The characters in this session were:
- Yam, an eccentric gnome illusionist and local graduate student at Umbral University. Yam cares little for money. Yam is curious. Yam is Yam.
- Garvin Otherwise, a human rogue and burglar of the Ravenswing Thieves’ Guild, with a very, very peculiar past and a zoog pet, Lenore.
- Vespidae, a waspkin bard – a sacred dancer with a deathwish, shunned by the waspkin community for complicated ritualistic reasons. Now a follower of the Queen in Yellow.
- Armand Percival Reginald Francois Eustace de la Marche III, a suspiciously pale, apparently human noble and sorcerer, and certainly not a ghoul (how dare such a thing be suggested).
XP Awarded: 600 XP.
Two things brought the party to the house of the wealthy Van Lurken family, one of the elite merchant dynasties of Fanghill. Yam, on instructions from Umbral University, was to investigate the whereabouts of a promising young illusionist, Annette Van Lurken, who had not appeared for orientation. Garvin, on the other hand, was responding to information from the Ravenswing Thieves Guild. It seemed that the Van Lurken House had been abandoned, or so it looked from the outside, and the Guild wanted an enterprising young Fledgling like Garvin to see what valuables he could make off with – and it so happened that the Guild had both a map of the house and a set of keys to the doors within.
Garvin met his contact, Veronika Foxstalker, at the Witching Hour Alehouse. The gloomy interior of the tavern is familiar to every Guild-registered thief in Hex, as the place serves as the secret backdoor to the Midnight Market (at least it does currently; the door to the Market has shifted over the years). The barkeep, Mortimer Croak, was a grey, one-eyed presence behind the bar – an ex-thief who’s somehow managed to stay on the good side of every guild and gang in town. The grizzled old burglar was missing an alarming number of body parts, including his left foot, the pinky on his right hand, and his right eye, but he’d managed what few thieves in Hex pull off – comfortable retirement from crime. Garvin made his way to Veronika, a wiry woman with prematurely white hair – rumour claims it turned that way after a job-gone-wrong in Grey Hook. She slid over a map of the Van Lurken place – or at least its upper floors – as well as the key ring.
“This is what we’ve managed to get our hands on,” she said. “And it came dearly purchased. In fact, there’s a little more to the mission than we’d previously let on. You see, a while back we sent a team in to the Van Lurken place: three men, good thieves all of them. Only one came out, and he wasn’t right in the head. Shaking, raving about things ‘rustling in the walls’ and the ‘Unclean Chair,’ whatever that means. He wouldn’t speak about what he’d seen in there, but he had this map and key-ring with him. He… he stank, as well, smelled simply awful, and nothing we could do seemed to be able to get the reek out. A few days later he fell badly ill. We tried both magic and medicine but it didn’t take. When we found him dead… gods, I’ll never forget the stink, or the way he looked. It was like he’d been dead for weeks, he was so rotten. We burnt the remains.
“But that means there are two men unaccounted for, still inside. They’re most likely dead, but on the off chance they’re not, obviously you should try to get them out of there. And if they are dead, try to find their bodies – not to bury, but because they were carrying some valuable Ravenswing items with them. One had the gloves of thief’s sight, which lets the wearer glimpse what lies behind walls and doors. The other wore the boots of wall-walking, which let the wearer traverse walls and ceilings. The Guild would like both of these returned and will pay one thousand gold pieces for each.”
Garvin nodded, mulling the information over. “Is there any kind of automated security inside?”
“There may be a few automata, and the Van Lurkens did employ a house guard,” Veronika said. “But they haven’t been seen either. The servants are missing as well.”
After discussing a few more particulars Garvin took his leave and went to meet some of his companions at the Green Star to convey what he’d learned. The party then set out for Fanghill in the early evening.
The richest residential district in Hex is Fanghill, a place of gated mansions and opulent museums and well-tended parks. The district is built on the slopes of a great hill whose top commands an impressive view of the city. The Eyes patrolled the streets heavily, and many private guards could be seen as well at gates and walls, protecting the well-heeled nobles, scholars, merchants, and professionals who make their homes here. Unlike many parts of the city it remained well-lit at all times of day or night courtesy of magical lamps glowing with a soft effulgence.
