The characters in this session were:
- Armand Percival Reginald Francois Eustace de la Marche III, a suspiciously pale, apparently human noble and sorcerer, and certainly not a ghoul (how dare such a thing be suggested).
- Comet the Unlucky, waspkin ranger, a dreamer and an idealist, longing for the restoration of the Elder Trees and the liberation of his people. Loathes the Harvester’s Guild, parasites and destroyers.
- Garvin Otherwise, a human rogue and burglar of the Ravenswing Thieves’ Guild, with a very, very peculiar past and a zoog pet, Lenore.
- Miri, trollblood wizard, plucked from Mount Shudder and raised amongst Hex’s arcane elites. A recent graduate of Fiend’s College.
- An ancient and enigmatic Lengian cleric of the Mother of Spiders, name unknown. She wears bulky ecclesiastical garments covering an uncertain number of limbs and goes by “Sister.”
XP Awarded: 300 XP
The day had come. Genial Jack was arriving.
The city had turned out to see him in vast numbers, flocking to Croakmarsh and the Isle of Entrails and the docklands of the Swelter. Thousands more had camped along the banks of Sawtooth Sound, or clambered to Stumpridge, Cobweb Cliffs, or even the forever-torrential Downpour Heights, hoping to spy his arrival using looking glasses. The richest had hired hot air balloons or magically floating platforms to gaze upon him, or watched from the balconies of Fanghill.
The Variegated Company – flush from their recent exploits – viewed the giant whale’s arrival from one such airship.
“Sister, you’ve met Jack before, isn’t that right?” Garvin asked.
“Yes. Twenty years ago,” Sister said, a slightly wistful look entering her several eyes. “I spoke with him, actually.”
“Really?” Miri seemed suprirsed. “I thought only the Navigators had that privilege.”
“I was… close with one of them. Adam Quell. He’ll look older now. Folk of this plane age so rapidly.”
“So, we are agreed, then?” Armand asked. “We will sell the items acquired at Delirium Castle in one of the auction-houses in Jackburg.”
“Is it true the city’s actually inside him?” Comet asked.
“Inside and outside,” Sister explained. “Outer Jackburg can be sealed when he submerges. The inner city is made up of flotsam and jetsam, cobbled together into a makeshift town. The more who’ve come to dwell in Jack, the more he grows, fed on their faith.”
“So they worship him? Like a god?” Comet continued, glancing at the Elder Trees he worshipped – the living tree in Ambery, and the dead trees in the Boil, Stumpridge, and Suckletown.
“He is a god. Or as good as one. His Navigators channel his power as surely as I channel that of the Mother of Spiders. Their minds are trained from birth to make contact with his. His mind can be overwhelming – alien. He is ancient, inhuman… but kind, impossibly kind.”
Conversation dwindled as a vast murmur spread throughout the city, turning to excited cheers as Jack, at last, came into view.
His approach was slow and gentle, so as not to drown the city in a tidal wave, but even so the riverbanks and bridges were buffeted by spray as he surfaced, and a great cheer went up as he appeared, first a rising shadow, and then a breaching enormity, a thing bigger than the mind should hold. Though the friendliness and benevolence and tremendous care of Genial Jack was central to his mythic identity and vital to his interaction with his many ports of call, there was still terror mixed in with the awe, delight, and wonder his bulk inspired. Were he to have plowed into Hex, to beach upon the city, he would l have leveled most of it in an instant, killing countless thousands. Fortunately, Jack’s beneficence was legendary.
He was like something scaled differently than the rest of the world. A mountain of flesh clad in a second skin of gleaming metal and stone, the submersible city he carried on his back. Eyes the size of cathedral domes gazed out at the stupefied onlookers to either side. A great burst of spray erupted from his blowhole, touching off more cheers and applause.
Then his great jaws opened, water rushing in, and a fleet of ships rushed out, flags flying in the wind, ships of every type and nation, flying alongside the cetacean flag of Jackburg: galleons and triremes and whirring submarines, corpseships from Erubescence, dolphin-drawn chariots, puffing steamships, hovercraft from Verdigris, living boat-things from Teratopolis, amorphous amoeba-vessels from beyond the Entropic Wastes, chitin barqentines from across the Blushing Sea. Behind them, in the great beast’s mouth and through into his stomach, the lights of Jackburg twinkled.
The party descended and made for the Swelter, hiring one of the numerous ferries ready to take eager Hexians to Jackburg. The boat drew close to the vast beast. The Company decided to begin their visit to Jackburg in Melonward, hoping to speak with Sister’s Navigator friend, Adam Quell. On their way they saw some of the Whaleguard vessels, carefully watching over the first ships to enter Jack’s maw. Some were not boats but Watchturtles – gigantic sea-turtles upon which had been constructed Whaleguard outposts, complete with periscopes, harpoons, and cannons.
The religious district, Melonward was centred around the Cathedral of Genial Jack, a temple built atop its god, where the Navigators communed with their vessel and deity. The party docked along Jack’s flank and took a winding series of walkways up to the top of his head. The people who walked the streets of Melonward were generally uniformed, either in the stylized captain’s garb – complete with tricorn hats – that marked the Navigators, or in the sea-green military uniforms of the Whaleguard.
The party made their way to the Cathedral, entering a long hall lined with statues – former High Navigators and others fallen in defending Jackburg. Sister’s breath caught as she passed one of these statues, the stone semblance of a tall, powerfully built man in Navigator’s robes, a naval sabre in one hand and a flintlock pistol in the other. The man stood atop a heap of bodies, while a swarm of gelatinous creatures like humanoid jellyfish were sculpted assailing him. At the statue’s base was an inscription: “Adam Quell, 1723-1780. Died defending Jackburg against the Gelatinous Empire in the Battle of the Gilded Sea.”
Sister stood for a moment in quiet contemplation, the party respectfully silent. Then a voice broke the silence.
“Sister? Is that you?”
A young, olive-skinned woman with a confidence and poise greater than her years suggested stood in a frock coat so long and ornate it was closer to a robe. Perched on her head was the lovechild of a priestly mitre and a tricorne hat. Scars that look like claw-marks were visible on one cheek.
“Do we know one another?” Sister said.
“Parthenia Quell,” the woman said, extending a gloved hand. “I remember you, a little, from when I was young, and ,y father told me so many stories about you.” She nodded towards his statue.
“I’m sorry to hear of his passing,” Sister said.
“He died nobly,” Parthenia said. “And his memory lives forever in Jack’s mind.” She smiled. “You know what that means, of course, better than most – if my father is to be believed, you’re one of the few outsiders with a mind capable of communing with Jack.”
“It was only a brief contact. But quite an experience.”
Parethenia nodded. “Well, I am glad to see you again. In fact, there might be something you could do to help us… but we can speak of that later. Is there anything you wish to see on your visit here to Jackburg?”
“We’re trying to set up an auction,” Comet interjected. “We have some stuff to sell.”
“An auction? I’d recommend the Queen of Lost Souls in Queen’s Corner – the best gallery in Jackburg. In fact, I might be interested in attending. With my father’s passing, I’ve inherited his position as one of the High Navigators; we’re always on the lookout for useful artefacts, and Hex’s treasures are legendary.”
“Thanks for the advice,” Sister said. “I hope to see more of you during our visit.”
“Certainly. Send along an invitation once the auction is arranged.” She nodded. “I’m afraid I must leave you now – I’m on my way to a meeting with the Captains’ Conclave.”
Sister nodded in return as Parthenia departed. They lingered for a time in the Cathedral. Sister lit a votive candle for Adam and prayed at the shrine of Jack. As she knelt before his altar, she felt a glimmer of his mind, reaching out to glance against hers, and a surge of divine power filled her – the God Whale recognizing a former friend of his servant.
Respects paid, the party descended to Jack’s huge, still-open mouth. His huge eye rolled in its socket to glance at them, and Sister once again felt a flicker of familiarity.
The bizarre mansions of Mawtown dangled from chains suspended from the roof of Genial Jack’s massive mouth, glittering like lanterns against the darkness of his gullet. Accessible only via private elevators lowered from the foyers of these luxurious palaces, these mansions were partially sheltered from water by Joe’s huge baleen, but like the Outer Town they were built to be watertight, sealed against flooding. Mawtown’s real estate was considered especially valuable, and only the richest men, women, and other entities in Jackburg had enough wealth to afford homes in the mouth of the whale.
A tram led from Mawtown down Jack’s trachea and into the forestomach. Along the sides of Jack’s cheeks were a series of docks, boathouses, and warehouses, the lower half of Mawtown, where submersibles and ships in the vast Jackburg fleet were stored when Jack was on the move. These docks made for a colourful scene. On a wharf near the warehouses, two women with cutlasses were fighting one another before a gathered crowd, busily taking bets, while an official Whaleguard judge carefully adjudicated the legal duel. Meanwhile, several guides advertised their services on a pier where vessels from Hex were docking. These included a calico-furred ratfolk woman, a chitinous karkinoi missing one of his pincers, with a map of the city carved into his carapace, a handsome selkie man with a thickly braided beard and intricate glyph tattoos, and a red-haired human woman with a peg leg and a two-headed parrot on her shoulder. A ratfolk moneychanger exchanged Hexian talents and guineas for the gold dubloons and pieces of eight used by Jackburg.
After swapping their change, the party made for the guides, approaching the crusty karkinoi.
“Ah, you want guide?” the crab-man asked. “Phorcys will guide you! I know every twist and turn, outside and in! Just five dubloons a day.”
“Not a bad idea to get a guide,” Miri said. “I’ve heard Inner Jackburg can be confusing.”
“You’re hired, my good crab,” Armand declared.
