Gracaei glanced up for half a second before the sleet forced him to lower his face again. He wasn’t sure he had really seen it; the wind had slowed and parted the veil of snow for just a moment, giving him a glimpse of hope in this forsakenly-heavy blizzard. Another glance up showed the shadowy outline of the pyramid up ahead. He was saved!
The area is shrouded in an unceasing blizzard. Howling wind, driving sleet, icy snow, all should be played to the hilt. This is the sort of storm that comes once a century, and the PCs are caught in it. If they don’t get to shelter quickly, they’ll easily freeze to death.
If the PCs are listening, they might be able to hear a long, mournful hum in the air, above and beyond the howling wind. Those with better hearing can distinguish multiple humming tones, though even the best of senses are hard-pressed to hear more than two such tonal hums over the roar of the wind. In fact, there are a total of five, each originating from a large icy spire that towers over the PCs, easily twenty feet in height.
The Icy Spires
These five spires are large edifices with spiral, twisting fluted surfaces. This is what causes the sound, as the wind passes through each spire. A dark opaque blue, they look as if they could have been cut straight from glacial ice. Indeed, they were. However, the spires are so hard as to be nearly impossible to chip, much less destroy.
If the PCs have the time, any sort of detect magic spell cast on a spire will reveal a very strong magical aura; in addition, glyphs carved into the surface of the spire will blaze to life, lit by a bright blue inner light. The spell will then fizzle, it’s energy absorbed into the spire’s runic structure.
Those with knowledge of advanced magical theory might guess that the harmonic tones from the five spires could reinforce an imprisoning spell of some sort. If all five spires are mapped out, some quick deduction would show them to be arranged to form the tips of an invisible 5-point star.
The heavily cloaked figure ascended the last step of the mind-boggling stairway, hurrying quickly into the shelter of the massive doorway. Once his mind was no longer focused on surviving the soaking sleet, Gracaei quickly surveyed his surroundings. The doorways prevented the enclosure from being too much of a shelter, but it would serve nicely to protect him from the driving sleet and snow until the storm passed. What was that in the floor at the room’s center? A stairway? Surely the interior of the gigantic pyramid would be better shelter than the windy enclosure. He decided to take a glance below.
At the heart of the storm lies a vast structure, a step-pyramid stretching over a hundred meters into the sky. It bears the same coloring of the spires that surround it, but the most noticeable feature is the row of massive sigils graven into the surface of each level of the steps leading to the top.
Four distinct stairways lead to doorways at the top, one on each side of the square base. Care should be taken on the snow-covered stairs, as they’re very slippery1. Closer to the top, the wind is extremely strong, and a powerful gust could throw an unwary PC hundreds of feet to the rock-hard ground.
The pyramid is a massive prison-cairn, carved from an entire glacier and enchanted with the most efficacious of spells. Some of these spells comprise the magical barriers that contain the prison’s tenant, while the others are intended to keep out those who might free said tenant. The aforementioned spires are part of the first group of spells, using a mournful dirge to harmonically reinforce the prison’s magic. In fact, if one drew invisible ‘star-lines’ between each of the spires, the pyramid would sit squarely inside the middle pentagon. Additionally, the location marked out by the spires (and the prison with it) actually moves from place to place, never remaining in one particular location for long. Such is another of the defenses against intruders.
Not all of the pyramid’s defenses are magical in nature, however. The interior of the pyramid is a vast maze2 of winding turns easily capable of swallowing a party of adventurers with nary a trace. Then, of course, there are the inhabitants…
At the top of the pyramid is an enclosure, perhaps twice the size of a normal-sized room. One large doorway in each wall opens up to that side’s stairway. Lingering in the openings is unwise, as the storm’s gales are particularly forceful this high up, and the doorways allow the wind to pass right into the enclosure. Any examination of the room whatsoever will inform the PCs that there is a stairway in the middle of the room that goes down into the pyramid.
Inside the Cairn
Gracaei looked around the passageway he had just come from. Every surface was made of ice, seamless and hard as any rock he had seen. A sigh escaped his lips. He was hopelessly lost. A few simple turns in this abominable place had completely destroyed his sense of direction. If he ever got out of this maze, he would never, ever enter another unknown building! He turned right at the next intersection.
