BEARDED DEVIL

Monsters, Horror, Gaming

Tag: adventures (Page 1 of 4)

Hex Session XXVIII – 5th Edition Actual Play – Genial Jack

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).
  • Comet the Unlucky, waspkin ranger, a dreamer and an idealist, longing for the restoration of the Elder Trees and the liberation of his people. Loathes the Harvester’s Guild, parasites and destroyers.
  • Garvin Otherwise, a human rogue and burglar of the Ravenswing Thieves’ Guild, with a very, very peculiar past and a zoog pet, Lenore.
  • Miri, trollblood wizard, plucked from Mount Shudder and raised amongst Hex’s arcane elites. A recent graduate of Fiend’s College.
  • 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: 300 XP

The day had come. Genial Jack was arriving.

The city had turned out to see him in vast numbers, flocking to Croakmarsh and the Isle of Entrails and the docklands of the Swelter. Thousands more had camped along the banks of Sawtooth Sound, or clambered to Stumpridge, Cobweb Cliffs, or even the forever-torrential Downpour Heights, hoping to spy his arrival using looking glasses. The richest had hired hot air balloons or magically floating platforms to gaze upon him, or watched from the balconies of Fanghill.

The Variegated Company – flush from their recent exploits – viewed the giant whale’s arrival from one such airship.

“Sister, you’ve met Jack before, isn’t that right?” Garvin asked.

“Yes. Twenty years ago,” Sister said, a slightly wistful look entering her several eyes. “I spoke with him, actually.”

“Really?” Miri seemed suprirsed. “I thought only the Navigators had that privilege.”

“I was… close with one of them. Adam Quell. He’ll look older now. Folk of this plane age so rapidly.”

“So, we are agreed, then?” Armand asked. “We will sell the items acquired at Delirium Castle in one of the auction-houses in Jackburg.”

“Is it true the city’s actually inside him?” Comet asked.

“Inside and outside,” Sister explained. “Outer Jackburg can be sealed when he submerges. The inner city is made up of flotsam and jetsam, cobbled together into a makeshift town. The more who’ve come to dwell in Jack, the more he grows, fed on their faith.”

“So they worship him? Like a god?” Comet continued, glancing at the Elder Trees he worshipped – the living tree in Ambery, and the dead trees in the Boil, Stumpridge, and Suckletown.

“He is a god. Or as good as one. His Navigators channel his power as surely as I channel that of the Mother of Spiders. Their minds are trained from birth to make contact with his. His mind can be overwhelming – alien. He is ancient, inhuman… but kind, impossibly kind.”

Conversation dwindled as a vast murmur spread throughout the city, turning to excited cheers as Jack, at last, came into view.

His approach was slow and gentle, so as not to drown the city in a tidal wave, but even so the riverbanks and bridges were buffeted by spray as he surfaced, and a great cheer went up as he appeared, first a rising shadow, and then a breaching enormity, a thing bigger than the mind should hold. Though the friendliness and benevolence and tremendous care of Genial Jack was central to his mythic identity and vital to his interaction with his many ports of call, there was still terror mixed in with the awe, delight, and wonder his bulk inspired. Were he to have plowed into Hex, to beach upon the city, he would l have leveled most of it in an instant, killing countless thousands. Fortunately, Jack’s beneficence was legendary.

He was like something scaled differently than the rest of the world. A mountain of flesh clad in a second skin of gleaming metal and stone, the submersible city he carried on his back. Eyes the size of cathedral domes gazed out at the stupefied onlookers to either side. A great burst of spray erupted from his blowhole, touching off more cheers and applause.

Then his great jaws opened, water rushing in, and a fleet of ships rushed out, flags flying in the wind, ships of every type and nation, flying alongside the cetacean flag of Jackburg: galleons and triremes and whirring submarines, corpseships from Erubescence, dolphin-drawn chariots, puffing steamships, hovercraft from Verdigris, living boat-things from Teratopolis, amorphous amoeba-vessels from beyond the Entropic Wastes, chitin barqentines from across the Blushing Sea. Behind them, in the great beast’s mouth and through into his stomach, the lights of Jackburg twinkled.

The party descended and made for the Swelter, hiring one of the numerous ferries ready to take eager Hexians to Jackburg. The boat drew close to the vast beast. The Company decided to begin their visit to Jackburg in Melonward, hoping to speak with Sister’s Navigator friend, Adam Quell. On their way they saw some of the Whaleguard vessels, carefully watching over the first ships to enter Jack’s maw. Some were not boats but Watchturtles – gigantic sea-turtles upon which had been constructed Whaleguard outposts, complete with periscopes, harpoons, and cannons.

The religious district, Melonward was centred around the Cathedral of Genial Jack, a temple built atop its god, where the Navigators communed with their vessel and deity. The party docked along Jack’s flank and took a winding series of walkways up to the top of his head. The people who walked the streets of Melonward were generally uniformed, either in the stylized captain’s garb – complete with tricorn hats – that marked the Navigators, or in the sea-green military uniforms of the Whaleguard.

The party made their way to the Cathedral, entering a long hall lined with statues – former High Navigators and others fallen in defending Jackburg. Sister’s breath caught as she passed one of these statues, the stone semblance of a tall, powerfully built man in Navigator’s robes, a naval sabre in one hand and a flintlock pistol in the other. The man stood atop a heap of bodies, while a swarm of gelatinous creatures like humanoid jellyfish were sculpted assailing him. At the statue’s base was an inscription: “Adam Quell, 1723-1780. Died defending Jackburg against the Gelatinous Empire in the Battle of the Gilded Sea.”

Sister stood for a moment in quiet contemplation, the party respectfully silent. Then a voice broke the silence.

“Sister? Is that you?”

A young, olive-skinned woman with a confidence and poise greater than her years suggested stood in a frock coat so long and ornate it was closer to a robe. Perched on her head was the lovechild of a priestly mitre and a tricorne hat. Scars that look like claw-marks were visible on one cheek.

“Do we know one another?” Sister said.

“Parthenia Quell,” the woman said, extending a gloved hand. “I remember you, a little, from when I was young, and ,y father told me so many stories about you.” She nodded towards his statue.

“I’m sorry to hear of his passing,” Sister said.

“He died nobly,” Parthenia said. “And his memory lives forever in Jack’s mind.” She smiled. “You know what that means, of course, better than most – if my father is to be believed, you’re one of the few outsiders with a mind capable of communing with Jack.”

“It was only a brief contact. But quite an experience.”

Parethenia nodded. “Well, I am glad to see you again. In fact, there might be something you could do to help us… but we can speak of that later. Is there anything you wish to see on your visit here to Jackburg?”

“We’re trying to set up an auction,” Comet interjected. “We have some stuff to sell.”

“An auction? I’d recommend the Queen of Lost Souls in Queen’s Corner – the best gallery in Jackburg. In fact, I might be interested in attending. With my father’s passing, I’ve inherited his position as one of the High Navigators; we’re always on the lookout for useful artefacts, and Hex’s treasures are legendary.”

“Thanks for the advice,” Sister said. “I hope to see more of you during our visit.”

“Certainly. Send along an invitation once the auction is arranged.” She nodded. “I’m afraid I must leave you now – I’m on my way to a meeting with the Captains’ Conclave.”

Sister nodded in return as Parthenia departed. They lingered for a time in the Cathedral. Sister lit a votive candle for Adam and prayed at the shrine of Jack. As she knelt before his altar, she felt a glimmer of his mind, reaching out to glance against hers, and a surge of divine power filled her – the God Whale recognizing a former friend of his servant.

Respects paid, the party descended to Jack’s huge, still-open mouth. His huge eye rolled in its socket to glance at them, and Sister once again felt a flicker of familiarity.

The bizarre mansions of Mawtown dangled from chains suspended from the roof of Genial Jack’s massive mouth, glittering like lanterns against the darkness of his gullet. Accessible only via private elevators lowered from the foyers of these luxurious palaces, these mansions were partially sheltered from water by Joe’s huge baleen, but like the Outer Town they were built to be watertight, sealed against flooding. Mawtown’s real estate was considered especially valuable, and only the richest men, women, and other entities in Jackburg had enough wealth to afford homes in the mouth of the whale.

A tram led from Mawtown down Jack’s trachea and into the forestomach. Along the sides of Jack’s cheeks were a series of docks, boathouses, and warehouses, the lower half of Mawtown, where submersibles and ships in the vast Jackburg fleet were stored when Jack was on the move. These docks made for a colourful scene. On a wharf near the warehouses, two women with cutlasses were fighting one another before a gathered crowd, busily taking bets, while an official Whaleguard judge carefully adjudicated the legal duel. Meanwhile, several guides advertised their services on a pier where vessels from Hex were docking. These included a calico-furred ratfolk woman, a chitinous karkinoi missing one of his pincers, with a map of the city carved into his carapace, a handsome selkie man with a thickly braided beard and intricate glyph tattoos, and a red-haired human woman with a peg leg and a two-headed parrot on her shoulder. A ratfolk moneychanger exchanged Hexian talents and guineas for the gold dubloons and pieces of eight used by Jackburg.

After swapping their change, the party made for the guides, approaching the crusty karkinoi.

“Ah, you want guide?” the crab-man asked. “Phorcys will guide you! I know every twist and turn, outside and in! Just five dubloons a day.”

“Not a bad idea to get a guide,” Miri said. “I’ve heard Inner Jackburg can be confusing.”

“You’re hired, my good crab,” Armand declared.

“So, where should we visit next?” Miri asked, looking around. “Should we go straight to Queen’s Corner, or…?”

“Let me try something,” Sister said. She reached out a hand and touched the inside of Jack’s cheek, then muttered a brief incantation, pointing to each of her companions in turn. Instantly, each felt a tiny flash of pain as gills opened on their necks. “Thanks Jack,” Sister said. “Now we can breathe underwater, if we want to explore the Grooves.”

“The Grooves, eh?” Garvin said. “I’ve heard tell some of Jackburg’s, ah, less savoury individuals can be found there.”

“You’ve heard right, my friend,” Phorcys said. “The Grooves’re home for us karkinoi, and other water-dwellers too, but there are some rough types around! A working crab’s district, the Grooves. I show you – come, come.”

The karkinoi dived, legs wriggling. Armand quckly wove a spell to keep the party’s clothes dry, and the group submerged, following Phorcys underwater.

Those of Jackburg who prefered the open sea to the Inner Town but who lacked the funds to dwell in Melonward or Blowhole Row generally opted for the Grooves, a series of narrow folds along Jack’s underside. The structures here, unlike the sealed, watertight buildings atop the whale, were open to the sea; only in conditions of war or extreme pressure would the denizens of this district evacuate to a sealed location. Due to its aqueous, almost constantly submerged nature, all of the folk here were of the merfolk races:  karkinoi, polypoids, down-on-their-luck octopoids, and otherwise houseless undines.

Phorcys led the party to an underwater tavern, the Sea Slug, where merfolk drank from specially engineered conch-shells equipped with intricate straws and played games with cards of wood and metal. The party caroused briefly, enjoying the novelty of the underwater setting. Garvin listened in on a few conversations surreptitiously.

“Snag wants that product moved fast,” he heard one karkinoi saying to a polypoid – a being like a humanoid coral.

The creature nodded. “We have contacts with this group here called the Crowsbeak Guild. Pay big money for ambergris.”

“You’d better move fast. I’m sure the Mischief and the Cuttlethieves are trying to shore up their own bargains.”

Intrigued, Garvin made his retreat before he was noticed.

Their exploration of the Grooves completed, the party decided to enter Inner Jackburg. They returned to Mawtown and took the tram down Jack’s throat, passing briefly through the forestomach and the district of Flotsamville.

Although not the oldest part of Jackburg – that honour lay with the ancient ruins in Jack’s intestines – Flotsamville was the first settlement in the modern iteration of the town, a rickety mass of swaying rope bridges and buildings designed to oscillate gently to the peristaltic pressures of the forestomach. Largely vertical in nature, Flotsamville was formed out of the wreckage of ships, refashioned into homes and shops circling the walls of the forestomach, a criss-crossed web of bridges between, steps and elevators leading up and down. Flags from a thousand countries hung like banners or tapestries from posts, while the figureheads of countless ships decorated every building, worshipped as minor household gods. Still Jackburg’s densest residential district, Flotsamville also had numerous fish-markets, along with warehouses full of supplies for long journeys. Down below, gleaming in the dark, the party could see the lights of the Coils, glittering amongst the pale bones of the dead sea serpent that gives that sultry district its name.

“What’s down there?” Comet asked Phorcys.

“Oh, those’re the Coils,” the karkinoi replied. “See, this one time, Jack accidentally swallowed this sea serpent. It was a whole thing. Came thrashing into the forestomach. We had to kill it – huge battle down here, gave Jack terrible indigestion. But we slew the beast. And then, you know. Built a bunch of casinos.”

The party resolved to experience these chance-houses at a later time, but for now passed to Bellyborough in the Main Stomach.

The craftsman’s district of Bellyborough included guildhalls, workshops, and factories, furnishing Jackburg with all of the artisan goods it needed. Apart from the smiths of Bezoar Crook and the ship-builders of Barnaclebank in the Outer Town, all of Jackburg’s craftsmen congregated here, dedicating streets (horizontal and vertical) to their individual pursuits: brewing, butchering, joining, locksmithing, tailoring, haberdashery,  weaving, ropemaking, tanning, potting,  parchment-making, and every other craft imaginable. While many finished goods were sold in Borborygmus Bazaar, some artisans sold their goods directly to the public.

The party noted a huge crowd filling a cramped square between several large breweries. They appeared to be feasting upon a corpse – that of an urchin-headed humanoid – being served by other urchin-headed humanoids, who doled out pieces of quivering, tender flesh, raw and lightly seasoned with sea salt.

“What in the name of the Magistra?” Garvin asked. Miri watched with curiosity.

“Ah, an urchin funeral,” Phorcys explained. “The urchins, see, they don’t like to work. Beg for food, for coins. But when you give it to them, Jack is happy. You get a little blessing from the god in exchange. And the urchins, they keep track of who gives. Dunno how – they just know. When one of em dies, everyone who gave money or food gets a piece of the urchin. I ate one once – delicious, the best thing I ever ate. It’s an honour to be invited.”

Intrigued, the party pressed on, now descending into the sprawling hub of the Inner Town, Borborygmus Bazaar. The market fills the centre of Jack’s main stomach, bordering Bellyborough, Queen’s Corner, and the Gutgardens. One of the world’s most famous marketplaces, it was a colourful confusion of tents, stalls, and market halls, selling everything imaginable – and many things quite beyond imagination. Whirring clockwork devices manufactured by the artificers of Verdigris, spices and hieroglyphic scrolls from New Ulthar, ancient texts scavenged from the library-undercity of Hex, reanimated thralls dredged from the corpse-factories of Erubescence, Contingency Stones extracted from the paradoxical mines of the Entropic Wastes, spellswords forged in the mystic smithies of Folded Realm, masks such as those worn in far-off Xell, baubles of shapeshifting glass from across the Blushing Sea, and thousands of other oddities, curios, artefacts, and wonders – all were for sale in the Bazaar, a treasure-trove of marvels from every corner of the world. Many of these items are illegal in other ports of call: poisons, dangerous magical drugs, forbidden spells, and similar items.

The party made several purchases. Sister bought a Gargoyle Lamp from a clever-faced goblin: when lit and used to illuminate a statue that statue became temporarily lively enough to answer simple questions posed to it about what it may have seen over the years. Armand bought a “Suit for Any Occasion” from a human merchant in colourful silks – a set of animated clothes that sensed the social occasion and polymorphed accordingly, becoming a fine suit or gown, work-clothes, or even full plate armour. The party also found themselves near-victims of a ratfolk pickpocket, who they gently deterred.

After some other brief explorations – a brief peek at the ruins in Bezoar Crook, a stroll through the Gutgardens – the party went to Queen’s Corner. Four ships gave Queen’s Corner its name: the Queen Raphaella’s Vengeance, the Queen of Carnage, the Tenebrous Queen, and the Queen of Lost Souls. These four ships, respectively, had been repurposed as a courthouse, a grand hotel, a theatre, and an auction house and art gallery. Suspended high above the bustle of Borborygmus Bazaar below, the four Queens were some of the oldest and most intact of the many wrecks of Genial Jack, and were a centre of the city’s artistic, financial, and legal life. They also frequently drew large crowds, as Queen Raphaella’s Vengeance had a duelling piste used to settle many legal disputes according to the libertine laws of Jackburg.

The party made for the Queen of Lost Souls: an opulent craft, once a legendary battleship, its ornate but unloaded cannons carefully polished and kept on display. Up above the ship supported studios for sculpture, painting, and the like; through portholes the party could see artists at work, many of them the sentient coral-folk known as polypoids. Below decks, past guards in the ancient naval uniform of the vessel, the hold had been converted into a vast art gallery and auction house.

Morphic landscapes that twisted and changed, family portraits magically entangled with their subjects to show dynasties shift, painted masks from Xell, living paintings from Tetractys that wave and speak to passersby, pallid bone-statues from Blodvinter, automaton artworks from Verdigris like clockwork gladiators who fight an endless duel on a dais, a Lengian cobweb tapestry, and hundreds of other treasures could be found within the ship – artworks saved from shipwrecks, claimed by Jackburg by the ancient law of salvage.

The party spoke to the owner, Captain and Curator Nodus VIII, a polypoid himself – dapper, debonair, and exquisitely mannered, eighth of his line, some fifteen-hundred years old, with the finest taste on the high seas After Sister casually dropped Parthenia Quell’s name and they showed the Captain a sample of the goods they intended to auction, he gladly put on an auction for the adventurers in the Auction Hall. This was a glorious hall on the bottom of the boat, where the floor had been partially replaced with panes of reinforced glass, allowing attendants to look down at the vertiginous layers of Jackburg below – the teeming bustle of the Borborygmus Bazaar, and below the glass domes and swaying seaweed forests of the Gutgardens.

A few days later, the party returned to the Auction House, the artefacts they’d looted from Delirium Castle on display. A sizeable crowd had gathered, and more of the Variegated Company were in attendance. They surveyed the crowd before the auction began, eyeing the wealthy individuals who would soon be bidding on the various magical objects they’d decided to part with.

Alabastor and Garvin approach the sinister Duke of Bees: a thin, slender man with skin the colour of pale honey, standing beside a hulking warrior carrying his own head in his hands. The thin man was distinguished by the tiny holes in his bald head, honeycomb-like, from which crawl buzzing bees.

“I wonder how many bee-stings it would take to kill that man over there?” the Duke muttered. “Oh, sorry, hello there. My apologies.” He eyed Alabastor carefully, then looked to Garvin. “Impressive selection of items on display here.” His voice changed strangely in tone, pitch, and volume, like bees buzzing.

“Thank you. Do you plan to bid on any in particular?”

“There are several that have excited my attention,” the Duke replied. “That said… there is another matter I would speak of. It has become known to me that you possess certain talents that may be of use to Her Majesty, Queen Mab,” he said. “Would you be interested in some light employment during your time here?”

The two Ravenswing thieves exchanged a swfit hand gesture of agreement.

“Certainly,” Alabstor said – conscious that this creature was an emissary of his own secret patron, the Faerie Queen Mab.

“Excellent,” the Duke continued, lowering his voice to a whisper and moving to a more secluded corner of the ship, the better to communicarte privately. “Here in Jackburg dwell a lost tribe of giants, the Fomorians, exiled from Faerie many centuries past for high crimes against Her Majesty. Their leader, King Balor, led a rebellion against Queen Mab’s rule, and was cast onto this mortal sphere with his misbegotten people as a result of his transgression. When Genial Jack swallowed up the sinking remnants of Hy-Brasil, the island of the Fomorions, he saved them from watery death. Chunks of that broken realm now form the place known as Bezoar Bend, where the giants dwell still.

“Here, then, is your task. Within the caves of the Fomorians, deep in the reaches of the Bezoar, lies the ancient throne-room of Balor, where the giant king still slumbers, waking but rarely. Here, in the throne room, the Queen would ask you to plant… this.” He opens a hand. Within it is a black seed. “Simply place it in the earthen floor of the hall. In exchange for this service, one of my bees will lead you to a secret treasure of the Fomorians, which you may claim as reward – and, in addition, I have been authorized to provide you with one hundred Elfmarks of Faerie gold.”

“An interesting job,” Garvin said. “We will consider it. We may take cabins here on Jack – we hear he is bound for Erubescence, and we have business in the vampire city.”

“Of course, of course,” the Duke said. “Do be in touch.”

Comet, meanwhile, was conversing with none other than Pieter “Wormbeard” Sluk: a hulking, amorphous creature with a body seemingly made out of semi-solid sludge that squelched through the room, although thankfully he did not leave a trail of slime – the mud seemed to be part of his body. A huge beard of fat, writhing earthworms the size of a forearm wriggled on his massive chin.

“I have heard of you, little one,” the mud elemental said, its voice deep and glutinous. “I attended your trial. A gross miscarriage of justice.”

“Oh, ah, thank you?” Comet said. “The Harvesters are… well. I don’t want to use impolite language in such, ah, fancy company.”

The mud elemental laughed. “I have also heard that you and your companions are skilled at the arts of stealth – as these objects clearly attest.” Wrombeard waved a gloopy hand. “I wonder if you might have time for a little side-venture, of interest to the Unfettered.”

“Uh, possibly,” the waspkin said. “What’s the job?”

“I know your feelings concerning the Harvesters,” he said. “You may be less familiar with the finfolk of Jackburg. They are an ancient and unwholesome people. It is said that Genial Jack snared them in his great jaws to free the world from their depredations, for they were once kidnappers, enslaving those they snatched in their underwater halls. Jack ate up their city of Finfolkaheem, but being a kind and generous beast, offered them a home in his innards. And so they dwell here still, lurking in their eerie stone monoliths, and the shifting maze of a town that sprawls about them. Even the Whaleguard stay out of Finfolkaheem.

“Slavery is illegal here in Jackburg, as in Hex, but the finfolk have found loopholes, just as our own city has. They buy up the indenture contracts of those they come across in Jack’s travels, a form of servitude still legal under the city’s constitution. They are also known to trade in conjured beings – illegal here in Jackburg, but legal in Hex, as you know.”

Wormbeard gurgled. “The Unfettered have learned of an agreement, negotiated in advance of Jack’s arrival. They plan to trade the finfolk a large quantity of sap, in exchange for a collection of teeth – seemingly the fangs of some beast. These objects seem innocuous, but in fact, the teeth are carved with sigils trapping jinni within them, obtained from the markets of Marainein, the City of the Wasting God. The Harvesters will use these spirits in their endless pursuit of wealth, putting them to use in the extraction of sap from the remaining Elder Tree.

“The Unfettered cannot stop this exchange ourselves. But, if someone were to steal the teeth from the finfolk before the trade could be made – or, alternatively, to steal them from the Harvesters after the trade – we have ways of freeing the jinni from their dental prisons and getting them to safety. And, of course, we would show our appreciation for any daring soul willing to perform such a rescue.”

Comet nodded. “I’ll talk to my group. We may be able to help!”

With that, the auction began, and the party began the lucrative but strangely painful process of parting with some of their hard-won treasures. The bids flew fast and high, and soon the party had amassed a fortune – more than enough to construct the vessel they desired.

As the auction wrapped up, Nodus banging the gavel a final time, a muffled grunt esd audible. A guard went flying down the stairs, hitting the floor hard, blood trickling from his temple. Someone screamed, and then dense, dark vapour began rapidly flooding the room: gas like sepia ink.

The party caught brief glimpses of tentacles or beaks; Miri, swearing loudly, whipped out her wands and fired off several magic missiles. There was an inhuman squeal of pain, and something whistled through the darkness: a dart, hitting the trollblood in the neck. Another struck Garvin. Both slumped to the floor, poisoned and unconscious.

Cephalus, meanwhile, tackled one of the shapes, bearing it to the ground.

When the smoke cleared, the items sold at the auction – as well as numerous artworks from the gallery above – were be gone. A hole had been cut in the glass floor, a rope tied up to a beam nearby.

“The Cuttlethieves!” Nodus raged. “Weremollusc burglars! We’ve been robbed!”

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 XX – 5th Edition Actual Play – “Kaleidoscope”

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.
  • Insidia “Sid” Thorn, a cambion graduate student and illusionist at Umbral University. Yam’s office-mate.
  • 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.”
  • 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: 600 XP

Note: Much of this session was guest-DMed by Yam’s player, with the normal DM taking the role of Insidia Thorn.