“So, where should we visit next?” Miri asked, looking around. “Should we go straight to Queen’s Corner, or…?”
“Let me try something,” Sister said. She reached out a hand and touched the inside of Jack’s cheek, then muttered a brief incantation, pointing to each of her companions in turn. Instantly, each felt a tiny flash of pain as gills opened on their necks. “Thanks Jack,” Sister said. “Now we can breathe underwater, if we want to explore the Grooves.”
“The Grooves, eh?” Garvin said. “I’ve heard tell some of Jackburg’s, ah, less savoury individuals can be found there.”
“You’ve heard right, my friend,” Phorcys said. “The Grooves’re home for us karkinoi, and other water-dwellers too, but there are some rough types around! A working crab’s district, the Grooves. I show you – come, come.”
The karkinoi dived, legs wriggling. Armand quckly wove a spell to keep the party’s clothes dry, and the group submerged, following Phorcys underwater.
Those of Jackburg who prefered the open sea to the Inner Town but who lacked the funds to dwell in Melonward or Blowhole Row generally opted for the Grooves, a series of narrow folds along Jack’s underside. The structures here, unlike the sealed, watertight buildings atop the whale, were open to the sea; only in conditions of war or extreme pressure would the denizens of this district evacuate to a sealed location. Due to its aqueous, almost constantly submerged nature, all of the folk here were of the merfolk races: karkinoi, polypoids, down-on-their-luck octopoids, and otherwise houseless undines.
Phorcys led the party to an underwater tavern, the Sea Slug, where merfolk drank from specially engineered conch-shells equipped with intricate straws and played games with cards of wood and metal. The party caroused briefly, enjoying the novelty of the underwater setting. Garvin listened in on a few conversations surreptitiously.
“Snag wants that product moved fast,” he heard one karkinoi saying to a polypoid – a being like a humanoid coral.
The creature nodded. “We have contacts with this group here called the Crowsbeak Guild. Pay big money for ambergris.”
“You’d better move fast. I’m sure the Mischief and the Cuttlethieves are trying to shore up their own bargains.”
Intrigued, Garvin made his retreat before he was noticed.
Their exploration of the Grooves completed, the party decided to enter Inner Jackburg. They returned to Mawtown and took the tram down Jack’s throat, passing briefly through the forestomach and the district of Flotsamville.
Although not the oldest part of Jackburg – that honour lay with the ancient ruins in Jack’s intestines – Flotsamville was the first settlement in the modern iteration of the town, a rickety mass of swaying rope bridges and buildings designed to oscillate gently to the peristaltic pressures of the forestomach. Largely vertical in nature, Flotsamville was formed out of the wreckage of ships, refashioned into homes and shops circling the walls of the forestomach, a criss-crossed web of bridges between, steps and elevators leading up and down. Flags from a thousand countries hung like banners or tapestries from posts, while the figureheads of countless ships decorated every building, worshipped as minor household gods. Still Jackburg’s densest residential district, Flotsamville also had numerous fish-markets, along with warehouses full of supplies for long journeys. Down below, gleaming in the dark, the party could see the lights of the Coils, glittering amongst the pale bones of the dead sea serpent that gives that sultry district its name.
“What’s down there?” Comet asked Phorcys.
“Oh, those’re the Coils,” the karkinoi replied. “See, this one time, Jack accidentally swallowed this sea serpent. It was a whole thing. Came thrashing into the forestomach. We had to kill it – huge battle down here, gave Jack terrible indigestion. But we slew the beast. And then, you know. Built a bunch of casinos.”
The party resolved to experience these chance-houses at a later time, but for now passed to Bellyborough in the Main Stomach.
The craftsman’s district of Bellyborough included guildhalls, workshops, and factories, furnishing Jackburg with all of the artisan goods it needed. Apart from the smiths of Bezoar Crook and the ship-builders of Barnaclebank in the Outer Town, all of Jackburg’s craftsmen congregated here, dedicating streets (horizontal and vertical) to their individual pursuits: brewing, butchering, joining, locksmithing, tailoring, haberdashery, weaving, ropemaking, tanning, potting, parchment-making, and every other craft imaginable. While many finished goods were sold in Borborygmus Bazaar, some artisans sold their goods directly to the public.
The party noted a huge crowd filling a cramped square between several large breweries. They appeared to be feasting upon a corpse – that of an urchin-headed humanoid – being served by other urchin-headed humanoids, who doled out pieces of quivering, tender flesh, raw and lightly seasoned with sea salt.
“What in the name of the Magistra?” Garvin asked. Miri watched with curiosity.
“Ah, an urchin funeral,” Phorcys explained. “The urchins, see, they don’t like to work. Beg for food, for coins. But when you give it to them, Jack is happy. You get a little blessing from the god in exchange. And the urchins, they keep track of who gives. Dunno how – they just know. When one of em dies, everyone who gave money or food gets a piece of the urchin. I ate one once – delicious, the best thing I ever ate. It’s an honour to be invited.”
Intrigued, the party pressed on, now descending into the sprawling hub of the Inner Town, Borborygmus Bazaar. The market fills the centre of Jack’s main stomach, bordering Bellyborough, Queen’s Corner, and the Gutgardens. One of the world’s most famous marketplaces, it was a colourful confusion of tents, stalls, and market halls, selling everything imaginable – and many things quite beyond imagination. Whirring clockwork devices manufactured by the artificers of Verdigris, spices and hieroglyphic scrolls from New Ulthar, ancient texts scavenged from the library-undercity of Hex, reanimated thralls dredged from the corpse-factories of Erubescence, Contingency Stones extracted from the paradoxical mines of the Entropic Wastes, spellswords forged in the mystic smithies of Folded Realm, masks such as those worn in far-off Xell, baubles of shapeshifting glass from across the Blushing Sea, and thousands of other oddities, curios, artefacts, and wonders – all were for sale in the Bazaar, a treasure-trove of marvels from every corner of the world. Many of these items are illegal in other ports of call: poisons, dangerous magical drugs, forbidden spells, and similar items.
The party made several purchases. Sister bought a Gargoyle Lamp from a clever-faced goblin: when lit and used to illuminate a statue that statue became temporarily lively enough to answer simple questions posed to it about what it may have seen over the years. Armand bought a “Suit for Any Occasion” from a human merchant in colourful silks – a set of animated clothes that sensed the social occasion and polymorphed accordingly, becoming a fine suit or gown, work-clothes, or even full plate armour. The party also found themselves near-victims of a ratfolk pickpocket, who they gently deterred.
After some other brief explorations – a brief peek at the ruins in Bezoar Crook, a stroll through the Gutgardens – the party went to Queen’s Corner. Four ships gave Queen’s Corner its name: the Queen Raphaella’s Vengeance, the Queen of Carnage, the Tenebrous Queen, and the Queen of Lost Souls. These four ships, respectively, had been repurposed as a courthouse, a grand hotel, a theatre, and an auction house and art gallery. Suspended high above the bustle of Borborygmus Bazaar below, the four Queens were some of the oldest and most intact of the many wrecks of Genial Jack, and were a centre of the city’s artistic, financial, and legal life. They also frequently drew large crowds, as Queen Raphaella’s Vengeance had a duelling piste used to settle many legal disputes according to the libertine laws of Jackburg.
The party made for the Queen of Lost Souls: an opulent craft, once a legendary battleship, its ornate but unloaded cannons carefully polished and kept on display. Up above the ship supported studios for sculpture, painting, and the like; through portholes the party could see artists at work, many of them the sentient coral-folk known as polypoids. Below decks, past guards in the ancient naval uniform of the vessel, the hold had been converted into a vast art gallery and auction house.
Morphic landscapes that twisted and changed, family portraits magically entangled with their subjects to show dynasties shift, painted masks from Xell, living paintings from Tetractys that wave and speak to passersby, pallid bone-statues from Blodvinter, automaton artworks from Verdigris like clockwork gladiators who fight an endless duel on a dais, a Lengian cobweb tapestry, and hundreds of other treasures could be found within the ship – artworks saved from shipwrecks, claimed by Jackburg by the ancient law of salvage.
The party spoke to the owner, Captain and Curator Nodus VIII, a polypoid himself – dapper, debonair, and exquisitely mannered, eighth of his line, some fifteen-hundred years old, with the finest taste on the high seas After Sister casually dropped Parthenia Quell’s name and they showed the Captain a sample of the goods they intended to auction, he gladly put on an auction for the adventurers in the Auction Hall. This was a glorious hall on the bottom of the boat, where the floor had been partially replaced with panes of reinforced glass, allowing attendants to look down at the vertiginous layers of Jackburg below – the teeming bustle of the Borborygmus Bazaar, and below the glass domes and swaying seaweed forests of the Gutgardens.
A few days later, the party returned to the Auction House, the artefacts they’d looted from Delirium Castle on display. A sizeable crowd had gathered, and more of the Variegated Company were in attendance. They surveyed the crowd before the auction began, eyeing the wealthy individuals who would soon be bidding on the various magical objects they’d decided to part with.
Alabastor and Garvin approach the sinister Duke of Bees: a thin, slender man with skin the colour of pale honey, standing beside a hulking warrior carrying his own head in his hands. The thin man was distinguished by the tiny holes in his bald head, honeycomb-like, from which crawl buzzing bees.
“I wonder how many bee-stings it would take to kill that man over there?” the Duke muttered. “Oh, sorry, hello there. My apologies.” He eyed Alabastor carefully, then looked to Garvin. “Impressive selection of items on display here.” His voice changed strangely in tone, pitch, and volume, like bees buzzing.
“Thank you. Do you plan to bid on any in particular?”
