BEARDED DEVIL

Monsters, Horror, Gaming

Month: May 2018

Hex Session XXIV – 5th Edition Actual Play – “The False Queen”

The characters in this session were:

  • Armand Percival Reginald Francois Eustace de la Marche III, a suspiciously pale, apparently human noble and sorcerer, and certainly not a ghoul (how dare such a thing be suggested).
  • Caulis, a homunculus warlock liberated from its master; has made a pact with certain Faerie Powers.
  • Viridian “Grove” Greengrove, changeling druid, exile from his former druidic circle for unknown transgressions.
  • An ancient and enigmatic Lengian cleric of the Mother of Spiders, name unknown. She wears bulky ecclesiastical garments covering an uncertain number of limbs and goes by “Sister.”
  • Vespidae, a waspkin bard/cleric, devoted servant of the Queen in Yellow and possibly the Thirteenth Queen reborn, her daughter, or her avatar.

XP Awarded: 550 XP

Something was happening to the waspkin of Suckletown – they were going missing, acting strangely, and sometimes turning up dead having suffered from strange mutilations. The Queens of Stingsworth care nothing for those outcast waspkin of the Withered Tree. But the Thirteenth Queen had taken the broken and the lame beneath her diaphanous wings. She would not abide their mutilation…

Downpour Heights

Meanwhile, the party had returned from their sojourn in the country, and now planned their next move – the next book of magic on Master Melchior’s list. Sister, eager for adventure in speheres beyond mortal reckoning, suggested they begin researching the Book of Stars. Had anyone ever attempted a journey to the luminiferous aether?

Caulis and Armand began researching, and Caulis found references that its creator had attended some sort of failed spacecraft-launch. Further investigation led them to the Citadel of the Perpetual Storm and their acquaitance, Vanessa Greyleaf, who provided further details.

“About ten years ago, a wizard named Gideon Bottlescrew got it into his head that he could build a vessel to sail the aether between the planets,” she explained. “He claimed to have found some Librarian schematic, based his design off that. Somehow, he managed to scrape enough gold together to build the damn thing. He had to do it in secret – the Citadel never approved his research, and there are rumours he got involved in some shady business to fund it. But when launch day came, he invited half the mages in Hex out to see his marvelous invention.” She shook her head. “I was younbg at the time, but my mother brought me, and, well… I’ll never forget the mess. The ship had a Librarian artefact powering it. It was supposed to generate an anti-gravity effect, like the one we use to keep the Citadel flying. But… it didn’t work as planned. Maybe he miscalibrated it, maybe it was just broken, but the engine malfunctioned. Gravity went all strange. Many of us watching were levitated off the ground. His test pilots though – students, mostly – didn’t fare so well. The gravity in and around the craft was so intense, and so contradictory, the ship tore itself apart, and everyone inside it as well. Then something volatile combusted, and there was an explosion. Several onlookers died.

“Gideon was stripped of his professorship and kicked out of the Citadel. Criminal charges got laid. Most think he got off light. His tongue got cut out so he can no longer perform verbal incantations, and he was given a curse: the touch of earth pains him.”

“What happened to him?” Sister asked.

“Last I heard, he’d set up some sort of workshop in Suckletown, living out his forced retirement in the branches of the Withered Tree. They say he’s spent the last ten years trying to figure out where he went wrong.”

“Sounds promising,” Caulis said. “Worth investigating.”

The ever-adventurous Vanessa perked up. “Hey, if you manage to actually get something to work… I mean, if you actually build a craft that can travel to the outer spheres, and you happen to need a security officer…” she trailed off with a grin.

“We’ll keep you in mind,” Armand said.

Several party-members gathered – Armand, Caulis, Viridian, and Sister – and headed south. The streets were paved with broken glass and lichen, strewn with trash, half-flooded with rainwater and raw sewage. Suckletown sprawled before thm: the broken heart of Hex’s once-prosperous industrial district, decimated by economic ruin, alchemical explosion, and the decline and death of the Elder Tree whose vast shadow darkened the streets, its gnarled branches leafless now for centuries.

Suckletown

There was a time when the Tree and the neighbouring Alchemist’s Quarter made this one of the busiest parts of Hex, a centre of commerce and manufacturing. Now the only people were squatters, indigents, and other vagabonds: castoff waspkin from Stingsworth, stray fungoids from the Zymotic Ward, outcast trollbloods from Trollhome, and freelance criminals of every species, unworthy even of Thieves’ Marks.

The folk here eyed the party darkly from the gaps in boarded-up windows or the doorways of moss-eaten factories, or from the glimmering barrel-fires around which they gathered to eat mutant rats hunted in the Midden. Several were obvious addicts, ravaged by opium, thrum, and shadowmilk. One, however, stood out: a waspkin, clad in gleaming armour, seemingly identical to the party’s long-lost companion Vespidae, rumoured to have ascended to become the enigmatic Thirteenth Queen.

“Ah… Vespidae, is that you?” Sister asked, approaching. The waspkin eyed the Lengian indifferently.

“Your name is fitting,” the waspkin said inscrutably. “You are known to us.”

“Where have you been?” Caulis asked. “We heard rumours, but…”

“I am here to investigate a series of disappearances,” Vespidae said – if indeed it was Vespidae, for none seemed sure if this was the same waspkin, or another that merely resembled her. “What brings you to the Withered Tree?”

“We’re here looking for some crackpot scientist, Gideon Bottlescrew,” Grove chimed in.

“Our goals are not incompatible,” Vespidae asserted. “Perhaps we should cooperate. You are known allies.”

“Aww Vespidae, we missed you,” Sister said affectionately.

Bad Light“Indeed. We are fond of you also.” Vespidae now led the way towards the Withered Tree, javelin in hand. The street called Badroot coiled around the Withered Tree, a street of husks both human and architectural. The emptied warehouses and eviscerated factories that lined the street were spattered with gang insignia and other graffiti, proclaiming the names of the clannish criminal factions like heraldry: the Parasites, the Dead Moles, the Whipstitchers, the Filthy Fingers, and the Graveyard Girls.

The Withered Tree itself was an etiolated god, riddled with the reddened remnants of the vampire-machines that killed it, the rust livid as blood against bark as white as  bone, turned to stone in an accelerated petrification that took hold of the ancient thing after the Harvester’s Guild finally killed it with their greed.

In addition to the dangling metal leeches that still clung to its trunk, the tree was now festooned with ramshackle additions of wood and scrap, cannibalized from the nearby slums and junkyards and refashioned into flophouses and taverns, drug-dens and brothels. Swaying rope bridges led between these additions, while tunnels dug into the depths of the tree gaped blackly like knotholes.

A pair of Graveyard Girls – an all-female gang with faces and skin painted to resemble corpses, clad in repurposed funerary finery – accosted the party at the door set amidst the roots of the tree. They twirled vicious knives.

“Oi, there’s a two-guinea toll for entrance,” one said. “Got to keep up the nieghbourhood, you know?”

“Outrageous,” Armand said, gritting his teeth. The sorcerer’s fuse seemed to have been esepcially short ever since the events at his familial home. “I’m not paying such a fee.”

“Then I’m afraid there’s going to be trouble,” one of the Girls said, knife flickering.

“Armand, don’t worry so much,” Sister said. “I’ll pay your fee.”

The Graveyard Girls placated, the party passed through the doors and into the hollowed-out cavern within the fossilized interior of the Withered Tree. Dozens of shacks and small lean-tos had been erected within, and a second level was accessible via a wooden walkway. The poor folk who made their homes in the Withered Tree were truly destitute – humans, many of them criminals to judge by their curse-brands, but also a handful of wretched dagonians, cambions, ghouls, and gnomes. A pair of crude wooden doors are set in one wall, the words “PARASITE TERRITORY” scrawled on them. A tunnel was visible near the roof, erachabkle via a series of ladders and walkways. Though most of the people were sleeping, cooking, eating, smoking, or drinking – several were also clearly in a drug-induced haze – a few also sold charms, gewgaws, or crudely distilled beverages, including some sort of fungal beer.

