Book One
Part 1 of 8


My name is Nikita Katarina Czigany Kryszka, and this is an account of my experiences in the dark and twisted realm I have come to know as Ravenloft. I didn't want to write this. Donar and Silvio, High Priests of Strand's Shadows, have asked this of me. They tell me they want to make sure I haven't forgotten any details. They tell me that, some time long after I'm gone, the information contained in these pages might prove valuable to future priests of Torodin. But I suspect another reason -- they are worried about me and hope that recording my thoughts will help to heal my wounded sanity. I pray that they are right.

- Visions -

I was sleeping when the vision hit me. I saw a large boat, its many sails unfurled as it sailed into the mist. There was a strange pattern to the sails, like bands of darkness woven into the light fabric.
That was all I saw. A very simple image -- surely nothing to inspire fear. Oh, but it did. The sight of that boat filled me with such dread... I knew somehow that the ship -- or what it represented -- meant danger not only to me, but to everything and everyone I loved. I awoke screaming.
"Nikki, baby, what's wrong?"
Sal's voice soothed me from the darkness. He put his strong arms around me and held me close. Shivering, I leaned into his warmth.
"What's wrong, darling? Did you dream about your uncle?"
I couldn't speak, so I shook my head, a gesture Sal couldn't see in the darkness. When I first came to him seven years ago, I'd been so frightened and unsure of myself. My mother died when I was six, and I'd grown up with no friends and little kindness, raised by an aunt who hated me with jealous fury and an uncle who abused and terrorized me for the sheer joy of it. Even after I'd escaped and found a home in Istur, even after I'd seen him die, I had nightmares about my uncle for a long time. Countless times I'd woken up screaming to find Sal there, comforting me. Even if he'd been downstairs working when I fell asleep in my own room upstairs, somehow he always found his way to my side when the bad dreams started, as if he somehow sensed my fear. It was no wonder I fell in love with him.
I wanted to tell Sal I hadn't dreamed about my uncle. He'd chased those nightmares away a long time ago. He'd told me once that only the poorest excuse for a man would ever hit a woman, and now that I had him I would never have to tolerate that kind of abuse again. Sal made me realize that I deserved better.
That night, my vision shook me worse than the nightmares ever had. I sat on the bet shaking while Sal lit a candle. Then he sat down next to me, took my hands in his and kissed my fingers.
"It's all right, Nikki. You're safe. Tell me what's wrong."
Sal's voice, like the man himself, is gorgeous. Deep and mellow, rich with the rhythms of an Istur native, he used it now to calm me. Still holding his hands, I stopped shaking and was able to tell Sal about my vision. I couldn't quite capture the feeling of dread or explain why it had frightened me, and I could see the confusion in Sal's eyes. He didn't understand.
But that didn't mean he couldn't sympathize. He kissed me and held me close. "Don't you worry, baby. Nothin's gonna happen to you. Tomorrow, you go to the temple. Donar and Silvio -- they'll help you figure this out."
"Thanks, Sal. I will. Can you stay with me tonight?"
Sometimes, Sal's duties with The Organization required him to leave mysteriously in the middle of the night. Sal never mentioned where he'd gone, and I never asked. I am curious to a fault, but I loved Sal with all my heart and I know I always will. If there were things he didn't want me to know, then I didn't want to know them either.
Sal smiled and kissed me again. "Don't worry, Nikki. Nothin's gonna take me away from you tonight."
I don't remember the rest of that night. I have Duke Evensong to thank for that -- it was just one of many special memories he stole from me. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
The next day, I went to the temple as soon as I got up, just after noon. I had no patience for breakfast, but I munched on an apple to please Sal and left. Silvio was out -- apparently Seregil had gotten carried away with one of his pranks, and the high priest had gone to apologize to the man whose boat had been sunk. Donar was meeting with a wizard from Tonn, but Dante assured me they'd be done soon. We chatted for a while; he tried to reassure me about my vision, and we made a date for dinner.
Donar was soon finished, and he seemed happy to see me. Although no one who wasn't keenly observant and knew Donar well would have noticed, I could tell by the way he dismissed the man that the wizard's company had been tedious. Some of those wizards from Tonn are awfully dull.
Donar took me into his study and I told him about my vision. He's been like a father to me over the years, and I felt comfortable telling him anything. He didn't seem too concerned, which relieved me. Donar is not the kind of person who keeps the truth to himself just to spare your feelings. He told me that the vision seemed incomplete -- that I should keep an eye out for future omens that would make sense of it. Sympathetically, he suggested that my fear and dread came from my usual aversion to the visions -- I had come suddenly into the priesthood and had never adjusted well to such an unpredictable and uncontrollable power.
