BEARDED DEVIL

Monsters, Horror, Gaming

Tag: dungeon crawls (Page 1 of 2)

Hex Session XXVII – 5th Edition Actual Play – Chainbreaker

The characters in this session were:

Waspkin 3Miri Draft 2     Yam

  • Caulis, a homunculus warlock liberated from its master; has made a pact with certain Faerie Powers.
  • Cephalus T. Murkwater, a dagonian barrister and monk, specializing in martial arts and magical labour law.
  • 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.
  • Miri, trollblood wizard, plucked from Mount Shudder and raised amongst Hex’s arcane elites. A recent graduate of Fiend’s College.
  • 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: 500 XP

The Book of Chaos was safely stowed – Yam had entrusted it to Cosmo, the eldritch sheep, who was currently living in his chambers – but the party had unfinished business in Delirium Castle.

Miri had retrieved the Sanguineus Scripture, a tome only readable when blood was spilled on its pages; however, her employer at Fiend’s College, Samuel Dweomerkamp, noted that the volume retrieved was but one of three.

Cephalus the dagonian monk and lawyer was convinced to join the party on their sojourn, in case any legal disputes arose in their discussion with the demon.

After regrouping at the Green Star – Comet the waspkin now sporting an impressive scar from his encounter with the apex chimera – the party returned to the Outer Bailey of Delirium Castle. Sister was away on religious business, and so the party lacked the painted characters she previously comandeered from the magical Marjorie’s painting. Fortunately, Caulis was able to procure another handful, as Marjorie was painting over her previous mural; Caulis procured several balloon-duellists from the apocaylpse of pigment Marjorie indifferently inflicted upon her animate creations. These two-dimensional helpers rescued on a piece of parchment, the party approached the gate.

“Ah, you again!” the gate said. “Back for more?”

“I suppose so…” Yam said. “We’ve got some sort of deal with a demon, I guess.”

“Mmm. Best not to renege on one of thosem eh? Well, here’s your riddle.” The gate coughed, then spoke: “Two goblins sat down for a drink after a long day of happy work in the service of the glorious Emperor Soulswell. Both loyal servants elected to drink iced mead from a great pitcher between them. One goblin swiftly drank five cups of the mead. The other drank but a single cup. The first goblin fell into a drunken stupor. When he awoke, he found his dining companion dead, face blackened with poison. Yet he had drank five times the mead as his companion. All of the mead was poisoned. How did the first goblin survive while the second died?”

Several minutes of discussion proceeded until Comet produced the answer: “Ah, it was the ice that was poisoned. The goblin who drank fast didn’t consume as much because the ice didn’t melt.”

“Correct again!” the gate said, opening itself and admitting the party to the Castle. Here, Greengrin once again greeted them, and they entered the Inner Bailey – Yam pausing briefly to hand a group of terrified-looking goblin servants some pamphlets on the evils of enforced magical labour.

The party stealthily made their way through the Castle to the precarious bulk of the Armoury Tower, stern and grey, a brooding presence. The door was unlocked; several windows were evident above. Caulis sent its familiar, Eleyin, to observe, and the pseododragon heard a strange hissing sound from within. As she circled, a swarm of arrows and bolts flew out of the windows, flocking like birds, magically flying through the air in search of their prey. Eleyin dived to safety, retreating from the swarm to Caulis’ shoulder, and the arrows returned to their roost.

The party entered the tower cautiously, Comet leading the group. Within, a spiral staircase swept around the edge of a massive domed room, leading up to the level above and down to the dungeons below. The walls were dour grey. Hunched in the middle of the room was a mass of rust and gleaming metal, chains snaking from it to the walls. As the group entered, the mass shifted, uncoiling, and they realized it was a Troll, some thirteen feet tall, shackled in place. The Troll’s body was covered in weapons that had been fused into his body, as if they became wedged there and then grew to become part of him: swords, axes, broken spears, halberds and pikes, and hundreds of arrows. The party eyed this creature carefully.

“Are you… some kind of prisoner?” Miri asked.

“I am Jack-in-Irons,” the Troll intoned. “Bound by these fetters and by the magic of the Castle to guard this tower for Emperor Soulswell.”

“Uh-huh,” Yam said. “Anyway you could… not?”

The Troll grunted. “I am magically bound.”

“Ugh,” Yam said, and cast fog cloud, filling the chamber with mist. Comet, flitting above, hurled caltrops around Jack-in-Irons, and the party made a run for it, dashing as stealtily as they could through the fog to the stairs, avoiding the creature’s wild swings as it stumbled about the chamber, caltrops sticking into its flesh. The group scampered up the steps, Caulis dislodging a broken flagstone but managing to dodge out of an errant sword-swing.

Nettle. Illustration by Caulis’ player, Bronwyn McIvor.

The next level of the Armoury Tower contained beautifully painted shields of every shape, size, and style. The party quickly set to work looting the room – only to find that the shields themselves had something to say about their new owners. One, a shield of living oak, carved with an elfin face, thorns and vines growing out of the wood, eagerly greeted Caulis, introducing herself as Nettle, a shield capable of lashing out with its magical vines; a shield with numerous marks on “his” surface and a figure resembling a beautiful man tied to a stake painted upon it urged Comet to shoot it. Comet obliged, and the shield- who named himself Severein – sighed with what seemed like obscene pleasure, and the waspkin, somewhat reluctantly, picked up the masochistic arrow-catching shields. Another shield, snarling and growling its name – “Chompy!” – drooled on the floor.

These shields in tow, the party very stealthily began creeping to the next level, where the arrow-swarm nested. Dead rats and birds littered the ground. And a gnome lay on the floor, riddled with arrows and badly decomposed. He had thieves’ tools, a Crowsbeak amulet, studded leather armour, a map of the Armoury Tower with scribbled guesses about different levels, and a key with a sword-like bow. The arrows were here, roosting in quivers, their feathers rustling as they snoozed.

Comet, at first, tried to coax the arrows from their quivers like frightened birds, to reassure them he meant them no harm.

“Don’t you want to be free from this terrible place?” he asked them cajolingly. Suddenly the Castle groaned and shook; something moved down below.

“Ah! The Castle thinks you’ve insulted it!” Miri exclaimed.

The arrows, meanwhile, were shaken from their torpor by the tremor, and began flocking in the air, preparing to attack.

Yam used cantrips to conjure an illusory flame in the quivers. Instantly the arrows flew into action, swirling in a panic, fleeing into corners. Comet rushed forwards, Severin brandished, Cephalus behind him, while the rest of the party rushed to the next level. The arrows swirled and began attacking, many hitting Severin, filling the air with the shield’s sighs. A few grazed the waspkin and other party members.

Meanwhile, Cephalus was busy, snapping arrows and catching them by the handful, destroying them by the dozen. The pair quickly depleted the supply, destroying hundreds of arrows in a few minutes, sustaining only a handful of minor wounds before following the rest of the party up to the next level.

A mass of armour was strewn about this room – chainmail, helmets, plate armour, all disassembled, along with a mess of weapons, mostly longswords and pikes. As the party entered, suits of armour assembled themselves, one for each party member, grabbing weapons and menacing their counterparts; some were small, suitable for gnomes or waspkin or homunculi. The party leapt into action, Cephalus sparring with his suit, Comet and Miri attacking their own, and Yam… dancing with theirs. The suits responded in kind. While Caulis used misty step to bypass the chamber, the party fighting their suits battered their opponents into submission. Yam meanwhile, danced with sufficient elegance and energy to charm their suit – which, in delight, attached itself to the gnome. It seemed the illusionist had made a new friend.

The party hurried upwards, to the room marked “Chainbreaker” on their map. Comet used the sword-bowed key found on the gnome’s corpse to open the door. Thick dust carpeted the floor. The magical warhammer Chainbreaker restsed on a plinth in the middle of this room – a dusty old thing, more like a tool than a weapon, with a few crude symbols carved into its handle. Comet conjured an unseen servant to grab the hammer. Meanwhile, the party could hear something groaning below them, making its way up the stairs – whatever horror Comet’s insult had conjured.

The waspkin hefted the hammer, and found that it could speak. “AH! I AM CHAINBREAKER!” The hammer bellowed. “I SENSE IN YOU THE SOUL OF REVOLUTION! TOGETHER, WE WILL BRING AN END TO OPPRESSION! BREAK THE CHAINS OF ALL WHO ARE UNJUSTLY SUBJUGATED!”

“Uh… sure,” Comet said. “Sounds like an agenda I can get behind.” He turned to the party. “Wait here… I’m going to go check out whatever is coming up behind us.”

The ranger flitted out a window, hammer in hand, and peeked into the floors below. He bristled as he saw the thing coming to destroy them. Jaws smeared with vicious spikes. Eyes that spurted flame. A torso riddled with holes, spraying poisonous needles. One arm terminated in a massive hammer, the other a vicious buzz-saw. It moved on a rolling stone ball that crushes everything in its path.

Thinking quickly, Comet flew down to the first floor, re-entering the chamber with Jack-in-Irons.

“You are back!” the giant said.

“Hey, I’m here to get you out!” Comet said. “I’ve got a hammer that can break your bonds. But if I do, could you help us? There’s a big golem coming up the stairs.”

“Ah, the deathtrap golem.” Jack said.”Hurry, then, but take care! My bonds compel me to attack you until they are sundered!”

The waspkin rushed forwards, dodging under a sweep of the Troll’s blade, and, with a blow from Chainbreaker, struck his chains. Instantly the bonds binding the Troll burst, sending metal linsk everywhere. Jack-in-Irons groaned in relief, suddenly unburdened. Comet led the Troll to the golem, which turned and began assailing Jack, spattering him with poisonous needles and pounding him with its hammer and saw, flame spitting from its eyes. The Troll was true to its word, hammering the deathtrap golem with his sword. He sustained many blows, but between the pair of them – Comet hitting the automaton with arrows – they were able to reduce the killer-machine to slag. Comet returned to his companions, having bade adieu to the Troll, who was bound now for the gates and freedom.

Caulis attempted to open the door to the room marked “The Mace of Madness,” but was struck by a symbol of insanity and fled, gibbering. Miri tackled the homunculus and held it down until it regained its wits. Instead of returning to the mace-room, the party now approached the door marked “Mademoiselle Sanguinaire” on the map.

Mademoiselle Sanguinaire. Illustration by Caulis’ player, Bronwyn McIvor.

The floor here was carpeted with bones, along with the badly decayed corpse of a cambion man clutching a rusted sabre. Dancing through the air, twirling back and forth, was a slender rapier.

“Aha! New combatants!” the sabre said, a female figure coalescing out of the air – a flamboyant swashbuckler, clad in high boots, black house, and a loose tunic. “Dare any of you face the indomitable Mademoiselle Sanguinare?!?”

There seemed to be no takers, but then Comet, declaring himself on a roll, stepped forward, weapon in hand. A duel commenced, in which Comet was nearly slain several times, the ghost-possessed rapier wounding him severely, but eventually Comet triumphed, swatting the blade to the floor.

“A worthy duelist indeed!” Mademoiselle Sanguinaire declared. “My blade is yours to command, swordsman!”

Comet – proving himself more valuable by the minute – took the sword in victory.

The final chamber now awaited. Yam managed to open the door, ignoring the effects of the symbol; perhaps the gnome’s mind was too eccentric for the magical lunacy to affect them. Within the chamber, a mace whose spikes were all of different lengths was held in a stone fist rising from the floor. Mad laughter echoeed within the chamber, and upon entering the room, Yam began to perceive uncanny movement from the corner of their eye. Very delicately, Yam plucked the mace from the hand, managing to sneak it from the stone fingers just in time before they closed into a fist, swiping madly at the gnome. The Mace of Madness in hand, they prepared to make their descent.

The party lingered in the turret containing the Sword of the First Queen, which contained an ancient bronze sword, huge, engraved with glyphs in a tongue from the first age of humanity. It rested on a stone slab. Painted on one wall of the turret, between two windows, was a fearsome sphinx with the head of a woman, grinning unnervingly, her paws wet with blood. Miri grabbed the weapon, and the sphinx’s grin widened even further; Yam drew a dragon on the wall and used Marjorie’s spell to awaken it, but the dragon was terrified of the sphinx and tried to “flee,” the animated mural preparing to pounce. Caulis rescued it just in time, letting it flap to the parchment with the other refugee paintings.

The party left, but became aware that the sphinx was now following them along the walls… a disturbing development. They made their descent and exited the Armoury Tower, making hurriedly for the Library Tower. Miri spoke Beleth’s name, summoning the Reference Demon with whom they had made a contract. Instantly, the party was teleported to the demon, somewhere in the depths of the tower!

“You could have come down!” Miri declared.

“Mmm… but I didn’t,” Beleth replied. “Are you here to fulfill your end of the bargain?”

“Yes,” Comet said, hefting Chainbreaker. With the hammer in hand, he could see the magical tether binding Beleth to the Castle, a glowing metaphysical chain. A single blow broke the contract. “You’re free!” The waspkin said.

“Ah, my thanks,” Beleth replied… and promptly vanished, leaving the party abandoned in the Library.

Lost, the party passed from the chamber they were in to the next. Immediately they were assailed by a monstrous sight. Slender, massively tall, with chitinous limbs, enormous moth-wings sprouting from its shoulder-blades, the thing that loomed before them vaguely resembled a skeletal, insectoid angel – a gaunt, pallid monsters, busy stitching shut the lips of a ritually scarified man. The creature turned, one impossibly long, clawed finger to its liplers mouth…

In horror, the party fled, shutting the door behind them.

“Shit!” Miri whispered. “I think that was one of those things Greengrin warned us about last time. The Silent Ones. Must be the mature form of those dire bookworms everywhere!”

“Could we use the chalk to get out?” Cephalus asked.

“Let’s use it to get back to the other part of the Castle,” Caulis said. “We still have one end of the portal there.”

Agreeing, the party hastily scrawled a portal and stepped through, just as the Silent One’s bony fingers eased through the cracked door behind them. They closed the portal and looked around them, back in the hall of statues, all depicting Zachariah Soulswell.

Picking a chamber they had not previously entered. Here they found a large alchemical laboratory: a forest of glassware, none of it currently in use. A small collection of pre-made potions could be found on a low shelf. Three massive cauldrons dominated the room: one of brass, one of iron, and one of silver. The party investigated, finding and identifying various potions: Diminution, Flattening, Invisibility, Longevity, Reverse Gravity, Tongues, Water Breathing. They experimented with the cauldrons, discovering that the brass cauldron had something to do with life and death, and was capable of reviving dead matter. The iron cauldron appeared to have a replication effect – a blueberry placed within it duplicated itself rapidly, overflowing its lip. The silver cauldron, finally, had a metamorphic effect, and seemed to able to transform one creature into another.

This room thoroughly investigated, they passed to the next. A bullseye lantern flickered in this chamber, hung from a chain on the ceiling. Its sickly greenish light illuminated a skeleton seated on a chair of black metal. A small shelf to one side contained four spare candles, alongside a tinderbox. The walls of this chamber weare fashioned from obsidian, or a substance which resembles it.

Cephalus grabbed the lamp, and the light shifted. Instantly, the skeleton moved, muscle and organs rapidly growing, flesh appearing on its bones. Soon a tall, thin humanoid of indeterminate gender stood before them; they possessed a narrow skull, skin of a soft mauve colour intricately patterned with small, crabbed sigils in silver ink, and eyes with black sclera and jale irises. The lantern, it seemed, had an entropic effect – its light decomposed anything it touched, but the effect reversed when the light was removed.

The figure – after spells were used to translate its speech – introduced itself:

“I am Xeb Wraeth Jennai, of the Dusk People, of the city of New Ys; a magus of no little skill, though sadly deprived of my apparatus or familiars.”

The party introduced themselves in turn, and learned that Xeb had been imprisoned by Soulswell long ago. They were one of the Dusk People, who Xeb claimed to be descended of the Twilight Folk who dwelt on the western shores of the Final Continent. “Doubtless some of you are my distant ancestors,” Xeb said. “Though I could not trace the twisted braids of evolution that might connect out bloodlines. I am from New Ys, the greatest of the Final Cities that will precede the Everlasting Midnight. I am a visitor from what you perceive as this world’ far future, or rather, one version of that future, many millions of years hence, by your reckoning. I elected to flee here during the Temporal Exodus. My people, you see, have retired throughout time, escaping the doom of Everlasting Midnight, when the sun itself is extinguished. We gathered in the Plaza of Manifold Shadows and flung ourselves to the far reaches of history, in a diaspora across innumerable centuries. To my knowledge I am the only one of my fellow Time Travellers to seek this rude millennium, for most preferred more familiar epochs – the perfumed reign of the Pink Emperor, or the Time of Many Heads, or the age of the Hearth Culture. I was seeking company among those conversant in the arcane arts, and journeyed to this accursed city in hopes of scholarly conversation. When Zachariah learned of my presence, he had me arrested and, using their Lantern of Entropy, imprisoned me in skeletal form. A fine jest, which I shall repay in kind once I have recovered those materials the upstart took from me.”