“There are several that have excited my attention,” the Duke replied. “That said… there is another matter I would speak of. It has become known to me that you possess certain talents that may be of use to Her Majesty, Queen Mab,” he said. “Would you be interested in some light employment during your time here?”
The two Ravenswing thieves exchanged a swfit hand gesture of agreement.
“Certainly,” Alabstor said – conscious that this creature was an emissary of his own secret patron, the Faerie Queen Mab.
“Excellent,” the Duke continued, lowering his voice to a whisper and moving to a more secluded corner of the ship, the better to communicarte privately. “Here in Jackburg dwell a lost tribe of giants, the Fomorians, exiled from Faerie many centuries past for high crimes against Her Majesty. Their leader, King Balor, led a rebellion against Queen Mab’s rule, and was cast onto this mortal sphere with his misbegotten people as a result of his transgression. When Genial Jack swallowed up the sinking remnants of Hy-Brasil, the island of the Fomorions, he saved them from watery death. Chunks of that broken realm now form the place known as Bezoar Bend, where the giants dwell still.
“Here, then, is your task. Within the caves of the Fomorians, deep in the reaches of the Bezoar, lies the ancient throne-room of Balor, where the giant king still slumbers, waking but rarely. Here, in the throne room, the Queen would ask you to plant… this.” He opens a hand. Within it is a black seed. “Simply place it in the earthen floor of the hall. In exchange for this service, one of my bees will lead you to a secret treasure of the Fomorians, which you may claim as reward – and, in addition, I have been authorized to provide you with one hundred Elfmarks of Faerie gold.”
“An interesting job,” Garvin said. “We will consider it. We may take cabins here on Jack – we hear he is bound for Erubescence, and we have business in the vampire city.”
“Of course, of course,” the Duke said. “Do be in touch.”
Comet, meanwhile, was conversing with none other than Pieter “Wormbeard” Sluk: a hulking, amorphous creature with a body seemingly made out of semi-solid sludge that squelched through the room, although thankfully he did not leave a trail of slime – the mud seemed to be part of his body. A huge beard of fat, writhing earthworms the size of a forearm wriggled on his massive chin.
“I have heard of you, little one,” the mud elemental said, its voice deep and glutinous. “I attended your trial. A gross miscarriage of justice.”
“Oh, ah, thank you?” Comet said. “The Harvesters are… well. I don’t want to use impolite language in such, ah, fancy company.”
The mud elemental laughed. “I have also heard that you and your companions are skilled at the arts of stealth – as these objects clearly attest.” Wrombeard waved a gloopy hand. “I wonder if you might have time for a little side-venture, of interest to the Unfettered.”
“Uh, possibly,” the waspkin said. “What’s the job?”
“I know your feelings concerning the Harvesters,” he said. “You may be less familiar with the finfolk of Jackburg. They are an ancient and unwholesome people. It is said that Genial Jack snared them in his great jaws to free the world from their depredations, for they were once kidnappers, enslaving those they snatched in their underwater halls. Jack ate up their city of Finfolkaheem, but being a kind and generous beast, offered them a home in his innards. And so they dwell here still, lurking in their eerie stone monoliths, and the shifting maze of a town that sprawls about them. Even the Whaleguard stay out of Finfolkaheem.
“Slavery is illegal here in Jackburg, as in Hex, but the finfolk have found loopholes, just as our own city has. They buy up the indenture contracts of those they come across in Jack’s travels, a form of servitude still legal under the city’s constitution. They are also known to trade in conjured beings – illegal here in Jackburg, but legal in Hex, as you know.”
Wormbeard gurgled. “The Unfettered have learned of an agreement, negotiated in advance of Jack’s arrival. They plan to trade the finfolk a large quantity of sap, in exchange for a collection of teeth – seemingly the fangs of some beast. These objects seem innocuous, but in fact, the teeth are carved with sigils trapping jinni within them, obtained from the markets of Marainein, the City of the Wasting God. The Harvesters will use these spirits in their endless pursuit of wealth, putting them to use in the extraction of sap from the remaining Elder Tree.
“The Unfettered cannot stop this exchange ourselves. But, if someone were to steal the teeth from the finfolk before the trade could be made – or, alternatively, to steal them from the Harvesters after the trade – we have ways of freeing the jinni from their dental prisons and getting them to safety. And, of course, we would show our appreciation for any daring soul willing to perform such a rescue.”
Comet nodded. “I’ll talk to my group. We may be able to help!”
With that, the auction began, and the party began the lucrative but strangely painful process of parting with some of their hard-won treasures. The bids flew fast and high, and soon the party had amassed a fortune – more than enough to construct the vessel they desired.
As the auction wrapped up, Nodus banging the gavel a final time, a muffled grunt esd audible. A guard went flying down the stairs, hitting the floor hard, blood trickling from his temple. Someone screamed, and then dense, dark vapour began rapidly flooding the room: gas like sepia ink.
The party caught brief glimpses of tentacles or beaks; Miri, swearing loudly, whipped out her wands and fired off several magic missiles. There was an inhuman squeal of pain, and something whistled through the darkness: a dart, hitting the trollblood in the neck. Another struck Garvin. Both slumped to the floor, poisoned and unconscious.
Cephalus, meanwhile, tackled one of the shapes, bearing it to the ground.
When the smoke cleared, the items sold at the auction – as well as numerous artworks from the gallery above – were be gone. A hole had been cut in the glass floor, a rope tied up to a beam nearby.
“The Cuttlethieves!” Nodus raged. “Weremollusc burglars! We’ve been robbed!”
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.
- Caulis, a homunculus warlock liberated from its master; has made a pact with certain Faerie Powers.
- Garvin Otherwise, a human rogue and burglar of the Ravenswing Thieves’ Guild, with a very, very peculiar past and a zoog pet, Lenore.
- An ancient and enigmatic Lengian cleric of the Mother of Spiders, name unknown. She wears bulky ecclesiastical garments covering an uncertain number of limbs and goes by “Sister.”
- Yam, an eccentric gnome illusionist and local graduate student at Umbral University. Yam cares little for money. Yam is curious. Yam is Yam
XP Awarded: 350 XP
The party relaxed in the fragrant recesses of the Green Star, planning their next move. To construct the spacecraft they would need to voyage among the Outer Spheres, they had learned from Gideon Bottlescrew, they would need two things: an Aetheric Engine, a piece of Librarian technology, one of which was said to be locked in the depths of the Citadel of the Perpetual Storm, and approximately 50,000 guineas.
The group debated which goal to pursue first, when something fluttered into the tavern and landed on their table: an imp, wearing a sigil-graved collar and clutching a scroll bearing the seal of the Hexad Council, the executive branch of Hex’s government, consisting of six officials elected by the magic-wielding populace of the city.
“Council summons!” the imp declared, depositing the scroll on the table before disappearing in a puff of brimstone.
Garvin eyed the scroll suspiciously, but Sister broke the seal and unfurled the message, reading carefully.
“Sounds like the Council wants to talk to us. Tonight,” she said. “In connection with our activities in Troll Country.”
“Is that a good idea?” Caulis said, a little nervous.
“Disobeying Council summons seems like a bad idea,” Alabastor said, mopping his forehead with a handkerchief.
“We might as well go,” Garvin said, looking pale. “It’ll be trouble if we don’t.”
As they talked, another newcomer burst into the tavern – a sailor, by the look of him, reeling a bit, his cheeks ruddy and his eyes flashing.
“Genial Jack!” he proclaimed. “Genial Jack is coming!”
Hex is a city benumbed to miracles and magic, jaded after so many marvels. The citizens daily see the dead walk, hear machines speak, smell the winds of Faerie blowing in from the Tangle. But the prospect of seeing Genial Jack thaws the cold and cynical hearts of even the most deeply disenchanted.
Genial Jack: Jack the Generous, Jack the Gentle, Jack the Gigantic. A living wonder of the world, a creature who many believe to be the oldest living organism on the planet, who may remember the Librarians themselves. He is a whale, a whale the size of a mountain, who for centuries now has been the host to the teeming town of Jackburg, a place of swallowed ships and lost sailors from countless different lands. The first, they say, he ate by accident, but they survived on the fish that daily poured into his belly, and made new homes in his forestomach, a ramshackle village made from the detritus of broken boats. It was years later that they realized they were not the first to do so, finding older structures deeper in Jack’s endless innards, ruins of some primeval predecessor Jackburg from aeons ago. In time, Jackburg expanded, colonizing his mouth, his skin, his other three stomachs. Mansions dangle from the roof of his maw, ironclad watchtowers bristle from round his blowhole, a temple tops his head, while in his belly, built to withstand the peristaltic forces of the muscular forestomach, thrives a small city, formed from the scavenged hulks of ships from every corner of the ocean.
Jackburg is a city of traders and priests, for the Navigators – mystics descended from ancient captains – commune with the beast, using their prayers and sacrifices to direct Jack from city to city. A fleet of trading ships and naval vessels now accompany him everywhere, and fortresses cling to his barnacled flanks, cannons swiveling alongside his fins. Their travels take them around the planet, and they bring with them the treasures and stories and languages and knowledge of distant places, from realms across the Blushing Sea and past the Frontiers of Chaos, and even from the frozen expanse of the Inscrutable Lands in the far south of the world. And wherever they land, Genial Jack opens his great jaws, and the folk of Jackburg pour forth to trade and revel with all those they meet.
The sailor spoke on, telling of the sighting. Jack would be in the city in a month’s time. Sister smiled, remembering her previous experiences with the generous whale; Yam, filled with excitement, lamented that they would have to wait a month to visit Genial Jack’s metropolitan innards.
Excited about Genial Jack’s approach but burdened by their pressing obligation at the Hexad Council, the party paid their bill and set out for Enigma Heap.