The inside of the pyramid is a massive multilevel maze, intended to confuse trespassers and kill the more persistent ones. It’s design is such that the more classical maze-solving techniques won’t work (most particularly the "hand on wall" trick). On the first level, trying such a trick will simply lead someone back to the entrance. On subsequent levels, doing so will inevitably lead to a lethal trap.
Aside from foiling casual maze-solving, the pyramid incorporates various dangerous elements into its structure. Most notable is the ever present cold. The PC’s first clue should be the fact that the air seems to get colder as they walk down the stairway and out of the windy enclosure above. If not properly bundled up, they will quickly have to deal with frostbite. Resting is very hard in such an environment, and appropriate penalties should be assessed for spending the night inside the pyramid’s maze.
The utter lack of heat within the maze also poses problems for magic of a fiery bent. Fire spells and enchantments have no heat-magic to draw upon, and will pull heat from the nearest available source: the PCs3. Mundane fire is not affected, so the PCs can start fires with a minimum of difficulty, assuming they have the materials to start and fuel one. Of course, all fire, whatever the source, is drastically reduced in its effectiveness thanks to the magical cold that permeates the pyramid. A fireball can be worth as much as your life here.
A magical working as complex as the Cairn couldn’t be left alone for very long without beginning to fail. Yet mortal guardians wither and fade over time, eventually succumbing to the blade of Time or adventurers. Something had to be done to prevent the prison from winding down or being disrupted by outsiders. Thus were the Guardians appointed.
Scattered throughout the pyramid’s maze are piles of ice-covered bones. Careful examination would reveal that the bones are carved with magic runes, but no such opportunity exists, because the bones rise the instant the party approaches. These are the first of the pyramid’s guardians. Each FrozenBones will be accompanied by and lead a small group of former adventurers, reanimated with all the gear they had when they died inside the maze. They will attack the party with spells of ice and cold as their frozen minions fight the PCs mono’e’mono. If their minions are losing, the FrozenBones have no compulsion against retreating deeper into the pyramid.
The FrozenBones are the reanimated remains of those servants of Frost that volunteered to be the caretakers of the pyramid. Each is a formidable spellcaster, and should be an even match for any one PC, especially within the frozen confines of the maze, where they have a distinct advantage over intruders. Their favorite tactic is to freeze their opponents in place, then impale them with icicles from the ceiling.
Note: The FrozenBones and their late-adventurers respond to heat within the Cairn. If something is hot, or even warmer than normal, that could be a sign that the enchantments are wearing down and need to be repaired. A side-effect of this is that simple invisibility or stealth won’t allow parties to sneak past the FrozenBones.
Nothing could have prepared Gracaei for the horrors this pyramid contained! He began to think as he leaned against the wall, catching his breath. What was here that required such elaborate traps, such dangerous guardians? Those bodies, rising to their feet though obviously long dead; and that skeleton’s eyes, burning with unnatural light! Only his quick feet had let him escape from that nightmarish encounter. Those bodies looked like Adventurers Upon Return, and they appeared to still bear their equipment. Surely he would have been slain if he hadn’t fled so quickly. It was strange that they hadn’t followed him down that last flight of stairs though. It was almost as if they knew that something else would catch him instead. Was it the cold that seemed to be setting in on him?
For all it’s towering size, the gigantic armored figure was silent as a stalking cat. Gracaei never even saw the axe as it decended.
Echoes of Frost
Deep within the bowels of the Glacial Cairn, on the last level of the frozen maze it houses, roam a pair of guardians. Of all those sacrificed to the pyramid’s defenses, only two were found of sufficient strength and devotion to become something more than those changed to runic skeletons. Forsaking their flesh, they became as golems, inhabiting enormous shells of the coldest steel. Within their new bodies, they became much more dangerous foes, implacable defenders of the prison, true Echoes of Frost.
One bears a traditional, if massive, broadsword, made of Demonforged Ice. The other wields a huge double-bladed axe of the same material. For all their colossal size and hard exteriors, they are not limited to mere physical force however. Each Echo has near-complete mastery of the frozen arts, and can summon raw power from the pyramid itself, repairing wounds that would otherwise be fatal.
Assuming intruders have survived everything else the Cairn has thrown at them, they must still deal with Taigos, the Gelid Glacier, before they can free the prison’s tenant. Among all the servants of Frost, none rank higher than the Hoarhounds. Of the Hoarhounds, only two others stand higher than Taigos. This is the prison’s Warden, as well as it’s last guardian.
