(This article contains information relevant to the Mists of Drakenridge campaign, and may contain spoilers)Grand Countess Morene von Draken is the current sovereign of the Grand County of Drakenridge. Unbeknownst to all but a select few confidantes, she is a centuries-old vampire who has carefully cultivated and guided the growth of Drakenridge. Under her steady, temperate hand, the city of Drakenridge has enjoyed great success. Recently, her rule has been threatened by a myriad of new dangers - dangers that may tear apart the fragile fabric of her world, and the carefully crafted illusion that surrounds it.
Born to a noble landowner of the fledgling Princedoms of the Empire and a young noblewoman of the Kingdom of Lydelhearth, the girl who would later become known as Morene von Draken brought both of her parents immense joy upon her arrival into the world. The couple, after many failed attempts at conception and one stillbirth, had nearly resigned to their childless future before Colette was discovered to be pregnant. Overjoyed at the news, the couple doted on the child before she had even left the womb; Otto and Colette ensured that the child would want for nothing in life, no matter the gender. When she was born, the small county of Drakenhof celebrated her arrival into the world with a holiday held in her honor. It was at this festival they settled on her name - Isabella.
From a young age, Isabella displayed a keen mind and quick wit. She often neglected to engage in play as a normal child would in favor of learning to read, practicing at playing musical instruments, and learning the social graces and customs of the court from Colette. Otto was quick to notice her potential as a steward of his county, though it was not commonplace for a woman to inherit her father's throne.
When Isabella was merely five, Colette became pregnant once again. The pregnancy was challenged and difficult from the start; Colette bled frequently, and suffered great pains throughout. She often found herself bedridden, too exhausted and in too much pain to move. It was in these times that Isabella read to her mother, demonstrating her quick grasp of language and eagerness to learn. Colette gave her more lessons from her bed, distracted from her pain, if only temporarily.
After a difficult eight months, Colette gave birth to a healthy baby boy, who they later named Robert. Colette took nearly a month to recover from the difficult delivery, but had begun walking again by the end of the month. It seemed as though Isabella would not have to inherit her father's throne after all, and her brother would instead inherit. Otto quickly began seeking out a betrothed for Isabella, hoping to find a suitable match for his bright daughter.
That same year, in 1111 IC, the Black Death struck. The plague was voracious, never seeming to be sated with each additional life it claimed. It progressed quickly from showing signs to death, leaving little chance of study or prevention - the only hope for any victim was to weather the horrible storm. Indeed, the plague spared no man, woman, or child. Some cities were spared the worst, but others were hit incredibly hard - up to nine in ten people who contracted the plague died within days. Colette and the infant Robert both succumbed to plague, consumed by horrific, disfiguring buboes and raging fever. Otto's grief was all-consuming, even in his deathly illness. Isabella was spared the worst of it, seemingly untouched even as corpses mounted around her family's estate.
It would be nearly a decade before the plague truly subsided, affording the battered, grieving survivors a reprieve. Isabella, now 14, often assisted her reclusive father, who had been disfigured and scarred by his brush with the plague. He spent most days in his chambers, taking letters and issuing declarations from the confines of his dark room. She appeared in court in his stead, taking petitioners' cases directly to her father, and in some cases, making relevant decisions where she may. Despite her talent for deftly handling the day-to-day monotony of rulership, Isabella longed for quiet moments in the library, studying the ways of the ancient Elven empires of millennia past. She was certain that there was aught to be learned from other races, despite the fear and distrust the men of the Empire held towards them.
A Dark Stranger
When Isabella was barely out of her teens, she found herself betrothed, despite her best efforts to avoid such a fate. Now a young débutante, her father had tried endlessly to find her an appropriate suitor; she found a way, every time, to drive them off. At wit's end, Otto nearly gave up the ghost until one day a handsome, charismatic young man with an intense gaze appeared at his court. Though the young man, who identified himself as Strahd von Zarovich, was a perfect political match for Isabella given his demesne over the entire region of Sylvania and the dilapidated state of Drakenhof, Isabella had no interest in him.
