BEARDED DEVIL

Monsters, Horror, Gaming

Tag: Dungeons and Dragons (Page 1 of 6)

Hex Session XXIV – 5th Edition Actual Play – “The False Queen”

The characters in this session were:

  • 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.”
  • Caulis, a homunculus warlock liberated from its master; has made a pact with certain Faerie Powers.
  • 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).
  • Viridian “Grove” Greengrove, changeling druid, exile from his former druidic circle for unknown transgressions.
  • Vespidae, a waspkin bard/cleric, devoted servant of the Queen in Yellow and possibly the Thirteenth Queen reborn, her daughter, or her avatar.

XP Awarded: 550 XP

Something was happening to the waspkin of Suckletown – they were going missing, acting strangely, and sometimes turning up dead having suffered from strange mutilations. The Queens of Stingsworth care nothing for those outcast waspkin of the Withered Tree. But the Thirteenth Queen had taken the broken and the lame beneath her diaphanous wings. She would not abide their mutilation…

Downpour Heights

Meanwhile, the party had returned from their sojourn in the country, and now planned their next move – the next book of magic on Master Melchior’s list. Sister, eager for adventure in speheres beyond mortal reckoning, suggested they begin researching the Book of Stars. Had anyone ever attempted a journey to the luminiferous aether?

Caulis and Armand began researching, and Caulis found references that its creator had attended some sort of failed spacecraft-launch. Further investigation led them to the Citadel of the Perpetual Storm and their acquaitance, Vanessa Greyleaf, who provided further details.

“About ten years ago, a wizard named Gideon Bottlescrew got it into his head that he could build a vessel to sail the aether between the planets,” she explained. “He claimed to have found some Librarian schematic, based his design off that. Somehow, he managed to scrape enough gold together to build the damn thing. He had to do it in secret – the Citadel never approved his research, and there are rumours he got involved in some shady business to fund it. But when launch day came, he invited half the mages in Hex out to see his marvelous invention.” She shook her head. “I was younbg at the time, but my mother brought me, and, well… I’ll never forget the mess. The ship had a Librarian artefact powering it. It was supposed to generate an anti-gravity effect, like the one we use to keep the Citadel flying. But… it didn’t work as planned. Maybe he miscalibrated it, maybe it was just broken, but the engine malfunctioned. Gravity went all strange. Many of us watching were levitated off the ground. His test pilots though – students, mostly – didn’t fare so well. The gravity in and around the craft was so intense, and so contradictory, the ship tore itself apart, and everyone inside it as well. Then something volatile combusted, and there was an explosion. Several onlookers died.

“Gideon was stripped of his professorship and kicked out of the Citadel. Criminal charges got laid. Most think he got off light. His tongue got cut out so he can no longer perform verbal incantations, and he was given a curse: the touch of earth pains him.”

“What happened to him?” Sister asked.

“Last I heard, he’d set up some sort of workshop in Suckletown, living out his forced retirement in the branches of the Withered Tree. They say he’s spent the last ten years trying to figure out where he went wrong.”

“Sounds promising,” Caulis said. “Worth investigating.”

The ever-adventurous Vanessa perked up. “Hey, if you manage to actually get something to work… I mean, if you actually build a craft that can travel to the outer spheres, and you happen to need a security officer…” she trailed off with a grin.

“We’ll keep you in mind,” Armand said.

Several party-members gathered – Armand, Caulis, Viridian, and Sister – and headed south. The streets were paved with broken glass and lichen, strewn with trash, half-flooded with rainwater and raw sewage. Suckletown sprawled before thm: the broken heart of Hex’s once-prosperous industrial district, decimated by economic ruin, alchemical explosion, and the decline and death of the Elder Tree whose vast shadow darkened the streets, its gnarled branches leafless now for centuries.

Suckletown

There was a time when the Tree and the neighbouring Alchemist’s Quarter made this one of the busiest parts of Hex, a centre of commerce and manufacturing. Now the only people were squatters, indigents, and other vagabonds: castoff waspkin from Stingsworth, stray fungoids from the Zymotic Ward, outcast trollbloods from Trollhome, and freelance criminals of every species, unworthy even of Thieves’ Marks.

The folk here eyed the party darkly from the gaps in boarded-up windows or the doorways of moss-eaten factories, or from the glimmering barrel-fires around which they gathered to eat mutant rats hunted in the Midden. Several were obvious addicts, ravaged by opium, thrum, and shadowmilk. One, however, stood out: a waspkin, clad in gleaming armour, seemingly identical to the party’s long-lost companion Vespidae, rumoured to have ascended to become the enigmatic Thirteenth Queen.

“Ah… Vespidae, is that you?” Sister asked, approaching. The waspkin eyed the Lengian indifferently.

“Your name is fitting,” the waspkin said inscrutably. “You are known to us.”

“Where have you been?” Caulis asked. “We heard rumours, but…”

“I am here to investigate a series of disappearances,” Vespidae said – if indeed it was Vespidae, for none seemed sure if this was the same waspkin, or another that merely resembled her. “What brings you to the Withered Tree?”

“We’re here looking for some crackpot scientist, Gideon Bottlescrew,” Grove chimed in.

“Our goals are not incompatible,” Vespidae asserted. “Perhaps we should cooperate. You are known allies.”

“Aww Vespidae, we missed you,” Sister said affectionately.

Bad Light“Indeed. We are fond of you also.” Vespidae now led the way towards the Withered Tree, javelin in hand. The street called Badroot coiled around the Withered Tree, a street of husks both human and architectural. The emptied warehouses and eviscerated factories that lined the street were spattered with gang insignia and other graffiti, proclaiming the names of the clannish criminal factions like heraldry: the Parasites, the Dead Moles, the Whipstitchers, the Filthy Fingers, and the Graveyard Girls.

The Withered Tree itself was an etiolated god, riddled with the reddened remnants of the vampire-machines that killed it, the rust livid as blood against bark as white as  bone, turned to stone in an accelerated petrification that took hold of the ancient thing after the Harvester’s Guild finally killed it with their greed.

In addition to the dangling metal leeches that still clung to its trunk, the tree was now festooned with ramshackle additions of wood and scrap, cannibalized from the nearby slums and junkyards and refashioned into flophouses and taverns, drug-dens and brothels. Swaying rope bridges led between these additions, while tunnels dug into the depths of the tree gaped blackly like knotholes.

A pair of Graveyard Girls – an all-female gang with faces and skin painted to resemble corpses, clad in repurposed funerary finery – accosted the party at the door set amidst the roots of the tree. They twirled vicious knives.

“Oi, there’s a two-guinea toll for entrance,” one said. “Got to keep up the nieghbourhood, you know?”

“Outrageous,” Armand said, gritting his teeth. The sorcerer’s fuse seemed to have been esepcially short ever since the events at his familial home. “I’m not paying such a fee.”

“Then I’m afraid there’s going to be trouble,” one of the Girls said, knife flickering.

“Armand, don’t worry so much,” Sister said. “I’ll pay your fee.”

The Graveyard Girls placated, the party passed through the doors and into the hollowed-out cavern within the fossilized interior of the Withered Tree. Dozens of shacks and small lean-tos had been erected within, and a second level was accessible via a wooden walkway. The poor folk who made their homes in the Withered Tree were truly destitute – humans, many of them criminals to judge by their curse-brands, but also a handful of wretched dagonians, cambions, ghouls, and gnomes. A pair of crude wooden doors are set in one wall, the words “PARASITE TERRITORY” scrawled on them. A tunnel was visible near the roof, erachabkle via a series of ladders and walkways. Though most of the people were sleeping, cooking, eating, smoking, or drinking – several were also clearly in a drug-induced haze – a few also sold charms, gewgaws, or crudely distilled beverages, including some sort of fungal beer.

The party began investigating the tunnels on the lower level, eventually finding their way into a chamber filled with the corroded remnants of machinery once used to suck arcane sap from the Elder Tree fill. Scavengers had long ago stripped the machines of everything truly valuable, leaving only the corroded skeletons of the sap extractors and a scintilla of broken glass. Horribly, however, the room was not totally empty. The mangled corpse of a waspkin was caught up in some of the machinery, spattered with dried blood. Although badly bloodied, it was evident that the waspkin was wearing the yellow robes of the Thirteenth Queen.

“A missionary,” Vespidae said, inspecting the corpse. “Someone left her here as a message. We must find out who.”

“We have our own errands,” Armand pointed out.

“Vespidae’s helped us out of plenty of scraps,” Caulis interjected. “We can do both.”

Careful inspection of the room also revealed a broken-down elevator, boarded up.

“Vespidae, take this,” Sister said, handing the waspkin the Portal Chalk after carefully scrawling a portal on one wall. “Head up the shaft and draw a rectangle on the wall, then draw this sigil.” She showed the waspkin, who nodded in seeming comprehension and, casting light to illuminbate the shaft, ascended several levels, emerging in a shack that might once have been inhabited, perched in the upper boughs of the Withered Tree. The shack had long been abandoned, save by a roost of monstrous bat-like things hanging from the ceiling, sleeping. The floor was slick with their iridescent guano. Though leathery-winged and furry-bodied as normal bats, these creatures flickered in and out of reality: phasebats, inter-dimensional creatures mutated in the depths of the Old City. Vespidae carefully drew the portal, and the party followed into the room.

“Be very, very careful,” Viridian whispered. “We don’t want to wake those things up.”

Cautiously, the party made for the nearest exit… only for Armand, usually elegant in the extreme, to slip and fall into the guano with a stifled grunt. Instantly, phasebats burst from the ceiling, flocking and swirling, spitting strange substances from their quasi-real maws.

“Miscalculation.” Illustration by Caulis’ player, Bronwyn McIvor.

BOOM

Speaking an invocation to the Queen in Yellow, Vespidae conjured a blast of arcane fire. Unfortunately, the guano covering the floor of the shack was highyl flammable. There was a terrible searing heat, a flash of light, and the party scrambled to safety, making for a tunnel in the wall of the shack as it burnt down around them, breaking free from the Withered Tree to plummet to the ground below. The phasebats blinked into some other dimension, fleeing the explosion.

The Withered Tree - Modified

Once safe, Sister used her powers to cast a prayer of healing, conjured spiders spinning webs to seal wounds shut.

“Well, that was close,” Viridian said, eyebrow cocked. Pressing on into the tree, they came to a hall with a tripwire strung across it, spotted by Vespidae. The waspkin inspected the trap.

“Pheromones,” she said. “It triggers a mist. An attack-chemical. There is something… strange, about it. Familiar, but wrong.”

They crept down the corridor, and entered a chamber whose walls were covered with the papery nests of waspkin, slumbering within the honeycombed cells. Vespidae sniffed tentatively.

“These aren’t drones,” she whispered. “They’re royal guards. Soldiers. Dormant now. They’ve been fed something… some kind of substance to increase their strength.”

Stealhtily, they passed into an adjacent room; here a rusted cylinder once used as a silo for sap and embedded into the Withered Tree had been converted into an alchemical laboratory. Half a dozen waspkin – all ill-fed, their eyes glazed – attended to the complex array of sputtering glassware and acrid substances being processed here. Dozens of phials were stored in crates along the walls.

“Thrum,” Sister said, eyeing the vials. “I’ve seen people using this stuff, during my work with the poor – addicts juddering in and out of reality, hopped-up and half-phased…”

“Made with phasebat glands,” Caulis remarked. “They must have some sort of operation going here.”

“But who?” Sister asked. “Not one of the Queens…”

“No, someone else,” Vespidae said. “We’re going to find out.”

Continuing their explorations, the group exited the structure and found themselves high avove the ground ona  raised platform, a rickety bridge leading to another building nestled high in the Withered Tree’s branches. Employing stealth augmented with a spell from Sister, the group entered this room.

A thin woman with close-cropped black hair and skin pale as milk sprawled on a massive, throne-like chair in the chamber within, furnished with second-hand finery and tarnished furnishings, the spoils of pawn-shops and derelict manors. Half a dozen waspkin armed with crude firearms guarded her closely, their eyes black and listless, their wings buzzing idly. She toyed with a perfume bottle; Vespidae sniffed. Pheromones – royal pheromones. Somehow this woman had made herself an alchemical queen.

Stepping from the shadows before anyone could stop her, Vespidae approached the woman.

“And who is this? How did you get in here, little one?” she asked.

“Who are you?” Vespidae retorted. “And why do you smell like a waspkin queen?” She tried to avoid inhaling, conscious that the pheromones were having an effect on her.

“The name is Hecuba, my dear,” she said. “Formerly of Master Melchior’s little school, but lately, ah, self-employed. An independent scholar, you might say.” She grinned sharkishly. “What are you doing, nosing about my operation? Who are you, anyway?”

“Vespidae,” Vespidae responded with a shrug.

“Well, no matter. Come here, Vespidae, and bow before your Queen.” Hecuba sprizted herself with alchemicla pheromones.

Vespidae stepped back, dizzy, resisting the thrall. “No. I will not be so easily controlled.”

Hecuba sighed theatrically. “Ugh. Very well then, if you’re going to make this difficult. Guards! Seize this waspkin!”

Immediately, the guards snapped to attention, and began flying towards Vespidae. Twisting, the waspkin flitted out of a nearby window, followed by the honour guard, even as the rest of the party leapt into motion. Sister cast blink to teleport next to Hecuba, dropping from the shadows like a spider on a string; with a prayer to the her goddess, the Lengian struck out with a hand, and where she touched, flesh boiled and rotted, swelling as from some horrific spider-bite. Hecuba screamed and thrashed, and the perfume-bottle went flying, rolling along the floor. Eleyin, Caulis’ psuedodragon familiar, swooped down to pluck the bottle up, while Armand, flicking his wrist contemptuously, sent a firebolt towards Hecuba, scorching the drug-dealing enchantress.

Hecuba snarled, and spat a vicious spell, striking Caulis. A hideous blight overtook the homunculus, leaving its leaves wilted and its bark rotting. Sister leapt forwards, working her magic to keep the homunculus alive. Recovering partially from the blight, Caulis hurled a spell of its own, crippling with Hecuba with a blast of faerie-force.

Grove, rushing to the window, summoned a magical web to slow down the guards outside, while Vespidae contended with them, hurling a javelin while dodging shots from their pistols, weaving a magical pattern in the air taht caused several to flee in terror. Armand cast ray of frost, freezing one of the guards as they entered and debilitating him severely.

Caulis stepped forward, and with a second agonizing blast of fey force, spattered Hecuba’s brains across the floor of the hall. Instantly, the royal guards outside shook their heads, fighting a sudden nausea and confusion. Vespidae drew close, comforting the bewildered waspkin.

“It’s alright. The pretender is dead,” she said. “Come with me. You are safe now, no longer under her control.”

“She… she was in my head,” one of the guards said. “How did she do that?”

“I think I have an idea,” Vespidae said, eyeing a curious structure off to one side, accessible via another rickety bridge. Using an iron key found on Hecuba’s corpse, they opened the door to the building.

Within was a gigantic waspkin – or, rather, what remained of a waspkin, for it appeared to be undead, flesh tattooed with necromantic sigils. The being’s body was interpenetrated with a twisted mass of mechanical devices – syringes, hydraulic pumps, and other mechanisms. These seemed to be extracting some sort of substance from the reanimated cadaver. Tubes conveyed this substance to another large machine, which looked to have once been part of the elaborate industrial harvest used to extract sap from the Elder Tree. This machine seemed to be processing the substances collected from the undead waspkin. Several phials of fluid were evident on a low table next to the machine, and more were being filled by a steady drip from the machine itself.

Now Vespidae knew where she had smelled the pheromones before. This had been her Queen once, the Queen whose death Vespidae had commemorated in a ritualistic dance of death – one that Vespidae, an intended funerary sacrifice, had inadvertantly survived, to her shame, a crime for which she had been exiled. Hecuba must have dug the Queen’s corpse from the ground, and used necromancy and alchemy to revive it.

“Destroy it,” Vespidae intoned, and Armand gladly complied, burning the body and the structure till all within blazed to the ground.

Vespidae’s task now complete, the party rested briefly in Hecuba’s former laboratory, then continued their search for Gideon Bottlescrew. It didn’t take them long to discover his workshop, perched high in the Withered Tree and reachable via a slender wooden bridge – a rickety tower made of wood and scrap metal, its chimneys spewing smoke. A large telescope also protruded from the roof.