With the dread winter ended, the party prepared to return to Hex. But as Sister scrawled a portal onto the bark of a newly-grown tree nearby, they glimpsed something overhead – a raven, a message tied to its foot, speeding through the air. Caulis directed Eleyin to sting the bird, while Armand sent a spell scorching skywards; the firebolt missed, but Eleyin’s aim was true. The fairy pseudodragon descended with the note:

J

All goes according to plan here in the City. The people clamour for bread, for fuel, for heat. Soon they will die by the thousands and our forces will take what remains of Hex. Our agents still search the Catacombs for the Pneuomanomicon, but even if they fail in their search, necromancers shall raise those fallen from famine and overrun the gates. It will be your job to direct the Harrowgast to take down the Citadel of the Perpetual Storm. Should your timing be compromised, contact me using the usual channels.

S

“J for Jarna?” Sister suggested.

“Could be,” Caulis agreed. “Conspiring with someone… from Hex?”

“Well, we’ve at least thwarted them for now. The Harrowgast can’t operate without the hearg rituals, and we’ve taken the runestones they’d need for those.”

Still disturbed by this intelligence, the party returned to Hex, Vanessa making quickly for the Citadel to report to her mother.

In the aftermath of the Harrowgeist’s dispersal, Hex returned if not to normality then at least to stability, though the transition was not without its difficulties – roving gangs and protestors trying to raid storehouses combed the streets, while the city Watch and even the elite Warders did their best to restore a semblance of order, jailing hundreds. In an incident that became known as the Fanghill Fracas, a squad of Warders polymorphed a dozen criminals attempting to break into a wealthy merchant’s home, turning them into tree sloths. The gang had reputedly been installed in the yard at Eyehall till their trial could commence.

Once it became clear that the winter was at last ending, however, things improved greatly in Hex, if hectically. The frozen river thawed, and boats carrying grain and other foodstuffs were at last able to unload their wares in the Swelter. Dagonians, stirred from their torpor by the warm spring breeze which quickly turned to hot midsummer sun, hastened back to work in the docklands, even while the waspkin ventured forth from their Hives, restoring the city’s messenger service. The fungoids emerged from their underground holes, to nobody’s delight, though of course the city would not be quite the same without their shambolic, mouldering presence. Shops long-closed re-opened, their wares replenished, as the snow melted, flooding many of the sewers and drains of the city. One particularly vicious flood reputedly killed a family of ghouls dwelling in one of the tunnels; doubtless there were other victims. The Radula swelled and darkened, its lazy coils surging out to sea.

Snowy City

Market

As for the city’s authorities, they breathed a sigh of relief. The adventurers’ part in the restoration of the city’s seasons had become a matter of record due to their close contact with Master Melchior and the Citadel of the Perpetual Storm. A formal debriefing was scheduled to be held in the Hall of the Hexad Council, but not for some time, given the myriad tasks now facing the government as they scramble to restore order.

Sister, meanwhile, was working as best she could to aid the city’s disadvantaged, running soup kitchens and distributing clothes to those still recovering from the vicious winter. Reluctantly, she had switched back to her previous form, while the troll remained in Hex, still magically enamoured with Yam. A waspkin messenger approached her, holding a small note:

COULDN’T WAIT ANY LONGER. WENT IN ON MY OWN.

XOXO

YAM

On the back it said: “13 Whisper Walk, SE CORNER BOOTH!”

Hastily, Sister managed to get in contact with Caulis and Armand. Together, they hastened to Gloomway, location of the hidden Umbral University.

“This must be that favour Yam was always asking about,” Caulis said.

“I feel terrible. We promised to help them… Yam should have reminded us.”

“They did, I think, a few times. Oh dear…”

Gloomway

Though the snow had melted, the eternal fog cloud of Gloomway had not lifted; most believe the mist is magically maintained, secreted by the buildings or conjured by the faculty of Umbral Univeristy, the district’s hidden illusionist’s school. The place had an eerie beauty, its facades shifting and changing, buildings of Murkstone flowing from style to style. Canals down by the riverside twisted and turned through a labyrinth of streets lined with tattoo parlours, art galleries, tailors, and dozens of coffeehouses and shadetea dens, places where poets and painters sipped hallucinogenic drinks and argued about politics and aesthetics.

Navigating the district was frustrating. A map only helped so much, as the streets seem to shift, or come to sudden dead ends. Some streets turned out to be extremely vivid paintings, glamered to give them the appearance of depth until the party tried to step into them and found a solid wall of bricks. Others looked like massive thoroughfares but were actually narrow alleys made to seem gigantic through optical illusions.

Somewhere in the middle of it all stood the Shadow Pavilion, a huge, swirling tent whose pattern changed and fluctuated. Entry into the Pavilion was ill-advised.

After a few false starts the three found Whisper Walk, a street a short distance from the Pavilion which wound down to the river. There was a mask shop, an ink-seller, a parchment-maker, and two cafés – the huge Chimera Café, and a smaller one called the Invisible Imp. 13 Whisper Walk was the address of the latter.

The Invisible Imp was a small, dim coffeehouse crowded with chairs and tables. There was a large selection of pastries and drinks available, but the staff appeared to consist entirely of unseen servants, or perhaps air elementals – or, possibly, the cups and plates and cutlery had simply been bewitched to fly about, cleaning themselves or filling themselves. There were three booths, in the northeast, southeast, and southwest corners. Following the directions of the note, the party seated themselves in the southeast corner booth, a little nook tucked round a corner, just out of view of the rest of the café. Sitting down in the booth was disorienting; the room seemed to spin, the walls shifting, the floor elongating, and suddenly everyone seated was looking down a long corridor of offices, students in shifting robes walking the hall, gossiping about exams and practicing minor disguise spells. A sign on the wall proclaimed this the Office for the Department of Figments & Phantasmagoria.

“I guess we’re in Umbral University…” Caulis said, shaking its head.

“Let’s look for Yam’s office,” Sister suggested.

They found the door in question quickly; on it were two signs. The first was a clean piece of parchment, reading:

Insidia Thorn, BI, MI, Teaching Assistant
Introduction to Illusory Scents
Illusion Solidity 101
Office Hours: Goatday, Skullday, 3:00-5:00 pm

The second sign was nothing but a tattered piece of scrap. On it was simply scrawled:

YAM

Armand tried the door; it proved unlocked.

The office looked as if there was an invisible line drawn down the middle (and there very well might have been one). In the right side of the room, there was a cheap wooden desk and chair, neatly stacked scrolls, and a well-used but well-preserved writing kit. On the other, an identical desk was not perceivable under the stacks of ungraded exams, plates with scraps of food, and a precarious tower of cups, mugs, and tankards. At the back of the room, a bookshelf, again divided in two, had neat rows of books to the right and a mess of oddly stacked tomes and scrolls on the left. On a similar scrap of paper to the one on the door, messy writing proclaimed “DO NOT TOUCH. I HAVE A SYSTEM.”

“I wonder which side is Yam’s?” Sister joked.

Armand looked to the bookshelf with interest. Yam’s half held old books, stacks of paper, and a number of weird objects. There was a broken compass, a plush waspkin figure, several runestones with unfamiliar carvings on them, and a small wooden box, the lid slightly ajar. Inside the box was a small, tarnished silver object – a six-inch silver tube. On one end, there was a small peephole. On the other, a slit was cut in the tube. A crystal disk sat in the tube.

“Hmm. A spyglass perhaps, or kaleidoscope.” He handed the device to Sister.

Meanwhile, Caulis investigated the desk. In addition to the papers and dishes, Yam’s side of the office was scattered with various objects: stones and spell elements. As the homunculus shifted a few leaves of parchment, it perceived a number of small, crystal disks inside metal rings slide out and tumble toward the floor. It caught them nimbly.

“Interesting. Do they go in the tube?”

“I’m not sure.” Sister looked into the tube. Quite suddenly, she shimmered, and, with a flash of magic, seemed to disappear. The tube fell to the floor.

“What the?” Caulis said. It picked up the kaleidoscope, and, glancing within, likewise disappeared.

Extremely alarmed, Armand picked the tube up, but very carefully avoided looking within. He pocketed the object and began making his way from the office. Quickly, however, he was detained by two wizards of Umbral University, stepping from the shadows.

“You there. You are neither student nor faculty here,” they declared. “Come with us.”

“I have no time for this nonsense!” Armand declared, and prepared to cast a spell. Before the incantation could leave his lips, one of the wizards had already sprung a spell of magical slumber. The sorcerer slipped into unconsciousness.

When he awoke, he found himself in a featureless white cell, without door or window. Vainly, Armand sought for an exit or other means of escape. None presented itself.

“Damn that gnome…” Armand grumbled. “Well, perhaps Yam can get me out of this place. This is foolish, but… I have little choice.” He, too, peered into the kaleidoscope and, instantly, vanished.

Armand appeared on top of a cloud, next to Caulis and Sister. Above them, the sky was a perfect blue and below their feet, the cloud was soft. As they looked around at each other, they realized that they looked a little strange. The colours of their clothing were brighter, but lacking detail. Their faces were clear and while they could tell each other apart, there was something eerily comforting about the way they looked. They looked as if they were drawn – like caricatures or cartoons in a news-rag or pamphlet.

island

Cloud islands. Illustration by Caulis’ player, Bronwyn McIvor.

The party was standing on a single cloud. Looking over the edge, they couldn’t see the ground below; the sky just got progressively darker, above, progressively brighter. In the far distance, they could make out the edge of another cloud and the shadowy outline of what looked like a large tree.

“Hmm,” Caulis mused. “I get the feeling the rules here might be a bit different.” It began sculpting a kind of cloud bridge, crafting “stepping stones” out of clouds that could be jumped to.

“This could be useful, I suppose,” Armand said, stuffing his pockets full of the cloud stuff.

As the group got closer to the next cloud island, they could see the tree more clearly. From it, they begin to hear what sounded like a giant aviary: tweets, squacks, warbles, and trills filled the air. It was filled with innumerable birds of all different species, sizes, and shapes. They sang a cacophonous song in welcome.

Seated at the bottom of the tree was a young cambion woman, perhaps twenty-five years old. Short and dark-haired, her small horns betrayed her fiendish heritage. She wore the garments of an Umbral University scholar, and got up with a start as the party jumped to the bird-island.

“Finally, someone else got sucked into that thing,” she proclaimed. “I’ve been here for days.”

“Who are you?” Sister asked.Insidia Thorn 001

“Insidia Thorn,” she replied. “Yam’s office-mate. You can call me Sid.”

The other party members introduced themselves.

“So… you looked in that kaleidoscope thing?” Caulis asked.

“I think it’s some sort of Librarian artefact,” she said, glaring at the birds. “And I’ve been stuck here, with nothing to do, for ages and ages. I was just cleaning up after Yam – as usual – when it activated. It’s some sort of virtual dimension or illusory-realm or something like that.”

“Any idea how to leave here?”

“None at all. I’ve tried a lot of spells. And I really, really need to get back. I’ve got a lecture to prepare and an article to write and papers to grade and… and…” Insidia began turning crimson. Her horns elongated, her head began spinning round and round on her neck, and fire burst from her mouth. The party backed off a few feet. “Ah… sorry,” she said. “When I get angry my, ah, abyssal heritage shows a bit.”

“Hmm.” Sister looked at the birds. “They seem to like singing.” She whistled a few bars of a Lengian song. Immediately, the birds began whirring around, repeating the tune and singing along.

Caulis now tried, raising its strange voice to sing a note. The birds responded again, whirring even more excitedly.

“What if we all sung at once?” Armand asked. “A round, perhaps?”

After a few moments, the group agreed on an old nursery rhyme:

“Oh, the Grand High Mage of Hex,
He had six thousand spells;
He cast them all from dawn to dusk,
Or so the old book tells.

“Oh the Grand High Mage of Hex,
He lived up in a tower;
He won’t come out from his redoubt,
And takes tea at any hour!”

Delighted, the birds began swooping and singing and riffing off the song. The birdsong surrounded them, and became almost soporific, as a nursery rhyme lulls a child to sleep. One by one the adventurers dropped off…

“Wake up…” They heard a distant whisper and began to stir. “Wake up!” came the yell again. All of them felt a curious kick.

“Oh, hey,” the voice was much sweeter. “You’re up!” Opening their eyes, the party found themselves in the back of a covered wagon, comfortable and well-equipped for travel, lying back on squishy cushions. They could hear the soft crunching of wheels against road as the wagon moved along.

Seated nearby was a small gnome child rendered in the same cartoonish way that the party were. She had wild hair and huge green eyes, and looked extremely familiar – a bit like Yam. As they looked around at each other, the adventurers noticed that they had been shrunk to by a comfortable size in this modest wagon  – that they were also children.

child Armand

“I’m bored,” complained the young gnome. “Aren’t you booooored?”

“Generally, yes,” Armand drawled.

“Let’s play a game!”

“First, who are you?” Sister asked, eyeing the gnome with a glimmer of suspicion.

“Are you stupid? It’s me. You’ve only known me, like, all your life. lil armandDid you get into Papa’s no-no juice again?”

“You’re Yam’s sister?” Caulis guessed.

“Ordira,” Sid confirmed. “Yam talked about her.”

“So, wait, are you in here too?” Sister asked, frowning.

“In where? In the wagon?” Ordira seemed confused.

“She’s an illusion,” Sid said, squinting at the gnome girl. “A… a simulation. The kaleidoscope must be reading Yam’s mind somehow… or maybe Yam somehow intended it to function this way? Like an artificer putting a program card into a difference engine.”

“Hmm…” Armand said. He pushed his head outside the caravan. They were moving through forested hills, though the trees looked a bit crude, as if sketched in. In the distance, the lights of a city glimmered.

child Sister

“Where are we heading?” Caulis asked.

“Hex,” Ordira said. “Of course.”

“It must be a memory of Yam’s,” Sister said. “It’s been recreated.”

“You’re boooooring,” Ordira said again. “Let’s play a game!”

“Perhaps we need to do as it says to progress with this charade,” Armand said, scowling.

“You might be right,” Caulis said.lil sister

“How about Beggar-My-Neighbor?” Insidia asked, with a sly gleam.

“Alright…” Ordira said.

They played a few rounds of the game. Insidia slyly wove an illusion into the cards, so that they appeared differently than those she received. She won the game convincingly.

“Drat!” Ordira said. “I always win at that one…”

“I think… I think we’re going through a series of challenges,” Caulis reasoned. “Last time we all had to sing. This time we all have to play.”

lil caulis child Caulis

The adventurers proceeded to play a series of games with the young Ordira, including the Hexian classic “Boulder, Vellum, Blade” and similar children’s games. After several attempts, each defeated the illusion of Yam’s sister.

As they celebrated their victory, the wagon comes to a slow and careful stop. “Kids, we’re here!”

child Sidlil sid

Child-sized adventurers. Illustration by Caulis’ player, Bronwyn McIvor, and Armand’s player, at KatJamIllustration.

They stepped off the caravan and walked into a bright, white room. There was nothing there – only endless, blank whiteness.

Suddenly, a giant, celestial fountain pen descended from the ceiling and drew a simple line cliff right in front of the party’s path. The cliff was about fifty feet high. The wall was sheer – there were no hand holds or ways to climb it as it is.

Sid began looking around. The caravan had disappeared, replaced by a plain wooden desk.

On the desk were four quills of different colours, each sitting in a pot of ink. In front of those, a stack of leaves of parchment. On each, there was a line drawn that mirrored the cliff.

white room

Tentatively, Caulis took a quill and began to draw, sketching a beanstalk that stretched up the cliff. Instantly, a stalk sprouted from the ground and sprung up the cliff.

“Huh. Well, that’s interesting.”

“Some sort of… test area?” Sid mused. She tried sketching a series of stairs up the cliff.

“Boring!” a voice boomed, sounding suspiciously like Yam.

“Yam?!” Sister said. “Is that you?”

There was no answer.

“It’s probably another illusion,” Sid said. “Like a… sort of shadow of Yam.”

“Hmm…” Caulis said. She sketched a gigantic red dragon; it swooped down out of the sky and picked her up, then deposited her at the top of the cliff. “Wow! That worked pretty well!” she proclaimed, even as Caulis shimmied up the beanstalk.

Siister tried to grasp the beanstalk, but it proved as insubstantial as air.

“Hmm.” She drew a pair of shoes, with attached propellers. She stepped into them, and they began to whir, flying her up to the clifftop.

Armand, sighing, sketched a majestic, baroque pirate ship, flying. A gangplank lowered; the nobleman-sorcerer boarded, and the vessel conveyed him, too, to the top of the cliff.

At the top, an ocean spread out below. Behind  the cliff stretched far into the distance. There was nothing really there.

A short distance from the cliff, they could see two ships – one with coral-coloured sails, the other seafoam green. They could hear shouts and jeers coming from each ship. As they looked at each other, they realized that their outfits were now adorned with patches and handkerchiefs – like they were wearing pirate costumes. Caulis and Sister wore seafoam green; Armand and Sid, coral.

The group descended to the water, and it lapped at them, the current pulling them toward their respective boats. Crews of pirates in the boats pulled them aboard.

In each ship, the pirate crews teemed about their new members. Each opened great chests, each containing a giant pirate hat – one with green accents, one with coral. Armand took one hat, while Sister took the other.

“So, you be Captain Coral!” the pinkish pirates said to Armand.

“So you be Captain Foam!” the green pirates said to Sister.

“It’s another, like, game thing,” Sid said to Armand. “Yam must have programmed these illusions to obey the commands of whoever is wearing the hat…”

In synchronicity, the illusory pirates on both spoke:

“Those scurvy dogs reckon they be gettin’ the treasure before we do! What say ye, captain? Flee for the treasure or fight for the treasure!” They pointed to a small island in the distance that wasn’t there before. It looked like a classic pirate treasure island from a children’s picture-book – rock formation like a skull, lots of coconut trees.

“Um…” Sister said. “Avast?”

“I think we’re racing,” Sid said to Armand. “Ah, Captain.”

“Ah, very well,” Armand said. “We shall play Yam’s little game.”

at sea!

What followed was an intense, furious naval race, replete with every manner of maritime calamity. The two ships traded places repeatedly, fickle winds pushing and pulling them two and fro. At times, friendly dolphins from the deep chatteringly emerged from the depths, and were convinced to pull one of the ships further with ropes flung from the decks. At other times, sudden doldrums caused one or both ships to stop. Gigantic seagulls harassed them, and once a friendly whale surfaced, the wake pushing their ships ahead.

“It’s like a boardgame,” Sid said. “The laws of physics make no sense here.”

Gigantic crabs pulled themselves on deck of Sister and Caulis’ ship. The pair repelled them with spells, until Caulis, using one of the runestones gleaned from Troll Country, summoned an air elemental to help blow the crabs aside and fill the sails with wind. Their vessel hurried forwards, even while a gigantic octopus snared Armand and Sid’s vessel in its tentacles. Armand froze several of its tentacles and ordered the pirate crew to break them off brutally, while Sid, frustrated, reverted to her demonic form once again, her head twisting round and round, her eyes flashing red; fire spewed from her mouth, and the octopus was repelled. Incensed with a competitive spirit, Armand conjured a fire elemental using his own runestone, setting the other ship alight. Despite these efforts, Sister and Caulis still pulled ahead.

The Seafoam Ship sent out rowboats to collect the buried treasure from the island: a chest, cartoonishly overflowing with doubloons and glittering fist-sized jewels.

“It’s been a pleasure serving with you, captain!” the pirates recited – before shoving Caulis and Sister overboard!

They floundered in the water, only to realize that Sid and Armand had likewise been forced to walk the plank for failing to reach the island first.

Stormclouds brewed and fierce winds whipped the waves to a frenzy. The party was dragged underwater, but found they could breathe. A cave was evident somewhere below, near the ocean floor. Seaweed growing next to it spelled out “TO HEX!”

The party made for this cave and swam through a short tunnel, towards a light. As they got loser, they could see a sheen that looked like the top of the water – and, through it, Yam and Sid’s office.

“Hmm. They must have put it back in your office,” Armand said to Sid, quite capable of speech even underwater.

A strong current suddenly caught all four, and drew them rapidly towards a tiny aperture in the side of the cavern. They were sucked towards it, their bodies shrunk and forced through a tiny pinhole…

…and through to the other side, deposited in a gush of seawater in another cave.

As they looked around, they noticed that the way they looked had changed again. The cartoon sheen that was in all the other levels was no longer here. They looked like themselves again – realistically rendered, so to speak. So was the world around them. You had fallen through a small crack in the roof of a cave, dank and grim, and could hear dripping around them. The rocks were damp and they could smell earth and brine and something strange, unidentifiable. There was no entrance to the cave, nor exit.

cavern

Huddled in a corner of the cave, they could see some familiar figures: two gnomes and a human. The gnomes were nearly identical, though one had several more piercings in their giant ears. The human was a tall, imposing figure that Sid recognized as Sebastian Eldridge – Yam’s supervisor. The gnomes, of course, were Yam and “Yam Beta,” the version of Yam from Arcady. Near the wall of the cave, there was a dark pond with brackish, stagnant water.

Yam sat, curled over with his head on his knees, shivering. Yam Beta tried to comfort him. Sebastian looked deeply uncomfortable.

“Yam!” Sister exclaimed, happily.

“YAM!” Sid added, somewhat less so.

Yam burst into tears.

“Oh no!” Yam said. “It got you too! It’s all my fault…”

“What happened?” Caulis asked.

“We’ve been here for some time,” Sebastian said, looking supremely annoyed. “We’ve tied to find a way out, but to no avail.”

The party all tried to console Yam, but they were too distraught. Every entreaty only seemed to make things worse. Sebastian snapped at Yam, until Sid threatened to report him to the University for verbally abusing one of his students.

Sister, tentatively, tried to use the Portal Chalk to get away, but it did not work.

“It probably doesn’t have anything to actually hold onto,” Sister speculated. “If none of this is real…”

“What is this place, anyway?” Sid asked, looking around. “You didn’t make this cave, Yam…”

“I would surmise it is part of the original Librarian device,” Armand said, rapping a wall with his sword-cane. “It’s as if we’ve slipped from Yam’s ‘cells’ in the Kaleidoscope and into one of the original cells…”

“Cells is the right word,” Yam Beta said. “I think this might be some sort of prison device. They looked over to Sister. “Don’t!” they yelled – but it was too late.

Sister had looked in the pool, and her reflection shimmering and changed, becoming that of a stern Lengian in the robes of a high priestess of the Mother of Spiders – her old Reverend Mother.

“I’m not terribly surprised you ended up here,” she spat. “You always were useless.” With a lurch, the reflection pulled itself from the water, becoming corporeal and leaping towards Sister with a snarl, moving with far more speed and agility than an old Lengian woman should be capable. She ranted furiously about Sister’s inadequacies.

“It’s some sort of doppelganger!” Yam Beta proclaimed. “It becomes whoever you feel doubts you most!”

The creature leapt atop Sister and began viciously raking at her face with claw-like fingers. The party leapt to defend her, firing spells at the monstrosity. It leapt aside, jumping around the chamber and avoiding spells, until a ray of frost caught it, temporarily slowing it and partially freezing it, as if it were made from the same liquid of the pool. A shatter spell from Caulis broke it into many pieces, which promptly melted and ran back into the pool.

“Ugh,” Sister said, healing herself with a quick prayer to the Mother of Spiders. “How are we supposed to get out of here?”

“Maybe we all have to fight our own doubts?” Sid muttered. “That’s not going to be good… I have a feeling mine might be… well, my great-grandfather. Who is, well, fairly important in the hierarchy of Hell…”

“Hmm. I’ve an idea,” Armand exclaimed. “I’ve frankly had quite enough of being imprisoned for one day, and I really haven’t time for whatever inscrutable puzzle the Librarians intended.” He began repeatedly casting firebolt into the water until the pool was entirely turned to steam. “There. At least that’s taken care of. But it didn’t seem to reveal any kind of way out.”

“This is so stupid!” Sid said, her features flushing, eyes turning red. “It’s just a dumb illusion!”

And with that – quite literally by magic – the spell was broken. All seven of them suddenly tumbled from the Kaleidoscope out into Yam and Sid’s office, sending books and papers flying.

“Oh.” Yam said, wiping their eyes and looking around in relief.

“I guess once we destroyed the pool, we just needed to say it was an illusion, or something,” Sister said.

“MY PAPERS!” Sid said, looking around at the reams of parchment, her eyes bulging out of her head.

Sebastian stormed out of the office in a huff.

“Well,” Yam said, rather anticlimactically dusting themselves off. “Um. Thanks!”

Hex, Session XV – 5th Edition Actual Play – “Bogeymen”

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).
  • Garvin Otherwise, a human rogue and burglar of the Ravenswing Thieves’ Guild, with a very, very peculiar past and a zoog pet, Lenore.
  • 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.”
  • 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: 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.

“How?”

“You know, be obsequious. Don’t lead.”

“Fine.”

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 were 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.

Mooncross

“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.

Fever Lane Sewers

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.

Cagehead

“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.

Egregor Vaults

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.

Parlour

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.

Little Nightmares

“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.

boots 001

Garvin’s childhood drawing.

Monster

Yam’s childhood drawing.

The Sun

Armand’s childhood drawing.

