the volunteers, most of whom were presently scattered in their various homes, tucked up safe in bed for the night. I quickly explained to him and Yersinia about the approaching situation and the absolute need for haste. They were appalled, of course, and for a few teetering moments unable to do more than stand and stare at each other in mutual dismay for this monumental shift of circumstance. The idea of anyone invading Barovia was a nearly unfathomable concept to them, and the unknown is always daunting. There was no time for this sort of nonsense, though, and with a few sharp words I pushed them into action.

With Yersinia's authority behind him and mine behind hers, Aldrick gathered his senses together and set about collecting as many of the militia as he could, not an easy task considering the horror Barovians have about being out after dark. He was not the man Victor was, but only for lack of anything worthy to develop his talents. He did know to delegate tasks and once he had notified a half dozen of those closest, he sent them out to bring in the rest.

It took well over an hour; I tried not to chafe at the delay. It could only be expected due to their lack of experience, but it was still difficult to keep my temper in check. I had to remind myself of the bitter fact that they were hardly more than children. I couldn't help but recall the primed legions I had commanded when first I'd marched in to take Barovia. These lesser offspring would have been hard pressed to pass muster as their boot-polishing apprentices. But that was then; this was now.

When most of the fifty finally arrived, decked out in their battle regalia and mounted on whatever horses were not being used for plow work, I was more reminded of a masked ball than anything else. Aldrick, noticing my thunderous expression, assured me that they were well drilled and could hold their own if pressed. That remained to be seen.

I addressed the lot, trying to give them an idea of what they were facing and what was expected of them. It did not precisely boost their morale. They were variously excited, nervous, afraid or fearful, which was a good sign. I did not want over-confidence in the ranks as it nearly always led to a rout when toppled by the realities of blood. Part of my training for the militias was for them all to get a thorough grounding in battle history by reading the memoirs of past soldiers, including my own observations on the topic. I had hopes that some of the wisdom had sunk in. A war was not about glory; it was about killing and being killed. When the battle was over, whichever side had the least dead usually won. Of course, what was coming across the border from Azalin was the exception to that rule.

Aldrick and I, mounted on two of the Wachter's best steeds, led the way toward the Krezk pass, kicking our line of followers into a ground-eating trot. It was past midnight, and I worried over how few hours remained before morning sunlight forced me to retreat. Once an engagement began, time had a nasty way of slipping by at an alarming rate.

We had to ride around a spur of Krezk to reach the pass, and I was anxious to check on the progress of the coming hoard. I told Aldrick to continue at this pace and urged my horse into a gallop to get ahead of the column, my night vision keeping me clear of any pitfalls on the little used track. I passed on a mile ahead of my troops, tethered my horse to the ground, and took to the air, driving myself swiftly to the border.

The zombies had made much progress and would reach the pass within an hour. More haste was needed if we were to meet them there.

By the time I returned, Aldrick had nearly caught up, but because of the darkness he missed my transformation back into man-form. My horse wasn't so fortunate and would have bolted had I not caught the reins and forced my will upon her, calming her again so that I could ride. Up in the saddle I gave orders to increase our pace to a canter. No one questioned the why of my urgency, taking it for granted that I knew what I was doing. As it happened, I did but was unsure of the final outcome.

Once more I ran ahead of the rest, this time taking a position on a bluff overlooking the pass. I could see the zombies in the near distance, and my horse started nervously as the death stench rolled toward us. The others, outside my control, would not be so tractable and likely go mad once they got a whiff.

I could see to that detail right now and dismounted, putting my mind and certain elements of my magical store in order. Pushing out all other distractions, I concentrated on the wind and after many long moments of waiting noticed the change in its direction. A fresh spring breeze now flowed out of Barovia and into Dark-on, a small thing, but important.

Next, my troops would need light to fight by, so I prepared that spell, all but the final casting of it, which I would activate once they arrived. I made other preparations, taking care with the details, but moving quickly, all too aware that Azalin was probably peering over my shoulder with his Sight.

Aldrick arrived, and I hailed him from my vantage point, calling down information on the location of our foe. The creatures were nearly to the border. He announced he was ready, drawing his sword. The horses danced nervously, catching their riders' suppressed excitement. I mounted and rode down to join them. Some were all for a headlong charge to break the ranks of the coming zombies, which I explained would be pointless. That tactic only works well when one is facing an enemy capable of fear.

I told them what was about to happen insofar as my contribution was to be, so as not to startle them, then with a look toward the approaching zombies, ordered up my people and told them what to do. I had little expectation that any of this would do much good, it being foolish to think I could teach them the basics of cavalry warfare in but a few moments. They knew how to ride, and that was my chief concern. If they could stay on their horses, most might have a chance of survival. Half to the left and halt to the right, I sent them off to be ready to initiate a flank attack when I called for it.

I was alone now, having placed myself directly in the path of the zombies, my dormant heart having climbed into my throat in anticipation. It had been a very long time since I'd felt the true heat of battle fever creeping upon me. One forgets what a potent tonic it can be.

The first of the creatures stepped into my land. It did not waver, and from that alone I knew that though Azalin was skulking back in his castle, he still followed their every step. His lordship of Darkon must have granted him increased powers for his Art, even as Barovia bolstered mine. Well, I could put an immediate end to that business.

The knowledge had ever been in me since Forlorn first appeared, but there had been no need to employ it. Eyes shut to concentrate, I reached forth with my will and called upon the power of the land itself to aid me. I felt a faint reaction and responded in turn, demanding more, raising my arms high to draw it up.

Mist.

It began seeping up from the earth, slowly, gathering in pools at the feet of the zombies, who paid it no mind. The mist grew thicker, uncannily holding itself in place against the wind. Thicker, more obscuring, rising ten feet, twenty, fifty, until it rivaled the great Mists that bounded this plane of existence. Its poison was useless against the dead, but let Azalin's Sight try to pierce that, if he could.

My troops saw this and looked on in fearful wonder, but soon had another wonder to take its place. I cast the last portion of the spell I had prepared with a flinging gesture. To them it seemed that a handful of very bright stars had dropped low from the sky to illuminate the whole of the field.

The lights danced like mad fireflies above the oblivious zombies, multiplying their shadows in a hundred directions. They plodded forward, the mind controlling them forcing them straight toward me. Whether Azalin could see or not, his will still drove them. I held my ground, drawing my sword. For nearly two centuries it had hung virtually unused on the wall of my bedroom, but its heft and fit were as natural to my hand as the feel of my own skin, the blade razor keen.

With a cry I kicked my horse into a gallop and raced toward the dead. They reached out for me, their mouths sagging wide in a parody of joy. I veered at the last moment to the left, my right arm swinging the sword like a scythe. In this manner I cut at least six of them in half in one pass, my blade slicing through the rotten muscle and soft bone. This was to show the troops how it was done. I shouted once to Aldrick and heard answering calls from him and the rest. They rushed in from either side, sweeping along in an uneven line, but making up for it with eagerness.

They cut and slashed, clumsily, but were sometimes effective, reducing the opposition along the edges by that much more. Their horses were not war beasts, though, and some threw their riders and bolted. When this happened the zombies would gather to attack whoever was unfortunate enough to not be able to run. One man was lost this way, and I saw Aldrick about to be similarly engulfed.

It would not do for this lot to lose their leader in their first fight. I shot forward to drag him out, but this only drew the attention of the zombies from him to me. He stumbled clear, but I was surrounded. It was too much for my horse, and under my influence or not, the beast reared, screaming in terror. Heedless of its slashing hooves the zombies closed in, and my animal went down, taking me along. I kicked free of the stirrups and rolled clear, but not for long. A stinking mass of cold flesh fell upon me, pulling and tearing. I gained my feet and cut at the creatures, calling up one of my partial castings, shouting the words to complete it, and let its force rip through the ranks.

That made for a show. The blast rolled upon them, their frail grave clothes catching flame, followed by the remains of their shrunken flesh. They were beyond feeling pain, but the element of fire was enough to severely interfere with the magic animating them. Some twisted and writhed, setting blaze to others brushing against them and they in turn passing it on. The flames were unnaturally hot, meant to turn the bones brittle and more easily prone to damage.

I took myself away from the worst of it and shouted for Aldrick and his people to withdraw. They eventually did so, with much disorder, for they were not immune to fear of the flames. I motioned for them to assemble upwind of the blaze, though Aldrick rode in on another horse and threw a hand out to me. I hooked a leg up behind his saddle and he hauled me up and away from there.

We joined with the others, who had paused to turn and watch. I dropped to the ground and surveyed the remains of the battle.

The small lights I had conjured were fading, but the growing fire more than replaced their illumination. The zombies faltered and dropped, their increasing weakness showing wherever I focused my concentration and threw off their master's hold on them.

Vaguely I became aware of a great uproar behind me and turned to see Wachter's people milling about, grinning and shouting, shouting my name. Once it had been used by my troops of old as a battle cry, now it rang across the field as a victory chant. Very gratifying.

***

There was a celebration at the Wachter house the following night, and already the tale had grown in the telling. What was in reality a minor skirmish was now a full blown battle which the house minstrel was already putting to verse. He left out the lesser details, such as how I ordered the troop in on foot after the fire had died to club the burned and scorched bones to powder, thus preventing them from ever rising again. Such work was too base for high verse.

I avoided the victory banquet and speeches, leaving it to Yersinia to congratulate the survivors and list the fallen as honored heroes all would remember. This went down well with the rest, many swelling with bright-eyed pride at their prowess. Aldrick especially looked much more a soldier now than he'd been last night. Perhaps it was an awakening of something long dormant in his blood, an echo of his ancestor's skill for fighting.

His mother had once said that he had always studied the deeds of times past, possibly nursing a secret desire to somehow match them. Well, he had gotten his wish, for good or ill. I would have to get to know him better, for I was in need of a lieutenant, and he had not lost his head, literally or figuratively, when things had gotten rough. Though he couldn't have known me capable of escaping the fire, he had still charged in to make a rescue, and I respect bravery.

What I did not mention to any of them was the fact that I could have taken care of the whole invasion on my own. I could have taken control of the whole lot had I desired, even as I had controlled Azalin's zombies on other occasions. It would not have been easy, but entirely possible for me. But winning this little encounter had not been my goal.

Azalin's sending of this mob had been but a test, to see how I would resist and what kind of a fight I would make. But if meant as a test for me, then I had turned it into a test for an undisciplined gang of novices. It was less a battle than a training exercise, but I let them think that they'd accomplished a great thing and helped their lord defeat a terrible enemy. It was just the sort of boost to their confidence they would need in the days and months ahead when the real fighting started in earnest. This was but the opening ploy, and it would only get worse.