They could hear the sound of machines whirring inside. Guarding the entrance to the workshop was a golem, fashioned entirely from trash: rusted scrap metal, rotting wood, chains, wire, and organic matter as well – reanimated bits and pieces of stray animals, integrated grotesquely into the thing’s form. It looked at the party with one eye fashioned from a cracked lens, the other stolen from a dead dog, and spoke from the beak of a bird.

Trash Golem. Illustration by Caulis’ player, Bronwyn McIvor.

Trash Golem“Who goes there, squawk, who goes there?” the golem demanded.

“We’re here to see Gideon Bottlescrew,” Sister said. “We have an offer for him. We want to take him to the stars.”

The bird-thing considered carefully. “Squawk, alright then, alright,” it chirped. “Go on in.” It hopped to one side, allowing the party to pass.

Within, they found a massive space full of objects swirling through the air. The bookshelves along the walls were suspended both magically and mechanically throughout the chamber, covered in complicated models, mechanical devices, and even bubbling alchemical equipment. Containers of everything from food to gunpowder hung from ropes from the ceiling. There were also several magical spheres of force containing everything from miniature explosions to gigantic fireflies. At the very top of the chamber near the ceiling was a bed, wardrobe, and similar accoutrements, suspended via chains, as well as the viewing lens of a gigantic telescope. Fireplaces were located at several points along the walls, fed by animated, flying logs of kindling, and dozens of candles were suspended in space, deftly weaving to avoid lighting anything on fire.

There were also dozens of birds in cages suspended from the ceiling. The room smells of vellum, chalk, smoke, bird shit, candlewax, and ink.

Despite the incredible density of objects, the workshop had a kind of ingenious order to it, like some massive orrery. In the middle of this madness was a man with long, silver hair growing from one half of his head. As he turned, they saw why the other is hairless – he had been horribly burned along his other half, his skin a mass of scar tissue. He was dressed in threadbare waistcoat and trousers, and was frantically scribbling on a chalkboard – one of six that rotated slowing around him. A large and beautiful cockatoo was perched on his shoulder. Some sort of mechanical device had been inserted into its head.

“Hello,” the cockatoo said. Gideon does not turn , but continued writing complex mathematical formulae on the board. “Forgive my unorthodox means of communication. The bird you see before you speaks with my voice.” The cockatoo flutters from his shoulder and alights on a nearby stack of books.

“We heard you built a spaceship,” Sister said. “But then blew it up.”

“Ah, yes…” the cockatoo said, sadly. “The accident was… extremely regrettable. The greatest setback of my life, and my deepest regret. I was too eager, too intent on proving everyone at the Citadel wrong. They all said it couldn’t be done, that travel amongst the spheres was centuries away. I am still convinced they are wrong. I have spent the last ten years perfecting my plans. I now know the source of my error – the program I fend into the aetheric engine was fundamentally flawed. And I believe I am close to remedying that mistake. Of course, my only hope now is to bequeath my notes to future generations… My dreams of travel to the stars are quite dead.”

“We’re here to revive them,” Sister said. “We need something from the Vessel, and we want to build a ship to do it.”

At last, Gideon turned, but then his eyes curiously widened . Sunlight gleamed through the windows, glinting off the Yellow Sign round Vespidae’s neck. Suddenly, Gideon turned back and, moving rapidly, levitated towards a door in one wall of the tower.

“Wait, where are you going?” Grove demanded. The cockatoo was curiously silent. The door was closing. Vespidae flitted over, keeping the door open, and the party hurried through, pursuing this eccentric man, the cockatoo now following them. They noticed the frame of the door looked old, ancient even, and crafted of iridescent metal…

They passed down a corridor that should have led outside, but instead led into a vast chamber with a glass ceiling. The walls were of ancient stone, carved with what appeared to be Librarian symbols. Many doors were arrayed around the edges of the room, interspersed with grotesque statues; each had a curious symbol over it. And through the glass of the ceiling, they looked up and saw, suspended amidst a field of black stars, a small, blue-green orb, swirling with clouds.

It took them a moment for realization to set in.

“We’re on…” Grove began.

“We’re on the moon,” Sister confirmed. “A Librarian outpost on the moon!”

Gideon, wide-eyed and frantic, backed up, but Sister was too quick. She inscribed a zone of truth, enchanting the space against falsehoods.

“What is this place?” she said. “How did you find it?”

“As you said,” Gideon replied through the cockatoo. “A Librarian outpost. An extension of the Old City, really. Time and space didn’t mean the same things to the Librarians.” He was shaking, nervous, but excited as well. “I’ve kept it secret, all these years. I discovered the portal during my expedition to retrieve the Aetheric Engine, and had it brought up here at great expense. Well.” He chuckled. “Brought down there.” He gestured to the world below.

“So… why did you bring us here?”

“To show you this,” Gideon replied, beckoning. They passed into another room, accessible through one of the doors – seemingly wrenched from its frame. The room was filled with assorted junk – technological detritus, along with the bones of some former explorer, now long dead. But on the walls were engravings, intricate, detailed.

“A schematic,” Sister said, staring up at the designs with many awed eyes.

“Yes,” Gideon said, quietly. “A schematic for a Librarian ship. One that can sail amongst the stars.”

HexMoon02s

Lunar Symbol by Matthew Murray.

Hex Session XXIII – 5th Edition Actual Play – “Château de la Marche, 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).
  • Yam, an eccentric gnome illusionist and local graduate student at Umbral University. Yam cares little for money. Yam is curious. Yam is Yam.
  • Viridian Greengrove, changeling druid, exile from his former druidic circle for unknown transgressions.
  • Caulis, a homunculus warlock liberated from its master; has made a pact with certain Faerie Powers.
  • Alabastor Quan, a gnome rogue-turned-illusionist and failed circus ringmaster; wielder of a cursed dagger and member of the Ravenswing Thieves’ Guild.

XP Awarded: 1000 XP

The party stood in the chambers of Helena de la Marche, mother of Armand de la Marche III, in his familial estate, infested by the minions of Jasper Van Lurken, priest of the Charnel Goddess. Sister, the Lengian cleric, drew a portal using the Portal Chalk, one leading back to its twin in Hex.

“I’m going to go find Yam and Alabastor,” she said. “We might need more firepower.”

“Fine,” Armand said. “But don’t be long.”

The Lengian returned swiftly with the two gnomes to find Armand pacing the room. As she slipped through the portal, it quavered and closed, the marks on the wall fading.

“That hasn’t happened before…” she said, concerned. “Hmm. Jasper worships the Charnel Goddess, right?”

“Correct,” Armand said, fist clenched.

“It would be that he’s somehow consecrated this place in her name. If the Portal Chalk is the creation of the Antinomian, it’s possible it won’t function properly in the temple of another deity.”

“My house is no temple,” Armand growled. “But let’s return to the stables. You can establish a portal there. Set up camp and wait with the horses; if we do find her mother, I’d like to get her to safety as swiftly as possible.”

Chateau de la Marche-min

The party beat a hasty retreat back through the mansion and outside, where Sister drew a new portal in the stables, hoping that this one wouldn’t disappear. While the old Lengian guarded their retreat the rest of the party prepared to return to the house, while Viridian and Caulis filled Alabastor and Yam in on what had occured.

“So… we’re going to find your dad?” Yam asked.

“Perhaps,” Armand said. “But my duty is first to the living, not the dead. If mama is alive, we must rescue her. But we must also destroy the poisonous idol the Van Lurken filth has polluted my estate with. We will find it in the Glass Menagerie in the northwest wing.”

“Um, Armand?” Alabastor said. “There’s a light on up there.” He pointed to a high tower attached to the corps de logis.

“I’ll send Eleyin to see what it is,” Caulis said, the fey pseudodragon alighting from its shoulder. Eleyin flitted to the window, and saw within a pale, handsome man – the very image Armand II, recognizable from the portrait seen earlier – looking through a telescope. The dragon blinked, and the figure disappeared.

“It sounds like we found your father,” Caulis said, as Eleyin conveyed this information. “At least, in a sense, anyway.”

“Indeed,” Armand replied. “But let us make haste. Come, I know the way.”

Hurring, Armand led the party back into the mansion, first returning to his mother’s chambers. All was as it was – save the armoire, where Jerome and Blaise seemed to have escaped, breaking the door.

“Oh great, those two got out,” Viridian said. “Hmm. Let me see if I can get your mother’s scent. With an incantation to certain elder powers, the changeling druid transformed himself into a kind of monstrous bloodhound-like creature, though somewhat more squamous and unnerving than a normal dog. He sniffed around the room carefully, then at the lock of hair left by the stairs by Jasper, and the note Armand’s mother left, in order to get her scent. Once he had picked it up, he set off deeper into the house.

The party now made their way through a series of halls and chambers, slowly making their way north and west. Presently, they came to a low-ceilinged hall containing several long tables. A thick, old rug lay on the floor, looking mouldy. The walls were lined with cabinets containing various items of silverware and fine china. A series of bells ere also affixed to the walls, labelled with various rooms in the house – servant’s bells. They hurried through into an old guard room, still  containing some arms and armour – all of them more for display than true use. Several suits of armour stood sentinel. Yam, perhaps made paranoid by the gloom of the house, knocked one over with a loud clatter, alarming everyone else in the group and drawing a hissed series of remonstrations from their companions. Something elsewhere in the house groaned distantly, clearly hearing the cacaphony.

Yam’s hijinx. Illustration by Caulis’ player, Bronwyn McIvor.

Yam in Helmet“I’ll see if I can disguise our scent,” Caulis said, using a spell to try and make the room smell like rats. Yam, meanwhile, ignoring their companions, placed a helmet upon their head, far too large for the gnome. Armand assiduously ignored the illusionist’s antics.

The party continued on, now coming to the house’s music room. The door was ajar; looking in, they could see various instruments, including a flute, oboe, barrel drums, lute, hurdy-gurdy, and viola. The centerpiece of the music room was an incredibly ornate harpsicord and a beautiful, elaborately decorated organ. There was something decidedly sinister about both instruments however; the painting on the lid of the harpsicord seemed to be a depiction of a mass grave, some huge, coiled shape emerging from within the charnel pit, strewing bodies in its wake, and the wood of the organ was all in black and ghastly green with blood-red symbols recently applied. A shape flickered within, pallid and slithering. Armand called a halt.

“It hasn’t seen us yet, whatever it is,” he said. “Let’s see if we can’t go around.”

The party headed down a level, avoiding the music room, and into a drawing room with large windows facing out onto a balcony with a view of the grounds, where once beautiful gardens would have greeted the eye with flowers and fountains. Now the grounds were withered and dead, the fountains dry and overgrown. Like most rooms in the house intended for entertaining guests, this one was sumptuous and ornate, with elaborate carvings of flowers and trees, and a painting of a tranquil woodland scene where a knight and his lady gaze romantically into one another’s eyes by a secluded pool. The idyllic picture was somewhat marred by a disturbing blotch of darkness beneath the water; it looked like some mould has got into the canvas, but it had the effect of appearing like some monster dwells in the pool, preparing to creep onto land.

Armand examined the mould closely, and deduced that it was Gravemould, a fungus usually found in crypts and used as a reagent in certain alchemical concotions. He took a sample.

Viridian led them on, still following the scent, and the party entered the ballroom of Château de la Marche. A great pit had been dug in the floor, as if something erupted forth from the ground – a black, gaping pit. A mezzanine encircled the ballroom, stairs rising along the walls of the tower. They could hear something wet and heavy thumping slowly up a flight somewhere above. The party stood, waiting carefully, until the sound diminished, then climbed the stairs back up a level, towards the Glass Menagerie.

Before the doors of the collection, the group was confronted by a ragged, thin figure, covered in blood and clad in the tattered remnants of a dress. Matted hair framed a gaunt, feral face caked in blood, large, almost luminous eyes roving in their sockets. A large, blood-stained knife was clutched in one white-knuckled hand.

“My poppet!” the woman cried, dropping the knife and leaping towards Armand. “I knew you’d come eventually.”

“Mama!” the sorcerer said, relief washing over him as he clasped his mother, Helena, close. “Thank goodness we found you.”

“What happened here?” Yam asked, curious as ever.

Helena broke the embrace with her son.

“These are my, ah, associates, mama,” Armand explained. “Trustworthy enough, I suppose.”

“How generous,” Alabastor muttered under his breath.

“Oh poppet, it’s a proper mess,” Helena said, laying her head on Armand’s shoulder. “It all happened after that little glass worm was added to the collection. It started whispering to me, telling me things I must do, and I found I couldn’t ignore it. Sometimes I’d black out for hours on end, wake up in strange parts of the house, sometimes with dirt or blood on my hands. Father was quite upset by the whole thing. The worm… it had me do some sort of ritual, in the burned wing. I killed a goat… drew symbols with its blood. Said words I don’t understand. And then he came here, the wicked boy, and started… doing things to the servants. I managed to get away, but only just. But I can’t seem to leave the grounds. Every time I try, something pulls me back.”

“I see,” Armand said, gritting his teeth. “An grandfather? Where is he?”

“I don’t know. I’ve been searching for him for some time. They must have him tied up somewhere – perhaps in the cellars.”

“We need to destroy that glass worm,” Alabastor whispered to Yam. “But it’s got some sort of spell on her. I don’t think she’s going to let us just break it.”

“Got it,” Yam said, as if they had formulated a full plan. Once again the gnome put on the ridiculous helmet, and began staggering around like a fool. Helena guffawed with laughter at the spectacle; meanwhile, Alabastor slipped inside the Glass Menagerie.

Within, the gnome found a vast collection of glass figures of every colour and size, arrayed in display cabinets and on plinths throughout a museum-like space. Whereas much of the rest of the house had been sullied or destroyed, this room was wholly undisturbed. Frogs, birds, gods, demons, knights, ladies, satyrs, fairies, dragons, dogs, cats, mice, owlbears, and a thousand other creatures watched him with glassy eyes, amidst a glittering collection of towers, castles, churches, pagodas, ziggurats, planets, trees, flowers, and similar objects.

Alabstor searched carefully for a glass figure resembling a worm. It didn’t take him long to discover, for Helena had given it a place of honour. Its body was a nightmarish mass of segmented coils, writhing tentacles, and chitin plates.  Its many-fanged maw gaped with horrific hunger; there were no visible eyes at all.  While the worm was nothing more than glass, there was still something deeply disturbing, something shuddersome and nauseating, about its undulating form.

The Idol The Idol of Mordiggia. Illustration by Caulis’ player, Bronwyn McIvor.

Reluctant to touch the glass figure, Alabastor used mage hand to procure it. The moment his spell touched the figure, however, it immediately made a guttural, whining growl, and vomited forth a seething mass of insects and worms, which swarmed towards Alabastor and began crawling up his body, biting at his exposed flesh.

Alabastor attacked by a swarm. Illustration by Caulis’ player, Bronwyn McIvor.

Alabastor and the Swarm

The rest of the party rushed within, Helena suddenly frantic. Thinking quickly, Caulis smashed a lantern at Alabastor’s feet, the burning oil killing many of the insects, and only slightly scorching the agitated gnome. Frantically, Alabastor grabbed the worm-idol and stuffed it into the sackg of the Snatcher, a kind of carceral Bag of Holding acquired in the Egregor Vaults. Once the idol was in the bag, Helena seemed to calm, falling into a kind of swoon. Armand tended to her.

“How do we destroy it?” Yam asked quietly.

“I have an idea,” Caulis said. Flexing its twig-like fingers, it cast shatter into the depths of the Snatcher’s sack. There was a sound of breaking glass, following by a monstrous wailing, ghastly and inhuman and agonized.

“Shit, shit, it’s not dead yet!” Alabastor swore.

Meanwhile, Armand rushed over, an explosive crystal gleaned from the tunnels beneath Mainspring in hand. This he dropped into the bag. There was a second sound of breaking glass; smoke poured forth from the sack, but the idol’s wails were no more.

“That takes care of that,” the sorcerer said. “Now, let us get mama to safety at once.

The party hurried back the way they had come. When they once again reached the guard room, two suits of armour stood before them, filled with swarms of creeping vermin. The party attacked, firing a barrage of spells at the two sentinels; the armoured warriors fell and the worms within were variously melted and incinerated, but the arcane assault left a hole smouldering in the floor. Aware that the noise would attract attention, the group hastened back outside to the stables. Sister greeted them at the portal, stitching shut their wounds with magical spidersilk.

“I’ll get your mother to safety,” she promised Armand. “We’ll go to your townhouse in the Dreamer’s Quarter.”