Shelves

Alabastor’s childhood drawing.

Boot

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.

Door1

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.

The Maze

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.

Eyeballs

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.

 

Hex, Session XIV – 5th Edition Actual Play – “The Cavern of Fear”

The characters in this session were:

  • Alabastor Quan, a gnome rogue-turned-illusionist and failed circus ringmaster; wielder of a cursed dagger and member of the Ravenswing Thieves’ Guild.
  • An ancient and enigmatic Lengian cleric of the Mother of Spiders, name unknown. She wears bulky ecclesiastical garments covering an uncertain number of limbs and goes by “Sister.”
  • Sprigley Gilette, a hardboiled, cigar-chomping human mercenary and veteran of several brutal wars, also a disciple of the mysterious Archdemon known as the Engine.

XP Awarded: 700 XP.

Alabastor and Sister looked around madly. One moment their three companions had been there; the next, they had vanished.

Sister had seen something like this before, when Garvin disappeared in the midst of Corvid Commons. But it had occurred when they passed through the portal made by the Antinomian’s sacred chalk. Had the god of chaos whisked their friends Elsewhere?

Shaken, the two resolved to return to the surface for the time being, perhaps to seek out additional companions to replace those who had gone missing. Studying Garvin’s map – fortunately in Sister’s possession – they made for the university catacombs, the tunnels beneath Master Melchior’s School of Thaumaturgy & Enchantment.

Fever Lane Sewers

The university’s tunnels were of grey, worked stone, as opposed to the crumbling, mouldy brick of the sewers. Sister and Alabastor crept through, looking for a way back to the surface, when they happened upon a very distinctive room. Instead of dour grey stone befouled by slime and mildew, the room had walls of gleaming pink marble somehow undulled by dust or mould, and adorned with an exuberant excess of adornments, including hundreds of small statuettes like miniature gargoyles, but with the forms of dogs, cats, birds, miniature manticores and griffins, toads, mice, pseudodragons, and other animals. Many of these had jeweled eyes and were wrought of precious metals or crystal. There was an aura of distinct femininity, and the very air smelled of perfume. At the centre of the chamber was a fabulous sarcophagus of purple and green stone upon which the semblance of a plump, happy-looking woman was sculpted, garbed in scholarly robes that embroidered with lace, meticulously sculpted. An engraving read: “Professor Augusta Fullblood.”

“Uh-oh,” Sister said. “Do you think we’re in some vampire faculty-member’s office?”

“Maybe we should leave…” Alabastor agreed.

“Not a vampire but a ghost, my dear!” a spectral voice said, as Professor Fullblood drifted through a wall, congealing out of ectoplasm into a figure closely resembling the woman on the sarcophagus.

“You’re a, ah, faculty member?” Sister asked.

“Indeed. Well, I was. Emerita, now. I was Professor of Zoomancy and Animal Enchantment. I drift up and teach the occasional guest-lecture. Are you from the university, dearies?”

“Us? No,” Alabastor said. “We’re doing a job for Master Melchior.”

“That old bat’s still hanging about up there, is he?”

“In a manner of speaking,” Alabastor said. “We’re actually trying to get out of here.”

“Ah, I see. You came from the sewers. You’ll want to head out of this chamber and then follow the passage to its end, ignoring any side-passages. That will bring you out under the library.”

“Thanks.”

“You may want to be careful.”

“Why’s that?” Sister asked.

“Well. Most of the university archives are well-kept… but there’s a room down here where the damp got in. Some sort of mildew got into a shelf of old spellbooks. It ate the arcane pages and, well… it got just a teensie bit sentient.” She squeezed thumb and forefinger together to illustrate her point.

“Sentient?! How smart is it?”

“Intelligent enough to cast spells. Books worth of them. There’s been a bit of a ruckus trying to contain it. It’s slow, so you can probably get away from it if it attacks, but it may try to bewitch you, and be careful not to get trapped.”

“Thanks! That’s good advice.”

“I wonder if you might, well, help me with something,” the ghost said. “You have no doubt noticed my collection of little pets,” she says, gesturing to the statuettes. “They are, in fact, quite literally my pets – their remains are housed in these little statuettes I made, you see.”

Quite suddenly they realized that Mistress Augusta was not the only ghost here, as numerous small, translucent heads poked themselves out of their funerary containers – ghost dogs and cats and mice and other ghost-animals, a menagerie of wraiths.

“Unfortunately, a pack of zoogs stole in here and made off with my dear Terrence, my miniature cerberi. If you happen to find the poor lost dear and bring him back, I’d be most grateful. I might even be able to find a little gift for you…”

“We’ll keep our eyes peeled,” Alabastor promised.

Taking their leave of the plump but eminently cheerful Professor Fullblood, the pair made their way past her crypt into an ossuary. A huge number of bones had been stored in the walls of this cavernous ossuary, sorted by type: skulls, femurs, finger bones, ribs, spines, and every other sort of bone.  A chandelier made from human bones was suspended from the ceiling of the round chamber.  This place was truly vast – there were hundreds of dead buried here. Ignoring the remains and the blackly gaping side-tunnels, Alabastor made for the door at the far end of the chamber, skillfully picking the lock with only slightly-rusty thieves’ tools. As he fiddled with the lock a vile smell, as of putrescence, wafted towards them, and nervously the gnome hastened his efforts. As something squelched in a nearby corridor the door clicked open. On the other side, the two found an ominous sign reading “KEEP OUT!” Carefully shutting and locked the door behind them, the two hastened onward. They passed through a round archive-chamber filled with texts – scrolls, books, stone tablets, memory-crystals, and other documents. The place was a bit disorganized, though the texts seem well-preserved given the somewhat dank conditions. Doorways led into other parts of the subterranean complex, but Sister and Alabastor ignored them, making instead for the stairs, which they cliumbed up into the library of Master Melchior’s School of Thaumaturgy & Enchantment.

library4

The gnome and the Lengian entered the first level of the library, though more levels were visible here, linked by spiralling staircases and criss-crossing catwalks. Charmed monkeys supplemented the staff of librarians who ran the place. The reference desk was manned by a thin, heavily tattooed man with a long, blonde beard. Discretely taking their leave, the pair hastened past the ornate, guarded foyer and out to the surface.

“Where now?” Alabastor asked.

“Well, there’s not much we can do for our friends who vanished except hope they find their way back,” Sister said, with typical Lengian nonchalance. “Unless you have any ideas?”

Alabastor shook his head.

“Well, we were told we’d lose people trying to get these books back. We have some other associates. What about Sprigley?”

“I don’t think I met him.”

“He helped us out on a few jobs. Human, big guy, decent shot. Bit strange in the head after we accidentally locked him in a time-displaced cell… I think he became a follower of the Chthonic Gods.”

Resolving to look for Sprigley at the Infernal Basilica, the two set out south for Little Pandemonium.

Little Pandemonium 2

Sprigley had spent much of the winter meditating, picturing the Infernal Engine in Hell, the countless damned souls made to labour at the behest of demonic masters to construct this mechanical malignity, a sentient analytic engine of impossible size. Much of this he accomplished in a small monk’s cell, deep below the Infernal Basilica – a place he felt oddly at home. The small rat Melchior had sent to invite Sprigley to his school had been caught by the priests of the Archdemons and sacrificed in the burning pits of Moloch.

It was to the grotesquely baroque bulk of the Infernal Basilica that Sister and Alabastor headed – a bulbous-domed monstrosity bristling with spikes, its stained glass windows glowing with crimson effulgence. Unlike the secret cabals and cults of demon-worshipers who congregate in less liberal cities, in Hex reverence for the Chthonic Gods is neither clandestine nor even particularly outré – just another philosophy among many. The main mass of the temple was quite open to the public. They entered the dark foyer; impish stone faces peered at them from the walls, while they trod on flagstones sculpted into the screaming faces of the damned. A black robed attendant shuffled towards them.

“May I assist you?” she asked.

“Yes, we’re looking for an initiate here?” Sister said, hoping her ecclesiastical garb would endear her to a fellow cleric. “Sprigley Gilette.”

“Ah yes. I shall fetch him for you. Wait here, if you please.” She shuffled off into the depths of the abyssal cathedral. Alabastor, meanwhile, investigated what appeared to be the guestbook, sitting on a lectern of bone. The book appeared to record the names of any who entered automatically – their own names were recorded here, though “Sister” was simply recorded as “Sister,” her true name somehow still obscured even to this magical text. Leafing through, he noticed several notable guests, including members of the Hexad Council – perhaps meeting with Arabella Sickle in secret? He considered stealing the tome, but then realized that in the busy streets of Hex it would rapidly fill with endless names.

ManWithTheMetalArm

At this point, however, Sprigley and the Infernal cleric appeared from the depths below. Repairing to Chimera Cafe in Gloomway, the pair explained the job to Sprigley, whose eyes gleamed at mention of the Book of the Underworld – though it was somewhat difficult to tell given that he now wore an eerie metal mask. He agreed to accompany them back into the Nightmare Tunnels.

The next day, the party returned to Master Melchior’s School of Thaumaturgy & Enchantment, talking their way past the griffin guards to convince them to let Sprigley inside the school. They headed for the fortified library in the southwest corner, the most well-protected part of the school and a former keep.

Dreamers' Quarter

The party descended once more into the tunnels beneath the university, passing through archive-chambers and back to the door marked “KEEP OUT.” Alabastor once more picked the lock, and the group proceeded stealthily, trying to avoid perturbing the strange, sentient mould that Augusta Fullblood told them now haunted the tunnels.

As they retraced their steps through the ossuary, one of Sister’s many limbs brushed against a femur – and a pile of bones clattered to the ground, echoing through the catacombs and stirring up a cloud of dust.

“Shit.” Alabastor swore.

Something seethed from a tunnel to the right. A stench of sickly-sweet decomposition and mustiness filled the air. A fuzzy, bluish-grey mould, like the fungus on rotten fruit or the mildew eating a piece of parchment, suddenly mottled the walls. It squirmed and writhed, psuedopods lashing from its mycelial mass. It did not “move” – patches of it appeared, while others withered and died, so that it progressed along the walls and floor. Amidst its disgusting, blighted mass could be seen sigils, shifting and flickering.

“Run!” Sister said, as the spellmould moved towards them, arcane puissance suddenly coalescing in its midst, psueodpods waving in a viscous parody of a magus’ hand-movements, squelched intonations replacing incantations. The party had made it to the stairs leading down to the sewers when the spell hit, Sister falling into a deep slumber. Sprigley fired his Verdant Pistol, trying to entangle the thing, but it ate quickly through the vegetation spawned by the bewitched bullet. Alabastor spun on his heels and cast an eldritch blast, pushing the spellmould backwards and singing its mildewed substance. As Sprigley woke Sister the thing cast a second spell, trying unsuccessfully to incapacitate Alabastor with hideous laughter. It seethed forwards in pursuit.

1 pixel = 1.0 uM 10X objective 10X eyepiece Field of view is 1.532 mm in diameter

The party fled down into the sewers, but the spellmould pursued, creeping ever closer.

“We’re going to have to come back this way anyway,” Sister pointed out. “We should destroy it, make sure it doesn’t ambush us on our way back.”

“Fine,” Alabastor said. “Let’s stand our ground. I’ll try and keep it back.”

Sprigley nodded, firing more shots at the approaching horror, shooting off the occasional pseudopod, though otherwise doing little damage. Sister cast sacred flame, searing the spellmould, even as it cast another spell, this time pushing the party backwards with thunderwave. Bleeding from the ears, the party counterattacked, Alabastor’s eldritch blasts pushing the spellmould backwards. Sister readied her crossbow and, using sacred flame, lit several bolts alight, firing them at the mould, while Sprigley continued to empty his pistol.  The spellmould began retreating. Sister took out a phial of griffin lard, coating a bolt, then set it aflame and fired; the bolt exploded, a sizzling improvised incendiary, setting the spellmould alight. It withered and died, a horrible whining sound filling the air as it was reduced to a smear of ash.

As the party caught their breath, a spectral head poked down through the ceiling – Professor Augusta Fullblood!

“Ah, thank you for taking care of that little nuisance, dearies!” she said. “You look a bit over-exerted. Would you care for a cup of tea?”

Thankful for the opportunity to rest, the party returned to the university catacombs and Professor Fullblood’s purple crypt. Here they rested, eating conjured cucumber sandwiches and drinking cups of tea that tasted only slightly of ectoplasm, before returning to the depths.

The party used the portal made by the journey 3Portal Chalk in the grate control room to return to the upper Nightmare Tunnels. Skirting the hollow-boned marrowmoth victims they headed towards the Seven Hundred Steps of Slumber marked on the map, only to find a cave-in blocking their path. Only a meager hole in the fallen rocks provided any way forward – it was either squeeze through this or find another way round. Alabastor cast thunderwave, blowing free much of the debris and opening a path. The party darted through, but the already-weakened ceiling now collapsed completely. Sister and Sprigley made it through, rocks falling behind them, but Alabastor found himself pinioned by a rock, crushing his leg.

“I’m stuck!” the gnome gasped.

Both Sister and Sprigley attempted to free Alabastor, but the rock crushing him was exceptionally heavy. As they heaved, grunting sounds and heavy footfalls became audible. Alabastor grimaced and, concentrating, managed to conjure an illusion to cloak the passage, projecting more rocks to make the tunnel seem blocked.

A lumbering, gigantic creature lumbered into view: a gug, four-armed and shaggy. The beast had a massive, vertical maw, it eyes shaded by bone protuberances, and was nearly twenty feet tall, though stooped. It carried a massive spear fashioned from bone.

The gug sniffed the air as the party remained still, Alabastor trying to suppress sounds of pain. Sprigley cautiously shifted the rock once more, but failed to lift it fully, and it once again pressed on Alabastor’s wound. Despite his best efforts the gnome gasped in anguish, and the gug turned towards the sound. It began poking at the rocks with its spear, causing the illusion to shatter. Sister cast a sacred flame, scorching it badly, and the beast bellowed, stabbing its weapon towards her. The Lengian nun ducked aside. Sprigley, meanwhile, gave a final heave and at last lifted the rock free. Alabastor wrenched himself out from under the rock and aimed an eldritch blast at the gug, pushing it backwards. Sister rushed forwards, healing his wound – conjured cobwebs spun from her fingertips, sealing the wounds shut. Alabastor got to his feet as the gug snarled and charged forwards, lashing out, but Sprigley avoided the blow and fired his pistol point blank, wounding the creature badly. Vines from the Verdant Gun’s bullet entangled the creature. Alabastor suddenly loomed before the creature, eyes gleaming, some unknown magic radiating from the small gnome, as if he were conjuring some otherworldly presence. The gug seemed stricken with terror and began thrashing madly, hooting in a manner that Sister knew would bring reinforcements.

“We’d better move,” she urged. “While it’s still tangled up! Come on!”

The group pressed on, scrambling madly for the stairs. Soon the found them: a series of massive steps winding down into darkness deep below. The steps were remarkably well-carved, and though large and steep they could be traversed by a humanoid without climbing. Judging from the way they were finished they belonged to the Old City, their Librarian craftsmanship confirmed by the pillars of iridescent metal holding up the ceiling, and the abstract geometrical carvings that lined the walls. These carvings were mostly unfathomable, alien and irregular; whatever significance their aeons-dead creators intended by them was lost in this epoch, so many years distant from the carvings’ creation. It was as if someone made mathematics into stone, or fossilized metaphysics. Amidst these bizarre protrusions could be made out images that might be creatures, plants, or buildings which seem to tell a kind of history. Alabastor, Sprigley, and Sister didn’t pause to scrutinize them till they were some distance from the top, but after catching their breath they gave the carvings a closer look.

Sister, with Alabastor’s help, managed to piece together something of the story the carvings told. In effect, the carvings depicted what seems to be an ancient and unfathomable war, a war between the Librarians and their allies – beings summoned from other realities, or bred in the spawning chambers of the Old City – and the inhabitants of the Dreamlands, including what seems to be an ancient proto-Lengian empire. The inhabitants of the dream-plane were amorphous and unreal, beings born of imagination and neurosis, from the collective consciousness of the waking world – including that of the Librarians themselves, the very nightmares of that elder race. Depicted among these beings, terrors born of the minds of the Librarians, was an entity which resembled the Mother of Spiders herself, queen and general of a vast arachnid host, Sister’s patron goddess. It seemed the Librarians were fighting a war of conquest, trying to dominate the shadows of their own psyches, and to this end constructed the portals such as the Gate of Horn to invade the Dreamlands. But they were beaten back and forced to seal the Gates, to keep their enemies from entering the waking world and unraveling the physical multiverse.

“Fascinating,” Sister said. “This has… some serious theological implications for my people. If this is true… we’re descended from Librarian nightmares.”

They pressed on, descending the Seven Hundred Steps of Slumber. Part way down they found something quite odd. Rusting slowly in the dense, dripping blackness of this cavern was a machine – gnomish in make, to judge from its construction. The intricate machine resembled a sort of gigantic clockwork beetle, but where the beetle’s mouth-parts would be was some sort of giant wand-like device, a mechanical protrusion engraved with arcane sigils. It didn’t look damaged – at least not severely – just run down. A bored tunnel in the wall of the cavern suggested its entrance.

Alabastor, recovered from his near-miss with the rocks, examined the gnome construct carefully.

“It’s a dowsing automaton,” he said. “This wand – it detects magic, points towards arcane energy. Gnomes use them for prospecting magical minerals, energy sources. Sprigley, help me get this thing out.” He gestured to the wand-like device. Sprigley assisted and the two of them got the wand free. “This could be useful in finding the Book of Dreams.”

At this point Sister became aware of something, prickling at the edge of her senses. Something was moving in the darkness behind them. Following them. Neither of the others seemed to sense it. She said nothing, but hurried on, outpacing her companions.

journey4

The party next came to a great rent in the earth which had broken the Steps, plummeting down into abysmal blackness. To proceed they would need to find some way of traversing the gap. The fissure continued into the walls on either side.

Using mage hand Alabastor secured a rope to a stalactite, so that the party could swing across. He went first, then Sprigley. Sister prepared to swing – when the presence she had sensed made its appearance. A strange figure strode into view, still several steps above, stocky and powerful, nearly twenty feet tall. Its body resembled that of a gigantic, muscular humanoid, wrapped with barbed chains that cut into its flesh; it twirled loose strands of these chains in one meaty hand, while in the other it carried a cruel net of razor-wire. The true horror of the thing, however, was its head – or rather, its lack of head, for in place of a head the monstrosity has only a cage. Mouldering within lay a Lengian skeleton, some former inmate trapped by the creature.

Sister paled and grapsed the rope, swinging wildly. She landed hard on the other side.

“Go go go!” she urged.

“What? Is something back there?” Alabastor and Sprigley looked behind them, but seemed unable to see the figure. Sister said nothing.

“Just go!” she said.

The steps up ahead were strewn with numerous gnawed bones, vaguely humanoid in size and shape, marred by ugly gouge-marks. Remembering the ossuary, Sister called on the Mother of Spiders to bless the group with arachnid stealth, casting pass without trace. They picked their way daintily past the bones. Then, looking above, they saw something else: pale, winged shapes nestling near the ceiling, roosting like bats.

“Marrowmoths,” Sister whispered. They slunk on, still bearing the spider-goddess’ blessing. Behind them Sister heard a sound of rattling chains and a heavy thud – Cagehead had made it past the chasm. She raced onwards, scrambling down the steps as quietly as possibly, Sprigley and Alabastor struggling to keep up with the elderly Lengian woman. A minute later they heard shrieks and chitters of pain – the marrowmoths, perhaps, awaking.

At last, the Seven Hundred Steps of Slumber finally came to an end, and a subterranean enormity opened ahead – a massive cavern, seemingly far too large to possible fit beneath Hex amidst the rest of the Old City. The air was clammy, tomb-like, and moist, and the vast walls of black stone seemed to quiver as if breathing. A greasy grey-green phosphorescence illuminated much of the cave, exuded from cracks in the walls and floor. Such was the size of this cyclopean, chthonic space that they could not see the far side of the cave, and the ceiling was so high it could be mistaken for sky were it not for the tooth-like stalactites drooling downwards, or the pillars of primordial stone which extended from the floor.

Distantly, to one side, rose a series of grim crags and pockmarked mounds of earth and splintered rock – a series of hills, rising to become mountainous peaks in the distance whose pinnacles were lost in darkness as a surface mountain’s might be lost in cloud. To the other side outspread a far stranger sight: a seemingly endless field of alien obelisks, grim monuments rising from the floor, marked with crude, menacing glyphs. Beyond the rows of primordial monoliths could distantly be seen a larger series of structures – some sort of underground city.

Beyond both the hills and the strange city flowed a silvery river, gurgling through the eerie emptiness.  They could see no bridge across the queerly gleaming water, though the other bank was just visible.

“Well, best get moving,” Sprigley said.

The party set off, using Garvin’s map as a guide. They tried to skirt the edges of the Quiescent Hills and the Gug’s Cemetery. As the clambered around the borders of the Quiescent Hills, the mists parted for a moment, and they glimpsed a huge shape slithering amidst the crags – a massive, slime-covered thing somewhere between a gigantic worm, a snake, a centipede, and a kind of monstrously elongated squid, tentacles writhing from a lamprey-like maw that drips with corrosive spittle, a vile, ganglial lump suggesting a brain or some other organ, and an immense, segmented body propelled by stubby limbs. The creature was quite distant. As they watched, it suddenly dove into the rock, burrowing deep into the hills, disappearing into a newly made tunnel.

 “Let’s stick closer to the cemetery,” Alabastor suggested with a shudder. They soon passed something sticky and viscous clinging to the rocks – perhaps the mucilaginous residues of one of the worms.

The Gug Cemetery proved just as foreboding. Monoliths of glyph-graven stone rose from the earth in endless profusion, arrayed according to complex, irregular patterns. These were obviously not the constructions of the Librarians – they were far too crude, too primitive, too coarsely wrought, though like the architecture of the Librarians they felt like the product of an inhuman mind. There was a thick stench of death about this place, a noisome putridity that wafted in miasmas of greasy, greenish fog, mingling with the phosphorescent vapour that drifted through the Cavern of Fear in soporific banks. Suppressing nausea, the group hurried onward.

As they plunged into the putrescent mists, Alabastor heard something behind them – something skittering. Filled with sudden dread, remembering the chittering, insectile horror of the Whorl in which he was long-imprisoned, Alabastor suddenly tensed. Sister noticed, wondering if perhaps Alabastor had seen something similar to the phantasm she glimpsed earlier.

“Hide!” Alabastor insisted. “Something’s coming…” Still shadowed by Sister’s spell, the group hid behind gug gravestones, just as the thing appeared – though only Alabastor could see it. A tall, thin-limbed creature stalked out of the fog, a slender, gangly-limbed horror swathed in a tattered grey cloak. It had few discernible features, though a glint of teeth can be glimpsed in the blackness of its cowl. Its skin was sickly yellowish-grey, its hands overlarge, its talon-tipped fingers uncannily long and clever. Its lower body was that of a grotesque, gigantic millipede. It hauled a huge, black sack around with it, slung over its shoulder.

The Snatcher paused. It sniffed the air, tasting it with a long, black tongue. Fortunately, the miasmatic reek of the graveyard proved sufficient to mask the scent of Alabastor and his companions. The living nightmare scuttled away. Alabastor let out a breath.

“You too?” Sister whispered, looking over at Alabastor.

“Yeah.”

“What are you two talking about?” Sprigley said.

“This place… it’s giving our fears form,” Sister said. “Keep an eye out. Yours is probably on its way.”

monolith

After waiting a few minutes in hopes of putting distance between themselves and the Snatcher, the group continued, deeper into the Cemetery. The stench intensified as they approached a huge shape looming out of the mists – their first thought, incongruously, was a beached whale, but it was too long, too covered in glistening slime, and no whale had the masses of tentacles at its jaws, or a poisonous sting at its tail. The corpse was that of one of the huge worm-things they glimpsed earlier, partially rotten and teeming with grave-worms. In addition to maggots, a pack of monstrous, long-limbed, gaunt creatures were savaging the dead worm-thing’s putrid entrails. They had powerful hind-legs, almost kangaroo-like, and crude, scabrous, noseless faces. They reminded the party of ghouls, but even more malformed and warped than the dog-rat-humanoids of Hex’s sewers and undercity.

“Ghasts,” Sister muttered to her companions. “Dreamland scavengers. They’re feeding, they should be distracted. They won’t fight if we leave them alone.”

Stealthily creeping past, the party was noticed only by a single ghast; it chittered angrily, defending its feast, and the group passed by unmolested. Moments later, however, the skittering returned behind them – followed by shrieks of pain and fear, as the Snatcher discovered the ghasts!

“Fuck it, run!” Alabastor urged.