Azalin's next army would be comprised of the living-alive and in control of their own actions, driven against me by their loyalty to his wealth and power.

I could do no less myself, though Barovia's resources were limited compared to the vastness of Darkon. There were certain important advantages on my side, such as my past experience as a military commander and my ability to learn new magic. Azalin would not dare train someone up to be a match in strength to his own skill; his pride and fear would not allow him to create any possible rivals to his power.

The fact that neither of us could personally lead a troop across the border, though restrictive to strategy and morale, would not curb the coming conflict. Unless I got very, very clever, then all was lost before anything had ever really begun.

CHAPTER TWELVE

579 Barovian Calendar, Darkon Excerpt from Lord Azalin's private journal, stolen at great risk by Lord Strand's secret envoy, Dioti the Sly.

I confess that I'm still disturbed by my lapse of memory over the time I spent in Mordent. Had Von Zarovich not also been there I would discount the gap as part of the price to pay when experimenting with magic, but his involvement in anything must never be ignored. I have concentrated the full force of my thought upon the problem, yet it refuses to open itself to me. During our conversation. Von Zarovich implied that he knew more than I did of the incident, but he is an accomplished liar. On the other hand, he has an antic taste for humor and might have been speaking the truth, knowing that I would doubt him. His is the sort of mind that would meet itself in a maze.

That night at the ruined monastery when we argued had proved fateful indeed. Disconsolate and disgusted with my fate, I had entered the Mists. When I came back to consciousness in one of the inner chambers of what I came to learn was called Castle Avernus, I first thought I had finally escaped Barovia. Events soon proved this assumption correct but revealed I was still locked within the same plane that holds Barovia apart from Oerth. This disappointment was mitigated when I came to understand that this new land, Darkon, was entirely mine.

The castle servants, the population, the whole governmental structure acknowledges me as lord here and behave as though it's always been so. I have swiftly taken advantage of the opportunity and reinforced it to make certain all here are unquestioningly loyal to me. There will be no more betrayals, for I root them out before they have the chance to grow. I have killed without hesitation as a warning to the others. Those who remain I may rely upon to carry out their duties.

Toward that end I have assembled a core of those who will act as extensions of my will. From the ranks of the soldiers, from the halls of the nobility, even from the streets and back alleys of Il Aluk have I drawn them, my inner core of servants that I have named the Kargat. They are my eyes and ears in Darkon and considerably more efficient than Von Zarovich's unpredictable Vistani.

The Kargat have proved themselves again and again as they move, secretly and silently, within the noble houses here seeking out disloyalty and paying betrayal with death. I have rewarded them well and made them the commanders of the army that will soon take Barovia.

At their head is General Vychen. His goals are very like my own, but he prefers to remain within his own sphere of power and has no ambitions for my throne. Even when I arranged to make the change in him so that he would become a creature like Von Zarovich, his loyalty to me stayed constant. This has not always been the case for others who have been likewise converted, but they have been dealt with and are no longer a threat.

Vychen will be my best weapon against Von Zarovich. He has military experience and is quite ruthless. He's gathered together an excellent staff of officers, yet wisely makes certain they are oath-bound to me, not himself.

My army grows, but slowly, for there are many unwilling to serve who must be made examples to the rest. I could take Barovia now, but I will leave nothing to chance. First I will assemble an overwhelming force, then will they march into that detestable plot of mud and rock and destroy it and its lord.

End of Excerpt

***

579 Barovian Calendar, Barovia

I finished my translation of the page and looked up at the pleased face of Dioti, who liked to think of himself as my best Vistani spy.

"It is excellent, is it not. Lord Strahd?" he asked. "I endured many dangers to bring it to you, so it is most excellent, indeed."

"That you got in and out of Avernus without being killed or worse is noteworthy, but-" I held up the papers torn from Azalin's private journal, "this tells me nothing I did not already know, which means that you were meant to steal it and get away."

His face fell. "Then the Lord Strahd is not happy?"

I was as far from that state as could be imagined but kept my expression neutral. "My one kernel of hope is that Azalin's agents are as efficient as you are."

Dioti took that as a compliment, grinned, and bowed low. Aldrick Wachter, an annoyed look on his own features, stepped forward and jerked his head toward the study door, indicating to Dioti that his time had come to leave. He did so with many more bows than was absolutely necessary.

Aldrick turned to me. "You should have him executed, my lord, he's a fool."

"Azalin may do that for us soon enough. In this fight I cannot afford to waste even the fools."

"He'll betray you, perhaps not purposely, but by mischance."

"He knows nothing of importance, and serves as a distraction to the enemy. If Azalin thinks Dioti is the measure of the people I have been sending in against him then so much the better for us. Now, forget him and attend to this new map."

I spread the parchment over the broad table.

"This river's moved," he said pointing to one of the winding lines I had reproduced from my long hours hunched over the crystal scouting and mapping every square mile of Darkon. "And what's this lake doing in the middle of a desert area?"

"It's likely not there at all. Azalin is casting illusions everywhere to mislead, though there is the possibility that he's able to change the very features of the land itself." I could not discount such a possibility, that Darkon altered to reflect the moods of its lord as Barovia's weather often matched my own.

"How can we march under such conditions?" He was not despairing, but honestly curious, as if my pitifully small army had a chance of actually invading Darkon.

Since the day of that first skirmish with Azalin's zombies every farmer and shepherd not actually engaged in food production was pressed into military service. The same went for the nobility as I found ways to keep their younger sons and daughters busy. Many of my commanders were like Aldrick, drawn from the families of the boyars, groomed from birth to give and take orders as befitted their stations of responsibility, but there were not enough of them. Even with my dead servitors to bolster the ranks, I didn't have a tenth of the force that Azalin would be able to raise.

If I could trust the scraps of information Dioti brought (which I constantly confirmed by my other spies) and if what I saw in my crystal was not an illusion, Azalin was taking his time in preparation, apparently wanting to make a thorough job of it. Despite the fact that his influence with them ended at the border whenever I was present to fight them, he could have probably summoned enough of his dead to carry out an invasion but held back from that action. Instead he kept them close to the frontier; as far as I could determine they were there to defend his side should I think to send anyone across.

Elsewhere in Darkon I saw troops being gathered up and trained, noted the location of the camps and how many lived there, wrote down the names of all his chief commanders. He had some two dozen people of high rank whom he tested again and again for their unconditional loyalty, then put them in charge of other loyal officers. This was his Kargat, and they were absolute dictators within their given domain, answerable to none but themselves, their immediate leaders, and Azalin.

Azalin picked only the best fighters for the Kargat, then saw to it that they were initiated into the dark life of the undead, making them highly effective and dangerous agents. Occasionally he "gifted" a select few with lycanthropy should their own nature dictate it as more suitable. Though infants compared to me, they were like minor gods-or devils-to the frail mortals about them. I could surmise that they would ultimately be leading the invasion force by their frequent attendance at staff and strategy meetings with General Vychen. I eavesdropped as best I could on these, though if I lingered too long or too close my presence was noticed. Still, I managed to gain much useful information on their movements, personal habits, and weaknesses over the long course of my observations from afar.

Though Azalin took his time assembling his army, there was no shortage of small skirmishes along our border, usually involving a few zombies sent in to harass the common folk there. Because of their limits the creatures were no real threat to anyone who knew how to fight them, but this still caused a general migration of refugees out of the area, mostly terrified farmers and herders. As for the zombies, they could cross in at any given time, creating havoc for their master. Since he usually sent them across during the day, I was sure their chief purpose was to keep my people dispirited, distracted, and on edge.

I instructed my border guardians on how to best deal with the things themselves and got on with other work. Instead of wasting precious time fighting mere pawns, I kept busy producing magical items to aid my own top people, but the process was exhausting, so not many had such treasures. It was better that they rely on their own resources and training, anyway. Azalin was ironically helping to season my soldiers into true fighters, for each time they drove back or destroyed one of his assaults, it was a great boost to their confidence.

Insofar as magical preparation was concerned, my chief priority was to forestall Azalin from observing anything of importance. To this end all my top people were given protective neck chains to be worn constantly. The links were imbued with a casting that prevented Azalin from spying on their wearers-Azalin, not myself, which I carefully built that into the spell. Thus were they able to come and go and speak freely without fear of being seen or overheard by anyone but me, and of course, I took care not to inform them about the latter detail. It was how I made sure my own people were loyal, an impressive accomplishment of work for me but not nearly sufficient to the need.

As indicated by the Tarokka cards all those years ago I had to seek help from outside. Thus did I send Yersinia Wachter, under close and well armed escort, into Mordent and Lamordia as my first ambassador to the lands beyond Barovia. Her overt mission was to establish formal trade agreements with them and arrange for a mutual defense policy. Unhappily Azalin had already achieved a non-aggression treaty with the mayor of Mordentshire, whose near-insignificant office was the closest thing the whole country had for government. He'd had less luck in Lamordia, which didn't even have that much government.

Yersinia had better luck cultivating friends within Mordent's Weathermay clan, one of the town's most prominent families. She was perfectly suited on a social level to deal with anything involving the upper classes, which was why I'd chosen her for the task. Though she lacked experience in soldiering, she was an expert at reading people and getting them to talk. By this means she was able to make the right contacts to achieve her covert mission: the hiring of mercenaries.

Leaving her son to scrutinize the new maps, I quit the study for a smaller room nearby that I had prepared with absolute privacy in mind, bolstering this objective with heavy protection spells. Its original opening on a minor corridor was bricked up, and now the chief entry was a window too narrow for anything but a bat to squeeze past. For emergencies I had a second opening in a cracked bit of flooring no larger than my thumb, but adequate for me to flow through as mist.

Within, all was draped in black velvet, walls, floor, ceiling, including the single chair that made up the furnishings. Here would I sit, the crystal ball before me in my hands, able to concentrate fully on its images, free of all diversions as I seemed to float in featureless darkness. The only light came from within the crystal.

It was time to obtain Yersinia's report for the day. I composed myself in the chair, focused my attention in the crystal, and shut my eyes the better to visualize her face and form. After a few moments it seemed she stood before me, a startled look upon her features as far away in Mordent she became aware of my presence.

"Lord Strahd?" she asked looking about her with a hint of uncertainty, though I had contacted her this way many times before. By speaking my name I knew that she was alone.

"What progress have you made?" I snapped.

She knew we did not have much time. This sort of communication was exhausting for me, and I was wary of Azalin eavesdropping should he find a way around my obscuring spells.

"I've spoken at length with Voan Darl. He's interested, especially after hearing what you are willing to pay."

"Azalin can pay him more."

"Yes, but Azalin also ordered the execution of some woman Darl was close to; he bears no love toward Darkon's ruler."

