BEARDED DEVIL

Monsters, Horror, Gaming

Author: Bearded Devil (Page 1 of 7)

Maps

I made a big map for my D&D game and turned it into a poster for use during the game. It’s easily the most detailed thing I’ve ever drawn; it took me about a year working on and off on it in my spare time, mostly as a break from my dissertation or as a way to wind down in the evening. It’s entirely hand-drawn except for the lettering; I scanned a lot of 8-1/2″x11″ pages together, then edited them.

Here it is:

Hex_Poster Hex Big Map Hex Central East Hex Central West Hex East Hex NortheastHex NorthwestHex Southeast Hex Southwest Hex West

As you can see, it’s pretty detailed:

Downpour Heights Weftmart Warded Ward Infernal Basilica

Hex Session XIX – 5th Edition Actual Play – “Spring”

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.”
  • Caulis, a homunculus warlock liberated from its master; has made a pact with certain Faerie Powers.
  • 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).
  • Cephalus T. Murkwater, a dagonian barrister and monk, specializing in martial arts and magical labour law.
  • Zhulaz, a trollblood barbarian, exile of the Twocrown tribe, freed from thralldom.

XP Awarded: 700 XP

Meanwhile, in Hex, the worst of the winter winds have, at least for a moment, abated. Cephalus T. Murkwater, stirring from the torpor that has gripped the dagonian population since the winter began, decides it is time to partake of a particular human custom he has always found both strange and charming: the birthday party. Invitations are ordered, written, and sent; thew dagonian and his associate, Hurogg, await the arrival of guests.

Most of Cephalus’ adventuring companions are out in the frigid depths of Troll Country, but Armand Percival Reginald Francois Eustace de la Marche III arrives fashionably late, attended by retainers. The pallid sorcerer chats amiably with the other guests – mostly clients and colleagues – while eyeing the canapes with repressed disdain.

“You seem to be somewhat recovered,” Armand drily noted, looking Cephalus up and down.

“The winter seems to be abating,” Cephalus agreed. “The dagonians are starting to wake up. But the river is still frozen.”

“Some of us have been working on a solution,” Armand noted. “Over in Troll Country, to the north. The others should be returning soon. Now that some of your strength has returned, perhaps you’d be fit to aid us.”

“If it’ll help unfreeze the river, then certainly,” Cephalus agreed.

Mooncross

Back in Troll Country, the party lingered over the carnage they had wrought at the Hearg of Wind, taking care to confiscate the sacred runestone the shamans had been using to conjure the spirits of the dead and channel their ancient fury into the storm.

“One more to go,” Sister rumbled, her mind still in the body of a gigantic troll.

Catching their breath, the group spoke to the handful of trollblood thralls who’d helped them overthrow the Skintakers, consulting Vanessa Greyleaf for translation as necessary. One of them, a muscular trollblood barbarian named Zhulaz, indicated that he wished to join them.

“I’ve got nowhere to go, and a grudge to settle with the Skintakers,” the trollblood growled in accented Hextongue. It seemed he was an exile from Ettin Island, shunned by the Twocrown tribe for his “impure” partly-human blood and single head – at least two heads being the minimum for proper social standing among the brutal islanders.

“I’m sure we could use the help,” Caulis said. “Let’s get back to Hex for a bit and regroup.”

“Back to Hex?” Zhulaz said. “You mean… walk there?”

“Exactly,” Sister said, drawing a chalk portal. The gate opened, and the party entered the Hive of the Thirteenth Queen back in the city. Zhulaz marveled at this strange new magic, and even conversed briefly with the waspkin artist-priestesses, the hieorphants excitedly making statues of the newcomer.

Troll Country

The party spent the night in Hex, taking the chance to regroup, several returning to various ventures requiring their attention, others rejoining the expedition. After having healed and refreshed themselves, Sister, Caulis, Garvin, Armand, Cephalus, and Zhulaz returned through the portal into Troll Country. Yam had returned with the bewitched troll in Sister’s body to their dwelling in Mooncross.

Back in Troll Country, already things were changing. Without the Hearg of Wind, the screaming gale-force blizzards had dwindled and died, and the mountainous country was still and silent, the snow falling thickly but no longer in berserk flurries. From the south, they could see the green line of the newly-grown forest Caulis had created.

After some debate, the party decided to set out for the Blackhorn village and the Sickened Land, hoping that they could use Caulis’ powers to heal that traumatized region as they had with the Caustic Wastes. Zhulaz seemed slightly reluctant to visit the village, but being new to the party, went along with the will of the group.

As the group made their way northeast, they discovered a series of glyphs, carved into the trunks of trees. Further in, similar glyphs appeared on skulls mounted on wooden posts. Zhulaz and Vanessa could both read the runes: “Plague.”

Something was wrong with the land here. The trees were blighted, leaves disintegrating and grey, bark peeling – deadened by more than the depredations of winter. What little other vegetation peaked through the snow was similarly malformed and unhealthy-looking. But there was more to it than just some withered vegetation. The ground itself, the very stones, were sick. Boulders and crags uncovered by snow were speckled with what looked like weeping sores. The snow was discoloured yellow and red with the seepage of similar wounds – gangrenous pits the scar the poisoned earth, leaking pus. Even the clouds were jaundiced, the snow they wept mixed with putridity. This was a land somehow befouled.

Zhulaz told of the atrocity that created the Sickened Land. During the war against the Blackhorns and the Skintakers, Hex’s necromancers and alchemists – the luminaries of Caulchurch and the Académie Macabre – devised a horrific potion, a contagion with which the weather-witches of the Citadel tainted the sky. The clouds rained down a deadly plague that decimated the land itself, a malady that makes everything sick, the Omniphage.

“Horrible,” Garvin said, darkly.

“Fascinating,” Armand said, eyeing some of the twisted shrubs.

E0702 FRIEDRICH 8858

Those who possessed them quickly donned gas-masks to ward against the pestilential miasmas that rolled across the Sickened Land in leprous fog-banks.

A brief way into the Sickened Land, a pool of sickly-looking, bubbling blood – or blood-befouled water – frothed and sputtered. Drinking from the sanguineous depths was a bear, horribly sickened, its fur mangy, its teeth rotten, its eyes rheum-caked and half-blind. It sniffed the air. Cephalus tensed, ready to fight, as the bear lumbered towards them, pawing at the dagonian martial artist.

With its party members distracted by the diseased bear, Caulis slunk to the banks of the pool and, carefully, buried another of the Royal Acorns from Titania’s forest.

Once again the ground quaked and rumbled, and Caulis was thrown from its feet into the sickly pool. It could feel the magical virus infiltrating its bark, but then the pool cleared, the water becoming crystalline and pure, even as trees burst from the ground, the blighted foliage healing, long-diseased trees springing back to life and writhing upwards, spreading green, healthy leaves. As the bear snarled, the earth beneath its paws turned from ghastly brown to lush green, spreading up from the soil through the bear’s limbs and into its body, its fur becoming lustrous, its teeth whitening, its eyes suddenly clear.

Caulis crawled out from the pool, healed as quickly as it had succumbed to illness. Casting prestidigitation, it created the strong smell of a fresh kill nearby. The bear loped off in search of a meal.

A second huge forest now spread around them in all directions. It seemed the Sickened Land was diseased no longer.

“That was… quite impressive,” Armand said to Caulis. “How did you do that?”

“A gift from my Patron,” Caulis said, still refusing to go into any details.

Armand, intrigued by this botanical magic, tried to locate the initial tree that burst from the ground, and carefully harvested samples from its massive bulk.

The party pressed on, making now for the Blackhorn village. When they arrived they found a shell of a place, huts standing empty, its walls – carved, now, with runic markings to keep out disease, and festooned with skulls and charms – dilapidated, but newly fuzzed with green moss.

As they approached, a handful of emaciated-looking warriors crept forth. All bore the huge, glossy horns of their tribe.

“Who comes?” they demanded in Giant.

“We are the ones who healed the forest,” Vanessa declared, noticing that Zhulaz was silent, pulling his hood low. Some of the chieftain’s guards were looking at him strangely. “We seek no payment and mean you no harm.”

“You must speak with out chief, Mogthrasir,” one of the trollbloods said, eyeing the party with a mixture of awe and suspicion. “Come.”

The group entered the remnants of the Blackhorn village and were led to the husk of a great hall, obviously once resplendent. Seated atop a throne of bones was a thin, towering shape – a man of great stature who looked half-starved. Massive ram’s horns curled from his temples.

“I am Mogthrasir,” he said. “Chieftain of the Blackhorns.”

“Greetings,” Garvin said, a bit nervously. “We’re here to heal Troll Country, and to oppose the Skintakers who would destroy it.”

“We are no enemies of the Skintakers,” Mogthrasir said, warily.

“But we know you’re not their allies, either,” Sister said. She had concealed those signs that marked her host body as a Skintaker. “And the Skintakers plan on extending this winter for many months – perhaps longer. What will that do to game? How will you feed your people?”

“There is so little game as there is,” Mogthrasir said slowly.

“Not anymore,” Caulis said. “The forest we created – it is full of animals. We can prove it. Gather your best hunters. We shall return with a feast.”

Mogthrasir shifted on his throne. “An interesting offer. Very well.”

An hour later, the party set out with a group of Blackhorn hunters, into the depths of the fairy wood. Sister used pass without trace to cloak the hunters’ approach. Together the band brought down a gigantic elk, one of the mysterious beasts to appear alongside the trees, loping from the deep green shadows from out of some other realm. The hunters thanked the Troll Gods for the kill. They returned with the dead elk, and Mogthrasir ordered it roast over a spit, for the entire village to eat.

“Truly this forest is extraordinary,” he said. “You have healed the land. And for this, we are indeed in your debt. If you are enemies of the Skintakers, we shall aid you in opposing them. They are no longer welcome in our lands.”

“Mogthrasir!” one of the Blackhorns suddenly said, barging into the hall. “There is a thief among us!”

“What?” the chieftain. “Who do you speak of Gullveig?”

“This one!” the trollblood declared, pointing at Zhulaz. “Some months ago, this outlaw wandered into our midst. We took him in, but he left in the night, stealing one of our pigs! We demand the blood price for his theft!”

Vanessa nervously translated for the rest of the party.

“Excuse me,” Cephalus said, stepping forward. “Armand, would you help me speak?”

“Certainly,” Armand said, casting comprehend languages.

“Thank you,” Cephalus continued. “Sir, my client stands accused of a grave wrongdoing. Does he not have a chance to defend himself?”

There were murmurs throughout the hall. “Lawspeaker,” the Blackhorns said.

“Hmm. Very well,” Mogthrasir said. “Tonight, when the feast is done, I will hear what you have to say, and judge accordingly.” He looked to the wronged trollblood. “Is this acceptable, Gullveig?”

The trollblood crossed his thin, sinewy arms, but nodded.

the trial

Cephalus pleads Zhulaz’s case before Mogthrasir. Illustration by Caulis’ player, Bronwyn McIvor.

The party discussed strategy, and then the court convened in the hall of the Blackhorn village after the feast was cleared away. Mogthrasir sat upon his bone chair to listen both to the charges in full, and the defense Cephalus would offer.

Gullveig repeated his accusations. “This Twocrown nithing stole one of my pigs. We could have starved because of him! I demand the blood price be paid!”

“Do you deny this charge?” Mogthrasir asked.

“I do not,” Zhulaz said. “I was starving, a desperate man, shunned, wandering from village to village.”

“Your desperation matters not,” Mogthrasir growled. “You have wronged the Blackhorns!”

“My client has admitted to stealing the pig,” Cephalus interceded. “But the weregild need not be paid with blood. What if we could provide an alternative recompense?”

“What recompense?” Mogthrasir asked.

“I believe that’s where I can come in,” Armand said. “Gullveig, was it?”

“Yes?”

“You are, I take it, a farmer?” Armand’s normal class disdain seemed somewhat muted for a fellow horticulturalist.

“Yes…”

“If I were to cast a spell to speed the growth of your crops – indeed, to double them – would that be sufficient restitution for this pig you lost?”

“Hmm.” The trollblood bared his teeth.

“If anything, such a bounty favours the accuser,” Cephalus said. “To double his crops’ yield – surely this is worth more than a single pig?”

“Gullveig,” Mogthrasir said. “The lawspeaker is right. If restitution can be provided in the form of goods, then the blood-price would be paid.”

Gullveig grunted. “Very well,” he said, throwing his arms in the air. “If you can truly do as you say, I will acknowledge the price paid.”

The party lingered in the Blackhorn village the next day, Armand using plant growth to nurture Gullveig’s crops. Garvin, meanwhile, sought out the tribe’s shaman, Urdunn – an ancient woman whose grey-haired head bore still-magnificent horns. Her hut was filled with charms and amulets, fashioned from the skulls and bones of various animals. Garvin came to peruse her cures and potions, but upon seeing the charms, a thought struck him.

“I think this might be yours,” he said, taking out the bird skull amulet he’d taken from the keep of the Order of the Goat.

Urdunn examined it carefully. “Ah yes… this is indeed of Blackhorn make.”

“It must have been stolen from here. Please, keep it.”

“Thank you, human,” she said with a crooked grin.

Garvin spoke for some time with the shaman. He learned that the Hearg to the southwest was the Hearg of Fire, dedicated to Sinmara, the Troll Goddess of flame, queen of the fire giants.

After resting and recovering, the group resolved to assault this last Hearg, to at last end the fell winter that gripped Hex in its icy claws.

troll country 2

The journey south was less arduous than the trek north, though made slow by the fairy forest that now stretched across much of Troll Country. These woods now merged with those alpine forests around the Behemoth’s Skull, the massive, fossilized remnants of one of the primordial ancestors of all Giants. The group was accompanied by a band of Blackhorns and rescued thralls, led by the powerful Zhulaz.

The party approached by stealth, aided by spells. An illusory duplicate conjured by Sister drew the initial fire of the troll warriors guarding the cluster of shamans who worked their spell at the Hearg, channeling the spirits to form a column of fire. As Sister charged forward – still in a Troll’s body – to behead one of the enemy warriors with her claymore, Garvin darted from the shadows, poisoned bolts whizzing from his crossbow. The shamans snarled in rage and set a wave of flame towards the attackers, burning their skin. Zhulaz roared in righteous fury and charged alongside Sister, cuttinb down trollblood warriors left and right.

A fog cloud summoned by Armand gave the cadaverous sorcerer cover to slink into the Hearg and, cunningly, to steal the runic fire-stone allowing the shamans to channel the spirits of the Hearg. The column of fire dissipated in a puff of smoke. The party closed in, and now the shamans gave flight, Garvin shooting several down, Cephalus breaking bones along the east flank, snapping spines and sending teeth flying. Vanessa, still furious from the sight of the fallen Stormguardians, cast magic missiles from the sidelines – only to be charged by a fleeing trollblood and, in a flicker of iron, cut down, her blood staining the snow.

“No!” Sister shouted, barreling forw2ards. Cephalus dispatched the warrior who had felled Vanessa, even while Sister rushed to her side. Calling on the power of the Mother of Spiders she desperately tried to bind Vanessa’s wounds. For a moment it looked as if even this divine intervention would be insufficient – but then Vanessa breathed, blood trickling from her mouth, a faint flush of colour returning to cheeks which but moments before had been pale as death.

With another Hearg-rite ended, the Harrowgast was deprived of the warm front it needed to generate snow, and the winds it required to send the blizzard south.

It was done. The long winter, at last, was over.

“We have one more thing to do,” Caulis said, pointing north. While Vanessa was taken back to Hex via Portal Chalk, the homunculus led the rest of the party north. Untouched by the ravages of Hexian magic, the barrow-lands stretched in the shadow of a vast plateau to the north. Natural hills carved with burial tunnels and heaped mounds mingle amidst the sparse vegetation and occasion ruins, remnants of some ancient civilization of giants which once dwelt here, ancestors of the trolls who now dwell in this land. With fewer trees to break the wind, the cold was especially biting in this barren, eerie corner of Troll Country. But Caulis would soon remedy this lack of vegetation. Carefully, it placed the final acorn in the tough earth, and once again the ground shook, shoots bursting into the air, becoming saplings, then trees, then a vast forest. A virtually contiguous woodland now stretched across the western half of Troll Country. Titania had reclaimed another corner of her demesne.

Hex Session XVIII – 5th Edition Actual Play – “Harrowgast”

The characters in this session were:

  • Alabastor Quan, a gnome rogue-turned-illusionist and failed circus ringmaster; wielder of a cursed dagger and member of the Ravenswing Thieves’ Guild.
  • 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.”
  • Caulis, a homunculus warlock liberated from its master; has made a pact with certain Faerie Powers.
  • Garvin Otherwise, a human rogue and burglar of the Ravenswing Thieves’ Guild, with a very, very peculiar past and a zoog pet, Lenore.
  • Yam, an eccentric gnome illusionist and local graduate student at Umbral University. Yam cares little for money. Yam is curious. Yam is Yam.

XP Awarded: 900 XP

The party had returned to the city of Hex using the Portal Chalk, a group of rescued thralls in tow – spared from a short life of labour and misuse by the vicious Bonegrinders, a tribe of brutish trolls and rivals of the somewhat more reasonable (if, perhaps, no less ruthless) Goretooth trolls.

The motley group emerged into the Hive of the Thirteenth Queen; after some confusion and discussion with the waspkin hierophants, the group was given temporary shelter. Armand agreed to search for a more fitting habitation for the rescued thralls.

Before the pallid sorcerer ushered the group from the Hive, Garvin made sure to gather as much information as he could. He took aside one of the thralls, an aged woman, apparently human, who identified herself as Jenny, a borderlander who had been kidnapped by the Bonegrinders – or so they thought.

“Weren’t Bonegrinders took us,” Jenny told Garvin. “Skintakers – wrapped themselves in the hides of their foes. They took us, sold us to the Bonegrinders as thralls.”

“Hmm, I see,” Garvin mused. “How do you… living in the borderland, how do you feel about trollbloods?”

Jenny chuckled, and pushed some of her long, grey hair aside to reveal two small horns. “Why, I’ve got troll blood myself,” she said. “It’s not the blood that’s bad, it’s life out in Troll Country. Some of the troll tribes aren’t half bad, but others, well, they’re angry, and desperate.”

“Which tribes should we watch out for?”

“The Twocrowns are obsessed with purity. They kill or exile those with human bloods, and have a hierarchy based on the number of heads a troll possesses. I’d stay away from Ettin Island if I were you.” She pointed it out on the map.

“Then there are the Stoneclaws. Reclusive and unfriendly, but not raiders and slaughterers like the Twocrowns; they occasionally sail south to trade furs. There are few Blackhorns left; most of them died in the plague that created the Sickened Land. Those few that remain have warded their village against pestilence, but are always near starvation, as little game remains in their woods. The Skintakers fled west into the abandoned mine-tunnels beneath the mountains, after Hex burned their villages to the ground with acid storms.”

“How about the Goretooth tribe?”

“They’re the friendliest to Hex, certainly, but they can be ruthless as well.”

“So, do you happen to speak Giant?” he asked.

“A bit,” she says. “Learned from my grandmother.”

“Did you happen to overhear anything these Skintakers said?”

“Hmm. They kept mentioning something or someone called the Griefbringer – especially their leader. Jarna they called her, the Iron Witch. I’ll never forget her – even clad in stolen skins I could see the burn-scars beneath. I only saw her for a moment, but a terrible chill came over me when her eyes fell on me. A cold fury.” She shivered.

“Thank you,” Garvin said. “That was very helpful.”

Conferring with the others, he learned from Sister of the Griefbringer: one of the Troll Gods, She-Who-Brings-Sorrow, the Brood-Mother, and one of the eldest of the pantheon. It seemed she was a deity of vengeance and fecundity, creation and destruction all at once.

While the party rested, Caulis made its way back to its tower in the district of Caulchurch, hoping to consult some of its creator’s books in hopes of learning more about troll magic in hopes of gleaning some clue as to the cause of the fell winter gripping Hex in its icy grasp.

Caulchurch

Caulis began its researches by looking into the runic magic of the Trolls. It learned that certain runestones were arrayed by the Trolls into circles known as Heargs, reputedly consecrated to certain of the Troll Gods, and functioning as conduits, allowing Trolls to speak to their ancestors, for, as the homunculus learned Trolls believed that their dead did not pass to any afterlife but rather returned to the land, the elemental earth from which all Trolls were born. Even one with a drop of Troll blood in their veins would merge with the land upon death. It seemed that these runestone circles, when blessed with certain rites, permitted communication between living Trolls and the spirits of their dead.

Intrigued, Caulis prepared to read on, noting several rituals recorded in the text. As it stowed the book, it noticed something strange in its musty tower room. A small rose with vivid purple petals poked through a crack in  Caulis’ floorboards. Tied around its stem was a small note, upon which is written – in Sylvan – the words “WATER ME.”

With the deathly winter gripping Hex, the sight of a flower was, to be sure, strange – never mind the note. Perplexed but intrigued, Caulis fetched water for the plant and splashed a few drops atop it.

Moments later, the flower rapidly grew, blooming, sprouting, blossoming, budding, becoming a massive rose-bush arch. A wild but beautiful-looking garden could be glimpsed through the arch.

“A portal…” Caulis mused, and, intrigued more than alarmed, stepped through. It found itself in an eerie glade at twilight, though no sun was directly visible through the thick masses of thorny vines and tall oak trees that rose on all sides of the garden like walls. Flowers of a bewildering array of sizes, colours, and species filled the garden with a profusion of scents and hues. A placid pool scattered with water lilies lay at the centre, a boat tied up on the bank. In the centre of the pond, half-obscured by the mist and gloaming, Caulis could glimpse a small island with a gazebo. It sent Eleyin ahead, who reported that a figure could be seen in the gazebo.

More curious than cautious, Caulis got in the boat and paddled over to the island. Getting out, it approached the gazebo.

titania

The gazebo was fashioned of pale wood, but seemed to have actually been grown rather than built. Flowers and vines were intertwined in its trellises, forming a resplendent bower. Seated here, wearing a dress fashioned entirely from more flowers, was an ethereal woman of regal bearing; she is obviously of the Fair Folk, with slightly greenish skin and hair the colour of summer.

“Ah, you received our little note,” Titania said, looking Caulis up and down. “There is a matter we wish to discuss.”

“It is an honour, your grace!” Caulis exclaimed, awed before its patron. “Your garden is lovely.”

“We are, of course, aware of the perversion of the natural order currently visited upon the Inkstained City – the winter which grips the streets even as spring should be filling the air with the scent of flowers, with summer’s richness close behind. As the Monarch of All Growing Things, we are, as you might imagine, greatly concerned.”

“My companions and I have been trying to fix that,” Caulis said.

“We know.

We approve of your decision to seek out the source of the Fell Winter. We wish to aid you. The Giants have long been foes of the Seelie Court, and of fairy-kind in general, being, as a rule, of a brutish temperament, and much given to the trammeling of flowers and the destruction of fragile but beautiful things. In ages past, the great forest which the people of your world call the Tangle stretched through the vastness of Giant-Land. But the Giants came with cruel axes, and hewed down many trees, and drove the forest back; and then, in their warring with Hex, the wizards of that city smote the land further with caustic liquids and sicknesses, so that nothing could grow. Giant-Land, which was once a part of the fairy-realm, has become a cold, withered place, bleak and infertile. Only pockets of the once-great Forest remain. We would have you begin to remedy this state of affairs.”

She snapped her fingers, and a sprite – previously invisible – revealed itself. It held out in its hand three glimmering acorns. Caulis took them carefully.

“These acorns are both precious and powerful,” Titania said. “The are taken from only the most majestic of oaks in the Royal Forest at the heart of my realm in the innermost parts of Elfhame. Where such an acorn in planted, the earth itself will be transformed. Even if the soil be ere so vile, a great woodland shall burst forth, growing with tremendous speed. We would ask that you plant these acorns to re-grow the woodland that has been destroyed. The winter itself must, of course, still be ended, or even these hardy trees will die.

“But we have another gift for you, as well.” She smiled, and another sprite appeared, this one carrying a delicate glass phial. Caulis took this also. “This vessel contains one of the Anemoi, the spirit Favonius – an elemental of the West Wind, which tokens spring. If you release Favonius, he shall aid you in combating any creature of the North Wind. Choose your moment wisely, for he is fickle, and once freed, he shall not linger for long.”

“Thank you!” Caulis said, stowing both acorns and phial carefully. “I wonder… your grace, what do you know of the runestones that the trolls call ‘Heargs’?”

“Such places are in fact convergences of ley lines – natural concentrations of Faerie magic. Like the land itself, the Giants have stolen such power for themselves, exploiting the ley lines by erecting their crude monuments atop them.”

“I see…” Caulis said. “Could they be causing this winter?”

“They may be involved,” Titania said, a frown creasing her smooth brow. “Perhaps seeking out such places of power might be a good place to begin.”

“Thank you,” Caulis said. “I shall return to Hex now, and seek to restore the woodland in your name.”

Returning whence it had came, Caulis admired the flowers in the garden as it passed.

“Your grace… could I take one of these flowers?” Caulis asked. Instantly, one grew from the wood of the boat. The homunculus added the precious bloom to the other objects Titania had given it.

Some time later, after resting, the party reconvened at the portal. Caulis relayed what it knew of the Heargs, while keeping to itself its brief visit to Faerie – and the acorns given it. Once again, debate erupted over whether to slay the Bonegrinder chieftain Vornir, or whether to turn their investigations elsewhere – perhaps to another village, such as that of the Blackhorns, or the abandoned Skintaker settlement near the Caustic Wastes. Eventually, the party resolved to first investigate the nearest Hearg, reasoning that Gyrd would think their efforts to assassinate Vornir had simply failed. Thus decided, the party stepped back through the portal they had made, and into Troll Country, near the outskirts of the Bonegrinder village.

Troll Country

A chill blast met the party as they staggered out into the endless snow. They made their way west and south, heading towards the Bleakwater River. Several hours later, the party entered a small forest, heavy with snow. It was almost peaceful in beneath the boughs of the dour firs.

“The Skintaker village is nearby,” Sister said. “The one that got abandoned, after Hex conjured the acid storms here.”

They pressed on southwards, and, after another half hour’s hike, emerged from the forest.

Nearly subsumed by the surrounding woods, an overgrown village covered in snow lay in shambles before them, ruinous and desolate. The remains of a palisade had rotted down to a few lone timbers, while the huts had roofs long caved in and ruinous walls on the verge of collapsing. There seemed, however, to be little sign of actual violence – no smashed doors, no bullet-holes or arrow-shafts, no bones or burn-marks.

There were, however, statues. Dozens of them, clad now in snow: troll-shapes, adults and children both. All of them were running, fleeing from something unseen but obviously terrifying, faces frozen in expressions of stony horror.

“Gorgongas,” Garvin said. “I’ve seen this before. They must have bombed the village by dirigible, petrified everyone before they unleashed the acid storm.”

Vanessa Greyleaf, the Stormguard Evoker from the Citadel of the Perpetual Storm, was silent, but her expression was strained.

“It’s like a sick joke,” Alabastor said. “There’s a myth that trolls turn to stone in daylight… but they made it real.”

Yam said nothing, but they found the gnome later. The illusionist had found an old workshop where the troll villagers built boats, but had left it be. Instead of looting Yam packed snow into the acid-holes burned into the stony flesh of the petrified trolls – parents sheltering their children from the gas, and the advancing storm.

stone

Yam, packing snow into the acid-wounds of the petrified villagers. Illustration by Caulis’ player, Bronwyn McIvor.

Sobered by the sight of the decimated village, the party debated what to do next when Eleyin spotted a plume of smoke to the south.

“Looks like there was some sort of battle or something,” Caulis said, relaying its familiar’s report.

“Might as well investigate,” Garvin said.

They hastened south, towards the smoke. The trees thinned, replaced by stumps and leafless husks, and then the wasteland appeared before them – an etiolated expanse, pockmarked with craters. An image of burned skin springs to the mind, scalded and mutilated. The trees and the very earth were mottled with white, bleached and melted. They had come to the Caustic Wastes.

Alabastor blanched in disgust.

“I don’t believe Hex did this,” Vanessa finally sputtered, incredulous and appalled. “I mean, of course I’d heard the stories, back in the Citadel, but I never pictured devastation this… complete.”

They pressed on grimly, passing a great heap of acid-eaten troll-bones piled within a rough pit here – obviously a mass grave. A stone marker, also splashed with acid and with a single rune, served as a tombstone for the undifferentiated dead.