The party quickly located the Van Lurken place. In contrast with some of the more fanciful houses in Fanghill – houses made to look like gigantic heads, mansions of Murkstone that shift and reshape themselves, and buildings whose dimensions should be impossible but which magic has granted a tenuous stability – the Van Lurken house was incredibly mundane: a three-storey house of solid construction, baroquely adorned but otherwise quite normal-looking.
The place was certainly dilapidated, though, the garden shriveled and dead, the paint faded. The windows were dark and shrouded with curtains, obscuring the interior. Armand and Yam both noted that the decay the house exhibited seemed preternaturally advanced. While Garvin investigated the servant’s entrance and the others kept watch, Armand briefly questioned a servant doing the washing next door, who confirmed that the house had been abandoned for some time, describing the occasional muffled and uncertain noise from within and noting that none of the guards or other servants had been seen leaving. She also noted that Jasper Van Lurken, a young man and heir to the Van Lurken fortune, had recently returned from a business trip.
Entering through the side door using the key supplied by the Ravenswing Thieves’ Guild, the party began their explorations in the servant’s quarters of the house. These were quite empty, though there were signs of struggle or hasty departure, perhaps interrupted – chests emptied, clothes and blankets strewn across the floor. Bloodstains mottled a wall in one of the chambers, though there were no sign of any bodies. A thorough search, however, turned up a loose floorboard under which was stashed an impressive quantity of jewellery, including a silver necklace set with obsidian, a sapphire ring, a bloodstone-encrusted hand mirror, and a pair of exquisite ruby earrings.
More evidence of violence could be found in the laundry room, which contained various buckets, presses, and other equipment for cleaning garments, including a mangle that had been put to a horrid use, evinced by the bloodstains and shards of bone clogging its rollers. Quantities of soap and other cleaning agents were stored here. More bloodstains marred the walls, including one curious stain which began on the ceiling and then wrapped around to the wall and out of the room. Puzzled and formulating theories, the party also checked the butler’s pantry, a dusty but untouched room full of expensive silverware, before heading into the front hall – eerily quiet save for the occasional mysterious rustling from within the walls. Apart from some confused footprints in the dust, there was no sign that anyone had been there for quite some time. Cobwebs shrouded the ceiling, and the walls were grimy and blotched with mould, filling the air with a musty stink.
A huge grandfather clock stood to one side, also swathed in cobwebs. Across from the clock was a large painting of the city of Hex, obviously painted from the vantage of Fanghill. In the foreground was a park scene with a picnicking family. Close inspection of the painting revealed a small, black cloud on the horizon made of small dots, like a swarm of insects. Yam noticed that this blotch seemed to be getting slowly larger while no one was looking. Leaving the painting for now, the party next moved to the kitchen. This room now absolutely swarmed with creeping vermin – maggots, flies, centipedes, cockroaches, and other bugs. The place was in disarray, pots and pans scattered everywhere, wood from the hearth strewn across the floor. There was a stairway in one corner, leading down into darkness. Erring on the side of caution, the party opted to leave the room undisturbed and proceeded into the dining room.
The dining room was laid out with gorgeous silverware and crystal. This fine cutlery was wasted on a spoiled feast – it looked like the pantry was emptied, but all the food was rotten, covered in mould and flies. Mixed in with the decomposing food were what looks like human body parts. At the head of the table was a macabre chair fashioned entirely from bones. Seated upon it, presiding over the table like a patriarch at a family meal, was a grotesquely swollen maggot-like creature with thin, vestigial arms and legs dangling from its bloated, pale body, shoveling morsels of carrion and decaying fruit into its mouth. The thing did not look up but continued to listlessly gorge itself with putrid sustenance.
Garvin noted a bowl on the table that did not seem to be tainted by the corruption. Angling themselves around the maggot-horror, the party debated a course of action. Vespidae, acting with typical insectile directness, attacked the creature with a javelin and it instantly leapt up, scattering plates and body parts as it surged towards the waspkin, who took to the air. Horrified and disgusted, Armand and Yam engaged the creature with spells, pelting it with balls of fire. Garvin retreated, avoiding the thing’s blows, and it turned, launching itself at Armand. Between them, however, the party was able to destroy the creature, engulfing it in arcane flames. Armand made sure to destroy the osseous chair completely while Garvin and Yam investigated the bowl, discovering that it bore a glyph from the city of Nornhold, a monastery-city of silent ascetics. Food touching the bowl seemed to be restored to ripe purity. Experimentally, Yam took the bowl back to the front hall, carefully cut the still-growing insect-swarm from it, and placed the scrap in the bowl. Magically, the dark blots on the painted canvas disappeared. At this moment, something could be heard, moving around upstairs. Tracking footprints in the dust, the party ascended to the next level.
