BEARDED DEVIL

Monsters, Horror, Gaming

Tag: Hex (Page 1 of 3)

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 display the most precious objects they ever stole – fabulously rare paintings cover almost every inch of the walls, and plinths display everything from precious jewels to spellbooks.

Doors lad 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: n 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 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.

Hex Session XVII – 5th Edition Actual Play – “Troll Country”

The characters in this session were:

  • Alabastor Quan, a gnome rogue-turned-illusionist and failed circus ringmaster; wielder of a cursed dagger and member of the Ravenswing Thieves’ Guild.
  • Armand Percival Reginald Francois Eustace de la Marche III, a suspiciously pale, apparently human noble and sorcerer, and certainly not a ghoul (how dare such a thing be suggested).
  • Caulis, a homunculus warlock liberated from its master; has made a pact with certain Faerie Powers.
  • Garvin Otherwise, a human rogue and burglar of the Ravenswing Thieves’ Guild, with a very, very peculiar past and a zoog pet, Lenore.
  • Yam, an eccentric gnome illusionist and local graduate student at Umbral University. Yam cares little for money. Yam is curious. Yam is Yam.

XP Awarded: 400 XP

The long winter of Hex showed no sign of letting up. Spring was now long overdue, and as the days and weeks passed, things were looking increasingly dire. The river remained frozen, crippling the city’s port and thus stunting vital trade. Consequently, businesses were struggling. Farmers outside the city were growing increasingly concerned as their fields remain buried by snow. The dagonians had gone into a torpor, most sleeping from fourteen to twenty hours a day, a handful slipping into states of near-hibernation. The waspkin stayed in their hives, shutting down most of the city’s messenger services. Fungoids had disappeared from the streets, fled underground to avoid the cruel frosts. Only the city’s trollbloods seemed to be enjoying the bracing weather, holding raucous celebrations in Goatsbridge and Trollhome, the rickety shanty-town on the south shores of Hex which extends beneath the bridge.

Newspapers and rumours were full of ominous suggestions. If the winter did not end soon, many worried that the reserves of food would eventually be depleted and famine could result. The threat of starvation was worrisome enough, but the merchant class had a more abstract but no less serious fear – the economic damage being inflicted by the lingering winter had gone from irksome to potentially catastrophic. Fortunes were in danger of disappearing, with losses in the millions of guineas, if not more.

Meanwhile, however, the party were busy deciding what to do with the newly recovered Book of Dreams. Debates raged – should they give the Oneironomicon directly to Melchior? Could they conceal their activities from the Velvet Shadow? Could they stow the tome at the shrine of the Thirteenth Queen?

Bird and KeyEventually, a compromise was reached, and the party decided to place the precious grimoire in a safety deposit box at the Bird & Key City Bank, Hex’s most secure financial institution, where it would be magically warded with various non-detection spells and magical traps. Though expensive, this would keep some would-be thief from divining the book’s location. For added precaution the group required several passwords from at least three of their number to be stated as part of the access conditions for the box, and even disguised the book itself with an illusion just to be safe, making it appear quite mundane to the casual reader. These measures taken, the adventurers considered their next move. Cephalus, unfortunately, was now in a state of extreme torpor, and it was becoming increasingly obvious that something needed to be done concerning the terrible winter. Wondering what was being done on the part of Hex’s authorities to remedy this calamity, the party resolved to visit Master Melchior – although, they agreed, they would not tell him that they had recovered the second of the Greater Mysteries. Not yet.

Meanwhile, Garvin had once again visited the Hive of the Thirteenth Queen. Here he scrawled a portal using the Portal Chalk, establishing a more secure point of return from wherever the party ventured next.

Several members of the expedition that retrieved the Book of Dreams met at the Green Star to decide their next move. Yam had a particular favour to ask of the group, but another situation seemed more dire: the winter itself. Emboldened by their success with the Oneironomicon, the group wondered whether they might investigate the seemingly preternatural winter.

“Cephalus is half-asleep these days,” Alabastor pointed out.

“And this winter is unnatural,” Caulis said with distaste. “I’m supposed to be growing new leaves this time of year, but look at me.” The homunculus gestured to its barren limbs.

“Yes, I’m even beginning to worry for some of the specimens in my greenhouse,” Armand said, having completed several additional experiments involving his window of metamorphoses and certain botanical cuttings taken from the Nightmare Tunnels and elsewhere. “The conditions are such that they can survive for some time without the benefit of summer sun, but eventually even the most hardy plants will die if this winter continues.”

“The Evokers at the Citadel of the Perpetual Storm probably know what’s happening,” Caulis pointed out. “Perhaps we should try there.”

“Could be. Do you think we should talk to the trollbloods in Trollhome?” Alabastor said. “They seem to be the only ones happy with this situation.”

“I also wonder about the other reality we saw,” Armand said. “The vampires of Erubescence… could this be their work?”

“Perhaps we should go to Master Melchior,” Garvin suggested. “He’s supposed to be this powerufl archwizard, he must have some ideas. And maybe he can give us an ‘in’ with the Evokers.”

“That’s a good idea,” Yam said. “My problem is… well, it’s stable. If everyone in Hex dies because it’s too cold, it won’t matter anyway.”

So resolved, the party returned to the School of Thaumaturgy & Enchantment, passing through the griffin-guarded gates, Garvin noting that his waspkin friend at the university seemed healthy enough despite the ravages of cold. Once in Melchior’s study they found the brain without its usual illusion, but after making themselves known, Melchior conjured his phantasmal semblance.

“How goes the hunt for the book?” he asked eagerly.

“Very well,” Armand said smoothly – and not untruthfully. “But we have run into something of a snag. One of our party members, Cephalus, is much-afflicted by the cold. You must have noticed the winter outside?”

“Yes, most unfortunate,” Melchior said, waving an illusory hand at the window. He seemed a bit detached from the harrowing weather beyond his walls. “I’m sure Octavia and her weather-witches will have it sorted soon enough.”

“We’re worried it might be more than a spot of bad weather,” Garvin said. He and Armand explained about the vampire-ruled version of Hex they had discovered during their expedition into the Nightmare Tunnels, glossing over some of the details of the Portal Chalk. This news seemed to startle Melchior from his lassitude.

“This is most disturbing,” the archmage said. “Yes, you’d best talk to Octavia Greyleaf at once. I’ll write you a letter of introduction to let her know you can be trusted.” He took quill and ink and scribbled a hasty note – all magically of course, the feather floating in mid-air – then sealed it with his personal sigil. “You’ll find her in the Weatherspire at the Citadel. I’m afraid I don’t have any further insights myself, but Octavia will know what’s going on.”

As they left the school and headed for Downpour Heights, the party discussed Melchior’s seeming detachment.

“This is what worries me,” Alabastor said. “He seems so… withdrawn from daily goings-on in Hex.”

“This is precisely why well be essential when he does publish his New Organon,” Armand noted.

Downpour Heights

Setting out east, the party made their way from the Dreamer’s Quarter to Downpour Heights. As they passed through the wards that surrounded the district, the light and sound cordoned off within the district suddenly assailed them, as they were plunged into torrential rains which, in the city’s current winter state, were mixed with hail, freezing rain, and flurries of snow. Thunder rumbled round their ears and flashes of lightning seared their retinas as they entered the gloomy industrial district.

The place was dominated by the Fulgoria, or Lightning-Harvesters, which absorbed the electricity generated in the magically generated stormclouds and stored it in arcane batteries. Windmills and water reservoirs also dominated the district, along with associated machines, many of them gnome-built. The streets themselves, however, were quite uncrowded – a handful of individuals passing through the district could be seen, along with a few technicians and others employed at the generators.

The Citadel of the Perpetual Storm hovered over Hex like some small but ever-present moon, perfectly still, swathed in clouds heavy with rain, illuminated by flashes of lightning. While a handful of flying craft carefully warded against the storm came and went from the floating Citadel, the chief means of access was a single, rather precarious-looking cable car which extends from the street up to a tiny entrance near the bottom of the chunk of floating rock on which the Citadel is built.

The Citadel, of course, was the university of evocation. In centuries past this branch of magic was most associated with warfare – fireballs and lightning bolts and the like – and this military aspect had never been fully expunged, as evinced by the dour stone keep that dominated the flying castle. These days, however, the elementalists and weather-witches trained at the Citadel had a different focus: namely, energy production. Creating winds, water, fire, and lightning and then using these elements as power sources has helped to catapult Hex’s industrial ambitions, transforming it from a small university town into an economic powerhouse and a marvel of engineering. In addition, the faculty at the Citadel managed the weather around Hex to ensure bountiful harvests. Clearly, something had gone rather terribly wrong…

The normally near-deserted streets grew suddenly crowded as the party approached the cable car station. A sizable mob of people had gathered about the small station. Enraged, the crowd seethed, besetting a hapless pair of Evokers – uniformed in the livery of the Stormguard – blocking the entrance to the station, along with a handful of Warders, the city’s elite arcane police.

“They’re responsible for this! They’re experimenting on us, like rats in one of their labs!” one of the mob cried out, raising a cudgel. Rain and wet snow pattered off the assembled dissidents, some shielded by umbrellas, most drenched to the skin. “We need to go up there and make them stop! They’re killing us!”

“I assure you, we’re doing everything we can to change the weather back to normal!” one of the Citadel wizards insisted. “If it weren’t for us you’d all be buried in ten feet of snow!”

“Liars!” a woman shouted, and someone else hurled a rock. Several Warders growled an incantation and the stone-thrower was paralyzed, chains of magical force wrapping themselves round their limbs. Another Warder conjured a ball of swirling vapour, holding the spell ready to cast.

“The tram up to the Citadel is currently closed,” the Warder stated, teargas-ball at the ready – a fresh-faced but tough-looking man with gleaming spectacles. “Please disperse.”

The crowd roared in agitation.

“We need to get through somehow,” Alabastor said, thinking.

“I’ve got an idea,” Yam said. “Get ready to move.”

“Wait, what?” Garvin said, but it was too late – Yam had conjured a flash of illusory lightning, followed by a cantrip to add a thunderclap a moment later. The crowd shrieked and dispersed madly, shoving and tripping; the party hurried forwards. Armand was seized – his finery, perhaps inciting the ire or greed of the distinctly working-class crowd – but Garvin, having hastily conjured shadows to pass through the crowd without trace, grabbed the sorcerer and pulled him through the crowd to the station.

“Our thanks,” one of the Stormguard said. “That was a sticky situation.”

