The characters in this session were:
- Yam, an eccentric gnome illusionist and local graduate student at Umbral University. Yam cares little for money. Yam is curious. Yam is Yam.
- Alabastor Quan, a gnome rogue-turned-illusionist and failed circus ringmaster; wielder of a cursed dagger and member of the Ravenswing Thieves’ Guild.
- An ancient and enigmatic Lengian cleric of the Mother of Spiders, name unknown. She wears bulky ecclesiastical garments covering an uncertain number of limbs and goes by “Sister.”
- Garvin Otherwise, a human rogue and burglar of the Ravenswing Thieves’ Guild, with a very, very peculiar past and a zoog pet, Lenore.
- Armand Percival Reginald Francois Eustace de la Marche III, a suspiciously pale, apparently human noble and sorcerer, and certainly not a ghoul (how dare such a thing be suggested).
XP Awarded: 600 XP
Armand and Garvin stepped through a portal into the grate control room of the Fever Lane Sewers – only to find their companions had vanished. What was more, a strange red bulb now glowed on the ceiling.
“What?” Garvin said, disoriented.
“I don’t remember seeing that.” Armand concurred. “Or that.” He pointed to some unusual graffiti in an unknown tongue on the brick wall of the room. After casting a spell he deciphered the markings. “Down with the Bloodsuckers.”
“Let’s have a look topside. I have a feeling… I have a feeling we may not be in the same Hex anymore.”
The pair made their way to the surface – through a manhole entrance that hadn’t existed before. They also noticed that the passage to the university catacombs had been bricked up.
This was not the Hex they knew. A huge, black cloud swirled overhead, swathing the city in darkness even at what seemed to me midday. Fat black dirigibles marked with strange heraldic signs picked out in crimson drifted through the sky like obscene flies.
“Are we in the future?” Armand mused. “Time accelerated somehow.”
“Maybe,” Garvin said. “You didn’t join the Arcady expedition, but this reminds me of that place… an alternate Hex.”
“Let’s talk to Melchior,” Armand suggested. “Or this reality’s Melchior, anyway. Maybe he’ll have some clue as to what happened.”
They made their way through the darkened streets of the Dreamer’s Quarter, and began to notice that the people were different here – cadaverous men and women in fine black lace garments, some of them obviously embalmed, were attended by branded living servants, some literally in chains. Black hansom carriages rattled by, more fanged, pale faces glimpsed within. People began looking askance at Garvin, though Armand seemed unnoticed.
“Act like my servant,” Armand urged.
“You know, be obsequious. Don’t lead.”
They approached the gates of Master Melchior’s School of Thaumaturgy & Enchantment – or, rather, what remained of it. Crumbling, pockmarked walls suggested some sort of battle. Instead of the griffin guardians, a pair of grim griffin skulls were mounted at the gate. And, of course, the school had a new name.
“MISTRESS WILHELMINA’S SCHOOL OF WITCHCRAFT & NECROMANCY,” Garvin read. “I think I have a theory. You know of Erubesence?”
“The vampire city. Yes.”
“In this reality, I think they may have conquered Hex.”
“Not a bad working theory.” Armand thought for a moment. “My house is nearby. Let’s investigate. See if that’s changed as well.”
“Alright, might as well.”
The two approached Armand’s townhouse in the Dreamers’ Quarter, not far from Melchior’s School, Garvin still posing as a servant of Armand. They found the house mostly unchanged, though in somewhat better repair, with a fresh coat of sombre-hued paint and a number of gargoyle additions. A light was on in one window. Garvin stealthily crept round a side-alley while Armand, imperious as always, approached the front door. Bernard, his servant answered.
“Sir… I hadn’t realized you were out,” the reanimated butler said, astonished, looking up the stairs towards the study door.
“Yes, well, please send up a pot of tea, Bernard,” Armand said, handing the butler his hat and striding boldly up the stairs.