I could accept this. But I had to know more. "Please, Donar," I said. "I know we shouldn't jump to conclusions -- that we don't have enough evidence to figure this out. But don't you have some idea what this vision might mean?"
He looked at me thoughtfully for a minute. "An idea, yes. But mind you, I'm only conjecturing here. You should keep your mind open to any possibilities."
I nodded.
"A ship usually signifies a journey -- either a physical one, one of discovery, or both. The size of the ship could mean that it's either a very long journey or a very important discovery." I felt a cold weight settle in the pit of my stomach. "You mean, I might have to leave Istur?"
I watched Donar's face, hoping he'd say no. Everyone I loved was in Istur. After so many years of being alone I had finally found a place to call home. I had close friends and lovers -- people I loved with all my heart. And I'd always been careful not to get involved with people who weren't planning on staying in Istur. That was Sal's advice at work again. He'd told me once that I gave my heart too easily and people would hurt me if I wasn't careful. He was right, too. I knew it would break my heart if anyone I loved had to leave Istur. How then could I go away and leave them all behind?
Donar leaned forward and took one of my hands in his. A chill ran down my spine. He always did this when he was about to deliver bad news.
"Nikita, you've been a priest here for four years, and you joined The Organization three years before that. In all that time, you've never once left Istur. Your devotion to the people here is admirable, but I worry that some of your reasons for staying so close to home aren't entirely healthy."
"What do you mean?"
"Nikita, you were so frightened when you came to us. You didn't know what to expect, and you were sure you weren't fit to be a priestess. I've been so pleased to watch your confidence grow over the years." He smiled. "You've even dared to cause trouble on quite a few occasions. But Silvio and I have both been concerned over the lack of faith you have in your own abilities."
"I don't --"
"Nikita," he cut me off with a stern look. "We know you. You act confident, sometimes even cocky, because you don't want people to see how afraid you are."
I felt ashamed. Was I that obvious? Although I knew Donar's observations were kindly meant, I felt the need to defend myself .
"People hurt you when they know you're afraid of them." It's the only lesson I learned from my uncle. That and how to get rid of bruises.
Donar looked at me sadly. "I understand, Nikita. You've done what you had to do to survive. And you've done very well for yourself. And for us. You're a lovely, intelligent, giving young woman."
"Thank you," I said. I'd been trained in etiquette, and the response was automatic.
"I don't want you to thank me, Nikita. I want you to believe me."
"But, I --"
He shook his head. "No, you don't. Too much of you still believes all those spiteful lies your aunt told you when you were growing up. That your father didn't want you. That nobody wanted you, and they only kept you out of pity. She even convinced you that you deserved your uncle's beatings. Children believe whatever they're told, and she knew it. But you're not a child any more. It's time you put those lies behind you, and I don't think you can do that by hiding here in Istur."
I felt tears building, but I didn't let them fall. I could cry on demand when it suited the role I was playing, but since my mother's death I'd never shed real tears in front of anyone except Sal.
"Will I have to leave for good?"
Donar stared at me in shock. "No. Oh, no dear. I didn't mean to imply... Nikita, you're part of our family here. I've known since the day you first walked through the temple doors that you would always belong here with us. It would break my heart to lose you now."
I threw my arms around Donar and he hugged me. I'd often dreamed of finding out that Donar was, in fact, my father, even though I knew it couldn't be true. For one thing, he doesn't have blue eyes.
When I pulled away, Donar smiled at me. "You will not move away from Istur. What you need right now is a little adventure."
"Adventure?" I frowned. When I got in trouble, Donar usually blamed it on my being too adventuresome.
"I think a short trip with some local dungeoneers would do you a world of good. Who knows what you might discover?"
The suggestion struck a chord with me. For the past two weeks, I'd been casually dating Garret, one of the bouncers at the Port o' Call. His sister Morgan, a former pirate, was a good friend. Just the other day she told me that she planned to try her hand at adventuring. A pirate friend of hers named Temmer the Black knew a party that was short a few people.
I realized now that Morgan's suggestion had a great deal of meaning. Though Torodin's visions and omens often left me confused and frightened, sometimes they hit me with all the clarity of written instructions. I knew that Torodin wanted me to join that party of adventurers. I told Donar what I knew, and he nodded approvingly.
"Don't leave for another day or two. We'll try some divination and have those adventurers checked out before you go."
I shrugged. "Sal will do that anyway."
Donar smiled. Sal's protectiveness of me amused him. I didn't smile back. How was I going to tell Sal I had to go away? He wasn't going to like it.
