The characters in this session were:
- Yam, an eccentric gnome illusionist and local graduate student at Umbral University.
- An enigmatic Lengian cleric of the Mother of Spiders, name unknown. She goes by “Sister.”
- Vespidae, a waspkin bard – a sacred dancer with a deathwish, shunned by the waspkin community for complicated ritualistic reasons.
- Garvin Otherwise, a human rogue and burglar of the Ravenswing Thieves’ Guild, with a very, very peculiar past and a zoog pet, Lenore.
- Caulis, a homunculus warlock liberated from its master; has made a pact with certain Faerie Powers.
- Armand Percival Reginald Francois Eustace de la Marche III, a suspiciously pale, apparently human noble and sorcerer, and certainly not a ghoul (how dare such a thing be suggested).
XP Awarded: 200 XP.
Yam and the Lengian priestess of the spider goddess had been down in the Whorl for some time, and half of their group seemed to have disappeared – perhaps claimed by the strange, chittering presence that haunts the twisted, endless spiral. Sent by Professor Valdemar Sluice to retrieve the Viridescent Tablet after his last expedition mysteriously vanished, the pair are the last of their party. Only after long study of the glyphs on the walls was the pair able to apprehend a means of egress. Focusing doggedly on not-escaping, the gnome and the Lengian exited the Whorl – only to bump almost immediately into another party, consisting of a waspkin, homunculus, and two humans. The two groups conferred and quickly realized that they shared an employer, that one expedition had followed the other, and due to the temporal distortions of the Whorl the two had arrived in the Old City almost simultaneously despite setting out a week apart.
The two parties, briefly confused, agreed to join forces; after all, Vespidae, Garvin, Caulis, and Armand seemed to be down two members of their own expedition. Vespidae, waspkin senses unaccustomed to distinguishing between individuals with much particularity, became momentarily bewildered by Yam.
“We’re down two gnomes,” Caulis said.
“No, one gnome!” Vespidae insisted, pointing to Yam. “See? One gnome left.” It fell to the creature’s companions to enlighten the waspkin as to the mistake.
“Have you found the Tablet yet?” Yam demanded single-mindedly. “Yam would like to find the Tablet now.”
United at least for the time being, the expedition surveyed their surroundings: a vast, cyclopean space of unfathomable age, resonant with unnerving echoes. The ceiling soared high overhead, lost in darkness. A complex network of platforms atop pillars, connected by sinuous ramps and bridges, filled the chamber. Below yawned an impenetrably black void: there was no telling how far down it goes. At various locations throughout the chamber the bridges led to doorways. Armand bewitched a stone with a glimmer of light and cast it into the abyss, but the stone was quickly lost in the unmplumbed blackness, and none could hear it hit the bottom.
The party unfurled the partial map provided them by Professor Sluice and noted that while several bridges were broken or damaged, the sketch was essentially accurate.
They began their exploration methodically, beginning at the passage directly opposite the exit of the Whorl. Walking the bridges was an eerie experience, with the void below gaping endlessly. Something fluttered off in the darkness to the west – bats, perhaps, or something else with leathery wings?
The passage to the north led to a kind of specimen chamber, filled with a series of titanic crystalline cylinders holding the bodies of various life-forms. Though the creatures were quite still, as if trapped in amber, they looked healthy, with no signs of decomposition. Each cylinder had a small, glyph-graven control panel. The creatures included some sort of bony-plated lizard, a gigantic sloth, a sabre-toothed tiger, a six-armed insectoid thing with a clutch of tendrils sprouting from its neck round a many-fanged maw, a shaggy proto-human woman, a being like a fleshy barrel with a dozen tentacular arms, an enormous snail, a giant alligator, a winged crustacean with a multitude of eyes, an albino penguin, and a tentacled worm of unfathomable colour. Caulis and Yam investigated the controls and figured out how to thaw out the specimens, but decided against it.
The twelfth specimen-container was shattered into many pieces, as if something had escaped. The console here was broken into many pieces. Whatever escaped seemed to have a gastropodal lower body but a vertebrate upper half. Investigation turned up some ancient, crusted stains on the floor – some old mucilaginous trail, left by the escapee long ago.