Of all the myriad districts of Hex, none is stranger than Enigma Heap, the ruinous heart of the city, a place where the Old City of the Librarians bursts forth from the earth to claw at the sky with impossible spires. The architecture here is in fact a mixture of the ancient stonework and iridescent metal of the Old City and newer constructions mimicking this style, along with churches and government buildings in the Tentacular Baroque style, gilded monstrosities of marble resembling masses of cephalopod flesh.
The people here were dwarfed by the primeval alien immensities surrounding them. Most were civic functionaries of priests of the Unspeakable Ones: agents of power both secular and sacred. Though they had become desensitized to the disorienting qualities of the architecture, the party had not: the buildings here caused a series of almost-instant nosebleeds, and indeed, several enterprising street-urchins sold tissues and nose-plugs at the border of the Heap for a silver piece, which the adventurers quickly availed themselves of. The structures were impossible, disobedient of every principle of design and physics. Corridors and walls collapsed into one another in dizzying snarls of complexity; gravity was, in places, reversed, inverted, subverted, perverted; prismatic slabs of cyclopean masonry unfolded themselves like intricate paper sculptures, spreading into dimensions that made the head ache and eyes blur.
The most impressive of these buildings were, of course, the Tower of Whispers – a vast, many-levelled spire, treacherous and legendary, whose long shadow serves cross Hex like that of some gigantic sundial – the Temple of the Thousand-Suckered One – rivalled only by the Infernal Basilica and the Cathedral of the Magistra as Hex’s biggest church – and the Hall of the Hexad Council itself, whose six-sided bulk inspired the shape of the city walls. It was a tremendous slab of unknown material which even the most rigorous scientific and arcane analysis founders upon, a substance which at times seemed to act as a metal, at other times like organic tissue. Strange growths somewhere between tumours and turrets erupted from its scarred, ambiguous sides, while great openings like wounds revealed masses of intermeshing machinery.
None are sure of the Hall’s original purpose, and, indeed, not all of it has been explored, even these many centuries later, for there are doors within its endless entrails which no key, spell, or explosive have opened, and a million hidden passageways spiralling down into the Old City. And yet, as if defying the unfathomable structure, this is where Hex’s parliament convenes.
The part turned down the Avenue of Aeons, stetching from the southern edges of Enigma Heap – where the laboratories of Caulchurch smouldered – to the Hall of the Hexad Council itself, terminating before the doors of the Hall and a spiral staircase that descended seemingly forever, the so-called Infinite Stair, whose bottom has never been found. They could see pilgrims of the Unspeakable Ones making their slow way down the Stair, into the numinous darkness where they would meditate, trying to commune with their unthinkable divinities. To the east sprawled the weird opulence of the Statue Garden, where dozens of ever-changing gargoyles presided.
Caulis noticed something off to one side – a homunculus, pacing and looking fretful in the shadows of a nearby structure.
“Everything alright?” Caaulis said to the fellow homunculus.
“What? No! No, everything is not alright!” the homunculus said. “Please, can you help me?”
“Slow down,” Caulis said. “What’s your name?”
“Flibbertigibbet,” the homunculus panted.
“And what’s going on?”
“My mistress,” the homunculus said. “Doctor Lilyclock… one of Hex’s foremost cartographers, Professor of Perspective at Umbral University… she was mapping the district, told me to wait out here, and went into that building. But she never came out. And when I went in… well… it’s just a dead end! There’s nothing there!”
Yam scratched their chin. Lilyclock? They couldn’t remember meeting the professor… but, then Umbral University was a big place.
Alabastor eyed the building curiously. He caught the eye of a street urchin selling handkerchiefs, the better to staunch the nosebleeds endemic to the district. Handing the waif a coin, he inquired as to the structure the homunculus stood before.
“That old hulk?” the urchin said. “No one goes in there. Been marked by the Council as unfit for habitation. Dangerous.” He pointed out a glyph on the side of the building, indicating the place was unsafe.
“Good to know,” Alabastor said, returning to the party. They resolved to hurry on to their appointment, but to revisit the homunculus afterwards, and help it if it were still there.
Past the grand doors of the Hall, two gargantuan golems resembling huge stone statues in the style of the monstrous beings in the Statue Garden stood guard within a vast foyer, its walls adorned with millions of lines of arcane formulae. Numerous passages branched off from this room into other parts of the structure, while another set of huge doors leads into the Council Chamber.
“Who comes before the Hexad Council?” the hideous golems asked.
Golem Guard. Illustration by Caulis’ player, Bronwyn McIvor.
“The, ah, Variegated Company is here, to see the Hexad Council!” Alabastor Quan declared, doffing his hat with a flourish, his old carnival-ringmaster showmanship manifesting. “We have, as you can see, an invitation!” he flourished and produced the summons with a sleight of hand.
“Very well; you may enter,” the golem replied. A little awed, the group passed through the vast doors and into the centre of the building, the thief Garvin nervously shadowing his face with his hood, Yam cracking jokes, Sister quite unflappable, Caulis intrigued, and Alabastor leading the way like a flamboyant herald.
Within was huge six-sided chamber at the heart of the building. The walls hadbeen hung with bewitched tapestries depicting the history of Hex: the exploration of the ruins, the coming of the Lengians, the War of Miscreation, the Incarnadine Wars, the Brimstone Wars, the subjugation of Troll Country, the Taming of the Tangle, the petrification of the Wyrm, the binding of the Plasmic Woe, the revelations of Saint Monstrum, the building of Mainspring, and many other events of note.
Six men and women watched the party closely as they entered, their names and faces known to all in Hex:
Silas Thamiel, arch-Diablomancer, former Chancellor of Fiend’s College: a powerfully built man, human, of middle years, with jade green eyes that watched everything closely, hair black as midnight, and a bronze complexion covered in numerous arcane tattoos. He is known for his grim pragmatism, stern approach to law and order, military acumen, and conservatism.
Arabella Sickle, a tall, voluptuous cambion woman, somewhat unfamiliar in the purple robes of the Council rather than the black and red regalia she wears as Hex’s Infernal Archbishop. Her huge horns gleamed in the magical light suspended above the six, and she worean expression of disdain. She is known for her ambition, her appetites, and her interest in aggressively expanding Hex’s power, influence, and colonial holdings. Perhaps most notable – her attempts to establish a Penal Colony in Hell, a measure repeatedly failed when it came to a vote.
Iris Skewstone, also human, a surprisingly young-looking woman with hair that shifted colour every few seconds. She wore a pin of Umbral University on her robes. Iris is known for her radicalism, and her efforts – thwarted as surely as Her Unholiness’ desire for Hellish colonies – to extend suffrage to the non-magical citizens of Hex. She is attacked regularly in some corners of the press, alternatively as a manipulator, firebrand, extremist, or megalomaniac, but enjoys widespread support among Hex’s growing middle class.
Barnabas Grimgrove, the richest man in Hex, and one of the richest individuals in the world: an alchemist and entrepreneur of great skill and economic savvy, who built his fortune mass-marketing potions and homunculi to the rich of Hex and beyond. He is a rotund, jovial gnome whose skin is discoloured from numerous alchemical burns. Though spectacularly rich, he is beloved by those of the city’s working class capable of voting, and by many of the elite as well. His policies favour economic growth above all else. He is pro-trade, and averse to war save when profit can be made.
Angus Loamson, reputedly a changeling, undoubtedly an eccentric, a former vagrant who wandered in from the Feypark. Angus – wild-bearded, crazed of eye, and smelling of the woods – insists that he speaks for all vegetal life. He pursues environmental policies with single-minded devotion and is a sworn enemy of the industries Barnabas. While widely dismissed as a crackpot, he was swept into office on the votes of homunculi and fungoids, amidst rumours of voting manipulation via magical slumber.
Finally: Valentina Nettlecrave, a woman who looks even younger than the fresh-faced Iris, but whose porcelain perfection belies her true age. It is an open secret that Valentina is a lich, mummified and sustained by necromancy – easy to believe given her skull-pin of the Académie Macabre, indicative of her high rank at that sinister institution. Despite her likely illusory appearance as a doll-like girl barely beyond adolescence, she is renowned for her extraordinary wisdom and arcane knowledge. She is a wildcard, voting unpredictably, siding with various members of the Council at different times.
“Welcome to the Hexad Council,” Silas said, his voice silky but strong. “We understand you aided the Citadel of the Perpetual Storm in ending the fell winter that gripped our city. We wish to ask a few questions about this matter. We have already spoken extensively with Vanessa and Octavia Greyleaf of the Weather-Witches and with Sergeant Phineas Hookwood of the Stormguard, and have received Master Melchior’s recorded testimony as well, but we would like to hear your perspective. We shall each take a turn. Arabella, if you would?”
Arabella Sickle nodded, and spoke a brief incantation. There was a small rupture in space-time, a sound like a thousand screams of the damned, and a brief sulphurous stench as a demonic scribe materialized in one corner, next to a desk with a typewriter: a thin creature whose hands bore dozens of fingers. Immediately, sigil-graven restraints bind the creature to the desk. It sighed and flexed its fingers over the keys.
Stenographer. Illustration by Caulis’ player, Bronwyn McIvor.
Silas’ questions came first.
“First, we would have you summarize your actions in Troll Country in detail.”
Moving through the group, the party explained their actions – the disruption of the Harrowgast ritual, and the rejuventation of the land – keeping to themselves certain key details – Caulis being especially careful not to note Queen Titania’s involvement.
“It is the task of this Council to determine whether further military action need be taken against Troll Country,” Silas continued. “What is your estimation of the Griefbringer’s forces?”
“Scattered and depleted,” Garvin said hurriedly. “I don’t think a military intervention would be needed.”
