Twenty sixth of the Ninth Moon, 747

At one time, the decades and centuries slipped by like leaves in a stream. Depending on one’s view, it was a curse or a benefit. But now, the flow of time has come to a standstill. The reason is plainly clear: Tatyana is not yet ready to join me in the darkness.

Every hour stretches on like a year. I spend as much time as I can with her, but I do not wish to frighten the child. She is well cared for by the servants I have summoned from the village of Barovia. Indeed, her wing of the Castle has returned to the grandeur it once held and she is quite safe here.

But she’s only twelve years old. Far too young to be my bride. How much longer do I have to wait? The traditions of my people suggest a girl must be fifteen summers before her wedding night. But Tatyana was a true woman, twenty summers old when she died.

I’ve kept her hidden and protected for two years. Can I keep her safe for eight more years? Even now, the Mists must be conspiring to take her from me. Most of my time is spent preparing defenses and spying in the country. I’ve spent long hours building the new magical barrier for the Castle, and found delight in watching several intruders choke on the poison gas around the Castle. Every second I am anxious that I’ll lose her again. Maybe she’ll be ready next year, and then my worry can cease.

My only solace is my nightly sleep. But even there I have troubling dreams of Tatyana falling from the balcony once again.

Tonight, I felt a powerful stirring and knew its cause at once. I wished Tatyana a good evening and left the Castle, flying to the eastern barrier of mist. With this evening’s powerful winds, it took over two hours. I reached the edge of my domain and landed in the forest.

To the mortal eye, I appeared alone. But I could see Azalin just beyond my domain. He recognized my notice and bowed low.

“Hail, Strahd,” he mocked. I sneered at him.

“It took you long enough. I had eagerly hoped that you had been truly destroyed,” I said.

“If only you were so lucky. There was a slight miscalculation in my experiment, and it left me disembodied. But I never left, Strahd,”

“’Slight miscalculation’? Pathetic. Did you really think that you were going to escape?”

“Strahd, you read the Hexad. You knew it was possible—-otherwise you would not have pursued the information so hungrily,” Azalin replied.

“Next time, please be more careful in your ritual work. I wouldn’t want anything to happen to you.”

Azalin sighed, “There will not be a next time. I cannot escape, neither can you.”

“You were the one clinging to that delusion, lich,”

“Better than chasing the ghost of my dead brother’s wife,” Azalin mocked. My instant flare of rage was cooled by a deep, chilling anxiety. Did Azalin know that Tatyana was in the Castle? I reassured myself that he couldn’t know and I mustn’t let on that such a victory was mine.

“Anyway,” Azalin continued, “sometimes we must give up our dreams because they weight us down. I have a new goal, one that I can complete.”

“What is that?”

“Domination. If this place is to be my prison, I will rule it and everything within.” He said. I started laughing. “Laugh while you can, Strahd. But I have been restored whole and I will defeat you!” the lich bellowed.

“How did you manage you defeat the spirit in the Necropolis?” I asked.

A group of powerful heroes became snared in my web. The only way out was to aid me,” Azalin responded. He smiled in the darkness. “And they are coming for you, Strahd. They have some great hatred for you and seek your destruction.”

“They would hardly be the first—-and I doubt they’ll be the last,” I said.

“Oh yes, so arrogant! Your fall will be my greatest victory. These heroes defeated their own Lord Vosk. They started their quest to kill you and have been impeded at every turn. But they continue on. They put the Horseman to rest and then they removed Lowellyn from the Necropolis. Malken fell under their blades and I believe I just heard Gregor’s final howl - they march on Barovia tonight,”

“I’ll send you their heads,” I said as I walked away.

“Farwell, Strahd. I doubt we will meet again,” Azalin threatened. And then he was gone.

As I flew towards the Balinok Mountains, I chuckled at Azalin’s threats. How pathetic of him to think that I would be concerned about a band of mortal insects crawling into my land to slay me! Even before I was blessed by the Mists, I buried all of my foes. Since my ascension, I have filled my belly with the blood of dozens of would-be vampire slayers.

If Azalin’s report was true, they must be the most skilled hunters I will have faced—-but they would fall all the same. I could be on them in a half hour and take them high into the sky. I mused at how it would be a wonderful challenge. My hunger roared inside me and I beat my wings faster to get to my new prey.

It was foolish of Azalin to warn me of their approach. He certainly didn’t do so out of any affection for me, so why did he tell me? Was he so confident in their abilities that forewarning would do me no good? Highly unlikely. So why?

It dawned on me suddenly and I laughed out loud. These heroes must be something special, for Azalin was afraid of them! That’s why he would warn me. Not because he wanted them to fail at their quest, but he recognized that they were a threat to him. Warning me presented him with a perfect situation: either I would be killed by them and his great enemy would be defeated, or I would kill them all and rid him of a dangerous foe.

Though I’m loathe to admit it, Azalin is incredibly powerful. What makes him fear them? What powers do they have that I can use against Azalin? They’re too valuable to kill outright! I turned back to the Castle. I must will prepare and learn everything I can from them.

I’m eager to meet them.

Twenty sixth of the Ninth Moon, 747

Lost in the Mists ignatiusvienna