BEARDED DEVIL

Monsters, Horror, Gaming

Tag: horror (Page 1 of 5)

Hex Session XXIII – 5th Edition Actual Play – “Château de la Marche, Pt. 2”

The characters in this session were:

  • Alabastor Quan, a gnome rogue-turned-illusionist and failed circus ringmaster; wielder of a cursed dagger and member of the Ravenswing Thieves’ Guild.
  • Armand Percival Reginald Francois Eustace de la Marche III, a suspiciously pale, apparently human noble and sorcerer, and certainly not a ghoul (how dare such a thing be suggested).
  • Caulis, a homunculus warlock liberated from its master; has made a pact with certain Faerie Powers.
  • Viridian “Grove” Greengrove, changeling druid, exile from his former druidic circle for unknown transgressions.
  • Yam, an eccentric gnome illusionist and local graduate student at Umbral University. Yam cares little for money. Yam is curious. Yam is Yam.

XP Awarded: 1000 XP

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

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

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

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

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

“Correct,” Armand said, fist clenched.

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

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

Chateau de la Marche-min

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Helena broke the embrace with her son.

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

“How generous,” Alabastor muttered under his breath.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alabastor and the Swarm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Uh, Yam,” Yam responded.

“Who?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bewildered but grateful, Claude did as his master bid.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ankou. Illustration by Caulis’ player, Bronwyn McIvor.

Ankou

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Hex Session XXII – 5th Edition Actual Play – “Château de la Marche, Pt. 1”

The characters in this session were:

  • Armand Percival Reginald Francois Eustace de la Marche III, a suspiciously pale, apparently human noble and sorcerer, and certainly not a ghoul (how dare such a thing be suggested).
  • Caulis, a homunculus warlock liberated from its master; has made a pact with Queen Titania of the Faerie.
  • Viridian “Grove” Greengrove, changeling druid, exile from his former druidic circle for unknown transgressions.
  • An ancient and enigmatic Lengian cleric of the Mother of Spiders, name unknown. She wears bulky ecclesiastical garments covering an uncertain number of limbs and goes by “Sister.”

XP Awarded: 400 XP

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

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

Grandson,

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

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

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

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

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

Your grandfather,

Percival de l’Aubespine, Baron de Beresford

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

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

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

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

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

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

brothers

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

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

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

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

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

The other looked to Armand, surprised.

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

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

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

The sorcerer drained his glass and departed for his chambers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Quiet, Reynard,” Maud chides.

“Ankou?” Caulis asked, curious.

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

“Superstitious nonsense,” Maude declared.

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

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

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

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

Chateau de la Marche-min

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the parchment was written:

Dearest Armand Percival Reginald Francois Eustace de la Marche III,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yours most sincerely,

Jasper Van Lurken

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

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

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

“Who?” Viridian asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

worm-thing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

the gardener

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who are you?”

“Jerome,” one voice said.

“Blaise,” said another.

“Damn,” the two voices said together.

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

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

Hex Session 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.”

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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Looks like we were followed,” Alabastor said.

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

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

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

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

Hex, Session X – 5th Edition Actual Play – “The Yellow Sign Pt. 1”

The characters in this session were:

  • Vespidae, a waspkin bard/cleric – a sacred dancer with a deathwish, shunned by the waspkin community for complicated ritualistic reasons, and a devoted follower of the Queen in Yellow.
  • Garvin Otherwise, a human rogue and burglar of the Ravenswing Thieves’ Guild, with a very, very peculiar past and a zoog pet, Lenore.
  • Cephalus T. Murkwater, a dagonian barrister and monk, specializing in martial arts and magical labour law.
  • Armand Percival Reginald Francois Eustace de la Marche III, a suspiciously pale, apparently human noble and sorcerer, and certainly not a ghoul (how dare such a thing be suggested).
  • An ancient and enigmatic Lengian cleric of the Mother of Spiders, name unknown. She wears bulky ecclesiastical garments covering an uncertain number of limbs and goes by “Sister.”

XP Awarded: 650 XP.

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

Faunsweald

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

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

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

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

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

Vespidae indicated the affirmative.

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

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

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

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

It wasn’t long before the hallucinations started.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The woman looked at the group with mad eyes.

“Who are you?” Vespidae asked.

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

“The Feaster from Afar. We killed it.”

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

“Years?”

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

“Then why not return to the surface?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

sime-29

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vespidae buzzed forwards.

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

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

yellow

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

Vespidae nodded. “Yes, my Queen!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The characters in this session were:

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

XP Awarded: 700 XP.

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

*See the Ultimate Contagion Part 2.

cobweb-cliffs

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

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

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

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

The party agreed to abide by these restrictions.

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

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

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

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

Maps below are from Sprigley’s player.

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

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

Cobweb Cliffs 2

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

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

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

Lengian

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cobweb Cliffs 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cobweb Cliffs 5

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

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

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

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

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

Hex, Session VII – 5th Edition Actual Play – “The Puppet Factory”

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.
  • Vespidae, a waspkin bard/cleric – a sacred dancer with a deathwish, shunned by the waspkin community for complicated ritualistic reasons, and a devoted follower of the Queen in Yellow.
  • Armand Percival Reginald Francois Eustace de la Marche III, a suspiciously pale, apparently human noble and sorcerer, and certainly not a ghoul (how dare such a thing be suggested).
  • Garvin Otherwise, a human rogue and burglar of the Ravenswing Thieves’ Guild, with a very, very peculiar past and a zoog pet, Lenore.
  • Cephalus T. Murkwater, a dagonian barrister and monk, specializing in martial arts and magical labour law.

XP Awarded: 500 XP.

