BEARDED DEVIL

Monsters, Horror, Gaming

Hex Session XI – 5th Edition Actual Play – “The Yellow Sign Pt. 2”

The characters in this session were:

  • Caulis, a homunculus warlock liberated from its master; has made a pact with certain Faerie Powers.
  • 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.
  • Garvin Otherwise, a human rogue and burglar of the Ravenswing Thieves’ Guild, with a very, very peculiar past and a zoog pet, Lenore.
  • 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).
  • Sprigley Gilette, a hardboiled, cigar-chomping human mercenary and veteran of several brutal wars, also a disciple of the mysterious Archdemon known as the Engine.

XP Awarded: 700 XP

Vespidae’s hive has been developing recently, and ever since she acquired the Yellow Sign, she has been noticing something subtly different about her pheromones – something almost intangible, but growing in intensity. It reminded her of the scent of the Queen in Yellow, but blended with her own. One thing was certain: she no longer smell simply like a “dead drone,” the pariah-scent her exile had infused her with.

For weeks now, she had been converting the puppet factory of the Marionettist – now cleared of zombies and Crowsbeak thieves – into a new home, moving in her automaton and sculpted duplicates, like the drones of her own nest. Rooms were set aside to make room for a shrine to the Queen in Yellow, while Vespidae boarded up the windows and doors, ensuring the only way in was from above, through the roof.

She’d also been noticing something else. Waspkin had been buzzing by her new home with increasing frequently. They’d been perching on nearby roofs, watching her. Many of these waspkin smelled strange – some were the hiveless waspkin of Suckletown, others mutilated or outcast, lacking limbs or antennae, marked with the pheromones of exile. But some smelled of the hives of Stingsworth. Loyalists to the Queens of that district… yet drawn here, for reasons that remained unclear.

One day, Vespidae left her home to discover that left on the roof was a strange gift, like a tribute: a portion of Royal Jelly, the alchemical substance consumed by waspkin drones to transform them into Queens. Vesdpiae eyed the substance warily, not consuming it, but not throwing it out.

However, other matters were afoot. Having retrieved the script for the play The Tragical History of Robin Redcap, the adventurers had secured themselves invitations to the premiere of the bloody play by its writer, Vittoria Wolfsheart. They had also been asked by the playwright to keep an eye out for the play’s namesake, the sinister Robin Redcap, who they had last seen raging furiously in Faerie, having barely escaped with their lives after stealing back the play from his ruinous, otherworldly keep.

Faunsweald

At night, the district of Faunsweald bustled with activity. Banners advertising the many plays being staged in the theatrical quarter fluttered in the night breeze, illuminated by gaslamps and magical lights that shift in colour. Occasional illusions cast by apprentice stage-wizards offered “previews” of the performances within. These included a number of prominent advertisements for Edwin Fouchard’s latest offering, The Deadliest Marriage, a violent satire of romantic comedy which seemed to involve a lot of blood-spattered wedding guests. Occasional glimpses of The Tragical History of Robin Redcap could also be seen. To the east, the gaudy songs and laughter of Groanwell could be heard, the nightly debauchery of the pleasure-district.

The play-goers – Vespidae, Garvin, Armand, Caulis, and Sprigley – met at Cruor Row. Sprigley seemed oddly changed, having acquired what looked to be a clockwork arm and even more ritualistic tattoos. The fighter, unhinged by his time in the Old City, seemed to have taken to worshiping one of the Cthonic Gods, an entity he called the Engine. He still possessed Robin Redcap’s pike. Cruor Row led from the streets of Stumpridge into Faunsweald, and connecteds several major theatres, including the Prism, the Fates, and the Chiaroscuro. Of the three the Chiaroscuro was the largest and newest, an opulent theatre and opera house, currently decked out with banners and signs proclaiming the premiere of Vittoria Wolfsheart’s latest tragedy.

baroque

As the group prepared to make their entrance, several heard a buzzing sound from nearby, as shapes appeared in the night sky, descending rapidly. Warily they watched the shapes draw closer: a dozen waspkin, some clutching javelins, others stiletto blades that gleamed with poison. A heady pheromone stink suffused the street. Vespidae recognized the scent immediately as that of the Royal Guard of the Queens of Stingsworth, the waspkin matriarchs of Hex.

“Traitor!” one of the waspkin chittered to Vespidae in Vespine.

“Abomination!” another proclaimed.

waspkin

While the Guards berated Vespidae, Garvin slunk into the shadows and picked the lock of a nearby printing house, creating an escape route.

“Usurper!”

“Rebel!”

“Unclean!”

“Drone, you stand accused of conspiring to supplant the rightful rule of the Twelve Queens of Stingsworth!”

“You would corrupt us with your devotion to Blasphemous Idols!”

“Your punishment has been decreed.”

“Your wings, limbs, and antennae will be removed, but you will be kept alive. Your life will be lengthened, and you will be imprisoned in darkness, unable to fly, to walk, to dance, or to spread your evil through the city.”

“Submit to justice and your rebel followers will be spared.”

“Resist and you will all be slaughtered!”

“I meant no offense,” Vespidae insisted. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Your falsehoods will not save you,” one of the Royal Guards warned. “We have watched you, gathering your followers. The speak of the Thirteenth Queen. Your insurrection will not be tolerated.”

While others of the group tried to protest, the Guards moved in. The resulting fight was fast and brutal; Sprigley sustained a wound but cut down one of the Guards, while Garvin, firing from the shadows, dispatched another. Vespidae used burning hands to scorch her foes while Armand used fire bolt to incinerate another. The fight continued, the Guards swarming, jabbing with their poisoned weapons. A crowd swiftly gathered, but they assumed the battle to be a staged spectacle, half illusion and half acting, put on in anticipation of some new play. Applause filled the air as the last of the Royal Guards fled, only to be skewered by a javelin from Vespidae. Not quite knowing how to react to the applause, the group bowed and concealed the bodies in the nearby printing shop that Garvin had broken into, then moved on to the playhouse as if nothing had occurred.

The theatre itself was a huge structure of at least five storeys with a massive, bulbous dome at its centre. Perched at the four corners of the marble monstrosity were stone statues depicting allegorical representations of comedy, tragedy, history, and spectacle. The foyer of the Chiaroscuro was sumptuously carpeted and adorned with baroque, intricately ornamented architecture. A huge, crystalline chandelier dangled overhead, while on the walls, enchanted paintings of actors and actresses in famous roles looked down at the well-dressed men and women who lingered here, availing themselves of the well-stocked bar. Some of these characters included a representation of the mad mage Zachariah Soulswell, who briefly seized control of the city and erected Delirium Castle, as well as the vampiric aristocrat known as the Countess of Carnage, a fictitious noblewoman from the distant undead metropolis of Erubescence.

Balconies

The stage had been set with various props and painted backdrops that had been enchanted to appear more realistic. The backdrop here depicted a dour landscape with a stern-looking keep in the background – quite similar to the actual Castle of the Bloody Vale. Trees and other vegetation are evident in the foreground. A small conjured stormcloud overhead periodically rumbled, its thunderous foreshadowing occasionally warning theatre-goers that the play would begin in half an hour.

There were hundreds of seats in the Chiaroscuro, most of them in the pit, but many more filling the numerous balcony levels that rose on three sides of the grand, impossibly ornate room. Many audience members were already taking their seats. Of particular note was a large box in which were ensconced a party of obviously foreign travelers garbed in the costume of the southern plains and deserts. Foremost among this group was a large domestic cat placed in a special divan, afforded the finest view in the house; the cat spoke with various retainers and servants quite normally, and was obviously an individual of some considerable importance.

The many balcony seats were stacked atop one another in four levels, with stairways and small elevators leading from one level to the next. Near the stage there were also private boxes thrust out from the main balcony to afford the rich occupants a finer view. Servants and ushers milled about bearing refreshments to those in the balconies and showing patrons to their seats.

The playwright Vittoria Wolfsheart awaited the party in her private box, given a privileged view of the stage. She wore a dark purple gown that set off her porcelain white complexion, and had pinned her hair to further emphasize her horns.

“I’m glad you could attend,” she said, greeting you with a curtsy.

“A charming production, from the look of it,” Armand said, with a haughty sniff.

“So far there have been no signs of the real Robin Redcap. But perhaps it might be of benefit for you to have a look around the theatre, just in case.”

“Hmm, I think I’ll take up position in the rafters,” Garvin said, eyeing the catwalk above.”

“Let’s check backstage,” Caulis said to Vespidae and Sprigley. “Then maybe we’ll join you here, Vittoria.”

Backstage at the Chiaroscruo, actors practiced their lines while the stage-wizards wove illusions to grant their costumes additional verisimilitude. The actor playing Robin Redcap could be seen, looking strikingly similar to the thin-limbed, white-bearded Fair Folk, as could the muscular Duke Gothmord. Peasants were having dirt and blood smeared on their faces. More props could also be seen here, including various fake grimoires, torture instruments, candles, “magical” crystals, tools, and fake weapons. The director, costumers, carpenters, and other stage-hands were bustling about, getting everything ready for the play. Vespidae, enthused with the artistic spectacle, spoke for awhile with the stage-illusionists and actors, until the director shooed them back to the main room of the theatre.

The party began their preparations. While most of the group stayed in the private box, Garvin had carefully scaled the rafters, talking his way past the stagehands lighting the production, so that he could get a good view of things from above. Caulis, summoning their pseudodragon familiar, sent the creature to patrol the theatre and report anything unusual. Armand and Caulis briefly visited with Nahotep, the cat-prince from New Ulthar. The creature – one of a race of familiars who overthrew their wizardly masters and became rulers of their kingdom – was charming and debonair, visiting Hex on a kind of grand tour, consulting with some of the city’s necromancers on arcane matters, and generally soaking in the sights. Nahotep seemed sympathetic to Caulis, a liberated homunculus, and lamented the fact that so many of the mandrake-root-folk were still slaves to their creators. Armand, ever the silver-tongued sophisticate, invited Nahotep to dine and stay at his townhouse for a time, an invitation which was politely accepted.

A few minutes later, the curtain rose, and the play began…

Stage

The play began as expected, but Vittoria’s revisions – based on Robin’s scribbled suggestions – quickly became evident. In this new version, Robin is not an innocent spirit corrupted by Duke Gothmord, but a malignant sprite who warps the heroic, armour-clad ruler into a bloodthirsty maniac. In the opening scene, Gothmord rescues several peasants from the marauding Redcap, and binds the fairy to his will. The scene, at the edge of the Tangle, is given atmosphere and verisimilitude through the use of painted backdrops and elaborate magical illusions.

It was at this point in the play that Caulis’ familiar became aware of something: a pallid figure had appeared in a box opposite Vittoria’s watching the play intently. The homunculus informed their companions, and they confirmed that the figure appeared to be none other than Robin Redcap himself.

The play progressed, Duke Gothmord becoming increasingly depraved, warped by Redcap, abusing and even kidnapping his serfs. As the intermission approached, the scene shifted to a dungeon in which a local woman was imprisoned – the witch unknowingly captured by the Duke. It seemed a torture scene would soon commence, to judge from the instruments arrayed onstage. At this moment, though, Robin seemed deeply bored; they could see him yawn from across the theatre. Vespidae, worried that the fairy would launch himself into a bloodthirsty rampage if not entertained, held up her Yellow Sign, invoking the goddess of art to intervene, to infuse the play with vividness and inspiration. The Sign gleamed in the darkness, and a numinous chill fell upon everyone in the theatre, gooseflesh breaking out across everyone’s skill as the drama on stage became suddenly intensified.

Instantly – but, somehow, without anyone noticing the moment it happened – the actress playing the witch was replaced with none other than Magdalena, the sculptress who had been left marooned in Carcosa. Duke Gothmord picked up a glowing iron, preparing for some gruesome, sadistic torture, suddenly gleaming with what looked like real heat. He approached the surprised and genuinely terrified Magdalena. The crowd craned their necks, and even Robin had sat up, suddenly transfixed.

Vespidae, alarmed by the effect her invocation to the Queen in Yellow had had, flitted to the rafters to confer with Garvin. The Ravenswing thief and arcane trickster cast mage hand to deflect the branding iron, while Vespidae cast silent image to make it look as if the iron had struck, producing a horrific burn. Magdalena was screaming now, though more from disorientation than pain. Robin seemed pleased by the gruesomeness of this display.

Sprigley, noticing Magdalena, realized that something alarming was afoot. As Duke Gothmord approached with a new torture implement, the mercenary fired a shot from his pistol at the seemingly psychotic actor, wounding him in the shoulder. He leapt from the box and ran through the crowd towards backstage, amidst whoops and screams and confusion from those around him. The audience, thinking this some experimental contrivance of the play, applauded uproariously as the scene ended and the curtain fell. Intermission began.

play

At intermission, Armand slipped quietly into Robin’s box and, stealthily, slipped poison purchased at the Venom Mart of Cobweb Cliffs, into the fairy’s wine. In addition, he attempted to cats a charm over the fey, to further endear him to the performance, but this failed to penetrate his resistance to such magic. Fortunately, Robin did not notice.

Backstage, Magdalena was untied by Sprigley, while the wounds of the actor were treated, and Sprigley managed to convince him that the bullet was supposed to be a blank. Meanwhile, up in the rafters, Garvin and Caulis’ familiar could hear what sounded like approaching buzzing – like a swarm of wasps approaching the theatre. Moments later a group of ragtag waspkin – some missing limbs or eyes or antennae, others garbed in rags – appeared at the rear entrance. Vespidae, backstage, greeted them.

“We have come, Thirteenth Queen,” one said.

“The Royalists approach. They mean to kill your Grace. But we shall not allow it!”

Vespidae, mind reeling, nodded, and sent out a pheromone mist in response. Thrust into this unexpected role, she decided to play her part as best she could.

“We’ll fight here,” she said. “Stage-illusionists… could you disguise these waspkin? They’re, ah, extras for the big battle. They’re supposed to look like evil fairies.”

The grumbling stage-wizards complained about the sudden change, but given the close relationship between Vittoria and the party, consented to these alterations.

The intermission buzzed in more than one way, as audience-members gossiped, remarking on the bloodiness and horror of the torture scene and the boldness of Sprigley’s “experimental” intervention.

The curtain rose on the finale of the play, beginning with the scene of Robin Redcap’s liberation. Scheming with the witch – played now by the original actress – the Robin character finds a way to wriggle free of his magical servitude, wreaking vengeance on the Duke. As the final scene of bloodletting began – in which Robin was supposed to rampage through the keep in fury – the waspkin Royalists burst into the theatre from the foyer, having swarmed in the front door. At this moment, stage illusionists bewitched the attackers to resemble “good” or “Seelie” fairies, all gossamer wings and light. Meanwhile Vesdpidae, lurking backstage with her motley band of followers similarly ensorceled to appear as “evil” fairies, rushed forwards, and the battle was joined.

The ensuing combat was bloody and spectacular, equal parts battle-dance and genuine battle, illusion-clad waspkin falling left and right, javelins flying. Sprigley, back onstage, joined the brutal melee. The real Robin Redcap, gleeful, watched the carnage with obvious satisfaction, while his stage double snarled commands to the fairy troops. The audience, impressed with what they believed to be special effects, went wild. Garvin sniped from the rafters, picking off waspkin Royalists… but then, with a final charge, the Royalists swarmed Vespidae, thrusting javelins through the drone’s body. She quivered and fell still, a look of absolute peace on her face, her deathwish finally satisfied, her last performance complete, her longed-for sacrifice at last consummated. In the frenzy the real Robin Redcap stormed onstage, leaping in a single bound, setting about him with vicious claws, tearing waspking apart left and right.

At this moment, Garvin acted, unwilling to let his companion die. Using a pocketwatch snatched from the cabinet of curiosities of the Van Lurken house which he had later learned had the power to modify time, he rewound the time-stream by a few moments and, just before the Royalists descended on Vespidae, fired a magical bolt into the stage-floor. Arcane darkness blossomed from the bolt, obscuring everything in shadow.

The darkness cleared like tenebrous mist. Bodies lay in pools of waspkin blood… but Vespidae was nowhere to be seen. If she was dead, her body had vanished – or, perhaps, some other fate had befallen her, for several of her rebels were missing as well. The audience went wild with applause and horrified delight, and Robin, clapping maniacally, vanished from the box, leaving behind a smell of carrion and black roses. The surviving Royalists, unable to locate their quarry, fled into the night.

The stage-hands would later report that they were too confused in the slaughter to notice if Vespidae and some of her forces had slipped away. Was she dead, or had she disappeared, to take up the mantle of the Thirteenth Queen?

Only time would tell…

Hex Session X – 5th Edition Actual Play – “The Yellow Sign Pt. 1”

The characters in this session were:

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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).
  • An ancient and enigmatic Lengian cleric of the Mother of Spiders, name unknown. She wears bulky ecclesiastical garments covering an uncertain number of limbs and goes by “Sister.”

XP Awarded: 650 XP.

In order to become a full hierophant of the Queen in Yellow, an initiate must claim the Yellow Sign – but to do so they must undergo a unique ceremony at the Temple of the Queen in Yellow, in Faunsweald. Vespidae, having adopted the Queen in Yellow as her new goddess after being banished from her home-nest – having inadvertently survived a ceremonial death-dance and thus been declared a pariah by other waspkin – now sought to become such an hierophant, and to this end, gathered her companions together at the Queen’s Fane.

Faunsweald

The district of Faunsweald was sleepy during the day and raucous at night, when the many theatres open their doors and the taverns open their taps. Theatre designs varied – from the older theatres of wood and plaster, open to the air, to newer closed theatres of stone and marble, most prominently including the resplendent Chiaroscuro and Fates theatres. There were a number of posters plastered about town advertising an upcoming performance of The Tragical History of Robin Redcap by renowned playwright Vittoria Wolfsheart. The play was further advertised by a man dressed in red and carrying a scythe, comically menacing passersby and cajoling them to attend the play, with threats of gruesome dismemberment and magical pranks if they refuse to purchase tickets.