The party began investigating the tunnels on the lower level, eventually finding their way into a chamber filled with the corroded remnants of machinery once used to suck arcane sap from the Elder Tree fill. Scavengers had long ago stripped the machines of everything truly valuable, leaving only the corroded skeletons of the sap extractors and a scintilla of broken glass. Horribly, however, the room was not totally empty. The mangled corpse of a waspkin was caught up in some of the machinery, spattered with dried blood. Although badly bloodied, it was evident that the waspkin was wearing the yellow robes of the Thirteenth Queen.

“A missionary,” Vespidae said, inspecting the corpse. “Someone left her here as a message. We must find out who.”

“We have our own errands,” Armand pointed out.

“Vespidae’s helped us out of plenty of scraps,” Caulis interjected. “We can do both.”

Careful inspection of the room also revealed a broken-down elevator, boarded up.

“Vespidae, take this,” Sister said, handing the waspkin the Portal Chalk after carefully scrawling a portal on one wall. “Head up the shaft and draw a rectangle on the wall, then draw this sigil.” She showed the waspkin, who nodded in seeming comprehension and, casting light to illuminbate the shaft, ascended several levels, emerging in a shack that might once have been inhabited, perched in the upper boughs of the Withered Tree. The shack had long been abandoned, save by a roost of monstrous bat-like things hanging from the ceiling, sleeping. The floor was slick with their iridescent guano. Though leathery-winged and furry-bodied as normal bats, these creatures flickered in and out of reality: phasebats, inter-dimensional creatures mutated in the depths of the Old City. Vespidae carefully drew the portal, and the party followed into the room.

“Be very, very careful,” Viridian whispered. “We don’t want to wake those things up.”

Cautiously, the party made for the nearest exit… only for Armand, usually elegant in the extreme, to slip and fall into the guano with a stifled grunt. Instantly, phasebats burst from the ceiling, flocking and swirling, spitting strange substances from their quasi-real maws.

“Miscalculation.” Illustration by Caulis’ player, Bronwyn McIvor.

BOOM

Speaking an invocation to the Queen in Yellow, Vespidae conjured a blast of arcane fire. Unfortunately, the guano covering the floor of the shack was highyl flammable. There was a terrible searing heat, a flash of light, and the party scrambled to safety, making for a tunnel in the wall of the shack as it burnt down around them, breaking free from the Withered Tree to plummet to the ground below. The phasebats blinked into some other dimension, fleeing the explosion.

The Withered Tree - Modified

Once safe, Sister used her powers to cast a prayer of healing, conjured spiders spinning webs to seal wounds shut.

“Well, that was close,” Viridian said, eyebrow cocked. Pressing on into the tree, they came to a hall with a tripwire strung across it, spotted by Vespidae. The waspkin inspected the trap.

“Pheromones,” she said. “It triggers a mist. An attack-chemical. There is something… strange, about it. Familiar, but wrong.”

They crept down the corridor, and entered a chamber whose walls were covered with the papery nests of waspkin, slumbering within the honeycombed cells. Vespidae sniffed tentatively.

“These aren’t drones,” she whispered. “They’re royal guards. Soldiers. Dormant now. They’ve been fed something… some kind of substance to increase their strength.”

Stealhtily, they passed into an adjacent room; here a rusted cylinder once used as a silo for sap and embedded into the Withered Tree had been converted into an alchemical laboratory. Half a dozen waspkin – all ill-fed, their eyes glazed – attended to the complex array of sputtering glassware and acrid substances being processed here. Dozens of phials were stored in crates along the walls.

“Thrum,” Sister said, eyeing the vials. “I’ve seen people using this stuff, during my work with the poor – addicts juddering in and out of reality, hopped-up and half-phased…”

“Made with phasebat glands,” Caulis remarked. “They must have some sort of operation going here.”

“But who?” Sister asked. “Not one of the Queens…”

“No, someone else,” Vespidae said. “We’re going to find out.”

Continuing their explorations, the group exited the structure and found themselves high avove the ground ona  raised platform, a rickety bridge leading to another building nestled high in the Withered Tree’s branches. Employing stealth augmented with a spell from Sister, the group entered this room.

A thin woman with close-cropped black hair and skin pale as milk sprawled on a massive, throne-like chair in the chamber within, furnished with second-hand finery and tarnished furnishings, the spoils of pawn-shops and derelict manors. Half a dozen waspkin armed with crude firearms guarded her closely, their eyes black and listless, their wings buzzing idly. She toyed with a perfume bottle; Vespidae sniffed. Pheromones – royal pheromones. Somehow this woman had made herself an alchemical queen.

Stepping from the shadows before anyone could stop her, Vespidae approached the woman.

“And who is this? How did you get in here, little one?” she asked.

“Who are you?” Vespidae retorted. “And why do you smell like a waspkin queen?” She tried to avoid inhaling, conscious that the pheromones were having an effect on her.

“The name is Hecuba, my dear,” she said. “Formerly of Master Melchior’s little school, but lately, ah, self-employed. An independent scholar, you might say.” She grinned sharkishly. “What are you doing, nosing about my operation? Who are you, anyway?”

“Vespidae,” Vespidae responded with a shrug.

“Well, no matter. Come here, Vespidae, and bow before your Queen.” Hecuba sprizted herself with alchemicla pheromones.

Vespidae stepped back, dizzy, resisting the thrall. “No. I will not be so easily controlled.”

Hecuba sighed theatrically. “Ugh. Very well then, if you’re going to make this difficult. Guards! Seize this waspkin!”

Immediately, the guards snapped to attention, and began flying towards Vespidae. Twisting, the waspkin flitted out of a nearby window, followed by the honour guard, even as the rest of the party leapt into motion. Sister cast blink to teleport next to Hecuba, dropping from the shadows like a spider on a string; with a prayer to the her goddess, the Lengian struck out with a hand, and where she touched, flesh boiled and rotted, swelling as from some horrific spider-bite. Hecuba screamed and thrashed, and the perfume-bottle went flying, rolling along the floor. Eleyin, Caulis’ psuedodragon familiar, swooped down to pluck the bottle up, while Armand, flicking his wrist contemptuously, sent a firebolt towards Hecuba, scorching the drug-dealing enchantress.

Hecuba snarled, and spat a vicious spell, striking Caulis. A hideous blight overtook the homunculus, leaving its leaves wilted and its bark rotting. Sister leapt forwards, working her magic to keep the homunculus alive. Recovering partially from the blight, Caulis hurled a spell of its own, crippling with Hecuba with a blast of faerie-force.

Grove, rushing to the window, summoned a magical web to slow down the guards outside, while Vespidae contended with them, hurling a javelin while dodging shots from their pistols, weaving a magical pattern in the air taht caused several to flee in terror. Armand cast ray of frost, freezing one of the guards as they entered and debilitating him severely.

Caulis stepped forward, and with a second agonizing blast of fey force, spattered Hecuba’s brains across the floor of the hall. Instantly, the royal guards outside shook their heads, fighting a sudden nausea and confusion. Vespidae drew close, comforting the bewildered waspkin.

“It’s alright. The pretender is dead,” she said. “Come with me. You are safe now, no longer under her control.”

“She… she was in my head,” one of the guards said. “How did she do that?”

“I think I have an idea,” Vespidae said, eyeing a curious structure off to one side, accessible via another rickety bridge. Using an iron key found on Hecuba’s corpse, they opened the door to the building.

Within was a gigantic waspkin – or, rather, what remained of a waspkin, for it appeared to be undead, flesh tattooed with necromantic sigils. The being’s body was interpenetrated with a twisted mass of mechanical devices – syringes, hydraulic pumps, and other mechanisms. These seemed to be extracting some sort of substance from the reanimated cadaver. Tubes conveyed this substance to another large machine, which looked to have once been part of the elaborate industrial harvest used to extract sap from the Elder Tree. This machine seemed to be processing the substances collected from the undead waspkin. Several phials of fluid were evident on a low table next to the machine, and more were being filled by a steady drip from the machine itself.