Skirting an unearthed grave, dug up by something with gouging claws, in which he mouldering remnants of a gug skeleton lay, the party dashed through the Cemetery and reached the shores of the Lethe.

“The River of Unmindfullness,” Sister said. “Anyone who drinks from it experiences complete amnesia, and even brief contact will bring about temporary forgetfulness.”

“No swimming, then,” Sprigley said.

The scuttling sounds had receded, but it was only a matter of time before the Snatcher – or Cagehead – returned.

“Before, it seemed like we could reshape reality a little down here,” Alabastor said. “What if we tried to make a bridge?”

“Good idea,” Sister said. “Let’s concentrate.”

The first effort proved unsuccessful, the party drawing both banks of the Lethe together with their minds and forming a bridge of rock between them; the bridge was swept away immediately, and the banks snapped back to their previous position. On the second attempt, however, the bridge was formed successfully. Sprigley and Alabastor hurried across. Sister followed, but then the bridge gave way beneath her. She leapt but fell, crashing into the river. She struggled with the current, feeling years of memory leeching from her mind as she swam. Fortunately she was close to the far shore, and hauled herself sodden and only partially amnesiac from the water.

“Good thing I have centuries of memories,” she said, shaking her head.  Alabastor, however was not listening, but staring at the far bank. The Snatcher was back, and its sack writhed with fresh captives. With a shudder, the thing began extending its greyish-yellow arms, elongating them impossibly, so that they stretched across the entirety of the Lethe. They grabbed for Alabastor, missing by inches, and the group turned and ran from the River of Unmindfullness.

No sooner had they evaded one phobia-spawned daemon, however, when another appeared, this one visible only to Sprigley – a mass of arachnid arms radiating out from a shadowy central figure. Extending from the tips of the creature’s fingers were long, spidery claws. Currently, one of these talons extended into the head of a pallid, scarified ghoul, while another entered the cranium of a monstrous gug. The overall impression was of a monstrous Puppeteer. Fortunately, the thing had not yet seen them.

Sprigley hissed. Sister and Alabastor looked to him. They could see the shambling victims of the thing, but not the Puppeteer itself.

“Another one,” Sister said.

“Alabastor, can you create an illusion of the party?” Sprigley said. “Then maybe we can picture a pit, try to make it fall in…”

“I’ll try,” Alabastor said, conjuring an illusion of Sprigley. The Puppeteer took the bait, picking its way daintily towards the illusion. Sister and Sprigley, meanwhile, focused on producing a pit beneath the illusion. The ruse worked and the Puppeteer tumbled into the hole, limbs thrashing, its victims pulverized by the fall. It began picking its way out, but the party did not pause to wait, rather hurrying on towards the Great Pallid Pit and the Deathcap Forest.journey6

To the right yawned the bony vastness of the Great Pallid Pit, as the map proclaimed it: a seemingly endless charnel heap, the bones of giant worms, humanoids, and other fauna mingling in a slimy profusion, mountains of bones rising form the cave-floor. They could glimpse shapes, moving among the osseous mounds: ghasts, perhaps, or feral ghouls, roaming the Pit in scavenger-bands. Marrowmoths circled overhead in vast flocks.

To the left and straight ahead, on the other hand, festered the Deathcap Forest: a pestilential morass of spores and gigantic, mottled mushrooms, green and black. Thick fungal mats coated the forest floor, while myriad growths sprouted from every surface. Donning gas-masks, the party entered the spore-infested depths, sticking close to the edge of the Great Pallid Pit.

journey5

The trio had only been in the Deathcap Forest for a few minutes when Sprigley began coughing – then spluttering, then choking. Sister turned to see him wheezing, his face turning black, body spasming. Despite his best precautions the spores had found their way into his lungs, taking root, the poisons within ravaging him horribly. Ulcerous lesions appeared on his flesh, black and gangrenous-looking, budding with fungal growths. Horrified, Sprigley ripped his gas-mask off and quickly downed a healing potion, temporarily reversing some of the poison’s effects – though the spores would still be festering in his body. As he tugged his mask back on, something emerged from the verdurous depths: a quivering mound of decomposition, some kind of rot-elemental, creeping towards them with slick, grasping tendrils, moaning softly, the mushrooms on its back issuing forth a profusion of spores. Sister hit the thing with a sacred flame while Sprigley, coughing, lured it towards the edge of the Great Pallid Pit, still visible nearby. Dodging its lashing tendrils, he dove to the side as Alabastor cast a thunderwave, pushing the mound of fungal horror into the Pit.

All was still – and then the group heard footsteps, heavy, crashing from the left. Something had heard the concussive blast of the thunderwave. Sprinting as best they could, the party cut their way through the thick vegetation, rushing now, exhausted, something hot on their heels. As they stumbled out onto the plains they heard a growl behind them, the appearance of their pursuers imminent. Thinking quickly, Alabastor again created an illusion of the party, hoping to distract their pursuers. They emerged from the Deathcap Forest: a pair of gugs, both utterly infested with black fungi, growths of the stuff splitting open their bodies, sprouting from every orifice. The imbecilic fungus-riddled things lumbered after the illusions.

“Now!” Alabastor said, and Sister and Sprigley once again focused their concentration to reshape the dream-world, this time forcing a crack to open beneath the feet of the gugs. They tumbled into the chasm, which then snapped shut like a pair of stony jaws, obliterating the two loathsome creatures.

The party caught their breath, now utterly drained of energy, Sprigley still coughing. Up ahead loomed the Plateau of Frozen Thought.

“We’re almost there,” Sister said. Slowly, painfully, they made their way towards the massive protrusion of what looked like ice. As they drew closer they saw it was some kind of crystalline substance; trapped behind its surface swirled a kaleidoscopic slurry of images, faces and animals and buildings, light and colour, a confusion of oneiric effluvium. Huge steps were carved roughly into the Pleateau, leading upwards. Grimly, the party began the ascent.journey2

After an hour of climbing, Sprigley, Sister, and Alabastor reached the top of the Plateau. Here the structures of the Old City rose in alien spires before them. No fungi or fauna disturbed the eerie stillness. Looking back across the Cavern of Fear, however, the party saw something which filled them with dread. Their phantasmic assailants, embodiments of their worst fears, were distantly visible below, having made it through the Deathcap Forest: Cagehead, the Snatcher, and the Puppeteer.

“Looks like we were followed,” Alabastor said.

“Let’s find a place to use the Portal Chalk,” Sister suggested. “We need to get out of here before those things catch us.”

“What if they’re waiting for us when we get back?” Sprigley asked.

“We’ll fare better against them once we’ve had a chance to rest,” Sister said. “We’ll come back. And then… down to the Egregor Vaults.” She looked towards the entrance to the Old City and to the Vaults below: a black, spiraling stair, leading downwards into the heart of the Plateau of Frozen Thought, a primeval darkness seeping from within.

Images: Klementinum Library by Bruno Delzant, Mycelium of an Unknown Mold by Bob Blaylock

Hex, Session XIII – 5th Edition Actual Play – “Sewers & Spiders”

The characters in this session were:

 

  • 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.
  • Garvin Otherwise, a human rogue and burglar of the Ravenswing Thieves’ Guild, with a very, very peculiar past and a zoog pet, Lenore.
  • 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.”
  • 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: 400 XP.

The hansom carriage trundled through the city, Caligina dropping the group where they pleased. Both Armand and Garvin asked to return to the Dreamer’s Quarter. The sun had set, so the Ravenswing thief – adopting a stealthy manner under the cover of night – quickly scaled the tower opposite the griffin-guarded gates, using his Boots of Wall-Walking, in hopes of finding some clue as to the identity of the cloaked watcher. Little could be found here save for a few hoofed footprints in the snow. A cambion? Some sort of fey? He could not be sure. He returned to the street and began making for Corvid Commons – home.

Dreamers' Quarter

Armand, meanwhile, got off at his townhouse, looking forward to an evening of experimentation. He opened the door, expecting to find Bernard awaiting him with a drink, but something was wrong – the richly patterned carpet was scuffed, paintings askew, and here was Bernard, slumped against a wall in the opulent foyer, staining the wood-paneled wall with leaked embalming fluid! The reanimated butler looked to have been killed, his head smashed. Armand seethed. What scoundrel would dare defile his home in this manner? His rage turned to focus as he heard a shriek upstairs – his other servant, Colline, must be in danger!

Armand acted quickly. With a whispered incantation he cast blink, slipping into the Ethereal Plane. He drifted up the stairs to the source of the screams and found Colline backed into a corner, menaced by two shaven-headed thugs, wearing studded leather vests and bracers. Their scalps and arms had been tattooed with crimson markings like the coils of a serpent or a vast worm, and they also openly displayed Thieves’ Marks. One carried a knife, the other a club.

“Where’s your master, then?” one of the ruffians demanded.

Armand, carefully, reached into his bag and extracting two small phials – distillations of fairy-crab-apple essence, powerfully concentrated in his laboratory. Blinking suddenly back into the material plane, he thrust both phials into the mouths of the burglars, smashing glass and releasing the potent magical liquid within. The thugs gurgled as the essence inveigled its way into their minds, filling them with suicidal impulses. One quite calmly slit his own throat, a great goat of blood spewing everywhere as he sawed beneath his chin. The other took out a flintlock pistol, aimed it at his temple, and blew out his brains.

Armand tsked. “Colline, are you alright?” the gentleman-sorcerer asked.

“I’m… I’m alright now, sir,” the servant said, quaking. “Poor Bernard! These men, they forced their way inside, killed Bernard… you arrived just in time!”

“Indeed.” Armand examined the corpses, noting the Crowsbeak amulets they wore. “We’ll have to invest in some more magical security. I’ll send for an Abjurer to ward the house. In the meantime, we’d best conceal these bodies. The greenhouse, for now, I think. I’ll have Bernard reanimated on the morrow.” He frowned and set about moving the cadavers.

Meanwhile, the carriage had passed over the Bridge of Sins and through Behemoth Bend into the shabby, eccentric district of Mooncross, where Yam made his abode, along with his temporary house-guest, Alabastor. The two gnomes made for the boarding house where Yam and Yam’s duplicate rented a chamber.

Mooncross

Yam’s quarters were those of an involved, even obsessive, if perhaps occasionally slightly scatterbrained student, one unworried by clutter, though the room itself was quite clean. The two Yams – Yam Alpha and Yam Beta – had installed a somewhat rickety bunkbed. Magical texts, small illusions, ongoing experiments, clockwork mechanisms, and other bits and pieces were scattered through the chamber. A hammock is suspended in one corner, for Alabastor.

The two relaxed, talking over the two very different meetings, when the sound of heavy boots became audible on the stairs. A voice could be heard:

“Room’s supposed to be up here. Should be three gnomes in all. Your powder dry?”

Another voice grunted an affirmation.

Yam suppressed a yelp of alarm and, with quick thinking and a practiced hand, immediately wove an illusion, projected onto the other side of the door, to make it appear as if there were simply a blank wall instead of a door.

The booted footprints came closer, stopping outside the door.

“What the…?” one gruff voice said. “Room should be here… do we have the wrong building?” There was more confused discussion, and then the footsteps receded. From the window, Yam and Alabastor watched as a pair of bamboozled thugs walked through the swirling now, back into the city.

“I’m going to follow them!” Alabastor declared recklessly, and made for the door, Yam following reluctantly behind. They slunk out of the boarding house in pursuit of the two heavy-set, shaven-headed men.

The pair slunk along down an alleyway, but Alabastor’s sneaking skills proved rusty, and he slipped on a patch of ice, knocking over a pail. The thugs turned, one catching sight of the gnome. Alasbator yelped an incantation, causing one of the two thugs to fall into a deep slumber, sinking into the snow. The other ruffian cried out in alarm, drawing his pistol, and Yam, casting mirror image, sped forwards, confusing the remaining thug.

Meanwhile, the carriage had dropped Sister off at the Swelter, the docklands of Hex. The Lengian was heading to the inn at which she was staying, when suddenly an armed assailant lurched from the shadows of an alleyway and swung a heavy club at her head. She leapt to one side with surprising dexterity for an elderly woman and turned to face her attackers: two more thugs of the same gang attacking her companions, unbeknownst to the nun.

Hex Close Up 2

Sister twisted, facing the trollblood and cambion menacing her. With a chittered prayer to the Mother of Spiders she lashed out with one of her many limbs, connecting with the half-fiend. The man stumbled back, grunting in surprise, quickly turning to screams of pain as a hideous putrescence swept his body, spreading from Sister’s touch – flesh swelling and turning gangrenous in moments, necrotizing rot spreading with horrible rapidity, as if he had been bitten by a monstrous spider. Dropping his weapon he lurched away, desperately clutching at his limbs and face, pressing snow to the decomposing wound in some vain attempt to stop the pain. The other thug snarled and charged, but Sister danced aside and darted towards a nearby door, slamming it behind her and bolting it shut. She dashed up a flight of stairs past a shocked gnome and into a large warehouse where shiftless workers loitered. Skirting the heavy crates she circled round outside, slipping past the thug still battering at the door. With speed and stealth the aged nun crept through the snow, heading for Mooncross.

canal

She reached the district after a hurried rush through the snow – only to find Yam – well, several Yams! – and Alabastor also embroiled in combat! Sister conjured a bolt of sacred flame, but it missed the remaining thug. Yam cast thunderwave while the criminal swatted at Yam’s illusory duplicates. He was blown back, tripping over his comrade, and Yam leapt to his chest.

“Who sent you!” Yam demanded. “What did they want?!”

“Ah!  Get off me!” the man grunted. “Crowsbeak, Crowsbeak! Sent us to send you a message.”

“Message?” Alabastor asked.

“The Puppet Factory. Nettie Toadlung. You lot have been mucking up their schemes.”

“Tell them to GET BETTER SCHEMES!” Yam yelled, eyes crackling with arcane puissance. “Dipshit…”

The thug growled as the gnome released him, slinking into the alleys – just as Yam Beta, as the rustic Yam of Arcadia had been dubbed, arrived.

“Yam!” Yam Beta exclaimed. “Come quick! Sebastian needs you! Experiment gone wrong! Hurry!”

Yam yelped and followed their extraplanar twin, leaving Alabastor and Sister alone in the snow.

Another was also visited by the enforcers of the Crowsbeak Thieves’ Guild. Caulis’ quarters were in the semi-abandoned and deteriorated tower of its creator, now dead for years. Books and eldritch ephemera – scrolls, spell components, reagents, arcane diagrams, and models – were everywhere, but the study and living quarters had been infested with lichen and flowering plants, and the old spells dedicating to conjuring demons have been supplanted by invocations of Faerie beings. A small chair with a nest of patchwork blankets had evidently been re-purposed as a makeshift bed. Caulis had missed the animal messenger sent by Master Melchior – tragically, the creature had been devoured by one of the alchemical mutant strays that teem in the alleyways of Caulchurch, the laboratory district. It was with some surprise that the homunculus heard a heavy rap upon the door. The mandrake-root-creature sent down its psuedodragon familiar to spy upon the unexpected visitors, who reported (another) unpleasant, leather-clad, tattooed, shaven-headed thug. Had Caulis possessed eyebrows and not merely moss, it would have cocked one.

Caulchurch

Pondering what to do next, Caulis hesitated, then cast a spell of disguise, making itself appear as a servant. A lockpick clicked deftly in the lock and the brute was upon the homunculus. Thinking quickly, Caulis wove a charm to bewitch the thug into friendship.

“Ah,” it said. “You must be looking for Caulis.”

“Er… yeah,” the thug said, shaking his head, muddled by the enchantment. “You seen it?” The thug seemed almost chummy, as if he had not just broken into a wizard’s tower, but was conversing with some fellow working stiff.

“The homunculus is not here.”

“That’s alright. I can wait.”

“I believe it headed down to the sewers, to hunt down the hag, Wicked Peggy, in the Fever Street sewers.”

“Ah, thanks.” The thug said. “Just wanted to have a, ah, conversation. Crowsbeak business.”

“I see,” Caulis, still disguised, said. “Well, if it returns I’ll let it know.”

The Crowsbeak thug nodded, still enchanted, and trudged back out into the city. Caulis sent its psuedodragon to follow, and the thug indeed headed down into the sewers. It returned reporting that the Starvelings appeared to be on high alert, fortifying their underground casino, the Rat & Roach.

Some distance to the west, Garvin arrived back in Corvid Commons.

Shambleisde, Grey Hook, & Corvid Commons

Garvin’s quarters were within an old attic with a single door, now sealed and unworking – the main entrance was the single window, carefully trapped with a gnomish slivermine. The furnishings are sparse, but give the room of unfinished wood at least something of the feeling of home. Of course, the place was riddled with hidey-holes – loose floorboards, bricks, hidden panels – in which the veteran thief kept his more valuable possessions.

Garvin was slowly winding down, preparing for a much-needed rest, when he heard a scraping, clunking sound on the wall of his building – someone scaling the wall. Grimacing, Garvin enveloped himself in the furthest shadows of the attic room, awaiting the intruder. A figure appeared in the window – bulky, bald-headed, menacing. Garvin’s eyes narrowed and, abruptly, the thief had flickered through space and time to the rooftop across the street. He now watched from behind as the thug smashed through his window and entered his attic room. A satisfying click and then a hiss of metal indicated the slivermine had been detonated; there was a dim flickering of gleaming silver, the gleam of bright blood, and an anguished shriek as the man was half-eviscerated.

thief

Garvin smiled, slipping on his goggles, and peered into the darkness. The man was still alive, but bits of metal were embedded in his torso, legs, and arms, bloodying him badly. He staggered, bleeding, and lurched for the door, opening it only to discover a brick wall. He swore and began angrily tearing up the attic – searching, it seemed, for Garvin, or perhaps for valuables. Garvin let the thug ransack the place for a moment before shimmying down from his perch and climbing the wall, ducking out of sight when the thug momentarily stuck his head out the window. Slipping back up into his quarters, Garvin pressed a knife to the thug’s throat.

“Crowsbeak I see,” Garvin said, knife briefly dipping to the amulet round the man’s neck. “Bothering a Ravenswing guildsman isn’t the wisest move. Your bosses looking to start a war?” He noted the red worm tattooed on the man’s scalp – insignia of the Bloodworms, a vassal gang of the city’s largest thieves’ guild.

The thug froze, blood still dripping from his wounds. “They’re trying to prevent one,” he said. “You’ve been sticking your nose places it doesn’t belong. Interfering with operations – you and that little group you run with. Crowsbeak sent me to put a stop to it.”

“They sent you to kill me?”

“To warn you. Not just you. Sent out enforcers to your friends, too.”

Garvin frowned. “Alright. I’ll let you go. I don’t want a war any more than you do. I won’t be so kind to future intruders. Best make that clear.”

The man swallowed and lurched away, back towards the window. Garvin kicked at a shard of glass, the fragments of mirror reflecting his face in a thousand broken pieces. He needed to talk with the others…

The group gathered at the Green Star, after a flurry of hasty messages. This late, the bar was busy and loud, giving the group cover as they discussed their respective intrusions. Garvin scanned the crowd, looking for Crowsbeak symbols.

“It’s unacceptable,” Armand said, fuming.

“We don’t want to provoke them further, right now,” Garvin said. “That was a warning. That was the Crowsbeak being polite.” He looked to Armand. “If they catch wind you killed their men there will be Hell to pay. I think we should find somewhere safe to hole up, just for a day or so, while things cool down.”

“What about the Puppet Factory?” Sister suggested. “Vespidae’s hideout.”

The suggestion was both inspired and disconcerting. No one had seen Vespidae, the so-called “Thirteenth Queen,” since her bloody performance at the Chiaroscuro.

“Worth looking into,” Caulis said.

“Maybe we should talk to Ravenswing,” Alabastor added. “See what they know.”

“Good idea,” Garvin assented. “Alright. Let’s go visit Vespidae’s new hive, see if we can shelter there for awhile. It’s certainly out of the way. Then you and I can stop by the Witching Hour.”

The Puppet Factory, appropriated as a home for Vespidae, proved difficult to enter given that the doors and windows remained boarded up, and had now accreted parts of a waspkin nest. Waspkin buzzed around the dilapidated place, but seemed to recognize the party – especially after they doused themselves in some of the leftover alchemical pheromones Vespidae had given them. After some clambering the group dropped down to find that the Puppet Factory had been fully transformed into a burgeoning new Hive. Here, countless waspkin – many lame, missing limbs or eyes, or otherwise marked as pariahs from mainstream waspkin society – busied themselves sculpting or assembling complicated clockwork automata and creating other artwork. Although most of these creations resembled waspkin, all were unusual, even surreal in style – highly individualistic.

Speaking with the waspkin clerics here, the party learned that the upper levels of the building were to be the foundation for a new Hive, in which they were considered honorary members. The lower levels, however, were given over to certain challenges and trials of faith, designed to test “initiates.” Deepest down the Yellow Sign worn by Vespidae herself was interred – a prize for any willing to descend to these depths.

The party rested in the Hive’s upper rooms for a time. After recovering from the ordeal with the Crowsbeak thugs, Garvin and Alabastor headed to the Witching Hour to speak with their Ravenswing contacts. They met with Felix Stonemouth, the thief rescued from the Van Lurken house, and recounted their encounter with the Crowsbeak. Felix seemed unsurprised. The Ravenswing, it seemed, had been gearing up towards a full-scale turf-war, aggressively absorbing smaller gangs. Things were reaching a boiling point. He advised the group to lay low, not to antagonize the Crows.

Returning to the Hive, the group discussed their options. Whether they decided to retrieve the Greater Mysteries for Master Melchior of the Velvet Shadow, the most obvious starting point was the Book of Dreams: Garvin had previously spent a handsome sum – eight hundred guineas – on a map of the Nightmare Tunnels where Melchior believed the Oneironomicon was hidden. The party studied this map carefully, tracing possible routes through the layers of sewers and caverns that wound down towards the Egregor Vaults. After recovering their strength they set out again for the Dreamer’s Quarter and located the entrance to the Fever Lane sewers.

Fever Lane Sewers

Descending from Nightmare Alley, the group crept down a fetid tunnel of mouldering brickwork. They approached the main tunnel, a broad tube fed by a steady, sluggish gush of water and waste, filling the air with a bilious reek strong enough to make the eyes sting. The tunnel doubled as a storm drain and thus was swollen with water from recent precipitation, mixing in with sewage. A grate blocked passage south. Alabastor slunk back to the grate control chamber near the entrance; a rusty lever was set into the wall of the room, along with a complex series of valves and dials seemingly monitoring water-levels throughout the sewers. Alabastor pulled the lever, lowering the grate.

gauges

Water and sewage rushed through the tunnel, but as the characters prepared to head south, something bubbled and seethed in the water, and the group retreated. Caulis called on its psuedodragon familiar to scout; the creature returned with a report of something large and many-headed wallowing in the sludge. Alabastor suggested a way forwards: he would conjure an illusion of the brickwork to mask their movements, so that the creature would perceive nothing but a blank wall. He hastily wove the illusion and the party hurried along the walkway as stealthily as possible. When Alabastor himself attempted to follow, however, a brick crumbled beneath his tread, plopping into the water.

The thing in the water stirred. At first all that could be seen was a monstrous claw, but gradually the hybrid abomination emerged from the ooze: a huge, scaled horror with the body of an albino crocodile and three heads, crocodilian, eel, and gigantic rat, with a lamprey for a tail. A pair of monstrous pincers protruded form its flanks. Sister recognized the monster as a putrecampus, a “Chimera of the Sewers.” Sensing movement, the tunnel-monster breathed forth a plume of miasmatic gas from its crocodile-head, catching both Caulis and Alabastor. The homunculus ignored the fume, but Alabastor collapsed, spasming, his face turning black as poison wracked his body. Desperately, Caulis conjured a phantasmal force, creating for the chimera the delusion that the roof had collapsed on it. The other party-members watched as the thing writhed and splashed as if in pain, blood spurting from its several mouths. Hurriedly, Sister, Armand, and Garvin dragged Alabastor to safety down a side-passage, Sister restoring him with a cure spell. Meanwhile the putrecampus shook off the illusion and charged, trying to follow the party down the passage; only its great size prevented it from reaching them, and they ducked into the adjoining grate control room.

sewers

Penned now in the second grate control room, the party caught their breath, Alabastor still shaking and wheezing, vomiting blood as his body struggled to expel the toxic gas. Scrawled on the wall not far from the grate control was a rectangle, seemingly drawn in chalk. Above the rectangle, also written in chalk, was a mysterious symbol, which Sister identified as the mark of the Antinomian, the Lawbreaker, a god of chaos. Lying before the rectangle was a body, badly decayed, garbed in mouldering rags which look like some sort of uniform, such as a prisoner or inmate might wear. The corpse, on close inspection, had been riddled with rat-bites and partially eaten by vermin. Clutched in one hand was a piece of pale chalk. Though at first glance the chalk looked white, the colour was actually quite strange and difficult to describe.