The Temple of the Queen was Yellow is an extrusion of the Old City from below – a Librarian structure, alien and eerily organic, erupting from the cobblestone streets like some weird tumour. Unlike temples like that of the Mother of Spiders, the main sanctum of the Queen’s temple was open to all. Hierophants in sallow robes passed in and out of its eerie depths. As the group assembled at the temple entrance, a small gnome gyropter flapped through the air and descended into the nearby square, the gnome tinkerers Wanda and Edgar Cogswright appearing. Moments later a carriage arrived to disgorge the resplendently dressed Vittoria Wolfsheart, followed closely by an animated clay horse on which rode the arcane sculptress Magdalena Rotterthorpe – it seemed Vespidae had invited half the town to her initiation ceremony! She was, after all, now attended by a small retinue of clockwork and animated duplicates of herself: waspkin statuettes and automata, crafted by Magdalena and the Cogswrights, purchased dearly by Vespidae using her share of the adventuring funds.

suitors

The Temple of the Queen is Yellow was an extrusion of the Old City from below – a Librarian structure, alien and eerily organic, erupting from the cobblestone streets like some weird tumour. Unlike temples like that of the Mother of Spiders, the main sanctum of the Queen’s temple was open to all. Hierophants in sallow robes passed in and out of its eerie depths. Inside, the temple resembled a surreal art studio as much as a church. Massive, nightmarish murals, paintings, and tapestries covered the walls, and bizarre, abstract sculptures like demented angels loomed over everything. Despite the vastness of the interior – indeed, the temple seems larger on the inside – the main sanctum felt cluttered and cramped, thousands of strange artworks crowding against one another. Many were enchanted to move, speak, and change forms. Hierophants of the Queen in Yellow wander the chamber, some singing or dancing, others reciting sermons somewhere between religious chants and lunatic poetry. The space was disorderly, chaotic, and creative, lit with floating magical fires in a thousand colours, many of them indescribable.

A thin man with blue-black hair approaches, clad in the garb of the Queen in Yellow – Ambrose Vasseur, the poet-hierophant the party encountered back in the caverns of the spiderfolk.

“Ah, Vespidae,” Ambrose said, bowing. “I have been selected to instruct you in your initiation. Are you prepared?”

Vespidae indicated the affirmative.

“Good. The process of initiation involves what is known as the Carcosan Rite,” Ambrose said. “This ritual must be carried out in the catacombs beneath the Temple of the Queen in Yellow – a part of the Old City. You must descend into the depths of the Temple’s lower levels, the Catacombs of Hyperreality, passing through several tests along the way. Go warily, for sometimes malignant things creep into the tunnels form elsewhere. Beware the Feaster from Afar, and also those of the Lost – failed initiates driven mad by the Rite. You will find a chamber of masks – all those who will participate in the ritual should don one of these Pallid Masks.  Deeper below, you will find a certain chamber, within which is an artwork of fantastic subtlety and ancient power. It is here that the Carcosan Rite itself will take place. The celebrant who wishes to achieve the Yellow Sign must recite a prayer to the Queen in Yellow while sacrificing a work of art within the sacred space. This will activate the Librarian Masterpiece, and the final test will be initiated. I can tell you nothing more of the substance of the Rite – you must discover it for yourself.”

Ambrose looked over the group. “Celebrants are welcome to attend to the ceremony and aid Vespidae in her induction… but be warned. The Catacombs of Hyperreality are not without their dangers.” With this, Ambrose handed Vesdpiae a yellow robe – made for the waspkin’s many-limbed body – and led the celebrants to the back of the Temple and through a narrow doorway into a winding tunnel that zigzagged back and forth in a convoluted tangle – it was difficult to follow its meandering, but Vespidae got the feeling it should have doubled back on itself at several points. Here and there another corridor branched off the main tunnel, sometimes opening into other chambers where hierophants worked on art projects ranging from massive sculptures to colossal murals. The group had not descended below the surface, confirming that the interior of the Temple of the Yellow Queen must be much, much larger within than it appeared outside.

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Eventually they reached a spiral ramp winding down into darkness in a large antechamber, its purplish stone contours eerily organic, giving it the appearance of an open mouth or some other orifice. A subtle music emanated from below, faint but unmistakable. The gnomes, Edgar and Wanda, decided to remain above, but both Magdalena and Vittoria continued with the rest of the party as they made their descent.

What followed was a shifting, seemingly infinitely branching series of tunnels and paths, winding in a crazed profusion through the earth in ways that seemed to defy all rational order. Vespidae led the group onwards, following the music emanating from below. Before long the group had wandered down a tunnel infested with a vibrant yellowish moss, filling the air with pungent spores. Even a slight inhalation of these spores instantly caused colours to become more vibrant and sounds more intense; the haunting music throughout the tunnels here became somehow stranger and more unnervingly beautiful.

It wasn’t long before the hallucinations started.

Cephalus was convinced his hands were fish. Garvin scampered about, yelling and chirruping, in the belief that he had become his zoog pet, Lenore, while Lenore had become him. In the resulting chaos the party delved deeper and deeper into the infinite gloom of the Catacombs of Hyperreality, till eventually the spores wore off. Something, now, seemed to be following them; they could hear wet fluttering noises from behind in the dark. They stumbled across the corpses of two twisted, only vaguely-humanoid creatures sprawingl in the middle of a tunnel, crusted black blood-stains beneath their crumpled, deformed cadavers. Judging from their rodent-like and pseudo-canine features the things were ghouls of a particularly degenerate breed. Both had had the tops of their heads neatly removed as if by a saw or some incredibly sharp blade. Their brains were missing, the inside of their skulls caked in more dried blood. Both were dressed in the shredded, mouldering remnants of yellow robes.

“The Feaster from Afar?” Armand speculated, listening again for the moist sucking sounds in the darkness behind them.

They hurried on through a bewildering series of rooms, lingering briefly over an ancient dais seemingly with the ability to distort time. Eventually they stumbled into a chamber with a huge pool of perfectly reflective liquid like a vast mirror. Vespidae peered within and looked upon her reflection, which looked back with obvious terror, twisting around to look behind her.

“It’s coming!” the reflection said fearfully. “Let me out!” It reached out, but Vespidae ignored the vision. Still, the sucking sounds had returned, and the party hurried on, deeper and deeper, still haunted by the occasional hallucination. They stumbled through a looted archive, long divested of ancient texts, in which a kind of den had been created, with some of the niches and shelves padded with detritus to form makeshift bedding. Gnawed, cracked bones were scattered on the blood-stained floor. Seeing ghouls stirring in the darkness they fled yet deeper, passing aseries of hideous carvings adorning the walls; though of obviously Librarian design, they were of humanoid appearance, resembling a group of masked revelers engaged in an orgiastic bacchanal. As the party walked down the passage the carvings animated, wrenching themselves from the wall, beseeching the celebrants to join the revel, but Sister’s use of calm emotions temporarily quieted their desires.

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Next the party came to a chamber with a number of pedestals fashioned from the same dark, purplish stone as the rest of the tunnels – seven of them. Upon each rests a pallid metal mask that perfectly fit the visage of one of the seven people in the room.

“These must be meant for us,” Cephalus mused.

“I suppose we should put them on, then…” Armand said, with characteristic detachment.

As they donned the masks, the horror behind them once again grew loud, and the group decided to see what was chasing them. Armand summoned a minor illusion of the group while the real celebrants ducked down a side passage and the thing drifted into view: a black, sac-like thing, which to the learned eyes of the sorcerer was obviously not native to this plane. It possessed a bewildering array of shriveled tendrils tipped with dripping razor-like claws, and its very appearance further strained the already-frayed sanity of those present. It seemed to sniff the air as its derangement spread, trying to scent the reek of madness like some psychic bloodhound, but then the trap was sprung, a conjured cloud of daggers viciously tearing at its flesh, javelins and crossbow bolts from Vespidae and Garvin striking its black, oozing flesh. Cephalus leapt forwards with a flurry of blows, and the thing squealed and sent a blast of psychic energy towards the celebrants, inducing crushing headaches and cranial bleeding, blood spurting from nostrils, eyes, and ears as they thing’s horrific, ab-real wail rent space, time, and thought. Its tentacles flickered out, attempting to caress Cephalus’ squamous flesh, but the dagonian struck again, and the thing was at last dispatched, deflating like some monstrous balloon of shadows and otherworldly slime.

Bloodied but alive, the group pressed on, when a woman in filthy, tattered yellow robes lurched into view. She wore a ghastly, uncanny mask made of some pale, unknown substance. In one hand she carried a paintbrush dripping with blood; in the other, the severed, quasi-canine head of a monstrous ghoul. She used the brush to paint the walls of the tunnel with curious symbols.

The woman looked at the group with mad eyes.

“Who are you?” Vespidae asked.

“Jeanette,” she replied, tilting her head strangely. “That blood…” she said, eyeing Cephalus.

“The Feaster from Afar. We killed it.”

Jeanette whooped for joy, spraying blood throughout the passage. “You have slain it! It has hunted me for years, now…”

“Years?”

“Yes. I sought the Yellow Sign, but never attained it. I… I lost my sacrifice. My artwork.”

“Then why not return to the surface?”

“The Catacombs of Hyperreality do not permit it. Once a celebrant undertakes the Rite, it must be completed.” She giggled, unnervingly. Sister and Garvin exchanged glances, Garvin fingering his hand crossbow.

“Well, you should come with us!” Vespidae said. “Do you know where the entrance to Carcosa is?”

Jeanette nodded, pointing down a tunnel with her bloody paintbrush. “This way. I will show you.” She led on, Vespidae following while the others shared wary looks.

Once again the party heard footsteps behind them. Garvin, putting a finger to his lips, slipped back into the shadows and backtracked, discovering a band of feral-looking, sinewy creatures with greyish-yellow, scabrous skin prowling in the gloom. Hunched and quasi-humanoid, they had grotesque faces resembling those of bats and dogs and tails like those of monstrous rats. Their skins had been ritually scarified and some carried jagged bone weapons. Their mouths, crowded with fangs, dripped with slaver. These, two, were garbed in filthy yellowish robes – perhaps the descendants of initiates long lost in the Catacombs of Hyperreality.

Garvin returned, and Vespidae conjured an illusion of the Feaster from Afar, sending the phantasm back along the hall, while Sister added wet sucking sounds. There was a chittering of fear and the warped things retreated, fleeing from the illusion.

Jeanette, meanwhile, led on into a vast chamber whose walls had been painted with an incredibly elaborate scene which utterly surrounded all who stepped within. The scene was that of another world, marked by the twin suns, pitch black in colour, sinking below the horizon of a vast lake swathed in mist. There were a plethora of malformed moons overhead. The sky was the colour of bone and dotted with ebon stars. The scene was that of an endless waste, a desolate plain of dead grass. Perched on the shore of the lake, rising from the eerie mist, was a resplendent city – a series of spires and domes, ornate and ominous, like and yet unlike the Old City of the Librarians. The architecture seemed less alien, somehow, and yet more unnerving for its slight familiarity. It was like a city half-remembered from a fever dream. On the floor of the chamber was inscribed the glyph of the Yellow Sign.

Vespidae and Jeanette both prayed, reciting the Carcosan Rite. Abruptly, the celebrants found that the walls of the chamber were no longer there – the landscape merely extended around them, seemingly quite real. They had somehow entered the Masterpiece. Black water lapped at the shores of Lake Hali and the shadows lengthened as the twin suns set and the group pressed on towards the city – Carcosa.

Near the edge of the shore was a sinister black object fashioned from what might be obsidian. Though no one actually saw the statue change shape it seemed to have assumed a new form each time it was looked at – an abstract arch or twisted column, or other forms – misshapen creatures of unknown varieties with aspects vaguely reminiscent of fungi, jellyfish, sponge, worm, and anemones. The group circled the statue warily, but Magdalena became utterly fascinated and took out a sketchbook.

“Please, go on without me,” the sculptress said. “I can’t give up this opportunity…” She began sketching wildly. Vittoria, her former paramour, smirked wryly. Everyone else shrugged and continued towards the city.

sime-29

Overheard they could see several winged shapes flitting amongst the clouds – things somewhere between bat, bird, and insect. They circled above, clearly scanning the ground for prey, until one of the creatures broke from the flock and began to descend. It was only through Sister’s timely use of thaumaturgy that the Byakhee was spooked, shrieking in alarm at the conjured chittering of some massive spider-thing and scattering its fellows. The party hurried onwards, into the city of Carcosa.

The streets of the alien city of Carcosa lay empty as night fell. Vespidae could not shake the feeling that she had been here before. The haunting music all of the group had heard since entering the Catacombs of Hyperreality seemed to emanate from a huge palace at the centre of the city. There were suggestions, here and there, that some catastrophe has recently befallen Carcosa; many doors were engraved with mysterious glyphs, perhaps indicating some sort of curse or plague or other calamity. The windows were dim. The only building where anything seemed to stir is the Palace.

A pair of masked guards – human in appearance, though with a disquietingly alien quality to their movements – presided over the doors of the Palace. Seeing those approaching to be suitably masked, the guards relaxed, and Vespidae swiftly explained her mission, describing the other party-members as her trusted companions and guests. Suitably persuaded, the guards relented and opened the Palace doors, revealing a vast space beyond.

the-mask-of-the-red-death

Within the palace the party found themselves in a huge, opulent chamber of several levels, teeming with masked men and women of the same ilk as the guards at the gate. They were attired in splendid but alien costumes, dripping with gemstones of unthinkable colours and perfumed with unfathomable scents. Most were engaged in feasting, dancing, and drinking; the food consists of meats and fruit of unknown origin, while much of the drink is some sort of pale, greenish wine. A huge ebon clock presided over the carousing masses, counting down to the thirteenth hour.

The group set about exploring the chambers of the Palace. In each room they found a new gallery, all packed with revelers. The walls were crammed with paintings, uncountable thousands of them – although among them, Vespidae spotted some of the paintings burned at the Van Lurken House. Those parts of the floor not filled with party-goers were taken up by statues and fountains and similar artworks. All of the art ever sacrificed to the Queen in Yellow seemed to have rematerialized here.

ball

Sister, Armand, and Cephalus were all being drawn into the crowd, while Vespidae flitted nimbly above, oblivious to the temptations of the guests. Offered food, the party-members wisely refused, but Sister became drawn into the strange, rhythmic dance of the party-goers. Cephalus force his way through the crowd to the Lengian, who was being swept along by several masked and merry dancers, barely managing to extricate the priestess of the Spider Goddess before she was subsumed in the churning crowd of the otherworldly revelers.

As the thirteenth hour approached, murmurs of the Queen begin to circulate. The hands of the clock at last ticked over, and as the clock chimed thirteen a figure descended from a grand stair. Clad in a voluminously tattered yellow gown and wearing a pale mask, the Queen in Yellow took her seat to preside over the masquerade.

“There is one here who would swear themselves to my service,” a voice says from behind the mask. “Approach, hierophant.”

Vespidae buzzed forwards.

“What do you offer for my gallery?” the Queen asked.

“A dance,” Vespidae said, and began her most elaborate ritual dance, a dance inspired by the ceremonial dances of the waspkin, yet unfettered by their strictures and dogmas, a dance of passion and inspiration rather than mechanical repetition. The crowd had grown hushed as all watched the would-be hierophant flit and whirl, surrounded by the statuettes and automata. The dance climaxed in the ritual destruction of these simulacra, incorporating burning hands to lend their sacrifice an incandescent flair. The Queen sat silent for a second, then gently applauded; moments later her party-guests burst into uproarious applause. All quietened as the goddess – or whatever avatar of her they saw before them – spoke again.

yellow

“I make few demands of my subjects,” the Queen in Yellow declared. “But this I require: all those who would serve me must endeavour to shape their lives into a work of art, to pursue Beauty in its multitudinous forms, without cheapening themselves with the sullied tawdriness of morality, justice, or reason. Are you willing to reshape yourself into a Living Symbol?”

Vespidae nodded. “Yes, my Queen!”

The Queen in Yellow nodded. Jeanette now came forwards and fell to her knees. “I have nothing to offer,” she said. “But I wish to remain here, and serve you.”

The Queen nodded again. “So it shall be, celebrant.” She raised her hand, and in that moment the scene seemed to dissolve, and now the party were in a chamber with exquisitely painted walls, a rendering of the scene they had just left. There was no sign of Magdalena, or Jeanette; both, it seemed, had been left behind in the artwork, and, indeed, a tiny figure which would be Magdalena could be glimpsed through a window, still studying the statue on the shore of Lake Hali, while Jeanette knelt before her goddess. Around Vespidae’s neck dangled the eldritch holy symbol she had come seeking: The Yellow Sign.

A single exit led up a spiraling flight of stairs, which brought them immediately back to the surface into the Fane of the Queen in Yellow in the city above. Ambrose greeted them.

“Welcome, hierophant, to the Order of the Queen in Yellow.”

Hex Session IX – 5th Edition Actual Play – “The Nightmare of Cobweb Cliffs”

The characters in this session were:

  • An ancient and enigmatic Lengian cleric of the Mother of Spiders, name unknown. She wears bulky ecclesiastical garments covering an uncertain number of limbs and goes by “Sister.”
  • Vespidae, a waspkin bard – a sacred dancer with a deathwish, shunned by the waspkin community for complicated ritualistic reasons. Now 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).
  • Sprigley Gilette, a hardboiled, cigar-chomping human mercenary and veteran of several brutal wars, and a relatively new arrival in Hex.

XP Awarded: 700 XP.

The Sisters of the Nunnery of the Mother of Spiders were in a state of crisis. Something had escaped from the depths of their mysterious temple into the labyrinthine caverns within Cobweb Cliffs, the Lengian District of Hex. Sister, a member of the order currently on a kind of “sabbatical” from her ecclesiastical duties, was called in to assist the spidery nuns. She brought with her the waspkin Vespidae, the sorcerer Armand, and the mercenary Sprigley, who, having recovered from his bout with insanity after his last trip to the Old City, had become devoted to a strange, demonic entity, his body inscribed with diabolic tattoos. Bringing with her the sheep known as “Cosmo,”* the group headed to Cobweb Cliffs.