“We’ll overlook the improper use of magic to start a panic,” the bespectacled Warder said. “Now, what do you want?”

“We’re here to see Octavia Greyleaf,” Armand said, presenting Melchior’s letter. The guards, seeing the seal, relaxed.

“Very well. You can go on up,” one of the Stormguard affirmed. “Inside, take the elevator up and head right for the Weatherspire.”

The group gave their thanks and hurried inside the damp cable car station, packing into the warded car. One of the Evokers pulled a switch, and the car began to move.

The rickety cable car slowly made its way up towards the Citadel of the Perpetual Storm, the lightning playing about the flying castle growing louder and brighter as it ascended, the car’s tinted windows shielding the party from the worst of its flash. As the car got higher and higher a view of the city spreads out below. Snow-covered rooftops extended in every direction, while the ice on the Radula river glistened coldly. Smoke rose from thousands of chimneys as the inhabitants of the city burned through vast quantities of wood and gas to keep themselves warm.

The cable car was swallowed by the floating rock on which the Citadel of the Perpetual Storm was built, and came to a stop in a large room carved out of stone. A short walkway led from the car to a platform with an elevator beyond. Guarding the lift wee two mechanical automata that seem to be possessed by elemental spirits – one seethed with steam and fire, its furnace glowing orange, while the other crackled with electricity, a generator humming and sparking. Both had the appearance of ornate suits of armour and carry massive swords.

“State your identity and the purpose of your visit to the Citadel of the Perpetual Storm,” the guardians intoned.

Elementals

Elemental Guardians, as illustrated by Bronwyn McIvor (Caulis’ player).

“We’re here to see Octavia Greyleaf on behalf of Master Melchior,” Armand repeated, again presenting the invitation. The guardians scanned the sigil, then assented. The group hurried into the lift and took the elevator up through several levels, arriving in the bailey of the Citadel. From here they made their way to the Weatherspire, a tower fashioned from a glittering fulgurite, a massive tube of glass formed from where a lightning-strike hit the earth. The gleaming crystalline mass had been carved with windows, doors, and balconies, reinforced with metal. Within, a spiralling stair led up to an observation platform where a number of exhausted-looking wizards and other spellcasters were casting a steady stream of spells into the surrounding clouds, apparently attempting to change the weather from its wintry conditions.

They found Octavia Greylead, the leader of the weather-witches at the very top of the Weatherspire in a large chamber in which an illusory map of Hex and the surrounding countryside has been conjured, complete with weather-patterns. The map seemed to update itself in real time, and was being projected by some sort of gleaming iridescent device that looks to be of Librarian origins.

The woman studying the swirling mass of clouds intently looked basically human, but her eyes shifted slightly in colour every few moments, and her slightly pointed ears marked her as a changeling. Her hair was bright silver, gathered back in a tight bun. She looked vexed.

“Who are you?” she asked warily.

“We’re here to help!” Yam proclaimed.

“Help with what?”

“The winter.”

“What? You’re here to help with the winter? What are you talking about?”

“We’re here on the recommendation of Master Melchior,” Armand said, handing Octavia the letter. She opened it and scanned it with her ever-shifting eyes, ringed with dark circles.

“Well, Melchior seems to think you’re capable enough,” she said. “I suppose we can use all the help we can get, at this point.”

The party introduced themselves properly, identifying some of their affiliations, such as Umbral University.

“Can you tell us anything about the storm?” Garvin asked. “You seem to be trying to control it.”

“Trying. And failing. The cold weather isn’t just persistent,” Octavia said. “It’s magical – and, I’ve come to believe, sentient.” Beneath her grim assessment, she almost sounded a bit giddy, excited to be explaining this strange theory. “If this weren’t so potentially cataclysmic this would all be… fascinating. It’s been clear for some time that the weather won’t just dissipate, that something out there is generating these strange weather patterns. But it’s more than that. Every time we strike back, every time we try to engineer some counter-effect – to shift the winds, to warm the air, or cool it – the weather responds, reacts in ways that shouldn’t be possible. It moves around us, avoids our every attempt to make it stop. This” – she gestures to the snow-covered vision of the city – “This is the best we can do. A stalemate. An unstable equilibrium. We’re desperately countering every move this thing is making. But it’s getting wilier. It’s adapting, I swear, learning our techniques, compensating, faster than we can stop it. It’s not just that the winter isn’t ending. Soon it’s going to get worse. A lot worse.

“It’s also clear that this long winter is purely a local phenomena. Nornhold, Tetractys, Erubesence, Verdigris – they’ve all had mild, short winters. It’s only here that it’s sticking around.”

“What could be causing this?” Alabastor asked.

“I have… well, I have a theory,” she said. “I think it’s an elemental; in fact, several elementals, somehow fused into a single gigantic being, a sort of gestalt. Air, obviously, is the main component, but there’s water as well, and even fire, to create the warm fronts needed to help generate so much snow. The resulting spirit is massive, distributed, and infinitely cunning. And it’s only getting stronger. If I’m right, we can’t wait this winter out, and we can’t rely on our normal means of changing the weather. If this winter is alive… we need to kill it.”

“Where exactly is this coming from?” Caulis asked.

“The storm is blowing in from the north,” Octavia says. She twitched her fingers and the illusion shifts, moving northwards to display a rugged country of dense woods, crags, hills, and sharp peaks. “Troll Country.”

Troll Country

Alabastor’s eyes narrowed. Like most gnomes, he had grown up with many stories of trolls and their depredations, for trolls and gnomes have an ancient hatred, the former often hunting and enslaving the latter. He knew them as they had appeared in his parents’ stories: as gigantic brutes, flesh-eaters, cruel and stupid. He had met trollbloods in Hex, of course, but had always avoided them.

“Monsters,” Alabastor muttered.

Caulis, as a scholar, knew more of the trolls and their history with Hex. Hundreds of troll tribes dwelt in this harsh, unforgiving lands north of Hex, some of them having interbred with the local hillfolk. While in past centuries troll raids were a severe threat to Hex and made trade through this region difficult, Hex’s growing magical might eventually drove the trolls back into the depths of this land, sending many fleeing into the caves that riddle the area and wind down towards the Sunless Realms below. Some of the friendlier troll tribes, such as the Goretooth Tribe, had even become allies of Hex, albeit tentative ones, rewarded for their support of Hexian interests with goods and favourable trading agreements; others had been appeased with treaties, offering the trolls token sovereignty and safety in exchange for their non-aggression. Caulis knew also of the terrible magical weapons Hex had used in its subjugation of the troll-tribes – acid rains, gorgongas, eldritch contagions, madness-inducing mists, conjured volcanoes, and other arcane cataclysms. Such weapons had left Troll Country scarred and, in places, near-uninhabitable.

“You said it’s an elemental… or a bunch of elementals,” Yam said. “Like some sort of elemental orgy?”

“Well, I suppose…” Octavia said.

“How could this sort of elemental spirit be created?” Garvin asked.

“There are two types of elementals,” Octavia said, assuming the tone of a lecturer. “Feral, and conjured. If this is a feral elemental – or a group of elementals that have somehow intermingled – then it’s totally unprecedented in size and power. Feral elementals form when some ambient magical energy causes inanimate matter to self-organize, become intelligent. Alive. For a feral elemental of this size to form, there’d have to be some absolutely massive source of ambient magical energy. I don’t know what could be generating that kind of power, but it should be pretty damn obvious. Like… a down Librarian spacecraft or something.”

Yam’s eyes widened. The others exchanged looks, several thinking of the Book of Stars.

“On the other hand, there are conjured elementals – elementals that someone, a spellcaster, has brought intentionally into being. If that’s the case, the caster might be able to dismiss the elemental – or, if they were killed, its possible the entity would disperse. But such an individual would have to be immensely powerful.”

“So, have you sent anyone to look into this?” Armand asked.

“We sent a team of Stormguard and Warders north several days ago, but lost contact with them after they passed north of Wilderwatch and into Troll Country proper. We don’t know what happened to them. If you can find out, the Citadel would be grateful.”

“If we follow them, where should we head first?” Garvin asked.

“I’d head to the Goretooth village,” Octavia said, pointing on the illusory map. “The chieftain there, Gyrd, is reasonable enough, and friendly to Hex.”

“We’ll need an interpreter,” Caulis pointed out. “None of us speak Giant. Is there anyone here that could help?”

Octavia hesitated. “Well.” She swallowed. “There aren’t many here who’ve studied the tongue… except, well, my daughter. Vanessa. She’s an officer and new graduate of the Citadel. But she’s young, and a little brash.”

“We need someone to translate,” Armand said. “We’re capable.”

“Alright, alright. She can go with you, but take her no further than the Goretooth village. At least she can provide some supervision here.”

“Alright,” Alabastor said. “We’ll also need transportation. I saw some dirigibles…”

“Well, now that you seem to have become an official search party, we can help you in that regard. An airship, the Fuschia, is heading to Wilderwatch later today anyway; you can catch a ride. Until the blizzard abates, getting any further north is too dangerous by air.”

“Where can we find Vanessa?” Armand asked.

“She’s down on the observation platform,” Octavia said, her voice somewhat strained, but resolute. “Do you need any other equipment?”

“Healing potions and cold weather gear could be useful,” Garvin said.

“We can provide you with both. I’ll have them loaded onto the Fuschia.”

Vanessa

Vanessa Greylead, as illustrated by Bronwyn McIvor (Caulis’ player).

The party next headed down to the observation platform. Here they found Vanessa Greyleaf, amidst the group of weather-witches casting spells into the storm.

“Vanessa?” Armand asked.

The woman turned, revealing an eyepatch over her left eye. Her right eye shifted in colour, like her mother’s.

“That’s me,” she said.

“We’re heading into Troll Country,” Caulis said. “Your mother told us you could act as our translator.”

She wiped sweat from her brow. “Finally, some people ready to do something about this. I’m in.”

After equipping themselves with cold weather gear and healing potions from the Citadel’s stores, the party boarded the Fuschia, a dirigible warded against the Perpetual Storm. The captain, a jaunty gnome, introduced himself as Jeremiah Catseye.

“Any advice for travelers heading into Troll Country?” Yam asked.The Fuschia

The Fuschia, as illustrated by Bronwyn McIvor (Caulis’ player).

“Hmm. Stay outta the Dreadmists,” the gnome replied. “Turn your brain ta mush. Muddles everything up till ya can’t tell what’s real from what’s not.”