Eventually, they approached the source of the smoke. The ground was scorched, the trees blackened husks. Ash was strewn everywhere and the snow was streaked with old bloodstains, but there were other, less mundane signs of devastation, as well. In a nearby rock, a trollblood corpse was half-embedded in stone, hands protruding, still clutching a spear in a death-grip, her face twisted into an expression of surprise and agony. There was a small crater smouldering with an eldritch effulgence, remnant of some terrible spell.

Scattered about the battlefield were a dozen men and women in the purple and grey uniforms of the Stormguard, elite Evokers of the Citadel of the Perpetual Storm, as well as several Warders, Hex’s magical defenders. They were riddled with arrows and broken javelins, though some had been hacked to pieces by swords or axes. Several appeared to have had their skin removed.

“Gods above and below,” Vanessa swore, tears freezing on her cheeks. “The Stromguard expedition…”

“I’m guessing this is the work of the Skintakers,” Garvin said, gesturing to a flayed corpse.

A soft moan was audible amidst the carnage. Searching for it, the party found a gnome man, still alive, but skewered through the torso with a javelin, pinned to a dead tree, his long mustaches streaked with blood. A wand lay near his feet, abandoned. He seemed to be flickering in and out of consciousness.

“Phineas!” Vanessa yelled, bolting towards him. She fell to her knees, examining the wound. “Quick, Sister, come here! We can still save him!”

Sister hurried forwards, spells at the ready. While Alabastor carefully removed the javelin, Sister wove her spell, and blessed spiders sprung from her fingertips, rapidly stitching shut the suddenly-seeping wound with magical cobwebs, sealing it. Phineas coughed and groaned, eyes rolling.

“Water!” he croaked. Yam obliged.

“This is Sergeant Phineas Hookwood,” Vanessa explained. “Leader of this squad… and an old friend. Thank the Magistra we got here in time.”

The party introduced themselves and moved Phineas to the best shelter they could find – a low crag, dead trees drooping over it. Garvin made sure to retrieve the wand, and a scroll was found as well amidst the slaughter.

“What happened?” Caulis asked, after Phineas had recovered some modicum of his strength, his wounds continuing to heal. Vanessa stayed close, bending low over the aging wizard.

“Skintakers,” the old gnome said, still coughing. “They fell on us like wolves. Could be that scouts let them know our location, but I’d wager they knew we were coming, somehow.”

“Hmm…” Garvin said, rubbing his jaw.

“Did you see their leader?” Sister asked.

“Aye. I’ll never forget her face, or what was left of it. All scarred she was, like something burned her flesh. She wore a suit of human skins, all sewn together.”

“Jarna,” Alabastor said.

“What were you guys doing out here?” Yam asked.

“We were heading for one of those runestone circles – the one in Bleackwater Lake. Got ambushed on the way.”

“We were thinking of heading the same way,” Garvin said. “What do you think was happening there?”

“We got wind of some sort of ritual. Figured the trolls might be harnessing the runes’ power somehow.”

Vanessa looked around at the bodies of her fallen comrades. “That Portal Chalk you used before,” she said. “Can we use it again? I’d like to transport these bodies back to Hex, if we can, and get Phineas to safety.

Sister nodded, and the group went about transporting the charred remains of the Stormguard to Hex, along with Sergeant Phineas Hookwood. As they did so, something seethed across the landscape in the distance – a furiously writhing mass of greenish protoplasm which steamed and hissed as it slithered across the ground, leaving a burnt furrow in the earth.  Although amorphous and oozing, the thing had a worm-like, serpentine form and sprouts a mass of tendrils from its bulk to pull itself up crags. As they watched, it plowed into a small sapling, a single blotch of green protruding from the scabrous earth. Instantly the tree is dissolved, digested by the entity’s churning innards. Yam used an illusion to distract the elemental and the group gave it the slip, heading for a small pool – now turned entirely to acid – to regroup.

As the party discussed their plans, Caulis slipped away. The sight of so much devastation had pained it greatly. Carefully, it removed one of the Royal Acorns from its pouch, and buried it carefully in the ground, adding a drizzle of water from its water skin.

At first, nothing.

Then the ground began to quake. Several party-members were thrown off their feet as a great tremor wracked Troll County, the ground beneath their feet quickening.

Up from below, spreading outwards from the acorn, came green shoots, rapidly growing into shrubs and saplings, and then, with a great tearing, yawning, stretching sound, shooting upwards, the saplings became at first young trees, then sturdier ones. In moments, the party stood amidst a forest of towering, ancient oaks, bushes and ferns and tangled banks of vegetation thriving round their trunks. The acid water had turned pure, and as they watched the scarred, pockmarked earth healed before their eyes.

There were chirrups and chitters; there were beasts and birds in the trees, and the distant whisper of Sylvan voices.

fairy tree

“What was that?” Alabastor said, marveling.

“I did this,” Caulis said. “It’s, ah… something I can do now.”

“How?!” Garvin asked, incredulous. Sister also looked at Caulis wonderingly, knowing this to be magic far more powerful than the homunculus could normally accomplish.

“It’s a, ah, power my patron gave me recently,” Caulis said, neither lying nor telling the whole truth.

“It’s actually warmer,” Vanessa noted. “How far does this forest extend?”

“I’ll check!” Yam declared, and began rapidly climbing one of the trees. Yam reached the top and surveyed the land. A vast, green forest now stretched across what used to be the Caustic Wastes. Yam could distantly see the acid elemental still thrashing through the woods, but otherwise the forest seemed undisturbed. The Bleakwater looked to be thawing where it touched the wood, as if the forest brought with it some hint of spring.

“It’s huge,” the gnome reported, sketching the forest’s rough boundaries on the group’s map.

“This should give us cover if we want to approach a Hearg,” Garvin said. “Come on, there’s not too much daylight left.”

With that, the party made their way back through what was now forest, towards the abandoned Skintaker village – itself now overgrown with plant-life. Taking boats from the boathouse Yam had discovered, they set out across the Bleakwater and rowed to the island on which the Hearg was located.

The island was eerily quiet. The group disembarked carefully and made their way up the slopes of a small hill, towards the runestone circle.

As they drew closer, they saw that the ground was scorched in numerous places, and that several trees near the circle had been reduced to blackened husks; another battle had taken place here. Strewn stone across the hillside and in-between the blood-spattered, rune-graven stones were corpses – those of trollspawn, their limbs scarred with intricate glyphs, their bodies riddled with arrows and hurled spears. Many wore armour formed from tanned humanoid skins.

Closer inspection revealed that several of the bodies appeared to have been poisoned, eyes bulging from their heads, faces blackened, wounds stained, swollen tongues protruding from their mouths. There were signs that some bodies had been moved.

At the centre of the runic circle, a heap of additional bodies was found. Unlike the corpses littering the slopes, these bodies looked to have been very precisely executed, their throats cut, and the blood then smeared on the runestones in a ritualistic fashion. These bodies were all of near-human trollbloods – men and women with blood so diluted they might pass as human were it not for the odd horn, yellow eyes, or slightly chalky greyish-green skin.

“Another battle… but not with the Stromguard,” Garvin noted.

“Looks like troll weapons,” Alabastor observed. “Trolls fighting trolls?”

“These marks are dedicated to the troll thunder-god, Rann,” Sister said, examining the blood-smeared marks. “There’s power in them, that’s for sure.” She also noted a smaller stone – an orb, set with a single mark. She took this carefully.

“I think I can use the runestones to communicate with the spirits here,” Caulis said, taking out the book it had found in its creator’s library. “Does that sound like a good idea?”

“Might tell us more…” Yam said, shrugging and shivering in the cold.

Caulis prepared the rites, reading from the book. It seemed there was enough residual energy left from the blood spilled on the hilltop that an additional sacrifice proved unnecessary.

The sky rumbled and seemed to darken, clouds gathering overhead. The shadows cast by the runestones deepened, and suddenly figures were evident within them. They stepped forwards, into the Hearg. They were troll-shaped, but obviously mutilated, their skin scarred with acid, horribly burned. Some, however, were obviously fallen in battle – indeed, they matched the bodies strewn across the slopes.

“Who disturbs our rest?” the shades demanded. There were hundreds of them now, perhaps thousands, gathered on the island about the Hearg, watching. Vanessa translated their spectral, Giant speech.

“We’re trying to heal this land,” Caulis said, boldly. “Who are you? What is happening here?”

“We are the spirits of the slain,” the shades answered. “We thrist for vengeance. The blood-price must be paid.”

“Blood price?” Sister asked.

“The foul magicians of Hex destroyed us, slew us with acid and with sickness, with spells of wicked power. They drove us from our lands, stained the land with the blood of our children. We will have vengeance for this atrocity!”

“Vengeance… are you responsible for the storm?” Garvin asked. “The winter?”

“Yes! We yearn to rejoin the Harrowgast!” the spirits proclaimed. “The Reckoning of Hex! Free us! Let us join our brethren and rain down our fury upon the troll-killers!”

“Harrowgast?”

“A great storm, formed from the souls of the dead, bound to this land.”

“That’s it!” Sister said. “The Skintakers have been using sacrifices to power these heargs, channeling the dead, making them into the storm.”

“That’s why it’s impossible to fight,” Vanessa nodded. “It’s intelligent – it’s controlled by the souls of thousands of trolls.”

“But, but look…” Caulis said, gesturing to the green forest on the eastern banks of the lake. “The land is healed! We have come to return it to health. Will this not suffice? Is this not a better way?”

The troll shades turned, looking towards the forest, suddenly silent. Then, one of them, the shade of a young troll, shouted.

“Look!” she said, holding up one ghostly, acid-burned limb. “The land! It’s healed!” As they watched, the burns and scars covering her body began to mend, healing, scabbing over, then disappearing entirely. She was whole once more.

“What magic is this?” another of the troll-shades exclaimed, as he too began to heal. Suddenly dozens, hundreds of the gathered began murmuring in joy and wonder as their wounds healed.

“They were bound to the earth after death!” Sister said. “So when you fixed the earth, Caulis…”

“I fixed them too.”

Several of the spirits, however, were not restored: those slain in battle at the Hearg, the shades of Skintakers recently killed.

“This is no recompense!” one of them screamed. “The blood price has not been paid! Only blood will answer blood!”

“Why?” Alabastor said, Vanessa translating. “That will only lead to more violence.” He looked to Casulis. “Could you… do that again? Grow another forest, I mean?”

“Yes, twice more,” Caulis said, still evasive.

“We can cure the land,” Alabastor said. “Heal it. Isn’t that paying a price? Your winter will destroy the forest we just grew!”

“He is right,” another shade said, this one healed. “The Harrowgast must cease, or this will be undone, and our suffering will resume!”

The Skintaker leader who had spoken before snarled and snatched a spectral axe from his belt. The other shade grabbed a spear. The troll-shades gathered round to watch the duel, the party observing in quiet awe at this strange, ghostly battle, shouting encouragements to the healed ghost. The battle was quick and brutal, the two shades circling one another, the axe-thrower hacking madly, only to be skewered by his opponent’s spear.

“It’s is done,” the spear-wielding troll-shade declared. “We are joined with your cause. The blood price is paid. The Harrowgast must disband.”

“So, is that it?” Yam asked.

“No. There are other heargs,” the troll-shade said. “We merely supplied the Harrowgast with thunder. The others supply other elements: fire, water, wind, lightning, frost. But it requires these elements in combination to function.”

“Elemental orgy,” Yam whispered.

“If you were to stop the rituals at two of the other Heargs, the Harrowgast would dissipate.”

“That sounds like our best chance of stopping this,” Alabastor said. “Look, on the map – there;s another Hearg not far from here. We should hurry there, before nightfall, and see if we can put a stop to one of these rituals.”

The party agreed, and, releasing the troll-shades from the ritual, set off to the west. A short distance from the next Hearg, this one atop a small hill surrounded by deadened trees, Garvin called a halt.

“I have an idea for reconnaissance,” he said, eyeing a nearby raven. He brought forth the small bird-skull talisman he’d found at the keep of the Order of the Goat, allowing him to speak with birds.

“You there,” he said to the raven. “Can you do us a favour?”

“Hmm? You can talk to birds?” the raven said. “Well, what’s in it for me?” Garvin relayed its request.

“How about some griffin lard?” Sister said, taking some from her pack.

“Mmmm!” the raven fluttered excitedly. “Alright, what’s the favour?”

“We need you to fly up high and check out the hill with the weird rocks on it, tell us how many trolls are there, if you can.”

“Trolls?”

“Yeah, you know, trolls? You live in Troll Country.”

“That’s not what we call it. This is Raven-Land. All you groundwalkers look the same to me.”

“Okay. Well, tell us how many groundwalkers there are, okay?”

The raven flapped its wings. “Sounds fair. For the rest of that griffin lard.” Garvin translated.

Sister shrugged. “Fine.”

“You got a name?” Garvin asked.

“Mugi,” the raven replied, taking to the air. “Back in a minute!”

The party waited, shivering in the cold.

“Stupid thing’s not coming back,” Vanessa muttered, but then Mugi reappeared.

“Okay, where’s my snack?” it demanded. Sister surrendered the griffin lard. After it had eaten its fill, Mugi described the situation. There were two “big groundwalkers” – presumably full-blooded trolls – and seven “small groundwalkers,” presumably trollbloods. It also described a great column of air – the Hearg must be generating wind for the Harrowgast. But another group of six were headed north from the mountains to the south, with what sounded like a group of slaves in tow.

“Probably sacrifices,” Alabastor reasoned.

“We could set an ambush,” Garvin suggested. “Lie in wait, spring the trap, then take those at the Hearg later.”

So agreed, the party took up position on the route to the Hearg, concealing themselves with magic.

“I’ve got an idea,” Sister said, and had her companions tie her to a tree, while she readied a cylinder of iridescent metal – an object taken from the Librarian Asylum beneath Mainspring, later identified as a Rod of Mind-Swap.

They lay in wait, till a group of five trollbloods and a single towering full-blooded troll lumbered into view, escorting a line of thralls bound together with rope – many of them trollbloods themselves, several prominently horned. All of the armed trollbloods wore the gruesome leather armour of the Skintakers.

Uttering an Aklo incantation, Sister activated the Rod of Mind-Swap, hitting the lead troll. He blinked, confused, as Sister’s consciousness entered his brain, while his own was plucked from his skull and sent to Sister’s brain. Tied up, Sister’s body struggled weakly against the bonds securing it to a tree.

Sister, meanwhile, now controlling the body of the troll, smiled grimly and hefted the creature’s huge sword.

troll

Mind-Swapped Troll. Illustration by Caulis’ player, Bronwyn McIvor.

The battle was brief and bloody. Spells flared from either side of the path as Yam, Alabastor, Caulis, and Vanessa sprung the trap. One trollblood was knocked backwards into the line of thralls, who grappled him viciously, one seizing his head and twisting it with a brutal wrenching motion, snapping his neck. Garvin shot with his crossbow, killing another, while Sister – in control of the full troll – split a troll down the middle with her gigantic sword, leaving his remains steaming on the snow.

The thralls were freed, several agreeing to join the party in their assault on the Hearg. These included a powerfully muscled Twocrown troll from Ettin Island, who had broken his captor’s neck. Before heading north, Yam took one of the plums picked from Faerie and fed it to the troll inhabiting Sister’s body. Instantly, the troll became enchanted, falling desperately in love with Yam. It would now be obedient, pliable.

Sister went on ahead, still inhabiting the troll body. She approached the Hearg; trollbloods and two hulking trolls stood guard, while a group of shamans in the middle of the runestone circle conducted a ritual, sending troll-shades streaming skywards in a swirling column of gale-force wind. The runes must be dedicated to the Troll God of wind, Hraesvelgr, the Corpse-Swallower. Dead bodies were piled nearby – sacrifices, their throats cut.

“Where’re the thralls?” one of the tattooed shamans demanded. “We need more blood to continue conjuring the Harrowgast.” Sister realized she could speak Giant in this form.

“There’s been some trouble,” she lied. “A few of the thralls escaped. Come, we require assistance.”

Seeing no reason to doubt their comrade, two warriors and one of the trolls returned with Sister, only to fall into another ambush. Spells and crossbow quarrels made short work of them, Sister cleaving the head off the other troll, to his surprise. She took his sword, carrying now one in each hand.

The party now prepared for a final assault on the Hearg. As they approached, the column of wind, like a miniature tornado, dwindled to a weak breeze; the shamans had run out of sacrifices. Sister approached once more, claiming to need more warriors, but the trolls were now suspicious. Seeing that the jig was up, Sister charged the remaining full-blooded troll, swinging both swords and carving huge chunks of flesh from his body. He screamed, even as a cloud of conjured daggers and a swarm of magic missiles fell upon the remaining warriors. The shamans tried to conjure a gust of wind to protect themselves against missile weapons, but a shatter spell cracked the runestones and broke their concentration. The remaining Skintaker warriors fled, but were cut down by the fearsome Sister.

The ritual had been halted. If the party could stop a second rite from occurring, the fell winter of Hex would come to an end.

Hex Session XVII – 5th Edition Actual Play – “Troll Country”

The characters in this session were:

  • Alabastor Quan, a gnome rogue-turned-illusionist and failed circus ringmaster; wielder of a cursed dagger and member of the Ravenswing Thieves’ Guild.
  • 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).
  • Caulis, a homunculus warlock liberated from its master; has made a pact with certain Faerie Powers.
  • Garvin Otherwise, a human rogue and burglar of the Ravenswing Thieves’ Guild, with a very, very peculiar past and a zoog pet, Lenore.
  • Yam, an eccentric gnome illusionist and local graduate student at Umbral University. Yam cares little for money. Yam is curious. Yam is Yam.

XP Awarded: 400 XP

The long winter of Hex showed no sign of letting up. Spring was now long overdue, and as the days and weeks passed, things were looking increasingly dire. The river remained frozen, crippling the city’s port and thus stunting vital trade. Consequently, businesses were struggling. Farmers outside the city were growing increasingly concerned as their fields remain buried by snow. The dagonians had gone into a torpor, most sleeping from fourteen to twenty hours a day, a handful slipping into states of near-hibernation. The waspkin stayed in their hives, shutting down most of the city’s messenger services. Fungoids had disappeared from the streets, fled underground to avoid the cruel frosts. Only the city’s trollbloods seemed to be enjoying the bracing weather, holding raucous celebrations in Goatsbridge and Trollhome, the rickety shanty-town on the south shores of Hex which extends beneath the bridge.

Newspapers and rumours were full of ominous suggestions. If the winter did not end soon, many worried that the reserves of food would eventually be depleted and famine could result. The threat of starvation was worrisome enough, but the merchant class had a more abstract but no less serious fear – the economic damage being inflicted by the lingering winter had gone from irksome to potentially catastrophic. Fortunes were in danger of disappearing, with losses in the millions of guineas, if not more.

Meanwhile, however, the party were busy deciding what to do with the newly recovered Book of Dreams. Debates raged – should they give the Oneironomicon directly to Melchior? Could they conceal their activities from the Velvet Shadow? Could they stow the tome at the shrine of the Thirteenth Queen?

Bird and KeyEventually, a compromise was reached, and the party decided to place the precious grimoire in a safety deposit box at the Bird & Key City Bank, Hex’s most secure financial institution, where it would be magically warded with various non-detection spells and magical traps. Though expensive, this would keep some would-be thief from divining the book’s location. For added precaution the group required several passwords from at least three of their number to be stated as part of the access conditions for the box, and even disguised the book itself with an illusion just to be safe, making it appear quite mundane to the casual reader. These measures taken, the adventurers considered their next move. Cephalus, unfortunately, was now in a state of extreme torpor, and it was becoming increasingly obvious that something needed to be done concerning the terrible winter. Wondering what was being done on the part of Hex’s authorities to remedy this calamity, the party resolved to visit Master Melchior – although, they agreed, they would not tell him that they had recovered the second of the Greater Mysteries. Not yet.

Meanwhile, Garvin had once again visited the Hive of the Thirteenth Queen. Here he scrawled a portal using the Portal Chalk, establishing a more secure point of return from wherever the party ventured next.

Several members of the expedition that retrieved the Book of Dreams met at the Green Star to decide their next move. Yam had a particular favour to ask of the group, but another situation seemed more dire: the winter itself. Emboldened by their success with the Oneironomicon, the group wondered whether they might investigate the seemingly preternatural winter.

“Cephalus is half-asleep these days,” Alabastor pointed out.

“And this winter is unnatural,” Caulis said with distaste. “I’m supposed to be growing new leaves this time of year, but look at me.” The homunculus gestured to its barren limbs.

“Yes, I’m even beginning to worry for some of the specimens in my greenhouse,” Armand said, having completed several additional experiments involving his window of metamorphoses and certain botanical cuttings taken from the Nightmare Tunnels and elsewhere. “The conditions are such that they can survive for some time without the benefit of summer sun, but eventually even the most hardy plants will die if this winter continues.”

“The Evokers at the Citadel of the Perpetual Storm probably know what’s happening,” Caulis pointed out. “Perhaps we should try there.”

“Could be. Do you think we should talk to the trollbloods in Trollhome?” Alabastor said. “They seem to be the only ones happy with this situation.”

“I also wonder about the other reality we saw,” Armand said. “The vampires of Erubescence… could this be their work?”

“Perhaps we should go to Master Melchior,” Garvin suggested. “He’s supposed to be this powerufl archwizard, he must have some ideas. And maybe he can give us an ‘in’ with the Evokers.”

“That’s a good idea,” Yam said. “My problem is… well, it’s stable. If everyone in Hex dies because it’s too cold, it won’t matter anyway.”

So resolved, the party returned to the School of Thaumaturgy & Enchantment, passing through the griffin-guarded gates, Garvin noting that his waspkin friend at the university seemed healthy enough despite the ravages of cold. Once in Melchior’s study they found the brain without its usual illusion, but after making themselves known, Melchior conjured his phantasmal semblance.

“How goes the hunt for the book?” he asked eagerly.

“Very well,” Armand said smoothly – and not untruthfully. “But we have run into something of a snag. One of our party members, Cephalus, is much-afflicted by the cold. You must have noticed the winter outside?”

“Yes, most unfortunate,” Melchior said, waving an illusory hand at the window. He seemed a bit detached from the harrowing weather beyond his walls. “I’m sure Octavia and her weather-witches will have it sorted soon enough.”

“We’re worried it might be more than a spot of bad weather,” Garvin said. He and Armand explained about the vampire-ruled version of Hex they had discovered during their expedition into the Nightmare Tunnels, glossing over some of the details of the Portal Chalk. This news seemed to startle Melchior from his lassitude.

“This is most disturbing,” the archmage said. “Yes, you’d best talk to Octavia Greyleaf at once. I’ll write you a letter of introduction to let her know you can be trusted.” He took quill and ink and scribbled a hasty note – all magically of course, the feather floating in mid-air – then sealed it with his personal sigil. “You’ll find her in the Weatherspire at the Citadel. I’m afraid I don’t have any further insights myself, but Octavia will know what’s going on.”

As they left the school and headed for Downpour Heights, the party discussed Melchior’s seeming detachment.

“This is what worries me,” Alabastor said. “He seems so… withdrawn from daily goings-on in Hex.”

“This is precisely why well be essential when he does publish his New Organon,” Armand noted.

Downpour Heights

Setting out east, the party made their way from the Dreamer’s Quarter to Downpour Heights. As they passed through the wards that surrounded the district, the light and sound cordoned off within the district suddenly assailed them, as they were plunged into torrential rains which, in the city’s current winter state, were mixed with hail, freezing rain, and flurries of snow. Thunder rumbled round their ears and flashes of lightning seared their retinas as they entered the gloomy industrial district.

The place was dominated by the Fulgoria, or Lightning-Harvesters, which absorbed the electricity generated in the magically generated stormclouds and stored it in arcane batteries. Windmills and water reservoirs also dominated the district, along with associated machines, many of them gnome-built. The streets themselves, however, were quite uncrowded – a handful of individuals passing through the district could be seen, along with a few technicians and others employed at the generators.

The Citadel of the Perpetual Storm hovered over Hex like some small but ever-present moon, perfectly still, swathed in clouds heavy with rain, illuminated by flashes of lightning. While a handful of flying craft carefully warded against the storm came and went from the floating Citadel, the chief means of access was a single, rather precarious-looking cable car which extends from the street up to a tiny entrance near the bottom of the chunk of floating rock on which the Citadel is built.

The Citadel, of course, was the university of evocation. In centuries past this branch of magic was most associated with warfare – fireballs and lightning bolts and the like – and this military aspect had never been fully expunged, as evinced by the dour stone keep that dominated the flying castle. These days, however, the elementalists and weather-witches trained at the Citadel had a different focus: namely, energy production. Creating winds, water, fire, and lightning and then using these elements as power sources has helped to catapult Hex’s industrial ambitions, transforming it from a small university town into an economic powerhouse and a marvel of engineering. In addition, the faculty at the Citadel managed the weather around Hex to ensure bountiful harvests. Clearly, something had gone rather terribly wrong…

The normally near-deserted streets grew suddenly crowded as the party approached the cable car station. A sizable mob of people had gathered about the small station. Enraged, the crowd seethed, besetting a hapless pair of Evokers – uniformed in the livery of the Stormguard – blocking the entrance to the station, along with a handful of Warders, the city’s elite arcane police.

“They’re responsible for this! They’re experimenting on us, like rats in one of their labs!” one of the mob cried out, raising a cudgel. Rain and wet snow pattered off the assembled dissidents, some shielded by umbrellas, most drenched to the skin. “We need to go up there and make them stop! They’re killing us!”

“I assure you, we’re doing everything we can to change the weather back to normal!” one of the Citadel wizards insisted. “If it weren’t for us you’d all be buried in ten feet of snow!”

“Liars!” a woman shouted, and someone else hurled a rock. Several Warders growled an incantation and the stone-thrower was paralyzed, chains of magical force wrapping themselves round their limbs. Another Warder conjured a ball of swirling vapour, holding the spell ready to cast.

“The tram up to the Citadel is currently closed,” the Warder stated, teargas-ball at the ready – a fresh-faced but tough-looking man with gleaming spectacles. “Please disperse.”

The crowd roared in agitation.

“We need to get through somehow,” Alabastor said, thinking.

“I’ve got an idea,” Yam said. “Get ready to move.”

“Wait, what?” Garvin said, but it was too late – Yam had conjured a flash of illusory lightning, followed by a cantrip to add a thunderclap a moment later. The crowd shrieked and dispersed madly, shoving and tripping; the party hurried forwards. Armand was seized – his finery, perhaps inciting the ire or greed of the distinctly working-class crowd – but Garvin, having hastily conjured shadows to pass through the crowd without trace, grabbed the sorcerer and pulled him through the crowd to the station.

“Our thanks,” one of the Stormguard said. “That was a sticky situation.”

“We’ll overlook the improper use of magic to start a panic,” the bespectacled Warder said. “Now, what do you want?”

“We’re here to see Octavia Greyleaf,” Armand said, presenting Melchior’s letter. The guards, seeing the seal, relaxed.

“Very well. You can go on up,” one of the Stormguard affirmed. “Inside, take the elevator up and head right for the Weatherspire.”

The group gave their thanks and hurried inside the damp cable car station, packing into the warded car. One of the Evokers pulled a switch, and the car began to move.

The rickety cable car slowly made its way up towards the Citadel of the Perpetual Storm, the lightning playing about the flying castle growing louder and brighter as it ascended, the car’s tinted windows shielding the party from the worst of its flash. As the car got higher and higher a view of the city spreads out below. Snow-covered rooftops extended in every direction, while the ice on the Radula river glistened coldly. Smoke rose from thousands of chimneys as the inhabitants of the city burned through vast quantities of wood and gas to keep themselves warm.

The cable car was swallowed by the floating rock on which the Citadel of the Perpetual Storm was built, and came to a stop in a large room carved out of stone. A short walkway led from the car to a platform with an elevator beyond. Guarding the lift wee two mechanical automata that seem to be possessed by elemental spirits – one seethed with steam and fire, its furnace glowing orange, while the other crackled with electricity, a generator humming and sparking. Both had the appearance of ornate suits of armour and carry massive swords.

“State your identity and the purpose of your visit to the Citadel of the Perpetual Storm,” the guardians intoned.