“Yeah, the other trolls really didn’t like her,” Yam added.
“Invasion, at this point, would only alienate potential allies,” Sister insisted.
“I see. And could this magical winter or ‘Harrowgast’ be revived?”
“Unlikely, perhaps impossible,” Caulis said. “We convinced the ancestral spirits of the land to turn against the Griefbringer.”
At this, Valentina Nettlecrave perked up. Silas continued.
“The other Troll tribes – the Blackhorns, Twocrowns, Stoneclaws, Bonegrinders, and Goreteeth – how do they seem to regard the Skintakers?”
“The Goreteeth, Blackhorns, and Stoneclaws didn’t seem like big fans, from what we could tell,” Alabastor said. “Some of the others seemed to be working with them, or more tolerant of them…”
“Very well. Arabella, proceed.”
“Thank you, Silas,” Arabella said. “Now, on to my own questions. First. Who are you, precisely? What are your goals, your agenda?”
“We’re the Variegated Company,” Alabastor replied. “Freelance adventuring group. Retrieving artefacts, righting wrongs, that sort of thing.”
“I see,” she said, disdainfully. “And who was it exactly who hired you for this mission?”
“Uh, as I remember… no one hired us,” Yam said, looking to their companions for confirmation. “We just, ah, wanted to help.”
“We talked to the people in the Citadel of the Perpetual Storm,” Sister added. “They had their hands full keeping the weather under control, but they seemed eager for the help.”
“Yes, we have discussed this with the Greyleafs extensively,” Arabella said. “Now, what is your connection with Master Melchior? Why do you enjoy the Archmage’s favour?”
“We helped clear out some Spellmould from the archives,” Alabastor said, truthfully enough.
“And we’ve been helping Master Melchior with some research,” Sister added. “Ancient history.”
“Mhm,” Arabella said, her eyes narrow. “Who authorized you to negotiate with the Goretooth Tribe on behalf of Hex?”
“We certainly weren’t negotiating on behalf of Hex,” Garvin said. “And, in fact, we didn’t come to any formal arrangements with the Goretooth tribe. We spoke to them, and they provided us with some limited assistance -”
“Your actions have fundamentally reshaped the political and physical landscape of Troll Country for years to come, without permission of this Council or the people of Hex,” Arabella interjected. “Some might consider such actions reckless, perhaps even treasonous. How would you defend yourselves against such charges?”
“We saved the city!” Sister said, incredulous. “The winter was literally killing people!”
“I am inclined to agree with the Lengian,” Iris Skewstone added. “This group’s actions may not have been formally sanctioned, but Hex owes them a great deal. To consider their actions treasonous is ridiculous. If you pursue this, Arabella, I will hire their lawyers myself.”
“Hmph,” Arabella said, relenting. “Very well. I maintain that this ‘Variegated Company’ have set a dangerous precedent. But formal charges may be inappropriate at this juncture. Go on then, Iris, ask whatever you want.”
“Thank you,” Iris said, smiling tautly. She turned back to the party. “What is the current state of the Sickened Land?”
“Um… cured,” Sister said. “There’s a huge forest, healthy, where there used to be disease and death.”
“So we have heard. How exactly did you manage this extraordinary feat? Surely this would require incredibly powerful magic.”
The party looked slowly to Caulis.
“Ah… I found a, ah… a scroll. Several scrolls.”
“Yes, scrolls. A spell. In my master’s library.” The homunculus shifted uncomfortably.
“I see. And you don’t have any other copies of this spell?”
“I’m afraid not.”
Iris sighed. “Very well. If you unearth anything further, I would appreciate you letting this Council know.” She pressed on. “You have seen the suffering of Troll Country firsthand, in a fashion few in Hex have witnessed. It is my belief that we owe a terrible debt to the inhabitants of this land, but I am aware that further meddling from Hex may be unwelcome. How do you believe offers of humanitarian aid would be received?”
“I’d be careful,” Garvin said. “Things are… pretty fragile, right now.”
“There’s a lot of distrust for Hex,” Sister said. “I think that could change. But it’s going to take work. Barging in too quickly could be a mistake.”
“Thank you for your candour,” Iris said. “Baranabas, the floor is yours.”
“Thank you, my dear,” Barnabas Grimgrove grumbled. “Troll Country is a region long written off as a broken wasteland, too dangerous to mine and too barren to produce anything of value. But it seems your efforts may have reversed, or at least mitigated, some of these concerns. How large would you estimate the extent of these new-grown forests is?”
The party described the rough boundaries of the forest.
“Did you think the Trollbloods you encountered would be amenable to employment in the mining, lumber, or fur trade?”
“Possibly,” Alabastor said. “But like Sister said, things are fragile. I would wait for things to calm down. They seem to have their own way of doing things.”
“What about agriculture? These restored lands – might they be converted into farmland?”
“Too cold,” Caulis said. “Small scale farming, sure. But Troll Country’s never going to be a breadbasket.”
“I am also interested in these stone-circles. Tell me more about the power these primitive structures channeled.”
“We managed to convince the ancestor-spirits of the heargs to relent,” Sister said. “With difficulty. I would let sleeping ghosts lie.”
“Hmph. Very well. Some investments take time to mature. Angus, I suppose you have some questions about shrubberies or something?”
“Indeed, Grimgrove,” Angus Loamson said. “Are any of you servants of the Faerie Queens or Kings? Which ones?”
“I have a contract with Queen Titania of the fairies,” Caulis said, truthfully enough.
The other party members indicated in the negative. Alabastor swallowed and lied through his teeth, concealing his allegiance to Queen Mab.
“What are the properties of the woodland?” Angus asked. “Are there any magical qualities associated with it?”
“There seem to be healing properties associated with water in the woods,” Caulis said. “There may be other enchantments as well.”
“Intriguing. I commend you on spreading greenery and life through a desolate region, and undoing some of the horror this city has wrought in its inglorious past. Valentina, the floor is yours.”
The tiny undead woman cleared her ancient throat with a demure cough. “Yes, excellent,” she squeaked, eerily girlish. “These spirits, conjured at the hearg. Describe them.”
“Spooky ghosts,” Yam said. “Uhhh… like troll-ghosts. A lot of them. They went into the land when they died, but the Skintakers pissed them off. We convinced them to stop being jerks.”
“Were the spirits individuals? Did they seem to retain their autonomy, their psychology? Or were they a collective, acting as one?”
“Yes,” Garvin said. “They were individuals.”
“There was a fight,” Sister said. “A duel, between two of them.”
“I see. Fascinating. We know so little of troll necromancy. Ands what occurred to these spirits after the harrowgast dispersed?”
“They seemed to go back into the land,” Alabastor said. “Calmed… content even.”
“They’re at rest,” Yam added.
“My questions are complete,” the likely-lich intoned.
“Very well,” Silas said. “Variegated Company, you are released from this meeting. As a reward for your service to the city, we have agreed to grant you five hundred guineas each.”
“A final offer, before you leave,” Iris Skewstone said. “Should you wish to make your status as servants of Hex more official, we would like to offer the Variegated Company employment as a contracted mercenary company of the city, with a fifty guinea salary, and additional payments for specific tasks. Please, bring this offer back to the rest of your Company and think it over carefully.”
The party thanked the Council and hastily left.
“Well, that wasn’t so terrible,” Sister said.
“I think we managed to stop them from invading Troll Country, anyway,” Alabastor said.
Released from their duties, the party decided to return to Flibbertigibbet and its tale of woe.
“Ah, thank the Magistra you have returned!” the homunculus chirped.
Resolving to investigate, the party cautiously entered the condemned structure. A narrow tunnel snaked into the building, broadening into a vast hall, its roof supported by vaguely eel-like statues with insectile heads. There were numerous bas-relief carvings on the walls. They showed a series of abstract figures – perhaps Librarians – excavating some sort of gemstone from the earth. The carvings showed the gemstone breaking, and a curious vapour emerging and coalescing into a malevolent-looking figure, spidery and sinister. This being was then shown stalking the streets of the Old City, killing Librarians and their servants, before being apprehended and bound in a cage-like device in a seven-sided room.
“Ominous,” Garvin said.
“I DON’T LIKE IT,” Yam declared, eyes wide at the spidery figure.
“There’s a door over here,” Alabstor said, indicating a triangular opening. The party continued onwards, Garvin searching carefully for any traps or wards.
They entered a seven-sided room dominated by a device that resembled an intricate mechanical cage, identical to the one depicted in the mural. Bound within the cage was a human woman clad in the silvery robes of Umbral University, with short greying hair and large turquoise eyes.
On the floor were the remnants of what looks like map-making equipment, strewn about: parchment, quill and ink, measuring devices, and the like.
“Magistra be praised!” the woman said. “My name is Deirdre Lilyclock, and I’ve been trapped here for some time. I was mapping these tunnels when I came across the machine. As I examined it, the cage closed around me, and now I’m stuck! I can’t even use spells to get away, there’s some kind of anti-magic dampening field. Please, I think there’s a control panel.” She points. “I’m sure the right combination could release me! Then maybe we could find a way out of here together…”
“A, Mistress Lilyclock!” the homunculus said, rushing up to the cage. “We’ll get you out of here!”
Smelling a rat, Sister surreptitiously cast Zone of Truth on the cage.
“Ah, I didn’t quite catch that,” the Lengian cleric said, craftily. “How was it you were stuck here?”
“I was… I stumbled… I was mapping… damn you!” Deirdre Lilyclock cursed, choking on the lies as they tumbled from her lips.
“So much for an anti-magic field,” Garvin muttered.