*See the Ultimate Contagion Part 2.

cobweb-cliffs

Like Stingsworth or Croakmarsh, the district of Cobweb Cliffs is like another world. Lengians and their arachnid pets and servants make up almost all of the population here, moving between the eight distinct layers of the district. Everything here is coated with webs, with the thickest wefts of spidersilk supporting entire buildings. The architecture here is as alien as the beings who dwell in the district, all weird angles and eerie decorations, giving the place a crazed, oneiric illogic. To Lengians, of course, Cobweb Cliffs simply feels like home.

The group headed swiftly for the Temple of the Mother of Spiders at the top of the district, on the Street-Not-To-Be-Described. We shall refrain, in honour of the holy edicts of the Mother of Spiders, from speaking the Street-Not-To-Be-Described, since even by saying this much we flirt with blasphemy. Let us instead speak of the things which can be seen from the streets web-swathed vantage: the seven lower tiers of Cobweb Cliffs spread out steeply below, the lowest swathed in midst, and beyond, the districts of Mainspring and Little Pandemonium, the Dreamer’s Quarter, and Gloomway, the Feypark to the north, and to the west, the brooding eaves of the Tangle, past the city wall which bisects the Cliffs. The Radula can be glimpsed to the south, a great green-brown tendril of polluted water, swarming with boats and spanned by the glittering, statue-encrusted length of the Bridge of Sins. The temples of other faiths can be seen below, the Infernal Basilica of the Chthonic Gods and the gleaming glass-and-metal pyramid of the Magistra’s Cathedral. While such buildings may be larger than the Lengian Temple – at least on the surface – now in the city stand higher.

Casting its long shadow over the rest of Cobweb Cliffs was the Temple of the Mother of Spiders, deity of dreams, schemes, poison, sleep, and death. All but the outermost chambers of this imposing , tiered structure were forbidden save to Lengians, guarded by several of the multi-limbed warrior nuns of the order. Inside, the architecture was swathed with cobwebs, for spiders scurried everywhere, spinning their webs between the huge columns that supported the ceiling, half-obscuring the intricate geometric designs that decorated the walls and floor – though the temple’s inconsistent gravity often made this distinction unclear. The Reverend Mother Yaan Tsang emerged from a nearby doorway in one “wall” and walked down towards the party after being alerted of their arrival. She was a statuesque, pale Lengian with six well-muscled arms, her head partially swathed in the habit of the order. As one of the highest ranking members of the Nunnery, one of the eight members of the Conclave of Matriarchs, she was also one of the most powerful Lengians in Hex, the spiderfolk being an intensely religious, even theocratic people.

“Ah, you have come,” she said sternly, looking you up and down with her many eyes. “There is little time to waste, so I will be brief. But first, we must find somewhere more private to speak. Come.” She gestured with several hands to a doorway on another wall, indicating for the group to follow. They stepped inside a room with walls elaborately padded with spidersilk, beneath which could be glimpsed intricate Lengian sigils. “Secrets spoken in this room cannot be divulged aloud save through powerful magic,” the Reverend Mother said, closing and locking the door. “Anyone who breaks this enchantment will be subject to a terrible curse – understood?”

The party agreed to abide by these restrictions.

“Very well then,” she continued. “First, some background is necessary for those unfamiliar with our faith. Part of the initiation into Mother of Spiders’ worship involves a pilgrimage throughout Leng, in the Dreamlands. The pilgrimage is not conducted bodily but rather through lucid dreaming, here in the depths of the temple. Initiates are bound in a cocoon of spidersilk and given a dose of a powerful sedative poison, putting them into a coma for many weeks and allowing them to visit the Dreamlands for an extended period. At the end of this quest, they awaken having visited some of the most holy sites of the Mother of Spiders, glimpsing her Great Web.

“Unfortunately, some do not pass this test, and remain comatose forever. In rarer cases yet, the sleeper who awakens is not the one who fell asleep in the first place. One of our initiates, Sho-Ramsara, slept for half a year, before awakening quite suddenly. At first she seemed to behave normally, but then other initiates began to go missing. Certain signs implicated Sho-Ramsara, and when we confronted her the thing inhabiting her body revealed itself, striking several of our initiates and escaping the Temple. A being of nightmare from the darkest depths of the Dreamlands has possessed her, and now haunts the waking world wearing her flesh. Already there have been reports of disappearances in Cobweb Cliffs – we fear the thing is hunting, using the caverns beneath the Cliffs as its lair.

“We are unsure the extent of the monstrosity’s powers or its exact nature, but like many beings of nightmare it can warp reality to some degree, and wields the power of fear. Ideally, Sho-Ramsara should be kept alive – there may yet be a chance of saving her and sending the creature back where it came from, if you can bring her back to the temple. As a last resort, however, you may need to kill her to prevent the nightmare from wreaking more destruction. If you do so, we will reduce the payment by half. Are these terms acceptable?”

Again, the party agreed to this arrangement. Sister spent some time in the nunnery’s libraries seeking scrolls of calm emotions and other spells, and then the group set out, heading for the nearest entrance to the tunnels within the cliffs.

Maps below are from Sprigley’s player.

Cobweb Cliffs 1Their first stop was a cavern used as a spider farm, with countless thousands of the creatures spinning their webs throughout the room, clusters of eggs scattered throughout. Mesh structures, trellises, stalagmites, and stalactites were all covered with webs. Some of the bigger spiders were kept in spacious (but tight-barred) cages. Lengian spider-farmers clambered throughout the complex, feeding their charges insects, collecting silk, and milking venom from some of the larger arachnids. A few small outbuildings had been built on the ground or along the walls of the farm. There was also a pen in which a number of pallid hogs can be seen. The desiccated, bloodless husks of a number of piglets  were evident in a few of the giant spider cages.

Upon questioning the farmers, the party discovered this was the Tsothoth Spider Farm, a family business that produced a great deal of silk both for the weavers on the Street of Weavers and the nearby Venom Mart. The folk here seemed distrustful of outsiders but warmed to Sister, as a traveling cleric. On asking about any sign of trouble, they discovered that several of their hogs had recently been snatched. The farmers believed that those responsible might be members of the so-called “Funnel Web Gang,” a group of bandits lairing somewhere deep below the Cliffs.

Cobweb Cliffs 2

The party began making their way deeper into the tunnels. They soon came acrosstTwo Lengians clad all in spidersilk uniforms, who had cornered a thin, human man with blue-black hair, garbed in yellow robes and wearing a Yellow Sign round his neck; he looked battered and beleaguered. The masked, armoured Lengians had an authoritative stance and made no effort to conceal their activities as they advanced upon him with clearly violent intentions. Sister recognized the Lengians as members of the Ebon Web, the theocratic police force of Cobweb Cliffs

“Please! I’ve done nothing wrong! They’re going to kill me!” the man exclaimed.

Investigation revealed the man to be Ambrose Vasseur, a poet and hieorophant of the Queen in Yellow, performing his work in public in the Cliffs. Under the law of the Ebon Web this activity had been interpreted as proselytizing, a prohibited action in the Cliffs. Vespidae, seeing a fellow worshiper of the Queen in Yellow, felt compelled to intervene. Fortunately Sister was able to use her clout with the Temple to dissuade the Ebon Web officers, who slunk off into the tunnels. Ambrose gratefully thanked the party and advised Vespidae to find him at the Fane of the Queen in Yellow.

Lengian

The party pressed on, stopping briefly at the Venom Mart – a dim cavern lit by a few dull, greenish lamps, containing a bustling market crowded with numerous stalls and the customers perusing them. While the merchants in this luridly lit bazaar were almost all Lengian, the buyers were more diverse, with several humans, cambions, ghouls, dagonians, and trollbloods amongst them. They could see a fair number of gang and guild insignia here, displayed with an openness usually reserved for Corvid Commons. The goods here took a variety of forms – powders, vials of liquid, and even globes of gas could all be seen. The Mart, Sister explained, was an open secret in Cobweb Cliffs, operating beyond the control of the City Watch. The party bought several poisons here to induce unconsciousness, hoping that they would prove useful in subduing their quarry.

Delving yet deeper, the group entered the lower tunnels of the Cliffs. Continuing their explorations, the party next discovered the corpse of a Lengian sprawling against one wall of a dank cavern, limbs limp. The cadaver bore an expression of absolute terror on her face, her several eyes frozen wide in fright. There were no obviously fatal injuries; however, the wall behind her body was bizarrely changed: a cluster of roving, many-coloured eyes, blinking and rolling, some watching them intently, grows from the rock like a lichen. Armand used the spell detect thoughts on the eyes and was assailed by a million million thoughts, a slurry of surreal images, lusts, fears, anxieties, nightmarish monsters and moans of ecstasies – like tapping into the collective unconscious, a stream of dream-energy sluicing through his mind. Still benumbed by reading The Book of the Void, Armand was able to cling to sanity, but nearly lost himself in the primal welter of oneiric puissance.

Close inspection of the corpse revealed it had a mysterious Aklo tattoo, which Sister identified as signifying affiliation with the Funnel-Web Gang. Further on, the party discovered a cavern whose walls seemed mottled with some sort of fungus. Drawing closer, though, they realized the strange growths extruded from the rock were actually a series of mouths from various species, some toothless and ancient, others monstrously fanged. The mouths whispered and spoke to one another in a babbling torrent of languages, some speaking quasi-intelligible snatches of conversation, others curses softly, or singing nonsense verse. They had not ventured much further when a group of eight Lengian cutthroats emerged from web-swathed nooks and similar vantage points and then sprang to attack, hurling nets and blowing darts to try and subdue the party. After a brief scuffle in which several of the cutthroats and party-members were injured, Sister convinced them to desist, claiming that they could protect the Funnel-Web Gang  from the creature hunting them.Cobweb Cliffs 3

The Funnel-Web cutthroats led the party through a hidden path concealed by a thick cobweb. Down a short tunnel and down a web-swathed trapdoor they found a series of small caves, the walls covered in more webs. A few bunks, tables, and other furnishings were scattered about, as were racks of weapons: short swords, knives, blowguns, darts, and nets. Here they met the leader of the Funnel-Web Gang – a mysterious Lengian man, Shenzirr, swathed in dark purple clothes and spidersilk armour. Conferral with the wary Lengian gang-leader revealed much about the band of criminals, as much religious dissidents and undercity scum – a group striving against the dogmatic control of the Temple of the Mother of Spiders, gathering strength in a guerilla war against the authorities of Cobweb Cliffs. They had encountered Sho-Ramsara several times, and, it proved, could lead the party to the possessed Spider-Nun’s lair – deep in the Old City, below the cavernous tunnels of the Cliffs. Shenzirr dispatched a guide to aid the group in their journey below.

After recovering their strength, the party and their guide set out, the Lengian thief leading them deep into the earth. They passed the corpse of a leathery-winged, thin-limbed creature with curved horns, approximately humanoid but lacking any vestige of a face, which lay crumpled on the tunnel floor, its stiff limbs upraised. One its arms was broken and its wings were badly torn, but it was killed from a slash to its throat. A peculiar, eerie music with no identifiable source lingered in the air around the corpse.

“A Nightgaunt,” the Funnel-Web gangster said. “A being from the Dreamlands – a manifestation of childhood nightmares. They’ve been breeding down here, in the dark, brought through somehow to the waking world. They stray up into our territory sometimes…”

The walls of the narrow tunnel beyond sprouted dozens of grasping, clawing hands, grabbing and groping at the air. They weren’t form of rock but of flesh, erupting out of the wall in horrible profusion. Sister eyed the hands and then produced one of her scrolls of calm emotions. Casting the spell on the arms, they became abruptly slack and inactive.

Cobweb Cliffs 4

“Let’s hurry,” she urged. As Cosmo the sheep passed, on a whim Sister decided to cast the spell again, this time on the sheep. A strange shiver passed through the being, the stars and nebulae roiling within its body twinkling strangely.

“What did you feel?” Sister asked, curious.

“A strange sensation. Countless trillions of souls… all, for a moment, at peace.”

It seemed that if indeed Cosmo was now the host to other realities, spells cast on it could effect such realities. The enormity of this possibility was too much to take in for the time being, and the party pressed on, lowering themselves via spidersilk rope down a narrow chute and into a deeper level of the caves. At the bottom, they realized they had left Cosmo above… but then the sheep nudged Sister’s foot, having somehow appeared below with them.

A deep chasm gaped ahead, bereft of the helpful web bridges that elsewhere provided a means across such rifts. Bones could be glimpsed at the bottom. Vespidae simply flew across, planting pitons in the roof so that others could use more rope to shimmy their way across the chasm. Veering left at the next tunnel, the party entered a huge cavern; roosting on the ceiling like bats were dozens of leathery shapes – winged, spindly creatures, identical to the dead nightgaunt they’d seen before. Stealthily the group crept past, careful not to disturb the creatures. Cosmo simply levitated its way across the room, quite silent.

A huge doorway gaped ahead, perhaps fifty feet high, leading into a smooth-walled hall of stone beyond. The walls were carved with the glyphs of the Librarians, and the ceiling held up by titanic, tentacular statues, creatures somewhere between apes and octopi.

“An entrance to the Old City,” Sprigley noted, with a shudder from his last fateful venture into the Librarian tunnels.

Cobweb Cliffs 5

Beginning their explorations, the party first examined a stone door, using their knowledge of arcane Librarian glyphs to gain entrance to the room beyond. In the middle of this ovoid chamber was a kind of rounded pod that brought to mind a sarcophagus, with machinery and masses of convoluted conduits emerging from its sides. The pod had a door on its top which was currently open, revealing a large, empty space within. If this lid were closed, someone placed inside the pod would be in darkness. None knew what function the pod might serve. Sister volunteered to enter. At first, all was dark – but then the door opened, and Sister watched herself climbing out of the pod, moving backwards out of the chamber, everything seeming to flow in reverse. The party walked backwards out of the chamber, the door closed behind them, and they began to leave the Old City… Filled with a feeling of weightlessness, Sister “jumped” back into her body, having traveled backwards through time. She explained to her companions what had just occurred. A useful device indeed…

This mystery resolved, the party pressed on, deeper into the Old City. The walls of the next chamber dripped and oozed with a disgusting viscous slime, out of which temporarily resolved faces, mouths, hands, eyes, claws, tentacles, and other amorphous shapes. Hideous squelching sounds mingled with the cries, murmurs, and babbling of the many mouths. Moments later, as if responding to the presence of intruders, some of this abominable secretion glopped down off the wall and congealed into a gibbering, shapeless mass of metamorphic horror. The living nightmare slithered and scuttled and pulls itself forward, mewling and whining incoherently. Armand, quick with a frost-spell, slowed the creature long enough for the group to hurry into the next room.

A shattered portal stood at the centre of this chamber, which dripped with more of the repulsive slime. A Lengian – one of the gang of Funnel-Web cutthroats, judging from their garb – was trapped here, embedded waist-deep in the slime. Looming over the weakly struggling figure was a second Lengian, this one in the tattered remnants of a nun’s habit. As her prey whimpered and struggled she seems to be drawing some sort of energy from his mind, pressing two of her six hands to his temples. Though still recognizably Lengian her form was monstrously distorted, her limbs elongated, her features twisted into a ghastly expression of thirst. Strange movements could be seen beneath her robes, and something moved beneath her skin.

The fight was a frenzy of spells, bullets, and flickering limbs. Sister used calm emotions to free the cutthroat from the slime, the spell causing the nightmare-sludge to dissipate, while Vespidae, poisoned javelin in hand, flitted up to the Dream-Demon. The possessed nun launched herself at Sprigley, catching the warrior across the chest with her claws, even as she spoke words of fell magic, attempting to put some of her attackers to sleep. Bleeding and backing off from the flailing spider-monster, Sprigley fired a bullet from his enchanted pistol, the Verdant Gun, trapping Sho-Ramsara with suddenly interweaving vines and giving Vespidae time to administer the sleeping-poison purchased in the Venom Mart. Sho-Ramsara shuddered and was still, though the dream-demon within still thrashed and boiled within her flesh, quieted only temporarily through another scroll of calm emotions. Their quarry for the moment dispatched, the party retreated back into the previous room, only to find more of the squelching horrors had spawned. They hurried on, Armand launching fire spells to burn the nightmare-things, Sprigley firing off more rounds from his Verdant Gun to trap the horrors in place. With Sho-Ramsara secured they headed back to the surface.

Coming again to the cavern of the night-gaunts the group found the nest were awakened – and agitated. They rushed through, slashing with weapons, Vespidae hurling javelins, picking the creatures off, but there were dozens of the bat-like things, swarming in pursuit. Then Cosmo, turning in seeming irritation, let out a bleat of power. The ceiling of the night-gaunts’ cavern collapsed, crushing the leathery creatures with a terrible crash that made the very ground quake. Awed at this display from the eldritch sheep, the party hastened back towards the surface and to their promised reward.

Twenty Quick Questions for Hex

For Jeff Rient’s twenty quick questions for your campaign setting.

What is the deal with my cleric’s religion?

Your cleric probably worships an Unspeakable One, an Archfiend, a Spider-Goddess, or the Magistra, a deity of machines and reason, but there are also about a thousand other gods being worshiped in the Cultist’s Quarter at any given time.

Where can we go to buy standard equipment?

St. Monstrum’s is probably the biggest market in the city. If you’re a thief, check out the Midnight Market in Corvid Commons for thief’s tools and stuff.

Where can we go to get platemail custom fitted for this monster I just befriended?

Definitely head to Wyrmsborough, where the smiths have dragon-fire forges. Also Mainspring, where the gnome tinkers live, could probably customize some platemail for you. Also, most people will look at you a little oddly for wearing platemail, though the “monster” will be fine.

Who is the mightiest wizard in the land?

Master Melchior, a brain in a jar, founder of a school of thaumaturgy and enchantment.

Who is the greatest warrior in the land?