Within days of Yersinia's arrival she had met and talked with a fellow calling himself Voan Darl. He had the silken manners of an in-bred noble, combined with the skills of a professional assassin, and was very much for hire. He had been a guest of the Weathermays until a disagreement with another guest from Darkon ended in a duel of honor, resulting in one less place setting for the evening meal. Aware of his hosts' acute embarrassment, Darl departed their house, taking rooms at a small Mordentshire inn. His present source of income was gambling at cards with the locals at a public house. His earnings, due to the modest means of his fellow players, were marginal at best. This made him very ambitious to better himself.

"Can he bring others like him into Barovia?" I asked.

"Yes, providing the pay is the same. I've spoken to them. They're hard people, but capable, I trust them."

"Trust is an illusion."

"Indeed, my lord, especially in war, but I think you may rely upon them, particularly after you've seen them yourself."

That was quite true-once my hypnotic influence was upon them. "What else have you to report?"

"The Weathermays are interested in the trade agreement for their own holdings, but they can't speak for the rest of the land. Barovia may have to make such pacts on an individual basis rather than as a whole, the same as I established in Lamordia. They're a powerful family, though. Others will likely follow their lead."

"See to it. We need the supplies. Hire Darl and his people and send them in right away. Make sure to issue them neck chains. I don't want them ambushed by Dark-on agents on the road."

"Yes, my lord."

Yersinia understood the magical protection of the chains, always wearing one herself. It also possessed a small but important refining spell that allowed me to speak with her through the crystal with much less effort than would otherwise be required on my part. Few others I had made possessed that quality since it was an extremely difficult casting to achieve.

"I shall contact you at the same time tomorrow," I said, breaking off before she could reply, for my head was beginning to buzz at the effort of seeing, hearing, and speaking from afar. The magical drain on me was enormous at such distance even with the added help of the amulet, but I endured it. Not to do so was to surrender to Azalin.

And so it went, as I prepared for a war I was certain that I could not win.

***

580 Barovian Calendar, Barovia

As the months passed, my troops trained and fought, and I sent other agents out of Barovia to seek help. Most unexpectedly Azalin himself provided valuable assistance to my side by utterly alienating Darkon's Mercenary Guild.

Rather than pay for their professional skills, he conscripted them involuntarily into his army. Theirs was a reputable guild with a long tradition of pride and independence, so this did not sit at all well with them, and a revolt took place within the Il Aluk barracks. The body count was high, and the majority of the dead were not the mercenaries, but Azalin's regulars, including some of his precious Kargat. Those rebels unaccounted for were presumed to have escaped and gone underground. Word was swiftly passed to all branches of the guild in Darkon's other population centers, and the rest of the members followed suit and vanished. Incensed, Azalin set his Kargat to locating and killing those whom he'd decided were traitors.

When this bit of news came to the ears of the Vistani tribes in Darkon, they made it known in certain discreet quarters they could not only help the survivors escape certain death but find work at a fair wage with the enemy of their enemy.

So it was that a large number of expert killers began to steadily stream into Barovia and this time didn't end up in my dungeons.

Azalin had not used the fair weather of the summer to begin his assault, though his army was massed near our border, just out of sight on his side. For over a year he'd held back, much to the chagrin of General Vychen, who was impatient to start. It was the only disagreement I could discern between them, if one could call it that. Vychen was Azalin's willing puppet, but also a military man. When the sky is clean of clouds and the ground firm underfoot, the opportunity for an easy assault should not be wasted, and he wanted to take it. Azalin insisted on more numbers in the ranks, though his army, including the living, dead, and undead, was easily three times the size of mine. He seemed less interested in victory than annihilation.

When one is outnumbered, then one must become inventive, so I put the time he gave me to good use.

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

581 Barovian Calendar, Barovia

"Forgive me, my lord, but I still think it is too much of a risk for you to be present at this meeting."

I tried to keep the amusement from showing in my expression as I looked at Aldrick Wachter across my study table. As ever, he held up well under my gaze, and though he did not at all resemble his ancestor Victor, he strongly reminded me of him all the same. The last year and a half had truly helped Aldrick develop into a n effective commander, but sometimes he could be overly protective toward his liege.

"If you are lost, then all Barovia is lost," he continued, the chronically mournful lines of his face deepening.

Now I allowed myself a single laugh. "You may well speak a profound truth, but I can take care of myself and have thus far done rather a good job of doing so."

"But this wizard we fight may have snares so well hidden even you could miss them. Don't forget that business in Krezk."

Last month one of Azalin's Kargat agents had managed to infiltrate the barracks in Krezk by posing as a common soldier. When the moon turned full he burst forth in his lupine form and slaughtered dozens in their sleep before the alarm went out and he was finally killed. Though the remains of his wolfish head were still on a pike in the center of the camp, the occurrence had been a severe blow to the confidence of the troops. I thought it was for that result alone that Azalin had sacrificed his hirsute pawn.

"I have not forgotten, and it is for that reason I'm seeing to this myself. I must inspect each individual in the company to make sure there are no similar surprises for them once they set out."

"But one cannot be too careful, my lord-"

"Indeed," I said, pushing back from the table and "Your concern for my safety has been noted, Commander, now let us go see to my night's business."

He caught the edge in my tone and wisely subsided. He need not have worried about me, for though I was protected by my unnatural condition (which he knew nothing about), I was at present a walking storehouse of magical defenses. Add to that the fact that I was in full battle dress with an enspelled sword riding easily on my left hip, and even Azalin himself would have been hard pressed to do me injury.

Aldrick picked up a stout leather pouch lined with hammered lead foil and drew himself to attention-his way of dealing with the disorientation of what was coming. I picked up a small, heavy wood box, stood next to him, and spoke the words of power that caused us to vanish from my study and reappear seconds later in Krezk some forty miles to the west.

Opening his eyes, Aldrick then released a small sigh of relief, but made no other outer reaction to the spell. He would never be comfortable with magic, not entirely trusting it, but he did trust me. It was a testimony to his own loyalty that he traveled in this manner-which he had once confessed was quite alarming to him-without complaint.

Our destination was the aforementioned Krezk barracks, and though it was more than an hour past sunset activity was still high within its newly built walls. Sentries, traveling in pairs, paced alert at their posts while their companions saw to the endless tasks necessary to keep a large army unit at the ready. About one thousand were housed here, and the commander in charge made certain none could complain of boredom. They were the best turned out, best drilled, and best fed of all those in my service. They were considered the elite of Barovia, and that was likely the reason Azalin's Kargat had been sent here. What better place to undermine everybody's confidence than to thumb a nose at Strahd's finest?

My visit now was intended to make the troops put the recent butchery farther behind them and get them focused on the present.

I was gratified at the immediate response to our sudden appearance in the center of the parade ground. Half a dozen of the people on watch gave the alarm and came rushing in, swords drawn. They halted a precise two yards away and gave grim challenge. Aidrick solemnly provided the countersign and that evening's password; though it was obvious from their faces that the soldiers knew us, one must always follow regulations. Azalin's illusions were an ever present threat.

A runner was sent to Commander Resvalan's quarters, but she'd been expecting us and came to greet us, smartly turned out in the Von Zarovich colors of black, red, and white. She offered a formal salute, which we returned. Since I was in uniform, it was not necessary for her to bow as well in acknowledgment of my title. With the greeting ritual out of the way, Resvalan ordered her people back to their posts and led us to her administrative office, a small structure not far from the cooking sheds. She'd noticed the box in my hands but offered no comment or questions.

Everything here was built of wood and plaster, quickly thrown together out of necessity. There had been some worry about the danger of fire during an attack, but I had taken care of that possibility. Once I had finished, the whole of the Krezk barracks was fire-proofed, magic-proofed, and quite invisible from Azalin's scrying. If he wanted details of what went on here, he had to send in spies, and there were ways of dealing with them as well.

Resvalan gave up her chair and desk to me and stood to one side with Aidrick while she briefly rendered her daily report, which was satisfactory. I then asked for the list of volunteers I had told her to draw up and read over the names on it.

"Voan Darl's name is not here," I said after a moment. "Why is that?"

"The man is a trip wire waiting to snap, my lord," she candidly answered.

"Is he now? Would you care to elaborate?"

"He does not interact well with the rest of the troops. That can be a fatal liability on a raid."

"Yet he is very efficient at his job."

Several times in the past year I had sent him and his companions from Mordent on spying missions into Darkon, and they had returned intact and with much valuable information.

"Agreed, my lord, but he's a most difficult man to deal with. He's gotten it into his head that he's some sort of favored eccentric and above serving regular duty in the camp. Even the Darkon mercenaries will fall in with the rest for the drills; they know the training will keep them alive, but Darl's lot stay to themselves, citing that they are civilians."

"Which they are."

Recognizing his talent would be wasted were he to be absorbed into the main army, I had struck a special arrangement with Darl when I'd first hired him.

"But it's not good to have him and his friends sitting idle while the rest of my people are sweating through their exercises."

"I see your point, but the fact remains that he happens to be very good at his work and entitled to do whatever he pleases when not actively on a mission for me. If your people have a problem with that, you can inform them that should they exhibit a similar aptitude of expertise, then they may be allowed to sit out the drills themselves."

Her mouth twitched but she offered no further argument. I had the idea that her animosity toward Darl might be on a personal level. He wasn't a particularly handsome man, but was one of those who possessed the inborn faculty to draw the attention of most women.

Even Yersinia had felt his charm, and I knew her to be a most steady and level-headed lady. She had once told me that Darl was "perilous" and seemed to think that perfectly summed him up.

Though I couldn't see the peril myself, I could understand its consequence and accordingly took advantage of it when appropriate. His last disguised foray into Darkon required that he gain access into the house of one of Azalin's highest ranking nobles. Darl's method involved the seduction of the noble's wife, and-in all aspects-he had performed flawlessly, even returning with the needed information ahead of schedule. As there had been no executions in the family, it was to be assumed Azalin (and the lady's spouse) still did not know of the breach in his defenses.

Darl's success had in turn altered my immediate plans, for the intelligence he'd brought back was no less than Azalin's invasion timetable.

I had already discovered broad clues of it by observing the massive build-up of his troops along the whole of our common border. For the last month the small raids made by his zombies had trailed off and finally ceased altogether. My inner core of commanders and I knew the first-and likely final-battle was coming, but not precisely when.

Darl changed that. The next dark cycle of the summer moon would bring them, and it was just a few nights away. It was time to get very, very clever.

I ordered Commander Resvalan to call up the volunteer squads and went outside to inspect them. They were a motley-looking group. Barovia's resources were such that there was little coin to spare for niceties like matching uniforms. Those were reserved for the senior commanders who could afford the tailor work. All my people did wear cloth arm bands with my colors so that in the heat of battle they would not mistakenly attack their own. Beyond that they were in whatever conglomeration of gear they could assemble for themselves. Without exception they were very well-armed. That was one detail I did not dare stint on; the smithies were at work night and day. All those in this particular assembly were excellent fighters, some even skilled with minor magic spells, imaginative, resourceful-and unencumbered by families.