I ran into Morgan on my way to break the news to Sal. She was heading for The Oasis, a new tavern on the east side of town. She was supposed to meet the adventurers there. I hesitated. This was all happening so fast. But maybe it would be easier to tell Sal after I knew exactly what my plans were.
"Can I come with you?" I asked.
Morgan raised her eyebrows. "You want to go adventuring?"
"No. But I have to. Just this once."
"You mean...?"
"I had a vision."
"Oh. Well, come along then. Maybe they could use a cleric."
As we walked through the streets of Istur, I stopped often to chat with friends and acquaintances. Each time, Morgan would sigh and stamp her feet impatiently. After two years in Istur, Morgan only had a few friends. She was uncomfortable around strangers and allowed few people to get close to her. Normally I would have given in and allowed her to rush me to The Oasis. But my imminent departure made me unwilling to pass up any chance to talk to the people I cared about.
I have a lot of friends in Istur, and it took us a long time to reach The Oasis. Morgan was quietly fuming by the time we reached the right block. Knowing she was easily distracted, I asked her to tell me what she knew about these adventurers before we walked into the tavern. I was careful not to let it show, but I was starting to get nervous -- what if they didn't want me? I had to find out who I'd need to impress.
"Well," said Morgan, "there's three of them. Alanna -- she's a good friend of Temmer's -- is the owner of The Oasis. She's a wizard. An illusionist, I think. Temmer says she's real smart, tough and kind of serious."
I was surprised by that description. All of the illusionists I'd known had been flamboyant and anything but serious. I like people who turn out to be different than others expect. Hell, I guess I am one. This Alanna sounded interesting.
"What about the other two?"
"Temmer met them once. Didn't tell me much, though. It's weird. He usually likes to tell stories, but he just mumbled something about an accident at some far-off inn and changed the subject. Anyway, there's Rhavin -- he's a Paragon."
Morgan mouthed the word like an obscenity, but I was astonished. I'd heard a lot of jokes about the order of paladins, but I'd never met one.
"A paladin? Really? Estereal or Soltana?" I asked, naming the two deities the Paragons served.
Morgan looked at me blankly. "His name is Rhavin."
I smiled. Morgan worshipped Jvelto, god of the seas, and Him alone. She had no interest in other gods.
"So, what does this Rhavin look like?" I'd heard that the Paragons were all gorgeous and their code forbade them from seducing -- or being seduced by -- women. Surely one of the great injustices of our time.
Morgan shrugged. "Temmer didn't say. He did say that Rhavin was brave and kind. And terrible honest. Temmer wasn't too happy with that part."
"Does he have a sense of humor?"
"Oh sure. Temmer's a bard, after all."
"No, no. I meant Rhavin."
"Oh. Well, I got the feeling they didn't have much to laugh about when they met."
"Does this Rhavin like women?"
"Nikita! By Jvelto's beard, you have a one-track mind."
"I do not. I'm just fascinated by people."
"Especially male people." Morgan shook her head. "The other one's a man, too. Real big guy. Temmer said he was a priest."
"Of...?"
"Um, the war and fire god."
"Azkal! He's a priest of Azkal?"
"Yeah, that was it."
I stopped in my tracks. We were standing right in front of the sign reading The Oasis. The letters were bordered by funny-looking trees.
"This can't be. Torodin can't want me to go off with a paladin and a priest of Azkal."
"You already said he did."
"But..."

- All Adventurers Are Not Rich -

Morgan had reached the end of her limited patience. She grabbed my hand and dragged me through the open door of the inn. Startled, I tripped over the threshold and stumbled into a table, knocking over an empty chair. It fell to the floor with a loud clatter, and everyone in the room turned to stare at me. This was not the first impression I'd been hoping to make.
Fortunately, The Oasis didn't get busy until evening, and there were not many people in the common room. I'd had drinks here with Sam before, and I recognized three of the men who were staring at me. The big, bearded bouncer was Heronious, the man in black eating spiced prunes at the bar was Temmer, and the smiling, little bartender was Hasaan, who ran the place in Alanna's absence.
The woman had to be Alanna. She was plain-looking, with simple, brown robes and reddish-blond hair hanging straight down to her waist. She was muttering over a ledger book and barely looked up when we came in.
The other two I identified by their colors and holy symbols. The cleric of Azkal, a huge and imposing man with dark hair and numerous scars snickered and shook his head at me. The Paragon, his symbols marked him as a paladin of Estereal, was among the most beautiful men I'd ever seen. He was tall, with a neatly trimmed beard and shoulder- length brown hair tied back to frame a strong, handsome face. His body was incredible, sleek and perfectly muscled -- a master sculptor could not have done better. He was breath-taking. I stared in open admiration as he walked over to me and righted the chair.