The party began exploring adjacent chambers and corridors, first finding a passage blocked entirely by stone. Next they wandered into a vast, nonagonal chambe in which a complicated machine of gleaming, iridescent metal sprawled complexly resembling nothing so much as a gigantic, sinister loom. There were two booth-like receptacles at the base of the elaborate machine. Arm-like mechanisms hovered over both receptacles, as if awaiting something.
Experimentation with this machine produced bizarre but fascinating results. Inorganic material placed in the intake booth was ignored. Garvin, curious, placed some of his own hair in the intake booth. The device went quickly to work, taking samples of the hair, cutting it up, removing fragments of skin, only to begin weaving hair… and then sinew and blood-vessels, bone and meat and pulsing organs, membranes of skin. What appeared in the other booth was a naked, identical copy of Garvin, slack-jawed and vacant-eyed. Garvin, mildly horrified but intrigued, helped his duplicate from the booth. The man seemed unconscious, though he had a pulse and seemed to be in good condition, though missing scars and tattoos Garvin possessed. The duplicate was unable to walk on its own; they laid the comatose form down on the ground.
While Lengian silk confused the Flesh Loom – perhaps it was unable to process dream-matter – a weft of wool placed in the intake booth produced a dull-eyed sheep, as comatose as the Garvin.
Pressing on methodically to what they had decided was the “south” of the Old City – not that such directions meant much in the dimensionally fraught passages – the expedition next passed into a long hall filled with unsettling light of indescribable hue, emitted by a swirling ball of light and heat that hovered near the apex of the ceiling like some monstrous lamp. Below it, seemingly nourished by its rays, were weird vegetal growths like creeping vines that ensnared a series of glyph-graven protrusions of stone forming a complex lattice-like structure not dissimilar to a garden trellis. Globe-like clusters like succulent grapes clung to the vines. A thin mist suffused the room.
Drawing on her arcane knowledge, Sister observed that the light seemed to be a miniature star, and that lingering beneath its rays might be hazardous. Closer examination of the “grapes” proved unnerving. On closer inspection, the clusters were revealed to be tiny spheres in which were contained glittering swirls of light, almost exactly like stars. Looking into one was like looking into the sky on a clear night. The swirls of light moved and shimmered within the strange fruit. A thin membrane covered each fragile globe.
Caulis, fascinated by this weird vegetation, carefully cut one of the vines free and then grafted it to its homnucular body with the aid of a spell. The vine took quickly, almost eagerly, merging with the living root.
Curiosity getting the better of her, Sister fed one of the grapes to the newly-cloned sheep, which seemed to possess enough instinct to move its mouth and chew, with help. The adventurers watched as stars began to spread from the sheep’s mouth and through its face, suffusing its skin and then its wool…
Unbeknownst to his new companions, the amnesiac Alexander casually ate half a dozen of the grapes.
Annoyed at the tardiness of their compatriots, Yam decided to venture down a passage to the north. Yam’s feet crunched on the bones of what looked like bones and babies. With a yelp of “nope!” the gnome retreated, but Sister and Vespidae had already followed the illusionist into the chamber, at the centre of which lay a great and filthy nest made from the pages of countless books – torn, shredded, and soiled, their crabbed glyphs obscured by spit and muck. The discarded metal husks of the books lay to one side.
As they investigated the nest, something stirred in the shadows, unseen by the party. Then came an insectile shriek as something pierced straight through Vespidae’s arm – a hideous organic barb connected to a sinuous tendril! The thing on the ceiling hissed and began retractiung the tentacle, slowly reeling the waspkin bard upwards towards the ceiling. Alarmed, the party directed their lights to the ceiling to discover the thing which had escaped from the specimen chamber, a beast from out of time: a thing somewhere between a reptile and a carnivorous slug with a long, essentially boneless lower body like that of a gastropod, save with reptilian scales. Its upper body had a lizard-like head and forelimbs. Bristling from its abdomen near where the lizard-half of the creature met the slug half – not that the being really had such incongruent parts – were a series of slimy, tentacular feelers, one of which had extruded the chitinous love-dart now impaling Vespidae. The horror adhered to the ceiling by means of a sticky mucus.