The recent zombie escapes from the Deadstock Pens following the Shambleside Riots over the use of reanimated labour – the lead up to which the party briefly witnessed en route to capture Nettie Toadlung – have had significant fallout. Due to a ruling in Golemsgate, rioters were being held financially responsible for the damage dealt by the zombies, and for the costs of any missing reanimated dead. The zombies in Shambleside had all been recaptured, but a number were still missing, having wandered into the neighbouring districts of Corvid Commons. The Ravenswing Thieves’ Guild, concerned about the reanimated, dispatched Garvin to investigate: they suspected unscrupulous Reanimators employed by the rival Crowsbeak Guild were stealing the zombies and using them as troops in their ongoing turf war to consolidate their control over Corvid Commons and the criminal underworld of Hex. The zombies were likely being “re-programmed” at a Crowsbeak hideout somewhere in the Commons.

cephalus

As Garvin explained this mission to his adventuring companions Armand and Vespidae in the sweet-smelling Green Star tavern, a curious individual approached: a dagonian, one of the amphibious river-dwellers of the district of Croakmarsh. This one was somewhat unusually well-dressed, albeit on a budget, and carried a long walking stick. The dagonian – currently male, it seemed – introduced himself as Cephalus T. Murkwater, a barrister working for the labourers being sued by the Reanimators and deadstock-owners seeking to locate the stolen property to ameliorate the damages. He offered his services, but the party initially scoffed, Armand asking what skills Cephalus could possibly bring to the table. The dagonian responded by performing an impressive trick involving a cup and his “walking stick” – in fact a well-balanced quarterstaff. Suitably mollified the party set out, making first for the district of Shambleside to see if they could pick up on any rumours as to the whereabouts of the reanimated thralls.

Shambleisde, Grey Hook, & Corvid Commons

The party began their investigations at the Memento Mori tavern, a converted mausoleum at the border of Grey Hook, location of the Académie Macabre, the more academic and theoretical of Hex’s two institutions of necromancy. Working-class Reanimators and students at the Académie rubbed shoulders in the gloomy depths of the bar, whose tables were modified sarcophagi and whose waitresses were uniformly undead. After buying a few undergraduates and other locals drinks, the party ascertained a few tidbits of recent gossip in the necromantic community. Though no one had any good guesses about where the reanimated thralls might be, one student had heard some rumours about the recent return of a necromancer called the Marionettist – once a faculty member at the Académie, he was denied tenure and left Hex to wander the world. A few drinks later and some flirting from the ever-charming Armand revealed that this Marionettist was disgraced after it was discovered he was putting the reanimated to “uses unbefitting a member of the Académie.” Rumour has that he spent time studying with golemists and dark enchanters, and that he dwelt for a time in the Porcelain Kingdoms of the distant west, apprenticing with the Dollmasters. Still wanted by the City Watch for illegal spellcasting, the Marionettist was said to have come back to Hex for his own reasons. Theorizing that the Marionettist, being a criminal, might have fallen in with the Crowsbeak Thieves’ Guild, the party struck out for Grey Hook to see what they could learn of the elusive figure.

bloodborne key art and concept art video game on playstation

Dominated by the campus of the Académie Macabre, Grey Hook is a dour district of grey stone and pale faces. In addition to the Académie, Grey Hook contains seven separate graveyards, which function much like small parks in other parts of the city, as well as the Gilded Graveyard, the most prestigious cemetery in Hex.

Reanimated corpses – the servants of professors at the Académie, clad in beautiful livery, with exquisitely embalmed flesh and intricate glyphs of ownership – walked the streets alongside the living here, going about countless errands for their wizardly masters. The party made their way to Reaper’s Square the Department of Necrontology, the Marionettist’s reputed specialty. Consulting records here and talking with more of the students and faculty, they discovered that the Marionettist – Professor Clovis – had been a specialist in modifying revenants with clockwork additions, often using gnomish technology.

NecrontologyTracking down his publications at the ornate library of the Académie Macabre, they learned of the unwholesome fusions of machine and undead flesh Clovis had tried to create. This made Vespidae – who had fought several heavily modified revenants back at the Rat & Roach – speculate that perhaps the Marionettist was behind some of the undead gladiators sparring in the Crowsbeak Casino. That meant he had access to bodies even before the Deadstock Riots. Their researches also revealed that the Marionettist had a still-living sister dwelling in Shambleside. They hastened to Coffin Court, where those wealthy enough to purchase a casket could do so – the servants of such wealthy individuals could be seen haggling with the coffin-makers here. It seemed that Professor Clovis’ family had been undertakers, or so they learned. While his relatives had not been in contact with him they learned of his childhood obsessions with dead bodies, and with dolls glimpsed in the gnomish toy stores that had once operated in the Commons, before the last of the gnomish population left for Mainspring.

Commons 5

Armed with this knowledge, the party set out into Corvid Commons. Garvin leading the way. They had a suspect, but they needed to uncover his hideout. The thief began by leading the group to the Witching Hour Alehouse on the rain-soaked Street of Rooks, a street crowded with rag-and-bones men hawking their scavenged wares, oddments and baubles dredged from the sewers by toshers; food-vendors selling eels and lampreys fresh from the Radula; prostitutes united not by species or sex but by their cheapness; drug-peddlers pushing Throwback and diluted Sap. The Alehouse itself, an institution in the Commons and something of a neutral meeting-ground for thieves throughout the city, was the largest building on the street, its rambling enormity matched by its decrepitude; the huge, old place was falling apart, its roof sagging and overgrown with black moss. Despite the decay mottling its graffiti-covered walls the place exuded a strange sense of welcome, its windows yellow with lamplight, its crooked chimneys belching smoke from many hearths.

Within, the Witching Hour was crowded with rogues of every stripe – cutthroats, second-storey men, pickpockets, fences, thugs, assassins, con-men, swindlers, and every other manner of criminal imaginable. Many sported tattoos proclaiming gang and guild affiliations, often from rival organizations, but there was surprisingly little tension here. A few men and women ducked through a doorway in the back into a shadowy space beyond. The barman, Mortimer Croak, kept his one remaining eye on the patrons. Garvin started asking around, trying to discover any rumours of the Marionettist or possible movements of illegal goods – or bodies – that might point to his hideout. Mortimer suggested the party ask Rosemary Badwhisker, who sold stolen goods out of a shop on the Street of Magpies, Rosemary’s Receiving. She had been apparently dealing with a variety of “necromantic types” of recent, selling tools and spellbooks liberated from the Reanimators’ College and the Académie Macabre. This would be the party’s next stop.