“Thank you” Armand said. “She’s quite exhausted – make sure she gets some rest.” He turned, looking back to the house. “I’m going to find Van Lurken, and end this.”

After a brief rest, the party returned to the mansion, prepared for battle. They made their way towards the chapel, but discovered a barricaded door. Yam, shrugging, knocked.

“Who’s there?” a voice said from within.

“Uh, Yam,” Yam responded.

“Who?”

“It’s Master Eustace,” Armand answered. “Is that Claude?”

“Master Eustace! Yes, it’s me… one moment.” There were sounds of furniture being moved, and the door opened. A thin, frightened-looking man let them into a dusty back hall.

“Claude, I am aware of some of the circumstances plaguing the house, but the more you can tell us, the better,” Armand said. It took Claude a moment to respond.

“Sir… I am loathe to speak ill of Lady Helena, but… well, it was her who let this evil into our midst. She started obsessing over this one statuette in her glass menagerie, in the northwest wing – and when she wasn’t locked up in there brooding over it and touching it, she wandered the house, continually slipping from room to room, vandalizing the walls and windows, scrawling strange symbols.”

“We’ve taken care of that. What else?”

“She did some sort of ritual in the southeast wing, among the cinders and the ashes, that brought it here – that thing in the chapel, and its servants. We found her covered in blood – she’d lured a goat into the house, slaughtered it to cast some sort of summoning spell. It brought that creature here. It spoke with the voice of a man, but it’s not human! It said terrible words, words of pain, and the guards and servants all fell screaming, writhing, and it laughed and raised those thin arms, and rats and worms and all manner of vermin started pouring in from every direction.

“Some of us ran, managed to stay together for a time, but that creature and its servants started picking us off one by one. Walking corpses and goat-headed things and a thing made of worms and all manner of horrors… I managed to barricade myself in here. I think they’ve forgot about me, don’t realize I’m here, otherwise I’d be dead.”

“I see. Thank you, Claude. If you head outside, find your way to the stables. There’s a magical door there that will take you to safety.”

Bewildered but grateful, Claude did as his master bid.

The group passed through the back hall and into the chapel’s library, filled with shelves stuffed with books. The texts look totally untouched, coated with dust, and all seemed to be religiously themed – works of theology and metaphysics.

“If I recall correctly…” Armand said, and pulled a book – in fact, a lever, activating a secret door somewhere above. They ascended a flight of stairs into an ornate gallery containing numerous portraits and other paintings, most of them religious scenes of some variety. These included several paintings of scenes from the life of Saint Monstrum, one of Hex’s foremost patrons, as well as numerous paintings of the Lady of the Mists.

Three paintings, however, seemed rather wildly out of place.

One painting was a rural scene, almost idyllically pastoral, in which goatherds watch over their charges… while something else watches over them. A grim, black-clad figure with the face of a skeletal and masses of white hair fondles a scythe while regarding the goatherds, huge black wings like those of a monstrous raven spreading behind it.

A second painting depicted the estate – Château de la Marche itself. However, the painting seemed to be of the house and grounds as they currently existed – dilapidated and rotting, one wing burnt, windows broken, gardens withering. It was as if someone painted it only recently.

The third strange painting depicted Mount Shudder, the huge mountain not far from the city of Hex. Oozing from a cavern halfway along the slope was a hideous white worm of colossal size. It seemed poised to devour the city, which was depicted near the base of the mountain. This third painting had swiveled open on a hinge, revealing a passage beyond. Here they found a small shrine to the Lady of Mists, including one of her holy symbols and a book detailing her rites.

They continued on their way to the chapel, eventually entering a small antechamber. Dangling from dusty chandelier was a severed human head, badly rotted, its cheeks carved with sigils. The head’s eyes rolled in its sockets as it slowly twisted and untwisted itself on its ropy hair. Spotting the party, the head let out a hideous wail. Slithering sounds indicated that some of Jasper’s minions were on their way. Hastening, the party made their way into the basement of the house, beneath the chapel.

“I remember playing down here once, as a child…” Armand mused. “I frightened myself, in one of the old chambers… a shadow seemed to move of its own accord, to speak to me from out of the dark and cobwebs.”

They pressed on, entering a small secondary shrine dedicated not to the Lady of the Mists but to a more inscrutable figure – some angel of death, raven-winged and long-haired, with a skull for a face, a scythe clutched in its hands. The semblance of this being was carved in bas-relief on one wall of this chamber, which looked truly primeval – the stone-work considerably older than any of the surrounding tunnels. An altar stone was set before the carving.

Ankou. Illustration by Caulis’ player, Bronwyn McIvor.

Ankou

“The Ankou,” Caulis said. “It’s supposed to send souls to their rightful resting place. I can’t imagine it’d be fond of undead.”

“Indeed.” Viridian had returned to his normal shape. “I wonder…” he leafed through the pages of the book they’d found. “Yes, here it is… a prayer to the spirit.” He handed the book to Armand.

Armand cocked an eyebrow, but accepted the tome and recited the words. “Shepherd of souls, hear my prayer. Graveyard-watcher, King of the Dead, bearer of the Sacred Wheelbarrow, First of the Slain, we beseech you to appear.”

A shape stepped from the darkness, skull-faced and raven-haired, vast wings filling the chamber. It spoke with a voice like sand running through an hourglass and the wind moaning through a graveyard at dusk.

“I am the Ankou of this land. It is my duty to shepherd the dead to their destination. It is a duty I have carried out for many thousands of years. What need have you of my services?”

“There is a necromancer here, one who perverts the laws of life and death,” Armand replied. “We ask your aid in destroying him.”

“Indeed, this house is an abomination,” the Ankou intoned. “I cannot allow this to continue. Previously, this house was protected by some more powerful being… but I sense that those wards have been lifted.”

“The idol,” Alabastor reasoned. “When we destroyed it, it must have lifted the wards.”

“I will aid you,” the spirit assented. “Come. We must cleanse this place of the vileness that pollutes it.”

“This way,” Armand indicated, noting a spiral staircase. “This will take us to a vantage point above the chapel.” Dodging through a vestry infested with rats, the group ascended the stair and entered the chapel.

The chapel of Château de la Marche was dedicated to the Lady of th Mists – or, rather, it used to be. The ornate stone statue in the image of the Protectress of Varoigne had been magically defaced, the usually benevolent expression of the goddess twisted into a demonic leer, her hair – usually long and luxurious – transformed into a gorgon-like mass of writhing worms, her mouth warped into a fanged pout. Scrawled in blood upon the walls and stained glass windows of the chapel were unnerving symbols, many featuring a coiled worm. The whole chapel was lit with crimson candles which fill the room with a hellish glow. An awful carrion stink to this place perfumed the air like rotten incense.

Sitting in the pews, mouthing a constant prayer in a diabolic tongue, were thirteen reanimated corpses. Some were clearly long-dead, exhumed from recent graves. Others seemed recently killed – local villagers or goatherds, to judge by their garb. Several, however, were clothed in the livery of de la Marche servants. Armand clenched his fists in fury.

A corpse-pale shape presided over the cadaverous congregation. Black, empty sockets stared sightlessly from a head that had lost hair, ears, and nose. Only the mouth remained, cruel and twisted. The figure’s body was strangely elongated, and moved with a twisted boneless fluidity. Thin, withered arms – almost vestigial – hung from the thing’s crooked torso, which was covered in strange scars. Though unclothed, the creature was smooth and sexless.

“Ah, Armand!” the horror cooed, the voice issuing forth from the ruinous face genteel and smooth, mismatched quite horridly with its monstrous form. “So glad you made it home! You must forgive me the familiarity; I know we have not formally met yet. I am, as you might have guessed, Jasper Van Lurken. And may I say, your family’s house is quite as lovely as I imagined!”

“You’ll pay for what you’ve done, Van Lurken filth,” Armand spat. “How did you survive the fire?”

“Stone burns less easily than wood, and the tunnels below my family’s house were quite extensive by the time you so rudely burnt it down, along with my relations. It was easy enough to escape. I have been gathering followers ever since, plotting my little revenge.”

“Enough!” Armand snarled, hurling a lightning bolt at the creature. It struck Jasper, scorching his flesh, and the cleric squealed, returning the incantation with an agonizing blast that made every nerve in Armand’s body scream.

Yam, meanwhile, had their own ideas. Taking out the Hands of the Marionettist – bewitched, glyph-engraved crosses – Yam concentrated on the undead worshippers. With a twitch of the puppeteer’s control bars, Yam seized control of three shambolic undead. A grin widened on the gnome’s face as they directed the walking corpses to attack Jasper. Viridian ensnared the cultist with summoned vines while Alabastor sent a bolt of crackling black puissance at the warlock. Even as Jasper was set upon by his own zombic servitors, he spat a terrible curse, one that seared Caulis’s bark-like skin with blight. The homunculus, weakened and faded, branches suddenly wintry and dying, summoned forth a cloud of daggers, shredding Jasper’s worm like body in a frenzy of magical steel.

Meanwhile, the Ankou emerged from the darkness. Its scythe swept wide, cutting into the bodies of the chanting zombies, slaying them left and right.

Jasper’s withing form collapsed, eviscerated by spells and his own servants. Yam directed the zombies to rip him open, to tear his flesh from his bones. But as they did so, something wet and dark burst forth from his ruinous chest and, with a squeal, burrowed down into the floor.

“Don’t let it escape!” Armand shouted, and the party descended, following the worm-thing to a lower level. They rushed into an ancient-looking crypt of old stone, substantially predating the house above it. The bodies buried here were not in coffins but in three stone sarcophagi, and bore the semblances of ancient knights. One had a hole within it, bored in its surface; the lid stirred, and a mouldering skeleton emerged, the worm-thing pulsing in its ribcage, twisted round its bones. A sword gleamed, hacking madly.

“You won’t kill my that easily!” Jasper snarled, his voice utterly inhuman now. He sliced at Viridian, wounding the druid. Armand conjured a web to ensnare the revenant, while Yam spoke an invocation, sending an acid arrow hurtling at the monster and knocking it back into the magical snare. The thing thrashed as Alabastor and Viridian assailed it with hexes and a whip of thorns. Jasper spat another spell but Armand dodged aside and spoke a word of power, manifesting a blaze of eldritch flame that spread through the webs and over the undead horror’s body. It thrashed, its bones blackening, the worm-thing within its chest shriveling. At last, it lay still.

The Ankou descended, passing through the ceiling to float before them. “The house has been cleansed,” the spirit said, its scythe dripping with blood and ectoplasm. “But I must tell you – I found your forebear, slain by the abominations that defiled your halls.”

An inscrutable expression flickered across Armand’s face. The Ankou spoke on.

“Dawn comes. I must return to beyond the veil.”

“My thanks, Ankou,” Armand said. Though encrusted with blood, his usually immaculate clothes torn and filthy, the ghost of a smile flitted across the sorcerer’s lips. Once more, he was lord and master of Château de la Marche.

 

Hex Session XXII – 5th Edition Actual Play – “Château de la Marche, 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).
  • Viridian Greengrove, changeling druid, exile from his former druidic circle for unknown transgressions.
  • Caulis, a homunculus warlock liberated from its master; has made a pact with Queen Titania of the Faerie.
  • An ancient and enigmatic Lengian cleric of the Mother of Spiders, name unknown. She wears bulky ecclesiastical garments covering an uncertain number of limbs and goes by “Sister.”

XP Awarded: 400 XP

The long winter gave way to a quick spring and a quicker summer. The season seemed to burn itself out in furious intensity, as if compensating for the long chill. Now the Month of Owls waned, leaves falling from the trees. Rain and heavy fog had replaced the oppressive sunshine with their own damp claustrophobia, a blanket of heavy grey covering Hex and its hinterlands.

Armand Percival Reginald Francois Eustace de la Marche III sat in his study, perusing The Book of the Void, when one of his servants knocked on the door and approached with a letter, freshly delivered by waspkin courier. The letter was marked with the seal of his family on your mother’s side – the de l’Abespine coat of arms. Usually this marked a letter from his mother. The sorcerer opened the letter and read carefully.

Grandson,

I hope I do not trouble your studies in Hex unduly, but I am sad to inform you that your presence is required here at Château de la Marche. Your mother’s condition seems to be worsening. Since your father’s passing, as you know, she has been delicate of constitution, both physical and mental, and recently she has taken a turn for the worse. She spends long hours shut up in her menagerie of glass figures, refusing meals, even locking the doors; I am afraid we have been forced to confiscate her keys, and, at times, treat her almost as a prisoner in her own home.

It pains me greatly to see my daughter so diminished. Despite our attempts to keep her pacified and restricted to her rooms, she has taken to wandering parts of the house which are no longer safe – including the burned southeast wing, and even the disused northeast wing where, we suspect, the air has gone terribly bad. She continually foils all attempts to keep her from such midnight ramblings, at one point even overpowering a servant come to change her linens, and there has been a string of other, similar incidents. She has spoken of seeing your father’s shade, of horned figures, of beasts prowling “the endless dark” – and of other things which I will not commit to writing. She has taken to scrawling strange signs on the walls, abusing her belongings, and vandalizing the estate. The staff, I am afraid, are quite alarmed.

To be blunt – I fear she may hurt herself, or lose what reason she still possesses.

I can’t say whether your presence will do her any good – perhaps the sight of her son will restore her, or relieve her condition. At the very least I am sure you would be a comfort to her.

I would strongly advise that you travel accompanied, as the roads have become terribly perilous of late; unseasonable cold weather has left many washed-out and nigh-unusable, and driven men to banditry. They resent us at the estate, of course, and more than once the servants have driven them off with shots from the old arquebuses. There are wolves as well, in greater numbers than normal, and other wild creatures roaming the countryside; the memory of the terrible incident that befell your parents shortly before your birth still haunts me. Best, then, to bring with you companions suitably skilled in arms, in case you encounter anything dangerous on the journey.

Your grandfather,

Percival de l’Aubespine, Baron de Beresford

Fuming with rage at the ill-treatment of his mother, Armand leapt from his chair and, without ado, began preparations to leave the city. Gathering several companions along with horses and a small band of mercenaries, he set out for his ancestral estate as soon as possible.

To the south and west of Hex, the land became progressively hillier, dotted with pastures and thick oak forests, some remnants of the Tangle, cut off from that sprawling mother-wood. Towards the further south the hills eventually climbed into mountains known as the Dames Blanches, the White Ladies, for their snowy caps. The thick smog of Hex dissipated into an autumnal mist in this region, a subtle, silvery haze from which the reddening trees emerged like russet spectres.

Though the Old City of Hex was built millions of years ago during ancient prehistory, the city built atop it felt almost new compared to the venerable towns and ruins of this region. Though Hex exerted a degree of control over these lands, the folk here maintained a sense of rugged independence, more loyal to the noble bloodlines who have ruled the realm for centuries than to the distant city with its strange technologies and sinister wizards.

Away from the libertine confines of Hex, worship of the city’s strange gods declines rapidly. There were still a handful of roadside shrines to the Magistra for the first few miles from Hex, but these were soon supplanted by fanes and churches dedicated to the Lady of the Mists, a local goddess.

The population also noticeably shifted. At first gnomes, dagonians, and others could be seen in fair numbers, but these quickly dwindled, replaced by humans.

The party stopped for the evening at the White Wyvern inn, a three-storey inn at the edge of a small oak forest. Within, a fire flickered in the hearth, warming a common room crowded with travelers – the Wyvern was the only inn for some distance. Most of these wee merchants and farmers, folk heading north to Hex to peddle their wares. The innkeepers were identical twins, two men with the same thin, clever face and the same close-cut greying curls, distinguished only by the ugly scar that marked the face of one of them.

brothers

Charles and Bertrand. Illustration by Caulis’ player, Bronwyn McIvor.

Caulis and Armand spoke with the brothers, Caulis now in illusory human guise, and learned that wolf attacks had been on the increase of recent.

“Mark me words, the Beast of Vaorigne has returned,” Bertrand, the scarred brother, declared. “I should know. I’ll remember that thing’s howls till my dying day.”

“The Beast of Varogine?” Caulis asked, curious. Viridian likewise perked up at the mention of an exotic creature.

“Aye, the Beast that gave me this scar,” Bertrand said, gesturing to his face. “A monstrous werewolf, that roamed these parts with its pack some twenty years past. But young Master Eustace de la Marche here can tell you all about that.”

The other looked to Armand, surprised.