Sister began experimenting with the chalk, drawing symbols on the rectangle, and, eventually, drawing other shapes. After some investigation she discovered that the chalk could be used to create two-way portals, connecting one scrawled doorway to another!

“This will certainly be useful,” she said.

“Hmm,” Armand mused. “We need to cross the tunnel, but that thing is in the way. What if I took it and blinked across the tunnel, then drew a portal on the other side?”

“Worth a try,” Garvin said.

Armand took the chalk and crept back into the tunnel. Before the putrecampus could attack he cast blink – but due to some eldritch interference or other phenomena, the spell went sour, wild magic coursing through the gentleman-sorcerer! In moments, a grotesque wrenching of flesh transformed him into a second putrecampus, even while the blink spell misfired, displacing him atop the other monster! The Portal Chalk lay abandoned.

The two beasts thrashed in confusion. The party looked on in horror, not realizing what had happened, but Garvin, panicking, wrenched the grate control lever, once more sealing the tunnel. The grate crashed down upon both putrecampuses – but Armand, even polymorphed, blinked once more into the Ethereal Plane and was mercifully spared. There was a sound of bones snapping as the beast’s rat-head lolled on a broken neck, and the thing wrenched itself out from the grate, retreating into the depths of the sewers.

Armand rematerialized as the party crossed the now-unguarded tunnel, having retrieved the Portal Chalk. Still polymorphed, he managed to make his identity clear before the party could attack. Relieved, the group descended from the Fever Lane sewers into the upper caverns of the Nightmare Tunnels.

caves

As they passed deeper below, past the churning sewers of modern Hex and into the tunnels beneath, the hair on the back of their necks stood up and an almost electric sensation coursed throughout their bodies. Sounds become muted, strangely soothing, yet, at the same time, filled with an ineffable menace, a kind of eerie ponderous portentousness. It was as if they had stepped into a dream. Images drift suddenly unbidden through their minds. A pyramid of glistening teeth that stretches to the moon. Ivy, parasitic and invasive, choking the streets of a city, engulfing everyone in its vines. Carnivorous trees stretching pallid limbs out to snatch at passing children. A churning sea where something old and malignant swells and broods on ancient slights.

There was a sensation, also, of potentiality, brimming in their fingertips, and in their brains.

Armand found it difficult to press ahead in his putrecampus form, the tunnel being too narrow – but then, queerly, the walls seemed to stretch to accommodate his bulk, snapping back into place as he passed. It seemed that reality was somewhat malleable here.

Sister called for a halt and offered a brief prayer to the Mother of Spiders while studying the map. Her augury proved fruitful, as a route through the caverns gleamed on the parchment.

“This was,” the nun urged, pointing down the tunnel marked “Spiders” on the map. Webs swathed the walls of this tunnel, crazed in a mad profusion of designs which at first seemed random but which, upon further investigation, revealed themselves to be spelling out words – obscenities, expressions of lust or love or anguish, symbols of unknown power. The fist-sized purple spiders who tended to the webs watched with unnervingly intelligent eyes. Their susurrus of chitters formed unmistakable rhythms, a rustling alien song.

Armand, blundering through the tunnel, destroyed innumerable webs. Frantically, the spiders began spinning words in Aklo, which Sister could translate: PLEASE STOP DESTROYING OUR HOMES.

Armand ceased and, after a moment of concentration, succeeded in returning to his humanoid form. “Sorry,” he said, an apology undercut by the aristocratic disdain forever dripping from his voice.

“Can you understand me?” Sister said.

YES, the spiders wove. WHO ENTERS OUR LARDER. Punctuation seemed difficult for them.

“I am a servant of the Mother of Spiders,” Sister said. “Goddess of dreams.”

GREETINGS HOLY ONE.

“Greetings,” Sister said. “What can you tell us about these caverns?”

DO NOT LIGHT THE WAY, the spiders urged. Then, moments later: WE THIRST FOR UNREAL BLOOD. WE HUNGER FOR DREAMFLESH.

Garvin made sure that Lenore was safely hidden. The party confessed they had no food suitable for the spiders, but Sister’s status as a nun of the Mother of Spiders earned them safe passage nonetheless.

The cavern beyond had been swathed with more thick webs, and several creatures struggled in the sticky mass. One was a huge pale moth with beautiful porcelain-white wings veined with red, a monstrous proboscis juddering from its head; it thrashed madly, trying to escape. Several web-swathed bodies also hung in the webs, obscured by silk. Most notable, perhaps, was a huge, hulking thing, a gigantic beast with pinkish eyes, yellow fangs in a vertical slit of a mouth, and weird brachiating arms, four in all – Sister recognized it instantly as a gug, a voracious Dreamland native. The thing wore crude hides and was covered in tattoos, but has been utterly snared by the webbing, and though still half-conscious seemws to be slipping into a torpor. Bones and bits of decaying flesh qwre scattered throughout the intricate webs, along with occasional items – detritus leftover from previous victims.

The party was preparing to hurry onwards when a voice cooed softly from nowhere: “Ah… visitors.”

A face appeared, first pallid vampiric teeth and violet eyes in a visage pale and perfect as a doll’s or a theatrical mask, framed by long, dark hair. This face – exquisitely beautiful, feminine, but alien and unsettling – was followed by a body, huge and fat and bloated, the body of an enormous arachnid, supported by eight – or are there nine, or ten? – spindly, delicate legs. The spider-thing perched above the party in her webs. “Newcomers. Tasty-looking newcomers…” She cocked her head, noting Sister’s garb. “Ah… a woman of the cloth.” She bowed.

Sister returned the greeting. “We’re just passing through, on our way to the lower tunnels,” she said.

“I see,” the spider-thing said. “My name is Maeve. Normally I would not let such delicious-looking morsels wander past unmolested, but given your affiliations… well, I shall make an exception.”

“We, ah, appreciate that, I’m sure,” Sister said. “Anything you can tell us about what lies ahead? Or of the Cavern of Fear?”

“The gugs expand their little empire,” Maeve said. “They have a city down below, in the place where the bounds of waking world and slumber fray. But they grow bolder, colonizing the caves beyond the Seven Hundred Steps of Slumber.”

Sister nodded, old memories of the gugs making her grimace. “We may return,” she said. “It’s nice to know that not everything down here wants to eat us.”

“Well,” Maeve said. “I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I don’t want to eat you; but, for the sake of piety, I shall restrain myself.” She smiled enigmatically.

Judging it unwise to linger further lest the spider-thing changed her mind, the group pressed on. They came now to the cavern marked “Intact Guardians” on the map. In the black, dripping depths, strange statues of peculiar metal stood silent vigil, untainted by rust, unmoving. Careful to heed the spiders’ advice and avoid any light, the party pressed forwards, seeing only with Darkvision, Garvin having equipped his goggles. The statues were horrifying. Scything limbs, clacking mandibles, razor-tipped tentacles, serrated teeth, all twisting and shifting and flickering – as a person passed the statue would morph, assuming the guise of that individual’s most phobic nightmare. Several party-members were too shaken by these monstrosities to cross the chamber, but through a clever use of the Portal Chalk – some characters returning to the grate control room via one portal, while Caulis scrawled a new portal on the other side of the Guardians – the room was passed.

Mere steps later, however, the group found another gruesome sight. Sprawled in deflated-looking heaps in the middle of this cavern were the bodies of three ghouls, nearly-naked, their skins ritually scarified, broken spears and flint daggers lying nearby. The corpses at first looked like withered sacks or piles of empty clothes. Closer inspection revealed that their bones had mostly collapsed or been consumed. Horribly wounds marred their skin where something sharp pierced their bodies to suck the marrow from their bones. Several of the bodies had glossy white eggs laid inside them.

“Marrowmoths,” Caulis said. “Bone-sucking insects.” It shivered. “Let’s return to the grate room for a moment. We could all do with a moment’s rest, but I don’t want spend it here.” It scrawled a doorway on one cave-wall using the Portal Chalk. The party stepped through – but, when Sister and Alabastor reached the other side, they realized that, quite suddenly, they were alone. Garvin, Caulis, and Armand had vanished, seemingly without a trace.

Images: Thief concept art, screenshots from Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs, Outlast.

Hex, Session XII – 5th Edition Actual Play – “The Organon of Magic”

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).
  • Cephalus T. Murkwater, a dagonian barrister and monk, specializing in martial arts and magical labour law.
  • Garvin Otherwise, a human rogue and burglar of the Ravenswing Thieves’ Guild, with a very, very peculiar past and a zoog pet, Lenore.
  • Hurogg, a (vaguely) human barbarian of staggering size but seemingly dim wit.
  • 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.”
  • 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: 300 XP.

It was winter in Hex, and the city was swathed in cold, grey mist. Even the weather-witches of the Citadel of the Perpetual Storm had been unable to ward off the brutal winter storms which blew down from the Troll Country to the north. Mount Shudder was a stark white tooth, and the city itself had been blanketed in heavy snow. Though the Radula River rarely froze, this year it had become a solid sheet of ice for over a month, and a Frost Fair had sprung up on its frigid surface. While sea and river trade had been halted, a thriving winter market did bustling business on the river, tents and booths clustering around boats stuck in the ice. Children skated and played games on the ice, while carriages, ignoring the city’s bridges, conveyed people to and fro as if they river were a road.

eltham-frost

Not everyone in the city was enjoying the cold and snow. The city’s stevedores and other dock-labourers had been put out of work, as had the mudlarks who usually comb the banks for scavenged scrap. Hex’s fungoids had retreated indoors, made uncomfortable by the intense snows. The dagonians, too, had become somewhat torpid and sleepy, being cold-blooded. But the worst hit were the waspkin. The insectoids had almost entirely gone into hibernation to wait out the long winter – perhaps not too soon, considering the conflict that sprung up around Vespidae, the so-called Thirteenth Queen, who disappeared weeks ago. A few of those waspkin unable to shelter in the Nests of Stingsworth or Suckletown had died, their stiff little bodies discovered in snowdrifts.

And what of our heroes – if we should call them such?

After his guest, the Cat Prince Nahotep of New Ulthar, had spent a week at his abode before moving on to the homes of other Hexian elites, Armand had busied himself with certain experiments, using a magical window purchased from the alchemist Valdemar Sluice and certain botanical clippings the gentleman-adventurer had scavenged in his forays into the Old City, Faerie, the unreal city of Carcosa, and elsewhere. Lines of research subjects snaked from his greenhouse doors into the snow; on these he tested new concoctions distilled from the essences of love-plums and poisonous fungi and hallucinogenic sallowmoss, magically transformed through the metamorphic light of the tinted window. As he purified a batch of suicide-inducing liquid, his undead butler, the reanimated Bernard, shuffled to the door of his laboratory.

“A most unusual visitor just stopped by, sir,” the beautifully embalmed butler said. “A fox, on his hind-legs, clad in a neat waistcoat. He brought you this.” Bernard held out a small card…

Meanwhile, in Corvid Commons, Garvin Otherwise – magical thief and Ravenswing burglar – had been living a strangely uncertain life, haunted by the itching feeling that nothing he saw was real. After his visit to another reality he believed to be his home, Garvin mused that Hex itself might be nothing more than a grand illusion. Distracted though he was by such skepticism, Garvin nonetheless continued to ply his trade, purchasing a pair of goggles enchanted to see in the dark from the Midnight Market. Once back in his attic abode, the thief was surprised as a small rat scurried from a hole in the ceiling, bearing with it card in its mouth. Its eyes glittered with unusual intelligence. Garvin took the card when it was proffered; the mouse, lingering, squeaked, until the thief offered a suitable morsel by way of tip. He looked at the card…

Cephalus the dagonian – labour lawyer and martial artist extraordinaire – had a busy, if uncomfortable winter, dealing with the complaints of the city’s abruptly shiftless dockworkers. For reasons that will become clear, the currently male dagonian had a guest: a man, or man-like thing, called Hurogg, hulking and muscular, tall as a trollblood. When a dog barked outside Cephalus’ office, something tied to his back, it was the lumbering Hurogg who went to investigate, returning with the surprised and rather terrified pup in hand, which, upon release, whimpered and bounded away in relief – though not before Cephalus procured the card…

winter

We must not forget the charitable Sister, the Lengian cleric. With mounting disapproval from the older nuns of the Mother of Spiders and growing awe and reverence from the younger, Sister had taken to absenting herself from the Temple in favour of helping the frozen poor. She was ladling soup to a band of ragged urchins when a squirrel scuttled down to her, bearing with it a mysterious card. This she took, taking care to feed the squirrel, too, for its trouble.

And now, a surprise, for a person not glimpsed since the beginning of this chronicle now makes his reappearance: Alabastor Quan. It took the poor gnome rogue many months of trudging through the Whorl to finally escape its eldritch depths, lost and alone. Bjorn, he could only assume, had been devoured by whatever foul, skittering creature still stalked Alabastor himself through the dark; as for his other companions, he knew not where they had fled, or whether they still lived. Sustained on lichen and water, Alabastor grew more grizzled and more crazed. None of his thieving ways proved helpful in his escape attempts, and though the curious magical dagger he carried was strangely and blissfully quiet, he became maddened nonetheless by the endless tedium of the Whorl, till, one day, he discovered the trap’s secret, and freed himself of its hold. Returning now to the surface, he trudged through snowy streets, unclear how much time had passed, not knowing for sure if he was even the same Alabastor as the one who had entered the Old City what seemed a lifetime ago. He made for the abode of his old friend – the chambers of Yam.

But what of Yam – gnome illusionist, perennial graduate student, delver into ancient mysteries? Yam the inscrutable, Yam the ingenious, Yam the inventive? There are two Yams, now, of course: the familiar Yam we have all grown to know and love, and a second Yam, from the bucolic reality nicknamed “Arcadia,” brought from that rustic land to the bustling metropolis of Hex – a wide-eyed, only slightly bumpkinish version of Yam. Already the pair had installed a ramshackle bunkbed in their rickety Mooncross chamber. Imagine, now, their identical delight as a pair of pigeons landed on their windowsill, each carrying a card in its beak!

And yet, tragedy: only one of the cards was for Yam, the first Yam. The other card, it seemed, was for Alabastor, who, intrigued, accepted it from its pigeon carrier.

These mysterious cards, as you might surmise, bore a similar message. In Hex, there are some invitations that one simply does not ignore: the summons of the Hexad Council, for instance, or the request of the Magistra’s High Archon. The cards our heroes have received are such: the cards of Master Melchior himself, one of the most powerful archwizards in Hex, founder of Master Melchior’s School of Thaumaturgy & Enchantment, a living legend in the magical community, and a towering figure in Hex’s history and mythology. It seems he humbly requested their presences, in his office at his school, in the Dreamer’s Quarter in Hex, that evening at seven o’clock. Conveniently, none of the invitees had prior appointments at this hour. And so, attending to final errands, they gathered at the gates of Hex’s oldest and most prestigious university.

Dreamers' Quarter

The Dreamer’s Quarter was a shadowy, alluring section of the city, nestled between the opulence of Fanghill to the northeast and the exotic tiers of Cobweb Cliffs to the southwest, the green gloom of the Feypark and Ambery nearby, and the whirring machines of Mainspring to the south. Despite being surrounded by such wonders, however, the Dreamer’s Quarter seems a world of its own. Its streets were almost eerily quiet – not silent, but curiously muffled. A light fog usually drifted through the streets, which were narrow and lined with trees. Ivy grew on the walls of the tall, ornate buildings, most of them five or six storeys high. There were several places of note here, apart from the prestigious Master Melchior’s school: the Institute for the Magically Insane, a large asylum for those maddened by magic, and the Gate of Horn, an extrusion of the Old City, which was said to lead into the Dreamlands themselves, but which stands shut at almost all times. The feeling here could be aptly described as sleepy.

The people here were a mix of species, but most were human, gnome, or homunculi, with a fair smattering of Lengians and cambions as well. Though certainly not common, there were also a number of unusual figures – almost certainly Fairy visitors, marked by their pointed ears, strange eyes, and garments of gossamer. Apart from homunculi the many wizards, witches, and other spell-casters who called these streets their home employed a variety of demonic and elemental servants, as well as animal familiars distinguished from strays by their elaborate magical collars bearing their summoners’ arcane marks, could be seen in the streets.

Master Melchior’s School of Thaumaturgy & Enchantment was the oldest and most well-respected institutions of magical learning in the city of Hex, and thus in the world. An opulent campus whose ivy-strangled towers and domes distantly echoed the alien aesthetics of the Old City, the university lay at the heart of the Dreamer’s Quarter. Its baroque facades, broad quadrangles, and tall spires projected grandeur, gravitas, and an aura of wisdom. The university’s guardians, of course, were legendary: a pair of permanently charmed griffins, supposedly bewitched by Master Melchior himself, who stand their majestic vigil at the school’s wrought-iron gates. Within, students could be seen practicing their spells, enchanting summoned familiars or one another, or reading from weighty tomes. The pair of griffin guardians prowling at the gates spread their wings in formal but still fearsome warning as the party approached, converging on the gates.

griffin

“Who would enter Master Melchior’s School of Thaumaturgy & Enchantment?” the left-hand griffin asked, regarding you with tawny eyes.

“Do you have proof of your invitation to these grounds?” the right-hand griffin sternly requested.

It was now, with keen senses prickling, that Garvin felt the weight of eyes on the back of his neck, and, glancing backwards, glimpsed a cowled figure standing atop a nearby spire – gone as soon as it was seen. The thief shivered for reasons apart from the cold as the party showed their invitations, earning entrance to the school’s grounds.

The front courtyard of the school was a grassy lawn with a small pool and well-manicured trees. At the centre stood an imposing statue of Master Melchior himself, as he appeared before his body perished and his brain was transferred into a jar of alchemical liquid: a bald, clever-looking man with a pointed beard. As is the norm, his expression seemed faintly amused and curious. The statue bore an elaborate staff in one hand. The surrounding buildings included the student residence, the dining hall, the administrative offices, the university’s fortress-like library, and the Department of Memory Magic, as well as the personal tower of Master Melchior himself. Archways led into adjoining parts of the school where additional classroom spaces, faculty offices, and other university buildings could be seen.

Students here were not just human, but of every species in Hex and beyond. A small group of dagonian students swam in the pool – a rare sight outside of Croakmarsh or the docklands. Even spot a hulking trollblood student and, bizarrely, a waspkin student in ill-fitting robes, could be seen. This latter Garvin approached, speaking in buzzing Vespine as best he could.

“Strange to hear my own language outside Stingsworth,” the waspkin student responded. The two struck up a conversation, swapping rumours of the Thirteenth Queen, and the waspkin asked to test out a spell on Garvin, who politely refused, with a promise to return on his way back. The group now made for the tower of Melchior himself. Inside, they climbed a spiral stair lined with portraits of the famous wizard till they came to the headmaster’s study: a spacious, wood-paneled room filled with books, magical objects, and other artefacts, including such oddities as a flowering plant with eyeballs for blooms, a taxidermy manticore, a collection of animated statuettes, and a small fire elemental living in a glyph-graven brazier. Sitting atop a huge desk of dark wood was a tank of alchemical liquid in which was suspended a brain – Melchior. Reading a book at the desk was a man, who stood when the group entered: a rather short, clever-looking fellow, bald, with a silvery beard and twinkling eyes, dressed in rather old-fashioned scholarly robes. They recognized this figure from the statue in the courtyard – it was the semblance of Master Melchior himself, whose body has been dead for countless years.

francis bacon

“Greetings,” Melchior said “It is good to see several of you again, and to speak to you using a more civilized form. This body, of course, is an illusion – my true self remains imprisoned in glass.” He gestures with one long-fingered hand at the brain in the jar. “Thank you for meeting me here. I have been quietly following your work here in Hex for the past year, ever since young Valdemar hired some of you to retrieve the Viridian Tablet from the Whorl. You have managed to get yourselves involved in a rather fascinating array of situations, and acquitted yourselves rather well. I have for you what you might consider a job offer, quite possibly the last you will ever need. But before arriving at my offer, perhaps you will indulge an old professor a bit of pontification about his research?”

The group indicated their assent.

“I hope I am not being immodest by stating that I am one of the most well-known wizards in Hex. Indeed, I am even older than most would guess. I was part of the original expedition that discovered the Old City in the first place, before Hex was built. I have been part of this city since it was nothing more than an archeological camp amongst the ruins. There is no one living more knowledgeable about the Librarians and their teachings than I. I have studied every branch of magical learning, and though this school is dedicated to enchantment and the magic of the mind – magic which has helped to preserve me these many centuries – I consider myself a student of all magic, of magic in its totality.

“When I was a younger man, I often delved into the Old City itself, saw with my own eyes the works of our predecessors. To those outside of Hex, our city is a place of marvels and miracles,   where nothing is impossible. Even those native to the city proudly think it a centre for magical learning, the most advanced in the world. But those of us who have studied the Librarian writings, or spent time in the city beneath, know that we have barely scratched the surface, lingering on the threshold of true understanding. True, we have mastered a few tricks, things the Librarians would have considered petty magic: reanimating the dead, summoning a few spirits from the Underworld, changing one substance into another. But our works are nothing compared to those of our predecessors, who not only visited other worlds and planes of existence, but created them, wrought whole new realities, rewrote the laws of the multiverse as they saw fit. We are but dabblers, dilettantes, neophytes. We preen and preach and lecture to our students and imagine ourselves masters of time and space and matter, but our towers of knowledge are built on foundations of sand. The more I have learned, the more I have realized how little we truly know, and how much more there is to learn.

“Now, I will be the first to admit that our species have not proven ourselves fully worthy of the powers the Librarians possessed. We are a fickle and often foolish people.   I have lived for many centuries, have seen my share of war and calamity. But I have not grown cynical, despite the horrors I have witnessed, despite our frailties and feebleness. I believe we are capable of greatness, of rising to the heights of the Librarians, even of surpassing them.  There are some reactionary souls who believe our supposedly corrupt natures mean that we should abandon our quest for knowledge, should wallow in ignorance, should hold ourselves back from understanding.   Such folk, ultimately, believe we are unworthy of enlightenment, that we must hold ourselves back from progress. There are others, too – often those who purport to be pious worshippers of the gods – who hold that there are some things we mere mortals were never ‘meant’ to know, but which should remain sacred and secret, forever beyond our reach. I cannot align myself with such conservatism. Yes, of course, magic can be dangerous, and power can be abused, and the universe is stranger than any of us dream, but that is no reason to curtail our need to better understand – and, yes, control – our reality.

“My researches into the writings of the Librarians have been extensive, but full of maddening gaps and references to missing texts. I have become aware, over the course of centuries, of a masterwork of the Librarians, a kind of cornerstone of their knowledge, the Organon of Magic, divided into thirteen volumes. Each volume of the Organon is devoted to understanding one of what we might call the ‘Greater Mysteries’ – the fundamental forces and principles underlying the nature of magic and the universe.

“Not only are these thirteen volumes individually valuable, full of the Librarians’ most complex formulations and most advanced spells, when combined together I am convinced that they would form a single, coherent theory of magic, from which could be extrapolated all sorts of new forms of magic. It is this unifying theory of magic that I have long sought. I have assembled pieces of it based on guesses and experiment and those scraps of knowledge we have dredged from the Old City, but much of it remains elusive even to me. But were I to possess the complete Organon of Magic – all thirteen volumes – I believe I could complete this unified theory, publish a New Organon, translating and explaining and expanding the knowledge of the Librarians. Such a work would revolutionize the practice of magic in Hex. Given time and careful application we might feed the hungry, cure the sick, end all poverty, and explore countless new worlds beyond imagining. I do not imagine wielding the power the Organon blithely, or for any petty end. I am not a man who covets authority for its own sake, or dominion over others. I already have all of the wealth and prestige that I might ever desire. I seek this knowledge not to further my own, private ends, but for the good of all. I know that for all your adventurousness, many of you care about more than gold. Some of you strive to improve the lives of the poor, to end oppressions that have too long endured, or, like me, to unlock the secrets of the cosmos.

“You may think this prevarication rather unnecessary, but I wish to be clear in my intentions. For, as you have doubtless guessed, I wish to employ you to procure the Thirteen Greater Mysteries of the Organon of Magic. Indeed, as it happens, you have already found the first, though perhaps you have not realized it.” He looks to Garvin. “Some time ago you retrieved the text known as the Myxonomicon – the Book of Slime – from the Old City. This is, in fact, the first of the Greater Mysteries.

“I have, in my many years, managed to amass a fortune fit to rival that of the merchant princes of Hex. Though I am not the wealthiest man in the city, I can be reckoned among its richest citizens nonetheless. In exchange for the complete Organon in its entirety, I am prepared to part with a sum that would ensure a life of comfort and leisure for all of you all: a million guineas of Hexian gold.  For each volume that you acquire, you would receive a small portion of this total – ten thousand gold pieces – but the lion’s share of the sum would be yours only after all thirteen of the Greater Mysteries are assembled.