Now Vespidae knew where she had smelled the pheromones before. This had been her Queen once, the Queen whose death Vespidae had commemorated in a ritualistic dance of death – one that Vespidae, an intended funerary sacrifice, had inadvertantly survived, to her shame, a crime for which she had been exiled. Hecuba must have dug the Queen’s corpse from the ground, and used necromancy and alchemy to revive it.

“Destroy it,” Vespidae intoned, and Armand gladly complied, burning the body and the structure till all within blazed to the ground.

Vespidae’s task now complete, the party rested briefly in Hecuba’s former laboratory, then continued their search for Gideon Bottlescrew. It didn’t take them long to discover his workshop, perched high in the Withered Tree and reachable via a slender wooden bridge – a rickety tower made of wood and scrap metal, its chimneys spewing smoke. A large telescope also protruded from the roof.

They could hear the sound of machines whirring inside. Guarding the entrance to the workshop was a golem, fashioned entirely from trash: rusted scrap metal, rotting wood, chains, wire, and organic matter as well – reanimated bits and pieces of stray animals, integrated grotesquely into the thing’s form. It looked at the party with one eye fashioned from a cracked lens, the other stolen from a dead dog, and spoke from the beak of a bird.

Trash Golem. Illustration by Caulis’ player, Bronwyn McIvor.

Trash Golem“Who goes there, squawk, who goes there?” the golem demanded.

“We’re here to see Gideon Bottlescrew,” Sister said. “We have an offer for him. We want to take him to the stars.”

The bird-thing considered carefully. “Squawk, alright then, alright,” it chirped. “Go on in.” It hopped to one side, allowing the party to pass.

Within, they found a massive space full of objects swirling through the air. The bookshelves along the walls were suspended both magically and mechanically throughout the chamber, covered in complicated models, mechanical devices, and even bubbling alchemical equipment. Containers of everything from food to gunpowder hung from ropes from the ceiling. There were also several magical spheres of force containing everything from miniature explosions to gigantic fireflies. At the very top of the chamber near the ceiling was a bed, wardrobe, and similar accoutrements, suspended via chains, as well as the viewing lens of a gigantic telescope. Fireplaces were located at several points along the walls, fed by animated, flying logs of kindling, and dozens of candles were suspended in space, deftly weaving to avoid lighting anything on fire.

There were also dozens of birds in cages suspended from the ceiling. The room smells of vellum, chalk, smoke, bird shit, candlewax, and ink.

Despite the incredible density of objects, the workshop had a kind of ingenious order to it, like some massive orrery. In the middle of this madness was a man with long, silver hair growing from one half of his head. As he turned, they saw why the other is hairless – he had been horribly burned along his other half, his skin a mass of scar tissue. He was dressed in threadbare waistcoat and trousers, and was frantically scribbling on a chalkboard – one of six that rotated slowing around him. A large and beautiful cockatoo was perched on his shoulder. Some sort of mechanical device had been inserted into its head.

“Hello,” the cockatoo said. Gideon does not turn , but continued writing complex mathematical formulae on the board. “Forgive my unorthodox means of communication. The bird you see before you speaks with my voice.” The cockatoo flutters from his shoulder and alights on a nearby stack of books.

“We heard you built a spaceship,” Sister said. “But then blew it up.”

“Ah, yes…” the cockatoo said, sadly. “The accident was… extremely regrettable. The greatest setback of my life, and my deepest regret. I was too eager, too intent on proving everyone at the Citadel wrong. They all said it couldn’t be done, that travel amongst the spheres was centuries away. I am still convinced they are wrong. I have spent the last ten years perfecting my plans. I now know the source of my error – the program I fend into the aetheric engine was fundamentally flawed. And I believe I am close to remedying that mistake. Of course, my only hope now is to bequeath my notes to future generations… My dreams of travel to the stars are quite dead.”

“We’re here to revive them,” Sister said. “We need something from the Vessel, and we want to build a ship to do it.”

At last, Gideon turned, but then his eyes curiously widened . Sunlight gleamed through the windows, glinting off the Yellow Sign round Vespidae’s neck. Suddenly, Gideon turned back and, moving rapidly, levitated towards a door in one wall of the tower.

“Wait, where are you going?” Grove demanded. The cockatoo was curiously silent. The door was closing. Vespidae flitted over, keeping the door open, and the party hurried through, pursuing this eccentric man, the cockatoo now following them. They noticed the frame of the door looked old, ancient even, and crafted of iridescent metal…

They passed down a corridor that should have led outside, but instead led into a vast chamber with a glass ceiling. The walls were of ancient stone, carved with what appeared to be Librarian symbols. Many doors were arrayed around the edges of the room, interspersed with grotesque statues; each had a curious symbol over it. And through the glass of the ceiling, they looked up and saw, suspended amidst a field of black stars, a small, blue-green orb, swirling with clouds.

It took them a moment for realization to set in.

“We’re on…” Grove began.

“We’re on the moon,” Sister confirmed. “A Librarian outpost on the moon!”

Gideon, wide-eyed and frantic, backed up, but Sister was too quick. She inscribed a zone of truth, enchanting the space against falsehoods.

“What is this place?” she said. “How did you find it?”

“As you said,” Gideon replied through the cockatoo. “A Librarian outpost. An extension of the Old City, really. Time and space didn’t mean the same things to the Librarians.” He was shaking, nervous, but excited as well. “I’ve kept it secret, all these years. I discovered the portal during my expedition to retrieve the Aetheric Engine, and had it brought up here at great expense. Well.” He chuckled. “Brought down there.” He gestured to the world below.

“So… why did you bring us here?”

“To show you this,” Gideon replied, beckoning. They passed into another room, accessible through one of the doors – seemingly wrenched from its frame. The room was filled with assorted junk – technological detritus, along with the bones of some former explorer, now long dead. But on the walls were engravings, intricate, detailed.

“A schematic,” Sister said, staring up at the designs with many awed eyes.

“Yes,” Gideon said, quietly. “A schematic for a Librarian ship. One that can sail amongst the stars.”

HexMoon02s

Lunar Symbol by Matthew Murray.

Hex Session XXIII – 5th Edition Actual Play – “Château de la Marche, Pt. 2”

The characters in this session were:

  • Alabastor Quan, a gnome rogue-turned-illusionist and failed circus ringmaster; wielder of a cursed dagger and member of the Ravenswing Thieves’ Guild.
  • Armand Percival Reginald Francois Eustace de la Marche III, a suspiciously pale, apparently human noble and sorcerer, and certainly not a ghoul (how dare such a thing be suggested).
  • Caulis, a homunculus warlock liberated from its master; has made a pact with certain Faerie Powers.
  • Viridian “Grove” Greengrove, changeling druid, exile from his former druidic circle for unknown transgressions.
  • Yam, an eccentric gnome illusionist and local graduate student at Umbral University. Yam cares little for money. Yam is curious. Yam is Yam.

XP Awarded: 1000 XP

The party stood in the chambers of Helena de la Marche, mother of Armand de la Marche III, in his familial estate, infested by the minions of Jasper Van Lurken, priest of the Charnel Goddess. Sister, the Lengian cleric, drew a portal using the Portal Chalk, one leading back to its twin in Hex.

“I’m going to go find Yam and Alabastor,” she said. “We might need more firepower.”

“Fine,” Armand said. “But don’t be long.”

The Lengian returned swiftly with the two gnomes to find Armand pacing the room. As she slipped through the portal, it quavered and closed, the marks on the wall fading.

“That hasn’t happened before…” she said, concerned. “Hmm. Jasper worships the Charnel Goddess, right?”

“Correct,” Armand said, fist clenched.

“It would be that he’s somehow consecrated this place in her name. If the Portal Chalk is the creation of the Antinomian, it’s possible it won’t function properly in the temple of another deity.”

“My house is no temple,” Armand growled. “But let’s return to the stables. You can establish a portal there. Set up camp and wait with the horses; if we do find her mother, I’d like to get her to safety as swiftly as possible.”

Chateau de la Marche-min

The party beat a hasty retreat back through the mansion and outside, where Sister drew a new portal in the stables, hoping that this one wouldn’t disappear. While the old Lengian guarded their retreat the rest of the party prepared to return to the house, while Viridian and Caulis filled Alabastor and Yam in on what had occured.

