The characters in this session were:
- Yam, an eccentric gnome illusionist and local graduate student at Umbral University. Yam cares little for money. Yam is curious. Yam is Yam.
- Vespidae, a waspkin bard/cleric – a sacred dancer with a deathwish, shunned by the waspkin community for complicated ritualistic reasons, and a devoted follower of the Queen in Yellow.
- Armand Percival Reginald Francois Eustace de la Marche III, a suspiciously pale, apparently human noble and sorcerer, and certainly not a ghoul (how dare such a thing be suggested).
- Garvin Otherwise, a human rogue and burglar of the Ravenswing Thieves’ Guild, with a very, very peculiar past and a zoog pet, Lenore.
- Cephalus T. Murkwater, a dagonian barrister and monk, specializing in martial arts and magical labour law.
The recent zombie escapes from the Deadstock Pens following the Shambleside Riots over the use of reanimated labour – the lead up to which the party briefly witnessed en route to capture Nettie Toadlung – have had significant fallout. Due to a ruling in Golemsgate, rioters were being held financially responsible for the damage dealt by the zombies, and for the costs of any missing reanimated dead. The zombies in Shambleside had all been recaptured, but a number were still missing, having wandered into the neighbouring districts of Corvid Commons. The Ravenswing Thieves’ Guild, concerned about the reanimated, dispatched Garvin to investigate: they suspected unscrupulous Reanimators employed by the rival Crowsbeak Guild were stealing the zombies and using them as troops in their ongoing turf war to consolidate their control over Corvid Commons and the criminal underworld of Hex. The zombies were likely being “re-programmed” at a Crowsbeak hideout somewhere in the Commons.
As Garvin explained this mission to his adventuring companions Armand and Vespidae in the sweet-smelling Green Star tavern, a curious individual approached: a dagonian, one of the amphibious river-dwellers of the district of Croakmarsh. This one was somewhat unusually well-dressed, albeit on a budget, and carried a long walking stick. The dagonian – currently male, it seemed – introduced himself as Cephalus T. Murkwater, a barrister working for the labourers being sued by the Reanimators and deadstock-owners seeking to locate the stolen property to ameliorate the damages. He offered his services, but the party initially scoffed, Armand asking what skills Cephalus could possibly bring to the table. The dagonian responded by performing an impressive trick involving a cup and his “walking stick” – in fact a well-balanced quarterstaff. Suitably mollified the party set out, making first for the district of Shambleside to see if they could pick up on any rumours as to the whereabouts of the reanimated thralls.
The party began their investigations at the Memento Mori tavern, a converted mausoleum at the border of Grey Hook, location of the Académie Macabre, the more academic and theoretical of Hex’s two institutions of necromancy. Working-class Reanimators and students at the Académie rubbed shoulders in the gloomy depths of the bar, whose tables were modified sarcophagi and whose waitresses were uniformly undead. After buying a few undergraduates and other locals drinks, the party ascertained a few tidbits of recent gossip in the necromantic community. Though no one had any good guesses about where the reanimated thralls might be, one student had heard some rumours about the recent return of a necromancer called the Marionettist – once a faculty member at the Académie, he was denied tenure and left Hex to wander the world. A few drinks later and some flirting from the ever-charming Armand revealed that this Marionettist was disgraced after it was discovered he was putting the reanimated to “uses unbefitting a member of the Académie.” Rumour has that he spent time studying with golemists and dark enchanters, and that he dwelt for a time in the Porcelain Kingdoms of the distant west, apprenticing with the Dollmasters. Still wanted by the City Watch for illegal spellcasting, the Marionettist was said to have come back to Hex for his own reasons. Theorizing that the Marionettist, being a criminal, might have fallen in with the Crowsbeak Thieves’ Guild, the party struck out for Grey Hook to see what they could learn of the elusive figure.