Garvin, meanwhile, employed his magical Boots of Wall-Walking to sneak up the side of the house and watch events unfold from the window. He saw, hunched over a black wood desk, Armand – or, rather, another Armand. This Armand appeared somewhat bestial of visage, with hints of grotesque, monstrous, quasi-canine features emerging from his pallid, mask-like, classically handsome face. This Armand was feverishly writing something when the other Armand – the one Garvin knew – burst into the room.
“What?!” the second Armand snarled, leaping from his chair and drawing a rapier from his side. “Who are you, imposter!?”
“Who are you?” the first Armand retorted with equal ferocity.
“Is everything alright, master?” Bernard’s voice was audible from the stairs.
“Yes, we’re quite fine Bernard,” Armand shouted back. “Do bring the tea.”
“Do nothing of the sort, Bernard!” the second Armand yelled.
“Let me explain,” Armand said, rolling his eyes in exhausted irritation. “I’m fairly sure this is a reality parallel to my own. I’m you, from another world.”
“Poppycock,” the second Armand declared. “But… intriguing poppycock all the same.” He lowered his sword. “I shall give you a chance to explain, before gutting you…”
The strange conversation that unfolded led not to any gutting, but to an invitation, as the two Armands became acquainted with one another, the first convincing the second of his identity. Armand managed to piece together the major alterations that had occurred in this reality. They are not in the future but in an alternate timeline in which Erubescence conquered Hex after strategically transforming key political figures into vampires and inciting a series of revolts among the city’s ghoul population. After a brief and decisive battle, the city fell. The Citadel of the Perpetual Storm crashed, the Golem was sabotaged, the Warders compromised. The city’s waspfolk and fungoids were mostly exterminated. The dagonians and Lengians persevered, but retreated into their ghettos. Armand learned that a resistance thrived in the Old City, periodically raiding those above, collaborating with a few sympathetic undead. This world’s Armand, it seemed, had helped the vampires seize power.
After this eerie tête-à-tête concluded, Armand – the “original” – explored the house. He found a number of strange experiments involving cadavers in the greenhouse, or “meathouse,” as it seemed to have been renamed. The house was notably better furnished. He let Garvin in by a side door; the thief, skulking through the house, made off with a handsome-looking painting of the Battle of Hex, a panoramic view of the city falling to Erubescence. The two agreed that they should return to the portal soon. Garvin also stumbled into a reanimated gnome – one of the servants – who closely resembled Alabastor. The gnome silently left the pair with a revolutionary pamphlet; it seemed that even the undead help had been hijacked by resistance members, their magical instructions reprogrammed…
After a short rest, Armand and Garvin hurried back to the portal, hoping that it would return them to the Hex they knew. On his way, Garvin made a point of grabbing a newspaper from the gutter. He quickly scanned the society pages and noted that the Countess Erzsébet Scarrow was rumoured to be moving to Hex from Erubescence.
Meanwhile, in that very Hex, Alabastor, Sister, and Sprigley returned to the surface, Sprigley’s lungs wheezing from the poisonous Deathcap Forest. The warrior made his way to the Infernal Basilica for treatment. Meanwhile, Alabastor and Sister returned to Yam’s chambers in Mooncross, where Alabastor was staying. Here the found none other than Yam, in a state of considerable agitation.
“Uh, guys,” Yam said. “I could really use your help.”
Yam looked unusually pale.
“That’s ah… well,” Alabastor said, gesturing to himself and to Sister. The pair were bedraggled and filthy. Alabastor’s lower half was stained with blood from the place his leg had broken, and Sister’s robes were still half-sodden from her dip in the Lethe. Both reeked of the fungal miasmas of the Deathcap Forest, small mushrooms already sprouting on their torn, sweaty clothing. Their boots were caked with mud and dust. A hundred scrapes and bruises from their helter-skelter journey through the Cavern of Fear could be seen on their hands and faces. “We’re a little tired. Sort of in the middle something. We used this chalk we found to get back, but…”
“Oh, ah, okay, well…” Yam walked about the small room. “Yam beta will be fine for now… yeah… maybe you could help me later. My thing, it’s, well, it can wait, I guess.”