"Are you all right?"
His voice was soft and gentle. His warm brown eyes were graced with tiny flecks of green that sparkled like gems.
"I -- I'm fine, thank you." I scowled at Morgan. "I'm not usually so clumsy. My friend here was in a hurry."
He flashed a perfect, white smile. I could swear he was glowing. "Think nothing of it. I am often clumsy." He bowed. "Permit me to introduce myself. I am Rhavin Harkness, paragon of Estereal."
I held my breath. Manners never fail to charm me, and there was something touching about the way Rhavin humbly introduced himself. I smiled up at him.
"It's a pleasure to meet you," I said with all sincerity. "I'm Nikita Kryszka, and this is my friend, Morgan."
Rhavin turned to his companions. "You both know Temmer, I believe." The pirate nodded at us. His expression was serious, but I detected a flash of amusement in his blue eyes. I nodded back at him.
"This is Alanna the Illusionist, proprietress of this worthy establishment."
Rolling her eyes at Rhavin's overblown description of her, Alanna stepped forward and shook our hands. She introduced her help, Heronious and Hasaan.
Rhavin gestured to the cleric of Azkal. He was looking from me to Rhavin and chuckling. I wasn't sure what he found so amusing, but I took his laughter as a good sign. I'd always been told that priests of Azkal had no sense of humor.
"This is Morallan Juete of Azkal."
Morallan stepped forward and shook our hands. His big paw dwarfed mine, but he was careful not to crush my fingers in his strong grip. I smiled at him, and his face reddened a little. I was surprised and delighted. Traveling with a priest of Azkal who had a sense of humor and was easily embarrassed could be a lot of fun.
Alanna got right down to business. "So, do you both want to join us on this mission?"
"Yes," said Morgan.
"What exactly is the mission?" I asked.
Alanna described how the economy of Istur was suffering because something or someone was stopping the merchant caravans from getting through Reception Pass. I was well aware of this. Istur had no supplies, and there was little for my thieves to steal these days. I guessed that the crisis must have hit The Oasis pretty hard -- the place was still getting its feet under it.
"We've been hired to clear the pass," Alanna said. "In return, The Organization has promised to forgive my debts on The Oasis. We can expect payment from the caravan leaders, and get to keep any treasure we find. Are you interested?"
I admired Alanna's candid explanation. She had more at stake here than anyone else, and she admitted it. I looked at Morgan, who nodded. She was up for anything that promised some action.
"We are," I said.
"What are your skills?"
Morgan proudly toted her fighting ability, listing her knowledge of various weapons. When they looked at me, I smiled and batted my eyes.
"I'm a dancer," I said. I wanted to see what reaction such an inane comment would provoke. Morallan and Temmer laughed heartily. Rhavin forced a polite smile, and Alanna scowled at me.
I chuckled. "And a priestess of Torodin. I can't fight, but I can protect you and heal your wounds. And I can find out absolutely anything you need to know."
Alanna raised her eyebrows. "Information! That would be a nice change. I think this will work out."
She looked at Rhavin and Morallan, who both nodded. I was surprised it had been so easy, and I wondered uneasily if these people were desperate for help.
"We're planning to leave first thing tomorrow morning," said Rhavin. "We need to buy supplies today."
"Oh. Should we bring anything?"
"Well, your own equipment, of course. And rations would be helpful."
"Rations?"
"Food," Alanna said in disgust. "Unless you want to eat spiced prunes. We can't afford to buy food. I can't even pay the Affiliates A'Magigo to cast my damn spells."
I gaped at her, astonished by the outburst. I'd always thought adventurers were rich. Apparently not these ones.
"I can get some food at the Port o' Call. But Alanna, surely you can't go adventuring without your spells!"
"I don't have any choice."
"I know some people. I could get you a loan."
Alanna backed away from me as if I were about to poison her. "Oh, no. I've had enough high-interest loans, thank you."
I shook my head. I'd never asked my friends for money before. I'd never had need of it -- Sal took care of me. But this was important. I knew both Sal and Sammy had access to a lot of funds, and they would never charge me interest.
"Don't worry. I'll take care of it. How much do you need?"
"A thousand gold."
Morgan whistled. It was a lot of money. But I knew Sal could afford it. I assured Alanna that I would take care of it and told them I'd see them tomorrow. Morgan stayed behind to talk to Temmer, and I hurried over to the Port o' Call.
Sal already knew about the mission, which didn't surprise me. Not much goes on in The Organization that Sal doesn't know about.