They first investigated a large games room decorated with the heads of beasts hunted in the nearby Tangle: hippogriffs, owlbears, wild boar, and even a wyvern. A large musket also hung on one wall, a heavy crossbow on another, and a spear on a third. Also on one wall was a huge painting of a hunting scene in the Tangle, depicting several of the Van Lurken ancestors and their hounds. The painter had included several clever details, including some small fairies hiding in the underbrush and twisted tree-branches, and an enchanted pool reflecting some of the mortal hunters as otherworldly, elfin figures.
In the middle of the room was a billiards table spattered with blood: a corpse sprawled on the table amidst the billiard balls, his neck ripped open. His stiff fingers still clutched a broken pool cue, which was curious, since he was also armed with a short sword and hand crossbow. Judging from his dark clothing and half-mask he was a burglar of some description. Close inspection of the corpse revealed a Thief’s Mark and a Ravenswing broach, as well as the gloves of thief’s sight, which Garvin carefully took. These could be used to look through walls and doors to see what lay beyond, enabling the thief to scout the next chambers.
Noting the pool cue, Yam immediately surmised the possibility of vampires and took the improvised stake.
Next the party went to the music room, a beautifully furnished, baroquely decorated chamber filled with instruments – a flute, dulcian, chalumeau, violin, bass viol, viola pomposa, hurdy gurdy, sackbut, and harpsichord. The instruments were beautifully enamelled and made from precious metals and exotic wood. The party helped themselves to several, but avoided the macabre-looking instrumments placed amongst them: a flute fashioned from a human femur covered in abstract etchings, and a set of drums made from two bisected human skulls whose open tops were covered in flayed human skin. Armand, disgusted and alarmed by these objects, broke them apart and burnt them with fire bolts.
Yam’s player’s annotations.
Garvin used his newly acquired gloves to investigate the portrait gallery, but recoiled from a scene of dismemberment and death.
“Let’s just avoid that room,” he said, and moved on to the study, noting its large window, ornate writing desk strewn with papers, and numerous bookshelves.
On one wall was a map of the city of Hex, while on the other sprawled a map of the known world, including the nearby lands of New Ulthar, Nornhold, Sempiternia, Teratopolis, Tetractys, Verdigris, and Erubescence, and other places more distant: the city-states and kingdoms such as the Vassen Empire, Blodvinter, Purulence, Ganglion, Finchport, and Xell. The map even included more mysterious realms such as the distant continent to the east across the Blushing Ocean and the Entropic Wastes to the south.
The study also included a large bust of Master Melchior, famed enchanter, archmage, founder and still-living president of Master Melchior’s School of Thaumaturgy & Enchantment, and another bust of Keziah Elderwold, founder of the Metamorphic Scholarium and Mother of Modern Alchemy. The two busts stared at one another from either side of the room.
The party first investigated the papers on the desk, which proved to be the diary of Leopold Van Lurken.
Mazeday, 10th of the Month of Crones
Jasper set out for Erubescence today. Nicolet is fretting, of course, but the boy is old enough to begin taking an active hand in the business, and now that things have settled down between Hex and the Crimson Lands the time is ripe for trade. The Sanguine Lords and Ladies have skill in necromancy to rival the finest of the Académie Macabre, but they lack technological know-how – they’ve relied so long on undead labour they’re centuries behind the things gnomes are building now in Hex. Between that and the Sap we should make a fortune. I’m sure Jasper is fit for the job, and besides, there’ll be plenty of more experienced men with him.
Here at home, Annette has sent off her application to Umbral University. She’s tried her hand at a few cantrips to great effect. She’ll make a skilled illusionist, even if I would have preferred if she’d chosen Master Melchior’s School of Thaumaturgy & Enchantment or the Metamorphic Scholarium, even Fiend’s College… something useful. Illusion is just so frivolous! I suppose it makes a good school for a daughter on the marriage market, however – not that we’re in any urgent need of a match. I expect that every penniless noble for leagues will be battering down our door soon enough in hopes of getting their manicured fingers on our money.