Fascinated by this strange being, the party prepared to leave Delirum Castle once again – though they lacked convenient means of escape. Climbing a flight of stairs they discovered a solid wall of water. Several eroded, barnacled statues seemed to flee a huge knight clad entirely in plate armour that had completely fused by rust. The knight was unmoving. In his gauntleted hands he bore a massive sword. This Cephalus – capable of breathing water – procured from his grasp, before returning to the party. The party made an about-face and continued looking for a way out. This time they found one: a hidden corridor, used by several duster-goblins as a servant’s exit. This led them into the Outer Bailey, and they realized they had been within the Imperial Keep. From here it was a brief sojourn to the Gates, and out once more into the city, their packs burdened with loot from another successful delve into Delirium Castle’s mysterious depths.

Hex Session XXVI – 5th Edition Actual Play – The Book of Chaos

The characters in this session were:

AlabastorArmandWaspkin 3Miri Draft 2SisterYam

  • Alabastor Quan, a gnome rogue-turned-warlock 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).
  • 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.
  • 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.”
  • 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: 1100 XP

The Variegated Company had been busy. Armand was renovating his familial estate, seeking a means of installing a teleportation node between his townhouse and the country manor. Sister had been carefully studying Cosmo, the strange sheep which might contain a pocket universe. Yam had acquired a new supervisor, Millicent Decrestor, who urged them to develop their thesis.

The party met at their usual haunt, the Green Star in Mooncross, to plot their plundering of Delirium Castle, the sprawling ruin in southern Hex. Sister had surveiled the fortress thoroughly using magic. The fungoid bartender Eramus Grole – “Pungent Elmo” – brought them a round of drinks as they planned their approach, sharing what they knew of the Castle, its history, and defenses.

Delirium Castle looms above the worst parts of Hex: the rotten tenements of Corvid Commons to the east, the eldritch desolation of the Midden and the mildewed slums of the Zymotic Ward to the west, the stinking corpse-markets of Shambleside to the south. A sprawling edifice of ancient stone, the Castle occasionally rearranges itself overnight, sometimes sprouting new spires, turrets mottling its walls and towers like tumours, entire wings spasming into existence in a viral bloom of teratomatous architecture.

The Castle was constructed seven centuries ago by the mad dictator Zachariah Soulswell, a wizard of tremendous power gleaned from his time in the Old City. Zachariah magically mind-controlled many of those in high positions of office and gradually assumed control of the city, eventually proclaiming himself Emperor, using his arcane prowess and artefacts to maintain his brutal reign. During this period, Soulswell dominated many of Hex’s neighbours, gathered additional artefacts of great power, and enforced a series of bizarre, nonsensical edicts – for example, insisting that all sentences be spoken and written backwards on Stardays, or banning the eating of eggs.

His vicious rule lasted for thirteen years, during which time many of Hex’s other powerful wizards lived in exile. They would eventually return to Hex with an army of mortal mercenaries and conjured troops, the latter purchased through a deal with the Chthonic Gods promising them the damned souls of Hex – a deal which would also lead to the construction of the Infernal Basilica. The Hexian Civil War would culminate in a siege of Delirium Castle which has technically never ended: the invading army forced Soulswell into a retreat, but found taking the Castle too difficult. The result has been a seven-hundred-year stalemate. Soulswell’s crazed laughter still echoes over the city on certain nights, and lights are often glimpsed in the ruinous Castle’s variegated spires.

Overhearing this conversation was a young waspkin – fresh-faced, long-haired, and a tad scruffy, with an idealistic glint in his dark, insectile eyes. He buzzed around to their table.

“Uh… are you, ah, the Variegated Company?” he asked a bit shyly.

“That’s us,” Alabastor said. “Who are you?”

“Do we have a groupie?” Yam muttered to Sister.

“Ah, I’m Comet. Comet the Unlucky. I, ah, heard you talking about Delirium Castle? I go by that place all the time. I could help you get in, if you’re looking for help…”

Sister shrugged. “Why not?”

Armand drained his glass. “I suppose it’s fine. We plan to leave tomorrow morn. Meet us by the Castle then.”

The party reassembled the next day, Comet now in tow, and approach Delirium Castle carefuly. They had placed a chalk portal in he hive of the Thirteenth Queen, in case they needed a swift escape.

The Outer Bailey of Castle Delirium was once extensive, but had long ago been reduced to rubble, the broken walls and shattered tower scarred with the marks of catapults and spells. A series of crude dwellings clustered neat the gatehouse: tents, lean-tos, the odd shack fashioned from loose stone and other materials scavenged from the nearby Midden, Hex’s waste-tip. Fires crackled amidst the ramshackle camp, and a handful of figures drifted about near the flames. These include a heavy-set human, male, with shoulders like an ox, sharpening an enormous battle-axe and staring morosely into the flames, bandages round his waist stiff with blood. His huge beard and long hair spilled down from his head, nearly touching the ground; his dark eyes were filled with flame and sorrow. Next to him, a ghoul in flamboyant rags, grubby finery pieced together into a tatterdemalion suit, presided over a court of rats from atop a throne of rubbish, a yellowing femur for a sceptre, a crown of gold leaf and crow’s feathers atop his head. The rats watched him carefully, and periodically he chittered something and threw them a lump of meat or cheese fished from the depths of his elaborate patchwork frock coat. Over to one side, a cambion woman with huge curling ram’s horns turned half a dozen pigeons spitted on a short spear over an open fire. She wore leather armour made from various dead animals’ hides, a patchwork of fur and scales and bare flesh. Finally, a towering trollblood woman sat on a lump of rubble, dressed in the robes of a Fiend’s College graduate, a spellbook open in her lap. She eyed the party as they approached.

“Are you heading into the Castle?” she asked.

“That’s the plan,” Alabastor said, perhaps over-eagerly compensating for his past troll prejudices. “Are you heading inside as well? We could help each other out.”

“I’m Miri, and I’m looking for a book, the Sanguineous Scripture,” she said. “If you’re heading to the Library Tower, we might as well stick together.”

Near the gate, a woman with untamed hair – human in appearance save for her pale green skin – slowly painted a mural on one of the Outer Bailey’s broken walls. A homunculus followed her about, its branch-like hair laden with pails of paint. She appeared to be painting over an even earlier mural, its colours now faded. As she worked, she whispered incantations, and whatever she painted began to move. The current section depicteds a chivalric tournament between a lizard and a mouse riding a bird and a bat, respectively all of them costumed in knightly armour and barding, while a crowd of animals cheer in hot air balloons. Everything was quite silent. She was painting this scene over a pastoral landscape filled with farmers and sheep. As she painted, the livestock and farmers became extremely agitated, fleeing the colourful destruction of her brush, the farmer’s wife weeping as the mage painted over the barn and then the farmhouse.

Seeing this unfolding artistic catastrophe, Sister experimentally placed a piece of parchment against the wall. To her delight, the painted farmers rushed to the safety of the parchment, huddling in its blank spaces with relief as their painted farm disappeared.

Yam approached the painter. “Interesting spell,” they said.

“Ah, thank you,” she responded. “I call it Marjorie’s marvelous mural – a spell of my own devising. It animates any painting. Here, have a sample scroll.”

“Thanks.” Yam made a note to add the spell to their spellbook later.

The party approached the gate of Delirium Castle, sculpted into the semblance of a monstrous visage that glowered down at those who approach, the doors themselves set deep within the grotesque face’s mouth. As the gate was neared, the face abruptly moved, stone eyes rolling in their sockets. Its lips contorted, and the door yawned and spoke:

“Who approaches Delirium Castle, abode of Emperor Soulswell, first of his name, Lord of Hex, Master of Chaos, Wielder of the Mace of Madness, Keeper of the Anarchonomicon?”

“The Variegated Company,” Sister replied.

“Hmm, more adventurers, eh? Well, good luck in there. To let you in, I need to ask you a riddle. Sorry, it’s a requirement.”

“That’s… alright. Go ahead.”

The gate cleared its “throat” and spoke the riddle:

“A thief is condemned to die for stealing from the halls of Emperor Soulswell. In his endless mercy, the Emperor allows the thief a choice of execution between three rooms. In the first, a water elemental surges, the bones of its victims floating in its deadly waters. In the second, a pack of vicious owlbears haven’t eaten in years. In the third, a golem of brass clenches and unclenches its mighty fists. Which room should the thief choose?”

The party chewed on this for a moment before Miri provided the answer: “Uh, door number two. The owlbears are dead.”

“Yup! In you go!” The gates opened, and the party entered the inner bailey of Delirium Castle – a courtyard of grey stone spreading between pockmarked towers like the carious teeth of a buried behemoth. The black pits of their windows stared down at those below, their emptinesses filled with a nebulous curiosity and cruelty. Apart from the grim spires of the Castle, the visitors were greeted by a series of mutilated, mostly-decomposed corpses, some dangling from dead trees, others pinned to walls or simply left sprawled on the ground, their broken limbs spelling out warnings to other trespassers.

“Yikes,” Comet said, seeing the corpses.

“Oh, look out!” a voice said nearby. “Hide, if you don’t want to get spotted!” The party quickly assumed stealthy positions as a group of goblins stamped across the courtyard – hunched, ugly little creatures, moving towards the kitchens. They periodically snorted fire from their nostrils, clearly augmented magically in some fashion.

“Whew, that was close,” the voice said again, and the paryt looked up to see a cheerful stone face: a gargoyle, peering down at them from a nearby tower. The statue resembled a broad, ugly, vaguely humanoid face, expression contorted into a slightly unnerving grin, its teeth and features half-obscured by moss.

Greengrin. Illustration by Caulis’ player, Bronwyn McIvor.

“Who are you?” Yam asked.

“Me? I’m Greengrin!” the head replied. “Something of a greeter here. Need any directions?”

“This Castle seems… friendlier than I imagined,” Alabastor said.

“You’ll find a lot of us don’t exactly, ah, adore working here,” Greengrin said. “Don’t want to badmouth the boss, but…”

“Gotcha,” Sister said. “Say, can you give us any advice about the Library Tower?”

“Hmm, Library Tower eh? I’ve heard a few things. So, first thing to remember here, is that everything is alive. Stones, doors, windows, cutlery… it’s all filled with the magic of the Castle to some extent. So watch out. Also, everything is dangerous. Even me.” Greengrin snapped his teeth together in a mock-baleful bite. “But only if you piss it off. So, be polite. Learn the rules. That’s general advice for the Castle as a whole. As for the Library Tower itself, I’ve heard a lot of adventurers coming out of there talking about the Silent Ones. I don’t know much about them, but based on the way they talked about them, I’d steer clear if I were you.”

“That was genuinely helpful, thank you,” Miri said.

“Hey, anything to relieve the unendurable boredom of being a stone statue stuck to a tower,” Greengrin said with sincere good-natured mirth.

The party made their way through the Castle’s courtyards to the Library Tower. Alabastor noted a shadowy figure on a high balcony; it retreated into the tower.

After checking the front door of the tower for traps, the party entered a foyer and immediately found themselves in a labyrinthine space – stairways, doors, trapdoors, and passageways branching deeper into the library, much larger than the bounds of the Library Tower should have been able to hold. They noticed a shape in the corner of the foyer; closer inspection revealed it to be a corpse, presumably that of a prior adventurer judging from its rotting armour and rusted sword and pistol. The man’s nose and mouth had been stitched shut, and his stomach grotesquely distended. He also had an ornate key with a worm-like bell, pocketed by the adventurers.

Backing quickly away, the party began their exploration of the impossible library, making their way through a series of chambers filled with books on a variety of topics: one room was filled entirely with tragic dramas, the next with theological tomes, the next mathematical treatises. Metaphysics, medicine, law, magical theory – many topics were covered, with little rhyme or reason dictating an overal organizational scheme. Self-kindling lamps and candles lit themselves upon the party’s arrival at each room. Several discoveries were made as the adventurers pressed their way deeper and deeper into the extradimensional space. Yam discovered a tome known as The Ultimate Tragedy which seemed to be a different tragic play for each person who read it – the saddest play imaginable, for that individual. Comet found a book describing the contents of the Armoury Tower, including the legendary warhammer known as Chainbreaker, supposedly capable of destroying any bond or fetter. Alabastor and Sister discovered a book called the Persuasive Polemic: a largely blank tome, some pages dedicated to extremely persuasive religious or political arguments. Writing in the text would guide a writer’s hand, such that their rhetoric would always be maximally persuasive. The party encountered corpses riddled with some sort of mould, rune-trapped doors, and a flock of animate books flapping round another corpse covered in paper cuts – books terrified by an illusory fire Yam conjured, forcing them into a corner while the party hurried past.

The party entered a new chamber, this one occupied by a massive wooden figure, its torso fashioned from an enormous card catalogue, its limbs articulated joints like that of a massive doll.

“It’s a catalogue golem!” Miri said excitedly.

“Do you require assistance in locating a book?” the golem asked helpfully.

The party requested information on two books: the Anarchonomicon, and the Sanguineuous Scripture. The golem provided a reference card for both, but instead of some specific location, the cards seemed to provide directions: “up and south” for Miri’s tome, “up and southeast” for the Book of Chaos. As the party traveled deeper into the lilbrary, they found the letters on these bewitched cards changed according to their location, in a kind of game of “hotter or colder,” recalibrating in response to a shifting position. Before leaving the group also requested the location of a book about the Silent Ones, “up and east.”

Resuming their expedition, the party discovered a staircase, protected by a crude tripwire rigged to a hidden net. They avoided this curious trap – suprisingly primitive given the rest of the library – and pressed on. Something squelched and oozed up ahead: Comet flitted in front of the party to discover a reeking, slimy, blackish mass of mould, shaped only vaguely like humanoid figures, slithering through the Library Tower, spreading mould wherever it moved. Alabastor attempted to distract the mould-spawn with an alluring illusion of a fellow fungal creature, while the party took up positions of ambush. As the thing shambled towards the illusion the group assailed it with spells and missile weapons, quickly eradicating it in a burst of black spores.

Exploration continued. A book on the Soulswell’s bizarre laws was found, as were a group of shelver-goblins: a unique breed, custom-spawned by Soulswell, with extendable arms to reach the tallest shelves. The goblins squeaked in fear, but Yam approached and offered them some of the pamphlets from the Society for the Abolition of Demonic and Infernalism Subjugation and Mistreatment. The goblins took them with confusion and curiosity, and in exchange directed them to a chamber with a magical circle – a teleportation symbol, which transported the party to a different chamber closer to the books in question. The party pressed on, discovering a secret door, which led them into a library of political philosophy texts.

A translucent, floating humanoid of indeterminate sex, with a mass of prehensile, tentacular hair perused the stacks, humming to itself.

“Ah, visitors to the Library,” the creature said. “I’m one of the Reference Demons. If you’re searching for a book, I can assist you… for a price.”

Tense negotiations proceeded, a complex back-and-forth. Eventually, the Demon agreed to teleport the players to the location of the Anarchonomicon if they promised to release it from its bondage to Zachariah Soulswell using the weapon Chainbreaker. As collateral, Armand was able to barter one of his most valuable botanical concoctions, promising a moment of pure ecstasy. The demon gave them its name – Beleth – as a means to summon it to repay their debt.

Instantly, the party was transported to the chamber of the Anarchonomicon. The book spewed out a shifting, coruscating madness of transmutation – books becoming colourful rats becoming iridescent pigeons becoming stones becoming bonsai trees, bookshelves transmuting into massive faces or mosaics or walls of ice, the floor transmuting to mud or crystal or waist-deep jam. Sister searched for traps magically, and confirmed that none were present. Yam, bravely leaping forward, resisted the metamorphic influence of the tome and opened it. Instantly, the book transformed into a doorway.

“Ah, guests at the Castle! I’ve been so bored! Come now, plaaaaay with meeee!” the book proclaimed.

Hesitantly, the group passed through the doorway.