“We’d be happy to help,” Sister said. “But we’re close to getting the Book of Dreams. We’ve got a way of getting back down to the Old City, to the Egregor Vaults.”
Yam nodded. “I can come. Sure. I’ll help you guys and then you can help me. Deal?”
“Of course,” Alabastor said. “Mind if we rest here?”
“Sure, sure,” Yam said, sitting down on the bunkbed.
After cleaning themselves up and regaining their strength, Alabastor and Sister set off again for the portal, Yam now in tow.
Stepping through the portal in the sewers, the party emerged back atop the Plateau of Frozen Thought – only to bump into Armand and Garvin, emerging from a similar portal in their own reality. Somehow, it seemed, the portals created by the Portal Chalk could join timelines as well as physical spaces. The buildings of the Old City rose around them, protruding from the Plateau.
“Where’d you come from?” Garvin asked.
“Where’d you go?” Sister retorted.
“We’re not sure. Probably an alternate timeline. We’ll tell you all about it,” Armand said snootily.
“Uh, so, we’re after the book, right?” Yam chimed in, mapping-scroll ready.
“Yes,” Alabastor said. “But there were these things following us, Sister and I… our fears made real, or something.”
“Yes. They’re stalking us,” Sister said. “They don’t seem to be deterred by physical obstacles for long.” She looked down the spiraling steps leading into the Egregor Vaults.
“Maybe we should try and confront these things,” Alabastor suggested. “I don’t like the idea of them creeping up on us while we’re down there.”
“But no one can see them except for the one they’re stalking,” Sister pointed out.
“I have an idea for dealing with that,” Alabastor said. “Faerie fire should illuminate them.
“Let’s see if we can lure them down the stairs,” Sister suggested. The party agreed, cautiously descending into the depths of the Plateau of Frozen Thought and the Egregor Vaults below.
The vaults were cold, the stone not the glistening opulence of obsidian but matte-black ice, absorbing all light. It was the velvet darkness everyone knew in childhood, in the blackness of the pre-dawn hours, when the things your parents told you were only in your head prowled your bed. There was an alkaline smell, a faint clamminess. There were no joins in the stonework, although when illuminated, swirling dream-images could be glimpsed behind the surface of the walls.
At the bottom of the steps was an anteroom with several exits. Alabastor took out his magical dowsing rod and got a reading to the south, but as they waited, Sister heard chains rattling on the stairs behind them.
“It’s coming,” she said. “Get ready…”
“I have an idea,” Armand said, fetching several phials of alchemical liquid from his pouch. “I made these in the greenhouse. They should create a burst of intense euphoria. If these things feed on fear, or are somehow constituted by it…”
“Then maybe this will hurt them!” Sister said, taking a phial. She drank some of the contents, and immediately was filled with a feeling of transcendent bliss. “COME ON!” she shouted, racing up the stairs.
Halfway up, Sister and Alabastor were able to perceive their respective phantasms: the monstrous Cagehead, its chains writhing, obviously in pain, and behind it, the Snatcher, its bag now grotesquely swollen with fresh victims, struggling and rustling.
“There! There!” Sister yelled, and Alabastor cast faerie fire, instantly outlining both Cagehead and the Snatcher in iridescent magical flames. He then drank his own joy-potion, becoming filled with the same euphoric feeling as Sister. The Snatcher made a horrible keening wail and dropped its bad, fleeing rapidly on its hundreds of legs, scuttling back up the spiral staircase. The bag abruptly became visible to everyone.
Garvin, skulking in the shadows, fired a bolt from his hand crossbow, catching Cagehead in the chest. The creature groaned in pain. Yam conjured an acid splash, searing its flesh, while Armand burned it with a firebolt.