“So… we’re going to find your dad?” Yam asked.

“Perhaps,” Armand said. “But my duty is first to the living, not the dead. If mama is alive, we must rescue her. But we must also destroy the poisonous idol the Van Lurken filth has polluted my estate with. We will find it in the Glass Menagerie in the northwest wing.”

“Um, Armand?” Alabastor said. “There’s a light on up there.” He pointed to a high tower attached to the corps de logis.

“I’ll send Eleyin to see what it is,” Caulis said, the fey pseudodragon alighting from its shoulder. Eleyin flitted to the window, and saw within a pale, handsome man – the very image Armand II, recognizable from the portrait seen earlier – looking through a telescope. The dragon blinked, and the figure disappeared.

“It sounds like we found your father,” Caulis said, as Eleyin conveyed this information. “At least, in a sense, anyway.”

“Indeed,” Armand replied. “But let us make haste. Come, I know the way.”

Hurring, Armand led the party back into the mansion, first returning to his mother’s chambers. All was as it was – save the armoire, where Jerome and Blaise seemed to have escaped, breaking the door.

“Oh great, those two got out,” Viridian said. “Hmm. Let me see if I can get your mother’s scent. With an incantation to certain elder powers, the changeling druid transformed himself into a kind of monstrous bloodhound-like creature, though somewhat more squamous and unnerving than a normal dog. He sniffed around the room carefully, then at the lock of hair left by the stairs by Jasper, and the note Armand’s mother left, in order to get her scent. Once he had picked it up, he set off deeper into the house.

The party now made their way through a series of halls and chambers, slowly making their way north and west. Presently, they came to a low-ceilinged hall containing several long tables. A thick, old rug lay on the floor, looking mouldy. The walls were lined with cabinets containing various items of silverware and fine china. A series of bells ere also affixed to the walls, labelled with various rooms in the house – servant’s bells. They hurried through into an old guard room, still  containing some arms and armour – all of them more for display than true use. Several suits of armour stood sentinel. Yam, perhaps made paranoid by the gloom of the house, knocked one over with a loud clatter, alarming everyone else in the group and drawing a hissed series of remonstrations from their companions. Something elsewhere in the house groaned distantly, clearly hearing the cacaphony.

Yam’s hijinx. Illustration by Caulis’ player, Bronwyn McIvor.

Yam in Helmet“I’ll see if I can disguise our scent,” Caulis said, using a spell to try and make the room smell like rats. Yam, meanwhile, ignoring their companions, placed a helmet upon their head, far too large for the gnome. Armand assiduously ignored the illusionist’s antics.

The party continued on, now coming to the house’s music room. The door was ajar; looking in, they could see various instruments, including a flute, oboe, barrel drums, lute, hurdy-gurdy, and viola. The centerpiece of the music room was an incredibly ornate harpsicord and a beautiful, elaborately decorated organ. There was something decidedly sinister about both instruments however; the painting on the lid of the harpsicord seemed to be a depiction of a mass grave, some huge, coiled shape emerging from within the charnel pit, strewing bodies in its wake, and the wood of the organ was all in black and ghastly green with blood-red symbols recently applied. A shape flickered within, pallid and slithering. Armand called a halt.

“It hasn’t seen us yet, whatever it is,” he said. “Let’s see if we can’t go around.”

The party headed down a level, avoiding the music room, and into a drawing room with large windows facing out onto a balcony with a view of the grounds, where once beautiful gardens would have greeted the eye with flowers and fountains. Now the grounds were withered and dead, the fountains dry and overgrown. Like most rooms in the house intended for entertaining guests, this one was sumptuous and ornate, with elaborate carvings of flowers and trees, and a painting of a tranquil woodland scene where a knight and his lady gaze romantically into one another’s eyes by a secluded pool. The idyllic picture was somewhat marred by a disturbing blotch of darkness beneath the water; it looked like some mould has got into the canvas, but it had the effect of appearing like some monster dwells in the pool, preparing to creep onto land.

Armand examined the mould closely, and deduced that it was Gravemould, a fungus usually found in crypts and used as a reagent in certain alchemical concotions. He took a sample.

Viridian led them on, still following the scent, and the party entered the ballroom of Château de la Marche. A great pit had been dug in the floor, as if something erupted forth from the ground – a black, gaping pit. A mezzanine encircled the ballroom, stairs rising along the walls of the tower. They could hear something wet and heavy thumping slowly up a flight somewhere above. The party stood, waiting carefully, until the sound diminished, then climbed the stairs back up a level, towards the Glass Menagerie.

Before the doors of the collection, the group was confronted by a ragged, thin figure, covered in blood and clad in the tattered remnants of a dress. Matted hair framed a gaunt, feral face caked in blood, large, almost luminous eyes roving in their sockets. A large, blood-stained knife was clutched in one white-knuckled hand.

“My poppet!” the woman cried, dropping the knife and leaping towards Armand. “I knew you’d come eventually.”

“Mama!” the sorcerer said, relief washing over him as he clasped his mother, Helena, close. “Thank goodness we found you.”

“What happened here?” Yam asked, curious as ever.

Helena broke the embrace with her son.

“These are my, ah, associates, mama,” Armand explained. “Trustworthy enough, I suppose.”

“How generous,” Alabastor muttered under his breath.

“Oh poppet, it’s a proper mess,” Helena said, laying her head on Armand’s shoulder. “It all happened after that little glass worm was added to the collection. It started whispering to me, telling me things I must do, and I found I couldn’t ignore it. Sometimes I’d black out for hours on end, wake up in strange parts of the house, sometimes with dirt or blood on my hands. Father was quite upset by the whole thing. The worm… it had me do some sort of ritual, in the burned wing. I killed a goat… drew symbols with its blood. Said words I don’t understand. And then he came here, the wicked boy, and started… doing things to the servants. I managed to get away, but only just. But I can’t seem to leave the grounds. Every time I try, something pulls me back.”

“I see,” Armand said, gritting his teeth. “An grandfather? Where is he?”

“I don’t know. I’ve been searching for him for some time. They must have him tied up somewhere – perhaps in the cellars.”

“We need to destroy that glass worm,” Alabastor whispered to Yam. “But it’s got some sort of spell on her. I don’t think she’s going to let us just break it.”

“Got it,” Yam said, as if they had formulated a full plan. Once again the gnome put on the ridiculous helmet, and began staggering around like a fool. Helena guffawed with laughter at the spectacle; meanwhile, Alabastor slipped inside the Glass Menagerie.

Within, the gnome found a vast collection of glass figures of every colour and size, arrayed in display cabinets and on plinths throughout a museum-like space. Whereas much of the rest of the house had been sullied or destroyed, this room was wholly undisturbed. Frogs, birds, gods, demons, knights, ladies, satyrs, fairies, dragons, dogs, cats, mice, owlbears, and a thousand other creatures watched him with glassy eyes, amidst a glittering collection of towers, castles, churches, pagodas, ziggurats, planets, trees, flowers, and similar objects.

Alabstor searched carefully for a glass figure resembling a worm. It didn’t take him long to discover, for Helena had given it a place of honour. Its body was a nightmarish mass of segmented coils, writhing tentacles, and chitin plates.  Its many-fanged maw gaped with horrific hunger; there were no visible eyes at all.  While the worm was nothing more than glass, there was still something deeply disturbing, something shuddersome and nauseating, about its undulating form.

The Idol The Idol of Mordiggia. Illustration by Caulis’ player, Bronwyn McIvor.

Reluctant to touch the glass figure, Alabastor used mage hand to procure it. The moment his spell touched the figure, however, it immediately made a guttural, whining growl, and vomited forth a seething mass of insects and worms, which swarmed towards Alabastor and began crawling up his body, biting at his exposed flesh.

Alabastor attacked by a swarm. Illustration by Caulis’ player, Bronwyn McIvor.