Commons 6

Operating alongside and in conjunction with the Midnight Market, the shops along the Street of Magpies move many of the stolen goods in Hex. The prices here tend to be higher for buyers and significantly lower for sellers, but the shopkeepers along the street frequently deal with freelancers and smaller gangs.

Pawnshops buying and selling various goods – many of them stolen at one time or another – lined the Street of Magpies. The cloaked and ill-favoured figures who drifted between sported Thief’s Marks and guild insignia, some ostentatious displayed, others cagily concealed. Many of these establishments had signs bearing symbols informing thieves of the allegiances of those within or of current prices and inventory. As the party headed for Rosemary’s Receiving, something truly bizarre happened: Garvin Otherwise abruptly vanished into thin air, without so much as a word. Baffled, the party cast around for a moment to try and locate some sign of the thief, but to absolutely no avail. Uncertain, they entered Rosemary’s Receiving anyway, hoping that Garvin would turn up soon.

Commons 3

One of the larger pawnshops on the Street of Magpies Rosemary’s Receiving clearly specialized in the sale of arcane objects – most of them likely stolen. In the window of the shop a reanimated head dangled from its hair, muttering to itself, next to a cage in which a clockwork scorpion scuttled, a hat changed its shape every few moments, and a garrotte which a small signs proclaimed to be “possessed” was visible. Inside an even more bewildering array of oddities could be found – amorphous keys, enchanted duplicating slugs, ensorcelled pistols, an analytic engine, spellbooks and scrolls, magical stones and jewels, aquae vitae, grimacing idols, and a hundred other strange objects, as numerous and variegated as those in any gentleman’s cabinet of curiosities (such as that of Leopold Van Lurken). The shopkeeper was an elderly woman with masses of long, white hair and tattooed arms, attended by a small horde of albino rat familiars who seemed to inhabit her hair. She was currently locked in conversation with none other than Yam, the gnome illusionist, on an errand for their supervisor, Sebastian Eldridge, who procured certain rare reagents from the woman. Intrigued by their companions’ rambling investigation and by Garvin’s sudden disappearance, Yam decided to join the group.

Commons 1

Speaking with Rosemary revealed that the Marionettist had indeed been by the shop, but that she did not know his address. However, she could disclose that he was buying large quantities of clockwork parts. After hearing of the Marionettist’s fascination with gnomish clockwork and toy-shops, Yam volunteered to ask around in Mainspring to see if anyone had any advice as to where to look for a former gnomish shop – exactly the sort of place the Marionettist might hold up in. Cephalus, meanwhile, headed to Golemsgate to try and find any legal information about the necromancer. He discovered that the Watch still had a bounty of five hundred guineas posted for the renegade wizard. Yam, meanwhile, learned that a number of gnomish toy-shops used to be located in the southeast corner of Corvid Commons. The party regrouped and headed back into the labyrinth of streets, somewhat ill at ease without Garvin, who had still failed to reappear. After some wandering they found their way to Scarecrow Street, a rather desolate street that had been mostly abandoned; derelict buildings slowly decayed on either side, now the haunt of vagrants, squatters, and fungoids. The largest of these was an abandoned toy-maker’s shop, All Wound Up.

“This could be our place,” Yam said.

“Let’s see about a back-door…” Armand suggested.

Cephalus, meanwhile, seemed to be stretching himself in preparation for an altercation. Vespidae was appraising the place with a curious look. Unbeknownst to most of the group, the waspkin had no fixed abode but squatted in derelict buildings much like this one. Perhaps the shop, if cleared of its criminal denizens, would make a good home?

Commons 4

The abandoned toy-maker’s shop All Wound Up had its windows boarded up, obscuring the interior. The walls, now faded and peeling, showed a series of whimsical murals depicting an antiquated kingdom, a whimsical place of knights, fairies, princesses, and dragons. Avoiding the front door, the group went round the side into a filthy alley, but successfully located a back door. Cephalus managed to force the lock with little effort. Inside, some old crates and chests were stacked, some open to reveal doll parts, the vacuous, glassy eyes of the lifeless things glinting in the darkness. Further investigation of the crates revealed quantities of the drug known as ghostdust, a silvery-green powder formed from processed ectoplasm. Other reagents were also stored here. Cephalus, curious, tried out some of the ghostdust, rubbing it on his gills. He became slightly insubstantial, and became aware of a silvery-grey reality superimposed on his own – he could see into the Ethereal Plane. Two ghostly gnomes appeared before him: the former owners of the shop.

“What are you doing, traipsing through my store like this?” one demanded in heavily accented Common. “First thieves and necromancers, now this?!”

“Necromancer?” Cephalus asked. “Can you tell me where he is?”

“That lousy bum? Yeah he’s through there,” the gnome indicated. “The creep’s set up his little operation here. If I could get my hands on him!” The gnome continued to rant and rave about the Marionettist and his depredations as the party pressed forward.