Goatday, 16th of the Month of Snails
Jasper returned today after some weeks in Erubescence, and is full of strange tales: of the Bone Giants and the Tower of Teeth, of the Nurseries and the Grey Matrons, of the Blood Church and its great rival, the Cult of the Pallid Worm, who finds some small favour here in the guise of Mordiggia, the Charnel Goddess. He has brought back with him much gold, and contracts for further trade signed with various nobles and merchants in the Crimson Lands, and objects also, for sale here in Hex. These include a number of mysterious crates which he has insisted we store in our own cellars – Jasper claims the contents are far too valuable to leave in our warehouse in the Swelter.
The boy seems invigorated by his journey and full of an almost feverish excitement, though truth be told he is somewhat pale and thin of cheek; this is, perhaps, no surprise given the shroud of darkness that prevails over much of Erubescence, conjured by the Sanguine Lords and Ladies so they may walk freely even at noon, when their kind would normally be turned to ash. Still, I dislike the wild look in his eyes, or the curious, twitchy way he has taken to fidgeting…
Meanwhile, a pair of Nicolet’s earrings seem to have gone missing. She suspects the maid, Miranda, claiming to have found her once in the midst of trying on a necklace. Miranda claimed to have simply been cleaning the piece. I have had Geoffrey search the house, including the servant’s quarters, but he has turned up nothing. If Miranda did steal the earrings she must have already sold them, but without evidence I cannot bring myself to dismiss her.
Scaleday, 22nd of the Month of Snails
I fear for poor Jasper’s health! The boy seems averse to sunlight and has acquired an unhealthy pallor. Were he not quite free of bite-marks, happy to eat garlic, and perfectly visible in mirrors I would think him stricken with vampirism, courtesy of some Erubescent un-dead. He now spends all of his hours either cooped up in his room or else down in the basement gazing on the artefacts he has amassed, most particularly a large and singularly hideous stone idol dedicated to the Pallid Worm. I do quite understand his obsession with the outré and bizarre: after all, I myself possess a cabinet of curiosities filled with treasures from half a hundred lands, gleaned through years of meticulous collection, and have spent hours gazing on such oddities as the Instant Maze or the skeleton of a zoog, or speaking with the curious stone-elemental Gabbro, who walked the earth as a giant many aeons past and now, through the slow action of wind and rain, has dwindled to the size of a pebble. I’m sure, one day, he will have his own collection of such items. But still, it is unhealthy to spend so much time in the damp and dark – mould will get into his lungs and only worsen the queer hacking cough he seems to have developed.
Annette has been accepted to Umbral University and has already begun experimenting with more advanced spells – she even ensorcelled the mirror in her room, so that it could change your reflection, making it wear different clothes or altering your hair. And I dared think illusion-magic frivolous! Can you imagine what blushing young ladies and vain dandies would pay for such an object?! There are more than enough such folk in Fanghill. We could make our fortune over again, selling such things.
On the domestic front, Nicolet is concerned that the house has developed an infestation of some sort – perhaps some animal has died in the walls? The cook found an alarming number of cockroaches in the pantry, and only this evening I discovered a maggot in my mutton! I quite lost my appetite.
Mossday, 3rd of the Month of Blushes
The physiker, the alchemist, and a priestess of the Magistra have all been by the house, but none can do anything for poor Jasper, and Nicolet is starting to panic. Neither spell nor prayer nor vigorous leeching nor medicinal potion has had any effect on him, and he retains an increasingly ghastly pallor – he looks like one of those horrible, degenerate ghouls one sees lurking in Shambleside, and his skin has a slick, slimy texture, as from a fever. He babbles strangely, keeping us awake late and night with gibberish chants, and often refuses to open his eyes, but bumbles about the house with them closed, his hands wrapped about his body. It is most strange. His room has taken on a rank stench, even with frequent cleaning, and seems infested even more thickly with the vermin that now plague the house in distressing numbers. And, of course, we still find him sneaking down to the cellars, despite having locked the door – he must be stealing the key. I must make arrangements to remove the thing from the house.