Sister, meanwhile, tried to concentrate on making the creature more physically present, focusing her willpower into fully materializing Cagehead, and on inflicting pain. The phantasm groaned and flickered into quasi-visibility for the rest of the party. Angered, Cagehead hurled its barbed net at Sister, snaring the Lengian, the wires cutting into her flesh. She wriggled free, bleeding from a hundred cuts. Garvin leapt forward, skewering Cagehead through the knee, causing it to fall to one knee. As it fell, hands emerged from the sack of the Snatcher and began dragging the sack forward and groping madly, several seizing Cagehead.
While Armand continued to bombard the thing with spells, Cagehead lashed at the hands with its chains. Sister rolled forwards and called on the Mother of Spiders to cast inflict light wounds, spreading necrosis through Cagehead’s body, spider-bites opening across its arms and torso. It slashed with its chains, catching her and wrenching her towards it. Sister ripped herself free, spattering the stairs with more Lengian blood. Yam, thinking quickly, used mage hand to trip Cagehead, knocking the creature fully prone.
Meanwhile, Alabastor cast eldritch blast, pushing Cagehead towards the sack. Hands reached from the Snatcher’s bag, pulling the phantasm in. Cagehead groaned and thrashed its chains. Its cage-door had opened, bones spilling from inside. The hands wrenched and clawed, and Cagehead was drawn inside the bag. Alabastor leapt forward and tried to cinch the bag shut, but a hand shot out, grasping his forearm, trying to pull him in. Garvin stabbed at the arm with his blade, and the hand retreated. Alabastor cinched the bag shut. It suddenly shrank in size, so that he could carry it more easily.
“Well, that went reasonably well,” Sister said, her wounds already closing, divine spider-webs stitching them shut. “One down, at least.”
“Mine looked scared,” Alabastor said. “I don’t think it’ll bother us for awhile.”
“Let’s get in and out of here,” Yam said. “Come on. I want to see what that magic was Alabastor’s stick found.”
Agreeing, the party headed south.
Yam’s map of the Egregor Vaults.
They entered a small room with two plain, wooden doors, one large and one small. Yam immediately opened the large door and stepped through. Simultaneously, the small door opened, and Yam emerged – or, rather, a tiny version of Yam emerged. Yam squeaked with delight and ran back through the small door, reappearing through the large door, back to normal size. Yam then put a fist through the small door – resulting in a huge hand emerging from the large door!
Clearly, the door could resize objects and people, with no noticeable negative effects in the process.
After much discussion, the party used the door to initially enlarge several flasks of healing potion in hopes of creating more of this substance. Garvin also urged Lenore through the small door; she emerged, now the size of a tiger, through the large door, and nuzzled Garvin affectionately. Yam jumped atop the zoog’s back, riding it like a horse.
This room explored, they next headed to the west, where the sound of music was faintly audible. They entered a room which looked like the inside of a toyshop. Hundreds of gnome-made clockwork toys lined the shelves here: windup dolls, kaleidoscopes, jack-in-the-boxes, stuffed animals, complicated boardgames, and other toys. It was essentially a child’s dream of riches – all the toys one could ever want. Several dolls were life-size or nearly-so, including an intricate wind-up ballerina. There were hundreds of toy soldiers – one an army of knights, the other an army of monstrous troll-like beings – arrayed on a table with miniature scenery.
The crowning jewel of the collection was a massive, incredibly ornate doll’s house. It was resplendent and baroque, although admittedly there was something a bit sinister about its grey, slightly peeling paint and its windows curtained with black. The dollhouse had a hinge and can be opened, although there appeared to be a locking mechanism.