Strahd appeared insulted at Isabella's slight, sending Otto into a spiral in an attempt to keep the fledgling pairing together. In reality, Strahd was intrigued by the formidable intellect and charm of the young woman, and nothing could dissuade him from pursuing her. He remained at the small keep of Drakenhof for months, quietly observing her from his seat beside her at dinners, how she casually dismissed suitors and challenged even the brightest among them with her quick wit and highly studious mind. To his surprise, Strahd was truly taken with the capable young woman.
Isabella, over the course of these few months, began to soften towards him, her pleasant, if formal, exterior warming like the first thaw of spring. She saw glimpses of a gentle, intelligent young man beneath his polished, highborn exterior. Romance soon blossomed in the small window Strahd had managed to negotiate open, and they were soon to be wed, much to Otto's relief. Once Isabella and Strahd were married, they lingered only long enough in Drakenhof to tie up loose ends before departing for Strahd's homeland of Sylvania and to his court at Ravenloft.
Once there, Isabella took up the seat beside him and ruled by his side. It became apparent to Strahd that Isabella would make a more capable ruler than he in little time. Initially, this charmed him intensely, finding himself enthralled as she pored over ancient tomes and tablets. She sought, perhaps in futility, to use the wisdom of the empires of ages past in order to improve the lives of those who lived within Sylvania, hoping to avert any future calamities like the one she had borne witness to in her youth.
Over time, Isabella began to notice the dark moods Strahd would lapse into at various times; faint visions of a dark and horrible temper festered in her mind, and not everything in Sylvania appeared as it seemed. Strahd would go missing for days without explanation before returning, under the cover of darkness, renewed and vigorous once more. People who had slighted him, even in small ways, vanished without a trace when the darkness overtook him, and those who openly challenged him in court were violently removed or thrown into the dungeons, rarely to be seen or heard from again. Speaking of them in front of Strahd became dangerous, and so, more often than not, they were simply forgotten.
Isabella began to withdraw from Strahd, witnessing his arrogance and vile temperament for herself, horrified at the reality that was the man she married. A rift rapidly grew between the young couple, documented in a series of letters to her father. Unbeknownst to her, Strahd intercepted each of her letters and read them before resealing them and continuing them on their way. Strahd took Isabella's grief as betrayal, and his mood soon darkened towards even her, becoming obsessive and controlling over her and keeping her under his careful watch whenever possible.
Isabella, frightened, remained mostly locked in her own chambers, away from the court she had grown to call home. Strahd would plead with her to return to their shared bedchambers, and when she would refuse, nearly bash the door open in his fury. She saw glimpses of the gentle, intelligent young man he was while courting her, but his erratic behavior soon took over once more, and her feelings were once again crushed.
For nearly two years, Isabella, now 21, remained within her chambers, hidden from Sylvania and Ravenloft. There was speculation that the Grand Countess had fallen ill or had even died among the citizenry, the superstitious peasants not having laid eyes upon their beloved Countess in years. In time, the young woman fell ill with pneumonia, and her health rapidly faded to the faintest whisper of life.
Strahd grieved her fiercely, though she yet lived, refusing to leave her side as she faded. In this dark time, Strahd's humanity returned, and he wept openly over her, beseeching the gods to save her dwindling life. Isabella saw the man she fell in love with, and they reconciled upon her deathbed. She made a final appearance at court the night before she died, sitting beside him in her throne over a feast. It was the last time she would sit in the chair alive.
When she laid beside Strahd that evening, her life force ebbing away, she drifted off to what she assumed would be the gentle embrace of the gods. What she endured, however, was nights of horrible dreams and visions, and a terrible, gnawing thirst - a hunger. A need. When Isabella awoke, she awoke in the catacombs beneath Ravenloft. She'd been shackled to an embalming table, but she found no traces of injury or illness in her body. In fact, she'd never felt better or more sharp.
