Though it was a bright, hot dawn outside, there were no windows in this part of the castle. Van Richten had to provide his own light in the form of a small lantern, which he gripped with a white-knuckled fist. He paused on the last, rough-hewn step at the top of the spiral staircase, caught his breath, and held the lantern as high as his slight stature allowed. Its feeble glow only managed to push back the darkness for a scant few yards, just enough for him to see that the room was apparently empty of threatening occupants. That fact, of course, meant nothing in this place.

He glanced back the way he'd come. Cold stone walls curved sharply down into utter blackness, utter silence. The fingertips of his left hand, which had brushed against the walls as he'd gone up, were still numb from the chill, as if the rock itself had sucked the warmth right out of them. With a thin but rueful smile that tugged at only one corner of his mouth, he flexed his stiff hand.

Like master, like castle, he thought, then his smile vanished as he turned into the room.

If not the true heart of the place, the chamber was certainly a vital organ.

Each high wall was covered with books - hundreds, thousands of them, more than Van Richten had seen in one place in his fifty-odd years of scholarly life. The yellow glow of his lantern picked up the sheen from well-oiled leather covers and gilt titles, the occasional flash of a gem, and the dull face of a tome so ancient that no amount of care or restoration could revitalize it. But the outer shell hardly mattered; it was what lay inside that was important.

Van Richten breathed in the books' scent and felt his heart begin to race a little. If the monster had a weakness, and they all did in one form or another, perhaps it would be found here. As a man might be judged by the books he reads, so might a clue be revealed in the neat ranks of titles that marched up the walls. Van Richten suppressed another smile. Not by any stretch of fancy could Count Strahd Von Zarovich be considered a mere man anymore, though the local people seemed unaware of his true nature. He'd lost his allotted portion of humanity... how many centuries ago? And at what cost in lives and misery and agony of spirit for those hapless souls he'd touched in that time?

But I can't think about that now. Time is too short. Life is too short.

He had all the day ahead of him, midsummer day to be sure, the longest of the year, but brief enough now that he saw how much work lay before him. And where to start?

He moved quickly, lighting candles in their sconces as he found them. The black shadows grudgingly retreated. Though the room was cold like the rest of the castle, Van Richten decided to leave the great fireplace dormant. He was comfortable enough in the coat he'd thought to bring and two layers of sweaters.

Besides, the telltale smoke would only let all and sundry know the place was occupied, and Van Richten had excellent reasons for keeping this visit as discreet as possible.

The gypsies knew about him, of course; one couldn't enter or leave the place without their help. He had paid them dearly for a guide to take him to the ring of poisonous fog that surrounded Castle Ravenloft. The potion they'd sold him to neutralize the poison had cost extra, but they'd only charged him half as much for the second dosage - macabre indication that they did not expect him to return.

In the course of centuries, many bold explorers, well armed and highly magicked, had gone in to deal with 'the devil Strahd,' as he was known locally. None had ever come out - at least not in the same condition as they'd gone in. What hope did a lone, middle-aged herbalist have?

None, he answered truthfully.

However, he did have knowledge, and upon that he was willing to gamble his life.

Indeed, more than his life. If he was wrong... well, there were much worse things than dying, but he had a kind of escape prepared should it become an eventuality. Not pleasant, but better than the alternative.

So the gypsies had been more than willing to take his money and leave him to his fate. Van Richten had no doubt Strahd knew of his presence in the castle, but he was certain Strahd would do nothing against him. Correction, Strahd could do nothing against him.

It had taken Van Richten nearly a decade to guess the truth, and yet another five years of waiting to be sure, and this day, this one midsummer day, he'd proved it by simply walking unchallenged into Castle Ravenloft.

In those fifteen years the place had shown no sign of life. The merchants in the village that lay in its shadow had not received any orders for goods in all that time. The youngest of them even complained about the lack of custom. His father had known something of prosperity, but these days? The man had thrown up his hands in well-rehearsed despair for those lost profits. The others were silent or grimly amused by him.

In fifteen years, Lord Strahd had not collected the taxes, though the taxes had been dutifully compiled, the burgomaster proudly stated. There were many old wives' tales about burgomasters who had failed in this task and had come to very bad ends, indeed. Just wives' tales, to be sure, but sometimes there was truth to be found in such fancies. Anyway, none of the villagers, let alone the burgomaster, would risk complaint from their lord. The money, quite a lot of it by now, was stored in a special stone house in the center of town. Thieves? No.

They had no fear of thieves. Even the gypsies would not dare to touch it.

Also in that time there had been few unexplained or unusual deaths, as had once been common. Young girls in the prime of their looks no longer disappeared without trace - unless they decided to elope with their lovers. Fifteen years of relative peace, fifteen years of nights that were not so dark as before, fifteen years that Strahd had... left them alone.

Some cautiously whispered that perhaps Death had caught up with him at last and taken him away. But if so, then why was the poisoned wall of mist still thick about the castle base? No one had a reply to that one, nor were any too curious to find out. One could ask the gypsies: they knew everything. Aye, and told everything. To Strahd. Best not to ask; you might not like the answer.

