The door opened from outside with a creak, and the driving snow outlined a small figure – it was Marek, alive again, but quite vastly changed. His skin was pale and drawn, and his complexion showed great dark circles under his eyes and lines creased his once smooth cherubic face. The most obvious and distressing change, however, was that Marek’s hair, once a bright shade of red, had now changed to a shock of white. Even Haavich, technically not alive, was concerned as to the state of Marek’s return to this plane as had Ulfrik before him. Marek entered, warmed himself by the fire, and acted as if nothing had changed, chatting with his compatriots about how he had returned from the land of the dead. Which had the rather disconcerting after effect of being able to speak to the spirits of the dead who accompanied him…. everywhere. In fact, he was speaking to one right now. The party blinked, not able to see or sense anyone. Was Marek able to speak to spirits, or was he simply mad? Only time would tell…
As night neared, the party rested to recover from their fight with the demonic vrocks. Marek went upstairs to take the first watch and started to supposedly speak with the ghost of Pidlwick, a Barovian who died long ago in Castle Ravenloft itself, from someone pushing him down the stairs. His crypt was in the catacombs below the castle, and he implored Marek to put his soul to rest by finding out his murderer. Marek stated that he would do what he could. Mahel, waking from her hours-long trance, walked upstairs to see Marek, again talking to no one. Mahel frowned, worried that her compatriot had indeed contracted some form of madness upon his return to the world of the living. Marek bid her adieu and went down stairs to get some rest. He reached inside his coat to feel for The Holy Symbol of Ravenkind and found to his distress that it was not there. Someone had stolen it! Or perhaps the powers of this land had reclaimed it as a price for his being brought back from the dead? He had to get it back!
Mahel looked out the open window facing the road and with her elven eyes saw a set of footprints barely visible in the snow. They started from the door at the guard house, and trailed north towards the bridge. Someone had been here previous to their being there. Perhaps an hour, no longer.
Upon the dawn, the party awoke and determined to cross the bridge continuing on to the temple in the mountains above them. The roc, Haavich stated, was a nocturnal hunter, so it should not prove to not be a danger in the light of day. Although the bridge was slippery and worn, it was sturdy enough for the group to cross unimpeded. They continued up the path, which faded away under a covering of snow (no longer a true road). A facade of some kind was carved into the sheer mountainside, only a mile away. The front of the structure was fifty feet high and had six alcoves containing twenty-foot-tall statues. Each statue was amazingly carved from a single huge block of amber and depicted a faceless, hooded figure, its hands pressed together in a gesture of prayer. Between the two innermost statues was a twenty foot-tall archway with a staircase leading down. The footprints that Mahel had seen had tracked inside the main entrance…
While Ulfrik dug relentlessly in the snow to see if he could find any Meadow Saffron, Marek determined that he would scout around… in his own fashion. He cast Arcane Eye, a spell that made an invisible entity that looked, to him anyways, like a ghost-like figure, made magically invisible to everyone’s eyes but his. He used to scout around the inside of the cold, dark temple, using his darkvision to see through its eyes. A balcony of black marble with a shattered railing overlooked a vast chamber. Black marble staircases at each end of the balcony descended to the temple floor. The walls and ceiling were covered in an amber glaze, lending the gloom a golden sheen. A set of amber doors stood closed at the west end of the balcony and a similar pair stood open to the east. To the north, four black marble columns supported the vaulted ceiling of the temple, at the north end of which stood a massive statue of a cowled figure in flowing robes. The statue’s stony hands were outstretched as if in the midst of casting a spell, its face a void of utter blackness. Marek moved east, seeing a large hole burrowed in the marble with a deep shaft, at the bottom of which he could see flickering green lights. He floated down the hole to reveal a smaller chamber with walls of glazed amber, a floor of red marble, and most noticeably, three amber sarcophagi standing in alcoves, above each was floating a human skull wreathed in green flame.
As the arcane eye was invisible, these magical skulls could not sense him. Carefully, Marek manipulated the eye upwards back through the hole, then north along a cracked amber corridor. Floating around a solid amber door, he came face to…. thigh… with a huge amber statue of a jackal headed warrior. His eyes grew wide as the statue began to move, its head slowly grinding in his direction. He saw its amber fists clench. It could see him! He turned and ran down the corridor, the massive golem tramping down the corridor behind him, its thunderous footsteps creating more cracks in the shattered floor. He floated quickly to the hole and ducked near it. The golem lunged at him, and fell straight through the hole, landing on the floor below with a great boom, one of its arms shattering in the process. The sound awoke the flameskulls, and they streamed up through the hole and started to quickly patrol the corridors for signs of intrusion. Marek took this as his cue to leave the area, and moved past the amber doors to a balcony overlooking the massive stone statue and the dark hall that it faced. Suddenly, without warning, his connection to the arcane eye was snuffed out. Someone, or something had dispelled it.
Marek relayed what his magical scout had seen, and the four moved warily through the snow towards the entrance to the temple. Ulfrik lit a torch for himself and Dr. Haavich, illuminating the vast chamber… and the sickly green light of a floating flameskull! Lashing out quickly with his sunsword, Ulfrik reduced the floating undead to smithereens within a matter of seconds. Haavich noted that creatures of this kind were once powerful mages created as undead contructs by even more powerful entities, and that they would regenerate in a matter of an hour if not appropriately “dealt with.” Marek scooped the fragments of skull into a bag, and the adventurers stealthily walked down into the main chamber. In the torchlight, the massive statue loomed over them, a sepulchral silence hanging heavy in the vast, cold, darkness.