Having boarded the airship, the group steeled themselves for the journey north, the Fuschia taking to the sky and departing the Citadel. The land below was domesticated – rich farmland, although currently covered in snow and frost. The Tangle brooded darkly to the west, a constant, eerie presence. Several villages lay along the road north; these include the settlements of Thistle, Gnomesbridge, Greensworth, and Highstone. After several hours of flight, the dirigible put down in Wilderwatch. The snowy little village lay on the very edge of Troll Country. Protected by a once-study stone wall, now fallen into disrepair, the settlement was tiny – a few houses, a smithy, a brewery, and an inn were its most notable structures, apart from the imposing bulk of the Fortress of the Order of the Goat, stronghold of the knightly order once charged with protecting Hex and its citizens from the “savages” to the north.

After disembarking from the airship, the party headed first to the Giantslayer’s Inn, hoping for some rumour of the Stormguard squad or any other clue as to goings-on in Troll Country.

The inn was a rambling building of five storeys, the largest in town unless one counted the mouldering pile of the Fortress. The sign depicted an armoured warrior with a bloody sword in one hand, dragging behind him the massive head of an enormous giant in the other, held by the hair. Inside, the inn did not disappoint: mounted on the walls were the skulls of dozens of trolls, giants, and fearsome beasts, a few of them actually stuffed and preserved. The most impressive was a gargantuan giant’s skull, shelves set in its open mouth and eye sockets glistening with liquor. A huge map of Troll Country was nailed to one wall of the establishment.

A stout, one-eyed gnome tended the bar, using a magical ring to adjust his size to reach high shelves. More gnomes busied themselves about the bar, all of them young women.

With a blizzard raging around Wilderwatch and throughout the surrounding region, the inn was quiet. A few traders, hunters, and farmers made up the crowd, most of them probably locals, while a small handful of trollbloods drank mead in one corner, all of them with prominent tusks.

Alabastor approached the bartender. “Hi there,” he said. “We’re fresh in from Hex. Wondering if you know anything about the Evokers who came through here.”

“Oh yes,” the gnome said, shrinking down to size to speak to Alabastor. “Name’s Archibald. I meet pretty much everyone who comes through this town. Saw those Stormguard come through, headed up north. I think they were headed over to the Goretooth village, where those fellas come from.” He nodded over to the trollbloods in the corner.

“Who killed all these trolls?” Yam asked, staring up at the skulls.

“My ancestors,” Archibald said. “They settled this land, fought off the trolls who terrorized these parts. The inn’s been passed down ever since.”

“Tell us about these Goreteeth,” Alabastor interjected. “Are they trustworthy?”

“Sure. Trolls aren’t a duplicitous bunch. Just mean, and bloodthirsty.” Archibald shrugged. He nodded towards the trollbloods in the corner. “Those lot are Goreteeth. Heading back to their village tomorrow. Gyrd – that’s their chieftain – she seems on the level. Might be she knows more about the raids that’ve been ramping up recently.”

“Raids?”

“Aye. Haven’t seen the like for decades. A few farms’ve been burned, people snatched.”

“Who’d you think’s behind it?”

“You might ask the old knights up at the Fortress of the Order of the Goat.”

Cautiously, the party approached these trollbloods. Remaining vague about their mission, they asked if the warriors could act as guides, using Vanessa as a translator.

“We’ll take you to Gyrd,” one of the trollbloods assented in Giant. “I’m sure she’ll be curious for news of Hex.”

“Before we turn in, maybe we should head over to the Order of the Goat,” Garvin suggested. The party agreed, and left the inn for the mouldering remnants of the fortress. They were met by a scrawny youth at the gate, who shrilly invited them within after Vanessa identified herself as a Weather-Witch of the Citadel.

Within the keep, the party found a great hall that had seen better days. A fire smouldering in the hearth, illuminating a dusty, ill-kept room with fraying tapestries depicting ancient battles with trollkind. The knights who warmed themselves by the fire here seemed to mimic the crumbling stronghold in their decrepitude – three scarred old men. The leader identified himself as Sir Baxter. The party introduced themselves and asked if the aged knight had knew anything about the recent raids.

“Could be those damn Skintakers,” the bombastic old knight proclaimed. “We destroyed their villages, you know – drove the savages out, into the hills. The Caustic Wastes, they call their lands now. Whole place got destroyed by acid, conjured up by the Citadel of the Perpetual Storm down in Hex. Those Skintakers who survived fled west. Could be a few are causing trouble again.”

Meanwhile, Yam talked to an even more elderly knight, who seemed to be somewhat senile, and spoke grandiosely of battles with giants thousands of feet tall, and days of bygone glory. Alabastor, spotting a shelf of aged books on one wall, asked if he could peruse the library.

“Certainly,” Sir Baxter said. “You’ll find the histories of this land writ there.”

Alabastor began reading, and the more he read, the more a slowly dawning horror filled him. He had been raised to think of trolls as violent, barbaric creatures, but as he read of slaughters and wars, massacres and mass-killings, he realized that things were much more complicated than he had believed. He read of the volcano that had covered whole villages in lava, of the contagious miasmas devised by the luminaries of Caulchurch and the Académie Macabre –  a horrific potion, a contagion with which the Weather-Witches of the Citadel tainted the sky above the territory of the Blackhorn Tribe. The clouds rained down a deadly plague that decimated the land itself, a malady that makes everything sick, the Omniphage. He read of the Dread-Mists, conjured by none other than Umbral University itself, which drove thousands mad; of the gorgongas bombings and the fire-storms and the acid elementals. He read of how Hex had sided with the Goretooth tribe in their struggle against their neighbours, of the webs of betrayals and conspiracies and exterminations. He blanched.

Meanwhile, Garvin poked around the ill-guarded keep, piled with trophies taken from the many trolls slain by the knightly Order of the Goat. He snatched a small bird-skull amulet, which he later identified as granting the ability to converse with avians of all kinds.

“We should get some rest,” Armand said. “These trollbloods are supposed to be leaving at first light.”

Enlightened but exhausted, the party returned to the Giantslayer’s Inn.

The next morning, the group departed with their Goretooth guides, setting out at last into Troll Country.

Troll Country landscape

Troll Country was a rugged land carved by wind and wave, a land of rock and salt and snow. From the air the party had seen the jagged coast to the east where the Grim Sea sat cold and grey beneath an iron-coloured sky stretches north, the odd island protruding from the cruel waves. Mountains loomed knife-sharp and massive from the woodlands that dotted the region, firs and pines and leafless elms forming dark patches amidst the snowy moors and rocky hills. Snow fell, and a chill wind moaned across the land like an angry spirit.

It took several hours to reach the Goretooth village, built inside a palisade of wooden stakes. Hide tents and wooden huts crowded round a series of open fires, sending plumes of greasy smoke into the air. A central hall presided over the village, dwelling-place of the chieftain, Gyrd. The forest pressed close about the village, while to the east, through the trees, could be glimpsed the Grim Sea; sheer cliffs plunged down to the water below, with a series of ladders and trails winding down to a thin strip of rocky beach where fishing craft were moored. The gates were guarded by one massive, enormously fat trollblood with massive curling tusks and one scrawny trollblood with an extra arm, who nodded to the trollblood guides and admitted the party to the village with wary looks. They quickly proceeded to the chieftain’s hall.

The interior of the hall was smoky and dim; shadows cast by a flickering fire danced on the columns of carved Dragon-bone and the walls of tanned animal hides.  At the far end of this hall seated on a great chair of bones sprawled a huge figure, at least ten feet tall, with greenish-gray flesh. The Troll wore wolverine pelts and leathers; she rested one hand on the pommel of a gigantic iron claymore, and an impressive axe etched with Giant runes leaned against her macabre throne. Her most notable features were her absolutely massive tusks and prominent fangs, which gleamed white and brilliantly sharp in the hazy gloom. Several trollblood hunters squatted about a fire in the hearth, roasting a massive, spitted boar.

“Travelers from Hex,” Gyrd said. Despite her massive teeth she spoke the common tongue with shocking alacrity and only the slightest trace of a giantish accent, a certain stiltedness to her speech.. “What has brought you to Troll Country?”

“We’re looking into the extended winter,” Armand said. “We’ve been sent by the Citadel of the Perpetual Storm.” He gestured to Vanessa.

“We were told you might have some information,” Garvin said.

“I may indeed have information to share,” Gyrd said.  “But my relationship with Hex and its citizens has been one of – how is it your people put it? – quid pro quo.” She smiled – a ghastly, gleaming sight that brought to mind wolves and sharks. “There is a price for my assistance in this matter.”

“Yes?”

“To the north of Goretooth lands lie the territory of the Bonegrinders,” Gyrd snarls. “Their chieftain is Vornir, called Vornir Childeater for his favoured meal. With the Skintakers dead or fled to the west, the Bonegrinders have grown in power under Vornir’s leadership. Nightly he feasts on the flesh of thrall children taken in raids, troll and human alike.

“The Goretooth Tribe lack the numbers to contest the Bonegrinders’ power. But if Vornir were removed from power, the tribe would be thrown into chaos, weakened, and we could strike. Yet if an attempt on his life were to fail, and a Goretooth assassin were discovered, Vornir’s retribution would be swift. However – if you, a group of outsiders, were to kill Vornir, then even if your identities were learned, the Goretooth tribe would be safe.

“My herbalist, Urdin, is skilled in the brewing of poisons. He may be able to assist you.”

“We’ll have to consider this,” Armand said. He and the other adventurers huddled.

“So, what, now we’re going to commit a political assassination?” Alabastor said, incredulous. “I was reading, back at the Order of the Goat, about the things Hex has done here. We’d be perpetuating some… disturbing tactics.”

“If this Vornir actually eats children, I really don’t have a problem with killing him,” Garvin put in.

“If we do, though, there might be some seriously unanticipated consequences,” Caulis pointed out. “Who knows where this will lead.”

“There must be other options to find out information,” Yam pointed out.

“We should figure out if this Vornir is what Gyrd says he is,” Armand said. “Then we can decide whether to act. Let’s act like we’ll kill Vornir, and we can always change our minds.”

The party agreed to this, and informed Gyrd that they would carry out her request.

“A boat will be prepared for you,” she said.

The adventurers next headed to the herbalist’s hut to procure the poison. The interior of the hut smelled of rot and pungent herbs.  Various reagents, preserved organs, stone jars, and an array of talismans and charms were stuffed into rickety wooden shelves around the hut’s walls.  Several wrinkled hide scrolls were spread out on a low wooden table, alongside a fat tome open to pages covered in crabbed runic formulae. A squat, bearded trollblood busied himself with herbs and potions in the hut. After the party explained their purpose, the herbalist gave them a dose of Purple Worm poison specially formulated to be effective against trollkind.