“The Beast wounded my father, left him lame and weakened,” Armand said, gazing into his glass of wine. “And left mama… changed. It attacked them, late one night, on the road not far from here.”

“Could this Beast be related to revent events at your home?” Viridian asked.

“I see not how,” Armand said. “But I find this topic displeasing. I think I shall retire for the evening.”

The sorcerer drained his glass and departed for his chambers.

That night, Armand’s sleep was troubled. He awoke in the early hours of the morning, sweat soaking through his nightclothes, the memory of a disturbing dream still fresh in his mind. It was a vision of his father, Armand II, trapped in some tenebrous chamber, some twisted parody of his family home. Something was restraining him – long, writhing forms, lashing tendrils or serpents – binding his limbs. As Armand watched, powerless, wounds blossomed across his father’s body, long claw-marks blooming crimson. Some invisible force devoured his right leg, the limb he had amputated in life, and a festering, gangrenous rot began to spread up his body, consuming him, creeping across his skin until he was a grotesque shell of his former self, a diseased husk. His eyes glowed with some vile effulgence as he struggled against the gruesome organic bonds that held him, and his gaze fixed upon Armand, his eyes piercing into your mind.

“Son! Help me, please!” the elder Armand pleaded – before Armand III awoke.

Descending from breakfast on the morrow, Armand did not speak of his vision, but insisted the horses be readied immediately. Once again the party set out, riding hard for Armand’s ancestral home. Soon mist clouded the path, and mid-morningv loping shapes emerged from the fog – a pack of a dozen hungry wolves, thin and ferocious. They howled and leapt towards the horses, but Sister conjured a phantom scent, deterring them from the chase.

Shortly later, another shape materialized from the mist. The broken remnants of a carriage lay by the roadside, a dead horse rotting slowly in the mist, savaged by some wild beast. The ornate carriage appeared to have been thoroughly looted; there were no signs of any occupants, though bloodstains and vicious claw-marks on the wood suggested a violent abduction.

Viridian inspected the claw marks and footprints carefully, and deduced that the assailants had been bipedal.

As the day drew to a close, the party entered Lutin, a small village of Lutin along the road to the de la Marche estate. An old stone wall, crumbling and moss-eaten, served as meagre protection for the tiny hamlet. There was an alehouse – the Goat’s Head – along with a handful of homes and craftsman’s workshops, as well as an old church dedicated to the Lady of the Mists, her sorrowful stone visage looking out across the town.

Working Title/Artist: Pirna: The Obertor from the South Department: European Paintings Culture/Period/Location: HB/TOA Date Code: Working Date: 1721-1780 photographed by mma in 1991, transparency 2 scanned by film & media 6/16/03 (phc)

The group rested here briefly, though Armand was determined to press on to his estate. He paid a brief visit to the town’s magistrate, informing him of the broken carriage, before ducking into the Goat’s Head – rather quiet, with only a few locals drinking the black brew of this region, or cups of the greyish wines made in the hills. The tavern-owner and barkeep was Rosy Maude – a stout, handsome woman with long red hair now streaked heavily with white. She greeted Armand warmly, but when he pressed her for word of his home, her expression grew dark.

“We haven’t seen anyone from Château de la Marche for a fortnight, which is strange,” she said. “Normally at least some of the servants, Old Hugh and Thibault, usually, come down to Lutin once a week at least, for food, drink, and other sundries. There’s been… well, I hate to speak ill of your family, sir, but there’s been some queer rumours of late.”

“No offense is taken, Maude,” Armand assured her. “What have you heard?”

“Well, there’s been tell of some sort of sickness among the staff. When Thibault was last down here, he was coughing terribly, and poor Hugh couldn’t make it out of bed. Said something about mould and bad air. There’s been word your mother ain’t full herself.

“And there’ve been… queer sounds in the night. Distant, mind you, but… strange. Voices heard in the hills, echoing. Whispers in the mist, which ain’t cleared for days and days. Once, a high squealing sound the like of which I’ve never heard made by man nor beast – woke the whole village. And sometimes a rumbling through the earth, like a tremor.”

“And then there’s Ankou,” an old man by the bar declared.

“Quiet, Reynard,” Maud chides.

“Ankou?” Caulis asked, curious.

“I seen him, up in the hills. Ankou, the soul-collector. Death’s henchman. A thin man, all in black, with a broad-brimmed hat. His voice is the scream of the damned. That’s what’s been wailing in the night. I saw him when I was driving my cart. He was up on a little hill, his back to me, but then his head turned round on his neck till he faced backwards. Gave me quite a fright he did!”

“Superstitious nonsense,” Maude declared.

Meanwhile, Sister and Viridian visited the local church. Though the Lengian was regarded with alarm and even terror by some of the locals, her careful questions soon put the local priestess at ease. They learned that the Lady of the Mists was a goddess protecting the region of Varoigne from harm from the outside world – though the region had more than its fair share of troubles, and the faith seemed to be dwindling, the church ill-attended. They also noted that some of the graves in the cemetary behind the church had been disturbed. Viridian examined them carefully, concluding that the same creatures that had attacked the carriage were likely responsible for the body-snatchings.

Troubled by these signs of dark doings, the party set out once more, hastening for the de la Marche estate. The sun sank low as they followed the path upwards into a series of misty hills. They glimpsed horned figures amongst the crags – alpine goats. They watched the party’s ascent with their horizontal-pupiled hircine gaze, unperturbed by their presence, but they made for an eerie welcoming party to this mist-shrouded place.

Then, briefly, another figure could be seen among the goats. At first they thought it was a goatherd, but then they saw its billowing black cloak, its masses of white, stringy hair, its eerie, broad hat shadowing a face that looks skeletal. White eyes roved in the bony visage’s sockets. The being carried a rusted scythe. No sooner had they glimpsed this macabre being than a bank of fog rolled in, obscuring it from sight.

“The Ankou…” Caulis muttered, as, at last, Château de la Marche came into view.

Chateau de la Marche-min

The estate looked decrepit – far worse than Armand remembered. The roof was missing tiles, and some of the windows were broken and boarded up. Attempts to repair the burned southeast wing were clearly abandoned, as it remained a charred shell. The lawn needed a cut and the gardens looked sickly, some of the bushes dead, others succumbing to blight.

In short, the house looked… dead. There weren’t any lights visible, nor any smoke from the chimneys… except, that is, for a ghastly red light in the chapel in the southwest wing.

“Something is very wrong,” Armand growled. “There should be servants here, to take our horses. Come, let’s stable them.”

Nothing awaited them in the stables – a conspicuous nothing. There were no horses here; all of the pens lay open.

Further investigation did reveal a number of hoof-marks and claw-marks on the wooden walls and doors, as well as some bloodstained hay. Something had snatched the horses.

“More troubling still,” Viridian said, touching the marks carefully. “The same creatures that disturbed the graves, and attacked the carriage, I’d say.”

Armand, now furious and intent, marched up to the door of his familial home.

On the steps leading up to the front doors, he saw a rock, weighing down what looked like a piece of parchment.

On the parchment was written:

Dearest Armand Percival Reginald Francois Eustace de la Marche III,

Since you paid my home a visit, I thought it only proper that I paid a visit to yours.

I shan’t do anything so gauche as to break your beautiful possessions, as only an uncouth brute might.

Nor would I ever be so ungallant as to roast your mother alive, as only a murderous wretch would.

Nor even would I exhibit such atrocious manners as to burn your estate to the ground, as only a mad and cretinous arsonist would dare!

I am, after all, still a gentleman of good breeding. Unlike some I could name.

No, no – I have a different fate in mind for the de la Marche estate and its denizens.

I may have plucked my own eyes from my sockets to please She Who Writhes in the Outer Darkness, but I have been watching you and your little friends all the same, and learning much of your doings, and of what you have done to my home and my family.. The Charnel Goddess has many servants – worms and rats and creeping insects– and those of us in Her favour know their secret speech, can see even see through their eyes when it pleases us. I know much about you, dear Armand. More, perhaps, than you know about yourself.

I was so charmed by the little gifts you have been sending to your mother – your dear, sweet mother.  It was a simple enough matter to provide her with one of my own, disguised as one of yours.

I do hope this little visit meets with your approval. I’m quite sure we’re going to have the most delicious fun!

Yours most sincerely,

Jasper Van Lurken

The letter was accompanied by a lock of hair that Armand recognized as his mother.

Armand carefully put the hair into a handkerchief and placed it in his pocket, then crumpled the note in his fist. He turned to the party, seething with a cold fury.

“He got away,” Armand snarled. “Jasper Van Lurken.”

“Who?” Viridian asked.

“A nobleman, although unworthy of that distinction. He corrupted his family, transformed them into vampiric monsters, servants of the Charnel Goddess. I thought I had burnt his filth from the city, but it seems he escaped.”

“The front door will be guarded,” Caulis reasoned. “Where should we enter?”

“We need to find my mother. Her safety is our priority. Come.” Armand led the way west, towards the Rose Garden. As a child, this was where he had spent most of his hours – the east wings of the house had mouldered, abandoned, after his father’s death and the family’s slow decline.

The party approached a servant’s door, leading into the block of rooms surrounding the Graden. A demonic visage had been scrawled on the door, crude but menacing – some sort of ward.

“Hmm, let me try something,” Sister said, and with a whispered prayer to the Mother of Spiders, she blinked to the other side of the door.

This antechamber beyond was filled with pictures of the de la Marche family, including a very prominent painting of Armand II fencing with an ornate duelling sabre. Crouching in one corner with its back to the door, hunched over the decaying remnants of what might once have been a person, was what remained of a woman in a maid’s uniform, her body weirdly elongated, her neck stretching with horrific flexion. She twisted round, staring with bulging eyes, sensing Sister’s presence, but the cleric had concealed herself in the shadows, her goddess weaving darkness like a web about her.

worm-thing

The Maid. Illustration by Caulis’ player, Bronwyn McIvor.

Sister carefully opened the door to the outside. The worm-thing twisted round and fled through an open door as the party stormed in. Armand led them through, fingers twitching, a spell hovering on his lips.

Beyond, a simple chamber once served as the servant’s common room. Its current use was far more macabre. Bodies were laid out on the long tables where servants once sat. They were clearly being prepared for some sort of necromantic ritual, as they had been stripped naked and mutilated, with sigils carved into their flesh.

“This way,” Armand said, pointing to a stairway leading upwards.

In this room, two paintings looked down upon them. One was a family portrait of Armand II, Helena, and the infant Armand III, all dressed in historical finery as a chivalric knight, a virtuous lady, and their child. The young Armand had a face which seems wiser than his chubby cheeks and infant curls might suggest. The second painting, however, looked newly hung – a picture of the Van Lurkens.

Annette Van Lurken was shown as a beautiful dark-haired girl of sixteen or seventeen, pale of complexion and dark-eyed, wearing a green dress and holding a small, three-headed pug dog, one of the cerberi bred by the alchemists of Caulchurch, next to her brother Jasper – a sallow, handsome but rather gaunt man of about nineteen, clad in a black doublet, a sly look in his eyes. He posed with a memento mori. Their parents, Leopold and Nicolet, sat to one side; Leopold a well-fed man with a cunning look, perhaps because of his neat, pointed beard and clever eyes, wearing colourful garments of purple and green and has short, greying curls; Nicolet, a stern-looking grey-haired woman whose once-great beauty had only been somewhat diminished by a lifetime of disapproving frowns and exasperated grimaces, wearing a luxurious burgundy dress.

From this portrait gallery, windows faced out upon the Rose Garden below, which filled the courtyard in the heart of the western half of the house. Beautiful in spring and summer, the roses were now dying, their decline facilitated by some sort of blight which had taken hold of the blooms. However, some new breed of roses appeared to be supplanting the old, still seeming healthy despite dropping temperatures. Grotesque black roses veined with red, their stems not green but vivid crimson, teemed amidst their etiolated cousins. At the innermost whorl of each flower, a tiny mouth cou;d be glimpsed, dilating hungrily.

Tending to these horrible vampiric blooms was a man Armand dimly recognized as the former gardener of the estate, Maynard – or, rather, what Maynard had become. A vast, swollen shape, inflated like an obscene balloon, Maynard was bloated with blood, his body transformed into a sac-like, vermiform shape. In place of his fingers were slender proboscises, mosquito-like, from which he periodically squirted blood, feeding the vampiric blooms. As they were fed the hematophagic flowers sighed contentedly; others, sensing an imminent feeding, moaned and muttered in ravenous anticipation. Maynard also carried a heavy sack, bloodstained and filled with human and animal body parts – limbs, organs, and other gore. He periodically removed some morsel from this bag and tossed it into the flower-patch, at which point the blood-drinking roses all converged, swivelling on eerily muscular stems to gorge themselves on the feast.

the gardener

The Gardener. Illustration by Caulis’ player, Bronwyn McIvor.

“Mother of Spiders, was that a person?” Sister said, horrified.

“We will deal with such abominations later,” Armand said. “Come, this way.” He led them deeper into the house, through another anteroom and a series of galleries, all luxurious but decayed, until they reached his mother’s apartments.

Helena’s sumptuous room had a massive four-posted bed and a side-table; it was in terrible disarray, as something had thoroughly ransacked the chamber.

A large armoire stood against one wall, adorned with images of armoured knights. The armoire had been locked and seemed to have been barricaded crudely, a halberd pushed through its handles. Something bumped loudly from within the armoire, as if straining to get out.

“Help me,” a strange, double-voice said from within the armoire. “I’m locked in here, help!” Armand raised an eyebrow.

“Who are you?”

“Jerome,” one voice said.

“Blaise,” said another.

“Damn,” the two voices said together.

“Aha…” Armand said, stepping back. “I think we’ll be leaving them be…”

A note lay on the floor, carefully folded, the precision of its placement belied by the panicked words scrawled upon it: “FIND YOUR FATHER.”

Hex Session XXI – 5th Edition Actual Play – “The Angel’s Eye”

The characters in this session were:

  • Alabastor Quan, a gnome rogue-turned-illusionist and failed circus ringmaster; wielder of a cursed dagger and member of the Ravenswing Thieves’ Guild.
  • Garvin Otherwise, a human rogue and burglar of the Ravenswing Thieves’ Guild, with a very, very peculiar past and a zoog pet, Lenore.
  • Yam, an eccentric gnome illusionist and local graduate student at Umbral University. Yam cares little for money. Yam is curious. Yam is Yam.
  • 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.”
  • Viridian Greengrove, changeling druid, exile from his former druidic circle for unknown transgressions.

XP Awarded: 700 XP

Alabastor and Garvin were at a Ravenswing safehouse in Gloomway, one of the guild’s major rookeries outside of Corvid Commons, off Eidolon Street. Accessible only through a discrete back door cloaked in illusions, the safehouse was sumptuous, if eclectic, decorated with the spoils of a thousand lucrative burglaries. They were in the trophy hall, a place where the guild’s Masters displayed the most precious objects they ever stole – fabulously rare paintings covered almost every inch of the walls, and plinths displayed everything from precious jewels to spellbooks.

Doors lead to the safehouse’s common room, the Blackmail Armoury where incriminating objects collected from the city’s elites were kept, and the Raven’s Nest, where the guild kept some of its magical thieving equipment.  On the level above this one were training halls, where new initiates skulked through mazes of shadows and halls of mirrors under the watchful eyes of guild instructors, while below was the Map Archive, containing floorplans for buildings throughout the city.

Gloomway

The two thieves were in the presence of Veronika Foxstalker, a young Ravenswing thief with premature white hair, as well as two Ravenswing high-ups: Janus Wren, a retired art thief, long ago convicted for her crimes by a Hexian court and sentenced to the Curse of Bad Taste, and Broodfather Valentine Dusk, one of the guild-members responsible for training thieves.

“Glad you could make it, boys,” Veronika said. “Broodfather Dusk has something of a job for you. You can consider it a test, as well. Pass it, and you’ll both be promoted from the Fledgling rank to become Talons.”

Garvin nodded. “I think we’re both eager to move up in the ranks.”

“The task will not be easy,” Valentine said. He was a ghoul, well-dressed and mischievous of expression, with large yellow eyes and glinting white fangs in a face that made them think of a wolf.  “You are welcome to employ outside assistance from trusted associates; numbers may be helpful for certain parts of the undertaking. Janus, perhaps you’ll describe what precisely has happened.”