FRANCE - JANUARY 01: Paris. Doll Factory. Preparing For Christmas (Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)

After looting some more ghostdust, the party moved through towards the front of the shop. Strung up like puppets along the walls and dangling from the ceiling of the next chamber were puppets – puppets made from reanimated corpses, many grafted and modified, some dressed in rags, others in stolen clothes, others unclothed. Though inert their eyes followed the group eerily. Any attempt to move through them would result in the adventurers being snared. Fortunately, as Yam proved, crawling beneath the zombies proved viable. One of the things managed to cut its own strings and staggered toward the group, but between them they swiftly dispatched it before it could do any harm. The commotion, however, seemed to have altered someone in the next room; the party swiftly hid themselves, with several cramming themselves into a small supply-closet with a sewer access grate, dragging the corpse in with them. A tall, incredibly thin man who moves his stick-like limbs like some monstrous insect, a man who could only be the Marionettist entered the room: he carried with him two control bars of the sort used for puppets, though these seem to lack strings. Fortunately he seemed to find nothing wrong and returned to the other room. Still adopting stealth, the party followed him.

arms

In the next room, mechanist’s tools filled the shelves along the walls, as well as boxes full of coils, springs, and other bits of clockwork. The corpses sprawled on the work-tables had their skulls opened up and their brains exposed, with clockwork additions grafted crudely on. Tinkering with their reprogrammed clockwork brains with a devious, smug expression on his gaunt and pointed face was the Marionettist who, surprised by the sudden attack of the adventurers, was swiftly pummeled by Cephalus’ webbed fists and swinging quarterstaff. He snarled an order and three of the clockwork-driven zombie puppets staggered to their feet, lurching towards the adventurers. While Armand and Yam cast combat spells into the fray, Vespidae hurled javelins and performed a sacred battle-dance, urging her comrades on. Cephalus, meanwhile, pressed his attack on the Marionettist. The wizard snapped an incantation, trying to force his way into Cephalus’ mind, but the iron-willed dagonian barrister repelled him and continued to beat him to a pulp, lashing out with his staff and other weapons. He knocked the necromancer unconscious, but one of the zombies rushed forwards, battering him with a vicious blow to the ribs. There was an ugly snapping sound and the dagonian fell to the ground, blood seeping from his gills. Vespidae flitted forwards to heal the fallen martial artist while the rest of the party finished off the zombies.

Mannequin_People

As Cephalus recovered, healed by the holy power of Vespidae’s new patron, the Queen in Yellow, sounds could be heard at the door – presumably more foes. Barricading the door swiftly, the group retreated, Yam picking up the Marionettist’s paddles. After some experimentation Yam discovered that the paddles were “keyed” to the zombies and could control them. The gnome used this power to make the undead groan and moan loudly, hoping to rattle the incoming enemies, also directing the reanimated thralls to free themsleves from their strings. In the meantime, the Crowsbeak thugs also stationed in the rookery had found another way into the workshop – black-swathed men and women displaying the Crowsbeak guild mark. Vespidae again flew forwards, weaving the spell burning hands and casting it directly in the crowded doorway. The thieves were engulfed in flames and fell to the floor, shrieking and smoking, several already dead. Cephalus and Armand managed to dispatch those who survived with a minimum of fuss.

The rookery cleared, the party set about herding the stolen zombies back to Shambleside. Cephalus, rubbing his ghostdust-dusted gills, discretely had the reanimated thralls move the crates of the drug to his offices, while Vespidae, buzzing to herself, set about cleaning up what would soon be her new “hive”…

Images: Thor Polukoshko’s “Cephalus T. Murkwater,” Bloodborne Concept Art, Thief Concept Art, Keystone-France, Getty Image, Kurt Hutton/Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty Image,  FPG/Getty Image, Condemned: Criminal Origins Concept Art

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

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

XP Awarded: 400 XP.

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

Mainspring

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

clockwork city

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

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

Tinker1

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

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

Yam made a non-committal noise.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

automaton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sound fair?” Wanda asks.

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

cable car

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

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

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

crystal-cave-fantasy-wallpaper-3

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

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

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

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

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

Digger

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

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

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

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

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

gnome

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

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

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

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

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

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

800px-Clock_Cogs

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

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

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

Grell3e

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

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

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

*See Hex Session II: “The Ultimate Contagion”

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

Hex, Session V – 5th Edition Actual Play – “The Van Lurken House”

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.
  • Garvin Otherwise, a human rogue and burglar of the Ravenswing Thieves’ Guild, with a very, very peculiar past and a zoog pet, Lenore.
  • Vespidae, a waspkin bard – a sacred dancer with a deathwish, shunned by the waspkin community for complicated ritualistic reasons. Now a follower of the Queen in Yellow.
  • 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.

Two things brought the party to the house of the wealthy Van Lurken family, one of the elite merchant dynasties of Fanghill. Yam, on instructions from Umbral University, was to investigate the whereabouts of a promising young illusionist, Annette Van Lurken, who had not appeared for orientation. Garvin, on the other hand, was responding to information from the Ravenswing Thieves Guild. It seemed that the Van Lurken House had been abandoned, or so it looked from the outside, and the Guild wanted an enterprising young Fledgling like Garvin to see what valuables he could make off with – and it so happened that the Guild had both a map of the house and a set of keys to the doors within.

Thief Concept Art

Garvin met his contact, Veronika Foxstalker, at the Witching Hour Alehouse. The gloomy interior of the tavern is familiar to every Guild-registered thief in Hex, as the place serves as the secret backdoor to the Midnight Market (at least it does currently; the door to the Market has shifted over the years). The barkeep, Mortimer Croak, was a grey, one-eyed presence behind the bar – an ex-thief who’s somehow managed to stay on the good side of every guild and gang in town. The grizzled old burglar was missing an alarming number of body parts, including his left foot, the pinky on his right hand, and his right eye, but he’d managed what few thieves in Hex pull off – comfortable retirement from crime. Garvin made his way to Veronika, a wiry woman with prematurely white hair – rumour claims it turned that way after a job-gone-wrong in Grey Hook. She slid over a map of the Van Lurken place – or at least its upper floors – as well as the key ring.