Alabastor and the Swarm

The rest of the party rushed within, Helena suddenly frantic. Thinking quickly, Caulis smashed a lantern at Alabastor’s feet, the burning oil killing many of the insects, and only slightly scorching the agitated gnome. Frantically, Alabastor grabbed the worm-idol and stuffed it into the sackg of the Snatcher, a kind of carceral Bag of Holding acquired in the Egregor Vaults. Once the idol was in the bag, Helena seemed to calm, falling into a kind of swoon. Armand tended to her.

“How do we destroy it?” Yam asked quietly.

“I have an idea,” Caulis said. Flexing its twig-like fingers, it cast shatter into the depths of the Snatcher’s sack. There was a sound of breaking glass, following by a monstrous wailing, ghastly and inhuman and agonized.

“Shit, shit, it’s not dead yet!” Alabastor swore.

Meanwhile, Armand rushed over, an explosive crystal gleaned from the tunnels beneath Mainspring in hand. This he dropped into the bag. There was a second sound of breaking glass; smoke poured forth from the sack, but the idol’s wails were no more.

“That takes care of that,” the sorcerer said. “Now, let us get mama to safety at once.

The party hurried back the way they had come. When they once again reached the guard room, two suits of armour stood before them, filled with swarms of creeping vermin. The party attacked, firing a barrage of spells at the two sentinels; the armoured warriors fell and the worms within were variously melted and incinerated, but the arcane assault left a hole smouldering in the floor. Aware that the noise would attract attention, the group hastened back outside to the stables. Sister greeted them at the portal, stitching shut their wounds with magical spidersilk.

“I’ll get your mother to safety,” she promised Armand. “We’ll go to your townhouse in the Dreamer’s Quarter.”

“Thank you” Armand said. “She’s quite exhausted – make sure she gets some rest.” He turned, looking back to the house. “I’m going to find Van Lurken, and end this.”

After a brief rest, the party returned to the mansion, prepared for battle. They made their way towards the chapel, but discovered a barricaded door. Yam, shrugging, knocked.

“Who’s there?” a voice said from within.

“Uh, Yam,” Yam responded.

“Who?”

“It’s Master Eustace,” Armand answered. “Is that Claude?”

“Master Eustace! Yes, it’s me… one moment.” There were sounds of furniture being moved, and the door opened. A thin, frightened-looking man let them into a dusty back hall.

“Claude, I am aware of some of the circumstances plaguing the house, but the more you can tell us, the better,” Armand said. It took Claude a moment to respond.

“Sir… I am loathe to speak ill of Lady Helena, but… well, it was her who let this evil into our midst. She started obsessing over this one statuette in her glass menagerie, in the northwest wing – and when she wasn’t locked up in there brooding over it and touching it, she wandered the house, continually slipping from room to room, vandalizing the walls and windows, scrawling strange symbols.”

“We’ve taken care of that. What else?”

“She did some sort of ritual in the southeast wing, among the cinders and the ashes, that brought it here – that thing in the chapel, and its servants. We found her covered in blood – she’d lured a goat into the house, slaughtered it to cast some sort of summoning spell. It brought that creature here. It spoke with the voice of a man, but it’s not human! It said terrible words, words of pain, and the guards and servants all fell screaming, writhing, and it laughed and raised those thin arms, and rats and worms and all manner of vermin started pouring in from every direction.

“Some of us ran, managed to stay together for a time, but that creature and its servants started picking us off one by one. Walking corpses and goat-headed things and a thing made of worms and all manner of horrors… I managed to barricade myself in here. I think they’ve forgot about me, don’t realize I’m here, otherwise I’d be dead.”

“I see. Thank you, Claude. If you head outside, find your way to the stables. There’s a magical door there that will take you to safety.”

Bewildered but grateful, Claude did as his master bid.

The group passed through the back hall and into the chapel’s library, filled with shelves stuffed with books. The texts look totally untouched, coated with dust, and all seemed to be religiously themed – works of theology and metaphysics.

“If I recall correctly…” Armand said, and pulled a book – in fact, a lever, activating a secret door somewhere above. They ascended a flight of stairs into an ornate gallery containing numerous portraits and other paintings, most of them religious scenes of some variety. These included several paintings of scenes from the life of Saint Monstrum, one of Hex’s foremost patrons, as well as numerous paintings of the Lady of the Mists.

Three paintings, however, seemed rather wildly out of place.

One painting was a rural scene, almost idyllically pastoral, in which goatherds watch over their charges… while something else watches over them. A grim, black-clad figure with the face of a skeletal and masses of white hair fondles a scythe while regarding the goatherds, huge black wings like those of a monstrous raven spreading behind it.

A second painting depicted the estate – Château de la Marche itself. However, the painting seemed to be of the house and grounds as they currently existed – dilapidated and rotting, one wing burnt, windows broken, gardens withering. It was as if someone painted it only recently.

The third strange painting depicted Mount Shudder, the huge mountain not far from the city of Hex. Oozing from a cavern halfway along the slope was a hideous white worm of colossal size. It seemed poised to devour the city, which was depicted near the base of the mountain. This third painting had swiveled open on a hinge, revealing a passage beyond. Here they found a small shrine to the Lady of Mists, including one of her holy symbols and a book detailing her rites.

They continued on their way to the chapel, eventually entering a small antechamber. Dangling from dusty chandelier was a severed human head, badly rotted, its cheeks carved with sigils. The head’s eyes rolled in its sockets as it slowly twisted and untwisted itself on its ropy hair. Spotting the party, the head let out a hideous wail. Slithering sounds indicated that some of Jasper’s minions were on their way. Hastening, the party made their way into the basement of the house, beneath the chapel.

“I remember playing down here once, as a child…” Armand mused. “I frightened myself, in one of the old chambers… a shadow seemed to move of its own accord, to speak to me from out of the dark and cobwebs.”

They pressed on, entering a small secondary shrine dedicated not to the Lady of the Mists but to a more inscrutable figure – some angel of death, raven-winged and long-haired, with a skull for a face, a scythe clutched in its hands. The semblance of this being was carved in bas-relief on one wall of this chamber, which looked truly primeval – the stone-work considerably older than any of the surrounding tunnels. An altar stone was set before the carving.

Ankou. Illustration by Caulis’ player, Bronwyn McIvor.

Ankou

“The Ankou,” Caulis said. “It’s supposed to send souls to their rightful resting place. I can’t imagine it’d be fond of undead.”

“Indeed.” Viridian had returned to his normal shape. “I wonder…” he leafed through the pages of the book they’d found. “Yes, here it is… a prayer to the spirit.” He handed the book to Armand.

Armand cocked an eyebrow, but accepted the tome and recited the words. “Shepherd of souls, hear my prayer. Graveyard-watcher, King of the Dead, bearer of the Sacred Wheelbarrow, First of the Slain, we beseech you to appear.”

A shape stepped from the darkness, skull-faced and raven-haired, vast wings filling the chamber. It spoke with a voice like sand running through an hourglass and the wind moaning through a graveyard at dusk.

“I am the Ankou of this land. It is my duty to shepherd the dead to their destination. It is a duty I have carried out for many thousands of years. What need have you of my services?”

“There is a necromancer here, one who perverts the laws of life and death,” Armand replied. “We ask your aid in destroying him.”

“Indeed, this house is an abomination,” the Ankou intoned. “I cannot allow this to continue. Previously, this house was protected by some more powerful being… but I sense that those wards have been lifted.”

“The idol,” Alabastor reasoned. “When we destroyed it, it must have lifted the wards.”

“I will aid you,” the spirit assented. “Come. We must cleanse this place of the vileness that pollutes it.”

“This way,” Armand indicated, noting a spiral staircase. “This will take us to a vantage point above the chapel.” Dodging through a vestry infested with rats, the group ascended the stair and entered the chapel.

The chapel of Château de la Marche was dedicated to the Lady of th Mists – or, rather, it used to be. The ornate stone statue in the image of the Protectress of Varoigne had been magically defaced, the usually benevolent expression of the goddess twisted into a demonic leer, her hair – usually long and luxurious – transformed into a gorgon-like mass of writhing worms, her mouth warped into a fanged pout. Scrawled in blood upon the walls and stained glass windows of the chapel were unnerving symbols, many featuring a coiled worm. The whole chapel was lit with crimson candles which fill the room with a hellish glow. An awful carrion stink to this place perfumed the air like rotten incense.