“Sure,” Janus said. She was a pale, slight woman of middle years, human, and a living legend in the city’s underworld. “So. About ten years ago, I stole an object called the Angel’s Eye – a magical gemstone. Probably Librarian in origins, but could be from Nornhold, no one’s quite sure. If you look through it, you’re supposed to be able to perceive reality absolutely – drives most people mad that look too long. Anyway. As you know… I got caught. Not my proudest moment, but the Warders had been chasing me for years, it was practically bound to happen eventually. One slip-up and they had me. And they took the Angel’s Eye. Put it in the Museum of Magical Arts up in Fanghill.”

“The guild wants to acquire the Angel’s Eye,” Valentine said. “It may be useful in appraising certain objects in our possession. We had long been planning a heist of the Museum, but as you probably know, it’s the most heavily warded building in Hex apart from the Bird & Key City Bank. Getting in and out is nearly impossible. Unfortunately… we weren’t the only ones planning a burglary.”

“Crowsbeak idiots got wind of our plans and beat us to the punch,” Veronika said. “They broke in last night, pinched the Angel’s Eye and a bunch of other stuff. But, because they’re a bunch of bloody five-sided amateurs, they got caught. The Warders threw most of them in Golemsgate Gaol. However. There’s an added complication.”

“Of course,” Alabastor said.

“You see, the Angel’s Eye actually made of three different parts,” Janus said. “The Sclera, the Iris, and the Pupil. You fit them together and the Eye functions. On their own, they’re still valuable, but don’t have the same powers.”

“When the Crowsbeak broke in, they split the Eye up into its separate components,” Valentine said. “One of their burglars was imprisoned by the Warders – he had the Sclera. One made it back to Corvid Commons – she had the Iris. And a third, while fleeing the Warders, reputedly tried to hide in the tunnels below Fanghill. He had the Pupil. You two are tasked with recovering all three parts of the Eye.”

“There’s some potentially good news on the Warder’s front,” Veronika said. “We’ve learned that they’re supposed to be moving the Sclera back from Golemsgate to the Museum tomorrow, by carriage. It’ll be guarded… but it’ll also be an opportunity to get hold of the Sclera without breaking into either the Golem or the Museum.”

“The Crowsbeak thief who made it out has disappeared into Corvid Commons,” Janus said. “But we think we know where she’s staying – a Crowsbeak rookery beneath the Dark Drop, a shadowmilk bar on Badblood Boulevard. The Iris should still be there, but it’s probably only a matter of time before they offload it in the Midnight Market.”

“The only problem there is, things are pretty volatile with the Crowsbeak at the moment,” Valentine said. “So for this phase of the job, you’ll have to be totally unseen, or else adopt some sort of disguise. If you’re spotted breaking into a Crowsbeak rookery, it could be bad for the guild.”

“The final piece, the Pupil, is presumably still with the thief stupid enough to flee into the Old City in Fanghill,” Veronika concluded. “This might be the most dangerous part of the task. Most likely, the thief entered the tunnels through Piranha Boulevard.”

“The Guild is willing to grant a payment of three thousand guineas to each of you if you manage to retrieve the Angel’s Eye,” Valentine said. “Any associates you hire will have to be paid on your own dime. In addition, though, as Talons you’ll be given an object of your choice from the Raven’s Nest.”

The two thieves discussed strategy, and agreed to contact a few trusted associates. Armand and Yam had been useful on the Van Lurken job, and so the Ravenswing thieves headed for Armand’s townhouse in the Dreamer’s Quarter.

Dreamers' Quarter

Admitted to Armand’s house, they made their way to the greenhouse, where the sorcerer was cultivating all manner of strange botanical experiments – many culled from samples taken during the extended party’s adventures. They found him deep in conversation with a fellow botanist, who he introduced as Viridian Greengrove, a trusted associate from years past.

Viridian(1)A short, human-seeming man, Viridian was lean, ropy, and heavily scarified, with sharp, angular features, a crooked, once-broken nose, and vivid green eyes. Though the man was garbed in oddments of fur, leather, and feathers – resembling some wild-man from the woods – he carried himself with alien grace and dignity, and there was something unsettling about his demeanor. Though too rough-hewn to be one of the enigmatic Fair Folk, Garvin and Alabastor both recognized a changeling when they saw one: an elf child abandoned in Hex by its parents, who would have kidnapped a human child in exchange. Many parents in the city considered such an even the height of good fortune, secure in the knowledge that the child of their blood would attain the grandeur and immortality of the Fair Folk, while gifted with a replacement sure to excel in a myriad of arts.

“We came to discuss some, ah, rather delicate business,” the two thieves said, unsure of how to react to this stranger.

“You can trust Viridian,” Armand assured them. “He has no love of the law.”

“If it’s something criminal you’re planning, I am no stranger to such things,” the druid said frankly. “Indeed, I have… certain abilities which might prove quite useful.”

Elsewhere, Yam and Sister were experimenting with the Portal Chalk, and seeking ways to track down the ones who made it. With Garvin’s help, they had deduced that the magical chalk was an artefact of the Antinomian, the mad, laughing trickster deity, god of primal chaos and absurdity, whose religion was one of the few banned in Hex. Together they had made contact with one of the god’s cult’s, secret societies in Hex, using a secret note drop to communicate. Sister drafted a note about a “hypothetical” Portal Chalk puzzle, looking for ways to expand the Chalk’s use. The cult, in due time, responded: they were intrigued, and sent half of an elaborate arcane cryptogram in return. For the other half, they said, they needed an object of power: ridiculously, the undergarments of the Infernal Archbishop, Arabella Sickle. Bewildered and somewhat amused, Sister concealed the note with care. Shortly later, they were contacted by Garvin and Alabastor, informing them about the upcoming job. Yam, owing something of a debt to their companions, quickly agreed to participate. Sister took some additional convincing, but as a servant of a god of schemes and deception, she was ultimately persuaded. Planning for the heist to come began in earnest.

Bridge

The party first set their eyes on the carriage – the most time sensitive of the three heists they would have to pull off. Speculating about likely routes the carriage might take, the thieves began making arrangements. First, they hired a small number of Ravenswing associates to guard a Portal entrance they scrawled in the backroom of the Cockroach Pub, a seedy drinking establishment in Goatsbridge.

Secondly, the group learned that S.A.D.I.S.M. – the Society for the Abolition of Diabolic and Infernal Servitude and Maltreatment – was planning a protest against the use of conjured labour at the Bridge of Sins. The group planned to capitalize on the distraction, using a Portal to convey the Sclera to the Cockroach Pub. Yam would help incite the protest; Alabastor would infiltrate the protest himself; Sister would serve as lookout; Garvin and Viridian would sneak into the carriage. Their plans made, the Ravenswing thieves and their companions slept, preparing for the job to come.

The dawn was misty and damp. The five made their way through Behemoth Bend to the Bridge of Sins, where protestors were already gathering. They’d set up a crude barricade made from bits of furniture and piled scrap. They held up signs: “Summoning is Subjugation” and “Break the Circle!”

Soon enough, the Warders’ carriage approached the bridge: an armoured carriage of gunmetal grey rumbling across the cobblestones, drawn by a team of four automaton horses, snorting steam from their furnace-bellies. The carriage had a Warder driver, a second Warder with a crossbow in a small turret, and two Warder escorts riding alongside the carriage on their own mechanical steeds. One was accompanied by a bound demon who keeps pace with the carriage, led by its summoner with a silver chain. The creature had a sigil-graven collar, a magic circle round its neck; it had chicken-like legs, a beard of writhing tentacles, and carried a wickedly glinting scythe. Judging from the decorated uniform of the summoner, he was the ranking officer of the group.

Alongside was an identical carriage, flanked by identical guards! One of them must have been an illusion.

Alabastor urged the protestors on. “Look at what they’re doing!” He said, gesturing to the bound demon. “Enslavement!”

Sister, thinking quickly, used detect thoughts to perceive which of the carriages was crewed by real people. As she furthered this information to Yam, the Warders began casting a spell to suppress the crowd, and a stinking cloud of magical teargas exploded over the bridge. Dozens of protestors slumped to the ground.

Yam, thinking quickly, hurled an acid arrow at the demon’s chain. The demon, newly freed, turned quickly on its master.

Alabastor, a gas-mask hastily affixed, conjured an illusion: another protest, coming from the other direction. The Warders spun in place, confused, even as their own demon lumbered towards them.

Meanwhile, the shadowy Garvin and Viridian crept toward the carriage, Viridian transformed into the shape of a rat. Garvin used his abilities to flit through space to enter the carriage stealthily, Viridian close behind. A large steel chest was the only object within. Hastily, Garvin used the Portal Chalk to create a portal in the floor, dropping the chest through to the Cockroach Pub.

Outside, the demon raged, charging the summoner, but the quick-thinking Warder cast mending, restoring the chain. The demon spun, once more under Warder control.

Goatsbridge3

A guard from the turret darted down into the carriage, arriving just in time to see the thieves making off with the chest. He dart forth as the Portal closed, and instantly was severed in half.

“Gah!” Those in the Cockroach winced as the man fell into the room, screaming, blood pouring everywhere. He passed out quickly, dying within moments.

“Damn,” Garvin said. “That wasn’t in the plan.”

“We’ll get the remains back to the Guild,” one of the Ravenswing associates said. “Ravenswing’ll raise him and wipe his memory. Guild policy.”

Garvin nodded soberly. Ravenswing frowned heavily on deaths, but recognized that occasionally, accidents happened. Garvin picked the lock on the chest; within was the Sclera of the Angel’s Eye, a white, opalescent stone with a depression where the Iris would slot.

Back at the Bridge of Sins, Yam, Alabastor, and Sister had hastily fled, scattering into the streets as the Warders dealt with Alabastor’s illusory crowd, unaware that their prize was gone.

One down, two to go.

Shambleisde, Grey Hook, & Corvid Commons

Next stop: the Dark Drop.

Badblood Boulevard led towards the open square of Crow Court from the districts of Faunsweald and Groanwell, more salubrious neighbourhoods where the folk of Hex revel and carouse. Some of the spirit of hedonism had spilled into the Commons here, as the Boulevard was lined with taverns and drug dens – places like the Bloated Flea and the Laughing Fiend, as well as a large shadowmilk den, the Dark Drop, from which junkies stumbled with eyes like lightless voids.

The Drop was typical for a shadowmilk bar: a place where those seeking to empty themselves of all their cares and woe could seek the abyss at the bottom of a cup. The folk who crowded the dingy bar and swilled down cups of the stuff, served by a good-natured hunchback tattooed with holy sigils of the Unspeakable Ones, were a mix of poor and desperate souls in search of some relief from their suffering and avant-garde philosophers, nihilists hoping to map the terrain of the unthinkable through alchemical means. A good number of dark-robed necromancers from Grey Hook were in evidence, too – students from the Académie Macabre, slumming it in Corvid Commons and discussing thanatology, necropolitics, antivitalist metaphysics, and the ethics of reanimation.

The group took up seats at the bar, while Lenore scuttled stealthily from Garvin’s shoulder. Able to peer through the zoog’s eyes, the arcane trickster used her to scout out the backrooms of the Dark Drop. She entered a chamber filled with complicated distillation equipment, including huge copper tanks and masses of snaking pipes and tubes. Portholes in some of the tanks revealed them to be brimming with a viscous black liquid – shadowmilk. There were two exits. Some of the pipes extend from the machinery through one of the corridors.

Sister provided a distraction, asking the barkeep about the possibility of stowing stolen items at the Drop, a known rookery. Meanwhile, Albastor crept down the stairs and drew a portal; the rest of the party exited the bar and entered through the other end, scrawled in a nearby alleyway. Alabastor got out his dowsing wand, and the group stealthily followed its pull down one of the corridors.

They followed the hall to a stair leading down into a cavernous brick vault that had been made habitable with the addition of a few wall hangings bearing Crowsbeak symbols, a handful of tables, and a well-stocked bar of cheap ale – Blackheart Brew and Moonrise Pale Ale. Three ugly ruffians lounged about the room, drinking and counting coins – two humans and a trollblood. There were two wooden doors visible, one of them open.

Though the thieves were using the utmost stealth, the new member of the group – Viridian – stumbled on the stairs. A brief and vicious fight ensued, bullets, crossbow bolts, and spells whizzing across the chamber. At the end, Viridian’s ear lay bloody on the floor, blood streaming from his face, but the three Crowsbeak thieves lay dead.

“Shit,” Alabastor cursed. “We’d better get the Iris and get out of here fast.”

They quickly found a safe hidden behind one of the wall hangings.

Yam quickly cast knock, and the combination lock swiveled to 7, then 13, then 43. Within was the Iris: another gem, this one iridescent and bluish, with a final depression for the Pupil. The safe also contained various other ill-gotten gains, including various articles of jewellery, gemstones, gold, and an obviously enchanted necklace.

“Only four murders and a riot so far,” Viridian muttered, holding his severed ear to his head while Sister cast a healing spell, divine spiders flowing from her robes to switch the ear back to the druid’s head.

The band beat a hasty retreat through their getaway Portal, before additional Crowsbeak could appear.

Fanghill

Only one piece of the Angel’s Eye remained – the Pupil, lost in the tunnels beneath Fanghill. The party hastened there now, as sullen twilight turned to light, waspkin streetlighters flitting about with torches in the poorer districts, electric and magical lights flickering on in the more salubrious ones. They reached opulent Fanghill as the sun slunk beneath the jagged silhouette of Mount Shudder. An investigation of the plaza near the Museum of Magical Arts quickly turned up a manhole askew.

Exhausted, the party decided to retire for the evening and to meet up again early the next day, full of fresh spells and energy.

They returned to the Museum in the pre-dawn darkness; the city was once again clad in heavy mist. Careful to avoid detection by early-morning watch patrols, the group dropped down into the sewers.

Even the sewer tunnels were ostentatious in Fanghill, the stonework well-maintained, but even so the corridor was as filthy as any in Hex, puddles of murky water growing stagnant on the floor of the tunnel. Buzzing insects were everywhere, having laid their eggs in the filth.

Garvin – having scavenged his share of sewers as a lad – knew that valuables often turned up in such much. A moment’s search produced a glittering pearl necklace, dropped from the street about and swept into the drain.

Viridian, eager to show his worth, transformed himself into a bloodhound-like creature, though hairless and alien. He sniffed about, trying to smell the Crowsbeak thief. The group followed the druid to a larger tunnel. Heavy rains and snowmelt had left the storm drain swollen with dirty water, flowing steadily south. A slippery-looking metal catwalk led across the tunnel. There was something lying on the ground on the other side of the bridge, but it was hard to see what it is.

Use of the Portal Chalk and a rope which Garvin shimmied along bypassed the treacherous torrent. The lower half of a human being lay on the floor of the tunnel . It looked as if something had ripped a person viciously in two. A trail of dried blood led from the remains through a doorway to the south.

Following Viridian and the blood-trail, the group made their way to an old maintenance room with several burst pipes spraying filthy liquid into the chamber. The cause of these was a rent in the wall – a huge split, leading into a dark, natural tunnel beyond. The scent-trail led through this chamber and down the tunnel.

Tentatively, the group descended into the darkness, the smell of blood and decay clotting their nostrils. There was a steady, rhythmic noise, like something breathing slowly.

The tunnel opened up. A great pile of gnawed bones and clothes was strewn across the floor of the disgusting cavern beyond. Squatting in the darkness were three twisted creatures that looked as if they might once have been people. Horribly deformed, the monsters had massively prognathous jaws and enormous yellow teeth. Their eyes were shrunken deep into their sockets, while their nostrils flared, sniffing constantly. One extended a hideous dripping tongue as if tasting the air.

Alabastor was the one to blow the group’s cover this time, sending a stray bone clattering down the tunnel. He used some sort of illusion to intimidate the monstrous creatures, looming up out of the darkness.

Lenore’s zoog eyes glimpsed magic – the Pupil! Garvin hastily used mage hand to grab the obsidian gem from the carrion heap. However, the creatures were creeping back towards the group. Hastily, Garvin scrawled a portal, while Sister, Yam, Alabastor, and Viridian flung blasts of force, waves of thunder, and other spells to keep the creatures at bay.

The group were back at the bridge over the tunnel of surging sewage. They crossed, Yam casting ray of frost to cover their escape. Hastily they made their way out of the sewers, returning to Hex, all three parts of the Angel’s Eye in their possession.