Dominated by the campus of the Académie Macabre, Grey Hook is a dour district of grey stone and pale faces. In addition to the Académie, Grey Hook contains seven separate graveyards, which function much like small parks in other parts of the city, as well as the Gilded Graveyard, the most prestigious cemetery in Hex.
Reanimated corpses – the servants of professors at the Académie, clad in beautiful livery, with exquisitely embalmed flesh and intricate glyphs of ownership – walked the streets alongside the living here, going about countless errands for their wizardly masters. The party made their way to Reaper’s Square the Department of Necrontology, the Marionettist’s reputed specialty. Consulting records here and talking with more of the students and faculty, they discovered that the Marionettist – Professor Clovis – had been a specialist in modifying revenants with clockwork additions, often using gnomish technology.
Tracking down his publications at the ornate library of the Académie Macabre, they learned of the unwholesome fusions of machine and undead flesh Clovis had tried to create. This made Vespidae – who had fought several heavily modified revenants back at the Rat & Roach – speculate that perhaps the Marionettist was behind some of the undead gladiators sparring in the Crowsbeak Casino. That meant he had access to bodies even before the Deadstock Riots. Their researches also revealed that the Marionettist had a still-living sister dwelling in Shambleside. They hastened to Coffin Court, where those wealthy enough to purchase a casket could do so – the servants of such wealthy individuals could be seen haggling with the coffin-makers here. It seemed that Professor Clovis’ family had been undertakers, or so they learned. While his relatives had not been in contact with him they learned of his childhood obsessions with dead bodies, and with dolls glimpsed in the gnomish toy stores that had once operated in the Commons, before the last of the gnomish population left for Mainspring.
Armed with this knowledge, the party set out into Corvid Commons. Garvin leading the way. They had a suspect, but they needed to uncover his hideout. The thief began by leading the group to the Witching Hour Alehouse on the rain-soaked Street of Rooks, a street crowded with rag-and-bones men hawking their scavenged wares, oddments and baubles dredged from the sewers by toshers; food-vendors selling eels and lampreys fresh from the Radula; prostitutes united not by species or sex but by their cheapness; drug-peddlers pushing Throwback and diluted Sap. The Alehouse itself, an institution in the Commons and something of a neutral meeting-ground for thieves throughout the city, was the largest building on the street, its rambling enormity matched by its decrepitude; the huge, old place was falling apart, its roof sagging and overgrown with black moss. Despite the decay mottling its graffiti-covered walls the place exuded a strange sense of welcome, its windows yellow with lamplight, its crooked chimneys belching smoke from many hearths.
Within, the Witching Hour was crowded with rogues of every stripe – cutthroats, second-storey men, pickpockets, fences, thugs, assassins, con-men, swindlers, and every other manner of criminal imaginable. Many sported tattoos proclaiming gang and guild affiliations, often from rival organizations, but there was surprisingly little tension here. A few men and women ducked through a doorway in the back into a shadowy space beyond. The barman, Mortimer Croak, kept his one remaining eye on the patrons. Garvin started asking around, trying to discover any rumours of the Marionettist or possible movements of illegal goods – or bodies – that might point to his hideout. Mortimer suggested the party ask Rosemary Badwhisker, who sold stolen goods out of a shop on the Street of Magpies, Rosemary’s Receiving. She had been apparently dealing with a variety of “necromantic types” of recent, selling tools and spellbooks liberated from the Reanimators’ College and the Académie Macabre. This would be the party’s next stop.
Operating alongside and in conjunction with the Midnight Market, the shops along the Street of Magpies move many of the stolen goods in Hex. The prices here tend to be higher for buyers and significantly lower for sellers, but the shopkeepers along the street frequently deal with freelancers and smaller gangs.
Pawnshops buying and selling various goods – many of them stolen at one time or another – lined the Street of Magpies. The cloaked and ill-favoured figures who drifted between sported Thief’s Marks and guild insignia, some ostentatious displayed, others cagily concealed. Many of these establishments had signs bearing symbols informing thieves of the allegiances of those within or of current prices and inventory. As the party headed for Rosemary’s Receiving, something truly bizarre happened: Garvin Otherwise abruptly vanished into thin air, without so much as a word. Baffled, the party cast around for a moment to try and locate some sign of the thief, but to absolutely no avail. Uncertain, they entered Rosemary’s Receiving anyway, hoping that Garvin would turn up soon.