Ulfrik turned to his companions. “Creepy,” he whispered. A pure blue beam of lightning lanced out of the head of the statue, striking Ulfrik in the chest and proceeding to chain through to Marek. The smell of ozone hung in the air as the two reeled from the massive attack from the statue. The four fled up the stairs in anticipation of another blast.
“Hello? Eez anyvonn zherr?”
A timid old voice echoed through the chamber emanating from the head of the statue.The group, panting from their quick escape, stopped and readied themselves. Their breath steamed and hung in clouds in the freezing cold of the room. A burst of sulfurous smoke later, and a figure appeared in the middle of the chamber – an old man with colored spectacles perched on his nose. He introduced himself as Heinrich Szolt and apologized profusely for attacking them. He stated that he was assigned to guard the temple from outside attacks from “zem,” and that he stopped attacking when he realized that they weren’t “zem.” Marek looked with suspicion at this old man. Something in his story didn’t add up. He started to further question the old man and Mahel joined in, suggesting that if need be, they could just kill him. At this, the old man grimaced and teleported away. At that moment, Mahel noticed that there were green lights flickering behind the arrow slits on the walls above them…
Ambush! Streams of fire sprayed out of the slits on both sides, striking Ulfrik, Haavich, and fortunately missing Marek, as Mahel hid behind a column and readied her shortbow. Haavich struck out with vicious blasts of magic from Melf’s Minute Meteors and Magic Missile attuned to radiant magic, hoping to deal appropriately with these undead fiends. Withering rays of fire from these creatures burned through Ulfrik, and he limped to safety before he was laid low. As the floating skulls were hidden behind the arrow slits, they were almost impossible to attack – except from the exceptional archery from Mahel. One by one, Mahel launched arrows from her bow. These found purchase in the skulls, cracking and weakening them. Realizing that their position was an untenable one, the group quickly hid from the ambush, and as they did so, the attacks ceased. Silently, the skulls slipped through the holes in the walls above and floated down to hunt through the chamber. A ghastly green light spread through the dark hall as the remaining flameskulls chittered and screeched as they floated around.
As the skulls floated through the hall, Marek found a secret door in the back of the statue that led up to the head. Safety! Haavich jumped out from his hiding place and blasted the weakened skulls with a massive thunder-fire-ball, shattering them. Shouting with victory, and pumping his fist, Haavich said, “For the Morninglord! Take that, you fiends!”
There were two skulls left, both peppered with arrows. Haavich heard Marek in the head of the statue (from which he could see the entire room through the statue’s eyes) then promptly used dimension door to teleport up to join his diminutive friend. Mahel, ninja-like, continued to strike from behind a pillar, arrow after arrow finding its mark. Marek lay flat on the ground, hiding from an potential attacks, while Haavich used the remainder of his meteors and a holy ray to destroy yet another flameskull. Ulfrik found the secret entrance to the statue and ran up to join Haavich and Marek. It was getting quite cramped in the statue’s head. Mahel ran to the secret door, but unfortunately finding no room in the statue, jammed her self inside the door and blocked herself with it as much as she could in case a skull popped around the corner.
One final flameskull, teetering and weaving through the air, was leaking green light from many arrow strikes and magical attacks. Haavich pointed his staff through the statue’s eye and shot one final magic missile. The skull exploded and pieces of bone dropped to the ground. Haavich smiled. The party left the shelter of the statue, and after healing Ulfrik as best he could, Marek went around and picked up all the skull fragments and placed them in his bag. He then cast dispel magic, nullifying the possibility that they would reanimate. As they searched, Mahel found a secret door leading upwards to a brightly lit room. Covering the ceiling was a fresco that depicted angels being set ablaze in a hellish landscape. A black marble railing enclosed a gold marble staircase that spiraled gently down to a darkened room below. Against the gray walls stood six ten-foot-tall, black marble bookcases. On their shelves were hundreds of well-preserved tomes. Embroidered rugs, chairs, and lit candelabras filled the southern half of the room. Taking a rest from their fight, the four plopped into the comfortable, overstuffed chairs. Mahel started to leaf through several books, noting that most of them were tomes of eldritch, evil magic, containing vile, forbidden lore, although, much to Haavich’s delight, many spells. This was a literal library of evil power.
Marek, looking down with his nightvision, saw that in the room below were six rotting wooden crates. The amber-covered walls were sculpted to look like tentacles that entwined around marble bas-reliefs of kings, queens, pharaohs, and sultans attended by myriad slaves. The west, south, and east walls contained alcoves, and standing in each alcove was a tall, rough block of amber, exactly like the ones he had seen in another chamber. Two wide cracks had opened up in the south wall, spilling rubble and shattered pieces of amber onto the floor in the southeast corner of the room.
“Amber cracked,” Ulfrik murmured.
“What?” asked Mahel.
“My tattoo,” Ulfrik said, solemnly. “It said something about amber cracked. I think we have to go down there.”
The group argued that it was likely that these “sarcophagi” were somehow connected with the Dark Powers themselves, as various residents of Barovia had suggested that this was either a prison or resting place of the evil that Strahd originally contacted centuries ago. “We must destroy them!” Marek said. “Chances are, they are too powerful, even for us,” Haavich said. “But we must investigate, we must know more.”
As the four looked down into the vast cold darkness of the chamber below, a word was whispered inside each of their minds from an unknown entity, promising them power and joy beyond their wildest imaginings.
But for everything, there was a price….