They dutifully exchanged their armbands for neck kerchiefs bearing Azalin's colors. As with me, only his top people had uniforms. He could afford the expense, but just didn't care to bother with it. As far as Resvalan knew, this foray was no different than any other I had planned, except on a larger scale than past efforts. She had chosen people who had previously worked well together-with the exception of Darl's band of civilians who worked with none but themselves. I had them called out, and one by one they sauntered up to stand in an informal line with the others, two women and three men. Darl came last, wearing the disgruntled face of a man who had just been roused from a nap.

I looked everyone over, gave a curt nod, and had the first lot of volunteers-a half dozen- file into the commander's office for a final briefing. Leaving the commander and a most unhappy Aldrick outside, I went in to give my last orders in private. At the same time I hypnotically reconfirmed the truth of their loyalty and reinforced their commitment to the successful completion of their mission. When they awoke, I told them that they were the honored few of Barovia and to serve to the best of their ability (at thrice the normal pay), then opened the box and passed out such small magical items as they might find useful on their mission-like the necklaces to prevent them from being scryed upon. Included were two magical scrolls for the traveling spell, one to get them there and one for a return. They were preparing for a deep penetration sortie to Il Aluk and couldn't waste the next few days trying to ride there.

This procedure I repeated twice more. The third and largest group of two dozen retained their Barovian armbands, for I had a slightly different mission for them across the border.

Then I called for Darl's lot. In the yard Aldrick shifted a few times on his feet to get my attention, obviously thinking that if anyone tried to assassinate me it would be now, for he had no trust in my irregulars. I ignored him and got on with the briefing.

This lot varied from the others in its lack of formality and the frank discussion of money. Darl's five worked on a job-to-job basis, and if they didn't care for the level of risk compared to the level of pay, they didn't accept the assignment.

At the bottom of the box was a velvet bag bulging with gold, accounting for most of its weight. I opened the drawstring and let the coins spill out on the table. The gold caught the candlelight and winked alluringly.

Darl's stern face relaxed into an expression of pure pleasure at the sight. He was very fond of money, but sensible in his greed. "What's the catch?" he asked after a moment.

"I shan't lie; this one is very dangerous. It makes the past ones seem like jaunts to pick wildflowers."

They looked at each other, but their curiosity was up. They wouldn't leave before finding out what I had in mind. I smoothed my hand over the pile of gold. It represented lifetime retirement in luxury for the six people before me. They all knew it.

"I'm listening," said Darl.

I nodded, looking at them all carefully. "I want you to kidnap General Vychen."

That brought forth an instant reaction of disbelief. Vychen was Azalin's first commander, and next in line to the throne of Darkon itself should the unlikely happen and Azalin be destroyed. He was also the secret leader of the Kargat, making him the second most dangerous man in Darkon.

Darl snorted. "Why stop there? Why not have us kidnap Azalin himself?"

"I am only asking you to do the difficult, not the impossible."

"This is impossible," stated a nervous, wide-eyed balding fellow with a penchant for picking locks.

"Give his lordship a chance to finish, Alvi," said Ag'n, a large, gentle-looking man, whose only superior with a blade was Darl. "I'm sure he wouldn't send us in unless we had a chance to succeed."

"You're too trusting, you are." But Alvi subsided. Now that the first shock had passed his gaze arrested on the gold.

"One would hope we would have a chance," said Darl. "Why kidnap him? Killing him would be less of a risk to us."

"I have a use for him while he lives, something far more important than his death."

"I should think his death would be very useful to our side," put in Cylla, a slender, sharp-featured woman with curly auburn hair. She had certain gifts for sensing the thoughts of others and was an efficient archer.

"You need not worry about that part of things. What I want to know is whether or not you're willing to take the job?" I could hypnotize them into it, but though such was convenient for me, it was also no true substitute for actual enthusiasm for a task.

"I'm willing," said the other woman, Nanje, a soft-looking, fair haired beauty, who was very skilled with knives. "But before we finally accept, we need to know how it's possible for us to even get close to him."

"You shouldn't have any problem doing so. I've made a thorough study of the general's habits and they include a liking for comely young women. Either of you may serve as bait." I meant this in the literal sense, for Vychen's lethal appetite for blood was identical to my own. Unlike me, he had little practice at self-control, so his dalliances tended to be of very short duration.

Both ladies snorted contempt for the general's weakness.

"Do not underestimate him, for his is not an ordinary proclivity. It is well known among his officers that the women he fancies tend to disappear or turn up dead-or worse."

"What's worse than dead?" piped Alvi. "Oh-never mind, I shouldn't like to know."

And they would not know from me. If I told them about Vychen's true nature they would have sensibly turned heel and walked out the door no matter how much gold was offered.

The last one in the group, Kelab, a large man with a long face, now spoke. "What's your plan, Lord Strahd?" He was second-in-command to Darl. The two often discussed at length (and rather loudly) the desirability of any given job, but he often deferred to Darl's decision.

I now told them, leaving out one small, but highly important point, which I held in reserve for Darl. By the time I'd finished, they were willing to make the raid.

Briefing completed, I swept the gold back into the velvet bag and said they could collect the lot-if they survived the night. Alvi made an unhappy moaning sound, which amused Cylla and Nanje. They all left to get prepared except for Darl; I discreetly signaled that he should stay behind. I nodded permission for him to take the chair opposite me across the desk.

"Yes, Lord Strahd?" he asked, easing into place and with a raised eyebrow somehow managing to affect a combination of inquisitiveness and boredom.

There was something about his manner that reminded me of myself as I'd been some centuries ago when I had walked under the sun. He was also stubborn and strong-willed-for a normal man. That was why I had chosen him for this particular challenge.

"I have a special… request to ask of you," I said, choosing my words with care. His vast esteem of himself amused me, thus my apparent show of favor. This was comparable to a cat playing with a bird that thought rather highly of itself.

"What request might that be, my lord?"

"For you to wear this as an addition to your equipment." From the box I took out a strip of leather with a flat gold disk attached to it, a cloudy white stone affixed to its center.

He studied the item without reaching for it, having the intelligence to be wary of magic. He wasn't versed in the Art, but I'd heard that he could sense its presence. "What is its purpose?"

"To allow me to observe from afar your progress. You tie it around your brows so that the stone is centered upon your forehead. Through it I can see what you would see, hear what you would hear."

"Interesting. Does this mean you've lost trust in my loyalty? That you think I must be watched?"

"I am well aware that your loyalty is primarily measured by your hatred of Azalin and the coin in my treasury."

He grinned in response. "I've been honest about that, though."

"Anything less and your head would be on a pike next to the one out in the yard," I assured him. His grin faded. On such points he knew I never made idle threats. "Your caution is an excellent survival trait, Darl, but misplaced here. All I require is someone to test this for me in the field, and you are the best choice for the job. If all goes well, then I shall find a greater use for it later. Don't bother to ask what that might be, it has to do with war policy."

He shrugged in acquiescence, knowing better than to express an interest in strategy secrets. "I've no objection then."

I handed it across the desk and after a moment's examination he slipped the leather strap around his head, tying it firmly in place.

"Am I supposed to feel something from this?"

In answer, I focused my gaze hard upon him. The force of it was entirely too much even for his relatively well-disciplined mind. Within a moment I had the bird under my absolute control.

"Now," I said, drawing forth a small silver flask from the box, "drink this. Drink all of it."

He did so without hesitation. As the last drops of it went into him, the milky crystal on the disk flared white, then went blood red. His eyes rolled back in their sockets. The flask dropped as his hand began to violently tremble.

Despite the hold of my hypnosis his whole body gave began a massive shuddering reaction to the potion. Well it should, considering some of the ingredients I had put into it. His limbs twitched until he slipped from the chair to convulse on the bare floor for nearly an entire minute. I watched, rather concerned that I had miscalculated and made the stuff too strong. If so, it would be damned inconvenient; I would have to find someone else for the raid.

The seizure finally slackened and ceased altogether, and it was with some relief that I noted that he still breathed, though in ragged gasps. He was quite flushed, his heart beating fast, but strongly. He wasn't going to die just yet. Good. Time to initiate my part of the process.

I took my crystal ball from a well-padded pouch on my sword belt and put it to use. When I had Darl's image clear in its depths (quite easy to do with him right in front of me), I shut my eyes and concentrated.

A view of the ceiling abruptly came to me, as if I were looking at it through his eyes. It was working.

I took things down to a deeper level and suffered a bout of extreme disorientation before my mind sorted out the two diverse sets of messages coming to it. One was that I sat calm at the desk, the other that I lay flat on the floor, weary and with the bitter taste of the potion coating my mouth.

"Get up, Darl," I whispered, holding hard to what he saw and felt.

He did not respond immediately. I put forth my will, both the hypnotic bond I had established and that which was from the combined effect of the potion and disk. They worked gratifyingly well. His bruised body rolled and pushed itself upright, far more efficiently than a puppet responding to a puppetmaster. Had he been in control of himself he wouldn't have been able to do that so quickly. My experiment was turning out to be far more successful than even I had anticipated.

Azalin was not the only mage given to the invention of new magic items. In between all of my other projects for the war I had managed to work a major refinement on the crystal amulet which I had employed so very long ago on that hermit from Forlorn. By comparison to this the amulet was a hopelessly crude contrivance. Then I had been able to hold my full control on the man so long as he was in Barovia. Once past the border I was limited to making use of him only with his terrified permission. Most inefficient.

This variation allowed me a certain level of fusion with Dart's senses as well as control of his will. It provided a way for me to see and even feel through him and manipulate his actions. The advantage for me was a nearly complete comprehension of his surroundings; the advantage for him was having a cooler and vastly more experienced mind directing things. If necessary, this forced influence could drive him beyond his expected limits, hence Darl picking himself up before his body was ready to make the attempt.

Which was just as well, for I had estimated that the potion would not last too terribly long. A second dose of it right now would kill him, or at the very least damage his brain to the point that he might as well be dead.

I released him from the hypnosis but held the rest of my control firmly in place, not too difficult so long as I kept my concentration up. His conscious mind was aware of my presence in his head, but he was quite unable to do anything about it.

Using his body as though it were my own, I had Darl step outside and motion for Aldrick to finally come in. He did so with alacrity. As soon as he was in Darl shut the door behind him.

"Reciprocity," I said very clearly-but it was Darl who really spoke, giving Aldrick the password we had established before leaving Castle Ravenloft.