Probably the guy in Hex you’d least like to get in a tousle with is Badrask the Limbtaker of Trollhome.

Who is the richest person in the land?

Barnabas Grimgrove, homunculus-manufacturer and alchemist.

Where can we go to get some magical healing?

Caulchurch is the physician’s quarter. Of course, the cures sometimes have side-effects. You might come away with your wounds healed but with a second head, or purple skin, or the ability to taste sounds.

Where can we go to get cures for the following conditions: poison, disease, curse, level drain, lycanthropy, polymorph, alignment change, death, undeath?

Stop in at any of Hex’s major temples – the Cathedral of the Magistra, the Infernal Basilica, or one of the fanes of the Unspeakable Ones.

Is there a magic guild my MU belongs to or that I can join in order to get more spells?

Not just a guild, but eight: the Académie Macabre, Fiend’s College, Umbral University, the Institute of Omens, the Warders’ Lyceum, the Citadel of the Perpetual Storm, the Metamorphic Scholarium, and Master Melchior’s School of Thaumaturgy & Enchantment.

Where can I find an alchemist, sage or other expert NPC?

Where can’t you find one? Go to the nearest pub, and you’ll probably find a partially drunk sage or three.

Where can I hire mercenaries?

Trollhome will get you Trollblood thugs, Corvid Commons has Crowsbeak rogues for hire, and the Zymotic Ward will get you fungus-addled hitmen.

Is there any place on the map where swords are illegal, magic is outlawed or any other notable hassles from Johnny Law?

It’s probably not a good idea to go around Fanghill heavily armed.

Which way to the nearest tavern?

Almost every district in Hex has a drinking hole, or twenty. The best drinks are in Groanwell.

What monsters are terrorizing the countryside sufficiently that if I kill them I will become famous?

There have been disappearances and missing caravans up on Mount Shudder. Something or someone is behind them. Alternatively, there are any number of horrible things down in the Old City you could test your mettle against – like Abjectus, or the Vermihydra, or the Putrescemental, or the Thanatosphinx…

Are there any wars brewing I could go fight?

Erubescence is always fighting its neighbours, so you could head up there to vampire country.

How about gladiatorial arenas complete with hard-won glory and fabulous cash prizes?

Oh, we’ve got you covered. There are lots of little fighting pits in Corvid Commons in places like The Rat & Roach, but there’s also a huge gladiatorial arena down in Behemoth Bend – the Hellpits. You don’t mind fighting otherworldly horrors summoned from unplumbed space, do you?

Are there any secret societies with sinister agendas I could join and/or fight?

Plenty of them. Like the Wormbrethren or the Antinomian Cult or the Funnel-Web Gang or the Society for the Abolition of Demonic & Infernal Servitude & Maltreatment.

What is there to eat around here?

It’s a big city, so quite a bit. In particular Hex is known for its freshwater shellfish such as mussels, oysters, and crabs, as well as snails, eels, and fish. The surrounding countryside is good farmland. In particular, pork is a very common dish, prepared in a wide variety of styles. Mushrooms and truffles are widespread, grown in the city or harvested from the Tangle, a forest nearby. Many foods in Hex are flavoured and altered using magic.

Any legendary lost treasures I could be looking for?

The city is built on a megadungeon full of lost treasure, so yes!

Where is the nearest dragon or other monster with Type H treasure?

The dragon of Mount Shudder is dead, but some of its treasure is still said to lie in the treacherous caverns of its lair. However, mostly you don’t need to look further than the ground beneath your feet. The Librarians hoarded unfathomable riches in their time.

Hex Session VIII – 5th Edition Actual Play – “Arcady”

The characters in this session were:

  • Caulis, a homunculus warlock liberated from its master; has made a pact with certain Faerie Powers.
  • 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.
  • 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.

XP Awarded: 420 XP.

Caulis and Yam both found themselves invited to the same event – a meeting of the exclusive Order of the Auriferous Twilight. Caulis had long been masquerading as a human member of the research collective, submitting research by mail under the pseudonym “Octavius Flasgatherer.” Yam’s research supervisor, Sebastian Eldridge, was also a member, and had requested the gnome’s presence for part of an experiment. The Order had informed Caulis that it was testing out a new invention, the Vitreodimensional Resonator, which could reveal a “hitherto hidden layer of our reality.” Yam, somewhat vexed by the increasingly dangerous assignments their supervisor had requested, asked Cephalus to accompany them as legal representation. Vespidae, meanwhile, was convinced by Caulis to come along as a “research subject.”

As usual, Caulchurch swirled with caulchurcharcane vapours and miasmas, though near to the Metamorphic Scholarium the fumes were somewhat less intense than further south towards Goatsbridge.  Most of the people in the street here were alchemists and their servants – automata, familiars, and homunculi on errands for their masters. Many of those susceptible to the gases of the district wore protective masks and goggles to ward off any ill effects. Some of the strange creatures bred in the cauldrons and vats of the Alchemist’s Quarter could also be seen in the street – one carriage was drawn by a two-headed badger the size of a horse, while a wizard walked a miniature sphinx down the street. A number of gnomes and cambions from the neighbouring districts of Mainspring and Little Pandemonium could be seen around the western edge of Caulchurch as well. The group made their way to the main campus of the Scholarium at the intersection of the Street of Limbs and the Street of Hearts. Caulis made a point to stop in the district to procure a potion to polymorph it into a shape resembling that of a human mage, thus assuming the persona of Octavius Flasgatherer.

The Scholarium itself was a bizarre architectural conglomeration that changes on an almost daily basis, spells woven into the very walls of the university triggering changes in style and substance so that a slender spire that one day might be built of stone or gleaming metal might the next become an imposing crystalline monolith or an elaborate wooden pagoda. Students and faculty could be seen entering and exiting the myriad doors of the strange school, homunculi carrying spellbooks and laboratory equipment. The would-be experimenters proceeded to the Balthazar Voss Laboratory – memorializing the alchemist Balthazar Voss, former president of the Scholarium who died in the explosion that created the Midden – which was currently fashioned from a kind of nacreous substance like mother-of-pearl. Inside the eerily glistening structure was assembled a group of wizards, sorcerers, warlocks, and other spellcasters, the arcanists of the Order of the Auriferous Twilight. At the centre of the hall was a huge mirror framed by complex machines that resembled Librarian designs, though of obviously more recent construction.

The party mingled with those in the hall. These included such characters as Iganatius the Unchanging a senior alchemist at the Metamorphic Scholarium. He earned the moniker “Everchanging” after a polymorphing accident: he fell into a vat of experimental polymorphic potion, and now, as a result, he was continuously altering his shape, one moment appearing as a wizened old man, the next a beautiful young woman, or a stubbled youth, or a barrel-chested man, or a child of six, or stranger forms – a bear-like humanoid, a horned, demonic being, a pale creature with a single eye, an owl-headed beast. Ignatius wore specially glamered clothes that shift to accommodate his myriad forms. Despite the kaleidoscopic, chimerical changes he undergoes every few moments, Ignatius conversed quite calmly with fellow members of the Order, quite accustomed to his periodic shifts in height, weight, and form. Other notables in the Order included Giselle Gnostus, of the Citadel of the Perpetual Storm, Hex’s school of Evocation. While most lycanthropes in Hex wee doomed to incarceration in Catch-All, an exception was made for gnomish weremoles. Weremoleism ran in certain elite gnome families and was seen as a great blessing, and care was taken to ensure that lycanthropes marry one another to perpetuate the ability through blood; equal care was taken to ensure it was not passed to those undeserving of the “earth’s gift.” Giselle Gnostus was one such weremole. She was currently in hybrid form, somewhere between a mole and a gnome. An earth-shaper of terrific skill, she was a professor of great distinction at the Citadel of the Perpetual Storm, akawats accompanied by her familiar, a giant beetle the size of a small dog, which scuttled along beside her.https://dinodung.files.wordpress.com/2010/09/brain-in-a-jar.jpg

By the far the most renowned of those gathered in the laboratory, however, was Master Melchior – one of the founders of the Order of Auriferous Twilight and also one of Hex’s oldest and most famous wizards. Though in his heyday Melchior had a fleshly body, now he was a preserved brain kept alive through powerful necromantic spells, alchemical preservatives, and transmutation magic. This brain was housed in a spidery automaton with a pair of humanoid forelimbs and a voice-box for speech, Melchior’s brain clearly visible in a glass jar at the automaton’s centre.

Melchior crept toward “Octavius” – that is, Caulis – and spoke to the disguised homunculus using his voice-box.

“Greetings, Ocatavius,” the brain said. “Or, should I say, Caulis?” After intimating that he had been following Caulis’ researches for some time, Melchior suggested that the homunculus and its companions speak to him at a later date about a job – something to do with one of the books the party had come across during their adventure. Further conversation was interrupted, however, as the experiment began.

“And now, the reason we have convened this meeting: the Vitreodimensional Resonator,” Ignatius said, currently in the form of a towering purple woman with four arms. “It’s based on certain technologies salvaged from the Old City through explorations undertaken by Cogsworth & Associates.” He had shifted in form to the body of a thin, heavily bearded man with ink-black skin. “Professor Tawnish built and calibrated the Resonator. I’ll let her explain further.”

“Thank you Ignatius,” Viola Tawnish said, stepping forward – a conjuror from Fiend’s College, renowned for her theories on the nature of transplanar time and chronomancy. She first calculated the shifting temporal differentials between the Underworld and the mortal plane and is said to have twice visited Hell. Dressed in the Diabolique style, she had short-cropped red hair and soft mauve skin suggesting some form of non-human parentage.. “The Librarians are known to have developed a network of portals to travel through physical space on this plane, as well as between different planes. Indeed, it may be through such a portal that they first arrived in our world. The vast majority of these portals are now inactive or destroyed, and while we have managed to create temporary gates between planes and to call beings from one world to another, we have not succeeded in duplicating a Librarian portal. Until now.” She smiles. “Using certain applications of mirror magic suggested by Professor Eldridge, I have created what I think may be a functional portal-like device, the Vitreodimensional Resonator. When activated, the mirror should become a gateway. On the other side – another world.”

“And which plane do you propose to visit?” Master Melchior asked, his robotic voice croaked through his automaton body.

“We aren’t sure which plane the Resonator will lead to,” Ignatius said. “In fact, that’s part of the experiment. The results of this journey may tell us a great deal about the cosmological makeup of the multiverse.”

“Yes,” Professor Tawnish said. “I am sure you are all familiar with some of the most common theories. Some believe that our world is but one iteration of the Magistra’s arcane formula, our reality a program formed out of magical code; other planes are similarly programmed, but with different rules and formulae. Others believe that universes are actually super-organisms, capable of breeding with one another to produce new worlds, or of splitting in two via fission with every choice we make, or every tiny, chaotic fluctuation. There are some who argue that our entire existence is an elaborate illusion, a shadow thrown by some elemental light at the heart of creation., and that other worlds are similar shadows cast by the same flame. And then there are those who think there is only a single universe, and that what seem like other planes of existence are in fact distant planets – that Hell and Faerie and the Dreamlands and even Anathema are but different, vastly disparate regions of the same plane.

“The explorers who venture through into whatever world the Vitreodimensional Resonator reveals must take care to note everything they can about its nature. There may be clues as to the nature of our multiverse which may be uncovered. Those who step foot into whatever strange new world the Resonator reveals should approach it as natural philosophers, cataloguing flora and fauna, noting the presence of any sentient inhabitants, their customs and laws, and also any strange physical laws which this plane might possess…”

With a few invocations, the Vitreodimensional Resonator powered up. The party braced themselves and stepped through the swirling vortex of magical energy into another world…

pastoral

Emerging through the portal, Yam, Cephalus, Caulis, and Vespidae stepped into a copse of trees just  beyond a well-ploughed field, not far from a small farmhouse with a barn and pens for livestock. It felt like they’d entered a pastoral painting, complete with grazing sheep, a blue sky dotted with clouds, and cheerful farmhands tending to the fields.

Other farms could be seen nearby, flanking a road that led down to a broad, clear river. Having looked out over the murky, oily, filth-clotted Radula River of Hex these many days, the sight of such clean, blue water was almost shocking. At the end of the road was a village, built on the riverbank. The village was surrounded by a low stone wall; cheerful-looking plumes of smoke drifted up from thatched roofs. The place looked antiquated, the architectural style reminiscent of buildings one might associate with a feudal past. A small keep presided over the tiny town. To the east a large island could be seen rising from the middle of the river, with swamplands dominating the surrounding banks. To the north a huge forest brooded, and to the west rose a distinctive craggy mountain. South looks to be hilly farmland.

Cautiously the group set out, heading for the farmhouse and the workers in the field.https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/f3/Edward_Charles_Williams00.jpg

Meanwhile, some time earlier…

One moment Garvin was walking through Corvid Commons on his way to Rosemary’s Receiving. The next, he was standing in the middle of a very different street. Buildings rose about him; though a few wouldn’t be too out of place in Hex, many wee glassy, glittering structures, and distantly he could make out some tall spires that might rival those of the Librarians in Engima Heap for height, as well as some sort of bulky metal dome or sphere. Trains on raised tracks rattled nearby, speeding off to some other quarter of the strange but eerily familiar city.

The street Garvin was in wasn’t filled with people but with some kind of boxy automata, mechanical carriages. A shrill sound filled the air as one of these machines barrels towards him. He tried to avoid it, but was knocked prone. Soon a crowd of people had gathered around him, pointing strange devices at him that clicked and flashed, and gibbering in a half-forgotten tongue. Panicking, Garvin muttered a quick spell and blinked to a nearby alley, leaving the crowd of people astonished.

“I’m not sure where we are, Lenore…” he said to the zoog still on his shoulder. “But I think I’ve been here before…”

Fashioning a quick disguise for himself as best he could using his disguise kit, Garvin set off into the city. Using a minor spell he managed to procure on of the small, rectangular devices everyone seemed to carry in this world. This was one was whitish, and had a symbol that looked a bit like a small apple. It seemed puzzling and had a glass panel covered in unusual sigils. Locating what looked like a bookstore, Garvin ducked inside and located what he guessed could be a dictionary or similar tome, hoping that it might help him make sense of the maddeningly familiar language of the people here. After skillfully shoplifting these, he headed for what looked like a coffeehouse and settled himself in a corner…

…only to appear quite suddenly seated on a stump, in the very copse of trees shared by his companions, drawn once more between worlds. Surprised but not displeased by the sudden reappearance of their companion, the party continued towards the farm, approaching one of the farmhands: a dark-haired, hale youth that several of the party members seemed to half-recognized. He identified himself as Jasper Van Lurken, and noted that the farm was owned by his parents, Leopold and Nicolet. The village nearby, he said, was called Blessing.

It was at this points that it clicked: the party was in a world eerily similar to their own, geographically at least. The craggy mountain was none other than Mount Shudder; the river was the Radula, albeit unpolluted. The village of Blessing stood where Hex should have been, or a part of it. But there was no sign of any Librarian structures, none of the alien spires of the Old City, nor the Elder Trees.

They were in a universe in which the Librarians never arrived.

Cephalus, meanwhile, had noticed a nearby gravestone not far from the farm. He used some of the ghostdust he’d secured back at the Puppeteer’s lair and, peering into the Ethereal plane, he saw the spectre of a young woman with dark hair, who identified herself as Annette Van Lurken. Having not encountered the Van Lurkens of Hex, he did not recognize her, but was able to discover that she died of some sort of sickness. It sounded as if magical medicine was considerably more primitive in this timeline.

Taking their leave of Jasper, the party headed toward Blessing. The village wall looked like it had seen better days, moss eating away at its crumbling length. Here and there a wooden fence had been erected to patch a gap or extend the extremely modest fortifications. The gate was of stout wood and stands open, guarded by a solitary man in chainmail armour leaning on a pike.

The guard, Roderick, asked a few minor questions about the party’s business in Blessing; they identified themselves as a troupe of actors. Roderick was alarmed at the sight of Vespidae, believing the waspkin to be a fairy from the Tangle – evidently that forest existed here as well. He was also perturbed by Cephalus, identifying him as one of the “merfolk” from the swamps. With some fast-talking, the party was able to pass them off as foreigners from a distant part of the world. Asking a few questions, they quickly got a lay of the land, learning that the town was ruled by a woman named Lady Goodblood, that it included several shops and inns, and that it was also the site of a large temple. Curious to learn more, they passed through the gate and into Blessing.

blessing

The village of Blessing was so modest that it scarcely possessed true streets, but rather a series of winding paths between the picturesque thatched-roof buildings. The town brought the words “wholesome” and “quaint” to mind; it was like something out of a child’s storybook. It was also curiously homogeneous; the people here were almost all human. A few gnomes could also be seen, as well as a handful of stocky, almost universally bearded creatures like oversized gnomes or short humans. Many eyes the party, some with wariness or suspicion but most with curiosity and welcoming smiles. Yam and Caulis were able to identify the bearded creatures as “dwarves” – a species long gone from their own world, sometimes thought to be ancestors of gnomes, and reputedly hunted to extinction by the Librarians during the primeval past.

The group’s first stop was the Troll & Tankard inn, a large establishment with an attached stables. A stone stair led up to the door of the common room, from which music and laughter emanated. The skull of a monstrous troll was hung above the bar, which was tended by a broad-shouldered man with an eyepatch who polished a mug and chats with various patrons, most of whom looked to be cut from roughly the same rural cloth as the rest of the townsfolk. The exception here was a fellow who wouldn’t be too out of place in Hex: a man dressed in blue robes and a pointed hat, with large spectacles and crazed hair. He sat in a corner booth drinking from a mug of ale and leafing through the first book the explorers had seen in Blessing. Several of the party realized abruptly that the man was the virtual double of the alchemist Valdemar Sluice!

https://www.chinaoilpaintinggallery.com/image/oilpainting/jan-steen/peasants-before-an-inn.jpg

Caulis idly peered over “Valdemar’s” shoulder and scanned the pages. There were real arcane formulae there, but mixed in with superstition and arcane nonsense. Noticing the party, Valdemar was delighted to observe Vespidae, and immediately launched into a series of questions, taking the waspkin for a fairy. The party began conversing, asking about the town. It seemed that this version of Valdemar was traveling from elsewhere and had been drawn to Blessing by some unusual rumours about magical happenings nearby. Meanwhile, Garvin and Cephalus noticed that the party was being watched with some alarm by an ill-favoured fellow in the tavern, who quickly left. They slipped out in pursuit and caught up with the man, Cephalus quickly subduing him. He identified himself as Brett, and claimed to have been heading to the local temple to speak to someone called Father Roland, warning the priest of the presence of “demons and spirits” in the town. With some suitably fast talking, he was persuaded that the party were an acting troupe in costume, come to perform a play for the entertainment of Blessing.