I fear some strange madness has taken him, a sickness contracted in the Crimson Lands. If he does not improve soon the authorities may well come knocking, to put the boy in Catch-All! I would not let such a fate befall him, for even the thought of that pestilential slum makes my skin crawl with horror, but to escape the Plague District he may need to be smuggled out of the city – perhaps sent to one of the sanitaria in the mountains, or some quiet place in the country.
The whole house has taken on a horrid gloominess in light of Jasper’s condition – the shadows denser, the light dimmer. Mildew and mould seem to be spreading up from the basement. Paintings that once were bright now seem grim, the faces of portraits ill-favoured. Even the grandfather clock, chiming in the front hall, seems to groan with an unhealthy sound, as if the mechanism itself were taken ill. There is a queer rustling sound in the walls. Even Annette seems subdued. I only pray she has not contracted whatever sickness plagues my eldest son. More than once Jasper has been found out of bed, lingering at his sister’s door in a way that is most disquieting, his eyelids squeezed shut, his clammy hands pawing at the door.
Starday, 12th of the Month of Blushes
Gods preserve me… I have locked myself here in the study, but fear I will not live out the night – or if I do, I shall not be unchanged. There are things which creep under the door, even now. There is no escape, unless perhaps I risk leaping from the window. I can hear the servants screaming elsewhere on this floor, as Jasper and Annette wreak their blood havoc. I scarce recognized her, nor Jasper either – for what stood before me, smeared in blood, was not my son, but some awful white eyeless thing, spewing blasphemous prayers to an unclean goddess. Whatever he touched began to decay, maggots bursting forth from furnishings and floorboards at his touch. Great tides of writhing worms and beetles and flies swarmed through the halls and filled the mouths and bodies of the servants, making them into grotesque puppets.
There are chittering sounds coming from outside the door, and somewhere a flute is playing a shrill and malignant tune. I pray only that Nicolet is spared, and that when the corruption that has taken this place is discovered it will be rooted out and expunged. Should anyone find this journal, I plead with you – kill whatever it is that I have become, and my children as well, and burn this house to the ground. Whatever evil has seized this place, it must not spread!
Next the group began investigating the bookshelves and busts in search of a trigger for the secret door implied by the map, eventually discovering that the eyes of the two busts were buttons which could be depressed. When Melchior and Keziah seemed to be winking at one another, a bookshelf swung open, revealing the cabinet of wonders beyond.
Behind the secret door lay a small room in which all manner of strange objects were jammed. These ranged from the merely odd to the fabulously strange, even by the standards of Hex. These objects included:
- A stuffed wyvern hatchling.
- A medusa’s death-mask.
- A perfectly reproduced miniature model of Hex that had been enchanted to include illusions of tiny little people moving about in the streets and in and out of buildings.
- A Lengian skull.
- A zoog skeleton.
- A puzzle box engraved with maze-like symbols.
- A small painting of a Vegetable Lamb.
- A gnomish automaton soldier approximately 1 foot tall.
- A gnomish automaton angel approximately 1 foot tall that, when wound up, offers patronizing sermons in the name of the Magistra.
- A bottle of greyish-green liquid, the bubbles of which contain weird, surreal visions of strange landscapes, as well as scenes of everyday life.
- Six eyeballs of indeterminate species floating in liquid.
- A minotaur horn.
- A beautifully realistic child’s doll of ambiguous sex. The doll had a minor enchantment: when the drawstring on its back is pulled it temporarily assumed the semblance of a real child.
- A dark blue rhomboid stone.
- A shrunken cat’s head.
- A letter of some kind.
- An orchid made entirely out of pink crystal.
- A potion of gaseous form.
- A flask of endless coffee.
- A miniature shovel large enough for a gnome or a small child.
- A tiny cosmological model made of intricate clockwork showing speculative locations of the Dreamlands, the Underworld, Faerie, Anathema, and the mortal plane.
- A tiny potted plant that produces small, multi-coloured berries
- A small, green fish in a glass bowl.
- A Librarian Voidcraft in a bottle modeled on the vessel glimpsed through powerful telescopes at the edge of the solar system.
- A gently snoring stone which is in fact a minor earth elemental, as the party discovered, called Gabbro.
- A porcelain mask.
- An ornate pocket-watch engraved with the letter “A” on the back.