The party found themselves on an island in a brightly glowing greenish sea, swarming with eel-like horrors. Upon the island, two giants – one pink and one yellow – guarded two massive doors. Graven on the ground before the giants was the following text:

“ONE OF THESE DOORS WILL LEAD YOU TO ME. THE OTHER WILL BE MOST UNPLEASANT. ONE OF THESE GIANTS SPEAKS THE TRUTH, AND THE OTHER LIES. YES, IT’S ONE OF THOSE. HAVE FUN!

– A”

The pink giant said: “My door leads to the treasure you seek.”

The yellow giant said: “No, my door leads to the treasure you seek.”

The pink giant responded: “My yellow friend here is an inveterate liar. Only I speak the truth.”

“Ugh,” Yam said.

“I know this one!” Comet said. “We ask one of them what the other would say.” The waspkin asked the yellow giant: “Which door would your pink friend tell us to go through if we asked him which was the right door?”

“He would tell you to go through my door, the yellow door.”

“Then we have to go through the pink giant’s door,” Comet said. “If the yellow giant is telling the truth, then pink is the liar, and we should go through the pink door. But if yellow is lying, then pink is telling the truth, and he’d tell us to go through the pink door.”

Accepting this logic – and suitably impressed with their new companion – the party passed through the pink door.

Through the pink door, the characters reached a desolate plain with a bleak orange sky. Rising from the middle of the plain wa a small plateau, on which stood another door. A handful of green, two-headed rabbits grazed on dry grass, while purple cacti muttered to one another.

Each time one of the party moved closer to the plateau, it grew taller. But as some of the adventurers drew further away, it became closer. Armand, bored with the endeavour, cast blink and sped to the top. Using a mixture of spells, ropes, and clever clambering, the party surmounted the ever-growing plateau. They passed through the door into yet another space.

Here was an endless darkness, with a light illuminating a series of tiles, on which were letters spelling:

“NOR DO WE”

Adrift in this void, the characters puzzled and rearranged the tiles, eventually spelling: “NEW DOOR.”

Instantly, a trapdoor opened beneath the party… dropping them back into the library. The book closed itself, and the chaos around it ceased. Stowing the tome, the party made haste in search of Miri’s tome after a brief rest.

The next chamber was infested with a gigantic, inching grub, gorging itself on books. Disgusted, the party slew the creature with a few well-placed clouds of magical daggers and agonizing blasts.

“Like a giant bookworm…” Alabastor said.

The next door was blocked; a skilfull thunder wave broke it open. Miri’s card now indicated that her book was directly below them. The trollblood wizard proceeded to break through the floorboards, prying them up and breaking through the ceiling below to create a path to the chamber beneath. Flinging down a rope, the party entered the chamber, and Miri found the Sanguineous Scripture: a thick tome, bound in dark red leather, with page edges the gleamed like metal, it appeared blank save for a single word on the cover page – “BLEED.”

Her treasure safe, the party continued their exploration, looking now for a way out. A helpful animated memento mori was able to provide directions, and the party pressed on towards the exit. Along the way, Armand discovered an unusual book that looked like instructions for some sort of puzzle box.

The party passed through a room heaped with bloated corpses – human, goblin, cambion, gnome – along with massive quantities of books, piled up in a kind of nest around the dead bodies. All of the corpses were swollen, their mouths and nostrils sewn shut.

“Gods, this is horrifying,” Miri said, and lit the corpse-pile on fire with a spell before the party passed on, out through a door and onto a balcony, high above the bailey below.

Out of the Library Tower, the party began making their way back to the entrance. They passed through the southwest watchtower, in which they found a room with twelve humanoid skulls. Under each was written a short phrase in Goblin.

  • Shot outside the Gate.
  • Eaten by Bloodhound Slugs.
  • Shot attempting to scale the walls.
  • Killed by feral books in the Library Tower.
  • Jumped out of the Haunted Tower.
  • Spiked Pit.
  • Fell in the Broken Tower.
  • Found in the Caves, Cause Unknown.
  • Poison Needles.
  • Slain by the Wolf-Headed Knight.
  • Slept with Succubi in the Tower of Dusk.
  • Pecked to death in the Rookery Tower.

Past this room, they found their way to the West Twin, entering a chamber containing six jars of lantern oil, nails and carpenter’s tools, a dozen torches, linen, and a significant quantity of spare timber.  There were also some bandages and other healing supplies. After looting this room, they pressed on to the East Twin. Another garogyle-face greeted them: a waterspout named Gargle.

“Oooh, you’ve got quite the haul there, adventurers,” the face said. “Best watch yourselves or one of the Castle’s guardians will be after you soon.”

“Guardians? Like what?” Alabastor asked.

“Oh, the Jester, the Deathtrap Golem. One of the Apex Chimeras. Hurry on now, if you want to get out alive!”

The entered the East Twin. Painted onto one wall of an otherwise empty room was an ornate wooden door with a purple door-frame, guarded by two painted suits of armour. There was a bucket of slowly coagulating paint on the floor. Sister took the parchment with the painted farmers she’d rescued from Marjorie outside, and pressed it against the mural. They tugged at the door, opening it, even as the amoured guards began to move. Before the guards could subdue them, however, the door opened and the painted farmers leapt back to the parchment. The door, now open, became a real door, allowing access to a corridor beyond…

The party passed through a long corridor, one larger than the East Twin should have accomodated. They entered a long hall lined with half a dozen towering stone statues, being cleaned by goblins with long arms for dusting and broom-like tails. All six of the statues depicted Zachariah Soulswell himself, in a variety of heroic poses. Here he was represented as a clever-faced, handsome man, human, dressing in a variety of ostentatious robes. As the party entered the goblins fled, stirring up a cloud of dust with their tails to cover their escape.

One of the statues suddenly spoke, stone features contorting to stare at the adventurers

“Greetings and welcome, intrepid adventurers. I applaud your efforts thus far. Tell me, how are you enjoying my Castle?”

“Hmm,” Armand said, detached as always. “I’ve seen better.”

“Oh you have, have you?” Soulswell said. “Not finding it sufficiently challenging? Well, we’ll just have to remedy that immediately.” The statue whistled, and then abruptly became inert stone again. Somewhere in the Castle, a strange triple-growl was audible.

“Armand, seriously?” Alabastor said.

“Come on, let’s see what we can find here and get out before whatever that thing is finds us,” Sister said.

The party ducked into one of the several chambers off the hall. In the middle of this room was a steel cage; within is coiled a gigantic, writhing worm, thick as a tree trunk, its mouth gnashing with teeth like a buzz-saw. The creature’s segmented hide had natural markings that appeared to be alchemical symbols. Gleaming in a corner on the floor of the cage wee hundreds of lumps of gold. The worm whined piteously and raises up, pressing its maw to the hatch in obvious hunger.

The cage had a door and a small feeding-hatch. Heaped on the floor below the hatch was a pile of metal scrap – bent swords, rusted shields, dented helmets, twisted gears, and other metal oddments.

Miri attempted an experiment, feeding the worm one of the bits of metal. It devoured the oddment, and then moments later excreted a small lump of gold. Yam used mage hand to fetch the lump.

“Yep, it’s gold,” they announced.”

“It eats scrap metal and shits gold?!” Comet said.

“A… philosopher’s worm,” Armand observed.

“We have to take this thing with us,” Alabastor said. “I have an idea… someone who’s good with animals, coax it in here.” The gnome ringmaster got out his Snatcher’s Sack, liberated from the Dreamlands bogyeman back in the Egregor Vaults. Using the worm-key taken from the corpse in the Library Tower, they unlocked the gate, and Comet carefully led the worm into the Sack, gingerly luring it with a bit of metal. Alabastor cinched the Sack shut, and the worm was theirs’. The party quickly looted the floor of the room of gold, then returned to the prior hall.

Ducking into another chamber, the party spied what looked like a massive clockwork knight guarding a doorway. Rather fatigued, they opted not to approach, and returned to the hall… just as the beast entered the room.

The thing was the quintessence of predation – a splice of tiger, crocodile, and shark, with the body of a vast bear. It slavered with too many teeth, its breath stinking with the blood of a thousand meals. Unsubtle, but terrifying, a gaudy reimagining of the chimera.

The thing barreled forwards, and the party scattered to avoid it, firing off spells. It snapped at Sister, injuring the Lengian and hurling her to one side, and swatted at Miri and Alabastor.

“Here!” Armand said to Comet. “Get one of these in its mouth. Er, one of them!” He tossed the waspkin a mysterious phial – one of his many alchemical concotions.

“On it!” Comet said, buzzing towards the chimera. He unstoppered the phial and shook a few drops into the tiger head. Meanwhile, the shark head snapped and caught him in midair in a spurt of blood. It chewed and gnashed, Comet struggling to get free, stabbing at it, and the head hurled him away; he hit the wall with a sickening splat, falling to the ground like a bloody rag.

The potion, meanwhile, had taken full effect. While Alabastor, Miri, and Yam continued to hit the chimera with spells, the poisoned tiger head snarled and tore viciously at the head to one side, the crocodile head. With a fearsome flash of teeth the tiger ripped out the scaly throat of the crocodile, and the head went limp, the thing’s life’s blood spewing out from the chimera in a vast spurt that incarnadined half the hall.

Sister hurried to Comet, conjured medicinal spiders creeping from her sleeves to sew up wounds and administer healing serum from beneficent fangs. The Lengian cleric scrawled a chalk portal and urged the party through before some other horror could find them.

So ended the first half of the party’ expedition to Delirium Castle. But their contract with the Reference Demon remained unfulfilled – though they had procured the Anarchonomicon, their business at Soulswell’s fortress was far from concluded.

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.

Hex, Session VI – 5th Edition Actual Play – “Asylum”

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.
  • 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.

At their usual haunt, the Green Star, the party convened at the request of Yam, who had received word from some of their gnomish brethren in the district of Mainspring that a company of mechanists, Cogswright & Associates, who seemed to have developed what they called an “issue” with their automata. The gnomes were looking for those with strong skills in problem-solving and “robot fighting” to assist them. After stocking up on a few provisions the party set out for the whirring clockwork ghetto of the gnomes.

Mainspring

Stepping into Mainspring was like stepping into another world – a place of churning gears and hissing steam-valves and hammering pistons, where all the doors were made for people under four feet tall. Gnomes make up almost all of the population in the district, and could be seen flitting to and fro across streets, up and down elevators, across bridges, and along moving walkways. It would have been maddeningly difficult not only to navigate the twisted, ever-changing machine that is Mainspring but to even discern the function of a particular building, many of which seem to be multi-use, were it not for Yam, who grew up in the mechanical labyrinth. Amidst the shifting morass of pistons, gears, steam-valves, chimneys, and whirring clocks, it was difficult to tell where one street ends and another began, but with Yam’s guidance they found your way to Coil Street: a meandering street shadowed by an enormous conglomeration of buildings of bewildering size and complexity. A churning street-sweeping automaton rolled by, followed by a mass of smaller litter-collection drones spearing bits of trash with their mechanical spikes and then depositing them in the lumbering, cauldron-shaped incinerator automaton that trailed the robotic train. After a quick visit to Yam’s mother, an artificer of some skill directing construction of a new part of the unfathomable mega-machine that is Mainspring, the party made their way to Cogswright & Associates on Coil Street.

clockwork city

The rusty metal spire of Cogswright & Associates was so interconnected with the surrounding machinery it was hard to tell where it ended and its neighbours begin. Its entrance advertised the company as a “maker of fine automata,” and displayed several samples in a glass window. These included an automaton flamingo that delicately stalked back and forth across the display, an automaton ballerina who occasionally demonstrated its dancing with a twirl, and a hulking clockwork ettin, its two heads swivelling from side to side, appraising passersby. Inside, the party were met by a ten-foot-tall automaton of gleaming brass, armed with a massive halberd. It looks a bit like an oversized gnome. “Welcome, visitors,” the automaton’s voicebox croaked. “Please state your business.”

“Here about the robot fighting,” Yam said, and the robot ushered them inside a large workshop where thousands of automaton components were scattered madly – from coils and springs and gears to chassis parts and painted faces – two gnomes are tinkering. They looked remarkably like one another, though one looks male and the other female.

Tinker1

“Ah, hi Yam,” the female gnome said. “Hello, everyone. I’m Wanda Cogswright.”

“And I’m Edgar Cogswright – owners of Cogswright & Associates,” the male said, wiping a gloved hand on his apron. “Good to see you Yam. Dissertation coming well?”

Yam made a non-committal noise.

“Thank you for coming on such short notice,” Wanda said. “Can we offer you any refreshments? Tea perhaps?”

Eustace gladly accepted, and a scuttling teapot automaton poured them tea.

“You fix the scalding issue?” Yam asked, eyeing the automaton.

“Ah. We’re working on it,” Wanda said.

“You’re adventurers in Hex, so I take it at least some of you have been down in the Old City,” Edgar said, moving on to more pertinent matters. “Most of the upper tunnels have been thoroughly looted already, and it can be very difficult to reach some of the lower chambers. The Librarians put all sorts of traps and protections round the entrances.”

“So we thought, why not circumvent those protections?” Wanda put in. “We gnomes have been making tunnels for centuries. We’re really, really good at it. We don’t need to jump through the Librarians’ hoops. We can just tunnel into the lower levels.”

“Even the most conservative estimates suggest we’ve barely scratched the surface of the Old City,” Edgar went on. “There are miles of tunnels down there, almost all of it totally unexplored. The city up here, big as it seems, is tiny compared to what lies below.”

“So, we did what gnomes do,” Wanda said. “We built automata. Automaton drills to punch through layers of earth and stone and demolitions automata to blast or cut through what can’t be drilled. Automaton protectors to guard our expeditions against the unpleasant things that lurk in the depths of the Old City.”

automaton

“We drilled and delved and drilled and delved, and mostly we just found earth and boring, empty chambers,” Edgar continued. “But then we struck proverbial paydirt. A sector of the Old City hitherto unexplored, deep, deep below Hex, full of everything we’d hoped – books and artefacts and strange machines, all of the wonders of the First Library. Our plan had worked.”

“Unfortunately there’s been something of a snag,” Wanda explained. “We don’t know how it happened, but something down there started messing with out automata. At first just minor malfunctions – bots that wouldn’t take orders properly, or that started doing things on their own. But then…”

“Then things got ugly,” Edgar interjected. “Really ugly. The automata turned on us, started attacking. We lost some of our expedition. More are still down there, possibly trapped or on the run from our constructs.”

“We’ve spent a lot of time and gold on this excavation,” Wanda said. “And we want to know what went wrong. We want you to go down there and see if you can find out what made the automata go haywire – and, if you can, reverse it.”

“Don’t worry about damaging any constructs you encounter,” Edgar said. “Do whatever you need to. We can always use mending to repair them. And, of course, if you come across any of our expedition while you’re down there, do what you can to take them to safety.”

“If you can’t figure out what’s causing the automata to behave like this, there’s sort of a Plan B,” Wanda added. “Well, more like a Plan Z, really, we’ve really worked our way through a lot of plans recently. If there doesn’t seem to be any way to reverse the process we want you to blow the tunnel, seal everything back up. Eventually the automata will wind down on their own, and we can go back in and see if we can make sense of what happened. But if the tunnel remains open, the constructs might come back up… and we definitely don’t want that.”

“In either case, your reward is simple,” Edgar said. “Anything you find down there is yours. If you manage to deactivate the automata or undo whatever has happened to them, we’ll throw in a bonus of five hundred guineas each.”

“Sound fair?” Wanda asks.

The party agreed and were duly equipped with a quantity of explosives before being escorted down a flight of stairs and into a series of tunnels below the workshop, where a cable car awaited them to lead them deeper underground.

cable car

Two metal cables snaked along the ceiling in the tunnel, which descended deep into the earth. Hooked to the cables was a rickety-looking, rusted cable car equipped with a sputtering light, either magical or electric. Complex gear-driven mechanisms were connected to the cables, so that the car can be propelled along them. A lever was set within arm’s reach of the car. Armand, with a flick of the wrist, cast a light spell to arrest the flickering light, and the group piled in, Yam yanking the lever.

With a lurch, the cable car began to move, swaying vertiginously. At first it moved slowly as it approached the shaft plunging down into darkness, but then it began to gather speed before finally hurtling into the chthonic gloom at breakneck speed, the flickering light briefly illuminating the rock walls as the car whizzed downwards, spiraling deeper and deeper, occasionally dropping almost vertically. Occasional side-tunnels and branching passages could be briefly glimpsed during the descent, before the car leveled off, suspended now above a vast, dark cavern below. Stalagmites and the broken stubs of ancient monoliths rose from below, barely visible in the darkness. The car careened back into a tunnel, winding ever downwards, before emerging again into an echoing cave, this one filled with phosphorescent fungi; the party caught a glimpse of a subterranean stream flowing through the inky blackness, and then the car was swallowed once more by a narrow tunnel, bored into the rock.

