BEARDED DEVIL

Monsters, Horror, Gaming

Month: April 2017

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…

still-life-with-books

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.

winter 2

“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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