Sitting in the pews, mouthing a constant prayer in a diabolic tongue, were thirteen reanimated corpses. Some were clearly long-dead, exhumed from recent graves. Others seemed recently killed – local villagers or goatherds, to judge by their garb. Several, however, were clothed in the livery of de la Marche servants. Armand clenched his fists in fury.

A corpse-pale shape presided over the cadaverous congregation. Black, empty sockets stared sightlessly from a head that had lost hair, ears, and nose. Only the mouth remained, cruel and twisted. The figure’s body was strangely elongated, and moved with a twisted boneless fluidity. Thin, withered arms – almost vestigial – hung from the thing’s crooked torso, which was covered in strange scars. Though unclothed, the creature was smooth and sexless.

“Ah, Armand!” the horror cooed, the voice issuing forth from the ruinous face genteel and smooth, mismatched quite horridly with its monstrous form. “So glad you made it home! You must forgive me the familiarity; I know we have not formally met yet. I am, as you might have guessed, Jasper Van Lurken. And may I say, your family’s house is quite as lovely as I imagined!”

“You’ll pay for what you’ve done, Van Lurken filth,” Armand spat. “How did you survive the fire?”

“Stone burns less easily than wood, and the tunnels below my family’s house were quite extensive by the time you so rudely burnt it down, along with my relations. It was easy enough to escape. I have been gathering followers ever since, plotting my little revenge.”

“Enough!” Armand snarled, hurling a lightning bolt at the creature. It struck Jasper, scorching his flesh, and the cleric squealed, returning the incantation with an agonizing blast that made every nerve in Armand’s body scream.

Yam, meanwhile, had their own ideas. Taking out the Hands of the Marionettist – bewitched, glyph-engraved crosses – Yam concentrated on the undead worshippers. With a twitch of the puppeteer’s control bars, Yam seized control of three shambolic undead. A grin widened on the gnome’s face as they directed the walking corpses to attack Jasper. Viridian ensnared the cultist with summoned vines while Alabastor sent a bolt of crackling black puissance at the warlock. Even as Jasper was set upon by his own zombic servitors, he spat a terrible curse, one that seared Caulis’s bark-like skin with blight. The homunculus, weakened and faded, branches suddenly wintry and dying, summoned forth a cloud of daggers, shredding Jasper’s worm like body in a frenzy of magical steel.

Meanwhile, the Ankou emerged from the darkness. Its scythe swept wide, cutting into the bodies of the chanting zombies, slaying them left and right.

Jasper’s withing form collapsed, eviscerated by spells and his own servants. Yam directed the zombies to rip him open, to tear his flesh from his bones. But as they did so, something wet and dark burst forth from his ruinous chest and, with a squeal, burrowed down into the floor.

“Don’t let it escape!” Armand shouted, and the party descended, following the worm-thing to a lower level. They rushed into an ancient-looking crypt of old stone, substantially predating the house above it. The bodies buried here were not in coffins but in three stone sarcophagi, and bore the semblances of ancient knights. One had a hole within it, bored in its surface; the lid stirred, and a mouldering skeleton emerged, the worm-thing pulsing in its ribcage, twisted round its bones. A sword gleamed, hacking madly.

“You won’t kill my that easily!” Jasper snarled, his voice utterly inhuman now. He sliced at Viridian, wounding the druid. Armand conjured a web to ensnare the revenant, while Yam spoke an invocation, sending an acid arrow hurtling at the monster and knocking it back into the magical snare. The thing thrashed as Alabastor and Viridian assailed it with hexes and a whip of thorns. Jasper spat another spell but Armand dodged aside and spoke a word of power, manifesting a blaze of eldritch flame that spread through the webs and over the undead horror’s body. It thrashed, its bones blackening, the worm-thing within its chest shriveling. At last, it lay still.

The Ankou descended, passing through the ceiling to float before them. “The house has been cleansed,” the spirit said, its scythe dripping with blood and ectoplasm. “But I must tell you – I found your forebear, slain by the abominations that defiled your halls.”

An inscrutable expression flickered across Armand’s face. The Ankou spoke on.

“Dawn comes. I must return to beyond the veil.”

“My thanks, Ankou,” Armand said. Though encrusted with blood, his usually immaculate clothes torn and filthy, the ghost of a smile flitted across the sorcerer’s lips. Once more, he was lord and master of Château de la Marche.

 

Hex Session XXII – 5th Edition Actual Play – “Château de la Marche, Pt. 1”

The characters in this session were:

  • Armand Percival Reginald Francois Eustace de la Marche III, a suspiciously pale, apparently human noble and sorcerer, and certainly not a ghoul (how dare such a thing be suggested).
  • Caulis, a homunculus warlock liberated from its master; has made a pact with Queen Titania of the Faerie.
  • Viridian “Grove” Greengrove, changeling druid, exile from his former druidic circle for unknown transgressions.
  • An ancient and enigmatic Lengian cleric of the Mother of Spiders, name unknown. She wears bulky ecclesiastical garments covering an uncertain number of limbs and goes by “Sister.”

XP Awarded: 400 XP

The long winter gave way to a quick spring and a quicker summer. The season seemed to burn itself out in furious intensity, as if compensating for the long chill. Now the Month of Owls waned, leaves falling from the trees. Rain and heavy fog had replaced the oppressive sunshine with their own damp claustrophobia, a blanket of heavy grey covering Hex and its hinterlands.

Armand Percival Reginald Francois Eustace de la Marche III sat in his study, perusing The Book of the Void, when one of his servants knocked on the door and approached with a letter, freshly delivered by waspkin courier. The letter was marked with the seal of his family on your mother’s side – the de l’Abespine coat of arms. Usually this marked a letter from his mother. The sorcerer opened the letter and read carefully.

Grandson,

I hope I do not trouble your studies in Hex unduly, but I am sad to inform you that your presence is required here at Château de la Marche. Your mother’s condition seems to be worsening. Since your father’s passing, as you know, she has been delicate of constitution, both physical and mental, and recently she has taken a turn for the worse. She spends long hours shut up in her menagerie of glass figures, refusing meals, even locking the doors; I am afraid we have been forced to confiscate her keys, and, at times, treat her almost as a prisoner in her own home.

It pains me greatly to see my daughter so diminished. Despite our attempts to keep her pacified and restricted to her rooms, she has taken to wandering parts of the house which are no longer safe – including the burned southeast wing, and even the disused northeast wing where, we suspect, the air has gone terribly bad. She continually foils all attempts to keep her from such midnight ramblings, at one point even overpowering a servant come to change her linens, and there has been a string of other, similar incidents. She has spoken of seeing your father’s shade, of horned figures, of beasts prowling “the endless dark” – and of other things which I will not commit to writing. She has taken to scrawling strange signs on the walls, abusing her belongings, and vandalizing the estate. The staff, I am afraid, are quite alarmed.

To be blunt – I fear she may hurt herself, or lose what reason she still possesses.

I can’t say whether your presence will do her any good – perhaps the sight of her son will restore her, or relieve her condition. At the very least I am sure you would be a comfort to her.

I would strongly advise that you travel accompanied, as the roads have become terribly perilous of late; unseasonable cold weather has left many washed-out and nigh-unusable, and driven men to banditry. They resent us at the estate, of course, and more than once the servants have driven them off with shots from the old arquebuses. There are wolves as well, in greater numbers than normal, and other wild creatures roaming the countryside; the memory of the terrible incident that befell your parents shortly before your birth still haunts me. Best, then, to bring with you companions suitably skilled in arms, in case you encounter anything dangerous on the journey.

Your grandfather,

Percival de l’Aubespine, Baron de Beresford

Fuming with rage at the ill-treatment of his mother, Armand leapt from his chair and, without ado, began preparations to leave the city. Gathering several companions along with horses and a small band of mercenaries, he set out for his ancestral estate as soon as possible.

