Ravenloft they called it. Though after further “questioning” it transpired that Ravenloft was merely the name of the castle overlooking the miserable land which they claimed to have found themselves in. Barovia was its name – a land of dark forests surrounded by mountains, howling wolves, roaming spirits and frightened peasantry. Our stray agents gave an account of their ordeal, and their scarred bodies and freshly greyed hair suggested there may be some truth to their horrific tales of werewolves, vampires and other terrifying undead beasts; and above them all a dark lord that ruled this land with an iron fist.
This piqued our curiosity; such a powerful and ruthless ruler could prove a useful ally to the Zhentarim. There was one problem however. This Barovia did not exist. Certainly on no maps, and when pressed to tell us how they found themselves there, they explained that they had gotten turned around whilst passing through a fog bank near their post and had emerged into what they called the Svalich Woods, near the town of Barovia, over which loomed Castle Ravenloft. Their post was along an unremarkable trade route on a vast plain with nothing for miles but horizon. There are no hills. There is no forest. And there is certainly no ancient castle perched on a mountainside.
Our finest chirurgeons examined them to find the cause of these delusions, but could find no sign of poisons or the like. We concluded that they must be hapless pawns in some plot against the Zhentarim. We represent Order, and there are many agents of chaos assailed against us. It would be just like some Thayan Zulkir to attempt to destabilise our good works in such a way.
Alas, these agents were deemed no longer reliable and it was decided that they retire from the Zhentarim. We provided them with a full pension – twenty percent of which was given to their widows and the remainder reinvested in the Officers’ Fund. We prepared our report and sent it to our superiors, and that should have been that, yet on a whim I sent a dispatch to those agents along the Sword Coast that answer to me and told them to keep an ear open for mentions of “Barovia” and “Ravenloft”. This was clearly a wild xvart chase, and after six months of silence on the matter I had put it out of my mind. And then, one cold misty morning, a package was delivered to me containing a letter, and a dusty tome.
I quickly decoded the letter using one of our more exclusive ciphers. The package, it transpires, was sent by one of our agents who makes a living as a scribe in the great library of Candlekeep. This old book, he assured me, was the journal of a mage who had actually visited this Barovia.
It was very much a scholarly text, and I am no wizard, but he spoke of the different planes known to any who have encountered the likes of demons, devils or slaadi. This mage theorised that the land of Barovia was its own self-contained demi-plane – a little pocket of reality tucked away somewhere in the Ethereal or Shadowfell surrounded by a veil of mist that could occasionally reach out its tendrils to other worlds and spirit away the unsuspecting. Perhaps, he reasoned, this demi-plane needed fresh souls for sustenance or maybe the mists served some powerful intellect that merely craved entertainment from those they entrapped?
Whilst stranded in Barovia seeking answers to such questions he encountered a band of travelers who called themselves Vistani. A bunch of itinerant vagabonds by the sound of things. They would travel from town to town and earn money dancing, telling fortunes and trading goods from beyond the Mists. This surprised the mage. He had attempted to escape this place on more than one occasion and every time he stepped into the mists surrounding this land he would find himself reemerging on the road to Barovia. These Vistani claimed to be able to navigate the Mists, knowing what they called the mistways. It seems they were telling the truth, as it was these Vistani who ultimately led the mage safely beyond the borders of Barovia and returned him home, this was not without extracting a hefty price, though the mage was not forthcoming with the details.
He learned much from these Vistani before he finally escaped. They claimed that Barovia was not unique, that there were dozens of other such demi-planes hidden amongst the mists, each of them ruled over by some Dark Lord whose will bent and shaped the land to their whims. This was certainly the case in Barovia. From his throne in Castle Ravenloft, Strahd Von Zarovich ruled over this land. A powerful warrior and sorcerer in life, it was no secret that the Count was a vampire and Barovia could not have suited such a creature more. The sun was always hidden behind a bank of fog, the forests were full of wolves and other dire beasts ready to do his will and the frightened peasantry hid trembling inside their churches and behind stone walls every night for fear that Strahd would descend upon them to feed. None could challenge him.
In short, it sounds like Barovia was Strahd’s playground. Its people his to toy with and dispose of as he pleased whilst the mists provided a fresh supply of playthings. The Vistani tried to explain to the mage that Strahd was also a prisoner there, entrapped by Dark Powers due to his deeds in life, but it sounds like no prison I know. Power, food, entertainment – why these “Domains of Dread” sound like a paradise. Not punishment, but reward.
Since first reading the mage’s journal, it has been ever on my mind. I have directed my underlings to bring me news of Barovia should they hear any, and to keep a watch for any calling themselves Vistani. These searches have yet to prove fruitful. Yet I live in hope and strive ever onwards. I was once a bugbear with small dreams, to raise myself up the chain and run the Zhentarim, perhaps to carve out an earthly kingdom for myself.
But now I know that there are so many more possibilities, and on these cold damp nights, I find myself wondering if this is the night, the night that I too venture into the mists, and find my kingdom awaiting me. I wonder what I shall name my castle? Something fetching I think…