Equipped and rested, the party made their way down the cliffs to a waiting longboat. A small group of Goretooth trollbloods rowed them across the cold waves of the Grim Sea, up the coast to the neighboring territory of the Bonegrinders. The party were put ashore and made their way through snowy pine forest and across craggy foothills to the Bonegrinder village.

“I’ll send Eleyin to scout ahead,” Caulis said, and the pseudodragon took flight. “See if she can confirm anything about Vornir.” The familiar sent an image of the village back to the homunculus, showing the layout of the village. In particular she scouted the chieftain’s hall, flitting inside using a smoke-hole. She relayed sensory information back to Caulis. The hall stank of carrion. Heaped in a great pile in the midst of the room were gnawed bones – the bones of children. There was a great hearth in which cooks some sort of morbid loaf which reeks of burnt bones, fashioned, it seems, from bonemeal ground in a great mortar and pestle nearby. Sprawled asleep in a pile of furs was a massive troll, prodigiously muscled but also hugely fat, at least twelve feet tall. A huge bloodstained club leaened against one wall.

Flying back out of the camp, Eleyin dodged an arrow shot from an archer in one of the watchtowers guarding the village and returned to the party. Garvin was especially repulsed by Vornir’s appetites, and his resolve to slay the troll began to solidify.

“I’ll see if I can sneak inside,” Garvin said. “And see if I can liberate the thralls, get them into Hex using the Portal Chalk.”

Cloaking himself in shadow, Garvin skulked out of the forest and stole into the village, clambering over the wall and using his abilities to flit to the thrall’s quarters.

Noting the Hex-made padlock on the door he climbed to the roof and slipped down through a hole in the ceiling. The crude hall was quite large, but within the thralls – humans, trollbloods, and goblins, favoured slaves of trollkind – were crammed into tight quarters. These ill-fed, branded slaves included several children, evidently awaiting their grisly fate at Vornir’s hands.

Addressing the thralls and urging them to quiet, Garvin scrawled a portal on one wall using the Portal Chalk. He entered, slipping into the Hive of the Thirteenth Queen.

“There’s going to be some people coming in,” he told the only slightly-bewildered waspkin hierophants of the Queen in Yellow within. “Don’t panic.”

He gestured to the frightened but intrigued thralls behind him and led them, shivering, from the Bonegrinder’s hall and into the city of Hex.

Images: Skyrim landscape concept art

Hex Session XVI – 5th Edition Actual Play – “The Book of Dreams”

  • 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.”
  • 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.
  • Caulis, a homunculus warlock liberated from its master; has made a pact with certain Faerie Powers.

XP Awarded: 700 XP

We have already seen the strange travel of Garvin & Armand, to a strange, vampire-haunted version of Hex, darkened by an eternal cloud, but a member of the party remains unaccounted for – Caulis, the homunculus. As the mandrake-creature emerged from the portal into the sewer-grate, it found that something unusual seemed to have occurred. Firstly, Caulis was alone – there was no trace of its companions.  Sunlight streamed in from a hole in the ceiling, where a gigantic root had thrust its way through into the room, coiling on the floor. The walls were covered in lichen and fungus, what looked like years worth of overgrowth. The door to the room hung rotten off its hinges.

Caulis clambered up the root cautiously, emerging blinking into the sunlight. It looked about. It appeared to be in Hex – or, rather, into what used to be Hex. There were buildings here, and streets, barely visible beneath decades’ worth of overgrowth, lush ferns poking up from the mossy street-sides. Creeping vines had strangled the city’s broken spires and cracked domes, and many buildings had been utterly overwhelmed by masses of kudzu or ivy. Huge trees burst through the roofs of houses and rose like towers above the shattered remnants of Hex.

Caulis cast about, seeking for someone, anyone to speak with, but only heard a strange giggling from a nearby structure. Making its way there it was surprised as a group of insect-winged sprites burst from a window and flitted away. It caught a snatch of Sylvan as one, pointing at it, yelped “outsider!” and another declared that “Queen Mab must be alerted!”

Perturbed, Caulis was seized by a similar impulse as Garvin and Armand on their own jaunt sideways through time: it sought out Master Melchior’s School of Thaumaturgy & Enchantment. The school itself was covered in vines and huge, bristling masses of thorns – huge masses of briars drooling from the windows and spilling from doors. The griffin guards were absent, but a lazy-looking footman stood sentinel. Pointed ears and greenish skin marked him as one of the Fair Folk.

Melchior Statue

Melchior’s Statue, as illustrated by Bronwyn McIvor (Caulis’ player).

“Halt! What is your business here?” the guard demanded.

“I’ve, ah… I’ve been asleep for awhile,” Caulis lied. “Who lives here now?”

“How long were you asleep?” the guard asked, bewildered. “This is the home of Lord Brambleheart, of Queen Mab’s Court, ruler of the Unfortunate Isles.”

“A Fairy Lord you say?”

“Yes. Now, if you do not have business here…”

“Ah but I do!” Caulis quickly improvised, hoping to learn more of this strange world. “I, ah – I’m looking for employment. Yes. I would like to serve Lord – Brambleheart, was it?”

The guard looked quizzical. “I see. And do you have any skills of note?”

“I am an accomplished spellcaster,” Caulis said, boldly. “Grant me an interview with his Lordship and I will gladly demonstrate my arcane abilities.”

“Hmm. Well, I suppose there’s no harm in a little audition.” The elf-guard shrugged. “Come this way, then.”

The footman escorted Caulis to a small chamber in the servant’s building, where more elves scurried to and fro – obviously servants. Caulis waited patiently while its psuedodragon familiar, Eleyin, explored, flitting into the remains of the library. Most of the books were gone or rotten, but some were preserved, and new tomes were also added – books of fairy history, and of enchantment. Instructing its familiar to snatch one such volume of spells, Caulis continued to wait, till a lumbering ogre-like thing lurched into the anteroom.

“His Lordship will see you now,” the hulking thing grunted. Caulis was led up Master Melchior’s tower; here the portraits of the archwizard were replaced with landscapes from Elfhame and pictures of fey royalty.

It was ushered into the remains of Melchior’s study, where the wizard’s empty brain-tank stood rusting. Sprawled in a leather chair, his feet on Melchior’s now vine-encrusted desk, was a slender fairy in flamboyant, aristocratic garb, long-haired and exquisitely handsome, with cruel amber eyes and a lazy, appraising smile.

“Ah, now aren’t you a find?” Lord Brambleheart said, inspecting Caulis up and down. “A homunculus from the time before… somehow survived till now. Or grown? Curious. I was told you were asleep?”

“That’s right,” Caulis said. “I only recently awoke.”

“You must be confused,” Lord Brambleheart said. “This is not the city you left, I am sure. Much has changed since the Tangle swallowed Hex into Faerie and the good Queen declared it her own. I understand you’re here looking for employment?”

“Indeed,” Caulis said. “I have some magical talents.” It demonstrated with a few cantrips.

“Marvelous!” Lord Brambleheart said with a little clap. “Well, you’re quite the curiosity… I’m sure I can find some place for you in my household.” He flicked his hands and a contract appeared, reading to be signed, specifying a period of ten years. “Sign here, if you please.”

Caulis reeled. This was going rather more quickly than it had anticipated.

“Oh, dear, well… you see, I already have something of a contract.”

“What?!” Lord Brambleheart snarled, handsome features contorting into an expression of fury. “Why did you not mention this? Who are you working for?”

Panicked, Caulis cast glitterdust and, with a flourish, used misty step to teleport back to the stairs. Lord Brambleheart’s fury turned back to delight.

“Ah! All part of the demonstration, eh? Great fun, great fun!” He clapped again, distracted, as Caulis flung itself down the stairs, using its powers to disguise itself as a goblin servant. It hurried across the courtyard towards the gates – only to find a regiment of purple-garbed, halberd-wielding fairy soldiers awaiting it.

“By order of Queen Mab, we are here for the outlander,” the leader declared to the footman.

Caulis shook its head and, hurrying, used misty step again to flicker past the squad.

“Oi! Whose that?” one of the guards snarled, pointing.

Realizing it needed to move quickly, Caulis fled, Eleyin following, as Mab’s soldiers gave chase. The homunculus ducked into a nearby thorn-patch and waited for them to pass before skulking out, again shifting its appearance to resemble a fairy. It hastened back to the sewer grate room and leapt back through the portal into Hex. It would have quite a story to tell.

Meanwhile, back in the Hex we all know, the party had regrouped. Yam had once again returned to Gloomway and Garvin was showing his younger self about the city, but Sister, Armand, and Alabastor had recruited Cephalus, and when Caulis returned, it rejoined the expedition. Refreshed, the party stepped back through the portal and into the Nightmare Tunnels.

Back in the primordial darkness of the Egregor Vaults, the party resumed their search for the Book of Dreams. They were once more in the strange labyrinth they’d accessed via the children’s bedroom in the dollhouse within the toy-room on the first level. Alabastor once more took out the magical dowsing rod he’d liberated from the automaton back on the Seven Hundred Steps of Slumber and used the device to guide the party towards the nearest source of magic.

After a short period of wandering through the maze, the party found themselves in a room lined with massive bookshelves rising up seemingly infinitely into darkness above. The books within them are thick and weighty, overlarge, with unintelligible scribbles on the spines.

Alabastor’s childhood drawing.

Shelves

Alabastor cringed before the massive shelves, but, curious, Sister removed a volume from the bookshelf. Instantly the shelves began to tremble, and books began tumbling from above, several striking the Lengian cleric, more cascading down in a flood of pages and covers. In that moment, Cephalus’ keen dagonian eyes glanced across a book whose spine bore an actual title: The Secret Door. As books fell around the party Cephalus pulled the volume, causing part of one shelf to hinge inwards. The group rushed inside to flee the books, racing down a short corridor as books filled up the room behind them. They reached a blank wall with a lever, and after checking for any traps, pulled it, opening a door into another part of the maze. Blood trickled from Sister’s brow, staining her clerical robes.

Pressing on, Alabsator continued using his dowsing-rod, leading the group still further into the labyrinth. Cephalus, at this time, detected a faint smell of burning hair – sharp and unpleasant. He shuddered and pressed on. Passing many corridors, the group eventually found themselves at a wooden door. Bracing themselves for what lay beyond, they stepped through…

Map 001

Yam & Cephalus’ players’ collaborative map of the Maze.