At last the cable car came to a half at the end of the long, meandering tunnel, within a natural cavern studded here and there with lumps of glimmering crystal. Another tunnel bored by the same great drill that fashioned the shaft leading up to the surface stretched ahead.

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Beyond a short tunnel lay another natural cavern, this one with walls not of rock but of softly glowing crystal, changing in colour from pale mauve to cerulean blue to bright crimson to gleaming white. Two passages, both obviously artificial, led deeper into the caves. Sister carefully removed some of the crystals here before the party pressed onward, coming now to a sluggish river of lava, quite broad, with occasional lumps of un-melted rock floated on its glowing orange surface. Sister tested one of the crystals here, throwing it at the lava and producing a blinding flash of light that left her eyes stinging. Armand, ignoring this, quickly cast several rays of frost to harden the lava for a few moments, allowing the party to quickly cross the river before the rock-bridge melted once more.

Next the party came to a branch in the path, and decided to head to the left, following the sound of a whirring machine, which became deafening as the party approached their source. At the end of a winding tunnel a huge clockwork machine rammed itself repeatedly into a wall of rock, slowly boring its way further with the massive drill on its front. A mass of churning gears and metal plates, the enormous automaton had six leg-like appendages, the better to navigate difficult terrain, and resembles a gigantic clockwork beetle. There was something disturbing in its aimlessness. In between its assaults on the rock a mechanical voice occasionally spoke in the gnomish language: “MUST GET OUT! MUST ESCAPE!”

Yam distracted the automaton, telling it to “Out is that way! and leading it toward the lava river while the rest of the group got out of the way. The berserk drill swiveled and barreled after Yam, their companions following; as the automaton arrived at the lava river, Yam cast thunderwave, pushing the robot into the river of molten rock. Yam’s companions arrived, Armand and Vespidae leaping on to the machine to try and wrest free its ticking analytical engine.

“MUST GET OUT OF THE ASYLUM!” the machine shrieked madly.

As the drill sunk into the lava it screamed horribly, its metal turning to white-hot sludge, and the pair managed to rip the clockwork brain free, Sprigley grabbing Armand and pulling him back to solid ground. As they did so Sister felt a strange ripple in the air, as if a spirit had passed through her. Upon examination the party determined that the mechanism had been tampered with somehow, though there were no signs of physical force such as tool-marks.

Digger

The party pressed on past the tunnel where the drill had been boring. The smooth, round tunnel broke through at last into a space beyond – a chamber with walls of ancient stone, black as midnight save for the glimmer of weird glyphs that here and there adorn its vast, polyhedral columns. An electric frisson passed through the body upon entering this primeval place, where once dwelt beings of unthinkable knowledge and power. First the party turned left; protruding from the ceiling of the vaguely cylindrical chamber they entered was a huge, complex machine of iridescent metal, terminating in a node suspended directly above a large dais – anyone standing on the dais would be directly beneath the node. To one side of the dais was a console glimmering with the arcane glyphs of the Librarians. Though Yam was eager to experiment the party cautioned against it. Sister removed a mug from her pack and placed on the dais before activating the machine. There was a loud series of unearthly sounds and a beam of light shot from the node to the mug. The mug vanished without a trace – no shards, no smudge marks, it was simply gone. Reasoning it was either a vaporizer or a teleporter the party pressed on, making a note of the machine in case they needed to return to it later. They followed the tunnel to the right to a heptagonal chamber with honeycomb-like shelves in which were piled a number of scrolls. Seemingly trapped within was a roughly humanoid automaton eight feet in height. Its eyes were fashioned from rubies that flashed with red light. The berserk automaton occasionally used these gemstone eyes to try and burn its way out of the room with a searing red beam. Detecting magic, the party ascertained that some sort of illusion was keeping the automaton penned in and decided to leave it be for the time being.

Yam's MapYam’s map of the first level.

Continuing their exploration, the party pressed on, encountering a large, cylindrical chamber with walls adorned with the glyphs of the Librarians. The floor, which at first appeared to be solid stone, became transparent upon entrance, revealing a dark shaft below, while the ceiling likewise became transparent and showed that the shaft also extended upwards. Deep down, what looked like a light could be glimpsed, possibly coming from an exit from the shaft. Puzzled, they left the chamber only to become snared in a trap-corridor which seemed to have two dead ends – the moment they turned around they found the way they had come blocked and utterly impassible. By closing their eyes they found themselves capable of defeating the trap: the wall was only present when perceived. Next the came to a trapezoid hall – some form of shrine, dedicated to an almost indescribable idol of cyclopean size that loomed near the far wall, fashioned of the same night-black stone as the rest of this part of the Old City. The being had a complicated series of many-jointed limbs dangling down from an enormous mass suggestive of a gigantic, angular, and thoroughly inhuman head, but lacking any trace of eye sockets – where eyes might be in a human head there was only smooth stone. The thing’s mouthparts were vaguely lamprey-like or cephalopodan. The overall impression was that some monstrous spider of octopus had crawled into an eyeless skull. Sister identified the deity as the Eyeless Watcher, one of the Unspeakable Ones revered by the Librarians and by some in Hex, renowned for its total omniscience and powers of foresight.

Continuing their survey the party next came to a wall of shimmering energy blocking progress forwards. There was a console to one side with a series of glowing glyph markings on it. Armand and Yam managed to decipher these runes, and after some experimentation they caused the wall to dissipate. Beyond were two rooms of note. In the first, a heptagonal chamber, were seven opalescent pods, emerging from the floor. These pods could be opened and climbed into, though this had no noticeable effect; one also seemed dim and grey. The second chamber, rhomboid in shape, looked to be an arsenal or vault with a number of unusual items. These included some kind of band, fitted for a tentacle but wearable as a bracer; a round plate of glass is set in a glyph-graven frame; a prismatic stone; an impressive-looking weapon somewhat reminiscent of a blunderbuss or short rifle, though fantastically complex and sophisticated; a polyhedral puzzle-box; and a glyph-graven wand of iridescent metal. The party looted the chamber thoroughly.

Yam took the lens. Peering through it, he discovered he could see what looked like a gnome, shouting and waving wildly! The gnome, only visible through the lens, could not be heard or otherwise interacted with; indeed, he could even be walked-through with ease. Yam urged the party to follow the supersensible gnome, who led them back through the Old City to the room with the huge machine. The gnome gestured to the dais and Yam climbed on, handing the lens to Sister and indicating that the party should activate the machine. Light shot from the beam and irradiated Yam, who found themself quite suddenly in a grey, silvery version of the same room – the Ethereal plane. The gnome, however, was suddenly audible. Yam also noticed a mug at their feet – the same mug they’d placed on the dais before.

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“Oh, thank the Magistra,” the gnome exclaimed. “You must be here to get us out of this mess. I’m Isaac.”

“Yam,” Yam responded. It seemed the gnome, one of the explorers who’d delved into the Old City, had fled after the automata attacked, shortly after they’d used some explosives to enter a room on the second floor. Isaac explained that the mysterious cylindrical room with the transparent floor was a mentally-controlled elevator. He fled to this level, pursued by the automaton with cutting eye-beams, and turned himself Ethereal in order to evade it. Isaac was able to explain several other features of this part of the Old City, including the white pods, which he described as “pods of rebirth” capable of returning the dead to life.

Yam, followed by the rest of the party using the lens, proceeded to explore the rest of the same level. Yam first stopped at the room with the automaton trapped inside it, and noted something bizarre: a creature somewhere between a spider, a malevolent squid, and a throbbing brain controlling the automaton like a marionette, its limbs intertwined with the robot’s, its tendrils plunging into its clockwork innards. Next, Yam returned to the arsenal and discovered another prismatic stone identical to the one Sister took, but in the Ethereal plane. Some experimenting soon revealed that the two stones were linked, allowing sounds whispered through one stone to be heard through the other. This allowed Yam to relay everything he’d learned to the rest of the party, who now hastened to the second level, using mental commands to control the telepathic elevator.

Yam's Map 2Yam’s map of the second level.

Pressing on, the party entered an oblong chamber with a throne-like seat at its far end, though the angles suggest it was made for a non-humanoid shape. Complex machinery radiates from the throne, with several spindly metal appendages inert near the top. At the far end of the hall was a console glimmering with arcane sigils. Yam, in the Ethereal plane, noted a peculiar, blade like implement, scalpel-like, made of the same strange metal as many Librarian artefacts. Yam pocketed this and the group moved on, while Isaac speculated about the possible uses of the machine for psychosurgery. The gnome explained that he suspected this section of the Old City to be an asylum, made by the Librarians for those driven mad by the secrets they’d uncovered.

Next the group came across a series of small, hexagonal chambers along a single corridor. Investigating one, Vespidae discovered five niches, one for each wall without a door.  Approaching each niche in turn, the waspkin realized that they could materialize objects: one niche createda small sphere of bland but nutritious whitish sustenance, another materialized a crystal phial of water, a third created a small, chalky tablet, a fourth a vibrantly coloured pill, and the fifth and final niche a set of plain, white garments tailored to her waspkin form. Evidently the room was psychic to some degree. Meanwhile, Armand stopped the door from closing automatically. Intuiting that some additional effect might take place with the door closed, Sprigley volunteered to experiment, telling Armand to release him after five minutes.

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The minutes passed, but when Armand opened the door, the Sprigley that emerged was not the Sprigley they’d seen enter – this Sprigley had five months of beard, seemed strangely euphoric, was dressed in white clothes, and seemed reluctant to leave the chamber. When pressed he described his time in the cell, revealed that the door had been locked from the inside. From Sprigley’s point of view, months had passed, with no sign of rescue, and so he had consumed the sustenance provided, including the chalky tablet and vividly coloured pill – one of which proved to be a sleeping tablet, the other which caused intensely pleasurable dreams. The hardened mercenary had spent the last five months of subjective time sleeping, eating, and meditating in the cell, and despite some initial attempts to force his way out, he had eventually lost the will to leave. Somewhat horrified by the evident time-shift effect of the cells, the party hastened onwards, eager to avoid any more temporal accidents.

Pressing on, the party encountered several more gnomes, but as they approached it becomes obvious they were undead creatures – from the look of things they were variously crushed or shot through by beams of energy, with clean, charred holes riddling their bodies. Yam, viewing them in the Ethereal Plane, could see that each gnome zombie was being controlled by a monstrous polyp-like creature riding upon their back or shoulders. They varied in exact appearance but combined unappealing aspects of jellyfish, cephalopod, and brain. As the zombies lurched towards them the party attacked with spells and weapons, a still-spaced Sprigley shooting one zombie dead, Armand and Sister wielding spells of arcane and divine might, Vespidae hurling javelins. Yam, on the Ethereal, attacked one the strange beings and forced it to relinquish its hold on a gnome corpse; it scuttled away down the hall, Yam in pursuit. The gnome passed through a pair of massive doors made from glistening metal, blown open and partially melted. In the chamber beyond was a hall with numerous shelves, containing a handful of small, multi-hued orbs like huge jewels that glimmer softly. Covering the floor were innumerable glittering shards. Some were large enough to recognize as the shattered remnants of orbs like the ones on the shelves. In the middle of the room was a slab of strangely reflective metal, a hand-like clamp at one end. A console and a kind of receptacle containing a black orb like the ones on the shelves stood to one side of the device. Yam was reminded of the Consciousness Extractor the group had encountered on a previous expedition to the Old City.*

Hovering above the broken glass and strange machine, swirling in the centre of the room in the Ethereal, was a roiling, amorphous mass of limbs, tentacles, and brain-matter – a coalescence of disembodied spirits, unable to find hosts. The Librarian Yam had injured scuttled up the wall and launched its at the conglomeration, rejoining the mass. Yam’s eyes widened and they beat a quick retreat, back to where the party had dispatched the remaining zombies. Sister, thinking quickly and noting the presence of the Librarian essences, had conjured an image of the Eyeless Watcher to terrify them, chasing them toward the time-shifted cell-block. Speaking through the prism, Yam described the disembodied spirits they’d seen in the huge hall. The party theorized that when the gnomes blew open the door they must have shattered the crystals containing the consciousnesses or essences or souls of the entities incarcerated in the “asylum.”

Grell3e

They carried the corpses back to the first level, to revive them using the pods of rebirth; en route they encountered an extremely elderly gnome wandering the halls, apparently another inmate of the time-shifted cells who’d been released when a Librarian was ushered inside on the Ethereal plane. The gnome, Anaximander, must have been in the cells for a few days of objective time and thus many decades of subjective time. Dazed, he could only distantly recall the details of the original expedition, but greeted Isaac as a long-lost friend. Together the group put the bodies of the dead gnomes in the resurrection-pods, restoring them to life. The grateful gnomes – Sophia, Cornelius, and Zeb – discussed possible strategies with the rest of the party to deal with the situation. While Sophia suggested use of a room called the “Emergency Time Reversal Chamber,” the party had another plan: phase the explosives they’d been given into the Ethereal plane, then use them to destroy the spirits swirling about below.

While Isaac was rematerialized using the Ethereal-Material Convertor, the party then transferred the explosives to the Ethereal, along with Sophia, the gnome expedition’s demolitions expert.They set off again for the lower level. Meanwhile, Sophia and Vespidae returned to the archive-room with the trapped automaton, pilfering a few of the scrolls contained within and using the spell protection from evil on the automaton to temporarily release it from the insane Librarian controlling it. Exiting the room using the same strategy they’d used to defeat the “dead-end” they’d encountered earlier, they managed to trap the Librarian spirit in the chamber, returning to the corridor outside with the now-obedient automaton in tow.

Down below, Yam and Sophia returned to the hall and began setting up explosives. As they did so several of the Librarians swirling above detached from the conglomeration and attacked, squealing horribly. Yam used colour spray and acid splash to deter several of the creatures while Sophia finished configuring the explosives. The timer ticked down as the two Ethereal gnomes beat a hasty retreat. The explosion was defeaning in the Ethereal but, of course, did not damage in the Material plane. Librarian body parts were strewn about the chamber, the walls painted with their Ethereal ichor, but Yam and Sophia returned quickly to the first level and rematerialized. With everyone back in the Material plane the party hastily retreated from the Old City, once again employing spells to cross the river of lava. Though secrets still remained below, the party had managed to release several of the automata from their immaterial puppeteers, returned the lost gnome expedition-members to life, and looted the complex for several artefacts of doubtless considerably value. Not bad for an afternoon’s work in Hex…

*See Hex Session II: “The Ultimate Contagion”

Images: “Steampunk Wallpaper,” “Tinkerer” from Talisman Miniatures, Skyrim concept art, Fable 3 wallpaper, “Crystal Cave 2” by firedudewraith, screenshot from Atlantis: The Lost Empire, “Rock Gnome” for 5th Edition Dungeons and Dragons by Chris Seaman, Clockwork at the Liverpool World Museum by SomeDriftwood, “Grell” from 3rd Edition Dungeons and Dragons MM.

Hex, Session IV – 5th Edition Actual Play – “Rolling the Bones”

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, 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 follower of the Queen in Yellow and accompanied by two animated statuettes created by Magdalena Rotterthorpe.

XP Awarded: 200 XP.

The party met in the Green Star, a tavern in Mooncross filled with plants of various kinds, halfway between bar and greenhouse. The bartender was a fungoid who sometimes added herbs and other ingredients harvested from the indoor-garden to various drinks. After ordering various beverages (absinthe, nectar, a Cacodemon Ale) they set about deciding what venture they might next undertake.

Fungoid 001

After some discussion party eventually resolved to apprehend the ghoulish gangster known as Nettie “Ossifrage” Toadlung, leader of the Starveling gang of Shambleside. They had spotted wanted posters in Corvid Commons during previous activities in the area. Additionally, Garvin was aware that the Starvelings were potentially forming an alliance with the Crowsbeak Thieves’ Guild, sworn rivals of his own Guild, the Ravenswing. For this reason, putting a stop to Nettie’s operations would be beneficial. During his investigations, Garvin learned that Nettie was in fact the operator of the Rat & Roach, a subterranean casino in the understreets below Shambleside. The place reputedly had a number of quasi-legal and downright illegal activities available for the distinguishing patron, including unlicensed zombie cage-fighting. It was also said to have a large vault full of cash for the casino above, as well as various items stolen by the Starvelings.