“I have, over the years, researched the locations of the Greater Mysteries in tremendous detail, and I believe I have learned the approximate location of all but one. You would have full access to my notes and researches, to aid you in recovering the Organon. And should you require further assistance, I will do my best to provide it. However, I must caution you that retrieving these thirteen volumes would be more dangerous than any task that any of you have yet attempted. Some of you almost certainly would perish in the attempt. A number of the Greater Mysteries are held deep in the Old City, and others in places just as perilous. But none of you are strangers to danger. What say you?”

V0017640 An alchemist in his laboratory. Oil painting by James Nasmyt Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org An alchemist in his laboratory. Oil painting by James Nasmyth. By: James NasmythPublished: - Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Garvin was the first to reply. “No one knows what happened to the Librarians,” the thief mused. “But some say they tampered with powers too dangerous to comprehend, or wield safely, and destroyed themselves. Couldn’t we be setting ourselves up for the same fall?”

Melchior scratched his beard. “A philosopher’s question, and a worthy one,” he said. “It is true, that is one theory – but I do not believe it. I have become convinced that the Librarians left this multiverse for one more sublime, that their departure was quite intentional. Undoubtedly, however, the Greater Mysteries are dangerous. But I will labour over them carefully before publishing my translation. Anything too dangerous I would withhold from the public, of course.”

Alabastor had his own query. “I’ve been… doubting the nature of my reality,” he said. “Is there any way to truly know that what you are experiencing is real?”

“Ah! I wrote a treatise on this subject,” he said. A book floated from the wall into Alabastor’s hands.

Sister had an alternative objection. “My worry is the opposite,” the Lengian cleric said. “How can we be sure that this great magic will actually help everyday people? How can we be sure it won’t just make the rich richer, the powerful more powerful?”

Cephalus concurred. “Yes. That was my thought, as well. It is my mission in life to help the working class. Can you promise this magic will not lead to yet more exploitation?”

“I do plan on disseminating this knowledge,” Melchior said. “But the magic the Greater Mysteries contain – it could remake this world! It could end all need for work, feed millions, clothe us, shelter us, cure what ails us. Without the need to fight over scarce resources – gold, iron, territory, even time itself – there would be no need for war, for crime, for strife. This knowledge could bring about a world of unimaginable wonders.”

Armand was more pragmatic in his questioning. “These advances you plan on giving us,” the gentleman-sorcerer mused. “I would prefer if they were… somewhat closer to a thirteenth of the total.”

“May I be frank?”

“Certainly.”

“I would not trust you not to simply retrieve one volume, collect a princely sum, and then end your quest. But I need all Thirteen Mysteries.”

“Are we not gentlemen? Surely you trust me to keep my word.”

“My good Vicomté de la Marche, were your party entirely men and women of such honour and distinction as yourself, I would have no qualms. But – and here I hope my honesty does not offend – your number also includes… well, less scrupulous individuals. This is, indeed, part of your value. But my trust can only be extended so far, I regret.”

“Very well,” Armand said, bored-sounding. He glanced at his nails. “This publication process. There will be some sort of committee? Editors and the like?”

“Yes, I imagine so.”

“I would like to be included.”

“I see,” Melchior said. “Very well. You shall all be given a chance to read the New Organon of Magic and provide your input before it is published.”

Yam, meanwhile, had conjured an illusory moustache on Melchior’s brain-jar. The enchanter’s illusion turned and perceived the trick, and began laughing uproariously.

“Ha! Hahaha… my my.” He wiped simulated tears from his simulated cheeks. “Yam. Do you have any questions for me?”

“Hmmm…” Yam thought. “This quest. Will there be cool shit?”

Melchior laughed again, a deep belly-laugh. “Of course that would be your only concern! Yes Yam, there will be cool shit indeed!” The archwizard swore with gusto. “Any further questions or requests?”

A few minor logistical details of communication were worked out. Then, abruptly, Hurogg spoke to Cephalus. The dagonian furrowed his brow, and handed a piece of parchment to Melchior.

“This potion,” he said. “Could you… make this?”

Melchior’s illusion studied the parchment, then nodded. He turned to a small laboratory occupying one corner of the study, and with astounding speed, prepared the concoction. “Here you are.”

Hurogg nodded and, carefully, handed the phial to Cephalus for safe-keeping.

“How many people have you hired to look for these books?” Alabastor asked, cagily.

“You are the first,” Melchior said. “I have sent no others looking directly.”

“Then why now? What’s special about this moment?”

“My researches into the texts’ locations has only recently truly coalesced,” Melchior replied. “But, in truth – it is you who are special, you who convinced me an expedition to obtain these texts might be fruitful. You retrieved the Myxonomicon!” He smiled. “If there are no further concerns,” Melchior said. “Are we agreed?”

One by one, the party signaled their agreement. Melchior’s illusion smiled, and took out a series of notes from his desk.

“Here are my notes on the Greater Mysteries’ locations,” he said. “Study them carefully. If you have need of anything, let me know. Good luck!”

The party took the notes and departed, descending the staircase back to the university. The notes were as follows:

The Thirteen Greater Mysteries of the Organon of Magic

Master Melchior supplies the group with notes on the location and nature of each of the Thirteen Greater Mysteries.

Volume I: Myxonomicon, The Book of Slime

Also called the Book of Slime, the Myxonomicon is a history of the extreme prehistoric ages of the world and details curious experiments the Librarians performed on forms of early life. Long thought lost, the tome has been recovered from the Old City by an enterprising group of adventurers.

Volume II: Oneironomicon, The Book of Dreams

The Oneironomicon or Book of Dreams contains much knowledge of the Dreamlands, a partially immaterial or “psychicical” plane of existence, home of the Lengians and many other creatures. The Librarians evidently had explored parts of this plane and have compiled various magical spells for manipulating it and its denizens in the Book of Dreams, which also contains magic relating to other psychic phenomena and mind-magic. I believe the Oneironomicon lies somewhere deep below the Dreamer’s Quarter itself, in the Nightmare Tunnels – likely, my researches suggest, within the Egregor Vaults, where the dreams and nightmares of those who dwell above coalesce into physical form.

Volume III: Sarconomicon, The Book of Flesh

The Sarconomicon contains knowledge of the transformation and alteration of living beings, the reconfiguration of organic matter. Though known as the Book of Flesh it could as-easily be called the “Book of Metamorphosis” or “Book of Change.” It was using formulae from this powerful text that Hex devised the terrible poisons used to curse the wretched city of Teratopolis, warping its residents into their current horrific forms. The text was long thought destroyed during the explosion that levelled the Alchemist’s Guildhouse. However, my researches have suggested that the tome may have survived, as records extracted from the Midden indicate that the grimoire was being housed in the archives below the district. To retrieve it would require delving into the tunnels beneath the scrapyard, daring the mutant vermin, ghouls, and scavenger gangs who infest the ruins.

Volume IV: Haemonomicon, The Book of Blood

Unfortunately, I believe that the Book of Blood no longer resides within Hex. The Haemonomicon contains not only the secrets of blood as a substance, but of bloodlines – the biological code from which all creatures spring, and which the Librarians could splice and intermingle as a weaver does threads of cloth. The text supposedly lays bare the very essence of life itself, the vital energy that grants living beings their animacy. The petty experiments of the alchemists in Caulchurch are but childish dabblings compared to the masterpieces of the Librarians; indeed, many believe that the various species that reside on our little world are the results of their experiments. Sadly, I have concluded that the only copy of the Book of Blood is now in the possession of the Countess Erzsébet Scarrow, one of the vampiric aristocrats of Erubescence. The Countess is impossibly old and powerful, and Castle Scarrow is said to be near-impregnable, guarded by a veritable legion of undead. It would take a small army – or some incredibly skilled burglars – to retrieve the artefact from foreign soil.

Volume V: Hylonomicon, The Book of Trees

The so-called “Book of Trees,” like the Book of Flesh, bears a name resistant to translation; it might also be rendered “The Book of Matter” or “The Book of Substance.” It contains Librarian knowledge of that which pertains to the essence of things, their basest and innermost nature, rather than the panoply of forms into which they can be shaped or the properties they may possess. Certainly, as the moniker Book of Trees suggests, the Hylonomicon relates to what might commonly be known as “nature-magic,” as well as the fabrication of objects and beings. This tome seems to have passed into the possession of the legendary cambion magus Myrddin, who, in his twilight years, became somewhat eccentric and retired to the depths of the Tangle forest, building a large manse somewhere within its depths. Attempts to locate Myrddin’s manse and recover the artefacts there have thus far met with no success, in no small part due to the malevolent Fair Folk of the Tangle.

Volume VI: Thanatonomicon, The Book of Death

The Book of Death is an extended study of endings and of magic used to create or forestall them. Unlike the Pneumanomicon, which deals with the shades of the dead, or the Abyssonomicon, which deals with Hell, demons, and the damned, the Thanatonomicon includes knowledge of preventing and circumventing death, as well as causing it, and of harnessing the peculiar energies of death. When combined with knowledge from the Book of Blood and the Book of Time, the Book of Death supposedly contains the secrets of true immortality. Unlike its sister-text, the Book of Ghosts, the Thanatonomicon has never been retrieved from the Old City, though reputedly several assassin’s guilds have been searching for it. My research suggests that the book is likely in the Dregs, the tunnels below Caulchurch, in a shrine dedicated to the Unspeakable One known as the Shrouded Lord.

Volume VII: Pneumanomicon, The Book of Ghosts

The dread Book of Ghosts contains Librarian discoveries around the nature of the soul and the liminal state between life and death, or “undeath.” The grimoire is said to contain detailed instructions on something called “ghost husbandry” – the breeding of the dead – as well as methods for calling forth the ghosts or spirits of animals and inanimate objects, such as the souls of ruins. The Pneuomanomicon was unearthed from the Old City some centuries ago and for a time resided in the personal collection of the famed necromancer Genevieve Chancel, but never became an official part of the Académie Macabre’s library. I strongly suspect the text now resides within Genevieve’s tomb within the depths of the Catacombs beneath Grey Hook. Genevieve herself gleaned much from the Book of Ghosts, but during her investigations of the grimoire she became horrified by something she read and convinced that the Pneumanomicon would be dangerous in the wrong hands; she said as much to me before passing into the next life herself. If the Book is indeed buried with her, it will be well-protected by whatever wards and protections guard her resting place.

Volume VIII: Abyssonomicon, The Book of the Underworld

While the Book of Ghosts deals with the spirits of the dead in this plane, the Abyssonomicon, or Book of the Underworld, considers the plane which some religions have called “Hell,” and the magic associated with its denizens. It seems the Librarians were aware of this plane’s existence and had certain wary dealings with the various diabolic inhabitants of that place, though based on other writings it seems clear they did not regard them with the same superstitious awe as many humanoid cultures do today.  The Book of the Underworld was reputedly used to create the Square of the Seal before the Infernal Basilica. Although my suspicions have not been confirmed, all evidence suggests that the book was stolen by the infamous rogue demon Malephar, the leader of the thieves’ guild known as the Horned League. According to my contacts in the criminal underworld of Hex, this guild is based in Behemoth Bend, near the Hellpits.

Volume IX: Anarchonomicon, The Book of Chaos

The crazed contents of the Anarchonomicon were said to be the obsession of Zachariah Soulswell, the deranged architect and one-time dictator who created Delirium Castle, and who some say resides there still. The Book of Chaos contains a Librarian analysis of entropy and disorder, and spells to control – or, rather, channel – these unruly forces of flux and decay. The constant, random growth of Delirium Castle is likely the product of the knowledge within the Book of Chaos. Though he possessed many treasures, doubtless Zachariah would keep the Anarchonomicon somewhere especially secure, such as a high tower or a treasure-vault below the fortress.

Volume X: Astronomicon, The Book of Stars

The Astronomicon contains both the secrets of light – most enigmatic of energy-forms, yet so vital to our survival – and of fate. While common charlatans will attribute all manner of superstitious nonsense to the “arrangement of the stars,” scholars know that most such fortune-tellers are naught but peddlers of nonsense. Nonetheless, it is said that the Librarians were able to use the position of the stars to divine many other truths about the nature of reality, extrapolating from their locations in space and time to help determine secrets of the primordial past or predict future events both celestial and otherwise. The Book of Stars contains many secrets of this sort. My researches suggest that the Astronomicon is located not in the Old City of Hex but in what some have termed the Vessel, the Librarian space-craft adrift at the edge of our solar system, where the text would have been used to help navigate the stars and the vast gulfs between them. Of course, getting to the star-faring craft will be extraordinarily challenging. Many have hoped to find some portal to the craft in the Old City, but no such door has ever been found. It must be theoretically possible to construct a ship of our own to reach this ancient hulk, but such an undertaking would be truly astonishing.

Volume XI: Scotonomicon, The Book of Darkness

Though the Book of Time may be more powerful and the Book of Anathema more esoteric, none of the Greater Mysteries are more feared than the Scotonomicon, the Book of Darkness, supposedly “forbidden” by the Librarians themselves. The grimoire supposedly contains rituals that surpass even the diabolic rites of the Book of the Underworld, rituals which require acts that even the notoriously amoral Librarians, who created and destroyed life on a whim, considered abhorrent. I seek this tome not to use the fell magic within it, but for the insights that the Eleventh Volume will shed upon the others, for this book, like the others, helps to assemble a complete portrait of the nature of magic as the Librarians understood it. I believe that the last copy of this sinister tome was purloined by a death-cult dedicated to the Pallid Worm, who operated outside the city in a temple-complex on the slopes of Mount Shudder. The cult was destroyed some years ago after it was found that they were performing human sacrifices and committing other heinous deeds, and their headquarters lies abandoned; the book was never found, but I suspect that the temple contains secret chambers, and its lower levels were never fully explored.

Volume XII: Xenonomicon, The Book of Anathema

Of all the volumes of the Organon of Magic, the Xenonomicon remains all but opaque to us, for the Book of Anathema contains descriptions and magic related to what many believe to be the homeworld of the Librarians, the distant plane that cosmologists have called Anathema, a place so utterly alien and other that most mortal minds can scarcely comprehend it. The Book of Anathema has never been retrieved, but my researches have led me to suspect that the tome can be found somewhere in the legendary Tower of Whispers, the strange spire within Engima Heap into whose depths even the most skilled of magic-users fear to delve, and which reputedly contain horrors and wonders beyond all comprehension.

Volume XIII: Chrononomicon, The Book of Time

The Book of Time is perhaps the most powerful of the Thirteen Greater Mysteries, containing formulae and spells that unlock the secrets of past and future. The Librarian ability to travel backwards, forwards, and sideways through time, to split and splice timelines, to loop, rewind, or freeze time, and to otherwise manipulate the fabric of time are all described in this ancient tome. The location of the fabled Chrononomicon remains lost, though the infamous witch Wilhelmina Wormsfleur, now incarcerated in Spellcage, was said to have once possessed a copy. Wilhelmina has refused to speak with me, but perhaps she could be persuaded to give up the location of the Book of Time…

still-life-with-books

The party now prepared to leave, Garvin lingering for a moment, allowing the waspkin student to charm him temporarily, before they left via the griffin-guarded main gates. As they departed Master Melchior’s School of Thaumaturgy & Enchantment, a large hansom cab pulled up, its windows shrouded with black curtains. The cab was drawn by a pair of strange steeds, one a whirring mechanical horse venting steam from its nostrils, the other a reanimated horse with carefully tanned skin tattooed with necromantic glyphs. The cab was driven by a figure swathed in a grey cloak and hat, their features obscured. The door to the cab opened and a tall, curvaceous woman with midnight black skin peered out at the newly-hired adventurers. She wore a dress of Lengian silk – effectively a chic, unobtrusive suit of armour. She regarded them with startling pale eyes, inclined her head, and then retreated into the gloom of the carriage, leaving the door open. Presumably they were intended to enter…

One by one, with varying degrees of reluctance, the party entered the hansom, too intrigued to ignore whatever mysteries it held. Inside, the carriage was revealed as far larger than its exterior dimensions would suggest, with a dozen padded leather seats. The windows were shrouded with curtains, but also seem to be warded to obscure the city outside.  The woman was seated on one of the luxurious seats, a drink in hand; a homunculus in a smart little suit was here as well, a bottle of wine in its gnarled hands, and offered a drink to any who wish, though none chose to partake.

“You may call me Caligina,” the woman said. Her voice bore the trace of an unplaceable accent. “Members of my organization are not usually forthcoming about our affiliation, but in this case, it has been decided that an exception should be made. I am an agent of the group known as the Velvet Shadow.”

None of them were ignorant of this name, though it was known especially to Alabastor and Garvin – the Velvet Shadow was known throughout Hex and elsewhere, for they operated far beyond the walls of the city. They were a mysterious guild of spies and assassins who are said to have agents everywhere – from the homes of the elite and in the darkened alleys of the seediest slum. Their fees were exorbitant, but they could be hired either to procure information or for more violent ends – though they had been known to refuse certain contracts for reasons they do not disclose. It was widely rumoured that they recruited out of both the Courtesan’s Guild and the universities of Hex, seeking those skilled in the seductive and magical arts.

“I know that you have just been to visit Master Melchior,” Caligina said. “I know the offer he made to you, and that he has told you what he knows of the Thirteen Greater Mysteries. The Velvet Shadow would like to make you a counter-offer.”

Outside, the sounds of the city were muted and distant-seeming.

winter 2

“No doubt Melchior’s offer was enticing,” Caligina said. “The Velvet Shadow is prepared to match his sum. In addition, after receipt of the full Organon of Magic, you will each be able to make a single request of the Shadow, free of charge. If you wish to learn some secret, we will discover it for you. If you wish someone dead, we will kill them for you.

“We do not seek to impugn the nobility of Melchior’s motives. Though he is powerful, it is not power itself he craves, but knowledge and understanding. But this thirst for knowledge can make Melchior blind. He has sought hungrily after it these many years of his life, and made the city what it is today. In many ways it is a city in his image, devoted to the ideals he cherishes: enlightenment, rationality, wisdom. But as you all know, Hex is more than its academies. Crime, corruption, violence – all have flourished here, in the shadow of Melchior’s spires. It was with the magic Melchior helped discover that the Elder Trees were first tapped of their sap and the waspkin cast from their homes. It was the delving that Melchior began that unleashed the Plasmic Woe that remains trapped in the Warded Ward. The diseases of those penned in the quarantined zone of Catch-All are not natural plagues, but infections born in alchemical cauldrons, or carried up from the darkness of the Old City. Melchior considers these things unfortunate, but he does not acknowledge his part in creating them. They are the by-products of his enterprise.

“I am sure Melchior sought to dismiss these very concerns by telling you that seeking knowledge and progress are worthy ends, and that those who naysay such endeavours are reactionaries and cynics. But the Velvet Shadow shares in Melchior’s belief that knowledge is always worth seeking. We are, after all, a society of spies. Discovering the forbidden and the secret is half our purpose and livelihood. Nor do we shirk from the exercise of power, as the other half makes clear. But we have never sought to control the city – rather, we help to maintain the balance of power, to tip the scales in important moments.

“If you bring the Organon of Magic to Melchior, I have no doubt he will compose his new translation, publish, disseminate the secrets he gleans, and those with the learning and means to use that knowledge will exploit it. The city will change, as it has done before, and will again – but, at the end of the day, the divides will only deepen, the powerful growing yet more powerful.

“If, however, you instead bring the volumes of the Organon to us… we will keep them safe, protected. We will study them closely, and, when we judge the time to be right, we may reveal them, carefully, to those who can be trusted with the power they contain. This is, after all, our trade – the obtaining, keeping, and revealing of secrets.”

The party considered this information carefully, weighing Caligina’s words. Alabastor spoke, voicing the objection many were thinking.

“What – what is your vision?” He asked. “What’s your endgame here? Melchior seems to want a magical utopia. But what do you want to do with all of this knowledge?”

“A worthy question – and one I can answer simply: nothing. We do not intend to use the Organon at all, but to keep it safe, and secret – protected.”

“Melchior has promised us editorial input,” Armand said. “Can you promise us the equivalent?”

“I will have to speak to my superiors,” Caligina replied. “We would not stop you from reading the texts, studying them, offering your opinions. But our plan is not to release the Greater Mysteries, but to keep them hidden, and safe.”

“Why hire us?” Cephalus asked, suspiciously. “You’re so well-trained, experts. Surely you could retrieve these texts.”

“Our numbers are few,” she said. “And our training… extensive. We cannot afford risking our operatives on such dangerous missions. We wish to hire you for the same reason as Melchior: because, ultimately, you are both capable and expendable.”

“Were your agents watching us?” Garvin asked. “On a tower, before entering Melchior’s School, I saw a grey-cloaked figure.”

Caligina frowned. “We watch everyone,” she said. “But we didn’t have an agent posted there. That wasn’t us.” She smirked. “You wouldn’t have spotted our agent.”

The other party members mulled this over.

“You need not decide immediately,” Caligina said, as the carriage stopped before Armand’s house. “But we will be waiting.”

Hex, Session XI – 5th Edition Actual Play – “The Yellow Sign Pt. 2”

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.
  • Garvin Otherwise, a human rogue and burglar of the Ravenswing Thieves’ Guild, with a very, very peculiar past and a zoog pet, Lenore.
  • Sprigley Gilette, a hardboiled, cigar-chomping human mercenary and veteran of several brutal wars, also a disciple of the mysterious Archdemon known as the Engine.
  • Vespidae, a waspkin bard/cleric – a sacred dancer with a deathwish, shunned by the waspkin community for complicated ritualistic reasons, and a devoted follower of the Queen in Yellow.

XP Awarded: 700 XP

Vespidae’s hive has been developing recently, and ever since she acquired the Yellow Sign, she has been noticing something subtly different about her pheromones – something almost intangible, but growing in intensity. It reminded her of the scent of the Queen in Yellow, but blended with her own. One thing was certain: she no longer smelled simply like a “dead drone,” the pariah-scent her exile had infused her with.

For weeks now, she had been converting the puppet factory of the Marionettist – now cleared of zombies and Crowsbeak thieves – into a new home, moving in her automaton and sculpted duplicates, like the drones of her own nest. Rooms were set aside to make room for a shrine to the Queen in Yellow, while Vespidae boarded up the windows and doors, ensuring the only way in was from above, through the roof.

She’d also been noticing something else. Waspkin had been buzzing by her new home with increasing frequently. They’d been perching on nearby roofs, watching her. Many of these waspkin smelled strange – some were the hiveless waspkin of Suckletown, others mutilated or outcast, lacking limbs or antennae, marked with the pheromones of exile. But some smelled of the hives of Stingsworth. Loyalists to the Queens of that district… yet drawn here, for reasons that remained unclear.

One day, Vespidae left her home to discover that left on the roof was a strange gift, like a tribute: a portion of Royal Jelly, the alchemical substance consumed by waspkin drones to transform them into Queens. Vesdpiae eyed the substance warily, not consuming it, but not throwing it out.

However, other matters were afoot. Having retrieved the script for the play The Tragical History of Robin Redcap, the adventurers had secured themselves invitations to the premiere of the bloody play by its writer, Vittoria Wolfsheart. They had also been asked by the playwright to keep an eye out for the play’s namesake, the sinister Robin Redcap, who they had last seen raging furiously in Faerie, having barely escaped with their lives after stealing back the play from his ruinous, otherworldly keep. Vespidae, meanwhile, had donated a sizable portion of her adventuring earnings to further supplement the play’s budget, buying additional special effects of a magical and mundane nature.

Faunsweald

At night, the district of Faunsweald bustled with activity. Banners advertising the many plays being staged in the theatrical quarter fluttered in the night breeze, illuminated by gaslamps and magical lights that shift in colour. Occasional illusions cast by apprentice stage-wizards offered “previews” of the performances within. These included a number of prominent advertisements for Edwin Fouchard’s latest offering, The Deadliest Marriage, a violent satire of romantic comedy which seemed to involve a lot of blood-spattered wedding guests. Occasional glimpses of The Tragical History of Robin Redcap could also be seen. To the east, the gaudy songs and laughter of Groanwell could be heard, the nightly debauchery of the pleasure-district.

The play-goers – Vespidae, Garvin, Armand, Caulis, and Sprigley – met at Cruor Row. Sprigley seemed oddly changed, having acquired what looked to be a clockwork arm and even more ritualistic tattoos. The fighter, unhinged by his time in the Old City, seemed to have taken to worshiping one of the Chthonic Gods, an entity he called the Engine. He still possessed Robin Redcap’s pike. Cruor Row led from the streets of Stumpridge into Faunsweald, and connected several major theatres, including the Prism, the Fates, and the Chiaroscuro. Of the three the Chiaroscuro was the largest and newest, an opulent theatre and opera house, currently decked out with banners and signs proclaiming the premiere of Vittoria Wolfsheart’s latest tragedy.

baroque

As the group prepared to make their entrance, several heard a buzzing sound from nearby, as shapes appeared in the night sky, descending rapidly. Warily they watched the shapes draw closer: a dozen waspkin, some clutching javelins, others stiletto blades that gleamed with poison. A heady pheromone stink suffused the street. Vespidae recognized the scent immediately as that of the Royal Guard of the Queens of Stingsworth, the waspkin matriarchs of Hex.