He had known what to expect but still looked with shock on the face of Voan Darl grinning back at him. For most practical purposes it was now my face.

I spread Darl's arms. "It worked, as you see."

Aldrick looked from Darl to me where I solidly reposed behind the desk, eyes shut, the crystal ball tight in my hands and safely below his field of view. Seeing myself through another's eyes was something of a shock; except for Illusionary duplicates I had not looked on my face in over two hundred years. I seemed more gaunt than I remembered, pale, the lines of my features just as harsh, the expression just as severe. Little wonder folk jumped at my least word.

"My lord?" Aldrick was understandably confused.

"I'm here, too," I whispered, this time speaking with my own mouth. I kept my eyes closed, for this required a lot of effort and I was loath to risk breaking the precious link I had established with Darl. "This man will do as I wish, be my weapon against Darkon, be my eyes and ears and hands there."

Aldrick gave in to a most unhappy frown. "This is much too dangerous for you." He was quite correct, for I was quite vulnerable with so large a portion of my attention on controlling Darl. If Azalin had any assassins in the camp, they would have a better chance to kill me while I was in this distracted state.

I answered, using Darl. It was simply easier. "Then you will stand vigilant and see to it that no one disturbs me until I'm finished. The discussion is ended. Now let us proceed, I have little time."

He almost looked ready to offer an argument but wisely swallowed it and gave Darl the heavy leather pouch he carried. Out of habit rather than lack of trust in him I opened it to check on the contents. Everything was in place.

"Excellent." I glanced up, Darl fixing a hard gaze upon Aldrick. "No interruptions whatsoever, commander. All Barovia depends upon it."

He was white to the lips. "I swear by my life, my lord."

No truer words had he ever spoken.

Darl slipped the bag's strap over his shoulder and walked out of the small building, nearly bumping into the camp commander who was-against orders- apparently on her way in.

Resvalan backed off, showing her teeth, and it was not a smile. "You-"

I had Darl raise an eyebrow, one of his pet expressions. "What?"

Her gaze fairly burned through us. "Don't get yourself killed."

I gave her one of Darl's brief grins. "I'll try not to… for your sake."

"Damn you, Voan." She gave a quick look around, saw that no one was near, then clamped her hands on either side of our face and hauled us close for a fast, hard kiss. From my chair in the office I noted that this was quite a pleasant sensation to enjoy without having to worry about quelling hunger. Darl did not have to deal with my particular appetites, after all. The feelings coming to me from him about what was happening were most delightful, indeed. Resvalan released us, then walked hurriedly away.

So she did have a personal reason to keep him off the volunteer list, and it had nothing to do with him being a trip wire waiting to snap. I had no objection to romance, except when it interfered with duty. I would have to have a little discussion with her on the topic when I returned. On the other hand, if she'd fallen in love with someone like Darl, then that was probably sufficient punishment in and of itself.

I hurried to the rest of Darl's group and found them by the stables where I-as Strahd-had told them to wait.

"What's that?" asked Kelab, instantly noticing the disk on Darl's forehead.

"A parting gift from Lord Strahd," I said, playing the part of my puppet. "He called it a good luck charm."

"A charm, eh? He's not the sort to be free with gifts. Why the special treatment?"

"He thinks rewards like this will induce a stronger loyalty from me."

"Your loyalty's in your money pouch."

"Exactly. Hence his generosity now. This is an important raid, probably the most important we'll ever do; he wanted to make sure I understood that. He's prepared to throw in a bonus if we finish the job before an hour's gone."

"An hour!" said Ag'n, astonished. "How can we ride in that fast?"

"We're not using horses."

"Oh, and how are we supposed to get there, flap our arms?" This came from Alvi.

"Not quite, but Lord Strahd has entrusted me with a most useful shortcut."

Kelab, checking the set of his sword, paused. "What kind of shortcut?"

I swung the pouch from my shoulder to the ground and dropped on one knee to open it. "Everything we need is in this. He showed me what to do. Take only what you are willing to carry and need for the next hour-and get those armbands off. Put these on instead." I passed out the neck kerchiefs bearing Aza-lin's colors.

"But what's the shortcut?"

"Something to do with Strahd's magic. I don't know how it works, but each of you gets one of these." From the pouch I passed out five plain brass bracelets to them and slipped the sixth on myself. "Whatever you do, don't take them off or you won't be able to get back."

"Magic?" Alvi was obviously uneasy at the idea and hesitated.

"Just put it on; it won't bite you."

They reluctantly did so and gathered their gear together. I told them to stand around me in a close circle. This was met with more questioning, which was very annoying. I was too used to having people instantly jumping to my word and was hard pressed to hold to my impersonation. I snapped at them to obey.

"Who died and made you Strahd?" grumbled Alvi, giving Darl an irked look, but he fell in with the rest.

From the pouch I drew forth a scroll similar to those I'd presented to the other raiding parties. Since Darl lacked magical talent I had to read it in the same way as any other non-scholar. I spoke the words of power and felt the bracelet suddenly turn cold against my skin. An intense buzzing seemed to fill my consciousness as the barracks faded around us. When next Darl's eyes focused I saw that we had accurately appeared in the place I'd long scouted with my crystal, a patch of concealing trees. We were about two miles from the border, not far from the Krezk pass. In Darkon.

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

I felt a strong wave of disorientation that had nothing to do with the traveling spell and more with the fact that Darl was now outside of Barovia. My view of things shimmered, and for a few bad seconds I was more sharply aware of being miles away in the commander's office than in complete control of my puppet. I fought the shifting, holding hard to my crystal and keeping my focus tight. Though his will was stronger and more stubborn than most ordinary men-the reason why I had chosen him-they were qualities that I had to successfully subjugate for my later plan to work.

The disk on his brow felt hot right through the leather strip and dragged heavily. His head bowed from the weight of it. He was fighting me, but it was no more than the frantic trembling of the bird's wing beneath the paw of the cat. After a moment he gave up and I assumed control once more.

The others had been too busy reacting sharply to the sudden change of location to notice Darl's problems. By the time I'd straightened him up for a look around, they were nearly recovered and sensibly silent except for one.

Alvi whimpered, but Ag'n swiftly clamped a hand over his mouth. "This is not the time to panic."

Alvi shook him off, annoyed. "Then let me know when. I shouldn't like to be late for it."

"Shut up," I snarled.

"Where are we?"

"Inside General Vychen's camp."

"Are you sure?"

From my hours of study with the crystal I knew the layout by heart. "Absolutely certain. We have to work fast, though."

Azalin would have been aware of our intrusion into his land, the same as I was aware when anyone entered Barovia. He would be ignorant of specifics and of our plans and too busy to investigate, but there was no way of calculating how long that would last.

"Vychen's tent is over there," I said, pointing. "Cylla, Nanje, which of you wants to be bait?"

"Nanje's better at tempting men," said Cylla. "I'm better at killing them."

"That depends on what you use for a weapon," her friend put in good-naturedly. "Help me do something with my hair, would you?"

By the time they'd finished, Nanje's blond locks were flowing long over her shoulders. She slipped out of her full sleeved tunic and covered her torso with a low cut, tightly laced leather bodice. It brought her best assets to bear in an impressive display of creamy smooth flesh. How fortunate for her that I was really very much elsewhere.

"Think he'll notice me?" she asked, turning. Her leather trousers fit her like another skin.

"He'd have to be dead not to," said Kelab.

I wisely kept my superior knowledge about Vychen's true condition to myself. "Just beware of noticing him," I warned. "Strahd said Vychen also has skill with magic, and he'll try to enspell you with it. Whatever you do, do not look him directly in the eyes."

She bit her lip, but it was to bring out the color, not from nervousness.

"Rings?" I asked.

They nodded and everyone but Nanje slipped on the special rings I'd made for them. They had used them on past missions, but Nanje still gave a start. "Are you all right? Talk to me."

"We're still here," Cylla invisibly assured her. "You go on ahead and we'll stay with you the whole time."

"Easy for you to say," Alvi put in. "I can't see my feet."

"Just don't trip over mine," said Kelab wearily. "And if you must, then be quiet about it. That goes for everyone. From this point on, not one word."

Nanje emerged from the trees, close followed by her five unseen companions, and made her way toward the general's tent.

Vychen's vast army sprawled over a wide area with the confident insolence of greater numbers, less than an hour's march from Barovia. Inner security was good, but not outstanding, which accounted for our being able to magically penetrate it. What spell casters the power-jealous Azalin allowed to practice in Darkon weren't capable of putting up the kind of protections needed to keep someone like me out.

The present risk was getting Nanje close enough to Vychen's tent so that she could catch his eye. Whether he chose to take her or not was less important than the few moments of distraction she would provide for the rest of us. His awareness was much greater than that of an ordinary mortal, and he just might be able to see us if he was particularly perceptive. As for hearing and even smelling us, the rings had that added protection incorporated into their magic. They could not hide all sound or scent, but should adequately dampen them enough for us to accomplish our task. We were fairly safe, so long as we remained quiet.

The limits of Darl's frail body caused me to appreciate anew my own enhanced senses, which I could not use here. He seemed wrapped about with a thick muffling fabric that blunted hearing and dimmed sight. A decided disadvantage for us both.

Nanje sauntered within fifty yards of Vychen's tent before a sentry challenged her. During the briefing I had suggested a covering story about presenting a good luck charm on behalf of her unit as a gift for the general. Apparently-and this was confirmed by the fugitive Darkon mercenaries-it was something of a tradition in this land. I had seen this happen more than once in my spyings, a pretty young woman willingly going into Vychen's tent perhaps to give a gift or seek favors in exchange for her own. I hadn't seen what went on inside, since Vychen had some scrying protection about his person, but I could take an educated guess since they never came out again. What he did with the bodies I had been unable to discern. He was careful not to let them rise again.

The sentry and two other fellows came close to question Nanje, who smiled, played with her hair, swayed her hips, and laughed teasingly at their bad jokes. One man was sent back to the tent to make a consultation with his immediate superior about the situation. Within a very few minutes word was passed to let her come closer. The five of us followed, Cylla holding lightly to the back of Darl's sword belt. He bumped once into someone, I think Kelab, but everyone kept quiet. Darl's heartbeat was high, and I made sure he held tight to the pouch to keep the contents from rattling.

The last check was at the entry to the huge tent, when Vychen himself made a brief appearance. He looked out the door flap, inspected Nanje once, and grunted a gruff affirmative before going back in again. Nanje flashed a provocative smile at the sentries and lifted the flap high to enter, then paused for another exchange with them, talking humorous nonsense, and otherwise doing an excellent job of flirting. She gave us all ample time to duck in ahead of her.

Through Darl's eyes, with the help of the disk and its stone, I was finally able to circumvent the scrying protections and see inside Vychen's tent for the first time.