“This is what we’ve managed to get our hands on,” she said. “And it came dearly purchased. In fact, there’s a little more to the mission than we’d previously let on. You see, a while back we sent a team in to the Van Lurken place: three men, good thieves all of them. Only one came out, and he wasn’t right in the head. Shaking, raving about things ‘rustling in the walls’ and the ‘Unclean Chair,’ whatever that means. He wouldn’t speak about what he’d seen in there, but he had this map and key-ring with him. He… he stank, as well, smelled simply awful, and nothing we could do seemed to be able to get the reek out. A few days later he fell badly ill. We tried both magic and medicine but it didn’t take. When we found him dead… gods, I’ll never forget the stink, or the way he looked. It was like he’d been dead for weeks, he was so rotten. We burnt the remains.

“But that means there are two men unaccounted for, still inside. They’re most likely dead, but on the off chance they’re not, obviously you should try to get them out of there. And if they are dead, try to find their bodies – not to bury, but because they were carrying some valuable Ravenswing items with them. One had the gloves of thief’s sight, which lets the wearer glimpse what lies behind walls and doors. The other wore the boots of wall-walking, which let the wearer traverse walls and ceilings. The Guild would like both of these returned and will pay one thousand gold pieces for each.”

Garvin nodded, mulling the information over. “Is there any kind of automated security inside?”

“There may be a few automata, and the Van Lurkens did employ a house guard,” Veronika said. “But they haven’t been seen either. The servants are missing as well.”

After discussing a few more particulars Garvin took his leave and went to meet some of his companions at the Green Star to convey what he’d learned. The party then set out for Fanghill in the early evening.

fancy street

The richest residential district in Hex is Fanghill, a place of gated mansions and opulent museums and well-tended parks. The district is built on the slopes of a great hill whose top commands an impressive view of the city. The Eyes patrolled the streets heavily, and many private guards could be seen as well at gates and walls, protecting the well-heeled nobles, scholars, merchants, and professionals who make their homes here.  Unlike many parts of the city it remained well-lit at all times of day or night courtesy of magical lamps glowing with a soft effulgence.

The party quickly located the Van Lurken place. In contrast with some of the more fanciful houses in Fanghill – houses made to look like gigantic heads, mansions of Murkstone that shift and reshape themselves, and buildings whose dimensions should be impossible but which magic has granted a tenuous stability – the Van Lurken house was incredibly mundane: a three-storey house of solid construction, baroquely adorned but otherwise quite normal-looking.

van lurken

The place was certainly dilapidated, though, the garden shriveled and dead, the paint faded. The windows were dark and shrouded with curtains, obscuring the interior. Armand and Yam both noted that the decay the house exhibited seemed preternaturally advanced. While Garvin investigated the servant’s entrance and the others kept watch, Armand briefly questioned a servant doing the washing next door, who confirmed that the house had been abandoned for some time, describing the occasional muffled and uncertain noise from within and noting that none of the guards or other servants had been seen leaving. She also noted that Jasper Van Lurken, a young man and heir to the Van Lurken fortune, had recently returned from a business trip.

VanLurken0001

Entering through the side door using the key supplied by the Ravenswing Thieves’ Guild, the party began their explorations in the servant’s quarters of the house. These were quite empty, though there were signs of struggle or hasty departure, perhaps interrupted – chests emptied, clothes and blankets strewn across the floor. Bloodstains mottled a wall in one of the chambers, though there were no sign of any bodies. A thorough search, however, turned up a loose floorboard under which was stashed an impressive quantity of jewellery, including a silver necklace set with obsidian, a sapphire ring, a bloodstone-encrusted hand mirror, and a pair of exquisite ruby earrings.

More evidence of violence could be found in the laundry room, which contained various buckets, presses, and other equipment for cleaning garments, including a mangle that had been put to a horrid use, evinced by the bloodstains and shards of bone clogging its rollers. Quantities of soap and other cleaning agents were stored here. More bloodstains marred the walls, including one curious stain which began on the ceiling and then wrapped around to the wall and out of the room. Puzzled and formulating theories, the party also checked the butler’s pantry, a dusty but untouched room full of expensive silverware, before heading into the front hall – eerily quiet save for the occasional mysterious rustling from within the walls. Apart from some confused footprints in the dust, there was no sign that anyone had been there for quite some time. Cobwebs shrouded the ceiling, and the walls were grimy and blotched with mould, filling the air with a musty stink.

A huge grandfather clock stood to one side, also swathed in cobwebs. Across from the clock was a large painting of the city of Hex, obviously painted from the vantage of Fanghill. In the foreground was a park scene with a picnicking family. Close inspection of the painting revealed a small, black cloud on the horizon made of small dots, like a swarm of insects. Yam noticed that this blotch seemed to be getting slowly larger while no one was looking. Leaving the painting for now, the party next moved to the kitchen. This room now absolutely swarmed with creeping vermin – maggots, flies, centipedes, cockroaches, and other bugs. The place was in disarray, pots and pans scattered everywhere, wood from the hearth strewn across the floor. There was a stairway in one corner, leading down into darkness. Erring on the side of caution, the party opted to leave the room undisturbed and proceeded into the dining room.

glutton feast

The dining room was laid out with gorgeous silverware and crystal. This fine cutlery was wasted on a spoiled feast – it looked like the pantry was emptied, but all the food was rotten, covered in mould and flies. Mixed in with the decomposing food were what looks like human body parts. At the head of the table was a macabre chair fashioned entirely from bones. Seated upon it, presiding over the table like a patriarch at a family meal, was a grotesquely swollen maggot-like creature with thin, vestigial arms and legs dangling from its bloated, pale body, shoveling morsels of carrion and decaying fruit into its mouth. The thing did not look up but continued to listlessly gorge itself with putrid sustenance.