Strahd materialized, as if out of darkness, and unbound her. He explained that she'd been asleep for four days, and they weren't sure if she'd survive or not. When they left her in the catacombs, it was because they believed she'd died, he explained. Much about Strahd's story rang false to Isabella, but she accepted it for the time, grateful to once again be among the living.
"Please, Strahd! Tell me what horror lurks within me, I beg of you! For the love you claim to hold, answer: what has happened to me?" ― Isabella von Draken</blockquote>
Isabella soon realized that all was not what it seemed with her newfound health. To her dismay, neither food nor drink slaked her raging thirst. All attempts and getting answers from Strahd were answered with silence and guilt. He said nothing to her, unable to face her as she begged him to tell her what was wrong with her. He could not bring himself to tell her that she had become one of the damned, her soul condemned for all eternity - a vampire.
The truth came to her quickly; she lost control of her inner beast. The monster ripped free of its shackles one night at a banquet as she tore the throat out of a young serving boy. She drank his body dry before moving onto the next, draining nearly half of the kitchen staff before she finally came to, aware of what she'd done. Wailing curses to the night, she fled the castle, dresses soaked through with blood as Strahd watched in silence.
Little was heard or seen of the people's beloved countess. Rumors swirled of a blood-maddened witch who stalked the Silverbark Forest south of Ravenloft. The people of the sleepy villages nearby were gripped in fear of the terrifying phantasm that flitted in the dark places beneath the boughs, darting from white-barked tree to white-barked tree, bathed in pale moonlight.
Weeks passed without a word from Isabella, until she reappeared at the castle unexpectedly, two months later. Strahd, distraught at his wife's sudden disappearance, was much relieved to discover that she had survived the ordeal and had not tried to end her own existence. Isabella was no longer the compassionate, loving young woman he had married, her heart hardening from the blood of the innocent lives she had taken. She had grown cold and hard, with eyes like steel.
Strahd finally answered her demands for questions, informing her of her condition and what it meant for her. He did not know his own sire, he told her, never having had the option to choose his fate. He lamented having continued this tradition, but begged her understanding: he had only done it to save the one he loved, as he could not bear weathering the torments of eternity without her.
As the years passed, Isabella slowly forgave Strahd his evil deed, using her newfound energy and clarity of thought for the betterment of her subjects. Eventually, she tired of poring over dusty tomes and weathered tablets and found entertainment in the various, trifling minor court struggles, and growing her budding magical potential only recently discovered. Surrounded by the hedonism and wanton debauchery of Strahd's court at Ravenloft, Isabella found herself mirroring and adopting many of the ill deeds and bad habits of her husband and sire.
The Rise of the Midnight Aristocracy
Isabella's descent into a debased version of herself was not a fast thing, but completed with the news of her father's death in distant Drakenhof some thirty years after Isabella had left for Ravenloft. Having lost her final connection to the mortal realm, she lapsed into a deep, destructive grief, giving into her whims and dark desires whenever they made an appearance. Like Strahd, she became cruel and arbitrary, but unlike Strahd, she had become a talented sorceress.
Strahd, growing weary of Isabella's chilly demeanor, longed for companionship. Leaving the reclusive woman to her studies of the arcane and immaterial, he began turning desirable mortal men and women of all walks of life into vampires - men and women who would, in one way or another, entertain him and his dark desires. All paid no heed to the various flashing lights, explosions, and dread whispers swirling throughout the court of Ravenloft, too fixated upon the petty squabbling between nobles. It was this wanton embracing that gave birth to the Midnight Aristocracy.
The Midnight Aristocracy was the name that was given to Strahd's court at Ravenloft, for soon it became common knowledge that the nobility and courtiers of Strahd's inner circle were something altogether different. They held monthly feasts, where the most beautiful, talented, or evil of the population were offered up as sacrifice to the Midnight Aristocracy's dark thirst. Few survived these Crimson Feasts, and those who did were wracked with terror for the remainder of their lives.