To the south and west of Hex, the land became progressively hillier, dotted with pastures and thick oak forests, some remnants of the Tangle, cut off from that sprawling mother-wood. Towards the further south the hills eventually climbed into mountains known as the Dames Blanches, the White Ladies, for their snowy caps. The thick smog of Hex dissipated into an autumnal mist in this region, a subtle, silvery haze from which the reddening trees emerged like russet spectres.

Though the Old City of Hex was built millions of years ago during ancient prehistory, the city built atop it felt almost new compared to the venerable towns and ruins of this region. Though Hex exerted a degree of control over these lands, the folk here maintained a sense of rugged independence, more loyal to the noble bloodlines who have ruled the realm for centuries than to the distant city with its strange technologies and sinister wizards.

Away from the libertine confines of Hex, worship of the city’s strange gods declines rapidly. There were still a handful of roadside shrines to the Magistra for the first few miles from Hex, but these were soon supplanted by fanes and churches dedicated to the Lady of the Mists, a local goddess.

The population also noticeably shifted. At first gnomes, dagonians, and others could be seen in fair numbers, but these quickly dwindled, replaced by humans.

The party stopped for the evening at the White Wyvern inn, a three-storey inn at the edge of a small oak forest. Within, a fire flickered in the hearth, warming a common room crowded with travelers – the Wyvern was the only inn for some distance. Most of these wee merchants and farmers, folk heading north to Hex to peddle their wares. The innkeepers were identical twins, two men with the same thin, clever face and the same close-cut greying curls, distinguished only by the ugly scar that marked the face of one of them.

brothers

Charles and Bertrand. Illustration by Caulis’ player, Bronwyn McIvor.

Caulis and Armand spoke with the brothers, Caulis now in illusory human guise, and learned that wolf attacks had been on the increase of recent.

“Mark me words, the Beast of Vaorigne has returned,” Bertrand, the scarred brother, declared. “I should know. I’ll remember that thing’s howls till my dying day.”

“The Beast of Varogine?” Caulis asked, curious. Viridian likewise perked up at the mention of an exotic creature.

“Aye, the Beast that gave me this scar,” Bertrand said, gesturing to his face. “A monstrous werewolf, that roamed these parts with its pack some twenty years past. But young Master Eustace de la Marche here can tell you all about that.”

The other looked to Armand, surprised.

“The Beast wounded my father, left him lame and weakened,” Armand said, gazing into his glass of wine. “And left mama… changed. It attacked them, late one night, on the road not far from here.”

“Could this Beast be related to revent events at your home?” Viridian asked.

“I see not how,” Armand said. “But I find this topic displeasing. I think I shall retire for the evening.”

The sorcerer drained his glass and departed for his chambers.

That night, Armand’s sleep was troubled. He awoke in the early hours of the morning, sweat soaking through his nightclothes, the memory of a disturbing dream still fresh in his mind. It was a vision of his father, Armand II, trapped in some tenebrous chamber, some twisted parody of his family home. Something was restraining him – long, writhing forms, lashing tendrils or serpents – binding his limbs. As Armand watched, powerless, wounds blossomed across his father’s body, long claw-marks blooming crimson. Some invisible force devoured his right leg, the limb he had amputated in life, and a festering, gangrenous rot began to spread up his body, consuming him, creeping across his skin until he was a grotesque shell of his former self, a diseased husk. His eyes glowed with some vile effulgence as he struggled against the gruesome organic bonds that held him, and his gaze fixed upon Armand, his eyes piercing into your mind.

“Son! Help me, please!” the elder Armand pleaded – before Armand III awoke.

Descending from breakfast on the morrow, Armand did not speak of his vision, but insisted the horses be readied immediately. Once again the party set out, riding hard for Armand’s ancestral home. Soon mist clouded the path, and mid-morningv loping shapes emerged from the fog – a pack of a dozen hungry wolves, thin and ferocious. They howled and leapt towards the horses, but Sister conjured a phantom scent, deterring them from the chase.

Shortly later, another shape materialized from the mist. The broken remnants of a carriage lay by the roadside, a dead horse rotting slowly in the mist, savaged by some wild beast. The ornate carriage appeared to have been thoroughly looted; there were no signs of any occupants, though bloodstains and vicious claw-marks on the wood suggested a violent abduction.

Viridian inspected the claw marks and footprints carefully, and deduced that the assailants had been bipedal.

As the day drew to a close, the party entered Lutin, a small village of Lutin along the road to the de la Marche estate. An old stone wall, crumbling and moss-eaten, served as meagre protection for the tiny hamlet. There was an alehouse – the Goat’s Head – along with a handful of homes and craftsman’s workshops, as well as an old church dedicated to the Lady of the Mists, her sorrowful stone visage looking out across the town.

Working Title/Artist: Pirna: The Obertor from the South Department: European Paintings Culture/Period/Location: HB/TOA Date Code: Working Date: 1721-1780 photographed by mma in 1991, transparency 2 scanned by film & media 6/16/03 (phc)

The group rested here briefly, though Armand was determined to press on to his estate. He paid a brief visit to the town’s magistrate, informing him of the broken carriage, before ducking into the Goat’s Head – rather quiet, with only a few locals drinking the black brew of this region, or cups of the greyish wines made in the hills. The tavern-owner and barkeep was Rosy Maude – a stout, handsome woman with long red hair now streaked heavily with white. She greeted Armand warmly, but when he pressed her for word of his home, her expression grew dark.

“We haven’t seen anyone from Château de la Marche for a fortnight, which is strange,” she said. “Normally at least some of the servants, Old Hugh and Thibault, usually, come down to Lutin once a week at least, for food, drink, and other sundries. There’s been… well, I hate to speak ill of your family, sir, but there’s been some queer rumours of late.”

“No offense is taken, Maude,” Armand assured her. “What have you heard?”

“Well, there’s been tell of some sort of sickness among the staff. When Thibault was last down here, he was coughing terribly, and poor Hugh couldn’t make it out of bed. Said something about mould and bad air. There’s been word your mother ain’t full herself.

“And there’ve been… queer sounds in the night. Distant, mind you, but… strange. Voices heard in the hills, echoing. Whispers in the mist, which ain’t cleared for days and days. Once, a high squealing sound the like of which I’ve never heard made by man nor beast – woke the whole village. And sometimes a rumbling through the earth, like a tremor.”

“And then there’s Ankou,” an old man by the bar declared.

“Quiet, Reynard,” Maud chides.

“Ankou?” Caulis asked, curious.

“I seen him, up in the hills. Ankou, the soul-collector. Death’s henchman. A thin man, all in black, with a broad-brimmed hat. His voice is the scream of the damned. That’s what’s been wailing in the night. I saw him when I was driving my cart. He was up on a little hill, his back to me, but then his head turned round on his neck till he faced backwards. Gave me quite a fright he did!”

“Superstitious nonsense,” Maude declared.

Meanwhile, Sister and Viridian visited the local church. Though the Lengian was regarded with alarm and even terror by some of the locals, her careful questions soon put the local priestess at ease. They learned that the Lady of the Mists was a goddess protecting the region of Varoigne from harm from the outside world – though the region had more than its fair share of troubles, and the faith seemed to be dwindling, the church ill-attended. They also noted that some of the graves in the cemetary behind the church had been disturbed. Viridian examined them carefully, concluding that the same creatures that had attacked the carriage were likely responsible for the body-snatchings.

Troubled by these signs of dark doings, the party set out once more, hastening for the de la Marche estate. The sun sank low as they followed the path upwards into a series of misty hills. They glimpsed horned figures amongst the crags – alpine goats. They watched the party’s ascent with their horizontal-pupiled hircine gaze, unperturbed by their presence, but they made for an eerie welcoming party to this mist-shrouded place.

Then, briefly, another figure could be seen among the goats. At first they thought it was a goatherd, but then they saw its billowing black cloak, its masses of white, stringy hair, its eerie, broad hat shadowing a face that looks skeletal. White eyes roved in the bony visage’s sockets. The being carried a rusted scythe. No sooner had they glimpsed this macabre being than a bank of fog rolled in, obscuring it from sight.

“The Ankou…” Caulis muttered, as, at last, Château de la Marche came into view.