The interior was larger than my castle study, and divided into sections. The front area was meant for work with its traveling desk and litter of papers; the inner portions where he had to sleep were heavily draped with many thick layers of curtains forming a tent within the tent, its object to keep all hint of sunlight from reaching him. Whatever excuse he gave his human servants for being indisposed during the day was probably bolstered by hypnotic control.

He was at his traveling desk with two of his senior staff, paying no attention to Nanje whatsoever. As she was marginally in uniform with the identifying scarf she offered a salute none of them bothered to return. Nanje scowled, her vanity slightly bruised, but she quickly recovered and stood off to one side, quite literally to await the general's pleasure.

This was the main weak point in my plan: how long it would take Vychen to dismiss his people that he might have some privacy. It was the one thing I could trust about his condition: in order to keep his secret he had to feed away from prying eyes. I had a limited amount of time, and if he was busy with business for too much of it the potion would wear off, trapping Darl and the others in the enemy camp without my leadership to get them out. Their safety did not concern me, but the success of this raid did.

Nanje, growing impatient herself, began humming softly. I could barely hear her, but Vychen did. He looked up once with some irritation, and Nanje took the opportunity offer him a smoldering smile and lick her lips. She did make eye contact with him, but at this point all the power of influence was on her side. His irritation vanished, smoothing into quite another expression altogether. I recognized it, having keenly felt it thousands of times myself: hunger.

With that particular beast now fully wakened he would find it hard to concentrate on anything so mundane as battle plans. Within a quarter hour he dismissed his people and offered Nanje a cup of wine. She accepted and expressed great admiration for her surroundings, allowing him the opening to invite her to see the rest of his tent.

While they made small talk and he pointed out this treasure or that, I made Darl head toward the back, Cylla still holding to his belt. There were no candles here, and he could barely see by the faint light seeping in from the front. More by touch than anything else he found the flap opening to Vychen's inner sleeping quarters and we went inside. The flap moved again all by itself, and I knew at least one other of our group was inside with us. It dropped back into place, and Darl stood waiting and holding his breath in pitch darkness.

The feeble mutterings of his consciousness went very still. Perhaps some part of him understood the utter necessity of letting me have complete control at this point. I increased my hold until I almost seemed to be Darl.

Cylla let go of my belt and stood tense next to me. I couldn't tell where the other man had gotten to. I hoped it was Ag'n; his extra strength would be needed.

I knelt and quietly opened the pouch, drawing out a soft felt pad about an inch thick that fit comfortably into the palm of my hand. Next I brought forth a tightly stoppered bottle, followed by a velvet bag. I passed the latter to Cylla and heard the faint chink of metal as she reached inside. My hand froze over hers to keep her still. She got the idea and stopped making noise. I straightened, bottle in my left hand, the pad in my right.

Vychen, speaking low, and Nanje, laughing seductively, finally came to his sanctum. She thought to bring a candle and made appropriate sounds of appreciation at the sights there. The floor was covered with many layers of carpets, a broad bed stood off to one side, similarly overlaid. Beneath all he would probably have his well-hidden earth-lined coffin.

"It's so private," she exclaimed. "All these curtains and tapestries, don't you find it stuffy when it's hot?"

"Not at all," he purred. He was a big, powerful-looking man, with heavy features and dark eyes like hell pits. Nanje looked pathetically fragile next to him.

"How it steals the sound," she went on. "I could wager if I screamed my head off no one outside would hear me."

"You would win your wager," he said, moving close behind her to play with her hair. He smoothed it away from one side of her throat, a slow, lingering touch. I knew he would be able to sense the pulse of her veins, feel the warm rush of the life surging beneath his fingers and be excited by it, distracted. I saw it in his face as he began to succumb to the irresistible summons of hunger and desire. Soon he would be blind and deaf to everything but the sating of both appetites.

Nanje put her candle down on a small table and tilted her head back allowing him to bend low for a preliminary kiss. "Why, general, are you going to give me cause to scream?" she asked when he lifted away. Her back was still to him so she could not see the budding of his fangs. He was past the flirting stage.

Instead of answering, his arms went around her, hands exploring her body. She squirmed and gave out with a moan, but her expression was of utter disgust. Probably her inner voice was frantically telling her there was something wrong about him, even if it could not say exactly what that wrongness might be.

I eased around to place myself behind Vychen and hoped that the others were ready. We had to move soon while he was involved with Nanje, but not so far along that she would be unable to help us.

But I bumped into someone, not hard, but enough to make a noise. Vychen snapped alert, looking around. He sniffed the air and a growl began deep within him. Though the bottle had been carefully prepared and cleaned Vychen must have caught a telltale whiff of its contents.

"General?" Nanje tried to draw his attention back to herself.

But he was suspicious and turned her roughly around to face him. He fastened his fierce gaze upon her. "Who are you, woman? Why are you really here?"

Nanje gasped, eyes wide as he started to force his hypnotic will upon her.

Now or never.

I yanked the stopper clear and slopped the contents all over the pad, much of it spilling onto my hand as well. The overpowering stink flooded the room in those few seconds. Vychen let go of Nanje, but before he could do anything else I leaped forward and slammed the soaked pad hard against his nose and mouth, hauling him back with all my strength. It was like trying to pull down an oak tree.

He roared and grabbed for me, hands like clubs, then choked as the first expiration of the burning fumes from the liquid seared deep into his lungs. The roar turned into a scream of outrage and pain, but I held the pad in place for dear life, not trusting the thick tapestries to muffle all sound from his guards.

Cylla had the wit to remove her ring so the others would see her and stay out of her way. In her hands was the metal item from the bag I'd given to her: a fine gold chain from which hung a holy symbol borrowed from the ancient Shrine of the White Sun in Krezk. The shrine had long ago been a popular place for pilgrims coming to pay homage to the gods there. Much of that faith was gone from Barovia-I did not encourage the people to religion-but the symbol yet had power within it for the likes of Vychen. Cylla deftly slipped the chain over his head. I released my hold on him, allowing the chain to drop unimpeded into place about his neck, and the white jewel of the Symbol itself landed squarely against his breast.

He staggered, clutching his chest as though a burning brand lay against his breast, then crying out as his hands were burned when they touched the Symbol.

The others had been told it was a magical item with the power to subdue the general. The raid was dangerous enough; had they known his true nature they'd have refused the job. It was a risk keeping them ignorant, but worth it, I thought. Such strategy had worked well for me in the long ago past, after all.

I stepped in again with the smothering pad. Vychen was half-blind and half-mad from the pain of both weapons but still devastatingly strong. Before I could lock the stuff firmly against his face again, he swung wide and caught me a powerful blow to the body. I left my feet and went tumbling, feeling a terrible sharp pain in my chest. Broken ribs. I collided into someone; we landed in a tangle. Darl's agony was acute, but I forced him to draw breath.

"Rings, damn it!" I wheezed out, and hurriedly slipped mine off. As I struggled to my feet I saw Nanje and Cylla each trying to hold Vychen's arms to prevent him from tearing the holy symbol free.

Ag'n suddenly appeared as he removed his ring and waded in, throwing a massive fist at Vychen's belly, connecting with a massive thump. It seemed to have no effect. Vychen threw Cylla off, but Ag'n took her place, and his size and weight helped buy a little more time. Kelab became visible and aided Nanje, then Alvi, who danced around wanting to help, but uncertain just how to go about it.

"Get him on the floor," I ordered hoarsely, making Darl stand despite his crippling pain.

"Heave-ho," said Alvi, dropping and ducking into a ball behind the general's legs. Ag'n and Kelab pushed Vychen back so he stumbled against Alvi and the lot of them went down in a heap.

I staggered over and smashed the still dripping pad into Vychen's face. He bucked frantically but not for long. The noxious stuff finally overpowered him. He lay beneath us fully paralyzed and nearly unconscious from the combination of the holy symbol and the suffocating potency of the contents from the bottle: concentrated liquid garlic.

"Ugh," Alvi panted. "That smells terrible."

"I'm sure he would agree with you if he could," I said.

"He's one of those damned bloodsuckers," said an outraged Kelab, who had also noticed the general's extended corner teeth. "Strahd didn't say anything about that. We could have been killed."

"We still can if we don't get out of here."

"He knew this but didn't say a damned thing!"

"He told me and I thought it best to keep it to myself."

"Since when did you start making choices for the rest of us?"

"Since I saw all the gold he was offering; now shut up and hold him fast. Nanje, keep this pressed to his face."

She took over and I scrabbled for the leather pouch, bringing out one more brass bracelet that I slipped onto Vychen's wrist. The final item in it was another scroll with a traveling spell written upon it. I told them all to huddle close and carefully read the magical words written in silver ink on the vellum. As I uttered each syllable the ink vanished from the page in a tiny puff of dust. Between it and the connecting power stored in the bracelets the spell went active and Vychen's tent melted from our sight.

***

As soon as we reappeared in the Krezk camp stable yard, I thankfully cast myself free of controlling Darl, shaking off the disturbing double view of the world, not to mention his pain. He instantly collapsed even as I opened my own eyes to see Aldrick's worried face hovering near mine.

"Are you well, my lord?" he asked.

"Quite well. There is a dangerous prisoner outside who requires your immediate attention. See to it."

"It worked?"

"It worked excellently. Make sure you retrieve that disk from Darl and bring it to me right away."

"Yes, my lord."

Word got out in the camp about the successful raid, news that bolstered the morale of all the soldiers. Darl was taken to the commander's office where he was agreeably silent, being fast asleep (my doing) and now under the tender care of Commander Resvalan herself. She'd already summoned her personal healer to see to his broken ribs. Doubtless he would have some confusion when he woke to find himself a hero with his friends for something he did not remember doing, but his monetary reward would likely more than compensate him for the inconvenience and embarrassment.

I quit the furor gathering around Resvalan's office for an unused barracks house nearby. It was the same one where all the slaughter had taken place a month ago. The troops refused to sleep there, so it had been converted into a storage building while they made do with other buildings, preferring their discomforts to the cheerless memory of blood and death here.

All the cots were gone but two, and one of those was occupied by the unconscious form of General Vychen. He looked ghastly, his face gray from the garlic. Six of the camp's largest guards stood over him, one holding a cloth cone just above Vychen's nose and mouth. It was permeated with liquid garlic, and was meant to keep him quiet. Like all of our kind, Vychen had no need to breathe, but as the stuff evaporated the guard dribbled more of the noxious liquid onto the cone so that its fumes would seep into the general's throat.

On Vychen's chest lay the Krezk holy symbol, which effectively held him in place. As it was atop his leather breastplate, he suffered no immediate burning damage from the thing. Were it on his bare skin, the reaction would have been most spectacular. I had no such weakness for either of the things, which was fortunate for us all, else I might be too distracted to begin the next phase of my plan.