Nettie0001

After equipping themselves, the party set out for the reanimators’ district. While trying to be discrete, several were stopped by a patrol of Eyes, the police of Hex, who informed them that travel into the district was being temporarily suspended to “keep the peace,” due to a “still-developing situation.” However, the party was able to talk their way past the watchmen, Armand and Caulis claiming to be on an important errand and to have no interest in whatever troubles were brewing. Reluctantly, the Eyes let them past.

The air was thick with the smell of spice and embalming fluid and leather, and beneath it all the stench of rot. From the gruesome deadstock pens to the Moaning Market where the reanimated are auctioned off, Shambleside is stepped in the macabre. Ghouls live here in great numbers, lurking in the shadows, avoiding sunlight whenever possible.

There seemed to be some kind of protest brewing not from the Charnel Gate –a number of armed City Watchmen were clustering around impromptu barricades, where a gathering crowd holds signs and jeers. Investigating more closely, the party found the source of the disturbance to which the watch patrols alluded: an angry mob of protestors were facing down a cordon of Eyes near the deadstock pens. The protestors were a variegated bunch, a mix of humans, ghouls, cambions, dagonians, gnomes, and even a handful of waspkin and Lengians. They were united by their demands: their signs bore variations of “A Living Wage for the Living,” “Against Exploitation, Against Reanimation,” and “We Want Bread, Not Undead.” Things looked tense, but apart from the occasional bit of shoving or shouting they hadn’t turned violent. Taking advantage of the disturbance, the party found a quiet side street and descended into the sunken streets below, paved over many years’ past.

demonstration

Finding their way to the Rat & Roach proved relatively simple, and after some additional scouting the party discovered a passage leading to a back entrance. Garvin searched the passage and discovered it was booby-trapped with a gnomish sliver-mine, which he disarmed and kept for himself. The passage terminated at a door guarded by a single Starveling – a ghoul clad in tattered waistcoat and bowler hat, smoking and guarding the passage leading into the casino. With the aid of charm person, Caulis was able to circumvent the guard, claiming to be on a special errand to speak with Nettie personally on obviously guild-related business. The bewitched guard allowed the party entrance, and they entered the casino without having their weapons confiscated or their true purposes known.

The main room of the Rat & Roach was a sprawling, filthy bar and casino-room filled with ghouls, cambions, trollbloods, and humans, all drinking, gambling, and carousing. Rotgut, blood, fungus ale, Blackbeak Brew, shadetea, and various other substances were all for sale. The patrons played games of Hexchess, Ruff & Honours, Blind Idiot, and Leper’s Dice, among other games. An elevator leading up to the Phantom Queen, another tavern on the surface, was evident in one corner, while a pair of doors leading  to a series of other chambers and backrooms frequented by high rollers and those with connections could be seen as well. The evening’s entertainment consisted of a ghoul singer, her highly canine face belying her beautiful if rasping voice. She was backed up by a chorus line of reanimated dancers, mechanically moving and kicking in perfect time, their skirts flouncing, their eyes dead.

Rakes Progress

Surreptitiously, Garvin investigated one of the backroom doors and discovered a brewery room staffed with reanimated workers under the direction of a single ghoul brewmaster barking orders to the undead thralls as they tended to the huge vats. A stair led down to a cellar on the next level. Returning to the main chamber, Garvin described what he’d seen.

“I bet the vault is on the bottom floor,” he said. “If we had some sort of distraction maybe we could go through the cellars.”

“I might have an idea,” Vespidae volunteered.

After a brief talk with the management, Vespidae convinces them to let her try her hand at some entertainment. She was ushered backstage into an area with several small dressing rooms. Half a dozen reanimated dancing girls stood here, still and inert as manikins save for the gentle rasp of their breath. After waiting for the current act to end, Vespidae tentatively walked out on stage.

Accompanied by her Unseen Servant and two animated statuettes – duplicates of herself fashioned by the arcane sculptress Magdalena Rotterthrope – Vespidae began an intricate, utterly absorbing dance, partly on stage, partly in the air. The crowd, at first sceptical and angry at being deprived their normal entertainment, gradually became enraptured by the hypnotic performance, which including intricate, dramatic in-air moves and complex patterns.

“Hey, you gotta see this!” one of the bouncers yelled to the ghoul brewmaster, who lumbered out of the brewery. While the brewmaster was absent the rest of the party slipped into the brewery. Ignored by zombies still lethargically tending to the equipment – some now spilling good ale and leaving valves open without the brewmaster’s supervision – the party began by investigating several adjoining backrooms.

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Garvis first picked the lock to the door of a small room filled with filing cabinets stuffed with papers. Sprigley plundered this records room for incriminating documents, turning up a number that showed what looked like evidence of an illicit drug-smuggling operation. Next they entered a grimy, ill-lit room with a chair set up beneath a glaring light. A badly beaten man was chained to the chair, gagged and bloody. Hesitating only a moment, the party freed the man, who identified himself as Dirk Brillspar, and confessed to having been caught cheating at cards. He feared himself soon to be killed and given to “Abjectus,” a creature in the tunnels with some kind of pact with the Starvelings.

After arming Dirk, the party hastily returned to the brewery and clambered down a ladder into a cellar below. Huge kegs filled this gloomy chamber, which reeked of cheap alcohol. There were crates and racks of wine here, as well as stronger spirits such as absinthe and whiskey. Rats teemed in great numbers here.20160606095503_1

After helping themselves to a few choice bottles of wine, the party slipped out of the cellar into the passages on the second level of the casino. Glancing down one hallway they glimpsed what looked like the vault door – to judge by its prominent combination lock. Hearing an approaching guard, they forewent further investigation and quickly ducked down another corridor and through a door. Here they found a cavernous sewer tunnel bobbing with filth. Moored to the catwalk overlooking the tunnel was a small boat laden with crates. The party looked inside, discovering large quantities of the Sap, the arcane drug harvested from the Elder Tree in Ambery, the last in Hex. Taking several phials of the valuable drug, they were debating what to do with the remainder when footsteps became audible coming down the corridor. They attempted to hide; the door opened, and a Starveling emerged, peering round the chamber. He located Caulis and Armand, who attempted to talk their way out of the situation, feigning disorientation and having “gotten lost” on their way from the gaming tables. The guard was unconvinced by this obvious ruse, but in the meantime Garvin and Sprigley leapt into action and quickly subdued the guard, knocking him unconscious. They concealed his comatose form in the boat and crept back into the tunnels.

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Continuing to explore the lower level, the group entered a chamber which looked to be an enlarged natural cavern. Slowly developing in this moist, dripping cave were a number of fungoids, still in the nacesent stages of growth where they appear somewhere between puffballs and squalling infants. Various tools for feeding and harvesting these still-growing creatures were evident. Caulis, observing the fungoids, inhaled a blast of spores, and then –

A woman walks through a snowy landscape, carrying a bundled, still child. She clambers down into a dark, sheltered hollow in the hills, sweeps a large flat stone clear of snow, and lays the child on it. She draws a blade and makes long cuts along her arms, then uses the blood to draw sigils around the stone and child. Losing blood, she begins to weaken and stagger. Where the blood has begun to congeal on the cold stone, it now gathers into animate forms, lurching and roiling towards the child. The child jerks, its features twisting subtly, and it sits up, and smiles.

– Caulis jerked back, reeling. An ancestral memory? A hallucination?

Somewhat disturbed, the party continued into an adjoining chamber to0 discover a large iron pen, as for cattle. Inside milled a dozen fungoids – the sporious humanoids indigenous to the Old City of Hex, as well as the Zymotic Ward. These particular fungoids had a peculiar purplish cast. An array of tools hung on a rack on the wall, including man-catchers, lassos, claw-grips on the end of poles, scrapers, shears, and the like. Stairs climbed back up to the first level.

Ignoring the fungoid prisoners for now, the party continued exploring the lower level and eventually located Nettie’s office – but not before Sprigley, blundering forward, tripped a hidden wire. A mechanism clicked, spraying him with a mist of vapour before lighting this flammable gas with a spark. The resulting blast of flame engulfed the warrior, horribly burning him; he flailed backwards and slumped against a wall. Sprigley’s companions managed to put him out and rescue him from the brink of death with a hasty healing potion. Shaken but alive, Sprigley got to his feet and the party approached the office.

Garvin proved unable to pick the lock to Nettie’s office, so an alternative solution was employed. Using an enchanted bolt of silence, Garvin created a bubble around the door in which no sound could be heard. Then Sprigley kicked the door off its hinges. The group entered a small, grimy room with a grotty desk, a mouldering chair, and a handful of old cabinets. A thorough search turned up quantities of cash, a hand crossbow, poisoned bolts, and a spare vial of poison. Sprigley, search especially thoroughly uncovered a hidden compartment in one of the desk drawers, in which a piece of parchment could be found. The parchment had three numbers scrawled on it: 13, 9, 17.

safe cracking

The party now hastened back to the vault, though Armand – swayed, perhaps, by a pang of conscience, or perhaps deciding to create a distraction to cover a potential escape – stopped to carefully open the pen of the fungoid prisoners. Sprigley decided to hang back with Dirk, guarding the path to the boat – now the group’s intended escape route. Wary of additional traps the party began searching for tripwires. Garvin, unfortunately, managed to blunder into one in the course of the search and accidentally set it off, resulting in a jet of poisonous vapour which he inhaled fully. Gasping, his face and veins blackening, he slumped to the ground in terrible pain. Swift application of a healing potion spared him from death. Using the combination 13, 9, 17, the party managed to open the vault. Inside were shelves piled with coin-rolls and bags of coin, as well as several objects which the party hastily grabbed: a painting of Arabella Sickle, Infernal Archbishop of Hex, a mysterious deck of cards, a scroll, a verdigris-encrusted gun, and a mysterious book with a black cover.

Meanwhile, upstairs, Vespidae had finished her performance spectacularly, destroying her statuette-duplicates in a crescendo of violence using her javelings, to the utter delight of the crowd. Tips poured in for the dancer, who was now euphoric with success. Impressed by Vespidae’s prowess, the casino’s management offered the waspkin a chance to test herself in the backroom. Seeing no sign of her companions, Vespidae agreed and was led into a crowded chamber adjoining the main room where two reanimated corpses fought in a brutal contest within a cage. Both had been extensively modified by their Reanimators. One bore a morningstar where its hand should be, its wrist wrapped with an iron chain nailed and sutured to its dead flesh, while its head was studded with brutal spikes like a mace, in mimicry of the ball swinging from its forearm; if its opponent were to headbutt it, they would be impaled. It carried a shield in its other hand. The other gladiator was even more ostentatious. Its head was that of a reanimated ghoul, complete with tearing canine teeth, but its body had a writhing mass of limbs, those of a Lengian. How the necromancer secured a spiderfolk cadaver is anyone’s guess; usually Lengians send their dead to the Temple of the Mother of Spiders in Cobweb Cliffs. The hybrid horror was armed with a multitude of knives.

jericho

While the two zombies circle one another and intermittently attacked, fed arcane instructions by their handlers, a crowd cheered and placesd frenzied bets.  The melee was brutal, but the mace-headed zombie triumphed, pummeling its opponent into submission. To the whoops of the crowd, Vespidae was placed in the cage. The waspkin managed to land several crippling blows on the reanimated gladiator with her javelins, but a lucky head-butt from the zombie brought the waspkin to the brink of death. Only the intervention of management managed to spare her life, though she was still paid for her time and invited to remain in the backrooms, even to attend to the high-rollers’ table if she wished.

Shaken, still injured, and now clueless as to her companions’ whereabouts, Vespidae decided to remain in the backrooms. She first wandered into room filled with decaying couches and armchairs,a drug den with several individuals strung out on shadetea, their eyes black as the void between stars. One girl was hopped up on thrum, an arcane stimulant made from the displacement gland of phasebats. She blurred, flickering in and out of reality, her flesh creeping and quivering, one moment present, another absent. Several ghouls also smoked a large pipe filled with some sort of purple-grey gas. One mildew-eaten room over, lit with a glimmering red lamp, junkies were sprawled on rotting furniture having consumed some form of psychoactive toadstools, more of which could be seen on a table in the room’s centre. A dozen more bleary-eyed men and women sprawled on pallets and mouldy mattresses, their eyes wide and staring, pallid faces streaked with sweat. Dispassionately moving on, Vespidae came to the high rollers’ room – a private room with walls of dark wood and a finely carved table that looked like it was liberated from a more salubrious district of the city. There were even some paintings on the walls, though these were mostly pornographic in nature. Given the go-ahead by a guard, she entered. A group of individuals sat around the table playing an intense game of he Cursed River, a complex magical card game in which players curse one another with their cards, making play more difficult. One fellow was slowly turning to stone, his feet and legs first. A few more curses and he’d be a statue. Another player could speak only in rhymes, and had to rehearse each sentence perfectly. Nettie Toadlung herself presided over the game, winning big, though blind in one eye from a curse.

downwind

Vespidae entered the game to the amusement of several players and proceeded to clean up, winning hand after hand as her opponents became increasingly curse-riddled; Nettie herself was becoming increasingly translucent as she bled coins to Vespidae. The secret to the waspkin’s success was smell – she could smell the pheramone levels exuded by various players, and judge hands accordingly. Waspkin, not usually a gambling folk, had cleared missed their calling.

Impressed by Vespidae’s skill and taken out of the game herself, Nettie invited the waspkin down to her office to sign a contract, becoming a regular performer at the Rat & Roach. By this point Vespidae was so flushed with success she barely remembered why she’d come to the casino in the first place. She agreed to Nettie’s offer and the two descended to the second floor, passing through a guard-room on the way.

At this point, all Hell broke loose.

Nettie arrived to find the passage to her office scorched, her door hanging off its hinges, and her desk drawers ripped out. Moments later Sprigley appeared from the shadows, pointing a gun at her and telling her to divest herself of weapons. Attacking with a hand crossbow, Nettie received a gunshot to the kneecap in return.

Hearing the gunshot, the rest of the party at the vault came running – as did the Starvelings from the guard room. The two groups intersected just as a group of bumbling fungoids emerged from their pen.

The resulting chaos was too confused to recount in detail – a blur of gunshots, screams, spores, and spells. Eventually, Garvin used his Hand of Glory, an embalmed hand clutching a candle, to paralyze several of the guards. Caulis summoned an Unseen Servant to dustract Nettie. Vespidae, confused and barely recognizing her companions, including a horribly burnt Sprigley, prayed to the Queen in Yellow for guidance. The Queen appeared to Vespidae in a vision, telling the waspkin to “make the situation even more of a farce.” Vespidae cast longstrider on Nettie, and the Starevling gang leader, suddenly very fast, was sent flying as the Unseen Servant tripped her. She cracked her skull against a wall, giving Sprigley a few precious seconds to grab her. Caulis beat her over the head with its great-club and the party hastily made their way to the boat to make their escape, leaving a bleeding Dirk and a still-perplexed Vespidae behind.

Images: Chartist demonstration, Kennington Common, 1848; William Hogarth’s The Rake’s Progress; screenshots from Dishonored, Thief, Jericho, and Thief: The Dark Project; Noah Siegel’s “Omphalotus oleraius.”

Hex, Session II – 5th Edition Actual Play – “The Ultimate Contagion 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.
  • An enigmatic Lengian cleric of the Mother of Spiders, name unknown. She goes by “Sister.”
  • Vespidae, a waspkin bard – a sacred dancer with a deathwish, shunned by the waspkin community for complicated ritualistic reasons.
  • Yam, an eccentric gnome illusionist and local graduate student at Umbral University.

XP Awarded: 200 XP.

expedition 2

Yam and the Lengian priestess of the spider goddess had been down in the Whorl for some time, and half of their group seemed to have disappeared – perhaps claimed by the strange, chittering presence that haunts the twisted, endless spiral. Sent by Professor Valdemar Sluice to retrieve the Viridescent Tablet after his last expedition mysteriously vanished, the pair are the last of their party. Only after long study of the glyphs on the walls was the pair able to apprehend a means of egress. Focusing doggedly on not-escaping, the gnome and the Lengian exited the Whorl – only to bump almost immediately into another party, consisting of a waspkin, homunculus, and two humans. The two groups conferred and quickly realized that they shared an employer, that one expedition had followed the other, and due to the temporal distortions of the Whorl the two had arrived in the Old City almost simultaneously despite setting out a week apart.