Garvin also noticed a small music box. Opening the box did nothing, but there was a winding mechanism evident. Garvin wound the box a single crank and let it play. Instantly everything in the room – all the toys, but also clothing, weapons, and other objects, began to jolt to life, rustling and moving. The toy soldiers began slaying one another, the ballerina to dance, the animals to growl. Fortunately the effect was temporary and as the music stopped the objects became inert once more.
After picking the dollhouse’s lock, they party was able to look inside, seeing a cross-section of rooms with miniature people in them. They noted a kitchen where an massive, ogre-like chef attended by numerous impish assistants prepared a meal. There was a large dining room set for the feast. Other rooms included a foyer, parlour, master bedroom, bathroom, library, observatory, and what looked like a children’s bedroom with scribbled pictures on the walls. Everything within was inert. Closing the door, the party peered through the window in the kitchen, noting that the chef and his assistants appeared to animate once the house was whole.
“If we shrunk down we could enter the dollhouse,” Sister noted.
“Yeah!” Yam said. “Let’s do it!” Yam hurried back to the proportion portals. Eventually, the entire party shrunk down – all save for Armand, who refused, standing watch outside the dollhouse with Lenore.
The party crept through the foyer, eager to avoid attracting the attention of the cook. This room had three dark wooden doors and a large rug. Hanging on the walls were several paintings. These were landscape scenes depicting a farmhouse in a field surrounded by scarecrows, a log cabin next to a lake in the middle of the woods, and a ship on a fog-shrouded sea, mired in some sort of thick weeds. There were captions to the three paintings. They read (in order):
THE SCARECROWS ARE NOT WHAT THEY SEEM. BEWARE THE FALL OF NIGHT.
IT COMES FROM THE LAKE. ITS SECRETS WERE KEPT BY THE WOODSMAN.
THE WRACK MUST BE CONTAINED! DO NOT PERMIT ITS SPREAD!
Ignoring these for the time being, the group took the door on the right and hurried upstairs. They went first to the library, cozy room with shelves filled with thousands of books. The books all had the names of people on their spines. They were alphabetized carefully, but this room appeared to only have names from the first part of the alphabet. The books appeared to be records of individuals’ dreams, told in various narrative styles, with rich illustrations. There was also a mysterious door the party had not noticed before. Opening this, they found another room, this one with names from the next letter in the alphabet – with doors leading to yet more rooms, each dedicated to a new letter.
After investigating several individuals’ dream-books, Alabastor found his own book, and found within a record of his dreams – including illustrations of the Snatcher, which appeared to evolve over time, becoming more millipede-like after his time in the Whorl. Yam, curious, found Master Melchior’s book. Here were dreams of a utopian magical civilization, a perfect society freed from want through magic and science – and nightmares of a magical dystopia, of ruins and cities invaded by demons, of a world on fire or sunk beneath the waves, of reality itself unraveling.
“This… this feels wrong,” Yam said. “We shouldn’t be looking at this. It’s too private.” Yam carefully put the book back on the shelf.
“Let’s look at the observatory,” Garvin suggested. Here they found a number of star charts and an ornate telescope, both of which they took.
Finally, the group entered the children’s bedroom. This room was furnished with a small bed, a chest of drawers, and pictures pinned to the walls. When the dollhouse was open, these pictures appeared as simple scribbles, but now they were fully realized illustrations – very, very familiar illustrations.
Garvin’s childhood drawing.
Yam’s childhood drawing.
Armand’s childhood drawing.
Alabastor’s childhood drawing.
Sister’s childhood drawing.
Each of the adventurers recognized one of their own childhood drawings on the wall, exactly as they produced it. As they gawked at this bizarre occurrence, the door of the closet slowly creaked open.
Alabastor cautiously created an illusion of himself to peer in, testing to see if something would grab at him – but nothing appeared. Opening the door further, they saw a long, dark, wood-paneled corridor extending for some distance.
Looking out through the window, the party could see Armand, watching everything, still normal-sized.
“We’re going to explore this way,” Garvin said. “Maybe you should get small and come with us?”