The dark reign began to take its toll - the land withered and died beneath the plows and hoes of the Sylvanian peasantry. The dead began to rise from the graveyards of Sylvania, grasping hands erupting from the surface of the now-stagnant, fetid pools of the Lucent Plain. The sun dimmed by some unholy force. Trees were without their leaves for years at a time, budding only pathetic, tainted blooms when they finally managed to flower.
Yet, in all the darkness, the world was not without light - a young knight, Antinous, distinguished himself in the service of a mortal noble house. A champion of the commoners, Antinous was not fond of Strahd's court, or those in its attendance. At an annual joust, he yet again distinguished himself from the rest with his prowess with lance and shield. Upon his victory, the young knight tore his helmet free and declared "Sylvania will be free once again!" to all in attendance.
A shocked silence fell over the crowd, jubilant just moments ago, as all eyes fell to Strahd. Strahd, ever the capricious ruler, gained his feet and smiled. He went down to the jousting arena floor, meeting the tall, handsome young man's eyes with his own. To the surprise of all, he embraced the young man, and publicly invited him to a victory feast to be held in his honor for bringing glory to Sylvania. Antinous agreed, if only out of obligation to his liege.
The young Antinous had not only attracted the eye of Strahd. Isabella was intrigued by the young knight's bold rebuke, if amused at its futility. She would watch him closely at the feast, observing him as he maneuvered the unfamiliar path of the courtier.
To her surprise, she found herself charmed at his stoic rebuttal of the entire court and her lifestyle. She convinced herself that she would break him and bring him under her spell, unaware of the spark of goodness that yet flickered within her soul. Antinous, barely 25 at the time of the tournament, found himself invited back to the court many times over the next seven years of his life.
Soon, Isabella found herself enthralled and entranced by his purity. She felt the flame of love burning within her bestilled, cursed heart once again. Antinous, she knew, would never return her earnest feelings of love, no matter how many moonlit walks they took through her twisted, gnarled garden paths. She attempted to woo him with her knowledge of poetry, history, and chivalrous verse, but he always maintained a respectful distance with her, reluctant to see her as anything more than what she was - a monster.
In a fit of despair, she forced the Red Kiss on him - embracing the young knight and granting him the same curse that now flowed through her hardened veins. Antinous awoke, and immediately knew what had happened to him. He sought many ways to destroy himself, Isabella managing to foil them each time as he wallowed in despair at his new existence.
Heartbroken and guilt-wracked at her betrayal, Isabella swore to him that she would find a cure or salve for his thirst, so that he would never have to drink the blood of the innocent as she had. She fashioned for them both a pair of simple, silver rings, enchanted using the magic she had learned over the course of the last century. An ancient spell, it suppressed and soothed the hunger pangs that threatened to overtake their psyche after going long periods of time without feeding.
Antinous, like Isabella before him, grew to forgive her for her trespass and betrayal. He never forgot, however, that she was responsible for his grief. He clung to his chivalrous oaths as tightly as he did in life - possibly more so, now that he fought back against a darkness he could never defeat. When it came time for him to feed, he did so on the blood of those who would harm the people he loved so dearly. He took to his task as the protector of the common man severely, meting out justice whenever and wherever he could.
Over time, Isabella began to find herself once more in his deeds. She, too, resumed her attempts to improve the life of the commoners in Sylvania. Together, over the next two hundred years, they would work to counteract the darkness and growing corruption that threatened to consume the whole of Sylvania.
A Spark"For the chance to gaze upon thy face, mine heart beats in mine hollowed chest once more." ― Antinous Kallon to Isabella von DrakenThe spark, as all sparks do, started off small - infinitesimal. Soon, it consumed both Isabella and Antinous as they worked to better Sylvania for the mortals who toiled at a merciless, unforgiving land. More and more, Isabella began to see herself as not above the mortals, but as their aegis and curator. She would guide them down the correct paths, searching for ever greater ways to help them in even the most mundane of tasks.