Of course, this meant that the party had to either get out of town… or put on a play.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/9/93/Carl_Friedrich_Lessing_(3)Forest_Chapel.JPG

Pondering this problem, the group headed to the local temple. Blessing seemed to have just one temple – a church dedicated to someone called “St. Melchior.” The name, of course, was familiar, though Master Melchior of Hex has certainly never been considered a saint. Though probably the most ornate building in Blessing, the church was rather ordinary-looking by the baroque and fanciful standards of Hex, built of plain, grey stone with modest decorations. Despite its lack of grandeur there was something decidedly welcoming and comforting about it – perhaps because it wasn’t dedicated to a slavering tentacle entity from beyond space and time, or a primeval demon-lord…

Inside, the church retained its relative plainness, though there were a number of murals painted on the walls depicting the life, miracles, and apparent martyrdom of St. Melchior, as well as statues in his name. He was mostly depicted as a bald, clever-looking man of middle years with a neat beard. He appeared to have been killed while trying to convert a tribe of trolls or similar creatures. A few clerics tended to the church, garbed in loose grey robes without adornment. Those learned in the history of Hex quickly recognized Master Melchior himself – or, rather a version of him – as he looked before he became a brain in a vat. They quickly found Father Roland, a stooped and aged man whose bent exterior was belied by the fierce zealotry burning in his eyes. The Father seemed ready to condemn the group and their activities, but with smooth talking from Garvin and Caulis he was convinced that the party’s play would in fact emphasize the dangers of temptation and of dabbling with dark powers. The party was careful not to disclose that they came from another plane. They found out a bit more about the local religion, which had a number of unusual features, revering only a single, simplistic deity and denouncing others as false idols.

Garvin visited the local blacksmith – “Axe & Anvil,” which seemed to be the only major smithy in Blessing. The creature labouring at its namesake in the open courtyard is one of the peculiar, stocky beings the group had seen about town in small numbers: what the party’s historians had identified as a “dwarf,” known in their home-reality through fossil evidence and ancient records. Like the rest of her ilk she had a beard, though hers was quite small. Her name turned out to be Bess Bonnyshield, a dwarven woman formerly of the Groanmount – apparently this world’s name for Mount Shudder – before the Wyrm, Scorra Bitterflame, laid her clan-home waste. Garvin bought a dwarf-made dagger, noting the extraordinary craftsmanship of the item.

The party next meandered down towards Pistons & Powders, as Yam was curious about this reputedly gnome-run establishment. This ramshackle-looking building wouldn’t have been too out of place in Mainspring, with its small doors and windows, large boiler, haphazard architecture, and plethora of hissing chimneys, though even this structure looked far less intricate than the gnomish buildings of Hex. Inside, a small tinker’s workshop could be be found. Though a few crude mechanical oddments were scattered about, it looked like the place mostly deals in basic repairs for pots, pans, and tools. A handful of simple firearms were sold here as well, though they were far more primitive than the complex wheellocks of Hex. A handful of gnomes worked here, mending metal goods.

Yam cheerfully bustled in, only to bump into a gnome. The tinker turned around – and stared into their own face. The gnome at Pistons & Powders was Yam, albeit dressed in oily mechanist’s clothes.

“Yam!” Yam said.

“Yam!” Yam responded. “You’re not some kind of shapeshifter are you?”

“I’m you from another dimension,” Yam disclosed with nonchalance. “Want to come hang out?”

“Sure!” Yam agreed, taking off their apron with a minimum of fuss. They turned their head to yell: “I’m on break!”

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/c4/1590_Mostaert_Dorfkirmes_anagoria.JPG

The party next headed to the market square at the southeast end of Blessing, near to the small town’s docks. Here they began planning for the performance they had now promised to put on, deciding to tell a version of the story of Robin Redcap. The two Yams and Caulis provided special effects while other members of the party, disguised through magic or cosmetics, assumed the guises of Duke Gothmord, Robin Redcap, and other persons. A crowd had soon gathered as word circulated of the performance, and as sun set the party began their impromptu tale, Vespidae using her dancing to enthrall the assembled commoners, while the “troupe’s” spellcasters used illusions to lend the performance an air of strange mystery. Hastily written and quasi-improvised dialogue might have ruined the play, but the magical effects bedazzled the bucolic onlookers. As the play concluded to great applause, however, the church bell tolled, and a town crier appeared, screaming: “Goblins at the Mountain Gate! Fear! Fire! Foes!”

The party rushed to the gates, grabbing up their weapons, to discover a band of the hunched, malformed goblins setting fire to buildings and terrorizing townsfolk. In the land of Hex such creatures had been exterminated or placed on reservations, to keep them from mischief, but in this land it seemed they ran amok! Some rode great spiders, apparently denizens of the Tangle, and they carried clubs and crude swords. Cephalus rushed forth, limbs flying, to dispatch the leader, while Yam conjured a cloud of daggers, eviscerating several of the goblins. The battle was brief, and though a few injuries were had, Garvin managed to put a bolt through the skull of a final, fleeing goblin, leaving them all dead. The few remaining townsfolk nearby rejoiced, hailing the group as heroes, though most had fled the battle… but time was growing short, the day long, and the group was eager to return from whence they had come. Yam’s double insisted on following them – as did a local girl from the town, who, having seen their power, asked to join them. Impressing upon both that they might not soon return, the party hurried back to the portal at Van Lurken farm and slipped through the dwindling vortex between worlds, back into the Metamorphic Scholarium’s laboratory in Caulchurch, with quite a few findings to report…

Images: Brain in a Jar from “Open Graves: Secrets of the Undead.”

Hex Session VII – 5th Edition Actual Play – “The Puppet Factory”

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.

XP Awarded: 500 XP.

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.

cephalus

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.

Shambleisde, Grey Hook, & Corvid Commons

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.

bloodborne key art and concept art video game on playstation

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.

NecrontologyTracking 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.

Commons 5

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.

Commons 6

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.

Commons 3

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.

Commons 1

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?

Commons 4

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.

FRANCE - JANUARY 01: Paris. Doll Factory. Preparing For Christmas (Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)

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.

arms

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.

Mannequin_People

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

Hex Session VI – 5th Edition Actual Play – “Asylum”

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.
  • An ancient and enigmatic Lengian cleric of the Mother of Spiders, name unknown. She wears bulky ecclesiastical garments covering an uncertain number of limbs and goes by “Sister.”
  • Vespidae, a waspkin bard – a sacred dancer with a deathwish, shunned by the waspkin community for complicated ritualistic reasons. Now 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).
  • Sprigley Gilette, a hardboiled, cigar-chomping human mercenary and veteran of several brutal wars, and a relatively new arrival in Hex.

XP Awarded: 400 XP.

At their usual haunt, The Green Star, the party convened at the request of Yam, who had received word from some of their gnomish brethren in the district of Mainspring that a company of mechanists, Cogswright & Associates, who seemed to have developed what they called an “issue” with their automata. The gnomes were looking for those with strong skills in problem-solving and “robot fighting” to assist them. After stocking up on a few provisions the party set out for the whirring clockwork ghetto of the gnomes.

Mainspring

Stepping into Mainspring was like stepping into another world – a place of churning gears and hissing steam-valves and hammering pistons, where all the doors were made for people under four feet tall. Gnomes make up almost all of the population in the district, and could be seen flitting to and fro across streets, up and down elevators, across bridges, and along moving walkways. It would have been maddeningly difficult not only to navigate the twisted, ever-changing machine that is Mainspring but to even discern the function of a particular building, many of which seem to be multi-use, were it not for Yam, who grew up in the mechanical labyrinth. Amidst the shifting morass of pistons, gears, steam-valves, chimneys, and whirring clocks, it was difficult to tell where one street ends and another began, but with Yam’s guidance they found your way to Coil Street: a meandering street shadowed by an enormous conglomeration of buildings of bewildering size and complexity. A churning street-sweeping automaton rolled by, followed by a mass of smaller litter-collection drones spearing bits of trash with their mechanical spikes and then depositing them in the lumbering, cauldron-shaped incinerator automaton that trailed the robotic train. After a quick visit to Yam’s mother, an artificer of some skill directing construction of a new part of the unfathomable mega-machine that is Mainspring, the party made their way to Cogswright & Associates on Coil Street.

clockwork city

The rusty metal spire of Cogswright & Associates was so interconnected with the surrounding machinery it was hard to tell where it ended and its neighbours begin. Its entrance advertised the company as a “maker of fine automata,” and displayed several samples in a glass window. These included an automaton flamingo that delicately stalked back and forth across the display, an automaton ballerina who occasionally demonstrated its dancing with a twirl, and a hulking clockwork ettin, its two heads swivelling from side to side, appraising passersby. Inside, the party were met by a ten-foot-tall automaton of gleaming brass, armed with a massive halberd. It looks a bit like an oversized gnome. “Welcome, visitors,” the automaton’s voicebox croaked. “Please state your business.”

“Here about the robot fighting,” Yam said, and the robot ushered them inside a large workshop where thousands of automaton components were scattered madly – from coils and springs and gears to chassis parts and painted faces – two gnomes are tinkering. They looked remarkably like one another, though one looks male and the other female.

Tinker1

“Ah, hi Yam,” the female gnome said. “Hello, everyone. I’m Wanda Cogswright.”

“And I’m Edgar Cogswright – owners of Cogswright & Associates,” the male said, wiping a gloved hand on his apron. “Good to see you Yam. Dissertation coming well?”

Yam made a non-committal noise.

“Thank you for coming on such short notice,” Wanda said. “Can we offer you any refreshments? Tea perhaps?”

Eustace gladly accepted, and a scuttling teapot automaton poured them tea.

“You fix the scalding issue?” Yam asked, eyeing the automaton.

“Ah. We’re working on it,” Wanda said.

“You’re adventurers in Hex, so I take it at least some of you have been down in the Old City,” Edgar said, moving on to more pertinent matters. “Most of the upper tunnels have been thoroughly looted already, and it can be very difficult to reach some of the lower chambers. The Librarians put all sorts of traps and protections round the entrances.”

“So we thought, why not circumvent those protections?” Wanda put in. “We gnomes have been making tunnels for centuries. We’re really, really good at it. We don’t need to jump through the Librarians’ hoops. We can just tunnel into the lower levels.”

“Even the most conservative estimates suggest we’ve barely scratched the surface of the Old City,” Edgar went on. “There are miles of tunnels down there, almost all of it totally unexplored. The city up here, big as it seems, is tiny compared to what lies below.”

“So, we did what gnomes do,” Wanda said. “We built automata. Automaton drills to punch through layers of earth and stone and demolitions automata to blast or cut through what can’t be drilled. Automaton protectors to guard our expeditions against the unpleasant things that lurk in the depths of the Old City.”

automaton

“We drilled and delved and drilled and delved, and mostly we just found earth and boring, empty chambers,” Edgar continued. “But then we struck proverbial paydirt. A sector of the Old City hitherto unexplored, deep, deep below Hex, full of everything we’d hoped – books and artefacts and strange machines, all of the wonders of the First Library. Our plan had worked.”

“Unfortunately there’s been something of a snag,” Wanda explained. “We don’t know how it happened, but something down there started messing with out automata. At first just minor malfunctions – bots that wouldn’t take orders properly, or that started doing things on their own. But then…”

“Then things got ugly,” Edgar interjected. “Really ugly. The automata turned on us, started attacking. We lost some of our expedition. More are still down there, possibly trapped or on the run from our constructs.”

“We’ve spent a lot of time and gold on this excavation,” Wanda said. “And we want to know what went wrong. We want you to go down there and see if you can find out what made the automata go haywire – and, if you can, reverse it.”

“Don’t worry about damaging any constructs you encounter,” Edgar said. “Do whatever you need to. We can always use mending to repair them. And, of course, if you come across any of our expedition while you’re down there, do what you can to take them to safety.”

“If you can’t figure out what’s causing the automata to behave like this, there’s sort of a Plan B,” Wanda added. “Well, more like a Plan Z, really, we’ve really worked our way through a lot of plans recently. If there doesn’t seem to be any way to reverse the process we want you to blow the tunnel, seal everything back up. Eventually the automata will wind down on their own, and we can go back in and see if we can make sense of what happened. But if the tunnel remains open, the constructs might come back up… and we definitely don’t want that.”

“In either case, your reward is simple,” Edgar said. “Anything you find down there is yours. If you manage to deactivate the automata or undo whatever has happened to them, we’ll throw in a bonus of five hundred guineas each.”

“Sound fair?” Wanda asks.

The party agreed and were duly equipped with a quantity of explosives before being escorted down a flight of stairs and into a series of tunnels below the workshop, where a cable car awaited them to lead them deeper underground.

cable car

Two metal cables snaked along the ceiling in the tunnel, which descended deep into the earth. Hooked to the cables was a rickety-looking, rusted cable car equipped with a sputtering light, either magical or electric. Complex gear-driven mechanisms were connected to the cables, so that the car can be propelled along them. A lever was set within arm’s reach of the car. Armand, with a flick of the wrist, cast a light spell to arrest the flickering light, and the group piled in, Yam yanking the lever.

With a lurch, the cable car began to move, swaying vertiginously. At first it moved slowly as it approached the shaft plunging down into darkness, but then it began to gather speed before finally hurtling into the chthonic gloom at breakneck speed, the flickering light briefly illuminating the rock walls as the car whizzed downwards, spiraling deeper and deeper, occasionally dropping almost vertically. Occasional side-tunnels and branching passages could be briefly glimpsed during the descent, before the car leveled off, suspended now above a vast, dark cavern below. Stalagmites and the broken stubs of ancient monoliths rose from below, barely visible in the darkness. The car careened back into a tunnel, winding ever downwards, before emerging again into an echoing cave, this one filled with phosphorescent fungi; the party caught a glimpse of a subterranean stream flowing through the inky blackness, and then the car was swallowed once more by a narrow tunnel, bored into the rock.

At last the cable car came to a half at the end of the long, meandering tunnel, within a natural cavern studded here and there with lumps of glimmering crystal. Another tunnel bored by the same great drill that fashioned the shaft leading up to the surface stretched ahead.

crystal-cave-fantasy-wallpaper-3

Beyond a short tunnel lay another natural cavern, this one with walls not of rock but of softly glowing crystal, changing in colour from pale mauve to cerulean blue to bright crimson to gleaming white. Two passages, both obviously artificial, led deeper into the caves. Sister carefully removed some of the crystals here before the party pressed onward, coming now to a sluggish river of lava, quite broad, with occasional lumps of un-melted rock floated on its glowing orange surface. Sister tested one of the crystals here, throwing it at the lava and producing a blinding flash of light that left her eyes stinging. Armand, ignoring this, quickly cast several rays of frost to harden the lava for a few moments, allowing the party to quickly cross the river before the rock-bridge melted once more.

Next the party came to a branch in the path, and decided to head to the left, following the sound of a whirring machine, which became deafening as the party approached their source. At the end of a winding tunnel a huge clockwork machine rammed itself repeatedly into a wall of rock, slowly boring its way further with the massive drill on its front. A mass of churning gears and metal plates, the enormous automaton had six leg-like appendages, the better to navigate difficult terrain, and resembles a gigantic clockwork beetle. There was something disturbing in its aimlessness. In between its assaults on the rock a mechanical voice occasionally spoke in the gnomish language: “MUST GET OUT! MUST ESCAPE!”

Yam distracted the automaton, telling it to “Out is that way! and leading it toward the lava river while the rest of the group got out of the way. The berserk drill swiveled and barreled after Yam, their companions following; as the automaton arrived at the lava river, Yam cast thunderwave, pushing the robot into the river of molten rock. Yam’s companions arrived, Armand and Vespidae leaping on to the machine to try and wrest free its ticking analytical engine.

“MUST GET OUT OF THE ASYLUM!” the machine shrieked madly.

As the drill sunk into the lava it screamed horribly, its metal turning to white-hot sludge, and the pair managed to rip the clockwork brain free, Sprigley grabbing Armand and pulling him back to solid ground. As they did so Sister felt a strange ripple in the air, as if a spirit had passed through her. Upon examination the party determined that the mechanism had been tampered with somehow, though there were no signs of physical force such as tool-marks.

Digger

The party pressed on past the tunnel where the drill had been boring. The smooth, round tunnel broke through at last into a space beyond – a chamber with walls of ancient stone, black as midnight save for the glimmer of weird glyphs that here and there adorn its vast, polyhedral columns. An electric frisson passed through the body upon entering this primeval place, where once dwelt beings of unthinkable knowledge and power. First the party turned left; protruding from the ceiling of the vaguely cylindrical chamber they entered was a huge, complex machine of iridescent metal, terminating in a node suspended directly above a large dais – anyone standing on the dais would be directly beneath the node. To one side of the dais was a console glimmering with the arcane glyphs of the Librarians. Though Yam was eager to experiment the party cautioned against it. Sister removed a mug from her pack and placed on the dais before activating the machine. There was a loud series of unearthly sounds and a beam of light shot from the node to the mug. The mug vanished without a trace – no shards, no smudge marks, it was simply gone. Reasoning it was either a vaporizer or a teleporter the party pressed on, making a note of the machine in case they needed to return to it later. They followed the tunnel to the right to a heptagonal chamber with honeycomb-like shelves in which were piled a number of scrolls. Seemingly trapped within was a roughly humanoid automaton eight feet in height. Its eyes were fashioned from rubies that flash with red light. The berserk automaton occasionally used these gemstone eyes to try and burn its way out of the room with a searing red beam. Detecting magic, the party ascertained that some sort of illusion was keeping the automaton penned in and decided to leave it be for the time being.

