The music of the pipe organ echoes hauntingly through the mansion as we enter. The inside of the house looks just as old and worn as the outside. Beyond the foyer, are two ornate doors leading east and west. Two grand staircases lead upstairs—where the music is coming from. In the middle of the staircases is an old, faded portrait but the painting has been damaged and the figures depicted are no longer discernible.
My companions seem to disappear from sight around me as they climb stealthily up the stairs, but I do not pay them any mind. I am too busy taking in my surroundings, as though I am wandering through a wistful dream. There is something strangely familiar and comfortable about this place that fills me with inner peace. Almost as though I am back in my own forest. As though I am home.
Upstairs there is a beautiful stained glass embedded in a wide, arching windowsill. All along the hallway walls are more portraits, these in slightly better condition than the large one downstairs.
"All those different symbols—must be coat-of-arms for various nobility," Eva comments. "See anyone familiar?"
"I do," Azarmiel answers, gesturing towards a portrait of a drow. "That's a member of the Durst family. See, it's the same coat-of-arms we saw back at Death House."
"Perhaps these are nobles that reside in the area then," Molly suggests. "I wonder how old they are?"
At the end of the hallway is a door with the symbol of a griffin and a manticore locked hand-in-hand. The pipe organ music is even louder now—it is coming from beyond that door.
"There's some form of undead within, but it's not zombies," Azarmiel informs us, using her divine sense. "It appears to be ethereal in nature. I think someone should go in there and investigate. But we should be cautious. We don't know whether we are welcomed guests or intruders."
Julius opens the door, but peers inside cautiously before entering. My companions all straggle in the doorway. I peer through their armored bodies to get a glimpse of what awaits us within.
We see a polished ballroom with large, vacant windows looking out into the twilit courtyard down below. A golden chandelier fills the room with a warm glow. Drifting across the floor, see-through spirits dance around in graceful circles to the music of the organ. They do not react to us as we hover in the doorway. Julius jokingly takes out his trumpet and begins to play. Earning him a shove from Azarmiel. But the organ plays louder in an attempt to outdo him. We hear the sound of laughter.
A gentleman sits at the organ, playing a harmonious melody. Snaking around the bottom of his brown coat is a red, devilish tail. On top of his head, are two black horns like that of a goat. He turns to face us with eyes of molten gold.
"It's the same tiefling we saw outside of Death House!" Julius says what we all were thinking.
"Have Eva talk to him," Azarmiel suggests.
Eva scoffs. "What just because we're of the same race? I told you before, I've never met him before tonight."
The tiefling casually brushes off his pants, as he stands up to greet us. Even without his aid, the organ continues to play of its own accord. He makes an open-armed gesture to us all.
"Welcome to my home, fine guests! They call me Mr. Smoke, at your service." He bows politely.
"We didn't mean to interrupt your party," Julius says.
"Oh, nevermind all this." Mr. Smoke waves a hand dismissively. "I'm just reliving old times."
As he speaks to Julius, Mr. Smoke locks eyes with me for a brief moment, before looking back. Julius moves to stand protectively in front of me. "I don't like that look," he says suspiciously under his breath.
"Are we welcome in your home?" Azarmiel asks.
"Anyone who partakes in chaos is welcome here."
"You're referring to burning down Death House, I presume? The house tried to kill us, you know."
"Oh yes, I know." Mr. Smoke nods his head solemnly. "It is a crafty bastard. You'll find the kitchen downstairs if you wish to fix yourselves something to eat. You're more than welcome to use it. And I shall have beds prepared for you all. There is plenty of room to spare."
"Sprout wants to dance with the ghosties!" The little one rushes onto the dance floor with the glowing apparitions as they continue to glide across the floor.
Azarmiel laughs good naturedly. "Hold on, I'll join you, Sprout!" And the two dance together playfully, the rest of us chuckling in amusement. It feels like it's been forever since I've had a reason to laugh and it does my heart good cheer to watch them.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see Mr. Smoke approaches us. His gleaming eyes are fixed on mine. I shy away from them at first. I am not used to being noticed by others. I am perfectly content with being the quiet observer that is easily overlooked, rather than the center of attention.
"Would you care for a dance, my dear?" He offers his hand to me politely.
Although I am perfectly aware that he is addressing me, like a fool I point to myself, just to be certain I am not mistaken. Mr. Smoke nods his head with an amused smile.
"Um... sure," I quietly agree and allow him to take me by the hand, leading me onto the dance floor.