Elementals

Elemental Guardians, as illustrated by Bronwyn McIvor (Caulis’ player).

“We’re here to see Octavia Greyleaf on behalf of Master Melchior,” Armand repeated, again presenting the invitation. The guardians scanned the sigil, then assented. The group hurried into the lift and took the elevator up through several levels, arriving in the bailey of the Citadel. From here they made their way to the Weatherspire, a tower fashioned from a glittering fulgurite, a massive tube of glass formed from where a lightning-strike hit the earth. The gleaming crystalline mass had been carved with windows, doors, and balconies, reinforced with metal. Within, a spiralling stair led up to an observation platform where a number of exhausted-looking wizards and other spellcasters were casting a steady stream of spells into the surrounding clouds, apparently attempting to change the weather from its wintry conditions.

They found Octavia Greylead, the leader of the weather-witches at the very top of the Weatherspire in a large chamber in which an illusory map of Hex and the surrounding countryside has been conjured, complete with weather-patterns. The map seemed to update itself in real time, and was being projected by some sort of gleaming iridescent device that looks to be of Librarian origins.

The woman studying the swirling mass of clouds intently looked basically human, but her eyes shifted slightly in colour every few moments, and her slightly pointed ears marked her as a changeling. Her hair was bright silver, gathered back in a tight bun. She looked vexed.

“Who are you?” she asked warily.

“We’re here to help!” Yam proclaimed.

“Help with what?”

“The winter.”

“What? You’re here to help with the winter? What are you talking about?”

“We’re here on the recommendation of Master Melchior,” Armand said, handing Octavia the letter. She opened it and scanned it with her ever-shifting eyes, ringed with dark circles.

“Well, Melchior seems to think you’re capable enough,” she said. “I suppose we can use all the help we can get, at this point.”

The party introduced themselves properly, identifying some of their affiliations, such as Umbral University.

“Can you tell us anything about the storm?” Garvin asked. “You seem to be trying to control it.”

“Trying. And failing. The cold weather isn’t just persistent,” Octavia said. “It’s magical – and, I’ve come to believe, sentient.” Beneath her grim assessment, she almost sounded a bit giddy, excited to be explaining this strange theory. “If this weren’t so potentially cataclysmic this would all be… fascinating. It’s been clear for some time that the weather won’t just dissipate, that something out there is generating these strange weather patterns. But it’s more than that. Every time we strike back, every time we try to engineer some counter-effect – to shift the winds, to warm the air, or cool it – the weather responds, reacts in ways that shouldn’t be possible. It moves around us, avoids our every attempt to make it stop. This” – she gestures to the snow-covered vision of the city – “This is the best we can do. A stalemate. An unstable equilibrium. We’re desperately countering every move this thing is making. But it’s getting wilier. It’s adapting, I swear, learning our techniques, compensating, faster than we can stop it. It’s not just that the winter isn’t ending. Soon it’s going to get worse. A lot worse.

“It’s also clear that this long winter is purely a local phenomena. Nornhold, Tetractys, Erubesence, Verdigris – they’ve all had mild, short winters. It’s only here that it’s sticking around.”

“What could be causing this?” Alabastor asked.

“I have… well, I have a theory,” she said. “I think it’s an elemental; in fact, several elementals, somehow fused into a single gigantic being, a sort of gestalt. Air, obviously, is the main component, but there’s water as well, and even fire, to create the warm fronts needed to help generate so much snow. The resulting spirit is massive, distributed, and infinitely cunning. And it’s only getting stronger. If I’m right, we can’t wait this winter out, and we can’t rely on our normal means of changing the weather. If this winter is alive… we need to kill it.”

“Where exactly is this coming from?” Caulis asked.

“The storm is blowing in from the north,” Octavia says. She twitched her fingers and the illusion shifts, moving northwards to display a rugged country of dense woods, crags, hills, and sharp peaks. “Troll Country.”

Troll Country

Alabastor’s eyes narrowed. Like most gnomes, he had grown up with many stories of trolls and their depredations, for trolls and gnomes have an ancient hatred, the former often hunting and enslaving the latter. He knew them as they had appeared in his parents’ stories: as gigantic brutes, flesh-eaters, cruel and stupid. He had met trollbloods in Hex, of course, but had always avoided them.

“Monsters,” Alabastor muttered.

Caulis, as a scholar, knew more of the trolls and their history with Hex. Hundreds of troll tribes dwelt in this harsh, unforgiving lands north of Hex, some of them having interbred with the local hillfolk. While in past centuries troll raids were a severe threat to Hex and made trade through this region difficult, Hex’s growing magical might eventually drove the trolls back into the depths of this land, sending many fleeing into the caves that riddle the area and wind down towards the Sunless Realms below. Some of the friendlier troll tribes, such as the Goretooth Tribe, had even become allies of Hex, albeit tentative ones, rewarded for their support of Hexian interests with goods and favourable trading agreements; others had been appeased with treaties, offering the trolls token sovereignty and safety in exchange for their non-aggression. Caulis knew also of the terrible magical weapons Hex had used in its subjugation of the troll-tribes – acid rains, gorgongas, eldritch contagions, madness-inducing mists, conjured volcanoes, and other arcane cataclysms. Such weapons had left Troll Country scarred and, in places, near-uninhabitable.

“You said it’s an elemental… or a bunch of elementals,” Yam said. “Like some sort of elemental orgy?”

“Well, I suppose…” Octavia said.

“How could this sort of elemental spirit be created?” Garvin asked.

“There are two types of elementals,” Octavia said, assuming the tone of a lecturer. “Feral, and conjured. If this is a feral elemental – or a group of elementals that have somehow intermingled – then it’s totally unprecedented in size and power. Feral elementals form when some ambient magical energy causes inanimate matter to self-organize, become intelligent. Alive. For a feral elemental of this size to form, there’d have to be some absolutely massive source of ambient magical energy. I don’t know what could be generating that kind of power, but it should be pretty damn obvious. Like… a down Librarian spacecraft or something.”

Yam’s eyes widened. The others exchanged looks, several thinking of the Book of Stars.

“On the other hand, there are conjured elementals – elementals that someone, a spellcaster, has brought intentionally into being. If that’s the case, the caster might be able to dismiss the elemental – or, if they were killed, its possible the entity would disperse. But such an individual would have to be immensely powerful.”

“So, have you sent anyone to look into this?” Armand asked.

“We sent a team of Stormguard and Warders north several days ago, but lost contact with them after they passed north of Wilderwatch and into Troll Country proper. We don’t know what happened to them. If you can find out, the Citadel would be grateful.”

“If we follow them, where should we head first?” Garvin asked.

“I’d head to the Goretooth village,” Octavia said, pointing on the illusory map. “The chieftain there, Gyrd, is reasonable enough, and friendly to Hex.”

“We’ll need an interpreter,” Caulis pointed out. “None of us speak Giant. Is there anyone here that could help?”

Octavia hesitated. “Well.” She swallowed. “There aren’t many here who’ve studied the tongue… except, well, my daughter. Vanessa. She’s an officer and new graduate of the Citadel. But she’s young, and a little brash.”

“We need someone to translate,” Armand said. “We’re capable.”

“Alright, alright. She can go with you, but take her no further than the Goretooth village. At least she can provide some supervision here.”

“Alright,” Alabastor said. “We’ll also need transportation. I saw some dirigibles…”

“Well, now that you seem to have become an official search party, we can help you in that regard. An airship, the Fuschia, is heading to Wilderwatch later today anyway; you can catch a ride. Until the blizzard abates, getting any further north is too dangerous by air.”

“Where can we find Vanessa?” Armand asked.

“She’s down on the observation platform,” Octavia said, her voice somewhat strained, but resolute. “Do you need any other equipment?”

“Healing potions and cold weather gear could be useful,” Garvin said.

“We can provide you with both. I’ll have them loaded onto the Fuschia.”

Vanessa

Vanessa Greylead, as illustrated by Bronwyn McIvor (Caulis’ player).

The party next headed down to the observation platform. Here they found Vanessa Greyleaf, amidst the group of weather-witches casting spells into the storm.

“Vanessa?” Armand asked.

The woman turned, revealing an eyepatch over her left eye. Her right eye shifted in colour, like her mother’s.

“That’s me,” she said.

“We’re heading into Troll Country,” Caulis said. “Your mother told us you could act as our translator.”

She wiped sweat from her brow. “Finally, some people ready to do something about this. I’m in.”

After equipping themselves with cold weather gear and healing potions from the Citadel’s stores, the party boarded the Fuschia, a dirigible warded against the Perpetual Storm. The captain, a jaunty gnome, introduced himself as Jeremiah Catseye.

“Any advice for travelers heading into Troll Country?” Yam asked.The Fuschia

The Fuschia, as illustrated by Bronwyn McIvor (Caulis’ player).

“Hmm. Stay outta the Dreadmists,” the gnome replied. “Turn your brain ta mush. Muddles everything up till ya can’t tell what’s real from what’s not.”

Having boarded the airship, the group steeled themselves for the journey north, the Fuschia taking to the sky and departing the Citadel. The land below was domesticated – rich farmland, although currently covered in snow and frost. The Tangle brooded darkly to the west, a constant, eerie presence. Several villages lay along the road north; these include the settlements of Thistle, Gnomesbridge, Greensworth, and Highstone. After several hours of flight, the dirigible put down in Wilderwatch. The snowy little village lay on the very edge of Troll Country. Protected by a once-study stone wall, now fallen into disrepair, the settlement was tiny – a few houses, a smithy, a brewery, and an inn were its most notable structures, apart from the imposing bulk of the Fortress of the Order of the Goat, stronghold of the knightly order once charged with protecting Hex and its citizens from the “savages” to the north.

After disembarking from the airship, the party headed first to the Giantslayer’s Inn, hoping for some rumour of the Stormguard squad or any other clue as to goings-on in Troll Country.

The inn was a rambling building of five storeys, the largest in town unless one counted the mouldering pile of the Fortress. The sign depicted an armoured warrior with a bloody sword in one hand, dragging behind him the massive head of an enormous giant in the other, held by the hair. Inside, the inn did not disappoint: mounted on the walls were the skulls of dozens of trolls, giants, and fearsome beasts, a few of them actually stuffed and preserved. The most impressive was a gargantuan giant’s skull, shelves set in its open mouth and eye sockets glistening with liquor. A huge map of Troll Country was nailed to one wall of the establishment.

A stout, one-eyed gnome tended the bar, using a magical ring to adjust his size to reach high shelves. More gnomes busied themselves about the bar, all of them young women.

With a blizzard raging around Wilderwatch and throughout the surrounding region, the inn was quiet. A few traders, hunters, and farmers made up the crowd, most of them probably locals, while a small handful of trollbloods drank mead in one corner, all of them with prominent tusks.

Alabastor approached the bartender. “Hi there,” he said. “We’re fresh in from Hex. Wondering if you know anything about the Evokers who came through here.”

“Oh yes,” the gnome said, shrinking down to size to speak to Alabastor. “Name’s Archibald. I meet pretty much everyone who comes through this town. Saw those Stormguard come through, headed up north. I think they were headed over to the Goretooth village, where those fellas come from.” He nodded over to the trollbloods in the corner.

“Who killed all these trolls?” Yam asked, staring up at the skulls.

“My ancestors,” Archibald said. “They settled this land, fought off the trolls who terrorized these parts. The inn’s been passed down ever since.”

“Tell us about these Goreteeth,” Alabastor interjected. “Are they trustworthy?”

“Sure. Trolls aren’t a duplicitous bunch. Just mean, and bloodthirsty.” Archibald shrugged. He nodded towards the trollbloods in the corner. “Those lot are Goreteeth. Heading back to their village tomorrow. Gyrd – that’s their chieftain – she seems on the level. Might be she knows more about the raids that’ve been ramping up recently.”

“Raids?”

“Aye. Haven’t seen the like for decades. A few farms’ve been burned, people snatched.”

“Who’d you think’s behind it?”

“You might ask the old knights up at the Fortress of the Order of the Goat.”

Cautiously, the party approached these trollbloods. Remaining vague about their mission, they asked if the warriors could act as guides, using Vanessa as a translator.

“We’ll take you to Gyrd,” one of the trollbloods assented in Giant. “I’m sure she’ll be curious for news of Hex.”

“Before we turn in, maybe we should head over to the Order of the Goat,” Garvin suggested. The party agreed, and left the inn for the mouldering remnants of the fortress. They were met by a scrawny youth at the gate, who shrilly invited them within after Vanessa identified herself as a Weather-Witch of the Citadel.

Within the keep, the party found a great hall that had seen better days. A fire smouldering in the hearth, illuminating a dusty, ill-kept room with fraying tapestries depicting ancient battles with trollkind. The knights who warmed themselves by the fire here seemed to mimic the crumbling stronghold in their decrepitude – three scarred old men. The leader identified himself as Sir Baxter. The party introduced themselves and asked if the aged knight had knew anything about the recent raids.

“Could be those damn Skintakers,” the bombastic old knight proclaimed. “We destroyed their villages, you know – drove the savages out, into the hills. The Caustic Wastes, they call their lands now. Whole place got destroyed by acid, conjured up by the Citadel of the Perpetual Storm down in Hex. Those Skintakers who survived fled west. Could be a few are causing trouble again.”

Meanwhile, Yam talked to an even more elderly knight, who seemed to be somewhat senile, and spoke grandiosely of battles with giants thousands of feet tall, and days of bygone glory. Alabastor, spotting a shelf of aged books on one wall, asked if he could peruse the library.

“Certainly,” Sir Baxter said. “You’ll find the histories of this land writ there.”

Alabastor began reading, and the more he read, the more a slowly dawning horror filled him. He had been raised to think of trolls as violent, barbaric creatures, but as he read of slaughters and wars, massacres and mass-killings, he realized that things were much more complicated than he had believed. He read of the volcano that had covered whole villages in lava, of the contagious miasmas devised by the luminaries of Caulchurch and the Académie Macabre –  a horrific potion, a contagion with which the Weather-Witches of the Citadel tainted the sky above the territory of the Blackhorn Tribe. The clouds rained down a deadly plague that decimated the land itself, a malady that makes everything sick, the Omniphage. He read of the Dread-Mists, conjured by none other than Umbral University itself, which drove thousands mad; of the gorgongas bombings and the fire-storms and the acid elementals. He read of how Hex had sided with the Goretooth tribe in their struggle against their neighbours, of the webs of betrayals and conspiracies and exterminations. He blanched.

Meanwhile, Garvin poked around the ill-guarded keep, piled with trophies taken from the many trolls slain by the knightly Order of the Goat. He snatched a small bird-skull amulet, which he later identified as granting the ability to converse with avians of all kinds.

“We should get some rest,” Armand said. “These trollbloods are supposed to be leaving at first light.”

Enlightened but exhausted, the party returned to the Giantslayer’s Inn.

The next morning, the group departed with their Goretooth guides, setting out at last into Troll Country.

Troll Country landscape

Troll Country was a rugged land carved by wind and wave, a land of rock and salt and snow. From the air the party had seen the jagged coast to the east where the Grim Sea sat cold and grey beneath an iron-coloured sky stretches north, the odd island protruding from the cruel waves. Mountains loomed knife-sharp and massive from the woodlands that dotted the region, firs and pines and leafless elms forming dark patches amidst the snowy moors and rocky hills. Snow fell, and a chill wind moaned across the land like an angry spirit.

It took several hours to reach the Goretooth village, built inside a palisade of wooden stakes. Hide tents and wooden huts crowded round a series of open fires, sending plumes of greasy smoke into the air. A central hall presided over the village, dwelling-place of the chieftain, Gyrd. The forest pressed close about the village, while to the east, through the trees, could be glimpsed the Grim Sea; sheer cliffs plunged down to the water below, with a series of ladders and trails winding down to a thin strip of rocky beach where fishing craft were moored. The gates were guarded by one massive, enormously fat trollblood with massive curling tusks and one scrawny trollblood with an extra arm, who nodded to the trollblood guides and admitted the party to the village with wary looks. They quickly proceeded to the chieftain’s hall.

The interior of the hall was smoky and dim; shadows cast by a flickering fire danced on the columns of carved Dragon-bone and the walls of tanned animal hides.  At the far end of this hall seated on a great chair of bones sprawled a huge figure, at least ten feet tall, with greenish-gray flesh. The Troll wore wolverine pelts and leathers; she rested one hand on the pommel of a gigantic iron claymore, and an impressive axe etched with Giant runes leaned against her macabre throne. Her most notable features were her absolutely massive tusks and prominent fangs, which gleamed white and brilliantly sharp in the hazy gloom. Several trollblood hunters squatted about a fire in the hearth, roasting a massive, spitted boar.

“Travelers from Hex,” Gyrd said. Despite her massive teeth she spoke the common tongue with shocking alacrity and only the slightest trace of a giantish accent, a certain stiltedness to her speech.. “What has brought you to Troll Country?”

“We’re looking into the extended winter,” Armand said. “We’ve been sent by the Citadel of the Perpetual Storm.” He gestured to Vanessa.

“We were told you might have some information,” Garvin said.

“I may indeed have information to share,” Gyrd said.  “But my relationship with Hex and its citizens has been one of – how is it your people put it? – quid pro quo.” She smiled – a ghastly, gleaming sight that brought to mind wolves and sharks. “There is a price for my assistance in this matter.”

“Yes?”

“To the north of Goretooth lands lie the territory of the Bonegrinders,” Gyrd snarls. “Their chieftain is Vornir, called Vornir Childeater for his favoured meal. With the Skintakers dead or fled to the west, the Bonegrinders have grown in power under Vornir’s leadership. Nightly he feasts on the flesh of thrall children taken in raids, troll and human alike.

“The Goretooth Tribe lack the numbers to contest the Bonegrinders’ power. But if Vornir were removed from power, the tribe would be thrown into chaos, weakened, and we could strike. Yet if an attempt on his life were to fail, and a Goretooth assassin were discovered, Vornir’s retribution would be swift. However – if you, a group of outsiders, were to kill Vornir, then even if your identities were learned, the Goretooth tribe would be safe.

“My herbalist, Urdin, is skilled in the brewing of poisons. He may be able to assist you.”

“We’ll have to consider this,” Armand said. He and the other adventurers huddled.

“So, what, now we’re going to commit a political assassination?” Alabastor said, incredulous. “I was reading, back at the Order of the Goat, about the things Hex has done here. We’d be perpetuating some… disturbing tactics.”

“If this Vornir actually eats children, I really don’t have a problem with killing him,” Garvin put in.

“If we do, though, there might be some seriously unanticipated consequences,” Caulis pointed out. “Who knows where this will lead.”

“There must be other options to find out information,” Yam pointed out.

“We should figure out if this Vornir is what Gyrd says he is,” Armand said. “Then we can decide whether to act. Let’s act like we’ll kill Vornir, and we can always change our minds.”

The party agreed to this, and informed Gyrd that they would carry out her request.

“A boat will be prepared for you,” she said.

The adventurers next headed to the herbalist’s hut to procure the poison. The interior of the hut smelled of rot and pungent herbs.  Various reagents, preserved organs, stone jars, and an array of talismans and charms were stuffed into rickety wooden shelves around the hut’s walls.  Several wrinkled hide scrolls were spread out on a low wooden table, alongside a fat tome open to pages covered in crabbed runic formulae. A squat, bearded trollblood busied himself with herbs and potions in the hut. After the party explained their purpose, the herbalist gave them a dose of Purple Worm poison specially formulated to be effective against trollkind.

Equipped and rested, the party made their way down the cliffs to a waiting longboat. A small group of Goretooth trollbloods rowed them across the cold waves of the Grim Sea, up the coast to the neighboring territory of the Bonegrinders. The party were put ashore and made their way through snowy pine forest and across craggy foothills to the Bonegrinder village.

“I’ll send Eleyin to scout ahead,” Caulis said, and the pseudodragon took flight. “See if she can confirm anything about Vornir.” The familiar sent an image of the village back to the homunculus, showing the layout of the village. In particular she scouted the chieftain’s hall, flitting inside using a smoke-hole. She relayed sensory information back to Caulis. The hall stank of carrion. Heaped in a great pile in the midst of the room were gnawed bones – the bones of children. There was a great hearth in which cooks some sort of morbid loaf which reeks of burnt bones, fashioned, it seems, from bonemeal ground in a great mortar and pestle nearby. Sprawled asleep in a pile of furs was a massive troll, prodigiously muscled but also hugely fat, at least twelve feet tall. A huge bloodstained club leaened against one wall.

Flying back out of the camp, Eleyin dodged an arrow shot from an archer in one of the watchtowers guarding the village and returned to the party. Garvin was especially repulsed by Vornir’s appetites, and his resolve to slay the troll began to solidify.

“I’ll see if I can sneak inside,” Garvin said. “And see if I can liberate the thralls, get them into Hex using the Portal Chalk.”

Cloaking himself in shadow, Garvin skulked out of the forest and stole into the village, clambering over the wall and using his abilities to flit to the thrall’s quarters.

Noting the Hex-made padlock on the door he climbed to the roof and slipped down through a hole in the ceiling. The crude hall was quite large, but within the thralls – humans, trollbloods, and goblins, favoured slaves of trollkind – were crammed into tight quarters. These ill-fed, branded slaves included several children, evidently awaiting their grisly fate at Vornir’s hands.

Addressing the thralls and urging them to quiet, Garvin scrawled a portal on one wall using the Portal Chalk. He entered, slipping into the Hive of the Thirteenth Queen.

“There’s going to be some people coming in,” he told the only slightly-bewildered waspkin hierophants of the Queen in Yellow within. “Don’t panic.”

He gestured to the frightened but intrigued thralls behind him and led them, shivering, from the Bonegrinder’s hall and into the city of Hex.

Images: Skyrim landscape concept art

Hex Session XVI – 5th Edition Actual Play – “The Book of Dreams”

  • Alabastor Quan, a gnome rogue-turned-illusionist and failed circus ringmaster; wielder of a cursed dagger and member of the Ravenswing Thieves’ Guild.
  • 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.”
  • 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).
  • Cephalus T. Murkwater, a dagonian barrister and monk, specializing in martial arts and magical labour law.
  • Caulis, a homunculus warlock liberated from its master; has made a pact with certain Faerie Powers.

XP Awarded: 700 XP

We have already seen the strange travel of Garvin & Armand, to a strange, vampire-haunted version of Hex, darkened by an eternal cloud, but a member of the party remains unaccounted for – Caulis, the homunculus. As the mandrake-creature emerged from the portal into the sewer-grate, it found that something unusual seemed to have occurred. Firstly, Caulis was alone – there was no trace of its companions.  Sunlight streamed in from a hole in the ceiling, where a gigantic root had thrust its way through into the room, coiling on the floor. The walls were covered in lichen and fungus, what looked like years worth of overgrowth. The door to the room hung rotten off its hinges.

Caulis clambered up the root cautiously, emerging blinking into the sunlight. It looked about. It appeared to be in Hex – or, rather, into what used to be Hex. There were buildings here, and streets, barely visible beneath decades’ worth of overgrowth, lush ferns poking up from the mossy street-sides. Creeping vines had strangled the city’s broken spires and cracked domes, and many buildings had been utterly overwhelmed by masses of kudzu or ivy. Huge trees burst through the roofs of houses and rose like towers above the shattered remnants of Hex.

Caulis cast about, seeking for someone, anyone to speak with, but only heard a strange giggling from a nearby structure. Making its way there it was surprised as a group of insect-winged sprites burst from a window and flitted away. It caught a snatch of Sylvan as one, pointing at it, yelped “outsider!” and another declared that “Queen Mab must be alerted!”

Perturbed, Caulis was seized by a similar impulse as Garvin and Armand on their own jaunt sideways through time: it sought out Master Melchior’s School of Thaumaturgy & Enchantment. The school itself was covered in vines and huge, bristling masses of thorns – huge masses of briars drooling from the windows and spilling from doors. The griffin guards were absent, but a lazy-looking footman stood sentinel. Pointed ears and greenish skin marked him as one of the Fair Folk.

Melchior Statue

Melchior’s Statue, as illustrated by Bronwyn McIvor (Caulis’ player).

“Halt! What is your business here?” the guard demanded.

“I’ve, ah… I’ve been asleep for awhile,” Caulis lied. “Who lives here now?”

“How long were you asleep?” the guard asked, bewildered. “This is the home of Lord Brambleheart, of Queen Mab’s Court, ruler of the Unfortunate Isles.”

“A Fairy Lord you say?”

“Yes. Now, if you do not have business here…”

“Ah but I do!” Caulis quickly improvised, hoping to learn more of this strange world. “I, ah – I’m looking for employment. Yes. I would like to serve Lord – Brambleheart, was it?”

The guard looked quizzical. “I see. And do you have any skills of note?”

“I am an accomplished spellcaster,” Caulis said, boldly. “Grant me an interview with his Lordship and I will gladly demonstrate my arcane abilities.”

“Hmm. Well, I suppose there’s no harm in a little audition.” The elf-guard shrugged. “Come this way, then.”

The footman escorted Caulis to a small chamber in the servant’s building, where more elves scurried to and fro – obviously servants. Caulis waited patiently while its psuedodragon familiar, Eleyin, explored, flitting into the remains of the library. Most of the books were gone or rotten, but some were preserved, and new tomes were also added – books of fairy history, and of enchantment. Instructing its familiar to snatch one such volume of spells, Caulis continued to wait, till a lumbering ogre-like thing lurched into the anteroom.

“His Lordship will see you now,” the hulking thing grunted. Caulis was led up Master Melchior’s tower; here the portraits of the archwizard were replaced with landscapes from Elfhame and pictures of fey royalty.

It was ushered into the remains of Melchior’s study, where the wizard’s empty brain-tank stood rusting. Sprawled in a leather chair, his feet on Melchior’s now vine-encrusted desk, was a slender fairy in flamboyant, aristocratic garb, long-haired and exquisitely handsome, with cruel amber eyes and a lazy, appraising smile.

“Ah, now aren’t you a find?” Lord Brambleheart said, inspecting Caulis up and down. “A homunculus from the time before… somehow survived till now. Or grown? Curious. I was told you were asleep?”

“That’s right,” Caulis said. “I only recently awoke.”

“You must be confused,” Lord Brambleheart said. “This is not the city you left, I am sure. Much has changed since the Tangle swallowed Hex into Faerie and the good Queen declared it her own. I understand you’re here looking for employment?”

“Indeed,” Caulis said. “I have some magical talents.” It demonstrated with a few cantrips.

“Marvelous!” Lord Brambleheart said with a little clap. “Well, you’re quite the curiosity… I’m sure I can find some place for you in my household.” He flicked his hands and a contract appeared, reading to be signed, specifying a period of ten years. “Sign here, if you please.”

Caulis reeled. This was going rather more quickly than it had anticipated.

“Oh, dear, well… you see, I already have something of a contract.”

“What?!” Lord Brambleheart snarled, handsome features contorting into an expression of fury. “Why did you not mention this? Who are you working for?”

Panicked, Caulis cast glitterdust and, with a flourish, used misty step to teleport back to the stairs. Lord Brambleheart’s fury turned back to delight.

“Ah! All part of the demonstration, eh? Great fun, great fun!” He clapped again, distracted, as Caulis flung itself down the stairs, using its powers to disguise itself as a goblin servant. It hurried across the courtyard towards the gates – only to find a regiment of purple-garbed, halberd-wielding fairy soldiers awaiting it.

“By order of Queen Mab, we are here for the outlander,” the leader declared to the footman.

Caulis shook its head and, hurrying, used misty step again to flicker past the squad.

“Oi! Whose that?” one of the guards snarled, pointing.

Realizing it needed to move quickly, Caulis fled, Eleyin following, as Mab’s soldiers gave chase. The homunculus ducked into a nearby thorn-patch and waited for them to pass before skulking out, again shifting its appearance to resemble a fairy. It hastened back to the sewer grate room and leapt back through the portal into Hex. It would have quite a story to tell.

Meanwhile, back in the Hex we all know, the party had regrouped. Yam had once again returned to Gloomway and Garvin was showing his younger self about the city, but Sister, Armand, and Alabastor had recruited Cephalus, and when Caulis returned, it rejoined the expedition. Refreshed, the party stepped back through the portal and into the Nightmare Tunnels.

Back in the primordial darkness of the Egregor Vaults, the party resumed their search for the Book of Dreams. They were once more in the strange labyrinth they’d accessed via the children’s bedroom in the dollhouse within the toy-room on the first level. Alabastor once more took out the magical dowsing rod he’d liberated from the automaton back on the Seven Hundred Steps of Slumber and used the device to guide the party towards the nearest source of magic.