Once safe, the group assembled the eye. Sister – eldest and perhaps bravest of the crew – decided to test its abilities. Garvin stood ready with the Pocketwatch of Time Dilation in case some adverse effect took hold. What Sister saw through the Eye appeared to be a universe very much like their own, but subtly different. Shimmering ghosts of the various adventurers seemed to bud off their forms – choices unmade, roads untaken. Swiveling the Iris and Sclera, it seemed she could peer into a plethora of alternate timelines – many of them ruins, burnt-out or overgrown or monstrously mutated.

Reluctantly, she gave the item over to Garvin and Alabastor, who made their way back to the Ravenswing safehouse, the means of their promotion within the Guild secured.

How Detailed is Too Detailed: Granularity vs. Practicality

I have also asked this over on Google+.

In light of positive reactions to the map here, on reddit, and on Google+, I’ve started seriously thinking about putting together a setting book to accompany the map of Hex. Consequently I’ve been looking over my notes on Hex. My plan at this point for each district of the city is to provide an overview description, plus possible encounters and adventure hooks for each area.

However, I’m wondering which the following two approaches would be better to flesh the districts out:

1) A detailed, street-by-street description, as if the city were a dungeon. I have this level of granularity for several districts already in my notes, though not all. This is generally seen as a bonkers approach to cities, but so is spending a year drawing a map by hand with every building in the city, so I’ve already crossed that particular Rubicon of lunacy.

My worry here is that this might be too much even for the most detail-oriented DM, and it could make a setting book harder to use since it’s a bit harder to find the detail you’re looking for quickly, generally a must for any sort of roleplaying product.

On the other hand, it would make the city entirely 100% playable with minimal prep, and it seems to fit with the “maximalist” approach of the map. If it were organized right it might not be as unfeasible.

2) A slightly lighter approach picking out the most important buildings and features of a district for the DM – major temples, taverns, shops, universities – etc. There’d still be detail, but the street-by-street description would be absent. This might be more usable in the long run, but there’d be a loss of detail.

So, for example, following this approach the reader would know about the particulars of the Witching Hour Alehouse, important neutral haven for thieves, and its mystic, tatoo-keyed portal to the numinous Midnight Market, but wouldn’t necessarily know that in Chough Alley there is a family of spiderfolk weavers exiled from Cobweb Cliffs for their ancestor’s crimes, or that an illicit alchemist on Widdershins Way sells memory-modification potions.

What do you think? Which would you want more – full granularity, or slightly-zoomed out?

Hex: Overview

I’ve posted a version of this info before, but I have acquired a few new readers, so for those curious about the setting being developed here, this is an overview of the city:

Hex 001

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 familiars 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 pantheon 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.

Hex Session XX – 5th Edition Actual Play – “Kaleidoscope”

The characters in this session were:

  • 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.”
  • Caulis, a homunculus warlock liberated from its master; has made a pact with certain Faerie Powers.
  • 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).
  • Insidia Thorn, a cambion graduate student and illusionist at Umbral University. Yam’s office-mate.
  • Yam, an eccentric gnome illusionist and local graduate student at Umbral University. Yam cares little for money. Yam is curious. Yam is Yam.

XP Awarded: 600 XP

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

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

J

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

S

“J for Jarna?” Sister suggested.

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

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

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

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

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

Snowy City

Market

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

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

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

XOXO

YAM

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

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

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

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

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

Gloomway

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

YAM

Armand tried the door; it proved unlocked.

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

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

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

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

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

“Interesting. Do they go in the tube?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

island

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The other party members introduced themselves.

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

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

“Any idea how to leave here?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

child Armand

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

“Generally, yes,” Armand drawled.

“Let’s play a game!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

child Sister

“Where are we heading?” Caulis asked.

“Hex,” Ordira said. “Of course.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Alright…” Ordira said.

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

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

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

lil caulis child Caulis

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

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

child Sidlil sid

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

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

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

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

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

white room

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

“Huh. Well, that’s interesting.”

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

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

“Yam?!” Sister said. “Is that you?”

There was no answer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In synchronicity, the illusory pirates on both spoke:

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

“Um…” Sister said. “Avast?”

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

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

at sea!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

cavern

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

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

“Yam!” Sister exclaimed, happily.

“YAM!” Sid added, somewhat less so.

Yam burst into tears.

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

“What happened?” Caulis asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sebastian stormed out of the office in a huff.

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

Maps

I made a big map for my D&D game and turned it into a poster for use during the game. It’s easily the most detailed thing I’ve ever drawn; it took me about a year working on and off on it in my spare time, mostly as a break from my dissertation or as a way to wind down in the evening. It’s entirely hand-drawn except for the lettering; I scanned a lot of 8-1/2″x11″ pages together, then edited them.

Here it is:

Hex_Poster Hex Big Map Hex Central East Hex Central West Hex East Hex NortheastHex NorthwestHex Southeast Hex Southwest Hex West

As you can see, it’s pretty detailed:

Downpour Heights Weftmart Warded Ward Infernal Basilica

Hex Session XIX – 5th Edition Actual Play – “Spring”

The characters in this session were:

  • 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.”
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Zhulaz, a trollblood barbarian, exile of the Twocrown tribe, freed from thralldom.

XP Awarded: 700 XP

Meanwhile, in Hex, the worst of the winter winds had, at least for a moment, abated. Cephalus T. Murkwater, stirring from the torpor that had gripped the dagonian population since the winter began, decided it is time to partake of a particular human custom he had always found both strange and charming: the birthday party. Invitations were ordered, written, and sent; the dagonian and his associate, Hurogg, awaited the arrival of guests.

Most of Cephalus’ adventuring companions were out in the frigid depths of Troll Country, but Armand Percival Reginald Francois Eustace de la Marche III arrived fashionably late, attended by retainers. The pallid sorcerer chatted amiably with the other guests – mostly clients and colleagues – while eyeing the canapes with repressed disdain.

“You seem to be somewhat recovered,” Armand drily noted, looking Cephalus up and down.

“The winter seems to be abating,” Cephalus agreed. “The dagonians are starting to wake up. But the river is still frozen.”

“Some of us have been working on a solution,” Armand noted. “Over in Troll Country, to the north. The others should be returning soon. Now that some of your strength has returned, perhaps you’d be fit to aid us.”

“If it’ll help unfreeze the river, then certainly,” Cephalus agreed.

Mooncross

Back in Troll Country, the party lingered over the carnage they had wrought at the Hearg of Wind, taking care to confiscate the sacred runestone the shamans had been using to conjure the spirits of the dead and channel their ancient fury into the storm.

“One more to go,” Sister rumbled, her mind still in the body of a gigantic troll.

Catching their breath, the group spoke to the handful of trollblood thralls who’d helped them overthrow the Skintakers, consulting Vanessa Greyleaf for translation as necessary. One of them, a muscular trollblood barbarian named Zhulaz, indicated that he wished to join them.

“I’ve got nowhere to go, and a grudge to settle with the Skintakers,” the trollblood growled in accented Hextongue. It seemed he was an exile from Ettin Island, shunned by the Twocrown tribe for his “impure” partly-human blood and single head – at least two heads being the minimum for proper social standing among the brutal islanders.

“I’m sure we could use the help,” Caulis said. “Let’s get back to Hex for a bit and regroup.”

“Back to Hex?” Zhulaz said. “You mean… walk there?”

“Exactly,” Sister said, drawing a chalk portal. The gate opened, and the party entered the Hive of the Thirteenth Queen back in the city. Zhulaz marveled at this strange new magic, and even conversed briefly with the waspkin artist-priestesses, the hieorphants excitedly making statues of the newcomer.

Troll Country

The party spent the night in Hex, taking the chance to regroup, several returning to various ventures requiring their attention, others rejoining the expedition. After having healed and refreshed themselves, Sister, Caulis, Garvin, Armand, Cephalus, and Zhulaz returned through the portal into Troll Country. Yam had returned with the bewitched troll in Sister’s body to their dwelling in Mooncross.

Back in Troll Country, already things were changing. Without the Hearg of Wind, the screaming gale-force blizzards had dwindled and died, and the mountainous country was still and silent, the snow falling thickly but no longer in berserk flurries. From the south, they could see the green line of the newly-grown forest Caulis had created.

After some debate, the party decided to set out for the Blackhorn village and the Sickened Land, hoping that they could use Caulis’ powers to heal that traumatized region as they had with the Caustic Wastes. Zhulaz seemed slightly reluctant to visit the village, but being new to the party, went along with the will of the group.

As the group made their way northeast, they discovered a series of glyphs, carved into the trunks of trees. Further in, similar glyphs appeared on skulls mounted on wooden posts. Zhulaz and Vanessa could both read the runes: “Plague.”

Something was wrong with the land here. The trees were blighted, leaves disintegrating and grey, bark peeling – deadened by more than the depredations of winter. What little other vegetation peaked through the snow was similarly malformed and unhealthy-looking. But there was more to it than just some withered vegetation. The ground itself, the very stones, were sick. Boulders and crags uncovered by snow were speckled with what looked like weeping sores. The snow was discoloured yellow and red with the seepage of similar wounds – gangrenous pits the scar the poisoned earth, leaking pus. Even the clouds were jaundiced, the snow they wept mixed with putridity. This was a land somehow befouled.

Zhulaz told of the atrocity that created the Sickened Land. During the war against the Blackhorns and the Skintakers, Hex’s necromancers and alchemists – the luminaries of Caulchurch and the Académie Macabre – devised a horrific potion, a contagion with which the weather-witches of the Citadel tainted the sky. The clouds rained down a deadly plague that decimated the land itself, a malady that makes everything sick, the Omniphage.

“Horrible,” Garvin said, darkly.

“Fascinating,” Armand said, eyeing some of the twisted shrubs.

E0702 FRIEDRICH 8858

Those who possessed them quickly donned gas-masks to ward against the pestilential miasmas that rolled across the Sickened Land in leprous fog-banks.

A brief way into the Sickened Land, a pool of sickly-looking, bubbling blood – or blood-befouled water – frothed and sputtered. Drinking from the sanguineous depths was a bear, horribly sickened, its fur mangy, its teeth rotten, its eyes rheum-caked and half-blind. It sniffed the air. Cephalus tensed, ready to fight, as the bear lumbered towards them, pawing at the dagonian martial artist.

With its party members distracted by the diseased bear, Caulis slunk to the banks of the pool and, carefully, buried another of the Royal Acorns from Titania’s forest.

Once again the ground quaked and rumbled, and Caulis was thrown from its feet into the sickly pool. It could feel the magical virus infiltrating its bark, but then the pool cleared, the water becoming crystalline and pure, even as trees burst from the ground, the blighted foliage healing, long-diseased trees springing back to life and writhing upwards, spreading green, healthy leaves. As the bear snarled, the earth beneath its paws turned from ghastly brown to lush green, spreading up from the soil through the bear’s limbs and into its body, its fur becoming lustrous, its teeth whitening, its eyes suddenly clear.

Caulis crawled out from the pool, healed as quickly as it had succumbed to illness. Casting prestidigitation, it created the strong smell of a fresh kill nearby. The bear loped off in search of a meal.

A second huge forest now spread around them in all directions. It seemed the Sickened Land was diseased no longer.

“That was… quite impressive,” Armand said to Caulis. “How did you do that?”

“A gift from my Patron,” Caulis said, still refusing to go into any details.

Armand, intrigued by this botanical magic, tried to locate the initial tree that burst from the ground, and carefully harvested samples from its massive bulk.

The party pressed on, making now for the Blackhorn village. When they arrived they found a shell of a place, huts standing empty, its walls – carved, now, with runic markings to keep out disease, and festooned with skulls and charms – dilapidated, but newly fuzzed with green moss.

As they approached, a handful of emaciated-looking warriors crept forth. All bore the huge, glossy horns of their tribe.

“Who comes?” they demanded in Giant.

“We are the ones who healed the forest,” Vanessa declared, noticing that Zhulaz was silent, pulling his hood low. Some of the chieftain’s guards were looking at him strangely. “We seek no payment and mean you no harm.”

“You must speak with out chief, Mogthrasir,” one of the trollbloods said, eyeing the party with a mixture of awe and suspicion. “Come.”

The group entered the remnants of the Blackhorn village and were led to the husk of a great hall, obviously once resplendent. Seated atop a throne of bones was a thin, towering shape – a man of great stature who looked half-starved. Massive ram’s horns curled from his temples.

“I am Mogthrasir,” he said. “Chieftain of the Blackhorns.”

“Greetings,” Garvin said, a bit nervously. “We’re here to heal Troll Country, and to oppose the Skintakers who would destroy it.”

“We are no enemies of the Skintakers,” Mogthrasir said, warily.

“But we know you’re not their allies, either,” Sister said. She had concealed those signs that marked her host body as a Skintaker. “And the Skintakers plan on extending this winter for many months – perhaps longer. What will that do to game? How will you feed your people?”

“There is so little game as there is,” Mogthrasir said slowly.

“Not anymore,” Caulis said. “The forest we created – it is full of animals. We can prove it. Gather your best hunters. We shall return with a feast.”

Mogthrasir shifted on his throne. “An interesting offer. Very well.”

An hour later, the party set out with a group of Blackhorn hunters, into the depths of the fairy wood. Sister used pass without trace to cloak the hunters’ approach. Together the band brought down a gigantic elk, one of the mysterious beasts to appear alongside the trees, loping from the deep green shadows from out of some other realm. The hunters thanked the Troll Gods for the kill. They returned with the dead elk, and Mogthrasir ordered it roast over a spit, for the entire village to eat.

“Truly this forest is extraordinary,” he said. “You have healed the land. And for this, we are indeed in your debt. If you are enemies of the Skintakers, we shall aid you in opposing them. They are no longer welcome in our lands.”

“Mogthrasir!” one of the Blackhorns suddenly said, barging into the hall. “There is a thief among us!”

“What?” the chieftain. “Who do you speak of Gullveig?”

“This one!” the trollblood declared, pointing at Zhulaz. “Some months ago, this outlaw wandered into our midst. We took him in, but he left in the night, stealing one of our pigs! We demand the blood price for his theft!”

Vanessa nervously translated for the rest of the party.

“Excuse me,” Cephalus said, stepping forward. “Armand, would you help me speak?”

“Certainly,” Armand said, casting comprehend languages.

“Thank you,” Cephalus continued. “Sir, my client stands accused of a grave wrongdoing. Does he not have a chance to defend himself?”

There were murmurs throughout the hall. “Lawspeaker,” the Blackhorns said.

“Hmm. Very well,” Mogthrasir said. “Tonight, when the feast is done, I will hear what you have to say, and judge accordingly.” He looked to the wronged trollblood. “Is this acceptable, Gullveig?”

The trollblood crossed his thin, sinewy arms, but nodded.

the trial

Cephalus pleads Zhulaz’s case before Mogthrasir. Illustration by Caulis’ player, Bronwyn McIvor.

The party discussed strategy, and then the court convened in the hall of the Blackhorn village after the feast was cleared away. Mogthrasir sat upon his bone chair to listen both to the charges in full, and the defense Cephalus would offer.

Gullveig repeated his accusations. “This Twocrown nithing stole one of my pigs. We could have starved because of him! I demand the blood price be paid!”

“Do you deny this charge?” Mogthrasir asked.

“I do not,” Zhulaz said. “I was starving, a desperate man, shunned, wandering from village to village.”

“Your desperation matters not,” Mogthrasir growled. “You have wronged the Blackhorns!”

“My client has admitted to stealing the pig,” Cephalus interceded. “But the weregild need not be paid with blood. What if we could provide an alternative recompense?”

“What recompense?” Mogthrasir asked.

“I believe that’s where I can come in,” Armand said. “Gullveig, was it?”

“Yes?”

“You are, I take it, a farmer?” Armand’s normal class disdain seemed somewhat muted for a fellow horticulturalist.

“Yes…”

“If I were to cast a spell to speed the growth of your crops – indeed, to double them – would that be sufficient restitution for this pig you lost?”

“Hmm.” The trollblood bared his teeth.

“If anything, such a bounty favours the accuser,” Cephalus said. “To double his crops’ yield – surely this is worth more than a single pig?”

“Gullveig,” Mogthrasir said. “The lawspeaker is right. If restitution can be provided in the form of goods, then the blood-price would be paid.”

Gullveig grunted. “Very well,” he said, throwing his arms in the air. “If you can truly do as you say, I will acknowledge the price paid.”

The party lingered in the Blackhorn village the next day, Armand using plant growth to nurture Gullveig’s crops. Garvin, meanwhile, sought out the tribe’s shaman, Urdunn – an ancient woman whose grey-haired head bore still-magnificent horns. Her hut was filled with charms and amulets, fashioned from the skulls and bones of various animals. Garvin came to peruse her cures and potions, but upon seeing the charms, a thought struck him.