After rifling greedily through these riches and plundering the cabinet thoroughly the party heard something approaching from down below – an eerie skittering, slithering noise. Garvin crept quickly and stealthily through the corridors while the rest of the party remained near the study. The thief was first to spy the source of the noise: a flushed, fleshy creature creeping up the stairs out of the gloom on limbs that seemed inadequate for its corpulent, worm-like bulk. Bloated and blotched with pink, the monstrosity was clad in the tattered remnants of what might have been a finely-tailored dress, twisted round its sinuous body. Its neckless face had vestigial features, though its mouth remains rather horribly humanoid, with full, red, womanly lips and pointed white fangs. A few patches of long, dark hair sprouted from the creature’s scalp. The thing seemed mostly blind but remained cognizant of the world around it. The remains of the snapped-off pool cue protruded from its body.
Still concealed, Garvin crept through the corridors of the house and fired at the horror, but his bolt embedded itself in the thing’s bulk to little noticeable effect. The monstrosuty surged towards the rest of the party and a fierce battle ensued, Vespidae hurling javelins and performing waspkin battle-dances while Yam and Armand desperately assailed the monster with acid and fire spells, the latter of which proved highly effective. Garvin, firing more bolts, was scratched by one of the monstrosity’s clawed appendages, a terrible wound that tore through leather and flesh. Blood pouring from this great tear, he slipped into unconsciousness while Vespidae, in desperation, cast dissonant whispers, causing the worm-like creature to flee – not down the passage but by burrowing down through the sagging, rotten floorboards. It dropped nimbly to the floor of the front hall below, where Armand and Yam continued their arcane bombardment from above. Engulfed in flame, the creature shrieked and withered, shrinking and shrivelling to assume the form of a young woman, scorched and unconscious. Yam, surmising that this was likely Annette Van Lurken, hurried down to the front hall and thrust the remains of pool cue through her heart. Annette vomited up copious quantities of blood and lay still. At Yam’s urging she was locked in the butler’s pantry, the gnome reasoning that she might be revived later by Umbral University, and perhaps even restored to life.
“We should burn this place down,” Armand said. “Like the diary said.” The effete sorcerer was clearly perturbed by the house.
“Not yet,” Garvin said. “There’s still the other thief. Let’s try the third floor.”
Exploration of the third floor was brief, preceded by careful scouting using the gloves of thief’s sight to look through the ceiling. The party quickly located a man who might be the thief in question, seemingly suspended from the ceiling in the guest room. Ignoring the nursery, the group briefly ventured into Annette’s room, a bedchamber with a large makeup table and several boxes containing jewellery – necklaces, earrings, and other adornments. There was also a wardrobe, open, revealing many beautiful dresses, a resplendent four-poster bed with silk sheets, and a large mirror, which the party very wisely avoided looking into. Seizing a few oddments of jewellery and a wand lying on the makeup table, the party next entered the guest chamber, a simple room with modest decorations. Seemingly suspended from the ceiling was a man in dark, bloodstained clothing and cloak, which somehow was not dangling towards the floor but remained swathed around him. The man stood stock-still and deathly pale, but his eyes were open and his breathing shallow. His neck had been savaged nastily and was scabbed with dozens of ugly puncture-wounds. There was one window here, but a glyph was scrawled upon it in blood, indicating an arcane lock.
After supplying the thief with a potion of healing and helping him down, the party learned his name was Felix Stonemouth, and that he ahd been imprisoned in the chamber for some days or perhaps weeks, being slowly drained dry by Annette.
As the party prepared to leave the house, a buzzing became audible from the master bedchamber – a horrible whining, droning sound, as of some monstrous insect. Hastening down the stairs, the adventurers glimpsed a single dainty, hairy leg pick its way out of the bedchamber doors. With a shudder the party hurried onwards, withdrawing down the stairs and through the front hall, out into the cold, starless night, Yam making sure to retrieve the comatose, staked body of Annette Van Lurken. Once safely outside Armand lit the house ablaze with a series of fire bolts. As the place burned, Vespidae took to the sky and uttered a prayer to the Queen in Yellow, asking that the goddess receive the artworks consumed in the conflagration as a sacrifice. Whatever lay below in the still-unexplored cellar would be trapped beneath the burnt wreckage of the house…
Images: Thief concept art, Manfredo Settala’s cabinet of curiosities, from “Museo o Galeria,” Ben Templesmith’s 30 Days of Night cover, still from Dark Shadows.