I was surprised, and a little hurt by Sal's enthusiasm. "That's a great idea, Nikki baby," he said, pulling me into his lap and kissing me. "A week or two away from Istur would be good for ya, and it'll earn some points with The Organization. You just promise me you'll be careful. I don't want to see any scars on that gorgeous body of yours."
"All right, Sal." I tried to keep the hurt from my voice, but Sal knows me too well.
"What's wrong, darling?"
"Aren't you gonna miss me?"
He smiled and kissed me. "Of course I will, babe. You go upstairs and pack your things -- and don't forget that stiletto I gave you. I'll get that money for your wizard. I've got a few little things to take care of, and then I'm all yours the rest of the day. And all night. I'll show you just how much I'm gonna miss you."
"I love you, Sal." I kissed him and ran upstairs. I kneeled down beside the bed, pushing aside the satin sheets (a gift from Sal) that dragged on the floor and peering underneath. I found lots of shoes, a crystal necklace I'd borrowed from one of the other dancers -- I think it was Lila, and one of Dante's shirts. But not the leather satchel. It was big enough to pack for a weekend on Salvador's boat, and I figured it would serve now.
I opened up the bed-side chest and scattered its contents on the floor next to a pile of crumpled paper left over from my latest forgery assignment. The satchel was at the bottom, beneath a pile of underwear and my favorite black teddy. I stuffed these things into the middle of the satchel and looked around the room, wondering what else I should take. I grabbed the box of cigars from Sal and started smoking one while I stuffed the rest into an outside pocket. I added all the necessary things -- my mirror, brush comb, and a towel. I picked up a box of almonds, some perfume and scented soap -- all gifts from Sal -- and stuffed them in as well. I grabbed a few dresses from the closet , then added my make-up and my favorite disguises. The satchel was almost full. For good measure, I added a cloak and the comforter from the bed. It didn't weigh much, but it was bursting at the seams -- I could barely get it closed.
I spent the night with Sal and didn't wake up until well after noon the next day. My first day as an adventurer and I was late. Oh well. I kissed Sal good-bye, promised to be careful, grabbed some food and headed over to the Oasis. (I did forget the stiletto, after all.)
It turned out they weren't ready to leave anyway. Something about a note Rhavin was writing to a local baroness. They evaded my questions about it, so I went with Alanna to pay her fees. She was grateful for my help, and she told me a bit about her past adventures. Alanna has seen some amazing things. Though she didn't mention Ravenloft at the time, she did tell me about some wild times here in Hurva with her friends Temmer, Demetrius, and Thibor. I told her about my life at the temple and described some of our better pranks. Alanna might be serious, but she appreciates a good joke, and she was easy to talk to. I liked her already.
It was nearly dark by the time we left Istur. They didn't have horses, so we were forced to walk to the village of Amril where we were supposed to meet the merchant caravan. I was kind of disappointed. I'd assumed that adventurers would have horses, and I was looking forward to the chance to ride. I love a spirited (some might say reckless, but they're no fun) gallop, but none of my friends keep horses, and I've had few chances to ride. Still, walking gave me time to get to know my new companions. Alanna and I traded more stories, and we quickly became friends. She is clever and brave, and her stories fascinated me. She told of strange creatures in distant lands, and she hinted at curious things called vampires and werewolves and a strange clan of gypsies called the Vistani who had great, mystical powers. I asked her to tell me about them, but she said she wasn't ready to share those tales just yet -- maybe when she knew me better.
Rhavin and Morallan seemed familiar with Alanna's past, but they would not answer my questions. I could understand this from Morallan -- he didn't talk much, except to make snide remarks about Rhavin's offer to carry my satchel. I'd expected Rhavin to be too polite to dodge my questions. But every time I asked him about vampires or this place called Ravenloft, he would just shudder and say, "Oh, you don't want to know."
I was getting frustrated. There are very few things I don't want to know. Even as a child I realized that the most interesting things about people were the ones they kept hidden, and every mystery was just a puzzle waiting to be solved. Becoming a spy for The Organization and then a priestess of Torodin only strengthened my resolve to find out anything and everything I could. At Strand's Shadows we understand that knowledge is power.
But Rhavin wasn't talking. And his unwillingness to divulge information wasn't the only frustrating thing about him. The man is gorgeous, polite, kind, and protective -- absolutely wonderful. But my attempts to flirt with him went right over his head. I don't think he even noticed. Though I've grown to find Rhavin's sense of honor endearing, at the time I thought it was a nuisance.
Of course, we had other problems to occupy our thoughts. We didn't have enough food. I'd assumed that most adventurers knew how to hunt, but apparently this wasn't the case. Even after Rhavin and Morallan both fasted for one day, we arrived in Amril with our bellies rumbling and not even a crumb in our pockets. It was pathetic.

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