Garvin noted a bowl on the table that did not seem to be tainted by the corruption. Angling themselves around the maggot-horror, the party debated a course of action. Vespidae, acting with typical insectile directness, attacked the creature with a javelin and it instantly leapt up, scattering plates and body parts as it surged towards the waspkin, who took to the air. Horrified and disgusted, Armand and Yam engaged the creature with spells, pelting it with balls of fire. Garvin retreated, avoiding the thing’s blows, and it turned, launching itself at Armand. Between them, however, the party was able to destroy the creature, engulfing it in arcane flames. Armand made sure to destroy the osseous chair completely while Garvin and Yam investigated the bowl, discovering that it bore a glyph from the city of Nornhold, a monastery-city of silent ascetics. Food touching the bowl seemed to be restored to ripe purity. Experimentally, Yam took the bowl back to the front hall, carefully cut the still-growing insect-swarm from it, and placed the scrap in the bowl. Magically, the dark blots on the painted canvas disappeared. At this moment, something could be heard, moving around upstairs. Tracking footprints in the dust, the party ascended to the next level.

amnesia 2

They first investigated a large games room decorated with the heads of beasts hunted in the nearby Tangle: hippogriffs, owlbears, wild boar, and even a wyvern. A large musket also hung on one wall, a heavy crossbow on another, and a spear on a third. Also on one wall was a huge painting of a hunting scene in the Tangle, depicting several of the Van Lurken ancestors and their hounds. The painter had included several clever details, including some small fairies hiding in the underbrush and twisted tree-branches, and an enchanted pool reflecting some of the mortal hunters as otherworldly, elfin figures.

In the middle of the room was a billiards table spattered with blood: a corpse sprawled on the table amidst the billiard balls, his neck ripped open. His stiff fingers still clutched a broken pool cue, which was curious, since he was also armed with a short sword and hand crossbow. Judging from his dark clothing and half-mask he was a burglar of some description. Close inspection of the corpse revealed a Thief’s Mark and a Ravenswing broach, as well as the gloves of thief’s sight, which Garvin carefully took. These could be used to look through walls and doors to see what lay beyond, enabling the thief to scout the next chambers.

Noting the pool cue, Yam immediately surmised the possibility of vampires and took the improvised stake.

Next the party went to the music room, a beautifully furnished, baroquely decorated chamber filled with instruments – a flute, dulcian, chalumeau, violin, bass viol, viola pomposa, hurdy gurdy, sackbut, and harpsichord. The instruments were beautifully enamelled and made from precious metals and exotic wood. The party helped themselves to several, but avoided the macabre-looking instrumments placed amongst them: a flute fashioned from a human femur covered in abstract etchings, and a set of drums made from two bisected human skulls whose open tops were covered in flayed human skin. Armand, disgusted and alarmed by these objects, broke them apart and burnt them with fire bolts.

VanLurken0002

Yam’s player’s annotations.

Garvin used his newly acquired gloves to investigate the portrait gallery, but recoiled from a scene of dismemberment and death.

“Let’s just avoid that room,” he said, and moved on to the study, noting its  large window, ornate writing desk strewn with papers, and numerous bookshelves.

On one wall was a map of the city of Hex, while on the other sprawled a map of the known world, including the nearby lands of New Ulthar, Nornhold, Sempiternia, Teratopolis, Tetractys, Verdigris, and Erubescence, and other places more distant: the city-states and kingdoms such as the Vassen Empire, Blodvinter, Purulence, Ganglion, Finchport, and Xell. The map even included more mysterious realms such as the distant continent to the east across the Blushing Ocean and the Entropic Wastes to the south.

The study also included a large bust of Master Melchior, famed enchanter, archmage, founder and still-living president of Master Melchior’s School of Thaumaturgy & Enchantment, and another bust of Keziah Elderwold, founder of the Metamorphic Scholarium and Mother of Modern Alchemy. The two busts stared at one another from either side of the room.

The party first investigated the papers on the desk, which proved to be the diary of Leopold Van Lurken.

Mazeday, 10th of the Month of Crones

Jasper set out for Erubescence today. Nicolet is fretting, of course, but the boy is old enough to begin taking an active hand in the business, and now that things have settled down between Hex and the Crimson Lands the time is ripe for trade. The Sanguine Lords and Ladies have skill in necromancy to rival the finest of the Académie Macabre, but they lack technological know-how – they’ve relied so long on undead labour they’re centuries behind the things gnomes are building now in Hex. Between that and the Sap we should make a fortune. I’m sure Jasper is fit for the job, and besides, there’ll be plenty of more experienced men with him.

Here at home, Annette has sent off her application to Umbral University. She’s tried her hand at a few cantrips to great effect. She’ll make a skilled illusionist, even if I would have preferred if she’d chosen Master Melchior’s School of Thaumaturgy & Enchantment or the Metamorphic Scholarium, even Fiend’s College… something useful. Illusion is just so frivolous! I suppose it makes a good school for a daughter on the marriage market, however – not that we’re in any urgent need of a match. I expect that every penniless noble for leagues will be battering down our door soon enough in hopes of getting their manicured fingers on our money.

Goatday, 16th of the Month of Snails

Jasper returned today after some weeks in Erubescence, and is full of strange tales: of the Bone Giants and the Tower of Teeth, of the Nurseries and the Grey Matrons, of the Blood Church and its great rival, the Cult of the Pallid Worm, who finds some small favour here in the guise of Mordiggia, the Charnel Goddess. He has brought back with him much gold, and contracts for further trade signed with various nobles and merchants in the Crimson Lands, and objects also, for sale here in Hex. These include a number of mysterious crates which he has insisted we store in our own cellars – Jasper claims the contents are far too valuable to leave in our warehouse in the Swelter.

The boy seems invigorated by his journey and full of an almost feverish excitement, though truth be told he is somewhat pale and thin of cheek; this is, perhaps, no surprise given the shroud of darkness that prevails over much of Erubescence, conjured by the Sanguine Lords and Ladies so they may walk freely even at noon, when their kind would normally be turned to ash. Still, I dislike the wild look in his eyes, or the curious, twitchy way he has taken to fidgeting…

Meanwhile, a pair of Nicolet’s earrings seem to have gone missing. She suspects the maid, Miranda, claiming to have found her once in the midst of trying on a necklace. Miranda claimed to have simply been cleaning the piece. I have had Geoffrey search the house, including the servant’s quarters, but he has turned up nothing. If Miranda did steal the earrings she must have already sold them, but without evidence I cannot bring myself to dismiss her.