Alerted by Vespidae’s shriek, the rest of the party crowded into the being’s nest. Garvin, skulking in the shadows, sent a quarrel towards it, but the bolt ricocheted off the ceiling. Vespidae managed to squirm free of the hideous dart and flapped weakly to the floor, bleeding profusely. The slug-lizard monster squealed in frustration and extruded half a dozen additional tentacular love-darts like grotesque harpoons.
Thinking quickly, Yam conjured an illusion of a gnome (closely resembling Yam) to run out towards the creature, taunting it. The slug-thing sent its tendrils towards the illusion and they passed through it, but with careful modulation of the illusion Yam managed to make it appear as if the illusion had actually been harpooned. Meanwhile, Sister healed the faint Vespidae with a swift prayer to the Spider Goddess, sealing the wound with a holy webbing.
Caulis and Armand now attacked the beast from out of time directly, searing it with spells of fire and acid. The slug-thing hissed in pain but continued to reel in the illusory Yam. Thinking quickly, Sister added her own touch to the illusion, causing the bleeding “gnome” skewered by the tendrils to begin chanting in a low voice, eyes turning red, staring up at the horror. As more spells pelted its squamous hide, the horror relinquished its “grip” on Yam’s illusion and withdrew, squirming along the ceiling into a dark corner of its lair. The party rapidly retreated, Garvin covering their escape with his hand crossbow.
Renewing their exploration, the party next made their way further south into a circular room filled with shelves upon which rested thousands of delicate crystals, some of them glowing softly with light of various hues, some dull and dark. There were at least one hundred shelves encircling the entire room and extending upwards to the high, domed ceiling.
In the middle of the room was another complicated machine made of gleaming, iridescent metal, untouched by rust. The machine extruded from a sort of slab upon which lay a withered, near-skeletal corpse clad in rotten shreds of clothing. The corpse was held in place by a series of restraints. A kind of clamp eerily reminiscent of a long-fingered hand cradled the skull of the cadaver.
Investigation of the corpse revealed a scroll clutched in its fist, upon which was ritten some kind of mytsic chant or incantation.
The party began experimenting with the machine, operated this time by Yam, whose gnomish mind seemed to grasp its intricacies intuitively. Hypothesizing, the adventurers first removed the corpse, then strapped in the comatose sheep. Activating the machine, they watched as the crystal flared and then dimmed. The sheep’s eyes opened wide and it began bleating wildly, seemingly panicked, and thrashed in its restraints. The party swiftly reversed the process, and the sheep fell slack once more, the crystal glowing again. Stars were still spreading through its coarse wool.
Next the adventurers retrieved the body of Garvin’s duplicate from the chamber of the Flesh Loom, alert lest the wounded beast from out time assail them again. Returning with the comatose clone, they strapped it into the machine and again the crystal dimmed. “Garvin” stirred, opening his eyes.
“Where am I?” he asked, looking around. “Please, let me free… I have been confined for too long… wait… is that Alexander?”
Questioning the man, the adventurers realized he was Xavier, another member of the doomed expedition of Alexander. Somewhat distressed at being placed in a new body – not to mention at the sight of his own corpse – Xavier was nonetheless grateful to be alive and awake once more. He described a sense of time passing in the crystal, though he was dull and insensate during this time, without any means of apprehending his surroundings.
Thinking quickly, the party noted that they might be able to put Xavier back in his body after all. Taking a sample of the corpse’s tissues, they hastened back to the Flesh Loom yet again and placed some of his dead flesh in the intake booth. The Loom whirred to life, producing another clone – this one of a thin, aging but handsome man. Garbing the man in a robe of spidersilk spun swiftly and discretely by Sister’s spinnarets, the expedition returned and transferred the consciousness of Xavier from Garvin’s duplicate back into the crystal, and then into the body of the Xavier-clone.
Returned to his former body with relief, Xavier described much of his expedition, including further details of the “Reality Garden,” the “Pestilence Archive,” and other chambers within this part of the Old City. He and the rest of the adventurers emerged once more into the vast chamber at the centre of this part of the First Library, continuing to explore.
