The characters in this session were:
- Alabastor Quan, a gnome rogue 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).
- Bjorn, a gnome bard, a former industrial worker in the Boiling and a somewhat deranged inventor of clockwork instruments; in posession of demoniac bagpipes.
- Caulis, a homunculus warlock liberated from its master; has made a pact with certain Faerie Powers.
- Garvin Otherwise, a human rogue and burglar, also 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.
XP Awarded: 100 XP.
To live in Hex is to live in want of money – be you a student up to her eyes in debts, a contract lecturer living hand to mouth in dim hope of tenure, a profligate gambler left penniless from the chance-halls of Groanwell, or one of the city’s numberless poor simply trying to survive. So, when a well-funded Professor of Transmogrification offered handsomely paid work for those willing to take risks and get their hands dirty, it didn’t take long for a roster of suitable would-be adventurers to appear.
The party was instructed to meet this Professor – Valdemar Sluice, Doctor of Magical Philosophy – at his laboratory in Caulchurch, the Alchemist’s Ward. In the depths of the district the air was smoky, thick with glutinous wafts of acrid, headache-making vapour. Street-sellers hawked crude gas-masks and goggles, purchased with gratitude at exorbitant price by those coughing, weeping passersby who don’t already possess such equipment. Signs alerted those who eschew such protective measures that they inhaled the fumes of Caulchurch at their own risk, warning of unpredictable magical effects.
The door to Sluice’s laboratory was unlocked. Within was a huge chamber with a soaring ceiling. The remnants of ecclesiastical murals were still visible like flaking ghosts beneath a patina of soot, stains, and complicated charts showing everything from the movements of the stars to alchemical formulae to vivisected bodies. Several bookshelves were crammed into niches that might have held prayer-books or relics. Elaborately interconnected glassware bubbled and seethed on a series of long, finely carved tables, spattered with acid-burns. The apparatus was tended by a solitary homunculus in a somewhat ragged apron.
A small fruit-tree was growing out of the floor where an altar might have stood, a tall window of stained orange glass giving it sun, a miniature rain-cloud periodically watering it. The tree seemed like a mundane orange tree. Then, suddenly, the stained glass window shifted in colour, becoming red. The tree shivered slightly, and the plump oranges amidst its branches incarnadined, becoming apples instead.
Presiding over the laboratory from a small levitating armchair was Professor Sluice, a thin-limbed man with massive spectacles, scrutinizing the bubbling substances below and making notes in a large book. He wore a richly embroidered but rather tattered waistcoat and a yellowing shirt, giving him the air of a well-heeled but rather distracted gentleman. A great shock of dark hair shot through with grey erupted from his head. As the party entered, his floating chair swiveled; he adjusted his spectacles, and directed his chair to settle behind a large desk strewn with papers and books. After introductions, Sluice launched into his explanation of the job.
“The job is relatively simple, really,” Professor Sluice said with a shrug. “Well, in theory. Please, listen carefully, and keep your questions till the end.” He adopted the pedantic tones of a lecturer.
“You see, there’s an artefact down in the Old City I’d like to get my hands on – the Viridescent Tablet, a text much-alluded to by other works of the Librarians, and said to contain within it knowledge of disease, decay and corruption. I believe I can use this Tablet in my research into the panchrest – an elixir capable of curing any illness. Imagine we could reverse the processes of decomposition, could conquer time itself and spit in the eye of sickness… we could bring relief to those poor wretches suffering in Catch-All, perhaps even undo some of the damage we dealt to Teratopolis.
“Through long and meticulous researches I have at last pinpointed what I believe is the location of the Viridescent Tablet. The Old City, you see, possesses many hidden chambers, rooms and passages snarled in an impossible skein of paraphysical existence. We have been here for centuries, but we have only scratched the surface of the Library. There are vast spaces, enormous halls containing knowledge undreamt-of, lying beneath our feet, so close and yet beyond our grasp…” He shook his head.
“Anyway. As I said, I have found the resting place of the Viridescent Tablet. I think the Tablet is being kept in a part of the Old City somewhere beneath Shambleside and Corvid Commons – more specifically, in the tunnels below Gloaming Street. You’ll have to find your way to the sewers beneath the street, and from there into the Old City.