“Traitor!” one of the waspkin chittered to Vespidae in Vespine.

“Abomination!” another proclaimed.

waspkin

While the Guards berated Vespidae, Garvin slunk into the shadows and picked the lock of a nearby printing house, creating an escape route.

“Usurper!”

“Rebel!”

“Unclean!”

“Drone, you stand accused of conspiring to supplant the rightful rule of the Twelve Queens of Stingsworth!”

“You would corrupt us with your devotion to Blasphemous Idols!”

“Your punishment has been decreed.”

“Your wings, limbs, and antennae will be removed, but you will be kept alive. Your life will be lengthened, and you will be imprisoned in darkness, unable to fly, to walk, to dance, or to spread your evil through the city.”

“Submit to justice and your rebel followers will be spared.”

“Resist and you will all be slaughtered!”

“I meant no offense,” Vespidae insisted. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Your falsehoods will not save you,” one of the Royal Guards warned. “We have watched you, gathering your followers. The speak of the Thirteenth Queen. Your insurrection will not be tolerated.”

At this point, another group of waspkin emerged from the shadows – a group which had been following Vespidae, it seemed. Some were missing limbs or eyes or antennae; all reeked of exile.

“We fight for the Thirteenth Queen!” the rebels proclaimed. “Down with tyranny!”

While others of the group tried to protest, the Guards moved in. The resulting fight was fast and brutal; Sprigley sustained a wound but cut down one of the Guards, while Garvin, firing from the shadows, dispatched another. Vespidae used burning hands to scorch her foes while Armand used fire bolt to incinerate another. The fight continued, the Guards swarming, jabbing with their poisoned weapons. Vials of pheromones, brewed in the cauldrons of Valdemar Sluice and  used by the party to help identify themselves to Vespidae, made the battle suddenly more complicated, and at one of the “Royalist” guards, seemingly swayed by the chemical sovereignty that Vespidae now exuded, abruptly joined the “rebels” fighting to defend their transgressive new Queen.

A crowd swiftly gathered, but they assumed the battle to be a staged spectacle, half illusion and half acting, put on in anticipation of some new play. Applause filled the air as the last of the Royal Guards fled, only to be skewered by a javelin from Vespidae. Not quite knowing how to react to the applause, the group bowed and concealed the bodies in the nearby printing shop that Garvin had broken into, then moved on to the playhouse as if nothing had occurred.

The theatre itself was a huge structure of at least five storeys with a massive, bulbous dome at its centre. Perched at the four corners of the marble monstrosity were stone statues depicting allegorical representations of comedy, tragedy, history, and spectacle. The foyer of the Chiaroscuro was sumptuously carpeted and adorned with baroque, intricately ornamented architecture. A huge, crystalline chandelier dangled overhead, while on the walls, enchanted paintings of actors and actresses in famous roles looked down at the well-dressed men and women who lingered here, availing themselves of the well-stocked bar. Some of these characters included a representation of the mad mage Zachariah Soulswell, who briefly seized control of the city and erected Delirium Castle, as well as the vampiric aristocrat known as the Countess of Carnage, a fictitious noblewoman from the distant undead metropolis of Erubescence.

Balconies

The stage had been set with various props and painted backdrops that had been enchanted to appear more realistic. The backdrop here depicted a dour landscape with a stern-looking keep in the background – quite similar to the actual Castle of the Bloody Vale. Trees and other vegetation are evident in the foreground. A small conjured stormcloud overhead periodically rumbled, its thunderous foreshadowing occasionally warning theatre-goers that the play would begin in half an hour.

There were hundreds of seats in the Chiaroscuro, most of them in the pit, but many more filling the numerous balcony levels that rose on three sides of the grand, impossibly ornate room. Many audience members were already taking their seats. Of particular note was a large box in which were ensconced a party of obviously foreign travelers garbed in the costume of the southern plains and deserts. Foremost among this group was a large domestic cat placed in a special divan, afforded the finest view in the house; the cat spoke with various retainers and servants quite normally, and was obviously an individual of some considerable importance.

The many balcony seats were stacked atop one another in four levels, with stairways and small elevators leading from one level to the next. Near the stage there were also private boxes thrust out from the main balcony to afford the rich occupants a finer view. Servants and ushers milled about bearing refreshments to those in the balconies and showing patrons to their seats.

The playwright Vittoria Wolfsheart awaited the party in her private box, given a privileged view of the stage. She wore a dark purple gown that set off her porcelain white complexion, and had pinned her hair to further emphasize her horns.

“I’m glad you could attend,” she said, greeting you with a curtsy.

“A charming production, from the look of it,” Armand said, with a haughty sniff.

“So far there have been no signs of the real Robin Redcap. But perhaps it might be of benefit for you to have a look around the theatre, just in case.”

“Hmm, I think I’ll take up position in the rafters,” Garvin said, eyeing the catwalk above.”

“Let’s check backstage,” Caulis said to Vespidae and Sprigley. “Then maybe we’ll join you here, Vittoria.”

Backstage at the Chiaroscruo, actors practiced their lines while the stage-wizards wove illusions to grant their costumes additional verisimilitude. The actor playing Robin Redcap could be seen, looking strikingly similar to the thin-limbed, white-bearded Fair Folk, as could the muscular Duke Gothmord. Peasants were having dirt and blood smeared on their faces. More props could also be seen here, including various fake grimoires, torture instruments, candles, “magical” crystals, tools, and fake weapons. The director, costumers, carpenters, and other stage-hands were bustling about, getting everything ready for the play. Vespidae, enthused with the artistic spectacle, spoke for awhile with the stage-illusionists and actors, providing additional instructions – a privilege earned from the substantial contributions the waspkin had made to the production. Eventually the director shooed them back to the main room of the theatre.

The party began their preparations. While most of the group stayed in the private box, Garvin had carefully scaled the rafters, talking his way past the stagehands lighting the production, so that he could get a good view of things from above. Caulis, summoning their pseudodragon familiar, sent the creature to patrol the theatre and report anything unusual. Armand and Caulis briefly visited with Nahotep, the cat-prince from New Ulthar. The creature – one of a race of familiars who overthrew their wizardly masters and became rulers of their kingdom – was charming and debonair, visiting Hex on a kind of grand tour, consulting with some of the city’s necromancers on arcane matters, and generally soaking in the sights. Nahotep seemed sympathetic to Caulis, a liberated homunculus, and lamented the fact that so many of the mandrake-root-folk were still slaves to their creators. Armand, ever the silver-tongued sophisticate, invited Nahotep to dine and stay at his townhouse for a time, an invitation which was politely accepted.

A few minutes later, the curtain rose, and the play began…

Stage

The play began as expected, but Vittoria’s revisions – based on Robin’s scribbled suggestions – quickly became evident. In this new version, Robin is not an innocent spirit corrupted by Duke Gothmord, but a malignant sprite who warps the heroic, armour-clad ruler into a bloodthirsty maniac. In the opening scene, Gothmord rescues several peasants from the marauding Redcap, and binds the fairy to his will. The scene, at the edge of the Tangle, is given atmosphere and verisimilitude through the use of painted backdrops and elaborate magical illusions.

It was at this point in the play that Caulis’ familiar became aware of something: a pallid figure had appeared in a box opposite Vittoria’s watching the play intently. The homunculus informed their companions, and they confirmed that the figure appeared to be none other than Robin Redcap himself.

The play progressed, Duke Gothmord becoming increasingly depraved, warped by Redcap, abusing and even kidnapping his serfs. As the intermission approached, the scene shifted to a dungeon in which a local woman was imprisoned – the witch unknowingly captured by the Duke. It seemed a torture scene would soon commence, to judge from the instruments arrayed onstage. At this moment, though, Robin seemed deeply bored; they could see him yawn from across the theatre. Vespidae, worried that the fairy would launch himself into a bloodthirsty rampage if not entertained, held up her Yellow Sign, invoking the goddess of art to intervene, to infuse the play with vividness and inspiration. The Sign gleamed in the darkness, and a numinous chill fell upon everyone in the theatre, gooseflesh breaking out across everyone’s skill as the drama on stage became suddenly intensified.

Instantly – but, somehow, without anyone noticing the moment it happened – the actress playing the witch was replaced with none other than Magdalena, the sculptress who had been left marooned in Carcosa. Duke Gothmord picked up a glowing iron, preparing for some gruesome, sadistic torture, suddenly gleaming with what looked like real heat. He approached the surprised and genuinely terrified Magdalena. The crowd craned their necks, and even Robin had sat up, suddenly transfixed.

Vespidae, alarmed by the effect her invocation to the Queen in Yellow had had, flitted to the rafters to confer with Garvin. The Ravenswing thief and arcane trickster cast mage hand to deflect the branding iron, while Vespidae cast silent image to make it look as if the iron had struck, producing a horrific burn. Magdalena was screaming now, though more from disorientation than pain. Robin seemed pleased by the gruesomeness of this display.

Sprigley, noticing Magdalena, realized that something alarming was afoot. As Duke Gothmord approached with a new torture implement, the mercenary fired a shot from his pistol at the seemingly psychotic actor, wounding him in the shoulder. He leapt from the box and ran through the crowd towards backstage, amidst whoops and screams and confusion from those around him. The audience, thinking this some experimental contrivance of the play, applauded uproariously as the scene ended and the curtain fell. Intermission began.

play

At intermission, Armand slipped quietly into Robin’s box and, stealthily, slipped poison purchased at the Venom Mart of Cobweb Cliffs, into the fairy’s wine. In addition, he attempted to cats a charm over the fey, to further endear him to the performance, but this failed to penetrate his resistance to such magic. Fortunately, Robin did not notice.

Backstage, Magdalena was untied by Sprigley, while the wounds of the actor were treated, and Sprigley managed to convince him that the bullet was supposed to be a blank. Meanwhile, up in the rafters, Garvin and Caulis’ familiar could hear what sounded like approaching buzzing – like a swarm of wasps approaching the theatre. Moments later a group of ragtag waspkin – some missing limbs or eyes or antennae, others garbed in rags – appeared at the rear entrance. Vespidae, backstage, greeted them.

“We have come, Thirteenth Queen,” one said.

“The Royalists approach. They mean to kill your Grace. But we shall not allow it!”

Vespidae, mind reeling, nodded, and sent out a pheromone mist in response. Thrust into this unexpected role, she decided to play her part as best she could.

“We’ll fight here,” she said. “Stage-illusionists… could you disguise these waspkin? They’re, ah, extras for the big battle. They’re supposed to look like evil fairies.”

The grumbling stage-wizards complained about the sudden change, but given the close relationship between Vittoria and the party, consented to these alterations.

The intermission buzzed in more than one way, as audience-members gossiped, remarking on the bloodiness and horror of the torture scene and the boldness of Sprigley’s “experimental” intervention.

The curtain rose on the finale of the play, beginning with the scene of Robin Redcap’s liberation. Scheming with the witch – played now by the original actress – the Robin character finds a way to wriggle free of his magical servitude, wreaking vengeance on the Duke. As the final scene of bloodletting began – in which Robin was supposed to rampage through the keep in fury – the waspkin Royalists burst into the theatre from the foyer, having swarmed in the front door. At this moment, stage illusionists bewitched the attackers to resemble “good” or “Seelie” fairies, all gossamer wings and light. Meanwhile Vesdpidae, lurking backstage with her motley band of followers similarly ensorceled to appear as “evil” fairies, rushed forwards, and the battle was joined.

The ensuing combat was bloody and spectacular, equal parts battle-dance and genuine battle, illusion-clad waspkin falling left and right, javelins flying. Sprigley, back onstage, joined the brutal melee. The real Robin Redcap, gleeful, watched the carnage with obvious satisfaction, while his stage double snarled commands to the fairy troops. The audience, impressed with what they believed to be special effects, went wild. Garvin sniped from the rafters, picking off waspkin Royalists… but then, with a final charge, the Royalists swarmed Vespidae, thrusting javelins through the drone’s body. She quivered and fell still, a look of absolute peace on her face, her deathwish finally satisfied, her last performance complete, her longed-for sacrifice at last consummated. In the frenzy the real Robin Redcap stormed onstage, leaping in a single bound, setting about him with vicious claws, tearing waspking apart left and right.

At this moment, Garvin acted, unwilling to let his companion die. Using a pocketwatch snatched from the cabinet of curiosities of the Van Lurken house which he had later learned had the power to modify time, he rewound the time-stream by a few moments and, just before the Royalists descended on Vespidae, fired a magical bolt into the stage-floor. Arcane darkness blossomed from the bolt, obscuring everything in shadow.

The darkness cleared like tenebrous mist. Bodies lay in pools of waspkin blood… but Vespidae was nowhere to be seen. If she was dead, her body had vanished – or, perhaps, some other fate had befallen her, for several of her rebels were missing as well. The audience went wild with applause and horrified delight, and Robin, clapping maniacally, vanished from the box, leaving behind a smell of carrion and black roses. The surviving Royalists, unable to locate their quarry, fled into the night.

The stage-hands would later report that they were too confused in the slaughter to notice if Vespidae and some of her forces had slipped away. Was she dead, or had she disappeared, to take up the mantle of the Thirteenth Queen?

Only time would tell…

Hex, Session X – 5th Edition Actual Play – “The Yellow Sign 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).
  • Cephalus T. Murkwater, a dagonian barrister and monk, specializing in martial arts and magical labour law.
  • Garvin Otherwise, a human rogue and burglar of the Ravenswing Thieves’ Guild, with a very, very peculiar past and a zoog pet, Lenore.
  • 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 – a sacred dancer with a deathwish, shunned by the waspkin community for complicated ritualistic reasons, and a devoted follower of the Queen in Yellow.

XP Awarded: 650 XP.

In order to become a full hierophant of the Queen in Yellow, an initiate must claim the Yellow Sign – but to do so they must undergo a unique ceremony at the Temple of the Queen in Yellow, in Faunsweald. Vespidae, having adopted the Queen in Yellow as her new goddess after being banished from her home-nest – having inadvertently survived a ceremonial death-dance and thus been declared a pariah by other waspkin – now sought to become such an hierophant, and to this end, gathered her companions together at the Queen’s Fane.

Faunsweald

The district of Faunsweald was sleepy during the day and raucous at night, when the many theatres open their doors and the taverns open their taps. Theatre designs varied – from the older theatres of wood and plaster, open to the air, to newer closed theatres of stone and marble, most prominently including the resplendent Chiaroscuro and Fates theatres. There were a number of posters plastered about town advertising an upcoming performance of The Tragical History of Robin Redcap by renowned playwright Vittoria Wolfsheart. The play was further advertised by a man dressed in red and carrying a scythe, comically menacing passersby and cajoling them to attend the play, with threats of gruesome dismemberment and magical pranks if they refuse to purchase tickets.

The Temple of the Queen was Yellow is an extrusion of the Old City from below – a Librarian structure, alien and eerily organic, erupting from the cobblestone streets like some weird tumour. Unlike temples like that of the Mother of Spiders, the main sanctum of the Queen’s temple was open to all. Hierophants in sallow robes passed in and out of its eerie depths. As the group assembled at the temple entrance, a small gnome gyropter flapped through the air and descended into the nearby square, the gnome tinkerers Wanda and Edgar Cogswright appearing. Moments later a carriage arrived to disgorge the resplendently dressed Vittoria Wolfsheart, followed closely by an animated clay horse on which rode the arcane sculptress Magdalena Rotterthorpe – it seemed Vespidae had invited half the town to her initiation ceremony! She was, after all, now attended by a small retinue of clockwork and animated duplicates of herself: waspkin statuettes and automata, crafted by Magdalena and the Cogswrights, purchased dearly by Vespidae using her share of the adventuring funds.

suitors

Inside, the temple resembled a surreal art studio as much as a church. Massive, nightmarish murals, paintings, and tapestries covered the walls, and bizarre, abstract sculptures like demented angels loomed over everything. Despite the vastness of the interior – indeed, the temple seems larger on the inside – the main sanctum felt cluttered and cramped, thousands of strange artworks crowding against one another. Many were enchanted to move, speak, and change forms. Hierophants of the Queen in Yellow wander the chamber, some singing or dancing, others reciting sermons somewhere between religious chants and lunatic poetry. The space was disorderly, chaotic, and creative, lit with floating magical fires in a thousand colours, many of them indescribable.

A thin man with blue-black hair approached, clad in the garb of the Queen in Yellow – Ambrose Vasseur, the poet-hierophant the party encountered back in the caverns of the spiderfolk.

“Ah, Vespidae,” Ambrose said, bowing. “I have been selected to instruct you in your initiation. Are you prepared?”

Vespidae indicated the affirmative.

“Good. The process of initiation involves what is known as the Carcosan Rite,” Ambrose said. “This ritual must be carried out in the catacombs beneath the Temple of the Queen in Yellow – a part of the Old City. You must descend into the depths of the Temple’s lower levels, the Catacombs of Hyperreality, passing through several tests along the way. Go warily, for sometimes malignant things creep into the tunnels form elsewhere. Beware the Feaster from Afar, and also those of the Lost – failed initiates driven mad by the Rite. You will find a chamber of masks – all those who will participate in the ritual should don one of these Pallid Masks.  Deeper below, you will find a certain chamber, within which is an artwork of fantastic subtlety and ancient power. It is here that the Carcosan Rite itself will take place. The celebrant who wishes to achieve the Yellow Sign must recite a prayer to the Queen in Yellow while sacrificing a work of art within the sacred space. This will activate the Librarian Masterpiece, and the final test will be initiated. I can tell you nothing more of the substance of the Rite – you must discover it for yourself.”

Ambrose looked over the group. “Celebrants are welcome to attend to the ceremony and aid Vespidae in her induction… but be warned. The Catacombs of Hyperreality are not without their dangers.” With this, Ambrose handed Vesdpiae a yellow robe – made for the waspkin’s many-limbed body – and led the celebrants to the back of the Temple and through a narrow doorway into a winding tunnel that zigzagged back and forth in a convoluted tangle – it was difficult to follow its meandering, but Vespidae got the feeling it should have doubled back on itself at several points. Here and there another corridor branched off the main tunnel, sometimes opening into other chambers where hierophants worked on art projects ranging from massive sculptures to colossal murals. The group had not descended below the surface, confirming that the interior of the Temple of the Yellow Queen must be much, much larger within than it appeared outside.

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Eventually they reached a spiral ramp winding down into darkness in a large antechamber, its purplish stone contours eerily organic, giving it the appearance of an open mouth or some other orifice. A subtle music emanated from below, faint but unmistakable. The gnomes, Edgar and Wanda, decided to remain above, but both Magdalena and Vittoria continued with the rest of the party as they made their descent.

What followed was a shifting, seemingly infinitely branching series of tunnels and paths, winding in a crazed profusion through the earth in ways that seemed to defy all rational order. Vespidae led the group onwards, following the music emanating from below. Before long the group had wandered down a tunnel infested with a vibrant yellowish moss, filling the air with pungent spores. Even a slight inhalation of these spores instantly caused colours to become more vibrant and sounds more intense; the haunting music throughout the tunnels here became somehow stranger and more unnervingly beautiful.

It wasn’t long before the hallucinations started.

Cephalus was convinced his hands were fish. Garvin scampered about, yelling and chirruping, in the belief that he had become his zoog pet, Lenore, while Lenore had become him. In the resulting chaos the party delved deeper and deeper into the infinite gloom of the Catacombs of Hyperreality, till eventually the spores wore off. Something, now, seemed to be following them; they could hear wet fluttering noises from behind in the dark. They stumbled across the corpses of two twisted, only vaguely-humanoid creatures sprawingl in the middle of a tunnel, crusted black blood-stains beneath their crumpled, deformed cadavers. Judging from their rodent-like and pseudo-canine features the things were ghouls of a particularly degenerate breed. Both had had the tops of their heads neatly removed as if by a saw or some incredibly sharp blade. Their brains were missing, the inside of their skulls caked in more dried blood. Both were dressed in the shredded, mouldering remnants of yellow robes.

“The Feaster from Afar?” Armand speculated, listening again for the moist sucking sounds in the darkness behind them.

They hurried on through a bewildering series of rooms, lingering briefly over an ancient dais seemingly with the ability to distort time. Eventually they stumbled into a chamber with a huge pool of perfectly reflective liquid like a vast mirror. Vespidae peered within and looked upon her reflection, which looked back with obvious terror, twisting around to look behind her.

“It’s coming!” the reflection said fearfully. “Let me out!” It reached out, but Vespidae ignored the vision. Still, the sucking sounds had returned, and the party hurried on, deeper and deeper, still haunted by the occasional hallucination. They stumbled through a looted archive, long divested of ancient texts, in which a kind of den had been created, with some of the niches and shelves padded with detritus to form makeshift bedding. Gnawed, cracked bones were scattered on the blood-stained floor. Seeing ghouls stirring in the darkness they fled yet deeper, passing aseries of hideous carvings adorning the walls; though of obviously Librarian design, they were of humanoid appearance, resembling a group of masked revelers engaged in an orgiastic bacchanal. As the party walked down the passage the carvings animated, wrenching themselves from the wall, beseeching the celebrants to join the revel, but Sister’s use of calm emotions temporarily quieted their desires.

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Next the party came to a chamber with a number of pedestals fashioned from the same dark, purplish stone as the rest of the tunnels – seven of them. Upon each rests a pallid metal mask that perfectly fit the visage of one of the seven people in the room.

“These must be meant for us,” Cephalus mused.

“I suppose we should put them on, then…” Armand said, with characteristic detachment.

As they donned the masks, the horror behind them once again grew loud, and the group decided to see what was chasing them. Armand summoned a minor illusion of the group while the real celebrants ducked down a side passage and the thing drifted into view: a black, sac-like thing, which to the learned eyes of the sorcerer was obviously not native to this plane. It possessed a bewildering array of shriveled tendrils tipped with dripping razor-like claws, and its very appearance further strained the already-frayed sanity of those present. It seemed to sniff the air as its derangement spread, trying to scent the reek of madness like some psychic bloodhound, but then the trap was sprung, a conjured cloud of daggers viciously tearing at its flesh, javelins and crossbow bolts from Vespidae and Garvin striking its black, oozing flesh. Cephalus leapt forwards with a flurry of blows, and the thing squealed and sent a blast of psychic energy towards the celebrants, inducing crushing headaches and cranial bleeding, blood spurting from nostrils, eyes, and ears as they thing’s horrific, ab-real wail rent space, time, and thought. Its tentacles flickered out, attempting to caress Cephalus’ squamous flesh, but the dagonian struck again, and the thing was at last dispatched, deflating like some monstrous balloon of shadows and otherworldly slime.

Bloodied but alive, the group pressed on, when a woman in filthy, tattered yellow robes lurched into view. She wore a ghastly, uncanny mask made of some pale, unknown substance. In one hand she carried a paintbrush dripping with blood; in the other, the severed, quasi-canine head of a monstrous ghoul. She used the brush to paint the walls of the tunnel with curious symbols.

The woman looked at the group with mad eyes.

“Who are you?” Vespidae asked.

“Jeanette,” she replied, tilting her head strangely. “That blood…” she said, eyeing Cephalus.

“The Feaster from Afar. We killed it.”

Jeanette whooped for joy, spraying blood throughout the passage. “You have slain it! It has hunted me for years, now…”

“Years?”

“Yes. I sought the Yellow Sign, but never attained it. I… I lost my sacrifice. My artwork.”

“Then why not return to the surface?”

“The Catacombs of Hyperreality do not permit it. Once a celebrant undertakes the Rite, it must be completed.” She giggled, unnervingly. Sister and Garvin exchanged glances, Garvin fingering his hand crossbow.

“Well, you should come with us!” Vespidae said. “Do you know where the entrance to Carcosa is?”

Jeanette nodded, pointing down a tunnel with her bloody paintbrush. “This way. I will show you.” She led on, Vespidae following while the others shared wary looks.

Once again the party heard footsteps behind them. Garvin, putting a finger to his lips, slipped back into the shadows and backtracked, discovering a band of feral-looking, sinewy creatures with greyish-yellow, scabrous skin prowling in the gloom. Hunched and quasi-humanoid, they had grotesque faces resembling those of bats and dogs and tails like those of monstrous rats. Their skins had been ritually scarified and some carried jagged bone weapons. Their mouths, crowded with fangs, dripped with slaver. These, two, were garbed in filthy yellowish robes – perhaps the descendants of initiates long lost in the Catacombs of Hyperreality.

Garvin returned, and Vespidae conjured an illusion of the Feaster from Afar, sending the phantasm back along the hall, while Sister added wet sucking sounds. There was a chittering of fear and the warped things retreated, fleeing from the illusion.

