June 8, 2011

The Fortress of Glass

At the urging of their oracle, Queen Amal and her Amazon warriors had agreed to to take the party across the "Lake of Fire" to the "Fortress of Glass" - whatever that meant. Mounted on the Amazons' pterodactyls, the party flew up the side of the volcano at the center of the island, and over the lip of the crater. At that moment, the oracle's words made sense. Below them, the caldera was a filled with a lake of molten lava, seething and bubbling. Rising from the center of the sea of magma was an island of black rock. Seeming to grow out of the rock itself was a tower of black obsidian. At a command from the Queen, the flight of pterodactyls banked as one, and began descending towards the tower.

Suddenly, a Wall of Fire appeared directly in front of the Queen and her mount - and Mary, who was riding in the seat of honor. Unable to dodge, the startled beast flew directly through the roaring flames, while the rest of the flight scrambled in all directions to try to avoid the same fate. At that moment, four huge creatures appeared in the air around them. They seemed to be half-fire, and zipped around the lumbering pterodactyls like jet fighters attacking WWI biplanes. They would flash in, swing with their enormous fists, and then dart back out, leaving only the slightest opportunity for a counter-attack.

Unfortunately for them, a slight opportunity was all it took. Phil managed to cover about half the party with a Prayer, tipping the odds in the party's favor. Jerry unleashed one of his trademark Lightning Bolts, and the Queen responded with one of her own from her steel spear. Small arms fire erupted from most of the party, and the Amazons proved to be quite handy with their slender bows. Within a few rounds, all four of the creatures disappeared in a flash of flame and a fall of ash.

Fearing more attackers, Queen Amal wasted no time in delivering the party. The pterodactyls raced down towards the tower and flapped their wings in a short hover above its flat rooftop; the Amazons unceremoniously pushed their passengers off and then flew away as fast as they could.

The tower was made of black obsidian, its surface slick and treacherous underfoot. It was also searingly hot, and the party leaped to their feet as soon as they landed, to avoid burns. Even then, they found themselves hopping from foot to foot as the heat threatened to become unbearable. The roof had an irregular opening into a room ~18' below, as if something had melted through its surface. Jerry quickly cast a Fly spell on Ice, and he ferried everyone down.

The floor of the room below was inscribed with intricate patterns that appeared to be astrological in nature, and several huge brass astrolabes and telescopes were scattered around the room. The air here was even more stifling than above, and Chuck cast Resist Heat on himself and James; everyone else wished he had more of the spells. A stairway led down, and a ruddy glow could be seen at its bottom. Joe led the way, wanting to get out of the heat as soon as possible.

At the bottom of the stairs was a broad hallway. The obsidian of the outer walls had thinned to the point where it became translucent, allowing in a modicum of light. The heat here was almost overwhelming. Mary and Phil actually fainted briefly from the heat, and everyone lost one point of Strength. In the center of the hallway were a pair of bronze doors. Taking advantage of his heat resistance, Chuck pulled them open.

The floor of the room inside was also inscribed with astrological symbols and patterns, similar to the room above. There were also twelve stone pedestals arranged in a circle, aligned with each of the signs of the zodiac. On each pedestal stood a bronze statue. The statues were of humans. They were naked, although each held some object: a scale, a spear, a bow, a horn, etc. They appeared to be symbols of zodiac signs, although for a zodiac the party was unfamiliar with. Another stairway leading down could be seen in the far corner of the room. James cast a Detect Magic from the wand, but nothing showed up, so the party headed for the stairs.

As soon as everyone was inside the room, the statues (of course) came to life. Where once stood a bronze statue, there was now a gruesome creature with flaming hair atop its leering, skull-like face. Their skin was scarlet and orange, and had only a column of flame where their legs should be. The creatures shot out a fan of flames from their hands, engulfing anyone it its path. They also had an annoying habit of blinking from place to place rather than moving in a normal fashion.

James immediately took out three with a Lighting Bolt of his own. Phil, who had been bringing up the rear, quickly found himself surrounded and in flames, looking for help. The creatures weren't terribly difficult to hit, but it took awhile to bring them all down, and in the meantime, they inflicted quite a bit of damage on the party. By the time the last one disappeared in a column of oily smoke, the party was pretty burned and blistered.

At the bottom of the stairs was another hallway, and another pair of double doors. These were made of iron, and glowed cherry red with heat. After some speculation about exactly what temperature caused iron to glow red, Chuck tried wrapping his hands in cloth to pull open the doors, only to have the cloth immediately begin to smolder and smoke. Deciding to go with Plan B, he used a camp shovel to hook through the door pulls instead.

Opening the doors was like opening the doors to a blast furnace. A searing wave of intense heat erupted out of the room, singeing the hair and eyebrows off everyone in front of it and temporarily blinding them. Even when they were able to see again, the party had to shield their eyes against the light and heat emanating from the room. In the center of the room was an enormous column of flame, nearly 20’ in diameter. It rose up out of a platform of black rock that appeared to be nearly molten.

Before the party could gather their wits, booming laughter greeted them, accompanied by a fresh wave of heat. “After all these centuries is this the best that old man can do?” A face could be seen in the flames, grinning cruelly. “I know that Merlin sent you – you’re carrying that precious Gatestone of his. What is it he wants this time?” The party tried explaining that they were on a mission to save the multiverse from being destroyed, but they received an unexpectedly cool (hah!) reaction. "Why should I care if your paltry multiverse gets destroyed? My realm is separate from all of your universes, and only touches on them in a few places, such as this. If your multiverse disappears, it is of little interest to me." More persuasion had little affect, and although Ice wanted to fill him with hot lead, cooler heads prevailed.