…only to find themselves inside of an outhouse, a crude latrine before them, the entrance ahead. Sunlight streamed through gaps in the walls, and a breeze was audible, rustling through vegetation. Opening the door, the group entered what seemed to be a field, beneath a darkening blue sky. Rows of corn extended in all directions, and a barn and small farmhouse where evident nearby, along with five scarecrows presiding over the fields. Cautiously, the party began venturing forwards, ears of corn brushing against them as they began their exploration of the fields.

“I don’t like these scarecrows,” Alabastor said.

“Let’s go have a look,” Sister suggested.

They approached one of the tatterdemalion things. Armand, using detect magic, discerned a strong aura of abjuration, but the scarecrow seemed otherwise normal – simply cloth and straw. On slightly closer inspection, however, Armand realized with a start that the scarecrow was garbed almost identically to himself – in patchwork clothes that resembled his own. Even the pale sack of the thing’s head seemed to have something of his sardonic expression.

“Didn’t the captions in the dollhouse mention nightfall?” Alabastor said.

“It’s getting on,” Cephalus urged. “Let’s investigate the farmhouse.”

Agreeing, the group cut through the corn rows to the farmhouse, a small wooden structure that looked disused. Alabastor picked the locked front door and they entered. Inside, the farmhouse was musty and disused. There was a bedroom, a front room, and a small kitchen. Blood spatters marred the walls, and much of the furniture has been broken – there was obviously violence done here.

In the bedroom, this violence was given horribly vivid form. A man was nailed to the wall, spread-eagled, and split from neck to navel, as if by a scythe. Vines and vegetation sprang from his body, from his eyes and mouth, nostrils, ears, groin, and lush creepers spill from his stomach like entrails. The vines bore fat, glistening pumpkins.

Most of the party nearly retched in horror, but Armand – undisturbed by such vegetal abomination – took a sample pumpkin, carefully removing it from its stem. “Hmm. Anything else here?” he asked, looking round. He seemed slightly put off by the bucolic setting. Alabastor was also perturbed, glancing frequently out the windows and keeping an eye on the sun.

“There’s a back door here…” Sister said. “Locked. But there’s no light coming from beneath it.”

Alabastor tried to pick the lock, to no avail.

“Stand back,” Cephalus said, and aimed a kick at the door. With a single strike and a tremendous sound of splintering wood the dagonian broke the door from its hinges. While the door should have opened into the fields, instead it led into a dark stone corridor.

Moments later, the party could hear the barn door opening, and something moving outside in the fields.

“Fuck. Something’s coming!” Alabastor swore. He hurriedly closed and locked the front door.

“Let’s move,” Cephalus said, heading towards the corridor.

“You get through, and I’ll mend the door!” Sister said. She began casting a spell to repair the broken door as her companions hurried through.

“I’ll give you cover!” Alabastor said, conjuring an illusion of the intact door.

“I’ll see what’s out there,” Caulis said, sending Eleyin to spy. The creature telepathically projected images of scythes, sickles, and pichforks glinting as a group of figures, mostly hidden by the corn, began making their way towards the farmhouse, muttering some strange prayer.

“I’ll hide our tracks,” Cephalus said, drawing on his powers to cast pass without trace. There was a loud thud at the door as whoever was outside tried to force their way within. Sister mended and shut the back door as the front door gave, a shadow darkening its threshold. The party rushed down the corridor, putting space between themselves and their pursuers.

Map 002

Cephalus’ player’s map of the second level.

Alabstor tried his dowsing rod, but it jerked in several directions, not settling on any given corridor. Wandering south, the party began to slowly explore the crystalline corridors of the Vaults on this level, swirling dream-stuff imprisoned in the Plateau of Frozen Thoughts visible behind the glassy surface of the walls.

Eventually, the group found their way to a door, fashioned in the style of the Old City, with a glyph-graven console behind it. Armand, practiced in the runic arts, used his powers to manipulate the glyph-lock and unseal the door. The floor of the huge room beyond was completely covered in a slick, liquid sheet of crimson – blood. It was impossible to tell how deep the blood extended; Sister cast light on a stone and cast it into the blood, but it quickly disappeared, swallowed by the crimson pool. More blood poureds slowly down the walls from small drains scattered about, sometimes in thin rivulets, other times in sheets of red.

At the fair end of the long, bloody hall was what looked like an elevator door, complete with a grate and a button to summon it – not a Librarian elevator, but a rickety mechanical lift.

“Hmm,” Alabastor said. “I don’t want swim in this. What if we tried to make a bridge, like we did over the Lethe?”

“Good idea,” Sister said. “Let’s try it.”

“I see some kind of orb,” Caulis noted, pointing to an object floating in the water. “A jewel or something.”

“Ugh,” Alabastor said, shivering. “Knowing this place it’s probably the bulb of some horrible angler-fish monster or something.”

“Hmm,” Cephalus said. “I have a thought… Obedai? You there?” He rubbed some ghostdust into his gills. Instantly, a ghostly form appeared before him – the spectre of a dagonian elder he’d met a number of times, Obedai, and who had now been “haunting” Cephalus for some time.. Only Cephalus, using the drug, could perceive this spirit.

“What kind of crazy place is this?” the ghostly dagonian said.

“Egregor Vaults,” Cephalus said – apparently to himself. “Can you help us out? You don’t need to breathe, so maybe could you dive down deep and see how far this blood goes?”

The ghost looked disgusted, then shrugged. “I’m dead already. I suppose it can’t hurt me,” the ghost said, and immediately dove below the surface.

Meanwhile, Alabastor and Sister began to concentrate, and after a few tries, a stone bridge materialized over the blood, brought into being by the power of thought-made-real, as a lucid dreamer reshapes a dream. However, try as they might, they could only extend the bridge halfway across the blood.

“Uh… guys,” Cephalus said, looking back the way they’d come. “I don’t mean to alarm you, but…”

The others twisted round, looking into the darkness.

“What is it?” Armand said warily.

“You can’t see that?”

“No,” Sister said. “It’s one of those things isn’t it? Your nightmare.”

“Move fast!” Cephalus said. “It’s coming!”

He stared into the darkness – a darkness for him illuminated.

A horrible moaning. Whimpers, sobs, screams. Sounds of anguish. And above all, a reek of incinerated flesh and greasy smoke. These heralded the arrival of the Burning Ones, born of Cephalus’ nightmares. They were trapped together, fused in a column of blackened tissue, like some obscene totem pole: burn victims from every species, a vast heap of them, dragging themselves on charred limbs, an amalgam of animals and humanoids, the mangled remains of workers caught in some unfathomable, infernal factory. Within their bodies still smouldered a livid red fire. It glowed and flared, making their flesh crack, producing fresh choruses of groans and shrieks. Flame spilled from eyes and mouths, scorching the air.

Burning Ones

The Burning Ones, as illustrated by Bronwyn McIvor (Caulis’ player).

“Move!” Cephalus repeated, taking up the rear as the others began scrambling across the bridge.

Armand swore, racing to the end of the bridge and, with a quick spell, blinking across the remaining distance to the elevator. He hit the button to summon the lift.

Meanwhile, as Alabastor and Sister made their way across, red hands burst from the surface of the blood, grasping and clawing, one raking Sister’s leg, another clasping at Alabastor. They pulled themselves up: horrible, blood-slathered forms, bloated and thrashing, their eyes white and dead and staring, their mouths gaping, their arms extended in a grotesque embrace.

“Gah!” Sister exclaimed, conjuring a sacred flame and scorching one badly, the holy fire searing its undead flesh.

“Not more fire!” Cephalus said, backing up as the Burning Ones advanced down the corridor, seething towards him. They grasped at him with flaming hands and he dodged aside, then aimed a series of kicks and blows at their charred bulk, breaking off blackened limbs and sending a spray of sparks into the air.

Alabastor cast shatter, but it missed and hit the wall of the corridor behind the Burning Ones, sending shards of crystal cascading everywhere. Raw oneiric energy began spurting from the wall, coagulated thoughts bursting forth in a slurry of dream-slime.

While Armand awaited the lift he cast firebolt, scorching one of the bloody, bloated things, while the rest of the party hurried to the middle of the bridge.

“We’ve got to refocus!” Sister said. “Extend the bridge to the other side.”

“Right,” Alabastor said, while Caulis used sleep, and one of the swimmers slipped back beneath the blood. Meanwhile Eleyin snatched the orb from the blood.

Cephalus prepared to retreat, but the Burning Ones lashed out again, grasping the dagonian in a fiery embrace. Flame licked at his limbs as the creatures began pulling him into their charred mass. Eleyin flitted to Caulis; the homunculus tossed its familiar a healing potion. It fluttered over to Cephalus’ unconscious form and hastily uncorked the potion, pouring it down the dagonian’s mouth. Cephalus revived, his burns rapidly healing, and tore himself free of the Burning Ones’ grasp, but not before the column of flaming flesh tore Eleyin from out of the air and ripped the pseudodragon apart. It vanished in a puff of arcane energy, the pearl dropping to the ground. Cephalus snatched it up and bolted as the bridge began to collapse; the rest of the party flung spells at the pursuing swimmers. The Burning Ones, enraged, seethed forwards, plunging into the blood, which extinguished their smoulder. They hissed in pain or relief and swam forwards sluggishly.

The elevator had arrived. Armand pulled the grate open. “Hurry!” he snarled, leaping within. The party-members piled in hastily and pulled the grate shut as the undead swimmers lurched from the blood and charged, hands outstretched.

“Obedai?!” Cephalus asked, peering into the blood. Moments later, the ghost appeared, bubbling up through the surface, and, seeing the oncoming attackers, flitted into the elevator.

They scanned the buttons in the elevator. Levels 1-3 of the Egregor Vaults were marked, along with “Things to Come,” “Home,” and “Regrets.” Acting intuitively, Armand hit “Things to Come.” The elevator lurched into motion.

The elevator began moving up – and up, and up, and up. It continued moving at a fantastic rate until opening… on Hex itself. Or, rather: a version of Hex. Was this another alternate reality, kin to thosevisited by Caulis, Armand, and Garvin? Or was this something else? Whatever the case, it was horrific. Masses of greyish-purple lichen covered every visible surface, utterly carpeting the streets and creeping up the walls of buildings. Shambolic figures lurched into view – former citizens, perhaps, infested with the same all-consuming lichen.

“This place doesn’t look especially safe,” Alabastor said.

“What about ‘Regrets’?” Cephalus said. Exhausted and unsure, the group assented, and the dagonian hit the button.