Antinous, watching her work, grew to see the goodness that still lingered in her heart, borne out now in deed. This warmed his affections toward her, having finally seen her in a different light. Strahd watched the two work in bemusement at first, then with jealous anger as they grew closer. Strahd darkened towards Isabella once more, brooding tempestuously over the time she spent with Antinous.
The romance shared between Antinous and Isabella was one of stolen moments in darkened corners of the castle; a gentle caress of the hand that lingered too long to be friendly. A glance that shared much between lovers. A knowing smile when the other was not looking.
Despite Isabella's fervent denials, Strahd refused to believe her denials when what was true was plainly obvious to him - she had fallen for the noble vampire. Isabella and Antinous kept their relationship as secret as possible, but the walls of Castle Ravenloft have eyes and ears; their relationship was betrayed, and Strahd began to plot.
Isabella had, over the course of their two centuries together, taught Antinous everything she had learned about their condition, including information she had managed to piece together from ancient folklore. With this knowledge in hand, Antinous, displaying the cunning that is innate to all vampires (no matter how noble), began forging his own order of vampiric knights in Sylvania.
Soon, the Order of the Blood Dragon, so named for Antinous' blood red dragon plate armor, was formed, and Antinous began to plot behind both Isabella and Strahd's backs - he would overthrow the Midnight Aristocracy with his knightly order, using the force of their mighty convictions to drive out the tyranny.
The Fall of the Midnight Aristocracy and the Founding of Drakenridge"Remember the price of betrayal, mine love. Do not be so eager to pay it again." ― Strahd von Zarovich, Sovereign of Ravencourt (14 Hexenstag, 1357)
Strahd struck first - he had his most loyal lackeys seize Antinous and Isabella. He bound and gagged both of the traitorous vampires, restraining them against wooden stakes atop funereal pyres. They were both stripped in full view of the Midnight Aristocracy, laying bare their misdeeds with great pleasure, hatred burning in his eyes.
He gave the order. Antinous was rapidly engulfed in flames as hot as dragon fires, and his body was burnt to ash within seconds. His last scream was a cry that was heard by all in attendance: "Isabella!" Strahd intended to force Isabella to watch as her love burned before her, his beautiful form crumbling to ash and dust before her eyes, but the vampire lord was mistaken - he did not have to force her.
Isabella watched as the love of her existence had been summarily executed. Strahd, to her surprise, did not burn her alongside him. Instead, he leaned in to stroke her cheek as a lover might, whispering in her ear words that made her boil with rage: "Remember the price of betrayal, my love." She refused to look at him, eyes fixed on the still smoldering embers of Antinous' pyre.
After several hours, Isabella was freed from her pyre - a warning to all as to the price of treason. But here, Strahd had made a grave error of judgement: instead of the intended effect of instilling great terror and fear into Isabella, his dearly beloved had lost her fear to her all-consuming rage. Despite her freedom, Isabella remained with Antinous' remains for days, kneeling before them and gazing into them silently, as if to will him back to life.
Eventually, she regained herself, scooping up a handful of his ashes. To her surprise, her fingers found within the fine ash the matching silver ring to the one she still bore. Her fingers closed around the seemingly mundane object, the arcane spells likely having protected it from the worst of the magical flames. She wept, then, dry tears as she held the last, material remains of her beloved. The empty jousting arena, long since retired and dilapidated, cast her screams of fury and despair echoing about her, as if to mock her grief.
She gathered herself, and departed from the castle immediately. Without stopping to collect any of her belongings, Isabella fled Sylvania before Strahd could stop her. Using her dark magics and enchanting beauty, she bewitched her way through the Empire until she arrived at the capitol, Alyndar. Pulling the strings of her ancient family name, using an alias under the pretense of being Isabella von Drak's great granddaughter, she rallied the Emperor and the King of Lydelhearth with tales of the evil that lurked within Ravenloft.