One of the larger pawnshops on the Street of Magpies Rosemary’s Receiving clearly specialized in the sale of arcane objects – most of them likely stolen. In the window of the shop a reanimated head dangled from its hair, muttering to itself, next to a cage in which a clockwork scorpion scuttled, a hat changed its shape every few moments, and a garrotte which a small signs proclaimed to be “possessed” was visible. Inside an even more bewildering array of oddities could be found – amorphous keys, enchanted duplicating slugs, ensorcelled pistols, an analytic engine, spellbooks and scrolls, magical stones and jewels, aquae vitae, grimacing idols, and a hundred other strange objects, as numerous and variegated as those in any gentleman’s cabinet of curiosities (such as that of Leopold Van Lurken). The shopkeeper was an elderly woman with masses of long, white hair and tattooed arms, attended by a small horde of albino rat familiars who seemed to inhabit her hair. She was currently locked in conversation with none other than Yam, the gnome illusionist, on an errand for their supervisor, Sebastian Eldridge, who procured certain rare reagents from the woman. Intrigued by their companions’ rambling investigation and by Garvin’s sudden disappearance, Yam decided to join the group.
Speaking with Rosemary revealed that the Marionettist had indeed been by the shop, but that she did not know his address. However, she could disclose that he was buying large quantities of clockwork parts. After hearing of the Marionettist’s fascination with gnomish clockwork and toy-shops, Yam volunteered to ask around in Mainspring to see if anyone had any advice as to where to look for a former gnomish shop – exactly the sort of place the Marionettist might hold up in. Cephalus, meanwhile, headed to Golemsgate to try and find any legal information about the necromancer. He discovered that the Watch still had a bounty of five hundred guineas posted for the renegade wizard. Yam, meanwhile, learned that a number of gnomish toy-shops used to be located in the southeast corner of Corvid Commons. The party regrouped and headed back into the labyrinth of streets, somewhat ill at ease without Garvin, who had still failed to reappear. After some wandering they found their way to Scarecrow Street, a rather desolate street that had been mostly abandoned; derelict buildings slowly decayed on either side, now the haunt of vagrants, squatters, and fungoids. The largest of these was an abandoned toy-maker’s shop, All Wound Up.
“This could be our place,” Yam said.
“Let’s see about a back-door…” Armand suggested.
Cephalus, meanwhile, seemed to be stretching himself in preparation for an altercation. Vespidae was appraising the place with a curious look. Unbeknownst to most of the group, the waspkin had no fixed abode but squatted in derelict buildings much like this one. Perhaps the shop, if cleared of its criminal denizens, would make a good home?
The abandoned toy-maker’s shop All Wound Up had its windows boarded up, obscuring the interior. The walls, now faded and peeling, showed a series of whimsical murals depicting an antiquated kingdom, a whimsical place of knights, fairies, princesses, and dragons. Avoiding the front door, the group went round the side into a filthy alley, but successfully located a back door. Cephalus managed to force the lock with little effort. Inside, some old crates and chests were stacked, some open to reveal doll parts, the vacuous, glassy eyes of the lifeless things glinting in the darkness. Further investigation of the crates revealed quantities of the drug known as ghostdust, a silvery-green powder formed from processed ectoplasm. Other reagents were also stored here. Cephalus, curious, tried out some of the ghostdust, rubbing it on his gills. He became slightly insubstantial, and became aware of a silvery-grey reality superimposed on his own – he could see into the Ethereal Plane. Two ghostly gnomes appeared before him: the former owners of the shop.
“What are you doing, traipsing through my store like this?” one demanded in heavily accented Common. “First thieves and necromancers, now this?!”