Yam's MapYam’s map of the first level.

Continuing their exploration, the party pressed on, encountering a large, cylindrical chamber with walls adorned with the glyphs of the Librarians. The floor, which at first appeared to be solid stone, became transparent upon entrance, revealing a dark shaft below, while the ceiling likewise became transparent and showed that the shaft also extended upwards. Deep down, what looked like a light could be glimpsed, possibly coming from an exit from the shaft. Puzzled, they left the chamber only to become snared in a trap-corridor which seemed to have two dead ends – the moment they turned around they found the way they had come blocked and utterly impassible. By closing their eyes they found themselves capable of defeating the trap: the wall was only present when perceived. Next the came to a trapezoid hall – some form of shrine, dedicated to an almost indescribable idol of cyclopean size that loomed near the far wall, fashioned of the same night-black stone as the rest of this part of the Old City. The being had a complicated series of many-jointed limbs dangling down from an enormous mass suggestive of a gigantic, angular, and thoroughly inhuman head, but lacking any trace of eye sockets – where eyes might be in a human head there was only smooth stone. The thing’s mouthparts were vaguely lamprey-like or cephalopodan. The overall impression was that some monstrous spider of octopus had crawled into an eyeless skull. Sister identified the deity as the Eyeless Watcher, one of the Unspeakable Ones revered by the Librarians and by some in Hex, renowned for its total omniscience and powers of foresight.

Continuing their survey the party next came to a wall of shimmering energy blocking progress forwards . There was a console to one side with a series of glowing glyph markings on it. Armand and Yam managed to decipher these runes, and after some experimentation they caused the wall to dissipate. Beyond were two rooms of note. In the first, a heptagonal chamber, were seven opalescent pods, emerging from the floor. These pods could be opened and climbed into, though this had no noticeable effect; one also seemed dim and grey. The second chamber, rhomboid in shape, looked to be an arsenal or vault with a number of unusual items. These included some kind of band, fitted for a tentacle but wearable as a bracer; a round plate of glass is set in a glyph-graven frame; a prismatic stone; an impressive-looking weapon somewhat reminiscent of a blunderbuss or short rifle, though fantastically complex and sophisticated;  polyhedral puzzle-box; and a glyph-graven wand of iridescent metal. The party looted the chamber thoroughly.

Yam took the lens. Peering through it, he discovered he could see what looked like a gnome, shouting and waving wildly! The gnome, only visible through the lens, could not be heard or otherwise interacted with; indeed, he could even be walked-through with ease. Yam urged the party to follow the supersensible gnome, who led them back through the Old City to the room with the huge machine. The gnome gestured to the dais and Yam climbed on, handing the lens to Sister and indicating that the party should activate the machine. Light shot from the beam and irradiated Yam, who found themself quite suddenly in a grey, silvery version of the same room – the Ethereal plane. The gnome, however, was suddenly audible. Yam also noticed a mug at their feet – the same mug they’d placed on the dais before.

gnome

“Oh, thank the Magistra,” the gnome exclaimed. “You must be here to get us out of this mess. I’m Isaac.”

“Yam,” Yam responded. It seemed the gnome, one of the explorers who’d delved into the Old City, had fled after the automata attacked, shortly after they’d used some explosives to enter a room on the second floor. Isaac explained that the mysterious cylindrical room with the transparent floor was a mentally-controlled elevator. He fled to this level, pursued by the automaton with cutting eye-beams, and turned himself Ethereal in order to evade it. Isaac was able to explain several other features of this part of the Old City, including the white pods, which he described as “pods of rebirth” capable of returning the dead to life.

Yam, followed by the rest of the party using the lens, proceeded to explore the rest of the same level. Yam first stopped at the room with the automaton trapped inside it, and noted something bizarre: a creature somewhere between a spider, a malevolent squid, and a throbbing brain controlling the automaton like a marionette, its limbs intertwined with the robot’s, its tendrils plunging into its clockwork innards. Next, Yam returned to the arsenal and discovered another prismatic stone identical to the one Sister took, but in the Ethereal plane. Some experimenting soon revealed that the two stones were linked, allowing sounds whispered through one stone to be heard through the other. This allowed Yam to relay everything he’d learned to the rest of the party, who now hastened to the second level, using mental commands to control the telepathic elevator.

Yam's Map 2Yam’s map of the second level.

Pressing on, the party entered an oblong chamber with a throne-like seat at its far end, though the angles suggest it was made for a non-humanoid shape. Complex machinery radiates from the throne, with several spindly metal appendages inert near the top. At the far end of the hall was a console glimmering with arcane sigils. Yam, in the Ethereal plane, noted a peculiar, blade like implement, scalpel-like, made of the same strange metal as many Librarian artefacts. Yam pocketed this and the group moved on, while Isaac speculated about the possible uses of the machine for psychosurgery. The gnome explained that he suspected this section of the Old City to be an asylum, made by the Librarians for those driven mad by the secrets they’d uncovered.

Next the group came across a series of small, hexagonal chambers along a single corridor. Investigating one, Vespidae discovered five niches, one for each wall without a door.  Approaching each niche in turn, the waspkin realized that they could materialize objects: one niche createda small sphere of bland but nutritious whitish sustenance, another materialized a crystal phial of water, a third created a small, chalky tablet, a fourth a vibrantly coloured pill, and the fifth and final niche a set of plain, white garments tailored to her waspkin form. Evidently the room was psychic to some degree. Meanwhile, Armand stopped the door from closing automatically. Intuiting that some additional effect might take place with the door closed, Sprigley volunteered to experiment, telling Armand to release him after five minutes.

800px-Clock_Cogs

The minutes passed, but when Armand opened the door, the Sprigley that emerged was not the Sprigley they’d seen enter – this Sprigley had five months of beard, seemed strangely euphoric, was dressed in white clothes, and seemed reluctant to leave the chamber. When pressed he described his time in the cell, revealed that the door had been locked from the inside. From Sprigley’s point of view, months had passed, with no sign of rescue, and so he had consumed the sustenance provided, including the chalky tablet and vividly coloured pill – one of which proved to be a sleeping tablet, the other which caused intensely pleasurable dreams. The hardened mercenary had spent the last five months of subjective time sleeping, eating, and meditating in the cell, and despite some initial attempts to force his way out, he had eventually lost the will to leave. Somewhat horrified by the evident time-shift effect of the cells, the party hastened onwards, eager to avoid any more temporal accidents.

Pressing on, the party encountered several gnomes more gnomes, but as they approached it becomes obvious they were undead creatures – from the look of things they were variously crushed or shot through by beams of energy, with clean, charred holes riddling their bodies. Yam, viewing them in the Ethereal Plane, could see that each gnome zombie was being controlled by a monstrous polyp-like creature riding upon their back or shoulders. They varied in exact appearance but combined unappealing aspects of jellyfish, cephalopod, and brain. As the zombies lurched towards them the party attacked with spells and weapons, a still-spaced Sprigley shooting one zombie dead, Armand and Sister wielding spells of arcane and divine might, Vespidae hurling javelins. Yam, on the Ethereal, attacked one the strange beings and forced it to relinquish its hold on a gnome corpse; it scuttled away down the hall, Yam in pursuit. The gnome passed through a pair of massive doors made from glistening metal, been blown open and partially melted. In the chamber beyond was a hall with numerous shelves, containing a handful of small, multi-hued orbs like huge jewels that glimmer softly. Covering the floor were innumerable glittering shards. Some were large enough to recognize as the shattered remnants of orbs like the ones on the shelves. In the middle of the room was a slab of strangely reflective metal, a hand-like clamp at one end. A console and a kind of receptacle containing a black orb like the ones on the shelves stood to one side of the device. Yam was reminded of the Consciousness Extractor the group had encountered on a previous expedition to the Old City.*

Hovering above the broken glass and strange machine, swirling in the centre of the room in the Ethereal, was a roiling, amorphous mass of limbs, tentacles, and brain-matter – a coalescence of disembodied spirits, unable to find hosts. The Librarian Yam had injured scuttled up the wall and launched its at the conglomeration, rejoining the mass. Yam’s eyes widened and they beat a quick retreat, back to where the party had dispatched the remaining zombies. Sister, thinking quickly and noting the presence of the Librarian essences, had conjured an image of the Eyeless Watcher to terrify them, chasing them toward the time-shifted cell-block. Speaking through the prism, Yam described the disembodied spirits they’d seen in the huge hall. The party theorized that when the gnomes blew open the door they must have shattered the crystals containing the consciousnesses or essences or souls of the entities incarcerated in the “asylum.”

Grell3e

They carried the corpses back to the first level, to revive them using the pods of rebirth; en route they encountered an extremely elderly gnome wandering the halls, apparently another inmate of the time-shifted cells who’d been released when a Librarian was ushered inside on the Ethereal plane. The gnome, Anaximander, must have been in the cells for a few days of objective time and thus many decades of subjective time. Dazed, he could only distantly recall the details of the original expedition, but greeted Isaac as a long-lost friend. Together the group put the bodies of the dead gnomes in the resurrection-pods, restoring them to life. The grateful gnomes – Sophia, Cornelius, and Zeb – discussed possible strategies with the rest of the party to deal with the situation. While Sophia suggested use of a room called the “Emergency Time Reversal Chamber,” the party had another plan: phase the explosives they’d been given into the Ethereal plane, then use them to destroy the spirits swirling about below.

While Isaac was rematerialized using the Ethereal-Material Convertor, the party then transferred the explosives to the Ethereal, along with Sophia, the gnome expedition’s demolitions expert.They set off again for the lower level. Meanwhile, Sophia and Vespidae returned to the archive-room with the trapped automaton, pilfering a few of the scrolls contained within and using the spell protection from evil on the automaton to temporarily release it from the insane Librarian controlling it. Exiting the room using the same strategy they’d used to defeat the “dead-end” they’d encountered earlier, they managed to trap the Librarian spirit in the chamber, returning to the corridor outside with the now-obedient automaton in tow.

Down below, Yam and Sophia returned to the hall and began setting up explosives. As they did so several of the Librarians swirling above detached from the conglomeration and attacked, squealing horribly. Yam used colour spray and acid splash to deter several of the creatures while Sophia finished configuring the explosives. The timer ticked down as the two Ethereal gnomes beat a hasty retreat. The explosion was defeaning in the Ethereal but, of course, did not damage in the Material plane. Librarian body parts were strewn about the chamber, the walls painted with their Ethereal ichor, but Yam and Sophia returned quickly to the first level and rematerialized. With everyone back in the Material plane the party hastily retreated from the Old City, once again employing spells to cross the river of lava. Though secrets still remained below, the party had managed to release several of the automata from their immaterial puppeteers, returned the lost gnome expedition-members to life, and looted the complex for several artefacts of doubtless considerably value. Not bad for an afternoon’s work in Hex…

*See Hex Session II: “The Ultimate Contagion”

Images: “Steampunk Wallpaper,” “Tinkerer” from Talisman Miniatures, Skyrim concept art, Fable 3 wallpaper, “Crystal Cave 2” by firedudewraith, screenshot from Atlantis: The Lost Empire, “Rock Gnome” for 5th Edition Dungeons and Dragons by Chris Seaman, Clockwork at the Liverpool World Museum by SomeDriftwood, “Grell” from 3rd Edition Dungeons and Dragons MM.

Hex Session V – 5th Edition Actual Play – “The Van Lurken House”

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.
  • Garvin Otherwise, a human rogue and burglar of the Ravenswing Thieves’ Guild, with a very, very peculiar past and a zoog pet, Lenore.
  • Vespidae, a waspkin bard – a sacred dancer with a deathwish, shunned by the waspkin community for complicated ritualistic reasons. Now a 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).

XP Awarded: 600 XP.

Two things brought the party to the house of the wealthy Van Lurken family, one of the elite merchant dynasties of Fanghill. Yam, on instructions from Umbral University, was to investigate the whereabouts of a promising young illusionist, Annette Van Lurken, who had not appeared for orientation. Garvin, on the other hand, was responding to information from the Ravenswing Thieves Guild. It seemed that the Van Lurken House had been abandoned, or so it looked from the outside, and the Guild wanted an enterprising young Fledgling like Garvin to see what valuables he could make off with – and it so happened that the Guild had both a map of the house and a set of keys to the doors within.

Thief Concept Art

Garvin met his contact, Veronika Foxstalker, at the Witching Hour Alehouse. The gloomy interior of the tavern  is familiar to every Guild-registered thief in Hex, as the place serves as the secret backdoor to the Midnight Market (at least it does currently; the door to the Market has shifted over the years). The barkeep, Mortimer Croak, was a grey, one-eyed presence behind the bar – an ex-thief who’s somehow managed to stay on the good side of every guild and gang in town. The grizzled old burglar was missing an alarming number of body parts, including his left foot, the pinky on his right hand, and his right eye, but he’d managed what few thieves in Hex pull off – comfortable retirement from crime. Garvin made his way to Veronika, a wiry woman with prematurely white hair – rumour claims it turned that way after a job-gone-wrong in Grey Hook. She slid over a map of the Van Lurken place – or at least its upper floors – as well as the key ring.

“This is what we’ve managed to get our hands on,” she said. “And it came dearly purchased. In fact, there’s a little more to the mission than we’d previously let on. You see, a while back we sent a team in to the Van Lurken place: three men, good thieves all of them. Only one came out, and he wasn’t right in the head. Shaking, raving about things ‘rustling in the walls’ and the ‘Unclean Chair,’ whatever that means. He wouldn’t speak about what he’d seen in there, but he had this map and key-ring with him. He… he stank, as well, smelled simply awful, and nothing we could do seemed to be able to get the reek out. A few days later he fell badly ill. We tried both magic and medicine but it didn’t take. When we found him dead… gods, I’ll never forget the stink, or the way he looked. It was like he’d been dead for weeks, he was so rotten. We burnt the remains.

“But that means there are two men unaccounted for, still inside. They’re most likely dead, but on the off chance they’re not, obviously you should try to get them out of there. And if they are dead, try to find their bodies – not to bury, but because they were carrying some valuable Ravenswing items with them. One had the gloves of thief’s sight, which lets the wearer glimpse what lies behind walls and doors. The other wore the boots of wall-walking, which let the wearer traverse walls and ceilings. The Guild would like both of these returned and will pay one thousand gold pieces for each.”

Garvin nodded, mulling the information over. “Is there any kind of automated security inside?”

“There may be a few automata, and the Van Lurkens did employ a house guard,” Veronika said. “But they haven’t been seen either. The servants are missing as well.”

After discussing a few more particulars Garvin took his leave and went to meet some of his companions at the Green Star to convey what he’d learned. The party then set out for Fanghill in the early evening.

fancy street

The richest residential district in Hex is Fanghill, a place of gated mansions and opulent museums and well-tended parks. The district is built on the slopes of a great hill whose top commands an impressive view of the city. The Eyes patrolled the streets heavily, and many private guards could be seen as well at gates and walls, protecting the well-heeled nobles, scholars, merchants, and professionals who make their homes here.  Unlike many parts of the city it remained well-lit at all times of day or night courtesy of magical lamps glowing with a soft effulgence.

The party quickly located the Van Lurken place. In contrast with some of the more fanciful houses in Fanghill – houses made to look like gigantic heads, mansions of Murkstone that shift and reshape themselves, and buildings whose dimensions should be impossible but which magic has granted a tenuous stability – the Van Lurken house was incredibly mundane: a three-storey house of solid construction, baroquely adorned but otherwise quite normal-looking.

van lurken

The place was certainly dilapidated, though, the garden shriveled and dead, the paint faded. The windows were dark and shrouded with curtains, obscuring the interior. Armand and Yam both noted that the decay the house exhibited seemed preternaturally advanced. While Garvin investigated the servant’s entrance and the others kept watch, Armand briefly questioned a servant doing the washing next door, who confirmed that the house had been abandoned for some time, describing the occasional muffled and uncertain noise from within and noting that none of the guards or other servants had been seen leaving. She also noted that Jasper Van Lurken, a young man and heir to the Van Lurken fortune, had recently returned from a business trip.

VanLurken0001

Entering through the side door using the key supplied by the Ravenswing Thieves’ Guild, the party began their explorations in the servant’s quarters of the house. These were quite empty, though there were signs of struggle or hasty departure, perhaps interrupted – chests emptied, clothes and blankets strewn across the floor. Bloodstains mottled a wall in one of the chambers, though there were no sign of any bodies. A thorough search, however, turned up a loose floorboard under which was stashed an impressive quantity of jewellery, including a silver necklace set with obsidian, a sapphire ring, a bloodstone-encrusted hand mirror, and a pair of exquisite ruby earrings.

More evidence of violence could be found in the laundry room, which contained various buckets, presses, and other equipment for cleaning garments, including a mangle that had been put to a horrid use, evinced by the bloodstains and shards of bone clogging its rollers. Quantities of soap and other cleaning agents were stored here. More bloodstains marred the walls, including one curious stain which began on the ceiling and then wrapped around to the wall and out of the room. Puzzled and formulating theories, the party also checked the butler’s pantry, a dusty but untouched room full of expensive silverware, before heading into the front hall – eerily quiet save for the occasional mysterious rustling from within the walls. Apart from some confused footprints in the dust, there was no sign that anyone had been there for quite some time. Cobwebs shrouded the ceiling, and the walls were grimy and blotched with mould, filling the air with a musty stink.

