“You could have anything you wanted, just as long as you could pay for it. If you couldn’t pay, or refused to pay, you would remain needful for ever.” — Stephen King, Needful Things
Peering over the gilded staircase at the dark room below, the four stalwart adventurers each thought it best to go down as a group. All except Mahel, who, independent as ever, determined that she would be better suited with her expert bow skills from afar in case things went awry. She stayed crouched atop the landing, arrow nocked and Albreth poised as a lookout.
The three descended into darkness, with the light of the sunsword shining as a beacon amidst the amber light emanating from the three huge blocks of amber sanctioned in each side of the room. They were humongous, as were the blocks of amber that Marek saw when he used the arcane eye to scout out the temple hours before. Upon closer inspection, each block of amber was invested with some kind of black mark, no bigger than a foot or so long, in its midst. The whispers grew stronger as the three walked towards the amber blocks, skirting around the six dusty crates placed around the room’s circumference. Marek reached out his hand to touch one of the crates, and it violently exploded showering the area with rotten wood, dust, soil, and other debris. Then another crate exploded. Then another. Soon, all of the crates had burst from within, and in their places were bedraggled, emaciated humanoid figures, covered with soil and dried blood. Fresh blood stained their mouths, which opened with a hiss to show a row of razor sharp fangs…. vampires!
Striding confidently into battle, Ulfrik slashed with holy fury with the sunsword, decimating one vampire while Marek held forth his holy symbol and attempted to turn them. “Flee, foul creatures, from the power I possess!” His holy symbol shone with a bright blue light and the vampires, struck with fear, recoiled and ran to the far corners of the room, one fleeing up the stairs while Mahel took pot shots with her bow at the fiends that she could see from her vantage point.
Haavich loosed a radiant fireball at three of the remaining five vampires, which set them ablaze with a golden flame. They wailed in pain with a high pitched scream that sounded less human than some sort of rabid animal. Marek grabbed a piece of wood from a nearby broken crate, and using his knowledge of the undead, impaled one of them through its chest. The creature gurgled, black blood spewing forth from the gaping chest wound and spraying Marek from head to toe. It then collapsed and the body turned to dust. Ulfrik lunged with his blazing sword and struck the head from another vampire, the body also disintegrating before him. He turned to see one of the last two vampires heading up the stairs. The clothes from these creatures looked familiar to him – they looked like uniforms of mercenaries from near his home. These creatures were once men and women, adventurers like him and his compatriots, who had clearly succumbed to the evil of Strahd and his followers. This knowledge galvanized Ulfrik and he sprinted up the stairs, tripping his pursued quarry and cutting its legs out from under it. With a final blow, Ulfrik lanced the sunsword through the monster’s eye, and the creature turned to an oily grey dust.
Mahel moved around the staircase to where she could see the final vampire and nocked an arrow. As she did, a draft from between the bookcases blew through the room, tousling her hair. Someone had just opened a door that they’d not noticed before, and was entering the room. She released her arrow, then scuttled into the corner to hide in the shadows as the final vampire charged up the stairs. A bright blue beam of energy flashed out from the dark doorway between the bookcases, immolating the vampire immediately. A figure slowly stepped out, surveying the area and walking to the pile of dust that was once the undead foe. Seizing her opportunity, Mahel stepped out and ensnared this person with a hold person spell. Bands of purple energy wrapped around the humanoid figure, who dropped to the rug with a thump. Turning him over, she saw that it was an elf with dark skin and elf-like though mutilated ears – a dusk elf! She tied a rope around him, removed any spell components that she could find on his person, then released the spell so that he speak. He groaned, not knowing what happened or who this person was. Ulfrik came up and the two began to speak to him. He introduced himself as Kasimir Velikov – someone who Leowen had met at the Vistani camp a week ago, but who had never met any of her compatriots.
Mahel, recognizing the name from Leowen’s journal, questioned Kasimir about who he was, and what he was doing in the temple. He said that he was in the temple to find a way to bring his sister, one of the many females of his race killed in a mass genocide by Strahd, back from the grave. He said that there was power in the temple that could perform this task, and that he was dedicated to finding it.