Meanwhile, the sheep was beginning to move its mouth, almost as if speaking, and seemed increasingly able to walk on its own…
The expedition next came to a chamber with a round gateway in its middle, showing a bleak landscape of piceous stone, with rivers of black tar that seem eerily animate and, in the distance, a series of impossibly high spires stabbing at a clouded black sky. Lying on the ground just on the other side of the portal was some sort of machine that lookeda bit like a rifle, but far more intricate and adorned with weird glyphs. The object lay near a pool of the same black, tarry substance elsewhere visible. Vespidae directed his Unseen Servant to pick the object up. Instantly, the pool of slime writhed and gibbered in an alien tongue from a multitude of gelatinous orifices and lashed out at the Servant with pseodopods, engulfing it utterly. The rifle-like object fell to the ground and the party cautiously retreated.
The party’s explorations next took them to an irregular chamber centred around a central statue or monolith – a weird polyhedral mass of unlikely projections and brain-aching angles. The overall impression was of a vastness of unfathomable wings. The massive object exuded a palpable sense of numinous dread. The thing was made from some kind of shimmering crystalline substance that for brief moments looks almost organic – when looked at from the corner of the eye it seemed to move or throb subtly. A basin or depression was evident before the idol.
Sister, drawing on her theological knowledge, identified this as a manifestation of the Many-Angled Angel, who was worshipped by the Librarians for its ability to pervert the laws of time and space. She knew nothing of the being’s liturgy or rituals and the so the party again pressed on.
This time they entered a high-ceilinged chamber containing numerous shelves bearing hundreds of books – the great treasures of the Librarians. These ancient tomes were bound in delicate metal and had pages of an incorruptible vellum-like membrane able to endure the long millennia without rot. The books here would each take months or years to translate fully. The party seached through several of the shelves, with Caulis taking some spellbooks. Garvin discovered a particularly large tome with a sinister glyph on its cover and carefully stowed it without opening it. This would later be identified as none other than the Myxonomicon, one of the Greater Mysteries of the Librarians and one-thirteenth of the great work known as the Organon of Magic: but more on this in time.
The next chamber proved somewhat unusual. The characters immediately entered… and then found themselves leaving it, as if no time had passed. Except that Garvin now bore a strange, glyphic tattoo, Sister was injured, Armand had a hideous boil on his forehead (that eventually turned out to be a third eye growing beneath his flesh), and other characters had either lost or gained small items.
Curious, the party sent the sheep into the anti-memory chamber and took a short rest in the musty darkness of the Old City. The sheep came trotting out several hours later, its wool now utterly suffused with stars and nebulae and swirling vortices of light and darkness. It bleated strangely with what sounded like countless tiny voices. Alexander was also developing subcutaneous stars, though his were less developed.
Next the characters wandered into an incredibly long, nonagonal hall decorated with hundreds of monstrous statues, each unique, each more grotesque than the last. The beings these statues depicted came in a myriad of shapes mingling aspects of cephalopod, worm, crocodile, crustacean, jellyfish, bat, spider, starfish, lamprey, and toad. One horror, for example, rested on a squirming mass of suckered tentacles, had a chitin-plated body sprouting hundreds of pincer-tipped limbs, and had half a dozen many-eyed heads somewhere between those of an insect and a monstrous lizard. The statues were arranged in no discernable pattern.
Scholars amongst the party identified these as statues of the Nine Hundred Progeny of the Plenitudinous One, also called Carcethotep, the Fecund Chaos, and the Cancroid Progenitor. Rather than tempting fate ande eager to find the Tablet, however, the expedition pressed on without investigating further. They came next to a long, heptagonal chamber whose walls were riddled with thousands of small holes which made them think of mouths, though they certainly did not resemble the mouths of any humanoid being. Vespidae investigated closely and detected a musty smell and a low, barely audible chant emanating from the mouths. Xavier warned that the mouths were a protective measure and urged the party to recite the chant he had discovered. The party began to do so, and the mouths gradually closed as they approached. Garvin noticed that they also closed whenever he neared them, curiously. Spreading out and still reciting the hastily-copied chant, the party managed to close all of them mouths at once, at which point they remained closed permanently.