The spirits continue to dance, but give us a wide berth, allowing us to move freely as we like. Mr. Smoke is a graceful dancer. He leads me so that even someone as clumsy as I glides effortlessly across the floor. I glance bashfully at his face. He's even more attractive up close. His eyes are bright and warm, his crooked way of smiling—like one who knows a secret—is perfectly charming. He draws me closer to him, and I feel a fluttering sensation in my chest unlike any I have known before. When I realize that I've been staring at him for too long, I lower my eyes in submission.
"It has been a long time, my dear," he whispers in my ear.
My mouth opens in uncomprehending surprise.
"Yet you are as lovely as ever. You haven't aged a day, though that doesn't surprise me. You have always been the most beautiful woman I had ever known—both in body and in spirit. And so will you always be."
My first thought is that he is mad. I have never seen him before he appeared to us at Death House. Heedless to my confusion, he continues to reminisce as if we were old friends. "I still remember the first time I saw you, in the woods. The pale moonlight gleaming off your hair. The gentleness reflected in your luminous eyes. And the golden ringing of your laughter—these are the memories I will always cherish. Memories I have kept with me for all this time we've been apart."
Or perhaps he is mistaking me for someone else.
"You still enjoy dancing, I trust? I always recall how your face used to light up the room. Your smile brighter than every star in the night sky. Just like old times, is it not?"
That's right ... I recall the dream I had, the vision that led me here to Mr. Smoke's home. The gentleman host who greeted me with such familiarity. He looked different than this Mr. Smoke, but I am certain now that they are one and the same. Perhaps I have met him before, only I have forgotten. If that's the case, then it wasn't merely a vision that led me to place—it was a memory.
Shyly, I force myself to look into that steady gaze that never leaves my face. I see a sadness there I hadn't noticed in him before. I recognize that look all too well, for it is the same look of emptiness that I felt for so long before I met Julius and Asher. Before I became one with my pack. I feel myself starting to relax in his arms. All nervous tension draining away, replaced by a sense of trust. I understand now that Mr. Smoke is a kindred spirit unto me. He is lonely, too.
As we continue to dance, something peculiar happens. The see-through apparitions suddenly become more vivid, as though they were no longer ghosts, but flesh and blood. I can hear, smell, and see them more clearly. My friends vanish from sight, causing me to worry about them, until I catch a glance of my reflection at one of the nearby windows. Instead of my usual druid tunic and breeches, I am magically dressed in a fancy, red and gold-colored ballgown. My body is cleansed, smelling of fine perfume. My hair done up neatly in a fashionable twist, though the glowing flowers still remain. I no longer look like a timid wood elf that spends her days running bare-skin around a forest. I look like a true noblewoman—a lady.
"Is this magic?" I ask, my eyes fall back onto my dance partner. "Or is it a dream? Or a memory?"
"Maybe it is all three," he whispers back.
If it is a dream, please don't wake me. Let us stay like this, just a little longer, I think inwardly. I couldn't possibly say such a thing, no matter how connected to him I feel. But as all pleasant dreams must come to an end, so must this one. All too soon I am back in my adventuring attire once more.
Mr. Smoke bows to me respectfully, and as the music stops playing, the ghosts vanish. It is then that I realize that all my friends have been staring at the two of us the entire time. I am blushing profusely for receiving so much attention.
My companions walk over to join us in the now empty ballroom.
"Forgive me if I seem a little on edge," Julius apologizes to our host. "But it is not without reason. We've been through a lot the past few days. Your house appears to be—old. Have you lived here long?"
"It is very old," Mr. Smoke nods. "It's been some time since I've seen these halls. I do an awful lot of traveling, but still, I like to come back home from time to time."
"Where do you travel, Mr. Smoke?" Azarmiel asks.
"Oh, where haven't I been?"
"Isn't it difficult to leave Barovia?"
"For the common folk it can be hard. A certain set of skills make it possible for one such as I."
Mr. Smoke leads us downstairs to the kitchen through the door to the west. Like a true gentleman, he holds the door open for us all as we pass. Inside the large corridor is a long dining table with several chairs neatly lined up all around. There are several dozens of these. I recall the fancy social gatherers from my memory. I get the feeling Mr. Smoke enjoys having company over, or at least, he did in the past.
"Will your ghost friends be joining us?" Azarmiel says with a grin.
"No. The ghosts are nothing but an illusion—albeit a very good one."
Flora takes over for Sprout, so that she can cook us up something to eat. She smiles at me happily. "Would you like to help me, Faylen?"
"Okay," I agree.
Flora finds some potatoes and fresh vegetables in the kitchen and gives me the task of peeling and washing them, but I keep close to the dining room, curious as to what the others are discussing with our host.