Just to be certain that he was prevented from mischief, Vychen was also lashed fast to the reinforced cot by two inch thick ropes that I had specially prepared in the work room of my castle. They were soaked with a solution which I had developed meant to prevent him from dissolving into a mist or shrinking to the form of a bat or wolf. I wasn't sure if it would work, but thus far nothing untoward had happened.

Tied fast around his brow was the leather strip. The stone on the gold disk was milky white again.

"Are you sure you're up to this, my lord?" asked Aldrick.

"Darl was the one to take all the punishment from the fight; I am quite hale."

"There are other ways of being weary."

True, my mind was somewhat battered from all the mental work of forcing my will upon Darl, but the boulder, as they say, was rolling down the mountain, too late to stop. "Just remember your instructions. It will be the same as before, but more so.

"Yes, my lord," he said unhappily. "I only wish there were some other way. For you to risk controlling that-that creature…"

"We do what we have to do, commander. My magic will keep me safe from his influence. Now see to your own duty."

It must have been a terrifically unsettling thing for him, but he did nod, ready to carry out his orders.

I went over to Vychen, and the guard with the liquid garlic and cone moved out of the way. From my lead-lined box I drew out another flask of the same potion I had given to Darl, only this one was ten times stronger than the dose he had consumed. I lifted Vychen's head so his mouth dragged wide and poured the stuff down his throat. The stone flashed bright and went blood red again.

Vychen's reaction was considerably stronger and more alarming to watch than Darl's. The general's unnatural strength soon turned the cot into so much tinder, and he rolled and flopped around the floor like a beached pike, his convulsions too violent for anyone to approach. The ropes helped to some extent, but the wide-eyed guards kept a prudent distance.

I watched impassively until the fit was over, then retired to an alcove set up to offer me some privacy and sat down to stare at my crystal.

Though I could have easily taken over Vychen's will with my own via hypnosis, I had no desire to be so open about my ability with witnesses about. True, I could alter their memories to suit my wishes, but it seemed best to keep things simple. Besides, my hypnotic control of Vychen might stop at the border. This method, as the test had proved, was more reliable.

I brought up his image in the crystal, shut out all other distractions, and forced my way into his vulnerable mind, creating a reprise of what had happened earlier. There was a nasty disorientating moment of roiling chaos, then I was suddenly inside Vychen's suffocating misery.

He was so far gone from the trauma of his assault that I had complete control of him without the least bit of resistance. I shrugged off the burning ropes and got him to his unsteady feet. My guards had crossbows with wooden bolts ready to shoot, but through Vychen's lips I hissed out the password and Aldrick called them off.

Next I had Vychen stagger over to a wash basin to soap away the burning residue of the garlic from his face. My face for now. This prosaic task used up a solid ten minutes of my precious time, but it was most necessary so that he could function properly. The water was a salty solution and did finally dispel the last of the clinging stink. I dried off with some relief to take in the apprehensive faces of the guards and Aldrick. Perhaps they were thinking I'd give in to Vychen's monstrous nature and attack them for their blood. True, his body did ache with hunger, but I was well in charge of it.

One of the men came forward bearing careful copies of Vychen's elaborate armor and clothing. I shed myself of his garlic-tainted attire and donned the new.

"Are you all right, my lord?" Aldrick asked as I hurriedly dressed.

"I believe so," I rumbled.

"How do you feel?"

"Strong." Which was the truth. Vychen was physically more powerful for his larger body.

"Will you-"

I held up one hand. "Enough. I've no time for questions. If all goes well we'll know within the hour. Until then no one is to disturb me. No one, Aldrick." I nodded toward the alcove, then from the box helped myself to a small packet of magical supplies I had prepared for this phase of my attack.

Then I thoroughly startled my people by assuming the form of a bat and darting out the open door of the barracks.

***

Vychen had no trouble crossing the border and beat swiftly north to reach his camp, his perceptions filtering back to me where I sat quietly in the barracks. I had anticipated that he might fight my influence once inside Darkon, but I was ready for him. His flight faltered and his view spun, but I held firm to my dominance of him. Somewhere deep within his conscious Vychen was screaming with rage and terror, perhaps in hope that his precious Lord Azalin would hear and come to his rescue. I could not discount the possibility and made Vychen fly all the faster. Azalin would be aware of this latest entry into his land.

It would have been more quick to use a scroll spell to travel this distance, but I wanted an opportunity to survey the area rather than through the useful, but limited crystal. If things did not go right, then soon my own small army would meet with Azalin's on this very ground. Besides, a scroll would not have gotten me through the magical protections of Vychen's tent, and it was important that he regain entry unnoticed.

As a tiny bat, this feat was simple enough. I had him resume his man-shape once past the outer flap and took a quick look about me. All was the same as when I'd been here with Darl's party. So far no one had marked the general's absence. I had hoped for as much. My past observations had indicated that once he was with a woman he stayed busy with her for the remains of the night. I made a check of his private quarters, also unchanged, but didn't stay more than a moment since the place still reeked of garlic. I wanted no trace of it clinging to him, lest it alert others that something was amiss.

Back in the planning area I took time to inspect the maps on his strategy table. They were all of Barovia and were as accurate as the ones I'd made of Darkon, though some blank spots were in place, notably Castle Ravenloft and other select areas where I had cast heavy protection spells to keep out prying eyes. I recognized Azalin's writing and took it as something of a compliment that he'd seen to this task himself.

The general's plan appeared simple but effective. His army would come in through the pass and first sweep west to take the city of Krezk, securing all the bridges crossing its river. Over the river they would march east along the Svalich road. The policy was to totally destroy everything in their path with fire and sword, no prisoners, no booty. The object was to capture me if at all possible, but if not, then they had Azalin's orders to kill me, along with detailed instructions on just how to best go about it.

If Azalin believed my demise would destroy Barovia, then it was likely he didn't think it would affect the lands around it and destroy them as well. That or he no longer cared. It was another of his weaknesses: if a fact ran counter to his deepest desire, then would he obstinately ignore the fact. Of course, there was no way to prove this one's truth beyond killing me, and I wasn't going to give him the satisfaction.

Though there were probably copies, I took a moment to burn this lot of papers in a charcoal brazier.

I went to the tent flap and shoved it aside. The guards there snapped to attention. One of them stepped forward, apparently expecting orders. I gave them.

Sudden midnight staff meetings were a common occurrence with Vychen. His nature dictated it, but it was no inconvenience to his people since so many of them were night creatures like himself. This was fortunate for me, else I would have had to deal with the problem of truly serious daylight raids.

Fear of him and of Azalin made them efficient and timely. Within a quarter hour all five of his lesser generals turned up, along with several dozen other commanders, many of whom I knew by name from scrying. It was no great effort to maintain my impersonation before any of them. When one of them made a guarded query about the disk on Vychen's forehead I told him the truth: that it was a magical item that would help in the war effort. I only neglected to mention which side would benefit.

They all had mounts ready, as I had ordered, and if puzzled by it, no one offered any questions. There are some advantages to being an absolute ruler within one's sphere. The general's horse was brought forward, and I heaved his muscled bulk into the saddle. The animal, like the others, wore a minor controlling charm on its tack, meant to keep it calm despite any terror it might have of its rider. How convenient. I would have to make some of those myself. If things worked out.

I snapped at his people to follow and led the way off through the center of the camp. The troops on either side who were still awake got to their feet and listlessly saluted our passage; there were no cheers for their leaders. This gave me to that understand morale was low and likely being ignored altogether. Azalin had no concern for the minions who served him, yet another mistake. Contented servants are less likely to betray or desert their master.

We rode south to the edge of camp closest to the Barovian border. The inner pickets here were heavy, on watch for raiding parties. The outer pickets made that possibility remote since they were composed of the dead. They faced south, standing unnaturally still, dread, untiring sentinels ready to move instantly against anyone daring to approach them. But only anyone trying to enter the camp.

I passed through the lines of zombies, some of whom were Barovians killed in skirmishes, their bodies dragged into Darkon so that Azalin could work his reanimation magic upon them. The idea was to demoralize those in my army should they see what had happened to their former comrades.

Now did Tew Yssup, Vychen's first general, risk his commander's displeasure by voicing a question. He was nervous about being far from the camp, so dangerously near the border.

"This is the place where Strahd will make his stand against us when we march," I answered. "I want all of you to have it fixed in your heads. Lord Azalin will not be kind to those who make mistakes."

That bought me another few minutes of travel, bringing us closer to my goal. Soon now.

"Forgive me, sir," he began again, "but this is most unwise, to be here without an escort-"

"Are we not soldiers ourselves, Yssup?" I demanded. "Any one of us is a match for ten of Strahd's best. Lord Azalin made sure of that."

A few more minutes. My objective was just ahead, a slight dip in the land, a very shallow bowl, but enough so that one could not see beyond the opposite side. Any sensible commander would have ridden around the possible trap, but I was the great General Vychen. Who would dare to strike at him? Who indeed? I thought as we rode straight into it. Only I, Strahd of Barovia.

I called a halt in the middle of the bowl and ordered them to dismount. Yssup choked.

"If Strahd has his own sentries posted I don't want them seeing us as we come over the horizon," I snapped.

It sounded plausible, but there was an overall reluctance in their midst. Showing none myself, I slipped down and ground-tethered my horse, then marched forward, not glancing back to see if any followed. It was just the sort of thing Vychen would do. I heard them trotting to catch up, some muttering uneasy complaints.

As I came to the crest of the bowl, I dropped to a crouch, then to my hands and knees, and crept my way along. The others, in their absurd follow-my-leader obedience, did the same.

Thus were the lot of us in this supremely disadvantageous position when one of the party of troops I had sent in earlier rose up from the long grass, followed by others with swords drawn, screaming red murder as they stormed in.

The Darkon officers recovered fast, but those on the outer edge of our group took the brunt of the initial charge and heads went rolling. I had briefed my people on the supreme importance of decapitating whenever possible, having warned them about the supernatural nature of the enemy. The Barovian's silver-plated swords were enspelled to expedite this process and all carried a supply of sharp, fire-hardened wooden stakes. They also had orders to leave Vychen alone.

Yssup got to his feet, sword out, fangs bared as he roared his rage at the ambush. He put his back to me-a serious mistake. I drew my blade and swung. His head flew one way and his body dropped another, his sudden blood smoking as it spurted black over the ground.

I struck twice more before Vychen's men realized that they had a traitor in their midst. This surprised them almost as much as the attack itself, and two more dropped before anyone thought to oppose me.