Suddenly, Flibbertigibbet was gone, and in the place of Deirdre Lilyclock towered a spindly, inhuman figure with nine flickering limbs and a tenebrous body somewhere between shadow and flesh. “I am Mephitis,” the creature snarled. “And you are about to die.”
“Your name is My Fetus?” Yam said. “That’s weird!”
The tenebral hissed, conjuring a phantasmal killer to assail Yam’s mind, but the skilled illusionist fought off the assailant easily.
“I’ve been studying hard. You’ll have to do better than that,” Yam said, and conjured a cloud of daggers to assail Mephitis. The being shrieked as the magical blades plunged into its shadowy skin.
Caulis, grinning, conjured a series of looming images, abstract renditions of the Librarians. They rose to all sides, closing in on Mephitis. The creaure cowered, exposing itself to Alabastor’s eldritch blast and deft Hex.
Garvin, dancing around the creature, flicked out his Wand of Fireballs and sent a bead of flame towards the cage, which blossomed into a brilliant greenish conflagration. Mephitis whimpered, relenting its psychic attacks.
“Gah! You have bested me! Let me be! Let me be!”
“Why did you lure us here?” Alabastor demanded.
“The Librarians captured me,” Mephitis said. “I have languished here many centuries… until explorers unsealed this room. I can cast my mind beyond the chamber, conjure illusions in your heads. I hunger, you see – I feed on consciousness. I am starving… it has been years since I tasted thoughts. Lilyclock was my last meal.” It waved an arm, and an illusion flickered and lifted, revealing a dusty skeleton in one corner of the chamber.
Alabastor investigated the bones, discovering a map of Enigma Heap and its undercity, a cloak of scintillating colours, along with a scroll of Haullucinatory Terrain.
Mephitis began pleading with the party to release it from bondage, explaining its cruel fate, its centuries of imprisonment. The party considered releasing it under certain conditions, but eventually left it in its cage, making vague and likely untrue promises to return.
Back at the Green Star, the party discussed their next steps, and resolved that funds would be their first priority. As they talked, a potential source of funds was repeated several times – Delirium Castle. The ruinous old fortress was infamous in Hex, known for its dangers and traps, but perhaps the Variegated Company would succeed where others had failed…
I made a big map for my D&D game and turned it into a poster for use during the game. It’s easily the most detailed thing I’ve ever drawn; it took me about a year working on and off on it in my spare time, mostly as a break from my dissertation or as a way to wind down in the evening. It’s entirely hand-drawn except for the lettering; I scanned a lot of 8-1/2″x11″ pages together, then edited them.
Here it is:
As you can see, it’s pretty detailed:
The characters in this session were:
- Armand Percival Reginald Francois Eustace de la Marche III, a suspiciously pale, apparently human noble and sorcerer, and certainly not a ghoul (how dare such a thing be suggested).
- An ancient and enigmatic Lengian cleric of the Mother of Spiders, name unknown. She wears bulky ecclesiastical garments covering an uncertain number of limbs and goes by “Sister.”
- Sprigley Gilette, a hardboiled, cigar-chomping human mercenary and veteran of several brutal wars, and a relatively new arrival in Hex.
- Vespidae, a waspkin bard – a sacred dancer with a deathwish, shunned by the waspkin community for complicated ritualistic reasons. Now a devoted follower of the Queen in Yellow.
XP Awarded: 700 XP.
The Sisters of the Nunnery of the Mother of Spiders were in a state of crisis. Something had escaped from the depths of their mysterious temple into the labyrinthine caverns within Cobweb Cliffs, the Lengian District of Hex. Sister, a member of the order currently on a kind of “sabbatical” from her ecclesiastical duties, was called in to assist the spidery nuns. She brought with her the waspkin Vespidae, the sorcerer Armand, and the mercenary Sprigley, who, having recovered from his bout with insanity after his last trip to the Old City, had become devoted to a strange, demonic entity, his body inscribed with diabolic tattoos. Bringing with her the sheep known as “Cosmo,”* the group headed to Cobweb Cliffs.
*See the Ultimate Contagion Part 2.
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.
Their 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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
The characters in this session were:
- Caulis, a homunculus warlock liberated from its master; has made a pact with certain Faerie Powers.Cephalus T. Murkwater, a dagonian barrister and monk, specializing in martial arts and magical labour law.
- Cephalus T. Murkwater, a dagonian barrister and monk, specializing in martial arts and magical labour law.
- Garvin Otherwise, a human rogue and burglar of the Ravenswing Thieves’ Guild, with a very, very peculiar past and a zoog pet, Lenore.
- 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.
- 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: 420 XP.
Caulis and Yam both found themselves invited to the same event – a meeting of the exclusive Order of the Auriferous Twilight. Caulis had long been masquerading as a human member of the research collective, submitting research by mail under the pseudonym “Octavius Flasgatherer.” Yam’s research supervisor, Sebastian Eldridge, was also a member, and had requested the gnome’s presence for part of an experiment. The Order had informed Caulis that it was testing out a new invention, the Vitreodimensional Resonator, which could reveal a “hitherto hidden layer of our reality.” Yam, somewhat vexed by the increasingly dangerous assignments their supervisor had requested, asked Cephalus to accompany them as legal representation. Vespidae, meanwhile, was convinced by Caulis to come along as a “research subject.”
As usual, Caulchurch swirled with arcane vapours and miasmas, though near to the Metamorphic Scholarium the fumes were somewhat less intense than further south towards Goatsbridge. Most of the people in the street here were alchemists and their servants – automata, familiars, and homunculi on errands for their masters. Many of those susceptible to the gases of the district wore protective masks and goggles to ward off any ill effects. Some of the strange creatures bred in the cauldrons and vats of the Alchemist’s Quarter could also be seen in the street – one carriage was drawn by a two-headed badger the size of a horse, while a wizard walked a miniature sphinx down the street. A number of gnomes and cambions from the neighbouring districts of Mainspring and Little Pandemonium could be seen around the western edge of Caulchurch as well. The group made their way to the main campus of the Scholarium at the intersection of the Street of Limbs and the Street of Hearts. Caulis made a point to stop in the district to procure a potion to polymorph it into a shape resembling that of a human mage, thus assuming the persona of Octavius Flasgatherer.
The Scholarium itself was a bizarre architectural conglomeration that changes on an almost daily basis, spells woven into the very walls of the university triggering changes in style and substance so that a slender spire that one day might be built of stone or gleaming metal might the next become an imposing crystalline monolith or an elaborate wooden pagoda. Students and faculty could be seen entering and exiting the myriad doors of the strange school, homunculi carrying spellbooks and laboratory equipment. The would-be experimenters proceeded to the Balthazar Voss Laboratory – memorializing the alchemist Balthazar Voss, former president of the Scholarium who died in the explosion that created the Midden – which was currently fashioned from a kind of nacreous substance like mother-of-pearl. Inside the eerily glistening structure was assembled a group of wizards, sorcerers, warlocks, and other spellcasters, the arcanists of the Order of the Auriferous Twilight. At the centre of the hall was a huge mirror framed by complex machines that resembled Librarian designs, though of obviously more recent construction.
The party mingled with those in the hall. These included such characters as Iganatius the Unchanging a senior alchemist at the Metamorphic Scholarium. He earned the moniker “Everchanging” after a polymorphing accident: he fell into a vat of experimental polymorphic potion, and now, as a result, he was continuously altering his shape, one moment appearing as a wizened old man, the next a beautiful young woman, or a stubbled youth, or a barrel-chested man, or a child of six, or stranger forms – a bear-like humanoid, a horned, demonic being, a pale creature with a single eye, an owl-headed beast. Ignatius wore specially glamered clothes that shift to accommodate his myriad forms. Despite the kaleidoscopic, chimerical changes he undergoes every few moments, Ignatius conversed quite calmly with fellow members of the Order, quite accustomed to his periodic shifts in height, weight, and form. Other notables in the Order included Giselle Gnostus, of the Citadel of the Perpetual Storm, Hex’s school of Evocation. While most lycanthropes in Hex wee doomed to incarceration in Catch-All, an exception was made for gnomish weremoles. Weremoleism ran in certain elite gnome families and was seen as a great blessing, and care was taken to ensure that lycanthropes marry one another to perpetuate the ability through blood; equal care was taken to ensure it was not passed to those undeserving of the “earth’s gift.” Giselle Gnostus was one such weremole. She was currently in hybrid form, somewhere between a mole and a gnome. An earth-shaper of terrific skill, she was a professor of great distinction at the Citadel of the Perpetual Storm, akawats accompanied by her familiar, a giant beetle the size of a small dog, which scuttled along beside her.
By the far the most renowned of those gathered in the laboratory, however, was Master Melchior – one of the founders of the Order of Auriferous Twilight and also one of Hex’s oldest and most famous wizards. Though in his heyday Melchior had a fleshly body, now he was a preserved brain kept alive through powerful necromantic spells, alchemical preservatives, and transmutation magic. This brain was housed in a spidery automaton with a pair of humanoid forelimbs and a voice-box for speech, Melchior’s brain clearly visible in a glass jar at the automaton’s centre.
Melchior crept toward “Octavius” – that is, Caulis – and spoke to the disguised homunculus using his voice-box.
“Greetings, Ocatavius,” the brain said. “Or, should I say, Caulis?” After intimating that he had been following Caulis’ researches for some time, Melchior suggested that the homunculus and its companions speak to him at a later date about a job – something to do with one of the books the party had come across during their adventure. Further conversation was interrupted, however, as the experiment began.
“And now, the reason we have convened this meeting: the Vitreodimensional Resonator,” Ignatius said, currently in the form of a towering purple woman with four arms. “It’s based on certain technologies salvaged from the Old City through explorations undertaken by Cogswright & Associates.” He had shifted in form to the body of a thin, heavily bearded man with ink-black skin. “Professor Tawnish built and calibrated the Resonator. I’ll let her explain further.”