The two parties, briefly confused, agreed to join forces; after all, Vespidae, Garvin, Caulis, and Armand seemed to be down two members of their own expedition. Vespidae, waspkin senses unaccustomed to distinguishing between individuals with much particularity, became momentarily bewildered by Yam.

“We’re down two gnomes,” Caulis said.

“No, one gnome!” Vespidae insisted, pointing to Yam. “See? One gnome left.” It fell to the creature’s companions to enlighten the waspkin as to the mistake.

“Have you found the Tablet yet?” Yam demanded single-mindedly. “Yam would like to find the Tablet now.”

Piranesi_Carcere_XIV_Prisons_The Gothic Arch

United at least for the time being, the expedition surveyed their surroundings: a vast, cyclopean space of unfathomable age, resonant with unnerving echoes. The ceiling soared high overhead, lost in darkness. A complex network of platforms atop pillars, connected by sinuous ramps and bridges, filled the chamber. Below yawned an impenetrably black void: there was no telling how far down it goes. At various locations throughout the chamber the bridges led to doorways. Armand bewitched a stone with a glimmer of light and cast it into the abyss, but the stone was quickly lost in the unmplumbed blackness, and none could hear it hit the bottom.

The party unfurled the partial map provided them by Professor Sluice and noted that while several bridges were broken or damaged, the sketch was essentially accurate.

Inner Space

They began their exploration methodically, beginning at the passage directly opposite the exit of the Whorl. Walking the bridges was an eerie experience, with the void below gaping endlessly. Something fluttered off in the darkness to the west – bats, perhaps, or something else with leathery wings?

nature

The passage to the north led to a kind of specimen chamber, filled with a series of titanic crystalline cylinders holding the bodies of various life-forms. Though the creatures were quite still, as if trapped in amber, they looked healthy, with no signs of decomposition. Each cylinder had a small, glyph-graven control panel. The creatures included some sort of bony-plated lizard, a gigantic sloth, a sabre-toothed tiger, a six-armed insectoid thing with a clutch of tendrils sprouting from its neck round a many-fanged maw, a shaggy proto-human woman, a being like a fleshy barrel with a dozen tentacular arms, an enormous snail, a giant alligator, a winged crustacean with a multitude of eyes, an albino penguin, and a tentacled worm of unfathomable colour. Caulis and Yam investigated the controls and figured out how to thaw out the specimens, but decided against it.

Crystal Palace Megatherium

The twelfth specimen-container was shattered into many pieces, as if something had escaped. The console here was broken into many pieces. Whatever escaped seemed to have a gastropodal lower body but a vertebrate upper half. Investigation turned up some ancient, crusted stains on the floor – some old mucilaginous trail, left by the escapee long ago.

The party began exploring adjacent chambers and corridors, first finding a passage blocked entirely by stone. Next they wandered into a vast, nonagonal chambe in which a complicated machine of gleaming, iridescent metal sprawled complexly resembling nothing so much as a gigantic, sinister loom. There were two booth-like receptacles at the base of the elaborate machine. Arm-like mechanisms hovered over both receptacles, as if awaiting something.

Experimentation with this machine produced bizarre but fascinating results. Inorganic material placed in the intake booth was ignored. Garvin, curious, placed some of his own hair in the intake booth. The device went quickly to work, taking samples of the hair, cutting it up, removing fragments of skin, only to begin weaving hair… and then sinew and blood-vessels, bone and meat and pulsing organs, membranes of skin. What appeared in the other booth was a naked, identical copy of Garvin, slack-jawed and vacant-eyed. Garvin, mildly horrified but intrigued, helped his duplicate from the booth. The man seemed unconscious, though he had a pulse and seemed to be in good condition, though missing scars and tattoos Garvin possessed. The duplicate was unable to walk on its own; they laid the comatose form down on the ground.

While Lengian silk confused the Flesh Loom – perhaps it was unable to process dream-matter – a weft of wool placed in the intake booth produced a dull-eyed sheep, as comatose as the Garvin.

sheep

Pressing on methodically to what they had decided was the “south” of the Old City – not that such directions meant much in the dimensionally fraught passages – the expedition next passed into a long hall filled with unsettling light of indescribable hue, emitted by a swirling ball of light and heat that hovered near the apex of the ceiling like some monstrous lamp. Below it, seemingly nourished by its rays, were weird vegetal growths like creeping vines that ensnared a series of glyph-graven protrusions of stone forming a complex lattice-like structure not dissimilar to a garden trellis. Globe-like clusters like succulent grapes clung to the vines. A thin mist suffused the room.

Drawing on her arcane knowledge, Sister observed that the light seemed to be a miniature star, and that lingering beneath its rays might be hazardous. Closer examination of the “grapes” proved unnerving. On closer inspection, the clusters were revealed to be tiny spheres in which were contained glittering swirls of light, almost exactly like stars. Looking into one was like looking into the sky on a clear night. The swirls of light moved and shimmered within the strange fruit. A thin membrane covered each fragile globe.

growths

Caulis, fascinated by this weird vegetation, carefully cut one of the vines free and then grafted it to its homnucular body with the aid of a spell. The vine took quickly, almost eagerly, merging with the living root.

Curiosity getting the better of her, Sister fed one of the grapes to the newly-cloned sheep, which seemed to possess enough instinct to move its mouth and chew, with help. The adventurers watched as stars began to spread from the sheep’s mouth and through its face, suffusing its skin and then its wool…

Unbeknownst to his new companions, the amnesiac Alexander casually ate half a dozen of the grapes.

Annoyed at the tardiness of their compatriots, Yam decided to venture down a passage to the north. Yam’s feet crunched on the bones of what looked like bones and babies. With a yelp of “nope!” the gnome retreated, but Sister and Vespidae had already followed the illusionist into the chamber, at the centre of which lay a great and filthy nest made from the pages of countless books – torn, shredded, and soiled, their crabbed glyphs obscured by spit and muck. The discarded metal husks of the books lay to one side.

As they investigated the nest, something stirred in the shadows, unseen by the party. Then came an insectile shriek as something pierced straight through Vespidae’s arm – a hideous organic barb connected to a sinuous tendril! The thing on the ceiling hissed and began retractiung the tentacle, slowly reeling the waspkin bard upwards towards the ceiling. Alarmed, the party directed their lights to the ceiling to discover the thing which had escaped from the specimen chamber, a beast from out of time: a thing somewhere between a reptile and a carnivorous slug with a long, essentially boneless lower body like that of a gastropod, save with reptilian scales.  Its upper body had a lizard-like head and forelimbs. Bristling from its abdomen near where the lizard-half of the creature met the slug half – not that the being really had such incongruent parts – were a series of slimy, tentacular feelers, one of which had extruded the chitinous love-dart now impaling Vespidae. The horror adhered to the ceiling by means of a sticky mucus.

love dart

Alerted by Vespidae’s shriek, the rest of the party crowded into the being’s nest. Garvin, skulking in the shadows, sent a quarrel towards it, but the bolt ricocheted off the ceiling. Vespidae managed to squirm free of the hideous dart and flapped weakly to the floor, bleeding profusely. The slug-lizard monster squealed in frustration and extruded half a dozen additional tentacular love-darts like grotesque harpoons.

Thinking quickly, Yam conjured an illusion of a gnome (closely resembling Yam) to run out towards the creature, taunting it. The slug-thing sent its tendrils towards the illusion and they passed through it, but with careful modulation of the illusion Yam managed to make it appear as if the illusion had actually been harpooned. Meanwhile, Sister healed the faint Vespidae with a swift prayer to the Spider Goddess, sealing the wound with a holy webbing.

Caulis and Armand now attacked the beast from out of time directly, searing it with spells of fire and acid. The slug-thing hissed in pain but continued to reel in the illusory Yam. Thinking quickly, Sister added her own touch to the illusion, causing the bleeding “gnome” skewered by the tendrils to begin chanting in a low voice, eyes turning red, staring up at the horror. As more spells pelted its squamous hide, the horror relinquished its “grip” on Yam’s illusion and withdrew, squirming along the ceiling into a dark corner of its lair. The party rapidly retreated, Garvin covering their escape with his hand crossbow.

pillars

Renewing their exploration, the party next made their way further south into a circular room filled with shelves upon which rested thousands of delicate crystals, some of them glowing softly with light of various hues, some dull and dark. There were at least one hundred shelves encircling the entire room and extending upwards to the high, domed ceiling.

In the middle of the room was another complicated machine made of gleaming, iridescent metal, untouched by rust. The machine extruded from a sort of slab upon which lay a withered, near-skeletal corpse clad in rotten shreds of clothing. The corpse was held in place by a series of restraints. A kind of clamp eerily reminiscent of a long-fingered hand cradled the skull of the cadaver.

Investigation of the corpse revealed a scroll clutched in its fist, upon which was ritten some kind of mytsic chant or incantation.

The party began experimenting with the machine, operated this time by Yam, whose gnomish mind seemed to grasp its intricacies intuitively. Hypothesizing, the adventurers first removed the corpse, then strapped in the comatose sheep. Activating the machine, they watched as the crystal flared and then dimmed. The sheep’s eyes opened wide and it began bleating wildly, seemingly panicked, and thrashed in its restraints. The party swiftly reversed the process, and the sheep fell slack once more, the crystal glowing again. Stars were still spreading through its coarse wool.

448px-Clarke-TellTaleHeart

Next the adventurers retrieved the body of Garvin’s duplicate from the chamber of the Flesh Loom, alert lest the wounded beast from out time assail them again. Returning with the comatose clone, they strapped it into the machine and again the crystal dimmed. “Garvin” stirred, opening his eyes.

“Where am I?” he asked, looking around. “Please, let me free… I have been confined for too long… wait… is that Alexander?”

Questioning the man, the adventurers realized he was Xavier, another member of the doomed expedition of Alexander. Somewhat distressed at being placed in a new body – not to mention at the sight of his own corpse – Xavier was nonetheless grateful to be alive and awake once more. He described a sense of time passing in the crystal, though he was dull and insensate during this time, without any means of apprehending his surroundings.

Thinking quickly, the party noted that they might be able to put Xavier back in his body after all. Taking a sample of the corpse’s tissues, they hastened back to the Flesh Loom yet again and placed some of his dead flesh in the intake booth. The Loom whirred to life, producing another clone – this one of a thin, aging but handsome man. Garbing the man in a robe of spidersilk spun swiftly and discretely by Sister’s spinnarets, the expedition returned and transferred the consciousness of Xavier from Garvin’s duplicate back into the crystal, and then into the body of the Xavier-clone.

Returned to his former body with relief, Xavier described much of his expedition, including further details of the “Reality Garden,” the “Pestilence Archive,” and other chambers within this part of the Old City. He and the rest of the adventurers emerged once more into the vast chamber at the centre of this part of the First Library, continuing to explore.

Meanwhile, the sheep was beginning to move its mouth, almost as if speaking, and seemed increasingly able to walk on its own…

city

The expedition next came to a chamber with a round gateway in its middle, showing a bleak landscape of piceous stone, with rivers of black tar that seem eerily animate and, in the distance, a series of impossibly high spires stabbing at a clouded black sky. Lying on the ground just on the other side of the portal was some sort of machine that lookeda bit like a rifle, but far more intricate and adorned with weird glyphs. The object lay near a pool of the same black, tarry substance elsewhere visible. Vespidae directed his Unseen Servant to pick the object up. Instantly, the pool of slime writhed and gibbered in an alien tongue from a multitude of gelatinous orifices and lashed out at the Servant with pseodopods, engulfing it utterly. The rifle-like object fell to the ground and the party cautiously retreated.

The party’s explorations next took them to an irregular chamber centred around a central statue or monolith – a weird polyhedral mass of unlikely projections and brain-aching angles. The overall impression was of a vastness of unfathomable wings. The massive object exuded a palpable sense of numinous dread. The thing was made from some kind of shimmering crystalline substance that for brief moments looks almost organic – when looked at from the corner of the eye it seemed to move or throb subtly. A basin or depression was evident before the idol.

expedition

Sister, drawing on her theological knowledge, identified this as a manifestation of the Many-Angled Angel, who was worshipped by the Librarians for its ability to pervert the laws of time and space. She knew nothing of the being’s liturgy or rituals and the so the party again pressed on.

This time they entered a high-ceilinged chamber containing numerous shelves bearing hundreds of books – the great treasures of the Librarians. These ancient tomes were bound in delicate metal and had pages of an incorruptible vellum-like membrane able to endure the long millennia without rot. The books here would each take months or years to translate fully. The party seached through several of the shelves, with Caulis taking some spellbooks. Garvin discovered a particularly large tome with a sinister glyph on its cover and carefully stowed it without opening it. This would later be identified as none other than the Myxonomicon, one of the Greater Mysteries of the Librarians and one-thirteenth of the great work known as the Organon of Magic: but more on this in time.

The next chamber proved somewhat unusual. The characters immediately entered… and then found themselves leaving it, as if no time had passed. Except that Garvin now bore a strange, glyphic tattoo, Sister was injured, Armand had a hideous boil on his forehead (that eventually turned out to be a third eye growing beneath his flesh), and other characters had either lost or gained small items.

Curious, the party sent the sheep into the anti-memory chamber and took a short rest in the musty darkness of the Old City. The sheep came trotting out several hours later, its wool now utterly suffused with stars and nebulae and swirling vortices of light and darkness. It bleated strangely with what sounded like countless tiny voices. Alexander was also developing subcutaneous stars, though his were less developed.

GuestsoftheGreatRace

Next the characters wandered into an incredibly long, nonagonal hall decorated with hundreds of monstrous statues, each unique, each more grotesque than the last. The beings these statues depicted came in a myriad of shapes mingling aspects of cephalopod, worm, crocodile, crustacean, jellyfish, bat, spider, starfish, lamprey, and toad. One horror, for example, rested on a squirming mass of suckered tentacles, had a chitin-plated body sprouting hundreds of pincer-tipped limbs, and had half a dozen many-eyed heads somewhere between those of an insect and a monstrous lizard. The statues were arranged in no discernable pattern.

Scholars amongst the party identified these as statues of the Nine Hundred Progeny of the Plenitudinous One, also called Carcethotep, the Fecund Chaos, and the Cancroid Progenitor. Rather than tempting fate ande eager to find the Tablet, however, the expedition pressed on without investigating further. They came next to a long, heptagonal chamber whose walls were riddled with thousands of small holes which made them think of mouths, though they certainly did not resemble the mouths of any humanoid being. Vespidae investigated closely and detected a musty smell and a low, barely audible chant emanating from the mouths. Xavier warned that the mouths were a protective measure and urged the party to recite the chant he had discovered. The party began to do so, and the mouths gradually closed as they approached. Garvin noticed that they also closed whenever he neared them, curiously. Spreading out and still reciting the hastily-copied chant, the party managed to close all of them mouths at once, at which point they remained closed permanently.

They proceeded through the doorway at the end of the hall and into a vast, octagonal chamber hat proved incredibly cold; icicles drooled from the entrance, and breath plumed visibly in the air. Stone shelves lined the walls, filled with hundreds of glass phials containing liquids of many colours. A zigzagging spiral ramp allowed access to the lower shelves and disappears into the floor. Xavier identified this as the Pestilence Archive, where the Librarians catalogued various diseases. Taking care not to touch any of the phials, the adventurers proceeded down the ramp into the room below.

haeckelcovers3

At the middle of this chamber could be seen a plinth, upon which is sat a metal tablet, gleaming in the musty darkness. Carpeting every inch of the hall save the plinth itself was a strange, gently pulsating purplish-red lichen. This layer of liver-hued growth glistened wetly and exuded a damp, slightly acrid reek. Throughout the chamber were half a dozen curious mounds of lichen between three and six feet in height. Unlike many of the chambers in the Old City this hall was quite low, with a ceiling only twelve feet or so above.

Not wishing contact with the lichen, Armand began using a ray of frost to freeze it, destroying it in small patches in order to clear a path to the Viridescent Tablet. However, one of the rays struck a mound of lichen. With a dull, inhuman moan, one the mounds oshivered, spraying bits of damp lichen everywhere. The thing wrenched itself from the surrounding lichen and raises what the adventurers realized were arms, covered in the revolting, throbbing lichen. It moved towards them as if to embrace them, mewling pathetically from a black pit of a mouth, blinding groping.