A huge grandfather clock stood to one side, also swathed in cobwebs. Across from the clock was a large painting of the city of Hex, obviously painted from the vantage of Fanghill. In the foreground was a park scene with a picnicking family. Close inspection of the painting revealed a small, black cloud on the horizon made of small dots, like a swarm of insects. Yam noticed that this blotch seemed to be getting slowly larger while no one was looking. Leaving the painting for now, the party next moved to the kitchen. This room now absolutely swarmed with creeping vermin – maggots, flies, centipedes, cockroaches, and other bugs. The place was in disarray, pots and pans scattered everywhere, wood from the hearth strewn across the floor. There was a stairway in one corner, leading down into darkness. Erring on the side of caution, the party opted to leave the room undisturbed and proceeded into the dining room.

glutton feast

The dining room was laid out with gorgeous silverware and crystal. This fine cutlery was wasted on a spoiled feast – it looked like the pantry was emptied, but all the food was rotten, covered in mould and flies. Mixed in with the decomposing food were what looks like human body parts. At the head of the table was a macabre chair fashioned entirely from bones. Seated upon it, presiding over the table like a patriarch at a family meal, was a grotesquely swollen maggot-like creature with thin, vestigial arms and legs dangling from its bloated, pale body, shoveling morsels of carrion and decaying fruit into its mouth. The thing did not look up but continued to listlessly gorge itself with putrid sustenance.

Garvin noted a bowl on the table that did not seem to be tainted by the corruption. Angling themselves around the maggot-horror, the party debated a course of action. Vespidae, acting with typical insectile directness, attacked the creature with a javelin ad it instantly leapt up, scattering plates and body parts as it surged towards the waspkin, who took to the air. Horrified and disgusted, Armand and Yam engaged the creature with spells, pelting it with balls of fire. Garvin retreated, avoiding the thing’s blows, and it turned, launching itself at Armand. Between them, however, the party was able to destroy the creature, engulfing it in arcane flames. Armand made sure to destroy the osseous chair completely while Garvin and Yam investigated the bowl, discovering that it bore a glyph from the city of Nornhold, a monastery-city of silent ascetics. Food touching the bowl seemed to be restored to ripe purity. Experimentally, Yam took the bowl back to the front hall, carefully cut the still-growing insect-swarm from it, and placed the scrap in the bowl. Magically, the dark blots on the painted canvas disappeared. At this moment, something could be heard, moving around upstairs. Tracking footprints in the dust, the party ascended to the next level.

amnesia 2

They first investigated a large games room decorated with the heads of beasts hunted in the nearby Tangle: hippogriffs, owlbears, wild boar, and even a wyvern. A large musket also hangs on one wall, a heavy crossbow on another, and a spear on a third. Also on one wall was a huge painting of a hunting scene in the Tangle, depicting several of the Van Lurken ancestors and their hounds. The painter had included several clever details, including some small fairies hiding in the underbrush and twisted tree-branches, and an enchanted pool reflecting some of the mortal hunters as otherworldly, elfin figures.

In the middle of the room was a billiards table spattered with blood: a corpse sprawled on the table amidst the billiard balls, his neck ripped open. His stiff fingers still clutched a broken pool cue, which was curious, since he was also armed with a short sword and hand crossbow. Judging from his dark clothing and half-mask he was a burglar of some description. Close inspection of the corpse revealed a Thief’s Mark and a Ravenswing broach, as well as the gloves of thief’s sight, which Garvin carefully took. These could be used to look through walls and doors to see what lay beyond, enabling the thief to scout the next chambers.

Noting the pool cue, Yam immediately surmised the possibility of vampires and took the pool cue.

Next the party went to the music room, a beautifully furnished, baroquely decorated chamber filled with instruments – a flute, dulcian, chalumeau, violin, bass viol, viola pomposa, hurdy gurdy, sackbut, and harpsichord. The instruments were beautifully enamelled and made from precious metals and exotic wood. The party helped themselves to several, but avoided the macabre-looking instrumments placed amongst them: a flute fashioned from a human femur covered in abstract etchings, and a set of drums made from two bisected human skulls whose open tops are covered in flayed human skin. Armand, disgusted and alarmed by these objects, broke them apart and burnt them with fire bolts.

VanLurken0002

Yam’s player’s annotations.

Garvin used his newly acquired gloves to investigate the portrait gallery, but recoiled from a scene of dismemberment and death.

“Let’s just avoid that room,” he said, and moved on to the study, noting its  large window, ornate writing desk strewn with papers, and numerous bookshelves.

On one wall was a map of the city of Hex, while on the other sprawled a map of the known world, including the nearby lands of New Ulthar, Nornhold, Sempiternia, Teratopolis, Tetractys, Verdigris, and Erubescence, and other places more distant: the city-states and kingdoms such as the Vassen Empire, Blodvinter, Purulence, Ganglion, Finchport, and Xell. The map even included more mysterious realms such as the distant continent to the east across the Blushing Sea and the Entropic Wastes to the south.

The study also included a large bust of Master Melchior, famed enchanter, archmage, founder and still-living president of Master Melchior’s School of Thaumaturgy & Enchantment, and another bust of Keziah Elderwold, founder of the Metamorphic Scholarium and Mother of Modern Alchemy. The two busts stared at one another from either side of the room.

The party first investigated the papers on the desk, which proved to be the diary of Leopold Van Lurken.

Mazeday, 10th of the Month of Crones

Jasper set out for Erubescence today. Nicolet is fretting, of course, but the boy is old enough to begin taking an active hand in the business, and now that things have settled down between Hex and the Crimson Lands the time is ripe for trade. The Sanguine Lords and Ladies have skill in necromancy to rival the finest of the Académie Macabre, but they lack technological know-how – they’ve relied so long on undead labour they’re centuries behind the things gnomes are building now in Hex. Between that and the Sap we should make a fortune. I’m sure Jasper is fit for the job, and besides, there’ll be plenty of more experienced men with him.

Here at home, Annette has sent off her application to Umbral University. She’s tried her hand at a few cantrips to great effect. She’s make a skilled illusionist, even if I would have preferred if she’d chosen Master Melchior’s School of Thaumaturgy & Enchantment or the Metamorphic Scholarium, even Fiend’s College… something useful. Illusion is just so frivolous! I suppose it makes a good school for a daughter on the marriage market, however – not that we’re in any urgent need of a match. I expect that every penniless noble for leagues will be battering down our door soon enough in hopes of getting their manicured fingers on our money.

Goatday, 16th of the Month of Snails

Jasper returned today after some weeks in Erubescence, and is full of strange tales: of the Bone Giants and the Tower of Teeth, of the Nurseries and the Grey Matrons, of the Blood Church and its great rival, the Cult of the Pallid Worm, who finds some small favour here in the guise of Mordiggia, the Charnel Goddess. He has brought back with him much gold, and contracts for further trade signed with various nobles and merchants in the Crimson Lands, and objects also, for sale here in Hex. These include a number of mysterious crates which he has insisted we store in our own cellars – Jasper claims the contents are far too valuable to leave in our warehouse in the Swelter.

The boy seems invigorated by his journey and full of an almost feverish excitement, though truth be told he is somewhat pale and thin of cheek; this is, perhaps, no surprise given the shroud of darkness that prevails over much of Erubescence, conjured by the Sanguine Lords and Ladies so they may walk freely even at noon, when their kind would normally be turned to ash. Still, I dislike the wild look in his eyes, or the curious, twitchy way he has taken to fidgeting…

Meanwhile, a pair of Nicolet’s earrings seem to have gone missing. She suspects the maid, Miranda, claiming to have found her once in the midst of trying on a necklace. Miranda claimed to have simply been cleaning the piece. I have had Geoffrey search the house, including the servant’s quarters, but he has turned up nothing. If Miranda did steal the earrings she must have already sold them, but without evidence I cannot bring myself to dismiss her.

Scaleday, 22nd of the Month of Snails

I fear for poor Jasper’s health! The boy seems averse to sunlight and has acquired an unhealthy pallor. Were he not quite free of bite-marks, happy to eat garlic, and perfectly visible in mirrors I would think him stricken with vampirism, courtesy of some Erubescent un-dead. He now spends all of his hours either cooped up in his room or else down in the basement gazing on the artefacts he has amassed, most particularly a large and singularly hideous stone idol dedicated to the Pallid Worm. I do quite understand his obsession with the outré and bizarre: after all, I myself possess a cabinet of curiosities filled with treasures from half a hundred lands, gleaned through years of meticulous collection, and have spent hours gazing on such oddities as the Instant Maze or the skeleton of a zoog, or speaking with the curious stone-elemental Gabbro, who walked the earth as a giant many aeons past and now, through the slow action of wind and rain, has dwindled to the size of a pebble. I’m sure, one day, he will have his own collection of such items. But still, it is unhealthy to spend so much time in the damp and dark – mould will get into his lungs and only worsen the queer hacking cough he seems to have developed.

Annette has been accepted to Umbral University and has already begun experimenting with more advanced spells – she even ensorcelled the mirror in her room, so that it could change your reflection, making it wear different clothes or altering your hair. And I dared think illusion-magic frivolous! Can you imagine what blushing young ladies and vain dandies would pay for such an object?! There are more than enough such folk in Fanghill. We could make our fortune over again, selling such things.

On the domestic front, Nicolet is concerned that the house has developed an infestation of some sort – perhaps some animal has died in the walls?  The cook found an alarming number of cockroaches in the pantry, and only this evening I discovered a maggot in my mutton! I quite lost my appetite.

Mossday, 3rd of the Month of Blushes

The physiker, the alchemist, and a priestess of the Magistra have all been by the house, but none can do anything for poor Jasper, and Nicolet is starting to panic. Neither spell nor prayer nor vigorous leeching nor medicinal potion has had any effect on him, and he retains an increasingly ghastly pallor – he looks like one of those horrible, degenerate ghouls one sees lurking in Shambleside, and his skin has a slick, slimy texture, as from a fever. He babbles strangely, keeping us wake late and night with gibberish chants, and often refuses to open his eyes, but bumbles about the house with them closed, his hands wrapped about his body. It is most strange. His room has taken on a rank stench, even with frequent cleaning, and seems infested even more thickly with the vermin that now plague the house in distressing numbers. And, of course, we still find him sneaking down to the cellars, despite having locked the door – he must be stealing the key. I must make arrangements to remove the thing from the house.

I fear some strange madness has taken him, a sickness contracted in the Crimson Lands. If he does not improve soon the authorities may well come knocking, to put the boy in Catch-All! I would not let such a fate befall him, for even the thought of that pestilential slum makes my skin crawl with horror, but to escape the Plague District he may need to be smuggled out of the city – perhaps sent to one of the sanitaria in the mountains, or some quiet place in the country.

The whole house has taken on a horrid gloominess in light of Jasper’s condition – the shadows denser, the light dimmer. Mildew and mould seem to be spreading up from the basement. Paintings that once were bright now seem grim, the faces of portraits ill-favoured. Even the grandfather clock, chiming in the front hall, seems to groan with an unhealthy sound, as if the mechanism itself were taken ill. There is a queer rustling sound in the walls. Even Annette seems subdued. I only pray she has not contracted whatever sickness plagues my eldest son. More than once Jasper has been found out of bed, lingering at his sister’s door in a way that is most disquieting, his eyelids squeezed shut, his clammy hands pawing at the door.

Starday, 12th of the Month of Blushes

Gods preserve me… I have locked myself here in the study, but fear I will not live out the night – or if I do, I shall not be unchanged. There are things which creep under the door, even now. There is no escape, unless perhaps I risk leaping from the window. I can hear the servants screaming elsewhere on this floor, as Jasper and Annette wreak their blood havoc. I scarce recognized her, nor Jasper either – for what stood before me, smeared in blood, was not my son, but some awful white eyeless thing, spewing blasphemous prayers to an unclean goddess. Whatever he touched began to decay, maggots bursting forth from furnishings and floorboards at his touch. Great tides of writhing worms and beetles and flies swarmed through the halls and filled the mouths and bodies of the servants, making them into grotesque puppets.

There are chittering sounds coming from outside the door, and somewhere a flute is playing a shrill and malignant tune. I pray only that Nicolet is spared, and that when the corruption that has taken this place is discovered it will be rooted out and expunged. Should anyone find this journal, I plead with you – kill whatever it is that I have become, and my children as well, and burn this house to the ground. Whatever evil has seized this place, it must not spread!

Next the group began investigating the bookshelves and busts in search of a trigger for the secret door implied by the map, eventually discovering that the eyes of the two busts were buttons which could be depressed. When Melchior and Keziah seemed to be winking at one another, a bookshelf swung open, revealing the cabinet of wonders beyond.

cabinet

Behind the secret door lay a small room in which all manner of strange objects were jammed. These ranged from the merely odd to the fabulously strange, even by the standards of Hex. These objects includde:

  • A stuffed wyvern hatchling.
  • A medusa’s death-mask.
  • A perfectly reproduced miniature model of Hex that had been enchanted to include illusions of tiny little people moving about in the streets and in and out of buildings.
  • A Lengian skull.
  • A zoog skeleton.
  • A puzzle box engraved with maze-like symbols.
  • A small painting of a Vegetable Lamb.
  • A gnomish automaton soldier approximately 1 foot tall.
  • A gnomish automaton angel approximately 1 foot tall that, when wound up, offers patronizing sermons in the name of the Magistra.
  • A bottle of greyish-green liquid, the bubbles of which contain weird, surreal visions of strange landscapes, as well as scenes of everyday life.
  • Six eyeballs of indeterminate species floating in liquid.
  • A minotaur horn.
  • A beautifully realistic child’s doll of ambiguous sex. The doll had a minor enchantment: when the drawstring on its back is pulled it temporarily assumed the semblance of a real child.
  • A dark blue rhomboid stone.
  • A shrunken cat’s head.
  • A letter of some kind.
  • An orchid made entirely out of pink crystal.
  • A potion of gaseous form.
  • A flask of endless coffee.
  • A miniature shovel large enough for a gnome or a small child.
  • A tiny cosmological model made of intricate clockwork showing speculative locations of the Dreamlands, the Underworld, Faerie, Anathema, and the mortal plane.
  • A tiny potted plant that produces small, multi-coloured berries
  • A small, green fish in a glass bowl.
  • A Librarian Voidcraft in a bottle modeled on the vessel glimpsed through powerful telescopes at the edge of the solar system.
  • A gently snoring stone which is in fact a minor earth elemental, as the party discovered, called Gabbro.
  • A porcelain mask.
  • An ornate pocket-watch engraved with the letter “A” on the back.

Manfredo_Settala_-_Cabinet_of_curiosities

After rifling greedily through these riches and plundering the cabinet thoroughly the party heard something approaching from down below – an eerie skittering, slithering noise. Garvin crept quickly and stealthily through the corridors while the rest of the party remained near the study. The thief was first to spy the source of the noise: a flushed, fleshy creature creeping up the stairs out of the gloom on limbs that seemed inadequate for its corpulent, worm-like bulk. Bloated and blotched with pink, the monstrosity was clad in the tattered remnants of what might have been a finely-tailored dress, twisted round its sinuous body. Its neckless face had vestigial features, though its mouth remains rather horribly humanoid, with full, red, womanly lips and pointed white fangs. A few patches of long, dark hair sprouted from the creature’s scalp. The thing seemed mostly blind but remained cognizant of the world around it. The remains of the snapped-off pool cue protruded from its body.

vampire mouth

Still concealed, Garvin crept through the corridors of the house and fired at the horror, but his bolt embedded itself in the thing’s bulk to little noticeable effect. The monstrosuty surged towards the rest of the party and a fierce battle ensued, Vespidae hurling javelins and performing waspkin battle-dances while Yam and Armand desperately assailed the monster with acid and fire spells, the latter of which proved highly effective. Garvin, firing more bolts, was scratched by one of the monstrosity’s clawed appendages, a terrible wound that tore through leather and flesh. Blood pouring from this great tear, he slipped into unconsciousness while Vespidae, in desperation, cast dissonant whispers, causing the worm-like creature to flee – not down the passage but by burrowing down through the sagging, rotten floorboards. It dropped nimbly to the floor of the front hall below, where Armand and Yam continued their arcane bombardment from above. Engulfed in flame, the creature shrieked and withered, shrinking and shrivelling to assume the form of a young woman, scorched and unconscious. Yam, surmising that this was likely Annette Van Lurken, hurried down to the front hall and thrust the remains of pool cue through her heart. Annette vomited up copious quantities of blood and lay still. At Yam’s urging she was locked in the butler’s pantry, the gnome reasoning that she might be revived later by Umbral University, and perhaps even restored to life.

“We should burn this place down,” Armand said. “Like the diary said.” The effete sorcerer was clearly perturbed by the house.

“Not yet,” Garvin said. “There’s still the other thief. Let’s try the third floor.”

Exploration of the third floor was brief, preceded by careful scouting using the gloves of thief’s sight to look through the ceiling. The party quickly located a man who might be the thief in question, seemingly suspended from the ceiling in the guest room. Ignoring the nursery, the group briefly ventured into Annette’s room, a bedchamber with a large makeup table and several boxes containing jewellery – necklaces, earrings, and other adornments. There was also a wardrobe, open, revealing many beautiful dresses, a resplendent four-poster bed with silk sheets, and a large mirror, which the party very wisely avoided looking into. Seizing a few oddments of jewellery and a wand lying on the makeup table, the party next entered the guest chamber, a simple room with modest decorations. Seemingly suspended from the ceiling was a man in dark, bloodstained clothing and cloak, which somehow was not dangling towards the floor but remained swathed around him. The man stood stock-still and deathly pale, but his eyes were open and his breathing shallow. His neck had been savaged nastily and was scabbed with dozens of ugly puncture-wounds. There was one window here, but a glyph was scrawled upon it in blood, indicating an arcane lock.

After supplying the thief with a potion of healing and helping him down, the party learned his name was Felix Stonemouth, and that he ahd been imprisoned in the chamber for some days or perhaps weeks, being slowly drained dry by Annette.

