The story begins in the town of Shadowdale, in the year 1490 D.R. It is nearing the end of Autumn, in the month of Marpenoth. The chill of Winter approaches, and the fields are barren save for a few malformed pumpkins and solitary scarecrows.
In the middle of town sits the Old Skull Inn, a two-story, beam-and-plaster edifice. On this chilly evening it is the only building in Shadowdale showing any signs of life. Warm light emanates from its small windows, and wood smoke billows from its brick chimney.
The front doors of the inn swing open, and a drunken man stumbles out, staggering around the corner to relieve himself. Laughter and boisterous conversation pours from the open doorway. Inside, the tavern is full to capacity. Two barmaids and the stout innkeeper hustle about as they try to keep the food and drink flowing. The tavern room is packed with the usuals, farmers and tradesmen mostly. But on this particular evening there is another group of patrons that stands out— a motley band of adventurers gathered around a long, rectangular table.
Sitting at one end of the table, nearest the warmth of the fire, is a dashing, finely dressed bard. The man leans back in his chair, balancing with casual ease and strumming idly on an expensive looking lute. Every now and then he pauses his playing to write something down in a small book.
Next to him sits a grizzled warrior with broad, hunched shoulders and a face like a burnt chunk of wood. The man grunts as he saws methodically at a giant steak with a knife and fork. The sinewy muscles in his arms and neck flex impressively with every movement.
Next to the fighting man sits an impossibly handsome half-elf dressed in plain, unremarkable clothes. His angular features and distant gaze give him an almost alien beauty, one that is both mesmerizing and off-putting. He seems distracted by his own thoughts.
Across from the half-elf sits an armed and armored Cleric of Mystra. A shield bearing the Goddess of Magic’s iconic symbol, the eight-pointed star, is slung across his back, and a mace hangs from his belt. An aura of calm assurance seems to emanate from him.
Next to the cleric is another half-elf, this one straddling a chair that’s turned around backwards. A toothpick dangles from his mouth and he grins devilishly as he pokes fun at his table-mates. The faint smell of brimstone surrounds him.
And finally, across the table from the bard sits a red-skinned, white-haired tiefling, dressed in the simple garb of an ascetic. She watches her companions intently, her body completely still. If not for the occasional blink of her yellow, pupil-less eyes, she would appear as a horned statue carved from red stone.
Over the course of the evening the tavern slowly empties out. Only the party of adventurers and a few drunken farmers remain. Outside, the wind quiets down and is replaced by thick, cloying fog.
Later that night the front doors swing open and a peculiar figure steps in. He is a man, tall and thin, dressed in an assortment of colorful garments and jangling bells. Without hesitation he strides over to the adventurers’ table and stands before them, his hands on his hips.
Speaking with a thick accent the strange man declares that his master, Kolyan Indirovich, the Burgomaster of Barovia, seeks their aid. He hands the tiefling, Aramaris, a rolled up letter, sealed with wax. He then gives them questionable directions to Barovia, bows, and departs the tavern as quickly as he came. The fog seems to leave with him.
Being deep in their cups by that point, the group decides that aiding the suspicious man is a good idea. They agree to depart for Barovia the next day, and a long night of celebration begins.
The following morning the party leaves Shadowdale, setting out west along the Northride. After five hours of travel, they notice a piece of brightly colored cloth tied to a tree on the side of the road. They approach this marker and soon spot a trail heading off north from the main road, into the primeval forest.
The party follows the trail for many hours. Over time, a thick fog begins to creep in around them. Soon they are encompassed by this fog, and cannot see more than thirty feet in any direction. Eventually the dense forest parts before them, revealing a towering stone wall with a rusted iron gate. Two headless statues flank the gate on either side.
The gate opens as they approach, seemingly on its own. With a bit of reluctance the party passes through. The bard, Thaelyn, is the last to walk between the headless guardian statues. As soon as he crosses the threshold, the gate begins to close.
They travel for another hour, at which point the cleric, Caerius, smells something odd in the air. It is the stench of rotting meat. Intrigued, the party leaves the relative safety of the trail and follows the scent into the forest. It doesn’t take long for them to locate the source— a decomposing corpse.
A quick investigation reveals that the man was killed by wolves, but not just any wolves. The half-elf sorcerer, Ormir, has seen these types of wounds before. The man was killed by dire wolves. Further searching reveals a letter clenched in the man’s rotting hand. The letter is similar to the one they received at the Old Skull Inn, though it tells a different story, and is written in different handwriting. Like the other letter, it too is signed “Kolyan Indirovich, Burgomaster of Barovia”.
The sound of distant howling rouses the party from their thoughts, and they quickly make their way back to the trail. They continue on and eventually emerge from the forest onto a fog-shrouded bog. The trail widens into a proper road, and after a mile or so the mud beneath their boots is replaced by slick cobblestones. The shapes of buildings begin to emerge from the mist ahead, and soon they find themselves on the outskirts what appears to be a deserted town.
Night is approaching fast, and the party decides to take shelter in one of the abandoned houses. They approach a three-story mansion on the corner of two empty streets, and knock on the front door. There is no answer, so Caerius tries the latch and finds it unlocked. Inside is a dusty foyer. As soon as the fighter, Kinsey, steps into the room he is set upon by a swarm of squeaking, red-eyed rats. The small beasts seem to be driven by some fiendish power, clawing and biting at the adventurers with reckless abandon. The fight is over quickly, however, and the party lays waste to the vermin with sword and spell.
After sweeping the burnt and blasted rat bodies out the front door, the party decides to fortify the foyer and make camp there. The half-elf warlock, Carric, suggests that perhaps they explore the rest of the house first. He thinks there might be something of value to be found in the other rooms.
The promise of treasure seems to tantalize the rest of his companions, and after a brief discussion they agree to explore the house first. They gather their gear and walk towards the oak double doors that lead deeper into the mansion.