Marek, intrigued but repelled by the evil emanations within the blocks of amber, decided to cast Dispel Evil on one. It was as if he was trying to move a mountain with his hand. The spell had no effect. Perhaps there was a way to commune with it and discover its secrets. He touched it. Immediately, he was in contact, psychically, with a power unlike any he had ever experienced. It was a voice in his head, ancient beyond belief and filled with power beyond comprehension – the remains of a god. A god, trapped in amber. Seeing into Marek’s soul, it saw his innate need for magical knowledge. If Marek was willing to pay the price, this vestige, which called itself Tenebrous, would offer him great magical power. Marek hungrily agreed. At once, knowledge flooded into Marek’s mind – arcane eldritch knowledge – on how to become a lich. Marek’s clerical nature rejected this abomination, but was soon overwhelmed with Marek’s innate desire for knowledge. Dark circles formed around Marek’s eyes and his face darkened, as the price of this knowledge was paid.
Haavich and Ulfrik attempted to wrest Marek away from the amber block, but even with Ulfrik’s great strength, the two could not. Marek was affixed to it by a great force, like iron filings to a magnet. Ulfrik determined that perhaps the only way to get Marek away was to touch a separate one and determine if it could be somehow destroyed.He reached out and placed his hand on the amber block… and a lithe female voice spoke to him in his mind. She, was the remains of a goddess of the undead, a Queen of Vampires from eons past and worlds away. She was the goddess Zura, and she had to power to bestow the gift of the vampyr. Ulfrik was unimpressed. His desires were for abilities of a different sort. He refused the gift, and his hand was freed from the amber surface.
Upstairs, Mahel untied Velikov, wary but trusting his intentions. He descended into the pit where Marek and Ulfrik were communing with these evil gods, trapped in amber sarcophagi. Wordlessly, moving past the inquisitive Dr. Haavich, Velikov moved to the eastern amber block, one which neither Marek nor Ulfrik had touched. He withdrew from a hidden pocket within his robe a small piece of cloth which enclosed something glittering and metal… The Holy Symbol of Ravenkind! Mahel and Haavich, taken with surprise at this, began to angrily inquire as to why he had taken the amulet and what he intended to do with it. Velikov said that he was sorry for stealing it, and that he needed it, not only for protection, but to use it to bargain with the god known as Zhudun. He touched the amber block, and he, like Marek, was suddenly frozen in a trance. Mahel grabbed at the amulet but it would not come out of Velikov’s grip.
Marek, newly imbued with dark knowledge, slipped away from the smooth cold amber as the amoeba-like organism undulated within the block, as if alive. He turned, and saw Velikov with his amulet! Filled with anger the likes of which he had never known, Marek charged at the dusk elf, intent on reclaiming what was his. Haavich stepped in between them, attempting to prevent any additional violence between potential allies. The amulet’s crystal suddenly flashed with a brilliant blue light, temporarily blinding all within the room, and Velikov stumbled backwards from the amber block. “It is done,” he said. Marek screamed with rage and pulled a dagger from his belt taking two stabs at Velikov which sunk deep into his thighs. Mahel withdrew her rapier and with the flat of the blade, swung at Marek in order to knock him unconscious. Something evil had gotten into Marek and needed to be removed, like poison from a wound. Ducking under Mahel’s blade, Marek readied another strike. The dusk elf panted with exertion and then, finally, cast polymorph on the gnome, turning him to a frog.
The danger temporarily removed, Mahel took the frog that was Marek and excused herself. She ran upstairs, slipped down the secret staircase to the main hall, and heaved the frog as far as she could, closing the secret door behind her. Dusting off her hands, she felt satisfied that this would buy them some time. “He’ll be fine,” she told herself, as she walked back to rejoin her remaining compatriots.