“I think this might be yours,” he said, taking out the bird skull amulet he’d taken from the keep of the Order of the Goat.

Urdunn examined it carefully. “Ah yes… this is indeed of Blackhorn make.”

“It must have been stolen from here. Please, keep it.”

“Thank you, human,” she said with a crooked grin.

Garvin spoke for some time with the shaman. He learned that the Hearg to the southwest was the Hearg of Fire, dedicated to Sinmara, the Troll Goddess of flame, queen of the fire giants.

After resting and recovering, the group resolved to assault this last Hearg, to at last end the fell winter that gripped Hex in its icy claws.

troll country 2

The journey south was less arduous than the trek north, though made slow by the fairy forest that now stretched across much of Troll Country. These woods now merged with those alpine forests around the Behemoth’s Skull, the massive, fossilized remnants of one of the primordial ancestors of all Giants. The group was accompanied by a band of Blackhorns and rescued thralls, led by the powerful Zhulaz.

The party approached by stealth, aided by spells. An illusory duplicate conjured by Sister drew the initial fire of the troll warriors guarding the cluster of shamans who worked their spell at the Hearg, channeling the spirits to form a column of fire. As Sister charged forward – still in a Troll’s body – to behead one of the enemy warriors with her claymore, Garvin darted from the shadows, poisoned bolts whizzing from his crossbow. The shamans snarled in rage and set a wave of flame towards the attackers, burning their skin. Zhulaz roared in righteous fury and charged alongside Sister, cuttinb down trollblood warriors left and right.

A fog cloud summoned by Armand gave the cadaverous sorcerer cover to slink into the Hearg and, cunningly, to steal the runic fire-stone allowing the shamans to channel the spirits of the Hearg. The column of fire dissipated in a puff of smoke. The party closed in, and now the shamans gave flight, Garvin shooting several down, Cephalus breaking bones along the east flank, snapping spines and sending teeth flying. Vanessa, still furious from the sight of the fallen Stormguardians, cast magic missiles from the sidelines – only to be charged by a fleeing trollblood and, in a flicker of iron, cut down, her blood staining the snow.

“No!” Sister shouted, barreling forw2ards. Cephalus dispatched the warrior who had felled Vanessa, even while Sister rushed to her side. Calling on the power of the Mother of Spiders she desperately tried to bind Vanessa’s wounds. For a moment it looked as if even this divine intervention would be insufficient – but then Vanessa breathed, blood trickling from her mouth, a faint flush of colour returning to cheeks which but moments before had been pale as death.

With another Hearg-rite ended, the Harrowgast was deprived of the warm front it needed to generate snow, and the winds it required to send the blizzard south.

It was done. The long winter, at last, was over.

“We have one more thing to do,” Caulis said, pointing north. While Vanessa was taken back to Hex via Portal Chalk, the homunculus led the rest of the party north. Untouched by the ravages of Hexian magic, the barrow-lands stretched in the shadow of a vast plateau to the north. Natural hills carved with burial tunnels and heaped mounds mingle amidst the sparse vegetation and occasion ruins, remnants of some ancient civilization of giants which once dwelt here, ancestors of the trolls who now dwell in this land. With fewer trees to break the wind, the cold was especially biting in this barren, eerie corner of Troll Country. But Caulis would soon remedy this lack of vegetation. Carefully, it placed the final acorn in the tough earth, and once again the ground shook, shoots bursting into the air, becoming saplings, then trees, then a vast forest. A virtually contiguous woodland now stretched across the western half of Troll Country. Titania had reclaimed another corner of her demesne.

Hex Session XVIII – 5th Edition Actual Play – “Harrowgast”

The characters in this session were:

  • Alabastor Quan, a gnome rogue-turned-illusionist and failed circus ringmaster; wielder of a cursed dagger and member of the Ravenswing Thieves’ Guild.
  • An ancient and enigmatic Lengian cleric of the Mother of Spiders, name unknown. She wears bulky ecclesiastical garments covering an uncertain number of limbs and goes by “Sister.”
  • 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.
  • 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: 900 XP

The party had returned to the city of Hex using the Portal Chalk, a group of rescued thralls in tow – spared from a short life of labour and misuse by the vicious Bonegrinders, a tribe of brutish trolls and rivals of the somewhat more reasonable (if, perhaps, no less ruthless) Goretooth trolls.

The motley group emerged into the Hive of the Thirteenth Queen; after some confusion and discussion with the waspkin hierophants, the group was given temporary shelter. Armand agreed to search for a more fitting habitation for the rescued thralls.

Before the pallid sorcerer ushered the group from the Hive, Garvin made sure to gather as much information as he could. He took aside one of the thralls, an aged woman, apparently human, who identified herself as Jenny, a borderlander who had been kidnapped by the Bonegrinders – or so they thought.

“Weren’t Bonegrinders took us,” Jenny told Garvin. “Skintakers – wrapped themselves in the hides of their foes. They took us, sold us to the Bonegrinders as thralls.”

“Hmm, I see,” Garvin mused. “How do you… living in the borderland, how do you feel about trollbloods?”

Jenny chuckled, and pushed some of her long, grey hair aside to reveal two small horns. “Why, I’ve got troll blood myself,” she said. “It’s not the blood that’s bad, it’s life out in Troll Country. Some of the troll tribes aren’t half bad, but others, well, they’re angry, and desperate.”

“Which tribes should we watch out for?”

“The Twocrowns are obsessed with purity. They kill or exile those with human bloods, and have a hierarchy based on the number of heads a troll possesses. I’d stay away from Ettin Island if I were you.” She pointed it out on the map.

“Then there are the Stoneclaws. Reclusive and unfriendly, but not raiders and slaughterers like the Twocrowns; they occasionally sail south to trade furs. There are few Blackhorns left; most of them died in the plague that created the Sickened Land. Those few that remain have warded their village against pestilence, but are always near starvation, as little game remains in their woods. The Skintakers fled west into the abandoned mine-tunnels beneath the mountains, after Hex burned their villages to the ground with acid storms.”

“How about the Goretooth tribe?”

“They’re the friendliest to Hex, certainly, but they can be ruthless as well.”

“So, do you happen to speak Giant?” he asked.

“A bit,” she says. “Learned from my grandmother.”

“Did you happen to overhear anything these Skintakers said?”

“Hmm. They kept mentioning something or someone called the Griefbringer – especially their leader. Jarna they called her, the Iron Witch. I’ll never forget her – even clad in stolen skins I could see the burn-scars beneath. I only saw her for a moment, but a terrible chill came over me when her eyes fell on me. A cold fury.” She shivered.

“Thank you,” Garvin said. “That was very helpful.”

Conferring with the others, he learned from Sister of the Griefbringer: one of the Troll Gods, She-Who-Brings-Sorrow, the Brood-Mother, and one of the eldest of the pantheon. It seemed she was a deity of vengeance and fecundity, creation and destruction all at once.

While the party rested, Caulis made its way back to its tower in the district of Caulchurch, hoping to consult some of its creator’s books in hopes of learning more about troll magic in hopes of gleaning some clue as to the cause of the fell winter gripping Hex in its icy grasp.

Caulchurch

Caulis began its researches by looking into the runic magic of the Trolls. It learned that certain runestones were arrayed by the Trolls into circles known as Heargs, reputedly consecrated to certain of the Troll Gods, and functioning as conduits, allowing Trolls to speak to their ancestors, for, as the homunculus learned Trolls believed that their dead did not pass to any afterlife but rather returned to the land, the elemental earth from which all Trolls were born. Even one with a drop of Troll blood in their veins would merge with the land upon death. It seemed that these runestone circles, when blessed with certain rites, permitted communication between living Trolls and the spirits of their dead.

Intrigued, Caulis prepared to read on, noting several rituals recorded in the text. As it stowed the book, it noticed something strange in its musty tower room. A small rose with vivid purple petals poked through a crack in  Caulis’ floorboards. Tied around its stem was a small note, upon which is written – in Sylvan – the words “WATER ME.”

With the deathly winter gripping Hex, the sight of a flower was, to be sure, strange – never mind the note. Perplexed but intrigued, Caulis fetched water for the plant and splashed a few drops atop it.

Moments later, the flower rapidly grew, blooming, sprouting, blossoming, budding, becoming a massive rose-bush arch. A wild but beautiful-looking garden could be glimpsed through the arch.

“A portal…” Caulis mused, and, intrigued more than alarmed, stepped through. It found itself in an eerie glade at twilight, though no sun was directly visible through the thick masses of thorny vines and tall oak trees that rose on all sides of the garden like walls. Flowers of a bewildering array of sizes, colours, and species filled the garden with a profusion of scents and hues. A placid pool scattered with water lilies lay at the centre, a boat tied up on the bank. In the centre of the pond, half-obscured by the mist and gloaming, Caulis could glimpse a small island with a gazebo. It sent Eleyin ahead, who reported that a figure could be seen in the gazebo.

More curious than cautious, Caulis got in the boat and paddled over to the island. Getting out, it approached the gazebo.

titania

The gazebo was fashioned of pale wood, but seemed to have actually been grown rather than built. Flowers and vines were intertwined in its trellises, forming a resplendent bower. Seated here, wearing a dress fashioned entirely from more flowers, was an ethereal woman of regal bearing; she is obviously of the Fair Folk, with slightly greenish skin and hair the colour of summer.

“Ah, you received our little note,” Titania said, looking Caulis up and down. “There is a matter we wish to discuss.”

“It is an honour, your grace!” Caulis exclaimed, awed before its patron. “Your garden is lovely.”

“We are, of course, aware of the perversion of the natural order currently visited upon the Inkstained City – the winter which grips the streets even as spring should be filling the air with the scent of flowers, with summer’s richness close behind. As the Monarch of All Growing Things, we are, as you might imagine, greatly concerned.”

“My companions and I have been trying to fix that,” Caulis said.

“We know.

We approve of your decision to seek out the source of the Fell Winter. We wish to aid you. The Giants have long been foes of the Seelie Court, and of fairy-kind in general, being, as a rule, of a brutish temperament, and much given to the trammeling of flowers and the destruction of fragile but beautiful things. In ages past, the great forest which the people of your world call the Tangle stretched through the vastness of Giant-Land. But the Giants came with cruel axes, and hewed down many trees, and drove the forest back; and then, in their warring with Hex, the wizards of that city smote the land further with caustic liquids and sicknesses, so that nothing could grow. Giant-Land, which was once a part of the fairy-realm, has become a cold, withered place, bleak and infertile. Only pockets of the once-great Forest remain. We would have you begin to remedy this state of affairs.”

She snapped her fingers, and a sprite – previously invisible – revealed itself. It held out in its hand three glimmering acorns. Caulis took them carefully.

“These acorns are both precious and powerful,” Titania said. “The are taken from only the most majestic of oaks in the Royal Forest at the heart of my realm in the innermost parts of Elfhame. Where such an acorn in planted, the earth itself will be transformed. Even if the soil be ere so vile, a great woodland shall burst forth, growing with tremendous speed. We would ask that you plant these acorns to re-grow the woodland that has been destroyed. The winter itself must, of course, still be ended, or even these hardy trees will die.

“But we have another gift for you, as well.” She smiled, and another sprite appeared, this one carrying a delicate glass phial. Caulis took this also. “This vessel contains one of the Anemoi, the spirit Favonius – an elemental of the West Wind, which tokens spring. If you release Favonius, he shall aid you in combating any creature of the North Wind. Choose your moment wisely, for he is fickle, and once freed, he shall not linger for long.”

“Thank you!” Caulis said, stowing both acorns and phial carefully. “I wonder… your grace, what do you know of the runestones that the trolls call ‘Heargs’?”

“Such places are in fact convergences of ley lines – natural concentrations of Faerie magic. Like the land itself, the Giants have stolen such power for themselves, exploiting the ley lines by erecting their crude monuments atop them.”

“I see…” Caulis said. “Could they be causing this winter?”

“They may be involved,” Titania said, a frown creasing her smooth brow. “Perhaps seeking out such places of power might be a good place to begin.”

“Thank you,” Caulis said. “I shall return to Hex now, and seek to restore the woodland in your name.”

Returning whence it had came, Caulis admired the flowers in the garden as it passed.

“Your grace… could I take one of these flowers?” Caulis asked. Instantly, one grew from the wood of the boat. The homunculus added the precious bloom to the other objects Titania had given it.

Some time later, after resting, the party reconvened at the portal. Caulis relayed what it knew of the Heargs, while keeping to itself its brief visit to Faerie – and the acorns given it. Once again, debate erupted over whether to slay the Bonegrinder chieftain Vornir, or whether to turn their investigations elsewhere – perhaps to another village, such as that of the Blackhorns, or the abandoned Skintaker settlement near the Caustic Wastes. Eventually, the party resolved to first investigate the nearest Hearg, reasoning that Gyrd would think their efforts to assassinate Vornir had simply failed. Thus decided, the party stepped back through the portal they had made, and into Troll Country, near the outskirts of the Bonegrinder village.

Troll Country

A chill blast met the party as they staggered out into the endless snow. They made their way west and south, heading towards the Bleakwater River. Several hours later, the party entered a small forest, heavy with snow. It was almost peaceful in beneath the boughs of the dour firs.

“The Skintaker village is nearby,” Sister said. “The one that got abandoned, after Hex conjured the acid storms here.”

They pressed on southwards, and, after another half hour’s hike, emerged from the forest.

Nearly subsumed by the surrounding woods, an overgrown village covered in snow lay in shambles before them, ruinous and desolate. The remains of a palisade had rotted down to a few lone timbers, while the huts had roofs long caved in and ruinous walls on the verge of collapsing. There seemed, however, to be little sign of actual violence – no smashed doors, no bullet-holes or arrow-shafts, no bones or burn-marks.

There were, however, statues. Dozens of them, clad now in snow: troll-shapes, adults and children both. All of them were running, fleeing from something unseen but obviously terrifying, faces frozen in expressions of stony horror.

“Gorgongas,” Garvin said. “I’ve seen this before. They must have bombed the village by dirigible, petrified everyone before they unleashed the acid storm.”

Vanessa Greyleaf, the Stormguard Evoker from the Citadel of the Perpetual Storm, was silent, but her expression was strained.

“It’s like a sick joke,” Alabastor said. “There’s a myth that trolls turn to stone in daylight… but they made it real.”

Yam said nothing, but they found the gnome later. The illusionist had found an old workshop where the troll villagers built boats, but had left it be. Instead of looting Yam packed snow into the acid-holes burned into the stony flesh of the petrified trolls – parents sheltering their children from the gas, and the advancing storm.

stone

Yam, packing snow into the acid-wounds of the petrified villagers. Illustration by Caulis’ player, Bronwyn McIvor.

Sobered by the sight of the decimated village, the party debated what to do next when Eleyin spotted a plume of smoke to the south.

“Looks like there was some sort of battle or something,” Caulis said, relaying its familiar’s report.

“Might as well investigate,” Garvin said.

They hastened south, towards the smoke. The trees thinned, replaced by stumps and leafless husks, and then the wasteland appeared before them – an etiolated expanse, pockmarked with craters. An image of burned skin springs to the mind, scalded and mutilated. The trees and the very earth were mottled with white, bleached and melted. They had come to the Caustic Wastes.

Alabastor blanched in disgust.

“I don’t believe Hex did this,” Vanessa finally sputtered, incredulous and appalled. “I mean, of course I’d heard the stories, back in the Citadel, but I never pictured devastation this… complete.”

They pressed on grimly, passing a great heap of acid-eaten troll-bones piled within a rough pit here – obviously a mass grave. A stone marker, also splashed with acid and with a single rune, served as a tombstone for the undifferentiated dead.

Eventually, they approached the source of the smoke. The ground was scorched, the trees blackened husks. Ash was strewn everywhere and the snow was streaked with old bloodstains, but there were other, less mundane signs of devastation, as well. In a nearby rock, a trollblood corpse was half-embedded in stone, hands protruding, still clutching a spear in a death-grip, her face twisted into an expression of surprise and agony. There was a small crater smouldering with an eldritch effulgence, remnant of some terrible spell.

Scattered about the battlefield were a dozen men and women in the purple and grey uniforms of the Stormguard, elite Evokers of the Citadel of the Perpetual Storm, as well as several Warders, Hex’s magical defenders. They were riddled with arrows and broken javelins, though some had been hacked to pieces by swords or axes. Several appeared to have had their skin removed.