“Once you’re in the Old City you’ll be searching for a place called the Whorl – a single corridor that seems to be spiralling into itself forever, impossibly. I believe, however, that the Whorl is actually a kind of gateway, or secret passage, placed by the Librarians to protect the Viridescent Tablet. I am unsure how, exactly, the Whorl can be navigated, but my researches suggest that it is as much a mental as physical impediment – a kind of psychic lock. If you can find a way to open it, the Whorl should deposit you at the resting place of the Viridescent Tablet. In theory, at least…
“The tablet should be safe enough to handle, though I might recommend the use of gloves. I would also strongly advise against reading anything you see upon it, or even looking too long at its glyphs. Now.” Professor Sluice sifts through his papers and slides a sheaf tied with a black ribbon across the desk. “I have procured a few rough maps to aid you in your search, and added some sketches based on my research concerning the location of the Tablet.”
Sluice gifted the party with healing potions (which turned out to have some unusual side-effects) as well as some rough maps of the area in question. He told them that the Tablet was held somewhere in the Old City tunnels deep beneath Shambleside, one of the city’s necromantic districts, and that it was protected by something called the “Whorl,” a kind of “psychic lock.”
After purchasing some gasmasks to protect themselves from sewer-miasmas the party set out, taking a water taxi across the Radula to Stumpridge and making their way south to Corvid Commons – a crime-ridden slum in the southeast of Hex.
Crabbed roofs jutted overhead; drunkenly leaning walls of crumbling stone and rotting wood and lichen-infested brick crowded close. Most of these were rambling tenements or tiny, wretched bars with unwholesome names like the Clock & Cleaver, the Flayed Gnome, the Bloated Flea, and the Lady with the Bloodstained Fan.
These filthy little drinking holes were interspersed with a handful of shadetea houses and other drug-dens perfuming the streets with their narcotic smoke, as well as the odd pawnshop or knife-vendor. The buildings were stacked madly atop one another, held together with chipping plaster and broken planks. In places they enclose the streets entirely, forming gloomy tunnels.
Faded posters and chaotic graffiti mottled every surface: gang signs, territorial markers, wanted posters, threats, pornography, subversive political slogans. Narrow streets and twisted alleyways wound into fetid darkness in such fecund profusion they seem like living things, coiling and breeding in the grimy depths of the district, spawning fresh litters of side-streets.
Though Garvin, Vespidae, and Alabastor were stealthy enough to slink through the district surreptitiously, the well-dressed popinjay Armand attracted the attention of a group of toughs affiliated with the Crowsbeak Thieves’ Guild who accosted the party-members demanding valuables. Skillful haggling and a silvered tongue managed to reduce the “toll” by a sizeable amount and the party continued to Gloaming Street. After scrutinizing their map and asking around about the best way into the sewers they settled on the Phantom Queen tavern, which, they learned, is built atop a casino in the undercity, the Rat & Roach, and provides access to the tunnels below. Vespidae managed to smuggle the party’s weapons into the tavern by flying to an open window, aided by an Unseen Servant carrying parts of the arsenal, while Alabastor distracted the bouncers with showmanship and legedermain. The rest of the party entered and discretely retrieved their weapons from the sly waspkin. Here they discovered the reason for the tavern’s name.
Inside, a mixed crowd of humans, ghouls, and a few other species caroused in a room smelling of blood, rotgut, and sweat. More than a few of the patrons sported tattoos telling of criminal affiliations. The furnishings were crafted from bones, and some of the servers are reanimated skeletons or shuffling revenants. The barkeep proved to be a huge, jolly woman with a crude crown sitting lopsided on her head, her ectoplasmic flesh translucent – a ghost, haunting the bar she tends.
After heading down a rickety elevator into the Rat & Roach – those with Thieves’ Marks were able to enter freely, while others either forged the mark or posed as retainers – the party made their way through a series of subterannean streets. Here they found a community of ghouls and scavengers eking out a filthy, troglodytic existence, subsiting on the effluvial provender of the sewers.
The party then set out into the sewers, donning their gasmasks. Lenore, Garvin’s zoog, used its luminous eyes to light the way, sparing the party the need to kindle flames – with so many flammable gases around, torches would be perilous. Armand also provided magical light. Hoping to avoid “Wicked Peggy’s Domain” – some of the party had heard rumours of the cannibal hag and bogeywoman of Shambleside, Wicked Peggy – the party made their way south through the tunnels, eventually disovering a flooded tunnel that, according to their map, should lead to the Old City. They also discovered a body floating in the canal, with two puncture marks in its neck.
Searching for a means of draining the tunnel, the party made their way deeper into the fetid darkness, coming to an area beneath the gruesome reanimation factories above. Here they discovered a series of shafts in which rejected corpses are hurled from above.