Haavich was bandaging up Velikov’s wounds when Mahel returned. Velikov explained that the amulet’s power was only reduced, not removed, as part of the power he now had been bestowed. As they watched, Velikov’s skin withered and shrunk, giving him the appearance of a gaunt undead creature. Haavich stared at him in horror, knowing for certain that this visage could repel even the most stalwart ally. Ulfrik, meanwhile, was peering through two large cracks in the southern wall, unsure of what he could see. Mahel sent Albreth to scout inside, only to see that the room was festooned with piles and piles of treasure! Overjoyed, Albreth dove headfirst into a pile as Mahel squeezed inside to have a look… then froze as she saw looming above her, moving towards Albreth, a 10 foot tall hawk-headed statue made of amber. She slowly moved backwards as Albreth’s head popped out of the pile of coins. As the massive amber foot came down on Albreth’s tiny weasel skeleton, all that could be heard was, “Aww shit, not again —” CRUNCH. Mahel sighed.
Determining that the best way out of this room was not around the massive ten foot guardian, the group moved back upstairs where Velikov offered to introduce them to someone he’d met in his exploration here – someone who had been in the temple much longer than anyone or anything else, perhaps even the creator of the temple itself. Intrigued, the group agreed. Velikov walked back through the secret door from which he’d come, and then opened another secret door to a brightly lit room. It was filled with ornate furniture, exquisite rugs and tapestries, and decorative statuary. Everywhere were lit candelabras atop small tables. The beauty of the decor was undone, however, by thick dust and cobwebs. Standing in the center of the room was a decrepit figure clad in tattered robes. As his head turned towards them, they saw with horror that what looked at them was the grinning visage of a skull. Its eye sockets were black holes, and at the center of each glowed a single pinprick of red light. In a sepulchral croak, the figure spoke. “Do I know you?”
Velikov introduced the three, and the undead creature, not hostile (or able to remember its name) for some odd reason, warmly welcomed them to its domicile. Calling him “Omar,” Mahel asked him what he was doing here in the temple. Omar related that he was so old, he had a hard time remembering many things. When the subject turned to the evil gods, trapped in the sarcophagi, Omar told them that he only remembered that there were many, many vestiges imprisoned here, and that he was only able to recall a smattering of their names.
He counted them off — “Fekre, Queen of Foxes.. or was it poxes? Oh well, never mind. Then there is Zrin-Hala, the Howling Storm, and Sykane, the Soul Hungerer. Wonderful names, eh? What their powers are, who knows?” Mahel related that she preferred to have a god offer her a gift that wouldn’t make her into a horrific monster. Ulfrik chuckled. Omar related that each “amber vault” was locked with an arcane lock with a magical password, and that he could only remember one of those passwords: Shalx.
They inquired as to where more of these amber sarcophagi were. Omar offered to show them. Together, they walked through the cavernous cold chambers of the temple, until they reached a long hallway. At the end of the hallway, three cloaked figures were attempting to open an amber door. They hissed and spat at each other as they argued, ancient crones rather reminiscent of Baba Lysaga or Morgantha: a coven of hags.
As the hags turned to the party, they screeched, their blackened teeth rotting in their gums. They moved their arms to prepare a spell… and the entire wall behind them exploded in a haze of amber dust and debris. In its place was the jackal-headed golem, not only missing an arm but blackened from impacts all over its body and half its face missing. The crones screamed in fear. In retaliation, the golem reached out with its remaining hand, grasped a crone by her wizened face and proceeded to thrust her head against a nearby wall, cracking it like an egg. A bloody smear was all that was left of the hag. The remaining two hags leapt onto their brooms and sped towards the party as the golem came lumbering after them, and straight towards the PCs, Omar, and Velikov.
“Oh shit,” Ulfrik said.
In the wrecked room that once housed the amber golem, Marek dusted himself off from the fall he’d taken after the golem knocked the nearby wall and ceiling down. He looked around through the rubble and noticed that there were three more amber sarcophagi surrounding him, each with a small black substance that moved, ever so slightly, from within the crystalline housing. A smile slowly spread across his face….