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As the party prepared to leave the house, a buzzing became audible from the master bedchamber – a horrible whining, droning sound, as of some monstrous insect. Hastening down the stairs, the adventurers glimpsed a single dainty, hairy leg pick its way out of the bedchamber doors. With a shudder the party hurried onwards, withdrawing down the stairs and through the front hall, out into the cold, starless night, Yam making sure to retrieve the comatose, staked body of Annette Van Lurken. Once safely outside Armand lit the house ablaze with a series of fire bolts. As the place burned, Vespidae took to the sky and uttered a prayer to the Queen in Yellow, asking that the goddess receive the artworks consumed in the conflagration as a sacrifice. Whatever lay below in the still-unexplored cellar would be trapped beneath the burnt wreckage of the house…

Images: Thief concept art, Jacques Rigaud‘s View of the Chapel at Versailles, screenshots and concept art from Amnesia, Domenico RempsA Cabinet of Curiosity, Manfredo Settala’s cabinet of curiosities, from “Museo o Galeria,” Ben Templesmith’s 30 Days of Night cover, still from Dark Shadows.

Hex Session IV – 5th Edition Actual Play – “Rolling the Bones”

The characters in this session were:

  • Garvin Otherwise, a human rogue and burglar of the Ravenswing Thieves’ Guild, with a very, very peculiar past and a zoog pet, Lenore.
  • Caulis, a homunculus warlock liberated from its master; has made a pact with certain Faerie Powers.
  • Vespidae, a waspkin bard – a sacred dancer with a deathwish, shunned by the waspkin community for complicated ritualistic reasons. Now a follower of the Queen in Yellow and accompanied by two animated statuettes created by Magdalena Rotterthorpe.
  • 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).
  • Sprigley Gilette, a hardboiled, cigar-chomping human mercenary and veteran of several brutal wars, and a relatively new arrival in Hex.

XP Awarded: 200 XP.

The party met in the Green Star, a tavern in Mooncross filled with plants of various kinds, halfway between bar and greenhouse. The bartender was a fungoid who sometimes added herbs and other ingredients harvested from the indoor-garden to various drinks. After ordering various beverages (absinthe, nectar, a Cacodemon Ale) they set about deciding what venture they might next undertake.

Fungoid 001

After some discussion party eventually resolved to apprehend the ghoulish gangster known as Nettie “Ossifrage” Toadlung, leader of the Starveling gang of Shambleside. They had spotted wanted posters in Corvid Commons during previous activities in the area. Additionally, Garvin was aware that the Starvelings were potentially forming an alliance with the Crowsbeak Thieves’ Guild, sworn rivals of his own Guild, the Ravenswing. For this reason, putting a stop to Nettie’s operations would be beneficial. During his investigations, Garvin learned that Nettie was in fact the operator of the Rat & Roach, a subterannean casino in the understreets below Shambleside. The place reputedly had a number of quasi-legal and downright illegal activities available for the distinguishing patron, including unlicensed zombie cage-fighting. It was also said to have a large vault full of cash for the casino above, as well as various items stolen by the Starvelings.

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After equipping themselves, the party set out for the reanimators’ district. While trying to be discrete, several were stopped by a patrol of Eyes, the police of Hex, who informed them that travel into the district was being temporarily suspended to “keep the peace,” due to a “still-developing situation.” However, the party was able to talk their way past the watchmen, Armand and Caulis claiming to be on an important errand and to have no interest in whatever troubles were brewing. Reluctantly, the Eyes let them past.

The air was thick with the smell of spice and embalming fluid and leather, and beneath it all the stench of rot. From the gruesome deadstock pens to the Moaning Market where the reanimated are auctioned off, Shambleside is stepped in the macabre. Ghouls live here in great numbers, lurking in the shadows, avoiding sunlight whenever possible.

There seemed to be some kind of protest brewing not from the Charnel Gate –a number of armed City Watchmen were clustering around impromptu barricades, where a gathering crowd holds signs and jeers. Investigating more closely, the party found the source of the disturbance to which the watch patrols alluded: an angry mob of protestors were facing down a cordon of Eyes near the deadstock pens. The protestors were a variegated bunch, a mix of humans, ghouls, cambions, dagonians, gnomes, and even a handful of waspkin and Lengians. They were united by their demands: their signs bore variations of “A Living Wage for the Living,” “Against Exploitation, Against Reanimation,” and “We Want Bread, Not Undead.” Things looked tense, but apart from the occasional bit of shoving or shouting they hadn’t turned violent. Taking advantage of the disturbance, the party found a quiet side street and descended into the sunken streets below, paved over many years’ past.

demonstration

Finding their way to the Rat & Roach proved relatively simple, and after some additional scouting the party discovered a passage leading to a back entrance. Garvin searched the passage and discovered it was booby-trapped with a gnomish sliver-mine, which he disarmed and kept for himself. The passage terminated at a door guarded by a single Starveling – a ghoul clad in tattered waistcoat and bowlder hat, smoking and guarding the passage leading into the casino. With the aid of charm person, Caulis was able to circumvent the guard, claiming to be on a special errand to speak with Nettie personally on obviously guild-related business. The bewitched guard allowed the party entrance, and they entered the casino without having their weapons confiscated or their true purposes known.

The main room of the Rat & Roach was a sprawling, filthy bar and casino-room filled with ghouls, cambions, trollbloods, and humans, all drinking, gambling, and carousing. Rotgut, blood, fungus ale, Blackbeak Brew, shadetea, and various other substances were all for sale. The patrons played games of Hexchess, Ruff & Honours, Blind Idiot, and Leper’s Dice, among other games. An elevator leading up to the Phantom Queen, another tavern on the surface, was evident in one corner, while a pair of doors leading  to a series of other chambers and backrooms frequented by high rollers and those with connections could be seen as well. The evening’s entertainment consisted of a ghoul singer, her highly canine face belying her beautiful if rasping voice. She was backed up by a chorus line of reanimated dancers, mechanically moving and kicking in perfect time, their skirts flouncing, their eyes dead.

Rakes Progress

Surreptitiously, Garvin investigated one of the backroom doors and discovered a brewery room staffed with reanimated workers under the direction of a single ghoul brewmaster barking orders to the undead thralls as they tended to the huge vats. A stair lead down to a cellar on the next level. Returning to the main chamber, Garvin described what he’d seen.

“I bet the vault is on the bottom floor,” he said. “If we had some sort of distraction maybe we could go through the cellars.”

“I might have an idea,” Vespidae volunteered.

After a brief talk with the management, Vespidae convinces them to let her try her hand at some entertainment. She was ushered backstage into an area with several small dressing rooms. Half a dozen reanimated dancing girls stood here, still and inert as manikins save for the gentle rasp of their breath. After waiting for the current act to end, Vespidae tentatively walked out on stage.

Accompanied by her Unseen Servant and two animated statuettes – duplicates of herself fashioned by the arcane sculptress Magdalena Rotterthrope – Vespidae began an intricate, utterly absorbing dance, partly on stage, partly in the air. The crowd, at first sceptical and angry at being deprived their normal entertainment, gradually became enraptured by the hypnotic performance, which including intricate, dramatic in-air moves and complex patterns.

“Hey, you gotta see this!” one of the bouncers yelled to the ghoul brewmaster, who lumbered out of the brewery. While the brewmaster was absent the rest of the party slipped into the brewery. Ignored by zombies still lethargically tending to the equipment – some now spilling good ale and leaving valves open without the brewmaster’s supervision – the party began by investigating several adjoining backrooms.

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Garvis first picked the lock to the door of a small room filled with filing cabinets stuffed with papers. Sprigley plundered this records room for incriminating documents, turning up a number that showed what looked like evidence of an illicit drug-smuggling operation. Next they entered a grimy, ill-lit room with a chair set up beneath a glaring light. A badly beaten man was chained to the chair, gagged and bloody. Hesitating only a moment, the party freed the man, who identified himself as Dirk Brillspar, and confessed to having been caught cheating at cards. He feared himself soon to be killed and given to “Abjectus,” a creature in the tunnels with some kind of pact with the Starvelings.

After arming Dirk, the party hastily returned to the brewery and clambered down a ladder into a cellar below. Huge kegs filled this gloomy chamber, which reeked of cheap alcohol. There were crates and racks of wine here, as well as stronger spirits such as absinthe and whiskey. Rats teemed in great numbers here.20160606095503_1

After helping themselves to a few choice bottles of wine, the party slipped out of the cellar into the passages on the second level of the casino. Glancing down one hallway they glimpsed what looked like the vault door – to judge by its prominent combination lock. Hearing an approaching guard, they forewent further investigation and quickly ducked down another corridor and through a door. Here they found a cavernous sewer tunnel bobbing with filth. Moored to the catwalk overlooking the tunnel was a small boat laden with crates. The party looked inside, discovering large quantities of the Sap, the arcane drug harvested from the Elder Tree in Ambery, the last in Hex. Taking several phials of the valuable drug, they were debating what to do with the remainder when footsteps became audible coming down the corridor. They attempted to hide; the door opened, and a Starveling emerged, peering round the chamber. He located Caulis and Armand, who attempted to talk their way out of the situation, feigning disorientation and having “gotten lost” on their way from the gaming tables. The guard was unconvinced by this obvious ruse, but in the meantime Garvin and Sprigley leapt into action and quickly subdued the guard, knocking him unconscious. They concealed his comatose form in the boat and crept back into the tunnels.

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Continuing to explore the lower level, the group entered a chamber which looked to be an enlarged natural cavern. Slowly developing in this moist, dripping cave were a number of fungoids, still in the nacesent stages of growth where they appear somewhere between puffballs and squalling infants. Various tools for feeding and harvesting these still-growing creatures were evident. Caulis, observing the fungoids, inhaled a blast of spores, and then –

A woman walks through a snowy landscape, carrying a bundled, still child. She clambers down into a dark, sheltered hollow in the hills, sweeps a large flat stone clear of snow, and lays the child on it. She draws a blade and makes long cuts along her arms, then uses the blood to draw sigils around the stone and child. Losing blood, she begins to weaken and stagger. Where the blood has begun to congeal on the cold stone, it now gathers into animate forms, lurching and roiling towards the child. The child jerks, its features twisting subtly, and it sits up, and smiles.

– Caulis jerked back, reeling. An ancestral memory? A hallucination?

Somewhat disturbed, the party continued into an adjoining chamber to0 discover a large iron pen, as for cattle. Inside milled a dozen fungoids – the sporious humanoids indigenous to the Old City of Hex, as well as the Zymotic Ward. These particular fungoids had a peculiar purplish cast. An array of tools hung on a rack on the wall, including man-catchers, lassos, claw-grips on the end of poles, scrapers, shears, and the like. Stairs climbed back up to the first level.

Ignoring the fungoid prisoners for now, the party continued exploring the lower level and eventually located Nettie’s office – but not before Sprigley, blundering forward, tripped a hidden wire. A mechanism clicked, spraying him with a mist of vapour before lighting this flammable gas with a spark. The resulting blast of flame engulfed the warrior, horribly burning him; he flailed backwards and slumped against a wall. Sprigley’s companions managed to put him out and rescue him from the brink of death with a hasty healing potion. Shaken but alive, Sprigley got to his feet and the party approached the office.

Garvin proved unable to pick the lock to Nettie’s office, so an alternative solution was employed. Using an enchanted bolt of silence, Garvin created a bubble around the door in which no sound could be heard. Then Sprigley kicked the door off its hinges. The group entered a small, grimy room with a grotty desk, a mouldering chair, and a handful of old cabinets. A thorough search turned up quantities of cash, a hand crossbow, poisoned bolts, and a spare vial of poison. Sprigley, search especially thoroughly uncovered a hidden compartment in one of the desk drawers, in which a piece of parchment could be found. The parchment had three numbers scrawled on it: 13, 9, 17.

safe cracking

The party now hastened back to the vault, though Armand – swayed, perhaps, by a pang of conscience, or perhaps deciding to create a distraction to cover a potential escape – stopped to carefully open the pen of the fungoid prisoners. Sprigley decided to hang back with Dirk, guarding the path to the boat – now the group’s intended escape route. Wary of additional traps the party began searching for tripwires. Garvin, unfortunately, managed to blunder into one in the course of the search and accidentally set it off, resulting in a jet of poisonous vapour which he inhaled fully. Gasping, his face and veins blackening, he slumped to the ground in terrible pain. Swift application of a healing potion spared him from death. Using the combination 13, 9, 17, the party managed to open the vault. Inside were shelves piled with coin-rolls and bags of coin, as well as several objects which the party hastily grabbed: a painting of Arabella Sickle, Infernal Archbishop of Hex, a mysterious deck of cards, a scroll, a verdigris-encrusted gun, and a mysterious book with a black cover.

Meanwhile, upstairs, Vespidae had finished her performance spectacularly, destroying her statuette-duplicates in a crescendo of violence using her javelings, to the utter delight of the crowd. Tips poured in for the dancer, who was now euphoric with success. Impressed by Vespidae’s prowess, the casino’s management offered the waspkin a chance to test herself in the backroom. Seeing no sign of her companions, Vespidae agreed and was led into a crowded chamber adjoining the main room where two reanimated corpses fought in a brutal contest within a cage. Both had been extensively modified by their Reanimators. One bore a morningstar where its hand should be, its wrist wrapped with an iron chain nailed and sutured to its dead flesh, while its head was studded with brutal spikes like a mace, in mimicry of the ball swinging from its forearm; if its opponent were to headbutt it, they would be impaled. It carried a shield in its other hand. The other gladiator was even more ostentatious. Its head was that of a reanimated ghoul, complete with tearing canine teeth, but its body had a writhing mass of limbs, those of a Lengian. How the necromancer secured a spiderfolk cadaver is anyone’s guess; usually Lengians send their dead to the Temple of the Mother of Spiders in Cobweb Cliffs. The hybrid horror was armed with a multitude of knives.

jericho

While the two zombies circle one another and intermittently attacked, fed arcane instructions by their handlers, a crowd cheered and placesd frenzied bets.  The melee was brutal, but the mace-headed zombie triumphed, pummeling its opponent into submission. To the whoops of the crowd, Vespidae was placed in the cage. The waspkin managed to land several crippling blows on the reanimated gladiator with her javelins, but a lucky head-butt from the zombie brought the waspkin to the brink of death. Only the intervention of management managed to spare her life, though she was still paid for her time and invited to remain in the backrooms, even to attend to the high-rollers’ table if she wished.

Shaken, still injured, and now clueless as to her companions’ whereabouts, Vespidae decided to remain in the backrooms. She first wandered into room filled with decaying couches and armchairs,a drug den with several individuals strung out on shadetea, their eyes black as the void between stars. One girl was hopped up on thrum, an arcane stimulant made from the displacement gland of phasebats. She blurred, flickering in and out of reality, her flesh creeping and quivering, one moment present, another absent. Several ghouls also smoked a large pipe filled with some sort of purple-grey gas. One mildew-eaten room over, lit with a glimmering red lamp, junkies were sprawled on rotting furniture having consumed some form of psychoactive toadstools, more of which could be seen on a table in the room’s centre. A dozen more bleary-eyed men and women sprawled on pallets and mouldy mattresses, their eyes wide and staring, pallid faces streaked with sweat. Dispassionately moving on, Vespidae came to the high rollers’ room – a private room with walls of dark wood and a finely carved table that looked like it was liberated from a more salubrious district of the city. There were even some paintings on the walls, though these were mostly pornographic in nature. Given the go-ahead by a guard, she entered. A group of individuals sat around the table playing an intense game of he Cursed River, a complex magical card game in which players curse one another with their cards, making play more difficult. One fellow was slowly turning to stone, his feet and legs first. A few more curses and he’d be a statue. Another player could speak only in rhymes, and had to rehearse each sentence perfectly. Nettie Toadlung herself presided over the game, winning big, though blind in one eye from a curse.

downwind

Vespidae entered the game to the amusement of several players and proceeded to clean up, winning hand after hand as her opponents became increasingly curse-riddled; Nettie herself was becoming increasingly translucent as she bled coins to Vespidae. The secret to the waspkin’s success was smell – she could smell the pheramone levels exuded by various players, and judge hands accordingly. Waspkin, not usually a gambling folk, had cleared missed their calling.

Impressed by Vespidae’s skill and taken out of the game herself, Nettie invited the waspkin down to her office to sign a contract, becoming a regular performer at the Rat & Roach. By this point Vespidae was so flushed with success she barely remembered why she’d come to the casino in the first place. She agreed to Nettie’s offer and the two descended to the second floor, passing through a guard-room on the way.

At this point, all Hell broke loose.

Nettie arrived to find the passage to her office scorched, her door hanging off its hinges, and her desk drawers ripped out. Moments later Sprigley appeared from the shadows, pointing a gun at her and telling her to divest herself of weapons. Attacking with a hand crossbow, Nettie received a gunshot to the kneecap in return.

Hearing the gunshot, the rest of the party at the vault came running – as did the Starvelings from the guard room. The two groups intersected just as a group of bumbling fungoids emerged from their pen.

The resulting chaos was too confused to recount in detail – a blur of gunshots, screams, spores, and spells. Eventually, Garvin used his Hand of Glory, an embalmed hand clutching a candle, to paralyze several of the guards. Caulis summoned an Unseen Servant to dustract Nettie. Vespidae, confused and barely recognizing her companions, including a horribly burnt Sprigley, prayed to the Queen in Yellow for guidance. The Queen appeared to Vespidae in a vision, telling the waspkin to “make the situation even more of a farce.” Vespidae cast longstrider on Nettie, and the Starevling gang leader, suddenly very fast, was sent flying as the Unseen Servant tripped her. She cracked her skull against a wall, giving Sprigley a few precious seconds to grab her. Caulis beat her over the head with its great-club and the party hastily made their way to the boat to make their escape, leaving a bleeding Dirk and a still-perplexed Vespidae behind.

Images: Chartist demonstration, Kennington Common, 1848; William Hogarth’s The Rake’s Progress; screenshots from Dishonored, Thief, Jericho, and Thief: The Dark Project; Noah Siegel’s “Omphalotus oleraius.”

Witiko Falls game

A friend of mine over at thecbg.org is running an online game set in a version of my Witiko Falls setting.

Check out their beautifully put-together version of the setting over on the Obsidian Portal..

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