After a short period of wandering through the maze, the party found themselves in a room lined with massive bookshelves rising up seemingly infinitely into darkness above. The books within them are thick and weighty, overlarge, with unintelligible scribbles on the spines.

Alabastor’s childhood drawing.

Shelves

Alabastor cringed before the massive shelves, but, curious, Sister removed a volume from the bookshelf. Instantly the shelves began to tremble, and books began tumbling from above, several striking the Lengian cleric, more cascading down in a flood of pages and covers. In that moment, Cephalus’ keen dagonian eyes glanced across a book whose spine bore an actual title: The Secret Door. As books fell around the party Cephalus pulled the volume, causing part of one shelf to hinge inwards. The group rushed inside to flee the books, racing down a short corridor as books filled up the room behind them. They reached a blank wall with a lever, and after checking for any traps, pulled it, opening a door into another part of the maze. Blood trickled from Sister’s brow, staining her clerical robes.

Pressing on, Alabsator continued using his dowsing-rod, leading the group still further into the labyrinth. Cephalus, at this time, detected a faint smell of burning hair – sharp and unpleasant. He shuddered and pressed on. Passing many corridors, the group eventually found themselves at a wooden door. Bracing themselves for what lay beyond, they stepped through…

Map 001

Yam & Cephalus’ players’ collaborative map of the Maze.

…only to find themselves inside of an outhouse, a crude latrine before them, the entrance ahead. Sunlight streamed through gaps in the walls, and a breeze was audible, rustling through vegetation. Opening the door, the group entered what seemed to be a field, beneath a darkening blue sky. Rows of corn extended in all directions, and a barn and small farmhouse where evident nearby, along with five scarecrows presiding over the fields. Cautiously, the party began venturing forwards, ears of corn brushing against them as they began their exploration of the fields.

“I don’t like these scarecrows,” Alabastor said.

“Let’s go have a look,” Sister suggested.

They approached one of the tatterdemalion things. Armand, using detect magic, discerned a strong aura of abjuration, but the scarecrow seemed otherwise normal – simply cloth and straw. On slightly closer inspection, however, Armand realized with a start that the scarecrow was garbed almost identically to himself – in patchwork clothes that resembled his own. Even the pale sack of the thing’s head seemed to have something of his sardonic expression.

“Didn’t the captions in the dollhouse mention nightfall?” Alabastor said.

“It’s getting on,” Cephalus urged. “Let’s investigate the farmhouse.”

Agreeing, the group cut through the corn rows to the farmhouse, a small wooden structure that looked disused. Alabastor picked the locked front door and they entered. Inside, the farmhouse was musty and disused. There was a bedroom, a front room, and a small kitchen. Blood spatters marred the walls, and much of the furniture has been broken – there was obviously violence done here.

In the bedroom, this violence was given horribly vivid form. A man was nailed to the wall, spread-eagled, and split from neck to navel, as if by a scythe. Vines and vegetation sprang from his body, from his eyes and mouth, nostrils, ears, groin, and lush creepers spill from his stomach like entrails. The vines bore fat, glistening pumpkins.

Most of the party nearly retched in horror, but Armand – undisturbed by such vegetal abomination – took a sample pumpkin, carefully removing it from its stem. “Hmm. Anything else here?” he asked, looking round. He seemed slightly put off by the bucolic setting. Alabastor was also perturbed, glancing frequently out the windows and keeping an eye on the sun.

“There’s a back door here…” Sister said. “Locked. But there’s no light coming from beneath it.”

Alabastor tried to pick the lock, to no avail.

“Stand back,” Cephalus said, and aimed a kick at the door. With a single strike and a tremendous sound of splintering wood the dagonian broke the door from its hinges. While the door should have opened into the fields, instead it led into a dark stone corridor.

Moments later, the party could hear the barn door opening, and something moving outside in the fields.

“Fuck. Something’s coming!” Alabastor swore. He hurriedly closed and locked the front door.

“Let’s move,” Cephalus said, heading towards the corridor.

“You get through, and I’ll mend the door!” Sister said. She began casting a spell to repair the broken door as her companions hurried through.

“I’ll give you cover!” Alabastor said, conjuring an illusion of the intact door.

“I’ll see what’s out there,” Caulis said, sending Eleyin to spy. The creature telepathically projected images of scythes, sickles, and pichforks glinting as a group of figures, mostly hidden by the corn, began making their way towards the farmhouse, muttering some strange prayer.

“I’ll hide our tracks,” Cephalus said, drawing on his powers to cast pass without trace. There was a loud thud at the door as whoever was outside tried to force their way within. Sister mended and shut the back door as the front door gave, a shadow darkening its threshold. The party rushed down the corridor, putting space between themselves and their pursuers.

Map 002

Cephalus’ player’s map of the second level.

Alabstor tried his dowsing rod, but it jerked in several directions, not settling on any given corridor. Wandering south, the party began to slowly explore the crystalline corridors of the Vaults on this level, swirling dream-stuff imprisoned in the Plateau of Frozen Thoughts visible behind the glassy surface of the walls.

Eventually, the group found their way to a door, fashioned in the style of the Old City, with a glyph-graven console behind it. Armand, practiced in the runic arts, used his powers to manipulate the glyph-lock and unseal the door. The floor of the huge room beyond was completely covered in a slick, liquid sheet of crimson – blood. It was impossible to tell how deep the blood extended; Sister cast light on a stone and cast it into the blood, but it quickly disappeared, swallowed by the crimson pool. More blood poureds slowly down the walls from small drains scattered about, sometimes in thin rivulets, other times in sheets of red.

At the fair end of the long, bloody hall was what looked like an elevator door, complete with a grate and a button to summon it – not a Librarian elevator, but a rickety mechanical lift.

“Hmm,” Alabastor said. “I don’t want swim in this. What if we tried to make a bridge, like we did over the Lethe?”

“Good idea,” Sister said. “Let’s try it.”

“I see some kind of orb,” Caulis noted, pointing to an object floating in the water. “A jewel or something.”

“Ugh,” Alabastor said, shivering. “Knowing this place it’s probably the bulb of some horrible angler-fish monster or something.”

“Hmm,” Cephalus said. “I have a thought… Obedai? You there?” He rubbed some ghostdust into his gills. Instantly, a ghostly form appeared before him – the spectre of a dagonian elder he’d met a number of times, Obedai, and who had now been “haunting” Cephalus for some time.. Only Cephalus, using the drug, could perceive this spirit.

“What kind of crazy place is this?” the ghostly dagonian said.

“Egregor Vaults,” Cephalus said – apparently to himself. “Can you help us out? You don’t need to breathe, so maybe could you dive down deep and see how far this blood goes?”

The ghost looked disgusted, then shrugged. “I’m dead already. I suppose it can’t hurt me,” the ghost said, and immediately dove below the surface.

Meanwhile, Alabastor and Sister began to concentrate, and after a few tries, a stone bridge materialized over the blood, brought into being by the power of thought-made-real, as a lucid dreamer reshapes a dream. However, try as they might, they could only extend the bridge halfway across the blood.

“Uh… guys,” Cephalus said, looking back the way they’d come. “I don’t mean to alarm you, but…”

The others twisted round, looking into the darkness.

“What is it?” Armand said warily.

“You can’t see that?”

“No,” Sister said. “It’s one of those things isn’t it? Your nightmare.”

“Move fast!” Cephalus said. “It’s coming!”

He stared into the darkness – a darkness for him illuminated.

A horrible moaning. Whimpers, sobs, screams. Sounds of anguish. And above all, a reek of incinerated flesh and greasy smoke. These heralded the arrival of the Burning Ones, born of Cephalus’ nightmares. They were trapped together, fused in a column of blackened tissue, like some obscene totem pole: burn victims from every species, a vast heap of them, dragging themselves on charred limbs, an amalgam of animals and humanoids, the mangled remains of workers caught in some unfathomable, infernal factory. Within their bodies still smouldered a livid red fire. It glowed and flared, making their flesh crack, producing fresh choruses of groans and shrieks. Flame spilled from eyes and mouths, scorching the air.

Burning Ones

The Burning Ones, as illustrated by Bronwyn McIvor (Caulis’ player).

“Move!” Cephalus repeated, taking up the rear as the others began scrambling across the bridge.

Armand swore, racing to the end of the bridge and, with a quick spell, blinking across the remaining distance to the elevator. He hit the button to summon the lift.

Meanwhile, as Alabastor and Sister made their way across, red hands burst from the surface of the blood, grasping and clawing, one raking Sister’s leg, another clasping at Alabastor. They pulled themselves up: horrible, blood-slathered forms, bloated and thrashing, their eyes white and dead and staring, their mouths gaping, their arms extended in a grotesque embrace.

“Gah!” Sister exclaimed, conjuring a sacred flame and scorching one badly, the holy fire searing its undead flesh.

“Not more fire!” Cephalus said, backing up as the Burning Ones advanced down the corridor, seething towards him. They grasped at him with flaming hands and he dodged aside, then aimed a series of kicks and blows at their charred bulk, breaking off blackened limbs and sending a spray of sparks into the air.

Alabastor cast shatter, but it missed and hit the wall of the corridor behind the Burning Ones, sending shards of crystal cascading everywhere. Raw oneiric energy began spurting from the wall, coagulated thoughts bursting forth in a slurry of dream-slime.

While Armand awaited the lift he cast firebolt, scorching one of the bloody, bloated things, while the rest of the party hurried to the middle of the bridge.

“We’ve got to refocus!” Sister said. “Extend the bridge to the other side.”

“Right,” Alabastor said, while Caulis used sleep, and one of the swimmers slipped back beneath the blood. Meanwhile Eleyin snatched the orb from the blood.

Cephalus prepared to retreat, but the Burning Ones lashed out again, grasping the dagonian in a fiery embrace. Flame licked at his limbs as the creatures began pulling him into their charred mass. Eleyin flitted to Caulis; the homunculus tossed its familiar a healing potion. It fluttered over to Cephalus’ unconscious form and hastily uncorked the potion, pouring it down the dagonian’s mouth. Cephalus revived, his burns rapidly healing, and tore himself free of the Burning Ones’ grasp, but not before the column of flaming flesh tore Eleyin from out of the air and ripped the pseudodragon apart. It vanished in a puff of arcane energy, the pearl dropping to the ground. Cephalus snatched it up and bolted as the bridge began to collapse; the rest of the party flung spells at the pursuing swimmers. The Burning Ones, enraged, seethed forwards, plunging into the blood, which extinguished their smoulder. They hissed in pain or relief and swam forwards sluggishly.

The elevator had arrived. Armand pulled the grate open. “Hurry!” he snarled, leaping within. The party-members piled in hastily and pulled the grate shut as the undead swimmers lurched from the blood and charged, hands outstretched.

“Obedai?!” Cephalus asked, peering into the blood. Moments later, the ghost appeared, bubbling up through the surface, and, seeing the oncoming attackers, flitted into the elevator.

They scanned the buttons in the elevator. Levels 1-3 of the Egregor Vaults were marked, along with “Things to Come,” “Home,” and “Regrets.” Acting intuitively, Armand hit “Things to Come.” The elevator lurched into motion.

The elevator began moving up – and up, and up, and up. It continued moving at a fantastic rate until opening… on Hex itself. Or, rather: a version of Hex. Was this another alternate reality, kin to thosevisited by Caulis, Armand, and Garvin? Or was this something else? Whatever the case, it was horrific. Masses of greyish-purple lichen covered every visible surface, utterly carpeting the streets and creeping up the walls of buildings. Shambolic figures lurched into view – former citizens, perhaps, infested with the same all-consuming lichen.

“This place doesn’t look especially safe,” Alabastor said.

“What about ‘Regrets’?” Cephalus said. Exhausted and unsure, the group assented, and the dagonian hit the button.

The elevator lurched again – not up, or down, but to the side. Walls whizzed past, and the elevator ground to a halt. Water rushed in to the group’s knees (or Alabastor’s chest). The group looked out at the Radula River.

“Oh,” Cephalus said, gills fluttering with emotion. “I… I know what’s happening.” Sombrely, he pointed to a dagonian dock-worker, swimming out in the river amidst the tangle of the Swelter, Hex’s crazed dockland. “This is why I became a lawyer.”

“Who is that?” Sister asked.

“Jurdisss Sludgesucker,” Cephalus answered. “Friend of mine. Co-worker.” He shook his head. “He’s… he’s doomed. A jellyfish. It’s about to sting him.”

“But can’t we… can’t we stop him?” Alabastor said.

“I don’t know what that would do to time,” Cephalus said. “I don’t know if this is even real.” He crossed his arms. “This made me what I am. Led me to help people. I won’t cancel that out.”

As they watched, Judrisss flailed, screaming, and sank below the surface. Moments later, dagonians dove into the water to try and rescue him – to no avail.

“I’ve seen enough,” Cephalus said.

“I’ll say a prayer for your friend,” Sister said quietly, as the water churned and the dagonian sank beneath the surface.

“Thank you,” Cephalus said, grim but resolved.

“Let’s try ‘Home’,” Alabastor suggested, and hit the button. Again the elevator whirred sideways, opening this time into a tiny room within a covered wagon, crates stacked up to the canvas ceiling, a bedroll spread on the floor.

“I lived here,” Alabastor said, shaking his head. “When I was with the circus.”

Armand poked his head outside the wagon. An endless black void stretched in all directions. Vague moaning sounds, like wind, echoed through the darkness.

“Seems to create the home of whoever hit the button,” Armand said.

“Maybe we could rest?” Caulis said.

“Not in this place.” Armand sniffed. “Everyone back in the lift.”

They complied, and Armand now hit “Home.” Instantly the party was conveyed to a simulacrum of Armand’s townhouse. While most of the party were hesitant to sleep outside the elevator, Armand retired to his own bed. The group rested, those on watch listening for any sign of hostility. Nothing assailed them, however, and the party woke rested and refreshed.

“I don’t know about you, but I want to get this book and get out of here,” Alabastor said to his companions.

“Agreed,” Armand said, scrutinizing his nails. “Level 3 it is.” He hit the button.

Map 003

Cephalus’ player’s map of the lowest level.

The elevator hurtled downwards for many levels before opening into a gloomy chamber which appeared to be some sort of shrine. It was dominated by an idol of obviously Librarian construction, one of the Unspeakable Ones: a massive, sphinx-like thing, though with the body of a giant crustacean-like entity rather than a lion. In place of a face the idol had a gaping black void which seems to extend infinitely into darkness.

“The Thing Without a Face,” Sister said. “The Librarian god of oblivion, slumber, and the void.”

“Interesting!” Alabastor said, approaching the idol. “Do you think there’s something inside?” He clambered up the idol and poked his head into the gaping emptiness where the thing’s face should have been.

Instantly, Alabastor felt an invisible force pulling him into the darkness, a kind of horrid lure, tugging him forwards. He wrenched his head back as he realized the hole was closing in around him. It dilated back open.

“It wants a sacrifice.” Caulis said.

“Hmm. I have an idea.” Alabastor took out the Snatcher’s sack – the extradimensional bag containing the phantasm’s many victims, including Cagehead. Edging close to the idol, he gingerly opened the sack and, trying to keep his hands clear, emptied the contents into the idol’s faceless void.

A tremendous screaming, screeching, snarling, tearing sound was audible as dozens of forms were sucked from the bag and drawn into the void, snatching and clawing at one another – a huge mass of ghouls, ghasts, gugs, and other creatures. Cagehead tumbled out last, a mass of bloodied flesh and lashing chains. The sack’s prisoners tumbled into oblivion. The idol’s hole closed, and the room rumbled.

A feeling of immense peace filled all within the shrine. Wounds closed, and even old scars and injuries faded. The hole where the idol’s face should have been opened again – but this time, instead of a black, endless void, the party could see light, and what looked like a room beyond.

“This looks promising,” Cephalus said, breathing easier than he had in some time as old wounds healed.

Cautiously, the party ventured up to the idol. Even more cautiously they climbed through the portal and into a truly massive room beyond. Everything  here was sized at least ten times larger than normal. A massive table set with the remains of a gargantuan meal was set in the middle. A hearth the size of a palace flickered with a vast conflagration. Candles big as trees glowed on the table.

Sitting in a cyclopean chair in one corner, slumbering thickly, was a giant – a hulking, brutish, warty thing close to a hundred feet tall. The monstrosity reeked. It had fallen asleep by the fire. Also dozing by the fire was a massive cat.

There was a door nearby, so huge they could crawl beneath it.

“Shhh,” Sister said, and invoking a blessing of stealthiness from the Mother of Spiders she made their footsteps silent. They crept through the room soundlessly and squeezed under the door, leaving both the cat and its owner undisturbed.

Map 004

Cephalus’ player’s map of the Giant’s Chambers.

The party crept beneath the door. The room beyond proved to be the giant’s library, a huge room lined with massive, musty books, written in a bewildering array of languages.  Unlike the books in the dollhouse these books were not records of individuals’ dreams, at least not based on the titles on their spines. In the middle of the room was a huge pedestal on which sat a huge tome. Sister, able to read the Aklo letters, excitedly identified it as the Oneironomicon.

Sister quickly produced a silk rope, and together several of the party members clambered up to retrieve the Book of Dreams. As they excitedly prepared to leave, however, a group of angrily chittering rats the size of large dogs scuttled from the shadows. Alabastor, as a gnome, possessed the ability to speak with small beasts and understand their animal language.

“Thieves! Burglars!” they proclaimed.” That’s ours! You’d best leave it be or we’ll strip yer flesh from yer bones!”

Alabastor hastily translated.

“Aren’t these the giant’s?” Caulis said.

“We’re the only ones that read them!” one rat proclaimed. A pair of human-sized reading glasses hung round its neck – perhaps looted from some other would-be adventurer.

“I’ll tell you what,” Alabastor said. “I’ll make you a deal.”

The rats squeaked. “Hmmm?”

“You must have read all these books many times,” Alabastor said. “But I have a new book for you.” He took out the book on the nature of doubt and reality that Melchior had given him. “I’ll trade this book for that one.” He pointed to the Book of Dreams.

“For the Oneironomicon?!” the learned rat-leader squeaked. “That book is of immense value!”

“Ah… so is this one! This book possesses tremendous power!” Alabastor held it up, with a glance at his companions. Sister used her thaumaturgy to lend the tome a supernatural glow, while Armand and Caulis added sparks and other effects to make the grimoire seem as if it were literally radiating magical power. The rats squeaked in enthrallment. “This book will reveal the secrets of the nature of reality itself!” Alabastor half-lied.

The bespectacled rat-leader nodded his head. “Yes! We must have it! Give it to us!”

“Uh… here!” Alabastor said, as he heard paws at the door – the cat trying to get in! “Take it!” He practically threw the book at the rats. The party grabbed the massive book while Sister scrawled a portal. They shoved the text through, and as it passed back into the sewer grate room, it shrank to a more manageable size. The group hastened through and closed the portal behind them just as the door opened and an angry feline mewl filled the library.

“Whew!” Sister said. “That was close.”

“But we’ve got the book,” Caulis said. “Now… what are we going to do with it?”

Hex, Session XV – 5th Edition Actual Play – “Bogeymen”

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.
  • Alabastor Quan, a gnome rogue-turned-illusionist and failed circus ringmaster; wielder of a cursed dagger and member of the Ravenswing Thieves’ Guild.
  • 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.”
  • 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).

XP Awarded: 600 XP

Armand and Garvin stepped through a portal into the grate control room of the Fever Lane Sewers – only to find their companions had vanished. What was more, a strange red bulb now glowed on the ceiling.

“What?” Garvin said, disoriented.

“I don’t remember seeing that.” Armand concurred. “Or that.” He pointed to some unusual graffiti in an unknown tongue on the brick wall of the room. After casting a spell he deciphered the markings. “Down with the Bloodsuckers.”

“Let’s have a look topside. I have a feeling… I have a feeling we may not be in the same Hex anymore.”

The pair made their way to the surface – through a manhole entrance that hadn’t existed before. They also noticed that the passage to the university catacombs had been bricked up.

This was not the Hex they knew. A huge, black cloud swirled overhead, swathing the city in darkness even at what seemed to me midday. Fat black dirigibles marked with strange heraldic signs picked out in crimson drifted through the sky like obscene flies.

“Are we in the future?” Armand mused. “Time accelerated somehow.”

“Maybe,” Garvin said. “You didn’t join the Arcady expedition, but this reminds me of that place… an alternate Hex.”

“Let’s talk to Melchior,” Armand suggested. “Or this reality’s Melchior, anyway. Maybe he’ll have some clue as to what happened.”

They made their way through the darkened streets of the Dreamer’s Quarter, and began to notice that the people were different here – cadaverous men and women in fine black lace garments, some of them obviously embalmed, were attended by branded living servants, some literally in chains. Black hansom carriages rattled by, more fanged, pale faces glimpsed within. People began looking askance at Garvin, though Armand seemed unnoticed.

“Act like my servant,” Armand urged.

“How?”

“You know, be obsequious. Don’t lead.”

“Fine.”

They approached the gates of Master Melchior’s School of Thaumaturgy & Enchantment – or, rather, what remained of it. Crumbling, pockmarked walls suggested some sort of battle. Instead of the griffin guardians, a pair of grim griffin skulls were mounted at the gate. And, of course, the school had a new name.

“MISTRESS WILHELMINA’S SCHOOL OF WITCHCRAFT & NECROMANCY,” Garvin read. “I think I have a theory. You know of Erubesence?”

“The vampire city. Yes.”

“In this reality, I think they may have conquered Hex.”

“Not a bad working theory.” Armand thought for a moment. “My house is nearby. Let’s investigate. See if that’s changed as well.”

“Alright, might as well.”

The two approached Armand’s townhouse in the Dreamers’ Quarter, not far from Melchior’s School, Garvin still posing as a servant of Armand. They found the house mostly unchanged, though in somewhat better repair, with a fresh coat of sombre-hued paint and a number of gargoyle additions. A light was on in one window. Garvin stealthily crept round a side-alley while Armand, imperious as always, approached the front door. Bernard, his servant answered.

“Sir… I hadn’t realized you were out,” the reanimated butler said, astonished, looking up the stairs towards the study door.

“Yes, well, please send up a pot of tea, Bernard,” Armand said, handing the butler his hat and striding boldly up the stairs.

Garvin, meanwhile, employed his magical Boots of Wall-Walking to sneak up the side of the house and watch events unfold from the window. He saw, hunched over a black wood desk, Armand – or, rather, another Armand. This Armand appeared somewhat bestial of visage, with hints of grotesque, monstrous, quasi-canine features emerging from his pallid, mask-like, classically handsome face. This Armand was feverishly writing something when the other Armand – the one Garvin knew – burst into the room.

“What?!” the second Armand snarled, leaping from his chair and drawing a rapier from his side. “Who are you, imposter!?”

“Who are you?” the first Armand retorted with equal ferocity.

“Is everything alright, master?” Bernard’s voice was audible from the stairs.

“Yes, we’re quite fine Bernard,” Armand shouted back. “Do bring the tea.”

“Do nothing of the sort, Bernard!” the second Armand yelled.

“Let me explain,” Armand said, rolling his eyes in exhausted irritation. “I’m fairly sure this is a reality parallel to my own. I’m you, from another world.”

“Poppycock,” the second Armand declared. “But… intriguing poppycock all the same.” He lowered his sword. “I shall give you a chance to explain, before gutting you…”

The strange conversation that unfolded led not to any gutting, but to an invitation, as the two Armands became acquainted with one another, the first convincing the second of his identity. Armand managed to piece together the major alterations that had occurred in this reality. They are not in the future but in an alternate timeline in which Erubescence conquered Hex after strategically transforming key political figures into vampires and inciting a series of revolts among the city’s ghoul population. After a brief and decisive battle, the city fell. The Citadel of the Perpetual Storm crashed, the Golem was sabotaged, the Warders compromised. The city’s waspfolk and fungoids were mostly exterminated. The dagonians and Lengians persevered, but retreated into their ghettos. Armand learned that a resistance thrived in the Old City, periodically raiding those above, collaborating with a few sympathetic undead. This world’s Armand, it seemed, had helped the vampires seize power.

After this eerie tête-à-tête concluded, Armand – the “original” – explored the house. He found a number of strange experiments involving cadavers in the greenhouse, or “meathouse,” as it seemed to have been renamed. The house was notably better furnished. He let Garvin in by a side door; the thief, skulking through the house, made off with a handsome-looking painting of the Battle of Hex, a panoramic view of the city falling to Erubescence. The two agreed that they should return to the portal soon. Garvin also stumbled into a reanimated gnome – one of the servants – who closely resembled Alabastor. The gnome silently left the pair with a revolutionary pamphlet; it seemed that even the undead help had been hijacked by resistance members, their magical instructions reprogrammed…

After a short rest, Armand and Garvin hurried back to the portal, hoping that it would return them to the Hex they knew. On his way, Garvin made a point of grabbing a newspaper from the gutter. He quickly scanned the society pages and noted that the Countess Erzsébet Scarrow was rumoured to be moving to Hex from Erubescence.

Meanwhile, in that very Hex, Alabastor, Sister, and Sprigley returned to the surface, Sprigley’s lungs wheezing from the poisonous Deathcap Forest. The warrior made his way to the Infernal Basilica for treatment. Meanwhile, Alabastor and Sister returned to Yam’s chambers in Mooncross, where Alabastor was staying. Here the found none other than Yam, in a state of considerable agitation.

Mooncross

“Uh, guys,” Yam said. “I could really use your help.”

Yam looked unusually pale.

“That’s ah… well,” Alabastor said, gesturing to himself and to Sister. The pair were bedraggled and filthy. Alabastor’s lower half was stained with blood from the place his leg had broken, and Sister’s robes were still half-sodden from her dip in the Lethe. Both reeked of the fungal miasmas of the Deathcap Forest, small mushrooms already sprouting on their torn, sweaty clothing. Their boots were caked with mud and dust. A hundred scrapes and bruises from their helter-skelter journey through the Cavern of Fear could be seen on their hands and faces. “We’re a little tired. Sort of in the middle something. We used this chalk we found to get back, but…”

“Oh, ah, okay, well…” Yam walked about the small room. “Yam beta will be fine for now… yeah… maybe you could help me later. My thing, it’s, well, it can wait, I guess.”

“We’d be happy to help,” Sister said. “But we’re close to getting the Book of Dreams. We’ve got a way of getting back down to the Old City, to the Egregor Vaults.”

Yam nodded. “I can come. Sure. I’ll help you guys and then you can help me. Deal?”

“Of course,” Alabastor said. “Mind if we rest here?”

“Sure, sure,” Yam said, sitting down on the bunkbed.

After cleaning themselves up and regaining their strength, Alabastor and Sister set off again for the portal, Yam now in tow.

Fever Lane Sewers

Stepping through the portal in the sewers, the party emerged back atop the Plateau of Frozen Thought – only to bump into Armand and Garvin, emerging from a similar portal in their own reality. Somehow, it seemed, the portals created by the Portal Chalk could join timelines as well as physical spaces. The buildings of the Old City rose around them, protruding from the Plateau.

“Where’d you come from?” Garvin asked.

“Where’d you go?” Sister retorted.

“We’re not sure. Probably an alternate timeline. We’ll tell you all about it,” Armand said snootily.

“Uh, so, we’re after the book, right?” Yam chimed in, mapping-scroll ready.

“Yes,” Alabastor said. “But there were these things following us, Sister and I… our fears made real, or something.”

“Yes. They’re stalking us,” Sister said. “They don’t seem to be deterred by physical obstacles for long.” She looked down the spiraling steps leading into the Egregor Vaults.

“Maybe we should try and confront these things,” Alabastor suggested. “I don’t like the idea of them creeping up on us while we’re down there.”

“But no one can see them except for the one they’re stalking,” Sister pointed out.

“I have an idea for dealing with that,” Alabastor said. “Faerie fire should illuminate them.

“Let’s see if we can lure them down the stairs,” Sister suggested. The party agreed, cautiously descending into the depths of the Plateau of Frozen Thought and the Egregor Vaults below.

The vaults were cold, the stone not the glistening opulence of obsidian but matte-black ice, absorbing all light. It was the velvet darkness everyone knew in childhood, in the blackness of the pre-dawn hours, when the things your parents told you were only in your head prowled your bed. There was an alkaline smell, a faint clamminess. There were no joins in the stonework, although when illuminated, swirling dream-images could be glimpsed behind the surface of the walls.

At the bottom of the steps was an anteroom with several exits. Alabastor took out his magical dowsing rod and got a reading to the south, but as they waited, Sister heard chains rattling on the stairs behind them.

“It’s coming,” she said. “Get ready…”

“I have an idea,” Armand said, fetching several phials of alchemical liquid from his pouch. “I made these in the greenhouse. They should create a burst of intense euphoria. If these things feed on fear, or are somehow constituted by it…”

“Then maybe this will hurt them!” Sister said, taking a phial. She drank some of the contents, and immediately was filled with a feeling of transcendent bliss. “COME ON!” she shouted, racing up the stairs.

Halfway up, Sister and Alabastor were able to perceive their respective phantasms: the monstrous Cagehead, its chains writhing, obviously in pain, and behind it, the Snatcher, its bag now grotesquely swollen with fresh victims, struggling and rustling.

Cagehead

“There! There!” Sister yelled, and Alabastor cast faerie fire, instantly outlining both Cagehead and the Snatcher in iridescent magical flames. He then drank his own joy-potion, becoming filled with the same euphoric feeling as Sister. The Snatcher made a horrible keening wail and dropped its bad, fleeing rapidly on its hundreds of legs, scuttling back up the spiral staircase. The bag abruptly became visible to everyone.

Garvin, skulking in the shadows, fired a bolt from his hand crossbow, catching Cagehead in the chest. The creature groaned in pain. Yam conjured an acid splash, searing its flesh, while Armand burned it with a firebolt.

Sister, meanwhile, tried to concentrate on making the creature more physically present, focusing her willpower into fully materializing Cagehead, and on inflicting pain. The phantasm groaned and flickered into quasi-visibility for the rest of the party. Angered, Cagehead hurled its barbed net at Sister, snaring the Lengian, the wires cutting into her flesh. She wriggled free, bleeding from a hundred cuts. Garvin leapt forward, skewering Cagehead through the knee, causing it to fall to one knee. As it fell, hands emerged from the sack of the Snatcher and began dragging the sack forward and groping madly, several seizing Cagehead.

While Armand continued to bombard the thing with spells, Cagehead lashed at the hands with its chains. Sister rolled forwards and called on the Mother of Spiders to cast inflict light wounds, spreading necrosis through Cagehead’s body, spider-bites opening across its arms and torso. It slashed with its chains, catching her and wrenching her towards it. Sister ripped herself free, spattering the stairs with more Lengian blood. Yam, thinking quickly, used mage hand to trip Cagehead, knocking the creature fully prone.

Meanwhile, Alabastor cast eldritch blast, pushing Cagehead towards the sack. Hands reached from the Snatcher’s bag, pulling the phantasm in. Cagehead groaned and thrashed its chains. Its cage-door had opened, bones spilling from inside. The hands wrenched and clawed, and Cagehead was drawn inside the bag. Alabastor leapt forward and tried to cinch the bag shut, but a hand shot out, grasping his forearm, trying to pull him in. Garvin stabbed at the arm with his blade, and the hand retreated. Alabastor cinched the bag shut. It suddenly shrank in size, so that he could carry it more easily.

“Well, that went reasonably well,” Sister said, her wounds already closing, divine spider-webs stitching them shut. “One down, at least.”

“Mine looked scared,” Alabastor said. “I don’t think it’ll bother us for awhile.”

“Let’s get in and out of here,” Yam said. “Come on. I want to see what that magic was Alabastor’s stick found.”

Agreeing, the party headed south.

Egregor Vaults

Yam’s map of the Egregor Vaults.

They entered a small room with two plain, wooden doors, one large and one small. Yam immediately opened the large door and stepped through. Simultaneously, the small door opened, and Yam emerged – or, rather, a tiny version of Yam emerged. Yam squeaked with delight and ran back through the small door, reappearing through the large door, back to normal size. Yam then put a fist through the small door – resulting in a huge hand emerging from the large door!

Clearly, the door could resize objects and people, with no noticeable negative effects in the process.

After much discussion, the party used the door to initially enlarge several flasks of healing potion in hopes of creating more of this substance. Garvin also urged Lenore through the small door; she emerged, now the size of a tiger, through the large door, and nuzzled Garvin affectionately. Yam jumped atop the zoog’s back, riding it like a horse.

This room explored, they next headed to the west, where the sound of music was faintly audible. They entered a room which looked like the inside of a toyshop. Hundreds of gnome-made clockwork toys lined the shelves here: windup dolls, kaleidoscopes, jack-in-the-boxes, stuffed animals, complicated boardgames, and other toys. It was essentially a child’s dream of riches – all the toys one could ever want. Several dolls were life-size or nearly-so, including an intricate wind-up ballerina. There were hundreds of toy soldiers – one an army of knights, the other an army of monstrous troll-like beings – arrayed on a table with miniature scenery.

The crowning jewel of the collection was a massive, incredibly ornate doll’s house. It was resplendent and baroque, although admittedly there was something a bit sinister about its grey, slightly peeling paint and its windows curtained with black. The dollhouse had a hinge and can be opened, although there appeared to be a locking mechanism.

Garvin also noticed a small music box. Opening the box did nothing, but there was a winding mechanism evident. Garvin wound the box a single crank and let it play. Instantly everything in the room – all the toys, but also clothing, weapons, and other objects, began to jolt to life, rustling and moving. The toy soldiers began slaying one another, the ballerina to dance, the animals to growl. Fortunately the effect was temporary and as the music stopped the objects became inert once more.

Parlour

After picking the dollhouse’s lock, they party was able to look inside, seeing a cross-section of rooms with miniature people in them. They noted a kitchen where an massive, ogre-like chef attended by numerous impish assistants prepared a meal. There was a large dining room set for the feast. Other rooms included a foyer, parlour, master bedroom, bathroom, library, observatory, and what looked like a children’s bedroom with scribbled pictures on the walls. Everything within was inert. Closing the door, the party peered through the window in the kitchen, noting that the chef and his assistants appeared to animate once the house was whole.

Little Nightmares

“If we shrunk down we could enter the dollhouse,” Sister noted.

“Yeah!” Yam said. “Let’s do it!” Yam hurried back to the proportion portals. Eventually, the entire party shrunk down – all save for Armand, who refused, standing watch outside the dollhouse with Lenore.

The party crept through the foyer, eager to avoid attracting the attention of the cook. This room had three dark wooden doors and a large rug. Hanging on the walls were several paintings. These were landscape scenes depicting a farmhouse in a field surrounded by scarecrows, a log cabin next to a lake in the middle of the woods, and a ship on a fog-shrouded sea, mired in some sort of thick weeds. There were captions to the three paintings. They read (in order):

THE SCARECROWS ARE NOT WHAT THEY SEEM. BEWARE THE FALL OF NIGHT.

IT COMES FROM THE LAKE. ITS SECRETS WERE KEPT BY THE WOODSMAN.

THE WRACK MUST BE CONTAINED! DO NOT PERMIT ITS SPREAD!

Ignoring these for the time being, the group took the door on the right and hurried upstairs. They went first to the library, cozy room with shelves filled with thousands of books. The books all had the names of people on their spines. They were alphabetized carefully, but this room appeared to only have names from the first part of the alphabet. The books appeared to be records of individuals’ dreams, told in various narrative styles, with rich illustrations. There was also a mysterious door the party had not noticed before. Opening this, they found another room, this one with names from the next letter in the alphabet – with doors leading to yet more rooms, each dedicated to a new letter.

After investigating several individuals’ dream-books, Alabastor found his own book, and found within a record of his dreams – including illustrations of the Snatcher, which appeared to evolve over time, becoming more millipede-like after his time in the Whorl. Yam, curious, found Master Melchior’s book. Here were dreams of a utopian magical civilization, a perfect society freed from want through magic and science – and nightmares of a magical dystopia, of ruins and cities invaded by demons, of a world on fire or sunk beneath the waves, of reality itself unraveling.

“This… this feels wrong,” Yam said. “We shouldn’t be looking at this. It’s too private.” Yam carefully put the book back on the shelf.

“Let’s look at the observatory,” Garvin suggested. Here they found a number of star charts and an ornate telescope, both of which they took.

Finally, the group entered the children’s bedroom. This room was furnished with a small bed, a chest of drawers, and pictures pinned to the walls. When the dollhouse was open, these pictures appeared as simple scribbles, but now they were fully realized illustrations – very, very familiar illustrations.

boots 001

Garvin’s childhood drawing.

Monster

Yam’s childhood drawing.

The Sun

Armand’s childhood drawing.

Shelves

Alabastor’s childhood drawing.

Boot

Sister’s childhood drawing.

Each of the adventurers recognized one of their own childhood drawings on the wall, exactly as they produced it. As they gawked at this bizarre occurrence, the door of the closet slowly creaked open.

Door1

Alabastor cautiously created an illusion of himself to peer in, testing to see if something would grab at him – but nothing appeared. Opening the door further, they saw a long, dark, wood-paneled corridor extending for some distance.

Looking out through the window, the party could see Armand, watching everything, still normal-sized.

“We’re going to explore this way,” Garvin said. “Maybe you should get small and come with us?”

“Fine, fine,” Armand agreed. He quickly returned to the portal chamber with Lenore and shrunk himself and the zoog, then hurried back to the dollhouse. As he entered the foyer a horrible smell reached his nostrils, and he could hear something in the darkness, stirring, seething, sloshing. He hastened up the steps and through the closet door, joining the others.

A whimper echoed down the passageway. It sounded like a child crying.

“Alabastor, try your dowsing rod,” Sister suggested.

“Alright,” Alabastor said, and, using the rod to guide them towards the most powerful source of magic, the group began moving through what they realized was a maze – an intricate profusion of identical branching passageways.

The Maze

Yam’s map of the Maze, so far.

Slowly but surely they made their way deeper into the labyrinth. The occasional whimpers became louder.

At last the party reached a chamber at what seemed to be the heart of the maze.

Bones crunched underfoot – children’s bones.

Suspended from the ceiling of the room, chains lost in darkness, was a cage – a cage containing five children. Two were young gnomes, two appeared to be human, and one was a Lengian, freshly moulted.

Glaring at the children, orbiting the cage like a pair of obscene, demented balloons, were two grotesque, disembodied eyes that looked as if they had been ripped from the sockets of a giant. The eyes circled, malevolent and bloodshot, optic nerves trailing blood, claws and tentacles writhing from behind, their whites jaundiced and bloodshot, their irises a malignant red.

The adventurers realized, simultaneously, that they remembered this happening. They remembered this dream. The children in the cage – it was their younger selves, or some semblance of them.

Eyeballs

The eyes rolled, swerved, circled. They fixed themselves malevolently on the adventurers. Garvin, quickly applying wyvern poison to a bolt, jumped up form behind a pile of bones and fired at the right eye, hitting it squarely in the sclera. Blood gushed as the poison spread. The eye, frenzied, fired a beam of fire at Garvin, which he nimbly dodged. Meanwhile Yam conjured an acid arrow; the caustic missile hit the left eye, eating away at it viciously. This eye swiveled and fired another energy-ray, this one at Yam; the gnome illusionist ducked aside. Armand sent a firebolt to the right eye, damaging it badly, while Alabastor used an eldritch blast to damage it further. A final bolt from Garvin destroyed the right eye, the monstrous orb deflating, blood spurting, till it crashed to the floor with a sickening splat, sending bones flying. Sister made for the cage, while Yam cast colour spray, blinding the eye. It roved wildly, firing off jets of fire, but Yam’s acid continued to eat it away. Blind, the eye bounced off the walls, melting, till it dissolved into a pile of acidic goop and red steam.

The group hurried to get the children down, picking the lock and lowering the young ones to the floor, to receive waiting hugs from an excited Yam.

“How are we going to get them back home?” Sister asked, picking up her younger self.

“I think I know the way we came,” a sullen, pallid child – young Armand – said.

“So, you’re me, huh?” the young Alabastor asked.

“Look’s like it,” the older gnome said, perhaps slightly disturbed.

“Let’s try retracing our steps,” Yam suggested, waving the map.

The group returned to the dollhouse entrance, noting along the way several disturbing footprints down a side-passage, as if the floor had been crushed underfoot. The children began to scurry through – and as each passed from the maze they faded, returning to their own times.

Young Garvin, however, hovered at the threshold.

“I was thinking I might stick around here for awhile,” he said.

“Don’t you want to go home?” young Yam asked.

“I don’t really have a home,” the orphan boy said, looking up at his older self knowingly.

“Hmm. Alright,” Garvin said. “Let’s try and use the Portal Chalk in here. See if we come out small…”

Sister obliged, and the group – including young Garvin – passed from the maze back into the sewers, apparently of normal size. The dream-conjured urchin remained quite solid.

“Well, that answers that,” the boy said.

Image Credits: “Old dollhouse in Musée alsacien, Strasbourg,” Christina T, Little Nightmares screenshot.

 

Hex, Session XIV – 5th Edition Actual Play – “The Cavern of Fear”

The characters in this session were:

  • Alabastor Quan, a gnome rogue-turned-illusionist and failed circus ringmaster; wielder of a cursed dagger and member of the Ravenswing Thieves’ Guild.
  • 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.”
  • 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.

Alabastor and Sister looked around madly. One moment their three companions had been there; the next, they had vanished.

Sister had seen something like this before, when Garvin disappeared in the midst of Corvid Commons. But it had occurred when they passed through the portal made by the Antinomian’s sacred chalk. Had the god of chaos whisked their friends Elsewhere?

Shaken, the two resolved to return to the surface for the time being, perhaps to seek out additional companions to replace those who had gone missing. Studying Garvin’s map – fortunately in Sister’s possession – they made for the university catacombs, the tunnels beneath Master Melchior’s School of Thaumaturgy & Enchantment.

Fever Lane Sewers

The university’s tunnels were of grey, worked stone, as opposed to the crumbling, mouldy brick of the sewers. Sister and Alabastor crept through, looking for a way back to the surface, when they happened upon a very distinctive room. Instead of dour grey stone befouled by slime and mildew, the room had walls of gleaming pink marble somehow undulled by dust or mould, and adorned with an exuberant excess of adornments, including hundreds of small statuettes like miniature gargoyles, but with the forms of dogs, cats, birds, miniature manticores and griffins, toads, mice, pseudodragons, and other animals. Many of these had jeweled eyes and were wrought of precious metals or crystal. There was an aura of distinct femininity, and the very air smelled of perfume. At the centre of the chamber was a fabulous sarcophagus of purple and green stone upon which the semblance of a plump, happy-looking woman was sculpted, garbed in scholarly robes that embroidered with lace, meticulously sculpted. An engraving read: “Professor Augusta Fullblood.”

“Uh-oh,” Sister said. “Do you think we’re in some vampire faculty-member’s office?”

“Maybe we should leave…” Alabastor agreed.

“Not a vampire but a ghost, my dear!” a spectral voice said, as Professor Fullblood drifted through a wall, congealing out of ectoplasm into a figure closely resembling the woman on the sarcophagus.

“You’re a, ah, faculty member?” Sister asked.

“Indeed. Well, I was. Emerita, now. I was Professor of Zoomancy and Animal Enchantment. I drift up and teach the occasional guest-lecture. Are you from the university, dearies?”

“Us? No,” Alabastor said. “We’re doing a job for Master Melchior.”

“That old bat’s still hanging about up there, is he?”

“In a manner of speaking,” Alabastor said. “We’re actually trying to get out of here.”

“Ah, I see. You came from the sewers. You’ll want to head out of this chamber and then follow the passage to its end, ignoring any side-passages. That will bring you out under the library.”

“Thanks.”

“You may want to be careful.”

“Why’s that?” Sister asked.

“Well. Most of the university archives are well-kept… but there’s a room down here where the damp got in. Some sort of mildew got into a shelf of old spellbooks. It ate the arcane pages and, well… it got just a teensie bit sentient.” She squeezed thumb and forefinger together to illustrate her point.

“Sentient?! How smart is it?”

“Intelligent enough to cast spells. Books worth of them. There’s been a bit of a ruckus trying to contain it. It’s slow, so you can probably get away from it if it attacks, but it may try to bewitch you, and be careful not to get trapped.”

“Thanks! That’s good advice.”

“I wonder if you might, well, help me with something,” the ghost said. “You have no doubt noticed my collection of little pets,” she says, gesturing to the statuettes. “They are, in fact, quite literally my pets – their remains are housed in these little statuettes I made, you see.”

Quite suddenly they realized that Mistress Augusta was not the only ghost here, as numerous small, translucent heads poked themselves out of their funerary containers – ghost dogs and cats and mice and other ghost-animals, a menagerie of wraiths.

“Unfortunately, a pack of zoogs stole in here and made off with my dear Terrence, my miniature cerberi. If you happen to find the poor lost dear and bring him back, I’d be most grateful. I might even be able to find a little gift for you…”

“We’ll keep our eyes peeled,” Alabastor promised.

Taking their leave of the plump but eminently cheerful Professor Fullblood, the pair made their way past her crypt into an ossuary. A huge number of bones had been stored in the walls of this cavernous ossuary, sorted by type: skulls, femurs, finger bones, ribs, spines, and every other sort of bone.  A chandelier made from human bones was suspended from the ceiling of the round chamber.  This place was truly vast – there were hundreds of dead buried here. Ignoring the remains and the blackly gaping side-tunnels, Alabastor made for the door at the far end of the chamber, skillfully picking the lock with only slightly-rusty thieves’ tools. As he fiddled with the lock a vile smell, as of putrescence, wafted towards them, and nervously the gnome hastened his efforts. As something squelched in a nearby corridor the door clicked open. On the other side, the two found an ominous sign reading “KEEP OUT!” Carefully shutting and locked the door behind them, the two hastened onward. They passed through a round archive-chamber filled with texts – scrolls, books, stone tablets, memory-crystals, and other documents. The place was a bit disorganized, though the texts seem well-preserved given the somewhat dank conditions. Doorways led into other parts of the subterranean complex, but Sister and Alabastor ignored them, making instead for the stairs, which they cliumbed up into the library of Master Melchior’s School of Thaumaturgy & Enchantment.

library4

The gnome and the Lengian entered the first level of the library, though more levels were visible here, linked by spiralling staircases and criss-crossing catwalks. Charmed monkeys supplemented the staff of librarians who ran the place. The reference desk was manned by a thin, heavily tattooed man with a long, blonde beard. Discretely taking their leave, the pair hastened past the ornate, guarded foyer and out to the surface.

“Where now?” Alabastor asked.

“Well, there’s not much we can do for our friends who vanished except hope they find their way back,” Sister said, with typical Lengian nonchalance. “Unless you have any ideas?”

Alabastor shook his head.

“Well, we were told we’d lose people trying to get these books back. We have some other associates. What about Sprigley?”

“I don’t think I met him.”

“He helped us out on a few jobs. Human, big guy, decent shot. Bit strange in the head after we accidentally locked him in a time-displaced cell… I think he became a follower of the Chthonic Gods.”

Resolving to look for Sprigley at the Infernal Basilica, the two set out south for Little Pandemonium.

Little Pandemonium 2

Sprigley had spent much of the winter meditating, picturing the Infernal Engine in Hell, the countless damned souls made to labour at the behest of demonic masters to construct this mechanical malignity, a sentient analytic engine of impossible size. Much of this he accomplished in a small monk’s cell, deep below the Infernal Basilica – a place he felt oddly at home. The small rat Melchior had sent to invite Sprigley to his school had been caught by the priests of the Archdemons and sacrificed in the burning pits of Moloch.

It was to the grotesquely baroque bulk of the Infernal Basilica that Sister and Alabastor headed – a bulbous-domed monstrosity bristling with spikes, its stained glass windows glowing with crimson effulgence. Unlike the secret cabals and cults of demon-worshipers who congregate in less liberal cities, in Hex reverence for the Chthonic Gods is neither clandestine nor even particularly outré – just another philosophy among many. The main mass of the temple was quite open to the public. They entered the dark foyer; impish stone faces peered at them from the walls, while they trod on flagstones sculpted into the screaming faces of the damned. A black robed attendant shuffled towards them.

“May I assist you?” she asked.

“Yes, we’re looking for an initiate here?” Sister said, hoping her ecclesiastical garb would endear her to a fellow cleric. “Sprigley Gilette.”

“Ah yes. I shall fetch him for you. Wait here, if you please.” She shuffled off into the depths of the abyssal cathedral. Alabastor, meanwhile, investigated what appeared to be the guestbook, sitting on a lectern of bone. The book appeared to record the names of any who entered automatically – their own names were recorded here, though “Sister” was simply recorded as “Sister,” her true name somehow still obscured even to this magical text. Leafing through, he noticed several notable guests, including members of the Hexad Council – perhaps meeting with Arabella Sickle in secret? He considered stealing the tome, but then realized that in the busy streets of Hex it would rapidly fill with endless names.

ManWithTheMetalArm

At this point, however, Sprigley and the Infernal cleric appeared from the depths below. Repairing to Chimera Cafe in Gloomway, the pair explained the job to Sprigley, whose eyes gleamed at mention of the Book of the Underworld – though it was somewhat difficult to tell given that he now wore an eerie metal mask. He agreed to accompany them back into the Nightmare Tunnels.

The next day, the party returned to Master Melchior’s School of Thaumaturgy & Enchantment, talking their way past the griffin guards to convince them to let Sprigley inside the school. They headed for the fortified library in the southwest corner, the most well-protected part of the school and a former keep.

Dreamers' Quarter

The party descended once more into the tunnels beneath the university, passing through archive-chambers and back to the door marked “KEEP OUT.” Alabastor once more picked the lock, and the group proceeded stealthily, trying to avoid perturbing the strange, sentient mould that Augusta Fullblood told them now haunted the tunnels.

As they retraced their steps through the ossuary, one of Sister’s many limbs brushed against a femur – and a pile of bones clattered to the ground, echoing through the catacombs and stirring up a cloud of dust.

“Shit.” Alabastor swore.

Something seethed from a tunnel to the right. A stench of sickly-sweet decomposition and mustiness filled the air. A fuzzy, bluish-grey mould, like the fungus on rotten fruit or the mildew eating a piece of parchment, suddenly mottled the walls. It squirmed and writhed, psuedopods lashing from its mycelial mass. It did not “move” – patches of it appeared, while others withered and died, so that it progressed along the walls and floor. Amidst its disgusting, blighted mass could be seen sigils, shifting and flickering.

“Run!” Sister said, as the spellmould moved towards them, arcane puissance suddenly coalescing in its midst, psueodpods waving in a viscous parody of a magus’ hand-movements, squelched intonations replacing incantations. The party had made it to the stairs leading down to the sewers when the spell hit, Sister falling into a deep slumber. Sprigley fired his Verdant Pistol, trying to entangle the thing, but it ate quickly through the vegetation spawned by the bewitched bullet. Alabastor spun on his heels and cast an eldritch blast, pushing the spellmould backwards and singing its mildewed substance. As Sprigley woke Sister the thing cast a second spell, trying unsuccessfully to incapacitate Alabastor with hideous laughter. It seethed forwards in pursuit.

1 pixel = 1.0 uM 10X objective 10X eyepiece Field of view is 1.532 mm in diameter

The party fled down into the sewers, but the spellmould pursued, creeping ever closer.

“We’re going to have to come back this way anyway,” Sister pointed out. “We should destroy it, make sure it doesn’t ambush us on our way back.”

“Fine,” Alabastor said. “Let’s stand our ground. I’ll try and keep it back.”

Sprigley nodded, firing more shots at the approaching horror, shooting off the occasional pseudopod, though otherwise doing little damage. Sister cast sacred flame, searing the spellmould, even as it cast another spell, this time pushing the party backwards with thunderwave. Bleeding from the ears, the party counterattacked, Alabastor’s eldritch blasts pushing the spellmould backwards. Sister readied her crossbow and, using sacred flame, lit several bolts alight, firing them at the mould, while Sprigley continued to empty his pistol.  The spellmould began retreating. Sister took out a phial of griffin lard, coating a bolt, then set it aflame and fired; the bolt exploded, a sizzling improvised incendiary, setting the spellmould alight. It withered and died, a horrible whining sound filling the air as it was reduced to a smear of ash.

As the party caught their breath, a spectral head poked down through the ceiling – Professor Augusta Fullblood!

“Ah, thank you for taking care of that little nuisance, dearies!” she said. “You look a bit over-exerted. Would you care for a cup of tea?”

Thankful for the opportunity to rest, the party returned to the university catacombs and Professor Fullblood’s purple crypt. Here they rested, eating conjured cucumber sandwiches and drinking cups of tea that tasted only slightly of ectoplasm, before returning to the depths.

The party used the portal made by the journey 3Portal Chalk in the grate control room to return to the upper Nightmare Tunnels. Skirting the hollow-boned marrowmoth victims they headed towards the Seven Hundred Steps of Slumber marked on the map, only to find a cave-in blocking their path. Only a meager hole in the fallen rocks provided any way forward – it was either squeeze through this or find another way round. Alabastor cast thunderwave, blowing free much of the debris and opening a path. The party darted through, but the already-weakened ceiling now collapsed completely. Sister and Sprigley made it through, rocks falling behind them, but Alabastor found himself pinioned by a rock, crushing his leg.

“I’m stuck!” the gnome gasped.

Both Sister and Sprigley attempted to free Alabastor, but the rock crushing him was exceptionally heavy. As they heaved, grunting sounds and heavy footfalls became audible. Alabastor grimaced and, concentrating, managed to conjure an illusion to cloak the passage, projecting more rocks to make the tunnel seem blocked.

A lumbering, gigantic creature lumbered into view: a gug, four-armed and shaggy. The beast had a massive, vertical maw, it eyes shaded by bone protuberances, and was nearly twenty feet tall, though stooped. It carried a massive spear fashioned from bone.

The gug sniffed the air as the party remained still, Alabastor trying to suppress sounds of pain. Sprigley cautiously shifted the rock once more, but failed to lift it fully, and it once again pressed on Alabastor’s wound. Despite his best efforts the gnome gasped in anguish, and the gug turned towards the sound. It began poking at the rocks with its spear, causing the illusion to shatter. Sister cast a sacred flame, scorching it badly, and the beast bellowed, stabbing its weapon towards her. The Lengian nun ducked aside. Sprigley, meanwhile, gave a final heave and at last lifted the rock free. Alabastor wrenched himself out from under the rock and aimed an eldritch blast at the gug, pushing it backwards. Sister rushed forwards, healing his wound – conjured cobwebs spun from her fingertips, sealing the wounds shut. Alabastor got to his feet as the gug snarled and charged forwards, lashing out, but Sprigley avoided the blow and fired his pistol point blank, wounding the creature badly. Vines from the Verdant Gun’s bullet entangled the creature. Alabastor suddenly loomed before the creature, eyes gleaming, some unknown magic radiating from the small gnome, as if he were conjuring some otherworldly presence. The gug seemed stricken with terror and began thrashing madly, hooting in a manner that Sister knew would bring reinforcements.

“We’d better move,” she urged. “While it’s still tangled up! Come on!”

The group pressed on, scrambling madly for the stairs. Soon the found them: a series of massive steps winding down into darkness deep below. The steps were remarkably well-carved, and though large and steep they could be traversed by a humanoid without climbing. Judging from the way they were finished they belonged to the Old City, their Librarian craftsmanship confirmed by the pillars of iridescent metal holding up the ceiling, and the abstract geometrical carvings that lined the walls. These carvings were mostly unfathomable, alien and irregular; whatever significance their aeons-dead creators intended by them was lost in this epoch, so many years distant from the carvings’ creation. It was as if someone made mathematics into stone, or fossilized metaphysics. Amidst these bizarre protrusions could be made out images that might be creatures, plants, or buildings which seem to tell a kind of history. Alabastor, Sprigley, and Sister didn’t pause to scrutinize them till they were some distance from the top, but after catching their breath they gave the carvings a closer look.

Sister, with Alabastor’s help, managed to piece together something of the story the carvings told. In effect, the carvings depicted what seems to be an ancient and unfathomable war, a war between the Librarians and their allies – beings summoned from other realities, or bred in the spawning chambers of the Old City – and the inhabitants of the Dreamlands, including what seems to be an ancient proto-Lengian empire. The inhabitants of the dream-plane were amorphous and unreal, beings born of imagination and neurosis, from the collective consciousness of the waking world – including that of the Librarians themselves, the very nightmares of that elder race. Depicted among these beings, terrors born of the minds of the Librarians, was an entity which resembled the Mother of Spiders herself, queen and general of a vast arachnid host, Sister’s patron goddess. It seemed the Librarians were fighting a war of conquest, trying to dominate the shadows of their own psyches, and to this end constructed the portals such as the Gate of Horn to invade the Dreamlands. But they were beaten back and forced to seal the Gates, to keep their enemies from entering the waking world and unraveling the physical multiverse.

“Fascinating,” Sister said. “This has… some serious theological implications for my people. If this is true… we’re descended from Librarian nightmares.”

They pressed on, descending the Seven Hundred Steps of Slumber. Part way down they found something quite odd. Rusting slowly in the dense, dripping blackness of this cavern was a machine – gnomish in make, to judge from its construction. The intricate machine resembled a sort of gigantic clockwork beetle, but where the beetle’s mouth-parts would be was some sort of giant wand-like device, a mechanical protrusion engraved with arcane sigils. It didn’t look damaged – at least not severely – just run down. A bored tunnel in the wall of the cavern suggested its entrance.

Alabastor, recovered from his near-miss with the rocks, examined the gnome construct carefully.

“It’s a dowsing automaton,” he said. “This wand – it detects magic, points towards arcane energy. Gnomes use them for prospecting magical minerals, energy sources. Sprigley, help me get this thing out.” He gestured to the wand-like device. Sprigley assisted and the two of them got the wand free. “This could be useful in finding the Book of Dreams.”

At this point Sister became aware of something, prickling at the edge of her senses. Something was moving in the darkness behind them. Following them. Neither of the others seemed to sense it. She said nothing, but hurried on, outpacing her companions.

journey4

The party next came to a great rent in the earth which had broken the Steps, plummeting down into abysmal blackness. To proceed they would need to find some way of traversing the gap. The fissure continued into the walls on either side.

Using mage hand Alabastor secured a rope to a stalactite, so that the party could swing across. He went first, then Sprigley. Sister prepared to swing – when the presence she had sensed made its appearance. A strange figure strode into view, still several steps above, stocky and powerful, nearly twenty feet tall. Its body resembled that of a gigantic, muscular humanoid, wrapped with barbed chains that cut into its flesh; it twirled loose strands of these chains in one meaty hand, while in the other it carried a cruel net of razor-wire. The true horror of the thing, however, was its head – or rather, its lack of head, for in place of a head the monstrosity has only a cage. Mouldering within lay a Lengian skeleton, some former inmate trapped by the creature.

Sister paled and grapsed the rope, swinging wildly. She landed hard on the other side.

“Go go go!” she urged.

“What? Is something back there?” Alabastor and Sprigley looked behind them, but seemed unable to see the figure. Sister said nothing.

“Just go!” she said.

The steps up ahead were strewn with numerous gnawed bones, vaguely humanoid in size and shape, marred by ugly gouge-marks. Remembering the ossuary, Sister called on the Mother of Spiders to bless the group with arachnid stealth, casting pass without trace. They picked their way daintily past the bones. Then, looking above, they saw something else: pale, winged shapes nestling near the ceiling, roosting like bats.

“Marrowmoths,” Sister whispered. They slunk on, still bearing the spider-goddess’ blessing. Behind them Sister heard a sound of rattling chains and a heavy thud – Cagehead had made it past the chasm. She raced onwards, scrambling down the steps as quietly as possibly, Sprigley and Alabastor struggling to keep up with the elderly Lengian woman. A minute later they heard shrieks and chitters of pain – the marrowmoths, perhaps, awaking.

At last, the Seven Hundred Steps of Slumber finally came to an end, and a subterranean enormity opened ahead – a massive cavern, seemingly far too large to possible fit beneath Hex amidst the rest of the Old City. The air was clammy, tomb-like, and moist, and the vast walls of black stone seemed to quiver as if breathing. A greasy grey-green phosphorescence illuminated much of the cave, exuded from cracks in the walls and floor. Such was the size of this cyclopean, chthonic space that they could not see the far side of the cave, and the ceiling was so high it could be mistaken for sky were it not for the tooth-like stalactites drooling downwards, or the pillars of primordial stone which extended from the floor.

Distantly, to one side, rose a series of grim crags and pockmarked mounds of earth and splintered rock – a series of hills, rising to become mountainous peaks in the distance whose pinnacles were lost in darkness as a surface mountain’s might be lost in cloud. To the other side outspread a far stranger sight: a seemingly endless field of alien obelisks, grim monuments rising from the floor, marked with crude, menacing glyphs. Beyond the rows of primordial monoliths could distantly be seen a larger series of structures – some sort of underground city.

Beyond both the hills and the strange city flowed a silvery river, gurgling through the eerie emptiness.  They could see no bridge across the queerly gleaming water, though the other bank was just visible.

“Well, best get moving,” Sprigley said.

The party set off, using Garvin’s map as a guide. They tried to skirt the edges of the Quiescent Hills and the Gug’s Cemetery. As the clambered around the borders of the Quiescent Hills, the mists parted for a moment, and they glimpsed a huge shape slithering amidst the crags – a massive, slime-covered thing somewhere between a gigantic worm, a snake, a centipede, and a kind of monstrously elongated squid, tentacles writhing from a lamprey-like maw that drips with corrosive spittle, a vile, ganglial lump suggesting a brain or some other organ, and an immense, segmented body propelled by stubby limbs. The creature was quite distant. As they watched, it suddenly dove into the rock, burrowing deep into the hills, disappearing into a newly made tunnel.

 “Let’s stick closer to the cemetery,” Alabastor suggested with a shudder. They soon passed something sticky and viscous clinging to the rocks – perhaps the mucilaginous residues of one of the worms.

The Gug Cemetery proved just as foreboding. Monoliths of glyph-graven stone rose from the earth in endless profusion, arrayed according to complex, irregular patterns. These were obviously not the constructions of the Librarians – they were far too crude, too primitive, too coarsely wrought, though like the architecture of the Librarians they felt like the product of an inhuman mind. There was a thick stench of death about this place, a noisome putridity that wafted in miasmas of greasy, greenish fog, mingling with the phosphorescent vapour that drifted through the Cavern of Fear in soporific banks. Suppressing nausea, the group hurried onward.

As they plunged into the putrescent mists, Alabastor heard something behind them – something skittering. Filled with sudden dread, remembering the chittering, insectile horror of the Whorl in which he was long-imprisoned, Alabastor suddenly tensed. Sister noticed, wondering if perhaps Alabastor had seen something similar to the phantasm she glimpsed earlier.

“Hide!” Alabastor insisted. “Something’s coming…” Still shadowed by Sister’s spell, the group hid behind gug gravestones, just as the thing appeared – though only Alabastor could see it. A tall, thin-limbed creature stalked out of the fog, a slender, gangly-limbed horror swathed in a tattered grey cloak. It had few discernible features, though a glint of teeth can be glimpsed in the blackness of its cowl. Its skin was sickly yellowish-grey, its hands overlarge, its talon-tipped fingers uncannily long and clever. Its lower body was that of a grotesque, gigantic millipede. It hauled a huge, black sack around with it, slung over its shoulder.

The Snatcher paused. It sniffed the air, tasting it with a long, black tongue. Fortunately, the miasmatic reek of the graveyard proved sufficient to mask the scent of Alabastor and his companions. The living nightmare scuttled away. Alabastor let out a breath.

“You too?” Sister whispered, looking over at Alabastor.

“Yeah.”

“What are you two talking about?” Sprigley said.

“This place… it’s giving our fears form,” Sister said. “Keep an eye out. Yours is probably on its way.”

monolith

After waiting a few minutes in hopes of putting distance between themselves and the Snatcher, the group continued, deeper into the Cemetery. The stench intensified as they approached a huge shape looming out of the mists – their first thought, incongruously, was a beached whale, but it was too long, too covered in glistening slime, and no whale had the masses of tentacles at its jaws, or a poisonous sting at its tail. The corpse was that of one of the huge worm-things they glimpsed earlier, partially rotten and teeming with grave-worms. In addition to maggots, a pack of monstrous, long-limbed, gaunt creatures were savaging the dead worm-thing’s putrid entrails. They had powerful hind-legs, almost kangaroo-like, and crude, scabrous, noseless faces. They reminded the party of ghouls, but even more malformed and warped than the dog-rat-humanoids of Hex’s sewers and undercity.

“Ghasts,” Sister muttered to her companions. “Dreamland scavengers. They’re feeding, they should be distracted. They won’t fight if we leave them alone.”

Stealthily creeping past, the party was noticed only by a single ghast; it chittered angrily, defending its feast, and the group passed by unmolested. Moments later, however, the skittering returned behind them – followed by shrieks of pain and fear, as the Snatcher discovered the ghasts!

“Fuck it, run!” Alabastor urged.

Skirting an unearthed grave, dug up by something with gouging claws, in which he mouldering remnants of a gug skeleton lay, the party dashed through the Cemetery and reached the shores of the Lethe.

“The River of Unmindfullness,” Sister said. “Anyone who drinks from it experiences complete amnesia, and even brief contact will bring about temporary forgetfulness.”

“No swimming, then,” Sprigley said.

The scuttling sounds had receded, but it was only a matter of time before the Snatcher – or Cagehead – returned.

“Before, it seemed like we could reshape reality a little down here,” Alabastor said. “What if we tried to make a bridge?”

“Good idea,” Sister said. “Let’s concentrate.”

The first effort proved unsuccessful, the party drawing both banks of the Lethe together with their minds and forming a bridge of rock between them; the bridge was swept away immediately, and the banks snapped back to their previous position. On the second attempt, however, the bridge was formed successfully. Sprigley and Alabastor hurried across. Sister followed, but then the bridge gave way beneath her. She leapt but fell, crashing into the river. She struggled with the current, feeling years of memory leeching from her mind as she swam. Fortunately she was close to the far shore, and hauled herself sodden and only partially amnesiac from the water.

“Good thing I have centuries of memories,” she said, shaking her head.  Alabastor, however was not listening, but staring at the far bank. The Snatcher was back, and its sack writhed with fresh captives. With a shudder, the thing began extending its greyish-yellow arms, elongating them impossibly, so that they stretched across the entirety of the Lethe. They grabbed for Alabastor, missing by inches, and the group turned and ran from the River of Unmindfullness.

No sooner had they evaded one phobia-spawned daemon, however, when another appeared, this one visible only to Sprigley – a mass of arachnid arms radiating out from a shadowy central figure. Extending from the tips of the creature’s fingers were long, spidery claws. Currently, one of these talons extended into the head of a pallid, scarified ghoul, while another entered the cranium of a monstrous gug. The overall impression was of a monstrous Puppeteer. Fortunately, the thing had not yet seen them.

Sprigley hissed. Sister and Alabastor looked to him. They could see the shambling victims of the thing, but not the Puppeteer itself.

“Another one,” Sister said.

“Alabastor, can you create an illusion of the party?” Sprigley said. “Then maybe we can picture a pit, try to make it fall in…”

“I’ll try,” Alabastor said, conjuring an illusion of Sprigley. The Puppeteer took the bait, picking its way daintily towards the illusion. Sister and Sprigley, meanwhile, focused on producing a pit beneath the illusion. The ruse worked and the Puppeteer tumbled into the hole, limbs thrashing, its victims pulverized by the fall. It began picking its way out, but the party did not pause to wait, rather hurrying on towards the Great Pallid Pit and the Deathcap Forest.journey6

To the right yawned the bony vastness of the Great Pallid Pit, as the map proclaimed it: a seemingly endless charnel heap, the bones of giant worms, humanoids, and other fauna mingling in a slimy profusion, mountains of bones rising form the cave-floor. They could glimpse shapes, moving among the osseous mounds: ghasts, perhaps, or feral ghouls, roaming the Pit in scavenger-bands. Marrowmoths circled overhead in vast flocks.

To the left and straight ahead, on the other hand, festered the Deathcap Forest: a pestilential morass of spores and gigantic, mottled mushrooms, green and black. Thick fungal mats coated the forest floor, while myriad growths sprouted from every surface. Donning gas-masks, the party entered the spore-infested depths, sticking close to the edge of the Great Pallid Pit.

journey5

The trio had only been in the Deathcap Forest for a few minutes when Sprigley began coughing – then spluttering, then choking. Sister turned to see him wheezing, his face turning black, body spasming. Despite his best precautions the spores had found their way into his lungs, taking root, the poisons within ravaging him horribly. Ulcerous lesions appeared on his flesh, black and gangrenous-looking, budding with fungal growths. Horrified, Sprigley ripped his gas-mask off and quickly downed a healing potion, temporarily reversing some of the poison’s effects – though the spores would still be festering in his body. As he tugged his mask back on, something emerged from the verdurous depths: a quivering mound of decomposition, some kind of rot-elemental, creeping towards them with slick, grasping tendrils, moaning softly, the mushrooms on its back issuing forth a profusion of spores. Sister hit the thing with a sacred flame while Sprigley, coughing, lured it towards the edge of the Great Pallid Pit, still visible nearby. Dodging its lashing tendrils, he dove to the side as Alabastor cast a thunderwave, pushing the mound of fungal horror into the Pit.

All was still – and then the group heard footsteps, heavy, crashing from the left. Something had heard the concussive blast of the thunderwave. Sprinting as best they could, the party cut their way through the thick vegetation, rushing now, exhausted, something hot on their heels. As they stumbled out onto the plains they heard a growl behind them, the appearance of their pursuers imminent. Thinking quickly, Alabastor again created an illusion of the party, hoping to distract their pursuers. They emerged from the Deathcap Forest: a pair of gugs, both utterly infested with black fungi, growths of the stuff splitting open their bodies, sprouting from every orifice. The imbecilic fungus-riddled things lumbered after the illusions.

“Now!” Alabastor said, and Sister and Sprigley once again focused their concentration to reshape the dream-world, this time forcing a crack to open beneath the feet of the gugs. They tumbled into the chasm, which then snapped shut like a pair of stony jaws, obliterating the two loathsome creatures.

The party caught their breath, now utterly drained of energy, Sprigley still coughing. Up ahead loomed the Plateau of Frozen Thought.

“We’re almost there,” Sister said. Slowly, painfully, they made their way towards the massive protrusion of what looked like ice. As they drew closer they saw it was some kind of crystalline substance; trapped behind its surface swirled a kaleidoscopic slurry of images, faces and animals and buildings, light and colour, a confusion of oneiric effluvium. Huge steps were carved roughly into the Pleateau, leading upwards. Grimly, the party began the ascent.journey2

After an hour of climbing, Sprigley, Sister, and Alabastor reached the top of the Plateau. Here the structures of the Old City rose in alien spires before them. No fungi or fauna disturbed the eerie stillness. Looking back across the Cavern of Fear, however, the party saw something which filled them with dread. Their phantasmic assailants, embodiments of their worst fears, were distantly visible below, having made it through the Deathcap Forest: Cagehead, the Snatcher, and the Puppeteer.

“Looks like we were followed,” Alabastor said.

“Let’s find a place to use the Portal Chalk,” Sister suggested. “We need to get out of here before those things catch us.”

“What if they’re waiting for us when we get back?” Sprigley asked.

“We’ll fare better against them once we’ve had a chance to rest,” Sister said. “We’ll come back. And then… down to the Egregor Vaults.” She looked towards the entrance to the Old City and to the Vaults below: a black, spiraling stair, leading downwards into the heart of the Plateau of Frozen Thought, a primeval darkness seeping from within.

Images: Klementinum Library by Bruno Delzant, Mycelium of an Unknown Mold by Bob Blaylock

Hex, Session XIII – 5th Edition Actual Play – “Sewers & Spiders”

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.
  • Alabastor Quan, a gnome rogue-turned-illusionist and failed circus ringmaster; wielder of a cursed dagger and member of the Ravenswing Thieves’ Guild.
  • 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.”
  • Caulis, a homunculus warlock liberated from its master; has made a pact with certain Faerie Powers.
  • 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).

XP Awarded: 400 XP.

The hansom carriage trundled through the city, Caligina dropping the group where they pleased. Both Armand and Garvin asked to return to the Dreamer’s Quarter. The sun had set, so the Ravenswing thief – adopting a stealthy manner under the cover of night – quickly scaled the tower opposite the griffin-guarded gates, using his Boots of Wall-Walking, in hopes of finding some clue as to the identity of the cloaked watcher. Little could be found here save for a few hoofed footprints in the snow. A cambion? Some sort of fey? He could not be sure. He returned to the street and began making for Corvid Commons – home.

Dreamers' Quarter

Armand, meanwhile, got off at his townhouse, looking forward to an evening of experimentation. He opened the door, expecting to find Bernard awaiting him with a drink, but something was wrong – the richly patterned carpet was scuffed, paintings askew, and here was Bernard, slumped against a wall in the opulent foyer, staining the wood-paneled wall with leaked embalming fluid! The reanimated butler looked to have been killed, his head smashed. Armand seethed. What scoundrel would dare defile his home in this manner? His rage turned to focus as he heard a shriek upstairs – his other servant, Colline, must be in danger!

Armand acted quickly. With a whispered incantation he cast blink, slipping into the Ethereal Plane. He drifted up the stairs to the source of the screams and found Colline backed into a corner, menaced by two shaven-headed thugs, wearing studded leather vests and bracers. Their scalps and arms had been tattooed with crimson markings like the coils of a serpent or a vast worm, and they also openly displayed Thieves’ Marks. One carried a knife, the other a club.

“Where’s your master, then?” one of the ruffians demanded.

Armand, carefully, reached into his bag and extracting two small phials – distillations of fairy-crab-apple essence, powerfully concentrated in his laboratory. Blinking suddenly back into the material plane, he thrust both phials into the mouths of the burglars, smashing glass and releasing the potent magical liquid within. The thugs gurgled as the essence inveigled its way into their minds, filling them with suicidal impulses. One quite calmly slit his own throat, a great goat of blood spewing everywhere as he sawed beneath his chin. The other took out a flintlock pistol, aimed it at his temple, and blew out his brains.

Armand tsked. “Colline, are you alright?” the gentleman-sorcerer asked.

“I’m… I’m alright now, sir,” the servant said, quaking. “Poor Bernard! These men, they forced their way inside, killed Bernard… you arrived just in time!”

“Indeed.” Armand examined the corpses, noting the Crowsbeak amulets they wore. “We’ll have to invest in some more magical security. I’ll send for an Abjurer to ward the house. In the meantime, we’d best conceal these bodies. The greenhouse, for now, I think. I’ll have Bernard reanimated on the morrow.” He frowned and set about moving the cadavers.

Meanwhile, the carriage had passed over the Bridge of Sins and through Behemoth Bend into the shabby, eccentric district of Mooncross, where Yam made his abode, along with his temporary house-guest, Alabastor. The two gnomes made for the boarding house where Yam and Yam’s duplicate rented a chamber.

Mooncross

Yam’s quarters were those of an involved, even obsessive, if perhaps occasionally slightly scatterbrained student, one unworried by clutter, though the room itself was quite clean. The two Yams – Yam Alpha and Yam Beta – had installed a somewhat rickety bunkbed. Magical texts, small illusions, ongoing experiments, clockwork mechanisms, and other bits and pieces were scattered through the chamber. A hammock is suspended in one corner, for Alabastor.

The two relaxed, talking over the two very different meetings, when the sound of heavy boots became audible on the stairs. A voice could be heard:

“Room’s supposed to be up here. Should be three gnomes in all. Your powder dry?”

Another voice grunted an affirmation.

Yam suppressed a yelp of alarm and, with quick thinking and a practiced hand, immediately wove an illusion, projected onto the other side of the door, to make it appear as if there were simply a blank wall instead of a door.

The booted footprints came closer, stopping outside the door.

“What the…?” one gruff voice said. “Room should be here… do we have the wrong building?” There was more confused discussion, and then the footsteps receded. From the window, Yam and Alabastor watched as a pair of bamboozled thugs walked through the swirling now, back into the city.

“I’m going to follow them!” Alabastor declared recklessly, and made for the door, Yam following reluctantly behind. They slunk out of the boarding house in pursuit of the two heavy-set, shaven-headed men.

The pair slunk along down an alleyway, but Alabastor’s sneaking skills proved rusty, and he slipped on a patch of ice, knocking over a pail. The thugs turned, one catching sight of the gnome. Alasbator yelped an incantation, causing one of the two thugs to fall into a deep slumber, sinking into the snow. The other ruffian cried out in alarm, drawing his pistol, and Yam, casting mirror image, sped forwards, confusing the remaining thug.

Meanwhile, the carriage had dropped Sister off at the Swelter, the docklands of Hex. The Lengian was heading to the inn at which she was staying, when suddenly an armed assailant lurched from the shadows of an alleyway and swung a heavy club at her head. She leapt to one side with surprising dexterity for an elderly woman and turned to face her attackers: two more thugs of the same gang attacking her companions, unbeknownst to the nun.

Hex Close Up 2

Sister twisted, facing the trollblood and cambion menacing her. With a chittered prayer to the Mother of Spiders she lashed out with one of her many limbs, connecting with the half-fiend. The man stumbled back, grunting in surprise, quickly turning to screams of pain as a hideous putrescence swept his body, spreading from Sister’s touch – flesh swelling and turning gangrenous in moments, necrotizing rot spreading with horrible rapidity, as if he had been bitten by a monstrous spider. Dropping his weapon he lurched away, desperately clutching at his limbs and face, pressing snow to the decomposing wound in some vain attempt to stop the pain. The other thug snarled and charged, but Sister danced aside and darted towards a nearby door, slamming it behind her and bolting it shut. She dashed up a flight of stairs past a shocked gnome and into a large warehouse where shiftless workers loitered. Skirting the heavy crates she circled round outside, slipping past the thug still battering at the door. With speed and stealth the aged nun crept through the snow, heading for Mooncross.

canal

She reached the district after a hurried rush through the snow – only to find Yam – well, several Yams! – and Alabastor also embroiled in combat! Sister conjured a bolt of sacred flame, but it missed the remaining thug. Yam cast thunderwave while the criminal swatted at Yam’s illusory duplicates. He was blown back, tripping over his comrade, and Yam leapt to his chest.

“Who sent you!” Yam demanded. “What did they want?!”

“Ah!  Get off me!” the man grunted. “Crowsbeak, Crowsbeak! Sent us to send you a message.”

“Message?” Alabastor asked.

“The Puppet Factory. Nettie Toadlung. You lot have been mucking up their schemes.”

“Tell them to GET BETTER SCHEMES!” Yam yelled, eyes crackling with arcane puissance. “Dipshit…”

The thug growled as the gnome released him, slinking into the alleys – just as Yam Beta, as the rustic Yam of Arcadia had been dubbed, arrived.

“Yam!” Yam Beta exclaimed. “Come quick! Sebastian needs you! Experiment gone wrong! Hurry!”

Yam yelped and followed their extraplanar twin, leaving Alabastor and Sister alone in the snow.

Another was also visited by the enforcers of the Crowsbeak Thieves’ Guild. Caulis’ quarters were in the semi-abandoned and deteriorated tower of its creator, now dead for years. Books and eldritch ephemera – scrolls, spell components, reagents, arcane diagrams, and models – were everywhere, but the study and living quarters had been infested with lichen and flowering plants, and the old spells dedicating to conjuring demons have been supplanted by invocations of Faerie beings. A small chair with a nest of patchwork blankets had evidently been re-purposed as a makeshift bed. Caulis had missed the animal messenger sent by Master Melchior – tragically, the creature had been devoured by one of the alchemical mutant strays that teem in the alleyways of Caulchurch, the laboratory district. It was with some surprise that the homunculus heard a heavy rap upon the door. The mandrake-root-creature sent down its psuedodragon familiar to spy upon the unexpected visitors, who reported (another) unpleasant, leather-clad, tattooed, shaven-headed thug. Had Caulis possessed eyebrows and not merely moss, it would have cocked one.

Caulchurch

Pondering what to do next, Caulis hesitated, then cast a spell of disguise, making itself appear as a servant. A lockpick clicked deftly in the lock and the brute was upon the homunculus. Thinking quickly, Caulis wove a charm to bewitch the thug into friendship.

“Ah,” it said. “You must be looking for Caulis.”

“Er… yeah,” the thug said, shaking his head, muddled by the enchantment. “You seen it?” The thug seemed almost chummy, as if he had not just broken into a wizard’s tower, but was conversing with some fellow working stiff.

“The homunculus is not here.”

“That’s alright. I can wait.”

“I believe it headed down to the sewers, to hunt down the hag, Wicked Peggy, in the Fever Street sewers.”

“Ah, thanks.” The thug said. “Just wanted to have a, ah, conversation. Crowsbeak business.”

“I see,” Caulis, still disguised, said. “Well, if it returns I’ll let it know.”

The Crowsbeak thug nodded, still enchanted, and trudged back out into the city. Caulis sent its psuedodragon to follow, and the thug indeed headed down into the sewers. It returned reporting that the Starvelings appeared to be on high alert, fortifying their underground casino, the Rat & Roach.

Some distance to the west, Garvin arrived back in Corvid Commons.

Shambleisde, Grey Hook, & Corvid Commons

Garvin’s quarters were within an old attic with a single door, now sealed and unworking – the main entrance was the single window, carefully trapped with a gnomish slivermine. The furnishings are sparse, but give the room of unfinished wood at least something of the feeling of home. Of course, the place was riddled with hidey-holes – loose floorboards, bricks, hidden panels – in which the veteran thief kept his more valuable possessions.

Garvin was slowly winding down, preparing for a much-needed rest, when he heard a scraping, clunking sound on the wall of his building – someone scaling the wall. Grimacing, Garvin enveloped himself in the furthest shadows of the attic room, awaiting the intruder. A figure appeared in the window – bulky, bald-headed, menacing. Garvin’s eyes narrowed and, abruptly, the thief had flickered through space and time to the rooftop across the street. He now watched from behind as the thug smashed through his window and entered his attic room. A satisfying click and then a hiss of metal indicated the slivermine had been detonated; there was a dim flickering of gleaming silver, the gleam of bright blood, and an anguished shriek as the man was half-eviscerated.

thief

Garvin smiled, slipping on his goggles, and peered into the darkness. The man was still alive, but bits of metal were embedded in his torso, legs, and arms, bloodying him badly. He staggered, bleeding, and lurched for the door, opening it only to discover a brick wall. He swore and began angrily tearing up the attic – searching, it seemed, for Garvin, or perhaps for valuables. Garvin let the thug ransack the place for a moment before shimmying down from his perch and climbing the wall, ducking out of sight when the thug momentarily stuck his head out the window. Slipping back up into his quarters, Garvin pressed a knife to the thug’s throat.

“Crowsbeak I see,” Garvin said, knife briefly dipping to the amulet round the man’s neck. “Bothering a Ravenswing guildsman isn’t the wisest move. Your bosses looking to start a war?” He noted the red worm tattooed on the man’s scalp – insignia of the Bloodworms, a vassal gang of the city’s largest thieves’ guild.

The thug froze, blood still dripping from his wounds. “They’re trying to prevent one,” he said. “You’ve been sticking your nose places it doesn’t belong. Interfering with operations – you and that little group you run with. Crowsbeak sent me to put a stop to it.”

“They sent you to kill me?”

“To warn you. Not just you. Sent out enforcers to your friends, too.”

Garvin frowned. “Alright. I’ll let you go. I don’t want a war any more than you do. I won’t be so kind to future intruders. Best make that clear.”

The man swallowed and lurched away, back towards the window. Garvin kicked at a shard of glass, the fragments of mirror reflecting his face in a thousand broken pieces. He needed to talk with the others…

The group gathered at the Green Star, after a flurry of hasty messages. This late, the bar was busy and loud, giving the group cover as they discussed their respective intrusions. Garvin scanned the crowd, looking for Crowsbeak symbols.

“It’s unacceptable,” Armand said, fuming.

“We don’t want to provoke them further, right now,” Garvin said. “That was a warning. That was the Crowsbeak being polite.” He looked to Armand. “If they catch wind you killed their men there will be Hell to pay. I think we should find somewhere safe to hole up, just for a day or so, while things cool down.”

“What about the Puppet Factory?” Sister suggested. “Vespidae’s hideout.”

The suggestion was both inspired and disconcerting. No one had seen Vespidae, the so-called “Thirteenth Queen,” since her bloody performance at the Chiaroscuro.

“Worth looking into,” Caulis said.

“Maybe we should talk to Ravenswing,” Alabastor added. “See what they know.”

“Good idea,” Garvin assented. “Alright. Let’s go visit Vespidae’s new hive, see if we can shelter there for awhile. It’s certainly out of the way. Then you and I can stop by the Witching Hour.”

The Puppet Factory, appropriated as a home for Vespidae, proved difficult to enter given that the doors and windows remained boarded up, and had now accreted parts of a waspkin nest. Waspkin buzzed around the dilapidated place, but seemed to recognize the party – especially after they doused themselves in some of the leftover alchemical pheromones Vespidae had given them. After some clambering the group dropped down to find that the Puppet Factory had been fully transformed into a burgeoning new Hive. Here, countless waspkin – many lame, missing limbs or eyes, or otherwise marked as pariahs from mainstream waspkin society – busied themselves sculpting or assembling complicated clockwork automata and creating other artwork. Although most of these creations resembled waspkin, all were unusual, even surreal in style – highly individualistic.

Speaking with the waspkin clerics here, the party learned that the upper levels of the building were to be the foundation for a new Hive, in which they were considered honorary members. The lower levels, however, were given over to certain challenges and trials of faith, designed to test “initiates.” Deepest down the Yellow Sign worn by Vespidae herself was interred – a prize for any willing to descend to these depths.

The party rested in the Hive’s upper rooms for a time. After recovering from the ordeal with the Crowsbeak thugs, Garvin and Alabastor headed to the Witching Hour to speak with their Ravenswing contacts. They met with Felix Stonemouth, the thief rescued from the Van Lurken house, and recounted their encounter with the Crowsbeak. Felix seemed unsurprised. The Ravenswing, it seemed, had been gearing up towards a full-scale turf-war, aggressively absorbing smaller gangs. Things were reaching a boiling point. He advised the group to lay low, not to antagonize the Crows.

Returning to the Hive, the group discussed their options. Whether they decided to retrieve the Greater Mysteries for Master Melchior of the Velvet Shadow, the most obvious starting point was the Book of Dreams: Garvin had previously spent a handsome sum – eight hundred guineas – on a map of the Nightmare Tunnels where Melchior believed the Oneironomicon was hidden. The party studied this map carefully, tracing possible routes through the layers of sewers and caverns that wound down towards the Egregor Vaults. After recovering their strength they set out again for the Dreamer’s Quarter and located the entrance to the Fever Lane sewers.

Fever Lane Sewers

Descending from Nightmare Alley, the group crept down a fetid tunnel of mouldering brickwork. They approached the main tunnel, a broad tube fed by a steady, sluggish gush of water and waste, filling the air with a bilious reek strong enough to make the eyes sting. The tunnel doubled as a storm drain and thus was swollen with water from recent precipitation, mixing in with sewage. A grate blocked passage south. Alabastor slunk back to the grate control chamber near the entrance; a rusty lever was set into the wall of the room, along with a complex series of valves and dials seemingly monitoring water-levels throughout the sewers. Alabastor pulled the lever, lowering the grate.

gauges

Water and sewage rushed through the tunnel, but as the characters prepared to head south, something bubbled and seethed in the water, and the group retreated. Caulis called on its psuedodragon familiar to scout; the creature returned with a report of something large and many-headed wallowing in the sludge. Alabastor suggested a way forwards: he would conjure an illusion of the brickwork to mask their movements, so that the creature would perceive nothing but a blank wall. He hastily wove the illusion and the party hurried along the walkway as stealthily as possible. When Alabastor himself attempted to follow, however, a brick crumbled beneath his tread, plopping into the water.

The thing in the water stirred. At first all that could be seen was a monstrous claw, but gradually the hybrid abomination emerged from the ooze: a huge, scaled horror with the body of an albino crocodile and three heads, crocodilian, eel, and gigantic rat, with a lamprey for a tail. A pair of monstrous pincers protruded form its flanks. Sister recognized the monster as a putrecampus, a “Chimera of the Sewers.” Sensing movement, the tunnel-monster breathed forth a plume of miasmatic gas from its crocodile-head, catching both Caulis and Alabastor. The homunculus ignored the fume, but Alabastor collapsed, spasming, his face turning black as poison wracked his body. Desperately, Caulis conjured a phantasmal force, creating for the chimera the delusion that the roof had collapsed on it. The other party-members watched as the thing writhed and splashed as if in pain, blood spurting from its several mouths. Hurriedly, Sister, Armand, and Garvin dragged Alabastor to safety down a side-passage, Sister restoring him with a cure spell. Meanwhile the putrecampus shook off the illusion and charged, trying to follow the party down the passage; only its great size prevented it from reaching them, and they ducked into the adjoining grate control room.

sewers

Penned now in the second grate control room, the party caught their breath, Alabastor still shaking and wheezing, vomiting blood as his body struggled to expel the toxic gas. Scrawled on the wall not far from the grate control was a rectangle, seemingly drawn in chalk. Above the rectangle, also written in chalk, was a mysterious symbol, which Sister identified as the mark of the Antinomian, the Lawbreaker, a god of chaos. Lying before the rectangle was a body, badly decayed, garbed in mouldering rags which look like some sort of uniform, such as a prisoner or inmate might wear. The corpse, on close inspection, had been riddled with rat-bites and partially eaten by vermin. Clutched in one hand was a piece of pale chalk. Though at first glance the chalk looked white, the colour was actually quite strange and difficult to describe.

Sister began experimenting with the chalk, drawing symbols on the rectangle, and, eventually, drawing other shapes. After some investigation she discovered that the chalk could be used to create two-way portals, connecting one scrawled doorway to another!

“This will certainly be useful,” she said.

“Hmm,” Armand mused. “We need to cross the tunnel, but that thing is in the way. What if I took it and blinked across the tunnel, then drew a portal on the other side?”

“Worth a try,” Garvin said.

Armand took the chalk and crept back into the tunnel. Before the putrecampus could attack he cast blink – but due to some eldritch interference or other phenomena, the spell went sour, wild magic coursing through the gentleman-sorcerer! In moments, a grotesque wrenching of flesh transformed him into a second putrecampus, even while the blink spell misfired, displacing him atop the other monster! The Portal Chalk lay abandoned.

The two beasts thrashed in confusion. The party looked on in horror, not realizing what had happened, but Garvin, panicking, wrenched the grate control lever, once more sealing the tunnel. The grate crashed down upon both putrecampuses – but Armand, even polymorphed, blinked once more into the Ethereal Plane and was mercifully spared. There was a sound of bones snapping as the beast’s rat-head lolled on a broken neck, and the thing wrenched itself out from the grate, retreating into the depths of the sewers.

Armand rematerialized as the party crossed the now-unguarded tunnel, having retrieved the Portal Chalk. Still polymorphed, he managed to make his identity clear before the party could attack. Relieved, the group descended from the Fever Lane sewers into the upper caverns of the Nightmare Tunnels.

caves

As they passed deeper below, past the churning sewers of modern Hex and into the tunnels beneath, the hair on the back of their necks stood up and an almost electric sensation coursed throughout their bodies. Sounds become muted, strangely soothing, yet, at the same time, filled with an ineffable menace, a kind of eerie ponderous portentousness. It was as if they had stepped into a dream. Images drift suddenly unbidden through their minds. A pyramid of glistening teeth that stretches to the moon. Ivy, parasitic and invasive, choking the streets of a city, engulfing everyone in its vines. Carnivorous trees stretching pallid limbs out to snatch at passing children. A churning sea where something old and malignant swells and broods on ancient slights.

There was a sensation, also, of potentiality, brimming in their fingertips, and in their brains.

Armand found it difficult to press ahead in his putrecampus form, the tunnel being too narrow – but then, queerly, the walls seemed to stretch to accommodate his bulk, snapping back into place as he passed. It seemed that reality was somewhat malleable here.

Sister called for a halt and offered a brief prayer to the Mother of Spiders while studying the map. Her augury proved fruitful, as a route through the caverns gleamed on the parchment.

“This was,” the nun urged, pointing down the tunnel marked “Spiders” on the map. Webs swathed the walls of this tunnel, crazed in a mad profusion of designs which at first seemed random but which, upon further investigation, revealed themselves to be spelling out words – obscenities, expressions of lust or love or anguish, symbols of unknown power. The fist-sized purple spiders who tended to the webs watched with unnervingly intelligent eyes. Their susurrus of chitters formed unmistakable rhythms, a rustling alien song.

Armand, blundering through the tunnel, destroyed innumerable webs. Frantically, the spiders began spinning words in Aklo, which Sister could translate: PLEASE STOP DESTROYING OUR HOMES.

Armand ceased and, after a moment of concentration, succeeded in returning to his humanoid form. “Sorry,” he said, an apology undercut by the aristocratic disdain forever dripping from his voice.

“Can you understand me?” Sister said.

YES, the spiders wove. WHO ENTERS OUR LARDER. Punctuation seemed difficult for them.

“I am a servant of the Mother of Spiders,” Sister said. “Goddess of dreams.”

GREETINGS HOLY ONE.

“Greetings,” Sister said. “What can you tell us about these caverns?”

DO NOT LIGHT THE WAY, the spiders urged. Then, moments later: WE THIRST FOR UNREAL BLOOD. WE HUNGER FOR DREAMFLESH.

Garvin made sure that Lenore was safely hidden. The party confessed they had no food suitable for the spiders, but Sister’s status as a nun of the Mother of Spiders earned them safe passage nonetheless.

The cavern beyond had been swathed with more thick webs, and several creatures struggled in the sticky mass. One was a huge pale moth with beautiful porcelain-white wings veined with red, a monstrous proboscis juddering from its head; it thrashed madly, trying to escape. Several web-swathed bodies also hung in the webs, obscured by silk. Most notable, perhaps, was a huge, hulking thing, a gigantic beast with pinkish eyes, yellow fangs in a vertical slit of a mouth, and weird brachiating arms, four in all – Sister recognized it instantly as a gug, a voracious Dreamland native. The thing wore crude hides and was covered in tattoos, but has been utterly snared by the webbing, and though still half-conscious seemws to be slipping into a torpor. Bones and bits of decaying flesh qwre scattered throughout the intricate webs, along with occasional items – detritus leftover from previous victims.

The party was preparing to hurry onwards when a voice cooed softly from nowhere: “Ah… visitors.”

A face appeared, first pallid vampiric teeth and violet eyes in a visage pale and perfect as a doll’s or a theatrical mask, framed by long, dark hair. This face – exquisitely beautiful, feminine, but alien and unsettling – was followed by a body, huge and fat and bloated, the body of an enormous arachnid, supported by eight – or are there nine, or ten? – spindly, delicate legs. The spider-thing perched above the party in her webs. “Newcomers. Tasty-looking newcomers…” She cocked her head, noting Sister’s garb. “Ah… a woman of the cloth.” She bowed.

Sister returned the greeting. “We’re just passing through, on our way to the lower tunnels,” she said.

“I see,” the spider-thing said. “My name is Maeve. Normally I would not let such delicious-looking morsels wander past unmolested, but given your affiliations… well, I shall make an exception.”

“We, ah, appreciate that, I’m sure,” Sister said. “Anything you can tell us about what lies ahead? Or of the Cavern of Fear?”

“The gugs expand their little empire,” Maeve said. “They have a city down below, in the place where the bounds of waking world and slumber fray. But they grow bolder, colonizing the caves beyond the Seven Hundred Steps of Slumber.”

Sister nodded, old memories of the gugs making her grimace. “We may return,” she said. “It’s nice to know that not everything down here wants to eat us.”

“Well,” Maeve said. “I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I don’t want to eat you; but, for the sake of piety, I shall restrain myself.” She smiled enigmatically.

Judging it unwise to linger further lest the spider-thing changed her mind, the group pressed on. They came now to the cavern marked “Intact Guardians” on the map. In the black, dripping depths, strange statues of peculiar metal stood silent vigil, untainted by rust, unmoving. Careful to heed the spiders’ advice and avoid any light, the party pressed forwards, seeing only with Darkvision, Garvin having equipped his goggles. The statues were horrifying. Scything limbs, clacking mandibles, razor-tipped tentacles, serrated teeth, all twisting and shifting and flickering – as a person passed the statue would morph, assuming the guise of that individual’s most phobic nightmare. Several party-members were too shaken by these monstrosities to cross the chamber, but through a clever use of the Portal Chalk – some characters returning to the grate control room via one portal, while Caulis scrawled a new portal on the other side of the Guardians – the room was passed.

Mere steps later, however, the group found another gruesome sight. Sprawled in deflated-looking heaps in the middle of this cavern were the bodies of three ghouls, nearly-naked, their skins ritually scarified, broken spears and flint daggers lying nearby. The corpses at first looked like withered sacks or piles of empty clothes. Closer inspection revealed that their bones had mostly collapsed or been consumed. Horribly wounds marred their skin where something sharp pierced their bodies to suck the marrow from their bones. Several of the bodies had glossy white eggs laid inside them.

“Marrowmoths,” Caulis said. “Bone-sucking insects.” It shivered. “Let’s return to the grate room for a moment. We could all do with a moment’s rest, but I don’t want spend it here.” It scrawled a doorway on one cave-wall using the Portal Chalk. The party stepped through – but, when Sister and Alabastor reached the other side, they realized that, quite suddenly, they were alone. Garvin, Caulis, and Armand had vanished, seemingly without a trace.

Images: Thief concept art, screenshots from Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs, Outlast.

If Symbolist/Decadent Artists Ran D&D Campaigns

In homage to Joseph Manola’s brilliant post, “If Romantic-Era Artists Ran D&D Campaigns” over at Against the Wicked City:

Gustave Moreau (1826-1898): Gloomy, melancholy, eccentric sort of guy runs a distinctly Biblical-feeling OSR game when he’s not reading Schopenhauer. Insists on running only OD&D because the “old masters” knew best. His worlds can best be described as “the Old Testament on LSD.”

Roll 1d6 Random Encounter
1  Prehistoric dire tortoise lumbers across the landscape
2  Rapacious sphinx demands answers to riddles lest it devour the characters
3  Disembodied head sings maddening song
4  Wandering Cleric (level 1d10) will prophesy characters’ futures
5  Hydra
6  Vengeful angel attacks the most morally corrupt character

moreau1 moreau2 moreau3 moreau4

Arnold Böcklin (1827-1901): Runs dark, classically-themed hexcrawls full of bizarre interpretations of Greek mythology. There is a sense of exploring a vast, eerie dreamscape filled with vague, mythological figures. Starts with Mazes and Minotaurs, but he eventually switches to Fate and runs very narrative-heavy games with strong allegorical overtones.

Roll 1d6 Random Encounter
1 3d6 rowdy centaurs have a boisterous brawl that threatens to draw characters in; at the end, everyone still alive gets drunk and has a wonderful party
2 2d6 sirens tempt party to suicide
3 Pirate vessel crewed by 10+1d20 pirates attempts to take characters hostage
4 1d4 cyclopes decide to eat the characters
5 Beautiful maiden or youth chained to a rock as a sacrifice for a coming sea-monster
6 Medusa

bocklin1 bocklin2 bocklin3 Bocklin4bocklin6bocklin7

Félicien Rops (1833-1898): Exemplifies the style of D&D that horrified Christian parents imagined in their most febrile nightmares during the 1980s Satanic moral panic. All but requires his players to create characters with Evil and/or Chaotic alignments. Runs creepy horror games, Lamentations of the Flame Princess. Has a tendency to make players uncomfortable with explicit descriptions.

Roll 1d6 Random Encounter
1 A coven of 2d6 depraved witches conducting unspeakable Black Mass
2 1d4 Succubi and/or Incubi, tempt characters into sordid acts of debauchery
3 Wandering Cleric (level 1d10) dedicated to a profane god and 1d6 cultist followers, probably in the midst of an unpleasant ritual
4 Vampiric sybarite seeking new blood-donors
5 Death
6 Satan

3d36421244d8118ccbaecc43cd51748e

Félicien Rops (1833-1898), 'Messe Noire' (Black Mass), 1877

Rops2 Rops4 Rops

Karl Wilhelm Diefenbach (1851-1913): Originally one of Böcklin’s players. An authoritative DM, he gets really angry when anyone uses violence to solve problems. Most NPCs are druids or ghosts or druidic ghosts, usually naked, usually telling you about your alienation from God, or the nature of injustice. His games are rich tapestries of ideas, where you get experience points for getting closer to cosmic harmony. There’s never any treasure worth taking, and no one is interested in money, anyway. He started with some version of D&D but has house-ruled it beyond all recognition.

Roll 1d6 Random Encounter
1 2d20 frolicking water elementals urge characters to cast their clothes and worldly possessions into the water
2 Stern vegetarian ghost lectures characters about the evils of eating “lumps of animal flesh”
3 Alluring druids demonstrate the artificiality of monogamy, invite characters to join
4 Elder earth elemental brings forth a bounty of organic vegetables from its body, providing magical healing
5 A sphinx asks riddles with answers like “peace” and “nature,” alternatively sermonizes about the destructiveness of organized religion
6 Enigmatic stag crosses your path, stares at characters soulfully

deifenbach1deifenbach4 deifenbach3diefenbach5diefenbach6

Aubrey Beardsley (1872-1898): Runs two games: an Oriental Adventures game that’s vivid and richly realized but borderline-offensive in its depiction of a monster-haunted mythological Japan, and a very dark Pendragon game where everyone is a fallen knight or a scheming princess or a demented fairy or something and the chivalric code barely conceals our violent, transgressive passions. All treasure dispensed in jewel or clothing form. Develops intricate house-ruled subsystems for disease progression, seduction, and disguising yourself, but ignores or handwaves most of the rules-as-written in the actual books.

Roll 1d6 Random Encounter
1 Sophisticated ghoul lectures characters about art and tries to convince them to let it eat them
2 Demented magic-user (level 1d10) casts beguiling spells and phantasms
3 1d6 diseased revelers, masked, intoxicated
4 2d6 sinister fauns play creepy music and follow characters around, serenading them; refuse to stop
5 Sinister knight/samurai blocks the path, demanding answering to macabre riddle
6 Coldly furious female fighter (level 1d10) seeks vengeance, utterly destroys anyone impeding her

beardsley 2 beardsley 3 beardsley1

beardsley5beardlsey4

Harry Clarke (1889-1931): Sets all of his games in Ravenloft. Constructs excessive, horrifying deathtrap and funhouse dungeons, usually designed by psychopathic wizards/vampires or reclusive weirdos. In any given session there is a high probability of ending up dismembered or buried alive or mind-controlled or just insane. TPKs commonplace.

Roll 1d6 Random Encounter
1 Every surface in the room sprouts poisoned saw-blades
2 2d6 diseased zombies, former victims, shamble forth from a crumbling wall
3 Rug-covered pit trap leads to oubliette, currently occupied by 1d3 ravenous cannibal prisoners
4 Hallucinatory gas-trap leads to paranoia and amorphous horror
5 The door to the room seals behind characters, and dirt begins filling the room
6 Insane vampiric warlock (level 1d10) broods over his library, attended by a demonic servant

clarke7 clarke8 clarke2 clarke9clarke3faust

Hex, Session XII – 5th Edition Actual Play – “The Organon of Magic”

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.
  • Alabastor Quan, a gnome rogue and failed circus ringmaster; wielder of a cursed dagger and member of the Ravenswing Thieves’ Guild.
  • 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.”
  • 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.
  • Hurogg, a (vaguely) human barbarian of staggering size but seemingly dim wit.
  • 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: 300 XP.

It was winter in Hex, and the city was swathed in cold, grey mist. Even the weather-witches of the Citadel of the Perpetual Storm had been unable to ward off the brutal winter storms which blew down from the Troll Country to the north. Mount Shudder was a stark white tooth, and the city itself had been blanketed in heavy snow. Though the Radula River rarely froze, this year it had become a solid sheet of ice for over a month, and a Frost Fair had sprung up on its frigid surface. While sea and river trade had been halted, a thriving winter market did bustling business on the river, tents and booths clustering around boats stuck in the ice. Children skated and played games on the ice, while carriages, ignoring the city’s bridges, conveyed people to and fro as if they river were a road.

eltham-frost

Not everyone in the city was enjoying the cold and snow. The city’s stevedores and other dock-labourers had been put out of work, as had the mudlarks who usually comb the banks for scavenged scrap. Hex’s fungoids had retreated indoors, made uncomfortable by the intense snows. The dagonians, too, had become somewhat torpid and sleepy, being cold-blooded. But the worst hit were the waspkin. The insectoids had almost entirely gone into hibernation to wait out the long winter – perhaps not too soon, considering the conflict that sprung up around Vespidae, the so-called Thirteenth Queen, who disappeared weeks ago. A few of those waspkin unable to shelter in the Nests of Stingsworth or Suckletown had died, their stiff little bodies discovered in snowdrifts.

And what of our heroes – if we should call them such?

After his guest, the Cat Prince Nahotep of New Ulthar, had spent a week at his abode before moving on to the homes of other Hexian elites, Armand had busied himself with certain experiments, using a magical window purchased from the alchemist Valdemar Sluice and certain botanical clippings the gentleman-adventurer had scavenged in his forays into the Old City, Faerie, the unreal city of Carcosa, and elsewhere. Lines of research subjects snaked from his greenhouse doors into the snow; on these he tested new concoctions distilled from the essences of love-plums and poisonous fungi and hallucinogenic sallowmoss, magically transformed through the metamorphic light of the tinted window. As he purified a batch of suicide-inducing liquid, his undead butler, the reanimated Bernard, shuffled to the door of his laboratory.

“A most unusual visitor just stopped by, sir,” the beautifully embalmed butler said. “A fox, on his hind-legs, clad in a neat waistcoat. He brought you this.” Bernard held out a small card…

Meanwhile, in Corvid Commons, Garvin Otherwise – magical thief and Ravenswing burglar – had been living a strangely uncertain life, haunted by the itching feeling that nothing he saw was real. After his visit to another reality he believed to be his home, Garvin mused that Hex itself might be nothing more than a grand illusion. Distracted though he was by such skepticism, Garvin nonetheless continued to ply his trade, purchasing a pair of goggles enchanted to see in the dark from the Midnight Market. Once back in his attic abode, the thief was surprised as a small rat scurried from a hole in the ceiling, bearing with it card in its mouth. Its eyes glittered with unusual intelligence. Garvin took the card when it was proffered; the mouse, lingering, squeaked, until the thief offered a suitable morsel by way of tip. He looked at the card…

Cephalus the dagonian – labour lawyer and martial artist extraordinaire – had a busy, if uncomfortable winter, dealing with the complaints of the city’s abruptly shiftless dockworkers. For reasons that will become clear, the currently male dagonian had a guest: a man, or man-like thing, called Hurogg, hulking and muscular, tall as a trollblood. When a dog barked outside Cephalus’ office, something tied to his back, it was the lumbering Hurogg who went to investigate, returning with the surprised and rather terrified pup in hand, which, upon release, whimpered and bounded away in relief – though not before Cephalus procured the card…

winter

We must not forget the charitable Sister, the Lengian cleric. With mounting disapproval from the older nuns of the Mother of Spiders and growing awe and reverence from the younger, Sister had taken to absenting herself from the Temple in favour of helping the frozen poor. She was ladling soup to a band of ragged urchins when a squirrel scuttled down to her, bearing with it a mysterious card. This she took, taking care to feed the squirrel, too, for its trouble.

And now, a surprise, for a person not glimpsed since the beginning of this chronicle now makes his reappearance: Alabastor Quan. It took the poor gnome rogue many months of trudging through the Whorl to finally escape its eldritch depths, lost and alone. Bjorn, he could only assume, had been devoured by whatever foul, skittering creature still stalked Alabastor himself through the dark; as for his other companions, he knew not where they had fled, or whether they still lived. Sustained on lichen and water, Alabastor grew more grizzled and more crazed. None of his thieving ways proved helpful in his escape attempts, and though the curious magical dagger he carried was strangely and blissfully quiet, he became maddened nonetheless by the endless tedium of the Whorl, till, one day, he discovered the trap’s secret, and freed himself of its hold. Returning now to the surface, he trudged through snowy streets, unclear how much time had passed, not knowing for sure if he was even the same Alabastor as the one who had entered the Old City what seemed a lifetime ago. He made for the abode of his old friend – the chambers of Yam.

But what of Yam – gnome illusionist, perennial graduate student, delver into ancient mysteries? Yam the inscrutable, Yam the ingenious, Yam the inventive? There are two Yams, now, of course: the familiar Yam we have all grown to know and love, and a second Yam, from the bucolic reality nicknamed “Arcadia,” brought from that rustic land to the bustling metropolis of Hex – a wide-eyed, only slightly bumpkinish version of Yam. Already the pair had installed a ramshackle bunkbed in their rickety Mooncross chamber. Imagine, now, their identical delight as a pair of pigeons landed on their windowsill, each carrying a card in its beak!

And yet, tragedy: only one of the cards was for Yam, the first Yam. The other card, it seemed, was for Alabastor, who, intrigued, accepted it from its pigeon carrier.

These mysterious cards, as you might surmise, bore a similar message. In Hex, there are some invitations that one simply does not ignore: the summons of the Hexad Council, for instance, or the request of the Magistra’s High Archon. The cards our heroes have received are such: the cards of Master Melchior himself, one of the most powerful archwizards in Hex, founder of Master Melchior’s School of Thaumaturgy & Enchantment, a living legend in the magical community, and a towering figure in Hex’s history and mythology. It seems he humbly requested their presences, in his office at his school, in the Dreamer’s Quarter in Hex, that evening at seven o’clock. Conveniently, none of the invitees had prior appointments at this hour. And so, attending to final errands, they gathered at the gates of Hex’s oldest and most prestigious university.

Dreamers' Quarter

The Dreamer’s Quarter was a shadowy, alluring section of the city, nestled between the opulence of Fanghill to the northeast and the exotic tiers of Cobweb Cliffs to the southwest, the green gloom of the Feypark and Ambery nearby, and the whirring machines of Mainspring to the south. Despite being surrounded by such wonders, however, the Dreamer’s Quarter seems a world of its own. Its streets were almost eerily quiet – not silent, but curiously muffled. A light fog usually drifted through the streets, which were narrow and lined with trees. Ivy grew on the walls of the tall, ornate buildings, most of them five or six storeys high. There were several places of note here, apart from the prestigious Master Melchior’s school: the Institute for the Magically Insane, a large asylum for those maddened by magic, and the Gate of Horn, an extrusion of the Old City, which was said to lead into the Dreamlands themselves, but which stands shut at almost all times. The feeling here could be aptly described as sleepy.

The people here were a mix of species, but most were human, gnome, or homunculi, with a fair smattering of Lengians and cambions as well. Though certainly not common, there were also a number of unusual figures – almost certainly Fairy visitors, marked by their pointed ears, strange eyes, and garments of gossamer. Apart from homunculi the many wizards, witches, and other spell-casters who called these streets their home employed a variety of demonic and elemental servants, as well as animal familiars distinguished from strays by their elaborate magical collars bearing their summoners’ arcane marks, could be seen in the streets.

Master Melchior’s School of Thaumaturgy & Enchantment was the oldest and most well-respected institutions of magical learning in the city of Hex, and thus in the world. An opulent campus whose ivy-strangled towers and domes distantly echoed the alien aesthetics of the Old City, the university lay at the heart of the Dreamer’s Quarter. Its baroque facades, broad quadrangles, and tall spires projected grandeur, gravitas, and an aura of wisdom. The university’s guardians, of course, were legendary: a pair of permanently charmed griffins, supposedly bewitched by Master Melchior himself, who stand their majestic vigil at the school’s wrought-iron gates. Within, students could be seen practicing their spells, enchanting summoned familiars or one another, or reading from weighty tomes. The pair of griffin guardians prowling at the gates spread their wings in formal but still fearsome warning as the party approached, converging on the gates.

griffin

“Who would enter Master Melchior’s School of Thaumaturgy & Enchantment?” the left-hand griffin asked, regarding you with tawny eyes.

“Do you have proof of your invitation to these grounds?” the right-hand griffin sternly requested.

It was now, with keen senses prickling, that Garvin felt the weight of eyes on the back of his neck, and, glancing backwards, glimpsed a cowled figure standing atop a nearby spire – gone as soon as it was seen. The thief shivered for reasons apart from the cold as the party showed their invitations, earning entrance to the school’s grounds.