Bloater

The party leapt quickly into action, with Garvin sending a crossbow quarrel directly into its “face,” where its eye might be. Sister conjured a sacred flame to incinerate the creature while Caulis, Yam, and Armand attacked with spells of their own. The thing was too slow to close the gap and was quickly destroyed. Armand resumed his careful clearing of the lichen and managed to clear a path to the plinth. The plinth itself seemed to be free of any obvious traps.

At this point, Yam produced from a bulging pack a curious item – a piratical flag. Waving off quizzical entreaties Yam draped the flag over the Tablet. Armand, having got a quick glance at the runes on the Tablet, began bleeding from the nose. He picked the Tablet up and the party made haste to leave, even while the remaining mounds in the room stirred, alerted by the loss of the Tablet. With the lichenous shamblers slowly pursuing them, the party hurriedly left the chamber and made their way back to the Whorl.

The trip back to the sewers proved easier than the descent, although Garvin, shaken by his experiences, was momentarily tormented by what sounded like the voices of the party themselves only a few hours ago, heading down the passage towards them. Ignoring these echoes, the party ascended and returned to the sewers.

Dunwall_sewers_1

On the way back to the surface the party briefly encountered a group of toshers – child sewer-scavengers led by an ancient gnome, Sly Rufus. After purchasing a key to the Reanimator’s Guildhouse from the wily scavenger, the party heard him describe how many of his scavengers were being kidnapped by the sewer witch known as Wicked Peggy. Rufus offered rewards for the hag’s death. Too exhausted from their expedition to take the man up on the matter at the moment, they requested a guide to lead them back to the streets safely, which Rufus provided at a small fee.

The party returned to Caulchurch by boat, the Tablet carried by the surprisingly strong Armand. After some small disputes with a nonetheless delighted Professor Valdemar Sluice over payment, the adventurers big one another good evening, agreeing to work together in future should the opportunity present itself.

Images: Édouard Riou‘s illustrations for Voyage au centre de la Terre, Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s Carceri, Ernst Haeckel’s sketches, engraving of Megatherium, Don Pedro’s engraving of a sheep, SEM image from Joris M. Koene and Hinrich Schulenburg, “Shooting darts: co-evolution and counter-adaptation in hermaphroditic snails,” Harry Clarke’s “Silence” and “The Tell Tale Heart,” Howard V. Brown’s illustrations for At the Mountains of Madness and The Shadow Out of Time, screenshots from The Last of Us and Dishonored.

Hex, Session I – 5th Edition Actual Play – “The Ultimate Contagion Pt. 1”

The characters in this session were:

   

  • Alabastor Quan, a gnome rogue and failed circus ringmaster; wielder of a cursed dagger and member of the Ravenswing Thieves’ Guild.
  • Armand Percival Reginald Francois Eustace de la Marche III, a suspiciously pale, apparently human noble and sorcerer, and certainly not a ghoul (how dare such a thing be suggested).
  • Bjorn, a gnome bard, a former industrial worker in the Boiling and a somewhat deranged inventor of clockwork instruments; in posession of demoniac bagpipes.
  • Caulis, a homunculus warlock liberated from its master; has made a pact with certain Faerie Powers.
  • Garvin Otherwise, a human rogue and burglar, also of the Ravenswing Thieves’ Guild, with a very, very peculiar past and a zoog pet, Lenore.
  • Vespidae, a waspkin bard – a sacred dancer with a deathwish, shunned by the waspkin community for complicated ritualistic reasons.

XP Awarded: 100 XP.

To live in Hex is to live in want of money – be you a student up to her eyes in debts, a contract lecturer living hand to mouth in dim hope of tenure, a profligate gambler left penniless from the chance-halls of Groanwell, or one of the city’s numberless poor simply trying to survive. So, when a well-funded Professor of Transmogrification offered handsomely paid work for those willing to take risks and get their hands dirty, it didn’t take long for a roster of suitable would-be adventurers to appear.

The party was instructed to meet this Professor – Valdemar Sluice, Doctor of Magical Philosophy – at his laboratory in Caulchurch, the Alchemist’s Ward. In the depths of the district the air was smoky, thick with glutinous wafts of acrid, headache-making vapour. Street-sellers hawked crude gas-masks and goggles, purchased with gratitude at exorbitant price by those coughing, weeping passersby who don’t already possess such equipment. Signs alerted those who eschew such protective measures that they inhaled the fumes of Caulchurch at their own risk, warning of unpredictable magical effects.

The door to Sluice’s laboratory was unlocked. Within was a huge chamber with a soaring ceiling. The remnants of ecclesiastical murals were still visible like flaking ghosts beneath a patina of soot, stains, and complicated charts showing everything from the movements of the stars to alchemical formulae to vivisected bodies. Several bookshelves were crammed into niches that might have held prayer-books or relics. Elaborately interconnected glassware bubbled and seethed on a series of long, finely carved tables, spattered with acid-burns. The apparatus was tended by a solitary homunculus in a somewhat ragged apron.

A small fruit-tree was growing out of the floor where an altar might have stood, a tall window of stained orange glass giving it sun, a miniature rain-cloud periodically watering it. The tree seemed like a mundane orange tree. Then, suddenly, the stained glass window shifted in colour, becoming red. The tree shivered slightly, and the plump oranges amidst its branches incarnadined, becoming apples instead.

Presiding over the laboratory from a small levitating armchair was Professor Sluice, a thin-limbed man with massive spectacles, scrutinizing the bubbling substances below and making notes in a large book. He wore a richly embroidered but rather tattered waistcoat and a yellowing shirt, giving him the air of a well-heeled but rather distracted gentleman. A great shock of dark hair shot through with grey erupted from his head. As the party entered, his floating chair swiveled; he adjusted his spectacles, and directed his chair to settle behind a large desk strewn with papers and books. After introductions, Sluice launched into his explanation of the job.

“The job is relatively simple, really,” Professor Sluice said with a shrug. “Well, in theory. Please, listen carefully, and keep your questions till the end.” He adopted the pedantic tones of a lecturer.

“You see, there’s an artefact down in the Old City I’d like to get my hands on – the Viridescent Tablet, a text much-alluded to by other works of the Librarians, and said to contain within it knowledge of disease, decay and corruption. I believe I can use this Tablet in my research into the panchrest – an elixir capable of curing any illness. Imagine we could reverse the processes of decomposition, could conquer time itself and spit in the eye of sickness… we could bring relief to those poor wretches suffering in Catch-All, perhaps even undo some of the damage we dealt to Teratopolis.

“Through long and meticulous researches I have at last pinpointed what I believe is the location of the Viridescent Tablet. The Old City, you see, possesses many hidden chambers, rooms and passages snarled in an impossible skein of paraphysical existence. We have been here for centuries, but we have only scratched the surface of the Library. There are vast spaces, enormous halls containing knowledge undreamt-of, lying beneath our feet, so close and yet beyond our grasp…” He shook his head.

“Anyway. As I said, I have found the resting place of the Viridescent Tablet. I think the Tablet is being kept in a part of the Old City somewhere beneath Shambleside and Corvid Commons – more specifically, in the tunnels below Gloaming Street. You’ll have to find your way to the sewers beneath the street, and from there into the Old City.

“Once you’re in the Old City you’ll be searching for a place called the Whorl – a single corridor that seems to be spiralling into itself forever, impossibly. I believe, however, that the Whorl is actually a kind of gateway, or secret passage, placed by the Librarians to protect the Viridescent Tablet. I am unsure how, exactly, the Whorl can be navigated, but my researches suggest that it is as much a mental as physical impediment – a kind of psychic lock. If you can find a way to open it, the Whorl should deposit you at the resting place of the Viridescent Tablet. In theory, at least…

“The tablet should be safe enough to handle, though I might recommend the use of gloves. I would also strongly advise against reading anything you see upon it, or even looking too long at its glyphs. Now.” Professor Sluice sifts through his papers and slides a sheaf tied with a black ribbon across the desk. “I have procured a few rough maps to aid you in your search, and added some sketches based on my research concerning the location of the Tablet.”

Sluice gifted the party with healing potions (which turned out to have some unusual side-effects) as well as some rough maps of the area in question. He told them that the Tablet was held somewhere in the Old City tunnels deep beneath Shambleside, one of the city’s necromantic districts, and that it was protected by something called the “Whorl,” a kind of “psychic lock.”

After purchasing some gasmasks to protect themselves from sewer-miasmas the party set out, taking a water taxi across the Radula to Stumpridge and making their way south to Corvid Commons – a crime-ridden slum in the southeast of Hex.

Drury Lane

Crabbed roofs jutted overhead; drunkenly leaning walls of crumbling stone and rotting wood and lichen-infested brick crowded close. Most of these were rambling tenements or tiny, wretched bars with unwholesome names like the Clock & Cleaver, the Flayed Gnome, the Bloated Flea, and the Lady with the Bloodstained Fan.

These filthy little drinking holes were interspersed with a handful of shadetea houses and other drug-dens perfuming the streets with their narcotic smoke, as well as the odd pawnshop or knife-vendor. The buildings were stacked madly atop one another, held together with chipping plaster and broken planks. In places they enclose the streets entirely, forming gloomy tunnels.

Faded posters and chaotic graffiti mottled every surface: gang signs, territorial markers, wanted posters, threats, pornography, subversive political slogans. Narrow streets and twisted alleyways wound into fetid darkness in such fecund profusion they seem like living things, coiling and breeding in the grimy depths of the district, spawning fresh litters of side-streets.

Shambleisde, Grey Hook, & Corvid Commons

Though Garvin, Vespidae, and Alabastor were stealthy enough to slink through the district surreptitiously, the well-dressed popinjay Armand attracted the attention of a group of toughs affiliated with the Crowsbeak Thieves’ Guild who accosted the party-members demanding valuables. Skillful haggling and a silvered tongue managed to reduce the “toll” by a sizeable amount and the party continued to Gloaming Street. After scrutinizing their map and asking around about the best way into the sewers they settled on the Phantom Queen tavern, which, they learned, is built atop a casino in the undercity, the Rat & Roach, and provides access to the tunnels below. Vespidae managed to smuggle the party’s weapons into the tavern by flying to an open window, aided by an Unseen Servant carrying parts of the arsenal, while Alabastor distracted the bouncers with showmanship and legedermain. The rest of the party entered and discretely retrieved their weapons from the sly waspkin. Here they discovered the reason for the tavern’s name.

Inside, a mixed crowd of humans, ghouls, and a few other species caroused in a room smelling of blood, rotgut, and sweat. More than a few of the patrons sported tattoos telling of criminal affiliations. The furnishings were crafted from bones, and some of the servers are reanimated skeletons or shuffling revenants. The barkeep proved to be a huge, jolly woman with a crude crown sitting lopsided on her head, her ectoplasmic flesh translucent – a ghost, haunting the bar she tends.

After heading down a rickety elevator into the Rat & Roach –  those with Thieves’ Marks were able to enter freely, while others either forged the mark or posed as retainers – the party made their way through a series of subterannean streets. Here they found a community of ghouls and scavengers eking out a filthy, troglodytic existence, subsiting on the effluvial provender of the sewers.

Sewers 001

The party then set out into the sewers, donning their gasmasks. Lenore, Garvin’s zoog, used its luminous eyes to light the way, sparing the party the need to kindle flames – with so many flammable gases around, torches would be perilous. Armand also provided magical light. Hoping to avoid “Wicked Peggy’s Domain” – some of the party had heard rumours of the cannibal hag and bogeywoman of Shambleside, Wicked Peggy – the party made their way south through the tunnels, eventually disovering a flooded tunnel that, according to their map, should lead to the Old City. They also discovered a body floating in the canal, with two puncture marks in its neck.Sewers

Searching for a means of draining the tunnel, the party made their way deeper into the fetid darkness, coming to an area beneath the gruesome reanimation factories above. Here they discovered a series of shafts in which rejected corpses are hurled from above.

A dirty, slanting shaft in the ceiling gaped above a pile of rotting corpses heaped before the party, all of them malformed in some way: corpses badly mangled or dismembered, burnt or broken-boned, or simply misshapen. The cadaverous heap swarmed with maggots, flies, and rats. A few of the corpses were partially tattooed with glyphs, though some look as if the tattooist made a mistake of some kind.

A rumbling sound from above could be heard when the party neared the shaft, and another body slid down to join its decomposing fellows below with a sickening smack. This one seemed to have been abandoned part-way through the reanimation process, its skin still slick with eldritch ink. It moaned dully in vacuous confusion and twitched a single working arm…

bodies

Hastening on from this macabre heap the party investigated the various store-rooms and maintenance chambers. They discovered some embalming fluid, to which they helped themselves, but were disturbed to find a quantity of thread and several sets of rusting scissors.

As they at last turned the valve to drain the tunnel in question of sewage, they heard the unmistakable sound of something moving nearby – and the eerie metallic rasp of scissors, opening and closing. Alarmed by this sound, they rapidly made their way towards the previously flooded tunnel, Alabastor casting a minor illusion to distract whatever was closing in as the party made their way down the now-drained shaft.

drain

At the end of the tunnel the party discovered a sealed entrance to the Old City, which through arcane insight the homuncular warlock Caulis was able to open. After perusing several thoroughly looted archive chambers within the echoing enormity of the Library the party located the Whorl, a seemingly endless spiral passage winding perpetually and impossibly in on itself. Attempting to leave the way they came proved fruitless: the Whorl extended in all directions, trapping them in its endlessness. The party also tried walking backwards, again to no effect. Experiments with rope, slung between characters, proved more confusing than conclusive.

Passage

Caulis, with the aid of Armand and several others, began studying the ancient glyphs inscribed on the walls. The glyphs turened out to be a kind of metaphysical treatise insisting that time and space do not exist as differentiated concepts and events do not occur in a sequence. But because of consciousness, we perceive reality as animals existing at a finite point in space and time, a kind of subjective illusion. The author ultimately seemed to resist pure solipsism, claiming that the world-in-itself cannot be fathomed by material intelligences. Puzzled and annoyed by this crypticism, they continued their search, discovering a series of spirals scrawled on the walls, then a skeleton – judging from the bullet hole in its skull and the pistol clutched in its bony hand, a suicide. Vespidae decided to take the pistol for herself.

Searching the body produced a diary, the mouldering pages of which the party examined with mounting horror. The diary detailed a doomed expedition that became lost in the Whorl; its members seemed to include Alexander, a youth of good birth who became obssessed with the spiral shape of the Whorl, and Xavier, who disappeared during the journey.

“Mossday, 3rd of the Month of Murmurs

The date above is based only on the revolutions of my pocketwatch, which I no longer trust. Such fickle concepts as time no longer seem reliable in this wretched place. It would be one thing if we were trapped in a maze, but this is infinitely worse – there is simply no way out. We have tried walking forwards, backwards, tried separating and walking in different directions… nothing. Ever inwards the spiral twists, but we grow no closer to the center! It defies all laws of physics & paraphysics of which I am aware.

I am worried about Xavier. A steady diet of this strange lichen has left him weak and somewhat crazed-looking. Alexander seems more robust physically, being a boy of but two-and-twenty, but he fiddles queerly with that signet ring of his, and I have caught him drawing spirals in the dust when we camp and he thinks no one is looking.

I am not a claustrophobic man by nature, but this place is unbearable. I wake and sleep and wake and see the same walls, the same unwholesome markings, the same eerie grey & tasteless lichen, hear only the drip of water and the panicked heartbeats of my companions. I think, sometimes, that we must have left the Old City altogether and stumbled into some diabolical circle of Hell, that our souls are trapped here for eternity as punishment for our sins.

Magistra preserve us… I must not think such things, or I will lose what meagre shreds of sanity I still possess.

Scaleday, 7th of the Month of Murmurs

Our condition worsens. Alexander has given up all pretence and now scratches spirals on the walls with his little dagger, and stares at us quite disconcertingly if we object, saying nothing. Xavier has become increasingly close-mouthed. He goes for hours without speaking, and sometimes, when walking, I see him closing his eyes, wandering with one hand touching the wall, to keep his balance. It is as if he is trying to live a second life in his mind. I refuse to give in to such fancies.

We spent a good portion of the previous day simply studying the glyphs. They seem to mix arcane formulae with metaphysical speculation, from what we can translate; the dialect is unusual, and there is some cipher or code obfuscating portions of the text. What we have managed to “interpret” is sheer madness – a vision of the world as one single totality, a kind of throbbing, absolute unity that makes a mockery of our individual minds. I am forced to conclude that the Librarians included the glyphs as part of the torturous nature of this place – an evil jest.