They proceeded through the doorway at the end of the hall and into a vast, octagonal chamber hat proved incredibly cold; icicles drooled from the entrance, and breath plumed visibly in the air. Stone shelves lined the walls, filled with hundreds of glass phials containing liquids of many colours. A zigzagging spiral ramp allowed access to the lower shelves and disappears into the floor. Xavier identified this as the Pestilence Archive, where the Librarians catalogued various diseases. Taking care not to touch any of the phials, the adventurers proceeded down the ramp into the room below.
At the middle of this chamber could be seen a plinth, upon which is sat a metal tablet, gleaming in the musty darkness. Carpeting every inch of the hall save the plinth itself was a strange, gently pulsating purplish-red lichen. This layer of liver-hued growth glistened wetly and exuded a damp, slightly acrid reek. Throughout the chamber were half a dozen curious mounds of lichen between three and six feet in height. Unlike many of the chambers in the Old City this hall was quite low, with a ceiling only twelve feet or so above.
Not wishing contact with the lichen, Armand began using a ray of frost to freeze it, destroying it in small patches in order to clear a path to the Viridescent Tablet. However, one of the rays struck a mound of lichen. With a dull, inhuman moan, one the mounds oshivered, spraying bits of damp lichen everywhere. The thing wrenched itself from the surrounding lichen and raises what the adventurers realized were arms, covered in the revolting, throbbing lichen. It moved towards them as if to embrace them, mewling pathetically from a black pit of a mouth, blinding groping.
The party leapt quickly into action, with Garvin sending a crossbow quarrel directly into its “face,” where its eye might be. Sister conjured a sacred flame to incinerate the creature while Caulis, Yam, and Armand attacked with spells of their own. The thing was too slow to close the gap and was quickly destroyed. Armand resumed his careful clearing of the lichen and managed to clear a path to the plinth. The plinth itself seemed to be free of any obvious traps.
At this point, Yam produced from a bulging pack a curious item – a piratical flag. Waving off quizzical entreaties Yam draped the flag over the Tablet. Armand, having got a quick glance at the runes on the Tablet, began bleeding from the nose. He picked the Tablet up and the party made haste to leave, even while the remaining mounds in the room stirred, alerted by the loss of the Tablet. With the lichenous shamblers slowly pursuing them, the party hurriedly left the chamber and made their way back to the Whorl.
The trip back to the sewers proved easier than the descent, although Garvin, shaken by his experiences, was momentarily tormented by what sounded like the voices of the party themselves only a few hours ago, heading down the passage towards them. Ignoring these echoes, the party ascended and returned to the sewers.
On the way back to the surface the party briefly encountered a group of toshers – child sewer-scavengers led by an ancient gnome, Sly Rufus. After purchasing a key to the Reanimator’s Guildhouse from the wily scavenger, the party heard him describe how many of his scavengers were being kidnapped by the sewer witch known as Wicked Peggy. Rufus offered rewards for the hag’s death. Too exhausted from their expedition to take the man up on the matter at the moment, they requested a guide to lead them back to the streets safely, which Rufus provided at a small fee.
The party returned to Caulchurch by boat, the Tablet carried by the surprisingly strong Armand. After some small disputes with a nonetheless delighted Professor Valdemar Sluice over payment, the adventurers big one another good evening, agreeing to work together in future should the opportunity present itself.
Images: Édouard Riou‘s illustrations for Voyage au centre de la Terre, Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s Carceri, Ernst Haeckel’s sketches, engraving of Megatherium, Don Pedro’s engraving of a sheep, SEM image from Joris M. Koene and Hinrich Schulenburg, “Shooting darts: co-evolution and counter-adaptation in hermaphroditic snails,” Harry Clarke’s “Silence” and “The Tell Tale Heart,” Howard V. Brown’s illustrations for At the Mountains of Madness and The Shadow Out of Time, screenshots from The Last of Us and Dishonored.