Now did I have to defend myself, and I put all my effort into it, yelling to draw more attention to me. It took the pressure off of my more vulnerable human troops. As soon as a Darkon man turned to deal with me, one of mine had a chance to move in close for a kill.

The air went heavy with the scent of blood, and I felt the raw craving for it sweep over Vychen's body. He had not fed tonight. It was terribly distracting. I wanted to drop my sword and tear into the nearest throat. Instead I forced myself to swing and cut and block and swing again, taking wounds and snarling as I returned the insults with savage interest. Then the next man I attacked was one of my own, wearing my colors. I froze in mid-strike.

"General?" he shouted, uncertain. He'd been told at the briefing that Vychen had secretly gone over to the Barovian side and would lead his top people into this trap.

I let my sword blade dip toward the ground. "All is well, the password is 'crossroads.'"

The soldier relaxed slightly and nodded, then glanced at the rest of his group, or what was left of it. There were some dozen survivors, but considering that they'd been pitted against the best in Azalin's army, it was amazing anyone was standing at all. I'd have to remember to commend the Krezk commander for her excellent training program.

The enemy dead were counted and as there were more of them than the living, I could safely call this a victory and be proud.

Azalin would not easily recover from this blow. The officers destroyed here were the elite of his precious Kargat, culled and trained and culled again if they got overly ambitious and threatened him. He'd provided me with his own defeat by his fanatical thinning of the ranks, for it is not an easy thing to find someone with intelligence, talent, and boldness who is willing to subjugate himself to another's rule. So far as I knew, Azalin had wiped out all who could have possibly replaced this lot. Those remaining were sheep, not wolves, and sheep cannot lead an army. With any luck it would take him decades to restore his command structure. By that time I would have devised other strategies-

The wind, calm a moment before, abruptly kicked up, hissing through the dry grass like a thousand snakes. Its touch was cold as a winter grave. My men looked around, startled, suddenly shivering, knowing that something was wrong, but not sure what it might be.

I did. I could smell the magic in the air, feel its heaviness thrumming through my bones.

"We're discovered!" I snapped. "Head for the border now! Go! Now!"

They did not hesitate or ask questions. Wise of them. As they fled in fear-driven haste for Barovia, I pulled out a ring I had prepared and donned it, then spoke the activation word that would summon the fire spell stored within its bright gold. The ruby mounting glinted bright an instant before flashing to full life. I just had time to direct it before the force of the energy burst free and slammed over the battle ground in front of me.

The heat was such that even the green summer grass kindled and high flames soon washed over the bodies as I intended. I wanted no chance that Azalin could bring them back again, so utter destruction was a necessity. Their clothes beneath the armor caught and burned. Their flesh seared and bubbled, and the stink of burned rotted meat rolled over the land. The unnatural wind blew about in all directions, sending sparks flying. They carried the fire beyond the confines of the ambush. The wind drove it north into Darkon. If I had any more luck tonight it might even reach and engulf his line of guardian zombies. The horses, overcoming their controlling charms, finally gave in to their terror and bolted, screaming.

I turned south to follow my people in escape. They were well along. The border was not far, I would simply take to the air and head for the barra-

Fool!

Above me Azalin's harsh voice bellowed out like a clap of thunder.

I am lord here!

It seemed to fill my very head. I faltered in my rush forward as the force of it hammered me.

I am lord of all Darkon!

I tried to alter my form into a bat. Nothing happened. No shifting and shrinking of shape and muscle occurred.

Did you think I would not know when you entered my domain?

Damnation to him, his magic was interfering with the process.

When any of your damned menials entered?

I began running.

Here is my repayment for your folly!

Sensing movement above I looked up and stopped barely in time. It missed me by a hair's breadth. Right in the path before me a man's body slammed into the ground. His limbs were twisted and obviously broken from the fall, and the last expression on his face was that of absolute terror. He hadn't died here, but very far away in Azalin's stronghold.

He'd been in one of the two assassination parties I had sent into Il Aluk. Their purpose was to keep Azalin thoroughly occupied, distracted so that I could go forth with the raid and this deception here. From my own experience I always knew when Azalin sent one of his zombies into Barovia, and had no doubt he'd be aware of my doing the same with anyone as well, especially if I used magic.

Your servants failed!

His voice boomed in my mind, and I staggered from the force of it.

Their pathetic attempts to harm me failed!

Another body dropped next to me. I recognized him as the leader of the second company. His throat had been ripped out. I could see the neck bones jutting through the torn flesh.

YOU failed!

I leaped over him and ran, but barely ten paces later another body fell from the sky in front of me. This one actually struck, throwing off my stride. I swerved and lost balance. A fourth came down, knocking me flat under its weight. Before I could push it off, I was hit again. Azalin was burying me under the bodies of my own men like a child smothering an ant with a fist full of sand.

It would only get worse; I tried to turn myself to mist… and nothing. More interfering deviltry from him. I pushed and clawed and got free, then something unexpectedly seized my head and hair, pulling me back.

They were moving, these dead things.

No breath or beat of heart stirred inside them, yet their arms worked, hands reached, fingers clutched. How often had I given this parody of living to my castle servitors, but never had they turned on me or dragged me to the ground.

One last thing to do. I had hoped to take Vychen back and use him later, but I would have to abandon that plan. In the barracks house, in the shelter of my alcove I opened my own eyes. Or tried to.

I strove to part my will from Vychen, to release my control of him but could not shake myself free.

You dare to come this way to Darkon? Then stay, bloodsucker. Stay and die!

Azalin's magic. His damnable magic was holding me in place, forcing me to fuse with Vychen. Now I wasn't only aware of his pain and panic, it became my own.

Now I was no longer miles away and safe from such an attack, I was a part of what was going on, unable to draw away. Now did I struggle for my life. And lost.

Their sheer numbers were too much. They surrounded me, pulled me back and down. I struck the ground, overcome by an avalanche of cold, reanimated flesh. Vychen was strong, but no match for these things, which were just as powerful.

Their mouths hung open as though frozen wide with laughter, but they made no sound. I caught the thick stench of death clinging to their skin as they pawed at me. Seizing a questing arm I tore it right from the socket of one of them. There was a burst of blood, but my savage action made no change. That body and the others continued to arrest my desperate fight to get free. I was fixed to the earth by them, all my limbs held fast.

Then I saw the stake-one of the very ones my people had brought over.

I had prepared them all myself, enspelling them to make sure they'd do more than the expected injury of piercing undead flesh. They wouldn't merely rend, but sear their way through, cleaving to the body like a barbed arrow. To pull it free would cause even greater harm. And it was in the hands of a mindless corpse under the control of my worst enemy.

I will repay! Azalin's harsh voice screeched in my mind, the pain of it making me cry out.

The corpse's head lolled side to side as it shambled toward me, movements made wooden by Azalin's far away control. Its neck was broken so badly that the bones were completely parted and only the remaining skin and muscle kept it attached to the body. The thing stopped and loomed over me.

Repay!

The corpse raised the stake high. I might have screamed; I couldn't hear myself for Azalin's maddened cursing.

I glimpsed the stake arcing down, felt the tearing, burning explosion of agony in my chest. My desperate dying shriek rent the air, the last of it drowned as the blood rushed up my throat. I gagged on it. Coughing, I tried to expel my own blood from my throat. The stuff spewed over the bodies holding mine in place.

I tried to rise, make one last escape, but something else had me hard in its grip. Something I could not fight. I felt it rasp against my rib bones as I bucked against it. The stake. The damned wood had gone right through my body, pinning me to the alien earth of Darkon.

My limbs flailed out of control…

Lord Strahd!

… heels drumming as ungoverned spasms racked me…

Lord Strahd! Wake up!

…the weight of all those dead-crushing, killing…

Aldrick?

… taste of my own blood in my mouth…

Yes! Wake up! Wake up now!

As though he was one among the corpses I saw Aldrick's face anxiously peering down at me. The vision clouded, fogging over.

The dead heaped upon me, pressing…

Come back, Lord Strahd!

I saw Aldrick again. The vision of the dead… clouds…

– or the Mists-

The terrible pain did not stop, but… changed.

Pressure was still on my chest, but different from-

Hurry!

Smothering, but bearable.

Now!

Then a terrific wrenching, as though I was being turned inside out.

My lord Strahd?

And I jarringly but undeniably traded one pain for another.

The faint image of Aldrick's face took on solidity, reality as the essence that is me was ripped from Vychen and thrust back into my own body again.

I was in the barracks house, lying flat on the floor, clutching the heavy crystal ball close to my chest. Guards were standing nearby watching with fear on their faces. Gasping, I realized my link to Vychen has dissolved, blessedly dissolved.

"My lord?" Aldrick.

"It worked," I whispered. This time with my own voice.

***

The first few nights were the most important and the worst because of all the waiting, the wretched uncertainty. Recovered from my ordeal, I kept constant post over my crystal as diligently as any of my border guards, waiting to see what Azalin would do.

The dark of the moon came… and went. His army camped just north of the Krezk pass for another week, then gradually began pulling out until none remained but a few of the guardian zombies who had not been caught in the fire.

I didn't want to trust this and sent in scouts to make sure. Some even managed to return. Their reports confirmed that Azalin's people were apparently gone from the border.

I wanted to see for myself, take control of another, but without the disk and the crystal to use I could not. It would take a very long time to create another. At least it was useless to Azalin without the magic potion to act as a catalyst.

Weeks passed, then months, then years. Azalin held back from making another massive attack, for his army would soon come to grief without experienced leaders. He could not even send his damned zombies across, knowing I would turn them against each other once they were on my side of the border. He would have to hold back and lick his wounds and hope a new generation of effective leaders would mature to replace the old. Not likely, I thought, for he was too jealous of his power to allow others to learn the art of warfare as I knew it.

I had hoped the aftermath of my assaults would provide me with at least several years of respite, time to prepare for the next attack, and for once my wish was granted.

I could thank my enemy for that, for his delay gave me the time to strengthen my own defenses. His temporary weakness made me strong. And until he realized that the continuing result for both of us in our ongoing war would ever be a draw, I would have to continue to watch, wait, and prepare for his next attack.

Unless… unless I got very, very clever again.

EPILOGUE

736 Barovian Calendar, Mordentshire, Mordent

When Van Richten's voice died away, Mrs. Heywood closed the book with a thump.

Lord Strahd von Zarovich. Such a terrible man, she thought-though he couldn't really be a man at all. And as for that Azalin creature, why, it couldn't possibly be the same Azalin that ruled Darkon today. It couldn't possibly…

She shook herself as if to jar the awful thought from her mind and looked at Van Richten, but his attention was obviously turned inward. He seemed utterly unaware of her presence. What was he thinking? Certainly nothing pleasant to judge by his bloodless face.

But…but…it was just a book after all.

The more she thought ab