Finally, someone asked if there was anything at all they could do for this creature of flame. He seemed to grow thoughtful. “Hmmm … now that you mention it, I might be able to make some use of that gem of Merlin’s. The Plane of Fire does not connect with all of your universes, so I cannot travel to all of them. Normally I would not care – most of your worlds are far too cold and wet for my taste. However, one of your universes contains an annoying mage who has tried to summon me many times against my will. I should like to pay him a visit, to teach him the error of his ways, but I cannot reach his world. If you would be willing to help me, I would allow you to close this Gate." The party asked if he knew the name of this mage - could it be Twynillios? "No," came the reply, "I think he calls himself ... Azalin." Although the characters had never heard this name, the players all groaned in dismay.

A finger of flame snaked out from the central column and touched the Gatestone, pointing out the facet for Ravenloft. Even though the party had closed this gate once, the rune now glowed green again, indicating that the gate had been re-opened. "I simply need to create a linkage between the Plane of Fire and his universe." Another finger of flame reached out and dropped a large ruby at the party's feet. "Take this with you, and bury it anywhere in his world. You need not find this Azalin, or even be anywhere near him. I will have no trouble finding him." Almost as an afterthought, he added, "Oh, and after you bury it, you'd best get far away. Things will get a bit warm."

When the party agreed to his terms, the column of flame began to shrink, until it was an intense jet of blue-hot flame, and receded into the far corner of the room. After a few rounds, the room cooled enough for the party to enter. They placed the Gatestone on the black stone platform, and it's mercury-like base bubbled and boiled, but managed to cover the stone. They touched the rune for Ravenloft, and felt the familiar stretching sensation ...

... and found themselves once again in a trackless plain filled with impenetrable mist. After a time, they began to hear distant thunder, and the mist thickened until it became a light rain. A flash of lightning revealed they were on a mountainside, surrounded by pine forests and rocky outcroppings.

The party debated whether to bury the ruby immediately, but the Fire Tyrant's warning worried them. Just how far away did they need to get? With images of Krakatoa running through their heads, they decided it was best not to bury the stone until they were ready to leave this universe for good, so they began to follow the Gatestone. 

After about an hour, another flash of lightning revealed a narrow valley ahead of them. On the opposite slope a small gray stone keep sat atop a foothill of the surrounding mountains. Two pointed spires jutted from the roof of the central tower, extending another 30’ above the structure. They acted as natural lightning rods, attracting bolt after bolt. A rushing mountain stream poured down the valley floor, spanned by a stone bridge. A rutted road led away down the valley, and up to the keep on the hill above. It seemed the party had returned to Castle Lightningspire.

The party decided to cross the bridge to the castle, leaving Jerry behind with the ruby. Once they were almost ready to go in, he would bury the ruby and then use Polymorph Self to transform into a fast-flying bird, and join them. Then they'd all get out of Dodge. Crossing the bridge, they found that a path led up to the castle gate, which they knew was barred from the inside, while the road continued around the hillside to where the circus camp had been, and where they knew a tunnel led into the castle (although it was barred by a portcullis). Following the road, they found the circus camp all right, but all of the circus people were dead. Bodies lay everywhere, scorched and gutted. Someone - or something - appeared to have killed them all shortly after the party had escaped.

Seeing the party disappear around the hill, Jerry carried out his portion of the plan. As soon as he covered the ruby, steam began to rise from the freshly turned earth. Without waiting to see what would happen next, Jerry took off like a bat out of hell. A couple of rounds later, an enormous column of flame shot up out of the earth, reaching into the heavens. It only lasted for a few seconds, but it was enough to set everything around it aflame. Lava began bubbling up from the crater it left behind, and flowing slowly towards the riverbed.

When he caught up to the party, they took advantage of his bird form, and he flew through the bars of the portcullis, returned to human, and opened it from the inside. Inside the castle, everything was as the party had left it - the remaining circus animals and freaks were slowing starving to death in their cages, and the dead bodies lay decomposing on the floor as they'd fallen. On the second floor, the party did a little more thorough investigation than they had on the first visit, and with the help of the Wand of Magic Detection, found a cloak and a pair of scrolls that glowed magical. Ascending to the top floor, they found a number of magical potions and ointments in one of the laboratory workrooms. More disturbing, they found litter in the two rooms flanking the stairway that had not been there a week ago: plastic and foil food wrappers and drink bottles, with labels in languages no one recognized. It looked like a group of people had been spending some time there, but had left in a hurry.

Still worried that the newborn volcano across the stream might become more violent, the party decided not to spend time on this mystery. They placed the Gatestone on the twin spires (again), and pressed a new facet ...

... and found themselves standing in an expanse of rolling, grassy hills. They were in the center of a circle of huge stone masks, each a good 15-20’ tall. The heads were very elongated, with wide, open mouths and oval eyes. They were concave, hollowed out from behind, and the eyes and mouth are open, so you could look out through them. Most were still upright, although leaning, but a few had fallen on their sides. The heads faced outward, away from the center of the circle, and the grass growing up around the stones and in the center of the circle showed no sign of having been disturbed in some time.

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