Chateau de la Marche-min

The estate looked decrepit – far worse than Armand remembered. The roof was missing tiles, and some of the windows were broken and boarded up. Attempts to repair the burned southeast wing were clearly abandoned, as it remained a charred shell. The lawn needed a cut and the gardens looked sickly, some of the bushes dead, others succumbing to blight.

In short, the house looked… dead. There weren’t any lights visible, nor any smoke from the chimneys… except, that is, for a ghastly red light in the chapel in the southwest wing.

“Something is very wrong,” Armand growled. “There should be servants here, to take our horses. Come, let’s stable them.”

Nothing awaited them in the stables – a conspicuous nothing. There were no horses here; all of the pens lay open.

Further investigation did reveal a number of hoof-marks and claw-marks on the wooden walls and doors, as well as some bloodstained hay. Something had snatched the horses.

“More troubling still,” Viridian said, touching the marks carefully. “The same creatures that disturbed the graves, and attacked the carriage, I’d say.”

Armand, now furious and intent, marched up to the door of his familial home.

On the steps leading up to the front doors, he saw a rock, weighing down what looked like a piece of parchment.

On the parchment was written:

Dearest Armand Percival Reginald Francois Eustace de la Marche III,

Since you paid my home a visit, I thought it only proper that I paid a visit to yours.

I shan’t do anything so gauche as to break your beautiful possessions, as only an uncouth brute might.

Nor would I ever be so ungallant as to roast your mother alive, as only a murderous wretch would.

Nor even would I exhibit such atrocious manners as to burn your estate to the ground, as only a mad and cretinous arsonist would dare!

I am, after all, still a gentleman of good breeding. Unlike some I could name.

No, no – I have a different fate in mind for the de la Marche estate and its denizens.

I may have plucked my own eyes from my sockets to please She Who Writhes in the Outer Darkness, but I have been watching you and your little friends all the same, and learning much of your doings, and of what you have done to my home and my family.. The Charnel Goddess has many servants – worms and rats and creeping insects– and those of us in Her favour know their secret speech, can see even see through their eyes when it pleases us. I know much about you, dear Armand. More, perhaps, than you know about yourself.

I was so charmed by the little gifts you have been sending to your mother – your dear, sweet mother.  It was a simple enough matter to provide her with one of my own, disguised as one of yours.

I do hope this little visit meets with your approval. I’m quite sure we’re going to have the most delicious fun!

Yours most sincerely,

Jasper Van Lurken

The letter was accompanied by a lock of hair that Armand recognized as his mother.

Armand carefully put the hair into a handkerchief and placed it in his pocket, then crumpled the note in his fist. He turned to the party, seething with a cold fury.

“He got away,” Armand snarled. “Jasper Van Lurken.”

“Who?” Viridian asked.

“A nobleman, although unworthy of that distinction. He corrupted his family, transformed them into vampiric monsters, servants of the Charnel Goddess. I thought I had burnt his filth from the city, but it seems he escaped.”

“The front door will be guarded,” Caulis reasoned. “Where should we enter?”

“We need to find my mother. Her safety is our priority. Come.” Armand led the way west, towards the Rose Garden. As a child, this was where he had spent most of his hours – the east wings of the house had mouldered, abandoned, after his father’s death and the family’s slow decline.

The party approached a servant’s door, leading into the block of rooms surrounding the Graden. A demonic visage had been scrawled on the door, crude but menacing – some sort of ward.

“Hmm, let me try something,” Sister said, and with a whispered prayer to the Mother of Spiders, she blinked to the other side of the door.

This antechamber beyond was filled with pictures of the de la Marche family, including a very prominent painting of Armand II fencing with an ornate duelling sabre. Crouching in one corner with its back to the door, hunched over the decaying remnants of what might once have been a person, was what remained of a woman in a maid’s uniform, her body weirdly elongated, her neck stretching with horrific flexion. She twisted round, staring with bulging eyes, sensing Sister’s presence, but the cleric had concealed herself in the shadows, her goddess weaving darkness like a web about her.

worm-thing

The Maid. Illustration by Caulis’ player, Bronwyn McIvor.

Sister carefully opened the door to the outside. The worm-thing twisted round and fled through an open door as the party stormed in. Armand led them through, fingers twitching, a spell hovering on his lips.

Beyond, a simple chamber once served as the servant’s common room. Its current use was far more macabre. Bodies were laid out on the long tables where servants once sat. They were clearly being prepared for some sort of necromantic ritual, as they had been stripped naked and mutilated, with sigils carved into their flesh.

“This way,” Armand said, pointing to a stairway leading upwards.

In this room, two paintings looked down upon them. One was a family portrait of Armand II, Helena, and the infant Armand III, all dressed in historical finery as a chivalric knight, a virtuous lady, and their child. The young Armand had a face which seems wiser than his chubby cheeks and infant curls might suggest. The second painting, however, looked newly hung – a picture of the Van Lurkens.

Annette Van Lurken was shown as a beautiful dark-haired girl of sixteen or seventeen, pale of complexion and dark-eyed, wearing a green dress and holding a small, three-headed pug dog, one of the cerberi bred by the alchemists of Caulchurch, next to her brother Jasper – a sallow, handsome but rather gaunt man of about nineteen, clad in a black doublet, a sly look in his eyes. He posed with a memento mori. Their parents, Leopold and Nicolet, sat to one side; Leopold a well-fed man with a cunning look, perhaps because of his neat, pointed beard and clever eyes, wearing colourful garments of purple and green and has short, greying curls; Nicolet, a stern-looking grey-haired woman whose once-great beauty had only been somewhat diminished by a lifetime of disapproving frowns and exasperated grimaces, wearing a luxurious burgundy dress.

From this portrait gallery, windows faced out upon the Rose Garden below, which filled the courtyard in the heart of the western half of the house. Beautiful in spring and summer, the roses were now dying, their decline facilitated by some sort of blight which had taken hold of the blooms. However, some new breed of roses appeared to be supplanting the old, still seeming healthy despite dropping temperatures. Grotesque black roses veined with red, their stems not green but vivid crimson, teemed amidst their etiolated cousins. At the innermost whorl of each flower, a tiny mouth cou;d be glimpsed, dilating hungrily.

Tending to these horrible vampiric blooms was a man Armand dimly recognized as the former gardener of the estate, Maynard – or, rather, what Maynard had become. A vast, swollen shape, inflated like an obscene balloon, Maynard was bloated with blood, his body transformed into a sac-like, vermiform shape. In place of his fingers were slender proboscises, mosquito-like, from which he periodically squirted blood, feeding the vampiric blooms. As they were fed the hematophagic flowers sighed contentedly; others, sensing an imminent feeding, moaned and muttered in ravenous anticipation. Maynard also carried a heavy sack, bloodstained and filled with human and animal body parts – limbs, organs, and other gore. He periodically removed some morsel from this bag and tossed it into the flower-patch, at which point the blood-drinking roses all converged, swivelling on eerily muscular stems to gorge themselves on the feast.

the gardener

The Gardener. Illustration by Caulis’ player, Bronwyn McIvor.

“Mother of Spiders, was that a person?” Sister said, horrified.

“We will deal with such abominations later,” Armand said. “Come, this way.” He led them deeper into the house, through another anteroom and a series of galleries, all luxurious but decayed, until they reached his mother’s apartments.

Helena’s sumptuous room had a massive four-posted bed and a side-table; it was in terrible disarray, as something had thoroughly ransacked the chamber.

A large armoire stood against one wall, adorned with images of armoured knights. The armoire had been locked and seemed to have been barricaded crudely, a halberd pushed through its handles. Something bumped loudly from within the armoire, as if straining to get out.

“Help me,” a strange, double-voice said from within the armoire. “I’m locked in here, help!” Armand raised an eyebrow.

“Who are you?”

“Jerome,” one voice said.

“Blaise,” said another.

“Damn,” the two voices said together.

“Aha…” Armand said, stepping back. “I think we’ll be leaving them be…”

A note lay on the floor, carefully folded, the precision of its placement belied by the panicked words scrawled upon it: “FIND YOUR FATHER.”

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