A dirty, slanting shaft in the ceiling gaped above a pile of rotting corpses heaped before the party, all of them malformed in some way: corpses badly mangled or dismembered, burnt or broken-boned, or simply misshapen. The cadaverous heap swarmed with maggots, flies, and rats. A few of the corpses were partially tattooed with glyphs, though some look as if the tattooist made a mistake of some kind.
A rumbling sound from above could be heard when the party neared the shaft, and another body slid down to join its decomposing fellows below with a sickening smack. This one seemed to have been abandoned part-way through the reanimation process, its skin still slick with eldritch ink. It moaned dully in vacuous confusion and twitched a single working arm…
Hastening on from this macabre heap the party investigated the various store-rooms and maintenance chambers. They discovered some embalming fluid, to which they helped themselves, but were disturbed to find a quantity of thread and several sets of rusting scissors.
As they at last turned the valve to drain the tunnel in question of sewage, they heard the unmistakable sound of something moving nearby – and the eerie metallic rasp of scissors, opening and closing. Alarmed by this sound, they rapidly made their way towards the previously flooded tunnel, Alabastor casting a minor illusion to distract whatever was closing in as the party made their way down the now-drained shaft.
At the end of the tunnel the party discovered a sealed entrance to the Old City, which through arcane insight the homuncular warlock Caulis was able to open. After perusing several thoroughly looted archive chambers within the echoing enormity of the Library the party located the Whorl, a seemingly endless spiral passage winding perpetually and impossibly in on itself. Attempting to leave the way they came proved fruitless: the Whorl extended in all directions, trapping them in its endlessness. The party also tried walking backwards, again to no effect. Experiments with rope, slung between characters, proved more confusing than conclusive.
Caulis, with the aid of Armand and several others, began studying the ancient glyphs inscribed on the walls. The glyphs turened out to be a kind of metaphysical treatise insisting that time and space do not exist as differentiated concepts and events do not occur in a sequence. But because of consciousness, we perceive reality as animals existing at a finite point in space and time, a kind of subjective illusion. The author ultimately seemed to resist pure solipsism, claiming that the world-in-itself cannot be fathomed by material intelligences. Puzzled and annoyed by this crypticism, they continued their search, discovering a series of spirals scrawled on the walls, then a skeleton – judging from the bullet hole in its skull and the pistol clutched in its bony hand, a suicide. Vespidae decided to take the pistol for herself.
Searching the body produced a diary, the mouldering pages of which the party examined with mounting horror. The diary detailed a doomed expedition that became lost in the Whorl; its members seemed to include Alexander, a youth of good birth who became obssessed with the spiral shape of the Whorl, and Xavier, who disappeared during the journey.
“Mossday, 3rd of the Month of Murmurs
The date above is based only on the revolutions of my pocketwatch, which I no longer trust. Such fickle concepts as time no longer seem reliable in this wretched place. It would be one thing if we were trapped in a maze, but this is infinitely worse – there is simply no way out. We have tried walking forwards, backwards, tried separating and walking in different directions… nothing. Ever inwards the spiral twists, but we grow no closer to the center! It defies all laws of physics & paraphysics of which I am aware.
I am worried about Xavier. A steady diet of this strange lichen has left him weak and somewhat crazed-looking. Alexander seems more robust physically, being a boy of but two-and-twenty, but he fiddles queerly with that signet ring of his, and I have caught him drawing spirals in the dust when we camp and he thinks no one is looking.
I am not a claustrophobic man by nature, but this place is unbearable. I wake and sleep and wake and see the same walls, the same unwholesome markings, the same eerie grey & tasteless lichen, hear only the drip of water and the panicked heartbeats of my companions. I think, sometimes, that we must have left the Old City altogether and stumbled into some diabolical circle of Hell, that our souls are trapped here for eternity as punishment for our sins.
Magistra preserve us… I must not think such things, or I will lose what meagre shreds of sanity I still possess.
Scaleday, 7th of the Month of Murmurs
Our condition worsens. Alexander has given up all pretence and now scratches spirals on the walls with his little dagger, and stares at us quite disconcertingly if we object, saying nothing. Xavier has become increasingly close-mouthed. He goes for hours without speaking, and sometimes, when walking, I see him closing his eyes, wandering with one hand touching the wall, to keep his balance. It is as if he is trying to live a second life in his mind. I refuse to give in to such fancies.