Scaleday, 22nd of the Month of Snails

I fear for poor Jasper’s health! The boy seems averse to sunlight and has acquired an unhealthy pallor. Were he not quite free of bite-marks, happy to eat garlic, and perfectly visible in mirrors I would think him stricken with vampirism, courtesy of some Erubescent un-dead. He now spends all of his hours either cooped up in his room or else down in the basement gazing on the artefacts he has amassed, most particularly a large and singularly hideous stone idol dedicated to the Pallid Worm. I do quite understand his obsession with the outré and bizarre: after all, I myself possess a cabinet of curiosities filled with treasures from half a hundred lands, gleaned through years of meticulous collection, and have spent hours gazing on such oddities as the Instant Maze or the skeleton of a zoog, or speaking with the curious stone-elemental Gabbro, who walked the earth as a giant many aeons past and now, through the slow action of wind and rain, has dwindled to the size of a pebble. I’m sure, one day, he will have his own collection of such items. But still, it is unhealthy to spend so much time in the damp and dark – mould will get into his lungs and only worsen the queer hacking cough he seems to have developed.

Annette has been accepted to Umbral University and has already begun experimenting with more advanced spells – she even ensorcelled the mirror in her room, so that it could change your reflection, making it wear different clothes or altering your hair. And I dared think illusion-magic frivolous! Can you imagine what blushing young ladies and vain dandies would pay for such an object?! There are more than enough such folk in Fanghill. We could make our fortune over again, selling such things.

On the domestic front, Nicolet is concerned that the house has developed an infestation of some sort – perhaps some animal has died in the walls?  The cook found an alarming number of cockroaches in the pantry, and only this evening I discovered a maggot in my mutton! I quite lost my appetite.

Mossday, 3rd of the Month of Blushes

The physiker, the alchemist, and a priestess of the Magistra have all been by the house, but none can do anything for poor Jasper, and Nicolet is starting to panic. Neither spell nor prayer nor vigorous leeching nor medicinal potion has had any effect on him, and he retains an increasingly ghastly pallor – he looks like one of those horrible, degenerate ghouls one sees lurking in Shambleside, and his skin has a slick, slimy texture, as from a fever. He babbles strangely, keeping us awake late and night with gibberish chants, and often refuses to open his eyes, but bumbles about the house with them closed, his hands wrapped about his body. It is most strange. His room has taken on a rank stench, even with frequent cleaning, and seems infested even more thickly with the vermin that now plague the house in distressing numbers. And, of course, we still find him sneaking down to the cellars, despite having locked the door – he must be stealing the key. I must make arrangements to remove the thing from the house.

I fear some strange madness has taken him, a sickness contracted in the Crimson Lands. If he does not improve soon the authorities may well come knocking, to put the boy in Catch-All! I would not let such a fate befall him, for even the thought of that pestilential slum makes my skin crawl with horror, but to escape the Plague District he may need to be smuggled out of the city – perhaps sent to one of the sanitaria in the mountains, or some quiet place in the country.

The whole house has taken on a horrid gloominess in light of Jasper’s condition – the shadows denser, the light dimmer. Mildew and mould seem to be spreading up from the basement. Paintings that once were bright now seem grim, the faces of portraits ill-favoured. Even the grandfather clock, chiming in the front hall, seems to groan with an unhealthy sound, as if the mechanism itself were taken ill. There is a queer rustling sound in the walls. Even Annette seems subdued. I only pray she has not contracted whatever sickness plagues my eldest son. More than once Jasper has been found out of bed, lingering at his sister’s door in a way that is most disquieting, his eyelids squeezed shut, his clammy hands pawing at the door.

Starday, 12th of the Month of Blushes

Gods preserve me… I have locked myself here in the study, but fear I will not live out the night – or if I do, I shall not be unchanged. There are things which creep under the door, even now. There is no escape, unless perhaps I risk leaping from the window. I can hear the servants screaming elsewhere on this floor, as Jasper and Annette wreak their blood havoc. I scarce recognized her, nor Jasper either – for what stood before me, smeared in blood, was not my son, but some awful white eyeless thing, spewing blasphemous prayers to an unclean goddess. Whatever he touched began to decay, maggots bursting forth from furnishings and floorboards at his touch. Great tides of writhing worms and beetles and flies swarmed through the halls and filled the mouths and bodies of the servants, making them into grotesque puppets.

There are chittering sounds coming from outside the door, and somewhere a flute is playing a shrill and malignant tune. I pray only that Nicolet is spared, and that when the corruption that has taken this place is discovered it will be rooted out and expunged. Should anyone find this journal, I plead with you – kill whatever it is that I have become, and my children as well, and burn this house to the ground. Whatever evil has seized this place, it must not spread!

Next the group began investigating the bookshelves and busts in search of a trigger for the secret door implied by the map, eventually discovering that the eyes of the two busts were buttons which could be depressed. When Melchior and Keziah seemed to be winking at one another, a bookshelf swung open, revealing the cabinet of wonders beyond.

cabinet

Behind the secret door lay a small room in which all manner of strange objects were jammed. These ranged from the merely odd to the fabulously strange, even by the standards of Hex. These objects included:

  • A stuffed wyvern hatchling.
  • A medusa’s death-mask.
  • A perfectly reproduced miniature model of Hex that had been enchanted to include illusions of tiny little people moving about in the streets and in and out of buildings.
  • A Lengian skull.
  • A zoog skeleton.
  • A puzzle box engraved with maze-like symbols.
  • A small painting of a Vegetable Lamb.
  • A gnomish automaton soldier approximately 1 foot tall.
  • A gnomish automaton angel approximately 1 foot tall that, when wound up, offers patronizing sermons in the name of the Magistra.
  • A bottle of greyish-green liquid, the bubbles of which contain weird, surreal visions of strange landscapes, as well as scenes of everyday life.
  • Six eyeballs of indeterminate species floating in liquid.
  • A minotaur horn.
  • A beautifully realistic child’s doll of ambiguous sex. The doll had a minor enchantment: when the drawstring on its back is pulled it temporarily assumed the semblance of a real child.
  • A dark blue rhomboid stone.
  • A shrunken cat’s head.
  • A letter of some kind.
  • An orchid made entirely out of pink crystal.
  • A potion of gaseous form.
  • A flask of endless coffee.
  • A miniature shovel large enough for a gnome or a small child.
  • A tiny cosmological model made of intricate clockwork showing speculative locations of the Dreamlands, the Underworld, Faerie, Anathema, and the mortal plane.
  • A tiny potted plant that produces small, multi-coloured berries
  • A small, green fish in a glass bowl.
  • A Librarian Voidcraft in a bottle modeled on the vessel glimpsed through powerful telescopes at the edge of the solar system.
  • A gently snoring stone which is in fact a minor earth elemental, as the party discovered, called Gabbro.
  • A porcelain mask.
  • An ornate pocket-watch engraved with the letter “A” on the back.

Manfredo_Settala_-_Cabinet_of_curiosities

After rifling greedily through these riches and plundering the cabinet thoroughly the party heard something approaching from down below – an eerie skittering, slithering noise. Garvin crept quickly and stealthily through the corridors while the rest of the party remained near the study. The thief was first to spy the source of the noise: a flushed, fleshy creature creeping up the stairs out of the gloom on limbs that seemed inadequate for its corpulent, worm-like bulk. Bloated and blotched with pink, the monstrosity was clad in the tattered remnants of what might have been a finely-tailored dress, twisted round its sinuous body. Its neckless face had vestigial features, though its mouth remains rather horribly humanoid, with full, red, womanly lips and pointed white fangs. A few patches of long, dark hair sprouted from the creature’s scalp. The thing seemed mostly blind but remained cognizant of the world around it. The remains of the snapped-off pool cue protruded from its body.

vampire mouth

Still concealed, Garvin crept through the corridors of the house and fired at the horror, but his bolt embedded itself in the thing’s bulk to little noticeable effect. The monstrosuty surged towards the rest of the party and a fierce battle ensued, Vespidae hurling javelins and performing waspkin battle-dances while Yam and Armand desperately assailed the monster with acid and fire spells, the latter of which proved highly effective. Garvin, firing more bolts, was scratched by one of the monstrosity’s clawed appendages, a terrible wound that tore through leather and flesh. Blood pouring from this great tear, he slipped into unconsciousness while Vespidae, in desperation, cast dissonant whispers, causing the worm-like creature to flee – not down the passage but by burrowing down through the sagging, rotten floorboards. It dropped nimbly to the floor of the front hall below, where Armand and Yam continued their arcane bombardment from above. Engulfed in flame, the creature shrieked and withered, shrinking and shrivelling to assume the form of a young woman, scorched and unconscious. Yam, surmising that this was likely Annette Van Lurken, hurried down to the front hall and thrust the remains of pool cue through her heart. Annette vomited up copious quantities of blood and lay still. At Yam’s urging she was locked in the butler’s pantry, the gnome reasoning that she might be revived later by Umbral University, and perhaps even restored to life.

“We should burn this place down,” Armand said. “Like the diary said.” The effete sorcerer was clearly perturbed by the house.

“Not yet,” Garvin said. “There’s still the other thief. Let’s try the third floor.”

Exploration of the third floor was brief, preceded by careful scouting using the gloves of thief’s sight to look through the ceiling. The party quickly located a man who might be the thief in question, seemingly suspended from the ceiling in the guest room. Ignoring the nursery, the group briefly ventured into Annette’s room, a bedchamber with a large makeup table and several boxes containing jewellery – necklaces, earrings, and other adornments. There was also a wardrobe, open, revealing many beautiful dresses, a resplendent four-poster bed with silk sheets, and a large mirror, which the party very wisely avoided looking into. Seizing a few oddments of jewellery and a wand lying on the makeup table, the party next entered the guest chamber, a simple room with modest decorations. Seemingly suspended from the ceiling was a man in dark, bloodstained clothing and cloak, which somehow was not dangling towards the floor but remained swathed around him. The man stood stock-still and deathly pale, but his eyes were open and his breathing shallow. His neck had been savaged nastily and was scabbed with dozens of ugly puncture-wounds. There was one window here, but a glyph was scrawled upon it in blood, indicating an arcane lock.

After supplying the thief with a potion of healing and helping him down, the party learned his name was Felix Stonemouth, and that he had been imprisoned in the chamber for some days or perhaps weeks, being slowly drained dry by Annette.

Fire_interior

As the party prepared to leave the house, a buzzing became audible from the master bedchamber – a horrible whining, droning sound, as of some monstrous insect. Hastening down the stairs, the adventurers glimpsed a single dainty, hairy leg pick its way out of the bedchamber doors. With a shudder the party hurried onwards, withdrawing down the stairs and through the front hall, out into the cold, starless night, Yam making sure to retrieve the comatose, staked body of Annette Van Lurken. Once safely outside Armand lit the house ablaze with a series of fire bolts. As the place burned, Vespidae took to the sky and uttered a prayer to the Queen in Yellow, asking that the goddess receive the artworks consumed in the conflagration as a sacrifice. Whatever lay below in the still-unexplored cellar would be trapped beneath the burnt wreckage of the house…

Images: Thief concept art, Jacques Rigaud‘s View of the Chapel at Versailles, screenshots and concept art from Amnesia, Domenico RempsA Cabinet of Curiosity, Manfredo Settala’s cabinet of curiosities, from “Museo o Galeria,” Ben Templesmith’s 30 Days of Night cover, still from Dark Shadows.

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