“Thank you Ignatius,” Viola Tawnish said, stepping forward – a conjuror from Fiend’s College, renowned for her theories on the nature of transplanar time and chronomancy. She first calculated the shifting temporal differentials between the Underworld and the mortal plane and is said to have twice visited Hell. Dressed in the Diabolique style, she had short-cropped red hair and soft mauve skin suggesting some form of non-human parentage. “The Librarians are known to have developed a network of portals to travel through physical space on this plane, as well as between different planes. Indeed, it may be through such a portal that they first arrived in our world. The vast majority of these portals are now inactive or destroyed, and while we have managed to create temporary gates between planes and to call beings from one world to another, we have not succeeded in duplicating a Librarian portal. Until now.” She smiles. “Using certain applications of mirror magic suggested by Professor Eldridge, I have created what I think may be a functional portal-like device, the Vitreodimensional Resonator. When activated, the mirror should become a gateway. On the other side – another world.”
“And which plane do you propose to visit?” Master Melchior asked, his robotic voice croaked through his automaton body.
“We aren’t sure which plane the Resonator will lead to,” Ignatius said. “In fact, that’s part of the experiment. The results of this journey may tell us a great deal about the cosmological makeup of the multiverse.”
“Yes,” Professor Tawnish said. “I am sure you are all familiar with some of the most common theories. Some believe that our world is but one iteration of the Magistra’s arcane formula, our reality a program formed out of magical code; other planes are similarly programmed, but with different rules and formulae. Others believe that universes are actually super-organisms, capable of breeding with one another to produce new worlds, or of splitting in two via fission with every choice we make, or every tiny, chaotic fluctuation. There are some who argue that our entire existence is an elaborate illusion, a shadow thrown by some elemental light at the heart of creation., and that other worlds are similar shadows cast by the same flame. And then there are those who think there is only a single universe, and that what seem like other planes of existence are in fact distant planets – that Hell and Faerie and the Dreamlands and even Anathema are but different, vastly disparate regions of the same plane.
“The explorers who venture through into whatever world the Vitreodimensional Resonator reveals must take care to note everything they can about its nature. There may be clues as to the nature of our multiverse which may be uncovered. Those who step foot into whatever strange new world the Resonator reveals should approach it as natural philosophers, cataloguing flora and fauna, noting the presence of any sentient inhabitants, their customs and laws, and also any strange physical laws which this plane might possess…”
With a few invocations, the Vitreodimensional Resonator powered up. The party braced themselves and stepped through the swirling vortex of magical energy into another world…
Emerging through the portal, Yam, Cephalus, Caulis, and Vespidae stepped into a copse of trees just beyond a well-ploughed field, not far from a small farmhouse with a barn and pens for livestock. It felt like they’d entered a pastoral painting, complete with grazing sheep, a blue sky dotted with clouds, and cheerful farmhands tending to the fields.
Other farms could be seen nearby, flanking a road that led down to a broad, clear river. Having looked out over the murky, oily, filth-clotted Radula River of Hex these many days, the sight of such clean, blue water was almost shocking. At the end of the road was a village, built on the riverbank. The village was surrounded by a low stone wall; cheerful-looking plumes of smoke drifted up from thatched roofs. The place looked antiquated, the architectural style reminiscent of buildings one might associate with a feudal past. A small keep presided over the tiny town. To the east a large island could be seen rising from the middle of the river, with swamplands dominating the surrounding banks. To the north a huge forest brooded, and to the west rose a distinctive craggy mountain. South looks to be hilly farmland.
Cautiously the group set out, heading for the farmhouse and the workers in the field.
Meanwhile, some time earlier…
One moment Garvin was walking through Corvid Commons on his way to Rosemary’s Receiving. The next, he was standing in the middle of a very different street. Buildings rose about him; though a few wouldn’t be too out of place in Hex, many wee glassy, glittering structures, and distantly he could make out some tall spires that might rival those of the Librarians in Engima Heap for height, as well as some sort of bulky metal dome or sphere. Trains on raised tracks rattled nearby, speeding off to some other quarter of the strange but eerily familiar city.
The street Garvin was in wasn’t filled with people but with some kind of boxy automata, mechanical carriages. A shrill sound filled the air as one of these machines barrels towards him. He tried to avoid it, but was knocked prone. Soon a crowd of people had gathered around him, pointing strange devices at him that clicked and flashed, and gibbering in a half-forgotten tongue. Panicking, Garvin muttered a quick spell and blinked to a nearby alley, leaving the crowd of people astonished.
“I’m not sure where we are, Lenore…” he said to the zoog still on his shoulder. “But I think I’ve been here before…”
Fashioning a quick disguise for himself as best he could using his disguise kit, Garvin set off into the city. Using a minor spell he managed to procure on of the small, rectangular devices everyone seemed to carry in this world. This was one was whitish, and had a symbol that looked a bit like a small apple. It seemed puzzling and had a glass panel covered in unusual sigils. Locating what looked like a bookstore, Garvin ducked inside and located what he guessed could be a dictionary or similar tome, hoping that it might help him make sense of the maddeningly familiar language of the people here. After skillfully shoplifting these, he headed for what looked like a coffeehouse and settled himself in a corner…
…only to appear quite suddenly seated on a stump, in the very copse of trees shared by his companions, drawn once more between worlds. Surprised but not displeased by the sudden reappearance of their companion, the party continued towards the farm, approaching one of the farmhands: a dark-haired, hale youth that several of the party members seemed to half-recognized. He identified himself as Jasper Van Lurken, and noted that the farm was owned by his parents, Leopold and Nicolet. The village nearby, he said, was called Blessing.
It was at this points that it clicked: the party was in a world eerily similar to their own, geographically at least. The craggy mountain was none other than Mount Shudder; the river was the Radula, albeit unpolluted. The village of Blessing stood where Hex should have been, or a part of it. But there was no sign of any Librarian structures, none of the alien spires of the Old City, nor the Elder Trees.
They were in a universe in which the Librarians never arrived.
Cephalus, meanwhile, had noticed a nearby gravestone not far from the farm. He used some of the ghostdust he’d secured back at the Puppeteer’s lair and, peering into the Ethereal plane, he saw the spectre of a young woman with dark hair, who identified herself as Annette Van Lurken. Having not encountered the Van Lurkens of Hex, he did not recognize her, but was able to discover that she died of some sort of sickness. It sounded as if magical medicine was considerably more primitive in this timeline.
Taking their leave of Jasper, the party headed toward Blessing. The village wall looked like it had seen better days, moss eating away at its crumbling length. Here and there a wooden fence had been erected to patch a gap or extend the extremely modest fortifications. The gate was of stout wood and stands open, guarded by a solitary man in chainmail armour leaning on a pike.
The guard, Roderick, asked a few minor questions about the party’s business in Blessing; they identified themselves as a troupe of actors. Roderick was alarmed at the sight of Vespidae, believing the waspkin to be a fairy from the Tangle – evidently that forest existed here as well. He was also perturbed by Cephalus, identifying him as one of the “merfolk” from the swamps. With some fast-talking, the party was able to pass them off as foreigners from a distant part of the world. Asking a few questions, they quickly got a lay of the land, learning that the town was ruled by a woman named Lady Fullblood, that it included several shops and inns, and that it was also the site of a large temple. Curious to learn more, they passed through the gate and into Blessing.
The village of Blessing was so modest that it scarcely possessed true streets, but rather a series of winding paths between the picturesque thatched-roof buildings. The town brought the words “wholesome” and “quaint” to mind; it was like something out of a child’s storybook. It was also curiously homogeneous; the people here were almost all human. A few gnomes could also be seen, as well as a handful of stocky, almost universally bearded creatures like oversized gnomes or short humans. Many eyes the party, some with wariness or suspicion but most with curiosity and welcoming smiles. Yam and Caulis were able to identify the bearded creatures as “dwarves” – a species long gone from their own world, sometimes thought to be ancestors of gnomes, and reputedly hunted to extinction by the Librarians during the primeval past.
The group’s first stop was the Troll & Tankard inn, a large establishment with an attached stables. A stone stair led up to the door of the common room, from which music and laughter emanated. The skull of a monstrous troll was hung above the bar, which was tended by a broad-shouldered man with an eyepatch who polished a mug and chats with various patrons, most of whom looked to be cut from roughly the same rural cloth as the rest of the townsfolk. The exception here was a fellow who wouldn’t be too out of place in Hex: a man dressed in blue robes and a pointed hat, with large spectacles and crazed hair. He sat in a corner booth drinking from a mug of ale and leafing through the first book the explorers had seen in Blessing. Several of the party realized abruptly that the man was the virtual double of the alchemist Valdemar Sluice!
Caulis idly peered over “Valdemar’s” shoulder and scanned the pages. There were real arcane formulae there, but mixed in with superstition and arcane nonsense. Noticing the party, Valdemar was delighted to observe Vespidae, and immediately launched into a series of questions, taking the waspkin for a fairy. The party began conversing, asking about the town. It seemed that this version of Valdemar was traveling from elsewhere and had been drawn to Blessing by some unusual rumours about magical happenings nearby. Meanwhile, Garvin and Cephalus noticed that the party was being watched with some alarm by an ill-favoured fellow in the tavern, who quickly left. They slipped out in pursuit and caught up with the man, Cephalus quickly subduing him. He identified himself as Brett, and claimed to have been heading to the local temple to speak to someone called Father Roland, warning the priest of the presence of “demons and spirits” in the town. With some suitably fast talking, he was persuaded that the party were an acting troupe in costume, come to perform a play for the entertainment of Blessing.