The front courtyard of the school was a grassy lawn with a small pool and well-manicured trees. At the centre stood an imposing statue of Master Melchior himself, as he appeared before his body perished and his brain was transferred into a jar of alchemical liquid: a bald, clever-looking man with a pointed beard. As is the norm, his expression seemed faintly amused and curious. The statue bore an elaborate staff in one hand. The surrounding buildings included the student residence, the dining hall, the administrative offices, the university’s fortress-like library, and the Department of Memory Magic, as well as the personal tower of Master Melchior himself. Archways led into adjoining parts of the school where additional classroom spaces, faculty offices, and other university buildings could be seen.

Students here were not just human, but of every species in Hex and beyond. A small group of dagonian students swam in the pool – a rare sight outside of Croakmarsh or the docklands. Even spot a hulking trollblood student and, bizarrely, a waspkin student in ill-fitting robes, could be seen. This latter Garvin approached, speaking in buzzing Vespine as best he could.

“Strange to hear my own language outside Stingsworth,” the waspkin student responded. The two struck up a conversation, swapping rumours of the Thirteenth Queen, and the waspkin asked to test out a spell on Garvin, who politely refused, with a promise to return on his way back. The group now made for the tower of Melchior himself. Inside, they climbed a spiral stair lined with portraits of the famous wizard till they came to the headmaster’s study: a spacious, wood-paneled room filled with books, magical objects, and other artefacts, including such oddities as a flowering plant with eyeballs for blooms, a taxidermy manticore, a collection of animated statuettes, and a small fire elemental living in a glyph-graven brazier. Sitting atop a huge desk of dark wood was a tank of alchemical liquid in which was suspended a brain – Melchior. Reading a book at the desk was a man, who stood when the group entered: a rather short, clever-looking fellow, bald, with a silvery beard and twinkling eyes, dressed in rather old-fashioned scholarly robes. They recognized this figure from the statue in the courtyard – it was the semblance of Master Melchior himself, whose body has been dead for countless years.

francis bacon

“Greetings,” Melchior said “It is good to see several of you again, and to speak to you using a more civilized form. This body, of course, is an illusion – my true self remains imprisoned in glass.” He gestures with one long-fingered hand at the brain in the jar. “Thank you for meeting me here. I have been quietly following your work here in Hex for the past year, ever since young Valdemar hired some of you to retrieve the Viridian Tablet from the Whorl. You have managed to get yourselves involved in a rather fascinating array of situations, and acquitted yourselves rather well. I have for you what you might consider a job offer, quite possibly the last you will ever need. But before arriving at my offer, perhaps you will indulge an old professor a bit of pontification about his research?”

The group indicated their assent.

“I hope I am not being immodest by stating that I am one of the most well-known wizards in Hex. Indeed, I am even older than most would guess. I was part of the original expedition that discovered the Old City in the first place, before Hex was built. I have been part of this city since it was nothing more than an archeological camp amongst the ruins. There is no one living more knowledgeable about the Librarians and their teachings than I. I have studied every branch of magical learning, and though this school is dedicated to enchantment and the magic of the mind – magic which has helped to preserve me these many centuries – I consider myself a student of all magic, of magic in its totality.

“When I was a younger man, I often delved into the Old City itself, saw with my own eyes the works of our predecessors. To those outside of Hex, our city is a place of marvels and miracles,   where nothing is impossible. Even those native to the city proudly think it a centre for magical learning, the most advanced in the world. But those of us who have studied the Librarian writings, or spent time in the city beneath, know that we have barely scratched the surface, lingering on the threshold of true understanding. True, we have mastered a few tricks, things the Librarians would have considered petty magic: reanimating the dead, summoning a few spirits from the Underworld, changing one substance into another. But our works are nothing compared to those of our predecessors, who not only visited other worlds and planes of existence, but created them, wrought whole new realities, rewrote the laws of the multiverse as they saw fit. We are but dabblers, dilettantes, neophytes. We preen and preach and lecture to our students and imagine ourselves masters of time and space and matter, but our towers of knowledge are built on foundations of sand. The more I have learned, the more I have realized how little we truly know, and how much more there is to learn.

“Now, I will be the first to admit that our species have not proven ourselves fully worthy of the powers the Librarians possessed. We are a fickle and often foolish people.   I have lived for many centuries, have seen my share of war and calamity. But I have not grown cynical, despite the horrors I have witnessed, despite our frailties and feebleness. I believe we are capable of greatness, of rising to the heights of the Librarians, even of surpassing them.  There are some reactionary souls who believe our supposedly corrupt natures mean that we should abandon our quest for knowledge, should wallow in ignorance, should hold ourselves back from understanding.   Such folk, ultimately, believe we are unworthy of enlightenment, that we must hold ourselves back from progress. There are others, too – often those who purport to be pious worshippers of the gods – who hold that there are some things we mere mortals were never ‘meant’ to know, but which should remain sacred and secret, forever beyond our reach. I cannot align myself with such conservatism. Yes, of course, magic can be dangerous, and power can be abused, and the universe is stranger than any of us dream, but that is no reason to curtail our need to better understand – and, yes, control – our reality.

“My researches into the writings of the Librarians have been extensive, but full of maddening gaps and references to missing texts. I have become aware, over the course of centuries, of a masterwork of the Librarians, a kind of cornerstone of their knowledge, the Organon of Magic, divided into thirteen volumes. Each volume of the Organon is devoted to understanding one of what we might call the ‘Greater Mysteries’ – the fundamental forces and principles underlying the nature of magic and the universe.

“Not only are these thirteen volumes individually valuable, full of the Librarians’ most complex formulations and most advanced spells, when combined together I am convinced that they would form a single, coherent theory of magic, from which could be extrapolated all sorts of new forms of magic. It is this unifying theory of magic that I have long sought. I have assembled pieces of it based on guesses and experiment and those scraps of knowledge we have dredged from the Old City, but much of it remains elusive even to me. But were I to possess the complete Organon of Magic – all thirteen volumes – I believe I could complete this unified theory, publish a New Organon, translating and explaining and expanding the knowledge of the Librarians. Such a work would revolutionize the practice of magic in Hex. Given time and careful application we might feed the hungry, cure the sick, end all poverty, and explore countless new worlds beyond imagining. I do not imagine wielding the power the Organon blithely, or for any petty end. I am not a man who covets authority for its own sake, or dominion over others. I already have all of the wealth and prestige that I might ever desire. I seek this knowledge not to further my own, private ends, but for the good of all. I know that for all your adventurousness, many of you care about more than gold. Some of you strive to improve the lives of the poor, to end oppressions that have too long endured, or, like me, to unlock the secrets of the cosmos.

“You may think this prevarication rather unnecessary, but I wish to be clear in my intentions. For, as you have doubtless guessed, I wish to employ you to procure the Thirteen Greater Mysteries of the Organon of Magic. Indeed, as it happens, you have already found the first, though perhaps you have not realized it.” He looks to Garvin. “Some time ago you retrieved the text known as the Myxonomicon – the Book of Slime – from the Old City. This is, in fact, the first of the Greater Mysteries.

“I have, in my many years, managed to amass a fortune fit to rival that of the merchant princes of Hex. Though I am not the wealthiest man in the city, I can be reckoned among its richest citizens nonetheless. In exchange for the complete Organon in its entirety, I am prepared to part with a sum that would ensure a life of comfort and leisure for all of you all: a million guineas of Hexian gold.  For each volume that you acquire, you would receive a small portion of this total – ten thousand gold pieces – but the lion’s share of the sum would be yours only after all thirteen of the Greater Mysteries are assembled.

“I have, over the years, researched the locations of the Greater Mysteries in tremendous detail, and I believe I have learned the approximate location of all but one. You would have full access to my notes and researches, to aid you in recovering the Organon. And should you require further assistance, I will do my best to provide it. However, I must caution you that retrieving these thirteen volumes would be more dangerous than any task that any of you have yet attempted. Some of you almost certainly would perish in the attempt. A number of the Greater Mysteries are held deep in the Old City, and others in places just as perilous. But none of you are strangers to danger. What say you?”

V0017640 An alchemist in his laboratory. Oil painting by James Nasmyt Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org An alchemist in his laboratory. Oil painting by James Nasmyth. By: James NasmythPublished: - Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Garvin was the first to reply. “No one knows what happened to the Librarians,” the thief mused. “But some say they tampered with powers too dangerous to comprehend, or wield safely, and destroyed themselves. Couldn’t we be setting ourselves up for the same fall?”

Melchior scratched his beard. “A philosopher’s question, and a worthy one,” he said. “It is true, that is one theory – but I do not believe it. I have become convinced that the Librarians left this multiverse for one more sublime, that their departure was quite intentional. Undoubtedly, however, the Greater Mysteries are dangerous. But I will labour over them carefully before publishing my translation. Anything too dangerous I would withhold from the public, of course.”

Alabastor had his own query. “I’ve been… doubting the nature of my reality,” he said. “Is there any way to truly know that what you are experiencing is real?”

“Ah! I wrote a treatise on this subject,” he said. A book floated from the wall into Alabastor’s hands.

Sister had an alternative objection. “My worry is the opposite,” the Lengian cleric said. “How can we be sure that this great magic will actually help everyday people? How can we be sure it won’t just make the rich richer, the powerful more powerful?”

Cephalus concurred. “Yes. That was my thought, as well. It is my mission in life to help the working class. Can you promise this magic will not lead to yet more exploitation?”

“I do plan on disseminating this knowledge,” Melchior said. “But the magic the Greater Mysteries contain – it could remake this world! It could end all need for work, feed millions, clothe us, shelter us, cure what ails us. Without the need to fight over scarce resources – gold, iron, territory, even time itself – there would be no need for war, for crime, for strife. This knowledge could bring about a world of unimaginable wonders.”

Armand was more pragmatic in his questioning. “These advances you plan on giving us,” the gentleman-sorcerer mused. “I would prefer if they were… somewhat closer to a thirteenth of the total.”

“May I be frank?”

“Certainly.”

“I would not trust you not to simply retrieve one volume, collect a princely sum, and then end your quest. But I need all Thirteen Mysteries.”

“Are we not gentlemen? Surely you trust me to keep my word.”

“My good Vicomté de la Marche, were your party entirely men and women of such honour and distinction as yourself, I would have no qualms. But – and here I hope my honesty does not offend – your number also includes… well, less scrupulous individuals. This is, indeed, part of your value. But my trust can only be extended so far, I regret.”

“Very well,” Armand said, bored-sounding. He glanced at his nails. “This publication process. There will be some sort of committee? Editors and the like?”

“Yes, I imagine so.”

“I would like to be included.”

“I see,” Melchior said. “Very well. You shall all be given a chance to read the New Organon of Magic and provide your input before it is published.”

Yam, meanwhile, had conjured an illusory moustache on Melchior’s brain-jar. The enchanter’s illusion turned and perceived the trick, and began laughing uproariously.

“Ha! Hahaha… my my.” He wiped simulated tears from his simulated cheeks. “Yam. Do you have any questions for me?”

“Hmmm…” Yam thought. “This quest. Will there be cool shit?”

Melchior laughed again, a deep belly-laugh. “Of course that would be your only concern! Yes Yam, there will be cool shit indeed!” The archwizard swore with gusto. “Any further questions or requests?”

A few minor logistical details of communication were worked out. Then, abruptly, Hurogg spoke to Cephalus. The dagonian furrowed his brow, and handed a piece of parchment to Melchior.

“This potion,” he said. “Could you… make this?”

Melchior’s illusion studied the parchment, then nodded. He turned to a small laboratory occupying one corner of the study, and with astounding speed, prepared the concoction. “Here you are.”

Hurogg nodded and, carefully, handed the phial to Cephalus for safe-keeping.

“How many people have you hired to look for these books?” Alabastor asked, cagily.

“You are the first,” Melchior said. “I have sent no others looking directly.”

“Then why now? What’s special about this moment?”

“My researches into the texts’ locations has only recently truly coalesced,” Melchior replied. “But, in truth – it is you who are special, you who convinced me an expedition to obtain these texts might be fruitful. You retrieved the Myxonomicon!” He smiled. “If there are no further concerns,” Melchior said. “Are we agreed?”

One by one, the party signaled their agreement. Melchior’s illusion smiled, and took out a series of notes from his desk.

“Here are my notes on the Greater Mysteries’ locations,” he said. “Study them carefully. If you have need of anything, let me know. Good luck!”

The party took the notes and departed, descending the staircase back to the university. The notes were as follows:

The Thirteen Greater Mysteries of the Organon of Magic

Master Melchior supplies the group with notes on the location and nature of each of the Thirteen Greater Mysteries.

Volume I: Myxonomicon, The Book of Slime

Also called the Book of Slime, the Myxonomicon is a history of the extreme prehistoric ages of the world and details curious experiments the Librarians performed on forms of early life. Long thought lost, the tome has been recovered from the Old City by an enterprising group of adventurers.

Volume II: Oneironomicon, The Book of Dreams

The Oneironomicon or Book of Dreams contains much knowledge of the Dreamlands, a partially immaterial or “psychicical” plane of existence, home of the Lengians and many other creatures. The Librarians evidently had explored parts of this plane and have compiled various magical spells for manipulating it and its denizens in the Book of Dreams, which also contains magic relating to other psychic phenomena and mind-magic. I believe the Oneironomicon lies somewhere deep below the Dreamer’s Quarter itself, in the Nightmare Tunnels – likely, my researches suggest, within the Egregor Vaults, where the dreams and nightmares of those who dwell above coalesce into physical form.

Volume III: Sarconomicon, The Book of Flesh

The Sarconomicon contains knowledge of the transformation and alteration of living beings, the reconfiguration of organic matter. Though known as the Book of Flesh it could as-easily be called the “Book of Metamorphosis” or “Book of Change.” It was using formulae from this powerful text that Hex devised the terrible poisons used to curse the wretched city of Teratopolis, warping its residents into their current horrific forms. The text was long thought destroyed during the explosion that levelled the Alchemist’s Guildhouse. However, my researches have suggested that the tome may have survived, as records extracted from the Midden indicate that the grimoire was being housed in the archives below the district. To retrieve it would require delving into the tunnels beneath the scrapyard, daring the mutant vermin, ghouls, and scavenger gangs who infest the ruins.

Volume IV: Haemonomicon, The Book of Blood

Unfortunately, I believe that the Book of Blood no longer resides within Hex. The Haemonomicon contains not only the secrets of blood as a substance, but of bloodlines – the biological code from which all creatures spring, and which the Librarians could splice and intermingle as a weaver does threads of cloth. The text supposedly lays bare the very essence of life itself, the vital energy that grants living beings their animacy. The petty experiments of the alchemists in Caulchurch are but childish dabblings compared to the masterpieces of the Librarians; indeed, many believe that the various species that reside on our little world are the results of their experiments. Sadly, I have concluded that the only copy of the Book of Blood is now in the possession of the Countess Erzsébet Scarrow, one of the vampiric aristocrats of Erubescence. The Countess is impossibly old and powerful, and Castle Scarrow is said to be near-impregnable, guarded by a veritable legion of undead. It would take a small army – or some incredibly skilled burglars – to retrieve the artefact from foreign soil.

Volume V: Hylonomicon, The Book of Trees

The so-called “Book of Trees,” like the Book of Flesh, bears a name resistant to translation; it might also be rendered “The Book of Matter” or “The Book of Substance.” It contains Librarian knowledge of that which pertains to the essence of things, their basest and innermost nature, rather than the panoply of forms into which they can be shaped or the properties they may possess. Certainly, as the moniker Book of Trees suggests, the Hylonomicon relates to what might commonly be known as “nature-magic,” as well as the fabrication of objects and beings. This tome seems to have passed into the possession of the legendary cambion magus Myrddin, who, in his twilight years, became somewhat eccentric and retired to the depths of the Tangle forest, building a large manse somewhere within its depths. Attempts to locate Myrddin’s manse and recover the artefacts there have thus far met with no success, in no small part due to the malevolent Fair Folk of the Tangle.

Volume VI: Thanatonomicon, The Book of Death

The Book of Death is an extended study of endings and of magic used to create or forestall them. Unlike the Pneumanomicon, which deals with the shades of the dead, or the Abyssonomicon, which deals with Hell, demons, and the damned, the Thanatonomicon includes knowledge of preventing and circumventing death, as well as causing it, and of harnessing the peculiar energies of death. When combined with knowledge from the Book of Blood and the Book of Time, the Book of Death supposedly contains the secrets of true immortality. Unlike its sister-text, the Book of Ghosts, the Thanatonomicon has never been retrieved from the Old City, though reputedly several assassin’s guilds have been searching for it. My research suggests that the book is likely in the Dregs, the tunnels below Caulchurch, in a shrine dedicated to the Unspeakable One known as the Shrouded Lord.

Volume VII: Pneumanomicon, The Book of Ghosts

The dread Book of Ghosts contains Librarian discoveries around the nature of the soul and the liminal state between life and death, or “undeath.” The grimoire is said to contain detailed instructions on something called “ghost husbandry” – the breeding of the dead – as well as methods for calling forth the ghosts or spirits of animals and inanimate objects, such as the souls of ruins. The Pneuomanomicon was unearthed from the Old City some centuries ago and for a time resided in the personal collection of the famed necromancer Genevieve Chancel, but never became an official part of the Académie Macabre’s library. I strongly suspect the text now resides within Genevieve’s tomb within the depths of the Catacombs beneath Grey Hook. Genevieve herself gleaned much from the Book of Ghosts, but during her investigations of the grimoire she became horrified by something she read and convinced that the Pneumanomicon would be dangerous in the wrong hands; she said as much to me before passing into the next life herself. If the Book is indeed buried with her, it will be well-protected by whatever wards and protections guard her resting place.

Volume VIII: Abyssonomicon, The Book of the Underworld

While the Book of Ghosts deals with the spirits of the dead in this plane, the Abyssonomicon, or Book of the Underworld, considers the plane which some religions have called “Hell,” and the magic associated with its denizens. It seems the Librarians were aware of this plane’s existence and had certain wary dealings with the various diabolic inhabitants of that place, though based on other writings it seems clear they did not regard them with the same superstitious awe as many humanoid cultures do today.  The Book of the Underworld was reputedly used to create the Square of the Seal before the Infernal Basilica. Although my suspicions have not been confirmed, all evidence suggests that the book was stolen by the infamous rogue demon Malephar, the leader of the thieves’ guild known as the Horned League. According to my contacts in the criminal underworld of Hex, this guild is based in Behemoth Bend, near the Hellpits.

Volume IX: Anarchonomicon, The Book of Chaos

The crazed contents of the Anarchonomicon were said to be the obsession of Zachariah Soulswell, the deranged architect and one-time dictator who created Delirium Castle, and who some say resides there still. The Book of Chaos contains a Librarian analysis of entropy and disorder, and spells to control – or, rather, channel – these unruly forces of flux and decay. The constant, random growth of Delirium Castle is likely the product of the knowledge within the Book of Chaos. Though he possessed many treasures, doubtless Zachariah would keep the Anarchonomicon somewhere especially secure, such as a high tower or a treasure-vault below the fortress.

Volume X: Astronomicon, The Book of Stars

The Astronomicon contains both the secrets of light – most enigmatic of energy-forms, yet so vital to our survival – and of fate. While common charlatans will attribute all manner of superstitious nonsense to the “arrangement of the stars,” scholars know that most such fortune-tellers are naught but peddlers of nonsense. Nonetheless, it is said that the Librarians were able to use the position of the stars to divine many other truths about the nature of reality, extrapolating from their locations in space and time to help determine secrets of the primordial past or predict future events both celestial and otherwise. The Book of Stars contains many secrets of this sort. My researches suggest that the Astronomicon is located not in the Old City of Hex but in what some have termed the Vessel, the Librarian space-craft adrift at the edge of our solar system, where the text would have been used to help navigate the stars and the vast gulfs between them. Of course, getting to the star-faring craft will be extraordinarily challenging. Many have hoped to find some portal to the craft in the Old City, but no such door has ever been found. It must be theoretically possible to construct a ship of our own to reach this ancient hulk, but such an undertaking would be truly astonishing.

Volume XI: Scotonomicon, The Book of Darkness

Though the Book of Time may be more powerful and the Book of Anathema more esoteric, none of the Greater Mysteries are more feared than the Scotonomicon, the Book of Darkness, supposedly “forbidden” by the Librarians themselves. The grimoire supposedly contains rituals that surpass even the diabolic rites of the Book of the Underworld, rituals which require acts that even the notoriously amoral Librarians, who created and destroyed life on a whim, considered abhorrent. I seek this tome not to use the fell magic within it, but for the insights that the Eleventh Volume will shed upon the others, for this book, like the others, helps to assemble a complete portrait of the nature of magic as the Librarians understood it. I believe that the last copy of this sinister tome was purloined by a death-cult dedicated to the Pallid Worm, who operated outside the city in a temple-complex on the slopes of Mount Shudder. The cult was destroyed some years ago after it was found that they were performing human sacrifices and committing other heinous deeds, and their headquarters lies abandoned; the book was never found, but I suspect that the temple contains secret chambers, and its lower levels were never fully explored.

Volume XII: Xenonomicon, The Book of Anathema

Of all the volumes of the Organon of Magic, the Xenonomicon remains all but opaque to us, for the Book of Anathema contains descriptions and magic related to what many believe to be the homeworld of the Librarians, the distant plane that cosmologists have called Anathema, a place so utterly alien and other that most mortal minds can scarcely comprehend it. The Book of Anathema has never been retrieved, but my researches have led me to suspect that the tome can be found somewhere in the legendary Tower of Whispers, the strange spire within Engima Heap into whose depths even the most skilled of magic-users fear to delve, and which reputedly contain horrors and wonders beyond all comprehension.

Volume XIII: Chrononomicon, The Book of Time

The Book of Time is perhaps the most powerful of the Thirteen Greater Mysteries, containing formulae and spells that unlock the secrets of past and future. The Librarian ability to travel backwards, forwards, and sideways through time, to split and splice timelines, to loop, rewind, or freeze time, and to otherwise manipulate the fabric of time are all described in this ancient tome. The location of the fabled Chrononomicon remains lost, though the infamous witch Wilhelmina Wormsfleur, now incarcerated in Spellcage, was said to have once possessed a copy. Wilhelmina has refused to speak with me, but perhaps she could be persuaded to give up the location of the Book of Time…

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The party now prepared to leave, Garvin lingering for a moment, allowing the waspkin student to charm him temporarily, before they left via the griffin-guarded main gates. As they departed Master Melchior’s School of Thaumaturgy & Enchantment, a large hansom cab pulled up, its windows shrouded with black curtains. The cab was drawn by a pair of strange steeds, one a whirring mechanical horse venting steam from its nostrils, the other a reanimated horse with carefully tanned skin tattooed with necromantic glyphs. The cab was driven by a figure swathed in a grey cloak and hat, their features obscured. The door to the cab opened and a tall, curvaceous woman with midnight black skin peered out at the newly-hired adventurers. She wore a dress of Lengian silk – effectively a chic, unobtrusive suit of armour. She regarded them with startling pale eyes, inclined her head, and then retreated into the gloom of the carriage, leaving the door open. Presumably they were intended to enter…

One by one, with varying degrees of reluctance, the party entered the hansom, too intrigued to ignore whatever mysteries it held. Inside, the carriage was revealed as far larger than its exterior dimensions would suggest, with a dozen padded leather seats. The windows were shrouded with curtains, but also seem to be warded to obscure the city outside.  The woman was seated on one of the luxurious seats, a drink in hand; a homunculus in a smart little suit was here as well, a bottle of wine in its gnarled hands, and offered a drink to any who wish, though none chose to partake.

“You may call me Caligina,” the woman said. Her voice bore the trace of an unplaceable accent. “Members of my organization are not usually forthcoming about our affiliation, but in this case, it has been decided that an exception should be made. I am an agent of the group known as the Velvet Shadow.”

None of them were ignorant of this name, though it was known especially to Alabastor and Garvin – the Velvet Shadow was known throughout Hex and elsewhere, for they operated far beyond the walls of the city. They were a mysterious guild of spies and assassins who are said to have agents everywhere – from the homes of the elite and in the darkened alleys of the seediest slum. Their fees were exorbitant, but they could be hired either to procure information or for more violent ends – though they had been known to refuse certain contracts for reasons they do not disclose. It was widely rumoured that they recruited out of both the Courtesan’s Guild and the universities of Hex, seeking those skilled in the seductive and magical arts.

“I know that you have just been to visit Master Melchior,” Caligina said. “I know the offer he made to you, and that he has told you what he knows of the Thirteen Greater Mysteries. The Velvet Shadow would like to make you a counter-offer.”

Outside, the sounds of the city were muted and distant-seeming.

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“No doubt Melchior’s offer was enticing,” Caligina said. “The Velvet Shadow is prepared to match his sum. In addition, after receipt of the full Organon of Magic, you will each be able to make a single request of the Shadow, free of charge. If you wish to learn some secret, we will discover it for you. If you wish someone dead, we will kill them for you.

“We do not seek to impugn the nobility of Melchior’s motives. Though he is powerful, it is not power itself he craves, but knowledge and understanding. But this thirst for knowledge can make Melchior blind. He has sought hungrily after it these many years of his life, and made the city what it is today. In many ways it is a city in his image, devoted to the ideals he cherishes: enlightenment, rationality, wisdom. But as you all know, Hex is more than its academies. Crime, corruption, violence – all have flourished here, in the shadow of Melchior’s spires. It was with the magic Melchior helped discover that the Elder Trees were first tapped of their sap and the waspkin cast from their homes. It was the delving that Melchior began that unleashed the Plasmic Woe that remains trapped in the Warded Ward. The diseases of those penned in the quarantined zone of Catch-All are not natural plagues, but infections born in alchemical cauldrons, or carried up from the darkness of the Old City. Melchior considers these things unfortunate, but he does not acknowledge his part in creating them. They are the by-products of his enterprise.

“I am sure Melchior sought to dismiss these very concerns by telling you that seeking knowledge and progress are worthy ends, and that those who naysay such endeavours are reactionaries and cynics. But the Velvet Shadow shares in Melchior’s belief that knowledge is always worth seeking. We are, after all, a society of spies. Discovering the forbidden and the secret is half our purpose and livelihood. Nor do we shirk from the exercise of power, as the other half makes clear. But we have never sought to control the city – rather, we help to maintain the balance of power, to tip the scales in important moments.

“If you bring the Organon of Magic to Melchior, I have no doubt he will compose his new translation, publish, disseminate the secrets he gleans, and those with the learning and means to use that knowledge will exploit it. The city will change, as it has done before, and will again – but, at the end of the day, the divides will only deepen, the powerful growing yet more powerful.

“If, however, you instead bring the volumes of the Organon to us… we will keep them safe, protected. We will study them closely, and, when we judge the time to be right, we may reveal them, carefully, to those who can be trusted with the power they contain. This is, after all, our trade – the obtaining, keeping, and revealing of secrets.”

The party considered this information carefully, weighing Caligina’s words. Alabastor spoke, voicing the objection many were thinking.

“What – what is your vision?” He asked. “What’s your endgame here? Melchior seems to want a magical utopia. But what do you want to do with all of this knowledge?”

“A worthy question – and one I can answer simply: nothing. We do not intend to use the Organon at all, but to keep it safe, and secret – protected.”

“Melchior has promised us editorial input,” Armand said. “Can you promise us the equivalent?”

“I will have to speak to my superiors,” Caligina replied. “We would not stop you from reading the texts, studying them, offering your opinions. But our plan is not to release the Greater Mysteries, but to keep them hidden, and safe.”

“Why hire us?” Cephalus asked, suspiciously. “You’re so well-trained, experts. Surely you could retrieve these texts.”

“Our numbers are few,” she said. “And our training… extensive. We cannot afford risking our operatives on such dangerous missions. We wish to hire you for the same reason as Melchior: because, ultimately, you are both capable and expendable.”

“Were your agents watching us?” Garvin asked. “On a tower, before entering Melchior’s School, I saw a grey-cloaked figure.”

Caligina frowned. “We watch everyone,” she said. “But we didn’t have an agent posted there. That wasn’t us.” She smirked. “You wouldn’t have spotted our agent.”

The other party members mulled this over.

“You need not decide immediately,” Caligina said, as the carriage stopped before Armand’s house. “But we will be waiting.”

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