The elevator lurched again – not up, or down, but to the side. Walls whizzed past, and the elevator ground to a halt. Water rushed in to the group’s knees (or Alabastor’s chest). The group looked out at the Radula River.

“Oh,” Cephalus said, gills fluttering with emotion. “I… I know what’s happening.” Sombrely, he pointed to a dagonian dock-worker, swimming out in the river amidst the tangle of the Swelter, Hex’s crazed dockland. “This is why I became a lawyer.”

“Who is that?” Sister asked.

“Jurdisss Sludgesucker,” Cephalus answered. “Friend of mine. Co-worker.” He shook his head. “He’s… he’s doomed. A jellyfish. It’s about to sting him.”

“But can’t we… can’t we stop him?” Alabastor said.

“I don’t know what that would do to time,” Cephalus said. “I don’t know if this is even real.” He crossed his arms. “This made me what I am. Led me to help people. I won’t cancel that out.”

As they watched, Judrisss flailed, screaming, and sank below the surface. Moments later, dagonians dove into the water to try and rescue him – to no avail.

“I’ve seen enough,” Cephalus said.

“I’ll say a prayer for your friend,” Sister said quietly, as the water churned and the dagonian sank beneath the surface.

“Thank you,” Cephalus said, grim but resolved.

“Let’s try ‘Home’,” Alabastor suggested, and hit the button. Again the elevator whirred sideways, opening this time into a tiny room within a covered wagon, crates stacked up to the canvas ceiling, a bedroll spread on the floor.

“I lived here,” Alabastor said, shaking his head. “When I was with the circus.”

Armand poked his head outside the wagon. An endless black void stretched in all directions. Vague moaning sounds, like wind, echoed through the darkness.

“Seems to create the home of whoever hit the button,” Armand said.

“Maybe we could rest?” Caulis said.

“Not in this place.” Armand sniffed. “Everyone back in the lift.”

They complied, and Armand now hit “Home.” Instantly the party was conveyed to a simulacrum of Armand’s townhouse. While most of the party were hesitant to sleep outside the elevator, Armand retired to his own bed. The group rested, those on watch listening for any sign of hostility. Nothing assailed them, however, and the party woke rested and refreshed.

“I don’t know about you, but I want to get this book and get out of here,” Alabastor said to his companions.

“Agreed,” Armand said, scrutinizing his nails. “Level 3 it is.” He hit the button.

Map 003

Cephalus’ player’s map of the lowest level.

The elevator hurtled downwards for many levels before opening into a gloomy chamber which appeared to be some sort of shrine. It was dominated by an idol of obviously Librarian construction, one of the Unspeakable Ones: a massive, sphinx-like thing, though with the body of a giant crustacean-like entity rather than a lion. In place of a face the idol had a gaping black void which seems to extend infinitely into darkness.

“The Thing Without a Face,” Sister said. “The Librarian god of oblivion, slumber, and the void.”

“Interesting!” Alabastor said, approaching the idol. “Do you think there’s something inside?” He clambered up the idol and poked his head into the gaping emptiness where the thing’s face should have been.

Instantly, Alabastor felt an invisible force pulling him into the darkness, a kind of horrid lure, tugging him forwards. He wrenched his head back as he realized the hole was closing in around him. It dilated back open.

“It wants a sacrifice.” Caulis said.

“Hmm. I have an idea.” Alabastor took out the Snatcher’s sack – the extradimensional bag containing the phantasm’s many victims, including Cagehead. Edging close to the idol, he gingerly opened the sack and, trying to keep his hands clear, emptied the contents into the idol’s faceless void.

A tremendous screaming, screeching, snarling, tearing sound was audible as dozens of forms were sucked from the bag and drawn into the void, snatching and clawing at one another – a huge mass of ghouls, ghasts, gugs, and other creatures. Cagehead tumbled out last, a mass of bloodied flesh and lashing chains. The sack’s prisoners tumbled into oblivion. The idol’s hole closed, and the room rumbled.

A feeling of immense peace filled all within the shrine. Wounds closed, and even old scars and injuries faded. The hole where the idol’s face should have been opened again – but this time, instead of a black, endless void, the party could see light, and what looked like a room beyond.

“This looks promising,” Cephalus said, breathing easier than he had in some time as old wounds healed.

Cautiously, the party ventured up to the idol. Even more cautiously they climbed through the portal and into a truly massive room beyond. Everything  here was sized at least ten times larger than normal. A massive table set with the remains of a gargantuan meal was set in the middle. A hearth the size of a palace flickered with a vast conflagration. Candles big as trees glowed on the table.

Sitting in a cyclopean chair in one corner, slumbering thickly, was a giant – a hulking, brutish, warty thing close to a hundred feet tall. The monstrosity reeked. It had fallen asleep by the fire. Also dozing by the fire was a massive cat.

There was a door nearby, so huge they could crawl beneath it.

“Shhh,” Sister said, and invoking a blessing of stealthiness from the Mother of Spiders she made their footsteps silent. They crept through the room soundlessly and squeezed under the door, leaving both the cat and its owner undisturbed.

Map 004

Cephalus’ player’s map of the Giant’s Chambers.

The party crept beneath the door. The room beyond proved to be the giant’s library, a huge room lined with massive, musty books, written in a bewildering array of languages.  Unlike the books in the dollhouse these books were not records of individuals’ dreams, at least not based on the titles on their spines. In the middle of the room was a huge pedestal on which sat a huge tome. Sister, able to read the Aklo letters, excitedly identified it as the Oneironomicon.

Sister quickly produced a silk rope, and together several of the party members clambered up to retrieve the Book of Dreams. As they excitedly prepared to leave, however, a group of angrily chittering rats the size of large dogs scuttled from the shadows. Alabastor, as a gnome, possessed the ability to speak with small beasts and understand their animal language.

“Thieves! Burglars!” they proclaimed.” That’s ours! You’d best leave it be or we’ll strip yer flesh from yer bones!”

Alabastor hastily translated.

“Aren’t these the giant’s?” Caulis said.

“We’re the only ones that read them!” one rat proclaimed. A pair of human-sized reading glasses hung round its neck – perhaps looted from some other would-be adventurer.

“I’ll tell you what,” Alabastor said. “I’ll make you a deal.”

The rats squeaked. “Hmmm?”

“You must have read all these books many times,” Alabastor said. “But I have a new book for you.” He took out the book on the nature of doubt and reality that Melchior had given him. “I’ll trade this book for that one.” He pointed to the Book of Dreams.

“For the Oneironomicon?!” the learned rat-leader squeaked. “That book is of immense value!”

“Ah… so is this one! This book possesses tremendous power!” Alabastor held it up, with a glance at his companions. Sister used her thaumaturgy to lend the tome a supernatural glow, while Armand and Caulis added sparks and other effects to make the grimoire seem as if it were literally radiating magical power. The rats squeaked in enthrallment. “This book will reveal the secrets of the nature of reality itself!” Alabastor half-lied.

The bespectacled rat-leader nodded his head. “Yes! We must have it! Give it to us!”

“Uh… here!” Alabastor said, as he heard paws at the door – the cat trying to get in! “Take it!” He practically threw the book at the rats. The party grabbed the massive book while Sister scrawled a portal. They shoved the text through, and as it passed back into the sewer grate room, it shrank to a more manageable size. The group hastened through and closed the portal behind them just as the door opened and an angry feline mewl filled the library.

“Whew!” Sister said. “That was close.”

“But we’ve got the book,” Caulis said. “Now… what are we going to do with it?”

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

The characters in this session were:

  • Yam, an eccentric gnome illusionist and local graduate student at Umbral University. Yam cares little for money. Yam is curious. Yam is Yam.
  • Alabastor Quan, a gnome rogue-turned-illusionist and failed circus ringmaster; wielder of a cursed dagger and member of the Ravenswing Thieves’ Guild.
  • An ancient and enigmatic Lengian cleric of the Mother of Spiders, name unknown. She wears bulky ecclesiastical garments covering an uncertain number of limbs and goes by “Sister.”
  • Garvin Otherwise, a human rogue and burglar of the Ravenswing Thieves’ Guild, with a very, very peculiar past and a zoog pet, Lenore.
  • Armand Percival Reginald Francois Eustace de la Marche III, a suspiciously pale, apparently human noble and sorcerer, and certainly not a ghoul (how dare such a thing be suggested).

XP Awarded: 600 XP

Armand and Garvin stepped through a portal into the grate control room of the Fever Lane Sewers – only to find their companions had vanished. What was more, a strange red bulb now glowed on the ceiling.

“What?” Garvin said, disoriented.

“I don’t remember seeing that.” Armand concurred. “Or that.” He pointed to some unusual graffiti in an unknown tongue on the brick wall of the room. After casting a spell he deciphered the markings. “Down with the Bloodsuckers.”

“Let’s have a look topside. I have a feeling… I have a feeling we may not be in the same Hex anymore.”

The pair made their way to the surface – through a manhole entrance that hadn’t existed before. They also noticed that the passage to the university catacombs had been bricked up.

This was not the Hex they knew. A huge, black cloud swirled overhead, swathing the city in darkness even at what seemed to me midday. Fat black dirigibles marked with strange heraldic signs picked out in crimson drifted through the sky like obscene flies.

“Are we in the future?” Armand mused. “Time accelerated somehow.”

“Maybe,” Garvin said. “You didn’t join the Arcady expedition, but this reminds me of that place… an alternate Hex.”

“Let’s talk to Melchior,” Armand suggested. “Or this reality’s Melchior, anyway. Maybe he’ll have some clue as to what happened.”

They made their way through the darkened streets of the Dreamer’s Quarter, and began to notice that the people were different here – cadaverous men and women in fine black lace garments, some of them obviously embalmed, were attended by branded living servants, some literally in chains. Black hansom carriages rattled by, more fanged, pale faces glimpsed within. People began looking askance at Garvin, though Armand seemed unnoticed.

“Act like my servant,” Armand urged.

“How?”

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

“Fine.”

They approached the gates of Master Melchior’s School of Thaumaturgy & Enchantment – or, rather, what remained of it. Crumbling, pockmarked walls suggested some sort of battle. Instead of the griffin guardians, a pair of grim griffin skulls were mounted at the gate. And, of course, the school had a new name.

“MISTRESS WILHELMINA’S SCHOOL OF WITCHCRAFT & NECROMANCY,” Garvin read. “I think I have a theory. You know of Erubesence?”

“The vampire city. Yes.”

“In this reality, I think they may have conquered Hex.”

“Not a bad working theory.” Armand thought for a moment. “My house is nearby. Let’s investigate. See if that’s changed as well.”

“Alright, might as well.”

The two approached Armand’s townhouse in the Dreamers’ Quarter, not far from Melchior’s School, Garvin still posing as a servant of Armand. They found the house mostly unchanged, though in somewhat better repair, with a fresh coat of sombre-hued paint and a number of gargoyle additions. A light was on in one window. Garvin stealthily crept round a side-alley while Armand, imperious as always, approached the front door. Bernard, his servant answered.

“Sir… I hadn’t realized you were out,” the reanimated butler said, astonished, looking up the stairs towards the study door.

“Yes, well, please send up a pot of tea, Bernard,” Armand said, handing the butler his hat and striding boldly up the stairs.

Garvin, meanwhile, employed his magical Boots of Wall-Walking to sneak up the side of the house and watch events unfold from the window. He saw, hunched over a black wood desk, Armand – or, rather, another Armand. This Armand appeared somewhat bestial of visage, with hints of grotesque, monstrous, quasi-canine features emerging from his pallid, mask-like, classically handsome face. This Armand was feverishly writing something when the other Armand – the one Garvin knew – burst into the room.

“What?!” the second Armand snarled, leaping from his chair and drawing a rapier from his side. “Who are you, imposter!?”

“Who are you?” the first Armand retorted with equal ferocity.

“Is everything alright, master?” Bernard’s voice was audible from the stairs.

“Yes, we’re quite fine Bernard,” Armand shouted back. “Do bring the tea.”

“Do nothing of the sort, Bernard!” the second Armand yelled.

“Let me explain,” Armand said, rolling his eyes in exhausted irritation. “I’m fairly sure this is a reality parallel to my own. I’m you, from another world.”

“Poppycock,” the second Armand declared. “But… intriguing poppycock all the same.” He lowered his sword. “I shall give you a chance to explain, before gutting you…”

The strange conversation that unfolded led not to any gutting, but to an invitation, as the two Armands became acquainted with one another, the first convincing the second of his identity. Armand managed to piece together the major alterations that had occurred in this reality. They are not in the future but in an alternate timeline in which Erubescence conquered Hex after strategically transforming key political figures into vampires and inciting a series of revolts among the city’s ghoul population. After a brief and decisive battle, the city fell. The Citadel of the Perpetual Storm crashed, the Golem was sabotaged, the Warders compromised. The city’s waspfolk and fungoids were mostly exterminated. The dagonians and Lengians persevered, but retreated into their ghettos. Armand learned that a resistance thrived in the Old City, periodically raiding those above, collaborating with a few sympathetic undead. This world’s Armand, it seemed, had helped the vampires seize power.

After this eerie tête-à-tête concluded, Armand – the “original” – explored the house. He found a number of strange experiments involving cadavers in the greenhouse, or “meathouse,” as it seemed to have been renamed. The house was notably better furnished. He let Garvin in by a side door; the thief, skulking through the house, made off with a handsome-looking painting of the Battle of Hex, a panoramic view of the city falling to Erubescence. The two agreed that they should return to the portal soon. Garvin also stumbled into a reanimated gnome – one of the servants – who closely resembled Alabastor. The gnome silently left the pair with a revolutionary pamphlet; it seemed that even the undead help had been hijacked by resistance members, their magical instructions reprogrammed…

After a short rest, Armand and Garvin hurried back to the portal, hoping that it would return them to the Hex they knew. On his way, Garvin made a point of grabbing a newspaper from the gutter. He quickly scanned the society pages and noted that the Countess Erzsébet Scarrow was rumoured to be moving to Hex from Erubescence.

Meanwhile, in that very Hex, Alabastor, Sister, and Sprigley returned to the surface, Sprigley’s lungs wheezing from the poisonous Deathcap Forest. The warrior made his way to the Infernal Basilica for treatment. Meanwhile, Alabastor and Sister returned to Yam’s chambers in Mooncross, where Alabastor was staying. Here the found none other than Yam, in a state of considerable agitation.

Mooncross

“Uh, guys,” Yam said. “I could really use your help.”

Yam looked unusually pale.

“That’s ah… well,” Alabastor said, gesturing to himself and to Sister. The pair were bedraggled and filthy. Alabastor’s lower half was stained with blood from the place his leg had broken, and Sister’s robes were still half-sodden from her dip in the Lethe. Both reeked of the fungal miasmas of the Deathcap Forest, small mushrooms already sprouting on their torn, sweaty clothing. Their boots were caked with mud and dust. A hundred scrapes and bruises from their helter-skelter journey through the Cavern of Fear could be seen on their hands and faces. “We’re a little tired. Sort of in the middle something. We used this chalk we found to get back, but…”

“Oh, ah, okay, well…” Yam walked about the small room. “Yam beta will be fine for now… yeah… maybe you could help me later. My thing, it’s, well, it can wait, I guess.”

“We’d be happy to help,” Sister said. “But we’re close to getting the Book of Dreams. We’ve got a way of getting back down to the Old City, to the Egregor Vaults.”

Yam nodded. “I can come. Sure. I’ll help you guys and then you can help me. Deal?”

“Of course,” Alabastor said. “Mind if we rest here?”

“Sure, sure,” Yam said, sitting down on the bunkbed.

After cleaning themselves up and regaining their strength, Alabastor and Sister set off again for the portal, Yam now in tow.

Fever Lane Sewers

Stepping through the portal in the sewers, the party emerged back atop the Plateau of Frozen Thought – only to bump into Armand and Garvin, emerging from a similar portal in their own reality. Somehow, it seemed, the portals created by the Portal Chalk could join timelines as well as physical spaces. The buildings of the Old City rose around them, protruding from the Plateau.

“Where’d you come from?” Garvin asked.

“Where’d you go?” Sister retorted.

“We’re not sure. Probably an alternate timeline. We’ll tell you all about it,” Armand said snootily.

“Uh, so, we’re after the book, right?” Yam chimed in, mapping-scroll ready.

“Yes,” Alabastor said. “But there were these things following us, Sister and I… our fears made real, or something.”

“Yes. They’re stalking us,” Sister said. “They don’t seem to be deterred by physical obstacles for long.” She looked down the spiraling steps leading into the Egregor Vaults.

“Maybe we should try and confront these things,” Alabastor suggested. “I don’t like the idea of them creeping up on us while we’re down there.”

“But no one can see them except for the one they’re stalking,” Sister pointed out.

“I have an idea for dealing with that,” Alabastor said. “Faerie fire should illuminate them.

“Let’s see if we can lure them down the stairs,” Sister suggested. The party agreed, cautiously descending into the depths of the Plateau of Frozen Thought and the Egregor Vaults below.

The vaults were cold, the stone not the glistening opulence of obsidian but matte-black ice, absorbing all light. It was the velvet darkness everyone knew in childhood, in the blackness of the pre-dawn hours, when the things your parents told you were only in your head prowled your bed. There was an alkaline smell, a faint clamminess. There were no joins in the stonework, although when illuminated, swirling dream-images could be glimpsed behind the surface of the walls.

At the bottom of the steps was an anteroom with several exits. Alabastor took out his magical dowsing rod and got a reading to the south, but as they waited, Sister heard chains rattling on the stairs behind them.

“It’s coming,” she said. “Get ready…”

“I have an idea,” Armand said, fetching several phials of alchemical liquid from his pouch. “I made these in the greenhouse. They should create a burst of intense euphoria. If these things feed on fear, or are somehow constituted by it…”

“Then maybe this will hurt them!” Sister said, taking a phial. She drank some of the contents, and immediately was filled with a feeling of transcendent bliss. “COME ON!” she shouted, racing up the stairs.

Halfway up, Sister and Alabastor were able to perceive their respective phantasms: the monstrous Cagehead, its chains writhing, obviously in pain, and behind it, the Snatcher, its bag now grotesquely swollen with fresh victims, struggling and rustling.

Cagehead

“There! There!” Sister yelled, and Alabastor cast faerie fire, instantly outlining both Cagehead and the Snatcher in iridescent magical flames. He then drank his own joy-potion, becoming filled with the same euphoric feeling as Sister. The Snatcher made a horrible keening wail and dropped its bad, fleeing rapidly on its hundreds of legs, scuttling back up the spiral staircase. The bag abruptly became visible to everyone.

Garvin, skulking in the shadows, fired a bolt from his hand crossbow, catching Cagehead in the chest. The creature groaned in pain. Yam conjured an acid splash, searing its flesh, while Armand burned it with a firebolt.

Sister, meanwhile, tried to concentrate on making the creature more physically present, focusing her willpower into fully materializing Cagehead, and on inflicting pain. The phantasm groaned and flickered into quasi-visibility for the rest of the party. Angered, Cagehead hurled its barbed net at Sister, snaring the Lengian, the wires cutting into her flesh. She wriggled free, bleeding from a hundred cuts. Garvin leapt forward, skewering Cagehead through the knee, causing it to fall to one knee. As it fell, hands emerged from the sack of the Snatcher and began dragging the sack forward and groping madly, several seizing Cagehead.

While Armand continued to bombard the thing with spells, Cagehead lashed at the hands with its chains. Sister rolled forwards and called on the Mother of Spiders to cast inflict light wounds, spreading necrosis through Cagehead’s body, spider-bites opening across its arms and torso. It slashed with its chains, catching her and wrenching her towards it. Sister ripped herself free, spattering the stairs with more Lengian blood. Yam, thinking quickly, used mage hand to trip Cagehead, knocking the creature fully prone.

Meanwhile, Alabastor cast eldritch blast, pushing Cagehead towards the sack. Hands reached from the Snatcher’s bag, pulling the phantasm in. Cagehead groaned and thrashed its chains. Its cage-door had opened, bones spilling from inside. The hands wrenched and clawed, and Cagehead was drawn inside the bag. Alabastor leapt forward and tried to cinch the bag shut, but a hand shot out, grasping his forearm, trying to pull him in. Garvin stabbed at the arm with his blade, and the hand retreated. Alabastor cinched the bag shut. It suddenly shrank in size, so that he could carry it more easily.

“Well, that went reasonably well,” Sister said, her wounds already closing, divine spider-webs stitching them shut. “One down, at least.”

“Mine looked scared,” Alabastor said. “I don’t think it’ll bother us for awhile.”

“Let’s get in and out of here,” Yam said. “Come on. I want to see what that magic was Alabastor’s stick found.”

Agreeing, the party headed south.

Egregor Vaults

Yam’s map of the Egregor Vaults.