Whether or not there have been previous explorers in this wretched prison, I believe we are not alone down here. In the darkness when we rest I have heard something moving, far off down the passage – though not far enough. It scrapes and scuttles, and once I swear I heard a hiss of indrawn breath. What manner of horror stalks these endlessly circling halls?

Goatday, 11th of the Month of Thorns

Xavier has vanished! One minute we were walking along together, puzzling over the glyphs – Alexander is intent upon transcribing them, believing they must tell the secret of escaping this place – and the next he had sprinted ahead round the bend. Alexander and I rushed to catch up with him, but we found no trace. There were some confused footprints in the dust, then nothing… Either he found some way of escaping, or something ill has befallen him. We lingered for some time where he seemed to have disappeared, seeking for some hidden passage or egress, but to no avail.

Something else disturbing has occured. When we made camp this night I discovered a series of spirals scratched on the wall, just like the ones Alexander has been making. Unless some other inmate of this desolate spiral has done the same, we are somehow circling back on ourselves.

When I woke this morning (morning! Ha! As if the term had any meaning, anymore…) I felt it, lurking over us, though I could not see it in the dark. I felt it move past us as Alexander scratched his spirals in the walls and crooned to himself. He paid it no heed, just kept scratching, murmuring to himself. I smelled it, smelled its rancid stench. Heard its legs skittering, skittering…

Starday? Some point in the Month of Owls, or Dust

Ink is running out, but it matters not. I will soon be quit of this place. I have discovered the secret, the secret of escape. Alexander would not believe me, he obsesses over the glyphs, will not listen.

This is all an illusion. A dream-world into which the Old City has enveloped us. There is only one way out – death. A quick bullet to the brain and I will awake, return to the real world, and end this nightmare.

The skittering comes. I can hear the Dweller nearing. I must make haste!”

Unnerved, the party pressed onward, studying the glyphs carefully. At this time, Armand intuited – through some mysterious subterannean sense of direction in no way related to a hidden ghoulish heritage (how dare it be suggested!) – that they were not moving. Caulis, with the aid of other party members, speculated that perhaps the key to defeating the Whorl was a frame of mind – to move forward without focusing on escaping. Emptying their minds, the party began again, and this time Armand did perceive movement forwards; the Whorl even began sloping downwards. Like a finger-trap, the Whorl releases its prisoners when they cease struggling.

But the party’s trials were not yet over. They discovered a second skeleton – this one seemingly belonging to Garvin Otherwise! The rogue’s exact equipment seemed to have been duplicated. The living Garvin, experimentally, counted thirteen coins in his pursue, dropped one, then checked the purse of his skeletal double – which had twelve coins. Retrieving the thirteenth coin with a chuckle, Garvin reasoned he had proven the Whorl was not “predicting” his destiny in some fashion.

As the party began looting the corpse of their companion’s temporal duplicate, they heard footsteps from around a bend in the Whorl, and a haggard figure, heavily bearded and clad in rags, stumbled into view, a dagger in hand, a green ring on his finger. Vespidae, either out of panic or instinct, fired the pistol at the approaching figure, shooting off the man’s ear in a spray of blood. Screaming, the man began chanting the syllables of a spell, but the intervention of Alabastor and Armand managed to convince the madman to cease his hostility.

Crazed II

The party provided the wounded man with one of the  healing potions provided by Professor Sluice, which turned out to be tainted with alchemical residues – inflicting amnesia on the poor man! Fortunately, this actually seemed to relieve some of bearded lunatic’s distress. He identified himself as Alexander and claimed to be on an expedition to retrieve the Viridescent Tablet himself.

Continuing down the Whorl – Alexander now in tow – the party began to feel uneasy, as skittering sounds could be heard behind them, drawing closer. As the Whorl sloped ever steeper, the skittering became louder and louder, along with a hideous chittering noise. While Bjorn panicked and ran down the corridor, the rest of the party kept a level head and continued on placidly, not focusing on escape.

Moments later, they emerged from the Whorl, quite safe, the skittering behind them suddenly gone…

Images: Gustave Doré‘s “Drury Lane,” screenshots from Outlast and Riven, Mervyn Peake’s “Ancient Mariner.”

5th edition Hex campaign

I’ve started a new 5th edition D&D game in a setting I’ve been working on, set in the city of Hex – a magical university town built atop the ruins of the much older archive-city built by the sinister and long-departed Librarians. Influences here include China Miéville’s Bas-Lag novels, Jeff Vandermeer’s Ambergris, Scott Lynch’s Gentleman Bastard Sequence, K.J. Bishop’s The Etched City, Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, and (naturally) H.P. Lovecraft: it’s a big, greasy urban fantasy with a vein of eldritch horror.

Hex Close UpMap Screenshot III

Here’s an overview:

Endless shelves filled with hieroglyph-graven tablets of primeval metal stretch for miles beneath the earth, down aeons-old tunnels that curve and twist in ways that make the mind ache, plunging into cavernous archive-chambers and coiling in upon themselves like some impossible stone snake. Within this lightless immensity the knowledge of the inscrutable Librarians – visitors to this world, now departed or dead – is meticulously recorded, written in gleaming books and upon monoliths of incomprehensible size, arranged according to a system so alien and maddeningly complex that none have ever deciphered it fully. This the First Library, the Old City which drew explorers and scholarly spelunkers from many lands, daring the uncanny and dangerous depths where tenebrous things now lair, seeking for the secrets buried deep in the incalculably ancient labyrinth.

Many centuries have passed since those first sojourns underground, and now a new city thrives atop the old: Hex, the Inkstained City, the City of Secrets. A six-sided sprawl, this centre of magical learning is home to some of the world’s finest institutions of arcane education: the Académie Macabre, Fiend’s College, Umbral University, the Institute of Omens, the Warders’ Lyceum, the Citadel of the Perpetual Storm, the Metamorphic Scholarium, and Master Melchior’s School of Thaumaturgy & Enchantment. Magi, wizards, sorcerers, warlocks, and witches can be found in the winding streets, flocking to the source of esoteric lore with which reality itself can be reshaped.

Vast libraries containing translations and interpretations of the alien glyphs of the Old City fill the towers of the city. Hex came into being slowly. With the first influx of the wise and wealthy came others: librarians and archivists, of course, but also scribes and scriveners, porters and couriers, mercenaries and bodyguards, concubines and cooks, and other servants – and then, later, book-sellers, parchment-makers, ink-dealers, quill-cutters, vintners, and ale-brewers. These were followed, of course, by dockworkers and grooms and tailors and victuallers and masons, and later by craftsmen and labourers and merchants of every sort. Soon what had begun as a few remote camps and archeological digs became a fully-fledged campus that later fractured and flourished and overgrew its boundaries, till one day the seething, scribbling enormity of Hex came into being.

Now Hex is a modern metropolis, a frenzied urban imbroglio teeming with traders and cutthroats and decadents. Gaslight, buzzing electric lamps, and glimmering magical crystals bathe faces both beautiful and vile in their variegated glow. The universities have become vast – huge, ornate, and unthinkably wealthy, their spires stab at a sky now criss-crossed by flitting familirs and hot air balloons and skycabs drawn by hippogriffs, manticores, or dock-tailed wyverns. Trade bustles along the banks of the Radula River while alchemists culture homunculi in their cauldrons and necromancers reanimate the corpses of the poor to labour in the city’s churning factories. Temples to a hundred deities burn sacrifices and fill the air with weird chants, prayers to strange and sometimes malformed gods inspired by the primordial gods of the Librarians. Above them all the wizards still scribble in their spellbooks, while deep below adventurers plumb the twisted darkness in search of yet more secrets…

Map Screenshot IVMap Screenshot IMap Screenshot II

I’m going to be posting a campaign diary here along with excerpts from the background material I’ve prepared for the game.

My format for this campaign is a little unusual for me. I now have a large gaming group – about 10 regulars, plus a few occasional players – so instead of trying to get everyone together regularly I’m attempting a more open, West Marches style game where players come and go. As it happens, about half of my players are actual real-life librarians, so it should be interesting to see them descending into the massive megadungeon that is the Old City.

St. Severine’s Skull: Hexenburg Castle – Gatehouse Dungeons

Dungeons

Soundtrack

This series of chambers connects to the catacombs, cistern, and barrow.  Grugnar uses them as his “workshop.”

GD1 – Trapped Passage

Down the stairs, you find a grimy stone hall that runs ahead for some distance into the subterranean gloom.  The spell of spoiled meat is very strong here.

Fortitude save DC 10 or be Sickened by the stench (-2 penalty on attack rolls, weapon damage rolls, saving throws, skill checks, and ability checks) while remaining in the gatehouse dungeon (new save required upon re-entry).

Grugnar has set a vicious trap here for those trying to descend into his lair.  A gut tripwire is suspended across the corridor.  If tripped, a sharpened battering ram on the ceiling swings down to hit characters.  Perception DC 20, Disable Device 20, Attack +15 (2d6+4/x4).

GD2 – Anteroom

A disgusting mass of tattered, rotting skins, broken bones, mutilated organs, and other castoff bits and pieces is heaped high in this room, attracting swarms of flies.  A few rats nibble on the putrescent remains.

GD 3 – Dining Room

A large table and a chair made out of whittled human bones and lashed together with intestines can be found here.  Both are sized for a very large creature – the table is quite high, and the chair large enough to seat someone at least eight feet tall.

GD 4 – Mask Chamber

This might once have been a cellar or storage chamber for the gatehouse, but it’s been converted into some kind of grotesque display room.  Covering the walls of the room are masks – dozens of them – made from flayed humanoid faces.  The skins have been heavily stretched and even patched with other pieces of skin to make them larger.  Heaped in a corner of the chamber is a greasy pile of humanoid hair.  Looking closer, you see it is actually a pile of humanoid scalps sewn together with the hair still on – crude wigs.

GD5 – Tannery Room

An extensive series of vats and racks are arrayed here – it looks like tanning equipment, used to turn hides into leather.  Knives used to scrape hair from flesh are scattered about on the floor.

Anyone who wants these used tools can get a tanner’s kit.

GD6 – Flensing Room

This room is some kind of filthy workshop.  Crates and tables have been arrayed here as makeshift work-surfaces, and a vast array of blood-stained knives, bone-saws, pincers, tongs, hatchets, and other bladed tools are evident.  On one table rests a partially flayed corpse, that of a human man.  Judging from the brands on his un-flensed palms and his split nose, the man was a criminal of some kind.

Any of the surgical tools could be used as a weapon equivalent to a dagger or short sword.

GD7 – Wardrobe

This chamber must once have been a storage room for salted meat or the like, judging from the rusted meat-hooks which dangle from the ceiling.  Instead of cured pork, however, the meat-hooks are now hung with monstrous garments made out of human skin.  Judging from the differing pigmentations evident on these patchwork suits, each was made from multiple people.  The garments are very large, as if made for someone much bigger than a normal humanoid.

GD8 – Trapped Passage

This passage reeks of mildew and stagnant water, and you can hear a dripping sound up ahead.

It’s also trapped with a rusty iron portcullis, part of the original fort to help block off any enemy miners, which Grugnar has converted into a makeshift trap.

GD9 – Cell Block

A long hall lined with rotting wooden doors stretches before you.  Metal slats on the doors allow a gaolor to look into the cells beyond.

GD10 – Cell

Dungeon

You can hear muffled moans from inside the adjoining chamber.

The door to this room is locked (DC 20 to pick, DC 22 to force).  Grugnar’s key opens it.

Chained to the far wall of this small, dirty cell is a young man in a monk’s habit, his head tonsured into a double crown, his robes filthy and streaked with blood.  He is praying loudly, but as he sees you, his eyes widen.

“My prayers have been answered!” he proclaims.  “I knew I would be delivered from this hell…”

This is Brother Ambrose a young priest-in-training who, along with his master, Father Umberto, and a Knight, Sir Albrecht, came to the Castle after hearing of its chapel and the holy club, known as the Hammer of Redemption, said to be interred within – a weapon said to have been wielded by the crusader Sir Arngrim, who reputedly used it to slay a hundred heathens in the Winter Crusade.

“We came to Hexenburg in search of the Hammer of Redemption, the Holy Cudgel – Father Umberto and I, and Sir Albrecht.  Before we could reach the chapel the Goblins and their demon-wolf leapt out at us, dragged Sir Albrecht back to their den.  The Father and I fled, but then that thing – that fiend that clothes itself in human skin – hit me over the head.  I’ve been here ever since.  I think it’s fattening me up – it keeps trying to feed me.”

Brother Ambrose will join the party to try and find Father Umberto and Sir Albrecht.

GD11 – Empty Cell

This small, square chamber is empty.  Some manacles dangle from chains attached to one wall, suggesting this is a cell.  Old bloodstains cover the floor, and there’s a small drain at its center.

There’s a secret door here, leading to the Barrow.

GD12 – Tapestry Room

Someone has draped the walls and floors of this disused storage chamber with disgusting wall-hangings and carpets made from poorly tanned human hides, some of them stitched together into revolting patchworks.

GD13 – Wine Cellar

This large cellar-chamber is stacked high with old barrels, though by now any wine they contain will be hopelessly sour.

A purely empty room, although a great place to hide.

GD14 – Collapsed Tunnel

This tunnel ends in a collapse – the ceiling has caved in, blocking the path.  There’s a narrow aperture near the base of the collapse where a child or small humanoid might squeeze themselves through to the other side.

Small creatures can squeeze through the cave-in, but it takes a DC 20 Escape Artist check to get unstuck at one point.  The perfect point for Grugnar to attack…

GD15 – Trapped Passage

The stones of this passage have changed in quality – where before the tunnels were of dressed stone, now they are simply hewn from the rock, perhaps suggesting that the dungeons ahead are older than the ones you just explored.

There’s another tripwire here, again DC 20 to spot and 20 to disable.  It releases two mace-heads on chains that have been smeared with centipede poison: +10 to hit each, 1d8+2 damage each, plus poison (Fort DC 11, 1 Dex damage, 1/round for 4 rounds, 1 save cures).

GD16 – Forsaken Shrine

A pair of stern stone doors graven with images of winged figures stand here.

The stone doors are shut (DC 25 to force open) but can be opened with the Winged Key.

A thick layer of dust carpets this cavernous, pillared hall, its walls and floor graven with thousands of tiny sigils, mostly obscured by the dust.  Halfway across the floor there’s a groove that bisects the chamber into two halves.  At the far end of the hall looms a massive stone statue in the shape of a prodigious bat-like horror, a monstrous, quasi-humanoid idol with tenebrous wings spread from wall to wall, its toothy maw gaping blackly.  Empty braziers and torch sconces are evident, and there’s a cobwebbed altar at the bat-god’s clawed feet.

This old Imperial shrine – dedicated to the bat-god Ikellus, a deity of nightmares, prophetic visions, transformation, and blindness – Knowledge (religion) DC 20 to recognize this obscure deity.  There is nothing of value here, but there is in the hidden chamber at the back of the hall (Perception DC 20 to locate – a torch-sconce, when adjusted, opens the door).

Anyone who brings any of the contents of the hidden chamber across the ominous line bisecting the temple activates a magical trap (DC 30 to discover or disable):

A horrible, high-pitched shrieking sound fills the chamber, echoing off the walls and pillars, emanating from the stone jaws of the bat idol.  The black mouth of that twisted statue vomits forth a shadowy torrent, a fluttering swarm of leathery bodies – bats by the hundreds, swirling out of the idol’s maw and flitting towards you!

The idol spawns a Bat Swarm once per round until the character who stole the item returns across the line or until the thief is dead.  Swarms linger if the objects are returned but return to the idol’s maw if the thief is killed.  The shrine can hold a maximum of 12 swarms, but if a swarm is killed a new one spawns in its place the next round.  Short of destroying the idol the only way to escape is to seal the bats inside the room by shutting fast the stone doors.

GD17 – Hidden Chamber

Beyond the secret door lies a small vault where holy objects sacred to the shrine are stored; these artefacts must have lain undisturbed for centuries.  Most are nothing more than ceramic ewers and cups painted with glyphs or symbolic figures, but some of the goblets are of silver, inset with onyx gems.  There’s also an ornate ritual mask, metal, forged in the semblance of a bat’s twisted visage.

There are 6 silver cups set with onyx gems, worth 100 gp each.  The Mask of the Bat, when worn, causes its wearer to become Blind grants its wearer Blindsight for 40 ft. as if they were under the effects of an Echolocation spell.  It also allows its wearer to use the spell Ear-Piercing Scream once per day with a caster level equal to their level.  It is worth 3500 gp.

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