“Necromancer?” Cephalus asked. “Can you tell me where he is?”
“That lousy bum? Yeah he’s through there,” the gnome indicated. “The creep’s set up his little operation here. If I could get my hands on him!” The gnome continued to rant and rave about the Marionettist and his depredations as the party pressed forward.
After looting some more ghostdust, the party moved through towards the front of the shop. Strung up like puppets along the walls and dangling from the ceiling of the next chamber were puppets – puppets made from reanimated corpses, many grafted and modified, some dressed in rags, others in stolen clothes, others unclothed. Though inert their eyes followed the group eerily. Any attempt to move through them would result in the adventurers being snared. Fortunately, as Yam proved, crawling beneath the zombies proved viable. One of the things managed to cut its own strings and staggered toward the group, but between them they swiftly dispatched it before it could do any harm. The commotion, however, seemed to have altered someone in the next room; the party swiftly hid themselves, with several cramming themselves into a small supply-closet with a sewer access grate, dragging the corpse in with them. A tall, incredibly thin man who moves his stick-like limbs like some monstrous insect, a man who could only be the Marionettist entered the room: he carried with him two control bars of the sort used for puppets, though these seem to lack strings. Fortunately he seemed to find nothing wrong and returned to the other room. Still adopting stealth, the party followed him.
In the next room, mechanist’s tools filled the shelves along the walls, as well as boxes full of coils, springs, and other bits of clockwork. The corpses sprawled on the work-tables had their skulls opened up and their brains exposed, with clockwork additions grafted crudely on. Tinkering with their reprogrammed clockwork brains with a devious, smug expression on his gaunt and pointed face was the Marionettist who, surprised by the sudden attack of the adventurers, was swiftly pummeled by Cephalus’ webbed fists and swinging quarterstaff. He snarled an order and three of the clockwork-driven zombie puppets staggered to their feet, lurching towards the adventurers. While Armand and Yam cast combat spells into the fray, Vespidae hurled javelins and performed a sacred battle-dance, urging her comrades on. Cephalus, meanwhile, pressed his attack on the Marionettist. The wizard snapped an incantation, trying to force his way into Cephalus’ mind, but the iron-willed dagonian barrister repelled him and continued to beat him to a pulp, lashing out with his staff and other weapons. He knocked the necromancer unconscious, but one of the zombies rushed forwards, battering him with a vicious blow to the ribs. There was an ugly snapping sound and the dagonian fell to the ground, blood seeping from his gills. Vespidae flitted forwards to heal the fallen martial artist while the rest of the party finished off the zombies.
As Cephalus recovered, healed by the holy power of Vespidae’s new patron, the Queen in Yellow, sounds could be heard at the door – presumably more foes. Barricading the door swiftly, the group retreated, Yam picking up the Marionettist’s paddles. After some experimentation Yam discovered that the paddles were “keyed” to the zombies and could control them. The gnome used this power to make the undead groan and moan loudly, hoping to rattle the incoming enemies, also directing the reanimated thralls to free themsleves from their strings. In the meantime, the Crowsbeak thugs also stationed in the rookery had found another way into the workshop – black-swathed men and women displaying the Crowsbeak guild mark. Vespidae again flew forwards, weaving the spell burning hands and casting it directly in the crowded doorway. The thieves were engulfed in flames and fell to the floor, shrieking and smoking, several already dead. Cephalus and Armand managed to dispatch those who survived with a minimum of fuss.
The rookery cleared, the party set about herding the stolen zombies back to Shambleside. Cephalus, rubbing his ghostdust-dusted gills, discretely had the reanimated thralls move the crates of the drug to his offices, while Vespidae, buzzing to herself, set about cleaning up what would soon be her new “hive”…
Images: Thor Polukoshko’s “Cephalus T. Murkwater,” Bloodborne Concept Art, Thief Concept Art, Keystone-France, Getty Image, Kurt Hutton/Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty Image, FPG/Getty Image, Condemned: Criminal Origins Concept Art