They entered a small room with two plain, wooden doors, one large and one small. Yam immediately opened the large door and stepped through. Simultaneously, the small door opened, and Yam emerged – or, rather, a tiny version of Yam emerged. Yam squeaked with delight and ran back through the small door, reappearing through the large door, back to normal size. Yam then put a fist through the small door – resulting in a huge hand emerging from the large door!

Clearly, the door could resize objects and people, with no noticeable negative effects in the process.

After much discussion, the party used the door to initially enlarge several flasks of healing potion in hopes of creating more of this substance. Garvin also urged Lenore through the small door; she emerged, now the size of a tiger, through the large door, and nuzzled Garvin affectionately. Yam jumped atop the zoog’s back, riding it like a horse.

This room explored, they next headed to the west, where the sound of music was faintly audible. They entered a room which looked like the inside of a toyshop. Hundreds of gnome-made clockwork toys lined the shelves here: windup dolls, kaleidoscopes, jack-in-the-boxes, stuffed animals, complicated boardgames, and other toys. It was essentially a child’s dream of riches – all the toys one could ever want. Several dolls were life-size or nearly-so, including an intricate wind-up ballerina. There were hundreds of toy soldiers – one an army of knights, the other an army of monstrous troll-like beings – arrayed on a table with miniature scenery.

The crowning jewel of the collection was a massive, incredibly ornate doll’s house. It was resplendent and baroque, although admittedly there was something a bit sinister about its grey, slightly peeling paint and its windows curtained with black. The dollhouse had a hinge and can be opened, although there appeared to be a locking mechanism.

Garvin also noticed a small music box. Opening the box did nothing, but there was a winding mechanism evident. Garvin wound the box a single crank and let it play. Instantly everything in the room – all the toys, but also clothing, weapons, and other objects, began to jolt to life, rustling and moving. The toy soldiers began slaying one another, the ballerina to dance, the animals to growl. Fortunately the effect was temporary and as the music stopped the objects became inert once more.

Parlour

After picking the dollhouse’s lock, they party was able to look inside, seeing a cross-section of rooms with miniature people in them. They noted a kitchen where an massive, ogre-like chef attended by numerous impish assistants prepared a meal. There was a large dining room set for the feast. Other rooms included a foyer, parlour, master bedroom, bathroom, library, observatory, and what looked like a children’s bedroom with scribbled pictures on the walls. Everything within was inert. Closing the door, the party peered through the window in the kitchen, noting that the chef and his assistants appeared to animate once the house was whole.

Little Nightmares

“If we shrunk down we could enter the dollhouse,” Sister noted.

“Yeah!” Yam said. “Let’s do it!” Yam hurried back to the proportion portals. Eventually, the entire party shrunk down – all save for Armand, who refused, standing watch outside the dollhouse with Lenore.

The party crept through the foyer, eager to avoid attracting the attention of the cook. This room had three dark wooden doors and a large rug. Hanging on the walls were several paintings. These were landscape scenes depicting a farmhouse in a field surrounded by scarecrows, a log cabin next to a lake in the middle of the woods, and a ship on a fog-shrouded sea, mired in some sort of thick weeds. There were captions to the three paintings. They read (in order):

THE SCARECROWS ARE NOT WHAT THEY SEEM. BEWARE THE FALL OF NIGHT.

IT COMES FROM THE LAKE. ITS SECRETS WERE KEPT BY THE WOODSMAN.

THE WRACK MUST BE CONTAINED! DO NOT PERMIT ITS SPREAD!

Ignoring these for the time being, the group took the door on the right and hurried upstairs. They went first to the library, cozy room with shelves filled with thousands of books. The books all had the names of people on their spines. They were alphabetized carefully, but this room appeared to only have names from the first part of the alphabet. The books appeared to be records of individuals’ dreams, told in various narrative styles, with rich illustrations. There was also a mysterious door the party had not noticed before. Opening this, they found another room, this one with names from the next letter in the alphabet – with doors leading to yet more rooms, each dedicated to a new letter.

After investigating several individuals’ dream-books, Alabastor found his own book, and found within a record of his dreams – including illustrations of the Snatcher, which appeared to evolve over time, becoming more millipede-like after his time in the Whorl. Yam, curious, found Master Melchior’s book. Here were dreams of a utopian magical civilization, a perfect society freed from want through magic and science – and nightmares of a magical dystopia, of ruins and cities invaded by demons, of a world on fire or sunk beneath the waves, of reality itself unraveling.

“This… this feels wrong,” Yam said. “We shouldn’t be looking at this. It’s too private.” Yam carefully put the book back on the shelf.

“Let’s look at the observatory,” Garvin suggested. Here they found a number of star charts and an ornate telescope, both of which they took.

Finally, the group entered the children’s bedroom. This room was furnished with a small bed, a chest of drawers, and pictures pinned to the walls. When the dollhouse was open, these pictures appeared as simple scribbles, but now they were fully realized illustrations – very, very familiar illustrations.

boots 001

Garvin’s childhood drawing.

Monster

Yam’s childhood drawing.

The Sun

Armand’s childhood drawing.

Shelves

Alabastor’s childhood drawing.

Boot

Sister’s childhood drawing.

Each of the adventurers recognized one of their own childhood drawings on the wall, exactly as they produced it. As they gawked at this bizarre occurrence, the door of the closet slowly creaked open.

Door1

Alabastor cautiously created an illusion of himself to peer in, testing to see if something would grab at him – but nothing appeared. Opening the door further, they saw a long, dark, wood-paneled corridor extending for some distance.

Looking out through the window, the party could see Armand, watching everything, still normal-sized.

“We’re going to explore this way,” Garvin said. “Maybe you should get small and come with us?”

“Fine, fine,” Armand agreed. He quickly returned to the portal chamber with Lenore and shrunk himself and the zoog, then hurried back to the dollhouse. As he entered the foyer a horrible smell reached his nostrils, and he could hear something in the darkness, stirring, seething, sloshing. He hastened up the steps and through the closet door, joining the others.

A whimper echoed down the passageway. It sounded like a child crying.

“Alabastor, try your dowsing rod,” Sister suggested.

“Alright,” Alabastor said, and, using the rod to guide them towards the most powerful source of magic, the group began moving through what they realized was a maze – an intricate profusion of identical branching passageways.

The Maze

Yam’s map of the Maze, so far.

Slowly but surely they made their way deeper into the labyrinth. The occasional whimpers became louder.

At last the party reached a chamber at what seemed to be the heart of the maze.

Bones crunched underfoot – children’s bones.

Suspended from the ceiling of the room, chains lost in darkness, was a cage – a cage containing five children. Two were young gnomes, two appeared to be human, and one was a Lengian, freshly moulted.

Glaring at the children, orbiting the cage like a pair of obscene, demented balloons, were two grotesque, disembodied eyes that looked as if they had been ripped from the sockets of a giant. The eyes circled, malevolent and bloodshot, optic nerves trailing blood, claws and tentacles writhing from behind, their whites jaundiced and bloodshot, their irises a malignant red.

The adventurers realized, simultaneously, that they remembered this happening. They remembered this dream. The children in the cage – it was their younger selves, or some semblance of them.

Eyeballs

The eyes rolled, swerved, circled. They fixed themselves malevolently on the adventurers. Garvin, quickly applying wyvern poison to a bolt, jumped up form behind a pile of bones and fired at the right eye, hitting it squarely in the sclera. Blood gushed as the poison spread. The eye, frenzied, fired a beam of fire at Garvin, which he nimbly dodged. Meanwhile Yam conjured an acid arrow; the caustic missile hit the left eye, eating away at it viciously. This eye swiveled and fired another energy-ray, this one at Yam; the gnome illusionist ducked aside. Armand sent a firebolt to the right eye, damaging it badly, while Alabastor used an eldritch blast to damage it further. A final bolt from Garvin destroyed the right eye, the monstrous orb deflating, blood spurting, till it crashed to the floor with a sickening splat, sending bones flying. Sister made for the cage, while Yam cast colour spray, blinding the eye. It roved wildly, firing off jets of fire, but Yam’s acid continued to eat it away. Blind, the eye bounced off the walls, melting, till it dissolved into a pile of acidic goop and red steam.

The group hurried to get the children down, picking the lock and lowering the young ones to the floor, to receive waiting hugs from an excited Yam.

“How are we going to get them back home?” Sister asked, picking up her younger self.

“I think I know the way we came,” a sullen, pallid child – young Armand – said.

“So, you’re me, huh?” the young Alabastor asked.

“Look’s like it,” the older gnome said, perhaps slightly disturbed.

“Let’s try retracing our steps,” Yam suggested, waving the map.

The group returned to the dollhouse entrance, noting along the way several disturbing footprints down a side-passage, as if the floor had been crushed underfoot. The children began to scurry through – and as each passed from the maze they faded, returning to their own times.

Young Garvin, however, hovered at the threshold.

“I was thinking I might stick around here for awhile,” he said.

“Don’t you want to go home?” young Yam asked.

“I don’t really have a home,” the orphan boy said, looking up at his older self knowingly.

“Hmm. Alright,” Garvin said. “Let’s try and use the Portal Chalk in here. See if we come out small…”

Sister obliged, and the group – including young Garvin – passed from the maze back into the sewers, apparently of normal size. The dream-conjured urchin remained quite solid.

“Well, that answers that,” the boy said.

Image Credits: “Old dollhouse in Musée alsacien, Strasbourg,” Christina T, Little Nightmares screenshot.

 

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

The characters in this session were:

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

XP Awarded: 700 XP.

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

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

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

Fever Lane Sewers

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

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

“Maybe we should leave…” Alabastor agreed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thanks.”

“You may want to be careful.”

“Why’s that?” Sister asked.

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

“Sentient?! How smart is it?”

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

“Thanks! That’s good advice.”

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

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

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

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

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

library4

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

“Where now?” Alabastor asked.

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

Alabastor shook his head.

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

“I don’t think I met him.”

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

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

Little Pandemonium 2

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

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

“May I assist you?” she asked.

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

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

ManWithTheMetalArm

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

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

Dreamers' Quarter

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

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

“Shit.” Alabastor swore.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m stuck!” the gnome gasped.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

journey4

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

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

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

“Go go go!” she urged.

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

“Just go!” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

“Well, best get moving,” Sprigley said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah.”

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

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

monolith

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

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

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

“Fuck it, run!” Alabastor urged.

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

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

“No swimming, then,” Sprigley said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Another one,” Sister said.

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

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

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

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

journey5

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Looks like we were followed,” Alabastor said.

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

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

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

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

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