Like his brethren, Taigos is composed of pure ice, shaped like an arctic wolf. None could mistake him for a true wolf, however, for at the shoulder he stands the same height as an adult human. He is the source of the blizzard raging outside the pyramid, and is fully the match of a Phoenix, his fiery counterpart. No lesser being could hope to hold the Cairn’s prisoner captive, nor keep the enchantments on the pyramid running.
Nothing within the sphere of icy power is beyond this hoarhound, and even death has little lasting effect. When a hoarhound falls in battle, it melts into a puddle of icy liquid, but for just a moment. Within seconds, shards of ice begin to grow upwards from the puddle, forming into a large block of ice. No more than a candlemark later veins of black creep down from its top, a web of cracks that shatters in a razor-sharp hailstorm of ice, revealing the boreal blasphemy, once again whole.
Taigos resides in a frozen room, sleeping in front of the only doorway to the Prison Chamber that lies at the center of the pyramid.
The Prison Chamber
This is a good-sized room, large enough for there to be a miniature lake within. The water, while not quite boiling, is extremely hot to the touch, and is likely to burn anyone in it for an extended length of time. The room is full of steam, and feels like a sauna. In the center of the lake, at the very bottom, rests a large egg; if placed on flat ground, it would be about chest-height on most humans. The egg is hotter than the water: once outside the lake, it will quickly begin to cause heat-shimmers in the air above it. This is the prison’s tenant.
The spires, the blizzard, the enchantments laid on the ice carved from an entire glacier, the location of the pyramid (atop a powerful leyline of icy power), the presence of the hoarhound warden, all of it was designed to imprison this egg and prevent it from hatching. Within lies a phoenix, one of the most potent vassals of Flame. In a stroke of luck, servitors of Frost were able to capture the egg after a brutal battle with the phoenix, and by imprisoning it have weakened the influence of Flame upon the world at large.
The egg has long been ready to hatch, but was prevented from doing so by the sheer power of magical forces laid against it. Removing it from the lake has opened a hole in the defenses that the phoenix can use, and the egg immediately begins to crack; in a few mere moments it will hatch in a blast-wave of flame. The rebirth of such a potent warrior of Flame will completely shatter the pyramid and it’s enchantments. Taigos will survive, but the Echoes and FrozenBones stand no chance against such a foe, should any still survive. As recompense for its freedom, the flame of rebirth will pass harmlessly over those who freed the phoenix, healing their wounds and refreshing their minds.
1 In fact, slipping and falling should remain a hazard throughout the entire time the party is within the pyramid (it is made of ice). This can manifest in any number of ways, from reducing the PC’s agility to requiring a check for any sudden movement, with failure indicating the character lost their balance and must either steady themself or pick themself up off the floor.
2 See the attached stub, "Running A Dungeon-Maze"
3 Treat this how you wish. Hit point loss, frostbite, and slower reaction times are just a few of the ways that sucking body heat could cause.
Additional Ideas (4)
As the PCs wander through the pyramid's maze, they hear the echoing cry of a hungry baby. Upon tracking it down, they find it originating in a medium sized room with a pile of dead goblins in the center. The crying sound is coming from inside the mound of bodies; examination reveals an arctic goblin baby in a papoose, hungry and cold. It would seem that the party of goblins got lost inside the pyramid and piled themselves on the baby in a forlorn attempt to preserve its life against the murderous cold.
What will they do? Leave the baby to its death, or take up the burden of caring for it in a dark and dangerous dungeon?
Scattered around the maze are a number of traps to remove intruders from this existence. One of these is a soaking, freezing death. Above sections of the ceiling are pyres designed to melt the ice that comprises the ceiling and bring it down on top of intruders. The result varies: cuts from sharp edges of ice, bruises from chunks of the ceiling, and most dangerously, a soaking wet party, absolutely lethal in the pyramid's freezing interior.
A dungeon staple, this one is particularly at home within the pyramid's maze, because the icy surface makes sliding down into a hole very easy and hard to stop. Care should be taken whenever the floor begins to tilt. A single misstep could send someone sliding to their death, whether it be from the fall or the icy spikes at the end.