Mr. Smoke leaves to fetch some drinks from his cellar. In his absence, my companions debate about whether or not they feel they can trust him. Eva seems generally accepting of him. Molly is only partially skeptical, thinking we should reserve judgement until he gives us a reason not to distrust him. Azarmiel and Julius seem the most suspicious. Asher keeps his thoughts of Mr. Smoke to himself.
"I trust him," I say from the kitchen, feeling compelled to speak up for him.
"Oh, why is that, Faylen?" Julius asks.
"Just instinct I guess." I do not think it wise to tell them that I suspect I've met him before. They might start asking me questions I am unable answer.
Mr. Smoke returns with bottles of wine and brandy. Pouring them into glasses, he generously passes drinks out to everyone, asking for their names in turn.
One by one everyone introduces themselves to Mr. Smoke. Thankfully I have the excuse of peeling potatoes. I am uncertain as to whether or not I should introduce myself. It would be rather strange, considering he seems convinced we are old friends. Even if I do not remember him clearly.
Mr. Smoke relaxes in a chair and sips at his wine. He asks us about Death House and Azarmiel recounts the tale with the others contributing their own accounts every so often. Our host is an avid listener, leaning casually on one arm of the chair. He seems very interested in hearing of our exploits.
"Impressive," he says at the end of the tale. "Now, I suppose you have questions?"
"I do," Azarmiel says, with a quiet menace. "Does Strahd have any interest in you?"
"No, he doesn't."
"And what is your interest in us? Surely it wasn't a coincidence you were waiting for us outside of Death House."
"No, it wasn't," Mr. Smoke admits cautiously. His eyes stray to the kitchen doorway, where I am trying to pretend I am not aware that he is looking at me with those soulful eyes. "I have been keeping an eye on you, for my sake. Let's just say, I have my reasons, as do we all."
"Do you want us to succeed in ridding the land of Strahd?" Azarmiel persists with her interrogation. "Or do you just find us entertaining?"
"A little of both, to tell the truth. I want to see you succeed, but I do enjoy a bit of chaos."
Molly nods thoughtfully. "It's true. Everyone has their own secrets. Something to hide, don't we Julius?"
"I don't know what you're talking about." Julius frowns.
"Mr. I-never-take-off-my-armor." She gives him a wry smile. "All I'm saying is that everyone has secrets."
"Dinner's ready!" Flora announces after we've finished preparing the meal—Flora having done most of the work. I help her serve all the plates.
Mr. Smoke gets up to pull out Flora's chair for her, she sits next to Julius. He has a seat saved for me next to him. I won't deny I am content with this arrangement. Normally I do not take to strangers this quickly, but then I suppose Mr. Smoke isn't a stranger to me. The more I think about what he said to me in the ballroom—how he spoke to me as if I was an old friend—the more I am starting to believe his words are true.
"So, Mr. Smoke," Julius says in-between mouthfuls of food. "What are your intentions with us?"
"As I said before, I find you amusing."
"So you're going to keep watching us then I suppose?"
Mr. Smoke gives Julius his most charming, crooked grin. "Most likely. But it is not only for my best interest. You may expect some aid of me from time to time. Depends on how I feel. So tell me, Julius, why did you choose not to raid my home?"
"Because I don't raid houses," Julius answers simply and honestly.
In response to this, Mr. Smoke walks over to the fireplace where there's a garnet ring on the mantelpiece. As he goes to take it, the fireplace suddenly flares up. Violent flames erupt forth, flickering against the walls in a stunning blaze. For a moment, I fear the house will catch fire. Yet the house seems perfectly unaffected as the fire returns to its initial pleasant glow.
"What sorcery was that?" Julius asks suspiciously.
"Just a little showcasing of my power," Mr. Smoke replies mischievously. He tosses the ring at Julius. "And I wanted to reward your honesty. That ring belonged to my wife some time ago. It has magical properties—granting its bearer a resistance against fire."
Julius fingers the gift with modest interest. "Seems like an awfully precious trinket. Are you sure you want to give it away so freely?"
"It is but a material possession." Mr. Smoke places a hand on his chest. "The true treasure stays within my heart."
As Mr. Smoke speaks fondly about his wife, I feel a slight sting within my heart. I've never fallen in love before, nor has anyone fallen in love with me. I think that I am envious of his affections for her—though I try not to let it show.
"I have a question," Molly says. "How old are you exactly?"
"I've been around a long, long time," Mr. Smoke says wistfully. "Before Strahd even. I did some of my traveling before he came. Tell me, Ms. Molly, how well can you handle a full moon?"
Molly looks a little startled by this question. "It is—difficult."
Mr. Smoke's golden eyes glint impishly in the light of the fire. "It's going to be an interesting night then."