“Fine, fine,” Armand agreed. He quickly returned to the portal chamber with Lenore and shrunk himself and the zoog, then hurried back to the dollhouse. As he entered the foyer a horrible smell reached his nostrils, and he could hear something in the darkness, stirring, seething, sloshing. He hastened up the steps and through the closet door, joining the others.
A whimper echoed down the passageway. It sounded like a child crying.
“Alabastor, try your dowsing rod,” Sister suggested.
“Alright,” Alabastor said, and, using the rod to guide them towards the most powerful source of magic, the group began moving through what they realized was a maze – an intricate profusion of identical branching passageways.
Yam’s map of the Maze, so far.
Slowly but surely they made their way deeper into the labyrinth. The occasional whimpers became louder.
At last the party reached a chamber at what seemed to be the heart of the maze.
Bones crunched underfoot – children’s bones.
Suspended from the ceiling of the room, chains lost in darkness, was a cage – a cage containing five children. Two were young gnomes, two appeared to be human, and one was a Lengian, freshly moulted.
Glaring at the children, orbiting the cage like a pair of obscene, demented balloons, were two grotesque, disembodied eyes that looked as if they had been ripped from the sockets of a giant. The eyes circled, malevolent and bloodshot, optic nerves trailing blood, claws and tentacles writhing from behind, their whites jaundiced and bloodshot, their irises a malignant red.
The adventurers realized, simultaneously, that they remembered this happening. They remembered this dream. The children in the cage – it was their younger selves, or some semblance of them.
The eyes rolled, swerved, circled. They fixed themselves malevolently on the adventurers. Garvin, quickly applying wyvern poison to a bolt, jumped up form behind a pile of bones and fired at the right eye, hitting it squarely in the sclera. Blood gushed as the poison spread. The eye, frenzied, fired a beam of fire at Garvin, which he nimbly dodged. Meanwhile Yam conjured an acid arrow; the caustic missile hit the left eye, eating away at it viciously. This eye swiveled and fired another energy-ray, this one at Yam; the gnome illusionist ducked aside. Armand sent a firebolt to the right eye, damaging it badly, while Alabastor used an eldritch blast to damage it further. A final bolt from Garvin destroyed the right eye, the monstrous orb deflating, blood spurting, till it crashed to the floor with a sickening splat, sending bones flying. Sister made for the cage, while Yam cast colour spray, blinding the eye. It roved wildly, firing off jets of fire, but Yam’s acid continued to eat it away. Blind, the eye bounced off the walls, melting, till it dissolved into a pile of acidic goop and red steam.
The group hurried to get the children down, picking the lock and lowering the young ones to the floor, to receive waiting hugs from an excited Yam.
“How are we going to get them back home?” Sister asked, picking up her younger self.
“I think I know the way we came,” a sullen, pallid child – young Armand – said.
“So, you’re me, huh?” the young Alabastor asked.
“Look’s like it,” the older gnome said, perhaps slightly disturbed.
“Let’s try retracing our steps,” Yam suggested, waving the map.
The group returned to the dollhouse entrance, noting along the way several disturbing footprints down a side-passage, as if the floor had been crushed underfoot. The children began to scurry through – and as each passed from the maze they faded, returning to their own times.
Young Garvin, however, hovered at the threshold.
“I was thinking I might stick around here for awhile,” he said.
“Don’t you want to go home?” young Yam asked.
“I don’t really have a home,” the orphan boy said, looking up at his older self knowingly.
“Hmm. Alright,” Garvin said. “Let’s try and use the Portal Chalk in here. See if we come out small…”
Sister obliged, and the group – including young Garvin – passed from the maze back into the sewers, apparently of normal size. The dream-conjured urchin remained quite solid.
“Well, that answers that,” the boy said.
Image Credits: “Old dollhouse in Musée alsacien, Strasbourg,” Christina T, Little Nightmares screenshot.