Soon, men of all walks of life flocked to her banner, eager to prove their loyalty to Sigmar and rid the fledgling Empire of the corruption in the east. Leading this grand host, Isabella marched on Sylvania and Ravenloft at its heart. Their army was halted by the sudden appearance of 1,500 mounted knights, dressed in the crimson dragon plate of Antinous. They introduced themselves as the Order of the Blood Dragon, and offered to swear allegiance to her banner.
The new order master and Antinous' right hand, Aleksei Weidemann, met with Isabella in secret, informing her of their relation to Antinous and the reason they existed. She gladly and gratefully accepted the help of these knights, but a schism formed in their ranks - a faction of nearly 500 splintered from the group, led by a younger, more ambitious knight. This young man, Amon le Maçon, had been born as the son to a duke of Lydelhearth in life. His father had recently passed, and he wanted to claim his legacy.
Aleksei and Amon debated for hours until Isabella stepped in with a warning: if Amon did so selfishly act in his own favor, he would be betraying all that Antinous stood and died for. Amon remained unmoved, and so Aleksei banished him and his followers, stripping them of their Blood Dragon title. They left Isabella's band untouched, calling themselves Blood Knights in place of their original title.
The great host moved onward, arriving in Sylvania in the winter of 1362. After Isabella had left, Strahd had descended further into his madness - he employed the use of necromancy to bolster his weak, malnourished human regiments with massive hordes of skeletons and zombies. The unholy host clashed with the living armies, and though the armies of man killed twelve for every fallen human, their former companions and friends rose to take their place in Strahd's army as zombies.
The morale of the armies of Lydelhearth and the Empire was wavering, some peasant regiments fleeing instead of daring to fight the unholy, shambling masses, but most stood strong. Isabella, ripping magic from the winds of magic as they swirled tempestuously about the battlefield, carved whole legions of risen undead open with a wave of her hand - a purple sun drifting over their ranks and incinerating them as it passed.
Satisfied with her contribution to the main engagement, Isabella departed from the din of battle, cloaking herself in magical darkness as she crept through the deserted streets of Ravenloft. As she approached the keep, she heard a familiar voice calling over her shoulder.
Strahd had found her. He had his rapier drawn, and it dripped with fresh blood as he looked upon her. He shook his head at her slowly and sadly, asking her to return to his side a final time. Isabella managed to keep him talking long enough for her mind to work the intricate, devastating spell. A thunderous crack was cut short by a sudden and complete loss of sound.
A massive rift of shadow had opened up over Ravenloft, scouring the dark edifice from the face of the earth. While Isabella remained unaffected by the seemingly titanic pull of the rift, Strahd could not resist its pull. He, along with his entire court, was dragged screaming into the grey abyss. A massive ripple cast over the the battlefield, the entire region quaking as the rift closed. Isabella was knocked unconscious by the blast, but Strahd's unholy army immediately began to crumble with no necromancer to hold the strings.
The hilltop where Ravenloft once stood lay barren and scarred, bereft of the dark edifice that had loomed over the peasants below. With the undead armies gone and their master nowhere to be found, the peasants of Sylvania cast down their weapons and fled the field of battle. A massive cheer erupted throughout the ranks of the combined forces as they savored their victory.
Years later, the first buildings of Drakenridge, named in honor of the woman who had rescued them all from Strahd's tyranny, broke ground, and hope flickered within the peasants' hearts once more. The land began to heal, but remained scarred from the corruption that lingered over the area for decades. A great, near constant mist surrounded Drakenridge, dissipating only at night, and the veil between the Shadow Plane and Material had been damaged. Unearthly whispers and ghostly lights are said to be heard and seen, even centuries after the great cataclysm, and the plain upon which the great armies fought now flooded annually, renamed the Lucent Mire.