Of course, this meant that the party had to either get out of town… or put on a play.
Pondering this problem, the group headed to the local temple. Blessing seemed to have just one temple – a church dedicated to someone called “St. Melchior.” The name, of course, was familiar, though Master Melchior of Hex has certainly never been considered a saint. Though probably the most ornate building in Blessing, the church was rather ordinary-looking by the baroque and fanciful standards of Hex, built of plain, grey stone with modest decorations. Despite its lack of grandeur there was something decidedly welcoming and comforting about it – perhaps because it wasn’t dedicated to a slavering tentacle entity from beyond space and time, or a primeval demon-lord…
Inside, the church retained its relative plainness, though there were a number of murals painted on the walls depicting the life, miracles, and apparent martyrdom of St. Melchior, as well as statues in his name. He was mostly depicted as a bald, clever-looking man of middle years with a neat beard. He appeared to have been killed while trying to convert a tribe of trolls or similar creatures. A few clerics tended to the church, garbed in loose grey robes without adornment. Those learned in the history of Hex quickly recognized Master Melchior himself – or, rather a version of him – as he looked before he became a brain in a vat. They quickly found Father Roland, a stooped and aged man whose bent exterior was belied by the fierce zealotry burning in his eyes. The Father seemed ready to condemn the group and their activities, but with smooth talking from Garvin and Caulis he was convinced that the party’s play would in fact emphasize the dangers of temptation and of dabbling with dark powers. The party was careful not to disclose that they came from another plane. They found out a bit more about the local religion, which had a number of unusual features, revering only a single, simplistic deity and denouncing others as false idols.
Garvin visited the local blacksmith – “Axe & Anvil,” which seemed to be the only major smithy in Blessing. The creature labouring at its namesake in the open courtyard is one of the peculiar, stocky beings the group had seen about town in small numbers: what the party’s historians had identified as a “dwarf,” known in their home-reality through fossil evidence and ancient records. Like the rest of her ilk she had a beard, though hers was quite small. Her name turned out to be Bess Bonnyshield, a dwarven woman formerly of the Groanmount – apparently this world’s name for Mount Shudder – before the Wyrm, Scorra Bitterflame, laid her clan-home waste. Garvin bought a dwarf-made dagger, noting the extraordinary craftsmanship of the item.
The party next meandered down towards Pistons & Powders, as Yam was curious about this reputedly gnome-run establishment. This ramshackle-looking building wouldn’t have been too out of place in Mainspring, with its small doors and windows, large boiler, haphazard architecture, and plethora of hissing chimneys, though even this structure looked far less intricate than the gnomish buildings of Hex. Inside, a small tinker’s workshop could be be found. Though a few crude mechanical oddments were scattered about, it looked like the place mostly deals in basic repairs for pots, pans, and tools. A handful of simple firearms were sold here as well, though they were far more primitive than the complex wheellocks of Hex. A handful of gnomes worked here, mending metal goods.
Yam cheerfully bustled in, only to bump into a gnome. The tinker turned around – and stared into their own face. The gnome at Pistons & Powders was Yam, albeit dressed in oily mechanist’s clothes.
“Yam!” Yam said.
“Yam!” Yam responded. “You’re not some kind of shapeshifter are you?”
“I’m you from another dimension,” Yam disclosed with nonchalance. “Want to come hang out?”
“Sure!” Yam agreed, taking off their apron with a minimum of fuss. They turned their head to yell: “I’m on break!”
The party next headed to the market square at the southeast end of Blessing, near to the small town’s docks. Here they began planning for the performance they had now promised to put on, deciding to tell a version of the story of Robin Redcap. The two Yams and Caulis provided special effects while other members of the party, disguised through magic or cosmetics, assumed the guises of Duke Gothmord, Robin Redcap, and other persons. A crowd had soon gathered as word circulated of the performance, and as sun set the party began their impromptu tale, Vespidae using her dancing to enthrall the assembled commoners, while the “troupe’s” spellcasters used illusions to lend the performance an air of strange mystery. Hastily written and quasi-improvised dialogue might have ruined the play, but the magical effects bedazzled the bucolic onlookers. As the play concluded to great applause, however, the church bell tolled, and a town crier appeared, screaming: “Goblins at the Mountain Gate! Fear! Fire! Foes!”
The party rushed to the gates, grabbing up their weapons, to discover a band of the hunched, malformed goblins setting fire to buildings and terrorizing townsfolk. In the land of Hex such creatures had been exterminated or placed on reservations, to keep them from mischief, but in this land it seemed they ran amok! Some rode great spiders, apparently denizens of the Tangle, and they carried clubs and crude swords. Cephalus rushed forth, limbs flying, to dispatch the leader, while Yam conjured a cloud of daggers, eviscerating several of the goblins. The battle was brief, and though a few injuries were had, Garvin managed to put a bolt through the skull of a final, fleeing goblin, leaving them all dead. The few remaining townsfolk nearby rejoiced, hailing the group as heroes, though most had fled the battle… but time was growing short, the day long, and the group was eager to return from whence they had come. Yam’s double insisted on following them – as did a local girl from the town, who, having seen their power, asked to join them. Impressing upon both that they might not soon return, the party hurried back to the portal at Van Lurken farm and slipped through the dwindling vortex between worlds, back into the Metamorphic Scholarium’s laboratory in Caulchurch, with quite a few findings to report…
Images: Brain in a Jar from “Open Graves: Secrets of the Undead.”
I’ve started a new 5th edition D&D game in a setting I’ve been working on, set in the city of Hex – a magical university town built atop the ruins of the much older archive-city built by the sinister and long-departed Librarians. Influences here include China Miéville’s Bas-Lag novels, Jeff Vandermeer’s Ambergris, Scott Lynch’s Gentleman Bastard Sequence, K.J. Bishop’s The Etched City, Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, and (naturally) H.P. Lovecraft: it’s a big, greasy urban fantasy with a vein of eldritch horror.
Here’s an overview:
Endless shelves filled with hieroglyph-graven tablets of primeval metal stretch for miles beneath the earth, down aeons-old tunnels that curve and twist in ways that make the mind ache, plunging into cavernous archive-chambers and coiling in upon themselves like some impossible stone snake. Within this lightless immensity the knowledge of the inscrutable Librarians – visitors to this world, now departed or dead – is meticulously recorded, written in gleaming books and upon monoliths of incomprehensible size, arranged according to a system so alien and maddeningly complex that none have ever deciphered it fully. This the First Library, the Old City which drew explorers and scholarly spelunkers from many lands, daring the uncanny and dangerous depths where tenebrous things now lair, seeking for the secrets buried deep in the incalculably ancient labyrinth.
Many centuries have passed since those first sojourns underground, and now a new city thrives atop the old: Hex, the Inkstained City, the City of Secrets. A six-sided sprawl, this centre of magical learning is home to some of the world’s finest institutions of arcane education: the Académie Macabre, Fiend’s College, Umbral University, the Institute of Omens, the Warders’ Lyceum, the Citadel of the Perpetual Storm, the Metamorphic Scholarium, and Master Melchior’s School of Thaumaturgy & Enchantment. Magi, wizards, sorcerers, warlocks, and witches can be found in the winding streets, flocking to the source of esoteric lore with which reality itself can be reshaped.
Vast libraries containing translations and interpretations of the alien glyphs of the Old City fill the towers of the city. Hex came into being slowly. With the first influx of the wise and wealthy came others: librarians and archivists, of course, but also scribes and scriveners, porters and couriers, mercenaries and bodyguards, concubines and cooks, and other servants – and then, later, book-sellers, parchment-makers, ink-dealers, quill-cutters, vintners, and ale-brewers. These were followed, of course, by dockworkers and grooms and tailors and victuallers and masons, and later by craftsmen and labourers and merchants of every sort. Soon what had begun as a few remote camps and archeological digs became a fully-fledged campus that later fractured and flourished and overgrew its boundaries, till one day the seething, scribbling enormity of Hex came into being.
Now Hex is a modern metropolis, a frenzied urban imbroglio teeming with traders and cutthroats and decadents. Gaslight, buzzing electric lamps, and glimmering magical crystals bathe faces both beautiful and vile in their variegated glow. The universities have become vast – huge, ornate, and unthinkably wealthy, their spires stab at a sky now criss-crossed by flitting familirs and hot air balloons and skycabs drawn by hippogriffs, manticores, or dock-tailed wyverns. Trade bustles along the banks of the Radula River while alchemists culture homunculi in their cauldrons and necromancers reanimate the corpses of the poor to labour in the city’s churning factories. Temples to a hundred deities burn sacrifices and fill the air with weird chants, prayers to strange and sometimes malformed gods inspired by the primordial gods of the Librarians. Above them all the wizards still scribble in their spellbooks, while deep below adventurers plumb the twisted darkness in search of yet more secrets…
I’m going to be posting a campaign diary here along with excerpts from the background material I’ve prepared for the game.
My format for this campaign is a little unusual for me. I now have a large gaming group – about 10 regulars, plus a few occasional players – so instead of trying to get everyone together regularly I’m attempting a more open, West Marches style game where players come and go. As it happens, about half of my players are actual real-life librarians, so it should be interesting to see them descending into the massive megadungeon that is the Old City.
An unpardonably long time has passed since my last post. I’m putting together the next bit of Fever in the Blood, but in the meantime here are some hand-drawn maps for my Fimbulvinter campaign, an intermittent IRC game set during the endless winter of Norse myth. It’s equal parts Viking Age sandbox and post-apocalyptic survival horror, run using Pathfinder. Most of our big combats are now played out using Roll20 using maps I draw, like these ones: