(This is an interlude between sessions for my gaming group who is currently playing through a Ravenloft-themed D&D campaign entitled Return to Ravenloft. Check the previous session recap to get some context!)
The Scholar sits at his desk, lamp burning low as his quill scratches furiously over the parchment before him.
Darkness has fallen on the other side of the nearby window and he knows he does not have much time left.
Finishing his letter, he folds it quickly and stuffs it into an envelope, creasing it at odd angles to fit inside. His hands tremble as he pours hot wax onto the back of the envelope, leaving spots of red spattered all across it. He presses the stamp of the Scholar into the wax, adorning the document with the seal of his persona, before standing from his desk. The book he was reading, still open to his page, falls to the ground and rests on the ornate carpet under the desk, the title of Exploring Chaos inscribed along the spine.
Grabbing his heavy robe, staff and haversack, he hides the envelope on his person and exits his study, crossing his modest home and exiting into the night. The cool air is bracing and the clouded sky above gives the Scholar no comfort as he rushes through the gates of his estate and into the city streets beyond. Forrington is a busy city at all hours, rain or shine, but even the guttersnipes and prostitutes seem to be in hiding. There is something unnatural about the chill in the air, a sense of dread that is colder than any of the breezes that come off the water past the harbour.
The Scholar rushes to the dock, hoping against hope that he can reach it in time, that his message can get through before the Seer and his newfound companions leave Holmont Cove. The notes he had taken while in that godsforsaken port town were inconclusive -- it had taken discussion with the Priestess to realize exactly what it was that was transpiring within Holmont Cove and further research through the Scholar's own books to put it all together with a horrifying clap of realization. He was late getting the warning out, he knew, but the question was whether he was too late.
He hoped he wasn't.
The Illusionist was to be waiting for him at the dock, his ship ready to carry the Scholar's message on speedy waves to Holmont Cove. Indeed, when he reaches the edge of the harbour, he sees a small swift-looking ship rocking gently in the waves and a lantern-bearing figure standing on the pier next to it. So focused is he on his task that the Scholar does not notice the distinct lack of sailors and dockworkers anywhere near this particular pier, a place that is almost always bustling with activity, night or day.
Rushing forward, his staff helping him along, the Scholar takes a moment to reflect on this momentous occasion. None of their circle have met face-to-face before; always their interactions have been through correspondence, whether mundane or magical, and titles replace all names in these messages. He knows the Illusionist by his field of expertise and his letters only, the parchment always full of small magical effects that give the page colour and imagery it would not usually have. The Illusionist was an eccentric fellow, by all accounts, but was knowledgeable and both had agreed that word must be sent post-haste in order to avert possible disaster to their compatriot the Seer.
Coming up to the Illusionist, the Scholar realizes that the mage is a fair bit smaller than he expected; from his stature, the Scholar would guess a halfling or a gnome. From his messages, he had always figured the Illusionist to be a human, like himself, but the school of illusions is one that the smaller folk seem to master more easily than the others. Approaching the figure, the Scholar waves a greeting and hurries forward. "Greetings, Illusionist. Thank you for meeting me here." His voice is hushed but urgent.
"Of course," the Illusionist replies, voice nasal and somewhat lilting, almost pleased. "Word must reach the Seer before time is too late. Do you have the letter?" His cowl hides his eyes, pulled tightly down over his head, and the black robe he wears hugs his form revealing a gaunt figure underneath.
The Scholar nods, digging through his haversack and producing it. He hesitates a moment as he begins to hand it to the Illusionist, whose hand is extended in anticipation. The Scholar looks around, at the ship and the pier itself. "Where is the crew for your ship? You can't sail this by yourself, can you?"
The Illusionist smiles, only the bottom half of his mouth illuminated by his lantern, a perfect row of teeth glistening in the firelight. "Magic is a wonderful aid, my friend. Now, please, the letter. We haven't much time."
The Scholar balks, glancing from the ship to the Illusionist and back. And, with each glance, the ship seems a little less material and a little more translucent until, finally, the Scholar realizes the illusion and the ship blinks out of perception. With a shocked expression, the robed man stares straight at the Illusionist and watches as the façade falls away. The smile becomes a grin and is immediately soured by gaps in his teeth and a rotting lip. Strips of skin seem to hang loose off his chin and even his extended hand appears gaunt, and is obviously covered in a thin layer of some form of slime. A foul stench rises off of the diminutive figure and the Scholar feels his stomach turn as he realizes the deception before him.
"Y-y-y-y-you work for von Zarovich, don't you?" the Scholar stammers out, letter still extended as he stumbles backwards. He fights the urge to turn and run, falsely knowing in his heart that only by keeping his eyes on the Illusionist will he survive.
"Well, not 'for'," the Illusionist replies, matching the Scholar step for step. "I work with Strahd, that much is true. But not 'for'. 'For' implies that he is my boss and, as much as he would like to think that is the case, I am only in it for the power I can gain from him. But I digress: come now, Master Winterburn, give me the letter and let's put this behind us."
Collapsing to the pier, all breath knocked from his lungs, the Scholar gasps for breath as the Illusionist strides over and collects the letter. Stuffing the envelope into a fold of his robe, the figure kneels over the Scholar laying a hand on his chest as he turns back his hood.
Beneath is a decomposing and obviously dead yet mobile gnome, rotting skin hanging from his yellowed bones. His eyes remain intact but cloudy, with only the palest of pupils visible. Still, they seem to glow with an unnerving light and, beyond everything, the slime that seems to seep from the gnomes very pores makes for a very disturbing image. Still, the corpse speaks very amiably to the prone figure below him. "Sorry for this, old chap. But the count and I have worked very hard to get where we are and we can't let anything stand in our way. I'm sure you understand."
He moves his other slimy hand to the Scholar's brow, closes his eyes for a moment, then releases a pulse of energy into the face of the prone man. Immediately, the Scholar screams the briefest of screams before seizing, his body going rigid and his face contorting into a disturbing rictus of terror. His pulse ceases as his heart gives out, his body frozen in the pose of death from fright.
Sufficiently pleased by his work, the gnome stands to his feet and rolls the Scholar to the edge of the pier before pitching him off the end. He watches the corpse sink, the body frozen solid as stone and as heavy from the magic, and sighs heavily. "He was my favourite," he comments idly, pulling gloves over his skeletal hands and pulling up his hood once again. He turns and begins to walk away down the pier before disappearing into the darkness.