But Van Richten was sure he had the answer.

Strahd the Ancient, Strahd who was the Land, Strahd the great and awful Lord of Barovia - genius, necromancer, ruthless killer - was now at his most vulnerable.

Strahd Von Zarovich, the vampire, was in hibernation.

Van Richten, who knew as much about the undead as any living man, was reasonably certain that for a few more years the master of the castle would be unable to stir from the sleep that was not sleep. The odd fact that he stood where he stood - that he hadn't encountered Strahd's undead minions and necromantic guardians - seemed confirmation enough. Perhaps Strahd's dark magics could not last through his years of quiescence.

But Van Richten was only reasonably certain, which was why he'd allowed himself only one day to investigate. Though he could have spent months poring through the rare books in this room alone, he did not believe in taking unnecessary risks. A single, isolated intrusion that would brush against the dimmed consciousness of the monster was as far as he planned to take it for now.

Perhaps later - a year, maybe two, as the vampire settled back into his sluggish dreams - he would return... and then he would not be alone.

But for that future expedition Van Richten needed more knowledge. He needed facts, not rumors or folklore or tall tales.

Candles lighted, he looked around the room for a hint on where to start. Even without the implied wealth of the books, the place was a study in opulence. The richly stained wood trims, grass-thick carpet, and inviting couches and chairs all indicated that though Strahd was a monster, he valued his comfort.

Van Richten's brows lifted as he noticed one objet d'art in particular. Well.

Von Zarovich certainly had excellent taste. Over the exquisitely carved mantelpiece hung an enormous portrait of a young woman. She was breathtakingly lovely, painted by an artist with the skill to capture not only her outer beauty, but the lively purity of her inner soul. There was no date on it, no signature to be seen, but the antique costume the woman wore indicated several centuries had passed since the paint had been wet.

She was mesmerizing, bewitching... and long dead. Possibly even one of the Count's early victims. If so, her fate had been a grim one, and Van Richten had no wish or time to speculate on it. His purpose now was to see that other young girls were spared from such horrors.

In the center of the room was a low and massive table, so highly polished that the multiple flames of the candles reflected from its surface as if it were a mirror. Smooth and bright, no speck of dust anywhere... Van Richten went very still as he regarded the implications of the missing dust.

After a moment's thought, he swallowed and hoped his heart would return to its proper place in his chest. Though impossible to detect, it was logical to assume Strahd had placed some sort of magical spell on the room to preserve its contents while he slept. Who knows what damage could be done to the fragile volumes by the gentle onslaught of dust, worms, and nibbling rats? Strand obviously did - and had allowed for it.

A great book and some sheaves of paper covered with writing lay on the table.

Within easy reach was a pot of ink and some quill pens, all expertly cut to a proper point and ready for use. A chair was pulled away from this spot, as though the last occupant had only just walked out and not bothered to push it back into place.

As though at any moment he might return.

Van Richten firmly shrugged off that idea. If Strahd had been active, he would have done something by now. The master was asleep, and his castle, like one in some half-remembered child's tale, was in much the same condition. That was how the little herbalist from Mordentshire had been able to pass through the great gates, aware of the dangers, of the torpid guards living and... not living. It had been grim going to walk past the dragons that glared down at him from their stone perches and the gargoyles and all the other things that he'd sensed or imagined were lurking in the shadows around him, but he had done it. The traps still worked, but those could be avoided if one had the right skills. He'd gotten in, and, most importantly, he expected to get out again.

He moved toward the table and gently set his lantern down, using a stack of yellowing paper to keep its metal base from scratching the pristine wood.

You're a foolish old humbug, Rudolph, he chided himself. But he had an ingrained respect for workmanship, and the table was a beautiful piece of art, however terrible its owner.

Carefully and not a little nervously, he ran his fingers over the fine leather cover of the book. It had an odd texture to it, odd and repulsive, as if it were made from... He yanked his hands away as he realized the source of the unusual leather.

Damn the creature. Damn the thing that was capable of such an obscenity.

After a moment's pause to offer a prayer for the soul of the book's victim, he inhaled a great breath, and reached out again, swiftly opening it.

It wasn't precisely a book, so much as a collection of various folios loosely bound together in such a way that more could be added or removed as needed. Some of the parchment pages were the color of cream, thick and substantial, made to last many, many lifetimes. Other pages were thin and desiccated, positively yellow from age, and crackled alarmingly as he turned them over. There were no ornate illuminations, no fussy borders, only lines of plain text in hard black ink. The flowing handwriting was a bit difficult to follow at first; the writer's style of calligraphy had not been in common use for three hundred years. No table of contents, but from the dates it looked to be some kind of history.

He turned to the first page and read: I, Strand, Lord of Barovia, well aware certain events of my reign have been desperately misunderstood by those who are better at garbling history than recording it, hereby set down an exact record of those events, that the truth may at last be known. ... He caught his breath. By all the good gods, a personal journal?


***P/S: Copyright -->Novel12__Com