We spent a good portion of the previous day simply studying the glyphs. They seem to mix arcane formulae with metaphysical speculation, from what we can translate; the dialect is unusual, and there is some cipher or code obfuscating portions of the text. What we have managed to “interpret” is sheer madness – a vision of the world as one single totality, a kind of throbbing, absolute unity that makes a mockery of our individual minds. I am forced to conclude that the Librarians included the glyphs as part of the torturous nature of this place – an evil jest.
Whether or not there have been previous explorers in this wretched prison, I believe we are not alone down here. In the darkness when we rest I have heard something moving, far off down the passage – though not far enough. It scrapes and scuttles, and once I swear I heard a hiss of indrawn breath. What manner of horror stalks these endlessly circling halls?
Goatday, 11th of the Month of Thorns
Xavier has vanished! One minute we were walking along together, puzzling over the glyphs – Alexander is intent upon transcribing them, believing they must tell the secret of escaping this place – and the next he had sprinted ahead round the bend. Alexander and I rushed to catch up with him, but we found no trace. There were some confused footprints in the dust, then nothing… Either he found some way of escaping, or something ill has befallen him. We lingered for some time where he seemed to have disappeared, seeking for some hidden passage or egress, but to no avail.
Something else disturbing has occured. When we made camp this night I discovered a series of spirals scratched on the wall, just like the ones Alexander has been making. Unless some other inmate of this desolate spiral has done the same, we are somehow circling back on ourselves.
When I woke this morning (morning! Ha! As if the term had any meaning, anymore…) I felt it, lurking over us, though I could not see it in the dark. I felt it move past us as Alexander scratched his spirals in the walls and crooned to himself. He paid it no heed, just kept scratching, murmuring to himself. I smelled it, smelled its rancid stench. Heard its legs skittering, skittering…
Starday? Some point in the Month of Owls, or Dust
Ink is running out, but it matters not. I will soon be quit of this place. I have discovered the secret, the secret of escape. Alexander would not believe me, he obsesses over the glyphs, will not listen.
This is all an illusion. A dream-world into which the Old City has enveloped us. There is only one way out – death. A quick bullet to the brain and I will awake, return to the real world, and end this nightmare.
The skittering comes. I can hear the Dweller nearing. I must make haste!”
Unnerved, the party pressed onward, studying the glyphs carefully. At this time, Armand intuited – through some mysterious subterannean sense of direction in no way related to a hidden ghoulish heritage (how dare it be suggested!) – that they were not moving. Caulis, with the aid of other party members, speculated that perhaps the key to defeating the Whorl was a frame of mind – to move forward without focusing on escaping. Emptying their minds, the party began again, and this time Armand did perceive movement forwards; the Whorl even began sloping downwards. Like a finger-trap, the Whorl releases its prisoners when they cease struggling.
But the party’s trials were not yet over. They discovered a second skeleton – this one seemingly belonging to Garvin Otherwise! The rogue’s exact equipment seemed to have been duplicated. The living Garvin, experimentally, counted thirteen coins in his pursue, dropped one, then checked the purse of his skeletal double – which had twelve coins. Retrieving the thirteenth coin with a chuckle, Garvin reasoned he had proven the Whorl was not “predicting” his destiny in some fashion.
As the party began looting the corpse of their companion’s temporal duplicate, they heard footsteps from around a bend in the Whorl, and a haggard figure, heavily bearded and clad in rags, stumbled into view, a dagger in hand, a green ring on his finger. Vespidae, either out of panic or instinct, fired the pistol at the approaching figure, shooting off the man’s ear in a spray of blood. Screaming, the man began chanting the syllables of a spell, but the intervention of Alabastor and Armand managed to convince the madman to cease his hostility.
The party provided the wounded man with one of the healing potions provided by Professor Sluice, which turned out to be tainted with alchemical residues – inflicting amnesia on the poor man! Fortunately, this actually seemed to relieve some of bearded lunatic’s distress. He identified himself as Alexander and claimed to be on an expedition to retrieve the Viridescent Tablet himself.
Continuing down the Whorl – Alexander now in tow – the party began to feel uneasy, as skittering sounds could be heard behind them, drawing closer. As the Whorl sloped ever steeper, the skittering became louder and louder, along with a hideous chittering noise. While Bjorn panicked and ran down the corridor, the rest of the party kept a level head and continued on placidly, not focusing on escape.
Moments later, they emerged from the Whorl, quite safe, the skittering behind them suddenly gone…
Images: Gustave Doré‘s “Drury Lane,” screenshots from Outlast and Riven, Mervyn Peake’s “Ancient Mariner.”