“Gods above and below,” Vanessa swore, tears freezing on her cheeks. “The Stromguard expedition…”

“I’m guessing this is the work of the Skintakers,” Garvin said, gesturing to a flayed corpse.

A soft moan was audible amidst the carnage. Searching for it, the party found a gnome man, still alive, but skewered through the torso with a javelin, pinned to a dead tree, his long mustaches streaked with blood. A wand lay near his feet, abandoned. He seemed to be flickering in and out of consciousness.

“Phineas!” Vanessa yelled, bolting towards him. She fell to her knees, examining the wound. “Quick, Sister, come here! We can still save him!”

Sister hurried forwards, spells at the ready. While Alabastor carefully removed the javelin, Sister wove her spell, and blessed spiders sprung from her fingertips, rapidly stitching shut the suddenly-seeping wound with magical cobwebs, sealing it. Phineas coughed and groaned, eyes rolling.

“Water!” he croaked. Yam obliged.

“This is Sergeant Phineas Hookwood,” Vanessa explained. “Leader of this squad… and an old friend. Thank the Magistra we got here in time.”

The party introduced themselves and moved Phineas to the best shelter they could find – a low crag, dead trees drooping over it. Garvin made sure to retrieve the wand, and a scroll was found as well amidst the slaughter.

“What happened?” Caulis asked, after Phineas had recovered some modicum of his strength, his wounds continuing to heal. Vanessa stayed close, bending low over the aging wizard.

“Skintakers,” the old gnome said, still coughing. “They fell on us like wolves. Could be that scouts let them know our location, but I’d wager they knew we were coming, somehow.”

“Hmm…” Garvin said, rubbing his jaw.

“Did you see their leader?” Sister asked.

“Aye. I’ll never forget her face, or what was left of it. All scarred she was, like something burned her flesh. She wore a suit of human skins, all sewn together.”

“Jarna,” Alabastor said.

“What were you guys doing out here?” Yam asked.

“We were heading for one of those runestone circles – the one in Bleackwater Lake. Got ambushed on the way.”

“We were thinking of heading the same way,” Garvin said. “What do you think was happening there?”

“We got wind of some sort of ritual. Figured the trolls might be harnessing the runes’ power somehow.”

Vanessa looked around at the bodies of her fallen comrades. “That Portal Chalk you used before,” she said. “Can we use it again? I’d like to transport these bodies back to Hex, if we can, and get Phineas to safety.

Sister nodded, and the group went about transporting the charred remains of the Stormguard to Hex, along with Sergeant Phineas Hookwood. As they did so, something seethed across the landscape in the distance – a furiously writhing mass of greenish protoplasm which steamed and hissed as it slithered across the ground, leaving a burnt furrow in the earth.  Although amorphous and oozing, the thing had a worm-like, serpentine form and sprouts a mass of tendrils from its bulk to pull itself up crags. As they watched, it plowed into a small sapling, a single blotch of green protruding from the scabrous earth. Instantly the tree is dissolved, digested by the entity’s churning innards. Yam used an illusion to distract the elemental and the group gave it the slip, heading for a small pool – now turned entirely to acid – to regroup.

As the party discussed their plans, Caulis slipped away. The sight of so much devastation had pained it greatly. Carefully, it removed one of the Royal Acorns from its pouch, and buried it carefully in the ground, adding a drizzle of water from its water skin.

At first, nothing.

Then the ground began to quake. Several party-members were thrown off their feet as a great tremor wracked Troll County, the ground beneath their feet quickening.

Up from below, spreading outwards from the acorn, came green shoots, rapidly growing into shrubs and saplings, and then, with a great tearing, yawning, stretching sound, shooting upwards, the saplings became at first young trees, then sturdier ones. In moments, the party stood amidst a forest of towering, ancient oaks, bushes and ferns and tangled banks of vegetation thriving round their trunks. The acid water had turned pure, and as they watched the scarred, pockmarked earth healed before their eyes.

There were chirrups and chitters; there were beasts and birds in the trees, and the distant whisper of Sylvan voices.

fairy tree

“What was that?” Alabastor said, marveling.

“I did this,” Caulis said. “It’s, ah… something I can do now.”

“How?!” Garvin asked, incredulous. Sister also looked at Caulis wonderingly, knowing this to be magic far more powerful than the homunculus could normally accomplish.

“It’s a, ah, power my patron gave me recently,” Caulis said, neither lying nor telling the whole truth.

“It’s actually warmer,” Vanessa noted. “How far does this forest extend?”

“I’ll check!” Yam declared, and began rapidly climbing one of the trees. Yam reached the top and surveyed the land. A vast, green forest now stretched across what used to be the Caustic Wastes. Yam could distantly see the acid elemental still thrashing through the woods, but otherwise the forest seemed undisturbed. The Bleakwater looked to be thawing where it touched the wood, as if the forest brought with it some hint of spring.

“It’s huge,” the gnome reported, sketching the forest’s rough boundaries on the group’s map.

“This should give us cover if we want to approach a Hearg,” Garvin said. “Come on, there’s not too much daylight left.”

With that, the party made their way back through what was now forest, towards the abandoned Skintaker village – itself now overgrown with plant-life. Taking boats from the boathouse Yam had discovered, they set out across the Bleakwater and rowed to the island on which the Hearg was located.

The island was eerily quiet. The group disembarked carefully and made their way up the slopes of a small hill, towards the runestone circle.

As they drew closer, they saw that the ground was scorched in numerous places, and that several trees near the circle had been reduced to blackened husks; another battle had taken place here. Strewn stone across the hillside and in-between the blood-spattered, rune-graven stones were corpses – those of trollspawn, their limbs scarred with intricate glyphs, their bodies riddled with arrows and hurled spears. Many wore armour formed from tanned humanoid skins.

Closer inspection revealed that several of the bodies appeared to have been poisoned, eyes bulging from their heads, faces blackened, wounds stained, swollen tongues protruding from their mouths. There were signs that some bodies had been moved.

At the centre of the runic circle, a heap of additional bodies was found. Unlike the corpses littering the slopes, these bodies looked to have been very precisely executed, their throats cut, and the blood then smeared on the runestones in a ritualistic fashion. These bodies were all of near-human trollbloods – men and women with blood so diluted they might pass as human were it not for the odd horn, yellow eyes, or slightly chalky greyish-green skin.

“Another battle… but not with the Stromguard,” Garvin noted.

“Looks like troll weapons,” Alabastor observed. “Trolls fighting trolls?”

“These marks are dedicated to the troll thunder-god, Rann,” Sister said, examining the blood-smeared marks. “There’s power in them, that’s for sure.” She also noted a smaller stone – an orb, set with a single mark. She took this carefully.

“I think I can use the runestones to communicate with the spirits here,” Caulis said, taking out the book it had found in its creator’s library. “Does that sound like a good idea?”

“Might tell us more…” Yam said, shrugging and shivering in the cold.

Caulis prepared the rites, reading from the book. It seemed there was enough residual energy left from the blood spilled on the hilltop that an additional sacrifice proved unnecessary.

The sky rumbled and seemed to darken, clouds gathering overhead. The shadows cast by the runestones deepened, and suddenly figures were evident within them. They stepped forwards, into the Hearg. They were troll-shaped, but obviously mutilated, their skin scarred with acid, horribly burned. Some, however, were obviously fallen in battle – indeed, they matched the bodies strewn across the slopes.

“Who disturbs our rest?” the shades demanded. There were hundreds of them now, perhaps thousands, gathered on the island about the Hearg, watching. Vanessa translated their spectral, Giant speech.

“We’re trying to heal this land,” Caulis said, boldly. “Who are you? What is happening here?”

“We are the spirits of the slain,” the shades answered. “We thrist for vengeance. The blood-price must be paid.”

“Blood price?” Sister asked.

“The foul magicians of Hex destroyed us, slew us with acid and with sickness, with spells of wicked power. They drove us from our lands, stained the land with the blood of our children. We will have vengeance for this atrocity!”

“Vengeance… are you responsible for the storm?” Garvin asked. “The winter?”

“Yes! We yearn to rejoin the Harrowgast!” the spirits proclaimed. “The Reckoning of Hex! Free us! Let us join our brethren and rain down our fury upon the troll-killers!”

“Harrowgast?”

“A great storm, formed from the souls of the dead, bound to this land.”

“That’s it!” Sister said. “The Skintakers have been using sacrifices to power these heargs, channeling the dead, making them into the storm.”

“That’s why it’s impossible to fight,” Vanessa nodded. “It’s intelligent – it’s controlled by the souls of thousands of trolls.”

“But, but look…” Caulis said, gesturing to the green forest on the eastern banks of the lake. “The land is healed! We have come to return it to health. Will this not suffice? Is this not a better way?”

The troll shades turned, looking towards the forest, suddenly silent. Then, one of them, the shade of a young troll, shouted.

“Look!” she said, holding up one ghostly, acid-burned limb. “The land! It’s healed!” As they watched, the burns and scars covering her body began to mend, healing, scabbing over, then disappearing entirely. She was whole once more.

“What magic is this?” another of the troll-shades exclaimed, as he too began to heal. Suddenly dozens, hundreds of the gathered began murmuring in joy and wonder as their wounds healed.

“They were bound to the earth after death!” Sister said. “So when you fixed the earth, Caulis…”

“I fixed them too.”

Several of the spirits, however, were not restored: those slain in battle at the Hearg, the shades of Skintakers recently killed.

“This is no recompense!” one of them screamed. “The blood price has not been paid! Only blood will answer blood!”

“Why?” Alabastor said, Vanessa translating. “That will only lead to more violence.” He looked to Casulis. “Could you… do that again? Grow another forest, I mean?”

“Yes, twice more,” Caulis said, still evasive.

“We can cure the land,” Alabastor said. “Heal it. Isn’t that paying a price? Your winter will destroy the forest we just grew!”

“He is right,” another shade said, this one healed. “The Harrowgast must cease, or this will be undone, and our suffering will resume!”

The Skintaker leader who had spoken before snarled and snatched a spectral axe from his belt. The other shade grabbed a spear. The troll-shades gathered round to watch the duel, the party observing in quiet awe at this strange, ghostly battle, shouting encouragements to the healed ghost. The battle was quick and brutal, the two shades circling one another, the axe-thrower hacking madly, only to be skewered by his opponent’s spear.

“It’s is done,” the spear-wielding troll-shade declared. “We are joined with your cause. The blood price is paid. The Harrowgast must disband.”

“So, is that it?” Yam asked.

“No. There are other heargs,” the troll-shade said. “We merely supplied the Harrowgast with thunder. The others supply other elements: fire, water, wind, lightning, frost. But it requires these elements in combination to function.”

“Elemental orgy,” Yam whispered.

“If you were to stop the rituals at two of the other Heargs, the Harrowgast would dissipate.”

“That sounds like our best chance of stopping this,” Alabastor said. “Look, on the map – there;s another Hearg not far from here. We should hurry there, before nightfall, and see if we can put a stop to one of these rituals.”

The party agreed, and, releasing the troll-shades from the ritual, set off to the west. A short distance from the next Hearg, this one atop a small hill surrounded by deadened trees, Garvin called a halt.

“I have an idea for reconnaissance,” he said, eyeing a nearby raven. He brought forth the small bird-skull talisman he’d found at the keep of the Order of the Goat, allowing him to speak with birds.

“You there,” he said to the raven. “Can you do us a favour?”

“Hmm? You can talk to birds?” the raven said. “Well, what’s in it for me?” Garvin relayed its request.

“How about some griffin lard?” Sister said, taking some from her pack.

“Mmmm!” the raven fluttered excitedly. “Alright, what’s the favour?”

“We need you to fly up high and check out the hill with the weird rocks on it, tell us how many trolls are there, if you can.”

“Trolls?”

“Yeah, you know, trolls? You live in Troll Country.”

“That’s not what we call it. This is Raven-Land. All you groundwalkers look the same to me.”

“Okay. Well, tell us how many groundwalkers there are, okay?”

The raven flapped its wings. “Sounds fair. For the rest of that griffin lard.” Garvin translated.

Sister shrugged. “Fine.”

“You got a name?” Garvin asked.

“Mugi,” the raven replied, taking to the air. “Back in a minute!”

The party waited, shivering in the cold.

“Stupid thing’s not coming back,” Vanessa muttered, but then Mugi reappeared.

“Okay, where’s my snack?” it demanded. Sister surrendered the griffin lard. After it had eaten its fill, Mugi described the situation. There were two “big groundwalkers” – presumably full-blooded trolls – and seven “small groundwalkers,” presumably trollbloods. It also described a great column of air – the Hearg must be generating wind for the Harrowgast. But another group of six were headed north from the mountains to the south, with what sounded like a group of slaves in tow.

“Probably sacrifices,” Alabastor reasoned.

“We could set an ambush,” Garvin suggested. “Lie in wait, spring the trap, then take those at the Hearg later.”

So agreed, the party took up position on the route to the Hearg, concealing themselves with magic.

“I’ve got an idea,” Sister said, and had her companions tie her to a tree, while she readied a cylinder of iridescent metal – an object taken from the Librarian Asylum beneath Mainspring, later identified as a Rod of Mind-Swap.

They lay in wait, till a group of five trollbloods and a single towering full-blooded troll lumbered into view, escorting a line of thralls bound together with rope – many of them trollbloods themselves, several prominently horned. All of the armed trollbloods wore the gruesome leather armour of the Skintakers.

Uttering an Aklo incantation, Sister activated the Rod of Mind-Swap, hitting the lead troll. He blinked, confused, as Sister’s consciousness entered his brain, while his own was plucked from his skull and sent to Sister’s brain. Tied up, Sister’s body struggled weakly against the bonds securing it to a tree.

Sister, meanwhile, now controlling the body of the troll, smiled grimly and hefted the creature’s huge sword.

troll

Mind-Swapped Troll. Illustration by Caulis’ player, Bronwyn McIvor.

The battle was brief and bloody. Spells flared from either side of the path as Yam, Alabastor, Caulis, and Vanessa sprung the trap. One trollblood was knocked backwards into the line of thralls, who grappled him viciously, one seizing his head and twisting it with a brutal wrenching motion, snapping his neck. Garvin shot with his crossbow, killing another, while Sister – in control of the full troll – split a troll down the middle with her gigantic sword, leaving his remains steaming on the snow.

The thralls were freed, several agreeing to join the party in their assault on the Hearg. These included a powerfully muscled Twocrown troll from Ettin Island, who had broken his captor’s neck. Before heading north, Yam took one of the plums picked from Faerie and fed it to the troll inhabiting Sister’s body. Instantly, the troll became enchanted, falling desperately in love with Yam. It would now be obedient, pliable.

Sister went on ahead, still inhabiting the troll body. She approached the Hearg; trollbloods and two hulking trolls stood guard, while a group of shamans in the middle of the runestone circle conducted a ritual, sending troll-shades streaming skywards in a swirling column of gale-force wind. The runes must be dedicated to the Troll God of wind, Hraesvelgr, the Corpse-Swallower. Dead bodies were piled nearby – sacrifices, their throats cut.

“Where’re the thralls?” one of the tattooed shamans demanded. “We need more blood to continue conjuring the Harrowgast.” Sister realized she could speak Giant in this form.

“There’s been some trouble,” she lied. “A few of the thralls escaped. Come, we require assistance.”

Seeing no reason to doubt their comrade, two warriors and one of the trolls returned with Sister, only to fall into another ambush. Spells and crossbow quarrels made short work of them, Sister cleaving the head off the other troll, to his surprise. She took his sword, carrying now one in each hand.

The party now prepared for a final assault on the Hearg. As they approached, the column of wind, like a miniature tornado, dwindled to a weak breeze; the shamans had run out of sacrifices. Sister approached once more, claiming to need more warriors, but the trolls were now suspicious. Seeing that the jig was up, Sister charged the remaining full-blooded troll, swinging both swords and carving huge chunks of flesh from his body. He screamed, even as a cloud of conjured daggers and a swarm of magic missiles fell upon the remaining warriors. The shamans tried to conjure a gust of wind to protect themselves against missile weapons, but a shatter spell cracked the runestones and broke their concentration. The remaining Skintaker warriors fled, but were cut down by the fearsome Sister.

The ritual had been halted. If the party could stop a second rite from occurring, the fell winter of Hex would come to an end.

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