Jeanette, meanwhile, led on into a vast chamber whose walls had been painted with an incredibly elaborate scene which utterly surrounded all who stepped within. The scene was that of another world, marked by the twin suns, pitch black in colour, sinking below the horizon of a vast lake swathed in mist. There were a plethora of malformed moons overhead. The sky was the colour of bone and dotted with ebon stars. The scene was that of an endless waste, a desolate plain of dead grass. Perched on the shore of the lake, rising from the eerie mist, was a resplendent city – a series of spires and domes, ornate and ominous, like and yet unlike the Old City of the Librarians. The architecture seemed less alien, somehow, and yet more unnerving for its slight familiarity. It was like a city half-remembered from a fever dream. On the floor of the chamber was inscribed the glyph of the Yellow Sign.

Vespidae and Jeanette both prayed, reciting the Carcosan Rite. Abruptly, the celebrants found that the walls of the chamber were no longer there – the landscape merely extended around them, seemingly quite real. They had somehow entered the Masterpiece. Black water lapped at the shores of Lake Hali and the shadows lengthened as the twin suns set and the group pressed on towards the city – Carcosa.

Near the edge of the shore was a sinister black object fashioned from what might be obsidian. Though no one actually saw the statue change shape it seemed to have assumed a new form each time it was looked at – an abstract arch or twisted column, or other forms – misshapen creatures of unknown varieties with aspects vaguely reminiscent of fungi, jellyfish, sponge, worm, and anemones. The group circled the statue warily, but Magdalena became utterly fascinated and took out a sketchbook.

“Please, go on without me,” the sculptress said. “I can’t give up this opportunity…” She began sketching wildly. Vittoria, her former paramour, smirked wryly. Everyone else shrugged and continued towards the city.

sime-29

Overheard they could see several winged shapes flitting amongst the clouds – things somewhere between bat, bird, and insect. They circled above, clearly scanning the ground for prey, until one of the creatures broke from the flock and began to descend. It was only through Sister’s timely use of thaumaturgy that the Byakhee was spooked, shrieking in alarm at the conjured chittering of some massive spider-thing and scattering its fellows. The party hurried onwards, into the city of Carcosa.

The streets of the alien city of Carcosa lay empty as night fell. Vespidae could not shake the feeling that she had been here before. The haunting music all of the group had heard since entering the Catacombs of Hyperreality seemed to emanate from a huge palace at the centre of the city. There were suggestions, here and there, that some catastrophe has recently befallen Carcosa; many doors were engraved with mysterious glyphs, perhaps indicating some sort of curse or plague or other calamity. The windows were dim. The only building where anything seemed to stir is the Palace.

A pair of masked guards – human in appearance, though with a disquietingly alien quality to their movements – presided over the doors of the Palace. Seeing those approaching to be suitably masked, the guards relaxed, and Vespidae swiftly explained her mission, describing the other party-members as her trusted companions and guests. Suitably persuaded, the guards relented and opened the Palace doors, revealing a vast space beyond.

the-mask-of-the-red-death

Within the palace the party found themselves in a huge, opulent chamber of several levels, teeming with masked men and women of the same ilk as the guards at the gate. They were attired in splendid but alien costumes, dripping with gemstones of unthinkable colours and perfumed with unfathomable scents. Most were engaged in feasting, dancing, and drinking; the food consists of meats and fruit of unknown origin, while much of the drink is some sort of pale, greenish wine. A huge ebon clock presided over the carousing masses, counting down to the thirteenth hour.

The group set about exploring the chambers of the Palace. In each room they found a new gallery, all packed with revelers. The walls were crammed with paintings, uncountable thousands of them – although among them, Vespidae spotted some of the paintings burned at the Van Lurken House. Those parts of the floor not filled with party-goers were taken up by statues and fountains and similar artworks. All of the art ever sacrificed to the Queen in Yellow seemed to have rematerialized here.

ball

Sister, Armand, and Cephalus were all being drawn into the crowd, while Vespidae flitted nimbly above, oblivious to the temptations of the guests. Offered food, the party-members wisely refused, but Sister became drawn into the strange, rhythmic dance of the party-goers. Cephalus force his way through the crowd to the Lengian, who was being swept along by several masked and merry dancers, barely managing to extricate the priestess of the Spider Goddess before she was subsumed in the churning crowd of the otherworldly revelers.

As the thirteenth hour approached, murmurs of the Queen begin to circulate. The hands of the clock at last ticked over, and as the clock chimed thirteen a figure descended from a grand stair. Clad in a voluminously tattered yellow gown and wearing a pale mask, the Queen in Yellow took her seat to preside over the masquerade.

“There is one here who would swear themselves to my service,” a voice says from behind the mask. “Approach, hierophant.”

Vespidae buzzed forwards.

“What do you offer for my gallery?” the Queen asked.

“A dance,” Vespidae said, and began her most elaborate ritual dance, a dance inspired by the ceremonial dances of the waspkin, yet unfettered by their strictures and dogmas, a dance of passion and inspiration rather than mechanical repetition. The crowd had grown hushed as all watched the would-be hierophant flit and whirl, surrounded by the statuettes and automata. The dance climaxed in the ritual destruction of these simulacra, incorporating burning hands to lend their sacrifice an incandescent flair. The Queen sat silent for a second, then gently applauded; moments later her party-guests burst into uproarious applause. All quietened as the goddess – or whatever avatar of her they saw before them – spoke again.

yellow

“I make few demands of my subjects,” the Queen in Yellow declared. “But this I require: all those who would serve me must endeavour to shape their lives into a work of art, to pursue Beauty in its multitudinous forms, without cheapening themselves with the sullied tawdriness of morality, justice, or reason. Are you willing to reshape yourself into a Living Symbol?”

Vespidae nodded. “Yes, my Queen!”

The Queen in Yellow nodded. Jeanette now came forwards and fell to her knees. “I have nothing to offer,” she said. “But I wish to remain here, and serve you.”

The Queen nodded again. “So it shall be, celebrant.” She raised her hand, and in that moment the scene seemed to dissolve, and now the party were in a chamber with exquisitely painted walls, a rendering of the scene they had just left. There was no sign of Magdalena, or Jeanette; both, it seemed, had been left behind in the artwork, and, indeed, a tiny figure which would be Magdalena could be glimpsed through a window, still studying the statue on the shore of Lake Hali, while Jeanette knelt before her goddess. Around Vespidae’s neck dangled the eldritch holy symbol she had come seeking: The Yellow Sign.

A single exit led up a spiraling flight of stairs, which brought them immediately back to the surface into the Fane of the Queen in Yellow in the city above. Ambrose greeted them.

“Welcome, hierophant, to the Order of the Queen in Yellow.”

“Magdalena!” Vespidae said, alarmed. “I need to go back. We left her there!”

Ambrose shook his head. “The stars have shifted,” he said. “The way to Carcosa is now closed.”

Hex, Session IX – 5th Edition Actual Play – “The Nightmare of Cobweb Cliffs”

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).
  • An ancient and enigmatic Lengian cleric of the Mother of Spiders, name unknown. She wears bulky ecclesiastical garments covering an uncertain number of limbs and goes by “Sister.”
  • Sprigley Gilette, a hardboiled, cigar-chomping human mercenary and veteran of several brutal wars, and a relatively new arrival in Hex.
  • Vespidae, a waspkin bard – a sacred dancer with a deathwish, shunned by the waspkin community for complicated ritualistic reasons. Now a devoted follower of the Queen in Yellow.

XP Awarded: 700 XP.

The Sisters of the Nunnery of the Mother of Spiders were in a state of crisis. Something had escaped from the depths of their mysterious temple into the labyrinthine caverns within Cobweb Cliffs, the Lengian District of Hex. Sister, a member of the order currently on a kind of “sabbatical” from her ecclesiastical duties, was called in to assist the spidery nuns. She brought with her the waspkin Vespidae, the sorcerer Armand, and the mercenary Sprigley, who, having recovered from his bout with insanity after his last trip to the Old City, had become devoted to a strange, demonic entity, his body inscribed with diabolic tattoos. Bringing with her the sheep known as “Cosmo,”* the group headed to Cobweb Cliffs.

*See the Ultimate Contagion Part 2.

cobweb-cliffs

Like Stingsworth or Croakmarsh, the district of Cobweb Cliffs is like another world. Lengians and their arachnid pets and servants make up almost all of the population here, moving between the eight distinct layers of the district. Everything here is coated with webs, with the thickest wefts of spidersilk supporting entire buildings. The architecture here is as alien as the beings who dwell in the district, all weird angles and eerie decorations, giving the place a crazed, oneiric illogic. To Lengians, of course, Cobweb Cliffs simply feels like home.

The group headed swiftly for the Temple of the Mother of Spiders at the top of the district, on the Street-Not-To-Be-Described. We shall refrain, in honour of the holy edicts of the Mother of Spiders, from speaking the Street-Not-To-Be-Described, since even by saying this much we flirt with blasphemy. Let us instead speak of the things which can be seen from the streets web-swathed vantage: the seven lower tiers of Cobweb Cliffs spread out steeply below, the lowest swathed in midst, and beyond, the districts of Mainspring and Little Pandemonium, the Dreamer’s Quarter, and Gloomway, the Feypark to the north, and to the west, the brooding eaves of the Tangle, past the city wall which bisects the Cliffs. The Radula can be glimpsed to the south, a great green-brown tendril of polluted water, swarming with boats and spanned by the glittering, statue-encrusted length of the Bridge of Sins. The temples of other faiths can be seen below, the Infernal Basilica of the Chthonic Gods and the gleaming glass-and-metal pyramid of the Magistra’s Cathedral. While such buildings may be larger than the Lengian Temple – at least on the surface – now in the city stand higher.

Casting its long shadow over the rest of Cobweb Cliffs was the Temple of the Mother of Spiders, deity of dreams, schemes, poison, sleep, and death. All but the outermost chambers of this imposing , tiered structure were forbidden save to Lengians, guarded by several of the multi-limbed warrior nuns of the order. Inside, the architecture was swathed with cobwebs, for spiders scurried everywhere, spinning their webs between the huge columns that supported the ceiling, half-obscuring the intricate geometric designs that decorated the walls and floor – though the temple’s inconsistent gravity often made this distinction unclear. The Reverend Mother Yaan Tsang emerged from a nearby doorway in one “wall” and walked down towards the party after being alerted of their arrival. She was a statuesque, pale Lengian with six well-muscled arms, her head partially swathed in the habit of the order. As one of the highest ranking members of the Nunnery, one of the eight members of the Conclave of Matriarchs, she was also one of the most powerful Lengians in Hex, the spiderfolk being an intensely religious, even theocratic people.

“Ah, you have come,” she said sternly, looking you up and down with her many eyes. “There is little time to waste, so I will be brief. But first, we must find somewhere more private to speak. Come.” She gestured with several hands to a doorway on another wall, indicating for the group to follow. They stepped inside a room with walls elaborately padded with spidersilk, beneath which could be glimpsed intricate Lengian sigils. “Secrets spoken in this room cannot be divulged aloud save through powerful magic,” the Reverend Mother said, closing and locking the door. “Anyone who breaks this enchantment will be subject to a terrible curse – understood?”

The party agreed to abide by these restrictions.

“Very well then,” she continued. “First, some background is necessary for those unfamiliar with our faith. Part of the initiation into Mother of Spiders’ worship involves a pilgrimage throughout Leng, in the Dreamlands. The pilgrimage is not conducted bodily but rather through lucid dreaming, here in the depths of the temple. Initiates are bound in a cocoon of spidersilk and given a dose of a powerful sedative poison, putting them into a coma for many weeks and allowing them to visit the Dreamlands for an extended period. At the end of this quest, they awaken having visited some of the most holy sites of the Mother of Spiders, glimpsing her Great Web.

“Unfortunately, some do not pass this test, and remain comatose forever. In rarer cases yet, the sleeper who awakens is not the one who fell asleep in the first place. One of our initiates, Sho-Ramsara, slept for half a year, before awakening quite suddenly. At first she seemed to behave normally, but then other initiates began to go missing. Certain signs implicated Sho-Ramsara, and when we confronted her the thing inhabiting her body revealed itself, striking several of our initiates and escaping the Temple. A being of nightmare from the darkest depths of the Dreamlands has possessed her, and now haunts the waking world wearing her flesh. Already there have been reports of disappearances in Cobweb Cliffs – we fear the thing is hunting, using the caverns beneath the Cliffs as its lair.

“We are unsure the extent of the monstrosity’s powers or its exact nature, but like many beings of nightmare it can warp reality to some degree, and wields the power of fear. Ideally, Sho-Ramsara should be kept alive – there may yet be a chance of saving her and sending the creature back where it came from, if you can bring her back to the temple. As a last resort, however, you may need to kill her to prevent the nightmare from wreaking more destruction. If you do so, we will reduce the payment by half. Are these terms acceptable?”

Again, the party agreed to this arrangement. Sister spent some time in the nunnery’s libraries seeking scrolls of calm emotions and other spells, and then the group set out, heading for the nearest entrance to the tunnels within the cliffs.

Maps below are from Sprigley’s player.

Cobweb Cliffs 1Their first stop was a cavern used as a spider farm, with countless thousands of the creatures spinning their webs throughout the room, clusters of eggs scattered throughout. Mesh structures, trellises, stalagmites, and stalactites were all covered with webs. Some of the bigger spiders were kept in spacious (but tight-barred) cages. Lengian spider-farmers clambered throughout the complex, feeding their charges insects, collecting silk, and milking venom from some of the larger arachnids. A few small outbuildings had been built on the ground or along the walls of the farm. There was also a pen in which a number of pallid hogs can be seen. The desiccated, bloodless husks of a number of piglets  were evident in a few of the giant spider cages.

Upon questioning the farmers, the party discovered this was the Tsothoth Spider Farm, a family business that produced a great deal of silk both for the weavers on the Street of Weavers and the nearby Venom Mart. The folk here seemed distrustful of outsiders but warmed to Sister, as a traveling cleric. On asking about any sign of trouble, they discovered that several of their hogs had recently been snatched. The farmers believed that those responsible might be members of the so-called “Funnel Web Gang,” a group of bandits lairing somewhere deep below the Cliffs.

Cobweb Cliffs 2

The party began making their way deeper into the tunnels. They soon came acrosstTwo Lengians clad all in spidersilk uniforms, who had cornered a thin, human man with blue-black hair, garbed in yellow robes and wearing a Yellow Sign round his neck; he looked battered and beleaguered. The masked, armoured Lengians had an authoritative stance and made no effort to conceal their activities as they advanced upon him with clearly violent intentions. Sister recognized the Lengians as members of the Ebon Web, the theocratic police force of Cobweb Cliffs

“Please! I’ve done nothing wrong! They’re going to kill me!” the man exclaimed.

Investigation revealed the man to be Ambrose Vasseur, a poet and hieorophant of the Queen in Yellow, performing his work in public in the Cliffs. Under the law of the Ebon Web this activity had been interpreted as proselytizing, a prohibited action in the Cliffs. Vespidae, seeing a fellow worshiper of the Queen in Yellow, felt compelled to intervene. Fortunately Sister was able to use her clout with the Temple to dissuade the Ebon Web officers, who slunk off into the tunnels. Ambrose gratefully thanked the party and advised Vespidae to find him at the Fane of the Queen in Yellow.

Lengian

The party pressed on, stopping briefly at the Venom Mart – a dim cavern lit by a few dull, greenish lamps, containing a bustling market crowded with numerous stalls and the customers perusing them. While the merchants in this luridly lit bazaar were almost all Lengian, the buyers were more diverse, with several humans, cambions, ghouls, dagonians, and trollbloods amongst them. They could see a fair number of gang and guild insignia here, displayed with an openness usually reserved for Corvid Commons. The goods here took a variety of forms – powders, vials of liquid, and even globes of gas could all be seen. The Mart, Sister explained, was an open secret in Cobweb Cliffs, operating beyond the control of the City Watch. The party bought several poisons here to induce unconsciousness, hoping that they would prove useful in subduing their quarry.

Delving yet deeper, the group entered the lower tunnels of the Cliffs. Continuing their explorations, the party next discovered the corpse of a Lengian sprawling against one wall of a dank cavern, limbs limp. The cadaver bore an expression of absolute terror on her face, her several eyes frozen wide in fright. There were no obviously fatal injuries; however, the wall behind her body was bizarrely changed: a cluster of roving, many-coloured eyes, blinking and rolling, some watching them intently, grows from the rock like a lichen. Armand used the spell detect thoughts on the eyes and was assailed by a million million thoughts, a slurry of surreal images, lusts, fears, anxieties, nightmarish monsters and moans of ecstasies – like tapping into the collective unconscious, a stream of dream-energy sluicing through his mind. Still benumbed by reading The Book of the Void, Armand was able to cling to sanity, but nearly lost himself in the primal welter of oneiric puissance.

Close inspection of the corpse revealed it had a mysterious Aklo tattoo, which Sister identified as signifying affiliation with the Funnel-Web Gang. Further on, the party discovered a cavern whose walls seemed mottled with some sort of fungus. Drawing closer, though, they realized the strange growths extruded from the rock were actually a series of mouths from various species, some toothless and ancient, others monstrously fanged. The mouths whispered and spoke to one another in a babbling torrent of languages, some speaking quasi-intelligible snatches of conversation, others curses softly, or singing nonsense verse. They had not ventured much further when a group of eight Lengian cutthroats emerged from web-swathed nooks and similar vantage points and then sprang to attack, hurling nets and blowing darts to try and subdue the party. After a brief scuffle in which several of the cutthroats and party-members were injured, Sister convinced them to desist, claiming that they could protect the Funnel-Web Gang  from the creature hunting them.Cobweb Cliffs 3

The Funnel-Web cutthroats led the party through a hidden path concealed by a thick cobweb. Down a short tunnel and down a web-swathed trapdoor they found a series of small caves, the walls covered in more webs. A few bunks, tables, and other furnishings were scattered about, as were racks of weapons: short swords, knives, blowguns, darts, and nets. Here they met the leader of the Funnel-Web Gang – a mysterious Lengian man, Shenzirr, swathed in dark purple clothes and spidersilk armour. Conferral with the wary Lengian gang-leader revealed much about the band of criminals, as much religious dissidents and undercity scum – a group striving against the dogmatic control of the Temple of the Mother of Spiders, gathering strength in a guerilla war against the authorities of Cobweb Cliffs. They had encountered Sho-Ramsara several times, and, it proved, could lead the party to the possessed Spider-Nun’s lair – deep in the Old City, below the cavernous tunnels of the Cliffs. Shenzirr dispatched a guide to aid the group in their journey below.

After recovering their strength, the party and their guide set out, the Lengian thief leading them deep into the earth. They passed the corpse of a leathery-winged, thin-limbed creature with curved horns, approximately humanoid but lacking any vestige of a face, which lay crumpled on the tunnel floor, its stiff limbs upraised. One its arms was broken and its wings were badly torn, but it was killed from a slash to its throat. A peculiar, eerie music with no identifiable source lingered in the air around the corpse.

“A Nightgaunt,” the Funnel-Web gangster said. “A being from the Dreamlands – a manifestation of childhood nightmares. They’ve been breeding down here, in the dark, brought through somehow to the waking world. They stray up into our territory sometimes…”

The walls of the narrow tunnel beyond sprouted dozens of grasping, clawing hands, grabbing and groping at the air. They weren’t form of rock but of flesh, erupting out of the wall in horrible profusion. Sister eyed the hands and then produced one of her scrolls of calm emotions. Casting the spell on the arms, they became abruptly slack and inactive.

Cobweb Cliffs 4

“Let’s hurry,” she urged. As Cosmo the sheep passed, on a whim Sister decided to cast the spell again, this time on the sheep. A strange shiver passed through the being, the stars and nebulae roiling within its body twinkling strangely.

“What did you feel?” Sister asked, curious.

“A strange sensation. Countless trillions of souls… all, for a moment, at peace.”

It seemed that if indeed Cosmo was now the host to other realities, spells cast on it could effect such realities. The enormity of this possibility was too much to take in for the time being, and the party pressed on, lowering themselves via spidersilk rope down a narrow chute and into a deeper level of the caves. At the bottom, they realized they had left Cosmo above… but then the sheep nudged Sister’s foot, having somehow appeared below with them.

A deep chasm gaped ahead, bereft of the helpful web bridges that elsewhere provided a means across such rifts. Bones could be glimpsed at the bottom. Vespidae simply flew across, planting pitons in the roof so that others could use more rope to shimmy their way across the chasm. Veering left at the next tunnel, the party entered a huge cavern; roosting on the ceiling like bats were dozens of leathery shapes – winged, spindly creatures, identical to the dead nightgaunt they’d seen before. Stealthily the group crept past, careful not to disturb the creatures. Cosmo simply levitated its way across the room, quite silent.

A huge doorway gaped ahead, perhaps fifty feet high, leading into a smooth-walled hall of stone beyond. The walls were carved with the glyphs of the Librarians, and the ceiling held up by titanic, tentacular statues, creatures somewhere between apes and octopi.

“An entrance to the Old City,” Sprigley noted, with a shudder from his last fateful venture into the Librarian tunnels.

Cobweb Cliffs 5

Beginning their explorations, the party first examined a stone door, using their knowledge of arcane Librarian glyphs to gain entrance to the room beyond. In the middle of this ovoid chamber was a kind of rounded pod that brought to mind a sarcophagus, with machinery and masses of convoluted conduits emerging from its sides. The pod had a door on its top which was currently open, revealing a large, empty space within. If this lid were closed, someone placed inside the pod would be in darkness. None knew what function the pod might serve. Sister volunteered to enter. At first, all was dark – but then the door opened, and Sister watched herself climbing out of the pod, moving backwards out of the chamber, everything seeming to flow in reverse. The party walked backwards out of the chamber, the door closed behind them, and they began to leave the Old City… Filled with a feeling of weightlessness, Sister “jumped” back into her body, having traveled backwards through time. She explained to her companions what had just occurred. A useful device indeed…

This mystery resolved, the party pressed on, deeper into the Old City. The walls of the next chamber dripped and oozed with a disgusting viscous slime, out of which temporarily resolved faces, mouths, hands, eyes, claws, tentacles, and other amorphous shapes. Hideous squelching sounds mingled with the cries, murmurs, and babbling of the many mouths. Moments later, as if responding to the presence of intruders, some of this abominable secretion glopped down off the wall and congealed into a gibbering, shapeless mass of metamorphic horror. The living nightmare slithered and scuttled and pulls itself forward, mewling and whining incoherently. Armand, quick with a frost-spell, slowed the creature long enough for the group to hurry into the next room.

A shattered portal stood at the centre of this chamber, which dripped with more of the repulsive slime. A Lengian – one of the gang of Funnel-Web cutthroats, judging from their garb – was trapped here, embedded waist-deep in the slime. Looming over the weakly struggling figure was a second Lengian, this one in the tattered remnants of a nun’s habit. As her prey whimpered and struggled she seems to be drawing some sort of energy from his mind, pressing two of her six hands to his temples. Though still recognizably Lengian her form was monstrously distorted, her limbs elongated, her features twisted into a ghastly expression of thirst. Strange movements could be seen beneath her robes, and something moved beneath her skin.

The fight was a frenzy of spells, bullets, and flickering limbs. Sister used calm emotions to free the cutthroat from the slime, the spell causing the nightmare-sludge to dissipate, while Vespidae, poisoned javelin in hand, flitted up to the Dream-Demon. The possessed nun launched herself at Sprigley, catching the warrior across the chest with her claws, even as she spoke words of fell magic, attempting to put some of her attackers to sleep. Bleeding and backing off from the flailing spider-monster, Sprigley fired a bullet from his enchanted pistol, the Verdant Gun, trapping Sho-Ramsara with suddenly interweaving vines and giving Vespidae time to administer the sleeping-poison purchased in the Venom Mart. Sho-Ramsara shuddered and was still, though the dream-demon within still thrashed and boiled within her flesh, quieted only temporarily through another scroll of calm emotions. Their quarry for the moment dispatched, the party retreated back into the previous room, only to find more of the squelching horrors had spawned. They hurried on, Armand launching fire spells to burn the nightmare-things, Sprigley firing off more rounds from his Verdant Gun to trap the horrors in place. With Sho-Ramsara secured they headed back to the surface.

Coming again to the cavern of the night-gaunts the group found the nest were awakened – and agitated. They rushed through, slashing with weapons, Vespidae hurling javelins, picking the creatures off, but there were dozens of the bat-like things, swarming in pursuit. Then Cosmo, turning in seeming irritation, let out a bleat of power. The ceiling of the night-gaunts’ cavern collapsed, crushing the leathery creatures with a terrible crash that made the very ground quake. Awed at this display from the eldritch sheep, the party hastened back towards the surface and to their promised reward.

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